The Letter

The Letter

Story 5 of Tales of the Wandering Blacksmith

by Vaughan W. Smith

Vincent took in the sight before him and his breath caught in his chest. The gates of Altarbright were huge and struggled to contain the wave of people surging within them. Horses, carts, people alone and in groups were in equal measure hurrying along. This had to be by far the biggest city he had ever seen.

You haven’t been that many places, to be fair.

Vincent felt himself jostled to the side, and caught part of a curse as a couple pushed past him. He felt a little self-conscious, and stepped forward to join the mass of people. He was soon swept into the city proper, and it continued to impress. Not only was the main street wide and densely populated, but there were many intersections and cross streets leading who knew where.

This is it. This is what I’ve been looking for.

Vincent was unable to quite put his finger on what had been spurring him onwards. There was the initial anger at being forced out of Oltone. That was understandable. But many small towns on the way had not satisfied him. He avoided making any connections with the folk, settling for a small job to pay his way and continue on. Tales of Altarbright had tantalised him, but even now he wasn’t so sure what had attracted him to the place. Perhaps it was the size of it all. A massive trading hub would be easy to get lost in, and he could learn a lot about the world. That’s what he told himself at least.

It didn’t take long to find a smithy, he had a nose for them now. They were usually centrally located but not the focus on any town. Here he had to venture a little closer to the port to find one. But once there he had several to choose from. 

I’ll try them all. I bet one will have work for me.

Vincent stopped in front of the first shop. There was no written sign, just an illustrated hammer swinging in the slight breeze. Vincent entered the shop, the wave of heat and the smells bringing him back to his time working under William. It was a good first impression.

The smith stopped his hammering and looked up. After scrutinising Vincent for a few moments, he quashed the steel he was working on and walked forward.

“Good day. What can I help you with, traveller?”

“Good day. My name is Vincent and I’m a blacksmith looking for work. I’ve apprenticed but not completed my training. I…” Vincent continued talking, but the man held up a hand, cutting him off.

“No need to go into things. Unnecessary it all is. I’ll be the judge of your work. The name’s Malcolm.” Malcolm removed a glove and offered his hand to Vincent. They shook hands, Vincent noticing the strength and roughness of Malcom’s hand. Even though he didn’t look that old, he clearly had been smithing for a long time.

“Nice to meet you.” Vincent smiled, letting his initial good feeling carry on.

“And you.” Malcolm started to walk back and gestured for Vincent to follow. “I do happen to be looking for some help. On a trial basis. If you’re interested.” Malcolm stopped in front of the anvil.

“Absolutely. That’s only fair.” Vincent looked around, trying to find a set of gear he could wear. Malcolm followed his gaze and seemed to understand immediately.

“Come around the back, I’ll get you kitted up and we can see what you’re made of.” Malcolm strode off, not waiting around. Vincent quickly hurried after the blacksmith. His earlier confidence was starting to wear off. The test was suddenly upon him, and he started to doubt himself. Sometime about Malcolm’s manner was so keen that he wouldn’t miss anything.

Am I really prepared?

Vincent shook his head and focused on getting ready. He just had to get out of his own head and let the smithing take over.

Vincent stepped back, wiping the sweat from his brow. He was weary, more from the tension and concentration than anything else, and looked over his work. A few mistakes, a few weak spots, but it was pretty good. As expected, Malcolm had a keen eye and seemed to quickly evaluate Vincent’s skills. The test rapidly expanded into areas Vincent had only cursory experience with. But he had no choice but to try.

“Well, I believe I’ve seen enough.” Malcolm put the tools away and started to remove his protective gear. Vincent followed along, mechanically. Still not sure how things had gone. He was about to speak up, when he noticed Malcolm’s expression. It seemed far away, deep in thought.

“I can use you. Good instincts, and you’ve had more experience than you gave yourself credit for.” Malcolm gave a wry smile. Before Vincent could say anything he held up a hand.

“Still, you’ve got a long way to go. But I can teach you much. At first I can only offer food and board, but you’ll start to get commissions as you increase in skill. Is that fair?” Malcolm gave Vincent a direct look. Vincent let the breath he had been holding go, and released his tension.

“Sounds good to me.” Vincent offered his hand, and Malcolm shook it firmly.

“Welcome. I’ll show you around.” Malcolm sped off again, Vincent rushing after him. They wound their way through the shop to the rear. Just behind there was a smaller building with a single door.

“This is it.” Malcolm stood aside, and gestured to the door. Vincent walked up and carefully pushed it open. It was a single room, a bed, chest of drawers and a desk and chair taking up most of the space. It was more than enough.

“I can’t thank you enough. I’m sure space is a premium in this city.”

“That it is. Don’t worry, you put your heart into the work and everything else will fall into place. Here.” Malcolm produced a coin from his pocket and offered it to Vincent. It was an unusual design, with a blacksmith hammer engraved into it.

“What’s this?”

“Show that to the local inn, The Blasted Bulwark. They’ll look after your meals, at my expense.”

“Thank you. I have to say, I have a great feeling about this.”

“Good, trying and keep that feeling. Get yourself a good meal tonight and a proper rest. We start at first light.” Malcolm inclined his head and headed off. Every step was purposeful.

Finally. Somewhere I can rest for a while, and build up some money and skill. I’m going to like it here.

The first few days were hard. True to his word, Malcolm worked relentlessly and with passion. But Vincent found that as long as he was honest and applied himself, Malcolm was very forgiving. But he was not one to suffer the same mistake twice. Vincent took great care with that, after a close call at the end of the first day. Malcolm’s look had made Vincent realise how close he had come to earning the smith’s ire. Hard work was ahead, hard but fair.

Weeks passed by, slowly at first but then with alarming speed. Vincent fell into the routine of working with  Malcolm. Early starts and long tiring days in front of the forge. A brief break for lunch and back to it. Every day introduced something new. A new type of blade or armour, a new tool, or a repair. Malcolm watched over him less and less and they fell into a rhythm of their own. Unless it was something new or there was something particularly interesting to note about the work, they didn’t speak. They wordlessly pushed on, lost in the flow of the work. 

Vincent was itching to travel again. Even though he had been searching for a place to stay, those familiar feelings were striking him once more. It was a bit surprising. He hadn’t wanted to leave William’s house at all. But the same eagerness and inability to stay put, which had characterised his wanderings ever since, had begun to rear its head again.

Why must I leave? I am finally making money, I have food and lodgings. And my skill and expertise at blacksmithing is increasing rapidly. It doesn’t make sense.

Unable to get to the bottom of it, Vincent decided to investigate a trip. Maybe he could take a short vacation and that would satisfy whatever urge was driving him. At the end of a particularly draining day, rather than stumbling over to the inn, he kept going all the way to the docks. 

A large procession was blocking the streets. It looked like a protest of some kind, against the latest import restrictions.

They’re so terrified of the Blight, all rationality goes out the window. I’ll just cut through some side streets.

Vincent gently pushed through the crowds, finding an empty alley that wasn’t a dead end. He hadn’t explored Altarbright that much, but he felt safe. Not that much violence or crime, and people generally wanted to help things that way. It was better for trade.

Vincent didn’t even bother turning around when he heard the footsteps. 

Probably just someone else trying to get somewhere, like me.

He also didn’t notice when the footsteps stopped. Lost in thought, he only glanced around when he noticed something in his peripheral vision. A blur of a shape rushed past him, Vincent stumbling to keep his footing. Once he righted himself he looked ahead. There was a hooded shape standing before him. Out of reach, but close nonetheless.

“Can I help you?” Vincent said. He was still confused, but starting to get wary.

“Oh, I’ve already helped myself.” A female voice laughed, and the figure retrieved a heavy coin purse and started jiggling it. Vincent recognised it at once, reflexively checking his pockets.

“Hey! Thief! Give that back at once.” Vincent stepped forward. The thief stepped back the same distance.

“Why would I do that after I went to all the trouble of taking it?” The thief shook her head, letting out another small chuckle.

“I need that. Just take half and give it back.” Vincent kept his tone even. He could save more money, but that was everything he had. He couldn’t lose it all at once.

“Oh look at you now, all meek like a mouse. It doesn’t suit you at all. This cat likes to play, but not like that.” The thief stepped forward again. Vincent noticed the details in her coat, the luxurious fur capping the top and bottom of it. An expensive coat, not one normally associated with a thief.

“You’re no cat, you’re more of a fox.” Vincent didn’t think through his words, but chuckled in spite of himself. There was a certain ring of truth to them.

“That’s not bad, I might steal it.” The thief blew Vincent a kiss and then ran off into the night. Vincent didn’t even bother following. She was way too fast for him, and was soon clambering onto a nearby rooftop. Vincent let the tension out and yelled into frustration.

All that work, and now I’m penniless.

Vincent turned around and started stalking back the inn. This was an unmitigated disaster. Indulging his urge to travel had lost him everything. He was weary, hungry, and frustrated. 

You idiot.

Vincent shook his head ruefully and kept it down as he trudged back to the inn. He showed his coin to the waitress, even though she knew him well by now. Soon a steaming bowl of soup with a hunk of crusty bread were in front of him. Vincent tore into the food greedily. He only paused to look up at the newcomer who had just arrived.

“Who are you?” Vincent managed as he swallowed the hot soup. He saw that the person sitting across from him was middle aged, with a shaggy beard and dressed in a brown robe.

“I know you,” Vincent muttered before returning to his food.

“Yes, you do, Andar. I’m Ashra.”

“I thought you didn’t buy into the whole Wizard Academy nonsense.” Vincent didn’t look up. ”Are you the one that’s been following me?”

“Of course. Lucky for you, I’m in no rush. I’ve enjoyed your wanderings. A man of my own heart.” Ashra let out a gruff laugh. Vincent noticed the wizard waving to the waitress.

“I’ll have the same.”

“Certainly.” The waitress darted back into the crowded room.

“Why in the world would you pursue me for so long? Do you fear my father that much?”

“Not at all. It’s a matter of respect. I have an important task to carry out, and I decided to approach it with the right amount of gravitas.”

“You sure picked a great time to drop in.” Vincent sighed and dipped more bread in his soup.

“It’s no mere chance. I saw you were looking at moving on again, and I followed you. That thief was something else.” Vincent looked up sharply, the wizard was smiling.

“You were there and did nothing?”

“You had it under control.” Ashra continued his bemused smile.

“I lost my entire life savings!” Vincent bellowed. Seeing the shocked faces of nearby customers, he sheepishly retreated into his soup bowl.

“I may not be a traditionalist, but I’m still a wizard. Doing the best for you isn’t always doing what you might want.”

“Is that how you justify being my father’s errand boy?” Vincent realised as soon as he uttered the words that there was too much venom in them. The swift disappearance of Ashra’s smile into a grim expression confirmed it.

“Perhaps we should move on then. I have a letter for you.” Ashra pushed both the soup bowls aside and retrieved a letter from within his coat. He handed it over to Vincent with grave seriousness. Vincent was about to make a quip about whether Ashra had read it, but swallowed the words. He could sense Ashra’s mood. This was not something to take lightly.

What has happened?

Vincent turned the letter over, opening the envelope carefully. It was his father’s seal, no doubt about that. 

“I would never open your correspondence, but I will mention that there’s a spell on it. Only you can open it without destroying the contents.” Ashra’s face was impassive as he explained. Vincent nodded slowly.

“Of course.” He removed the letter from the envelope, his hands trembling slightly. He started reading, and his heart sank. There was more and more within the letter. He kept reading, despite not wanting to. When he reached the end, he stopped and read it again committing the entire thing to memory. Finally he carefully folded the letter and placed it back on the table.

“Please incinerate this.” Vincent’s words sounded hollow and emotionless. Ashra took the letter and envelope in his hands, folding them into a smaller shape and cupping them within his hands. A bright flame shone from within his hands, and tiny specs of dust started dispersing into the air.

“It’s true then?” Vincent said, his voice catching with emotion.

“Yes, your father is gone. He was consumed by the spell.” Ashra looked at Vincent with sympathy. 

That’s why he let me wander. He wanted me to be settled, before he revealed this to me. He must know how I feel.

“It’s all my fault. If I hadn’t run away and been captured…” Vincent’s mind started running, piecing everything together. He had become a target, forcing his father’s hand to try what was likely an incomplete spell. It had cost him his life. If only he hadn’t been captured, if only his father hadn’t needed to do that. Why? Why?

Ashra reached out and grasped Vincent’s hands.

“I’m sorry for your loss. He was a great man first and foremost, and a trusted friend and mentor. That’s what I most remember. Him being a spectacular wizard is just a footnote.”

“Thank you.” Vincent looked down at the table. What was he supposed to do now?

“I have no idea what the letter said, but I’ve been told he wrote two. One for you, and one for the Wizard Academy.” Ashra paused, waiting for Vincent to look up. “I’m not sure what happened between you two, but I don’t believe he wanted you to go back to the Academy. It’s no place for you.”

“Of course it’s not. Just because I’m his son, doesn’t mean I have any reason to be there. I’m not a wizard.”

“I know. But you’re always welcome. It will always be a home to you, if you wish it.”

“Clearly you don’t wish it!” Vincent said quickly. Ashra gave him a wry grin.

“I’m too much of a loner. I have my own interests to pursue.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to tell Malcolm.” Vincent put his head into his hands.

“That blacksmith? Are you really planning a trip?”

“I can’t stay here now, knowing what’s happened. I can’t explain, but I just can’t.” Vincent looked up at Ashra. The wizard nodded.

“Come with me, I have something to show you.” Ashra stood up and dropped a few coins into the table. Vincent rose and followed him out of the inn.

They wound their way through the streets, wordlessly. Vincent’s mind was still reeling from the news. He couldn’t think straight. But he had to keep moving. That much was clear.

As they turned into a tight alley, Vincent started to become suspicious.

“Where are you taking me?”

“You’ll see.” Ashra said nothing more and kept striding forward. He finally reached a nondescript door in a large featureless building.

“We’re here.” Ashra stopped and looked Vincent up and down. “I believe you’re in possession of a magical item?”

“Do you mean this?” Vincent carefully removed the ring that hung on his neck. He always kept it carefully tucked into his clothes. He held it out for Ashra.

“No need for me to take it, just wanted to verify for myself. Your father gave it to you?”

“Yes. He said it would protect me.”

“In a fashion, I suppose.” Ashra turned back to the door and stepped to the side. “Knock three times on the door with that ring.” Vincent looked up with confusion, but went along with it. He approached the door and rapped the ring against it three times. The door audibly unlocked, and Ashra pushed it open. 

“After you.” Ashra ushered him inside. Vincent stepped in, slowly pushing the door all the way open. He found himself in a great storeroom. One corner had shelves and shelves of books, the others had trinkets, clothing, shoes, anything you could think of.

“What is this place?” Vincent said, unable to mask the wonder in his voice.

“We’re calling it a Wizard Store. Not a particularly interesting name, maybe someone will come up with a better name for it.” Ashra stepped further into the room, looking it over himself. “This is coming along nicely. I think it helps having one based in such a big trading hub.”

“What is all this?” Vincent asked.

“It’s books, equipment, whatever a wizard needs. You take what you require and return what you do not.” Ashra paused and gave Vincent a pointed look. “You are in desperate need, don’t even pretend otherwise.”

“If you stopped that thief, I wouldn’t be in such desperate need,” Vincent said drily. Ashra burst into laughter.

“So it would seem. But then perhaps you wouldn’t value this place so much? There are others too, spread out amongst the world. Your ring will give you entry.”

“I don’t know what to say.” Vincent let his eyes continue to wander over the room. He could use some new supplies.

“Thank you, is customary.”

“Thank you.” Vincent gave Ashra a small bow.

“You’re welcome. Your father started all of this, you have a right to it. As much or as little as you desire.” Ashra started wandering through the room, browsing.

“Are you planning a trip too?” Vincent asked.

“Of course. Not quite sure where I’ll end up, but I suspect there won’t be many people around.” Ashra gave a chuckle.

I don’t quite get him. Who would want to isolate themselves so much?

“You’ve travelled a lot, haven’t you? If you were me, where would you go?” Vincent said. Ashra stopped and turned to look at Vincent. He had a curious look on his face.

“Why, that’s an interesting question. I must give it the proper consideration.” Ashra closed his eyes and stroked his chin. Suddenly they opened again.

“I hear Valrytir is nice. You should find your way there, if you like.”

“Is it far?”

“Oh, yes. It’ll take quite a bit of wandering to get there.”Ashra smiled. Vincent started to nod along.

“That could be just what I need right now.” Vincent started moving through the room with purpose, assembling what he would need for a trip. There was no harm in taking a few things.

I’m sorry Father, that we left things on such bad terms. But I must push on. I have to forge my own path. Only then will I find peace.

Want to read more?

Click here for Story 6: Weaponsmith

Tales of the Wandering Blacksmith is a prequel series to The Hidden Wizard. Check out Book 1: Pool of Knowledge or the entire series collection: The Hidden Wizard.

These stories have been through only minimal editing to make them available for free online in a timely manner. Eventually they will be taken down and compiled into a book so please take this opportunity to read the story as it unfolds.

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