The guards escorted the carriage to the gates of the city, where they were turned out. They looked back the war pennants and black smoke, and listened to the city thrumming with the excitement of battle.
"Piss and shit on the lot of them," mumbled Froderick, and all three spat on the street stones.
"Now what?" asked Milling.
"Home," grunted Froderick.
"No," said Friggins, "Elves first. I need some Devil's Bush if I'm to make it back home." His mates agreed, and they set off on foot. None of them spoke a word the rest of the day, until the sun went down. They came upon an inn, windows blazing with light and noise from drunken travelers, and Milling said they had better get beds for the night. They walked in, oblivious to the men drinking and gambling and whores with their tits hanging out. The war had everyone in fine spirits.
"Ale," said Milling to the barman who looked at them queerly. "Lots of ale."
"You lot're dwarves?" asked the barman, studying their faces like a boar might study poetry.
"We're Drabbits," said Friggins.
"Very angry, very sober Drabbits," added Froderick.
The barman leaned in close. "I can't have you drinking out with the rest of my customers, it'll cause a scene." Friggins looked, and people were beginning to point and mutter over their cups.
"Fine, a room then," sighed an exasperated Froderick. "Have the ale sent up, a cask of it."
"And three plates of dinner," added Milling.
The barman stared at them, eyes like glass, until Milling dug in his pack for a piece of gold. Stodgen's head was already beginning to turn, and a stench breathed from the sack.
"I've never seen a Drabbit before," said the barman after he had bitten the coin. "Do you often carry heads in your sack like that?"
"Only after we meet barmen who ask too many questions," shot back Froderick. "You've got change there, send a bottle of something strong."
"As the Drabbits wish. Last room on the left, second floor," said the barman, and turned away to pull a mug of ale for a particularly insistent patron.
"Wanker," muttered all three at once, and climbed the wooden steps to their room.
It was another long while before they said anything. They just laid on their beds or pallets and stared at the ceiling, thirsty for their ale. At last the serving girl brought up their food and drink. She stared at them queerly as she handed it over. "Your friend has arrived," she told them.
Friggins blinked. "What?" he asked.
"The fourth Drabbit," she said. "He said he's sorry for being late, but he's only just now arrived."
Friggins looked to his friends for help, but they were as lost as he was. "Send him up," he told her, because he couldn't think of anything else.
"With another plate, he's likely to be hungry," added Milling as she left. Froderick and Friggins looked at him, but he only shrugged. "If it really is Stodgen, he probably would be," he pointed out.
It wasn't Stodgen, of course, but they were surprised nonetheless. It was Sammie who knocked at their door.
"Barman mentioned you three were here," he said before they could ask. "Seemed easier to lie and be a Drabbit. Everyone downstairs was either too drunk or didn't know me for a dwarf."
They shook his hand and welcomed him to their ale and food, for which he thanked them. He had been rolling in the cask when Stodgen was killed, but Rebel had delivered him to the city gates and told him what had happened.
"Truly, I am sorry," he said quietly. His flat-black eyes betrayed neither thought nor emotion, but Friggins had never known him to lie. They thanked him and settled into their food.
After a time, Froderick put a turkey leg down and wiped grease from his chin. "What will you do now?" he asked.
Sammie only shrugged and tore into his food, pulling long and hard from his ale and pouring more.
"You can't pretend to be a Drabbit forever," said Friggins. "You won't be safe among men."
Sammie nodded, and looked up from his food. "This has happened before," he said simply. They didn't push him, but after a few more bites he looked up again. "When the Orgy King bought the crown from the king before him, there were many who were angry and afraid. The old king showered many of his supporters with gold, and who could say what the new king would do, or who he would give his favors to? They blamed dwarves, I don't remember why or how, and things became very difficult for us. Those of us who were able returned home to UnderGround. That is what I will do again, and remain for a few more years. Or live out the rest of my years there." He shrugged. "It doesn't matter either way."
The Drabbits nodded-that made sense. Friggins realized the dwarf had never told them how he had gotten wrapped up in the damn dark affair, and just as suddenly decided he didn't want to know. The dwarf had had the good graces not to ask them either, and Friggins wouldn't have enjoyed telling that story anyway. Now that he took a while to think back on it, he wasn't sure he could have told that story.
The dwarf finished his food, and poured more ale. He raised his glass in salute, taking the Drabbits by surprise. He had never drunk to anything, not even his own people or his dwarf King's health, so they had assumed it was an alien custom to him.
"You have shown me a kindness," he said, "you have taken me in when few others would have. I will not forget. The dwarves will not forget. You will find a welcome home always in our city, should you ever wish to visit or seek refuge. Today Dwarves must be Drabbits, but there may time a come when Drabbits must be dwarves."
The Drabbits returned his toast, and they drank to the memory of Stodgen Davies. Then they opened the bottle of whiskey and took pulls one by one. Full bellies or no, it was potent stuff, and the floor and walls and ceiling quickly began to run together. Sammie taught them dwarven funeral dirges, low rumbling songs full of sadness and memories of happy times gone by, and the Drabbits swore at the Wizardmaster and sobbed in turns.
Friggins opened his eyes, and morning had come. He was lying on the floor, still dressed and wearing his boots. He sought, through a headache that was trying to kill him, his last conscious memory. What jumped to his mind first was the second keg of ale they had ordered up. That's right, the keg hadn't lasted long once the whiskey started. They played flipping-coin, and what's-yer-sign, and some dwarvish invention that was so flimsily disguised as a game that he had lost his senses two rounds in. But it had gotten the job done, he had left this world completely, and he had no recollection of the painful emotions of the night before. He looked for Sammie so he could thank him.
But Sammie had already gone. Overcome by the effort of lifting his head, Friggins let it fall back down onto the naked floorboards and closed his eyes. His head throbbed, his mouth was dry, his eyes were crusty, and his entire body ached like he had been in a punching match. Perhaps he had been, they had certainly gotten up to enough of that on the ship. Speaking of which, he remember he had been waking up with a hangover as bad or worse every day for the past week, and there was only one cure. He heaved himself from the floor and then heaved his dinner into the corner, getting some of it in the chamber pot. His mates were still asleep. A sack was sitting on the table, and it clinked when he picked it up. It was filled with gold pieces, and three speckled mushroom caps.
He woke the others, and despite their headaches they arose without a fuss and vomited as well. The three picked through the remains of the food that had been left, and chased them down with warm ale, a swallow of whiskey, and a cap. The mushrooms took hold of them before they had gone a mile, and turned the forest around them into something nearly like the sea. The trees swam in the breeze, birds tried to write messages for them in their flights, and their fellow travelers wondered why the Drabbits stared at them bug-eyed like they did.
"Stay out of Highcliffe," warned Milling to a passing huntsman. "They're collecting heads, and giving them away." He opened his pack, and the hunter reared back with his hand over his mouth. "See?" Milling asked, offering it to be checked for authenticity. "Took it, they did, and gave it to us for only three sacks of gold."
"A bargain in the taking," added Froderick, who had not bothered to change his clothes since the day before. The strong smell of urine still clung to him, sharp and musky at the same time.
"Bloody fucking lunatics," said the huntsman, and he hurried along his way.
"He didn't believe us," observed a moon-eyed Friggins.
"With a head like a horse, I doubt he could even speak the Kings' tongue," said Milling.
"I know the language of horses," intoned Froderick, and the three neighed and whinnied at the next eleven travelers they passed.
The sun was past noon when the mushrooms began to set, and Friggins got to thinking what was after the elves. Some sane part of him told him to stop thinking so much, so he sought to hold onto the last dredges of brilliant color. It was no good, the more you chased them the more they retreated into the normalcy of the every day. He left it.
The journey from Highcliffe to the valley of the elves was a simple one, but without Stodgen at the helm and with mushrooms in their bellies, they quickly became lost.
"Not sure if this is the right way or not," muttered Froderick.
"Doesn't look familiar," Friggins agreed. "Those trees with all those papers on them, I think we would have remembered that."
And so it was: a stand of trees, covered root to bough in what looked like little pieces of paper. The trees stood on the other side of a stream, connected to the mainland by a bridge.
The three arrived at the bridge and were hesitant to go on. It was unlike anything they had ever seen, but (and here the mushrooms did their work), it seemed a little macabre to nail dead trees onto the living.
"I see you're admiring my handiwork," came a gruff voice, and the three looked around. A stubby man-shape emerged from beneath the bridge, a little damp and musty from the stream. "What do you little lads think of my Paper Forest?"
They looked at the newcomer in awe, for they had never before seen his race. He stood taller than Drabbits and dwarves but shorter than men, and a shock of brown-red hair covered his head and face. Friggins thought to himself that it looks rather like the hair growing just below his belt.
"Magnificent, is it not?" the strange fellow said, gesturing at the trees. "A life's work, and well-spent I do believe."
"Who or what are you?" said Froderick, sharper than he meant to.
"Why, I'm Nomad the troll, of course! Possibly the only troll for hundreds of miles, I was," and here, he seemed to grow sheepish, "kicked out of my homeland for not paying rent."
"And you built this…forest?" said Milling.
"Paper Forest, yes," said the troll with a prickly demeanor. "Any hat's ass can build a forest, you just throw a bunch of seeds onto the ground and sit around for a few hundred years."
"And what exactly is the Paper Forest?" asked Froderick. "I'm afraid I can't see it for all the trees."
"A-ho, of course!" said the troll jubilantly. "I must tell you! Come beneath my bridge, friends, and share my mead." They followed him reluctantly beneath the bridge, and he poured them an odd-tasting mead from a large bottle.
"Now think ye, friends, about the manner in which the denizens of this world communicate with one another," began the Troll. "You and I may speak, yes, and you may (I hope shall!) repeat our discourse to a third party, and so on, and so forth. We have also created letters and post, which allows for spreading word over a distance without having to send oneself, but it is in actuality woefully deficient. A letter may go to one recipient, the contents of which he may do with as he will, and additional recipients require additional letters. No longer!"
He lead them out from under the stinky bridge and showed them the trees. "Discourse from one to many, categorized by topic! I have asked travelers on the road what messages they mean to share with the world, and pinned their responses to the appropriate tree. On the poplar, for example, 'Love Hurts,' a most popular topic, feel free to browse at your leisure. Ah, and here's a dark oak, anything pertaining to the King goes up here. Potent stuff here. This latest tree here is just now beginning to blossom, but I have christened it 'Past Times I Had When I Was But a Child.' Nostalgia, you see, is a powerful motivator."
Friggins was looking at the various notices, and was agitated to learn that the same mundane observations were repeated over and over. "This is all rather dreary," he said. "Who cares what people think anyway?"
The troll rung his hands. "Who cares, you ask, who cares! But opinions are the driving force behind life as we know it! How many witticism are here interred, how many Deep Truths? Take for example this message here from a traveler from Duskrat: it's a picture of his food. Who wouldn't be interested in a picture of someone's meal?"
"Alright, lend me paper and charcoal, I'll contribute a message," said Froderick. The troll squaked in delight and fetched the necessaries.
"What auspicious message do you wish to depart to future travelers?" asked the Troll. "What…oh, dear…" Froderick had undone his breeches and flopped his member onto the paper, than traced it carefully with the charcoal.
"There," he announced, and slapped the paper into the Troll's hand.
"Outline of your manhood," said the Troll, holding the paper by a corner. "Pussywillow. And you, sir?"
Milling thought, and replied simply "Seize the day."
"Ah," said the troll, "STD for short, very popular with the young folk who understand that life is fleeting and we only live but once. And lastly you, good gentle-Drabbit?"
Friggins had his message ready, and realized it was a message he had been carrying for several days now. "Fuck all the Kings, and all the Wizards," he declared.
The troll pursed his lips. "I'll need to put a message on the dark oak for Kings, another on the elder tree for Wizards, and not to mention a third on the hemlock tree for high treason."
"Piss on the elder and hemlock trees, do it yourself," spat Friggins, and they left the troll to fuss over their messages. He wrung his hands and tried to call them back, they had forgotten to sign their names to the message, how would future travelers know the origins of their words? But they ignored him, not bothering to read any of the thousands of messages they passed. Nobody said anything worth reading in the Paper Forest anyway.
The way became steep and rocky, and there were more spaces between the trees now. The messages dwindled, then stopped altogether. They sat down to have a bit to eat, but the food stored in Milling's pack stunk with the smell of rotting head. They tossed it away, ignored the rumbling in their belly, and pressed on.
They were startled by the elf who stepped into their path, because they thought they were several miles from the cave entrance.
"Welcome back, Drabbits," he said, his bow slung across his shoulder and a woodsman's ax hanging from his belt. They noticed he also wore a sword, a knife in his boot, and who knew what else he had hidden on him. "Any others with you?"
"No," said Friggins, and his tone made the elf hesitate.
The elf asked anyway: "Where's the smart one?"
"In the pack," said Froderick, gesturing with his head.
The elf nodded, because he had already guessed. "I will grieve for him, his fair hair and quick tongue will be sorely missed at Her Majesty's table. You must be weary."
They said they were. He gave them some food from his own pack, the sweet hard bread they had almost forgotten the taste of, and a skin of crystal-cold mountain water. He escorted them another quarter mile, where two more elves took them the rest of the way. Friggins couldn't see any others, but he felt their presence. The trees seemed to be alive with them, or else they were lurking in the rocks of the mountains above. For all their art, the forest seemed unquiet. The forest seemed ready. He told them so.
One of the elves nodded. "We have heard news of the impending war between the Vilikants and the men of Highcliffe, and have taken necessary precautions."
The other guard gave them a look and seemed to choose his words carefully. "We have also heard news that the cause of the war is the death of the Sea Lord at the hands of a certain party, four of which were Drabbits."
Friggins looked him in the eyes, looking for anger, recrimination-but the elves were hard to read, and he found only a simple question.
Froderick shrugged. "Believe me, nobody was more surprised than we were."
"Except maybe Red Harry," put in Milling.
The elves nodded, and they were shown through the cave to the valley of the elves.
The hand of preparation had been there longer, and lingered still. Swords and bows glanced at them as the fields were brought in-to secret stores they had carved into the mountains, their escort told them-but at least the earthy smell was the same. Friggins heartened to see the lanterns glowing with the soft blue lights, and the maidens devouring them with their eyes. They saw two maidens in loose tunics trimming the flowers from a spear-leafed le dalon, two Drabbits high, and Friggins fell in love with the elves all over again.
They were shown directly to the palace, back through the familiar airy doors and taken under the criss-crossing beams of the roof. The stars began to twinkle at them from far above.
"More visitors for the Queen, she shall be so pleased!" sang one of the Queen's handmaidens at the entrance to the banquet hall. She gave each a kiss, and even gave Friggins a taste of her tongue. Sweet as wine, he thought, his mind already beginning to fog. The scent of burning herbs was heavy in the air, as it was during any great feast.
"Who else is here?" asked Froderick, perhaps a little incensed that others should taste the hidden secrets of this wonderful place.
"The Queen's lover arrived last night," the handmaiden whispered, batting eyes at Froderick, maybe a hint of jealousy in her tone. "They've only just come from her chambers, and are starting the Welcome Feast. Oh, but now it is twice as joyous, and now we lasses shall have some fun of our own."
Friggins felt something of a fierce competition rising in his heart. He had used thoughts and fancies of her to pass many a private moment, so much so that he had forgotten she remained faithful to a lover-a man, no less, and he had seen how foolish men could be. Well. He was three or four flagons away from challenging the man for the Queen's honor, and he would not fight fair.
The three were shown in and announced, and elf men and women alike greeted them in lusty tones. The banquet had already started, and their revelry practically thrummed in the clouded night air. Friggins ignored their calls, as best he could, and strode with his mates to pay their respects to their queen. And there she was, curled in the lap of her lover like a great cat, purring into his neck. The affront was almost too much to bear. Then he looked at her lover, and balked at the realization. His mouth dropped. The other two did the same, for they had not recognized him without his motley.
"Hullo, Drabbits," called down the Jester. He was twirling his fingers through the Queen's golden hair. "Fancy a puff?"