The young girl’s friends are sipping soft cider and chatting while they wait for the next story. The old grenz is talking with the innkeeper, who still seems cross with him about breaking a cup last night. The girl is not looking there though, she is looking at the grenz’s small table, and the red cloth that sits atop it. The girl goes to the table and looks at the cloth. Didn’t the grenz say the story had really happened. She wondered, excitedly, if this red cloth was the cloak of Ayla, the Green-hammer. She went to the table, and she reached out for it. He finger touch it, and she expects to feel the warmth of a summer day, and the softness of a bed of moss. She feels none of these things, she feels only the weave of the cloth. She decides it can’t be the same cloak.
“Do not touch that,” the grenz growls through sharp teeth. The girl jumps back frightened. She had not heard him approach. He is glaring at her. His eyes are hard and angry.
“I’m sorry,” She says, flushing red with embarrassment, “I thought perhaps it was Ayla’s cloak.”
The old grenz’s frown remains, but his eyes change. The anger fades, and is replaced by a sadness. He goes to the table and touches the red cloth just as the girl had.
“It was so fine a cloak in days past,” he sighs, “Who would believe it now?”
A long silence follows. The grenz seems lost in thought, and the children are too frightened to interrupt him. The silence is broken by the thunk of the heavy door swinging open. A pair of sailors walk in, soaked to the bone, and call for mugs of something hot. This breaks the spell of silence around the hearth, and the old grenz shakes his head and eases himself into his chair.
Where was I? Ah yes….
The Witch-haven is not a place to follow the laws of men or even the laws of nature. Like the Wandering Wood answered only to the Wyrd before Ayla bested him, the Haven has it’s own masters. As such, the Haven’s length and breadth are not so fixed as other lands. The distance across the land depends solely on the path one takes. In the days after meeting with the witch by the river, Ayla rode by the guidance of Pek the goblin, who lived in her pocket. He showed her the secret goblin ways, which would take her far in little time, but had their own dangers. For goblins used these ways, naturally, and though Pek and his kin were bound to the witch by the river, other goblins were bound to others or to no one, and they might seek to waylay any traveler who was not a goblin. Ayla thought fastest was best, and thought on how Sathial and she had nerely fought off a hundred goblins, and without the use of the green hammer. Surely any goblin who came to give her trouble would regret their course.
And so Pek showed Ayla the goblin paths, and she followed them. Twice would be thieves attacked Ayla, and twice she sent them on their way with great lumps and warning to keep clear of Ayla Green-hammer.
Word carried ahead of her, and soon no goblin would travel a path if they heard that the Green-hammer was to come that way. These words of dread finally came to the ears of Kest, a great goblin chief, and he was furious. A human walked the goblin paths with impunity, and his people quaked in fear of it. His pride would not allow this. He called upon all the goblin clans under him. The Breakers, the Gnashers, the Bursters, the Slashers and many more came to his call in a great meeting of the clans. All had heard of the trouble on the goblin paths, and all were eager to hear the great chief’s plan. Kest the goblin chief called upon the clans to send a raiding band armed with the sturdiest clubs and sharpest lashes to teach this human a lesson, and drive her from their secret paths.
The clans agreed, and each would send thirteen goblins to meet the Green-hammer on the path, for thirteen is a lucky number if you are a goblin. Thirteen clans sent thirteen goblins, which was thought to be very lucky indeed, and all one hundred and sixty-nine goblins were armed with a hefty club and a cruel lash. A band more ferocious had not been sent along the goblin paths since the very founding of the Haven.
The band found the path Ayla was to take, and stood in her way. When Ayla came around the bend in the path, she saw the band before her and stopped.
“Hail, goblins,” Ayla said, “Will you let me pass?”
“We will not,” called back the leader of the band. The goblins charged, waving their clubs over their heads prepared to strike. Sathial snorted, and dug at the earth with her hoof.
“You are eager to fight, Sathial, but this is many more than we fought at the river,” Ayla whispered to her mare. Still Sathial snorted and pulled on her reins. She remembered the humiliation suffered at the hands of goblins, and she longed for vengeance. Ayla was not immune to the urge herself, and so she squeezed Sathial’s sides with her heels, signalling her agreement with the warhorse. They charged headlong into the goblin band. Many clubs struck Sathial and Ayla, but the green-hammer swept down from atop the horse and did far worse as it smashed through the goblins that Sathial did not simply trample beneath her hooves. The goblins changed tact quickly, and struck at Sathial with their lashes. The mare was startled and reared up, tossing Ayla off and into the waiting goblins. They whipped their lashes at Ayla, splitting skin in deep red cuts, but this did not drive her back. Instead, the green hammer came down upon the head of the nearest goblin, where it hit with a wet and hollow thunk. Then she whirled around to the next goblin and drove the butt of the hammer into his gut. Though they fell on her by the dozen, she swung her hammer in great arcs that would take three or four goblins in a single motion. With each goblin felled by the hammer, those behind grew more and more fearful. Still they came until only a quarter of their band was left, the rest struck by the hammer and broken, or trampled under the hooves of the warhorse. The goblins rallied and formed a line upon the path.
“Go away human! You are not welcome on goblin paths,” called the leader of the band.
“I am Ayla Green-hammer,” Ayla called back, “And I will not be turned aside!”
Ayla charged the line, and the goblins broke their ranks, running down the path or off to even more secret paths so Ayla might not follow them. Ayla smiled and slung her hammer back over her shoulder. Climbing back to her saddle, Pek spoke to her.
“This was no ordinary goblin band, mistress,” he said wringing his hands, “Such a band has never been in the memory of Pek.”
“Are these the dangers you warned me of? The goblins bound to another power?” Ayla asked.
“No, mistress. None have so many bound,” Pek explained that these were goblins bound to no one but whom they would choose, and goblins choose poorly.
Ayla worried, for to have sent so many, her passage may have caused more trouble than she had ever intended. However, again, she decided fast was best, and the goblin paths were fastest. She rested a day, to tend to her wounds.
While Ayla rested, the goblins of the raiding band returned to their clans. They carried news of the fearsome Green-hammer, and of her monstrous steed. What could mere goblins do against such a force. To defeat such a human would require more than clubs and lashes, but goblins do not know the secrets of metalcraft.
It was then that a stranger came to the meeting of clans. Shrouded and shadow and reeking of sulfur, he was human and not human. The goblin guards at the entrance of their meeting hall threatened him with their clubs, but they cowered in fear as the stranger passed them into the hall. He came silently into the center of the clans and told the great chief Kest that he was a friend, and wished to help them in their hour of need.
“My ears have heard your cry for weapons that might drive this human from your paths,” the stranger said, “And I have brought such weapons to arm your goblins.”
“Your ears are too sharp by far,” the chief Kest said, “To have heard goblins cloistered planning.”
“My ears are sharp as the cutting arctic wind,” said the stranger, “But my aid is not a gift. It has a price.”
“Speak your deal, stranger,” Kest growled, his nose wrinkled by the stench of sulfur..
“Behold,” said the stranger.
The grenz reaches into the red cloth bundle, and draws forth a dagger of black metal. He holds it before him on the palm of his hand, and watches it as if expecting it to leap away.
“I bring you metal, strong and sharp, with which to cut the trespasser Ayla.”
The goblins examined the blade with awe. The secrets of metalcraft are wondrous to them, as wondrous as magic is to men. The stranger said he had many such blades, and he had only one thing he required in trade for them.
“When you have cut her, and when you have driven her away, I desire her hammer.”
Kest the goblin chief had hoped to take the Green Hammer as his own trophy, but he decided he liked the black blade better than a green hammer. He agreed and called upon the clans to form a new raiding band.
But the clans did not agree. They feared this stranger and his black metal and his sulfur smell. They would not deal with this stranger. Kest was furious. He threw them out, and cursed them. He vowed that when the human was defeated, and he controlled the goblin paths, he would never allow those who betrayed him to walk the secret paths again.
Kest made his deal with the stranger. He gathered the last eleven goblins who remained loyal to him, and the stranger armed them with black metal blades. They stalked down the path, blades at the ready. Twelve goblins in all, which was not lucky, but Kest thought it close enough to be so.
They met Ayla on the path, and bared their steel. Ayla knew something was amiss when she saw the great chief, taller than the other goblins by half, he was taller even than Ayla. With short blade bared, he snarled a challenge, and his goblins charged.
Sathial stomped the first of them, and Ayla swung her hammer at another. A goblin attacked Ayla with his new blade, but unused to the weapon, he struck Ayla with the flat. That one was struck by the hammer as well. Sathial kicked one goblin into a tree, crushing the creature. The goblin chief Kest finally came upon Ayla though, and he lunged his blade up to her seat atop Sathial.
Ayla was cut by the black blade along her arm, and she cried out in pain. The wound boiled and blistered at the touch of the tainted steel of Xeph. Ayla screamed and threw her heels into Sathial, and they fled. They rode hard and fast, leaving the goblin paths behind to get away from the goblins. The goblins raised their weapons in a cheer, but the stranger came upon them with anger, demanding that they give chase.
The great chief Kest and his goblins numbered only 8 now, and even armed as they were, he did not wish to lead his goblins off the safety of their secret paths. The stranger’s shadow grew great and terrible, towering over the goblins. One terrible fiery eye glaring out from the black shroud.
“Remember our deal, goblin chief!” the stranger roared, “Black blades for a green hammer! Where is my hammer?”
The goblins cowered, even the great chieftain. They feared the shadow, but they also feared the open Haven beyond their secret ways. The stranger’s shadow withdrew, and he spoke softly to the goblins. As he spoke, his words carried shadow and smoke, and it curled and coiled around the goblins.
“You fear the Haven, that I see, so I will send you forth with my protection,” and his words formed into cloaks of soot black shadow for the goblins, as dark as the knives they carried, “Go now, goblins of the Black Blade, concealed by smoke and shadow. Go now, and bring me the hammer of Ayla. All debts will be settled then.”
And so the Black Blade goblins set out, following the trail of Ayla Green-hammer.
The old grenz moves to put the knife away, but one of the children speaks first.
“Why would Ayla run from a single cut? Wasn’t she cut many times by the lashes?” he asks.
The grenz pauses, thinking for a moment, weighing a risk. Then he takes the black steel knife and draws it across his thumb. He hisses in pain, and his skin about the thumb turns black as the steel that cut it, covered in boils and festering. The children scream and clamber back as the grenz raises his wounded hand. The grenz grits his teeth and his face contorts, as the bubbling of the wound slowly stops, the boils recede, and the wound finally closes. The grenz flexes his hand, wincing in pain once more, then places the knife back into the folds of the cloth.
“Grenz heal faster than humans,” he explains as he massages his hand, “A broken bone heals in minutes or hours, not weeks. And a simple cut upon the thumb will heal in seconds.”
He holds up the thumb for them to examine, then pulls his sleeve up his arm.
“Imagine such a cut, running the length of your forearm. Now imagine you are not a grenz, and that the wound will linger, for days.”
The children are silent. The innkeeper strides angrily to the old one. She does not like that he has kept such a thing here in her inn. He surrenders it reluctantly.
“Do not destroy it,” he asks the innkeeper as she leaves, “Lock it up tight, but please…so few of her things are left.”
The innkeeper nods, but the young girl by the hearth sees a tear in her eye, as she takes it to the back, without a word.
The grenz sighs, and looks at this cup. It is nearly empty, and the hour is late.
“Please one more,” the girl says quickly, before the old one can say he is finished for the night, “you cannot leave it there. Tell us, what did Ayla do? Did the Black Blades find her?”
The old grenz sighs. The children lean forward, nodding eagerly for him to continue. Even the sailors by the bar look hopeful the Grenz will continue. He nods, “I suppose I have time for one more, tonight.”