Daurun unwrapped the paladin's package with trembling hands. His heart was racing with excitement.
Two small ingots of pure mithral, together no larger than a scroll case.
He lifted them, feeling their considerable weight and examining them for imperfections. There were none. Daurun caught his reflection smiling in the metal's mirror-like surface. For the first time in years, he felt close to home.
He put the mithral down, reverently, and pulled the other wrapped bundle from his pack, the contents of which he spilled carelessly onto his work table. A broken sword, shattered into several pieces. It was an admirable enough weapon, Daurun noted, but had become brittle in the frozen north and had inevitably split down the centre of the blade. The hilt and cross guard were ornate, carved in the likeness of a gold dragon in flight.
The dwarf stroked his beard, thinking.
Working mithral and bonding it to inferior metal would be difficult with his limited tools and humble forge. But not impossible. Not to him.
He laid out his hammers and tongs, donned a thick leather apron and set a fire in the forge. He fanned the flames until they were roaring and white hot, then placed the mithral bars at their heart. The fire reacted to the metal's presence, drawing itself in to envelop the bars so that they vanished from sight. Daurun waited patiently, staring into the fire as if hypnotized, tongues of flame singing his beard. His mind wandered, traveling back through the years to his homeland and all the secrets of the forge he had once known. His lips started to move, their motion unconscious and natural, as he intoned ancient words of power and enchantment. He removed the mithral from the forge and it yielded its shape beneath his hammer. He worked until his muscles screamed and his fingers bled.
As he reforged the metal, so too was something inside him made whole again. Each fall of the hammer chipped away at the apathy that had crippled him for so long. Each bright spark of steel on steel was reflected in his soul as a forgotten vigour was rekindled. It was the same vigour that had led him north so many years ago, Daurun realised with a mixture of excitement and dread.
By dawn, he was finished.
The paladin hoisted the sword into a defensive stance, then took a few practice swings, feeling its balance as it cut through the crisp morning air. "Good as new," Artain said.
"Better than new," Daurun corrected.
True enough, thought Artain. The weapon felt lighter and more natural in his grip, though it had lost nothing of its size or shape. The blade rippled and reflected the sun with each stroke like the crystal waters of Lac Dinneshere behind him. A near invisible pattern of runes had been carved along the sword's edge. "What are these symbols?"
"An ancient prayer to Clangeddin Silverbeard," said Daurun proudly. "An ally of Torm. The runes will lend your blows added strength in battle."
"Thank you." Artain said, though he felt they were inadequate words. He reached for the pouch hanging from his belt. "Your payment. As we agreed, two hund-"
The dwarf held up one stubby-fingered hand. "No payment necessary," he said.
Artain was uncertain. Thinking it might be a strange jest, he drew his money bag anyway. "I insist."
Daurun's heavy brows furrowed. "Ye insult me. I have made a gift of my skills. There is nay value fer such a thing."
"But why? I don't understand."
The dwarf's hard stare softened for a brief moment. "Tae repay ye in kind, lad. Fer bringing me a piece o' home." He turned to leave, paused, then said over his shoulder, "Ye can show yer gratitude when we reach the Spine o' the World by putting that blade tae good use."
"We?" Artain thought saw a slight gleam in the dwarf's grey eyes and could not help but smile.
"Aye," said Daurun, the faintest hint of a smile on his own face. He left.
The paladin was alone now on the banks of the lake, brandishing his reforged sword. He wondered if he would indeed make use of it on the road to Kuldahar. This is the Year of the Cold Soul, the elf's words drifted through his mind. Nature holds her breath. He glanced south at the Spine of the World mountains, vast clouds heaped over their jagged peaks, black and silent. He had come to Icewind Dale to spread the light of Torm, but that light seemed very faint in this harsh, rugged land.
Ill omens all.
The sermon was short and powerful, though few had gathered to hear it. The weather was fierce this evening, and many had wisely decided to stay at home. Nevertheless, Everard was in a foul mood over it.
"Lip service," he had grumbled earlier. "Their faith is challenged by poor weather."
Accalia ignored his rant. Everard was in a constant state of anger lately and there was little to be done about it.
When the half-dozen worshipers and the low-level initiates had departed, Accalia was left alone with him in the main hall, standing beneath the stone image of their god: giant and resplendent in his armour. Everard struggled down from the crude pulpit, slowed by his lame left leg, and limped over to Accalia, his face stern and haggard. She took a deep breath. This, she knew, was to be the final confrontation.
"Jerrod's Stone," was all Everard said. The words echoed about the empty hall. Accalia's gaze found the skein of pulsing yellow runes at the statue's feet. They warded the entrance to the temple's catacombs and kept the precious artifact therein safe.
"What of it?"
"It is a warning. A warning against the folly of needless sacrifice." Everard's face was grave, his words a growling whisper.
Accalia rolled her eyes, passing it off as disinterest when in truth she was suddenly nervous. "We have spoken of this before. I'm going Everard. It is my choice."
"Then let us speak of it one last time before you leave. I have cast the spells and read the omens." An expression of fear played across his blunt features so quickly Accalia almost missed it. "I tried to convince myself otherwise, but the truth can no longer be denied."
"The truth of what?"
"The truth of what awaits you in the Spine of the World."
"Allow me a few words more, Accalia," Everard interrupted sharply. "Are you so eager to rush off to Kuldahar to avenge the death of this one man?"
Accalia had never spoken of how deeply she had been affected by the messenger's untimely passing, yet Everard had seen through her motivations as clear as glass. "His murder was an affront to Tempus," she said.
"True, but your desire to run off and seek battle is an even greater affront."
Shocked, Accalia was on the verge of screaming at Everard, but the maimed priest raised a silencing hand and she gritted her teeth instead.
"There is no victory in sacrifice," he continued, his voice taking on a measured tone as if he were delivering another sermon. "Jerrod believed he would find deliverance in martyrdom, that in giving his life he was serving Tempus' will. His sacrifice cost him his soul."
Accalia knew the story well. Jerrod was a shaman of the Uthgardt, who had led his people to battle against the invader Arakon. In his defeat, Arakon had ripped open a portal to the Lower Planes and a legion of hell had spilled forth onto the battlefield. As his people were slaughtered around him, Jerrod glimpsed an avatar of Tempus watching from a distant ridge. Taking it as a sign, the shaman charged the portal alone, his blood and mortal soul fusing it shut. Everard preached that Tempus' appearance was a portent of victory for the Uthgardt and that Jerrod's sacrifice was a vain attempt at glory-mongering. Accalia was not so sure.
"I don't understand," she said at last. "Why do you preach this to me now?"
"Because I fear for your soul." Everard's face looked older than ever, grey and tired.
Accalia asked, "What awaits me in the Spine of the World, Everard?"
A short eternity went by.
"So be it."
Outside, the wind howled.
Jhonen stamped his feet and breathed into his gloves, desperate to keep the chill at bay. His grey woolen cloak was poor protection, but it was all he had. As a lowly dockhand at Easthaven's tiny port, he earned barely enough copper to keep himself fed let alone warm.
There was a buzz of activity around him as final preparations were made for the expedition. Men, shouting and joking about the adventure to come, were loading bundles of firewood and blankets onto the two small carts that had been commandeered for the trek. Each was to be drawn by a stout, shaggy-haired ox. Hrothgar was barking instructions, helping where he could. The old man looked every bit the hero this morning, dressed in scaled leather armour lined with fine white rabbit fur; a two-handed sword that was taller than Jhonen was strapped across his back.
Jhonen's hand went to his own weapon, the bent and rusted blade he had found earlier that tenday by the lakeshore. It was tucked into his belt and hidden beneath his cloak. He felt very foolish. My father was the hero, not me. Jhonen wanted to return to his shack, crawl into bed and hope no one noticed his cowardice. But then the horror of his dreams reared up in his mind - the pale serpent gliding through clouds as black as night, its jaws wide as it fell from the sky - and he found himself rooted to the spot. Too afraid to go, too afraid to stay. Jhonen felt trapped and doomed and helpless.
His bleak thoughts were broken by Hrothgar's booming voice.
"Come here, boy."
"You tie a better knot than most," Hrothgar said. "Make sure everything is safely secured to this cart." He tossed Jhonen a roll of hemp rope and trudged off to oversee the loading of the second cart.
There were others nearby who could have performed the same task, but Jhonen was grateful to be included. He silently thanked the old man, removed his gloves and set to work. He double checked every knot, tugging and tightening until his hands were raw. When Hrothgar returned, he gave only a slight nod of satisfaction, but it was more than enough to lift Jhonen's spirits.
By now, just about the entire village had turned up to see the expedition off. All told, there were over two score volunteers, fully half of Easthaven's able bodies. Most of them Jhonen knew, just local fishermen and craftsmen not unlike himself. He recognised the cleric Accalia, wearing vestments of red-dyed fur, and the dwarf they all called Dour, who had a workman's hammer hanging from his belt and a crudely made helm tucked under his arm. There were some strangers too, Jhonen noted. In particular a halfling woman who moved cheerfully through those gathered, largely ignored, and a tall, broad-shouldered man with the look of a southerner. The latter wore simple cotton clothes and only a dark blue cape around his shoulders for protection, yet he seemed unaffected by the cold as he loaded a heavy-looking bundle onto the second cart. A sword with an extravagantly crafted hilt and cross guard was sheathed at his side and Jhonen was unhappily reminded of the blade from his dreams.
A short while later, everything appeared to be in order. Hrothgar climbed one of the carts' luggage piles so that everyone could see him.
"Six days ago, a messenger came to us from Kuldahar," he shouted, "begging for our aid. Sadly, the journey cost him his life and he left us with many questions. I intend to find the answers." His gaze flickered briefly over Jhonen as he said, "It makes me proud that so many brave men and women will join me in this."
There was genuine warmth in the older man's tone, and Jhonen felt a surge of delight, squaring his shoulders and standing a little taller.
"In Icewind Dale, we do not abandon our neighbours," Hrothgar continued. "We stand together or we fall together. Kuldahar is not alone."
A few cheered. Most kept quiet.
The cleric Accalia stepped forward, her blond hair and pale skin almost white in the morning sunlight. "We call upon Tempus to bless us," she said and several of those gathered fell to their knees. "May he lend us strength in hardship, and victory in battle. Vitar. Mor'tis. Khayalah." Victory. Death. Glory.
A strange choice of prayer, Jhonen thought, though he was admittedly unfamiliar with the Tempuran faith. He worshiped Lathander, the god of his mother and father. Stranger still was Everard's absence from the crowd. Jhonen reasoned that a senior priest would be present to exalt such an undertaking, not a subordinate. He grew anxious thinking about what that might mean.
The moment had come and the volunteers said their final goodbyes to friends and family. There were few tears; the people of Ten Towns were harder than that. Having no family and no true friends, Jhonen said a weak farewell to Apsel the scrimshander, who wished him luck, and merely waved to any others he knew. He wondered if he would ever see Easthaven again. He wondered if he even cared.
Without fanfare, the oxen lurched into motion, keeping to the shores of Lac Dinneshere for a time before heading out onto the windswept tundra of the day.