(This is part two of a series starting here. Our story so far: Aria Twine raises monsters in a fantasy world where war is replaced with board-games. She recently acquired a minotaur.)
That evening, the stench of unwashed bovine made Aria’s eyes water when she entered the barn. “Eesh…”
She checked her sleeping minotaur’s bandages. They were bloody, but the wounds under them had already half soldered shut. Scars crisscrossed like the maze from which the minotaur escaped. Aria had never heard of minotaurs escaping their labyrinths, because the walls shifted and morphed to trap them at every turn; just like Scales the ice-dragon froze nearby terrain, or like turtles carried their homes, minotaurs’ mazes moved with them. The Great Ax’s fracture must have opened an escape route.
“Healing pretty well.” She lifted the minotaur’s eye-patch. “Oooh. That’s never gonna be the same. Pity.”
She left the barn to let the minotaur rest. Outside, Scales slithered around twenty barrels of dragon-fodder. Aria opened a barrel and the icy dragonling opened its maw. Aria tossed Scales a dried grasshopper bigger than her forearm. “Pure protein, perfect for a young dragon. I had to buy these from elves.” While Scales devoured the grasshopper, Aria patted the dragon’s back with her gloved hands. “Your wing-nubs haven’t grown in yet. You’re not ignoring your veggies, are you?”
“Squraaa.” Scales opened its maw to ask for more. “Squraqura.”
“You’ll get more tomorrow. Go eat your veggies.” Aria put her hands on her hips. She’d have to store the barrels in the barn, or Scales might break into them, but it took all her strength to roll a barrel with the brunt of her shoulder.
The barn-door opened.
The minotaur stepped out onto the grass. He shaded his eye from the setting sun and picked at his bandages.
“Whoa! Hey! Easy, there!” Aria ran to him and pressed bandages back on.
The minotaur looked first at her and then the bandages.
“Go back!” Aria pointed back to the barn. She resumed rolling dragon-fodder.
“Rrr.” The beast easily hefted a barrel in each hand, tucked them under his elbows, and grabbed two more.
“Whoa. Don’t overexert yourself,” said Aria. “Those are each three hundred pounds.” The minotaur twisted his thick neck, cracking his back. “Well, if you’re up for it. Bring ’em in.”
The minotaur followed Aria back into the barn and set down the barrels.
“Um… Yeah. That’ll do.” She gave him a thumb up. “Perfect.”
He tilted his head to the left. His horns looked like they might catch on the rafters. He tried to emulate her thumb up with both his three-fingered hands.
“Yeah, good!” said Aria, with two thumbs up. “You’ve saved me some time! Can you bring in the rest?”
The earth trembled under the minotaur’s weight when he returned with six more barrels. Soon he brought the last barrels into the barn, then sat with his arms folded over his chest. His eye watched Aria, eager for more thumbs up.
“Sort of clingy, aren’t you,” she mumbled. “Well, I’m glad to have company. I’ve been talking to imps for weeks, and they don’t do yard-work.”
The minotaur nodded as if it understood.
“You need a name. How about Homer?”
The minotaur blinked.
“Aria.” Aria pointed to her own chest. “Homer.” To the minotaur.
Homer pointed to himself and grunted twice. “Rrm-rr.”
“Yeah!” She gave a thumb up. “Homer!”
Homer pointed to Aria. “Arr-rra.”
“Yeah, Aria. I won you in a game of table-war.”
“Table-war. You saw me fight the elf. Here, follow me.” Aria led Homer behind her cabin to a table ten feet by ten feet square. She reached under the table for chests of wooden figurines and wooden cards. “I used to play with table-war geeks all the time. I’ve still got some hobby-supplies. Look, this is a good one.”
The horse-figurine had jointed legs; she made it gallop for Homer, who watched with limited comprehension.
“You know, you’re healing pretty well. I’ll bet I could enlist you with the human military right now.” She pat her minotaur between the horns. “Let’s visit the market tomorrow.”
The market was hours away nestled in a valley. Humans trickled down hillsides to flood between tents and booths. A few elves shouted of their wares, and gnomes wandered assisting official transactions.
“You’re a pretty smooth ride,” said Aria. Homer pulled her wagon between booths. “Left! Left!”
Homer veered left. The awed stares from passerby didn’t bother him; he just shaded his eye from the sun.
“Homer, check this out!” Aria pointed to a glass tank of murky water the size of a swimming pool. The walls of the tank were soldered with gold. “Seafolk. Probably wheeled that tank all the way from the pier.”
A green face pressed against the tank from inside. Its glowing egg-shaped eyes ogled Aria’s minotaur. Webbed hands with suction cups rubbed gold coins against the glass.
“Trading, huh? You got a gnome?” asked Aria. The seafolk pointed to a gnome standing outside the tank. The gnome was adorned with jewelry and shells. “What’s your name?”
“Nonoginta Novem. My English being not good.”
“Tell your merfriend I’m selling my minotaur to the human military. If they don’t give me a good deal, we’ll talk more.”
The gnome and the seafolk communicated with finger-taps through the glass wall. “Giving a thousand golds for the walk-cow. It is the offer final.”
Aria licked her lips. A thousand gold coins could buy another dragon-egg. “I’ll think about it.”
She led Homer around a corner to an enlistment booth. Behind a wooden counter, a red-headed human man in iron armor reviewed brass cards with two gnomes. These gnomes were nude; humans didn’t often decorate their help. The armored man noticed Aria and squinted at the beast she’d brought. “I was warned you’d surprise me, Twine.”
“One minotaur, for the human military,” said Aria. “Whadya think, Sir, uh…”
“Sir Jameson.” He signaled his gnomes, and the gnomes vaulted the counter to measure the minotaur’s muscles with string. Homer lifted his arms and tried not to step on the rocky creatures. “Never taken a minotaur.” When Sir Jameson stood, his armor-plates clanged. “They’re hard to pull from their labyrinths, and some say it’s not worth the effort.”
“Really?” Aria hopped from the wagon. “Why?”
“Homesickness. Minotaurs just keep drawing mazes in the dirt. If you get two of them together, it’s all they ever do. One draws a maze, the other navigates it.”
The gnomes felt Homer’s calves.
“So what’ll you give me for him?” asked Aria. “Seafolk over there offered a thousand gold coins.”
“Yeah, but that’s seafolk,” said Jameson. “Queen Anthrapas gave you all you needed to start a farm, and you promised you’d only ever sell to us.”
“Sure, for any monster raised on my farm, but I didn’t raise this guy. He showed up just yesterday from the Great Ax’s fracture. He’s on the market.”
Jameson shrugged. “I’ll give you voucher for fifty gold coins, and you’ll be first in line to claim any monster we catch in the wild wastes. Best I can do.”
“A hundred gold, and I’ll take three monsters.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve heard,” said Jameson, “we’re in a state of emergency. Human farmers are required to sell to the military at market value. Fifty gold coins is generous, Aria.”
Aria crossed her arms. “I haven’t heard about any emergency.”
“Ten more gnomes were found decapitated near the dwarven border,” said Jameson. “We learned just yesterday that dwarfs challenged the elves to an official table-war match for land. War’s on its way.”
Aria considered her minotaur. The gnomes crawled up his fur to measure his horns; they noted his eye-patch in the grid of dots they engraved on a brass card. “Don’t worry, Homer, they’re harmless.” She turned to Jameson. “Why are you in armor, Sir? You’re not getting brassed today, too, are you? Is this your first day on the job? Posing for a figurine in your best get-up?”
“Take it easy, Aria.”
“Don’t talk down to me. Ten years ago, you’d be following my orders. I wouldn’t even know which figurine was yours among all the others under my command. How much will you pay for my minotaur?” she asked again.
Jameson sighed. “If you do me a favor, I’ll cut you a deal.”
“Whadya need?” Aria looked down when a gnome rugged her shirt. He passed her the brass card whose grid of holes described Homer.
“There are dwarfs nearby and its making my gnomes skittish,” said Jameson. “Make them leave.”
“Dwarfs?” Aria put her hands on her hips. “Well, that’s unpleasant, but they’re allowed here, aren’t they? It’s a market, people sell stuff.”
“They’re not selling anything,” said Jameson, “and if it worries my gnomes, it worries me. Make them leave or accept my original offer. If you sell your minotaur to the seafolk, I’ll get Queen Anthrapas to come down on you like a ton of bricks.”
“Geez, okay,” said Aria. “Where are they?”
As Homer and Aria approached the drawfs’ black tent at the edge of the market, the crowds thinned. Humans checked over their shoulders. Gnomes shuffled hastily. Elves avoided the area entirely. Even Homer sensed dark tension. He sniffed the air and flared his nostrils.
Aria understood. On the deepest level, there was something wrong with dwarfs. While gnomes emerged from magma in subterranean caves but frequently visited the surface, dwarfs mostly ate downward. They mined mountains like anthills until the peaks collapsed. Their faces were featureless and flat with foreheads down to their nostrils, leaving no space for eyes.
A dwarf in coal-colored armor opened the flap of its black tent. Homer touched Aria’s shoulder. “Sorry, Homer, we’re going in. Hey! You! What are you doing here?”
The dwarf turned. It was four feet tall and four feet wide. The only area exposed by its armor was its teeth, dingy like the hull of a shipwreck. Its teeth crunched a stone into crumbs, and it swallowed the crumbs hungrily. Dwarfs had no lips. Maybe they were born without them, or maybe they cut them off. “Here to play. Training new commander.” The helmet was constructed to reveal only teeth, even while it spoke. Gnomes were genderless and accepted male pronouns. With dwarfs, you just couldn’t tell.
“Play? Like, table-war?” asked Aria. “Sure, I’m in. Just one game, and win or lose you have to leave. I used to be a royal commander, so you know it’ll be a good one.”
“Accepted.” The dwarf shouted as if testing a battle-screech, shaking Homer’s fur. “Gnomes!”
From the black tent, three gnomes stepped into sunlight.
Aria’s stomach turned. She hadn’t seen dwarf-owned gnomes for years; the reintroduction made her bile churn. Homer balled his hands into fists.
Each gnome was missing its left arm. Their ankles were pierced by a chain connecting the gnomes in a line. The front-most gnome had only one eye, while the other two gnomes had no eyes, no lower jaws, and no tongues. Their rocky skin had chipped and fragmented.
The dwarf shoved its gnomes toward Aria. “Give brass,” said the gnome with a tongue.
Aria held her brass card for the gnomes, who read its pits and grooves with their remaining fingertips.
Inside the black tent another dwarf sat at an official war table, twenty feet by twenty feet square. The table’s terrain reflected the dwarven north in miniature: icy peaks reached like stalagmites.
The gnomes looked up from Aria’s card. “Says deceased.”
“Is that alright?” asked Aria. “If you’re just training a new commander, we can play unofficially.”
Somehow, without lips, the first dwarf sneered. “Leave.”
“You’ll play with me or you won’t play at all.” Aria crossed her arms. Homer investigated the table’s sculpted peaks and glacial crevasses. “No one else will even come near you.”
“Won’t play. Leave.”
“You haven’t got a choice, you morons.” Homer tapped Aria’s shoulder. “What, what is it?”
He made a rectangle with his hands. “Rrrss.” When Aria raised an eyebrow, he pointed to her pockets. “Rrrss.” He raised one hand and waggled his fingers. It was like a gnome reading a card. “Rrrss.”
“…Brass?” Aria showed him the brass card representing himself.
Homer gave two thumbs up, then took the card and held it for the gnomes to evaluate. “Intelligent creature,” said the gnome with a tongue. “Technically allowed to command.”
While the first dwarf spat, its seated companion remained silent. “An insult! You dare!”
Aria watched her minotaur sit at the table and survey the landscape. “Do you understand what you’re doing? This game is complicated. I played for years before my first official match. You’ve seen me play, just once.” Homer mimed moving figurines across the field, then looked back at Aria. She chewed her lips. “Hey, dwarfs, take it or leave it.”
The first dwarf squeezed its gauntlets. “Fine. Play.”
“Rrrr!” Homer pointed at the mutilated gnomes, then looked at Aria. She didn’t understand what he wanted. He pointed at the dwarfs, made a fist, and pointed back to the gnomes. He then gestured over the hills, toward Aria’s farm.
“You want…” She stood up straight. “If we win, we’re taking your gnomes. It’s a fair bet, he’s never played before.”
No one knew how dwarfs perceived the world without eyes. Aria suspected their trained nostrils could detect emotions. The first dwarf sniffed in quiet contemplation. “Accepted,” it murmured, “if it plays with its brass.”
Homer nodded. “No, that’s bad,” Aria told him. “When something dies in the game, gnomes mark its brass. They can never play again, as a figurine or as a commander. If you die, I can’t sell you to the military.”
Homer didn’t seem to hear her. His eye was cool and calculating, but anger leaked from behind his eye-patch like lava trickling from a volcano as he stared at the eyeless gnomes.
“If you lose, and I can’t sell you, you’re working on my farm for life,” said Aria. “I’ll get you some pieces.”
“Hey! Sir Jameson!”
“Aria.” Jameson saluted, probably out of habit. “Are the dwarfs gone?”
Jameson’s gnomes sniffed the air. “No. They remain.”
“They want to play table-war,” she said. “Do you have some brasses you don’t mind losing in battle?”
Jameson squinted. “You’re not allowed to play, are you? You were killed by an elf.”
“It’s not an official match,” she lied.
Jameson sighed and tapped his fingers on the counter. “I suppose I can trust you. Aria Twine, humanity’s path to victory. We’ve got plenty of brasses from enlistments at the market.”
She drew air through her teeth. “How about game-pieces you don’t mind losing?”
“Let’s see what we’ve got.”
Tiny dwarven catapults sat atop the spires of ice. Model dwarfs in full armor manned them.
Homer aligned his own figurines. His side of the table was a snowy expanse crossed with icy gorges. A handful of humanoid figurines surrounded three trebuchets.
“These are skeletons,” explained Aria. Professional military quality meant their bones were individually sculpted. “These guys are totally disposable. We’ve got lots, and no commander likes to use them. Skeletons pop up in abandoned cemeteries, and it’s sort of a faux pas to make them battle.”
“Skeleton, right. They’re not bright, but they can follow basic orders like ‘man the trebuchet.’ Okay?”
“Silence.” The first dwarf surveyed their field. “No helping.”
“What good would that be?” asked Aria. “You can’t train against an opponent who doesn’t even know his pieces. Anyway, Homer, see this ammunition? It’s a supply of exploding barrels. You get me?” Homer shook his head. Aria put her fists together and blasted them apart. “Kaboom.”
“Yeah. Dwarfs aren’t superb at table-war, but they know their way around a siege-engine. If your skeletons load your trebuchets with explosive barrels, I give you fifty-fifty odds.” She pulled a roll of bandages from her backpack. “Take care of this, okay? This is your game-piece, Homer.”
The minotaur took the roll of bandages. He pointed to it, then to his chest. “Rrm-rr.”
“Exactly. No, no, why—” He pressed the roll of bandages into position at the head of his army. His nostrils flared. “Hey, your funeral.”
“We tire! Begin!” shouted the first dwarf.
The three mutilated gnomes each pressed their remaining right hands onto each other’s left shoulder stumps. After communing with finger-taps, the gnome with a tongue addressed the table. “Minotaur begins.”
“Okay, it’s your move first, Homer. Tell—”
“Silence!” said the first dwarf.
Aria sat beside her minotaur. Homer waved his hands over the skeletons, then pointed to his trebuchets.
“What says he?” asked the first dwarf. With just one eye among them, the gnomes somehow understood. They scrambled over the table showing how skeletons loaded explosive barrels into the trebuchet’s slings.
“Our turn,” said the first dwarf. “Obviously our superior army would finish loading their catapults first.” The first dwarf patted its silent comrade on the back. For the first time, the second dwarf uttered the guttural language of the ore-eaters. The gnomes made the dwarf figurines launch their catapults.
“Projectiles land here, here, and here.” One gnome ran a hand through the fake snow, making tracks left by the projectiles. The other gnomes scooped away skeletons and marked their brass cards as unplayable. Aria puzzled; the dwarfs could have struck Homer if they’d care too.
Homer motioned like he was throwing a spear.
“Human trebuchets are fired.” The gnomes tapped each others’ shoulders… for minutes.
Aria knew that no human, dwarf, elf, or seafolk understood every rule of table-war. Only gnomes could simulate the arena with accuracy. Aria wondered what had happened to make the gnomes lag. “It’s just barrels,” she said. “Plot the trajectories and move on.”
The gnome with the tongue shook his head. “Not completely true.”
“What?” Aria turned to her minotaur. Homer’s serious expression echoed the icy spires across from him. “What did he do?”
“Skeletons loaded themselves in the explosive barrels,” said the gnome. “A thousand pounds of flaming grapeshot sailing through the sky.”
“Hm.” Aria punched him in the arm. “Nice.” The almost-silent dwarf did not react, but the other covered its own teeth.
“Two dwarven catapults on fire,” said the gnome. “These dwarfs are dead.” He removed most of the dwarf-figurines from the table.
The almost-silent dwarven commander spoke in its grating language.
“Surviving dwarfs load final catapult,” translated the gnome.
Homer crossed his arms.
“Some skeletons still partially intact, and still on fire,” said the gnome. He pointed to the icy spires. “They ignite the final catapult.”
The almost-silent dwarven commander let a single word escape its teeth. The gnomes conferred. “The dwarfs surrender.”
The first dwarf turned to Ida. “Five hundred gold coins for your minotaur.”
“Seafolk offered twice that.”
“Ten thousand pieces of gold for the minotaur!” shouted the dwarf.
“Sorry,” said Aria. Homer lifted all three mutilated gnomes. “He’s not for sale.”
“Hey. Sir Jameson.”
Jameson stretched and yawned. “The dwarfs are gone?”
“Yep. Some of these skeletons are still usable, I’m pretty sure, and all your trebuchets.” Aria returned the brass cards.
Jameson sighed and stood at ease. “We’ll pay double market value for your minotaur.”
“I’ve had a change of heart.” Aria watched Homer lay the dwarfs’ mutilated gnomes on the grass. They sprang right up and began communicating with the humans’ intact gnomes, forming a ring of five gnomes tapping each others’ hands and shoulders. “I want to meet with Queen Anthrapas. I can’t leave my dragonling on the farm, so I’ll have to take Scales with me. Can you give me a ride?”
“I suppose,” said Jameson. “What business do you have with the queen?”
Aria watched her minotaur raise his hands and flick his fingers, trying to emulate the gnomes’ rapid hand-language. “I’m taking an apprentice.”