The Magic Quill #154: Gnome Warfare
by Robbie Fischer
Contest winner: Dragonic
Runner-up: Sir Read-a-Lot
Using his wand to join the edges of the monkey skins, Sir Lionel Niblet put the finishing touches on his new all-weather cloak. It was both practical and stylish, with a warm layer of fur facing inward and a suede-like suppleness facing out. He examined it approvingly, then slipped it on. The fit was perfect. He should have been a tailor. “If I ever find my way out of this horrid valley,” he thought aloud, “I’ll have found my true calling, at least.”
Round about his campsite were the trappings of his new life, since his broomstick had rammed into an invisible wall high above the island. The broom, still held together by a few splinters, had barely managed to slow his fall into this long, deep cut between two parallel mountain ridges. It had been a hard landing, but survivable – except his broom was completely shattered now. Without it, he had no way of scaling the sheer sides of the ravine. So he had turned his thoughts toward survival.
Uncounted weeks had passed. The stream that ran along the bottom of the ravine had provided him many suppers of fish, clams, and snails. The small animals that lived among the trees had supplied plentiful meat, pelts, and bones from which he had made fishhooks, needles, knives, and other tools. He hadn’t needed weapons really; a well-aimed stunning spell had often served to bring down his prey, at least long enough for him to go to work with a bone knife. Apart from a few wild cats, who left him alone as long as he laid scraps out for them, Sir Lionel was the apex predator of this isolated valley.
When he could spare time from matters of survival, Sir Lionel had thought but briefly on the life he left behind. There was little point in regretting his loss. He hoped his friends would do well without him. He reproached himself for the foolishness of setting out on this flight through unfrequented skies without telling anyone where he was bound. He worried just a bit about the outcome of the business deal that had been at the end of his planned, but uncompleted, journey. How had it gone on without him?
But mostly, he had wondered about that invisible wall in the sky. Who had put it there? The how was obvious: by magic, of course. But the why still eluded him.
After a midday supper of roasted fowl washed down with fermented yam juice, Sir Lionel spent an hour going over his gear. He now had several coiled lengths of braided thong, slippers and gloves made of woven plant fibers, and a dozen magically-sharpened picks fashioned from large animal bones and small rocks. His supply of leaf-wrapped, salted meat and bladders of yam vodka filled a skin bag he had made a week ago. He was ready. He would begin his ascent of the eastern ridge the next morning. Perhaps this time he would make it to the top. Then, at least, he could look at what lay in the next valley, beyond the mysterious barrier that had halted his broom.
The night fell, cold and damp. Sir Lionel was glad of his new cloak. Before the sky grew pale above the eastern ridge, he put on all his gear and began his long hike up the forested foothills. The first stab of daylight found him crawling over a scrubby pile of scree. His camp, invisible amid the trees behind and below him, would have looked tiny from this distance. He rested for a few minutes, then scrambled onward.
The day passed quickly. The sun seemed to plunge suddenly behind the western ridge – though its light did not die so quickly at this height as it seemed to do from the bottom of the valley. Sir Lionel wedged himself into a cleft and settled down for the night, eating and drinking sparingly and with deliberate slowness in spite of his ravenous hunger and thirst. Stiff, painful muscles disturbed his rest throughout the night, and woke him early in the morning. He stretched himself thoroughly before resuming his climb.
The valley now yawned below him, dark and distant and threatening. Sir Lionel tried not to look down when he could help it. When he did catch a glimpse of what lay behind, he sensed that he was covering less distance today than on the day before. The top of the ridge seemed just as unreachably distant as ever. He needed to pause more often, sucking in great breaths that never seemed to satisfy his need for air. With great weariness and a growing sense of failure, he rested for a second night, this time on a wide ledge, and slept deeply for the first time in several days.
He was nearing the end of his supplies, and the end of his third day of climbing, when Sir Lionel suddenly found himself tumbling over the other side of the ridge. He might have fallen to his death if an invisible wall hadn’t caught him with a bruising matter-of-factness. He leaned his weight against it, resting full-length against apparent nothingness over the vast, misty canyon before him.
Unlike the valley he had come from, this one appeared to be inhabited. At any rate, several columns of smoke rose from the dark mass of trees below.
After hours of sidling along the unseen barrier, looking for a way through it, Sir Lionel spotted a broad ledge covered in the rubble of a long-past rockslide. Fortunately, two of the larger rocks that leaned together to support much of the pile lay directly beneath the barrier. Throughout the next two days, he dug out pieces of rock. His food and drink nearly exhausted, his gloves and hands similarly shredded, he finally cleared an opening between the two large stones and crawled through it. Now he was inside the magical wall that apparently shielded this valley from the outside.
His descent went more quickly than the ascent. This was partly the result of gravity, partly of the somewhat gentler slope on this side of the ridge, and partly of necessity. Sir Lionel was literally starving, and parched into the bargain, when he reached the first stream. He immediately stripped off his cloak and plunged into the water. He drank deeply, then with some difficulty speared a fish and ate it raw, skin and all. He left only fins and bones behind as he drank again and dug for tubers.
His first night in the new valley was filled with strange and disturbing sounds. Different birds shrieked here. Somewhere not far enough away, a cat roared and a monkey screamed. A huge snake slithered by him in the darkness, ignoring him in its search for smaller prey.
Late morning found him gazing down at a surprising discovery. Below a long, waist-high wall of unmortared stone lay a broad, tree-shaded compound. Its thatched roofs and walls of mud-caulked timber held only a faint air of primitiveness. The place was well-organized, with a large central building surrounded by smaller huts, some of them suspended above the ground on stilts. Smoke rose from chimneys of every building except the ones on stilts. The ground around the huts had been cleared and swept, and an unmistakable cistern stood behind the main building, connected to the nearby river by a silvery pipe and a hand-operated pump.
This was no native village. Based the magical barrier around the valley, as well as the curious sparks that floated out of several of the chimneys, Sir Lionel knew that sorcery was involved.
Seeing no one moving about the compound, Sir Lionel lifted himself over the stone wall and hurried on tiptoe toward the nearest building. He flatted himself against it and edged around the nearest corner, searching for signs of activity.
He almost gasped aloud when he found himself looking through an unglazed window at three men who, fortunately, were not looking in his direction. Seen in profile, they seemed to be intent on something out of Sir Lionel’s field of view. He shifted to the other side of the window to get a better look. Now he saw what the three men were watching.
It was a pen, fenced off by a single strand of wire. This didn’t seem like much of a fence at first glance, but Sir Lionel soon noticed a few odd things about it. First, it glowed slightly with a blue radiance that made his head ache. Also, it gave off a curious hum that set his teeth on edge – until he looked away from it, that is. Then he saw, beyond it, group of ugly little gnomes, huddled together and shivering, though they grinned madly all the same. On the opposite side of the ring surrounded by that glowing, humming wire, stood another gnome – a curiously still, composed gnome. It did not seem at all inclined to giggle, dance, or pull faces. It simply studied its kinsmen as if committing their features to memory.
The image chilled Sir Lionel to the bone. This was distinctly un-gnomelike behavior. It stirred a memory in the back of his mind – the memory of a rare disease that sometimes afflicted these magical garden pests: Mad Gnome Disease. A gnome that acted like a sane, balanced person was clearly, dangerously insane. And that insanity could spread instantly from one gnome to another, should the infected gnome bite or scratch the normal one. The results could be a fast-spreading epidemic of intelligent, organized, and ferocious gnomes – gnomes who could easily turn against any wizards and witches who crossed their path, and attack them with deadly savagery.
Sir Lionel’s suspicions were confirmed when the mad gnome – that is, the seemingly sane one – launched itself toward the three trembling ones, biting and scratching and yowling. A moment later, all four gnomes stood together, looking up at the three wizards with expressions of calm cunning.
The wizard on the left shivered. “That’s all I need to see,” he said. “One or two dozen of these blighters ought to be enough to bring the entire Wizengamot to its knees.”
“I should think so,” agreed the wizard on the right in a thick, middle-European accent. “Let’s discuss terms. If you’ll come with me, Willibald here will, er, secure the specimens while we talk.”
Sir Lionel ducked around the back of the hut just in time. Moments later, two of the wizards came out of the door a few feet beyond the window. He listened to the sound of their retreating footsteps, his mind reeling at the thought of weaponized gnomes. It was the most monstrous trade in living creatures that he had heard of, notwithstanding the unforgettable scandal of Wizard Stafford-Fume and his wands made with a core of living bowtruckles. Suddenly Sir Lionel wished he had his young friend Spanky at his side, armed with two wands and a long habit of dueling practice.
“Aye, old son,” Sir Lionel whispered, almost as if in prayer. “Where are you when I need you?”
+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR TMQ #156 +++
You can help decide what happens next in The Magic Quill! Simply leave a brief comment (up to 150 words) at this blog answering the following Survey and Contest. The survey answer with the most votes, and the contest answer that Robbie likes best, will turn up in the chapter after next.
SURVEY: Which magical creature will we see next? (A) A wereyak. (B) A merhag. (C) A fruit troll. (D) Other _____ (write-in candidate).
CONTEST: Describe a common cliche, giving it a slight magical twist. Example: “That really takes the pumpkin pasty!” (Instead of: “That really takes the cake!”)