Ara has always known the legend of the Loresmith: the blacksmith who served alongside the kings and queens of Saetlund, forging legendary weapons to arm warriors and protect the kingdom. She’s been told it’s her fate to inherit the title and become the next Loresmith. But since the monarchy’s downfall in a vicious conquest years before, Ara has never truly believed she would be able to take up her duty.
But when the lost Princess Nimhea and Prince Eamon steal Ara from her quiet life with a mission to retake the throne and return Ara to her place as the Loresmith—Ara’s whole world turns upside down.
Suddenly, Ara must leave her small mountain village and embark on a dangerous adventure where she will uncover new truths about her family’s legacy, and even face the gods themselves. With a mysterious thief as an unexpected companion, and dark forces following their every move, Ara must use all her skills to forge the right path forward—for herself, her kingdom, and her heart.
From author Andrea Robertson comes the start of a new fantasy series—Forged in Fire and Stars publishes May 5th with Philomel Books.
Ara huddled near a campfire, her body cocooned in a heavy cloak, and stared past the flames. Her gaze settled on the two strangers who’d appeared in her life without warning. Unwanted harbingers of the dust-covered destiny she’d put aside years before.
Ara’s new companions were little more than misshapen lumps, buried under wool and furs that served as fiber bulwarks against the night’s chill. She couldn’t say what heap of blankets was sister or brother, princess or prince.
Princess or prince. Ara ground her teeth.
Even the sound of the titles in her own mind made Ara jerk from the shock of it.
She hadn’t been ready for them. For this journey. This future. She still wasn’t.
A sour smile curdled at the corners of Ara’s lips. How fitting that all of it began with a kidnapping. After all, hadn’t her life just been taken without warning?
Watching her breath smoke and curl in the air, Ara contemplated her fate. With Nimhea and Eamon’s arrival, she had to accept that she was who her grandmother had always claimed: the daughter of the Loresmith. She was an heir—like the twins—and according to her grandmother and Old Imgar, she had a destiny.
She’d believed that fate was lost. It had died with her father.
The heirs to the River Throne had come seeking the Loresmith. They’d found Ara.
Will I become what they need me to be? Ara wondered. Or will the gods forsake me because I turned away from them?
Ara wanted to fulfill this incredible destiny, but she worried that the gods wouldn’t overlook the doubts she’d clung to in her stubbornness. If Nimhea and Eamon hadn’t arrived, she would still be mired in her disbelief.
As she’d grown older, Ara had balked at the stories told by grandmother and Old Imgar. Though her earliest memories were the tales of the gods and their great gift to the people of Saetlund, she’d long since given up her belief that she had any part in them. The Loresmith and Loreknights. Though she remembered the awe of learning her father was the last Loresmith, it had complicated her grief for a man she’d never known, but for whom an empty place in her heart remained. When Ara was old enough to understand what she had lost, she’d craved a father—as much to salve her mother’s ongoing sorrow as to care for his daughter—but when that father was connected to the great tales of old, he became something else. A legend. She hadn’t known how to reconcile her vision of a father with a man who forged the weapons of the gods. But she tried to meld the two into something she could wish for.
When she was small, Ara would sit in a corner of the smithy and envision her father working beside her grandfather, and later Old Imgar. As she grew strong enough, Ara helped Imgar with small tasks. The moment she’d felt the heat of the forge and laid hands on blacksmith tools, Ara’s grandmother could hardly tear her away from that sweltering, smoky place. That was the first time she felt like her father’s daughter. His blood drawing her to flame and iron. To the rhythm of the hammer and tempering of steel.
Rather than object, Ara’s grandmother encouraged her to learn the blacksmith’s craft. She’d given her blessing in a joyful voice tinged by sorrow. While Ara watched and sometimes worked beside Imgar, he filled her head with more stories of heroics, fate, and the gods. She became his apprentice and dreamed of the glorious weapons she would create for her Loreknights, who would avenge her father’s death.
Ara constantly thought of Saetlund’s deities. She stared at the Ice Mountains and imagined the Twins at their Well and gave herself a headache trying to understand how two gods could exist within one being. When Ara scouted in the forest with Imgar, she pretended Wuldr hunted beside them. At the harvest, she gave thanks to Nava and wove ornaments of dried grass with her grandmother to honor the goddess. She learned to ask Ofrit for help with puzzles and complicated tasks, as well as praying for his guidance when making ointments, salves, and other medicines. Because her travel was limited, Ara didn’t often have cause to seek Eni’s blessing. But Old Imgar’s tales of Eni’s shape-shifting, cleverness, and unpredictable antics always made her laugh.
The little girl who had prayed to those gods and delighted in those stories couldn’t sustain her enthusiasm when she found no signs of power in herself as the years passed. The nails, horseshoes, tools, and knives she crafted for the village had no magic in them. In the tales, the Loresmith forged the most marvelous of weapons and impenetrable armor. Pieces known not only for their power, but for their beauty and elegance. Legendary swords and axes with names like Stormcaller and Soulcleave. Impossibly light armor with a delicate appearance that belied its strength.
At twelve Ara crafted a sword, hoping that forging a proper weapon would reveal her gift, but the sword was plain, serviceable—nothing more.
Ara took to pressing her grandmother about how exactly she could be sure she had the power of the Loresmith inside her and, more importantly, how she could become the Loresmith without her father to teach her.
Her grandmother always answered the same way. “Your fate is with the gods.”
But the gods didn’t seem bothered by young Ara’s impatience, nor her frustration. She couldn’t understand their inaction. She grew resentful of the stories and their unfulfilled promises. The gods likewise drew her ire.
Ara had spent her childhood imagining them, but she’d never actually seen any of the gods. None of them had bothered to speak to her.
When she asked for proof of her identity from Old Imgar, he told her, “Ironbranch is all the proof you need.”
For most of Ara’s life, Ironbranch had been her most treasured possession. The Loresmith’s stave. A legendary weapon—and Ara’s only connection to her father.
Another of Ara’s strongest memories: it had also been a birthday, her tenth.
Ara’s grandmother had offered her a strangely twisting, long stick. “This belongs to you.”
Ara took it, noticing its unusual color and texture. The material it had been wrought from was strange, like a mixture of wood and steel. It was heavy and hard to grip with her small hands.
“Thank you,” Ara said. “Is it a walking stick like yours?”
“This is no ordinary walking stick.” Elke laughed. “It is the stave of the Loresmith, created by Ofrit and Eni for the first of your line. It has been passed down from generation to generation. Its name is Ironbranch.”
“It has a name?” Ara gazed at the stave in wonder, amazed that such a thing could belong to her.
Her grandmother’s mirth gave way to a careworn expression. “Your father sent it with your mother when she fled the city.”
“This belonged to my father?” Ara’s fingers locked around the stave. Knowing he’d left something for her made it more precious even than its legendary origin.
She gave her grandmother a puzzled look, followed by a sheepish smile. “I know it sounds strange, but holding it I feel safer. Less afraid.”
“You should,” Elke replied. “That stave was created to protect you and your companions. Look here.” She pointed to the one end of the stave, and Ara noticed a small symbol carved into the wood. “Eni’s symbol,” her grandmother said, then pointed at the other end. “You’ll find Ofrit’s symbol carved there, on the opposite face of the wood.”
“The gods made it.” Ara traced the symbol with her finger and shivered when a strange sensation crackled through her limbs. It felt like recognition.
Her grandmother’s voice became stern. “Ara, listen very carefully. Ironbranch must only be used for defense. I’m going to teach you how to use this stave.”
Ara nodded, utterly enamored with Ironbranch. The pale, polished wood with its silvering grain. Its solidity and weight. The image of her father walking forest paths with Ironbranch at his side. Like a friend. Her grandmother was still speaking. “Ara, listen to me. Remember the tale: should you attack, or strike out in anger or vengeance you will never become the Loresmith. The same is true for any other tool or weapon that you come to possess. Do not forget. Are you listening?”
But like those old stories, Ironbranch and the memory of receiving it had lost their sheen for Ara. She didn’t deny it was an unusual stave. The wood from which it was carved was a silvery iron-gray. During one of her pestering sessions, Imgar had shoved Ironbranch into the forge. Ara had screamed, but grizzled Old Imgar laughed and pulled the stave from the fire. Ironbranch hadn’t been scorched nor damaged and was cool to the touch. The demonstration kept her doubts at bay for a week before Ara went back to scratching at the surface of her life story.
Just because Ironbranch was different didn’t mean it was the mythical Loresmith stave. After all, her knowledge was limited to the books in Rill’s Pass. She had no experience of the wider world, which was surely bursting with many strange and inexplicable things.
The more she thought about it, the more the whole thing seemed cruel and unfair. What was she other than a girl whose parents had died and who was being raised by her grandmother in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere? A girl who was forbidden from going anywhere? It made her sick with rage. She considered running away.
In the end, Ara ruled out escape, but let her feelings be known in other ways. She left the room if her grandmother or Imgar tried to recite one of the tales. They had both tolerated that behavior, but Ara’s grandmother would not let her stop training with Ironbranch. Ara had grudgingly continued to practice with the stave, but she put little effort into improving her skills. Her grandmother was tight-lipped and hard-eyed at the end of each lesson, but Ara ignored the disapproval. She’d decided it was better that none of it was real. That fate and the gods were simply fantasies spun from the past.
If it wasn’t real, Ara didn’t have to feel cheated by the universe.
She’d been picking at that scab for two years.
Ara had spent so much time convincing herself that she wasn’t special, it was difficult, even in the face of the long-lost twins’ arrival, to change her feelings. Becoming a skeptic hadn’t been hard. After all, what signs of the gods or magic had Ara ever witnessed?
The only evidence of legends, heroes, and monsters resided in fireside stories and old books with cracked spines. Books that had to be hidden beneath the floorboards when imperial patrols came through the village. Stories that could only be told among the trustworthy.
Her grandmother’s voice piped up again. If the tales held no truth, why would the Vokkans want to destroy them? Why forbid worship of the gods, if the gods have no power?
Ara had formulated pert answers to those questions and more as she’d rebelled against her prescribed role. Now those replies felt hollow as new knowledge seeped through the cracks in Ara’s veneer of disbelief. Her rejection of the stories, of the claims made by her grandmother and Old Imgar, hadn’t been built upon rational arguments and unwavering confidence. It had been the way Ara protected herself, the way she could hide from her fate.
Cowardice hadn’t compelled Ara to turn her back on all she’d been taught. Shame had.
Shame for surviving in a world that had taken her mother and father. Shame for being chosen and protected, while so many others were stolen away from hearth and home by the Vokkan Empire. The more Ara had learned about the world, the less she wanted to be special.
It laid a terrible responsibility at her feet. But she saw now that in that responsibility she could find purpose. She had to.
Ara had spent the last two years denying the truth of who she was. It was time to embrace that truth.
How can you sleep so soundly? Ara silently asked the bundled twins.
Obviously, they didn’t answer.
Nettles of jealousy pricked her as she watched their peaceful forms. She didn’t know how she’d ever quiet her mind enough to rest. How could she, knowing what lay ahead? Or rather, not knowing.
And they don’t know either. They couldn’t. Ara’s stare became accusing. They’re clinging to promises picked out of folklore.
Looking for truth in what Ara had come to believe was myth.
Maybe it was because they’d had time to accept their lot, Ara thought. More likely, their surety stemmed from having chosen their path.
Like the Loresmith, King Dentroth’s lost twin children held a mythic place among the conquered people of Saetlund. The story of their escape was told near hearths in hushed whispers. Their names, especially that of Princess Nimhea, were uttered with reverence and in the company of words like uprising and redemption. The kind of words that kept embers of hope burning in the hearts of a downtrodden people.
The official records kept by the Vokkans made it clear that imperial soldiers had reached the nursery before any man, woman, or child could escape the palace. Not a soul related to King Dentroth, no matter how young, nor how innocent, was spared. The royal line of Saetlund had ended in that nursery.
Ara got the truth of it from the twins as they shared a simple dinner of bread and hard cheese in their camp.
Eamon did the telling. Nimhea remained solemn as her own story was repeated to her, as it must have been so many times before.
The twins had been secreted from the Five Rivers palace when they were toddling three-year-olds. Nimhea was a few minutes the elder to her brother, and thus named the heir. Rather than being hidden within Saetlund, the twins were sent to the Ethrian Isles—far to the southwest of their homeland. Other exiles arrived soon after. All had fled the conquest, hoping the islands were remote enough to evade the empire’s grasp, their number small enough to avoid notice.
“Do you remember leaving Saetlund?” Ara asked.
Eamon shook his head. “My earliest memory is of the sea and the scent of Ethrian lemon groves.”
“Sometimes I think I have flashes of Saetlund,” Nimhea admitted. “Rooms in the palace. Our nanny’s fear when she told us we had to leave our home. The first sight of an ocean-going vessel.”
Her mouth twisted with frustration. “But they could be dreams, imaginings. We were so young.”
Nimhea and Eamon were raised with full knowledge of their heritage. Nimhea grew tall and strong, bearing the telltale flaming locks of her lineage. She was drawn to combat and swordplay and proved her aptitude for both. Eamon remained slight, awkward, and prone to illness. His guardians were none too worried about his lack of martial skills. After all, Eamon wasn’t the heir. He was left to pursue his own interests, borne out as obsessive scholarship that led to an unusual erudition in arcane lore.
“What made you decide to study the myths of Saetlund?” Ara asked Eamon.
He’d just bitten off a sizeable chunk of bread, and she was sorry for asking when he chewed much too fast and winced when he swallowed.
“I studied history first,” Eamon told her. “Saetlund is our true home. I wanted to know everything about it. As I learned more, I came to understand that you can’t separate our kingdom’s history from its lore.”
Ara’s brow crinkled, thinking of the various books her grandmother made her read as part of her education. “Then why do scholars separate them?”
“It’s hard to blame the scholars.” Eamon sighed. “At least for me, but I’m sympathetic. Research is time-consuming. It’s much easier to become an expert if you narrow your field. In the sources it’s clear that long ago the fields weren’t separated. As the population grew and history filled with more and more significant events, scholarship divided like branches shooting out from the trunk of a tree.”
He took a sip of water. “The farther the branches grew from the trunk, the easier it was to forget that original connection.”
Ara began to nod, but Eamon dropped his face into his hands and groaned.
“What’s wrong?” Nimhea asked, putting her food and drink aside.
Eamon lifted his head. “I may as well admit my other motivation. From the first moment I stumbled across the subject of magic in the oldest histories, I couldn’t help but hope that in some occult tome or scribbled scrap of paper I’d find a cure for my illness.”
Nimhea mumbled her disapproval and returned to her dinner.
Ara shot a questioning look at the princess, but Eamon gave a sour chuckle.
“She thinks dabbling in magic could only make things worse for me,” Eamon told Ara. “She’s probably right.”
Ara hesitated, turning a piece of bread in her hands. “What type of illness do you have?”
“I wish I could tell you.” Eamon stared at the fire, his gaze bitter. “No healer has been able to name the ailment, nor give me relief.”
His jaw tightened and he huffed out a breath. A moment later he turned to Ara and smiled.
“No matter,” Eamon said. “I haven’t finished our story.”
Though their lives on the isles were pleasant, the twins always anticipated the future. Every day princess and prince received instruction focused on a sole purpose: the reclamation of the River Throne. Nimhea shouldered the years between herself and destiny with impatience. Her brother watched time pass with wary eyes and an increasingly nervous disposition.
Six months ago the long-awaited plan was set into motion. They would join the secret rebellion that was growing in strength and numbers with each passing day—or so they’d been assured.
That meeting had been delayed by an unexpected demand. Rather than heading directly to a rendezvous with their supporters, Eamon insisted that he and Nimhea first trek to a tiny mountain village. There, Eamon proclaimed, lived the savior of the kingdom. A hero without whom a successful uprising was impossible. A mythic figure he’d discovered in his years of research and whom he believed to be a real person.
“Mustering the courage to speak out about the Loresmith is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Eamon said with a shiver. “For a long time, I didn’t believe I was capable of taking a stand.”
Ara regarded him admiringly. “What changed?”
“Time,” Eamon replied. “Nimhea came of age. She was about to cross the sea to take back Saetlund. I had to help her. It would have been foolish to pretend I could become a warrior, but I’d found something else. Something even better.”
Rebuffed at first, Eamon’s persistence finally swayed his sister. When Nimhea sided with Eamon, the others had no choice but to give in. Thus, rather than sailing to Dothring on the south coast of Daefrit, they forsook the blistering sun for the long winter of the Fjeri Highlands. They docked at Port Pilgrim and rode away from the sea toward the great peaks that formed the Mountains of the Twins. After collecting Eamon’s strange relic, they would rendezvous with their allies in Silverstag.
When Eamon finished his telling, he and Nimhea both looked comforted, reassured in their purpose. The story revealed much to Ara. Nimhea’s steely resolve and her protectiveness of her brother. Eamon’s eagerness to please, his apologies for never being enough when his sister was everything. Ara smarted at the fact that that she hadn’t always been part of the plan. In truth, she was a last-minute, unwanted addition to the rebellion. She was Eamon’s addition. She went to her bedroll still wondering what to make of that.
I am the Loresmith. This is where I belong. Ara didn’t want to admit that having someone in addition to Eamon championing her role would be a great comfort.
I am the Loresemith, she told herself again. This quest is mine.
Sleep wouldn’t come, and Ara stared up, trying to catch glimpses of the night sky through the web of branches.
It would be comforting to see the same stars, Ara thought. But she wondered if that would prove true. If she looked up and saw the Fleeing Moon, harbinger of spring, and familiar constellations Senn and the Silverstag, it might instead sting of lies and loss.
Ara turned her head to look at her companions across the campfire. Nimhea and Eamon appeared to be sleeping soundly. Ara envied them. Both cleaved fiercely to their purpose. Restless thoughts didn’t make their hearts race or keep their eyes open. Ara couldn’t chase away doubts about her abruptly revealed “destiny.” She wasn’t at all certain she believed in destiny. Things like destiny and fate existed in the tales her grandmother spun for her beside the hearth each night. Fanciful, impossible tales that had no place in the real world. Now she was expected to believe all the tales, all the mysteries of the gods, to be true. But how could a lifetime of understanding be suddenly transformed into unquestioning belief?
Yet here she was. In a strange forest, sleeping on strange, hard ground, with two strangers in her charge. Chasing after her destiny.
Ara didn’t know how she was supposed to doggedly pursue her mythical role of Loresmith when she’d built up so many doubts about its very existence. She feared that meant in the end she could do nothing but fail.
Nimhea and Eamon chased after fate, while Ara had been told for years she had to wait for it. Be patient. Believe.
The twins’ appearance, the very fact of their existence, proved that some truths lived within fiction. Like the tales of the gods, stories of the lost princess and prince were among those Ara had loved as a child. The secrecy surrounding the stories only added to their irresistible quality. A fallen kingdom. A stolen legacy. The promise of redemption. Those pieces fit together to create the best sort of tale.
But Ara was a real person. She’d had a life. A simple, but good life. It may not have been exciting or luxurious, but it had been hers.
Ara lifted her hands, turning them over to examine her palms. They were rough and callused, spattered with burn scars. A blacksmith’s hands. That was all she’d expected, to continue as Old Imgar’s apprentice.
Now Ara felt as though she’d been shoved onto a strange path. She’d become part of someone else’s story.
Once upon a time it was your story, a voice like her grandmother’s whispered from the recesses of her mind. It can be your story again.
Ara had believed in the tales before, that was true, but she didn’t know how to believe again. Not only in the myths, but in what lay at their heart. What they said about who Ara was, or who she would become.
She didn’t remember becoming tired enough to fall asleep, only waking to a world different from her own. Ara recognized the forest around her. She could see their campfire winking in the distance. But there were changes. The forest stirred, but there was no wind. The pine needles of each tree shimmered with drops of moonlight.
A crashing in the forest. All around her. Coming closer. Flashes of silver among the dark pines.
Then bursting from the woods, so close Ara felt the breeze from their passing, came the stags. Great beasts of legend with coats like new snow spun to silk and antlers bright as polished silver. Their namesake. The silverstags. Wuldr’s sacred herd.
Ara had never seen anything so beautiful. She couldn’t breathe.
After the herd came a thundering sound, heavy footfalls, then a howl, a sublime cry that made the nape of Ara’s neck prickle.
Two huge shapes loomed in the trees.
The god and his companion.
Wuldr, the Hunter, patron deity of Fjeri. Twice the height of the tallest man. Hair and beard a silver to rival the stags’ antlers. A bow in his hand. Quiver of arrows on his back.
Beside him, Senn, fellow hunter, constant companion. A wolfhound larger than a draft horse, with daggerlike teeth. Ara saw them when he grinned at her in the way dogs do.
With eyes on the fleeing herd, Wuldr readied an arrow and drew the bowstring.
Then he noticed Ara.
He looked upon her, into her eyes. She felt the weight of the god’s mind, the power of his presence. She wasn’t afraid.
Wuldr lowered his bow. “A hunter sleeps with one eye open.”
Senn opened his great maw and lifted his head, sending another howl to the stars.
Ara woke to the known world. She could still feel Wuldr’s presence, a rush of wind through the trees. Distant footfalls of hunter and hound. She remembered his words and became alert, though she stayed still within her blankets.
The fire undulated with low flames of orange and blue. On the other side of the shelter, Nimhea and Eamon slept.
All around Ara, the forest breathed in peace.
Nothing was amiss, but she knew to heed a god’s warning. There was something out there. Something to be watched for.
Excerpted from Forged in Fire and Stars, copyright © 2020 by Andrea Robertson.