They were led through a strange sort of village. All the buildings were the hollowed-out trunks of house-sized mushrooms. Some houses had neat little fences keeping in what looked like strange, one-eyed roosters, except that what should have been tail feathers were actually hissing snakes.
“Miniature cockatrice?” asked Iskra, to which all the other girls shrugged, unsure themselves.
As they walked through the community, villagers stopped and stared. Younglings peered around skirts and walls to get a better look while staying out of sight. All four of them felt weirdly on display and were eager to get to the queen.
They arrived at what had to be the palace. Where the rest of the houses in the village were toadstools, this building appeared to be hollowed out from a giant white mushroom none of them could identify. It had a thick inner trunk rising up to a deep pointed cap. Two smaller stems rose up from the front like columns, and along the sides were more thin stems that evoked towers and turrets.
Their guide hurried them along through the large doors and into the main hall. Although not sure what to expect in the palace of a giant ant queen, they certainly had not expected a series of counters with long lines of ant- people waiting to be seen. Behind the counters were the most clerk-seeming ants they had ever seen. Which was unusual since none of them had ever considered the possibility of a clerk-seeming ant.
Their guide marched resolutely to the table in the center, making rapid hand motions at the clerk ant behind the counter. They both turned to look at the witches in their presence, before going back to talking at each other too quick for Anna’s translator scribe. Finally, the ant at the table stood up and scurried through a large door at the back of the hall.
– “It will just be a moment.” Signed their guide.
The clerk-ant returned and beckoned them forward.
They followed down an ornamental hallway filled with pictures of ants wearing crowns and holding ornamental scepters, before entering what looked like a grand library. There was a large desk, and a small ant, bent over a pile of paperwork.
–You’re majesty? Translated the scribe spirit.
–Yes, Yes, what is it?
–You’re majesty, we found these four witches in our fields. We don’t know what they’re saying, and we thought perhaps you might be able to understand them.
-Oh, Hmmm, yes one moment, let me get the crown.
The queen began rummaging through the various drawers of the desk, pulling out all sorts of strange artifacts, and finally a circlet with a golden shaggy mane encrusted with garnets. With the crown firmly in place, all three ants turned expectantly towards the thoroughly bemused witches and waited.
“Um… Hi?” ventured Iskra.
“Greetings oh Midnight Acolytes of the Dread Boney-Legged –“ replied the queen, to the shock of all but Anna who was still looking at what the spirit scribe was transcribing.
“Midnight Acolytes?” whispered Kasia.
“I like it” responded Lidiya in hushed tones.
“I am Queen Adam, elected leader of the Shaggy Mane ant Village.”
“elected?” replied Kasia
“Yes! We did away with the system that determined that the ability to procreate meant you were divinely inspired to rule and instead we began to chose leaders in a yearly election. This will actually be my 8th year as Queen.”
“Fascinating! So were you a linguist or a translator previously?”
“Hmmm? Oh! No. Actually the crown has a language spell that which translates into the appropriate language of any visitors and vice versa, granting our monarch the ability to communicate at need.”
Their original guide ant clicked, in a way much like someone would clear their throats.
“Oh, yes, right, where was I. Dread acolytes of the Boney Midnight-Legged, my greetings… Why are you here?”
“We’re following a knight who stole something very dear to us.” Replied Iskra.
“And you tracked him to our village?”
“No. We were trying to figure out which exit he had used when the rain caught us and we set up camp for the night. We had no idea we were by a village at all.”
“You aren’t hiding him are you?” asked Lidiya, teasingly.
“Oh no Dread Lady. We’re only obligated to help him if he saves the queen. Otherwise we mostly spend our time farming Bantam Cockatrice for trade at the Great Antish Fair.”
“So many questions and so little time.” Whispered Anna.
“Do you perchance keep tabs on the comings and goings from the forest?”
“Why yes Dread Lady” said Queen Adam excitedly, beckoning them before disappearing among the various stacks of books. “Here we are” called his voice from among the rows, and they finally found him with a large volume in hand. “Invocation of Vasilia’s ruse, mounted knight… exited through the Morel Grove, which was partway through it’s quadrennial East-West Migration.”
“Great! Can someone show us where that would be?”
“We can have someone take you to the last known location of the grove, and point out the usual route if it’s not there. But it will have to wait till we leave for the fair in two weeks. At the moment we do not have an ant to spare as the toads are about to finish hatching the eggs and we will need all hands on deck to help take care of the chicks.”
“Two weeks! We can’t wait that long. By that point who knows what they will have done to Baba Yaga!”
“We might have a map somewhere, but they tend to not be very useful what with the landscape constantly changing.” The clerkish little queen scurried off down another aisle of books before diving into a section of stacked scrolls. He busily pulled out one after another, checking it’s contents, reshelving, and pulling out another one.
So absorbed in finding what he was looking for, he didn’t notice that the shelf was starting to sway from the furtive search. The wood creaked ominously, and there was a faint fluttering of paper. Still the queen kept furiously searching through the stacks. Finally with one loud crack, the bookshelf tipped and started to fall, and so did all the scrolls.
With a loud shot, Iskra stuck out her wand and froze everything in place.
Scrolls hung half out of their numbered cubbyholes as the shelf hung suspended at a dangerous angle. Concentrating furiously, the fiery witch tipped the bookshelf back into its correct position, and guided the scrolls back securely into their spots. After a few minutes’ effort, everything was back in its original place, while the ant queen looked at them in complete stunned horror.
“Oh, my goodness, you saved me!”
“Not really, the shelf wouldn’t have fallen on you.”
“Not THAT. Do you have any idea how long it would have taken to put everything back? Not to mention all the forms that would have had to have been filled out about the incident, the repair requests, the reports, I would have been absolutely DROWNING in paperwork! You really saved my life here.”
“Um… don’t worry about it. It was my pleasure.”
“No no, I am honour bound to repay you for saving me. Let me think. I really can’t afford to spare any ants during this harvest. Oh wait I know! My most splendiferous dread lady heroes, I will give you the Morell Compass!”
“No no, Morell. It points to the location of the largest cluster of Morell’s in the surrounding forest. In a regular forest, it would be where to harvest them, but here. Here it should take you directly to where the grove is now. It is one of the prized treasury items which are mine to distribute at need. I will have my clerks find it, while we prepare you a mighty feast of our best assorted sweets in preparation for you long journey.”
With that pronouncement, the queen rang a little bell that suddenly appeared in his hand, and they were immediately surrounded by excited ants taking instructions, while the witches looked on bemused.