In a dark smithy, heavy with dust, a man sat staring at an old rust-flaked anvil.
He was a heavily muscled man, his physique made more imposing by the golden plate armor encasing his body. He was not old, but neither was he young, and his lined face and iron-grey beard bespoke of a life of hard labor. Atop his head was perched an old, dusty brown hat, incongruous against the platemail but somehow suiting the face so well that it seemed a part of him.
With a sigh, the man stirred from his thoughts and reached into the pouch at his side. He pulled out a plain gold ring, glinting faintly in the dim light, and set it upon the anvil. He couldn’t read the inscription, but the words upon the ring were engraved into his memory.
“Our Love is Forever Golden”.
He picked up an old hammer leaning against the cold forge and brought it up above the ring in a single fluid motion. He stood there, poised to strike, to flatten it into gold leaf in one mighty blow.
A woman’s voice whispered behind him, “Do it, Thorin. Set me free.”
Thorin Ironbeard, Golden Knight, Master of the Forge, lowered his hammer and turned towards the voice. He had known she would come, somehow, but he expected her to be more… ethereal.
But she was not. She leaned in the doorway of the smithy, solid, arms crossed, regarding him with a small smile. She wore her fighting armor, the armor he had so carefully crafted for her, her bow slung carelessly across her back and her cloak fluttering idly, though the air in the smithy was still. On her left hand glinted a ring, the twin to the one on the anvil.
“Ursula,” he whispered. And then, gruffly, he muttered, “Ye ain’t real.”
“No, I’m not,” she replied, her smile fading. “I’m a construct of your memories. The only person who has the right to tell Ursula’s story is Ursula.”
“Then why’re ye botherin’…”
“Because,” she said, “you have a right to tell YOUR story, and I’m a part of that. Look into your forge, Thorin. What do you see?”
Thorin stared into the cold gray coals of the forge. It had been years since they had stirred to life. They stirred now, however, the dust and ash whirling away, the coals glowing to life, a blast of heat billowing out to ruffle his hair like a lover.
He looked up. The smithy was gone now, replaced by an open field ringed by forests. The sunlight dazzled his eyes. Ursula had moved behind him and he felt her armor pressed against his back.
“Thorin!” she yelled, “Look out!”
Orcs emerged from the forest, a half-dozen of them, snarling and waving their weapons, advancing upon them step by step. He smelled the sharp, rancid scent of them, and their mad yammering assailed his ears.
“Piece o’ cake,” he growled, and hefted his warhammer. But something was wrong with it. The balance was off, and the thrill of magic that ran through the weapon was absent. He took a step and noticed that his armor had changed as well – it was dull iron, too heavy, poorly fitted, absent any trace of enchantment.
He heard Ursula’s bowstring sing and glanced over his shoulder at her. The shot was wild, clumsy, the arrow arching far wide of the nearest orc. The orcs, emboldened, sprang forward. He swung the hammer and missed, badly, stumbling awkwardly. An orc took the opening, driving its scimitar into his side. He felt the poorly forged metal give way, and the impact drove the wind from him. Behind him, Ursula grunted, and droplets of blood sprayed over his shoulder.
“Ursula!” he screamed, and swung wildly, feeling the shock up his arms as his hammer connected with a orcish skull. The creature stepped back and shook its head, barely injured by the blow, grinning now with hungry eyes.
In the distance, over the din of battle, he heard another voice. “Over here!” it yelled, “Hurry!” There was a tower in that direction, and a man stood in the doorway, armored like himself, gesturing at them frantically. Thorin took another swing, clearing an opening in the circle of orcs.
“Go!” he yelled, grabbing her cloak and swinging her towards the tower. He swung a final time in a broad arc, fending the orcs off for a second, and ran after her, across the field, into the tower. The man slammed the heavy steel door shut behind them, and the enraged roars of the orcs faded behind the thick stone walls.
“Hail and well met!” said the man. “Sorry I’m late.”
“Late?” replied Ursula, with a shaky laugh. She wrapped a bandage around a shallow slash on her arm. “We’ve been camped out there for three days, waiting for you!” She shot a sideways glance at Thorin, a teasing smile quirking the corner of her mouth, the excitement of battle still hot in her dark eyes.
“Sorry,” the man said again, and the look of contrition on his face was unfeigned. He turned to Thorin with an apologetic grin. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Joshua Rowen”.
Thorin offered his hand, but his fingers went through Joshua’s, and the tower faded and dwindled until he was standing once more in the empty smithy. Ursula stood again in the doorway, whole and unbloodied.
“So that’s how you remember it?” she said.
“That’s how’t happened,” Thorin replied.
“Perhaps,” she said, with a dubious smile. “I don’t think we were that helpless, or the orcs that tough. We did survive those three days, after all. But there’s much more to see. Our wedding day, the day I opened the Brew, the day you made Grandmaster… the day it all… changed.”
Thorin shook his head. “Th’ Dark Tower messed with yer mind.”
Ursula sighed. “You don’t believe that. You know we were… drifting apart… before that. And deep down, you still think it’s your fault.”
Something akin to grief creased Thorin’s weathered face. “Ain’t it?”
“I’m not real, Thorin, remember? I can’t absolve you. You’ll have to absolve yourself.”
“Aye,” he said. “I reckon.”
“So will you do it?” she asked. “Will you destroy the ring? Will you set me free?”
Thorin took a deep breath and turned to face her squarely. “Yer already free,” he replied. “Ye always wuz, Urs, n’ so wuz I. I jest din’t see it at th’ time.” He tapped the ring with his forefinger. “Mebbe our love weren’t ferever golden. But th’ mem’ries are, n’ always will be.”
Ursula smiled, and it was the smile he remembered from the beginning, the brilliant, joyful smile she had given him on their wedding day. “You’re smarter than you look,” she teased.
“Iffen ye say so,” he replied with a shrug. “Mebbe a li’l bit smarter than I used ta be. Mebbe. Now if ye’ll ‘scuse me, there’s a pretty pink woman in that tavern yonder a’waitin’ fer me ta step up ta th’ plate. We got us a town ta resurrect.”
Ursula’s smile did not waver, but she did, her form glowing and growing translucent. As she faded, she blew him a kiss and he felt a damp warmth on his cheek, but from her lips or from his own tears he could not say.
Thorin woke slowly, stirring in his chair. He blinked the sleep from his eyes as his workroom swam into focus. He took a deep breath, and the smoke from his forge mingled pleasantly with the scent of herbs from Kita’s alchemy table.
His eyes focused on the shining new anvil next to the forge, and the golden ring sitting upon it. He took the ring and tucked it back into his pouch.
“Nobody can see ferever,” he said to the empty room. “But love is always golden.”
He stood and stretched, and walked down the stairs, heading for The Golden Brew and Kita’s warm embrace, ready for the next chapter.
Behind him, deep within the forge, an ember stirred to life, its warmth slowly spreading.