Ralt was still stiff and sore the next morning. He’d slept all day and all night, waking up only for more water. Every time he awoke he found Missy by his side. Once, as he was drifting back to sleep, he felt her lips brush his forehead.
He pushed himself upright in his bed, groaning slightly from the effort. He was in better shape than he had any right to expect. He’d thought he was on fire but it turned out to be metaphorical rather than real, a product of the intense pain he’d felt that made him think he was on fire.
Missy was instantly by his side, plumping a pillow behind his back. Before he could ask for it, she was pouring water for him out of a tall pitcher. She handed him the cup, her fingers brushing against his. It sent a tingle up his spine. He considered the whys and wherefores of it as he sipped at the icy cold water. It was the best thing he’d ever tasted. He held out his empty cup and she refilled it. He drank more while eyeing her over the rim.
“Did you kiss me last night?”
His own boldness surprised him. Usually he was nervous and reserved around women. Perhaps his brush with death had emboldened him.
“What if I did?” she sniffed.
He lowered the cup. “Well, I was half-asleep and barely remember it. To be fair, you ought to kiss me while I’m awake so I can remember it.”
A tiny smile creased the corners of her lips. “Fair? Since when does everything have to be fair? Ye men! Yer all alike, always going on about the rules and wanting everything to be fair and orderly. Well, life ain’t orderly. Sometimes it’s just plain messy.”
He sighed. “Woman! Get over here and kiss me!” Once again he was surprised at his own forcefulness.
She giggled at his expression. “Well, since ye put it like that –” She leaned over and kissed him, a soft lingering kiss that spoke volumes without a single word being uttered.
“Feelin’ better, I see,” Durin’s voice boomed from the doorway.
Missy straighten up without embarrassment. “I think he’ll live.”
Durin snorted. “Aye.” He turned steely eyes on Ralt. “So, thinkin’ of marryin’ one o me ken folk are ye?”
Ralt hadn’t even considered such a thing but now that Durin mentioned it, it was an interesting idea. He could tell Durin was needling him but for once he didn’t rise to the bait. “If I did, it might be the smartest thing I’ve ever done,” he rejoined quickly, surprising himself still again.
Durin was equally surprised.
Before he could come up with an answer, Missy leaned over to kiss Ralt. Her eyes were bright and shining. “Yes,” she breathed against his lips. Then she turned and flounced out of the room.
Ralt was flummoxed. All his newfound boldness evaporated in an instant. He stared after her for a moment, her passionate ‘yes’ ringing in his ears. He looked at Durin. “Uh, did I just get engaged?”
Durin was fighting back laughter. “Aye, lad. I think maybe ye did.”
Ralt felt a moment of sheer terror, then a great calm settled over him. His heart felt large and full. He grinned at the dwarf. “Oh well. Storm and Thomas survived it. I probably can too.”
“Oh, of a certainty ye can survive,” Durin nodded. “What ye’ll be like after tis done is another question.” They shared a laugh then Durin sobered. “Since yer feelin’ better, I ‘ate ta tell ye this, but yer staff didn’t survive.”
Ralt swung his feet out of the bed. The stone floor was cold under his bare feet. Engaged! Him! Who’d have thought it?
He looked around. “Where are my clothes?”
“On the chair.” Durin pointed to a straight-backed chair. “Didn’t ye hear wot I said? Yer staff was burned up yesterday. ‘Tis nought but dust.”
“I heard you,” Ralt nodded, pulling his clothes on.
“Ye don’t seem upset by it,” Durin observed.
Ralt pulled on his boots. “I hoped it wouldn’t be hurt but I suspected it might happen. I felt something break inside it when the power suddenly turned into a flood.” He shrugged slightly. “It was never meant to be used the way we did.” His muscles were still sore but the more he moved the better he felt. “So, what did you forge?”
Durin laughed shortly. “Nuthin. I passed out not long after ye did. I only woke up an hour ago.”
Ralt stared at him in dismay. “So you’ve still got to go through their test?”
Durin clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t fret, lad. After yesterday, even Thrgin is startin’ ta believe I’m Durin. ‘Sides, now dat we got purple flame, forging Mithril is sumpthing I ken do in me sleep.” In spite of his outward show, Ralt could hear an undercurrent of anger in his voice. Having to proof his own identity grated on Durin’s temper. He urged him toward the door. “Come on. As soon as ye eat, we’ll head back down der and I’ll show ‘em how a real dwarf forges True Silver.”
Durin was as good as his word.
Missy showed up in the chow hall, sitting down next to Ralt, oblivious to the stares from around the huge room. Once he was finished, she grabbed his hand and pulled him after Durin. This time, instead of everyone following Thrgin, Ralt was amused to note they were following Durin. It was a noticeable role reversal. A lot of attention was being focused on his and Missy’s intertwined hands too.
Once back in the Fire Cavern, Ralt’s eyes were drawn to the purple flame burning in the right-hand furnace. It looked like normal fire except for two things. First was the color; it was brightly and patently purple. There was no mistaking it.
Second, was the steady stream of sparks and effervescent fizzles rising from it. Even without his Sight it was obviously magical. When he activated his Sight, the magic was incredibly intense, almost painful to look at. It reminded him of Durin’s axe. He turned off his Sight and blinked to clear his eyes. “Yeah, I think that’ll do the trick,” he said to no one in particular.
Durin heard him and grinned savagely.
Thrgin stepped forward and banged the butt of his walking staff on the stone floor of the cavern. “Now that we ‘ave purple flame, will ye submit to da test?” he asked Durin.
“Of course,” he answered promptly, but his eyes were hard as flint.
“What will ye forge?” someone called from the assembled ranks that were gathered to watch him.
“The war mage sacrificed ‘is staff fer me, I thought it only fittin’ ta forge him a replacement,” Durin said boldly.
Ralt felt his eyebrows climb. “Durin! You don’t have to – ouch!” he exclaimed as Missy stomped on his toe. He hopped awkwardly on one foot. “What was that for?”
Snickers sounded throughout the crowd.
“If he wants ta thank you with a present, let him do it,” she answered, giving him a reproving look.
He frowned in disconcerted amusement. “Are you wife-ing me already?” There were more snickers from the watching dwarves.
“Of course,” she answered primly.
“Oh.” He paused. “Okay.” He half-bowed to Durin. “I would be honored to have a Mithril staff.”
Durin nodded grimly and fell to it.
Over the next few hours the dwarves watched with rapt attention as he smelted ore in the purple flame, mixing the different elements in precise amounts. He fanned the flames so they swirled over the sides of the container directly down onto the molten metal. It sparked and hissed every time. He explained it was burning out the impurities. The process had to be repeated over and over again until it didn’t spark anymore. Once it reached that stage, the liquid Mithril was pure and ready to mold.
Ralt was by turns fascinated and bored. Forging was a lengthy process and parts of it were as dull as watching paint dry.
When the liquid quit hissing and sparking though, it seemed to take on a new sheen as if it’s very substance had changed. On a hunch he turned on his Sight. There was magic swirling in the molten metal like nothing he’d ever seen before. It was beautiful.
Ralt shook himself and looked around. Durin was calling him over. “Since dis will be yer staff, ye need ta have a hand in da final steps.”
He hurried over.
“Ye don’t ‘ave ta do much, just asahn enough ta let it know who ye are,” he explained.
Durin nodded at him and began pouring the shimmering metal into a long mold. Ralt held out his hand a mere fingers width from blistering hot stream, extending his essence into it, introducing himself to it. Durin was using his own power to shape and craft it, but Ralt was forming a bond with it. In those moments he felt the promise of tremendous power in it. This would be no ordinary staff. Even for a wizard’s staff it was going to be something unusual.
Durin poured the last of it into the smoking, steaming mold. “Ye got it, lad. Step back.”
Ralt retreated to where Missy stood. Her fingers automatically entwined with his as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
After letting it cool for several long moments, Durin lifted the long rod of white hot metal out of it’s mold and laid it on the anvil. This group of dwarves, the Shamir, like many such groups, had treasured keepsakes leftover from the First Age. Thrgin’s group had a Mithril hammer. He hefted it and brought it down on the long piece of metal. It rang with a bell-like purity Ralt had never heard before.
The dwarves all started in surprise then surged forward half a step as if gravity was pulling them toward it. Their eyes were wide and staring, hypnotized by the ringing sound that echoed throughout the immense cavern. Durin’s face was hot and dripping, streaked with rivulets of sweat and soot as he looked at them.
“This be the sound in yer blood!” he shouted as he brought the hammer down over and over. “Hear it! Hear it and remember who ye are! Ye be of the blood of me people, the Shokirin of Thangadrim!” His anger, no longer hidden, was mixed with ancient pride.
Stirred by memories carried in their blood, the dwarves began to chant in time with Durin’s hammer strokes. Each line ended with a shout and a boot stomp as Durin struck the Mithril. The women sang a haunting wordless melody that rose and fell in counter-point to the chanting of the men. Before they were half done, the great cavern was rocking and shaking from the sound.
In halls of Stone!
Our ham-mers Fall!
With ring-ing Crash!
The gold we Mine!
The gems we Find!
In fi-ery Forge!
We burn the Fire!
To light our Way!
The days of Yore!
Great bat-tles Fought!
With ax and might!
Red blood we Drew!
In ring-ing Dell!
By pow-er Led!
For Kith and Ken!
We smite the Foe!
Our king held High!
On Mith-ril Throne!
In glo-ry Great!
Our armies Stand!
The peace to Keep!
Great wo-men Sing!
Of days to Come!
As Ralt watched, an atavistic shudder ran down his back and for a moment he was transported back to the First Age where mighty works were done when the world was new. His Sight showed him primitive power washing back and forth through the cavern. All the dwarves were linked in a tapestry of magic as they combined to bârâ the Mithril staff Durin was forging.
It held an eldritch beauty the world hadn’t seen for many thousands of years and suddenly he wondered what he’d helped unleash. Would the dwarves here be content to remain simple miners after this? He suspected he already knew the answer and feared what it might portend. Moving a single stone could trigger a mighty avalanche. Was this forging that single stone?
The chant and Durin’s hammer strokes came to a thundering climax. Dust filtered down from the ceiling above as dead silence reigned. He submerged it in bath of icy water. A cloud of steam exploded into the air. When it faded, Durin was standing, arms akimbo by the anvil with what seemed to be a shaft of pure light laying across it.
Moved by an impulse he couldn’t control, Ralt pushed his way through the ranks to approach the shimmering rod on the anvil. The dwarves gave way without speaking. He stopped and stared at it in wonder.
It was made of a single piece. The shining metal was brighter than silver, seeming to glow with its own internal light. How could metal shine from within like that? He shook his head in awe. It was a span longer than his old staff and surmounted by a globe slightly larger than the diameter of the body of the staff. On the globe was etched a map of Gaia while ancient runes covered the rod itself from top to bottom.
How had Durin done all that with only a hammer?
Bârâ and asahn might be similar, but obviously they weren’t the same, he concluded.
His Sight told him more. This wasn’t an artifact like Fenris Fang, but as he’d suspected, it was no ordinary staff either. It was imbued with power in a way he wouldn’t have believed possible if he hadn’t seen it himself. Once more he considered how content the dwarves would be with their current lot in life. Something like this would inspire them to reach for the stars.
Durin nodded for him to pick it up.
He stretched out his hand and it leapt off the anvil into his grasp. His fingers closed on it and he felt a sense of homecoming, as if he’d returned to a place long sought and only distantly remembered until he was finally back again.
He turned to the assembled dwarves and thrust it triumphantly in the air. The name came to him, whether from the staff itself or the recesses of his own mind, he couldn’t say. “Behold, Tsāl Labbah, Shadow Flame, forged by Durin, son of Drangor, third king of Thangadrim!”