A greenish-blue liquid simmered in a cauldron hanging above the largest fire pit in the village. A wind-up contraption fastened to the pot’s lip propelled a long metal spoon in continuous circles. The breeze stirred the sweet scent of the punch, and it wafted amongst the mud-and-thatch huts, delighting the noses of nearby goblins.
Malagach stuffed his hands into the pockets of his buckskins to keep from slipping a green finger into the gurgling cauldron. Others had already tried–and failed–to steal a taste.
Though Shaman Otik was busy dancing and chanting his way around the fire, he was capable of whacking whelps on the knuckles with his gods-stick without breaking rhythm. Malagach’s brother, Gortok, was still sucking on the welt on the back of his hand.
“He ought to let me have a taste,” Gortok said. “After all, that’s my pot stirrer that’s keeping it from burning while he jumps around godsifying it.”
Malagach rolled his eyes at his brother’s penchant for making up words. “We can wait. It’ll be tastiest when the peppers are added, a tantalizing blend of sweet and spicy.”
“That wakes you up like a troll kick between the cheeks.”
“Lovely description. You should write cookbooks for humans.”
“No.” Malagach smiled to take the edge off his teasing. His brother’s description was actually accurate. Pepper slime punch was designed to keep everyone awake through the coming night of dancing and eating at the Plenty-Picked Fest.
Shaman Otik froze, one bare green foot in the air, one hand stretched toward the heavens. The beads and fringes on his buckskins still clacked and swayed, but his body was statue still for a long moment. Silence descended on the village, and even the grown-ups who were busy fishing in the river, tanning hides, and weaving grass baskets, sensed the moment and paused.
“It is time to add the peppers,” Shaman Otik intoned.
Then he clapped, breaking the silence, and darted into his hut with the spryness of a ten year old instead of a council elder.
“The peppers!” came an unexpected cry.
Malagach arched his eyebrows. This line wasn’t part of the annual ceremony.
Thumps, clashes, and frantic rustlings came from the shaman’s hut, and then Otik burst outside, his eyes wide. “The peppers are missing!”
Amidst the horrified gasps of his people, Malagach frowned at his brother. “You didn’t take them, did you?”
“Of course, not,” Gortok said. “Why would you think that?”
“Because you have a history of eating his spell components.”
“It’s not my fault about the Eyes of Newt. They were in a jar next to a bunch of pickled fox toes. How was I supposed to know they weren’t snacks? And those drying elderberries… I thought he’d laid them out for everyone to sample. I wouldn’t touch the pepper slime punch peppers though.”
Even as he finished speaking, Shaman Otik stomped over and jabbed a finger at Gortok’s nose.
“You!” Otik accused. “You ate them, didn’t you?”
“What?” Gortok stepped back, hands raised. “It wasn’t me. Why does everyone think–ouch!”
Shaman Otik’s fingers had found Gortok’s pointed ear. The old goblin dragged Gortok toward the hut. Malagach trailed after uncertainly.
“I didn’t take them,” Gortok promised. “I wouldn’t–”
“No Plenty-Picked Fest for you,” Otik said. “You’ll stay in my hut until tomorrow.”
“But I’ll miss the dancing,” Gortok said. “And the eating!”
“Yes, that’s the lesson I’m fixing to give you.”
Malagach stopped at the door flap, watching as his brother disappeared inside. Missing the festival would devastate Gortok, and Chief Loggok would also dole out punishment for something like this. If Gortok ended up with extra chores for the rest of the fall, who would Malagach go adventuring with?
“Someone else took them,” Malagach muttered.
He spun about, eyeballing the rest of the goblins. Drawn by the shouts, the crowd around the fire pit had grown. Young and old looked forward to the pepper slime punch, and crestfallen expressions turned down faces all around.
Zakrog, a large whelp who often bullied Malagach and Gortok, stood against the shaman’s hut with a couple of his flunky cousins. They had their ears to the wall, grinning as they listened to Shaman Otik berating Gortok.
Malagach glared at the pack suspiciously. “Did you take the peppers? To get my brother in trouble?”
“Not me.” Zakrog snickered. “But I reckon I should’ve. If I’d known you bookfaces would get blamed, I’d have swiped ‘em years ago.”
“I’m glad he’s in trouble,” one of the cousins said. “Last year Gortok scared everyone at the Plenty-Picked with that stupid mechanical snake.”
“You were the only one scared by that, dolt.” Zakrog swatted his cousin on the head. “That snake was middling fine, actually, considering a book face made it.”
Malagach tugged at the fringes on his sleeve, not certain whether to believe the bullies or not. If Zakrog had pilfered the peppers, he would never admit it. Still, taking them to get Gortok in trouble was a stretch of sophistication for Zakrog, whose bullying tended to be more blunt–like a fist to the nose.
“Nogarf!” Shaman Otik called from hut. “Get in here. I need you to guard this whelp while I search the store caves for dried peppers.”
“Dried peppers,” a grownup moaned. “The punch won’t be the same.”
“Don’t think we even have any dried peppers,” another said. “We hardly get a handful a year up in these rainy mountains.”
Nogarf, a spindly eleven-year-old goblin, slipped through the crowd. A smug smile crooked his lips, and his yellow eyes twinkled as he entered Otik’s hut.
That look surprised Malagach. No one else was happy right now; why was this whelp?
Nogarf had only been in the village a few days, so Malagach hardly knew him. A shaman’s son, Nogarf had been sent from another village to study potion making with Otik. Nogarf was a born critter caller and could communicate with all sorts of animals. Unlike the loutish Zakrog types common in the village, the gifted youth had struck Malagach as someone worth befriending. That glance aroused Malagach’s suspicions though.
He slipped through the swaying door flap. Inside the one-room hut, shelves full of baskets, bottles, and clay pots rose from the river-stone floor to the thatch ceiling. Bundles of herbs and shamanic charms dangled from rafters. Gortok sat in the corner, arms hugging knees pulled to his chest.
“I didn’t do it,” he muttered.
“Just when I thought you were growing up.” Shaman Otik shook his head. “When you made me that pot doodad, I was right pleased. I said, Gortok ain’t always wandering through eating my spell somethings any more. I even told Nogarf you had smarts, but then you went and got stomach stupid again.”
“But I didn’t,” Gortok said.
Shaman Otik only shook his head. “I can’t trust your word, Gortok. Not after all the things you’ve eaten of mine.”
“Sir,” Malagach said, drawing Otik’s notice for the first time. “Please, think about it. Gortok has always been tempted by tasty treats in the past. Like drying berries, and…”
“And honey spider crunchies,” Gortok said, “and apple-core custard, and, oh, the baked lizard tongues you set out to sun-dry that one day, and–”
“My lizard tongues!” Shaman Otik blurted. “That was you? I thought crows filched ‘em!”
Glaring at his brother, Malagach tapped his finger to his lips. “Don’t help.” He turned back to Otik. “What I’m saying is that Gortok wouldn’t take hot peppers. They’re too spicy to snack on.”
“That’s right,” Gortok said. “They’ll make you tear up faster than Zakrog punching you in the nose.”
“You’re not helping, remember?” Malagach said.
“Sorry.” Gortok prodded a crack between the stones in the floor.
“Peppers are only good in little amounts,” Malagach said, “like in the pepper slime punch, which my brother loves, and which he would never deprive the village of enjoying.”
“Enough of this.” Shaman Otik had been glaring at Gortok since the lizard-tongue admission and did not seem to have heard Malagach’s argument. “I need to find something spicy for the punch, or the Plenty-Picked will be ruined.
“What should I do?” Nogarf asked, bouncing a bit on his toes.
Malagach watched him through slitted eyes. Nogarf sure looked pleased with himself.
“Don’t let him go,” Otik told Nogarf and stalked toward the door flap. He paused to jerk a thumb at Malagach. “And you get out of here. Sure ‘nough you got chores that need doing, and your brother’s being punished, so he don’t need you entertaining him with yarns.”
Malagach plodded outside and dropped his chin in his palm. Nogarf was too pleased about this whole situation. He ought to be annoyed at the idea of babysitting Gortok for the day. Why wasn’t he? Because he was responsible, that was why. Malagach was willing to bet all of his books on it. Well, maybe half of his books. All right, Gortok’s books.
If Nogarf had taken the peppers, he’d probably hidden them somewhere. If Malagach could find them and return them, then Gortok need not be punished and miss the festival. And–a smile tugged at Malagach’s lips–he could be the one to rescue his little brother from trouble for a change. Gortok was always building some contraption or another to help in their adventures, and, more times than Malagach could count, his brother had planned some ingenious scheme to get Malagach out of trouble. Yes, now it would be his turn.
His step lighter, Malagach headed to Aunt Migga’s hut. Nogarf was staying with her and her two young whelps for the summer.
“Hullo, Aunt Migga,” Malagach greeted when she let him inside. “Ma is making chinquapin pie for tonight, and I think she could use more nut flour for the crust.” The former was true, and while she had made no mention of the latter, Malagach did not think it too much of a stretch.
“Sure, Malagach,” Aunt Migga said. “Reckon I’ve got plenty.”
While she rummaged through her cooking area, Malagach settled on Nogarf’s sleeping furs. He subtly poked through the beaver and bear pelts, but did not find any hidden food. Nor did the two personal baskets hold anything other than clothing, shamanic trinkets, and a couple of wooden puzzle games.
“Here you are.” Aunt Migga handed him the flour.
Malagach left with a bowl of flour but nothing he had wanted. Well, he hadn’t expected rescuing Gortok would be easy.
Intending to give Ma the flour, Malagach headed home. While he walked, he contemplated hiding places Nogarf may have chosen. Junco birds trilled from the evergreens, reminding him that an entire forest surrounded the village. Not only could Nogarf have stashed the peppers anywhere, but he was a critter caller too. That meant he could have convinced some innocent squirrel to stash the peppers in a tree, well out of a goblin’s reach.
Someone bumped Malagach’s arm, and the bowl flew out of his hands. Beige flour clouded the air.
“Oops!” Zakrog trotted past, his delighted grin proving the shove had been no accident.
For a moment, Malagach stood still amongst the raining flour and wondered if he was laying traps in the wrong fishing hole. What if Nogarf had nothing to do with the peppers, and Zakrog had indeed been the one to swipe them?
Shaking his head, Malagach returned to Shaman Otik’s hut. He had to trust his original hunch. Besides, that jolt had surprised an idea into his head. Maybe he could get Nogarf to show Malagach where the peppers were hidden.
He thrust the door flap aside, and hopped into the hut, feigning cheerfulness. “I know where the peppers are!”
He pretended to look only at Gortok, but watched Nogarf out of the corners of his eyes. Yes, that was a startled expression that flickered across the other goblin’s face.
Gortok’s pointed ears perked. “Yeah?”
“Yes, but I need help getting to them.” Malagach hoped that was true. He guessed Nogarf would have put the peppers somewhere tricky so a foraging goblin wouldn’t stumble upon them. “I’m going to the tree hut to get that one thing you made last week.”
The beginning of a perplexed expression started on Gortok’s face. Malagach widened his eyes a bit, willing his brother to understand–and play along with–the ruse.
“Sure, that’ll do the job,” Gortok said, a slight smile tugging his lips. “It’s in the crate under the rock launcher.”
“Thanks!” Malagach waved and ran outside again.
There was, of course, no ‘one thing’ that Malagach had in mind. Instead of trotting off to the tree hut, he slipped into an elderberry bush beside Shaman Otik’s hut. Sure enough, Nogarf jogged out a couple moments later. He made a beeline for the river.
Malagach clenched his fist in triumph and followed. Keeping to the undergrowth bordering the pebbly beach, he trailed at a distance. The couple times Nogarf glanced back, Malagach froze, and his green skin and tan buckskins helped him blend into the background.
The river dropped away, roaring as it entered a canyon. Trees and brambles choked the ground here, and staying out of sight was no problem. Keeping up with his target became tougher, though, and more than once Malagach feared he would lose Nogarf. Fortunately there was only one trail running through the dense foliage. To stray to the left would be to walk off a cliff and to go right would mean fighting through dense blackberry brambles.
Then Malagach spotted the other goblin. A few meters ahead, Nogarf stood, gazing up at an ancient blue spruce that towered above other trees on the cliff tops. An eagle’s nest was anchored in the tallest boughs.
Malagach stifled a groan, guessing where the peppers were hidden even before the great bird soared out of the canyon. Eagles would be migrating south soon, but for now, they remained in the area, repairing their nests for the next spring.
Malagach eased behind a lightning-scarred log. Only his eyes remained above the top as he watched.
Eyes closed, Nogarf stretched his arms toward the sky. The eagle flapped to the top of the spruce and alighted in its nest. One yellow talon reached in and lifted a beautiful red chili pepper.
Malagach held his breath. If Nogarf believed his hiding spot had been found and some contraption could be used to retrieve the peppers, maybe he would move them. If he didn’t… Malagach had no idea how he would climb to the top of that tree to get them. The branches might support an eagle, but goblins were heavier–and not particularly adroit at feats of agility.
Nogarf’s fingers twitched. The eagle tossed the pepper like it might the bones of a fish. It landed in Nogarf’s cupped hands. Five more peppers followed, the extent of the crop that had ripened in time for the Plenty-Picked. Its task complete, the eagle launched into the air, tilting a wing toward Nogarf before sailing away.
Still as a rock, Malagach waited in his hiding place. For a moment, he thought about tackling the other goblin, but what of Nogarf could call that eagle back to help? Or some other creature from the forest? Better to wait, see where Nogarf stashed the peppers next, and fetch them once he was gone.
But Nogarf turned around and looked right at Malagach’s log.
Too late, Malagach ducked his head.
“The eagle saw you Malagach,” Nogarf said, “and she shared the vision with me.”
Malagach stood up, smoothed his buckskin shirt, and straightened the fringes while he groped for a new plan. “That’s a first for me. I’ve been foiled by bullies and grownups before, but rarely wildlife.”
Nogarf looked down at the peppers in his hands. He was close to the cliff. Malagach hoped the other goblin wouldn’t throw them in the river or something drastic. Surely, if he’d meant to destroy them, he wouldn’t have hidden them to start with. Though that argument sounded reasonable to Malagach, he eased out from behind the log and took a couple steps forward.
Seeing his movement, Nogarf leaped sideways and held the peppers over the edge.
Malagach froze. He was going to have to talk those peppers to safety.
“Why’d you do it?” he asked.
“I knew it’d get your brother in trouble,” Nogarf said.
“I see,” Malagach said, though he didn’t see at all. The bullies usually picked on him, not Gortok, who–despite being just as much an oddity among goblins as Malagach–was amiable enough that he rarely rubbed folks the wrong way. “So, why’d you do it?”
Nogarf snorted. “Shaman Otik kept talking about him, praising him after he made that stupid pot stirrer. Said how maybe he’d misjudged Gortok, how he was brighter than he acted. How he’d probably even be a good shaman. And then I couldn’t get my potion to work, and…”
Now, Malagach started to see where this was going. “I bet you’re a good critter caller, huh?” There wasn’t one in their village and he didn’t know a lot about them, except that the gift was rare among goblins.
“Since I was three.” Nogarf lifted his chin. “Youngest ever goblin on the mountain to show the talent.”
“You’re kind of a genius then,” Malagach said, “and you’re probably used to being treated like one. So it’s pretty annoying when the attention you’re used to getting starts going to someone else.”
“Gortok isn’t even… I mean, who needs a gadget to stir pots?” Betrayal and anguish contorted Nogarf’s face.
“Nobody,” Malagach said. “Gor makes a lot of creative but useless stuff because… well, he’s ten. But he makes some handy contraptions too. And he’s saved me from trolls and cranky wizards and bullies–usually bullies–more times than I can count with his inventiveness. You should come visit our tree hut sometime. He designed it and built the whole thing from scratch. It’s great, too. He even made an elevator for it this spring.”
“Yeah? What’d you do?”
“I, ah, carried things,” Malagach said. “I held things, and, oh, I handed him things.”
Nogarf snorted. It might have been a short laugh.
Encouraged, Malagach added, “See, I’m used to being the less gifted one. Gortok grasps everything first. While I’m still trying to define the problem, he’s already built the solution. While I have to read something again and again to understand, he starts skimming because it’s too simple. Everything he cares about comes easily for him. And, yes, being around someone like that can be frustrating.” Malagach grimaced. “Really frustrating.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to help me toss the peppers into the river?” Nogarf asked. “We could go to the Plenty-Picked together while your brother spends the night in a corner of Shaman Otik’s hut.”
Malagach chuckled. “No, tossing the peppers would ruin the night for everyone, including me. Pepper slime punch is so delicious.” His mouth started salivating, and he had to remind himself to finish talking those peppers to safety. “Look, everyone knows cougars are powerful, graceful, agile hunters that can take a buck down alone, right? And, sure, we goblins could be envious, but we’re not. Because we know how to forage like nothing else in the forest, and we hardly ever go hungry. There’s plenty of food for everyone, regardless of their talents.”
“Just to be clear, you’re saying Gortok is like a cougar?”
“Well… it’s not a perfect analogy.”
Nogarf snorted, but he withdrew his arm, which had to be getting tired from holding those peppers over the cliff. “I talked to a cougar once and even commanded it not to eat me.”
“Really? It must have worked, since you’re here today in an uneaten state.”
“I’ll tell you more about the critters I’ve called if you show me your tree hut.”
“Deal,” Malagach said. “But let’s get those peppers back to Shaman Otik first, all right?”
Otik was back in the hut when Malagach and Nogarf entered. His eyes widened, and his whole face radiated pleasure when he spotted the peppers.
“You found them,” Shaman Otik said. “Where were they?”
“Uhm,” Nogarf started.
“A raccoon took them,” Malagach said.
Shaman Otik and Nogarf looked at Malagach in disbelief. Gortok, who was tinkering with something in the corner, raised his eyebrows.
“Yes,” Malagach said. “You know how those darned ‘coons are always filching things. It must have sneaked in last night and taken these. Fortunately, Nogarf used his critter caller powers and told that raccoon to bring the peppers out of its tree and give them to us.”
“Hunh.” Otik took the chilis from Nogarf’s hands and peered at them. “Well, look at that, they even have little claw marks on them.”
They did? Malagach stared blankly, but then realized the eagle must have scratched them with its talons.
Nogarf mouthed, “Thanks,” while Otik was busy looking at the peppers.
Malagach returned a you’re-welcome nod.
A grin split the old goblin’s weathered face. “I reckon it’s time to finish off that pepper slime punch, my young whelps.”
“Does that mean I can go to the Plenty-Picked?” Gortok popped to his feet.
“Yes.” Otik walked over, an apologetic hand extended. “I should’ve believed you. It’s just that–what did you do to my medicine basket!”
“I just improved it a bit,” Gortok said. “See that handle. When you press down on it with your foot, the lid will come up and–”
“Get out!” Shaman Otik roared.
Gortok scooted between Malagach and Nogarf and darted through the door flap.
At a more leisurely pace, Malagach and Nogarf walked outside. Gortok was skidding out of sight behind the next hut.
“Hard to believe I was envious of him, isn’t it?” Nogarf shook his head.
Malagach grinned. “His genius–and his favor with Shaman Otik–does come and go.”