Malagach dropped his handful of salmonberries and perked his pointed green ears toward the shout. Tall brambles stretching across the gully blocked his view.
“It sounds like someone’s in trouble,” his brother, Gortok, said around a mouthful of berries. Pink juice ran down his chin, splotched his buckskin shirt, and even stained clumps of his rambunctious white hair.
“Thanks for decoding that cryptic call,” Malagach said.
“No problem.” Gortok grinned.
Malagach grabbed the fringes on his brother’s sleeve and dragged him toward a nearby stream. He hoped they could follow it up the gully toward the cries.
“Heeeeel–” The shout ended with a muffled grunt.
Soon they reached an open beach along the water. They crept upstream, sun-warmed pebbles pressing into their bare feet.
Not far ahead, wood snapped. The wind shifted and brought the scent of smoke.
Malagach almost stepped on a cracked clay pitcher half buried in the rocks. It seemed this was a popular camping area, for the beach was littered with broken pots and frying pans, rusted bear and beaver traps, empty tin food cans, torn and moldy sacks, and scraps of twine.
Ahead, something shook the salmonberry canes. Malagach slipped behind a rotting log. His brother flattened to the ground, camouflaged by a patch of chickweed poking through the pebbles.
Not twenty feet in front of them, a burly orc strode to the stream. It wore multiple daggers, a cutlass, and a flintlock pistol. Standing more than eight feet, the orc loomed twice the height of a goblin. Muscles bulged beneath the yellow skin of its bare arms. Finger bones dangled from the end of the orc’s long, greasy braids, and they clacked with each step. Goblin finger bones, Malagach suspected, though human and dwarf might be mixed in.
After collecting an armload of driftwood, the orc headed back toward the fire–the smoke from it was now visible over the brambles.
“Looks like he’s making lunch,” Gortok whispered.
“Probably out of whoever was yelling,” Malagach muttered.
“Think that ‘whoever’ is still alive?”
“We’ll find out.”
Malagach chose a path near the brambles, using the canes as overhead cover. The campsite came into view, a cleared area where the foliage had been slashed back. In the center, a fledgling fire burned. A massive wooden spit stood over it with a human boy tied to the center. A gag across his mouth kept him from crying out as he had before. The boy’s shoulders flexed as he struggled, but coils of rope secured him.
“Uh oh,” Gortok whispered.
The orc piled branches onto the fire, building up the flames. Malagach swallowed and backed away so he could talk to his brother.
“We have to rescue him,” he said. “Or that orc is going to roast him alive. And–” Malagach brightened, “–this is our chance to be heroes, not just lowly goblin whelps foraging for food and doing chores for Ma. Real heroes, like Jamseth the Bold.”
“And Doroth the Wicked,” Gortok said.
Malagach frowned. “Doroth is the villain.”
“Yeah, but he’s a scientist and an engineer, and he builds really neat things. In their last story, he made black powder out of charcoal and sulfur and his own urine and blasted his way out of the cave Jamseth trapped him in. How brilliant is that?”
“That explosion blew up several innocent miners. Really, Gor, you concern me at times.”
“Jamseth just stabs bad guys with swords,” Gortok said. “That’s boring.”
“All right, let’s save the boy before we get into this debate again. You go make a distraction, and I’ll run in and untie him.”
“The kind of distraction where the orc ends up chasing me all over the forest, throwing knives and shooting at me with his pistol, and you don’t get so much as a scrape?”
“Yes, that’ll work,” Malagach said.
Gortok snorted. “Give me a couple minutes, and I’ll make a distraction that goes off by itself.”
“Oh, very well.”
Gortok picked up trash along the beach. The cracked pitcher, tin cans, a rusted-out beaver trap, and the frying pan all went into his arms.
With no idea what his brother meant to do, Malagach could only wait. He checked the bone knife he carried. Meant only for day-to-day utility use, it was no weapon, but it was sharp enough to cut rope without trouble. As long as he had a few minutes. There was a lot of rope binding that boy.
Gortok placed a rotten board across a log and waved for Malagach to come over.
“Fill the pitcher,” Gortok said.
He was piling the debris he had gathered on one end of the board.
“It’s cracked,” Malagach said. “It’ll leak.”
Shrugging, Malagach toted the large pitcher to the stream and filled it to the brim. Before he returned to the log, water was already dribbling from the base.
Gortok placed it on the opposite end of the board. He adjusted the weight on the side piled with trash until he had created a balanced teeter totter.
“Ah.” Now Malagach understood.
When enough water leaked out of the pitcher, the weight would become heavier on the loaded side, and the pan and tins would topple to the ground. The racket ought to be enough to encourage the orc to investigate.
“Ready,” Gortok whispered.
He and Malagach took a roundabout way back to the camp, sneaking in on the side opposite the stream. They crouched behind the brambles to wait, the fire partially visible through the leaves and berries.
The orc had piled more wood and brambles onto the fire, and the flames were licking higher now. Plumes of smoke rose from green canes. The boy wasn’t moving, and Malagach’s stomach sank. What if he was already…
The boy coughed. It was a weak sound, muffled by the gag, but at least he was alive.
“When will your distraction topple?” Malagach whispered.
A crash came from the beach.
“About now,” Gortok said.
The orc’s head jerked up. It grabbed its pistol and ran toward the stream.
Malagach and Gortok sprinted into the camp. Malagach sawed at the ropes, while Gortok kicked the logs to disrupt the fire, and soon they were dragging the boy away. Smoke-teared eyes blinked blearily as the human focused on his saviors. Fortunately, he had his wits enough to get his feet beneath him and run.
They darted through the brambles, eventually coming out upstream. Malagach led the others into the water to hide their tracks. A distant roar, echoing through the gully, promised the orc had discovered his empty dinner spit. Malagach did not slow until they climbed a rocky hill that took them out of the gully and gave them a view to the rear. They left the water and gathered under a pine tree, all three leaning over and panting.
“I’m Malagach,” he introduced himself, “And this is Gortok.”
The boy scowled and kicked a pinecone. Then he whirled and rammed his shoulder into the tree.
“Our names don’t usually inspire such vehemence,” Malagach said.
“Though sometimes our actions do,” Gortok said. “What’s your name Tall and Furious?”
At an inch or two above five feet, the boy probably wouldn’t be considered tall by human standards, but even slouching and surly, he stood more than a foot over Malagach and Gortok.
“Robhart,” he muttered. “And I failed.”
“You failed to get eaten,” Malagach said, a little disgruntled that the boy had not thanked them. The folks Jamseth the Bold rescued always gushed gratitude all over him. Of course, he was tall, muscular, dashing, and human. Maybe it was hard to gush over someone short and green? “You’re welcome,” he said anyway.
“Thanks,” Robhart muttered, apparently guilted into the word. Then he blurted, “I lost my sword, I didn’t defeat the orc, and now I’m not going to be trained as a blade master.” Another pinecone succumbed to the boy’s angry foot.
Malagach was debating on walking away and leaving the human to sulk, but Robhart wasn’t done talking.
“There’s four of us, see, all competing to become Errath Dragondancer’s apprentice. In his youth, he was the best swordsman in the Kingdom, a great hero! Now he’s the best trainer in Harborview, but he only takes on one apprentice at a time. If I don’t come back with a lock of hair to prove I can kill an orc, I don’t have a chance. It’s a test, you see.”
“Kill an orc?” Gortok asked. “How long have you been training?”
“Since the beginning of summer.”
“Two months?” Malagach’s eyebrows rose.
“Technically, six and a half weeks.”
“And you’re supposed to kill an orc?” Gortok’s eyebrows climbed even higher than Malagach’s.
“Orcs are some of the best fighters, mercenaries, and bounty hunters in the mountains,” Malagach said. “They’re not that smart, but I saw one shoot a troll in the eye at two hundred paces.”
“I have to kill one,” Robhart said. “Otherwise, I’ll never be a sword master and I’ll never be a hero.”
“You can be a hero without being a sword master,” Gortok said. “Me and Mal are gonna be heroes.”
“You’re goblins,” Robhart said.
“So? We rescued you.”
“Goblins can’t be heroes. They’re short and green and, and… goblins.”
“So?” Gortok said again.
“Maybe you could be a sidekick,” Robhart said.
“Gee,” Malagach said, exchanging eye rolls with his brother when the boy wasn’t looking.
“I have to get this apprenticeship,” Robhart said. “My grandma died this spring, and I’ve got no one left to live with. I have to do this, and I can. I know it. I’m one of four left of the thirty who started with Errath at the beginning of the summer. This is the final test. Be the first to defeat an orc, and win a three-year apprenticeship.”
“Wait,” Malagach said, “do you have to kill an orc, defeat it, or just find some hair?”
“Yeah,” Gortok said, “because I reckon you can get some hair without plunging a sword into anyone’s heart.”
Robhart’s eyes shifted up and to the side as he recited from memory: “The first of you to defeat an orc and return to camp with a clump of its hair shall become my apprentice.”
“Defeat doesn’t mean kill necessarily,” Malagach said. “It just means to win victory over. To outmaneuver. To get the better of. To–”
“We got it,” Gortok said. “My brother reads dictionaries,” he added for Robhart’s benefit.
Robhart tilted his head and seemed to truly look at Malagach and Gortok for the first time. “You’re not like city goblins I’ve met.”
“Actually,” Malagach said, “we’re not particularly like mountain goblins either.”
“Ma says we’re especial,” Gortok said.
Malagach looked at his brother. “When did she say that?”
“Last month, when I added that extendable door-flap opener to the hut.”
“The thing she tripped over in the middle of the night?” Malagach asked. “I believe what she said was we were especially trying.”
Gortok shrugged blithely.
“Maybe…” Robhart said, “maybe you’re right. I assumed we had to kill an orc, but it does sound a tad challenging for a new student. Maybe I just have to prove I can get the best of an orc. But how would I get a clump of hair without fighting for it?”
“Lots of ways,” Gortok said. “You could wait until it’s asleep, you could–”
Malagach jabbed an elbow into his brother’s side. “This is Robhart’s test. Let him come up with a solution.”
“Defeating a sleeping orc doesn’t sound very sportsman like,” Robhart said. “But maybe if something was distracting the orc, I could snip off a piece of its hair without it knowing.”
Gortok nodded approval. “Now you’re thinking like a goblin!”
Judging by the expression Robhart made, it wasn’t clear he felt that a compliment.
“How did I end up as bait?” Malagach muttered as he decided how best to accidentally stumble into view of the orc’s camp. “I’m not the one trying to become a sword master’s apprentice.”
He refused to admit that maybe he had been disgruntled by Robhart’s insistence that goblins couldn’t be heroes, and maybe he was trying to prove he was just as capable as a human. Or maybe he was just being foolish.
The campfire still burned, and the orc was cleaning his musket, perhaps preparing to hunt for another meal. Wouldn’t he just love a tasty bit of goblin flesh?
Malagach jogged down the beach and tripped, falling in front of the camp. The orc lunged to its feet, musket in hand.
“Oh, no!” Malagach cried, pretending to have just seen the orc.
He skittered back, eyes wide, and took off back upstream. As soon as he was sure the orc was following, he darted into the salmonberry brambles. Heavy footfalls sounded behind, and his foe scattered pebbles with each long stride.
Canes grasped at Malagach’s buckskins, and the small thorns dragged across his face and hands, drawing blood. Still, his size was an advantage in the brambles. He wormed his way along small animal trails, while the orc had to plow through, hacking a path with its cutlass.
When Malagach escaped the thicket, he paused a few feet away to make sure the orc was not far behind. Rattling canes announced its approach. Malagach forced himself to wait until the orc was almost out. He started running again, now on an oft-used dirt trail winding through fir trees.
A roar sounded–the orc had spotted him.
Even though Malagach knew he was playing a role, and Gortok and Robhart were ready to help, there was still a chance this could go woefully wrong. He did not have to feign the sweat dripping down his face nor the rapid heartbeat battering his ribcage.
Soon Malagach rounded a bend and came to a mulberry tree with branches arching over the trail. He glanced up. At first, he did not spot any goblin-toned green in the branches, but then Gortok waved.
When Malagach passed a certain rock, he leapt, skipping over a meter of normal-looking trail. Mulberries squished under his bare feet when he landed. All he had to do was keep running, and the others would do the rest.
Then he tripped.
It was not a fake fall this time. His toe caught a root, and he pitched to the ground hard, twisting his ankle.
“Ayke!” he cried as pain shot up his leg.
The pounding footsteps of the orc sounded right behind. Malagach looked back. It was rushing at him, cutlass raised. If the trap didn’t work…
Malagach got his knees under him and forced weight onto his ankle. Agony flared. The orc was practically on top of him. Gritting his teeth, Malagach hobbled forward. Too slow, he thought, too slow.
He glanced back again.
Just before the orc reached the rock marker, Gortok dropped a moldy, leaf-filled sack dangling from twine. It bounced in front of the orc’s face.
The cutlass slashed, cleaving the sack in two, but it was their enemy’s legs that Malagach watched. The distraction startled the orc into a stutter step that broke its long strides. Its lead foot landed on one of the concealed bear traps.
Iron jaws snapped shut, entrapping the orc’s ankle.
It howled with surprise and whipped the cutlass across in front of it, swatting ineffectively at the air. Robhart slid in from behind, reached up, and slashed a braid.
“Let’s go!” Malagach barked.
Gortok leapt from the tree, Robhart dodged the orc’s backward flail, and Malagach hobbled after the others as fast as he could. They tore off toward the water, slogging upstream to hide their tracks again.
That old trap, with its rusted and missing teeth, would not hold the orc long. Luckily, it seemed to have lost its will to deal with the youngsters, for they neither heard nor spotted pursuit.
Well away from the gully, they stopped to rest.
“That was right convincing, Mal,” Gortok said.
“Yeah, nice trip.” Robhart grinned. “That wasn’t part of the plan, but it really fooled the orc. You could see the blood hunger in his eyes when he thought he was going to get you.”
“Ah, yes, of course.” Malagach hid his shudder. “I knew it would add realism.”
The others had been running ahead of him, and it seemed they had not noticed his limping gait. He pretended to lean casually against the tree, which let him take most of the weight off that leg. He was pretty sure heroes weren’t supposed to trip and fall.
Smiling, Robhart held the greasy braid aloft, two knucklebones clacking.
“What a lovely trophy,” Malagach murmured.
“Thanks, greenies,” Robhart said. “When I finish my sword training and I’m ready to go out adventuring, maybe I’ll come find you.”
“Recruiting sidekicks already?” Gortok asked.
“Nah, you two are all right. Heroic even. We can have some adventures together.”
Malagach and Gortok shared a look. Not bad. They had convinced one human boy that goblins could be heroes. Just the rest of the world to go.
“Of course, the stories told about us would have to be named after me, and I’d be the star,” Robhart said. “The hero, the main hero, can’t be a goblin.”
“Why not?” Gortok asked.
Robhart chuckled. “Who’d want to hear stories just about goblins?” He waved a quick goodbye and hustled off to turn in his orc hair.
Malagach and Gortok stared after the human.
“I’m middling sure people wouldn’t mind stories about us,” Gortok said. “Me, for sure.”
“Why you?” Malagach asked.
“I’m the cute, lovable, especial one.”
“That was especially trying,” Malagach reminded his brother.
“Close enough.” Gortok winked.