The war with the humans arrived last night at Gorman’s front door, and as he surveyed the wreckage of battle, he trembled. The blood of goblins and humans stained the road and splattered the walls of his cottage. Torches blackened the lush forest floor. Retreating feet trampled his meager waist-high fence in the humans’ frenzied sprint for survival.
They will be back, Gorman thought as he worked. Every new moon saw another attack by human mercenaries, under the command of the rebel Thorsson. The Black Woods eroded as the humans grew bolder, drove farther and razed deeper into the goblins’ ancestral home. With each attack, the goblin defenses weakened, link by link, and those like Gorman along the main Black Woods Road hid or fled in terror as the fighting spilled over into backyards and sidewalks.
Gorman thought it must be the humans’ inferiority as a species that made them incapable of either magic or logic. No matter how many of Thorsson’s charges the goblins repelled, the madman sent his mercenaries again and again into the forests. With every victory, the goblins lost their home, acre by acre, piece by piece.
Gorman bent down, grimacing, feeling the ache in his knees and his back. He cast a spell. The rough tree bark swished around his clay bucket full of warm water and lilac sap. The clumsy bark went back to the job at hand, scrubbing blood splatters from the oak walls of the cottage.
Just then, Gorman heard footsteps coming up the path, and turned with a start, ready to cast.
His son, Adrax, approached. Gorman sighed.
“Da’,” the boy called, waving. Nearly finished as an apprentice, he stood taller than Gorman, and twice as strong. “What are you doing?”
Adrax watched the spell work a few moments, and said. “Let me help.” The boy hummed unintelligible words, and the tree bark multiplied a dozenfold. All the pieces worked at thrice the pace, in smooth, even strokes. Quickly, the cottage wall looked new as the day the wood was cut.
Gorman looked down and mumbled his gratitude. At five Adrax showed more talent for magic than Gorman would ever know. Now he apprenticed with the best sorcerer in all the Black Woods. Meanwhile, his father scratched out a living making simple solutions for the apothecary, an unenviable job.
“You are home early,” Gorman said, as he followed the boy inside. They both momentarily stopped at the smell of Ynisha’s supper atop the wood stove. The scent of spicy stewed rabbit and peppers filled the cottage.
“Da’, we need to talk,” Adrax said. He paused. “I quit the apprenticeship.”
“Da’. Come sit down.”
“You quit?” Gorman asked. Adrax exchanged a glance with his mother. Ynisha remained silent.
“You are the most talented apprentice sorcerer for a hundred miles. Why would you throw that away?”
“Da’. Calm down. Please.”
Gorman’s beefy snout steamed in the cool air. “Tell me what happened.”
As if on cue, Ynisha set down her spoon and came to sit beside Adrax, across from Gorman. “The High Council selected me for a special project,” Adrax said. “I’m going on assignment.”
Gorman’s fleshy green forehead contorted in a frown. “What will do you have to do?”
“I’m going to enlist.”
“Enlist? But if they need a military goblin, why —“
“Not with the goblins,” Adrax interrupted. “I’m joining the human army.”
Gorman stared at his son, and at Ynisha, for several long moments, as the cottage walls seemed to spin around him. He gripped the chair, and closed his eyes.
As a boy, Gorman’s own father Herzog told him all the old stories of humans. Humans can sneak through forests like invisible ghosts, armed with razor swords that reflect no moonlight. Good little goblin children must stay in their beds all day long, lest a wily human snatch them up with their fingers like pink claws. Unlucky children caught in a human lair became ingredients in goblin soup. Even as a boy, Gorman knew such tales were silly fantasies, but it made real humans no less dangerous.
When Gorman was twelve, his father Herzog, a merchant, took an empty wagon to pick up a load of pickled fruit on the far side of the Black Woods. On the way, a band of human mercenaries caught Herzog and believed him a smuggler. They beat him, and when he refused to reveal the location of his gold – for the poor man had none – the mercenaries killed him.
Now Gorman stared at Adrax, his massive jaws agape. “The human army,” he finally managed. “Are you mad, boy? The humans?”
“Your son is well enough indeed,” Ynisha said.
Gorman looked back and forth. “You knew,” he said to Ynisha.
“Of course I knew. Adrax couldn’t come to you with this, because the boy knew you would react just in this way.”
“Someone explain what’s going on!” Gorman shouted.
Adrax spoke evenly. “The High Council struck a pact with the human army. The human army will wipe out Thorsson’s rebels for us and guarantee the safety of our forest, if we agree to provide them sorcerers for their military. I volunteered.”
“You vol…” The word wouldn’t come
“Yes, Da’. I volunteered.”
“And you’ll get your head lopped off before the first night is out!” Gorman said, jumping up. “By the human standing beside you! You saw what I was doing tonight.”
“I spent tonight scrubbing the blood of goblins and humans off the walls of our house! And do you know why I had to do that?”
“Da’, please listen—”
“Because yesterday, humans like the ones you’re talking about came down that road and tried to murder us! Tried to kill every goblin living in the forest!”
“Da’. Those are Thorsson’s rebels, not the army. He’s an outlaw, even among the humans. The humans want to stop him. They want peace.”
“Peace?” The word croaked out of Gorman’s green, fleshy throat. “They want my son to overcome five hundred years of hostilities and war, and bring them peace?”
Adrax and Ynisha exchanged a glance, but knew better than to answer.
Gorman sat back down, taking Adrax’s hand. “Son. Son. Listen to me. You’re young. You have no experience at fighting. You don’t understand the danger you’re putting yourself in. Even if the politicians struck an agreement, the human military is full of cowards and snakes who will knife you in your sleep. A treaty on a piece of paper cannot overcome five centuries of hate and prejudice and vengeance.”
“Da’. The humans are doing the same thing. They’re putting one human in our military. It’s an exchange, the first of its kind. So long as the goblin military treats the human well, the humans will treat me well, and likewise.”
Gorman sat back. “Son, this is doomed to fail. Humans are idiots. If that human in our midst takes a flaming arrow from a mountain ghoul, it doesn’t matter how nicely the goblins treated him. As soon as your humans hear of his death, they’ll toss you over a cliff. You cannot trust them, son. They’re humans.”
“Da’. Somebody has to trust first.”
“But it doesn’t have to be my son!”
“Da’,” Adrax said gently. “You saw the battle last night. We will not survive without help. Thorrson has enough men to burn every tree in the forest. But the humans can stop him. I’m doing this for you. And for mother.” He took Ynisha’s hand in his.
“No,” Gorman said, “You’re not doing this at all. Now you listen. I forbid this, you understand? You will not join the human ranks. You will go back to your apprenticeship. And you will never speak of this again!”
“What did you say to me?”
Adrax stood. “I’m leaving, Da’, in one week. I hope you’ll see me off.”
Gorman jumped up and swung his clawed hand hard at his son’s face, just as he had done when the boy was young and insolent. The sickening smack reverberated off the silent walls of the cottage. Though now bigger than his father, Adrax made no move to defend himself. The blow knocked him back, but he did not fall.
“Gorman,” Ynisha said, her voice tender. “Please.”
“It’s okay, mother,” Adrax said, straightening. He touched a hand to the side of his face. A small trickle of green blood came away. He looked at his father. “Da’. I still want you to come.” Adrax turned, and left the house.
The next day, Gorman came home to find his son’s belongings gone. Adrax’s tunics and shoes, his alchemic powders, spell scrolls and scrying stones were all missing from his room.
“He moved out.” Ynisha’s voice floated from the hallway behind. Gorman turned. “You made your disapproval clear. He felt it would be disrespectful to stay.”
“But apparently not disrespectful to go, against my wishes.”
“Hmm,” was all Ynisha gave in reply.
“Don’t you see how dangerous this is?” Gorman asked. “Adrax will be killed. If you hadn’t put this idea in his head—“
“Me?” Ynisha said. “It wasn’t my suggestion. Your son is no longer a child, he’s a sorcerer, and will be powerful one day. He’s doing what he believes is right. He’s trying to protect us. To protect you.”
“I don’t need my son’s protection. I need to protect my son!”
“You can’t,” she said. “Neither of us can. Not anymore. All we can do is support his decision.”
“I’ll do no such thing. And neither should you.”
Ynisha stepped close to Gorman, face-to-face, so close he could smell the garlic and onion on her breath. He clenched his fists, his teeth, every muscle in his body that could be tightened. He did not speak.
“Your son needs you,” Ynisha said. “If you won’t support him, it won’t just be Adrax you lose. Think carefully, Gorman.”
Those were her last words on the matter. After that, silence steadily filled the small cottage, day after day, like too much water pouring into a jar and overflowing into the forest to quiet even the birds and crickets. When the appointed day came, Gorman sat firmly in his old chair, the one with the raggedy seams and the missing brass button. Ynisha watched him, sighed, and left the house.
The High Council kept their pact with the humans secret, so no one else in the community knew of Adrax’s mission. Gorman felt vindicated by this. It proved the High Council knew the exchange was more than immoral, it was treasonous. They also ordered Gorman and Ynisha not to tell anyone what happened to Adrax. He could say only that his son was “on assignment” for the High Council. Such secretive assignments were not unusual for young goblins with big aspirations, and usually meant jobs as messengers or political pages for goblin allies: the mountain trolls, the gremlins and the ogres. Gorman’s friends and neighbors wished Adrax luck, and simply stopped asking.
Of course, Gorman’s stubborn refusal marked the end for him and Ynisha. A few days after Adrax left, Ynisha announced she would return to live with her parents. Gorman merely grunted. They exchanged a few terse words in the following week, and since then, nothing.
That nothingness of his life stretched through five long years.
In the beginning, the boy sent letters. When the first one appeared, barely a month after Adrax left, Gorman quickly unrolled the scroll, eagerly anticipating the boy’s pained apology and humble admittance of a grievous error. Oh, how cruelly the humans must have tortured him! Gorman felt bad for Adrax, but the lesson would prove invaluable.
Instead, Gorman read with growing horror words like “understanding” and “acceptance.” Who are humans, that they should have cause to show graciousness to goblins? Goblins long ago proved themselves the nobility of the western world. Adrax should feel tolerance and forgiveness for even withstanding the presence of those vile creatures. He read the whole scroll, and by the end, the parchment shook in his hands. He wadded it up and pitched it into the fire. The smell of the burning paper crawled through the cottage on sulfur fingers.
No better way to keep his son’s secret, Gorman thought.
More scrolls arrived over time. Gorman read them all, holding his nose at the stories of camaraderie and nascent friendship. Gorman suspected humans would turn on their friends almost faster than enemies, if the mood struck them right.
He burned all the letters after he read them. He never replied.
Despite his anger at Adrax’s betrayal, Gorman admitted his son grew an impressive list of military achievements. Though certainly skilled in magic, Adrax had no formal combat training. The humans, it seemed, were not about to allow an untrained goblin among their soldiers. Adrax wrote of his quick skill with swords, spears and a bow. He told how he mastered horse riding in a fortnight. The boy was tall for a goblin, as tall even as some humans, but horses never felt comfortable with a goblin on their back. Reading one scroll, Gorman imagined his son as a cavalry warrior, astride a stamping steed with sword and spear held to the sky. Gorman felt his chest swell a bit, and for the first time, he wished he could share Adrax’s stories with others.
In the end, this scroll went into the fire like all the others.
As months changed to years, Adrax wrote faithfully without ever receiving a reply. He mentioned in his scrolls that he also wrote his mother, and Ynisha corresponded in return. He never asked why Gorman did not write. For his part, Gorman learned to stomach the tales of friendship with humans, even respect for human commanders. Adrax attempted to teach magic to some of the human soldiers, but the boy wrote of their “utter incapacity” for the art. Humans lacked those particular parts of the mind and spirit necessary for conjuring. That suited Gorman well enough, for he believed magic too dangerous a tool for the hands of the humans.
Over time, it took longer and longer for the scrolls to reach the fire. Sometimes, it took several readings. With his eyepiece perched on his nose and seated in that raggedy chair, Gorman squinted into the firelight to read his son’s handwriting. Adrax always did have poor script.
Lacking a response from Gorman, the tone of Adrax’s letters eventually changed. Their frequency slowed. Then came the last letter. Gorman remembered it well, postmarked two years, seven months, and eight days ago. This one, he kept. Gorman could not bring himself to burn it.
This will be my last letter for some time.
The human commanders say my training has been a success. Our regiment works well together, and no one will expect spells from the human army. We received our first orders, and we leave in a week. I’ve been selected as deputy commander. Everyone agrees I’m the strongest of the group, but they also say that humans aren’t ready to be led by a goblin. Of course I should be pleased to be second-in-command, but I still find it a poor consolation.
I can’t tell you about our mission, only that we’ll be on assignment for a few years. I won’t be able to write you then.
Trust me, Da’: the humans will protect me. I will protect them.
I won’t ask why you choose not to respond to my letters. Only, please talk to mother. She writes me constantly. This will be hard for her. She will need you.
In the two years and seven months since Gorman received this letter, he had not visited Ynisha. Of course, he knew where her parents lived, where he courted her so many years ago. He avoided it desperately, avoided the market at the times she liked to shop, avoided her favorite public houses at meal hours. He didn’t hate Ynisha; quite the opposite.
The scroll crackled from age and handling. Gorman rolled it carefully, feeling the rough cotton paper, and slipped it back on the shelf of his bedroom. Gorman sat on his bed, alone, thinking of Adrax, of Ynisha. He waited for the tears to come.
The following night marked a particularly beautiful summer evening, where the forest felt at once warm from the heat of the day but also cool in the shade of the canopy. Cicadas buzzed in the trees, bullfrogs groaned in the mossy bogs, and if Adrax were home, he and his father would go fishing in the deep lake just off the Black Woods Road.
Only, Adrax was not here. Re-reading the boy’s letter filled Gorman with a nagging sense of fear and doubt. When he left to join the humans, Adrax couldn’t distinguish spear from lance. He showed talent for sorcery, true, but a magician is far from a warrior. Undoubtedly the boy boasted beyond his abilities in his scrolls, a son’s braggadocio to impress his father. Now, silence.
Something must have gone wrong.
This worry sent Gorman knocking at Ynisha’s door for the first time in nearly five years.
The morning sun crept over the forest as the whole house settled in for sleep. At Gorman’s knock, Ynisha answered, and she jumped back. “Gorman!” she said, and then her face shadowed with worry. “What happened? Is it Adrax?”
Nothing, Gorman assured her, he just wanted to talk. She led him out back, beneath the deep shade of a towering oak that once sheltered them as young goblins in love. Gorman explained his worry. He paused. “Have you heard from him? Since he … since he left on assignment?”
Ynisha looked away. “No.”
Gorman didn’t know whether to feel better or worse. At least Adrax wasn’t avoiding him.
“Your son is not a child,” Ynisha said. “He’s a powerful sorcerer, a military commander, bigger and stronger than you and plenty of humans.”
“He was afraid, Ynisha. I heard it, in his last letter.”
“Of course he was afraid, Gorman,” she said. Her voice was soft and full of worry. She slipped her hand inside his, like she used to do when they were together. “He’s doing something no goblin has ever done before. He’s risking his life, for us. And the humans have kept their word. Thorsson’s rebels are on the run. Their attacks have stopped. It’s because of Adrax. The risk he took for himself has saved countless lives.” She sighed. “When I hear from him, you will be first to know. But right now it’s too late to talk. The sun’s nearly full up. I should go to bed.”
“Of course,” Gorman said. He paused, as if to ask one more question, and then said, “Well. Goodbye.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Ynisha said. “But the next time your son writes to you: tell him.”
The High Council guarded the secret of the military exchange program like nothing else in the world. Only Gorman, Ynisha, and a handful of council members knew of its existence.
Until the Red Elves made that stupid human a hero.
Red Elves are cowardly snakes, but sharp and ruthless as the blades they carry. They kill anyone weaker than themselves. A fortnight after Gorman saw Ynisha, a band of Red Elves fell upon a small goblin regiment on a training patrol. The elves anticipated an easy robbery. They took the goblins by surprise. And they were astonished to find a single human among the regiment: the exchange soldier.
Gorman knew loose tongues undoubtedly exaggerated the human’s deeds, and diminished the role of the goblins. Suffice it to say, with some (probably minimal) help from the human, the goblins repelled the much larger band of elves and saved the patrol. Such a story can’t stay buried very long. Goblins wanted to know why a human trained in their military. Who was this man? Was he friend or foe? The High Council sensed their secret evaporating, and instead seized their opportunity.
The human embedded in the goblin military was named Taylor Lightfoot. Gorman thought it a ridiculous name, and him a reprehensibly ugly young man, with disgusting blond hair that fell in his face, and teeth so white they looked like bleached bone. The High Council called Taylor a hero. In the same breath, they announced their own hero tucked away within the human ranks: Adrax, son of Gorman!
As the news flooded the goblin community, Gorman’s home was overrun with adulatory patriots, curious friends, and gossipers begging for news. At first, Gorman tried to avoid it all, refusing to answer. The crowds grew, overwhelming his front yard and spilling into the road. Peeking through the drapes, Gorman realized he could not hide forever.
Then he saw Ynisha, standing at the back of the assembled throng. His spirit soared. He stepped out front, and over the groundswell of shouts he beckoned her to come forward. She cut through the crowd, and they started to recognize her too. She stood next to Gorman now, holding his spotty hand and giving a tired smile.
The proud parents took questions, and Ynisha assured everyone she never left Gorman, despite the vicious rumors. She moved home to take care of her ailing parents. Now she returned to her home here, with Gorman.
Gorman knew it wasn’t true, but even the lie gave him more happiness than he’d known in all the years since Adrax left. They stood together, unified, proud of their son.
No, they had not heard from him in quite some time. He was on assignment, and for his own safety, he could not communicate.
Yes, they felt proud. Hand selected by the High Council, yes.
No, they did not know if he would return home after his assignment, or stay with the humans.
Yes, proud. Very proud indeed.
Guest speaker at goblin town hall meetings. Honorary member of the High Council’s Select Committee. Even the President of the Goblin-Human Alliance?
Gorman wondered, how did his life change so fast?
In the months since the Black Forest discovered Adrax’s role in the human army, the community declared Gorman’s son a hero, and afforded Gorman every place of honor. Oh, what a brave, understanding goblin Gorman must be, said his friends and neighbors. We would never let our son take such a risk. Gorman became the face for the progressive goblin movement, seeking reconciliation with the humans after so many centuries of open hostilities. Gorman, the emissary of peace in a time of war.
It was all such a farce.
Gorman hated humans the day Adrax was born, just as he hated humans now. He believed Adrax was wrong to join the human cause, no matter what accolades goblins heaped upon him. Most surprising to Gorman, none of that mattered. He loved Adrax like nothing else in the world. Despite his private prejudices, he became the most outspoken and tireless supporter for his son.
Late one night, Gorman heard a knock at the door. He only just returned from a gathering at the public house, a weekly meeting in support of his son. Gorman still wore the sash across his chest: “Allies For Adrax.” The tide of constant well-wishers and inquisitive busybodies inevitably slowed these many months since the announcement, but they still came from time to time.
When he opened the door, Gorman saw a human standing on his porch.
Outside the cottage, rain fell softly, pattering down through the trees and running in rivulets across the big, soft leaves of the forest. A few birds cooed in the damp early morning air, when the world still seemed gray and cold.
Behind the human stood two goblins, tall and erect. Military.
Was this the famous Taylor Lightfoot?
No, as Gorman peered at the human, he bore no resemblance to the Hero Against the Reds. This man had trim, dark hair and was shorter than Taylor. Who was he?
“Mr. Gorman,” the human said, in that high, squeaky human tone. “May I come in?”
Gorman looked at the military commanders behind the human, and then opened the door wider. Only the human entered. One of the goblin soldiers said stiffly, “We will wait outside.”
Gorman shut the door. He noticed, from the corner of his eye, that Ynisha stepped into the room.
“Mr. Gorman,” the human said. “Mrs. Ynisha. My name is Commander Henry Walker. I lead the 51st regiment of the Freedlake Military, and I was pleased to have your son, Adrax, under my command.”
“Adrax!” Gorman exclaimed. “How is he? Is he here? Did you bring him with you?”
“I’m afraid not.” Henry looked down. Gorman noticed he carried something in his rough, bruised hands. “Humans have a tradition, at times like these,” Henry said. He lifted his hands. He carried a banner of the Freedlake Colony, neatly folded. He held it as though it were fragile, as if the cloth might shatter to pieces at any moment. Henry straightened, cleared his throat and looked Gorman squarely in the eye. “As your son’s commanding officer, it is my duty to inform you that Adrax, son of Gorman, was killed three days ago.”
Henry extended the folded flag to Gorman. “I am truly sorry, Mr. Gorman.”
The house was still and quiet. Even the soft rain observed a respectful pause.
Gorman stared at the folded flag in Henry’s outstretched hand, then back at the man. “My son… Adrax…”
Henry nodded, and swallowed.
Behind them, Ynisha began to sob.
Gorman straightened to his full height, which brought him up to Henry’s neck. “There must be some mistake. My son was a sorcerer, and a strong soldier. It is not possible.”
“Mr. Gorman. I was there. I, and many others in my regiment, we owe our lives to your son. He died, saving us.”
“My son …” Gorman started, but instead of words, he felt fear rise in the back of his throat. He tried to swallow it down but it only grew larger, choking him. His eyes burned. “My son is dead!” he growled, and he lunged at Henry, knocking him to the ground. “You killed him!”
“No!” Ynisha screamed from behind him through her tears. “Gorman, no!”
Gorman leapt on the human commander, pinning him down, his big green claws wrapped around the man’s throat. He growled over and over, “You killed him! You killed him!”
The military goblins from the porch burst inside. Rather than help Gorman exact justice, Gorman was astonished that they pulled him off the human, and helped Commander Walker to his feet. “It’s all right, I’m fine,” Henry said, as he rubbed his throat where Gorman left splotchy purple welts.
The military goblins let Gorman go, though this time they remained inside. Gorman felt Ynisha wrap her arms around him from behind, and then he held her as her tears flowed down his shoulder.
Still massaging his neck, Henry said, “Mr. Gorman, I owe your son my life. It is a debt I can never repay, but if a human’s death would bring Adrax back, I would gladly kneel beneath the sword.”
Gorman said nothing.
“Do you have someone who can stay with you?”
“What?” Gorman asked.
“Family,” Henry said. “Or friends. It is a human custom not to leave until you have someone with you.”
“We don’t hold to human customs,” Gorman said, spitting out the word ‘human’ as if it tasted vile in his mouth. “Ynisha’s parents are bedridden. There’s no one else. Adrax is our only child.” At this, Ynisha ran from the room, weeping.
“In that case,” Henry said, “it would be my honor to remain with you. For however long.” He stood erect, hands firmly at his sides, ignoring the trickles of blood at this throat.
Gorman looked at this creature, this poor, pink-fleshed human who braved the enmity of the entire forest to come here in person, and risk delivering bad news to an ill-tempered goblin. The human called Henry Walker did not flinch, did not move under his gaze. Gorman moved closer. The military goblins visibly tensed.
“Commander Walker,” Gorman said. “You wish to stay here? Even after we ... after I attacked you? Why?”
Walked cleared his throat. “Adrax served under me for three years. By the end, I knew him well. Adrax was one of the bravest, smartest and kindest souls I have ever known. The person he respected most in this world was his father. It would be my honor to know that man as Adrax did, to give him whatever comfort I can in his time of need.”
Gorman sank into his old raggedy chair with the missing brass buttons. Nearby, the fire crackled. He held a hand to his forehead, shielding his eyes. “Commander Walker,” he said. “The honor would be mine if you would stay, and tell me about my son.”
© May, 2015 Christopher Mowder
Chistopher Mowder is a marketer and writer living in the Midwest. He writes science fiction, fantasy and thrillers, and "The Goblin's Son" is his first published short story. You can follow him on Twitter at @cmowder.