The splash of scarlet on pale linen didn’t seem enough to suggest murder, but it was a very small murder, after all.
The blood had fallen in patches and smears. Reading the shape of it, Tinker understood that the battlemouse had convulsed in its death throes. Its armour had held the poor beast intact, or more of its blood would have pooled on the sheet and soaked through to the mattress.
Not enough blood for two, though. The battlemouse’s body had vanished, but so had its faerie warrior.
Tinker’s wings fluttered and she rose above the scene of the skirmish. Nearby, in the human’s kitchen, someone was calling, ‘Where the hell is the can opener?’
‘In the dishwasher,’ the young human Giant shouted back. ‘I’ve fed Tiger already!’
‘Miracles do happen!’
Tinker, once having been something of a miracle worker herself, flew up to the ceiling for a more comprehensive view of the room.
She spotted the tip of the battlemouse’s tail protruding from under the chest of drawers, where it had crawled to die after its opponent had mauled it on the bed. Tinker flew down again, her slippered feet touching the floor soundlessly. She bent to peer under the furniture.
Two beady black eyes peered back. A set of pointed teeth grinned at her. Tinker recoiled so hard she landed on her rump. Her leather armour creaked as she fell.
‘Well met, Major Tink,’ sneered the hedgehog. Its two front teeth stood out like fangs in what ought to have been a friendly face.
This war had made monsters of everyone.
Her eyes adjusting to the dim light under the bureau, Tink could at last see the full extent of Tiggy’s violent work. Foolhardy Peaseblossom was sprawled beside their dead mouse. It was heartbreaking for Tink to see her old friend, traditional garb of pink sweetpea petals replaced long ago with armour of walnut shell made forbiddingly jagged with thorns from a wild rose. A sharp hedgehog quill was embedded in their shoulder. The poor fairy seemed quite dead.
‘Tiggy,’ said Tink. ‘What have you done?’
‘Defended myself, lass. As is my right.’
‘This is neutral territory,’ Tink protested. ‘No warfare on Giant territory. It’s the law.’
‘What was I to think your lieutenant intended?’ protested the hedgehog. ‘Following me quick and tricksy, like you lot do. Sneaking up behind. A washer-woman’s a right to go about her lawful business.’
‘The Giants don’t want you doing their laundry anymore.’
‘Hardly that, now. We need bandages. Wadding and thread for stitches. Spiders won’t give us silk any more for that work, so we scavenge where we may. But your bloody Captain Peaseblossom insisted on making a fight of it. And here we are.’ Tiggy blinked rapidly. ‘Made me soil those sheets. Stain’ll never come out.’
‘The Giants mustn’t know.’
‘Giants’ll blame it on the cat.’
The Giants blamed a lot of what happened during the war on their cats.
‘If you’ve killed Peaseblossom on neutral ground, there’ll be…’
‘What? War? We’re already at war. How could it be worse?’
Peaseblossom, timing ever magical, moaned. Blinked open golden eyes that fixed on Tink.
‘I’m here, Pease.’
‘You came for me, ma’am.’
Peaseblossom sank back to the floor with a sigh. ‘We were cruelly set upon, Tink, by this quailing washtub hedge-pig.’
‘Tiggy says you first tried to cut her throat.’
‘You take the word of Oberon’s swag-bellied harpy before your comrade in Tatiana’s army?’
Tink gestured helplessly. ‘Your mount was speared upon the bedding of the child Giant. How came you to climb it? Why did-?’
‘I…’ Pease’s eyes darted between the Captain and the enemy. ‘The hedgehog crept inside. I saw a cat followed. I followed the cat.’
Comprehension dawned. It is a lie that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Sometimes, such as when it’s a padpaw hunter like a cat, your enemy’s enemy is just everybody’s enemy.
‘You came to warn me?’ Tiggy asked, bewildered in her shock.
The door the room swung open and all three fell deathly silent. The thud of Giant footsteps made the floor judder with its movement.
Discovery might mean death, or it might mean worse. Both sides knew the stories of tiny winged warriors kept in jars to suffocate or starve, separated from the earth and from magic and from all hope.
A sound that was akin to music burst from a device beside the bed and the child Giant flung itself onto the mattress. Words that meant nothing without context reverberated, making Tiggy, Tink and Peaseblossom all cover their ears.
I can’t explain you would not understand
This is not how I am
I have become comfortably numb
Then a voice said, ‘Tiger! There you are! Come on, come up, give us a cuddle. Come on! What’s under the cupboard, then? You been hunting mice again? Here…’
Creaking of a human rising from the bed. The fairies and the hedgehog tried to withdraw. Another mutual enemy come to threaten them.
Tink drew her tiny blade and prepared to fight for her life. Peaseblossom, injured but unbowed, staggered upright, plucked the quill from their shoulder and held it like a spear.
Tiggy plucked a quill from her back.
A quivering nose intruded on their little space. A seeking paw, fitted with its natural blades, poked in after it.
Tiggy and Tink moved as one, jabbing.
The cat’s yowl was ear-splitting, turning hearts and bowels to water, but it also ran from the unexpected assault.
The child Giant lumbered after its ferocious pet, under the impression that it was a fluffy darling in need of succour. Giants feared so little, when they should fear so much. It’s what made them so dangerous.
‘We must get out of here,’ Tink urged.
‘Yes,’ agreed Tiggy. ‘I have made an error. I have defended my life against the wrong threat.’
The dead battlemouse had to stay, but Tiggy and Tink between them helped Peaseblossom back into the room, across the boards and the carpet that made the going sluggish, and into the hall. Unseen, they crept through the cat flap and into the garden until they could take refuge under a yew hedge.
Awkward silence reigned for a brief time. Finally, Tiggy found a tiny handkerchief square, which she folded and offered to the wounded fairy.
‘I am sorry. I misjudged your intent.’
‘I should have shouted at you from a distance,’ said Peaseblossom, pressing cloth to the wound. ‘I’m not used to warning the Other Side, though.’
‘None of us are,’ said Tink. ‘We’ve all become too used to this war. We used to be friends, didn’t we? I don’t even remember what Tatiana and Oberon were fighting about this time.’
‘Don’t suppose they do, either,’ said Tiggy gruffly. ‘We simply act on their will as though no other cause is needed.’
Tink sheathed her sword and shook her pale yellow hair loose. ‘We have become so used to our enmity, so… so…’ the words of the awful human song came to her tongue. ‘So numb to it, that we are more comfortable striking a blow than heeding a warning. We have forgotten how our realms were once united. This is… not how we were. It is not how I am. It is not how we should be.’
‘No. We should not,’ agreed Tiggy.
‘Then let us stop,’ said Tink. And she placed her sword upon the grass.
Peaseblossom stared at the Captain. ‘This is treason!’
‘I would rather commit treason upon an unjust queen in an unnecessary war, than spill another drop of faery blood.’
Tiggy sat on the ground and covered her black eyes with her little paws. Her teeth, which had looked so wicked and forbidding in the darkness under the cupboard, now appeared only sadly yet endearingly buck-toothed.
‘I don’t want to fight any more,’ she sobbed. ‘I don’t want always to be scrubbing the blood out of pinafores and breeches. I don’t want to be stealing linen for bandages and stitching up wounds.’
Tink patted her hand. ‘Then let’s stop. Let’s leave the war to those who want to fight it, to those to numb to remember who we used to be.’
‘But where shall we go?’
‘I don’t know. I hear of a place beyond the sea. Where Giants leave saucers of milk out for us, and they know better than to ask for wishes. They have voices like music and tell stories woven in magic.’
Tiggy looked up. ‘Do you know the way?’
‘I can find the way,’ said Tink with confidence. ‘I knew my way to another land once, by the second star on the right. I can find the Singing Land.’
She held out her hand. Tiggy placed her paw in it.
They looked to Peaseblossom.
‘You killed my battlemouse,’ said Peaseblossom to Tiggy. ‘You tried to kill me.’
‘I’m right sorry for it, too. I won’t try again.’
‘Will you sew me a new jerkin and a gown made of sweetpeas?’
‘Aye, and make you shoes of down and a cloak of linen, when I find some.’
‘All right.’ Peaseblossom stood. Wobbled a little. Tiggy held out her hand and Peaseblossom took it.
And, once the night had come and the cat was locked inside, these soldiers of faerie who had abandoned the war, began to walk, guided by Tink and the stars, towards peace.
The lyrics in this story are from Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb (PF was prompted by Alexxphoenix42)