Chapter 21
Attempted Murder

A.C. 308, Midsummer

More than a week later, Flint was working on Porthios’s Kentommen medallion when Lord Tyresian walked through the doorway of the dwarf’s stone dwelling—without knocking, of course, Flint noticed. Only Tanis was welcome entering the shop without giving a warning. Even Fleetfoot knocked, in a way, her hooves’ noise usually giving the dwarf enough warning to leap for the door.

The weather had cooled since the blazing heat of a week earlier. It was the kind of day that made most folks want to pack quith-pa, cheese, and pickled vegetables in a picnic basket and head for one of the ravine overlooks. But the dwarf had no thought for relaxation. He was running apace with a deadline; the Kentommen was only a week away.

With the holiday impending, of course, numerous Qualinost nobles had discovered metalwork that they simply had to have completed before Porthios’s coming-of-age ceremony. Flint took their work but gave them all the same answer: He was working on an assignment for the Speaker of the Sun and, alas, might very well get to the supplicants’ projects after the Kentommen. They weren’t happy, of course, but the elves of Qualinost had long ago learned that Flint Fireforge, while he was undeniably the most gifted metal-artisan around, also could be as unyielding as a minotaur.

The two disks that would go into the medal lay before him; he was painstakingly cutting into the gold fore plate with a thin-bladed chisel and a small hammer. He surveyed the effect critically; the chisel gave the openings a rough-edged look that he rather liked. It worked especially well in fashioning the trees. “That’s a good thing, too, seeing as I’ve got no time to do it over,” he muttered.

That was when the door swung open, the chime sounded, and the arrogant elf lord with the short blond hair appeared in the portal.

“Dwarf, I require your services,” Tyresian announced.

Taking his time, Flint covered the components of the medallion with his sketch, looked up from his chair next to the table, and flashed the elf lord a smile that looked more like a dog baring its teeth. “Come in, Lord Tyresian.” He pointed his chisel at his stone bench. “Have a seat.”

Under elven protocol, Flint should have risen to his feet when the elven noble entered the room, though he and Solostaran had long since dispensed with that formality on occasions when the Speaker visited the dwarf alone. Tyresian, however, flushed with annoyance. The fact that the elf lord did not complain of the slight was proof to the dwarf that Tyresian wanted the dwarf’s services badly. That brought another smile to Flint’s face.

“What service is it that you ‘require’?” Flint asked expressionlessly, leaning back in his chair. He again pointed to the bench with the chisel. “Have a seat.”

Tyresian appeared uncertain whether to sit where the dwarf told him—and thus appear to be following an underling’s orders—or to remain standing, which might imply that he, not Flint, was the underling. He compromised by moving restlessly through the room, never stopping long enough to sit anywhere. After wandering insolently around the room, surveying the hutch, Flint’s cot, his carved chest, and the forge, Tyresian drew his short sword and presented it, hilt forward, to the dwarf.

Wordlessly, Flint accepted the weapon and examined it. It was a ceremonial weapon, carried on formal occasions, encrusted with emeralds and moonstones and inlaid with steel. The weapon, if sold, could feed a Qualinesti family for eight months.

“Not very practical in battle,” Flint commented.

“It’s for state occasions,” Tyresian said loftily.

“Such as the Kentommen of Porthios Kanan,” the dwarf finished. The elf lord nodded.

Flint resumed his examination of the weapon. The wood of the hilt had split badly; some of the steel inlay had dropped out, and one gem—an emerald, he judged, from looking at the pattern—had fallen out. It was not a simple repair job; a skilled craftsman would have to rebuild the implement, abandoning all other work during that time.

“It would take a week,” Flint finally said. “I don’t have time.”

The elf lord’s temper flared and his eyes snapped blue fire, but he kept his voice as bland as the dwarf’s. “The Kentommen is still a week away, Master Fireforge.”

“I have other work.”

Tyresian straightened. “Then put it aside. Do this assignment.”

Flint handed the short sword back to the elf lord. “Perhaps you can find another metalsmith to fix this.”

“But …”

The arrival of Eld Ailea and Tanis interrupted Lord Tyresian’s remark. The old midwife was dressed in exuberant colors, as usual—striped yellow and blue overblouse, red gathered skirt, and red slippers, all embroidered with pale yellow daisies. Next to her, Tanis looked practically colorless in tan shirt and leggings. Between them—a situation made lopsided by the great height disparity between the midwife and the half-elf—they lugged a huge woven basket filled to the top with ears of corn. In his spare hand Tanis carried a small plate with an overturned bowl on top. They paused on the doorstep and, squinting in the bright midday light, peered into the gloom of the dwarf’s shop.

“Lunch, Flint!” Ailea sang, her round eyes large in her triangular face. “Just-picked sweet corn!”

“With fresh butter,” Tanis added, holding out the crockery.

Then Lord Tyresian moved into the rectangle of light near the door, and their faces fell.

“Well, look at this,” the elf lord said laconically, crossing his arms over his chest and looking down at both of them. “Two murderers keeping time together. Comparing notes, perhaps? The virtues of shooting an arrow into Lord Xenoth’s chest versus, say, letting my mother die in childbirth? Oh, but I forgot, Tanis. Ailea allowed your mother to die as well, didn’t she?”

Eld Ailea went white under her tan; her hand went to her mouth, stifling a small cry. Moving menacingly toward Tyresian, Tanis dropped his hold on the basket, and two ears rolled off the pile and bounced into the flowers outside Flint’s door.

Then suddenly, Flint was between them, his back against Tanis, shoving him back out into the sunshine, and one hand against Tyresian’s chest. The dwarf’s voice was frightening in its quietness.

“Leave, elf,” he said to Lord Tyresian, spitting out each word, “or I will show you what an experienced fighter can do.”

“You …!” blustered Tyresian.

“I have fought in battle against ogres. You, despite your airs, have no military experience. It is easy to threaten an elderly woman and an elven youth who doesn’t dare rock the boat in Qualinost right now by challenging you. Would you care, instead, to take me on?”

Tyresian glared down at the dwarf and seemed to notice, for the first time, the worn battle-axe that had materialized in Flint’s right hand. The handle was scarred and dented, but the runes of power on the flat of the blade glinted in the sunlight and the blade edge gleamed sharp enough to cleave the hardest armor.

The elf lord relaxed his stance.

Flint, however, continued speaking. “Never forget, Lord Tyresian, that you were the one who suggested that the hunters cross the ravine and leave Xenoth—and me, as I recall—on the other side.”

Tyresian started to object, but Flint tightened his hold on the elf lord’s arm. “You were the one who left three people alone against a monster powerful enough to destroy them in short shrift,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper but commanding in its intensity. “As far as I’m concerned, you are more responsible than anyone for the death of the Speaker’s adviser.” In an aside, he added, “Certainly more to blame than the half-elf who acted to save his life—all our lives.”

As if the small shop weren’t crowded enough, Miral chose that moment to appear on the path to the dwarf’s dwelling. But the four involved in the drama on the doorstep didn’t see the heavily hooded mage immediately. He drew to one side of the tiled path and waited.

“Now, leave, Lord Tyresian,” Flint ordered. “And don’t forget: Although I’ve never told the Speaker my own theory of who is really responsible for Xenoth’s death, there’s nothing stopping me from enlightening him. I’ve always suspected that you glossed over that part in your ‘report’ to him after Tanis killed the tylor.”

With an effort, Tyresian shoved Tanis aside and then brushed past Miral, leaving the trio staring after the blond elf lord. Finally, as a group, the three friends became aware of Miral and ushered him inside the dwelling.

Knowing how weak Miral’s eyes were, Flint closed the door behind the mage and set about fastening the shutters in the window at the front of the shop. Meanwhile, Eld Ailea built a fire and set a cauldron of water over it while Tanis stripped husks and silk from the corn. Although none of the three felt particularly hungry anymore, they went through the motions of preparing a meal, obviously hoping to recapture their previous happiness.

Miral took little time explaining his errand: One of the plates on a metal box that held some of his spellcasting ingredients had worked loose, scattering powder throughout the corridor before his palace chambers. “I know you are busy, Master Fireforge, but I’d hoped you could fix it,” Miral said, holding the fist-size box in an outstretched hand.

Flint took the silver box. It appeared to be an easy repair; a rivet punched through one plate into the corner piece would hold the piece easily. The box was decorative enough—etched with dragons, minotaurs, and jewel shapes—to hide the tiny rivet. Flint set about the task, temporarily putting aside the Speaker’s medallion, while Tanis and Ailea prepared the sweet corn.

The mage said little throughout the process, a fact that Flint laid down to weariness from lack of sleep. Everyone at the palace was busy from the hour before dawn until late in the night, preparing for the Kentommen.

“Do the hill dwarves have Kentommens?” Tanis asked Flint, who nodded.

“We call them Fullbeard Days, but they’re nowhere near as elaborate as this,” the dwarf said. “What are your duties in Porthios’s ceremony, Miral?” Flint bore down on a slender punch as he worked it through the soft metal.

Miral blinked and looked up from his seat on Flint’s clothes chest. “In the actual ceremony, none. But I’ve been put in charge of coordinating the staff that’s preparing for the Kentommen and arranging for entertainment on all three days of the event.”

“What does that include?” Tanis asked from his position next to the boiling corn.

Miral looked over and smiled wanly. The whites of his eyes were bloodshot, in odd contrast with the near-colorless hue of his irises. “Five dozen seamstresses are sewing banners”—which, indeed, had begun to appear on poles along Qualinost’s main thoroughfares—“and three dozen swordsmen are preparing a demonstration of weaponry skills that frightens me to watch. I am amazed none of them has been sliced in half, and I will be stunned if the Kith-Kanan mosaic at the Grand Market amphitheater is bloodless when they are through.”

Flint cast the mage a sympathetic look as Miral continued his recitation. “Ten jugglers and twenty jesters have overrun the palace,” he complained. “Can you imagine the noise? There are also fourteen acrobats, one of which wanted to hold her high-wire act four hundred feet up in the Tower of the Sun!”

“You’re allowing that, of course,” Ailea said as she dipped a perfectly cooked ear from the boiling water.

“Of course not,” Miral rejoined, then did a double take as he realized that the midwife had been joking. “But it’s never sufficient just to say no. Each elf has two hundred reasons why his case is different, why I should allow him to do what no one else can.” The mage slumped against the wall. “I haven’t slept more than three hours in a row in two weeks.”

“Care to join us for lunch, and then nap here?” Flint asked, gesturing toward his cot with the spell-box. “We can be a pretty quiet lot, if we have to be.”

Miral shook his head. “I have to meet with a troupe of singers. They want to know why they can’t sing bawdy ballads in the rotunda of the Tower right before the Kentommen—to ‘warm up the audience,’ as they put it.” He rose to his feet. “I can pick up the box later.”

“It’s repaired now—on the house,” Flint said, and passed the silver container to the mage. The dwarf opened the shutters and then yanked open the door for Miral, who pulled his hood far forward over his face, gave his thanks to Flint, nodded to Tanis and Ailea, and trudged down the path toward the Tower, which shone over the tops of Flint’s fruit trees.

“Get some sleep!” Flint shouted. The mage waved without turning back. Then he moved on as the dwarf shut the door.

Miral’s visit, however brief, helped lift the pall that had descended on the trio when Tyresian had left. The dwarf moved his medallion-making tools off the table, and instead of moping, Flint, Tanis, and Eld Ailea found themselves waxing almost gay as they nibbled ears of buttered corn. Finally, they passed around a kitchen rag to clean themselves up, and leaned back, satisfied.

“Ah,” Flint said, “as my mother would say, ‘The way to a dwarf’s soul is through his dinner plate.’ ”

“Oh?” Tanis asked, elbowing the dwarf. “And what else does your mother say?”

Flint laughed. “She has an adage for every occasion. ‘Too many cooks make light work,’ she’d say, and order my thirteen brothers and sisters and me to clean up the barn. It took me years to find out what the saying really was. It sounded like a dwarven law to me.”

Ailea laughed and wiped her long fingers, one by one, on the rag. “What else does she say?”

Flint settled back in his chair. “I remember once I complained because one of the children in the town school was bullying me. She patted me on the head and said, ‘Don’t worry, Flintie. One rotten apple won’t spoil the whole kettle of fish.’ ”

Flint raised his voice into a falsetto as he quoted his mother, and Tanis smiled. But the half-elf’s look was wistful. “What does she look like?” he asked. “Is she pretty?” Eld Ailea cast a wise glance at the half-elf, then at the dwarf, who didn’t seem to notice.

“Oh,” Flint said, “I suppose she wouldn’t seem pretty to your tall, slender elven friends, but we fourteen frawls and harms think she’s just fine. Sure, she carries some extra weight …”

“Try bearing fourteen children and see what it does to your figure,” Ailea interjected.

“… but she has a sweet face, and she cooks like one of the gods. Nice big portions, too.” Flint patted his protruding gut, then blushed, straightened, and attempted to pull in his belly. Ailea’s smile grew wider.

“What’s your father like?” Tanis asked.

“Ah, lad, my father died when I was just a youth. Bad heart. Runs in the Fireforge line, among the men, at least.”

“Your poor mother,” Ailea said softly.

Flint nodded. “She held the family together in those years after Papa died. Set my elder brother Aylmar to work at Papa’s forge—and occasionally took a turn herself, on lighter tasks.”

Ailea rose quietly and dropped the lunch dishes in the boiling water that had cooked the corn. When Tanis raised his eyebrows, she smiled and said, “No point wasting water. This will clean those plates just fine.” Then she resumed her seat and motioned for Flint to go on.

“I was the second-born,” the dwarf said dreamily. “After Papa was gone, Mama put me in charge of the barn. I remember one early spring morning in Hillhome. I came out of the barn, trying to get away from the damnable smell of cheesemaking, and I gazed around me at the hills and the conifers.” He sighed. “Qualinost is beautiful, lad, but so is Hillhome. Still, it was a small, small village and ultimately I had to leave it to see the world.”

“I’d like to see it someday,” Tanis said, then prompted, “Your mother …?”

Flint frowned, thinking. “Oh. I was standing there in the open barn door, enjoying the sun and the weather and the trees and the green hills, and Mama came out on the porch and hollered”—and he switched into the falsetto again—“ ‘Flint Fireforge, don’t you close the barn door after the early bird catches the worm!’ ” He jiggled with silent laughter. “I figured that meant she wanted me to go back to work.”

He stood and stretched, then stepped over to the boiling water to fish out the plates with his forge tongs. “Once,” he said, turning back toward his guests, “when my younger sister Fidelia was complaining about how poor we were, and how much the mayor’s children had, my mother looked at us all and said, ‘Oh, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.’ ”

Eld Ailea and Tanis waited for the punch line, but Flint shook his tongs and said, “We were stunned. For a moment, we didn’t say a word. She’d gotten it right!”

He paused, still holding the tongs. “Then, I recall, the fourteen of us started to laugh, and we couldn’t stop. I still remember Aylmar, sprawled on his back on the stone floor, holding his sides and giggling until he couldn’t breathe. Even my brother Ruberik, who normally has the sense of humor of an anvil, found himself gasping for air, he was laughing so hard. When we came to ourselves, we realized that Mama was out in the kitchen, muttering and banging the kettles together in a rage.

“She didn’t speak to any of us for days. And, what’s worse, she refused to cook!” He looked aghast.

“What did you do?” Ailea asked.

“Aylmar and I went to work at the forge. We fashioned a sign for her, bending slender bars of iron into words and fastening them to a piece of barn wood. We put it up over the fireplace for her. It said …” He suddenly erupted in a chortle. “It said …” Flint coughed, and wiped his streaming eyes.

“It said …?” Tanis prodded.

“ ‘Waste makes haste!’ ”

“But that’s not right.” Tanis caught himself. “Oh, of course.”

“She loved it,” Flint said. “Oh my, she just loved it.”

The three decided that, notwithstanding Flint’s impending deadline, it was too lovely a day to spend indoors. So they gathered up the most portable of Flint’s metalworking tools and headed toward the mountains just south of Qualinost. While the two rivers guarded the city on three sides, to the south was a forested slope rising to a ridge of mauve granite. On the opposite side, the top of the ridge formed a sheer cliff a thousand feet high. Tanis persuaded Flint to make the trek, which was not all that steep anyway, by pointing out that the ridge offered a marvelous view of the mountains of Thorbardin, the ancient homeland of Flint’s people.

“A little exercise never hurt a dwarf,” Flint replied then, and led the way. And thus he was the first to view, beyond an undulating sea of green forest, the sharp-toothed mountains of Thorbardin, looking almost like dark ships sailing on the southern horizon.

He found a comfortable spot at the foot of a tree and spent several hours inlaying the medallion, nearly completing the work, while Tanis and Eld Ailea walked, talked, and gathered herbs for the midwife’s potpourris and potions.

Hours later, dusk was beginning to creep through the city as Flint made his way alone to his shop in its grove of aspen and fruit trees; Tanis was off escorting the midwife home. Flint’s dwelling, of course, was dark; he’d not fired the forge for several days because of the summer heat and because this portion of the medallion-crafting process involved working only cold medal.

The blooms of the morning glories that were entwined about the door were twisted tightly shut against the descending twilight, but one of the new rosebushes Flint had planted next to the stoop was just beginning to bloom. Flint plucked one of the pale yellow blossoms and inhaled its perfume. He sighed. It didn’t do to forget life’s small pleasures. Notwithstanding the dispute with Lord Tyresian, the day had been a good one.

Perhaps a mug of ale—Flint’s favorite of those small pleasures—would be in order this evening, he mused as he opened the door of his shop and started to step through, twirling the rose in his fingers.

“Ow!” Flint said suddenly, dropping the rose. He had pricked himself on a thorn, and he stuck his finger in his mouth, sucking on it to ease the sting. “So much for simple pleasures,” he grumbled around his wounded finger, and then bent down to retrieve the rose, mindful of its thorns this time.

Just as he was about to stand back up and step into the shop, something caught Flint’s eye. It was a thin black thread, lying before the doorway, about a pace into the room. Usually a keeper of a clean—if cluttered—shop, Flint reached for the thread, intending to pick it up and throw it away.

The thread seemed strangely stuck to something.

“Confound it!” he groused, and he tugged harder.

Suddenly there was a faint snick, and, acting on some survival instinct, Flint threw himself face down on the floor. Just as he collided with the stones, he caught a glint of light flashing from across the room. Something whooshed over his head and landed with a thunk in the wood of the door above and behind him.

Swallowing hard, he forced himself to roll over and, still on the floor, examine the door rising above him. Sunk deep into the hard oak, directly at chest level to a standing dwarf, was a leather-hilted dagger.

“Reorx!” Flint whispered. He moved cautiously to his feet, alert for any sudden noise that might signal another attack. He felt his knees trembling despite his firm orders for them not do to so. Slowly, he gripped the dagger and pulled it out of the door. Its tip glinted wickedly in the waning light of day. Had he stepped into the shop and snagged the thread with his boot, that dagger wouldn’t have sunk into the door, but into Flint’s heart.

Why would someone want to kill him?

Flint began to turn around, to step over the thread and into the shop, but just then there was a faint clunk, reminding the dwarf of the sound a stuck mechanism might make when it suddenly falls into place.

Before he could so much as cry out, there was another flash as a second dagger glittered through the air directly at the dwarf.

“Flint, you old knob-head,” he said hoarsely, and stumbled backward against the door, clutching at the knife that had pierced the shoulder of his pale blue shirt. Blood seeped between his fingers and stained the fabric. “You should have guessed …”

He sagged against the door and then slid down to the ground with a groan. “You old knob-head …” he whispered once more, and then his eyes fluttered shut. Flint lay still as night cast its cloak over the city.

Kindred Spirits