By Opal Edgar
Young Lord Freeland was repugnant and even he knew it. Why he bothered us with toothpicks was beyond everyone. I did have a strong hunch that it was only so he could see us scurry about, panicked and scared, as we had no such thing—but hey, that was only a hunch.
“Oof!” cried Almir, the second kitchen-hand and my friend, inexplicably winded.
“What the . . .” I started. Then I turned round, because every face stared in terror at something in the region of my left shoulder.
The previously empty door was overshadowed by a gigantic silhouette. Lord Freeland had gotten up from the dining room and now loomed in the kitchen holding the pate press. The weight was missing. I ran to Almir.
“You okay?” I whispered in his ear.
“Never been better,” he wheezed.
But by moving, I’d attracted Lord Freeland’s attention. And that was not a good thing, not by anyone’s standards. His slimy touch brushed my skin before turning to steel, bruising my arm and lifting me into the air.
“Who do I have to hang to get served round here?” His putrid breath rattled against my face.
I would have answered, if I’d been suicidal, but he wasn’t talking to me. It was a rhetorical question. One meant to set the mood. You know, the one that goes: if you don’t do exactly what this sociopath says, when he says it, all hell will break loose and you will die, painfully. It was days like that I wished I had never come to this gods-forsaken region—that I’d stayed home and become a shepherdess instead.
Much less dangerous than a sauce chef, even if it meant living in a rogue shapeshifter haven. Actually, they’d been the very reason I left. Oh well, I guess no where’s perfect.
Here it was dangerous psychopaths; there it had been big bad wolves. Not much difference when you looked at it that way.
“Or perhaps I will be generous,” young Lord Freeland said, “And not slaughter you all like the miserable vermin that you are. If,” he paused, insistently. We all knew what he was waiting for: he was waiting for the head chef to grovel.
After all, young Lord Freeland could do anything to us. We were part of his private kitchen and if we had no toothpicks, it was because he had ordered us to throw them all away earlier. Which no one had really been surprised about—he always had strange orders. Besides, he never used toothpicks. Didn’t know the first thing about dental hygiene. Who would have thought he could plan an offence so far in advance? Even his father was under the misguided delusion that his son was a military failure . . . .
“Yes, my lord?” Chef began, already crawling on his hands and knees out from under the cutting table, and lowering his head in the appropriate submissive bow. “We’ll do everything that you want, my lord.”
Lord Freeland growled and we all jumped. Even I, stuck in his vice-like grip as I was. For a split second I worried my shoulder might be dislocated. But with his Lord of pestilence still in my face, I had more pressing issues. Besides, I could still move my arm, so things had to be fine.
“You said it without the capital letter!” Lord Freeland yelled, spraying me in thick, green, rotten-smelling spittle. “Guards! Seize the chef!”
A dozen soldiers appeared from nowhere and roughly grabbed the head chef. I fought not to wipe my face or yawn. We lived through the same arrest weekly. Each time, after a brief interlude, Lord Freeland realised none of the other cooks matched his chef, and therefore had to release him. Obviously all done in some elaborate show of generosity.
“My Lord! I’m sorry, my Lord!” screamed Chef, before disappearing under a wave of leather-clad, sword-bearing soldiers, and being swiftly carried away. I heard an inappropriate giggle from among the vanishing mass.
I’d always wondered how that bickering had started. I never quite understood why Chef didn’t just quit and run away, or why Lord Freeland didn’t simply hang him like he always threatened. It had to be some kind of perverted game both enjoyed immensely but would never admit to. Or maybe it was a racial thing. We all knew that Lord Freeland was half Orc (his father’s indiscretions were legendary) and there was a vague rumour circulating about Chef’s own shameful lineage. Usually, I dismissed the whole thing as a lot of sad gossip. I mean, just because the poor guy had a few warts and a scrunched-up face, and was fart-ugly in general, didn’t have to mean he was anything but human. Still, sometimes you’ve got to wonder. Especially when you’re dangling from a madman’s iron clasp.
Suddenly, darkness fell upon us. All the windows were blacked out and a woman shrieked—either she was scared of the dark, or a kitchen-hand had attempted something not legit. The second option was confirmed when we heard a resounding smack and a yelp.
“What’s going on?” Lord Freeland roared.
“Storm!” Someone yelled—might have been the dish-boy.
Everyone fell silent then, listening to the rumbling sky. Things were becoming interesting. I’d never seen the midday heavens disappear before—it was taking a while for my eyes to adjust. Not that I could go anywhere.
Thunder rumbled. Dangerously close. And suddenly a flash, in the kitchen! A fireball zipped past the assistant chef, standing next to the window. His pan clattered to the floor and he screeched.
Lightning! Headed straight for me!
“Windows!” Almir yelled, “Stop the draught! Shut the window!”
But it was too late. Lord Freeland dived out of the way, dropping me to my fate. Light struck. “Ow!” I yelped.
As abruptly as it had appeared, it was gone. The sky was back to its usual blue and Lord Freeland struggled angrily to his feet. His face steaming and I had a sudden vivid image of my body being trampled mercilessly.
“Ow,” I repeated, more pathetically, holding my finger up this time.
Admittedly, getting hit by lightning didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. I was milking the situation so as not to be turned into pulp at once, thank you very much. It had struck my ring finger and nothing else. But when I looked at the offending part, I realised it was skewered through by a thin length of metal. What the hell?
“To the gallows!” Young Lord Freeland hollered, “I want the sauce-chef sent to the gallows right now!”
This was the perfect moment to unleash my great wit . . . if I had any. Come on! Think! I urged myself. And then it hit me.
“Oh, but, Lord, I just found you a toothpick!” I screamed, hysteria lacing my words.
Everyone froze, watching me in mild concern, wondering if my brain had been fried. But Lord Freeland’s chops curved into a smile.
“Could I see?” he asked, surprising everyone in the room.
“I might have accidentally bloodied it, my Lord,” I said, pulling on the miniature handle as discreetly as I could. What the hell was this thing? How could it have a handle? I could feel it hum inside my skin. It was disgusting.
“That will only make it taste sweeter,” Lord Freeland said, and I shuddered.
I did not want to go there. The day Lord Freeland saw me as a potential woman I was gone. I hoped he was only referring to the blood. Luckily, I had inherited my father’s wiry, curveless build. Freeland liked his women chunky. Extra incentive never to gain weight, I can tell you.
On closer inspection, the metal skewer looked like a tiny sword. The blade was disproportionately long and horribly sharp. The blood seemed to vanish from the metal, mysteriously sucked into it. I shuddered again and felt almost relieved when Lord Freeland snatched it from me. But then again, you can’t be all that relieved when your master is insane, smells like a corpse and is toying with you. He played with the skewer for a second and finally shoved it between his front teeth, his smile still plastered on, his wild animal eyes worryingly fixed on me.
“What’s your name, lad?” he asked.
I didn’t dispute the appellation and thanked the gods for the hideous kitchen-cap I wore over my hair.
“Elm Carmini, my Lord, from the distant lands of Waterplenty.”
I’d quite unashamedly given my nickname, which dropped the ‘a’ out of ‘Elma’. I’d let no feminine pride endanger my life.
“Elm, my boy, aren’t you aware that I ordered all toothpicks to be disposed of?” Young Lord Freeland asked.
Immediately I saw the trap closing in. I was such an idiot!
“It’s my fault, sir!” Almir jumped in.
I stared in horror and counter-attacked at once. “No, my Lord, I’m sorry. It’s entirely my fault. I misunderstood your order,” I said in panic. “I understood we had to get rid of the kitchen’s toothpicks, not our personal ones, the ones that we carried on ourselves, my Lord. This is a . . .” and there I lost inspiration. What the hell could this thing be?
Lord Freeland snarled. He didn’t have much patience, and my credibility was dying fast. The metal pick between his teeth made his face, if possible, even more terrifying.
“It’s a family heirloom, my Lord!” I yelled.
This only exacerbated the situation.
“Have them both thrown in the dungeon!” Lord Freeland yelled back. “One blatantly ignored a direct order and the other is a liar! I will not tolerate liars in my kitchens!”
Before either Almir or I could protest, we found ourselves thrown in a damp, putrid cell. The heavy door clanked as it shut behind us. The only comfort was in the fact that we hadn’t been separated.
“Bagsy the festering straw!” Almir exclaimed, crawling to the stinking mound, as I was still gathering my strength after hitting the cold stone. I glared at him as I lifted myself, dripping, out of the puddle I had landed in.
“Sorry, it should be ladies first, shouldn’t it?” Almir said, scooting over a little. “We can share.”
“Thanks,” I muttered, crawling to the straw. “And I’m not only talking about the straw.”
“Hey, what are friends for?” Almir shrugged, and before I knew it, he had curled up in a ball and fallen asleep—his snoring echoing comfortingly in the dark cell.
“Great,” I said, to no one in particular.
It was the squeaky “I know!” which startled me.
“Who’s there?” I panicked.
From the darkest corner of the dampest wall, a hand-sized man appeared.
“Hello,” he said, walking towards me. I stared until he stopped at my shoe.
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “You’re . . . you’re really . . . you’re really small,” I concluded lamely. “What are you?”
“I’m an Interdimensional Magical Object Retriever,” he answered. The little fellow stood impressively straight and utterly determined. He looked me up and down, which I would have considered rude if anyone else had been doing it, but since I had insulted him first, I decided I had no right to complain.
“Damn the pink frilly slips of the Eternal Mother!” he swore (at least, I guessed that’s what it was.) “I’m too late. Again!”
“I need the sword. You have been in contact with the sword,” the mini-man insisted, “And I’ve been created to retrieve it. I’m an Interdimensional M.O.R., for Great Pixie’s sake! I managed to follow it here, to you, but I’m too late. Again. Could you tell me which direction it left in?”
“Huh?” I repeated.
“I’m talking about the sword, damned redundant female! The great magical sword that will decide the future of our whole universe! Where did it decide to go?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling suddenly lost and partly guilty about the way I’d passed the thing off as a toothpick earlier. It had been so small and had looked so insignificant—how could I have guessed that there were people out there looking for it? The little guy hung his head, deflated. Disappointment dripped from him like thick, warm butter from a slice of toast. Obviously, when you were as small as he was, the sword would have looked almighty.
“I’m really sorry. I had no idea. I gave it to Lord Freeland,” I said.
At that, the little man threw a real fit, not even taking my apology into account—or the size difference, for that matter. Yelling at the top of his lungs, he told me that I was incapable, incompetent and ungrateful for the gifts offered to me and all the honours and all the trimmings. Adding that he’d never heard of someone stupid enough to give away a magic sword which had chosen them.
I had no idea what he was talking about, just that he was angry as all hell and that I was grateful for the heavy doors muffling the sound. I didn’t want any guards banging at my door.
“I’ve got to get it back!” He finally screamed, and I was amazed that Almir could have slept through the whole tirade.
“Right,” I frowned. “Well, good luck getting it out of the Orc’s ugly paws.”
“Oh no! No, no, no, no . . . . You are not getting out of this so easily!” The mini-man said, “It chose you. Now you are helping me retrieve it.”
Almir had to be pretending he was asleep. Things were simply too crazy for him and he didn’t want to get involved.
I placed both hands on my hips. “And how do you propose I do that, little one? In case you haven’t noticed, I’m in a cell. And it doesn’t look like I’m getting out of here any time soon.”
Mini-man opened his waistcoat wide, flashing me an arsenal of peas. Wow, the guards had better watch out for their eyes. I pulled a face. Not that I’d expected him to be carrying a dagger I could use.
“Well, that’s cute, hope you didn’t forget the slingshot,” I said. “Almir, you hear that? The grasshopper wants us to take on Freeland with ammunition consisting of lentils.”
Almir moaned absently and turned in his sleep. Guess I’d been wrong; he was completely out of it.
“Sorry, tiny, but I think you have the wrong guys,” I shook my head. “Heroes have it tattooed on their foreheads so you don’t mix them up with the rest of the cowardly population.”
I let myself flop till my head reached the straw, and cuddled up close to Almir. The dampness started to make me cold at once. But I wasn’t able to enjoy my few seconds of shut-eye, because as soon as I lay down, a resounding explosion occurred. I leapt up.
“What the . . . !” I exclaimed staring dumbfounded at the destroyed door.
“Fire-crackers,” mini-man said, holding out a pea for me to take. “Just press and throw. Found them in, well, another world. The one I’m giving you is much less powerful—less juice, you know. But they come in pretty handy.”
“I’ll bet,” I nodded, as if I understood anything he had just said.
Almir, hair tousled and messy, eyelids heavy, raised himself on a thin elbow. “Hey,” he said thickly, “We’re free.”
“And we’d better get out of here quick, if you don’t want to get caught!” The little man said.
“Who’s he?” asked Almir.
“Call me Greg.”
“Okay,” Almir shrugged.
“We are in so much trouble because of you,” I told Greg, cupping him with my hands and lifting him up. After all, it would be a pity to tread on him while escaping. Poking his head carefully through the smashed door, Almir signalled me to follow him. I found it hard to believe no guards were charging at us. The deafening noise of the explosion must have been heard by this whole wing of the castle, at least! But hey, I wasn’t about to complain about being left to escape. We started to run towards the exit. Little Greg lifted himself on tip-toes, sniffing the air and frowning.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“Away from here!” I whispered furiously.
“You can’t!” cried Greg, “The sword’s in there!”
And just like that, I stopped moving. Not that I wanted to—I just couldn’t move any more. “What is going on?” I panicked.
“I’m not letting you go anywhere without getting me the sword back,” Greg said.
“Almir!” I called out. “Greg’s a miniature wizard. Find something to swat him with!”
I couldn’t believe that I had the plague of humanity sitting in the palm of my hand. I should have known! Who else could make themselves such a pain; cause so much trouble to everyone and skewer people’s fingers all at the same time?
“You don’t like wizards here either?” Greg demanded. “It’s universe-wide discrimination, that’s what it is!”
Almir came running back with a rough plank and I hoped he wouldn’t get splinters from it. But he wasn’t able to get close to me. He froze, halfway through swinging the improvised bat.
“We don’t like wizards because they always try to control us with their powers! Exactly like you are doing!” I exclaimed. “They are the epitome of selfishness. Don’t you see that we are running for our lives here? Don’t you realise that if we get caught we’ll be hanged?”
Greg seemed to think for a second. “I see your point,” he said, “And I truly don’t want you to die. But you don’t understand the importance of this sword. This goes beyond a few lives, this concerns everyone!”
I couldn’t fidget, shift from one foot to the other, grimace, frown, stick out my tongue … All those constraints made it difficult to think. But heavy footsteps hammering the cold paving reminded us that we didn’t have forever to argue.
“Listen, we can’t do anything like this,” I told Greg. “And we certainly can’t do anything dead, either. So unfreeze us right now and I promise to help.”
Immediately, I regained control of my limbs, and stumbled forwards. Almir dropped the plank and looked questioningly at me, waiting to be told what to do.
“Run!” I said. And he did. He was off like a rabbit. Not casting a single backwards glance, disappearing quickly behind the bend of the wall, not realising that I hadn’t followed.
“You better have a plan,” I said grudgingly to Greg, hearing the footsteps draw near.
“Remember the explosive device?” he asked, and I nodded. “Well, now would be a great time to use it.”
He did have a point. I retrieved the exploding pea from my pocket, pressed it and put it in the first keyhole of the first cell door I found. A small puff of smoke erupted from this keyhole and I coughed. Thank the gods for the magical peas. I pushed the door open and stumbled in – this smoke was corrosive! I leaned back on the door to close it, and found myself staring at the head chef, just a few centimetres away.
“Whoa!” I exclaimed, jumping backwards and bumping my head against the door. “Chef!”
“What are you doing here?” he asked, then, eyeing Greg warily, “Who are you?”
“I’m an inter . . .” Greg started, but I cut him off: “He’s just Greg, and we’re escaping, as soon as the guard finishes his round, if you want to follow us . . .” I didn’t finish the thought, letting him put it together as he saw fit.
“Don’t know about running away,” said Chef after a beat, “But I’d be happy to sleep in my own bed.”
“Aren’t you afraid of Lord Freeland’s retribution, Chef?” I asked, very scared myself. The head chef laughed, his jowls flapping. He insisted that we call him Chef. Truthfully, I didn’t even know his real name. I don’t think anyone did. In fact, there was very little anyone knew about him at all. He was not from round here, had no family, lived on his own and was never seen outside the walls of the castle . . . . All this made for a goldmine of gossip.
“Elm, my girl, people just don’t appreciate your sense of humour!” Chef said, and I frowned. I was glad that he was enjoying himself, but I didn’t get it.
“That’s it,” Greg announced. “The guard passed, now get your bum outta here and let’s go check out this Freeland.”
“You’re going to Freeland’s?” asked Chef, beyond surprised.
“Well, it’s not something I want to do,” I admitted, “But he’s got something of Greg’s and I promised to retrieve it.”
The chef’s eyebrows rose to his hairline. He knew me well. I didn’t get involved if I could avoid it. Not in anything, not even kitchen matters. That was the great thing about being in charge of sauces: there’s only ever one person doing the job—and that one person was me.
“I had no choice, really,” I told the chef.
“I’ll come along,” he said, surprising me in turn.
“Sure you’re not afraid?” I asked. He laughed again, and on that note, we all stepped out, scurrying as lightly as we could. I can tell you right now, that’s not something Chef could have been doing very often. He was huffing and puffing, holding his enormous stomach in both hands, but having the time of his life. Some people are just plain weird. For the first time, it occurred to me that Chef might have been the one giggling during the soldier pile-up.
“You might want to turn to the left,” the chef interrupted suddenly, “Freeland’s personal chambers are on the left.”
“Oh,” I said, “Right.”
“No, left,” Greg yelled in my ear—easy for him to reach now that he was standing on my shoulder.
We ran to Young Lord Freeland’s bedroom and, in all honesty, I started to wonder if this was reasonable at all. But Chef didn’t leave me time to brood on the topic. He opened the great golden doors as we reached them, and continued trotting straight ahead, leading the way to the centre without a single interruption. Where the hell were all the guards? The place was normally crawling with them. Not that I wanted any, but this had to qualify as a breach, and still they weren’t here. I shivered at all the times I thought I had been sleeping safely in the servants’ quarters.
Finally, Chef smashed through the last door and we found ourselves in Lord Freeland’s sleeping chamber, his highness comfortably tucked up in bed. He sprang up and I shrieked, hiding my face.
“What is this?” he yelled, and I could hardly believe I was alive to hear him. I chanced a peek between my fingers and realised he wasn’t talking to me, but to the chef.
“Our witnesses,” said Chef.
“You’re serious?” Lord Freeland asked, mollified.
“Yes,” Chef nodded. “I accept your offer.”
I turned to Greg, wondering if he felt as lost as I. He did. But then his face brightened and obviously he started understanding much more clearly than I ever could.
“What’s going on?” I whispered.
“You didn’t tell me they were orcs,” he answered.
Lord Freeland fell to his knees in front of the chef and clutched at the small apron dangling ridiculously from the gigantic stomach. What was going on? “Oh,” he said, “Kitty, my love, will you be my wife?”
“Yes,” Chef smiled, and tears streamed from Lord Freeland’s eyes. Dear gods! Chef was not a man! And I’d thought he’d been ugly! I took that back, she was positively hideous.
“Edmond, sweetheart,” Chef said, “Will you be my husband?”
“Oh yes,” Freeland said. They kissed.
I turned away, feeling sick. Even Greg seemed to have trouble holding onto his lunch. Oh dear gods, had I just been witness to an orc union?
A yelp made us look back at the newly wedded couple. Almir was standing over a crumpled Lord Freeland, holding the pâté press weight high above his head. Chef looked shocked but otherwise unharmed.
“Well, it’s good I came back,” Almir said, “Freeland was trying to eat the chef.”
I opened my mouth to rectify the understandable mistake, but Chef beat me to it. She was laughing, finding the whole situation hilarious. Almir stared.
“I still can’t get over the fact that Lord Freeland’s first name is Edmond,” he concluded.
“What I don’t get is the whole putting you in jail thing, Chef,” I admitted.
“Ah,” Chef said. “Well, it was rather coy of him. The cell was never locked. Edmond would empty the corridor of guards, so that I could sneak into his room without anyone knowing.”
That explained the utter lack of security. Made me feel a little better.
“Well, he’s good at pretending to be angry,” I said, shaking my head.
“Oh, but he was angry,” Chef shrugged, “It’s been weeks I’ve been refusing to come out of the cell.”
“But why?” Almir asked, forgetting, perhaps, who we were talking about. It was a bit like a nasty accident—you don’t want to see, but you can’t stop yourself from having a quick peek. We were all horrified and totally fascinated at the same time. Even Greg had forgotten his sword.
“I think it’s the hormones playing up,” Chef said, after a beat. “Makes me grouchy.”
She was clutching at her stomach and the situation reached new heights of creepiness. “You’re expecting a baby orc!” I exclaimed in horror and she smiled. Almir turned visibly green, and Greg swayed—I held on to him carefully.
“If you’re here for something,” Chef cut in, still looking perfectly happy, “I would suggest you look fast. Edmond is going to wake up and I don’t think he’ll be very pleased to see you there so soon after hitting him.”
We all nodded. Greg had no difficulty pointing to where the blade was, with his supernatural-extra-sword finding-senses. It was on the dressing table. But as I reached for it, it flashed brightly. I covered my eyes and Greg swore. When I looked again the sword was gone.
“Oh!” I said, “What are we going to do now?”
“You?” Greg said, “Nothing. It evaded me. Again. But one day, I’m telling you, one day I’ll get it . . . .Don’t worry!” And with that, he was also gone.
Almir looked from the place where the sword had been to the place where Greg had been. He seemed a little put off, but finally shrugged. I think we were all too tired to care.
“Say, Almir,” I started, “What do you think about becoming a shepherd?”
There was a thoughtful pause.
“I think I’d like that,” he finally said. So I grabbed his hand and together we went in search for the exit.
Opal Edgar was born in Australia, lives in France, and might move to China one of these days. She is an anthropology graduate and spends most of her time cramping many words on tiny bits of flying paper she then has trouble deciphering. But puzzles are fun, right? She has previously been published in Aurora Wolf’s anthology: Aurora of the Sun, and has upcoming stories in An Electric Tragedywebzine and Hungur Magazine. You can find her writing lone messages on her blog: http://darkdemonproductions.blogspot.com/don’t hesitate to drop by.