I advanced on the troll slashing my blade back and forth in front of him. I was forcing him backwards into a trap where my squad of eight pixies and a goblin waited to pin him to the ground. I’m small, even for a pixie girl. I’m just under two toadstools high, and the troll was easily three times my size. But my smile was gigantic as I lunged and managed another step forward—another step backwards for the troll.
I slashed again, but overbalanced, spun halfway around and stretched out my left arm to keep from falling on my face. Instead, with a speed that his ape-like body didn’t look capable of, the troll reached forward, grabbed my arm and twisted. After hearing the snap of a bone and the pop of my arm flying out of its socket, I must have fainted.
I don’t remember anything else until I opened my eyes and saw Quillan, my second in command, pouring his canteen of water over my head and face. I choked and coughed and sputtered. Talk about adding insult to injury. You would have thought that I’d suffered enough. A troll had ripped my arm right off my body. Boggling snot! A troll had ripped my arm right off my body!
After fainting, I had missed the part where I had been turned into a pixie torch by Kekipi’s goblin-fire attack on the troll. Quillan was just trying to douse the blaze and save my life.
The whole situation was as slippery as a ball of snot from the very beginning. Growing up in an army camp didn't change the facts. I was only a fifteen-year-old pixie about to command my friends on our first mission on the other side of the river. Adding to the pressure, our "simple scouting mission" was helping prepare for a state visit by the self-proclaimed Emperor Oberon, "sire of all fairies and lord of all magical domains."
The General had personally given us our orders. At three toadstools tall, he towered over me. He also had a big belly--it was part of his deep voice and big presence. I couldn't have been more different: short, thin, and naturally quiet. I used to practice my "command voice" in front of a mirror. Even so, telling my friends, my squad, what to do in the heat of the battle did not come easy to me.
There were no warm and fuzzies coming from The General. "You should feel honored I've chosen you for this mission," he said. "It shows how much faith I have in you. Oberon's state visit is of the utmost importance to the Queen, and so to me, and so to you too. Do. Not. Let. Me. Down."
All we had to do was scout the Eiradon ford in advance of this new fairy emperor's arrival. Eiradon means "snow river" and comes from the snowmelt runoff of the Snowmount range that rings The Kloof. That's what we called our pixie lands. The point is, the water was c.o.l.d. cold, and the shallowest part of the ford was still knee deep to a tall pixie. It was obvious that we'd been chosen because nobody else wanted to freeze their flanks off.
We were just supposed to make sure the area around the ford was clear, and that the emperor and his entourage could cross safely. Nevertheless, I was feeling some serious pressure. I had to get my friends... get my squad to do something nobody else wanted to do. Also, I had to personally guarantee the emperor's safety to The General.
When we found a green-as-snot troll within spitting distance of the far-side clearing, what were we supposed to do? Kekipi, the goblin our squad had been stuck with in some kind of goodwill exchange, said we should go back and report it. He had a point, trolls are strong boogers: big, heavy, and dense.
But Phelan, our 'little wolf,' wanted to stick a blade in the troll so badly, he was hopping up and down and chanting "kill, kill, kill." Faolan was older and usually had better sense than his little brother, but he was gung-ho too. Renny, Quillan and Arlen fell in line when I told them that we would be carrying a troll-head trophy back from our first mission.
In my imagination we would be heroes. I could picture Oberon arriving at the ford at the same time we emerged from the woods dragging our hard-won prize. Rumor had it that Oberon wanted to be emperor of the pixies as well as "all fairies and all other magical domains." Seeing our squad of young pixies covered in troll's blood might put a second thought into his bloated head. We pixies were not going to bow down to any fairy.
Also, it was common knowledge that the fairies kept a bunch of pixies as slaves to make "pixie dust." It's some of our magic that helps them fly. Without it, a fairy's delicate, undersized wings are good for long jumps, kind of like a grasshopper or a chicken. They might hop to a low tree branch, but they wouldn't be taking the magic elevator to the top like some of us pixies can. The pixie slaves end up dying an early, painful death, because using magic every day does that.
Oberon's visit had all of the pixies in the Kloof very upset. In Strathridge and Glenvale, shops were closing doors and shuttering their windows in protest. The smaller communities spread across the Kloof were going to boycott every market day that the fairies were on our side of the river. Even though our Queen, Banon Lasair Islene, had proclaimed Oberon's safety, there were more than a few of us who thought a quick slash of his throat would do much more for the common good than any number of words our Islene might have for him.
"Back so soon?" The General asked as I limped into the ragged tent he was calling our HQ.
"Snotcakes!" I swore under my breath, the old man never noticed anything. "Well," I said, "I did just have my arm ripped off by a troll."
"I thought you looked different... hmmm." He turned back to his tablelittered with mapsand notesand little colored blocks that The General used to track troop movement.
"I look different," I said, "because all my hair got burned off by goblin fire. 'Friendly fire' from our goodwill-exchange goblin, by the way. I don't think my arm is the first thing you'd notice"
"Yes, yes, that's good." The General was mumbling distractedly now as he took a dark green block from the map. It must have represented the troll we had just fought. Wait, had he known that there was a troll on the other side of the river?
"Dead, did you say?" he asked.
"Not dead, General, sir. I'm just short an arm, covered in blisters, and bald down to my eyebrows. I am not quite dead."
At that, The General looked up. He looked directly into my eyes, his own squinting with rage. "Not you Alaina. I can see that you are not dead. The troll. The troll. Is the troll dead? I did send you out to secure the area."
I stood up as straight as I could and threw an exaggerated salute to the General. "I am sorry to report, sir, that the troll managed to escape." Suddenly, I was happy that it was my left arm that the troll had ripped off. I use my right arm for salutes, among other things.
"Snot and drool!" The General was shouting now as he slammed the dark green block back on the map. "You go back...you go back now, and take care of the troll. You do not return until either you or the troll is dead. Is that clear?"
I am not sure how he thought I would report back if I died, but it didn't seem wise to throw out a smart-alecky comment. I also didn't know how he thought I, with only one arm, was going to take down a troll, but that was clearly not his problem.
"Ours is not to reason why," I said more to myself than anyone in particular. ThenI beat a hasty retreat from the tent.
"Do or die, Alaina. Do or die," The General called after me. Was that meant to be encouragement? I wasn't surprised. The General is also my father, and I've been failing to live up to his expectations for about fifteen years.
I limped around the camp until I came to the camp's 'hospital.' Through the rips in the tent, I could see the air shimmering in front of Miach Durgan as she worked on binding some poor sap's spirit back to his elemental threads. Although I've never trained as a mage, I inherited a strong and clear second sight from my mother. I could tell that the Miach was struggling. The pixie's body oozed blood that puddled under the table. His life force fading, the elemental threads that the Miach had to work with were becoming thinner. They were starting to fray and break on their own.
I thought twice about going in. Miach Durgan is a miracle worker, but a lot more pixies go into that tent than walk out of it. My odds of surviving a treatment seemed about even. It was my aching shoulder that finally convinced me. I had decided to live with the blisters and the burns from the goblin's fire. But losing my arm...
I know I went into shock after the troll twisted my arm out of my shoulder socket. Shock must have kept me from bleeding out immediately, but shock wears off, and I didn't know what was currently keeping me from spurting blood like some kind of macabre fountain.
"Alaina, please have a seat. I'll be with you in just a minute," the Miach said. Her patient's spirit, now completely unbound from the body, drifted around the tent and then out into the cheerless and darkening sky. Two attendants gently lifted the now-lifeless body and carried it away. Miach Durgan gestured to me to lie down on the table. The table had stopped dripping, but it wasn't what you'd call clean.
"Okay, you've got some pretty nasty burns. Oh, look at that, you scorchedoff allyour hair. Heh, your eyebrows too. Want me to draw them on for you?" Gallows humor? Laughing so as not to cry? I didn't give a snot, I wasn't in the mood.
"What about my arm?" I wanted to say. I needed for her to stop talking. I wasn't feeling so good all of a sudden. 'Woozy' didn't cover it. I could feel my grip on consciousness starting to slip. I wanted to make some comment to really put the doc in her place for making fun of me, but I started to get tunnel vision. It was like I was falling backwards into a deep well, and the light at the top kept getting smaller and farther away until...
I woke up on the ground, propped up on a tree root. I wasn't the only one.There were a bunch of other wounded pixies sprawled around me. I took a quick, personal inventory as my mind climbed out of that deep, dark well. Pain? Not so bad. My burned skin felt tight, but the sizzling, searing sensation was gone. Arms? Still just the one. I had dreamed that somebody had grabbed my other one from the battlefield and that the Miach had stitched it back on. But that was, apparently, just a dream.
My shoulder felt like it had been chewed up and spit out by a rock giant. But the pain was now more of a throbbing ache than screaming agony. Still groggy, I started to daydream about my one-armed future, and I imagined all the things I wouldn't be able to do any more. I was really plumbing the sea of self pity when I remembered that The General hadn't even given my dismemberment a second thought. Not a glance. Not a kind word. Well snot on him then. I wouldn't think about it either. I would show him that I am made of sterner stuff than he ever imagined.
They say that pain is all in your mind. Relief is as easy as mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter. But have you ever tried to not think about something? The minute you set your mind to not think about it, that very thing becomes an obsession. You can't help but think about it. My missing arm and my aching shoulder were just like that. The more I tried to ignore it, the more they bothered me. "How tough are you feeling now?" the voices in my head began to taunt me.
I was waiting around the brownie tent for a new uniform. The one I was wearing had been tattered even before I got burned. I'm not super modest, for a pixie, but the holes in my underwear were starting to line up with the burn holes in my uniform... and the holes were pretty big. I wouldn't mind pointing my shiny rear end at The General, but I didn't hold the same dim view of my fellow pixies. I was thinking these thoughts, toeing the ground, when Kekipi slunk around the tailor's tent.
Kekipi is the goblin who had recently thrown a cauldron of goblin fire on me. I had run a dozen missions with him, but it was still hard to know what he might be thinking. To be fair, this was the first time he had hurt me. Also he got most of the fire on the troll we were fighting. Trolls are notoriously hard to kill. Burning their heads to ash is the only way to make sure they stay dead. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to get out of the way, not that he'd burned the whole head anyways.
"I am so sorry, miss," Kekipi croaked at me. "I am so sorry. I really am so..." Goblins aren't really good with magic, but their leathery skin makes them resistant to fire. Sometime in history, they brewed up a nasty, sticky, fiery mess that makes a powerful weapon. Their means of delivering it, though, could use some work.
"Okay, Keki, I get it, you're sorry." I didn't feel like working too hard to make him feel better. Goblins and Pixies have a long history, and none of it really lends itself to trust. Pixies have helped goblins. Goblins have helped pixies. But there has always been a cost that left the other party wondering if the help was worth it. The saying goes "when you shake hands with a goblin, be sure to shake both hands." Goblins might say the same thing about us pixies, but I can't imagine a pixie stabbing a goblin while shaking hands. We'd probably wait and stab them in the back. It's safer.
"I didn't mean to... I mean I was trying... I... Uh... helping you."
"Sure, Keki. The troll is bad for both of us." But taking out a pixie along the way, me, could have been an added bonus for a goblin.
Trolls are loners. They are mercenaries. It could be that the fairies sent the troll to harass us, test our defenses, soften us up for Oberon's demands. Since I can guarantee the Kloof is never going to be part of Oberon's empire, I imagined the fairies would soon come at us with their main force, but they would probably hire a few more trolls for the first wave. If the fairies came after the pixies, they would have to cut through the goblins too. Maybe goblins and pixies don't get along, but goblins and fairies are explosive. They outright hate each other. I've heard a goblin say "I wouldn't spit on a fairy if it was burning, but give me a chance at any other time."
My new uniform felt pretty good. It wasn't exactly new, but it was new to me, and at least it was clean. The brownie had sewn up the left sleeve so it wouldn't flop around, empty at my side. Brownies aren't the nicest folks around, but they sure know the way around clothes. They cook pretty well too. I was happy when I left the commissary/mess hall. I admit that it was strange to eat with only one arm, but my left hand wasn't vital to my eating process. From time to time, I felt myself reach out with my left hand. I could actually feel myself reaching out. When I realized what I was doing, the feeling evaporated. My mind knew better than my body what was going on.
My elevated mood was abruptly shattered with the return of Kekipi. I had heard some folks speak unkindly of others: "a face that only a goblin could love." But when it comes to goblins, they really were startlingly ugly. Even when I'd prepared myself for it, I think my face gave me away when I saw a goblin.
I never meant any offense by it, but they've got bulbous, bony heads with great big, sunken eye sockets that taper down into beady little pinpricks of eyes. If they have lips, I've never seen them. They have this kind of perma-grin, rigor mortis smile because they don't have cheeks or anything to hide their hideous, yellow, pointy teeth. The only time I had seen a goblin eat, I got so grossed out that I threw up.
"Miss," said the goblin, "I just want you to know..."
"I get it, Keki, you are sorry and you didn't mean it. I get it. Now get over it. I have." I lied. Even though I was more preoccupied by my missing arm, I was still wincing at every breeze that rubbed against my raw skin.
I laughed when I realized that I was the pot calling Keki's kettle black. My eyebrowless, blistered skull couldn't have been very appetizing to the pixies around me. Then I remembered that it was fire from Keki's kettle that had scorched me. I didn't feel like such a hypocrite anymore, but I sure wished the goblin would just leave me alone.
I started to walk away. I didn't owe the goblin anything. I especially wasn't going to try to make him feel better about my burns. Then, a moment of charity seized me and I turned to him. "Kekipi, I forgive you. We were fighting the same enemy. I zigged when I should have zagged. You threw your fire where you thought I wouldn't be, but there I was. It was an accident, and accidents happen."
I heard the goblin suck air through his teeth and cough at the same time. I thought he might have choked back a sob, but that was probably me putting pixie explanations on goblin actions. No matter, it didn't cost me anything to forgive Keki. With any luck, he'd leave me alone and I would never have to see him again.
Kekipi was just a few paces behind me when I got back to The General's tent. The goblin had been following me since lunch. He walked just far enough behind me so that it wasn't awkward to not talk to him, but close enough so that I easily could. He wasn't menacing enough to be stalking, but I had no idea what he wanted from me.
The General was huddled around his table with a few stately pixies. I recognized Daly Inar, one of his consuls of war. He was hard to miss from the front or back. He had a large, lumpy scar where his right ear used to be. He was also missing most of his hair on the right side of his head. They were standing with their backs to me, but a wide rent in the tent gave me a great view of the table with its maps and colored blocks. They were deep in conversation, speaking in hushed tones, but not exactly whispering.
There were sentries at each tent pole, but being The General's daughter, they didn't give me a second glance. I'd been wandering around military camps and my father's HQ since I had learned how to walk. I must have become background noise for them, and Kekipi was holding off far enough away so that he didn't draw their attention.
"The troll is still going to be a problem. He's bottled up somewhere, but he'll be back with a vengeance once he has healed up a bit." That was Daly Inar.
I could feel the blood rising in my cheeks as I imagined my father's disappointment at my bungled mission. I pictured The General saying "I don't know why I sent her to do a man's job." He did say something, but the blood rushing in my ears and the camp noises drowned it out. If I could have seen his face, I knew he'd have been clenching and unclenching his jaw, chewing the bitter cud of having a daughter who never did anything right.
"I understand," Daly Inar said. "But the troll isn't really important right now."
Not important? That sack of snot ripped my arm off. I almost died trying to take care of that 'unimportant' troll. Was that why The General had sent me after it? Did he give me some busy work so that I wouldn't get in the way of the real effort? Or did he send me out to lose so that he could tell the Queen he'd done everything possible to protect the fairy, Oberon.
Daly Taban, the consul of magic, said "the Guild is working to weave a strong barrier around the cave where the troll is hiding. We've diverted three adepts with full support to cage that beast."
"Three?" I could hear the irritation in The General's gruff voice. "What are three adepts going to do against a troll?" That was a good question. Trolls are tightly tied into the elemental threads, so it is hard to use magic against them. But if he had known about the troll, what good could six young pixies and a goblin have done? Why would he have sent us... sent me into a sure loss?
"I ordered the rest of the Guild to defend the river ford against the fairies. With enough lead time, we should..." It sure sounded like The General's war council was planning for Queen Islene's peace talks with Oberon to fall through.
Daly Inar chimed in "We're lucky to be left with any mages at all. Those cowards up in Strathridge called..."
"I don't want to hear excuses about Strathridge," The General said. "Glenvale has always been the breakwater. Our job is to thwart any attack on the Queen's seat. We know why we are here. And if the reports are true, a few more savants and adepts aren't going to make a difference when the fairy armies get here."
Daly Sheehan, the ambassador to the Goblin Nation, said "the goblins are committed, but I fear they won't be able to resist the fairies very long. I have tried to convince them to cross the river and join the pixies here."
The General sounded tired "Sheehan, you should have consulted me first. How can we accommodate the goblin tribes in Glendale? How can we trust them? Did you know that one of those ugly wretches poured goblin fire on Alaina? Even when they fight a common enemy they manage to get their punches in on the pixies too." I gasped a little. I was as surprised that he remembered my injury as I was that he mentioned me to his consuls.
"Sheehan, You cannot make unilateral decisions on matters of such importance!" Daly Inar said. He absentmindedly reached up and caressed the stump of his right ear.
Daly Sheehan moved the colored blocks around on the table. "Nothing is settled. The goblins have as little desire to live among us as we do to have them here."
The General seemed to deflate a little. He braced himself on the table and said "my friends, we must believe that nothing is inevitable. Let us do our best, prove our worth, and let the future unfold as it will."
There was some shuffling of feet, some patting of backs. "Sheehan," The General said, "go forward with your negotiations, I will speak to the camp council and arrangements will be made."
The Daly gave a slight bow and left the tent. "Inar," The General continued, "send a full half of our troops to work with the Guild at the river ford. If we don't stop the fairies there, I don't think we will stop them here" Daly Inar stood as if frozen. He couldn't have been happy with that order. "You may go, Inar," The General said.
Daly Taban also made as if to leave, but The General placed his hand on the savant's shoulder. They moved close together, but also closer to the wall of the tent where I was trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. I knelt down and tried not to breathe. If my father saw me and imagined that I had been eavesdropping, I would be missing more than one arm when he finished with me.
"Taban, do you have any more information? Why are the fairies attacking us now? The rumors say the fairies have developed some kind of big magic. What do you seers tell you?"
"Nothing at the moment, General."
"So what of your research? Have you found a strong enough magic to protect us?"
"Well," Taban said slowly. "Well, General, I fear that any of our spells woven of the elemental threads will be quickly undone by the fairies. We need a magic that is stronger, deeper... primordial from whence the threads themselves spring."
"I don't have time for the details, Taban." The General said.
"A golem, sir. I propose that we create a golem to fight for us."
The General said "Taban, do not feed me children's stories. This is..."
"A golem is not just legend, sir. I am certain that, if we can enlist the help of the Tarin..."
"Tarin?" The General said. "More legends Taban?" It wasn't a question.
"I have a map, sir," the savant stammered as he handed The General a rolled piece of leather.
"Thank you Daly Taban," The General said, now using the advisor's title. "We are done here. I will call for you when I need you." The Savant reached out to take his map back, but The General slammed it onto his table, knocking some papers onto the floor. His message was clear. Daly Taban spun on his foot and left the tent quickly without a word or a backward glance.
What The General did next caught me off guard. My father slowly dropped to one knee and gripped the table's edge. He rested his forehead on the back of his hands and sighed a deep, deep sigh. For the first time in my life, I thought that The General, my father, might be made of flesh and blood--a real pixie instead of some simulacrum animated from the sharp steel of a sword. I didn't exactly feel sorry for him. I think I felt sorry for myself--why couldn't I have known that pixie? I also felt scared. If the news from the war council brought the living sword to his knees, it should make every pixie faint in terror.
I crept away from the tent to make my way to where my squad had made camp. Kekipi's shadow tickled the corner of my eye, but my head was spinning with information and plans. It didn't even occur to me to warn the goblin where I was heading.