The sound of hammer blows rang like clear music on the spring morning air. Flint grinned fiercely as he worked the crimson-glowing slab of steel, periodically quenching the metal in an oaken half-barrel of water. Sweat trickled down his soot-stained brow.
He had begun late the previous day, shucking his blanket onto the bed, tossing down a mug of ale—for his frail health, he concluded—then firing the forge and hammering irregular chunks of iron into several small bars of metal. He beat the bars into strips and heated them to a high temperature in the charcoal fire, converting them to carbon steel. Then he sandwiched the strips into a slab, continually reheating the slab in the coal and thrusting it into cold water to harden the metal.
Now, finally satisfied with the thinness and evenness of the piece of steel, he lifted it from the heat of the forge with a pair of iron tongs and quenched it again. Clouds of steam hissed into the air like the breath of some fabled dragon, until finally the metal had cooled. Flint set it on his workbench and eyed it critically. It was still rough and crude—little more than a flat strip of steel, really—but soon enough, it would be something far different—a magnificent sword. Flint’s blue eyes glimmered, for already he could see the finished weapon, smooth and shimmering, beneath the blackened surface of the steel bar.
Flint wiped away the sweat and grime from his forehead and gulped water from a tin ladle dipped in a bucket in the corner. He sat on a low wooden stool and closed his eyes for a moment. He’d arrived in Qualinost two days ago, and already it seemed as though he had never left it for the winter. How long had it been since that day he had first set foot in the city? Probably twenty years to the very day, he thought, opening his eyes to glance out the window.
Outside, the new leaves of the aspen trees flickered emerald and silver in the sunlight.
His heart felt right in Qualinost, and despite the occasional unfriendly stares from Lord Xenoth, Litanas, Ulthen and Tyresian—stares rarely converted to comments because of Flint’s popularity with the Speaker of the Sun—the dwarf felt almost as if he belonged in the elven capital more than anywhere else on Krynn. Not for the first time, he wondered what his relatives back in the dwarven village of Hillhome would think of him now.
A small chime sounded on the smoky air, and Flint looked up to see the door of his small shop opening. Hastily he tossed a cloth over the bar of steel on the workbench. It wouldn’t do to have the surprise spoiled.
“Flint! You’re still alive?” Tanis Half-Elven said with a smile. “I thought I would need to arrange a funeral.”
Flint reached hastily for his handkerchief, snuffled, and affected a frail expression. “As my mother would say, ‘Don’t count your chickens on the other side of the fence,’ ” he said.
A flutter of incomprehension flitted across the half-elf’s face; Flint’s mother’s sayings tended to affect him that way. Then he shrugged and forged ahead. “Are you in the mood for another adventure, Flint? I thought perhaps we could search again for the tylor.”
Uppity snit, Flint thought, and his grin returned.
“You still haven’t got it through that thick skull of yours, have you, lad?” the dwarf said gruffly. “I have work to do. I don’t have all day to parade about the city all dandified, like some folk.”
Tanis laughed, looking down at his outfit. He wore the same clothes that had drawn Laurana’s eyes in the Grand Market yesterday: blue shirt, fringed vest, and woolen breeches.
“Flint,” Tanis said, his hazel eyes dancing, “take a day off.”
“ ‘Day off’?” Flint sniffed, assuming a martyred air. “Never heard the term in my life.”
At that, Tanis laughed aloud.
Flint glowered at him. “You young folk don’t know the first thing about respect, do you?” he grumbled. Young folk … the words echoed in his mind, and then it struck him again as it had several times since he’d returned from Solace. Tanis was a far cry from the lad he had been when Flint had first come to the elven city. Even after just that first winter, Flint had been stunned by the changes, by how much more … well, how much more human the lad had looked. Especially compared to the other elves, particularly the younger ones, who seemed to have changed so little.
Flint himself looked hardly different than on the day he had first set foot in the Tower of the Sun, except perhaps for those few flecks of grey—well, maybe more than a few—that had found their way into his beard and the dark hair he still bound in a thong behind his neck. Aside from a deepening of some of the lines on his face and a slight expansion of his midline—a change Flint would flatly deny—he was still the same middle-aged dwarf, his steel-blue eyes just as bright and his grumbling just as common.
But Tanis was a different story. He had grown tall in these last years—not as tall as the Speaker, but enough that Flint was forced to crane his neck to speak to him. The differences between the half-elf and his full elf kindred were more apparent now. He was stronger than any of them, and his chest was deeper, though compared to a strong human man, he would have appeared slender. His face, too, showed evidence of the changes. His features lacked much of that characteristic elven smoothness, looking more as if they had been hewn from stone rather than polished from alabaster. His jaw was square, the bridge of his nose straight and strong, and his cheeks angular. And of course, his eyes were less almond-shaped than the eyes of other elves.
Back in Solace, Flint knew, Tanis would be considered a handsome young man, but here … well, most of the residents had seemed to have grown used to him by now, and much of the staring had ended—or at least had given place to occasional muttered comments, never uttered loudly enough for Tanis or Flint to actually confront the speaker. Still, it had been a hard time for Tanis. Humans matured so much faster than elves and dwarves that Tanis seemed, to his elven kindred, to have changed overnight.
“Shouldn’t you be doing something now?” Flint said testily, making sure to keep himself between Tanis and the concealed sword.
“Like what?” Tanis asked. He seemed to sense that something was up with the dwarf.
“Like doing whatever it is that you do around here,” Flint finished grumpily. “I’m too … too ill to entertain you today, lad. I need my rest.” He peeked out of the corner of one blue eye to see if the half-elf was buying this.
Tanis shook his head. So Flint was in one of those moods.
“All right, Flint. I was going to suggest we go off on a bit of an adventure”—Flint’s eyes went wide, and a sudden sneeze burst violently from him—“but I guess it can wait until another day.” The half-elf scratched absently at his chin.
“Better take a razor to that thing again,” Flint said, “or let it grow. One or the other unless you want to look like a highwayman.”
Tanis looked startled, and he ran a hand across his cheek, feeling the stubble of a few days’ growth of beard. A gift from his human father—or a curse, however you wanted to look at it, Tanis supposed. It had become noticeable a year or so ago, and Tanis still hadn’t gotten used to it. He’d have to take the razor, the one Flint had fashioned for him, to it again.
“Why you’d want to shave a perfectly good beard in the first place, I wouldn’t know,” Flint complained.
Tanis shook his head absently. Let it grow? He couldn’t do that. Flint saw this, and so let it go.
“All right, Flint, I’ll leave you to your grumbling,” Tanis said. “I really came by to deliver you a message. There’s going to be some sort of announcement at court tomorrow afternoon, and the Speaker asked me to invite you.”
“Announcement?” Flint said, drawing his bushy eyebrows together. “About what?”
Tanis shrugged again. “I have no idea. The Speaker’s been closeted with Lord Xenoth and Tyresian for a day. I suppose you’ll find out when I do.” With a smile, the half-elf left the shop. The small chime sounded on the air again. Flint waited a long moment, just to be sure Tanis wasn’t coming back, and then he uncovered the sword, rubbing his hands together. Ah, yes! It would be a wonderful sword!
Soon, the rhythmic music of his hammer could be heard again on the warm spring air.
Flint’s shop was destined to receive a few more guests that day. The sound of Tanis’s footsteps on the tile streets had no sooner receded than the chime sounded again. Flint flung the cloth across the sword once more and hastily stood before the weapon.
But it wasn’t Tanis. It was an old woman, aged even for an elf—but Flint thought he saw a hint of human blood there, too. She was short and wiry, dressed in an eccentric fashion for an elf; elves tended to prefer flowing garments, but the old one wore a loose green top of some open weave and a gathered wool skirt that reached nearly to the ground, making her appear even shorter than she was. In fact, she was nearly eye to eye with the dwarf, a situation he had never experienced with an adult elf. The eyes that peered from the triangular face, however, were round and hazel—another hint at some human forebear. Flint would warrant that the human blood had come into her family line centuries before the Cataclysm. The wideness of her face across her eyes, combined with the narrowness of her chin, gave the old woman a catlike appearance. Unlike other elves, she wore her silver hair in a braid and a bun, exposing the ears that reflected her elven heritage. Her fingers were so long and slender that they appeared out of proportion to the rest of her body. Like Tanis, she wore moccasins; these were embroidered in deep purple beading, matching her skirt. Over all, she wore a lightweight hooded cloak of mottled lilac and pale green.
Attached to her skirt was a toddler, who looked up at the wrinkle-faced woman with an expression akin to adoration. The little boy—who hadn’t been walking for many months, judging from his death grip on the woolen skirt—smiled milkily at Flint.
“Flink!” the youngster said, and dared loosen one hand’s grip enough to point at the dwarf and smile at the old woman. “Flink!”
“Flink?” the dwarf repeated, stooping to look the child full in the face. Flint’s brows shot up near his hairline. “I don’t remember you from the Hall of the Sky—Oh, yes I do! Last autumn. You weren’t walking yet. You were with your big brother. I gave you—What was it?”
The youngster shoved a hand into a pocket in his loose, teal-green coverall, and brought out a thumb-size chip of rose quartz, a fuzzy piece of quith-pa, and a carving of a robin. The child put all three treasures in Flint’s hand and smiled again. The dwarf examined all three, nodded gravely, and handed back the rock and the bread; then he stood and looked at the elven woman, the wooden bird upright on his palm.
“You made that?” she asked in an alto that sounded like the tone of an elf several centuries younger. She reached out one slim finger and poked the bird.
The robin was fatter on the bottom than on top, and was rounded along its lower edge so that the toy, when bumped, rolled to the side, then bobbed back up again. Flint had fashioned the simple toy out of two pieces of wood, fastening a heavy chunk of iron near the bottom, between the two pieces, so that the bird could not be knocked over.
Flint nudged it a few more times, entranced as ever with its bobbing, until he realized that the hazel-eyed woman was waiting for an answer and the little boy was lunging for the toy. The dwarf handed the bird back to the youngster and nodded to the woman.
“You are Flint Fireforge,” she stated. It wasn’t a question.
Flint nodded again.
“I would like to buy some toys from you,” she said abruptly.
“Well,” Flint said, drawing it out, “that could be a problem.”
“Why?” she demanded.
The dwarf turned and leaned one haunch against the oaken table. He rested one hand on his knee and looked past her toward the oaken hutch. “First of all, I don’t sell toys. I give them away. Second, I never sell to strangers.”
Her sharp features fell into an offended mein, and she turned so fast that the toddler practically swung off his feet. “Well, I guess that’s that, then, Master Fireforge,” she said, and reached to open the door.
Flint took a deep breath of the shop’s metallic air, then spoke just as the woman’s hand grasped the door handle. “Of course, if you would bother to introduce yourself, you wouldn’t be a stranger,” he said mildly, examining the nails on his left hand and using a sliver of iron to clean out the forge dirt he found encrusted there.
The woman stopped, her back to Flint; she appeared to be thinking. Then she swiveled, eyes snapping. “Ailea,” she said brusquely. “Eld Ailea to those who know me well.”
“Eld” meant “aunt” in the elven tongue.
Flint inclined his head. “And I am Flint Fireforge.”
“I know th—” she started to say, then sighed and waited.
She sighed again, but a faint smile found its way onto her thin lips. She resembled an Abanasinian cat, offered some prize it had long coveted. But her words showed only exasperation. “I’d heard you could be like this, Master Fireforge,” she commented.
Flint swiftly crossed before her and opened the hutch to display the dozens of toys he had brought with him from a winter’s worth of carving in Solace. Some had not survived being jounced on the back of a tylor-panicked mule, but most were in fine condition. He gazed at the contents of the hutch, selected a whistle that was too big for the toddler to swallow, and handed it to the little boy, who blew such a ferocious blast on it that the dwarf immediately wished he’d chosen something else. Flint’s thick hands continued to move over the toys, plucking out one here, one there, until more than a dozen rested in the front pockets of his loose leather tunic.
Minutes later, the toddler was seated happily on the end of Flint’s cot, arranging lines of carved animals on the dwarf’s clothes chest and intermittently tooting the whistle. Flint waited for an iron kettle of water to come to a boil on a hook over the forge’s fire, and Eld Ailea measured into a tea strainer a tantalizing mixture of dried orange peel, cinnamon pieces, and black tea. She paused to sniff the potpourri. “Wonderful,” she said in a low voice, and sighed. “It reminds me of a drink my family used to make when I was a child.”
“Where did you grow up?” Flint asked automatically. The spiced tea he carried with him from Solace every trip was more a human specialty than an elven one.
“In Caergoth,” she said. When Flint raised an eyebrow at her, she continued, “My father was banished by the Qualinesti.”
“For what?” Flint demanded without thinking. The elves almost never banished anybody; the crime must have been deemed one of the most menacing possible under Qualinesti law.
“He led a movement to open Qualinesti to outsiders,” she explained. “He was banished. The family, of course, went with him. Eventually, we settled in Caergoth, where the family had distant relations.” Human ones, Flint guessed; that’s where the link came in. “I trained as a midwife with a group of clerics, and when I grew old enough, I returned here.”
“Why?” The water was boiling, and Flint swung the kettle away from the fire. Catching up a thick woolen sock—practically clean, he figured, having been worn only one day—to use as a potholder, he hauled the water over to the table and poured it over the tea leaves in a heavy ceramic pot.
An expression of sadness slipped across Eld Ailea’s face but was gone so quickly that Flint couldn’t be sure it had ever been there. “I had no friends but humans, and by the time I’d finally grown up, they’d all died of old age. I know something of weak forms of magic—potions to ease the pain of labor, illusions to amuse children, and the like—but I could do nothing to halt the aging and the death of my childhood friends.”
Flint wondered whether among those long-dead friends was a special man, a human lover, whose passing occasioned the sadness that pooled in the old elf’s eyes. Sitting at the table and mindlessly moving the strainer through the tea, she looked away and said matter-of-factly, “My parents had died. There were few other elves in Caergoth. I was lonely, so I came back here.”
A mist of orange and cinnamon scent wafted from the thick teapot. Over on Flint’s cot, the toddler slept sprawled on his back, a wooden cow in one fist and a toy sheep in the other. Eld Ailea spoke again, suddenly cheerful. “I fit in better here than I did there.”
She looked up and must have seen the sympathy in Flint’s eyes, because she bristled, her greenish brown eyes growing hard within the corona of silvery braid. “Don’t you feel sorry for me, Master Flint Fireforge,” she said. “I chose the path I walked.”
He cast around for something to say.
“You’re sure I can’t interest you in some ale?” Flint said.
They sat and sipped their drinks for a short time, then Flint reflected that, after all, it was nearly lunchtime. So he got out some quith-pa and sliced off a few chunks of cheese, and Eld Ailea retrieved plates from the cupboard. Flint had been to Caergoth on one of his travels, so they talked about the city. It seemed Eld Ailea had left it before Flint had been born. Then Flint demonstrated how he’d made the toddler’s bobbing bird toy, and he made her a present of one just like it. And Eld Ailea told him about some of the babies she’d delivered during several centuries—“I delivered the Speaker of the Sun and both his brothers,” she said proudly—and how she had retired as a midwife but continued to care for people’s infants and small children. “I love babies,” she explained, showing animation for the first time. “That’s why I came for the toys.”
All in all, it was a comfortable way to spend a spring day.
Eventually they finished the last of the cheese and bread. Eld Ailea rinsed their plates and put them away, and Flint went back to work on Tanis’s sword—after moving the sleeping elf child from the cot, too near the forge, to a spot on Eld Ailea’s lap. The tap of the hammer, while it initially roused the child, ultimately served to lull him more deeply into slumber. The old woman sat quietly, humming to the youngster, sipping one last cup of tea and watching the progress on the sword. An hour passed, and Flint looked up to see Eld Ailea asleep, too, one green-sleeved arm leaning against the table and her cheek resting on the little boy’s head. The dwarf smiled and continued working.
The tin chimes on the oaken door of the shop sounded again, and Flint hastily looked up, preparing to hurtle himself at the door and shove Tanis back outside. The sword was beginning to take shape, the blade smooth and tapered, the handguard a fantasy of curving, shimmering steel. Flint heaved a sigh of relief as a robed figure stepped into the shop.
“I didn’t interrupt something, did I, Master Fireforge?” Miral asked, a quizzical smile on his thin mouth. His voice, normally raspy, had hoarsened to a whisper. After a sharp glance, he nodded at Eld Ailea, who was slowly awakening. On her lap, her babysitting charge shifted and opened blue eyes.
“Not really,” Flint said, “I thought you were someone else …” He stepped away from the glow of the forge and swabbed the sweat from his forehead and beard with a handkerchief.
“Tanthalas?” Miral asked, his smile broadening. The old woman sat up purposefully and whispered to the toddler; the child slipped from her lap and ran to collect the carved animals he’d left strewn on the cot. “As a matter of fact,” the mage continued, “I came here seeking Tanis. It seemed a safe guess that if he weren’t practicing archery in the courtyard, he was probably here with you. Still, if there is some reason you wish to avoid him …”
“I just don’t want him to spoil the surprise.”
The expression on Miral’s drawn face asked the unspoken question.
Flint grinned and rubbed his hands together. “It’s a gift,” he said, gesturing to the half-finished sword, which lay cooling by the forge.
Miral stepped closer to examine the weapon, the orange light of the coals glowing in his pale hair and reflecting off the black leather trim of his long-sleeved, blood-red robe. He reached out a gloved hand and touched the warm metal gently, almost reverently.
“And a wondrous gift it will be,” he said, turning to regard Flint. His thoughts appeared far away for a moment. “It’s beautiful.”
“Bah, it’s not even finished yet,” Flint said gruffly, but his chest puffed out just the same. He pulled out a grubby length of cloth and tossed it over the weapon. Eld Ailea stood by the door, making preparations to leave. “I made some arrowheads for him, as well, last winter in Solace,” Flint added. “I thought I would present Tanis with one grand gift.”
“Hmm?” Miral said. Suddenly he shook his head, as if coming back to himself after being lost in reverie. “I’m sorry, Master Fireforge. I fear I slept little last night. The Speaker plans to make an important announcement tomorrow afternoon—though what it is, only he and Lord Xenoth seem to know—and preparations have kept everyone busy. Even a minor mage has duties. And so does Tanis, if ever I find him.”
Saying that he would look for the half-elf in the Grand Market, Miral took his leave of Flint and Eld Ailea, pausing to pat the toddler on the head. The youngster took a swing at the mage with a wooden horse; Miral deftly sidestepped the blow and headed out the door.
“Minor mage,” Eld Ailea whispered, her brows knit. She appeared deep in thought. Even after the mage was out of earshot, Eld Ailea continued to hover in the doorway. Twice, she appeared to be on the verge of saying something, then she stopped herself. Meanwhile, the child busied himself with denuding the climbing rose of its lower leaves and strewing them over the doorstep. “I have a confession, Master Fireforge,” the alto voice finally confided. “I too came here hoping to find Tanthalas. I … I am not welcomed by some at the Palace anymore. Thus I hoped to find him here.”
“Oh?” Flint questioned, still watching the receding mage’s red robe. “Why?”
“I knew his mother.”
She refused to say more, then left immediately.