(This is part three of an ongoing project starting here. So far, Aria Twine has discovered a minotaur with a knack for the board-game which determines the fate of nations. He defeated a dwarf at table-war and won three mutilated gnomes.)
Homer watched the Giant Ax strike the distant horizon like a black lightning bolt from clear skies.
“Don’t worry, Homer. I won’t let anyone take you back to your maze.” Aria pat her minotaur’s head. By putting her legs over his broad shoulders and firmly grasping his horns, she could ride him almost like a horse. He carried the dwarfs’ three damaged gnomes and occasionally rocked them like wounded children. “Before we meet Queen Anthrapas, we’ve got to bring these gnomes back to their caves.”
Homer still watched the ax. Where bandages once bound his wounds, now his scraggly brown fur refused to grow over thick scars. He adjusted his eye-patch so it didn’t rub his horns.
“Alright, Quattuor, where from here?”
The only gnome with a tongue shifted under homer’s forearms. “Fifty paces north and ten west.”
“Gnome paces, or minotaur paces?”
“Homer, five steps thatta way.”
Homer walked into a depression between grassy hills. Aria dismounted. The gnomes, once released, searched the grass by stomping with their stubby legs. “There is a sliding door,” said Quattuor. His one arm brushed long weeds to reveal a smooth, flat stone. “We are ill-equipped to push it aside.”
Aria knelt by the stone and slipped her fingers underneath. “Homer?” When her minotaur imitated her he easily slid the stone away. Beneath, stone steps led into darkness. Homer picked up the gnomes. His hoofsteps echoed down the stairwell. After a hundred dark steps, the staircase ended in a stone doorway. Homer squatted; his ten foot frame was too large for human portals, let alone a gnomish one. “Didn’t think of that,” muttered Aria. She ducked under the four-foot doorway. “How can Homer get through?”
“He will fit,” said Quattuor. “We know his dimensions from the marks on his brass.” Homer released the three gnomes to hobble through the doorway ahead of him. Then Homer put his horns through first, followed by his head and left arm. He scrambled through like a worm.
When he looked up, his claustrophobia evaporated. The gnomish caves had a vaulted ceiling supported by columns of rock like a ribcage. A flowing river of magma illuminated the area with a maroon glow.
The three gnomes crawled toward the red-hot river.
“Rrrr.” Homer reached for them. “Rrire.”
“It’s fine. They’re gnomes.” Aria held his fur. “Just watch.”
As they crawled into the magma, their iron chains melted from their ankles. Bits of gnome rock bubbled to the surface and sunk again.
“Hey, don’t cry.” Aria wiped tears from the minotaur’s cheek. “Give them a second. There, you see?”
A white hand reached from the magma, pulling up a shoulder and finally a head with perfect eyes like crystal balls. This gnome’s body was no longer textured like gravel, but like smooth marble skin colored like milk.
Two more gnomes pulled themselves from the river. Magma dripping from them hardened on the ground like little black pearls. “Thank you,” said one. “I am Unde Triginta.”
“Viginti Quinque,” said another. “You have already met Quattuor.”
Homer knelt to the gnomes and held them close despite still-scalding skin. “Told you it was fine.” Aria pat Homer’s back. “Anyway, you guys owe us a favor.”
“Gnomes owe no favors,” said Quattuor, “but serve anyway. How may we help you?”
“I want a gnome to train Homer to play table-war, and teach him gnomish, on our way to meet Queen Anthrapas. Quattuor, you have the easiest name to pronounce. Come with me.”
Each time the wagon rocked, Aria gripped its wooden frame until her knuckles were white. “Can your horse walk a little smoother?” She pressed her boots against the frame to help stabilize herself. “I get seasick super easy. I can’t take much more of this.”
“Humanity’s road to victory gets seasick?” Sir Jameson wrapped his horse’s reins around his hands. He’d removed his armor; apparently it was just for show during recruitment. Aria kept glancing at his biceps, wondering what they would look like depicted in the gnomish dot-language on a brass card. She once tried learning gnomish to read her own cards but the skill didn’t come easily to humans. “I thought more of you than that.”
“I wish. Sometimes standing up too quick gives me a head rush.”
Behind Aria, Scales circled in his cage. Behind that, in another wagon, Homer sat on a box hunched over Quattuor. After only a day the gnome’s marble-smooth skin had darkened and cracked. In a week he’d be rocky as any gnome. He passed Homer one brass card after another and arranged metal figurines on a drawing of a map. Homer felt each brass card with three thick fingers while he squinted at the figurine the brass card represented. Quattuor spoke in English while tapping gnomish against Homer’s massive palms. “The complete algorithms for running table-war are a gnomish secret, but can simulate reality to any degree of accuracy. Sometimes extra gnomes must be recruited to help simulate table-war in a timely manner without sacrificing realism. Aside from this technical limitation, table-war opponents can agree on any rate for the passage of time on their table. Perhaps they pause the game to take turns, or perhaps they speed up so a table-war day passes every minute.”
Aria smiled. She remembered learning these rules when she was a kid. Those rules hadn’t changed since they were established to end a war against demons centuries ago.
“By the way, Miss Humanity’s-Path-To-Victory—”
“Knock it off. Call me Aria.”
Sir Jameson looked back at her. “If I was once called ‘Humanity’s Path to Victory,’ I’d make people say it all the time.”
“If someone once called ‘Humanity’s Path to Victory’ came up to me, I’d call them whatever they wanted,” said Aria. “I was killed. Now I’m just Aria.”
Jameson frowned. “Well, Aria, I meant to ask what you did to those dwarfs.”
“I beat them at table-war.”
“Yes, but when you left—” He clenched his jaw. “Someone said they saw one dwarf… eating the other.”
“What? Dwarfs eat rocks, and only when they don’t have ores or jewels to eat instead. Or gnomes. Maybe it was eating the other’s armor as a punishment for failure?”
“A merchant told us she saw the dwarfs mid-meal. They’d started with the head and worked their way down to the hips by the time she saw them,” said Jameson. “When we arrived, all we found were scraps. ”
Jameson let the horse stop to rest as they rode up an incline. “Gnome decapitations. Skirmishes on elven territory. Sending commanders to markets to practice table-war. The dwarfs aren’t up to any good.”
“I’ve beaten dwarfs.” Aria watched her minotaur compare brass cards. “And there’s a lot of untapped talent in human lands.”
At twilight Aria pulled three enormous grasshoppers from a barrel; she’d taken one barrel of dragon fodder and paid for the rest to be delivered ahead of her. “Dindin, Scales. More elvish grasshoppers courtesy of some shorty no-one cares about.” Her dragonling rolled in its cage to show its belly. “I know you don’t like it in there, Scales, but you’ll be out soon. I’m leaving you with the royal beast-master while I talk to Queen Anthrapas about taking an apprentice.”
The icy lizard poked its muzzle through the iron bars. “Squaa.” Aria tossed it the grasshoppers. “Squaa!”
“Show mummy your wing-nubs.” She reached into the cage to brush the dragonling’s back. “When we release you, you just might fly away.”
She made sure the cage was in position to receive moonlight throughout the night. Moonlight was good for ice dragons; it gave their eyes luster. Meanwhile, outside Jameson’s tent, Homer and Quattuor had made a shelter out of branches where the minotaur would sleep. The gnome just stood still, waiting for the sun to rise.
Aria yawned. It was time to retreat to her tent.
The minotaur slunk from the low opening of his branch shelter and trotted toward her. “Arra.”
She pointed to herself. “Aria?”
“Arra.” He passed her a long scroll of paper.
“For me?” It was the kind of scroll Quattuor used for sketching maps to review tactics with Homer. Homer had drawn a massive maze—a labyrinth with paths slimmer than the edge of a knife. One region consisted of right angles, but another had round, twisting, spiraling networks. Careful shading showed where paths passed above and below one-another. At the center was a circle around a dot.
“Arra.” Homer pointed to Aria and the dot in the center. Then he pointed to a small opening in the labyrinth wall marking the exit.
“This line-art is so… intricate.” She put her finger on the center and tried a few circular roads. Despite the bird’s eye view, dead ends popped up out of nowhere. How long would it take to escape if she were actually in the maze? Months, she decided, if even then. “No wonder you’re a natural at table-war. You’ve been solving puzzles your whole life, haven’t you?”
“Hey, look.” She pointed over grassy hills into the night sky. “Straight up and down just like the Giant Ax. It’s a sword. The demons left them when the gnomes sealed them away.” Homer’s eye blinked. “Tens of thousands died when the dwarfs made a pact with demons to take over the surface. Eventually the dwarfs realized that the demons were so destructive, the surface wouldn’t be worth ruling. The dwarfs had to turn to the gnomes. Gnomes can’t be tempted, so they’re able to keep the demons in check, deep underground.”
Homer mimed using a sword and pointed to the sky. “Rraall.”
“Yeah, really tall. I’ve never seen demons, but they were huge. They gave gnomes leverage to make dwarfs accept the treaty proposed by humans and elves to replace war with table-war. Now no ruler risks violence, or the gnomes would make demons smite the aggressors.”
Her ice-dragon’s presence chilled the night, but Homer was warm. Aria leaned against him. In the night’s silence his heart beat thunderously like a distant drum.
It was noon when Aria, Jameson, and their beasts and gnomes reached the capital. Aria led the way to the royal beast-master.
“Aria, look.” Jameson pointed to a distant hill where a monster sunned itself. Homer couldn’t quite see it in the bright daytime. “That hippogriff has a noble air, doesn’t it? We acquired it recently. I think Queen Anthrapas should make it the symbol of humanity, for how it rules the hills.”
Aria glanced from a clipboard. “That’s actually a griffon. Half eagle, half lion. Hippogriffs are half horse.”
“And it’s not ruling anything.” Her gaze returned to the clipboard. She signed her name with a feather quill. “If it were in command, it’d prefer its natural habitat. Griffons live in the wild wastes on cold mountains.”
“Oh,” Jameson said again. “Why’s it out in this heat?”
“I don’t know. Why is it?” Aria passed the clipboard back to the royal beast-master. He wore a thick suit of protective leather padding. A scar across his nose claimed a divot of cartilage. “Your griffon should be in a freezer.”
“It’s got an egg,” said the royal beast-master. When he smiled, his scar crinkled. “Wild griffon parents sit on their egg together. We captured the mother but not the father, so she needs the sun for extra warmth.”
“But give it shade,” said Aria, “or blindfold it. They hate prolonged light.”
The royal beast-master smiled to show his teeth; three were made of ivory where the scars crossed his lips. “You don’t need to live out there in a shack, Aria. Why don’t you come work for me?” He reviewed the paperwork. “Hey, aren’t you selling the minotaur?”
Homer looked up when the beast-master pointed to him. “Rrm-a-trr?”
“I don’t have time to care for monsters right now, I’m taking an apprentice. But the minotaur is coming with me.”
“Whoever studies under humanity’s path to victory is one lucky guy. Pity about the minotaur, though, he’ll have to go back to a labyrinth. They die of homesickness, otherwise.”
Aria ignored him. “You’re paying me for the dragon fodder, too, right?”
The beast-master passed Quattuor a brass card. The gnome read it with his fingertips and translated it. “This represents two thousand pieces of gold in Queen Anthrapas’ vaults.”
“Perfect.” Aria opened her dragonling’s cage. After some hesitation, Scales crawled onto the bright grassy field. “Okay, Scales, say bye to mummy.” She patted the dragonling on its muzzle. Its wing-nubs had grown into tiny, icy limbs.
The capital-building had alabaster marble halls supported by pearly pillars. Although vaulted ceilings gave him able headroom, Homer felt out of place. Humans gawked at him and his eye-patch.
“Homer,” said Quattuor, “perhaps you should wait outside while Miss Twine speaks with the queen.”
Aria smirked. “He’s coming with me. We’ll surprise the old bat.”
“Wait here outside the throne-room,” said Jameson. “If I weren’t escorting you the guards wouldn’t even let you in the courtyard. You know how Queen Anthrapas can be.”
“Homer, follow.” Aria pressed open the entryway.
Queen Anthrapas’ throne-room was an ovular amphitheater with seating for hundreds to watch the center, where a tub of lava bubbled. Sunlight beamed onto a marble throne where the queen sat erect. Her aged, graying bun held the crown on her head. Her white robes were so long the lava threatened to ignite them. Two royal guards flanked her.
A gnome with dark goggles peered into the curdling lava. One of its hands was smooth and white.
“Twine,” stated the queen. “I haven’t seen you in ten years.”
“Try sounding more excited,” said Aria.
The lava popped. From the surface, a gnome’s white hand struck upward. The queen’s gnome matched that hand and together they tapped messages across the continent through molten rock. “Queen Anthrapas, the elvish queen demands—”
“The elvish queen?” Aria folded her arms. “Don’t waste your time on that lanky stick-figure, Anthrapas. She’s only queen because she’s twenty feet tall. A foot shorter and she’d be a brood-mother.”
Queen Anthrapas spared Aria only a glance. “Don’t interrupt. Humanity is at war.”
Her gnome continued. “The elvish queen demands four seats in the tournament.”
“That long-limbed mosquito! I’ll allow it only if we and the seafolk have four as well,” said Anthrapas. The gnomes clacked the news. “Elevated brood-mother,” she mumbled with clenched, arthritic fists.
Her gnome conveyed the response: “The elvish queen refuses, and says the seafolk’s Emperor Shobai already agreed to give them four seats unconditionally.”
“How much did they bribe those gill-breathers!” she shouted. “I’m lodging a complaint with the gnomes! See how she likes bureaucratic stalagmites poking around her hive!” After her gnome relayed her message, Anthrapas shook her head. “No offense meant, Septem Decim.”
“None taken, your honor,” said her gnome. “The elvish queen will allow humanity four seats in the tournament on the condition you reimburse her for the bribe she paid to the seafolk. She wants fifty thousand pieces of gold.”
“That overgrown maggot! Fresh out of the cocoon and she thinks she can swindle me. Emperor Shobai cleans his shell with rags worth more than that; why would he take such a measly bribe? This talk is over.” Septem covered the tub of lava with a stone table. The room’s temperature dropped instantly.
“You!” Anthrapas pointed at Aria. “What do you want. Wait. Hold that thought. Twine, you’re going to evaluate my best commanders. Pick the four best to fight the dwarfs.”
“Maybe I should leave,” said Aria. “I can tell you’re busy.”
The queen propped her hands on her throne’s arms to stand. She almost stumbled down the stairs; her royal guards moved to steady her, but she brushed them off. “Aria Twine. Ten years ago, when your game-piece died, I ordered you to take an apprentice and you left to farm monsters in a shack. My men should lock the doors so you can’t escape again. You! Jameson, right?”
Jameson stood at attention so quickly his metal boots clanged like a bell. “Yes, ma’am!”
“I wasn’t kidding. Lock the doors.” Anthrapas sat back on her throne massaging her hip. “Why are you here, Aria?”
“I’m taking an apprentice.”
“Perfect. By my estimation, my best commander is Harvey. You’ll train him eight hours a day until the tournament. Four hours a day, you’ll lecture to my other table-war hopefuls. With your guidance, they’ll—”
“The minotaur.” Aria balled fists and spread her stance. “Homer’s my new apprentice.”
The queen’s royal guards shared a glance. Homer looked to Aria, and then to the queen.
Anthrapas’ dentures ground slowly, like tectonic plates. “Aria Twine. Humanity’s path to victory. You’re still the bratty twelve-year old who beat my best commanders on the table.” She released the arms of her throne. “When your game-piece died I thought you’d enjoy continuing to serve the human race, but you turned me down. Now I see why. You’ve found a hoof-footed labyrinth baby you can ride to personal glory, not glory for humanity.”
“Homer will fight for humanity!” Aria rolled up her sleeves. “And with me as his tutor, Homer could beat that ‘Harvey’ kid blindfolded!”
The queen sighed. “Train Homer tomorrow. The next morning, Homer will face Harvey. If Homer wins I’ll give him one of humanity’s seats in the tournament. But if Homer loses you train Harvey eight hours a day, and lecture to my other commanders eight hours a night, until you’re old as I am!”
Aria turned to Homer. She swore he understood. “Deal.”