Arfin Kegsplitter was having a bad day. At least, he was pretty sure it was day. He hadn’t yet determined if it was worth the effort to open his eyes and confirm his suspicions. There were splinters in his nose, again. Not from a fight, or even from a fall. He’d passed out at a table, again. He had to stop. He sighed.
He couldn’t stop. Wouldn’t stop. Better to wake up like this than to fall asleep anddream. He shuddered, and soon the shudder had transformed itself into a full-bodied shake. He was cold. Freezing. That’s what happened when whiskey was the only thing keeping you warm. He’d been learning that lesson for more years than he cared to count. More years than he cared to remember. Maybe a drink would help him forget.
Slowly moving his thick, short-fingered hands, Arfin gripped either side of the unfamiliar table, preparing to pick himself up off of the splintery mess that had apparently served as his bed last night. Even this small activity managed to banish some of the unnatural chill that seemed to have settled into his bones.
The cold followed him everywhere, since…before. He didn’t want to think about it, so he thought about the time. How long had it been? 10 years? More? The years blurred together. Thank the Builders! Thank the whiskey. Eh…well. Better not start thanking the whiskey, yet. He still had to get his now-throbbing skull off of the table.
Eyes still closed, he pushed upward from the table, and then almost dropped his bulbous nose back onto it. Stabbing pains lanced through his head, reminding him of the personal cost of some of the kingdom’s cheaper liquors. The room spun. Just like always. He had to stop.
He opened his wide, bloodshot eyes before trying to put his boots beneath him. Builder’s only knew where he had passed out. The light! His head was the anvil, and daylight the hammer. Fighting the pain, he opened his eyes further, and tried desperately to get them to focus. Still blurry. Well, not every ingot becomes an axe. He’d make do with what he had at the moment.
He looked around gingerly, trying to keep his head from exploding. He had to stop. Rough hewn tables and chairs were haphazardly stacked throughout the cold (but rapidly warming) room. A small hearth jutted out from the wall across from him, with no signs of having been burned for at least a week. Arfin remembered that it had been warm yesterday. It must have been cold last night, he assured himself. It had to be. Why else would he be so cold? He tried to forget that he woke up cold every morning. He didn’t succeed. He couldn’t shake the chill. He couldn’t shake thedreams…
Arfin felt alive. Just like he always did when standing over an anvil. He was a smith, a maker. He breathed in the smell of hot steel as he gazed down upon the gift the earth had given him, the gift it had asked him to shape. His hand seemed to naturally curve around the hammer’s handle. His lean, strong arm raised the hammer with ease, and then and dropped it as he tried to free the steel’s soul from the unshaped ingot.
Other smiths often spoke of being able to see what the metal wanted to be when it laid upon their anvils, but Arfin knew that for even the best metalworker, it was almost all exaggeration. Even when gazing into the finest steel, most of his race still saw no more than their torch lit reflection. But Arfin was different. He could see the destiny of every piece that his hammer shaped. Squinting down at the ingot, he could see a strange, sorrowful violence hiding, waiting to be released. This was to be a tool of war. An axe, he thought, just as he had thought a thousand unbearable times before. He should have known; he should have expected what was to come next. But, he did not, could not. Such is the curse of dreams.
His hammer rose, his hammer fell, and the steel took on the shape it was meant to have.
He could feel intense heat upon his back. He smiled. The forge. This, more than any other place was his home. He loved his daughters, loved his wife, but this was the place of his calling, the place of his truest joy. This was where he belonged, and today, it was a joy to answer his calling, just as he helped the steel fill its own.
Seemingly of its own accord, the hammer rises and falls, driving sparks from the half-formed blade, leeching every impurity from Dumathion’s gift. Over the ring of a thousand hammers, over the crackle and whoosh of fire and bellows, over the shouts of a hundred smiths he heard it, he felt it: a low rumble. It moved from his ears to his shoulders, from his shoulders to his chest, and from there throughout his entire body. His heart skipped a beat. His hammer faltered, leaving a scar on the rudimentary blade that had just begun to show its true shape. Something had happened in the clanholds!
The Mine Warden, dark eyes and hair marking him a Thunderheart, rushed into the forgevault. Breathless and dirty, whatever he had to say must have been deeply urgent. Fear gripping his stout heart, Arfin turned from his forge, white knuckles showing around his hammer’s grip. This would not be good news. He prayed, as he had never prayed, silently screaming to his Fathers that they keep his wife and children safe.
“There’s bin a collapse, Lads!” the warden shouted, pale beneath the dust. A few more hammers stopped their ringing. The earth often rumbled here in the homes of the dwarves, especially in Arutha’s Forge. Such was not often a thing for worry. But a collapse…a collapse was unheard of.
“The support for Kegsplitters’ Clanholds’ve cracked, th’n they went’n let go! It was the new tunnels, the mines beneath…” the warden puffed, still breathless from his trip up to the forge. Sucking in the smoky air of the stone furnaces, the warden managed to continue. “I tell’ya true that we need every strong arm and back among ye to save who ‘n what we may!”
Arfin’s hammer dropped from suddenly limp hands, and the proud dwarf fell to his knees. He could feel hot tears streaming down his soot-stained face, and he watched as his hands tried to grasp at the air, searching for solace where none could be found. The support for Kegsplitter’s Clanholds’ve cracked…
He heard screams, then. Even in the twilight of his life, he would never be sure if the screams were his own, another’s, or nothing more than the imagined cries of his lost family. Regardless of whose screams they were, Arfin could hear pain and aguish so laced within the sound of them that the world around him blurred, and then seemed to disappear.
The ruined smith lumbered to his feet, then, throat suddenly raw from cries of which he was only half-aware. Leaving his hammer lying on the smooth stone of the cavern, he hurtled past cousins and brothers, desperately trying to reach the wife, and daughters that he still-hoped to find alive. He would not say their names, afraid that somehow invoking them would ensure that he would find them lost. In the end, even his caution would not matter.
Arfin felt no pain as he scraped the flesh from his thick, calloused hands, prying at the unmoving stone that bore terrible, mute witness to his loss. Arfin felt to pain, no fear as he hurled his body against the wall of rubble that had separated him from the remains of his life. Finally, he collapsed—bruised, battered, and cut. When he awoke, they were gone; he was truly, horribly, alone.
Arfin forced himself out of the horrific daydream as he tried to finish plodding toward the door. He needed to at least find out the name of this place. He had been in Thanesport for months, trying to forget his past. Aye, the dream was the worst of it, but there were terrors north of the Wall, as well. He would do himself well to forget all of them. But some things are not so easily forgotten.
But Arfin had learned on more than one tour in the Deathlands that what the mind could not defeat on its own, whiskey could. Pain pierced his fire-bearded head as he squinted into the sky outside the swinging half-doors of the tavern. He searched for the sun among the grey clouds that must have settled over Thanesport in the night. He was still chilly, but everyone else looked like they were on the verge of melting. The innkeeper swabbed the sweat off of his wide, balding pate with his right hand, and then used the moisture to clean the dust from the mug in his left. Delicious. He had to stop.
He grunted. He couldn’t stop. His eyes focused on the gloom outside to pick out the shadow of the sun from behind the curtain of clouds. Noon. A little early for heavy drinking, but there was no way he was going to find a job out here on the street. Arfin may not have been much more than a blade for hire, but he knew where to find work. He managed a small, pained smile. Most of the Merc Captain’s would be looking for blades in the seedier taverns. Today’s whiskey would just be a business expense. What was one more tour above the wall? Maybe this time something would get him. Maybe this time, he’d just die.
A voice cut into his dark revelry. He turned his head toward the ramshackle bar, pieces of driftwood from the river worn smooth with the drinks and elbows of a thousand pieces of living detritus like him, nailed onto a small stand of wood, probably stolen from the shipyards. The bartender…what was his name? Cawys, he thought he recalled as he searched the tavern for the voice’s source. The bartender clearly hadn’t said a word. It must have been someone else.
His rheumy eyes swung back toward the door just in time to hear the message repeated by the figure standing within. “Arfin Kegsplitter!” a happy voice said, a hint of shadow beneath a veneer of sunshine. “Aw hell, it’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
The voice was still a mystery. The man (if a man it was), was taller than Arfin. Thinner. Maybe human. Maybe a mid-elf. Too short for one with orc-blood.
Arfin stumbled forward, commanding his still half-functional eyes to focus. They did, but the figure’s face was still obscured, hidden by a small sliver of shadow. Arfin thought he saw a smile within the darkness, but there was no way to be sure. The problem resolved itself as the man stepped from the peculiar shadow of the doorway, into the dusty bar. It had been a smile on his face. In fact, the smile seemed to have persisted.
“Don’t you remember me, Kegsplitter?” the man asked, dark hair and dark eyes shining atop a pallid-grey face. Short points poked through the unruly mop of hair, right where his ears would be. A mid-elf.
Arfin was unable to keep the confusion off of his face. “I’m sorry, friend, but I’d be a liar if I said I knew yer face, or yer name.”
Strangely, the pallid stranger’s smile seemed to widen at the revelation, uncovering a row of perfectly straight white teeth. “Well, I admit I’m surprised you don’t remember me, Arfin. But perhaps you’re just better at forgetting, than I.
“What was it?” the man speculated, looking into the air above Arfin’s head, “Three years ago? That village—Durin. Nearly lost it all, didn’t we?”
Arfin’s eyes widened at the mention of the village. Another nightmare to dull with whiskey. His axe rising and falling like his hammer once had at the anvil…the hands of the dead, still grasping at his ankles as he tried to run…
He squinted once more at the stranger, trying to banish the onrush of old memories, old terrors. He thought he might have remembered something. “Edriss? Is that ye, lad?”
The smile became a full-fledged grin. But something seemed strange. The smile was almost like a rictus. A grim parody of joy. What was it that Arfin saw dancing behind those black eyes…?
Edriss’s answer stopped the speculation, distracting Arfin from what had been a quickly growing disquiet. “You see? You don’t forget everything. I’ve been taking care of the family business in Odir, but I’ve come up with some free time. Hoping to meet a friend, here. And though you’re not the friend I was looking for, you’ll certainly do for now.” The mid-elf paused for a moment, gliding past the dwarf toward the makeshift bar. Catching the bartender’s eye with a quick, fluid motion of his hand, he continued, “I’d like an ale, publican.” Looking over his shoulder to the hungover dwarf, he raised an eyebrow, but directed his comment toward the still-polishing bartender. “And for my friend…?”
Arfin grunted, and then pulled his sluggish body toward the nearest hunk of polished driftwood. “Whiskey. Leave the bottle.”
“Say,” Arfin said, as the sweat-stained rag slammed a small glass down in front of him, “Ye know if any of the old boys are hirin’…?”
He had to stop.
But not today.
Edriss laughed, eyes seeming to brighten as the shadows deepened around him. “Drink up, Arfin. There’ll be time enough for work, soon. Trust me.” Arfin drank, and tried not to look at Edriss’s smile.
He shivered. Why was he always so cold?