Stiletto (i of iii)

The blacksmith wore a leather apron over the lightest of woolen shirts. Still he was slick with sweat. In Lombardy, in the summer, only bakers and blacksmiths stood over a fire. The demand for bread would never wane. In Italy, during the reign of the condottieri, neither would the need for iron.

He was bent over an anvil the size of a saddle. Around it were six boys of varying ages. Each held a hammer with a handle half as tall as they and a head that weighed two stone. They gripped their hammers with two hands. They swung them down and pulled them up in a round motion, like the legs of a destrier at gallop.

The blacksmith held a hammer with handle no longer than his arm and head no greater than his fist. A length of yellow-glowing iron lay on the anvil, held in tongs by two boys even younger. The blacksmith would examine the metal, then tap it once with his hammer. Like a wave his apprentices would strike where he had shown, raising their great hammers and bringing them down with scarcely a breath between blows.

They were forging a sword. It was no easy thing. To finish two blades a day took all their efforts. When the metal cooled the two little boys who held the tongs would raise it and return it to the embers. They would then take their turn at the bellows, passing the tongs to two other boys who would draw another iron from the fire. There were seven apprentices, with six striking at any one time. The blacksmith was always at work. For ten hours a day, on every day but the Lord’s day, ruling his workshop like a little duke.

First they would cut the iron to a billet. They would smooth it and shape it. Then they would draw it out. They would point it and bevel it. They would flatten it and smooth it. They would fuller the blade and punch the handle. They would quench it in a trough, then give it over to others to be sharpened, polished, fitted with grip and guard, cased in a scabbard. Twenty men, at least, to produce one sword. With luck, twenty men to die before it.

The sword would be longer than a man’s arm, generous of tang and fit to take a heavy guard. It was a weapon for the soldier, for fighting in the wars of the cities of Italy. It would be an honorable weapon. Some mercenary, English or German or Spanish or perhaps even Italian, would wear it with pride.

The sun was past its peak when the blacksmith called for them to halt. The little boys added fuel to the fire, gently pumped the bellows, ran to fetch water to refresh the quenching trough. One at a time they joined the apprentices in their midday meal. They ate fresh white cheese, rich barley bread, olives, and for each of them two strips of salted meat. They were blacksmiths, or one day to be. Such a profession accorded them better than all other laborers. Better even than some soldiers,

The blacksmith mixed their wine for them. It was a delicate affair. If he made it too weak they would complain of it. If he made it too strong they would complain of everything. The wine was the last year’s, chiaretto from the Lago di Garda. It had been a hot year. Thirteen hundred and fiftyfive was proving hotter still.

The blacksmith ate apart. His apprentices respected him, but he did not want them to care for him. He would have to correct them. Some he would have to beat. Of the seven, it was likely that one he would have to send back to his family. He could not act so towards one of his sons. So he endeavored to keep them from so becoming.

He gnawed a trimmed leg of pork, warmed over the coals of the forge. He caught its drippings on a half-loaf of wheat bread and followed it with with malvasia from a wineskin. While the rest of them played about and enjoyed their midday meal he returned to the sword. He drew it from the forge himself and lay it on the anvil. With his own hammer he worked the metal, planishing it gently, smoothing it, preparing it for the next rain of blows.

“Buon pomeriggio,” he heard a man’s voice say. He looked up and saw a young blade standing just under the awning of his workspace. He wore the red cloak of a soldier behind the gray linen of a sweltering townsman. His belt was leather and held two scabbards, one long and showing a finger-ring above the guard, one half that size with a cruciform guard and pommel. His cap lay along the side of his head, and was also red. His face was clean-shaven, and his fingers banded with silver rings.

“Salve,” said the blacksmithing, bowing over his anvil. “May I help you, my lord?”

“No lord,” said the armed man, sweeping his hands before him as if casting alms. “Please, Fabbro, take your time. I wish only to watch a master craftsman at his work.”

The blacksmith looked at the metal on his anvil. It was black and cold. He spent a minute working the surface metal before returning it to the fire. He withdrew another sword, this one farther from completion, and worked it while the young blade watched him carefully.

“You are a master of your craft, that is clear!” said the blade with bluster. “Tell me, fabbro, what is your name, that I may know who oversees this workshop?”

“Galeazzo,” he replied. “di Forli.”

“And I,” he said, bowing with flourish, “am called Micheletto, son of Aleazzo Infrascati.” He did not need to say with any greater clarity that he was not born to Aleazzo’s wife.

The blacksmith regarded him tiredly, though not so long as to give offense. Such umbridge might easily prove fatal to an artisan. Though the man who lost Milan a master swordmaker would likely find his own punishment at the hands of the Visconti, that would help the blacksmith little in the hereafter.

The blade drew closer. “And what work engages your energies, Fabbro, and those of all your apprentices?”

“A sword,” the blacksmith replied.

He drew closer still. “A mighty weapon, for the defense of Christendom and the glory of this great city?”

“If God wills it,” he replied.

“Yes, if God wills.” He was close enough that a strong breeze might have blown his cape into the embers of the forge, if only there were such breezes in a Lombard summer.

“And tell me,” the blade said, “does God bless those who ask you for commissions?”

The blacksmith was no fool. “All my swords can be purchased from the armory of Giani Acuto, on the Street of-”

The blade bowed deeply. “I have seen your wares in the Englishman’s shop, Fabbro. They are exemplary, masterful displays of craftsmanship and dedication. Alas, what I seek is somewhat more difficult to come by.”

“I do not make toys.”

“I did not think so,” the blade said, bowing to a depth and smiling without mirth. “What I seek is much of a kind with your normal work. It is simply to a smaller scale, requiring a master craftsman-”

“You want a smallsword?” the blacksmith asked.


“A kitchen knife? For a cook, perhaps.”

“No,” he said with ice in his voice.

“Then what?”

The blade’s eyes were steel themselves. “I desire a stiletto, long and thin and sharp.”

The weapons of a soldier, sword or armor, could be made by any smith with the approval of his local lord. The weapons of an assassin were less popular among the lords, for they were the ones with cause to fear them. A person found with such a blade was presumed a traitor and a murderer. The smith found making them would fare no better.

The blacksmith gripped his hammer. “Perhaps the city guard would-”

“Ten golden ducats,” he said, suddenly as brusque as any armed man talking to a peasant. “Another twenty when the job is finished. I expect only your finest work for such a price. To say nothing of your discretion.”

A golden ducat was more than a laborer would earn in a year. Ten ducats would buy rooms along the piazza. The rest would buy a farmhouse, the land around it, the peasants to tend it. The income from that…

“Who is it for?” the blacksmith asked.

“The hilt is for me,” the blade said, allowing himself the edge of a smile. “The blade, God willing, is destined for another.”

“God willing,” the blacksmith murmured.

“An enemy of Milan. With that you may content yourself.”

The blacksmith said nothing.

The blade’s voice was half a whisper. “I want it no longer than my forearm, with a firm grip and a small guard. Double-edged, ricasso no more than the joint of my thumb, foible half as long. No adornment is necessary. It will probably be best for you not to sign your work.”

The blacksmith said nothing.

He took a small purse from his belt and withdrew from it ten golden coins. “Take these,” he said. “At sunset, get yourself a horse. Take anything you need. Ride to Rho. At the piazza there is a fountain. Meet a rider there, and he will conduct you to a place where you can work in safety.”

“A rider?”

“He will wear a red cape,” the blade said shortly, “and look in every other respect exactly like myself.”

“What works will you have?” the blacksmith asked.

“Six lads, stout and quiet. Charcoal. And wine, and meat.”

“That is all?”

“Fabbro,” said the blade, “for thirty ducats, you may bring your own hammer.”

For thirty ducats, he could lay down the hammer forever.

“At sunset,” the blacksmith said. “Now I must go back to my-”

The blade waved his hand. “Yes, of course.” Then, more loudly: “It is good to have met you, Fabbro. I bid you well with your works, and hope that they may always be raised in the service of this great city.”

With that he bowed, turned, and left the blacksmith to his apprentices and their work.


~ by davekov on 17 August 2010.

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