Nala crouched in readiness, waiting for the signal that all was clear. The comforting darkness of the narrow tunnel, only slightly lit with moonlight, enfolded him in the last touch of the security of youth before his final initiation into the company of Those Who Provide.
He could almost hear the excitement coursing through his veins as he prepared for his first raid on a human settlement. He had tended the goblin gardens for some time. Once he had even been chosen for an excursion to collect the sacred apples, but this new danger thrilled him in a way that seemed to electrify the air around him in anticipation.
The lessons in stealth that all young goblins received early in life might well preserve his own life now, not to mention the lives of all of his companions. If just one of them were to be seen the humans would hunt them all out until the last goblin was dead, or until the goblins killed the humans first. Nala shuddered at the thought. He was no fighter. The very thought of bloodshed filled him with distaste. It was one of the reasons that he had chosen to join the company of Those Who Provide, as he would find it easy to eat all he wanted of the fruits and vegetables he liked and never again have to touch meat from a dead animal if he chose not to partake of the swine they diverted from the human enclosures.
Nala had to admit to himself that the adventure appealed as well. There was no doubt in his mind, as the tension mounted before the raid, that he had found his true calling. The time he had spent as a runner among the Betweeners, the goblins who lived on the levels just under the surface where sunlight penetrated, would pay off now. The speeds he could reach while delivering messages through the long, man-made tunnels that ran between grottos had improved his ability to run fast. The garden raids he had participated in more recently had developed his familiarity with the changes of light that occurred when one left the caverns into the brightly lit human world, then re-entered the comforting darkness of cavern walls. His eyes could adjust much more quickly now. These experiences had trained him in ways that life as a young goblin in the deep places could never provide.
The signal was given and the small company of goblins emerged into the human-tended crop field, like shadows in the early morning half-light. It was the hour of silence, that short time in the morning when late revelling humans would have at last fallen asleep and early risers were still resisting the song of the birds that was just beginning to pierce the morning stillness.
Unlike most goblins, Those Who Provide had to be aware of the patterns of sun and moon light that had so much effect on the movements of humans. The minimal sounds of half-awake farm creatures beginning to stir would not disturb the sleeping humans. They would even mask any sounds that might escape the footfalls of the creeping goblins. The traps laid for animals that the humans thought raided their gardens were easily sprung. Filling the artfully woven baskets took little time.
When they had their fill, the goblins returned to the passage to the deep places, the feeling of watchfulness alleviated for the moment. Nala had handled his fears well. He only wished that he had been able to master the art of the rock glamour that some of Those Who Provide learned for emergencies. It was the one thing that might prevent him being chosen for the swine raid planned next.
The baskets of vegetables were taken away by runners inside the caverns, then those with experience of moving among the humans in daytime were to return to the surface. In the morning light the pig boys would bring the swine out to root for mushrooms at the edge of the field. A wire fence stopped the pigs from escaping, but such things could not prevent a goblin from entering. A special cavern had been dug just inside the fence, where a little outcrop of trees could mask the entrance. The humans had built the fence partially into the edge of the forest to allow the pigs to feed among the forest fungi without losing them to the trees.
As long as the goblins weren’t greedy, a few missing swine would be put down to slipping the fence. Those who liked their meat would fare well at the next storytelling. Whether Nala would be allowed to help in the capture was to be decided at the last minute by those who had been among the group the longest. Everyone had a first time and all of the more experienced goblins remembered their own first swine raid well. It was their task to determine whether Nala’s nerves were steady enough… whether he was ready.
The baskets of vegetables had been delivered over to the runners. It was time to return to the surface. Some of the younger goblins who knew they were not ready for full daylight joined the runners. Nala turned to the wise ones – the question need not be spoken aloud. There were three of them among the group that had counted eleven before the young ones had departed. Now the question was whether the raiding party was to be six, or seven.
The wise ones looked among their company. The others had been on raids before, but not as many as the older goblins. No words were spoken. It was often unnecessary to vocalise thoughts among the goblins, especially among those who had shared many adventures together. Nala watched as they assessed the liabilities of less experienced raiders, then turned to Nala to contemplate his performance in the open field.
One by one, a barely perceptible nod passed among the wise ones. One of them turned to Nala, nodding in a slightly more formal gesture. He was in!
As one, the small group ran through the passages, turning just a slightly different direction from the passage where they had returned from the garden raid. The light grew stronger as they approached the cave entrance. Morning was breaking fully onto the human world. It was still early. Only farmers would be out, as most humans slept past dawn and would be only now preparing to go out to their various occupations. With the farmers would be the pig boys, and there were usually three of them to watch over this heard of swine. The goblins had studied their quarry long and hard.
Once again, Nala crouched in readiness, waiting for the signal. This time it would not be an all clear though. There were humans about.
The plan was simple. The most experienced would creep among the pigs themselves, making their way through shadows to reach far into the herd invisibly. The less experienced goblins positioned themselves closer to the cave entrance, ready to direct the stampeding herd into Nala’s waiting arms. Nala himself was to stay just inside the cave, out of sight, and push the little piggies into the passage that could only take them to the chosen destination, where others would await their arrival.
Then all the goblins would return and herd the swine the rest of the way if they tried to dawdle. All the humans would see is a sudden surge in the herd. It happened all the time, for no apparent reason.
The signal was given. The goblins disappeared. Some hid in shadows, but Nala knew that those closest to him had blended into the rocks and tress.
He envied the ability more than ever. It was no more than a colour change in the skin to blend in, but it was a skill he had never managed to master. The others had tried to instruct him. They said it was a trick of the mind – a matter of becoming ‘one’ with the stone or tree. Nala had communed with the spirits of nature easily, yet he had never reached the vibrational level where he could actually blend into it. It was a skill that he was sure not everyone possessed.
He waited within a shadow of the cavern entrance cautiously. He could see one of the humans, but his view was through branches and it was unlikely that the human would see him as well if it should happen to turn towards Nala’s direction. The swine had only just been brought out to this side of the field. The humans were still sleepy and less attentive than they might be later, when the sun became unbearably hot. The time had been chosen very deliberately.
Suddenly the surge came. What had been done to a pig to make it squeal and charge, Nala did not know, but its cry made several others panic and run with it. The pattern of the stampede changed near the cave entrance. Nala knew that one of his companions would have leapt into the side of a pig to cause it. They came straight at him.
Nala grabbed first one, then another and another small pig to shove into the chosen passage. Some got loose into the labyrinth. They would be intercepted or wander out later, but those that were pushed down the straight passage would have no chance for escape.
Suddenly a large swine, caught up in the surge, charged into the cave. It was bigger than Nala and looked as though it would squash him if it charged him into the wall, and it was coming straight at him. There was no place to go but up. Nala jumped, but the swine stopped against the wall for just a moment as it tried to orient its direction and why this obstruction was stopping its charge. It was just enough time for Nala to land right on its back.
The swine spun and charged the other way… right out into the open field in full sight of the humans!
By now all was confusion. Swine were stampeding in all directions and tripping each other up. The pig boys were running and shouting at the animals, trying to direct them away from the fence. The distraction kept them from noticing a small green creature pressed closely onto the back of one of the terrified animals. Nala scanned his eyes over the field for a better hiding place. One presented itself in the form of an old standing stone. Luckily his steed was running towards it.
Nala didn’t know how long he would be able to hide behind the stone. If the pig boys spread themselves around the field after things calmed down, there would be no side of it left unobserved. A shadow on one side presented some cover, but perhaps not enough. The sun was at the wrong angle for it to create a wide patch of shade. Moving among shadows was one of Nala’s better skills, but what he really needed was for the pigs to calm down and be still so that he could move among them to creep back to the cave.
The big swine ran just close enough for Nala to slip off and roll into the protective shade. It was so thin that he had to stand and press himself against the rock to hide within it. He knew it would disappear in very little time and he needed to find his way back to safety soon. He thought to himself that if only he had digger claws, he could dig straight down into the caverns, but he did not.
Nala pressed himself hard against the stone, hoping the vibrations of his thoughts would reach through the rock to his companions. They had probably disappeared back into the caverns by now. He felt the back of his skull vibrating against the stone. The stone itself felt crystalline – an intricate matrix of vibrations that could channel energy to its source and out again, or among others of its kind. The vibrations extended through Nala’s skull and bone structure, claiming his consciousness within the crystalline network.
Suddenly Nala became aware of the network of stones across the planet… lines of force intertwining among them in ways that the cavern diggers understood and worked with in harmony as they designed the passages of his underground world. Nala remained vaguely aware of the swine as they continued to charge blindly in all directions around him. He also noticed a pig boy who chased one to within arms length of where Nala was pressed against the stone.
The boy looked right at Nala, but he did not see him. Nala was astonished at first as the lad turned and continued to chase the chaotic animals, then he understood. He had become the stone. It encompassed him in its spirit as his mental vibrations had matched the elemental matrix pattern. He had changed colour and was effectively invisible. He had attained the rock glamour… he belonged to the rock now.
Another vibration invaded his awareness. Diggers, right beside his feet. They were coming up through the ground. Suddenly he was himself again, Nala, scrambling into a goblin tunnel like those they used to raid the root vegetables. He was among goblins again. The diggers closed and filled in the passage behind them as they crawled swiftly back to the main passages. Nala smiled as his running goblin feet flapped against the stone floor of the cavern. The rock glamour was his now. There would be more adventures on the surface to come.