To absolve a debt with ninjas, the roguish Bladeor attempts to secure a prize of sparkly gemstones by facing an ancient riddle normally reserved for faeries.
The gnomes glanced at one another with long faces and reached for their pouches. Each spilled out a handful of silver and copper coins, tinkling across the sodden table: not a gold coin among them.
Bladeor’s stomach twisted. “What in bloody blazes is this?”
Each gnome lowered his pointy head. “Truth is, good sir,” Blue said, “we never expected to lose at Runes to a human. We appear to have been caught a little… short.” He tugged his beard.
Normally such a comment would be amusing, coming from gnomes. He drew a deep breath and stood. Maybe a brush with Deathbringer would help them stand a bit taller. The sword rang as it flew from its sheath. He flourished the ebon blade with a well-practiced sneer.
Huddled like sheep in a thunderstorm, the gnomes squeezed their eyes shut.
Oh, bugger. “Look at me, for crikey’s sake.”
Each cracked open an eye, trembling, their pointy hats tilted every which way.
The rest of the inn—mostly farmer gnomes, a couple of hormonal sprites and one besotted centaur—had gone deathly quiet. The old barkeep scratched himself, pretending not to notice.
“You can see I mean business,” Bladeor continued, hefting his sword, “so no more games. Your money, as they say, or your life!”
They whimpered. “But we have nothing more.”
Bladeor gave them each a quick frisk, finding only a handful of carrots and potatoes. What did he expect from the patrons of the Hoe Hoe Hoe Inn?
“Nothing?” he asked, weapon drooping.
They shook their heads vigorously.
This wasn’t fair. Gnomes always had money. While satyrs and pixies would blow their coin on wine and frivolity, nymphs on lingerie from Titania’s Secret, the elves on music lessons, and dryads on exotic tree fertilizers, the gnomes were at home gardening, raising families and hording their profits. Dull, but dependable, so far as the races of faery went.
“Look, I won fair and square, right?” Except for two or three peeks. “You must have something of value.”
Red nudged Blue and whispered in his oversized ear. Yellow shook his head, but a sidelong glance at Bladeor’s sword produced a thoughtful frown.
“Out with it,” Bladeor said.
“We, er, do have something.” Blue rooted around his vest and produced a scroll of lavender vellum.
A note from their mum? Bladeor unrolled it and scanned the flowery writing. “The bearer of this epistle shall find welcome at the famed Silver Snapdragon and may participate in the celebrated Riddle of Elders, with the usual consequences of weal or woe.” Bladeor rubbed his eyes. Nothing was ever straightforward with faeries.
“It’s genuine,” Yellow said, his face solemn. “Stamped by the Committee of Elders.”
“A rare opportunity. Especially for a human.” Blue hazarded a small grin.
“There’s a map on the back.” Red pointed. “Only visible under moonlight, of course.” He patted Bladeor on the forearm. “It’s said the drinks at the Silver Snapdragon will uncurl the tips of your shoes.” He sighed, stroking his beard.
“Hold on.” Bladeor raised his sword. “I’m not fond of faery taverns and have no interest in riddles. This is rubbish.”
The gnomes stared at him, their jaws agape.
“Solve the Riddle of Elders and you’ll earn a large silver plate—” Red threw his arms wide.
“Signed by King Oberon and other esteemed persons,” Blue interjected.
“Filled with sparkly gems!” Yellow’s face lit up like a Yuletide tree.
“And a lifetime of free drinks,” they said in concert.
Sparkly gems, eh? Bladeor re-read the scroll. “What’s this about ‘weal or woe’? I’ve had enough woe dealing with you wankers.”
The gnomes glanced at one another. “Well, on the off chance you should miss the riddle—”
“Which is more of a formality.”
“Seeing as you’re an invited guest.”
“—you’d need to pass a more difficult challenge.”
Bladeor massaged his temples. “Talk one at a time. What type of challenge?”
Blue shrugged. “Truth to tell, sir, we’re not certain. We are merely farmers. Tales say one must ‘run the Gauntlet,’ a physical test. You can still win the gems, but if you lose…”
Pixies were annoying, but at only two feet tall they weren’t anything Bladeor couldn’t handle. A plateful of gems could easily be worth several thousand gold. Between the choice of dodging the Brotherhood of Ninjas or wrestling pixies, the decision wasn’t too difficult.
“All right, wankers. I accept.” He pocketed the scroll. “Now piss off.”