Heimat was cold this time of year. The trees had lost their leaves, the air held a chill that couldn’t be shaken, and winter threatened to arrive at every hour.
Johanna pulled her last defense against the wind tight around her body. Her small hands gripped the shaggy blanket as if it was a lifeline. A shiver crept up her spine as the painful memories of the past came to mind.
Johanna’s mother died last year around this time when the cough had moved from her throat into her lungs. Johanna had been forced to watch her mother waste away while her father became a shell of the man he once was.
By the time her mother finally passed, all the color her father once possessed had been leeched away. He barely talked to her or her older sister and spent all his time at work or the pub. At the lowest points, he would disappear for days at a time, leaving Johanna and her sister to fend for themselves.
But looking back, Johanna would do anything to return to that humble hovel in Suska, the small northern village she hailed from.
A strong wind sent more shivers through her slight frame as she clutched at the blanket. Still not able to get warm, the ten-year-old girl closed her eyes and reached inside. Johanna tried to use the magic running through her veins sparingly, wanting to conserve as much life energy as she could while food was scarce. The last thing she needed was to collapse on the sidewalk, but she sometimes it couldn’t be helped.
She used her magic to make the atoms of the blanket vibrate with energy, giving it the ability to radiate warmth. It wouldn’t last forever, but hopefully, the energy she offered would be enough to last until she found shelter from the wind.
A single tear escaped her eyes and made its way down her cheek. Before it could fall to the ground, the young Forger rubbed it away briskly. Her mother had always said the Goddess helps the ones that help themselves. Tears would never get her a warm meal or somewhere to rest.
She needed to keep her wits about her if she was going to survive in this new city. Her eyes darted from building to building as she plodded down the main street of Heimat. So far, she had seen few people and couldn’t decide whether that was a good or bad sign.
Her shoulders drooped as her thoughts returned to the disastrous year. Her mother passed away last fall and her sister followed shortly after the spring thaw. She had been walking the river with Johanna, gathering wood for the hearth, when the sound of ice cracking spliced through the air. Johanna’s stomach had immediately dropped as she scrambled for the bank. Growing up by the river, they were taught at a young age to get off the ice whenever it started cracking.
But Johanna’s sister hadn’t been fast enough.
Johanna had watched from the bank as her sister slipped beneath the ice. She had tried to go to her, but the ice cracked beneath her with every step she took. Fear had paralyzed her, making her helpless as she watched her sister slip beneath the ice and get caught by the raging currents of the Mantaga.
Johanna had wept for hours before finally making her way home to an empty house.
When her father returned the next morning, she flung herself into his arms and choked out the news, barely able to speak past the lump in her throat.
If she thought her father had been broken before, this shattered him. Instead of going to work, he spent all day at home, a bottle in hand. He would drink all day until eventually passing out in the living room. Every night, when he woke, he stumbled to the pub to start drinking anew.
Johanna had never felt so alone.
Ten days ago, her father had stumbled into the path of a wagon and was put out of his misery.
The little girl was numb to another loss, her father gone long before he ceased breathing. Five days she had spent in Suska, running errands and washing dishes for the owner of the local inn before the merchant train from Lockewater arrived.
Wandering Suska, Johanna only saw ghosts, but the caravan meant an arrival of an opportunity. She had taken a chance and joined them on their last journey of the year to Heimat, the trading hub of the north. This was her best chance for a new start.
But hope had deceived the young girl once again.
Surrounded by strangers, in a city she didn’t know, Johanna was lost and alone.
What do I do? The Forger did everything she could to keep the tears at bay while she stood to one side of the cobblestone street, trying to decide what came next.
She was roused from her thoughts when someone barreled into her back, sending both of them flying. Johanna saw spots as she struggled to sit up, her limbs tangled up with those of her assailant.
The first thing Johanna saw when she came to was a mess of red curls.
A girl about her age offered her a hand. “Sorry about that. Ma always said I was going to run into someone one of these days.” She giggled as she helped Johanna up.
Once Johanna was standing, the redhead cocked her head and studied her. Uncomfortable with the attention, the Forger pulled the blanket close and shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
“Do I know you?” The girl asked.
Johanna froze. What do I say? It was her turn to study this strangely trusting girl. The people of Suska never talked to strangers so easily. More words from her mother came back to her. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Hesitantly, she replied. “I don’t know how you could. I just arrived this morning.”
The redhead stared blankly for a moment before delight lit up her face. “Oh! Excellent! Let me give you a tour!”
The girl linked her arm with Johanna’s and prattled on and on as they walked down the street. The city passed by in a blur as the Forger struggled to keep up with the still nameless redhead.
“Simone! Who do you have here?” A burly woman called from one shop lining the main street of the town.
“Brenda! This is—” Simone, as Johanna inferred her guide’s name to be, whipped her head to the Forger, horror in her eyes. With a gasp, she said, “I’m so sorry! I never even asked for your name. Ma always tells me to slow down, but—”
Brenda put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Hush, now. I think we both know you’ve talked enough for the both of you.” She flashed a grin as Simone’s face flushed a brighter red than her curls. Gesturing for the two to step into her shop, she asked Johanna, “now, what’s your name, lass?”
Johanna studied the woman’s kind eyes and face before opening her mouth to speak, but was distracted once they entered the shop. The smell of animal skins, preserving salts, and new leather assaulted her senses. Her eyes widened as she took in the skins in various stages of drying, preserving, and crafting.
Johanna’s hands trembled as she walked to the nearest rack and traced the soft, thin leather with one shaking finger. Her blood sang as the magic thrummed deep within. She had never been surrounded by so much of her Material at once.
Her head spun as she struggled to control the thrumming in her veins. Without a second thought, she placed both hands on the supple leather and let her magic do what it wanted.
Soon, a light-colored vest sat between her fingers. Johanna’s eyes stayed wide as she shot a look at the woman that had invited them into her shop. Dread filled her insides as she realized what she had done. It wasn’t her place to use the leather without asking.
Brenda gave her a knowing smile before guiding her to a chair. “It seems you found my new apprentice, Simone.”
Johanna’s eyes snapped those of the older woman. “Really?”
“If you are willing, then absolutely.” Brenda chuckled while a smile tugged at the little girl’s lips. “But first you have to tell me your name.”
“Johanna.” The Forger said immediately, before her cheeks flushed, embarrassed by her eagerness. She averted her eyes before a hand gripped her shoulder.
Once she met Brenda’s blue eyes, the woman said. “Welcome home, Johanna.”