The noise in cavern grew steadily louder until no one could hear themselves think. Thrgin bellowed for order but his voice was drowned out by the bedlam. Grior grabbed a hammer and banged it on an anvil. The ringing tone cut through the noise, startling everyone for a moment.
“Shut it!” Grior roared at them.
Some grumbled at his presumptuous tone but their fellows quieted them and silence fell. Grior bowed to Thrgin. The leader inclined his head to him in thanks.
Thrgin turned a wrathful gaze on Durin. “Ye use a trickster’s answer to avoid da test,” he growled.
Durin wasn’t having any of it. “And ye demand what ain’t been done fer thousands of years,” he shot back. “Judge ye which is worse.”
Ralt saw heads nodding around the Fire Cavern in agreement with both of them.
“If ye’re from the First Age, then ye’d know how ta forge Mithril,” Thrgin argued.
“I am and I do,” Durin yelled back, “and it be requiring da purple flame! It takes magic fire ta make magic metal like Mithril.”
It was a telling point. The initial anger of the gathered dwarves began to pass and now they were following the argument back and forth. Ralt could see them considering both sides. For the moment at least, Durin didn’t appear to be in danger of paying any penalty.
Thrgin’s knuckles were turning white on his staff. It was obvious he saw the circular nature of their discussion. There was no way to prove or disprove Durin’s assertion, and without proof, they couldn’t very well execute a dwarf who might be innocent.
Ralt saw their conundrum too. He tapped Missy on the arm.
He leaned over so he could whisper. “What else can you tell me about this purple fire?”
“Nothing,” she whispered back. “Just that the gods are the only ones powerful enough to start it burning.”
He glanced at the ongoing argument then stared at his staff. “Really?”
The memory of his mother’s after-death visit kept coming back. Why would she say he was chosen to learn magic to help an ancient king reclaim his throne, unless he was actively involved in the process? Why would she name him after a king-making wizard from Elder Earth? Standing by and watching didn’t count as help.
He glanced at his wizard’s staff again. Weapons like this were powerful, in and of themselves, even before they were filled with magic for releasing spells. If power was all that was needed to start a purple flame, why not use his staff? Staffs were a relatively recent invention, only having been around for about 1000 years or so. Previous generations wouldn’t have had them and wouldn’t have been able to experiment with them. He suffered a flashback of the man whose head exploded when he cast wild magic on the streets of Zered. If he could do something like that with his staff . . .
He felt a bubbling sense of excitement. That had to be it. It had to be!
Silence fell in the cavern.
He looked up to find everyone staring at him.
“Ye have something to add, elf?” Thrgin asked sarcastically.
Ralt realized belatedly he must have said some part of it out loud. Steeling his nerves, he stepped forward into the center of the room. “I do. I may be able to help Durin start a purple flame.”
An excited buzz erupted around them.
Durin stared him. “Are ye daft, lad? Ye can no more start a purple flame den I ken sprout wings an’ fly.”
“No, but you can mount a pegasus and fly. You can do anything with the right tool.” He hefted his staff for emphasis and watched Durin’s eyes widen in comprehension.
“Ye think ye can really do it?”
Ralt started to shrug then changed his mind and nodded affirmatively. “If all it takes is raw power, I think so. I’m a mage but I can still asahn,” he reminded him. At Durin’s blank look he added, “The elven version of bârâ. If I can asahn the power of the staff into a flame, it might work.”
Durin thought it over then nodded, his face lighting up. “Aye, lad. That it might.”
Everyone in the cavern had fallen silent, leaning in to listen to them.
Durin ran his eyes around the room. “Well?”
Thrgin was shaking his head. “The test is fer ye alone, not the elf, or mage, or wotever he be.”
This time, Durin laughed in his face. “Lighting a fire ain’t help’n me forge Mithril. Dat I ken do on me own.”
Raucous catcalls floated around the room, aimed at Thrgin.
“Let ‘em light it!”
“Lets see some purple flame!”
“Fire ain’t forgin’!”
He clamped his jaws angrily and slammed the butt of his staff on the stone floor. “Silence!”
The catcalls slowly died away as he repeated it over and over. Finally it was quiet again. He turned and fixed Ralt with a hard gaze. “Fine. BUT, if ye fail, ye share ‘is fate,” he snapped, pointing at Durin.
Ralt felt a tremor of fear shoot through him but he hid it. This wasn’t any worse than fighting a giant, or a demon. He nodded gravely. “Agreed.”
Thrgin rocked back on his heels, surprised by Ralt’s ready acceptance of his fate. He recovered quickly. “Then swear to it!”
Ralt stared at him through narrowed eyes.
“Well, elf,” Thrgin challenged him. “Will ye swear it by the ways of yer people or be found a coward?”
Ralt marched over to Durin and laid a hand on his shoulder. Without hesitation, he intoned the ancient words.
With elven might,
In starlit night,
Blood be bound,
Truth is found!
Elvish power swirled briefly around him and Durin then settled over both, linking their lives together until the test was done. He dropped his hand and stood tall, meeting Thrgin’s gaze. The dwarf leader gave him a grudging nod of respect.
“Ye’ve the courage of yer convictions, I’ll give ye that,” he conceded “Alright then, make yer purple fire.”
“Bring granite,” Durin ordered them. Thrgin nodded and several dwarves rushed to bring mounds of granite rocks, most of them size of a fist. “Ye best be prayin’ this works, lad,” Durin muttered aside to Ralt.
“I’m way ahead of you,” Ralt rejoined in the same voice. Louder, he asked, “Why granite?”
Durin took center stage. “Purple fire don’t burn on coal, only on granite. If ye put it a regular furnace, it’ll melt, but by itself it’ll burn with magic purple fire – if ye can light it.” He looked up at him. “And how do ye plan on doin’ that?”
Ralt thought it over. “Since I don’t know anything about purple fire, we’ll have to do it together. We hold the staff together. I can release the wizardly power in the staff, then asahn to you. From there, you bârâ it through the flame of a torch to light the fire.”
Durin nodded. “Then let’s git started.”
Suiting actions to words he stumped over and began shoveling lumps of granite into the nearly cold furnace on the right. When he was satisfied, he grabbed a torch and waved Ralt over. “Wot do we do?”
Ralt held out his staff. “Put the torch against the granite then hold the end of the staff right up next to the flame. When I start releasing the power, you’ll have to remember what purple fire looked like and bârâ it to start.”
As they took their positions everyone in the cavern seemed to be holding their breath with anticipation.
Ralt looked up at the ceiling. He didn’t know how to pray but if there was ever a time for it, this was it. “Storm says you’re called the Ancient of Days. If that’s really you, if you’re the Lord of Light who gave us a servant nimbus, help us now.” Durin muttered a heartfelt ‘Aye’ and they began.
Ralt muttered the command word that would unleash a fireball but for the first time in years he tried to asahn, clamping down on the flood of power to channel it in a continuous stream instead of one huge burst. He was out of practice and it hurt like a tooth ache all over his whole body. He stiffened in agony.
“Now!” he gasped.
He felt Durin using his own dwarven ability on the stream of power. The flames from the torch billowed wildly over the loose pile of granite.
He extended his own power deep into the staff to keep the magical energy flowing. But he extended too deep, reached for too much and something gave, like a dam breaking open. The stream became a rushing torrent. A scream died stillborn in his throat behind clenched teeth. An instant later Durin stiffened in the same agony.
His muscles spasmed, locking his hands around the staff. He couldn’t let go if he tried. Pain roared through him like a raging fire. Sheets of flame danced before his eyes and he smelled burning flesh. Knives raked over his skin ripping him open with a thousand razor cuts.
This time he did scream.
He screamed and screamed and screamed until mercifully he blacked out and knew no more.
Voices were fading in and out. Sometimes they seemed close. Other times they were far off and echoing. He seemed to be in a boat that was rocking back and forth. He was being tossed too and fro. He complained fitfully, petulantly demanding it stop but the boat didn’t seem to hear him.
A voice came closer. It seemed to be asking him something but he couldn’t quite make out what it was.
–rys? What was –rys?
Why wouldn’t they leave him alone? And quit rocking the boat!
Gradually he became aware he wasn’t on a boat. But why was he rocking back and forth then?
“–rys? Adsfuncvuwn me?”
His new name.
It dawned on him there was blurry light all around and fuzzy shapes moving here and there. “ywqzyaqenn!” someone said.
Abruptly something gave and sight and sound returned to normal. He was laying on a stretcher. There were people, no, dwarves, carrying it on each side. They were running through a tunnel. That’s why it felt like he was on a boat.
He turned his head and groaned with the effort. His body felt stiff and dried out like thousand-year-old mummy.
“– awake now.”
Missy’s face floated over him. “Emrys? Can you hear me?”
“Yes.” His voice was raspy, like an old man. He could barely hear himself.
Relief was written all over her face. “He’s awake,” she said to someone he couldn’t see.
“Water,” he croaked.
The dwarves carried him into a brightly lit room. They put down his stretcher and lifted him off it onto a bed. His skin was stretched tight as a drum where they touched him. Beyond them, he could see more dwarves with another stretcher. Who was on it?
“Water,” he croaked again. His throat was parched.
Then Missy was beside him, holding a cup to his lips. Cool water touched his cracked lips and he cried out with pain. She flinched but held herself steady. “Just a little at a time,” she urged him. “You’re dehydrated.” She gently tilted the cup forward again. The water didn’t hurt as much this time.
He stuck out his tongue. It felt like dried shoe leather. She let a few drops of water fall on it. He convulsed in pain, then tried to ask for more.
Slowly, a little at a time, she gave him more water, then a little bit more. His body seemed to be soaking it in like a sponge left in the desert sun too long. It hurt but it was a relief at the same time.
Behind her, someone groaned.
He looked up at her. “Durin,” he managed to gasp.
“He’s alive,” she assured him. “He’s hurt but you took the brunt of it. At first we thought you were dead.”
He thought the jury might still be out on that one, but he nodded anyway.
She smiled and tilted the cup to his mouth again. After a few more cups he decided he might live after all. He was finally able to raise his arm and hold the cup in a trembling hand. Missy had to help him, but it raised his spirits all the same.
A familiar voice rumbled from behind her shoulder. “Ye gave us quite a scare, lad.”
He met Durin’s eyes. “It wasn’t so bad after I quit screaming,” he whispered.
Durin tried to laugh then coughed as his sore throat protested the effort.
Ralt took another long drink of water. He felt as though his body was actually swelling with every drink he took.
“Hey!” he said as memory came flooding back. “Did it work?”
Missy laughed softly “Ye’ve written yourselves into the history of Gaia,” she told him. “The first mortals ta light purple fire!”