By Embers, Forged
Cinderbeard's Mine (Adventure I)
The very recent past
The cool night air swept through the open space where the forge sat, the embers within slowly dying out and casting the area into darkness. Zahraziv stared into the waning light for far longer than she had intended, as she often did lately. Her late teacher would have called it a form of meditation, but she considered it wasteful. After all, she had much work to do and very little time to do it in. With a sigh, she moved to a table placed beside the forge and lit a lamp, providing her with the light she needed to hang up the others that would brighten her workspace for as long as she needed.
It was an exceedingly simple, sturdy affair built by the previous owner, Hafiz-Azar. Little more than a stone and wood hut, with a singular wall that was shared with the building beside it, it served as the perfect workshop for any blacksmith. If the weather was poor enough, shutters could be rolled down to protect from the elements, and the forge provided its own heating of course. Every time she thought about her uncle and all the things he had bequeathed to her she was brought to the edge of tears. He was a brilliant man, with an immense wealth of knowledge and ingenuity.
“How did he ever expect me to handle all of this?” she lamented to the empty forge.
For a short handful of years, they had been the only pair of dwarves in the Moor. Not many of her kinfolk would stray from their holds or other bustling places of commerce closer to Leathad. Yet, when her parents had died and he offered her a job and place to stay, she had jumped at the chance. Now, after Cinderbeard’s passing, Talib-Zahraziv was the sole remaining dwarf, as far as she knew. The Emberforge was hers to run, as well as the great mine that her uncle had created for the people of the Moor to use.
He insisted it was his greatest work, as having a mine of their own would remove the Moor’s dependence on imported ore of several types, and provide work for dozens of people who may otherwise turn to banditry. On paper, the idea was incredible, detailed, and ambitious. And there was a lot of paper on it. Stacks of it were neatly filed behind the counter within her home, and all of it was filled with plans; past, present, and future.
Shaking her head, she pushed thoughts of paperwork aside and turned to the more pressing matters of closing up shop. Zahraziv let her mind wander as she scraped slag from several of her tools, the scratching of the wire brush oddly comforting. While doing the actual work of forging anything still took her a great deal of concentration, simple tasks like cleaning were as demanding as breathing. Over the years she had trimmed down the process of shutting down the forge to just under an hour, much to the amusement of Cinderbeard. He had always said how the optimization of one thing lends to the improvement of others.
She didn’t bother with the shutters, as all signs pointed to a clear and cool night. None of the townsfolk would dare steal from the only blacksmith within several hundred miles, and she knew most of them by name anyway. She quickly washed her hands and face in the small basin she kept by the door to her home, paying close attention to ensure most of the grime and grit was cleaned away. Zahraziv took a strange sense of pride in the calluses that had built up on her hands over time, the product of hard work and an immense amount of effort. It seemed like such a short time ago that there were more blisters than healthy skin after a few days spent at the forge.
Zahraziv carried the last lantern inside with her, knowing that the work she had left would be better spent in candlelight but realizing she would be asleep in minutes once she sat down. It had been the pattern ever since Hafiz-Azar had passed away, a scant few months ago; work until she felt like she would drop at any moment, and then try to keep track of the various pieces of clerical work required by running the mine and the forge. It was a massive undertaking, and Zahraziv couldn’t help but feel as though it was going to bury her like an avalanche sooner or later.
Resigned to her fate, at least for tonight, she found a bowl and gathered up a simple meal of bread, sausage, and the last apple from a bushel given to her as payment for fixing a set of tools. She made sure to eat several of those a day, as that many apples was more than she knew what to do with and Zahraziv was certain she never would have made it through the whole lot. Apparently, it helped that it was her food of choice when worrying about things outside of her control, and the entire bushel disappeared before any of them went too soft.
As she ate her meal in silence, the young blacksmith thought of how she had come to be in such a strange and foreign place. As a child, she spent most of her time terrorizing her parents and climbing the mountain peaks outside of the hold in which she lived, which was an oddity for dwarves. Most of them prefered to be craftsmen, merchants, or wrestlers, believing that the work of one’s hands was far more important and lasting than any other work. Yet Zahraziv had always wanted to be an explorer and shunned the traditional values of her peers and elders.
Back when he still lived in the hold, Cinderbeard was much the same way. He had spent his youth becoming an accomplished blacksmith, until he felt that he was just one of many instead of someone within a league all his own. He often encouraged the young Zahraziv’s outings into the wilds, such as they were. Her gear would be checked over by his knowledgeable gaze and caring hands before he told her to get back before dinner.
Of course, her parents hated him for it. With him being a reputable smith, they had hoped he would teach her the ways of the forge and make her into another contributing member of society. Instead, he had nurtured her mischievous, exploratory side and encouraged her to live her own life beyond the scope of her parents’ desires.
Once Cinderbeard had decided on his own course and set out for the Moor, it seemed fate had grown a sense of humor. He had been gone for a scant few years before Zahraziv’s parents passed away, and she spent months just… existing. One day, a caravan showed up that was going back to the Moor with supplies, and it seemed that her uncle had given instruction that the young woman was to be taken with them. She offered no protest, as there was nothing left for her in her ancestral home. With Zahraziv safely in Cinderbeard’s care, he finally began her education as a smith, just like her parents had wished for in the first case.
She chuckled to herself as she sipped at a cool mug of water. “Fate is a fickle mistress, as they say.” She raised her glass to the memories of her parents and uncle, loving them for all they had done for her.
With her meal washed down, Zahraziv made her way to the small cot she called her own. She still couldn’t bring herself to sleep in the wonderfully crafted bed given to Azar by the town’s carpenter, Marn. Of course, Azar was entirely capable of crafting a bed of his own, but the care and skill carpenter was something Azar respected. Although Cinderbeard hadn’t passed away in that bed, Zahraziv still felt as though it would be disrespectful, an idea which her uncle would dismiss entirely. So, she gathered up the bundled furs and made herself as warm as she could, content with her hard, uncomfortable cot.
Despite the chill and her inferior bed, sleep came easily to the young blacksmith. With her days spent hammering iron into a desired form, it wasn’t surprising.
“So why’d you do it, girl?”
Zahraziv bolted upright, tossing the furs from her, suddenly far too warm. Her eyes adjusted to a sudden light as the house around her began to burn. Panic overtaking her, she tried to smother the nearest flames with the furs while trying to locate the barrel of drinking water she always kept on hand. All the while, a familiar voice hurled accusations at her.
“Why, girl? We never wanted anything but the best for you.”
She whirled around, coming face to face with her father and mother, displeasure and disappointment writ large all across their faces. “What are you talking about?!” she yelled, “Help me!”
“We did try to help you!” her mother screamed back, “All we ever wanted was to help you! But you spat in our face! And still, look where you ended up! Think of how much better it would have been to simply listen to us!”
Ignoring the conflagration building around her, Zahraziv stalked towards her parents. “All I wanted was to be able to do the things I enjoyed and not be hammered into a shape I don’t belong in!”
Her father spread his hands out as the wall to the workshop collapsed, revealing the forge in a spray of embers. “Look at you. All you do is put things into shapes they don’t belong in. That is how things are done, girl. We just wanted to make it easy on you.”
In the back of her mind, Zahraziv wondered where the townsfolk were. Surely they would have noticed the blaze by now, and when disasters like this would strike, everyone pitched in. “Maybe if you hadn’t tried to repress everything I loved this wouldn’t happen!” she accused.
“Or maybe the wisdom of your elders warrants being followed, you insolent little child,” her mother hissed.
The damning words hung in the air as her inherited home disintegrated around her.
Sunlight streamed through the shutters, seemingly hunting for her closed eyes. Zahraziv let out a groan and rubbed her face, the tattered memories of her nightmare leaving a fog over her mind. She could tell from the deep amber of the light that the sun had only just risen, and at this rate she would be up and working far earlier than usual. She futilely attempted to sleep a few moments more, but the insecurity brought on by her terrible dream prevented it as surely as the chilling feeling of being watched.
Resigning herself to a longer day than usual, Zahraziv tossed back the covers and rinsed out the gummy feeling from her mouth. Dressing quickly, she moved through the motions of her usual routine, making a mental note to purchase more meat from Graf at the inn, as this was her last sausage. A stiff breeze was coming in off the mountains, so she closed one of the shutters on the workshop to keep out the worst of it as she started up the forge.
Zahraziv worked the bellows mechanically, the process had become second nature long ago. Once it was glowing sufficiently, she donned her thick leather apron and set out the various tools she would need for the day. Horses needed shoes, Marn needed new nails and hinges for his works, and Graf had mentioned his cart needed some new siding. It would be a busy day, which was perfectly fine with her.
A soft knock on the wooden supports for the workshop drew her attention. She turned around to see the priest, Graham, standing casually in the early morning sunlight. He looked every part the pious priest, with his head wreathed in sunlight. It would have made a nice tapestry.
“Graham!” she said, smiling, putting on a mask of confidence for the good-natured priest despite her fitful sleep, “what can I do for you today?”
The priest returned her smile. “I wasn’t expecting you to be up so early this morning,” he tapped a small piece of parchment against his leg. “I figured I would have to leave a note.”
“Well, here I am, awake and ready to come to the rescue of a priest who can’t handle a set of tools to save his life.”
Graham chuckled, amused by their good-natured verbal sparring. “Sadly, I’m going to have to attempt to bribe a rush job out of you. Catriona passed the other night, and so I have a burial to perform tomorrow.”
“Ah, damn,” Zahraziv said, wiping her hands on the apron. “I’m so sorry. How’s her sister holding up? I know we’ve been expecting this for a while, but it can’t be easy.”
Graham shrugged. “She’s doing as well as can be expected, but I think deep down they had both thought Annag would be the first to go.” The priest took a deep breath, and a silence passed between them. “Still, I am supposed to have a new priest joining me tomorrow morning, and I would like to have him participate in the burial process. With that being the case, I can’t have him using worn out tools.”
Zahraziv nodded. “I hear you on that, Graham. When Cinderbeard first brought me out here, he said he made sure that the whole forge was as clean as the day it was made.”
“Oh, I remember the day well. I was much younger at the time, though.” He chuckled. “More handsome, too.”
“Have you ever actually been handsome?”
“You wound me,” he laughed, placing a hand over his heart. “I swear, I had never seen old Cinderbeard move with such intense purpose. He always got things done in a timely manner, but he was a veritable whirlwind that day. But back to the matter at hand,” he said, carefully moving the conversation away from her late uncle. He produced a small leather satchel, filled with an assortment of tools that Zahraziv recognized as embalming implements. “Some of these need a bit more maintenance than I can perform on my own, but the needles themselves are the most important bit, provided they are within your skill.”
Zahraziv scoffed. “Of course they are. None of you humans have anything beyond the skill of a dwarf.”
“Unless you break them.”
“Unless I break them,” she repeated with a wink. “I’ll bring them by tomorrow, before your sermon. Don’t worry about payment, consider it a gift.”
“Thank you, my child,” said Graham, with the barest hint of sarcasm.
“I hate when you call me that,” Zahraziv huffed.
Graham shrugged. “Perhaps listen to me more often and I’ll cease using that name for you.”
Zahraziv stood in silence for a moment, chewing her lip. In truth, she had thought of seeking Graham’s council on more than one occasion in recent memory. The passing of her uncle and teacher had left her with far more questions than she had the ability to answer on her own. She had always been stubborn, though, and asking for help was a foreign concept to her. “What do you think of people who abandon their parents?” she finally asked, her voice small.
Graham placed the satchel of tools on the workbench before returning to lean against the post. After a moment, he moved back to the satchel and opened it, ensuring the tools were arranged neatly in their respective places. He hovered over them, chewing at his bottom lip slightly. “How do you define abandon?”
“Running away from responsibilities, forgoing tradition in favor of finding your own path, heedless of the damage it causes others?”
In a startling move, Graham began to laugh, deep and heartily. “You call that abandonment? Young Zahra, that is life! Our entire existence is spent in search of what makes our blood sing. From what you tell me, dwarves are heavily traditional folk, and place great importance on those values. But being different isn’t the same thing as being wrong, my friend.” He held up a hand to forestall any retort from the blacksmith. “I didn’t necessarily want to come to the Moor, as heinous as that may sound with how well I have been welcomed here. As a member of the clergy, I know something of heavily traditionalist elders. I spoke out a bit too loudly, and I was shuffled away to this desolate place. Do you know what I found here? A more welcoming community than I ever could have hoped to meet back in Leathad. These people are cut from a different cloth than the rest of society, just like you and I.”
Graham’s words made sense. The people here had welcomed Cinderbeard, and then herself, with open arms. Sure, there was skepticism at first, but once they warmed up to her it was a genuine feeling like no other.
“Everyone here is different, Zahraziv,” Graham continued, “And out here, that is something to take pride in. Not everyone can sow a field properly, same as how not everyone can work a forge. It’s just easier to see out here, beyond all the clutter.”
“Thank you, Graham. You’ve given me quite a bit to think on.”
The priest offered her another smile. “You can think on it while you pretend to listen to my sermon tomorrow. I have preparations to make, but you know my door is always open to you.”
“Of course, I appreciate it.”
He departed swiftly, making his way back towards the church. His words still swimming in her mind, Zahraziv set about repairing the tools he had brought with him. Upon examining them, they all seemed to be in immaculate condition, merely used as a convenient reason to visit the forge. Still, Zahraziv took pride in her work and sharpened the scalpels and set the needles straight, ensuring they would last a great deal longer.
Knowing how her day would play out, she worked on the supporting ribs for Graf’s cart next. They were simple pieces requiring very few details, but Zahraziv made sure that if her uncle were watching over her shoulder he would have been proud of the care that went into them. Right on cue, the wheels of a cart could be heard trundling up the path to the forge.
“Ho, Ashy!” called out a voice from outside.
“In the workshop!” she yelled back, focused on finishing the last piece. “And it’s Ashbrow, you lout!”
A hearty laugh came from the path to the workshop. “I don’t even get a ‘hello’ in return?”
“Not if you want a solid rib for that damnable cart of yours!”
Laughter came from the path as a solidly built man pulled a cart to the open area behind the forge. Without asking for help, the man began moving chopped firewood from the cart to a growing pile up against the back wall of her house.
“I cut some extra for you, it’s supposed to be a right chiller tonight.”
Zahraziv shaped the last curve on the rib, finally satisfied with the shape. “You do me too many favors, Graf!” The man was the friendly and welcoming proprietor of the Brook and Raven, and had been so for the last fifteen years or so. Much like Zahraziv, he had taken over the business after his family had passed. Unlike her, though, Graf had been learning the trade from the day he could walk.
“That’s how we do things around here, no?” He spoke clearly, but sometimes the old Salaanish drawl he inherited from his parents shone through.
“That’s how you do things, it seems!” Zahraziv gathered up the supports she had made and placed them in a pile beside the now empty cart. “Flip that over for me, would you?”
“But of course,” Graf said with a smile, as if he were a knight helping a duchess and not an innkeep assisting in manual labor. Once the cart was overturned, the sad state of the existing supports became apparent.
“Graf,” Zahraziv chided, her hands on her hips, “you should have brought this in ages ago!”
He held up his hands defensively. “I was plannin’ on it, honest! Things have been a bit busy lately, is all. Those boys from the mine are drinking more of my ale than usual, and word is there’s a couple caravans coming in over the next few weeks.”
“Says Kahrden,” the innkeep replied. “Have you ever known him to be wrong about such things? He’s the only one who regularly scouts out the pass, and he may as well be a god of the hunt with the way he tracks stuff.”
Zahraziv nodded. Kahrden had been present around Elmwatch for as long as Cinderbeard could remember, and though he spent much of his time on the outskirts, he still brought useful information to the townsfolk. “Graham mentioned he had a new priestling coming in sometime tomorrow.”
“Aye, and Kahrden says the other caravan is filled with some rougher types.”
“Rougher?” the blacksmith inquired.
“Mhm. Like those old tales of adventurers seeking fortune in far away lands.”
“Or running from something,” she retorted.
“Or that, aye. Isn’t everyone? Still, they’re likely to stop by my place at some point, so I’ll see if I can put them to work to stop any unsavory activities within the town.” Graf was always a practical man, and might as well have been the lifeblood of the town. After all, a tavern was just a different sort of church. “Oh, one of the boys from the mine dropped this off last night, on behalf of the foreman. It was after you closed up, so I figured it could wait until today to get to you.” He handed her a small letter, sealed with wax. Her uncle’s sigil was stamped into the wax, so it was an official update on the happenings within the mine.
Zahraziv took the letter and placed it on the workbench. “Much obliged, Graf. I started my day early today, so I should have your cart back to you by lunchtime. If you need it before then, you should have brought it in sooner.”
Graf chuckled and patted her on the shoulder. “You know just the right things to say. I’ll have your usual fixed up when you get there.”
Once the innkeep disappeared around the bend, Zahraziv looked to the letter. She debated on leaving it until later that evening, but it might be important. The mine was an immense undertaking that required a significant amount of attention, and Cinderbeard would already have read the letter by now. She broke the seal and read through it, although the foreman’s handwriting left something to desire at certain points.
From the interested tone of the letter, it looked like the overeager miners had broken into some sort of cavern beneath the existing mineshafts. They hadn’t done much exploring as that wasn’t part of their main duties, but it seemed large enough to warrant a closer look. Zahraziv steepled her hands in front of her face and thought about how Cinderbeard would have handled the situation.
Her recent conversation coming back to her, she realized she could kill two birds with one stone, as the saying went. Supposedly some adventuring types would be arriving in a week or so, and with any luck the situation in the mine wouldn’t deteriorate by then. She could pay the adventurers to search the caves and hopefully save her miners the trouble, allowing them to keep working on the Moor’s most profitable industry. She drafted a quick reply on a spare piece of paper, sealing it in much the same way as the note she had received. When she returned the cart to Graf, she would have him send a runner to the mine to deliver her proposition.
Zahraziv went back to work with a renewed vigor, satisfied with her decision on the matter. She had wasted no time in making it, and she was sure old man Hafiz-Azar would have approved. Her soft humming overlapped with the sound of a hammer on metal, something she hadn’t done in a very long time.