Friday, April 28, 2017

The Testing of the Sword

The Testing of the Sword
Bobby Derie

The sun was a long time dying. The bloated red giant dominated the sky above the city, wherever cloud cover and the dilapidated dome permitted a glance at the unfiltered heavens. Few looked up. The earthgazers below went about their business. Doom pending too long is shoved into the background of life, ignored in favor of more immediate concerns.

I still looked at the sky. The rooftop biergarten of the Tezcatzontecatl's Rest was shielded against the worst of the rain by a long, clear plastic screen, but let in enough of the breeze to permit those of us who still smoked to do so. Among the scattered tables with their scarred tops and hard, immobile cement benches we few would gather to look out at the sky and city below, sometimes into the wee hours, watching the launch of the long, slow evacuation.

This night, we admired one great vessel shaped like a sword of old. I had pointed out the distinction to the others, and they agreed - all except for one. She said nothing for a while, and then finishing her beer, she signaled for another.

"It reminds me of a sword I knew once." was all she said, and I knew we were in for one of her stories.

Cerveza is what we called her, and that was what she drank; she never answered to anything else, though sometimes she would drink mescal, sotol, or pulque, as the mood took her. Yet most of the time it was cerveza, the kind brewed in Gaujona by descendants of German immigrants. It was what she was drinking tonight, telling the story between sips.

"We had been commissioned to make a certain kind of sword - well, to investigate the possibility of such a forging. The client had been particular in what they wanted, but was not clear whether the skills or materials were available, or what it would cost if both were available. Typical freelancer stuff, I was involved in a number of such ventures in my younger days. I had been doing metalwork at the time - 'sword art' as I called it - putting an old apprenticeship of mine to good use; that was how I got the job. Simone was our researcher, she knew more about the lore of such things than was good for anyone, and Drax was our face, who held the purse strings and arranged whatever was needed arranging."

She flexed the great muscles in her arms, and we could easily imagine her in soot-stained apron and goggles at the forge.

"What kind of sword did the client want?" someone asked. Perhaps it was me; I was drinking tequila that night.

"A magic sword." Cerveza said, without blinking. "That was the problem, of course. What makes a sword magic? Simone had to crunch a bunch of data on that one. She shifted through hundreds of accounts and legends - some said it was the material that the sword was made of, meteoric or thunderbolt iron, church bells melted down, that kind of thing. Others said it had to do with who forged it - dwarfs, giants, demons, gods, fairies. Or how it was was forged, the conditions and ritual of the thing - many old grimoires on ceremonial magic specify the day and hour for such operations - or the decorations, the runes and spells that have to be carved and whispered over the blade." She took a swig. "All rubbish, of course."

One or two of us must have raised our eyebrows at this, because she scowled like she had just reached for an orange and bitten into a lime.

"The problem with legends and stories, is that they are all written down - and not by the smiths. No, I said to Drax and Simone, if we were going to investigate the possibility of making a magic sword, we'd first have to find one and test it out. None of you are smiths, or you would know that a lot of the old smithing traditions about forging have nothing to do with quenching in unicorn blood or sharpening it under a full moon just for the sake of being magic, they were working trial-and-error with their materials, learning by experience what worked. You try measuring the temperature of metal back in medieval Europe or ancient Japan, or the salinity of the brine you're using to quench the metal - they just didn't have the technology back then. So if we were going to do this scientifically, there was nothing to do but to find an actual magic sword and test it."

"Well, it took a bit of talking but they came around to my way of thinking, and Simone found us a list of magic swords, and Drax tried to make arrangements to test them. That was a difficulty; not many people that had magic swords wanted you to look at them too close once they found out why you wanted to do it. Maybe they were afraid that the swords weren't so magic after all, or maybe they didn't want to see them mass-produced...I don't pretend to know which. Finally, I told Drax to ask the client about it."

Cerveza set the empty bottle down on the bar, and looked at it unhappily.

"The client?" I asked, and signaled the bartender, who arrived with two new bottles, beaded with cold sweat.

"Well of course. The only reason you want a magic sword is if you have something specific in mind for it. Nobody makes a magic sword just to have it, or else they'd be a hell of a lot more common. Every hero down the ages would have a sword and pass it down to their kids, and before you know it, we'd be ass-deep in the things. So it stood to reason that the client had a good idea of what they wanted, and as it turned out, they did."

"I have to say, it wasn't what I was expecting - because the sword was broken. That was the crux of the issue of course, their magic sword was broken and they needed a new one. Simple enough, so we went in to see the broken sword. I don't know what I was expecting - Simone was almost breathless, and Drax never stopped playing on her phone, she just didn't care - but what we got was something out of the La Tène culture. Very Iron Age. Originally it was long and straight, but most of the blade had broken off at some point - it was curled up at the edges, so I think maybe at some point it was deliberately bent, possibly for burial. The guard was cast bronze - a little strange in and of itself - and had the most curious humanoid figure on the pommel, a little like a Sheela-na-gig, but with curling goat horns on the head. Most of the blade was corroded, but we could see the curling serpents pattern-welded into the sword."

"Well, after that there was nothing to do but drag it to the neutron source at the university - I knew some of the grad students, and they let us take a few images; we got a good look at the tang, and the metallurgical makeup of the thing. Simone cross-referenced everything, by the time we were done she could tell you with good certainty which mine in Scandinavia the iron for the blade had come from, and the way the rune on the tang was carved, and just about all you'd need to forge a new sword just like it."

Cerveza idly sketched the sword on the bar counter; it did look remarkable like the ship we were talking about earlier, though with a smaller guard, and the blade straighter and somewhat stub-nosed.

"That was the problem, actually. Simone realized it first, when we had it all laid out. She cried on my shoulder for almost an hour, and Drax had to report our failure to the client." She grimaced and chugged what was left of the beer, then stared past us, up at the sky. The clouds had parted a little, revealing a long pale sliver of red sun. "Once you explained it all like that, it wasn't magic anymore. We'd analyzed it to death."


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