The pounding green feet of the goblin pack tore down the trail ahead of Malagach. At the front raced tall and agile Zakrog. An eagle feather–a trophy from the first event he had won–bounced from his white topknot.
Malagach had no delusions about catching him, or any of the other whelps in the lead pack, but if he could at least finish the race in a respectable position, maybe there would be less teasing. Maybe Ma would not shake her head in her usual glum disappointment. Maybe Chief Loggok would look upon him with a glimmer of respect…
Pebbles flew under the pack’s feet as they pounded along the river toward the village. The line of watching grownups cheered and hooted encouragement. When Malagach ran past the blueberry bushes and filbert trees that edged the huts, his own ragged breaths drowned out the shouts of the onlookers. Sweat dampened his buckskin tunic and plastered his short white hair to his temples.
The course left the pebble-strewn riverside for a third and final loop through the forest. The trail narrowed, twisting around trees, boulders, and uneven terrain, and Malagach lost sight of the pack.
A log lay across the path ahead, its root mass upended during a recent storm. On the first loop, he had cleared the obstacle easily, but on the second, his heel had clipped it, and he’d nearly pitched onto his face. This time he coiled his tired legs for a generous leap.
When he was midair, a green body blurred out of hiding and crashed into him.
Malagach spun into a tree beside the trail. Reflexively, he threw his hands up, but momentum smashed his face into the trunk. Pain exploded across his nose, and he crumpled to the pine needles below. Peals of laughter pierced his shocked body. Through rapidly tearing eyes, Malagach glimpsed another goblin sprinting off down the trail–one with an eagle feather bobbing in his hair.
He slammed his fist into the pine needles.
Three younger whelps leaped over the log as Malagach was getting to his feet. He swiped tears out of his eyes and blood from his nose. His head throbbed in time with his pounding heart. Four more contestants raced past before he recovered enough to get back on the trail.
Malagach was about to start running–or at least jogging–when a familiar voice came from behind.
“Gortok.” He greeted his younger brother while wiping more blood from his nose. “You last?”
“Yup.” Gortok went around the root mass instead of over the log and huffed to a stop. Though sweat gleamed on his forehead–moisture which did nothing to tamp down his wild thatch of white hair–he did not look as exhausted as Malagach. In fact…
“Did you stop to forage?” Malagach eyed a fresh red stain on his brother’s tunic.
Gortok grinned sheepishly. “I might have grabbed a couple raspberries on my way past the patch.”
Malagach rolled his eyes. Running wouldn’t make a difference now, so they walked the rest of the way back to the village. With luck, the crowd would be gone if they arrived late enough.
Alas, luck did not favor them. When they came in long last, the adults merely shook their heads, hardly surprised. Ma’s eyes widened when she spotted Malagach’s bloody nose, but she stopped herself after a step in his direction, for which he was thankful. He was eleven now, too old for babying in front of everyone else. Besides it made the teasing worse.
He tried not to look when they walked past Zakrog and the eight or nine whelps surrounding him. They snickered and pointed at Malagach while nudging their leader.
“What happened, Book Face?” Zakrog asked. “Get your nose caught between the pages?” Zakrog casually flicked a second eagle feather now twined in his hair.
Malagach missed a step, hardly able to believe the bully had not only caught back up, but won. Malagach gritted his teeth. No response at all would be best, but a retort spilled from his lips unbidden.
“I didn’t, but it’s a practice you should try. If you were thumped on the head with a book, some knowledge might spill out and leak into that empty vessel on your shoulders.”
With all the adults in the village nearby, Malagach did not fear for his life just then, but the steely gaze Zakrog shot him did promise pain later on. No, make that now. The start of the “Log King” event was called, and the grownups headed for the river. Zakrog led his cronies not around but through Malagach and Gortok. Elbows ‘accidently’ jabbed their ribs, callused heels stepped on their feet, and someone kicked Malagach in the shin. Finally the group had passed, and walked toward the beach laughing and muttering such classic goblin insults as “snot suckers,” “troll dung eaters,” and the ever witty, “orc lips.”
“I hate him.” Malagach rubbed his shin.
“Yeah,” Gortok said. “Berry?” He had pulled a handful of squashed raspberries from a pocket and was chomping them. He offered Malagach one that was only slightly mutilated. “At least this is the last event.”
“Why do parents inflict these competitions on us? It’s not as if athleticism is all that important for goblins. We make our livings foraging, scavenging, and fishing.”
“Spear fishing takes athleticism,” Gortok said. “Which is probably why you’re horrible at it.”
“You’re not any good either.”
“I’ve never stabbed myself in the foot,” Gortok said. “Twice.”
“Only a year younger than you,” Gortok said.
“A year and three months.”
Heading for the river, they wound through the mud-and-stick huts that made up the village. Apple, pear, and plum trees sheltered the reed roofs, and berry bushes lined the paths. Medicinal herbs and edible ground covers filled in the gaps. The practical camouflage filled bellies and meant those who did not know what to look for rarely found goblin villages.
On the river side of the village, everyone was preparing for the last event. Contestants stripped off their buckskins while two large male goblins stood hip deep in the backwater, readying a log that had escaped from a beaver dam upriver.
“Glad I’m not in this one,” Gortok said cheerfully.
Malagach would be cheerful too if he had already finished the mandatory three events. He had chosen Log King because it would be over quickly. And on a warm summer day, a dunk in the river was not too unpleasant. But when Uncle Tyok called the contestants for the first challenge, a deep grimace pulled down Malagach’s face.
“Round One, Malagach and Zakrog.”
The smug grin Zakrog had been wearing all afternoon turned into a cackle of delight.
Malagach tried not to groan too loudly.
“At least it’ll be over quickly,” Gortok said.
“I guess.” Malagach sighed. “I’d really like to beat him at something.”
“You can beat him at lots of things,” Gortok said. “You can read and write. You can add and subtract. And you’ve got the Elvish-to-Kingdom dictionary memorized–which is odder than a one-horned deer, by the way. Zakrog… I don’t have proof, but I think he ate my arithmetic book last winter.”
“I’d like to beat him at something that matters to our people,” Malagach clarified.
“Oh.” Gortok squinted at the log. “You could beat him at this.”
“Really. Just keep your center of balance lower than his. You’ll be harder to knock off the log and less likely to fall off on your own. And if he pushes you, he’ll be expecting you to push back. Pull him instead.”
Malagach slanted a dubious look at his brother. That sounded like a lot to think about while balancing on a floating log. Then it was time for the event to start.
The two grownups held the log steady while Malagach and Zakrog waded out and climbed onto opposite ends. Other whelps waited for their matches on the bank. If by some chance, Malagach won here, he would have to compete against more opponents, but that didn’t matter. Just this. If he could just beat Zakrog this one time…
He forced himself to concentrate on the now.
As soon as Malagach and Zakrog squared off, the grownups let go of the log. The damp perch wobbled, promising a pitch into the river sooner or later. Later, Malagach thought. Let’s make mine later. He sank low and dug his toes into the bark.
Uncle Tyok yelled, “Start!”
Without hesitating, Zakrog lunged across the log.
Just as the bigger goblin was about to crash into him, Malagach dropped even lower, his knee banging into the trunk. He sank his weight into the log and willed himself to be as heavy as possible.
Probably expecting his target to be higher, Zakrog only managed to plant one hand on Malagach’s shoulder. Gortok’s advice sailed through Malagach’s mind. Instead of tensing and trying to stay rigid, he grabbed Zakrog’s tunic, leaned back, and pulled.
Zakrog let out a surprised shout and toppled past Malagach and into the river. The log jerked at the weight shift, and Malagach soon lost his own grip and fell in too. But it didn’t matter. Zakrog had gone in first.
Zakrog came up slapping the water and cursing. “Friga’s hairy–”
“Language, whelp,” Chief Loggok, Zakrog’s father, warned from the bank. That, he corrected his son for. The bullying he never seemed to notice.
When Malagach glimpsed the fury in Zakrog’s eyes, he hustled to get out of the water. Gortok winked at him.
Using his brother’s tactics, Malagach won three more matches before losing to an adaptable whelp in the final round. That was fine. Watching Zakrog stalk around, glaring, and muttering about his missing third feather, was victory enough. In fact, Malagach grinned all the way through a dinner of fox tail stew and acorn flour dumplings, and was still feeling quite satisfied when he strolled down to the river that evening. He sat on the bank and dangled his toes in, enjoying the last bird songs of the day.
“You still have that gloating smile on your face?” Gortok asked when he came up behind.
Malagach fixed his upturned lips into a neutral position. “Of course not.”
“Uh hunh.” Gortok flopped down beside him and unrolled a piece of parchment to reveal a muddled charcoal diagram. Pens and paper were hard to come by in the mountains, and Gortok had used this parchment several times. While he had done his best to wipe away old charcoal lines, the image was still hard to read, and Malagach squinted uncertainly.
“Plans for a machine to squirt the trunk of the tree hut with something slick–I’m still working on the recipe–to make it unclimbable. Old Zakrog is madder’n a badger who got her kits stole, so I’m planning extra defenses.”
Gortok sounded much more excited than concerned. Any excuse to build more contraptions tickled him.
“Wise,” Malagach said. “He’ll probably hold a grudge.”
“All right, he will, and he’s doubtlessly plotting revenge by now.”
“It’s scary imagining him as chief some day.”
“We’ll be long gone from the village by then,” Malagach said.
“Can you actually imagine staying here one day longer than our coming-of-age ceremony? I’m already tired of trying to explain why I’d rather read than fish, why I want to learn languages, history, and of other cultures, why playing Log Hop, Tackle the Rabbit, and Pod Kick are torture. I’m tired of feeling guilty because we get involved in some adventure far more interesting than village chores and forget to make it home for dinner or collect all the mushrooms Ma wanted, or whatever mundane goblin thing we’re supposed to be doing.”
“At least Ma doesn’t seem to get as upset about the stuff we forget any more,” Gortok said. “Chief Loggok even said it’s all right for us to play at the tree hut when we get all our chores done first. We’ve got a fair heap more freedom than we did when we were littler.”
“Because they’ve given up on us turning into respectable goblins.” Malagach plucked a weed from the crack between two rocks. “Is it still freedom if it’s given out of apathy instead of love and understanding?”
The screwed up expression on Gortok’s face reminded Malagach that his brother thought a lot less about what others were saying or thinking about them than he always did. Half the time Gortok was so inwardly focused on plans for some new project that he did not even hear insults. For that and other reasons, Malagach often had to remind himself not to envy–or resent–his little brother. Gortok was the only true ally he had in the world.
“I dunno,” Gortok finally said. “You worry too much. Like a grownup.”
“Shaman Otik did say I have an old soul.”
“I thought he said you smelled like old sole,” Gortok said.
“No… he said that about you. A comment he followed with a suggestion for a bath.” Malagach swatted at his brother’s unruly hair, which was sticking out in more directions than canes in a blackberry patch. “And a haircut.”
“He did not–”
Startled, Malagach jerked his feet out of the water. A small clay bottle had landed on the stones between them. Gooey brown liquid oozed out of the mouth, and gray-blue smoke wafted from it.
“What’s that?” Gortok asked.
As soon as the odor reached his nostrils, Malagach was overwhelmed with grogginess.
“Get back!” At least that’s what he tried to say–and do–but the words came out garbled. His leaden limbs would not respond. He fell backward, losing consciousness before his head hit the ground.
Awareness returned slowly, along with pain at the back of his head. Blurry vision focused, and Malagach saw stars moving in and out through branches. He was on his back, and slowly he realized the stars were not moving, he was. Someone was dragging him along a bumpy trail on a travois. Several someones. He glimpsed goblin-sized figures walking in front of and behind him.
“Hurry,” someone said. “That potion we filched from Shaman Otik could wear off any time.”
“If they wake up, we’ll just club them over the head until they’re sleeping again.” That was Zakrog’s voice.
Malagach decided to close his eyes and stay ‘sleeping.’ There were too many to escape at that moment, and he hadn’t had a chance to confer with Gortok. He wasn’t even sure Gortok was along, though Zakrog had said ‘they.’
“How much farther?” a new voice whined from the back.
That was one of Zakrog’s cousins. It seemed the whole annoying posse was along for this trek.
“Not far. We’re meeting Trapper Arik at Black Stump Rock for the trade off.”
Trade off? Malagach’s heart quickened.
“Why couldn’t we just have the slavers come pick them up direct?” a different voice asked.
“And let them know where our village is?” Zakrog asked. “You dolt, they’d take all our people, including us.”
Malagach swallowed. Slavers. They were selling him to slavers?
A half moon had risen on the horizon when the group came out of the trees at the meeting point, a field of stumps where a fire had burned through a few years back. In the center rose a jagged rock that young goblins often climbed for sport and less young goblins met at for romantic trysts.
“Boys,” greeted a gruff male voice.
From his back, Malagach could not see the speaker though he glimpsed the top of a small wooden structure. A wagon, he realized, when a horse snorted nearby.
“Trapper Arik, sir,” Zakrog said in a respectful tone he usually saved for his father.
“Two of them? That’s it? Well, here’s your two silver.”
When Malagach heard the number two, his first reaction was relief; Gortok was here as well. Then he felt indignation tighten his chest. One tiny silver coin a piece? That’s all a goblin life was worth? His life?
Malagach forced himself to play limp when big calloused arms grabbed his ankles. He had to bite his lip to keep from yelping when he was slung, like a sack of acorns, into the back of an enclosed wagon. Fortunately he landed on a pile of furs. A moment later, Gortok landed beside him. Then the door creaked closed, and the clank of a metal lock snapping shut came through the wood.
“Gor?” Malagach reached out and touched his brother.
Though Gortok made no reply, he was warm and breathing steadily. Actually, he was snoring. He must have inhaled a bigger whiff of that concoction.
The wagon lurched into motion, and Malagach tumbled off the pile of furs. He pitched down the side and clunked his temple against the wall. Groaning, he grabbed his head with both hands. This had been a bad day for his cranial anatomy.
“Mal?” came Gortok’s shaken voice from atop the fur pile.
“I’m here.” Malagach doubted the trapper would hear them through the wooden wagon walls and over the clopping of hooves, but he kept his voice low. “Zakrog and his cronies… sold us.”
“Sold? How do you sell someone?” In a softer voice, he added, “And to who?”
“To whom,” Malagach said.
“Some trapper, though a slaving outfit is apparently our final destination. Maybe the gods are punishing me for being unappreciative of the freedoms we have at home.” Malagach cleared his throat. “Uhm, Gor… It’s possible… well, it’s probable…”
His brother was rustling his clothing and rummaging around for something.
Malagach cleared his throat again. “I wanted to beat Zakrog so badly. He’s been tormenting us so long.”
“I didn’t think… I mean, I guess… this is my fault. You shouldn’t be here, Gor. I’m sorry–”
Pat, pat, pat.
“Cursed green gods, what are you doing?” Malagach demanded.
Gortok sighed like a father mourning a lost child. “They took all my tools.”
“Tools! I’m trying to apologize to you, and all you can think of is your tools?”
“How else are we going to escape?” Gortok asked.
Malagach rubbed his temples. His whole head ached. He tried to focus on more pressing problems. That Zakrog had thought to search Gortok’s pockets and steal whatever tools he had on him showed surprising foresight. Maybe he had just been looking for more things to sell, Malagach thought bitterly. Or perhaps the trapper himself had searched Gortok and taken them.
“We better see if there’s anything in here we can use then,” Malagach said.
“Right.” Gortok rattled the door latch.
“It’s locked from the outside,” Malagach said dryly.
“Just checking. No point in building a fancy get-out-of-a-locked-wagon invention if the door is unlocked.”
“Oh, please. You’d spend an hour building a gadget to jump into a tree when it’d take you 30 seconds to climb to the same branch. In fact, you’ve done that.”
“Yes,” Gortok said in a tone of fond remembrance. “But I had tools.”
They groped around the windowless black interior of the wagon, seeking anything useful. While goblins had superior night vision to humans, they still needed ambient light–moonlight or at least some starlight–for their eyes to work in the dark.
Furs were the dominant cargo, and Malagach’s fingers brushed against coarse bear, silky fox, and soft rabbit. He found a cask he could not open, though it was secured to the corner with metal wire, and he was able to pry off about a foot’s length. On the gritty floorboards, his toes brushed against a four-inch-long nail, which he also pocketed.
“Oh,” Gortok said.
“Find something good?”
“Rubber bands!” This announcement was followed by the thwank of a rubber band being shot across the wagon and into the wall. Malagach rolled his eyes.
“Find something useful?” he corrected.
“I’ve also got a rock… and some moldy twine.”
“So… no,” Malagach answered his own question.
“What’d you find that’s so useful?” Gortok asked.
Malagach was about to share, but the wagon slowed to a stop, and voices sounded outside.
“Given the feebleness of the prison-break aids we’ve found,” Malagach said, “I suggest we try to surprise them by jumping out the door and running.” If they could get into the trees, they might have a chance. Goblins might not be warriors, but they could hide well, especially in the dark.
“Running?” Gortok asked. “That wasn’t our best event this afternoon, and humans have longer legs than Zakrog.”
“We have to try.” Malagach crept to the door, ready to leap out as soon as it opened. “You go left, I’ll go right, and we’ll meet…” He realized he had no idea where they were.
“In the middle?” Gortok scooted up beside him.
Malagach shrugged. “Yes.”
The scent of wood smoke penetrated the wagon. As late as it was, perhaps they were being delivered straight to the slavers’ camp instead of another trade off point. He was not sure how that knowledge helped him.
“Mal?” Gortok asked.
“I don’t blame you for getting us stuck here.”
“Though if you get us killed or enslaved for life, I might blame you a little bit for that.”
In the dark, Malagach could only sense Gortok’s grin.
“Let’s see the goods,” a male voice came from right outside the door.
A clank and scrape of metal on wood announced the removal of the lock. The door opened. Time for their escape attempt.
Malagach shoved the door open farther and launched to the right.
While he was still airborne, burly arms caught him about the middle, abruptly ending his flight. Gortok made it to the ground, but a booted foot stuck out and tripped him after two steps. Another set of burly arms picked him up and let him dangle upside down. Malagach found himself stuffed under someone’s armpit.
“How… embarrassing,” he muttered, referring both to the ease of their capture and their current positions.
“A little bit, yeah,” Gortok said.
By craning his neck awkwardly, Malagach could count six human men in addition to the trapper. Everyone carried a musket, a pistol, or both. Some of the slavers also bore swords and coiled whips at their belts.
Malagach’s guess had been right, and they were in a camp located next to a wide river. Parallel to the waterway was a train of eight wagons, each with an iron cage mounted on the back. The horses had been unhitched and were tethered at the edge of the camp. Bedrolls surrounded a crackling cook fire, and a handful of scattered whale oil lamps spread illumination amongst the wagons. Three of the cages already had occupants: an elven boy and five human children, three girls and two boys. Many bore bruises on their faces. All of them huddled in corners and stared out with wide fearful eyes.
“Check them,” said a tall lanky man with gray hair and a beard trying to swallow his face.
Malagach jerked when his lips were peeled back so someone could examine his teeth. Next fingers poked into his ears, hair, and pulled up his tunic. He squirmed at this indignity, but his captor held him firmly.
“No lice, good teeth,” came back the verdict.
Gortok received the same dubious accolade. The slavers patted them down, searching for weapons. Apparently none of the scraps they had purloined from the trapper’s wagon were big enough to notice.
“Fine goblin specimens,” the trapper said. “They’re easily worth 10 silver each.” He wore a cutlass and pistol at his waist and cradled a musket in his arms. Old scars marked his face and the backs of his hands. Though the trapper was outnumbered, he did not seem concerned, certainly not enough to fail to demand the price he wanted.
The fellow with the expansive beard–Malagach decided he must be the leader–said, “Three silver. They’re short and spindly.”
“You just described ninety-nine percent of the goblins in the mountains,” the trapper said. “Their meager stature and compliant natures are what make them versatile slaves. These two are young and pliable, easily trainable to muck out stables or serve tea to the master. Nine silver.”
“Pliable?” Malagach murmured.
“Who’re they calling spindly?” Gortok demanded.
“Silence!” The trapper glared at them.
Apparently it looked bad when the supposedly compliant and pliable wares mouthed off. Malagach was not inclined to curry favor with the trapper though.
It seemed Gortok was of the same mind, for he stuck his tongue out at the trapper and then told the lead slaver, “He only paid one silver for us.”
“And barely toted us fifteen minutes,” Malagach added.
The slavers guffawed at the consternation on the trapper’s face.
“Five silver,” the leader offered magnanimously.
After another glare at Malagach and Gortok, the trapper agreed to the price. A fellow next to Gortok’s keeper pulled a book, quill, and inkwell out of a wagon. Once the money exchanged hands, he propped the book on a rock and dipped the quill. He painstakingly penned something at the bottom of a column of numbers, but then peered uncertainly at his calculation.
“You forgot to take one away from the tens column,” Gortok, still dangling upside down, said helpfully.
The putative bookkeeper made the correction before realizing the source and staring at Gortok with a startled expression. The leader too eyeballed Gortok with narrowed eyes. Goblins who could read were rare. One who could do math–upside down–was probably not something any of them had seen before.
“Put ‘em in that cage,” he said finally.
Their keepers hurled Malagach and Gortok into their new prison without the gentleness one might hope for from men planning to sell the ‘goods’ later. Malagach’s shoulder thudded hard into one of the steel bars, but at least his head was spared another bashing. Gortok recovered quickly enough to peer out and see the metal key turn in the door lock.
Once their prisoners had been locked in, the slavers returned to the fire and their bedtime preparations. Two men were set to guard, one near the wagons and another roving the perimeter of the camp.
For a goblin, the cages were just tall enough to stand in, and Malagach and Gortok immediately examined every corner and tested each bar. Gortok stuck his hand out and probed the hinges and door lock. Malagach lifted the straw bedding and checked the integrity of the floorboards. Unfortunately their prison was sound.
A couple of the men had removed their boots and shimmied into their bedrolls already, but Malagach noticed the leader sitting with his arm on his knee, head turned toward his newest acquisitions.
How long had he been watching? The man rose and walked over to their cage. Malagach clasped his hands behind his back and tried to look innocent, or at least suitably subdued by the situation.
“You two are going to be trouble, aren’t you?”
“No, sir,” Malagach said.
“Yup,” Gortok drawled at the same time.
The man snorted. “I’ve been in this business a long time. I can spot troublesome slaves right quick.”
“Perhaps you could release us now then,” Malagach said, “in order to preclude the possibility of us causing future damage.”
“There’s two ways to deal with troublesome slaves,” the leader said. “You can break ‘em.” He patted his whip and nodded toward the elven boy, who, though sitting, did not rest his back against the bars. “Or you can make a deal with them, give them something they want in exchange for their cooperation.”
“We like deals,” Gortok said.
Malagach kept his mouth shut. While the whip made Ma’s switch seem a paltry punishment, he doubted any deal this man might offer would be any less undesirable.
“As you can see,” the slaver said, “we have a number of empty cages. We’d thought to obtain at least 10 young goblins on our way across the mountains, but your people seem quite adept at hiding their villages. We’ll barely break even with this lot.”
Across the mountains, Malagach thought. According to maps he had seen, the desert lay over there, a stark place he had only read about. If they were taken that far, he was not certain they could get back. Dragons dwelled in the high mountains, and stories said the desert monsters made trolls seem friendlier than bear cubs in comparison.
“Perhaps,” the slaver said, “you two could earn your freedom.”
“How?” Gortok asked.
“Yes, how, considering you just parted with ten silver coins for our lice-free hides,” Malagach said.
“And good teeth,” Gortok said.
“If we could trade two goblins for ten or twelve, it’d be worth it,” the slave leader said. “You wouldn’t want to share the whereabouts of a rival clan’s village, would you?”
Malagach snorted. He would rather take his chances with Gortok’s rubber bands than have some goblin ballad composed about how he had been the greatest betrayer of his own kind since the Wizard Wars.
“Or perhaps some rivals within your own clan?” the slaver suggested.
This time Malagach froze before he could utter the snort.
Zakrog’s face floated before his mind’s eye, and for a moment, Malagach couldn’t catch his breath. And, yes, there were at least ten of Zakrog’s followers that Malagach would be relieved never to see again.
He licked his lips. Why was his heart suddenly pounding in his chest as if he were back in that race? And his palms were damp with sweat. He couldn’t actually think of betraying…. Who? Those who betrayed him not two hours earlier? Wouldn’t it be some sort of grand justice to send them off to the very fate they had tried to seal for him? To have Zakrog and his crowd trapped in a life of whippings and drudgery in a harsh land?
“Think about it tonight,” the leader said. “If you won’t deal, we’ll start with the breaking in the morning.”
“We’re not interested,” Gortok said and then glanced at Malagach after the slaver had walked back to his bedroll. “Are we?”
“I…” Malagach said. “I… need to sit down.” Actually he laid down and stared up at the wooden boards of the cage ceiling.
“Zakrog?” Gortok asked.
Malagach’s lips flattened in grim acknowledgement. “Him. The others.” He knew Gortok wouldn’t have to ask what others. “They’ve been tormenting us every day for as long as I can remember. Can you imagine them just being gone tomorrow? And every day after that? They’d never be there to bother us again.”
“Eh,” Gortok said, “Us being us, we’d probably just attract a new flock of bullies.”
Malagach barked a short laugh. “Maybe, but there’s no one left of Zakrog’s cruelty caliber in the village, not amongst our peers anyway. We’d be practically grownups before any of the younger whelps got big enough to be a problem.”
Gortok sat in the straw next to Malagach. “Even supposing life would be heaps better without them, how would we send them off to the slavers without risking the whole village? We can’t lead these troll kissers home.”
“Dead Rock Cave,” Malagach said. “We’ve got our tree hut, and Zakrog’s crew has their ugly little fort out at Dead Rock. They go out there nearly every day. It’d be easy to set up their capture.”
“You’ve certainly got this all worked out.” Gortok’s white eyebrows wriggled beneath his bushy bangs.
“It would be… easy,” Malagach said. “Slavery is rampant east of the mountains. Goblins over here get abducted. It happens. No one in the clan would ever know we had anything to do it.”
“I reckon that’s just what Zakrog said.” Gortok paused and added, “Without using words like rampant and abducted.”
Malagach rolled his head to the side and considered his brother. Just what Zakrog said. What was Gortok implying? That if they did this, they’d be just like the bullies they wanted to get rid of? That couldn’t be true, could it? One admittedly vengeful action couldn’t possibly be measured against a lifetime of vengeful actions.
Gortok’s face was impassive. Had he meant to imply anything at all, or had Malagach only imagined it because his head was already wrestling with itself? Maybe this was just something Malagach could not do. And could he not do it because he was strong… or because he was weak? Or because it was just an evil thing to do no matter who was at the other end of the deed?
Growling, he threw a clump of straw between the bars.
“That mean we’re turning down Big Beard’s offer?” Gortok asked.
“Correct,” Malagach said and wondered how often he might regret the missed opportunity in the future.
After Malagach had sulked for a while, Gortok asked, “You know what’d be really fun?”
“Escaping and strolling back into the village in the morning, walking right by Zakrog as if nothing had ever happened.”
At first Malagach did not answer. The words did create the image in his mind though, and he allowed a “Hm,” to escape. And then, “The expression that would put on Zakrog’s face would be… delightful to observe.” Another moment passed. “We’d really have to hustle with our escape if we mean to get home by morning.”
“Naturally.” Gortok smiled. “Show your pockets.”
Malagach did so while casting his gaze around the camp. By now, the leader and all except two of the slavers were snoring in their bedrolls. Malagach could hear the steady footfalls of the roving guard, and the other man sat on a rock a few meters away. The leader had pointed specifically to that spot, which offered a clear view of Malagach and Gortok’s cage, perhaps determined to thwart any escape attempts by his new prisoners. Malagach was used to humans underestimating him and his brother and was not sure whether to be flattered or annoyed that this one did not. At least the guard did not share his leader’s vigilant mindset. He was sliding around pieces in a handheld wooden puzzle.
“Ah!” Gortok’s fingers latched onto the scrap of rusty metal wire Malagach had taken from the cask. Gortok lowered his voice and breathed, “This is perfect. In fact, it’ll almost be too easy.” Using his teeth, he sawed the wire into two lengths of about five inches.
Malagach sat with his back to the bars, to block the guard’s view of Gortok. He watched his brother add a right angle to the end of one and quietly hazarded, “Lock pick?”
“That’ll be the pick.” Gortok pointed to the as yet unmodified piece. He lifted the one he was shaping. “This is the, uhm… I don’t have any books on thievery, and locks aren’t covered in my engineering text, so I don’t know what it’s called. It holds the picked pins in place while you work on the rest.”
Gortok had begun his career of inventing and building contraptions by disassembling everything he could get his hands on–including many things his hands ought not to have been on–so it did not surprise Malagach that he knew how a lock worked. But having never seen the inside of one himself, he had no idea what Gortok was talking about. He said only, “Perhaps if we’re going to find ourselves in many locked cells, we should find a professional to train you up on the terminology.”
“As long as I’m with you, cages and cells are probably going to be a given.”
Malagach huffed but did not refute the statement. This was not the first time they had been incarcerated together. And while this wasn’t his fault, exactly, the blame for the incident with the troll cage over the fire pit might possibly be attributed to one of his plans…
“Not that great.” Gortok eyed his two new tools critically. The second one he had left largely alone aside from giving the end a slight hook. “Kind of flimsy, but did you see the key? That’s a simple lock.”
“Right, but it’s going to be hard to pick it, open the gate, and stroll out with that large fellow sitting right over there,” Malagach murmured. While the guard was not looking directly at them, their cage was in his peripheral vision, and his eyes were alert enough to ensure he wouldn’t miss something so obvious as prisoners hopping out and running away. “We’ll need a distraction.”
“Probably,” Gortok said. “Got anything in mind?”
“Let’s see your pockets.”
Gortok laid out his rubber bands, the rock, and a couple meters of twine next to Malagach’s nail.
Malagach pointed to the rock. “That’s flint, isn’t it? And my nail, any chance it’s made from steel?” He did not know how to tell the difference between iron and steel, but he was sure Gortok did. “Maybe we could start a fire.” He fingered the dry straw bedding on the floor.
“You want to start a fire in our cage?” Gortok asked. “With us locked inside?”
“Well, it’d be distracting.”
“To me, sure. Picking a lock with flames warming my backside is more of a distraction than I was figuring on.”
“You did say something about the wire making things too easy,” Malagach murmured.
“Uh hunh. Anyway, the point of a distraction is to get them fellers to look away from you, not at you–and your flaming cage.” Gortok handed Malagach the nail. “Maybe you can stab someone in the foot with it later.”
“Gee.” Still, Malagach returned the nail to his pocket. “What’s your brilliant idea? To shoot rubber bands at the guard?”
“Naw.” But a smile did stretch Gortok’s lips as he picked up a couple of the rubber bands. “Remember the time I tried burning a rubber band to see if I could reshape the rubber into something else? It smelled right icky.”
“For three days,” Malagach said. “Ma was quite displeased that you’d undertaken this experiment inside the hut.”
“If I combined that with…” Gortok grabbed a clump of the hair dangling next to his cheek and nodded to himself. “I’ll need to cut off some of this.”
Using his teeth again, Gortok began sawing off locks.
“This method of haircutting explains much.” Malagach gestured at Gortok’s perennially wild thatch of hair.
Tongue stuck between his teeth now, Gortok did not respond. He wrapped the rubber bands around the chunks of hair and secured the bundles with pieces of twine that he cut up using the same tooth-sawing method.
“I’m not sure why you were lamenting the loss of your tools,” Malagach said, “given your dental aptitude.”
“All right.” Gortok laid six rubber band and hair bundles out before him. “If you’re done making snippy comments, we can start tossing these onto the campfire and lamps when no one is looking.”
“And that will do what?” Malagach asked.
“Distract.” Gortok winked. “Trust me. We just have to make sure they burn.”
“With our throwing skills, what are the odds we can land one in the fire?” Malagach peered over his shoulder. It was about fifteen feet to the campfire. A couple of the lamps on the wagons were closer, but they offered smaller targets.
Gortok offered a lopsided grin. “I’m hoping no worse than one in six.”
Malagach picked up one of the bundles. “I’ll throw them. This will need to be done subtly, and you’re not subtle.”
“Subtle.” Gortok sniffed. “Odd claim from the goblin who wanted to set his own cage on fire a few minutes ago.”
“Just pretend to be asleep until it’s time to do your part,” Malagach said.
Gortok shrugged and leaned his head and shoulder against the bars. All except one of the bundles went into Malagach’s pocket, and then he stood and took up a position as close to the fire as the cage allowed. He yawned and casually draped his arms through the bars. The big guard looked his way, but Malagach fixed a beaten forlorn expression on his face and gazed unseeingly toward the river. He tried very hard not to look like ‘trouble.’
After a moment, the guard’s gaze dropped back down to his puzzle. Malagach listened to the footsteps of the roving guard, trying to time the route so he could throw the bundles when the man’s back was to him and the fire. Malagach glanced around at the other cages. Most of the other slaves–prisoners–were asleep, though firelight glinted off a human boy’s eyes. Everyone seemed to be as young, or younger than, Malagach and Gortok.
“If there’s time,” Malagach whispered, “Unlock the others too.”
Without opening his eyes, Gortok made a noncommittal grunt.
When no one was looking, Malagach tossed the first bundle. He winced as it went wide, bounced off a rock next to the fire, and skidded to a stop against the leader’s bedroll.
“Subtle,” Gortok muttered, one eye half open.
Malagach held his breath, afraid one of the men would react. Fortunately, the guard had not noticed, and the leader remained asleep.
Malagach let several minutes pass before he tried again. This time the bundle fell just short of the fire. He sighed and waited for the roving guard to circle again.
“I’m not going to have to feign sleep before long,” Gortok whispered.
“Didn’t you decide that the time for snippy comments had passed?” Malagach said.
“No, just that it was my turn to make them.”
Malagach lobbed the third bundle… and clenched his fist in triumph when it landed on red embers. As he watched, the materials sizzled, but there was no plume of smoke, roaring explosion, or anything particularly distracting that he noticed.
Then the guard’s nose crinkled. And as soon as it did, Gortok deemed him distracted enough and started working on the lock.
Soon the smell of burning rubber and hair–somehow combining to create a more noxious odor than either alone-wafted to Malagach, and he too crinkled his nose. The guard coughed. He stood up, walked to the fire, and peered around the area. He lifted a frying pan, looked in and under it, and the began sniffing at his comrades.
Gortok lowered his arms and slid the unlocked gate open just far enough for two goblin whelps to slip through.
“Ralf, you smell that?” the guard called lowly into the woods.
“Yeah, what’re you burning?”
Gortok slipped through the shadows to the next occupied cage. Malagach crept the other direction, using a wagon for cover, and placed a hair bundle in one of the oil lamps. While the guard was sniffing at one of his comrade’s boots, Malagach lobbed another bundle into the campfire.
“It’s not me,” the guard answered.
“Eee, it stinks all the way out here.”
“Is it coming from out there?”
Working with the key hole in front of him now, Gortok navigated the second lock more quickly. He soon opened the gate and moved to another cage. Malagach tossed the last bundle into a different lamp and then edged toward the river, the most obvious escape route. Darkness and the current would help them elude recapture–he hoped.
“How should I know?”
“It’s getting worse. I’m going to wake everyone up.”
Uh oh. Malagach waved, trying to get Gortok’s attention. When the leader woke up, his first look would probably be toward the prisoners. Intent on unlocking the last cage, Gortok did not notice Malagach, and he probably didn’t hear the conversation either. Malagach abandoned his headway toward the river and crept back toward his brother.
“You dolts!” That was the leader. “The slaves!”
“Time go to!” Now Malagach ran to Gortok.
A metal cage door clanged open, and the elf boy darted into the woods. It was the last of the occupied cages. Malagach shoved his brother toward the river, all too aware of footsteps thundering toward them.
He tripped over a rock, and Gortok pulled out ahead. Thankfully Malagach did not fall, but the bobble cost him seconds. Gortok made the water first, plunged in several steps, and dove. Malagach too plowed into the river but was tackled from behind. He landed in a foot of water, a human more than twice his size on top of him.
Barely able to keep his wits, Malagach found the pocket with the nail in it. Even as he thrashed to keep the man from getting a good grip on him, he twisted and thrust upward. The nail pierced flesh, and the man yowled, releasing Malagach.
Malagach scrambled away on hands and knees. As soon as the water was deep enough, he inhaled a great gulp of air and yanked his head below the surface. Though he could not yet be certain of his safety, a grin spread across his face. The nail was still clutched in his hand.
Staying underwater, he stroked for the center of the river. Once he was a few meters from the shore, the current picked up and swept him along. Only when his lungs began to burn did he dare lift his head. The slavers’ campfire was a reassuring distance back upstream.
Despite a growing awareness of the cold water, Malagach stayed in the river for many minutes, letting the current carry him a couple miles from the slavers. A few times he glimpsed Gortok’s white head bobbing farther downriver. When hills closed in, and the towering trees gave way to a recent rockslide, Malagach paddled for the shore. If the slavers were inclined to track their runaways, following prints across stones would be nearly impossible.
Apparently of the same mind, Gortok reached the rocky shore first and greeted Malagach with a thump on the shoulder. Together they found their bearings and headed home.
“By the way…” Malagach held up the nail. “I found a use for this.”
“Maybe I can honor it by hammering into a pivotal spot in the tree hut,” Malagach said.
“Hammering? On the tree hut?” Gortok asked. “Er, you?”
“A non-pivotal spot?” Malagach suggested.
“Maybe you could just frame it and hang it on a wall.”
They walked in amiable silence for a while, and the water sloughing off their buckskins gradually subsided. A strange part of Malagach wondered what life might have been like across the mountains. Being a slave did not hold any appeal, but perhaps someday he would travel to the east on his own terms. Ideally with some looming bodyguards to protect him, he mused dryly as he remembered how easily the humans had slung him around.
The night was peaceful, and it seemed he was not the only one mulling as they walked.
“You know that question you asked about freedom?” Gortok asked.
“The one you so articulately answered with ‘I dunno’?”
“That’s the one, and I’ve been thinking… Your question doesn’t matter.”
“Oh?” Malagach raised an eyebrow.
“Yup,” Gortok said. “Freedom isn’t something other people give you. It’s something you make for yourself.”
Malagach fiddled with the nail in his pocket. “Maybe so.”
Though they were exhausted by the time they reached their own river and the village nestled beside it, they did indeed make it by morning. Only an hour past dawn, Malagach and Gortok strolled toward Ma’s hut, deliberately passing Chief Loggok’s home on the way. Perched on log seats outside, Zakrog and a couple friends were crafting new fishing spears. Gortok had been right: watching the gawking expressions on the whelps’ faces was fun. Even better was when Zakrog, eyes bulging, fell off the log and snapped the tip off his spear.