The hammer in his hand smoked slightly, the dull red fading back to rusty black. The bar of metal in his tongs was also fading, from cherry to fresh blood, which I couldn’t help but think was wrong. And he did not look happy to see me.
I wasn’t all that happy to see him, either. My gorge was rising and I felt twitchy — the kind of twitchy that had sent three grown men crashing into walls, and one more out a window. I fought it, and fought for my voice.
What was the greeting for smiths? I didn’t remember Dad saying, so I winged it.
“Peace and wealth within this forge,” I gasped, pushing the gutturals past the bile in my throat. A look of enlightenment crossed the fierce little man’s bearded face, and he answered, “And glorious battle under open skies. You are not Kelly the Raven. Come in and shut the door. Thor’s drawers!” he roared suddenly, noticing the color of his bar of metal, and plunging it back into the fire. I pulled at the door, which was about twice my mass, inhaling warm air for the first time in three days. My bare arms were steaming in the heat from the fire, and the ice in my hair was melting in a rush. The ice on my nose, too. And I still didn’t have a handkerchief. In a moment my clothes would be sopping wet, but right now they clattered against my skin. I shivered.
“Pump up the fire.” He sounded peremptory, but the look he gave me was measuring. I spotted the bellows, peered at the fire, and swung on the upper handle.
It didn’t budge. I set my teeth, hooked my feet under the lower handle, and pulled again. The upper bar sank reluctantly, and I bent slowly in two, forcing it down toward the floor, aware that my seat was sticking straight out, and not caring.
The air huffed out of the nozzle in a stream: maybe not as steady as the water-driven pumps at home, but not bad for my first time, I thought, as big as they were and as short as I was. I let the upper handle back up, a bit faster than it had come down. And then again down, and up, again and again.
Somewhere in the background I had heard a kind of snort, but I ignored it.
Bend; release. Bend; release. The cold worked out of my muscles, out of my bones. My clothes dried, and my hair; I suppose I should not have been surprised when I started to sweat. I was finally glad for my shorts and light shirt.
“Stop.” He was right next to me, and I flinched all the way onto the floor. The upper bar flew from my hand back up near the low roof pole.
“Drink this.” The mug in his hand was half the size of my head, filled with something foamy and bitter. Right, Alice, I thought, and took a longer drink. I started to feel better.
The — dwarf, probably — was taking something out of a barrel of water in the corner. My eyes couldn’t make out its shape, since my ears were too busy yelling at me. Apparently a major din had just stopped. I hadn’t noticed, being busy with other things. I drank some more beer.
He turned away from the shelf where he’d put his thing, and said “Birdie, come here.” My name’s not Birdie, protested the back of my skull, but I scrambled to my feet as I was bid. He was already walking through a low door on his side of the forge.
Tired, I suddenly realized; I was only catching bits of things. I stumbled after him, aching in a whole new set of places than the ones I’d brought in with me, and found myself in billowing blackness before I caught sight of a glow at the end of this hall-thing.
One room can do for everything, if you’re well-organized, I suppose. There was a table, a fireplace, a sink and a bed; the rest was a blur. I found myself sitting, a fork full of something in my mouth; then I found myself sitting on a chill chamber pot; then I was flat, a warm scratchy blanket by my cheek. Sometimes you just do the next thing, so I slept.