(This is part six of an ongoing series starting here. Last time, Homer the minotaur won a board-game against a lobster. Today he’ll have to beat an elf.)
Homer and Aria stood before Queen Anthrapas’ throne. The elderly queen was slumped casually with her head on one hand. “I congratulate you on your victory.”
“Thank you, your majesty.” Aria bowed. “It wasn’t easy.”
“I wasn’t talking to you.” Anthrapas pointed at Homer. “Even the best commanders have trouble with seafolk. Good work. Now, to business.” She gestured to Sir Jameson at the back of the room.
Jameson took Aria by the shoulder. “I’m sorry, Aria. You need to leave for a few minutes.”
“What? No.” Aria shrugged him off, but Jameson took her wrists behind her back. Homer moved to protect her, but Quattuor stood between them. “Get off me! I’ll see myself out!” Jameson followed her and shut the door behind himself.
“I’m sorry about this,” whispered the queen. “Aria always wants her way, and she doesn’t mind causing international incidents to get it. I have to make sure she’s not using you for self-interested reasons.”
“Yuzing?” Homer shook his head.
“Your next match is against an elf,” said the queen. “An elf killed Aria’s game-piece. I’d hate for her to delegitimize your match for personal reasons by, say, overstepping her boundaries in anger. Therefore, I forbid you and Aria to meet again until after the match.” Homer furrowed his brow; his forehead wrinkled against his goggles. “You and I are not yet done. Enter, ambassadors.”
The doors opened. Royal guards escorted three figures into the throne room: a centaur (whom Homer recognized from the wild wastes’ border wall), a bent man with scrawny red wings whose clawed feet scratched the floor, and a big blue cat who seemed too squat for her length.
“Centaur, harpy, sphinx.” The queen glared at each in turn. “If the creatures of the wild wastes want to participate in the tournament to prove their sovereignty as an independent nation, you’ll have to assuage my concerns.”
“Oh, come on! We’ve got a border wall and everything!” The centaur whinnied and rapped his hooves against the floor. “Why do other nations get to divvy up ours and play with the pieces?”
The harpy squawked. “Elves and seafolk already gave us tournament seats! Bukawk!”
The sphinx purred. “There are more animals in the wild wastes than there are humans, elves, and dwarfs combined. We deserve representation.”
Queen Anthrapas pointed to Homer. “We’ve already got an animal in the tournament. Would you want his seat, or would you make me give up another? The tournament would have two humans and four animals.” She pointed her thumb down. “Homer, choose one of these beasts to capture for humanity’s army. Only the other two will be seated in the tournament.”
“What!” The centaur stamped. “You can’t keep kidnapping us! That’s the whole point!”
Homer pointed to the sphinx. “Why?” asked the queen. “The centaur or harpy would be better in battle, surely? A centaur could carry two men on his back. A harpy could fly above the battle and return with intelligence.”
Homer tapped gnomish onto Quattuor’s shoulder. “But sphinxes are notoriously clever,” translated Quattuor. “Homer would rather take the sphinx to the stable than fight it at the table.”
The sphinx’s fur bristled along its spine. Anthrapas nodded. “Relax. I’m just testing the minotaur. He’s clearly allied with humanity. If the elves and seafolk have already agreed to do the same, I concur in relinquishing one of my tournament seats to the wild wastes. My lowest-performing commander will be booted; I think it’s Thaddeus.”
The centaur, harpy, and sphinx bowed to her in whatever way their shapes allowed.
“Homer, leave,” said the queen. “I must test Aria, too.”
As Homer left the throne room, Sir Jameson escorted Aria before the queen. Homer made himself turn away from her.
“Take a good look.” Outside the throne room, Thaddeus leaned against a pillar. His smug smile and doofy hair made Homer’s blood boil. “You’re never seeing Aria again. Queen Anthrapas won’t let you two in the same country once I testify.”
“You and Aria shouldn’t’ve crossed me.” He turned up his collar to enter the throne room. “Thanks to you, Anthrapas is giving my tournament seat to a sphinx. How embarrassing! But you’re an animal, too, aren’t you? Aria’s far too compassionate toward creatures to be trusted in the tournament, with so many monsters involved. I’ll bet I can get her executed if I play my cards right.”
In the front carriage, Homer read wooden cards with his fingertips. “Can you really read those?” asked Sir Jameson. Homer nodded. “I can’t read gnomish to save my life. Who are those cards?”
“Llfs.” Homer sketched high elves and shorties with a piece of charcoal on a scroll.
“I hate escorting elves around Queen Anthrapas’ castle. They’re always pulling tricks, like filling my boots with jam. Where are your brass cards, by the way? And don’t you have figurines to play with?” Homer pointed to the carriage behind them, where Aria and Quattuor had all the official metal material. “We’ll have to wait for your gnome to bring them to me for inspection. You know I can’t let you and Aria see each other, or pass notes.”
Homer nodded. His goggles reflected the passing trees. The elven capital was like a forest and a jungle combined. The hot humidity left dew on Homer’s horns. It smelled like dizzying elven pheromones.
“I bet I know why Aria’s double-checking your figurines,” said Jameson. “Ten years ago she lost her status as a royal commander when an elf killed her game-piece—I think the elf was named Stephanie. Before the game, Stephanie switched out all Aria’s brass cards. When Aria used those cards to declare her army, she immediately lost: her rank was infiltrated by elves who assassinated her own game-piece—it didn’t matter that Aria’s figurines showed which units she’d intended to play. So for your upcoming match, Aria’s stipulating that figurines physically match the descriptions on their cards. That’ll protect you from elvish tricks!”
The carriages wound around trees fifty feet thick and hundreds tall. Vines like boas snaked down the bark. Falling leaves drifted like hang gliders. Under the canopy, the sunlight was dim enough for Homer to remove his goggles. He put on his eye-patch.
Elven shorties led Homer to his private room carved into the side of a tree. The walls were lined with translucent pipes pumping sap and water. The shorties showed him how to drink right from the walls, but Homer was more interested in the shorties themselves. They hardly seemed the same species as high elves, and never wore lace wings.
Someone knocked at Homer’s open door. “Permission to enter?”
Quattuor entered and gave Homer a jug of cold water. Homer drank thirstily. “That’s from Ms. Twine, and Sir Jameson has already inspected it for national security purposes. Ms. Twine and I are still corroborating your brass cards and figurines. Ms. Twine demanded from the elven queen that your opponent follow the same stringent procedures. Your match will be scrutinized for authenticity.”
“The queen of the elves extends her invitation,” said Quattuor. “Please report to her crystal hall.”
The largest tree in the forest had massive doors guarded by two shorties. They apparently knew Homer had been invited, as they both started opening the door. It was a little big for them, so Homer helped.
The crystal hall was so brightly lit, Homer searched his pockets for the goggles he’d removed. He could hardly see five feet in front of his face, but smelled pheromones thick like soup. From the back of the room called a voice: “Homer, isn’t it? So glad to see you.” The voice was motherly like a hearth. “Approach, please!”
Homer stumbled, almost blind in the light, until he bumped a wall. The wall was patterned with octagons and squares. Each shape capped an alcove filled with blue-green goop. In some, Homer saw dark elven eggs. In others, shorty larvae ate the goop they’d been born in. The comb covered the walls, floor, and ceiling of the crystal hall.
“Don’t let my children distract you, Homer. Come here!” The elven queen was twenty feet tall but thin as an ordinary elf. She was noodly, spooled over her throne in immobile opulence. Uniquely among elves, she had real, luxurious wings which cushioned the throne under her. They were red with angry black eye-spots, offsetting the queen’s disarming smile.
Four high elves climbed their queen to massage her limbs, helping her overworked heart.
“Sit, Homer, please. Would you like some sap?”
Homer sat on the floor. “Zab?”
“Oh dear.” An attending high elf covered her queen’s smile so she could chuckle politely. “You hardly know human customs, and here I am, expecting you to know your way around elven ritual. I should have warned you: it’s impolite to turn down offers of sap.”
Homer scratched his chest. “Zab.”
“Bring us some sap, please.” An attending high elf skipped out of the hall. The queen noticed Homer investigating the octagons and squares underneath him. “The octagonal chambers are for high elves,” she explained. “The squares are for shorties. The square chambers are smaller, so their larvae molt into smaller elves.”
Homer quizzaciously pointed at the elven queen.
The queen laughed. “My larval chamber was this whole crystal hall. Every brood mother has their own crystal hall, but mine’s biggest. That’s why I’m the tallest, and why my pheromones make me queen.”
“That’s the power of elven society: my subjects worship me on a cellular level. Your table-war opponent tonight is a high elf named Stephanie, but her patriotism means your opponent is, symbolically, me.”
“Zdefany?” Homer felt the scars crisscrossing his chest.
“Oh! Aria Twine! Fancy meeting you here.” Stephanie had expertly zeroed in on Aria from across the elven arena built into an enormous tree-stump. “I thought you’d never want to visit ever again!”
“Buzz off,” said Aria. “And remember! If any figurines on the board don’t properly represent their brass, we’ll start the game again! No tricks!”
“Gosh, Aria, you sure are strict.” Stephanie put a hand to her chest. “Don’t you know I never pull the same trick twice?”
“Good.” Aria surveyed the crowd. There were no dwarfs (thank goodness) but too many elves. A few seafolk observed from murky tanks. “Homer won five points in his first match. Beating you is just his next step to winning the whole tournament.”
“I won my first match with five points, too, Aria.” Stephanie giggled. “Poor Harvey.”
“Harvey didn’t have a silver dragon. Let’s see how elves handle a blizzard. And Harvey’s a geek anyway, Homer whupped him easy.”
A voice made Aria jump: “Thanks, Twine.” Harvey slumped on a wooden seat. His glasses were fogged with humidity, and his shirt was dripping with sweat from pit to pit. “Stephanie killed my birds with imps. I don’t suppose you know how she got those?”
Aria puffed. “If there are no tricks tonight, Homer has this in the bag.”
“Speaking of ‘in the bag,’” said Stephanie, “are you sure Homer has all his supplies?”
“Of course. I personally checked every brass and every figurine. My gnome is sending them right now.”
“But your gnome gives them to an impartial human representative for inspection, right?”
“Um… Yes.” Aria blinked. “Sir Jameson.”
“Oh, if only some human were eager to stab you in the back…” Stephanie skipped toward the center of the arena. “I’m setting up my side of the table. I’ll say hi to Homer for you!”
Aria gripped her seat.
“Who’s she talking about?” asked Harvey. “What human would betray Humanity’s Path to Victory?”
Aria shoved elves as she fled the arena.
“…So, you see, shorties are the only males. All high elves are female, but only brood mothers are fertile…”
Homer nodded, pretending he understood. He couldn’t have responded if he wanted to; his teeth were glued together after two servings of sap. It was painfully sweet.
“Homer, dear, are you feeling alright?” The queen sent high elves to fetch more sap.
Homer wavered and looked at his hands. “Aight,” he managed.
“Can I show you something, Homer?” The queen pointed out the crystal hall’s doors. “You can’t see it from here, but imagine a demon’s great black trident stabbed in the forest.” Homer had already seen a great black ax and a great black sword, so he could imagine the trident. He sipped more sap as it was offered to him. “And far past that, in the swamps near the elven-dwarven border, there’s another weapon. A flail with two spiked heads.”
“If you double-count the two-headed demon with its two-headed flail, three of the seven great demons attacked elven lands. I’m physically unable to leave my throne, but I know my land, Homer. Humans don’t even share a border with dwarfs. Only elves have the right to vengeance against the Mountain Swallower. You can understand why I had to drug you.”
It took five seconds for Homer to catch on and turn to the queen.
“A spoonful of sap will knock out a human in minutes. For you, we quadrupled the dosage.” When the queen smiled, her teeth were needle sharp. “Isn’t it almost time for your match?” On jellied limbs, Homer loped for the door. He tripped down the steps. “Best of luck!” said the queen.
Aria sprinted up four steps at a time around a tree. She panted and pounded against Homer’s door. “Homer! Quattuor! Are you in there?”
Silence. She put her ear to the floor to peek under the door.
Thaddeus had started a fire and was melting Homer’s figurines.
Aria bashed the door with her shoulder. WHAM. “You little brat!”
“Go away!” Thaddeus threw kindling and figurines into the fire. “You had this coming!”
Aria threw herself against the door again. WHAM.
“You think you’re special, Twine?” Thaddeus prodded the kindling with a fire-iron. “You almost stole my tournament seat for your minotaur. Now I’ve lost my seat to a sphinx. It’s obvious why Anthrapas would boot me instead of your minotaur—he’s not playing at all, he’s just your pawn! You’re cheating my nobility its due glory!”
“You even gave him humanity’s silver dragon.” Thaddeus held the figurine in his trembling hands. “It could be mine. It should be mine! But you let that bull carry it for you.” He dropped the dragon in the fire.
WHAM. The door popped off its hinges and Aria’s left shoulder dislocated.
Thaddeus stood between her and the fire. “Go away!” She shoved him with her right arm. He pushed her back. She punched him in the jaw so hard she broke two fingers on her right hand. Thaddeus fell and didn’t get up.
Aria knelt by the fire, held her breath, and grabbed the half-melted dragon. “Aaaugh!” She threw the dragon from the fire. Molten metal scalded her right palm. “Nnng—” She pressed her palm on the cool, mossy wall and shuddered.
“You’re crazy!” Thaddeus squirmed toward the dragon figurine.
Aria stomped her boot on his back and pinned him to the floor. “Anthrapas is gonna hang you for treason!”
“Who will she believe,” asked Thaddeus, “you or me?”
“Quattuor!” Aria yelled loud as necessary to call the gnome from the next room. “Did you really give our figurines to this brat?”
Quattuor collected the remaining figurines from the floor. “He intercepted me on my way to Sir Jameson’s room, and he was qualified, so technically—”
“Cancel the match,” said Aria. “This is blatant espionage.”
“I cannot. No gnomish laws have been broken.” Quattuor put the figurines in a bag. “Destroying or doctoring brass cards is illegal; only gnomes may officially alter them. But figurines are outside our adjudication. For example, I have seen you represent a dragon on the table with a roll of tape. Of course, for this match, you demanded only accurate figurines be used, so most of Homer’s game-pieces are ineligible.”
Aria cried into her burning hand. “I’ll contact Anthrapas before I come to the match,” she said. “Just get Homer his gear.”
“I cannot,” said Quattuor. “You know Queen Anthrapas has banned you from sending messages to Homer before the match. Technically, this bag still hasn’t been approved by a qualified human representative yet.”
“Take it,” said Thaddeus. “I approve.” He stood and wiped dust from his red jacket. “I melted all the good stuff anyway.”
Homer burst through the doors of the arena. In his haze he couldn’t remember why he’d come, but he was determined to find the table in the center. The humans in the crowd clapped respectfully. The elves howled sarcastic cheers as Homer missed his chair and splayed on the ground.
Quattuor offered him his bag of brasses and figurines. “Just in time. Any longer and your absence would officially count as surrender.”
“Zab.” Homer struggled to his knees. “Gween.”
Homer managed to sit in the chair. He tapped a message in gnomish on Quattuor’s shoulder, but didn’t know the pattern for elvish sap, or the name of the queen, or how to say he was drugged.
“I’m sure he’s fine.” Stephanie giggled behind a hand. “Let’s start the match!”
When Homer saw Stephanie he made fists and took off his goggles. The audience gasped at his pink eye-socket. “If you’re ill,” said Quattuor, “you could surrender.”
“No,” said Homer. More gnomes scrambled over the table, building the map. They wore pink elven dresses.
“I was right to let Aria take you,” said Stephanie. “You’re more useful losing to me than you could ever be as one of my game-pieces.”
Homer ignored her and poured his bag of brasses and figurines onto the table. He deflated, seeing most figurines mostly melted. His dragon was defunct.
Even Stephanie jumped when Homer swept brass cards and figurines off the table. His fur rose and anxious steam puffed from his nostrils. “Oh, no,” said Stephanie. “Did something happen to your big, bad dragon?”
Homer bit his hand between his thumb and forefinger just to stay awake and focus on his few remaining figurines. His rising fur revealed a maze of old scars. He gave Quattuor one brass card, tapped a message to him in gnomish, and collapsed. He lay motionless on the floor.
“Homer says he does not surrender.” Quattuor put Homer’s brass card onto the table and found its figurine. “Let the game begin.” The chattering audience of elves watched gnomes finish the map. Seafolk bubbled in their tanks.
Soon Aria arrived with her right hand bandaged by helpful gnomes. Sir Jameson meant to ask her what was wrong, and why Quattuor hadn’t given him Homer’s figurines to inspect, but her sour expression shut him up. She didn’t recognize the figurine on Homer’s side of the table; she’d packed a huge variety of game-pieces, and his was too small to see.
“My opponent can move first.” Stephanie giggled.
Gnomes prodded Homer’s body. “The first turn is yours, ma’am.”
“My fifty elvish archers take aim from afar.” Gnomes marked the trajectory of arrows from the model forest to Homer’s only figurine. “These shorties are trained just to shoot. They could hit an insect a mile away!”
“They have,” said Quattuor. “Homer brought this beetle to battle and you blasted it.”
“I win, then?” Stephanie beamed.
“You could choose to end the game here,” said Quattuor, “but your final score would be tarnished. Homer’s beetle was brimming with eggs, and its offspring will infest the area. Of course, only the table would be infested, not the actual physical region it represents, but it would impact your score.” He corroborated with other gnomes. “You would win three points, the minotaur, zero.”
“Ew.” Stephanie watched the gnomes replace the beetle’s figurine with a thousand scattered eggs eager to hatch. “Well, for a perfect five points, my shorties stomp on the eggs.”
The gnomes bunched into groups to debate with tapping fingertips. “Unfortunately, your units aren’t quite quick or thorough enough: some eggs hatch before they can be smashed. The larvae are poisonous; twenty of your units develop a fever. The rest of your units consider abandoning the scenario.”
Stephanie glanced at Aria. “I suppose you had a hand in this, Twine?”
Aria jumped from her fixation on the table. She held her bandaged hand. “You’re a riot, short-stuff.”
“I gotta hand it to you, the eggs are a tricky gimmick,” said Stephanie. “Gnomes! One of my archers has a vial of pheromones which he now uncorks. I got this from my lovely queen!” The gnomes showed how every elf on the table perked up immediately when they smelled the vial. “Now my shorties obey my order, fevers or no fevers. Speed up the table. They’ll comb the area for as long as it takes, just to be safe.”
Three gnomes joined hands in a triangle. The rest set upon the table. Whenever one tired, they hopped off the table to replace one of the three in the triangle. The gnomes worked so quickly it seemed the figurines marched across the board under their own power. Stephanie’s troops cut and burned tall grass to destroy eggs and larvae. They beat branches from trees and bashed every leaf. They turned every stone and found larvae already becoming pupae.
“Pause!” shouted Stephanie. “That’s enough. How long was that?”
“Two months,” said a gnome, “and not long enough. You missed some larvae who dug deep underground. Black beetles crawl up from the dirt. If you end the battle now, the infestation will still cost you points, and your units are diseased. Your final score would be one.”
Stephanie blushed. “My archers shoot down beetles as they emerge. How long would it take to dig deep enough to kill the last of those pupae?”
“There is no way to know, ma’am.”
She rapped her fingers on the table. “We’ll flood the area. Are there any bodies of water near this map?”
“In fact, there is a river.” Gnomes carried a second table into the arena and set it beside the first. They extended the map to show a powerful river rolling mere miles away.
“We’ll start irrigating immediately,” said Stephanie. “It shouldn’t take more than a few weeks if we open another vial of pheromones.”
All the gnomes joined hands; water-dynamics seemed to require their full combined attention. Finally they returned to the table and showed how trenches diverted the river. Stephanie pointed exactly where she wanted to flood the map to drown any underground pupae.
“All done.” Stephanie saw nowhere a beetle could be. “What’s the verdict now? The minotaur’s got no game-pieces, and I’ve got all of mine!”
“Actually,” said a gnome, “most of the elves on the table are dead.” Gnomes collected figurines and marked their brass cards as deceased. “The match began on today’s date in September. Three months have passed on the table, making it December. Some of your units have died in the snow; some have died of their diseases. Even your survivors will collapse unconscious when you run out of pheromones. We can award you no points. Having demolished your army, Homer lost only a beetle and its offspring. Five points to the minotaur.”
Homer snored on the floor.