King Caelune XIV of Dharoch was an ambitious man. Seeking to add the realm of Essyr to his domains, he made suit to marry Psyche, daughter of King Sylvanus. With his offer of betrothal he sent a jeweled rose of most exquisite make, but no gifts could cover for the brutality of his reputation.
Good King Sylvanus refused the suit with careful cordiality and sent a gift of equal value, a finely engraved silver chest.
At once Caelune seized the pretense for war, claiming deep insult. The story was widely spread that Sylvanus had sent not a chest but an ornate coffin, a taunt to accompany a particularly aggressive denial of the king’s request.
Caelune mustered the armies of Dharoch and sent the main force south under the command of his general to battle the armies of Essyr on the Scarlet Marches. At the same time, the king himself led a second force of some five thousand soldiers on horseback by the northerly mountain pass, with the goal of breaking across the inland to capture Essyr’s capital by stealth.
So they made camp at the gates of the pass: a host of stern, broad-shouldered Dharochs in steel plate and ring mail, with broadswords at their sides and antlers on their helms.
Not half a day’s march up the pass from the Dharoch camp, a large hill lay to one side, topped by expansive willow trees. A hill, and something more. Protruding from this hill was a network of miniature towers and roofs, paths and glass-paned windows, and one great silver tower that reached up above the tops of the willow trees: Tall Tower.
Tantilly Under-the-Willows, a kingdom of the little folk.
When messengers arrived in Tantilly with news of the Dharoch host, they quickly gathered a crowd of worried and curious citizens, which amounted to the better part of the city populace. Then Glimfog of Goldglen, the city elder, took charge of the crowd and began to solidify their panic by relating gloom and doom stories from his youth. For such is the pastime of city elders.
“And the same fate befell Cuttleberry Downs during the War of the Eight Scepters, in my great-grandpappy’s time, certain is. And the same as happened to Goldglen when I was a youngling; a vast horde of Thurians swept in on the way to one of their raids against Ton-Kylon. Oh, they tromped down every tower into dust and ruined all the strawberries, and few enough of us got away alive. Truth, they never even knew we were there, having the whole city hid by enchantment, much as Tantilly is. But there’s nothing can be done to stop them, certain is. The horses are the worst—careless, stomping, womping beasts. Where was I? Hmm. And the same thing happened to Mossytree Crossing— ”
Suddenly the power of Glimfog’s monologue was broken by a chorus of skirling fairy horns, and the crowd split to make room for a grand procession coming down from Tantilly Castle. At the head came the imposing Lord Shamring and Lady Clyptobelle, the captains of the royal guard, mounted on purebred albino warferrets with stirrups and ornaments of gold. Behind them marched the fifty-five soldiers of the royal guard, resplendent in dragonfly plate armour with diamond masks and carrying ebony halberds.
In the center of the guard King Tappan rode in a seven-ferret chariot, and behind him came the palanquin of Queen Yorbelinda, which was so tall that it required ten footmen to bear it, and twenty damsels to hold up the vast silk hangings and streamers so that they did not drag upon the ground. Behind them advanced the twin princesses, Xia and Iotea, whose gowns of shimmering flower petals were kept from dragging by green-haired pixies. Thirty men with trumpets and silver harps, and thirty maidens dressed in gold who skipped hand-in-hand rounded out the procession.
“Make way for the king!” Shamring and Clyptobelle said as they rode up to the center of the group, “And the queen too!”
Tappan dismounted his chariot with a spring in his step. He was a young king, bold and clever, and wise and just by the standards of his own kind. It was he who had built Tall Tower, who had slain the shrubomancer of Koss, who had negotiated the prosperous trade agreement with the reclusive pearlmongers of the north, and many other renowned deeds. Often he went adventuring alone in unknown lands, though as a matter of regal decorum he never went anywhere in Tantilly without the full royal procession.
With a bow he extended a hand to help his wife from her palanquin. Queen Yorbelinda of the Violet Tresses possessed a renowned beauty which had only been enhanced by the plumply regal bearing she’d acquired since coming to Tantilly. Her charm was strong magic, and she possessed an incomparable collection of rarities and artifacts. The royal couple approached the elder on the raised platform from which he’d been addressing the crowd.
“Now, master Glimfog, we’ve only just heard the news,” Tappan said. “What counsel have you been giving?”
“Dark times, these, my lord,” the elder answered staunchly. Seeing opportunity, Glimfog turned so he was half-facing the crowd again. “The same thing happened to Scrabbling Shore, certain is, only it was the centaur lancers of General Skarmund—”
“I thank you,” Tappan interrupted quickly, “for your wise warnings.” Glimfog was very knowledgeable and well respected, and had to be silenced tactfully. “Your lore is equally stirring and insightful with your decision of brevity. So,” the king put his hands on his hips and looked about. “It seems we have a majority present, and no time for more formal proceedings. I declare this a council!”
The young men blew a mighty note on their horns, and all the maidens pirouetted.
“Who proposes a stratagem?” Tappan asked.
“If it please my lord,” Shamring and Clyptobelle chorused, “we should fashion a barrier.”
“A wall,” Shamring said.
“Or a moat,” Clyptobelle suggested.
“Well thought, my captains,” Tappan said, “but I fear we have not the time to construct any obstacle that would be formidable enough to thwart great-legged horses. And even if we could, such a measure would only raise awareness of our existence and make us the object of assault rather than incidentally trodden upon. No, friends, whatever defense we elect must protect our anonymity. Who else wishes to give input?”
The hillock was filled with silence for a moment. Then a cricket sang, a crow gobbled it up, and more silence followed.
“I propose a plan,” came a light and lofty voice from the crowd.
“Who said that?” Tappan asked, turning.
A young lady stepped forward, straight as a beanpole with her chin lifted proudly, her hair falling like a bleached waterfall to the ruffles of her gossamer tutu. “It is I, Flatterlilly,” she said, “Flatterlilly of Tantilly!”
“Yes, Flatterlilly,” Tappan said impatiently, “we’re all of Tantilly. What is it you want?”
Of course, Flatterlilly was not really of Tantilly; she was Queen Yorbelinda’s cousin, from Sunnyvale, and had fled to Tantilly in order to escape the wrath of the king, her uncle. At Yorbelinda’s request, and a little to displease his father-in-law, Tappan had agreed to grant Flatterlilly amnesty. It was a decision he regretted almost daily. She was a remarkably poor rhetor, and as she spoke many of those in the crowd felt increasingly uncomfortable.
“I wish to speak, as is my privilege as a resident of Tantilly,” she said. Tappan made no reply, only made a mental note that as soon as the crisis was over certain long-overdue changes to the city constitution should be made.
“Well,” Flatterlilly continued, “we’re all here together, and I think that’s wonderful. It’s terrible, that is, that the Dharducks or whoever are coming to trample us. Awful. Tragic really, when you really think about it. In a perfect world, a nice, sweet world, we would be able to settle this matter kindly. Gently. Carefully. Surreptitiously.”
“I don’t think you know what that word means,” Tappan said.
“I do!” Flatterlilly declared, filled with misplaced passion. “And I hope that someday, somewhere, somehow and even somewhen we can all teach our children to know the meaning of the word ‘surreptitiously!'”
By this point the fear of disaster had gone from the crowd, to be replaced by a grating distress and generalized ennui. Many of them suddenly realized they had very pressing reasons to be elsewhere, that they had forgotten to turn off the oven, or prune their foxglove, or delouse their ferret. Tappan interrupted Flatterlilly’s terrible monologue, trying to refocus.
“Do you have a strategy to propose?” he said tiredly.
“Yes, yes I have!”
“I think we should open the rainbow gates, withdraw our gold, and hire mercenary minotaurs to gore the aggressors.”
“Having only recently come to Tantilly, you are rather eager to give away our pots of gold,” Tappan said. “We are not so eager. Furthermore, it is entirely unnecessary, but for your benefit I will point out that minotaurs are uncontrollable brutes who will trample everything for many miles around, including Tantilly. Does anyone else have a suggestion, a vaguely reasonable suggestion?”
“Oo! Oo!” Flatterlilly cried, “One more!” When Tappan reluctantly acknowledged her she paused and straightened her tutu. “We should herd a swarm of rabid rats into their encampment to spread Hackle Chills and Footrot.”
All eyes looked on her in disgust, except for Yorbelinda, who hid her face.
“Eww,” Shamring and Clyptobelle said in unison.
Tappan huffed loudly. “If I hear one more word from you,” he said, “I shall have you put into stocks and mocked by tedious youths, who will be armed with overripe produce from the royal pantry itself.” She clapped her mouth shut and receded into the crowd. “Now, does anyone else have a notion?”
Yorbelinda spoke. “I think we’d best fall back on our flutes and lutes.”
“Mm…I see what you’re saying,” the king said thoughtfully. “But something shall have to be done about the horses. They have absolutely no taste for music.”
“We know just what to do, my liege,” Shamring and Clyptobelle said.
“And it might help,” Glimfog croaked, “to get the monarchs in on this.”
“Indeed!” Tappan said, his confidence bolstered by the sudden flood of constructive suggestions. “Let the monarchs be summoned, and the painted ladies and swallowtails, and perhaps even the mallow skippers. I think we have found our stratagem.”
That night a great fire broke out suddenly at one of the edges of the Dharoch camp, and the men rushed out to put it down.
When they returned to camp they found the horse-sentries clubbed, the tether lines cut, and the horses run off into the night. When questioned, all the sentries remembered was hearing gentle rushing sounds and sensing some tiny movements in the dark. The Essyr rangers’ work, the captains of the Dharoch host agreed.
“We can’t be delayed gathering our beasts now,” Caelune said, “and give the Essyr time to get word out of our approach. At dawn we march and take the pass on foot! These cowards’ tricks won’t keep me from taking my bride.”
So in the morning they broke camp and began their march with wrath and vigor.
They’d entered the pass and were drawing near a large hillock when weird music filled the air. Hollow notes from mournful wind instruments struck a chord of deep longing in the fierce men’s hearts, and lilting string jigs moved them to a merriment on the borders of madness. To the everlasting bewilderment of every man, their feet began to catch the music, to hop and skip and even prance.
Unwillingly, the Dharoch host started dancing.
With a sharp note the music picked up and began a furious climb. Quickly the soldiers became separated into two groups: those who had rhythm and those who tumbled about helpless and screaming.
Chaos erupted as all the men who couldn’t move to the beat of the faerie song were thrown about, flailing and wailing until they fell upon one another in heaps or rolled down the pass the way they had come. Some with minimal rhythm were overwhelmed by their more inept and socially awkward comrades and went rolling off with them. Others stood effectively paralyzed, able only to manage a folk prisyadki or stationary kick line. One warrior was holding his own and managed a lovely pirouette, but his comrades struck him down in misplaced masculine indignation.
Caelune sashayed about undaunted, weaving a wild ceili pattern. With a battle cry he gathered to himself all those who had kept their feet, a bare quarter of his starting force, and began to triple-step forward determinedly, halting his advance every so often for a hop-kick and a muttered “hey-daddle-dee” that he couldn’t entirely suppress.
Suddenly the music stopped and a fluttering filled the air from a source high above, sounding like the rustle of angel’s wings descending. Out from the sky emerged a great swarm, like a many-colored mist, the downward surge of butterflies beyond number. The soldiers stared in open-mouthed wonder as the flapping throng came upon them. The butterflies spun about them in whirling patterns, filling the warriors with vertigo, and flew at their faces, obscuring their vision and slapping their cheeks with silky wings.
Then a low horn sounded, tiny but strong. Then a high horn and a higher horn still. For Tappan, having used his orchestra and called on his Lepidopteran allies, deemed it time to sally forth onto the field.
Sword drawn, he led the charge aback Capiltromerrow, his magnificent black ferret, with Shamring and Clyptobelle right behind him on their frothing steeds. Behind came the entire host of Tantilly, splendid and strange, borne swiftly aback their warferrets and flashing weapons aglow with elvish light.
The Dharoch army saw little of their assailants through the blinding swarm of butterflies, and those who caught glimpses of the little folk were only further befuddled and distressed. But they heard the mounting patter of a flood of ferret feet and the otherworldly war cry filling the air, and felt themselves bowled over and carried off by the force of the charge. Many cried out in surprise as much as pain when they felt the bite of tiny, but sharp ,blades about their ankles.
A great cloud of dust covered everything and the Dharoch soldiers fled back down the pass as soon as they could take their feet. Many kept running far afield.
At the base of the vale, Caelune rallied the men he had left, less than a tenth of his army, limping and jittery men who looked all about them with wild eyes. He doubted such a force could break the Essyr rangers at the heights of the pass, even if they survived another bout against the maddening forces who had broken their advance. He picked up his helm from where it had fallen; one of his antlers was broken.
Caelune gave one angry fist-shake at the pass, shrugged his shoulders wearily, and walked away.
Joshua Steely lives in the Midwest with his wonderful wife and son.