I SCOLDED myself for leaving the Hammer and Chisel so late. I wished Otto had left his cart for me as I half-ran, half-walked the two miles to the River’s Edge Gallery. Three years of making this trek regularly and it never got shorter.
Tonight’s exhibition opening for Celia, a promising new artist, had drawn a good-sized crowd. Breathless, I made a beeline for Brent, dodging the handful of guests milling around the River’s Edge Gallery.
“Where have you been?” Brent growled, cutting me off.
Intense, blunt pressure pooled at my right temple. The fingers of pain soon overflowed, stretching into my neck and blooming into the right side of my head. “I told you, I had to supervise at the Hammer and Chisel so Sophie and Otto could set up here.”
He grabbed hold of my elbow. “The show started an hour ago. I needed you here.” His thumb pressed against a nerve sending sharp pain down my arm to my fingertips.
Brent let go of me. His face relaxed. “I’m sorry, Mabel. I’ve just been so anxious. You’re here now.”
I massaged my elbow. “This is a great turnout.” Sophie and Otto served food and drinks from the opposite corner of the gallery, dozens of guests mingled, and Celia, a young female dwarf, held court with a number of Brent’s regular clients, showing off one of her drawings on display. “This is going to turn things around for you.”
“You think so?” Brent shoved his hands in his pockets.
“I know so. Look at who’s here. It’s been ages since Sidney has come in, on his own or for a show, and he’s really interested in Celia’s art. You know word is going to spread.”
Brent puffed out his cheeks then slowly released his breath. “You’re right. Of course you’re right. You’re always right.” He kissed me on the cheek. “You’re the best.”
“Go mingle.” I gave Brent a gentle push. “I’ll be over by Sophie and Otto if you need me.”
I greeted a few of the guests as I made my way to the food table. Sophie and Otto had been so generous to cater tonight’s show. Since I’d lived at the inn and spent most evenings there with my friends, it had become the place to be. Business in both the tavern and the inn was booming. So much so they’d had to hire extra staff. But even so, Sophie didn’t trust the catering to anyone but Otto, and he really was the best to grill, so I’d offered them a more than fair price, hand-selected the best staff to work the tavern while they were away, and supervised the staff until everything ran to Sophie’s standards.
“Is everything all right at the Hammer?” Sophie asked, handing me a plate.
“You would be proud,” I said.
“And ideas for a new movie?” Otto asked.
I shrugged. After several productive years of movie-making, I’d hit a dry spell that was extending into its fifth month. I spent my days working for Sophie and Otto and writing down ideas for movies then throwing them out before long. This afternoon, as Sophie and Otto were leaving to come to Brent’s gallery, I thought I finally had an idea to work with. I was wrong. “I don’t have any ideas.”
“What do you mean?” Otto’s incredulity was reasonable. I’d been so confident earlier.
“I thought I had something. I even made multiple pages of notes, but it wasn’t anything after all.”
“I’m so sorry, love,” Otto said.
I loved Otto for his enthusiasm for what I did. “Well, it was more of an idea than I’ve had in a long time. That has to count for something, right?”
He sighed, unconvinced. “You will find the right thing, I’m sure of it. What can we get for you?”
I practically drooled over the bacon-wrapped pork ribs, skewers of mutton and venison, roasted herbed potatoes, and stuffed mushrooms. “All of it. I’m starving.”
“Mabel.” I turned—Brent’s brow was furrowed, eyes narrowed. “Come here.”
The right side of my head throbbed. I hated it when he called me like that, like I shouldn’t have ever left his side. My stomach growled. The majority of guests in the gallery had heard Brent and were watching me now. This was not the time to say something. I handed the plate back to Sophie. “Save some for me? I’ll have it later, when we get home.”
Sophie scowled. I half-smiled, apologetic on Brent’s behalf. It was fine. I was fine. Brent was nervous and under a lot of pressure to make this event a success.
“Will do, love,” Otto said.
Brent grasped my hand and pulled me over to Celia’s statue of a dragon breathing sapphire encrusted fire. Sidney walked with us.
“The underside is equally detailed,” Brent told Sidney. “Mabel, can you help me pick it up?”
Pick it up? It weighed more than a hundred pounds. I was not strong enough to lift anything so heavy. If I were still mining, sure. But I wasn’t. I didn’t have that kind of strength anymore. Brent did. He lifted these kinds of things all the time. He could easily pick up the statue and talk about it at the same time. It wouldn’t be right for him to do that kind of work at a show in front of such an important client.
Brent needed my help and Sidney was waiting.
“Of course.” I smiled. I reached around the statue, around the dragon’s chest, and heaved.
“Watch the wings,” Brent scolded.
I did my best to shift the statue in my straining arms. I focused on my breathing as I bore the entire weight of the statue, while Brent and Sidney spoke at length about the detailed stone work. I kept quiet when Brent asked me to tilt the statue a little to the left and warned me to be more careful, when I could barely hold onto it as it was. I reminded myself that this event, and this conversation in particular, could turn things around for Brent’s business. He couldn’t effectively talk about the art and finesse the sale if he was holding the statue.
Despite our best efforts, Sidney wasn’t convinced it was worth his interest or money.
“Have you seen this piece over here?” Brent put his arm around Sidney’s shoulder and led him to a wood etching two feet away.
I grunted as I tipped forward, catching myself before I dropped the statue or fell over completely. Brent glared at me. My heart raced and sweat coated my face.
I set the statue down and shook out my numb arms. The piece was valuable, perhaps not as valuable as Brent wanted it to be, but it still warranted a hefty price tag. Had I broken it, I would have willingly paid for it. It was the anger and blame in his eyes that terrified me. In that one look, it was as if he was telling me I was destroying his night, that my weakness was ruining his gallery, his reputation, his business. I dare not mess this up for him.
Shame, pure and absolute, washed over me.
I deserved better.
It was my fault.
Brent’s gallery had never been the same in the three years following that business with Radier, Aubrey, and Sevrin. He needed to make a couple of sales tonight or the gallery was going to go out of business.
I glanced over at Sophie and Otto who smiled at me. My stomach growled but I felt ill. I couldn’t eat. I should remain by Brent’s side, anyway, in case he needed me again.
If this night went well, he would go back to being his kind, caring self, the way he usually was. Or used to be.
I wandered over to him, hovering a step or two back, close enough for him to know I was there for him. He smiled at me and gently held my hand as Sidney showed keen interest in a wood etching.
Brent loved me.
He was happier.
I wanted him to be happy.
I loved him.
I deserved better.
I TOOK a deep swig from the pitcher of ale in my left hand and readied my axe with my right.
The bullseye blurred. I closed one eye and breathed deep, which only made things worse. I heard the words my brother Mikey had said so often as my coach. “Relax. Visualize what you must do. Pay attention to your technique. You can do this.”
I shook my head and took another long, deep pull on my ale. I would visualize, all right. I imagined the throwing post as Mikey standing with his back to me. The image morphed into Emma’s smirk, and changed again into Brent as he scolded me then praised me for being such a wonderful support tonight.
I knew better than to throw while angry. Last time I’d done it, I blew out my shoulder. I reached back and hurled the axe. It slipped smoothly from my grip, turning head over handle. Mikey would have been proud. The blade pierced the center of the target. Perfect. I scoffed and drained my pitcher.
The last letter I received from Max had said, “Da knows. Don’t write.” That was it. Three years ago. If Da had his way, my family will have forgotten about me by now. Mikey would never be proud of me again. He had been, once, when he’d coached me, when I’d done everything expected of me.
Why was it that the one thing I was truly ever good at gave me the most painful memories?
I ran the pad of my thumb over the smooth sapphires embedded in the handle and really thought about it. Was it, though? Was it really the one thing I was good at?
I couldn’t sell my art. No agent had signed me. Brent had finally agreed to sell my carvings as a favor, with at least one of them still sitting in the display window. But no one wanted them. My art had been called ‘primitive.’
I tossed another axe. It wasn’t such a perfect throw, but the post was swaying, or I was, so I was content to have hit it at all.
My movie career was adequate. I earned a fair living at it. By Gilliam standards I was down right wealthy. I enjoyed the movies I made and still loved the creativity involved, but my creativity had dried up. I had no idea what I was going to do next. No matter how many hours I spent thinking and plotting and planning, I came up empty.
I hurled a third axe at the blurry post, which seemed to grow ever wider, and yet I missed it entirely.
Typical. I started off brilliantly with something, then in no time it became a disaster.
I tipped my pitcher, forcing the last few drops down my throat. Then I retrieved my axes and went back to haphazardly throwing.
I could make a movie about axe throwing…
Brent would loathe that idea. I laughed, bitterly. He hated anything that took me away from his side. If I wanted a golden ring from him, I could never make such a movie, maybe not any movie. He may have been more demanding of my time over the last few months, but he had also been slower to anger.
After tonight, I wasn’t so sure I wanted a golden ring. I didn’t think I wanted anything from him.
What did it matter? It was a stupid idea. A movie about axe throwing would be the most boring movie ever.
I threw my final axe and hit the post beneath the target.
It might not be that boring, though. Not if I could think of a good story to go with it.
What kind of story could possibly make axe throwing exciting? It would have to be about some kind of competition. But who would want to watch that in a movie theater when they could watch it in person? We received flyers every week for tavern competitions around Leitham. Mind you, watching a bunch of drunk dwarves throw axes was hardly worth paying to see, unless you were as drunk as the competitors.
Oooo. I needed more ale.
I grabbed my pitcher and staggered inside.
Hadn’t we received one of those flyers today? I dug through the garbage can behind the bar. I pulled out the crumpled, slightly soggy parchment and flattened it out in front of me.
The event was labeled as a Dwarf Games-track competition. Those who won enough of these qualified for the city championships, and from there kept moving up to qualify for the Dwarf Games.
Whatever happened to plain old tavern competitions for bragging rights? Like when I’d beaten Ricky in Gilliam, and imagined throwing axes to save Aramis?
Aramis, whom I hadn’t seen since our movie premiere. He’d said I’d saved his life when we ended Aubrey and Radier’s reign of terror. He still left to take Aubrey’s place as Lord of the Elves.
Yet another good thing in my life that had gone so very wrong.
I tucked the flyer into my pocket next to my last letter from Max, refilled my pitcher, and carried it up to my room.
I WIPED the sweat off my brow as I mopped the floor of the Hammer and Chisel. The physical effort of setting up for the evening crowd helped me feel useful.
The door slammed open.
“Mabel!” Sam declared, marching over. “Guess who’s retiring from the movie business?”
“Not you, I hope.” I set the mop aside and pulled the chairs down from the tables.
“Pff, no. Of course not me! Dakkar.”
Dakkar, the first and only dragon I’d ever seen, tamed by Sevrin, trained to be in movies, adored by Sam for years. “Didn’t she just finish a movie? And didn’t you say she was still in great health?”
“She did, I did, and she is,” Sam said. “But she is slowing down and her trainers would rather retire her while she can still enjoy life, rather than wear her out.”
That sounded lovely, but it didn’t sound right. Not from what I’d seen over the few years I worked in movies. Most actors, and especially creatures, were worked until they couldn’t work anymore. Sam’s announcement seemed especially suspicious to me considering Dakkar was the only dragon in Leitham, or anywhere as far as anyone knew, so she was in high demand.
“Is she really in as good health as you say?”
“Dakkar has two movies left, then she’s retiring. And I’ve applied to adopt her.”
Sam was actually going to do it. She’d said she would after she spent her first day working with Dakkar, but I hadn’t thought she’d stick to it after this many years. I should have known better. Sam didn’t give up on anything, no matter how long it took to get it done.
“That’s fantastic.” I pulled down the last chair and moved behind the bar. I sorted through the stack of mail waiting there: a couple of bills, a few reservation requests, a letter or two for Sophie and Otto from friends or past guests, and another flyer for a local axe throwing competition.
My drunken musings of last night came back to me. I used to wish my axe throwing career had been recorded, made into a movie so that Aramis and Mam would see me. Maybe I should start competing again and record it, make a movie of it, and hope that my family and friends in Gilliam would see it and remember me. I smiled and tucked the flyer into my pocket along with the one from last night. I was too old to compete, not to mention completely out of shape. I hadn’t thrown competitively in years, not even here at the Hammer and Chisel when some of the patrons drunkenly challenged each other and everyone within earshot.
I flipped through the letters once more, hoping, as I always did, that there would be a letter from Max. I knew there wouldn’t be.
Sam cleared her throat. “Sorry,” I said, setting aside the mail and prepped the tankards. “Where are you going to keep Dakkar?”
Sam dropped into a chair at a table nearest the bar. “I’ve had my eye on a property at the outskirts of town. It will take some work to fix it up and make a nice home for Dakkar. I’m pretty sure if I get custody, I can arrange with the studios to keep her where she is until my place is ready, if I have to.”
I filled two tankards. “What about when you’re working? How are you going to look after her then?” I placed one of the tankards in front of Sam.
“Lil and I are doing all right,” Sam said. “We can take care of whatever medical treatments Dakkar might require. And we can hire someone to look after her while we’re working.”
I’d met Dakkar a few times. She was sweet, something I never imagined I would ever think about a dragon. “You can hire me to look after her,” I said. “Then I wouldn’t have to think about what movie to make next.”
“Still struggling?” Sam asked.
“I’ve got nothing.” I sank into the chair beside Sam. “Absolutely nothing. The more I think about it, the more I do to let my creativity flow, the worse it gets.”
“What do you mean?”
“I come up with ideas but each one is more laughable than the one before.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself,” Sam said. “Maybe you should share your next idea with someone else and hear what they think before you dismiss it. Like me, or Lil, or any one of us. Try some out on us tonight.”
“Or maybe I should just quit. Forget about movies altogether.”
“You can quit if you want, but I know you have at least one more movie inside of you.”
I CHATTED amiably with our customers as I poured the pints. The interactions were cheerful, routine, and shallow—the weather, family well-being, and work.
I took Sam’s advice about giving my ideas more of a chance and thought more about the flyers occupying my pocket. I had no need to be discovered by Mam or Aramis, nor did I need to send some kind of message to Da and my brothers. Maybe there was something there, though, to the notion of axe throwing in and of itself. I couldn’t recall if any documentaries had been made about axe throwing, following the rise of a thrower from the bottom ranks to the Dwarf Games. Of course, what I thought would have made a good movie back when I was throwing, was that I was pretty much the only female competing in Gilliam. My brothers had often talked about there being other female axe throwers out there, yet I’d never heard them talk about any specific ones, not even any that Mikey may have competed against when he’d won the Dwarf Games.
“Hi hun,” Brent said, breaking my focus. He leaned over the bar and kissed me.
“Hey, Brent,” I said, kissing him back.
I looked over to Sophie and she nodded while serving a customer, releasing me to join my friends.
I poured a tray full of tankards for my friends and joined Brent. My friends when Brent and I arrived with the drinks. Jeff and Hannah jumped to their feet and took the tray from me.
Brent was in a very good mood. A couple of sales last night, including a big one to Sidney, made all the difference. He was smiling, calm, happy. Things were finally back to the way they used to be.
“I’ve been contacted by Fion about a new artist,” Brent said.
Brent shrugged. “I agreed to look at the work, but even if it’s a good fit for my gallery, I worry.”
I nodded, but my back muscles automatically tensed. Brent worried the decline in his business meant that the artists he showed and sold weren’t getting the market value they deserved, if they sold at all. He worried that the decline in his business meant that agents weren’t sending him the top artists anymore, which devalued his gallery, which added to the decline of his business. One good night wouldn’t automatically mean the struggle was over, but it was a sign that business was improving—wasn’t it?
“Did you hear about Sam and Dakkar?” Hannah asked.
Brent shook his head. “No, what’s happening?”
I smiled. Brent was worried, but he wasn’t upset. I could relax. Knowing Sam wouldn’t mind, I half-listened as she told Brent about her plans, and how she had enlisted everyone to help her out in their own specific way. I again allowed my mind to wander to the flyer for the axe throwing competition.
It might be worth going, having a look, see if there were any female throwers there who could carry a good story. I didn’t want to simply go to such a competition and flat-out ask if I could record the competitors. I needed to scout out the competitors first and find out if there was someone worth recording. It would be much easier to do if I had a connection, some way to gain their trust.
“Hey.” Jeff nudged me, interrupting my train of thought. “Where’d you go?”
“Nowhere,” I lied. Sam glared at me. Now was as good a time as any to test my idea. “I was thinking about my next movie. It’s a terrible idea.” Sam cleared her throat and I sighed, giving in. I pulled out the flyer and passed it around, and picked up where my thoughts had left off. “I can’t just go in there and ask to record them. It’s a serious competition, and outside distractions will not be welcome.”
“So what do you have to do?” Sam asked.
I thought for a moment. “The fastest and easiest thing to do would be to talk to the organizer and get permission to record, but there is no guarantee I’d find what I’m looking for. I’d rather find a subject to record before I do that. Even then, it might not be worth the trouble.”
“So why don’t you go in as a competitor?” Hannah asked.
“That is a great idea,” Jeff said.
I shook my head. “I haven’t competed in years.”
“You don’t have to be good, do you?” Lil asked.
They hadn’t said it was a ridiculous idea. I absently massaged my right shoulder as I absorbed the idea, spinning it around in my mind.
“I don’t think you should do it,” Brent said.
My back tightened even more, making it painful to sit. I could feel Brent’s displeasure. His demeanor hadn’t changed. Nothing had changed. I could just tell he was getting angry. I shrank away from him.
“Why not?” Jeff jumped on him.
I didn’t want Jeff provoking Brent.
“Mabel,” Brent took my hand, holding it too tight. “I don’t want you to get hurt. Physically or emotionally.”
“It’s only one competition,” Hannah said. “She’ll be fine.”
“In a tiny, out-of-the-way tavern,” Jeff added.
“Brent,” Lil said, “None of us want Mabel to get hurt. She won’t. She has us for support, and this isn’t like it was for her in Gilliam. It’s one competition. She won’t attract any unwanted attention.”
There really was nothing to worry about. “Aubrey’s out of the picture,” I said. “Radier won’t bother me, neither will Sevrin.”
Brent let go of my hand, leaving it cold and neglected. He cleared his throat and leaned back.
I’d known he wouldn’t approve and yet I’d brought up axe throwing anyway. At the same time, I’d been unable to come up with a decent movie idea going on five months. This was the first real possibility of something good for me. The more I thought about it and talked about it to my friends, the more I liked it. Brent didn’t have to be my biggest cheerleader, but he could, he should, support my happiness. Still, I didn’t want to make him upset. That would ruin the evening for everyone, especially me.
“I’m not saying for sure that I’m going to do this,” I said. “I haven’t thrown in ages. While it’s true I don’t have to be good, I have to be somewhat decent to gain the respect of the other competitors, and I’m far from being somewhat decent. A better documentary might be following Sam’s adoption of Dakkar. Starting with the history of dragons.”
“I like that idea better,” Brent said.
I breathed easier.
“It’s a nice back-up plan,” Lil said. “But I think you should give this axe throwing idea a chance. It’s what you’re more interested in, anyway.”
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
“I’ve been watching you,” Lil said. “You’ve been thinking about it for the past few hours, strategizing, figuring out how to make it work. You love the challenge, and you love axe throwing. I remember you telling me about the dream you had when you were younger, about your throwing career being made into a movie.”
I looked away, blushing.
“See?” Lil pointed at me. “You love it. You didn’t get your movie, but this could be the perfect chance to make it happen for someone else.”
I sighed. I loved the idea. I didn’t know if I could do it, though. Brent exhaled loudly, his irritation simmering.
“All right.” Jeff slammed down his empty tankard. “You don’t know if you’ll be good enough to gain their trust. Let’s find out. I challenge you, Mabel Goldenaxe, to an axe throwing contest, here, tonight, right now, at the Hammer and Chisel. Let’s see how bad you really are. I think you’ll be fine, but prove me wrong. And if it is too emotionally painful out here, then you know you don’t have to pursue this idea.”
“Jeff, don’t,” Brent said.
“Come on,” Jeff said. “It’s a couple of axes, out back, for fun, among friends.”
It wasn’t the worst idea Jeff had ever had. I could see how bad I was and put this plan to rest once and for all, and have some fun while doing it. “All right, Jeff. I accept your challenge.” I drained my tankard and set it down. “Let’s go.”
My friends cheered, and Brent quietly followed us out to the back. His silent disapproval weighed on me, made me feel guilty. I shouldn’t hurt him like this. Knots twisted in my stomach and I considered backing out. We exited to the empty back garden, the throwing post standing in the far corner. There was no one else here to watch. Surely Brent could see that there was nothing to worry about.
I dug out a few of my throwing axes I had tucked away in the back shed when I first moved in here. I gave a random set of three to Jeff, and kept the axes Mikey had given me for myself.
“Okay,” Jeff said, holding the axes, swinging his arms in gigantic circles. “How do you do this?”
I burst out laughing. “You’ve never thrown before and you challenged me?”
“If I remember right, you’d never thrown before you accepted your first challenge,” Jeff countered.
“Fair point. Guess I’ll be coach and competitor,” I muttered with a smile. “First of all, stop swinging your arms like that.”
Jeff listened as I told him how to hold the axe, how to move his arm, reaching back then bringing the arm down from the shoulder first, elbow second, and finally the wrist for the release.
We’d gained a small gathering of spectators by the time I permitted Jeff a few practice throws. The knots in my stomach twisted harder. I glanced at Brent who stood to the side, arms crossed, scowling. My shoulders slumped under the weight of his disapproval, draining my enthusiasm. Jeff was having so much fun, though. I couldn’t stop now. I’d make it up to Brent later.
When Jeff finally hit the throwing post on his fifth throw, he declared himself ready for competition.
I stood at the throwing line, focusing on the post. Preparing to throw my axe drove Brent from my mind. My breath caught and my stomach clenched. I shouldn’t be nervous. I’d done this before. I had nothing to fear. I blinked rapidly a few times, trying to get into the competitive frame of mind. To focus on the target and make my best throw.
The chatter of the spectators was too loud. It had never bothered me before, but now they sounded like the birdsong in the Gilliam forest, back when I hated it, when it was loud and intrusive and a constant reminder that my family wasn’t wealthy enough to live under the mountain like proper dwarves.
I automatically looked to where Mikey always stood when I competed at The Bearded Prospector. He wasn’t there. Of course he wasn’t there. I was at the Hammer and Chisel, in Leitham, I wasn’t in Gilliam.
Why was I putting myself through this? For a movie?
I wasn’t really competing. Not like I used to. This was for fun, nothing serious. I didn’t have to be great. I just had to be good enough.
I held my breath and threw, barely hitting the target. I’d thrown better last night when I was drunk. “I guess I was the one who needed the practice throws,” I joked. “Your turn, Jeff.”
Jeff stepped to the line and prepared to throw. Brent moved to my side and whispered. “Are you all right?”
I nodded. “You can do this, Jeff,” I called out.
Jeff smiled at me and threw. His axe hit the target on the exact opposite side from mine. Jeff threw up his hands and cheered. “Woohoo! I’m as good as the Gilliam champion!”
“I wasn’t quite champion,” I said taking my place at the throwing line.
Jeff shrugged. “Second? Third? Whatever. Close enough.”
My next throws weren’t much better than my first, but then neither were Jeff’s. I won, just barely, and a part of me suspected Jeff might have let me win to boost my confidence about competing again. My shoulder was fine, maybe a little tired from the exertion of both now and last night’s drunken throwing, but that wasn’t a bad feeling. It had actually been exhilarating.
At Jeff’s insistence, I bought a round of drinks for my friends in celebration.
“Mabel.” Brent pulled me aside. “I really think this is a bad idea. I don’t want you to injure your shoulder again. I don’t want Radier or Sevrin to use you for their organizations.”
I shrank from his anger and I hated myself for it. I’d never let anyone dictate my life. Why was I letting Brent do it now? I jerked my elbow out of his painful grip. “I’m only going to be in enough competitions to gain the trust of the other throwers, so I can find a good subject and make the documentary I’ve always wanted to be made. I’ll be fine.”
I couldn’t really make that promise. There was always a chance Sevrin or Radier could come after me, but I didn’t think they would. More than that, I hoped they wouldn’t.
I SLAPPED the flyer and my entry fee onto the bar. The bartender swept the two gold coins into his palm and pointed me to the back garden. Hoisting my bag of axes higher on my shoulder, I nodded my thanks and headed to the throwing range.
It was strange to be at a competition without a coach or any friends. There was something I liked about it. I didn’t know anyone and no one knew me. I had no reputation to live up to. I was just another dwarf looking for some action.
I signed in along with six other competitors, including another female. I guess Mikey had been right about there being other female throwers.
The competitive space was small. It was like any other tavern competition, except this one had an entry fee, and no one was drinking. There was only the one throwing post and it was at the furthest distance possible given the space, which was equal to that of the first round of a major competition. There was no way it could be moved for round two, and there was definitely no room for the pop-up targets of round three. How was this a Dwarf Games-track competition if there weren’t any pop-up targets?
I took my place on the sidelines and set down my axes. I sized up the others as I stretched and warmed up the way Mikey had taught me: rotating my shoulders and moving my head from side to side, loosening my neck muscles. I drew return stares and I welcomed them. It was all a part of the gamesmanship. However minor my actions were, if the others were intimidated by them, then it worked for me.
I smiled to myself. I was attempting to play mind games like a real competitor. I wasn’t here to see if any of the others were interested in mating. I was here to prove myself to myself, period. Still, I ran my fingers through my meager beard.
A couple of the contestants had coaches with them, whispering last minute instructions and tips. I glanced down at the axes in my hand. I missed Mikey telling me to relax and pay attention to my technique.
This was no time to be sentimental about my family or maudlin about how they’d turned their backs on me.
One more competitor arrived, an older fellow, much older, with a fully grey beard. I guess Mikey didn’t get everything right. He’d said he was too old to go back to competing. Apparently there was no age limit, at least not to these low-level competitions.
One by one we were given a few minutes to take a handful of practice throws. The shadow pain returned to my right shoulder and my throws were well off the target. I rotated my shoulder some more as I collected my axes. Mikey always said it was better to get the poor throws out of the way during the warmup. Even so, the tightness worried me. I massaged my shoulder as I waited for my turn.
The first few throwers barely landed their axes in the target area. I couldn’t do much worse than they had. That took an enormous amount of pressure off me.
The other female was good. Her axe hit the bullseye dead center.
I selected my first axe and stepped to the throwing line. The shadow pain was still present. I kneaded my shoulder once more. I reached back, focusing on the target, breathed deep three times, and threw. The axe came out of my hand too early. Fortunately the axe hit the target rather than flying over it, or falling entirely too short and hitting the ground. It wasn’t the worst throw ever, but it was far from the best.
As I took my place on the sidelines, I coached myself. I could make up some ground with the two throws I had left—I usually did, as long as I paid attention to my technique.
The old guy was pretty good. He and the female were both ahead of me. I improved with my second throw, but so did everyone else. By my third throw I was too far back to move up from fourth, and the person in fifth was close in points. I could be satisfied with placing fourth, but that didn’t mean I had any desire to move down a spot.
I stepped to the throwing line one last time. The shadow pain was stronger. I considered that maybe it was real, not imagined and I should take something for it when I got home. Not some strange old family recipe though, like the poison Emma had given me. On the other hand, it was probably nothing. It would probably be fine in the morning. Aramis’s father, Aubrey, had healed me. I was fairly certain pain couldn’t come back unless I did something to cause new damage, which I hadn’t. The competition was bringing back the bad memories of the poison Emma had given me, and how I’d ruined my axe throwing career. That was all.
One last time I rotated my shoulder, breathed deep, and hurled my axe. The release was my best one of the night. I hit the ring next to the bullseye. I pumped my fist. I’d secured my fourth place.
I was the only one, besides the winner, happy with their result.
“What’s your story?” The female thrower approached me as I packed up my axes.
“It’s been a few years since I’ve competed,” I said. “I had an injury that kept me out of it for some time, and then life got in the way. I didn’t know if I could still throw.”
“Huh,” she grunted. “I expect it won’t be long before you’re beating all of us.”
I shrugged. “We’ll see. You’re pretty good yourself.”
“Thanks, but this is the remnants of my lack-luster throwing career. The name’s Reede, by the way.” She stuck out her hand.
I shook it. “Mabel. Nice to meet you. Will I see you at the next competition?”
We hefted our bags and walked to the front street together.
“I hadn’t planned on it, but it’s so rare to compete against a female, you just might see me there.” Reede smiled.
An interesting comment. I was even more curious now about the existence of female axe throwers. How many were there? “You’ve competed against other females?”
“Not many but some. Haven’t you?”
She just might be the one I wanted to make the movie about. I wanted to get to know her a little better before asking. “No. I was told that there were others, but I’ve never met any. Not where I’m from.”
“Gilliam, in the Black Mountain region.”
“Oooh, no, there aren’t any. Wow. You came out of there? That’s impressive. It’s kind of an unwritten rule that the Black Mountain region doesn’t generally approve of female competitors. You must have had a pretty liberal coach.”
Mikey, liberal? That was the last word I would have used to describe him. “I don’t think so. He was my brother, and to be honest, probably the only reason he coached me was because I’m not sure he always remembered I was female.”
Reede chuckled. “Brothers can be that way. Mine are the same. At any rate, I’m impressed. It was nice meeting you, Mabel. I look forward to throwing with you again.”
I watched Reede walk the other way. I didn’t just want to record her. I wanted to beat her. I would have to practice extra hard for that to happen. I needed to prove that females from the Black Mountains could throw axes, and win.
Dear gods of iron and stone, the pumping adrenaline of competition was a rush!
THE EVENING press at the Hammer and Chisel was in full swing by the time I returned. Sophie was swamped behind the bar.
I hugged my bag to my chest as I pushed through the crowded tavern to the bar. I stepped around it and put my bag down. “What can I get you?” I asked the nearest patron as if I had been there all along.
“Five pitchers of your stoutest ale,” he said, his speech on the edge of slurring.
“Where were you?” Sophie asked, beside me.
I filled the pitchers from the cask. “I had some things to take care of.” I wasn’t sure why I hesitated telling her I’d been throwing axes. There was no need to keep it a secret.
“Things, huh? There’s a glow about you. Have a good time, did you?”
In Gilliam, coming in fourth in a similar competition would have been a humiliation. After all I’d been through, fourth felt incredible. My cheeks burned. “I did, thanks.”
“Good. Does this glow have anything to do with those throwing axes of yours?”
“It does.” I grinned.
“Maybe.” There were so many ideas bursting to life, I couldn’t possibly say more without running the risk of jinxing everything. Sophie knew me well enough not to push for more.
I handed the last of the pitchers to the patron and took his payment. I watched him as he swayed the first few steps away from the bar. I held my breath, hoping I wouldn’t be cleaning up all that ale off the floor. He straightened soon enough and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Hey,” Brent said, approaching the bar, a flyer in his hand. He leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “I’ve been looking all over for you. No matter, you’re here now. Look.”
Had he forgotten the axe throwing competition had been tonight? Or was he just going to pretend it didn’t exist? He was in a good mood. I needed to let it go.
He placed the flyer in front of me. It was a poster advertising The Gilliam Dragon Killers, my hometown’s battle-axe team, coming to take on the Leitham Brigade two months from now. Of course I knew about it. I’d been watching the battle-axe schedule for years. “I know.”
Brent smirked. He slipped two tickets on top of the flyer. “Want to go with me?”
I squealed as I jumped up and planted a kiss on his lips. “As if you needed to ask.”
A moment of sadness washed over me. I bit my bottom lip.
“What is it?” Brent asked.
“I used to have the full Dragon Killers uniform, including the shield.” I assumed Da had burned it all since none of it had been among my few possessions Max had managed to save for me. I shrugged and shook off the melancholy. “I’ll just have to buy it all new. I’d pretty much out grown it, anyway.”
Brent gave me a blank stare. He didn’t know much about sports. He basically tolerated me talking about them. I was sure the only reason he was taking me to the battle-axe competition was because he knew how much I loved the Dragon Killers.
“Most everyone who goes to this kind of thing wears the uniform of their favorite team,” I said. “It’s custom. Expected. I’ll get you something, too. You’ll love it.”
“Are you sure you want to be wearing the uniform of the enemy team?” Brent asked.
“Enemy?” I said with intense indignation. I poured a few tankards of ale for another customer. “The Dragon Killers are heroes. They may be the opposition here in Leitham, but I wouldn’t be caught dead in the uniform of any other team.”
Brent’s expression scarcely changed. He didn’t share my passion. That was fine. What mattered was that he was taking me to see the Dragon Killers.
A line of patrons five deep had formed around Brent. “Can we talk more later?” I asked as apologetically as I could. “I really should help Sophie a little while longer.”
“Oh, yeah, sure.”
“Wait, Brent,” Sophie said. “May I see one of those tickets?”
“Um, all right,” he hesitated but gave her one.
“Wow,” she said. “These are really good seats.” Sophie showed it to me and pointed out the section and row number to me. “Otto and I used to go all the time. We’d sit near here. You can see everything. You feel like you can reach out and touch the teams.”
Never in my life could I ever have dreamed of seats like that to see the Dragon Killers in Gilliam. “We definitely have to get the right gear now.”
Sophie handed me the ticket and I tucked it in my pocket.
Brent’s eyes widened for a moment. I could tell he was trying to find a way to get the ticket back. Normally I would have given it to him, but I decided to leave it in my pocket this time. If it really was for me, then he should have no problem letting me hold onto it.
To my surprise, Brent walked away. I had a feeling he was going to get upset with me later, but for now, everything was all right.
I found myself breathing easier as I rushed to serve the impatient customers.
I busied myself tending the bar, spying Brent every now and then out of the corner of my eye, holding court near the fireplace, regaling a crowd with his stories of his encounters with one famous artist or another. I smiled as I watched him, admiring his storytelling ability. He commanded a room better than anyone I’d seen.
We were busy right up to closing time. I ushered out the last of the patrons and locked the door. Brent usually stayed behind but he wasn’t anywhere to be seen. I wondered if he was out back.
“I’ll clean up,” I said to Sophie and Otto. “You’ve had a long night. Why don’t you go on home?”
“You sure?” Sophie asked, coming around the bar.
“Of course. It should be a quiet night. Our few guests have gone up already.”
“If you need us, you know where we are,” Otto said.
“I’ll be fine,” I said, shooing them out the door.
I didn’t have to clean up right away. I needed to find Brent after neglecting him all evening.
“Brent?” I called, walking out back. He wasn’t there, either. He must have gone home. My heart sank, hurt that he hadn’t said good night.
I picked up the tankards left by the customers and carried them inside. I’d make an extra effort to see him tomorrow. I put up the last of the chairs and pushed Brent’s silent departure out of my mind. The floor wasn’t too bad. I needed to mop it but I wanted to get some practice in. I grabbed my bag of axes and took it to the throwing range. The chilly air made it a perfect night for throwing. I needed to put in plenty of hours on the range. I may have entered tonight’s competition hoping to perform respectably. I’d done that. Now I wanted to push myself to improve on those results. I wanted to win.
I worked my way through the exercise routine Mikey used to make me do: sprints, push-ups, weight-lifting with the axes, and stretches. I stopped in the midst of a push-up. Mikey’s coaching was loud in my head, “Breathe. Push yourself. Give me five more.”
I set my axes aside, closed my eyes, and followed his instructions.
“Stretch out again, keep your shoulders loose,” I heard him say. I couldn’t picture his face. All I could see was the back of his head as he spoke, his back turned to me, blocking the walk to our family home.
My stomach churned. I rested my hands on my knees. What was I doing to myself?
I straightened up, took a deep breath, and rotated my arms in big circles to loosen up my shoulders. “I’m not doing it for my family or to find a mate,” I muttered. “I’m doing this for me.”
Tonight’s competition had been fun. For the first time in my life, the only pressure was what I put on myself. There was no need to impress anyone in hopes that they would want to be my mate, I didn’t have to prove my strength. I didn’t have to please Aramis, or any other director or agent. I had been on my own. I only had to impress myself, and do the best I could. I’d enjoyed it enough to try it again.
Mikey had been a great coach. Thinking about him hurt, but I could still benefit from what he taught me. I’d take his instruction as far as I could go.
I had nothing to lose.
Nothing except Brent.
He would come around. When he recognized I wasn’t competing in big tournaments or actually going for the Dwarf Games, that is.