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Shortly after I’d fled the place where I lived with my birth parents, I found myself facing an impossible dilemma: I couldn’t stay in the town where I’d sought refuge, for it had become clear I would soon die of hunger if a knife thrust didn’t take me first while I slept in some dark alley. Neither could I return home, for it was inevitable that some day I would fail to rise from a beating—and despite my predicament, I wouldn’t have sworn I could muster the courage to return to the terrible place that was all I had of security in this world. (And later, as I’ve previously reported, even that place was denied to me.) I can remember the numbness in my head as my thoughts went around in circles, unsuccessfully seeking a way out of the dilemma, too far gone with fear and pain and hunger to force my mind to solve the problem. All I wanted to do was close my eyes, sleep, and wake to find my problems solved.
Of course it’s never that easy. I’d long since learned that nobody would help me solve my problems, and that those problems would be the death of me if I could not find a solution or a way to endure them. Although death was always an attractive alternative, offering a final way out, it was an alternative I’d staved off for too many years to just give in. In the end, I returned to what I knew, steeling myself against the beating I knew awaited me, yet at ease knowing I was returning to the one place in the world I could call home. But as it turned out, all that preparation was for naught—they wouldn’t even unbar the door. Though I nearly collapsed from the shock of that final rejection, I somehow found strength to take the steps that led me away and to an unexpected home in the forest. Where I now found myself again, many years later.
With the Elves gone, the strangeness of that forest combined with my fears to overwhelm me, and I slept on that very spot, lacking the energy to make a start on returning to my old camp. As always, I dreamed no dreams I can recall, save for the overwhelming feeling that my memories of the previous night had been nothing more than a dream. But by morning’s light, it was plain I’d not dreamt the events of the past night. The marks of the stakes that had held me down still showed on the ground, as did the extinguished campfire and the warm grey cat sleeping on my chest when I awoke.
The sunlight that filtered through the trees disoriented me, for the sun had risen far to the north of where I would have expected to see it. After I’d broken my fast on the stale remnants of the fresh bread I’d brought with me from Belfalas, made palatable by liberal application of jam, and gnawed on some tough jerky until it softened enough to swallow, I coaxed Grey back onto my shoulders and cast about for a time, seeking our back trail. But search though I tried, there was no sign other than the remains of the Elf camp that anyone had ever been here, or that I’d ever entered the camp myself. Since I’d made no particular efforts to conceal my tracks the previous night, this was more than passing strange. There was not even a sign of the spot where the Elvish bowman had landed, bleeding, after having been hurled backwards into the vegetation. Worst of all, I had no idea where in the woods I was, save what the position of the sun told me: if my estimates were right, I was much farther south than I could have walked in a single night. It became clear I’d have to sacrifice the knife I’d left behind at the ruins, and continue on to my next task, a visit to the Goblins.
I unfolded the cloak Orgrim had given me, and examined it. Including the odor of old sweat, it was indistinguishable from any other cloak, but I’d learned enough of Orgrim to know it must be far more than that. I pondered a moment to be sure I remembered Orgrim’s instructions, and when I was done, sat in a clear spot on the forest floor and gathered Grey into my lap. He knew what was coming, for he closed his eyes at once and curled his tail across them for good measure. No ordinary cat, whatever I’d told the Elves last night. Taking a deep breath, I cast the cloak around myself and gathered it together in the front. There was a chill within the cloak, though its thick weave had promised warmth. Before pulling the hood over me, I took the silver axe the Elf had left me in hand. Where I was going, that measure of security would be welcome.
All preparations completed, I pulled the hood over my head with my free hand and closed my eyes. For an instant, nothing happened, then that slight chill intensified to a deep and numbing cold. That sensation faded almost as soon as it had begun, followed by the cloak itself, for wherever I’d traveled to, the cloak had not accompanied me. I opened my eyes in the sudden warmth, and looked around, not without trepidation. Save for my furry companion, I was alone, seated amidst tall stalks of grass that rose well above my eyes. Assuming I was still facing in the same direction as when I’d sat down, the sun now rode in the sky far to the south of me. I shook my head to clear it, disoriented for the third time in less than a day.
I spilled Grey from my lap and rose to have a better look around. To the south, a solid wall of forest concealed the horizon, and to the north, there was nothing but flat plains and the dim smudge of what might be mountains on the horizon. Something was wrong with the vistas, and it took a moment before I discerned what it was: the grasses around me were taller than I’d remembered them being before I went to visit the Elves, and had begun yellowing as they did in late summer. The leaves on the far-off trees were naught but a blur on the horizon, but there was no mistaking the fact they bore none of the pale, youthful green of spring leaves. There had been many strange things about my stay in Eald, but could I really have been there long enough to miss the spring and much of the earlier part of the summer?
I shrugged, and forced myself to dwell on more practical matters, for if I’d lost that much time, there was nothing I could do about it. There was no hint at where I must travel next, and I was toying with the idea of using Orgrim’s ring to seek suggestions when something caught my eye. Some distance to the west, a considerable flock of ravens rose amidst the grasses and took to the air. They circled for a time, then descended once again. Though ravens were by no means solitary birds, the only time I’d heard of them gathering in such numbers was on a recent battlefield. On the one hand, the last thing I wanted to do was come anywhere near a battle, yet on the other, there might be wounded who could be persuaded to provide directions in exchange for such aid as I could offer. That eased my decision.
I put Grey back onto my shoulders, rearranged my gear so my arms would be as free as possible, then strode off to the west, keeping my axe in hand and my eyes roving for any sign I was no longer alone. The grass here was variable, often lower than my thighs then rising to chest level or higher; where possible, I skirted the taller patches, not wanting to blunder into an ambush. It was closing on mid-day when I came across the first signs of what had drawn the ravens. As I rounded one tall stand of grass, I stepped into a long stretch in which the grass had been beaten down by the passage of many feet, with the hoofmarks of horses overlying and nearly obliterating those original tracks. I knelt to examine the tracks, but far too many creatures had passed this way for me to make any sense of what I saw.
I followed the path as it veered north of west, in the direction of the ravens, and soon came across the first clear proof that battle had passed here before me. Streaks of old blood daubed the grass, here and there combined with patches of coarse cloth and an occasional tuft of rank, oily hair. Now and again, one or a few of those who’d been pursued had broken from the path taken by the main rout and fled along their own paths. The horses had not pursued them, but had kept on, traveling fast along the clear, trampled trail.
After a time, I came to a more chaotic area, where the fleeing creatures had made their stand. Here, there was more blood, and my first sight of a Goblin. Perhaps a score of torn bodies lay hacked and trampled into the earth until they were almost beyond recognition. About all I could tell of them was that they were small, perhaps no larger than I’d been before my transformation, and had mostly hairless heads. The one face that remained intact was vaguely human, but with pointy ears and a snaggle of teeth that were not those of a grazer. I shuddered, and continued on my way, certain I didn’t want to carry on but that there was no other way for me to go if I were to fulfill this part of my mission.
There was more blood now, and in a short while, I came to a much larger trampled area where the final battle had been fought. I stopped on the edge of that area, under cover of a taller clump of grass, and was appalled by the scene before me. Though a few dead horses lay there, round bellies beginning to bloat beneath the sun, the bulk of the slaughter had fallen upon the Goblins. There were at least two hundred corpses, many hacked apart, with several times as many ravens feasting among them, not the least bit perturbed by my presence. From what I could see without approaching any closer, the battle had occurred less than a day in the past. I looked away, for though I’d butchered innumerable forest animals in the past, I couldn’t cope with the magnitude of the carnage. What had once been sentient beings like me, however unpleasant and hostile to my race, were now nothing but carrion.
I had no desire to pause here for my noon meal, for I found my appetite gone; neither did I want to inspect the bodies with so many ravens present. Though I’d never heard of a raven attacking a healthy man, particularly in the presence of this much food, I was intimidated by seeing them in such great numbers. For a moment, I was not a six-foot-tall man, but rather a small, scared dwarf not much larger than these great black birds. I shuddered, and began circling at a comfortable distance around the battlefield, careful not to attract the attention of the birds. I still wasn’t certain where I should go, but it was a good bet that the Goblins had been fleeing towards what they thought would be safety. That same refuge could prove a good choice of destination for me too.
I managed to avoid disturbing the ravens and passed into the tall grasses beyond the battlefield; had they not been torpid from their feast, I doubt I would have succeeded in escaping their notice, shaken as I was by what I’d seen. On the far side of the trampled grass, I came across traces of an old path, made by something small, moving on all fours. The frequent traces of blood led me to suspect I’d stumbled across the trail made by a fleeing Goblin. This was fortunate, as it meant I might find one of the creatures still alive and able to provide me with an opportunity to learn of my destination before proceeding. I moved a little faster now, though no less warily, eager to learn more of these lands before I blundered into some situation that could prove fatal.
It was not long before the trail grew clearer, and the signs of blood became fresher. It appeared my prey had crawled only a short distance before passing out from blood loss; then, after a time, it had regained consciousness and begun moving again, losing more blood in the process. When I came across a still-wet patch of blood, I slowed my pace, not wanting to meet an armed foe unexpectedly. As it turned out, I had nothing to fear.
Ahead of me in the grass, lying prone, was the Goblin, still striving to place more distance between itself and the scene of the battle; it was exhausted, for it had made little progress since this most recent fall and seemed unaware that those who had slain its kind were long gone. The Goblin was barely conscious, and failed to notice my approach; it had abandoned its gear on the battlefield, and all that it still possessed was the patched and torn cloak that hid most of the pallid, unhealthy flesh from the sun. The only weapons it possessed were the long, sharp nails that scrabbled at the earth, striving to draw the small body forward. The head was hairless, with an unhealthy pallor despite at least a day spent beneath the sun beating down upon our heads. The one remaining pointy ear that remained was surprisingly delicate; a stump remained where the other ear had been, splashed with blood and merging into a long wound that ran down its neck and into its back. Flies buzzed about the wound.
Grey leapt from my shoulders and vanished into the grass. Steeling myself against the sight of this unpleasant creature, I approached, confident as I could manage, and rolled it over with the tip of my boot. The Goblin’s deformed face had a prominent jutting lower half and an odd mottling to the waxy greyish pallor. It gave a shuddering gasp as its belly became vulnerable, and opened its eyes in evident horror. The eyes were the same strange, flat greyish color as the skin, and like those of the Elves, had no pupils; unlike those of the Elves, the eyes were bloodshot and rolled about, like curdled grease flowing from a gravy boat. I took a step back, repulsed, even as the Goblin’s mouth opened to emit a faint shriek of terror, revealing an impressive array of sharp, meat-cutting teeth. The Goblin gathered its breath to shriek again, and not wanting it to attract any more attention, I kicked it in the nearest leg, which appeared unwounded.
“Silence, or I shall give you good reason to scream.” Its terror made me regret my words as soon as I’d said them, but at least it obeyed and stayed silent, apart from the heaving gasps of shallow, too-rapid breathing. Belatedly, I found myself wondering whether the Goblin spoke my tongue or whether Orgrim’s magic changed my words into my captive’s tongue. I continued. “That’s better. I’m not one of those who attacked you, and if you’ll trust me, I’ll do what I can to help you.”
The Goblin heaved itself—himself, as a gap in his cloak revealed—to a sitting position, and blood began streaming down that unpleasant face from a gash on his forehead that, distracted by his hideous appearance, I hadn’t noticed before. “Aid from a Man? I believe you not. Kill me and be done with it, foul creature, and my curse be upon you and your misbegotten kind for playing with me this way.”
Despite myself, I smiled at his fatalism. “If that’s truly your wish, I could leave you here to die.” I turned as if to go.
“No—wait. Mean you what you said?” A calculating look grew beneath its mask of old grime and fresh gore.
“I would not have said it otherwise.”
“Then I accept your aid—but, you must set aside your axe before you approach.”
A cunning look continued to grow on that face, and I found it hard to conceal my grin as I tossed aside the axe. When I drew close enough to examine his wounds, I was not the least bit startled when he lunged at me with surprising speed, snapping his teeth at my hand. I’d been ready for just such an attack, however, and whipped that hand aside, my other hand catching him by the back of the neck and driving him back down into the soft earth. I resisted a momentary urge to grind his face into the muck, and held him down, my flesh crawling at the contact with his oily skin. This close, his rank odor was too strong too ignore, equal parts fear sweat and curdled milk.
“Is this how you’d treat one who would help you? Perhaps I should leave you here for the ravens!”
The Goblin shuddered, then went still. I released my grip upon him, and moved back a pace. “Let’s try again. I said I’m here to help you. If you’ll let me, I’ll bind your wounds, feed you, and give you water. In return, I expect you to leave me in peace while I do so. If you don’t, I’ll bring you back to the ravens and see whether they prefer their meat still squirming. Do we understand each other?”
“I would sell my firstborn to the Elves before I would return to the ravens.” He rubbed at the stump of his ear, oblivious to the new flow of blood that motion evoked. “Very well, Man. You have a deal.”
I approached the Goblin, ready for treachery, but he only flinched as I touched him again. His wounds were shallow; the missing ear was the worst of it, and there was no sign of the rot that would spell a human’s end. Perhaps the steady flow of blood had kept the wound from going bad, or maybe the fly maggots that had already begun foraging there had saved him. I tore a strip of cloth from the small supply I’d carried for my own bandages, soaked it in water, and laved the wound so I could inspect it more closely. The Goblin bore my investigations stoically, not so much as whimpering even when I used a small wooden scraper from my kit to remove the maggots and a few unhatched eggs the flies had laid in the wounds. When I was done, I took a larger scrap of cloth and bound it across his wound, careful to cover both the scalp wound and ear.
“There. That will do until we reach somewhere with more supplies.”
The Goblin recoiled, hissing in fear and baring his teeth. “Take me to your kind for torture and humiliation? Never! Better I should face the ravens and the clean death they offer!”
I was nonplussed. “Take you to my kind? That was not my intention, else why would I lend you aid?”
The Goblin frowned, thinking hard. “If not to your own kind, then...”
“To your people, yes. I bear them a message from my master, and if you will lead me there, in return I shall see you there safe and find you better care.”
The cunning look returned to that unpleasant face. “Take you to my people? Yes, Man, that I will do.” The predatory look in those disturbing eyes left me no doubt as to his intent, but I had little choice if I wished to complete this second task Orgrim had set me.
“Good. Then lead on.”
The Goblin made a hesitant motion to rise, then fell back again. “I cannot walk. My wounds have weakened me.”
I retrieved my axe from where I’d tossed it and attached it to my belt, ignoring the sudden apprehension. “And I cannot carry you, so walk you shall.”
“And what will you do if I do not? Without me, you have no hope of finding my people.”
I laughed outright, noting the anger that contorted his face in response. “You place an undue amount of worth upon your life. The trail your people left during your flight leads straight as an arrow. It might cost me another day or two, but I feel certain I would still find your home in the end.”
What the Goblin might have said in reply I’ll never know, for at that moment, Grey emerged from the grass, and strode before me to confront the Goblin. There was that in his stride which spoke of a hunter stalking a mouse, and having been warned about the cat by the Elf, I watched, eager to detect any sign of enchantment. Thus, I was unsurprised to see a new pallor creep across the Goblin as he swallowed his words and shrank into himself, as if he were indeed nothing more than a mouse being stalked. Something intense quivered in the air between the cat and the Goblin, half-felt now that I was alert for it.
“You promised me food, but oathbreaker that you be, I shall walk,” the Goblin moaned in a weak voice, and that suddenly, the tension fell apart and Grey was nothing more than a cat again. I picked him up and placed him back upon my shoulders, rewarded by the deep rumble of his purrs, and by the time he’d settled himself around my neck, the Goblin had levered himself to his feet and stood there, tottering.
I handed him a chunk of jerky, which he snatched from my hand. “You must taste it first.”
I laughed, tore a chunk off my own rations with my teeth, and began chewing. “As I said: lead on.”
The Goblin cast his gaze across the horizon, then stumbling from weakness, set out westward, casting an occasional frightened look back at the cat as he gnawed at the jerky. We walked for hours, and I found myself impressed by the Goblin’s stamina. Even unwounded, I found the day’s heat unpleasant, enough so I took Grey down and made him walk, for the back of my neck grew sweaty from the heat generated by that small body and the sun. The cat once more disappeared into the grass, moving with the disconcerting grace of his kind. Though the Elf had warned me not to lose him, I found myself unworried; Grey had always seemed more interested in my company than I’d been in his, and I was confident I could rely upon him not to lose me.
As it turned out, we had not far to go. Long before the sun began its descent, we reached a large sunken area in the grassland. Its bottom lay several score feet beneath the surrounding land and the bowl itself was perhaps a stone’s throw across. Until we were almost upon it, the depression had been concealed by the waves of grass that flowed as far as the eye could see towards the horizon. At its bottom, a dark cave mouth gaped wide enough for three men to enter it abreast. I scrutinized it, and saw a hint of movement just out of sight in the darkness. My guide plodded into the depression along a well-trodden trail, and I followed close behind, not wanting to give him the chance to flee beyond arm’s reach. Suddenly, that hidden movement became overt, and a dozen or more Goblins boiled out of the cave mouth. Of these, a very few rushed towards us brandishing short spears; the others, fear plain, raced upwards until they could see over the rim of the depression, desperate to see whether I was alone or the vanguard of a larger force. I mastered the urge to flee that came over me, bent to place my free hand upon the Goblin’s shoulder and hold him near me, then stopped walking. Feet planted, I readied myself to fight for my life if it became necessary, and hoped it would not be.
“Halt!” I bellowed, and with the power of my large lungs behind that shout, it was an impressive noise indeed in the enclosed space. The volume of noise and the fact that I’d spoken the command in their language were enough to break their charge, and the spearbearers slowed and approached us with caution, forming a wide circle. Confident hoots came from the Goblin scouts who’d reached the top of the depression, and now that it was obvious I neither presented an immediate threat nor foretold an imminent invasion, the remainder of the hidden Goblins surged from their hole like ants from a trampled anthill. My resolve wavered now that I could see the numbers the cave had sheltered. With this many so close together, the rank, unwashed smell of my companion was multiplied enormously.
One Goblin, a head taller than the others and wearing what appeared to be primitive chainmail, approached close enough to talk without shouting, but not so close I could reach him with a quick sortie through the crowd that separated us. “Fool! What is the meaning of this, bringing our foe into our midst?”
My guide cowered, beaten down by the contempt and anger in that voice and weakened by his long walk. “He claims to bring a message for our leader.”
“A message? We’ll carve his liver from his dying flesh and bring it to our leaders to feast upon—that shall be his message. For your part in this, you shall have the privilege of watching his fate until we find time to disembowel you and scatter your guts for the ravens.” My guide fell to his knees, a faint moaning escaping from his mouth, and the Goblin raised an arm to give a command, but I forestalled him.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you, but there will be no disemboweling and no feasting until I’ve delivered my message to your leaders.” I had no idea why, but a strong sense of arrogant confidence was rising in me, banishing the momentary fear I’d felt earlier.
Their leader scowled. “You speak our language well for a Man. I wonder how well you’ll speak it with your tongue ripped from your mouth?”
The confidence crested in me, and I surrendered myself to it. I laughed, and locked my gaze on the leader’s eyes. “We’re not going to find out, are we?” He could not escape my gaze, and something within me looked deep into those strange and unpleasant eyes as easily as if they’d been human eyes. I saw right down to the fear that danced at the bottom of his soul, and smiled a predatory smile whose power was strong enough for me to feel, thrumming in the air between us like a gallows’ rope bearing its unhappy burden.
The Goblin fell back, sweat streaming down his brow. When I released him from my gaze, he would not meet my eyes again, and his voice rang hollow with false bravado. “A message, you say. Well then, we’ll bring it to our Shaman and let him deal with you. And when he’s done with you, we’ll see who feasts and who provides the meat.”
With that he spun on his heel and headed for the cave mouth, shoulders hunched as if anticipating a blow. The Goblins before me melted away like the dew on a bottle of wine brought fresh from the cellar, and cleared a path to the cave mouth. Whatever it was that had shone in my eyes and rung in my voice, they’d seen it too, or felt it, and each of them made sure to keep well clear of me. The confidence that had filled me subsided, enough that I began to feel traces of apprehension at the ease of my victory, but the arrogance never entirely left me. So I strode without faltering in the wake of the leader, abandoning my guide to the tender mercies of his companions. I have no idea what happened to him, and though I owed him nothing, his fate weighed upon my conscience.
The cave mouth opened onto a tunnel that led downwards, first through soil shored up with long slabs of stone, then down through a deep layer of dark rock that had surrendered to an assault by legions of pickaxes and stonecutting implements. Though I’d expected a difficult time navigating a tunnel built for such small creatures, the roof was tall enough I only had to stoop occasionally. There were no torches to light our way, and the only illumination was an almost imperceptible silvery glow from the Elvish weapon I’d been given. Despite that, it was so dark here that I marveled I could see; I fought down the memories of awakening in the palace crypt and turned my attention to the mystery of my sight. I’d never seen well in the dark, not even as recently as my visit with the Elves, so this could be Orgrim’s magic or—and I changed the focus of my thoughts as soon as the idea occurred—that which now dwelled within me. Instead, I concentrated on the world around me.
There was a surprising amount of air movement in the tunnel, more than could be accounted for by the numbers of moving Goblins alone, yet despite this, the air was thick with that rank Goblin scent. The size of the tunnel and the work that must have been required to carve it from the rock suggested this tunnel led to a large community of Goblins, and one that had been here for a considerable time. After a few minutes of walking, the tunnel opened up into a wider passage that showed fewer signs of Goblin hands; evidently some natural fault in the rock had hosted them until they could tunnel their way to the surface.
Here and there, other tunnels led off from the main one, some spearing upwards and others diving deeper into the earth, but each guarded by a small squad of sour-looking soldiers, armed with a bewildering array of hacking, stabbing, and bludgeoning implements, all lacking in sophistication but looking no less effective for all their lack of sophistication. There was considerable dismay at my presence here, for though the guards at first roared their approval at my capture, that approval soon turned to apprehension at the sight of my unbound hands and the silvery Elvish axe that hung at my side.
Eventually, the tunnel opened into an immense cavern whose roof soared high enough overhead that I could not see it even with my newfound ability to see in the dark. The floor of the cavern was pockmarked with pits, some filled with water, others bearing small fires of what looked to be coal or peat, still others nothing more than holes that vanished to unknown depths. At the distant edges of the cavern, there appeared to be herds of small, pale creatures that might have been sheep had it not been for certain irregularities of outline and the fact that no sheep could have lived for long under these conditions. Elsewhere, there were wide expanses of crops I could not identify from this distance, though the nature of any crops that could grow this far underground was a mystery. Enveloping it all was that same rank stench, but also a pleasant warmth and humidity.
Goblins surrounded me in numbers beyond any man’s ability to count—large ones, small ones, young ones, old ones, healthy and vigorous ones next to Goblins so scarred and mutilated they might have been the walking dead save for a sullen glow in those disturbing eyes. A continuous murmur of noise beat on the air like wind on a forest: voices raised in anger, quieter conversations, coarse laughter, and the cumulative effect of hundreds and hundreds of bodies breathing in a space that was, despite its size, enclosed. Here and there, a stronger Goblin beat a weaker one over some dispute or perhaps even an imagined slight, and the sounds of that beating rose to merge with the rest of the susurrus.
But as we penetrated deeper into the cavern, those Goblins near enough to see us fell into a shocked silence that spread away from us like spilled lamp oil. In our wake, that silence became an angry muttering that began to swell until it filled the space behind us like the sound of my blood rushing through my ears. I repressed a shudder, maintaining my forceful stride on the strength of the arrogant confidence that still filled me despite certain knowledge that the confidence was not of my own making nor yet under my full control. Though I could have forced down that otherness and assumed control of myself, I could not find motivation to do so. Whatever it was that lay within me, it gave me the strength to face this situation calmly, and for now, I was prepared to accept this loss of control as the price of that calm.
As we reached the center of the cavern, the crowds thinned around us, until at last my guide and I stood alone in the center of that sea of Goblins. We halted before a large, flat stone that rose a few feet above the cavern floor, and I stopped behind him. We didn’t have long to wait.
On the far side of the cleared area, I spotted an enclosed sedan chair moving through the crowd. As it drew nearer, I could see that it was borne by eight brawny Goblins, giants of their kind who stood almost four feet tall and who were armed with large, finely crafted swords and matching armor that must have been manufactured by my own race, though how it had got here I did not want to speculate. The chair approached the large rock and swung broadside to it, the eyes of its bearers meeting mine with no fear. Then a door swung open and a small Goblin stepped out onto the top of the rock.
Immediately, a heavy silence fell upon the cavern; even the breathing hushed. The Goblin was neither particularly old nor particularly frail, and indeed, there was nothing remarkable about him as he surveyed the crowd from his elevated vantage point. It was when he turned toward me that I glimpsed what made him special. His eyes held an inner glow that, though it shed no actual light, nonetheless reached out with a near-physical presence; there was not the slightest trace of fear or hatred in those eyes, only a massive self-confidence as solid and imposing as the rock around us. As that inspection penetrated the depths of my being, I imagined I knew what my guide had felt when I turned my own inner gaze upon him.
When the Goblin spoke, his voice was steady and quiet, yet so strong it was like the pressure of a storm wind. The thing within me that fed the arrogant self-confidence that had carried me here felt uncertain, and withdrew, leaving me more in control. It was a dubious victory on my part.
“We have an enigma here,” the Goblin pronounced. “I see before me a Man, a demon, and a dwarf all in one, and the coming of the three of you was foretold. I am the Shaman of these people, and was told to expect a messenger, and though your presence here is message enough, I doubt that is the sole message.”
I called upon my years of experience as a minstrel to calm myself and steady my voice, and when I was confident I could reply without it cracking, I did so. “Your foretelling has not betrayed you. I am here by command of the mage Orgrim, who bids me bear you a scroll with his words on it.” The eight guards had by now laid down the sedan chair, and were scrutinizing me with clear hostility. As casually as my nerves permitted, I removed my backpack and withdrew the scroll with the black seal upon it.
The Goblin atop the rock glanced at the scroll, and his gaze darkened. “You would bring such a thing among us, Man? Such arrogance is astounding!”
I felt the presence in my head withdraw and disappear, and fear rose to fill the void that absence created. As full control over myself returned in the wake of that withdrawal, I could feel the dampness growing in my armpits and upon my forehead, and I now worried that should this scroll behave as the last one had, I would soon find myself in very serious trouble indeed. Working on instinct now, I went to one knee and bowed my head, proffering the scroll.
“Surely you can see that I am not here of my own free will? While that may not excuse my actions in your eyes, I beg your understanding. To the extent that such is possible, I am guiltless in this matter.”
The Shaman muttered something I didn’t hear, and I felt the scroll plucked from my fingers. I looked up to see who had done it, and watched the scroll float across the empty space between us, with no one present to bear it across that distance. The scroll settled into the Goblin’s small hand, and I watched in fearful anticipation as he snapped the seal with his free hand.
Once again, that thick, oily black shadow boiled up from the open scroll, but unlike the Elf, the Goblin only widened his stance as if to brace himself against a wind. The demon swelled to its full size, and stretched mighty arms wide, as if trying to encompass the Shaman. Again, that voice, like heavy stones rubbing together, shattered the silence.
“Hear you: I bring you greetings from my master, and a warning: Orgrim walks once more among Men, and will brook no interference from your race. I bring you this token of what shall happen to any who chooses to interfere.”
Before anyone could react, the demon’s arm stretched an impossible distance to seize the nearest of the guards who’d borne the sedan chair. The Goblin, until then steadfast and imperturbable, shrieked his terror to the assembled multitudes as that arm carried him within reach of the other mighty arm. Talons sank deep into the Goblin’s chest, silencing that scream in an instant. Blood and scraps of flesh and ruined armor rained down upon the rocky floor as the demon tore the guard apart and feasted, and though my bowels heaved and nearly emptied themselves at the sight, I could not avert my eyes; worse, that unpleasant new part of me that had hidden until then rose again, relishing the sight. Through this all, the Shaman watched, unperturbed, until the demon had finished its meal. The Goblin’s lips were moving, but my gaze was focused elsewhere, at another of the creatures who had called me “Brother”.
The Goblin leader pointed his arms to the ground before him, anger growing. “You’ve delivered your message, and now I have my own message for you to bear. Tell your master we’ve not forgotten the one who scorned us so long ago, and that this time, we’re not to be so lightly dismissed.”
The demon slurped at the marrow in the dead guard’s shattered thighbone. “Bear your own messages, Goblin. You have no power over me.”
The Shaman smiled, and the power in that smile caused the demon to halt its meal, bone still projecting from its lips. “Perhaps not, but I serve one who does. I invoke Gorm’s power, and thereby banish you!” With that, he raised his lowered arms high in a sudden, violent thrust. One moment, the demon stood frozen, the bone half falling from its mouth, and the next, there was a silent concussion that knocked me to the ground. When I picked myself up, the demon was gone.
The Shaman turned his attention to me, anger increasingly evident. “Orgrim has returned after all these years, and his arrogance has grown in that time. He dares much to threaten us in this manner, and by Gorm, you shall pay for his temerity.” He looked down on his people and raised his voice. “Kill him and let all divide his flesh!”
The Shaman started to turn away, amidst a swelling murmur of anger, and the many Goblins who had drawn closer while my attention was elsewhere began brandishing their assortment of knives and other weapons. With the Shaman’s back turned, the part of me that had risen when that first mob of Goblins had threatened me rose up and stifled the fear that should have overwhelmed me, imposing an odd calm. As that part of me gathered force, I stood, a change coming over my face as the presence rose in me and swelled as if ready to burst from my flesh. I did not even bother to take the Elvish axe in hand, for I was mighty beyond the need for such a feeble tool.
Among my own kind, I was far larger than the average; here, I was enormous, and that, accentuated by the transformation in my manner, kept even the largest Goblins away; none wanted to be first to approach. Still, they’d been given their orders by someone it was dangerous to disobey, and the rear ranks began pushing the front ranks forward. The energy surged in me again, and I felt my arms reaching out to rend any Goblin that came close; indeed, I was losing patience waiting and readying myself to carry the attack to them, when the Shaman’s voice rang out over the assembled Goblin voices.
“Cease! Leave the Man in peace.”
A profound silence met that command, and all eyes turned towards that voice. There, atop the rock platform, the Shaman stood facing Grey, who was licking his fur as if nothing untoward had happened. A look of awe had replaced the Goblin’s anger, and as I watched, he put his hands to his temples and closed his eyes as if concentrating on something. When his eyes opened again, he shook his head as if to clear it.
“Gorm speaks: the Man is not to be harmed, for he features in Gorm’s plans for us all.”
There was a collective sigh of mixed relief at not having to face me and disappointment at not reaping the rewards. I felt that disappointment myself, for it would have been glorious to have slain them by the score, and the power of that emotion staggered me. As I fought down that inhuman feeling, hearing the laughter in my mind as the insolent presence in my head withdrew beyond conscious awareness, the Goblins who’d begun crowding towards me retreated with alacrity, the pressure at their backs released. I forced myself to once again seize the reins of my mind, angered at having lost control of myself for a second time and increasingly disturbed by that loss.
I scanned the Goblins around me, some showing thwarted anger but most showing relief at having avoided a dangerous confrontation. A very few showed speculation, as if they were wondering how they might take advantage of the changed situation. As there was no Goblin close enough to pose a direct threat, I turned my attention to the Shaman, who was watching me with a fascinated look.
“I would not have you think me ungrateful,” I said, “but your change of heart puzzles me.”
The Shaman spat at his feet, and a look of sly malice crossed his face. “Then be puzzled, Man. For though Gorm commands me to spare your life, he gives me no instructions to aid you nor this creature that accompanies you.” He half stretched an arm towards Grey, then withdrew it as if thinking the better of the idea.
The guarantee of my life emboldened me. “Again I ask: what were you told, and who told you?”
The Shaman frowned. “Hold your tongue, Man. Though I must spare your life, that does not mean you must leave here with all the parts you arrived with. Your role in Gorm’s plans does not require you to be able to father children, nor to walk with all your toes, nor to have your ribs unbroken.” Grey hissed and spat at the Shaman, then jumped down from the stone and crossed the stone floor to reach my side. “But I misspeak. It would not do for me to risk your life unnecessarily, pleasant though the taking of that risk would be. Leave now, before I change my mind on that matter too.” With that, he spun on his heel and returned to his sedan chair. Before entering, he bent to whisper to one of the bearers, who hastened away into the crowd.
I knelt to pat Grey, and the cat purred loudly enough to be heard halfway across the cavern. I’d not expected my salvation to come in the form of a cat, yet there was no longer any possibility of doubt that the cat was more than it seemed. I had strong suspicions why this “Gorm” had instructed the Shaman to free me. “You’re no ordinary cat, Grey, that’s certain. Someday soon I must discover what you are.” The cat rolled onto his back to have his belly scratched. As I rubbed my small companion, a hand gripped my elbow. I turned to the Goblin who’d led the troops that brought me here.
“Come now. For bringing you here among us, I’ve been cast out of the caverns and ordered to take you with.” Though he bore a sour look, he did not appear perturbed by his fate and his voice was less bitter than contemptuous.
“And that doesn’t bother you?”
He spat on the ground. “Your people will be here any day now to exterminate us in this Home, and as a leader among warriors, I would be one of the first to die. Better to live another day, in another Home, and there regain what I’ve lost here. I was powerful once, and I will be again wherever I find myself. Now enough of this—we must flee, for whatever guarantees you’ve received won’t protect me.”
He still gripped my arm, and though I could have resisted his pull, it would have been pointless, for I would never have found my way out of these caverns without his aid. I lifted Grey back onto my shoulders and rose to my feet, shaking off the Goblin’s arm. He scowled, then turned his back and set off at a good pace deeper into the cavern.
“Wait!” I called, my long legs letting me follow at a more comfortable pace. “Did we not enter from the other end of the cavern.”
“You think so? Well, then it was so. But did you not listen to what I said? Your people lie in that direction, and though I expect you’ll want to rejoin them, that’s hardly my plan; I doubt they’d show me the courtesy that we showed you.”
I pondered that for a moment. I had no idea how I was going to return home, particularly given that the people of Amelior would not welcome one of their race returning to their lands escorted by a Goblin. “You have a point. Very well, I shall follow.”
The Goblin moved fast, for all his bravado, with many a glance over his shoulders at the crowd of his folk who stood and watched us, muttering; word of my guide’s banishment had spread with surprising speed, and there were many looks of eager cruelty. Several threw things at us—mostly curses, but also offal and scraps of the unidentifiable garbage that littered the floor—but none dared approach us. We were struck countless times, but rarely by projectiles that did more than sting, and apart from that, we were left unmolested. After a hasty crossing of the cavern floor, we darted into a dark tunnel opening and began climbing. The upward passage was steep, but not so steep I had to save my breath for walking.
“How can you find your way through this maze?”
The Goblin was panting from the pace he’d set, and had to stop to gather enough breath to reply. “What matter? We shall never return here. As well ask why you see as well in the dark as I do, though your kind should be blind and unable to walk. Save your breath for important things, like leaving this place before they gather courage to tear me into bits.”
I repressed a smile, for though I was breathing deeply, I was keeping up with little effort. Nonetheless, I complied with his request, for I had much to think about, and keeping him in sight took little of my attention. My immediate concern was what to do when I reached the surface, for as my guide had noted, it would be foolhardy for me to accompany him to another place of his people, and no wiser to return to the lands of my own people with him at my side.
For that matter, did I really want to return just yet? Orgrim had given me no instructions beyond delivering his message to the Goblins, though he’d said I could contact him with the ivory ring once I delivered that message. On the one hand, I was worried there would be difficult questions to answer if I delayed too long before using the ring; on the other, had there been any obvious way Orgrim would know that I’d completed my task, he would not have needed to leave me the ring. On the whole, it was likely I had at least a day, and perhaps several days, before I would need to contact him, and that time would come in handy. For after the events of the past few days, I knew one thing for certain: whatever Orgrim had done to me, none of it had been for my benefit, and my eventual ending should I return to him was not likely to be pleasant. I had no knowledge of the ways of demons or wizards, but what I’d seen and heard thus far did not reassure me.
Leaving his service was the solution, but though it was an obvious solution, I doubted that tendering my resignation would achieve that goal. Perhaps it would be worth appealing to the demon within me, for it was likely that he too served Orgrim unwillingly, and perhaps together we could find some way to escape. I considered waiting until the Goblin and I had parted company, but I could not be sure that would be within a day nor that I had more than a day before Orgrim once more reclaimed me. So—now. I had no idea how to speak to the creature who shared my body, so instead I spoke the words in my head, but moving my lips to reinforce them.
“Demon, I would talk with you.” There was no response. “Demon, I know you are there within me, and that you can hear my words. Answer me, for I would speak of matters of interest to us both.”
The Goblin had paused to catch his breath, sweat beading on his greasy brow and trickling unnoticed down his face. “Do you talk to yourself, or cast some spell that eases your passage? Would that you would share it with me to ease mine, though I suppose that’s too much to ask of a Man. Therefore, I urge you to save your breath, for we have a ways to go before we escape, and further still before we are in lands where the Shaman’s power does not reach, and your cruelty in ignoring my needs will not go unremembered.”
I ignored him, for deep in my mind, there’d come an echo of mocking laughter. “Demon, we must talk. Mock me though you will, you cannot deny that we are both Orgrim’s unwilling servants. Alone, we shall remain that way; together, we may devise a way to escape those bonds.”
The laughter waxed, then became a voice. “Man, you are foolish as any of your kind. Though I am bound, I have been promised my reward once my service ends and I feel no need to escape my bonds just yet; you, though unbound, have already been granted your reward, and have naught better to look forward to than an unpleasant end.”
I grew angry. “And what reward do you seek—my body? Lest you forget, it remains within my power to end my own life and thus rob you of your reward.”
I placed my hand on the shaft of the Elvish axe, ignoring the Goblin’s gasp of dismay.
“Have I offended you, then? Forgive me. It is only my life I sought to save, worthless to you though it may be. Ease your own way as much as you must, and leave me alive to bear my own suffering with admirable stoicism.” His plaintive voice echoed in the narrow tunnel, and his skin paled. But my attention was for the voice in my head.
“It is the curse your race took on freely that you believe all you have of worth is your life, Man. I assure you this is not all you have to lose, and in time, you will learn what I mean by that.” There was an oily, unclean lust in that voice that clung inside my head. “But it would not do to tell you that, for it is not yet time for you to learn just what you have sold to Orgrim.”
My own anger, natural and clean, rose in me and burned away the foulness the demon had left upon my thoughts. “You speak in riddles, and, I think, speak with words chosen to unman me. It won’t work. Whatever it is that Orgrim’s promised you, there are things no creature may take from me.” I drew my axe; at the edges of my vision, I saw the Goblin recoiling hard against the wall, a thin wailing rising from his throat, until I brought the keen blade to my own throat.
The laughter echoed again in my head. “Cling to that hope, Man, for it will serve me well indeed.” Then the voice stopped, leaving not so much as an echo.
“You’re mad, even for one of your race!” hissed the Goblin, eyes wide, the rank smell of his sweat fouling my nose.
I reslung the axe. “Think what you will. In the meantime, you’ve tarried long enough. Get us out of here before your former masters change their minds about you and deprive me of my guide.”
Without a word, the Goblin turned and resumed his rapid pace upwards.
After a time, the increased movement of air told me we were nearing the surface, and it was not long before I saw the dim glow of daylight. When we finally reached the tunnel’s mouth, which emerged from beneath a low earthen bank in another of the hidden depressions in the flat grassland, the rain was beating the grass flat. We stood there beneath the overhang, watching the walls of falling water and the distant lightning flash, and I breathed deeply to clear the taint of the caverns from my lungs. I still had not decided what to do with my remaining interval of freedom, and while I was here, it would be wise to gain what knowledge I could from the Goblin.
“How is it the rain does not flood your caverns?”
“What am I, a builder, that I should know these things? My people have lived underground since time began; surely it is enough for you to know that someone learned how to keep the rain out, and shared that knowledge with those who build?”
I reflected a moment. “Forgive me. You’re justifiably angry with me, and scared for your life too. If I swear that I’ll do you no harm, will you at least listen to what I have to say?” I eased myself to a sitting position, back against the stone wall, so I could meet his gaze without having to bend my head downwards or forcing him to look up. Grey slipped down from my shoulders and onto my thighs. Reflexively, I began stroking him, and he closed his eyes and melted into my lap.
He glared, but there was less heat in his voice. “Do no harm? Do you mean no harm greater than exiling me from my Home, Man? No harm greater than crushing my heart with terror at your mad behavior? No harm greater than squeezing me to extract such information on my folk as you could not collect on your own, information you will bring back to your people so they may more efficiently exterminate us? I’m relieved, Man, for now my fears are eased.”
I winced. “My name is Mo... dred, Goblin. Stop calling me ‘Man’, for it leads you to assign me the wrongs of my race rather than hearing my words and judging me by my own deeds.”
“Moh-dred? Since I am in no position to bargain, I shall henceforth call you by that awkward name, and assign you only the wrongs you’ve already earned.”
Despite those harsh words, his anger had eased, so I went on. “Fair enough. And your name?”
“My name is of no importance. Call me what you will; call me even ‘Goblin’, for then you can ignore my own wrongs and assign to me those of my race.” He glared defiance, but I kept my expression calm and open, trying to persuade him that I neither judged him nor showed any of the frustration I’d begun to feel.
He shook his unpleasant head, puzzled. “You have patience beyond the way of your kind, Moh-dred, and you have not yet slain me, though I can no longer be of any use to you. Why do you forbear, you who bear the axe of our enemies and the will to use it against me?”
“Because I too know what it is to be small and terrified and impotent, unable to strike back against my tormentors, and I would not inflict that humiliation upon another being.”
The Goblin started another of his sharp retorts, then saw something in my eyes I’d been unable to hide. “Were it not for the truth in your face, I would think you mock me and call me those things. But you, small and helpless? I cannot imagine how this can be. How can I be talking to a Man with no intention of killing me?”
Mistrust showed once more upon his face and in his voice, so I smiled my gentlest smile. “I told you once not to judge me by the wrongs of my race. It would have been as well said had I told you not to judge all of my race by those few you have seen hunting your people; indeed, until a few days ago, I and most of my people did not believe your race existed. We are a diverse people, and the larger part of us live far from your lands.”
“Not so diverse you overcame the need to threaten me with your axe, nor so diverse that you remember they were all our lands before your people arrived to steal them from us.”
I laughed a single harsh laugh. “I think the Elves and the Dwarves would dispute that conclusion, friend Goblin. But as for threatening you—no, Goblin, ’twas myself I threatened. You accused me of madness, and your barb fell not far from the mark. There is that within me that is indeed mad, and I’d rid myself of it at any cost, even at the price of my life.”
“At the price of your soul, you mean, for Gorm forbids us self-murder, and the same laws govern your kind, whether you know it or not.”
I stared at him, for this was the first time a Goblin or Elf had used a word I was unfamiliar with. “You used a word I don’t understand, and I understand even less how the laws of your ruler might bind my people.”
He glared. “How can it be you misunderstand? Do you not speak our tongue better even than I do?”
I reflected on the paradox of my ability to comprehend a language I’d never before heard, yet not these few words. “Nonetheless, it’s true you have used a word I do not understand. What did you mean by ‘at the price of my soul’?” I tripped over that last word, but managed a credible attempt at it nonetheless.
The Goblin was silent a moment. “Can it truly be that you don’t understand me? Then what they say of your race is true: you are soulless and godless and less than the dirt we tread beneath our feet.” His face hardened into a look of open contempt.
“Soulless? Godless?” I spoke the words as they’d sounded, not knowing what I said. “If not knowing proves your point, then I suppose that we are. But that’s no proof. Tell me your meaning so I can better judge.”
The Goblin appraised me for a moment, his expression wavering between contempt and disbelief; disbelief got the better of him. “You mock me still? Very well, I shall play your game, for there’s naught else to do until the rain lets up.” He cast his eyes upward, as if thinking, then met my gaze with those disturbing eyes. “Gorm, who created our kind, instilled in each of us a part of Himself, the spark that gives us life and consciousness, and which returns to him when our brief span of existence is over.”
“He’s the father of your tribe? Are you all descended from one sire, then?”
The Goblin blinked. “Father? Are you a fool, Moh-dred that you should blaspheme so? I wonder that the lightning does not strike you down where you sit and immolate you even to your soul!” He cringed, his eyes going to the skies. Lightning flashed again, but far away, and the drum of the rain upon the earth was loud enough to drown out most of the distant thunder that followed.
“Blaspheme? Soul? You speak beyond my ability to understand.” Try though I might, and despite the language skills Orgrim had bestowed upon me, skills that let me speak with the Elves and the Goblins as fluently as with my own kind, I could not wrap my mind around those words and the concepts they represented, and I felt the same frustrated pressure growing in my head that I’d felt when I tried to read parts of that ancient scroll in the library.
My companion looked on me with what might have been pity. “Then either you truly are mad, or you mock me beyond any Goblin’s ability to forbear. From what I’ve seen—you coming here, risking your poor life by insulting our Shaman, I forbear; you are mad, and can’t be held responsible for your actions.” The Goblin’s showed unmistakable pity.
“Think of me what you will, but let us talk of other things. My head aches beyond my ability to tolerate when I try to understand you. Tell me instead of your claims that my people have wronged your people by coming here.”
“Such foolish questions you ask! It’s no wonder your people sent you forth to wander far from their stolen lands.” The Goblin shook his head in pity, but frustration further distorted his already misshapen face. “Very well, let me try. How can you think these were your lands, when Gorm Himself gave them to my people? How can you excuse waves of your fearsome warriors riding here on their terrible steeds to spear us, leave our corpses for the ravens, and pour fire into our Homes? How can you consort with our ancient foes”—he gestured at my axe—“and expect us to abide peacefully here, on the fringes of our stolen lands?” The anger in his voice and on his face had grown more and more evident until, at that last comment, he rose to his feet and stood over me, his jaw muscles working with the intensity of his emotion.
“You pose many questions I cannot answer.”
“Of course not, for there is no defense possible against that of which you stand accused.”
“I beg to differ, and if you’ll let me, I’ll act the apologist for my people. To your first question, I must say that when we arrived here, there were none of your people to be found in the east. There were the Elves and the Dwarves, and both races welcomed us.”
“And yet those lands were no less ours, and stolen from us by those two ancient foes before the thought occurred to your folk. They gave away what was not theirs to give.”
I ignored him and went on. “As for your second question, I cannot answer for the people of Amelior, save that they claim it was your people who kill them, and that they only defend themselves. For my own people, we live so far away that none of us has ever seen one of your race, let alone slain a Goblin.”
The Goblin’s now became bitter. “And so they would say, godless creatures that you all be. But the truth is different. Though we drive them from our lands where we may, it is done by Gorm’s command; we but reclaim the lands that were ours, and should they refuse to leave, what else can we do but slay them? And in turn, what do they do? They now hunt us to extinction!”
I shook my head to clear it. There was logic here, uncomfortable though it was. “Be that as it may, I but repeat what I was told. I am no Ameliorite, and I cannot speak for them. The answer to your final question is easier than that to the first two: we do not consort with the Elves nor with the Dwarves.”
“The evidence of my eyes betrays you. You lie!” He rose to his feet and stabbed an accusing finger at me.
I fought down a sudden anger, trying to escape my control and spend itself on the Goblin. “And now it is you who tempt my forbearance. The Dwarves and Elves have shunned my race for many generations. I bear this axe for one reason alone: my master sent me to bear his message to the Elves before sending me to your people, and they gave me the axe in compensation for surrendering my iron weapons before I met their elders.” I thought of the old Elvish woman, but let the matter drop, not wanting to explain it. “That would be the first time one of my race has seen an Elf since soon after our arrival in your lands. Indeed, they would have slain me had it not been for the cat I bear with me.”
“You claim the cat persuaded the Shaman to spare your life? Of all your—of all your impossible stories, that is the least plausible.” The Goblin’s look turned sullen. “Very well, enjoy your joke. You wonder why it is that the Goblins hate and fear your people? Your godless blasphemy, your theft of our land, and now, your contempt for my intelligence are ample reason. Leave me in peace, Man; I think our conversation is done.”
I shrugged and left him in peace, disturbed by our discussion. I turned my attention to the rain that beat down near where we waited. He’d given me much to ponder, and the rain’s hypnotic beat lulled me half to sleep as I tried to puzzle out what he’d said. It was obvious the Goblins were ruled by some great wizard, Gorm, who may even have been as powerful as Orgrim, and that he was served by a variety of lesser wizards called “Shamans”. The whole race had been intimidated or perhaps even enchanted into believing we were their mortal enemies, and that the fault was ours in the ongoing war for possession of Amelior’s lands. All this was logical, and yet I felt doubt; I knew full well there were parts of the Goblin’s argument I could not understand, and parts that were deeper than their surface logic suggested. This would require more thought.
I must have dozed, for after an indeterminate time, the rain had stopped and the sun had emerged from behind the clouds. I looked around with a start, and found the Goblin gone. That solved one problem, for I could not have accompanied him much longer, nor did I trust him enough to leave him free again while I slept; from his obvious hatred for my kind, he’d soon forget his Shaman’s order to let me live, and try to slay me in my sleep. I rose, knees creaking, and gathered up Grey. I knew from the rumbling in my stomach it was early afternoon; that and the angle of the sun gave me my bearings. I set out into the wet grass, the sun at my back as I headed eastward towards the lands of my kind. I wanted to put some distance between us and the Goblins before I would risk contacting Orgrim.
My boots and leggings were soon soaked through, and I walked with difficulty through the matted grass, leaving a trail a child could have followed. All around us, steam rose from the grass as the sun’s heat began drying the land. I walked for perhaps an hour before hunger got the better of me and I paused to consume my scant remaining provisions. I would need to find supplies soon, else I’d have to test my hunting skills in these unfamiliar grasslands. Grey had already vanished, gone to seek his own meal.
When I’d done eating, I brushed crumbs from my lap and began contemplating the ring Orgrim had left me. His cryptic instructions were not reassuring: how does one “sink” into a ring just large enough to fit on one’s small finger? I closed my eyes and concentrated on the cool, smooth feel of the ring where it lay against my skin. It was easy to imagine my mind following the path of my finger through the center of that ring, but that wasn’t what Orgrim intended, for I felt nothing. Next, I held the ring to my forehead and tried the same trick, with no more luck. Finally, I opened my eyes again and glared at the ring. It was difficult to focus on it at first, for its surface was featureless, and it drew uncomfortably at my eyes if I stared too long.
It was that discomfort that gave me my clue. Bracing myself for that pull, I once again focused my gaze upon the ring’s smooth surface. When the pressure began once more, this time I tried to yield rather than fighting, and after an uneasy struggle, succeeded. One moment I was staring at the ring, and the next I was surrounded by whiteness that was the opposite of the blackness you see when you close your eyes; the feeling of unseen distances was identical. But there was a plucking at my mind that frightened me, and in panic, I drew back, calling my master’s name into that great void as I did so. In an instant, I was back within myself, watching the drying grass beyond the ring I clutched, my fingertips white with the pressure they were exerting against it. Orgrim had not answered my call, and I could not muster the strength of will to try again. Perhaps tomorrow.
I looked up to find Grey still gone, and as my attention focused back upon the grassland around me, I heard a familiar noise: the drumbeat of hooves upon wet, springy ground. I rose to my feet and looked to the southeast from whence came that sound. There, approaching at a tremendous rate, came six horsemen, long lances tucked beneath their arms as they drew nearer. I had no doubt they were expecting a Goblin, but as they had no reason to harm me, I stood my ground and made no effort to reach for a weapon. That logic was far less persuasive than the sure knowledge that any defense would prove fruitless, for not only was I ill-equipped to withstand such a charge, my skills were inadequate to the challenge even had I the appropriate equipment.
Instead, I contented myself with enjoying their skill and wishing I had even a tithe their ability with a horse. As I waited, I drew my lute from its protective sack and set about tuning it, hoping to appear more innocent than might otherwise be the case.
As they drew nearer, the leader gave some signal and the charge slowed, lances tipping back up into the air when it became plain I posed them no threat. Sun glinted off the leader’s oiled chain hauberk as he slowed to a trot and his men flowed past him to encircle me. Most wore boiled leather armor with scraps of metal sewn to it, evidence of the recent rains still plain on the clothing that showed beneath the armor and on their mounts. Each man wore a round steel cap strapped to his head with a leather band beneath the chin, and several bore scars. When I’d been encircled to his satisfaction, the leader sidled his horse closer so he could better inspect me.
“Tell me, soldier, what unit you belong to, and how you find yourself here so far from our main force.” He had a faint accent that struck me as familiar, but nothing so strong as to make him alien, at least not compared with the strange beings I’d lived among the past few days.
“In fact, Sir, I’m not part of your force at all—I’m here on Ankur’s business.” I had no desire whatsoever to tell him the truth of why I was here, but having had no time to prepare a suitable explanation for my presence, I felt it wisest to stick close to the truth.
“So your accent indicates, but you are a long way from home, Ankurite, and in another King’s lands.”
“Would that be the King of the Goblins?” I responded, buying time while I assembled a story that would make sense and be defensible.
There was a snort of laughter from close behind my back, and my skin prickled as I realized there might be a lance scant inches from my chest. I resisted the temptation to turn, and watched the knight’s face harden. “Your wit does you credit, but I note that you have not answered my question.”
I bowed. “Forgive me. I was unaware you’d asked me a question.” My story was beginning to come together, and it was simple enough to remain consistent if questioned.
Rising in his stirrups, he half-bowed, mocking me. “Allow me to rephrase my question, then. What brings an Ankurite uninvited into Ameliorite lands, so close to our foes that one might think you had but recently broken your fast with them or used that instrument of yours to entertain them?”I laughed and restored my lute to its bag, careful not to back into the lance that hovered at my back. “Now it is your wit that does you credit, sir. Surely I would not be here without the approval of your leaders, for is it not true that our kingdoms now work together under the truce negotiated these seven years past?”
“In principle, Easterner, we do indeed work together, though my people handle the work while yours worry more about the together.” He brushed at an old scar, and met my gaze, unperturbed and clearly expecting a reply this time.
“You seek more? Very well. I serve one Bram of Ankur, who serves King John in the capacity of advisor on western affairs.” There was a gasp behind me, answered by a sharp look from the leader of the knights, and I recalled why the man’s accent was so familiar. Bram had been an Ameliorite before he came east.
“You serve that traitor? He is no friend of ours, and by extension, neither are you.”
A bead of sweat trickled down my forehead as I fought the temptation to look behind me. “I believe you wrong him. Though he’s no longer in the service of Amelior, he now serves both our peoples, and I take it amiss that you would slander him so.” I gambled and placed a hand on the head of my axe, meeting his gaze as best I could.
He backed down, shaking his head. “This is beyond me. We shall bring you back to our leader and see what he makes of you.” He nodded to the man at my back, the one who’d been holding that lance during our conversation, and this time, I turned to him. There was no lance. The rider had the largest of the six horses, and he offered me a smile. I returned it, and moved to walk beside him as the troop returned to their previous formation and set out to the southeast, back from whence they’d come, moving at a fast walk.
I held up my hand within easy reach. “Modred.”
“Kelvin.” He offered me his hand, and I shook it hard. He was big and strong, but not in my league, and I think I surprised him. “And what really brings you so far from home, Modred?”
I reviewed my story, and added a new twist to do my friend and protector in Ankur a small favor. “It’s as I said. Your former countryman serves both our lands. As you know, Ankur and the East have been less than forthcoming in offering you their aid against the Goblins. Bram knows full well what you face here, and would persuade our King that your cause is just and that our assistance is crucial. Since he cannot come here himself—nor would doing so offer any additional assurance of his word—he’s sent me in his place.”
“And he believes that your word would add anything to the words of those who have come before you bearing bright promises, then returned eastward, to little avail?”
I watched the tightening of his eyes, and realized this was a sensitive subject. “Just so. Have you spent any time at Court, Kelvin?”
“Some. When I was younger.”
“Then you know something of the maneuvering that goes on. Here, your people are fortunate in one way we are not: you have one enemy now. We have many, both within the Court and without, and it behooves us to move with care. Bram and our King know well that to be of use to Amelior, we must first retain our grip on power. A hasty move might jeopardize that.”
He nodded. “There is truth to what you say, yet I remain unconvinced. Seven years is a long time. Could you not at least send us troops?”“Food, arms, and other resources are all we have managed. Were we truly your foes, we would not have sent so much. That’s not to say that Amelior has no enemies in the east, but rather that Bram and our King are not numbered among them.”
As we talked, Kelvin had been casting his gaze around with the prudent caution of someone experienced in these lands; indeed, none of the six horsemen had relaxed their guard for an instant, for all knew well how close we must be to the Goblins, and their scars testified that such vigilance was the price of survival. I’d been doing much the same thing, but seeking my strange four-legged companion rather than any threat from the Goblins. I saw no sign of Grey, but was nonetheless confident he wouldn’t abandon me.
We continued on our way, but the conversation tapered off in a hurry, for the leader set a pace brisk enough to force me to reserve my breath for walking. Fortunately, the Goblin had been right that Amelior was planning another raid; we walked for less than an hour before the drumbeat of hooves announced the arrival of more horsemen. They greeted us with whoops of welcome and continued off on their own patrol as we approached the camp. That camp was nothing more impressive or elaborate than a cleared area of trampled grass and a small cook tent. Hobbled horses stood everywhere, and the men sat in their oilskins, damp and uncomfortable. There were few wounds, and none seemed serious.
The Ameliorite strike force was large, perhaps two hundred mounted men, each of whom carried all his own gear. I would have expected at least a small supply train, but saw nothing of the kind. Were we that close to Amelior? That seemed improbable. On these plains, a troop of cavalry would value mobility over comfort, and would not want to stay long in one place lest they be surrounded and overwhelmed. A larger camp or similar source of supply must lie within a day’s ride to the east. I was no military man, but there was no way they’d leave their supplies unguarded; if their advance force was this large, it implied comparable numbers at that base camp, and even more if there was another strike force in the area. More than four hundred men was an impressive force to put in the field, and it was not hard to understand why the Goblins worried.
There was considerable loud commentary as we entered the camp. One man wondered loudly where my companions had found a human town nearby, and whether they also had a brothel. I smiled at him and bowed as best as I could with legs and back stiffened by such a brisk walk. I had little wind left, despite all the miles I’d put behind me in the past week or two, and I wanted to arrive capable of talking to the commander.
The leader of the force was a small man, not much more than five feet tall, but he had a look about him that left me in no doubt he was in charge. He swept my escort with his gaze, made a judgment from what he saw, and rose to greet me. His smile was warm enough to charm the dew off the grass, but his eyes remained vigilant. I met his gaze, but could not hold it, and I looked down instead at the strangeness of his handshake. He was missing the ends of the last two fingers on his right hand, and the wound was fresh enough that blood still stained the bandages.
“Welcome to our humble camp. I am Colin. And you are?”
“Modred of Ankur, and here on official business.”
“Do tell.” The smile stayed, and his voice was pleasant, but his gaze didn’t soften.
“I’m working for Bram, King John’s advisor, in an unofficial capacity. I’ve been sent here to scout out the lie of the land and report back to His Highness.”
Colin’s smile vanished when the name registered. “The traitor dares much in sending his man to spy on us.”
I shook my head in denial. “You wrong him. Whatever his past, Bram is an honorable man. The intelligence I bring back to the King will serve as fodder for those who would help you. Not every easterner is your enemy, after all.”
Colin glanced down at his wounded hand and frowned. “Nor are they our friends. So, Modred, if friend you be, tell me what you have seen and what you will report.” This time he pinned me with his gaze, and I couldn’t look away.
“I’ve seen enough Goblins to understand the threat they represent, and enough to wonder how Amelior has stood alone so long.” That was a slight exaggeration; my Goblin companion had hinted that there were several “Homes” nearby, and if the others were anything like the one I’d visited, then each was larger than even a large city such as Ankur. The Ameliorites were outnumbered—for that matter, we all were, even back in Ankur.
“Would that the rest of your countrymen felt the same way.” Colin spat on the ground. “And you say Bram is on our side in this matter? I confess to being glad to hear it; he was always a good man in my experience, and it was a shock to hear of his betrayal. When you see him again, tell him that Colin sends his regards, and wants him to know there are still those who want to believe him innocent of the charges against him.” For a moment, there was a warmth in those eyes. Then that momentary softness faded.
“Very well. You shall stay with us for the moment until we return eastward. Can you ride?”
I laughed. “Not well, I’m afraid. It’s not an eastern skill for men of my class. I’m far safer on two legs than four.”
Colin’s smile warmed. “Then I hope you can play that lute better than you can ride. It’s been many a day since we had a chance to relax and listen to a good ballad.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“In the meantime, we’ll find you a docile mount. We’ll be traveling far today, and you’ll never be able to keep up on foot.” He shouted a command at one of his men, who leapt to his feet and moved off towards the horses at a jog.
Colin excused himself and began moving about the camp, seeing to his wounded and passing on orders. The camp had been quiet enough, but now there was much movement as men began saddling their mounts and checking their weapons. I watched, bemused, as the disorder became order, and almost missed the approach of a rider.
I turned, and it was the man Colin had sent off in such a hurry. I say “man”, but despite his height, he was a youth of no more than fourteen years; even so, his face was older than his years, and he handled the two horses that accompanied him with unconscious ease.
“I have brought your horse. Colin bade me ask whether you have fought on horseback before.”
“Only with my horse, I’m afraid. Any fighting I do had best be on foot.”
The youth nodded. “He suspected as much. I am to keep you safe from harm in the event of an attack. We need such allies as we can get back east, and you are too valuable to risk in a fight.”
“You’re planning a raid?”
“Just came back from one, and we left more of those monsters than I could count rotting beneath the sun. As you might imagine, they do not take kindly to that, and they shall want to hunt us back to our own lands. So we shall try to place as much distance between us as we can, but the grasslands are crawling with Goblin war groups and I doubt we will get far without meeting one.”
There was an eagerness that I found disconcerting. “That’s a strange hope. Were it me, I’d be just as happy to make it home without seeing so much as a mouse.”
He laughed. “Had we not found you out here alone, in the heart of the enemy’s lands, I would think you spoke the truth.”
“But I do speak the truth.”
His expression grew uncertain. “Is it so? But of course. You easterners live far from our wars, and do not understand.”
“That each dead Goblin is one less chance for a burned-out farm, and one more chance those creatures will leave us in peace.”
“And you believe that?”
“How could it be else?”
I was spared having to answer by a low whistle that would not have carried much further than the edges of the camp. Everyone save me had mounted before the whistle faded away on the breeze; I managed a credible mount, but it took me long enough there were many smiles at my expense by the time I could devote any attention to my companions. Wary looks replaced the smiles as Colin led us eastward at a brisk pace and we moved into denser grass. The wind blew at our backs, clearing what was left of the storm clouds, but I had little attention to devote to the scenery; instead, I concentrated on staying in the saddle.
Nobody spoke, and every pair of eyes scanned the grasslands around us. I felt the tension despite my focus on not falling, and for the first time, it struck me that any Goblins we met would not know I’d been given safe passage by their Shaman. I remembered Colin’s recent wound, and my carefree mood vanished that fast. I began to watch more around me, even knowing that my companions would likely spot any enemies first.
We’d ridden for perhaps half an hour, the sun lowering into our eyes, when something changed. The wind had freshened at our backs, enough to whip cloaks about us and dry the sweat from the horses’ backs, and the troop had slowed without my noticing, enough to make me nervous when the change registered. I found myself keeping a tighter rein on my horse, for he’d grown restive, ears cocked forward as if listening and pace grown erratic, as if he couldn’t decide between slowing to a cautious walk and charging ahead.
My bodyguard rode up beside me, close enough to lean across the gap between us and whisper in my ear. “Prepare yourself. The horses have scented something ahead.”
“Scented? How can that be? The wind’s at our back.”
He laughed. “Forgive me. I spoke metaphorically. What I meant is that they have an uncanny way of knowing when Goblins are about. I said scented, but nobody understands just how it is they know what they know.”
Colin rode back to join us. “Modred, I want you to hang back here with James. He will keep you safe once the fighting starts. Your presence here means you have nothing to prove about your courage, and you are far more valuable to us back at Ankur than here, in battle. Watch, learn, and survive to bear your news back to our eastern kin.” There was the snap of command in his voice, and even had I been a braver or more warlike man, I’d have thought twice before disobeying him. Without pausing to confirm whether I’d heard him, he wheeled about and began moving through his men, communicating with hand signals. Almost imperceptibly, the horses began to collect into small groups, as if each man were being careless about where he rode. But I noted swords being loosened in their scabbards, and the long lances being clutched tighter.
All at once, there came a shrill cry, and a mass of Goblins surged from where they’d been concealed in the grass up ahead, as well as flanking us in a broad crescent. There were so many of them, all moving fast, that I couldn’t begin to count their numbers, and they hurled themselves at the lead riders like rats upon a mongrel, faces shadowed by the sun at their backs. I took a deep, involuntary breath, but even as the Goblins charged, the Ameliorites had already acted, accelerating at an astonishing rate. Colin had read the attack well, and his men hit the Goblins almost before the small creatures could attain a full run. A shrill wailing rose on the air as the lances struck home and the horses broke through the first ranks, the lances sweeping backwards to clear themselves of the impaled Goblins. Then, without slowing, each group of men raised their lances again and drove hard into the next rank.
The wailing merged with the cries of the dying, but by this time, the charge had begun to falter; there was no room to continue amidst the packed ranks of Goblins. Each rider cast his lance at the nearest Goblin in a practiced motion, and drew the long sword or axe he carried. The groups of riders moved together, swirling about in a complex pattern that must have taken years of training to perfect and that left no man’s back unprotected for long. No sooner did a Goblin come within sword range than it fell, pouring blood from a deep slash or trampled underfoot by one of the horses. No Goblin came close enough to strike at an unprotected back—not even those with spears or other weapons long enough to reach that high—and though I saw flung weapons strike several riders, no Ameliorite fell.
It was slaughter more than combat, but despite that, the Goblins never faltered right until the end. In the dozen minutes or so the encounter lasted, not a Goblin fled that I could see, and when the last sword stopped rising and falling, only the wounded still moved. When the wind shifted, the scent of blood and other things less pleasant was overwhelming. I turned away, appalled, to see James smiling from ear to ear.
“Are you not proud to witness their valor?”
I said nothing, but nodded to forestall his suspicions. Colin rode up, fresh blood coating his sword arm. The bandage on his right hand was also stained red, though whether with his blood or that of his foe I could not tell.
“This too I would bid you bring back with you: We were fortunate this time. No deaths, and a few minor wounds. We are not always so lucky.” He wiped sweat from his eyes with his right arm, smearing a faint bloody streak across his forehead, and wheeled about to return to his men. They dismounted and went about efficiently retrieving such of their lances as had survived intact. Not a man spared a glance for the fallen Goblins, some of which were still twitching or striving to crawl away into the tall grass.
Colin regrouped us, then ensured that none of the wounds were more serious than they looked. When he was done, he smiled, congratulated his men on the fight, and signaled us to move off again. As we left, the first ravens began circling down out of the sky and I shuddered, remembering the last time I’d seen them. We continued riding east, still on guard, but our ride was uneventful. The ride continued until just before nightfall, when we came within sight of the supply camp whose presence I’d suspected.
There was no evidence of any other force save for the wagons and those who manned them. Those wagons, however, were evidence that at least one more group the size of Colin’s riders was being supplied here, and that brought home the magnitude of this expedition into the lands of the Goblins. I caught up with James, who had dismounted and was waiting for me. With a certain air of superiority, he held my horse for me while I dismounted, wincing.
“I think I’ll be glad to never see a horse again.”
He smiled. “You are no Ameliorite, that’s certain.”
“...though I don’t see many horses here now,” I observed, turning to my horse to untie my lute and inspect it for any damage.
“No,” James enthused, “the others will be raiding north and south of us, perhaps even far enough to link up with our other forces.”
I kept my back turned until I’d mastered my surprise and banished it from my face. “You’ve fielded your full army, then.”
James seemed unaware of the implicit question. “Perhaps smaller than usual this time; the Goblins have been getting harder to find of late.”
Perhaps as many as a thousand men in the field, and this was smaller than usual? The numbers were more than I could comprehend. Colin’s arrival saved me from replying.
“Welcome to our home away from home, Modred. Find yourself a comfortable spot by the fire; it has been long indeed since we have had anyone to entertain us, and tonight you shall play for your supper.”
I did as I was bidden, and watched with interest as the riders unsaddled their steeds and hobbled them for the night. Those who’d remained behind to maintain the camp were all older men, save for a few cripples, and they moved efficiently about their tasks. Fast enough I was soon savoring the smells of fresh meat roasting on the fire and fresh skillet bread cooking on the coals. Only then did I realize the meaning of their proximity to our recent battle: they’d come this close to the battle knowing full well that if the Goblins had turned east instead of laying in wait for the horsemen, the warriors would return to a scene of slaughter. I shivered at the thought.
As their guest and their entertainment, I was fed first, and ate with relish. The food was plain but good, and filled a void in me that the afternoon’s slaughter had made me forget. I was thirsty too, and drained a large leathern flask of hard cider to wash down my meal. When I’d done, most of the Ameliorites were still being fed, so I tuned my lute and set about earning my keep. I played them a great many martial tunes, including The Recruiting Sergeant and Blood on the Beach. Then, the cider and my fatigue having begun to work its spell on me, I played something darker to exorcise my memories of the afternoon. “This one’s called Moonchild,” I remarked, feeling my way into the chords until they were as dark as the song called for.
“With the rising of the moon comes a sense of wild elation
That enfolds me like a blanket in a clinging, sweet sensation.
And it builds ’till after sunset, all the changes come upon me
In a burst of pain and pleasure that I don’t quite want to flee...”
It was a strange song, not often sung these days, of a man who became a monster by moonlight and hunted the night for blood, without much concern over its source—something that had a new resonance for me. There were a few thoughtful looks, but most just wore grins, remembering tales told by the fire to make children sleep more lightly. I set aside my lute after that song, and making my excuses and blaming the long day’s ride and my incompetence therein, I retreated to a spot just beyond the firelight to seek sleep. Sleep was not easy to find, for the massacred Goblins haunted me, and the raucous singing from around the fire rang in my ears. I was lying on my back, staring up at the sky and feeling its void echo within me, when there came a gentle touch. I sat up, startled, and it was Grey who sat beside my blankets, patience personified and a disapproving look upon his small, pointy-chinned face. I reached out to pet him, and just as I touched him, he lunged at me and bit me for the second time since I’d known him, sinking his teeth into the sensitive fold of skin between my thumb and forefinger.
I yelped and yanked my hand back, licking at the blood that welled up from the puncture marks inflicted by his fangs. Grey licked his lips fastidiously, then sprang away into the night before I could so much as curse him. Shaking my head and dabbing at the blood with a cloth, I lay down again, my mood foul; even my steadfast companion had deserted me now. I tried again to sleep, but my thoughts were awhirl—so much so I almost missed a light touch on my shoulder. I sat up, ready to swat the cat should he be preparing another assault, then relaxed my fist when I saw who it was.
Orgrim squatted beside me, stern but patient.
“You’ve done well, Modred, but now it is time to set you another task. Here is not the place to speak of it, though. We must depart.”
“It’s a long walk to Ankur, and I’ve no intention of riding.” I said that partially in jest, for my thighs hurt enough to warn me of how bad they’d feel on the morrow after a night spent sleeping on the cold grass.
“There is no need for either.” He rose and spread wide his capacious cloak. “Step within my cloak and we shall be there before you can draw another breath.”
I took a closer look, and saw nothing but blackness—not the dim outline of his legs, nor the least flicker of light. Orgrim sensed my hesitation, and frowned. Not wanting him to learn of the thoughts that had been passing through my mind these past days, I looked back at the camp, half hoping to see the cat, but Grey was long gone. Bracing myself, I took hold of my lute and my small stock of gear, and forced myself to step forward, ducking beneath his arms so I could fit within the cloak. The space within was colder than a winter morning with the hearth fire gone out, and darker than the darkness I’d known in Ankur’s crypt, but it lasted an instant. The cloak swept over me, brushing the back of my neck like spiderwebs, then opened again before the hairs on the back of my neck had time to rise.
I took a deep breath and emerged from the cloak’s shadows to find myself standing in a broad moonlit street, surrounded on two sides by stone walls that rose up to frame the same sky I’d been gazing at earlier. But now, overhead, the stars lay far to the west of where they’d been but a moment earlier, and in many directions, dark shadows against the sky blotted out those stars.
The night air that bore the unmistakable stench of a large city mingled with an unfamiliar tang of salt on the air. “Welcome to Volonor.”
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Continue reading: Chapter 12
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