Chapter One, Scene One
Coal held the recently finished sword at arm’s length. The sentient weapon vibrated in his grasp, urging him to attack, but he tightened his sweaty hands around the leather hilt and ignored the foreign impulses. He’d been forging swords and practicing with the completed weapons long enough to know when to attack and when to bide his time and let the fight come to him.
Finally, Grigory, the master swordsmith, advanced. Coal parried, stepping aside and swinging his sword with all of the skill he’d gained from the two years of working the forge. Grigory fell to the ground, effortlessly rolling beneath the sword before he bounced back to his feet.
“Is she overwhelming you?” Grigory asked as they faced each other. They had been dueling for the past hour. Sweat dripped from Coal’s forehead, his back, and his arms, but just like all the other times they’d dueled, the swordsmith showed no sign of exertion.
“She’s restless.” Coal wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. “But I’m in contr—”
Grigory rushed forward with an arcing swipe. Coal raised his sword to meet the strike. For a moment, their strengths were equal. His sword vibrated in enjoyment as Coal threatened to overcome Grigory.
Forcing the sword’s excitement to the back of his mind, Coal focused all of his strength into his upper body and pushed outward.
Overwhelmed, Grigory leaped back.
During the two years of forging swords and sparring with Grigory, Coal had never had the strength or skill to complete such a move. For an instant, he let himself—and the sword—enjoy their accomplishment.
He was so distracted by his small victory that he almost didn’t notice one of Grigory’s legs heading towards his knees. Coal jumped just in time and landed to find a sword pointed at his neck.
Grigory lowered his blade. “You were distracted.”
“I almost had you,” Coal said with an intense rush of pride and confidence.
“You did not. You’ve been slow and lazy all morning.”
“But I finally completed the block.”
“Not with any speed. You’re gaining strength and height, but that’s nothing to be proud of. What is the point of having strength if you are beheaded because it slows you down?”
Coal let Grigory’s words sink in while his breathing slowed. “You’re right. I’ve been a little distracted. I’m supposed to meet Princess Chalcedony soon.” He glanced outside, trying to gauge the time. The sun was low in the morning sky, but the springtime rays were much stronger than they were when he’d arrived.
Time for him to go.
Grigory lifted the eyebrow above his remaining eye. The other had been gouged out 200 years ago when he served as a soldier instead of a swordsmith. “How long has it been since you’ve seen her?”
Coal bit his lip while he pretended to think about the answer he already knew. “Two months.”
Grigory took the sword from Coal’s hands. It would be presented to Chalcedony on her coronation as queen. Magic reinforced the silver shaft, and its black leather hilt emanated heat and welcomed touch. By far, it was the best sword Coal had helped Grigory forge.
“Before you go, I have something to ask you.” Grigory kept his black hair short and his beard trimmed. Both elven and dwarf blood coursed through his veins. As the only known half-breed of his kind, he had the height of an elf and the thick, muscular build of a dwarf.
“What is it?” Coal asked. The way Grigory spoke made Coal wonder if he’d done something wrong besides being too distracted during the fight.
“I’m getting older,” Grigory said. “I need to choose a full-time apprentice, and it needs to be soon. Do you want the position?”
Coal’s breath caught in his throat. Had he heard right? “I thought I was just helping out until you found a full-time apprentice?”
“Well you’ve passed the two-year audition and now I’m offering you the job.”
“But humans can’t do magic.” It was one of the first things Coal had learned when he’d arrived in the fey realm eleven years ago. Powerful swords were impossible to make without magic. Magic made the swords stronger, lighter, and prevented someone else from using it.
“I’m half dwarf and half elf,” Grigory said. “For years, my master refused to teach me because he didn’t think a half-breed could make a great sword. Now I am the best sword maker in Everleaf. It’s what’s inside that makes a good swordsmith. I believe you could be one of the greats.”
Coal had been coming to the forge almost every day for two years, but he was allowed to come and go as he pleased. With a full apprenticeship, he’d eat, breathe, and sleep smithing. He’d have to move out of his home.
“I don’t know, Grigory. I need time to think about it.” Coal enjoyed forging swords. He especially loved practicing with them, ensuring that they would endure battle, but he didn’t know if he wanted to make it his life’s work.
“Your childhood friend is soon to be queen. There will not be room or tolerance for a lovesick human.”
Coal was hurt but not surprised by Grigory’s words. No one said anything to his face, but he heard the servants and soldiers gossiping about him and Princess Chalcedony when they thought he wasn’t listening. “You’re right, but give me time. It’s not easy choosing one life over another.”
Grigory’s eye softened. “You and the future queen still have much growing to do. Decide soon. I won’t wait long.”
Coal glanced back towards the rising sun. “It’s time for me to go.”
Grigory waved his hand as if to swat a fly.
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