Day 20: High Stakes
Welcome to day 20 of the Advent blogs, and today’s post is something of an extravaganza! Written by Kate Griffiths-Lambeth (@KateGL) who regularly shares her excellently researched views over on her own blog, this post is definitely something special. So, take your time, sit back and enjoy the story…
Artwork for today (and every day!) is by the brilliant Simon Heath and today he has excelled all expectations with his wonderful illustrations throughout this wonderful post.
Once upon a time, in a cave high above a valley, there lived a savage frost giant – he was set in his ways and his wrath, when challenged, was terrifying. The villagers living on the edge of his mountain were in a constant fear of displeasing him and, as a result, they were timid and browbeaten. When he made demands they were careful to tell him what he expected to hear, even when the answers were false. The other giants who lived nearby were also wary of him; most of the time they kept their distance. However, occasionally they would come together to challenge each other in competitions to see who could hurl huge cannon balls the furthest.
For many years the frost giant had relied on the elderly village blacksmith to make the cannon balls. As his cave was at the top of a cliff, the giant would haul the old man up to him, in a basket, to give him his orders. When the blacksmith passed away the villagers were alarmed, as he had left no heirs and there was nobody with the knowledge and skills to take on his business. In haste an advertisement was placed in the national press, to secure a new incumbent, before the giant decided that it was time for his next tournament and found the blacksmith gone.
A few days later a traveller arrived at the village and asked to be considered for the role. At first the inhabitants were reluctant, as the applicant was a woman. Many suspected that she lacked the strength required to wield metal and cast the cannon balls, whilst others feared that the frost giant would be displeased by such an unorthodox appointment. However, as no other candidates responded (probably out of fear of the giant), the community agreed to give her a go.
The very next day, the frost giant bellowed that he was bored and demanded that the other giants be summoned for a challenge. He shouted for the blacksmith to come and take his order and threw down the basket on its rope. The poor blacksmith had not yet even lit the forge fire; she had nothing to prove her skills. The villagers were nervous, in case her claims of proficiency were false. They did not wish to be associated with her for fear that she enraged the giant. However, as they had no alternative, they pushed the poor girl into the basket and watched as she was hauled up to the cave above. When the ice-clad ogre saw the young woman he gave out a great roar, but she did not quail. She simply asked what he needed and promised to deliver his request. The giant snarled – what use could a feeble female be in a role designed for men? However, his desire for new cannon balls was such that he did not ban her from smithing, although he openly sneered that he doubted her ability to accomplish anything more sophisticated than producing cinders.
On being lowered down to the village, the blacksmith ignited the fire, melted iron ore with charcoal and lime and cast the mixture directly into moulds at the blast furnace’s base. When these solid orbs had cooled, she loaded them, one at a time, into the basket and the giant hauled them up to his lair. No thanks nor acknowledgement was given but the following morning the giant’s companions arrived and the competition commenced. Without considering the impact of their acts, the giants hurled the huge balls across the valley. They smashed their way through hedges and over fields. A goat was killed, a barn destroyed, crops flattened and the villagers hid in their homes, waiting for the onslaught to finish. The blacksmith watched the devastation, heard the children’s cries and pondered why these people allowed themselves to live in fear and persecution.
Almost as soon as the contest started it was over, the giant’s boisterous friends left and life in the region slipped back into its ever deepening grooves, but the unmentioned fear of the next session remained hung over the people like a fog.
The blacksmith soon earned her place in the community, her skills at shaping metal and shoeing horses were impressive, people respected her and her open helpful manner earned her friends. There were particular group of fourteen individuals with whom she forged close bonds:
- a jovial bear-hug of a man, who carried with him (and added to) a richly illustrated book of wisdom;
- an energetic, observant fellow with a bicycle who was often followed by a black dog;
- a warm and welcoming mother of twins, who always supported those who asked for help and who was good at running and running things;
- an intelligent witness, with eyes deep as Orcadian pools, who knew his own mind and was a good judge of others; he kept in his pocket some pebbles, collected on the beach with his sons – worn smooth by the changing tides;
- An eloquent knowledge-sharer, with fiery passion and a taste for ale, who had great tales to tell, especially those that allowed him to wave his red flag with gusto;
- A frog charmer, book-worm and dreamer, from North of the Border, with a lilt to her voice and a warmth to her heart that endeared her to those who knew her (even those she didn’t feed);
- a wise raven-like academic, who had roosted in the orient for a while and who nurtured the young beneath the wings of a dark cloak tied with red tape;
- a mercurial jester, clever and quick, who provided accurate and at times outspoken observations on the world, hugely loving but, driven by a desire to be liked, used his jangling pig’s bladder at times more often than some found comfortable;
- an ancient soul, with the eyes of an angel and a fresh flower in her hair, who shared the wonders and love of her world with all;
- an engaging but independent bard, travelling his own path, with a guitar to strum slung over his shoulder, a story to tell and a song for most occasions;
- A man from the North, with a compassion in his soul that made his eyes sparkle and quick humour and supportive honesty in his words that made those around him shine and glow with confidence;
- An artistic confectioner, who made smooth, strong and silky chocolate from beans plucked with passion from the Spice Isles, and who could charm the bees from the trees and get them to offer up their honey;
- A calm observer with a beating heart and a heart for the beat, always gentlemanly and often surprising; a capable gardener who shared his produce, squash and alliums as the season offered, as well as his thoughts, as gifts; and
- A young girl, the daughter of cheese makers, with hair like spun gold and a ready smile, who skipped and danced with joy at all she saw around her.
The more time the blacksmith spent in the community, getting to know the people around her, the greater she wished to make their world a better place. At first she did it by making useful pots and tools, she progressed to ornaments, such as pergolas and decorative well-tops, adding charm to their gardens, and then she made useful communal artefacts, like wrought iron benches for the villagers to rest upon. However, she knew that these were only superficial improvements. If she was to effect lasting change she needed to tackle the root of the threat that hung over the people, filling their souls with dread.
It was December and holly, ivy and mistletoe festooned the doors of the houses, candles shone in the windows and mulled wine bubbled on stoves to be offered to any who stopped for a chat. One evening, the blacksmith sat by her fire, contemplating what gift she could give to her friends. Little figurines would be easy, but she wanted something more memorable/impactful. The flames on the log burning in the hearth flared into life, just as the mulled wine started to boil, and that was sufficient to spark her imagination, she realised what she had to do.
As it was still early evening, she slipped out of her house and paid a visit to each of her close friends. She chatted briefly, but was careful to leave with an object secreted in her pocket: a yet to be illustrated page torn from a book; the hair of a dark dog, a worn lace discarded from a running shoe; a pebble; a small piece of red cloth; some crumbs of tattie scone; a strip of no-longer-needed red tape; a jovial but slightly battered bell; a few flower petals; a broken guitar string; an eyelash; a piece of chocolate; an onion; and a small morsel of golden cheese.
On Christmas Eve each household fetched in its Yule Log, carrying it with ceremonial pride and christening it with wine or cider before setting it ablaze. The blacksmith was no different, only she had taken care not to trim all the branches off her piece of ash, one stout bough remained, like a long, raised arm reaching out from the trunk. She lit the log at the end near the branch, using beeswax to encourage the wood to light.
That night, when all had gone to sleep, the blacksmith remained awake. Earlier in the week she had dried oak logs in a kiln, to make “white coal” that would provide the extra heat required to melt metal. During the afternoon she had lit her furnace, sealing the exterior with mud to lock in the warmth. The heat, emanating from its opening, was like a dragon’s breath as she reached towards the entrance to throw in smelted iron and the objects that she had collected from her friends. Cast iron’s quality is derived from a fusion of iron and carbon melded together when the mixture is molten – the blacksmith needed the objects to provide the metal’s strength but, in addition, she had selected each piece with care, as a symbol of friends and fellowships, to add a little magic.
While the mixture melted to form a glowing liquid and seeped into a bowl at the base of the furnace, the blacksmith took a tray of damp sand and, using a slim wooden wedge as a template, made fourteen, identical, deep indentations. Taking up the bowl of liquid metal in her tongs, with care she poured the contents into the hollows. Steam and sparks filled the air, but she remained focused. Eventually all fourteen shapes were filled with solidifying metal. It was not long before she could take the tray outside to let the night-time’s chill speed the process. Once the metal was cool enough, she prized the shapes from their moulds – fourteen shining stakes gleamed in the moonlight. Along with her hand-hammer, she bundled these into a leather bag that she slung over her shoulder. Finally, she cracked the metal poker hard against the base of the smouldering ash branch protruding from the Yule log, causing it to snap from the trunk. This proved an excellent long-handled torch, blazing at its tip. Using strips of cloth, she was able to bind the cool end to her upper arm so that the flames shed light from above her head, while she retained the ability to use her hands without too much inconvenience. Thus equipped, she made her way to the cliff leading up to the frost giant’s cave.
Using the hammer, she strove to drive the stakes into clefts in the rock and thus provided herself with handholds and footholds on which to haul and stand. Slowly and laboriously she climbed her way up the cliff. It was nearly midnight when she reached the mouth of the cave. She could hear the giant grunting and snoring, lost in his dreams – he was not disturbed by the gentle glow from the burning ash wood. It was only when she was standing inside the entrance, had unbound the torch from her arm and was holding it aloft, that she gently called to him and he awoke.
“Who dares disturb me at this hour?”
He bellowed and abruptly rose up from the rags of his sordid bed. The poor blacksmith was terrified, she had hoped to come and reason with him on behalf of the village, but his face was a frozen mask of rage. He commenced lumbering towards her, a club from beside his bed grasped in his vast fist. His fury and menace were almost palpable. She dreaded him charging at her, knocking her out of the cave mouth to a tumbled death at the foot of the cliff. In self defence she held the torch in front of her, to try and force him to keep his distance. Instead of stopping, the giant blundered straight onto the fiery end of the branch. As the flames touched his frozen skin an extraordinary thing happened, the ice cracked and split, like fine lines in fractured metal, spreading across his torso and then it began to melt. A veritable stream started flowing from the giant’s feet towards the cave’s entrance and poured down, over the line of stakes leading up to his lair. As the ice melted the giant himself shrank. He dwindled, while water drained, eventually the blacksmith had a figure the size of a young child huddled in fear on the ground in front of her.
Bending down to him she gently reached out her hand. Tentatively, the being touched her fingers and then looked up into her face. His fearful eyes filled her with pity. She moved closer and held him, in the warmth of her strong arms, as the last melt-water dripped away.
It was nearly dawn when the blacksmith lowered what looked like a small boy in the basket to the ground below and then followed down herself. She took him back to her home, dried and dressed him and put him to bed. The villagers were amazed on Christmas afternoon to see their friend accompanied by what could have been her son. He enjoyed playing marbles with the cheese makers’ daughter and proved excellent at manning the bellows for the blacksmith’s forge. Looking up towards the giant’s cave, a cascade of sparkling icicles shone and glinted with beauty in the pale sunshine, as they clung to metal spikes. They hung there until the start of the New Year and the glinting stakes remained thereafter as a testament to the blacksmith’s endeavours. She knew they would never have been achieved without the help of precious friends, who gave her the courage and the confidence to do the right thing.
I staked my career on a number of things this year – the delivery of an industry leading Leadership Development Programme (which has already made a demonstrable impact); orchestrating an employee engagement survey that took a genuine temperature check and produced world-class scores; agreeing and articulating values; ensuring clarity of understanding of the vision and the establishment of long-term strategic objectives, with a clear linkage between performance and results. I could not have achieved all of this by myself – I have worked with some of the most amazing people, many of whom I hope will read this post. I treasure wonderful memories including:
- Sipping Scotch whilst contemplating Shackleton and leadership with a friend who had the strength and vision to change his own life;
- Seeing a man I admire raise awareness of mental health within the workplace and the birth of a movement;
- Being inspired by a lady who called others to action;
- Sharing ideas with and learning from erudite academics in Cambridge;
- Celebrating the co-publication of an extraordinary, collaborative book of HR blogs curated by a man I have the honour of calling my friend;
- Setting the world to rights, as the sun set over the sea, in Cape Town;
- Being a Dragon assessing employees’ suggestions for a leading NHS Foundation Trust – just one of my roles as a governor; and
- Sharing precious time with family and friends.
I have cheered people on as they have attained World Records, mourned friends and great leaders who taught me what I should aspire to become and I have made some wonderful acquaintances with creative and inspirational individuals. Thank you! You inspired me, enlighten me, encourage and sustain me. I am humbled by your skills, patience and perseverance. I can only thank you for being part of my story and, remember, inside most giants there is only a small child…