“Greetings, great Ghaba, oh glorious goblin!”
Ghaba felt his grip tighten around the staff as he gazed at his distorted reflection in the simmering stew. Slowly lifting his gaze from the great cauldron, he peered at the girl across the clearing. Still seated on the log, she was looking bewildered, trying to spot the source of the sound.
He shifted to stare into the darkness beyond her, outside the fire’s small circle of light. At the faint hint of magic as Trouble approached. The spirit that had answered his call was not one he would have chosen.
First came the fern-coloured skull without jaw, with the pinheads of warm blue glowing in the dark eyes. Then the low, wide-brimmed hat of white, in sharp contrast to the tattoo and but a hint of what was to follow. Up swung the alabaster cane, marred only by the faint silhouette of the hand holding it.
Ghaba glanced at the girl, who was predictably staring wide-eyed at the spectacle, as the suit followed; white jacket over a dark green shirt to match the white pants and strange shoes, cementing the theme of the entity’s alien ensemble. Last, and definitely least, manifested from the night the fae himself.
He moved in jerky motions as though dancing to some rhythm only he could hear, eerily gliding across the mossy ground. His skin had that hue which Ghaba could never quite describe, somewhere between grayish and tinted green. The true mark of his faerie nature lay in the crescent pupils of his eyes, so unlike those of goblins.
He slid into place next to the girl and painted his face with a smile somewhere between the eager wolf and the friendly neighbour as he turned to her. Ghaba watched the spirit’s shadow take up the seat opposite him on the log, pressing a cup of steaming beverage into her hand before she even managed to notice it was there.
“Brewed for bounteous beauty, it is openly offered, and free of faerie fees!” He leaned in close to the girl, using his cane to shift the hat out of the way, and forced her attention back his way before she spotted the shadow. “Come, carouse! Celebrate, for soon serious subjects shall be cited.” Even his annoying speech moved to the tune in his mind, his expressive hands dancing in sync.
Ghaba growled and dipped a bowl into his stew before thrusting it their way. The human was too bewildered to tell that the bowl, seemingly floating on air, was carried by a shadow holding a shadow. Her mind, already wrapped in a tangled web of lost memories, was likely hard at work trying to make sense of everything. She had not forgotten all that she seemed, but Ghaba knew she knew not all she knew.
“Eat, spirit! Ghaba make feast for eating, not for throwing out!” The shaman locked the fae’s gaze, flashing a yellow-toothed grin to remind him who had called him here.
“Perhaps Patrician should prepare to provide for participants not present?” Trouble seemed unperturbed by Ghaba’s warning, but the old goblin had dealt with its kind enough to know a hint when he heard one. Ghaba let his focus shift into his presence in the Hinterlands, where sat a lone fetchling staring at the ground.
Imaerla paid little attention to the goblin as it chattered on about inane things. She had long ago abandoned any hope of a straight answer from the creature. Yet she could not bring herself to leave, for it was still her best hope of getting back to Loriana. In her boredom she had looked around the clearing, gazed into the fire, and eventually settled for looking at the creature’s shadows.
There were many of them, cast by the dancing flames. Some were large, others were small; some had thin limbs while others seemed strong enough to wrestle a troll; and then there was one that was stirring a pot with a stick, though there was no pot upon the fire. It had just lifted up a bowl from the pot and was handing it over to someone, someone seated on the log.
Imaerla found herself trying to come up with ideas about what person might be sitting on the log to leave a shadow even when invisible. Perhaps it was a shadow creature, with no substance for the wood to support. Maybe it was Loriana, cursed by the goblin’s wicked tricks; trapped in her own shadow.
As Imaerla continued to watch the shadows cast by someone seated on the empty log, she came to realize there was more than one creature there. Or at least, more than one creature’s shadow.
One kept moving and shifting, leaning in and drawing back. Sometimes it was eating from a bowl, other times it was waving its hands about, always was it hopping from one end of the log to the other. Yet the second person, on the middle of the log, rarely turned from facing the far side.
It was hard to tell much about that person. They seemed to be tall and lanky, but with muscular arms and a thick neck. Like Loriana they had long hair tied up at the back of their head, but unlike hers the tail was a thin and short.
“Things you see fickle. Some seen when not. Others not when seen.” The goblin grinned at her, apparently highly amused by her startled look. His hoarse voice seemed old compared to his face, but nothing was ever that simple here.
“A realm of illusion where you only see what you feel,” Imaerla stated, more to herself than the goblin. It was something Lyara had once said to describe the faerie lands.
He laughed, a gleeful cackle that sent shivers down Imaerla’s spine. She should leave, she decided, but before she could stand the creature had hopped down and pushed an empty bowl into her hands. It smiled at her with impeccable fangs, and it dawned on her that much of the creature’s appearance was exactly that: an illusion.
The smell of food filled her nostrils and she heard her stomach growl. Reflexively she glanced at the bowl in her lap, at the same time expecting it to be full of stew and surprised to find it exactly that. A goblin was not of the fair folk, so their laws did not apply; it could not demand her voice or her name as payment if she ate the stew.
She raised the bowl to her lips and pretended to eat, carefully watching the creature’s reaction. It did not seem to notice, being busy climbing back to its perch atop the stone. Content it was not interested in whether she ate or not, she eagerly slurped down the brothy meal before setting the bowl aside.
“Oooh, fancy!” It was eyeing her sleeve, watching the stain where she had wiped her mouth fade away. “Fairy magic, yes?”
“Something like that.” Imaerla was trying to be vague, unwilling to trust this creature.
“Heehee, Ghaba knows!” It looked at her with a wicked grin. “All alone and lost. Seeks way out Hinterlands; go back, yes?”
Imaerla chewed her cheek, trying to decide how much she dared tell this creature. She needed its help to get home, but more than that she needed its help to find Loriana. “No… No, I do not seek a way back home. Not yet, at least. I seek my companion, a human girl with brown hair. Kind, friendly… Blue shirt, brown trousers?”
The creature cocked its head to the side, eyeing her silently for a long time. “Here by accident, no? Break enchantment, maybe? Ghaba help, yes? Ghaba break spell, set free, yes? Forget silly human.”
It took Imaerla a moment to realize that the goblin was offering to break the geas, letting her go back home. She tentatively brushed her fingertips along her neck, remembering the disarray she had left behind and how badly she wanted to go back. Jae-lagh would be furious for leaving Loriana here, but more importantly she realized that she would never forgive herself.
“I-” She paused, thinking to remove the geas before rejoining Loriana. “I will not object to undoing the magic, but I still need to find my companion. I cannot simply abandon her.”
The goblin narrowed its eyes and pursed its lips, watching her intently for a time. “No. Ghaba will not do three. Find girl, break spell, send home. Must pick, what most important?”
Imaerla barely hesitated. “Help me find Loriana.” The tribe had Jae-lagh’s guidance, and geas or no, Loriana was her responsibility until she was somewhere safe in human lands.
The goblin nodded, flashing her a wide grin. “First, sleep. In morning, find girl.” It motioned at the ground.
Yes, sleep was a good first step. It was late and dark, and this was a safe spot after all. Imaerla moved a bit closer to the fire, then curled up to sleep.
The girl was looking at Ghaba’s latest trophy, a colorful orb he had collected on his way here. Her expression was not the usual disgust humans wore when looking at his spirit traps, but rather one of fascination as she stared at it dangling from his staff.
“A peculiar prize,” Trouble commented, following her gaze. “Be it you can barter for the boon from our benefactor.”
Ghaba narrowed his eyes and scowled. “No trade. Is mine.” He pulled his staff close, baring his fangs at the laughing fae. “Girl has nothing to offer.”
“That’s alright, I don’t particularly want a glass eyeball,” the girl said. “Really, there’s just something about it that caught my attention.”
The spirit waved away her objection, and Ghaba’s. “Trade with me, then, a trifle for a trinket. The gracious girl deserves a gift.”
Ghaba eyed the fae suspiciously. Trouble was playing at something, but even the wise and mighty Ghaba Ghobbok could see no benefit here for the fae. At best the girl would be in his debt.
‘Gracious…?’ Ghaba wondered if perhaps it was the other way around. Had the girl managed to put the spirit in her debt while he was dealing with the fetchling? He chuckled, watching the silver-tongued Trouble eyeing the trophy hopefully.
Ghaba chuckled and nodded. “A task for a trinket, yes.” He plucked off the large bead and tossed it to the girl. The fae’s frown told Ghaba he had been right. He had given no trinket to Trouble, but the deal had been made. A trinket of Ghaba’s for a task by Trouble, but the one he wanted was no longer Ghaba’s to give.
Loriana’s back ached slightly, but she was feeling surprisingly well-rested for having slept in her clothes on the hard ground. Shifting slightly she realized she had a heavy blanket wrapped around her, pulling it closer. Not that it wasn’t a pleasantly warm forest they- she was in.
She could hear the birds chirping, the buzzing of insects, animals moving in the distance, and leaves rustling in a light breeze. Closer by, from right by her ear, came quiet snores. The goblin had a guttural, harsh voice and these snores were soft and small, more like a cat. It seemed unlikely that the creature would be the one snoring and the man in white had gone to sleep on the opposite side of the fire, so it could hardly be him.
Loriana opened her eyes. A rich purplish-green foliage greeted her as she looked around and it took her a moment to realize that she was lying beneath a bush. Its leaves formed a dome, keeping out the worst of the sunny weather, while long thorns protruded from the outer branches to ward off predators.
Turning to look for the source of the snores, Loriana’s heart leapt when she saw Imaerla’s face resting calmly against her shoulder, one arm draped across her chest and a leg curled up on Loriana’s thigh. She looked so peaceful, so serene; so unlike the weary and worried expression she had worn during their trip.
The first few nights neither of them had slept much. Imaerla had been unable to sleep because of her concern for the fate of her tribe and Loriana had been overwhelmed by all that had happened. And, she had to admit, part of her had not fully trusted Imaerla.
It seemed almost foolish now, given all that Imaerla had done for her. Without the woman’s aid Loriana would have starved, thirsted, and been eaten by trolls. Unless that overgrown crevasse beat such perils to it.
Imaerla could’ve left Loriana behind and tried to find her way back to her tribe. She moved faster than Loriana, and even if she didn’t know exactly where they were, Imaerla had let slip that the tribe was to the south. And yet she steadily led the pair northwest, toward human lands.
She shifted slightly, seeming very much content and happy. Imaerla needed this sleep, had earned it, and Loriana wasn’t about to wake her up just yet.
Instead she studied the sleeping woman’s face, looking at the contours of her pronounced cheekbones, sliding her gaze along the bridge of her nose, reflecting over the deep red of her slightly parted lips…
“Berries,” Imaerla had replied. “Though if you are lucky you can find flower petals with a much richer hue. They-” The voice in Loriana’s memory deepened, no longer Imaerla’s or even a woman’s. “-last longer, especially if you mix them with oils.” Memories of bowls, some with ground pigments others with oils and stranger things, flooded her mind.
“Of course,” the man’s deep voice boomed. “If you really want to get good results, you should use proper wax.” The voice, though strangely familiar, made Loriana shudder; the sudden jerking of her shoulder waking the sleeper.
“Loriana!” Imaerla seemed less startled by the rude awakening than who she was looking at as she just lay there, half-propped up on her elbow, staring at the girl.