“You can drop that oven by the furnace, lad,” Flint said as he led the way into the clutter of his shop.
With a groan of relief, Tanis let go of the heavy sack. It plummeted to the floor.
“I didn’t mean that literally,” Flint growled at the winded-looking half-elf as he carefully set down the sack that had rested on his own shoulder.
“Sorry,” Tanis said wearily, rubbing his aching arm.
The two had just returned from an ore-gathering trip, though Tanis wondered now how he had ever managed to let the dwarf talk him into it. An hour or two ago, in the early morning sunshine, Flint had led the way south out of the city, empty sacks in hand. After a pleasant mile, the forest had given way to a rocky outcrop, littered with rusty-looking chunks of stone that Flint said was iron ore. Ten minutes later, Tanis had found himself staggering under the weight of the load the dwarf had lifted onto his shoulders.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to bring a horse to carry this back?” Tanis had asked through clenched teeth.
“A horse?” Flint said with a snort. “Are you daft? Reorx! No dwarf in his right mind would trust a crazy animal to carry his ore.”
Tanis knew there was little point in arguing with the dwarf. Flint had lifted his sack—which must have held five times the ore Tanis’s had—as if it were filled with feathers and started back toward the city. Tanis had followed, stumbling along as best he could, reminding himself to be wary next time Flint suggested they go for “a nice little walk.”
Tanis had visited with Flint nearly every day, ever since the Speaker sent the dwarf a message late in the evening a week ago, asking him to go to the half-elf in his quarters in the palace. They’d spoken of precious little of importance in that visit—weather and Solace and metalworking and carving—but Tanis, looking a bit battered, seemed to draw some comfort from the meeting. Since then, the half-elf’s scrapes and bruises had nearly faded, but the rift between him and the Speaker’s heir would be much longer in healing.
“But how are you going to turn that rock into iron?” Tanis asked now as the dwarf lifted the heavy cover of the furnace out behind the shop.
“You’ll only learn by doing,” Flint told him. “At least, that was what my father’s father, old Reghar Fireforge, used to say. Or so my mother says he said.”
The furnace was round, as tall as the dwarf, made of thick, fire-scorched mudbricks. The bottom was funnel-shaped with a small hole, and below that rested a crucible the size of a helmet. Under Flint’s direction, Tanis half-filled the furnace with layers of iron ore, hard coal, and a chalky kind of rock that Flint called limestone. Through a small door in the bottom of the furnace, Flint lit the coal, then Tanis helped him replace the lid.
“What now?” Tanis asked.
“We wait,” Flint said, dusting his sooty hands off. “Once that coal starts to burn hot, the iron will melt right out of the rock, leaving the slag behind, and drip down into the crucible. But that will take a good day, so we might as well turn our hands to another task.”
Flint showed Tanis what the iron would look like after it had collected in the bowl: a heavy, black lump he called “pig iron,” though Tanis didn’t think it looked at all piglike.
“Is that what you forge into swords and daggers?” Tanis asked, and Flint guffawed.
“You need a few lessons in metalsmithing, lad,” he commented.
“Me?” Tanis asked. He had watched the dwarf at work at the forge, and he knew how much strength and will Flint exerted to force the metal into the shape he desired. How could Tanis ever make something as hard as iron do what he wanted?
The sparks in Flint’s eyes told Tanis there was no room for argument. The half-elf listened carefully as the dwarf explained that pig iron was too brittle to make a good blade; it had to be heated to melting again. Flint showed Tanis how, putting the pig iron in a crucible and setting it amidst the coals in the fire pit by the heavy iron anvil. He made Tanis work the bellows until the coals looked like liquid jewels. As the iron melted, it gave off curls of black smoke. When it cooled, it would be wrought iron, Flint explained, and not nearly so brittle as pig iron.
“But if it’s too soft, it couldn’t possibly make a good sword,” Tanis complained.
Flint nodded. With a pair of heavy tongs, he heated a lump of wrought iron in the coals until it was glowing hot. He set it on the face of the anvil and sprinkled it with a fine black dust that looked almost like coal dust, except it was shinier. Flint called it Reorx’s Breath.
“You see, long ago,” Flint said, “a wicked thane ordered his smith to forge an iron sword that would not lose its edge. If the smith failed, he would be put to death. It seemed an impossible task, but the smith was a favorite of Reorx’s, and the god breathed upon the smith’s soft iron sword, making it strong and hard, so that its edge would long remain bright and true.”
With his hammer, Flint folded the glowing lump of metal over on itself and then pounded it flat. He heated it in the coals again, sprinkled on more of the black dust, and then pounded it flat once more. He repeated this several times.
“What we have now,” Flint said with satisfaction, holding the hot lump of metal with the tongs, “is a piece of metal that will be hard enough to be strong without being so brittle that it will easily break. This, Tanis, is steel.”
Tanis gazed at the glowing metal in a new light. Gold was beautiful, and elves delighted in silver, but in these dark times, steel was the most precious substance on Krynn.
“What are you going to do with it now?” Tanis asked.
“I’m not going to do anything with it,” Flint rejoined. “You are.”
“I can’t forge steel!”
“Neither could I until I tried,” Flint said gruffly, and he thrust a heavy hammer into Tanis’s hand.
Obviously, there was no way out of this. Tanis sighed. First he had to decide what to make, but that was easy enough. For a long time, he had wanted a hunting knife like Porthios had.
Guiding his hands, the dwarf showed Tanis how to heat the steel, how to hold it on the anvil with the tongs, and how to strike it with the hammer so that none of the hot, flying scale hit his hand.
“Don’t just flail at it, lad,” Flint said. “It’s your will as much as your arm that shapes the steel. Picture what you want it to look like. Get the image good and clear. Then strike the steel and see what happens.”
Tanis followed instructions, thinking how much easier it was to learn from Flint or Miral than from Tyresian. And the knife began to take shape.
Tanis felt a warmth creep up his arm and into his chest. It’s only the heat of the forge, he told himself, but somehow he knew that wasn’t so, and he thought that maybe he understood a little of what Flint felt when he stood here at the anvil, discovering a blade in a lifeless lump of metal and releasing it with fire and hammer, with heart and mind.
“Now quench it while it’s still red-hot,” Flint said, and Tanis plunged the thin, pointed strip of steel into the half-barrel of water by the anvil. Steam hissed into the air, glowing red in the light of the furnace. “Quenching makes the metal harder,” Flint explained.
Tanis pulled the blacked, rough strip of steel out of the water and looked at it critically. “It doesn’t really look like a knife.”
“Nonsense,” Flint growled. “Your knife is in there, all right. It just needs to be polished and to have its edge sharpened on the grindstone. You do that, and bind a hilt to it, and you’ll see.”
Tanis grinned then. The strip seemed lopsided, and it wasn’t exactly flat, but it would be his knife. “Thank you, Flint,” he said, but the dwarf shook his head.
“You’re the one who did it, not me,” Flint answered.
Flint reflected. The autumn days were dwindling. The leaves of the aspen trees shone in the sun like burnished gold, the oaks like beaten copper. More than once, now, the dawn light had sparkled off a glazing of frost on the grass and trees. But as the morning wore on, the frost would melt, the sun would burn the damp mist from the streets, and by afternoon, although the clear air was cool, the warm light spilling through the city would be drowsy.
Behind Flint’s shop stood a low wall of mossy stones, and beyond it stretched a small meadow, which ended in the ivy-tangled wall of a grove of aspen and pine. Unlike the countless gardens and courtyards of Qualinost, the meadow and the grove were not tended. Rather, they were simply remnants of the forest, left as they had been since before Kith-Kanan had led his people to Qualinesti. It was a reminder of the time when there had been no city, and no elves, but only the deep, shaded forest and the music of the wind.
Sometimes Flint would take a break from the smoky heat of the forge and come sit on the wall, pulling the clean air into his lungs as he dangled his stumpy legs over the edge. The grove of trees across the meadow tended to make him think of his journey from Solace, through the forest of Qualinesti, and once again he found himself wondering if he shouldn’t be on the road soon. These days are bright and warm, Flint, he told himself, but sure as steel is strong, winter’s just around the corner. And while I wouldn’t doubt its touch is a mild one here within these woods, in the rest of the world that won’t be the case, and if you were fool enough to try, you’d be frozen clean through long before you ever reached Solace.
But there always seemed to be one more thing he had to do before he could possibly consider leaving. He had promised the Lady Selena an entire set of goblets, crafted to look like the gilded blooms of tulips. Those alone had taken him a fortnight of work, but when they were finished, he found himself hurrying to fashion a pair of intricate wedding bands he had promised a young noble anxious to court an elf maiden. And then the captain of the Speaker’s guard stepped through the door of the shop, despairing of the balance of his long sword, which he claimed the elven smiths had had no luck in correcting. The problem was so obvious to Flint’s eye—the decorative handguard on the hilt had thrown the balance completely off—that he would’ve thought a good bit less of himself if he hadn’t agreed to help. Sure as his beard kept growing, the tasks kept coming.
Other than a new set of clothes, compliments of the Speaker, Flint looked hardly different from the day he had first set foot in Qualinost, with his dark hair tied behind his neck and his bushy beard tucked neatly into his belt. However, he had traded his heavy, iron-soled boots for a pair made of soft gray leather, and although his feet were still twice as big as any elf’s, at least his footsteps didn’t sound quite as much like thunder now.
And his clothes … Green wasn’t Flint’s usual color, but the tailor the Speaker had sent to him four days ago had clucked his tongue and shaken his head at the rust-colored wool Flint had picked out for his new autumn outfit. The old elf insisted on emerald green, but Flint protested that it was too gaudy. However, when Flint finally tried it on, the old tailor clapped his hands.
“You think so?” Flint had asked, scowling at himself in the polished silver mirror.
“Indeed,” the tailor responded firmly. “You look positively dashing.”
“You do, Flint,” Tanis had said from his seat in a corner.
Dashing? Flint had thought, looking at his reflection critically, and then he grinned at himself. “Well, maybe I do, at that,” he said. Tanis laughed.
Now, the half-elf, brownish red hair bouncing, sprinted around the corner of Flint’s beetle-browed shop—made more squatty-looking by the contrast with nearby elven homes.
“Lucky me. Company,” Flint snorted, though he smiled all the same. “Where’s that imp Laurana? I’m surprised she didn’t drag you off to play some noisy game or some such.”
“She tried,” Tanis said. He plucked two apples off a laden tree, tossed the better one to Flint, found a comfortable spot on the wall, and leaned back and closed his eyes, letting the sunlight fall on his eyelids. With a start, Flint realized that despite the slightly pointed ears and the faint slant to his eyes, Tanis looked very much like a human child at the moment. It made the dwarf think of Solace again, and a twinge of homesickness gripped him.
“I didn’t feel like a game, not today,” Tanis resumed. “Besides, Gilthanas was with her, and I don’t think he wanted me to join in.” He opened his eyes.
“Bah,” Flint said, tossing his apple core over his shoulder and wiping his hands on his beard. “I’m sure Laurana’s brother doesn’t feel that way.”
Tanis said seriously, turning toward the dwarf, “He doesn’t want to have anything to do with me anymore. I always thought he was like my own brother, but now all he seems to want to do is follow Porthios around like a puppy. And Porthios certainly never acted like my brother.”
A shadow passed over the half-elf’s rugged features. Flint sighed and laid one of his strong, calloused hands on Tanis’s shoulder. “Now, lad,” he said softly, if gruffly, “there’s no telling why folk do what they do sometimes. But don’t hold it against him. I’m sure it will all work out.”
“I’ve got a pretty good idea why he’s been acting that way,” Tanis said, but didn’t elaborate. And Flint, sensing that there were areas in the half-elf’s life in which he needed his privacy, said nothing. Of course, Flint had wormed the tale of the Porthios-Tanis match out of Laurana—only the gods knew where she’d found it out—but the dwarf had forgone mentioning his knowledge to his new friend.
They basked in the sun for a time, and eventually Tanis asked Flint to tell him more about the outside world and of Solace. It was a common theme. The boy couldn’t seem to get enough of such tales.
“But then what did you do after the four highwaymen had knocked out the guards?” Tanis asked him. Flint was relating the tale of the day a band of brigands had stirred up trouble in the Inn of the Last Home.
“Well, I’ll tell you, lad, it was looking dark. So I hefted my hammer in my hand—” He grabbed a stray stick firmly for emphasis—“and then I … er … and then I …” Flint was suddenly conscious of Tanis’s shining eyes gazing at him.
“And then you what, Flint?” Tanis asked excitedly. “You did battle with all four at once?”
“Well, er, not exactly,” Flint said. Somehow this all sounded better when he told it after a few tankards of ale. “You see, there was this stray mug on the floor, and, well, it being dark, and, mind you, I wasn’t watching my feet …”
“You tripped,” Tanis said, a smile lighting his face.
“I most certainly did not trip!” Flint fairly roared. “I feinted, and my hammer caught the leader of the brigands square in the forehead, just like that.” He smacked a half-rotted apple with the stick. The apple exploded in a juicy spray, and Tanis got the rather graphic point.
“That’s wonderful!” Tanis said, and Flint snorted as if it were nothing.
“Sometimes I wish I had been born in Solace,” Tanis said softly then, looking off into the distance, to the north, where he knew Solace lay. He tossed the apple core away, and bid Flint farewell for the day.
True to the hopeful words the Speaker had uttered when the dwarf had first arrived in Qualinost, Flint and the Speaker had become unlikely friends during the course of the past months. Half a year ago, had anyone told Flint he would find himself companion to the elven lord of Qualinesti, he would have bought the fellow a tankard for telling such an uproarious joke. Although there seemed a world of difference between the tall, regal elf lord and the short, uncomplicated dwarf, each had an openness in his point of view that made bridging the gap a simple step.
And so Flint had found himself walking through the palace gardens side by side with the Speaker, talking of distant lands and ages, or sitting at the Speaker’s right at a courtly dinner. There were grumbles from some of the courtiers, of course, but Flint discovered from whom Porthios and Laurana had inherited their stubbornness.
In recent weeks, especially, Flint had grown as close to Solostaran as he had to Tanis. The Speaker’s ceremonial guards, each wearing a breastplate decorated with the emblem of the Sun and the Tree wrought in silver filigree, didn’t bother to stop him at the Speaker’s anteroom at the Tower anymore. Rather, they greeted Flint with a grin and ushered him forward to knock on the door to the Speaker’s glass-walled anteroom. And the Speaker’s private servants had strict orders to keep the silver bowl on the Speaker’s desk filled with the dried fruits and glazed nuts that the dwarf favored. Today, the autumn sun streamed through the glass onto the new green rushes that had been strewn upon the floor, and the light in the room had a soft, heavy quality, like the light in a forest clearing.
The Speaker said he hoped Tanis wasn’t becoming a pest by following Flint so closely.
“Bah,” Flint said with a snort. “I can’t imagine hanging about a smoky forge with an ill-tempered dwarf like me can be all that much of a joy. But don’t you worry over Tanis. He’s a good lad.”
The Speaker smiled and nodded. “Yes, I think he is.” He stood up then and moved back toward the window, gazing out into the distance as if pausing to consider something. Then he turned around and regarded the dwarf with his clear eyes. “Tanis means a great deal to me, Flint, and I think he is your friend as well.
“I know you’ve heard the circumstances of his birth, how my brother, Kethrenan, was slain by a band of rogue humans and how his wife, Elansa, was attacked.” He sighed. “But I don’t think you understand how dark a time that truly was. Those months Elansa carried the child within her, it seemed as if she had died already herself. She appeared lost. And when he was born, she passed on. But Tanis was son of my brother’s wife. I could not turn my back on him.”
It seemed almost as if the Speaker were arguing with someone who opposed him, rather than telling a tale to a friend. “And so I brought him with me here, to raise as my own child.”
He sighed and then returned to sit facing the dwarf. Flint fidgeted with the end of his beard. It was a hard tale. “There were those who did not care for my decision,” the Speaker said softly, and Flint looked up. “Not all seemed able to forgive the child the circumstances of his birth. A child, Flint—a tiny child! What fault of his was it that my brother was dead? What fault of his that Elansa had gone as well?” A trace of remembered anguish flickered across the Speaker’s face.
“And those who didn’t accept him …?” Flint asked softly.
“They remain, and as is the way of my people, little have they changed. I am still unsure just how much of it Tanis has noticed—though I suspect there is much the lad does not tell me. I can only hope his will be a strong enough heart to bear it. I suppose it was little enough favor I did, bringing him here. But do you see why it had to be so, Flint?”
The Speaker regarded the dwarf intently, his dark blond hair glinting in the strong light. “Despite the peace we have wrought for ourselves here, these last centuries since the Cataclysm have been dark ones, times of sorrow and upheaval. Tanis is a child of that sorrow. And if I can’t bring joy to his life, then how can the sorrow be healed for any of us? For the elves or for Qualinesti?” The Speaker shook his head, and then smiled faintly. “I’m afraid I am rambling.” He stood, and Flint followed suit. “I’m sorry to have taken so much of your time. I simply wanted to tell you I am glad that you’ve been a friend for Tanis. I fear you are probably his first, aside from his cousins.”
Flint nodded and clomped to the door, but before he left, he turned around and gazed at his elven friend, his blue eyes thoughtful. “Thank you,” Flint said gruffly. “He’s one of my two first as well.” And the dwarf left, shutting the door behind him.
The dwarf’s first stay in Qualinesti ended at last. He and Tanis and the others stood at the edge of the city, by the bridge that crossed the confluence of the two rivers, the one of Tears and the other of Hope. The morning was gray and cool, and there was a sharpness to the air that smelled like snow.
“So you really have to go,” Tanis said softly, gazing across the ravine.
“Aye, I think it’s time I did,” Flint answered. “If I’m lucky, I’ll beat the first snowfall home.”
Tanis only nodded. “I’ll miss you,” he said finally.
“Humph!” Flint said gruffly. “You’ll most likely forget me inside of ten minutes, I wouldn’t wonder.” But weathered skin crinkled around the dwarf’s eyes, and Tanis smiled.
The dwarf bade farewell to the small group gathered by the bridge: his friend the Speaker and the hooded mage, who restrained Laurana from exploring the ravine’s edge. Lord Xenoth was conspicuously absent, as were Porthios and his friends. After many promises to return. Flint followed his guide and clomped across the bridge, though not without booming an oath or two that echoed off the cold stone.
With a smile and a sigh, Tanis gathered his gray cloak more tightly around him and turned to walk back to the city.