The video game Horizon Zero Dawn inspired me to write a love story and a drinking song. “Like Hammer & Steel” is about Masara, an Oseram craftswoman who impresses the Sun-King with her clever contraptions. She would prefer to have Erend’s attention but he’s in love with Aloy.
Masara is an “OC,” an original character, who does not appear in the video game.
“The Slag of Furnace Bottom” drinking song was inspired by a line I read while researching blacksmithing terms. “Slag” is a glass-like substance left behind in a furnace after the smelting or ore refining process. Blue or green slag from ancient copper foundries was used to make glassware, jewelry or glazes for ceramics, which is probably where the game developers got the idea for “slagshine glass” as a treasure item in Horizon Zero Dawn.
The title of this story is taken directly from a mission of the same name in Horizon Zero Dawn. When Aloy is in the Oseram village of Free Heap talking to Kaeluf, he says, “Jorgriz and Beladga are meant for each other, like hammer and steel. They just don’t realize it.”
In the game’s timeline, this story would take place after Erend finds his sister but before the quest “Looming Shadow” at the end of the game.
Rated PG-13. Contains innuendo, kissing, alcohol references, and non-graphic violence.
Also available on AO3 if you prefer to read it there.
* * *
LIKE HAMMER & STEEL
Erend shouted her name across the marketplace and she felt a blaze of emotion like a bellows blast to the heart. He barged past Carja guards, silk-clad nobles and crate-carrying couriers with all the grace of a boar in a garden — a large, magnificent boar wrapped in leather and metal.
Masara smiled at the Vanguard captain. “What can we drink to today?” she asked in greeting.
He gave the customary Oseram reply. “Your forge fires,” adding, “and a few hours of free time without scribes and courtiers in my face.”
“Is the Sun-King keeping you busy? I haven’t seen you for days.”
“Running me ragged, as usual.”
“You look fine to me.”
“You look… uh…” He stared at her for a moment. “Flushed. In a good way, I mean. Your cheeks are pink. Like you’ve been at the smelter. Warm today, isn’t it? You want a drink from the well?”
“I’d prefer a pint of Scrappersap.”
He walked with her from the machine scrap stalls to a fruit vendor, where she bought a wooden skewer of sliced melon.
“It will cool off soon, when the sun sets, but this also helps with the heat.” She held a piece of fruit to his lips.
When he opened his mouth to take it, she moved her hand. He tried again and she moved again, teasing him while they both laughed.
“Careful, I don’t want to bite you.” He grasped her wrist.
She felt the brush of his mustache as he took the chunk of melon from her fingers. If her cheeks were pink before, they must be bright red now, she could feel the heat in them.
She yanked her hand away as if touched by hot coals and changed the subject. “Are you going to the village inn tonight?”
He wiped juice from his chin. “Only if you’re singing ‘The Slag From Furnace Bottom‘.”
She’d met Erend in an Iron Hills tavern where she sang that very song. He’d been traveling from Mainspring to Meridian after delivering his sister’s killer to the council of Ealdormen.
Over a few too many drinks, they’d discussed dreams and disappointments, the derangement of machines, and the stone spires of the Sundom. To her surprise, he’d offered her a workshop of her own, one abandoned by his friend Olin in the heart of Meridian. No man had ever cared about her aspirations or her independence before. She thought it nothing more than a pub promise, until he showed up at her father’s forge the next morning, wondering why she wasn’t packed.
She fell in love with him on the spot. But it didn’t take long to see how much he wanted to stoke Aloy’s furnace, so Masara poured her passion into her work… and other distractions.
As they ate the last few pieces of fruit, she watched a Banuk hunter who followed them at a distance. He wore a heavy fur hood, part of the traditional garb of his people from the cold north but out of place in the Sundom.
Erend saw the Banuk, too. “You know him?”
She nodded. “He wants to speak to me. Alone.”
He scowled in the Banuk’s direction. “Is he bothering you?”
She tossed the empty skewer into a brazier. “The Banuk are very superstitious and–”
“Like the Nora?”
She sighed. Masara wished she could climb a Tallneck, rip the heart from a Thunderjaw with her bare hands, and fill Erend’s thoughts like Aloy of the Nora, but Masara was only a craftswoman. At least the Banuk appreciated her talents.
“They’re intrigued by the bird I made for the Sun-King and think I’m some kind of shaman or something.”
“Intrigued enough to travel all the way from Ban-Ur just to talk to you? Should I post a guard at your workshop?”
“Depends. How handsome is the guard?”
“I’m serious, Masara. If you think you’re in any danger–”
“He’s not going to hurt me, he wants to… impress me. They like contests.” She lowered her voice. “They think I’m the Sun-King’s lover and want to compete with him for my affection.”
“‘They’? There are more of them in Meridian? Just to see you?”
The idea seemed to get under his skin like a metal sliver.
“They started showing up after I gave Ramik a feather.”
Erend clenched his fists. “Who’s Ramik?”
“Another Banuk. I enjoyed his company so I gave him a metal feather when he left Meridian, as a gift, and a week later Ovinak showed up and said he wanted to ‘win’ a feather from the Birdmaker, too.”
“So, that’s Ovinak?”
“No, that’s Sammuk. Ovinak was last month.”
“Fire and blood!” Erend sputtered and fumed like wet wood in a furnace. “So tell them you’re not the Sun-King’s lover. No more contests.”
Her smoldering frustration flared into fury. “What do you care if I spend time with the Sun-King, Sammuk or a Snapmaw?”
Masara took the steps to the canal, where lamps lit the darkening path. She heard the jangling of Erend’s armor behind her as he caught up with her and matched her brisk pace.
“Do you actually spend time with the Sun-King when I’m not around?”
She huffed. “Why would I want to join him in his cage?”
“It’s a pretty comfortable cage.”
That had been the meaning behind the contraption she created for the Sun-King, a bird cage that looked like Avad’s pavilion, containing a single mechanical bird with a crest resembling his crown. Its metal feathers and jeweled eyes sparkled in sunlight and glowed like moonlight in the dark, but it could not fly away.
Avad kept the Sunbird beside his throne, and every noble who sought an audience with His Radiance came straight to her workshop, begging for one like it. She’d started making fish, fox and rabbit mechanisms, too. For the folk in Meridian Village and the Maizelands who were not as wealthy, she made fluttering butterflies and small metal flowers. Her workshop was so busy, she’d hired other Oseram women, like herself, who wanted something more than to count shards and sweep market stalls. She felt grateful to the Sun-King, but, no, she had not taken Ersa’s place.
“Your sister was his lover, not me.”
Erend scoffed. “Like I told Aloy, he’s not Ersa’s type.”
“No, of course not, they only conquered a kingdom together.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right but–”
“She was my sister. That’s not the sort of thing a brother wants to think about.” He spotted the Banuk lingering near the stone steps. “Hey! Uh… Sammuk! Enough already! Your little game is over! Beat it!”
When the Banuk didn’t respond, Erend removed his war hammer from its scabbard on his back and stomped the ground like a heavy-horned Trampler about to charge.
“You hear me? I said get lost.”
“He hears you,” she whispered, “and so do the other thirty people within earshot, you dross-headed son of a smelter.”
“I accept your challenge, Vanguardsman,” Sammuk called out.
Heads turned and people came from the market to see the commotion.
“It’s not a challenge, it’s a command, from the captain of the Sun-King’s personal guards. Leave us alone. We’re trying to have a private conversation.”
“We will settle this, hammer to spear, at dawn.” Sammuk raised one thick-muscled arm and pointed south. “I will be there, by the river, just outside the village.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll find you.”
The Banuk walked away without another word, but the bystanders filled the silence with their wagging tongues.
Erend returned the hammer to his back and rubbed his hands together. “So, now what?”
Masara shrugged. “I guess you’re fighting a Banuk.”
“Bah! I could fight him and five more like him, before breakfast and not need extra bacon. I fought three Ravagers–”
“I know, you fought three Ravagers with Aloy at Dimmed Bones,” she said, repeating a line she’d heard a hundred times. “Why don’t you go protect her from the big, bad Banuk?”
“She doesn’t need me.”
“And I do?”
Challenging a man who looked like he could eat a Ravager for breakfast, that didn’t bother Erend one bit, but her words seemed to upset him.
“No, I guess you don’t. You’ve got your workshop and apparently you’re doing a lot of…” He cleared his throat. “A lot of research into Banuk culture.”
“We’re not in the Claim anymore and I’m free to do as I please.”
“You are. So, what will you do tomorrow, after I beat Sammuk?”
“ If you beat Sammuk –”
“When,” Erend corrected.
“When he loses, he’ll probably leave Meridian.”
“But if he wins, he’ll still have to prove himself to me, if he wants a feather.”
“I have no idea what that means and I don’t want to know. But if I lose — and I’m not saying I will, because I won’t — I don’t want you to go with him.”
“I’m not getting married and moving to Ban-Ur. My forge is here.”
“I mean it, Masara. I don’t want you to be with him. Not even for one night.”
The look in his blue eyes made her pulse pound like a hammer.
“Then don’t lose.”
* * *
Masara didn’t sleep much but tossed and turned, sometimes cursing Erend for a fool and sometimes desperately poring over their conversation. Did he care for her the way she cared for him or was he merely looking after her as he would a sister?
An hour before dawn, a royal messenger arrived with two armed guards. “You are to travel with His Radiance to the Spire,” he told her.
She rushed to dress in the rust-colored Carja silk gown she wore when she’d presented her gift to the Sun-King, rather than her usual work clothes and leather apron. But where the women of the Sundom would embellish with necklaces, armbands and headpieces of gold or pretty machine parts, Masara wore adornments in the Oseram style with leather straps and metal rings. She pinned her hair with ornaments of metal butterflies, flowers and leaves from her workshop.
They hurried her through Meridian’s twisting maze of cobbled streets, to the Palace of the Sun. Erend, a cluster of his Vanguardsmen, and the advisor Marad waited on the platform behind the Sun-King’s pavilion.
She wondered if Erend managed to get any sleep. He glanced at Masara when she arrived, but when she met his gaze, he looked away. One of the Vanguard whistled and Erend barked at him to shut up. She heard the man’s rushed apology.
Marad approached her. “Masara Craftwoman, if you would permit me, I would like to discuss the complexity of the circumstances in which we find ourselves.”
“We find ourselves about to watch two thick-armed barrel tossers knock the spit out of each other, and they both deserve it,” she said. “I don’t know what’s complicated about that.”
“There is much more to consider. Certain noble families and members of the court believe that Erend fights for your honor on the Sun-King’s behalf, as it would cause a political incident if His Radiance were to fight — or banish the Banuk — himself. The Banuk themselves may even believe this.”
“They can believe I’ve got a copper backside,” she said, “doesn’t make it true.”
Erend coughed. Or laughed. Or both. She couldn’t tell.
Marad replied, “How things are perceived to be true can often have greater effect than the actual truth.”
“Is something only a Carja would say,” said Masara. “But I do sincerely regret any complications I’ve caused His Radiance.”
“I prefer to turn complications into opportunities,” said Sun-King Avad, entering from his private quarters. “Walk with me, Clever Masara.”
Erend and Marad followed behind them. The Vanguard took positions at a respectable distance but close enough to protect the Sun-King, if required.
“Marad tells me Meridian talks of nothing but the bird maker and her lovers’ duel,” said the Sun-King as they crossed the bridge connecting the palace to the city.
“They’re not my lovers, Your Radiance.”
“No, of course not. For you are the Sun-King’s concubine. According to the rumors, I have a preference for Oseram women.”
“In the Claim, we’d say you liked a woman with a firm grip on the hammer.”
Avad had a laugh as cool and sedate as his speaking voice. Masara couldn’t imagine a lifetime of such restraint and wondered if the Sun-King had shown more feeling to Erend’s sister Ersa.
She heard the marketplace before they reached it. Half of the city seemed to be there. Carja guards lined the streets, clearing the way for the Sun-King. Heads bowed as Avad passed, with murmurs of “Your Radiance.” Some of the Oseram cheered or called encouragement to Erend. Through all this, Masara heard the distant chanting of priests, their voices rising and falling like kites in the wind.
Yet the Sun-King conversed with her as if they were the only people in the world.
“You gave me a wondrous gift. It intrigues me more and more each day that passes.”
“I’m glad it pleases you, Your Radiance.”
“Could it be a spying device or perhaps a machine lure of some kind, like those used by Dervahl?”
“No! Steel to my soul, I would never create such a thing! I’ll destroy it right now if you doubt me.”
Her outburst seemed to amuse him, his lips curving in a slight smile. “Stay your righteous hand, Fierce Oseram. Destroying the Sunbird would be a crime against truth, beauty and the Sun itself.”
They entered a lift that lowered them to Meridian Village. It had just enough room for their small entourage and granted a few moments of relative quiet and privacy.
Avad spoke to her in a low, confidential tone. “If not a malicious device, then it must be a more sentimental one. But what is the nature of that sentiment, Clever Masara?”
Some, like the Banuk or the Carja nobles who bought her contraptions, thought it a romantic sentiment, and she was content to let them think so, as ridiculous as it was. But, summoned by the Sun-King himself to walk through the capital of his Sundom, it didn’t seem like a joke any longer.
“I created the Sunbird as a tribute to Your Radiance, in gratitude and appreciation for ending the Red Raids and uniting the tribes in peace.”
“Is that all?” He sounded disappointed.
The doors of the lift opened and they walked through Meridian Village. The roads here were also lined with people, but they were farmers and lower-ranking citizens. A year ago, that’s where she would have been, just another soot-smeared forge-daughter with more fingers than she needed to count the shards in her pocket.
“I enjoy the challenge of creating something new,” she said. “It’s my greatest joy in life, to imagine something and to make it come true.”
Masara had hoped her words would disavow any romantic notions, but the Sun-King seemed even more encouraged. Enthusiastic, even.
“It is my greatest joy, as well, to make policies that have never been made before, to improve the lives of my people, to draw impossible peace from unthinkable pain. It is thrilling to see a dream become reality, to see plans come to fruition, is it not?”
“I make trinkets, Your Radiance. I’ve never made anything as important as decisions that affect the lives of thousands of people.”
“Erend, I didn’t think modesty possible for the Oseram.”
Erend didn’t seem to like being drawn into the conversation or perhaps his mind was on the fight. He grumbled, “We’re full of surprises.”
“Do not underestimate yourself, Clever Masara,” said the Sun-King. “Your work requires an attention to detail, an understanding of the careful balance necessary for a thing — whether a musical bird or a Sundom — to function. You have a rare and valuable talent.”
“Thank you, Your Radiance.”
If half of Meridian turned out to see the Sun-King’s procession, the other half waited along the riverbank and in the fields between Meridian and the Alight, where the Spire rose black against the dark blue sky. The Vanguard escorted them to a viewing platform prepared with seats and banners. She wondered what lucky builders had worked on that all night.
The Sun-King and Marad took their seats but Masara waited near Erend. She wanted to speak to him, but didn’t know what she should say.
Orange light lit the jagged horizon and a turquoise breath blew out the embers of the stars.
“Well, uh, I gotta go pound a guy into scrap.”
As Erend walked away, she blurted out, “Be the hammer, not the anvil.”
He nodded. “Yeah, that’s the plan.”
Erend moved to the center of a stretch of grass marked out by ropes and ribbons. He gripped his weapon in both hands, planted his feet and waited. She took her seat beside the Sun-King.
When the first red rays of the sun touched the Spire, Sammuk joined Erend in the field. She spotted several other Banuk near the edge of the impromptu arena.
If Erend and Sammuk said anything to each other, she couldn’t hear it over the noise of the crowd. Sammuk began circling, looking for an opening. He made a quick jab with his spear, blocked by Erend’s hammer. He tried again and again, testing Erend’s reflexes. The Vanguard captain moved with efficiency. Weighed down with heavy armor and carrying a heavier weapon, he couldn’t afford to dance around like the Banuk. But his movements, when they occurred, were deft and direct.
They grappled, separated and Sammuk circled again. This went on for awhile, with the occasional crossing of weapons, kick of a boot, or elbow to the ribs. Erend used the handle of his hammer to bruise rather than swinging the weapon in a bone-breaking, deadly arc. The Banuk’s jabs seemed meant to tire and annoy Erend more than wound.
“They’re not trying to kill each other,” she said.
“Disappointed?” asked the Sun-King.
“Relieved. This should never have happened.”
“The same could be said for a great many things in life,” said Avad. “Yet, here we are. You are gifted at making the best of things, Clever Masara. I see that in the way you turn metal to marvel. It is a trait I admire. Perhaps we can make the best of this situation, together.”
The Banuk feinted, but Erend didn’t fall for it. He used the opportunity to knock Sammuk off balance. Sammuk tried to recover but Erend swept his leg and the Banuk landed flat on his back. Erend swung his hammer. Sammuk blocked and his spear broke in half.
Erend dropped the head of his hammer into Sammuk’s gut and leaned on the long handle, pinning him to the ground. She saw Sammuk raise his hands in concession. Erend helped him to his feet.
Sammuk left the arena with his companions while Erend waved to the spectators who cheered, clapped and exchanged shards for wagers lost and won.
The Sun-King did not touch her but his words felt like a caress. “Now is the moment to decide, Masara Birdmaker. Will you stay by my side and make the rumors true? Or will you run to Stalwart Erend and prove them false?”
She knew what she had to do. Even if Erend didn’t feel the same, she needed to show them she wasn’t Ersa, that she didn’t want to be treated like a sister by Erend or a lover by Avad. She needed the Sundom to know the truth, to buy her work for its own merits and not because they wanted favor from the Sun-King.
Wisps of hair fell from their bindings as she ran to the field. The crowd parted to let her pass.
When she reached Erend, he said, “Well, I guess that’s one Banuk who won’t be getting a feather. How many more do I –”
She grabbed his collar, raised herself on her toes, and kissed him before he could finish. When she let go, he wrapped both arms around her and pulled her back.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I don’t think I heard you the first time.”
He kissed her again, but this time she didn’t let go until one of the Vanguard said, “Captain? His Radiance is returning to the Sun-Palace.”
“I think I disappointed him,” said Masara.
“He’ll get over it,” said Erend. “You can make him a singing trout or something.”
Only then did she notice the blood on his sleeve.
“You’re wounded. I’ll find a healer.”
“No, I’m fine, just… oh…”
He slumped against her.
He laughed and straightened up. “It’s not my blood, it’s his. Look, my shirt’s not even torn. Fire and spit, you were actually worried. I never knew how much you cared. You do care, right? That’s what this means?”
“Yes, I care. But…”
He looked grim. “But what?”
“You’re in love with Aloy.”
“I’m…? Wha–? No.” He shook his head. “She’s a cute kid, good in a fight, but way too skinny for me. She doesn’t drink Scrappersap, feed me fruit or call me a — what was it? A dross-headed son of a smelter? And she doesn’t know the words to ‘The Slag of Furnace Bottom, so — bah.’”
“What made you change your mind?”
“Change my mind? I’ve never had a mind to change. Wait, that makes me sound like an idiot. What I mean to say is that I’ve been crazy about you since we met in Iron Hills.”
“And you didn’t think of telling me?”
“I was afraid you might feel like you owed me something for bringing you to Meridian and setting you up in Olin’s place. I wanted you to like me for me. But then I had to go and show off, ‘oh, hey, let me introduce you to the Sun-King,’ and you went and made him a bird. Now he’s interested, why would you want me?”
“I told you, I don’t want to be with him.”
“Yeah, all that power — and wealth — and abs — it would be awful. I had to listen to him flirt with you all the way to the Spire.”
“As I’ve listened to you talk about Aloy for weeks. Why would you want me instead of a fire-haired Nora who helped you find your sister?”
“We’re a pair, aren’t we?”
“Like hammer and steel.”
“Marry me.” Her eyes widened in surprise and he rushed to add, “Or don’t. You know, that’s fine, too. Whatever you want to do. Or not do. Oh, I really am an idiot. You keep telling me you want to be independent and I’m naming our children. Not that we should have children, but — if — you wanted to, and if we had a girl, could we call her Ersa? Okay, that’s all I’m going to say. Shutting up now.”
“I love you.”
He smiled. “I love you, too.”
* * *
“The Slag of Furnace Bottom” – An Oseram drinking song
An ingot of gold is a sight to behold
One of steel not soon forgotten
But there isn’t a one
In the Claim or beyond
Like the slag of Furnace Bottom
She’s not one for jewels or the fine Carja fools
Who wear silks and summer blossoms
No, she isn’t refined
But you won’t waste your time
With the slag of Furnace Bottom
You can search every place from Rustwash to Embrace
You can delve each cave and grotto
But there is no crevasse
With a nice piece of glass
Like the slag of Furnace Bottom.
When you’ve smelt all the ores from the south to the north
And hammered ‘em til you’re numb
When your tongs need a rest
She’ll do what she does best
She’s the slag of Furnace Bottom
* * *
In the game, Aloy rests in Olin’s home before the final battle against Hades and the Eclipse cultists. I think we can assume Masara has moved into the Sun Palace with Erend, leaving Olin’s house available for Aloy.
~ J.L. Hilton
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