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Goblin

Goblin chapters 1-4

Book One of the Goblin Reign series

By Gerhard Gehrke

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He’s a pint-sized goblin with a dragon-sized problem…

goblin n: A wicked, backward species of humanoid.
–The Book of Words

goblin n: The people living in the hills, forests, and swamplands north of the Inland Sea.
–The Sage’s Reference Dictionary of Things


The goblin hunter crept through the undergrowth beneath the pines, careful with each step. The tinder-dry needles and tiny branches formed a blanket of sound hazards which would alert the whitetail buck that chewed on the grasses of the nearby meadow. The hunter’s skin was brown and faded perfectly into the shadows. His stature was short enough that the curtain of weeds concealed him. The mugwort smeared on his skin covered his scent.

He paused to catch his breath, as he had been holding it. With his sleeve he wiped sweat from his brow. He pushed strands of black hair away from his eyes.

The hunter pulled one of five arrows from the hide quiver slung over an arm and placed it on the bowstring. He wasn’t close enough to shoot. The hand holding the bow was damp. The fingers pinching the nock of the arrow trembled.

A few more steps. He parted the weeds.

The animal’s attention was on the feast of wildflowers and milk thistle, its ears turned away.

Two more steps. One.

Snap.

The whitetail looked up and straight at the hunter, a mouthful of yellow clover in its teeth. The hunter stood erect and drew back the bowstring. But he was moving too fast. The arrow slipped on the string. As he released the missile, the arrow shot far left into the meadow. The whitetail bolted and vanished into the distant tree line.

More arrows flew, but not from him. From his rear a pair of goblins holding identical bows ran forward past him, both pulling fresh arrows from quivers. But there was no target.

“Spicy, you stupe!” the larger goblin said. A pair of redtail hawk feathers were stuck in his knit cap.

“I’m sorry, Rime,” Spicy said. “My foot slipped.”

Rime walked out into the meadow to retrieve his arrow.

“Clumsy,” the second goblin said. His green skin was smudged with dirt. Twigs and leaves were tucked into the straps of his quiver and into his headband. “You’re so clumsy. Why did we have to get teamed with you?”

Spicy didn’t reply. His face darkened as he blushed.

From the distance came a cheer.

“Just great,” Rime said.

The chorus of voices continued to carry across the meadow from the far trees, a boisterous whupping that finally died down.

“Sounds like they got him, Preemie,” Spicy said to the goblin next to him.

“We could have gotten him,” Preemie said. “But we had you with us.” He stomped through the weeds and kicked around the grass until he found his own arrow. He and Rime didn’t wait for Spicy as they followed down the path the whitetail had taken.

The whitetail lay dead, with a blue-fletched arrow neatly sunk into its neck and another pair of shafts sticking in its side, piercing the animal’s ribcage. The creature’s throat had been cut. A second group of young goblins were smearing their faces with its blood. They wore grins and were laughing and punching each other on the arm. As Spicy caught up to Preemie and Rime, the victorious goblins fell silent.

One Stone, the largest of this group, was a mustard-faced youth a head taller than the others. His blooded lips parted, revealing a row of sharpened front teeth, filed to points.

“Hoy, One Stone,” Preemie called, raising his bow. “You made your first kill.”

“Clean through the neck,” One Stone said with a lisp. “I’m going to be studded for this.”

One Stone already had a single gold rivet in the lobe of his right ear. The other goblins’ ears remained unadorned.

Spicy looked down at the glassy dead eyes of the whitetail. Its tongue dangled between its white teeth.

“Congratulations,” he said. “An excellent shot.”

“Wish we could say the same,” Preemie said. “Spicy spooked it and sent it running.”

Spicy smiled. “Flushed it their direction, right?”

Rime nudged him. “Their kill, their honors.”

“That’s what you get being teamed up with a flat tooth,” One Stone said. He stooped over the dead animal and began gutting it with an obsidian blade taken from his belt. The hot guts steamed as they spilled to the dirt.

The other goblins began to help butcher the animal. One Stone offered his own two fellow hunters a slice of its heart. They chewed noisily. One Stone eyed Spicy and grinned.

Neither Preemie nor Rime was smiling as their knives separated the hide from the meat and bone. Spicy moved to pry off the antlers from the whitetail’s head. The women in the village would turn the four-tined treasure into medicine, food, and a variety of useful tools and clothing items.

Preemie pushed Spicy away. “You’ll ruin it.”

“I’ve done it before,” Spicy said.

“And I’m sure it was wrong then too. You cost us this kill. I wanted it. I should never have let you take point. It’s the last time I ever do. Why don’t you go to the rice fields? You’re no hunter.”

The others were all staring at Spicy, even Rime. Spicy’s cheeks darkened. He put his skinning knife back in its sheath.

“Spend less time reading and more time practicing,” Preemie said.

One Stone began to laugh. It was a throaty sound, and soon the others were laughing too.

Spicy turned and left the scene of the kill. Their taunts pursued him through the forest.

***

Rime found Spicy back in the village, sitting against the hewn stone wall next to the mill. He was in the shade of one of the giant oaks, a book in his hands.

The noon sun hung high and was just starting to cut through the frigid mist above the rooftops of Boarhead. Wide tarps were laid out on which the rice from the week’s harvest was drying. A group of women worked at a line of pestles, a heap of brown acorns piled next to them. In front of each pestle was a bowl of fresh acorn meal. From a nearby pen, a goat watched with lazy curiosity as it munched on a bucket of scraps.

“You shouldn’t have run off,” Rime said. “It only made you look weak.”

“I didn’t run off. They didn’t want me there.”

“You shouldn’t have missed.”

“It’s not like I did it on purpose.”

Rime grabbed at the book but Spicy pulled it out of reach.

“I’m guessing that’s not an instruction manual on improving your archery skills.”

Spicy put the book back into his satchel. “It’s the advanced primer on letters.”

“Advanced primer? Hoo-hoo! Look at you! Does your sister know you’ve stolen her book? Does Sage Somni know?”

“Keep it down!” Spicy whispered. “I didn’t steal it. I’m borrowing it. I’m good at letters. And I’m only going to get better.”

Rime nudged the satchel with his foot. “See? This is your problem. After running off, you should be taking a sack of arrows and plinking at a target. Instead you’re wasting your time with this. You’re no apprentice sage. Your sister is close to becoming one. But you’re not her.”

A wicked grin crossed Spicy’s face. “Oh, you can tell, can’t you?”

“You don’t have her eyes.”

“It’s not her eyes you keep staring at.”

“Don’t be crude.”

From the village center came the tolling of a bell. The women at the pestles put their tools away and headed that direction.

Rime hesitated when Spicy didn’t immediately follow him. “Aren’t you coming?”

“To see One Stone get his stud? I’ll pass.”

Rime took Spicy by the hand and pulled him to his feet. “You’re coming. There might be news of our dads’ hunting party. And One Stone will get his praise, truly. You’ll stand and watch and act happy like everyone else. We’re eating deer meat tonight and you were one of the hunters.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“And this afternoon we’re going to practice shooting bows until your fingers bleed.”


Chapter Two


The willow-wood arrow had missed its mark by several inches and was hard to dig out of the dirt. But Spicy finally freed it, and he knocked the soil off and placed it into his quiver.

“Five out of ten,” he said. “That’s not so bad.”

Rime inspected the termite-hollowed stump Spicy had used as a target from ninety paces. “The deer is gone after your first miss. Each shot off its mark is a wasted opportunity to end the hunt. And your hits are all over the place.”

“A hit’s a hit.”

“Try telling Huntmaster Sorrel that. You’re holding the string back for too long. It makes your arms shake.”

Spicy unstrung his bow. “It’s because I’m tired and hungry.”

The fallow field where they stood grew tufts of waist-high grass, which had turned yellow with the turn of the season. Rough piles of dirt marked scores of gopher holes. A few tangled vines of wild squash bore unripe green fruit. Beyond the road marking the field’s border was a broad paddy flooded with water where sprouts of green rice stalks rose. A group of the village women were stooped there, plucking weeds and planting fresh seeds.

“Learn to do better or that’s your fate,” Rime said.

Everyone in Spicy’s village got a share of the meat. One Stone sat at the center, a fresh stud shining in his ear. All the young hunters received deferential nods from the older men and women. Once the elders had taken their portion, the other youths clustered close.

Despite the whitetail roasting over the village firepit, the adults were all sullen. After the accolade was sung, their conversation died except for muted comments on the flavor (which was good) or the bounty of the fields and gatherings (which was abundant).

Spicy noticed no one commented on either the changing weather or where the men’s hunting party might be. Delays weren’t unheard of, but a week without news was uncommon.

The dour mood hadn’t spread to One Stone or the other boys. Children, both boys and girls, sat in rapt attention as he recounted his killing shot several times. His fellow hunters listened and nodded along.

A few times Spicy caught a piercing glare from Preemie, but no one else paid him any mind. It was One Stone’s hour, and nothing was said of Spicy’s missed shot. As the sky darkened and wood was added to the fire, Spicy slipped away.

His home lay just beyond the inner ring of dwellings, a three-room shack with a solid roof and wooden floor that his father had finished touching up just before his departure two weeks prior. The goblin hunting parties were in full swing, the hunters eager to fill the drying houses with meat for the winter. For elk and bear, they needed a full complement. No able-bodied male goblin had remained behind.

Spicy’s mother’s shoes weren’t by the front step. His sister was also at the fire. Still, he walked softly as he entered the home as if someone might hear. He lit no candle. In the room he shared with his sister, he lifted his sleeping roll and grabbed a notebook and a few nibs of sharpened charcoal.

As he sneaked out the front, he collided with his mother. She caught his arm and held a lit candle up so she could look him in the face. Her smock was soiled. Her callused fingers were brown from working the acorns. And she wasn’t smiling.

“Where are you off to?”

Spicy shook his head. “Nowhere. I was going back down to the fire.”

“I told you you’re not to take books from the house.” When she snatched the notebook from Spicy’s hands, the charcoal fell to the ground. Her face tightened. Spicy couldn’t dodge the blow as his mother’s hand slapped him across the face. “Now pick it all up and put it back.”

She waited as he collected the fallen nibs and followed as he put the notebook in its proper place on a shelf in the main room next to the family’s keepsakes. His cheek burned.

“What’s the matter with you?” she asked. “You have your role. We all do. Your father has his. It’s how we survive. And with your father missing, you’d waste your time on such foolishness? You need to focus on learning the skills of a hunter. One Stone got his second stud.”

“I noticed,” he said dryly.

She raised her hand again, but the blow didn’t land. “Don’t be fresh. You can learn more from him if you only try. But if you spend your time and energy sneaking off to Sage Somni, you’ll be too tired and your eyes too strained to hunt the next morning.”

“I know. I’m sorry, Mother.”

“Are you truly? Isn’t it enough that Thistle is wasting her time schooling for apprenticeship? Has your father poisoned your mind too? At least if you learned at the mill, you’d have a trade, but your numbers are so poor. You can support her as a skilled hunter.”

Spicy couldn’t keep the tremor out of his voice. “But I could join Thistle for schooling.”

“You were tested. Your letters aren’t good enough either. You know that.”

“But that was five years ago! I’ve improved since then. I’ve done a lot of work on my own. You have to have me tested again. I can be an apprentice if you just give me a chance.”

“I’m sorry, Spicy. You were tested, and against my wishes. Your skills lie elsewhere. Now off to the fire. Share the moment with your friends.”

***

The general mood at the fire had improved, but it was the last place he wanted to be.

A few of the mothers led the rest in the song “My Hearth, My Home.” An old matron stood and chanted a prayer for the safe return of the hunters. Then a new song started up, “Ganjo the Goat,” which got the kids involved.

A jug of rice wine was passed among the grown-ups. Blackberry pie was served. Thistle sat with her friends, who chatted and sang along. Rime was with the other hunters, nodding attentively as an older man with a missing leg told a tale with expansive gestures and plenty of sound effects.

Spicy’s mother went to sit with the village’s most recent bride, Jinty Grundle, married just the previous winter. The goblin woman was suckling a pair of twins. Spicy’s mother took one of them and cradled him in her arms.

No one paid Spicy any attention. He rose and slunk back into the shadows.

Who would care if he wasn’t there?

Something funny happened that elicited a round of laughter from those closest to the fire. Edging further into the shadows, he made his way to the wall near the mill.

The singing from the village center was now a distant sound almost drowned out by the chirping of crickets. He felt himself grow calmer.

Friends, his mother had called the other goblins. Rime, sure. But the others?

Even if his reading skills weren’t as sharp as Thistle’s, Somni’s books took him someplace that wasn’t Boarhead. If he were the apprentice, he could stay in that world forever.

Beyond the mill was a home on stilts built among the treetops. Spicy walked as silently as he could.

A line of silver smoke rose through the stone chimney. A semicircle of stumps outside marked the open-air classroom where Sage Somni taught his larger classes on the weekends.

But the real knowledge was imparted one-on-one to his advanced students, including Thistle. During the late hours, Somni might be alone, and often oblivious to anyone sneaking in to use his books. If Spicy was lucky, the old goblin might be asleep.

Spicy ascended the steps, careful to avoid the smallest creak in the boards. On a high beam a glyph of a watching eye stared down at him. Spicy dutifully avoided looking at it. Why Somni kept an image of man-magic on his home had never made sense. At the door, he pressed his ear against the wood. It was silent inside. Somni’s voice was resonant, and if he were giving instruction Spicy would know it.

Spicy grasped the handle and tried to open the door. As usual it was unlocked. He stuck his head inside.

A few candles were lit, throwing a honey glow around the cluttered two main rooms. Stacks of books and loose papers lay everywhere, some haphazardly placed next to extinguished candles that dribbled frozen wax down onto the table. More tomes were neatly stashed into the many bookcases occupying the room. Rolled-up maps were tucked away into wall organizers. One master map, which Spicy had spent hours studying, was pulled out and rested on a wooden frame. Its myriad tiny geographic features, labeled but mysterious, proved endlessly fascinating.

Several markings similar to the glyph were interspersed throughout the map, including one of a dragon with two eyes that seemed to stare at Spicy anytime he looked at the map. Yet Somni would never take time to explain them, insisting Spicy stick to the basic lessons of reading before moving on to anything more advanced.

A massive chair was pushed out next to a center table, on which a half-eaten plate of meat topped with berry compote over a bed of rice rested next to a massive open codex. The dish was cold.

Spicy looked at the giant page of neat script. His fingertips played along the textured page. The illuminated border was fanciful scrollwork wrapping around the tiny illustration of a symbol being drawn by a hand with an extended finger. The red and green lines melded to black as they formed a giant letter T.

“The third ice age,” the page began.

He had to read it one word at a time. It was a history written in script by human hands. The one codex page alone must have taken weeks or a month to produce and was much more difficult to read than anything in the primers. Many of the books collected were of concise woodblock printing or had even been produced by letterpress. He had to pause to sound out a few of the longer words. The grammar made following the run-on sentence difficult. But soon he was lost in the page as it described the world before now.

“Spicy!”

He jumped.

The purple-skinned goblin who entered the room had a wrinkled face and a gray sweep of hair. Somni puttered forward, and as Spicy turned to face him his hand bumped the dish with Somni’s supper and sent it crashing to the floor. Rice and shards of the shattered plate flew everywhere.

“What are you doing here?” Somni snapped.

Spicy got on his knees and began scooping up pieces of broken plate. “I’m sorry. I’m cleaning it up.”

Moving past him, Somni eased down onto the chair and watched. Spicy dumped the debris into a bucket. Using a rag, he scooped up the spilled food. He dumped it outside into a rubbish pit and then drew water from a spigot mounted on the bottom of a metal tank. As he returned and began scrubbing down the floor, Somni shook his head.

“You shouldn’t be in here at this hour. It’s late. This is my study time. Even my students are away with their assignments. And isn’t there a gathering? I can hear the songs.”

“I just wanted to read.”

“Then come in on the weekend when I can assign a more advanced student to help you after classes.”

“I don’t need an apprentice to help me. I know my letters.”

Somni humphed. “You’re just afraid I’ll assign your sister to you.”

“I’m as smart as she is.”

“Are you? You think because you can recite your alphabet and read a page of words that you’ve earned a place here? Don’t answer that—I know what you’ll say. You were tested like the others. You have to face the fact that I can only take a handful of students. We need hunters. We need warriors. We need people who will be sure we survive the winter and the one that follows.”

Spicy rinsed the rag and wrung it dry. “This is just as important.”

Somni smiled a sad smile. “Oh that it were, boy. But it isn’t. The story of yesterday is meaningless if we can’t be assured we’ll have a tomorrow. Now you’ve already ruined my supper. Take the bucket and go.”

Spicy hesitated. “You’re reading about the third ice age. There were two others?”

“That depends on the source. Human books are all over the place with their history. The naming of ages and dates are arbitrary, as I’ve explained to you before. This third age is the most recent but the least documented. It dates back to when our village was barely a handful of rice farmers and our confederacy was little more than a collective of farms.”

“The Second Age of Provers.”

“Yes. But I know your trick. Don’t distract me with your questions. Your mother will be upset I’m entertaining you and with your father among the missing, the last thing she needs is for you to be disobeying her and getting into trouble. You should be home. You have your chores to do. I have mine.”

“You say he’s missing.”

Somni grunted. “Missing. Delayed. Don’t try to catch me with semantics. You can look that one up this weekend. Now don’t break anything else on your way out.”

Struggling to rise, Somni made his way into the back room, where Spicy spotted a pack half-full of notebooks by the doorway. A sleeping roll and bundles of food and a metal canteen were all gathered together near it.

“You’re leaving?” Spicy asked.

“And you’re still here. Will I have to drag you out by your ears, or will you find the door on your own?”

“When will you be back?”

“I haven’t left yet. Off with you!”

Spicy headed for the door. He paused to take a final look at the open codex page. Drank it in. Believed he could smell the paper, as if it breathed out its own special oxygen. Somni hadn’t followed, so Spicy took one of the books from a stack piled on a chair and slid it under his shirt. He closed the door softly as he left.

His heart raced as he returned home. He now had pages and pages he could lose himself in, never mind the book’s title or subject. His failure at the hunt would fall away out of mind. The sharp words of Preemie and the others would die like a fading echo.

First, he would have to sneak back home.

Hopefully his mother would still be at the fire. Then he would need to conceal the book, which was easy enough. He was responsible for washing his own sheets and making his own bed each day. But it was dark out and he couldn’t risk lighting a candle. Reading would have to wait for tomorrow.

As he stuck to the shadows and made his way along the wall by the mill, the songs from the center of the village continued. But the crickets were silent. The sharp screech of an owl gave him pause. Something was off about the bird’s cry. It was too loud and it echoed for a moment.

Spicy waited for the sound to repeat, but it didn’t.

He hurried home.



Chapter Three

Morning in Spicy’s house allowed little in the way of reading time. His routine of washing up in the basin and eating breakfast hadn’t given him the opportunity to even check the title of his borrowed book, now tucked under his bedroll. But just like every morning, even now when his father was missing, his mother had prepared breakfast and the house was spotless.

His sister, Thistle, wore her brown locks up in ribbons of blue. Her fingers were stained from using the charcoal pencils for her apprentice work. She handed Spicy a bowl of rice and red beans.

“You didn’t have those ribbons yesterday,” Spicy said.

“They were a present. Rime gave them to me yesterday evening at the fire.”

Mother was already out front washing out her own breakfast bowl in a bucket of dishwater. She peered in through the open door periodically as Spicy and Thistle ate.

“You know what Rime wants,” Spicy said in a low voice.

“I think he’s sweet.”

“He just wants to nail you.”

Thistle made a face. “You’re a pig. He tells me you missed yesterday. And that One Stone and the others were picking on you.”

"Among his other faults, Rime has a big mouth. So I hear Sage Somni is going somewhere.”

“Oh? And who told you that?”

Spicy set down a spoonful of rice and leaned close. “He did. I was by last night.”

“You’re not supposed to go over and bother him,” Thistle hissed. “If Mother finds out—”

“She won’t. And you’re not going to say anything.”

Thistle’s lips curled into a wicked smile. “And what if I do? Mother. Oh, Mother,” she mock-called. “Spicy’s been a naughty little goblin. No, he hasn’t gotten into the sweets. It’s not even him sneaking a peek in through the Grundles’ bedroom shutters while they’re making babies. He visited the old sage again and was reading. Maybe even stole another book. Such a naughty, naughty little brother.”

“Quit it.”

“Don’t worry. I probably won’t say anything. For now. I guess it depends on what my silence is worth.”

Their mother entered and pointed outside. “Go wash your dishes, both of you. I have to get to the fields.”

As Spicy and Thistle ate their last mouthfuls and cleaned their bowls, he said, “I was thinking I’d stay home today. My stomach is unsettled. Perhaps the deer meat wasn’t cooked enough.”

His mother was lacing her sandals. “You’ll do no such thing. You’ll be with Huntmaster Sorrel this morning, and you’ll continue working on your skills with the other boys. We’ve been over this.”

Spicy was silent and his jaw clenched.

“Or,” his mother continued, “you come with me to the paddies. Your choice.”

Bowl washed, he gathered his bow and arrows and pulled on his shoes. Rime was waiting for him at the end of the row of homes and they went down to the hunting lodge together.

Instructions for the group of young hunters had been brief. Huntmaster Sorrel was old and easily distracted. Rime had a game of asking Sorrel about events of the Old War or any number of raids or great hunts or feats of bravery from the prior huntmasters. The lesson would become a meandering story. As the huntmaster was half-blind, it meant they could slip away. And they did.

The whitetail from the day before had been consumed. Its bones would be in the day’s soup. The village needed to eat again, and the young hunters were charged with catching small game to complement the food stores.

Spicy and Rime paired off as the other boys all vied to work alongside One Stone.

As they were heading off down the trail, Preemie and a younger boy just old enough to string his bow blocked Spicy’s path.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Preemie said. “The Bark Trail is for hunters. You can take the upper ridge.”

Spicy tried to step past but Preemie shoved him.

“I don’t want the upper ridge,” Spicy said, avoiding eye contact. “There’s never anything there.”

“It’s not like you’re going to catch anything anyway. You’re blind from all the time you spend trying to read. You can’t track and you can’t shoot worth a damn.”

Rime elbowed past the younger boy and squared off with Preemie. “We’re going down to the mud pond. If you don’t want to hunt near us, you go somewhere else.”

Preemie put a hand on Rime but Rime knocked it away. They pushed each other. A few other young hunters gathered. One snickered. “Get him, Preemie,” someone hissed. One Stone was now watching. And Huntmaster Sorrel was nowhere in sight.

Preemie and Rime were about equal in height. They exchanged punches and tried to kick each other. Soon their arms were locked and each was trying to throw the other to the ground.

“Stop it!” Spicy said. He pulled Rime back. Both he and Preemie were breathing hard and staring daggers. “The Bark Trail is yours. It looked dead, anyway. We’ll be up on the ridge.”

The boys dispersed. Spicy helped gather Rime’s equipment and pulled him along to the trailhead near the north rice field.

“You can’t let them tell you what to do,” Rime said. “You shouldn’t have left the fire. One Stone noticed.”

“What difference does it make what they think?”

Rime sighed. “It’s clear you don’t want to be a hunter. That’s something you’ll have to work out with your mom and dad. But you don’t have to be so obvious about it is all I’m saying. Where are you going?”

Spicy pointed up the trail.

“There’s nothing on the ridge. We won’t catch anything.”

“You can go with the others then.”

Rime shrugged. “And run the risk of you telling your sister I didn’t protect you? No thanks. Now walk quieter. You’ll spook the squirrels.”

After three hours along the ridge that crested the northwestern hills, they hadn’t caught anything. By then Spicy was almost dragging his bow. Rime shuffled his feet.

“We should go down to the mud pond,” Rime said. “At least we can try to catch some cray.”

“That’s what the others will be doing if they’ve come up empty.”

“So? You going to stay up here forever? Spicy, you won’t become an apprentice sage. Unless you take on a skill with one of the artisans, you’re going to have to learn to hunt. And like it or not, you’ll be living with Preemie and One Stone and the others for a long time. Why not get it over with and face them down? I’ll have your back. You know I will.”

Spicy plucked some grass seeds and flung them. Rime had always had his back. Ever since the day Spicy had noticed Rime was afraid of swimming and had taken the time to teach him when the other boys weren’t around, Rime had stood up for him, even though it was the last thing Spicy wanted.

“Not today,” Spicy said.

The morning haze had burned off. While it wasn’t a hot day, the humidity and exertion made both boys sweat. The grass on the top of the ridge buzzed with grasshoppers and clicked with beetles. The shrieking jay birds had been complaining ever since the goblins had reached the crest.

Rime stopped to work a stone from his moccasin. Spicy continued along the trail and then paused. The screech of an owl pierced the air. The sound silenced the jays. Even the insects grew quiet.

“Did you hear that?” Spicy asked.

Rime slipped his shoe back on his foot. “Hear what?”

“The owl.”

“It’s the middle of the day. There’s no owls.”

“I didn’t say owls, I said owl, and it was loud.”

The trail led straight up to a copse of oak that made a pool of black shadows. The sun burned down bright on Spicy. He shielded his eyes. Strained his ears. Smelled the air as he had seen his father do when engaging his senses while hunting. He was certain there had been other sounds just beyond his range of hearing.

In the hard dirt he tried to read the signs of what had passed. Was that a partial hoof track of a horse or was it his imagination? Goblins didn’t usually use horses. Humans did. And except for the odd traveling merchant, humans hadn’t been seen among the hills of Athra since the Old War.

Rime clicked his tongue. “Well, dumbass? Are we hunting owls now? No? Then let’s go down and maybe we’ll get an hour of fishing in before supper.”



Chapter Four


The village bell rang loudly as Spicy and Rime descended the last leg of the trail down from the upper ridge. The bay and giant oak trees didn’t quite block out the afternoon sun, and they ran through patches of shade and light, unstrung bows in hand. The boys emerged among the highest paddies, which had been planted the prior spring with rice. Scurrying along the edges, they were able to look down at the distant rooftops and trees but saw nothing amiss.

“The hunters must be back!” Rime shouted, letting out a whup. He ran faster.

Spicy hurried to catch up. “Wait, Rime!”

Other sounds carried in the air. Animal sounds. Screams. Spicy slowed even as Rime was passing the mill. The shouts weren’t of joy or song but cries of terror. A figure appeared, riding high on a horse.

It was a human

The man wore dark armor with a metal helmet that concealed his face. He was holding a sword, raised high. The black animal under him made him look like a giant. He rode out from between a pair of houses, wheeled about, and spurred his animal forward and vanished.

“Rime?” Spicy whispered, but his friend was nowhere in sight.

He ran to the base of the giant oak near the wall and hugged the trunk. Someone was coming, running his way. One of the pestle women, a grandmother named Mala, a teacher of numbers with a dozen studs in her ear, and one of the few who knew how to make the wine the village traded.

An arrow shot out and struck her in the back. She fell to the dirt and began crawling. A human woman with tied-back white hair came stalking out towards her. She fired her longbow again, and the arrow thumped into Mala. Mala groaned, slowed, but continued to claw her way across the dirt straight towards Spicy. The human stepped over her and drew a curved blade.

Spicy pressed his face against the bark and closed his eyes. The blade made a wet sound, not unlike that of a deer being carved. Mala gurgled and then fell silent. Spicy tried not to breathe. A rustling followed. The human woman was doing something with Mala.

“Please, please, please,” Spicy whispered. His lips quavered uncontrollably. He bit down on the inside of his cheeks and forced himself to be silent.

Much of the wall was in shadow. If he could sneak there he could climb it unseen. But there were so many dry leaves underfoot. He dared edge his face around the side of the tree. The woman was going through Mala’s pockets. Then she began plucking the gold studs from her ear.

He took a careful step back and turned. Placing one foot at a time, he headed for the wall.

Something smacked into him and knocked him down into the dirt. An arrow had pierced his quiver, and the broadhead steel tip was poking at his side.

He discarded his bow, and as he pulled the quiver off a second arrow struck his leather satchel. The arrowhead just missed his eye. He dropped the quiver and scrambled up. The wall was in his way. The archer would fire a third time and wouldn’t miss. He jumped and began scaling the wall, his fingers and toes gripping the hard mortar.

The woman was cursing.

He made it to the top and turned for a moment to see she was freeing an arrow from Mala’s body. She had run out of arrows. In quick succession, she set the arrow, raised the bow, and fired. Spicy hit the ground as the missile whizzed past him. He then scrambled away.

But where to go?

Already he felt the pinch in his lungs as he ran out of breath. The mill and silos were a short run uphill. He could flee there and then into the paddy fields and the trees just beyond. Then he saw figures moving between the silos. Too tall for goblins. More humans, and they were carrying spears. Sage Somni’s home was the closest.

Spicy kept his head down and trotted for cover. He clung to a post beneath the house and listened. The bell in the center of the village had stopped tolling. There were more screams. Tears flowed down his face.

None of it was making sense.

He heard a human shout from the opposite side of the house. There was no place to hide, so Spicy climbed the steps. Passing under the glyph, he opened the front door.

Sage Somni’s home was as he had left it the day before. Spicy ran to the rear library, which was more cluttered than the front. The pack was gone. It meant Somni had indeed left the village the night before. A drop-leaf table was covered with piles of books and there were even more stacks underneath. Spicy pulled a stack out and climbed under the table. He drew his knees up and waited.

Moments later, hard footsteps came up the stairs.

Two men were inside and walking his direction. They wore solid boots and one held a long sword. Spicy could see its tip, which was almost poking the rug. After searching the bedroom and closets they both paused near Spicy’s table.

“This must be his place,” one of the men said.

The human spoke in a clipped accent but was understandable. Spicy had never heard a human speak, except for a lone traveling merchant who had visited the village a handful of times. As far as he knew, besides a few traders, no humans came to Athra, and he’d never discovered why.

The second man spoke as if his mouth were stuffed with cloth. “Then we better pocket anything good before Lord gets here.”

They began rifling through the bookcases. Books began to pile up on the floor. Boxes of writing implements spilled and ceramic knick-knacks shattered. Spicy’s breath caught.

“Check this out,” the first man said.

The second grunted. “Worthless.”

Another crash. The first man let out a guffaw.

From outside came the grunt and whine of a horse. A man with a deep voice barked a question and a woman answered. She sounded like the archer. Soon two more people were coming up the stairs.

Spicy pressed his face against his knees and began silently begging any god who would listen.

“You two, out,” came the order.

“Lord, we found it,” one of the men said. “Just like you said. This is the most writing I’ve ever seen.”

“That’s because you were raised in a pigsty. Now leave and touch nothing.”

Footsteps descended the stairs as the first two intruders left.

“Idiots,” Lord said.

“Lord, you didn’t bring them on for their brains,” the woman said.

“Look at all this knowledge. And they’d sack it for trinkets.”

The woman crouched near the table. A floorboard underneath her creaked. Spicy continued to hold his breath but chanced to open his eyes.

She was examining a broken glyph stamp. “I don’t know, Lord, but there might be more here than trinkets. Lots of this might be worth some real gold. Just their jewelry alone might make this worth it.”

“That’s not what we’re here for, Alma.”

“It’s what pays the bills.”

Lord was taking books from a bookcase and leafing through them. Meanwhile Alma rose and went to the back of Sage Somni’s home.

“These little barbarians have plumbing!” she called.

Lord muttered something and began pulling books more quickly from the shelves. He dropped them into a haphazard pile at his feet. The man’s back was turned. He was tall and broad shouldered and wore a dark cape and polished leather spaulders. He settled on one book and began muttering softly as he read.

Alma was busy ransacking Somni’s bedroom.

The way to the front door was open. Spicy began unfolding himself from underneath the table. He held his breath and then crawled, careful to place each hand and knee down softly.

“Too many of these are in goblin script!” Lord said and flung the book down.

A floorboard beneath Spicy creaked. Lord turned and looked directly at him.

Spicy scrambled to his feet and raced for the door. His legs tingled and a sharp cramp seized his left calf. But he made it to the doorway and bolted through it even as the man charged after him. Spicy dropped down through the banister to the ground below.

Lord was right behind him. He vaulted the rail, almost landing on top of Spicy.

The goblin dove aside as the big man grabbed for him. Spicy scrambled to a woodpile, climbed on top of it, and was about to leap away when a piece of firewood struck him across the back of the head.

He dropped to the ground and his world started spinning. His arms and legs disobeyed as he struggled to rise. A hand seized him by the neck and hauled him up into the air. Spicy frantically kicked and flailed.

Lord slapped him. “That’s enough out of you.”

Spicy was trembling and began to whimper uncontrollably. Lord struck him again.

“Not another sound.”

He was carried up past Lord’s monster-sized horse. The animal snorted. It took all of Spicy’s strength not to scream in fear. He had never seen such a large animal. From the village echoed a wailing. Along with it came the laughter of men, almost a barking sound, cruel and doglike.

Alma was at the front door. She had to crouch ever so slightly under the lintel. She wore a grin. “And where was this one hiding?”

Lord squeezed past her. His head brushed the ceiling. “Under a table among the books. See if anyone else is here.”

Obediently Alma made a search of the sage’s home. Lord took the blackout curtains down off the window and removed a cord that held them up. He used it to bind Spicy’s arms.

Spicy winced as the bindings were cinched tight. “What do you people want?”

Lord ignored him. Spicy was shoved against a wall. Lord shot him a warning finger before returning to the books. One volume at a time, he continued to search.

More horses rode up. Men were shouting. Above the voices came the cries of a human in pain. Someone just outside was in agony. For a moment Lord tried to ignore it, and then he set down a particularly large tome and headed for the door.

Alma emerged from the bedroom. She was shoving something into her pocket. As she walked past Spicy she casually cuffed him. He bounced against the wall and fell to the floor. His tied arms were going numb. His shoulders ached. He struggled to roll to his side but was wedged against a bookcase.

Alma leaned out the window and sneered. “Blades. You moron.”

The moans of pain from outside grew quiet. “One of them shot me!”

“You were careless,” Lord said.

“He got lucky,” the wounded man said. “So what are we waiting for, Lord? Let’s burn this place.”

“Patience, Blades. We have work to do. Wait for Medico.”

Blades sounded desperate. “Why isn’t he here?”

“You know why. There are men being tended to with worse injuries. And yours is minor in comparison. Now quit whining and try to be an inspiration to the others by suffering in silence.”

“But I have an arrow in me!”

“And I have work to do.”

Blades was panting hard. “Is this it? Was their lorekeeper there? Did you find their treasure?”

“Not yet. The search continues. But don’t worry. We’ll take this village apart piece by piece and learn its secrets.”

Other entries by Gerhard Gehrke

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About Gerhard Gehrke

Gerhard Gehrke is the author of several science fiction novels including The Minder’s War series, Nineveh's Child, A Beginner's Guide to Invading Earth, and the YA Supervillain High series.

He's written and produced for local TV and currently creates story content for a video game company.

When not writing, he can be found hiking the hills and trails of Northern California with his wife, looking for snakes, insects, and raptors to annoy, and poking dead things with a stick.

You can keep up with him at gerhardgehrke.com.

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