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Blood, Sweat, and Tears

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The hammer bells out against steel, furnace heat salting the skin with a light wreath of sweat upon Gwen’s brow.

On the anvil, fine steel is worked in folding layers, hot metal meeting cold as the sword takes shape.

“Bellows hard, Gwennie.”

Gwen stands and begins to work the bellows with steady strokes. Working in her father’s forge isn’t easy, but she finds the work fascinating and different every time, whether he’s casting nails for a house, or shoeing the king’s horses, or fixing a cast iron pot with careful taps.

Or making a sword.

Swordmaking’s a secret skill - one that’s passed down through the blood, from father to son - or through the art, from smith to apprentice. But her father has neither son, nor apprentice, and while Gwen can work with smaller steel and cast iron, she doesn’t have the muscles for this kind of long, protracted work.

All she can do is pump the bellows and watch her father work.

The familiar ache in her arms and back grows with each squeeze of the bellows, and she matches its rhythm to the clangour of hammer on fiery metal. Coal chunks glow, their dull scarlet centers spreading through the beads as Gwen peers through the spyhole until her face feels like it glows as bright as the forge’s insides.

“And in she goes.” Her father lays the blade in the coals to reheat until it’s ready to be beaten out again.

The final stages are the most difficult - Gwen knows her father’s practices in this. The metal must be kept at a constant temperature to avoid uneven cooling which would affect the strength of the blade. It needs to be swiftly hammered out, long and straight and even for the full length of the blade. It needs to be made flat -  sandwiched layers of steel - for a smooth, balanced sword.

Her father’s arm comes around her shoulders, a brief hug between pumps of the bellows in the too-fierce heat. “This’ll be a good one. I can feel it.”

“It’s turning out beautifully.”

“Fit for a knight, it’ll be.” His arm squeezes her before he reached out for the mug of beer standing behind him on one of the empty anvils and takes a long hard swig. “I tell you, though, Gwen, it almost feels like the sword’s making itself.”

“How can a sword make itself, Dad?” Gwen keeps the air flowing to the forge, puffing a little with the effort. “That’s why it has you.”

He grins as he puts the mug down - a simple man, full of passion for his smithcrafting lore, full of love for her. And Gwen will never be a fine lady like Morgana up at the castle, but she wouldn’t exchange all the jewels and silks in Camelot for her father’s love. “Well, let’s to it. My life’s making’s in this. I know it.”

She doesn’t question his certainty, just watches as he takes it out and gets to work.

Tom works fast and hard. Drops of dark sweat fall from his brow onto the glowing cherry of the steel as he beats it out. Gwen feels every blow like she’s landing them, like the pinchers are held in her hand, like the hammer is gripped in her fingers.

It’s not just her father’s sword, or the sword of the knight who’ll wield it - it’s her sword, too.

She can feel it.

Soft steel melds with hot as her father shapes the blade with swift skill and sure strokes. Sparks leap from the force of his blows, escaping the hammer’s beat to sputter and die on the dirt floor.

Gwen watches, the forge forgotten, the bellows limp. All light in the smithy is drawn to the forge, fierce and straight and dangerous.

With a great gusty sigh, Tom lifts the blade and turns to the cooling trough where clean water shimmers, ready to quench the forge’s fire.

Steam scalds the air, hissing in great clouds of heat and damp. Gwen’s skin stings from it, but she can’t look away as her eyes tear up, dripping helpless trails down her cheeks as her father lifts the still-warm steel from the water.

“Look, Gwen...”

He turns the blade for her to see the fine, shining lines of the folds, delicate as engravings on crystal, the blade’s width wobbling and wavering a little, requiring further grinding to make the straight, sharp edge that it needs.

A drop falls on the sword - a tear escaping her cheek, sizzling lightly as it runs down the length of the blade.

“It’s beautiful, father.”

--

Years later, Gwen watches her husband lift Excalibur before the assembled people of Camelot and remembers its making.