This story was cowritten with my friend Jade Sands, and the characters are hers.
It was the goblins’ fault. Okay, maybe Alequan started it by stealing from the Goblin Mafia. But they stole it first! Not from us, true, and maybe you think it wasn’t any of our business, but that’s what we do. And it did prevent a war between the goblins and the dragons they originally stole the gold from. And sure, Alequan did make the runestones in the first place…. But he couldn’t have known what trouble they would bring.
So, I waited at the mouth of the goblin tunnel with a pair of horses, and Alequan came out with the gold, and we rode away, brought it back to the dragons, and assumed that was the end of it. Until we got home.
As always, Lindarr was waiting for us. Unlike always, Alequan’s brother seemed upset. “They took Elmvril,” he told us.
“Who did?” Alequan asked, at the same time as I asked, “The goblins?”
Lindarr nodded. “Last night. They attacked, and I went out to help fight them off. We killed most of them, but… It was a diversion, I suppose; when I got home, Elmvril was gone. They took my son!”
I’d never seen Lindarr so distraught, though of course it was reasonable. Elmvril was only six, and goblins are cruel.
“We’ll get him back,” I promised.
“I know, Sayla….” Lindarr looked up at me with a pained expression. “But will we get him back alive?” I could tell he could barely say it.
“Yes,” Alequan told his brother. And so we went back down into the dank, dreary tunnels of the goblins.
I will not describe the long days we spent wandering those empty labyrinthine passageways. Suffice it to say that by the end, we barely dared believe that we were alive, much less Elmvril.
Finally, we came to a large, round room. It would have been yet another dead end, except that it was occupied by three goblins.
Lindarr rushed forward and demanded, “Where is my son?”
“Someplace you’ll never find him,” one of the goblins said slimily. He seemed to be the leader. “If you want him, you’ll have to win him back.”
Lindarr seemed about to say more, but he caught himself; angering them would hardly help us.
“How?” I asked as Alequan and I caught up with Lindarr.
“A little game, perhaps? The boy against…” the goblin smirked. “His runestones?”
So that was what this was about. Alequan had a set of runestones he had made himself, of troll bones. Bones of a mountain troll, I hastily add, not the kindly monkey trolls that raised me. The runestones were nearly infallible in answering any question, and had other, more esoteric powers. Their fame had spread, so it was not surprising the goblins knew of them, and knowing of them, of course the avaricious little beasts wanted them.
We couldn’t bet on Elmvril’s life. But what choice did we have? If the goblins had the runestones… it would be bad. Imagine, if the greatest enemies of humankind had that much power. But against Elmvril’s life…. There was no choice.
“What game?” Alequan demanded.
“Divination,” smirked the goblin leader. “Ours against yours. You use your ruinstones, we use our entrails. We take turns thinking of something. We write it down and put the paper under a rock, and the other person uses their method of divination to tell what it is. The answers must be exact, of course. The first to be wrong, or not answer, loses.”
It seemed fair enough, which was in itself suspicious. But again, what choice did we have?
“Fine,” Alequan agreed. “Do you want to go first, or shall I?”
“Our side will be first to divine. Your woman will be the one to think and write, as will my henchman, and you and I will divine.”
I tried to think of something that would be difficult for goblins to comprehend. Finally, I wrote, “a rainbow.” Goblins preferred the darkness of their tunnels, and it was the least goblinny thing I could think of.
The goblin leader said something to one of the others, who left and came back with a large cage of rats. The leader scooped one out and slit its stomach. I winced at the unexpected violence, but of course I had seen far worse, and to far worse than rats. When the rat finally stopped twitching, the goblin leader studied the entrails and murmured, “an arch of colored light in the sky… that is called… A rainbow!” he exclaimed triumphantly.
The goblin henchman then wrote something. I watched anxiously as Alequan threw the runes. “A worm cut into eight pieces,” he said almost immediately.
He was right, of course. I tried to be trickier this time, and wrote, “a thornless, light pink rose.” The goblin killed another rat, and again was correct in his divination.
Each turn, we tried to outdo each other in complication, and each turn, Alequan and the goblin chief divined correctly. Finally, I wrote, “a tribe of six monkey trolls named Ibbi-oku, Gliziya, Urth, Gerthchi, Zurb, Dreyf, and Harold. The last three are children.” And yet, the goblin divined it correctly. “One more round,” he said after that. “Then we just kill you and take the damn stones.” I wondered why they hadn’t in the first place, but of course I didn’t ask.
And then it was the goblin’s turn, and I could tell by his smirk that he had a trick up his sleeve. Alequan threw the runes, stared at them in puzzlement, threw them again, stared more. He rubbed his temple and looked at Lindarr sorrowfully, and threw the runes one more time, then scooped them back into their bag. They hadn’t been able to tell him; he was about to give up; and then, suddenly, his face brightened and he blurted, “My runestones!”
The goblin swore. It had been a very good try, and very close, because Alequan’s runestones’ presence cannot be felt magically, so they cannot be divined. Alequan had only been able to guess, because they would have told him anything else.
And so I wrote, “Alequan’s runestones.” I knew I was taking a huge risk. They would be on the goblins’ mind, and when he couldn’t tell, surely he would know. But the rat entrails would reveal anything else, and while goblins are cunning, they aren’t known for their intelligence. And while the rat entrails were impressively accurate, they weren’t as infallible as the runestones.
He killed the rat, read its entrails, and said triumphantly, “a pile of stones.” He smirked, assuming I was giving up by providing something so easy. It didn’t even occur to him that his rat guts hadn’t provided the whole answer.
“No,” I said. “Alequan’s runestones.” I showed the paper.
We braced for a fight, because we didn’t expect them to keep to their bargain. But before we could move, the thee goblins did something, I think it must have been goblin magic, and there was only darkness. I assumed they’d killed us. I can’t begin to describe my shock at coming to aboveground, at the entrance to the tunnels, with Alequan, Lindarr, and Elmvril next to me. Even the runestones were still in Alequan’s pocket.
I’m not sure why they didn’t kill us; I know enough about goblins to know that they are not honorable beings; and observed enough of those particular goblins to know that they would have preferred us dead. But, we survived; I’m not going to question it!