A Family Far Beneath the Stars
“Glorious Gnix, rat again?”
Gnaxley pointed his spoon at the young brat. “Eat your rat, boy. Your mother caught it this morning-”
“Last week, and preserved it just for you kids.”
Gnaxley thought the rat was noxious. It had been pickled, and green flecks were breaking off the fur. He needed to be back on the raids or this would be a norm again. Where had he put the knives again? He only wanted Brench and Glaile using them to train. And then there would be beseeching the chieftain and great Nix to raid again and, oh no.
“Lyria, please stop picking through your food.”
Lyria scratched her ears with a claw, looking up from the fire pit. Her black eyes glittered with a small smile. “What, dear father?”
“Don’t try and pull that. Keep eating.”
Gnaxley held fast and pushed through another bite. Stupid example setting. Lyria stood up, wiping her face clean. “Well, thank you. All glory to Gnix for the food we have-”
“You’re going outside again.” Her mother murmured.
Gnaxley shoved a heaping spoonful of noxious rat into his mouth. The taste hit his nose and he started coughing, pushing away from the fire pit. The women looked at him, and he motioned to his throat before rushing to the underground stream that he’d diverted for clean water.
Gnaxley stuffed his face under the water, and exhaled. The earthy water filled his mouth, removing that bile that had rushed to his throat. He kept his face under the water, listening to the burbles and currents. Through them the muffled voices of his wife and daughter started to bicker.
The goblin sighed. His daughter Lyria was different. Goblins didn’t go up above the caves and tunnels for fun. He went out on raids out of necessity, not pleasure. Too many races saw goblins as nuisances, or threats. Rising out of the caves was a risk for anyone, and worse. Who knows what she could bring back with her.
He pulled his head out of the water, and sat on the rock. Why did Lyria even want to go outside? It was so open, and empty. Nothingness filled every crevice, and the air rushed about in every which way. The light was blinding, there was no heat, and the creatures defied description. No, better to stay where it was safe.
Footsteps clattered off away from the fire pit. That would be Lyria, running rather than face another biting word from her mother. She was a lot like her father that way.
Gnaxley returned to the fire pit, to find his loving wife scowling in his direction.
“Run away again?” Gnaxley asked.
“Stupid, stupid whelp,” Gnaxley’s wife was a perfect goblin mother. Stern, demanding, unwilling to give an inch. If only Gnaxley was that way. He put too much on his wife. But she was the strong one.
“Are you going after her?”
“Yes, love.” Gnaxley murmured.
“We can’t keep protecting her. Something has to change,” His wife turned to the rest of the rat, dumping it into the fire. Gnaxley moved away, turning his hooked nose away from the fumes. Who knows what could crawl into his lungs?
“Af-after the raid.” Gnaxley promised.
“Better be true.” His wife muttered. “We’ve already got three joys. I would not like a disappointment.”
Gnaxley nodded, and moved away. He knew where Lyria was going.
Past the tunnels of the goblin tribe. Past the children, running through the streets with newly developed claws, or digging new tunnels deeper into the hills. Their adorable little scales were still gray and hadn’t whitened, now furrowed together as they started their first real excavations in life. Other parents looked on with pride. That one would be a true miner, a true explorer. Places no goblin, no living thing had ever before gone. It was all below.
Past the pit. The tribe kept no guards. No sense in letting anyone know there was something worth guarding. Instead a narrow strip of rock a hundred yards long was laid bare over a cavern, no more than two feet wide. Any army that dared attack the tribe could be held off by a child armed with rocks. That is, if the child were brave. Braver than Gnaxley.
Start going up, up to the trails leading to the surface. He had been here before, though it had been months. The last raid had been very good, he had even killed a couple humans, earning him and his family food, and treasure. It had been enough to sustain them for a while, and he had never felt the need to return to the surface. Until now. And until the next raid. His family needed him.
It was night. Gnaxley and the rest of the goblins could feel what was night air and what was day air that found its way down the tunnels, and night air gave him more comfort. He could close his eyes and pretend he hadn’t left the tunnels. But now he had to keep his eyes open. Lyria was outside.
She hadn’t gone too far. She stood on the crags outside the cave, looking up. There was moonlight tonight, and she glowed. Gnaxley stood inside the cave, and smiled despite himself. Lyria’s dark hair flowed down over her scaled face in waves, accenting a kind face. Her fangs were slight and did not show through a warm smile. And her eyes, eyes of amber, looked straight up in joy. She was beauteous. Again, Gnaxley thought, despite me.
“What do you see when you come out here?” Lyria asked.
Gnaxley sat on a rock in the cave, looking out. “Cold earth. Giant trees that want to fall. Rivers larger than the caverns and faster than rockslides.”
“And looking up?” Lyria asked.
“Space. Too much space.” Gnaxley regretted being so honest. He was supposed to be strong, he needed to be there for everyone.
“Space? Father,” Gnaxley felt his arm being pulled, and before he realized it he was out in the open. Exposed, naked to the wind, he had to escape. But his daughter was there. Gnaxley calmed himself.
“Look at the stars. Father, look at the stars.” Lyria whispered.
He looked up. There, beneath the ponderous moon, lay the stars. They lit and winked without rhyme or reason. They were there, lighting up the nothingness. Smaller than torchlight, with thrice the blinding glare.
“The stars fill the sky, a cavern of light above a pale sky,” Lyria said. She walked forward, hands outstretched. “I want to touch the light. I want to sit in the glow, be in this world of comfort and warmth.”
“And when it finds you dared to come out, how would it respond?”
Lyria turned to the cave, looking in.
“A goblin. A wretch, a thief, a grub in the dirt. That is what you are to them, Lyria. You’re not a being, you’re vermin. Something to kill and whet the appetite for a real challenge.”
Gnaxley walked towards the cave, head hung low. “Stop stretching towards the stars. You will only burn.
“Come inside, dear.”
The raid was set for tomorrow. Time moved differently up above than below, but Gnaxley was assured it would be night. Safer for the goblins who could see in the dark. The victims, no, the targets, would be asleep. They would die between breaths.
This was a human camp, a village on the outskirts of their species’ territories. It was far away from the elves and their hated bows, or the other goblins and their staked claims. Gnaxley didn’t have to ask if they ventured anywhere near the dwarves. No goblin wished to incur that wrath. Not yet.
Gnaxley stopped at a crevice, looking down and thinking. What was he forgetting? His loving wife? No, she had stopped loving him long ago. They slept on separate blankets, in different caverns if they could manage it. The children had been born long ago, and were now grown. There was no reason to keep up the pretense of romance.
As for the children, Gnaxley could not be more proud. His sons were much braver than he ever had been, and decisive. One of them, Glaile was already finding veins of precious metals and deep mushrooms below the caves. Some trades could establish relationships with outsiders, maybe even a permanent trade route. The goblins had been searching for some credence to the surface world for centuries, and his son had found it with his crew.
The others were good nuisances. One had apparently killed an elf. An elf! Gnaxley sat on a rock and recalled the story. The fool had dropped down a shaft, right in front of Brench. His son had been on the elf in an instant, knife already in hand and stabbing down before the elf even realized his leg was broken. Brench carried the hair out every now and again, just to show the naysayers that he was telling the truth.
They had all gotten a kick out of that tale when Brench showed up. He had been holding the head up high, asking what mushrooms go best with elf eyes. Adorable, and oh, how they all had laughed.
“Can’t believe that pup came from a runt like Gnaxley,” one of them said. Gnaxley couldn’t agree more.
They were good boys, honors to Gnix.
Gnix! That’s what he was forgetting. Gnaxley stood up, running through the tunnels. Forgetting to pray to his goddess, what could he be thinking? Gnix might be cruel. Or worse, she could be funny.
Gnix, trickster goddess of the goblins. She wasn’t cruel, she wasn’t kind. She was simply amusing to herself. She molded the goblins out of the crust of the earth, giving them scales for skin and long hair because it made no sense. She had gifted them fire, and weapons, occasionally even participated in battles. But she was gone in an instant, never satisfied to merely give satisfaction. Capricious to an art form.
Still, one did not wish to incur her wrath. Something as important as a raid demanded fealty and worship. She will be watching, to see who wished to strike off on his own luck. Just to make sure it turned.
Gnaxley turned the corner, rounding towards the altar. He would just say a quick prayer. Nothing that would make great Gnix take notice for either too pleading or not pleading enough. Just enough to be ignored.
“Great Gnix, watch over my father Gnaxley as he performs your work.”
Gnaxley ground to a stop, just behind an outcropping of rock. Prayers were supposed to be private spectacles. Gnix loved pranks, or jokes, and sometimes participated in such on her own people. But when one of her followers asked for solemnity, she obeyed. And may the gods protect those who dared violate such an event.
Gnaxley shouldn’t be here. But it was about him. As the subject of a prayer, he supposed he was meant to be there. Certainly he wasn’t being smote down from above. He snuck a peek.
Lyria kneeled at the altar, eyes closed and hands clasped at her sides. Above her rose the altar. It was the best the goblins could manage, carved straight out of the cavern, an indentation in the wall that rose to the ceilings. Candles, real wax candles bought or stolen from above, lit the chamber, giving a soft glow that Gnix found comforting. Her image filled the chamber, either laughing, or shouting, or jumping for joy in any pose around the room. She was given form in statues, paintings, there was even a wood carving leaning against a wall. Goblins were given to finding their goddess everywhere, and usually took their goddess back with them unless it was bolted down. And if they happened to have the proper tools, not even then.
The only feature that distinguished Gnix in all her forms was her smile. A half-smile, the right corner of her mouth was always turned up. There was always something the goddess found funny, even in the depths of her wrath. Possibly because she found her own rage humorous.
“Gnaxley was given your name to honor you, great Trickster. Protect your descendant, even from his own folly.”
Gnaxley kneeled down, listening in.
“I love my father, Gnix. Even if he doesn’t wish me to love my life, he cares. He fights on, in fear and doubt and sadness, he fights on. Let him find his joy. Let him find his peace.”
“She gives a good speech,” Gnix murmured.
“In fact, that is the most eloquent that particular altar has ever waxed since those candles were placed there a century ago.” The goddess said. “I should know, since I made sure your grandfather wasn’t stung too much when he pilfered that bee temple.”
Gnaxley stopped. He didn’t know if his complexion could turn any paler, given its natural pigment. But he gave it a true attempt as he faced his goddess.
The goddess of the goblins looked blue. A blue glow shined off her scales, deep and low to bask in her beauty rather than blind it. She was dressed in a red dress cut off at the thigh to move around the cavern. There was dirt all along her very fine legs. Even the way her claws scraped along the cavern wall was a melody to Gnaxley’s ears.
“Look up, Gnaxley. You’re staring wrong.”
Gnaxley snapped up to look into the yellow eyes. Gnix smiled.
“There’s that wonder and fear.”
“Gr-gr-great Gnix,” Gnaxley stammered. He should be bowing. No, kneeling. Prostrate on the ground? Which would she prefer?
“Oh, dear Gnaxley,” Gnix said, brightening her hue. “I’ve missed your mind. It stammers even when it thinks. Come here and give your goddess a hug.”
Gnaxley rushed his goddess, hugging her. She was cool, and enclosed him in her arms. Suddenly everything poured out of him. He hated his life, his wife. She was mean to him, who makes their own husband lick their claws clean before he eats rat? And her rats were disgusting, you’re supposed to use a deeper mushroom and the stem. And burn the darn stem with the rat, it clears away the fur and the char accentuates the stem’s own flavor. How hard is rat?
And his kids. They always laughed at him, never cleaned the house, except for Lyria. All he wanted to do was be alive and safe and not have to go on raids.
Gnaxley spasmed as his sides were suddenly prickled with claws. A new sensation was there, and a claw clamped over his mouth. He started screaming out, muffled tears pouring down his eyes as his goddess tickled him mercilessly. Gnix held him close, her smirk shining as her fingers trailed across his sides. Gnaxley started laughing, coughs being worked through.
Tickling. He was prostrate on the ground, and in the embrace of his goddess she felt that his heart needed a good raking of gentle claws. There may have been more powerful goddesses, and gods that moved the heavens and the earth with impunity, but truly there were none such as Gnix. Only she understood a goblin and its lovely malice.
After an eternity Gnix released him. He laid on the ground, wheezing as air finally returned to his lungs. Gnix looked away towards the altar.
“You’ve been holding that rambling far too long. Your thoughts are far too ordered and meek, Gnaxley. You need to straighten them out.”
Lyria stayed at the altar. If she had heard anything, there was no sign. Gnix smiled, warmly this time. “That one, she has her thoughts straight. It’s her body that is wrong. I’d change it if I could, but she is quite content to be where she is, miserable.”
“What,” Gnaxley took a deep breath, composing himself. “What about her stars?”
“She’ll grow out of them.” Gnix said. “In time. She just needs to recognize that truth.”
“Why?” Gnaxley asked.
“Because I want her safe,” Gnix said. “And I can’t be there all the time. She needs protection, you all need my protection. You’d all have been wiped out centuries ago if it weren’t for my intervention. I need to watch over all my people. If some girl wants to run away from the flock and look at lights in the sky, she has to take her risks.”
“So she either dies outside,” Gnaxley said. “Or inside.”
“Death,” Gnix let her fingers trail through the haze of flame, “is change, Gnaxley. Change is all we are rushing towards. Goblins especially. There is always something different. Not more, not less, but different. It is when we get caught up in the sameness of it all that problems arise.”
“She’s going to be less because of me.” Gnaxley said.
“It’s her choice. Her prayers are for you.”
Gnaxley stood up. “Her prayers are for my joy.”
Gnix’s smirk returned. “You always were smarter than you were told.”
“Gnix, please give her the safety to carry out her dreams. Let my daughter have the opportunity to be who she wishes to be.”
“Be careful, Gnaxley.” Gnix stood, and suddenly she was larger than the cavern. Gnaxley took a step back. “You ask what you do not understand. There will be consequences, both for you and your family. Are you willing to accept this so your daughter can twirl through the night? Are you willing to be changed?”
Gnix smiled, and spat in her hand. She stuck it out to Gnaxley. “Deal.”
They clasped claws.
Lyria disappeared just before the raid.
Gnaxley hefted his sword, shaking his head. He understood why she had done it. Everyone was busy preparing, too busy to watch for a little girl with her head in the clouds. But he had noticed the pack that had been bulging underneath her cot. And the practiced scratchings of a map. The drips of a hastily drawn water skin that led towards the upper caves.
No one paid much attention to her absence. Lyria was smart, determined, independent, and happy. His wife had considered shoving Lyria down a shaft to hide the shame and save everyone the trouble. When Gnaxley got back he considered throwing some mud in his wife’s face. Or something stronger.
Figures. Even in his fantasies he couldn’t imagine killing his wife. Gnaxley truly was a coward.
He chased after the rest of the raiders. They were all experienced, but always in need of more hands. The more you took, the more you kept. Kills were rewarded, as well as keeping a portion of the meat. A good raid could feed a family for a month. For three if you season the meat right. Six if you didn’t care if it went rancid.
Everyone was considered expendable. Each goblin knew the risks.
Gnaxley looked at the village. Filled with loggers, taking trees by the root to clear more land to inhabit. They made their own clearing, but there was no wall. Good, and all the lights were off to boot. Simple dash in and kill anything that moved.
The raiders stood at the edge of the clearing for a moment. Then Brench howled, running forward. The rest of the horde soon followed.
The lights flared alive, and a man stepped out of one of the outlying houses, staff in hand. No, no they couldn’t have a sorcerer. They couldn’t afford a sorcerer.
Gnaxley knew that there were these legends called heroes. They were savage killers, allied to those of moral superiority with enough coin and comfort to have morals. They had access to power that rightfully remained with the gods. Like this person. It couldn’t be a sorcerer. The villagers couldn’t have raised enough money.
Lightning flashed on a cloudless night, alighting on his staff. Yup, that was a sorcerer. They were all going to die.
Gnaxley watched as the lightning sped through Brench’s chest. His precious elf hair burned with the rest of him, and the five raiders behind him. The rest of the horde scattered. Some continued their charge, even as the humans started to pour out of their houses, armed and ready. A few with a sense of self-preservation turned tail and fled, pierced by arrows and lightning bolts alike.
Gnaxley stood still and looked up. The stars were out, as well as a waxing moon. It shone down on the humans already bearing down him. Around him goblins jostled him in every direction, but the moon stood still, looking down at him.
A flicker of a shadow traced across the moon. Was it a smirk?
Nope. That was an arrow. Coming straight at him.
Lyria shivered, huddling further into her cloak. The outside world was both warmer and colder than she ever could have believed. She had only ever tried to scale the hills to the crest. Going down left her feeling exposed, and open. It was wonderful, and terrifying.
There had been a lightning flash earlier. Lyria wept a tear in its direction, knowing that the raiders were supposedly in that direction. If it had been any magic, she might be without some brothers. Or worse, an orphan.
Lyria had wished to say goodbye to her father. But to face him, to look him in the eye and say that she was never to return, was unbearable. She would not have been able to leave. So instead she sat in underbrush, waiting for the cold to subside so she could continue to the river. From there she would find a town. A friendly town.
A friendly town to goblins. Was there even a place? Lyria knew the odds. If need be, she would live on the outskirts. Make the outside world respect her, if not like her. Great Gnix, she was a little girl.
Lyria stopped thinking and concentrated. Get down off the hills. Get out of the goblin territory into her unknown. Be warm, welcoming, and ready to run. Always be wary of offered help, and never look down on offered work. Nothing is beneath me.
There is always a joke to be found in a dark world. That was her favored saying of great Gnix. No matter the peril, no matter the sorrow, there will be a laugh to be found.
Footsteps sounded above her. Lyria stiffened, and snuck a peek through the brush. Up above, looking through the hills, were three human males. They were dressed warmly, and well-armed. One of them bore a staff, looking around questioningly.
“I still don’t understand why your village insisted on hunting down any stragglers.” The staff wielder muttered. “Those goblins that survived will never return.”
“Says you.” Another male said. “But what if they seek vengeance?”
“Goblins?” The other man laughed. “They’re not concerned with vengeance. This raid wasn’t personal. They were just hungry.”
“And wanted to make a meal out of me and mine,” The second man shot back, kicking at the mountain. “We hired you to take care of our problems, sorcerer. Are you planning on abandoning us now?”
The sorcerer stood still, and Lyria almost shuddered at the man’s expression. “Every one of the souls in your sad little village is safe because of me. I have performed exactly as the contract bade. If you want me to start taking out entire goblin villages and running a one-man war, think again. Ten villages your size could not scrape enough coin together.”
The sorcerer turned away from the second man, turning away from the trail. The second man kicked again, and threw his sword in frustration. It tumbled over and over, to land in the bushes next to Lyria.
The man scowled, starting after the blade. Lyria almost screamed, grabbing at the weapon. She was never good at fighting. But sticking the end into the other person was the idea. What if she couldn’t?
The hills rumbled, rocks starting to fall. The sorcerer turned back, looking down. “Man, get down!”
“That’s my sword!” The second shouted.
“That’s a rockslide.” The sorcerer said, pointing up. Sure enough, the stones had begun to roll down the hills. One bounced, just whizzing over the brush Lyria laid in.
The man ducked, and cursed. He started to move towards the brush again, and a boulder rolled past him. He turned and fled, shouting at the sorcerer already fleeing down the other side of the mountain.
Lyria lay for a moment in the brush, clutching the sword like a stuffed animal. When she could hear no more stones, she looked up. The sky was still clear, though the hillside itself was a mess. Turf was pulled up and strewn across the path, and a fresh pile of rubble lay at the bottom, nestled between a sturdy copse of trees.
Lyria could see the two men walking down the path, the second one still cursing.
“Lousy rockslide. I was certain we almost had an entrance discovered.”
A branch caught his trousers, tearing a hole along his rear.
The two stopped, looking at the new hole. The sorcerer laughed. “We have indeed!”
The other man started to kick again, then thought better of it, and simply folded his hands behind him, trudging towards town. The sorcerer followed, giggles escaping from him every few minutes.
Lyria smirked, and turned the other direction. She knew the river curved a little bit. Once she got on the other side, there’d be no sign of her or the goblins. Everyone would be safe.
She hoped Gnaxley was safe. She had prayed for it.
Gnaxley watched as his daughter walked down the hills. She looked more confident than when he usually saw her. Relaxed in her surety. The night air, cold though it was, was doing some good. Not that he felt it. He didn’t really feel anything.
He looked back at his hands, wondering how they moved. The wisps followed right behind where he thought his hands were, making his movements seem slower, languid. If he concentrated, the trails of smoke stopped. But it made his movements seem jerked, sudden. He’d discover a happy medium.
He was happy that he could still function as a ghost. He wasn’t able to affect the living souls, but that tree only needed a slight encouragement to tear along the man’s trousers. And the rocks were almost already set in place for a tumble. Gnaxley didn’t want to question good fortune too much.
He was losing sight of Lyria. Gnaxley started moving, a smirk back on his face. He’d find a way to make her laugh soon.
There was bound to be some humor in this wide world.