Wintersday was near. The sweet tang of peppermint filled the air and laughter rang in front of Joy’s blacksmith shop.
“Oi, you still wasting your time making those peppermint candies?”
More cackles followed, but she ignored the other smithies. Every winter was the same ordeal. She set aside the iron, steel, and orichalcum, and took up the sugar, syrup, and extract like candysmiths of old had done.
There’d only ever been a few master candysmiths. When the last of them had died some 250 years ago, they’d taken their knowledge with them. Without those secrets, her every attempt had been a failure. The peppermint was too brittle one year, snapping under the slightest pressure. It was too soft another year. Too sticky, too bland. Too sweet, not sweet enough. However, no matter how much the other craftsman laughed, she refused to give up.
This year was starting no differently. She’d just swept the broken peppermint bits of her latest attempt into a basket and set her kettle to boil when the shop door suddenly swung open.
“Sorry, I’m not accepting new orders at the moment.” The blast of winter air tugged her auburn bangs free from where they’d been tucked behind her ear. “Come back after Wintersday. If you can’t wait, try Gnarl Muzzlesoot. He’s a cantankerous charr, but his work is solid.”
“Thank you… for the recommendation.” The woman was not much older than Joy herself. Short brown hair secured behind her head highlighted strong cheekbones. “I’m not actually looking to purchase any goods.”
“Oh? Then what are you –”
“I’m passing through,” she said with a soft smile. The woman smoothed her hands down the creamy skirt of her dress. “I hoped I could help around your shop in exchange for a hot meal. I lost my home in the war.” She spoke so matter-of-factly that Joy winced.
“I’m sorry, but I’m not forging this time of year.”
The stranger’s gaze traveled to the fire blazing in the forge. “You sure about that?”
“I meant, I’m not forging with traditional ore. I experiment this time of year –”
“What with, if I may ask?”
“Um… peppermint.” Joy waved a hand toward the basket of broken candy.
“Peppermint? You’re talking about candysmithing, aren’t you?” Unconcealed excitement brightened the stranger’s face. “Legends say properly forged peppermint was harder than steel.”
“You know about candysmithing?” Joy couldn’t stop the wonder from filling her voice.
“I do. With so many other ways to forge – easier, less time-consuming ways – I admire your dedication.”
Joy scoffed. “All the weapons made in those ‘easier’ ways have a singular purpose: to kill. To destroy. Peppermint was made for more.” The stranger raised an eyebrow in question. “It makes people happy.” The shrill whistle from the kettle interrupted her. “Join me for lunch? It’s not much. Just tea and winterberry scones.”
“That sounds wonderful. Thank you.” Her guest hung her coat on a hook by the door, then took a seat at the workbench while Joy fetched the teapot and an extra mug. She waited until Joy served them both before restarting the conversation. “I thought the art of candysmithing was lost long ago.”
“It was. I aim to change that,” Joy said and bit off a chunk of her scone. “My own ancestor was one of the last candysmiths.” She swallowed a large gulp of tea before continuing. “I supposed that’s where my interest got started. My father told me how her creations brought a smile to all. They were items of beauty and their smell could soothe away anxiety before and after a battle.”
The woman sipped her tea. “This means a lot to you, doesn’t it? Bringing back peppermint weapons?”
Joy nodded as she stood. “I want to show you something.” Not waiting for a reply, she hurried across the room and pulled out a chest. “Every Wintersday, my father brought this down from the attic.” When she returned, she set the old hardwood box on the table and opened it. “This is my family heirloom.”
“Is that…?” The woman stood as Joy unwrapped the last broken remains of a peppermint sword, peering at the fragments. The colors, which must have once been pure white and bright red, were a dingy gray and murky pink. The dull blade was half the width it would have been in its glory days.
“My ancestor was an Ascalonian candysmith. She forged this sword. When I think of the horrors she must have seen – the war against the charr, the Searing, the Fall of Ascalon – she still created this symbol of beauty and hope.” Joy stroked the relic. “Peppermint isn’t like anything else. It’s not cold. It’s warm – like it’s still fresh from the forge. Peppermint is alive.” She raised her gaze. Her guest watched her with a curious smile and Joy blushed. “I’m rambling now. It’s just… it feels like the world is a mess again, and I want to forge something beautiful to bring a smile back to the people of Tyria.”
“Hm…” The woman picked up a piece of peppermint from the basket and popped it into her mouth. “Do you use peppermint extract or peppermint oil?”
She hesitated. “Oil. It’s expensive though. I have to order from the chef in the next town over. Why?” Joy watched her guest untie a red pouch from her waist.
The woman pulled a red crystal vial from her bag and held it out. “This is my own special blend of peppermint oil. It’s much more concentrated and intense than anything you’ll have used. The flavor it creates is pure and clear.”
When Joy didn’t move, the woman took her hand and curled her fingers around the bottle. “Try it out, see if it makes a difference. But it has a low smoke point. You’ll have to cook it over much lower heat than most do.” She gestured toward the forge. “You’ll also have to cook it longer to allow the sugars to melt, but not too long or they’ll crystalize and ruin the batch.”
“You know a lot about making peppermint. Are you a chef?” Joy uncapped the bottle and took a sniff. Her eyes watered as she sneezed.
“This oil is refined and a family secret,” the woman said as she recapped the bottle. “I made it myself to get it just right.”
“Thank you so much for this.” Joy rubbed her nose, still tingling from the strength of the peppermint scent. “I can’t wait to test it out.” She started toward her forge but stopped. “Oh, I should clean up lunch first.”
“Let me tidy up,” the woman said and shooed Joy off as she gathered the mugs. “The sooner you get started, the sooner I can see this peppermint weapon of yours.”
Joy cleaned her tools and prepped the ingredients as the fire burned lower in the forge. Finally, she mixed the items.
“Careful – a little goes a long way,” the woman said as Joy added a few drops of the fragrant oil.
The sun drifted low in the sky when Joy finally lifted the pot of searing hot liquid from the flames. Thick leather gloves protected her callused hands from the worst of the heat. She lifted one arm to wipe her sweaty face against her shoulder.
“Candysmithing is not very forgiving, is it?” The woman watched Joy work the now doughy – but still hot – mixture.
“What do you mean?” Joy twisted the molten candy into a rope then pulled it, stretching it into a long strand, repeating the process until it grew difficult to pull and formed a satin-like finish.
“You have to work exactly right. The perfect heat, the right ingredients, and you, the candysmith, have to work fast or the batch goes bad, but not too fast or you could introduce mistakes. You could even burn yourself quite badly.”
“I suppose so.” Joy breathed in the sweet scent of the cooling candy. “I try not to think about all the ways it could go wrong and focus on what I want to go right.” She folded the peppermint with copper tools she had made herself for this very purpose. If the woman said more, it went unheard as Joy focused on her task.
Excitement built in her chest as she watched the curved handle of the candy cane sword take shape. It felt different this time. The scent of the peppermint was strong and clean.
She heated the candy one last time to hammer the tip and then plunged the sword into the bath of lemon juice next to her, leaning back from the explosion of steam as the searing hot peppermint screamed and hissed.
This was it.
She held her breath and pulled the sword from its bath. The last of the winter sunlight spilled in through the window, casting a warm glow over the weapon.
“You did it!” The woman clapped her hands. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”
“Thank you.” Joy set the sword down on her workbench then wiped her watery eyes on the back of her arm. “I couldn’t have done this without your help.” She held out the bottle of peppermint oil to return it, but her guest shook her head.
“Keep it,” she said as she pulled her coat on. “I won’t need it where I’m going. It would make me happy to know you’re putting it to good use.”
“You’re leaving?” Joy couldn’t keep the disappointment from her voice. “It’s almost dark out. Stay the night.” She smiled. “I have some hearty stew simmering upstairs. I’m happy to share it with you.”
The woman shook her head. “It’s time for me to move on. I’ve already lingered here much longer than I should have, but I couldn’t leave without seeing you succeed.” Her gaze drifted over the sword, then she nodded and said, “You’ll find the recipe for my peppermint oil written on a piece of parchment in your heirloom chest. Goodbye, Joy, and Happy Wintersday.”
“Thank you for all your help… oh!” Joy let out a small laugh. “I never caught your name.”
“It’s Noel.” And with a smile and a wave, the woman walked out of the shop.
“Noel – wait. Noel?” Joy rushed after her. “Wait! Hold on!”
But the ghost from the past had already disappeared into the lightly falling snow.