The grey morning light fell over Makrofaga’s face and its reflection in the bathroom mirror. Usually in the mornings she practiced her resting bitch face, or rather her resting bitch faces, because she had one for most occasions. Well meaning help organisations got another face than persons who were obvious scammers. They came in a steady stream offering a variety of strange gadgets or methods to “alleviate poverty”, and after fifty years Makrofaga knew the types so well she could write a book about them. While many of them had some useful stuff not one had offered the one thing they needed; more space, more money, and more food. When all was said and done their contribution was like a drop of water on a hot desert stone.
She had one resting bitch face for representatives from Flådhöjden who came down to complain. She had another one for representatives who came down to rearrange things. And she had a particularly effective one for representatives who came to tell they needed to give up parts of Skräpmården – Auduin Enris was the only one who didn’t flinch before it. Usually she had fun practice those faces, adding some goofy ones that wouldn’t be used for other things than as party tricks. But today depression lay like an anvil over her soul. Instead of contorting her face she looked at her budding wrinkles, the faint warts, and the odd pimples. She had reached the age when her looks started to relax and slide downwards. The nose had grown a size, and the corners of her mouth sagged. Her hair, once raven black, had started to grey, and not in that attractive way where white hairs sprinkled like stars against the dark background. No, her hair faded, like paint stuck in a sunny spot. The grey hairs had company by broad streak of light brown hair, not exactly grey – not exactly brown, just some odd value in between.
“Dear Gods” she thought “if I hadn’t been thrown in the sewers in my youth I’d sure be it now.”
The goddesses and gods were silent when she served them. It was just as well – she wouldn’t be able to listen to their words anyway. The only thing she could think of was what she would she would say to her subjects. How could she tell them such horrendous news. Only when she put up the last bottle cap, at the porcelain goddess at the top of the display, did someone open their mouth.
“You need to snap out of it” said the goddess.
“I don’t know if I can” sighed Makrofaga.
“You need to answer their “why” instead of agonizing over your “how”.”
When Odoferus burst into the hut thirty minutes later she still stood with the tray in her hand, looking up at the goddess.
“YOU KNOW THEY’RE NOT REAL, DON’T YOU!”
Makrofaga turned around and looked him straight in the eyes, something so unusual Odoferus completely lost track.
“I just had a conversation with Transcendentia. She said you’re asking questions you don’t want answers for, so answering them is as useless as trying to catch the wind with a bucket.”
For a while Odoferus struggled with his lips.
“Yeah… but it’s fun?”
“Well, it is fun, but there’s else…”
“Are you okay?”
Makrofaga swept the bottle caps from the shelves of the display and threw them, together with the tin can and the tray, on her bed.
“They want Kingdom of Heaven.”
Odoferus turned paper white.
While Makrofaga and Odoferus gathered the other advisors, and an unhealthy amount of the muddy liquid that went for booze at Skräpmården, there’s room for us to delve into Kingdom of Heaven, magic and gods. First of all Kingdom of Heaven was a dump, or at least looked like one. It was a mound close to the border of Sprättströget, and the dirty elves unceremoniously threw their garbage at its foot. Skitalver on their last end then russled through the trash trying to find the few scraps of clothing and food that was still useful. But on the top was a small shrine, a pillar with a bowl on top, and inside the bowl was a small amount of water and a flame that burned day and night. This being Skräpmården the pillar was made of a discarded paper tube, the bowl was a kitchen terracotta bowl with chips and cracks, and the flame inside had a wick made of cloths so worn you could hardly see the threads anymore, and it was fed with a kind of fat residue that floated from one of the sewers – hopefully the collected cooking fat from the Flådhöjden kitchens. On the paper tube someone had written, as steady as possible
“Kingdom of Heaven
Kingdom of hearts
Where everything ends
And everything starts”
This was the holiest place in the entire Skräpmården.
It may seem strange that skitalverna threw their trash there, but some of it wasn’t trash at all, it was offerings and sacrifices. If you looked closely you could see that the heap changed character the further up you looked. The undeniable trash at the bottom got mixed up with stuff and little clay miniatures of limbs, and closest to the pillar was almost only little trinkets and clay limbs. The worn out elves searching the trash usually ate everything edible on the spot, but if the meal was an offering the waited a while – roughly thirty minutes – before they devoured it, even if it was a large, decorated feast. You had to be skilled to see it, and that’s exactly what the dirty elves wanted.
The dirty elves were not more prone to religion than the elves of Flådhöjden. But when you’ve had everything stolen, when you’ve been told you’re trash, and stomped into the dirt, then the last thing you own is what you innermost believe in. You cherish it. This is what makes you you. So the dirty elves took good care of Kingdom of Heaven, and guarded its secret with their lives. The mound was hollow. For the one who believed the gate opened regularly and xe could walk down to the grotto beneath. It had been there for centuries, and the clay ground was indeed a treacherous vessel for it. Building on, or in, clay is like building on jelly, and anything that should stand needs skilled reinforcements. The ancient original walls was lined with oak beams, stringed together to be able to move with their support. Any dripping water was skillfully led away before it could harm the elaborate wall paintings and the gigantic idols lining the way down. But the most important thing that held it together was magic.
It’s impossible to fully understand magic. Indeed, the easiest thing about it is to identify a scammer. Xe tend to feed on other person’s need for it like a vampire feeds on blood, and the will to exploit others shines stronger and stronger with time. But for true magic… neither priests nor alchemists nor magicians had managed to capture its essence. The best you could say about it was that it was almost like water – it could collect in large “puddles”, it could “dry out”, and it could stream, sweeping away things and persons. Like water it could be used by anyone, and all over Skräpmården it was used to light fires, cure children, heal bones and clear the air. But it could also concentrate around persons who seemingly knew what they were doing, it could suddenly abandon those same persons, and it could build structures that were tougher than the teeth of time. The grotto under the Kingdom of Heaven was one of those structures. Even if every dirty elf was wiped from the face of the world, and the religion nourishing the temple disappeared without a trace, the grotto would stand.
As a queen Makrofaga was the main guardian of the Kingdom of Heaven, and it was the apple of her eye, and her pride as a queen. The rules for the grotto was simple – the visitors would leave with a full head, a full heart and a full stomach. Thanks to her expansions every dirty elf could visit once a week. The grotto had always contained a temple, a school and a kitchen. She had added a library, alchemist laboratories, and large underground gardens lit by thousands tiny magical suns. If the Flådhöjden elves could get to see it they would marvel at the complex’s beauty. Everything was still made out of trash, from the giant idols lining the way down to the grotto to the pillar and the bowl in the temple, but here the crafters had gone out of their way to make items of beauty. The light from magical fires reflected in polished tin and brass, traveled through remodeled shards of glass and played over the walls adding painting of light to the decorated walls. The gardens, mostly there to grow food for the kitchen, were designed as small parks where visitors almost forgot they were underground. The temple had a center that was well kept, where the pillar and bowl were whole, and the flame was fed with earth almond oil.
Any person of belief was welcome, and the same old magic that kept the walls standing called every worthy skitalv regularly to come and visit. This tug of the heartstrings extended to Odoferus too, which may seem odd considering his loud opposition to anything that looked like religion. But he was a person of faith – he fervently, with every fiber of his being – believed that gods did not exist. That was enough for the divine beings who ruled the temple, even though Makrofaga could see their idols smirk behind his back the times she visited the place with him. They both were there slightly more often than the average skitalv. She, of course, had to check up on the entire place, and Odoferus since he was responsible for Skräpmården’s public health and had to oversee the production of horrgoo.
The laboratories in the grotto were made up of alchemy tools thrown away by Flådhöjden, and as such they were surprisingly up to date. Roughly ten years ago the alchemist had invented a stinking, tar-like substance that had amazing healing properties. Well “stinking” is a bit unfair to say, its smell was close to tar, and not that bad once you got used to it. But the Flådhöjden elves couldn’t stand it, and that was another plus in the dirty elves’ book. They quickly named it horrgoo, and used it, either plain or heavily mixed with perfume, on everything. While it mostly was antiseptic and effective on infections, they tried it on broken bones, sore muscles, aching heads, and to uglify themselves and their kids.
The dirty elves knew on their bones the second secret to the high elves’ looks as exalted and ethereal. They stole. Everything that was beautiful, everything that was clever, was nabbed out of the hands of skitalverna and incorporated into Flådhöjden. It wasn’t called stealing, of course. Things were “bought cheaply”, and even Grak Silverstickaren had to calculate for stingy Flådhöjdare suddenly deciding they would only pay half price. Knowledge had to be “kept safe with the learned elders in the libraries” of the marble city. Jewels and historical artifacts had “a better chance of surviving” if the Flådhöjden alchemists took care of them – that’s how the Skräpmården crown jewels and a larger part of its regalia ended up on display in the Flådhöjden temple. Beautiful children were “obiously orphans” and “adopted”, beautiful adults were “wooed and married”.
At least for adults they could chose. There was a steady trickle of young persons finding spouses among the Flådhöjden elves and moving to the marble city. Roughly half them were soon dropped into the sewers, and they had to return to their old home – sometimes with children in tow. So all of the dirty elves made sure their kids had large and ugly streaks of horrgoo in their faces, and most of them also clapped horrgoo on themselves, on top of their already elaborate makeup. And they would rather die than reveal that the black stuff was good.
So when Makrofaga, Odoferus, Foetida, Silver, mr Lotus, and Grak gathered on the Kingdom of Heaven and sat down beside the worn paper tube with a large bottle of moonshine, they sat down on the secret, pulsing heart of Skräpmården.
“They want to take all of it” said Makrofaga sobbing “flatten the entire mound and expand their “nice lawn” over it.”
Odoferus took a swig out of the bottle.
“This is horrible! Did you have to make this worse by getting something half fusel?”
He gagged and took another swig.
“’SallIcou’get” said Silver
He wore Foetida like a very stoned fur hat.
“Do you think they know?” asked mr Lotus while he politely waited for his turn with the bottle.
“Oh yes,” Makrofaga said coarsly “they know, and they want to take the last thing that makes us us.”
She glared over the fence to the tent camp the Flådhöjden elves suddenly had set up.
Again, the Flådhöjden elves had a fad for glamping in Sprättströget. They set up embroidered tents, lit ornate sheets of fire and had barbecue on things so decorative it was hard to say if it was food or elaborate art pieces. Often they had parties and got themselves hammered. It wasn’t unusual to find elves who had passed out close to the fence, but they never got so drunk they ended up in Skräpmården. The camp set up this time wasn’t the usual party prop. The fabric, both in the tents and and the clothes worn by the elves, was sturdy, made for all kinds of weather and – since Makrofaga and her advisors had seen it before they knew this – impossible to lit on fire or penetrate. Shining plates of metal protected the elves shoulders and and elbows. They wore weapons void of any unnecessary decorations and were obviously good at handling them. At the moment they were occupied with getting their tents up, and paid no notice of the mound on the other side, where more and more of the dirty elves gathered. The normal din of Skräpmården seemed to lose intensity for every minute.
This was the Flådhöjden guard. Proud elite soldiers who had fought in three gigantic wars, and who kept the Skräpmården crowds under control should anyone get the idea to, say, start a revolution. Their heavy war horses grazed the lawn, wisping away flies with their tails and gently butting heads with each other. Most of the gathered dirty elves knew they wouldn’t be so gentle if the captain decided the soldiers would rally the crowd. At those times the soldiers drove their horses to gallop through the gathering, stopping at nothing, not even an elf crushing under their hooves. Every skitalv had at least once in their life run from such a charge. They knew those horses, they knew the heavy lances neatly put in a stand beside a tent, and they knew exactly how much mercy the soldiers showed.
“Pardon me if I say so” said mr Lotus, “but that is a lot of force for a lawn.”
One of the worn elves who spent his life digging through the trash tugged at the hem of Makrofaga’s dress.
“Ey, majesty. What’s happening? People down there wants to know.”
“They want to make Kingdom of Heaven into a piece of the lawn. Tell them we’ll fight for it.”
He bent his stiffed and crooked body into a sort of bow, and turned to the next elf below him. The message passed from elf to elf, and you could see how it traveled through the crowd. Not one person dared to say anything out loud, but xe stiffened up, got energized, until the entire mass of dirty elves was vibrating. On the other side of the fence the guards’ nonchalant tending to their camp got a little bit more alert, and the soldiers side glanced under their helmets.
“That wasn’t smart” hissed Odoferus into Makrofaga’s ear.
That moonshine gave him a horrible breath.
“What was I supposed to say, then?” she hissed to him “We can’t just give it to them!”
But she realised the problem, just as everyone else in the group. The dirty elves couldn’t fight. In fact, the most common reason to be dropped into the sewer was doing bad at military training. They pretended they didn’t care, that their party habits was a much better way of life than freezing their butt off during wilderness excursions and sweating one’s soul off during exercises. Deep inside they knew, though, that this was their hamper. Time and time again the trained Flådhöjden elves beat them and herded them into things they didn’t wanted. Usually it was work, roads that needed to be built, marble that needed to be moved, and all the other sorts of things that was heavy even when you used magic for help. A few times it had been to empty parts of Skräpmården so Flådhöjden could expand. The group setting up camp on the other side a the fence was small, perhaps ten soldiers and their captain, and they could still beat the entire crowd that now filled the area at the foot of the Kingdom of Heaven.
“Your majesty,” said Grak Silverstickaren softly “is the hill you want to die on?”
“Oh, I don’t intend to die” said Makrofaga “I won’t have anyone die for this hill. We’ll just keep it, and they can poop in their pants.”
She struggled to her feet. Her body was heavy, not as cooperative as when she was younger, and that cursed moonshine had already started to bite. The ever so polite mr Lotus discretely pushed her to balance and trailed behind her when she stumbled down to the fence. It was twice as high as an elf, and built out of intertwined willow twigs. The willow had already taken root, and tender leaves were sprouting at the top. Makrofaga clenched a fist around the branches and looked through one of the holes. On the other side a soldier was fidgeting with a rope, something leftover from the tents.
“Ey you”, said Makrofaga “tell your captain he’s granted an audience”
She could see the magic around the willow crumble under her breath. That moonshine was certainly something, she couldn’t have drunk more than two sips? The poor elf saw her dark expression and nearly ran to get his officer. Soon Auduin Enris showed up, his captain’s wings clearly visible on his right shoulder.
“Good morning, your majesty.”
He stopped two decimeter farther from the fence than he needed, and drew his head backwards with a sour face.
“I thought I said it was no, Auduin.”
“The last thing I remember is a string of insults.”
“Funny that. The last thing I remember is being dropped into a sewer. You have a funny way of treating visiting royalty.”
“Was there anything more?”
“No, I just wanted to make sure you heard that YOU WON’T GET THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN! IT’S NO, NO, NO!
Behind her the crowd cheered. She could tell from Auduin’s tense lips and wrinkled nose that he put all his energy into staring at her with contempt.
“We’re just here for training.”
“Good. Because if you overstep this border, even with just a pinky, I’m gonna’ come for all and everyone of you nobles, and I’m gonna’ bitchslap you into oblivion!”
It was a spur of the moment thing, no doubt fueled by the moonshine, but when she returned through the crowd she realised it wasn’t such a bad idea. The Flådhöjden elves were proud warriors, and while they spent a lot of time playing harp and sipping pearling whine, their heads were spinning with ideas of dying honourably, valour on the field, and Real Fights. She remembered her youth clear enough to know it. A bitchslap was as far as you could come from their ideals, it was an insult as good as strapping them to a bleating donkey and paint them as clowns. As her brain churned though the impressions she also realized that while Auduin had kept his face straight he had paled slightly. She chuckled to herself and asked the present dirty elves to set up a party between the fence and the Kingdom of Heaven. A big one, at least three days long.
The party was still going strong when Makrofaga and her advisors woke up. Hungover and bleary eyed they gathered around the table in Makrofaga’s hut, and tried to think a few coherent thoughts. Silver was green faced and huddled up in a corner as if he couldn’t sort his limbs in the right order. Odoferus face cycled through white, green, waxy yellow and back to white again. The tan he’d gained from laying drunk in the sun lay as a film over the ever going colour change, and he made sure to have the “puke bucket” close by. Grak had taken the chair beside him to shorten the way if she needed it. Her grip around the table top made the dry wood creek. Around her neck hung a pink feather boa which, upon close inspection, turned out to be Foetida. The fairy’s complaints about the unfair sunlight was barely audible. Makrofaga sat absolutely still on her stool, like a pumpkin with fear of heights. Most of the time she kept her eyes shut, since she too was tormented by the sharp sunlight. Mr Lotus rubbed his temples.
For a long time no one said anything. They just longed for a cup of tea no one could make for them. Then Odoferus glared at mr Lotus.
“Whyareyou stinkfaced? You drink like a bird!”
“Perhaps,” mr Lotus sighed “that drink was of lesser quality.”
“AwRIGHT!” shouted Foetida and made them all wince “WHO SPILLED THE BEANS???”
“Do we have to?” asked Makrofaga and started to rub her temples too.
A tiny fist emerged from the feather boa shaking with rage.
“SOMEONEISATRAITOR! SsssXE NEEDS A BEATING! AND A HANGING!”
“What if it’s a child? We have…”
She heaved and fought to keep it in.
“…we have no clue who did it. And it’s more important to… to… to figure out how we keep those snobs from taking our mound.”
“Your majesty,” said mr Lotus, “knowing who did it may give us clues to how much they know, and what to do.”
That was a long sentence to decode for hangover brains. The persons around the table glared at a vague point in front of their noses while they tried. The first one to even move was Grak.
“Thinking is needed,” she said, “I get us coffee.”
Coffee, water, more coffee, more water, and a few bits of plain bread later they felt a little bit better. They were still completely out of clues save for one; the Flådhöjden elves had tolerated the Kingdom of Heaven for centuries without a peep, something must have stired them, they wouldn’t have put up that show of power if they didn’t had a hunch there was something more to it than the shrine on the top. To at least get a hint on where to start they started to cycle through possible leaks. A child? Possible, but probably not. Childs’ talk should have busted the cover centuries ago if that was the case. A traitor among those who married up to elves in Flådhöjden? Maybe. Someone among the Flådhöjden elves who persisted in turning up with different charity projects? Maybe, but the dirty elves were usually completely tight lipped on both the Kingdom and the horrgoo. A traitor among the dirty elves who had sold the secret? Makrofaga shuddered at the thought. If that was the case the guilty person would be lynched.
“There’s also a chance,” she said and poked her slice of bread, “that they don’t know what’s under ground. They just know that we’ve grown too many, and wants to break down our core to better break us up.”
“DAAAAHLING” said Foetida “they can drive us like cattle any miiinute. If they want to break our core they wanna’ get done with AAAALL of us.”
She meant it as a joke, yet when the words had left her mouth they all realised there were something to them. For a moment the silence around the table where only penetrated by the distant sounds of the party by the foot of Kingdom of Heaven.
“Then we really need to know,” said Makrofaga, “because if they plan something like that…”
Something glowed red in her eyes.
“…No one is going to harm my dirty elves! I’ll see to that!”
“Wow” said Odoferus surprised.
He had still too much of a headache to applaud her, yet he was tempted. Makrofaga didn’t notice. She was deep in thoughts.
“We can’t all do both,” she said after a while, “I want you Foetida, and you Grak to investigate how much those snobs know, and if there was one who sold us out.”
Foetida stuck her face out of the hair, banging her right fist into her left palm.
“Awright! DAAHlin’ can we beat him up on spot?”
“No. All of xe need to be left to be punished publicly. If there’s a traitor everyone needs to see the punishment. Can you imagine the rumours otherwise?”
With a huff Foetida withdraw into her hairs. Absentmindedly Grak patted her back.
“Odoferus and mr Lotus, you help me find out ways to protect the Kingdom of Heaven. You’ll have the most important job, Odoferus…”
The hairy elf stared back at her with a mix of surprise and fear, mentally cycling through every impossible task she could heap upon him.
“…in case there’s a need you’ll be the unofficial liar.”
His brown face broke up in his trademark greasy smile.
“Alright! THAT I can do!”
That took a heavy weight off Makrofaga’s shoulders. She could lie if she wanted to, but she seldom found it worth the trouble. Keeping track of lies was way too much work in her book, especially since covering up one lie tended to birth more lies. Sticking to the truth had always been her way of reducing work. Odoferus, on the other hand, lied for the fun of it. He lied about his age, his weight, his colour – even to persons standing right in front of him – and any other thing he could lie about. Makrofaga had been at gatherings where he had lied about his opinions just to get an interesting discussion going. The only one he never lied to was Makrofaga, since he years ago had discovered she got hurt when people lied to her. Lying to the Flådhöjden elves on the other hand? Bring it on!
Once Grak and Foetida had left to tend to their daily businesses and discretely investigate if anyone had betrayed the secrets of Kingdom of Heaven, the three left sat down to set a plan for defending the mound. Well, Silver was there, but he held a deep conversation with some specks of dust and couldn’t be counted on. Makrofaga took a book from the pile under her bed and drew a map over the mound area on the lining paper. Keeping a map was one of the few lessons she remembered from the strategy lessons she’d taken as a young adult in Flådhöjden.
“I can see a few weak spots, your majesty” said mr Lotus, “though I think the biggest problem is the magic busters.”
Magic busters were spells with the sole function of breaking up other magic. They came in different sizes, from small ones used by unruly kids to wreck havock among each other, to middle sized ones for jealous commoners who wanted to sink their neighbour’s floating cart, to humongous busters used in wars. You could count on Flådhöjden to have the biggest, latest, and best magic busters available. They were probably strong enough to break the ancient magic that kept the temple grotto together. Even though the ancient architecture in itself would serve as a backup, it would be fairly easy for a team of diggers to carve away the rest.
“Luckily we aren’t there yet,” said Makrofaga, “and that buys us some time. Our first problem is what we should do with Auduin and his prancing boys.”
“Not letting him know that we’re planning something!” said Odoferus.
“Are you sure? Isn’t it better to wisk him away in some way?”
“It’s the liar’s first rule! Hide your intention! We keep the party going! Irritate them as much as we could – because that is something we always do! Then we can have our big shenanigans in the direction he doesn’t look.”
“There’s some benefit to that plan, your majesty” said mr Lotus.
“Yeah, I see it. It’s a bit risky, though.”
“Every alternative is risky, your majesty, and if we start an elaborate plan to get him away from there someone will notice.”
Makrofaga sighed again.
“We still don’t know what they plan to do. Given that they already had drawn an official map they’ve been at it for a while.”
“Spies, your majesty.”
Sending spies into Flådhöjden wasn’t impossible. Dirty elves were sometimes enrolled to clean up after messes the city elves didn’t want to touch themselves. Setting off an explosion in a waste pocket somewhere would be easy, given how well they knew the sewer system. The tough part was for the spy to find the good stuff. If a cleaner meant to shovel shit suddenly ended up in the military archives… well, it would look suspicious. Especially since Flådhöjden had made an open move, and knew the dirty elves had interest in poking around. Another alternative was to bribe someone from Flådhöjden to do the spying for them. Hypothetically. Nothing in the entire Skräpmården was valuable enough to be a good bribe, unless the potential spy accepted a gift card for an embroidered coat from Grak. Yet another alternative was to enroll one of those well meaning charity workers. All three of them felt iffy at the thought. Not that the charity workers weren’t intelligent, because the usually were, but they were also naïve and often slightly airheaded. The chance that they would succeed in spying was laughable.
Still, they needed inside information from somewhere, and when she went to bed that night Makrofaga still chewed on the problem over and over
“Spy” she thought “where do we get a spy?”