The Crystal Shard 9. No More a Boy
Regis stretched out lazily against his favorite tree and enjoyed a drawn-out yawn, his cherubic dimples beaming in the bright ray of sunlight that somehow found its way to him through the thickly packed branches. His fishing pole stood poised beside him, though its hook had long since been cleaned of any bait. Regis rarely caught any fish, but he prided himself on never wasting more than one worm.
He had come out here every day since his return to Lonelywood. He wintered in Bryn Shander now, enjoying the company of his good friend Cassius. The city on the hill didn’t compare to Calimport, but the palace of its spokesman was the closest thing to luxury in all of Icewind Dale. Regis thought himself quite clever for persuading Cassius to invite him to spend the harsh winters there.
A cool breeze wafted in off Maer Dualdon, drawing a contented sigh from the halfling. Though June had already passed its midpoint, this was the first hot day of the short season. And Regis was determined to make the most of it. For the first time in over a year he had been out before noon, and he planned to stay in this spot, stripped of his clothes, letting the sun sink its warmth into every inch of his body until the last red glow of sunset.
An angry shout out on the lake caught his attention. He lifted his head and half-opened one heavy eyelid. The first thing he noticed, to his complete satisfaction, was that his belly had grown considerably over the winter, and from this angle, lying flat on his back, he could only see the tips of his toes.
Halfway across the water, four boats, two from Termalaine and two from Targos, jockeyed for position, running past each other with sudden tacks and turns, their sailors cursing and spitting at the boats that flew the flag of the other city. For the last four-and-a-half years, since the Battle of Bryn Shander, the two cities had virtually been at war. Though their battles were more often fought with words and fists than weapons, more than one ship had been rammed or driven into rocks or up to beach in shallow waters.
Regis shrugged helplessly and dropped his head back to his folded waistcoat. Nothing had changed much around Ten-Towns in the last few years. Regis and some of the other spokesmen had entertained high hopes of a united community, despite the heated argument after the battle between Kemp of Targos and Agorwal of Termalaine over the drow.
Even on the banks of the lake across the way, the period of good will was short-lived among the long-standing rivals. The truce between Caer-Dineval and Caer-Konig had only lasted until the first time one of Caer-Dineval’s boats landed a valuable and rare five-footer, on the stretch of Lac Dinneshere that Caer-Konig had relinquished to her as compensation for the waters she had lost to Easthaven’s expanding fleet.
Furthermore, Good Mead and Dougan’s Hole, the normally unassuming and fiercely independent towns on the southernmost lake, Redwaters, had boldly demanded compensation from Bryn Shander and Termalaine. They had suffered staggering casualties in the battle on Bryn Shander’s slopes, though they had never even considered the affair their business. They reasoned that the two towns which had gained the most from the united effort should be made to pay. The northern cities, of course, balked at the demand.
And so the lesson of the benefits of unification had gone unheeded. The ten communities remained as divided as ever before.
In truth, the town which had benefited the most from the battle was Lonelywood. The population of Ten-Towns as a whole had remained fairly constant. Many fortune hunters or hiding scoundrels continued to filter into the region, but an equal number were killed or grew disenchanted with the brutal conditions and returned to the more hospitable south.
Lonelywood, though, had grown considerably. Maer Dualdon, with its consistent yield of knucklehead, remained the most profitable of the lakes, and with the fighting between Termalaine and Targos, and Bremen precariously perched on the banks of the unpredictable and often flooding Shaengarne River, Lonelywood appeared the most appealing of the four towns. The people of the small community had even launched a campaign to draw newcomers, citing Lonelywood as the “Home of the Halfling Hero,” and as the only place with shade trees within a hundred miles.
Regis had given up his position as spokesman shortly after the battle, a choice mutually arrived at by himself and the townsfolk. With Lonelywood growing into greater prominence and shaking off its reputation as a melting pot of rogues, the town needed a more aggressive person to sit on the council. And Regis simply didn’t want to be bothered with the responsibility anymore.
Of course, Regis had found a way to turn his fame into profit. Every new settler in the town had to pay out a share of his first catches in return for the right to fly Lonelywood’s flag, and Regis had persuaded the new spokesman and the other leaders of the town that since his name had been used to help bring in the new settlers, he should be cut in for a portion of these fees.
The halfling wore a broad smile whenever he considered his good fortune. He spent his days in peace, coming and going at his leisure, mostly just lying against the moss of his favorite tree, putting a line in the water once and letting the day pass him by.
His life had taken a comfortable turn, though the only work he ever did now was carving scrimshaw. His crafted pieces carried ten times their old value, the price partially inflated by the halfling’s small degree of fame, but moreso because he had persuaded some connoisseurs who were visiting Bryn Shander that his unique style and cut gave his scrimshaw a special artistic and aesthetic worth.
Regis patted the ruby pendant that rested on his bare chest. It seemed that he could “persuade” almost anyone of almost anything these days.
* * *
The hammer clanged down on the glowing metal. Sparks leaped off the anvil platform in a fiery arc, then died into the dimness of the stone chamber: The heavy hammer swung again and again, guided effortlessly by a huge, muscled arm.
The smith wore only a pair of pants and a leather apron tied about his waist in the small, hot chamber. Black lines of soot had settled in the muscular grooves across his broad shoulders and chest, and he glistened with sweat in the orange glow of the forge. His movements were marked by such rhythmic, tireless ease that they seemed almost preternatural, as though he were the god who had forged the world in the days before mortal man.
An approving grin spread across his face when he felt the rigidity of the iron finally give a bit under the force of his blows. Never before had he felt such strength in the metal; it tested him to the limits of his own resilience, and he felt a shiver as alluring as the thrill of battle when he had at last proven himself the stronger:
“Bruenor will be pleased.”
Wulfgar stopped for a moment and considered the implications of his thoughts, smiling in spite of himself as he remembered his first days in the mines of the dwarves. What a stubborn, angry youth he had been then, cheated out of his right to die on the field of honor by a grumbling dwarf who justified unasked-for compassion by labeling it “good business.”
This was his fifth and final spring indentured to the dwarves in tunnels that kept his seven-foot frame continually hunched. He longed for the freedom of the open tundra, where he could stretch his arms up high to the warmth of the sun or to the intangible pull of the moon. Or lie flat on his back with his legs unbent, the ceaseless wind tickling him with its chill bite and the crystalline stars filling his mind with mystical visions of unknown horizons.
And yet, for all of their inconveniences, Wulfgar had to admit that he would miss the hot drafts and constant clatter of the dwarven halls. He had clung to the brutal code of his people, which defined capture as disgrace, during the first year of his servitude, reciting the Song of Tempos as a litany of strength against the insinuation of weakness in the company of the soft, civilized southerners.
Yet Bruenor was as solid as the metal he pounded. The dwarf openly professed no love for battle, but he swung his notched axe with deadly accuracy and shrugged off blows that would fell an ogre.
The dwarf had been an enigma to Wulfgar in the early days of their relationship. The young barbarian was compelled to grant Bruenor a degree of respect, for Bruenor had bested him on the field of honor. Even then, with the battlelines firmly defining the two as enemies, Wulfgar had recognized a genuine and deeply-rooted affection in the eyes of the dwarf that had confused him. He and his people had come to pillage Ten-Towns, yet Bruenor’s underlying attitude seemed more the concern of a stern father than the callous perspective of a slave’s master. Wulfgar always remembered his rank in the mines, however, for Bruenor was often gruff and insulting, working Wulfgar at menial, sometimes degrading, tasks.
Wulfgar’s anger had dissipated over the long months. He came to accept his penance with stoicism, heeding Bruenor’s commands without question or complaint. Gradually, conditions had improved.
Bruenor had taught him to work the forge, and later, to craft the metal into fine weapons and tools. And finally, on a day that Wulfgar would never forget, he had been given his own forge and anvil where he could work in solitude and without supervision – though Bruenor often stuck his head in to grumble over an inexact strike or to spout out a few pointers. More than the degree of freedom, though, the small workshop had restored Wulfgar’s pride. Since the first time he lifted the smithy hammer he called his own, the methodical stoicism of a servant had been replaced by the eagerness and meticulous devotion of a true craftsman. The barbarian found himself fretting over the smallest burr, sometimes reworking an entire piece to correct a slight imperfection. Wulfgar was pleased about this change in his perspective, viewing it as an attribute that might serve him well in the future, though he didn’t as yet understand how.
Bruenor called it “character.”
The work paid dividends physically as well. Chopping stone and pounding metal had corded the barbarian’s muscles, redefining the gangly frame of his youth into a hardened girth of unrivaled strength. And he possessed great stamina, for the tempo of the tireless dwarves had strengthened his heart and stretched his lungs to new limits.
Wulfgar bit his lip in shame as he vividly remembered his first conscious thought after the Battle of Bryn Shander. He had vowed to pay Bruenor back in blood as soon as he had fulfilled the terms of his indenture. He understood now, to his own amazement, that he had become a better man under the tutelage of Bruenor Battlehammer, and the mere thought of raising a weapon against the dwarf sickened him.
He turned his sudden emotion into motion, slamming his hammer against the iron, flattening its incredibly hard head more and more into the semblance of a blade. This piece would make a fine sword.
Bruenor would be pleased.