The blacksmith did not notice him, though he waited there a while, so he left, only to return in the morning.
No sign hung outside, though the door was unlocked and metal still clanged inside. This time, when the young man called out in greeting, he was answered. A woman with thick braids as black as hammered iron strode into the sunlight.
“Are you opening the shop?” he asked.
“I needed the forge,” she said, and stared straight through him with eyes as bright as stars. And that seemed to be all.
Later that week, the young man brought the blacksmith a broken cast-iron pan, and spoke with her again. She agreed to repair it in exchange for three loaves of bread and a jar of grease, and from then on, although the shop never truly opened, people brought to her what needed fixing.
The blacksmith was not interested in money, nor in any metal that could not be worked, but she accepted all forms of trade. Some customers with nothing else to give paid her in stories or songs, sitting in the corner of her forge while she mended or made.
The young man was a frequent customer, and with every exchange tried to ask her questions, of where she was from and why she was there and why she labored at night and what lay under the tarps in the corner of her workshop. These questions went unanswered, seemingly unheard. The blacksmith, though happy to hear other people speaking, was not one for conversation in general.
The city on the hill, while thriving, lived under the rule of a cruel chancellor, as it goes. He required all residents of the city, especially the newly-arrived poor on the outskirts, to pay steep taxes. Those who could not pay were turned out by his armies. So the blacksmith, who only took barter and never enormous projects, was a boon to many residents who had to save their coin to pay the tax.
When the blacksmith’s customers spoke of the chancellor in her forge, her brow would furrow, but she never spoke a dissident word and continued to work, steadily.
Soldiers came to her door sometimes, and she took their business as she did anyone else who came with goods to barter. Not all the residents of the city were pleased with this, for they held little love for the soldiers.
The blacksmith ignored their condemnations, ignored most offers of company. All that seemed to interest her was the work in her forge.
The young man had much else in his life to think of, but the mystery of the blacksmith remained.
One day, he brought in a metalwork fence he had fished from the scrapyard to see if she could mend it. He was turned away by a lock on the door. The sounds of fire and metal still rang out from within the forge, but it did not open and the blacksmith did not emerge. His calls went unheard, so he left the fence by the door and went away.
Concerned, the young man returned every sundown for the next three days, hoping to see the blacksmith emerge.
She did not.
On the fourth day, when he was beginning to lose hope, he arrived at the forge to see her sitting outside, watching the sunset.
When he asked her where she had been, what had occupied her, all she would say was “It is done.”
When he persisted, she only told him, “Hush. I am waiting for the stars.”
So the young man hushed, and sat beside her, and together they watched the stars come out in the black of the new moon night.
While the first pinpricks had begun to appear, she asked the first question he had ever heard from her. “Why do you get angry when I do work for the men in armor?”
“They’re cruel,” he told her. “Those soldiers work for the man who holds this city in his grasp and squeezes it tight.”
“One man?” Her voice was calm, barely curious.
“One man with lots of soldiers behind him.”
“There are more people than soldiers.”
“The people don’t have swords.”
“You have all the metal you brought me.” She traced a band wrapped around her bicep, which he recognized as part of the fence he had left her four days before. “Metal is metal. Iron is kin to gold, steel to silver. A frying pan can be shaped to a sword. Metal is a tool. Tools can fight.”
“It doesn’t work like that.” He spoke wearily, for these words ran parallel to many thoughts of his own.
She did not answer, eyes on the stars.
“People would die.”
He blinked at her.
“Stars die,” she repeated, “when they become iron.”
“Stars don’t make iron. Iron comes from the ground.”
“Stars die, when they become iron,” she repeated once more, and her eyes drew away from the sky to fix on his. They were black and bright and seemed bottomless in the night. “Stars start to make iron as they start to die. For all their lives, they make light and heat and gas, and as that dies away, only the iron of their birth remains. They make it as they die. They die making it, becoming it.” She looked at her armband. “Stars and iron. I have missed seeing the stars.”
She watched the sky, silent, until it was full of light, and then stood and went inside. Out of curiosity, the young man followed.
The blacksmith did not stop him as she opened the doors to the forge. The fire in it was dying, heat fading from the air in the cool, chilling night.
She pulled back the mysterious tarp to reveal a pile of metal pieces and plates, and as the young man watched, the blacksmith carried them all outside like they weighed nothing. She laid them in the field, under the stars, and they seemed to hold the warmth of her workshop in them.
When she had spread all of them out on the ground, they radiated outward from a single center in long arms of overlapping plates and joints, dark under the sky’s darkness, occasionally catching a gleam of starlight. They still gave off heat and warmth, but the young man dared not stand too close. The blacksmith stepped among and between them, as though to a dance for which the music had been lost, until she reached the center and closed her eyes.
She cupped her palms and brought them to her mouth and began to blow into her hands. A soft glow rose from them, and began to reach out long tendrils that crept into the air and twined around the metal arms, glowing and glowing until the young man had to shade his eyes. Subtle, intricate patterns had been worked into the metal, and now the light swept along them, reaching to the furthest edges. As the light spread, he heard murmurs that grew to a torrent, sounding like the stories and songs that had been traded to the blacksmith for her ironwork in the past months. As the light spread to the tips of the arms, the young man was forced to shield his eyes completely.
When he dared risk a glimpse, the entire illuminated structure was rising slowly into the sky, and he fell to his knees in fear and awe.
He watched it, the light burning into his eyes as it drifted higher and higher, not even a silhouette visible at the center.
It hovered for a moment longer, and faster than he could blink, shot straight up and became indistinguishable from all the other stars in the sky.
The whispers of the stories it had spoken murmured in his ears as he dared stumble into the center of the scorched grass where the incredible construct had lain.
The only thing left behind was a single wrought-iron armband, sharpened to a deadly point.
The chancellor fell within the month, at the hands of a people’s rebellion fought with frying pans and fenceposts and pitchforks against guards armed with swords they did not know how to properly wield.
Afterwards, a young man who had helped to lead the fighting built a shrine to the fallen citizens. At the top of it rested a carefully wrought iron bracelet, the sharpened point stained with blood.
It was engraved with the words stars must die to become iron.