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Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Goblins
Here’s the part where my stubborn determination to carry through with a particular worldbuilding conceit backed me into a corner where I found gold. Goblins: Next on Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim!
GOBLIN (Homo neanderthalensis parvus x various)
I had fallen in love with the conceit that dwarves, trolls, and ell folk would be derived species of Neanderthal. This made them sufficiently different from humans and elves (two subspecies of Homo sapiens that developed parallel to each other), but still creatures readers might identify with.
By this theory, humans and elves could freely produce viable offspring, namely half-elves. But that meant that dwarves, trolls, and ell folk could also interbreed and produce viable offspring of a rather surprising variety. At first, it doesn’t look that bad: you can have a dwarf-troll, dwarf-elling, or troll-elling hybrid. But what about the next generation? I had already stumbled upon “ayleck” as a useful term for a dwarf-troll hybrid, and arguably, a dwarf-ayleck hybrid is close enough to count as a dwarf who’s just a bit “off.” The same goes for a troll-ayleck hybrid being effectively the same as a troll.
But what happens when a dwarf-elling hybrid produces children with a troll-elling hybrid? Or what happens when an ayleck produces children with an elling? Before you know it, there are a fair number of elling hybrid types that needed some kind of label to keep them all straight.
And that’s where goblins came in. Early on in my worldbuilding, I thought “goblin” would be a name applied to some ell folk but not all of them, maybe based on culture or origins. It might have even been a racial slur of some sort. The more I thought about it, though, I kind of fell in love with the idea that all of these various hybrids should be called goblins, and that “goblin” would describe a diverse creole culture with connections to ell folk, dwarves, and trolls all at once.
Thus goblins became by basic term for any hybrid faery being with a predominantly ell folk heritage. The vast majority of the time, this means that a goblin is a mixture of elling, dwarf, and troll in various proportions. Though it is possible to have an elling-human or elling-elf hybrid, such beings are very rare and often have physical or mental disadvantages.
The upshot of all this is that I no longer had to come up with specialized terms for, for example, an elling-dwarf hybrid as opposed to an elling-troll hybrid. Rather, a goblin community is a blending of many tribes and cultures in which the strengths and contributions of each individual can shine.
Think of all the communities where distinct cultures have merged. I think especially of New Orleans, with its blending of African, Spanish, French, etc. cultures influencing everything from the food and music to the architecture and overall pace of life. Or New York City, one of America’s oldest melting pots. That’s what goblins are like at their best: eclectic borrowers, taking bits of this and scraps of that and blending it into something all their own. Which also means that goblins can be some of the most hospitable people you’d ever want to meet, especially if you don’t really fit in anywhere else.
This doesn’t mean goblins can’t be mischievous, malicious, or outright evil. I didn’t work out any of these fantasy kindreds with a D&D-type “alignment” system in mind, after all. If goblins are welcoming what is new or different, they can also be opportunistic in figuring out how things—and people!—can be manipulated to suit their own purposes. If they are pragmatic in latching on to whatever works, they can also be dispassionate about the sacrifices that “whatever works” might entail. In short, they can be as good or as bad as any human.
Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Ell Folk
Ell folk are next in my survey of the fantasy kindreds of Saynim.
ELLING (Homo neanderthalensis parvus)
You know what kind of creatures I’m talking about. You’ve seen them in popular culture since forever. These beings are represented by Old World brownies, nisse, and other domestic sprites as well as tiny but magically powerful “little people” of Native American lore.
But what do you call them? The easy answer would be to simply call them “little people”: a term often used especially for the North American branches of this family. But in the real world, “little people” can also refer to humans with certain genetic conditions that make them unusually short. The term is not a slur, but it can be confusing even so. There are plenty of terms that describe the little folk of a particular culture: brownies, duendes, kwanokasha, leprechauns, oogweshia, tomte, yunwi tsunsdi, yumboes, etc. But I needed a collective term that crossed cultural boundaries.
The ancient Greeks spoke of pygmies. Of course, this is also a highly problematic term, but it got me thinking. “Pygmy” comes from pygme, the Greek word for “cubit,” and members of this wondrous tribe were said to stand only about one cubit tall: about 18 inches. (Other groups were said to be three spans tall or about 27 inches.) I wondered if there was a unit of measurement that could become the basis for a made-up collective term for all of these various beings.
As it turns out, the ell is just such a unit, and it has the added benefit of being a bit ambiguous. Originally, an ell was the length of an adult male forearm, or anywhere from 18 to 24 inches, roughly the same as a cubit, so very fitting as a workaround to avoid using the word pygmy while keeping the connotation of “a person who is as tall as this particular unit of measure.” But in later times, a longer ell came into use. A Flemish ell is 27 inches long. A Scottish ell is 37 inches. and an English ell is 45. All of these fit nicely with the sizes that are usually reported of these sorts of tiny humanoids. Finally, “ell” is reminiscent of ellyll, a Welsh fairy being that is smaller than the tylwyth teg (the Welsh version of what I’m calling “elves”).
Ell folk (or ellings) are a dwarf subspecies (in the biological sense of the word) derived from Homo neanderthalensis. They are literally dwarf dwarves. Biologically, there are two ways a dwarf species can evolve. The first is to shorten the length of pregnancy and infancy. A second path is for the length of pregnancy to stay the same but slow down the growth of the fetus. This second path results in smaller brain size and tooth size. For my ell folk, the first path seemed best, as mythology certainly makes them no slouches in the intellect department. They’re usually about a Scottish ell tall, but there is a fair bit of variation in different populations. They don’t possess the brute strength of dwarves and trolls, but they are small enough to crawl through small or constricted passages.
As a rule, ell folk are hardworking and earnest. Most are content to farm the land or work as woodsmen, stonemasons, or in other professions. They are also often mischievous pranksters, however, especially against those who are lazy or negligent in their chores.
Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Trolls
Trolls are next up in our survey of the fantasy kindreds found in Shadow of the King.
TROLLS (Homo neanderthalensis exter)
The neat thing about trolls is that nobody can agree on what they’re supposed to be like? Are they big and brutish? Short and cunning? Powerful shapeshifters? Crafty smiths? Animalistic savages? Rustic livestock herders? Even within Norse mythology, whence we get the word, they can be all of these things.
The word troll is something of a placeholder in the Scandinavian languages for nearly any sort of uncanny supernatural being. The term often overlaps with both “giant” and “ogre,” though those are defined differently in the world of Shadow of the King. For my purposes, if you can’t pin it down to any other category (elf, dwarf, etc.), it’s probably a troll.
I ran with this idea to conceive of trolls as the “wild card” kindred of Saynim. What sets them apart from everyone else is precisely their weirdness and diversity. They are found almost exclusively in northern Eurasian cultures. Wherever you find a wild humanoid with inexplicable physical features, you’re probably dealing with a troll. This would include such beings as the jeetani and stallu of Saami culture, the oni of Japan, and the abaasy of Siberia.
I imagine trolls as another derived subspecies of Neanderthals. They are therefore closely related to dwarves. Along with dwarves, they generally have a stocky build, a prominent nose, and a heavy brow ridge. Beyond that, however, all bets are off. They might be much taller than humans or much shorter. They might possess unusual features such as horns, fangs, arresting eyes, or an unusual skin pigmentation. Being physically bizarre is not considered a bad thing among trolls. On the contrary, it is a badge of pride and self-expression.
Trolls are not necessarily ugly. In fact, some are quite attractive in a feral sort of way, and some have even intermarried with high born elves. This is reflected in legends of intermarriage between Jötnar and Aesir in Norse mythology and between Fomori and the Tuatha Dé Danann in Ireland.
Some trolls can be stupid, but many more are eerily cunning. They are second only to elves in terms of raw magical power and have often been included in the highest ranks of Saynim society.
Trolls tend to be socially transgressive. Many derive a particular pleasure from shocking others with their outrageous behavior. In other words, they “troll” people, and there is a scene in Shadow of the King where one troll in particular does just that, getting them to lose their cool at precisely the wrong time. Trolls might work hard, but they always play harder. Nothing is subtle about them; they live life with all the dials cranked up to eleven.
Are trolls evil? Not necessarily, though they have little patience for social niceties. They get a bad reputation as violent, cannibalistic, or generally subversive. These assessments are only sometimes true.
AYLECK (H. n. exter x H. n. nanus)
An ayleck is a troll-dwarf hybrid. They don’t actually exist in mythology, at least not without a little fudging, but since I decided that trolls and dwarves would have a close genetic relationship, I figured they needed to be named.
The term “ayleck” is derived from Old English aglæca, meaning “fighter” or “fearsome opponent,” perhaps of an unearthly or supernatural nature. From (I think) the same etymology, Alick and Eelick are attested name for trolls in the folklore of the Orkney and Shetland Islands. The term is applied both to Grendel and his mother in Beowulf—as well as to Beowulf himself! With nothing else really to go on, I decided that Grendel could likely be a good example of an ayleck who leans more heavily toward his trollish heritage. Similarly, the karliki of Slavic myth, a type of dwarf that tends to have an unpleasant personality, might reflect aylecks who lean more toward the dwarven side.
Aylecks don’t have to be evil or violent, however. But since they are different, they are often misunderstood. (John Gardner’s novel Grendel portrays the title character as an antihero—monstrous yes, but not unsympathetic.) They are the products of two quite different worlds: the orderly, hardworking, productive world of dwarves and the wild, unpredictable, hard-living world of trolls. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that they struggle to fit in, or that they tend to be meticulous hoarders—fiercely holding on to things (treasure, knowledge, contacts, etc.) that give them a sense of control over their own lives.
Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Dwarves
We continue on our survey of the fantastical kindreds found in my work in progress Shadow of the King by making a deep dive. Deep as in, under the earth. Yes, we’re going to talk about dwarves.
DWARVES (Homo neanderthalensis nanus)
A while back I summarized five different types of dwarf from world folklore. If you like, go back and read that post before proceeding.
Properly speaking, “dwarves” are a product of Norse mythology, but there are many dwarf-like beings around the world. I would point, for example, to the yakshas of South Asia, the khnumu of Egypt, and the dactyls of Greece as but three examples.
In one way or another, all of these beings might be described as secretive on the one hand and highly skilled on the other. Though in Norse mythology they were generally antagonistic to humankind, this stance isn’t necessarily found in other cultures. By and large, dwarves are not so much warriors, as is usually the case in D&D, but craftspersons, guardians of treasure, and (often begrudging) dispensers of hidden knowledge: magic, the healing arts, etc. They are especially associated with the earth and might even live underground.
When I think of dwarves, I imagine stout, muscular, and large-nosed cave dwellers. In short, I think of Neanderthals. By linking dwarves and Neanderthals, I’m tipping my hat to the now discredited notion that European fairy myths began as dim memories of humans’ interactions with an older, indigenous group, sometimes proposed to be a different ethnic strain of modern humans, occasionally identified with Neanderthals. Whoever they were, the theory goes, these strange beings lived in isolation (perhaps under the earth), competed for resources, and perhaps occasionally abducted women and children—to shore up their own dwindling numbers?
At any rate, in the land of Saynim, dwarves are one of a number of kindreds that I propose to be derived Neanderthal subspecies. Of these, dwarves are closest to the original genetic stock. All of these groups display their Neanderthal heritage in a number of ways:
• They are muscular, big-boned, and generally stocky of build. Their shinbones and forearms are proportionally shorter than the same features on H. sapiens. This makes them slow runners, as they are built for power rather than speed.
• Their upper body musculature specializes in explosive power and side-to-side movement. The attachments for the pectoral muscles are up to twice the size of an average H. sapiens.
• Their broad shoulders lack backward displacement, limiting their ability to throw projectiles long distances. Simply put, they lack the characteristic “throwing arm” found in H. sapiens.
• Their facial features include a larger than average nose, heavy brow ridges, large jaw and teeth, weak chin, and a long, low skull with a rounded brain case.
• I imagine dwarves and their near kin as more linguistically adept than their Neanderthal ancestors. Most can mimic H. sapiens speech patterns almost perfectly. Due to differences in the configuration of their vocal apparatus, however, some individuals have a highly nasalized speech and sometimes have difficulty pronouncing the quantal vowel sounds (the ee in beet, the oo in boot, and the a in father; they tend to substitute the i in bit, the oo in took, and either the a in hat or the u in mud).
It is known that modern humans possess a small amount of Neanderthal DNA, so interbreeding between the two stocks is certainly possible, but not without some difficulties. There is no evidence of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to daughter, in the human genome. This suggests at least one of the following scenarios:
- Neanderthal mDNA carried harmful mutations that led to the extinction of sapiens-Neanderthal offspring from a Neanderthal mother.
- Offspring of Neanderthal mothers were exclusively raised in Neanderthal groups and went extinct with them.
- Female Neanderthals and male sapiens did not produce fertile offspring.
In other words, genetic problems may have arisen with at least some Neanderthal-sapiens offspring. In Shadow of the King, the same factors figure in when discussing dwarf-human or dwarf-elf interbreeding.
Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Humans
I might not have included a post on humans in this survey of the fantasy kindreds you’d find in my work in progress Shadow of the King except for the distinctive role they play in the story world. So let’s go…
HUMAN (Homo sapiens sapiens)
Humans are not native to the realm of Saynim. In fact, they are a distinct minority. Those who live there are either “overbrought,” taken from the mundane world either in infancy or at a later age, or the descendants of those so taken. These humans were taken from their own world for various reasons, both benign and sinister.
Benignly, some humans were removed as young children from situations of abuse or neglect. Others found refuge in Saynim after escaping from dire situations such as domestic abuse, abject poverty, or systemic oppression. There is a Cherokee legend about the Nunnehi rescuing the people of certain towns from the Removal by whisking them away to their own magical domain.
Still others were “recruited”—perhaps with selfish motivation—because they possessed certain qualities deemed desirable to a particular otherworldly party. For instance, an elf might fall in love with a human and invite him or her to join this alien world.
At other times, however, folklore describes humans brought into the Otherworld for more sinister reasons. They might be taken as slaves to serve in either the harems or the armies of a powerful fae lord. The Cherokees believed water cannibals would steal children for food. The okwa naholo (“white water people”) of Choctaw mythology would lure swimmers to their underwater domain and, if they stayed long enough, would become okwa naholo themselves. Of course, sometimes humans are taken capriciously, for no discernible reason.
So, what roles do humans play in Saynim society? There are certain stereotypes of humans at play, not least among them the idea that humans are tricky and unpredictable. They think outside the box. More than any other kindred, they seem able to resist the pull of magic to become conformed to particular ways of thinking and acting.
All of this makes humans fascinating to elves and the rest, and they are often objects of a benign and patronizing racism that admires them for these unique qualities while ultimately diminishing their personhood. Think of the way some white folks romanticize (and even fetishize) peoples and cultures that they see as “exotic,” and you won’t be far removed from the way many in Saynim think of humans.
Humans rarely serve as common slaves, though they may be bonded to a lord in a more high-status position of servitude as an adviser, teacher, bodyguard, or in some other capacity where quick, unorthodox thinking is desirable. Some fae lords have maintained elite military units of overbrought children raised to be warriors virtually from birth, comparable to the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire. Whether bond or free, many humans end up in the officer corps of various otherworldly principalities.
Other humans find a niche in careers where their adaptability and unpredictability are assets. They might be merchants and entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, theoreticians, spies, adventures, and treasure-hunters.
Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Elves
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know that I can be a little obsessive about the fantastical humanoid beings one finds in folklore and popular culture? For one thing, I resist using the word “race” to describe these beings. That term is just too fraught with negative historical connotations in a context where we’re describing persons that look almost human but are regarded by everyone as something profoundly different.
Furthermore, I continue to be intrigued by the analogy between the D&D/Tolkienesque model of multiple fantasy kindreds sharing a world and the actual situation say 300,000 years ago with multiple hominin species sharing planet earth. (A layperson’s definition of a hominin is roughly anything more human than a chimpanzee.)
With my work in progress Shadow of the King nearing completion, I thought I’d share a little of how I personally imagine the kindreds that populate the faerie realm of Saynim. I have tried to keep three goals in mind:
- Be as true to the folkloric source material as possible.
- Work with as many non-European folklore examples as possible.
- Look for connections to what is known or might be postulated about the diversity of hominin species.
I’ll start with elves because, as they’ll gladly tell you, they’re better than everybody else.
ELVES (Homo sapiens pulcher)
Alaric Hall’s PhD dissertation, “The Meanings of Elf and Elves in Medieval England” provides a wealth of data about the elves of Germanic mythology. As originally conceived, they were apparently human-sized creatures, and more often took the side of humans than not. Hall also points out that in Old English, aelf was often used as a gloss when translating classical references to fauns/satyrs and nymphs.
For my purposes, I take “elf” to mean those fantastical humanoids that look most human, though often possessing unearthly beauty, and that are most likely to have a physical relationship with humans.
In this category I would place not only the nymphs and satyrs of the classical world but also such creatures as the aes sídhe of Ireland and the peris of Iran. In Cherokee mythology, the Nunnehi are elf-like beings who live high in the mountains. They occasionally venture among humans, joining them in their dances and appearing as attractive humans themselves.
In short, I imagine elves as a subspecies of Homo sapiens and therefore our closest cousins among the Saynim folk. Mythology is, in fact, chock full of elf-human hybrid children. “Half-elves” appear in Germanic folklore, for example, with the likes of Hagen of Tronege and Princess Skuld. In Irish folklore, we find Oscar and Plúr na mBan. Outside of Europe, there is also the Arabic legend that says that Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba from the Old Testament, was in fact the daughter of a jinni.
Elves are creatures of grace, subtlety, and powerful magic, especially when it comes to charms and illusions. They tend to conduct themselves with nobility and grace, even if they are not well born. The “faery courts” of European folklore reflect the elvish conception of refinement and sophistication. At the same time, elves are the haughtiest and most easily offended of all Saynim folk—and woe to the one who causes the offense!
In the earliest mythology, elves were generally on the side of good. It may not be that they followed a moral code that humans would recognize, but more often than not, they could be convinced to be on “our” side. In Germanic cultures, offerings were given to the elves to ensure their good favor. All of this changed, however. By the time of Beowulf (c. AD 1000), elves were listed among giants and demons as enemies of humankind. Now, elves are more often seen as a threat: they blight crops, steal babies, and inflict various diseases on humans and livestock. Interpreters usually attribute this shift to the Christianization of northern Europe, and that’s probably not a bad explanation. In Iceland, where the Old Ways are still prevalent, elves don’t have such a bad reputation. And among the Cherokee, the Nunnehi are still considered defenders of the people.
But then elves shift again in the early modern period. Starting around 1600, elves turn into tiny, comical figures: still mischievous, perhaps, but no longer the creatures of nightmare. Our modern conception of elves as Santa’s helpers or as cheerful shoemakers in the Grimm fairy tale come from this period.
In Shadow of the King, I provide an in-story explanation for this second shift from malevolent demons to diminutive mischief-makers. Perhaps in a later volume I’ll do the same for the first shift from a generally pro-human to an anti-human stance.
If Only in My Dreams (Part 6)
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
“Now?” Sketch said. He practically bounced with anticipation, his fists clenched and his eyes focused beyond the cage in the direction of the cellar door.
“Not yet,” Rune said. People weren’t even in position yet.
“I’m scared,” Lolly said. Holda whimpered and wrapped her little arms even tighter around Rune’s leg. He shook her free as gently as he could.
“We just have to wait.” Sketch joined him in peering toward the cellar door. Rune’s magic ended at the cast-iron grate, but his natural senses were keen enough. Light seeped in from narrow windows high in the walls, bathing the cellar in gray half-light. Above him, all was calm. Wooden floors creaked as Marvin and Henry walked about, no doubt wondering where Tinka had gone. If they only knew…
He stole a glance at his pocket watch. Its face was nearly unreadable even to his impressive senses. Surely, though, five minutes had passed.
Something crashed above them. Lolly jumped at the sound, and Holda found a foothold at the top of Rune’s boot and flung herself toward his arms with all her might. He pried her loose and handed her to Sketch.
Then came another crash followed by a series of heavy thumps. “Where’d he go?” Henry said. “Toward the kitchen!” Marvin answered.
More thumps. Wood scraped against wood as someone heaved a table or some other piece of heavy furniture across a wooden floor.
“Yule boys! Woohoo!” Janks exulted.
Rune grinned. It wouldn’t be long now.
“Now?” Sketch gasped. Holda had her arms around his chest so he could barely breathe.
A radio turned on upstairs, announcing at full volume that “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” The chaos upstairs continued for another minute. The humans yelled, furniture tumbled over. The squeal of an enraged rodent gave way to yelps of pain and calls for a first aid kit.
Finally, a door slammed. Thirty seconds later, chains rattled, and the cellar door creaked open. Angry footsteps descended into the dark.
Henry didn’t even bother turning on the lantern. He shone his flashlight in Rune’s face and spat a string of curses ending with, “Make it stop, you freak!”
Rune shepherded the children behind him. “Is there something wrong?”
“You damn well know something is wrong!” Henry said.
Marvin caught up, limping, with a bloody and tattered pant leg flapping this way and that. “If that friend of yours has rabies…”
Rune smirked as the twins stood there, helpless. Both of them bore bumps and scratches, not to mention expressions of utter bewilderment.
“Wait,” Marvin said. “You speak English.”
Upstairs the music continued. “Feliz Navidad… Feliz Navidad…”
“You’re not like the rest.”
Rune’s gray eyes bore into them, but he said nothing.
Henry waved an angry fist in Rune’s face. “If you don’t call off that…that thing upstairs—”
“You’re right. I’m not like these others.” Rune glared at the human, and even though the grate kept him from manipulating glamour to intensify the effect, he took a step forward and spread his arms to make his body seem bigger. It wasn’t an illusion, just something every predator knows.
“These are children. Do you have children? They’re in a strange place. They don’t know what’s going on, and they miss their mothers and fathers. I expect they’d do just about anything to make you go away.”
He took another step. His eyes flashed, cold and hard. “I assure you, Marvin, I am not like these children at all.”
Marvin flinched at the sound of his name.
“I’ve seen worse than you. I’ve dealt with worse than you. Push me too far, and you’ll find out I am worse than you.” Rune watched his breathing, his body language. You didn’t serve the King of Shadows your whole life without learning a thing or two about intimidation. Marvin and Henry were perfect targets, and Rune had little choice but to hold back for most of the past six months.
“I am the stuff of nightmares, do you understand? All of us: elves, goblins, trolls…. All your people’s fears, all their feeble attempts to hold back the shadows, the things that go bump in the night. All that fear only makes us stronger.”
He flung a handful of Tinka’s screws and springs through the grate. Marvin and Henry jumped and shrieked.
Rune smiled. “And now you’ve got me. Not a child, not a cowering victim, but me. Someone your own size.”
Henry reached for his gun, but his hand shook. Rune grinned.
“So what are you going to do now?”
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…,” the radio blared. Something glass shattered against a wall. Janks started to sing along, loud and off-key.
“Let us go,” Rune said, “and I’ll be easy on you.”
“Bull!” Henry said, his voice shaking as badly as his hand. “We don’t have to listen to this, Marvin. He’s just trying to scare us.”
Marvin shook an accusing finger. “We’ll be back. And then we’ll see how tough you are.”
They backed away from the grate before at last scampering up the steps to the cellar door.
Rune let out a breath.
Sketch pulled on Rune’s jacket. “Now?”
Rune nodded. “Now. Tinka?”
Tinka appeared as soon as she released the crank on the indifference engine. She smiled and held up her prize: a ring of keys deftly lifted from Marvin’s belt.
It only took three tries to find the key that opened the grate. Sketch pushed the door open, and he, Rune, Lolly, and Holda spilled into the brothers’ workroom.
“Hurry now,” Rune said. He led them out of the cellar. There was no sign of the twins, though now a light or two burned inside the house. Janks was waiting for them.
“Flew away like down off a thistle,” the troll said with a wide, froggish grin.
“Thanks,” Rune said. “You ever need a favor…” Holda grabbed onto Rune’s jacket and tried to haul herself up to his arms. This time, he let her.
“This one’s on me,” Janks said. “I forgot how much fun it is to kick up my heels like that. Makes me a little homesick, you know?”
“Maybe next Yuletide you can go visit your brothers again.”
Janks sighed. “That would be nice. But what now? What about these kids?”
“It’s not too far a walk to the cemetery. If we hurry, we can get to Goblintown before everyone’s asleep. And then…” He looked pointedly at Tinka. “I can return Madam Samarra’s stolen property.” He held out his hand. Tinka slumped her shoulders, reached into her pocket, and handed over the indifference engine. The wind picked up. Clouds rolled in from the west across the starry sky. It was Rune’s favorite kind of weather.
* * *
With the children safely in the care of the Brackwaters, Rune made his way back across into the Fallow. The cemetery was empty, and it was long past midnight. He gathered the swirling airy chaos around him and hurled himself skyward, leaping a block at a time until he finally alighted outside the mother-in-law apartment behind the Colemans’ house, the little place that had been his home since Midsummer.
He lay in bed fully dressed, wondering if the children’s parents had escaped, whether they’d ever see them again. Also, he’d have to keep an eye on Marvin and Henry. It wasn’t unheard of for fallowmen to know something about his kind, but these two’s interest was more sinister than the folklorists, dabblers, and neo-pagans he usually ran into.
But he didn’t have to do any of that tonight. The twins wouldn’t be in too big a hurry to get back in the child-abducting business. And Tinka and the others were in good hands. Brack and Thora would keep them warm and fed and loved until their situation changed. Tinka and Lolly and Sketch and Holda were family forged in fire. They would do fine with the Brackwaters. You can do the impossible, Rune had learned, when your family had your back.
Rune yawned. In a minute he’d get up long enough to undress and snuggle into his warm bed and settle down his brain. He lay still, breathing deeply, welcoming the airy chaos to wash over him with its cleansing magic.
He was almost asleep when something clattered against the roof. He sprang to his feet, instantly awake.
He braced himself against the icy blast as he opened the door, pulling on his jacket. The yard was empty. He looked up.
“Ah.” A tree branch had come down in the wind. Rune couldn’t see any damage, just the icy residue of recent snows half-melted and refrozen. He’d check it out once the sun came up.
“Rune? That you?”
It was Reverend Coleman, his landlord. He had thrown a heavy coat on over his pajamas and was stepping out the back door of his own house. His normally brown skin reddened in the biting cold.
“You heard it too?” Rune said.
“Is anything the matter?”
“Tree branch.” Rune pointed. “I don’t think it did any damage.”
“Well, that’s good,” Rev. Coleman said. After a pause he said, “Late night?”
“I came by earlier and you were gone.”
“Is something wrong?”
The Reverend shook his head. “Not at all. Anita wanted to know if you had plans for Christmas. If you don’t, you’re welcome to have dinner with us. I mean, I don’t know if… That is to say, you might not even have Christmas where you come from. We don’t want to impose.”
“Not at all,” Rune said. “That’s very kind. Thank you.”
“You’re a long way from home. That would be hard on me this time of year. Maybe it is on you or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. But you’re welcome to be part of our family tomorrow.
“That means a lot.”
“Well then, just come by whenever you like. And Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Reverend. To all of you.”
If Only in My Dreams (Part 5)
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
With some effort, Rune forced himself up and sat with his back against the brick wall. Three young children stared at him, wide-eyed. They moved closer.
“Fall down,” the dwarf girl announced grimly.
“That’s right, Holda,” the boy said. “He fell down.”
Holda pondered the situation. She set her heavy jaw and took another step forward. She offered Rune the cookie she’d been holding, part of the stash Tinka had brought from the mission.
Rune accepted the gift and said, “Thank you.” Holda clambered unbidden into his lap.
“Where’s Tinka?” Lolly asked.
“And that big guy?” the boy, Sketch, added.
Something rustled above them. Rune craned his neck to see the gap where Tinka said she’d escaped the first time. As if on cue, her green Santa hat popped into view.
“Sister!” Lolly squealed. Tinka and Rune both shushed her.
“Those men are looking for your sister,” Rune explained as Holda poked at his nose. “We can’t let them find her.”
Lolly slapped a hand over her mouth.
“Who are those men? How did you get here?”
“They were waiting,” Sketch said.
Rune puzzled at this, but Tinka explained. “We were running away. Our parents said it wasn’t safe anymore and we had to go.”
“The King of Shadows was mad at them.” She slinked through the opening and dropped to the floor. “That’s all they would say.”
“Stars above,” Rune said. The King of Shadows was one of the most powerful rulers on the other side, and one of the most ruthless. If he was angry with you, leaving—quickly—was the smartest thing to do.
It’s what Rune himself had done when he’d defected from the King’s service.
“But that doesn’t explain…,” he waved around at the cell, the grate, the camp toilet, “this.”
“Mr. Elmanzer sent us here,” Lolly said through tears. Holda fell back against Rune’s chest and grabbed hold of the lapel of his bomber jacket.
“He didn’t mean to,” Sketch said. “At least, I don’t think he did.”
“Mr. Elmanzer?” Rune said. “Your parents bargained with a waymaker to send you across?”
Sketch nodded, holding back tears. “They said it had to be at Midwinter ‘cause it would be easier to cross. Mr. Elmanzer knew the way. Mom and Dad said they’d come after us as soon as they could.”
“But when we crossed, those two brothers were waiting for us,” Tinka added. “They corraled us in a barb-wire fence, and the big, dumb one grabbed us and threw us in their carriage.”
Rune remembered the white van in the driveway.
“He shot me with that zappy thing,” Sketch complained. “And now he’s got you, too!”
“Not for long,” Rune vowed.
Something moved outside the grate. Rune gently lifted Holda to her feet so he could stand up. A rat appeared from behind the bookcase and scampered to the middle of the room, where it blurred and morphed and expanded to take on the size and shape of a troll in a dark brown long coat.
Rune said, “What kept you?”
“Just checking the place out,” he said. “This placed looked empty from the outside, but that’s just ‘cause the lights were off. It’s actually pretty homey up there.”
“Well, now that you’re here, we’ve got to get these children out of here.”
“And go home?” Sketch said.
Rune frowned because he knew that home was no longer an option. “Children shouldn’t have to run from a murderous king, especially not at Yuletide.” He looked at Janks. “I’m going to take them to Goblintown.”
“Is it far?” Tinka said. “Holda’s legs are little, and she’s too heavy to carry.” Holda had sidled up next to Rune. Now she wrapped an arm around his leg and looked up at him with big, brown eyes.
“Not far at all,” Rune said. “It’s just beneath the city and one world over.” He looked back at Janks and said, “I think I can get there through Cave Hill Cemetery.”
The troll considered this. “The boundary should still be thin enough. But then what?”
“I know some people there. People I trust. And they’re used to taking care of children.”
“Will they know where our parents are?” Tinka asked.
“I’ll bet they can find out,” Rune said. And if they couldn’t, the Brackwaters would do everything they could to find a place the children could stay.
“Then what are we waiting for?” Janks said. “Let’s figure out how to get you all out of there.”
“I have an idea about that,” Rune said. He knelt down to speak to the children. “Now listen carefully… and don’t be afraid.”
If Only in My Dreams (Part 4)
Rune and Janks looked at each other and then at the girl.
“You…,” Rune said, struggling to put words together. “How…?”
The girl pointed to a gap in the bricks where the ceiling joined the back wall, barely wide enough for a goblin to shimmy through. Beneath it, someone had piled rolled-up bedding to approximate the shape of a goblin-sized sleeper. She shrugged.
“This whole thing stinks,” Janks said. He stalked to the grate and gripped it with two huge hands—then lurched away with a gasp. “Crashing waves! It’s made of tupping iron!” He pulled off his shamlee cap, and his illusion of a human face dropped as grasped the sides of his head.
“Okay, okay,” Rune said. “Shake it off. Your magic’ll come back in a minute.”
“You think I don’t know how iron works?” the troll spat. “It’s just a bugger to have it ripped away like that!”
“We’ve got more important things to think about now.” He knelt in front of the girl. “These are your people?”
She nodded and pointed. “Lolly” she indicated the younger goblin, “Sketch, and Holda.” She faced Rune. “I’m Tinka.”
“It’s…good to meet you,” Rune said.
“So, you gonna get them out now?”
Rune studied the grate. It reached from floor to ceiling, with a padlock and chain that looked much older than the newfangled lock on the cellar door.
“Let me see that lockpick,” Rune said.
She handed it to Rune and then began to empty her pockets. Lolly reached her hands through the grate to receive her sister’s bounty: treats from the mission, a plastic water bottle, a bus pass, a paper bag of something that jingled like metal striking metal, and finally a fresh pair of little girl’s underwear she’d tucked inside her jacket.
“Holda can use the potty,” Tinka explained. “But she got scared the other night. Had an accident.” Rune spied the portable camping toilet in the corner.
“Stars above,” he muttered.
He tried to insert the jimmy without touching the lock itself, but with little luck. He tucked his hand inside his jacket sleeve, but that just made him clumsy. The iron of the lock grazed his skin, and he pulled his hand away as if he’d been burnt. In that fleeing second, the airy chaos was simply gone—and with it, all his magic. It was excruciating, not physically but psychologically, as if his tether to reality itself had been broken. He moaned and backed away, disoriented.
“Just shake it off,” Janks mocked.
Rune had a thought. “Tinka, you’re young. You have a little magic but not much, right? Could you…?” He offered her the jimmy. She took it and approached the lock. She grimaced when she touched it, but she held on and poked at the keyhole, getting more and more frustrated by the second. At last she turned away. “Jimmy’s too little,” she said. “And the iron’s too cold.”
“Somebody knew what they were doing,” Rune said.
“You ain’t kidding,” Janks said. He’d noticed a wooden bookshelf on the wall. Rune joined him and surveyed the titles on the spines: Grimm’s Fairy Tales he’d heard of, the other titles were new to him, but he could imagine their contents: The Invisible Commonwealth, The Fairy Mythology, and several volumes by someone named Paracelsus. There were old, musty volumes of folklore, alchemy, and Hermetic magic. There were also plastic binders with titles printed in black marker on the spines.
“Rune, heads up,” Janks said.
The elf’s head was still clearing up from the iron, or he’d have heard the car pull up in the driveway. Car doors opened and shut. A male voice shouted, “Marvin!” Then two pairs of feet hurried toward the cellar door.
“Hide,” Rune said. He darted to the lantern and flicked it off. The children in the cage wept and muttered.
Janks was gone in an instant, body shrank and twisted until it was the size and shape of a largish rat. Meanwhile, Tinka scurried into a tight corner behind a stack of plywood propped against a wall.
The cellar door creaked open. Beams of flashlights danced on the walls.
Rune pressed himself against the wall and summoned the airy chaos. Slowly it came to him, and he willed himself to be blanketed in a veil of invisibility. It was something he’d done a thousand times. He’d be safe, even in plain view, as long as he didn’t draw attention to himself.
“It doesn’t look like anybody’s been here,” a voice whispered. They were definitely in the cellar now, moving toward him.
“That don’t explain the door,” the other said. He entered the back section where Rune and Tinka were hiding. He was average height, maybe forty or fifty years old but in good shape. He moved like someone who’d been an athlete in his younger days. He took off his gloves and laid them on the table where the lamp was. He unzipped the front of his jacket and turned on the lamp. He was only a few feet from Rune, but his attention was on the grate.
“Boo!” he shouted. The children shrieked and backed away. The man laughed.
“Henry,” the other man scolded as he came into view. “That’s not going to accomplish anything.” This man—Marvin, apparently—was nearly identical to the first: a little pudgier and wearing glasses, but obviously Henry’s twin.
“Just having a little fun,” Henry said.
“We’re sitting on the greatest discovery in human history,” Marvin retorted. “You can have fun later.” He approached the grate and furrowed his brow. “Deutsch? Können Sie mich verstehen?”
“They ain’t gonna talk,” Henry said. “Even if you do find a language you both speak.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? They don’t have to talk, though that would make it easier. They just have to…be. Long enough for me to get a clear sense of what they are, where they came from.” He strode to the bookcase.
“Where they came from? You was there, same as me.”
“You drew that circle on the ground, did that mumbo-jumbo with the mirror and the stick and the barbed wire… damnedest thing I ever saw.”
“And soon….” Marvin stopped in mid-sentence and stood up straight.
“Something moved. Over there.” He pointed at the plywood where Tinka was hiding. Their backs were to Rune; he tensed his muscles.
Henry pulled a yellow and black snub-nosed handgun from his pocket. “Who’s there!”
Tinka gasped. Rune heard it, but he wasn’t sure the humans did.
Henry yanked down the plywood, and Tinka bolted. Lolly and the other children screamed. Tinka slipped past Henry, who leveled his weapon at her.
Rune gritted his teeth. Before the mortal could pull the trigger, Rune stepped out of his corner. “Hey!” He lowered into a fighting stance, ready to spring. Henry spun away from Tinka and aimed at Rune.
The children shouted, and then Marvinin shouted and stumbled toward the wall. Tinka had kicked him hard in the shin.
Rune lunged for Henry. Henry fired, and Rune’s whole body spasmed. The sensation was like having a painful leg cramp from head to toe. He fell to the floor, his muscles jerking. He felt the sting of two metal stingers in his belly.
“Where the hell did he come from?” Henry sputtered.
“Just secure him!” Marvin ordered. “We’ll sort it out later, once we’ve found that girl!”
The next thing he knew, iron chains rattled, the gate creaked open, and two pairs of rough hands carried him into the cage.
If Only in My Dreams (Part 3)
Rune followed, leaping rooftop to rooftop, while Janks followed the girl on the ground. The troll kept his distance, waiting for Rune to make his move. Their quarry was in a hurry and obviously nervous. She kept looking over her shoulder, which forced Janks to turn away or duck into a doorway.
Rune hurried ahead and leaned over the wet, slushy roof a couple of buildings ahead. He caught Janks’s eye and nodded. All he had to do was drop…
A bus pulled up to the curb, and the girl jumped on.
Rune’s stomach churned. But Janks thought fast. He sprinted forward, waving for the driver to wait. The troll looked up a Rune and rolled his eyes before boarding the bus himself.
There was nothing for it but to follow them. The bus turned south onto Baxter, past Cave Hill Cemetery, and then made a slight left onto Bardstown. Through the windows, Rune saw the girl sitting by herself near the back, her arms crossed, her eyes frantic. Janks sat behind the driver and pretended to doze. The bus was nearly empty otherwise, but there were still too many mortal eyes to try anything.
She got off along a stretch of shops and restaurants not too far from Madam Samarra’s. Janks followed as she headed for the back streets.
Rune leaped two rooftops at a time to head her off. Now they were in a residential neighborhood of older houses, modest but mostly well-kept. Christmas lights draped porches and shrubbery, and inflatable holiday characters graced snow-covered lawns. Rune recognized the scene with the baby; the Colemans had that one. He wasn’t sure how this peaceful tableau jibed with the wooden soldiers and candy canes and fat, bearded men, but he was bound to figure it out eventually.
The girl came closer. The street was empty, so Rune took a chance. Drawing the airy chaos around him, he flung himself from the roof to the sidewalk in front of her.
“Cahó!” she yelped. She jumped back; the knife in her hand appeared as if out of nowhere. “Nee covóot mii, cohsh! Cwan mii dii haam cot!” She spoke Riverspeak, a creole language from the other side. Don’t touch me, cousin. I’ll hurt you good.
Janks broke into a run. She heard his ponderous steps and shifted her body to keep both of her pursuers in sight.
Rune held up a hand, and the troll held back. He took a tentative step forward, and the girl slashed at him. The serrated blade of her weapon, a steak knife, reflected the multicolored holiday lights.
“Nee cwan os dii haam,” he said. We’re not going to hurt you. He allowed his magic to heighten his senses as he had at the mission. He took in her every subtle movement, every shift of her weight, every glance of her eyes.
Those eyes were big and bright and worried. Streaks of tears etched cracks across her dirty cheeks.
Rune continued in Riverspeak. “My name is Rune. That’s Janks.” He extended his hand. The girl flinched. “You’re in some kind of trouble?”
She put away her knife, resting her hand in the pocked of her fleece jacket. Now that Rune had a good look, it was way too big for the child, reaching almost to her knees, and covered in dust and grime.
“What’s your name?”
And then she wasn’t there.
Janks cursed, but Rune spun around, ramping up his magical senses. “Not possible,” he muttered.
“B’the depths, where is she?” Janks said.
“Quiet,” Rune hissed. She had to be close by. If he could hear her footfalls, her breathing, catch a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye, even in the darkness…. He took a deep breath.
Something moved at the top of a driveway: a small, dingy form hiding behind a white van. Rune was after her in a flash with Janks lumbering close behind.
He slapped his hand over her wrist before she knew he was there. She didn’t yell or scream, but she hissed and glared at him and called him several unflattering names in her native tongue.
In her hand was a small metal box with a crank on one side and a hodgepodge of gears beneath a glass panel on the other.
“The indifference engine?” Janks said, finally catching up.
Rune nodded. “It let her pass beneath our notice, but only for a couple of seconds.” He dropped to one knee to look the girl in the eye. “I don’t know who you are, but if you’re in trouble, my friend and I will help.”
“Uh, Rune,” Janks said in English. “I ain’t exactly sure that’s what I signed on for.”
Rune shushed him and kept his eyes focused on the girl.
“You can trust us, cohsh. Alright?”
She pulled her hand away, and Rune let her. Slipping the indifference engine back into her pocket, she motioned for them to follow.
Behind the dark and shuttered house was a cellar door locked with a bright, new stainless steel padlock. The girl reached inside her jacket and drew out a thin metal bar, which she inserted in the keyhole and jiggled around until the lock snapped.
She set her finger to her lips and warned Rune and Janks with her eyes. The message was clear enough: keep quiet.
They descended the rough cement steps into a dark, musty cellar. The girl scampered ahead. Rune and Janks followed, knocking cobwebs out of their way. They moved in utter silence…which only highlighted the sounds of whimpering that assaulted upon Rune’s elvish ears. His heart pounded as he navigated the pipes and the junk.
“Oh,” Janks groaned. “That ain’t right….”
“What? You sensing something?”
“Uh huh. Nothing good.”
The girl flipped on a battery-powered camping lantern. In the blue-white light, the metal grate at the back of the room leaped suddenly into view—and the children locked behind it. There was another goblin girl, much younger than the first, and a half-elven boy holding a toddler, a girl whose big frame and stout facial features marked her as a dwarf.
“Tinka!” the little goblin girl squealed, but the boy quickly hushed her.
Rune and Janks stood there, nonplussed.
Finally, the troll spoke. “Crashing waves,” he muttered. “What kind of monster puts kids in a cage?”