Sparks flew as hammer met yellow steel caught between its own fevered shouts and the unyielding anvil.
Birgrik Huthammer shaped the blade with rhythmic swings, willing the molecules of iron and carbon to fold into a single cutting edge. When all the heat seemed to have been pounded out, he returned the blade to the forge and pumped the bellows.
His dark brown eyes reflected the glowing coals of the forge, but held none of their warmth. The long black beard he’d tied behind his neck revealed a hard jawline, clenched against what pieces remained of a world that shattered on him tonight.
The still night air brought out the whispers from the crowd that gathered outside his blacksmith shop. But he didn’t acknowledge them, trapped as he was in memories of a past he thought he’d moved on from.
Birgrik could count on one hand the number of times his father, Harak, was home for more than a week. Harak was obsessed with finding the secret to forging darksteel, a knowledge their dwarf ancestors of Clan Ironstar were once legendary for. He would come home to test a new formula he’d discovered, only to dejectedly take off again to search in another distant land.
It was always Birgrik’s mother, Rannyd, who’d patiently pick up the pieces of Harak’s failed attempts and find a way to repurpose them for the family. She singlehandedly raised Birgrik by toiling over their home forge, making weapons and tools for their neighbours in the Gull Ridge.
One afternoon, after the other village children laughed and threw rocks at him again for having an absent father, Birgrik asked Rannyd what made his father stop loving them.
“I know it doesn’t seem like it,” Rannyd said, dabbing with her handkerchief at a cut across Birgrik’s cheek. “But he loves us in his own way.”
“By leaving us?” Birgrik cried through tears that wouldn’t stop burning.
“By providing for the family the only way he knows how.”
“But he could’ve done that by working with you at the forge!”
“And that wasn’t enough for him,” Rannyd said with a sad smile. “You’ll understand one day that some people can’t let go of the past. They’d never be happy until they find a way to right what they thought was wrong.”
“Well, maybe I could’ve helped him.”
“Maybe,” Rannyd chuckled. She gently wiped away Birgrik’s tears and kissed him on his forehead. “But he loved you too much to put that burden on you.”
The next day, Birgrik started helping his mother at the forge by tending to the forge fire.
Decades passed as they scratched a steady living for themselves.
When his mother’s arms didn’t have the strength to wield the hammer anymore, Birgrik took over that part of the job. When her eyesight failed, he looked after the finishing as well.
On the day of Rannyd’s funeral, his father never showed up. Birgrik vowed to find Harak and drag him to Rannyd’s grave. To make him answer for abandoning his family.
He boarded up their house and packed his bag. With one last look at his mother’s grave, he headed north.
The direction he’d last seen his father disappear to.
Steam hissed and writhed upwards like vengeful spirits as Birgrik quenched the hot blade in a barrel of oil. Placing the blade back in the forge, he finally looked out at the activity outside.
Light-footed figures moved quickly in the darkness, buckling on leather armour and sharpening blades. Some waxed bowstrings while others dropped off full quivers of newly fletched arrows.
All this was done in grim silence.
Birgrik broke the silence with one more hissing quench of the blade in the oil barrel. He held the blade up to the forge light and tapped it once with his tongs. The blade rang true and strong.
This will do, he thought.
It’s been two weeks since Birgrik set out from his home for the first time in his life. He stopped at every tavern he could find, nursing a single tankard of ale the whole evening while asking travellers if they knew the whereabouts of a dwarf named, Harak.
No one heard of him so far, though some were curious why he wanted to find this dwarf. He always gave a different answer. Sometimes, it was because the dwarf owed him money. Or he stole from him. Or he had a blood feud with him.
He just couldn’t bring himself to admit that he’s a son looking for his father.
Birgrik’s determination finally paid off one evening. A group of merchants said they’d heard of a dwarf who called himself Harak working as a blacksmith up north in Xibru. They were heading there anyway with their wagon of wares and offered to take him there in the morning.
He slept well that night. At last, he will soon be able to confront his father. As he packed his bag the next morning, he rehearsed all the different ways the scene would play out and what he would say to him.
His new travelling companions were waiting for him outside the inn. He greeted them and they headed out, their wagon slowly making its way through the busy morning bustle of the cobblestone streets.
The merchants were a strange bunch: two humans, a half-elf, and a goblin. Most of them didn’t talk much, but their leader – Dreln, the male human – was chatty enough.
He lamented about how the rising price of lamp oil was inflating the costs of living everywhere. He talked about partnering with the half-elf and his sister to mass-produce glass ampoules of stable lightning as an alternative light source. By the time Dreln got to comparing which lands he’d like to retire in one day, the town gates were already well behind them.
As soon as they rounded a bend in the road behind the edge of a forest, a loud thump shook the back of the wagon. Dreln cursed and pulled at the horse reins.
“What’s wrong?” Birgrik asked.
“Must be that damn rear axle acting up again,” Dreln said, hopping off the wagon and heading to the back. “You can stay put. I just need to adjust it real quick. Won’t be long.”
Birgrik heard the others in the back also get off the wagon. They had a brief, muffled conversation before Dreln returned.
“Hey,” Dreln said. “Would you mind helping us lift the wagon onto some blocks?”
“Sure,” Birgrik said. He climbed down and headed straight into a semi-circle formed by the other three merchants, smiles on their faces and weapons in their hands.
“Sorry, dwarf,” Dreln said, blocking Birgrik’s escape from behind. “The economy’s gone to shit and we need every bit of gold to start our business. I’m sure you understand.”
Dreln lunged at Birgrik with a knife that suddenly appeared in his hand. Birgrik ducked and rolled under the wagon to the other side. He sprang up to the driver’s seat and whipped the reins.
The horses bolted forward, but something blocked the wagon wheels from turning. The sudden strain snapped the reins and the horses galloped away. Dreln rounded the corner of the wagon and slashed at Birgrik with his knife.
Birgrik flung himself backward into the middle of the wagon. His hands desperately felt for something to use as a weapon. Feeling a handle of some kind, he grasped it and swung at the goblin who had clambered up from the back. The hammer head at the other end of the handle smashed into the goblin’s temple, instantly dropping him.
Scrambling to his feet, Birgrik tried to leap off the back of the wagon just as the female human grabbed for his legs. Birgrik tripped and fell hard to the ground. With the wind knocked out of him, he turned to see the female human bringing a mace down on his head.
He flailed blindly with his hammer and the claw end clipped the female human’s knee. Her leg gave out as she crumpled to the ground with a scream that was cut short when her head got in the way of his still flailing hammer.
Propping himself up with the dropped mace, Birgrik turned to see the half-elf raising a sword in an overhead swing. Birgrik threw himself to the side and the sword blade bit deep into the wagon edge. He thrust the mace at the half-elf’s arms, but the half-elf dodged back, letting go of the stuck sword.
The half-elf immediately sprang forward with a snap kick at Birgrik’s left elbow. Birgrik dropped the mace with a howl as he felt the bones in his arm snap. He threw the hammer he still held in his right hand at the half-elf. The half-elf pivoted to avoid the flying hammer and in that instant, Birgrik charged.
With a roar, he channelled all his momentum into his right shoulder and barrelled into the half-elf’s stomach. The half-elf flew backwards until the back of his neck split against the sword still wedged to the wagon.
Before Birgrik could catch his breath, a knife slammed into his shoulder. Another one flew into his other shoulder, followed by two more flashes in the sunlight that became knives in both thighs. Birgrik slumped to the ground, immobilized.
Dreln advanced, fury draining all colour from his face. “I will make sure you die a slow death, dwarf,” Dreln spat, another knife twirling over his fingers.
Birgrik’s vision clouded over as his blood darkened the ground around him.
The last thing he saw was a shadow dropping from a tree onto Dreln.
Birgrik carefully fitted the guard over the blade tang. The bottom quillon of the guard curved back into the pommel to form a knuckle-bow over the grip. The top quillon extended up perpendicular to the blade and then curved forward a few inches. With the guard securely fastened, he started wrapping the grip in leather.
Someone quietly leaned a travelling pack full of supplies and rations against the doorway of the blacksmith shop. He looked up and nodded before turning his attention back to the grip.
Birgrik woke up with a view of an unfamiliar ceiling. He turned his head and saw an elf lounging on a chair beside his bed, watching him.
Panicked, he tried to get up and immediately collapsed from the fiery pain coursing through his body. He looked down and realized he was wrapped in bandages while his left arm was held up with a sling.
“Easy, dwarf,” the elf said, rising to help Birgrik sit up. “I’m not one of them.”
“Who are you?” Birgrik asked, wheezing from the effort.
“I’m Illunathrym. Who are you?”
“Look, I’m the one who finished the job you started, remember?” Illunathrym said with a grin. “Well, you did most of the work. I just cleaned up.”
Something about the elf made him seem trustworthy. Then again, Dreln had seemed that way, too. Still, Birgrik wouldn’t be alive right now if someone – presumably this Illunathrym – hadn’t rescued him. “I’m Birgrik,” he finally said.
“See? That wasn’t so hard. Nice to meet you.”
“Why save me?”
“I like a good fight.”
“You could’ve done more of that if you’d stepped in earlier.”
“And miss seeing you take down three of them and almost make it out alive?”
Birgrik winced. “So why intervene at all?”
Illunathrym cocked his head to the side and thought for a moment. “I liked you,” he finally said with a shrug. “For someone obviously untrained, you had a lot of potential. Also, I hate bullies getting the upper hand.”
Birgrik grunted, which set off a series of coughing fits.
“Sounds like you need more rest. Here, drink this. It’ll help you sleep,” Illunathrym said, taking a cup from the nightstand and holding it to Birgrik’s lips.
He wrinkled his nose at the pungent aroma, but was too weak to put up much of a protest. At least it tasted a little better than it smelled. Slightly bitter with a faint spicy aftertaste.
Illunathrym guided Birgrik back down to the pillow and pulled the blankets up to his chin.
“Sweat it all out,” Illunathrym said. “I’ll check in on you in the morning.”
“Where am I anyway?” Birgrik asked, words already slurring as his eyelids drooped.
“My home. In a village deep inside Glassthorn Wood.”
Birgrik mumbled something that resembled “thank you”, but fell asleep before he could finish the thought.
Illunathrym smiled and closed the door.
After wrapping the grip, Birgrik took the finished shortsword to the grindstone to be sharpened. He tapped his foot on the treadle a few times to get the grindstone’s rotation up to a steady speed.
The 12-inch-long blade had a single cutting edge that began an inch from the knuckle-bow guard. The cutting edge continued straight before curving up to meet the blade tip. It was a wide blade with a zero rake to its cutting edge to favour chopping strikes over piercing attacks, but still not completely sacrificing the latter.
When Birgrik was well enough to move around, Illunathrym showed him around the village. Though Birgrik noticed a few long stares from the other elves, most relaxed when they saw Illunathrym beside him.
“Everyone seems to respect you,” Birgrik said.
“Not always,” Illunathrym laughed. “But I keep them safe and that’s what matters. Everyone has a role to play here.” He glanced sideways at Birgrik. “Maybe even you.”
“Yes, you. You didn’t expect to freeload off us forever, did you?”
Birgrik grunted. “Well, all I know is blacksmithing.”
“Excellent. Then that’s what you’ll do.”
“Okay…you have a forge and anvil anywhere?”
“I’ve got just the place for you,” Illunathrym said. He led Birgrik to a plain hut and flung open the door. “Our old blacksmith actually passed away a couple years ago. No one wanted to do the job so his shop has been sitting vacant ever since.”
Birgrik nodded at the shop’s full array of equipment and all the blacksmith tools neatly hung on the wall. “I can work with this,” he said.
“Great. Can you start today?” Illunathrym said, grinning. “You can begin with the blades I had to blunt to rescue you.”
Birgrik scowled and moved off to start up the forge.
“Oh, come on,” Illunathrym laughed. “It was funny. You should see your face. It’s as dark as huthammur.”
“I have no idea what that means,” Birgrik said, picking out a pair of tongs and a hammer from the wall.
“It’s Elvish for ‘stormclouds’,” Illunathrym said and then immediately snapped his fingers. “That’s what I’ll call you from now on.”
“No – ‘Huthammer’. Get it? ‘Cause you’re holding a hammer? In a hut? And your face…no? Never mind. You’ll get it one day,” Illunathrym said as he backed away towards the door.
“I have a perfectly good name already.”
“I’ll bring you my blades in a bit, Huthammer,” Illunathrym called back, jogging away a little too quickly.
Word spread throughout the village that they now have a new blacksmith. Called Huthammer.
Several seasons passed and Birgrik found comfort in his work. When he wasn’t blacksmithing, Illunathrym took it upon himself to train him how to fight.
“Again!” Illunathrym shouted. “You’re still too tense.”
Birgrik gasped for air from the vantage point of the ground for the 114th time. But he got back up every time, determined to never be as helpless as he’d felt with Dreln and his attackers. Dual shortswords raised, he slowed his breath and imagined every muscle from his shoulders to his calves relaxing.
Illunathrym shot forward, his dual shortswords a blur. Birgrik found it almost impossible to defend against him. As soon as he parried one blade, the other one was already heading for his throat. He felt himself backing up faster and faster.
“Stop retreating!” Illunathrym hissed. “Deflect my momentum to one side and keep moving forward.”
“You’re too quick,” Birgrik muttered, though he did shift his weight to his back leg and tried to use the torque of his hips to redirect the strength of Illunathrym’s strikes.
“Good,” Illunathrym said. “And remember that you have two hands. Use them simultaneously.” He illustrated his point by attacking him with both shortswords, one slashing horizontally at the neck and the other stabbing straight at the chest.
Birgrik held both shortswords upright and met the two incoming blades while rotating his hips. As Illunathrym’s attack glanced off to the side, he pushed off his back leg to move straight at Illunathrym.
All motion stopped. Illunathrym stared down at one shortsword held against his throat and the other pointed towards his chest.
Illunathrym smiled. “I think you’re getting the hang of it, Huthammer.”
Birgrik untied his beard. Sliding the sharpened shortsword into its scabbard attached to a harness, he strapped it over his back so that the hilt rose above his shoulder. Over his other shoulder rested the shortsword’s twin, already finished and sheathed.
Reaching back with both hands, he drew the dual shortswords. He slashed at the air towards his left with both shortswords – the right-hand one pointing up and covering his head level while the left-hand one pointed down and covered his torso level – as his hips rotated to deliver the power in one burst. Swapping the positions of the shortswords, he rotated his hips again to slash at the other side.
Balance is good, he thought. He re-sheathed the shortswords and picked up the travelling pack by the door. Tightening the pack over the shortswords’ harness on his back, Birgrik stepped out to meet the line of fully armed figures waiting outside.
Illunathrym was an assassin by trade and he often went away to take on contracts. Then he’d come back with a bagful of gold and stories to tell.
One night, someone woke up Birgrik with a frantic pounding at his door. The elf dragged him to the outskirts of the village, where a circle of other elves huddled around a figure lying on the ground.
It was Illunathrym.
Broken-off arrows studded his torso, their number and placements dashing all hopes for a miracle. His rattled breathing quickened when he saw Birgrik approach. He stretched his hand out and Birgrik knelt down to take it.
“An old dwarf…hired me,” Illunathrym whispered. “For protection…We got ambushed.” He coughed up blood as he reached for something on the ground beside him. “Told me to give this…to Birgrik of Gull Ridge.”
Birgrik unwrapped the object and saw that it was a leather-bound diary. The moment he opened it, his breath caught in his throat.
It was in his father’s handwriting.
He clutched tighter at Illunathrym’s hand. He desperately wanted to think of a joke that would make him laugh. To tell him about a new technique he’d been practicing. To thank him for saving his life and giving him the strength to live.
But the words just pooled in his eyes.
“He bought me time…to escape,” Illunathrym murmured. “Brave dwarf…like you.”
The words still unsaid dropped onto Illunathrym’s face as it eased into one final smile.
One of the armed figures stepped toward Birgrik and they clasped each other’s forearms.
“Our scouts will guide you out of the forest,” the elf said. “We must part ways after that, I’m afraid. We have preparations to make.”
Birgrik nodded. He pulled out his father’s diary and flipped to the last entry. Standing out in the moonlight was one line: “Last possibility for d. scrolls. Lost city of Vetluxun in Moonsnare Forest.”
North once more, he thought. He slammed the diary shut and followed the elves as they all melted into the trees.