“How big are goblins?” a young boy asks, “You said the goblin chief was taller than Ayla, but you said Pek could fit in her pocket.”
“Most goblins stand about…so tall,” the old grenz explains, holding his hand at the height of the armrest of his chair, “But goblins are not like people who are set in their size. A goblin can sneak through a mouse’s hole if he so chooses. The sneakiest of them might slip through the cracks in the floor.”
The children eye the floor of the inn. Some of them skeptically, others warily.
The grenz has refilled his cup. He did this himself, as the innkeeper has not yet returned from hiding the black steel blade. With a full cup, he sits back, arranging the memories in his head, and begins again.
When Ayla fled the Black Blade goblins, she was quite lost. She asked the goblin guide Pek where they might be, but even he could not be sure. They rode until Ayla was forced to stop. She begged Sathial to slow and let her down. She could barely stand the pain was so terrible. Tears in her eyes, she fell to her knees beneath the shade of the trees. She wept and held her burning arm, the skin turning black and festering.
In the brush not far away, a goblin, cloaked in shadow, sat and watched. This was Gaska, one of the Black Blades, and she was an old and clever goblin. Not many goblins can live beyond a century, but Gaska had. Not because she was the strongest, but because she knew when to strike and when to wait. She saw Ayla, sitting and weeping beneath the trees, injured and weakened. But she also saw that Ayla’s good arm was uninjured and the green hammer was still in reach. She would wait, she would make ready, and she would attack when Ayla was weakest.
Sathial nudged Ayla, grunting her sympathy, and Pek urged her to rest.
“Goblins will not leave their secret paths and travel the open Haven. They will stay to goblins paths and goblins lands, or those they are bound to,” he said.
“Why won’t they follow?” Ayla asked through gritted teeth.
“Goblins fear the Haven beyond the lands they know,” Pek said with a fearful glance to the trees. Ayla pulled herself up, herself fearful that the goblin band was close behind her. Gaska watched from the brush as Ayla mounted Sathial once more and her guide Pek leapt back into the pocket of her cloak, and Gaska was filled with a seething hatred. For many days the goblin clans had accused one another of showing the human their secret paths. Now she saw who the traitor was, and she cursed him. She growled foul words that made the very leaves of the bushes wilt.
Still she did not attack. She followed.
Through the forest of the Haven, over hills, and over streams Ayla rode. They rode until Pek recalled a stone pillar that stood in their path.
“Tis the mark of Valdora, the great and terrible. Goblins will most certainly not follow here,” Pek said.
“If Valdora is so terrible, should we trespass on his land?” Ayla asked, still in pain but growing more accustomed to it.
“He is only terrible to those who anger him. Give him no cause to be furious while in his fief, and he will not trouble you.”
Gaska knew well the stories of the wizard Valdora, and his staff of every wood. He had long ago driven goblins from his lands, and Gaska felt the fear in her heart. She also felt the fear of Kest, the great chieftain, and of the dark stranger and his burning eye. These are not what compelled her to follow into Valdora’s wood. What drove her was hate. Hatred of Ayla, and more importantly, her hatred of the goblin Pek.
Now, thinking themselves safely beyond the reach of the Black Blades, Ayla and her companions slowed their pace, and she allowed herself to examine the wicked cut. Her mother would have chastised her for waiting so long to check the wound. Aster, Ayla’s mother, had some knowledge of the body, and had warned Ayla that even a scratch can kill a man if left to fester and rot. Ayla thought that perhaps it was too late, for as she examined the cut, she saw the black skin and thought it must be rotten. It did not smell of rot though. Ayla had seen a man whose foot had need of severing due to rot, and the smell had been nigh unbearable. This smelled not of rot, but of sulfurous vapors. The wound had been a lucky one, missing the vein that runs along the forearm, though Ayla did not know that at the time. She saw that it was not as deep as it felt, and that heightened her spirit at least a little. She asked Pek if he knew of a stream or river that ran through Valdora’s land, and he guided her to it.
Once in the stream, Ayla cut the sleeve from her shirt with her mother’s knife, setting it aside to make a bandage later. Then Ayla dipped her arm into the cool water, and though it painful, she was determined to clean the wound.
Pek, the goblin guide, rested nearby, being weary from the day’s journey. Pek never heard Gaska’s approach. She slipped through the trees, unseen by Ayla or Sathial, and fell silently upon the tired goblin. The guide woke from his rest to the touch of a black blade against his throat. He wished to cry out, but Gaska hissed, commanding him to be silent.
She cursed his name and growled at him. She demanded to know why he had betrayed his kind. Why he had shown the human the secret goblin paths. Pek whimpered and begged Gaska to release him. He tried to explain that he had orders from the witch by the river to guide the human through the Haven, but Gaska would not hear it.
“You will help me kill the human,” Gaska said, “Or you will die.”
Pek was afraid, and knew Gaska would kill him in the span of the heartbeat if he refused. Pek the goblin nodded, and agreed to help kill the human Ayla. Gaska produced a second black bladed weapon.
“The uninjured arm, or any leg, is all I need. You need not finish her yourself if you have grown attached,” Gaska hissed.
Pek took the knife, eyes cast to the ground, and Gaska faded back into the shadow and twilight of the forest. Pek hid the knife when Ayla came to him, the removed sleeve fashioned into a bandage. She winced as she tested the movement of the arm.
“I fear this dark wound,” she said, “It pains like no other cut I’ve ever received. Is there no one friendly and able to help in these lands?”
Pek nodded slowly and told Ayla of a village of humans under the protection of Valdora within the Haven. It could not be far he said, and they were skilled in woodcraft. If a healing herb could be used to counter the taint of Xeph, they would know he said. It was a lie though. Pek knew of no such place, or anyone who could help her. Goblins are not known for loyalty, and Pek feared for his life.
He leapt back into her pocket, and waited. He liked the human, and did not wish her dead, but a goblins see to themselves first, and Pek feared Gaska would succeed in killing Ayla given time. He would surely be next if he did not help her.
He waited until the dark of night, when Ayla slept. Sathial the warhorse was still on guard, she was trained to be watchful always. But Pek was already past her guard, he came out from Ayla’s pocket, and he drew out the black blade. He stood over Ayla, and raised the blade high.
He did not strike.
He liked this human. Pek the goblin lowered his knife.
Gaska was upon him in the time it takes to draw breath. Sathial whinnied with alarm, and Ayla’s eyes sprang open. Too late to stop the Black Blade. Gaska cut the goblin guide down mid stride, and lunged at Ayla.
Ayla spun away, and came up holding the green hammer. Gaska lunged again, thrusting the black blade forward. Ayla took her hammer in both hands, forcing herself to move through the pain in her arm. She used the shaft of the hammer to knock away the tip of the blade, then wheeled the pommel to strike Gaska’s face. Gaska ducked and brought the blade back across at Ayla’s legs. Ayla leapt over the small goblin entirely, spun and brought her hammer down. Gaska rolled away, then leapt back roaring and spitting. A slash at Ayla’s face, which she dodged narrowly, and swung her hammer to drive Gaska back. But Gaska did not evade. She was struck by the hammer, but as the hammer hit her, her slash came across Ayla’s uninjured arm. Gaska was thrown away, but Ayla cried out in pain and dropped the hammer. The curse swelled anew in her bandaged arm, and a new black and festering wound appeared on her other arm. Ayla tried to pick up her hammer again, but the pain was horrible. She lifted it weakly, and Gaska smiled. Though she was blooded and injured, Ayla’s guard was easily overcome now. The warhorse was coming, no doubt, so she would have to finish it quickly. The Black Blade gave a war cry and charged.
And lightning split the sky.
Among the trees, in a pillar of fire and lightning, stood the wizard Valdora.
“Who dares to bring the taint of Xeph to my domain!? To spill blood in the name of the Blighted Land!?” he shouted with a voice of falling stone.
Gaska hissed and pulled her cloak of shadow around her. She faded into the forest, hidden from even Valdora’s eyes. He looked to Ayla, and saw her injuries. Wounds which would bring grown men to their knees, yet she stood and held her hammer up to guard against the wizard.
“Child, your wounds are great. Who has done this?”
“A cruel goblin, great wizard. I beg your aid, but first for my guide,” Ayla said running to Pek, and kneeling down to him, “He was stabbed with a blade meant for me. I beg you to save him if it is in your power.”
The wizard looked at the goblin, and waved his hand. A chariot drawn by three white horses came from nowhere in the woods to carry them all away.
“You have brought much trouble to my domain, human. Your very presence is a transgression in truth, so long as the taint of Xeph comes with you.”
Ayla made to protest, but Valdora held up his hand for silence.
“Your words will be heard, but not here. You will explain yourself at the Oakfast.”
“We shall end here tonight,” the grenz says to the moans of the children.
“But what is the Oakfast?” the little girl asks.
“The hold of Valdora of course,” the old one says, “I shall tell more of it tomorrow night.”
“But you were right in the middle of it,” the girl complains.
“We have reached the point in the Tale when things are not so easily broken apart. Be patient,” the old grenz urges. The children gather at a table, and begin playing some game with a pair of copper coins, while the green skinned grenz goes to return his cup to the bar. The innkeeper has returned, and she shakes her head at the storyteller.
“I wish you wouldn’t tell this story,” she says after a long silence.
“I told her I would tell the story.”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“Ren,” the old grenz looks into the innkeepers eyes pleading, “I have to tell the tale.”
The innkeeper sighs, folds her arms, and closes her eyes. At length, she finally nods.