Skräpmården partied again. The place could party on mud and water if necessary, and any reason was good enough. This time it was the “real” audience, which made Makrofaga slightly uneasy. The more she thought about it she realised she had done a stupid thing. The king was not someone who would politely let their shenanigans pass. This time she couldn’t drench her premonitions in booze either, she didn’t want to end up in bed with someone else than mr Lotus. Ever since they had woke up together they hadn’t touched other, more than briefly, and in general had behaved so courteously both Odoferus and Foetida had tried to “kick them into gear”. But both Makrofaga and mr Lotus were happy as it were, with their evening visits to their own mountain top. It looked uncomfortable for mr Lotus to coil into snake position, so Makrofaga wasn’t sure he was built to do that. She suspected he did it to get some sort of body contact, and that the cold ground was an excuse. After all they could bring a blanket and both sit in elf form, looking at the stars and over the glowing flow from Flådhöjden forming Skräpmården.
“Do you remember how we first met?” mr Lotus asked and shook a bird from his giant head.
“You mean with the Flower Nanas?”
Here we need a rather long explanation. From the description you could believe Skräpmården was a place consisting of grey huts in browngreyish mud, but it was a rather green place. Any pot whole enough and big enough was filled with mud and a vegetable was planted in it. In harsh periods, especially during dry spells, these potted plants saved lives, so it was a “hobby” with a serious end goal. The people caring for these plants were called Flower Nanas, since it was mostly women who took this on their shoulders. In general the nanas also were old, they had passed the time when they could live on dragging feces and stuff from the sewers, and with strength slowly seeping from their limbs handling pots and plants suited them better.
When mr Lotus was dragged from the sewers he had ended up as lodger with one of these nanas. He regarded her as his Skräpmården mother and cared for her as such. She had explained the most confusing Skräpmården habits for him, sewed and mended his clothes. Most of the meager compensation he got as a councilor went to her. Nowadays she had also taken upon herself to pinch Makrofaga’s cheek the times she took the route around the old woman’s hut. She was in general an earthbound woman who didn’t flinch over much. And she needed it. When mr Lotus moved in into her hut two of the other Flower Nanas on the same street were locked in a perpetual fight.
Pots take up space, and since Skräpmården was crammed any space out of the way from the general hustle of life and big enough for a plant was hard currency. These two nanas had one of these spots between their huts. It could lodge two pots without problem, three of you squeezed a little, so naturally they tried to fit in four of them. Four pots balancing on the edge of disaster every day, and if not one of the nanas toppled over one of the other nana’s plants when she watered hers, one or two plants was lost to someone passing by. The vegetables were standing in such an unstable way even the cough of a fly could tip them. Still both of the nanas refused to reduce the number of pots they were putting there. They both were adamant that they had seen the spot first, and that the other should remove one pot.
You could think a toppled pot isn’t that serious. After all it’s often just to pick up pot and plant, remove the broken parts, put in the plant again and fill up with mud. But then you don’t know the Flower Nanas. Their second hobby was gossiping, and since these particular nanas didn’t have much else to do their world soon revolved around whomever had toppled the last pot. Each fight got a little bit more infected than the last one, and each time some more persons got involved. Soon half of the street had been enlisted to quarrel with the other side of the street, heated voices were raised, threats were made, and then Makrofaga passed by on her weekly visits. Dozens of people assaulted her with frantic questions on plant and elderly care, demanding lots of things. Mr. Lotus had been impressed by the slightly bewildered woman who dared to come back after the first time. But she did, and while being awkward she also listened to everyone, and when she had left things had calmed down.
Until someone tipped a pot again.
The cycle went on for weeks. The last ones mr Lotus had seriously planned out an escape for himself and his landlady. People were on the verge of war with each other. That’s when it all suddenly died out. Not like darkness goes to light when someone lits a candle, more gradually like the dawn turns night into day. He soon learned why, since he got involved himself. Elsewhere in Skräpmården a Flower Nana had figured out a way to build a tower of pots by securing them to a pole. She had gotten royal permission to form a small organisation around this invention, and via the organisation spread this knowledge, as well as general horticultural sense, around Skräpmården. Of course such an organisation needed educators, and the nanas who volunteered got a shiny badge and a district to care for. How the two warring nanas got involved mr Lotus never figured out, but they were very proud over their badges, and their districts that didn’t border on each other and were facing from the spot where they kept their own pots. After a while they realised the spot could easily fit in two of those poles they educated others about. They put up one pole with five pots each, and suddenly had secure farming.
“Mhm,” said Makrofaga, “they still water each other’s plants too.”
“Was that you?”
“Me? It’s not as I can make people invent things on demand! And I can certainly not make people into good organizers!”
“Well, I may have given a few pointers when the organisation was formed but…”
She had to stop talking, because mr Lotus gave her such a pointed look she started to laugh.
“So I grabbed the moment when it showed up! I lucked out a bit. Sometimes you get your best move outside the chessboard, and I couldn’t have people go to war over salad!”
She looked at the glowing Skräpmården. Another good thing with the planting pole organisation was that she had discovered mr Lotus’ organisational skills. He had been the one teaching water preserving techniques when she noticed him.
“Speaking of something completely different,” she said, “do you remember what we did together… one night… roughly two weeks ago?…”
Again he turned purple. So purple she could see it in the moonlight.
“No. Not a thing.”
“Are you sure? I mean, I drink, but you have always…”
“The only thing I remember from that evening is Foetida telling me baby poop is the best poop.”
He coughed a bit .
“Those three,” Makrofaga sighed, “Still very strange.”
“Someone must have spiked our drinks. You know it happens!”
“Way too often.”
She looked at her city, where too many thought drugs were toys, and sighed. Always something more you could do. And even more things you should do.
“A pitty” she said and felt her heart flutter, “it’s not like… I had liked to remember that night.”
“I’m not sure it was memorable…”
Now she blushed.
“Yeeees, but… you know…”
She dragged her hand over mr Lotus’ gigantic, blue scales. This was the exact wrong time to realise she may say something that was wrong on all levels in his world, yet that was exactly what she did. For a moment she had a vivid vision of him just tossing her off the mountain top and leave for his homeland, never to return. Then she saw his smile and realised he had let her stew in it.
“I suppose,” he said, “we can go back and check that Silver doesn’t try to fight gigantic orcs again.”
She thought for a while.
“There was a lot of beer around, true.”
“Let’s make sure he’s passed out somewhere safe, your majesty.”
The party had died down a bit when Makrofaga found herself in her bed again. This time she was mostly sober, and had mr Lotus falling asleep on her arm. Their age showed in their clothes – they weren’t all over their hut, they had ended up in two mostly ordered heaps on her chairs. She kissed mr Lotus on his head and was about to fall asleep herself when something struck her.
“Those clothes? Are they a part of you, or are they real clothes?”
He hugged her a little tighter.
“But they disappear when you transform?”
“It’s complicated,” he yawned, “I tell you tomorrow – I’m tired.”
He made sure she had enough of the blanket and fell asleep.
A violent knock on the door made them both jump. As she usually did Makrofaga grabbed the blanket, and only in the last minute left mr Lotus with the sheet to cover himself. She jumped out of the bed to see where the fire was. Dido stood on the other side.
“Get as many kids out of the area around Kingdom of Heaven,” she said, “The Flådhöjden military is about to attack.”
Dido pushed a note and a necklace into her hands. The note said about the same as Dido did, and she recognised the scratchy, almost irritated hand. Auduin Enris hadn’t needed to send one of Pamphylia’s pieces of jewelry to prove the message was real. Makrofaga made an exception to her habit and glared Dido into her eyes.
“You and I are going to have a talk later on! Do you have any idea of how much time we have?”
Instead of standing still listening Makrofaga found enough clothes to be decent and dragged them on. Mr Lotus had woken up, and stayed in bed waiting for his turn.
“Somewhere between half an hour and and one hour. They’re moving a battalion to make sure they have the upper hand.”
Of course! Makrofaga felt her heart pounding. Bashing herself for being stupid could wait – she needed to reduce the damage first.
“You!” she said to Dido “Go back to your area! Make sure people have one or two club… thingies. Anything heavy and hard that they could have had already. And make sure a few of them smuggle out the kids to the Orc School.”
Dido looked around at the still on-going party.
“Just do your best! I’ll find you some backup!”
Mr Lotus was already putting on his clothes.
“Ping! Go to Kingdom of Heaven and try to get as many kids as possible into the temple!”
He immediately ran out, leaped into the sky and disappeared towards the mound.
The Odografoe adults took turns being sober during parties. One of them always looked out for the kids. This time, when Makrofaga needed Grak, it was Foetida. She found the fairy sitting on their porch swinging a little hammock where Busa slept soundly.
Foetida just pointed. Grak was entangled with Odoferus and a bottle of something.
At least they stayed in the family this time, but Makrofaga needed the orc sober. A bonus would be to get Odoferus out of drunkness too. It was, after all, their job to handle these crises with her. She ignored their drunken commentaries on her odd choice of clothes and shook the orc by her collar.
“I need you to come up with an excuse for a sleepover at the school. NOW!”
Grak tried to focus at her. Makrofaga’s unusual behaviour got at her.
“I..ihit’s teacher Tineapedis’ who decides on those.”
Odoferus started to sober up too, and put down the bottle.
“Get her,” Makrofaga said, “The army is about to strike at Kingdom of Heaven, and I need as many kids as we can out of the way.”
The Flådhöjden elves probably counted on an easy strike. The party had drenched Skräpmården in cheap booze, and it’s easy to strike down people who can’t stand anyway. But a party makes a lot of people move around – there’s dancing, moving around to share the drinks, and the odd fights. That a few dancing trains consisted of almost only kids wasn’t obvious, and by sheer miracle they got most of them up to the Orc School. Hopefully the raid wouldn’t reach as far up. The revelers left in the area tried to look as if they didn’t know anything, even though they suddenly had twice the amount of heavy tools in their huts, and had had sobered up. They had only two orders from Makrofaga “Defend yourselves” and “Stay alive”.
Makrofaga wasn’t so close she could see the first Flådhöjden riders sit up behind the fence. She stayed behind trying to come up with a strategy, something that would save them. She got nothing. And then she heard the party sounds dying out, as people saw the soldiers get ready.
Auduin Enris shouted the orders.
And the army charged.
Then there was only dark, bloody chaos. Wave upon wave of horses broke through the fence, trampling the willow saplings. Unicorns bolted through the heaving mass of people. With red eyes they sank their teeth in the dirty elves. Riding high elves swung their sables, sheering the crowd as if it was a furry sheep. The dirty elves did their best with their clubs. A few unicorns, and even one of the horses, sank unconscious to the muddy ground. But the dirty elves bled a barrel compared to the high elves liter, and they soon had to retreat. Makrofaga stood shouting at the roof of a hut, mixing curses with orders. She could see Auduin Enris in the first line. His arm moving up and down as he fought.
It lasted for an hour, maybe two. Time is hard to keep hold on during a battle. When exhausted dirty elves started to crawl into the center of Skräpmården, a few of them dragging wounded friends behind, they all realised it was over. The high elves had already started to set up a makeshift fence around Kingdom of Heaven, and the soldiers threw those few left behind over it. Gradually you could hear the din of party die out around the slum. Then one voice was wailing. Makrofaga cried out her grief on top of the roof. Soon another voice joined. And another. And another. Until the entire Skräpmården shook heaven and earth with its sorrow.
The Orc School was one of the few bigger buildings that existed in Skräpmården. It was modest – two classrooms and a tiny little chamber for the teacher to live in. Now the evacuated children stayed in one room, the other had been transformed into a hospital. Since Kingdom of Heaven had capsuled itself as soon as the high elves started moving, it couldn’t dispatch its doctors. The shifts not working inside had rushed to the school, and worked hard with what they got. No one had died. Yet. As Makrofaga walked between the stretchers she saw several with wounds that either were so deep the elf could still bleed to death, or suck xer into death’s embrace by becoming infected. Everyone who could spare it donated food, clean water, and horrgoo. But what would they do when they ran out? The entire production of the stinking salve was locked in.
Makrofaga walked between the stretchers, tried to say some encouraging words to every wounded person and xer friends. But she thought about what she had learned in Crowd Control ages ago in Flådhöjden. If you need to keep a people under control keep it weak. Deny it medicine, take away its schools, erase its temples. Take the children. Soon illness, ignorance and memory loss will make sure there’s only fragments left, and those fragments will be easy to push around. As long as she could she had fought against it. A slow dreary fight. Adding a little here and there. Trying to make the dirty elves to meander in the right-ish direction. She thought she had gotten somewhere. Now she stood in the shattered remnants of her work.
“You should rest, queeny” said Foetida.
“So should you,” said Makrofaga, “the kids will need someone sober tomorrow.”
“Odoferus is sober enough. Where’s mr Lotus?”
Makrofaga smeared her already ruined makeup by rubbing her eyes. She did not want to cry here. Everyone looked to her.
“I think he is locked into Kingdom of Heaven with the kids he brought there.”
Foetida’s eyes grew until they were half of her face.
“Will they make it?”
“It will keep them safe. Not even Flådhöjden have magic busters strong enough to crack it open.”
She hoped. Foetida sat down on her shoulder and patted her ear.
“I just wanted to know what I can do. I am a councilor after all.”
Makrofaga pulled herself together.
“I want you to tell everyone that we will take Kingdom of Heaven back. And I want you to find out who among the elderly elves who have been high officers when they lived in Flådhöjden.”
Makrofaga’s words were still spreading among the dirty elves when the morning came. The usual din rose, slightly hampered, though life had to go on. While children were washed and breakfast cooked, some elves dared to go down to Kingdom of Heaven to see the destruction. The Flådhöjden army had guards posted along the fence, one per five meters, and guards leading frenzied unicorns patrolled before them. Just a few meter behind the inclosure the mound lay, still drenched in trash, and by some miracle the fire pillar still stood. They could smell the greasy fat burning inside the bowl, but they couldn’t reach it. Many dirty elves just stayed there. Sat down on the ground and the trampled huts like it was chairs on a theater. More and more joined during the day, and the Flådhöjden guards stood motionless while the occasional rain of insults fell over them. The dirty elves were still the dirty elves. The shouted, chatted, spit, and wailed. But this time there was something sharp in their looks, another darkness that promised pain. The high elves fidgeted discretely in their armours.
That afternoon, when Makrofaga had rested for a few hours she joined the crowd at the fence. She hadn’t planned a rest, but Silver had suddenly appeared and threatened to spike her water if she didn’t. As the dirty elves dived over her she was grateful he had done that for her. Three different elves tried to talk to her at the same time, pointing out the obvious occupation before them, and providing three different methods of taking out the guards and retaking the temple. She gladly listened, but she couldn’t make head nor tail of three voices at the same time. The dissonant choir was broke by someone tapping at their shoulders. King Gadoron had suddenly appeared on top of the mound.
The king didn’t even look over the fence. He was deep into a discussion with Auduin Enris. They both looked at a paper and nodded over things. Then the king kicked at the paper tube, and the fire pillar toppled over. Just like that. No ceremonies. No speech on how the temple now belonged to Flådhöjden. Not even a slight hesitation. The entire crowd of dirty elves fell completely silent. King Gadoron looked at them, smirked, and walked on the paper tube when he took a few steps to pick up the fire from the broken terracotta bowl. He threw the flame on the tube, obviously hoping for a bonfire to break out, but the paper was soggy from wet weather, and the flame of the burning cloth just licked it. He kicked it, smothering if by mistake, and turned to Auduin Enris to say something…
…and the ground was vibrating. The vibrations turned into a hum, moving through the very bones of everyone within reach. As the sound grew higher trash and votive gifts started to trickle away from the foot of the mound. A ring of stone pillars rose from from the litter, all of them carved with grinning faces. Sharp teeth in mouths so big the could bite a high elf in two, rolling eyes frozen in stone. First the stone guardians were turned outward, and grinned toward the dirty elves. Then, with a rocky, milling sound they turned around. All the dead stone eyes locked upon the king. He shivered.
The hum subsided as the king left the hill. The guardians didn’t move any more, though there were a few dirty elves who could swear they had followed the regent with their eyes and licked their lips. Auduin Enris was left alone where the fire pillar had stood. He saw Makrofaga, and had one of her guards diving into the crowd to get her to the fence. She shook lose of the guard’s grip around her arm, and walked with her head held high.
“What is this all about?” Auduin Enris sneered as soon as she was close enough.
He pointed with his entire arm towards the stone guardians.
“It’s the stone guardians, captain.”
“I. Know. That. Why are they shoving up?”
“I don’t know, but if I was your king I’d not make any long time plans.”
As satisfying that was to say, as frustrating was the fact that nothing more happened. The humming continued, the stone guardians kept on staring, but neither dirty elves, Makrofaga, nor the high elves could say why. After a few hours of confused head scratching everyone went back to hating each other as before. At that time Makrofaga had gotten Foetida’s report, if you can call it report when it’s delivered by a chatty fairy swinging a teacup, but the information was solid enough. Especially the names she had gathered, and one of them caught Makrofaga’s ear in more than one way. Suddenly she realised why mr Lotus got along so well with his landlady. Since she had to visit to tell mr Lotus was locked in Kingdom of Heaven anyway, she decided to visit this old nana first.
The last rays of the sun glittered in the glazing of the old terracotta urns mrs Sourpuss had mounted on stakes and filled with overflowing strawberry plants. As usual mrs Sourpuss herself came out greeting Makrofaga with the broadest smile of Skräpmården and a painful pinch in the cheek. A few of her usual tools were gone, probably donated to someone who was spry enough to fight for Kingdom of Heaven. Now she sat Makrofaga down in a corner and immediately started to make strawberry leaf tea, talking all the time. Apparently a stream of visitors had already filled her in on the news. The only thing she hadn’t got was Makrofaga’s verification of mr Lotus being locked in.
“You’ve lost a battle, dear” she said and put a broken teacup before Makrofaga, “you haven’t lost the war.”
As strange as it is to say someone as old as Makrofaga it was uplifting.
“We’re not suited for war. Skräpmården parties.”
“Cheer up, dear. You’ll find something!”
“Yes, I found one of Flådhöjden’s legendary generals.”
“Oh, but that was so long ago.”
The old lady chuckled as she poured the tea.
“I guess that’s how you become a legend… And then they threw me out for having a big nose!”
They chatted about their old lives for a while. Mrs Sourpuss had been a legend long before Makrofaga started basic training, and you somehow think legends have this composure, a solemn seriousness coming from being The Best on a Serious Cause. If there ever were legends like that, the old lady wasn’t part of them. She loved talking, she giggled, and laughed, moving around with every word like a five-year-old. Makrofaga had a hard time coming to her point, since the old lady rather concentrated on the Flower Nanas and the greenery grown all over Skräpmården, and gladly gossiped about other gardeners. Finally Makrofaga had to cut her off in the middle of a sentence.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but we need to take back Kingdom of Heaven, and I need your help.”
The old lady sighed.
“I used to command armies of trained soldiers, dear. Like you said; the dirty elves are not suited for war.”
“We’re not going to war. We’re going to party.”
As strange as it may seem the market still operated, though the feel around the market stalls had changed. The dirty elves put out their wares, and secretly glared at the high elves showing up to buy things. Some of the Flådhöjden elves had no idea why – if they noticed – others bought a lot more stuff than they used to, hunching their shoulders and trying to hide behind themselves. As much as the dirty elves gladly had just left the market to its own fate, they needed the money more than ever. With the Kingdom of Heaven out of reach starvation was just a week away. Grak had put up her stall, and was receiving customers of all sorts. By appointment she knew one would show up this day, and had agreed to help Makrofaga meet xer. After her round around the market to talk to the vendors, Makrofaga went into Grak’s fitting “room” and removed all her makeup.
Makrofaga saw that face in the mirror every morning and every evening. Now she had time to reflect over it again. Her cousin was older than her, but xer probably looked much younger now. Life in Skräpmården wasn’t kind to one’s complexion, and her wrinkles, saggy face and faint warts felt more ugly than ever. Would xe even recognise her? She took a closer look at her nose. Continued over the rest of the face. Inspecting some more horrible parts closely. Yet that person was still there, the person she had seen in the mirror every day in Flådhöjden and taken for granted. That’s how she stood, glaring at herself, when general Martius walked into the ‘room’. He stopped in his step, with ‘why is there another person here?’ written all over his face. She could see him trying to combine the dirty elves clothes with her bare face, and then gradually focusing on her face. Slowly a light went on in his eyes.
“Yes, it’s me.”
“LUNA! HONEY!!! I THOUGHT YOU WERE DEAD!”
The last words she heard muffled through his arms, as he wrapped her in a bear hug that never seemed to stop. Once she was released he was crying like waterfalls.
“I thought you were dead, honey! I though you were dead.”
She pointed to her clothes.
“In a way I am. I’m a dirty elf now.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry! So, so, sorry!”
He wrapped her in another bear hug, and cried even more. Only when he could control himself he released her, let her take the only stool, and sat straight down on the muddy ground.
“I’ve missed you so much!”
Long ago she used to be his favourite cousin, their friendship developing from climbing trees to checking out cute boys. Where it would have gone from there is hard to tell, considering Makrofaga had been thrown into the sewers.
“I’ve missed you too.”
Martious eyes narrowed.
“Honey!!! You’re the queen! Look at you! You’re the queen over the entire Skräpmården!”
She didn’t wear her official robe, but a lot of things she had came from Grak, and the orc had a tendency to embroider the state seal on her dresses.
“And you’re the high commander over the entire army. I told you we would go far!”
He shook his head.
“You did girl, you did.”
He dried his eyes, and gave her another napkin. It was clean, pressed and snowy white. She hesitated to use it before she remembered she had cleaned off her makeup. Seeing it stay white was a strange experience.
“You even killed an orc empty handed.”
“I did, girl. But that was, like, different. He challenged me, and girl, I’m not the girl standing down for one who’s bitchin’. We met in honest combat, that’s what I’m saying…”
His voice trailed off. The hours up to this moment Makrofaga had tried to figure out how to ask, and now she knew she didn’t need to. The one who planned the attack on Kingdom of Heaven had been Martius.
“I’m so sorry, girl!”
She patted him on the shoulder to make him notice that she returned his napkin.
“I suppose it is your job.”
“YES! But where does it say that I have to send my soldiers against my cousins? Girl, we’re related! And I just don’t mean you and me! All you dirty elves, you’re not warriors! You’re, like, the ones we absolutely shouldn’t fight.”
“Martius,” Makrofaga said calmly, “I think that is things you should tell your king, not me!”
He dried his eyes again, and curled up around his arms – a mountain of muscles trying to wrap itself around his spine.
“I have enough on my mind as it is.”
“Of course you have, and I’m like, just thinking of myself.”
For a long time they were silent. She looked at his pastel clothes, how they suited him to a tee, and the high quality fabric they were made of. He looked at her hands, the little scars from rough rides down the sewer, the colour changes and the uneven nails. Neither one knew anything they could talk about anymore. Not like they had to, before.
“Why are you here, honey?”
His voice was a whisper to his usual voice.
“I wanted to meet you. And I want you to give my regards to the rest of the family. Not that I know if they want to hear them, but I can at least be the bigger person.”
“I will. Why don’t you tell them yourself, girl?”
“The next time I’ll be at the front line. If we don’t have Kingdom of Heaven I have no function either – I might as well win or die.”