Hands of Burnished Bronze by Rebecca Schwarz

Night after night, I lie awake staring into the darkness, listening for the sound of scrabbling fingers on the flagstones outside my door. Sleep, like a young lover who sees how old and frightened I have become, has left me—I fear for good. I hear only the boy’s regular breaths. A new slave brought back from a recent campaign, he sleeps curled at the foot of my bed. Watery pre-dawn light outlines my narrow window, too weak to enter my chamber; soon dawn will drain the black hours pooled in this room.

Voices drift in from the courtyard, then a shout. The boy jumps up as the clamor grows. I rise and pull my shoes on. The boy brings me my fur-lined cloak and swings it over my shoulders, but he will not unbolt the door, so I do.

The hallway is dim and empty. Most of the court has fled; those who remain listen behind their own locked doors. I run my hand along the wall as I walk, the cool stone guiding me through the gloom to the courtyard.

Night watchmen swarm around the body they’ve just lowered to the ground. One of their own. He gapes up at the pale sky with bulging, sightless eyes; a grim gorget of purple welts encircle his neck. King Hroth steps over the body and grips my arm. “Strangled!”

On the wall above, fog eddies behind the remaining watchmen on the wall as they pace the battlements like caged animals. Soon sunlight will lance across the fields surrounding the castle and all eyes will search for dreaded glimpses metal glinting among the flowers that spangle the grass.

“Tell me you have found a spell to lift this curse, old friend.”

What passes between us is many things, but even after all these years, I wouldn’t call it friendship. His haunted eyes search mine from under a brow etched with lines. His beard now streaked with gray. Years ago, when the King swept into my homeland and took me into his service it was with the understanding that I would not leave it alive. In those days, I thought myself a far better magician than I was. It was King Hroth that made me the powerful wizard that I am. Every town and castle he captured, he ordered his men to bring him the resident magician. Some were renowned, others little more than tricksters or court fools. He personally tortured all of them with me by his side to claim the secrets they divulged.

I have no good answer for him, so I remain silent.

“I made you,” he growls low in my ear. “Find a way out of this or I will end you.” I am tempted to kneel before him now; his blade on my old neck would be a kindness. Instead, I bow and retreat, returning to my chambers. The room is empty. I leave the door open and walk to my formidable library, nearly a score of grimoires and spell books. I run a finger over one of the aging spines, the leather hard and smooth as the seat of a saddle and still speckled with brown blood.

“Please, magician, may I lock your door?” The boy stands in my doorway. I thought he’d fled and wish now that he’d taken the opportunity. His presence only makes me realize my desire for solitude. He’s trembling, trying hard not to look over his shoulder. I nod reluctantly, and he closes the heavy wood door, sliding the iron bolt home with relief. I sit at my desk and close my eyes. If I can’t have sleep perhaps I can steal a few moments of peace—but no. The boy moves around the room restless as a butterfly and not quite as silently. I’d order him away if I thought I could compel him to go farther than the hallway on the other side of my door. Like the king, he is determined to remain close to me under the misguided belief that I can provide some measure of protection.

It’s no use to tell him not to be afraid, so I have him light a fire in the fireplace. He crouches on the hearth, delicate shoulder blades moving under his rough linen tunic as he nimbly assembles the wood and tinder. I look away but cannot escape the memory of the children who occupied this castle when King Hroth captured it. Those that survived, now grown into men and women, inhabit the village still. They sit in the shade of the tree-lined lanes or lean against the wall of a relative’s house, dressed in rags, chipped cups held between grimed feet, mumbling rhymes with their chapped lips:

A coin in my cup for a drink to sip?
Silver for my lips, Copper for my feet
A bit of tin for the dog in the street.
I do not fear the magician’s black art,
For bronze is my heart.

A spell book lies open among the wreck of papers, bottles and phials on my desk. I flip idly through pages of carefully inked spells, admonitions, occult philosophy, opinions scrawled in the marginalia. “Do you believe in curses?”

Startled, the boy turns to me but remains silent, afraid to give this foolish old wizard the wrong answer. The book’s rippled pages warm under my hand. We came by this one via a fierce wise woman who refused to speak a word. I remember the fire in her eyes when she spit in Hroth’s face. I look back at the books lining my shelves, each one as original and idiosyncratic as its long-gone owner. “Can you read?”

He shakes his head. “You could teach me,” he ventures hoping to curry favor, to buy more time safe in this room with me. I indulge the idea. To raise this child up as my own, or one like him, teach him to read, to cast, be a better magician than I. “Would that there were time, boy.”

I don’t believe in curses. There is no spell to undo that which the King and I wrought together on that long ago day. I take up the spell book, step over to the hearth and throw the book into the fire. Its ancient pages go up quickly. The boy gasps and claps a hand over his mouth.

“Bring me another.”

He stands motionless as a statue and my heart hitches at the sight.

“I dismiss you from my service,” I roar. The boy flinches but does not obey. Who would stop him now? He’s free already. I can barely stand to look at him. His curly hair the color of burnished bronze. The ashes from the fireplace make his hands look as if they’ve turned to marble.

“Which one?” he asks, finally.

“It doesn’t matter.”

He brings me another book. I throw it into the fire. The flames embrace its thick vellum pages more slowly. “Burn them all.” I return to my desk to sift aimlessly through the papers scattered across it as the boy stacks the books on the hearth feeding them to the fire one by one. The flames roar and pop, consuming the spells, releasing them.

***

We had been weeks besieging these very castle walls when Hroth came to my tent one evening, wineskin in hand, and slumped in my camp chair. So many years ago, his beard was jet black then. He glowered at me from under the shadow of his brow like a hawk sizing up a hare in the grass far below. “They send their children out at night through some secret passageway to raid our supplies.”

“How do you know?”

“We caught one this morning, a lame girl with a sack full of apples,” he said sourly. My men have searched every crack in the wall, every hole in the ground and found nothing. No doubt the entry is minute. These curs would have surrendered by now except for their little thieves.”

“The girl?”

“She refuses to speak of course,” he said with a dismissive wave. I tried not to think of the fate she’d met at the King’s hand.

“I tire of this, magician, you must earn your keep.” He slurped some wine and handed the skin to me. “Can’t you turn their tenacious soldiers into stone or pillars of salt or some such?”

I sat on my cot and sipped the wine, warm as blood and smelling of the skin that held it. “Oh, I think I can do better than that,” I declared boldly. I knew I would have to do something daring, magnificent.

“See that you do, or I’ll find myself a new magician—and I’ll have you tell him all your secrets.” He took the wineskin and left.

Who thinks of the price when they’re playing for their life? I’d only acquired a couple spell books at that point. I pored over them, working through the night to construct my greatest enchantment, one that would cement my reputation and secure my place in the service of King Hroth.

At dawn, a company of the king’s men rode with me to the castle walls. I began the incantation. The king’s men repeated the chant as I’d instructed them to, our voices rising together, saturating the morning air. We continued for hours, until the noonday sun parched my throat and I could speak no more. I hoped it would be enough. Swaying, I gripped the reins in the silence as the king trotted his horse up to mine.

We waited, the minutes dragging in the clotted heat. At last, a high keening voice threaded up from inside the walls, then a chorus of screams. Hroth ordered his men to the gates where they met no resistance. Inside, women and children fled before us as we rode into the courtyard. I turned to look up upon the wall.

Their soldiers stood motionless, every one transformed into bronze statues.

The king gasped and slapped me on the back. “Not only have you won the day, you’ve made us rich!” Hroth installed blacksmiths in the courtyard and ordered the bronze soldiers hauled off the wall, melted down and struck into coins, daggers, and short swords.

Never had encountered such tenacious resistance, he declared to the women and children huddled before him. The told them not to cry. Their husbands, fathers, and brothers would travel the world as the official currency of the realm. He assured his newest subjects that he would be a good king—a just king. Of course, as such he could not abide thievery in any form. And so, declaring himself Hroth the Just, he had his men gather all the children together and use the fine bronze swords to chop off their hands. I fled then, tried to stop up my ears against their screams, but I hear them still: the sound of a thing that cannot be undone.

***

The boy plies a circuit around my room, tending the fire, peering out my narrow window; needlessly checking the door to make sure it is still securely locked. I take up my pen and find a blank sheet of paper. My collusion with King Hroth’s cruelty is history. My life in his service has been a privileged one, and my powers are indeed great. I don’t believe in curses. Even great magic is of the world, and our actions cannot be separated from it. It is an exchange. Every spell has a way of naming its own price.

Indeed, the bronze went out into the world from that terrible day forward. But it was not long before it began to return. As incorporeal as ghosts, it appeared at first only as rumor and wives tales. The money brought bad luck on the trade roads. Merchants who owed no fealty to the king stopped accepting the coins for payment. Using the enchanted blades always led to misadventure and death. The king’s own men refused to take the infamous weapons into battle.

Frightened, King Hroth ordered every piece of bronze in the kingdom collected. He sent it all to the coast and had it loaded onto a carrack bound for lands so remote as to be innocent of the metal’s origin. For a time life returned to normal. The king resumed his campaigns and the kingdom prospered.

But the bronze returns. The new reports, after travelling such a great distance, carry an aura of myth. Bedtime tales whispered to awestruck children of the cursed bronze that when melted cannot not be forged, that breaks any mold it is poured into, forming itself instead into the shape of a child’s hand—clenched or with fingers outstretched in panic. Once the metal cools the burnished bronze hand drops to the shocked blacksmith’s floor and crawls away into the forest. The king’s men who slept in the village began to be found choked to death. One day, this story will truly be a fairy tale, its reality lost to time, its truths universal. Abstract.

The boy sleeps curled on the hearth. The sun has set and the fire, having emolliated every last spell book, flags. I wake the child and give him the letter I’ve written. “It is time for you to go,” I say gently. “I release you from my service. This letter says so.”

“No! I would stay with you. Under your protection!” He jumps up and wraps his arms around my waist. “Teach me to read.”

I pull him away and take his small, strong hands in mine—warm and alive in the cave of my palms, like a woodland animal tensed to spring. “You can make so many things with two good hands, forge a life for yourself. But in order to be free you must be brave.”

He begins to tremble again, eyes wide. Everyone is terrified of the burnished bronze hands that crawl through the countryside, but this child has nothing to fear.

“Shall I cast a spell of protection for you?”

He nods, clutching the letter. I rummage around my desk, find some colorful powder, toss it over him and intone some nonsense. I gesture for him to unbolt the door. The hallway is empty, every other door shut and locked against the dreadful hands.

“Go on,” I say.

The boy gives me one last impulsive hug then turns and runs, disappearing into the velvety blackness. I walk the other way, wending through the shadowed passages to Hroth’s great door. Two of his loyal men-at-arms stand on either side. They are accustomed to my late night wanderings and nod amiably as I approach. I smile, but instead of a greeting I utter a minor incantation. Their heads droop and they slide down the wall in a deep sleep. Magic has its own wicked humor. It is a delicious irony that I can gift sleep to others, but not to myself. One more string of ancient words and the king’s great doors unbolt themselves and silently swing open. There’s my last spell cast.

I return to my chambers and leave my own door open. The darkness is nearly complete. In the fireplace one of the books retains its shape, a fragile glowing ember. I lie down on my bed exhausted, able to find, if not peace, a kind of rest at last. A breeze plays through the open doorway, caressing my face before gliding out my narrow window. I close my eyes and listen for the sound of small fingers scrabbling on the flagstones outside my door.