(This is part seven of an ongoing fantasy series starting here. Last week, Aria Twine reached into a fire trying to save a melting metal figurine from the traitorous human Thaddeus. Her minotaur Homer beat an elf at table-war without the figurine anyway. Now Aria has to confront Thaddeus before the queen of humanity.)
Aria wished she could revel in Stephanie’s defeat, but rage distracted her. She never knew she could feel this angry at a human like Thaddeus. She clenched her left hand; her right hand was bandaged and misshapen.
A gnome approached her on the bench outside Queen Anthrapas’ throne room. “Ms. Twine, I have come to change your bandages.”
“Not now,” Aria grumbled. “I’m waiting for the queen to call me in.”
Nevertheless, the gnome took her right hand and unwound bandages. “The queen sent me, ma’am. This will only take a moment.”
Aria shook her head. “My minotaur is hundreds of miles away, probably worried half to death without me. How could the queen make me come back to human lands n-ow!”
The gnome took the bloody bandages. Aria’s hand was red, withered, and covered in coin-sized blisters. She squirmed on the marble bench as the gnome poured cold water over her palm. “You need physical therapy to prevent scarring. Burns on the hand can—”
“I get it, I get it.” Aria covered her eyes as the gnome wrapped her hand with fresh bandages. “Can I go now?”
Queen Anthrapa’s marble throne-room was as sterile as Aria’s new bandages. Thaddeus polished his jacket’s buttons with his own freshly bandaged right hand.
Thoughts wrestled behind the queen’s tired eyelids. She rubbed her aching temples. “Aria. Thaddeus. Both of you contacted me at the same time with the same story. Thaddeus, tell me what happened again. Aria, be quiet.”
“Like I said, Queen Anthrapas, your majesty, it was terrible.” Thaddeus agonized over his bandaged hand. “I knew Aria might sabotage her minotaur. She’d already sold imps to the elves, hamstringing me and Harvey in the tournament; who knows Aria’s true intentions? I followed her to elven lands, and sure enough, I saw her melting her minotaur’s best game-piece, the silver dragon, after stipulating only accurate figurines could be used.”
With sarcastically arthritic effort, Queen Anthrapas gestured for Thaddeus to continue.
“Thinking quickly, without regard for personal safety, I reached into the flames and grabbed the figurine! But, too late. It was already half-melted.”
Aria made fists with both hands. Her right palm burned. “I see,” said Queen Anthrapas. “Thaddeus, do you know the outcome of the minotaur’s board-game? Don’t say anything, just nod or shake your head.” Thaddeus shook his head. “Homer won. Five points to zero.”
“Thank goodness,” said Thaddeus.
“Cut the act.” Queen Anthrapas silenced him with one hand. “If Twine had sabotaged her minotaur, she’d’ve done it right and her minotaur would’ve lost. Thaddeus, this is your last chance to confess to treason.”
Thaddeus shrugged. “Even if you don’t believe my story, there’s no way you could prove me guilty. It’s my word against hers.”
Anthrapas nodded. “Gnome.” The marble doors opened and a gnome entered holding ragged bloody bandages.
Thaddeus gripped his seat.
The gnome held the bandages for Queen Anthrapas to inspect. She sighed. “When you both contacted me with the same story, I knew the real perpetrator would try to brand themselves on an identical figurine after the fact. So I preemptively branded the dragon—the real dragon, Scales.” The bandages had distinct patterns of blood in the shape of Anthrapas’ seal. “The perpetrator bought Scales’ figurine at a hobby shop. It was authentic enough to feature the dragon’s latest brands.”
“You branded my dragon?” Aria huffed.
“Whose bandages are these?” asked Anthrapas. Her gnome pointed to Thaddeus.
“There’s an explanation,” said Thaddeus. “Aria must have realized you’d do this and—”
“There was a time,” interrupted the queen, “I’d have you drawn and quartered. Each quarter would be fed to a different wild animal. Then I’d personally burn your intestines and strangle you with them.” Thaddeus soaked tears with his bandages as two royal guards flanked him. “That time is gone—not long gone, but gone. Maybe I’ll just bring you to the great black sword outside my window. I’ll tie both your legs to different horses and whip them so they run on either side of the blade. It would be quick.”
“Forgive me, Queen—”
“You’re nobility, aren’t you? Your parents own land. Maybe I should donate the territory to the wild wastes. Or the elves. Or seafolk. Or dwarfs.”
“Or maybe,” she said, “Humanity’s Path to Victory should choose your punishment.”
Aria chewed her lips. “You branded my dragon.”
“It’s my dragon, Aria. Get over it.”
“Well, elves always need more shortlings.” Aria watched Thaddeus sweat. “Trade him for dragon fodder to make it up to me.”
“I’ll consider it.” Anthrapas waved Thaddeus away. “Guards, escort him to the dungeon. Gnomes, follow them out.”
The throne room suddenly emptied. Aria had fought a hundred table-wars here, and had never seen it empty of even gnomes and guards. The queen and Aria sat in silence. Beneath the marble floor, magma gently bubbled.
“Shall I leave?”
“You shall not.”
Aria stayed. The setting sun shined through the window, and the great black sword in the distance cast shade over the queen’s face. She sighed and released tension from her shoulders. “Twine, close the window.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Aria rushed to a long hooked pole near the back wall, and used it to close heavy drapes. Only flickering from the underground magma lit the throne room.
“I’m getting old, Twine.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am?”
“Don’t play dumb.” Anthrapas felt the bones in her hand, and pushed blue veins over her knuckles. “I watched Emperor Shobai take his throne decades ago. I’ve lost track of my age.”
“You’re ninety-seven, ma’am.”
Aria expected a rebuke, but the queen just watched the flickering magma. “For decades, my council of nobles has wanted me to declare a successor. Hubris, I suppose, kept my hand. Humanity grows impatient for my retirement or my death.”
“I’m not eager for your death, ma’am. You took me in when I was just a kid.”
“You’re it, Aria. You’re queen when I croak.”
“What? No!” Aria shook her head. “I don’t want to be queen!”
“You’re slippery, Aria, but I’ve got you good.”
Aria spoke through her teeth. “I never wanted this.”
“But I always did, and you walked right into it.” For the first time Aria could remember, Anthrapas laughed. “I was worried when your game-piece was assassinated and you left to live in a shack, but you rode back to me on a minotaur. I didn’t even have to nominate you to my council of nobles; they recommended you after Homer beat Ebi Anago.”
“You reached into fire for humanity. You can’t refuse.”
“Of course I can.”
“Legally, yes. But you, Twine, I know you can’t refuse.” Aria looked away. “We both win. You seek personal glory. I seek humanity’s safety. Now your glory hinges on humanity.”
“I didn’t ask for that responsibility,” said Aria. “I like table-war. I like raising monsters. I never did it for humanity. I reached into fire for myself.”
“You can still back out,” said Anthrapas. “My council could choose another.”
Aria paused. “Who… who is the council’s next choice?”
“Thaddeus.” Anthrapas laughed until she coughed and choked. “He’s noble blood. He’s not bad at table-war. He’ll gladly accept, if it means he’s not sold to the elves.”
“But he’s awful. He’s a scumbag.”
“So you suddenly care?”
The magma cracked and spat. “…You win. I’ll be queen.” Aria sat. “You beat me, and I didn’t even know we were playing. But now, Homer needs me.” She crossed her arms. “I haven’t seen him in days. Where is he?”
“I had Sir Jameson escort him to the baked caldera,” said Anthrapas. “It’s contested territory on the elven/dwarven border. The Mountain Swallower’s champion has challenged the elves for the land; as the tournament front-runner, Homer should see the dwarven champion in action.”
Homer sniffed smoke which dimmed the sky. The flat, featureless horizon was quiet ash. The audience of elves somberly filled benches in the impromptu arena.
“When are the dwarfs coming?” complained Sir Jameson. “If they declare table-war, they should at least have the decency to show up.”
“They should arrive shortly.” Quattuor sat patiently. “Dwarfs are many things, but never late.”
The elves clapped for an elderly elf scowling her way to the table. Her hair was in a tight bun to make her look tall—almost five feet—but her nose was raised even higher. “Llf?” asked Homer.
“The elf is Madam Commander Victoria. Her first tournament match was against Thaddeus, and she won handily. She was meant to fight the sphinx next, but she postponed that match to defend the baked caldera.”
“They should just let the dwarfs have this place, to be honest,” said Sir Jameson. “What an eyesore.”
“If dwarfs claim it, they will be a step closer to the elven capital,” explained Quattuor. Homer smelled the dwarfs before he saw them. Their stench attracted buzzards, and elves covered their noses. Dwarfs filed into the arena. Their clanging coal-colored armor covered every inch of skin. The first dwarf in line wore thicker, brighter, silver armor; this dwarf’s teeth were black. “The Mountain Swallower,” whispered Quattuor to Homer.
The Mountain Swallower’s voice made the scars on Homer’s chest itch: “Fight.” The king of the dwarfs sat opposite the elves in the arena. More dwarfs surrounded their leader leaving one lone dwarf, their champion, sitting at the central table across from Madam Victoria.
Homer sniffed. He pointed at the dwarven champion, and tapped Quattuor on the shoulder. “What’s he say?” asked Sir Jameson.
“The dwarven champion does not smell as foul as an ordinary dwarf,” said Quattuor.
Jameson chuckled. “The smartest dwarf ever is the first one to figure out how to bathe.”
Victoria summoned five gnomes in pink dresses. “Have you no gnomes?”
The dwarven champion said nothing.
“I’ll need more gnomes to help set my figurines.” Victoria pointed to Quattuor. “I’m borrowing you.” Quattuor obediently joined the other gnomes powdering the table to make it look exactly like the baked caldera in miniature. Then they helped Madam Victoria arrange her army of elves.
The dwarven champion placed three figures on the table: a dwarf, a catapult, and pile of stones.
“Are you serious?” Victoria stood on her chair to see the dwarf’s side of the table. “Is that all you’ve got?”
The dwarven champion raised one hand. Quattuor matched fingers with the dwarven greave to communicate in gnomish. “These are all their figurines,” confirmed Quattuor.
Victoria sat and admired her army. “This will be easier than I thought. For a moment, I might have been worried.”
“So sure?” The Mountain Swallower stood. Its crumbly voice made shorties cry. “A wager, then. If you win, you’ll take my helmet. If you lose, I’ll claim a gnome.”
Homer’s fur bristled. Sir Jameson put a hand on his shoulder. “The elf has this in the bag, big guy. And it’s only a gnome anyway.” Homer shook his head so hard his horns almost hurt someone. He pointed to his eye and drew his thumb across his jaw and across one shoulder. “Huh? Oh, right—you rescued Quattuor from dwarfs, all beat-up and abused. But gnomes don’t care that dwarfs cut off their limbs, and a magma-bath fixes them right up. You know that.”
“I accept your wager, Mountain Swallower.” Victoria’s army was arranged with precision befitting an experienced commander. “I offer the dwarven champion the first move.”
The dwarf raised another hand and another gnome jogged to join Quattuor in translating. The two gnomes struggled to keep up with the dwarf’s rapid finger-tapping. “Assistance, please,” called Quattuor, and all six gnomes clustered around the dwarf messaging each other. They tapped information onto the dwarf’s shoulders, too, which Homer found disturbing. He couldn’t imagine sending different signals with both hands while receiving different responses with both shoulders.
After thirty seconds, the gnomes broke formation and surrounded the table to show how the dwarf loaded its catapult with stones and launched them. Gnomes debated the effects of wind on the payload to make every stone follow a perfectly simulated arc.
“Slow down,” said Victoria. She allowed the gnomes to move the stones to their zenith. “Stop there. My elves clear this area.” The gnomes moved the elven army to make an empty circle where the stones would land. “Easy.”
The stones landed in the empty circle and ricocheted in all directions. “Your troops cannot react in time to the ricochet. The closest are stoned to death.” Gnomes scooped out figurines in an annulus of impact. “The next closest survive with debilitating injuries.” Gnomes knocked down elves in a much larger ring.
“What!” Victoria braced herself against the table. “You expect me to believe each of those rocks killed one elf and wounded two more?”
“I do not expect you to believe it, ma’am, but it is true.” The gnomes meticulously demonstrated the path of each stone individually. “While you consider your next command, the dwarf is reloading its catapult.”
Victoria surveyed her surviving troops. “I surrender,” she decided. “The remaining elves retreat. I suspect we’ll need them to fight another day.”
“The baked caldera is mine.” The Mountain Swallower stood. “I claim this gnome, the one with no dress. Dresses catch in my teeth.”
“Oh, dear.” Quattuor nodded to Homer and Jameson. “Perhaps we’ll meet again someday. Tell Ms. Twine I said goodbye.”
“Speak not.” The Mountain Swallower ate Quattuor’s head.
Homer bellowed as the Mountain Swallower chewed Quattuor’s shoulders and arms. The sound, like crushing gravel, made Homer’s fur bristle and showed the maze of scars on his chest. “Calm down, Homer.” Jameson patted Homer’s knee. “Dwarfs eat rocks, so gnomes are a delicacy, like fine cheese.” The Mountain Swallower finished with Quattuor’s legs and feet. “We’ll buy a new gnome from the elves.”
“Rrr!” Homer stood with enough force to knock over the bench, toppling Jameson and some dwarfs. “Rrarrr!”
The five gnomes in pink dresses stood between Homer and the Mountain Swallower. “The wager was accepted and the dwarven champion won. The Mountain Swallower’s actions are admissible.” The Mountain Swallower licked its teeth. Its tongue was blue and gray.
The ground pulsed around Homer. Dust puffed up like wild animals were bursting from shallow graves. Elves scattered. Homer lifted the bench above his head. “Homer, this is your last warning!” said the gnomes.
Homer smashed the bench over the dwarven champion. The coal-colored armor cracked and hard green gnome-brains spilled out. False teeth fell from the helmet. Homer dropped the broken bench. “Nno smell,” Homer explained.
Gnomes and elves gathered around the armor. “Their champion’s a fake!” said an elf. “The dwarfs cheated!”
The Mountain Swallower laughed. This rare dwarven laugh was like distant thunder rolling over ruins. “Ask any gnome—that pile of brains is a legally registered dwarven commander.”
The gnomes didn’t bother matching fingertips. “This dwarven commander was obviously registered under false pretenses, but is nonetheless registered.”
“Don’t act surprised. Dwarfs have built war-machines since the dawn of time,” said the Mountain Swallower. “Recently we’ve experimented by decapitating gnomes for their cold, calculating brains. When you beat the nine-brained seafolk, Ebi Anago,” it said to Homer, “we decided to wire up ten brains at a time.” More brains slopped from the dwarven champion. “We’ll add more if we like.”
“This is a flagrant breach of the intent of law.” Victoria pointed at the broken champion. “No one could beat ten gnomes at table-war, not if they can cripple armies with a handful of stones!”
“Nonetheless, it is registered,” said another gnome. “A registered commander can only be disbarred from play because of their own death or the death of their game-piece, or for violating the treaty. This ‘dwarven’ commander has done none of those things. Speaking of which,” he said, turning to Homer, “ordinarily you would be ejected for assault, but in these extenuating circumstances, we allow you to remain a commander.”
Aria didn’t wait for her carriage to stop before she jumped out and ran for the arena. “Jameson!” She waved for him with her bandaged hand. “Where’s Homer? What happened here?”
“Homer’s cooling off somewhere.” Sir Jameson flipped a toppled bench. “You need a new gnome; the Mountain Swallower ate yours. Homer got mad and smashed the dwarven champion, who’s apparently some gnome brains wired together. Look what Homer did to this dust! He was so angry this just sort of… happened!”
Aria slid her boot to trace a maze drawn in the dust. “I feel you, Homer. I really do.”