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Max Jolley

Fool's Gold: Maggie Cartwright, Book 2

Fool's Gold: Maggie Cartwright, Book 2

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Bladesmith, mechanic, hive queen, godslayer. Maggie Cartwright has a résumé few can match, but nothing could have prepared the elf for her latest role: master to a reckless and overeager apprentice.

Their first foray into monster slaying is meant to be a cake walk, a chance to hammer out her student’s overconfidence and teach some discipline, but danger rears its head when they discover they’re not the only predators hunting in the mountains, and their competition has wings.

Faced with an apocalyptic prophecy and an enemy whose strength defies reason, they’ll need trust if they want to survive. With only three days before the world’s slated to end, it’s do or die in a battle against fate itself.

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Length: 338 pages, 90,000 words

The following work contains depictions of verbal abuse, violence and mortal peril, death, mild gore, and peril to teenagers in a school setting. Reader discretion is advised.

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Chapter One: The Master’s Apprentice

Cherry red fire burst to light, a brilliant display that glimmered over a pool of oil. Odors of metal and toasted peanuts filled the room, mingling with the old auto-grease scent of a working garage. Raising the flaming weapon, the apprentice puffed up her cheeks and blew, extinguishing the fire.

Maggie Cartwright, master smith, didn’t even look up from her own work, hammering lightly to shape metal over a socket mold. She did, however, reach up to turn on her hearing aids so she could hear the inevitable argument more clearly. “Bad quench.” 

Xena threw up her hands. “Are you serious?” 

Half a foot taller than Maggie and sporting round ears, the changeling could pass as human even to those in the know. Looks were deceiving, though—fae magic ran through her blood as surely as Maggie’s, and she could learn the old ways of forging. 

In theory, at least, Maggie thought. In practice, teaching Xena had been a headache and a half, and her choice of apprentice had worn on her more and more the longer they worked together. “Am I serious?” she echoed. “Do you think I’m wrong?”

Holding the end of the forging tongs, Xena carried the freshly quenched arrowhead over to their workbench and picked up a file, running it along the inch-long edge. It skated clean over the steel, and she gestured at the arrowhead. “It’s hard.”

“It’s hard, sure,” Maggie confirmed, setting aside the next arrowhead. Batch production required patience, dedication, and repetition. It provided a perfect training bed to learn. “When you dipped it in to quench, you swished it side-to-side, that makes metal cool unevenly. Surefire way to pick up a warp.” 

Xena lifted the arrowhead, turning it sideways to peer at it. Her lips drew into the slightest frown, barely visible, but even without the gesture her lack of reply said enough.

“See?” Maggie asked, getting up and walking over to inspect the warp. It was there—tiny, but there. 

“It’s off by, like, a millimeter,” Xena said, her tone half on the way to fully pouting. “It’ll grind out.” 

Reaching up, Maggie adjusted one of her hearing aids. She’d grown pretty used to Xena’s speech styles, and the aids did a pretty good job at amplifying speech while blocking out the high-decibel clangs of forge work, but she still missed an odd word here and there. “I’m sure it could grind out, that’s not how we do things. We’re going to heat it up, hammer out the warp, restart the temper, and nail the quench next time.”  

Jaw clenching, Xena set aside the bad arrowhead. “Cool.”

Impulses fought in Maggie’s head, to snap at her apprentice, or to roll her eyes and ignore the petulance. She wondered if she’d been that much of a pain when she learned—I actually listened to my forgemaster, didn’t I? 

Their pace couldn’t be helping with the tension; they’d been making broadhead arrows for a couple days, and the tedium of the work would be a drag on the young mind. Xena had only recently been allowed to handle any part of the hot metal herself, and this sort of workmanlike repetition was good experience, but could be staggeringly boring all the same.

Maggie offered an olive branch. “Let’s take a break,” she said. “We’ve been working all day, and the fans can’t keep up with the heat—that’s bound to make anyone crabby.” 

“If you’re feeling crabby, sure,” Xena replied, grasping the broadhead between her forging tongs. “I’m fine, Boss. You can go take a break.” 

Maggie tried to keep the edge from her tone. She failed. “Xena.”  

Her apprentice looked up at her, raising an eyebrow. “Maggie.” 

“We’re taking a break,” Maggie insisted. “Stop what you’re doing.” 

Xena shot her a look that could be parsed half a dozen ways—annoyance or acceptance, frustration or compliance. Ambiguous enough that Maggie felt she couldn’t say anything about it. Though in her twenties, by fae lifespans, that still put her firmly in the ‘teenager’ category in Maggie’s mind, and her ambiguous moodiness did nothing to dispel that image. 

“Fine,” Xena said, setting aside the tongs and killing the furnace. The flame guttered out, and she peeled off her leather gloves one finger at a time, tossing them onto the counter. “I’ll be upstairs.” 

Furrowing her brow, Maggie removed her own gloves and left the forge room. It was set up in the center of her mechanic shop, but even with the bay doors thrown open and all the fans kicked into high gear, it got sweltering in the summer with the furnace running. The relatively cool shop air felt calming on her skin, a wash of comfort.

A part of her couldn’t blame Xena. The changeling was young, she was new, she was still figuring herself out. She’d only learned her true nature a few years past—that, not only was she adopted, she wasn’t even human. She was no shapeshifter and she had no pointed ears, but she bore the innate magic and could speak the old tongue of all fae, and she’d outlive her human peers by a century. 

It was a lot to dump on a young mind, and that alone could make anyone temperamental. Still, Xena had asked for this. She’d agreed to the terms, and Maggie couldn’t fathom why she’d throw herself in the front of the line to be a smithing apprentice if she didn’t want to learn. Hell—free food, free lodging. Maggie was giving her a lot. The least she could ask for in return was a little respect. 

Then again, maybe it was just Maggie. She hadn’t been young in a century. Perhaps she was just out of touch. 

“Dammit,” she mumbled to herself, stretching her arms and popping her back. “That’s not an excuse.” 

Maggie needed to just sit down and have a talk with Xena, but every time she asked what had Xena cranky or upset, the girl just blew her off. She had a real burning desire to learn—if she hadn’t shown real curiosity and aptitude, Maggie would have sent her packing weeks ago—but drive alone didn’t solve everything.

The girl needed to learn why things were done the way they were. That there weren’t any shortcuts, that quality couldn’t be rushed, that their techniques had been honed for a millennia and that she wouldn’t be able to improve on the work of masters with impulsivity. 

Getting to that conversation, though, had proven to be nigh impossible.

Maggie longed for the meditation of her work. To get lost in a project, to enter a flow state where her thoughts could blend and her stress could release, but that wasn’t an option when her work was always accompanied by an apprentice who required constant attention. Even if Xena didn’t ignore her advice, she was always there, asking questions, adding a mental toll to the work.

While she got a Coke from the fridge and pondered the problem, her phone rang. 

A distraction. Thank God. She checked the caller ID and answered with a smile. “Frey, how the heck are you?”

“Maggie,” Frey replied. Her voice played through Maggie’s hearing aids, connected via Bluetooth to make it as clear as possible. “I don’t suppose you have those arrows done, do you?” 

“You said it was a rush job, and we’re rushing,” Maggie replied. “We’ve got about eighty heads done. Should have the last twenty finished by tonight, then all that’s left is the fletching and assembly. Why, what’s up?” 

“We could use them sooner rather than later, there’s a—” Frey said a word Maggie didn’t quite parse, on account of her light, breathy voice and Irish accent. “It’s attacking folks, getting aggressive. We’d like to deal with it sooner than later.” 

“I’m sorry,” Maggie said. “I think I misheard. Did you say a sheepsquatch?” 

“That’s right,” Frey replied, a triumphant grin coming through in her tone. “Big ol’ beasts, and you don’t want to get close. Wool’s hard as steel, so it’s a real devil of a time if you get right in front of one. If we’ve got to, my Cyrus sword should bring him down just fine, but I’d like to avoid getting within a stone’s throw if I can.”

Maggie finished the thought. “Hence the arrows, and the hurry. Alright. It’s not quite the full batch, but you can get what we’ve got whenever you’d like.”

“I don’t suppose you could bring them to us?” Frey asked. “We’re a bit staked out. It’s just Vera, Twig and I, we don’t want to leave in case the beast comes back, starts straying too close to humans—we’d pay for your time, of course.”

Maggie tilted her head, thinking about it for a moment. “Where are you?” 

“Arkansas,” Frey said. “Just by Eureka Springs.”

“I know the place,” Maggie said, doing the math in her head. It’d be a four-hour drive one way. If they left right away, it’d be past sunset on arrival. “Alright, call it mileage, lodging, and an extra three hundred on top; you’ve got a deal.”

“Can do,” Frey replied. “I’ll text you the GPS pin. Does that work?”

“I think you can just text my truck. The thing’s smarter than I am. See you soon.” 

Maggie hung up and let out a sigh. A break from work—a break from her apprentice, reallymight be exactly what she needed. A long drive could be soothing—she’d put on music, get a six-pack when she arrived, and enjoy the silence of the Ozarks. Putting two fingers to her lips, she whistled sharply, calling for Xena from across the shop. 

Her apprentice sulked in, rounding the edge of the forge room. “What’s up?”

“You’ve got the forge to yourself. I’m going on a trip,” Maggie explained, already feeling the wind in her sails. “Client needs these arrows soon, so I’m heading down to Eureka Springs.”

“Road trip,” Xena nodded. “Fun.”

“I need you to close up the forge,” Maggie continued. “Can you manage that?” 

“Oh,” Xena said, shaking her head. “Why aren’t you helping?” 

“Because I’m—” Maggie rubbed at her eyes. “I’m not going to be here. I’m leaving.” 

Xena stared at her like she’d just said, ‘I’m going to grow a third arm.’ Shaking her head, she said, “I’m coming with you.”

“It’s just a delivery,” Maggie replied. “I don’t need you.”

“We haven’t finished the arrows,” Xena pointed out. “We’ve got the heads, we’ve got the shafts, but they still need to be fitted together. I’ll bring a file and glue and get that done in the backseat so they’re done when we arrive.”

Maggie pursed her lips and blew out a puff of air. Her apprentice had a point, which was what annoyed Maggie the most—it’d be better to hand over finished arrows, even if that would mean no quiet, peaceful drive. 

“Alright,” Maggie said. “I’m in charge of the radio.”

Xena made a face, but her quip was light. “I’ll pack my ear plugs. I’ll need an overnight bag, right?”

“Go get packed, then we’ll close up shop.” 

Her apprentice turned, scurrying off to get her things. Say what she could about the girl, Maggie had to respect her enthusiasm. 

Maggie didn’t need to pack much; she always kept a kit of useful supplies in her truck. She had a change of clothes, a pack of water bottles, jerky and trail mix, and a suite of tools in case she had car trouble. All she really needed was her toothbrush, some other toiletries, and the arrows themselves. 

Still…Maggie had a flash of memory, the last time she’d gone on a ‘simple job’ and been ambushed by monsters. She’d gotten away, but only through luck and a well-timed rescue. 

She wouldn’t be unarmed again.

So, after a quick run to her restroom to grab what she needed there, Maggie opened up her weapons rack.

Her spear fit in a long storage tube, one that just barely fit lengthwise in the back of her new truck. After a bit of hemming and hawing, she also selected Dane, her favorite saber and pet eldritch monstrosity. It’d had a twin, once, when she’d been dabbling with Asian styles—she’d made herself a pair of shuangdao, butterfly sabers.

Dane’s twin, a blade of equal make but without its own consciousness, belonged to a fae pseudo-goddess. Maggie had ‘make a new sword to match’ on her list, but time had slipped away from her, and even without the full set, Dane provided far more utility than a simple sword. 

As soon as she touched the handle, Dane awoke inside the blade, thoughts channeled telepathically. Maggie, hello. 

I’m just moving you, Maggie replied, drawing the blade out as she conversed with the entity inside. I’m going on a trip; you’re coming with me.

Are we going to fight? We haven’t fought for a long time, Dane said. Their voice echoed in her mind eagerly, like a young puppy sensing the prospect of a walk.

I don’t think so, Maggie thought back. But I’d rather have you with me, just in case.

She sheathed the sentient sword, just as Xena came down with a small duffel.

“Is that everything you’re bringing?” Maggie asked, nodding to the duffel. 

Xena nodded, walking over, moving to pick up the sword. Maggie stopped her, catching the girl’s wrist. “Don’t touch my sword,” she warned—if Xena touched Dane, she wouldn’t get a polite conversation, she’d get psychic trauma that couldn’t be healed without divine aid.

Her apprentice pulled her hand back. “Yeesh, okay. I know you’re touchy about your weapons, but come on. I was just going to pack it in the truck.”

Maggie could have told her about Dane, but she hadn’t, and she wouldn’t, until she felt Xena was ready. “If you ever need to touch it, use the scabbard, not the hilt,” she warned, picking Dane up before another argument started. “But right now, you do not need to touch it.” 

Xena exhaled, trying to exude a ‘I didn’t really care’ energy that Maggie saw was patently inauthentic. “Whatever.”

“Let’s get the forge cleared up,” Maggie said, already regretting the company. “It’s going to be a long drive.”