For Kristin Dungan, who really does love potatoes. It was fate.
“I love potatoes.”
Thera watched the ugly little troll chew with his mouth open, chunks of raw potato going everywhere. Thera’s own stomach growled, but as she was a fairy, she could only drink nectar, and there had been no flowers for days.
Billum belched and gave his protruding stomach a fond pat !with one hand as he dug in the earth under him with the other. A moment later, he pulled out another dirt-covered tuber and flapped his ears in delight.
“We have to keep going,” Thera said in a small voice.
Billum frowned. “We’re lost because you said that when Flit went off. He’s probably back at the river wondering where we got off to.”
Thera flicked her silver wings. “I told him if he wasn’t back in three days, we’d have to leave and follow the others.”
Billum spat an eye out and glared distrustfully at the remainder of the potato. “And just where do you think the others are going? There’s nowhere to go!” He paused and his chubby brown face lit up. “Here’s an idea! Why don’t we stay here?” He pointed to the flat, black, still-smoking landscape devoid of life surrounding them. “I can farm potatoes and you can work your magic and make pretty things grow again. Who needs the others anyway?”
“I need them,” Thera said. “And you do to. We’re just one fairy and one troll. How can we live together? You do remember that we’re at war?”
“Your king Flydon and my King Dundor are at war,” Billum corrected. “I like you, most of the time. I don’t think I’m at war with you.”
“But they burned everything with fairy flames and salt,” her voice was sad and wistful. “Nothing can grow here.” Her expression grew stern. “We have to continue on with the others, make our way to the Silver City.”
“What if they burned the city?” Billum said. “What then?”
“They would never do that!” she gasped. “Not even the trolls would do that!”
Billum shrugged. “Maybe.” He sniffed. “It’s going to rain.”
The sky was blue and clear. “How do you know?”
“It smells like rain.”
All Thera smelled was ash and dust.
“I know what rain smells like. It’s sparkly and clean and has hints of cinnamon. I’m a troll. We know these things,” he answered her questioning look. “We should find shelter. I could dig us a nice hole…”
“No,” Thera shuddered. “I don’t think so. I don’t like the dark,” she confessed. “At my home, we always lit the fairylites when the sun went down.”
“Fairies are very strange creatures,” Billum mused, wriggling fat toes in the dirt. “But that’s all right. You just wait here. I’ll go find something.”
Clouds gathered in his absence, lending truth to Billum’s nose. A little while later he came waddling back, dragging a charred branch with one small leaf clinging to the very tip which had somehow managed to escape the carnage of the kings’ armies. Billum held it over Thera’s head as the rain poured down, running between his ears and pooling around his feet.
The fairy shivered but she tried not to let Billum see, partly for pride and partly because she truly appreciated his thoughtfulness. By the time the clouds moved off, the moon was bright above them. Thera fell asleep with her head on Billum’s damp shoulder.
The next day the pair walked and walked. And walked. Always on the path a thousand feet had beaten, the feet of soldiers and survivors alike. Over burnt hills, forests of black stumps. Nothing green or living showed its face.
“Where is everyone?” Thera fretted. “We should be gaining on them.”
Billum scooted along, his feet leaving long furrows in the ground behind him. He shrugged and didn’t say anything. At times, he tried to dig halfheartedly but the ground had become empty. They began to climb yet another hill, and when they crested the small mound, they beheld a sight that had Thera gagging and Billum’s ears flat against his head.
Thousands of bodies lay, almost indistinguishable from the black earth. As Thera and Billum stumbled among them, it was only possible to distinguish fairy from troll by what was left of the insignia and color of their clothing. The dead were little more than bones, the flesh burned right off. Not even a scrap left for the crows.
“No meat, no carrion,” Thera said. “This is not fairy fire. What happened?”
Billum made unhappy noises in the back of his throat, his eyes darting wildly from corpse to corpse. Thera reached out and took his hand, and the little troll quieted.
“What do we do now?” he asked after a moment.
“I don’t know. Where is Flit?” Thera said, gazing at the sky as though their friend would appear. “He would be able to tell us.”
“Maybe he’s dead,” Billum whispered, his eyes wide as he looked at the graveyard around them.
“He’s not dead!” Thera said fiercely. “No one can fly as fast as Flit or fight half as well.” She swallowed. “We have to keep going. The Silver City is not that far. We’ll be safe there.”
“But how will we tell which direction to go without the others marking the way for us?” Billum asked. “I’ve never been out of my grove before. The world is too big for me…”
“It’s okay,” Thera said. “We’ll go that way, towards the sun. That’s the right direction. I’m sure of it.”
Billum squinted into the distance. “I don’t know…wait, what’s that?”
Thera looked to where he was pointing and her eyes went wide. Blacker than night, the shape slid through the destruction, pale eyes gleaming. She tried to move, to speak, to think, but all volition had left her body. Billum was no more able to flee than she was.
The creature came closer, not yet aware of the fairy and the troll but it would lift its head at any second and see them, easy prey frozen on the side of the hill…
Something crashed into Thera, carrying her backwards, back over the hill, and out of sight of the nightmare stalking the battlefield. Billum went with her because her hand was still clenched in his. Released from the spell of terror, Thera disentangled herself from Billum and the other.
Their rescuer was dressed in fairy military uniform of beige and silver but wore no rank on his chest. A silver sword hung at his side. His dark hair and black wings marked him as a night-flier. He looked drawn and haggard but still determined, and he gave them a wan smile.
“Flit!” Thera cried out and threw her arms around the newcomer.
He stiffened, crying out in pain and she leaped back. “You’re hurt.”
“Not badly,” Flit said. “But I might be if we don’t get out of here!”
“What happened?” Thera and Billum asked at the same time.
“The Silver City is taken,” Flit said, his bright green eyes grim. “And not by the trolls.”
Billum clasped his hands in front of his chest, tears filling his eyes. “What happened? Where is the army, the others?”
Flit glared over his shoulder, at the carnage hidden by the hill. “There was another army, led by a third king. A black king, a king of the dark. He had wolves, and dragons. There was nothing we could do, no defense against his power.”
“He did that?” Thera asked, her voice faint.
“Yes, and then he marched north and took the City. It is no longer a refuge for you.”
“What do we do?”
“We have to go back,” Flit said. “Far away. Further than we came. We must not let him see us ever.”
“What about the others?” Billum said. “Are they all…?”
“Yes,” Flit said, his wings drooping. “I didn’t see anyone else at all.”
Thera couldn’t wrap her mind around that. It wasn’t possible. But Flit wouldn’t lie.
“I don’t…what do we do?” she asked again.
A growl from above them drew all their gazes. The black wolf crouched at the crest of the hill. The razor toothed snout of the wolf dripped acid saliva down and yellow eyes so pale they were almost white glared at them.
“Run,” Flit said.
He drew the silver sword and shot towards the wolf-creature. A bright flash of light blinded Thera and she shielded her eyes. Billum’s hands tugged at her arm, pulling her down the hill. The sounds of metal and claws, cries and howls rang in her ears, making her head spin.
Then someone was speaking to her. She uncovered her eyes and saw Flit. The arm of his tunic was shredded and he was covered in sticky black blood. Behind him lay the dead wolf, four legs in the air, throat torn open all the way down to the belly. Thera thought she might throw up.
“Don’t worry,” Flit said. “The land cannot support a king so dark. Eventually the very sky and earth will rise up against him and swallow him. Until that time, we have to stay out of sight.”
“And we cannot do anything but wait?” Thera asked in a small voice.
“We won’t be just waiting,” Flit said with a kind smile. “We will find any other who may have managed to escape the black king’s wrath. It will be our task to make green again what has been burned. My eyes will be our warning and my sword our protection. Your magic will start the ripple that will become a surging current to sweep away this evil.”
As he spoke, he struck a grand figure, the edge of his silver sword covered in blood and held out in a majestic angle. Thera wondered if all night-fliers of King Flydon’s army looked so noble and brave.
“What will I do?” Billum asked, putting his hand up as though he were a littling in school and tarnishing the moment of gilt hope Flit’s speech had created.
Flit thought for a while. “I’m sorry. I don’t quite know what trolls do.”
Billum sagged, his ears flopping sadly. “We dig. We eat mushrooms and potatoes. We make the earth rich and fertile…”
“And it will need to be made so!” Thera interrupted. “Green things cannot grow in such desolate soil as this.”
Flit raised his arms and smiled. “And that is what you will do!”
Billum laughed and clapped his hands, looking for all the world as though Flit’s words had given him wings.
“We should start here,” Thera said.
She knelt to the scorched earth and pressed her hand to the ground. Billum crouched beside her and wriggled his toes in the ashy soil. He closed his eyes and snapped his fingers. Around his feet the earth bubbled and a sweet, mineral smell grew. Thera sang softly and a shoot of sparkling green sprouted from between her fingers. When she pulled her hand away, the seedling continued to grow, leaves and buds forming.
The three turned around and started back the way they had come, a lonely trio in a black waste, leaving a single speck of green behind to grow and spread. Far away the black king sat upon the stolen throne in beautiful halls of the Silver City, unaware of his inexorable downfall sprouting from the act of one fairy and one troll working together.