When Britta opened her eyes, there was a cloud of dust in front of Donald. Sawdust, that’s what it looked like. But the cloud didn’t settle or drift away, it was hovering.
Donald backed away, shaking his head. The cloud followed him.
Britta looked closer. The cloud was made up of tiny specks, moving around like insects in a swarm. The cloud buzzed angrily. Za za za. Britta recognised the tune.
Donald bucked like he’d been bitten, turned and ran. The cloud chased him.
This wasn’t quite how Britta had imagined this going. The sprite was apparently able to shapeshift — good for her, but if she could choose her shape, what was with the body image issues? — and could continue singing horribly in her new form.
“Za zzz za zzz za.”
Britta headed back towards the road. She was sure she would end up in exactly the same spot as before, but the soldiers would be there to protect her. That was what the tolls were paying them to do, after all.
Donald was able to spring in between obstacles without slowing down and they were in sight of the road in a few seconds. Britta could hear the angry unmelodious buzzing on their tail, but she was too busy holding on for dear life to look over her shoulder.
“You need to stop eating between meals,” Britta muttered.
“Nyaaaa,” said Donald.
They broke through the tree line onto the road. The soldiers were relaxing, leaning against their tree trunk, not expecting their recent visitors to return so soon. They jumped up and looked ready for a fight as Britta burst out, but the swarm didn’t leave the forest.
Donald came to a stop and Britta looked into the trees. She couldn’t see the sprite but she could hear it, lamenting sadly again.
The soldiers had drawn their weapons and looked ready for battle. The way they were leaning away, Britta suspected they were more ready for running away. The sprite remained behind the trees.
Britta slid off Donald and caught her breath. She hadn’t been doing the running but she was still exhausted. She looked around for the soldier she’d spoken to before — he was bound to have something smug to say so might as well get it over with — and her gaze came to rest on the dead tree lying across the road.
Something about it struck her as odd. She approached it, ignoring whatever comments the soldiers were making. The tree had a strange outline. It wasn’t glowing or anything, it just looked clearer than it had before.
She was closer to it than before, so that might have something to do with it. What did it mean, though?
Then it became clear. She could see it, the true form hidden behind the rotten bark.
“Hey!” She kicked the tree trunk. “Get up.”
The soldiers who had been warily scanning the trees turned to look at her.
Britta kicked it again. “I can see you. Come on, or I’m calling your girlfriend over here.”
The tree splintered into a million tiny pieces and a cloud formed across the road. It shrank into a smaller space and a wooden boy appeared in front of her.
“No, no, quiet. She’ll hear you.”
The soldiers gathered around Britta and the boy, forming a wall.
“Go over there and talk to her,” said Britta. “She’s very upset.”
“You think I don’t know that,” said the boy. “I’m upset, too. I can’t take it anymore, I tell you. The singing, day and night and day and night. When she’s happy, when she’s sad. No more, I can’t take it.” He sounded desperate.
Britta could sympathise, but that wouldn’t help her get to the capital.
“You didn’t like her singing?”
The boy sprite shook his head.
“You didn’t dump her because she’s too skinny?”
The sprite looked baffled by the question.
Britta found him strangely familiar, or at least his behaviour. There were boys like this at school, the ones with girlfriends who dragged them around everywhere and told them what to do. They had perpetually shell-shocked faces, caught between being amazed they had a girlfriend and not knowing how to participate in the relationship on an equal footing.
Those kinds of girls, Britta was sure, chose their partners not out of love or attraction, but because they knew they would be able to control them. Most of them had tried the other route, putting out for the boy they really liked, and had ended up used and tossed aside, so now they preyed on the kinds of boys who would appreciate a little physical attention. The price of gratitude, though, was total domination. Although, she wasn’t sure why the devs had programmed a character like his. Most of them were characters like this. Did they think this behaviour was something to be proud of?
Everything seemed much clearer since she got off Donald. Was he the reason her perception had been clouded? When he was leading the way, did he make the saving throws instead of her?
She grabbed the sprites wrist. “Let’s go.”
The sprite resisted but allowed himself to be dragged along. He could have easily changed form and escaped, but then so could those boys in her school.
“Hey, come out,” Britta shouted. “I’ve found him.”
“No, don’t,” said the boy sprite anxiously.
The girl sprite appeared between two trees, back in her normal body, her dress and hair looking immaculate.
“Oh, you’re here,” she said with practised indifference. “I thought you were leaving.”
“He ran away because he doesn’t like your singing,” said Britta. No more beating about the bush, she’d decided.
The female sprite’s mood changed to ferocious denial. “What are you talking about? Everyone loves my singing.”
“No, they don’t. No one does.”
“La la la la la laaaaaa,” screamed the sprite tunelessly. She stopped to receive applause, but there was only an uncomfortable silence. The sprite’s face became infused with rage. “If you can’t appreciate art, then you’re just philistines. Your poor taste isn’t my fault.”
Britta understood the damage a little honesty could do to a person’s ego. People were often mean under the guise of being honest — brutally honest, like that was a badge of honour they were conferring on you — but their ‘constructive criticism’ served no purpose other than to make them feel superior. Sometimes, though, you had to stick the boot in for a person’s own good.
Britta grabbed the female sprite’s hand and a second sprite appeared.
“Sing,” Britta said to the copy.
“La la la la laaaaa,” went the copy. There was silence as the last awful note faded.
“I… I don’t sound like that… do I?” The horrified sprite looked around at the gathered audience slowly nodding at her. She put her hands to her face, then turned and ran.
“No, wait,” said the boy sprite. He chased after her.
Britta felt bad. Not because of what she’d done, but because she knew it was a painful process to learn what people really thought of you. She followed them into the forest, feeling responsible. Within a few metres, she found the sprites dress on the ground. A few more, and she heard some rather unpleasant gasping she recognised — her bedroom was next to her parents’ — and the sound of wood on wood. If they weren’t careful, all that friction would start a fire.
Problem solved? Britta had given the boy a little more say in the relationship by destroying the girl’s confidence, hardly an original concept. Where would they go from here? Britta had no idea, but she knew where she was going. She went back to the road, feeling scummy.
As Britta emerged from the trees, she realised she had finally made it to the other side of the road. Perfect timing! She walked back to the soldiers.
“Here,” she said to Sergeant Jojo, handing him the dress.
He held it up and looked at it. “Not sure this is suitable for a six-year-old. Although I do know a girl who it won’t fit perfectly.” He grinned.
Britta got on Donald and set off down the unblocked road towards the city.