The humongous spruce tree had been split at some point, forming a huge cavity over the years. The two halves of the tree had grown together over the years, living wood melding together above my head. Over the centuries, new growth built over the back side of the split, forming a hollow that at this moment was filled with shadow. I squatted down to get a better view inside and found my most very important. It was the final hob who had accompanied me in search of glory and redemption.
He appeared to be sleeping peacefully, but I saw the truth. There’s a certain way a body lays when it’s alive; a relaxation of muscles and joints. This young one had seen the last of his adventures. As I knelt in the opening my eyes misted over. He had been the youngest to be accepted into the warrior ranks, having earned his promotion at the battle of the bridge. I remember him killing two frogs even though he had been gravely wounded. He was one of those we evacuated right before we abandoned the bridge. It hurt me to find him like this. His life had been one of vibrancy and fervor. He had been raised from birth to be a warrior and he had achieved that lofty goal quicker than expected. Bravery knows no age restrictions. And even after he was sorely wounded, he exhibited so much excitement that even the most jaded veterans had begun to climb out of their funk. The loss of the bridge was but a setback, according to this optimistic youth. Where there was breath there was hope. He was incorrigible. Strength and vigor, tempered with a shy smile and a dedication to his compatriots; this is what I remembered most about this young man.
He had been eager to show his metal and to prove his worth to his peers and to me, his captain. Instead he died, here in this broken land, curled inside a tree, his hands gripping, not a weapon… but something small. I leaned forward, resting my weight on one hand, and reached for his fist. Before I could pry his fingers opened, another’s hand shot out of the shadows and grabbed my wrist. I let out a shriek which sent the fairies scattering.
I was only startled for a moment. The owner of the hand leaned forward and I could barely make out the swollen and bruised face of Lilith, or perhaps it was Sparkle at the moment. For an instant I was unsure who would speak.
“Let him have his solace,” she said, pushing my hand away from the lad’s fist. “It gave him comfort in his last moments.
“Lilith?” I asked, rocking back on my heels. I let the youth’s hand be, and she loosened her grip on my wrist.
“Hello, Merric,” she said through split lips. “Any chance you can heal me before you move young Reginald?”
Reginald? Wasn’t his name Kündil?
I nodded, confused. Healing I knew. I turned my wrist so she and I were touching palm to palm and I pushed a bit of divine into her. She sighed as her lips healed, growing plump and pink again. The black, blue and yellow bruise that ran across her face faded and her nose twitched once before settling — the break that would have scarred her, spiritually erased. It was a minor thing which drew from her a whimper of relief.
“Treat him with respect,” she said as I started to turn the lad so I could pull him out by his feet. “He saved my life. Don’t you dare man-handle him.”
The fairies had alighted on several branches above my head, and when I pulled Reginald out, they started chattering like magpies.
“He died this morning,” Lilith said, crawling out of the tree, her leather armor rent, and her hands slashed. Apparently she needed a lot more care. But she was tough.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner,” I said, very quietly. Guilt had begun to rise in my like a tide. This morning? If I’d only been quicker.
“He was not afraid,” she said, climbing to her feet. Her voice had grown ragged. “He said you had shown him a better path.” Then she was in my arms, weeping.
I held her for a long time, until she finished crying and pulled back of her own volition.
I took her hands, gently, noting the cuts and scrapes. She’d been fairly abused. “Can you walk?”
She nodded, but let me help her to her feet. I rose and helped steady her with a second minor healing. Nothing that would exacerbate her fatigue.
“Where are we going?” she asked. “Are there others with you?”
As she did not appear to be in danger of falling over, I released one hand and swept it above my head, taking in the audience above us.
“Meet my fairy legion?” I said, winking at her.
She dropped my hand and scowled. “No others?”
I let my smile fade and shook my head. “Liz is back in my camp, sleeping. We should get back to her.”
At the mention of Liz, Lilith stiffened. “She lives?”
“Yes,” I said, bending to pick up the hob boy. I hefted him over my shoulder and called the fairies. “Morning Glory. Please take your squad and return to Liz. Protect her for me.”
She curtsied and half of the fairies took off so fast the air rumbled in their wake.
Booty Shake dropped to hove in front of me and curtsied as well.
“Booty Shake,” I said, motioning toward Lilith. “This is the fair Lilith. You are to escort her and keep her from harm.”
“As you wish,” Booty Shake squeaked, waving her troop into a defensive formation above Lilith’s head.
“Okay,” I said, adjusting the lad to a better carrying position and marched eastward. Seventeen trees. Then Twenty north. Fairy logic is as good as any.
It took us almost no time to return to camp and we found Morning Glory on high alert. Liz remained where I had left her, but the magicks on her had proven so strong Morning Glory and her troop could not find her. I dropped the ward and Liz reappeared to the surprise of the fairies and an exclamation from Lilith, who rushed forward. She dropped to her knees by Liz and gently stroked her sleeping face. It was an intimate gesture that I had not expected from the halfling. She had proven quite stand-offish with most people. Though Liz had saved both our lives at one point. Liz had shown a modicum of affection for Lilith; Sparkle Glitterblade, Lilith’s alternate personality, not so much.