Elwyn's shirt hung down to his knees. The shoulder seams hit at about his elbows and the neck opened up on his breastbone. He kept trying to roll up the sleeves, but his arms were so scrawny that they always came unrolled. His pants were the same size as his shirt and so he had finally been forced to cut them off and hope to get a new pair when he finally grew into them. He wore no shoes. He used a dirty string to keep his hair from getting into his brown eyes--practically the only part of him that actually looked the right size, although that made them unusually large on the skinny face of an underfed twelve-year-old. And, in fact, if you really looked at them, disregarding all other aspects of his appearance, you would have been fooled into thinking he was much older than twelve.
But as he trudged along the dirt highway leading toward the town of Meridor, Elwyn gave no thought to his appearance--clothes, eyes, or otherwise. He was thinking about the home he was leaving, his family, and the new life that awaited him up ahead. As the oldest of six children born to parents stuck in the deepest levels of poverty, Elwyn had always known that he would leave him as soon as he could. His parents did not formally eject him from their home, but when the possibility of an apprenticeship in Meridor was made known to them, he spoke up with a heart already resigned to his fate.
He had no particular dislike for smithery. In fact, he hardly knew what to expect from the trade at all. He hoped to get three meals a day and maybe a new set of clothes in time. He knew enough to keep his head down and not get into trouble. And while poverty had not so depressed him that he had abandoned any dreams for the future, he was realistic enough to know what to expect from life. He knew that fortune had smiled on him in a small way and he accepted his fate with complacency.
For Elwyn was as ordinary as they come. He knew how to do most things boys his age could do. He had the same dreams and desires as most children on the verge of adulthood. And he had enough of a stoic nature to accept life's twists and turns without protest, so long as they were not too harsh in either direction. This small turning point appeared to him as it was: a blank opportunity without prejudice of any kind. So Elwyn neither hurried nor delayed his journey, arriving just as he had expected, about an hour before the sun set and the wooden gates of the city closed to visitors for the night.
* * * * *
It only took three sets of directions from wandering children to help Elwyn find the blacksmith's forge. When he arrived at the open doorway, he stood quietly and still for many minutes, watching the flurry of sparks and the glow of hot metal being passed from fire to anvil and back again. The blacksmith, whose name was Cormoran, was a giant of a man. He worked stripped to the waist, and his torso, reddened by the firelight and heavy with soot and sweat, loomed in front of Elwyn like some vague nightmare from his childhood. Elwyn almost turned unconsciously away, but then Cormoran turned and noticed him.
"What do you need, boy?" he asked distractedly.
"I'm Elwyn, son of James Soleby, come to be apprentice to the blacksmith in Meridor."
Cormoran stopped then, slowly put down his tongues, and held out his hand for Elwyn to shake. It was hot and dry. Elwyn shook it perfunctorily and then Cormoran stepped back and looked him up and down. "Apprentice, eh?"
"Yessir. I'm twelve years old this May and my father says I may learn a trade."
"It's hard work, though. And your father doesn't look as if he's fed you for hard work these past twelve years." Cormoran frowned.
"I'll work, sir, and eat what I'm given," said Elwyn. "My parents are poor and I'm the oldest, but I won't apologize for what I am. Am I to learn or not?"
"I've had plenty of apprentices before," replied Cormoran, "and some as skinny as you. Will you work hard?"
"Will you do as you're told and trust me?"
Although he wondered what Cormoran could mean, Elwyn nodded again.
"I can make you a blacksmith, Elwyn Soleby, if that's what you want to be, as long as you'll do what I say."
"I will, sir," Elwyn assured him, swallowing hastily. "That I will."
"You'll find my house at the end of the lane," Cormoran instructed him. "Take a bath and change your clothes. Ask my wife for a good meal and eat it quickly. We have half a cord of wood to chop before bed tonight. See how much you can get done before I get home." Then he turned back to his fire.
Elwyn left the shop immediately, happy to get back into the open air. The sun was setting and a pale yellow light spread over the yard in front of the forge. He walked slowly across it, watching its curious effect on his arms and hands, and then sped up to reach the house and the meal he hoped would be better than what he had eaten the last three days of his journey.
When he reached the front door of the house at the end of the lane, he saw that it was already slightly ajar. Knocking a few times on the post, Elwyn called out, "Hello? Mrs. Cormoran?"
"I'm in the kitchen," replied a sweet, young voice. "Come on in.
Elwyn pushed open the door and walked into the house. The front room was furnished with a rocking chair, two hearthrugs, and a wood box for the fireplace. But though the furnishings were sparse, the walls were hung with a series of wrought-iron motifs, each one more intricate than the last, with no apparent purpose other than to be looked at and admired. In one, a stallion rose up against a wall of flood waters that nearly reached its head. In another, a giant fish threaded its way through a mass of coral and seaweed. Each piece was seamless and of excellent craftsmanship. And each looked as clean and polished as the day it had been hung. Elwyn perused the pictures for as long as he dared before making his way toward the doorway that was hung with a drape and blowing slightly in the breeze.
As he pushed aside the drapery, the aromas from the kitchen nearly brought him to his knees. Elwyn may not have known much food in his short lifetime, but he appreciated what he could get and had a fine nose for smelling out good things to eat. The blacksmith's wife was just taking a fresh loaf of bread from the oven. Its scent mingled with the game hen roasting over a spit and the potato, carrot, and onion stew simmering on the stove top. He hadn't realized how hungry he was until now. At that moment, he didn't think he could walk more than five more steps without having something to eat.
Coromoran's wife set the bread on the table and turned to face him, wiping her hands on her apron. She had long, brown hair tied back from her face but coming loose around the edges. Her figure was large but delicate, and she seemed just the right size and shape to match her blacksmith husband. When she smiled at Elwyn and held out her hand, he took it at once, trusting her implicitly, as he had not done with her husband.
"You must be the new apprentice," she said, pulling out a chair for him to sit down at the table. "They all come to us as if they've not eaten more than one meal a day for their whole lives. Well, don't worry. We'll fatten you up here. Now what's your name, son?"
"Elwyn," he replied, trying not to look at the bread and pitcher of milk sitting on the table within arm's reach.
"I'm Cassandra, but everyone calls me Cassie," said the blacksmith's wife. "I imagine Cormoran told you to eat and take a bath. Well, which would you rather do first? You'd probably like to eat, wouldn't you?" She hurried on before Elwyn could interject. "But you'll have to take a bath and change your clothes first." Elwyn looked at her in surprise. "Trust me. This will taste better when you're clean. And the meat's not done anyway." And with that, she poured him a glass of milk and prodded him up off the chair and through another curtain-hung doorway where he found a large tin of warm water and a cake of soup sitting on a brush next to it. "You'll find a towel and clean clothes in the bench there," she said, pointing at a wooden trunk sitting next to the door. "And here," pulling a string out of her pocket, "is a new rope for your hair."
Elwyn took it from her and watched as she turned and left the room. He paused only briefly to check the temperature of the water, then stripped off his clothes and climbed into the tub. The water was warm enough to make him comfortable but not so warm that he wanted to soak in it. He scrubbed his hair and body as well and as quickly as he could, then brushed underneath his fingernails and toenails. When he began to shiver, he climbed out and opened the trunk where he found a large, clean piece of cloth to dry himself. Arranged in the trunk were a new shirt, pants, a belt, and leather moccasins. Elwyn had never worn shoes before, so it took him a little longer to dress than usual but he had soon wadded up his old clothes into a ball and laid the towel out to dry over the lid of the trunk. Then he went back into the kitchen drinking his glass of milk.
"So much better," smiled Cassie when she saw him come in. "And the clothes fit well enough, I should think?"
"Yes ma'am. Thank you," Elwyn replied a little shyly.
"Have a seat and I'll serve your supper. I usually eat with Cormoran when he comes home, but I'm feeling like having something now, so I'll eat with you. That alright?"
Elwyn nodded and sat down at the table. Cassie made him feel almost too happy inside, like something that can't last but ought to be enjoyed more than he could enjoy it. But when she had served him a plate of food, he turned his attention to eating and listening to her as she told him about herself.
"I grew up in the village of Long-au-duc," she explained. "Perhaps you have heard of it? Cormoran said it is not too far from your home." When Elwyn looked up at her and shook his head apologetically, she continued. "Oh well. It was never much in those days and still isn't anything. My father was the town constable and had the occasion to travel every few months to neighboring towns and villages on business. When I was fifteen, he visited Meridor and met Cormoran, who had just turned eighteen and completed his apprenticeship. Cormoran got on well with my father and, over the course of his visit, was talked into coming to Long-au-duc to meet my older sister. When he came, though, my sister had the misfortune to have caught a cold, so it was me who caught Cormoran's eye, instead of my sister. We were married within two months, and he took me back to Meridor to keep his house. It is not often that one so young is able to marry these days, but Cormoran's parents died when he was sixteen, and he already had a house and a forge to his name. We have been here for ten years and he has always done well for us both."
Elwyn looked at her quizzically but did not ask the question on his mind. A woman married for ten years ought to have several children to show for it, but Elwyn saw no evidence of any in the house. As if she had read his mind, Cassie replied, "We have no children. I believe it is because I am barren, but who can say? If God does not wish it, who are we to contradict his will? That is why Cormoran usually keeps an apprentice or two.
Summary for the rest of the novel (to be finished later): Elwyn spends a year or two just running errands for the blacksmith, building up his strength lifting flour sacks at the mill, and eating three square meals a day. Finally, when he is about to resign himself to never actually walking into the forge, he is deemed ready for his training. Then he undergoes extensive training to become a blacksmith. The last item he makes, to complete his training, is a sword for a nobleman who, when he comes to claim it, will not pay the agreed-upon price. Cormoran refuses to give up the sword, duels with the nobleman, and wins. Elwyn realizes that Cormoran can teach him much more than just metalworking. He begs for swordfighting lessons; Cormoran reluctantly agrees, consenting to teach him one pose per day. He shows Elwyn the move or pose only three times. Elwyn makes up a type of shorthand (since he can't read or write) to record what he is learning so that he can practice it. Once Cormoran has shown him everything he knows, Elwyn goes looking for practice. He falls in with a group of young men close to his age who practice swordfighting regularly. At first, he fails miserably. No one wants to spar with him. But then, one of the young men, a skilled swordsman despite his diminuitive stature, agrees to teach Elwyn. After months of training, Elwyn has finally displayed a degree of skill with a sword that he is pleased with. Soon after, war is declared in his country and a notice of military recruitment is posted in the village. Elwyn considers joining the military, but on talking it over with Cormoran, realizes he could rise to a much better position within the military if he knew how to read. He remembers noticing, once, that the young man who taught him to swordfight knew how to read. He sets out to look for the young man. All his searches fail, especially since everyone else in the former group has joined up with the military and left town. Finally, in an unexpected twist, Elwyn walks by the house of the nobleman who originally ordered the sword from Cormoran. He sees a young lady outside who waves at him, then blushes and turns away. When he looks closely, he realizes that she is the young man he searches for. She had dressed up as a man to gain experience. Elwyn convinces her to teach him to read. She agrees and they meet secretly for some months. During this tutelage, Elwyn falls in love with her. He cannot ask her to marry him, for he has only his apprenticeship--no money and no title. He resolves to ask her to wait for him--to avoid marrying anyone else-until he returns from the war with his fortune (hopefully) made.