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A Boy and His Goblin

by Ryan Griffith

I have a companion. He is a foul-smelling, foul-tempered, foul-mouthed creature. He lives in a sack that I carry by my side. He lives almost exclusively on a diet of salted jerky and onions. He rarely washes his clothes. I fear for the state of his toenails. He is about three feet tall and skinny, a runt of his kind. His eyes are rose red, and they glow crimson in the dark. His skin is dark green, like moss on the side of an knobby oak tree. I call him Creeper, because that's what he does. Figuratively and literally.

He is also the only friend I have. He's more loyal than any dog. He's saved my life more than once. He smells pretty funny.

It was years ago. I'd been bitten by wanderlust, the traveling bug. My desire to see new places and avoid several people who were trying to kill me spurred me to go much farther than I had ever been. I crossed the Giant's Plain and then the Hot Wind Desert, which was about as fun as it sounds, before reaching the Empire's land. Hamlets turned into villages which turned into towns. Finally, cresting a hill one day with sore feet and a nasty demeanor, I spied the tall towers of Cazendar, the fabled capital of the Empire. It was something out of myth and stories, and I had almost believed that I was on a wild goose chase.

I had a little money, so I rented a room in the cheapest inn I could find. For days I simply wandered, taking in the sights. One day something caught my eye. Goblins are rare in the Empire, even rarer than they are here, and some menagerie was using him as a crowd puller. There were posters slapped around the town advertising the place. They depicted crude but colorful versions of the animals and creatures within. They had some rare birds, a panther, a hyena, a couple of great snakes, a supposed manticore, even a giant hairy ape-man from the far southern continent. But the goblin, depicted as a snarling, green skinned, red-eyed monster, was the centerpiece, the crowd bringer. Someone had brought the poster into the inn I was staying at, and it drew my attention.

Being me, I thought I'd have a look. I grabbed Thorn from the little bedroom I was renting and headed out.

When I arrived at the bazaar, it was noon.  The Empire is a hot enough place usually, but this was a day to go down in the almanacs. I'd been wandering around the city in search of the place for a while, asking locals directions. Most of them stared at me and my strange accent, but a few were nice enough to point me, vaguely, in the right direction. By the time I arrived, I was drenched in sweat. My clothes were light, both in thickness and color, and I had that green cloth the locals call a dubland wrapped around my head to keep my fair skin from burning. Or at least to pretend to keep it from burning. Things like sunburn don't affect me. But if I were to walk around town without a head covering, my fair hair would draw attention, and I wasn't all about drawing attention to myself these days.

A small crowd had gathered outside the entrance to the menagerie, which was located within a huge tent which itself was located within tall four stone walls. A small cage tied to a long pole and hanging near the entrance seemed to be the focal point. I couldn't see what was inside because someone had draped a cloth over it. Two copper to get in. The owner, a skinny man with a long mustache was shouting something. Tied to his belt was a nasty looking barbed whip. I stopped to listen, leaning on my staff, struggling with the man's strange Empirean accent.

“...a monster straight out of myth and legend, “he was saying. He waved his arms, gesticulating wildly. “The creatures that brought the Ivory Kingdom to its knees, the ones that your children fear hiding under their bed, red eyed and long clawed, a goblin!”

As he shouted 'goblin' he pulled the cloth from over the cage. The crowd gasped and strained to look.

There wasn't much to look at. The goblin inside lay limply, his clothes rags, his body ragged. I'd seen goblins before, they were far more numerous in the lands I hail from, and this was a poor specimen. A runt, really. The man poked at the cage with a stick, shaking it. The green body didn't stir.

“That's not even a real animal,” a man in the crowd shouted. “It's a puppet or something.”

“It's stuffed!” someone else yelled.

The menagerie owner huffed, and lowered the cage to the podium he stood on. His face was red, but he tried to smile.

“It's merely sleeping! Watch!” He stuck his fingers into the cage, something I inherently knew was a bad idea.

It was. The goblin's motionless body twitched, and suddenly his sharp little teeth were clamped on the man's hand. My staff, Thorn, hummed in my hand as if amused. The man shrieked, sounding for all the world like a little girl. The crowd took a collective step back. Some of them shouted in terror, others in amusement. A man in the front row doubled over in laughter.

The owner managed to wrench his hand from the cage, but I could see from my vantage point it was bleeding fairly badly. I watched as the goblin stood up in the cage to face the crowd. It glared, eyes glowing faintly crimson, and opened it's mouth.

What spewed forth from that creature, I can barely recall. My mind still recoils a bit from bad language, my father having hated such words and raising me most appropriately. What I do know was it was the filthiest, most disturbing, most insulting and by far the most hilarious speech I had ever heard. Parents covered their children's ears and stared in shock. It went on, a straight stream of vile comedy, like a spring that gushed black mud, for a good thirty seconds before the stunned menagerie owner slammed the blanket back over the cage, huffing and frantically apologizing to the crowd. He summoned a servant to bring the cage through the gate. They weren't very gentle handling it.

My ears are very keen. As the worker hefted the cage into his arms and disappeared through the curtains, I very clearly heard the sound of snickering coming from little goblin. He was laughing to himself. He had cracked himself up.

At that moment I decided it was time for a jail break.

I returned to the little inn I'd been staying at and paid for a bath. The water was warm, but it felt like a mountain spring after the heat of the day. I bought a small meal, meat and cheese and some watered-down beer, and sat in the corner of the common room, reading a trashy book I'd bought on a street corner stall for several hours. When the sun when down, I left.

The capital of the Empire, Cazendar, is a beautiful city. It's old, very old, the oldest city on the continent, but well maintained. The streets are cobbled and mostly kept clean. There are sewers, which seems like a no-brainer but you'd be surprised. There are huge buildings here, the mansions and towers are some of the largest in the world, covered in spires and turrets and, something I'd never seen before, were connected by footbridges.. The buildings are all brightly colored, some with spirals, others with swirls and odd geometric designs painted or tiled onto their walls. At night, they lit the streets with lampposts filled with some strange powder that burns brightly in all the colors of the rainbow, so the streets are light by an ever shifting spectrum. It's wild.

I walked into the Bazaar an hour after the sun had set. A different man was selling tickets to the menagerie; I bought one, wincing as I felt my moneybag, and went inside.

The menagerie was arranged like a museum; you were guided by roped off alleys, forced to walk a single path and stare at the cages as you went by. There was a only a small crowd here tonight, milling about. A small child squealed at the sight of a boa constrictor. Others pointed at the colorful birds in a large aviary.

I closed my mind to any communication with the beasts, but there was a sense of low-grade miserableness prevalent in them which made me want to grind my teeth to dust. The place was clean enough, I supposed, but the animals were only in so-so condition and their cages were not particularly large. The lion lounged, seemingly lazy and bored, but I knew that at a seconds chance it would leap from the cage, snarling and predatory. It raised its head and stared at me as I walked by. The birds sharp little eyes followed my path and the snakes attempted to hold my eye. I stayed in the back of the crowd so as to not draw undue attention, and walked on.

To my amazement, there really was a manticore. It was dead though, taxidermied and mounted on a rock, and must have been a juvenile when it died. It was still a bizarre creature in death, however, with it's furry feline body and weird, human-ish face. Small vestigial wings protruded from its back, and the tail had a stinger on it. The venom was rumored to paralyze, then kill slowly and painfully. An adult version must have been a real nasty, and I was glad they originated at the far side of the world.

Near the back of the tent was the largest crowd. The ape-man from the jungles was here, staring back at the passerby, sometimes idly munching on vegetation that had been provided. It had a large, broad forehead and deep set black eyes. It looked like it could rip a man in half.

In the smaller cage next to him sat the goblin. It was sitting, leaned against the back of the cage, in the pile of rags that must make up its bed. At first glance I thought he was sleeping. At second, I thought I glimpsed a thin line of crimson under its eyelids. I stood back and watched.

The ape had most of the crowd’s attention, but a significant number of people crowded about the goblin's cage. One young boy, unsupervised, was poking a stick at the goblin.

“Wake up!” He shook the stick back and forth, rattling the bars of the cage. The goblin didn't move.

“Can't it speak?” asked an older woman.

“They're supposed to be intelligent. They should be able to, “ someone else said.

“You may not wish to hear what he has to say” I muttered under my breath.

“Do something,” the boy with the stick said, and poked the goblin. Again, it didn't respond.

There was some laughter, but the crowd was growing bored and moving on, through the tent's exit flap. Soon it was just me and stick boy.

He poked the goblin again. I snatched the stick out of his hand.

The boy squealed, annoyingly, so I broke the stick in half.

“If you'd like, I can slap you around with this,” I told him, slapping one end into my palm. He did not like, so he exited, tripping through the flap in his haste to get away from the mean foreigner. I'm not going to pretend I didn't enjoy that a little bit.

I turned to the goblin, who was watching me now, eyelids half open. I realized I had no idea what to say.

“Uh, hi.” There was no response, I don't really blame him.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

Bony shoulders shrugged.

“How'd you end up in here?”

There was no response. Thorn hummed in my hand, alerting me to the presence of people behind me. The next tour group.

“You want out of here?”

Now that elicited a response. He sat up and stared at me.

“I can break you out of here. Is there any place to hide?” The goblin pointed to a spot on the curtain.

“Corner of the wall there. Little bit of room”

I nodded. “Keep quiet and I'll be back.”

I lifted up a portion of the tent where the goblin had pointed and ducked through. There was about a foot of space for me to stand here between the tent and the stone wall. I leaned against it, and waited.

Several more groups of people passed before the moon was high. It was too cramped to sit. I shifted my weight back and forth, trying to keep my legs from falling asleep. Finally, I heard the menagerie owner barking orders at his employees. They scuffled around. I heard cage doors open and close as food and water was shoved in.

The huge ape lumbered about it its cage as the workers approached, causing the floor to creak. The nearest cage, the goblins, was opened and closed. There was a pause.

“Eat,” someone I recognized as the owner said. The goblin did not reply.

“You eat, or I tie you down and force it down your throat.”

The goblin muttered something in it's native tongue. I don't speak Goblinese, but I'm sure it was less than affectionate.

“You speak common around me.” I could hear the sneer in the owner's voice. “Now, eat or I bring the whip.” There was no response from the goblin.

“You are no good to me dead,” The owner said. I thought the stuffed manticore might have something to say about that.

There was no response. I heard the cage door open. Air whooshed, and then a crack as the whip met skin. I froze for a long second, heroically, then stumbled trying to get through the curtain, which had managed to wrap itself around Thorn and my leg simultaneously. There was another crack, and this time I heard the goblin's sharp intake of breath as the whip lacerated him. The man chuckled to himself. I cursed. The curtain was somehow now entangled in my belt. It would have been funny, at another time.

I touched Thorn just so and a blade slid from her seemingly seam-less end. It cut through the thick fabric of the tent like so much butter. I stumbled through the hole to find the menagerie owner staring at me in shock. The goblin was huddled at the back of the cage, bleeding from nasty scratched on one arm.

“ one is allowed ...who?”

“Uh, drop the whip,” I said. Sometimes I am less dramatic than I would prefer.

Owner recovered quickly. He sneered at me. He was good at that. It was probably the moustache.

“Leave or I'll call the guards, young foreigner. Or maybe I won't. Who is to say?” He cracked the whip uncomfortably close to my head. I tried not to wince, but I did.

I spun Thorn around my hands, which is a neat trick if I do say so myself. The menagerie owner took a step back, startled, but suddenly struck at me. He was quick. My vision turned red as he laid open my scalp. I turned, flailing wildly with Thorn, and somehow managed to catch the whip around her as he slashed it at me again. The owner tugged, and so did I. It appeared to be a stalemate, until the goblin, screeching horribly, leaped out of the cage and right onto the man's head.

The bite he had given the man earlier was just a warm-up, I realized. There was a horrible crunching sound as the goblin's sharp little teeth clamped onto the man's nose, breaking it. The owner screamed, a high pitched sound more suited to a frightened grandmother, but more than enough to send guards from all over town running. He grabbed the goblin and pulled, managed to extract him from his face at the cost of a chunk of it. The goblin howled, blood running from his mouth. The owner screamed, blood running down his ruined face.

Again, this would have been funny in the proper context.

I retracted the blade from Thorn and slammed the butt of her into the man's head to shut him up. He folded in half and fell over.

The goblin landed sprightly. He looked up at me, and grinned.  I heard men shouting somewhere nearby, and the animals were awakening in the back of my head.

“We need to leave,” I told him. “Guards are coming.”

“More biting, then?” he asked, or maybe told me. He snickered.

I stared at him for a moment.“You are a creepy little thing, aren't you?”

He snickered again and nodded.

“Come on then.”

He leaped up onto my arm, and from there to my shoulder. I handed him a little knife I carry in my belt. He knew how to hold it.

Release me.

I started. Turning, I found the ape-man staring at me. It's huge hands were wrapped around the bars of the cage.

Release me, it said again in my head.

I was startled for two reasons. One, my block must have come down without me realizing it. Two, it was a very clear thought, highly unusual. Communication with beasts is not usually so clear cut. It's more of a sense of their emotions, their experiences than having a conversation with your grandmother.

You'd never survive in the city, I told the creature. They'd either recapture you or kill you.

Better to die now than to stay here. It thumped the floor of the cage, shaking it.

The goblin tapped me on the shoulder. “Maybe we should be leaving instead of staring at hairy man things, hmm?”

“Here's the thing,” I started to say. “Never mind, I'll explain later.”

I went over to the cage. The lock was thick, too thick even for Thorn to cut through. I began to bash it with the butt end of Thorn, to no avail. The goblin leaped off my shoulder as I futively smashed at the lock. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him digging through the owner's clothes.

“Maybe this is not a good time to be robbing unconscious people?” I smashed at the lock again, frustrated. Voices were yelling much closer now. The goblin ran back to my, leaping back to my shoulder in two jumps. He dangled something in front of my eyes. Keys.

“Maybe you could use those instead, hmm?”

I tried not to blush. “Yes, maybe I will do that.” I took the keys from him and unlocked the cage. The door swung open as the ape exited it. Now that I was alone in the room with the creature I could truly sense the power of the thing. I turned to me.

Some of the others may wish to leave as well. You should let them go.

Most of them, if not all, will die, I told the ape.

Most of them would rather die, he responded.

And that is how I ended up freeing the majority of the menagerie. That's right, a monkey talked me into it.

It happens.

I mentally queried the whole lot of them.  I explained as best I could that most of them would die, or at least be recaptured. I explained as best I could that most of them would die, or be recaptured. Some of the birds and the smaller creatures chose to stay, having been raised in captivity. All of the larger animals chose to leave with me. I had just finishing bashing the last of the locks, this one holding a nasty looking creature labeled as wolverine, when the guards arrived in full force.

About ten of them stormed into the tent all at once and immediately slammed to a halt. There was a moment of shocked silence as they took in the sight of me, a goblin, and about thirty wild animals seemingly milling around. The wolverine lumbered out of the cage and showed its teeth. The lion growled, and showed its teeth. The hyena showed its teeth and cackled. The goblin showed its teeth and swore. The giant ape showed its teeth and pounded the ground. I waved.

“Hi,” I said. They failed to respond. Rude.

Bedlam. The lion swatted one of the guards to the ground. The ape smashed through them like an organic battering ram. The little goblin waved his little knife from my neck. Most of the other animals simply scattered.

Some of the guards rushed at me. Thorn hummed against my palms and I spun her like a quarterstaff. I kept her blades under control, much to her displeasure, because I didn't want to kill anybody. It was difficult fighting, with so many bodies in such a small area, and I soon found myself in a tight spot. Four guards had me cornered. I thrust Thorn at them, forcing them to keep their distance, but it was only a matter of time. The goblin had disappeared from my shoulder. A spear raced past my defenses and slashed my shoulder.

One of the guards began to shriek. The scream began to rise, higher and higher. It was a hideous sound, if I hadn't witnessed it I wouldn't have believed it could come out of a human throat.  He dropped his sword and fell to his knees.

I realized to my horror that steam was curdling out of his ears, his nose, his mouth and even the corners of his eyes. The horrific scream suddenly became a gurgle, and he toppled over. His hair burst into flames. His fellow guards stared at him in shock.

Behind him, stood the goblin, grimacing. He held the manticore in one hand by the tail. He'd stabbed the man in the ankle with the stinger. Years of death hadn't dulled the venom.

Thorn slammed into the knee of the nearest guard and he dropped, still staring as his fallen comrade melted into the ground. The goblin eyes were bright crimson, and a weird smile played across his ugly features. I raced past him, somehow finding my way out into the open streets.

There weren't many people out at this time, thank the Gods, but those who were out were either staring opened mouth at the scene or running in abject terror. Birds, confined so long to cages, were clawing their way into the night sky, screeching. The lion roared down an alley. I never saw it again. It was almost certainly killed.

The goblin was shouting in Goblinese on my shoulder. Some kind of challenge to the God's, I reckoned. I winced every time he barked.

“I have very sensitive hearing, good sir. My ears are delicate even, “ I told him. “Especially to that hairball coughing you think is a language.”

He muttered but shut up. Something large moved to my right. The ape.

It nodded at me. I wasn't aware apes did that. Must have picked the gesture up during his captivity. I found myself suddenly speechless. What do you say to an ape you just sprung from animal prison?

What will you do? I asked.

I was brought here on a river. I will follow the river south till I reach my home, or I will die trying.

I pointed in the direction of the river Farla, the only river the passed through Cazendar. About a mile that way, I told him, realizing as I did a gorilla had no idea what a mile was. You can't miss it.

I will not forgot, beast lord. I shall sing your praises in the jungles of my homeland. The creature turned and loped down an alley.

Well that was a bit corny, but well meant. I always wondered if it made it home. Unlikely.

“What is your name?” the goblin asked, shoving his face an inch from mine. He still has never learned about personal space.

“Ryl,” I told him. The goblin made a face like my name tasted bad in his mouth. “What is yours?”

He barked something in that hideous language again. “Well, what does that mean in Common?”

He considered a moment, finger up his nose. “Slither. Crawl. Creep.”

His parents must have really loved him. “So you're a Creeper then, hmm?”

Bony shoulders shrugged, then a nod.

“All right then. Let’s get the hell out of here before more guards show up. I don't know what charge melting a person gets you, but I'm guessing it's not a fine.”

Empathic nods from a pointed chin. “Where we headed?” Creeper asked.

I shrugged, bouncing him up and down, but he didn't budge. My shoulders are not so bony.




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