Two Brothers, One Stone
by Anna Madden
The starry oak was one of the rarest of the great trees, and it had a sizeable hollow—almost a perfect circle. It was too small a passage for an ordinary man. For a dwarf, though, even in armor, it was only a tight squeeze.
“Well?” Tungsten asked his brother. “Are you coming?”
Shale narrowed his eyes. “That tree isn’t natural. It should have been destroyed on impact. Of all your ideas, this is—”
“The finest?” Tungsten asked, stepping closer to the oak’s trunk, his armor creaking. “I can’t take all the credit. Sterling told me where the comet fell. Even gave us two rhodium bars in advance. Without it, well. . .”
Shale grunted, then shifted the pickaxe strapped against his steel-clad back. “You shouldn’t have accepted it. We’re already in debt. I don’t like brightsmiths, especially pretty ones. Tell me, why would she waste her smiles much less her savings on an ugly rock like you?”
“We look alike,” Tungsten said, shaking his head. “You should pick better insults.”
Shale wrinkled his nose. “This deal stinks. It looks shiny and nice on the outside, but it’ll tarnish. You’ll see.” Still fidgety, he brought his gloved hands together and tapped spiked knuckles.
“If you’re so scared then stay here and keep watch.” Tungsten shrugged. “I’ll finish the job alone.”
Shale scoffed. “There’s no food left, no water. We’re miles from the nearest town. I won’t quietly starve or die of dehydration while you ruin things twice over.”
A pain hammered behind Tungsten’s eyes. He wasn’t to blame for steel losing its value, and yet, as eldest, he must accept the slag that had built up. The market was a mess. Before long, their smithy—passed from generation to generation—might shut down. Maybe he should have asked Shale before dealing with Sterling. Either way, the smithy felt more like a burden than a home of late.
Tungsten looked hard at Shale. “It’ll be fine. You’re a good climber, though not as good as me.” He offered a wolfish grin—all teeth, no mirth. “Just pretend it’s a nice fat boulder.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Shale said, leaning down and patting his steel greaves for emphasis. “We’ll see who’s laughing when the anvil tips over.”
Tungsten rolled his shoulders. “I’ll go first.” He exhaled, pushing past his doubts, then pressed his chest through the tree’s wounded trunk. His pack tugged, loaded with a caster’s chain and a lamp, but his strong calves sent him into the unknown. His shoulder guards wedged inside the tight cavity of wood and bark. His armor scraped. Bark clawed without leaving a mark. His breastplate and knee guards protested. Their steel cried out lightly, for true dwarven metal was alive.
On the other side, he met darkness. He took a new breath. This was what it felt to be inside a womb. A place of birth without time-worn grooves, or so he imagined.
Tungsten swung his pack around and rummaged for his lamp, which clattered, for it held two sleep-dark lightning shards. He tapped the cold glass. The shards blazed awake, forming splintered white streaks. He could almost hear their voices, but that was drawing the line too thin. They were shards—a light source—nothing more. Tungsten attached the lamp to his belt. He stood upon a natural but slight wooden shelf. Below, the heartwood had rotted, creating a bottomless hole.
“I need to get clear of the opening before you follow me,” Tungsten said.
Shale grumbled in response.
Tungsten kicked his boots, checking his climbing spurs were secure. The metal rang soundly. Extending gloved palms, he reached out his iron-spiked knuckles. With quick jabs, he hooked himself into the cork-like phloem. Tungsten paused, his handholds solid, and whistled the all clear. A string of curses and the splinter of green wood announced Shale’s arrival.
“It’s dark as pits in here,” his brother said, a complaint never far from his lips.
“Scared?” Tungsten asked, but he roused the lamp again. “Race you to the bottom, brother.”
“You have a head start, iron-head,” Shale said. “You’ve always had it. Even drank the last of the water, didn’t you?”
“I was thirsty!” Tungsten growled back. His knuckle spikes bit into the tree alongside his climbing spurs. His forearms and back endured a steady burn. His armor was bulky and hot. Shale would clasp hands with him again, soon. For buried within the roots of time, a cave slept, and in it, the fallen comet waited.
Sweat dripped off Tungsten’s nose. His tunic was soaked beneath his armor. He tapped the lamp and made out root-like shapes below. His brother was loud above, loosening woody shavings, which rained down. Tungsten tested each anchor with care. A fall would do more damage than break a couple bones. This ancient tree would gladly claim their flesh for compost.
Time was difficult to judge. Tungsten panted, for his armor didn’t breathe. He regretted finishing off the water more potently than ever. This job would have been easier without their steel plate.
“I’m getting tired,” Shale said.
“One more complaint,” Tungsten said, “and I’ll break the lamp and leave you to the darkness.”
“That’s your newest worst idea,” Shale said. “Drop lightning on this tinder, and the whole place would burst to flames.”
Tungsten grunted, realizing Shale was right but unwilling to acknowledge it. “If I find a good spot, we’ll stop for a breather.” He inhaled through his nose. “Smells like clay and limestone, doesn’t it? We must be close.”
With a gentle knock, the lamp buzzed anew. Bright veins of light blinded him. As the brilliance faded, Tungsten traced the tree’s nutbrown rings and sighted a ledge of rare heartwood still intact. There was little of it left. The hollow had swallowed so much, and soon, when it had its fill, this mighty old oak would fall to its side.
Sweating, Tungsten lowered himself onto the heartwood sill, his back pressed close to the tree’s phloem, the air full of promise.
Shale arrived next. His climbing spurs preceded, and their points barely missed Tungsten’s neck. “This tree will be my death.”
“And the smithy will be mine,” Tungsten said, his head craned sideways to evade injury.
A long, exhausted sigh from Shale. “That isn’t funny.”
Tungsten patted his brother’s shoulder, or the equivalent, for it was covered well by steel.
Shale held stonily still. “There’s something you didn’t tell me, isn’t there?”
“You trust your nose too much,” Tungsten said, shifting his weight. “Maybe breathe through your mouth for a change.”
“Just tell me,” Shale said, his words heavy.
Tungsten sighed. “Alright. I gave Sterling the deed to the smithy as collateral. I had to. She wouldn’t give the location otherwise.”
Shale swore. “There wasn’t an advance of rhodium either, was there?”
Tungsten dipped his shoulders. “Sterling is desperate too. She’s sent many to find this place before and none have done so. She’ll have our smithy either way, but we have a chance. We don’t have to live with the shame of being thrown out if we never come back.”
“You had no right to make that choice for us.”
Tungsten looked upward, forgetting he was inside a tree, that its wood hid the stars. “We used to talk of quitting the family business, of traveling far, getting to see the world together. What happened to us, Shale?”
“We grew up,” his brother said. “We realized there’s a difference between dreams and truly living.”
“Maybe there shouldn’t be a difference,” Tungsten said. “It should be one and the same.”
The silence stretched. Shale leaned away, angrily, and his armor filled the space with metallic echoes, as though it had its own complaints about being stuffed into a tree.
The direction was certain—down—and the earth widened as they went, held open by hairy, sprawling roots. Tungsten moved off the trunk and to the tubers, and his brother followed close. Their legs were strapped in greaves which made it harder to navigate the dangling growth. Tungsten slid without grace down a fat-bellied tuber.
Above, Shale cursed darkly, and metal screeched free of woody growth. The warning came too late. His brother was no leaf. He fell like a loosened arrow.
His brother flew past Tungsten’s grasp, a heft more precious to him than any amount of rhodium. In that moment, whether they lost their smithy or not felt like nothing—a little tumble. A small stone thrown compared to this avalanching jolt: this rushing, horrible, trembling fear. Another disaster that Tungsten could have prevented if he hadn’t pushed his need for redemption above his bond of brotherhood.
A thud, then a low groan, and a sharp metallic scream. Tungsten gasped. Dwarven steel took its mandate seriously, bearing pain in place of its master. Still, it could only handle so much. Without thinking, Tungsten loosened his hold. As he fell, the root he gripped tore his gloves apart, then his skin though his calluses were thick. He was too numb, too shocked to feel more than a distant pain. This was all his fault. Still, who were they without their smithy? It was their home. Shale knew that. Even so, Tungsten’s heart beat as though a large hammer pounded it.
His feet found solid ground. His spurs sparked against bedrock. He tapped the lamp too abruptly. The lightning shards flashed once, twice, then defiantly to black. Another, softer light filtered through the cavern.
“Shale, is that you?” Tungsten called out.
The strange light reflected back in a gray haze, captured in glinting calcite crystals along the walls, in the floor, embedded in a black, scaly, oxide-black rock. Knobby roots dangled from the tree overhead like strange weeping stars.
“You shouldn’t be here, air-dweller.” The voice was accented and feminine. It sounded old and young, gentle and harsh.
A glint of metal bled through the budding glare. Tungsten ran toward it and slammed into a cavern wall. He buckled to his knees.
The light in the crystal-filled cave collected itself, intensifying, and approached on two legs, though one dragged slightly in an awkward limp. A woman, but not born of this earth. She was bare-footed, with a soft, glittering gown, a sharp chin, and a cutting glare. “Truths live here you’re not prepared to face.”
“Please, I’m looking for my brother—Shale, answer me!”
She pointed to the right. “He’s over there.”
Tungsten made out his brother’s shadow. He crawled to Shale, his steel armor heavy, his limbs too slow. He leaned down over his brother’s blue-tinted face. Shale blinked. The usual mask of anger was pulled away. His armor had blackened, gone twisted and misshapen, bent every which way.
Tungsten let out a haggard breath. “It won’t be easy prying you out of that broken steel.” Tungsten tried to smile, but his lips were leaden. He hoped his brother didn’t notice.
Shale gasped for air. His greaves and shoulder guards were shattered. His eyes were grayish, their expression filled with a trust Tungsten knew he didn’t deserve.
Shale parted his lips. “I guess. . .I won. . .the race.”
Pain darkened Shale’s face. It was as Tungsten feared: his brother’s steel hadn’t claimed the full impact.
The woman of light stood nearby, her eyes fixed on the dwarves, ever watchful. With a heave, Tungsten stood before her at half her height, maybe less. “Please, my brother—he’s hurt.”
She hobbled closer in her halted gait. Dust fell off her dress. It floated in specks behind her. Her hurt leg bore an impressive crack below the hemline, like splintering glass. She bent down, leveling her piercing stare on Shale. She pressed a finger to his blue lips, and he took in some of her light. His skin gained color.
“The wind left him, is all.” A slender hand gestured upward. “He fell, like I did, not so long ago, though mine was deliberate.”
“Do you have a name?” Tungsten asked, his vision filled with her mesmerizing light.
A pause. “Aster.”
“That’s a beautiful—”
“I’m going to puke,” Shale said, interrupting, his eyes gaining focus. His voice sounded raw, but his breathing had steadied. He sat up with a grunt.
“Don’t mind him,” Tungsten said, winking at Aster. “The fall must have rattled a bolt or two loose.”
Shale motioned, and Tungsten leaned down.
“That’s the comet, iron-head,” Shale whispered, his lips close to Tungsten’s ear. “I swear. Only you could flirt with some sparkly, ice-covered rock.”
Tungsten eyed Aster and rubbed his chin. Took in her crystal-like skin, the dust off her gown, and the crack which hampered her gait. He knew of comets and the rare metals that formed them. They were coveted by the greatest metalsmiths. Still, he hadn’t expected the comet capable of this womanly form or of speaking in his mother tongue. Tungsten was the oldest, but he had misjudged. He had failed, again.
Shale coughed. “Stop stalling. The chain is in your pack—the one our uncle bequeathed to us. It can bind the will of another’s. It’ll hold her.”
Tungsten glared at his brother. “For someone who doesn’t like that brightsmith, you sound an awful lot like her.”
“Look,” Shale said, “I’m not the one who handed over the deed on a whim. But sure, ask the rock out on a date. It wouldn’t be the first time you’ve made the wrong call for both of us.”
Tungsten winced. When he turned to Aster, she didn’t flicker. She had a knowing look. Aster bent down and picked up Tungsten’s lamp. The lightning shards danced for her, their light branching out across the smooth glass.
Tungsten felt Shale’s anger like a shadow. Even this cavern with its reflective crystal deposits seemed to judge. He nodded sharply. “Give me your pickaxe. I’ll distract her.”
“I’m fine,” Shale said, louder now, shoving Tungsten back. Shale reached for the belt over his shoulders and unbuckled it. The pickaxe clattered to the cavern floor. “That’s better,” he said. “I just need a minute here.”
Tungsten picked up the pickaxe in his torn palms. He flinched. His damaged grip wasn’t good for swinging, much less carrying. He whistled through the pain and shrugged out of his pack, dropping it within reach of Shale’s hands. A few steps brought him face-to-face with a cavern wall. He had a nasty habit of walking into walls, didn’t he?
Soft footsteps followed him. “You shouldn’t have come here.” The words held warning, and consequence. Tungsten repressed a shiver. Aster carried the lamp still, and the shards darted back and forth in their glass cage, flaring in quick bursts. Tungsten had never seen them so awake.
“We’ll leave,” he said, “after we collect what we came for.”
“I know your pain, air-dweller,” Aster said. “I fell from the sky and thought to hide here, to regain my strength. This tree has interesting properties. Now you’ve come into my orbit. What should I do with you?”
“I gave my word,” Tungsten said. “I risked everything on this.”
“You have a strong heart,” Aster said, her light aflare. “If I claimed it, maybe I could be whole again.”
“It’s no use to you,” Tungsten said, not liking her tone much. “I’ve poisoned it. My brother calls me iron-head, and he’s right. My decisions jeopardized our home—our inheritance. I would give anything to get it back.”
“He’s more afraid of losing you,” Aster said. “I felt his fear when I touched him.”
Tungsten forced a tighter grip on the pickaxe, embracing the pain. He took a practice swing against the wall. There weren’t any gems or previous ores within it, so far as he could tell, but the act kept Aster’s attention. What had she seen when her light had passed to Shale? What was it she planned? He swung again and hit the rock. He was asking the wrong questions. Like a bad dream, this sinking feeling would pass in time. Nothing was free, Tungsten reminded himself, and a forge didn’t burn without fuel. Behind him, the jingle of metal hit the air.
Tungsten turned. Having freed the caster’s chain from the pack, Shale took aim. The flying chain coiled around Aster. Shale pulled the loop taut. It did more than immobilize her, for the chain bound Aster’s will to his.
Tungsten met Aster’s stare. She had a calculated look, and he knew then, they couldn’t hold her. He thought she would fight or maybe even run. Instead, Aster closed her eyes even as the lamp fell from her grasp. Was she using them for some greater end?
Tungsten gasped. He dropped the pick axe and lunged for the airborne lamp. If the lightning shards escaped, this whole place would turn into a quick-blast furnace. He busted his lip against the cavern floor, but the glass lamp landed in his outstretched hands. The shards fluttered safely within their translucent cage. Sweat trickled through his beard.
“Got her!” Shale said. He held one end of the caster’s chain. The other end circled a palm-sized, icy, dusty rock. A wide crack scarred across its surface, and a faint glow emitted across the whole. “That was easier than I expected.”
Tungsten sat up and spit grit from his mouth. “She let us catch her.”
“Don’t be like that,” Shale said. “Your jokes weren’t working on her anyway.”
Shale looped the chain more securely around the captured comet, then placed it out of sight in the pack. As Shale moved, his crushed armor seemed to sob. It was loud, and it was giving Tungsten a headache.
“She’s more your type,” Tungsten said. “Quick to fall. Slow to recover.”
Shale hooted, but it had an empty ring to it.
“I’ll help you out of that dying steel,” Tungsten said.
“Another loss,” Shale said bitterly. “Should have sold it while I had the chance.”
“Take mine,” Tungsten said, hiding his regret, for his armor was like a second skin. “You can sell it once we get out of here. Just don’t fall again, alright? I can’t go through that twice.”
The ascent was a tricky thing. Tungsten’s hands were badly cut. The tree’s roots which dangled down were tapered to fine points at their ends—difficult to grasp. Worse, the lamp refused to relight itself. The lightning shards clung to darkness. Stubborn, catty things.
It wasn’t until the oak’s trunk rose above that Tungsten realized he was lagging behind. He listened to the metallic tap of his spurs and knuckle spikes, trying to quell the worry which stirred deeper. They had done what they set out to do. Shouldn’t he be happy?
Shale wore Tungsten’s armor. Getting his brother to leave his own set behind had been no simple task. It had protected him, sacrificing itself. Despite Shale’s grumbling, he had accepted Tungsten’s own set as compensation, and moved faster now, though he carried the steel plate, the pack, and his belted pickaxe.
They climbed, ignoring their aches. A ledge of solid heartwood offered a short reprieve. Shale swung the pack to his front, and the caster’s chain rustled inside the leather. Tungsten sighed as he rested his back.
“What’s wrong with you?” Shale said.
Tungsten wiped sweat off his forehead. “I didn’t expect her to be like us. The comet, I mean. I thought she’d be a dead bit of rock.”
“You’ll snap out of this when you see the rhodium,” Shale said. “Just a little love-sick, is all.”
“It’s not a joke.” Tungsten shook his head. “Once Sterling gets ahold of Aster, she’ll cut the comet into a hundred pieces. It’s not how it should be.”
“So, what,” Shale said, his voice sarcastic, “we just unbind ‘Aster’ and ask her to be friends with us?”
“We could try.”
“This was your idea to begin with,” Shale said. “If we let the comet go, what was the point in any of this?”
“Look,” Tungsten said, “I know that I—that I’ve got sharp edges.” He paused and licked his dry lips. “Even before you fell, and we saw Aster, I’ve been feeling a little lost. Like I have no control over anything. The rhodium won’t save our smithy. It’s a temporary fix. We have no idea how the market will go.”
“Are you asking me what I think?” Shale asked, his words so serious he didn’t sound like himself.
“I suppose I am,” Tungsten said.
“I don’t believe it,” Shale said, his chin low.
Tungsten opened his mouth, then closed it.
Shale punched the tree with his iron-spiked. Bits of wood flew. “This is about you, like usual, so stop hammering on as though I’m an equal part in it.”
“We climbed down here together, didn’t we?” Tungsten said, finding his voice. “You’re always throwing embers, though I tried to fix what got broke.”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Shale asked. “I’m not a tool on your workbench. I’m your brother.” Shale turned his back and started climbing again.
“Wait up.” Tungsten followed his brother too quickly. Thirsty, exhausted, his hands still a bloody mess. He stumbled, then remembered his armor was no longer there to save him as he fell backward. He would die in this tree as his brother had predicted.
A fool’s errand, trying to save the smithy. It had been a chain around both their necks, and now, it would choke them. Above, he heard Shale curse, who tried to grab Tungsten and missed. The leather pack fell open. Chain unthreaded as the comet tumbled free. The glowing ice-rock quaked. Its light grew, and the lightning shards woke in the glass lantern on Tungsten’s belt.
The combined light blinded, then died back to reveal Aster flying down, her arms outstretched. The last loop of the caster’s chain was tight against her waist. Tears streaked Aster’s cheeks. In their cage, the lightning shards raced back and forth. Their brightness reflected back in Aster’s wet eyes like a white fire.
Tungsten took Aster’s offered hand. Hers was cold to the touch, like fresh snow.
“Hold on,” Aster said. “I’ll carry you and your brother to the surface.”
Outside, the stars greeted Tungsten, their light so similar to Aster’s—so clear and otherworldly. With a quick look to Shale, Tungsten approached the comet. The final loop of caster’s chain still circled her middle, tugging at the fabric at her midriff.
Tungsten spoke: “I’m sorry—”
“Don’t.” Aster said, her words crisp in the night air.
Shale fell over, holding his sides, his laugh full. “I’ll say this. You really know how to pick them.”
Tungsten crossed his arms and regretted his missing armor again. It would have been easier to face Aster in full gear. Made of a top-quality steel—an old family recipe. Stubborn stuff, like the dwarf it belonged to.
Aster kept her sharp eyes locked on Tungsten. The lightning shards matched her glare with their frenzied movements.
“I get it, okay?” Tungsten said. “Yell at us. Go kick that old tree too if that’ll make things better. Either way, you were stuck down there. Without us, you might never have seen the sky again.”
“I was there by my own choice,” Aster said. “You were unwise for thinking you could catch me so easily.”
“Word of advice,” Shale said to Tungsten as he stood back up. “I wouldn’t phrase it like you understand how she feels, or like what we did helped her out.”
Aster peered up at the stars straight above. Looking at her, Tungsten realized Shale wasn’t right this time. Aster looked at the sky with a longing he understood. She had a home that she couldn’t reclaim, it seemed. He was the one who had handed Sterling the deed for their smithy—not Shale. All Tungsten had done was make a bad deal to save his own name, and he had almost lost his brother in the process. Now, Tungsten looked down at the lightning shards, and he wondered at his own blindness. Being stubborn had never felt so dangerous. The line had been smudged, and he couldn’t redraw it.
“Why did you save me?” Tungsten asked.
Aster considered him. “I fled my home, but you—you wanted to protect yours. I won’t be like those I escaped from. They don’t suffer this world or know its pain.”
Tungsten cleared his throat. Facing Aster, he moved slowly, reaching for the caster’s chain. She watched him in that unnerving fashion of hers. He unwound the final strand from her waist, dropping it to the ground.
He spread his hands wide and stepped back. “Go. You’re free.”
There was one more thing he needed to do. Tungsten took hold of the glass lamp. He backed away, getting clear of the others, then let go. The lamp fell, shattering on the dewy grass below. In the open air, the shards wouldn’t cause a fire. The two lightning shards flew free. Each buzzed angrily, then flew straight at Shale, darting close.
“Get away, get away!” Shale said, running a fast circle around the starry oak, cutting a narrow trail in the tall grass. He hated bees or anything with a stinger. It brought an easy smile to Tungsten’s face to see Shale acting like the brother he remembered.
The two shards gave up their chase. They twirled around Aster, making her skirt twist, then gained height, disappearing up into the night. Aster watched them go.
“Aren’t you going with them?” Tungsten said.
“I can’t, air-dweller,” Aster said. “My home is lost to me.”
“And ours belongs to another,” Shale said.
Aster tilted her head, and her lips softened. “You've decided to let the smithy go, then?”
“It was lost a long time ago,” Tungsten said.
Aster nodded, then glanced back up into the sky. “You’re finally facing your own truths.”
Shale sighed. “After all this, to leave empty-handed. . .”
Tungsten looked at Aster. He wanted to see her smile—to feel the warmth of it. “There’s got to be somewhere you can call home. If you’ll let me, I’ll be your armor.”
Shale stepped closer. “I’m coming, too. Don’t bother arguing either. It’s my decision to make.”
Tungsten breathed easier. He felt calm despite his lack of control. He met his brother’s stare. What reflected there wasn’t scorn or hate or reproach. In the end, he saw himself—the same stance and dense eyebrows. They were so alike: cut from the same hefty stone. Tungsten held a hand out. Shale clasped it.
Aster drew herself to her full height, with her weight planted equally on both legs. Her expression was steady despite the effort. She dropped an ice-cold hand over theirs.
“So, this is what it's come to,” Shale said. “Homelessness.” He sniffed the night air. “It doesn’t smell so bad out here, at least.”
Tungsten smiled his wolfish grin. “We’ll find a new home, together. It’ll be an adventure. We always wanted to go on one, didn’t we?”