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The Dead Ringer Cometh, Part I
by Max von Lindern

Gasgaroth stood at his forging bales and shook the beads of sweat from his eyes, his great, domed forehead shiny and slick from the heat. T’was a hard living, this Smithwork, yet he would not do else, it was in his blood. And his blood ran hot at the sight of the blade that he forged now.

Comissioned by a dark and shifty-looking man, the blade was to be made for much gold, more gold than Gasgaroth had ever seen in his life. More gold then perhaps the blade was worth...

There were conditions to the contract, conditions of dark purpose, and mayhaps magical reason. This contract called for blood on the forge, blood spilt from he knew not what creature, blood to be bound in the steel. Dark conditions indeed.

Like it or no, the job would be finished, and the way it had gone, Gasgaroth could very well call the blade his best work, that is if the blood, when it was introduced, did not spoil the temper. He would work until the moon went down, until the slinking man stood in his doorway, until the time for the blood had come.

At the hundreth bending and folding of the naked stem, the door of the smithy blew open and the sallow man stood before the forge, hooded and deeply cloaked as always. Gas did not even look up from his anvil.

" Do you bring the gold?" he muttered, his hammer breaking not a beat.

" I bring blood first, worth more to your task than gold..." the customer spoke, his gravel voice barely audible.

Gas nodded into his chest and plunged the white hot stem into a bucket. As steam rose in grey plumes, he wiped his hands upon his greasy apron and turned, prepared to do whatever was expected next. Turning to face the dark, blanked eyes of a child was the last thing he expected.

The boy stood shivering before him, in spite of the great heat of the bales and the hot air of the bellows. He was perhaps ten, perhaps less, half naked and half elvish from the look of him. Gasgaroth’s eyes narrowed of themselves at the thought of what this might bode, spells of iron and sacrifice came to his mind...

"What is this...’ Gas poked a stubby finger at the boy, ‘ some sort of rusher of yours? Why is he here?" the smith gruffed.

The gaunt and bundled man said nothing, and a hand snaked out from the recesses of the cloak, depositing a fat purse that jingled upon the pitted anvil. The eyes of the man then glittered with an invitation to take the purse, while two gutteral words issued from the hood..."Question Not!"

Gas sized things up from there easily. The boy was to die then, a plunging spell and the finished blade would cool it’s birthing pains within the boy’s heart. And if not, the blade would be shelved, the gold would never cross his hand, and his own children would stare at starvation all winter long. Question not, the answers were right there.

And so was his. Starvation or no, his children would not survive the winter on the bones of a little half-breed, no matter how unwanted or unwatched the cur-son might be. Dark deeds had coloured Gasgaroth’s hand seldom, he would allow no stain from this deed to shade his skin...He turned on his heel, crossed his wide arms across his chest and faced the faceless man before him.

" What is in your mind will not happen here, stranger. You shall have no blade of Gasgaroth, if this be the price." Gas swiped a paw at his anvil, and the purse landed on the customer’s feet. To his delight, the man jumped as if the gold bag had hurt his toes.

Gone were the gravel tones, and down came the hood. Gasgaroth looked into the face of he knew not what, yet he knew that he was suddenly very much in danger. What now stood before him was a phantasm, an etheral head of smoke and fumes, a white, bobbing cloud that seemed to have a red fire glowing like embers for brains. Two deeper jewels of blood sparked where there should be eyes. It was no man, that was sure, it was a demon, and Gas’s blood ran watery and weak.

The voice that now thundered from the thing was sibilant and screeching, almost to the point that Gas could not undertand the words, and he cringed from it, though strong man that he was. " You dare say nay to ME puling smith?! It is the night, and you are alone! You shrink even now from the power before you, and as I swear upon the Iron Crown of Agmar, you will make this blade ‘ere the sun rises, or I will flay the skin from your bones with my very tongue!" An icy stench blasted from the creature, and something like frozen whips lashed at Gas’s face.

Tears came to the tough, old eyes of the smith, as his hands no longer were his own. The two rough and callused paws that had made many great and beautiful things now betrayed him, and they bent to the stem of the blade that lay in the bucket of steaming water. He shook, he palsied, he groaned aloud, and yet he could not seem to stop his hands from seeking this evil work.

Then a low voice spoke at his elbow, and like an unlooked for light in a desperate and dark tunnel, Gasgaroth’s mind was his own, the spell was broken...

" By the spirit of Elebreth and Luthien the fair, the smith stands not alone!"

It was the boy, and in the seconds that Gas fought within his own flesh and blood, the halfelven reached over and snatched up the blade that was to be cleaved in his young heart, from the bucket, it’s rough point now suddenly circling tightly, just inches away from the foul creature’s transparent cheek.

The Apparation flinched and backed away from the half-raw blade, as though it were poison. And the boy pressed his sudden advantage.

" Do you think,’ the boy said, through clamped teeth,’ that I would not know you, foul servant? You are the shadow that plagued Eraidor legends ago. You are not Agmar, you were his hand-pet, and though I know little about you, I know your stench! Your King is dead, your purpose is void! you have no succour in this land!" The stem of the sword jabbed at the putrid air that was the head of the terrible creature, and all of the screeching ceased, as the Wraithe drew itself to it’s full size.

" Whatever belittle store of knowledge of me you may trust you have,’ it hissed ,‘ makes you no match still, you are a boy. You think I needs be a King? I am the spirit of the Wolf, my babes are Weredogs, we eat children like you! You are in Arnor, boy. It is your succour that is void here." The head snaked out at the last word, as if the monster meant to bite the blunt iron that followed it.

For Gasgaroth, it was enough. The halfelven boy had a Wraithe before him, and he was forcing it away from Gas’s home and family. The Smith kept an axe in the pigpot beneath the anvil, and it quickly became an axe in his hands. He vectored the thing and the boy, swinging the axe in measured, tired arcs before him. " Getch ye gone, Naz, getch ye gone! Tis heavy irun I be throwing here..." He said this and began advancing, step by lazy step.

The Wolf Wraithe stopped backing, just before the door, and then the boy and Gasgaroth found themselves still as well. In seconds, Gas found that his ears began to smart and sting, and he realised that he was cold! It was so cold that his bad knees began to ache, the way they did in winter freezes. He shook, and his axe slowly lowered and stopped, both hands gripping a shaking haft. The bales of coal went out, and that was impossible. Suddenly the old Smithy’s mind went numb, and not from the cold.

The boy, too, could not hold his weapon onguard, the dull blade wavered and drooped. As his own eyelashes froze, Gas watched the dark hair of the lad frost before his eyes. He began to feel sleepy, and that was what saved them. His mind knew this phase of cold, and an alarm began to sound in Gas’s skull. He had a blinding flash of his mother slapping him violently and screaming into his face, " Don’t you Dare go to sleep Gas! Don’t you go to sleep on me!!" His face reacted to that panic that he remembered in his mother’s voice, and he roared.

"..rraAAAHHHGGG!" Gasgaroth charged the Wraithe with his axe coming up, his main thought being that his mother would never forgive him if he froze to death. It would have been a blunder charge, if the topknickers of his axeblades hadn’t been so sharp. The Wraithe was quite aware of Gas’s silly charge, but because the Smith did not have his axe all the way up, the knicks got the foul thing’s arm, and the Dark Spirit shrank from the rush like smoke.

Gasgaroth’s charge was the fire that the boy needed, except that his would be no long charge. He lunged forward like a cat at the dodge of the creature, his blade striking in a slanting heft, down from shoulder to breastbone. The score was hard and centered, with the Wraithe barely turned to face him. Alas, that his blade was dulled, else the battle would end then, but a dull blade draws little first blood.

A sickening green flash parted the air at the score of Iron upon the UnHoly. Gasgaroth stumbled forward, and had just righted his feet when a huge Warg crashed through the planked Smithy wall on his left. He was thrust backward, into the doorway, but both the Wolf-Wraithe and the boy were gone. Not that he had time to register that fact.

The Wolven was instantly on him, and he had little choice but to back out into the scrapyard, his axe making little chops until there was room enough for swings. He was not a tall man, and as everyone who knows how to Elven-fight a Warg can tell you, you get down low.

As soon as he was clear, Gas crouched. No more free swinging, he held his axe ready, both hands on shoulder. He would wait for the spring of the Wolven, and try to get under it. The Warg tried to circle, but the yard wasn’t that big, and Gasgaroth made sure it stayed that way, hopping at a flank whenever the wolf made for one. The beast stopped, it’s head going low, it’s butt going was preparing to lunge.

Gas felt his age right then, his forty-two years making his arms heavy and lumben, the crouch wasn’t doing his knees any favors either, but he readied for line, and when it came, his years left him for one split second of pure reaction. He moved like a fifteen year-old boy. When the Wolven launched at Gasgaroth’s head, suddenly, the old, balding dome was no longer there. Gas executed a neat little roll to the side, and as the wolf carried over and beside him, Gas stood, and with the arms of an Ironsmith, he brought his blade down, square across the Wolven’s back.

Gasgaroth the Smithyman cleaved his Warg in two.

A moment passed of dim recollection and deep breaths. Then Gas could hear crickets, cows...and...silence. His eyes widend as the thought of the Halfelven and the Wraithe clashed with the normalcy of what he heard.

His head drooped in the cold night air, he was tired beyond belief. He had done all he could for himself and the boy, he knew he could never go into the forest and track the battle. The bloody and steaming remains at his feet convinced him, he would have no chance. The boy was on his own.

1999 by max vonlindern

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