A special Halloween treat for my readers – a bittersweet tale set in the Dark Realm of Faerie. Read here or get your free download at BOOKFUNNEL.
GOBLIN IN LOVE
Crik Nobshins raised his wooden cup, toasting the latest goblin raid along with the others in his riot. Amid the smacking of lips and yowling laughter, he took a long guzzle of the bitter ale. He didn’t relish the flavor, but was desperate to rinse away the slimy taste of raw meat still lingering in his mouth.
“Good fighting today, Crik.” Bonewort, the yellow-eyed leader of the riot, clouted him between the shoulders. “Your first outing. We’ll make a raider of you yet.”
Crik bared his teeth in what he hoped would be taken for a grin rather than a grimace. Violet light from the nearby bonfire flickered over the faces of his claw-mates in the riot, glinted off their slanted eyes and sharp teeth. The gnarled oak trees overhead scraped the starlit sky, and the small clearing pulsed with the thud of drums.
“Aye,” he ground out, hoping it was enough.
“We raid again after this slumber.” The leader gave him a sly look. “You go as Knocker next time, up front. Need to bloody your cap more.”
Crik glanced at Bonewort’s cap, which glowed bright red by the fitful light of the fire. His own cap was still a muddy brown, with only a faint scarlet edging. The thought of dipping it into a pool of lesser faerie’s blood made his stomach knot.
But he was a redcap goblin, on his way to becoming a full member of Bonewort’s riot. Hunting down the weaker fey for sport and meat, then washing their goblin caps in the spilt blood was what redcaps did. That, and the bidding of their mistress, the Dark Queen, who ruled over the midnight part of the Realm.
He didn’t know which would be worse—finishing the process of turning his cap bright red, or carrying out the dark tasks the queen demanded of her goblins.
Not that he should find them unpleasant. Redcaps reveled in the chase and the kill, and told gleeful tales of their various bloody exploits while carrying out the court’s business. Once, he’d felt the same, but that was before he’d seen her, all shining and pure in the watery moonlight.
He nodded to Bonewort. “I’m ready.”
“You’d best be.” The big goblin gave him a leering grin, then went to join his two Chasers around the fire.
Crik shifted on the bumpy log he’d claimed for his seat, and took another drink of his ale; this time to wash the taste of the lie from between his teeth. He wasn’t ready, and he didn’t think he’d ever be.
On the night he’d been spawned, one of three in his mother’s litter, the goblin wives had gathered around, crooning.
“Ohh, a lad and two girls! Look at the teeth on that one. She’ll be a fine fighter.”
“And her sister—what lovely orange eyes. You’ll be beating the suitors off with a stick.”
Crik had a dim memory of his mother’s cackle. “She can do it herself.”
“A nice nobble to the knees on your boy, too,” the neighbor had said. “Fast, he’ll be.”
The predictions had come true. Crik’s first sister was well on the way to becoming lead Chaser in another riot, and his second sister had already whelped a litter of four healthy goblings.
As for himself, he was fast, but completely undistinguished in any other way. Except for the warped streak of sickness that made raw flesh unsavory to him. From an early age, he’d known to hide his disgusting desire for cooked meat, or he’d be next on the prey list.
Sometimes, though, he wondered if that might be a better end than this continual pretense. Choking down gobbets of flesh in public was bad enough, but tonight, the screams of the brownie they’d caught outside the Dusk Vale had made him want to empty his stomach. He’d forced himself to join the circle surrounding the creature, and take his turn at the stabbing. When the brownie died before he could take a second swipe, he’d been sickly grateful.
Bonewort had filled the riot’s ceremonial clay bowl with the creature’s blood, and Crik had lined up with the rest to dip his cap. For whatever reason—only the one blow, or his youth, or the flaw in his goblin soul—his cap had not turned completely red. Or even half red.
Head down, he’d cast a furtive look at the leader, wondering if he’d revealed himself in some way.
“No sulking,” Bonewort had said, noticing his gaze. “Takes more than one blooding to fill a cap.”
At least it wasn’t a mark of his failings. Yet. But he’d have to keep raiding, keep killing, until his cap turned bright red.
Then what? a small voice whispered inside him. You’ll never be worthy of her, not stinking of blood, with raw meat between your teeth and a cap stained with death.
And now Bonewort wanted him to take Knocker, be the first to stab and rend.
Hunched over his ale cup, Crik watched the other goblins gnaw the bones of the brownie and cast them into the fire. The lovely smell of scorched flesh reached his nose, and he gulped, forcing himself not to leap up and scrabble through the coals for any last, delicious morsels.
He was a perversion of a goblin, indeed.
When he’d been a young gobling, his second sister had found him sucking the marrow of a cooked bone he’d pulled from the fire.
She’d snatched the bone from his hand. “So hungry you’re eating trash? That’s disgusting.”
Bringing it to her wide slashed nostrils, she’d sniffed, then made a face and flung the tidbit away.
Since then, he’d learned to hide his filthy yearning for cooked flesh. In the thick of the sleeping time, he’d sneak out, stomach growling, to paw through the fire. Always hungry, he’d learned to eat the roots and berries that grew in the dim forests of the Dark Realm. Best of all was a fungus that grew from the sides of the oaks, an orange, chewy mass he’d come to enjoy.
If the other goblins ever found out, they’d turn on him instantly. Weakness wasn’t tolerated in the tribe. Either you were a youngling, or a full redcap, or fit only for blood sacrifice.
Just last moon-waxing, one of the old raiders in this very riot had misjudged the teeth of a nixie, and had his leg ripped to shreds. He served now in the Dark Court, waiting for the hour the queen would stab him through the heart with her dagger of black thorn and use his life force to weave her magics.
At least it would be a clean death, unlike what the redcaps would do to Crik if they discovered his perversions. Suppressing a shudder, he set down his empty ale cup and went to roll out his sleeping mat beneath the trees.
Behind his closed eyes, he saw the brownie die, over and over. Although he could feel the edge of joy in it, the rest of him turned away. Beyond his own sickness now was always the thought of her, and what she would think of him if she knew he took delight in tormenting creatures weaker than himself.
At last, as the thin moon arced over the trees, Crik rose. He moved quietly away from the last purple embers of the fire, the guttural snores of the riot, and slunk through the forest. On the horizon a faint gray line shone, barely visible unless one knew where to look. He turned his hard-soled feet in that direction.
It was not the first time he’d snuck toward the dusk lands. At least he had the skill of stealth, though he might be lacking in all other redcap qualities. His ability to move quietly had allowed him to observe many of the denizens at the edge of the Dark Realm, and wonder.
How had he come to be born a goblin? Why was his soul not housed in one of the placid brownies, who preferred milk and oat cakes for their meals, or a pixie who ate insects and drank nectar from the blossoms?
When he was a gobling, he’d imagined running away from the night and going to live among the creatures of the Dusk Vale. It had smote his heart, the day he’d stepped from the shadowed trees only to send the nearby fey folk scrambling for safety. Their cries of terror still stung, when he let himself remember.
Crik ripped an orange fungus from a downed log as he passed, swallowing back the memory with each chewy mouthful. Some night, when the moon was just a memory in the sky, he dreamed of showing himself to her. Would he ever screw up the courage? Would he ever be worthy?
The light grew, and he snicked his secondary membranes over his eyes. Unlike most creatures of the Dark Realm, the redcaps could protect their vision in several degrees of light—even the searing rays of the sun that ruled over the Bright Court. It was part of why the queen preferred the goblins’ services above all others.
As he had night after night, Crik found himself in the thinning trees near the edge of a small pond. He crept closer, then took shelter in a stand of rowan and peered through the branches. The sky held the faint luster of pearl here, at the edge of the Dusk Vale, and the water reflected the light back. Carefully he peered through the thin branches, half afraid, half hoping to catch a glimpse of her.
And there she was—the water sprite who haunted his dreams. She hovered over the pond she called home, thin and pale, her dragonfly wings brushed with dewdrops.
Crik was not sure what had first drawn him to the place. A certain luminous glow, the sound of her song, the scent of moonlight in the wind. That had been thirteen turnings of the moon ago, and she’d been a deep, bittersweet splinter in his soul ever since.
His knees trembled as he watched her drag one toe through the water, humming. Beautiful sprite, he wanted to cry, his heart hot inside his chest, come dance with me in the gloaming. Lay your long, cool fingers upon my face, and let me drown myself in your eyes.
But he stayed silent, his breath still. To speak, even to move, would break the spell. She would cry out in horror at the sight of him and flee, and he would lose sight of her forever. It made his heart ache to watch her dip gracefully in and out of the water, wearing it as a shimmering gown, then dashing upward, the luminous spray falling back into the pond like a waterfall.
The thought of frightening her was like a blade slipped under his ribs, and so he remained concealed as always, yearning from afar. She was not for him, and never would be, though sorrow ate him to the bone.
Finally, she tired of her play and plunged beneath the silvered surface of her home. Crik waited for several long minutes, but she did not reemerge.
Footsteps heavy, he made his way back through the dark forest to where the riot snored. By the time he settled back on his mat, he was only able to snatch an hour of restless sleep, disturbed by images of the water sprite, silver and shining in the dusk.
“Up, lazybones.” Bonewort’s toe in his ribs roused him. “Time to go a’hunting. We’ve a nice trail to follow.”
Crik rubbed the grit from his eyes and sat. He rolled up his mat and stowed it beneath the shrubbery, drank a palmful of cool water from the nearby stream, and was ready to set out with the rest of the raid.
“Here.” Bonewort gestured for Crik to join him at the head of the line. “Early to the kill this time, eh youngling?” His yellow eyes glinted.
Crik nodded and took his place behind the leader. His thoughts were cobwebby, and he forced himself to ignore notice the berry bushes they went past, and the silver coins of mushrooms. Hunger growled in his belly.
“We’ll feed you up soon enough.” Bonewort cuffed his shoulder. “Almost there.”
Crik looked up, panic stabbing through him as he recognized the pattern of thinning trees, the faint gray light of the Dusk Vale ahead. They were dangerously near the sprite’s pool.
“What do we hunt?” he asked, trying to keep his voice calm.
“Have you ever tasted sprite?” Bonewort’s teeth gleamed as he grinned. “Such cool, delicious flesh. Not much blood though, more’s the pity. We’ll hunt warmer prey after we eat.”
Nausea twisted through Crik. “Are you sure this is the right way?” he asked. “The river lies yonder.”
He pointed to the left, away from the pond, but the leader shook his head.
“Another time. Today is easy meat.”
Crik breathed heavily through his nostrils, mind racing. He had to turn the riot away, but how? He could not fight them all, and he knew of no other prey close by they could be lured to.
There was nothing he could do, except follow Bonewort and desperately hope the sprite was not there. Where else might she be? He did not know. Anxiety and revulsion knotted through him until he could barely set one clawed foot in front of the other.
And then they were there, behind the stand of rowans. The faint imprint of his earlier footsteps still showed on the moss, and the bark of one trunk was flayed where his claws had rested. Gulping, Crik turned his gaze away, hoping the other goblins would not notice.
Bonewort held up his hand, and the riot halted. With a nod, they fanned out to encircle the still silver pond.
Crik shot a panicked look at the water, chest heaving. There was no sign of the sprite.
“Nobody there,” he whispered.
“Patience,” the leader said. “You’ll bloody your cap yet.”
When the goblins had the pool surrounded, Bonewort let out a sharp whistle. The riot began stomping their feet, making the ferns at the water’s edge dip and sway and the rowan branches tremble.
Stay safe, Crik thought fiercely. Don’t come up.
In a spray of silver, the water sprite burst from the surface of her pond. She hovered in midair, droplets sheening her wings. Crik wanted to shout a warning, but his tongue was frozen to his teeth.
With one wide-eyed glance, she took in the redcaps surrounding her. She let out a little gasp and folded her wings, diving for safety, but Bonewort was too clever. His Chasers flung a net across the surface of the water, and her long, pale limbs and shimmering wings were entangled.
She shrieked as they hauled her forth, her dripping fingers gripping the net.
“Help me!” Her gaze went to Crik, those wide, liquid eyes beseeching.
Fire coursed through him, scorching him into action. Taking out his knife, he leaped forward, aiming for the sprite.
Bonewort shouted in approval, then went silent as Crik sliced neatly through the bottom of the net. Quick as a minnow, the sprite slipped down into the water and disappeared.
“What?” The leader rounded on him, anger flaring in his eyes. “What kind of goblin are you, to help our prey escape?”
With trembling claws, Crik tore the cap from his head. “Why must we kill everything that is beautiful and pure? Why?” Loathing for himself, for all his kind, choked him. He threw his cap on the ground and trampled it into the mud. “I renounce my heritage. I give up my place in the tribe.”
“You are a stain on redcaps everywhere,” Bonewort growled, his eyes a blaze of yellow. “Not even worthy of hauling before the queen. Without your own kind, you are nothing.”
Without warning, the big goblin’s knife plunged deep between Crik’s ribs. Pain came roaring in behind as he fell to his knees. He clutched the hilt of the dagger, his heart’s blood pouring in a blackish-red stream over his hands.
The surface of the pond shivered.
Bonewort jerked his blade out, then spat upon Crik’s bare head. Eyes narrowed in disgust, he beckoned for the riot to depart.
“Just leave him?” one the Chasers asked.
“He’s trash,” Bonewort said. “Not even worth gnawing on. He’ll be dead soon enough.”
As the goblins tramped past, Crik tumbled face-first onto the muddy moss. Then they were gone, and the tangy smell of his own blood filled his senses. The moss was soaked with it, and he was growing cold. So cold.
The dark edges of the forest creaked. The rowan trees rustled. He heard the sound of wood on wood, rough syllables rasped above his head, but they were meaningless.
He had saved his sprite. As the last light dimmed, he wasn’t afraid. It had been worth the price.
His heart was fire, then ice, then ashes.
The dryads of the dark oaks surrounded the dying goblin. Their song groaned and whispered around him, the air bitter with the taste of old acorns. With his last breath, the sluggish remains of his blood thickened. His limbs grew, elongating down into the rich soil, stretching up into the dusky air. His hide toughened even further, hardening, drying. Time spun about, a wheel in the sky.
The new moon rose, the shadow of the old moon in her arms. Pale light illuminated the small pond near a stand of rowan trees, the dark forest hunched behind.
On the mossy bank beside the pond, a new tree grew, black and misshapen. Its gnarled branches reached over the water, nearly touching the silvery surface. In the glimmering stillness a water sprite danced, diving in and out of the shadows cast by the tree.
She rose up, wings bejeweled with droplets, and hovered before the twisted trunk for a long moment.
“Thank you,” she said, reaching to press a damp hand to the bark.
At her touch, the tree trembled, though there was no wind to stir the branches. From the forest beyond came a low sigh, filled with the scent of night flowers and lost dreams.
With a smile full of sorrow, the sprite gracefully winged back over the center of her pool, her reflection an upside-down twin. She began to dance once more, weaving droplets into a necklace of light, watery gems scattering about her as she whirled.
Under the star-sown sky, the goblin tree kept watch, as it always had… and always would.
Goblin in Love is part of the collection The Faerie Girl and Other Tales, available at all ebook retailers.