Elly is a free-thinking gnome. His love of the wild forests that his people seem so keen to destroy in their endless quest for expansion sets him apart. But it’s his love of fungus that really gets him into trouble…
I love foraging. There’s something magical about searching for fungus. Aside from feeding the tribe, I mean. It’s more than that for me. I think that’s why I’m so good at it. There’s something primal about it, ‘in the blood’, as Father Eldred would say.
There’s lots of things ‘in the blood’ according to him. It took me a good few years to realise that was his code for ‘I said it, so you do it.’ Apparently, it’s in the blood for us to fight. That’s why we’ve been fighting the Red Top clan for the last 15 years. It certainly isn’t because we’ve got any real reason to hate them.
Although, there is, now. Because if Father Eldred and the council found out about Ethel and I, this war would escalate beyond all reason. There’s a tiny part of me that feels guilty for what I’m doing. But it’s only a tiny part and that part is silenced by the glorious majesty that currently surrounds me.
It’s easy to forget about everything out here. It’s easy, even, to forget about Ethel. Which is strange, because just last night, as I was leaving the tiny hut we made in the southern orchards, I swore I’d never forget her. Apparently that wasn’t entirely true.
But this isn’t a bad sort of forgetting. This is a forgetting of everything that binds me to the normal world, the world of harvests and meets, of cooking and cleaning, of cutting and sawing and building. All the things that make up our tiny corner of the world cease to matter here.
The bracken towers above me, the trees distant mountains I struggle to even comprehend. There’s been talk, in the village, of building up instead of out. There’s been talking of conquering the trees. I confess to being one of the naysayers. But then, I talk to the spider folk more than most and I know what they’d say if they saw a bunch of gnomes come muscling in on their turf. They’re a peaceful lot, the spiders, but they don’t take kindly to trespassers. Maybe they have their own Father Eldred.
I chuckle to myself as I bully my way through the brambles. Most of my kind don’t come out this far, into the deep. They don’t like the brambles and they don’t have a bramble suit made for them by the most famous fungus finder for two hundred years. Grandpa Eist is a legend amongst all gnomes, but in my family, he’s a god.
So I feel very little as I march deeper and deeper in. The voice comes back to me, the same one as always, reminding me of the rats, and the deer that live out here, preying on the little folk like me. The voice is loud today and even tries it on with talk of Centaur, the rough and savage folk who rule far to the north.
I ignore it, as I always do. The fungus out here isn’t even worth comparing to the stunted, feeble stuff we grow back in the village. I shove a piece of bracken aside and my breath catches in my throat.
There it is. The cap is wider than me and the stalk tall and firm. It speaks to me in a voice few understand and I answer with a most ungnomely squeak, then rush to stand beneath its shelter.
Ethel mentioned children last night. After I stopped sweating, and after we discussed it and realised the only way we could have kids would be to run away from our respective clans, I decided that I would like children. I’d like to teach them this language, teach them the wonders of the wood that most of my people try their hardest to forget.
My father called it the future, but I call it a crime. My grandfather, had he not be cremated, would be rolling in his grave. Our people spread, hacking down whole swathes of blackberry bushes and ferns to build their houses, and not one mourns the loss. Not one, save me. And Ethel.
The Red Caps are no better. The war with them amounts to little more than the odd skirmish. A knife wound has become the biggest danger for a couple of years, now. But it’s not from any deep yearning for peace on either side. It’s because everyone’s far too busy building.
What happens when our villages both want the same piece of land I can only imagine. Except, I don’t want to imagine it. And a part of me, a part that’s getting larger every day, thinks the best thing would be for me and Ethel to be far away from here, far from the Fathers and the councils, far from the incessant building, far from everything except one another. And the fungus.
‘You’re a long way from home, little gnome.’
I don’t panic. I could. I could freeze up and start to shake. It’s a curse my people have had since time immemorial. We see something scary and we start to shake so bad we can’t stand up. But I’m not like the others. I never have been and I never will be.
So instead I turn and take a deep breath. At first I think it’s a deer. The long forelocks and hooves fool me, until I step out from beneath the mushroom and stare up to the head, far above me. Centaur.
The shaking gets bad before I can stop it and my teeth chatter together. The centaur’s front legs bend until his head swings low to peer at me.
‘Why are you shaking, little gnome?’
It’s an excellent question and one to which I answer with complete honesty. ‘Because I’m going to die.’
‘We all die, little gnome.’
‘I had thought I might have a little longer, raise a family perhaps.’
‘Perhaps you will.’
‘Are you not going to eat me, then?’
‘Eat you?’ the centaur throws back his massive head and laughs in a voice that sounds like the trees themselves are enjoying the joke. ‘Why ever would I eat you?’
‘Because you eat the small folk, that’s what I’ve been taught.’
‘I would question your teacher, then, little gnome, for that is as far from the truth as it could be. My people are long time friends of the gnomes. In my kingdom, we live side by side, well, side by foot with your kind. In recent years, we have even invited gnomes to join our council.’
My mouth drops open and I stare up at him. He’s looking down at me, nodding, and I take a real good look at his face. He’s old, at least, older than me. Lines run from the corners of his eyes and mouth, but they’re laughter lines that speak of a life well lived, a life enjoyed.
‘Why would my teacher tell me otherwise, then?’
The centaur straightens and his head is no more than a dot far above. When he speaks, his voice flows out to join the forest, but the words find their way down to me.
‘I would like to know the answer to that. Perhaps you could take me to your tribe so that I might speak with him?’
I can’t stop the laughter that bursts out of me. I’ve spend the last six months panicking about what will happen if people find out about Ethel and me. I’ve spent the last fifteen years dealing with funny looks and more questions than I would like about my ‘weird obsession’ with fungus and the natural world. Now this centaur is suggesting I take him back to the tribe. If ever there was a way to make myself a complete outcast, this is it.
But perhaps this is what we need. Perhaps speaking to him, and seeing how wrong they are about the world outside, will help my people see how wrong they are to be destroying their own world. Perhaps. Or perhaps I will be driven from my tribe. But if that is the case, then at least the decision will be made for me. I can get Ethel and we can run, go live in the north with the centaurs. At least I know I will be welcome there.
‘I will take you to the tribe.’
‘Splendid.’ His massive head reappears, coming closer and closer. Then one enormous hand wraps around me and I fly up into the sky. Higher and higher I go, barely aware of the yelp that escapes me. I’m amongst the trees, now, the bracken forgotten far below. I have a second to regret that I collected none of the wondrous fungus I found before I’m deposited in a forest-like mane.
‘Hold on, little gnome, this might be faster than you’re used to.’ Everything he says comes with a smile and, for a brief moment, I imagine what life could be like amongst his people. Are they all as good-natured as this one? I don’t even know his name. ‘Excuse me, but what is your name, please?’
‘My people call me Daldren. On occasion, it’s lengthened to Daldren the brave, though that is a silly title.’
‘Are you not brave?’
‘To be Centaur is to be brave. Just as to be Gnome is to be little.’
‘We can be brave too, you know.’
‘Indeed I do. And your bravery is, in truth, more honest than mine own. For yours is despite your nature, instead of because of it.’
Then we move. I’m not ready. I thought I was, with my hands dug deep into his hair, but we leap forwards so fast I barely keep hold. I’m thrown up and down, bashing against his neck as my breath flies from my body. I’m going to fall, I’m going to tumble down to the ground and be shattered against the roots and stone.
I cling tight, lacking the breath to even ask him to slow. But he does, sooner than I expected. A tiny part of me thinks I might have started to enjoy myself, and regrets the rapid end to our journey. But most of me is just relieved.
‘Are we near?’ he asks, in that impenetrable voice. I shrug, then realise he won’t have felt it. I’ll feel like nothing more than a fly on his back, less perhaps, since I’m not trying to bite him.
‘I have no idea, I cannot see from up here.’
He plucks me out of his mane and deposits me on the floor. I’m stunned by his gentleness, my landing so soft I barely realise I’m standing. His head comes down until it rides above me like a raincloud. Only this cloud is going to bring sunshine. For me, at least. I’ve no idea how the rest of the tribe will take it, but sometimes, the things that are good for us seem anything but when we first see them.
We’re close to the tribe and I set off through the undergrowth, hearing him tramp along behind me. He’s quieter than I expected, considering how much of him there is to move.
The sentry spots him soon enough.
‘CENTAUR!!’ Screams Efinil from the log and my people come streaming out, reaching for weapons that are never far away. I raise both hands, and my voice. ‘KEEP CALM, HE COMES IN PEACE.’
Father Eldred emerges, gripping his spear, his nut brown face paled to the colour of skinned wood. ‘Elly, what have you done, you fool?’
‘He comes in peace, Father. What you taught us was a lie.’
He opens his mouth to speak when a huge hand wraps around him. I wait for the centaur to lift him up and speak to him, but instead the hand tightens and tightens until Father’s face turns red, then lolls to one side. Blood emerges between the centaur’s fingers and my mouth opens and closes as I search for the questions.
I turn back around and the head swoops lower. I watch as Deldren stuffs Father Eldred’s corpse into his mouth and crunches down on it.
‘What are you doing?’ It’s a stupid question, but it’s all I can think of to say.
‘Thank you, little gnome. I must confess, I lied earlier when I said I don’t eat gnomes.’
‘Because I was hungry and one of you is never enough. What better way to get a full dinner than have one of you gullible little fools set the table for me?’
My mouth flaps open one more time. I’m thinking of Ethel when his hand comes for me.