The Goblins Are Coming! - sample previewThe goblins are coming, one, two three.
Hide in the cellar. Hide in the tree.
The goblins are coming... When Sandy was four they told him about the goblins to stop him wandering off by himself.
"Don't go in the woods or the hills on your own. The goblins will get you."
When he was eight he went off with some older boys on a hike to the lake a few miles north. They hadn't seen any goblins but they caught a sack full of fish.
Thwack. "Don't you remember what I said about the goblins?" his uncle said. "They're coming from the north. They could have got all of you." Another thwack of the belt.
Sandy kept quiet. He knew he was in the wrong and took his punishment as a just desert. But no one he knew had ever seen a goblin so he stopped being scared. When he was twelve and the memory of his chastisement had faded, he in his turn led a group of younger boys and girls to the lake to go fishing, It was traditional.
It was peaceful by the lake and even the smallest four year olds kept quiet.
"If you make a noise the fish will go away and we'll beat you up" the older boys, including Sandy, had said.
For young children gripped by the terror that you might meet a goblin or get beaten up if you made a noise, and would certainly get beaten by your parents when you got back home, the unnatural state of keeping quiet was a small price to pay for the thrill of just being there. You could get away from the boring village in which you knew every spider's web and rat's nest and puppy. Someone might drown! And you could catch lots of fresh fish just like the grownups when they went down south.
They caught few fish that day. But they didn't get punished at home either.
From the noise they made in the woods by the lake Sandy guessed they weren't goblins. For some reason, maybe instinct, he knew goblins would be quiet and sneaky. He was the oldest, so he went to see what it was. A group of about five families, men women and children. They were dirty and their clothes were torn.
"The goblins are coming" they said. "They got a town about twenty miles north of us" said a man, their leader.
"What do they look like?" Sandy asked.
"Are you crazy boy? We heard what they done to those towns up north. We didn't stop to see."
The strangers didn't stay long. They rested in the village for a few days, passed on their warnings and headed south.
In the years after that, the sight of strangers became more common, but mostly the goblin drifters were smaller groups:- women, older people and children. They all said the same sort of thing. "The goblins are coming..."
Sandy always made a point of asking what they looked like. But no one had seen them. The first groups of refugees had moved out merely on the strength of rumors that the goblins were close. Later visitors said that the goblins were getting really close and their men folk had stayed behind to fight. They had waited and waited but the men never came to rejoin them. Then when they heard those goblin drums they knew it was time to stop waiting and move on.
Sandy thought that the goblins must be pretty slow at walking if all those women and children could outrun them so easily. But he didn't say this out aloud. He could see the fear in their eyes.
Sandy wondered what did the goblins want? They kill the men and they keep the women and children was one story. But what for? To eat them said one. To breed slaves said another. To sacrifice to their gods said a third. Sandy decided that nobody really knew. Once a place had been overrun by the goblins you never heard from the people who lived there again. Seemed like nobody who'd ever seen a goblin got out of their clutches to tell the tale. But he kept asking anyway.
The strangers never stayed long. If they had, it might have caused trouble. How to feed and house so many? They just rested, freshened up their horses, if they had any, and moved south.
He knew the men in his village were making plans, but he was too young to be included in their councils. That didn't stop him listening at the door when they came to meet at his uncle's house at night. His uncle seemed to be something important. Men listened when he spoke but the meetings went on for hours, the men spoke in hushed voices and Sandy usually fell asleep before they said anything new about the goblins.
To Sandy his uncle was just Uncle Roy who had looked after him ever since he could remember. Sandy didn't have a ma or pa. Whenever he asked why his uncle had told him this story.
"Your parents were good people Sandy and they loved you. But this village was too small for them so they moved south into the city where they got killed by bad men. I brought you home."
When Sandy was eleven he felt growed up enough to dare say - "Uncle Roy am I old enough now to know what happened?"
His uncle didn't reply straight away. Had he once been that age?
"You know what I told you Sandy."
"You always say the same thing Uncle Roy. I was a baby. Ma and Pa loved me and we went far away on a journey. And they got killed by bad men and you rescued me and you brought me home and ever since you've been my Ma and Pa."
Roy sighed. Maybe a little bit more telling of the story wouldn't hurt the boy now who could never imagine that the pain of these old memories was something which still freshly stabbed his own heart each and every day.
"The city... you've heard of the city in your classes right?"
Sandy nodded. It was just stuff the older people sometimes talked about when they thought kids weren't listening. That old times story stuff always sounded like it would send you to sleep. But this was going to be about his Ma and Pa. He gave his uncle his full attention.
"The city used to be where young people would go to better themselves or find excitement in my parents' day. That was in the old days before the dust storms and the goblins. Your father was always asking about what things were like in the outside world even when he was a little boy. Your mother was the same. They'd listen to the stories in the story machine until the generator broke, and they'd look at the pictures in the books and magazines that we gathered and made into the library. Our parents said there wasn't anything left in the cities except sickness and outlaws but when your dad grew up he didn't believe it and wanted to go and see for himself.
"I hoped that when he married your mother he would quieten down and forget all about it. But she had the exploring bug just as bad. Then when you were born, I thought that would end it. But they said they had just one last chance to try and find a better life outside the village before you started growing. You were just a six months old baby when they set off."
The goblins are coming, one, two three.
Cold fire, jump higher, you can't catch me.
The story was known to every adult in the village and explained why no one else had voluntarily left the village to seek their fortune down south since.
A couple of days after Sandy's parents set off, his uncle Roy started growing uneasy and having doubts about the whole idea. He decided to go after them. Traveling on his own he should be able to catch up with them and then he would tag along until they had settled down somewhere with some nice civilized people. Otherwise he would bring them back.
It was a week before he saw much sign of other people. All the farms he passed were empty. Weeds and trees grew tall where in earlier times there had been fields or vineyards. Just the memories of man. Even the broken down houses were unsafe to visit, more likely to contain bears or wild cats than a warm welcome.
The first attack came when the spires of a city became visible through a gap in the folding hills. It was just a handful of men with cudgels. They came at night but Roy saw them off with an old cavalry saber which had been handed down from father to son since the civil war. The sight and bite of a flashing sword was too much for this band of attacking cowards and they ran off leaving some blood and fingers behind.
Roy didn't talk too much about what happened in the days after - when he got into the city looking for his brother and young family. He got better at using the sword and he picked up a few other weapons on the way. He met up with some decent folk who lived out in the fringes of the town and from them he learned of the slavers who rounded up unwary travelers and put them to work in the fields or mines.
"Most likely they're still alive" said a kindly stranger. "A woman and young baby would have an easier time of it than a man on his own."
It took a few weeks of talking and scouting round and gaining the trust of the honest citizens before he learned where Sandy's family might be. His brother was dead but his wife and the baby were living in the center of town. She was servicing the saloons and the baby was in a crèche nearby where the children were kept while their mothers were working.
Roy found that others too had lost relatives to the gangs which ran the city, but a quiet life was better than none at all, and if he was going to rescue his nephew and brother's wife, he would have to do it on his own.
On the trail he had learned a few things about how best to deal with the outlaws. Talking and being reasonable was a waste of time. The only language they understood was cold steel or hot lead. And they would not take a lone man like him prisoner. So every fight had to be as though his life depended on it. He made his plans, swapped some of the weapons he had captured for some fresh supplies and waited for the night of the new moon.
He fired the roofs of some buildings upwind of the bar where Sandy's mother was working. In the confusion as most people cleared out to watch the fire he walked boldly into the bar without challenge and helped himself to an untended jug of beer and a glass. Blending in he glanced around. Gamblers playing cards in one smoky corner, some hard drinkers studying their bottles, ignoring the commotion outside and everything inside that didn't come in a glass. Then a group of five women, at the back of the bar, by the stairs, who were being pawed at by two men who looked like they were sampling the wares.
"I just can't decide" said one.
"This one sure feels nice" said the other putting his hand down the top of a woman's dress. She reached down with her own right hand to grab his and struggled to pull it out. But he was too strong. Then she leaned down as if to kiss his arm and bit it. He slapped her on the head and she fell back.
Roy walked up to the group. The other women looked bored and ignored him. Except for the one who had just been slapped and was crouching on the floor. The change in her expression made her molester look up at Roy. Seeing just another man with a drink he smiled.
"What do you think mister? Which one's the best?" He grabbed the fallen woman by her hair. "This one sure is pretty."
"There's plenty to go round Ned" said the other, who sensed trouble, and stepped back a little.
"This one's already spoken for" said Roy.
"I was here first. You'll just have to wait your turn."
Tension chilled the fuggy air.
"Your friend's right" said Roy. "I can see there's plenty to go round. Let me buy you boys a drink."
The men relaxed a little. Roy turned, as if going back to the bar. Then he swung the beer jug round and smashed it hard in the side of Ned's head. Ned stood stunned for a few seconds and before he crumpled and before his companion realized that the mood had changed again Roy threw the beer glass hard at the other man's face. He lifted his arm to fend it off. That was his mistake. Roy stepped up and stabbed him in the guts. He jerked the knife up hard and pushed the man back to slide down slowly against the wall.
"Can you use a gun?" he asked Sandy's mother, talking to her directly for the first time. He ignored the other women, whose bored expressions hadn't changed much. This kind of ruckus over a bit of skirt was not such a rare event. But now one of the barmen was coming over to see what was going on. He had a club in his hand.
"Show me" she said.
He aimed at the man called Ned who was holding his hand up to the bleeding smashed side of his head and was cursing quietly. Roy pulled the trigger. The saloon sounded suddenly quiet after the loud shot. Sandy's mother nodded with approval and took the smoking gun. The barman retreated behind the bar. The card players looked up to see what was happening. But they judged this wasn't something that need interrupt the flow of the cards. Just a momentary distraction. It didn't look like they would interfere.
"Is there a back way out?"
"Through the kitchen."
Roy noticed that the barman now had a shotgun. But from where he was - he wouldn't get a clean shot without damaging the merchandise.
"Ladies, if you don't mind, we're all going for a little walk."
They filed though the kitchen, which was a filthy place with a bad smell and a slimy floor. No one stopped them. When they got out the back door, the other women looked up at the glow from the house fires. But they split off quickly without saying anything.
"Your work?" said Sandy's mother. Roy nodded.
"You were always good with bonfires. But this looks like your best."
Roy was keeping an eye on the back door but the barman hadn't followed through yet.
"Which way?" he asked.
"We've got to get to the crèche. That's where they keep Sandy and the other children to stop us running away."
"I've come to bring you both home" said Roy.
"I used to dream of running away. But then the dreams stopped. Look I can't walk far or fast in these shoes. Or these clothes."
"I've got travelling clothes. Have you still got your old shoes?"
"Back at the crèche."
They weren't followed and didn't hit any problems reaching it but Sandy's mother warned it was always guarded.
"Let me go first" she said. "They know me. Wait here till I call."
Roy waited uneasily. He heard some muffled shots and wondered if he'd been wrong. Sandy's mother came out with her gun smoking and waved for him to come in.
He saw two bodies slumped on the floor with some kids standing around starting to spit on them.
"How did you manage two of them?" - he asked.
"These kind of lowlife scum are like scratchy rats by day and you can't get anything past them because they really hate doing this guard duty. Come nightfall however and they're usually mellow with booze and tired from screwing their chosen victims. This fucker" - she kicked an awkwardly spalyed leg on the floor - "was already asleep and this other one" - kick in the side - "was busy playing with his pecker. If if thought I needed your help I would have come back out and asked for it."
He smiled and thought - that's my sister in law...
She stooped down and placed her gun on one of the bodies while examining a prettier looking fresh gun which had fallen on the floor.
"This was an evil thing. I can't leave it here. It'll be safer if I take it with me." - She stood with one gun dangling in each hand.
"What's everyone looking at?"
One of the women said - "We've always wanted to do something like that. But what will they do to us now?"
"I'm not planning on staying. You just tell them whatever you want" - said Sandy's mother.
Roy said - "Just tell them that a couple of men you've never seen before came in and shot them without asking questions. I don't think they'll thank you for learning their tough guards were killed by one of the girls."
She nodded. Seemingly satisfied. Behind her back Sandy's mother raised her eyebrows and gave Roy a funny kind of look.
As the women and children began shuffling towards their variously chosen ways of exit Roy asked her.
"Mind telling me what that look was about?"
"You know they'll ask the kids what happened."
"Yup. No sense in her worrying about it today though."
He knelt down to scavenge some cartridges from the dead men's belts.
She said - "I'll get Sandy."
The babies were kept in a side room and slept in cots made from broken crates and drawers. Despite the unusual emptiness and death on the other side of the doorway - there was a sense of near normality here on the baby side with a couple of mothers still calmly sitting and watching over their charges. No explanation was necessary. Sandy's mother nodded in acknowledgement as she went in and grabbed her son. Then she, Sandy and Roy went swiftly into the flickering dark oustide. By this time the fires had spread and in the confusion they encountered few challenges that couldn't be answered satisfactorily by a peremptory stab or blast in the guts at whispering range.
They took turns in carrying Sandy and morning found them hiding in an old cow shed where Roy had stashed some supplies and a rifle. A cloud of smoke hung over the city. But they weren't clear yet. That afternoon as they headed north one of the families which had befriended Roy earlier gave him a warning. Hunting parties were coming after them. There was a reward for their capture dead or alive.
"You'll have to lie low, but you can't stay here. They'll kill us if they find you."
"Just give us some fresh water and we'll be on our way."
They made good time. Sandy hung in a papoose on his mother's back, and Roy carrying a backpack of supplies.
"Do you want to swap?" Sandy's mother asked after a couple of hours when they stopped for a break. Roy smiled and waved at his pack on the grass.
"I'm happy with my load. But give it a try first."
She struggled to lift it. "I thought it would be lighter" she said. "What have you got in here? Lead weights?"
"Quite a lot of lead actually. It may get lighter depending on what we come up against."
That night it was cold. They slept for a few hours against the back of a large broken tree.
"You out there swordman? We're coming to get you."
The voice was distant but loud and clear. After that there was no sleep. All through the night the calls came out of the darkness from all directions.
"You out there swordman?" It was a different voice. "We only want the woman and child."
"They're ahead of us now and all around " said Roy. "They must have horses. We'll have to be more careful tomorrow."
"They know who you are" said Sandy's mother.
Roy didn't say anything. He thought back to the people who had helped him. Only they knew the story of how he had fought his way to be here. They were probably dead.
They heard the sound of dogs barking. Sandy started crying.
"Shush" said his mother cuddling him.
The woods became quiet. Roy checked his rifle in the pitch darkness.
"Give me back my gun" whispered Roy's mother.
"It's too dark to shoot. They'll wait till dawn."
"I'm not going back."
Time passed slowly. After many cold cramped hours Roy started to feel warm and too comfortable. He was dozing. It was dawn.
A crack of a twig. He couldn't see anyone - just waves through the ferns. He started firing. They broke cover and ran towards him guns blazing. Too many to count. Just keep firing. He had the advantage of cover.
When they got close they realized they had to go round some fallen tree trunks. As they hesitated and spread out he got some more. Then he heard firing behind him. Sandy's mother was having her first shooting practice with moving targets. The attackers scattered and ran off.
"I don't think I hit any" she said.
"They weren't expecting to be shot at from two guns" said Roy. "There's an automatic in my pack. Take that too. This is how you change the clip. Safety - on - off. How's Sandy?"
"Sleeping like a baby."
Sandy was snugly bedded down in a hollow made by tree roots.
"Here they come again."
This time it was dogs. They were harder to hit and unlike the men before they didn't break and run away at the sound of gunfire. Roy threw down his rifle. Sword in his right hand pistol in his left. Growl, slash, bite, howl, pistol shot, yelp. Then shouts and more shooting as the attackers came in behind the dogs. Sandy's mother sat with her back to the hollow which protected her son, sprayed a magazine at dogs and men.
The wounded dogs were now running wild in pain. Some bit the attacking men who were distracted and had to shoot them. Roy's mother fired off another clip. Thien rifle fire from Roy when had done with hacking everything in reach of his blade.
There were two more attacks after that. Then the fight just seemed to go out of them and it became quiet. Sandy slept through it all.
"We need to go. But I'm going to round up some more ammo."
When he came back he cleaned his knife in the ground - but Sandy's mother saw that his hand and his wrist were bloody too. He saw that she noticed.
"Not mine" he said. And wiped it on some moss.
It had been a wet summer and there was good cover in the woods for the fugitives. But it had also been a bad year for wasps. This hadn't troubled Roy too much on his way down though once he had been stung about six times and was already running before he realized he'd stepped on a wasps nest. They had followed him about fifty yards before he shook the last of them off. That night he was flushed and sore but it wasn't life threatening to a man his size. The few stings he got in later days didn't seem so bad. He was getting immune. But it was a different matter now, and Sandy's mother warned him to be careful about starting an angry swarm which could kill his young nephew. That meant when they saw the tell-tale signs of wasps on patrol they took a roundabout route or backtracked and started again.
They had been making slow progress like this all morning when the tree bark started zinging around them. What kind of insect is that? - Roy wondered. Then he realized - metal jackets.
"Run!" Shots coming from behind.
"This way" said Roy.
The ground dropped away and took them below the line of fire. But the branches above cracked with the sound of bullets cutting through leaves. They half slid half scrambled down the slope till their way was blocked by a fallen tree. Roy looked back up the way they had come but he couldn't see their pursuers. Which way to go now? Around the tree? Over the top? Or down? There was a twenty foot steep drop to the right. Left would mean climbing up again. Climbing over would present an easy target.
"Let's go through" he said and using his rifle but to smash a clear opening he dropped feet first into the leafy tangle.
Kicking took him part way through a net of light branches and creepers but then one leg was caught tight. Then the other.
He was stuck.
He tossed his rifle down to free both hands. Using brute force and his knife he twisted down and snapped and sawed the impeding tangle, freed his legs and dropped down. He turned back and climbed up through the opening, standing on a loop of tough creepers.
"Give me Sandy"
He pulled the baby pack through the gap and lowered it to the ground by the straps. When he looked up again Sandy's mother had her back to him ready to shoot up the way they had come.
"Put the safety on" he said. Then he grabbed her hand and pulled her through head first. Their weight shifted the creepers and together they crashed into a heap.
"I wasn't expecting that" she said.
"Next time I'll warn you" he said brushing and picking the leaves and dirt carefully out of her hair.
She looked at him. It had been a long time since a friendly hand had touched her like that. "It reminds me of when we were kids" she said smiling.
"Yeah but we never did get to see any goblins."
It was one of those trips up to the lake. Even though she had been covered in leaves from a fall and her hands and arms were dotted with ticks she had stayed quiet when told to by the older boy who had led that year's illicit goblin trip. Later they burned the ticks off with burning twigs. It had been scary at the time. But Roy's strength had kept her calm. Now it was a warm memory of a childhood long ago.
The zinging and spatting of the metal jackets around the top of the tree they had just dropped through brought them back to here and now.
"Here we go again" said Roy picking up his rifle. "You ready?"
She slid her gun tight in the papoose and clutched the pack to her chest. She stood still for a few seconds and filled her lungs. Then she sprang down the slope stumbling and sliding and not looking back.
It was a long way down and she ran till she thought her chest would burst. She turned back to see if Roy was keeping up but then her foot caught in a hole and she went flying. She tried to steady herself. Her knee cracked. But she held Sandy close to her even as she rolled over a few times and then lay still. Roy was just a few seconds behind her. He crouched down.
"Can you walk?"
She moved to one side. The agony in her face gave him his answer. "I think something's broken."
From a kneeling position he turned and fired a few shots back up the slope to buy some time.
"Hold tight" he said. "There's another ridge down there which will give us some cover. Can you do that?"
She nodded. He grabbed her top and pulled. But it tore.
"Use your belt" she said.
He unslung a cartridge belt and looped it under her arm pits.
"Ready?" he said. She nodded.
He heaved and they bumped and slid down the crumbly chalky soil and ancient leaf mould to the next ridge. He was out of breath. There was exploratory gunfire from up above but nothing zipping anywhere close. To make sure the pursuers kept their heads down he popped back a few shots before checking to see how she was. She was lying on her back, still holding the pack with Sandy tight to her chest. Her arms were cut, but not too badly. Her face was pressed into her shoulders. When he went round to see her better he saw the whiteness of her face.
"You're not going to make it with me" she said.
"That's rubbish. We can hold them off here till it gets dark. Then lose them again."
Sandy had enjoyed the lovely bumpy ride. But now the bumping had stopped he started crying. His mother kissed him. Her face, now wet with tears surprised him. He went quiet. She was still looking at Sandy, not at Roy when she said:- "Sandy, my handsome young prince, we wanted a better life for you, your Dad and I. Now your uncle Roy will take care of you. Roy, you will take care of him won't you?"
"Of course" - what was she saying? That's why he had come on their tracks to take care of them. And now to take them home. He was distracted by something sliding up the path from where they had come. His back was to her, and he was looking up the slope for targets when he heard her say.
"I'm not going back to that place. Tell Sandy when he grows up his parents loved him very much. And we're sorry."
There was a click and a short burp of muffled firing behind him where no firing should be. Sandy started crying again. His mother's face had gone. And he would never see her comforting smile again except in his dreams.
In later years Roy cursed himself for not having done something to change what happened in those last minutes. Should he have said something different? Should he have taken her gun? But when?
Without her gunplays they'd never have made it this far.
The evil was not of his making. That's what he later told himself again and again. And in those brief times when he believed it the guilt lessened some.
But that was in the unknowable future. In the here and now Roy didn't want to touch the accursed weapon, But he knew he would need it.
One last time he squeezed her hand. Her fingers were still warm. A flutter of false hope. He looked close and noticed she had lost her wedding ring. When did that happen? They probably stole it back at the town. Two lives he cared for now gone.
"Goodbye my brave one."
He mustn't cry. Tears would stop him seeing clearly, would spoil his aim. Sandy was yelling now - the piercing cries that only a baby can make. But when Roy picked him up he stopped and smiled.
"Come on Sandy. We've got a lot of miles to cover before we get home."
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