“Now seek the sky-stone, although you cannot see her
Through rocks and trees and rivers
O’er sea and rock and earth
Past cloud and snow and sky
Seek the golden glow”
--Excerpt from The Iron Book, Väino the elder
Late at night, when the blaze of the evefires had dwindled to glistening coals, the elders would speak of the golden age. They told of men who carved their towering metal monuments up from the ground and soared through the sky in mighty steel birds, the thwarted kings of the last cycle of man. After them came the ancestors of this tribe, the man and woman who emerged from the new-iron cave on the shore of the unsalted sea to begin a new world-cycle. Together they imparted the gifts of fire and metalworking to their children, the first members of the tribe of the iron shore. As the weak light of the dying fire coruscated through the heavy darkness of the new moon, the soft iron chimes would ring for the end of the story.
The simple melody of the chimes rang sweet and clear through the crisp evening air. Memories of the stories grasped Ismo’s wandering mind as he tended the bellows of the allforge. He thought of the first time he recalled hearing the stories, of his mother’s warm embrace as he shivered in the wintry night, of his father’s strong arms carrying him back to their cave, the chimes still resounding out towards the vast unsalted sea as the green fire burned in the sky.
The dark metal bulk of the allforge filled the entire back of the cave wall. The smithing cavern that housed the allforge was the largest structure in the village, far deeper than the small caves where most families slept and shared their meals. The heart of the forge blazed with white-hot flames, but the periphery was cool to the touch. Ismo slowly ran his hand over the characters carved into the iron surface. The stories told around the evefire were here as well, the entire Iron Book could be read from the allforge. The newest additions to the forge were still unmarked, a smooth iron slate on which the future of the tribe would be written.
Ismo had never learned to read the ancient script. As an apprentice smith, his time was occupied almost entirely by observing his master’s forging, preparing raw ore for smelting, and tending to the fires of the many forges in the smithing cavern. He could read the utilitarian alphabet used by traders and merchants, but he could name only a few of the elaborate characters that told the tribe’s history. Once a month, an apprentice was charged with tending to the allforge through the night. The forge had never gone out since it was built by the first smiths of the tribe of the iron shore. When there was a lull in his duties of feeding and stoking the allforge, Ismo would peer into the central chamber, watching the fire play over the glowing iron sigils carved within. In the darkness of the cavern at night, the characters danced in the flickering light.
The first rays of the sun’s cold, wan light stroked the entrance of the cavern. Ismo labored wearily at the great bellows. The smiths and apprentices began to file into the cavern, unpacking iron tools from deer hide wrappings at their workbenches. Ismo’s master, Pauli, was one of the first to enter, he gave Ismo a small nod, which was as close as he ever came to showing approval. The imposing silence of the cavern was soon replaced with orders to apprentices and chatter among neighboring smiths. One of the youngest apprentices, a girl named Ansa, relieved Ismo, heaving at the bellows with strength that belied her slight frame.
Ismo stumbled down the narrow path that switchbacked down the cliff side to the small cave he shared with his mother. After his father died of the shivering sickness in Ismo’s fourth winter, he and his mother had moved away from the tribe’s primary dwellings, to this smaller, more isolated cave. Ismo’s mother had never been fond of conversation outside of the smithing cavern and gatherings of the tribal elders. Moving here was easier for her than shouldering the condolences of their neighbors every day. Since his mother had gone missing, Ismo avoided the cave whenever possible, returning only to sleep and store his smithing tools. Ismo collapsed into a heap of blankets at the back of the cave, his vision occluded by a dark sheet of weariness.
Ismo dreamed of a giant wolf, formed from glittering steel. The whole earth was its hunting ground, and it searched tirelessly for the one that it loved, the she wolf bathed in golden light. The wolf roamed for many seasons, across shimmering plains of wind-blasted ice, over mountainous hills of snow, through clear, glacial seas. The wolf grew weary, it’s shining coat turned dull and murky. Still it searched, its determination as constant as the ceaseless cycle of the stars that arced across the ebony arch of the sky. But the great wolf was crushed in its sleep by a rockslide, it’s broken body buried by a dark web of roots as it gave one final, futile howl. Then all was darkness, broken only by faint pinpricks of stars streaking through the clouds.
Ismo awoke that afternoon, still groggy from his night at the allforge. His movements were slow and perfunctory. The sound of the wind sifting through the spruce trees that lined the lakeshore was sonorous but plaintive. A prosody of whispers and rustlings filled Ismo’s ears. The sound was eerily redolent of the wolf’s dying cry.
Ismo casually completed a few tasks for Pauli in the smithing cavern, preparing raw iron for the batch of nails they would forge the next morning. The cavern was near empty this time of the evening, a few weary journeymen slaving at their anvils, a smith recording the remaining stocks of ore and metal, and a young apprentice with coal black hair feeding the allforge, and Ismo, lazily laying out Pauli’s materials. Pauli always had some word of criticism for Ismo’s organization and Ismo had grown almost entirely numb to his master’s daily chiding.
When he finished Ismo rushed out of the cave and headed South on the well worn path that led to the commons. The commons was a large, mostly flat plateau of rocky ground on top of one of the higher cliffs that made up the Tribe’s territory. Wreathed on three sides by towering evergreen trees, the Eastern edge of the commons dropped off steeply towards the unsalted sea that broke on the rocks about fifty feet below. The evefires were just being lit as Ismo reached the commons.
The evefires were contained in great ironbound stone rings, each as wide as the height of two men. Eight evefires illuminated the market, the open air pavilion (that housed the stone benches where the tribe held feasts and the village elders met), and the various wooden structures of the tribe’s storehouses. The last, and largest of the evefires was placed on the east side of the commons, near the cliff. It was around this fire, called the ring of lore, that the legends of the tribe we spoken late into the night. Here children learned of the first man of the tribe, Eino, his wife Taru, and other legends from the tribe’s history. In the winter, the evefires would be lit all throughout the day to warm the merchants who traded food and other goods with the Iron Shore’s supply keepers and ameliorate the frigid wind and snow that blew in from the unsalted sea. But for now, until the first snowfall, the fires were lit only in the evening.
Tonight the rows of wooden stalls in the market were feverish with activity. Traders would often stay at the market late into the evening to sell their wares to tribe members whose duties kept them busy throughout the day. Winter was quickly approaching, and after the snows fell, many traders would not return to the settlement until the spring thaw. Tribe members haggled amicably over animal skins, wool blankets and highly desirable distilled spirits to fend off the coming months of cold. The tribe used small iron and copper disks as currency among themselves, but many traders preferred to barter for fish hooks, nails, arrow and hatchet heads, and other useful metalwork.
Ismo scanned the bustling commons for his friend Lemki’s distinctive head of red, flowing hair. He soon spotted him near at the lip of the ring of lore, stoking the infant fire with a long iron poker. “Lemki!” Ismo yelled as he jogged up to the waist-high rim of the fire pit.
“Ismo, how dare you distract me from my solemn duty,” Lemki said wryly as he nonchalantly poked at the growing flames. As apprentice loresmith, Lemki was charged with overseeing the lighting of the ring of lore before each week’s tale from the Iron Book.
“Lem, I had a very strange dream this morning.”
“Right, and since I’m apprenticed to Kalevi you expect me to miraculously interpret your hallucinations.” Lemki laughed to himself as he tossed a large pine log into the fire.
“Sometimes I wonder why I even try to speak to you.” Ismo sighed, more in frustration than jest. “Lem--”
“Listen. If you want some kind of grand statement of purpose you should take it to Kalevi. He’ll order you to do something in that booming voice of his and you’ll feel like you’ve been imparted some ancient wisdom.”
“If I wanted some useless nonsense about destiny I would have gone to Kalevi. But I didn’t. That’s why I’m asking you. You’ve been apprenticed to Kalevi for almost ten years. You should know enough of the Iron Book to tell me if my dream means anything.”
“Fine.” Lemki exhaled, resting his poker in a notch on the wall of the ring of lore. “Regale me with your visions. Ismo, great seer.”
Lemki continued to build up the fire in the ring of lore as Ismo recounted his dream. When Ismo finished, the flames were higher than their heads. Tribe members wandering the market and drinking under the pavilion began to migrate towards the ring of lore. The traders were packing up their wares and moving towards the trail to to the tribe’s guest lodging, nothing more than a grassy field a few miles to the West. Lemki laid down the iron poker, its tip now glowing red.
“Well...” said Lemki as they moved away from the now crowded ring of lore. “There’s nothing in the Iron Book about wolves. There’s plenty about metal, firemaking, and the songs of Väino, but nothing even close to what you saw.”
“So I should just ignore the dream?”
“You stayed up all night tending the allforge and had a strange dream. You wouldn’t be the first. Forget it, you’ll have other dreams.”
“But it wasn’t like any dream I’ve had before. It felt so real, like a memory. It didn’t fade like most dreams do. If anything it’s only grown clearer since I’ve been awake...” Ismo rubbed his eyes and stared out towards the unsalted sea.
“Relax, let’s get you some wine--”
Lemki was cut off by the loud ringing of the copper bell that hung on the South side of the ring of lore. The crowd around the fire went deathly silent. A very tall man, slightly hunched by age, walked slowly through the crowd and ascended the small platform on the ring of lore’s Eastern wall, his long gray robe rattling with with sewn in iron charms, leaning heavily on an iron ringed staff. Kalevi’s thick beard and tangled mane of hair glowed silver in the firelight. His piercing blue eyes gleamed, deep set in crevasses of wrinkled skin. Kalevi was the oldest man in the village, but his voice was deep and clear, easily commanding the attention of his audience.
“Welcome, children of the Iron Shore.” Kalevi intoned with a chant-like cadence. “Our evefires blaze with the light of Eino, the eternal flame that has burned in the allforge since the dawn of our tribe. Listen now to our history. Open your minds to the wisdom of the Iron Book.”
After his customary greeting, Kalevi told the story of how Väino the elder, the greatest poet in their tribe’s history, learned the song of the black bear. Väino left the Iron Shore in search of a song to give his people strength through the long winter. He traveled Northwest, roaming far from the sight of the unsalted sea. After many days, he reached a great forest where the pine trees were so thick and tall that no sunlight shone through their branches. It was always night in the forest, and Väino searched for what seemed like many days, although he did not know because of the constant darkness. Väino had only just enough time to scale the nearest pine tree when he was ambushed by a huge black bear, taller than the height of two men, with fiery red eyes and claws longer and sharper than swords.
Väino tried to reason with the bear but it only growled and raked at the trunk of the massive tree with such force that it swayed back and forth. But Väino did not despair. He listened for many hours to the bear’s grunting and growling. Soon, he began to sing a song that contained the essence of the bear’s great strength and unceasing effort. As he sang, the world outside the forest turned to night, and the strength of his voice caused the green fire to blaze with such intensity that its light pierced the canopy of the forest, reflecting off Väino’s pale gray skin and blinding the bear, who ran back into the depths of the forest.
When the story concluded, Kalevi sang the song of the bear in a deep, guttural voice. He urged the tribe to remember the black bear’s strength in the coming winter, and then signaled for the ringing of the iron chimes. Ismo began to make his way toward Kalevi as the crowd filed out towards the trail at the South edge of the commons, but he soon saw that Kalevi was deep in conversation with two of the tribe’s elders. Ismo, weary, dreading the long day of work ahead of him in the morning, waved to Lemki and headed towards the the Northern trail that led to his cave.
Ismo stumbled into the cave and collapsed on his bed of woollen blankets. His fatigue was such that he scarcely noticed the hard rock beneath him as he passed into the dream.
He saw a vast lake, floating among the stars. All was still and mute and cold. The stars burned with an icy brilliance, the unbroken surface of the lake shone with blue iridescence. The ineffable dome of the void hung in frigid black solemnity beyond. Ismo stared deeply into the glassy water beneath him, his gaze as steady and unblinking as the stars.
Suddenly, Ismo was deafened by a great, deep note, reverberating through the cosmic stillness. The sound was like the beat of a great drum, but it rang with metallic timbre. An orb of resplendent, golden-white light burst up through the cobalt surface of the lake. The orb was spinning at incredible speed. As it churned, molten metal poured from its surface, sinking into the lake in a vast cloud of radiant steam. As the orb rose it grew in both size and luminance, waxing until it filled Ismo’s vision completely. Ismo woke with the searing afterglow of the orb burned into his mind’s eye.