Ralt watched Durin eating his breakfast in stony silence, ignoring the stares being directed his way. The upcoming test, still unknown, had driven all other cares from his mind.
The day before, Grior and his brethren had insisted Durin couldn’t bring any of his weapons with him into the mine, especially Fenris Fang.
“Our people ‘ave seen too many tricksters wit weapons dat are more dan dey seem,” Grior had explained blandly when Durin exploded at the idea of leaving his precious axe behind. “Dey try to use ‘em ta cheat da test and we canna be ‘aving dat. Leave yer weapons or leave here. It’s yer choice.”
Durin had finally submitted to their demands, then threatened dark vengeance on anyone who attempted to steal his weapons while he was in the mine.
Grior merely smiled and showed him an iron lock box. When all of Durin’s weapons were safely within, Grior locked it then gave the key to Durin. “The only one,” he said, dropping it in his outstretched hand.
Durin tucked it in his belt. “What about ‘is weapons?” he grumbled, inclining his head at Ralt.
Missy laid a gentle hand on Durin’s shoulder. “He’s not claiming to be who you claim to be.” Her voice was gentle. “So he’s not taking a test.” Durin shook off her hand and stumped into the tunnel, muttering imprecations under his breath.
Ralt started after him but Grior’s gnarled fist blocked his path. “Be warned, wizard. We won’t suffer displays of magic in our ‘ome. Ye understand?” His voice was hard and flat.
Ralt had already discovered that the best way to get along with Grior was to be as blunt as he was. “And I won’t suffer any cheating against Durin.”
Grior reared back. “Ye accuse us of cheating?”
“You’ve accused him of it!” Ralt shot back. He nodded at the lock box.
The dwarf had a sense of fair play, Ralt had to give him that. He paused at Ralt’s words, then nodded slowly. “Trust is a two-way street,” he agreed finally. Munur and Harunn, who were listening, nodded along with their father.
“We’ve been hard on ye wit’out cause,” Harunn muttered.
“Give the hand ta get the hand,” Munur agreed. To Ralt’s ear, it had the sound of an old, well-worn saying.
“Alright, alright.” Grior held up his hands. “No need ta spread it on so ‘eavy.” He waved Ralt toward the tunnel. “Come on, mage, let’s git ye settled.”
Missy wound up taking them in hand, leading them through a rat’s warren of tunnels before showing them to an empty barracks. There were five bunks in the small room. “Them as normally sleep here are out on patrol,” she explained. “Ye can use it fer the next two days.”
“Fine.” Durin tossed his pack on one of the bunks. “When do we eat?”
“Any time ye want,” she shrugged. “The mine runs day and night so da chow hall is open day and night too.”
Ralt dropped his pack on the bunk next to Durin’s. “I could do with some dinner,” he smiled at her. He found himself admiring the way the lantern light shone off her hair.
She saw him staring at her and gave him a quizzical look. “What?”
“Hm? Oh!” He shook himself mentally. What was wrong with him? “Nothing, just wondering if you could take us to the chow hall. We don’t know where it is,” he improvised.
It seemed to work.
She nodded. “Follow me.”
She turned and strode back the way they’d come, then took a side passage to the right.
Ralt followed close on her heels with Durin bringing up the rear.
He smelled the chow hall before he saw it, and suddenly his mouth was watering. He hurried to catch up with Missy. “Is that chili?” His voice was too eager but it had been many years since his boyhood days on the ranch when chili was a regular dish. Zered, for all its city charm, didn’t have chili.
She was amused. “An elf who likes chili?”
“Part-elf,” he reminded her. “My mother was half-elven, which makes me only a quarter elf. I grew up on a ranch near Crendal. We had chili all the time.”
As they entered the big chow hall the smell of chili overwhelmed him and he nearly started drooling. He couldn’t stop a big grin. “Oh yeah!”
Behind him, Durin rumbled with laughter. “Me friends are all crazy. Storm is barbarian who ain’t and ye’re an elf wot likes chili.”
Ralt made a rude gesture behind his back but Durin only laughed harder.
Within minutes he was wolfing down some of the best chili he’d had in years. Missy shook her head watching him. He smiled at her around a huge mouthful of it. “Hmrph! Wooood!” he mumbled.
“Glad ye like it,” she giggled. She turned to Durin. “What did you mean about Storm being a barbarian who isn’t?”
But Durin was stuffing his mouth too and just waved a piece of bread at her, indicating Ralt.
She sighed. “Well, mage? Or elf or part-elf?”
Ralt swallowed hard. “Remember how Storm introduced himself the other night as a Ghibbore from Elder Earth?”
She nodded. “I’m still not sure I believe it.”
“Well, you better.” He put his spoon down for moment. “When he was brought here, he was an old man who was reduced to being a baby again. He was adopted by a barbarian clan in the Rampart Mountains and had to grow up with them.”
“The Bear Clan,” Durin added around a mouthful of bread.
“Right,” Ralt agreed. He paused to slurp another spoonful of chili. “But he never lost any of his memories from Elder Earth. He remembered everything and he was a professional soldier there but not a barbarian.”
“And you? What’s your story?” Her hazel eyes were examining him closely.
He started talking to her about his past, then she was telling him her past, then both of them were talking about everything until Grior wandered in to say goodnight.
Missy frowned at her uncle. “It’s too early to go to bed.”
Grior snorted. “It’s almost midnight. Ye and the mage ‘ave been talking fer six hours, Missy Rivers!” His tone was that of a scolding parent. He cocked his head to one side as her jaw dropped.
Ralt rubbed his face. “No wonder my eyes are burning! I’ve haven’t been up this late in ages.”
They both scrambled to their feet.
“Go on ta yer bed, Missy. I’ll see the mage back to ‘is bunk,” Grior told her with gruff humor.
“Oh. Uh, thank ye.” She bobbed a half-curtsy to Ralt. “I’ll see ye in the morning.”
“Absolutely!” he agreed too enthusiastically. He caught himself. “Uh, I mean, sure, of course.”
He caught Grior grinning at him and blushed.
He dropped his gaze, staring stubbornly at the dwarf’s heels until they reached the barracks where Durin was already fast asleep. Ralt was amazed. He didn’t even remember when Durin had left them.
Grior stopped him as he was about to go in. “I kin see ye like me niece, and she you, but tomorrow is like ta see yer friend meet his death.” His face was grim. “After dat, I dinna think there’ll be much frien’ship a’tween ye and her.”
He clapped Ralt on the arm then stumped off into the darkness of the mine.
Ralt stared after him until he disappeared from sight.
Liked Missy? Of course he did. She was bright and funny, a good conversationalist, incredibly gorgeous and . . .
Gorgeous? Where did that come from? Was he falling for her or something?
“Impossible,” he whispered in the dark. “It can’t be.”
He felt his way into their room and fumbled around until he slid into his blankets. He lay there in the dark, his thoughts whirling until finally, he drifted off to sleep to dream about hazel eyes and long brown hair.
When Durin woke him the next morning he was momentarily disoriented, looking around for – oh. She wasn’t here. He shook it off and sat up.
Durin watched him moodily. “Have fun wit yer new lady last night, did ye?”
“I enjoyed her company,” he replied guardedly without denying anything.
Durin nodded. “Aye. I ken see it,” he answered. “And any other time I’d not begrudge ye yer pleasure, but ye couldn’t ‘ave picked the worse time fer it.”
Ralt stiffened. “I didn’t pick it,” he argued defensively. “It just happened.” He got up and began rolling up his blankets. “Besides, if you don’t pass whatever test they’ve got for you today I’ll probably never see her again.”
Durin snorted disparagingly. “I ken pass any test dey ‘ave fer me.”
Ralt dug out the magic mirror Storm had given him. “Speaking of your test, we should let Storm and Lorelei know what’s happening.”
Durin sighed heavily. “Aye, they’ve a right ta know.” He waved at the mirror. “Fire it up, lad.”
Ralt opened the lid and spoke the command word, “Ayin,” then added the number for the mirror Storm and Lorelei had. His image in the mirror abruptly gave way to swirling smoke like multicolored water going down a drain. A few moments later it suddenly cleared and Storm was looking at him.
Ralt frowned at Storm’s appearance. He was hot and sweaty, breathing hard as if he’d been running or fighting. He was bare chested though, his usual leather vest absent. “Ralt!” he exclaimed.
Lorelei squeezed up next to him to peer through the magic window and she was also hot and sweaty, her hair frizzled and messy. She was holding Storm’s vest across her chest, her shoulders and arms bare behind it. “Hi!” She was out of breath too.
Ralt and Durin glanced at each other, struggling not to laugh.
“I won’t ask what you were doing,” Ralt commented dryly.
Lorelei giggled. “Good, then we won’t have to lie.”
Storm did something they couldn’t see and she yelped then giggled. He winked conspiratorially at Ralt and Durin. “Hey, like my Dad used to say, we’re married, we’ve got a license for it.”
Lorelei blew a strand of hair out of her face and slapped his shoulder. “Never mind him,” she told them. “It’s about time you called us. It’s been two days!”
“We’ve been busy, lass.” Durin proceeded to fill them in on his upcoming test and the consequences if he failed.
Storm was grim. “We’re on our way,” he said shortly.
Durin held up a quick hand. “Nay, lad. It takes place this morning and ye’d not git here in time. ‘Sides, this is fer me and me alone.”
“Ralt is with you,” Lorelei argued.
“I was chosen to help him,” Ralt reminded her.
They talked for a few more minutes then “hung up” as Storm called it.
Ralt tucked the mirror safely away in his backpack, shaking his head over Storm and Lorelei’s early morning antics. If not for Durin’s impending test he would have talked to them longer. He found he missed them more than he would have credited. Durin’s things were already packed so as soon as Ralt was finished, they headed to the chow hall for breakfast.
It was as crowded this morning as it had been empty the night before. Everyone stopped when they came in, all eyes focused on Durin. If anyone noticed Ralt, they ignored him. All the attention was on Durin.
Durin swept his eyes over the room then strode to the serving tables to grab a bowl and cup. Ralt trailed behind him, his staff thumping loudly on the stone floor in the dead silence.
Eventually, conversations resumed around the tables but it was subdued.
As soon as Ralt and Durin finished eating Thrgin entered the room and marched up to their table where they were eating alone. Ralt suspected he’d been waiting just outside the door for them to finish. They stood as Thrgin approached.
“Be ye ready?” he asked without preamble.
Durin nodded. “Aye.”
Neither of them looked at Ralt or gave him any notice.
“Follow me then,” the lord of the mines told them. He turned and marched away. Durin marched after him in lockstep. As Ralt left the room behind them he saw every dwarf in the chow hall rise and trail after them.
Thrgin led them to a steep spiraling tunnel that went deeper into the heart of the mountain. More dwarves joined them at ever intersection until it looked as if they were leading a parade.
A bright glow of fire at the bottom announced the presence of a forge. “The Fire Cavern,” he said simply, pointing at the glow.
Thrgin led them into a great cavern whose high ceiling disappeared into the darkness overhead. In the center, between two stone pillars were three great forges. Heaps of raw mineral lay about them on all sides, along with anvils, bellows, molds, hammers, tongs, and all manner of blacksmith tools. Behind them was a mountain of coal to keep the forges burning. Scattered about were tall poles, topped by great lanterns.
The middle forge was only one lit, although red coals were dimly smoldering in the others. Thrgin motioned Durin toward the middle forge. “Here is where ye must be tested,” he announced in ringing tones.
Durin stepped forward, clearly puzzled. “Ye want me ta forge something?”
Durin was taken back. “Mithril?”
Thrgin’s face was hard as mountain stone. “There’s been none forged in all Gaia since the Chaos Wars took the secret of it from us. We know the ingredients to it,” he gestured at the piles of mineral, “but not da manner of combining them to make Mithril.”
Durin’s face was filling with rage. “O’course there ain’t been no forging since then. It ain’t possible no more!”
“Forge Mithril or yer life is forfeit!” Thrgin thundered at him.
“Are ye daft?” Durin roared in outrage. “Ye’ve got no fire fer Mithril!”
Thrgin pointed at the white hot forge. “We’ve got fire aplenty!” he snapped. “Now forge it or pay the penalty of an impostor!”
Durin waved it away angrily. “That be the wrong type of fire,” he said stubbornly.
“Oh really?” Grior stepped forward, sword in hand. “And pray tell, what type of fire do we be needin’?”
Durin said something in the dwarven tongue.
Deal silence fell on the cavern as the assembled dwarves stared at him in consternation.
Ralt blinked at the unfamiliar words.
He leaned over to Missy. “What’d he say?”
She was as stunned as the rest. “In the Old Tongue it’s pronounced air·gä·män' lab·bä', the purple flame, but today we call it the purple fire or just the purple.” She shook her head in confusion. “There ain’t been no purple fire since the First Age.”
A rumble of conversation broke out on all sides.
Ralt had to raise his voice to be heard over the rising buzz. “Why not?”
Missy’s beautiful features were hard with anger. “Because a purple fire or flame can only be started by the gods. What kind of game is he playin’ at?”