Today was Einosday, and Ismo had his weekly respite from smithing tasks. Ismo spent a few hours restocking his cave, bringing weekly allotments of food and drinking water from thestorehouse in the commons to the cave’s small larder, an atrium carved into the North wall. Ismo ate a simple meal of dried fish and squash on a small, heavily wooded cliff overlooking the unsalted sea. Ismo felt his vision drawn to a small peninsula to the North. The pines there seemed to be moving strangely, as if against the wind instead of with it, or maybe it was a trick of the overcast sun’s hazy light. When Ismo finally looked away, the sun was nearly at its zenith, blazing through a small gap in the cloud cover. Ismo tossed the remains of his meal into the water below and rushed towards the path to the commons, not wanting to arrive late at the gathering of the tribal elders.
Every Einosday the tribe’s elders met at the pavilion in the commons. Ismo was not allowed to participate or speak at the gatherings, but any tribe member older than 16 winters had the right to observe in silence. Ismo had not been absent from a meeting since his mother’s disappearance. Outside of gossip in the smithing cavern, the gathering of elders was Ismo’s only chance to hear news of the effort to locate his mother’s trading party.
The trading party had been gone almost two weeks longer than expected. This was not entirely unprecedented, expeditions inland were often met with obstacles and delays. However, with the winter coming soon, there were whisperings that perhaps they would not return, rumors that the Northern hunting tribes were more hostile than previously thought, a pall of hushed worry spreading over the tribe.
The meeting had already commenced when Ismo reached the pavilion, he quietly took a place alone on a bench near the edge of the pavilion. At the moment, Kaapo, one of the most senior elders, was outlining his argument, his voice somewhere betweening speaking and yelling. Kaapo was well built, with a bald head and a thick, reddish-brown beard. His solid frame evinced the many years he’d spent in the tribe’s mines, working his way up to his current position of chief miner. His consternation was obvious from his face, bright crimson in the muted sun’s midday light.
The village’s elders were typically cautious and passive by nature, but lately, a more aggresive faction had begun to form behind Kaapo, encouraged by Kalevi’s tacit approval. Ismo’s mother had usually been there to bring a more moderate voice to the council, but in her absence the balance of power had begun to shift.
“Will we simply let these impudent raiders make off with all we’ve accomplished?” Kaapo was animate with rage, his hands shaking as he gestured spastically. “Since the days of Eino we have dedicated ourselves to our craft, to smithing, to the way of iron, will we let it be stolen from us so easily? It is time to stop smithing nails, fish hooks, and shovels and start forging swords!”
A muted gasp echoed throughout the now silent pavilion. Swords had not been forged since the construction of the allforge, since the days of Eino. Arrowheads, hatchets, spears, knives, all of these were made for hunting and trading, but swords were a symbol of war, they had no function beyond violence. Not even the village guard carried such weapons. About half of the elders in attendance were visibly shaken, the rest, likely already convinced by Kaapo, were resolute, their faces set like the weathered stone lining the cliffs of the unsalted sea.
“How dare you Kaapo!” Sigfrid the coppersmith’s voice rang out from her place near the edge of the pavilion, her words piercing and steady. “Our tribe was founded on peace, we have prospered through peace, we teach our children peace. Are you ready to throw that away? If you do this you betray us all!”
Kaapo’s supporters, somewhat shaken, looked expectantly towards the broad shouldered miner. Many of the other elders, however, were nodding at Sigfrid’s rebuttal.
“Brave words from one so new to the council, Sigfrid,” Kaapo thundered back. “You’ve been here what, two winters? You--”
“SILENCE!” Kalevi’s booming voice brought rang through the pavilion. Sigrid and Kaapo sat down, both looking as if they had much more to say. “The Iron Book dictates that every elder has an equal voice on this council, Kaapo. And Sigfrid, I ask you to consider your words more carefully, we do not speak of betrayal lightly on this council.”
“If I might be permitted a word, lore smith?” Pauli, Ismo’s master, said in a voice that trembled as he trailed off.
“Of course, smith Pauli,” Kalevi responded, motioning for Pauli to stand. The other elders looked on in wonder, Pauli had never before spoken at a gathering of elders. While he was respected for his smithing talents, Pauli was notoriously reserved, and rarely spoke on matters outside of his trade.
“I agree with smith Sigfrid. Our craft is a gift passed down from our forefathers, from Eino himself. To do such a thing, to use our talents for war, to further isolate ourselves...it would be a terrible thing.”
“Thank you, smith Pauli, I trust your words will be considered by all in attendance,” said Kalevi, glancing as he spoke at both Kaapo and Sigfrid. But now we must turn to other matters. Chief scout Tapio, do you have anything to report on the location of our missing trading party?”
“Nothing, lore smith.” Said Tapio, a lithe man with ash black hair who had a strange habit of staring off into the distance while speaking and trailing off into the silence in the midst of a thought. Ismo had always assumed he was only really comfortable when he was alone, patrolling the pine forests that surrounded the settlement. “No signs in the woods...no word from other tribes...only a bitter wind from the North…a cold bite to the morning dew...”
“Lore smith, elders, we must act.” Kaapo spoke again, calmer now but with the same undercurrent of rage. “New-iron is in our grasp, chief smith Samat may have found what she needed in the North. Will we let fear stop us from finding it? Will we throw away our tribe’s greatest opportunity since--”
“This is not about fear, Kaapo,” Sigfrid walked toward the center of the pavilion, her amber eyes blazing with fury but her voice placid and measured. “This is about peace. We cannot send out armed patrols to the land of the hunting tribes without breaking our treaties with them, and that will mean war. Are you ready for war, Kaapo?”
Kaapo inhaled fiercely and opened his mouth to respond, but before he could speak Kalevi smashed his iron staff on the huge copper gong that hung in the middle of the pavilion. Ismo felt the deep note reverberate sonorously through his skull. “The council is adjourned, we shall continue this discussion on the next Einosday, go and rest, children of Eino, tomorrow we work again.”
Ismo avoided the other tribespeople as he left the pavilion. Most Einosdays he would meet Lemki in the commons, but he turned towards the Northern path instead, trudging slowly towards his cave, his gaze fixed on the calm expanse of the unsalted sea. The cloud-dimmed afternoon hobbled into dreary twilight. A light snowfall began to dust the settlement in a luminescent sheet, glinting blue in the inchoate moonlight. Ismo tried to ignore the cold that bit at his face, supine on the inmost slab of rock in his shallow cave. He lay awake several hours, shifting fitfully on the rigid stone floor, but eventually he drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Ismo stood in the center of a forest. The ground was clothed in a diaphanous layer of snow, mirroring the blue light of the winter moon. On all sides great black pine trees reached upwards beyond the limit of his vision, melding into the blackness of the sky. Gargantuan pillars elevating a starry ceiling on which constellations shone like glowing metalwork. Ismo saw in the stars a flurry of images, men and beasts, lakes and seas, hills and mountains, protean players in an interminable cosmic play, the extent of history doled out across the panorama of the vaulted heavens.
Ismo was pulled from his revery by a flash of movement in the corner of his eye. It was a fox, tall as a man at its shoulders, but lithe and graceful, its fur a coat of shimmering, polished copper. Eyes, cold blue in the starlight, locked with Ismo’s, looking through him, beckoning him onward.
Together they walked deeper into the forest. The trees grew thicker and darker, further eliding the sky until only a faint sliver of the fluctuating heavens remained. Out of the crushing stillness of the heavy forest, Ismo began to perceive a sound, so faint and low pitched that he felt more than heard it. They drew closer to the source of the reverberations, which echoed in his bones like the beating of a smith’s hammer. it was not one note he heard, but a slow succession of pitches. Not a melody but a pattern, mathematical, rhythmic, unflinching.
Ismo and the fox soon reached a clearing, the claustrophobic foliage overhead giving way to blazing streaks of stellar traversal. A thousand astronomical years elapsed overhead as Ismo watched the fox approach the center of the clearing. Ismo followed, and soon saw that it was not a clearing but a crater, strewn with mangled trees and broken rock. In the center was a golden orb, formed from thousands of spinning gears, so large that the great fox was dwarfed by its shadow.
The movement of the gears was a blur of motion, the sea of cogs as beautiful and vast as the motion of the stars overhead. As the fox approached the orb, its strong, confident gait became measured and stilted, its copper coat tarnished to a dull sheen, shining eyes clouded white. The fox fell to the ground, struggling even to crawl, fighting to reach the orb in increasingly feeble, tortured motions until it writhed one last time, and then no more. Ismo cried out to the motionless body of the fox, but his voice was only one small part in a symphony of churning gears, a single cog in the machine of eternity. Muted, transient, insubstantial. Sight deluged by tears, hearing bludgeoned to numbness, thoughts lost in a void of disinterested time.
The gears beat on.
The stars continued their endless journeys, lived, died, and were born anew.
Space bent, broke, was remade, time striated ever thinner across it.
The fox’s body rotted, leaving only a heap of petrified bones.
Still the gears beat on.