by Michael Brewer
(Winner, 1st Place, 2015)
The protector of the Garden of the Gods faces a life changing experience when a hero with an unexpected talent arrives.
Fiona was harvesting lettuce in the Garden of the Gods when she heard the thumping of the rabbits, warning her that a Hero was coming. Her heart thudded with excitement and she started to run off to watch, but her stomach grumbled at her, reminding her that lunch came first. Looking over the scared heads of lettuce, she finally said “You and ....You,” pointing to two particularly luscious looking heads. “You're going to be lunch, so extra leaves off by the time I get back. No skimping.” She surveyed the other lettuces. “If any of the rest of you even think about trying to help them, I'll release the warren on you.” The lettuces shuddered slightly, the two chosen ones already dropping leaves. “Good.” And Fiona turned and ran, hoping she'd get there in time to watch the Hero react to the first defense. Because that was always hilarious. One of the few bits of real entertainment she had these days.
As Fiona tugged her shift free from the Giant Rose Hedge that surrounded the Garden, she seriously reconsidered her decision not to dig a tunnel underneath it. Either way it was too late to deal with now, so she contented herself with glaring at the Hedge and saying “If you caught any of my hair in there, I'm going to tell Father about it. And you know that the Demon Rabbit of Inle could eat you in…” “Just.” “One.” “Bite.” She snapped her teeth together for emphasis, though her elvish jawline lacked the intimidating buck teeth of her Father. Ignoring the Hedge's reaction, she again set off to find the hero, muttering to herself “At least I would if he ever actually came back. Ten summers!” Shaking her head, she turned her thoughts back to the excitement of the Hero's arrival. She dashed through the deep forest, past the ring of Sleep Poppies, and dodged between the Man-Trap Orchids almost without thinking in her rush to get as close as she could to the Durians she had planted around the edges of her territory. She was quite proud of herself, planting those awful smelling things to discourage travelers from looking any further, especially since she told them to smell as awful as possible. The only downside was that it made it just as hard for her to approach them as the Heroes, but watching them try to get past the smell was worth a bit of discomfort. Which is why she was so shocked to see the Hero picking some of the fruit, instead of retching all over the forest floor.
“Wha... But... How?” Fiona was dumbfounded. How could anyone just ...ignore that scent?!? She stepped forwards a little and sniffed the air just to make sure the Durians hadn't fallen down on the job, before hastily jumping backwards and blowing her nose on a bit of cotton. The Durians were definitely still at full strength. She bit her thumbnail. The Durians had always worked before, so she'd never actually had to have the Orchids kill anyone. Maybe she could tell them to just ...wrap the hero up? Or something? Let them go with a stern warning? Or maybe she should just warn the hero away herself? Fiona looked down at her lithe elvish body, then shook her head. She just wasn't intimidating enough to people, even if her proud and tall ears marked her as her Father's Daughter. The thumping of the rabbits pulled her out of her ruminations. The Hero was moving again.
It wasn't hard to keep up with the Hero despite Fiona's desire to stay hidden. Her Father's blessings extended to strong legs, swift running, and the ability to talk to all plants and animals. Plus, she knew all the dangers of the forest, while the Hero kept looking around, starting at noises, and waving his weapon around. Fiona snuck closer for a better look. It was a long haft of wood with a metal thorn poking out of one side and a broad, sharp edged, metal plate on the other side, with a green stone set between them. The Hero also had a metal hat and a hide coat with a few more of those metal plates on it. It looked well put together and Fiona sighed again. The cotton plants weren't very good at weaving, so her clothing always had to be so simple, but the Heroes always had these complicated and interesting outfits. “Maybe I should try warning him...” She mumbled to herself, just as her nostrils flared with the scent of honey and sex. Her eyes widened. It was too late.
Fiona immediately jumped away again, lest she be caught in the Man-Trap Orchid's spell. While she was slightly resistant to it due to her divine heritage, the scent of the Man-Trap Orchid's sap could still induce a state of blind rut in her if she got too close, or wasn't at a dead run, at which point the strangling vines would come out and ...Well, she wasn't entirely sure if they would actually kill her or not, but she really didn't want to test it. Either way, the Hero would need to deal with this on his own. Fiona approached closer, until she felt a little flushed from the scent, to get the best view of what happened.
The Hero, despite following a path right between two Orchids, did ... nothing. He simply continued on his way, as though the Orchids weren't there. Fiona's jaw dropped at this display of fortitude. “Maybe he's a monk or something? Trained to be utterly chaste and virtuous?” She felt a little sad at that, and, as she tried to figure out why, the Hero got too close to one of the Orchids. It evidently thought that prey was prey, even if it wasn't acting right, and tried to ensnare the Hero. Fiona opened her mouth to call a warning, but the sound died in her throat as the Hero's weapon flashed down, cleanly lopping off all of the Orchid's ensnaring vines with just one fast slice. Fiona huddled back, imagining that weapon being used on her own supple flesh. She was no longer worried about the Hero's life, just her own.
Thoughts scattered through Fiona's head, like rabbits scampering away from a fox. The only one she could catch hold of was “...why are you doing this to me, Father?” “Why did you leave me here all alone? Guard the Divine Lettuces and the Heavenly Carrot until you returned, you said. Well, it's been ten summers since and now I'm gonna fail because I don't know how to fight! Why didn't you train me, if I'm to do this!” Fiona suddenly realized she was shouting at the sky, and quickly covered her mouth and looked around. Fortunately the Hero was still a ways off and didn't seem to have heard her. Fiona slumped again. “...Maybe I should just leave. It's not like I really like it here and, the way the Hero chewed right through those first two defenses, the others won't stop him. But... No. If I'm going to leave, I'm doing it on my terms. I'm not going to be chased away by a mere Hero!” She sat up straighter. “Now...what can I do... Hmmmm.....” She looked back at the Orchids and the cut vines and then down at herself. “Hmm!” She had finally calmed down enough for one of the rabbit thoughts to come within grabbing distance. Fiona stood up, brushed herself off, and said “Ok Father. I have an idea now. I don't know if it will work, but I'll give this one last try, but only because I don't like leaving things undone.” And she ran back to the Garden.
This time the Roses behaved.
Fiona observed the Hero's approach to the Rose Hedge from her hiding place. “Closer....closerrrr...” She murmured to herself. The Hero placed the metal end of his weapon on the ground, calling out “Hello!” His voice was higher than Fiona expected, but that went out of her head as the Hero took a few more steps towards the Hedge. “Hello? I wish to barg...”
“Now!” Fiona commanded the Roses and the prepared thorny vines grabbed hold of the Hero and his weapon tearing it from his grasp, then entwining about the Hero until he couldn't move. “Now for the Troll.” And Fiona stepped forwards, the Rose vines forming the shape of a large and scary wood troll around her. “WHO TRESPASSES UPON MY GARDEN!” Fiona smiled to herself, before shouting again into the piece of rolled up tree bark. “SPEAK MORTAL! WHY SHOULDN'T I GRIND YOU UP INTO MULCH FOR YOUR TRESPASS!”
“...I am Maylis Emeraude of Dreed and I did not mean to trespass upon your land, Sir Troll. I only wished to bargain with the Lord of the Garden for some Herbs.” Fiona's brow furrowed. The Hero didn't sound right. She made a slight gesture and the vines pulled off the Hero's helmet, revealing a Heroine.
“...huh.” Fiona shook her head slightly, then resumed her troll voice. “I AM THE LORD HERE. FORGET YOUR HERBS, YOU BARGAIN FOR YOUR LIFE NOW!”
“I cannot Sir Troll! I must complete this quest. It is my last hope!”
Fiona searched the other woman's face, seeing some worry, but mostly determination. “...SPEAK THEN. WHAT DO YOU OFFER ME FOR MY HERBS.”
“I bring a pouch of Emeralds from Dreed, Spidersilk cloth from Boru, and a videogame system from another world. I would trade these to you for Blue Gum Leaves and Queen Ginger Root.”
Fiona was perplexed. She didn't recognize the things being offered, but that wasn't the real problem. The Heroine...Maylis, wasn't it? wasn't after the Heavenly Produce. Fiona's eyes narrowed. Well, that was what she claimed anyway. Father did say you can't trust Heroes. “WHY SHOULD I TRUST A TRESPASSER. YOU HAVE ALREADY MADE YOUR WAY THROUGH MANY WARNINGS AND DEFENSES, INSTEAD OF TRYING TO BARGAIN AT THE EDGE OF MY TERRITORY.”
“I have? I'm sorry Sir Troll, but I did not... Oh! The flowers that tried to ensnare me before? Those were yours? I apologize for damaging one of them, but it was trying to grab me. I don't think I hurt it very much though. In any case, I also apologize for coming in any further. I should have called out then, but I thought they were simple native plants, not part of your domain.”
She was polite. Fiona had to give her that. Unfortunately Maylis didn't seem to want to just leave with her life either and, if she was lying, Fiona wasn't sure she could catch her again. Even if she was telling the truth, letting her go with what she wanted might bring lots of Heroes back here. Which...actually might not be so bad. It'd be less boring, in a heart stopping terrifying way. But, if the “Troll” can be bargained with.... Hmm. “HERO. YOU WOULD GIVE ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING YOU HAVE FOR YOUR HERBS.”
“THEN I SHALL EXAMINE YOUR PACK AND DECIDE WHAT A PROPER TRIBUTE WILL BE.” With a quiet command from Fiona, the Roses rustled and slid around, pulling free the pack and dumping it open on the ground. Fiona looked through the eye holes of the wooden mask, and examined the contents of the bag. A number of small lumpy bags, sticks, folded cloths, and some wrapped packages that smelled like they might be food. Really good food. Fiona reached out, the Troll's arm following hers, and grabbed one of the food bundles. “Wha...WHAT IS THIS.”
“Dreed waybread, Sir Troll. I also have honey jerky and an aged Stilton cheese.” No longer listening, Fiona had tossed the package into the Troll's open mouth, ripped it open, and bit into the ...she didn't know what it was, but it was fruity, nutty, sweet, crumbly, moist, and the best thing she'd ever tasted. Better than Divine Lettuce or Heavenly Carrots. Better even than the Kale of the Gods.
When thought returned, Fiona sat there in a heap, crying. The Roses, reacting to the salt, had retreated long ago. A hand came into view in front of her nose. Fiona looked up. Maylis, the Heroine, was reaching down to help her up. “Would you like to talk about it?”
“...yes. Come with me.” And, for the first time in ten summers a Heroine was allowed into the Garden.
Fiona gestured with her cup at Maylis, over the platter of food on the table, Divine Lettuce leaves nestled against the stilton of mortal craft. “...and he just left me here! Alone! For Ten Summers! To protect the Vegetables of the Gods he said.” She slammed her cup down emphatically. “And you mortals are busy making food that tastes better than anything in the Garden. Like this...what did you say this was?”
“A 1357 Votus Spiced Honey Wine.” Maylis gave Fiona an oddly wistful look.
“It's reallly good.” Fiona sighed. “...I just don't know what I'm doing here anymore.”
“Why don't you come with me then? Dreed is full of places to learn to cook and make food like this.”
“...yeah. Yeah! It's not like Heroes are common here anyway. If Father can't be bothered to come here, why should I stay? Come on, let's get you those herbs and get packed up. ...why do you need them anyway?”
“Oh. I can't smell. There's a wizard who th... What?” Fiona was staring at the other girl, thinking about the Orchids, Durians, and Poppies and their magical scents, then she started giggling. “...oh. Nothing. Let's go get those Herbs. I want you to be able to enjoy my cooking.”