(What It Means to Be a Hero)
The nissarmy had been industrious during the weeks since Skruff’s astral message from Arnaald. They really were very proficient arsenic miners. Skruff had advised them of the mage’s instructions urging caution and to wash often and to wear kerchiefs over their faces to avoid breathing it, but after time went by, they simply forgot and soon were covered in the stuff. They chipped it out, pulverized it and bagged it. When they ran out of bags they just made a great pile of powdered arsenic in a corner of the cave. They were so covered in arsenic dust that they lost track of who was who until they bathed.
The nissas wondered at the fact that, while ordinary dirt and grime would not stick to them, this stuff stuck just fine and it had a sparkly effect in the light so they started wearing it in their hair and beards.
Even Skruff had been so busy that he’d forgotten Arnaald’s warning. One evening when he had some free time to himself and thought back to the night the mage had contacted him, he remembered with a start that they’d been ignoring the warning. In a moment of shock, an emotion nearly unknown to nissas, Skruff went to hunt down Chuck, his second in command, but was unable to find him. He located Shkowtz and Bobo and instructed them to locate all the captains and meet him by the arsenic pile in “not too many minutes”. “Hurry ,now. Urgent!” They ran off in different directions waving their hands and chanting “Urgent, urgent.”
Within the hour all the captains except Chuck were present. Skruff was informed that Chuck was leading an arsenic, pee and poop mission to several of the trull wells and water barrels.
“Okay, listen up. I just remembered we’re not supposed to be touching this stuff or breathing it. The wizard said so.” He pointed to the arsenic pile, looked around at his captains and noticed that everywhere there was hair, there where sparkles in the torchlight. He shook his head as they all began to mumble.
“Listen up. Anybody feel sick?” They all looked about at each other, then at Skruff, with vacuous looks and all shook their heads as one. As they did this, sparkles filled the air. “Anybody know anybody who feel sick?” Again they all denied knowing or hearing of anyone who was sick. At this Bob who’d been munching on a parsnip, bent over, dipped it in the arsenic and took a bite chewing absentmindedly. Over the past few weeks, purely by accident, Bob had gotten some of the poisonous stuff in his mouth and realized that he quite liked the taste of it. Naturally, being the gregarious fellow that he was, he shared this information with everyone he knew. Consequently, many of the population were now using it to spice their food. “Bob!” Skruff gasped. “What did I just tell you?”
Bob stood blinking and finally said, “We know anybody sick?”
Bob screwed up his faced and thought as hard as he could. “We feel sick?”
Skruff waved his little mitts wildly, “No, no. Before that.”
Bob drew a blank.
“Ooh ooh. I know. Don’t touch or breathe it,” Shkowtz volunteered.
“Right.” Skruff affirmed. Bob took another bite and stood waiting for Skruff to say something else. “What are you doing, Bob?” he fairly yelled.
“What?” Bob asked, feeling a little annoyed.
“I said no touching…no breathing…an…”
“Didn’t say no eatin’,” said Bob. He dipped the tuber again and polished it off. Skruff stood shaking his head in exasperation. Finally curiosity got the better of him and he dipped his finger in the arsenic and sampled a bit. He wasn’t impressed and figured it was a matter of taste.
“So,” he continued, “nobody sick? Don’t know anybody sick? You sure?” Half of the captains nodded affirmatively the rest shook their heads and amazingly, Skruff knew just what it all meant. “Well, guess nissas don’t catch arsenic. Okay, captains, carry on.”
If there was any doubt that nissas are immune to arsenic poisoning; if in fact, anyone had ever wondered such a thing, the Nissarmy proved to be the acid test.
The very next evening scouts returned with news of a previously undiscovered spring that the trulls camped further into the hills had been using as their water source.
While the Nissa race seemed foolish creatures, even mentally retarded to most races, the undeniable fact remained that they were hyper-intuitively attuned to nature and pragmatic in all its concerns. These concerns were not lost on Skruff.
Each mission to the various trull water sources, depending on their locality, were miles and miles away and took a minimum of a week round-trip, so it was imperative that they were well thought out and provisioned. A team left almost every night because there were a lot of springs and many were fast-moving sources that had to be replenished often to be sure the trulls were getting their minimum daily requirement of poison and pollutants.
Skruff was having serious doubts about his decision to give Bob a captain’s position. Bob was included basically by oversight simply because wherever Bebo and Bobo were, there also, was Bob. Also, Bob was the eldest. Even by nissa standards, Bob was not the brightest star in the sky. Skruff was now prepping the next mission with this foremost in his mind.
“Before you poison this spring, check to see if it feeds Krawnholde’s water. If we kill Blothe and the people with him, well…we won’t be heroes.”
It was Bob’s turn to lead this mission’s exploits so Skruff was taking extra care to be sure they had all instructions well understood. “Repeat what I just said,” he demanded of Bob.
Bob was busy intently digging something out of his nose and didn’t seem to hear the instructions. “Bob…!” Skruff shouted.
Bob was startled to attention. “What?” again he seemed annoyed.
“Repeat the instructions.”
Bob scrunched his eyes closed and recited the instructions as closely as he could. “Find the spring. Make sure it feeds Krawnholde. Poison it. If we kill Blothe and all the people, we’ll be heroes. That’s good. I wanna be a hero.”
Bobo was in the group so Skruff asked him to repeat the instructions, which he did to the letter. “Okay, new plan. Bobo will lead the group tonight.” By this time Bob was again preoccupied with his nose problem. Skruff pulled Bobo aside. “Take Bob with you and try to teach him something. If we can’t shape him up, I’m going to have to fire him and that will hurt his feelings.” Bobo nodded and the group left the cave.
Two nights later, deep within the hills and crags above the stronghold, per directions from Chuck, the group found the new spring. They’d had to dodge groups of encamped trulls and negotiate a series of rope bridges to reach the well. Before salting the well Bobo and Sneaff took the sergeants, Glaxo and Bonzo, aside and formed two search parties to follow the two main runoffs to be sure they didn’t lead to Krawnholde. This left Bob with nothing to do.
“What can I do?” Bob asked. After deliberating in hushed tones, it became apparent that neither of the captains really wanted to be saddled with Bob.
Being Bob’s brother, Bobo was tasked with coming up with something for Bob to do. “Bob, we need someone we can trust to stay here and guard the spring.” Bob nodded vigorously. All the poison parties were equipped with the few actual weapons the nissas had. Each of the members was supplied with a long sharp dagger of typically light and graceful elfin design. To the diminutive nissas they were more like swords. Bobo pulled Bob’s knife out of its scabbard and placed it in Bob’s hand. “Hang on to this. If you hear trulls hide but if you have to, use it. And be real quiet. Okay?” Bob continued to nod and the scouting parties left.
The runoffs did not lead to the stronghold and the parties were relieved to see Bob studiously on guard, knife in hand and apparently without incident. “Okay Bob,” said Bobo. “Good job. Now help us poison the well.” They were so intent on emptying the noxious contents of their various containers that they never heard the party of trulls carrying buckets until they heard one bellow, “What in the name of Hel’s Shyte do we got here?”
Startled, the nissas hastily threw all the containers and bags into the well and bolted. Being thoroughly taken aback by the unexpected scene at the well, the trulls hesitated just long enough to give the nissas a good lead aided by their excellent night-vision whereas the trulls needed the aid of their torches.
As the nissas bolted down the trail they came to the first rope bridge. There were three bridges in all; two short ones and one very long one spanning deep and deadly crevasses. On the way to the well it was, the long one first and then the two short ones. On the return it would be reversed. After crossing the first, Sneaff turned drew his wickedly sharp blade and severed the mooring ropes dropping the bridge in good order. They turned and ran up the trail until they reached a concealing outcropping of rock. They took cover and curiously watched what effect dropping the bridge had made and where dismayed to see the trulls, having a running start and because of their size and agility, jump the chasm with relative ease. Only one lost his footing and plummeted into the deadly depths. The rest barely notice and continued the chase.
“Go, go, go!” Yelled Bobo, excitedly. Still having the advantage of night-vision they reached the second bridge much quicker than their pursuers and dropped this one also. This time they did not hang around to see what effect it had, but instead ran like rabbits until they reached the third bridge. This one was at least a hundred and fifty feet long and swayed and pitched in the night wind. Humans, turlls or most other races of the Earthlands would need to exercise extreme caution when navigating such a treacherous span, but the nissa party with, uncanny sure-footedness, made the traverse at full speed more agile than a rat-pack.
Safely on the far side they halted briefly. Looking back they saw the approaching glow of torchlight through the crags. Bob turned to the rest and said, “Oh, poop! They got past the other bridge too. This one’s too long though. Go,” and drawing his blade, repeated urgently, “Go, go, go! I can do this. I watched. I wanna be a hero.”
Bobo hesitated but thought; his brother need only cut the ropes and then he’d be along in short order. After all they had a pretty good lead on the trulls. “Okay,” he said. “Be a hero, but be quick…and smart.” Bob nodded and Bobo turned and hastened the group up the trail. Bob sawed halfway through the first of two mooring leads and was getting frustrated with the progress, or lack thereof, and was painfully aware of the approaching trulls. This bridge was much longer than the first two, consequently the mooring ropes were much heavier. He began sawing furiously at the other rope and suddenly because of the very weight of the bridge plus that of the crossing trull party, Bob noticed with relief, that the compromised ropes were unraveling under sheer the weight and tension and he sawed with renewed vigor.
At the top of the hill the group turned to see the trulls cautiously crossing the bridge at the far side. They were obviously slowed by the swaying of the bridge and realized the danger inherent in the passage. Suddenly the bridge stuttered and pitched and dropped sending everyone on it hundreds of feet to their deaths on the rocks below. In the silhouette of the torchlight Bobo and the rest of the group witnessed the whole tableau for a split second frozen in time. Then, with the torches gone into the chasm, the scene went dark. Bobo screamed, “Nooo, Bob…!”
In that fleeting instant of back-lit exposure, it was painfully evident that poor Bob was furiously sawing away at the mooring ropes to the very last moment…from on the bridge.
Before anyone could stop him, Bobo bolted down the hill to the edge of the gaping pitch-black chasm and desperately called again. The only answer was his own shrill voice echoing the name of his brother, the name of a hero.