Robert Allen Lupton
The woods are dangerous for a woman traveling alone. I placed my sword within reach and entertained myself with my lute and limericks while the rabbit sizzled over the fire. I huddled under my bedroll for warmth, turned the rabbit, and recited an epic ballad I composed on the road today.
The fifth verse sounded like the first. I tried again and a voice screamed, “For the love of whatever god you worship, stop. Please stop.”
A miniature man in a suit with a waistcoat took the rabbit, tore it apart, and tossed me half. He took a bite and a swig of my wine. “I wasn’t going to introduce myself until tomorrow, but I couldn’t stand it any longer. Kiss a bug’s butt, woman, you’ve played the same three chords all night. Have mercy. Crickets play more notes. And your lyrics stink. Have you heard of meter and rhyme? Does the word pentameter mean nothing to you?”
The rabbit burned my fingers and grease dripped on my shirt. I took one bite and reached for my sword.
The man pushed up the goggles attached to his form-fitting leather helmet and said. “Draw your sword. I hope you fight better than you sing. Eat quickly.”
Nobody likes a critic. “I’ll kill you.”
The little man pointed at a woodcutter and his son near my tethered horse. “Not me. Fight them.”
The woodcutter spoke softly. “We mean no harm.”
The little man licked rabbit grease off his fingers and sneezed into his hand. He ran toward me, ducked beneath my sword, and splattered snot on my face. It was warm and slimy. I chased him around the fire. “Snotnose bastard, you can’t keep away forever.”
“I’m a pixie. Pixie snot is magic. It breaks spells. Look at the woodcutter, look at the woodcutter.”
I turned toward the woodcutter and barely dodged his axe. He was bigger and uglier than he was before and he was a troll, not a woodcutter. So was his son. I raised my sword and blocked an axe blow, twisted, and parried the son’s spear.
The little man rushed around the fire and slipped behind the troll. The troll stepped back and tripped over the pixie. I slashed downward, but the troll rolled away and my blade sliced into a tree stump. I couldn’t pull it out. The troll kicked my leg and I fell. I crawled away, but he tackled me. He was twice my size and he held me down. He choked me with both hands. I punched his yellow teeth. He put his chin against his chest and my hands pounded his hard skull. We flailed on the ground. I needed a weapon. Suddenly, a rock was in my hand. I smashed it into the troll’s ear. He raised his head and I crushed his throat.
He rolled off me, gasped for breath, and tumbled into the fire. I crawled to my sword and grabbed the hilt. The son swung his spear and I couldn’t pull my sword free to block him. I took the blow on my leather forearm bracer, grabbed the haft, and jerked him toward me. I tripped him and he dropped his spear when he sprawled across my bedroll. I scrambled for his spear and buried it in his side.
The little man sat up and brushed leaves from his clothing. “Well, at least you can fight. Stick to fighting. Your ballad is possibly the worst piece of music ever inflicted on another person. I’m here to help you, but I swear on the life of my wife, Inez, if you play that lute again I’ll kill you myself.”
“Who are you? Why would you help me?”
“Name’s Marvin. If it were up to me I’d be on a nice beach with chilled wine and a good cigar. You’re either my punishment or my penance. I bespelled the Pixie King’s daughter. She was a real pain. Turned her into a poodle. Seems being housebroken doesn’t take with a princess who’s a real dog. She got out, ran away, and fell in love with a Shetland pony. The wedding was a real dog and pony show. Her litter of Shetdoodles are adorable.”
The king wasn’t amused and sentenced me to work for POOPHEADS, the Pixie Order of Pixilated Helpfulness and Direct Succor. One of their departments, FLAPPERS, the Forward Looking and Preventive Prognostication Envisioning Society wants you to find the magic mirror that you seek to help you locate your children. Your children or your children’s children are somehow important to the future wellbeing of pixies, but I have no idea why. My assignment is to help you.”
“I’m told I have to survive many trials before I reach the mirror. Do you know what they are?”
“No, but I hope one of them isn’t to compose a haiku or an iambic pentameter couplet. From what I heard this evening, a drunken weasel composes better doggerel verse than you.”
“Are you always such a jerk?”
“This is as nice as I get. Wait until you know me better.”
Pixie snot dripped from my chin and splashed on my right hand. “You slathered snot on my face. Will I turn into a dog or die from pixie pox?”
“Pixie snot is magic. It dispels spells. It deglamorizes glamours. The snot allowed you to see the trolls as trolls. They bought glamours from a red fairy to make themselves appear harmless. Pixie snot exposes traps, defeats deceits, and reveals the souls of your friends and enemies.”
“I don’t believe in fairies.”
“Tinkerbell will be heartbroken. You’re on a quest to survive challenges in a magic labyrinth and win an audience with a magic mirror and you don’t believe in fairies. Really. You killed two of the ugliest trolls in the forest and you don’t believe in fairies. I’m going to ask POOPHEADS for another assignment before you start spouting more of those inane unconnected sentences you call verse.”
“I don’t really believe in the magic mirror, but I’ve nothing to lose. My parents are dead, my mate is dead, and my children disappeared years ago.”
“The mirror can’t bring back the dead. Dead is dead.”
“I want my children. Even if the mirror is a cruel trick concocted by some evil witch, I won’t be any worse off. What’s a tinkerbell?”
Marvin lit a short black tube and inhaled the smoke, held it for a moment, and exhaled a castle shaped plume of smoke. “Tinkerbell won’t be around for a long time. Time doesn’t work the same for pixies as it does for you, and POOPHEADS sends me to a lot of different places and times. Let’s move along, these trolls will smell worse by morning.
“Can you take me to my children?”
“I don’t know where your children are. Besides, I’m an advisor, not a babysitter. My job is to follow you around and second guess your decisions.”
I packed my horse and bent to lift Marvin into the saddle. “Whoa, Sweetheart. Keep your hands to yourself. I’m married. Inez will kill us both.”
“Can you walk fast enough to keep up?”
“No, but I can fly. I make a great parrot.”
“What’s a parrot?”
He put the goggles over his eyes and became a large blue and yellow bird. I mounted my horse and the parrot circled and landed on my shoulder. I felt something wet run down my arm. I thought it was parrot poop, but it was snot.
The trees trunks grew faces where before there’d only been rough bark. Flights of small creatures flitted above the grasses playing tag in the meadows, and attractive men and women beckoned from the streams and ponds. Maybe, it was pixie snot or maybe only momentary shadows that flickered and faded as the moon peeked through the high clouds peppering the starry sky.
It was beautiful, except for the parrot, and I composed verses as we meandered through the night.
“Goblin, gnome, orc, and fairy,
Make the moonlight seem so scary.
Troll and pixie, ogre and witch,
Dryad, naiad, which is which.”
Didn’t sound quite right. I tried leprechauns, kelpies, mermaids, sprites, and wizards, but it never sounded right. Eventually, my mind lost focus and I slept-rode through the night, only waking up when Marvin refreshed the snot on my arm.
After sunrise, we stumbled into a small town with one inn. Marvin flapped to the ground, shifted, lifted his goggles, and said, “I want breakfast. You got gold or silver?”
I lifted my arm and crusted snot flaked away. I brushed it off my horse. “Why should I buy you breakfast.”
“I put the stone in your hand last night.”
I remembered the stone. I wondered where it came from. I dismounted and tied my horse in front of the inn, walked to the water trough, and dipped my hands in the slimy green water.
Marvin yelled, “Stop. Don’t wash off the snot. You’ll need to see through glamours and spells to pass the tests.”
I felt stupid and unclean, but I dried my hands on my shirt and followed Marvin into the inn. I kicked at him when he flipped a dollop of fresh snot on my leg. We sat with our backs to the wall and our eyes on the door. There wasn’t a human in the place.
A female blue fairy took our order. The cook was an elf. Four other tables were taken by goblins and gnomes. A pair of kelpies sat in a booth and one solitary orc nursed a schooner of beer at the bar. Either the snot worked or I was ensorcelled.
The fairy brought mugs of strong dark ale. I kept one hand on my sword while I sipped it. We had venison sausage and goose eggs. I soaked the hard black bread in my beer. It was excellent.
Marvin said, “Can’t say as I’ve seen a lot of poet warriors. I never knew one who was a woman. Strange combination. I’ll have another beer. Tell me about yourself.”
“I didn’t think you cared.”
“Don’t, but my mama told me people won’t buy the beer if you don’t let them talk about themselves. Besides, I expect you to be more interesting than watching gnomes and goblins eat breakfast.”
“Karta. My name is Karta. Mother was a mercenary swordswoman and dad was a minstrel. She saved him one night after he sang a ballad comparing her commander to a diseased ferret. They fell in love, married, and I was their only child.
They’ve been dead for years. Mother taught me to fight and dad trained me to play the lute and compose poetry.”
“Seems like your mother was the better teacher. Does the lute have magical powers?”
“If it did, don’t you think I could play more than three stupid chords?”
“Temper, temper. Anger is the last refuge of the incompetent. Except for ogres, ogres pretty much lead with anger.”
“I met my husband when we fought the northerners. He and I were the only survivors from our squadron. His leg was injured and he was never able to fight again, so he watched the kids whenever I took an assignment. I spent two years repelling the orc invasion on the east coast. Our village was pillaged in my absence and I found his body in the ashes. My children, Mira and Jana were gone. I’ve searched for years and never found a single clue.”
“I met a bard who told me the legend of the magic mirror. I followed rumors, hints, and half-finished tales ever since. I think I’ve gotten close once or twice. I had to fight, steal, and beg along the way. Does the mirror truly grant wishes?”
“If you had to sing for your supper, you’d be dead. I’m only a drunken pixie with a runny nose, but I’ve heard the mirror does grant wishes. You have to survive the tests to find out.”
“You’ll help with the tests?”
“I’ll stay with you, but you have to do it yourself. Failure means you die. Death is always the penalty in tales like these. I always hoped someone would have more imagination. Failure could mean exile to Cleveland or something like that.”
“Never mind. Cleveland is like Tinkerbell, it’s a place whose time hasn’t arrived. I can’t help you with the tests. If I help and you fail, I die too. It would be cruel to deprive the women of the world of my presence. You’ll have the courtesy not to tell Inez I said that.”
After breakfast, I rode out of town with a song in my heart and a parrot on my shoulder. I saw the castle about midday. The fresh snot on my leg assured me the castle was real. The road meandered downhill to a small bridge across a clear stream in the verdant valley below me and climbed to the moat-surrounded castle and its high walls.
Marvin fluttered to a nearby tree. He sat on the branch and relit the stub of one of those tubes he called cigars.
“Stop for the night, it’s time to rest.
You’ll need all day to pass the tests.
Use your tools, use what you’ve got,
Sword and lute and pixie snot.”
“That’s disgusting and worse than anything I’ve ever written.”
“Debatable. I’ve heard your work. Nonetheless, rest tonight and start fresh tomorrow.”
“Will you fly ahead and inspect the castle?”
“I’m a pixie, not a spy. That’s cheating, not that I have anything that resembles a moral code, but I won’t draw attention to myself. You haven’t slept for a night and a day. Follow your training. Sharpen your sword and tune your lute. Sleep. No sleep makes for a slow mind and a slower sword arm. Both are good ways to die.”
I took his advice. At sunrise, I rode to the stream and brandished my sword at the bridge troll. He crawled out of sight and let us pass unmolested. The drawbridge was raised at the castle and one lonely guardsman waited on my side of the moat.
“Who are you and what do you do here?” he challenged.
“Karta. Warrior and poet. Undefeated swordswoman and minstrel to kings and princes. I seek the magic mirror.” A little embellishment is good for the soul.
He laughed, “All swordsmen, male or female, are either undefeated or dead. Claim seeker’s right to face the tests or go back the way you came. If you proceed, you can’t turn back.”
This was more formal than I expected. I flinched when the parrot darted between me and the morning sun and I said, “I claim seeker’s right. I will face the trials.”
“So it begins. Answer a riddle and the bridge will lower. Fail and die where you stand.” He leaned close to me and whispered, “If you die here, I get your horse.”
I dismounted and strapped my lute across one shoulder and my sword across the other.
“You only have one chance, so answer wisely. The riddle begins. What am I? I’m the warrior who never tires and never quits. I don’t bleed, and I heal when the blade withdraws. I can steal your breath or break your bones. I never surrender and I never retreat. Who am I?”
I hate riddles. My mind doesn’t work that way. Could the answer be a giant, or an animal of some kind? Was it the sun or the moon? Nothing seemed right.
The guardsman said, “Don’t take all day. No answer is the wrong answer.” The parrot flew so near his wing touched my shoulder. He skimmed the water’s surface in the moat, flew upward, and dripped the scummy water on my face and hair.
I spit out the foul tasting water. I crossed my eyes and watched the answer drip from the end of my nose. Water! The answer is water. It never stops moving and it will wait forever to break through a dam. You can slash it with your sword, but it flows right back. Water will drown you and ice can break your bones. A river never quits, it keeps flowing. I said. “Water, the warrior is water.”
“Clever girl.” He signaled and the drawbridge lowered. “Tie your horse in the courtyard. Inside are three doors. Behind one is a dragon and behind another is a pack of wolves. The third door leads into the castle and your next challenge.”
The drawbridge closed behind me. I tied my horse and faced three identical doors. Marvin landed on the saddle, cocked his parrot head, and changed forms. He sneezed into his hand and wiped it on my arm. “Look again.”
Only two doors were really doors. The middle door was a spell disguised passageway into the interior of the castle. With the concealment spell broken, I could smell the dragon and the wolves.
Marvin said, “You should hurry, remember what the guardsman said, “Not to decide is to make the wrong decision. You can see the passageway. The dragon and wolves sound hungry. Move before the doors open to punish you for indecision.”
I ran through the tunnel and into a large courtyard that encircled the entire castle keep. I walked completely around the internal castle. Marvin, the pixie parrot, flew overhead. Three creatures were waiting when I completed the circle around the keep.
“Finished with your exercise, little girl?” lisped the largest ogre. His front teeth were gone. He pointed the largest sword I’ve ever seen at me and said. “Choose your opponent. Fight one of us to the death. Win and move on, lose and die.”
All three looked like ogres. I touched the undried pixie booger on my sword’s scabbard. It didn’t help, they were still ogres.
“Whomever you choose has choice of weapons. Choose or face us all.”
“Show me your weapons before I decide.”
“There’s no fun in that. Choose and find out.”
I glanced at Marvin and he shrugged his little parrot wings and one lonely blue tail feather drifted to the hard packed dirt.
Another ogre pounded his club so hard the ground shook and dust drifted from the castle walls. The third one spun his spear so fast it was a blur. All three of them shouted, “Choose.”
Three, why were there always three? Was it a rule? I drew my sword and pointed it at the toothless ogre. “I choose you.”
“Fine, put away your sword. You don’t need it. I choose poetry. We’ll compose alternate lines until one of us can’t complete a rhyme. I say a line and you have to say a rhyming line and then a new line for me to rhyme with. We take turns until one of us can’t make a rhyme.”
I was so screwed. I looked at Marvin and he covered his face with one of his wings. If I lost, I wasn’t going to be a good sport about it, I’d draw my sword and go down fighting. “Okay, Toothless, get on with it.”
“Fine, and you can’t make up words or mispronounce them to make rhymes. No fair rhyming orange and door hinge. Here we go. “I like to eat deer and antelopes.”
According to Marvin, bad rhymes are my forte. “Garnish them with cantaloupes. Smash and mix them in my porridge.”
“Not bad, a triple rhyme. Put the leftovers into storage. Save them for my kin and kith.”
“You lisp. Did you say kiss or kith?
‘Kith, like friends.”
“Okay. Share with folks I like to be with. Add some berries to make it purple.”
The ogre stopped smiling. He mumbled under his breath. “Furple flowers, murple syrup, burple, hurple, surple, hell.”
I quoted his own words at him. “Choose and don’t cheat. No made up words and no mispronouncing things. Don’t lisp nurple or lurple at me. You thought I was a terrible poet, but you’re beaten and you know it.”
Toothless groaned. “It’s bad enough you win, but it’s cruel to punish my sensitive ears with that last couplet. The ogre opened a people-sized wooden door.
I asked, “What now.”
“I’ve been here twenty years and you’re only the second person to go through this door. The first one never came back. I remember screaming, a lot of screaming.”
On that cheery note, I picked up the blue feather, stuck it in my hair, and entered the long dark hallway. “I can’t see anything, it’s too dark.”
“Not really,” said Marvin. “You dried out while you dueled words with the ogre.” He refreshed the snot on my face and shoulder. I cringe every time, it’s disgusting. It’s warm and cold at the same time and the consistency of congealed beaver grease, but it works.
The spell of darkness dissipated. The hall was a brightly lit and beautiful room filled with chests of jewels. Chains of pearls hung from crystal chandeliers and ornate tables were covered with stacks of gold and silver coins. The walls were draped with fine silks and tapestries. Handcrafted goblets of rare wines and liquors were distributed throughout the room. The marble floor was layered with exotic rugs from foreign lands.
I moved through the room without touching anything. I ignored the golden bracelets, the silver necklaces, and the boxes of rings so full they overflowed onto the tabletops and spilled onto the marble floor. In the center of the room was a dining table offering an amazing assortment of viands. The pig was roasted to perfection and cornucopias of fruits and sweets adorned the candlelit feast. Blackbird pie and candied quail preserves were next to gaily decorated cakes and tarts.
I could take enough wealth to last my children ten generations, assuming I ever find my children, or I could quench my thirst and fill my belly. Marvin moved to my side. The little hedonist hadn’t touched a thing. I reached toward a goblet and raised my eyebrows.
He shook his head and said, “Too good to be true is too good to be true. This must be a test of resolve. Don’t eat or drink anything in this room. Don’t so much as bite a single gold coin to test the purity.”
He indicated a door past the food and another gauntlet of temptation, and said, “Walk proudly, but walk quickly. The longer we stay, the more we’ll want the riches offered here.”
“I thought pixie snot broke illusions and spells.”
“This is no illusion. These things are real. Your desire for them isn’t a spell, but human nature.”
I concentrated and made myself remember my children’s faces and ran past the beckoning dreams which lined the final few feet to the next passage.
A man at a workbench polished and sharpened his sword. He looked up and said, “Hello, I’m Sir Flandal. I can’t remember the last time anyone made it this far. Even the noblest questor can’t resist the treasure room. I’m the last trial you’ll face before you reach the magic mirror. What’s your name? I don’t like to kill people before we’ve been properly introduced.”
“Isn’t that nice. I’m Karta, I’m here to find my children. What happens to people who take the treasures or who eat or drink in the last room? Do they abandon their quests and go home?”
“No, they die. The food and drink contain poison. If a visitor touches a single coin, the doors are locked and barred. Eventually, even the gold thieves grow hungry, eat, and die. No one leaves the room with anything more than what he entered with.”
He put aside his whetstone, polished his blade one last time, and slashed it through the air a couple of times. “Well, Karta, we’d best get on with it. Duel to the death. Draw your weapon and prepare to die.”
Marvin flew to the top of a bookcase and perched. I felt the moist snot on my face and knew this wasn’t a glamour. Sir Flandal was real and so was his sword. He danced a couple advances and retreats, practiced a thrust and riposte, and flicked his blade faster than my eye could follow.
“Defend yourself. Fight, die, or surrender.”
I drew my sword and swung the blade in one motion. He deflected my slash and stepped back. I screamed. “I didn’t come here to quit. I’d rather die than surrender.”
Sir Flandal laughed and dropped the tip of his blade. “You’d rather die. How strange. Very well, I surrender. I can’t imagine why anyone would choose to die. The mirror is that way.”
I spun around and threatened the room with my sword. It was empty except for the three of us. I faced Sir Flandal and said, “I don’t believe you. Knights don’t surrender. Knights never surrender.”
“Don’t be silly, everyone surrenders sooner or later. Even the best warrior eventually meets his match. Knights are like everyone else, we don’t want to die over foolish pride or perceived honor. We surrender all the time. If you’re willing to die instead of surrender, that’s good enough for me. I quit. I surrender. The mirror is through that door. Help yourself.”
“So I can walk through the door and take the mirror.”
“You can walk through the door and talk to the mirror. You can’t take it.”
“It will grant my wishes.”
“I suppose. That’s what it does.”
I held him at swordpoint while I crossed the room. I backed out the doorway and into the last chamber.
“Do you usually announce your presence by entering a room ass first?”
I turned quickly and stood with my sword on point. The stone chamber was empty except for a full-length mirror on the opposite wall. The surface of the mirror roiled with smoke and the outline of a face appeared in the billowing clouds.”
“My name is Karta and I demand…”
“Stop it. I know who you are and why you’re here. Who’s that bird with you? Marvin, is that you?”
The parrot shifted into Marvin and he said, “Hello, sister dear, we miss you. How long has it been?”
“A couple of centuries. I should have known better than to gamble with that card shark. Djinns never tell the truth.”
“I warned you. He didn’t even need magic to cheat you. Never bet against a man, or in this case a djinn, who makes his living dealing cards. If he says the jack of knaves will jump out of the deck and spit beer in your eye, you’d best give him your money and ready your handkerchief. But no, you knew better. You bet him five centuries in the mirror. He has three other saps lined up behind you. He’s the slave of mirror and he’s living in a castle while you’re doing his time.”
I said, “Excuse me, but I’m here for a reason. I want my children.”
The smoke dissipated and the young woman’s face was crisp and clear. “Sorry, I wanted a moment to visit with my big brother. Marvin, give my best to Inez. Is the king still mad at you over the poodle princess fiasco.”
“Yes, but the puppies are gorgeous.”
“Excellent. Tell mom I’ll be home in a couple hundred years, give or take. Okay, Karta. This is a one wish kind of day and in honor of my brother, I won’t even cheat you.”
“I want my children.”
“Do you want them as they are now or as they were when you last saw them? They’ve grown. They have their own lives and families. They have children. Do you want me to take them from those lives and return them to you?”
Grandchildren, I have grandchildren. “No, I don’t want them to suffer as I have. Is it possible to send me to my children?”
“Certainly. That’s a wise choice. Sheath your sword.”
Smoke poured from the mirror, thickened, and filled the room. It was more like fog than smoke. The cool moist cloud didn’t burn my eyes. A clock sounded and I heard the sounds of a blacksmith at work.
The last vestiges of smoke drifted on the wind and I stood in front of a smithy. The smell of fresh bread was strong on the morning breeze.
I entered the building and my son, Mica, was a strong tall man working at the forge. A young boy with his eyes and hair pumped the bellows. I caught Mica’s eye and he dropped his tongs and hammer.
“Mother,” he screamed and ran to me. I met my grandson and the three of us went into my daughter’s bakery. Jana was pregnant with her third child. His wife and her husband were wonderful people. My children were sold into slavery, but earned their freedom, and made fine lives for themselves.
I taught my grandchildren to rhyme and recite. They’re better at it than I ever will be. My granddaughter taught me six new chords, but my poetry hasn’t improved.
Marvin gave a puppy to my grandchildren. She’s large and her feet look more like hooves than paws. I wish she were housebroken. I tell people she’s a Marvin hound from the kingdom of Flandal.
The hound is half pixie and when she sneezes on me, I can see through glamours and spells. The innkeeper across the street is a gnome and his waitresses are dryads. They’re nice neighbors. I keep company with fletcher who’s part naiad and with a touch of goblin. He says he likes my poetry. I pretend to believe him.
Robert Allen Lupton is retired and lives in New Mexico where he is a commercial hot air balloon pilot. Robert runs and writes every day, but not necessarily in that order. He has been published in several anthologies and has short stories online at www.horrortree.com and www.crimsonstreets.com. His novel, Foxborn, was published in April 2017 and the sequel, Dragonborn, in June 2018. His collection of running themed horror, science fiction, and adventures stories, Running Into Trouble, was published in October 2017.
Visit https://www.amazon.com/Robert-Allen-Lupton/e/B01GW77JY4/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0 his Amazon page and www.goodreads.com/author/show/15292457.Robert_Allen_Lupton , his Goodreads page and blog for current information about his stories and books. His Hometown Reads page is https://www.hometownreads.com/books/foxborn .