Free Fiction Monday: Renn and The Little Men

In the Wild West, gunslingers populate the legend of many a dime novel. And Renn knows her way around a gun—and a book—better than most of them, including her famous brother, who can credit his skills to Renn. So, when the strange little men show up looking to hire her missing-in-action brother, Renn takes the job. And she soon realizes she’ll need every bit of her gun skills and book learning to finish it.

“Renn and The Little Men,” by World Fantasy award-winner Kristine Kathryn Rusch is available for $2.99 on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, and in other e-bookstores.

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Renn and The Little Men

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

Let me start by telling you this: I’m good with a gun.

In fact, I’m better with a gun than anyone I know, although most people don’t believe it. I’m the one who trained my brother, Ralphie, how to handle his.

Of course, now you know Ralphie as Kid Vicious—at least that’s what the dime novels call him. No one else does, or at least, no one else did until he got his own dime novels. Before that he was Ralphie the Kid, which he hated, or Ralph Visch, which is our last name, or plain old RV. Sometimes people called him That kid, you know the one, not as famous as Billy, but cuter.

Because Billy was one of the ugliest boys I’d ever met.

But I digress.

I don’t have a nickname. Girls don’t get good nicknames. Like Calamity Jane. I mean, really. That’s just mean. Little Annie Oakley. Yeah, not for me either.

My parents named me Renn, which they misspelled because they’re illiterate. Or really, I think the doc misspelled it because’s he’s barely literate. Or maybe it was the pastor, since I’m actually in the church rolls for my date of birth: Renn Visch, born—

Wait. I’m not telling you how old I am. It’s bad enough that I’ve told you Renn is misspelled. I’m not telling you my real name, the one my parents intended for me.

I learned the treacheries of that path not too long ago.

But I get ahead of myself.

The little men showed up at the farm one Saturday morning, three of them, looking for Ralphie, and I gotta tell you, it’s lucky they found me. Ralphie wouldn’t’ve taken them seriously. In fact, Ralphie might’ve just squashed them with his big old fancy cowboy boots.

Because they were no bigger than my thumb. It took me a while to believe they were real.

At least I had a chance of figuring them out, because I read. Ma says I’m going to lose my eyesight, reading at night by candlelight, but really, I think I’m more likely to burn the house down. Twice in the last year, I’ve put out curtain fires in my bedroom, not that Ma knows that because I stitch up some new ones each time from old cloth. I tell her I like patchwork curtains—the latest are green and pink and some kind of leaky purple (with dye that came off on my fingers as I stitched)—but honestly, I work with what’s available. And I hate purple, although not as much as I hate pink.

My room is little more than a box off the kitchen. Ralphie gets the good room, even though he doesn’t live at home any more. Ma and Pa, they have the room that should’ve been the back parlor, but they ran out of building material (and money) before our house got finished, so they improvised. The house is kinda truncated, which means that some parts look big and other parts that you’d expect got lobbed off in the back.

For a while, Ralphie brought in real money, taking jobs as a hired gun, but now he mostly drinks the money away, and never comes home. In fact, I had no idea where he was that morning that the wee folk showed up.

That’s all I could figure they were. Because in my reading, I’d seen stories about fairies, but not stories about subsets of fairies, like brownies or pixies, and I certainly didn’t know how they all worked together, like some little community, which they were. I also expected those communities to be very Old Country, which they aren’t, and thought that the stuff in the folklore was true, which it mostly isn’t.

Although some of it is, so figuring it all out was tough.

Meandering again. Sorry.

The farm is at the butt-end of nowhere in the middle of the Great State of California. My folks homesteaded, sorta, and thought they were land-rich, which they are, sorta, but they’re money poor, and are destined to remain that way.

Our nearest neighbor is miles away, which is why, when someone whispered, “Hey, girlie,” at dawn, I let out one of those screams the dime novels call “bloodcurdling.”

“Hey!”

“Shush!”

“Shut up!”

Three different whispers. I sat up and didn’t see anything. At that moment, Ma stepped into my room, already dressed with her Saturday apron tied around her waist.

She looked around, saw me, saw that I was by myself, saw that I was white as a ghost, and said, “Another bad dream?”

I was shaking, my feather pillow shoved up between me and the headboard, my favorite quilt pulled up under my chin covering my night rail. The room looked empty to me too.

“I guess so,” I said, even though I never had a sound-only dream before.

She nodded like she expected that and to be fair, she was probably right. I had a lot of bad dreams, mostly about being trapped in mud or trapped in amber (from my reading) or being trapped in a mine or being trapped in the storm cellar. I woke up screaming from those too.

She said, “Your pa’s out milking the cows—”

Cow, I silently amended.

“—and I need some help with breakfast before you go shooting.”

My parents didn’t complain about my shooting. They encouraged it. Some weeks, it was the only thing that kept us in food. As I said, I’m good with a gun. Hell, I’m a crack shot if you really want to know, and I can fell a squirrel at 100 paces with one eye closed and the other half-covered with a patch. I’m not too fond of squirrel meat, but I’ll eat it when nothing else’s in the offing. And Pa, no matter how hard he tries, is probably the worst farmer on the face of the Earth. What he grows, nobody eats.

“All right,” I said, but Ma was gone before I could finish. I let go of the quilt and swung my bare feet out of bed. I always hesitate before putting my feet on the cold wood floor, and as I hesitated, I heard squealing.

Then something warm and soft landed on the big toe of my right foot. At almost the same moment, something else landed on the big toe of my left foot. And then something splatted against the floor.

I looked down to see what kind of creature—spider? mouse?—had landed on my foot. Clinging to my big toe was a little man, dressed in green, with a tiny feather jutting out of his tiny cap. He climbed up my toe, got past the nail, and chomped.

“Hey!” I said, shaking my foot.

There was another little man on my left foot and he was climbing the toe and I didn’t want to feel tiny needlelike teeth in my tender toe-flesh, so I shook that foot too. That didn’t dislodge the little guys (and at that point, I wasn’t questioning what I saw, I was just reacting), so I brought my right foot up, grabbed Little Guy #1 with my thumb and forefinger and picked him up by the scruff of his neck.

“Hey!” he said, sounding as upset as I had. Only his voice was little and squeaky and it would have made me giggle if it weren’t for the other little man heading toward the sensitive skin on the top of my toe.

I shook that foot so hard the little guy dislodged, did a flip as he went up in the air, two more little flips as he went down, and then he landed on the cold floor with a splat…

…next to a third little man, who had his feathered cap off, and was rubbing his beaked nose as if it hurt him.

“You bit me!” I said to Little Man #1.

He grinned, revealing pointy teeth. “Yum,” he said. “Toe jam.”

Which made my stomach flip.

“Okay, first, toe jam is the stuff between the toes, and you didn’t get to that,” I said. “Second, that’s my toe jam and I didn’t give you permission to get near it or my toe.”

By this point, I had decided I was having a pretty wicked and realistic dream, and I have learned over the years when you’re having a wicked and realistic dream, you just go with it, no matter what.

His grin faded and he started kicking. The kicks gave him some momentum, and he started swinging. The fabric of his tiny shirt collar began slipping through my fingers.

“I’ll drop you too,” I said.

“Renn!” Ma shouted from the kitchen.

“Coming!” I shouted back. Then frowned. The timing of the dream felt off. Ma would’ve yelled like that when I was awake, but usually in my dreams, things happen consecutively, not all at the same time.

Little Guy #1 stopped kicking. Either I scared him when I yelled, Ma scared him when she yelled, or he didn’t want to get dropped.

I set him on the floor next to his buddies, and expected them to scamper off. Instead, they looked at me, including Little Guy #3 who was still rubbing the tip of his oversized nose.

“We came to talk to you,” Little Guy #2 said, as he stepped forward.

I tucked my bare feet under my thighs, then covered everything up with my night rail and the quilt.

“So talk,” I said.

“We came to see your brother, but we can’t find him. Is he here?”

“No,” I said.

“In that barn, then, with the…” and here Little Guy #2 shuddered “…cow?”

“No,” I said. “He hasn’t been here in months.”

“Do you know where he is?” Little Guy #3 asked.

“No,” I said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have chores.”

I leaned over the side of the bed, found my shoes, and slipped them on my feet. Then I grabbed my unmentionables, my socks, and my housedress and hurried off to the necessary. Even though I believed I was having a dream, I thought maybe it was one of those dreams where half of it was really happening (like Ma yelling) and half of it was in slumberland.

I figured that with my shoes and my dress on, the slumberland part would disappear.

I managed to get dressed in the necessary without touching any of my clothes to the unsavory parts of the two-seater, then scurried into my brother’s room, washed up with the pitcher of water and washbasin Ma always left for him in case he appeared in the middle of night, and then went into the kitchen.

Ma was nearly done with her famous buttermilk pancakes—which are famous for a really good reason. I managed to get the table set before Pa showed up. He brought in some fresh warm milk. I scooped up a pitcherful, scraped the cream off the top, and we all said grace before tucking in.

I didn’t tell them about the little men, and my folks didn’t mention anything strange, so I figured I’d finally awakened all the way (and it was good to wake up to buttermilk pancakes).

I pumped and heated water for the dishes, cleaned the kitchen, and still managed to get to my own personal firing range by nine a.m.

I practice every day whether I need to or not. Shooting is 90% practice, at least, that’s what I told Ralphie when we were training. Used to be, guns scared him. He hated the bang and the boom, he hated the way his gun kicked with each shot, and he hated the way that bullets destroyed whatever they went into.

I don’t know what changed his opinion. If his personal dime novelist is to be believed, it was when he saw his best friend all shot up by some sheriff. But I didn’t know Ralphie had a friend except me (no one who knows him really likes him much) and I’ve never been shot, besides how would that make a man hire out his services as a gun slinger? It just never made sense, and Ralphie wouldn’t tell me when I asked.

So I spent my morning shooting tin cans and cow pies, hitting things at impossible angles from incredible distances, squinting and picking off leaves on trees as if they had offended me (both the leaves and the trees). I did all those things that would keep me in squirrel meat, and those things that just might get me a prize at the county fair, if they let me compete again, which they hadn’t for the past three years because I so soundly beat all the guys in the previous two years. (They let me back in the second time because they thought I cheated the first time and they planned to catch me. Nope. My shots, while impossible, were clearly legal—and clearly possible, Pa said, since I had done them, even if no one else could. That was when they banned me.)

I had gotten down to my last five bullets and debated whether I’d use them or whether I’d hang onto them, since using them meant spending my afternoon at the smithy begging for some lead. Old Gus had stopped making me bullets. He did, however, teach me how to cast my own.

I had my little case on a gigantic stump that I had flattened out to work as my shooting table. My hand fluttered over the bullets, indecisive, when someone cleared his little throat.

I froze, flashed on the dream, and thought, Naaaaw. I had heard a bird cough, nothing more.

“Missy!” said a squeaky little voice.

I closed my eyes, then opened them again. I was awake. Dammit. Then I looked around to see if anyone had seen me think that unladylike word (most of what I said and did was unladylike, but deep down, it bothered me more than I wanted to admit).

The three little guys were sitting on a tilting post from the collapsed fence that Pa hadn’t fixed in two years. He figured Ralphie would do it when Ralphie got home, but Ralphie didn’t do manual labor, and of course, didn’t bother to tell anyone. That collapsed fence was the reason we had “cow” and not “cows.”

“I don’t like it when figments of my imagination follow me around,” I said.

One of the little guys—I no longer had any idea if he was Little Guy #1 or Little Guy #2—giggled. Wee men shouldn’t giggle. It was infectious. Little Guy #3 (I recognized him from his nose) giggled as well, followed by the remaining little guy. And in spite of myself, I giggled too.

That was the moment I lost any control I might have had.

“We’re not figments of your imagination,” said Little Guy #3. He had a honking big voice, considering how tiny he was. The tip of his nose was red. Apparently, he had fallen on it when he was jumping for my delectable toes that morning and missed.

“We’re in need of help,” said Little Guy #2 (or the guy I was designating as Little Guy #2). I squinted at him, hoping to get a better look at him so I could better tell him apart from Little Guy #1—so that I wasn’t constantly changing their designation.

“We can’t find your brother,” said Little Guy #1.

“I don’t think anyone can,” I said.

They sighed. It sounded like the rattle of an errant summer breeze.

Little Guy #1 sat down and put his face in his hands. Little Guy #2 patted him on his tiny shoulder. Little Guy #3 stood at the very edge of the fence post, and looked like he would tumble off.

I moved closer, just so he didn’t have to lean.

“We have approached fifteen gun slingers,” Little Guy #3 said. “We are quite disappointed. They are nothing like advertised. Most drink to excess. Many did not believe we existed. Two called us rat babies and tried to stomp us out. Three shot at us and missed.”

He shook his little head as if he was more offended that they missed than he was that they had fired at the trio.

“None of them would listen to us. Your brother was our last hope.”

Then he sat down too and put his head in his hands.

“What do you need a gun slinger for?” I asked.

Little Guy #2 looked at me over Little Guy #1’s feather. “Three days hence, trolls shall invade our village. Their champion will face our champion. If their champion wins, they become our rulers. And if our champion wins, they will not bother us for another five hundred years.”

I frowned. “That doesn’t sound fair. Why don’t you get to rule them?’

“Have you met a troll?” Little Guy #3 put his hand to his exceedingly large nose. “They have terrible habits. They’re huge, and they all smell like rotted meat. Who would want to rule them?”

“Good point,” I said.

“In the past, we have always defeated them. They are not very bright. Our champion could always win, usually by felling the troll, and then biting him until he gave up in anguish.”

I could imagine. I didn’t like the feel of those razor-sharp teeth on my toes, let alone how it would feel everywhere.

“We have always sacrificed a champion for this, because troll flesh is toxic to us—not intoxicating like your lovely toe flesh.” At that moment, he bowed.

I did not thank him, although he clearly expected it.

“We have a champion chosen, but we cannot use him,” Little Guy #3 said. “One of our scouts learned that this year, the trolls were determined not to lose, so they hired an advisor. And the advisor told the trolls that we are allergic to metals. He advised the trolls to hire a gunslinger to shoot up our little town—”

(and here I was thinking the gunslinger could stomp their little town with his silver decorated boots, but I didn’t say anything about that.)

“—and not only would our champion be unable to fight, but we would also have to acquiesce to the troll leadership, because only they can remove metals and remain unharmed. Needless to say, we were terrified, until we realized we needed to counter their gunslinger with one of our own. But we cannot hire anyone.”

“If you can’t handle metals,” I said, “what would you hire them with?”

“Their heart’s desire,” the little guy said, and sat down. He sounded like he was going to sob.

“You would be able to grant them their heart’s desire?” I couldn’t quite believe what I had heard.

They nodded. In unison. I had never seen anyone do that before.

“If you have the kind of power to grant someone their heart’s desire,” I asked slowly, “why can’t you do that for yourselves?”

“Magic is soooo cruel,” said Little Guy #2.

I frowned so hard I could feel the skin on my forehead pulling downward. “You mean, you can’t?”

They nodded in unison again.

“Well, why not have you—” and I pointed to Little Guy #3 “—grant his—” and I pointed at Little Guy #1 “heart’s desire?”

They looked at each other, and for a moment, I wondered if they had never thought of it. Then they shook their little heads.

“Magic is very, very cruel,” Little Guy #2 said. “It is not within the rules.”

“So break the rules,” I said.

“We break the rules and lose our magic,” said Little Guy #3.

Wow. That was clearly not a world I could survive in for very long. I would have broken a rule before breakfast.

I was still trying to process all of this. I had accepted that the little men existed. I had accepted that I could see and talk to them. I had also accepted that they were in some kind of crisis. But I was still trying to fathom how they had come upon this solution, and whether or not it was even feasible.

“Let me try to understand this,” I said. “You’ve been going around the West, trying to hire famous gunslingers by offering them their heart’s desire.”

“Yes,” Little Guy #2 said.

I was shaking my head before I even realized I was doing it. “This isn’t going to work. Gunslingers are unimaginative men. If they had an imagination —” (and a brain, I mentally added) “—they wouldn’t use guns to solve every problem they come across. All they understand is shooting. I’m not even sure they have a heart to desire with.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Little Guy #3. “None of them would talk to us anyway.”

“You’re the first human who was willing to have a conversation,” said Little Guy #1 mournfully.

I wasn’t really paying attention to them. “Even if you did hire a gunslinger,” I said, “where would you hold the shootout?”

“In our village,” said Little Man #2.

I looked at him. “Really? Because your town is as small as you are, right?”

They nodded. In unison. Again. I was beginning to find that creepy.

“Two gunslingers would stomp your town to pieces before the first shot got fired,” I said. “I mean, have you looked at the size of human feet?”

I instantly regretted that question. Fortunately, they hadn’t heard it. Instead, they leaned on each other, and Little Guy #3 began to cry.

“We’re going to be troll slaves,” he said. “I would rather die. But I can’t die. I don’t want to be a troll slave.”

The others patted him on the back and murmured something that I couldn’t hear. But they weren’t being soothing or at least, they weren’t being successfully soothing, because he didn’t look soothed.

“Does this meeting of the champions have to occur in your town?” I asked.

Little Guy #1 raised his tiny head and frowned at me. “Why?”

“Because,” I said, “I have an idea that just might solve your problem.”

 

***

 

And that was how I ended up in a one-horse town in a part of the Great State of California that made the butt-end of nowhere look like New York City. I’d like to say I didn’t know that places like this existed, but that’s not true since I’m the one who suggested it to the little men.

It was high noon. I stood in the center of the main street wearing a pair of my brother’s discarded breeches, a loose cotton shirt, a vest with two bandoleers stuffed with bullets of all types crisscrossed over my chest, and my trusty six-shooters on each hip. I can shoot equally well with either hand, unlike any other prizewinning shooter I know. I wore a hat pulled down over my forehead, and I waited for my opponent to appear.

The little men and their little families sat on the wooden rails that separated the wooden sidewalks from the dirt street. There must’ve been a thousand little people, looking like birds on a rooftop, watching and chattering and all wearing hats with one tiny feather.

The big people were all inside the various buildings, mostly the five saloons that dotted the main drag, drinking charmed beer and unable to come outside. I didn’t ask what magic made that possible, although I did ask if the charmed beer would hurt them. It seemed the charmed beer made them all very, very happy and very, very forgetful.

I wasn’t sure exactly what they had to forget.

Until the trolls showed up.

You don’t forget moving gray boulders. Particularly when they were ugly gray boulders with craggy features and massive arms that reached all the way to the ground. They had hands the size of horse’s heads and teeth that made the little men’s look like metal shavings.

As these creatures approached, the ground shook like it did in a cattle stampede. Everything bounced, everything moved. Wafting ahead of them was a great stink, like a thousand million buffalo rotting in the sun.

If the little men had trouble hiring a gunslinger, I had no idea how these massive creatures managed to hire one. As I saw them approach, I wanted to turn and run.

But I didn’t. I held my ground. (All right. Technically, I was rooted there.) I watched as this lumbering gray stinky mountain of troll flesh approached, and I wondered how the hell I could get out of there.

And then I saw the human man in the center. He was tall, whip thin, and dressed in black. He walked at the head of that column of stench like it didn’t bother him at all.

Next to him, an ethereal beautiful creature seemingly made of light. The creature wasn’t human—it was too bright, too lovely—but it wasn’t an angel either because it had no wings. Its hair was long and silver, and it wore some kind of gray robe. It would have blended into the gray troll army if it weren’t for that brightness which made it hard for me to take my gaze off the thing.

The trolls stopped on the outskirts of the one-horse town, just like the little men told me they would. It wasn’t that they had to be invited in (apparently some creatures are like that), it was more that they didn’t want to overwhelm the spectators with their stink. Or maybe they didn’t want to scare me off.

Or maybe they were shy.

I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it because the man in black kept walking toward me, and that was when I realized—

“Hey!” he said at that same moment. “Those are my pants.”

Yep. It was my brother, Kid Vicious. Only he didn’t look like his usual slovenly self. That black outfit made him look both older and thinner and almost dapper. The guns on each of his hips had mother-of-pearl inlay grips and his boots were as shiny as the ethereal creature at his side.

The creature, with a long bony and somewhat homely face (from this distance), moved to the sidewalk, displacing maybe five dozen little families.

“Renn!” he said as he stopped, feet spread. “What the hell—heck—hell—ah, heck—heck are you doing here?”

I swallowed. “I thought I was going to have a shootout with a bad guy.”

“Oh, God, Renn,” he said, and turned toward the ethereal creature. “I can’t fight her. She’s not just a woman, she’s my sister.”

The boulders behind him rippled. I guessed that meant they had some kind of reaction, but from my vantage, I couldn’t quite tell what it was. The ethereal creature raised its head and glared at my brother.

“Besides,” my brother said plaintively. My brother was only plaintive with authority figures. When he was being Kid Vicious, The West’s Second Most Famous Kid Gun Fighter, he wasn’t plaintive at all. “If we go through with this, she’ll win. She’s the one who taught me how to shoot.”

The ethereal creature raised its hand and my brother jerked forward. Then his arm went for his gun, even as his face squinched in disapproval.

It was shoot or be shot, so I grabbed my trusty six-shooter from my left holster, raised the gun in one quick motion, and shot the shit out of that ethereal creature off to the side.

As it tap-danced its way off the sidewalk, my brother tapped and jerked too. His mouth moved, he shook his head, and his gun went off.

The bullet hit me before I could move out of the way. It felt like one of those boulders had landed on my chest. I flew backwards and landed on my back, my remaining air knocked out of me.

Ralphie screamed and ran toward me. The area got lighter and I thought for a minute I was going to pass out.

“Renn, Renn, Renn,” he said as he got to my side. He put some kind of filthy cloth on my vest, pushing down on the wound. “I didn’t mean it. Talk to me, Little—”

“Shut up,” I said. Or whispered. Or breathed. It was an effort, whatever I did to make the sound come out. I just didn’t want him to say my full name.

Ralphie never was the sharpest knife in the drawer.

“They had me prisoner. I was magicked.” He was pressing hard. It hurt, but I wasn’t sure if that was because of the pressure or because of the damn wound. “You broke it somehow, Renn. I’m so so sorry.”

I broke it with the silver bullets I had in my left-handed trusty six-shooter. My right-handed trusty six-shooter had regular normal lead bullets. I just figured a girl had to be prepared, so I spent the previous day with Old Gus, making bullets of every single kind I could think of and every single material that was mentioned in those stories I had read in all of those books.

“Leave her,” the little men said as they crowded around me. “She’s ours now.”

Some were climbing on my boots and I knew they would pull the damn things off. Apparently toe jam to them is as delicious—and rare—as chocolate is for us.

Some of them started climbing Ralphie and he was batting them away with one hand, loosening the pressure on my chest.

“You have to save her,” he said.

“They can’t,” I managed. My heart’s desire wasn’t to live. My heart’s desire was to be taken as seriously as a man, to be recognized for my strength and skill just like a man, to be—

“Of course they can,” Ralphie said. “They owe you three wishes.”

“Wrong kind of creature,” I said.

“Heck, no,” he said. “I’ve spent the past month with all kinds of very strange magical folk, and believe me, they owe you three wishes.”

I saw Little Guy #3 gingerly avoiding the bullets crisscrossing my chest. “Is that true?” I wheezed.

He froze and I could see on his beakish little face that it was.

“You mean you were going to cheat me of two wishes?” I said, then started to cough blood. “My heart’s desire is a wish, right?”

He nodded, reluctantly.

“You cheating little snake.” I sprayed blood on him. I was dying. Tears were running down Ralphie’s cheeks.

“We don’t owe you anything,” Little Guy #3 said. “We own you, Renn Visch.”

He said my name like it had magic. Ralphie went white, and I realized someone had said those words to him. That was how he had gotten ensnared. (That, and probably the charmed beer.)

“That’s not my real name,” I said or rather gurgled. The blood was getting thick inside my mouth, which now tasted of rust.

Little Guy #3 looked horrified.

“Three wishes,” I managed. “First, heal this wound.”

Little Guy #3 glared at me, then glared at my brother, and then waved his tiny fist.

I could breathe. Whatever had been on my chest or in my chest or near my chest was gone. The blood wasn’t, though, and I spit out a whole pile of it onto the dirt around me. My shirt clung to my healthy chest.

“Ask for riches, ask for riches, ask for riches,” my brother repeated.

Anyone who asked for money in all the old stories got screwed. And I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to make sure I beat the system. But I tried anyway.

“Make my parents wealthy,” I said.

“Noooooo,” Ralphie said. “You should’ve done it for us too.”

Little Guy #3 waved his fist again. I had no idea if the wish was granted, but I had to assume it was.

“And finally,” I said, “grant me three more wishes.”

All of the little creatures raised their little heads and their little feathers bobbed in the little wind created by the little movement. For an instant, time stopped, and I thought I had truly screwed up for a moment.

Then Little Guy #3 waved his fist and said, “Done.”

“But,” said another little man, and I had to assume that was Little Guy #1, “our power isn’t limitless. You must wait a day to wish again.”

I had no trouble with that. I knew the pitfalls. I had to wipe the words “I wish” from my vocabulary, and I had to think before I spoke.

My brother was cackling like he had gotten extra wishes, but he hadn’t.

“Come on,” I said to him. “Let’s get out of here.”

He helped me get up. Little people fell off me like fleas off a mangy dog. I realized as I stood that the reason it had gotten light earlier was the boulder blockade was gone. The trolls had vanished when it became clear that their champion had forfeited.

We staggered out of that one-horse town and headed home.

When we were finally free of the little people, I said to Ralphie, “What was that creature? The one I shot?”

“He said he was an elf. But I don’t think so. They called him fae. I don’t know what that is, but you made him explode. I don’t think he’ll bother me again.”

As we walked (staggered) Ralphie confirmed what had happened. He met the fae/elf in a bar after too many (charmed) beers and told the fae/elf his real name, which enslaved him. I broke the enslavement when I killed (exploded?) the fae/elf.

He’d been with them at least a month, maybe more. And there I’d been cursing him for drinking, carousing, and not coming home while he’d been living among the trolls, never getting used to their stink.

“That was some shooting,” he said.

“I was the one who taught you how,” I snapped.

“Yeah,” he said with admiration. My brother wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he was loyal. “We have to come up with a nickname for you, Little—”

I put my finger on his lips. “Don’t say that. Ever.”

It took him a minute to understand what I meant. Renn was my name so far as outsiders thought. But inside my family, from the moment I was born, I had a different name. One given to me by my whimsical father, who thought I looked like a small brown bird.

I had three names, only one of which made it onto the rolls, and on that, it was misspelled.

“Yeah, all right, got it,” Ralphie said, and I sure as hell hoped he wouldn’t say it if the time ever came again.

We made it home, and I thought Ma would give me holy hell for wearing breeches, but she didn’t even notice. Instead, she was sitting on the porch, staring at a pile of gold coins and crying.

Guess that second wish came true, just like the first.

Which meant that the third had come true too, so I had to be extra careful, and I had to choose my two fresh wishes per day wisely. I figured I’d mess up eventually, but until then, I had a series of wishes to get through.

And the first would be that Ralphie would forget my real name. I still don’t know the second.

But I will always know the third.

 “Renn and the Little Men” copyright @ 2103 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Published by WMG Publishing
First published in Westward Weird, edited by Martin H. Greeberg and Kerrie Hughes, Daw Books, 2012.
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