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Graal Tak Day

Jennifer Linnaea's fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons and Flash Fiction Online, among other places. When not writing, she studies Aikido and Japanese and enjoys the beauty of her adopted state of Oregon. For more about her and her work, see her website at jenniferlinnaea.com.

I arrive at my clan's stronghold the morning of Graal Tak Day, road-stained and weary, with Azure on my shoulder. To be so nearly late is an affront, but the rains were heavy this spring, and the roads churned to mud. I left my trading caravan behind in Djinnov, to the South; they will meet me here two weeks hence, and we will travel away together.
"Broehna, welcome!"
One of the door guards strides forward, and I see it's my cousin, Malkon. How he has grown in twenty years! His beard is thick, with polished stones braided into it. He pats my free shoulder hard enough to stagger a horse, but I don't flinch. It's good to be back among sturdy folk. That, at least, pleases me.
"May I?" he asks, reaching out his hand to Azure, who leans in to his touch. Azure is ukat baer, one who walks, and the love of my heart, forged here and presented to me on Graal Tak Day forty years ago. She is the form of a hawk, made from azure beads of windstone, with eyes of jet and feathers that cut the wind like scythes. Though she flies in the Land Above, she only suffers dwarves, with their stone souls, to touch her.
The other guards forget their duty and gather around, too. On Graal Tak Day, such lapses are forgiven.
I stroke Azure's head and mutter reassurance as I pass through the clever stone doors set into the hillside, which pivot on their hinges without grating. Azure loves the high roads above but hates the low, tight tunnels of my home. As do I. But all bound to ukat baer come home for Graal Tak Day, and so I descend into the earth and the broad sky disappears. I am hit at once, as if by a blow, by the old, familiar smell of stone and torch-smoke, and without willing it I finger the gold in my fine black beard. It will be strange to be a woman. Out there, in the world above, my beard makes me male. Out there I bind up my breasts against my barrel-shaped body because it is easier than having to explain.
I unfasten the silver clasp at my neck and drape my cloak over my arm. On Graal Tak Day, the forge fires run hot. As I make my way to the feast hall I begin to hear the sound of a thousand dwarves talking, laughing, singing. Everyone I know will be here, and despite myself, I quicken my step.
"Broehna! We were afraid you couldn't come!"
The voice belongs to my second cousin Arra, who hands me a blacksmith's apron, which I don. She stands at the doorway to the feast hall with Fen Malik, who was my father's dearest friend. He passes me a flagon of beer. Inside the hall, drink is flowing like a spring tide, and the tables are piled with platters of meat and dark bread. Everyone wears a leather apron in Graal Tak's honor. I am swept into the hall and embraced repeatedly.
Another cousin brings me to a table and sets a plate of food before me. I scan the crowd for my sister, Garda, but I don't see her. I'm not sure if I'm relieved. Two dwarves have never lived that were more unalike.
Besides Azure, many other ukat baer are in evidence. I see High Councilor Argesh's hulking war dog, with its eyes of obsidian. The head librarian holds hers, a loosely congealed snake of gold dust, in her lap. Most unusual of all, a man-shaped ukat baer whose rune-covered body shimmers, gemlike, in the torchlight. Whose is that, I wonder. Probably a visiting clan-leader, for I would have heard about it otherwise.
The feasting goes on all day, and in the evening the storytellers come. Through their words we see anew Graal Tak at his forge. We feel his concentration, his dedication, as he tries to fuse soft sandstone pellets into something finer. We share his surprise when the ukat baer rises and leaps from the fire. We follow him into dark, dangerous tunnels to retrieve it. We share their bond. This is our history; we re-carve its familiar pathways onto the tablets of our hearts.
Then it is time to view the forges.
A few of our best smiths have been working for twenty years, since the last Graal Tak celebration. They have not feasted with us today. They haven't drunk at our tables. They have hearts only for their work, and for the culmination of their efforts. Eagerly we crowd into the stifling smithy to bear witness.
I am not surprised to see my sister Garda on the forge dais. Though young, she is the daughter of my father and his father before him. The forge fire is in her blood.
Garda is shirtless beneath her apron; her broad arms shine with sweat. As she looks at me and our eyes lock, I see an emotion I cannot place. For a moment I almost think it is hatred. Then she looks away and I doubt that notion-the forge fires cast uncertain light, and I have grown used to the steady sun in the vaulted sky.
The master smith, his beard white and his hands gnarled, announces the smiths. They in turn describe their creations, and call forward the dwarf who will be bound by each one. Mardok, my grandfather's younger brother, has made a granite hare that stands alert, its nose twitching. He names it for Tlana, head gardener, and we murmur our approval as one. It is right for Tlana's usefulness to the stronghold to be rewarded. Next the young smith Vardon, nephew of the captain of the guard, awes us all with his ukat baer: a war pony of bronze with a mane of firestone that glows, seeming to shift in an unseen wind. The pony binds to his uncle, the captain, and together our stronghold rumbles its pride.
Third, and finally, is my sister, and suddenly my mouth is dry.
Garda steps forward. She holds up an ukat baer so small we must all lean forward to glimpse it. Its body glitters black.
"I made this from a shaving of the heartstone that grows beneath our mountain," she says, her voice ringing out over our heads. "Its name is Home, and to be bound by it is to know where you belong." She holds out her hand. "It will bind Broehna, gone these forty years to the world above."
Around me, the crowd gasps. Some shout. But it is in motion now, and cannot be stopped. On leaden legs I walk to the dais and stretch out my hand.
Home drops, black and glittering and heavy, into my palm, and skitters up my arm. Azure cries out in terror and launches from my shoulder, screeching. She flies up a smoke vent like and arrow loosed into the sky, and I know I will never see her again.
Around me, accusations fly thick in the smoky air, but I cannot focus on them. This new ukat baer is heavier than Azure; as it settles against my chest I have to shift to keep my balance. My sister holds out her hands to me, her eyes imploring. She is my twin. Only now do I realize she has missed me as if part of her soul had been ripped out. She knows there will be consequences for what she has done this day.
She does not care.
And I... I look around at my family grown older while I was in the wide world. I was the best merchant. I bought and sold goods from as far away as Holheim in the frozen north, and the elves' bright Vyaneila in the east. Now the clan will have to find someone else to go forth. Like as not they will have to make a new wanderer, as my father once made me a wanderer to satisfy the need of our clan.
But for now I shake off my long exile and feel again what it is to be so deeply at home in these tunnels, with these people. I am brought home. I embrace my sister and whisper in her ear, "Thank you."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 6th, 2021
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