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The Smaller We Are

John Helfers

They attacked just after nightfall.

We’d just finished making camp in a clearing after scouting routes for our main force all day. After setting guards, we were sitting down to cold mushroom cakes when the hum of whirring wings made Syreth’s pointed ears twitch. The satyr and I looked up as a blur of motion streaked toward us.

Tliel’s small, skinny body decelerated to hover in front of my face, his wings beating too fast to see. The pixie’s entire body was shrouded in darkcloth, with only his glowing, silver eyes visible. The crack of breaking branches and thud of footsteps shook the ground behind him.

“Six tallest coming! To arms!” Not waiting for orders, Tliel shot up into the air, intending to survey the battleground, then assist where needed. But as he rose, a bow twanged, and a black streak hit and carried him into the tree canopy.

The rest of my unit was already moving, but it was too late. Before we could organize, the tallest burst through the tall elms and maples and rushed at us. Clad in black leather armor, faces shadowed under iron helmets, they attacked in pairs. One was armed with the usual long sword, its scalloped edge capable of cleaving any of us apart if it connected. The second held a large net, which was thrown at a designated target.

Tliel’s warning did allow us to avoid being taken completely unaware. While flight was probably the best option, we were too close to enemy lines to risk abandoning each other. And besides, we hadn’t had a straight-up fight in a long time.

Fzith and Bzith, surviving brothers from a large goblin family that had been fighting since the war began, threw their wooden plates at the lead warriors while drawing double-bladed daggers. Rethgar, my fearless redcap, grabbed his worn pikestaff and charged straight at his two, evading the thrown net by speed alone. Crouching on equine legs, Syreth sprang into the air, also avoiding the net sailing toward him. His ironwood-shod hooves came down with a loud clunk on an enemy warrior’s head. Nereas, her face unlined yet weary amid long, white hair, danced away from another spinning net and into the trunk of the nearest oak tree, disappearing as she merged with the living wood.

And me? As the net intended to catch me flared out overhead, I simply sank into the earth.

Below the surface, my gnomish vision was gone, but I homed in on the nearest enemy by tracking his heavy footfalls shaking the ground. To my left, the roots of Nereas’s tree flexed and shifted as the dryad brought the mighty oak to life. I grinned at the painful surprise about to be visited on our enemies. They may control the plains and their noxious cities, but the woods are still our domain.

As I stalked my target, I was jarred by a distant, heavy footfall that shook the earth around me. I’d felt that kind of impact before, and quickened my pace, even as my spine shivered. Please don’t let it be one of them.

Drawing my granite dagger, I rose out of the ground into the midst of furious combat, all frenzied movement, grunts, yells, and screams. Pike head clashed with sword as Rethgar battled a blade-wielding tallest. A few steps away, Syreth defended himself with his foot-long horns while threatening his two assailants with a gnarled oak cudgel. Blood sprayed from a nasty cut on his arm with each powerful swing.

The creak of old wood sounded as one of the satyr’s opponents was grabbed by several oak branches. Nereas lifted the man high into the air, then threw him against another oak on the other side of the clearing. The leather-clad warrior hit headfirst, fell to the ground, and did not rise again. With a feral grin, Syreth pressed his advantage on the remaining tallest, forcing the swordsman to retreat in the face of those razor-sharp horns and a thick wooden club.

Lying next to me was the net-bearer who had tried to capture the redcap, moaning and clutching his privates. He smelled of blood, sweat, and fear, and I knew exactly where Reth’s first stab had gone. His eyes locked with mine. Before he could move, I bent over and slashed the wounded warrior’s throat, his blood gushing out to stain the dirt black. The tallest reached up to try and dam the tide of life’s blood flowing between his fingers, but was too late. The scent of copper filled the air, his arms going limp as his panicked choking faded to dying gurgles.

I felt the same heavy, crushing footfall I’d sensed before, closer this time, and looked around to see whom I could aid before the enemy reinforcements arrived.

A goblin curse made me glance at Fzith and Bzith facing the last pair of enemy warriors. The mottled brothers stood back-to-back, twin double-bladed daggers in both hands, fighting broznich style, their left feet heel-to-heel so each could sense the other’s movements and plan his offense or defense accordingly. It allowed two or three goblins to vanquish twice their number. Against equal numbers, it was only a matter of time before they prevailed.

Meanwhile, Rethgar advanced relentlessly on his opponent, leading with well-placed stabs and slashes of his iron pike. The tallest defended himself valiantly, but the tireless, feral redcap kept pushing the fighter backward—directly toward me.

When he was a step away, I stabbed my blade into the back of his knee, penetrating the softer leather at the joint. The dagger point sank deep into his flesh, grating against bone. With an agonized shout, the warrior fell to the ground as I pulled my blade out and sank it into his side, underneath the armor straps. He screamed again, keeping his sword up to fend off Rethgar while clawing at me with his free hand. The redcap slashed the blade away with a mighty swing, then brought the pike around and down to cleave through the tallest’s raised arm and into his nose. The iron spearhead rose and fell twice more, and when it was over, the man’s face was a bloody ruin.

Another footstep shook the ground, making Reth look up, alarm flitting across his face. He exchanged a nervous glance with me. “Is that—”

A shout from the other side of the meadow made me look over to see Bzith clutching his side, where the fletching of an arrow jutted from between his ribs. The archer!

“Help them!” I snapped as I turned to run for the tree line. Before I’d taken a step, a high, terrified yell tore the air. The tallest archer dangled in midair, held captive by the branches of the tree he’d been using as a perch. The living wood wrapped around his arms and legs, pulling his limbs apart unmercifully. His helmet had been knocked off, and pain contorted his brutish face as he strained against his bonds. His mouth gaped open in a scream of pure agony, and when I saw the lower part of his breastplate bulged out, I knew what Nereas had done.

The smaller branches uncurled from around the archer’s arms and legs. Sliding off the thick limb that had impaled him, the tallest flopped to the ground. His trembling fingers plucked at the straps of his armor, but he was too dazed and weak to remove it. Drops of his own blood fell on his face from the dark-stained branch above. Even with aid, he would die from the terrible wound. Eventually.

My face remained impassive as I watched him twitch and shudder. I knew Nereas was merciless—a dryad who survives the destruction of her grove has nothing left but revenge—but I had never seen that trick before.

A strangled grunt drew my attention back to the goblin brothers. With Rethgar reinforcing them, the last pair of tallest was on the defensive, the net-bearer having drawn a flanged mace to assist his partner. They stood next to each other, their weapons a barrier of steel against the two goblins and one blurred redcap.

Beginning to sink into the earth, I stepped forward to help. As I did, a caprine form hurtled down out of the darkness, staving in the swordsman’s head. The satyr screamed in triumph as he crushed the tallest’s body to the ground. His partner gaped in shock at the sudden death of his partner. Before he could move, he was pierced three times: twice by goblin blades, and once by a needle-pointed satyr’s horn. He convulsed and began to drop as Rethgar wound up and swung his pike with all his might.

The last tallest’s head bounced across the clearing and rolled to a stop at my feet, his shocked eyes glazing over into death. Panting hard, we all looked at each other as another thundering footstep sounded, accompanied by the snap and crack of breaking timber.

We all knew what was coming, but Nereas spoke first, using the leaves and branches of her tree to whisper the words. “A Ravager approaches.”

“Then leave that tree. We have to get out of here—” I began.

“More humans follow it…gooo…I will hold them here—”

“Damn it, Nereas, I’m ordering you to come out of there right now!” I said.

“Gooo now…before it’s too late.”

“She’s right, Topkir,” Rethgar said, blunt as a stone. “We gotta go, afore we’re all nicked.”

I didn’t move, even though I could sense more footsteps behind the Ravager. “Nereas—”

An oak branch bent down to push me, not unkindly, toward the far end of the clearing. “Nooo time…gooo!”

Fists clenched with rage, yet knowing she was right, I stumbled to the other side of the clearing. A blue-white glow from the forest warned where the Ravager was coming from, and as I pushed into the underbrush, I glanced back to see it explode into the glade.

A head higher than any tallest I’d ever seen, the Ravager was a cold-iron monstrosity, one of our enemy—at least I was pretty sure a tallest was inside it—that was encased entirely in iron. Some kind of unknown, fearful magic allowed the person inside to see, because there was no viewport on the blank face, only smooth metal. Its hobnailed feet sank an inch or two into the ground with each step, but it strode forward with ease. Blue-white light flashed from the joints of its arms and legs each time it moved. Several tallest trailed behind it, using the Ravager as a merciless battering ram to clear the forest before them.

Nereas reached for it with every branch she had, entwining its arms and legs in wood. The Ravager plowed relentlessly forward, its jointed fingers grabbing oak limbs, snapping them off, and casting them aside. I knew every broken limb hurt Nereas—a dryad feels damage to the tree she inhabits as if the injury is inflicted on her—yet I still didn’t move, hoping she would flee before it was too late.

The Ravager marched toward her oak, breaking tree limbs as thick as my body like they were brittle twigs. Reaching the trunk, it encircled hard metal arms around it and strained. Nereas screamed as the iron pressed into the tree. With a mighty heave, the Ravager ripped the mature oak from the ground and dropped it, the once majestic tree now dying—and with it, one of my best scouts.

Hands clutched my jerkin and pulled me into the brush. Blinking tears from my eyes, I let myself be led deeper into the woods as we fled.

* * *

We ran for what seemed like hours, until we were sure we had left all pursuit behind. No one complained, although Bzith panted hoarsely with every step. His brother and Rethgar took turns helping him along. Although the tallest have a longer stride than us, they do not know the forest like we who have grown up in it.

Night shrouded us when I finally called a halt. We staggered to a stop amid a cluster of elms, their leaves fluttering in the slight breeze. Normally I would have had Nereas merge with the biggest tree to sense for nearby enemies, but that wasn’t possible anymore. I merged with the earth for a moment, reaching out for anyone following us, but felt nothing. Pulling back up, I rubbed a grimy hand over my face, the strain and lack of sleep weighing on me as the rush of combat and flight faded. Even so, something about that fight bothered me.

“What now, Top?” Fzith asked. “Tallest are pushin’ deeper in. We need t’report back, yah?”

Still deep in thought, I didn’t reply. Then I realized what was strange. “They had a Ravager.”

Rethgar spat on the ground. “Yeah, so? See more and more damnable things from them every day. What’s special bout this one?”

“Intel says Ravagers don’t operate on the front lines unless there’s a tallest caster nearby—something about needing them to make the construct work. We didn’t see any caster sign, which means they’re hiding him somewhere.” I raised my head to stare at my squad. “We need to find that caster.”

Rethgar shook his head. “Orders were to scout and return, not cross enemy lines—”

“We can do both,” I interrupted. “Send Tliel back to headquarters with our report while we go locate the tallest camp. We can’t let any units blunder into a caster unaware.” They’re the most deadly tallest—able to warp natural energies into their own foul magic. A single one could destroy an entire company. For that reason, any casters spotted were killed on sight. I looked around. “Where’s Tliel?”

We all checked around for the pixie, but saw no sign of him. “Where’d he go after sounding the warning?” Syreth asked.

“The archer.” I cursed my lack of awareness. I’d been so focused on Nereas’ sacrifice that I’d forgotten the pixie took an arrow during the fight. “He was hit, but I thought he was still flying.” My gut twisted at the thought of losing another soldier. “We have to go back.”

“I left a trail,” Rethgar said. “If he was up, he’da found it—and us—by now.”

“Syreth, you and I will backtrack and look for him. Reth and Bzith, do what you can for Fzith’s injury. We’ll be back as soon as we can.” Snugging my battered, pointed leather cap tight on my head, I turned to the satyr. “Let’s go.”

He picked me up and settled me on his shoulders, then bounded off through the woods, accelerating until the passing trees and brush were nothing more than a black blur. Rethgar could go as fast in a straight line, but he couldn’t maneuver like a satyr. All I could do was hold on to his thick gray pelt and not cry out every time we came within a hair’s-breadth of hitting a stump or rock. But Syreth adjusted our trajectory every time, whizzing between the towering trunks and ancient boulders jutting from the earth.

When we reached the clearing, he set me down at the edge. We both scanned the area, in case the tallest had left a force behind. The dead bodies had been removed, and only black patches of drying blood and dozens of large footprints—including the deeper ones of the Ravager—remained. There was no sign of Tliel.

Syreth sniffed the air. “Tallest stink everywhere…can’t pick up his scent.”

I swallowed past the lump in my throat when I saw Nereas’s toppled oak, its limbs torn or chopped off and its bark scored with dozens of sword cuts. Like us, the tallest were not merciful to their enemies.

We cautiously entered the clearing, ready to run at the slightest sound of the enemy. “Guard me.” I sank into the ground again. Concentrating, I extended my senses, searching for any sign of our comrade. There.

Rising, I trotted to the far side. On the ground, amid a line of tallest boot prints, was a lone, glowing drop of blood. Walking a few steps into the woods, I found another one. Next to it lay a single, tiny, broken arrow, confirming my worst fear.

“He’s been taken.”

* * *

Our reduced unit traveled swiftly through the forest, ready to slaughter anyone who got in our way. When we returned, there was no discussion about what had to be done. We never left one of our own in the hands of the tallest. Ever. Even Bzith had nodded when he’d learned where we were going. Although his seamed face was drawn and pale, and his side must have pained him with every step, he hadn’t uttered a sound of complaint.

Twice we avoided tallest patrols, although we were forced to double back and circle around the second enemy party. We weren’t sure they were specifically looking for us, but it made sense—we’d killed theirs and escaped with our lives. Well, most of us. After dodging the second group, caution slowed our steps—no sense losing four to save one.

After calling yet another halt, Syreth returned from point and bent to my ear. “Edge of the woods is just ahead. Suggest we take a look before going in.”

I nodded, and we all crept through the underbrush to where the woods ended and the realm of the tallest began.

Before us stretched endless plains, once mighty forest like what we were being pushed deeper and deeper into, now denuded and bare, so that more tallest could build their villages, ‘towns,’ or even the largest and most offensive of their settlements, a city.

We crouched near one of these smaller holdings now. Once, it had been a thriving settlement we’d been friends with long ago, living next to them in harmony and trading for what we needed.

Now the village was mostly razed wreckage. Only a few scattered homes were left, all damaged from the skirmishes ranging along the edge of our forest. Thatched roofs were burned or holed, doors and walls smashed in. All that was left of the mill where we’d once bought flour was a single wall near the dry creek; the rest had been reduced to rubble.

It wasn’t always this way. Years ago, we smallkin lived in peace with the tallest. We had been allies, fighting side by side in the Great Trollent Wars. The alliance had been powerful enough to shatter the Trollent King’s attempted conquest of the other races. It had even freed the goblins, who had supplied invaluable intelligence before the final battle on the Plains of Toolk, and they had been rewarded by being allowed to live in the forest among the rest of us. The several years of peace afterward were wonderful.

But as the peace continued, the tallest began chafing under it. Restless and aggressive, they began pushing their borders out more and more, encroaching on our lands, countering any protest by saying they needed “just a bit more space.”

We tried reasoning with them, but all attempts failed. The elves sought an accord first, seeking to ratify borders for both sides, and halt the increasing skirmishes between the two races, but the tallest accused them of plotting to take over their own lands. They warned the elves that if their demands were not granted, they would take what was rightfully theirs. War was declared soon after.

At the time, we kept out of the conflict, not wanting to choose one side and risk the wrath of the other. The Tallest-Elven war shook the countryside, laying waste to kingdoms of both races before the fecund tallest practically wiped out the elvish race. A scattered few may have survived, but they were hiding far, far away from here.

We thought there would surely be peace after that, but the tallest next turned their greedy gaze to the mountain kingdoms of the dwarves, saying those industrious people were hoarding their best gems and gold for themselves, and trading the poorest ones with the rest of us. When the drums of war sounded again, still we did not participate, feeling that as long as they left our homes alone, the tallest would be content when they had again taken what they felt they deserved. It was a terrible mistake for both races. The dwarves have barricaded themselves inside their mountain fortresses, thinking themselves safe, but we know the truth—it is only a matter of time until the tallest eradicate them as well.

Only when the tallest launched their war on our homeland did we realize the extent of our folly. They would never be content until they had conquered everything, controlled everything they could see. And we had foolishly allowed them to expand their holdings until there was no choice left but to come at us.

We fought, of course—we still fight today. I have battled the tallest through many campaigns, watching friends and family fall underneath their relentless advance. Burying my husband and children, carrying on the fight in their memory. Deep in my heart, I know we are losing, as we retreat a bit more every day. The tallest seem to have been placed on this world to do two things—make offspring and make war. From the smallkin to the dwarves to the elves, our long-lived races do not reproduce as quickly, a critical disadvantage against them. Add to this the terrible magics their casters wield, and sometimes I wonder if any of us will survive.

“Top?” Rethgar whispered. “There’s a light on the far side.”

“Movement, too,” Syreth said. “One, maybe two of them.”

“If the rest are in the woods looking for us, this is our best chance to save Tliel,” I said. “Let’s go.” We were taking a huge risk, but there was no other way. By the time reinforcements could get here, the pixie would surely be dead.

With Rethgar on point, we began sneaking into the ruins, pausing every time we took cover so I could sense if anyone was approaching. We scurried from shattered wall to pile of rubble, every sense alert for any sign of detection.

After many tense minutes, we crept within sight of the building with the flickering light in the window. It was a keep tower, once part of a larger stone building, now standing alone. The structure was quiet, but four guards were posted outside. Tliel had to be inside—there was nowhere else to keep a prisoner.

“The rest of you lure as many guards away as you can,” I whispered. “I’ll go under, enter the tower, and free Tliel. We meet back here in ten minutes. If an alarm is sounded, or we don’t make it, you all head back to base. Everyone understand?”

The others all nodded.

“Give me a count of thirty, then begin.” Orienting myself and estimating the distance to the wall, I took a deep breath and sank into the ground. With so little movement around me, it was difficult to be sure I was heading in the right direction, but I pressed on. After forty paces, I cautiously poked my head up.

Light assailed my eyes, making me blink furiously through my tears. I was right where I wanted to be—inside the keep tower. Freezing in place, with only my head above ground, I looked around.

The first thing I saw was the Ravager, not more than two paces away. In the candlelight, the motionless iron construct cast its bulky shadow over a wooden table beside it. Although its featureless face looked right at me, it made no move to attack.

Maybe the operator isn’t inside it now, I thought. Slowly I withdrew from the packed earth floor, my gaze locked on the metal monster, ready to descend again if it reached for me or lifted a giant foot to stomp me into jelly. It did not move. Other than the construct, the room appeared empty.

In the distance, I heard the distinct clip-clop of Syreth’s hooves on what remained of the stone streets. He bleated once, then again. Seconds later, I heard heavy footsteps heading toward him; the carnivorous tallest no doubt thinking they’d heard a wild goat. Syreth would lead them on a wild-satyr chase for their trouble.

The faint clink of chains on the tabletop drew my attention. Spying a three-legged stool nearby, I climbed on it to see what was making the noise.

My breath caught in my throat when I did. Tliel lay there, naked, his normal, bright silver glow dim and wavering, tiny arms and legs stretched wide by slender chains. A large, dark bruise covered his chest where the arrow had hit him. Angry black welts marked where the iron cuffs bit into his flesh. Wide, panicked eyes stared at me while he made desperate noises behind the wooden twig strapped in his mouth. I smothered a scream when I saw the worst injury of all—his wings were gone. The barbaric dogs had cut off his wings!

My plan had been to have Tliel fly away once I’d freed him, but now I wasn’t sure how we would escape, since I can’t carry another being with me underground. Nevertheless, I had to help him.

“We’re getting you out—” was all I could whisper before he shook his head violently. At the same time, a key rattled in the door. I jumped down and hid underneath the table, drawing my dagger as the door creaked open.

A pair of sandaled feet, their shins wrapped in white strips of cloth, walked to the table. Tliel rattled his chains furiously, then quieted as the tallest did something I couldn’t see.

“There now…this will all be over soon.” Although the words should have been soothing, they were spoken with all the warmth of a trollent. “Just another moment—”

The tallest’s words devolved into the harsh language of their magic, and a familiar blue-white light filled the room, throwing everything into harsh shadow. The chains shook as tiny hands and feet beat a frantic staccato on the wooden table. On the wall, the shadow of Tliel’s body arched in agony as the tallest caster tortured him.

Rushing under the caster’s legs, I stabbed up with all my strength. The tallest’s arcane words turned into a shriek of agony, and the light flared even brighter. I pulled my blade out as the tallest stumbled away, his hands clutching his groin. Ignoring him, I leaped onto the stool, intending to free Tliel, but froze in horror.

Whatever spell the tallest had begun was still going. Dozens of tiny bolts of energy arced from the pixie’s body to the Ravager. Tliel’s hair stood on end, the tips of his fingers and toes singed black as arcane power was drawn from him. The construct began glowing as it absorbed more energy from my comrade. The blue-white light streamed into its joints, making them glow like when it had come after us in the forest. With a final strangled scream, Tliel collapsed, his last breath rattling out of his sunken chest. Acrid smoke wafted from his eyes, nose, and mouth.

The Ravager swiveled its head toward me. As if recognizing who I was, it raised an iron fist to crush me where I stood. I leaped aside as its hand came down, pulverizing the table. Knowing there was nothing I could do to save Tliel, I kept going, sinking down into the earth.

“Stop…Alten!…I command you!” the bleeding mage gasped as the Ravager lurched toward him. “Alt!ALTEN, I SAY!

The last thing I heard was his dying scream as the iron monster crushed his chest with a heavy foot.

Shuffling through the dirt for a few yards, I came up outside the keep tower. Two guards threw the door open and ran inside. One flew back out almost instantly, sailing through the air to slam into a partially collapsed wall, breaking off a large chunk of it. He fell onto the stone street, his head bent at an unnatural angle. The other retreated to the doorway, but was jerked off his feet and hauled back inside. His screams were also brief.

More tallest ran to the tower, now trembling under blows from the rampaging Ravager. I ducked back down and retreated from the chaos, stopping only when I felt a loud rumble shake the ground.

Poking my head back up, I saw the tower had collapsed, apparently brought down by the construct. Tallest ran everywhere, shouting orders and calling for help. No one noticed me slink into the darkness.

I rejoined the others back at our rendezvous point. “Where’s Tliel?” Syreth asked.

I shook my head. “I didn’t reach him in time.” A partial truth, to keep my unit quiet until I could talk to my superiors. “Let’s head back and report.”

* * *

The memory of what I’d seen in that tower was seared into my mind. I knew the tallest could be capable of terrible cruelty—they’d proven that when they had killed my husband and children; revenge for deaths inflicted on their own. But if they were capable of this kind of monstrousness, what hope did we possibly have against those who would use the very lives of our people against us?

I have racked my brain for a solution ever since we returned to headquarters, deep in the heartswood. Now, as I am about to give my report to our leaders, I have come up with what I hope is the answer. It is savage and dangerous, and will require the sacrifice of more lives. I will volunteer to lead this special unit on what can only be described as a suicide mission. But I see no other choice.

We must seek out and kill all of the tallest casters that know this magic. We must destroy their ability to make the Ravagers. It is the only way we will survive.

I only hope that we are not too late—that we can kill all of them before they kill all of us.

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