Friday, January 29, 2016
Chapter One: Goblins (Complete)
Chapter One: Goblins
Oak trees rattled their bare branches in the sharp, November wind outside Thornbriar the Elf's underground home. A hail of scattered leaves tapped and skittered against the door and windows. Inside the house the fire was going merrily and the kettle was whistling. Thornbriar looked into the pantry and frowned.
"Bear," he said, his nose twitching with annoyance, "Do you know what happened to the apple pie I baked last night? I made it especially for today's tea."
There was a guilty silence from the overstuffed chair where the bear was resting his shaggy bulk in front of the fire. He pretended (not too convincingly) to be absorbed in a book on the magic of fireflies, pressing his big, snuffly nose almost to the page.
Thornbriar shut the pantry door with a snap that made the bear drop his book and look up startled at his friend. At three feet tall the elf was less than half the height of Bear standing on his hind legs, but the enormous bruin began to shuffle his paws and look nervously away as Thornbriar turned and advanced on him.
The elf’s long forefinger pointed accusingly right between Bear’s black, nearsighted eyes.
“Well?” the elf demanded.
“Er…ah…well, to tell the truth, old fellow,” Bear stammered, closing his book. “The truth of the matter is…uh…I ate it, last night, after you went to bed. It smelled so good I had to have a slice.” His smile was appeasing.
“A slice,” said Thornbriar.
“Well, one thing led to another, that is to say, one slice led to another, and by the time I realized what was happening, there was only a tiny bit left. It seemed embarrassing to leave just that for you, almost insulting.” He gulped. “So I ate it too.”
“This won’t do, Bear,” the elf said. “If you go on like this we’ll be out of food before winter’s half gone.”
“I can’t help it,” Bear said. “It’s the nature of bears to eat a lot at this time of year to get ready for the long winter’s sleep.”
Thornbriar snorted. “Don’t give me that rubbish.”
He went over to the coat rack in the corner by the door. “You never spend that much time sleeping anymore. You don’t have to, with me feeding and housing you. Out raiding smokehouses every other night is more like it. Well, I’ve had just about enough of it.”
He whirled his dark blue coat off of the rack and onto his back, then jammed a tall, peaked blue hat on his head.
“Where are you going?” asked Bear anxiously.
“But what about the tea?”
“You can finish it off yourself,” said the elf, angrily winding a muffler around his neck. He opened the door and paused dramatically to face the confounded bruin.
“As for me, I am going to get some fresh air, as far away from greedy bears as I can get. Good day to you!”
With a flourish he slammed the door and was gone, leaving Bear to contemplate the half-set table with a long face.
The cold north wind cut through Thornbriar’s coat, but he paid it little heed. He stumped along the dirt road, kicking the piles of leaves that drifted into his path. Now and then he would pick up a stray branch, toy with it, then snap and throw it aside in anger. Around him the day was more impressive than beautiful, with dark masses of clouds being driven along and the oak trees moaning and singing in the wind.
It was nothing to the elf, who merely hugged his thin arms closer and made his way deeper into the woods, muttering and grumbling to himself about stupid bears and paying no attention to where he was going.
With a start of surprise he found himself in a clearing by the roadside, with the rambling stone house of Dr. Gilpin suddenly before him. It occurred to Thornbriar that this was exactly where he had been headed, in order to explain to someone who would understand the iniquity of bears and the folly of sharing a house with one. He went up to the door and rang the bell.
Dr. Gilpin was a human, and it is unusual for any of the Field Folk to have anything to do with humans, but Thornbriar was a little eccentric by elvish standards. Most magical creatures consider humans dull and tedious when not downright dangerous, but Thornbriar always found Dr. Gilpin full of fascinating lore about distant lands and stories about the stars, and there was little the tall old man didn’t know about the properties of herbs and roots. The elf himself could only work Small Magics, but the doctor was so impressed when Thornbriar did that it was rather flattering. Now Dr. Gilpin seemed the perfect ally to hear his troubles.
The elf rang the bell again, glancing absently at the multi-colored bottles in the shop window as the last echoes of the bell faded inside the building.
“Come in,” called a distant, hollow-sounding voice, and Thornbriar pushed open the heavy door on creaking hinges. The front shop was empty and shadowy, but from the door in the back came a faint, pulsing light. “Come along, come along,” said the voice, louder now. “I’m back in the workroom. And just bring along that bottle on the counter, will you? This is tricky stuff.”
The elf picked up the bottle, a tall cut-glass decanter, and began feeling his way down the dimly lit hall. He came to a doorway rimmed with light and opened it to a blast of heat and glare. Squinting, he could make out the busy figure of Dr. Gilpin, dressed as usual in his long black robe, with the sleeves tucked up to his shoulders. He was puffing away with a bellows into a cast iron furnace.
Thornbriar picked his way gingerly over to the old man who was gazing intently into the open stove, his long white eyebrows almost frizzled in the heat and his blunt craggy features basted in sweat.
“I believe the crisis has passed,” the doctor pronounced after a few moments. “All it needs to do now is burn down and cool.” He shook out his sleeves and wiped his brow, turning towards the elf. “Oh, hello, Thornbriar. I’m doing a bit of alchemy, you see. Just the thing on a cold day like today. Let’s take that bottle over to the worktable.”
They sat down on a rough bench next to the table that clattered and clinked with glass alembics, retorts, and vials. Dr. Gilpin started searching through them. Thornbriar, unable to contain himself, began his tirade.
“Good afternoon, Doctor. You’ll never guess what that fool Bear’s done now. After all my hard work and planning, what does he do but…”
“Goes on the carpet,” guessed the old man. He selected a relatively clean pair of retorts, and uncorked the cut-glass bottle. “My sister had a mastiff that was exactly the same way. You can never make large animals too particular in their habits.” He poured out a generous portion from the bottle into each retort and pushed one over to the flabbergasted elf. “Here’s to your health,” he winked, raising his glass and downing it with relish.
“No, no, it’s nothing like that.” Thornbriar waved the suggestion away as the aged alchemist sighed in contentment. “He devoured an entire pie that I had made particularly for today. Didn’t even leave me a slice. That’s the thanks I get for taking him in out of the wild.” The preoccupied elf took a sip from his retort, then frowned and held it up to the light to look at its color. The liquid was a very light brown. “What is this stuff?”
“Barley water,” said Dr. Gilpin, taking another swig. My niece brews it herself. Very healthful, they say. Keeps the workings regular and the wind away.” He held out the bottle. “Top it off for you?”
“No thanks, this is fine,” said the elf, setting the retort down carefully. “Anyway, I’ve a mind to boot him out. Besides all the food he gobbles, he snores, Dr. Gilpin! Snores fit to crack ice. And he leaves hair everywhere! I have to sweep at least twice a day. A bear! What was I thinking?”
“What you need is sanicle.”
“Sanicle and lungwort. They clear congestion and stop snoring. Of course I can’t guarantee the complete effect on ursine anatomy, but…”
“No, that’s not the point,” said Thornbriar. “Bear has got to…”
There was a muffled explosion from the inside of the furnace that made both jump. “Good Heavens!” Gilpin cried. “There must be an adverse reaction in the fifth transmogrific cycle!” He hastily snatched up a pair of pliers and some padded gloves. “I’m sorry, Thornbriar, but I must see to this!” The oven was pinging and shaking as if it were full of popcorn. The doctor approached it and cautiously opened the door.
There was a lick of flame, and Thornbriar saw, in the middle of the fire, what appeared to be a face of molten brass changing from frowning to smiling to frowning again in quick succession. The Doctor began shouting some sort of Latin chant and throwing herbs on the fire. The elf watched a moment, then when it became apparent the Doctor would be busy some time, he shrugged impatiently and made his way out.
Once outside Thornbriar began to trudge his way deeper into the woods, his visit to the Doctor already forgotten in his continued anger at the bear. He walked along muttering, making telling points to passing trees or asking rhetorical questions of the sky. All around the woods deepened and the light grew dimmer and dimmer as the evening drew on. He went over ditches and through vast undergrowth, through oceans of ferns touched red by autumn under the black pillars of trees, heedless of everything about him.
Finally, tired out, he cast himself down on a small hillock warmed by the last rays of the setting sun. He meant to rest only for a moment, but he must have been more worn out than he thought, for as he sat in the warmth of the sun and listened to the sighing of the wind in the grass, he soon fell asleep.
Thornbriar woke to complete darkness. Overhead no moon nor any star twinkled in the darkly shrouded sky. All about him was the tall blackness of the whispering trees in a cold wind. The elf scrambled to his feet and gazed wide-eyed all around. In the shifting shadows nothing looked familiar, and there was not the faintest light to let him hope to guess a way.
“Good Heavens!” he thought. “Well, what do I do? Nothing to do but guess a direction, I suppose. Well, the woods don’t go on forever, and I must come out somewhere. I wish it weren’t so cold, or that I’d eaten something before I left.”
He stood hugging himself and stamping in the chill air, then chose a direction where there seemed to be a hint of a path and started following it. In a moment, the dark woods had swallowed him up.
Perhaps if he had a little more wood lore he would have done better, but he was after all Field Folk and not one of the People of the Woods, and, being only a few hundreds of years old, was not very experienced. All about him the trees grew thicker and denser and the underbrush more impassable. He began to feel like a fly blundering blindly in a web. His feet tangled in unseen roots, and the rattle of a year’s worth of leaves blown on the wind was like the hum of an angry hive around his ears.
Then Thornbriar panicked. He never remembered what triggered it, but he suddenly shrieked and started to run, arms stretched out in front of him. He jolted into trees that ricocheted him off into new directions. He scrabbled his way frantically forward, branches whipping his body. Blind fear drove the elf forward until he felt that his heart would split, but he didn’t stop until his foot came down on nothing but air and, with a cry, he tumbled down into an old, dry creek bed, stones and dirt slithering along with him. There was an abrupt burst of light and noise.
“What’s this?” said a gruff voice, and Thornbriar felt a rough hand grip him by the shoulder and lift him painfully to his feet.
The elf shook his head and blinked his eyes against the flickering firelight. His muzzy sight focused and he found himself looking into the pinched and stony face of a goblin.
“Who are you?” the gangrel creature growled, giving the elf a shake. “Answer up quick, or me and my lads will put paid to you without a fare-thee-well and not think twice.” There was a chorus of snarls all around.
Thornbriar looked about fearfully. There were seven goblins in all, standing around in what was plainly a make-shift camp. Although none but the leader was as tall as the elf, they were broad at the shoulder and brawny. All were dressed in tattered clothes and battered mail and armed with bows and spears. The leader carried a sword, rusty and notched, which he now drew and held up to the elf’s neck.
“Talk!” ne hissed. “What are you doing here?”
“I am Thornbriar of the Field Folk,” the elf twittered, the rusty sword tickling his throat. “My home is far from here. I went wandering and got lost. I didn’t mean to trespass on any goblins! Let me go and I’ll leave you alone, and never come back here again. I swear!”
“Don’t you do it, Cap’n Fleshbag,” growled a goblin with an eye-patch. “I say croak him now and hide the corpse. Lot safer for us in the long run, I dare say.”
“Dehead ‘im! Dehead ‘im!” shouted another standing next to the fire. “I hates all elves!”
“Who don’t?” said Fleshbag. He lowered his sword. “But I got a better idea. Gimpy, fetch out the leg-irons. We don’t want our guest leaving too quick.”
While a short goblin with a twisted foot hurried to obey his orders, Captain Fleshbag looked Thornbriar up and down. “Here, that’s a nice hat,” the goblin said. “I’ll take that.”
He reached out and took the tall blue hat off the elf’s head, obviously savoring the elf’s anger and helplessness.
The goblin placed it on his own round noggin, tilting it at a jaunty angle.
“Now then,” Fleshbag said, as Gimpy came forward and snapped the leg-irons around Thornbriar’s thin ankles. “You are own prisoner of war, and my personal slave, until you’re ransomed or the end of your miserable life, I don’t care which. You’ll cook and clean and carry for us all, though, and your first job is to get supper ready. Pigbottom, show him where the food and pots are.”
A squat, fat goblin came forward to lead Thornbriar away while the Captain leaned back into a comfy drift of leaves between the huge twisted tree roots that stuck out of the creek bank.
“I’m taking a little nap,” Fleshbag announced, “and I expect to eat in an hour. It better be good, elf. Lads, you can keep the whip handy so he don’t get lazy.” He pulled Thornbriar’s hat over his eyes and stretched out in exaggerated comfort.
The goblins ganged up around Thornbriar as he was led away, gabbling and poking at him and turning out his pockets to see if he had anything they could steal. Pigbottom pulled him along and threw him down roughly next to a grimy black cauldron perched on top of a clumsily piled stone fire-pit.
Thornbriar looked around for a way to escape, but the walls of the dry creek were steep and towered on either side. The goblins had stacked vast tangles of brushwood at either end to wall in their camp, and in the middle the campfire burned, casting light into every corner. Even if he could have gotten away, he found the leg-irons made it impossible to takes steps of more than a foot. He would never be able to outrun the gang of goblins.
Now began a horrible time. The goblin Gimpy brought him some bats to skin, and Pigbottom showed him the grimy sacks full of skunk cabbage and toadstools to chop up and put in the murky water in the cauldron. There were other vile ingredients to poor elf had to prepare and put in the pot. Many of these would kill any human in seven seconds, but goblins find them delicious.
Especially maddening was the way the goblins gathered around to prod and criticize the way he was doing things. For while all goblins are lazy and dirty and never do any work if they can help it, they love to find fault with others and nag incessantly.
By the time Thornbriar had the cauldron full and simmering on the fire, he was pouring sweat even in the chill night air and felt sore with the pinches and pushes from his captors. The thick goop had only started to bubble a little when Captain Fleshbag awoke with a snort and jumped to his feet.
“I’m ready to eat,” he announced. “Let’s see how you did, elf.”
He strode over to the pot and grabbed the ladle. The goblin leader stirred the steaming mess a few times and then scooped out a heaping load and sniffed it.
“Smelly,” he grunted approvingly. He brought the ladle to his lips and began slurping it loudly.
Suddenly he retched and spewed a mouthful of stew out back into the ladle. He turned to the sickened Tthornbriar and roared, tossing the goop back into the pot.
“This stuff is terrible! I guess I’ll have to teach you a lesson, pointy-ears.”
Fleshbag began loosening a coiled leather whip from his belt. “You’ll not serve me such muck again.”
“You didn’t give me enough time,” pleaded Thornbriar. “If you’ll just be patient while it cooks…”
“My patience has run out, elf,” sneered the goblin. “You had plenty of time. But you’re a sluggard. Well, a few licks of the lash will make you go fast enough.”
He flicked the whip around in wicked little circles, then gave it a preliminary crack. “This will cure your laziness!” He raised the whip back to strike and Thornbriar cringed.
The blow never fell.
With a roar that shook the trees and shattered the night air Bear came leaping down the ravine into the middle of the goblin camp. His landing seemed to shake the earth. The whip fell from Fleshbag’s suddenly limp fingers and his jaw dropped in his bloodless face. The bear sent goblins crashing left and right with mighty swipes of his paw as he bore down straight toward the goblin leader and Thornbriar.
Fleshbag drew out his sword with a shaking hand, but before he could use it, Bear knocked it upward with a blow of his paw. It went spinning through the air and landed with a “thunk” in the trunk of a tree. The goblin looked from where the blade hung quivering back into the red eyes and three-inch fangs snarling a foot from his face.
Flehbag’s mouth worked as if he were trying to say something, anything, that could save his hide. Bear thrust his snout forward and roared, a great full-throated bellow that sprayed the goblin and revealed even more teeth and a bright red gullet. Fleshbag’s eyes rolled up in his head, and with a whimper he buckled to the ground. As the goblin fainted, Bear reached forward and plucked the elf’s pointed blue hat from Fleshbag’s head before he hit the earth.
Bear handed Thornbriar his hat. “Come on,” he said. He looked around at the band of the groaning goblins. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Just a moment.”
The elf adjusted his hat, then turned to the greasy cauldron. Using the ladle he tipped its rim until the stomach-turning slop inside poured out, spilling everywhere and dousing the fire. He gave a satisfied nod. “Now let’s go.”
The bear hunkered down on all fours and the elf climbed on his back, clinging on top and holding onto the great beast’s fur. Bear squatted even lower, and then with a leap he cleared the creek wall and lumbered off, crashing into the night. Soon they had left the last dying flickers of the goblin’s fire far, far behind them.
Bear trotted along at a great pace through the frosty woods, while overhead the stars glittered like ice through the ragged clouds. At last, when he judged that they had gone a safe distance, he paused to rest under a large fir tree. The elf slid down from his back.
“Blast,” said Thornbriar. “I’ve forgotten the key for these chains.”
“Let me see, said Bear. The elf hobbled over and the bear leaned close to examine the lock. Then, extending one long claw, he inserted it into the keyhole. A few clinks and clanks and the manacles sprang open with a snap. Thornbriar picked up the chain and threw it off into the bushes.
“Bear,” he said, turning to his friend. “How in the world did you find me? I thought I’d got myself lost good and proper. In fact, I thought for a while that I’d never see home again.”
“Well, my nose still works,” said Bear shyly. “I got worried when you didn’t get back for supper, so I went to look for you…and, well…to apologize. I tracked you to Dr. Gilpin’s house, and then into the woods. About ten yards away from that ravine I sniffed and said to myself ‘Goblins!’ And when I poked my nose down to check it out, there you were.”
“And just in time, too,” said Thornbriar. “You saved me from a life of ignominious servitude, old fellow.”
“Well, you wouldn’t have been in that mess if it weren’t for me,” said the bear unhappily. “I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive, my friend,” said Thornbriar warmly. “Let’s get back home.”
The two started through the woods. Overhead, the last few tatters of clouds were gone, and the stars shone bright and clear. All around was silence, except for the slight crunch of leaves under their feet. A faint light began outlining the trunks of the bare oak trees, and by the time they left the woods the morning sun was brilliant red over the far mountains.
As they drew near their home, the bear turned toward the elf and said, “You must be tired and starving. When we get home you rest, and I’ll make you a big breakfast, of anything you want. How does that sound?”
“Truly excellent,” said Thornbriar. “I would like about a dozen eggs, and toast, and tea! And you know what would be especially nice? A couple of thick slices of that ham hanging in the larder.”
Bear stopped in his tracks and hung his head. “Oh,” he said.
“Why, Bear, what’s the matter?”
“Thornbriar, I ate the ham while I was waiting for you to get home yesterday! Oh dear, oh dear, I am sorry!”
“Bear!” yelled Thornbriar.
But he was laughing.