Back in Axe-tion
Katrina Schroeder is a book coach, editor, and writer. When she’s not knee-deep in words, she’s playing tabletop and video games, reading more books than she can keep up with, or is in a kayak. She can be found on Twitter as @katrinaeditorial1 or you can learn more about her on her website at katrinaeditorial.com.
Rock and dust trickled down on Sirdrae as she chipped away at her work. The clinking of Little Folk pickaxes against stone echoed throughout the cavern around her. She paused a moment to close her eyes and let the symphony envelop her. She loved this. Nothing felt more right than when she was surrounded by the chorus of axes and stony earth. Sirdrae thought she could sometimes hear where the mineral sat in the stone, like a lone horn playing quietly and poignantly above the rest of the orchestra. She often wondered if it was her imagination, explaining away a coincidence, or if she held a little mage power herself.
She felt a nudge at her arm, and she opened her eyes to see her grandmother standing next to her.
“You gonna stand there all day, or you actually gonna get some work done, huh?” Granny Dun’s toothy smile was almost as contagious as her laughter. She began chiseling at the stone wall next to Sirdrae.
“Hey, Granny. I was just enjoying the moment.” Sirdrae swung her pickaxe at the stone in front of her. The day’s work had been slow going. She hadn’t found much of anything exciting.
“Well, I guess I’ll allow it. There’s nothing like the sound of a bunch of Little Folk grunting as they slam metal to stone, is there?” She cast a side eye to Sirdrae and followed it with a wink.
Sirdrae chuckled and shook her head. “No, nothing like it at all.” As much as she loved the sound, it still made her a little anxious. There had been rumors of demonspawn attacks further down in the Reaches, specifically on outlying mining villages. The news always came from clans much farther away though, so she felt a little safer. Only a little though: the worry still ate at her, like a hungry dog gnawing at a dry bone.
The dark metal of Granny Dun’s axe shimmered in the lamplight as she raised it to chink at the next bit of rock. Sirdrae’s heart fluttered, and she almost jumped from excitement. “Wait, that’s not steel! Is that a new axe, Granny? Made with the new metal?”
Granny Dun hefted her axe to better show it off. Now that was a sight to behold. Her massive braids of white hair piled about her shoulders, each intertwined with runic metal cuffs. One hand rested on her hip while she proudly held up the axe with the other. The sparkle on the bladed head matched the happy glint in Granny Dun’s eye.
The handle was ornately decorated with runic patterns that were beyond precise. Sirdrae knew Dolgan’s work — her husband and the clan’s mage-smith — the moment she saw it, but Granny’s new axe was impressive, even for Dolgan. The pommel had a green gem that glowed slightly. Dolgan must have added a little bit of magic to it to give the axe additional strength against chipping and breaking, Sirdrae thought. The head itself held no intricacies, but it didn’t need any in order to be beautiful. The black material had been polished and shined as though it had never been touched. She could practically see her own reflection in the black blade.
“You’re darn right! It’s waystone.”
“Why is it shaped more like a battle axe than a pickaxe, though? You plan on doing any fighting anytime soon, Granny? I’m sure getting tired of pulling you out of bar fights. Maybe it’s time you took up knitting or something.”
“Girl, if you see me knitting, you take this axe and grant your dear old grandmother a little mercy.” Granny Dun tapped the side of her head. “With mention of the demonspawn lately? Can never be too careful. Here. Feel that balance.” She handed it to Sirdrae, who practically threw her own axe to the side in her rush to touch this new one.
Sirdrae carefully took the axe with both hands and almost dropped it. Not because of how heavy it was, but because of how heavy it wasn’t. It wasn’t light, exactly. It had the sort of weight to it that you would need to get a good swing without expending too much energy and strength to do so, and the balance was perfect. Her eyes shot up to Granny Dun’s, who had the proudest smile on her face.
Sirdrae balanced the axe lightly on the palm of her hand. “Wow, Granny. This…” She shook her head in amazement. “I never knew how bad other axes were until feeling this one. It’s like…oh! Can I keep it?” She always tried to tease Granny as much as Granny teased her, but Granny was, as always, one step ahead.
“Aye, the minute I rest my bones for good, she’s yours, but not a moment sooner!”
Sirdrae handed the axe back to Granny Dun and picked up her own, immediately feeling like she was picking up a rusty nail after having touched a newly-smithed rapier. She decided then and there she was going to find more waystone and save up her copper pieces for a new, fine axe.
“She’s shaped like a battle axe because she doesn’t need to be shaped like a pickaxe in order to mine,” Granny Dun was saying. “You see, the waystone is a natural magnet, so it attracts iron.”
Sirdrae cocked her head. “Wait… So that means you can use it to find iron without having to wade through every nook and cranny of the earth?”
“That’s right! I can feel the pull of iron here in this wall, but if I move over to your wall, nothing. Even as I walked in here today, I felt this baby pulling against the tunnel entrance. There’s a spot there we need to mine before we quit this cavern.”
Sirdrae cocked her head the other way. “Wait a second, does that mean you can’t use it in battle? It would pull you to every enemy wearing iron armor. That doesn’t seem very practical at all, in a fight.”
“Ah, see, that’s where Dolgan added a little magic.” Granny Dun flashed the pommel with the green gem to Sirdrae. “He didn’t add any additional power boosts to this baby. He didn’t need to. The clever boy somehow figured out how to turn the magnetic energy of the waystone on and off at will. All I have to do is press my finger on this gem.”
“So that’s what Dolgan’s been working on! He wouldn’t tell me; he kept putting it away when I was around so I wouldn’t see. That’s genius!” Sirdrae had always dreamed of joining the miners and fighters since she had been young, but Dolgan’s sights had always been on the arcane and smithing. He was the smartest person Sirdrae knew and had taken to both arts like he was born for them. “He’s wasted on us down here,” she went on. “He should be down below, helping the army with the demonspawn.”
“That may be true, but think of all the mining we can do, now that we have this! This new mineral and his clever pommel will change the profession as we know it. If we can find more of this waystone, just think of the work and time saved pulling up that iron!”
Sirdrae whistled. It truly was a remarkable feat and a turning point in the mining and forging industry. They might once again be able to keep up with the rising demand for weapons and armor across the lands of Talmenor. Those rumors of frightening creatures invading villages and the need to build armies to protect them kept their forges in business. The waystone axe could truly prove to be the biggest advancement for their little Little Folk clan.
Suddenly, a terrifying shriek interrupted Sirdrae’s thoughts. The shrill sound sent shivers down her spine and goosebumps up her arms. It wasn’t a sound she’d ever heard before.
She and Granny Dun both looked toward the source of the noise. The shrieking continued in short bursts, mixed with a cacophony of yells and wails coming from distant Little Folk. The miners around them turned as well, only to find several of their clan running from the south side of the cavern.
Thalir and Adrella were at the front of the group, and both turned back towards the sounds, with their pickaxes raised. Right behind themwere creatures of a form Sirdrae had hoped to never see in person. They looked very similar to her fellow Little Folk… except they seemed menacing and unnatural. Their skin was a dark gray color, and a few had tusks and bulbous tumors protruding from different parts of their bodies.
Thalir yelled with his deep, booming voice and thrust the sharp end of his pickaxe at the oncoming horde. It stuck in the neck of the nearest one, black ichor splashing Thalir’s face. Granny Dun’s husky voice mixed with his and she charged forward, holding her new axe high in the air above her.
At that moment, as Sirdrae saw that beautiful axe, shaped more like a vicious battle axe than a tool used for mining, she realized her little mining clan wasn’t ready for this. She’d always dreamed of joining her clan in glorious battle, but she was now certain that it had been a fool’s dream. This simply wasn’t something mining axes were good for.
Except for Granny Dun’s.
Granny charged ahead, heedless of the danger around her. She slammed the head of the inky-black axe into another creature, her grinning white teeth reflecting in the mirror of her blade. The creature crumpled to the ground in front of her, and her laughter, always contagious, filled the room, echoing over the crying of the scared Little Folk about her. Granny Dun turned toward the throng, her new axe looming above, casting a shadow over the surging mass up front of her.
Suddenly, each of the Little Folk seemed to take strength from her and joined in her laughter, raising their own axes to meet the evil in front of them. Sirdrae felt the same rallying power reverberating inside her and hoisted her pickaxe.
This wasn’t the first time Sirdrae had seen Granny Dun swing an axe. Granny had taught her how to use the axe for both battle and mining, and Sirdrae’d been on the opposing end of Granny’s axe during sparring bouts more times than she could count. She’d learned to be a better fighter than most Little Folk, but this was the first time she truly felt like she was in over her head. These demonspawn… they’d had caught the Little Folk off guard.
In the corner of her eye, Sirdrae saw Granny take another swing at one of the demonspawn, only for her axe to swing past the creature, around in a circle, almost hitting herself, before suddenly slamming into another creature behind her.
“Ha! Maybe I should name this ‘Axe-idental Death!’” She cackled loudly to herself, as if overly pleased with her own joke. That was Granny Dun for you.
Sirdrae wanted to roll her eyes, but she was too focused on the demonspawn in front of her. She really wished she had her own battle axe, Stormfury, with her. As soon as this horror was over, she was talking to Dolgan, she resolved. She needed a weapon that was as interchangeable as Granny Dun’s. This pickaxe was only good for the meticulousness needed for mining. It could only keep her alive for so long.
The swarm of demonspawn barreled deeper and deeper into her clan. One of the beasts rushed Sirdrae, and she stepped back to take a swing, only to trip on uneven ground. Her backside hit the earth hard, and she looked up in time to see the brute jump at her.
Right at that moment, Granny’s axe sliced through the air right over Sirdrae’s head, cleaving right through the face of the demonspawn. The body dropped on Sirdrae, but Granny Dun’s hand was already pulling her up. She glanced down to see what had tripped her and saw the lifeless eyes of Adrella staring up at her.
“Don’t mind her now, girl! Get to slashing!”
Sirdrae looked around her. One by one each of her clan was falling to the beasts. There weren’t many standing that were holding their own. Within minutes, they’d be overwhelmed, and the cave would be lost.
Granny thrust Sirdrae’s axe back in her hands.
“Go on, Sirdrae! You have to move.”
Sirdrae shook the confusion from her head.
Granny Dun turned to face the demonspawn attacking Thalir and pointed her axe at it. Then she touched the bottom of the pommel where the gem rested, activating the waystone. The demonspawn started to pull away from Thalir, as if by magic. Its feet dragged along the ground, leaving trails in the dirt. Granny raised her axe and slammed it into the creature’s skull once it came close enough. All of this happened in an instant. Granny then twirled the handle in her palm, spinning the axe head round and round as if she was showing off — of course she was showing off.
“Hmm… It is a magic axe… Maybe it’s my ‘Cast Iron’?” crowed Granny Dun.
“Granny!” Sirdrae cried in exasperation. Thalir chuckled from a few feet away as he swung at his next foe.
“See? He gets it!” Granny took a step forward and smiled, but this time her steps were awkward, her toothy grin was spitting blood, and she stumbled down to her knees. Sirdrae then saw the blade protruding from her stomach.
Sirdrae screamed and dashed toward Granny’s attacker. Her body radiated rage as she slammed into the creature and pummeled it with her fists alone. She hadn’t noticed she’d dropped her axe until she was finished and was crawling back to her grandmother.
Granny Dun’s face became a blur. Sirdrae realized she was crying. Granny began to cough, blood spurting from her lips. Her coughing then subsided and her eyes surveyed the battlefield in front of her.
“Now that, my girl, is the way to go.”
“No, no, you’re going to be okay.” Sirdrae’s voice cracked and she grabbed her grandmother’s other hand. “Let’s get you home, and we’ll clean off your new axe.” She started to stand, hoping to carry her back to the village — back away from this once happy place, now horrific.
Sirdrae sank to the ground as she looked at her grandmother’s face, again with that infectious smile on her old, wrinkled face.
“My dear girl. I’ve finally found a name.”
Sirdrae sniffled and wiped her face with the back of her hand. “Name? Name for what, Granny?”
“My axe. She’s yours now. Make sure Dolgan sharpens her often. He really did something clever with her.”
Sirdrae emitted a whimper and she began to shake uncontrollably. She tried to swallow the lump in her throat and struggled to get her voice around it. “What’s her name, Granny?”
Sirdrae’s choking sob turned into a laugh and Granny Dun looked so pleased with herself. With what little strength she had left, she lifted the handle of the axe, pressed the gem on the pommel, so engaging the magnet, which sensed the iron of Sirdrae’s meager pickaxe. Splitting Headache slid to the pickaxe, and Sirdrae reached for it. When she looked back up, her eyes met the empty eyes of Granny Dun’s, the old Little still somehow with a smile on her face.
Sirdrae howled. Now enraged, she stood, gripping Splitting Headache in her palm. She raised the axe toward the nearest demonspawn, as if pointing at it claimed it as her kill. She charged, the axe swinging above her to gain a deadly momentum. Her heart pounded a furious beat that filled her head and drowned out the grueling discord of war around her. Tears and blood streaked down her face. The tears were her own; the blood was not.
There were too many of them. They would soon overrun this mining band and eventually overtake Sirdrae’s village nearby. She thought of her husband, Dolgan. She pictured his face. He was young — the same age as Sirdrae — and his beard was still short. The beards of Sheyn Little Folk didn’t gain the respectable length for several decades, and every time he noticed a little bit more length, he wouldn’t stop talking about it. Sirdrae found it entertaining: how much he cared about his “Stubble Status”, as Granny Dun termed it.
He was the one thing keeping her fighting now. Dolgan was no fighter himself. He was the smart one of the clan; she was the fighter of the two. His skills at the forge with metal and magic were too valuable to pick up a weapon.
The clan couldn’t afford to lose Dolgan, and neither could she. She’d already lost one family member, and she wasn’t about to lose another.
The image of Dolgan’s face brought her out of her stupor, and she ducked behind a stalagmite to avoid a demonspawn’s swing. She needed to think. They weren’t going to survive this fight on brawn alone — not when they were this outnumbered and without proper battle gear. She whipped back around the rock pillar, quickly dispensing of the two creatures attacking her as she studied her surroundings.
She frantically looked around for several moments, and then it hit her. Granny had mentioned that she felt pull of iron from her axe near the cave’s entrance. If she could find and hit the weakest part of the iron in that wall, just right and with just enough force, she could bring the entrance crashing down on the demonspawn. It was a big risk, but it was better than nothing.
She shouted above the din for the rest of her clan to retreat to the village. Without a thought, the Little Folk obeyed her. She wasn’t their leader, but she was the closest thing to Granny Dun that they had at the moment.
She then turned to fighting demonspawn, knocking more of them down with killing blows while the other Little Folk beat a retreat. She tore a sword from the hand of one demonspawn, holding it in her free hand as she swung Splitting Headache at the next monster coming at her. When the last Little, Thalir, had left the cavern, she followed close behind. She glanced over her shoulder as she ran, getting one last look at her Granny Dun, a knowing smile still stretched across the old woman’s face. That sent a burst of energy to push Sirdrae to the entrance. She needed to get enough of a lead ahead of the demonspawn horde so she could bring down the tunnel.
She quickly prayed Granny Dun was watching over her and keeping her from tripping over a rock. She couldn’t think of a more embarrassing way to go, and she could hear Granny now. “Damn it, girl, when we say ‘victoriously fall in battle’ we don’t mean literally fall. C’mon! Go out with a bang!”
Sirdrae shook her head clear of Granny’s voice and the screaming of demonspawn behind her. As she neared the entrance, she closed her eyes, hoping to find the iron-song among the stone. She worried that her freakish ability to find minerals wasn’t actually a magic ability at all, but just a fluke or wishful thinking. The Little Folk clustering fearfully ahead of her didn’t have time for wishes though; she had to act fast or the clan would be overrun. She didn’t have a choice but to try.
She focused her mind on the stone, listening for any murmurs or thrumming of the iron-song. Just as she was about to give up, when… there! Her eyes flew open and she touched the gem on Splitting Headache, activating the waystone’s magnetism. Then she threw the axe toward her music, hoping that the waystone would do its worst.
She pitched herself out of the tunnels and covered her head. She could both feel and hear the earth shake beneath her, and small rocks rained down on her head.
She’d never experienced anything more beautiful in her life.
It sounded like an explosion from where she was crouching, and she worried she may have accidentally collapsed the cavern holding the miners’ stash of blasting jelly… but no, that was in a cave a few miles from here. The waystone had faithfully done its job, weakening the ceiling just enough that the demonspawn were buried, but her fellow Little Folk were safe on the other side.
When the world stopped shaking, Sirdrae jumped to her feet, ready to attack the few demonspawn who’d made it through the rockfall. The ugly creatures stumbled back from her in fear and confusion. Behind them, the mining entrance was closed now, boulders and rubble sealing up the tunnel. Bits of demonspawn limbs peeked out here and there; one was still scrambling uselessly at the floor. There was a sudden roar behind her, and more dust trickled through the air as the rest of the clan charged forward, killing the last of the demonspawn.
“Sirdrae! What’s going on?”
Dolgran ran up to her, Stormfury in hand. Thalir joined them, blood caked all over him and his axe.
“Demonspawn attack,” said Sirdrae. She pointed at the rockfall. “This should hold for a while, but we’ll probably need to pack up and move the village.”
Thalir nodded. “I don’t see this keeping them away for very long.”
Dolgan looked around. “Sirdrae… Where’s Granny Dun?”
Sirdrae remained quiet, and Dolgan soon understood. She felt the sturdy, calming hand of her husband squeeze her shoulder. After the dust settled, Sirdrae and Dolgan were still standing there, staring at the destroyed mine entrance and wondering where they would go next.
A glint of black steel poked through the rubble of rocks and boulders. Sirdrae cocked her head as she suddenly spied it, then moved forward to inspect it.
There, lying amid the debris, was Splitting Headache.
Sirdrae pushed aside the rocks, surprised yet happy to see the implement had survived. The axe didn’t have a scratch on her.
Dolgan jogged up. “Wow, is that…?”
Sirdrae smiled. “Yes, yes, it is. It looks like she somehow survived the axe-plosion.”
Dolgan was silent a moment, then he burst out laughing. Sirdrae made her way to her grandmother’s axe. Her axe. She lifted Splitting Headache to her shoulder, gazed at it.
She decided then that she might be through with mining. There were more of these creatures out there. They’d attacked her clan. Her home. Her grandmother... Sirdrae couldn’t let that happen to anyone else. She turned, nodding to Dolgan, and began the short walk to her village, a newfound purpose strengthening her steps.
“Come on,” she told the other Littles. “We’ve got work to do.”