Five blood-faced vultures hunched like priests in their cowls, arranged on the branches of a lone tree that had been stripped of its leaves by lightening early last Spring. A short figure dressed in a leather vest, breeches and buckskin boots approached from the south-east, walking the dust trail that passed for a road. He interrupted their feast and now they stared down at him, patient as only carrion can be. The traveler gave the birds no mind as he squatted next to a white-skulled carcass.
He drew an iron knife, as long as the span of his hand, from a plain leather scabbard on the inside of his boot. With it he slowly lifted the foreleg of a dead goat. He held his other hand, palm down, over the chest-cavity and felt a slight heat still rising. He thought this odd because the head was stripped of all hair and flesh, as dead and aged as the tree. Even the eye sockets were dry, as though bleached in the sun for a summer. Yet everything else told a tale of new death; even in the goat’s stomach, beneath the blue and red gut ropes that had been pulled out by the vultures, was a cud of new chewed grass. It was green and individual blades were evident in the silvery slime ball.
He wiped the blade on the ground and sheathed it, raised to a half-crouch and squinted at the ground. Seeing no tracks and nothing to bear the blame, he stood fully and stared up the path, to the northwest. His hand rested on his second weapon, another blade of iron, this one as long as his forearm, hanging from his belt in its own scuffed and unadorned scabbard. The trail faded into the vast miles of hills and grain-lands that most simply called the meadows. He reckoned to have another twenty leagues before any town would be large enough to let a goblin hide in its alleys.
“Until then,” the goblin said aloud to himself, “I’ll just have to be slim enough to survive.”
He closed his eyes and drew air deep inside his hooked nose. All he detected were the molts and droppings of the vultures, and the new shed blood and intestines from the goat. He muttered an obscenity, ran a hand through his greasy black hair and smacked his lips from thirst.
“To your lunch then,” he told the birds, and continued his trek.
Two summers they spent in the civilized lands, burglaring houses and rolling drunks inside the walls of the men-cities. Kuune had been taller and slower, especially when noising through alleys. And so it was, perhaps a two-step behind, Kuune caught the bolt from a crossbow in the back of his neck. Since, Girok thought often of the last slobbery gulp of air his brother had made and then of his face-first slump into the slimy mud of that particular back street.
“No matter,” he said aloud to himself. “No matter,” and nothing indicated the haunting of his memory would cease.
The sun crossed the midpoint on its journey to nightfall. The sky was a deep crème blue and the light hurt Girok’s eyes. That he traveled in the open, at day, was testimony to the fact that fear of capture outweighed the unnaturalness gnawing at his goblin instincts to lay low until dark.
Men, he had learned, were persistent and loved their rules and a thief’s head was a prize that would pay. So he kept walking, aware of the lack of heft in his coin pouch as well as the emptiness of the water gourds half-slapping his back with each step. Before him, the dust trail parted last year’s brown grass like the scalp line along the poorly parted hair of a village child.
It curved up a gentle slope. New grass was just beginning to form green shadows under the browns left by winter. At the top, Girok paused and looked behind him. He saw no pursuit.
Ahead of him he saw an equally gentle downward slope. Off to the left, towards the south and at the bottom of an easy valley, a creek meandered and there, along its side, sat a small yurt with clay-red colored walls. From the top of the round tent, a scribble of white smoke floated and then faded into the air. The tent sat off the path by, perhaps, two bow-shots.
Girok squatted to his haunches, craned his neck, and surveyed more carefully. He saw two mottled and shaggy ponies tethered near the creek. Their heads were down, grazing.
Thirst first, he decided. He would get a drink of water, fill his gourds, and only then explore the situation.
With his knees up to his shoulders and his arms extended for balance he looked like a crab, extending first one leg and then the other, edging away from the path and down the hill towards the creek. Last year’s grass, up to his nose, he hoped, adequately covered him from view.
Slinking like that, it took him an hour to get to the creek where he stopped and lay on his back, extending his cramped legs and waiting for blood to ease the aching in his thighs.
The water was clear and the sand and pebbles on the bottom told the goblin this creek ran most of the year. It was two hops across in most places and perhaps waist deep in the middle. Girok removed his boots and spent just a while picking four or five fleas from his ankles. Then he dunked his feet into the cold water until they ached. He filled his gourds and buried them in a place where he would not forget.
As he covered their hiding place with a final palm-sized stone, he looked up in time to see a tabby cat; a town cat of indeterminate grey, brown, and that odd other color that cats that fat sometimes acquire. The cat, the size of two green melons and not skinny at all, sat by a clump of reeds, several arm reaches away. It seemed half-interested, not at all alarmed, and completely delicious. Girok reached over for his boot knife. He was a great thrower and confident only a quick jerk and snap of the wrist kept him from an early supper.
The boot joggled but he managed with his fingertips to slide the knife from its scabbard. He moved his hand back behind his head and, as if on queue, the cat leapt behind the reeds. Girok called himself a filthy name for being too slow and then scrambled, all knees, elbows and bare feet, over to where the cat had been. Other than paw prints, he saw no sign.
He closed his eyes, sniffed and listened. He smelled only the creek, its rocks and pebbles, and the cool mould of loam.
“To the yurt then,” he whispered and shrugged. He went back to his boots and slipped them on.
Following the creek he again slinked up to a point where he could see the round tent. There was no sound from within, yet still the strand of white smoke twisted from the tent to unravel in the air. It reminded him again of how hungry he was. The ponies were on the other side and showed no alarm. From this vantage he stopped and lay flat like an old log. He put a hand to the sun and splayed his fingers under it to guess that, perhaps, two hours of light remained. Resting his head on his arm, he napped.
As silently as the moon sliding along its path, Girok edged himself closer and then closer to the yurt. So cautious he was that even the stands of dry grass yielded without noise. Yet, Girok felt he must be announcing his approach because, as goblins go, he was a middling sneaker.
At midnight, he finally reached the hide-wall of the tent. He closed his eyes and slowly drew the night air. He smelled horses, then smoke and food, the old tannic of the hides, and lastly, from within, a light musky odor, female. Yet nothing noised.
Slowly he lifted the lip of the hide before him and peaked into the structure. He saw a small stove in the middle of the round, with a pipe of metal leading to the top. Along the walls and hanging from wooden pegs were no end of pouches, bundles of dried plants, and curious things he had never seen before. And there, to his left, on a mat of blankets and hides, lay a form, asleep he gauged, by her breathing. He could tell little of her, wrapped as she was in her blankets.
In Girok beat the heart of a thief, as many of his kind are. Like a hunger, the lust of coveting made his fingers involuntarily clench at the thought of taking some of the things arrayed along the walls. Then, from a darker place, the thought of murdering the woman in her sleep surfaced. Perhaps he would, perhaps he would not. By then he had his head and both shoulders into the sturdy tent.
Then the yeowl of a cat ripped through the still of the night. He looked to where it came from, where the woman lay, only now she was not there and in her place was the tabby he had seen along the creek-bank. He shook his head and blinked hard. Still the woman was gone and the cat stood on her blankets.
Superstition was no stranger to Girok and he felt the thick hairs on his back stand up against his jerkin. The capillaries along his arms tightened and his thick skin goose-bumped.
“Well goblin,” spoke the cat, “what do you want?”
Though well he believed of men who turned to wolves under the gaze of full moons; women who turned to cats for no reason whatsoevers was something he never considered. At best, such things were tales told to entertain children.
“Was it not enough I let you live, though you drew your knife?” the cat asked.
“Had I known…” he said, continuing to edge forward.
She laughed. “Do you see anything you want here?” Still eyeing the goblin, the cat turned so that her entire length was to him. She swished her tail and asked, “Isn’t that what you are here to do? Steal?”
“I am hungry, and that is all,” he lied. “And I have coin to pay.” Girok eased himself further into the tent and only his legs remained on the outside. When he looked up the cat was gone and in its place stood a woman. Again the hairs on his arms and back stood up.
She was bare footed, wearing a simple, unbelted, black smock that hung to her knees. Her white arms stood in contrast to the dim of the room and black of her garment. She smiled and was not unpretty. Her hair was black to match her garment and fell about her shoulders in loose ringlets. It was too dim for him to make the color of her eyes. They rested outside the light, in the shadow of her brow.
“I have no need of coin.” She took another step towards the stove as Girok pulled his legs inside the tent. He now crouched on the ground before her. His knees again up to his shoulders, his eyes followed her.
“What is your name,” he asked, “if I may?”
A corner of her mouth curled into a smirk and she looked down at him. Even were he standing she would be the taller. “I am Euthena.”
“Euthena, then, if you need no coin, perhaps a servant? I am not without skills.” He bowed his head to the ground, ears perked for her movements. Humans, he learned, could be lured to danger by their own egos. He heard nothing in answer and so raised his head. The tabby had reappeared, now on the other side of the stove.
“Can you do this?” she asked, taking another step.
“No,” he guessed she spoke of turning into a cat.
“Then of what use are your skills to me?” The cat continued walking. Girok noticed a wooden box against the yurt wall. That was where she seemed to be moving.
He stood, eyes intent on the cat, and took a step towards the box. Some element long-lost to man, deeper than an intuition he could articulate, connected something and Girok followed the voiceless cunning within himself. He knew his path led to either doom or escape.
The cat stopped, “Where are you going?” she asked.
Girok pulled his long knife from its scabbard on his hip. “I looked away from you once and missed my mark. I will not look away again.”
The cat turned knowing, somehow, her secret lay open to the goblin. It was true, Euthena was a witch with the most remarkable power to turn herself into a cat and back again to a human and other spells she had, some even more powerful. Yet that spell could not be undone while someone was watching. The goblin had guessed and now, as a cat, she was unable to perform any other spell and he, until she left his sight and only until then, would be free to do as he wished.
“What’s in that box?” he asked.
Euthena turned and walked back to the stove, hoping for a blind spot.
“Do not,” he said, “take another step. I am more than fair at knifing.”
Something rang true in the timbre of his words. She stopped and faced him. “What will you?”
Knowing how easily tables turn, Girok did not gloat, though the burglar in him would have something. “Food,” he said, “and this.” Still eyeing the cat, he reached his hand to the wood box. It clutched the surface like a drunken spider until it pinched the thing he thought she had been moving towards. Not daring to look, he felt a thin, light length of wood.
“I can give you more than that, goblin,” Euthena said, almost immediately. “But to do so I must turn back.”
He took a step towards the cat. “At what assurance?”
“I give you my word?”
“What word? Spell it out,” he took another step and could have struck her with the long-knife, had he chosen to do so.
Euthena the cat sighed. “I give you my word that this night I will not try to harm you.”
“Or kill you.”
“Upon what?” Girok knew very little about witches and only guessed that an oath upon something important would stay her hand. What he had seen of humanity had been, towers, weapons, and pouches of gold not withstanding, without honor.
Euthena cleared her throat. “I give you my word, upon my order, that this night I will neither try to harm or kill you.”
At that, and still following the voiceless cunning that was as much a part of him as the blood in his veins, Girok bowed his head and raised his arms. When he looked up, Euthena the human stood before him.
“That,” she pointed to his hand, “is but a trifle.”
He looked to see he had grabbed a slender bit of wood, thicker than a twig but not by much. In the dim light it was hard to tell but it seemed the color of ash and was as long as the dagger in his boot. “What is it?” he asked.
“Sit,” she said, ignoring the question and holding out her hand. “I will bring you food and wine.” She did not move, her hand was still out to him.
“Not yet,” he grinned.
Without further waiting she turned and walked to a mound of pouches on the other side of the yurt. Her feet were soundless as the floor was padded by thick hides, similar in color to the outside of the tent. “Where were you going?” she asked, “Before you decided to sneak into my tent?”
He watched and noted she moved quickly, and with confidence – even in the semi-darkness. That was rare for a human.
She looked over her shoulder at him. “What’s the matter, a cat have your tongue?” She grinned and went back to the food pouches.
It was indeed a good question. Hitherto, Girok had not given much thought concerning what he was moving to. He and Kuune planned on visiting the next walled man-city. Although his departure from the previous city was mostly unplanned, he supposed that was where he would eventually go. Though he knew he must first go through a smaller town, a place called Rylar’s Crossing. “I travel to Rylar’s,” he said, splitting the difference.
Euthena stood and turned, with a cup in one hand and a bundle of something in the other. “I see,” she said, walking towards him. “Sit, please,” she nodded to the floor.
“As you will.” She held the cup to him. “But something will have to go.”
Girok’s hands were still full. He walked back to the wooden box and placed the stick of wood atop it. Euthena’s black eyebrows raised ever so slightly. Still with the long knife in hand, he turned and took the cup. He sniffed it, a rich drink smelling of raisins. A port, he had learned in the taverns. Another thing about the humans, they liked their drink and had as many different types as a goblin sow has children. He took a mouth of the blood-colored vintage and swallowed. His throat tightened as the doubly fermented wine, with just a drop of something else, burned its way down.
"I will keep my word,” she said. “You can sheath your knife.”
Girok considered this and then did. Already the port eased his thinking. He was hungry, hadn’t eaten in two days of heavy walking. He looked into the witch’s dark eyes and she smiled, handing him the bundle of food. He smelled both bread and meat and he began eating the first thing his hand found inside the pouch.
“Would it be a fair trade,” she began, “if I were to get you to the Crossing quicker than you could make it by foot.”
“I don’t know. How far is it?”
"It is yet five days. But I can get you to the outskirts before dawn.”
He considered this, gulped more port and began chewing a strap of dried meat, of some sort. He’d had no real encounters with magic, aside from his village shaman, and that had been entirely different. He finished the meat as Euthena waited for him to finish the cup. “That would be fair,” he managed to say before taking a final drink, after which he held it out for more. It would, if true, throw, finally, any pursuers from the city.
That’s a funny way to think it, he mused, and soon became lost in a meandering trail of thought. The witch faded as a threat and he became consumed by his own failure to think through what he was trying to think.
“A little sleep never hurt anyone,” Euthena said.
And so it happened that in the morning Girok the goblin found himself outside the yurt, straddling three long boughs of dried sassafras bound together with coarse twine. He held the unleaved ends in his hands, like a child would hold a stick-pony. Behind him, Euthena anointed the branched ends with a green pungent; a snot-like goo of henbane, yarrow, and who knew what else. She said it was a flying salve.
“Hang on,” she said, “and you will soon be on your way.” In her left hand was the wand the goblin hand nearly taken. “If we meet again,” she told him, “I’ll scald the meat from your bones.”
Setting the clay pot on the ground she stepped back. “Now lift your feet,” she commanded, and he did.
Several things happened at the same time. He and the impromptu broom were immediately airborne. He gasped and felt his innards pull back into themselves. His hands tightened on the thin stalks of wood as the air rushed into his face so that his eyes began to water and a terrible, horrible, dizziness spun all around him. He pitched hard to the left and then rolled completely over. He hung upside down with his knees and elbows locked around the wood while he hurtled at an unknown angle from the ground.
After the first moments of this he looked over his shoulder and through the water in his eyes could see very little. He thought he saw the ground but was unable to spot the yurt and, indeed, its presence was a small concern. Suddenly very sober, and of all things, Girok remembered his buried water gourds and knew they were lost for good.
He tightened his grip on the wooden stalks and cried out to Grimpse the Unfair to, just this once, keep him from harm.
This was her final thought on the matter as she went back inside her tent, hoping to salvage some type of sleep with what remained of the night.