Jimmy Cornett, the leader of Black Briar, paced the length of the room, eleven long strides before turning and making the return trip. In his left hand he carried a highball glass with three fingers of Glenlivet single-malt scotch but had not taken the first sip.
His world had gotten a helluva lot more complicated these last six months. Running the farm and Black Briar was full-time work. He loved the reenactment and the swordplay, but until this spring, that’s what it had been: play. When the dragon attacked the farm with choppers full of trolls and giants, the thin veneer of it all slid right off the cracker.
His sister, Katie, had a better handle on it all. He’d always discounted her beliefs, nodding and patting her on the head. But they were definitely the children of their parents, and the secret world of dragons and myth should not have come as such a surprise to him. Of course, they had been rather vague on the whole “dragons will attack your farm in helicopters” aspect of it all.
He felt a tightening in his chest as he thought back to the battle just a few months earlier. Black Briar had been prepared, sort of. They’d trained for the various reenactment wars around the country. They were good, a well-considered mercenary house on the fringes of the stalwart Society kingdoms. While the Society of Creative Anachronism did things right, down to the linen shirts and hand-sewn boots, real steel weapons and man-to-man combat, nothing prepared them for fifteen-feet-tall giants, hordes of trolls, and a fucking dragon.
They may have come through okay, if not for that damn drake. Killed his best riders: Susan and Maggie. Mangled Maggie and burned Susan to the ground. So many fallen that long black night.
His wife, Deidre, still wasn’t home from the rehab center where she’d been recovering from the injuries she’d sustained. There was a damn good chance she’d never walk again.
Sarah had kept the dragon busy, let him rescue Deidre after the giants had broken through their defenses. But part of him blamed Sarah for all of this going down the way it had. Sure, she didn’t really understand that the sword she had reforged was the legendary Gram. Hell, only Katie had thought it possible, and even he’d laughed at her. It wasn’t until the dragon had kidnapped his baby sister, along with Sarah’s blacksmith master, Julie Hendrickson, that Jimmy had accepted the truth. All the crazy shit his parents had told him. All the history and stories were really true.
Didn’t mean he had to like it.
And he wasn’t alone. He had friends—friends who knew the truth about the world.
Stuart and Gunther sat on either side of a small table, each ensconced in a large leather wingback chair. They hadn’t waited and were sipping their scotch while Jimmy gathered his thoughts.
The room was filled with cabinets and display cases, bookshelves and weapons racks, which held a smattering of items: swords, tomes, scrolls, cups, necklaces, and trinkets. The northern wall was dominated by a huge world map.
Jimmy’s grandparents had commissioned the map from dwarven artisans in the early twentieth century, but it was based on a much older one, only known by rumor and hearsay. Each continent was laid out in meticulous detail. Political demarcations were absent, but geographical locations were noted in abundance. Remarkable about the map were the tiny lights that glowed from spots on every continent. Most were major cities; they’d figured those out early on. Some were obviously deep in ancient mountain ranges, and two were mysteriously in the middle of an ocean—one in the Atlantic and one in what is now called the Sea of Japan.
These lights, these pinpoints glowing in the shadows of the room, represented the dragons that ruled the world. Jimmy had first seen the map when he was nine. He remembered that day like many children remember the day they learn Santa Claus isn’t real or that their parents are human and fallible. He didn’t understand the ramifications of this knowledge at first, not even after his parents had disappeared. It took Sarah, Gram, and that damn dragon, Jean-Paul Duchamp, for the truth of the world to finally become clear.
He’d been in his room in a tent made from blankets, pillows, and a couple of ski poles. He had his flashlight and was reading comic books way past his bedtime. It was late, close to midnight, when he heard a commotion outside. An odd warbling sound echoed through the house. Jimmy scrambled out of the tent and jerked the bedroom door open. Katie was screaming, and his father was rushing toward the front door, pulling a leather harness across his shoulders and settling a long sword into the attached sheath.
“Dad?” Jimmy called. His father paused at the door, his face grim. “Go help your mother,” he said, then turned without even waiting to see if he complied. The front screen slammed with a bang that startled him.
He turned to the sounds of Katie’s cries. His mother came down the hallway carrying his screaming two-year-old sister in her arms.
“Come on, Jim. Hurry.” She waved at him, cradling Katie to her chest.
At the end, near the library, there was an open panel, one he’d never noticed before. She sat Katie on the ground. “Take her hand,” she said to him, holding out her own. Katie loved Jimmy, and leaned into him, quieting.
“Don’t make any noise,” his mother said before kissing him quickly on the forehead. “I’ll come get you when it’s safe. Go down the stairs. We won’t be able to hear Katie there.”
“But, Mom. What’s going on?” He was horrified. They’d never acted like this. “Where’s Dad going?”
She knelt down and cupped her hand against his cheek. “He’s going to protect us,” she said. “I need to go help him. Can you be strong for me, James?”
When she called him James, he knew it was serious. He swallowed hard and nodded. “I’ll keep Katie safe.”
She smiled at him, which filled him with warmth. “You are brave and strong.”
“Me, too,” Katie piped up.
Their mother smiled worriedly and kissed her on the cheek. “Yes, popkin. You are brave and true. Now, go.” She shooed them onto the dark landing. “Just go to the first bend. It’s seventy-three steps. You’ll be safe there.”
The door shut with a quiet click. Jimmy pulled the penlight from his pocket and strained to see down into the void.
“Come on,” he whispered.
“It’s dark,” Katie whined. “I don’t like it.”
“We’ll be safe.” He squeezed her hand as they crept down into the unknown.
He counted the seventy-three steps and stopped at the first bend. He sat down, his back against the wall, and pulled Katie into his lap. She snuggled up against him and whimpered quietly.
“I’m gonna turn the light off,” he said, stroking her hair. “Save the batteries.”
“I want Momma.”
“She’ll be back soon,” he said and clicked off the light.
As his eyes adjusted, he could make out a glow coming from below.
“Pretty,” Katie said, slipping from his lap.
“Katie, wait.” She scooted down the stairs on her bottom, one riser at a time, and he followed, holding his breath. Where the stairs ended they found a room full of treasures, lit by the glowing dragon lights.
He’d found out later that a group of refugees from Vancouver had stumbled onto the farm, harried and wounded, triggering some sort of alarm. His father had come to the strangers’ aid, helping fight off a giant and getting mostly dwarves, along with a few humans, into the barn before the sun rose.
It was later, days after this incident, that his father had accompanied him down to the bunker and explained to his son the meaning of the map.
It held hundreds of lights. Some glowed brightly, while others flickered and waned. Only one had grown dark in recent memory. Jimmy pulled his thoughts back to the present and paused in his pacing. He dragged his finger along the bottom frame of the map and stared upward. The map rose from just three feet off the ground to near the ceiling, putting the light for Vancouver out of his reach.
Gunther and Stuart had the best view of the map, sitting a dozen feet away, against the opposite wall. The first time they’d seen the map, three days after Jimmy received the news of his parents’ disappearance, they had commented on how much the map reminded them of the night sky.
“So damn many,” Stuart growled when no one had spoken. “The bastards feed off us like maggots. It’s about time we began to do something about it.”
Gunther winced and sipped his scotch.
Jimmy turned, his face flushed with anger. “And what do you propose?” he said, sweeping his right arm to encompass the entire map. “Do you honestly think they’d sit idly by while we…” He paused, struggling to keep his anger in check. “We can’t just hunt them down. This isn’t the Middle Ages. They’re practically immortal, have learned to adapt in ways we can only guess at. They don’t even look like dragons most of the time. They control multinational corporations and some entire countries, for god’s sake. Hell, I wouldn’t put it past one of them to use nukes if push came to shove.” He looked between the two men, feeling the desperation crawling in his belly. “Most of us don’t even know they exist. Can you imagine what the common man would think if he learned we weren’t at the top of the food chain?”
Gunther sat his glass on the table, took up his cane, and struggled to his feet. They watched him, saying nothing. The vivid memory of Gunther being smashed to the ground by a giant’s cudgel was still too fresh in their minds.
“You overestimate their power,” Gunther said, stepping toward the map and pointing at Vancouver with the head of his cane. “They’ve ruled us for so long that we’ve forgotten ourselves.”
“Amen,” Stuart said from his seat. He’d worn his anger on his vest since the spring. Since they’d lost so many friends in the battle with the dragon, Duchamp, and his minions.
Gunther nodded. “We were part of an event that has not happened in written history. Not since St. George have we even heard rumors of a human destroying one of them. Now one of our very own has stepped into legend.”
Jimmy flicked his hand toward Gunther and barked, “Bah. We were lucky.”
“Were we?” Stuart yelped. “We lost twenty-seven good people. You think that’s lucky?”
Gunther leaned on his cane with both hands firmly covering the worked bull’s-head handle. “I grieve as you do,” he said, turning to his friend. “But this is nothing compared to the wholesale slaughter in the Dark Ages. Entire villages wasted, broad swathes of countryside slaughtered in the great migration.”
Stuart growled low in his throat. “So says your order,” he finally voiced. “There’s proof of the Black Plague, you know.”
Gunther sighed and glanced at Jimmy.
“Plague, famine, war, and worse,” Jimmy said, his voice even. “My father explained it to me as well. One does not discount the existence of the other.”
“We’ve read all the notes Jim’s parents left us and have researched on our own over the last thirteen years,” Gunther offered. “Nothing prepared us for Sarah.”
They fell silent at that. Jimmy turned, facing the map, his eyes falling on Iceland, the last place anyone had seen his parents. Gunther watched the two of them—friends and compatriots—slowly turning his head from one man to the other, waiting for the thunderheads that had been brewing for weeks.
“Deidre will be home soon,” he said. Jimmy nodded once and took a deep drink.
“About damn time,” Stuart said. “Black Briar is too quiet without her around to keep us all in line.”
Jimmy snorted a quiet laugh. “She’s worried no one needs her.”
Stuart leaned back into the thick leather chair, his anger visibly fading. “Tell her that we miss her and that if she doesn’t get back here soon, we’re gonna let Gunther start using her kitchen.”
Then it was Gunther’s turn to laugh. “I will not risk that woman’s wrath,” he said. “I’ll go up against giants and dragons, but Deidre scares the hell out of me.”
Jimmy nodded once, a smile on his face for the first time in a long while. “She is my light and my life.”
Each man lapsed into quiet contemplation, sipping his scotch. The anger in the room had finally begun to dissipate.
After a few minutes, Gunther shuffled back to his chair and sat down with a grunt. “But we need to discuss Sarah,” he said. “We have to figure out who she is.”
They each nodded but said nothing, waiting for the other to bring up the subject of the fiery smith.
Jimmy’s phone buzzed with an incoming text message. “In case you were wondering,” he said, shaking his head, “Katie and Sarah are at the Blain crossing into Canada. Katie says they will be in Vancouver in just under an hour.” He paused, glancing up quickly.
“What?” Stuart asked.
“Well,” Jimmy said, clearing his throat. “She also says that Sarah is hot.”
They all laughed.
Jimmy slipped his phone into his pocket. “That sister of mine sure can pick ’em.”
“Aye,” Gunther agreed. “First Melanie, now Sarah.”
“Oh, she’s dated more than those two,” Jimmy said, running both hands through his hair. “Drove me and Deidre crazy in high school. The drama and the angst of teenage love.”
Stuart picked up the crystal decanter and poured himself another scotch. “Love ain’t nothing but drama and angst,” he said. “Been burned myself one time too many.”
“I’ve been lucky,” Jimmy said. “Deidre is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“Hear, hear,” Gunther said, raising his glass.
Jimmy retrieved his glass and stepped toward them. Stuart stood, and the three of them held their glasses high.
“To the women in our lives,” Gunther said, clinking his glass against first Stuart’s, and then Jimmy’s. “May they always find their way home to us.”
They drank, draining their glasses. Stuart lowered his glass and performed the sign of the cross. After a moment, they set their glasses on the table and Stuart picked up the decanter once again.
“Now, about Sarah,” he said, pouring a strong dash into each glass. “Who is this girl? What do we really know about her?”
Jimmy went back to pacing, but Gunther stepped over to the map, following a series of lights that filled Central Europe like a cluster of stars.
“Maybe she’s one of the two ancient lines of gods—Æsir, Odin’s crew, maybe, or one of the older lot, the Vanir,” Stuart suggested.
“Doubtful,” Jimmy said, striding to a case and pulling down a sheaf of papers. “According to the records my father uncovered in Reykjavík, the dragons have a covenant to kill all of them on sight.”
“Sure,” Stuart said. “But how do we know when we find one of the elder gods? Can the wyrms really tell the difference?”
“According to Markús Magnússon,” Jimmy said, pulling a page from the middle of the stack and setting the rest down on a glass case filled with golden armbands and torques, “in 1288, the last known of the Vanir had been killed by a young dragon in Düsseldorf. She was only an infant, but he describes her as a glowing child, with hair like spun gold and a laugh that would quiet the meanest heart.”
“Who does he think she was?” Stuart asked.
“Freya…,” Gunther replied, not turning from the map, “… is the last we know to be reborn. The dragons have feared their return for as long as the monks and scribes have kept hidden records.”
Jimmy and Stuart exchanged a glance.
“My order,” Gunther continued, “kept records of each Æsir or Vanir that was reborn, and their inevitable demise at the tooth and claw of one of the drakes.”
“And,” Jimmy continued, placing the parchment back on the pile with the others, “Sarah has met at least two dragons in her life, and neither of them thought she was an elder god returned to exact her vengeance.”
“Well,” Gunther said with a grim chuckle. “We don’t know what Jean-Paul Duchamp believed, may his carcass rot in hell.”
“True enough,” Jimmy said. “But this Frederick Sawyer in Portland has seen her on multiple occasions, and all he’s tried to do is invest in that movie company she works with … oh, and buy the sword.”
The three of them looked to the left, to the black blade that hung from a coatrack by the blood-encrusted leather rigging Sarah had worn into battle with the dragon.
“I think that is the key,” Gunther said, turning from the map and limping toward the sword. “This blade is the crux of things.”
“Gram,” Stuart breathed. “How did she come by it, much less wield it?”
“Katie says she bought it at an auction a few years ago. Some estate sale where the original owners had both died. Kids were selling off everything since they lived in Florida.”
“Quite the coincidence there, Jim. Don’t you think?” Stuart asked.
Gunther stood in front of the coatrack and examined the sword. “Völsung,” he pronounced finally.
“Why not?” Jimmy asked. “Hell, we have giants and trolls, witches and dragons. Why can’t my sister’s girlfriend be of the lineage of a defunct German tribe purported to be descended from Odin himself?”
“Holy cats,” Stuart said, scrubbing his face with his meaty hands. “Sigurd’s great, great, great, et cetera granddaughter?”
“The sword sought her out,” Gunther said. “How else can you explain it? And you know she claims to have met Odin himself.”
“Katie confirmed that,” Jimmy said. “Said he’d been haunting her place for years. She thought he was a harmless beggar.”
Gunther turned to face them. “Beggar perhaps, but if he’s Odin … How the hell did he get this old without the dragons killing him again?”
“Good point.” Jimmy rummaged around the bookcases for another bit of history. They waited while he pulled down a large dusty tome and opened the leather binding. “There are records of the dragons killing the gods over the years. I’ve counted six times Odin has been reborn. Three times for Thor…” He turned a page, drawing his finger down the thin, spidery script. “Loki is mentioned half a dozen times.”
“Okay, let me get this straight.” Stuart stood to stare at the great map. “The dragons have been in charge of things since before man figured out how to write, and you’re saying not only did they miss Gram when they were collecting all the trinkets from the elder gods, but they missed Odin being reborn?”
“I believe that is a valid assumption,” Jimmy agreed.
“You realize,” Stuart added, “if they missed Odin, then our Sarah could well be one of the elder gods, reborn.”
They considered it for a moment, contemplating.
Gunther shrugged, turning to face Jimmy. “Either way, then maybe it’s time to poke our heads out of this turtle shell and see who of your parents’ secret society have survived in the intervening years.”
Jimmy nodded slowly. “I’ll look into it.”
“Good,” Gunther said. “Would be nice to get some experienced help.”
Stuart reached out and poked Gram in the sheath, setting it to swinging in short, reducing arcs. “They are scholars and scribes,” he said. “They watch. What we need is someone who isn’t afraid to take action. Why else collect all this?” He turned to encompass the room. “There are a lot of weapons in here.”
Weapons hadn’t stopped the dragon from snatching Katie—hadn’t kept Deidre whole, or even kept his parents from disappearing. But his father wielded a blade. He’d seen it once. Perhaps there was a place for more than waiting.
“Our weapons held up well against the giants,” Jimmy said.
“Dwarven made,” Stuart added. “For the cost, they should have.”
Jimmy took down his sword, a long thin blade that had tasted the blood of giants and trolls. “The axe needs to be repaired,” he said, pointing to the great double-bladed weapon Stuart had used in the battle months earlier.
“My blade is barely scathed,” Gunther grumbled.
“Aye, no nicks on the blade, but more than enough on the warrior.” Stuart smiled up at his large friend. “I’m just happy you live to whine about it.”
Gunther growled. “A few more weeks of physical therapy and I’ll be good as new. Hip is doing much better.”
“We cannot fight them openly,” Jimmy warned. “The witch, Qindra, and therefore her dragon mistress, Nidhogg, knows about Black Briar.”
The other two men frowned, losing the jovial banter.
“We need to proceed cautiously. Find my father’s contact and see who of the old crew is alive.”
“And in the meantime?” Stuart asked.
“In the meantime,” Gunther said, “we keep a close eye on our little berserker blacksmith and try and keep her out of trouble.”
For a moment, they stared at one another, and then they burst out laughing.
Copyright © 2011 by John A. Pitts