When Hugh was finally able to focus again, the three people standing before him, smiling, greeted him with a wave.
“Hello,” said the female, “We’ve come to help you.”
“Oh,” said Hugh. “Well, okay. Um… help me with what?”
“You want to forge weapons that will impress?” asked one of the men.
“Yeah, I’m trying to find lava so I can work this slab here,” said Hugh.
“That won’t be necessary,” said the other, shorter male. “Besides, that metal is brittle and can’t hold an edge. Give it to us, and we will give you weapons like no one in this world has ever seen before.”
Hugh cocked his head. “In this world? As opposed to…”
“The weapons we’re going to give you would not be very impressive in our world,” said the female. “In fact, you’d probably be laughed at for wielding them, but here they would put even the most finely crafted blades to shame.”
“Wait, so… I don’t think I get it. I’m trading you this slab of metal –”
“No,” said the shorter man, “This isn’t a trade at all. We don’t need the slab. However, we’ll take it so that you can say you crafted these.”
“I don’t want to take credit for something I didn’t do,” said Hugh.
“You have every right to claim credit for them,” said the female. “Trust us.”
With that, the three of them lifted their hands. A weapon simply appeared in each, and they lay all six down on the ground at Hugh’s feet. Hugh picked up one of them, a sword, and marveled at the quality of it. It seemed perfect, almost too perfect, as if it hadn’t been forged at all, but rather fell from his mind exactly as he imagined it should be. The longer he inspected it, the more flawless it appeared to be.
“How am I supposed to explain why the weapons are finished?” asked Hugh.
The three of them looked at each other.
Hugh kept turning the sword over in his hands. “You know, the handles are already affixed, they’ve clearly been polished… I mean, the mirror finish on these is… I’ve never seen steel this shiny before.”
“I’m sure you’ll think of some excuse,” said the taller man.
“Like what? I just happened to find hilts and polishing grit up here?”
The female stepped forward and touched the sword. Right in Hugh’s hand, the hilt disappeared and the shine dulled. She touched each of the other weapons, and they likewise lost their luster.
“There,” she said. “Now you must only tell them that you forged these while up here.”
Hugh set the blade down in the grass and took a step back. “Who are you?” he asked.
“We are the ones who watch,” she said. “We are always watching. We see what you do, and we are very impressed with you, Hugh.”
“We want to help you,” said the shorter man.
“We think you deserve it,” the taller man said.
“I think I should just take the slab and go,” said Hugh.
“You are free to do so,” said the female, “But it would be kind of insulting to us to turn down our gift.”
“You don’t want to insult us,” said the taller man.
“I’m not trying to insult anyone,” said Hugh. “I really appreciate what you’re trying to do… even though I don’t understand what’s going on. I just don’t feel right taking credit for these.”
“Check the maker’s mark,” said the female.
Hugh picked up the sword he had dropped and inspected the blade near the base, and there he saw it: his mark, a single circle with an X in the middle. He had used this mark since he began smithing.
The female walked up to Hugh and placed her hand on his wrist. “You did make these, you simply haven’t made them yet.”
Her touch was cold, ice cold.
“Who are you, really?” asked Hugh.
“We come from another place, above this one,” she said. “Where we come from, we have few worries, and we concern ourselves with those, like yourself, who struggle against a harsh existence. You are a good person, Hugh.”
He looked down at the blade again. He still didn’t feel right about it.
“If you take these weapons to Chancellor Edward, he will use them to secure peace for the city,” said the taller male.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said the shorter.
Hugh agreed, gathering the weapons up. There were two axe heads, two swords, and two maces. He wrapped them up with his tools, left the slab for them, and began his descent back down the volcano.
“For the last time,” asked Hugh just before he left, “Who are you, really? Who can I say you are?”
“We are called different things by different people,” said the female. “But like I said, you should simply remember us as Watchers.”
“Thank you for your help, Watchers,” he said.
When he met up with the twins, they were shocked to see the weapons.
“How did you make six?” asked the dwarf.
“You weren’t gone very long at all,” said the giant.
“There wasn’t even enough metal to make that many,” said the dwarf.
Hugh just sighed and urged them to begin the journey back to Polity. They arrived in town around noon the following day. Hugh brought the weapons before Walker, who was beside himself with excitement.
“These are better than I ever could have hoped,” he said. He took a piece of parchment and used one of the swords to effortlessly slice it. “Look at that, the edge is so sharp!”
Hugh just smiled uneasily.
“Okay, I’m going to have them fitted with hafts and hilts, then you’re taking one of the swords to Austeria tomorrow. You’ll be taking Theoson and my own son with you, as well.”
“To be honest, Theoson has been a thorn in my side for a while now, and getting him out of town would help me out a bit. If we’re lucky, Austeria will be to his liking and he’ll just stay there, though I don’t think we’ll be so lucky. They don’t have much use for a playwright or a philosophy teacher…
“But my son will also be accompanying you. He should be here any minute now, actually. I want him to get some diplomatic experience. I think between your gift here and his powers of persuasion, we may be able to secure at least a contingent of Austerian troops. That would go a long way towards victory for us. Austeria trains their troops from the age of eight, and their freeborn men are all soldiers by trade, first and foremost. All of their farmers and craftsmen are essentially slaves, mostly captured prisoners of war or disgraced citizen soldiers.”
“As opposed to our city, where our farmers and craftsmen are free and the soldiers are slaves and disgraced workers,” said a voice from behind Hugh. He turned to see Zeke standing in the door.
“Ah, Zeke, this is –”
“We’ve met,” said Hugh.
“Indeed, we have,” said Zeke.
“Is there anyone in this city who isn’t related to you?” asked Hugh, looking at Walker.
Walker chuckled. “Only the unimportant people,” he said. “So, first thing tomorrow, you’ll set out for the Glibian valley. It should only take you a few days. Once there, your sole priority should be securing an alliance that includes the promise of troops by late next summer. They will undoubtedly be occupied with their own affairs for most of next spring, but once they have filled their prisoner quotas, they should have soldiers to spare, especially for the price we can offer.”
“Well, let’s not offer too high of a price,” said Zeke.
“That’s my boy,” Walker said. He turned to Hugh. “Will the twins be accompanying you?”
“I assume so,” he replied.
Walker clapped his hands. “Well, then see to it that everything is prepared for the journey tomorrow. The gift weapons will be ready. There will be a horse drawn cart outside my home for you to load everything you’ll need in the morning.”
Hugh and Zeke left Walker’s office.
“I’m assuming you’ve never dealt with Austerians before?” asked Zeke.
Hugh shook his head.
“Imagine a mule that could kill you before you had time to say, ‘Wait,’” he replied. “That is what an Austerian is like.”
“So… you’re saying this won’t be easy?”
“I didn’t say that at all,” replied Zeke. “Rather, I’m saying we’ll have to be patient, firm, and cautious, all at the same time.”
“That doesn’t sound easy at all,” Hugh said.
“It is if you’ve dealt with Theoson as much as I have.” Zeke winked at Hugh.
“But… don’t we also have to deal with Theoson at the same time?”
“Hopefully he will be an asset,” said Zeke. “His teachings have a minor following there, and they respect his harsh criticism of Polity in general.”
“I don’t get it… if they hate us, why would they help us?”
“We’re part of the same kingdom, even though they exercise a bit more autonomy than we do. We’ve also been largely peaceful for the last century, with a few exceptions… but we have a long history before then going back millennia of both trying to invade them and fighting them back from our borders.”
“What changed things?”
“We have a common ally in the Kingdom of Kole, of which we are a vassal state and they are an autonomous tributary.”
“What’s the difference?” asked Hugh.
“We pay taxes and provide troops when requested, though we primarily are asked to deploy our ships in various locations to prevent piracy. Most vassal states provide ground troops, though. A tributary doesn’t pay taxes exactly, but they pay tribute. They have no obligation to provide military service, and the arrangement ensures that the tributary will not be invaded or exploited for resources by the kingdom’s armies, outside of the annual tribute. The kingdom also has no obligation to defend the tributary, though it is often provided to some degree for the sake of maintaining the arrangement.”
Hugh nodded. “Okay, so how do we convince them to send troops to defend us?”
“We have many options. We can try to strike the idea of fear into them, by warning them that they will be next if we fall, thereby encouraging them to make a stand with us against a common foe. This probably won’t work because they have an agreement with the Otros, so they will likely feel secure in not being targeted.
“Another option is to appeal to our similar cultures, our mutual economic reliance… most of their crafted goods are imported, and most of those imports either come from us or arrive via our docks and roads. They also rely on us to sell their ore and grain… though they could just as easily sell to the Otros.
“Then again, we could also just offer them a lot of money, land, slaves, or some sort of trade agreement. We could offer them a certain number of years of tax-free trade, since they pay 3% on everything that moves through our city, in or out. Really, I’m not worried, I know we’ll be successful. I just want to gain their support for as cheap as possible. Fear and honor are the least expensive, but I’m prepared to negotiate.”
Hugh nodded and remained silent.
“If you’ll excuse me, Hugh, there will be plenty of time to discuss these matters on the road. I have arrangements to make. There are people to contact and appointments to reschedule. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Zeke left Hugh standing there, not sure what to do.
To be continued…