Okay so the weakest hero in the game has her day. Sometimes being small does not mean being unimportant.
"Mouse!! Dear gods, where is that girl?!"
Leffa charged out of her house flailing her whisk broom. “Mouse!” She dashed up the dirt road to the grist mill, one hand on her apron, the other clutching the broom. “Mouse! Aife! Where - there you are. What do you get up to, child?!”
“Hi Auntie! I was helping Darrin load his cart, see?” Aife said with a shrug. The mousey-brown haired girl pointed at Darrin’s ox cart, loaded for travel.
“Yes and that’s very nice of you, but the shed needs sweeping out and the dogs need feeding,” Leffa said impatiently.
“Don’ be hard on the girl, Leffa,” Darrin said amiably, “she saw I had need and in a flash she was there. Good little mouse.” He tousled Aife’s hair, and the girl grinned up at him.
“Well and all, but get a move on Mouse. Chores to finish.”
Aife scooped up her toy sword and dashed away headed for home.
“That girl,” Leffa said resignedly, “always underfoot unless you need her, then she’s nowhere to be seen.”
"It’s the tomboy in her, ye know. She’s been that was sin’ as was born."
When Leffa got home ten minutes later, Aife was sitting calmly on the grass, feeding the goat yesterday’s bread.
“Girl, I told you to swee–”
“Did it, Auntie. And fed the dogs, changed the water for the goats and brushed Sally. See?” She held up a hairbrush, and the goat shook her head experimentally.
“Sometimes Mouse, I don’t know what I’d do without you, Since your mother died and your sister ran away - you were so little! - you’re all I have left.”
“I know, Auntie.”
Life in Stonecroft was never complicated, and Leffa preferred it that way. She’d lived in the tiny mountain farming village her whole life, and knew everyone and everything in it. Except, occasionally, where Aife got to. The tomboy had been getting into mischief ever since she could walk, and had spent most of her days as a child playing at swords with the boys in the village. She was only four when her mother had died, and six when her older sister, then only ten, ran away. When Aife turned twelve, she’d thankfully been willing to take on more chores, but still managed to sneak away at all hours, climbing trees or playing in the stream.
Aife was sixteen when she got her first sight of a military regiment; a blonde haired woman in silver and blue metal armor had led her band of soldiers to Stonecroft, to resupply and spend a few coppers at the tavern. Tannie, six years older than Aife, had been serving that evening at the Quern and Brook, but the ever-curious Aife was soon sitting amiably, chatting with the men about combat, and who made their weapons, what fights they’d been in and how big the world really was. Two days later when the company continued north on a rainy morning, Aife pestered Leffa incessantly about who they were and where they were going, and whether or not they needed a helping hand.
"They’re soldiers, Mouse. They fight in wars. Gods willing, wars will never come to Stonecroft. We have our families, right, and our farms and our stone and running water from the stream, that’s all we need. Stonecroft people don’t get involved in such nonsense."
Aife looked out along the road where the soldiers had gone, standing perfectly still for almost a whole minute. And then she was walking the same path the soldiers had taken, her arms outstretched to keep her balance, carefully placing her foot into each of the soldier’s footprints on the muddy road. She walked that way for almost a quarter of a mile with her arms outstretched, being careful not to damage the edge of each impression. When she reached the edge of what she considered ‘home’, the world she knew, she stopped and turned a full circle with her arms outstretched.
Leffa watched from the doorway as Aife, just a tiny shape in the distance, danced a circle in the mud, teasing the unknown at the edge of her world.
“Go on, Mouse,” Leffa whispered to nobody in particular, “You have too much of Henna’s spirit in you. Just one more step, though my heart will break not to have you underfoot.” She wiped a tear from her cheek, wrung her hands in her apron and went back to her chores.
Aife was unusually quiet for the next couple of days, though Leffa knew exactly where her head was. The older woman watched patiently as Aife spent more and more time sitting quietly and staring out of the window, and didn’t chastise her when the slender tomboy forgot the close the gate. They spent an hour rounding up Sally and the other goats from the woods, after which Leffa made Aife’s favorite spiced nut bread. If Aife was confused about why she hadn’t been punished for letting the goats get out, she didn’t mention it.
Three days later, Leffa called Aife in from the field an hour earlier than usual. When she got in, the brown-haired girl saw an expensive-looking jacket, a wooden shield and an actual, real steel sword laid out on the cot.
“I - Auntie? What’s this?” Aife asked, looking at the jacket.
Leffa took her niece’s hand, then pulled her into a hug, and before long Leffa was holding the girl close and crying quietly.
“I never talk about Henna, do I Mouse.”
“Henna? My Mama? She died when I was a child?”
“Yes, but I never told you why. Henna was just like you. Playful, curious, a tomboy. She wanted so much to join the army and see the world, and she spent ages training with Jalko, the blacksmith. He made this sword for her, and she saved up her money to buy that jacket.” Leffa held Aife’s fingers in one hand, and stroked the lapel of the jacket with the other. “When a group of soldiers came through Stonecroft, your mama dressed up and grabbed that sword and marched up, right as you please, to tell the men she was joining them. They laughed at her but she insisted, and two days later when the company moved on, Henna went with them, their newest recruit.” Leffa paused, and Aife sat quietly listening to her aunt.
“Four days later they came back with her body. Her first fight, a living skeleton killed her, they said.”
“Oh no! I thought it was an accident…?”
"That’s what we told you, little one. An accident at the blacksmith. But I’ve seen that look in your eye, little one. Your mother had the same look and I’d curse myself if I tried to stop you.
"So, Mouse, take your mother’s jacket and her sword. Go join the regiment when they pass through, become one of their recruits. And when you come up on that skeleton, you fight it g-good and hard, and let it, let it know… your m-m-mother is al – ali…"
Leffa gave up trying to talk, and just held her niece and cried into her shoulder. Aife sat patiently, one hand stroking the lapel of the expensive jacket. Her mother’s expensive jacket.
A week later, another military company traveled through Stonecroft, led by a squat, friendly man with an axe. Aife met them at the Quern and Brook, and hung on their every word until the funny looking man asked her if she wanted to join them.
“I – oh yes please!” Aife said, as if she’d been rehearsing it. She looked over the contract he held out; there were a lot of words she didn’t understand but she knew it said she was expected to be obedient and train when she was told, to help out and not get in the way. The short man explained that the contract guaranteed her a military obligation as a recruit for six months, or until she was promoted, or grievously injured. Aife nodded quickly at everything she was told, and signed her name at the bottom.
And when the company left Stonecroft two days later, Aunt Leffa sat alone in her small, quiet house and cried until she ran out of tears.
“Well it’s a fine jacket, sure, but it’s no block against a goblin with a sword, is it now?” The soldier looked over Aife’s attire while he cleaned and sharpened his sword. "Your mama had an eye for finery, I’ll give you that."
The youngest recruit looked a little crestfallen that Sten, the soldier, hadn’t been more impressed with the jacket - it was the one her mother had worn, after all!
"When we get to the Stronghold the quartermaster will set you up with armor that’ll give you an edge, you’ll see. And your Mama’s coat, you can wear that for special occasions! You’ll look so smart, everyone will stand up and take notice!"
Aife nodded, straightened the one crooked lapel and returned her attention to rubbing her new dagger with the funny waxy white stone. It was supposed to temper the blade, she was told, but all it did was make her elbow stiff from all the rubbing.
An hour later, a sounding horn made her jump just as she thought she was dozing off. Someone poked his head inside the large tent and announced that a gang of agaricus was terrorizing a farmer’s field.
“Come on, greenboy, this is your chance to experience a military encounter. Up to it?”
“Yes. Yes sir! But I’m a girl…”
“Greenboy, it’s just a phrase, it means new recruit. You’re new, you’re a greenboy. Now come on, this is your job.”
"Yes sir! Coming sir!"
Aife jumped up and grabbed her sword, patted the lapel down and hurried outside to challenge the agaricus, whatever they were.
She joined a few other new recruits - green boys - who were wading through the tall grass, slashing and hacking at knee-high mushroom caps. As she approached, she saw that the mushroom caps were darting back and forth through the grass. Aife reached down and grabbed one, and held it up at arm’s length. It had squinty eyes and a wide mouth on its two-foot high steam. The reddish brown mushroom squirmed in her grasp, root filaments at its base flailing like little fingers. It opened an eye to see her, then the other, then pursed its lips and spat a gob of mucus at her that burned like mustard.
Aife flung the mushroom down, wiped the mucus off her face and stabbed at it with her sword until it was dead, then turned to find another one. Within minutes she had a stack of half a dozen mushrooms, her jacket was smeared with foul-smelling mucus and her arm was sore from the stabbing and hacking.
“Well this is strange,” she said to Alex, one of the other new recruits. He grinned and nodded, kicking another mushroom up from the ground. It shrieked as it was uprooted, and he swatted it with his sword to send it flying. Aife watched with amusement until it occurred to her that these mushroom creatures - if they were creatures - weren’t actually hurting the field, just harassing the farmers. She sat down face to face with an agaricus, which pursed its lips to spit, then opened its eyes and regarded her with disdain.
“Listen, we don’t really want to hurt anyone, you know? We’re just helping the farmers. You guys could be anywhere, right? If you could round up your guys and go to, I dunno, a forest maybe, you wouldn’t get so beat up.”
“Pffft!” the mushroom replied, spraying her with mucus.
“Okay fine, be that way. Hey Alex!” Aife plucked the mushroom from the ground and tossed it to the other greenboy, who leaned back and kicked it as far as he could.
“Sometimes they just don’t wanna be reasonable,” he said. "By the way, you might wanna wash that mucus off. If it dried on your skin you’ll be seeing all kinds of funny colours and thinking you can fly."
Aife nodded emphatically, and after the field was cleared of mushrooms she joined a dozen other soldiers scrubbing and washing in the stream.
Two days after the mushroom field, Aife was helping Alex and Bruno scrub cooking pots when the short, bearded champion called them to order. He set his beer mug down on the ground, leaned on his axe and eyed the greenboys.
“Cleaning pots and kicking mushrooms is all fine but it’s not real soldiering,” he said in his wheezy voice, “if you want to get a taste of real combat we’re coming up on some kobolds that need a talking to. Nasty little vermin. Meet me again in about an hour.” He took a swig from his mug, wiped his beard and set off to talk to his more experienced soldiers.
An hour later Aife and the other greenboys met their squat commander again, who stood them in a line like a cadet review.
“Kobolds!” he barked, "small, quick, vicious. Don’t take your eyes off one for a second until you know it’s down, they can be sneaky! Blades ready, now!"
He pointed behind the row of recruits and Aife turned to look.
She saw three creatures, each about four feet tall, that resembled a cross between a dog, a child and a pile of dirty laundry. Her first compulsion was to laugh, until one of them swung a short, wicked-looking rusty dagger at her. Aife jumped back and held her sword out with a nervous hand, the other clutching her shield too close to her body. She swung her sword clumsily, slashing the creature’s shoulders on a lucky blow. She swung again and the creature ducked easily, coming up inside her defense and stabbing with its’ dagger. Aife felt the white hot flash of pain from the rusty blade and immediately thought of Leffa’s story about her mother and the skeleton. She stumbled back away from the creature, and let the other soldiers finish it off with a few well placed attacks.
As soon as the fight was over, Aife sat down and watched blood seeping over the rumpled lapel.
“Um, I’m, I think I might…” she started to say, and then blacked out.
When Aife awoke, her jacket was hanging on a hook. Her blouse was open and someone had dressed her wound. Jostling movement told her the company was on the road; she was riding in a wagon or some sort of doctor’s carriage.
A hatch opened in the ceiling and a face peered in, framed by bright sunlight.
“Oh, hello, you’re up! Good, we may need you again. How’s the shoulder?”
“Um, um, stiff? I’m not sure I can --” Aife made a vague stabbing motion with her hand and the soldier shook his head.
“Naah, you won’t be fighting for a while. One, you lack experience, and two, we need a camp runner. Someone to gather supplies, mend clothes, run errands. You, you’re little and quick, you’re a natural. Up for it? After you’ve rested I mean.”
“Yes - I mean, yes, um, sure!” Aife blurted out, “I think I can get up – whooh, maybe not…?”
"You lay back. Kobolds, they keep their blades dirty, rusty, to let your wound get infected. Kill you off slowly. We cleaned you up though, couple days you’ll be fine. Rest now."
Aife nodded and closed her eyes again.
For the next week while she was recovering, the dark haired girl learned how to set camp, dig the jacks, find wood for fires and distribute water and redkiss, a blend of cheap wine and healing potion. She learned to cook for twenty people in an hour, keep the food hot and keep the fire going.
By the end of the second week, Aife was as active as she’d ever been and loving every minute of it. She felt as if, unlike living with Aunt Leffa where she often felt underfoot, here she was a necessary part of a working machine.
Too soon for Aife’s liking, the military company arrived at the Stronghold. The supply wagons and rows of marching soldiers slowed and organized themselves as officious-looking people with papers and lists checked over supplies and weapons.
Finally they were allowed in, the huge gates creaked open and the military convoy entered the Stronghold.
Aife thought she knew what busy looked like, but this…!
She saw a huge castle with pennants and flags of different colours flying, and a watchtower with people at the parapets. She saw a row of windmills turning in the mountain breeze, and mines and forges working metal. She saw swordsmen practicing, and merchants selling their wares, and a woman with a small dragon at her shoulder was talking to a man who looked like a tree. Everywhere she looked there was activity, noise, commotion, business, life!! Aife’s face burst into a grin that spread from ear to ear.
"Oh, this is great!"
The wagons unloaded by the windmills, while the soldiers trooped off to the barracks. Aife considered joining the soldiers but thought the better of it - she didn’t want people to assume she was a competent fighter when she lost her first battle with a kobold; she she owed it to her mother to stay alive past her first month with the company. So she helped unload the supplies, stable the horses and clean the wagons.
By the end of her second day at the Stronghold, Aife was zipping this way and that, trying to help wherever she was needed.
It was a year after Aife had found herself at the Stronghold, and she had made something of a name for herself as a helper anywhere she was needed, from cleaning out the millstones to feeding horses to helping novice warrior train. Still, she was often regarded as the lowest of the low in the Stronghold chain of command, nothing more than a waif.
“Oh not her? That scullery maid? She’s not a fighter! I’m not training with her again!” The novice warrior looked at Aife with disdain while he hefted his longsword and strapped on his buckler. Melendor, the older, grey haired mage, spun him around and smacked him on the cheek.
“That ‘scullery maid’, lad, is one of the most important people I know! Learn to treat people with more respect.” He turned and called out to Aife in his loud, booming voice. "Mouse! A moment of your time? Bring Joon."
Aife nodded and tapped the bald, tattooed warrior on the arm, and together they climbed the stairs to face Melendor in front of the barracks.
“Welcome,” the green robed mage said, “young Alban here thinks that training with Aife is beneath him.” The young warrior stood before them defensively, daring a challenge, while Joon rubbed his face and clapped a hand on the boy’s arm.
“Son, if I was to ask you to name three powerful animals, what would you name?”
“Um, wolf, and… eagle? And, I don’t know, lion.”
“Good. Yes, they are. The mighty eagle soars the sky, the wolf and the lion are the masters of their domain. But…” he paused, and Alban wondered where this was going. Melendor looked from Joon to Alban to Aife, with a twinkle in his eye.
“But,” Joon continued, “they could not be powerful animals without a food source. Everyone, lions, eagles, orcs, even you, depend on the food chain. And at the bottom of the foundation of the food chain, is little Mouse. If there was no mouse, the entire system would collapse. She is the base that keeps the whole thing going.”
“Right,” said the young soldier, “but…”
“But you are blind, son! When you first got here, who helped you unload your supplies?”
“Um, she did.”
“And who showed you how to use the wheel to sharpen your blade?”
“It was Mouse,” Alban said resignedly.
“This little lady keep the whole place running, friend. She’s small, she’s not a powerful mage like Melendor or Quintus. But she’s the first person you met when you got here, right? Did you pay her any mind when you saw her? Or was she invisible to you?”
“I… I don’t know?”
“Pay heed now, son,” Joon said, “little Mouse is the most important creature in the animal kingdom because everyone needs mouse! She’s not the best fighter, granted. Or the most adept mage. But she is, literally, everywhere.” Aife was beaming at the glowing commendation she was receiving from this desert nomad, who she barely knew.
"Over the next few days, son, keep an eye open for Mouse. How often she shows up. How often she helps you train. How often you overlook her. Imagine where we’d be without Mouse!"
Joon stood and gave Aife his best salute, then returned to his duties.
Aife was helping a wagon unload supplies from the coast, when one of the soldiers from the wagon sentry stopped and stared at her.
"…yes?" she said nervously.
“Who’s Jill?” Aife asked.
"You’re not - oh, you must be - wow, you look just like her!"
Aife’s face didn’t know whether to smile or frown or develop a look of concern, so it ended up making an expression like a bowl of congealed porridge.
“Wait here,” the soldier said, and dashed off to another wagon in the arriving convoy. He returned moments later with a woman in red leather armor, only a few years older than Aife - same mousy expression, same pinched crease at the bridge of her nose. As soon as she saw her Aife knew who it was, and her face broke into an ear-to-ear grin.
“Stonecroft!” she said, “our mother’s name is Henna, and Aunt Leffa, and, and, and why did you run away?!” In the space of a heartbeat, Aife’s attitude went from jubilation to outrage. "I needed a big sister! I needed you! Auntie Leffa needed - with Mom dead, she - you-- oh, Jill -is your name Jill? I never even knew that, I – I just thought…I th …oh heck!! Hey everyone! This is my big sister!"
Jill looked at Aife with a look of remorse.
“I’m sorry I ran away, kid,” she said, "I had to find Mom, I didn’t know how she died, I didn’t want a fuss, I… then after the years I didn’t know how to tell you or Aunt Leffa, so I kept… I joined the army, I teach recruits battle strategy, I just…"
The two women stopped and looked at each other for a moment, then threw their arms around each other and some of the soldiers cheered.
“Hey Mouse, who’s this?” Joon asked, grinning widely.
“Call her Cat!” Aife said, winking. “The Mouse finally caught the Cat!”