A Midwestern Yankee... (Chapter 11)

Chapter Eleven

The Gaedling Goblin

              The balmy air of summer warmed his toughened skin, the singular shaft of sunlight piercing the shield of his eyelid like it wasn't even there. He groaned, rolled to his left, and promptly fell like a stone to the floor, trapped in sheets he'd contorted himself into while sleeping.

              Flailing about like a man having a fit, the old goblin finally succeeded in tearing free of the bothersome things, tossing them roughly back up onto the bed. "Useless things in this heat any ro'," he said to the room. Smacking his lips, the hook-nosed man stood up, pressing his hands into his lower back and arching until two bones popped in rapid succession. Tension eased in his body, a sigh of relief purring out of his throat. "Much better, aye, much better indeed."

              The Gaedling Goblin had reached late middle age with about as much enthusiasm as a man might have when being told he has a prostate exam at the end of his physical. No thanks, doc, just want the balls cupped and coughed, no need to go spelunking in my ass. He ached in places that, only twenty years earlier, would only get sore or creaky after hours of hard work.

              "That was two clan wars ago," he muttered, shaking his head. A scratching at his bedroom door told him that Rufus, his American Bulldog as they were called Mortal-side, needed to go out. "Hold on, you knucklehead, hold on," he called. A low, long oak dresser against one wall played host to a myriad bottles, and he snatched one with a greenish yellow fluid up. He uncorked it, took a sip, and sighed. His stiffness evaporated almost immedately.

              Into the main room of his cottage he strode, Rufus chuffing at him until he got the front door open. Revered by the whol of the goblin race, the Gaedling usually had a retinue of six guards routinely patrolling his woods, keeping an eye out for intruders and visitors both. All were welcomed with the same set of sword tips aimed at their chests, though the friendly ones usually had nothing to fear. The Gaedling used earthen magic to get a feel for the people coming to him, and his men knew what to look for. If any nearby tree branches swung up rapidly, the guest was okay. If down, they were routed or worse. Couldn't be too careful.

              Rufus sprinted to the fence around his yard, lifting one leg and doing his business. "Strange," the Gaedling said. "There's usually one fellow left here." He looked out into the woods, but as with any such morning, all seemed quiet.

              Rufus came back inside, and the Gaedling got the dog some food, then began cooking himself some eggs on the firepit in his kitchen area. A bottle of graf, strong apple beer, stood half-emptied on the counter. Goblins made the best graf, and none could compete with his. The kick was hellacious, though, and once a bottle was opened, it had to be drunk within ten hours for the best taste and effect. From then it soured until almost undrinkable. He had plowed through two and a half bottles of it the previous evening in a sort of half-assed congratulations to himself for keeping the Hurik Clan from going to war with the Petinga Clan the month before.

              As he settled in at his smooth-topped dining area table, the Gaedling felt a faint twinge in his left foot. Right away he was back up and scurrying to the rear of the main room, hands flying to the heavy three-shelf bookcase he'd had brought from Kaeralas some two-hundred years earlier. From the middle shelf, his right hand snatched down a dark silver scimitar, and his left brought down a solid bronze rod with meticulous scrollwork along its surface, capped on each end of its fourteen inch shaft with a plug of platinum.

              The Gaedling Goblin had months earlier suffered a bad scare with one of his guards when the man had been mauled by wild rendermen in the woods. The living metal creatures had become bold of late, and they had fell upon him as he patrolled the eastern border of the woods, beating him nearly to death before stealing all of his metal. In order to better protect his guards, the Gaedling had enchanted each of their boots with a warning tremor spell. If any of them came under attack, his left foot would twitch just the way it had.

              "Too bloody early for this nonsense," he grumbled, shaking himself into his banded chain jacket, hung by the door. His left foot twitched again, then a third time as he buckled the jacket closed. His heart lurche; whatever the trouble was, there was either a lot of it or one large bit. "Hells! Rufus!" The dog had been standing at the ready by the door. "Bed! Hide," the Gaedling commanded, and the Bulldog nipped off into his bedroom to hide under the bed, as trained.

              The Gaedling Goblin, sword in one hand, blasting rod in the other, went out to face his latest foe.

              During the midday meal on their first day after crossing the river, Kathy spotted what looked like some sort of deer with yellow fur, small black rings dotting their pelts. She pointed it out as she chewed on an apple slice. "Daggeuro? What's that?" The kennin followed the line of her finger, finally arriving at the yellow deer.

              "Esval," he replied without much interest. "A cousin species to deer, common enough in this region. Not much good for hunting, if it's meat you're after. Too gamey, bitter." He took a swig of water from his canteen. "Anyhow, they're the only kind of animal flesh the rendermen will eat, and they've been more active than usual in this part of the kingdom. Nobody's sure why."

              "De cantopa are much de same in de Spirit Plane right now," said Dimanche. "It's almost as if somet'ing had made them all stand up and take notice at the same time. I wonder if it's anyt'ing we can pinpoint, or if it's part of deir natural cycle."

              "Either way, I'm worried," said Daggeuro. "The Gaedling Goblin has guards at all times, but only six, and they attempt to patrol the entire woods. As for the Gaedling himself, well, he's not as spry as he used to be. If rendermen turned on him in a pack, he would not likely survive."

              The trio, spurred on by the kennin knight's ominous words, rushed through its meal and started out again. They had no time to waste.

              The following afternoon, while doing her necessary behind a set of pink berry bushes, Kathy saw a flicker of movement through the tall grass off to the east of their position on the road. It was at least a hundred yards away, but it was furtive, swift and secretive. She quickly finished up and jogged back to the faerie and voodoo spirt.

              "Something out there, coming our way," she said, in the unlikely event either Daggeuro or Dimanche didn't already know it.

              "Copper renderman," Daggeuro declared after a few sniffs of the air. "Weak, but fast and wild. Be ready." He popped the tie-downs on Boon and Bane. After five minutes of walking, Kathy heard the crush of tall grass being charged through, and in the next moment the angular, primitive creature came screeching at them like a warhawk.

              The renderman looked like an odd copper-colored enemy from an old Playstation One game, all sharp polygons and triangles. At first, she thought its head was a perfect diamond-shaped obelisk, but it pivoted its head to one side and shrieked, shattering that illusion.

This is just one kind of specter.The scorpions are another. How many more such things will I see before I'm through here, Kathy wondered as the creature charged her. She brought her axe out, but without need. As it reached ten yards' distance to her, a curling whip of lime green energy wrapped around its lower legs, tumbling it to the ground. Baron Dimanche stood with one hand stretched out towards the specter, the energy whip centered in his palm. He swiftly wrapped it around his hand twice, then grunted as he heaved the living metal creature up and overhead in an arch, slamming it into the ground. Kathy heard the renderman gasp as the air was knocked out of it.

              Dimanche did this four more times, until the  renderman went limp. He retracted the whip and said, "It is unconscious. We should kill it, just to be sure."

              "Nay," said Daggeuro, sheathing Boon and Bane. He knelt by the limp specter, rolling it onto its back and probing its surface with his furry hands. Kathy saw his left forefinger pressed in on a small spot along its torso. He made a knuckle and pressed down once, sharp and hard. The renderman twitched, fell limp again. "Every renderman specter has a singular soft spot which, if hit hard enough, paralyzes them for about twelve hours. We don't know what other function it serves," he said. "This one won't bother us again, in any event."

              And so they carried onward.

              For Rufus, like any dog,life was relatively simple. Wake up, run around the house, get Master to open the door (since Master didn't want him to pee on the floor, or make grunties), go do your business in the yard, get fed, get Master to play for short bursts, eat again, go do your business again by the moonlight, sleep. There wasn't much in the way of tricks repertoire, but one thing he knew that all dogs knew; when Master is hurt, try to help.

              Master had come stumbling back into The Home many, many ticks of the clock after Rufus dutifully hid under The Bed. Rufus heard Master grumbling, then a heavy thud. Whatever it was, Rufus wanted to see. He crept out from his hiding place and edged to the bedroom door, poking his head out.

              Contrary to human understanding, dogs see in full color. They also "see" scent vapors, and Rufus recognized the red, pungent stuff covering Master's face, hands and chest as he lay unconscious on the floor- blood. But Master wasn't dead, because Master's chest still hissed and wheezed with shallow breaths. His burny stick, which he never threw for Rufus at play time since it was special, lay charred in his hand, radiating a kind of sick heat like fever. Rufus yipped and yapped at Master, but the Gaedling Goblin gave no sign of waking up.

              Rufus padded over to his ankle, grabbing Master's boot by the teeth. It tasted foul, like mud and dust and moss, but Rufus had tasted worse. Whenever Master made squash pie, he offered a piece to Rufus, who politely refused by turning away and farting at him.

              With all of his doggy might, Rufus tried to drag Master away from the front door. He growed and chuffed, making three inches of progress when other sounds and scents interrupted him. They were coming from outside, perhaps fifty yards from the house. With renewed vigor he dragged Master out of the doorway and pushed the door shut with his head.

              Through the open window over the sink, Rufus could hear someone big and mean-sounding grumbling at someone else to get their kit shovel and start digging. "I want that fragment now! If any Rangers come snooping around and they find his body, they'll kill us on sight! Move!"

              Rufus, terrified of that voice, piddled on the kitchen floor, trembling. Untold ticks went by, until finally the mean-voice and his friends shouted with glee, then began fading away from ear and nose-shot.

              Rufus resumed dragging Master, aiming for the bedroom. It took the better part of an hour to make it, and when he was there, the dog leaped up onto the bed, eyeballing the various vials and tubes on Master's clothing-keep. Rufus had seen Master cut himself while chopping food for cooking, and whenever he did, he took a small swig of one of these. Which one, though?

              Rufus broke one of Master's rules then, jumping from the bed to the clothing-keep top. Here was the vial Master used t fix ouchies. Rufus delicately took it between his teeth, jumping down next to Master. Thankfully, Master wasn't heavy, so it only took a few minutes to roll him over and wedge the vial under his chin, popping the cork. Rufus carefully turned the vial to the side, so Master would have the healing drink go down his throat.

              The Gaedling Goblin reflex-swallowed, then came just awake enough to drink the rest of the healing potion under his own power. He tossed the vial aside and embraced his dog fiercely, minding not at all the slobbering licks Rufus blessed him with as he sat up, sobbing.

              Two days after dealing with the copper renderman, the trio came to the edge of the woodland that served as the Gaedling Goblin's territory. Daggeuro brought them to a halt with a raised fist at shoulder height, sniffing the air thoroughly. "There has been terrible fire and earth magic here, some wind too. We may find renderman corpses, or some other specter. Leave them be."

              The Baron and Kathy nodded. This day, the Baron had donned a much more formal dinner jacket, opting for once to wear a proper white shirt and full-length trousers as well. His wooden sandals and snake-cane remained, though. In the band on his top hat, he now had a pair of joker playing cards tucked.

              Daggeuro led the group through the first trees, still sniffing, tie-downs on his blades slipped free. Kathy kept her right thumb near the clasp button on her axe holster, while the Baron conjured bands of green and black energy coiling around his arms.

              Something rustled the buhes ahead along their path. As discussed the day before, they all three jumped off the path, taking cover behind various trees. Kathy leaned her head out and saw a fox dart across the path, just another woodland traveler. They all came together and pressed on.

              At the first junction of paths, Daggeuro pointed at the ground. "Scuff and scorch marks. There was a battle here," he said, sniffing. "Goblin, orcs, and a lone troll, likely Foruk." The three carefully examined the area, combing through the shrubbery around them. Dimanche turned up a dented helmet caked with blood, sized for a goblin. Daggeuro found what he thought must be a burned up rucksack. Kathy discovered a boot, with a severed foot still cooked inside. She retched off to one side of the pathway junction, holding it out before her.

              "Well, we know who won dis round," Dimanche said, shaking his head.

              "This was one of the Gaedling's guards," Daggeuro said. He tossed aside the rucksack. "They caught him patrolling alone."

              "You're sure," Kathy asked.

              "The Gaedling's guards are among the very best warriors of their race. Two could have felled at least one orc from the attacking group, but they aren't in evidence at all. In instances like this, orcs don't gather their dead." The group took the left fork in the path, walking deeper into the woodland.

              Ten minutes later, they came upon another battleground, but here there lay an orc. A small boulder lay atop the green-fleshed brute, crushing him from the stomach down. Roots had wrapped up over his wrists and throat, pinning him down. Kathy cringed at the smell coming off of the body, the sight of black flies swarming around the dead man's face.

              "There is much blood here," Daggeuro said, pointing out splash streaks and splatter around the little clearing. "The Gaedling fought them here, I can smell it! Look around, see if you can find him!" Panic had crept into the kennin knight's voice, a quality that set Kathy's nerves on edge. If he was nervous, things were bad indeed.

              The three cast about the area, until Kathy saw something she thought might be a positive sign. "Daggeuro, Baron, over here," she called. She'd found several hand prints in the soil, and saw what looked like drag marks heading off through thick underbrush to the north. There were bloody handprints on several trees leading that way, and a few feet from her, a slender scimitar that looked exotic by comparison to the weapons the orc had dropped when he was killed.

              Baron Dimanche narrowed his eyes, and as Kathy watched, his shadow stretched from his feet out over the path she'd found, snapping back a minute later. "He was bloody and beaten, but alive when he came t'rough here. He stumbled a while, den started crawling. It can't be far to his home." Daggeuro sniffed the scimitar and lunged ahead, followed by Kathy, then the Baron bringing up the rear.

              Seven minutes later, they came upon another clearing, this one carved out by the owner and architect of the cottage sitting in the middle of the fenced-in area. The front gate of the fence was latched shut. Stone slabs formed a walkway up to te front door, three mounds of freshly turned earth flanking each side of the walk.

              Daggeuro sucked in a harsh breath between his teeth. "He buried them," he said.

              "Who buried who," Kathy asked quietly.

              "His guards," Daggeuro said. "All six, each with a grave where they served. He honors them." Baron Dimanche took his top hat off, held it over his heart for a moment with a solemn look downward, then donned it once again. "Come on. We should talk to him."

              Daggeuro led the way to the door, knocking just once before it creaked open. Before them stood the Gaedling Goblin, short, thicker than most goblins, and with bruises and scars on his face, neck, side of his head, hands, and chest, visible in his unbuttoned brown tunic shirt. The healing potion had closed his lethal wounds, but his body would still need time to naturally recover.

              "Sir Daggeuro, welcome," said the Gaedling Goblin, sketching a half-bow to the kennin. "You and your guests may enter." He stepped back, waving them in. Daggeuro got two steps past the doorway when a little Bulldog streaked up and began jumping at him, panting and goggling. Kathy let out an excited, girlish yip, kneeling down and petting the dog as it shoved against her for attention.

              "Oh who's is da sweetest widdle fing, huh," she said, baby-talking the dog. "Who's is, huh? You is, yes, mmm-hmmm," she continued, scratching behind the dog's ears. Baron Dimanche leaned over to Daggeuro.

              "She evah talk to you like dat," he asked with a grin.

              "Quiet, you," Daggeuro grumbled. He reached back and shut the door behind him, then let the Gaedling guide him to one of the three chairs in the den. Kathy contented herself on the floor, the dog now laid out and panting happily in her lap. Daggeuro, Dimanche and the Gaedling all sat down, angled for conversation, as the goblin had aimed for when arranging the furniture.

              "I take it you were coming for the Great Door fragment his majesty the king entrusted to me," the Gaedling began. He got up, went into the kitchen, and came back with four dark brown bottles, handing one to each guest, keeping one for himself. "Careful, human," he said to Kathy. "Awakened or not, graf is strong, and will pummel you the moment you try to drink to much too fast."

              "Thanks for the head's up," she said, popping the top. She took a swig of the apple beer, grimaced, and set the bottle down just within arm's reach.

              "The fragment was indeed why we came. However, I presume Foruk the vindicator and his henchmen found it after your battle with them."

              "That they did, aye," said the Gaedling. His voice and manner reminded Kathy a little of pirate captains in modern cartoons. "T'weren't but the work of a minute, that battle, but by then the troll and his crew had already been hammered by my men. He came upon me wiv' only two orcs left as help, and I squashed one of them flat, yar bugger I did."

              "Did they have a taomen with them," Daggeuro asked.

              "No, I'd have sensed one of those miles and miles off. Any ro', were Rufus there saved my life. I was sorely injured, managed to pass out in me own doorway. Little booger dragged me to my bedroom, knew which potion was fer healing and poured it in me mouth, or at least got me started. I'd be right as rain if Tebul had survived, he was a fair hand with rough doctorin'."

              "So they took it," Daggeuro said. He sipped his graf. "Damnation. Did you wish to send word to the king of anything else that has transpired of late?"

              "No, that about covers it," said the Gaedling. "Though, you may want to let him know the Hurik have thrown in with the shade, Luga. They're a nasty bunch, that clan. Very militant, dangerously clever. You already know about the specters acting up, them rendermen."

              "Aye, we do," said Daggeuro.

              "Your home sits close to a crossing," Dimanche observed. "De Spirit and Ether Planes are very close here." He finished his graf and set the bottle aside. "If you wish, I can conjure some air spirits to stand in as guards until new ones come for you."

              "A kindly offer," the Gaedling said, raising his bottle. "I thank ye for it, and accept." Dimanche nodded and headed outside, chanting under his breath before he even got outside. The Gaedling leaned towards the kennin knight. "He's an odd one, ain't he?"

              "That's a polite way of putting it, yes. Infuriating is another, but he's been decent on this trip."

              "So, do we have to march all the way back to Celia now," Kathy asked, petting Rufus gently while he slept in her lap.

              "I'm afraid so," Daggeuro said with a sigh.

              "Nay, scubbit," said the Gaedling quickly, rising and fetching himself another graf. "Ye'll stay here the night, then I can send you on with a ritual I know, it'll take you right to the city gates."

              "Really? That'd be great," Kathy exclaimed. Rufus, wakened by her volume, got up and padded over in front of the cook pit, settling back down. "Sorry," she whispered at the dog. "No offense, Dag, but I'd love to sleep under a roof again. Those tents aren't doing it for me, no matter how much I harden the tops and soften the bottoms."

              "What's all this, then," the Gaedling asked, one bushy eyebrow raised.

              "Miss Kathy uses focus magic, honorable Gaedling," Daggeuro said. "Do you remember Kimba  Ford?"

              "Oh, aye, I remember him," the Gaedling Goblin said. "He were quite gifted wiv' making armor suits come alive on their own. That an' shaping them miniature figurines fer battle mapping."

              "Kathy's a wielder of the same power," Daggeuro said. "Though, I must confess, I have not yet asked for any clear demonstration of this power. Kathy? Be there some way to show us what you can do?"

              "Oh, yeah, pretty easily in fact," she said, setting about pulling the small figurines from her bag. She also pulled out a platic block Selena Barnick had given her to practice crafting form with. She sat in the center of the den, giving limited life and function to the figurines, watching with amusement as the skeletal warrior did battle with the red dragon, throwing small pieces of the dog's kibble as rocks at the beast. Kathy dismissed the animation of the figurines with a concentrated effort, gasping for breath.

              She then held out the plastic block, moving her hand over it once, then closing her eyes. In her mind, she envisioned the block taking the form of a long key, one with a Fleur De Lis-shaped head. When she opened her eyes, she held the key from her mental image out to the Gaedling Goblin. He whistled appreciatively.

              "I also made it so if it drops, it returns to normal," she said. The Gaedling took the key gingerly from her, turning it this way and that. He gave her an inquiring look, to which she simply nodded. He dropped it, and as soon as it struck the floor, it made a 'shlurp' sound and returned to its block shape.

              "Very handy, that," the gobin remarked.

              "Impressive, Miss Kathy," Daggeuro added. "I recommend, honorable Gaedling, that you give me leave to restock some of your firewood. It will give me something to do."

              "Oh, yes, would be most helpful, that. As fer ye, lass, would you help a man out and go a little north of here to my apple orchard? I need just a bushel of 'em, basket's by the door."

              "Of course," she said, heading for the door with Daggeuro. When they got outside, she saw the Baron speaking in hused tones with three transucent, cloudy man-like figures, what she assumed were the air spirits he'd conjured. She waited with Daggeuro a minute longer, until Dimanche sent the spirits floating past them inside. The voodoo spirit smiled broadly at them.

              "How may I be of service to you," he asked with a half-bow.

              "Accompany Kathy north to gather apples for our host. We're staying here the night, then being sent back via ritual in the morning," Daggeuro said. "Keep her safe, Baron. If too much trouble arrives, call for me."

              They split up then, each to their own task. Nothing harrassed Kathy, other than a few bugs, and Daggeuro thought over their circumstances as he chopped wood.

              None knew of the slaughter being committed in the northernmost reaches of the kingdom.