The wool blanket was scratching my cheek when I woke up, rasping in time to my shudders; I had chilled down again in the night, in spite of the fire. Folding the blanket and smoothing the bed seemed to be the thing to do in this very neat room; I had no such habit at home, nor Shannon either.
The bread and cheese on the single plate issued a loud invitation, echoed by the mug of beer — no, something else, not beer, but with a glitter of bees and clover in it. The billowing black hall leaked cold air, and my stiff brain began to think about what it might be. I was leaning toward some sort of fur when my nose told me that I had found the door, and it was shut. Rubbing it gingerly (my nose, not the door — noses as short as mine can be broken, it just takes more effort than for beaks) I felt for the knob, and opened it (the door, not my nose).
Food and rest and warmth are good things. I could now understand more of what I saw.
The fireplace was massive compared with the room: the stones of its upper arch touched the roof pole, and the hearth, a foot above the ground for convenience, stretched to within two feet of either wall. Small-doored ovens ran up one side — I suppose for efficiency, smiths must be related to engineers — and a kettle rested inside one, steaming gently.
There were the bellows, attached to the other side of the fireplace and running all along that wall.
And there was the door I’d come in, now plainly a … err … dwarf door, inside a pair of barn doors that would open the whole place up nicely.
And, of course, the anvil beside the fire, and a workbench behind that.
Longer to tell than to look; my gaze came back to the very masculine dwarf, whose whiskers were all bunched up on one side in thought. I got my adrenal levels under control as he nodded to himself, and then gathered broom, dustpan, cloth and oil by the workbench.
“Sweep the floors first,” he growled gently, “then polish the hammers. The dustbin is here.” He opened a trapdoor in the hearth.
Sweeping sounds easier than it was; even with a good draft up the chimney, the soot output was astonishing. But I finally got a little ahead of it, and took up the hammers.
There were twenty-seven hammers, ranging from a mallet that I left on the floor, and just pushed over to get at the other side, down to a tiny silver thing that reminded me of the drawings of the inner ear. Most of them had some kind of rust on them, or weren’t as shiny on the business end as on the grip, so it was a nice day’s project. I stopped every three hammers to sweep again.
This was not, obviously, nearly as demanding as running the bellows, so I stayed aware of my host. Reave it, I had hoped that after my session on the Island that I would be done with these reactions. Part of the reason I had thought about suicide in the first place was that I couldn’t stand to be close to — read, in the same room with — any adult man, including my own dad. Even teenagers got on my nerves. And, let’s face it: my twin brother has only got a couple-three years to go before he’s a teenager.
No. Can not cope.
When I woke up in the middle of Apple Island, what I had seen matched the stories my dad had told us: a broad oval green, the grass as oddly short as it had been outside the trees; and standing a bit toward one end, an arch of grey stones, with a small pool beside it. I had drunk from the pool, in fact. I didn’t dare wash in it, no telling if that would poison it or not. Then through the gate — from the oval toward the trees, very important — and there I was in the stone-walled room, scanning the lintels of the other seven doorways, looking for the carved rune that marked the door into Asgard.
We have relatives in Asgard, you see: part of what makes my family the way it is. And it’s traditional for a Raven who goes to the Island to hit Asgard first, pick up an appropriate weapon, a bit of armor, maybe some training — and only spend a day doing it, as far as the folks at home are concerned.
That’s why the Gates are important, and why access to the Island is part of the pre-req for the bosshood of our particular country: the chance to get a shipload of maturity and experience without wasting any of our own time doing it. Or people, either.
“Stop.” Bossy, this dwarf. A good thing. I laid the cloth over the oil jug and, pulling the door shut behind me, followed him back to his living space.
As he put the pot he was carrying down on the hearth (tiny, compared with the forge) I spotted bowls and forks in a sort of hutch-contraption, and set the table. A decoration on the wall beside the fireplace turned out to be a door when he disappeared through it; I heard gurgling before he came out drying his hands on a ragged towel, and pointed me that way.
Oh, this was where that chamber pot was! It took me a minute to puzzle out the operating details — no need to go into specifics — but I came out much happier, and with clean hands, too.
There had been stew in that pot, and the dwarf had fetched through the kettle and some bread as well, so we had a nice filling lunch. I think I matched him bite for bite, regardless of internal reactions. Three days is a loooong time to go on one apple, three acorns, and five hazelnuts.
When we had scraped clean our third bowls with the heels of the loaf, he poured me out a mug of some grassy tea and one for himself, and lit a long thin pipe which lived over the door of the hutch. I was able to gulp the tea, which had cooled down to tolerable, and he started blowing smoke rings.
Nobody, but no one, smokes anything at home; I had never seen anything like it.
“Don’t like me, hey?” he growled thoughtfully. I searched for the right phrases; this language might be simple to native speakers, but it was rough on me.
“Forgive my unwilling rudeness; memory of a far place twists my limbs.” I’d said it wrong, reave it, I knew I would; his face lit all up with laughter.
“Call me Dval,” he said, still alight. “You staying?” I was being given a choice. Dwarves, in my dad’s stories, aren’t polite: if he’d wanted me out, I’d already be there.
“He looked searchingly at my clothes — I hoped — his whiskers all twisted up again. Then he tapped the unidentifiable thing out of his pipe and went over to another decorative bit next to the stove. It turned out to be his bed, with drawers inside. He pulled out several things: pants, a shirt, a tunic, and some drawstring shorts — oh, right. I held them up against me. The length was right, but the width was about double.
We spent the rest of the day cutting them down to fit me. Dval turned out to be quite handy with needle and thread, and my own seams showed signs of straightening out by the time I was done.
It was interesting. With only some severe self-control and deep breathing, I could stand having him near me, even right next to me. Dr. Joe, who I’d known my whole life, had been the man who went out the window.
Of course, Dval was nearly exactly my height, and he smelled of something: a kind of mix of stone and hot metal and some sort of spice. I’d never known anyone who smelled like that, not in my own people and certainly not Ketrid and company. So okay: I was probably not perceiving him as entirely male, only mostly.
As Erdan Paul would say, what a lovely opportunity for desensitization! (I think he was talking about daisies at the time: he’d run across a bunch that only made him sneeze once in a while.)
Well, whatever. If I was gonna live, I was gonna go home. And I was not not not going home until I knew I’d be able to hug my dad. And my twin.
Okay. This I can handle.