Previously Published

In Dreams of Gold was originally published in Liber Malorum: The Children of the Apple, a collection of short stories woven together by Sean Scullion.

In Dreams of Gold

The boy sat on the dock watching the Sunrise. The fishermen had just gone out for their day’s work, and there was nothing for him to do until the shops opened and people began to fill the streets of the small seaside town. Far out to sea, the light glinted from something with a golden sheen. It was too far away to make out any more than the occasional glimmer as the object moved about on the water, but as it grew closer, he was able to make out the shape of a ship. The sparkle of light was the reflection of sunlight on the mast, painted a distinctive golden colour.

There was only one ship known for having its main mast painted gold, what was a pirate ship doing sailing straight into Port Royale? The crew would surely be hung the minute they set foot on shore, unless of course it was an attack?

The boy stood up quickly, unsure at first of what he should do. The last thing he wanted to encounter just now was anyone official who might ask why he wasn’t in school. Yet he couldn’t sit quietly and do nothing while pirates attacked the island. Surely the soldiers on watch would see the ship coming, and recognise the golden mast of the Prometheus?

Just then the warning bell began to ring. Someone else had seen the ship. With relief the boy ran toward the crowd which was suddenly gathering near the shore. Wives who had just seen their husbands off to sea and shopkeepers who had not yet opened their doors mingled as soldiers joined the throng in anticipation of the arrival of the ship. The big cannons were no doubt being made ready, but there was no battle offered.

As the ship came more clearly into view, the anticipation of danger gave way to confusion. There was no Jolly Roger flag flying on the mast, but a white flag with a red cross on it flapped in the breeze. A small boat was lowered from the side with just a few men in it who started slowly rowing toward shore. The distress flag indicated that they had come to ask for assistance.

The excitement of the townspeople was not diminished by the relief. For a pirate ship to sail right into a port with a military base dedicated to eradicating the waters of the criminals was unprecedented. They had to be madmen, or very desperate. The boy found himself as breathless with anticipation as the adults surrounding him as his deft fingers loosened several purses, transferring them into the folds of his loose and ragged clothing. All eyes were on the approaching rowboat.

He wasn’t really a thief, the boy reasoned to himself. He did what he did because he would starve otherwise. Or worse, if the authorities knew about him, he would be put into an orphanage and starved by the institution. He saw the petty thefts as a way of redirecting the taxes that people would pay to support such institutions, while he enjoyed the freedom that the authorities would take from him unjustly for no other reason than their own need to feel that they controlled the destinies of all men. He would not remain a thief forever, but was in fact saving money in a secret place to buy himself an apprenticeship one day, perhaps as a carpenter or a blacksmith. Living in an orphanage would never allow him to learn a trade.

As the small boat landed on shore, the people found themselves helping to beach the craft. Immediately someone called for the doctor.

‘These are injured men, is the doctor here?’ There was only one doctor in Port Royale, although he had an apprentice. It was the apprentice who pushed through the crowd to answer the call. Recognising him, the man who had spoken directed the medic toward the worst of the injuries he had seen.

‘Look here Randolph, this man’s leg is gone and here, looks like a shark took a bite out of the side of this one.’

The doctor’s apprentice examined the wounds. There were four men in the boat altogether. The one who was missing a leg had it tied crudely. The first signs of gangrene were already apparent. The man with the side injury was bleeding slowly through a wrapping that didn’t entirely cover the bite marks. There was something odd about them, as they formed a crescent of evenly spaced punctures which Randolph would have guessed came from conical shaped teeth. Similar marks were all over the third man, who had dropped into unconsciousness, probably from loss of blood.

The remaining man looked to be uninjured. Randolph guessed that he had been chosen from among uninjured men to bring the casualties to shore. The pirate’s eyes darted around the gathered crowd. He appeared to be very aware of the danger he had put himself in by bringing them. He wore no shirt, but only a pair of cut off trousers and a canvas bag which was slung over his shoulder. He clutched something in one hand. The boy strained to see what it was. It appeared to be a common apple of some golden variety. The apprentice wondered if it was part of some booty that the man had brought by way of payment, but did not ask.

‘These are no shark bites. What attacked you man?’ The uninjured man met Randolph’s eyes as he nervously answered the question.

‘If you please sir, I’d rather talk about that in private. These men are in dire need of medical attention, are you a doctor?’

‘I’m the doctor’s apprentice. You’re right of course, we have to get these men to the surgery. Are there others?’

‘Some with bites,’ the man answered, ‘but no more like these. Most that were that bad are dead.’

Randolph shouted for stretchers for the injured men. He was bursting with questions, but he had to fulfil his medical duties first. There would be plenty of time for questions later, hopefully before the men he helped were inevitably hung as was the fate of all pirates.

‘Don’t you have a ship’s doctor?’ Randolph asked as the men were loaded onto makeshift stretchers.

‘We had one,’ the man answered, ‘but the creatures ate him. They ate most everybody that wasn’t on guard back on the ship. Except the Cap’n of course.’ The man stopped talking abruptly; his eyes darted from one of the spectators faces to another.

The injured men were carried to the surgery while Randolph shooed the curious onlookers away to give them air. Still, the crowd followed from a short distance, curious about what fantastic story would be told of the pirates and some mysterious creatures that had savaged their company. Randolph continued to try to persuade them to disperse, promising that the story would no doubt be common knowledge before the day was out.

Soon the shopkeepers began to drop out of the throng, returning to their businesses as it was time to open their stores. Then the wives began to wander off in small groups, speculating among themselves what adventures a pirate might encounter and whether there was danger to their fisherman husbands from whatever had attacked the pirates. A few hangers-on followed the stretchers all the way to the surgery, but those who carried them had places to go and did not remain.

The boy had kept pace with the uninjured pirate the whole way. As they entered the surgery, Randolph whispered something to a young man who had followed the procession. The lad nodded, and ran off in the direction of the governor’s mansion. The pirate saw the action, but only clutched the golden apple tighter, holding it to his chest.

‘They’re going to arrest you, you know,’ said the boy calmly, speaking for the first time.

‘Maybe not,’ replied the pirate. His eyes were wide and terrified, he was clearly unsure of his chances.

The injured men disappeared through a door and Randolph prevented the other pirate from following. With little argument, he accepted that his comrades were under medical attention now and sat down to wait. The boy slid next to him on the polished bench in the waiting room. A few others found seats, but most of those who had followed lost interest and returned to their own business when they saw that there would be nothing to do but sit and wait for perhaps a long time. The pub would no doubt be full that evening.

The pirate fished in his bag and brought out another apple as he bit into the one he had been clutching. It too was golden, not one of the red apples that the boy normally liked to ‘hook’ from the market stalls. The pirate looked at the boy for the first time, and offered it to him.

‘Take it boy,’ the pirate said very seriously. ‘It’s good for you and it will protect you…it’s magic.’

The boy laughed out loud, but he took the apple as he spoke derisively to the pirate.

‘Apples aren’t magic! I’m too old for fairy tales.’

‘You see some of the things I’ve seen boy, and you’ll believe in magic,’ came the reply as the pirate continued to eat his apple.

‘Why should I listen to you, you’re nothing but a bloody pirate!’ The boy’s voice was disdainful, filled with the trained contempt that all honest citizens were taught to feel for the criminals of the sea. The pirate seemed to take no notice of the boy’s tone, but spoke to him calmly, matter-of-factly.

‘You ain’t no different than me boy. You do what you have to, to survive.’ The boy looked up quickly, meeting the pirate’s eyes. He suddenly knew that the pirate had seen him at work, collecting his ill-gotten gains on the beach.

The pirate continued.

‘I was an honest seaman once. You ask around on any pirate ship and you’ll find that all the men were either merchant seamen or navy once, but they were driven to become what we are by cruelty and mistreatment on the ships.’ The pirate shuddered a moment, apparently shaken by evil memories.

‘There are well-respected captains in your precious navy fleet that will keel-haul a man for as little as taking an extra apple like the one you hold in your hand or whip him for swearing at the wrong moment. The world is full of tyrants boy, and some of them will use any excuse to prove they got power over another man.’ The pirate took a bite of his apple, and looked nervously at the door.

‘You can’t treat a man that badly forever before you get a rebellion on your hands.’ He finished speaking just as the offending door opened, and the governor himself walked through, accompanied by four guards. It seemed a lot of fuss to arrest a single man. The others were unlikely to be in any shape to give resistance.

The boy finished his apple and tried to pretend that he wasn’t there. To his surprise, no one took any notice of him whatsoever. He hoped to himself that perhaps their interest in the pirate was such that a truant boy could be easily overlooked. The room seemed to be filled with the presence of the uniformed men, so much so that most of the other curious citizens who had followed the progress of events so far suddenly found business elsewhere, trusting to the gossip network to satisfy their inquisitive minds later in the pub. The boy alone remained with the pirate and the officials, despite his better judgement.

The governor looked around briefly, then pulled up the most comfortable looking of the tattered chairs in the small waiting room and sat directly in front of the pirate.

‘Well, I expect we can do this here as well as anywhere,’ the governor said in a confident voice. The authoritative tone left no doubt that had he decided to conduct the interview in more secure surroundings, they would be on their way there already. The pirate clutched another golden apple tightly, but the governor didn’t appear to notice it. The soldiers stood at attention, awaiting orders. The boy wondered why they didn’t ask its significance, as the pirate was clutching it like a religious relic. He began to wonder if the pirate had been serious about the magic, but the questions this raised in his mind went unasked as he continued to try to remain unnoticed.

‘Let’s start with your name man,’ the governor continued. ‘And then you can tell me your story. Dawson, you take notes.’

Immediately, one of the soldiers fished paper and pen out of his jacket pockets. He was evidently used to fulfilling this function. The pirate hesitated only a few seconds, looking from one uniformed guard to another and then finally back at the governor. He licked his lips once, then seemed to transform his expression from that of a scared rabbit to something resembling confidence. A breath later he licked them a second time, then he began to speak.

‘My name is Jim Morris. I been at sea on the Prometheus for about six months when we came across ‘em.’

The man seemed calmed by his own words, or perhaps by the release that telling his story could provide. The boy noticed that his accent was less rough as he settled into his tale, and remembered what the pirate had said about being an honest man once. He seemed to be intelligent, perhaps even a little cultured, although roughened by his life at sea. Only the occasional adulterated word gave evidence of the time he had spent among less literate men.

‘It was evening when it all started,’ the pirate Jim continued. ‘The Sun was just disappearing on the horizon and the Cap’n was on deck. He was the first to hear ‘em. We all saw him, straining over the rail to get a closer listen to something we couldn’t hear, and then when we did start to hear ‘em some of the men went a little mad. Two of ‘em jumped right overboard!’

‘Hear what man? Or who?’ demanded the governor impatiently. The answer came back immediately.

‘Sirens sir, or so we thought. The men that jumped over got eaten right away…by sharks we thought. All we saw was the water foaming and the blood. They were gone so fast, they never had a chance.’ The boy had heard of sirens, the sea nymphs who lured sailors to shipwreck along rocky coasts with their irresistible singing, only to devour the sailors as the ship sank. They were well known in any sea faring society. Some said they appeared as beautiful women, others as half woman and half bird, or half fish. The man started to stare blankly at the wall, as if the picture of the memory were projected against it. Then suddenly he came back to himself and continued.

‘Woulda been better if it was sharks, at least you know where you are with them. Anyway, the Cap’n was taken a bit different than the rest. He set a course to follow the voices and wouldn’t listen to anyone. Most of us have heard about sirens, and we worked it out. We tried to tell him. Then when he wouldn’t listen, we talked about taking the ship, just for a while mind you, we ain’t mutineers.’

The governor sneered at the incongruous defence of the honour of a pirate, but remained silent.

‘We thought maybe if we could just get the ship away from there, the Cap’n would come back to himself. He just needed to get out of hearing of the voices. We never worked out why some of us weren’t affected as much, except that maybe she was singing specially for him, the Cap’n I mean.’

‘Who was singing for him?’ asked a guard, forgetting his station for a moment as he got caught up in the story.

‘The mermaid.’ The pirate said the words in a hushed voice as if he had spoken of a demon from Hell itself. The guards looked at each other in turn, gauging the reactions of their comrades. The one taking notes began to chuckle, and suddenly all four of them followed by the governor as well burst out laughing. The boy sat quietly, speculating. He knew as well as the adults that there were no such thing as mermaids. However, something had caused the injuries to the pirates, and he wanted to hear the rest of the story.

‘I didn’t believe it neither,’ said Jim. ‘But I saw her myself, sitting on a rock big as you please, with her hair reflecting the colour of the sunset and half of her like a big fish, only it wasn’t a fish tail exactly. More like two fish tails that she could walk on a little, but we didn’t know that yet.

‘She jumped into the water when the Cap’n saw her, and the Cap’n followed her to an island. We forgot about taking the ship when we saw her, the whole crew just wrote off the lost men as shark bait and we all went chasing a mermaid. Then our best hopes looked like they were going to come true when we got to the island.’

The pirate shuddered suddenly, and once again his gaze turned inward at some horrid memory that he clearly wanted to share, but was finding difficult to express. This time, nobody spoke. The officials waited patiently for him to gather his wits and continue his story. After a few minutes, he began to speak again, but softly, without looking at anyone in the room.

‘I pulled guard duty that night, along with some others. We weren’t happy about it at the time, but we were the lucky ones. We could see them through the scope, like some kind of fantasy come true. Mermaids, loads of ‘em, all splashing and playing in a bay. The big ship couldn’t get too close, but the Cap’n and most of the men went in the boats. As soon as the Cap’n’s boat hit the water, that first mermaid came right up to the side and gave him an apple. I ‘spect it must have been salty from the sea water, but he ate it right there, trusting her. Guess he was right though, I think it protected him.

‘They grew on the island, the apple trees. I never seen apple trees so close to sea water before, but they were there, and just dripping with ripe apples. Golden ones like I got in my bag here, but they don’t taste like apples I ever seen anywhere else. Sweeter they are, and a bit like cinnamon.’ He pulled an apple from his bag, showing the men, but did not offer one to them. Instead, he bit into it himself and chewed for a moment before continuing between bites. The boy had finished his own apple, and on an impulse shoved the core into a pocket as he had seen the pirate do with his own finished apples, instead of throwing it away as he might have done normally.

‘The mermaids were right friendly to the men and didn’t seem to have any inhibitions at all. You know what I mean.’ Jim met the governor’s eyes meaningfully. The governor nodded, acknowledging his understanding of the decadent scene the man seemed perversely unwilling to describe in detail, as if he had delicate sensibilities. The boy supposed it was for his own benefit, although he had a pretty fair idea of the sort of cavorting that seamen got up to with women, even imaginary mermaids.

‘Those of us on the ship kept fighting over the scope to watch, wondering how long it would be before our turn came to go to the island. We saw the Cap’n disappear into the trees with the one that led us there, that’s when we first noticed they could walk. He came back later with a basket full of these apples, and brought them out to the ship on his boat.’ The pirate was visibly shaking now, as he continued with his story.

‘She come out with him, in the boat, and we actually brought her up on deck with him. I looked at her, close as I am to you now. It was me that took the basket from her hands.’ He looked down at his own hands as if to reassure himself that they were still where they were meant to be.

‘She had long claws and webbing between her fingers, and her hair was pure white close up. It reflected light like I said about the sunset, but on its own it was almost as if you could see clear through it.’ He looked up at the governor once again, meeting his eyes and looking very shaken.

‘Her eyes were white too, and they took you in like whirlpools when you looked into them. The Cap’n introduced her, said her name was Le-ina.’ He began to shake all over as he finished his description. ‘And as he said it she smiled, real friendly like, and I saw her teeth, all round and sharp and even like a herring only much, much longer and I saw death in her eyes, the kind of death that a man gives himself over to willingly like he’s got no will of his own.’

A strangled cry came from his throat, and he curled up on the bench, eating the apple voraciously as if his very life depended on its nourishment. He returned the finished core to his bag, and looked down at his empty hands for a moment before saying anything further.

‘She spoke to me then. I ain’t never going to forget that voice!’ The pirate was nearly crying. ‘She said that the golden apple was for the one who could walk among the others and return without fear. That’s what she said, but it was in Latin. I’m the only man on the ship that speaks it. Then she put her clawed hand down into the basket of apples and pulled one out, and handed it to me. I took it from her very fingers, webbed as they were, and I ate it.

‘Then they went back to the island, her and the Cap’n. They went back into the trees, and we didn’t see either of ’em again. The other men, they tried to come back to the ship. They had their way with the women and was going to leave ‘em there, give us our turn I expect. That’s when it happened.’

The governor was sitting at the edge of his seat, waiting intently for the rest of the story. The guards too had all but forgotten their posts and had been leaning over, listening with rapt attention. The pirate licked his lips once again, and forced himself to finish the tale.

‘The boats almost got back to the ship, and the mermaids was swimming along with them. Then all of a sudden they went diving under the water, and the boats were pushed up from the bottom, hard. It was like a giant sea monster thumping the bottom of them, and they were all tipped over. The men swam for the ship, but none of ‘em made it very far. The whole patch of ocean seemed to bubble up in one giant froth of bloody water, like giant piranhas was eating ‘em. Those men I brought in was trying to climb down and rescue any of ‘em they could, but they never had a chance. The mermaids started climbing up the ship and attacked them on the ropes. That’s when we set sail and run.’

The governor had been turning a greenish colour during this part of the tale. His sickened expression exposed the weakness of a man who had never seen death close up, apart from the hangings he ordered when pirates were captured near his island protectorate.

‘I need some air,’ he said suddenly, and lurched toward the door and out of the surgery. The guardsmen, completely enraptured by the story, watched his exit then turned back toward the pirate.

‘What happened next?’ asked Dawson, the soldier taking notes.

‘Some of ‘em kept climbing up the side of the ship, like they had suction cups on their hands or something. We knocked them off with oars, we shot a couple, and just when we were sure they couldn’t be stopped the last couple of ‘em turned and they jumped off. We assumed they went back to their apple island. Then we brought the injured men here, ‘cause this was the nearest port.’

The guards all looked at each other again, suddenly at a loss as to what to do.

‘The governor!’ one of them exclaimed, then ran out of the surgery to find the missing official.

The boy looked up innocently at the pirate’s drawn face.

‘What will you do now?’ he asked.

‘We got to go back,’ replied Jim Morris. ‘Soon as the men are patched up and we can get ‘em back to the ship, we’re going after the Cap’n.’

‘Won’t he be dead?’ asked a guard incredulously. ‘Surely the creatures will have eaten him before you disappeared over the horizon!’

Jim shook his head.

‘No, don’t ask me how we know, but ever since we sailed away, every last man left alive on the Prometheus knows in his soul that the Cap’n is protected by that woman creature, Le-ina. She’s something special to them. We don’t know how they work their society but they had some sort of deference to her, like a tribal chief or something.’

As the pirate finished his explanation, the door opened and three men came in. They were seamen, that much was obvious. The fact that they were pirates was evidenced by Jim Morris’ familiarity with them. He tossed them each a golden apple from his bag, and they nodded in acknowledgement. Their eyes flicked to the guards, then away again. The entire encounter was eerie and seemed somehow unreal to the boy who witnessed it.

Without speaking, the men, followed by Jim now, went through the door on the opposite wall which led to the examination room where their mates were likely to be. A few minutes passed, yet nothing happened. The guards looked bored if anything, occasionally glancing at each other and taking little notice of the boy, who also sat silently and waited without knowing what for.

At last the door opened again, and the four pirates emerged carrying two stretchers with two of the injured men on them. They had been bandaged and sedated. The third man who had suffered only bites hobbled behind them, looking weak and nervous. Without thinking, the boy jumped up and opened the door to the outside for them. Jim nodded to him, then flicking a last glance at the guards, he met the boy’s eyes and spoke to him in a way that seemed as if he expected the guards to be unable to hear, although they stood just an arm’s length away.

‘I reckon you’d be a lot happier coming with us lad. Nothing for you here ‘cept getting caught one day.’

The boy glanced at the guards, then without speaking, followed the pirates out of the door and to their boats. One of the guards casually looked out the window and watched as they rowed out to the main ship, with it’s golden mast sparkling in the late morning sunlight. Just as the ship began moving out toward open sea, the guard at the window turned to the other two. He wore a confused expression, and seemed to speak as if he had just awoken and had not quite penetrated the daze of dreaming.

‘Weren’t we supposed to detain them for hanging?’

The others looked at each other suddenly, their eyes widening in shock as they realised that the pirates had just walked out under their very noses. One of them leapt toward the window, peering out to see the quarry inevitably escaping.

‘Bastards!’ he shouted. ‘With all the chaos, we completely forgot to arrest them!’

Out on the sea the ship bobbed with the waves, following a course that would take the crew back into a danger that they would be ready for this time. The boy stood near the bow, looking over the railing at the choppy waters that would take him into new adventures. He smiled to himself as he munched on another apple and wondered how long it would take the pirates to remember to ask his name.

 

Runner

Karesyk ran. Habit dictated that he ran at top speed, and in fact doing so would get the message to the next grotto faster even though there was no real urgency to spread the news. Still, it was training. Goblins survived because they could communicate faster than men, even if sending a runner was more primitive than the technology of the surface dwellers.

Other runners would be on their way to the nearest grottos in other directions, then new runners would take the news throughout the spider web of underground grottos that made up the world of the goblins under the city of men. It would take little time for all to know that something momentous had occurred. Something that could change their world and the uneasy peace with the human surface dwellers who would seek to slaughter their kind if they knew and understood the significance of the celebrations to come.

The sound of goblin feet slapping against solid rock echoed in a primitive rhythm throughout the intertwined passages of the underground tunnels. Karesyk thought of the rhythm of The Dance, the pulse of drumming that echoed the natural heartbeat of the earth. The primordial rhythm brought the goblins into ecstatic movements that induced the trance state which formed their spiritual connection to the planet. The act of running itself brought him to a form of trance, a euphoric sense of purpose that focused his mind on reaching his goal.

Legna was the target grotto. It was the one grotto where many runners were reluctant to go, but Karesyk was not afraid. From there, others would carry the message and Karesyk would seek hospitality, and perhaps even the possibility of being chosen by a female, if his timing was good. With the grottos so interbred that births were few, any visitor stood a good chance of getting chosen in The Dance.

Goblins didn’t measure time as humans did. With no sunlight to penetrate the caverns, the movements of the celestial bodies mattered only to the Betweeners who lived near the surface, and to those who went above to gather food. Karesyk was one of the Deep Dwellers, although young among goblins. His bloodlines went back to the oldest of their kind, hardly showing any relationship to the humans who, stories told, shared their ancestry far back in times of their earliest ancestors. The sharp and prominent ridges on his face marked his noble ancestry, just as it would signify him as a monster to human eyes. It was just as well that his kind seldom crossed paths with men.

Instinct and old memories of the path might have told Karesyk that he neared his goal, but the smell of food took over and drew him eventually into the wide cavern where the grotto had gathered. Karesyk entered quietly, showing respect to the goblin who was speaking to the others gathered within. Two goblins at the entrance were dispensing food. As custom demanded, Karesyk took the bowl offered to him. He bowed in goblin fashion to those who offered him sustenance ‒ a nod, followed by a slight undulation of the body in a dipping motion

A succulent and spicy aroma emanating from the bowl in his hands enticed his senses. Karesyk sat quietly and looked into the rough ceramic bowl, finding a familiar form of wheat porridge with fresh vegetables and a slab of unknown meat. After his run, the exquisite delicacies were a welcome feast. He used two fingers in the customary way to scoop the porridge into his mouth, sometimes dipping the meat into the pasty concoction to manage larger mouthfuls. He would be expected to speak next and didn’t have the leisure to eat slowly.

No one had turned to stare at him as he had entered, but goblins noticed any stranger. That he was not one of their own marked him as a runner. They would be expecting news, though not of the nature that he brought for them. No invasion of humans threatened their world at that moment. He brought glorious news of a birth.

The other goblins sitting near him glanced to read his expression. They did not hold eye contact, as that would be considered a challenge among goblins. They politely kept their inquiring gazes furtive and paid attention to the speaker who was regaling them with lessons of the movements of the planets and stars. The subject didn’t interest Karesyk. He preferred stories of his people’s history, or the made-up stories that were only for amusement. But the speaker chose what to speak about in the Storytelling, which always preceded The Dance. Some taught lessons for the younger goblins, some told fantastic stories, or lessons in history which reminded them all of why they lived as they did, out of sight of the humans.

Some, like Karesyk, brought news of events in other grottos. Karesyk’s news would be of particular interest to the goblins of Legna, as their passages led deep into the earth, into the realm of the Foringen. There were still many among his kind who feared to wander into the realms where the dark skinned goblins lived in harmony with the dragons.

The Foringen, forgers of metal, would already know of the birth. The dragons themselves would have celebrated as soon as the infant drew breath. He was whole and would live. The mother had picked up the child and suckled it. The traditional signal that the youngling was healthy had been welcome. If the stories about the Foringen were true, the dragons would have been rejoicing at that exact moment.

Karesyk might have saved himself the journey if the Foringen had been willing to travel the lesser distance to the higher levels of their own grotto, but they seldom ventured into what they regarded as the cold places of the earth. Karesyk wondered how their world would have changed if the new birth had been among the Foringen themselves, but like the other grottos, they were too inbred among their kind. Only a cross-mating could have resulted in a healthy offspring.

The speaker finished and moved to sit among the crowd. It was time. Karesyk stood and walked to the front of the cavern. All faces turned towards him. The goblins waited patiently, some with expressions of trepidation. A runner from another grotto may well mean news of war. Karesyk used his gentlest storytelling voice to calm their fears quickly. In a moment, they would have cause to rejoice.

“In ancient generations, our people traced their ancestors in common with men. But in many turnings of the earth, those who were trapped underground adapted to the conditions that the earth gave us, and became as my people – goblins who are feared by the surface dwellers.

Among those who survived in the midst of us were the magicians and shapeshifters. Transformed, sometimes between one shape and another, we formed into many species. Yet all are goblins. We survive together. We watch and protect all of our kind, even those we may have cause to fear.”

Karesyk stopped speaking for a moment. Several goblins shifted awkwardly in their seats. The carved rocks were uncomfortable enough, but it was the thought of what was unspoken, the vague but clearly understood reference to the water goblins who would shred the flesh of goblin and human alike to feed their insatiable hunger. Any reference to the Kol’ksu would have brought uneasiness to the listeners, even without naming them. Karesyk projected a feeling of calm into the agitation of his fellow goblins to bring both relief and a sense of wonder to them at once.

“Legends tell us of a species of goblin that is descended of dragons. It is said that those born as winged goblins communicate mind to mind with dragons still, and that the dragons will follow the will of such a goblin.”

The cavern fell silent. Suddenly the goblins were rapt with attention as the story unfolded before them.

“Many thought that it was only legend, until a youngling was born to the grotto of Nacibrab. The youngling had rudimentary wings. Sadly, he was ill-formed and could not live.”

Karesyk stopped again, allowing his listeners to feel the grief of that loss for a moment. Any loss of a newborn among them was a tragedy to all, but that one had been especially so because of the lost potential. As the gentle sighs abated, Karesyk continued.

“I bring you news now that Nacibrab has had a new birth. The youngling is only a male, but the wings are unmistakable.”

The goblins stared wide-eyed as the implication unfolded. They waited for more, hardly breathing.

“The mother picked up the infant and suckled him. He will live.”

The drumming started suddenly. Feet pounded in applause at the news as the drums reverberated in time with the earth’s rhythm. The goblins began to stand and dance. A surge of green flesh filed from the storytelling cavern to a more open cavern nearby where there was room to dance freely and to rejoice in the primal rhythm of the drums. The sound of a huon, the sweet flute-like instrument carved from bone, lilted over the steady beating of a growing number of drums. Goblin feet stamped in the ecstasy of The Dance. The Dance always followed the storytelling, but this time it was one of celebration. A new life had begun.

Karesyk joined in, dancing in total abandonment, despite the exertion of his long run. The food and rest had revitalised him, but more poignantly, the raw energy of The Dance filled him with the vibrant ecstasy that came from touching magic. The Dance was a form of magic that all goblins could share in whether they followed the ways of the magician or chose another path. It was basic and life-affirming. The glory of pure feeling, leaving all conscious thought behind as the body moved in the waves and spirals of nature’s energies that fed the soul.

Within those natural energies, Karesyk felt the sensuality of his own body and those around him. He became very aware of the few females among the grotto as they danced closer to him. The more clever males had sought to dance near to him as well, knowing that only one female would choose the visitor and the others would make choices soon after he had been claimed.

It didn’t take long for a female to lay her hand on his arm, leading him gently away from The Dance. Karesyk complied. He was grateful to see that she was one of the Deep Dwellers like himself. He preferred to leave his seed among his own species, although his Deep Dweller heritage could only improve the bloodlines of the Betweeners who resembled humans far too closely.

Karesyk was led by the female to a small, private cavern. She bit him without the preliminaries of conversation. The female wanted to breed – nothing else was required. Karesyk relaxed into the familiar paralysis. As a runner, he had been chosen before. A sweet tingling travelled from the sharp tooth marks on his neck throughout his nervous system, making him hyper-sensitive to touch, yet unable to move. In his helpless condition there was nothing to do but give himself over to pleasure as the female used his body according to her own whims.

He felt the rhythm of the drums and of the earth through the rock beneath his back. He closed his eyes, feeling the pleasure mount until he reached the inevitable climax that would seed a new life among his people – although for a grotto not his own. Perhaps he would meet the goblin that resulted of his pleasure one day, and would know of his part in the youngling’s making.

The female finished and threw a skin over him to give warmth as he slept. Had she coupled with a male of her own grotto, she might have gone back to choose another and increase the chances of conception. With a visitor, she would not. The need for diversity in the bloodlines was vital to their species’ survival. She would dally with the runner for a second or even third mating, perhaps allowing him freedom of movement the next time.

Karesyk dozed into a half-sleep as the steady rhythm of the drums continued to pound through the rock beneath him. The actual sound did not travel loudly to the cavern that the female had chosen, but the vibration through the earth would travel far, even as far as his own grotto, where others danced for the same celebration. The venom began to wear off so that he could move again, but weariness took over and he turned only to shift into a comfortable sleeping position.

The awareness of the drumming and festivity within The Dance played in his near dream-state, until he felt a sudden gust of warm breath against his face. His eyes popped open. Karesyk was fully awake instantly. His muscles tensed to move as his eyes shifted towards the source of the animalistic gust that could come from no goblin, but he did not move. Karesyk found himself looking up into the face of a dragon.

His mind raced. The dragons were not supposed to walk among the goblins in the cooler levels. He had teased his friends that they feared needlessly, that Legna would be like any other grotto. He had travelled here himself more than once, and never was there any sign of the creatures that everyone knew dwelled deep within the volcanic levels beneath the grotto where no goblin except a Foringen would travel.

Karesyk’s second thought was that he was not yet dead. He would have expected a quick and painful shredding from the sharp teeth that loomed above his face so closely, but the dragon regarded him with curiosity in his eyes. A low rumble of sound issued forth from its throat as a single droplet of drool escaped its mouth, dripping slowly onto Karesyk’s face. The viscous liquid tingled on his cheek as if it would burn if left unchecked. He had no choice but to use the sleeping fur to wipe it off, even though he feared that the movement might trigger the dragon’s attack.

To his surprise, the dragon actually moved backwards as he wiped his face and sat up in the same movement. It was then that Karesyk noticed that the dragon was not a big one, perhaps only as long as the height of two goblins of his species. It was probably not much more than a baby. His surprise was exceeded when the dragon backed out of the cavern entrance and was greeted with a rolling ball from the corridor, an item obviously procured from the human world. Whoever had rolled it was unseen behind the solid rock walls, but they had made no sound. The dragon, however, appeared to be well acquainted with the ball and began to play with it, pushing it about with its nose.

Intrigued now, Karesyk stood and gingerly followed the dragon into the corridor. Suddenly the silence of the dragon’s playmate made sense. Karesyk looked upon the dark leathery skin of a Foringen. Few of his kind ever looked upon the species, but Karesyk was beyond surprise by now. The forger saw him and mimed a greeting. The Foringen did not speak a verbal language. Their world was one of loud noises ranging from fire to the clanging of their own anvils. Their language was communicated through motions of the hands and a sort of dance of the body, completely visual in nature.

Karesyk didn’t know much of the language, but he could recognise the greeting. The dark goblin’s behaviour towards the baby dragon told the rest. The game was known between them, this chasing of a ball. Why it occurred in the mid-earth levels, Karesyk could only surmise. Perhaps the ball would melt in the deeper places, or perhaps the dragon had wandered astray. Karesyk would seek someone to ask the next time he had reason to travel to Legna.

Karesyk moved away from the strange pair, bowing an appropriate greeting as he left the cavern for a passage that would lead him back the way he had come. He remembered passages well, which also made him a good runner. Now he would run again, back to his own grotto. He could not sleep where dragons walked. The next time he was met with fear from those who would not travel to Legna he would not tease them. Instead he would brag that he had been to Legna and met a dragon, but lived to tell the tale.

Karesyk found the passage he sought and began to run. He ran more swiftly than he had ever run before, feeling the vibrations through the rock as the rhythm of The Dance drove him on from the deepest places within his being. In the echoes of the caverns the drums pounded in unison with hundreds of goblin feet.

 

 

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