On a frosty bright day I found myself holding the muzzle of a wicked-looking goat while Dval shoed it. Its partner waited for its own turn, still harnessed to the cart they’d pulled here, watching Pan-eyed through the open dwarf-door. Goats have split hooves. Their shoes would have been funny-looking if the front edges hadn’t been so sharp.
The man who brought them reminded me a bit of my father, which is to say that he was much too tall to fit into the forge. I was quite happy about this; he looked even more massive than Dad, and nowhere near as even-tempered. There’s no telling what he would have done if I’d hit him, but I was quite sure he wouldn’t budge a bit.
He looked a bit like Dval, too: bushy red hair and beard, fierce blue eyes. But it was only when he turned to sit on a snowy bench that I saw the double-headed hammer at his belt and realized who he had to be.
“Right,” Dval answered me, his mouth full of nails for the goats’ shoes. “A relative of yours, in’t he? Want to say hello?”
“No, thanks,” I replied hastily, forcing the goat’s questing teeth away from my shoulder. “Later – – another year, perhaps.” Dval’s face lit with laughter again. No telling if it was because he thought I wasn’t serious, or because he knew I was. The goat snuffled at my hair, and blatted a laugh in my face. Its harness-mate gave a blat of its own, and I thought I heard a chuckle from outside. Dad’s stories had never mentioned Thor having particularly sharp hearing. On the other hand, the three of us had very sharp hearing, much better than Mom’s or anyone else’s; maybe it was a family resemblance.
We finished up without too much more trouble, and I put the old shoes in the scrap-metal bin while Dval settled the bill. I was glad to see the three of them go, and watched them drive away for a long time into the dim winter light. For some reason, my eyes were stiff.
Four hours a day pumping bellows, three times a week, is hard work. Before this, I’d always thought of myself as strong. I mean, it’s part of what my family is: “The Ravens? Oh, they’re strooong people!” in the tone of someone describing diamonds to people who only know glass. But Dval’s forge was teaching me the difference between genetic muscle and earned muscle; and between physical strength and … what, call it personal strength. I was gaining bits of both as the days were ground into a fine thin edge, honed on the strop of the winds off the ice-fields.
I was finally learning the song that Dval sang on the rest-days, and found that it fit the rhythm of the bellows. As I built up those actual muscles and the endurance that goes with them, I started to have breath to spare, and began bellowing the song in time to my pumping. Dval was startled — I only ever heard him sing on the rest day — but I was busy memorizing the song and trying to figure out what the words meant, and he didn’t make me stop.
Look: words in a song in your own language can be hard to figure out. It’s four times as hard in a different language.
“Not `tunelgedoy’,” Dval interrupted me one day. “It’s `ton of alloy.'” I stared at him, shaken out of my rhythm. “`Ton of alloy.’ That verse is about the making of Tyr’s armor. We used star-metal for it, and iron, and nickel; it worked out to an even ton once it was melted together.”
He had never said so many words to me together. I took an exploratory breath: no shakes, no queasiness. His beard split in a sudden grin. “Time to learn some grammar, Birdie.” I should have known dwarves weren’t really insensitive. I had seen the jewelry he made. Dummy.
For a solid month, he pulled the “óu est la plume de ma tante” bit on me, making sure I was familiar with all the names of things in his home and the forge, and the basic verbs, and more of the verses in his song.
My accent was getting better, but the gutterals eluded me until the day I caught a blast of smoke in the face, and found the word for smoke in my coughing. Dval laughed so hard I thought he was going to drop his hammer, and it was just at that point that the door began booming.
Abruptly wary, Dval jerked his beard toward the door, and I went to open it. We were in Winternight now, our weeks ruled by the iron regularity of Dval’s sleep pattern, and no one had come to the forge for six of those. I grabbed my weight belt and slung it unthinkingly around my waist as I passed the bellows, set aside the wind-bar and the snow-bar, and pushed open the small door.
A small quantity of blizzard roared in, heading for the hearth, and I pulled the door closed behind it, my boots gripping the rough floor, the belt lending me mass. By the time I got the bars back in place, the snow had disappeared, leaving behind a slight coolness and a young dwarf, who had begun talking before the snow even had a chance to melt.
Dval apparently spoke very slowly; I couldn’t catch a word the youngster said. But evidently something big was up; Dval was shutting down the chimney to the hearth, and raking the fire into some sort of storage-pit. Catching the general drift, I unshipped the loops of the bellows-handles, so that they wouldn’t stretch. Dval covered the fire-pit, plunging the forge into darkness, and we followed him into the billowing hallway, the youngster growling a little more loudly over the sound of the wind.
The smith pulled backpacks out of a chest and loaded them while he listened. Seeing the way things were going, I dug out extra clothes, pulled off my boots, and started adding layers. I left the two coats for last, made sure I’d laid out Dval’s stuff, and went to take over the packing.
“… to know,” the youngster finished up, slowing enough for me to catch the meaning. His voice had been filled, the whole time, with a weird blend of rage and despair. Whatever was wrong was really badly wrong. I tested the relative weight of the packs, and moved some stuff: Dval was most likely every bit as strong as I myself.
“Even so, we will come,” Dval pronounced, wrapping a scarf around his ears and face. I copied him, adding a couple extra turns around the face. I’d learned my lesson, helping refill the snow-tanks on the outside of the chimney: beards insulate. Too bad I’d never grow one. The kid was glaring at me, which of course Dval noticed. “Birdie comes with us,” he said mildly. “She dosn’t know the first thing about ironwork. Or slaughter either,” he threw over his shoulder, taking a decorative silver ring off the wall. It was one of my favorite things to watch on the rest-days: it had a pattern of mountains and geese and people on it. He put his gloved hand through the middle and, while I hastily pulled on my coats, turned a little. His hand jerked, and he nodded to himself.
We went back out through the darkened forge, the air-holes of the firepit putting off just enough glow that I didn’t disgrace myself falling over something. Dval shut and locked the door behind us right-handed, and pulled a kind of shutter, all articulated slats, down over the whole door. Then he held out his left fist again, feeling for the tug, and set off across the star-bright snow.