The warehouse was filled up with booths selling all kinds of weapons, and people everywhere. Most of them were wearing some kind of camouflage, and most people also had guns in holsters on one or the other hip.
Neil looked at home in jeans and an olive green T-shirt, and Tracy had worn her black jeans and shirt, so they didn’t stand out, but Tracy did not feel at home here at all. There was a kind of desperation about it, especially in a country where people lived in relative safety. What were they all going to do with the guns, the knives, the swords, the bows? What war were they fighting? She also saw the hard sell at the booths, where deadly force was being advertised like chocolates or soap powder, often with a two-for-one offer, which somehow was frightening and sad at the same time.
Neil confidently led them through the maze towards a section where she could hear hammering. The booths they were passing now sported knives rather than guns, and then they turned a corner to see a booth that had no weapons on display at all. Instead a lean, rather grizzled man was beating a club of metal into a strip on an anvil. Behind him stood a portable forge, and to one side was trough of water and another of oil. He wore a leather apron and trousers, and a roughly spun long-sleeved shirt of some kind.
The audience at this booth were quiet and intent, and there was a different atmosphere. They were watching a master at work, and they knew it. Neil guided her towards the side where the crowd was thinnest, and they stood watching with the rest.
The club of metal was, by now, a thin band. The man picked it up with tongs, opened the forge door and thrust the strip inside, watching it carefully. In a couple of minutes he pulled it out, and deftly folded it back into a club, which he proceeded to beat into a strip again. In the space of fifteen minutes, they watched the process repeated three more times, before the strip, instead of being folded again, was heated and then thrust into the oil, which flamed up dramatically. Then the strip was pulled out, and dropped in the water.
At this point, the man put down his tools, stretched and took from a small cooler a can of beer. The audience drifted away.
Neil waited until they were the only ones left, then stepped up to the man who was draining the last of the beer.
“Neil! Where have you been hiding? Any progress with your knife?”
Neil reached into a pocket and produced a small knife with a bone handle, nestled in a leather holster. The man took it out, examining it from all angles, then, testing the sharpness with a thumb.
“Not bad, but still a bit unbalanced. Did you cut out the tang before putting on the handle?”
“Yes, I did, but I got scared I was taking off too much.”
“Never get scared, it shows every time. You didn’t think of the weight of the bone, did you? Wood is light, but bone, especially moose, is dense and heavier than it looks. You need to take out more of the tang to allow for that.”
Neil smiled and shrugged.
“That’s why you’re still the master. Mike, I want to introduce you to Tracy. She’s looking for a sword, a rather special sword. It has to be mainly white, with a silver sheen to the blade. I thought of…,well, you know.”
A pair of honey colored eyes focused on her.
“A white sword. Can you handle a sword, young lady?”
Tracy blushed. “I’ve been taking fencing lessons for the past month and a bit.”
He went to the back of the booth and opened a box. He rummaged for a moment, then drew out two epees.
“Let’s go see what you can do.”
He hung a sign on the anvil, back in half an hour, and led the way out of the warehouse. They were now at the back of the building, where there was a crumbling wall, a stretch of cement, and some oil drums with targets on them. Some people were shooting at the targets with either hunting bows or crossbows, and others were watching.
Mike took off his apron and led the way to the cement strip.
“You take that side,” he said, pointing, before handing her an epee, “and I’ll take this one. En garde!”
Tracy walked to her side, gently testing the balance of the blade before falling into the ready stance. Mike moved forward, then lunged quickly. Tracy parried and tried a beat. Mike countered with a beat of his own, then spiraled down her blade in an envelope. She retreated, drawing his blade and then lunging low, allowing the strike to pass above her before touching her point to his chest.
“Mm-mm! Tricky. Let’s try again.”
For four minutes they tested each other, and Tracy lost two hits to him before striking home again herself with a cut-over riposte.
“Enough. You have talent and strength, and you have courage. Come, let’s go see about your sword.” Mike bowed, then held out his hand for her epee. As she was about to hand it to him, she saw a flash in those honey eyes and jumped backwards, barely avoiding what would have been a stinging cut to her legs. Almost without thinking she landed and bounced high, avoiding the backhand of the same cut, and as she came down she used her momentum to use the epee as a lash across Mike’s back.
She spun with the force, but landed crouched, blade extended in a ward.
Mike stood still, blade down. “Ouch, that hurt! But it’s my own fault for doubting what I saw – so, not just quick and talented, but a real fighter. Come, take my sword and we’ll really go and discuss what you need this time.” He held out his blade, the handle toward her.
“I’m sure Neil will carry it for you.”
“Cautious as well. Excellent!” He threw the epee at Neil, and turned and led the way back inside. A smatter of applause followed them from those who had witnessed the bout.
Back at his booth, Mike pulled the metal strip from the water.
“I wasn’t quite sure why I was working on this sword, but now I know. I think this will be yours.”
“But it’s just a strip of metal.”
“That’s how all swords start. This one I decided to try using wootz steel, a type of steel that was made in India and that the Chinese imported from them. They used the monsoon winds, so it’s said, to provide the air blowing into the furnace, and the soil they used contained traces of copper, zinc, titanium and aluminum, besides the iron and carbon needed to make the steel.” As he talked, Mike was beating the strip, shaping it into a blade with a curved tip reminiscent of a samurai sword, but without the bend of that blade.
“It gives a brighter steel, and also a steel that holds its edge extremely well. Sort of like Damascus steel, but lighter in color, more silver to it.”
He held up the strip, then plunged it into the furnace again. “I wasn’t sure why I wanted to do this, since I like using the Japanese forging style to produce the traditional katana, but somehow the idea wouldn’t leave me, and I started work on it about a week ago, just having to finish the shape of it today.” He drew out the strip, now starting to look like a sword, and proceeded to hammer again. “I’m going to give it a double edge, more like a broadsword, but with a basket pommel. I think that will suit your fighting style better. By the way, brilliant recovery out there, and that blow from above would have been a killer with real sword.” The blade plunged into the oil again, then into the water.
“Now comes the part of it that I have to tailor to you. Come over here and feel the blade and tell me how it feels.”
Tracy dutifully took the end of the blade and raised it, then extended it, tried a foible and a parry, then gave it back to him.
“It’s a bit heavy at the tip, and there’s a pull on the wrist in parrying.”
“Yes, I thought it was a bit long for you.” He had pulled some chisels closer and now used one of them to cut a piece of steel off the end, then proceeded to shape a tang some six inches long in the blade. He then proceeded to shape the edges with hammer and chisels, until it was clear there was now a sword, not just a blade.
Tracy and Neil watched, fascinated. Some more heating and hammering to finish the edges, and then the discarded piece of metal got heated, flattened and then shaped into a basket pommel. Another heating of blade and basket before they were welded together on the anvil, and what lay there was a sword reminiscent of a broadsword crossed with a pirate’s cutlass. Still raw, unpolished, but a sword, nevertheless.
“Try it again.” Mike held it out to her.
This time the blade felt alive, an extension of her arm. “The tip is still a bit heavy.” she said.
“Good – we need to allow for the weight of the hilt. You said it had to be all white? Yes? What do you think of this?” He drew a piece of leather from the box. It was white, not the usual brown or beige. “They tan calves hides with alum and salt, and produce this soft white leather, which will be perfect to make the hilt with, I think.”
Tracy nodded. The leather seemed to glow slightly, but maybe that was just her.
“Right, now let’s talk price. I’ve put about 50 hours into this, not counting the three hours today, and I reckon when I’m done I’ll have spent about 60 hours on it. Steel and forge and leather – probably about two thousand dollars all told.”
Tracy gasped. “I don’t…”
But Neil cut her off. “That sounds great. When can we get it?”
“I should have it ready for you by Wednesday. I’ll come and deliver it to you, shall I?”
Neil smiled and agreed. “We’ll see you then – bring it to my place.”
“But Neil…” Tracy began, and was cut off again.
“Bye Mike! See you soon!” Neil almost dragged her away, not giving her a chance to speak before they were outside again.
“Neil, stop. I don’t have the money to pay for that.”
“You might not, but I do. I’ve got loads of money and I feel that I got you into this, so I do owe you the best possible, and Mike is the best swordsmith I know.”
“Really? How can I ever repay you?”
“Tracy – I sent you over without as much as a by your leave, as you’ve pointed out, and I think this is the least I can do. Please be gracious and accept this.”
“OK, if you put it like that.”
When Tracy got home, she walked into a crisis. She had told her mom that she’d be practicing at the university, not wanting to share the fact that she’d be going somewhere with Neil and then having to explain why he suddenly was in her good graces. Unfortunately she hadn’t checked in with Martin, and he had called her at home to check when she’d be free to fit in some extra practice for a league bout coming up.
The storm unleashed by this whipped around her in her mother’s words and tears.
“I just don’t know you anymore, Tracy. It’s as if you’re going out of your way to make me worry. I never thought of you as a liar, but now I can’t trust anything you tell me. It’s that boy, that Julian. He’s the one teaching you how to lie. I mean, he lied to your teacher about his age and led her on, and anyway musicians are always into stuff like this. Sneaking away, drugs, sex, trashing hotel rooms. I don’t know what I was thinking letting you anywhere near stuff like this.”
There was no way to stem the tide, and Tracy couldn’t try. Whatever she said would be wrong, but she couldn’t let Julian take the blame.
“Mom, it’s not Julian, OK? He hasn’t done anything to make you blame him, and he’s been a perfect gentleman every time we’ve been together. He’d never do drugs.”
“Of course you’d say that. What have you got in your room right now, that’s what I want to know. We’re going up there now and I’m going to find out what else you’ve been lying about.”
“No, mom, we agreed my room was private, back in sixth grade. You can’t break that promise now!”
“You broke it, you broke my heart with this lying and cheating. I need to know what I’m dealing with. Come on, march, upstairs, right now.”
Tracy knew this would be the last straw, but saw no way to avoid it. What would her mother say about the crystal and the wand? Or would she not notice?
Half an hour later, with the contents of drawers and cupboards scattered around, she realized that hope had been in vain.
“Crystals! Do you think you’re a witch? Is that it? Is that what you sneaked out for, some satanic rites somewhere? Oh my God, I’m going to call doctor Smallaer. We need to get you into therapy. Is it your father’s death that’s only hitting you now? Is it sex? Drugs? I don’t know how to cope with this, I really don’t. I’m going to call him and you’re going to tidy up and stay right here!”
Tracy realized that she’d have to do something, or the wand and crystal would be gone. A vision of Leman, the others, the killings she’d witnessed, the prophecy and their belief in her rose up and overwhelmed her, and almost without thinking she grabbed the box out of her mother’s hands and ran for it.
Cries followed her, fainter and fainter as she sped away. There was only one place she could go. She tried to recall Neil’s address, but found that she could only remember the suburb.
She’d have to get there quickly, and then see if she could find him somehow. She kept running, clutching the box to her.
It was almost dusk when she finally slowed down. She wasn’t that familiar with this part of town, but then she saw a bus pass by a couple of blocks away. Bus route 17 was the one for Neil’s side of town, if she recalled correctly, and luckily she had her wallet in her jeans pocket, with a bus pass in it.
It was dark when she dropped off the bus, close to a shopping center. As luck would have it, there was phone booth and in what seemed like mere minutes, Neil’s car was pulling up beside her.
As soon as she was in the car the dam burst, and incoherent sobs was the only thing Neil heard on the drive to his home. It was only once he’d poured some brandy between her chattering teeth that she could pour out her story.
“And you came to me rather than to Julian. Thank you.”
“I came because he doesn’t know about the unknown land, and wouldn’t understand. You do, and I have to stay here until the sword comes. Once I’ve got that I can cross over, get into training and lead the uprising. The sooner I do that, the sooner I can come back and try to sort things out with my mom, even if I do have to spend time in the loony bin to do it.”
“A real shit storm, for sure. You can stay here, no problem, and come Wednesday we can both cross together, how does that sound?”
“Thanks. I really appreciate this.”
“No problem. And in the meantime we can do some martial art training. But for now, you look all in – time for bed, I think.”
Over the next four days Neil made sure that Tracy had almost no time to think of her mother, taking her on long runs, teaching her a version of Aikido that left every muscle stretched, keeping her on point with her fencing and generally telling her what he knew of the unknown land.
“The Dark Lord claims the throne as a birthright, even though many in the land do not recognize this claim. The throne was apparently more of an elected position, and only those who were thought to be good servants were ever elected. As I understand it, the land was pretty much without leadership when the Dark Lord swept into the seat, backed by those who had been rejected from society because of not being twinned.”
“But I thought someone who was not a twin became a wise seer, like Leman.”
“Ah, but she was born a twin and then her twin died. Some in that land are born singly, never having been twinned. Many people feel that they are then without souls, not having a twin. Singletons were often driven out of their homes and villages, very often by their own families, and had to fend for themselves in the wilderness. Many didn’t, but those that did became raiders, thieves, desperadoes.”
“So, in a way the Dark Lord was a champion of the minority.”
Neil raised a brow. “Sure, but who’s to say society was wrong? Look at the way the power is held – fear and terror rule now.”
“But isn’t everyone aware of how they’ve treated those people? That it may be that they fashioned the very terror that now holds sway over them?”
“Don’t you think that the reaction is a bit extreme? Why lash back with so much violence?”
Tracy thought about it. She knew that she, herself, wanted to kick and bite when she felt that she had been treated unfairly by someone.
“I think that violent reactions always are a response to being treated unfairly. Maybe that is true here and there.”
“You have a point, but before we go across you’ll have to decide exactly whose side you are on. If you go into a fight half-heartedly, you’ve already lost.”
Even though it seemed like forever to Tracy before Wednesday rolled around, and then interminable hours of waiting, at last there was a knock on the door that heralded the delivery of the sword.
Mike came in with a long box, out of which he drew a bundle of white silk wrapped around the sword. With a flourish he unrolled the silk, and drew out the gleaming sword. The white leather hilt had been wrapped in a complex braid that, when she put her hand to it, proved to be comfortable and, she knew, non-slip. The blade shimmered, its edges on both sides sharpened to a razor’s edge.
She extended her arm into a guard, and felt the balance of the blade come alive. It simply became an extension of her hand and arm, rather than a separate thing.
“I also brought you a tatami mat to test it on, so lets go outside and see how it plays.”
Tracy followed him outside, and saw a tightly wrapped and rolled straw mat set upright on a pole. She knew the katana swords usually got tested on this kind of thing, seeing if a single cut could sever it.
Mike pulled out a katana from the box he was still carrying, and unsheathed it. “Tracy, watch me and then try to do the same with your sword. Remember it’s speed, not power, that does it.”
With that he whirled the sword overhead and then cut down diagonally through the mat, sending the top part flying.
Tracy decided she would use her instinct rather than copying him exactly, and took the sword into en-garde position, focused on the position where she wanted to cut, then brought her arm sweeping down and across.
The shock as the sword hit the mat travelled up her forearm and nearly made her drop the sword, but the basket and the braid helped her hold on. And, more than that, the mat gave way and dropped away.
“Not a lot of control, but you did the job. I think you need to practice those cuts, and develop those forearms – that is what will give you the power to cut through. Let’s see you do a lunge.”
Tracy went back en-garde, then lunged at the mat. The blade passed through without a pause, and she had to struggle to snap back to guard.
“And that’s why you need to practice on the mats a lot if you’re serious about swordplay.” Mike said. “You can order them from this guy on the net, he delivers in about two days. Remember that there is real resistance to the blade when it strikes a thing, and you have to compensate – this isn’t fencing! But you’re good, and you’ll learn very quickly.”
Neil stepped up with a wad of cash. “Thanks Mike, it’s an awesome sword. You just get better and better, man.”
“Practice, practice, practice! Keep well.”
Once Mike was gone, Neil and Tracy examined the sword more closely. It was a work of art, made beautiful by its functionality. Neil then went to his room and returned with the katana that Mike had made for him, so he explained, two years before. It was another work of art, finished in red and brown, with a blade that had a matte finish except for the traditional scalloped edge.
“I think the sooner we head over the better – I know Mike thinks you need more time on the tatami, but as you also said, maybe your best combat training will be with Leman and the army. Get a pack and make sure you have everything you need. There’s a soft spot about a kilometer from here, one of the reasons I bought this house.”
Tracy went upstairs. The box with the crystal and the cutting from the jasmine bush and her stuffed whale, her mascot, went into the pack. Remembering the cold nights she put on a parka and packed a pullover. The sword in its swaddling of white silk she strapped to the pack, and then she was ready.
Ready to go and save a world.