It's not everyday you meet a faerie ambassador. To my knowledge, no member of their court had made a call on Timberlane since the days of the fist court. So it was little wonder that the grand hall was packed for the official introduction. Minor nobles and land holders appeared from homes more than three day's ride, and armor was polished bright as rain. Even old Wilater, my predecessor in the post of court magician, forsook his dusty research long enough to put in an appearance.
I wish I could say that everyone was there to witness this historic occasion and pay honor to our unusual guest, but that would be a lie. For the most part the nobles of Timberlane had assembled only to gawk and snigger at an ambassador the size of a fig roll.
The faerie did not disappoint. She entered the hall to the sound of unseen trumpets, and proceeded to drive her carriage right down the center of the room. The coach itself was a skillfully wrought creation that reminded me of my favorite snuff box. Pulling it were a brace of six very fine looking rats with colored ribbons on their tails. There were a few titters and poorly stifled laughs as the tiny vehicle slowly made its way the length of the hall. Even Paltatine Hermald had to hide his amusement behind a beefy hand.
I stood stiffly at my place beside the paltatine and did not so much as grin. Amusement was not what I was feeling at the moment -- embarrassment was more like it. Of all the people in the room that day, I was one of the few that had met a faerie before. I knew that they had to be judged on more than their size.
When the tiny vehicle neared the dais, there was another flourish of horns. With that, the door on the side of the carriage swung open, and out stepped what looked for all the world like a woman no bigger than a cranklenut. Despite her diminutive proportions, her features were very fair and quite regal. She was resplendent in a tiny silver dress that swept the ground and she carried a scepter that might have served as an ornate toothpick.
Acting in my additional role as the court announcer, I bowed deeply to the small woman and tried to ignore a fresh bout of giggling from the gallery. "Welcome to Tiberlane, madam ambassador," I declared solemnly. "We are honored by you're presence among us."
She nodded in reply. "I thank you for your welcome," she said in a voice like a piping bird. I started to deliver the next line of the formalities, but the faerie woman turned away. With surprising speed, she bounced up onto the dais and approached the feet of the paltatine.
"Listen," she chirped. "I'm in kind of a hurry. Can we skip all the wordage and get down to brass toadstools?"
Her abruptness flustered our ruler. "Well," muttered Hermald as he always did when he had no idea what to say. "Well, I suppose so."
"Good," said the faerie. "You've got problems. Big problems."
"Well, I... That is, we do?" asked Paltatine Hermald.
The faerie nodded. For once, all the tittering in the background stopped as everyone waited to hear what she was going to say.
The tiny woman drew a deep breath. "The antriders are coming."
The silence lasted a moment longer, then a laugh exploded from the ruler's thick lips. "Antriders!" he choked out. "Like in the nursery stories?"
The rest of the court erupted in mirth. The faerie ambassador turned redder than an underdone pot roast. She stamped her miniature foot, and said something else, but her urgent voice was lost in the gales of laughter.
I leaned in close to her and spoke with as much dignity as I could muster. "I'm sure the paltatine means no offense. It's only that we know nothing of antriders but that they're so very small. We tell humorous stories of their antics to children."
"We tell their stories," said the faerie, "but we find no humor in them."
"Yes, I'm certain they must be a very serious nuisance to you." I made a gesture to the wide hall and the assembled crowd. "But to people of our size, well, they would hardly be of notice to us."
The faerie scowled. "Have you ever even seen the antriders?"
"Well, no," I admitted. "But in our stories..."
Without another word, the faerie ambassador stomped back to her coach, slammed the gilt door, and headed down the carpet at a solid rat gallop. Her abrupt departure seemed only to forment more laughter from Hermald's idiot relatives. I groaned and squeezed my eyes shut. I wished that I could close my ears just as easily. And while I was wishing, I wished that Olandis was still on the throne. The old paltatine was not the kindest of men, but at least he knew how to find his head without an attendant.
I opened my eyes just in time to see the tiny coach sweep out of the room. No doubt many long years would pass before the faerie would waste their time on Timberlane again. I turned to say something to Hermald. But before the first word was past my lips, I noticed that there was one other person in the room who was not laughing.
Standing behind the chortling paltatine, old Wilmater had gone white as midwinter snow. He looked up, and I attempted to capture his gaze. But my fellow magician's eyes were focused on something far outside the stone walls of the ceremonial hall. I started toward him, pushing my way between a pair of chuckling dukes. By the time I reached the back of the dais, Wilmater was gone.
According to protocol, I needed to stay in the hall until I was formally dismissed. But I was not in a mood to await release from some giggling idiot, royal or not. I slipped through the tapestries at the back of the room and hurried out into the hall to find Wilmater.
Instead of the old man I was looking for, what I found in the hallway was a skinny young squire with a mop of shaggy brown hair and grass stains that stretched from his knees to his chest. "What happened to the faerie?" he asked.
"The faerie left," I said.
The boy frowned heavily. "Damn," he said. "I always miss everything."
"Yes," I replied. "From the look of your clothing, it appears you've also missed your horse. Now, if you'll excuse me." I stepped around the boy and started for Wilmater's chambers.
The waif dropped in at my side. "Why is everybody laughing?" he asked. "Was there entertainment?"
I started to answer honestly, but stopped myself. Calling the paltatine a fool was never wise -- no matter who the audience. "I suppose they find faeries amusing," I replied.
We walked along in silence for a moment before the boy spoke again. "Won't the faeries be angry at them for laughing?"
"Yes, I guess they might."
"Then it was ill advised," the boy said firmly. "This holding cannot afford active hostilities from the forest folk."
I stopped my hurried pace and looked down at him. "Who are you?"
"Drennith," he said.
Now I found myself coloring as daarkly as the departed faerie. The boy was not as young as I had thought, in fact, the boy was no boy at all, but a girl on the edge of adulthood. "Olantis' daughter?" I swallowed hard and forced a smile. "Beg pardon, my lady. I did not recoognize you."
Drennith shrugged. "No one does. My dear uncle keeps me thoughouly locked up in that rat trap fort north of Applewash." She flicked a glare back toward the throne room. "I've barely seen this place since my father died."
I examined the girl more closely. Ten years away from the castle had given Drennith a woman's height, but her frame was still rangy and coltish. Still, should someone take the time to place her in a decent gown, brush the tangles from her mass of sun-lightened hair, and hide the freckles that dotted her nose and checks, the girl might have made an acceptable lady of the court. In fact, had Timberlane been an independent kingdom, Drennith would likely have taken the Jewelwood Throne following her father's death. But it was Umberbod, far across the Iron Sea, that determined the rulers of Timberlane, and Umberbod had placed Hermald on the throne. What bribes our new paltatine had paid for that favor, I could not even imagine.
"Lady Drennith," I said at length. "I have no doubt that you're right. The faeries will be angry, and Timberlane can ill afford their displeasure." I sketched a quick bow. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm afraid there is a matter I must attend right away." I spun on my heels and and left the old paltatine's daughter standing in the hallway.
A turn to the left, a short corridor, and a flight of narrow twisting stairs took me down to the entrance to Wilmater's chambers. The wooden door stood ajar. From inside came a chorus of thumps, bumps, and rapid footsteps. I eased around the open door and peeked through the stone frame. Wilmater was standing in the middle of the room, flinging books and equipment into a large trunk. His normally orderly quarters were aswirl with scraps of parchment, bits of bone, and an unlikely number of multicolored feathers.
"Your pardon!" I called.
The old magician looked up, loose feathers caught in his thin white beard. "What is it?" he demanded. "I'm in a hurry."
"In a hurry to do what?"
"To leave," he replied, punctuating his words by slamming a leather tome into the trunk. "Depart." Thump. "Vamoose." Bang. "To get out of here as quickly as possible." Wilmater slammed the lid of the trunk shut, grasped the handle on one end, and began to drag the heavy box across the stone floor.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"Does it matter?" He looked up at me and frowned. "Well, are you going to help me with this? Does an old man have to do everything for himself?"
"Oh, er, no. Let me help you." I had been the court magician for nearly two decades, but Wilmater still managed to make me feel like a barefaced apprentice. I hurried around to the other side of the trunk and helped heave it up onto the staircase.
"Be careful," he said as we bumped our way around the spiral stairs. "There are irreplaceable items in this chest."
"Where are you going?" I asked again.
"That depends," he replied.
With a final heave, the trunk reached the main corridor. Wilamter turned and lead the way toward the stables. "It depends on the antriders," he said as we staggered along the hall carrying the heavy trunk between us. "I'm going wherever they're not."
"You believe in the antriders?" I asked.
"Believe?" He shook his head. "I don't believe; I know. Surely you know of the Cayez."
"Cayez? You mean the ruins in the forest?"
Wilmater grunted. "Wasn't always ruins, you know." We reached the stables, and Wilmater directed me to a wagon tucked away in one corner. "The Cayez had cities all over this place a thousand years before the first toe was dipped in the Iron Sea. What we call Timberlane was just a patch on the side of their empire."
It took me a moment to theorize the possible relavance of these statements. "You're saying it was the antriders that destroyed the Cayez Empire?" I asked.
The old magician rolled his eyes. "I can't believe who they're letting wear the robes these days," he said with a sigh. "Yes, of course the antriders ruined the place. The Cayez left records carved in their cities. Magicians long before me puzzled out what those stones were saying."
"But how can they be sure?" I asked. "I mean, the antriders are only stories after all, and the Cayez carvings, well, they're not like any writing I've seen."
Wilmater snorted. "I wouldn't be surprised. Do you ever read?"
"Of course I read. But regional history is such a dry subject, and with so many spells to learn I..."
Wilmater cut me off with a grunt. "Forget it. Lend me your back and spare me you mouth."
We finished loading the chest, and the old magician went to get his horse. I stood deep in thought. If what Wilmater said was true, then the antriders were indeed real, and apparently quite dangerous. I wondered how many people would have to die before Paltatine Hermald stopped laughing.
"So, how do we stop them?" I called.
Wilmater didn't answer until he had finished harnessing his stout mare and climbed into the seat of the wagon. "You don't stop them," he said.
"There must be..."
"No," he said with a shake of his head. "When the antriders come, the only thing you can do is get out of the way."
I shook my head. "This can't be real. Something small as an ant can't possibly defeat a holding defended by armed men."
"It's real enough," said Wilmater. He looked around, and a sad expression came to his narrow face. "I suppose this place will be just a memory soon. A shame really, the food here was actually quite decent." With that he gave the reins a shake and the wagon rattled out of the stables and across the courtyard.
About Antriders, Mark says:
Of everything I've written, Antriders is the closest I've come to a
traditional fantasy. The tone here is a kind of high fantasy light
generic, and the basic character set -- untried magician, blundering
king, rightful heir -- is certainly not too far removed from central
casting. All that's intentional.
What I'm hoping to do with Antriders is to be subversive. I want
you to set back, expect something you've seen before. Something
comfortable. Then I want to use this very traditional fantasy vehicle
to cart a message about the loss of rainforest habitat, emergence of
new diseases, and ecological peril.
Maybe it's the wrong road. Maybe the tone makes the whole thing a
little too cloying. Maybe it's too preachy. But in my head I can
already see what happens when the gathered knights of the realm march
against a trillion swarming antriders, and I can see the barriers --
failures all -- that Our Heroes will erect in the swarm's path.
And if I'm lucky, none of it will be preachy. If I'm very lucky,
it will be fun.