Around my feet are two heavy cuffs, attached to chains of iron, bolted to the wall. I stand in front of a hot furnace, small scraps of letters in my hands, a pair of tongs by my side to pull out any words that have smelted properly.
I never wanted this. I was an apprentice wordsmith; I had been regulated to shaping the periods and commas, occasionally daring to form an O or an exclamation point. When I was good, as a treat, Master Bia would let me arrange the letters in patterns.
I didn’t know what it meant, back then. What it meant to shape the letters, and the words. Before, I made punctuation. Now, I craft words.
Now, I have ashes ground into my skin. Before, I could walk free.
Frivolous is melting around the edges. I snatch the tongs to pull it out before the curly, lacy letters fall to pieces, and dunk it in the bucket of water.
I’m so thirsty. It’s hot here, in the forge, among the fire and letters and the words. My legs are burning, standing up, but if I sit my ankles will burn with the pain of the cuffs, magic, burning to let me know: no breaks. I don’t know how long it’s been. I’ve made roughly six hundred and fifty marks in the dust with my little toe. Two hundred and ten marks with my right big toe. Seventeen with my entire left foot.
Sixty-five thousand words made since I was chained. Twenty-one thousand words since Master Bia was killed. One thousand, seven hundred, since the lady told me it was my birthday.
I used to make five hundred commas a day, if I didn’t have to temper them and cool them. Four hundred, if I did and stayed after. But commas are for babies. Now I am a wordsmith. I usually make about forty words between sleeping times, but not always. Words vary in size, in shape, in material, in meaning. When I make them over and over, they are easy. But too often I make them without rhyme or reason or a pattern. I can’t assign an amount of time to each word.
Frivolous hisses in the bucket, a bit marred around the edges but recognizable and still with its meaning. Another word finished. Number one hundred. Another mark in the dust. Thirty thousand, one hundred words finished since I was chained. Ten thousand, one hundred words since Master Bia was chained. One thousand, eight hundred words since my birthday.
One thousand, eight hundred words since I forgot my name.
It’s the one word I’ve never been allowed to recreate. Words have power, magic, when combined with meaning and material, and I am the meaning of my name. If I had my name, so much power would be available to me. I could break free. Possibly.
If the lady allowed me to remember.
But she never would, because I am the wordsmith, and without me she can’t create the magic, the words.
A little’un, tiny, scurries up to me with a rag full of letters, and the next three words. “Dragon, glitter, a-and.” She murmurs. I think she’s about five. I can’t tell, with the ground-in ash and the cut hair and the loose, raggy clothes.
My sister is here, somewhere, with the little’uns. She makes letters, or punctuation. She is five. Maybe she’s six. Maybe I missed her birthday. She is here in the dark, in the hot, in the ash, but I don’t remember where. I don’t remember her face.
Maybe she’s dead. The little’uns have died, before, coughing and choking and sweating, feverish from the forge-fires, throats dry from the ash. Medea nurses them as best she can. If not for the cuffs, I would join her. Medea is my age, the only one able to take my place should I succumb to the dry, stale, contaminated air. She takes care of the little’uns, making sure that their letters and punctuation are shaped right, that they don’t make mistakes and get punished.
I place the letters in their order – D, R, A, G, O, N. The O is copper, but the D is iron to anchor the meaning. The A is the chief vowel, made of electrum, mixed gold and silver. I place the small tin ties, binding the letters to each other. The magic, the meaning, will make these haphazard markings stick together, will make them something special.
Sister. This, the wordsmithy, is all-girls. The men are farming, harvesting the numbers, up above in the dirt and the grass and the air and the sun. I remember numbers, slightly. I had an older brother, who used to make me laugh. He and my sister and I made three, the curly number shaped like a backwards capital E. Siblings. Three siblings.
If I could remember my name, I could hoard letters from the ones the little’uns give me to bind together. If I could remember my sister’s name, or my brother’s name, I could bind them together and then bind them to another word. Freedom. Then I could just hope for the best.
There are old burns on my arms, scarred, healed over. The words are dangerous if one isn’t careful.The little’uns aren’t allowed to touch them until the woman has checked them over. Then they can group them, package them, ready them for the woman to sell or to trade or to ship. We don’t know what she does with them.
Dark. Silver. My sister had dark hair and dark eyes, but my brother had silver eyes like my mother and I. We all have dark hair. It’s dark here, in the smithy, among the candles and the forge and the caverns and the bars of silver and iron.
Up on the outside it’s bright. Maybe too bright. I remember when it was night, and I went inside the house, the candles and lamps would blind me for a moment. I wonder if I’ll ever go topside, into the fields, and if the sun will blind me for a moment, or forever.
Sometimes I wonder if Master Bia was blind, not in the eyes but in the soul. She could see the letters, see the materials and whether or not the forge was hot enough, but she could never see when a little’un cried because she shouted at them, or when she needed to leave the forge for sleep or food. Staring into the fire, watching the metal heat and the letters fuse, blinded her to all else.
G, L, I, T, T, E, R. Pyrite mostly, with gold and silver for embellishments. Words are precious, precious enough to use these fancy metals to make them. They’re worth their weight in gold or platinum.
There used to be a saying. All that glitters is not gold. I used to be an apprentice full of dreams. Master Bia used to lead us. Now I am the wordsmith, and Master Bia is gone, and there is no hope, and this pyrite is uselessly glittery in the low red-hot light of the forge.
* * *
The ties are easy. I can set the letters together fairly quickly, and put them in the forge to heat. Dragon is glowing dark red in the back right corner, near coals that are a similar color. I place glitter next to it, darkly shining, and tie together and. It’s a short word, so overlooked, but the ties in this word are especially important. And is a conjunction. It joins words and brings them together. The ties for and must be thick and strong to tie the meaning in.
Sister. Brother. Siblings. Those words haunt me. I bind together the A and the D by mistake, and quickly pry off the tie. I’m not focused. That’s a dangerous thing in the forge; the burns and ashes on my arms prove it. But I’m the wordsmith. Shouldn’t I know the words for my brother and my sister? Shouldn’t I remember their names? I could save them if I remembered. All this power, all these letters and magic, and it’s useless. I could free Medea or the little’uns, but there’s too many little’uns for me to learn all their names, and without Medea who would take care of them?
Another little’un, maybe seven this time, comes over to me with another rag full of letters. The fire can’t hold any more magic right now, for safety. But I can still tie the words together, wait until dragon, glitter and and are ready.
The little’un doesn’t leave after she hands over the letters. Instead she stays, shifting from foot to foot and dragging her toes in the dirt. “Niobe’s callin’ for ya, miss.” She mumbles. “She’s havin’ the scare-dreams.”
I blink at her. I don’t know who Niobe is, much less why she’s calling for me. Somehow, though, she sounds important. “Yes.”
“I told her you was chained, that ya couldn’t come, but she wasn’t listenin’, so I said I’d tells you.”
“Why does she want me to come?”
“Dunno, miss. She’s just cryin’ in her sleep about Hecky and Rian. Sounded fierce important, miss, or I wouldn’t be talkin’ to ya at all none, on account of how none but Medea’s ‘llowed to, miss, so says the lady. The lady, she’s fierce scary.”
“… Rian…” Niobe. She’s just cryin’ in her sleep about Hecky and Rian. Hecky and Rian, who are they? They’re important, just like Niobe.
“Yes, miss.” She scratches out some stick-picture in the dust with her big toe, not looking at me. “She’s got the fever, miss. Medea said she’s still hearin’ us, even in her sleeps, so I said, tell her Clio – that’s me, miss, I’s Clio – tell her Clio’s gone ta tell Hecky that Niobe’s got the fever and the scare-dreams. One of us was ta bring you the letters anyhows, so I said I would.”
“I’m – Hecky?”
“Yes, miss, ya is… Ya knows that, though, right?” Clio looks up and furrows her eyebrows at me. “Hecate. Niobe, she’s worried somethin’ fierce about ya. She has the space next to me, so’s I can help her with her letters, on account of I’s a couple years older, miss. We’s friends.”
My fingers loosen a bit on the rag and the letters slip, clang-clang-clang on the floor. The door at the top of the stairs, the way out that we can never use, opens, and a shaft of light hits the dirty floor. Clio scampers before I can thank her, say goodbye to her, anything. I bend to pick up the letters, and smile. F, R, E, E, D, O, M.
The lady will be angry that I dropped her letters, yes, but to punish me is to stop production and risk the destruction of those words still in the fire.
But it doesn’t matter, not really. She inspects the words for magic, but not for whether or not they’re all there. The little’uns make the letters and get the instructions for the words, but there are so many words. We’ve forgotten a few from time to time.
And now I have what I need.
Orion. Clio. Niobe. Medea.
Medea can help me. She knows the names of the little’uns. I can work late, overtime, collecting the letters I need bit by bit, shaping the words. Now we have a base. F, R, E, E, D, O, M. We can keep it, hide it away. I have to sleep at some point, and we can hoard letters in secret. Every one of us has an apron with a pocket, to keep our tools and our materials in. Our names will fit, hopefully.
So many things run through my mind. I barely hear the lady as she shouts, barely notice as she slaps me and storms upstairs. Seven letters to escape. Seven is the most magical number. I remember Orion telling me that now.
Hecate. I’m Hecate. Hecate with the wispy H like a puff of air, bright shiny A, sharp Cs and Ts and soft Es to cushion. I have a name, a being, and a purpose.
* * *
Medea stays with me in the big’uns’ chamber. It’s rest-time, or so says the lady. We’ve not got night underground.
“She’ll be fine, Niobe will. She’s got Clio and Andromeda looking after her. I showed them how to take care of her, and they’re bright. They’ll remember.”
“You knew my name. And hers. And you didn’t tell me.”
Medea clasps her hands nervously, lets them go, clasps them again.“I thought you remembered. The lady told me not to address you by name.”
I don’t say anything, just look at her. The one candle flickers, casting dancing shadows over her and against the wall. There’s no sound other than our breathing. It’s so quiet in here because it’s just us. We’re fifteen, but all the others are twelve and under – little’uns.
“She said it was disrespectful to address the smith by name.” Medea hurries on. “And I’d best not do it or she’d flog me, and the little’uns too. So to them, you’re miss. I tried it once but you wouldn’t let me call you that.”
I haven’t told her about the freedom. I was going to, but now in the candlelight it seems foolish. “Because you’re my friend. I didn’t think you should call me miss.”
“I’m sorry.” Medea murmurs. “I would have told you, but the lady forbade it, and the little’uns -”
I shift the covers of my bedroll so I can sit up, legs crossed. “Medea.”
“Mm?” She looks up from where she’s been playing with her fingers and sits up too.
“There’s a thing I’ve got.”
She furrows her eyebrows. I stand and move over to where my apron hangs on its hook in the wall. Inside the pocket is my letters, our escape, and I pull them out.
Medea breathes in, sharp. Even from a distance she can recognize the sheen of the letters, the glimmer of the magic. “You stole from the lady?”
“Yes, but – look at them, Medea.” I drop to my knees next to her and pour the letters out, rearranging them so they spell the opportunity that I see.
“What’re you saying?”
“It’s a way out. You don’t see?”
Medea shakes her head slowly.
“Sentences. It’s like – it’s like blocks, Medea. We make the letters and I make the words, and then the lady uses the words for sentences.”
Medea bites her lip and fiddles with her fingers again. “So we…”
“We can steal the letters that make our names. You’re Medea – two Es, a D, an M and an A. Hecate, two Es, an A, H, C and T. I’ll forge them together piece by piece when the lady’s not watching us, and we can attach them to this.” I run my fingers through F, R, E, E, D, O, M. They’re so small, the length of my little finger, but they mean so much, they can do so much. “And then we run.”
I shake my head. “We all run.”
Medea breathes out and hugs her knees to her chest. “Can we do it?”
“Of course we can. We can go home.”
“This is home.”
And I swallow, a little bit choked, because she’s right. Not for me, for her. I didn’t think of it, but it’s true – this is where Medea was born. Not in this room, not in the dark, dusty forge below ground, but in the house above, where Master Bia lived. Because of course, that’s how Medea got here. She is Master Bia’s daughter, and her mother is dead now, but this is the only home Medea has ever known.
I don’t know what to say, or how to say it – I, whose job it is to work with word-magic, am unsure. We can make a new home, it’s true, but Medea has lived fifteen years here, and I do not know if she has ever left. The forge was everything to Master Bia, and she would expect the same natural devotion from her daughter.
Medea cannot stay here, under the lady, where every day is a day closer to suffocating of heat and coal dust and stale underground air, but she cannot bear to leave the forge, her mother’s life, death, and legacy.
“We must- we can…” I try, and finally settle on, “There’s a chance.”
And now there’s another pause, long and quiet, as Medea waits for me to continue this time and I have no idea how. Finally Medea bundles the letters away, back into the apron, and I return to my bedroll, wondering if this start I’ve made is really an end. “Let’s sleep.”
Medea blows out the candle and pulls her bedroll up around her. “We’ll talk in the morning.”
So I sleep, or make an attempt at it. Memories plague me in the forms of dreams – nightmares, really.
There’s a lady shouting. Upstairs, she is. It’s Master Bia. She’s right angry about something, something important. Being distracted maybe. Being called away.
There’s long words in the forge. Cacophony, anamorphosis, and loquacious. They’re throwing off sparks, now, blue and silver and orange, and something in my gut is pulling me to them, hard.
Medea’s beside me. She’s been here longer, so I ask. “What do we do?”
“What do we do about what?”
“The words!” I hiss, because it isn’t funny. There’s a howling inside my head, the howling of something wild and loud and terrible, and my stomach hurts and it’s all because they’re calling me with their sparks.
Medea blinks. “They’re heating.”
“They are!” I know it. “They’re growling and throwing off sparks!”
“They aren’t. They’re just sitting there. They’re heating.”
I huff, annoyed with this. Medea’s being silly, but this isn’t a silly thing. My head is pounding and Master Bia’s upstairs and there’s a green spark there, off of sesquipedalian and that’s bad, green is bad, green means poison and sickness and green sparks are bad. The words are spoiling, and we’ll catch a hiding from Master Bia if she knows we broke the words. So I fetch up the tongs and yank them out – one, two, three – and drop them in the water bucket to cool the way I’ve always seen Master Bia do, and there’s a shout from upstairs.
The door at the top of the stairs slams open. “What did you do?!” Master Bia snaps, and I flinch because maybe I ruined the words and she’ll be so furious if I did.
“They were sparking!” I say, worried. “Blue and silver and orange sparks, and then they turned green, and they were howling and all and-”
“I told her they were fine, Master Bia, but she said they weren’t and she dropped them in the bucket and I’m sorry-”
“Bia!” The other lady upstairs snaps. I can see her now, framed in light at the top of the stairs. She’s wearing a necklace shaped like a silver wolf, shining like the sparks from those words. I remember Father mentioning that, a silver wolf, railing about it, but not why.
And Master Bia’s staring at me, even though the lady with the silver wolf called her Bia and no one can do that, and then at Medea and then at me, and all I can think is that the words are ruined and I’m in trouble.
“Bia!” The lady’s voice rises to a higher pitch. “I am talking to you!”
“Shut up.” Master Bia growls, and then shuts the door in the lady’s face. “You, Hecate – the words were sparking? You saw it?”
I gulp and nod. “Yes, Master Bia.”
I feel like she’s looking inside me, staring so hard she can see my soul, and it’s scaring me. Medea looks worried, and I wonder if maybe something’s going on that I don’t understand.
“You’ve got it, then.” Master Bia growls, and my hands shake a little bit.
“I’ve got what?”
“The magic, ‘course. Word-magic. You saw the sparks. You knew the words were ready.”
“Yes?” I squeak.
Medea swallows. A little girl toddles up and yanks on Medea’s skirt, maybe two years old. “Day-day. Day!”
Medea swoops to pick her up. “Hush, Clio.”
“Huh.” Master Bia grunts, and places the next word in the fire. “What’s this one made of, then?”
I can feel the meaning even from here. Up, up, like a circular staircase or the path to a throne. “Ascent. A, S, C, E, N, T. The T is aluminium, to rise upward. A for power and the hissing S for lift – electrum, tin. E is copper for a destination. N and C as helpers – iron, both of them.”
Medea looks pale, and Clio pokes at her. “Day-day, see Oby!”
“Yes.” Medea says. “Mo – Master Bia, I’m going to take Clio to see Niobe.”
“Mm.” Master Bia doesn’t look away from me.
I blink awake, staring at the ceiling. Mo – Master Bia. Medea couldn’t see the sparks. And then there was the lady. That day, four years ago or thereabouts, I discovered that not everyone knew the metals at a glance, could feel what was meant without knowing what was spelled. Medea couldn’t. She can now, a bit, after fifteen years in the forge, after Master Bia died and I became the smith, but only the tiniest bit.
I’d traveled to the forge only the year before we discovered my magic, when I was nine and Niobe was not yet born. Our family had put up nearby, with Orion and our father working in the orchards while I was beginning at the forge. Niobe was there to spend time with Clio, that day we found out.
The lady with the silver wolf. Father hated that symbol, I remember. Now that I’m awake I can bundle away the confusion of discovering magic and fear of ruining the words, and think about that. A silver wolf.
That was the first time I saw the lady. She’s from far away, the next kingdom over, and her necklace must have been a symbol. Father traveled all the way to the city to see a rally for the Silver Wolf once, a foreign group that was gaining power in our kingdom, inciting rebellion and speaking against the king. When he returned, he had raged for hours about the Silver Wolf trying to recruit the king’s own people to march against him. The lady was a member of the Silver Wolf.
She came that day to revise trade agreements with Master Bia, to let her group purchase the words cheaper or to pay with goods rather than coin. Master Bia didn’t care. She was angry because the lady refused to speak with Master Bia’s husband, forcing her away from the forge and taking away valuable time. When Master Bia discovered my magic, she sent the lady away with a, “Come back later. In a year or two.”
So the lady did. She returned a year after my magic was discovered, when I was eleven and Niobe was two. Niobe was visiting Clio again that day. Medea and I were responsible for them both.
There isn’t a lot of political news out in the country, and Master Bia received very few visitors. The last I had heard of politics was Father’s tirade against the Silver Wolf. But that day, when the lady informed Master Bia that she was there again to revise the trade agreements and Master Bia refused her once more, she told us that the Silver Wolf had taken over our kingdom and that they would have our words one way or another. She had brought men, friends, Silver Wolf members, and they took over our forge. Master Bia, the apprentices, and even Niobe and Clio were pushed down the stairs into the forge. Master Bia’s husband, Medea’s father, was deemed ‘expendable’ and killed for resisting. We assumed that the number orchard had met the same fate. I’ve never learned what happened to my mother
I swallow and shake my head to avoid revisiting those memories, that awful day, the end of everything. No more of that. Maybe those memories are better left forgotten, maybe the hopes of escape are better left dead. After all, if Medea says no to this idea, it’s doubtful everyone will be able to leave. I simply don’t have enough contact with the little’uns to explain the plans.
My head hurts badly and I want to have a distraction from these dreams and memories, from sleep itself, but Medea is asleep and I don’t want to wake her either. I don’t know what to do. It could work, the plan, but what if the lady catches us? What happens then? I don’t know if she has another smith, someone with magic, don’t know if she can afford to have me killed, but there are so many little’uns I’m sure she considers them expendable, and you don’t have to have magic to be able to shape the letters.
Niobe. And Clio. And Medea, maybe, if the lady considers her expendable too – she’s my only friend here, really, the only one I’m close to. I’d be asking her to leave home, leave her mother’s grave, risk everything, and suddenly I don’t know if we can do it. Something roils, hot and burning, inside my throat and stomach, and I roll over to fall back into a thankfully dreamless sleep.
* * *
Medea said nothing. It rings through my head as I stare into the forge, the heat from the coals browning my face. When we woke up, Medea said only, “I still need to think.” It’s not an answer, not a confirmation or a denial, not anything, but I’m worried, because it’s more likely now that she’ll say no – and I worry too about what will happen if she says yes.
It’s mathematical, wooden, and orchestra in the fire, and I drum my finger against the letters already bound together and piled on the side, waiting to be put into the flames.
I look over. It’s Clio, holding out another bundle of letters for me to bind.
“It’s got sort, cave, and dividend in it, miss. They’s a good bit shorter, I was thinkin’, which could be good on account of these’uns have been in there for a long long time and they’s not quite done, on account of how they’s long words, miss.”
“Mm.” I’m not the best conversation partner, it’s true, but I don’t particularly care at this moment. I’m too busy fretting over Medea and her choice.
“I’s thinkin’ they be needin’ another five minutes, miss, ‘afore they’s got the done-sparks. So’s I was offerin’ to take these letters over to ya, on account of you’ll be needin’ them soons.”
“Soon,” I say absently, focusing on something a little different than Medea or pronunciation now. “And Clio, sorry, but did you mention done-sparks?”
Clio nods. “Yes, miss. They’s not got the done-sparks yet, but I’s reckonin’ they’ll be havin’ them soon. Ya’s never leavin’ them in once they got the sparks off ‘em, I’s figurin’ on account of the racket they’s makin’, and I’s thinkin’ that must mean they gots all their magic in them, miss.”
“Yes, it does… Clio, are you-”
“Anyways, I’s comin’ over to tell you, Niobe’s better now, miss! She’s not got her scare-dreams anymore, or her fever neither! So’s I said to my sister that I’d be tellin’ you about Niobe an’ how she’s doin’!”
“Thank you. Clio?”
“Mm, miss? If ya’s wonderin’ abouts Niobe, she’s not doin’ the letters today. Medea’s got her on commas, for the restin’, ya know. She’s goin’ to be okay. Medea’s fierce good at that stuff!”
“I know, but Clio, who’s your sister?”
“Medea, miss. Ya knews that, though, right?” Clio drops her voice to a whisper. “She telled me about your plans, miss. I’s thinkin’ they sounds fierce good! We should do it. I gots some words with my name-letters and Medea’s name-letters in ‘em already, if that’s what ya’s wonderin’, miss. Medea’s still sayin’ she’s got stuff to think ‘bout, but I’s thinkin’ she might prob’ly say yes. We can gets another forge, if that’s what she’s worryin’ about, so’s Master Bia’s gots a happy spirit ‘stead of a mad one, and we can do the words there, too.”
I nod. “Mm… Clio?”
“Just… tell everyone to get ready, just in case.”
“Done, miss! I can talk Medea ‘round too, miss, if ya’s wantin’ that.”
I shake my head. “No, that’s all right. She should pick on her own. But… Clio, can you tell Niobe I love her?”
“‘Course I can, miss. I’ll be tellin’ her now if ya likes.”
She scurries off, back to her little workstation with the tiny coal-heater and the letter mold, in between two little girls who I don’t even recognize. One of them must be Niobe, though, because Clio motions her over and whispers something in her ear.
Time passes in a daze. There’s too much to consider right now, too much to think about it, so much so that I just try not to. But I need something to occupy my mind while the words heat, and filling the ties with the magic that will spread to the rest of the letters is routine – there’s nothing about it to consider.
Clio, Medea. The magic, and their family, and the escape – can we do it? And then what? We take freedom to the orchard and help our families? Or to the king, to help everyone? Or both?
And assuming it works, there’s another then what: Life. Clio has the word magic, passed from Master Bia, which means that she ought to train. Perhaps she needs to. I don’t know whether unused word-magic leaves an itch-scratch of madness on one’s mind and turns their thoughts to soup, or whether not using the magic just means that’s a facet of life she’ll never know.
I don’t know where the nearest forge is, either. It’d be more practical for her to learn with me: she knows me, she probably won’t have far to travel, and we’ve both learned under Master Bia, who was the best wordsmith in the kingdom.
I bind together F, R, E, E, D, O, M and set it on the side, to heat later. We might need it.
By all rights and purposes these are Medea’s choices to make. She is responsible for Clio. But I feel that- I discovered Clio’s magic, and the escape, if we make one, will be my idea and my responsibility. I will be taking Medea and Clio away from their home. Surely that makes their fate at least partially my responsibility.
Or the escape could fail, and we could be bound down in this dungeon of a forge forever, with the added problem of having upset the lady. The idea will have been mine, but as the only trained smith that also has word-magic, I’m safe. The lady can’t afford to lose me. But Niobe doesn’t have the magic, and she’s still little. She’s expendable. Medea is needed to nurse and the little’uns who are sick, and she knows how to smith even if she doesn’t have a lot of magic, and the lady will want Clio trained, so as to have another smith on hand if I succumb to the smoke and the damp and the dirt. They’re safe. But even if the lady doesn’t know Niobe is my sister, she’s one among many little’uns without magic or forging skills. They could all die if this plan doesn’t work, and the lady won’t mind in the slightest.
But Clio thinks it sounds ‘fierce good’. Medea hasn’t said no. And if I teach Clio the magic, and the forging, if I show the lady she has a replacement for me, and the plan fails, then she can punish me. She can kill me, because Clio will be there to take my place. And if I die, then she has no reason to kill Niobe or any of the other little’uns.
Safety. Freedom is not safety. But Medea has been taking care of them, keeping them safe, for years. If we are free, then I can help her. I will not be chained for all hours of the day, making sure the words are safe and secure. I can help her keep them safe, and forge when I can, because I do not know whether without magic my road leads to madness, and because no matter what the lady has done to this forge, I joined it for an apprenticeship of my own will. This is my living, and I do not love the lady’s chains, but I do love the metal fused with magic fused with meaning that is the words.
I can keep them safe, and I can continue. I can join another forge, or create one of my own.
Or I can keep them safe, and I can lose my head.
Or I can do nothing, and I can wait to die.
If Medea says yes, then I know what I will do.
* * *
“Medea says she’ll be doin’ it, miss. We’s gots our letters an’ everythin’!”
“That’s good. Clio, will you help me forge the names?”
“Me, miss? If ya likes, but I’s not sure, on account of me bein’ still makin’ punctuation, miss.”
“Mm, but… You have the magic, like me. Like your mother. So you have to learn.”
“That’s why the words gots the done-sparks? ‘Cause I asked Niobe ‘bout them, but she saids she didn’t see them none. And then I asked Andromeda, but she saids the same, so’s I’s thinkin’ they was jokin’, but if that’s it then I guess they’s not.”
“So you will?”
“Yes, miss, ‘course!”
“All right. It might take a while, though.”
“But we’s gonna gets it done anyways, right miss?”
* * *
“Are you ready?”
I nod at Medea. It is rest-time, and we are making our escape. We’ve been hoping that rest-time lines up with night, so that when (if, conditional conjunction, don’t think about if) we get outside, we’ll have better stealth and no one will be awake to see or follow us. It has to be rest-time because that is the only time besides meals when my cuffs come off.
We creep outside our room, at the end of a dark damp hall made of packed earth. The lady had men dig it out. When Master Bia ran the forge, the apprentices slept in dorms aboveground, separate from the main house, which is above the forge, or they traveled early every morning from home and back late every night. The little’uns are in a bigger, darker room a few steps down the hall, and when Medea knocks, two long, two short, then one of each, the quiet murmuring behind the door hushes.
“Medea?” Someone whispers.
“Yes.” Medea says, and the door swings open to show Clio and Niobe, beaming, and behind them fifteen other extremely excited small girls.
“We gots our names, miss!” says Clio, holding out four fused letters – Clio. There’s no time to bind all the names together with heat, in the forge, not to mention that it would take so long that the lady would know, but Clio and I together managed to bind all the individual names and make two very long ties, to wrap around all the names and freedom and give them meaning. Now we pile all the names – Niobe, Clio, Medea, Hecate, Andromeda, and more – together with freedom and shape it into a brick to wrap the ties around. It’s not perfect and not professional, but it will work.
“Now, we all need to be very quiet. No giggling or talking, unless it’s to warn someone. You can tell everyone everything once we’re safe away.” Medea warns the little’uns.
Clio nods frantically. “Done. Right, girls?”
“Right!” They all chorus.
Medea puts her finger to her lips. I pick up the brick and pull the door of their chamber back open, ready to lead them out of this cavernous forge.
We sneak carefully towards the stairs. No one says anything, but the silence and flickering light from the dying coals of the forge reminds me of that first night, when I shared my idea with Medea. I look at the marks in the ground. Twelve more than that first day when I met Clio. I’ve made one thousand, two hundred words since then.
I take the first step onto the stairs, Medea behind me, and Clio following both of us a little more eagerly than we’d like.
Every step up sounds loud on the wooden structure – CLUNK, CLUNK, CLUNK. I swallow. Onomatopoeia. My mind categorizes the sounds. The brick feels so heavy in my hands, not just because portions of it are iron and gold. Everything depends on this brick, these names, this freedom. What if it’s not enough? What if this magic fails? Master Bia would have done it right, but did I?
Clunk. I step onto the top stair and push lightly against the door. When Master Bia ran the forge, the door would have been unlocked and that push would have been enough to swing it all the way open. But now it is locked and reinforced, probably with iron. Freedom should have enough magic in it to unlock the door and open it, if we do this right.
If. If, if, if. My mind casts back to the night after the lady took over the forge, Medea and I sitting at the bottom of the stairs. Me, mind fogged with terror, not fully understanding what had happened; Medea, eyes a little shiny and chin held high to hold back tears, because they wouldn’t help. So much more mature than me, even at the same young age.
“Why did this happen?” I had asked.
Medea had bitten her lip, breathed deeply to stop from crying. “Why does anything happen? Things happen. Life happens.” She had swallowed. “All we can do is pray and continue.”
Pray and continue, I think. Pray and continue. I look over my shoulder at the others, at Medea and Niobe and Clio and all the little’uns, waiting, ready.
I take a deep breath and pray. Escape, I think. Survive. Please.
And then I lift up our brick of names and press it hard against the door. “Freedom,” I whisper. “Freedom. Freedom.”
Medea presses her hand to the brick, close to mine. “Freedom. Freedom.”
“Freedom,” I mutter, pouring every bit of magic and wishing that I have into the names and the word. Pray and continue.
F, R, E, E, D, O, M.
The door clicks and swings open.
Emily Irwin, Age 15, Grade 9, Trinity School, Silver Key