Crald shoved the spade deep into the soil, hitting the root of the stubborn plant for the tenth time.
Whoever said gardening was the path to happiness should be buried alive in their own garden, Crald thought, and growled with bared teeth. After the words crossed his mind, though, he closed his eyes and sighed.
He’d been out here three days, clearing land for a…Well, he wasn’t feeling charitable enough at the moment to call them a friend. It was bad enough the gnome was more stubborn than the large weed in front of him, but that trait was coupled with a perpetual optimism that made Crald’s tusks ache.
That’s the last time I complain to Fixza about being tired of fighting, he grumbled, and stabbed at the root with a little more force.
“Crald! I got the wood, just like you asked!” the squeaky voice rang out over the now bare ground.
Speak of the demon and it shall appear. Crald turned around.
He didn’t know what went into gnomish engineering, or any engineering for that matter, but Fixza was a genius with all the little gizmos. She could craft just about anything from things most would consider junk. Of course, basic things, like raised garden beds, were apparently beyond her.
One of her little robots was pulling the wagon behind it, full of an assortment of wood. Crald wasn’t exactly a master carpenter, but his father, a blacksmith, had taught him how to work with his hands. He glanced over to a pile of assorted metal plates, bolted together in a haphazard manner. Well, I can’t do much worse than that, anyway.
Fixza and Crald had been friends since they were both children, and kept in touch throughout the years via a robot parrot she’d made. She liked to make little recordings for the bird to screech out for all the world to hear. Good thing Crald didn’t give two coppers what the other soldiers thought about him. Though, if anyone were close enough to him when the parrot, Pollary, showed up, they’d catch sight of the green skin on his cheeks darkening from an emerald green to juniper. Crald, on the other hand, simply wrote letters.
Crald held back another sigh. The last letter was what got him into this mess. She’d been talking about starting a garden, since supply lines weren’t reliable at the moment, what with all the war going on. Crald, in turn, had spoken of how his term of enlistment was over, and he was just old enough that no one would look sideways at him not continuing among the ranks of the Horde. So, in typical Fixza fashion, she suggested he stay with her for a while to mull things over.
He got a break from blood, guts, and a glory that tasted more of ash than victory, and she got a garden. Win-win for them both. Crald snorted. That had been the idea, at least.
When he’d arrived at her workshop in the Lower Wilds of Feralas, tucked into the side of a hill just off Wildwind Lake, the place had been in shambles. The metal plates, now in a heap, had been jumbled together, as though all the shelves in a multi-story building had tried to fall into some semblance of garden beds.
“Fixza?” he called. Dread wormed its way through his stomach at the sight. He sent a prayer to whatever being happened to be listening, that she wasn’t at the bottom of this mess.
“Crald!” she called, from the bottom of the mess.
That had been the start of a full two days of dismantling and moving all her ‘hard work’ off to the side, and for Crald to start clearing and leveling the hill above her house. She’d tried to get some of her robots to help, but after the fifth time Crald’s face was hit with a clump of soil and grass, he’d firmly told Fixza the little demon machines had to go. He’d rather deal with the Broken Shore imp infestation again, than have to work with those mechanical monstrosities.
“Good work. Bring them over here,” he said, and motioned to the edge of the cleared ground.
Her eyes, which were the tropical blue of the waters near Booty Bay, widened as she took in all the work he’d done.
“Wow! And you didn’t even need my robots!” she exclaimed, her tiny body seeming to vibrate with suppressed excitement. Even though her robots had likely done most of the heavy lifting, her face and hair were wet with sweat from the humidity. Of course, nothing could keep her hair, which was the pink of a child’s confection and seemingly styled with lightning, from sticking out every which way.
“No, I did not,” Crald agreed. He headed over to her wagon, and shoved the spade deep into the earth to keep it upright. Fixza set the robot to removing the wood from the wagon, and Crald began sorting through it.
“We can either go into one of the nearby outposts, and find a blacksmith willing to make nails for us, or we can just make notches in the boards, and keep them steady with wooden stakes and supports,” Crald said, his mind busy with a making a plan.
Fixza didn’t answer him. That alone should have put his hackles up, but he blamed the heat for his lack of awareness, as well as five days of work not seeing another person or creature around. He’d grown complacent.
“Crald,” Fixza said, her voice strained and squeakier than usual.
That got his attention, and his head snapped up. Fixza’s back was to him, and not far from her was a poison green and shiny black wasp that had no business being outside of Silithus. It was easily four or five times her size, and its stinger matched her height. The low buzzing of its wings finally hit his hearing, and its head twitched side-to-side as it considered the two of them.
Fixza was trembling. One of her greatest fears was made large and put directly in her face. She’d been stung by a whole nest of the much smaller versions when they were kids, and the fear of wasps had been embedded deep in her mind. As a result, one of her first successful inventions had been a bug-swatting robot.
Crald cursed his lax behavior, and the fact that his sword was in the house with the rest of his stuff. He hadn’t thought gardening would be that dangerous. His mistake.
Before Crald could reassure Fixza, the giant bug darted forward, stinger at the ready to impale the tiny gnome. Fixza let loose a shriek that by all rights should have made Crald’s ears bleed, but he didn’t flinch.
He’d already started moving, snatching the shovel up from the dirt, jumping over Fixza’s frozen form, and charging to meet the wasp. He parried the stinger on its body, ducked the ones on its mouth and arms, and swung the shovel upward in a two-handed grip to try and chop its head off. He missed as the wasp darted backward, but one of its arm blades managed to scratch along his forearm. As his blood welled, his vision went red, and he roared at the bug, charging forward again, but this time his swing caught the bug right on a wing joint. Once the flying menace was grounded, it was over. He made quick work of it with the spade, which was dripping with green goo and carapace bits.
He’d have to bury the body nearby if he didn’t want other creatures, or worse, its friends, sniffing around Fixza’s workshop. He blew out a breath at the prospect of more digging, but when he turned to see his still-shaking friend, he found he didn’t mind all that much.
He put the shovel down and knelt in front of her, her eyes still glassy and wide. He put his hands on her shoulders, engulfing them, and gave her a little shake. “Fixza? It’s okay, I killed it,” he said.
She looked up to meet his eyes, and her lower lip trembled. “You were supposed to get away from killing! I ruined it!” she said, and wailed with despair as tears ran down her face.
Crald’s eyebrows went up in surprise, but he pursed his lips before the words, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ left them. She was trying hard to help a friend, and he didn’t want to undermine that. He scratched at the shadow of scraggly black hair on his cheek, and then tugged on the long braid of his beard in thought.
“Bugs don’t count, though,” he said, trying to think quick on how he was going to spin this.
Fixza stopped crying just enough to gasp between sobs; “What—do—you—mean—bugs—don’t—count?”
Crald snorted, and smacked a mosquito that landed on the bare skin of his scalp. “See? Same thing,” he said, and showed her the squashed bug on his palm.
Her lip still trembled, and the look in her eyes told him she wasn’t completely convinced, but her voice was small and hopeful when she said; “Really?”
Crald nodded, internally sighing in relief. “Really.” Then he stood up, brushed some of the carapace bits from his pants, and headed toward the workshop. He’d start burying the body in a moment, but he needed to grab something first. Gardening or not, he wasn’t going to be caught with his proverbial pants down again—his sword would remain within arms reach at all times.
“Where are you going?” Fixza called after him, her voice gaining some of its usual cheer back.
Without turning around, he responded; “Grabbing my bug swatter.”