Love, Swords, and Very Small People
At the sight of Jason Woodrue, I writhed out from under Laethwen and struggled to raise myself up to a sitting posture, that I might better stare in his wooden face with all the hatred at my command. “You,” I said, for that was all I could say at the time.
“It has been awhile, hasn’t it, Atom?” He smiled through his leafy beard. I would have given twelve warriors just to be free to smash his vegetative jaw. But there was no way free from the vines which bound me for the moment. “But I have been busy,” he admitted.
“I don’t doubt it,” I said. “Most likely with some other super-heroes.”
“Yes, I have been cheating on you,” he said. “But not just with other idiots in costumes. With the Green. It told me where you were.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. He said, “The Green is the collective consciousness of all plants on this planet. I learned of it during my time in prison, when I had much time to study beyond the science I once knew. Then I was liberated from prison by a corporate head, who wanted me to reveal the secrets of a plant elemental, which I did. I dissected the bugger.”
At that, Maya sucked her breath in and looked pale, even through her green skin. She and her people were plant dryads, and to hear of a plant-man being so treated filled her with fear. As if she had not enough of that for Jason Woodrue already.
“After that, he revived himself, and we had a set-to. I regret to say that he prevailed, and I went back to jail. To Arkham Asylum, this time. But I was freed again.”
“By whom?”, I said.
“By persons I’m not at liberty to reveal,” he said, standing there with his hands crossed like branches across his chest. “They want me to join them. I agreed to, with one proviso: first, I get the chance to find you and revenge myself upon you. They agreed, so long as I made good time in doing it. I intend to do so.”
“My husband will defeat you, wooden man,” proclaimed Laethwen, making me proud of her, but making me realize as well that I had no idea of how to do so. Yet.
“I contacted the Green, from whom no man can hide,” Woodrue continued. “They told me where you were. I learned more from them, when I asked more: of this Lilliputian tribe you’ve been adopted by, of its enemies, and of where some of your old allies were, the Bat-Knights. It was simple enough to locate their cave and take their princess hostage here, threatening her with death from a vine with long thorns. With a few more hostages in hand, I was able to bend the Knights to my will.”
“For the moment,” said Hestara, staring at him in defiance. She, too, wished freedom from the vines so that she could find a sword and carve our foe into kindling. But it was not possible, then.
“Just for old times’ sake, I crossed over into my old world, found Maya, and took her prisoner,” said Woodrue. “Then I contacted the Skul-Riders, as you call them, and they were easy to persuade to agree to my crusade. Now Morlaidh is conquered, and we have you. My objective is almost achieved.”
“Outside of killing me, Woodrue, what is your objective?” I asked him.
“You should know, Atom,” he said. “Meat must be made subservient to Plant. True, you can’t be eliminated. We need your carbon dioxide as a source of our lives. But that doesn’t mean we have to put up with your eating us, or carving us into planks, or imprisoning us within concrete-bounded gardens. No, we’ll let you live. Albeit, we’ll let you live to serve us.”
“That is not the true relation, Woodrue,” said Maya, who was one of his original people. “Plants do not seek to conquer. We coexist. And I am closer to these humans than I am to you, by a far estimation. Give up your insanity, and you may yet be accepted by the Dryads.”
“I doubt it,” Woodrue said. “Besides, once I’m done here, your world is next on the agenda. They’re very vulnerable to such things as nuclear weapons. If you doubt it, I’ll show you, in the future.”
“How long has it been since the last time somebody’s called you a madman?” I asked, straining against my bonds.
“Oh, I used to get that in Arkham all the time,” said Woodrue. “Only there, it was couched in different terms. ‘Challenged’ was the acceptible one, less likely to get a person sued. But I don’t mind. The only thing that matters is control. And now, once again, I have that.
“By the way, Atom. When I spoke earlier of letting you live...well, don’t take that too literally. You, I can do without. And once the means of your public execution are completed, I will.”
At that, he left. It was so much like the behavior of a villain in our fictions, especially our cinemas, which is form of recorded play, I almost laughed. But with Woodrue, I knew it was deadly serious.
Laethwen managed to lay her head upon my chest, bound as both of us were. “We have been endangered before, husband,” she said. “Doubtless, we will be again. But we only have a short time to escape, I trow.”
“I trow as well,” I said. “Getting free of these vines is possible. Finding a way to beat Woodrue will be more difficult. I doubt that his alliance is too steady.”
“It is not,” confirmed Hestara. “Olin Parr and the Knights are only doing his bidding because I am a captive. They do not like the Skul-Riders, and the feeling is mutual from the latter. But the Knights do what they do because they are forced to, and the Riders accept it as a mutually advantageous alliance.”
“Kind of like Roosevelt and Stalin against Hitler,” I said. “Never mind who they are.”
Maya looked a bit jealous of Laethwen, but I could not help that. “This is my fault, more than any other,” she said. “If we had kept watch on Woodrue, perhaps none of this would have come to be.”
“Woodrue’s a powerful villain,” I said. “It might be that nothing you and your people could do would be of effect against him.”
“Can’t you summon your large friends, Atom?” asked Laethwen. “The ones you told me of in your stories? The man with the green ring, and the swift one, and the one who is like the beasts the Riders rode?”
My lip wrinkled mirthlessly. “My Justice League signal device is in my belt. And as you know, I gave that away.”
“Oh,” she said. I had given the belt to Jean’s paramour, and did not expect to see it again. “Then what must we do to be free from here?”
I turned to Maya. “Can you command the vegetation in our bonds to unwind and free us?” I asked.
“No. The ropes are dead matter, hand-tied.”
“Then what of plants that are not dead? Can’t you command them to free us?”
She looked at me. “There is only so much growth they are capable of, Atom. But I will try.”
Hestara looked on impassively. But I detected a note of jealousy from Laethwen. After all, Maya was very beautiful, and if she succeeded in freeing us, that would be a feather in her cap, not Laethwen’s. (That is only an expression, Rentai. A cap is an article of clothing worn on the head by some of my people. I know, the princess wears nothing on her head. I shall explain this at another time.)
As it was, Maya shut her eyes and concentrated. I thought I detected some movement, some rustling outside, that seemed much more than the wind blowing branches around. But, finally, the green-skinned woman gave up and opened her eyes. “It is of no use,” she said. “I can make contact, but the Green resists me. Truly, Woodrue has forged an alliance with it.”
Laethwen relaxed a bit, despite herself. Hestara strained against her bonds, but could do nothing. Then I took thought, and said to the woman from another world, “Maya, what about concentrating on me?”
“What?” She looked at me with curiosity. “Atom, you are certainly not a plant!”
“Certainly not,” I said. “But I’ve long believed your power over plants is a form of magic. Am I right in thinking so?”
“Is this girl a sorceress?” asked Hestara. “It would definitely help if she was.”
Hestitantly, Maya said, “It has never been proven one way or the other. Our powers are in our minds. There are some who have thought us magical in nature, but only in relation to themselves. I do not know, Atom.”
It was Laethwen who spoke next. “But you do not know that you are not, woman! All four of us face death. If you can somehow free my husband, my gratitude...mine...will be yours. And a title in our kingdom.” She emphasized the word “mine” to impress upon Maya that the reward she got would be from Laethwen herself, not me. But I had no intention of trading my beloved queen for Maya, no matter what the green girl’s beauty was.
“I think it more important that she retains her life, if she succeeds,” said Hestara, dryly. For my part, I kept silent and stared into Maya’s eyes.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked.
“Give me back the power to shrink,” I said. “My costume has the power of a burned-out star. I used to be able to shrink myself by shining sunlight through a lens of the same material. If you can help me reduce in size again, I will be free of these ropes.”
“I have no lens,” she said.
“Then concentrate on me!”
Even without the controls of my belt, I wagered that some power remained within my suit. Or perhaps something still remained from Green Lantern’s ring. At any rate, when all other avenues seem closed to you, you settle for what is open, and you hope. And pray.
So I did both, as Maya closed her eyes once again.
Some minutes passed. The two other women fidgeted, but spoke not a word. I, too, stayed wordless. Maya, bound and crouching, concentrated so hard upon her task that her brow showed sweat.
Finally, Laethwen sighed and said, “It is useless. We must try something else.”
“Then why,” I said, “do I feel my ropes loosening?”
Both Laethwen and Hestara stared at me in shock. Maya kept concentrating. In another second’s time, the ropes fell from about my wrists. As my hands went to the ties about my feet, I said to Maya, “Open your eyes. You have succeeded!”
The green girl did so, and was as astonished as any of the others. I was appreciably smaller than I had been a few seconds before. “I did that?” she said.
“You did,” I said, untying the last of my ropes. “Now stop concentrating. I don’t want to get any smaller.”
Within another minute, I had freed the three women. They rubbed their wrists and ankles, stretched, and expressed gratitude for their freedom. They did not hug each other, though. That might have been too much. Certainly it would have been for Laethwen and Maya.
“Next order of business will be to get out of here,” I announced. “After that, we make a plan of action. Quickly.”
“The Bat-Knights will follow me,” said Hestara. “That leaves only the Skul-Riders and Woodrue as our enemies.”
“That isn’t reassuring,” said Laethwen. “The Riders have bedeviled us for many years. And Woodrue is an old enemy of my husband’s.”
“Are you always such fatalists?” said Maya, in exasperation. “We are free. And we have the Atom with us. How can we not be victorious?”
I smiled. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Maya. Now, let’s live up to it.”
We had precious little time in which to work. If Woodrue came back early to gloat over his captives, we would be undone. Luckily, the guards over our chamber were less than prepared for our escape, or for the fighting ability of the three women with me, as well as my own. Before long, they were silenced.
Carefully, we made our way to the village proper, and saw the aspect of Morlaidhians in bondage to the Skul-Riders, who prodded them cruelly with their lances in their labors. The Bat-Knights seemed less enthusiastic about such things, but did nothing to prevent them. I seethed in rage. But I controlled myself, and blocked Laethwen from throwing herself at our foemen.
“I’ll see them gutted,” said my princess. “By the gods above and below, I will.”
“No more than we have to, Laethwen,” I cautioned. “I will never be a party to a massacre, even of our enemies.”
“You have a good heart, Atom,” commented Hestara. “I just hope you prove to have equally as good a head.”
“Prove yours,” I said, pointing out a lone Bat-Knight on foot, passing not far from our position. “But be secretive about it.”
The queen of the winged warriors emerged carefully from cover below the leafy branch that covered us, and showed herself to the lone warrior. He stood as if paralyzed, looking upon her. “My lady!” he said, and began to kneel.
She stopped him with a motion. “Sha, soldier! Back on your feet, lest you reveal me. I have been liberated, by the Atom, and am as safe as anyone here can be. Can you bring Olin Parr to me, and not be seen doing so?”
The Bat-Knight said, after a moment, “If I cannot perform such a duty for your majesty, it will be because I was struck down on the way.”
“See that such does not happen, man. Go!”
Hestara returned to cover with the rest of us as the soldier walked away. “It is done,” she said. “I know that one. A loyalist he is, and hopefully a good sneak as well.”
“We shall pray for his success,” said Laethwen.
Maya eyed me critically. “What of you, Atom? You are smaller than any of us, now. Will this not lessen your prowess against Woodrue?”
“My size hasn’t affected my strength,” I told her. “But later, if we both survive this, I hope you can restore me to my normal height.”
“I hope so, too,” she said. “If you mean your ‘normal’ height is one like unto our own.”
She had seen me as Ray Palmer, one of the Big Folk. “That is my normal height now, Maya. Trust me.”
So we waited until a familiar armored figure was seen in the space behind the building where we had met the other warrior. Hestara called out to him from concealment. “Olin Parr,” she said. “Your queen gives you welcome.”
Parr seemed to gain height with relief. “My queen,” he said. “Can you show yourself to me?”
“You come over here,” she ordered. He did so, joining us beneath the leafy branch.
The Bat-Knight was quick to clasp hands with me. “Atom,” he said. “Forgive me for my earlier actions.”
“You’re forgiven, Olin,” I said, returning his hand-clasp. “I know why you had to do it.”
“Olin Parr, the alliance with the Skul-Riders is hereby severed,” said Hestara. “But the bird-riders must not know of it until the last moment. Can you get word to your soldiers of such?”
“It might be easier were they to see you, my queen,” opined Parr. “Less chance of a soldier inadvertently slipping information to the enemy, as well. But I will obey your orders.”
“Before we go giving any orders, Olin,” I said, “let’s talk. I think we have a plan.”
That plan had to be actuated swiftly, before our absence or the guards’ binding and gagging was discovered. Olin Parr went back to the village, summoned his Bat-Knights together on some pretext, and, once they were assembled, quietly told them what had transpired. It was a credit to their discipline that they did not break out in cheers on the spot. But he told them what had to be done.
Woodrue himself was crouched outside New Morlaidh, communing with whatever plantish gods he consulted. The Skul-Riders were directing the men of my tribe in the construction of a gallows, miniature to Woodrue’s size, from which hung four nooses, in the main thoroughfare of town. None of our party had to ask for whom those ropes were intended.
But the Bat-Knights filtered back into the village, each of them holding within his breast the secret Olin Parr had imparted to them. The three women and I watched from behind curtains in a second-floor room which Parr had taken as his own.
“How much longer, Atom?” asked Laethwen.
“That depends on Olin,” I said. I was waiting for his signal.
From another window came Maya’s voice. “Atom. Look!”
I rushed to the window through which she was looking. It afforded us a clear view of where Woodrue was sitting. But he sat and meditated no more. Instead, he was getting up, and then turning to walk in the direction of the place in which we had been bound.
“Well, then, I guess it depends on us,” I said, and started for the door.
I only had to knock down one Skul-Rider on my way out. The women followed me, with stealth. When I got to the ground level, I poked my head around the edge of the building, caught Olin Parr’s eye, and waved to him. He came to us. He left with Hestara.
“What of us?” asked Laethwen.
“Wait,” I advised.
Before long, we heard the noise of wooden feet thumping back to the village with haste. Woodrue towered over the dirt streets of New Morlaidh, and his barked visage showed wrath. “The prisoners have escaped!” he screamed. “Find them! Find them!”
Then a black shape took to the air, with two figures on its back.
“One is found,” said Olin Parr, atop his bat-steed. “Queen Hestara is free. Bat-Knights, arise!”
There was a clamor, seemingly from all the various people in our town, captive and captor alike. The Bat-Knights went to their bats. The Skul-Riders who could, boarded their birds. The people of New Morlaidh gave a cheer of liberation. Some of them set upon their captors, and there was battle, and bloodshed.
From that, we could not hold ourselves back.
Laethwen and I sprinted into the streets, where I grabbed a Skul-Rider who was besetting an old man. It took only one punch from me to lay the Rider low, but my princess insisted on stomping him vigorously on her own. I pulled her away, and got us both atop the bird which the Rider had rode. Within seconds, we were in the air.
She was smiling. “Once again, Atom,” she said. “Once again, we fight together.”
“Once again, Laethwen,” I answered, “and always.”
The aerial battle between Bat-Knights and Skul-Riders was in full force. It was like unto the war between winged craft in the First World War of my people, in many ways. The bird-riders fought desperately, knowing what they had to lose. But the Bat-Knights fought for their queen, their commander, and their redemption in the eyes of my people, and of themselves. They were carrying the day.
Woodrue threw himself into the fray, stamping out with his great feet, trying to crush the yellow people before him. But they evaded his stamps, though he tore down some of our dwellings. I spurred our winged mount high above him, and put it into a dive. To him I called, “Hey, Jason! Here’s fire in your eye!”
He looked up.
I loosed some of the napalm he had supplied to the Skul-Riders square in his face.
Woodrue shrieked, the substance bursting into flame as it covered his visage. Laethwen cheered at the sight, a lusty, yellow Valkyrie in her element. (A Valkyrie is a sort of woman warrior who also rode a winged steed. More need not be said, Rentai.) Our foe was not beaten, but he was stricken.
The plant-man threw himself prone in the dirt, rolling to put out the flame as best he could, batting it with his wooden hands. He was lucky to be left with eyes. When he arose, his face was charred, his nose but a stump. But he was alive, and he was angry.
“You die, Palmer,” he rasped. “You, and your Lilliputians with you. Behold!”
He threw forth his arms, and creepers of vegetation began snaking into the village. Some Morlaidhians at the edge of town began to be engulfed by the tendrils, surrounded, crushed. By his own doing, Woodrue could accomplish more destruction than Bat-Knights and Skul-Riders combined.
But at that point, a lithe green figure ran into the main street of the village, and faced Woodrue defiantly. “This for you, failure,” she shouted, and put both hands to her head.
The plant life invading New Morlaidh began to draw back. Her power was not enough to countermand Woodrue’s, but it could halt its progress. The Plant-Master was enraged anew.
“Of all I will kill today,” he said, striding forward, “you will be first.”
For, once upon a time, Maya had been Woodrue’s queen, and it had been she who banished him from their world. Now, he was going forth to return the favor, with a foot that would crush her into the earth.
I leapt from the back of my bird, angling my fall correctly. “Not on my watch,” I said, and slammed into Woodrue’s head feet-first.
The great villain went down, landing on his back, smashing into several dwellings on his way down. Laethwen strafed his chest with her bird’s claws, then landed beside the two of us and put her arm possessively about my waist. Maya’s eyes were still closed in concentration.
I looked at the sky. Above us, Olin Parr’s forces were winning. About us, Laethwen’s people had revolted and were killing the Skul-Riders who remained on the ground.
“We have won, Atom,” she said. “Once again, we have faced doom, and triumphed!”
“Not just yet,” I said. “Look.”
Woodrue was getting up.
“I hope you didn’t think that small blow could finish me, Palmer,” he said, raising his upper half to a sitting position. “A man made of wood isn’t as fragile as a man of flesh. Let me demonstrate.”
He stood up, raised a mighty fist, and prepared to bring it down on us. We stood there.
“Well? Aren’t you going to try and run?” he asked.
I told him, “If we had to run, we would have done it by now. But I don’t think we’ll have to. We’re expecting help.”
“Help?” He looked puzzled. “What kind of help?”
He didn’t see what was building behind him. By the time a shadow began falling over his shoulder, it was too late.
A green hand grabbed his wrist.
“That kind of help,” I told him.
Another powerful arm of green went around his chest and held him fast. A voice of great depth spoke, from a mouth that didn’t look as though it was designed to form words.
“Woodrue,” said the newcomer. “Once again...you threaten life. This is not...the way of the Green.”
“YOU!” he screeched.
Maya looked at him and smiled. “This is the form you take in this world, O’ Man of the Green,” she said.
“Damn you!” said Woodrue. “Damn you to the lowest circle of Hell!”
“I have been there...” said the one we call the Swamp Thing. “And back. Now you...must return...with me. To Arkham.” To Maya, he said, “Thank you...for the summoning. I have...fought this one...before.”
“Don’t thank me,” she said. “Rather, thank the Atom here. He told me to summon you. I think he fought Woodrue even before you did.”
“And I’ll fight you again!” raged Woodrue. “Both of you. And the next time, I’ll kill you both! Shred you like a meat patty, Palmer! Run you through a mulcher, Holland!”
“Woodrue,” advised the Swamp Thing, “close your orifice.”
Then he bore Woodrue away, and we saw him no more.
Laethwen looked at me. “Well, Atom?”
“All right, Laethwen,” I said. “Now we’ve won.”
There is not much more to add to the official chronicle. The Swamp Thing is indeed a plant elemental, who can travel in the bodies of vegetation at great speed. Maya was able to mentally summon him, once Woodrue was stunned and his power was no longer interfering with her own. She was also able to restore me, later, to my proper height.
The Bat-Knights struck an alliance with our tribe, and went back with their queen and half of the Skul-Riders as captives. The remainder were kept with us. Some were executed, but not many. I am grateful for that. Laethwen was not.
Maya returned to her own realm. I admit that I was sad to see her go. But she assured us that if she is ever needed again, her help will be ours.
As for the princess, she still remains mine, and I remain hers. New Morlaidh has been rebuilt once again. Woodrue has not been seen again in these parts.
But if he returns, we will show him more of the same, and I am confident again of victory.
That is all that needs be said. Laethwen is not a month away from childbirth. I am hoping for a daughter, to whom we will give a name similar to her mother. But, of course, she hopes for a son.
A son whom she insists we will call Atom.
I have long since despaired of arguing her out of this point. She argues most eloquently in her silence. I will not give up in the face of such as Woodrue. In Laethwen’s case, I have no choice.
So, if we have a son...
...then Atom he shall be.
In memory of Gardner Fox, Gil Kane, and Murphy Anderson, who made the Atom one of my favorite heroes back in 1963.