The Aspirant

Cinderbeard's Mine (Adventure I)

25 years in the past

The streets of Kohinoor were quiet, as they usually were. Dwarves were an industrious people, but they enjoyed time with their families just like everyone else. It was for this very reason that the master smith, Hafiz-Azar Cinderbeard, was out walking with his niece, Zahraziv. The cool night air flowed through the massive entryway into the deepest parts of the dwarven hold, bringing with it the refreshing scent of pines and the forest at large.

“You’re going out there again tomorrow?” the old smith asked his young niece, trotting along beside him. She beamed a smile and nodded, her wild auburn hair obscuring the ever-present smudge of dirt on her forehead. Her parents suggested it was a birthmark, but Azar figured she was simply unbothered by a bit of dirt. A very good, dwarven trait to have.

“Against your parent’s wishes, eh?”

Zahraziv pouted. “Everything I want to do is against their wishes, uncle.”

“They have their reasons, though.” Azar knew of the young girl’s trouble. Her parents were good people, if a bit overprotective. They wanted what was best for their only child, as any parent would. They just… didn’t have much room for freedom of expression in their plans. He knew it would chafe at the rebellious young girl’s wanderlust, just as it did to him back in his youth.

“It’s like they don’t want me to live!” she lamented, as most children her age did. It was always the old folk holding them back from their true potential, preventing them from growing and living as they should. Or so every child thought. Azar had been no different. The difference was, Azar had allowed tradition and expectations to crush him. Being a smith was a stable, respectable job. Stable, respectable, and utterly without excitement. What is one more master smith in a city full of master smiths?

There was no chance to get called off to war, like in the days of old. Not that warfare and violence was anything Azar craved, but it did have a way of bringing about titans and lords above all else. They say the first king was just a lucky soldier, after all. Azar did not believe himself a king, but he desired more out of life than he had. It was a strange topic to discuss with someone, and so he bottled it up inside. After all, how do you explain that your decent, happy life isn’t good enough for you?

The dwarf sighed, causing his niece to stop in her tracks and give him a quizzical look. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, coming to a decision. “You come by my shop tomorrow before you sneak off, and I’ll set you up with better gear than what you have. It would do you no good to get hurt out there.”

Zahraziv squealed in delight and wrapped her uncle in as much of a bear hug as she could, squeezing him as if she was trying to make him pop. “Alright, alright,” he said, returning the embrace a bit more gingerly, “don’t get all worked up and let your parents catch on before it happens.”

“I knew you’d be on my side,” his niece said, beaming.

Azar laughed, as he often did with his niece. “Remember, it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. Let’s get you back home before they start worrying.”


Azar’s day began as they always did; with a roaring forge and enough orders to keep him busy for the next week. While he spent most of his time crafting small, useful items that would see daily use, he made sure to forge at least one blade or weapon every week. Odds are, he would never sell them, but it forced him to keep up on skills he might otherwise lose. Among all of this, he had seen to it that young Talib-Zahraziv would have a set of sturdy, trustworthy pieces of climbing gear.

She was young and adventurous, and often scaled the slopes outside of Kohinoor proper, either alone or with her equally rebellious friends. Azar figured if he was going to encourage her behavior, he needed to impress upon her the idea of mitigating risks. There was no wildlife that would threaten young dwarven children, so the greatest problems would be faulty gear or conditions on the mountain. Azar had spoken with the gate guards and foragers early this morning, and they all reported that it was as beautiful a day as could be.

With this knowledge and the gear he had procured, Azar hoped he could lessen the impending wrath of ‘Ziv’s parents. All about mitigating risks.

Right on schedule, he heard the door to the showroom of his shop open, a small bell ringing above the hinge, loud enough to be heard in his workshop.

“Uncle!” came a voice, “I think you have something for me?”

Azar smiled to himself and gathered up a bundle of cloth beside the door, wiping sweat from his brow before he entered the showroom. The bright smile of his niece greeted him, and he arched an eyebrow at her. “Now who told you that? Someone out there spreading lies about me again?”

“Uncle!” she laughed, her hands on her hips.

Azar waved it all away and placed the bundle on the counter between him, opening it and revealing the gear within. “I’m guessing you know how to use all of this?”

Zahraziv nodded excitedly, her eyes gleaming. “Yeah! One of Golden boys climbs all the time, he taught me!”

The old smith sighed. “What did I tell you about calling them that?”

“What, the Golden boys?” she asked. “It’s their father’s name! It’s easy to remember!”

“It’s not their father’s name,” he admonished. “His moniker just happens to be Goldenhand. Just because I prefer Cinderbeard doesn’t mean it’s proper to go about calling your elders by their monikers. You wouldn’t go about calling your parents by theirs, would you?”

“No sir,” she said, her eyes downcast.

Azar sighed. He hadn’t meant to spoil her good mood, but there was a difference between breaking from tradition and being rude or insulting, and she needed to understand that. “Showing a tiny bit of respect can go a long way, little Ashbrow, unless someone has proven they don’t deserve it. Now go and enjoy your day before your parents question why you aren’t in your classes!”

“They got cancelled today!” she said with a smile, gathering up the gear her uncle had given her and practically dancing out the door.

Azar smiled and shook his head, pleased that he could at least assist his niece in living her life on her own terms. With as much of her safety taken care of as he could, Azar returned to his forge and began to work through his backlog of orders.


“What is wrong with you!? I cannot believe you would go behind our backs like this!”

As expected, Zahraziv’s parents had been taking turns berating him for the past hour or so. They brought him over with dinner as a pretense, and he went willingly despite knowing the real purpose. They could have found him at the shop to make their arguments, but it was almost a sin to interrupt the work of another member of the community.

Azar just drank from the cup of water that had been provided for him and weathered the storm. Sitting here and enduring the abuse, Azar could see where ‘Ziv got her fiery passion from. It was a shame they were trying to cut and mould it into a shape they wanted, rather than letting it grow and refine on its own.

“What makes you think you have a right to raise our daughter in your way? You are family, but you are not her father!”

Cinderbeard nodded, his eyes cast towards the floor. They were correct, of course. It was not his place to raise his niece, not while her parents were still hale and healthy. He loved the girl dearly, though, and having no children of his own only exacerbated the issue. Azar clenched his fist under the table, where her parents could not see. His niece’s very name meant something along the lines of ‘bright, brilliant learner,’ and yet they were trying to force her down a path she was fighting with all her might to refuse.

It worried Azar that it mirrored his own childhood. While his brother was perfectly happy to become a craftsman, Azar resented it the entire time he was learning his trade. It led to him being withdrawn and cynical towards his parents, which devastated them in the end. It was one of his greatest regrets, and one he could not apologize for due to their passing. He just hoped that Zahraziv’s parents would see it in time. It was an argument he had with them many times in the past.

“You’re right,” Azar interrupted, causing Zahraziv’s mother to glare at him more forcefully. “I’ve said it in the past, though. I don’t want the girl to end up like me, angry and resentful at her parents who only did what they thought was best, despite how wrong it was.”

“How wrong? How wrong it was? Listen to yourself, Azar! You go about spitting in the face of respectability, preferring to be called by your moniker like you’re among foreigners! What would you know about the difference between right and wrong?” His brother’s words held more venom than he thought he was capable of, but Azar didn’t take it personally. He knew his thoughts were only on his daughter’s safety.

“We should have done this a long time ago,” the mother of his niece said, her hands on her hips. “Either you teach her how to use that forge of yours, or you won’t be seeing her until she’s old enough to be working in a trade on her own.”

Alarmed, Azar shot a look at the woman. “Wh.. what?”

“It’s for the best, Azar. You’re a good man, but she needs to learn how to be a proper dwarf and provide for herself and others someday. We would prefer if you helped her with that, but having you out of the way would be the next best thing.”

Azar looked to his brother, who understood him far better than he let on. “You’re going along with this?”

His brother could barely meet his eye, and only offered a small nod in reply.

“I see.” Azar slowly finished his water and stood up from the table. It was all he could to to not shed any tears as his own family turned against him. “Thank you for the meal. I’ll talk with you soon.”

As he left the comfort of his brother’s home, he donned his overcoat. It wasn’t supposed to be a chilly night in the enclosed streets of Kohinoor, but Azar felt he needed it anyway.


Moving slowly through his workshop, Azar carefully packaged up the items he was going to need. Every movement felt like he was trudging through waist-high mud, constantly being bogged down and hampered. All of his usual wares that were still remaining would end up being sold, of course. Everyone needed simple items like that. The weapons and armor he forged, however, were being readied to move. It had been several days since he was given an ultimatum, and he was sure that his response would come as a shock.

Instead of giving in and forcing the young Zahraziv to learn something she had no desire to and chiseling her to fit into the shape her parents’ wanted, Azar was leaving Kohinoor. It had been his family’s home for centuries, and now he was making his own way. Something he should have done decades ago, but lacked the conviction to.

The bell atop the door chimed as it swung open, announcing someone’s arrival. Azar sighed and finished tying up a bundle of swords. “Shop’s closed today, sorry to disappoint.” With any luck, whoever it was would just leave him be instead of demanding an explanation.

“Closed to family, as well?” The voice was, surprisingly, his brother. Azar shuffled around into the showroom where his brother, Amin, stood in the center. “You going somewhere?” he asked, glancing about the rather barren selection of items.

Azar folded his arms under his chest. “Aye, indeed I am. I’m doing what I should have done a long time ago and planted my own roots, so to speak.”

Amin nodded, seeming to understand. “What happens next, then?”

“The shop is yours. Sell it, rent it, whatever you’d like. I’m taking what I can easily find a use for or sell. All of my backlog is finished and delivered, so no worries there.” Azar unhooked his thick leather apron from the wall and began folding it up. “It seems like the end of an era, brother.”

“It is. I think we’re both surprised it took you this long.”

“Ah, well, I had to stay for your marriage. And after that, the little Ashbrow was born, so…”

“So things just happened around you.”

“Yeah,” Azar said with another sigh. “Something like that.”

“Well, that just means it's about time you started happening to things.” Amin was grinning. Despite their different beliefs on the subject, their blood was the same, and he understood Azar’s desire for something more without sharing it himself. “Where do you plan on setting your anvil?”

Azar leaned on the counter and pulled out a pair of glasses and a bottle, pouring an inch or two of the deep golden liquid for the both of them. “Haven’t figured that out yet. There’s supposedly some traders rolling in within the next few days, I might stick with them and see where the wind takes me.” He pushed one of the glasses towards his brother.

“I’ve heard worse ideas. Ideas like drinking this early in the morning,” Amin chided, yet he still took the glass. “I’ll just blame you. It’s not like the missus can hate you any more than she already does.”

Azar snorted and raised his glass, the two of them downing the drinks with ease. “If that’s the case…” he said as he began to pour another.

Laughing, Amin put his back on the counter and gestured for him to continue. “You know, despite what she says, you’re always family, Azar. You’re always my brother, distance and desires of the wife be damned.”

“I know,” Azar replied, his voice heavy. “I know. Just… think on what I said. You know how I was with mum and dad, I don’t want her to end up the same way.”

“I think about it every day, Azar.” Amin rolled the liquid around inside his glass, staring into it for a few moments before drinking. “For what it’s worth, I think they’d be proud of you, no matter what. They always loved us, and they’d be happy to see you taking your own path.”

“By all that is good, I sure hope so. I struggle with it every day.” Azar cradled his head in his hands and pressed the heel of his palms into his eyes.

“You worry too much, little brother,” Amin said, placing a hand on the smith’s shoulder. “It’ll all work out in the end, or so they tell me.” Amin was always positive during times of uncertainty. It was what kept Azar going when his life was being slowly crumbled down into the shape it now found itself in. “I figured you’d be leaving, honestly. It’s part of why I came down to the shop.”

“Oh?” said Azar, looking up at his brother. He nodded slightly and turned around to open the door to the shop. All at once, the sounds of the bustling city entered in with the chime of the bell, and with it a small figure skipped into the showroom. “Zahra!” Azar shouted and stood up, fumbling to put the spirits away beneath the counter.

“Hi, Uncle!” her voice was as bright and clear as it always was, which was going to make this conversation all the more heartbreaking for Azar.

“You’re awfully cheery today, little one,” he said, coming out from around the counter.

“Isn’t she always?” joked Amin. Despite all his talk of cutting Azar out of her life, Amin was letting him see his niece one last time before the smith departed. A small blessing, but one he would accept nonetheless.

Azar looked to his brother, and then back to Zahraziv. “Has your father told you what I’m planning on doing?”

The young girl suddenly became solemn. “He did. He says you’re looking for a new place to put your anvil.” She looked down at her feet and wrung her hands.

“That’s the long and short of it, yes.” He knelt down to more easily look into her eyes. “I promise you, this won’t be the last time I see you, though. Our lives are long, and the paths leading back to each other are short. Rest assured, I’ll see my family again.”

“As long as it’s a promise,” the girl pouted.

“Besides,” Azar said, “when you come back here to help your father clean up the rest of the shop, you get to go all the places I never let you into, like the forge itself.” He gave the rebellious girl a wink. She smiled back at him, but Azar could tell it was mostly for his benefit. He was family to her, and had always been the one that encouraged her to do what her heart desired. Now, he was leaving her behind, seemingly going off on some grand adventure of his own without her.

There was no proper way for him to explain it, and most likely there never would be. Sometimes, that’s just how life worked, and it was as damning as it was freeing. After saying their farewells, Azar sat for a long time in the silent, still air of his shop, contemplating. The world was wide, and his options were as diverse as the lands he could travel to.

If he desired to be a titan of his profession, he would have to prove himself among his peers, wherever he landed. Kohinoor was a city famed for its industry, so the name alone might get his foot in the door. But after that? He would have his work cut out for him. Being a master smith was difficult if no one knew you were a master smith.

“I’ll sleep on it,” Azar said to the empty shop, hoping a clear, rested mind would make the momentous decision easier. He doused the lanterns and grabbed the items he would be selling along the road, either to barter passage with a caravan or to show off his prowess and headed home to what would be his last night in Kohinoor.


After some haggling with the caravan master, Eldridge, Azar had arranged for his passage with the ragtag group of wagons and horses. All that was required of him was to make any minor repairs that were within his skill, and give a small portion of anything he sold to be used towards provisions. A fair deal, and one that was well within Azar’s capabilities. He was still unsure of his destination, but figured like most things in life, it would become more apparent the further he was from where he started.

The members of the caravan were an interesting lot, primarily humans. They were the dominant race this close to Leathad, after all. They bred like rabbits, it seemed. Still many of them seemed to be retired sailors, using their skill at manual labor to make a living on solid ground. However, one of the group caught his eye. She was tall, exceedingly so. Everyone was tall to a dwarf, but this woman was monolithic in comparison to Azar. Her ears were shaped like leaves, and she wore what an outsider would think was the usual garb for your everyday townsfolk. In reality, it was far from it. The deep purples and silver trim reminded Azar of the times he had stepped inside a human church and looked upon the leader of the congregation.

His curiosity getting the best of him, Azar weaved his way through the caravan, which was preparing to depart. As if he could tell where the dwarf was heading, Eldridge stopped Azar before he could go too far. “Don’t be bothering her, now. She’s one of them oddities, you hear? She hired us to help her acclimate to the various cultures here, since she’s supposed to be an ambassador or some such. Don’t be putting your hands on up-and-coming political figures.”

Azar did his best not to glare at the man. “Boy, you think the gray hairs on your head make you my elder, but I’ve got twice your years and the ire to match. Calm yourself. I’ve never seen an elf, and Kohinoor is one of the cultures she’d be interacting with. I’m too old to be prancing about chasing after ladies, anyway.” The smith gestured around at the men loitering nearby. “Besides, if she’s willingly among this lot, I’m certain she can handle herself.”

Eldridge folded his arms under his chest. “Just don’t be mucking about with my income, is all.”

Azar laughed and patted the man’s arm. “From one business owner to another, I know what you mean by that. You’ve got nothing to worry about from me.”

The caravan master sighed and made a shooing gesture. Azar smirked and moved past him, continuing his original course. As if she could sense his approach, the woman turned on her heel to face Azar. “Hello, master smith,” she spoke, her voice like a softly flowing brook, “how are you finding accomodations among the caravan?”

Azar offered the elf a small bow, which she returned with a bemused smile. “They’re as well as they can be, given the circumstances,” he said. “There is a certain charm to life on the road, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

“It’s quite the experience!” she said, her voice filled with wonder. “I’m quite used to sleeping among nature, but not being around trees constantly was quite disconcerting at first. Seeing the sky without the filter of a canopy above your head makes one feel quite small.”

“I feel small all the time, regardless of what’s above my head,” Azar said with a laugh. The elf’s laugh was pleasant as she shared in Azar’s mirth.

“I am called Leyla, amongst these folk. Who might you be, master smith?”

“I go by Cinderbeard,” said Azar, “although I have other names.”

“As do I, but I feel as though these suit us just fine.”

“You speak the common tongue very well, lady,” Azar observed.

Leyla nodded. “I am an odd duck, as the saying goes. I was forever fascinated with people outside of my own, and long ago we decided to put such curiosity to work, and thus keeping safe our great purpose. With that being the case, I was educated by those older and wiser than I, so that I might communicate with the outside world and be the voice of my people.”

“Your great purpose?” Azar asked. For some reason, that phrase stuck out to him.

The elf held a finger up to her lips. “Shh. It’s a great secret.” She gave Azar a conspiratory wink. “It’s not to be discussed with outsiders, however. No matter how good their smithing is.” Leyla tapped that same finger against her lips for a moment, seemingly in contemplation. “However, if you can find the time to assist me, I would dearly appreciate you helping me with my dwarven. Dwarvish? Your language. Some of it is awfully confusing.”

“And I bet it feels like talking with a mouthful of gravel sometimes, huh?” Azar laughed. “It’s been a long while since I’ve taught anything, but I’ll do my best, Leyla.”

“Excellent!” Leyla clapped her hands. “Then I will teach you some of my language in return. As you are a business owner, you must receive compensation somehow.”

“That would be agreeable, lady.” Azar held out his hand, and the two shook, although Leyla had to bend down slightly to do the movement properly. “I need to see to my belongings, though. Come find me when we stop. I don’t believe either of us are too hard to find.”

Leyla gave Azar another smile and a laugh. “I think you are right, good sir. I’ll see you around, then.”


Cinderbeard ended up staying with the caravan far longer than he expected. He sold most of the goods he had brought along with him and made a tidy profit, enough to purchase his own wagon and team of oxen. He filled it with all the goods he would need to start up his own forge somewhere, although he was no closer to figuring out where ‘somewhere’ was. Leyla was partly the reason he stayed so long, as he had refused to leave until she was as fluent in his dwarven dialect as she was in the common language. She was a swift learner, but also a perfectionist, and this drew out the process.

Spending so much time with her reminded him of his lessons with Zahraziv, despite her alien appearance. She was bright and enthusiastic, with an almost childlike exuberance about her. She was a delight to teach, just as his niece had been. It made Azar homesick, and he had made sure to write to his brother every chance he could. It pained him that he wouldn’t receive a response until he found someplace to call home.

As fate would have it, his destination was decided for him.

The caravan had arrived at the ruins of a place called Fort Deadwind, barely more than two walls and a broken tower. Beyond the vast Olupina Sierras, an expanse of land known as the Grieving Moor opened up before being hemmed in from the east by an immense forest. The town closest to the ruins of the fort, known as Elmwatch, would be the caravan’s most remote stop before returning to more civilized areas.

The horses, oxen, and people ambled down the main thoroughfare, if it could even be called that. An immense elm tree stood vigil over the stone church, providing shade for the weary travelers. Most made for the lone inn, called the Brook and Raven, judging by the sign. Azar looked at the buildings around him, noting how they were all well-made and sturdy, but simple affairs. Something a craftsman could appreciate, certainly. They all seemed lived in, aside from one. It was a two-story affair, with a roof in dire need of repair, and the front door was off its hinges. The land around it rose slightly, and none of it appeared to be in use.

“Admiring the architecture?” The voice startled Azar from his reverie. Turning towards the sound, he saw a rather young priest, garbed in simple vestments.

“Aye, you could say that. Who used to live there?” Azar looked back to the obviously empty home, his mind already putting together different plans to utilize the space.

“I couldn’t rightly tell you, to be honest. I’ve only been here a scant few months, so I could ask the head priest if you’d like.” The man seemed unsure of himself, as if interacting with someone would cause him trouble somehow.

Azar waved it away. “Don’t put yourself out on my account,” he said. “I’m called Cinderbeard.”

The priest gave a bow. “Well met, Cinderbeard. I’m Graham. As far as I know, there are no other dwarves here. I have to admit, I have never interacted with your folk before.”

“No time like the present, eh?” the smith said, arching an eyebrow.

“Certainly!” Graham said with a laugh. “However, back to the matter of the house, before I embarrass myself further. You could always ask the innkeep, Bertrand. He’s getting a bit long in the tooth, but he knows his business, and the tavern may as well be a second church.”

“I think he might be a bit swamped right now,” Azar said, hooking a finger back towards the tavern. “The folk I arrived with are no doubt holding most of his attention.”

“Of course, sir,” Graham said. “If you need anything, it’s quite obvious where the church is. Otherwise, just don’t cause any issues. The people here are quite reluctant to deal with troublemakers for any longer than they must.”

“I appreciate the warning, friend,” said the smith. Graham gave another small bow and then moved beyond a low stone wall in front of the church, seeming content to tend the garden outside. Azar approached the vacant house wary of disturbing any vagrants that might lurk within. He was unsure if Elmwatch had an issue with squatters, but he had no desire for conflict. As he got closer, he noticed that the door, despite needing new hinges, was still stout, despite its age and the coat of dust on it.

Growing bolder, he stepped into the dark home. Once his eyes adjusted, he noticed it hadn’t been abandoned in the usual sense. The building had been cleaned of furniture and other belongings and was simply… empty. No signs of someone using it for any purpose, which was odd.

“Enjoying the old family home, are you?” For the second time that day, someone had come upon Azar without him noticing. This time, it was a middle-aged woman, standing in the doorway and silhouetted by the outside light.

“The family home? I meant no disrespect, lady…” Azar began hastily.

“Oh hush, there’s no harm in looking. The name’s Annag.”

Azar, brow knit in confusion, bowed his head slightly. “Cinderbeard.”

“You’re a smith?” asked Annag.

“I am. Is it obvious, or simply a bit of casual racism?”

Annag laughed heartily, something she seemed accustomed to doing. “Ah, but I think you’ll fit right in. As I said, there’s no harm in looking, so I looked through your wagon, is all.”

“Oh good,” Azar said, deadpan. “I was wondering how long it would take for someone to rifle through my belongings.”

“I took nothing, not that you had anything material for me to take, anyway.” She entered the home, patting the walls. “When I had a family of my own, we lived here. Sadly, my sister and I outlived all our kin, and decided it was better to stay close. I live with her, now. This old skeleton of a home hasn’t been lived in for nigh on eight years, now.”

“And yet, it’s still as sturdy as if it was being used and maintained every day,” the smith observed.

“Aye. We take pride in such things, around here.”

“As you should. It’s a fine home, and one that would make a person proud to live within it.”

“You’re a smooth-talker, aren’t you?” the woman joked. “You trying to live here?”

“As you noticed, I have little in the way of coin.”

“But you’re a smith, something this town is in dire need of. This town has very little in the way of coin. We value the sweat on our brow and the work that flows from our hand far more than a shiny piece of metal with some king’s face stamped on it.” Annag shrugged. “I honestly couldn’t even name the king if I tried.”

“So if I were interested in this home,” said Azar. “What would I have to do to live here?”

Annag laughed again, and with one word gave Azar the destination he had been searching for. “Ask.”

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Weave the threads of fate.