Read an Excerpt
Black Blade Blues
By J. A. Pitts
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2010 John A. Pitts
All rights reserved.
The warrior king stood atop the hill, the light OF A new dawn cresting behind him. His pompadour, tall and proud as a cockscomb, blocked the sun, casting his face in shadow. Tiny shafts of light sprayed from the crystals adorning his glowing white armor. The ebony blade he held above his head drank in the light, casting a halo around his upraised hands.
"I declare this land free from oppression," he called. His voice rang. "I claim this, my birthright: this sword, made from the shattered horn of Memphisto, and handed down to me from my father, and from his father before him. With this I cast the goblins from this land."
He swung the sword to drag it across the rocky crag and shower sparks down upon the goblin horde at his feet.
Instead, I watched the sword strike the ferrocrete stage and snap. Fully one-third of the blade ricocheted toward the goblins, who scattered, squealing.
Actors are so stupid — not supposed to actually hit the stage. That's what special effects are for.
"Cut!" Carl called. Carl was the director.
JJ flung the sword to the ground, sending the goblins into full retreat. "Stupid, useless props!"
The overhead lights came up, and the soundstage appeared, shattering the image of a vengeful King of Rock and Roll and his mighty sword of doom.
I love my job.
"Everybody take fifteen," Carl said into his megaphone. "Sarah, do not kill the actors."
Several of the stagehands chuckled and cast sideways glances my way. I counted to ten. Honest I did. At least seven, I'm almost positive.
Seventeen extras in horrid rubber goblin suits began to waddle out to the lot, lighting cigarettes, their large costume heads under their arms.
I stormed over to JJ. "You idiot! You aren't supposed to actually hit the stage."
"Damn thing's too freaking heavy," he whined. "Can't we use a lighter prop? Maybe one that doesn't break?"
I knelt down, looking at the pieces. For a moment, I wanted to pummel JJ with the flat of the blade. I'd only likely bruise him. Likely.
Behind me, Carl sighed. "Do we have another black sword?"
"No," I said. Here goes a second career down the toilet.
"Well, it's too damn heavy," JJ groused. "Maybe you can make one out of Styrofoam or something."
I just stared at the back of his sweaty, overstyled head as he sauntered toward the gaggle of women waiting along the back of the soundstage.
With a sigh, I picked the sword up firmly by the handle. The broken blade lay forlornly on the rocks. It was a bad break, snapping midway to the tip. Be a bitch to repair this one. Reforging a sword was tricky business.
I do the blacksmithing thing for a living, so I had some idea what I was talking about. Being prop manager here was my night gig.
Not like I'd planned this life. I took welding in high school, and loved working with metal. I went to college to get away from my family — well, mainly my father — but didn't find any satisfaction in it. Da was convinced I'd come home after college and fit the mold he wanted.
The blacksmithing school I went to saved my life, frankly. My father wanted me to get married and squeeze out half a dozen puppies, be a good homemaker, adore my husband, go to church. ... I'd rather gouge my eyes out.
My farrier school gave me a reference to Julie Hendrickson, the blacksmith master I work for. She's supercool, but the pay doesn't cover all my bills. Student loans really add up.
I found the movie gig by accident. Carl hassled me at a local science fiction convention. He thought it was cool I was a blacksmith. We chatted — ended up he made movies, needed someone who was creative at making things, and here I am.
My two careers meshed together pretty well. Julie had no problem letting me use the forge after hours as long as I covered the expenses and cleaned up when I was done. Tonight's wages would cover fixing the black blade, and maybe help me afford to make a few more for the upcoming conventions.
Cons were a good place to sell weapons. Everyone who showed up wanted to be a hero, or be rescued by one. I was only too obliged to support the fantasy. Whatever made people happy, ya know? Of course, I'd be on my own for this effort. Julie was a farrier, and a good teacher, but her weapon skills sucked.
Which was a shame, actually. You could make a decent amount of scratch if you had made good weapons or armor. There was always someone willing to buy a cheap sword, but the real money was in the collectors and the cosplay folks. They liked the real thing. Costume players — cosplay. Anyway. They wanted to look the coolest, have the best accessories. I did my level best to fill that niche. Most shows had crappy knockoff weapons made in Pakistan, so I had a market.
But this sword, my black beauty, she was a special blade, not some beater we used in the Society or used to play dress-up. The Society for Creative Anachronism folks would never risk their precious weapons like this. Reenactors were crazy authentic, and treated their gear better than their spouses in some cases. The group I ran with — Black Briar — they were on the normal end of loony. Still, they thought I was nuts to risk a blade of this quality on a movie shoot.
Maybe they were right. I never should've risked the black sword here with ham-fisted JJ.
I carried the broken blade into the props cage and gently placed the pieces into the crushed velvet nest I'd hand-built for it. Who knew the case was better constructed than the blade?
"We won't need that sword again for a few days," Carl said, walking up behind me. "Why don't you take tomorrow off, see if you can repair it?"
Closing the case, I snapped the latches and hefted it up by the handle. "I'll do what I can," I said, smiling at him. "Plus, there's an antique auction in Seattle tomorrow. I'm hoping to get over and see if they have anything interesting."
Carl laughed. "You're quite the weapons nerd, Beauhall."
I stuck my chin up, tilting my head to the side. "You making fun of me, boss?"
He stepped back, hands in front of him, palms out, laughing. "God, no. I would never tease a blacksmith. I mean, with arms like yours ..." He trailed off. "And any woman who collects swords, no chance." He gave me his best Boy Scout grin. "Too many sharp pointy things to be concerned about."
I smiled. He was cute, in a baby-faced sort of way. Not a bad director, either. More Ed Wood than Woody Allen, but his films didn't make me want to hurl. "All right, boss. I'll see you on Wednesday then?"
"You'll be bringing me a new ebony blade?"
"We're still doing wide-angle shots?"
"Yes, close-up shots aren't until next weekend."
"Okay, I'll have something you can use."
He grinned, but said nothing further.
I gave him a moment. "So, I'm not fired?"
"Great," I said. "We'll see how Tuesday goes."
Jennifer, the DP, came over shaking her head, complaining about the lighting. She was one of those high-maintenance photography directors who was worth every minute of time she sucked out of Carl. She'd have him tied up forever. The hangdog look on his face as I snuck away almost made me feel sorry for him.
Thing about Carl's films: most of the shoots happened after hours because nearly everyone had a day job, just to make ends meet. Tonight's was no exception. I had arrived here in Everett's industrial area, north of Seattle, around six forty after a hard day at the smithy. A quick shower at home, some decent clothes that didn't smell like smoke, and a drive-thru meal in me — I was good to go.
Carl worked a deal with the city to keep costs low so we shot from seven until midnight on good nights. Tonight was not a good night.CHAPTER 2
It was two thirty in the morning by the time I walked across the parking lot under sodium lights. As I was loading the case into my Civic, one of the goblins, a rather tall guy, black hair and beard, broke away from the smokers and sidled toward me. I didn't recognize him, but extras came and went with some regularity.
"Excuse me, miss," he said in a heavy Nordic accent.
"Something I can do for you?"
"I'd like to ask you about your sword," he said, speaking to my face instead of staring at my breasts. Just made eye contact. It was refreshing.
I closed the hatchback, gripping the car keys in my left hand. "She's a beauty," I said, and meant it. I liked that damn blade. But the craftsmanship left a lot to be desired.
"She?" he asked, taken aback. "You believe the sword to be female?"
"Oh, are you of the camp that all swords are phallic because of the sheath thing?" I asked him.
"I ... Well ..." He blinked furiously. "I just wanted to know where you got it."
Ah, a groupie. "I bought it in an estate sale, a couple years ago."
"Sweden?" he asked.
I laughed. Like I could afford to travel. "Why Sweden?"
"Because, you realize, the blade is Swedish."
Gotcha. I loved meeting other weapon geeks, but especially loved when they got things wrong. "It's Scandinavian. And I bought it in Seattle. There is a rather large Scandinavian population here."
"Well." He smiled. "I see how you Americans would mix up the lot of us — Swedes, Nords — Vikings all."
"Actually, Beauhall is Swedish, so I get the connections."
"My error," he said. "I was led to believe you were Celtic."
"I get that a lot."
I stood there, holding my keys, waiting for this to go ... well, anywhere. He fidgeted a bit, scuffing his boots on the blacktop.
"Well, nice to have met you," I said finally, and walked around to the driver's side door.
"Why do you degrade it so?" he blurted out.
I looked back at him, standing in the circle of light cast by the streetlamp. He was gawkish and his skin almost glowed it was so white. Black beard, black hair. Something about him struck me as odd.
"Degrade what?" I asked.
A song ran through my head. It was one my girlfriend Katie sings sometimes at those science fiction conventions we attend.
I met a Swedish guy in Dublin
who was going to school in France
said he'd show me Odin's Gungnir
if he could get inside my pants.
"Fafnir's Bane?" I asked. Seriously? Norse myths and fairy tales? "You mean Gram, Sigurd's blade?"
I smelled stone then, like a gravel road when it first starts raining. I'll never forget that. The guy stepped toward me, keeping on the other side of the car, his eyes huge, drinking in the light. "Yes," he hissed. "You have become the caretaker, the guardian. Of those who have held that sword, I would expect you to be different." He paused, drawing in a rattling breath. "I can smell the forge on you."
Now I was insulted. I'd showered and everything. "Look, I'm exhausted. I'd be happy to talk swords with you after I've had some sleep. You could come by the shop one day this week, if you like —"
I fumbled in my wallet and pulled out a slightly bent business card.
"— and discuss it further." I held out the card.
He straightened, ran his thick fingers through his hair. "I sleep during the day. Work nights."
Yeah, I bet he did. This was annoying. "I gotta go."
I took a step back, and he reached for the card. He had big hands, rough from hard work. When his fingers touched mine, I caught a flash of heat and the distinct smell of hot metal.
The contact was brief, but for a split second there was a connection. Forge and hearth, hammers and tongs. This man worked metal, worked it with his body and his soul. It gave me a chill.
Under that funky costume, I bet he had shoulders like an ox.
"Good night, Ms. Beauhall." He nodded once, stepping back from me. "I'll be in touch."
I watched him as I ducked into the car.
I backed out of the space, keeping him in my mirror until the last moment. He stood there, staring at me with his hands tucked inside the rubber goblin head.
Big hands, thick fingers — connection with the forge and fire. Something about all that reminded me of the things Katie sang. She was always going on about elves and dwarves, magic stuff — myths and legends. I needed to call her to ask some questions.
I stopped at the shop. I kept the good swords in a safe there. Julie wouldn't be in until nine the next day.
I opened the safe and looked at my collection. There were some old blades in there. Some really old, but the black beauty was my favorite.
I was too tired to work, but I really wanted to fix the sword. Maybe tomorrow after we got the order out for Broken Switch Farm, I'd talk to Julie about me repairing this one.
The shop was strange at night, cold with the forge banked and the industrial ventilation turned off. I could smell sweat and smoke baked into the timbers of the place. Julie would be up in her trailer on the back of the lot, but the forge faced the main road. I wasn't exactly isolated, but for a moment, the emptiness scared me.
I placed the two halves of Gram on the anvil — funny how the name filled the blank spot in my brain. It felt right. I leaned against the rain barrel we used to cool horseshoes and studied the broken blade.
Another of Katie's songs swam in my head. Something about a dwarf from Dover and bending over ... her lyrics trended toward raunchiness. But the line about the Dwarvish lover with big hands and their trysts in the dead of night made me think of the Swedish guy back in the parking lot.
Gram ended up in the safe with the rest of my treasures, and I slunk home, exhausted, and praying for sleep.CHAPTER 3
Katie met me at Monkey Shines for coffee before the auction. She was stunning in her teacher outfit — black mid-length skirt and white short-sleeved top. Hell, she was stunning in nothing at all, but that's beside the point.
Seeing her took the edge off my rocky morning. I'd slept poorly, with nightmares of ogres and trolls.
She kissed me while we were waiting for our drinks and the last of the night's stress melted away.
When I described the events of the night before, she got really excited.
"He's definitely a dwarf," she said over her mocha latte.
Katie lived the fantasy shit like no one else I knew. She spoke Elvish and even some Dwarvish from Tolkien, followed jousting troops like pro sports teams, and delved into myth and legend like most young women followed movie stars or rock bands.
"He's an extra on the Elvis Versus the Goblins thing I'm doing up at Carl's," I said, toying with my chocolate croissant. "I highly doubt a dwarf would be in Seattle, working on a low-budget movie. Besides, aren't dwarves short? This guy was easily six foot."
Katie waved a hand in my direction, like she was shooing flies. "You are so naïve. This isn't Disney." She leaned toward me. "Norse dwarves are as tall as normal people. They just can't be out in the daylight. It'll kill them."
I could tell she was getting excited, but come on. This was too much.
"If you have the Gram —"
She was practically bouncing in her seat.
"— a real magic sword ... and this dude is a dwarf, maybe he'll help you reforge it. Give you some tips."
"You know this isn't real, right? He's just a guy and the sword is just metal. No magic, no gods. Just a steel blade that was flawed."
"Think of the possibilities," Katie rolled on. "If this is the sword Odin gave to the Volsung clan, can you imagine the possibilities?"
What could I say to that? Volsungs? Come on. A long-dead Scandinavian clan? And Odin? Norse gods were in comic books and dragons were in role-playing games. As far as I was concerned, it was all fairy tales.
"This is nuts, you know?"
She ignored me. "Wait until I tell Jimmy. He'll have tons of questions."
I winced. "Can we keep your brother out of it?" I asked. "It's hard enough with him being the leader of Black Briar, and me dating you." I sighed.
Her eyes took on that twinkle I loved and feared. "He knows we're sleeping together," she said with a wicked grin. "I told him it's none of his business who I fuck."
Great. I looked around the coffee shop. "I don't think the people in the drive-thru heard you."
She raised her eyebrows. "Don't make me stand on the table and sing it to the whole joint."
I rolled my eyes. "Fine, be that way." She made to stand and I slid down in the seat, covering my face with my hands.
She laughed. "Relax, Beauhall. I won't make a scene."
I moved my hand, looking at her.
"This time," she said, winking.
Oh, lord. She was so damn cute, but what had I gotten myself into?
I sat up straighter when I realized she was teasing me. I wish I was as free about all this as she was. Me, I tried not to think about it too much. The voices in my head were too loud, too judgmental. You can take the girl out of the hard-core religious lifestyle, but you can't make her ... oh, to hell with it.
"Dwarf or no dwarf, I'm gonna fix the blade tonight, after Julie knocks off for the day."
"Oooh," she said, clapping her hands together. "Can I come?"
I rolled my eyes. She'd bring her guitar and sing while I worked. It was cute, and somewhat annoying. "Fine, but you need to bring the beer for after."
She sat back, a twinkle in her eye. "No drinking while you are working hot metal," she said. "I'll bring something special for after."
Excerpted from Black Blade Blues by J. A. Pitts. Copyright © 2010 John A. Pitts. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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