Gnome Country for Old Monsters, Part Three

The Heart of Gnome Country erupted in a ventricular spasm of disbelief. A gnome threw a bowl of blackberry cobbler at Hansel and barely missed. The gnomes were angry, and they were angry at Hansel, but they weren’t yelling about true love.

“Now you did it!” yelled a little gnome in a pink hat.

“Do you want us to dance?” another asked.

“I still have chafing from last time!” screamed a taller male gnome in a blue hat.

“QUIET.” The Queen was standing on Grendel’s knee, and her booming voice held none of the South now. “Agnton. Come forward.” The strange gnome stepped in-between Hansel and the Queen.

“Wait a minute, don’t I get to say what I want—” mumbled Grendel.

“NO,” replied Hansel and GnaGna in unison. Grendel looked unhappy with the arrangements for the first time that evening but didn’t say anything further.

“Agnton, please deal with this in the traditional manner.” Agnton gave her a tight nod and then gave Hansel his full, unsettling attention.

“Now you’ve done it, haven’t you?” he asked. “I was hoping not to have to have this conversation with you, but as you insist, here we are.” His strange hair was curled under at the ends for the occasion, and it made him look like Little Lord Murderleroy. “Did you want to have this conversation?”

“Um…I guess not?” Hansel wasn’t sure what conversation it was.

“You… you ‘guess’ not?” Agnton shook his head. “Guessing will get you what you want, but you have to do it correctly. Can you do that? Guess correctly?”

Hansel was very confused. “Maybe?” The crowd was silent enough to hear a felt hat itch. Hansel and Agnton were outside time and space, in their own intense reality.

“Maybe will not be correct.” Agnton pulled something out of his pocket and tossed it into the air. Catching it, he slapped it onto the table, covering it with his hand. “Call it.”

“What?”

“Call it. Hats or tails. For the monster.”

“Hey!” interjected Grendel. “You can’t just flip a coin for me! I’m not a piece of meat!” He fumbled at his blue carnation boutonniere, but his monster fingers were too big to unpin it. Hansel patted the air between them. Grendel settled unhappily, glaring at Agnton.

They were very, very outnumbered. Hansel didn’t see any other way out. The threats about “dancing” could mean anything.

“Heads.”

“What is this?” Agnton said quietly. “I gave you two choices, and you pick neither. Perhaps you have a hearing problem, is that it? Can you not hear well?”

“Sorry, hats! I mean hats.” Hansel was sweating heavily, and not enjoying the new sweat smell over the old sweat smell. He was going to have some legendary BO by the time they reached Aunt Linda’s. If they reached Aunt Linda’s.

Agnton raised his small hand. The coin showed a gnome mooning the assemblage. “Oh, I’m sorry. You did not guess correctly. Your friend will stay and marry the Queen. Now, you will sit down and cause no more trouble. Do you think you can do that?”

Hansel’s cheeks flushed. “So that’s it? You just flip a coin and decide someone’s life and no one can say anything more?”

“Yes, exactly.” Agnton walked back to his position behind the Queen and resumed scanning the crowd.

“But—”

“Stop, Hansel, friend of Grendel.” GnaGna was imperious and at Hansel’s eye level on Grendel’s knee. “I have won the hand of Grendel fairly, in our traditional contest.” Again, there was no lilting Georgia peach in her voice, just venom. “You will not like the consequences if you persist. I have little monsters of my own.”

Hansel deflated. He sat down and stared at his unfinished pie, no longer hungry. Grendel cleared his throat to get the boy’s attention and shrugged. The big monster had given up. Hansel resigned himself to a long, solitary walk to Linda’s.

After the party ended, Hansel was shown to a makeshift pallet outside the Heart. It was warm enough, but it was clearly not a position of favor. He waited until the activity died down and Gnome Country was silent. He slipped out of his blankets, stealing the top one and wrapping it around himself, and stole away from the gnomes.

There was enough of a moon to see the shapes of trees, but it was slow going. He was glad he’d had a good meal, at least. He watched the ground carefully, trying to avoid snapping twigs and unseen holes.

He had his head down so diligently, he walked right into the back of Grendel.

“Ah!” said the giant monster.

“Ah!” said the small boy.

They spent the next few minutes shushing each other loudly. Yes, I said minutes.

“What are you doing?” Hansel whispered.

“Running away,” Grendel answered. “What are you doing?”

“Same. I thought you were going to marry NaNa? What happened?”

“It’s GnaGna, but never mind that, it’s also a little crazy. I saw you standing there objecting, and then there was a coin toss, and nobody asked me. I guess I’m taking the coward’s way out and leaving her at the altar.”

“I’m glad. I mean, I’m not glad you snuck off without me, we’re going to have to talk about that later, but you shouldn’t have to marry someone just because they’re scary.”

“Yeah, she kept going in and out of that accent after you went to bed and talking about her exes, and there were a lot of exes. You left without me, too, by the way, so maybe that talking needs to go both ways.”

“Later.”

“Okay. Later.”

Two do not sneak as stealthily as one. They made noisy progress for several hours until Hansel couldn’t walk any more. He was going to be in great shape if he survived. Grendel was limping even when Hansel wasn’t looking, making him worry about the toe injury again.

They made a hasty camp secluded in a grove of madrone trees, the shining, twisted wood creepy in the moonlight. A couple hours of sleep was needed, then they’d continue their retreat at first light. Love might be a many-splendored thing, but many a splendorous thing had poisonous skin you shouldn’t lick.

Hansel fell asleep as soon as the dog blanket settled over him.