Fire in the Snow
The ice cracked lightly, breaking the chill silence of the early morning. Winter painted each roof white as flurries were blown over a great slope down to the walls that surrounded the northern village. The hearth fire crackled, spreading its warmth to all corners of Gutherna, the long gathering house. In the caldron above the fire, golden-yellow porridge bubbled and the sweet steam of home-cooking lured the children. Red-cheeked little boys and girls jostled around, tapping their small wooden dishes. It was lunchtime and they were all hungry, waiting for their serving of porridge and pot of fresh milk sweetened with honey. Hunger did not prevent the kids from laughing or pulling their faces into all kinds of hilarious masks – their favorite game. Nanny put the caldron on the serving bench and the children gathered instantly like puppies, holding their pots high. She started filling their dishes with a large ladle, counting loudly: “One, two, three, four…” She numbered twelve, expecting fourteen, but no number thirteen or fourteen appeared. “What has happened to them?” she thought, turning around and looking under the table below the two empty dishes. “Ah - those little foxes. They have fled again,” she said, arching her eyebrows. She opened the window and called them: “Targal, Anaya!”
It snowed again. A deer came to the edge of the forest and stopped, curiously watching the two children as they ran through the small vale between the village and the woods. They ran hand in hand and laughed. Snowflakes were in their hair: hers curly and puce; his ashen-gold.
“Look, Alu is there,” said Anaya, pointing to the deer that stood at the brink of the forest. Above its eyes, which shone like two dark marbles, antlers branched to a great crown. The boy looked at it for a moment, straining his eyes to see through the snowfall and said quietly:
“That is not Alu, Anaya. Alu is pure white.”
“He is so beautiful,” she sighed amused. “Maybe he is Alu’s brother then.” Doe-bleats came from the woods and the majestic animal turned its head. It looked back at the children once again before springing away and vanishing among the trees.
‘Fire in the Snow’ they called their game. They ran to Grandpa Aitri’s smithy to see and feel the heat of the furnace. The children adored the smithy for two reasons. First, it was always dangerously hot. Second, if they looked long enough into the embers that lived in the belly of the furnace they could see the Hell of Naroxa: the underworld. This was a silly idea, of course, but they were still young enough to take such an idea seriously. And just as no silly grown-up is ever serious about his reality, no serious child ever feels silly expressing what can be seen through his or her imagination. They snuck inside. Little by little, they walked towards the hearth, their glee growing with each step. From close-by they gazed into the flames. Waiting through many heartbeats, they watched the embers glowing through veils of heat. Finally, the Gate of Naroxa opened its door made of lava before their eyes. Suddenly, a little creature appeared in the midst of the fire. Small horns peaked from the top of its head and a pointy tail swayed behind its red cover. The doorkeeper, a demon cloaked in flames, welcomed the kids, bowing low, and showed them the door. The redness of the heat was mirrored in Anaya’s eyes and its blaze danced in them. In her eyes, an incandescent iron blade was resting. Their heartbeats grew more rapid as their faces turned red and the whole game culminated in an unbearable hotness.
Grandpa Aitri came to the porch, seeing them through the opened window. “What have you two found in here that is so exciting? The blacksmith’s powerful voice brought them out of their trance. The children sprang away without a word and ran outside throwing themselves onto the cooling piles of snow. Steam rose from their faces as they laughed, rolling through the large, layered mattress of white.
“Hooou!” shouted Targal in bliss, “That was so good!”
“We should do it again then,” exclaimed Anaya with joy. Snowflakes were threaded through her hair and her woolen dress glimmered, dotted with innumerable tiny crystals.
The old, bearded blacksmith came out to get them: “Back off, cubs!” Aitri clapped his large hands. “Fire and snow - what a mixture! There is no unification there,” he grumbled, running after them as they dashed away like rabbits. Soon he gave it up, yelling: “Remember you kids, one element must always die in such marriage. Only cubs of a demonic sort can enjoy such a game. This foolishness will burn your little backs someday.” The game often ended this way. Did their parents and guardians punish them for leaving the village walls during the winter? Of course they did, but the children could not care less.
Dense pine and maple forests covered the surrounding hills, rich with many paths, each standing ready to lure into an adventure. High above the clouds, distant peaks called out: “Don’t you wish to know what wonders may await you behind me?” What child can resist that? Everyone would go without hesitation if not for the grown-ups who spoke often about the dangers of the woodlands: the wolves, bears and wild boars. No child could go into the woods during the winter; that was the rule. Breaking that rule led to a severe punishment: cleaning the main horse-stable of the whole village, all alone. Additionally, if the parent or guardian spent considerable time worrying and looking for any lost adventurer, the event would take a painful toll on the outlaw’s little rear. In the summer, however, children were allowed to go into the forest in groups. They played many games, exploring, seeking and hiding or building tree houses - whatever their cunning little minds had to offer. There were many exciting activities available, but one claimed a greater rank than all the others. Deep in the green hills was a forest with large chestnut and birch trees called ‘fairy-woods’ where one could find tiny creatures called fairies. At the time Anaya and Targal were born, fairy sightings were becoming more frequent. Only a few were lucky enough to befriend a fairy. Anaya was one of the few who possessed the remarkable ability to move silently through the forest. She knew how to recognize which flower or tree a fairy would come to sleep in. She would position her palms like an open seashell and sing quietly a song of her own creation:
Light from you, here comes to me,
In darkest dark that I can see.
Light from me, here comes to you,
None can be lost,
When there are two.
Drawn to her enchanting voice, the little creatures would gather on the trees, flowers, grass, even on her shoulders, and they would listen to her at length. Among them, reflecting the light cast by their small gleaming bodies, she looked like a fairy queen.
Targal was not born with such a gift, but he often accompanied Anaya. She would allow him to watch the wonderful gathering of little beings, hidden in the bushes. He was very proud of his friendship with the girl and would watch these ceremonies with excitement. But it was not the forest that lively little Targal liked above all, nor the longhouse Gutherna, the place where the old bard Olan told adventurous tales; neither was it the ruins near the river, which many believed dated from the time when gods walked the earth. The place he liked most -- where he felt entirely at home -- was Aitri’s smithy. The blacksmith did not mind the boy’s company, perhaps because he had been so fond of the boy’s father, the great chieftain who had unified all Galds and died in the battle for Varas-Deen when Targal was only two. While other kids called the old man Uncle Aitri, Targal was the only one who called him grandpa, and the blacksmith, having no children of his own, accepted the boy with an open heart. He called the boy grandson and his successor. From his earliest days, the boy could make strikingly realistic wooden swords upon which he would patiently carve runes and the shapes of wild animals. Some members of the family wanted to send him to the coastal village so that the boy could learn the woodcraft of ship-making, but his mother had different plans for her only son: “Targal’s father was our chieftain and it was he who had the idea to unite all the tribes of Galda. The son shall finish what his father began”. At the time, Targal was too little to understand his mother’s plans. He liked swords just as any boy of his age liked them, maybe more, as the making of real swords enchanted him.
Every spring dwarven merchants visited the village to trade their infamous ironworks and other goods with the people of White Deer. Targal was seven when he first approached the dwarves and asked how they extracted iron from ore.
“Will you come and see, my lad? Bar we shall keep you there as one of us,” spoke the bearded dwarf with a barrel-rolling voice. “Miners and diggers we are and the business of mining is ours. Here we bring bars of iron, the best and cleanest, to your smithies!”
There were two smithies. One inside and one outside the village. The one inside the village was run by the Delgo family, who took care of the majority of the villagers’ daily needs making everything from cauldrons and horseshoes, to wheels and other household necessities. The smithy could also make swords and armor, but when it came to quality everyone generally preferred going to old Aitri. Aitri’s smithy was located up on the mountain slope, northwest of the village: not particularly close but still visible from the northern gate. The owner himself was a strange, quiet old man, not always ready for visitors. From time to time the village druid would go to Aitri’s secluded home for a pipe-smoke-talk. Word began to spread that the blacksmith himself was a druid. He was the oldest man of all Alu folks; although, he did not appear that way. He had wrinkles around his deep green-blue eyes, a long beard and dense ashen hair. He had strong arms and a chest as wide as a Kerebian shield. Once someone had asked the druid Helmold: “What concerns do you have that you must speak with Aitri so often?”
“I like hearing stories about my father from somebody who knew him before I was begotten,” answered the wise old man, smiling mysteriously.
Some thought that Aitri was an unusually big dwarf, or at least that he was a dwarf-descendant. Others pointed to the possibility that he was of dorjean ancestry for there seemed to be something dorjean in his eyes. These sorts of rumors had begun to blossom particularly several years ago when dwarves from across the mountains started to visit him more often. Nevertheless, from that time onwards, the son of the dwarven King Udar Sekire, named Lofar, became Aitri’s apprentice together with a dorje named Eredian. It was the time when the Azmaran Empire had been approaching the borders of the land of Varas. Thus, the blacksmith probably picked out the two lads as talented students while he was searching for a mysterious element. It was an element that, if added to iron, produced steel – a strong metal that was hard to break. The two students were considerably younger, still juveniles in fact as the dwarf was in his forties and dorje in his seventies, which, taking into account their respective race-appropriate life-expectancies, made them equivalent to a human in his or her twenties.
A sledgehammer hung on the wall above the furnace of the smithy. Its iron head was carved with runes and its long handle gilt-worked at the end. Its name was Guldgrom. It hung there, too high for little Targal to reach, to sacred to be a subject of enquiry. All he knew was that Aitri had inherited it from his father.
On rainy days, the boy would sit and count the beats of Aitri’s hammer as the blacksmith forged swords and shields. He watched zealously as the molten iron was poured into stone and clay molds. The blacksmith was usually quiet but sometimes would talk and explain to the boy what he was doing. “No enemy can stand against the swords that you make,” said little Targal looking at Aitri’s hands with admiration as they flew over the anvil.
“Ho-ho. That is what you think, my boy,” said the blacksmith lifting the boy up and putting him on the table before him. He looked into the boy’s dark brown eyes and said: “It is not the sword that fights the battle but the heart that beats in a hero brave - our wise would say. I certainly make good swords and every one of them has proven - or will prove itself many times. But the old saying is true. I want you to remember it.”
“Repeat it then.”
“It is not the hero who fights the battle but the sword my grandpa made,” the boy giggled.
“Ho-ho. Funny, but wrong. Clever boy. Mess with the words of the wise, and the wisdom of a wicker is what you’ll get.”
“Please grandpa, take me as an apprentice. I am nine now and they have already taken me as a helper in the storage.”
“You are not nine, my boy. You are seven and I am not old enough to forget that. You are too young to hold a hammer.”
“Won’t you let me swing it just once?” the boy begged him.
“It is heavy and you can hurt yourself. Not to mention the dangers of the fire.” The moon was young and pale and no other thoughts could penetrate through the boy’s burning desire. He went up closer to the anvil. There the hammer rested and carefully he touched it watching for his grandpa’s reaction. Aitri stood up:
“Quite determined, I see.” He came behind Targal and took his hand to guide him. “Grab it like this,” he said, helping the boy to take the hammer and swing. Clang. Clang, clang! A wide smile appeared on Targal’s face and his heart beat with joy.