This is exactly how it’s NOT supposed to be done…
Gunnar found a new reason to live. He dreamt about forging horseshoes, and didn’t even mind that they weren’t swords. His work was now proudly displayed above the door, and the moment Gunnar entered the kitchen his eyes were automatically drawn to the spot until his mother got irritated. At that point he would apologise, pay attention to her for a minute or two, then withdraw into his imagination again. But Karl went away again and there was no way to tell when he was going to return.
Despite the burns, which were not healing as fast as he wished they would, the boy’s hands itched to grab a hammer again. He still had an unfinished nail in his pocket and felt he knew what to do even without his father’s help. Once three days passed without his return, Gunnar found enough courage – or desperation – to ask Sóley’s permission.
“Go,” she said, resigned.
This was too easy, thought Gunnar, confused. There must have been a catch somewhere. Nevertheless, he decided not to wait until she changed her mind, unlocked the door with sweaty hands, then looked inside. All this was his now, at least for a while. He opened the windows, as instructed by his father, then built the fire. His first attempt failed – simply because he was too excited to do it slowly. The boy ground his teeth and forced himself to be patient. The kindling, the crumpled paper. Gentle pulling and pushing of the blowers. Only when the wood was burning joyfully did he put a handful of coal in, then another, until the fire seemed just right. Now he could finally take the nail out of his pocket.
Tapering the nail
It would be easy, he decided. All he needed to do was heat the end, then hammer it until it was sharp. He’d hold it at an angle. Nothing could have been simpler. Gunnar found himself unable to tear his gaze away from the fire, despite having been told that it was bad for his eyes. It was his fire now, his anvil, his hammer…and his nail. It was cold inside the forge, but he was sweating in excitement, plagued by an anxious thought that his father could return any moment and stop him from working all on his own. Once the metal was hot, he pulled the nail out with the tongs, then started to hammer it chaotically until he realised that he was making a screwdriver instead of a nail. He needed to turn it with every blow of the hammer in order for the ending to become round. Gunnar didn’t know the octagon rule yet – the fact that the round metal should be turned into a square block first, then have its edges removed to create an octagon, which would be much easier to round up. But when the metal got too cool to go on, Gunnar examined it and found another problem he hadn’t thought about.
The tip of the thick nail was becoming concave. Gunnar immediately realised what his mistake was. He needed to take off the edges, same as he did with the horseshoe. He returned the metal into the fire and stared it, trying to remember the word father used… ah! Tapering. He was tapering the nail, which sounded much more…professional than sharpening it.
The smaller the tip of the nail became, the closer Gunnar had to move it to the opposite end of the anvil, until he found out he couldn’t make it any sharper with the hammer. Doubtfully, he tried a smaller hammer, but it didn’t help either. Gunnar didn’t realise yet that unless both the anvil and the hammer were had perfectly sharp corners and his blows were perfectly aimed, he would have to use a file to make the nail truly sharp.
Still… even if the nail wasn’t perfectly sharp, it was probably sharp enough to hammer it into… something. It was a big nail – one you could hang a coat on, rather than a small picture frame. Gunnar submerged it in the water tank, waited for the steam to stop hissing, pulled the nail out, grabbed it and hissed himself in surprise. It was still quite hot, even if it weren’t hot enough to give him another burn. But he put it in cold water… This wasn’t interesting, though, he decided, as his gaze landed on a piece of flat stock – just long enough for a big knife. It seemed as if it were waiting especially for him. The boy placed the nail carefully on the floor he would have to remember to leave perfectly clean, absent-mindedly swiped the dust off the anvil with one swift motion of his hand, staring at the flat piece. Maybe father wouldn’t notice… He didn’t know that Karl prepared it in advance, so that they could work on it together. Gunnar wasn’t the only person excited about his newfound love for fire and iron.
Carefully, as if an alarm was about to sound, he picked the piece of metal from the table and moved it to the anvil. Then he drew the desired shape on the floor. He would have to take off the edges, taper the end, then… then he didn’t know yet, but he would figure it out. Karl’s words rang in Gunnar’s head: his father learned everything by himself.
Possibly not the best drawing I’ve ever made
Gunnar knew what he needed to do first. Working on the horseshoe had taught him how to round the ends. Now he understood why his father told him it would make a good exercise to begin with. The nail taught him that he needed to take the corners off not to end up with a concave shape. Nearly nauseous with excitement, Gunnar stood motionless, staring with adoration at the chunk of metal he was holding. He could do anything with it. He could turn it into a knife, a very short sword, a… a very thick horseshoe… Those were all the ideas he could come up with for now, but the possibilities seemed endless…
The forgotten blowers made no noise, neither did Gunnar himself, and a loud voice of his mother tore him out of his trance. Unsure what to do, he looked at the door leading to the kitchen, then at the dying fire, pulled the blower once, scowled at the loud sound the thing made, then tiptoed towards the door to listen. His father was clearly back, but Gunnar couldn’t hear his low voice – Karl always got quieter when he got angry, unlike Sóley, whose pitch went up and shrieks became gradually louder.
“…where you go!”
“How many? Is that too much to ask? Tell me!”
Gunnar nearly glued his ear to the door, but heard nothing. Karl’s voice was getting quieter. This meant things were bad.
“Isn’t it enough I have to look at him everyday? What are you going to surprise me with next?”
“It’s not like he even listens to me, he just stares at you like you’re some sort of…God himself, get out of here, I’m sick of you, go back there and don’t come back!”
“I’ll… I’ll find a way to… it’s not like you’re ever here anyway. I’ve been feeding us, clothing us, I’ve found Alexander and Aron to take care of the cattle. What do you do for him, for me, what do we–”
The handle of the door moved and Gunnar jumped away, the metal still in his hand, its corners sharp. He cut himself, he realised – he didn’t even notice when or how, but a few drops of blood dripped from his hand. It didn’t matter, his mother’s weird shouting didn’t matter. Karl would join him in a moment, tell him he was doing great… but the door didn’t open, their fight clearly not over yet. Gunnar decided to ignore the yelling. He had a job to do.
Taking off the corners the same way as he had done with the horseshoe was easy. So was rounding the future blade further, until it had the desired shape when you looked from the top. But the metal was still thick and there was nothing sharp about it whatsoever.
He had to taper it in the other two dimensions now. But how? In fact, he realised, he had to taper it in three different directions, because the blade needed to have a diamond shape, so it would be sharp on both ends… and he needed to leave the metal raised in the middle somehow…
The door burst open, Gunnar squealed in surprise, and Karl barged in.
“I’m proud of you.” Karl’s face softened, as if caressed by an invisible hand.
Gunnar beamed. He knew.
“How’s it going then?”
The boy showed his father the nail, then quickly explained his problem, nearly swallowing the words in a hurry.
“The fire’s going out,” observed Karl, and Gunnar’s stomach twisted. There were other things to do, not just hammering. He frantically pulled the handle of the blower and chunks of burning coal flew into the air. Karl laughed, but he sounded less jolly and more tired than usual.
“This is going to be boring,” he warned. Gunnar didn’t listen. Making a sharp, big knife? Boring? Never! “You will have to be very careful and precise.”
Gunnar was boiling with excitement and impatience. Of course he would be careful and precise, how hard could it have been?
“Heat it up,” his father finally said. “I will show you what to do…but only once. Then you’re on your own. Does it look hot enough to you?”
“The tip is hot,” said Gunnar.
“But you’re not only working on the tip. Try to start from the other end, but remember you need to leave a few centimeters – that’s where we’ll attach the handle. The tip should be last, otherwise you might burn it. The thinner the metal is… Move it!” Karl grabbed the nearest pair of tongs, barely saving the tip from burning as the first sparks appeared. “When you put thick metal in the fire, the first part that heats up is the surface. The heat has to soak to the inside. The tip is thin, so there isn’t much space for the heat to soak into, which means it heats up very fast. The other side is the exact opposite, and if you took…” – he looked around, then grabbed a thick, round bar – “…this, then you would have to soak it longer in a smaller fire to make sure the heat penetrates through.This is what happens when you heat up a thick piece too quickly
“When you want to cool a thick piece down fast, you have to put it in the water tank and move it back and forth, because the heat from the surface warms up the water around the metal. When you move it around, it’s being constantly cooled with cold water, you can check with your hand if you want, it’s going to feel colder when you move your hand back and forth. When the metal is really thick, you have to do it for a while – even when you touch the surface and it’s cool, it might surprise you a minute later.”
“Now… this is what you have to do. Watch my hands.”
“So like a nail,” nodded Gunnar.
Karl chuckled. “Like a sideways nail, aye. But that’s not all. Because when you’re finished, you have to turn it around and do it again, at the edge of the anvil, but now you will not have a flat side to rest upon it. You’ll have to be careful and precise, don’t rush it.”
“And then? And then?”
“And then you heat it up, turn it around, and do it for a very long time, until you’re finished.” Karl handed Gunnar the tongs, crossed his arms on his chest and watched.
“This is hard,” said Gunnar a while later, biting his lip in concentration.
The work was actually getting harder. The longer it took, the more shaky Gunnar’s hand became from holding the heavy tongs and attempting to keep the metal from moving. Keeping the line exactly in the middle required Gunnar to strike exactly half of the metal, keeping it completely straight and parallel to the edge of the anvil. Sweat dripped from his forehead as the boy tried to find a position which would make his job easiest. Strangely, no matter how he turned, it either seemed that one of his arms was too short, or he couldn’t see what he was doing. The metal started to bend again, but now, as the sides were getting thinner, it was more and more difficult to fix it. He couldn’t even keep the thickness of the “line” uniform and the frustration started making it even harder to focus.
This is obviously overdone to hell and back.
“Bladesmithing is an art in itself,” said Karl, messing up Gunnar’s hair. “Apparently some people love it, they’ve got the patience. Don’t tell anybody, but I’m not one of those people. Now imagine having to make a hundred swords, back in the day… Are you enjoying it so far?”
Gunnar hesitated. “Nay,” he finally admitted.
“Do you want to go on?”
The boy ground his teeth. “Aye.”
“I’d have done the same. Listen… your mother and I are having… problems. This has nothing to do with you.” Karl’s tone was suddenly very serious.
Gunnar stared at his father, confused. How was this related to making swords?
“I’m going to sleep downstairs for a while.”
“But… there’s no bed.”
“I’ll make myself one while you’re forging. You haven’t even asked my permission, you naughty boy!”
Karl laughed, the strange expression gone, and Gunnar’s tense shoulders relaxed. “I wouldn’t expect anything else of you. Now, you go on with your sword…”
“So I am sleeping upstairs just with mother…?”
“Well… it was this or she would sleep downstairs. She… she doesn’t want to share a bed with me anymore.”
Gunnar’s stomach was either shrinking or expanding – he couldn’t even tell, but he knew what was happening was a bad thing. “I can sleep downstairs. I will be fine. I’m… I’m the youngest, and it’s cold downstairs. I want to do it.”
“Hmm… Are you sure?”
“Aye. I’ll do it.”
Karl didn’t answer for a while, staring into space, scratching his stubbly chin. “I’ll ask your mother what she thinks about it. You take care of the fire, it’s gone out. Go on with your blade.”
Don’t fight anymore, prayed Gunnar. The fact that father said it wasn’t his fault meant that it was, must have been. I’ll be nicer to mother, he promised himself, I’ll be… good, just stop talking like this, you’re scaring me… He didn’t dare voice any of those thoughts as he watched his father drag his feet towards the door. Wait, Gunnar wanted to shout, stay here with me, don’t go there… no… he had to… it was his fault, he wasn’t sure how, but it must have been… everything was fine before, and now…
For a moment he forgot he was holding the tongs, until his forearm began to ache and he looked down in surprise, then turned to check on the fire. Karl was right. Pulling at the blower caused a few sparks and a cloud of ash to fly into the air, but the fire was out. Gunnar put down his sorry attempt at a dagger, knife, short sword – whatever you were to call it, this miserable chunk of steel wasn’t it. He started massaging his aching hand, discovering sore muscles that he never knew existed. He realised, startled, that he enjoyed making the horseshoe more.
The axe that a customer brought over was still there on the table, and the boy picked it up. The edge was cracked, just as Karl said, and Gunnar found himself extremely curious. How would this be repaired? With melted iron? Or was it possible to somehow hammer the edge together? How on Earth was the tool so perfectly straight? He slid his finger over the cracked edge and withdrew it with a sharp intake of breath. It might have been cracked, but it was still very sharp, sharp enough to cut through the skin. Gunnar picked up the thick nail and tried the tip with his finger, but no matter how hard he tried, it was as blunt as blunt could have been.
He couldn’t wait to watch his father fixing the axe, if only because he still needed to figure out how to make his bent knife and blunt nail so sharp. Gunnar rebuilt the fire, swearing quietly when he burned his fingers again trying to get rid of the odd, pumice-like chunks of…something that seemed to be blocking the air flow. He wouldn’t give up. He’d make himself a sharp knife, no matter how long it would take.