Malagach sprinted down the forest path with a bag of herbs clenched in his green hands. Would he make it in time? Maybe he shouldn’t have stopped to change out of his fish-gut-spattered buckskins.
He raced around mushroom-covered stumps, over gnarled roots, and under grasping evergreen branches draped with moss. Mud squished between his green toes, and brambles tugged at his clothes. When Malagach burst out of the trees and onto the rutted road, he gasped with relief when he spotted the trader.
Standing next to two pack mules, the human male leaned against a musket. He wore sturdy brown trousers and a white cotton shirt, both factory-stitched in some distant city. A knot of goblins clustered around a blanket displaying his goods. There were metal pots, tools, knives, spices, sugar and coffee tins, musket balls and small kegs of black powder, and of course purely impractical treats. A grownup from Malagach’s village ambled by wearing a top hat and munching from a bag of candy. Two books in an open sack still loaded on a mule caught Malagach’s eye.
He paused to comb his fingers through his hair and straighten his tunic. His little brother, Gortok, was already in the goblin cluster–he had not bothered to wash or change. Malagach could smell fish guts from several paces away.
Gortok was negotiating with the trader when Malagach reached his side.
“Look it spins. It’s great.” Gortok wound up something that looked vaguely like a foot-high mushroom with a flat top. He had constructed it from empty food tins scavenged from abandoned human campsites. Gortok set the contraption on the ground, and the flat circular top rotated slowly.
The trader crossed his arms over his chest. “What is it?”
“A rotating lamp holder,” Gortok said. “Or you could put candles on it. Or you could put it on the ground with all your food dishes on it, and at dinner people could take what they want when it rotates to their side.”
Malagach smiled a bit at his brother’s pitch and the way Gortok’s gaze kept sliding toward the tool section of the blanket.
“Humans don’t eat on the ground,” the trader said, “and they don’t want their lamps to rotate.”
“Even so, there are tons of uses for this handy device,” Gortok said. “Every hut should have one. You could take it to a human city and patent it. I’m not asking for much. I reckon my invention is worth… that wrench set there.”
“I reckon your piece of junk isn’t worth the time I’ve wasted looking at it.”
“How about just one tool?” Gortok tried. “That little alligator wrench–look, there’s a rust spot on it.”
“Get out of here.” The trader kicked Gortok’s gadget across the road.
Malagach blinked in surprise at the man’s hostility. Gortok squawked and scrambled after his contraption.
“Come back when you’ve got furs or coin or something valuable to trade for my goods,” the trader grumbled.
Malagach had told his brother that thing would never sell, but he still felt a twinge of sympathy as Gortok, with pointed ears drooping, picked it up and clutched it to his chest. He spotted Malagach and offered a little shrug, which Malagach returned in kind.
“What do you want?” The trader’s gaze landed on Malagach, who felt very small next to the towering human, and indeed only came midway up the fellow’s chest.
He realized he was the last goblin holding anything to offer. The others were drifting away, disappearing into the forest. After watching the trader’s treatment of Gortok, Malagach hesitated to hand over his bag. The dried herbs had taken a long time to pick, and they were fragile.
“Have you got anything or not?” the trader demanded. “I’ve got someplace to be, and it ain’t on this forsaken mountain road all day.”
Alarmed by the man’s shortness, Malagach thrust out his sack. “Medicinal herbs: Lion’s Ear, Scarlet Sage, and Orc Tusk. They’re hard to find if you don’t know the forest well. They’ll bring a good price at an apothecary.” Or so he had been told by the last trader he’d met. Malagach had never seen an apothecary shop, nor did his interests lie along those lines, but if picking herbs could get him some new books to read…
The trader riffled through the bag. “Enh, what do you want for ‘em?”
Malagach pointed at the bag on the mule and dared pull out the books so he could read the titles: The Original & True Tales of Ogfried Ogre Slayer and Early Modern History of the Kingdom and Its Seas.
The trader slapped his hands away. “Don’t get them dirty!”
“I washed before coming, sir,” Malagach said stiffly.
“A reading goblin, hunh? That’s odd.”
“Yes, sir. I’d be willing to trade for either book…” Both! his mind cried out, but he was afraid to bargain with the volatile fellow. “Though the history book would be more practical.”
“Sorry, whelp. Those are hand-copied books, not printing-press produced. They’re worth a couple gold a piece. How about some candy?”
“I’m not interested in candy,” Malagach said.
“I’d be middling interested in some,” Gortok said, edging closer though keeping his contraption well out of reach of the trader’s boots.
“How much are my herbs worth?” Malagach asked.
“A couple silver tops. Tell you what. I’ll take these herbs with me as an advance. You bring me some more next time I’m through, and maybe you’ll have earned a book by then.”
Shaking his head, Malagach reached for his sack. “No, thank you. I’d rather wait for the next–”
The man lifted his musket and pointed the muzzle in Malagach’s direction. “Deal’s done. I’m taking them.”
“What deal?” Malagach looked around for help, but only he and Gortok remained.
“The deal where you run off to your village before I put some holes in your face.”
Palms held out, Malagach backed away. He had no weapons, and a sack of herbs wasn’t worth getting hurt–or killed–over.
The trader dropped the herbs on top of his blanket, bundled everything up, and tied it to a mule. He mounted his horse and rode down the muddy road without a backward look, knowing full well a couple of goblins weren’t a threat.
Malagach glowered, but tried to make light of the situation for his brother’s sake. “He wasn’t the friendliest trader to come through these parts.”
“He was nastier than a troll’s left cheek,” Gortok said, dusting off his rotating gizmo. “He could have at least left the candy.”
“Indeed.” Malagach sighed glumly as they headed back to the village, and cleaning fish.
“This is tedious.”
Malagach sneered at the eighty-first trout he had cleaned. He tossed the fillets into one waterproof basket and the head, bone, and guts into a garden tub. The contents of the latter would go into making fish meal fertilizer for the fruit trees, berry bushes, and perennial herbs planted in and around the village. The edible camouflage made it hard for outsiders to spot goblin villages, and many a canoe had skimmed down the river with its owner never knowing a couple hundred goblins lived a stone’s throw away.
“You’re only mad because you didn’t get a book,” Gortok said. “You’d already be done if you knew you had something new to read waiting in the hut.”
“I’d already be done if you were helping a little more.”
“I’m helping.” Gortok held up a handful of guts.
Malagach pointed to his brother’s other hand, the one holding a stick and doodling in the sand. “You’re drawing pictures!”
“Not pictures, schematics,” Gortok said. “I was wondering if I could make a clockwork fish de-gutter.”
“While you’re wondering I’m cleaning everything.”
“An arrangement that works right well for me.” Gortok winked. “Please continue.”
“If you want to eat tonight, you need to–”
“What’s that?” Gortok asked.
Suspicious of the interruption, Malagach merely glared at his brother at first. But Gortok dropped his stick and stood, gaze toward the water.
Malagach finally looked and spotted an oilskin tube bumping against overhanging roots and deadwood as it bobbed downstream along the bank.
“Hm.” Malagach waded into the shallows and grabbed the tube.
A tight lid sealed its contents. After unsuccessfully prying at it for a moment, Malagach handed the tube to Gortok, who wordlessly produced a file from one of his tool-filled pockets. He wedged it under the lid and popped the tube open. A rolled piece of light brown paper slid out. Malagach grabbed it before it could fall into the water.
“It’s a map,” he said after a quick perusal. “A treasure map.”
“How do you know?” Gortok asked.
“All the traditional indicators are here: topographical representation of terrain features, a dashed line depicting a route, and a black X marking the final destination.”
Gortok leaned over Malagach’s shoulder to look. “And it says TREASURE MAP at the top.”
“Yes, that was a helpful clue as well.”
Gortok dropped his file back into his pocket where it clanked against whatever other tools he had in there. “I wonder what the treasure is.”
“Nothing, I’m sure,” Malagach said.
“Nothing? That’d be a lousy treasure.”
“This is obviously fake. If you had buried riches, why would you make a map telling anyone who found it how to locate said riches?”
“Maybe the person got troll-mauled and was bleeding out of all sorts of holes. Maybe he barely escaped and knew he was dying and had only enough time to bury his riches and make the map before drawing his last breath.”
“Oh, certainly,” Malagach said. “Because if I were bleeding to death and in unimaginable pain, I’d take the time to bury my belongings and draw this detailed map without even getting a single drop of blood on it.”
Gortok shrugged. “That’s just one scenario.”
“There’s no treasure,” Malagach said firmly.
“Right.” Gortok reached for the map. “Then we’ll just stuff this in its tube and toss it back in the river.”
“No!” Malagach jerked the map away.
“I thought so.” Gortok grinned. “You’re not entirely certain there’s no treasure, are you?”
“No, I’m certain there’s no treasure, but…” Malagach studied the map again. “Someone made this for a reason, and I am curious what that is.”
“And if there were a treasure,” Gortok said, “we’d have all sorts of coin for buying books and tools and, and books about tools!”
“I suppose so.” Despite Malagach’s pragmatism, an excited flutter bounced through his stomach. What if the map wasn’t fake? “The X appears to be almost straight south of us, on the Dragon Tears River. Our own Cedar Rapids flows into that downstream a few miles. In between lie the Powderhorn Pines.”
“Thanks for the geography lesson,” Gortok said. “Being born and raised two feet away from you, I’m not real experienced with the area.”
Malagach ignored him. “If we cut across the Pines, we could be at the spot in a few hours. I do believe your favorite mushroom picking area is at the southern end of that forest.”
Gortok’s sarcasm evaporated. “Oh, that’s where those blue boletes are! Those are so good. I love them fresh, dried, dipped in slug slime…”
“As do we all,” Malagach said patiently, knowing food excited his brother almost as much as tools. “If we told Ma we wanted to go on a foraging trip…”
“She’d let us stay out over night, and we could treasure hunt,” Gortok said.
“Yes, we just have to remember to stop and actually pick some mushrooms to bring home this time.”
“Yeah.” Gortok rubbed his backside at the reminder of a recent switching. Malagach’s own cheeks flinched in sympathy.
Clank, clank, clank.
“Must you make so much noise?” Malagach asked.
“I must.” Gortok… clanked.
Despite the forest being named the Powderhorn Pines, just as many hemlocks, cedars, and firs towered overhead, their needle-laden branches blocking out most the sky. Still, enough rain filtered through the canopy to drip insistently down Malagach’s neck. Beneath his bare feet, soggy fallen needles carpeted the deer trail. The heavy air muted the clanking a bit, but Malagach still felt they were being too noisy. Trolls and orcs as well as plenty of goblin-munching predators shared this mountain.
“If we get eaten, I’m blaming you,” he grumbled.
“I had to bring extra tools.” Not only did Gortok have his usual stuffed pockets, but he also wore a patchwork satchel Ma had made him from scraps of hide. “Suppose we have to go down a deep hole and get the treasure out? Then you’ll want these handy pulleys and some rope, of course. Or, what if we have to climb the side of a mountain? Then–”
“All right.” Malagach stopped and lifted a hand to curtail the flow of enthusiasm. “Sorry, I complained. It’s just… I’m not sure what we’re walking into here. Let’s try to be quiet as we get close to the river.”
“Sure.” Gortok shrugged amiably.
As they walked, Malagach wondered if maybe, just maybe the map was real. Might someone have slain a dragon, or unearthed a prosperous ore vein? And might there have been too much wealth to haul down the mountain alone? Thus this treasure-finder had made the map for himself, figuring he’d return later with help. But maybe that map had slipped from his saddlebags as he crossed a stream somewhere upriver….
If there were a treasure, what might it consist of? Gold and jewels? Priceless artifacts? Malagach’s lips curved up with an even more pleasant thought. Books? While the prospect of the last excited him most, he would not reject other valuables. With wealth, he could buy books. More than that, he could finance a real education, maybe even move to a city where there were schools on every corner.
A snap came from the trail ahead of them.
Malagach jerked to a stop. Gortok’s head, too, came up, and wordlessly, they slid off the trail.
Goblins were neither warriors nor great hunters, but there was one thing even the youngest did well: hide.
Only a few steps from the trail, Malagach eased back into a fern, dropping into a crouch amongst its fronds. Near him, Gortok pulled on a coonskin cap to hide his wild white hair and bent his body to match the gnarled roots of an ancient cedar. They lowered their faces, so light would not reflect off their eyes. Once in place, they froze. A soft breeze whispered through, ensuring their scent would blow away from the trail not toward it.
Next came the rustle of foliage being thrust aside, and then voices.
“We’re lost, Pa, admit it.”
“We’re, fine. We’ve got a map.”
“Yeah, but we don’t know where we are in relation to anything on the map. We haven’t seen the sun for days, and these cursed trees confound your sense of direction.”
“We’re close. I heard the river a while back. The weather will dry up, and we’ll have better luck tomorrow.”
Two pairs of weary legs trod into view, the mud-spattered boots torn and faded. Malagach did not yet lift his head to look higher.
“Luck, we’ve got rotten luck,” the younger of the two voices said. “Just look at our orchard. Cursed lightning, cursed fire. It’ll be years before the new trees start producing. This isn’t going to work, and we won’t be able to pay the taxes.”
“Curb your cynicism, son. If your ma were alive, she’d cry to hear you speak thus. We’ve rations enough for several days, and your younger brothers are tending the trees. We’ll find the treasure and make sure taxes won’t be a concern ever again.”
Once the pair had moved past his hiding spot, Malagach looked up. He glimpsed packs, shovels, and pickaxes on the humans’ backs before the trail bent, and the men moved out of sight.
“Sounds like they’re hunting for our treasure,” Gortok said.
“Sounds like there are multiple copies of this supposed treasure map,” Malagach said.
“At least they’re going the wrong way,” Gortok said. “We’ll get there first.”
Malagach was beginning to wonder if that was a good thing or not.
They continued walking, and by evening a constant rumble permeated the forest. Soon a wide river came into view, at the point where it dropped over a cliff. Malagach reached the edge and peered down. Water rushed over its granite shelf and poured a hundred feet, dumping into a dark pool framed by rocky beaches on either side. The sheer cliff featured only a few meager perches where scraggily bushes and stunted trees attempted to grow, half of their roots dangling exposed. Moisture and moss gleamed on the rocks, promising a precarious climb.
Malagach handed his brother the map to put in his satchel. “This is the spot.”
“Glad I brought my rope,” Gortok said over the roar.
“Look.” Malagach pointed to the beach at the base of the waterfall. An old road, mostly covered with weeds and pine needles, wound out of the forest, approached the river, and then turned to follow the waterway. Tied to a young fir at the curve stood a horse and two mules, none wearing saddles or packs.
“Those critters look familiar,” Gortok said.
“That’s because we saw them this morning,” Malagach said. “Loaded with the trader’s goods.”
“Kinda funny that the trader’s camp site is just where the X on our map is,” Gortok said.
“Maybe the trader came treasure hunting too,” Malagach said. “Remember how impatient he was? A trader makes his living buying and selling stuff, so he ought to have been more interested in establishing a good reputation with people and trading honestly for my herbs.”
“And he should have been interested my rotating candle holder,” Gortok said.
“Hm,” Malagach said noncommittally. Then he grew thoughtful. He knelt down on the mossy rock overlooking the waterfall. “It’s beginning to look like there were multiple maps that were distributed in multiple rivers.”
“Why?” Gortok asked.
Malagach sighed. “Because it’s a trap.”
From the beginning, his rational mind had known the map could not lead to any real treasure. And yet… the irrational part had surely hoped it was real.
“Get down,” he said, catching movement below.
Halfway down the cliff, on a narrow ledge well camouflaged by evening shadows, two men appeared from behind the waterfall. Each wore powder horns, ammo pouches, and had muskets and swords strapped to their backs. Facial features were hard to distinguish from above, but Malagach did not think either one was the trader.
The men uncoiled a rope tied to something Malagach could not see and tossed the end down the rock face. Displaying easy athleticism, they shimmied to the bottom where they untied the pack animals and led them into the forest. A short time later, they reappeared without the animals. Hiding them so future trap victims would not sense anything out of the ordinary?
Malagach and Gortok ducked away from the edge to avoid being seen when the men reached the cliff and climbed back up to their hideout.
“You reckon they’re fooling people into coming here, ambushing ‘em, and stealing their stuff?” Gortok asked.
“Something along those lines, yes.” Malagach sighed again. “This is the time when intelligent goblins who value their lives go home.”
“Absolutely,” Gortok said. “What will we do?”
Malagach smiled but did not answer right away. He put his hands in his pockets and looked out over the waterfall. “If we went home and told Chief Loggok, he’d tell everyone to avoid the place. Hide from bandits, don’t confront them. That’s the goblin way. I suppose it’s the smart thing to do if your only goal is survival. But… I want more than that, Gor. I don’t want to just survive, I want to matter.” Malagach nodded to himself. “So what we will do is use our wits to put an end to this deception.”
“Mattering is good, yes.” Gortok rubbed his hands together. “And if the stingy trader is gone and his tools and books just happen to be on the booty pile, well, that’s just a perk, right?”
Malagach flickered an eyebrow at his brother. “That’d be stealing.”
“It can’t be stealing if it’s already been stolen. Then it’s just… finding.”
“We’ll debate word definitions later,” Malagach said. “Let’s worry first about the well-armed men hiding behind the waterfall along with any other well-armed accomplices they might have. We need a plan.”
“Right, whatcha got?”
“I could go in and distract them… somehow, and you could sneak after and do… something.”
“That’s a bit vague,” Gortok said.
“I like vague. It frees you up for improvisation.”
“All right.” Gortok stood. “You improvise. I’m gonna go get my something.”
Gortok disappeared into the pines for a while, returning with clumps of pitch matting the fur on his cap. He peeled back the flap of his satchel to show Malagach a number of pine cones stuffed inside. The oilskin tube that had held the map was now packed with pitch.
“Planning to start a fire?” Malagach asked.
“You never know.”
“The last time you were playing with pitch, you caught the tree hut on fire,” Malagach said.
“I wasn’t playing, I was making pitch glue to stick the fur on my windup rats. And I merely singed some bark.”
“It took two months for your eyebrows to grow back,” Malagach noted.
“Yes, but now they’re fluffier than ever.” Gortok wriggled his white brows and tucked the tube into the satchel. “I’m ready.”
“We’ll wait until full nightfall,” Malagach said. That would give him time to come up with some ideas of his own.
A quarter moon peered between evergreen branches and spilled silver light onto the pool below. Malagach nodded to his brother. Gortok had tied his rope around a nearby stump and now lowered the rest to the ledge below. The tip scraped lightly against the damp rock.
“How long should I wait?” Gortok asked.
“Not long. I just need enough time to–”
“Survey the interior and finalize my plan.” Malagach gave his brother a slitty-eyed glare before grabbing the rope from him.
Spray from the falls made the rock treacherous and denied footholds. Even with the rope, and the aid of gravity, the descent was difficult, and his knees banged often against the cliff face. Climbing back up would not be easy, which meant escape would be difficult if someone were chasing them.
Malagach’s arms were quivering when his toes met the ledge. Whether from muscle fatigue or nerves he was not sure. Puddles and moss made the footing sketchy, and he inched carefully toward the waterfall. The power of the river pouring down so close awed him. It would be easy to slip on the wet stone and be borne away.
Fortunately, the ledge widened as it neared the waterfall. The cliff wall veered inward, leading Malagach behind the gushing curtain.
A dimly lit cave spread before him, the walls decorated with a faded panorama of paintings. In the closest one, a goblin stood in a river with a fishing spear held aloft. Malagach touched the picture thoughtfully, then continued deeper.
He rounded a natural stone pillar and spotted the light source: a fire pit with a few glowing embers burning low. Three piles of occupied sleeping furs surrounded it and kept Malagach from advancing farther.
Yellowed bones and a couple of skulls rested here and there. Behind the fire pit, the cave floor slanted upward toward another pillar and the back wall. A pile of items were heaped goblin-tall there. In the dimness and the jumble, it was hard to identify much, but Malagach made out several shovels, a fishing pole, a crate, numerous sets of saddlebags, several tools, and the two books from the trader’s inventory. Next to the pile squatted an open sack of apples and a couple of small kegs that probably held black powder or perhaps some alcoholic human beverage. All stolen goods, Malagach wagered. The maps lured people in, some well provisioned for treasure-hunting trips, and they were attacked and robbed when they showed up.
Upon closer inspection of the sleeping area, he realized human-sized forms occupied only two of the sets of furs. The third camp bed lay empty. Likely the owner stood watch someplace. But where? Malagach had not seen anyone outside.
He peered about the grotto again and then–with a feeling of dread creeping into his gut–he turned around. The black hole of a pistol’s muzzle pointed at his face, so close his eyes crossed when he tried to focus on it.
“Hello,” Malagach croaked.
He looked up into the cool face of a human woman. At first he was surprised, for she wore a white dress and makeup, hardly what one expected from a bandit, but perhaps she was part of the ruse. Her job might be to distract the mostly male treasure hunters while her comrades employed an ambush.
“Over there.” The woman jerked the pistol toward the fire pit. “Wake up lads, we’ve got company. Ugly little green company.”
The furs by the fire pit stirred. “It got money?”
“It’s a goblin. Of course not.”
“It has a name,” Malagach said. “And a gender.”
Two bearded faces turned toward him. One man yawned, and a gold buck tooth glinted. When the other fellow sat up, sans shirt, Malagach stared at the tree-trunk sized arms. They were bigger around than his whole body.
“My name is Malagach,” he said.
Gold-Tooth kicked the fire to life and added a couple branches. “Lippy for a greenie, isn’t it?”
“Got that right,” said Tree-Trunk-Arms.
“You here for the treasure, gobber?”
Snickers came from all three. While the woman kept her pistol aimed at Malagach, Tree-Trunk-Arms patted him down, a rough act that dropped Malagach to his knees three times before it was done.
“He hasn’t got a map.”
No, Gortok had it in his tool bag. That thought reminded Malagach that it was time to get the improvisation show going.
He raised his eyebrows and blinked innocently. “Treasure? Map? I am here because the goblin gods wish me to deliver a message.”
This drew snorts from the men and cool silence from the woman.
“We’re not interested in goblin messages,” Gold-Tooth said.
“Besides,” the woman said, “aren’t you a little young to be a divine oracle?”
She was smarter than the others, Malagach sensed. He would have to be careful.
“Indeed,” he said. “I am merely an apprentice to a shaman who speaks for the gods. I’ve been instructed to inform you that this grotto is a sacred ceremonial place for our people, as you can see from the generations of shamans’ paintings on the walls.” He pointed to the faded illustrations, more noticeable now that the flames had kicked up. “The goblin pantheon is not pleased with your intrusion here, especially since your purpose is stealing people’s belongings.”
“I’m about as afraid of greenie gods as I am of a roach droppings,” Tree-Trunk-Arms said.
“The goblin gods are just as powerful as their human counterparts and some say more dangerous because of their… whimsy. They’ve been known to strike non-goblins down simply to play tricks on each other. Imagine what they might do to those who truly displease them.”
At that moment, the fire surged to life with a dramatic whoosh. The three bandits jumped. Malagach, too, flinched but hid his surprise before the humans looked back to him. He nodded as if he had expected the flair up.
He hid a smile when, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Gortok dart from the first pillar to a hiding spot behind the booty pile. Malagach was careful not to look directly at his brother, lest he draw the humans’ attention, for the two men were now regarding Malagach with new wariness. Arms crossed over her bodice, the woman looked significantly less impressed.
“No, the gods are not pleased by your blasphemous presence,” Malagach said. “They require you to halt this operation and leave goblin country for good.”
He hardly expected them to flee based on a poof of firelight and his words, but he trusted Gortok to come up with something to make his story more convincing.
Gold-Tooth nudged his cohort. “He talks like that bookish fellow we robbed last week, doesn’t he?”
“The one that screamed all the way down the river after we tossed him in the waterfall?” Tree-Trunk-Arms asked.
“Yup, that one. I figure we should do the same with this little toad.”
“I shall not scream.” Malagach tried to look like a zealot who whole-heartedly believes his gods will save him. In truth, he knew he’d probably start screaming before the bandits even lifted his toes off the ground. “The gods will protect me even as they punish you.”
The fire flared up again, briefly throwing its orange light all the way to the rocky ceiling.
Come on, Gor, Malagach thought. It would take more than pitch balls thrown at the fire to scare these folks into repentance.
“Nice trick,” the woman said, “but we’ve been here a while and nobody has punished us yet.” She tilted her chin toward the pile of accumulated booty.
“You will be,” Malagach said, hurrying to speak and draw their gazes from the ‘treasure’ mound before anyone could spot Gortok. “The gods are eternal and have no need to work quickly. But they have grown weary of your foul presence, and you’ll be punished tonight.”
At least Gold-Tooth looked a little nervous at the fire-pit flare-ups. “Nobody needs to punish us,” he said. “Times are tough, and we’re just earning a living–nothing wrong with that.”
“You’re preying on the dreams of those who can least afford to lose what little they have in this world,” Malagach said, thinking of the farmers he and Gortok had overheard earlier. If they had better luck reading the map in the morning, they’d likely be the bandits’ next victims. “It’s deplorable, and my gods forbid you to continue your foul work in this sacred goblin cave.”
For a moment, all three bandits were facing him with their backs to the treasure pile. Gortok darted out, not from behind the pile, but from the second pillar. He seemed to be holding something, but Malagach could not see what. Gortok ran back behind the stack of booty.
“Enough of this nonsense,” the woman said. “Toss him into the falls, lads. If the goblin gods want to talk to us that badly, I’m sure they’ll send a sign.”
“Erp.” Malagach tried to step away, but Tree-Trunk-Arms stopped him with an easy grab.
Hurry, Gor, he thought as his feet were yanked from the ground.
A heartbeat later, a skull of fire appeared out of the darkness, floating in the center of the cave. Flames burned the aged bone and leapt from the gaping eye holes.
The bandits cried out and stumbled away from the skull. Malagach’s captor dropped him. Even the woman edged backward, toward the waterfall.
Fortunately none were looking at Malagach now, for they would have caught surprise on his face. How was Gortok doing that? The flaming skull wasn’t anywhere near the pile where he was hiding, and the thing was floating–moving slowly across the cave. Flames dripped off it like wax from a candle. They landed on the ground and continuing to burn.
“What in the demons-cursed hells is that?” Gold-Tooth blurted.
“I believe you requested a sign,” Malagach said blandly.
He eased to the side to let the bandits edge farther backward.
“An illusion,” the woman suggested, though she didn’t sound certain. “Or a magic trick. The whelp has an accomplice hiding in the cave.”
She aimed her pistol at the skull. Malagach cursed silently, trying to think of a way to stop her, but of her own volition she apparently decided firing a projectile in the closed confines of the cave might be stupid. Instead she picked up a pebble to throw at the skull. The stone clanged off without damaging the flaming bone.
“No illusion,” Malagach said, quick to speak again before they could come back to the idea of an accomplice. “A sign from the gods. Soon it’ll be your skulls burning.”
Indeed, the skull shifted its direction, moving closer to the center of the cave again. The bandits backed farther, stopping only when they felt splatters of water on their necks.
Next one of the kegs wobbled and tipped over. Malagach’s heart lurched. If those wooden containers were full of alcohol or black powder and they came in contact with fire…
The keg rolled down the slanted cavern floor toward the bandits. It left a trail of liquid behind it. Alcohol! Gortok wouldn’t be that foolish. Would he?
Shaking his head, Malagach scooted toward the side of the cavern.
A burning pine cone spun out from behind the treasure pile and landed in the liquid. The alcohol trail burst into flames, which raced toward the keg.
“The whiskey!” shouted one man.
“It’ll explode!” shouted the woman.
The flame reached the keg.
The bandits threw themselves over the edge and into the waterfall. If he had been closer, Malagach might have done the same. All he could do was leap farther sideways, landing on the rock floor with his arms over his head.
He held his breath. His galloping heartbeats reverberated through his body.
Silent seconds passed and nothing happened.
Finally, Malagach dared lift his head to look over his shoulder. Gortok leaned against the treasure pile, munching on an apple. The barrel had come to a stop at the fire pit, and flames were indeed consuming the wood, but nothing had exploded.
“Hunh.” Malagach pushed himself to his feet, wincing. Now that the threat of danger had past, his body protested the mighty leap and crash to the hard rock floor. Already he could feel a bruise swelling on his knee.
Malagach looked around. The bandits were gone. The fiery skull had burned out, though flames roared heartily from the barrel. Gortok winked at him.
“Not a keg of whiskey?” Malagach straightened his tunic and combed his hair with his fingers.
“Not one of the full ones,” Gortok said. “There was a mostly drained one behind the other stuff. I just scooted it out front while you all were skull gazing, pulled the bung, and let it roll. I knew it wouldn’t explode. Probably. Maybe.” He shrugged and took another bite.
“How did you manage the skull?” Malagach asked. “I get that you put your pitch stash to liberal use, but, uhm, floating?”
Gortok hopped up and twanged an invisible line, and the skull shuddered. Not invisible, Malagach realized as he walked closer. Just very thin and, in the dark cave, impossible to see from more than a couple feet away.
Gortok went behind the pile and hefted the fishing pole Malagach had noticed earlier. Now that Malagach knew what to look for, he spotted a pulley tied about each pillar. Fishing line ran from the pole to each pulley, allowing the reel of the pole to move the skull along its track.
“Good work,” Malagach said.
“Yup.” Gortok tossed him an apple. “And now for our reward. Come look. There’s all sorts of good stuff back here. I could make passels of things–mechanical constructs, alarms, booby traps, new features for the tree hut. Oh, there’s the wrench set I was trying to buy from the trader!”
“We can’t take these things,” Malagach said. “They were stolen from people who, if they’re still alive, may come back looking for them. Besides it wouldn’t be right to take what we didn’t earn through honest means.”
“What?” Gortok stared at him. “We found a treasure map, worked to earn the treasure, and now it’s rightfully ours.”
“No, we’re not thieves,” Malagach said, looking toward the falls where the bandits had thrown themselves. “We’re better than people like that.”
He folded his arms and lifted his chin nobly, but then his gaze happened upon those two books. He waffled for a moment. His fingers reached toward them, clenched and went in his pockets, and then slipped out to reach again. Finally Malagach grabbed the books.
Gortok lifted his eyebrows.
“We’re mostly better than people like that,” Malagach said.
Gortok gave Malagach a knowing nod, picked up the wrench set, and they strolled out of the cave together.