Saturday, 15 May 2021
The Tournament of the Gods, First Round (3): Iron Golem and Aquatic Elves
There is no further sign of Sleep, for the time being at least; if he indeed creeps among the cedars, he is too quiet and too clever to show even a trace of his presence. The Skurtch, full of the magnanimity of victory as well as wine, goes to look in on the Sucklings and finds them still greedy at the teat. It will be a long time yet before they slumber. The tournament can go on.
The next Gods to be paired against each other are the Elder Sister, unsmiling and haughty in her grey cuirass and greaves, and Lap-Laz, reptilian and blue. Lap-Laz wastes no time in revealing his champion: a great armoured figure forged of solid iron, ponderous with grotesque weight, which he sets on the blanket to a round of gasps from the onlookers.
"Wasn't it you who was complaining of the use of poison in the last bout?" hisses the Elder Sister as she watches the golem march across the felt. "How can my minions even harm that construct?"
"He is like all sticklers for fairness," says the Droll Knave, who is busy slurping a gourd of apricot brandy. "When he personally is concerned, all of a sudden the concept becomes flexible."
The Elder Sister sniffs and sets her shield face down on the blanket. Out of it emerge a host of greenish, web-fingered, flap-footed elves, dripping salt water from their lank hair, wielding nets and tridents. They are led by three mighty warrior women and a great hero carrying a long lance; hunched and ungainly on the land, they arrange themselves into four groups - the women each lead a band of 20, and the hero a band of 16.
"We must make this a fair contest!" says the Skurtch. "Those sea elves cannot hope to survive!"
"Agreed," says a voice from the onlookers. "What pleasure is there in watching a slaughter?"
"Here," says the Droll Knave. He steps onto the blanket and taps a fingertip to the tip of the aquatic elf hero's lance. It begins to gleam with yellow light. "That will give them a fighting chance."
The first band of elves, led by the hero, circle the golem. Their tridents cannot harm it. They plan to trap it with nets long enough to give their hero a chance to damage it. Four race forward and surround it, and hurl their nets. Three go astray but the fourth covers the golem. The hero then darts in and thrusts his lance into its thigh. A pathetic scratch, but a scratch nonetheless. The golem tears away the net with its fists.
The four elves in the first wave retreat; four more come forth. Two nets now fall on the golem, though one of the elves slips and manages to become himself entangled. The hero strikes again, hitting the same spot, this time forcing the lancetip deep into scratching metal. The golem again rends the nets which bind it. Lap-Laz smacks his lips and tuts, wafting his tail restlessly. The Elder Sister sits cross-legged, straight-backed. The other Gods are watching keenly. "A tactical one," says Ya-Besh. "It has been a while."
The dance goes on. The golem is netted once more, and struck again, this time in the groin, with the sound of crunching metal. Once again he frees himself from his bonds. It looks as though the pattern will repeat itself until the golem's oblivion. But something upsets it. The golem lurches suddenly forward and slams the hero with its fist, sending him staggering back five paces and down to his knees. His ribcage is a ruin and blood bubbles from his lips; not dead, not quite, but thereabouts. He staggers to his feet, leaning on the lance. The last four members of his band net the golem once more and the hero, coughing and spitting red, jabs again with the lance, driving it into the golem's flank. It hurls off its bindings and the hero retreats, surrounded by his band; they have no more nets, and are replaced by the first of the warrior women with her soldiers. She seizes the lance and takes up the charge.
The Gods murmur their approval at the tactic, All except for Lap-Laz, who holds out his hand for the Droll Knave's brandy and pours a glug of it down his throat, and the Elder Sister, who approves of nothing save emotional restraint.
But the tide of combat can flow and ebb with all the caprice of the sea. Perhaps because she is unused to the lance, or perhaps from sheer misfortune, despite the waves of net attacks from her men the first warrior women cannot find purchase on the iron golem's frame. The jabbing lance continually misses, or scrapes off the golem's armour with shrieks of metal. As the last four of her elves cast their nets ineffectually wide, the golem is free to bring its open palm slapping down upon her skull and almost carelessly cave it in. Her body flops sideways, and pinkish jelly leaks onto the blanket; the Gods laugh appreciatively, and the game is afoot.
The next warrior woman comes forward; her elves lead the golem away from the twitching corpse of her comrade to allow her time to take up the lance. But she is no more effective. The spectators know that the golem lacks the capacity to learn, yet it almost seems as though it now has the beating of the elves' tactic. Once again, the waves of net-throwers eventually fail and give it an opening, and it is able to pound the lance-bearer with a fist, slamming her sideways so that her spine snaps in twain and she lands on the ground some yards away already stone dead. Her men fall back in disorder.
If the Elder Sister's demeanour remains unchanged, Lap-Laz has somewhat altered. He now swallows pilchards from a pot, curling his tail delightedly about himself. The other Gods are silent. They watch. Here come the last 20 net-armed elves and their leader, who now carries the lance. Three waves of four net-throwers come forward to no avail. But then come another four and the golem is caught. The warrioress lunges and skewers the golem through the belly - the point of the lance passing out through its back. She clings on with both hands. The final four elves come forward to throw, but their nets go astray! The watching Gods are on their feet. The golem almost nonchalantly takes a hold of the warrioress's head and crushes it like an egg.
Pandemonium now among the Gods as the elves regroup. Their net tactic has failed. Now the time has come for steel hearts. They must die for their hero.
A phalanx is formed. The hero - wounded, maybe dying - once more has the lance. A rank of six elves stands in front of him. Their task is to die but to buy for him enough time to make his attacks from the rank behind. The others crowd in from the rear, ready to take the place of those who fall. They advance on the golem. It dispatches one elf with a simple punch, but the lance is once more singing in the hands of its original owner, and the hero drives the point home. The elves close ranks. Another is bashed to brutal death; the lance once more thrusts home. It is all Lap-Laz can do to stop himself from interfering. He capers about on the edge of the blanket and almost retches up his pilchards; the other Gods edge away; the Elder Sister remains watching in motionless repose. Again the elves close ranks. Again the golem strikes, picking one of his opponents up by the ankle and flinging his victim into the air. Again the lance hits home!
The golem is badly damaged. It sways. Staggers. The elves crowd in. The hero attacks. The point of the lance thrusts in beneath its chin. The Gods leap to their feet. Lap-Laz cannot watch, and hurls a mustard pot at a nearby tree. The golem stiffens and straightens for a moment...wobbles...and slams to the ground and is still.
Lap-Laz has sunk onto his knees. Whirling around, he fixes his gaze on the Droll Knave. "You!" He shrieks. "Another gourd of brandy is the least you owe me for that trick."
The Skurtch and Ya-Besh come and put their arms around the blue lizard. "You overreached," Yab-Besh tells him. "A little unfairness goes a long way in these matters. You went too far and outraged the conscience of the Gods."
The Elder Sister carefully sets down her shield for her elves to clamber on, bearing their hero aloft. She allows him the briefest of smiles as he looks up at her in worship. Her sea elves advance.