After twenty two years as Rudolph Strongarm's apprentice, from a time when he was useful for nothing but fetching the lightest of the hammers, to today, where he was as much partner as apprentice, Jacob knew the rhythm of the forge as well as he knew his own mind. By the time the sun crested the horizon they would both be in the forge, bleary eyed and chewing on the gruel and dried meat they had prepared last night. Rudolph would tend to the flames, heating them back up to forging temperature after a night of sitting idle, while Jacob gathered everything they would need for the day, both in terms of materials and tools. They would spend the morning working on the quick forges, the nails and horseshoes and iron bars that would be gathered throughout the day by the people who had ordered the materials. Shortly after the bell tower tolled noon Rudolph's wife would find them, bringing fresh bread, cheese, cold tea, and whatever stew Elizabeth had made that morning. They would feast for a half hour, laughing and chatting with each other, before returning to the forge. In the afternoon they would work on the custom orders, usually a plow blade or some other farmer's tool. Occasionally, though, they would get a request for a sword, or some decorative piece from a noble, and Rudolph would walk Jacob through the process, quizzing him on the specialty tools and processes he rarely had reason to use. On the odd day when they managed to complete all the orders they had been given, an uncommon but not unheard of occurrence, they would spend the remainder of the evening working on one of Rudolph's special pieces. They would leave the forge as soon as the sun set, returning to Rudolph's house, and eating dinner with Elizabeth. Occasionally they would return to the forge even after that, although Rudolph always told Jacob that the day was over, and he was no my obliged to help. Jacob never minded. After all, Rudolph had been father and mentor to him for the nineteen years since his mother had left him at the blacksmith's door, begging him to care for the five year old boy. Jacob knew the stories of what could happen to orphans, and he was more grateful to Elizabeth and Rudolph for taking him in and raising him as their own than he could ever express. If nothing else, they were certainly grateful for his help, for he manned the forge alone on Thursdays, giving Rudolph a well earned day of rest. Jacob's own days off were Saturday and Tuesday, when he was allowed to get a little bit of time to himself and get a chance to visit Tamara, the shopkeeper's daughter next door who had been a close friend since her family had moved in nine years ago. That was life at the forge, and it never varied. The work was not glamorous, but it was honest, and Jacob was good at his craft. He fully intended to spend the rest of his life at the forge, taking over for Rudolph when the man finally felt he was old enough to retire. He would marry Tamara, if she would have him, they would raise their children in Elizabeth's house, and one of them would one day take over the forge from him. That was the way it was supposed to be. As much as he might have dreamed of adventure when he was young, dreamed that his birth parents would come and find him and sweep him away to some exotic and lavish lifestyle, Jacob was happy with his life. He had never dreamed that, years after he gave up on that childhood flight of fancy, it would come true. It was supposed to have been any other Wednesday. They had received a massive order for nails after the latest storm, and it was looking like they were going to spend the whole day trying to fill the order. After a certain point Jacob got so into the rhythm that he didn't even notice the richly dressed man at the door. To his embarrassment, once he realized what had happened, Rudolph was forced to lay down his own hammer, and go greet the man. When the sound of their voices finally penetrated through his daze Jacob blushed, wiping his hands clean and making to hurry over. However, before he could move, Rudolph waved him back to the nails. Certain that he was going to get an earful at lunch, Jacob picked up the hammer again and settled back into his rhythm. Over the sound of the hammer, Jacob could barely make out the discussion, which got more intense and more hushed with every word exchanged. "Let me..." "... out of time..." "... can't just..." "... years to prepare... day was coming." "... didn't believe..." "Not my problem..." "He's my son!" Rudolph's cry was so desperate that it forced Jacob to halt mid swing. There was a strange, tight feeling in his gut, which was not assuaged at all by the cold words that followed. "He is not your son. Now, move aside and let me speak with him." "No." In all his years, Jacob had never seen Rudolph like this. He was a giant man, built for the forge, with hair and muscles that would rival any brown bear, but Jacob had never believed he could be menacing. The hammer in his hands, never meant to be anything but a tool, was suddenly and certainly capable of murder. Despite himself, the stranger took a step back. "Fine. You have until sunset. But you cannot change the inevitable." With that, the stranger turned away, quickly moving out of sight. Rudolph seemed to deflate. "Come on, lad," he said, pulling Jacob away from the half finished pile of nails. "We've got a lot to talk about, and not much time for it." Jacob remained silent as Rudolph led him back to the house. He could feel his chest tightening, and he felt like he was going to puke. What could be so important? Elizabeth looked up in surprise, her brow instantly wrinkling with worry when she saw the look on her husband's face. "Rudolph? What's going on?" "They came, Elizabeth. They actually came." "Oh." She looked like she was about to faint. "Please," Jacob said softly, his voice hoarse. "Please, you're scaring me. What's going on?" "There's a few things we didn't tell you, lad. About your mum." Rudolph walked over to the kitchen counter, pulling open a drawer and drawing out something shiny and familiar looking. Jacob was certain he should be panicking at this point, but he felt oddly calm. Almost as though some part of him had always known this was going to happen. He took a deep breath. "Tell me." "You know she left you here, that she couldn't take care of you. But what we didn't tell you was that she was also trying to protect you. She was on the run, hiding from people who wanted to hurt both you and her. People who wanted to kill you. She knew you'd be safe here, and that we would take care of you. She gave us this, to help pay for caring for you. I was always going to melt it down, sell the gold and the gems, but times never got bad enough for it to be necessary. And now... it belongs to you, I guess." With a slight tremor in his hand, Rudolph handed over the heavy gold, gem encrusted pendant. Jacob cradled it in both hands, his eyes wide. "What is it?" "It's a crest, lad. The royal crest of the kingdom of Helestia." Helestia. He knew that name. Everyone knew that name. It was a kingdom on the far side of the continent that had been plunged into a massive civil war twenty five years ago. The royal family had been executed, and a noble family had tried to take over. But, without the ordinance of a god, the land had fallen prey to monsters and demons. It was supposed to be nothing but a vacant plot of land, without an ordained heir to rule over it. Or, at least, that was what everyone had been told. "You mean... You're telling me..." "You are the heir to the throne of Helestia." "But... What? Why?" "Your mum told us, after things had settled, someone would come for you. But the years passed and no one came, and the kingdom remained in turmoil. We... never thought the day would come. Perhaps we hoped it wouldn't." Jacob sat in stunned silence. "Please, say something." Elizabeth spoke for the first time, tears rolling down her cheeks. "Rudolph and I, we love you. You are our son, blood or no blood." It was a further minute before Jacob could speak. It felt like his voice was locked in his throat. But, finally, he managed to speak. "It's okay. I get why you didn't tell me. I think. But... what happens now? Who was that man who came by the forge?" "Presumably he is the man who is going to escort you... home." Rudolph looked as though he was walking on broken glass, waiting for something to snap. "Home? What do you mean, home? This is home. I'm going to take over the forge, and marry Tammy, and..." "Jacob," Elizabeth's voice was soft. She hadn't spoken to him this way since he was just a boy. "You are a prince. The one and only surviving heir to the throne. You can't..." her words caught in her throat. "You can't stay here." "I'm not a prince. I'm a blacksmith. I don't know anything about being a prince." "Being a prince has nothing to do with knowing how to act like one." The three people gathered around the table whirled around at this unexpected fourth voice. Standing at the door was the stranger, backlit by the midday sun. "You said I had until sunset." "I thought you could use some help," he replied amicably. With a fluid motion he drew the sword belted to his waist, kneeling before Jacob and offering it to him. "Sir Michael Springborn at your service, your highness." "What are you doing that for?" Jacob mumbled. "Get up. Get up, I said!" The knight remained stubbornly in place. "Get up!" "He's not going to move until you take the sword, lad. Take it, and accept your duties as a prince of Helestia." "No," Jacob said, stumbling backwards and tripping over a stool. Only Rudolph's large arm kept him from falling against the table. The man drew him up, pulling him into a tight hug to hide the tears running down his face. "I know. I know. Elizabeth and I have had twenty years to adjust to the idea, and you only have a couple minutes. It isn't fair. But life rarely is. For the past years your duty has been to help me at the forge and be good to the people of this town. But now you need to save that broken kingdom, and the people who still want to call it home. And I know you can do it. You can do anything, if you want to." Rudolph let him go, wiping his face with a broad forearm. Jacob stood frozen, but then, almost against his will, his hands reached out and took the sword. "Do I still get until sunset?" "Don't make this any harder on yourself than it has to be," the knight replied gently, taking back his sword from limp fingers. "I need to pack." "The essentials are already prepared, and we don't want to be traveling with any more than we have to." "But..." "It is time to go, my liege." Desperate, he whirled around. "Will I ever see you again?" "Yes," Rudolph promised. "One way or another, we will see each other again." Once more he moved forward, followed closely by Elizabeth, and the two wrapped their son in a tight embrace. "Take a hammer from the forge," Rudolph whispered to him quietly. "Any one. As something to remember us by." And then they were gone, backing away, and Sir Michael was there, draping the heavy amulet around his neck and tucking it into his shirt. Numb and barely processing, the knight led Jacob to the door before he had another chance to protest. Then he was gone.