Stayin' Alive

I. I been kicked around since I was born

In the dark, in the rain, somewhere in the wasteland of the blank spaces of the map of the Fourth Kingdom, the children of a King were wandering in exile.

"Suck an Elf," muttered the eldest. "Let's get back on the road. These woods are bad enough when you can see where you're going."

"At once, Brother," said the second, with a deep bow (not that her brother could see it). "That way, when King Wendell's troops pass by, they'll trip right over us no matter how dark the night."

"Help!" shrieked the youngest. "Something's got my foot!"

He fell, and in attempting to work out what was going on and help their brother, the other two fell as well, striking out randomly in whatever direction seemed likely to yield an enemy.

After a few moments they paused to catch their breath. The middle one groped across the ground and found a foot. By the smell of it, it belonged to her younger brother. She followed a leg up to a knee, then unexpectedly encountered a vast hairy thatch. She recoiled.

"Burley! Something has eaten Bluebell!" she cried.

"Little brother!" shouted the eldest. "You were an idiot and an annoyance, but you shall not go unavenged! Family is family!"

"Family is family!" shouted the middle troll.

"Family is family!" shouted the youngest. His voice was rather muffled.

"Yeah!" cried the eldest. "Wait! Who said that?"

The three trolls fought their unseen adversary until they dropped unconscious with exhaustion.

Hours later, they opened bleary, crusted eyes in the dim pre-dawn light and took stock of their predicament.

All three were tangled, enveloped, knotted and twisted in a mass of grimy, wet, smelly brown hair. A great deal of leaf litter, dirt, gravel and other debris was wrapped up with them, as well as many small insects, some apparently of the biting kind.

"Ugh! What evil enchantment is this?" groaned the middle troll.

"It smells like boar sweat," said the eldest.

"True," said the middle one, "but it is very unattractive, despite that."

"Mmphgl," said the youngest, who was the most thoroughly entangled.

They tried breaking the tangled strands, but they wouldn't break.

They tried chewing them, but to no avail-though they gnawed and worried at the hairy mass until their teeth gleamed white as bared bone and their gums squeaked with cleanliness, the painstakingly accumulated patina of tartar worn away.

They tried cutting them, but even their finest blades were useless.

Nothing was left but to untangle themselves bit by bit, hair by hair, with many a curse and swat at each other, pausing only to snag an occasional louse or flea for a quick snack.

Giggles arose from the brush around them. Loftily, the trolls ignored them. The giggles increased in number and frequency throughout the day.

By evening, when the trolls had at last freed themselves, they had an appreciative audience of fairies and talking birds.

"What are you lookin' at?" the youngest troll snarled.

"We have never seen trolls nesting before," piped a bird. "It's very interesting."

"Hah. You just wish you had a nest this fine," said Bluebell. "It's break-proof!"

"Toothproof!" added Burley.

"Knifeproof!" said Blabberwort, fingering the new notch in her belt dagger. "Anyway, we're out of it now, so let's get going."

"Okay, just a minute," said Bluebell, and he began rolling the hairy mass up into a bundle.

"What are you doing, you idiot?" said Burley. "We just got out of that."

"I saw it first and it's mine," said Bluebell, doggedly wrestling with the hair. He'd gotten it into a rough ball now, about the size of a dead deer and with a not-dissimilar smell.

Three green fairies giggled so hard they fell off their branch. Their wings caught them just a few inches short of the ground.

"Oh tee hee hee," said Bluebell. "Stupid fairies. This is obviously a powerful enchantment. You're just jealous I found it before you."

"Powerful enchantment!" gasped one fairy. All three laughed until they turned green. Greener.

"The most useless enchantment in the Nine Kingdoms!" gasped another of the fairies.

"There are ten kingdoms," said Bluebell loftily. "Shows you how much you know. And I'll bet this enchantment is more useful than you can guess."

"What will you bet?" asked the third fairy shrewdly. Bluebell was drawing breath to answer when Blabberwort slapped her hand over his mouth. She looked at the fairies, then back at her brother, and considered her words.

"Within a month," she said carefully, "we will bet that we can find a use for this enchantment that is worth more than five cows or half a magic bean. And if we don't, we will be your servants for a year and a day."

The fairies giggled.

"But if we DO," Blabberwort continued, "the three of you will serve US for a year and a day. Do we have a bet?"

The fairies stopped giggling. They looked uneasily at one another.

"Oh, I see how it is," said Burley, with a wink at his sister. "All talk and no action. Fairies, pah!" He spat on the leaf-litter, grimacing. His spittle was thin and almost clear. Stupid hairy enchantment, wearing all the flavor off his teeth.

The tallest of the fairies, apparently their leader, drew herself up to her full three-inch height. "We have a bet!" she shrilled.

The birds chattered excitedly. Bluebell slapped Blabberwort's hand away from his mouth and scowled at her. Burley began gathering up their scattered supplies and packing them back in their packs.

They were back on the march by sunset, hungry and weary. But at least they had a hobby now. The fairies, unwilling to trust the trolls' word on the progress of their bet, followed them closely. By the light of their darting, dizzying flight, the trolls could see well enough to take a strand of hair each and begin working on unraveling them from the bundle. There was enough light that they could avoid obstacles in their path, and just after midnight, the greenish glow revealed a small stray piglet rooting at the verge of a mossy stream, so they got dinner after all.

One pig, thought Blabberwort, and grinned. At this rate her tally would reach five cows well before the deadline.

II. If it's something we can share, we can steal it

The rubbish dump outside Kissing Town was well worth a troll's attention.

While Bluebell (and the suspicious fairies) camped out in a nearby abandoned mine, tirelessly working strand after strand free of his smelly, tangled hair-wad and carefully winding each strand around the hilt of a broken dagger (only fair, since he'd broken it trying to cut the enchanted hair), Burley and Blabberwort searched the dump for anything that might be useful.

There was food in plenty-bones with marrow and fat still clinging to them, half-eaten apples, scraps of funnelcake, and anything imaginable that could be impaled on a stick, fried, or both. There were also rats-fat, indolent rats that easily fell prey to the trolls' quick hands and were added to the menu.

"Oh wait! Wait! I have it!" Burley said as they shouldered their sacks of gleanings and headed back toward the mine. "Deep-fried rat! On a stick!"

"Hmmmm," said his sister. "A clever plan. We shall have to remember it when we return to our kingdom."

"You mean, my kingdom," Burley growled.

"Yes, yes, your kingdom, of course, brother," Blabberwort said. "If you can hold it."

"Suck an elf," said Burley. "That's true."

"I mean, the troll army died alongside Dad. Most of it, anyway," she continued. "Those that are left are mostly deserters."

"The deserters were the smartest ones, though," Burley mused.

"Yes. But how are we to prove that we are even smarter?" asked his sister. "Because otherwise, they won't follow us. I mean you."

"Welcome back, brother and sister," said Bluebell. "Did you have good hunting?"

"Eight rats and a lot of promising bones," said Blabberwort.

"And I found an old helmet we can use for a cookpot," said Burley. "So we can have stew. How about you?"

"I unraveled three whole strands," said Bluebell proudly. "And I had some more ideas of what we can do with them. How about a blanket that never gets holes?"

"An itchy blanket," said Blabberwort.

"Full of bugs," said Burley.

"Perhaps we could boil it to get the bugs out," Bluebell suggested. "Then we'd have a blanket AND some bug broth."

The other two nodded thoughtfully. "What else?" asked Burley.

"Unbreakable shoelaces!" said Bluebell.

"Ugly, hairy shoelaces," said Blabberwort. "But some people wouldn't know the difference, that's true. And speaking of shoes, mine are coming all unstitched on the toe-wait a minute. Give me one of those strands."

"Not for nothing," Bluebell protested. "I worked all day on getting them loose and coiling them up. They are very stubborn and inventive."

"For dinner," growled Blabberwort. "Or did you forget what we spent our day doing?"

"Oh, very well," said Bluebell, and handed over a thin coil.

"I think I picked up a needle in that last batch," his sister mused, and upended a bag full of things that tinkled and gleamed.

"Oooooh," said the three green fairies, who had been eavesdropping.

"Back off," snarled Blabberwort. "Or no, never mind, you can come closer. But don't touch anything."

The fairies crowded close to the pile, incidentally providing enough light for Blabberwort to find and thread her needle. She took her shoe off and began stitching. The fairies watched intently as Bluebell poked through the shiny bits.

"Looks like mostly glass," he mused. "Is that-did you break a MIRROR? We're doomed!"

"It was already broken, idiot," snapped Burley as he tossed another bone into their improvised stew pot.

"It's a magic mi-" one of the fairies began, but the other two clapped their hands over her mouth. Too late.

"Magic?" said Blabberwort, with an avaricious gleam in her eye. "Perhaps we can find a use for it."

"You can't put it back together," said the smallest fairy. "You might as well throw it away. It will only show very tiny pictures."

"Or if it's a traveling mirror, only something very small could travel through it," said the tallest fairy.

"Like a fa-" said the third, but again the other two silenced her.

"How am I supposed to finish off this seam when I can't cut the thread?" Blabberwort snapped.

"Turn around and sew back the other way," Burley said. "Do I have to think of everything around here?"

Blabberwort glared at him, but, mindful that he had control of the food supply, she held her peace and did as he'd suggested. It actually worked fairly well; the hair was much thinner than the shoe's original stitching, so there was plenty of room to pass it through the holes twice or even three times. One pig, one spool of thread, she thought, putting her repaired shoe back on. The stitches seemed to be holding well.

While they ate that night, the trolls busied themselves examining each piece of the mirror and trying various possibly-magical words and phrases to activate it. They had little success until the loudmouth of the three fairies, driven to distraction by their incompetence, shook off her companions and shrieked, 'All you have to say is 'Mirror, show me whatever!'"

The trolls stared at her, then at the mirror shards that covered the floor.

"What should we ask for?" said Bluebell.

"Oh!" Blabberwort shouted. "Mirror, show us the music of the Brothers Gibb!"

"It can't show you music!" shouted Burley. "Music is invisible!"

"Mirror, show us the place in the Tenth Kingdom where we may hear the music of the Brothers Gibb!" shouted Bluebell, then gave a triumphant whoop when the mirror shards, all of them, began emitting a dim, wavering light.

It was indeed a strange sight, the hundred tiny pictures of the same room. The trolls found it less dizzying to take a large shard each and peer into them, while the fairies did the same.

Inside the alien music hall, strange beams of colored light darted back and forth like a wizard's duel, but the Tenth Kingdom folk (who were doubtless all witches and wizards themselves) were undaunted. They danced wildly to the rhythmic, thumping beat (impossibly faint and far away, but barely distinguishable). The trolls nodded their heads in time, holding their breath to avoid drowning out the tiny sound.

"OOH! Looky look!" shouted Blabberwort, and pointed into her shard. The others gasped in wonder.

In the tiny moving picture they saw, suspended from the ceiling of the music hall, a wondrous magical globe, covered with-tiny bits of mirror.

"Nicey nice!" said Bluebell.

"A powerful spell!" said Blabberwort.

"We could make one of our own!" gasped Burley, spreading his hands out at the sudden wealth they had discovered on their own dirt floor.

The rest of that evening they spent examining the possibilities of a small rum barrel, half a jug of pitch, and of course an unbreakable cord of twisted hair to suspend their treasure from.

III. Livin' on that music so fine

Unfortunately, it was only a few days later that an industrious junk-dealer spotted them leaving the dump. In the uproar that ensued, they were barely able to escape with their hoard, and their lives, intact. They fled into the Deadly Swamp.

Bluebell scowled as she cleaned swamp muck from her much-abused shoes. Half the month had elapsed, and although their shoes had all been mended and they had an assortment of useful (though ugly and itchy) cords and straps, the worth of Bluebell's mass of hair still fell short of even a single cow. How were they to escape being servants to fairies? No self-respecting troll would stoop to serve anyone, let alone a tiny green elfling. She looked up, distracted from her musings by a shrill voice.

"Please please please?"

"I said no," said a more familiar voice. Her brother's. "Not unless you have something to trade."

"All I have is my song," said the shrill little voice. It was a talking bird, perhaps one of the ones that had witnessed their bet with the fairies. Blabberwort scowled anew at the thought of being spied upon.

"What good is a song to me?" asked Bluebell. "You probably don't even know any good ones."

"I can learn whatever song pleases you," said the bird. "I'm a very quick study."

"What are you nattering on about?" asked Burley.

"This bird wants one of my hairs to reinforce its nest," said Bluebell. "But it doesn't have anything to trade."

"Our songs are much in demand," the bird said hotly, "throughout the Nine Kingdoms."

"There are ten kingdoms," said Bluebell reflexively. "Shows you how much-"

"Wait," said Blabberwort. An idea was taking shape in her head. She stood up to give it more room. She looked at the bird. "You said you could learn any song that pleases us," she said.

"Of course," said the bird. "I'm a very quick-"

"Yes, fine, I know," said Blabberwort. "Could you learn a song you heard in a magic mirror?"

The bird tilted its head this way and that. "I've never tried?" it said uncertainly.

It turned out that the sound from the mirrors was too soft, but a bit of experimentation showed them the largest shard was just wide enough for a bird to hop through. Tethered by one of the strands of unbreakable hair (so it could be yanked back to the swamp at the first sign of danger) the bird hopped through. It spent half an hour in the rafters of the music hall, learning the lays of the Brothers Gibb, then returned to claim its reward: one strand of hair for each song, six in all.

One pig, a spool of thread, and six songs from a speaking bird, thought Blabberwort. That worked out to approximately a cow and an eighth. Things were looking up.

IV. We know how to do it

The month was nearly at an end and the only additional value they'd managed to get from the Giant Hairball was the world's ugliest doormat (worth approximately 1/16 of a cow). They didn't even have a door to put it in front of.

"What is that noise?" Burley asked.

"That's just the magic mushrooms," said Bluebell. "They learned some of the songs of the Brothers Gibb from the speaking birds and now they won't shut up."

Burley listened for a while. "Actually they sound pretty good," he said.

"Yeah, but they only know those six songs," said Bluebell. "Even the Brothers Gibb can get boring after a while."

It was then, on a muggy summer afternoon, when the swamp mists and the clouds of mosquitoes were vying to see which could be the thickest, that Blabberwort had the greatest idea in the entire history of the troll kingdom. It was an idea that made all three of their fortunes; that put the Deadly Swamp on the map as a tourist destination even more important than Kissing Town; that funded the triumphant rebuilding of the Troll Kingdom, and incidentally, that saved the three troll siblings from the ignominy of becoming servants to fairies.

It was so blinding in its perfection that she had to sit down, and it was four full minutes before she could speak coherently. But then she laid it all out for them, until her brothers were so stunned with her brilliance that they too were struck speechless.

First, there was the matter of a venue. The witch's cottage would serve. The dwarf who'd occupied it for several weeks could be squared later. The occasionally slightly animated corpse of the witch could be cleared out and probably sold (via a go-between) to one of the rich collectors in Kissing Town.

Second, a band. The mushrooms weren't interested at first, but Bluebell craftily challenged them to a tug-of-war between their pet carnivorous vines and the trolls-using a deceptively thin and snarled but incredibly strong, indeed unbreakable cord. The mushrooms lost. Bluebell traded more strands to more birds for more songs. The Brothers Gibb were augmented by The Gang of Kool and K.C. and the Band of Sunshine.

Third, something to stock the bar. The water of the swamp was as intoxicating as troll dust, and a great deal cheaper.

Finally, a light show. This had to wait until the first week's receipts had come in (totalling four and a half cows), allowing the trolls to win their bet and put the fairies to work as their servants. The fairies' light was transformed into neverending fireworks by the spinning mirrored disco barrel, and the Suckin' Elf went from "interesting new dive" to "THE place to party" instantly. (Even if it did have the world's ugliest-and most durable-doormat.)

Acorn the Dwarf stayed on as bouncer. The mushrooms' cut was the compost from the privy, plus any discarded ex-patrons, once Acorn was through with them. The fairies, once their month was up, had so much fun cheating and tricking intoxicated patrons that they agreed to keep working for a nominal fee.

Slowly but surely, Burley recruited, trained and equipped the new army of the Troll Kingdom. A year later, he took the throne.

Blabberwort returned home to open her own leather repair shop, Never Mend Again. By the time the strands of magical hair were all used up, she had an idea for a new business, leather goods based on the styles of the Tenth Kingdom. Soon no troll would be seen in public without her shoes, jackets or accessories.

And Bluebell stayed on to run the Suckin' Elf. The siblings got along much better when they were too far apart to quarrel, but they got together on the holidays just to butt heads and make sure all the kids got acquainted with their cousins.

Because family is family.