The key lay in choosing the right kobold, Trun thought as his wagon creaked beneath him. Both horse and vehicle were well past their prime, but there was no way he could afford to change them. Soon, unless some success came their way, they would have to sell their transport and travel on foot. The problem is that you don’t always have a choice.
They arrived at Killent in plenty of time for the championships. Everyone of note would be there, and even though he couldn’t afford to stay at the same inn as the greats, it was still wise to arrive before all lodging was unavailable.
Grilly the kobold slept in the wagon. Trun just hoped he’d be up to the challenge this time. He hadn’t been, so far.
Trun had fallen a long way since he’d been Kobold-throwing champion in his mountain village and had announced that he would take to the road to try his luck in the championships on the plains. There had been much rejoicing among the other ogres in the valley, and they’d even gifted him the horse and wagon.
At first, he’d been successful enough that life was good and girls were plenty. Ogre women, mainly, but some of the human wenches seemed determined to find out whether the ogres’ legendary strength extended beyond what was visible with the naked eye. Life had been very good.
But then he’d come to Strathport, a small but prosperous town on the river Sihl which held a human temple with an enormous spire—an ugly thing with sharp protuberances all over it. Both he and his kobold, a fearless little fellow called Instullet, had been delighted to learn that there was a throw-off the following week. They were less delighted when they learned that the rules were different for this one.
Normally, a kobold throwing competition would be a simple affair—the ogres picked their kobolds up by the legs and, spinning quickly, threw them as far as they could. Even a weak ogre could obtain a distance of several hundred paces. In order to avoid injury to the kobolds, they were allowed small circular parachutes. Distance was calculated up to the point in which the kobold deployed the chute. This made it a team sport—the strength of the ogre combined with the guts of the kobold. And Instullet was among the craziest he’d ever met.
But Strathport was a special case. It was the only human town that had dealings with the wood trolls from the neighboring forests, so they’d decided to make it possible for a troll to win the contest. For this reason, a simple contest of strength was out of the question—the strongest troll was no match for the weakest ogre—and the organizers had decided to create a strange hybrid in which accuracy was given preponderance.
All one had to do was, from an alleyway behind the human temple, throw the kobold onto a target in the plaza on the other side. It would have been child’s play except for one thing: the target had been placed in such a way that the spire was exactly between the launchers and the target. And it was at the front of the church, while the contestants would be throwing from the rear. Points would be scored based on two factors: where the kobold was with regards to the objective when the parachute opened, and whether he actually managed to land on the target.
Trun and Instullet had put their heads together and come up with a foolproof plan. They were certain that most of the competitors would attempt to bypass the spire to the right, where the roof of the temple was slightly lower. This strategy had the disadvantage that it meant that the kobolds would invariably begin their descent off target, and would have to maneuver the parachute towards the target after opening. Any kobold worth his share of the prize money would be able to hit the bulls-eye, but they would lose a lot of points for opening the chutes off to one side. But then, most of the field consisted of trolls and of kobolds not known for their bravery.
Instullet asked straight off whether Trun thought he could clear the spire. Trun looked at it, all ugly sharpened points and razor edges, and admired the kobold’s spirit. Then he nodded. In that moment, their strategy was settled. Over the spire. The chute would open right above the target, and they would score maximum points. They couldn’t lose.
Except that they did. At the exact moment in which Trun released him on his risky flight, a strong gust of wind buffeted the spire. It came from straight behind the building, and caught the kobold well before he’d cleared the tower. Trun could only watch in mute horror as the light shape seemed to stall in the air before continuing forward into the spire, and was impaled through the chest on a sharpened spike.
Silence fell over the plaza as all eyes turned to the broken body, clothes rustling in the wind. The spire was too high to reach without scaffolding, and, as far as Trun knew, the dead kobold’s bones were still there, fluttering like a ghastly flag.
He never found out. The grieving ogre had left the town before dusk, vowing never to return.
Grilly had joined him about a month after that, had found him in the deep forest where he’d intended to mourn forever. As a partner, Grilly was a wizened old kobold who’d never distinguished himself particularly—invariably opening the parachute too early for any meaningful placings. Only Trun’s huge power had kept them in midfield, by the strength of which they managed to eke out a living.
They were made for each other. A kobold who would never get a job with a decent ogre paired with an ogre who would never live down the label of partner-killer. Other teams shunned them and made fun of them. There were some towns that simply didn’t allow them to compete at all.
But Killent was different. Killent was the largest city on the west coast. Their reputable population was made up of merchants and shopkeepers, but also more than its fair share of dockhands and sailors and drunkards and whores. No one would even blink at meeting an ogre under a cloud.
Even the tavern-keeper was friendly—almost garrulous.
“So,” the fat woman said, “in for the tourney? Where you from?”
“Over in the east. The mountains.”
“Blow me over! You’ve sure come a long way, laddo.” A crafty glint came into her eye. “I bet you’re looking ta win the prize. Too much gold for one man to carry, I’m told.”
“Good thing I’m an ogre, then,” Trun responded calmly—it was important that she know he wasn’t afraid of her or of her underlings. He picked up the ale—a bucket for him, a smaller, but still impressive mug for the kobold, and walked back to their table. In truth, while the main prize would be enough to set them up for life, he was a bit more realistic, just aiming for any of the prize money that went with the middle of the pack. Even that would be difficult to reach—the cream of the kobold-throwing crop was out in force.
Grilly thanked him for the ale, and held up a small paper envelope.
“What’s that?” Trun asked him.
“This,” Grilly said conspiratorially, “is our ticket to wealth and riches. I put my money—what little was left of it—on us to win the championship, at incredible odds. That, plus the prize money, should set us up for life.” His look was so hopeful, so admiring, that Trun just didn’t have the heart to tell him that he was an idiot. How dense did a kobold have to be to understand that the reason they could never truly compete against the rest of the teams was that he, himself, wouldn’t wait until the very last moment to open the chute.
But it was no use. Ever since the day that Grilly had tracked him down in that glade deep in the forest, Trun had never been able to shout at him. The vulnerable, adoring way he looked at the ogre, the way he moped like a kicked puppy afterwards all conspired to make it a lost cause. He just didn’t have the heart to use the hard words needed.
So he just nodded, accepting the fait accompli. “So, what do you think of our chances tomorrow?” Trun said. “Is there anything I should know about the playing field?”
Grilly shrugged. “Just a meadow on the outside of town. It’s got a little dip in the center, and the far side is slightly higher than the middle, so most of the contestants are tightly bunched with landings in the dip itself. A bit of a rocky patch and some trees at the very end—not the best place to land, maybe, but you need to be able to do it if you want a shot at winning. Nothing all that special.”
Trun knew where they would end up. They’d be in the dip with all the other middling teams. That’s what happened when your kobold was a coward.
Grilly looked at him, hurt eyes conveying the fact that he knew exactly what the ogre was thinking. And then, suddenly, the kobold smiled—a strangely delicate expression on such a weathered face. Almost as if the weight of the world had been lifted from those two tiny shoulders. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Tomorrow is our day. We’re going to win.” The kobold kissed the envelope and tucked it into his front pocket.
But instead of lifting Trun’s spirits, something about the way he said it made the ogre very nervous.
Despite the midsummer date, the day of the competition dawned cloudy and cold. A light but persistent drizzle soaked those competitors who’d been asked to compete in the qualifying rounds. There were too many competitors signed up for the main event, so the lesser teams had gotten up at daybreak to earn their positions.
Looking around the field, Trun was more embarrassed than worried about this development. His competitors included the weak, the injured, the inexperienced, even a troll or two. He shook his head in bemusement at how far he’d fallen since the early, glorious days. All he had to do to get the needed top-ten qualifying position would be to launch a middling distance, something he and Grilly could do—as a matter of fact, it was just about the only thing they could do, despite Trun’s enormous strength. The organizers knew this too, but were unwilling to give a free pass to an ogre they regarded as washed up.
In the end, his prediction played out exactly. Their throw, a mid-pack effort in any competition, netted them a close second behind a duo composed of a young ogre still growing into his strength and a kobold bordering on the suicidal. Trun was impressed by the other team—they would be a force to be reckoned with in the future.
So they discussed their chances over lunch, while the big boys arrived on the scene. Trun watched the ogres despondently—he knew most of the faces. These were the best of the best. Strong ogres with kobolds that seemingly didn’t know the meaning of the word fear, little bastards who would open a parachute at the latest possible moment, mere paces above the ground. There was no way he and Grilly would be able to match them.
But the kobold was in a strange mood, a kind of manic happiness interspersed with wistful moments in which Trun caught him staring into the distance or at Trun himself with a contemplative look in his eyes. In the end, the strangeness overcame the ogre’s pre-tourney nerves and they sat without speaking.
When just five teams remaining in front of them, Grilly broke the silence. “Here,” he said, handing Trun the envelope he’d shown him before. “For safekeeping. If anything happens to me, keep the winnings.”
The ogre almost snorted, but managed to resist. He knew his partner, and knew that, when it came to personal safety, the kobold would take no risks. He would, as always, open the chute well before any danger existed. And yet, he took the envelope and placed it in a vest pocket—any other reaction would have created an avalanche of hurt looks and guilt trips.
The line ahead of them dwindled quickly, and their turn, a moment Trun had been dreading since he got up that morning, was soon upon them. He already knew that a middling effort would get them a small cash prize. Maybe enough to return to his village in shame. Maybe a little less than that.
But the entire world was watching, and he didn’t want them to blame him for whatever their final position was. He stepped up to the line and picked the kobold up by the ankles.
The first swings were gentle ones, just getting the feel of the weight and the wind. Then, he spun around once, slowly, letting the kobold get some air under him. A second spin, then a third brought up some speed, and then, three steps forward while still spinning before bringing his hands to head height and letting go.
Grilly shot off into the distance and the crowd oohed and aahed; it had been one hell of a throw.
But Trun’s satisfaction was short-lived. Mighty as his effort had been, he knew his kobold, knew that the chute would be opening just late enough to get them past the mid-pack jumble. It would be better than he’d originally expected, but less than he deserved. He watched the tiny speck grow smaller, waiting for the tell-tale white flare of the cloth that signaled yet another mediocre result. It should be coming any moment now.
And yet it didn’t. He could barely make out the kobold, already descending towards the distant trees. Panic washed over the ogre just an instant before Grilly disappeared behind a fir.
Desperation. Trun ran all the way to the tree line where another ogre stopped him.
“There’s nothing you can do,” he said, soberly.
“What?” Trun tried to free his arm, but it was being held tightly.
“There’s no point. The little fellow was dead as soon as he hit the ground. Trust me. You don’t want to see what’s left.”
The weight of the world seemed to land on Trun’s shoulders. He stopped struggling against the other competitor. When he spoke again, it was in a much more subdued tone. “What happened? Did the ripcord break? How could that have happened? He was the most careful kobold I’d ever met.”
The other ogre gave him a strange look. “Well, those are the risks you take with a small chute. Much lighter of course, but you have to time it just right. Your partner pulled the ripcord just a second too late.” The other nodded, a mixture of regret and respect for the bravery of the departed in his eyes.
“Undersize chute? What are you talking about? We can’t afford an undersize chute.” The lighter equipment was great for distance, but came at a premium—materials were critical to make the throw safe.
“Well, the chute I saw wasn’t standard. Now, you need to stop jawing. The little guy gave everything up so you could win. Now, go back to the line and accept your prize.”
Trun was aghast. “Prize? What are you talking about? How can I claim my prize when my partner just died? This is the second time—I need to leave town. They’ll lynch me if I go back!”
The other ogre tightened his grip. “Listen. That kobold just made the greatest sacrifice a living creature can make. And he did it for you. You’re going to honor that by receiving the prize if I have to drag you back myself. Are we clear?”
Trun nodded dumbly. What could he possibly say?
He would later be completely unable to remember walking back. He must have done it because he even had a dim recollection of crowds chanting Grilly’s name, and cheering—in a muted way—his colossal throw. But the first thing he truly remembered after the tragedy, the thing that cut through his foggy thoughts like a razor, was the note.
He’d received the prize when a bookie approached: the one who’d taken Grilly’s bet. Despite Trun’s attempts to fend him off, the man insisted, saying that even the huge payoff against astronomical odds was better than any of the alternatives, and that he’d made a profit because only one bet had been made for him. Besides, everyone would know if he failed to pay up on this one.
So Trun had, mechanically, opened the envelope, out of which fell two pieces of paper. One was immediately snatched up by the bookie, who, after verification, exchanged it for a large bag of gold coins. Trun picked up the other and read it.
I really hope you’re not reading this, and if you are, I hope I’ve been carted off to the medical center or something. But I know it’s unlikely. It’s not what I wanted, but I guess I’m dead.
I suppose, unless you slipped at the line and threw me into the ground, that you are now the richest and most famous ogre in the world. You’ve probably guessed by now that my life savings didn’t all go into the bet—more than half went to getting that new chute. And if you’re reading this, I guess the tiny chute caught me out.
But I really hope you aren’t sad about me. Or rather that you are, but aren’t beating yourself up too much over it. You can rest assured that I died happy. My joy comes from fulfilling your dreams. I knew you would never understand, and what I wanted would never, could never come to pass. I loved you, Trun, since the first time I saw you hurl my predecessor an unimaginable distance. I have loved you since. I hope you accept the form I have chosen to express it, and honor me for it without holding it against me.
“I told you already,” the old sorceress said. “There’s no such thing as a female kobold. Period. I’ve been alive for hundreds of years. Trust me on this.”
“But this was an old kobold—all wrinkled and bent. Might have been older than you,” Trun insisted.
“The reason there are no female kobolds is that kobolds aren’t a natural race. They were first created as spies in the last century of the Troll Wars—small enough that the rocks couldn’t see them too well at a distance, large enough to be able to cover distances when necessary. And after that, whenever anyone needed a kobold, they just used the same spell. A spell which creates male kobolds.”
She gave him a hard look. Every witch, wizard, herbmaster and backstreet magician he’d spoken to had agreed. Karina was the very best. No other magic-user had her skill or her knowledge.
Under the force of that gaze, Trun could well believe it. “All right, then,” he said, eager to get away.
But she wasn’t done. “If you care so much, why didn’t you check? After he died, I mean.”
“I just… couldn’t.” The shock had taken some time to wear off, and Trun wasn’t about to violate his friend’s grave.
“And why do you care so much? Does it matter?”
“It matters to me.”
“Why?” The piercing look went through him and, whether it was magic or whether it was just the fact that Trun realized that it was time to confide in someone, he found himself telling the sorceress what he’d told no one ever before.
“I needed to know in order to understand what he was really feeling. It was the only way to do him justice.”
“Justice, in what way?”
Here it came. Trun took a deep breath. “I want what he did to be remembered forever, and I want the reasons behind his sacrifice to be the true story. The Ode to Grilly will be his testament. I want it to be perfect.”
“A poem?” Her eyes widened in shock.
“The greatest epic poem ever dedicated to the great deeds of a kobold.”
She shook her head in disbelief and Trun got up to leave. He was rich and famous and he didn’t have to worry about what anyone said—not even a great sorceress.
As he shut the door behind him, he heard her mutter. “An ogre poet. Now I’ve seen everything.”