Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Fantasy · #2263894
This short story is set in the world of my novel ‘Princess Eledy and the Goblin.'
|Chilled, weary and uncertain, Loyfti hesitated on the edge of the gathering. A goblin child pointed to him, gurgling a question to her mother. He would not let these children meet the same fate he endured. Bracing himself, Loyfti stepped up to the fire and spread his hands in greeting. The warmth radiating from the blaze bathed him in a welcoming caress. |
“I come to your colony with tidings from Revyek. On the morrow he promises to send a flight of Sky Treaders to you loaded with provisions for the Midwinter Feast.”
Several small goblins cooed at the mention of a feast.
“Then we will welcome him,” said a goblin woman with streaks of grey shining like comet trails in her black hair. From the markings of her emerald face paint, and the strings of nightshade and amber beads fasting her cloak, Loyfti guessed she was the colony Elder.
One of the goblin warriors exchanged looks with his comrades upon setting eyes on Loyfti. “We thought the human would appear with a host of his kind, not send some hornless boy.”
Loyfti ignored the remark. The stumps of his cut horns twinged at the memory of the saw Revyek dragged across them. Glancing at the goblin children, stubby horns poking from their curly polls of hair, Loyfti vowed the same would not happen to them.
“You’ll find the human prince is richly rewarded for striking this bargain with us,’ Elder Eirlys said, opening her arms formally towards Loyfti in a gesture of acceptance.
Loyfti looked uncomprehendingly at her, trying to recall all his father had taught him about greeting Elders. As Eirlys stepped closer, reaching towards him, Loyfti smiled and accepted the double armclasp.
“Come, daughter, we’ll fetch out all that we have gathered for the humans,” Eirlys called to a goblin woman curled with her back against a log.
As she rose, the firelight illuminated her face. Framed by sleek inky hair, her features had a sharp serenity to them as if newly chiselled. Loyfti stiffened, struck by her likeness to one of his friends amongst the goblin slave women.
The goblin gave a low hiss of vexation and averted her gaze from his stare as she fetched box after box from one of the cottages.
Opening the boxes, Eirlys spread out neatly tagged bundles of herbs. Delicious, pungent aromas bit at Loyfti’s nostrils, clearing his brain.
“Each plant I have labelled with how to use it. My skill in healing developed over long years of practice,” Eirlys said, a proud gleam in her eyes.
“Then you deserve much acclaim. The healing arts are the most precious,” Loyfti said.
His kind words provoked a smile of pleasure from Eirlys. “It was not all my doing. I had much help from the younger warriors in finding these herbs. Some they had to climb to the tops of trees for, others delve into the caverns beneath the forest. I hope the humans pay us well with food and trinkets for our Midwinter Feast.”
“I have the word of the human prince,” Loyfti said, inclining his head graciously. “You and you colony are skilled indeed, Elder Eirlys.”
Loyfti turned over some of the bundles, enjoying leaves softly brushing his skin and releasing their aromatic oils.
Herbs - that was why Revyek allowed this colony to continue and sought to trade with them when he had decimated other goblin tribes. These goblins had a knowledge of the healing plants of the forest and how to collect them that no human had attained. With the Unbalancing Fever raging, and war with the northern hags making many humans in need of healing, it was no wonder Revyek prized the herbs collected by these goblins.
Yet, it was only the adult goblins that collected the herbs. Revyek had other plans for the goblin children.
Revyek’s order rang in Loyfti’s mind. “Keep the children away from the feast. Goblin children are troublesome at the best of times. Find a way to occupy the brats.”
Loyfti had feigned the unsuspecting, brainwashed looked Revyek expected from one whose life had only been spared on the proviso that he acted a spy and servant to the human king. However, Loyfti immediately guessed Revyek’s plans. Revyek meant to send his men to capture the children for slaves, profiting richly from their ruined lives.
“They are acceptable to you?” Eirlys asked.
Loyfti’s gave a mortified twinge at having become lost in thought as he examined the herbs.
“They look perfect, Elder. Revyek will be here tomorrow with the things he promised. I myself will supply gifts for the children to enjoy at the Midwinter Feast. Toys such as have not been seen since the Goblin Markets a dozen or so winters ago.”
Eirlys raised a grizzled eyebrow. “You are full of surprises, friend goblin. Now, come rest. You look wearied by your long journey.”
Loyfti bowed his gratitude and Eirlys led him to her home. Gratefully sinking into the mossy mattress that she indicated, Loyfti let his thoughts drift between the babbling campfire songs of the goblins and plans for saving the children until sleep claimed him.
The next day, Eirlys greeted him at the door. “Happy Midwinter, friend. The fire is again stoked and breakfast is waiting.”
His face glowing from washing in icy water, Loyfti beamed in assent.
“Come, this way,” Eirlys said.
He crossed to the fire and took the seat Eirlys indicated between her and her daughter. He again met the eyes of the young warrioress as she handed him a birch bark platter laden with nettle pancakes served with roast toadstools and silvery tree meal bread.
“Enjoy,” Eirlys said. “It will do you good.”
“It’s delicious,” Loyfti said, forking up another mouthful of food. How wholesome to be eating the food he was born to instead of the fussy concoctions humans called meals.
Eirlys poured spiced green tea.
“I’ve heard such tisanes improve and even extend life.” Loyfti sipped the tasty brew in his cup, letting its warmth spread through him. “Perhaps you could tell me the ingredients?”
He received no answer but grins. It was a graceful way of handling secrets, he supposed.
He turned to Eirlys’s daughter. “Perhaps you know?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “No.”
He gave her a teasing grin. “Are you sure?”
The goblin warrioress gave a low hiss. “Why do you stare at me? I have no desire to mate you.”
Loyfti scoffed. “I have a mate already.”
Warmth crept through Loyfti as he pictured the human king’s daughter with her smiles bright as spring sunshine. She alone made life at court bearable for him.
“You surprise me, stranger. No goblin maid would want you shorn of your horns.”
“If you must know, I stare at you because I know who you are.”
Incredulous, she bared her teeth. “Really?”
“Yes, Alhodra. You and your sister look much alike.”
“My sister is dead,” Alhodra said, wincing at the painful memory.
Beside Loyfti, Eirlys stiffened as she caught his words.
Loyfti looked her in the eye as he continued under his breath. “That’s what the humans had you believe. Truly they’ve taken her as a slave. They want to enslave all our kind, starting with the children. They think children are easier to bend to their will. Besides, a goblin’s venom is strongest when they are young, and venom is useful to the humans to produce weapons.”
Eirlys clapped her hand to her mouth as if she had been struck. “We must tell the others. This cannot continue.”
Loyfti glanced into the shadows stretching long fingers from the forest towards the firelight. “I fear Revyek may have sent spies after me who might listen.”
“Coward,” Alhodra said.
Bristling at her scathing attitude, Loyfti drew spell runes in the air next to his ears. Once his hearing began to muffle and ring as if he were under water, he extended his hands to spread the spell he conjured in a bubble, keeping the goblins within it but unfriendly listeners out.
Breaking his concentration once his magic was in place, he found the wide eyes of every goblin upon him. Sorcery was not a skill many Forest Goblins had. His was inherited from his mother.
Self-depreciating his magic, Loyfti shrugged. “A spell for silence. Now, we have not much time. You know many goblin children have become lost, presumed dead? They aren’t. The humans keep them for slaves.”
Wails of consternation rang out.
“Whilst the grown goblins are feasting with Revyek on Midwinter’s Day, he’ll have men steal the children away whilst they play with their gifts.”
A goblin mother craned forward, her twins gurgling in her arms. “What gifts?”
“I offered to fetch them from the workshop of the royal toy maker.”
The goblin warrior who scoffed at Loyfti’s lack of horns jeered. “He’s long dead, the magic the Queen bestowed on his creations lost.”
“Not so.” Loyfti hurried on, glad of the believing attention of the other goblins. "I won’t let your children be taken. When they touch the toys I bring they’ll become invisible. Only for a few hours, but long enough to thwart Revyek. We’ll pretend they’re dead. Agreed?”
Alhodra nodded. “It’s a plan.”
“Good. Now, I must make haste and fetch these toys. Who will help me?”
The goblins looked at each other.
“I will.” Alhodra got to her feet, clasping her long, serrated knives over her moss-woven hunting tunic. “My sister would want me to.”
Loyfti inclined his head. “Indeed. She’s a brave girl. I hope you’ll see her again once I find a way to free the slaves.”
“I’ll fetch my bow,” Alhodra said as she and Loyfti stepped out of the protective bubble he conjured around the goblins sat by the fire.
“I’m sure it’s unnecessary. We’re going to fetch toys, not into battle.”
Alhodra looked at him pityingly. “I wonder how you survived the journey here. I know the beasts that live in the mountains.”
“We shan’t have to go far into the mountains. The workshop is just beyond that cliff.” Loyfti pointed westwards.
On the way up the cliff, Loyfti was astonished by Alhodra’s agility. She clung to the rocks as if she was part of the stone itself when the wind rose high, whilst he was forced to wrap himself into a tight ball and wait out the squalls. She easily clambered past him on the rocks as he sailed upwards from the ledges on his rappel ropes. He found her waiting to pull him up when he reached the top, grinning because she’d won the “race.”
It snowed heavily. Loyfti and Alhodra stood upon a bridge that extended over a partly frozen stream. A bracken-hung workshop crouched before them, appearing a refuge from the sharp, metallic cold of the blizzard which sparkled down in wealth of snow-diamonds.
Lofyti remembered it as the magical workshop he rushed towards with glee when his mother brought him here. Then it had been swept spick and span, its brightly painted rafters, windows and doors gleaming like candy.
Shutting the door against the buffet of the gale that shoved against it like a wolf trying to tackle him to the ground, Loyfti jumped at the brisk ring of the shop bell that announced his entrance to ghostly ears. He pushed past Alhodra who surveyed the wreck of fallen beams and sawdust strewn benches.
Heaving aside a tumbled trestle table, Loyfti clapped his hands to behold a pile of cobwebby but intact boxes. “All here. Now, let’s see what treats lie within.”
Dragging out the first few boxes and motioning Alhodra to take an armful likewise, Loyfti opened one and pulled out model phoenixes, dragons, Sky Treaders and treehouses.
“I’ve never seen anything as wonderful - these are so intricate. The children will love them,” Alhodra said, holding up a handful of jewel-bright dragonfly mobiles. The light glistened upon their diaphanous wings.
"You never went to the Goblin Market in the good old days when King Laffie ruled?”
Aldhodra shook her head with a regretful twist to her lips.
“At the Midwinter Feast children loved nothing more than woodcraft toys bought from the Goblin Market. None were more opulent than those made by the royal toy maker who lived here. My… the Queen of the Forest Goblins delighted in infusing each toy with some of her magic.”
Alhodra twisted a dragonfly in her hands as if her enthusiasm would unlock its spell. “What d’you mean magic?”
“At the touch of the child receiving them, the toys would reveal the spell. Some transformed the child into a bear cub or bird for a few hours, others unleashed a patch of snow that changed colour as the children seized up handfuls for snowball fights, others played music or made delicious treats rain down.”
“Ah! Do you think the magic still works?”
“Not after so long. These toys will need enchanting with new spells. I well recall the spell to make any child touching the toys invisible. Never it appeared more useful than to fool Revyek."
Alhodra chuckled. “I thought at first you were no longer like a Forest Goblin. Now I see you are, for goblins delight in tricks.”
Loyfti unearthed a trug of unfinished toys. “We can refine these and make more. There are plenty of materials.”
“Here is cedar wood aplenty,” Alhodra said, moving towards the lathe.
Loyfti did his best to keep Alhodra distracted as she hammered, painted, and sewed, but her eyes glinted in curiosity every time he added the final spell to the toys.
“How d'you know the magic runes to use? And where the workshop was?”
Loyfti paused, searching for an evasive answer.
Alhodra leant towards him with a keen look. “You’re the queen's son aren't you. We thought you dead, like my sister.”
“No, just stolen,” Loyfti replied shortly, focusing his attention on packing a sack of toys with care.
Returning with the toys proved more difficult than Loyfti expected. The narrow path was slippery with snow and to fall might prove deadly.
Finally, the quaint hummocks of the snow-covered cottages came into view.
“I’d thank you to keep your conjectures about my identity to yourself,” Loyfti told Alhodra as they neared the village.
Whilst the children sat in a circle about the feast-fire listening to Eirlys’s stories, their parents fetched crockery and greenery to prepare the cavern in which they would enjoy the Midwinter Feast.
Shielding his eyes from the milky glare of the sun, Loyfti combed the snow clouds for signs of Revyek’s approach. Sure enough, a fleet of Sky Treaders appeared on the horizon, their sleek black bodies like a drone of flies.
“We haven’t got long,” he said, motioning Alhodra to open her sack of toys. “Come children, take whichever you like best,” Loyfti said, spreading his arms to indicate the toys.
With joyful squeals, the children rushed forward. Some admired them with glowing faces, unable to find words, whilst others rattled out a rapid fire of questions as they examined the toys. A little boy snatched up a model phoenix, melting into thin air like an icicle when the sun comes out.
Loyfti rubbed his hands in self-congratulation. “It’s working.”
Entranced by the toys, most children eagerly obeyed. Some looked to their elders for reassurance and were pushed forward.
“You’re kind to share these toys with us to protect our children,” the mother of the twins said. “Though you’ve learned to live in barren human lands, still the spirit of love abides in you.”
“We are filled with appreciation for your efforts.” Eirlys smiled warmly. “The gift of life is the most precious of all.”
Loyfti’s return smile froze as dull thuds behind him announced the Sky Treaders touching down in the snow.
Revyek appeared, rubbing his hands. The cold made the scar across his left eye stand out purple on his granite- hewn features. It was the first and last injury Loyfti dealt whilst he still had his horns. Revyek deserved it.
“I’ve come for the herbs promised me on Midwinter’s Day. My men will load them into the Sky Treaders whilst I enjoy your hospitality, Elder Eirlys.” Revyek glanced towards the candles and piles of cushions being carried into the cavern. “I see preparations for the feast are in full swing. I hope the children will be busy playing with their new toys whilst I enjoy a share of your feast.”
“We have the herbs ready.” Eirlys spread her hands towards the tower of boxes, barely raising her bowed head. “But, oh, lord of human lands, you find us at a sorry time.”
“A sickness has spread through our colony.”
Revyek stepped back. “What kind of sickness?”
Loyfti came to Eirlys’s side, his expression grave. “They say the Unbalancing Fever doesn’t affect goblins. It seems this was a mistake.”
Revyek ushered some of his mercenaries towards the herbs, stepping back himself - he must think the herbs were contaminated by the sickness that touched the colony. After several irate gestures from Revyek, the grumbling men hefted the herbs into the waiting flying vessels.
“It’s taken the young amongst us first. There are no herbs that can stop it. See,” Eirlys indicated the feast-fire. “We have relinquished our children to a pyre - the sickness has taken each and every one.”
“You’re sure?” Revyek fixed his gaze on Loyfti as if trying to bore through him. “That’s a great loss. Then you won't mind if I send my men to ascertain the facts before I report back to the King?”
"He means you're cannon fodder," Alhodra said to a soldier who shuffled reluctantly away to do Revyek's bidding. “The human prince has no more care for your life than that of his goblin slaves.”
“Rabble rouser,” Loyfti whispered to Alhodra with a quirk of his eyebrows.
Loyfti felt a tiny invisible hand tug the flaps of his yew-green coat, doubtless wondering if he had more toys to gift. He stood firm whilst Revyek turned his attention to examining the woven cottages. There were few places for the children to hide.
Loyfti stiffened as a child wailed, forgetting his order for the children keep silent. As the sound came from a tumbled stack of logs by the fire, he guessed the child had tripped. Swallowing the fear rushing in his throat, he found Revyek starting in the direction of the cry.
“What was that? Over there.”
A score of men rushed to do his bidding.
Loyfti tried not to appear anxious, although his heart thudded like a death-drum. If Revyek discovered this trick he’d have Loyfti executed, just as he’d killed his father. That was, if he didn’t kill him and the other goblins conspiring with him there and then…
“Nothing here,” a soldier called.
Eirlys shuddered. “They say the spirits of the dead return on the shortest day of the year.”
Blanching, Revyek opened the cabin door of a loitering Sky Treader.
“Let me stay a while. I feel it would be disrespectful to my hosts to leave at this sad time.” Seeing Revyek unswayed, Loyfti tried another tactic. “Besides, I might bring the sickness back with me if I return too soon.”
Revyek gave an abrupt nod. “Then you should stay. Don’t get too attached to your new friends.” Turning away, he ordered the men. “Take to the air. We want these herbs fresh when they arrive back.”
“First, leave the food for the feast. You promised these goblins payment,” Loyfti reminded him.
Stretching back beside the glow of the fire, Loyfti watched twilight deepen and the snow fall. Full from the feast and bubbling with laughter from the pranks and jests that accompanied it, disintegrating the tension of Revyek’s visit, he basked in the moment.
Goblin children danced about the fire with merry cries as they caught snowflakes that he transformed into rainbow hues. His gifts had saved them, but his mission was far from over.