The Tarred Goat’s takeover

(This story is a brief episode in the history of Tiat, a quarter-goblin thief, who is the main character in a book series I am currently writing.)

The enormously obese proprietor of the Tarred Goat, Garren, stalked across the small room. His cruelly twisted smile sent shivers of fear and disgust down the woman’s spine. She struggled to sit up on the bed, but the shackles binding her to the wall hindered her movement.

Garren chuckled as he watched the gnome struggle. His massive bulk shook with mirth. He delighted in watching his captive writhe and squirm. He paused with every step, prolonging her misery.

From the common room came the sounds of bawdy songs, the bard encouraging participation from the drunken travelers and villagers who crowded the bar. The silvery-haired gnome cried out in desperation, hoping against hope that tonight, finally, someone would come to her aid.

The woman’s small body was barely covered by the shredded remnants of her once-fine clothes. Her eyes, reddened by tears, stared wildly at the grotesque man stalking toward her. She begged, blubbering and crying, for her dignity. When that failed, as it always did, she turned to cursing his name, his family, his ability to perform. Her ire only drew more laughter from the beastly man.

Just as Garren reached the bed, the door of the room flew open. As swiftly as it was opened, it was closed. But not before an elegant elf in midnight clothing stepped through the portal, followed by a similarly clad bald woman.

The elf flashed a smile, twice as cruel as Garren’s own, the pearly teeth stark against his flawless lavender skin. The tall man bowed sardonically toward the obese innkeeper, then swept a more courtly bow to the cowering gnome on the bed.

The elf’s companion also grinned at the portly human. Her hands slid from inside her vest to reveal twin daggers that glinted viciously in the light of the room. She turned her vibrant yellow-green eyes to the gnome.

“You’s be ready, Dreysil,” the goblin asked the smaller woman, with a nod toward the confused innkeeper. When the gnome nodded, the bald gobliness threw both daggers, striking the obese human in each shoulder, severing the tendons that allowed his arms movement. The man dropped to his knees, his screams of pain lost in the raucous noise of the oblivious drunkards carousing in the common room.

“Interesting choice, little Tempest,” the elf drawled. “Perhaps you should assist our new-found friend, while I complete the task you’ve left for me? I should so hate to see our host collapse in pain before he realizes the extent of his dilemma.”

The goblin growled, hating the name he called her, but she hastened to finish her part of the rescue. She slipped across the now-bloody floor to the gnome, where she rapidly released the locked shackles.

Then together, the two women fled from the room, leaving Garren’s further torment to Dueros.

Upstairs, in the elf’s room, the gnome cleaned herself of weeks of torture and pain, while the goblin kept watch for her bondsmaster. When the blademaster finally returned to his room, he grinned evilly at his companion and their new friend.

“The matter is handled, Dreysil,” Dueros smirked. Then he turned to the bald woman, saying, “Perhaps a warm meal would be appropriate, Tiat? Our gnome friend most assuredly needs nourishment and warmth. See to it.”

Tiat scurried from the room, but stopped short on the other side of the door. Dimly, she heard the low murmur of the elf’s voice, then a muffled reply from the gnome. Gnashing her teeth together at being left out of Dueros’ deal, the goblin thief hurried to the kitchen for food.

 

The village was abuzz the next morning. News of a takeover of the village’s largest inn set Tiat’s goblin ears burning. But when she tried to ask Dueros, the crafty elf only chuckled and continued walking, his path leading the pair far from Kalentown.

Into the fire

The bounty hunter crouched on a sandstone slab, detritus from the tumbled canyon walls. His long ears twitched. Wind whipped sand along the narrow slit of earth. Leather cap and vest did little to protect his skin from the shards of pain.

Sharp eyes peered through the sand clouds, searching the vertical village for signs of life. His quarry had slipped into the abandoned area just hours before. But the bounty hunter had lost the trail in the sandstorm.

Crackling static poured from the black box on his hip. He laid his cased rifle on the slab in front of him and reached for the com-unit.

“What,” he croaked into it. “I’m busy.”

His voice was deep but cracked, much like the canyon he found himself in. The voice on the other end was metallic, harsh and screeching.

It said, “Didja find ‘er, yet?”

The bounty hunter grunted, “Nah, she vanished into Arborga. Sandstorm’s kicking up, though. Ain’t gonna find her today.”

Above the goblin bounty hunter, a raven-haired child clung to an overhanding spar of sandstone. Her filmy, flimsy clothing provided no protection against the whipping sands. She kept herself as close to the warm rocks as possible.

When the bounty-hunter clicked off his comms, he listened for several minutes to the winds howling down the canyon. In a lull, he yelled to his quarry, oblivious to her proximity.

“You’ll not make it out here alone, girl. Nothing but bandits and criminals hiding out in the Outerlands. Best you come back with me. The Masters’ punishments’ll be nothing like what you’ll find among the outlaws.”

The girl, hovering above, shivered at the thought of the Masters. She remembered a time, long before, when she had belonged to a mother. Where she was loved and protected. But then her mother died and the Masters had come.

The wind sliced across the spar she clung to, sending dagger slices of sand across her skin. Exhaustion, thirst and hunger almost made her cry out to the bounty hunter, to ask for the mercy of death, but shrill, undulating calls from the canyon walls stopped her.

The bounty hunter, perched on his slab, snatched his gun case up and jumped from the rock. He wasted no more breath on the escaped concubine. A band of outlaws was something the goblin wasn’t prepared to take on.

The girl watched the goblin flee. She was preparing herself to die, when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Her body was flung aside, across the width of the spar. She found herself looking up into the wide blue eyes of a blonde woman.

“Escaped, did you,” the woman asked, her face breaking into a smile. “And you didn’t run when you heard us coming for the man. Good.”

The girl sat up. As she looked around herself, she saw several women, all with filmy, flimsy cloth tied into their hair. Her mouth dropped open and she sputtered, trying to thank the women and trying to ask questions, but everything tangled on her tongue.

The blonde woman laughed. “Don’t worry, little one. We were all in your position, once. The Masters are terrible, terrible men.”

In a different language, one that sounded melodic to the escaped girl’s ears, the blonde woman said to her companions, “She’s healthy enough. We’ll take her to market. If the Masters want her, they’ll have to bid, same as everyone else. Bathe her, feed her, and prepare her with the euphoria oils. Then we’ll see how much this pretty fool earns us.”

The exchange

The city lights dimmed, right on schedule. Behind her, the towering fortress like tenement buildings sucked up the last of the fading light, leaving nothing for the stragglers to see by.

She stood on the central platform of the waterfall of stairs leading to the lower city. Beneath her, in the most ancient parts of town, creatures of darkness moved, living and dying in the near-endless night. Faintly the victorious cries of hunters and the shrill screams of the doomed floated up to her.

Waiting for her contact to arrive, she had time to reflect on life, history, and everything else. The countless treads above and below brought to mind a lesson learned in a long-ago history class, before such classes were outlawed. Somewhere, down below, perhaps those ancient steps and fountains remained.

The glow ball, hovering inches above her hand, changed colors. Brilliant white to dull, pulsing blue, meant her contact was nearing. She waved her hand above the orb, dimming its light further. The man coming to meet her was no friend of the light.

From the stairs below came a shuffling sound, of many feet on plasticrete. The durable building material held no heat, bore no chill, making it almost perfect for any use. Except stealth. The drawback to the plastic and cement mixture is that it carried sound, for leagues, sometimes. She thought, perhaps, that’s why the central government used so much of the stuff.

The man approaching her was disheveled, wearing cast-off vinyl clothes, in garish colors that would have clashed had they not been splashed with mud and excrement. The woman wrinkled her nose at the stench, but didn’t dare show her disdain. This man lived below. He held no compassion, no reason to refrain from reveling in her murder, if she disrespected him.

Three steps down, he waited.

She bent, scooping up the squirming bundle beside her. The greed on his face was palpable. The woman nearly felt regret at her actions. But, it was her job, what the desperate citizens of both worlds relied on her to do.

The baby started to cry, the drugs she’d used to keep it quiet until now beginning to wear away. The man snatched it from her outstretched arms. He cooed and blew in the child’s face, sending it back to silence. He tucked the bundle into a shallow carry-sack, close to his chest, then tossed a ragged, filthy bag at the woman’s feet.

A last nod at her, then he vanished into the darkness.

The woman from the upper world brightened her sphere, then let it hover over the dirty bag she tore into. Inside, remnants of the lost world: porcelain dolls with cracked faces and torn rags for clothes; chipped ivory combs, missing teeth; small, colorful stones in beautiful patterns on large pieces of pottery.

The treasures, once turned in to the government officials, would ensure enough rations for the child’s family to eat for weeks. The child, in the care of the underworlders, would, one day, become a treasure hunter himself.

Poor ogre

The shadow loomed above him, menacing in its looming heaviness. Leo shivered, the darkness created by the monster stealing all the warmth from the late afternoon summer sun. The boy crouched next to the brick wall, hoping his quickly sought hiding place would protect him.

“Boy! You can’t hide from me,” the booming voice of the monster echoed along the alleyway behind Leo. Thudding feet stomped toward the boy. The shimmering concrete under Leo’s feet shuddered with each of the monster’s steps.

The teenager felt tears sliding down his face. He couldn’t stop the flow. His sobbing breaths were painful in his chest, his throat.

He looked up, gauging the closeness of the monster by how much its shadow had grown. The darkness had expanded so much, Leo couldn’t make out the shape of the monster in the blackness. A staggering blow against his concealing brick wall knocked Leo over, to lay spread-eagle in the middle of the alley’s mouth.

“I found you,” the monstrous voice crowed, “and now you will be mine!”

Leo heard a scrambling noise and he knew the monster would be over the wall before he could get to his feet. His blubbering became frantic. His eyes closed in terror. He begged for his life.

Thunder crashed under Leo. The monster had jumped from the height of the wall to land before the sobbing boy.

“Umm, never mind,” the creature said.

Leo opened one eye, peeking through his long lashes. He expected to see a single foot. Instead, in front of the boy stood a tiny, orange haired girl-looking thing. It was wearing a purple plaid skirt and snowy white ruffled shirt. A minuscule pair of daggers in twin sheaths was strapped across its chest.

“You’re… you’re TINY,” Leo exclaimed. “And you’re a girl!”

“Yeah, like I said, never mind. Please,” the girl muttered. “My da’s gonna kill me.”

Leo’s face scrunched up in confusion, “Why were you chasing me? More importantly, why’d you look so huge?”

The girl put a hand on her hip and cocked her head at the boy towering over her. “My da’s an ogre. I’m the ‘runt’ of the litter and the only girl. I was just trying to prove I’m as scary as my brothers.”

“That doesn’t explain why your shadow looked so big,” Leo said.

The miniature ogre shrugged, “It’s magic. Ogres don’t usually use it, but my only friend’s dad happens to be an ogre wizard, and he gave me the spell. It was supposed to scare you into submission.” She looked down and shuffled her feet, a sure sign of embarrassment, “You were supposed to be my prize for my da. Adult ogres love human stew.”

Leo reflexively jerked away from the girl at her statement. “Umm, I don’t think I can help with that. Sorry. Maybe I can help you figure something else out, though?”

“Nah,” the tiny girl grinned, her sharp pointed teeth showing. “I got it. In fact, you were easier than I thought.”

Leo’s confusion grew, until he felt the tiny teeth of several other ogres pierce his skin. The venom in their saliva numbed his legs and he fell over, helpless to move. The tiny orange-haired girl climbed up to sit on his chest.

She explained, as the other ogres feasted on the boy, “You humans always think of ogres as huge, hulking monstrosities. You’re all wrong.”

The girl smiled, showing her teeth again, before she sank her teeth into his tear-stained cheek.

 

At the stake

“So what’s your plan now, Medavo,” the shivering woman asked the man staked next to her in the bonefield.

The tall, muscular man she addressed simply grunted at her, his attention focused almost entirely on loosening the constricting bands of hemp rope that bound him to the splintered wooden spar. His loose cotton clothing gave him sparse protection from the night-fallen chill. The black leather eye patch that covered his left eye prevented him from seeing his female companion.

The last of the trio, a ferret-faced man with long stringy hair, whimpered. Mangy dogs, their eyes full of hunger, snarled and snapped at the blubbering man’s feet. He gathered himself enough to yell at the dogs, “Go away! Get away from me! Please, please.”

“Grieg, leave off! They’ll ignore you no matter how much bellowing you do. They’re feral dogs,” the woman snapped at him. More calmly, she asked again, “Medavo, you have a plan, right?”

The half-blind man grunted again. His wrists, bound together behind him, flexed and twisted, loosening the ropes. He whistled, sharply, causing the questing dogs to quiet and slink away to lurk behind the huge bleached bones of massive, unknown animals.

“Leave me be, Maeve,” he told the woman. “Shut up, Grieg. You haven’t been bitten, yet. The mutts will come back, eventually, and they won’t be stopped by any commands of mine.”

The woman giggled, the sound disturbing in the macabre landscape the trio found themselves in. “Fine, I’ll leave you alone, but the sooner you flex your iron-stranded muscles, the better. I’m growing bored.”

Medavo flexed again. His thin-lipped mouth twisted in concentration. The other two watched, as always, in awe, as the man’s muscles hardened and grew. The ropes binding him to his post stretched taut and then, with a creaking objection, snapped loose.

The massive man’s landing caused thunder to roll across the boneyard, rattling bones and causing the lurking feral dogs to whimper and squeal in fright. Medavo rubbed his wrists, easing the pain of his captivity, and stalked to a pile of bleached debris. He selected a jagged piece of leg bone. Quickly, he stepped to Maeve’s side and with a flick of his aching wrist, the woman was free.

While Maeve slowed her fall, Medavo sauntered to Grieg’s side. He slipped a second piece of rough-edged bone into the smaller man’s hands while he freed the bindings.

Grieg slid down the splintered log, landing heavily beside Medavo, who whispered, “Prepare, boy.” The men slipped their weapons into handy hiding spots within their clothing. They moved to flank Maeve.

The woman straightened her stained, once-snowy shirt and said, “So, who do you two think set us up? My money’s on the storekeep where we fenced the goods.”

Her shirt bloomed in a pair of crimson blossoms as Medavo leaned in to reply, “My money’s on you, love.”

The men stalked from the bonefield, leaving their traitorous companion to the feral dogs who rushed in at the smell of fresh blood.

Red Riding-Hood

“Don’t go out into the woods alone, Deirdre.”

The girl in red shrugged her shoulders, acknowledging her mother silently and almost sullenly. Deirdre loved being in the forest. It was the only place she could hear herself think. Her family’s comfortable home on the outskirts of the city was bubbling over with younger brothers and sisters, noisome creatures that scuttled about endlessly.

Deirdre slipped on her galoshes, scarlet like her ankle-length overcoat and shouted over her shoulder as she lifted the crossbar from the door, “I won’t, Mother. I’ll just pop on over to the neighbor’s, see if perhaps Jillian wants to visit a while in the garden.”

“That’s fine, dear,” her mother replied, her voice drifting off as she chased down the youngest pair of twins.

“‘Don’t go into the woods alone.’ What does she think will happen? There’s been nothing dangerous in the forest in years! It’s practically a public parkland, now,” Deirdre mumbled to herself once she sauntered into the neatly hedged yard of her family’s home. The rebellious girl kicked the bottom of the garden gate to speed its opening, her thoughts racing, her intentions outpacing her mother’s warning.

Outside the garden, Deirdre turned left, away from her friend Jillian’s country manor, and trotted toward the dark forest. The sun warmed her from its perch high in the sky and birds whistled happily as they flitted around the flowered fields on either side of the road.

“She’ll never know. The youngsters keep her busy. I’ll just go sit on my rock and relax for a half hour. I won’t be long,” Deirdre promised herself as she hurried along the dusty old carriageway.

Her delight in having outwitted her mother burbled up through her chest and burst from her lips in an airy, happy hum. She beamed at the joy she felt. Her teenage angst melted from her slim shoulders and her feet danced across the hard-packed earth.

Deirdre’s special place, her rock, was only a few hundred yards inside the edge of the forest and a few dozen feet from the road, at the bottom of a small rise in the forest floor. The boulder, its jagged edges worn away by the rough handling of wind and rain, was of a height with Deirdre, but its companion rocks formed a stable stairway to the top. Deirdre loved to sit in the sunken spot at the top, her feet curled up under her, and contemplate her existence.

The sun-heated concavity at the summit was welcoming and freeing to the girl. She relaxed, in her spot, more than she could ever do at home. Deirdre let her guard down, trusting her safety in the forest to the guardsmen who patrolled the old road regularly.

The young girl drifted in her thoughts, the current pushing her mind along in a spiraling circle of what-ifs and if-onlys. The cooling of the granite beneath her lightly-clothed legs tugged her mind sharply back to reality.

The darkening forest startled Deirdre. She had lost track of time.

The girl ignored the natural staircase in favor of a quick leap from the top of her boulder. Her feet thundered in the hushed woods. Deirdre quickly brushed stone dust and leafy debris from her clothes and scurried toward the road. Her mother would be furious and Deirdre would be forbidden from leaving the house without supervision for weeks.

Saddened at her fate, the girl turned to say good-bye to her special place. But the appearance of a tall, slender girl standing in the sunken seat of the huge boulder caused Deirdre to jump.

“Ahhh,” the strange girl purred, “I knew if I waited, patient as only a Hunter can be, I would find something to test myself upon.”

“Wh- who are you,” Deirdre whispered, her voice carrying across the tomb-silent clearing.

“I am a Hunter, beast, and that is all you need to know,” the stranger snarled. Her feet made no noise at all when she hurled herself from the boulder. Her laugh was harsh at Deirdre’s fleeing back.

The girl in red ran. Her coat caught and caressed every breath of wind, slowing Deirdre’s headlong rush, so she tore it off, letting the hooded garment flutter lifelessly to the hard-packed road. Her boots, in her favorite shade of red, followed the outwear to the ground. Freed from the restraints of civilization, Deirdre dropped to all fours and ran, the way her ancestors had run from generations of Hunters before.

Her mother’s face radiated fury when Deirdre crashed through the heavy oaken door of her family’s home. But the whispered, “Hunter,” changed her expression to haunted fear.

“Aa-oooooh! Run, children, hide,” Deirdre’s mother howled. She pushed the newest litter toward Deirdre, “Hide them. I’ll keep calling the pack together. No Hunter, no matter how good, will test an entire pack.”

Deirdre watched with horror as her mother strode from the front door, still calling the pack, to face the dreaded Werewolf Hunter.

What do you See?

Her dreams always felt the same. Safe. Normal. Happy.

Her dreams were the only place she managed to escape the terror and pain of her existence, but she wasn’t allowed to dream very often. Her captors, the torturers who gleefully bought her from her destitute and desperate mother, kept her semi-lucid most of the time. The drugs they pumped into her almost continually, via the blood-encrusted needle thrust deep into the crook of her arm, not only kept her from fighting, but also held sleep at bay.

Her clan was known for possessing the Gift, an ancient penchant for foretelling. Nearly every first born girl in the extended family that made up the clan could See, although the form of Seeing was different from person to person. Some girls could See the future of the clan, everything from when to plant and harvest, to when new children would be born. Other girls could See dangers, from outsiders, that threatened the clan, itself. Still other girls Saw greater, worldwide dangers and promises.

But she had no Gift. She was the first-born girl of her mother’s, who was herself a first-born daughter. But she had never had a foretelling. When her fifth birthday had passed, the age when the Gift should have shown itself, the age when it was assured she would live, she was still Sightless. Her mother had protected her, giving vague, false Seeings to the Elders. Until her father died. After her mother had promised the Elders that he would return to the clan from a hunting expedition victorious and with enough to supply the entire clan with food and gold for weeks.

She was seven when her father died, revealing to the clan that she had no Gift. The Elders pronounced a shunning of her family. No one in the clan took pity. It might have been different if the girl had had sisters with the Gift. But only boys, three of them, had been given to her family after her birth.

So, starving and penniless, with no one to help, her mother had sold her to the men in unkempt uniforms; men who had known of her clan’s Gift and who wanted to use that Gift for their own profit. Somehow, those men had known only her mother would sell a daughter. Only her mother would give up something so valuable, because she was the only first-daughter who had no Gift.

Now, the men in the dirty uniforms of a defunct government tirelessly pushed her to See for them. They demanded answers, of which she had none. They wouldn’t let her sleep, where her dreams could provide relief from their torture. The men swore at her, beat her, treated her as an animal, all because they were small, surly men who couldn’t accept the now, but had to know when their situation would improve.

She couldn’t See. Not the future of her captors, anyway. But the drugs and torture did help her See something else. Something far more frightening, something dangerous to her clan, the men who held her, and the entire world save one person. Her.

They were coming.