It was a bright and sunny day. The sun shone in happy waves, except at intervals where it was stymied by leafy trees, most of which cast grumpy shadows along the road, and not counting the few that weren’t grumpy so much as sullen because all that happiness raining down on them was damned annoying.
Tion nudged his partner and tipped his head. “Don’t look now, but we’re about to have company.”
Kail followed the direction of his gaze and groaned. “Just keep walking. He might be headed in the other direction.”
“Uh-huh,” Tion muttered under his breath. “And I saw Aunt Santha’s cow flying just the other day.”
Tion grinned and adjusted his pack. He gripped his walking stick more firmly as the stranger crossed the meadow and joined the road several yards behind them.
“He’s sort of cute,” Tion whispered.
“Are you daft?” Kail hissed. “He’s, he’s….”
“Yeah, I know, but still.”
Kail rolled his eyes. “Idiocy.” He looked over his shoulder. “Hush now. He’s getting closer.”
Tion nodded, and the pair stared straight ahead as they continued to walk. He felt the stranger’s heavy tread like miniature earthquakes beneath his feet as the man approached, and quashed a momentary flash of alarm. Surely he’d….
“Look out!” Kail shouted and pushed Tion out of the way. He leaped aside and landed with a splash on the opposite side of the road.
The stranger thundered between them, apparently unaware of the near miss. He continued along the road and, to Tion’s outrage, actually seemed to be humming to himself.
“Oh no he didn’t!” Tion stood and dusted himself off as he took stock of his condition. He bent to retrieve his walking stick and felt something broken rattle in his pack. Across the road, Kail was sitting in a puddle, cursing loudly and looking disgusted.
“Still think he’s cute?” Kail demanded.
“Maybe not so much, now,” Tion admitted as he crossed the road, biting his cheek to keep from laughing. He took Kail’s hand and hauled him up. He bit his cheek harder when the smell hit him. “Um, Kail?” Laughter bubbled around the edges of his voice.
“What?” Bright anger, like flashes of fire, flared in Kail’s green eyes. A muscle twitched at the corner of his jaw, and he glared ferociously, as if daring Tion to say it out loud.
Tion said it out loud. “That’s not water.”
“I know it’s not water!” Kail roared his outrage, and Tion dissolved into paroxysms of laughter.
“When we get home, I’m going to lodge a complaint with the Roads Division,” Kail railed. “Somebody has to take a stand!” Noxious yellow liquid dripped from his clothing, his pack, and his golden curls.
Tion nodded his agreement, still laughing, and shucked off his pack. He rummaged beneath the flap and found a scrap of cloth. With it, he swiped tears of laughter from his face before handing it to Kail.
“And I’m going to start by giving that big oaf a piece of my mind!” Kail declared as he snatched the cloth. His voice was lightly muffled as he wiped the splash from his face, wiped at his hair, and then dried his hands. Tion bit down hard on fresh mirth as his partner continued to rant, heedless of the fact that the already drenched cloth did little more than spread the mess around.
Tion touched his friend’s arm. “Leave it, Kail. We’ll get you cleaned up at the next stream we cross.”
Kail glared a moment longer before the green fire in his eyes dimmed. His tirade dwindled as well, and he reluctantly nodded. “Okay, but if anybody says anything….” He let the implied threat, and one last flash of green, hang in the air.
“Except for him”—Tion nodded to the retreating form of the stranger—“we haven't seen a soul all day.” He clapped his friend high on the back, one of the few places where the mess hadn’t yet soiled. “Come on, mate. Let’s find you a stream, shall we?”
“Yeah, fine,” Kail grumbled. “But first, I’m going to have a few words with your cutie.” Green fire renewed behind Kail’s eyes, and Tion shook his head.
“That might not be such a good idea, Kail. He’s pretty big.”
“Good! The oaf will have farther to fall when I whack him.”
“Well,” Tion temporized. “Let’s get a feel for the guy first. What do you say?”
“You feel him,” Kail snapped. “I just want to whack him.” He hefted his walking stick and set off down the road, leaving behind a trail of smelly drips in the dust and Tion biting new holes in his cheek to keep from laughing.
Both Tion and Kail were breathless by the time they caught up to the stranger. Tion’s shoulders ached from the constant thump and crunch of his backpack as they jogged, and he had no doubt Kail’s trousers were chafing, if his friend’s spread-legged amble was any indicator.
“Hey! Wait a minute! Stop!” Kail shouted as they neared the stranger. The man was still humming softly to himself as though he hadn’t a care in the world.
Even Tion grew incensed at the man’s callousness, and he added a few shouts of his own, to no avail.
“I don’t think he can hear us, Kail,” Tion panted as he ran to keep up with the stranger’s ground-eating stride.
“He’ll hear this!” Kail roared and surged forward, brandished his walking stick. He swung and connected with the man’s right shin. To Tion, it sounded like someone beating an oak tree with a twig. He stared in disbelief as the man paused, reached down to scratch his shin, and then continued as if nothing had happened.
“Stupid, ignorant, clueless son of a….” Kail took advantage of the brief delay and ran ahead of the stranger. Tion followed, already shaking his head. This could not possibly end well.
“Kail, be careful! He can’t….” His warning came too late, for Kail jammed his walking stick between the man’s lower legs and braced himself.
Tion watched, horrified, as the man stumbled, lost his balance, and fell flat on his face with a loud, “Oof.” Kail was thrown forward by the sharp jerk when the man’s shin tangled with the stick, and he pitched headfirst into a berry bush. Tion fell backward, cast aside by the earthquake of the man’s impact as though he were no more than a feather in a breeze. He got up and advanced on the fallen traveler. His concern for Kail, coupled with anger at the extreme measure it took to get the guy’s attention, unleashed a torrent of invective that Tion rained down upon the man’s head. Along the side of the road, even the wild roses blushed.
“What the hell is wrong with you? Do you think you own this road or something?” Tion glared at the face before him. It was pressed firmly into the road, and one eye was squinted shut. The other cast about wildly for a moment and then locked on Tion.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU?”
Tion clapped his hands over his ears and shouted, “Tone it down, you great clod! You’ll break my eardrums!”
“YOU CAN TALK?”
Tion fell backward, pummeled by the mountain of sound that crashed down upon him, dimly aware of the man pushing himself up to sit cross-legged and stare at him. Tion regained his feet by leveraging himself up with his walking stick. He brandished it like a stave and tried to shake the ringing from his ears. Movement caught his eye, and he saw Kail crawling on all fours from beneath the berry bush. Huge purple stains dotted his face, his hands, and his clothing. Still shaking his head, Tion stumbled over to help Kail to his feet.
“You’re right, Kail, he’s an oaf. Let’s run before he regains his senses.”
“What?” The wide O of Kail’s mouth suggested he was shouting, but Tion could barely hear him.
Tion tugged at Kail’s arm. “I said, run!”
“No, I’m not having any fun.” Kail shook free of Tion’s grip and dug a berry out of his left ear. “At least not yet!” he said as he flipped it away.
Tion thumped his head against the heel of his hand, still trying to make the ringing stop. “Who cares if he’s het? He ceased to be cute when he almost smooshed us.”
Kail rolled his eyes skyward. He turned Tion around by the shoulders and dug into his pack. Tion turned to see what he had found just as Kail thumbed the lever on his alarm clock. Finally the damnable ringing stopped.
“Why on earth did you bring this thing?” Kail demanded. The familiar green fire flashed in his eyes as he handed the mechanical to his partner.
Tion shrugged. “I don’t know. I—”
Kail winced and turned his glare to the man still sitting in the middle of the road, watching the exchange. The man cleared his throat and started again. “Hey. Did one of you trip me?”
Tion handed the clock back to Kail and clambered up onto the man’s leg. The man froze, startled, and peered down at him.
“Yes, you big lunk! You damn near stepped on us back there!”
Kail climbed up beside Tion and handed the clock back. “I tripped you, you overgrown, insensitive, useless excuse for a human! What are you going to do about it?” He planted his fists on his hips and glared.
“Is that green fire in your eyes?” The man leaned forward to get a better look. Tion and Kail scrambled to stay upright as the surface beneath them shifted and slid.
“Watch it, mister!” Tion shouted, trying to hold his clock, his stick, and Kail all at the same time.
“Oh. Sorry,” the man rumbled. He straightened with exaggerated care, and Tion let go of Kail when their foundation firmed. “Would you mind telling me what you are?”
Tion groaned and turned to Kail. “He doesn’t get out much, does he?”
“Must not,” Kail agreed. “Not if he’s never seen sprites before.”
Tion handed the clock and his stick to Kail. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, one word at a time: “We. Are. Sprites. You. Big. Jerk.”
The man scowled. “I can hear you just fine, you know. And you don’t have to talk to me like I’m four years old, either.”
“Then have the courtesy to apologize for nearly turning us into toe jam!” Tion shouted through his cupped hands.
“I said I can hear you, bug. I—” The man broke off and sniffed. “What’s that smell?”
Smoldering green fire flared. “Some self-centered, inconsiderate slob took a piss at the side of the road,” Kail said. “And I landed in the puddle when you knocked us over!”
Both Tion and Kail struggled to keep their footing as a low, deep rumble shook the air around them. Tion whacked the man’s thigh with his stick. “Stop laughing, you great idiot! Are you trying to knock us off?”
“Ow. Quit that! I’m sorry! It’s just….”
The laughter began again, and so did the shaking, harder this time.
“Just what is so damned funny?” Kail demanded. His eyes were like miniature green suns.
“You landed”—the human began gasping for breath, trying to speak between gouts of mirth—“in a puddle….”
Kail dropped flat on his stomach, one hand clutching the clock and the other clinging to a fold of the man’s trousers. Twin wisps of smoke curled up from the now fire-singed fabric as Kail’s face bounced against the man’s leg. Tion fell forward onto his knees and, between aftershocks, whacked the man’s leg with his stick.
“…of piddle!” On the final word, the human howled his laughter to the open sky. His hands scrabbled in the dirt as he braced himself and gave in to the inevitable. Tion gave up whacking in favor of clinging, and he and Kail both bounced and flopped like fish in a skillet.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” The man gasped and straightened as the hurricane of humor blew itself out. “I don’t know why that’s so funny!”
“It isn’t so funny when you’re sitting up to your shirtwaist in pee!” Kail staggered to his feet and helped Tion to his. When the heaving stopped completely, Kail glared and extracted another berry, smashed to illegibility, from beneath the front of his shirt. The stain it left behind looked like it would never come out in the wash. The disgust was plain on his face as he flicked it away. “I can see we have a communication problem here.” He handed the clock back to Tion. “Put this damn thing away. I want to set a few things straight with this oaf before the situation gets out of hand.”
“I can still hear you, you know.” The man looked slightly affronted.
Kail plucked the staff from Tion’s hand and marched along the man’s thigh. He poked the cliff of the man’s belly with the end of the stick and spoke. “Now you listen, and listen good, because I’m only going to say this once….”
Tion watched silently as Kail punctuated his words with sharp pokes to the human’s midsection, mildly surprised the man didn’t simply flick his partner off his leg like a booger. As Kail ran headlong and heedless through his diatribe, Tion’s grudging respect for the human grew.
The man sat, nodding occasionally and looking suitably abashed as Kail questioned his manners, his upbringing, and, for several heart-stopping minutes, his parentage. Tion was utterly sure that would send them both flying into the berry bushes. One swipe of the human’s large hand, half as long from wrist to fingertip as Kail was tall, would have been enough, but instead, the man mumbled an apology and stared at his lap.
“Kail, that’s enough.” Tion moved to join his friend. “He’s suitably abashed, I think.”
“I’m sorry,” the man mumbled, his eyes still downcast. “I promise I’ll watch where I put my feet whenever I’m out on the road. I’ll apologize to the milk cow too.” He paused long enough to look up cautiously. “I can’t say that to my mother, though. As far as I know, she’s never even seen an ogre, much less—”
“Well, never mind about that,” Kail said hastily. His eyes had stopped flashing, and his ire ran out of him like water. “I might have spoken a bit off the mark on that score.”
Tion was almost sure he saw a gleam, or perhaps it was a sparkle, in the man’s eyes. It was so hard to tell with humans.
The man nodded and raised his head completely. “So. Can I move now? There’s something poking me in the butt, and it’s getting uncomfortable.”
Tion and Kail ran down the man’s leg, hung a sharp right at his kneecap, jumped off his shin, and hit the ground running. They stopped a short distance away to give him room.
The man leaned, scrabbled under his butt for a moment, and produced something long, thin, and broken. He held it out to the two sprites.
“My staff!” Kail wailed. He snatched the pieces of wood from Conway’s palm. “My father made this for me, you overachiever in stupidity class!” He launched into another diatribe, this time concerning the man’s ancestry, his intelligence, and where said staff could go to avoid the perils of sunshine.
Tion thought that last bit was over the top, and he struggled to contain his friend’s anger. It dripped through his grip, splashed to the ground, and threatened to eat a hole in his boot tops, but he kicked it off and it scurried beneath a lazy shadow. Tion gave up the struggle when he lost part of an eyebrow to the flashing green fire and settled instead for a right hook to Kail’s jaw. “Kail! Knock it off!”
“You hit me!”
“Because you’re being an ass. You won’t let him slide a word in crosswise, and you know perfectly well your father made those damned things every day and handed them out like toothpicks.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. It’s as big as a house, and it isn’t like he did it on purpose.” Tion looked at the man, who was once again suitably abashed. “Look at him, Kail. He’s sorry, see?” Tion turned Kail by the shoulder to face him. He winked, and the man’s eyes first widened and then flashed. Yep. That was a twinkle after all.
“I’m sorry. Kail, was it? I’m sorry I sat on your father’s stick.”
Kail nodded, mollified. “Just don’t do it again.”
Tion rolled his eyes and wrinkled his nose. They really needed to find a stream.
“Say, mister. What’s your name, anyway?”
“No, it’s Conway, but that’s pretty close.”
“Um, yeah.” Tion shook his head. “Do you think you can give us a ride to the nearest stream? Kail and I would be very grateful.” He scratched the side of his nose barely in time to cover his pinching it between his fingers when Kail turned to stare at him.
“Are you nuts? He’s an oaf!”
“He’s an oaf with very long legs, and quite frankly, my friend, you need a bath.”
A faint green spark glowed behind Kail’s eyes, then flared when he stuck his hands in his pockets. A look of irritation marched across his visage, slapping at sparks, and he produced something red and squishy from his left side. “Fine. We’ll ride the oaf, but I’m not driving,” he said. Kail moved as if to toss the dripping berry, but paused, and after only a moment’s consideration, shoved the lint-covered pulp in his mouth.
Tion turned to Conway. “What about it?
Conway bent his head and stared at his hands. “Gee, fellas. I don’t know.”
“And why not?” Kail demanded. “It’s not like we’re heavy enough that an oaf like you would even notice.”
“Kail…,” Tion warned. “Let me handle this.” He stepped forward, putting himself between the green-fired temper of his partner and the reluctance of the human. He opened his mouth to speak, but Conway stopped him.
“Believe me, guys. I’d be happy to give you a lift, but I don’t think it’s a good idea.” Conway leaned down, shifting his gaze from side to side as though he might be overheard, and whispered, “You’re not safe with me.”
The rush of air as Conway sighed with the admission knocked Tion backward. Kail barely caught hold of his pack before Tion dragged him down, and they both landed on their butts in a tangle of arms, legs, and sticks.
Conway drew back, horrified. “See? Your friend is right. I am an oaf.”
“Nonsense,” Tion replied, extricating himself from Kail’s smelly embrace. “It could have happened to anybody.”
Conway shook his head. “No. You don’t understand. I’m cursed.”