Salvo sat alone in his prison cell, speaking to the torch’s flame visible through the small barred window in his door. Salvo liked fire. Fire listened to him. So, as he chewed on the last of the stale bread that was his dinner, Salvo chatted merrily to the flames.
“Ah, lovely,” he said. “When I’m free, I’ll have such a feast. I’ll eat wild goat pies and drink all the brew I can hold…”
The torchlight flickered, guttering.
“Ah! You think I’ll rot in here forever, do you?” said Salvo, “No, no. Twas just a prank that put me here -- a few extra fireworks for Lord Slithrig’s birthday. His father would have thought it was funny! Even Lord Slithrig will forgive me. Eventually. This isn’t where I end. I’ll be out of here before you know it.”
Salvo narrowed his eyes in the dim light, listening. He thought he’d heard the sound of a footstep in the corridor beyond his cell. That made no sense -- his jailer had just brought his dinner and wouldn’t return until dawn…
Counselor Agnar Emberheart stood at the door of Salvo’s cell, its key held tight in his hand. He could still walk away. He’d committed no crime beside taking the key and that he could return. Yet, then, what would happen to his Clan?
“You turn to stone or something?”
Agnar jumped at the sudden voice, startled out of his thoughts. He glared at Salvo’s mad eyes and gaunt face, peering from behind the grill of the door.
“What are you doing here, Agnar?” asked Salvo, then he looked past Agnar’s shoulder to the torch, like it had spoken. “Ah! You’re here to rescue me!” he crowed. “The fire says so!”
“The fire doesn’t talk to you, Salvo,” said Agnar, and then he muttered, “I don’t know why I’m here.”
Salvo cocked his head, like he was listening to the fire again. Then he smiled -- a beatific smile that belonged on a child or an angel, not the face of a mad, middle-aged dwarf.
“You need me to blow something up,” said Salvo, joy in his heart and his voice.
“I need you to blow something up,” agreed Agnar. He unlocked the cell door.
Agnar and Salvo left the underground tunnels of the Blazing Brew Clan, a starry sky stretching over their heads. Salvo grunted in surprise.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“This way,” Agnar gestured towards the road they would take, winding up the dark bulk of a mountain. In the distance above them, Salvo could see the glowing entrance of a tunnel.
“Go on. Be mysterious,” Salvo chuckled. “He always did like drama.” Agnar looked around and realized that the last comment had been addressed to the flame of his torch. Once more, he questioned his own sanity, bringing the mad dwarf out of prison. Too late to walk away now though. He drew a breath and then recited:
At the heart of Ormir’s Peak there lies
A treasure all dwarves desire.
None shall claim the precious prize
Til the peak does dance with fire.
Agnar continued: “That’s a prophecy, spoken near three weeks ago by a priestess of Aurochs. Do you know what it means?”
Salvo’s eyes glittered in the torchlight. “An eldurstar,” he whispered with reverence. Eldurstars are precious stones, unrivaled in their beauty and prized by the dwarven clans. They are called ‘mountain hearts’ because they only appear at the center of mountains, placed there by the god Aurochs to test those dwarves that serve him as they strive to obtain these holy gems. The Blazing Brew Clan served Aurochs, but it had been generations since they claimed an eldurstar.
“We’ve been mining towards it since the prophecy was spoken. All that work! All gone in an instant,” said Agnar, shaking his head. “The tunnel collapsed yesterday. Lord Slithrig blames the miners and the engineers, but they were only trying to keep to his schedule and win us the eldurstar.” The Counselor drew in a deep, angry breath. “Lord Slithrig has decreed that if we don’t get the eldurstar he’ll take the worth of this lost treasure from the people of the Clan.”
“What?” asked Salvo, his mouth dropping open.
“It will indenture the entire Clan to Lord Slithrig,” said the Emberlord.
“Enslavement!” spat Salvo. “No Blazing Brew would stand for that!”
Agnar’s shoulders slumped. Salvo had been out of the world awhile. How much had changed, and how quickly.
“He’s the Lord of the Clan,” said Agnar. “They will obey. Unless we can get him the eldurstar.”
Salvo looked to the torch and solemnly asked: “It’s gotten that bad?”
Agnar made no answer and Salvo heard none from the torch. Together they continued up the mountainside.
Agnar left Salvo concealed outside their Clan’s tunnel and went marching inside. The exhausted workers still labored, despite the hour, trying to clear the debris.
“All of you,” he called, voice carrying over the song of the pickaxes. “By orders of Lord Slithrig you are all to rest for the next four hours. Until dawn. Go now.”
Mutters, some fearful and some relieved, filled the tunnel, but no one questioned Agnar. He was, after all, Lord Slithrig’s counselor. The dwarves set their tools aside and left. Some might have collapsed and slept just outside the tunnel, but Agnar sent them further down the mountain to their camp -- to safety, he hoped. Watching them leave, seeing the weariness in their backs and the dullness of their eyes, his heart shook. What was becoming of the Blazing Brew Clan? When the other dwarves were clear he called in Salvo. Salvo walked into the tunnel like a child at his first fair. He nearly skipped, taking inventory of the powders and casings, the matches and fuses and all manner of explosive materials. Even as he did, Agnar struggled to hide a wave of hopelessness. The entire Clan had spent the better part of three weeks on the collapsed tunnel. What could Salvo hope to do in a few hours Salvo, though, seemed unconcerned by the magnitude of his task.
“Can you do this?” asked Agnar.
Salvo rubbed his hands together, excited: “Can a cave troll waltz? A gnome toss a caber? An elf drink our brew?”
“No,” said Agnar, head in his hands. Why had he put his faith in this dwarf? “None of that can happen.”
“Ah,” said Salvo, grinning. “You should have more faith, my friend. I’ve seen many a cave troll waltz. I can do this.”
With feverish excitement, Salvo set to his work, listening to the fire all the time. It told him how the rocks would shift, what angles he would need behind each blast to achieve the effect he desired. It hummed in his heart and his ears as he filled container after container with his own blend of powders. He placed bombs with the care of a gardener, soothing them and promising that they would bloom and be beautiful. At the entrance to the tunnel, Agnar stood watch. A short way below him was the camp where the exhausted miners slept. Lord Slithrig slept too, in the palace at Firefalls, dreaming furious and spiteful dreams. All were unaware that Ormir’s Peak was about to dance with fire. When Salvo was done, he came to the entrance of the tunnel, laden with explosives -- each a slightly different size and shape, each with a different length of fuse and all with their own rune on them. The designations were nonsense to Agnar. Salvo carried some in his broad hands and others were strapped to his person, hanging from his shoulders and his belt.
“You’re ready?” Agnar asked, uncertain. Surely even Salvo could not work so fast -- dawn was still an hour away.
“Oh yes,” said Salvo, giddy with anticipation. “The fire says all is ready. It’s time!”
“Salvo,” said Agnar, exasperated. “The fire doesn’t talk to you.”
Salvo patted Agnar comfortingly on the shoulder. “Whatever you like, my friend. You best stand clear.”
“You’re about to light the fuses?”
“I already did!” cackled Salvo.
Agnar’s eyes widened in alarm and he turned to get further down the mountain, but stopped when Salvo didn’t move. “Come on,” said Agnar, urgent, reaching to grab Salvo’s arm and drag him to safety. Salvo shook his head, and skipped backwards up the mountain. “Oh no. I need to stay here,” explained the dwarf with a mad smile. Above them, the fire found Salvo’s first charge and gobbled it up with bright and greedy joy. The explosion rocked the mountain and a blast of orange and white light spilled from the tunnel’s mouth, lighting up the heavens. The miners sleeping in the mountainside camp awoke, disoriented and fearful. Agnar staggered, catching his balance as Salvo capered towards the fires.
“Oh lovely! Look at you! Don’t be impatient! We’ve more work to do!” cried Salvo. As he reached the tunnel’s mouth, he lit one of the bombs and flung it into the opening. Then he followed. The god of the Blazing Brew Clan is Aurochs, who loves fire and strength, bravery and chaos. He appears to his people as a bullheaded dwarf, a minotaur. For a moment, as Salvo stood silhouetted by the explosion, Agnar could have sworn that the Fireflinger seemed to have bullhorns sprouting from his head.
Now, whispered the fire and Salvo whipped the next charge into the already raging torrent of flames.
Yes! More! More! The flames roared in response, urging him on. Heat rolled over his face and smoke stung his eyes.
He was close -- his supply of bombs diminished, the eldurstar nearby - but something wasn’t right. As Salvo examined the walls, he saw -- in his particular way -- that the rock here would withstand him. The joy went out of the Fireflinger. Beautiful and hungry as the flames were, the mountain was stronger. And he was out of time. Angry, Salvo threw a few more explosives, hoping they would change the rocks, looking for an opening. The mountain remained unmoved. Then, Salvo saw a scattering of sparks come together. As he watched, they coalesced into a figure standing in the midst of the flames: the horns of Aurochs glittered, his face was shifting smoke, and his sword was made of fire. The Fireflinger gasped and bowed low, while the fire spoke to him, lighting up his mind with inspiration.
“Ah,” said the Fireflinger. “I see. I see. Very well then…” He straightened up. His god was gone. Above the place where the fiery figure had stood, there was a crack in the ceiling.
“We all must go, someday,” said Salvo to the fire. “And how else, in the end, was I ever going to die?”
The mountain shook again and again, fire and rubble belching from the tunnel. Agnar and the gathered miners waited, glancing sometimes at the road to Firefalls. None had sent word to the palace, but Lord Slithrig’s obsession with claiming the eldurstar meant he would surely arrive with the sun. Abruptly, the shuddering earth stilled and sudden silence fell. The Blazing Brew Clan held their breath. Black smoke curled from the tunnel, drifting lazily up into the fiery morning sky.
The Fireflinger did not appear.
“Salvo?” called Agnar. “Fireflinger? Are you there?”
No one answered. Agnar started carefully up the mountain. Cautiously he stepped through the rubble -- the tunnel impossibly stable. Inside, he heard something. A smile spread over his grim visage as he recognized the Fireflinger’s laughter. At the end of the tunnel he found Salvo, lying against the wall, clutching the glittering eldurstar to his breast and laughing uproariously. He’d used every single one of his bombs. As he approached, Agnar saw that, where one of Salvo’s legs had been, there was only a burnt stump.
“Get a healer,” snapped Agnar to one of the miners as he knelt down by Salvo.
“Ahaha!” cackled the Fireflinger. “Oh Agnar, that was beautiful! I thought I was a goner, but Aurochs only took a leg! Have you ever seen anything so marvelous! What’s next? I can do anything! I can move mountains! Give me something else to do!”
Agnar closed his eyes. The dawn was here and Lord Slithrig would follow soon. He could not bring himself to tell Salvo what should be done. He must bring Salvo back to his cell, must do his best to keep the Fireflinger’s involvement and injury from the ears of Lord Slithrig. Salvo stopped laughing, peering at Agnar with a keen eye.
“Ah,” said the mad dwarf, “Well. It was nice while it lasted.” Without a trace of greed or regret, he handed Agnar the eldurstar.
Rage at the injustice of it filled Agnar, fire burning in his eyes. “No,” he said. “You’ve won the greatest treasure of our hoard. You don’t belong in a cell. Mad or not.”
Salvo smiled wanly.
“And what will happen to you, my friend, if Lord Slithrig hears you let me go?”
Agnar knew what would happen. Lord Slithrig did not take kindly to disobedience. At best, he’d end up living in a cell beside Salvo’s own.
When Agnar said nothing, Salvo shrugged, “Back to the cell then. Don’t be so sad, Agnar. The fire says I won’t be there long.”
“The fire-” Agnar began, but he stopped and nodded.
“I know you’ll not forget about me, Agnar Emberheart,” said Salvo. “Someday, we’ll fight and drink side by side, my friend. Someday, nothing will be able to stand against us. The fire says so.”