Aphelion Issue 216, Volume 21
April 2017
 
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The Carrotfinger Man

An Altearth Tale


by E.L. Knox





Mani looked back one more time. Between the trees, through the underbrush, he could just make out the road as a line of brown in the distance. He looked down at the slim dirt path beneath his boots, then turned around to face his partner, Ki.

Who grinned back at him.

"I tell you, Mani, this is the way. We'll save hours, I'm sure of it."

This was small comfort. Ki was a good smith, but he was the kind of dwarf who was always sure, right up until he was sorry.

Mani's beard twitched as he clenched his jaw. His back was aching again; he adjusted his pack higher onto his shoulders. The pack was filled with blades to be delivered to Count Evrard, and human blades were wretchedly heavy, but it will soon be filled with silver, he told himself, provided we get to the castle by sundown.

That was the contract, and dwarf contracts were unbreakable. Bound by stone, as the saying went.

"Let's get going, then," Mani said.

"Right!" Ki said. He set off at a good clip, calling back, "remember, when it's the only way, it's the best way!"

Mani followed after. He could not help noticing that, as he set out, he stepped from sunlight into shadow.

At least the path ran fairly straight. The two dwarves traveled at a near trot, a pace they could maintain for hours on end.

Gradually, ash and maple were supplanted by tall beech trees that towered high above. Their curved branches arched and intertwined, obscuring the sun, creating chambers and hallways below. Countless years of rotting leaves covered the ground. To Mani, it seemed as if he moved through strange caverns of wood, deep beneath the earth. He wondered if humans ever wandered into this forest.

"Cac!" Ki exclaimed and stopped. Mani pulled up behind.

"What now?"

"Oh, there it is. Sorry." And Ki was off again.

"What?" Mani called after him, "Why'd you stop?"

"The path keeps getting covered by the leaves," Ki said as he trotted. He waved a hand. "Didn't you notice?"

"The path is disappearing?" Mani hurried to catch up.

"No, dummy, it doesn't disappear. It's not under the spell of an evil wizard."

"No, it's just under the spell of a foolish bladesmith," Mani said. "You'd better not lose your way."

"Our way, you mean," Ki said, sounding not at all worried. "We're partners in this."

Mani resolved to pay more attention to the path. It did indeed keep diving underneath layers of sodden leaves, to reappear again a few yards further. That bothered him, but even more, he was bothered by the silence.

Dwarf ears are sharp. They can hear the difference in the tone of struck metal, can sort out words from echoes, can tell the direction of footsteps in a maze of tunnels, but he heard only the breath and footfall of two dwarves. He listened for a long time.

No birds, he thought, no rustle of a fox, no chirp from squirrels. There should be a thousand squirrels!

"We should go back," he said aloud.

"Gods guts," Ki exclaimed, "not again!" He did not turn around to talk. "There is no other way. The road goes around. We'd be late. Lose the contract."

"We'll lose more than that if we come to some grief in here," Mani said.

"No smiths without risks, Mani."

Ki and his sayings.

"Stop worrying," Ki went on. "Think about how it's going to be at Castle Josselin, especially when you show that ax to the Count."

The ax was Mani's special project. The small fighting ax came to him with the instruction to 'see what you can do with it.' He had, and the ruby infusion had worked and now it was an ax that cut with fire as well as a keen edge. He would show this one to the Count personally. He pictured himself standing in a fine hall with the high ceilings of a human castle, knights arrayed in armor as he lay the ax before the Count. He would touch the blade to a piece of cloth, and flames would dance along its edge. Everyone would gasp, then cheer.

He was so caught up in imagining the courtly audience, he ran into Ki, who had stopped again.

"Watch your step there, you," Ki said.

"Why did you stop again?"

"Lost the path."

Mani looked down and his heart skipped two beats.

"Where's the path?"

"That's what I was saying."

"Ki, that's not funny." Mani felt his throat grow tight.

"Stupid leaves." Ki said, kicking at them.

Mani looked around, but he could not see much. Deep pools of shadow lay between the massive trees. The air hung as still as velvet drapery. All around him lay damp brown leaves, trackless as desert.

A scream sliced the stillness. High-pitched, wavering, then trailed off.

"What was that?" Ki said, his voice low.

It sounded again. A woman's voice, without a doubt, and now Mani made out the word.

"Help!"

The two dwarves looked at one another. The cry came from Mani's left, tugging at him. He could not just walk away, pretending he had not heard, but what good could he do? He was no warrior, he was a bladesmith. What help could he give?

"Help!"

Mani loosened the long knife at his hip.

Ki's eyes widened. "Don't do it, Mani."

"Ki ... I ...." There was nothing to say. He gripped the knife and sprinted toward the sound.

Fool, fool, fool! Mani scolded himself, the word striking with each footfall. Fool to have left the road and fool again to have left Ki. He glanced left and right as he ran, marking his passage, as if he could find his way back again, knowing it was futile. He would be lost, was already lost. As lost as the job would be. He would spend the rest of his days casting charms on horseshoes.

Fool.

Again the woman screamed, a thin, sharp sound.

He ran hard, struggling under the weight of his pack. He dodged around a squat yew tree, his boots slapping on the heavy, damp leaves.

The ground became rough, as if the tree roots only waited for someone to go astray. He stumbled as he ran. More than once he thought he should stop, but the cry for help sounded again, and he ran on.

Ahead, the trees thinned enough for a thicket of buckthorn to erupt in a tangled arc on one side of a small clearing.

There he skidded to a halt. The bushes were impenetrable. He looked left and right. If she were dragged in here by captors or some beast, there would be signs.

Footsteps approached from behind. He whirled, knife at the ready, but it was just Ki.

"Where?"

"I don't know," Mani said. "She stopped yelling. You look there, I'll look here."

The two dashed along the length of the bushes. They called out, "we're here, where are you?" but only silence replied. They returned to the center.

Ki looked pale. "Do you think she's...?"

"I don't know. Something's strange, though," Mani said. "I could swear she was right here, but there's no signs."

A noise from behind caused them both to spin around.

Ki cursed and stumbled backward as if shoved. Advancing upon them was a grotesque man, dwarf-high, wearing a heavy cloak that sagged too large for his frame. A large hood enveloped his head, hiding the face, or else, Mani shuddered, he has no face at all. The man uttered weird shrieks that grated like a rusted metal gate, so piercing it set Mani's teeth on edge.

The sleeves of the cloak hung nearly to the ground. From them emerged a tangle of green and orange, trailing on the ground like a mass of tentacles.

"Stay back!" Mani shouted, but his voice sounded like breaking twigs.

The man came on, staggering unsteadily. Mani raised his blade to strike. A motion at his side and there was Ki, knife also at the ready. He glanced over.

"Partners to the end," Ki said, low and quick. Mani nodded and planted his feet.

The creature in the cloak uttered a different sort of shriek and stopped, teetering madly.

Then it fell apart.

The cloak opened and out tumbled two pixies, who fell to the ground yipping with laughter. They sounded like cats trying to bark.

Relief flooded over his panic, then exploded into fury. Mani raised his knife high and charged, shouting.

"You wretches! Scoundrels! Curse you!"

The pixies, still entangled in the cloak, scrambled wildly, piping incomprehensibly. Mani tried to grab one, but it slipped from his grasp like quicksilver.

"I'll kill you both!" Ki shouted.

"Aiee!" cried the other pixie, "don't chop me up!"

A voice from behind them said, "Prank!"

Mani turned around. A third pixie emerged from the bushes, the thorns scarcely touching him.

"Grant mercy, sir!"

Mani stopped. Ki, knife in hand, was looking back and forth between the one pixie and the two others near the cloak.

"Pixies." Ki spat the word.

"Prank! Prank! Grant mercy, sir, it is but a prank!"

The other two took up the plea, repeating it like a formula. Their voices were high-pitched, like the cry of robins.

Ki brandished his knife.

"No, no," cried one of the pixies, "we have called prank. Grant mercy sir, by dwarf honor."

Ki took a step, but Mani stopped him, saying "dwarf honor."

"Come here, you," Mani demanded of the two pixies. They came nearer in hesitant steps, each pushing the other forward. Over their nut-brown skin, they wore green linen shirts and breeches, striped in white. With yellow caps on their round heads, they looked a bit like two dandelions.

"Prank, sir. Grant mercy." The pixies both stretched out their hands, palms up, then brought their fingertips to their chest, a motion they repeated as they spoke.

Nearby lay the cloak, its size more suited to a human. Scattered at the sleeves lay two piles of carrots. He felt ashamed that so simple a decoration should have made him think of tendrils.

Pixies, he thought in disgust.

"What do you mean by this nonsense?" he demanded.

"Grant mercy, good dwarf," a pixie said, "it is the Carrotfinger Man we mimic. A little scare, a little fun. We did not dream to provoke. We thought anyone would see through..." he stopped, seeming to realize where that sentence would wind up.

"What's a Carrotfinger Man?" Ki asked. He seemed to have recovered a little.

The other pixie edged round until they were all three together.

"You do not know?"

The three spoke together in whispers. Mani caught "foreigners" and "only dwarves," but when he overheard, "Perhaps they're simple," he exploded.

"Enough!"

The pixies fell silent.

A snicker from Ki distracted him. The other dwarf had one hand over his mouth. His face was red. At Mani's glare, he held up two fingers close together.

"You have to admit it's at least a little funny." His voice was thick with suppressed laughter.

"I suppose you think being lost is even funnier," Mani said with a snarl.

"Lost?" said one of the pixies.

"You have lost your way?"

"No, damn it," Mani said, gesturing futilely at the forest, "you lost it for us."

"We cannot lose it. It was your way, not ours."

Mani took a deep breath. Arguing with pixies required a clear head.

"I am Mani. This is Ki. We are from Canton Jura."

The pixies bowed. From left to right they replied.

"I am Tun."

"I am Udo."

"I am Eth." The third one continued, "we are brown pixies."

"Then why are you wearing green?" Ki asked with a smirk.

"Ki," Mani said severely. His partner was not taking this seriously enough.

"Sorry."

Mani kept his attention on the pixies. "We are lost," he said, "but you are going to help us."

"We ourselves? But we do not know your way."

"We only know our way."

"And the other way, but you don't want that way."

"We want our way," Mani said. "You made us lose it, with your prank. We have suffered loss."

"Loss of way."

"A very sad day."

"To lose one's way."

Mani spoke as solemnly as he could. "You are obliged," he said.

This statement caused the pixies to put their heads together. They talked in long, soft trills, sounding like a trio of curlews. Ki started to speak but Mani waved him quiet.

The pixies arranged themselves into a line again. Together they bowed low, arms wide, their hands waving elaborately.

"Don't chop us up."

"We are obliged."

"Don't chop us up."

The three looked so silly he had to chase a smile from his face.

"You must lead us out of the forest," he insisted. "We are lost."

"Lost is no good. Not in this forest."

"No, not in here."

"Lost is quite the wrong thing to be."

"So it is agreed," Mani said, trying to be patient. "You will take us where we want to go."

"No."

"Which is to say, no."

"We do not know where you want to go."

Ki said, "We go to the castle of Count Evrard."

"We cannot go there."

"Humans there."

"Humans do not like pixies."

In unison the three of them said, "particularly brown pixies."

Ki took a half step forward, which made the three pixies take two steps back.

"Listen," he said, and all three pixies leaned forward, hands cupped to ears. "Just get us to the edge of the forest, where we can see the castle. I know it's near. I could see this forest from the castle walls when I was there."

"He was at the castle."

"He has a mighty sword."

"He is a great warrior."

Mani said, "Do you all three have to speak? Can't you have a spokesman or something?"

In unison the pixies said, "No."

"There are two ways to go."

"The one way, and the other way."

"You don't want to go the other way."

Mani made a show of putting away his knife. "Take us the one way. To the edge of the forest where we can see the castle of Count Evrard. You are obliged."

The pixies bowed again, then spoke.

"We agree."

"We are obliged."

"We agree we are obliged."

Ki whispered at Mani's ear. "Do you trust them?"

"I trust they will try," Mani said. "It's not like we have a choice. Do you think you can find our way out?"

"No," Ki said, meekly.

"So we trust them, but they're pixies, so who knows?"

The pixies chirruped.

"Follow us."

"Do not stray."

"Do not go the other way."

The three pixies set off at a good pace. There was no path to be seen, but they trotted along without hesitation. Mani was glad there was no underbrush. With their brown skin and their deep green leggings, the pixies could easily disappear into any natural foliage. Since the three were now the only hope of reaching the castle, he did not want to lose sight of them for an instant.

"I'm sorry," Mani said to Ki. "I never should have run off. You were the sensible one, for once."

"Don't be sorry," Ki said. "You went to rescue a fair maiden." His voice only hinted at playfulness. "Truly, it was brave."

"Truly, it was stupid."

"It was more than I was willing to do. I only ran after you because I didn't want to be left alone."

"It was still stupid."

"Never mind," Ki said. "I was stupid first, for trying to take a shortcut. I'll never take the word of a human innkeeper again." He tugged at his beard, then added, "I was just so sure."

After an hour or so, a path appeared. The leaves were still heavy, but they drew back to lay bare a track that was never more than a foot wide. Sometimes it shrank to mere inches, with leaves piled deep as if someone had come along dragging a branch, but it never completely disappeared. The pixies trotted and the dwarves strode. Mani began to hope.

"Those stupid pixies found it," he whispered to himself. Ki heard him.

"Have faith, partner," he said.

"First the little path," Eth said, "then the big path, then out."

"Obligation done," sang Udo.

"Then we have fun," sang Tun.

Eth trilled at them and they shushed each other. Mani could not help smiling. Let them jabber. Soon he would be out of the forest and on his way.

He hoped.

The path came to a stone bridge that arched over a ravine. Paving stones at the foot of the bridge hinted at a road, but it had long been blanketed by leaves.

Two trees stood like sentries on either side of the roadway. Near the ravine, the forest gave way to a border of dogwood and fern, then at the edge, dark, bare clay with a few yellowish vines trailing over the side. The smell of foul water fingered up from below.

The bridge vaulted in a half-circle high over the ravine, climbing steeply as if to avoid being touched by anything below. The stonework was Roman, Mani thought. Certainly not dwarf.

"Ha hey!" Eth cried, "we're on our way now."

"I don't know about that," Mani said quietly. Beech trees overhung the road, their branches intertwined. Golden light filtered through. He squinted. Was it from the west? Could the hour be so late? He thought of elves, and time lost in fae burrows.

Annoyingly high voices broke into his thoughts.

"What's going on?" Mani demanded.

Eth stepped forward. "No troubles," he said.

"We have come the other way," Tun said.

Mani blinked. "What? How?"

"It is a mistake," Tun said gravely.

"The forest plays tricks," Udo said.

"No troubles," Eth said, "we make it right. No troubles."

Ki leaned over to Mani and whispered, "I don't much like this." Then, to the pixies, he said aloud, "Is this the right way or not?"

"We go that way," Eth said, pointing to the bridge.

"Yes," Udo said.

"No!" from Tun.

"It is unanimous," said Eth.

"It can't be unanimous," Ki said. "That one said no."

"It is unanimous," Eth said, "with we two."

Tun muttered something.

"Here we go!" Eth declared.

"Wait," Mani said, "what did he say?"

"Unimportant." The pixie folded his arms over his chest.

"I'll decide that. What did he say?"

"He said, 'Carrotfinger Man,' but not important."

"What are you up to now? You said that Carrot ... thing ... was a trick," Mani said.

"This is not a trick," Tun said, "you go that way, the Carrotfinger Man will get you."

Eth stepped in front of the other two. "The Carrotfinger Man used to live near here. He ate many pixies, but he was killed by an elf chevalier long ago."

"Very dead," agreed Udo.

"Yet there are stories," said Tun.

"Long ago?" Mani asked. For pixies that could be anywhere from weeks to centuries.

"Long ago," said Eth, spreading his arms wide for illustration.

"The Carrotfinger Man ate my grandfather's uncle," Tun said.

"Your grandfather's uncle got drunk and wandered off," Udo said.

This set off another round of chirps and trills among the pixies. Tun shoved Udo and in a flash, the three were circling each other, shrieking like gulls.

"Stop!" Mani said sternly. "I'm not going to stand for this."

They stopped. Tun folded his arms over his chest. "Then sit," he said, "but Carrotfinger Man is real."

"Carrots for fingers?" Ki muttered. "Doesn't sound dangerous."

"No, it doesn't," Mani agreed, "but who knows?"

Tun placed one hand over his heart and raised the other above his head. He spoke as if to an assembled crowd.

"The Carrotfinger Man lies in wait in the dark places of the world. He grabs when you are not looking. He snatches when you are not thinking. He takes you into his den and drains you dry and chews you up and no one finds you and your families weep."

The pixie lowered his hands. "So it is said."

Ki looked over his shoulder, then back again. "That was quite a speech," he said. He gave a nervous chuckle.

"Killed by an elf, you say?" Mani looked to Eth, who nodded.

"Long ago."

Mani and Ki looked at each other. Mani shrugged. Ki frowned.

"We follow the pixies," Mani said. "They led us this far safe enough."

"Gah," Ki said, "they're the reason we are this far."

Mani slowly and deliberately drew out his knife.

The pixies backed away, whispering, "chop, chop."

"We will follow you, but no tricks" Mani said. "I'll be keeping this at the ready."

"Wise," said Tun.

"We will go over the bridge, to show you," Udo said, scowling at Tun.

"All will be well," Eth said, and the three set off.

As they climbed the steep bridge, they looked left and right. They paused for a moment at the top, then went down the other side, keeping step with each other. The arc of the bridge hid them.

Mani waited, straining to hear. Ki looked at him and manufactured a wan smile. Mani listened to the silence of the forest. After a few moments, the pixies reappeared at the top of the bridge.

"We crossed," Eth called out, waving them on. "All safe."

The moment he said this, something thin and ropy swung out from beneath the bridge. Dark green like a vine, it had an elbow and a hand. Impossibly long fingers whipped around Udo, who screamed once, then arm and pixie disappeared over the side.

Eth still had his hand in the air. Tun was already running and shouting, but it was in pixish, so all Mani heard was a cascade of noise. Eth sprinted after him.

"Help, help!" Eth gasped. "It's him. He got Udo!"

"We know. We saw," Mani said, "but what...?"

A terrible squeal came from the ravine, cut off by a deep-voiced thump, like a hollow tree trunk being struck.

Tun spun around and sprang away without a word. Eth called out after him, but the other did not slow. In a moment, he was gone into the ravine.

"What's he think he's going to do?" Mani asked.

"Help," Eth said. He looked pointedly at Mani's knife.

"What, me? With this?" Mani laid the knife in his palm, to show how small a weapon it was.

"Mighty warrior," Eth declared.

"I'm no warrior. I'm just a bladesmith." Mani's heart raced. He swallowed hard.

"Help," Eth said, more firmly. He darted, snatched the knife from Mani's hand, and wielded it.

"Warrior," Eth declared, then dashed away.

"Hey, my knife!" Mani shouted, but it was no use. In two breaths, Eth had disappeared after Tun.

"Ki, did you see that? Crazy pixie ... wait, what are you doing?"

Ki had loosened his pack and was laying it on the ground.

"We have to help them," Ki said. Mani looked at him, surprised at the resolve in his tone.

"Help them? They're probably already dead."

Ki drew his own knife from the pack. "No," he said, "I can hear them."

It was true. Desperate wren-squeaks came from somewhere below.

"We can't," Mani said. "We're not warriors. Not even an elf could kill it." His insides were turning to water.

"We have to do something," Ki said softly. "We're obliged."

That word. The pixies went onto the bridge, although they were afraid, because they were obliged. Stupid pixies and a stupid prank, but they honored their obligation and now they were in trouble.

"All right," he said. He set down his own pack and pulled out one of the human weapons. The ax. He stood up, hefting it. "Dwarf honor."

The ravine was about ten feet deep, with steep sides. At the base, a shallow stream meandered through heavy mud, muttering its way among reeds and rocks.

"Down we go," Ki said, already going over the side.

Mani cursed desperately and followed. His feet sank two inches when they hit bottom.

The ravine was dim, and under the bridge lay deeper shadows, but a shape was there. It turned toward them. The shape dropped a small body, and stepped out from under the bridge.

It was a man, or at least it was closer to human than to anything else. Taller than two dwarves, its face held eyes as wide as the palms of Mani's hands. These sat on either side of a mouth that ran vertically down its long, narrow face. It wore debris rather than clothing—its body covered with clumps of earth, twigs, even bits of clothing. Mani shuddered to think where the cloth might have come from. Strands of green hair, or maybe long grass, hung down to its narrow shoulders.

Its arms were thin, like vines, and so long, its hands hung at its knees. At the end of those hands were fingers even longer. Filthy with muck, but plain as anything they were orange. The fingers hung right down to its feet and trailed along the ground. They moved seemingly of their own accord, like orange snakes writhing.

Ki charged. Mani said "no" in a helpless way but could not move. A few steps away from the monster, Ki's foot slipped and he fell sideways into the stream. One long arm looped around Ki's leg and swung him back and up. The creature held the dwarf in front of its face, regarding him. Ki flopped and twisted like a caught fish, mouth gaping. The tall frame placed its other hand over Ki's face. One of the orange fingers ran along Ki's eyes, two went to his ears. One hovered over his mouth, probing his lips.

That brought Mani back to himself. He shouted. The monster's head swiveled. Its eyes contracted to pinpoints, then went big again. It threw Ki away like an unwanted bone. The dwarf crashed sideways into the stone bridge, tumbled like rags onto the muddy ground, and lay still.

Mani sprinted, ax in hand. His vision narrowed as he ran; he saw only the ropy arm, the undulating fingers. Two more strides and he readied the ax for a blow.

He dove, aiming for one leg. The Carrotfinger Man swung a hand down to block. Bright yellow fire flickered along the ax's edge. The hand went flying.

Mani hit the ground and rolled. A thunderous roar shattered the air, echoing against the stone. He came to his feet and saw the monster holding one arm up, grasping the wrist. There was no blood, only a stump that oozed something viscous. Its screaming mouth was as wide as its entire face.

The roar grew louder and the Carrotfinger Man leaped at Mani. Its gait was uneven and it still gripped its own wrist. Mani had no thought to fight the thing. He wanted only to get Ki and to get away.

He would not turn his back on the thing. He scrambled backward, his feet slipping on the slick mud, tripping over stones.

The monster was several feet away when it struck. It lashed out with one impossibly long arm impossibly quick. Mani brought the ax up to defend, but the arm snaked past, orange tendrils as strong as roots tightened around his wrist and forearm. The long arm twitched and Mani lost his hold on the ax. He was jerked forward, landing face first in the mud. He lifted his head, gasped a single breath, then a foot rammed his head into the muck, and kept it there with crushing strength.

Mud covered his mouth and nose. The creature's foot stood across his neck, its long toes stretched over his head, digging into his scalp. Only his ears were above the muck.

He held his breath, but his heart still thundered. He had to breathe soon. He tried to think: let the air out, twist around, grab fresh air, but if he did the one without the other, syrupy mud would flood into him, and that would be the end. The thought made his heart pound even harder.

His lungs were screaming at him. His brain spun. He couldn't think where he was or what he ought to do.

Somewhere, he heard birds trilling furiously, which was strange. Not one bird had sung in all this forest. The thought faded like mist.

The weight lifted from his neck. Air exploded from his mouth. He twisted, and his lungs filled not with mud but with sweet air.

He rolled onto his back, coughing, then got to his knees. The air cleared his eyes and his mind. Above him, the monster was trying to knock pixies away. They clung to him, one on his back, and one on each leg.

Mani got to his knees. On the ground a few feet away, the ax lay near the water's edge, its blade glowing brick red. He got to his feet. The monster had a pixie in its grip and hurled it against the ravine. It yelped when it hit. The other two were still attached, shrieking like jackdaws.

Mani retrieved the ax. It was slippery with mud and he frantically wiped at it, to get a grip. The shrieks shrilled upward. He looked. The monster held Udo under its injured arm, clawing at him with its one hand.

Mani shouted and charged. The creature's eyes narrowed until they were tiny coins. Its mouth became a single, black oval. It dropped Udo. Mani ducked the arm and swung the ax.

A sound like the hiss of a snake and the blade flared yellow. It cut through at the wrist and the hand spun away. As it struck the ground, the fingers popped off and fell separately into the mud. Udo scrambled away, keening.

That sound was drowned by a bellowing roar. The Carrotfinger Man stood erect, his black mouth stretching until the whole of its head distended sideways. Inside that hole were no teeth or tongue, only blackness from which came a sound like gods groaning. It twisted violently and fell to the ground.

"Cut off the head! Cut off the head!" The pixies shrieked at him, their voices like bright pins.

The ax was a torch in his hand. The creature lay face down. He leaped onto the creature's back and swung again. The ax bit into the neck. Fire erupted, but the blade passed through smoothly. The head rolled away. The body shuddered and lay still. It did not bleed, but a kind of orange mud oozed from the neck.

Mani jumped away from the body as if it were a scorpion. Strength fled from him and he sat down hard. The ax viper-hissed against the mud. His heart pounded away. His lungs labored. His mind galloped and reeled like a penned horse. His blood cried out for action, but there was suddenly nothing to do. So he panted and stared, and wondered if the thing might not rise up again.

A weak trill made him turn his head. Eth was bent over Udo, uttering long, soft coos.

Mani got to his feet and ran to Ki's side. He was breathing.

"Ki."

His eyes fluttered but did not stay open. He made as if to get up, but while his left side moved, the right side did not.

"Stay there. We're safe now."

Ki's left eye opened. "You sure?"

Mani gasped a smile. "Sure."

It was an hour before they left. It took that long for Ki to regain the use of his limbs. The general opinion was that the fingers held some kind of paralyzing toxin.

The fingers were the other reason for the delay, for the pixies declared these must be destroyed utterly. Once they had helped Tun to his feet, the three of them scoured the ravine for the orange tendrils. Each time they found one, they fell into a frenzy of smashing with stones until the thing was obliterated.

At the end of it, there was some discussion as to whether they had found nine or ten, with accusations all around about not knowing how to count. The dwarves put an end to the dispute, insisting they needed to get going and reminding the pixies they were still obliged.

They reached the edge of the forest in half an hour. Mani started to bid them farewell, telling them their obligation was done, but they refused to leave.

"We won't go back," Tun said.

"Never go back," Udo said.

"We will find another forest," Eth said.

When the pixies and dwarves parted way, a few miles from Josselin Castle, the sun had just touched the western horizon.


* * *

By the following April, the enterprise of Mani & Ki was known throughout Bretagne, as famed among humans as among dwarves. They had taken on three journeymen and a half dozen apprentices, for Count Evrard himself kept them busy with many new orders.

The three brown pixies ought to have been famous, for they had a grand tale to tell, and they told it often. Fame did not come to them, however, for who can believe a pixie?

At the very end of April, near the arched bridge that stands just inside the forest, a vagabond happened upon a carrot of unusual size growing in the bank near the stream. Being hungry, he pulled and tugged until the thing came free. It was absurdly large and curiously smooth, but he had not eaten in two days, so he took an eager bite.

And spat it out again.

The texture was wrong, the smell was bad, the taste worse, and no carrot should ooze when bitten. In disgust and despair, the vagabond hurled the thing high and far, and went off in search of real food.

The object landed atop the bridge. Slim tendrils probed the stones, but found no nourishment. April left, May arrived, and the orange fingerling turned to ash under a bright spring sun.



THE END


2017 E.L. Knox

Bio: Mr. Knox is a retired medieval historian now writing full time. He has been published at Bewildering Stories and self-published two novelettes.

E-mail: E.L. Knox

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