Father carries the knife, because I asked him to—but he keeps turning to look at me, earnestly, as if he hopes I’ll take it back.
It’s hard to believe he knows I’ll stab him with that knife. Even harder to believe he’s eager for me to do it. But that’s my father; he thinks the world of his precious daughter. He’s thin yet unbowed in his ascetic gray Blacksmith robes as he leads me up through a cold forest to the Anvil.
It doesn’t matter whether my father will live once I stab him. That’s not the point. The point is all the questions that no one thinks to ask after we’ve healed their fathers, their soldiers, their daughters. Nobody questions our magic, except for us, the loyal priests and priestesses of Aelana.
We can’t stop asking. We can’t sleep for asking.
♦ ♦ ♦
The blade is a warped curve of pitted steel. Making it was my first task as a Blacksmith acolyte—just as Aelana forged the heavens, refining chaos into clean earth and stars, so I was taught to transmute ore into household objects.
They didn’t expect much from a twelve-year-old girl, but I managed to disappoint even those low standards. A week of skin-blistering effort produced a handle-free chunk of steel, twisted cruelly by my inept hammer-blows. The fingers on my left hand were bruised and aching.
“Just as heating iron burns away the impurities and creates steel,” Father told us, “so our patron and friend Aelana lets us heat the flesh.”
He grabbed my fingers, which soon glowed a deep red and smoked; when he removed his hand, my bruises had vanished.
“Chaos into stone, stone into steel, bone into flesh,” he continued, speaking floridly for the benefit of the other apprentices. “With faith, all can be remade.”
He picked up my knife. “Sharpen it,” he commanded, his voice perhaps a touch too loud and theatrical. “The most warped steel will eventually take an edge.”
I wanted to fling the knife into the garbage pits, but he forced me to hone it every night. After a month, it was sharp enough to slit parchment.
Sharp enough to slit his belly.
♦ ♦ ♦
“Are you nervous, daughter?” Father asks now, pausing to gather his breath by a pine tree. He’s rushing to the mountaintop, up to the Anvil, because he wants me to stab him before sunset. Nine hells, he’s smiling. Old as he is, he’s got the giddy anticipation of a boy going to a picnic.
“You do understand that most people don’t look forward to a knife in the gut.”
“Pain fades, Falasta. But seeing you learn to heal?” He winks. “Now, that’s the memory of a lifetime.”
“You’ve given me more than enough memories, thank you,” I say curtly. Beardless boys with guts boiling out through their fingers, men who kept reaching up to touch the moist brains puffing out from the cracks in their skulls. Each soldier had given me the same betrayed look: You’re a Blacksmith, aren’t you? So why am I dying?
“It’s different here,” he assures me, and his quavering need for forgiveness fuels my guilt at not giving it. “I should have taken you to the Anvil long before I brought you to Elamera Pass. But I... I worried you would forever doubt yourself if you suspected I had led you to glory. And the soldiers, they were—” His face darkens. “They weren’t the right people to heal. They blocked your true path. But when it’s my life ebbing away, all your distractions will vanish. And you’ll find Aelana there, waiting for you.”
“And if I don’t...?”
“Then I’ll be dead.” He grips my shoulder in a gesture that’s meant to be kind. “Either way, your pathway will be clear. And you’ll see... you’ll see how far your faith takes you.”
What does that mean? I wonder—but Father’s already racing ahead, his sandaled footsteps crunching on the pine needles, huffing with the effort.
I want a more serene pace—a meditative stroll that would allow me to commune with Aelana. I should think of her as my joyous ally, I know—the giver of gifts. Instead, I’m charging over rocks, thinking in angry bursts—come on, you frigid bitch. Speak. You didn’t say a damned thing to me when I pressed my palm against their shattered skulls, even though I cried your name to the mountainsides. So surprise me now. One word.
Of course she says nothing.
We arrive at the Anvil—a blunt, winter-worn rock in the middle of a cold glade. Its surface shimmers with frost. Father claims Aelana forged the world on this rock, but it’s too small and moss-grown for that.
He reaches into his knapsack and pulls out his best robes—black silk embroidered with fiery red rubies like sparks flying into a night sky. He pulls them on, then stretches across the Anvil with the comfort of a dog begging for a belly-scratch.
“Take those off.” My palms sweat. “They’re worth a fortune.”
“You heal everything when you’re faithful, Falasta—skin and robes alike.”
“When you do it.”
He shakes his head, kindly, then presses the knife into my hands. “Be quick. I see your hands trembling. Our family comes hard to faith; my hands shook as well when I stabbed my mother. But your hands are not so different than mine.”
It seems so rational when he says it. As if it’s not murder.
“Go on,” Father says indulgently, as if he’s urging me to eat the last bit of oatmeal in the bowl. “Don’t dawdle.”
“I’m not dawdling.”
He lifts up his robe, exposing the smooth concavity of his belly. “Do it.”
It’s the command of a man who’s faced down armies—a Blacksmith’s thunderous intonations. But all I see is an old man who’s been far kinder to me than my talent’s ever warranted.
“...no.” I lay the knife down on the chipped stone with a clack, accepting that this is the end of my days as an acolyte. A strange relief washes through me.
I expect Father to berate me. Instead, he hugs me.
“I couldn’t do it either.” His words are a hoarse whisper. “No one ever does.”
I sag into his arms. So that was the test.
He plucks the knife from the stone, turning away to examine the sunset.
“I find that to be an encouraging thought, don’t you?” he asks. “I’ve brought a dozen men and women here—and though they all knew they would be expelled if they refused the test of faith, not a one could bring themselves to harm me.”
There were others? I think, flinching as though I’ve been struck. Even this moment isn’t truly mine, then. Father’s oblivious, though; he’s spread his arms open wide, his robe falling around him, as though he wants to embrace the whole world.
“It’s a hopeful thought.” His voice is, perhaps, a touch too loud and theatrical. “Even when incited to violence, most people cannot. To me, it’s a sign the world is inherently good.”
He jams the knife into his stomach.
I scream, grabbing at his hands. He twists the knife, digging deeper into his belly. Then he collapses back on the altar, his face ashen with pain.
“This is it, Falasta.” His eyes are full of love. “Make your choice.”
♦ ♦ ♦
I tear the robe open. His belly’s a ruin—but Father has been, as he is in all things, strangely exacting. I press in with my fingers, feeling the wound’s edges; mercifully, they don’t go up underneath the ribs. Had Father struck high, he would have pierced his liver or spleen.
No, he’s slashed his intestines with expert precision—a deadly but slow wound. Plenty of time before swollen guts and poisoned blood will take his life.
How many times has he done this? I wonder, dazed. I dig through the pouch at my waist, searching for a spool of catgut....
Father grabs my arm.
“Don’t heal me with medicine,” he wheezes. “Stitches—fail. They fail like doubt. Tell Aelana what you want... want done, and—if you truly want it, she will give you the power to forge it....”
“Are you mad?” I scream, my nostrils filled with the fetid scent of blood and bowel-shit again, and oh my Goddess my father is just like the soldiers—
♦ ♦ ♦
—at Elamera Pass.
He’s brought me four hundred miles across arid land to stand between two mountains drained of all moisture. The sand in the valley is so dry that when it whips against your cheek, it stings, like miniscule bees. The pass is narrow, the arid cliffs leaning over like roosting birds hungry to swallow you. Father tells me that the pass is eminently defensible.
The other seventeen Blacksmiths stand by my side. I am the only unproven one, the one who cannot work miracles; Father called in favors from the Blacksmith hierarchy to haul me out here. I’ve never healed so much as a kitten’s scratch, but he is convinced that putting wounded men under my hands will unlock my faith.
Father does not mention my weakness as he speaks to both scouts—one from the Hameth armada, one from the Brethrec forces.
They glower at each other, puffing their chests. Father paces between them; his stern presence is the sole reason they don’t knife each other.
“It’s been a decade since we have attended a battle,” Father says gravely. “Yet the Council has judged that a peace will be brokered in the next two days. So, if it comes to war here, we have been sent to heal the survivors on both sides.”
The scouts look aggrieved. “We don’t want your help,” they reply, then frown that they’re in agreement on this much.
“Are you brain-softened?” I blurt out. “Hundreds will die without our healing. And neither of you are going to win; once your emperors sign the peace treaty, all your brethren will have died for nothing.”
Father silences me with a glance. The two scouts give me a sly, mocking grin—a sneer that says, never seen war, have you, child? I hate them for it.
“I’ve no idea what you’re up to,” the Hameth scout says suspiciously—it’s never wise to upset a Blacksmith—”but it won’t work.”
“We’re here to reduce the bloodshed,” Father says.
The Brethrec scout snorts. “Like a fire reduces smoke.”
Father dismisses them. At the time, I believe it’s because he will convince them through action. Now, I realize it was because he had nothing better to say.
♦ ♦ ♦
Father grabs my wrist.
“You’re in your own way, Falasta,” he whispers. I shake the memories from my head. “I can see everything clogging you. Just lay your hands on me—tell Aelana what you want.... She wants to aid us....”
He guides my hand to the ruin of his belly. My fingers sink into the wound, touching something moist and pulsing—
“I can’t.” The Anvil’s a half-day away from help. I could sew him up, but without fresh water and medicinal herbs, he’d die.
“You haven’t even tried yet.” He’s the one wounded, but the worn disappointment in his voice feels like a fresh knife, twisted.
“I’m trying!” I yell. “Do you think I didn’t try to save those soldiers? That all my tears were for show?”
I see fright, doubt, concern written on his face. Most of it is for me.
“The soldiers were—” He gasps as something else breaks inside him, doubling him over. “That was my foolishness. It was my faith that failed. But you... you need to come to terms with what I’ve done to you, whether it leads to forgiveness or hatred. For you must ask Her with an unfettered heart to gain Her boons.... She will not listen to half-meant pleas....”
“Then She should learn to listen better.” Still, I close my eyes, press down on his stomach. He groans—Father never groans—and my prayers take flight like a flock of startled birds.
“I can’t do this,” I say. “Don’t die to prove a point.... Heal yourself....”
“It’s not about me.” His words are so loving that I want to believe him. “It’s about you.”
Tears roll down his weathered cheeks, for the second time in his life.
“Ah, Falasta.” He squeezes my hand fondly. “What will happen when your excuses are gone?”
“These aren’t excuses,” I snap. But his eyes have slid shut, his body pale from blood loss, leaving me speaking to an unconscious body—
♦ ♦ ♦
—and by the time I remove my hands from the dead soldier’s body, the blood has dried. I peel my hands free from his skin. My throat hurts; I’d been crying Aelana’s name loud enough to be heard over the wailing of hundreds of other dying men.
The boy is dead regardless.
The seventeen real Blacksmiths move quickly among the wounded. The survivors are bloody tatters. Both sides have learned if they don’t kill their opponent outright, the Blacksmiths will return them, refreshed, to the battlefield the next morning—so instead of running someone through and moving on, they have twisted the blade, cleaved their enemy open to the spine, gouged out their heart.
For a Blacksmith to heal even one man requires great strength. Though with faith, all things may be remade, reforging dead landscape into breathing tissue is still an exertion. The priests breathe life into a pile of dry rocks, mold the newly animated rock-flesh into a pink, quivering mass, wrench the bones of the ribcage open and squeeze the new lung until it pumps on its own. Even Father looks exhausted.
It’s been four days since the battle started, and we’re waist-deep in bloodshed. The flies never stop buzzing. I can’t stop thinking of the empty spaces these men leave back home; wives weeping in suddenly too-wide beds, sons staring at empty chairs as they eat meals they no longer taste.
I’ve been trying my best with catgut and empty prayers, to no avail. The soldiers know I’m useless by now. They give me grim smiles whenever I walk by, seeing how broken I am by all this death, a little envious that I still can be moved by mortality. It’s a rueful grin—ask, and they’ll tell you how they came here because their mothers bellowed tales of land-raping enemies until their fists clenched with rage, or because they were so starved it was this or eat another man whole, or because they thought war was a smart man’s glory, like chess or cards. They’ll give you a laugh like a handful of coins rattling in a beggar’s bowl, laughing at all the grand reasons they’d manufactured to come here and stick knives in each other.
But now, all my sadness seems like a strange luxury to them. Now, they have such fine and personal reasons to hate.
Occasionally, infuriated at our interference, one of them draws a sword on a real Blacksmith. In their passion, they’ve forgotten that a woman who can fuse a chopped arm back onto their shoulder can just as easily melt every bone in their body. The Blacksmiths mourn the men they make examples of, but still they do it.
I turn from the dead soldier, looking for some other poor bastard I might lie to—and see Father, standing on the other side of a pile of writhing boys. He stares at me.
I hold up my bloodied hands.
“Why?” I ask.
His lips move, as if trying to form an answer, as if trying to ask forgiveness. He holds his hands out to mine, the sea of mangled men between us, his whole body trembling.
Then he turns away from me to touch someone he can heal.
♦ ♦ ♦
It’s growing dark, and I’ve been enumerating my failures while Father bleeds.
Finally, I put my palms on him. It’s easier, now that he’s unconscious. He can’t look at me. He can’t expect anything of me.
“Aelana, You who forged the heavens, heal this man!”
When Father reforges an injury, his body burns like hot coals and the flesh underneath his hands softens to the consistency of hard clay. My hands grip soft meat and muck.
I cry to the heavens, letting go for the first time since Elamera Pass. I pound against the Anvil. And when nothing happens, I stop.
“Oh, Father,” I sigh. On the jagged stone bed, he looks terrifyingly old, pale as milk. It’s never occurred to me that Father could die. I’ve never envisioned a life without him. Even now, I half-expect him to tell me how badly I’ve failed.
“You shouldn’t have done it,” I laugh. I laugh? Yes. I’m tittering. I clap my hands over my mouth, but giggles squirt out like blood from a fresh cut.
I pace around the Anvil, hoping to calm myself.... But nervous and panicked, I lurch around Father’s body in a half-hop, half-run, not quite brave enough to flee. If Father could see me, he’d see a crazed dancer—
—so why not? He can’t.
I caper around Father, pointing, leering. “Are you satisfied?” I howl. “I told you! I told you not to do this, and you did it, and it’s your fault!”
The words echo back at me from the mountain: Your fault.
♦ ♦ ♦
After eight days, the messenger arrives with the peace treaty. “They knew they had time,” Father says bitterly. “They took this opportunity to get better terms.”
The Blacksmiths demand the survivors embrace to celebrate the newfound peace. But the handful of living have seen horrors that would make a surgeon vomit, and they blame them all upon two things: the enemy, and us. They spit on us before returning to their homes, and to their nightmares.
Father watches helplessly after them.
“I could have stopped all this.” His voice is choked with regret. I realize that he never wanted to minister this battle. But once the Council made their decision, he had obeyed.
Had he not said that, I would have hated him forever. Yet in that moment, I see the father who unknotted deformed babies, who smoothed broken limbs when children fell from trees, who wiped away lepers’ sores.
“You tried to help.” I take his hand. “It’s your path.”
His tears are as surprising as seeing water well up from dry stone.
“I lacked faith,” he confesses, then crumples into me.
I hold him tight, finding the first roots of forgiveness. Because I finally understand the nature of his faith.
The true Blacksmiths carry an innate magic, I realize. It’s not granted by a goddess; their healing is just a trick of birth, like a sixth finger. And I do not have it.
There is no Goddess, no Anvil the world was forged upon; all this religion is just a meditative technique to unlock their skills. Might as well say birds flew thanks to faith, and if we all leapt off cliffs we’d learn to fly.
In that way, I begin to forgive Father. And myself.
I would have, too, if he hadn’t stabbed himself.
♦ ♦ ♦
Father’s unconscious expression is robbed of mirth; he’s hollowed, forsaken. As though he knows I’m now judging him.
My laughter has subsided, leaving behind a grim residue of a question:
Does Father deserve to die?
His belly rises like fresh bread; his gouged intestines are swelling, squeezing his lungs into his throat. He chokes. I listen, uncertain how to feel.
Hadn’t he dragged me to Elamera pass, then dragged me here? Hadn’t he grabbed my knife? Death would be a just reward for all his manipulative stubbornness.
You need to come to terms with what I’ve done to you, whether that leads to forgiveness or hatred....
Give him his due. He thought hatred might be a fine conclusion.
His death would be restitution for squeezing me into a life I was unsuited for, for dragging me across the land to watch a bunch of idiots tear each other apart.
I pick up the knife; it feels like murder in my hand. And when I glance fearfully at his body, I don’t see a tyrant—I see someone who’d tried to fill my life with little kindnesses.
I’d spent my whole life quivering under the shadow of his disapproval—yet had he ever actually disapproved? You haven’t even tried yet was the worst thing he’d ever said to me.
In his own way, he’d had as much faith in me as he’d in Aelana. With less proof.
She will not listen to half-meant pleas....
I press my hands to his belly. “Aelana, heal your servant!”
My hands are as cold as the rock he lies on.
I slump against the stone, light-headed with a relief that is surprising, thorough, complete—as if my whole body had let loose a breath I had been holding all my life.
Here’s the proof I’m not meant to be a Blacksmith.
Once Father is dead, the path ahead of me will be... dense. Entangled. But that path will be mine to choose. Father spent his life telling me how I was a true Blacksmith—and here’s the rebuttal! You’re not fit for this calling. You killed the last man who told you otherwise.
Did I want to be a Blacksmith? No one ever asked. Blame Father for that. But grant Father the knowledge of how he has warped my life: Either way, he said, your pathway will be clear.
Maybe I’m not a Blacksmith. That doesn’t mean I can’t save him.
Make your choice, Father told me. And I see all that he is and is not; kind, insufferable, distant, caring, and above all loving. He has committed himself to Aelana—but whatever room he has left was all reserved for me.
I lay my hands on Father’s wounds, as gently as playing a piano.
“Let him live?” I whisper.
A voice rings inside my head: How could I refuse a friend?
And I think: am I her friend? before realizing yes, of course we are— She’s been waiting for so long, all those silences that were my own doubts echoing back at me, and now that they’re gone we can finally clasp hands....
My world goes white. I feel Her love flowing through me, unblocked by fear or rage, flooding through my arms, turning my father’s belly into a glowing ember. I push down and his stomach is molten, the reluctant give of hot steel; I fold and refold his belly-mass, my hands hard as hammers, until I form healthy intestines, twitching muscles, wet veins. Sweat drips and sizzles on my father’s baby-new skin just before I zip a finger down the gash in the robe; it sews itself back up, neat as the smooth seam of a forge-weld.
As my Father draws a deep breath, I feel sick. The soldiers.
I could have saved them. But I thought them idiots—fools who killed other fools. Their deaths were sad... and fitting.
Judge, Aelana says. Then tell Me what You need. Her voice is pure love. I weep.
Then Father hugs me tight, crying tears of joy, thanking Aelana for his girl, his beautiful girl, his beautiful beautiful girl.
♦ ♦ ♦
It doesn’t matter whether Father lived. Don’t think I’m wrong just because he did.
For today is the day I bring my son to the Anvil. Laelius shuffles reluctantly behind me, and I know exactly what he’s thinking. Anything I say will just feed his doubt.
So I express bold confidence. And I don’t let him see how damp my palms are as I carry his knife. Despite Father’s elegant lie, stabbing yourself is a horror.
I am about to stab myself for my son. When my father cut himself open, he placed both our lives in my hands. I will give that same gift to Laelius—even though I now know that sometimes when we go to the Anvil, we find a dead body and an inconsolable acolyte.... Or, worse yet, two suicides.
Yet my Laelius is so bright. He keeps asking the right questions. “If Aelana would give you anything you wanted,” he asks, “Couldn’t She stop all war? Why does She allow such suffering?”
I give him Father’s placid, all-knowing smile. I can’t tell him that every Blacksmith has begged Aelana for peace. We think of orphaned children, of needy mothers....
But then we remember the hate-filled faces of soldiers—boys sent out to fight by their elders, fed lies by their mothers, shamed by their brothers into killing.
Isn’t it fitting that such anger rebounds upon them all?
I could have stopped all this, Father had wept. I lacked faith.
Aelana would grant us any wish. We could reforge the arid rocks of Elamera Pass into an oasis, hammer barren fields into wheat, reshape death itself. But as we would start, the memory of those pathetic soldiers would catch in our throat like a fish bone—and as every good Blacksmith knows, even a speck of doubt blocks a miracle.
So we perform tiny miracles. Parlor tricks. All the while knowing the state of the world is not her failure, but ours.
“Can’t you ask Aelana to talk to me, mother?” Laelius asks. I have, of course. So then I wonder whether Aelana is real, or just a way of touching my own talent. Part of me wants to believe I am gifted with strange and mystic powers.
So no, Laelius; your mother does not know. Just as my father did not know. I will take the knife from your hands, and I will gut myself, and I will never let you know I am terrified that I will die because you do not have the spark.
Your knife is heavy in my hands. Yet I will not let go. You will test me, and I will test you.
Together, I hope we can find the strength we both need.