Ranger Hastur paused, taken a little aback by the young learner’s reply. “Thorin, I didn’t even say what the mission was.”
Thorin glanced at his two teammates, Feena and Azure giving him curious looks, then looked back at their teacher. “It’s about the Goblins, right sir?”
Hastur sighed, rubbing the red bandanna he wore to cover his balding scalp. This was the problem with being the teacher to the son of the village leader, just from his dinner table chatter alone the boy knew far more than anyone else about the goings-on of the ranger village.
“That’s right, kid.” Hastur continued. “That Goblin trader caravan that just went through left a member of their clan with us for training, but that member forgot something and needs to catch up with the caravan to retrieve it. We need someone to escort them there and back again before the caravan gets too far out. So, I was to going to ask which one of you wanted to do it.”
“Sir, I already said I’d do it.” The young teenaged boy stated. “Besides, Feena has special training with the Carving Master, and Azure hates Goblins, so we can’t send her. I’m the only choice.”
Hastur raised a salt-and-pepper eyebrow, looking at Feena, who gave a shrug of agreement, and Azure, who looked unhappy but nodded as well. Elves and Goblins had a long and furious history between them, and there was little doubt that sending her into the Goblin camp might not be the best choice.
In truth, he’d been a little reluctant to send the leader’s son on the mission, and hoping Feena could take it on, but accepting that he’d already been outmanoeuvred by his student, Hastur finally nodded. “Alright then, Thorin. See the Master of Horses for two mounts, and then take them to the Blue House to pick up the Goblin. Prepare to be out for the night, since we’ve only got half a day and it’ll be a good day’s ride to get there.”
“Yes, teacher!” The redheaded teen said enthusiastically, and then with he was sprinting away from the table.
Watching him go, Hastur was a little bewildered. He’d rarely seen anyone want to spend more time than they had to with a Goblin, much less be happy about it. Then he paused… did the boy know? He shook the thought away. Even if he did, this was just Thorin being Thorin- eager to learn and explore everything he could.
Still, he wished the boy luck as he turned to the day’s training for his remaining two charges.
Thorin tapped twice on the Blue House’s front door, then peered around to see if Master Rugle or his wife were somewhere about the farmstead. The Blue House was the guest house for people staying with the Rangers of the Black Woods, so called for the blue tinted stones that had been used to build it. Legend had it that when Master Rugle was asked why the house was blue, the retired ranger said that the house was a fetching green. This being the first time anyone had noticed that the elder warrior was in fact colorblind.
Still, the name stuck, and the Rugles were known far and wide for their hospitality, and Mrs. Rugle’s raspberry puddings and other treats. Treats which Thorin hoped he might get a few of to accompany the day’s ride.
Not seeing either the seniors or their tenant farmers about, Thorin knocked again. This time there was noise from inside and the face of the elderly former ranger appeared at the door, smiling down at him.
“Well, if it isn’t young Redleaf? How’s your father, boy?”
“Good, sir.” Thorin said politely. “My mother has him clearing out the back gardens today.”
This made the older man smile more broadly. “I bet he wishes there were an official emergency to tear him away from that mess! So, how may I help you?”
“Master Hastur sent me to escort the… err… guest back to their caravan to fetch something.” Thorin said, realizing halfway through that he actually didn’t know what to refer to the Goblin as without being rude. He wasn’t sure if Goblin was a polite term or not, especially given how most people seemed to use the word.
This made the elder’s smile fade quickly. “Ah, yes. We’ve been expecting you. Come with me, then.” He pushed open the door and then lead Thorin into the house, through a front hall lined with paintings of oddly coloured cows and scenery, and left into the front sitting room.
There, on an old wooden rocking chair, sat the Goblin.
Or, at least, Thorin took it to be a Goblin. It was the right height, being barely above four foot, and had two large emerald green ears that protruded from either side of it’s head, each festooned with earrings, but that was almost all Thorin could actually see of it. The rest of the small person before him was covered head to toe in black cloth and lace, covering everything from the figure’s covered and veiled head to its shoes. It even wore gloves, leaving the only skin visible the two broad cowlike ears and a very thin strip where the veil stopped just below the eyes and under the headcovering.
From that narrow strip, two large yellow eyes tinted with flecks of orange watched Thorin warily.
Thorin didn’t know what he was expecting but it certainly wasn’t this. He’d seen and encountered Goblins before on missions and during visits from occasional caravans, but none of them had looked remotely like this. Well, the ears and skin tint were the same, but the mode of dress was so different, especially since it seemed like most goblins barely wore any clothes at all beyond animal pelts.
Then a thought occurred to him. All the Goblins he’d seen were warriors, and they’d also been male. Did that mean that perhaps this was…?
“Here she is,” the elder ranger gestured at the Goblin. Then he spoke directly to the guest. “This lad is here to take you to your caravan so you can get your medicine or whatever it is you need.”
“It is ritual herbss,” said the Goblin girl, there being a slight hiss to her speech that extended the “s” sound at the end of “herbs”. “I need them for my prayerss.”
“Of course,” Rugle looked at Thorin and shrugged a “what can you do?” motion. “In any case, this boy’ll be taking you to get them. Just go with him.”
At this, the girl rose smoothly from her chair, lifting the hem of her dress with her gloved fingers, and walked across the room toward them. Thorin, seeing his chance to make a good impression, stuck out his hand and said “Hello, I’m…”
Only to be ignored, as she walked right past him and out down the hallway, leaving him momentarily standing there, surprised.
“Best get after her, son.” Said the elder Rugle. “She won’t be stopping for you, I can promise you that. Goblin women aren’t exactly the friendly types.”
“R-right!” Thorin said, and with a brief nod of respect to Rugle he took off after the girl, finding her standing just outside the door, looking around.
“Where iss the carriage?”
“The horses are over there,” Thorin said, gesturing to where he’d tied the animals up.
“Horsess?” Her tone rose, suggesting fear. “I cannot ride a horse!”
“Sure you can,” Thorin said, leading her over toward them. “I even brought you Little Charlie, and the Horse Master says he’s the gentlest we’ve got. He’s barely bigger than a pony, so even you can… Ahh… Ride him.” Were Goblins sensitive about their height, Thorin wondered?
“But, I need a carriage!” She protested, looking worriedly at the grazing animal.
Thorin shook his head. “I’m sorry, if we take a carriage there’s no way we can catch up with them in time. We have to ride horses. But… If you want to tell me what you need, or send a letter with me, I can ride to meet them and you don’t have to come?”
“No!” She exclaimed, then seemed to find her courage. “I will… ride it.” She walked over and stood next to the horse, which despite being on the small side was still huge compared to the Goblin girl. Then, as the animal and Thorin watched, she walked around to the other side of it and back again.
It took Thorin a moment to realize what was happening. “Can I… Help you up?” He said, suppressing a smile.
She froze, and then nodded. “You can.”
He approached, making sure the stirrup was in the right place and grabbing the pommel with his left hand while offering her his right. “Put your left foot in there and use it to help lift yourself up.” He said, then eyed her long skirt and asked “Can you put both legs over the side?”
“No.” She said flatly as she got up onto the seat.
“Okay, I’ll adjust the stirrups so you can ride side-saddle then.” It would be a little slower, but faster than a carriage, he decided.
After a few adjustments and instructions, they were finally ready to go, and Thorin mounted Thunderfoot, the horse he’d been lent for the mission. He wasn’t senior enough to rate his own personal horse yet.
“By the way,” he said, riding up alongside her. “Can I ask your name?”
“No.” Said the girl. “Can we go?”
“Yeah,” said Thorin, starting to think maybe he’d taken this job a little too quickly. “Let’s go.”
It didn’t take long before Thorin and his charge were leaving the ranger village. When they finally did, he was glad to be in the forest and away from the stares and curious eyes that the small girl attracted. He felt like her odd appearance rubbed off on him, and he wasn’t happy with the attention at all.
Once they hit the well worn forest roads, they picked up the pace a little. The sun was now high in the West, which meant they had only a couple hours of riding time before it sank, and he didn’t fancy being out in the woods at night if he could help it. It wasn’t that he was scared of the forest, or that he hadn’t spent countless hours camping, he was a ranger learner after all, but he still didn’t enjoy sleeping on the hard ground.
Since the girl was inexperienced and riding side-saddle, they were limited in how fast they could go, and he kept them to a modest trot rather than a gallop in an effort to keep her safe. As a result, they rode mostly side by side, and after a time Thorin decided to try and strike up a conversation.
“We didn’t get a chance to introduce ourselves,” he said. “I’m Thorin.”
“Greetingss.” Said the girl.
“What’s your name?” Thorin continued, seeing she wasn’t going to say anything else.
“You do not need to know. We will not be together long.”
“Uuh. Yeah.” Thorin wasn’t sure how to answer that and rode silently for a while before trying again. “So, what are these herbs for, the ones we’re going to get? You said they’re for a ritual?”
The girl nodded her head and gave a small grunt, still not looking at him.
“What kind of ritual is it? Like prayers to the ancestors?”
She closed her eyes, and he saw her shake her head slightly. At first, he thought she was thinking about how stupid his question was, but then she opened her eyes again.
“They are for prayerss to the God Ganasshi,” she said, still not looking at him, but her tone a little less cold. “We musst burn them every night so that he will give uss good dreamss. I need them, or I won’t be able to ssleep.”
“Oh,” that made sense to Thorin, but then he asked, “Can’t you get them here?”
He saw the girl stiffen a bit, but she shook her head. “No. your valley doess not have the herbss I need.”
“And they didn’t leave enough for you?”
Thorin shrugged. “Okay then. Well, we should be able to get to your caravan by nightfall.”
Surprised by her show of politeness, Thorin smiled and reached for his canteen. As he drank, it occurred to him how hot she must be clothed in black like that under the late afternoon summer sun.
“You know, you should drink your water.” He told her. “You’re gonna get heat sick if you let yourself get too hot. There’s water there in your saddle bag. I got it from the spring earlier, so it should still be cool.”
After a moment’s hesitation, she reached down a gloved hand and took her own canteen from the saddle bag, then turned to face away from him so she could raise her veil and drink. He felt a little disappointed. He’d been hoping to see what she’d looked like under that veil. Once she was done, she replaced the canteen in the bag.
“It iss good,” she said, glancing at him.
“You’re welcome, but isn’t it hard to wear all black like that all the time in the summer? Must be pretty hot.”
“Ssometimess.” She admitted.
“So why do you do wear it, then?”
“It iss our cusstom. It would ssoil me to have lesser maless look upon me.”
Lesser males? Thought Thorin, a little confused. “So nobody can see your skin?”
“No,” she said. “Those close to me may look upon me, and other femaless, of course.”
“But nobody else?”
“It would sshame me if they did.”
“Do all girls of your… kind… Have to wear this?”
She shook her head. “No. Only those from good familiess. Lesser born may show their sskins to anyone.”
“Don’t you ever want to show your face to others?”
At this, Thorin thought he saw the skin around her eyes turn a darker shade. At first, he thought she was angry, but then she said in a soft voice, “Ssometimess.”
“So why not do it?”
“None would want to ssee me. If I sshowed them my face, they would run away.”
“I don’t mean your people. I mean, humans too.”
“I am not worth looking upon.”
“Not if they’re your friends.”
“I do not have… friendss.”
This shocked Thorin. “Goblins don’t have friends?” He said, finally blurting out the word he’d been trying to avoid.
If it bothered her, she didn’t seem to notice, and hung her head a little. “No. They have friendss. I do not. I am too worthless and ugly.”
“Friends don’t care how you look,” Thorin answered, repeating his teacher’s wisdom. “If they do, they’re not friends.”
“That is why,” she said with a sad note in her voice. “I do not have friendss.”
Thorin didn’t know how to reply to that. In his heart, he felt a pain of sadness from the tone of the girl’s voice, and wanted to comfort her, but didn’t know how he could. It surprised him, actually, how human this creature seemed.
By the time the light began to dim, Thorin gave up all hope of reaching an outpost or town before dark. The caravan had more than two day’s head start on them, and despite seeing its tracks, it was clear from the signs he picked up that the caravan was still far ahead of them. In the end, with the sun starting to dip beneath the Western Hills, Thorin made the decision to camp for the night.
His charge wasn’t happy about it, but after a short argument, they found a clearing on the side of a hill and Thorin took care of the horses while the girl began to prepare the camp. At first, he was surprised she knew how to gather the wood and arrange the fire-pit, but then he remembered she’d been raised in a trading caravan, and naturally would have picked up basic camping skills living forever on the move. With her help, it didn’t take long before they had a fire going and all chores done and were sitting around the fire.
Thorin had brought rations enough for both of them, so he didn’t need to hunt, and they both settled into a quiet dinner of dried goat jerky and roasted yams he’d snuck from his family garden before leaving. No point in letting a good excuse to roast yams go to waste, after all! She ate it all hungrily, although facing away from him the whole time, a black shadow next to the firelight chomping and smacking its way through the meal.
When they were done, Thorin decided that he wanted to try practising his flute, hoping it might improve the mood, and went to his saddle bag to get it. But, just as he was unbuckling the bag, a sound cut through the air that made a cold stream run down his back.
A wolf howl.
No. Two wolves.
In just a moment, he lost track of how many howls he was hearing, but they were many, loud, and close.
He gulped, looking toward the hill and the direction the howls had come from. Wolf packs occasionally ranged into the Black Wood, and as a rule they usually avoided humans, but they were small packs. One this large wouldn’t be afraid of anything.
His heart raced. Should they gather their things and go? It wasn’t safe to ride at night, a horse could trip or they could get lost on these poor side-roads. But was it any safer to spend the night next to a wolfish horde?
Then, just as Thorin was about to tell the girl to grab her roll and get ready to ride, a strange thing happened.
A harsh voice, clear and angry, barked out a command in the cool night, and the howling came to an abrupt halt.
Everything was quiet again, and only the crickets and frogs chirped around them.
Thorin strode across the camp to where the girl stood, looking in the direction of the wolves.
“Was that Goblin?” He asked, referring to the command he’d heard.
She nodded. “Low tongue.”
He considered this. “So, is it your caravan?” He asked, hoping she wouldn’t say what he knew she was going to.
“No. We have no war-riders with us.”
Hearing this, Thorin rushed over and kicked pre-prepared dirt on their campfire, dousing it. What were goblin war-riders doing here in the Black Woods? Was this an invasion? Whatever was happening, it was seriously bad, and he needed to warn someone right away. But first… He grabbed his bow and started to march toward the source of the sounds.
“Stay here,” he told the girl. “I’m going to see how many there are.” He was pretty sure he knew, but he needed to be certain if he was to give a report.
But the Goblin girl shook her head. “I will come.”
He wanted to argue, but decided he didn’t have time so he turned and marched into the forest, hearing her behind him. He was trained in stealth walking, but she wasn’t, and every snapping twig or crackling leaf sounded like a clap of thunder in his ears, but he steeled himself and prayed nobody would be close enough to notice.
When they crested the hill, he grabbed her and pulled her behind a tree. The other side of the hill had a steep drop-off, and the bottom of the culvert on the other side was ablaze with firelight. From his vantage point, Thorin could see easily a dozen camp fires, and around it the thin, twisted figures of Goblin warriors danced and drank- their green skin and pointed faces painted demonically in the firelight as they laughed and cried out. Nearby, he saw their mounts- huge Dire Wolves, easily twice the size of a normal wolf and trained since birth for war by their Goblin masters. The wolves slept, curled into giant balls of fur, ignoring their master’s revelries.
Looking at them, Thorin wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or worried. It wasn’t enough for an invasion force, but definitely a large raiding party. The question was, why were they there?
“Do you know them?” He whispered to the girl.
She nodded. “They’re the Blackthorn Clan, that mark on their tentss iss their clan ssigil.”
“Why are they here?”
Watching her, he saw fear and worry written in her large eyes.
“For uss,” she said.
“For us?” Thorin fought to keep his fear under control.
“My clan caravan,” she said. “They must know of my father’ss negotiations with your chief, and want to ssteal the giftss that were exchanged. Your mapss are most valuable, and they sseek to attack their rivalss.”
Thorin nodded, feeling relieved that he wasn’t looking at an attack on a village. But then he felt guilty, because these raiders were going to kill or hurt others, even if they were Goblins. They had to do something to stop them.
He took a short time to try and count the number of raiders as accurately as he could, and then motioned to the girl that they should retreat. As they made their way silently back down the hill, he tried to formulate a plan. This section of the forest was well travelled and faced the kingdom, not the Northern Frontier, so there weren’t many guard stations here. He’d need to check the map, but he suspected the nearest was some distance away, and even if they reached it, the ride would take time. Time the caravan, which was likely camped only a few dozen miles away, didn’t have.
They could warn the caravan, but that wouldn’t solve the problem either, as the slow caravan would always be outpaced by the war-riders. So what could they do?
As they reached the camp, he came up with the answer.
“We need to find a warning post.” He said, heading for his horse and opening his saddlebag.
“What iss a warning post?” She answered, following along.
He unrolled his map, and then took a moment to light a candle so they could read it.
“See these dots?” He said, pointing to little crosses on the vellum. “These are warning posts. They’re caches for Rangers to use to summon help. Each of them has wood you can use to send up smoke signals.”
Her brow furrowed. “But, we are ssurrounded by wood?”
He shook his head. “This wood is specially made to burn in different colours, so you can use it to send a message the lookouts will recognize. Every smoke colour means something different.”
“Oh,” she said, sounding impressed. “That iss very ssmart.”
“So, we’re around here,” he stuck his finger on the map. “And the nearest station is here.” He ran his finger around a small lake until it reached the mark on the map. “So we need to go… That way.” He gestured to their left.
The girl nodded, and the two of them quickly packed up their camp and mounted their horses.
“We’ll have to go slow. Keep close behind me. Your horse will know the way.”
Under the light of the moon, the two made their way through the forest, following barely used trails in what Thorin took to be the right direction. He was following the North Star, but it wasn’t always visible through the trees, so they had to rely on his own sense of direction and the makers of the trail to get them to where they were going.
As they walked, he also kept pausing to listen, something that didn’t go unnoticed by his charge.
“They are not following uss,” she told him after a time.
“How do you know?”
He heard what sounded like a snort. “War-riderss are not that quiet, especially not the Blackthorn Clan. You ssaw- they are lighting firess and letting their animalss howl, even though they want to attack by ssurprise. If they followed uss, we could hear them coming from far away.”
“Good point,” Thorin agreed. In fact, he hoped that the Rangers had noticed them and that all this effort wouldn’t be needed, but he couldn’t be sure. Even if the rangers did noticed the raiders, they might not know their intended target until it was far too late. “Thanks for letting me know.”
“You are welcome.”
“I guess we really do have something to learn from you.” He mused.
This seemed to surprise the girl. “What do you mean?”
“Well, we don’t know a lot about Goblin culture, and you can teach us.”
This produced a long silence, and then the girl said. “Do you really believe sso?”
“Sure! Why not?”
“I wass left at your village because I am a cosst to my father. He hoped to burden another with me.”
“What?” Thorin was dumbfounded. “Really? I thought you were there to help us?”
This produced what seemed like a laugh, but Thorin could feel a sadness to it. “Then that is a ssad joke that has been played on you. I am an unmarriageable female, and a useless one which brought nothing by sshame to my family. I am good at nothing, and good for nothing according to my parents. That is why they abandoned me.”
“Oh.” Was all Thorin could manage. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The culture of the Rangers was a harsh one at times, but they valued every member of their village, and the idea of a completely useless person was foreign to him. Everyone was useful, just in different ways. But, when he searched his thoughts for something to say to refute her claims, he had difficulty because she was a stranger and he knew so little about her. In the end, he could only go with what his teacher had told him.
“You’re only as useless as you make yourself, that’s what my teacher says.” He said at last. “If you make yourself useful, then you’re useful. That’s all there is to it.”
“You are wrong. Even now, I am preventing you from riding with sspeed to warn your people and help my caravan. If you did not have to care for me, then my family would be ssafe.”
“That’s stupid! If I didn’t have to take you to get those herbs, we never would have come. You’re the one who’s saving your family, not hurting them!”
Shocked by the sharp rebuke, the Goblin girl fell silent again, and for a moment Thorin thought he’d said too much, but in his heart he was too annoyed to care. Then he heard a tearing sound from behind him. A sound of cloth ripping that made him turn and look back at his charge in the moonlight.
She was a black smudge on Old Charlie, but now he could see that she was no longer facing to the side, but forward, both her legs straddling the animal beneath her.
Thorin immediately brought them to a halt and slipped off his horse.
“I am sorry,” she said in a worried voice as he approached. “I did not mean to trouble you, but I want to help my family.”
“I know,” said Thorin as he reached to grab her horse’s saddle. “I stopped to change the stirrups so you can ride this way. If we’re going to go faster, you need to ride safely, right?”
Despite the increase in speed, it took them most of the night to find their way through the forest and around the small lake to where the warning post was. The roads and paths here were rocky and treacherous, and the trails they were on had several false ends that made them double back a few times. But, just as the sky in the East was starting to lighten and go from darkest blue to a lighter shade, they managed to find the warning post.
Naturally, no one without a map was supposed to be able to find it. This was a secret messaging system that only the rangers knew of and it was meant to stay a secret. So, even once they’d arrived at the location marked on the map they still had to spend some time searching for it in the dim morning light. They found their goal buried beneath some bushes, not so much a post or even a shed but a large chest and with special markings on top buried under some bushes.
“I hope everything in here is okay,” Thorin said. “They’re supposed to check these from time to time to make sure, but old Hallahan is the one of who was put in charge of this last year.”
The girl looked at him questioningly, “Iss that a problem?”
“I hope not,” Thorin said, sounding a little worried. “He got the job because he’s a bit of a… Well, my dad says he’s a bit too fond of the ale. So, they didn’t want to trust him with guard duty anymore.”
“But I’m sure,” Thorin said as he used the key that was secretly hidden nearby to open the lock on the box. “That they must’ve made him come out and do it sometime.”
However, when the lid swung open and their noses were filled with a damp musky scent, Thorin’s heart fell. Inside, cut pieces of wood had been organized neatly into five compartments, and next to each compartment was a swatch of paint showing what colour each piece of treated wood in that compartment would burn. But, it was very clear from the damp and insect ridden condition of these pieces of wood, that they had not been checked for a very very long time.
“Oh no!” Thorin said as he lifted out one of the pieces feeling the soft wood almost turn to powder under his fingers.
“Will they still burn?” She asked.
“I don’t think so,” he said, continuing to examine them. However, the answer soon became very clear – they weren’t going to get much more than a small smoldering fire from any of this wood, much less a full burning smoke producing flame.
All their efforts had been in vain, there was no way they were going to be able to warn the Rangers or the caravan in time to prevent the raid.
They had failed.
For time, Thorin just sat there going through the wood again and again, hoping that there might be something useful. But, in the end he kept coming up with the same conclusion- there was no way they were going to be able to warn the caravan in time.
Seeing this, the girl finally asked, “Could we find another warning post?”
Thorin shook his head. “It would take us too long to get there.”
“Sso, what can we do?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t know.” He said, feeling helpless. He ran over the possibilities in his head again and again, but he always kept coming up with the same answer – there was too much distance and too little time to do anything else. All they could do was maybe ride ahead to the caravan and try warning them, hoping that they would arrive before the war-riders did and maybe allow a few members of the caravan to escape.
It was a small thing, but maybe it might be something.
He stood up, getting ready to go. But, as he started to head for the horse, he realized that the girl wasn’t following him. So, he turned back and saw her still at the chest smelling some of the pieces of wood.
“Come on! We’ve got to go!”
She held up a gloved hand, “Wait a moment. You ssaid this would wass coated with chemicalss so that he would send up ssmoke of different colourss. Was this one mostly billerberry? And this based on roughbark?”
“I… I think so,” Thorin said, suddenly a little unsure. The truth was, he hadn’t actually studied the making of these yet, and so only had a rough idea from the lectures of his master during a camping trip several years before. But, the names of the girl said sounded familiar. “Why?”
“Sso, if we mix those ssubstances into a fire it will burn coloured ssmoke? The smokess that we need to use to ssend a message to your people?”
“Yes,” he answered. “That’s how it works. We cover this wood in those powders so that they can be used quickly in case of an emergency.”
She stood up, brushing the dust off her now torn and dirty skirt. “Then we can sstill do it. We will only need to find those substancess and add them to firess we make.”
“Yeah but…” Thorin said. “We don’t know everything they used to make those colours. I mean, they didn’t just use one thing. And, we need to find them.”
“I know what they used,” she stated. “I can ssmell them. My family tradess in many powderss, and I know most of their ssources as well. If the godss are with us, we sshould be able to find them close by.”
“Really?” Thorin said, shocked.
She nodded. “Yes, but we will need to do it quickly. I do not know how long it will take to find the different partss of this recipe. Also, you need to tell me which oness we’re going to need. Do we need all of these different mixturess?”
Thorin shook his head, “No. No, we don’t. Just the ones for red and blue. But, we will need enough for two blue fires. The number of fires is also part of the code.”
“I understand,” she nodded. “Then let uss move quickly. Do you know where we can find a billerberry…?”
It took them the better part of an hour, but Thorin was amazed at the speed at which she was able to gather the components they needed from the trees, the plants, and the soil around them. She seemed to have an innate sense for finding the things they needed, and when they finished and were dividing it all into several small piles, he told her so.
“I would often help the femaless of my caravan go out and gather the thingss we needed while the maless traded with others. I learned a lot from them.”
“Well, I’m learning a lot from you.” Doran said. “I mean, I knew how to find a lot of these things, but some of the things you thought of are ones that I never would’ve considered.”
“It iss nice of you to say that,” she said, her humility returning. “It iss only because my nose is more ssensitive than yours.”
“Boy is it ever! I wish I had you around when they sent me out to gather cooking herbs.” He marvelled.
“I believe we have everything together,” she said, looking at the three piles. “These will produce a red ssmoke when added to a fire, at least from what you told me about the recipe your Rangers use. These two will produce your blue ssmoke. Do you have the firess ready?”
Thorin nodded. “I got them ready while you were gathering those berries.”
With that, Thorin quickly got the fires burning, and when the flames were hard enough, the girl added each of the piles of components to one of the fires. Soon, there was a pillar of red smoke, and two pillars of blue smoke rising up high into the air.
“Okay, now let’s see if we can find your caravan.” Thorin said, giving a silent prayer to the gods of the forest that his message would reach the people it needed to reach in time.
It was early afternoon when the war riders found the caravan.
The Goblin war chief of the Blackthorne clan let out a mighty cry into the air, raised his axe, and lead the charge down a grassy slope toward the slow-moving line of horses and carts. His heart was filled with fire, and he salivated at the thought of the meal that he would be consuming when this battle was done. He could practically taste the cooking meat now, and he urged his riders on with a furious hunger.
Before them, the goblins of the Sulk trading family panicked and fled. The members of the caravan abandoning their carts and horses and racing toward a nearby wooded thicket in hopes of escaping the Raiders. They knew that to be caught meant to be killed or perhaps worse.
However, just as the first of the war riders was almost to the caravan, mighty horns began to blow, surprising the goblin attackers. Then, the curtains were drawn back on many of the carriages to reveal human bowman clad in the brown and green of Rangers. And, from other nearby thickets of trees, mounted horsemen appeared and began to encircle the goblin raiders.
The war chief of the Blackthorne clan had just enough time to cry in alarm before a mighty shaft struck him, knocking him off his mount and leaving him laying on the ground among the first of many of his kinsman to fall that day.
“You have done us a great service young ranger,” the leader of the Sulk trading family said that night at the feast he held in honour of the Rangers and a successful battle against the Blackthorne clan. “We owe you a great debt.” He said, raising his carved wooden mug of goblin ale toward the boy.
“I’m sorry sir, but it was your daughter that did everything. I was just there to help.” Thorin answered earnestly.
The girl’s father cackled at that and the other goblins are on the table and joined him. “I know you are just ssaying that, boy. She’ss just a female, you don’t need to give her so much honour.”
Hearing this, and knowing how untrue it was, made Thorin’s blood start to rise. And, he was going to say something when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see his teacher, Ranger Hastur, give him a shake of the head. As usual, his master knew him better than he did.
“Sstill,” the master of the trade caravan mused. “She hass been of ssome ssmall sservice. Daughter!”
“Yes father,” the girl said stepping out from the line of covered goblin women who stood nearby.
“You have been of ssome use, finally. Name a reward, a ssmall reward, and it sshall be yours.”
Thorin watched the girl, pleased to see that she was finally getting her due. Mentally, he urged her on, telling her to say to her father what was on her heart – that she wanted to stay with the clan and her brothers and sisters. After all, that was the real reason why she’d pretended to need the herbs, he’d guessed that a long time ago. This was all so she could return to her family, and escape being left behind.
But, to Thorin’s surprise the girl merely said, “I am a member of this family, it wass my duty to sserve, and all I assk as a reward iss that you remember me fondly.”
The girl’s father eyed her suspiciously, then shook his head. “And here I thought you had finally sshown ssome brainss. If you ask for no reward, then you sshall get no reward. Be off with you then!”
Later, after the feast was done, Thorin sought the girl out in the shadows of one of the carts, calling her aside.
“I thought you wanted to stay?” He whispered.
At this, she shook her head. “I did, more than anything.”
“Because, I learned today that I can be useful. And, I can be more useful to my family if I sstay and learn from your clan.”
“Are you sure? Won’t you miss them?”
She nodded. “I will. But, I think it will be easier if I have friends.” Then she looked at him, her yellow and orange eyes staring at him in the firelight, filled with both hope and worry at the same time.
Taking her meaning, Thorin nodded and smiled broadly at her. “You have one. And, when we get back and everyone hears about what happened, I think you’ll have a whole lot more.”
Then, to Thorin’s surprise, the girl reached up and pulled aside her veil.
“But you…” He stammered, staring down at the face of a surprisingly cute girl. Unlike normal goblins, with their large noses and sharp faces, hers was rounded and and her nose small and pointed. With her big eyes, she looked very childlike and innocent, at least, until she smiled up at him, revealing a set of sharp pointed teeth that would make a shark jealous. She was a goblin, after all.
“Ishrat,” she said. “My name iss Ishrat.”
“Uhh. It’s nice to meet you, Ishrat. But, isn’t it shameful for others to see your face?”
“Not if we’re of the ssame clan. Can I be a member of your family?”
“Sure!” Thorin brightened.
She smiled brighter, which made Thorin feel a little flushed at how cute she looked.
“You know, Thorin. You are sso nice. It’ss really too bad.”
Thorin blinked, confused. “Too bad about what?”
“That you’re sso big and ugly.”
Something to think about:
Everyone has reasons for what they do. They may be strong, clear reasons or they may be poorly thought out feelings, but people don’t say or do things without a purpose for doing them. If someone is acting in ways you don’t understand, rather than just ignore them or call them names, ask yourself why they might be doing what they do. Trying to understand others and their points of view will only make you a better person, and you might just end up making a friend.
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