Riverfarm. Possibly the most generic name for a village in the history of the world. Whomever had come up with it clearly hadn’t thought hard about the village’s name. True, it made sense; Riverfarm was a village that farmed…by a river.
But still. There were other names to call a village. Even Windrest was better, let alone a village like Velan’s Fall, which had been built near the place where the last Goblin King had died. Or what about Degaintel? A village literally named after a Named Adventurer?
There were better names. But it was Riverfarm’s name which grew during the summer. That small farming village in largely undeveloped territory, far from the richer, more populous north was growing. And Riverfarm was the first of the settlements who began to claim an allegiance greater than fealty to any landed noble.
They were part of the Unseen Empire. And that was a name which had a beguiling force about it. Still, it was yet largely unheard of. But more of the nobility knew of the Unseen Empire than, say, [Traders] and [Merchants] or your average worker.
And in the first days of summer, Riverfarm began exporting its goods. Fire had ravaged the area, driving prices up as countless farms had suffered the inferno that had swept through the region. Plague had ravaged Radivaek lands to the north—it might have been a time of famine, even in the summer.
But Riverfarm was producing far more crops than it ever had. [Farmers] pooled their Skills and worked vast fields. At the same time, [Engineers] were going along with the wagons full of goods. And they had odd, odd technologies.
The [Engineers] were talking about windmills. Devices—cranes—for lifting heavy objects up. Riverfarm already sported a large waterwheel for creating its own flour. And that was a revelation.
For Humans, at least. Around Pallass, gristmills were as common as dirt. But Pallass was known as the City of Invention, and Drake [Engineers] were one of its signature specialties. In the north, someone with the class and levels to make such structures were rare indeed.
Gristmills, for grinding, were more sporadic, usually ancient, and maintained and built by [Millers], who enjoyed a monopoly for their hard work and Skills. But now Riverfarm’s [Engineers] were offering to build windmills. The [Millers] were outraged, smaller villages and towns were greatly intrigued by the prospects.
That was one of the changes people heard about. But far more outlandish rumors were coming from Riverfarm as well. It was said that the lands were protected from harm, that [Bandits] had begun to avoid the area. Even, that there were new laws around Riverfarm.
[Witches], for one. They were protected in Riverfarm. Never mind that one had caused the fires that had ravaged the area after the long drought. But [Witches] were treated with respect in Riverfarm. Or was it Trolls? Either way, it was all at the command of a strange person.
An [Emperor]. He had returned. He was a Chandrarian [Emperor]—no, a Terandrian with ancient bloodlines. In fact—he was descended from Rhir’s get, but banished because he had been affected by the blight. He was blind, you see. They called him the Unseen Emperor. The Emperor of Riverfarm. A tiny village in the middle of nowhere.
People laughed at that rumor more than they gave it credence. But strangely, most of the rumors were almost entirely true.
Riverfarm had its [Emperor]. And he had brought change. The village was still growing, and it was laid out perfectly, as if an [Architect] had planned it out. Or someone with extremely good visualization skills. It was no longer a village, in truth, but a small town.
More and more people were arriving, family of those who lived here, or people who had heard there was something here for them. Safety, a guarantee of shelter and food for honest work, an opportunity to learn, or give their children something. Some couldn’t have even said why they made the journey. But perhaps the name called them.
Empire. [Emperor]. Like the allure of a crown, the very word glittered like gold. An idea. Izril had no [Kings] or monarchs, and that was what the nobility preferred, what they took pride in. They had left Terandria to escape that very thing. But the views of Izril’s elite were not of the people. Some people simply wanted to be part of it.
Today, if you walked down Riverfarm’s streets, you might see a dozen changes. People hard at work building new houses with incredible speed. The first…was it a workshop? No, a factory—a trial concept called an ‘assembly line’ taking place. A cluster of [Engineers] working out new plans to build more efficient wells, or their movable ‘cranes’ or some new invention.
An old [Carpenter] building a new totem pole, often crabbing off to sell a few miniatures he’d carved on the sly. A half-Troll marching with new recruits, wearing iron armor and holding a large, large club and shield. A [Witch], striding down the street with a smile like the sun and her own axe. No one crossed her path, save for children or those with nothing on their conscience.
And there—you could come to it. Amid the people bowing to greet you, or calling out your name. As Gamel kept them away, Laken Godart paused and turned his head up. He couldn’t see the thing in the half-built plaza. At least, not with his eyes. But he knew it was there.
A statue was being carved out of stone. Well—two statues. One was here, the other in a quieter place, what would be a gazebo. Riverfarm needed a park. Ironic, that. But the village—town—burgeoning empire needed to save its nature, rather than cut down everything in sight.
Laken had picked out a spot. And he knew it was being built at this moment. He could sense everything in his lands. And now the [Emperor] paused a moment, inspecting the work ahead of him.
A man noticed the young [Emperor] at last. He nearly fell off his perch.
“Your Majesty! A thousand apologies. I was preoccupied—”
“Go on, Master Worhen, don’t let me bother you. I’m just here to observe for a moment. And you have your work to attend to.”
Laken nodded to the man. Bowing, the [Stonecarver] did just that. He was no Jelov, to enjoy talking and taking his ease. In fact, he could tune Laken out fairly quickly. He lived for his art, and Laken saw he was already half-done.
Two statues were being built in Riverfarm. Only two. Some people wanted more statues. Of Laken. As if Jelov hadn’t carved enough figurines and his little totem miniatures on the sly. But the [Emperor] had insisted. There was time enough for statues and art when Riverfarm was built to accommodate all the people and there was a surplus of talent. But right now, only two statues needed to be built.
One was of a faerie. Only, she was larger-than-life. Larger, in fact, than most people. That was the statue that was being built in the plaza here. Laken thought it looked good, at least in his mind’s eye. In truth, he didn’t know what it was supposed to look like.
The [Stonecarver], Worhen, didn’t quite know how to fashion her since he himself had never seen a Frost Faerie, and neither had the [Emperor], so the statue was far from reality. But she was beautiful and mischievous and the pedestal already had an inscription.
The Winter Guide, Ivolethe.
She would be in the center of Riverfarm’s largest plaza. And Laken supposed he’d better gild the base of the statue with gold lettering or something. Lady Rie had objected—strenuously—to him demanding the costly block of stone she was being fashioned from. But Laken had delayed overlong, and he wanted to honor his promise. You never knew if those touchy fae were about.
The second statue Laken didn’t visit. And it was going to be a work of art. If Worhen labored hard over Ivolethe—well, he did it with an artist’s passion, exaggerating what he thought was her beauty and adding charm and delight to the impressive faerie. In that sense, he was overdoing Ivolethe, giving her qualities she did not have, like…friendliness, the grandeur of scale. And failing to capture all of the magic and wonder at the same time.
But he would work harder on the second statue nonetheless. And have less of a fun time. He would sweat over it, because it had to be true to life. And who could ever capture the life of the figure the statue would be of?
The inscription was done, but the stone barely carved in the gazebo. It would be of a woman, standing, a pointed hat on her head. She would look down on all who passed.
And that inscription had nothing more. There was no greater honor, no title you could give her that would measure up to the [Witch]. Laken paused, his mind going to that block of stone.
These were an [Emperor]’s debts. And he was repaying more. Someone approached him from the side.
“Gamel. What does Gralton want this time?”
Gamel paused, but he needn’t have been surprised. The City Runner who’d come running in from the north had a pair of dogs with him. And only a few City Runners had animal companions.
“Lord Gralton is requesting more [Engineers], your Majesty.”
“We sent him six.”
“Yes, sire. But—”
“Tell Gralton that if he wants more [Engineers], I would appreciate more of his hunting dogs—and artifacts. Potions! [Alchemists] if he can spare any. But I’ll settle for bags of holding.”
“He sent them, your Majesty. Six. The City Runner just delivered them.”
Laken’s brows rose.
“Six? And how many [Engineers] does he want? Wait—I thought you couldn’t carry more than one bag of holding without them reacting?”
“No, your Majesty. So he had to run them back and forth. With his dogs.”
“Ah. Clever. And let me guess. Gralton wants…”
“Six more [Engineers], your highness.”
“Give him three. And eight [Builders]. Tell Tessia I need more recruits if we’re going to continue sending out so many.”
“There’s no shortage of hands, your Majesty.”
Laken smiled. He paused as Gamel hurried off. Riverfarm was indeed in blossom, having earned a hard-won reprieve from its ails after the Oldblood Drake’s attack on the village. And—Belavierr.
The [Emperor]’s smile vanished. He stood and felt his kingdom. Searching with his mind to every corner of it. He couldn’t sense Belavierr. But he sometimes dreamed he felt her, lurking around the edges of his lands.
The Stitch Witch. She would have no statue, but people would remember her. When they saw a crying baby in Rehanna’s arms. When they looked at [Witches].
Still—if Riverfarm had any worries, it wasn’t Belavierr at the moment. Which was ironic. She gave Laken nightmares. But Riverfarm’s folk were more afraid of…
Laken’s mind turned to a blank spot in his lands. A large, vast blank spot along the side of the mountains. It had been his land, but now it was not. He had no idea what was going on there, but he monitored what he could sense.
The young man paused as he returned.
“They’re sneaking out again. Five of them. Tell Beniar to force them back. Just along the mountainside. They’re splitting up—two climbing higher, the other two heading for the marshlands.”
“Yes, Emperor Godart.”
Gamel bowed. He couldn’t disguise the feeling in his voice, nor the way he picked up his step as he ran off. Laken sighed.
“Trouble, your Majesty?”
The soft voice came from the side. Lady Rie Valerund looked at Laken as he turned. He shook his head.
“Just another attempt from our guests to leave, Lady Rie.”
Her tone sharpened. Laken couldn’t really ‘see’ her face, but her posture was agitated. She didn’t like them any more than the villagers. Laken ignored Rie’s pointed question.
“Beniar will catch them. They’re unmounted.”
“Really? Riverfarm outnumbers them countless times over. And this is all they’ve done. In fact, all they’ve done.”
The [Lady] pursed her lips. Laken’s tone was exasperated.
“They have armed themselves, your Majesty.”
“Have they? You’ve clearly had them watched more than I. And what have our evil monsters done?”
Laken’s tone made Rie flush. Or at least, he thought she did. The [Lady] paused.
“Well, they have armed themselves despite failing to take advantage of your generosity—”
“As you said. The hundreds of them. A ravening horde. How many new recruits have joined our army so far? Just a quick estimate would do.”
Rie delicately ignored the question.
“—However, they have not done…much, your Majesty. They seem content to laze about. For now.”
Laken heard the note of confusion in Rie’s voice. She’d expected them to set about doing something. But the guests, Riverfarm’s worries—and Laken’s debt—were just doing that.
Nothing. The Goblins were in that blank spot, Laken knew. He couldn’t see them. He had given them territory. And they…he smiled ruefully.
“Scheiße. I underestimated them.”
Lady Rie paused.
“Yes, your Majesty? In what way?”
The [Emperor] shrugged. He leaned on his white cane, though he didn’t really need it. It was just habit to walk with it.
“They’ve splendidly failed my every expectation. You told me they were cunning. But they outsmarted my best efforts.”
“By doing nothing?”
Laken turned his head towards Lady Rie. His closed eyes opened for a moment.
Lady Rie Valerund waited. But Laken didn’t explain himself anymore. He just walked past Lady Rie.
“Report to me if they move, Lady Valerund.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but Laken just swept off. And she had to trail after him as he greeted Miss Yesel. The [Emperor] moved where he chose, and worked on whatever he could. But he couldn’t improve or change or coerce one group.
They sat or stood or lazed in a place several miles away from Riverfarm’s borders. Not too far, but in their own territory. A large, vast space, really, which could have become farmlands. Or mines. Far more than a few hundred Goblins needed. They could do anything there, except easily leave.
Beniar’s [Riders] shepherded five Goblins back towards the edge of their territory. It was clearly marked—people had planted signs, warning any traveller who didn’t know what lurked here.
Goblins. An [Emperor]’s one bit of madness. Taken all the way from Liscor. Goblins. They could do anything.
But they did nothing. The Goblins sat about, a few munching on bits of food they’d found. One or two did press ups, or sharpened the stone weapons they’d made. A group of big, wooden crates sat conspicuously off to the side, unopened.
The Goblins had a few ramshackle huts, a cooking fire or two. Nothing more. The few Humans who sometimes stared at them from afar thought that it was pathetic. The Goblins weren’t trying to improve anything! Of course—what did you expect from monsters? There was no fathoming what his Majesty was thinking.
They were Goblins. Just Goblins. To the people of Riverfarm, they looked the same. Goblins. Monsters. The very same creatures that had destroyed so much, and who for some reason had been given land and safety. It boggled the mind. But their [Emperor] was also of a mind to tolerate [Witches].
Well, [Witches] were one thing. There were bad ones and good ones. But Goblins?
The people of Riverfarm didn’t know what the Goblins were thinking. They didn’t understand the Goblins. They had no idea. And their opinion was worthless. The Goblins had no use for it. And while Riverfarm grew by leaps and bounds, they just sat there. Letting time flow by.
Of course, it was intentional. The Goblins had come a long way. They had endured so much. And right now, they were spiting an [Emperor]’s plans by sitting there. Laken Godart had to admit, it was ingenious. But his desires were irrelevant too.
This was the Goblin’s choice. This was their little story. And it belonged to the little Goblin with the filthy hat that sat on the ground, poking at an anthill.
The tale had begun long ago. In a dungeon, in an inn. It had begun with an [Innkeeper], the Raskghar, a band of Hobgoblins. It had been a long story, of a Great Chieftain, a Goblin Lord, and a Goblin warrior who had been an adventurer and a traitor. And a little Chieftain who was a genius.
It had ended in death. A slaughter. Wagons. Despair. But that was a Goblin’s story. And one of the last threads in it sat there, poking with a stick at a milling hill. Her skin was grey. And she was hungry.
Her name was Pebblesnatch.
Pebblesnatch didn’t keep track of the days she’d been in the wagon. She didn’t know how long it was since she had left the dungeon, or her second home.
She didn’t remember. Time wasn’t something Pebblesnatch felt like she needed to count. She only remembered. And time had lost its meaning in the wagons. They rolled on, sometimes in rain, sometimes in sunlight. Pebblesnatch had gotten used to it. She was fed, and there were blankets. And other Goblins.
She was a prisoner. She knew that too. The Humans had captured her after the battle. But they hadn’t killed her. They dragged her, screaming, from her hiding place and put her in the cage. With the others. Now, they were taking her somewhere.
North. Pebblesnatch didn’t do much in the wagons. She ate. Pooped. Slept. There wasn’t much to do, other than stare out of the wagons. Pace around while bumping into other Goblins. Wait.
Sleeping was easy and hard. Pebblesnatch was good at sleeping, but she had…nightmares. Of the past.
Once, there had been the darkness. The dungeon, with invisible things. Bad places to step. Traps. And the masters.
The Raskghar. Sometimes, Pebblesnatch dreamed she was there, in the dungeon, and Facestealer was coming for her, poking heads on sticks out. Staring with dead faces. She’d wake up gasping in panic, trying not to make a sound.
Those were bad dreams. But sometimes she had good dreams, and she’d wake up thinking she was in the inn and look around for a cookie, a smiling face. In a way, those were actually nightmares because she’d wake up in the cages again. But—the nightmare-nightmares were worse still.
Because Pebblesnatch remembered it. The inn. A tall thing with pale skin and little hair. A…Human. Erin Solstice. And she had been—
Kind. So kind. Pebblesnatch remembered a warm fire, blankets, everything she wanted to eat. Safety. The five Hobgoblins. A sniffing white Gnoll. And she remembered feeling safe for the one time in her life.
The little Cave Goblin never screamed when she dreamed of the dungeon. But when she dreamed of the inn, she woke up making sounds. Not crying. Crying was how you got eaten. But sometimes a noise escaped and she’d wake up with Goblins squeezed tight around her, in the prison of moving wood and metal.
This time Pebblesnatch couldn’t bear it. She woke up and made the sound again. It came out of her. Some of the other Goblins twitched around her, and a foot kicked vaguely at her, but Pebblesnatch couldn’t help it. She remembered the inn. And Numbtongue, Badarrow—
The sound came again. Pebblesnatch closed her eyes. But she shook. And in the darkness, she felt something touch her. For a moment she froze, thinking it was another Goblin trying to shut her up. But the hand was gentle.
“Shh. Quiet. Shut up.”
The voice was low. And largely unsympathetic. But the hand patted Pebblesnatch gently on the head. The little Cave Goblin stopped making the sound. She looked up and saw the female Hobgoblin sitting next to her.
Ulvama. The female Hob wore less clothing than Pebblesnatch, but she still wore the markings of her class. Colorful paint, worn from the long days and nights. She sat, her crimson eyes staring out of the bars of their wagon-cage. Pebblesnatch felt Ulvama pat her on the head.
She was a [Shaman]. A class that Pebblesnatch had not known existed. Ulvama looked at Pebblesnatch. She stopped patting, then flicked the Cave Goblin across the head.
“Noisy Goblin. Shush.”
It wasn’t a hard flick, but Pebblesnatch made no more sounds. She was awake now, as the wagons trundled on through the night. Ulvama sat, staring ahead blankly. She was a prisoner too. She had been taken after the battle. Pebblesnatch had not known Ulvama, the chief [Shaman] of the Mountain City tribe until her imprisonment. But she had been put in the same wagon as Ulvama by chance. And she had gotten to know Ulvama over their imprisonment.
Ulvama was a Hob. One of three captured by the Humans. Pebblesnatch had never met a female Hobgoblin, although she had known the five Redfang Hobgoblins. And Ulvama was different.
She didn’t have muscle. At least, not like Headscratcher and the others. She had softer skin, and she wasn’t nice. She was bossy, mean, and quick to hit or kick any Goblin in the wagon who got on her nerves in the cage, including Pebblesnatch. Ulvama was used to having her way—she had been like a Chieftain, but not quite in her tribe.
But when Pebblesnatch woke up at night, making sounds, Ulvama just sat there. And she patted Pebblesnatch’s head gently. That was all. She’d never do that in the light. In the mornings, she just glared at everyone and everything.
Pebblesnatch had no metric for anything else about Ulvama. But she noticed that male Goblins—and the Humans escorting the wagons—stared at Ulvama. Either species. Ulvama encouraged it. Although—when one Human had come too close, she’d nearly taken out his eye with one of her claws.
That had caused trouble. But no one was allowed near the Goblin cages anymore. And no one had stabbed Ulvama, or shot her with arrows, even though they wanted to. That was because of him.
The Human they called an [Emperor]. Pebblesnatch looked around. Sometimes she could see him, riding next to the wagons, or sitting in the cart in front of them.
He was there now. She froze when she saw him. Because she knew.
Him. The Human whose eyes never opened. The one they called ‘Majesty’. The Goblins had heard it. After all, all they could do in their prisons was watch and listen. The young Human male was important. He was the one responsible for capturing all the Goblins, preventing the others from killing them. He had demanded they be put into the wagons, taken with him.
There were so few left. There were many wagons of Goblins, squeezed in, hundreds of them. But so few compared to how many there had been. Pebblesnatch remembered the armies of Goblins fighting.
Now, all those that remained were here. Everyone else was dead. Pebblesnatch wondered if they were going to die, but it didn’t look that way. The [Emperor] wanted them alive. For some reason.
The other Humans didn’t like that. The ones who rode around the wagons and had to give Goblins food and move the wagons hated the Goblins. They’d poked at the Goblins with spears when the [Emperor] wasn’t looking until he saw the injuries. Then there had been lots of shouting and some of the Humans had been hit with straps. Pebblesnatch had enjoyed watching that.
The poking had stopped. And the spitting too. The wagons rolled on. Pebblesnatch didn’t remember how long it had been.
Pebblesnatch stole glances at the [Emperor]. He was blind. Like a Goblin with both eyes poked out by a Raskghar. Pebblesnatch understood that. She just wondered who’d poked his eyes out.
Ahead of them, Laken Godart ordered his servant to toss the phone at the wagon. Pebblesnatch watched the iPhone soaring, saw another Hobgoblin in a wagon ahead of them catch it. She knew the iPhone. She heard the music play.
This was their life in the wagons. Ulvama roused as she heard the song, in another language, play. She glared ahead, but she had given up insulting the Humans long ago. Now, she simply looked around.
The rain began to fall again. Pebblesnatch shivered. Despite the body heat, some of the droplets were landing on her skin, wetting her. Ulvama glared around as water dripped off her shoulders. She looked around the wagon, then stood up.
With one stride, Ulvama stepped over Goblins slumbering or sitting in the wagons. She found a Goblin sheltering in one of the blankets they’d been given. Ulvama yanked the blanket off the Goblin, ignoring the angry protests. She kicked, and then went back to her spot. The [Shaman] covered herself up as it continued to rain. She ignored Pebblesnatch as the Cave Goblin crawled under the blanket next to her.
It was warm. Pebblesnatch wriggled until Ulvama smacked the blanket. Then the Cave Goblin just curled up. She felt secure in this place, buried entirely in the blanket. So she fished around in her clothing and produced something.
Pebblesnatch had only two possessions in this world. Only two. One was a worn, white bit of cloth, dirty from being used as her pillow. But the second thing she never showed anyone.
Every day she looked at it, in secret, under blankets or when all the others were asleep. If the others saw she had it, they might take it. Or the Humans might try to. It was precious. And now it lit up the little pocket of space as Pebblesnatch stared at it. A round mana stone. A glowing, crimson gem she’d hidden away when she was caught. That she never let go of. It had a power. But there was no door.
The Cave Goblin stared at the stone. And she clutched it tight as the wagons paused because one had gotten stuck in the mud. Ahead of her, Humans shouted. And Pebblesnatch began to doze off again as Ulvama sourly muttered to herself.
Pebblesnatch closed her eyes as she hid the glowing red stone again. It had given her another memory of the inn. If they were going to die in a bit, Pebblesnatch wanted to dream of that bright inn one last time.
This was her life, remembering, waking, sleeping. Pursuing the very thing that hurt her, because it had been glorious. Nothing more.
Until the day the wagons stopped.
The world was so—strange. Pebblesnatch stumbled as she was forced off the wagons. She stared around wildly. What was this place?
Grass. And trees over there. A mountain! Pebblesnatch stared up, awed. For a Cave Goblin, the outdoors was still unfamiliar. And this wasn’t Liscor, with Floodplains and rain and mud. This place looked…
Beautiful. But the Humans with weapons made Pebblesnatch look at them warily. The Goblins were herded into a crowd, and then the [Emperor] spoke. He looked at the male Hob, at the Goblins.
“I know you can understand me. And I know you’re there. I can’t imagine what you must feel. But we’ve arrived at our destination. And you must know what comes next.”
The Goblins stared at him warily. They were ready for death, for battle. Some of them wore red paint, and they looked ready to fight with their bare claws. Pebblesnatch was afraid.
But the Human didn’t order his people to attack. He had many Humans behind him. And they all had weapons. They could have slaughtered the Goblins, but all the [Emperor] did was take his white cane. He dragged it through the dirt. Pebblesnatch stared at the Human as he pointed.
“You see this line? Beyond this line is my land. The land of Riverfarm. The Unseen Empire.”
The Goblins looked at him. The Human pointed.
Pebblesnatch scratched her head as he explained. That was his land? This was…their land? The Human said they could live there. But they couldn’t hit Humans or leave. She saw other Goblins looking just as blank as she did. Some—some seemed to understand, but not the Cave Goblins. They stared at the dirt.
It was just a line. Meaningless. What made that line Human’s land and the other part Goblin’s land? Besides which—Pebblesnatch looked at Laken Godart.
This was his land. And this…was Goblin’s? It made no sense. Goblins didn’t have land. They didn’t have anything. They stole it and ran when Humans came.
But he’d left them with more than just land. Big, big crates were set in the ground in Goblin territory, crushing the grass. Pebblesnatch wiggled her toes as the Goblins investigated. They stared at Laken as the first crate’s lid came off. They crowded around to see.
Nails, hammers, pillows, woodcutting axes, seeds, flour—supplies of every kind filled the crates. Pebblesnatch stared at the bounty. But her eyes were drawn to what lay on top.
The iPhone. All the Goblins turned to look at the [Emperor]. He nodded.
And then he left. Leaving the Goblins with their…land. With tools. With the precious, magical thing that played music and did so much more. And the Goblins, mystified, looked at each other.
They had seen their people die. They had been carted across the world as prisoners for weeks. And now they were here. No one had killed them. They’d been given…Pebblesnatch stared at the crates. For what?
She looked at the iPhone. It called to her. Whenever it had been given to their wagon, all the Goblins had wanted to use it. Pebblesnatch had crowded around as they investigated, taking pictures, figuring out how it worked. It was a glorious thing.
She reached for it, but the Redfang Hob was faster. He took the iPhone and looked at the others. The female Hob Redfang, some of the older Goblins.
The Redfang Hob stared off at the place where the Humans had gone. He inspected the iPhone, stared at the line in the dirt. Then he looked around. The other Goblins stared at him. Just as mystified.
What were they supposed to do now?
That was then. This was now. Pebblesnatch didn’t think of how many days had passed, but the sun had gone up and down a number of times. And she was hungry.
She had a stick, and she was poking at an anthill. Around her, Goblins sat. Or slept. Or ate what they found. Pebblesnatch was hungry, so she’d found an anthill. It was easy food. Even in the dungeon there were ants, and these were big, fat, black ones. They swarmed as Pebblesnatch licked her lips. But occasionally, she’d turn her head to stare at the crates.
The supplies that Emperor Laken Godart and the Humans had left were numerous and useful. Planting seeds, tools for digging, building—everything from nails to canvas and supplies like wood and even pillows. He had left a dozen crates, each one big enough to hold many small Goblins or a few fat ones.
They were so tall Pebblesnatch had to jump a bit to catch the lip! They held everything the Goblins might need. However…
The crates were untouched. The one that had been opened hadn’t been so much as moved. Mildew had engulfed the pillows and the tools on top had a layer of rust on them. Rain and time had done that already. And it was continuing to erode the valuable objects in the crate. But the Goblins hadn’t replaced the lid. The only thing that had been taken was the iPhone. Everything else…
Nothing. Not one pillow, or nail, or axe or even the flour in the sturdy bags. The Goblins had refused to touch any of it.
The first few days had been exploration. Pebblesnatch had wandered with the other Goblins, finding that the [Emperor] had left them a big, big space. There was the base of the mountain there, and if you walked long, long, you’d eventually come to a forest there. And there, a river—
And the wooden totems. They marked the edge of Goblin territory, in every spot. Huge, wooden poles carved with eyes and other carvings. Pebblesnatch was frightened of them. The eyes looked at her. And if you went towards them—the Humans came.
Humans on horses. They’d come and force you to go back. To Goblin land. Somehow, they always knew where you were. You couldn’t outrun them, or hide. Goblins had tried. They were still trying, in fact. A few of them, especially the ones with red stripes. Redfangs.
But the rest just lazed about. If a Goblin was hungry, they found something to eat. If they wanted to sleep, they slept. A few had small projects. Making a club out of a bit of stone and a stick and some twine. Trying to find fish in the river. A few even built crude huts out of wood and such to keep out the rain.
Yet, none of them used the tools. And the Goblins didn’t try anything more ambitious than what was simply necessary to survive. It wasn’t laziness—or rather, it was intentional laziness.
That was what Laken Godart had forgotten. Goblins were intelligent. Even if they weren’t Chieftains, they weren’t animals. He had known that—but he hadn’t counted on how much they understood.
Even Pebblesnatch understood. The Goblins had conferred after they’d figured it out. They were in this place, where Humans wouldn’t go. They’d watch, from afar, sometimes shout or scream, but never come close. And the Goblins were free to do whatever they wanted, except leave. The Human had given them many things.
He wanted them to do…something. What, exactly, was a mystery, even to Ulvama. But the Goblins, knowing the [Emperor]’s desire included them making use of his gifts, had decided universally to do nothing.
Nothing at all. That was a victory, of sorts. All the older Goblins were just sitting around. Pebblesnatch saw a few of them scratching at itches, farting. But nothing more.
The little Cave Goblin was more energetic than they were. She’d gone exploring, but this wasn’t the dungeon. Pebblesnatch wasn’t good at climbing trees—or finding good things to eat in the ground. She didn’t know what growing things were edible. She was a Cave Goblin, and bad at foraging.
But she’d learned. Pebblesnatch, like all Goblins, learned by observation. Now, she’d found an anthill. Pebblesnatch was carefully poking at it with a stick, causing the big, angry black ants to swarm out. She was letting them run up her stick and picking them off, eating them and ignoring their attempts to bite the inside of her mouth. She chewed and made a face as she swallowed.
Bitter. But there were lots of ants, and eggs in the nest. Pebblesnatch could fill her belly on this today. She just…didn’t like it.
Listlessly, Pebblesnatch bit a few more ants off the stick. She might as well eat the stick because the angry ants tasted so bad. Not like good food. Pebblesnatch would have been happy with this meal in the dungeon, especially compared to rotting giant caterpillars or the other things she’d eaten. But she didn’t remember the dungeon.
She remembered food. A sizzling meal, and a kitchen where if you went in, the Human would give you something to eat. Every time, unless she scolded you because you’d had a meal just an hour ago. But you were never…hungry. And it was always good.
Pebblesnatch’s head rose. She looked at the crates—and then realized the ants were swarming up her legs. The Cave Goblin hopped up, shouting and brushing the ants off as they bit her.
A few Goblins around Pebblesnatch grinned or chuckled as the Cave Goblin retreated from the nest. Pebblesnatch grumbled. Stupid ants! They weren’t worth the meal. She—she wanted something else.
“Hey Pebblesnatch, wanna cookie? Or how about some pasta?”
The Cave Goblin could just remember Erin saying it. Her head turned, as if Erin was waiting with food. She had come into the Cave Goblin’s cave. And just…cooked. Pebblesnatch still remembered the sound of food sizzling in the pan, the first time she’d ever had a bite of something that hot and good.
The little Cave Goblin’s mouth watered. She looked around. She’d found roots to eat, and bugs, and even, once, seen a rat-thing in the trees. But she couldn’t catch any of it! And when she did eat something it was raw.
Raw! Not hot and good! Pebblesnatch kicked at the ground in frustration. She had eaten cooked food! She didn’t need stupid bugs! She wanted an egg! Hot! Sizzling! But how could she make that?
Pebblesnatch could cook. She was a [Cook]. But she didn’t have a frying pan, or even a knife to cut things with. There were some in the crates, but…
Pebblesnatch looked a third time. She saw a group lounging around the crates. One of them was the male Hob.
The Redfang. Pebblesnatch eyed him warily. He wasn’t Headscratcher or Rabbiteater. She didn’t know who he was. But he belonged to another tribe, and she was wary of him.
The Humans thought Goblins were Goblins. But that was because they didn’t know Goblins.
These were the Goblins who had lived. And they were not one homogenous group as the Humans would have assumed. They were in fact, varied and different. There were four groups, and Pebblesnatch knew them all now.
The first was the Flooded Waters tribe, who were formed of many Goblin tribes and those who had abandoned other tribes to join the small Chieftain, Rags. Most intelligent—two had already made primitive bows.
Like all the Goblins, they had decided not to do anything, but a few had miniature projects going on, like a Goblin busily mashing up some fish, or one collecting rocks and breaking them up to see what lay inside.
The second was the Mountain City tribe. Laziest of the Goblins, but also the most well-fed. They were good fighters, and they knew words best. They’d been the ones who’d made the huts, as if sleeping out in the open was a problem. Ulvama was one of them and she was…Ulvama. She had the biggest hut to herself, and had forced the other Goblins to build it for her.
The third group, and the one occupying the space around the crate were the Redfangs. They were the most confusing to Pebblesnatch. Some had been part of the Flooded Waters Tribe, but others had been just…Redfangs. But now, they had all come together again.
They were the smallest group by far—barely eight. But they were all the strongest at fighting. There were only three Hobs who’d survived the battle. Two of them were Redfangs.
Perhaps, perhaps if some of the other Goblins, especially the Mountain City tribe had a chance, they might have snuck supplies from the crates. But the Redfangs had camped around the crates and no one was going to fight them. They were too strong.
The last most numerous, and most disorganized group was the Cave Goblins. They were smaller, greyer in skin tone. They had known little of the outside world, and they had less of anything than the other tribes. They could fight, and they had been taught by Hobs who were the best. But they were still the least of the others. Pebblesnatch was a Cave Goblin.
All of them milled about. They did tend to stick to their groups, but it wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule, just necessity. And the Cave Goblins were leaderless. Pebblesnatch was just one of many; another Cave Goblin had already taken her anthill and was filling his belly.
It was peaceful, here. There hadn’t been many fights. Goblins in a tribe did not in-fight, almost as a rule. They obeyed the Chieftain, and that was that. If two tribes fought, it was seldom ever to the death. One tribe invariably gave way to the other.
That was how it normally was, but here were four tribes all without a Chieftain, and the Mountain City tribe was also very different in that they did fight each other. And the Cave Goblins had known only the Raskghar as masters for almost all their lives. So a few squabbles had erupted at the start.
They’d all been crushed by the three Hobs. Pebblesnatch stared at the two sitting with the Redfangs. Two Hobs, male and female. When a Mountain City Goblin had fought in a group with her friends with some Flooded Water Goblins, the two Hobs had walked over and smacked heads and stopped the fight instantly. Same as Ulvama—no one could oppose the [Shaman].
The three Hobs were in charge. Because they were Hobs. But what were they in charge of?
The others were dead. All of them. Pebblesnatch had seen it. She had seen the Goblin with the crimson blade fall. Seen the Goblin Lord die. Seen the rout as the Humans swept across the Floodplains.
All dead. Pebblesnatch had known it, but she still didn’t…understand it. Even after all that time in the wagons. And now, with space to themselves, the other Goblins looked equally…
Empty. The Redfangs didn’t even move. They just sat, staring ahead. So still, they might have been dead. They’d made weapons when they first came here, assembling them out of stone and wood within the hour. But now they were statues. Their leader was gone. Their tribe was gone.
Some of the other Goblins were moving, listlessly eating or sitting and throwing stones, but there was…nothing. If anything, it was only the Cave Goblins who were moving about. Like Pebblesnatch. She couldn’t have said why. She’d experienced the same.
She’d seen Headscratcher die. Felt him die. She didn’t know about Rabbiteater, or…or Shorthilt, or Badarrow, or Numbtongue or the rest. But she thought she knew. She knew what she’d seen.
It left an emptiness in her chest. Desolation. And yet—Pebblesnatch wasn’t just sitting around. Something still called to her. Something—the desire to eat something hot and nice again.
The Cave Goblin found herself sidling over to the crates. The other Goblins barely looked at her. And the Redfangs were unmoving. Pebblesnatch, encouraged, peered into the crates.
There! She saw rusty tools, sacks of food. Pebblesnatch furtively pulled herself up, staring into the crate. She saw an iron pan, right there. And a ladle! And was that salt? A bag of it, surely. Pebblesnatch sniffed. There was food. She slowly reached into the crate—
A huge hand grabbed Pebblesnatch. She shouted in alarm. One of the Redfang Hobs had risen! He was a big Hob, as big as Headscratcher. Not as strong, perhaps, but his body was covered with the red paint, lines and lines of it. Markings for the dead. He stared down at Pebblesnatch as she struggled, panicked. The Hob shook his head.
He tossed Pebblesnatch away. She went flying and screamed—then she bounced off the grass and lay there, winded. It hadn’t been a hard throw. Raskghar could throw you into the ground so hard you never moved again. The Cave Goblin was on her feet in a moment.
She stared at the Hob who’d thrown her. The only male Hobgoblin of the three survivors. Now, he sat with his back against the crates. Daring anyone to touch.
Pebblesnatch stomped over to the Hob. She pointed at the crate.
The word was rusty, coming from her throat. Goblins didn’t communicate with words, usually. They could read each other’s body language. But the different tribes weren’t used to each other, even after all this time. The Hobgoblin stared at Pebblesnatch.
His entire body radiated the word. The multiple nuances made themselves clear to Pebblesnatch. No, no, and no. No giving the Humans what they wanted. No point. Go eat ants.
Pebblesnatch glared at the Hob. She was tired of eating ants! And—her anger outweighed her good sense. So she did something she’d never have dared to do to a Raskghar.
She kicked dirt at him. The male Hob shielded his face and scowled. Pebblesnatch shook a fist, prepared to run if he was going to smack her. But the Hob just glared.
Pebblesnatch raised her foot to kick dirt. The Hob retaliated by throwing dirt in her face first. The Cave Goblin stumbled away, howling. The male Hobgoblin waited as Pebblesnatch ran off to the river to wash her face. Then another Goblin moved.
The brief scuffle had roused another of the comatose Redfangs. The second Hob. She was female, like Ulvama, but a [Warrior]. As Pebblesnatch came back, she saw the second Hob moving, rising.
The female Hob stood up slowly. Pebblesnatch eyed her warily. But the Hob dismissed her with only one glance. Instead, she went over to one of the Flooded Waters Goblins. She poked the little Goblin and spoke. The two conferred, and Pebblesnatch saw the female Hob straighten with something.
One of the two makeshift bows. It was a shortbow, and small for her. But she checked the crude string, seemed satisfied by the sharpened wood arrow. She shrugged as the Flooded Waters Goblin pointed at it.
It would do.
Then she came over to the male Hob. He was looking at her curiously. The female Hob pointed past Pebblesnatch, to the forest. The Cave Goblin watched warily as the two Hobs conferred, all in shrugs and nods and points.
No words needed. The Redfangs had their own hand signals. At first the male Hob disagreed, pointing down. ‘I’m staying here’. But the female Hob talked him into it by kicking him in the chest. Then he rose with a grunt.
He had a stone axe. Mostly blunt, but sturdy, the kind of thing you could bash a skull in with. He got it and Pebblesnatch fled. But he wasn’t using it on her.
The female Hob stared at Pebblesnatch as the male harrumphed and glanced in the direction she wanted him to go. The male Hob stomped back with his axe. He pointed at Pebblesnatch and the female Hob shrugged. She looked around, and pointed.
The two Hobs wandered off. Pebblesnatch edged over to the open crate, but another of the Redfangs looked up. She froze as he looked at her. And then the two Hobs came back.
They put the lid back on the crate and then—to Pebblesnatch’s horror—the male picked up a huge rock. Grunting, he dropped it on the crate. Then he nodded and walked off with the female Hob towards the forest.
Pebblesnatch was furious. She stared at the rock on the crate. As soon as they were gone, Pebblesnatch climbed onto the crate and tried to push the rock off. None of the Redfangs stopped her, although they watched.
The little Cave Goblin pushed, but the stone was too heavy. And none of the others would help her. She tried the other crates, but they were nailed shut and she needed a lever or something to open them. Like an axe, which was in the crate.
Sulking, Pebblesnatch gave up. She walked over to some grass and flopped down on it, face-first. She was so mad she forgot her hunger. For a while. Then she was hungry. And sad. She wanted to eat something warm!
And as if Erin had heard her, Pebblesnatch heard a murmur run through the Goblins about an hour after the two Hobs had left. The Cave Goblin sat up and saw them returning.
They had a dead deer. The other Goblins stared. The two Redfangs trooped over, the male carrying the deer while the female wandered over with a rabbit and the bow slung over one shoulder.
She’d used the crude bow well. Pebblesnatch saw how the deer had been hit in the hindquarters, the rabbit in the side. And then—the male Hob’s stone axe was bloodied. And the deer’s head was bashed in.
You didn’t need to be a [Hunter] to figure out what had happened. But Pebblesnatch was still awed. None of the other Goblins had brought in game this big. They’d caught smaller creatures, but this was huge. And—was it good?
The Hobs tossed their food down near the crates. The other Redfangs blinked at them. The female Hob pointed. One of the Redfangs with a sharp stone bent over the deer. Pebblesnatch saw the female Redfang begin slicing open the deer, revealing red meat. And blood.
They were butchering the deer. But were they going to eat it…raw? Pebblesnatch had a thing about raw meat. But something else caught her eye.
It was warm in the summer, so there was no need for fires. But now, two of the smaller Redfangs got up and walked into the forest. They came back quickly with dead branches, brush. Tinder. They formed a quick campfire, and the two Hobs grunted at each other. One produced a sharpened stick. They’d have to start a fire that way—
A Flooded Waters Goblin wandered over. He poked the male Hob energetically whirling the sharpened stick on a bit of wood and causing smoke. The male Hob stopped as the other Goblin handed him a bit of flint. The Hob stared at it and the second stone.
Then he struck and sparks flashed. The other Goblins murmured. And Pebblesnatch heard a word circulating amongst the Flooded Waters tribe.
Apparently, the Flooded Waters Goblin was a stone expert—one of the Goldstone tribe Goblins. He looked pleased with himself as the fire started with ease. The Redfangs nodded at him and invited him to join the cooking circle.
Because that was what it was. Pebblesnatch jostled with other Goblins on the periphery. The Redfangs weren’t going to eat the deer raw. They were roasting it over a fire, grunting and arguing with each other.
The Redfangs were clearly used to preparing meat, and the other six, smaller Goblins were arguing with the Hob. Pebblesnatch stared as one small Goblin kept shoving the big male Hob out of the way because he was overdoing the meat. Eventually, the big Hob gave up and let the other Redfangs handle the cooking.
They were…decent. They roasted bits of the deer on rocks, sticks, putting it near the embers, over the flames. The Goblins did it just to crisp parts of the meat—then they ate it, mostly rare. No seasoning, no nothing.
Even so—Pebblesnatch’s stomach was rumbling. She saw all the Redfangs and the stone expert chomping down on meat. It was the first big meat meal any Goblin had had. And cooked! The two Hobs alone ate half the deer to Pebblesnatch’s dismay. But the Redfangs weren’t heartless.
They ate, and then tossed the seared meat at the other Goblins. Instantly, a fight broke out as the other three tribes began fighting for the precious meat. The Redfangs didn’t seem to care too much as Goblins fought, rolling around for the hot food.
Pebblesnatch grabbed at one piece and three other Goblins knocked her over. The little Cave Goblin punched a leg and got a kick in her stomach. Furiously, she bit a leg and a Goblin screamed.
The two Hobs seemed to be debating wading into the fight to stop it, when an authoritative voice rang out.
Ulvama emerged from her hut and all the Goblins…kept fighting. The [Shaman] stared at them, then strode over. Pebblesnatch, avoiding the sea of feet, crawled clear to see that Ulvama had spent her time on her own project.
Her body paint was fresh. Somehow, the [Shaman] had renewed the exotic colors on her body, which shone with more than just pigment. A bit of magic. Also—she’d created a tool.
She had a crude, wooden stave. Just a long branch, cut down into a staff. But it was a symbol of her authority. She strode into the fighting and raised it high. Pebblesnatch and some of the other Goblins who’d gotten out of the melee watched as Ulvama raised her staff.
They stared. Was she going to do magic—?
Ulvama brought it down on the nearest Goblin’s shoulders. She smacked the others around her, and they fled as she lashed out. The [Shaman] laid about her with shouts of wrath and the fighting Goblins broke up. She was merciless, and the few Goblins who decided to take her on got a kick in the face, or a thwack.
Ulvama thundered at them. The [Shaman] raised her staff and the other Goblins meekly backed up. She pointed towards the Redfangs. Bemused, they looked at her.
“Form a line. There! Now!”
Goblins fell into place as Ulvama bullied them with her staff and words. Soon, it was organized. Ulvama got a large portion of meat, and the other Goblins who obeyed her. The others got scraps. That was how the Mountain City tribe did it.
Pebblesnatch got her meat without being kicked. She stared down at the small morsel in dismay. It was hot, and it was meat, but it was—Pebblesnatch’s face fell as she chewed it. It wasn’t nice. Not like the food Erin made. Erin’s food had taste. Spices. Seasoning.
And there wasn’t enough. Ulvama had her meal, but the other Goblins whined. She silenced them by lifting her staff. They’d all got something, hadn’t they? Even if it was less than a bite. And the Goblins who hadn’t seen the meal didn’t get anything at all.
The Redfangs watched coolly. They’d killed the deer, but they were full. They stared at Ulvama as she approached them. The [Shaman] paused and ground her staff into the ground. She talked with the two Hobs as the Redfangs gathered around. Pebblesnatch watched, finding some crickets to eat. If she had been cooking, she’d have…
That night, Ulvama went to work. With staff in hand, she struck a deal. The Redfangs agreed to hunt. And in return, they got a hut. No—three. Ulvama ejected the Mountain City Goblins. The other Goblins were not happy, but they would get meat that the Redfangs hunted. The Redfangs would get huts they could nap in. And they would eat what they killed, and the Mountain City Goblins who made the huts, and Ulvama, of course.
It was a…system. Pebblesnatch saw Ulvama talking with the male Hob and female. Smiling. They were aloof, but the [Shaman] was being friendly. She was respectful to the Redfangs. She didn’t kick or shout at them. Because they had power.
The two Hobs had names, Pebblesnatch learned from another Goblin. The female was called Leafarmor and the male Hob was called Raidpear. Pebblesnatch didn’t ask why. They were good names. Self-explanatory. Almost as good as hers. She still hated Raidpear for not letting her near the crates.
That night, Pebblesnatch listened to her belly grumble. She’d eaten crickets, but it wasn’t good food. So she crept away from the camps at night. There were now three fires, or the embers of them. Which was something. But…
Pebblesnatch went to the forest. She had a hiding spot there. She’d buried the white, mangled pillow under some leaves. And her special stone was there too. Pebblesnatch took the mana stone now. And she went over to her project.
A slab of bark lay propped against one tree trunk. It was…well, it was just a sheet of wood. And barely that. Pebblesnatch’s fingers and nails hurt from peeling the bark and tying it together with long bits of grass. The crude door was just big enough for her. But it was done.
Pebblesnatch’s heart pounded in her chest. She slowly raised the little, red stone and put it in a small groove she’d hollowed with her nails in the bark door. It fit loosely into place. Pebblesnatch moved the door against the tree, waited, and then stared at it.
The door shone with a red glow in the night. The Cave Goblin looked around, and then swung it open with one claw.
Nothing happened. Pebblesnatch stared at the door. She stared at the mana stone. It still glowed, but—nothing happened.
The Cave Goblin faltered. She looked at the door. But it was fine! It happened like this. Hopefully, she kept the door open. It would open soon. That was how it worked.
Pebblesnatch waited in front of the door. She paced back and forth. Then sat. After a while, she went to get some water to drink. Pee. Find a few plants to eat. She kept hurrying back to stare at the door.
But it never changed. And hours passed. Pebblesnatch didn’t sleep that night. When she jerked out of a dozing state as the sun hit her face, she stared at the door.
It was still just a blank door, leaning against the tree. Pebblesnatch stared at the red gem. She pried it out of the door. The Cave Goblin stared at it.
She shook. Her eyes filled up. Pebblesnatch punched the tree and cried out. She took the little glowing stone and raised it to hurl on to the ground. She trembled—but she didn’t throw it. Instead, she put it in the door. Then she curled up. Wrapping her arms around her head.
Pebblesnatch didn’t want to do anything when she woke up with the sun overhead. She felt bad. The door was still not working. So she went back to the main Goblin camp. And stared.
It was much different. Goblins were moving about, not sitting aimlessly. The Mountain City tribe was making more crude huts. The Redfangs had already caught two squirrels and a duck. They were roasting them by the fire.
Pebblesnatch’s mouth watered. She went over, but the Redfangs shooed her away. Not for her. There was a queue now, and Pebblesnatch wasn’t allowed meat. She stomped away.
A clawed hand grabbed Pebblesnatch. The other Goblin whirled. She stared up. Ulvama had beads in her hair. Precious trinkets salvaged from raids. Carved gems. The [Shaman] glared at Pebblesnatch.
She wanted to know Pebblesnatch’s level? The Cave Goblin folded her arms, looking past Ulvama at the meat. The [Shaman] ground a fist into Pebblesnatch’s head and pulled at the Cave Goblin’s ear.
Shouting unhappily, Pebblesnatch did. She was a [Grabber], which was apparently like a [Scavenger], but for Goblins. And a [Cook], and [Hider]. All told, she had over thirteen levels total. Which was high for a Cave Goblin!
Triumphantly, Pebblesnatch slapped her chest. She pointed at the fire. Ulvama just stared at Pebblesnatch and poked her with the staff.
“No. Go find things. Come back and put it there. Find good things, you get meat. Understand? Go.”
She poked Pebblesnatch. The Cave Goblin pointed at the fire. Ulvama shook her head.
“Don’t need [Cook]. Go. Go!”
She jabbed until Pebblesnatch went. The Cave Goblin was furious, but she saw Ulvama stopping another Goblin. The [Shaman] was going around demanding each Goblin’s classes and levels, putting them to work.
Well—well—Pebblesnatch looked for some dirt to throw at Ulvama. But one warning look from the [Shaman] made Pebblesnatch drop the dirt innocently. She went off and looked for things.
Pebblesnatch found a shiny rock. By the river. It was worn by the water, and shiny. Not with gemstones or anything—it was just generally shiny, smooth, if you held it up to the light. Pebblesnatch admired it, smiling.
She was good at finding rocks. That was why she had her name. The Raskghar had made her find shiny things in the dungeon. They liked shiny things. Pebblesnatch splashed in the water aimlessly as she looked for more rocks. She didn’t know what to do, really.
She wasn’t used to the outdoors. None of the Cave Goblins were. They were learning, but they had lived their entire life in the dungeon. As such, they were hungriest here, and not given much meat—if any. They struggled even to catch fish, or find nests, or plants.
Pebblesnatch grew tired of her shiny rock after a while. She found another one, but it wasn’t as nice. The first one was a lovely, mottled blue; the second orange-ish. Pebblesnatch put them to one side as she looked for more rocks.
Her stomach rumbled. The Redfangs and other Mountain City Goblins had eaten the bones of the deer the next morning, sucking out all the good marrow. Which meant Pebblesnatch had had to find breakfast. To be fair—it wasn’t hard. The anthill was still there, and there were all kinds of small bugs and things.
But it wasn’t good. And Pebblesnatch knew the other animals being cooked weren’t going to go to her. She wasn’t in charge. If she wanted meat, she had to do what Ulvama said. Find things. So she found a third shiny rock, polished by the riverbed. Good rock.
It wasn’t as shiny as her special rock. But the red mana stone wasn’t working. Absently, Pebblesnatch pulled it out. Why wasn’t it working? Did it need a better door? Was—
Was Erin dead?
The Cave Goblin began to curl up again. But then she heard footsteps. She froze and tried to hide the mana stone, but it was too late.
Ulvama scowled as she found Pebblesnatch by the river. She pointed.
Pebblesnatch pointed indignantly. She had! Some of the other Goblins were fishing, but look what she’d found!
The [Shaman] stared as Pebblesnatch hid her mana stone behind her back and offered the three shiny stones. Ulvama picked them up in her palm, eyed the way the light flickered off each smooth stone. Then she turned and hurled them into the distance.
“Not rocks! Things! Food! Wood!”
Pebblesnatch was outraged! She charged Ulvama and punched one leg. The [Shaman] promptly smacked her with a fist. Pebblesnatch sat down. She flopped over as Ulvama poked her.
Her stomach was empty and she hated Ulvama. The Cave Goblin curled up into a stubborn ball. Ulvama eyed Pebblesnatch. She began to roll the Cave Goblin into the river—then sighed. She fished around and Pebblesnatch felt something drop on her head. She uncurled and glared—
Then stared as she saw a charred bone. Filled with marrow. Pebblesnatch sat up. Ulvama glared.
She poked Pebblesnatch. The Cave Goblin snatched the bone. It was full of food! She stared at Ulvama. The [Shaman] glared. Slowly, Pebblesnatch lifted the bone up, cracking the burnt bone.,
Good marrow. Pebblesnatch sucked it out of the bone greedily, and then chomped on the bone itself. Ulvama smacked her lightly again.
“Give bone. Mine!”
She snatched it back. Pebblesnatch licked her lips. Why did Ulvama need bone? She tilted her head and Ulvama glared.
She poked her own chest. Pebblesnatch shrugged. It didn’t mean anything to her. The Hobgoblin stared. She pointed at the paint.
Pebblesnatch shrugged again. Like wands? Raskghar didn’t have [Shamans]. Neither did Cave Goblins. Ulvama shook her head. She stared at Pebblesnatch—then her eyes narrowed. She pointed.
“What’s that? Give.”
Pebblesnatch froze. Caught off-guard by the food, she’d forgotten to hide her red mana stone. She tried to hide it again, but Ulvama had seen it.
The Cave Goblin tried to run, Ulvama grabbed her and a struggle ensued.
The skirmish was short and one-sided. It ended with Ulvama studying the crimson gem as she planted one foot on Pebblesnatch’s back, pressing the Cave Goblin into the grass. Pebblesnatch shouted and tried to heave Ulvama off her, but the Hobgoblin was…a Hob. Even if she was a [Shaman]. And Pebblesnatch was small.
Ulvama eyed the mana stone, peering at it suspiciously. Pebblesnatch shouted furiously. Give it back! Ulvama eyed the mana stone. She nearly put it in her crude deer hide pouch, but Pebblesnatch screamed so loudly that the [Shaman] made an exasperated sound.
“Worthless. Weak. Keep.”
She dropped the mana stone in the water. Pebblesnatch leapt for it before the current could carry it away. Ulvama pointed as the wet Cave Goblin glared at her.
“Find food. Wood! Sticks! Go! Go! Not useless rocks!”
She walked off as Pebblesnatch threw the useless rocks after the Hobgoblin, not quite daring to hit her. The Cave Goblin screamed at Ulvama’s back.
She was mean! But she’d also given Pebblesnatch food, and prevented other Mountain City Goblins from picking on her and the other Cave Goblins. She was…something to Pebblesnatch.
Not motherly. Pebblesnatch vaguely remembered…something. But if someone had explained the concept of ‘mother’ as opposed to ‘parent’ to her, she would have only given the person—Erin—a blank look. Because Erin was the person that Pebblesnatch would have thought of.
Not of her actual parents. Pebblesnatch only had a vague memory of a Goblin who had held a baby Goblin. Until a Raskghar killed the big Goblin and the baby had to live or die. She didn’t feel sad when she thought of that. Just…her.
Goblin stories were always like that. The only time Pebblesnatch wanted to cry or curl up was when she thought of the inn, of Rabbiteater. Because that had been different. Good times.
And this? This was just another part of a Goblin story. Pebblesnatch walked off, melancholy. She found some worms in the mud. Ulvama approved of that, at least.
That night, Pebblesnatch wasn’t allowed to have much meat. But she got some. And Ulvama let the other Goblins sit around the fire. The food gathered was shared—with the best going to Ulvama and the ones she’d decided got it. But Pebblesnatch, dozing by the fire, was still able to hear the Redfangs discussing with some of the older Goblins.
Five had gone out yesterday. All had been caught. Some of the Goblins kept trying to find a way to leave their territory without being seen. But it was impossible.
The Redfang [Scout] glared as she traced in the ground with her stone dagger.
“No use. That way?”
She pointed. Another Flooded Waters Goblin scowled.
“No. Humans. [Riders]. Too fast.”
Raidpear, the male Hobgoblin, frowned. He hefted the stone axe he’d been further refining and glanced at the Goblins who’d tried to escape?
“Fast-death? Fast-fast death?”
The Flooded Waters tribe Goblin shrugged.
“Fast. Fought—see in dark. Good eyes.”
They were sharing information about the Humans. This was new. Pebblesnatch crawled closer as she listened to them trade information. The Redfangs were just as worried about being attacked as they were about escaping. Well, the issues went hand-in-hand.
Some had clashed with the Humans here. Pebblesnatch furtively eavesdropped as she gathered ant eggs from her hill. The Redfangs said they were good. Could use poison, see in dark—Pebblesnatch listened wide-eyed. They had a Troll!
That news intrigued Raidpear and Leafarmor. The two Hobs leaned in. The female Hobgoblin inquired as she checked her stone spear.
The Flooded Water Goblin shrugged.
“Almost beat Pyrite.”
Leafarmor had no idea who that was, but apparently Raidpear had been a defector to the Flooded Waters tribe. Which meant he and Leafarmor had been enemies, and now they were in the same tribe, they were…confusing. Either way, he made a face.
Leafarmor looked at Raidpear. He frowned, calculating.
“Goldstone Chieftain. Was strong. Strong as Redscar. Maybe. Stronger than Spiderslicer.”
She glared at him. Raidpear nodded.
Leafarmor stared. Raidpear nodded again. She frowned, grunted, began sharpening the tip of her spear even more. The other warriors looked at each other.
“Hard to kill. Humans come—all die. Fast, helpless death.”
One of the Flooded Waters Tribe Goblin announced cheerfully. The Redfangs barely looked up. They all nodded. Pebblesnatch saw one of the Goblins stir.
Ulvama. She leaned in, her bare skin glittering by firelight. Her paint was glowing. She looked at the Redfangs.
“We should not fight the Humans. We should escape. Send more Goblins to find a way.”
Her words were in the common tongue. The Mountain City tribe eschewed using the Goblin’s language. As if that made them better. The Redfangs and other warriors glanced at Ulvama. The Redfangs looked especially…blasé. Ulvama seemed to realize her words lacked weight. She drew herself up, clutching her staff.
“I am the [Shaman] of the Mountain City tribe. Shaman of the Great Chieftain, Tremborag.”
One of the Flooded Waters Goblins put in helpfully. Ulvama kicked at him. Pebblesnatch just stared.
What did a [Shaman] do? She had no idea, besides boss people around. Neither, it seemed, did many of the Goblins except for Ulvama’s old tribe. Indignantly, Ulvama pointed at the Redfangs reluctant to accept her authority.
“All Goblin tribes have [Shaman]! Must have! For memory! Magic! Names!”
“Not Flooded Waters tribe.”
“Not Redfangs. Don’t need.”
Not the Cave Goblins. They didn’t even have Hobs. Ulvama looked around, incredulous. Then she scowled. She raised her staff, and her eyes flashed.
“[Shamans] have magic!”
She brought down the butt of the staff. And the fire in front of her roared upwards. Pebblesnatch shouted in alarm and the Goblins rolled away as a pillar of flame shot up into the sky.
Just for a second. Then the fire resumed its regular burn. The Redfangs stared at Ulvama. So did Raidpear and Leafarmor. They traded glances. A bit more respectfully, the Goblins returned to the fire.
Pebblesnatch stared at Ulvama in awe. The [Shaman] folded her arms.
“Send Goblins to search. I will use magic to hide them.”
Raidpear and Leafarmor conferred. At last, Leafarmor nodded. She poked at the Redfang [Scout]. She pointed.
“Go that way?”
The Redfang female nodded, eying Ulvama warily. Raidpear agreed.
“You. You. You. Go.”
Three Goblins left, all in different directions. Ulvama stopped the Redfang [Scout]. She did—something. Pebblesnatch saw her smearing some ash and dirt over the squirming Redfang, smacking her when she moved. It didn’t look like magic, but…Pebblesnatch realized Ulvama came back to the fire alone. She never saw the [Scout] leave.
The Goblins who ran off into the darkness, to try and escape the Humans again. They returned within the hour, to shouting. Three of them had been caught, within minutes of crossing into Human territory. The Humans were vigilant.
But the Redfang [Scout] didn’t return with them. The Redfangs stirred, and the two Hobs looked at Ulvama. She smiled smugly—for all of twenty minutes. Then the Redfang [Scout] reappeared, scowling.
“[Riders]. Humans. Found. Pointy Human found.”
She stomped back into the camp. Ulvama stared at her.
The Redfang glared. Some Human with the [Riders] had found her, even with Ulvama’s magic. She’d pointed—and the mud had fallen off. Ulvama inspected the [Scout]. The mud she’d smeared on the Redfang had flaked away. The [Shaman] was confused as she demanded to know what a ‘pointy Human’ was. Then—Pebblesnatch heard a curse.
It was bad news to Ulvama, no one else. The Redfangs conferred. The problem was the wooden totems, apparently. One of the Flooded Waters tribe Goblins spat as he pointed at the nearest one.
“That. Bad thing. Sees. Chieftain burned many. Sees.”
The two Hobs looked at each other. Ulvama was cursing the pointy Human. Pebblesnatch watched the older Goblins conferring in quiet voices and came to a startling realization.
They had no idea what to do.
Day of Much Talking
One day, the iPhone ran out of power. Which was a terrible thing.
The Goblins had refused to touch anything from the crates that the [Emperor] had given them. Except for the iPhone. There was no real reason for it. They’d refused to give the Human what he wanted—whatever it was—but the iPhone was different.
It was beautiful. It could do so many things. It had a strange light. It played…music. It even had a voice.
A Human would speak if you talked to her. Sometimes…sometimes, Pebblesnatch saw Goblins who got to use the iPhone making her say things. Stupid things. Insults—mostly to herself. Like ‘Humans are all stupid’. Childish things.
One time, a young Goblin was playing with the iPhone. Pebblesnatch, waiting to use it, heard the female voice—Siri—speaking.
“Good Goblin. You are a good Goblin.”
The voice made Pebblesnatch look up. She stared at the Goblin. Then—she saw an older Goblin furiously grab the phone and punch the young Goblin.
Events like that were rare, though. The Goblins took good care of the iPhone. They weren’t about to let it rust or break. In fact, it had a significance beyond just entertainment.
All the Redfangs took a turn with it. In private. Pebblesnatch crept up and saw Raidpear sitting alone with it. The Hobgoblin was muttering to it. Pausing, speaking.
He was recording something. The Goblins had figured countless functions of the iPhone. Laken had few apps—like games. But what he did have, like the game with the weird bird with lips was entertaining.
But Raidpear wasn’t playing a game or a song. He was…reciting names.
“Garen Redfang. Spiderslicer. Pyrite. Goldsword. Goatbane. Blackspots…”
It took Pebblesnatch a while to realize they were all names. Names of Goblins. A list of the dead. It took Raidpear a long time, and when he did, he saved the file, brought it back, and let another Goblin have a turn.
That was all. But it made sense to Pebblesnatch. When they were all dead, the iPhone would probably remain. It was valuable.
So it made it all the more frightening when the iPhone died. One day, it was simply blank. The Goblins had seen the power bar going down, but they hadn’t realized what would happen when it ran out. Up till now, the [Emperor] had always demanded it back.
There was chaos in the Goblin camp. They were all arguing, trying the power button, punching the unlucky Goblin who’d had it last. But they all came to the same conclusion. It had run out of power.
Ulvama was found. But the [Shaman] told the Goblins the iPhone didn’t need magic. And she had no idea how to repair it. The Goblins milled about disconsolately.
And if…by magic, or intention, a Human appeared on the border of the camp. He was alone. A young man with a sword sheathed by his side.
Nevertheless, his presence at the edge of Goblin territory created a stir. Every Redfang found their weapon. Raidpear, Leafarmor, and Ulvama all went to see what the Human wanted with the warriors. Pebblesnatch held back.
The Human had a loud voice. He didn’t bellow at any one Goblin, but at all of them. Gamel shouted, not staring at the three Hobs watching him silently. There were Humans behind him. On horses. Just…watching. In case the Goblins attacked?
“His Majesty, Emperor Godart has graciously allowed you…Goblins the opportunity to trade.”
Pebblesnatch listened to the nonsensical words. Gamel went on.
“To recharge the device his Majesty has loaned you, he is willing to make a trade.”
He wanted something to fix the iPhone. The Goblins looked at each other. Raidpear stared at Leafarmor. Then the Hob walked over to the crates. He pushed the heavy rock off the top. Then he reached into the crate.
Gamel stared as the Hobgoblin came back. The [Knight] backed up as Raidpear walked forwards. The Hobgoblin stopped at the edge of Goblin territory. Then he tossed his armful of goods on the ground.
They were all tools from the crates. All unused, some with a bit of rust. Gamel stared. Raidpear pointed. Then he put the iPhone down then strode back towards the Goblin territory. The Human stared at them. He had to go away and came back after twenty minutes.
“His Majesty desires something else of value. Have you Goblins nothing to trade?”
The Goblins looked at each other. Meat? Hides? Rocks? Ulvama glanced at Pebblesnatch and the Cave Goblin warily backed up. But none of the Goblins moved.
Raidpear looked at Leafarmor. The two Hobs nodded. Then, as one, they turned and walked away. Ulvama hesitated, but then she followed.
Gamel was left standing there. He stared at the iPhone, at the Goblins, and then whirled away. Pebblesnatch heard him cursing the Goblins as he left.
Only after all the Humans had gone for a while did Raidpear carefully collect the dead iPhone. He seemed…satisfied as he stowed it carefully in one of the Redfang huts. So that was what the [Emperor] wanted? The Goblins refused to give it to him.
Simple as that. The other Goblins broke up. They weren’t happy about the dead iPhone, but that was that. Ulvama kept staring after Gamel, as if trying to figure out something.
And Pebblesnatch? The Cave Goblin stared at the spot where Gamel had been. Not at the angry, shouty Human. But at what Raidpear had pulled out of the crates.
One of the things Raidpear had pulled out was a metal ladle. And he’d forgotten to put the rock back on the crate. This was her chance. Pebblesnatch crept over to the pile of tools. She didn’t need the hammer, or anything else. She grabbed the ladle. It wasn’t even that badly rusted! She just needed a pot and—
Ulvama seized her. The [Shaman] had spotted her! Pebblesnatch shouted in alarm and tried to run, but the Hobgoblin grabbed the hand holding the ladle.
“No touching. Give it to me!”
Pebblesnatch hung on, but the female Hobgoblin was strong. She was going to take it! But Pebblesnatch needed it! She wanted—
She wanted to cook! The little Cave Goblin screamed in fury. She was tired of it! Tired of eating bland food! Tired of being bossed about!
She opened her mouth. Ulvama jerked her hand back as Pebblesnatch bit. The little Cave Goblin’s jaws snapped shut an inch away from Ulvama’s fingertips. The [Shaman] let go as Pebblesnatch bit again. She didn’t have her staff. Pebblesnatch raised the ladle like a club.
The Redfangs emerged from their huts and watched as Pebblesnatch attacked Ulvama, biting and spitting. The [Shaman] glowered, but she wasn’t quite willing to deck Pebblesnatch. She was getting there, but she backed up. The Redfangs grinned. They were greatly entertained by the scene.
Before Ulvama decided to kick her, Pebblesnatch feinted, swinging at the [Shaman]’s belly and then turned and ran. She raced over to the crates. Before anyone could stop her, Pebblesnatch leapt in.
The crates were fill of pillows, and tools! Pebblesnatch had only one desire, though. She looked around. Where…?
Pan! She snatched the cast-iron pan, adding to her other hand. Pebblesnatch looked around, but this wasn’t the crate with food things. She clambered out as Ulvama stormed over.
The [Shaman] grabbed at her. Now the other Redfangs—including Raidpear—were coming over. Pebblesnatch saw them pointing.
She fled. The other Goblins chased her, but Pebblesnatch ran hard and fast. She reached the forest before the Goblins could catch her. Then she hid.
Cave Goblins were excellent at hiding. And Pebblesnatch had her hiding place. She squeezed into a narrow trunk as the slower, bigger Goblins thundered after her and failed to spot her, hidden. They searched for a while, then gave up. It was only two tools. And they had better things to do. After all, what could Pebblesnatch do with them?
She had cooking things! Pebblesnatch regarded her haul as she emerged from her hiding space. She put them on the ground and studied them. She had…
A frying pan. And a ladle. Pebblesnatch’s face fell. Neither tool exactly went with the other. But—it was something.
You needed a surface to cook on. Almost more than you needed any other tool, having something flat that you could hold was important. Well, spices were important, and oil, and knives, and…cooking was a lot of work.
But this called to Pebblesnatch. Slowly, she picked up the pan. Tapped it with one claw. And Pebblesnatch looked into her hiding spot.
She’d almost forgotten her second possession. It was all crumpled up. Dirty, from being used as a pillow from so many days. It had lost its floof.
But Pebblesnatch pulled it out now. She dusted it off, beat it into shape. And it rose.
Dirty white. A high, mushroom-like headdress. Almost comedic—a toque blanche. Not even Erin used it, but she’d bought some for the look of it. And one had found its way into the Cave Goblin’s possession. She had never let it go.
The chef’s hat rose slowly as Pebblesnatch lifted it up. She inspected it. It was hers. She had given one to Garry after the cooking competition, but he’d given it back. On the basis that he needed a custom hat for his antennae.
You had to have a poofy hat. That was what Erin had told her. Slowly, the Cave Goblin [Cook] put the hat on her head. Her crimson eyes shone as she lifted the frying pan with both hands. Her red eyes shone with the light of a thousand burning [Chefs].
Pebblesnatch was no Redfang. No warrior. No hero or [Shaman]. She wasn’t even that smart, at least, not compared to another small Goblin who had created her own tribe. But she burned. She burned with something greater than her grief. Even after all that had passed, even now, far from home, lost, she had the drive that belonged to her class, her kind of people. The desire that had changed civilization. The true calling of all [Cooks] and [Chefs].
She really, really wanted to eat something that wasn’t complete garbage.
All the Goblins knew that Pebblesnatch was in trouble. The little Cave Goblin was going to get smacked as soon as she reappeared near the camp. And even if many of the Goblins didn’t care too much, most of the Mountain City Goblins would happily grab Pebblesnatch to curry Ulvama’s favor.
Likely, she’d reappear when she got hungry. Or someone would find her. It didn’t matter too much—although Ulvama was furious. But the Goblins were waiting to see that entertaining moment sometime in the future.
None of them expected Pebblesnatch to appear so soon after the incident. In fact, Pebblesnatch had barely taken more than a few minutes. Which actually helped her, because the angry Hobs and Redfangs were still looking in the forest for her.
Now, the Cave Goblin strode back to camp. Some of the Goblins saw her from afar and began to run towards her, to grab her so she could be punished and the tools found.
But they stopped. Pebblesnatch was wearing something. Something that added to her height. A white, well, dirty white hat.
A [Chef]’s hat. The Mountain City Goblins about to grab Pebblesnatch hesitated as she raised the frying pan like the Human she had learned from. There was a glint in Pebblesnatch’s eyes that made the Goblins rethink grabbing her, for all some were much bigger. They stared up at her hat.
Hats were power. Authority. Pebblesnatch was short, but she towered over the other Goblins with her hat. She glared at them and they parted. The little Goblin marched into camp and looked around. The other Goblins stared at her, largely uncomprehending. But some of the Cave Goblins looked up sharply.
Pebblesnatch shouted. She marched over to two [Grabbers] she knew. The Cave Goblins who’d learned to raid bird nests. They stared at her. One of them stared up at the hat.
Pebblesnatch had decided to bring both ladle and pan after all. She raised the ladle like the wrath of good taste. And the two Cave Goblins backed up. They didn’t have eggs! Pebblesnatch pointed at the forest.
One of the Cave Goblins looked like she might protest. It was hard work! And Pebblesnatch clearly wanted the eggs for her. But the other Goblin stared at the hat. And he remembered.
Silently, the Cave Goblin poked his friend. They looked up at the hat. Then they nodded.
Pebblesnatch whirled. She needed food. She was on a time limit! There was no telling how much time she had! Fortunately, she had a cooking fire ready to go. But she needed—
Meat? Pebblesnatch had no idea what she was going to make! But she knew she was going to make something. And her ingredients dictated the meal.
The Cave Goblin stormed over to the small larder of today’s foraging. She saw bugs, squirming in one crude wood bowl. No good. Bugs were tricky! They kept running away from you. She dismissed the bowl at once.
This was a time attack. Like the cooking competition. But Pebblesnatch had learned humility since that day. She was going to do what she knew. And she was a [Cook] of one.
Bowl two held…plants. Edibles. Pinecones—no. But look! Flowers! And other vegetables. Pebblesnatch recognized dandelions, some edible roots. And then she saw it.
A round bulb. No, two. The Cave Goblin sniffed. Garlic. She grabbed it.
Now she was cooking with—well, she wasn’t cooking yet. But she had something. Garlic was a seasoning. And bereft of seasonings—the other crates were sealed—Pebblesnatch took it.
But she needed meat. She craved something hot. You could do good things with eggs, but meat? Pebblesnatch raced over to the Redfang butchering and cooking spots. She could take all she needed since they were gone! And they’d killed a badger just this—
She stopped. The butchering spot was empty. A few bones were all that remained, devoid of marrow. The meat…had been eaten.
All but for a bit of meat. Scraps, really. Some of it looked good, but—scraps. Woebegone, Pebblesnatch stared at them. What could she…?
No. No, this was good. Pebblesnatch grabbed all of the squishy bits of meat. She ran back to the crate. Goblins were staring at her. Some of them eyed Pebblesnatch. Maybe they should stop…?
They stared as she came out with a knife. The Goblins saw Pebblesnatch race back over and put their heads down. Nope. They’d let the Redfangs and Hobs sort it out.
Nearly. Pebblesnatch was panting. She was sure the Redfangs and Ulvama were coming back. She had to run! The Cave Goblins had returned with some eggs. She grabbed at them.
But she needed more! Pebblesnatch whirled, looking for something, anything—
A Cave Goblin was eating something green and grimacing. Pebblesnatch saw the long leaves and white bottom. Wild onions. Pebblesnatch charged before the other Cave Goblin could eat the dirty vegetable. He yanked the food back possessively as she grabbed for it. Pebblesnatch stopped.
She pointed at the hat. The other Goblin stared at it. Slowly, reluctantly, he offered Pebblesnatch half of his green onions. Pebblesnatch grabbed it.
One of the other Goblins called out warningly. Pebblesnatch jerked. She grabbed her ingredients and ran. She didn’t know which Goblin had said it. But they were watching her. Pebblesnatch stopped only once by the fires.
To grab an ember. Her ingredients balanced in the pan, a glowing ember in the ladle, she hurried into the forest. Just in time, too. Ulvama and the Redfangs came back, scowling and very annoyed.
“Where is Pebblesnatch?”
Ulvama glared. The other Goblins looked at each other. A few Mountain City Goblins began to point. And…stopped.
The Cave Goblins were sidling over. Just…walking over. But there were a lot of them. As many as the other tribes combined, in fact. The Mountain City Goblins decided not to speak. And Pebblesnatch began to cook.
Cooking was fascinating. It could be complex as a science, or as simple as applying heat to a substance. But how you applied it, and in what process, and how it changed with the ingredients—
That was what Pebblesnatch liked. Food. Cave Goblins were used to eating raw monsters. Even for Goblins, they ate bad things. But she had tasted good food. And she wanted to taste it again. Because that reminded her of the one good time she had been alive.
Rabbiteater’s Goblins had learned to cook. And Pebblesnatch had learned from her as well. So the Goblin began to cook. And like all things, she started with the basics.
She nearly set the forest on fire with her stolen ember the first time. Pebblesnatch frantically stomped on the fire, and realized she needed a cooking area. So she lined the little space with stones and made sure nothing could catch from the fire.
Then she investigated her food. She had meat scraps. She could fry them, but so could any Redfang. She had wild green onions and garlic. And little eggs, from some bird’s nest.
Okay. She could do this. Pebblesnatch took a deep breath and began. She’d been taught by an expert, after all.
A word on Erin Solstice’s cooking. In recent months, her ability to produce cuisine had been frowned upon by everyone from Wall Lord Ilvriss to Grimalkin to Lasica. But it would have been unfair to say that Pebblesnatch had learned from a poor cook.
Erin Solstice was, in fact, very competent due to experience, trial and error, and her Skills. In her world, she would have been far above most people who did not cook for a living, or even a number of amateur chefs. She could make good food in quantities that would appease even the hungriest customers like Relc or the average Goblin, or Antinium.
She was good at cooking. It was just that Erin had met people who had excreted some of the world’s finest cooking. And if that was a vulgar way to put it, well, Goblins knew that everything that went in invariably came out. Except for arrowheads.
But it was also true that Pebblesnatch had learned how to cook from Erin without knowing why. She did not understand the science, the art of cooking, because Erin Solstice herself wasn’t a focused cook. It was like using yeast without understanding how it worked. This was so because it was so. Don’t ask questions.
So Pebblesnatch might have been lost, without any of Erin’s tools or ingredients or…kitchen. That would have been so, but for one fact. In a random encounter, on a night when all had been happy and glorious, Pebblesnatch had met Garry.
And he was a [Chef]. He had experimented, and in the brief night they’d shared, when he had gone to Erin’s kitchen after winning the cooking competition, Pebblesnatch had learned. After all, the Antinium had to prepare strange ingredients with only his creativity. And one of the things he’d taught Pebblesnatch and Erin was how to think about food.
You had only meat scraps, and nothing substantial, nothing you could bite? No problem. Pebblesnatch placed the meat on the pan and began to chop it rapidly with the knife she’d taken. She cut the meat—and then cut it again. She chopped and chopped, mushing the meat together. Creating…well, meat paste. Ground meat, or as close as she could get without a grinder. Then, Pebblesnatch mushed the meat together.
She had a small orb of meat. A meatball, in fact. She didn’t have enough for patties. But mincing meat to give it life when an inferior cut wouldn’t do? That worked. If only she had salt!
Pepper and salt were crucial elements of…anything. At least some spice made food better. Erin had shown Pebblesnatch the things she put into her food. But the Cave Goblin didn’t have that. And the crates were being watched!
Make do. Pebblesnatch knew she’d get some fat from the meat. So she cooked that first. The hot fat it released would help her with the eggs. At the same time, she diced the garlic and onions.
A taste told her the garlic was fairly strong. So she added a bit to the pan, and the onions. The meatball was taking on a rounded shape, and Pebblesnatch pressed an indentation into the meat, making it almost like a bowl.
She had an idea. Next, Pebblesnatch took one of the eggs. They were small, far smaller than the eggs Erin used. But that was fine. Pebblesnatch broke them into the pan.
She watched the eggs sliding around on the pan, sizzling with the green onions and sputtering fat. But it needed—salt! A bit of pepper! She agonized again. No help for it.
Without a spatula, Pebblesnatch had to flip the eggs as the whites grew thick and the yellow yolk stayed on top. She’d been using a stick for the meat, but that wouldn’t do for an egg. So she found a good, thick leaf, wiped it twice, and used it to flip the tiny eggs.
Good! The eggs sputtered as Pebblesnatch watched them brown. She eyed her first little meatball bowl. She tipped the pan—
A huge hand grabbed Pebblesnatch. She jumped. It was Raidpear! The Hob had crept up on her. He’d seen the fire. The Hobgoblin scowled down at Pebblesnatch.
He thundered, reaching for the pan. Pebblesnatch clung to it, shouting and kicking as the Hobgoblin lifted up furiously. She was so close! So—
The angry Redfang Hob had been about to tear the frying pan away from Pebblesnatch. But he stopped as he sniffed the cooked eggs. He lowered the pan and a trio of eggs slid towards him. Raidpear stared at the mini eggs. Poached. They were sizzling in a bit of grease. Then sniffed again.
The little meatball bowl was wrapped in some leaves, cooling. But it smelled like…it was browned, not blackened. The Hob hesitated. He stared down at Pebblesnatch.
He pointed. Pebblesnatch stared up at him. She pointed at the pan.
The Hobgoblin hesitated, then lowered the pan. Pebblesnatch seized her little meatball bowl and tilted the pan. The three eggs slid into it, poached, hot. A pocket of egg and meat.
She eyed it. Slowly, Pebblesnatch took the little meat cup filled with egg and offered it up. Raidpear hesitated. He stared at the pan. At Pebblesnatch.
By all rights, he should have grabbed the pan, hit Pebblesnatch on the head, and sealed the crate again. That was what he should have done. But he was also a Goblin. And Pebblesnatch’s creation looked and smelled…
Slowly, the Hob took what Pebblesnatch was calling her Wildegg Pocket dish and inspected it. He hesitated. And then took a bite.
It was done well. Both sides of the egg were a bit crispy, and Pebblesnatch had left some shell in the mix, but the green onion hadn’t overpowered the egg. And—Raidpear experienced the running egg mixing with the fried meat as he chewed.
His face lit up. The Hobgoblin took another bite, and then finished the morsel. It wasn’t that it was a lot of food, or even that Pebblesnatch had used many ingredients. How could she? But it was the way she did it.
Redfangs by and large didn’t cook. Some of them did, but generally, they’d eat food after roasting it, if they even bothered with that. Sprinkling some seasoning they’d stolen over a meal was their idea of hard work. Raidpear hadn’t been lucky enough to visit The Wandering Inn during that one night. He was contented by hunks of venison with nothing on them.
And in one bite, Pebblesnatch had ruined it for him. Raidpear looked down. Pebblesnatch was frying up more onion and garlic. This time, she was making a mini-omelette with the meat scraps she had left, and the little eggs. She sealed the omelette, flipped it with a leaf.
The little Goblin presented it. The Hobgoblin found himself sitting. He bit the omelette. It was—tender inside. A tiny bit runny.
What he was experiencing was a mastery of heat. Nothing more. Pebblesnatch stood with her arms folded, her hat on her head. She glared up at Raidpear. The Hobgoblin looked around. Pebblesnatch was out of ingredients.
He sounded hopeful. She glared at him.
Raidpear stared at Pebblesnatch.
“Thing! White, taste thing!”
The two Goblins stared at each other. Pebblesnatch mimed. Raidpear blinked.
He hesitated. Pebblesnatch folded her arms. This was her completion, her redemption challenge. She’d presented her best, with what little time she had. She pointed at the pan, and her cooking fire.
“Can make more. Better.”
The Hobgoblin hesitated. Every line of his sitting posture indicated indecision. But they’d decided—
A poofy hat towered over him. Raidpear stared up as Pebblesnatch stared down at him with a sneer of contempt on her face. You want to go back to eating your raw, bland food? That was the question the hat and expression asked. Can you even go back? You uncultured fool!
Maybe that wasn’t all of what it said. But the Hobgoblin hesitated. He stared at the pan, the dying fire. Pebblesnatch. His stomach rumbled and his mouth watered. He stared at the hat.
Ten minutes later, Raidpear appeared with Pebblesnatch in the Goblin camp. She marched towards the crates, the Hobgoblin following. Raidpear saw the other Redfangs look up as he stumped over to the crate.
Leafarmor watched him warily. Her arms were folded. She was staring at Pebblesnatch. At Raidpear, uncomprehending. Pebblesnatch was still wearing the hat.
The Hobgoblin stared as Raidpear pulled the lid off another crate. Pebblesnatch dove into the box and came out disgusted. The Humans hadn’t included spatulas. Savages.
That night, Redfangs crowded around their cooking fire, watching. Leafarmor was watching with arms folded. Raidpear was hungry. Pebblesnatch had been given access to one crate. She had what lay within.
Flour. Salt. Pepper. Nothing more. But that was enough. Pebblesnatch had a new recipe. Another deer had been killed, and she’d bullied the Redfang in charge of butchering into cutting her thin slabs of meat. She’d also requested—and got—more purloined eggs.
Frying pan, salt, pepper. Meat. Pebblesnatch was sweating, and not just because of the fire. She was being given a chance. But how could you make cooking better? Redfangs could cook; Pebblesnatch remembered the cooking competition. She had to outdo what they’d expect.
This one was for Garry. He’d won his cooking competition by turning rotten caterpillar into a dish that had beaten the other Goblins. And he had a simple method to do it.
Flour. Egg! Dip the tenderized meat into the egg so it was nice and wet. Put it in the flour so it was nice and coated—not too much! And then put it aside to rest! The other Goblins were staring, shaking their heads. Dip meat in raw egg? Why? You ate eggs raw! The other way…you were wasting pure flavor!
They had no idea. None. Pebblesnatch sneered as she tossed fat in her pan for cooking grease. Her flour mix wasn’t pure either. She’d added some of the onion, salt, pepper, and the meat was coated in it. Pebblesnatch shielded her face as the fat in her pan began to pop. Goblins edged backwards as the globules of hot fat shot from the pan. But it was ready.
She tossed the floury meat in the pan and watched it cook fast. The breading began to turn brown as the meat slid across the pan. And the incredulous Goblins…began to come around.
Floury meat sounded bad, even for Goblins. But hold on—this wasn’t flour. This was a crust around the meat. And it had seasoning.
Flavor. The first breaded bite of venison came out. Pebblesnatch offered it to Leafarmor. The Hobgoblin took the piece of meat, ignoring the hot burning from the fat, and sniffed it. She looked at Raidpear. He opened his mouth and pointed.
The female Hob snorted and bit into the meat. She paused. Chewed. Swallowed. She ate the rest of the meat. Chewed. Swallowed. Then she licked her fingers. Some of the crumbs were stuck to it.
The Goblins stared. They had no idea what Pebblesnatch had done. Because…Goblins didn’t know how to bread meat. They knew how to roast it. Grill it. Even fry it—although that was advanced and needless cooking. Who needed a frying pan, really? But that was the extent of their abilities.
Not Pebblesnatch. She was no [Stirrer], or [Roaster], or any low-level class that Goblins received before, rarely, consolidating them into better ones. Pebblesnatch had been taught by someone who actually knew what she was doing. She, small and young though she might be, had the highest level in the highest class.
She was a [Cook].
Ulvama roused from her hut with unfamiliar smells in the air. She stared around the busy cook-fires. She’d had a lot of bone marrow and some bloody meat for lunch. Nothing like what she might have dined on in Tremborag’s mountain. But right now she smelled something…familiar.
Even good. The [Shaman] pushed her way to the front of the crowd surrounding the fire. She stared.
A little Goblin with a hat was braiding meat. She was taking strips of meat, pounding them with a rock on a clean surface (another rock), and then twisting them together. As she did she added a mix of pepper and other dried plants. She was working the seasoning into the braid.
Simple, efficient, different. Pebblesnatch was using her frying pan—although she was working on a simple bread. Goblins were scrambling to raid for enough eggs from the besieged bird nests in the forest.
Ulvama looked as Pebblesnatch turned. The Cave Goblin folded her arms. She pointed, and Ulvama saw one of the finished braids cooling on a rock. The [Shaman] pushed aside another Goblin reaching for it and picked it up. She inspected the meat, and took a bite. Then she looked around.
The other Goblins had broken open the crates. All of them. Most of what they’d found had rotted a bit, but a lot had been stored in airtight containers. Ulvama chewed. She looked at Pebblesnatch. The [Cook] waited, her hat standing proudly. Ulvama shrugged.
Pebblesnatch waited. The [Shaman] took another bite.
The Cave Goblin’s face fell. Ulvama wandered away. It was better than what any Goblin had eaten here thus far. But she needed a wider menu. A bit of sauce would have made this perfect. But it was a start. After all, Pebblesnatch was young. And it was a long way to the top.
[Cook Level 6!]
[Skill – Ingredients Sense (Minor) obtained!]
The Goblins loved her cooking. The Redfangs especially. Pebblesnatch was proud of that. The problem was—the Mountain City tribe, led by Ulvama, weren’t as impressed.
Oh, they agreed. You had to break open the crates to let Pebblesnatch cook. No question. And she had to cook. If you remembered what real food tasted like, not blocks of meat or squirming bugs—you had to do it. But…they were ‘civilized’ Goblins, who had [Cooks] of their own. Ulvama hadn’t been impressed at Pebblesnatch’s rough cooking.
Yet. The little Cave Goblin kicked around the next day, searching for good things to eat. She whirled.
Aha! She found an ant hive here, a beetle there—dandelions hidden here—
Her new Skill, [Ingredients Sense] allowed her to instantly know what edible things were around her! And for a Goblin, that meant almost anything but dirt. And some types of dirt.
It had a range of about…five feet. But it picked up everything in the area. Pebblesnatch peered at some dandelions. She inspected a roach and shook her head sadly.
A Goblin wandered up to Pebblesnatch, holding a weed. The Goblin eyed the runny flower on top, tasted it, and spat a few times. She shook her head and the Goblin, disappointed, wandered off.
A lot could change in a day. Pebblesnatch, by virtue of her cooking ability and her hat, had achieved a level of respect. As much as the Goblins who were [Hunters], or even the Hobs! Okay, not the Hobs. They were more than happy to let her cook. But the real result of yesterday had been…
The crates. Yes, they’d been broken open for less-than-altruistic reasons. Raidpear had endured a few kicks for listening to his stomach over his objection to Laken Godart. But hunger had opened the door. Or crate. Pebblesnatch had access to all the foodstuffs the Humans had left, which was mainly dried goods like flour, sugar, salt, and so on. But there was dried meat…which was green at this point…and eggs in one crate…which smelled really bad…
But the crates were open. And if you were going to take something from the crates, you might as well take everything. The next day, in between hunting for new ingredients, Pebblesnatch watched as the Redfangs and other Goblins began converting every blade they’d been left. They exchanged handles, tested axes—
“Good. Heavy here. Light here.”
Leafarmor was adjusting a wood chopping axe, a hatchet, so it could be thrown. The Hobgoblin tested, and the axe head blurred forwards and thunked into the dirt past Raidpear. He looked mildly put out by the near miss.
She kicked dirt at him as the female Hob went to retrieve the axe. Leafarmor was strong. And she was a loyal Redfang, whatever that meant. Pebblesnatch was making a fondue since the Humans left lots of cheese and some of it had begun to grow stuff. Melting cheese was easy, even if you only had a bowl. The tricky thing was not burning it in the cooking fire. She was also learning about the other Goblins.
Leafarmor had once made armor out of leaves. Tough leaves, apparently. The Hob had been separated from her tribe after a bad attack and wounded, so she’d used the only resource on hand to patch her wounds and create a second skin to fight in. She’d killed her way back to the Redfangs after fighting through a dozen Eater Goats and impressed Garen Redfang so much he’d given her the nickname.
She was making another set now. The Humans hadn’t included weapons, but the Redfangs, roused to action, wanted armor. They’d been stripped of their gear, so they were manufacturing more.
All the hides had been sewn together to create a very crude armor for Raidpear. Nothing more than tough clothing, really. But Leafarmor had confiscated a needle and thread and was sewing together…leaves?
They looked stiff. And tough. Leafarmor handed Pebblesnatch one and the Cave Goblin found she could barely bend the leaf. True, the Hob had found the thickest leaves—not from trees, but broad-leafed plants, but the plant matter was unnaturally hard.
“[Tough Leaves]. Good.”
The female Hob grinned. She was making leaf scale mail, delicately sewing together each leaf. Raidpear just grunted as he repurposed a kitchen knife, wedging the blade into a pre-cut slot in a spear.
“Leather better. Steel better.”
Leafarmor tossed the throwing axe again. This time Raidpear blocked with the haft of his spear. Pebblesnatch heard a thunk.
Very put out, Raidpear stared at the quivering axe head buried in the haft of his spear. He snapped the wood and tossed the spear aside. Leafarmor made an apologetic gesture.
Without the quarrel over the box, Raidpear was surprisingly good-natured. And he clearly had a taste for food. He had gotten his nickname because on his first caravan raid, the young Raidpear had searched for the most valuable loot to take and run away with.
Goblins had to move fast because any attack would generate a fast response from [Guards], [Soldiers], or worst of all, adventurers. And of course, Raidpear’s sack of treasures had turned out to be…pears.
It wasn’t a scientific naming system. Pebblesnatch approved of both Goblin names. And in fact, the two Hobs seemed to like hers. The only one with a problem was Ulvama.
The [Shaman] didn’t acknowledge Pebblesnatch’s name. In her hut, she kept poking Pebblesnatch, but she never said Pebblesnatch’s name once.
“You. Make sweet bread for me.”
The [Shaman] was articulate, intelligent—still mean. Pebblesnatch grumbled as she checked her hard flatbread. She didn’t know how to make it go poof, but Ulvama knew what she wanted.
Bread was simple in concept. Flour, salt, a bit of sugar, water…eggs…the only problem was that Pebblesnatch was getting worried the forests were running out of bird nests. But Ulvama just sneered. She went to her hut, and came back with a small pouch. She handed it to Pebblesnatch.
The Cave Goblin blinked at the sack of eggs. They were…bigger than the other eggs. Pebblesnatch had been making due with bird eggs, but these were…bigger. A lot bigger. Pale brown, still smelling a tiny bit of bird poo. Pebblesnatch sniffed them suspiciously. Were there big birds around here?
Ulvama commanded. She wanted bread, fruits—everything from her home in the mountain. Pebblesnatch grumbled as Ulvama watched her work. Then Ulvama began her own tasks.
The [Shaman] began grinding up bone, the marrowless bone she wanted so much, in a bowl. Pebblesnatch eyed it. Ulvama had some pigment—rust from the blades—she was mixing with the powered bone, creating a dye.
Ulvama rudely ignored Pebblesnatch’s true question. Of course it was paint! The Redfangs wanted it for their bodies. But why did Ulvama need paint?
She didn’t count fallen comrades like the Redfangs. But her colorful skin paint was clearly part of her class. Or magic. Ulvama was drawing a symbol on a bit of pale bark. She’d found some charcoal for another color—but what was it for?
“I am a [Shaman]. You are a [Cook]. You should be a [Shaman]. We have power.”
Ulvama looked dismissively at Pebblesnatch’s dough when the Cave Goblin was finished with her mix. As if she didn’t like the bread! Pebblesnatch had made a french toast like Erin had shown her and that was why Ulvama wanted more bread. Sugar. The Hobgoblin had a very sweet tooth. But she clearly thought her dyes were better than Pebblesnatch’s dough.
“This is power.”
The [Shaman] pointed at her rune on the bark. Pebblesnatch shrugged. Could you eat it? Ulvama’s eyebrows snapped together. She glared as Pebblesnatch began to knead her dough.
The Hobgoblin snapped her claws and Pebblesnatch’s dough rose out of the mixing bowl. Awed, Pebblesnatch grabbed at it and felt it return to normal in her claws. She stared at Ulvama.
Do it again! Pebblesnatch waved the dough, but Ulvama shook her head.
“Not wasting power on you. Nameless Goblin.”
She had a name! Pebblesnatch kicked at Ulvama and ducked a swat. The [Shaman] glared.
“Only a [Shaman] can give a proper name. I have power. Magic is power. Food is food. I have magic. And this.”
She pointed to her crotch.
“This is power.”
Pebblesnatch tilted her head. She didn’t follow. Ulvama sighed and rolled her eyes. She clicked her fingers and the little fire in her hut burst into flames. Pebblesnatch jumped.
“Make bread! Sweet!”
She was kind to Pebblesnatch, in her way. But she and Pebblesnatch came from vastly different tribes. Pebblesnatch eyed the Hobgoblin. Ulvama was applying the black bone dye around her eyes, accentuating them.
She was doing…something with the other Goblins. Organizing them. Like Erin had, or the Redfang Hobs, like Headscratcher, Shorthilt, and the others, but differently. Pebblesnatch couldn’t put it into words.
Back in the inn, Erin said, ‘do this!’ And people did it or she got angry. She fed them, and they were happy so they helped her because they liked her.
The Redfang Hobs were different. They were leaders. Like Chieftains, but not. But the Cave Goblins had followed them because they had saved Goblins. Because they were strong.
Ulvama was different from both. She said things, and persuaded people to do them. Made it seem like Goblins wanted to do the thing themselves. Sometimes she bullied, but only the smaller Goblins. Never the Redfangs.
Goblins liked her, but not like Erin. Mostly male Goblins. It took Pebblesnatch a few attempts to figure out what Ulvama was doing. She figured it out when Ulvama began checking how her limited wardrobe hung on her.
Oh. She was having sex. Trying to, at any rate.
Sex was something you did before you died. Pebblesnatch wasn’t exactly sure why you did it yet, but some Goblins had assured her there was a point. But all you did was bump a lot and scream, and then a baby might appear later on.
She didn’t see the point. But Ulvama explained to Pebblesnatch as the Goblin squatted over an egg-and-sugar mix, dipping bread into it and then frying it in a pan.
“Power. Power is power.”
The Cave Goblin looked up blankly. No kidding? Ulvama swatted at her, but gently. She was explaining.
“Sex is power. You have it. Later. Become Hob first.”
She poked Pebblesnatch dismissively in the chest. The Cave Goblin swatted at Ulvama’s finger with a scowl. Who cared? She patted one arm. Muscle was power. She wanted to be like Rabbiteater.
Ulvama kicked her.
“Idiot. Not all Goblins can have that power.”
She sighed. The Hobgoblin sat back. She took the french toast and bit into it. Pebblesnatch growled. She was just making Ulvama food! But the [Shaman] was talking.
“This is how works. One Goblin is strongest. That Goblin becomes Chieftain. Chieftain takes what Chieftain wants.”
She grabbed another piece of the sweet bread. Pebblesnatch’s eyes widened in outrage! It was to share! And she wanted a bite!
The Cave Goblin punched Ulvama. The Hobgoblin smacked her on the head. Pebblesnatch shouted in pain, but Ulvama raised her hand and Pebblesnatch slunk back to her bowl. Pebblesnatch’s head hurt, and Ulvama saw her rubbing the spot. The [Shaman] reached over and tapped Pebblesnatch on the head.
The pain went away. Pebblesnatch stared at Ulvama in awe. The [Shaman] grimaced.
“Don’t burn food! More sugar!”
She pointed and continued speaking.
“Strong takes. When Goblin—or Human—or anyone is strongest, they take. Only give if they have more than they want. Like this.”
She pointed to the opening of her hut. Pebblesnatch peered outside as she held the frying pan, letting it cool a bit so she didn’t burn her french toast. Ulvama had taken the eggs from a Goblin who somehow had many, many of the fat, big eggs. It was a female Goblin, one of the Mountain City Goblins. Where had she found a nest that big?
But that wasn’t what Ulvama was showing Pebblesnatch. She was showing the little Cave Goblin how the Goblin who had so many eggs acted. When the Cave Goblin had lots of the fat, brown eggs, she gave them out. To Ulvama, to other Goblins for favors like braiding her hair, or other snacks.
But she only had a finite supply of eggs. Which was a fair three dozen, but between Pebblesnatch and her gifts, she was quickly down to her last dozen.
When the egg-Goblin was flush with eggs, she was generous. But when she realized she only had a few left, she was miserly. Other hungry Goblins came over and the Cave Goblin with the eggs snapped at them, hoarding her prizes. She ate two, gulping down the raw yolks greedily, and tried to trade the rest for large chunks of meat. She refused to be generous.
“See? Have lot, give lot. But must have.”
Ulvama spoke and Pebblesnatch nodded. Like Raskghar. When there was lots of food, they didn’t care if Cave Goblins filled their bellies. But when there was no food—Cave Goblins ate nothing. Raskghar ate Cave Goblins.
In the end, one of the Redfangs lost patience with the hoarded eggs. They were better for cooking than eating raw. The Goblin [Warrior] walked over, demanded the eggs, and offered a single slab of cooked meat in return. The egg-hoarding Goblin refused.
There was a quick skirmish. The Redfang took the eggs, and set them aside for Pebblesnatch to make her food with. The eggless Cave Goblin sniveled as she took the meat, running away with it to devour it bite by bite.
“Power is power.”
Pebblesnatch just shrugged. Ulvama was showing her nothing new. The [Shaman] sighed. She tapped Pebblesnatch on the head with one finger. Then she pointed at herself again.
“Can never have power like that. Too hard. Too much work. Too little talent.”
She pointed at the Redfang who’d effortlessly defeated the other Goblin. He wasn’t a Hob, but he was quicker and stronger than almost any other Goblin. Perhaps even Ulvama. Certainty, if they’d fought with weapons, Pebblesnatch wasn’t sure if Ulvama would win. The [Shaman] indicated Raidpear and Leafarmor and Pebblesnatch nodded.
“Cannot be strong this way. But have this—this. Others want. Power.”
She touched her staff, then cupped a breast. Pebblesnatch began to get it. Ulvama gave her a smile. It wasn’t a happy one. It was…bleak. Pebblesnatch faltered.
Power was power.
“Strong Goblin is strong. But I can be second-strongest.”
She was looking at Raidpear. The Hob had thus far spoken with Ulvama and not done much else. But like other Goblins, he looked at Ulvama when she wasn’t watching. Pebblesnatch stared at Ulvama. She asked.
The [Shaman] shrugged.
“Or female. Male is easier. But take power. Any way. Food is power.”
She pointed at Pebblesnatch’s french toast. Then snagged a third piece. The Cave Goblin [Cook] looked down and nodded slowly.
“Weaker power. But power. Not bad.”
Ulvama chewed her mouthful down. She was so judgy! If she’d been at Erin’s inn—Pebblesnatch would have had more ingredients! Like honey! Then she’d make Ulvama say it was good!
The Cave Goblin squatted protectively over the rest of her french toast, but the [Shaman] was full. She leaned on her staff as she added more shadow around her eyes. She looked only one more time at Pebblesnatch. And that was to shake her head as she pointed around the Goblin’s camp.
“Tremborag was Great Chieftain. Bigger than little Goblin Rags. Older than Garen Redfang. He died. Humans always kill us. Always.”
She looked at the little Cave Goblin and patted Pebblesnatch’s head.
“Eat now. Be happy. Then die.”
She took another bite of the french toast she’d stolen. Pebblesnatch scowled. But Ulvama looked sad, so Pebblesnatch made more french toast quietly. It wasn’t as good as the inn.
But it was tasty.
[Cook Level 7!]
Pebblesnatch was basic. She had to acknowledge that fact. If Ulvama poo-pooing her food—despite demanding custom-meals like the french toast—wasn’t sign enough, the Cave Goblin knew it from her level.
Yes, she could fry food and do a few things better than any Goblin, but she was hardly a [Chef]. She wore the hat, but Pebblesnatch remembered the cooking competition. She had come in dead last. She had faced the best cooks of each tribe and they had known how to cook. In her arrogance, Pebblesnatch had made the worst dish, assuming the hat and simply living in Erin’s inn and eating good food was enough.
Now, all those great Goblin cooks were dead. Garry might live, but he was far away. So in their absence, Pebblesnatch did what she’d been too arrogant to do in Erin’s inn: she learned.
She was hampered by her ingredients, first-off. Pebblesnatch had taken for granted Erin’s kitchen and the convenience of ingredients from a city. But Goblins? Goblins had to live on food in their area. And what they had…wasn’t enough.
Take meat, for instance. Pebblesnatch knew tricks. She could grind the meat, braid it, coat it, and even prepare it different ways. Water, oil, fire—
But she couldn’t do much more to it for lack of…things. Like lemons! Where was her sour? But there was no lemon or vinegar in the supplies the Humans had left. Maybe they’d thought Goblins didn’t need vinegar.
Oafs. Pebblesnatch also lacked for other tastes on the ladder of good additions. In fact—she could only do so much with meat. So she kept asking for more ingredients and searching.
The first thing she found were beetles. There were orange beetles around the base of the mountain that some of the Goblins liked to explore. The Goblin who liked stones and who had found all the rocks was of the opinion that there was good stone here. Possibly something underground. The Humans had left picks and shovels, so he spent his day digging a hole into the mountain.
The other Goblins thought he was crazy. Even the Redfangs, who would have liked iron or metal to make more weapons with. But how was someone going to build a forge?
Ulvama took an interest on the same day as Pebblesnatch demanded she help find more ingredients. The [Shaman] eyed the lone Goblin from the Goldstone Tribe digging up rocks happily and frowned. She ignored Pebblesnatch as the Cave Goblin excitedly dug up a nest of the crawling, orange beetles.
“I will sleep. Don’t disturb.”
The [Shaman] ignored Pebblesnatch tugging excitedly at her arm. She went back to her hut and promptly lay down. Pebblesnatch, annoyed, turned back to the beetles.
Her [Ingredients Sense] told her they were good ingredients. Cautiously, Pebblesnatch tried one, popping it into her mouth. Instantly, she spat it out.
Spicy! The beetle’s shell was spicy! The rest of it was ick, too mushy for anything. But Pebblesnatch quickly ordered some of the Cave Goblins to find the orange-shelled beetle that liked to hide in similarly-colored dirt. The spice was immediate, fiery, and didn’t go away. But it made you want to live.
Aglow with it, Pebblesnatch ran over to Ulvama’s hut. But the [Shaman] was deep asleep. Even when Pebblesnatch opened one eyelid, she only saw the whites of Ulvama’s eyes.
A bit…disconcerted, Pebblesnatch left the hut. Even the deepest Goblin sleepers woke up at someone shaking them. Maybe the Mountain City Goblins were that secure and lazy, but Pebblesnatch felt uneasy.
Nevertheless, she was too busy, so she found Leafarmor instead. The Hobgoblin readily agreed to help Pebblesnatch. And she knew exactly what the little Cave Goblin needed. She took Pebblesnatch up, along the base of the mountain to some very odd, flat, long leaves on the ground. They radiated out from a central blossom.
“See? Wrapleaf. Don’t touch.”
The Hobgoblin cautioned Pebblesnatch. The large bloom was inconspicuous amid some other plant life. Pebblesnatch didn’t see what was so special about it—until Leafarmor cut a strand loose. She handled the long, wide leaf from the bottom, and offered the upraised surface to Pebblesnatch.
“Try. Touch top.”
Pebblesnatch eyed the leaf. It had little brown spots buried along the exposed outside. Seeds? She cautiously touched one—
And the wrapleaf curled around Pebblesnatch’s hand. It grabbed her hard, instantly tensing. Pebblesnatch shouted in agony.
Grinning, Leafarmor grabbed the wrapleaf and pried both ends off Pebblesnatch. It only wrapped hard for a second—then it let go. But Pebblesnatch’s hand still hurt! She stared at her hand and exclaimed.
Tiny little burrs were stuck onto her skin. Seeds! Pebblesnatch furiously dug them out of her bleeding skin. Leafarmor helped her get them out.
She might have warned Pebblesnatch, but there was no better teacher than experience as Goblins looked at it. And Pebblesnatch, staring at the wrapleaf, realized that stepping on a bigger leaf would have those little burrs embedded all over your leg.
“Wrapleaf. Strong, right? Lets go quick. Even little things live. But—seeds. How it spreads.”
Leafarmor showed Pebblesnatch the wrapleaf that had got her. The stupid plant was denuded of seeds, having done its work. Pebblesnatch slapped the leaf angrily—then sniffed it and took a bite.
Hm! Not great. Rubbery, a bit bitter—but she could work with this! And the wrapleaf was plentiful here. It was the first big plant Pebblesnatch had discovered. She towed it back to the camp and got to work.
By the time Ulvama emerged from her hut, she found Pebblesnatch working on her next creation. Wrapleaf clinging tightly around a little mix of vegetables.
Pebblesnatch had a simple process. She took carrots, some green onion, a bit of leftover meat minced—a few nuts—all made into a paste. Then Pebblesnatch weighed down a section of wrapleaf and pasted the interior with her spread. Then she took off one of the rocks holding the plant down.
Instantly, the wrapleaf curled up. In doing so, it turned itself into a roll, the paste nicely swirled around the inside. There were no little burrs; Pebblesnatch had already picked them off. The Cave Goblin smacked the rolled up leaf with a sharp, wood pick, right through the center. Now it couldn’t uncurl.
The fourth roll done, Pebblesnatch offered one of them on a pick to Ulvama. The [Shaman] was yawning, looking—tired. But Pebblesnatch forced one of the rolls into her clawed hand and then offered a bowl of liquid.
The Goblins stared at the wrapleaf roll, then the bowl Pebblesnatch had filled. It contained a mix of the spicy beetle shells, a bit of water, some animal fat, and garlic and seasonings. Ulvama, intrigued, dipped the roll in the sauce, and bit into the roll. She chewed—and then smiled.
The other Goblins exhaled. That was—Ulvama’s posture indicated it could be better, but it was a good snack, had a nice crunch—and Pebblesnatch had brought spice into the Goblin’s cuisine! Seven out of ten! Six, if you were Ulvama.
Success! The others crowded around for a taste. Pebblesnatch proudly showed them how easy it was. The stupid wrapleaf wrapped itself! The trick was getting the little seeds out, but it was a very edible plant! And the spicy bug shell was great! It added that fire that made bland food bearable.
The [Cook] was so caught up on her success that she barely noticed Ulvama conferring with Raidpear. The [Shaman] was gesturing towards the place where the Goldstone Tribe Goblin had been mining. She leaned on Raidpear as they walked over, talking closely. Pebblesnatch, intrigued, followed them.
Ulvama corrected Raidpear as Leafarmor, Pebblesnatch, and some of the others came over, munching on wrapleaf rolls. Ulvama was pointing at the little tunnel the Goldstone tribe Goblin had built. She was explaining…how to refine the iron?
All of the Goblins stared. But the [Shaman] was insistent.
“It can be done. With charcoal. I will show you how to build. There is iron. Can make iron or steel.”
The Redfangs were very excited by the prospect. Their tribe didn’t have any Goblin who knew how to make steel, and they couldn’t make their own weapons—even iron in the High Passes. Even among the Mountain City Goblins, Goblin [Smiths] were a rarity.
But Ulvama knew. Somehow. She had become an expert in the basic principles of making a crucible overnight, and she was convinced this place had good ore, waiting to be dug up.
But how? The answer came as the [Shaman] tapped her head.
Oh. All the Goblins nodded. Then frowned. Ulvama wasn’t a [Chieftain]! How could she remember something Goblins in the past had done? Let alone such a convenient memory?
The [Shaman] sighed. She tapped one breast as she looked at Raidpear. And she smiled.
“[Shamans] remember too.”
[Cook Level 8!]
Day of Stinky Sauce
Ulvama’s slow seduction of the Redfang Hob was boring to Pebblesnatch. She knew Ulvama wanted to do it for some reason, but she didn’t care. Ulvama believed power was power, and part of power lay between Goblin’s legs. Human legs too, probably. That was all very well and good, but Pebblesnatch aimed a little higher up.
At the stomach. And hers growled for something to add to the meat! You couldn’t just spice it with…spices! At some point you needed a glaze. Marinades!
But for the moment, she did a soup. Pebblesnatch found herself fighting with Ulvama for control of all the bones produced by the Redfangs hunting. At first it was a hard battle, and not just with Ulvama. The Goblins did not enjoy giving up the meaty bones and delicious and filling marrow, as well as a good amount of meat scraps, but they changed their mind when Pebblesnatch made up a stock.
The process was simple, and Pebblesnatch educated a few interested Goblins. They were [Stirrers], or aspiring [Cooks] like her. The key to making a broth was time.
Roast the meat, bones, and vegetables over the fire, taking care not to burn yourself and kick any Goblin trying to sneak your ingredients. Toss them in one of the big boiling pots, and add water. At this point Pebblesnatch tossed in wild celery, a few peppercorns, and other edible leaves and vegetables, including the helpful and prolific garlic the Goblins kept finding.
When the water was near boiling, she took the cook fire down, so it was simmering. Then came the hard part. Waiting for hours while the stock mixed all those flavors. Occasionally Pebblesnatch took off the lid and scooped off the icky bits on top, but the real problem was smacking all the Goblins wandering over for a taste with her ladle.
After that, Pebblesnatch cleared the pot of bones and vegetables. Ulvama took the bones, annoyed at how wet they were, and Pebblesnatch ate the vegetables. Her broth was done! It had a few bits floating in it, but it was the thing of wonders. Another [Chef] might have chilled it and kept it for later while removing the fat—no Goblin [Cook] in the world would do the same.
Then, Pebblesnatch turned it into a soup. It wasn’t hard. She just made a normal soup. But instead of water, she used her pre-made broth. And it made a world of difference.
The Goblins were awestruck, even the Redfangs. Because when they made soup, they added food to water. They had no concept of broths, or simmering to allow flavors to emerge. Scooping scum off the surface of a pot was good cookery to most Goblins!
Pebblesnatch kept a portion of her broth. She turned what she’d saved into a thick gravy by adding some flour, more seasonings, and so on to make it thicker. That went well over the venison. It wasn’t perfect, but…it was better than nothing!
It went over a hit. Some of the Redfangs grilling meat were very pleased to slather their slices in the gravy and chow down. Pebblesnatch was nodding authoritatively. See? This is why you needed a sauce. Even simple dishes needed that!
The other Goblins were milling about, stuffing their faces on her creation when Pebblesnatch felt a tug on one arm. She looked around and saw another Goblin grinning. He had gravy around his lips and was licking them. He nodded approvingly.
He had something to show Pebblesnatch. She wandered off after him. Then she noticed Ulvama was giving Raidpear a massage. Pebblesnatch sighed. She wanted a massage. Ulvama had shown her how to do it, as well as how to mix up bone dyes—although that was only so Pebblesnatch could help her.
The other Goblin poked Pebblesnatch. She blinked at him. He had a nickname!
The Goblin was fairly old, as Goblins went. Seven years, almost. He was a Flooded Water tribe Goblin. An original Goblin, from Liscor.
He had known his Chieftain, Rags, when she was born. And he’d followed her north, and then returned to Liscor only to be captured at the end of the terrible battle. And he had a class Pebblesnatch had never encountered before.
It was the kind of class that provoked questions the instant you heard about. Mostly…why? Holdnose kept beckoning Pebblesnatch over to a stone cave. It was near the river, but no Goblins were wandering the area. Even to get fish.
Pebblesnatch realized why, instantly. The cave stank. Not even in a ‘I can tolerate this for a while’ stink, but the kind of stink that you either grew numb to, or threw up in.
Holdnose had made a camp here. And he had pots! Pans, taken from the crates, and crude stone vessels, some chipped out of the cave floor! All of them were filled with…sauce.
Fish sauce. Pebblesnatch stared, but Holdnose was adamant. He could make fish sauce?
The [Rotter] was in fact, a fermentation expert, a concept which Goblins understood, without the scientific terms. Holdnose had learned how to turn perfectly good food into a rotten—fermented, rather—substance. All you needed was a fresh fish.
He had one in a crude net now. He pulled it out, killed the fish with a quick smack, and got to work as Pebblesnatch watched.
Chop up the fish fresh, bones and all, and then pound and mix them up. Blood, guts, innards—all in a bowl. Then, add some water and good spices. A good bit of salt! And then?
He dumped it in a pot and closed the lid. Then, Holdnose put some rocks on top just to make sure. Pebblesnatch saw the Goblin turn around and grin.
“Many days. This many.”
He waved his clawed hands. Pebblesnatch stared.
You left it there for a month. Possibly two. You sealed the container, made sure nothing ate it, like little bugs. And when it came out, you had a tasty…sauce.
She folded her arms.
“No. Bad lies.”
Holdnose insisted. It was tasty! And a sauce, like she had made, but tastier! Pebblesnatch scoffed.
He showed her. The Goblin had begun his work the instant he’d gotten here. And it took him only one week for whatever he wanted to turn into a sauce, thanks to his Skills. He had a little hollowed-out stone pot with a terribly smelling fish sauce.
Pebblesnatch recoiled at the smell of the viscous liquid. It looked foul! And in the cave full of successful rots and unsuccessful rots, even her stomach was roiling. But one taste—
Flavor! Pebblesnatch’s eyes widened. She seized Holdnose and he grinned as she danced around! Flavor! This was a proper sauce! The kind you could marinade with! Infuse flavor into her dishes!
When Pebblesnatch stopped dancing, she pointed at the jar of sauce.
Holdnose tilted his head thoughtfully. He wanted something in return. Pebblesnatch hurried back to her camp and came back with a bundle of her prepared foods.
She traded him sixteen wrapleaf rolls for the precious jar of fish sauce. Holdnose was already chuckling to himself as Pebblesnatch carried off her new flavoring; he was dipping the wraps in another sauce and munching them down. He promised Pebblesnatch more; he was experimenting with everything.
There were a lot of new vegetables entering the camp. Not just salvaged wild plants like the green onions, but carrots, cucumbers, a cabbage—they were big, luscious, and Pebblesnatch had no idea where they were coming from. Even Holdnose had a few. She stared as he pointed to another pot he was planning to try and rot some cucumbers in. At this point it occurred to Pebblesnatch to ask.
Why? The other Goblin gave Pebblesnatch a blank look. Why did he rot things? Why was this a class? He shrugged as he dipped another roll in his fishy sauce.
That was really all there was to it. Holdnose enjoyed the process and what he made. Plus, you could bottle up the fermented sauce and it stayed good for months. Even as long as a year or more with Skills! It had saved his tribe in the old days more than once, during cold, long winters.
Pebblesnatch looked at Holdnose, deeply impressed. Even Erin didn’t know how to ferment. But this Goblin, a survivor from the battles, was happily fermenting garlic, fish, pickles, anything he could find.
It was also probably a survival mechanism—the food stank. Apparently, Holdnose could even chase away Rock Crabs if he made enough of a smell.
Pebblesnatch went back to camp with her fish sauce, which was a hit—she was already trying to figure out what to do with the potatoes a Goblin delivered her. Oh! The egg-Goblin! Somehow she’d found a…sack…of big potatoes.
Pebblesnatch stared at the other Goblin. The Goblin avoided her gaze and nodded. She hurriedly pressed the sack into Pebblesnatch’s hands and hurried off. Leafarmor came over, frowning.
The [Cook] showed her. Leafarmor frowned.
Apparently. Pebblesnatch shrugged. The Hob paused, but then she shrugged too.
She wandered off. Pebblesnatch agreed. For a Cave Goblin and a Redfang used to rocky, inhospitable terrain like the High Passes and the dungeon, the idea that you could stick food in the ground and get more food was stupid. And these were a lot of potatoes! Pebblesnatch could make fried fries, but…how basic.
She was imagining potato boats, hollowed out and refilled with good stuff, potato pancakes, mashed potatoes…
She headed into the hut where Ulvama let her sleep. Then Pebblesnatch wandered out. Leafarmor pricked up her ears as Pebblesnatch wandered over to her hut. The other Cave Goblins looked around. Ulvama’s hut was noisy.
Sex. Pebblesnatch sighed, and began peeling a potato. It really was strange. They were such big potatoes too. She wondered what level of [Gatherer] you had to be to find such nice plants.
[Cook Level 10!]
[Conditions Met: Cook → Forager Cook Class!]
[Class Consolidation: Grabber removed.]
[Skill – Natural Oils obtained!]
[Skill – One More Portion obtained!]
Bad Day, Witch Day.
Pebblesnatch had changed her classes. It put a smile on her face, even larger than on Raidpear’s. Leafarmor rolled her eyes and poked him, but Ulvama seemed satisfied too. With Pebblesnatch as much as herself.
[Forager Cook]. It wasn’t the best class consolidation, and it was still below [Chef]. But Pebblesnatch had gotten it at Level 10. And—it had its benefits.
The first was her [Natural Oils] Skill. It sounded like nothing, but Pebblesnatch found she could distill a crazy amount of cooking oil from the animals the Redfangs brought in. Enough so that she could cook with it without waiting for the next kill. But if that Skill was ‘good’, her second Skill was amazing.
[One More Portion]. It meant that whenever she made anything—anything, there was always a bit more than what she’d thought. Like her wrapleaf roll paste. If Pebblesnatch made a huge bowl, she’d have a hand-sized portion when she was done, even if she should have just had the bowl’s worth.
It was the best Skill for Goblins. Not powerful, but even Ulvama was praising Pebblesnatch for it. She showed the little Goblin how to braid her hair as she explained.
“When higher level, bigger portions. Lots of food. Starving tribes don’t starve if you make all the food.”
Pebblesnatch wriggled as the [Shaman] braided her hair. Ulvama tapped her hard on the head and Pebblesnatch stopped. Ulvama had gotten her wish too.
Raidpear wasn’t in charge, but between him and Leafarmor, he had a loud command of the camp. And with Ulvama, she’d gotten more Goblins to follow the Goldstone Goblin in mining ore. Ulvama wanted to make iron. She also wanted tools for her hut. Ingredients for paint, and so on. And all the Goblins were obliging her wishes.
“Tribe should be strong. Tribe needs a [Chieftain].”
Pebblesnatch scoffed. The Goblins here didn’t need a [Chieftain]! They were still prisoners! Even if they had been here in peace, they couldn’t leave. And…they’d had Chieftains.
Amazing ones. How could Raidpear compete, even if he tried? He didn’t want to. Ulvama pulled Pebblesnatch’s hair, scowling.
“We need a [Chieftain]. Stop moving.”
Pebblesnatch didn’t argue. Ulvama did what Ulvama wanted. So did Pebblesnatch.
Her cooking ability in the Goblin camp had grown by leaps and bounds. Now, any meal had to have a sauce, or some glazing, or at least some decent spicing on the roasting meat, without burning the food. Even the other Goblins were inspired by her cooking. Pebblesnatch was no [Chieftain], but she had an influence on the camp.
And she was happy with that. So happy, just to eat and find new foods. It made her stop thinking about the inn, and Pebblesnatch visited the bark door with the glowing red mana stone in it less and less. It wasn’t perfect, living like this. But it was okay.
It continued, those pleasant days, for almost four days in a row. Four days of happiness. Pebblesnatch slept in the Redfang huts since she was clearly unwelcome in Ulvama’s hut. Leafarmor seemed content with the obvious relationship between the [Shaman] and Raidpear.
“Makes happy. Also, not want. Ulvama tried me too.”
She winked at Pebblesnatch as she sewed a second set of leaf armor up. Pebblesnatch blinked at her. Leafarmor seemed to know what Ulvama was doing and didn’t care. Because all was well.
Until the day a Goblin came staggering into their little village, screaming in pain. Pebblesnatch tumbled out of her hut in alarm, and Leafarmor was out of her cot in a second, throwing axe in hand. The other Goblins were on their feet too. They stared as the Goblin fell to her knees.
It was the Goblin who’d found the brown eggs. She had more now, in a little satchel. And something else.
A feathered arrow, protruding from one shoulder.
She had come from the direction of Riverfarm. Pebblesnatch was uncomprehending as Ulvama raced from her hut. She didn’t understand. The Goblin had gone towards Riverfarm? Why?
It was funny. At least, ironic. Cave Goblins didn’t steal. They didn’t even think of it, because all they’d known were their Raskghar masters. They’d been part of a tribe where they sometimes took food in secret, to live, or snatched things, but they had no concept of stealing from anyone else. After all, the dungeon had only walking suits of armor, monsters, traps. There was no one to steal from.
It had never occurred to Pebblesnatch how the egg-Goblin had gotten her eggs. Or the potatoes. The carrots. The cucumbers or anything else. She’d assumed someone had found the vegetables. But now, Pebblesnatch saw Ulvama peering at the arrow. The [Shaman] looked around, and then the way the Goblin had come.
She’d left a trail. She had come past the line the [Emperor] had drawn in the ground. There was shouting from that way, distant, but growing in volume.
A funny thing. Perhaps the [Emperor] watched closely, even now. The Goblins had stopped trying to escape their territory—they mainly did it once every few days at most, just to see if the Humans had given up. But they were always caught.
Because the [Emperor] could sense a lone Goblin, or a small group making tracks away from his territory. But what about closer to his village? Where there were so many other Humans, milling about? If a lone Goblin crept around when he was slumbering…
Pebblesnatch looked at the wounded [Thief] Goblin whom Ulvama was tending to and knew. The shouting was growing louder, from far off. The Redfangs stirred. They gripped their weapons and the other Goblins looked up. A familiar feeling of dread engulfed Pebblesnatch.
The quiet days were over. Raidpear slowly emerged from Ulvama’s hut with a spear. He looked at Leafarmor and she sighed.
“Your majesty, Riverfarm’s folk won’t tolerate any more of it! I’ve talked them down, but something must be done. Please, sire!”
Laken Godart sat on his wooden throne. He waited until Mister Prost was done. The [Steward] was unusually agitated, to raise his voice against Laken. But then, this concerned his greatest objection.
“The Goblins. Tell me no one crossed their border?”
“No, your Majesty. But we’re watching it! Beniar’s got a few [Riders] stationed there, but a few [Archers] have bows since—”
He faltered. Laken sighed.
“Since I won’t post an armed guard. Your objection, Mister Prost, is noted. And have the Goblins responded?”
“They’ve got weapons, sire. The ones with red stripes are in front. The rest of ‘em are loitering about.”
“That’s a relief.”
Laken sighed. Mister Prost stared at him.
“It’s regrettable. Certainly, Mister Prost. But I don’t understand why this is the straw that has broken Riverfarm’s back.”
Laken looked up, and around his throne room. Well, that’s what he called it.
The room was silent for a moment. Durene, Wiskeria, Lady Rie, were all silent. And so were the two [Witches] with the pointed hats. Gamel, standing by the doors, wasn’t going to say anything. Laken turned his head.
“As far as we know, your Majesty. But it explains all the thefts we’ve been having!”
“All of them? Mister Prost, you were convinced we had at least a dozen petty thieves in Riverfarm. And I’ve already found eighteen.”
The [Steward] faltered.
“Well—certainly it explains who’s been raiding the chickens and our fields! We posted a watch, but we barely noticed the damn Goblin. Good thing Longwain spotted it—”
“And promptly put an arrow in its shoulder. Couldn’t he have called an alarm?”
“Should the [Farmers] have entertained [Thieves], your Majesty? Goblin or not, that is how they deal with those who steal what they’ve worked hard to grow.”
Lady Rie’s voice was smooth. The [Lady] shifted as Laken turned his head, his eyes still closed towards her.
“I suppose not, Lady Rie. But I’m just a bit dismayed at the reaction of Riverfarm’s folk. I believed the village had just gotten used to the idea of Goblins…existing. Without having harmed anyone, for over two weeks. There’s been no violence.”
“But we’ve been raided all that time, your Majesty.”
“Raided. By a single Goblin?”
“There may be more.”
“True. But—raided? I’ve seen a Goblin raid, Prost.”
The [Steward] paused. The former [Farmer] tightened his hands.
“Yes, your Majesty. You saved us. And we were there. I was there.”
Laken dipped his head slightly.
“It was not a raid, Mister Prost. It’s Goblin [Thieves]. As bad as Human [Thieves], I will grant you. But I won’t march into the Goblin territory to grab one Goblin [Thief]. What would I do?”
“Punish her. Laken, a [Thief]’s a [Thief].”
Durene was scowling. Laken looked at her.
“And this one has an arrow in her side. Moreover, the Goblins have their own territory.”
“Which you gave them.”
Lady Rie, Prost, and Durene. None of them were in their usual accord with Laken. The [Emperor] nodded.
“We’ve argued this over. Mister Prost, if a Human stole from the Goblins—”
“—And the Goblins marched into Riverfarm and demanded the Human for their justice, would you accept?”
“Sire. Are you planning on doing nothing?”
The [Emperor] shook his head.
“I won’t evict the Goblins. Because, as Lady Rie is all too quick to point out, or Beniar, or anyone else, doing so would just create another Goblin tribe. If I want to clean up my mistake—”
He paused, and his tone indicated he didn’t share the other’s belief.
“—I should kill every last Goblin. Just order the army to surround and execute them. Finish the job that should have taken place at Liscor. Am I hearing you all correctly?”
He scowled at his advisors. Rie exchanged a look with Durene, for once in solid agreement. There was a sound from behind Prost.
“Your Majesty, you’ve explained why you think Goblins should be allowed their space. But Mister Prost is correct when he says they’ve committed a crime.”
Wiskeria spoke slowly. She wasn’t as furious as the others, but she did look at the [Emperor]. Laken sighed.
“True enough. And no, I won’t ignore this. But neither will I do something that will clearly lead to conflict. I’ve been trying to prove a point! One Goblin [Thief] is not all Goblins! And if they are warlike monsters with no capacity for reason, why have we not already had to slaughter them?”
He struck his armrest of the throne. The room fell silent. Laken looked around.
“I’m tired to death of arguing over their inherent evil. Yes, one Goblin stole crops. No, I will not order them all slain. Have you looked at them?”
Durene’s mutter made the room go silent. Laken paused.
“I’m glad not to be able to see them, Durene. If they look like monsters, I’d probably be more inclined to treat them like monsters. But monsters do not weep. Monsters do not grieve. And I have heard both. I would rather give up ten thousand eggs than add to my sins.”
More silence. Laken sighed. He turned his head, looking past his immediate advisors.
“You’ve been very quiet, Witch Hedag, Witch Eloise. What do the [Witches] counsel?”
The two [Witches] looked up. Eloise was sipping a cup of tea. Hedag was making a charm, her thick fingers skillfully sewing something up. Hedag, the giant, looked at Eloise, and the old [Witch] answered with a polite smile and nod. Laken couldn’t see it, but politeness was Eloise.
“They have no reason to love you, your Majesty. Or any Humans. These Goblins have seen war. And your people have every right to fear what they’d do.”
“True. I was hoping you’d take my side, Witch Eloise. Yes, they have every right to a grudge. But surely there is hope? Or must we slaughter them all? What of you, Witch Hedag?”
The big woman issued a booming laugh. Her axe was propped up in the chair she sat in—the two [Witches] had chairs, even if no one else did. They wouldn’t stand on an [Emperor]’s will. Hedag tipped her hat, grinning.
“If a Goblin were the same as other folk, [Witches] at least would remember, young man. But we remember them in good times and ill! Your villagers sees only what they want, but they’re right that a Goblin King never embraced any other species. They’ve brought only death and the kind of death that would curl any toes!”
Her voice echoed in the room like a cheerful headswoman. Which is what she was. Hedag paused.
“True, Goblins have worked with good folk before. [Witches] remember. We’ve even welcomed them into our covens.”
Eloise nudged Hedag. The [Witch] laughed. Everyone was staring.
“Whoops! Was it a secret? Goblins can be many things. They level, so surely they have minds. But almost always, [Witches] remember they’ve come into conflict with the good folk. Because the good folk always turn to Goblins whenever the first chicken get stolen. Even if it was their neighbor! Easy to blame monsters, eh?”
She grinned around. Prost and Durene glared, and Rie pursed her lips. Wiskeria just shook her head despairingly. Laken sighed.
“So your counsel is also that there’s nothing to be done, Hedag? Eloise?”
He turned his head towards them, almost annoyed by their responses. But both [Witches] smiled. Hedag laughed as she tipped her hat back.
“I never said that. We offer perspective, little [Emperor]! But I’d not waste words on a fellow whose mind is already made up!”
Laken smiled, unexpectedly. He chuckled.
“True. You see right through me.”
“Your Majesty! You can’t be thinking of doing nothing—”
Dismayed, the council turned back to Laken. The [Emperor] waved his hand.
“No, Mister Prost. Not ‘nothing’. It’s clear that Riverfarm’s good citizens would take matters into their own hands if nothing happened. I suppose it’s time to allow some leeway when it comes to the Goblins.”
The [Witches] sitting across the back wall looked up. Durene stirred, and Wiskeria looked at Laken sharply. He sighed.
“Riverfarm will simply have to take its own precautions. As such, here are my orders as to what will happen and what may happen. Listen closely…”
The council listened. They liked it, and didn’t like it. But they acquiesced. Laken waved his hand.
“I hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. But by all means. I’ll allow more time in the evenings for time off, Mister Prost. But I don’t let a single hand work there when they have their jobs. Is that acceptable?”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
The [Steward] bowed. Laken sighed. But for this, everything would be fine. He turned his head towards Durene. Another argument. But…
Laken looked past Wiskeria, at the two [Witches] who had agreed to stay. At least until more of their kind decided to come to Riverfarm. Mavika and Alevica had left, to perform their own errands. Califor was dead. Belavierr had left…
But four [Witches] remained in Riverfarm. Three stood in this room. One, who was Laken’s [General], a [Witch] and a [General] who believed in order. In law. Two more of the old kind, the old ways, who practiced their craft as they saw fit. And one…
“And how is Nanette?”
Eloise and Hedag paused. Both were sipping cups of tea now. It was Hedag who replied, easily as if they chatted. But Hedag always had an edge, even in kindness.
“Alive. Would you prefer another answer, [Emperor]-boy?”
Gamel stirred at the address. Laken just shook his head.
“No. But neither do I wish her to suffer, Witch Hedag. If it would be easier for her elsewhere—”
Eloise shook her head.
“[Witches] do not run from their pain, Emperor Godart. She cannot run from this forever. It will catch up to her slowly, in years and decades perhaps, but this is a battle she must fight.”
Hedag nodded, in perfect agreement. Laken sighed.
“What does she need, then?”
The answer came from both [Witches]. It felt…insufficient. Laken shook his head. Time? For a daughter who had watched…
The statue was still not finished. What could you add to it? Witch Califor, who died for us? Witch Califor, who moved fire to save a village? Witch Califor, Mother to Nanette.
Who was forced to die so that Belavierr’s daughter might live. Laken could sense Wiskeria standing still. Still as stone. What could you say?
Nothing. And Nanette? Not a word at all. So Laken just nodded.
“Of course. Keep her safe, Witch Eloise, Witch Hedag. Some in Riverfarm are still…prejudiced. After all they’ve seen.”
“And what should we keep her safe from, your Majesty? People? She will walk among them all her days. If she remains a [Witch].”
A cool reply from Hedag. Laken shook his head. He valued their words. But it was exceptionally hard to argue with a [Witch].
“Go, Prost. Go, all of you. If you want to deal with the Goblins, take it into your own hands.”
And I hope you all get splinters.
The [Emperor] sighed. But at least it was better than death.
Day of Laughter
The Goblins waited through the night for the Humans to attack. But they never did. There was shouting in the night, and Humans with bows came close to the border. The Redfangs ordered all the Goblins who couldn’t fight to fall back. They were prepared to fight if arrows came out of the forests.
But they never did. The certain-death never came, and it would have been certain death. Pebblesnatch could count how many Humans there were. And yet, the attack never came. The watchful Goblins waited, as the injured [Thief] moaned as Ulvama packed an ointment into her wound and bandaged it. The [Shaman] was worried. Even though she’d encouraged the stealing!
She looked blank when Pebblesnatch angrily confronted her. The [Shaman] swept a hand around the Goblin’s territory. Full of things to eat—but not crops. Not eggs, or animals. How else would they get the food she wanted? That Pebblesnatch made?
Not like that! Pebblesnatch glared. What about what that angry Human had said? Trading? Ulvama scowled.
“Don’t trust Humans. They hate us. Hate you. Hate me.”
She poked Pebblesnatch. This was a fact. Pebblesnatch swatted her hand down, furiously.
“Not all bad!”
She thought of Erin. Who was so kind. Ulvama snorted. She turned away.
“Because you are small. Me? They are not kind to me. Or other Goblins who have what they want. Do not be stupid.”
She sat moodily, with her back facing Pebblesnatch. And her posture radiated…Pebblesnatch faltered. She walked back out of the hut. She thought that for once, if she’d argued, Ulvama would have actually hit her.
Leafarmor explained what Ulvama had meant. Pebblesnatch’s eyes widened as Leafarmor explained. The Hobgoblin grinned. But it wasn’t a smile.
“Lots of Humans. Redfangs who get captured. Female. Nearly happened to me.”
The Hobgoblin laughed.
“No. Redfangs killed them. Humans take off pants! Easy to stab!”
She laughed, and some of the other Redfangs laughed too. Pebblesnatch nodded. Leafarmor grew pensive.
“Goblins die either way. Just die later. Chance. You wait and then stab. Or wait and maybe live. Ulvama lived. If Humans attack—might live again. I? I would rather kill.”
She was making more throwing axes. All the Redfangs were. They were arming themselves. Cheerfully. They were more animated than Pebblesnatch had ever seen. As if the coming battle were something to rejoice at.
She didn’t understand. The Redfangs were even telling jokes. They were laughing. She hadn’t heard a Goblin laugh since…before. Since the battle with the Goblin Lord. But today, they were in good spirits.
“Kill at least four! At least four, or Garen will pull out tongue!”
Raidpear was exhorting the other six. The smaller Redfangs grinned.
“Four? Pull off arms and beat you if not eight!”
One of the Redfangs grinned, hefting her dagger. The others laughed again. Pebblesnatch wasn’t laughing. She was afraid. But Leafarmor was grinning. She came over to the others and waved a claw.
They quieted down. Even Pebblesnatch leaned in. Leafarmor looked around conspiratorially.
“Redfangs fight and Redfangs die. Garen leads to kill the Goblin Lord. And Garen dies. Redfangs fight and Redfangs die. The last are here. The Humans try to keep like pets. Shout—‘why so ungrateful?’ when get bit! And the last Redfangs die.”
She paused, looking around. All the Redfangs were nodding. Leafarmor dropped the last part of the joke.
“And dead-Garen? He sighs. He goes to Redfangs and says ‘stupid Raidpear! Stupid Redfangs’! Meant to be killing other Goblins! Not Humans! Slaughter Goblins first, humans later! Go back and do it right!”
The group exploded into laughter. Redfangs guffawed until tears came to their eyes. Pebblesnatch, sitting among them, stared around. She didn’t get it.
It was a terrible joke. A sad joke. The Redfangs began counting how many of the Goblin Lord’s Goblins they’d killed before the Humans attacked. Practically none of Reiss’ Goblins had survived. What few there were weren’t even represented among the living Goblins here. They talked about other Redfangs who’d died. Laughing.
Pebblesnatch burst out at last. She looked at the others. The Redfangs paused. They stared at her. Pebblesnatch pointed.
Why laughing? It made no sense? The Redfangs quieted. At last, Raidpear shrugged. He sharpened the improvised spear as he looked at Leafarmor.
“Not funny. Not really. But—too many tears. Ran out a long time ago. So laughter.”
He looked at Pebblesnatch, no longer laughing or smiling. The Cave Goblin paused.
She went and tried the magic door. But it still didn’t work. Pebblesnatch thought Ulvama would be there, laughing right with the Redfangs. Maybe that would be better.
The Humans did not attack the next day either. Ulvama was ready for them, though. She’d emerged from her hut after working long after her conversation with Pebblesnatch. The next day, she summoned Raidpear and Leafarmor.
She had her bone dyes ready, and a crude brush made of her own hair. Pebblesnatch watched as Ulvama traced sigils all up and down Raidpear’s chest. Leafarmor had her armor, but she hadn’t finished Raidpear’s. So Ulvama was applying…
Paint. It didn’t seem great, but she insisted on doing the same to Leafarmor’s face. And like the armor of leaves, looks were deceiving.
Raidpear blinked as he struck his chest. Leafarmor tried. She punched Raidpear hard and swore. The paint was hard as stone! Pebblesnatch, awed, kicked Raidpear in the back of the head.
He scowled at her. The paint hadn’t been applied there yet. Ulvama smacked all three as she scowled and did Raidpear’s other arm.
“Magic wears off! Don’t hit! Idiots!”
It would last a few blows in battle. The [Shaman] had other tricks too. She pointed at Raidpear.
“When Humans attack, come. I make you bigger.”
Ulvama hit him with the bowl. Raidpear grinned.
“Larger. [Berserk]. You will be very angry. Grow bigger.”
Leafarmor blinked. She was very impressed. Ulvama shrugged.
“Smaller than Tremborag. It works best on one. A group gets only bit bigger. You don’t die, even when all the blood is gone. Won’t stop fighting or notice wounds. Then—the magic goes away. You die. Fall over, dead.”
Raidpear internalized the news silently. He nodded.
“Good. Give to me. I fight Troll.”
He looked at Leafarmor. She shrugged.
“I find [Emperor].”
Pebblesnatch didn’t like it. She didn’t like how they talked. When the Humans attacked. When. It was such a certainty, even though the [Emperor] had promised. But Ulvama laughed at his promises.
“When. When it happens…”
She trailed off.
“Some Goblins run. Maybe live.”
“Humans see all.”
Ulvama busily brushed paint over Leafarmor’s face.
“Maybe. I will cast [Camouflage]. Stupid little Cave Goblins don’t need to fight.”
Pebblesnatch glared. But she said nothing. Finished, Ulvama nodded. She’d done the sigils in red and black. They stood out on the Redfangs, but not too much. It looked much like their traditional war paint.
“Garen knew [Shaman]. Redfang paint like [Shaman] paint. But different.”
The Redfangs nodded. Ulvama looked at Pebblesnatch.
“Little Goblin runs away. Tomorrow—before Humans attack. I will give names.”
The Goblins looked up. Ulvama scowled.
“Proper names. So you have a name. And when you die, other Goblins remember you. Through memory.”
The three Goblins stared at Ulvama. She shook her head.
“That’s why you need proper names. Idiots. Hold still.”
The Humans were moving on the borders of the Goblin territory. Pebblesnatch saw them. The other Redfangs were armed, covered in their symbolic paint when the three Hobs emerged. They moved to the border. Out of bow-range. To see what the enemy was doing.
They saw…an army there. But not the army they expected. Ulvama, Raidpear, and Leafarmor blinked. There were many Humans there, some with bows who raised them as the Goblins appeared. But no one shot. And the Humans with bows and weapons and armor were one thing.
But there were hundreds, no, thousands of Humans busy at work. They were shouting, grabbing nails, wood, even building a crane-thing! Some had stone, and the rest were making…
A wall. Yes. A wall. It was already hundreds of feet long—well, the foundations were being dug in some places while the Humans had managed to put up actual wood and stone in others. The wall was ten feet tall at its highest. And it was facing the Goblins.
The Goblins stared. What was going on? Most of the Humans were helping with the wall. Almost all had weapons, or grabbed for hammers when they saw the Goblins, but they kept working. They were making a wall.
“Don’t need a wall. Could kill us all.”
Leafarmor pointed out. The Humans outnumbered the Goblins by so many! But they were building a wall. Because…
It took the Goblins a long time to figure it out, but they picked up on the distant voices. The Humans were building a wall because they weren’t allowed to kill the Goblins. Their [Emperor] forbade it, but in the name of safety from evil Goblin [Thieves]—of which there had in fact, only ever been one—they were building a huge wall that would encircle the entire Goblin territory.
Off-duty. Humans came and went. They had actual jobs; this was what Laken Godart had allowed in their free time off. But every Human in Riverfarm, young and old, was helping in the spare time they’d been allotted. [Engineers], [Farmers], wives, husbands, children.
They worked together, Lancrel folk and townsfolk and strangers and Riverfarm’s original number. Mister Prost, Durene—working shoulder-to-shoulder, talking, laughing even at times, and keeping a wary eye on the Goblins. It was an outpouring of community and togetherness.
The Goblins were less-than-pleased by the neighborly spirit themselves. They did not like another reminder of being caged, and the wall was going to encircle all their territory, as stupid an idea as that was. It would stretch miles! But the Humans thought it was a good idea. If you couldn’t kill the Goblins, why not make sure they wouldn’t attack in the night? They wanted to make the wall ten feet high—no, twenty! A solid, smooth wall so the Goblins couldn’t climb over.
Pebblesnatch would have just dug under it. Honestly, if she had to, she’d have used a ladder. Or a rope. Or…it would certainly discourage that one Goblin who’d been stealing. But the arrow had already done that. Still—the Humans didn’t attack.
That relieved Pebblesnatch. But not Ulvama or the others. They watched the wall go up. The Humans were good at building. The first section of the wall was already done, well, mostly. The Humans had decided some of them would patrol at night. It was all voluntary, since their [Emperor] didn’t demand it. But they weren’t going to let the stinking Goblins get past.
The stinking Goblins stared at the wall. When it became clear no one was going to kill them, Leafarmor and Raidpear washed their faces. Pebblesnatch wasn’t sure if they were disappointed or relieved.
After a while, Pebblesnatch got used to the wall. It kept going up, and kept growing longer. At first, the Humans worked on it every spare chance, but after a solid week of building, they got bored, or tired of chopping down trees and getting stones and digging and such.
Fewer Humans came by. But there were still several hundred who devoted every day to it. And there were always Humans on the walls, sometimes with bows, but sometimes with just torches at night, keeping an eye out.
The Redfangs were annoyed by it. They opined that they could sneak up and cut half the throats on the wall before the Humans so much as noticed. Who used fire at night? They were just blinding themselves. It annoyed them, to see the smug Humans.
But the wall was well within Human territory, and the no-person’s-land between the Goblins and Humans wasn’t too noticeable. You could wander into it, but Pebblesnatch found it was easy for her to ignore most of the time. She had a vocation. Cooking.
The only annoying bit for her were the children. They’d run along parts of the wall that were finished and throw stones and jeer at any Goblin in sight. The Goblins, wary of the bows from the Humans, usually just avoided the missiles, but some of the children began to gain classes and their rocks grew more accurate. Sometimes a Human would chastise them and they’d run off, but half of the adults were more than happy enough to turn another eye.
One time, a Human boy as tall as Pebblesnatch threw a rock when she was gathering woodlice. She dodged it, but the stone was heavy and it nearly hit her in the face! She grabbed the stone, about to throw back. The jeering boy paused—
And Pebblesnatch saw a Human with a bow on the wall staring at her. She dropped the stone, went out of throwing range. The Human scolded the boy. But he was there the next day.
Still, if that was all there was to it, Pebblesnatch would have been happy. But the Redfangs began to train, preparing themselves for the ‘someday’ Ulvama and the Hobs feared. More attention went towards the mines, where the Goldstone tribe Goblin had found iron ore.
He had a name now. Chanium. Which was a stupid name, but Ulvama insisted it had been the right one. She’d been giving some Goblins names, as rewards.
Pebblesnatch didn’t have one, even though Ulvama had offered. Raidpear and Leafarmor were the same. They had proper names, no matter what Ulvama said. Ulvama had told Pebblesnatch she could be called Lecci. Pebblesnatch had laughed her butt off! Lecci! Ulvama couldn’t do good names!
The [Shaman] had smacked her for that. But it was true that Chanium seemed proud of his name, since he hadn’t even had a nickname. And the Goblins were experimenting with the iron ore. You could melt it, make it into weapons. The Mountain City Goblins had proved surprisingly good at this concept—after all, Tremborag’s mountain had possessed Goblin [Smiths] and the ‘civilized’ Goblins liked metal more than the other tribes.
Pebblesnatch just cooked. She found more ingredients, now that the Humans had blocked off access to easy greens. Some of the Cave Goblins had planted the seeds left over from some of their meals, and they were zealously checking the spots. There were even a few shoots and the budding [Growers] were very pleased at the idea of free food.
But for now, Pebblesnatch was trying to make insects tasty. Which, generally, involved using her dwindling supply of flour and deep-frying the insects to make them breaded—or glazing them with some sugar. It worked! But it was hardly filling, and Pebblesnatch was worried about the day when the flour or sugar ran out.
Sometimes the shouty Human, Gamel, came by to ask if the Goblins wanted to trade. Anything. But no Goblin ever answered. Ulvama, Raidpear, Leafarmor, all were in agreement. The Humans got nothing.
Pebblesnatch didn’t understand. Surely they could give the Humans something. Shiny rocks! She’d gather them herself for more flour, or lemons. But Ulvama refused.
“Don’t give them anything. They want something. We give them nothing. We are prisoners. They have power. Don’t need more.”
She would scold Pebblesnatch. The little Cave Goblin just shook her head. Ulvama, the Redfangs, the other Goblins—they stared at the Humans standing on the walls. Stared up. Glared. At the ‘better’ Humans. As if Goblins were automatically worse.
Erin had never said Pebblesnatch was worse. The Cave Goblins had been worse than scum, compared to the Raskghar. But they had killed their masters. Won their freedom. In a way, Pebblesnatch’s self-esteem was higher than any of the other tribes. She thought that was awfully funny.
One day, as she was circuiting the edge of the Human’s wall, Pebblesnatch saw a strange sight. There was a…blue thing, sitting in the grass.
It wasn’t a boulder, or an animal. And it had a pokey head. Pebblesnatch stared at it. She thought it was some odd rock, until it moved and she realized.
It was a Human. The Cave Goblin instead backed up. A Human? On this side of the wall? Were they attacking?
No. It was just one Human. And she…was just sitting there. In the grass. She must have walked through one of the gaps in the unfinished wall. It was easy to do, but only a Human could have done it; a Goblin would surely have been spotted.
But why had she done it? She surely knew the Goblin lands were close by. There was a thin, thin gap between the Human’s wall and the land that was…Goblin. Pebblesnatch could even feel it—she was on the edge right now. The Human was just a bit distant, still on the Human’s side. But past the wall.
Pebblesnatch stared. It was a [Witch], she realized. They had pointy hats. Ulvama had told her Human [Witches] were like [Mages], but dangerous in other ways. Sometimes very dangerous.
This one didn’t look dangerous, though. She was a girl. Almost as small as Pebblesnatch. Young. Pebblesnatch knew Humans grew very, very slowly. But this was a girl no matter how you sliced it.
She was sitting in the grass. Just…sitting. She had a basket lying next to her, filled with a few herbs. And a sickle in the other. A good one. Pebblesnatch saw the nice steel, carefully maintained. But the [Witch]-girl didn’t move.
She just sat there, with a blank expression on her face. Her little blue hat sat on her head. She looked ahead, as the sun shone down on her. But there was nothing in her.
Blankness. Pebblesnatch had seen it before. On Cave Goblins, even Raskghar, who just…gave up. She’d seen it on some of the Goblins who’d died in the wagons, on the way here. Something inside them was gone.
The little [Witch] sat like a doll in the grass as the Cave Goblin watched. Some of the Humans walking along the wall, building, it, eventually saw her. They pointed in alarm. Pebblesnatch assumed they’d rush out and grab her, but no one did. A few hurried off to the village, but the rest just stared.
It was not a friendly stare. Some looked sympathetic, others worried, but some looked…mean. And Pebblesnatch heard a whisper.
The little [Witch] never moved. She just sat there, until a figure walked through the gaps in the walls. The other Humans drew back as an elderly [Witch] with a faded hat with flowers walked towards the witch-girl. She too was unafraid. She bent, and to Pebblesnatch’s astonishment, scolded the girl for all the wrong reasons.
“Nanette, if you’re going to gather herbs, you might as well gather them. If you will sit, sit somewhere where ants won’t crawl up on you. Come now.”
She pulled at the girl. Listlessly, the [Witch] like a doll rose. She followed Eloise as the tea-witch escorted her back, helping pick up her things. Eloise said nothing about the dangers of Goblins. She just spoke, half kindly, half sternly.
“You must choose. Embrace your pain. Hate me. Strike me. Curse me. But do it as a [Witch] or not. Califor was a [Witch], the best of us. And your mother, but a [Witch] nonetheless. You cannot deny that.”
The name made the witch called Nanette start. Just for a second. Eloise patted her gently.
“You cannot run from her name. Take the pain, girl. Use it. Don’t hold it, like you do. It will burn you away. But it is your choice. Come now. The folk are staring. And we are polite to them. Even if they are sometimes fools. They cannot change the truth with whispers.”
She drew Nanette away. The Humans parted for her, and the old witch and the young one walked through them. Just once Eloise looked back. And she looked straight at Pebblesnatch, whom no one else had seen.
“Stay away from them. [Witches] are danger.”
That was all Ulvama said when Pebblesnatch told her about the encounter. She hit Pebblesnatch for being so careless and risking being hit by the stones, and made Pebblesnatch make some crepes. Ulvama liked crepes. She missed milk. But she wouldn’t trade with the Humans.
Pebblesnatch saw Nanette, the doll-witch as the Cave Goblin thought of her, every day since then. She was always gathering herbs, or plants along the Goblin’s border. It was wild after all, and but for the wall, there were many good things growing there.
She seemed to be doing it on purpose. She’d walk around the wall, walk through the no-person’s-zone, and gather a few herbs. Stop. Sometimes she’d stand, or sit for hours.
Pebblesnatch thought it was to get away from the Humans. Even the other [Witches] who came to get her, the one with spectacles who was always bowing to Nanette, the big one with the axe and muscles who laughed and smelled like danger, and the old, kind one, all had trouble finding her there. They were [Witches], but that didn’t mean omniscient. And the [Emperor] must have had trouble ‘seeing’ her too, so close to Goblin lands.
A fifth [Witch] appeared after a few days. A terrible one. Crows flew around her and no Human would go near her. She terrified Pebblesnatch. She was cruelest to the little [Witch]. She would walk around her, saying the dead [Witch]’s name. And another.
“Califor. Belavierr. If you would be a [Witch] of ills, or mourn her death, draw out your pain. Or if you would forsake all that, remove your hat. But do or die, for in close time, what you hold will see you slain.”
They all bothered the little [Witch]. But she ignored them all. She just sat there, and sometimes Pebblesnatch would watch her.
But someone else watched her too. The Humans. At first they tried to talk to her, convince her not to stray near the Goblins. But she ignored them as thoroughly as everyone else. She was oblivious, and blank.
And soon, the kindly Humans disappeared. And the ones who whispered that word remained.
It was a curse, apparently. Some of the Humans hated [Witches]. And thus, they hated her. A few of the boys and girls running down the walls would shout the name and scatter.
Hatred. Pebblesnatch understood that, at least. After a few days, the children switched targets. They still threw stones at Goblins, but Goblins never got hit by stones. Even the one boy with [Unerring Throw] couldn’t nail Pebblesnatch. She just caught the stone. But there was another target.
The day came when Pebblesnatch was walking around, hunting for a strange herb she’d seen the [Witches] fussing over. It was something Pebblesnatch rarely saw growing around here.
A glowing, red patch of grass. Sage’s Grass. Ulvama made an incredible fuss over it. Any Goblin had to give it to her. But Pebblesnatch wanted it for herself!
It had to taste good. It glowed. Ergo, it had to taste good. The Cave Goblin had searched for hours for the stuff. At last, she found a nice patch right by the border, near the wall.
She grabbed the glowing grass triumphantly. Success! And Ulvama would never know! Until Pebblesnatch made a lovely…something out of it!
The Cave Goblin [Cook] nibbled at the grass. It tasted…like grass.
Her face fell. It wasn’t so much a taste as a…lack of it. It was just grass, and that was no good.
But hold on. Pebblesnatch felt a tingling in her mouth. She blinked.
Magic. It was concentrated in this grass. And magic was a taste. It was like fizz, but different. More…she could work with this. The little Goblin stowed the Sage’s Grass in her hide carry-bag for experimentation later. Magic food was rare and she was going to make something good out of it!
She only noticed the little [Witch] when she heard the hoots and calling. Distant, a group of the stone-throwing children were on the wall. There were only a few of them. Two dozen at most, compared to all the children in Riverfarm. Pebblesnatch had learned to avoid them if they saw her, so she prepared to block a whizzing stone coming at her face.
But it wasn’t her they were aiming at. The little Goblin looked, and saw a still figure. The girl.
Nanette. The witch-girl was sitting in the grass. Like a…thing…she’d just run out of energy and stopped. Like she often did, she was just sitting, her hat shading her from the sun.
But this time, the Human children had decided to pick on her. Pebblesnatch saw stones hitting the grass around the [Witch]. This was new. She looked around.
No Human adults were in sight. They’d gotten more and more tired of staring at the empty Goblin territory. The wall was mostly done in a lot of places, anyways. It was hardly encircling all of Goblin territory, but a ten-foot-high wall encircled the easily-accessible routes towards Riverfarm. That was enough.
And it meant the stupid Human children had free reign. Pebblesnatch saw a girl throw a stone.
They offered no reason for the fury that made them throw stones. They might not even have been able to articulate it. But they shouted. It was part hate—part glee. Pebblesnatch thought their faces looked like Raskghar. She glared.
A stone landed in the grass next to Nanette. But the little [Witch] never moved. She never blinked. She didn’t care.
Soon, it became a game. The children, frustrated, wanted to make her react. Even the Goblins would block stones or just walk away. Pebblesnatch saw one boy she recognized.
The one with [Unerring Throw]. He had some stones and he sailed them at Nanette. First they shot past her, landing within a few feet. But as the others egged him on, the stones drew closer. Closer.
One whizzed past the young witch’s head. But she didn’t look up. Pebblesnatch, breathless, was staring. Her heart was constricting. The children were chanting as the boy picked up another stone.
“Witch! Witch! Witch!”
The stone hit the [Witch] in the shin. Pebblesnatch saw it bounce off her leg. And Nanette didn’t move. There was a silence and the children on the wall prepared to scatter. But the girl didn’t move.
After a moment, another stone flew. It hit the girl on the side. A pause. And then another. Pebblesnatch stared at the children. They were looking around for the other [Witches]. Other Humans.
Where were they? Pebblesnatch waited. But no one was coming. And the children had turned gleeful. Horribly gleeful, like Raskghar pulling off legs.
Another rock hit the witch-girl. This time it bounced off her chest. Pebblesnatch listened. She was growing hotter.
She should leave. One of the [Witches] would come soon, and if it was the one with crows, Pebblesnatch was sure the children would pay. But none of them did. And the boy on the wall was taking aim. They were all shouting it now.
It sounded like ‘Goblin’. It had the same cadence, same tone. Only the word was different. And the last stone hit the [Witch] girl on the face.
It cut open her cheek, next to the nose. The children stared at the blood. They cheered. Pebblesnatch saw the little [Witch] staring ahead. The Cave Goblin stared at the [Witch]. The stone-throwers were preparing to go. One last stone—they were pointing at the hat.
You needed a poofy hat.
Pebblesnatch burst out of the grass. She didn’t know when she started running. Nor did she have her hat on. But before the last stone flew, she was running.
Running at the wall.
The Human children didn’t even realize what they were looking at, at first. The angry Cave Goblin was so fast she was halfway to the wall before they spotted her. But then one of the girls pointed.
They turned. They saw Pebblesnatch and faltered. Fear, mortal and sudden, engulfed them.
But—it was only one Cave Goblin. The boy with the stone took aim. He hurled it at Pebblesnatch. The Cave Goblin raised one arm and blocked the stone before it could hit her eye. She felt a stinging pain on her arm. But that was nothing to what lay in her heart.
She ran through a gap in the wall. The stupid Humans still had them. The children were screaming now, running.
They were calling the alarm. But they weren’t terrified. There was one Cave Goblin, and many of them. They were her size. A few of the large ones raised their fists, grabbing rocks.
That was their mistake. They thought size made them equal. They forgot Pebblesnatch, small though she was, Cave Goblin though she was, was a Goblin. She had killed monsters. She had fought, been trained by Rabbiteater.
She charged up the stairs the Humans had built. The first boy swung a rock. Pebblesnatch kicked him off the wall. She seized the next, brought her head forwards. She broke something. Probably a face.
The Cave Goblin was surrounded by Humans. They screamed as the first boy landed and shrieked in agony as he hit the ground, ten feet down. The others raised their stones. They screamed, opening their mouths wide.
The Cave Goblin’s jaws opened, exposing a double row of sharp teeth. The Humans looked into that mouth and paled. Pebblesnatch bit. She grabbed another arm, snatched the stone, and began bashing everything in sight.
The screaming children’s voices didn’t attract anyone at first. But eventually, someone did hear the shriek. And then—there was a horn. Pebblesnatch heard shouting.
She looked up from kicking the boy with [Unerring Throw] in the stomach. Pebblesnatch had a few bruises, nothing else. The children had either fled or were lying on the ground. Every time one got up, Pebblesnatch hit them.
She froze as the Humans thundered at her. They had bows. And one burst out of the trees near the wall. He saw the scene. Took aim.
Pebblesnatch dove off the walls. The arrow missed. The Cave Goblin landed on one of the children she’d thrown, scrambled up.
She ran. But the Humans didn’t stop at the walls. They saw the children, saw the Goblin running. And they crossed the wall.
The day the Goblins had waited for came out of nowhere. It began with Pebblesnatch, running, horns, blaring. The Redfangs, training by themselves, looked up and heard death in the air.
They grabbed their weapons. Raidpear held still as Ulvama frantically painted the magic sigils on his body. Leafarmor just laughed.
The Hobgoblin patted Pebblesnatch’s head. She walked out of the hut, holding her throwing axes. Other Goblins joined her.
Mountain City Goblins. Flooded Waters Goblins. Cave Goblins. Those who wanted to fight. They joined the eight Redfangs as Raidpear left his hut. Ulvama took her staff. She walked out with them.
Pebblesnatch was frozen. The [Shaman] hit Pebblesnatch once, as she passed. Hard as she’d ever hit Pebblesnatch. The Cave Goblin’s head rang. Then, Ulvama stopped. She bent, and picked up some mud. She dabbed it on Pebblesnatch’s face.
“Magic. Run away, stupid little Goblin. I told you it was coming.”
The [Shaman] said nothing more. She turned. And Pebblesnatch ran for the magic door. Ran for the glowing gemstone set in the bark.
But the door was still empty. The magic didn’t work. And the Humans came.
An army of them. Shouting Humans, some with furious woodcutting axes, sickles, pitchforks. More with bows. None of the Goblins laughed. Each tool was a weapon. And more and more armed Humans were coming.
They’d crossed into the Goblin’s land. The Humans were already nearly eight hundred strong and growing by the second. They might have charged then and there, but only one thing stopped them.
Eight Redfangs. Leafarmor and Raidpear among them. Ulvama. Nearly a hundred of the Goblins willing to fight. They stood in a casual line, crude, improvised weapons in hand.
And they grinned. Green skin, crimson eyes. The Goblin grinned in the face of an army eight times their size. No, twelve times. They grinned at the Humans and their numbers, their weapons.
They were waiting for all of them. Ulvama’s body paint was glowing. The air around the [Shaman] was crackling. And Raidpear’s eyes were glowing brighter and brighter. They were waiting for the Troll. And the [Emperor].
He arrived amid the loudest shouting. His [Soldiers] forced the Humans back. Furiously arguing. The [Emperor] was surrounded by furious Humans, pointing back at poor, damaged children. The Goblins waited. Leafarmor was swinging her axe up.
“Wait. Wait. [Curving Blades, Blood Torrent].”
Ulvama was chanting, touching Leafarmor’s axe. The hatchet was sparkling with magic. Leafarmor was nodding, bouncing the axe up and down. Taking careful aim.
They waited too long. Because there was a shadow in the sky. Ulvama looked up. Crows darkened the skies.
The [Witches] had arrived. One of them appeared out of a flurry of crows. Another strode forwards, axe in hand, a smile as harsh as the sun on her face. Another [Witch] appeared on horseback, wand in hand.
The last [Witch] helped a little [Witch] forwards. They spotted Ulvama and Leafarmor’s axe.
“Stop the [Shaman].”
Mavika croaked. The four [Witches] instantly walked towards Ulvama. They made their way through the Humans as if they weren’t there. Ulvama let go of Leafarmor’s arm. She grasped her staff.
It was a curse. The [Shaman] planted her staff in the ground. The four [Witches] looked at her. Mavika snapped her fingers.
The air grew heavy around Ulvama. She staggered. Feathers seemed to choke the Goblins near her. Leafarmor jumped back. The [Shaman] was choking. She raised her staff, brought it down.
Sparks. Mavika’s clothing began to smoke. Eloise flicked her fingers and the fire went out. Hedag planted her feet in the earth, brought the butt of her axe down and rested her weight on the top.
Ulvama staggered. Wiskeria pointed at Leafarmor’s axe, speaking fast. The glowing axe began to dim. The Hobgoblin jerked. She turned, aiming—
“An arm is an arm, as long as it wields the blade. Hold, Goblin. Stay.”
Hedag called out. She lifted her arm, a mirror of Leafarmor. The Hobgoblin froze. Her muscles strained as she tried to throw at the obscured [Emperor]. But Hedag’s arm jerked in the air and then refused to budge. The [Witch] and Hobgoblin locked gazes, engaged in a silent tug-of-war.
Raidpear looked at Ulvama. She was struggling, trying to breathe. Eloise and Mavika were both—pushing down on her. The [Shaman]’s magic paint was cracking on her body, flaking off.
Leafarmor looked at the [Emperor]. Raidpear glanced at her. The [Witches] would win. And more Humans were getting in the way.
The two Hobgoblins walked forwards. The smaller Redfangs advanced in a line. They were all grinning, joking. Laughing. The Humans saw them.
“Goblin! By order of his Majesty, Laken Godart, halt!”
A Human shouted. But the Goblins kept walking. They swung their weapons up. Closer. The Humans faltered.
Had they seen Goblins? Killed them? Surely. But look at us. Look at us again. The crimson eyes glowed. The Goblins laughed. We don’t fear you.
Time to die. The [Emperor] pointed.
But they refused to obey. The [Witches] were turning. Telling the Goblins to stop. But on they marched. Forwards, forwards, towards the Human.
And a Goblin with a poofy white hat. A chef’s hat. The Hobgoblin’s march faltered. They stared.
No one had seen Pebblesnatch. Not Goblins, or Humans. Maybe the [Witches] had, but Ulvama’s spell had been powerful. Pebblesnatch was in front of the other Goblins. She’d charged, thinking they were going to.
She had on her white hat. It was dirty, but tall. It had all the authority of a cook. And Pebblesnatch had a weapon.
The cooking ladle. She couldn’t find anything else in time. So she’d grabbed it and run with the others. To death. To destiny that Humans brought.
But she hadn’t expected them to stroll. Pebblesnatch had many things, but she had no sense of drama. The slow walk of the Goblins meant she’d charged right past them.
At the Humans.
The Cave Goblin didn’t even realize she was alone at first. She charged with a wild cry as the [Camouflage] spell ended. Every eye turned to her.
A huge half-Troll was standing with the [Emperor] demanding the idiots around him get back now! Durene spotted Pebblesnatch. The Cave Goblin faltered as she looked around. Where were the others?
They were staring at her in shock. Ulvama cursed as she fell to her knees. Mavika was pressing down on her, her clawed hands outstretched. Hedag had Leafarmor’s arm. And Eloise was hurrying towards Laken.
Laken Godart snapped. Bemused, Durene stared down at the hated Goblin. Everyone did.
The Goblin was wearing a cook’s hat. And she had grey skin. She was no more than a child. She turned dead-white as she realized she was in front. But she charged, screaming.
The half-Troll [Paladin] moved to block the blind [Emperor]. She had a shield, metal armor. A club as big as Pebblesnatch. Bigger. The Cave Goblin had a ladle, a hat, and fury.
“Stop that. Get back.”
Durene tried not to hit the little Cave Goblin. The ladle smacked her armored knee. Pebblesnatch scaled the tower shield Durene tried to block her with. Like a spider, she climbed Durene’s arm. The half-Troll girl panicked.
“Get it off! Get it off!”
She flailed reflexively. One of the Humans was caught by a fist and went flying. Laken was shouting.
“Don’t hurt her! Durene!”
“Get it off! It’s on me!”
The half-Troll girl flailed, trying to grab Pebblesnatch, but the Cave Goblin, in a berserker’s fury, had climbed up Durene’s head. She bashed at the half-Troll girl’s head, howling in fury. Suffer! Suffer! S—
Pebblesnatch stopped. The crushing hand didn’t swat her to the ground and the foot didn’t smash her flat. The hand did grab her, but it just dangled her in the air. Pebblesnatch, waving her arms and screaming, realized everyone had gone silent.
“Hold. You will not move.”
Laken Godart was on his feet. The army around him was stock-still. They stared at the Goblins, a few dozen paces away.
The Goblins stared back. They were free to move, but they were just watching Pebblesnatch. Durene, cursing, let go of Pebblesnatch. The Cave Goblin dropped to the ground.
“What is it?”
One of the Humans cried out. A Human female in a dress, behind the others. The [Emperor] turned.
“Is it standing in front of me, Gamel?”
“…Did you say it’s wearing a hat?”
The [Knight] stared down at Pebblesnatch, at a loss for words. The Goblin raised her ladle.
The [Witches] appeared. They walked between both forces, four pointed hats. No, five. Nanette stood with them. Her bleeding cheek had stopped. And her gaze—was a little less blank. She stared at Pebblesnatch.
The Cave Goblin looked around. The [Witches] turned. Mavika’s eyes flashed.
“Who struck at a [Witch] alone?”
“Witch Mavika, what are you talking about—”
The [Emperor] fell silent as the crows flying over Mavika’s head screamed. All the Humans flinched. Even the Goblins flinched. A dark, primordial swarm of crows filled the sky. Black of wing. Huge. And a Raven landed on Mavika’s shoulder.
The [Witch] was furious. Her black, bird’s eyes looked through the crowd of Human. She shouted her voice a shriek.
“This was not the fault of Goblins. A Goblin defended a [Witch] while your ilk threw stones and cursed her name. There will be blood for shame!”
The crows in the sky circled lower. The Humans backed away. Five [Witches] stood in a line. It took Laken Godart a minute to figure out what had been said. His head jerked as Gamel whispered in her ear. The Humans looked at Nanette, saw the blood. Durene gasped. Then Laken spun.
“Who dared attack a [Witch] on my lands?”
The [Emperor] thundered. The Humans backed up. The Goblins stared. Raidpear nudged Leafarmor.
She shrugged. The [Witches] were furious. The Human’s wrath turned to confusion. And then dismay. Some of them protested. Mavika’s flock howled.
Pebblesnatch, staring up the sky, saw the [Witch] raise her hand. Giant crows flew out of the storm of birds. They swooped at the Humans, terrible, winged monsters from another age. The Humans screamed and fled. More crows flew after them, through the air. And then every bird in the forest and air exploded into the air. They descended on the Humans, on the village, harrying, howling like a force from hell.
A [Witch]’s wrath. The Human army fled. The [Emperor] stood his ground, trying to placate the Crow Witch’s fury. The few Humans who dared loose arrows or strike at the crows saw the huge, terrible beasts burst into smaller crows which attacked them, drawing blood, pecking at eyes.
They ran. Laken Godart eventually stopped the crows. Mavika’s fury subsided. She stormed into the village for justice. For wrath and ruin. To remind the good folk of the Unseen Empire about a pact. About why—if you were going to curse a [Witch], you had better do it right.
The last Humans fell back in disarray. They stared at the Goblins. The Goblins looked at each other. Was there a war or not? Where was there death?
It didn’t come. Raidpear’s last death, Leafarmor’s sad joke never came. The Humans fled, behind their wall. The [Emperor] followed after, for what good was an [Emperor] without subjects? And the Goblins…looked at Pebblesnatch.
The four [Witches] were all that remained. Wiskeria, Eloise, Hedag, and Nanette. They turned. And Pebblesnatch stood in front of them.
A Goblin with a hat. A poofy hat. And a ladle. A little Cave Goblin. No hero. The [Witches] stared at her.
And they chuckled. Hedag’s booming laugh, Eloise little laugh, Wiskeria’s rueful exclamation—and Nanette. The [Witch] stared at the Goblin who was her height. And she almost smiled.
Something left her. The doll of a girl stumbled. The other three [Witches] stared. Wiskeria grabbed at what it was, but missed. A raven swooped overhead, and Mavika paused and looked up. She raised a hand and caught it. With effort.
Nanette looked around. She looked sad, and lost, and confused. But she looked like these things. She looked at Pebblesnatch. And she grew very confused. But then, slowly, hesitantly, the [Witch] tipped her hat.
Pebblesnatch stared. Eloise looked at her. Hedag. Wiskeria. One by one, the three [Witches] tipped their hats. They nodded at the [Cook] and turned away.
That was all. The Goblins stared at the [Witches]. At the Humans, some of whom had dropped their weapons. The glorious Humans and their wall. The skies still filled with angry, pooing birds.
And Pebblesnatch, Pebblesnatch, who’d fought the Troll. Who’d faced the [Emperor]. And no one could say who laughed first. But first it was one, and then all.
The Goblins howled with laughter. They dropped their weapons. They clutched at their sides. Pebblesnatch stood there. And the Goblins laughed. They laughed and gasped for air. And the little [Witch] called Nanette looked back. She reached up, grabbed for something.
It was not all perfect. It was not all good. Ulvama hit Pebblesnatch so many times the Cave Goblin was sure her head was lumpy. But then Ulvama hugged her. Pebblesnatch the [Cook]. The vanquisher of little snot-Humans. The Goblin who faced down an [Emperor]. Pebblesnatch the Mighty.
The next day, the Humans awoke to a cry of alarm.
People rushed to the walls, alarmed. And what they saw left them dumbstruck. Because what they saw was…
A wall. The Goblins had built it up in a night. Out of stone, wood. It wasn’t perfect. It was in fact, cumbersome, and a few places had fallen in. But the Goblins had a will. And they had built the wall. A bit taller than the Human’s.
There was even a gate.
“They’re building a…wall? They can’t do that!”
The aghast whisper reached Pebblesnatch’s ears. She laughed as she handed a stone up. The Goblin’s wall was taller than the Riverfarm wall. And better-built too. Or it would be. Goblins didn’t make walls for show. Theirs would be defensible, not just a barrier. Some of the Flooded Waters tribe were installing guard towers.
One of the Flooded Waters Goblins complained. They could do a lot with weight and force, but nails were great. Maybe they could forge some? The Redfangs scowled. Forging, as it turned out, was hard work! It was almost like it was hard to make iron or something?
“Get nails! Trade?”
The Goblins stared at Ulvama. She looked up and glared. She and Leafarmor and Raidpear were conversing, making plans. Leafarmor nudged Ulvama. They were going over plans.
The Goblins didn’t need to wall-off everything. They were making plans for a defensive structure. A keep, around their camp. That was efficient. But they had grand ideas.
“Walls twice as high as Humans.”
“Makes mad. Funny.”
The Goblins ignored the arguing Humans and the laughing [Emperor]. Leafarmor eyed the distant young man and touched the throwing axe Leafarmor had never used. But Raidpear nudged her. He nodded.
“Build big walls. Like stone city. Big walls. And mine—here. Lots of iron. Trade with Humans.”
Ulvama nodded. Reluctantly. Then she pointed to the iron mine.
The Goblins had plans. Maybe you could trust Humans. They all doubted it. Even an [Emperor]’s word. But they were stuck here. True, they had all they needed. It might even be a nice place to live. But—just in case. Just in case…
The Goblins built a wall, and Pebblesnatch decided that if they did trade for anything, it would be stuff like milk. Milk was irreplaceable. How did you get milk, anyways? She was unclear on this detail. Maybe you milked the milk-plant.
That night, Pebblesnatch went to sleep and dreamed of the inn. Not in a bad way. Just remembering. The Goblins were chatting about possibility. About the future. They were…different from when they’d come here.
A figure stirred in the cot next to the little Goblin. Ulvama rose. She looked at the little Goblin. Pebblesnatch had been responsible for the change in the Goblins. From start to finish.
It was all her fault. The [Shaman] nearly poked the Cave Goblin. But in the end, she patted Pebblesnatch on the head. She rose, and left the Goblin camp, walking past the base of the walls. Past Goblins who had decided to make something here.
What an odd thought. She looked back. From afar, it almost looked like the beginning of something. A settlement. A…city. With walls. You had to have walls if you were Goblins. It looked unreal. Like someone else’s dream.
She shook her head. The [Shaman] went on. Walking into a forest. She knew the path well. She could be stealthy.
The little tree with the hiding space was empty of all the Cave Goblin’s possessions save one. A glowing, red stone glinted in the trunk. And a crude door of bark sat against the tree. Ulvama studied the stone. She picked it up, put it in the door. It seemed to fit the hole hollowed for it.
The [Shaman] swung the door open. She waited. And her eyes narrowed. But nothing happened. Slowly, she bent and inspected the glowing, red stone.
Ulvama poked the stone. Her head turned. She stared south. At something in the distance. She grunted.
“Very far. Too weak.”
And in an inn, Erin Solstice paced by the magic door. A yawning Lyonette cuddled Mrsha.
“Erin, stop that. What are you doing?”
“I keep telling you! I got this feeling when I was on holiday—and its back! There’s something up with this door. It’s like—I have this instinct.”
Erin was restlessly opening the door as she changed the dial to each stone on it. The door to Celum opened, then Liscor. A [Guard] in Pallass jumped as he stared at the door through a metal gate. Erin waved.
“Hi. I’m Erin.”
She closed the door and turned to Lyonette. Then—absently, she turned the dial to an unused setting.
A red stone flashed on the door. Erin stared at it. Slowly, she opened the door.
Nothing happened. Lyonette frowned sleepily at the red stone.
“What one was that for, Erin? The Bloodfields?”
“Nah, nah. That’s this one. I’m not opening it unless the workers and adventurers are here. I’m not stupid. This one’s…oh, I lost the red stone. The door to the Cave Goblin’s cave. See?”
She pointed to the door, opening and closing it absently. Nothing happened. Lyonette yawned.
“Well, stop it. I don’t care what you feel. No one wants in.”
“But I thought…aw, never mind.”
Erin wandered away from the door. After a while, the feeling vanished. The [Innkeeper] shrugged.
“Probably just my imagination. I’ve gotta upgrade that door.”
They went back to sleep. Erin Solstice stared at the door, and remembered a little Goblin.
“I hope you’re safe, Pebblesnatch. I hope…”
She turned away, shaking her head. Erin expected to feel the hollow pain, the wrenching guilt and…but it didn’t come. She stared blankly at the door. Touched her chest. It was probably just her imagination.
“Stay safe, little Pebblesnatch.”
Far away, a Cave Goblin rolled over and dreamed cooking dreams.