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Goblin Lullaby

Lay your head down and close your eyes.

Make no sound as you rest,

for the faintest snores or cries

bring tunnel cats to chew your flesh.

–From the goblin lullaby "Sleep in Silence"

The drums started again just as Grell was setting the last of the newborns in the oversized wooden crib at the back of the nursery cave. She clenched her teeth as she watched the baby goblin's blue face wrinkle in protest. With one hand, she readied a sugar-knot, a bit of hard honey candy knotted in cloth. The instant the drooling mouth opened, she jammed the sugar-knot inside.

The swaddled goblin baby started and opened her eyes, but the sugar-knot worked. Instead of screaming, she began to suck herself back to sleep...even as the other fourteen newborns crammed into the crib stirred and fussed. Fifteen if you counted the runt Jig, currently harnessed in a makeshift sling against Grell's chest. Normally, the goblins would have left him on the surface to die, but another nursery worker named Kralk had bet Grell a month of diaper-cleaning that Jig wouldn't survive long enough to see the next full moon. The pale, wrinkled baby hadn't left Grell's sight since.

"Stupid war drums," Grell muttered. "Might as well send a messenger to the enemy, screaming 'Ready your weapons, because another swarm of goblins is preparing to charge in like idiots!'" She crossed the nursery, gathering more sugar-knots from the shelves and shoving them into the pockets on either side of her heavily stained apron. Lanterns on the floor gave off green light and filled the obsidian-walled cave with the scent of fermented plant oils and distilled mushrooms. Grell always added mushrooms to the mix. On most nights, the sour smell seemed to help the babies sleep, but not tonight.

Kralk, the only other so-called adult in the nursery cave, gave a lazy shrug. Ill-fitting metal plates rang softly on her forearms. Piecemeal armor also protected her legs from the overeager attacks of the goblins who were old enough to walk. "The warriors say it gives them strength and brings fear to their enemies."

"These are the same warriors who end up bleeding all over the mountain every time another band of adventurers comes a-questing?" Grell snapped. She jabbed the end of her cane into Kralk's shoulder. "Go take care of the older ones before they get all excited. Braf is getting his adult fangs, and he's chewing everything that moves." Last night she had caught Braf gnawing one leg of the crib. Only a well-placed whack with Grell's cane had stopped him from chewing all the way through.

Grell began shoving sugar-knots into the mouths of the other babies. She caught herself moving with the rhythm of the war drum, which only annoyed her further.

Three days the goblins had been fighting this latest group of adventurers. Three days of crying babies and cranky toddlers. Three days without a decent night's sleep. Her eyes were gritty, her joints ached, and the next time she caught Kralk sitting on that bucket sucking candy from the children's sugar-knots, Grell was going to ram her cane down her throat.

No...Grell had a better idea. Shoving the rest of the sugar-knots into her pocket, she turned away from the crib and headed for the door out of the nursery. The low wooden door was the heaviest, sturdiest door in the goblin lair, not out of concern for the safety of the children, but to muffle the sounds from the nursery.

"Where are you going?" Kralk shouted, loud enough to startle the few babies who had stopped crying.

"To shut those fools up," Grell said, snatching one of the lanterns. She wrapped an extra blanket over her shoulder, tying the ends around Jig's sling. She took a well-patched sack and brushed the cobwebs from the strap. Into this she shoved a few rags, a fresh skin of milk, and a teething stick. She shifted her cane to her other hand as she slipped the strap over one shoulder, adjusting Jig's sling to balance it out. The pain in her lower back made her grimace.

"Why don't you leave Jig here?" Kralk called.

Grell spat. "And wipe your share of arses for a month when I come back and find him 'mysteriously' dead? No thanks." She slammed her cane against the rock, rousing the babies into even louder crying fits. The delightful sound of Kralk's curses followed her as she slipped into the tunnel to the main lair.

* * *

Nobody challenged Grell as she made her way through the lair and out of the mountain. She could move quietly when she wanted, and most of the warriors were busy getting themselves slaughtered. When she reached the crumbling overhang where the goblin lair opened to the rest of the world, she extinguished the lantern and hid it behind a small bush. The sun was starting to rise, turning the skies pink and making her eyes water.

She tightened the blanket around herself and Jig. The runt didn't even produce enough heat to help her ward off the chill of the morning air. His rheumy yellow eyes were wrinkled shut against the sun, but aside from the sucking of his sugar-knot, he didn't make a sound. "Smart baby," Grell muttered. "You're better company than Kralk, I'll give you that much."

The wind whipped through stunted pine trees, sprinkling them both with brown needles. Jig sneezed, spitting his sugar-knot onto his stomach and spraying Grell with a mist of spit and other unsavory things. Jamming the knot back into Jig's mouth, Grell headed downhill toward the source of the drumbeat.

The drummer was easy enough to find, standing at the back of a rocky ledge as he watched the battle below. Grell waited amidst the trees to make sure he was alone, then slipped a knife from her belt. She set her cane on the rock. All it would take was one quick blow...either to the drum or the drummer, she hadn't decided yet. She glanced down to make sure Jig was still content, then limped quietly into the open.

When she was almost within range, three things happened. An arrow hissed through the air...and through the drum, and then through the goblin. A tall, lithe figure dropped from the trees beside the clearing, a new arrow already nocked in his longbow. And baby Jig spat his sugar-knot into the dirt and began to cry.

Grell reacted without thinking: she lifted Jig from his sling, positioning him between herself and the archer.

"Drop the knife."

In the suddenness of the attack, she had forgotten about the knife. It was a miracle she hadn't stuck the baby. Keeping a firm grip on Jig, she loosened her fingers and let the knife clatter to the rock.

More shouts rose from the fight below. The archer whirled, fired, and drew another arrow, all before Grell could even think about shoving him off the outcropping. The wooden scales of his breastplate rattled slightly. The naked wood appeared flimsy to Grell's eye, but no goblin lived to be her age without learning a few things. That was elvish armor, magically hardened to be tougher and lighter than steel. Elves had a real fetish when it came to trees and wood.

"You'd bring your child to the field of battle?" he asked.

Grell lowered the wailing, struggling infant back into her sling. Jig was too puny to stop an arrow anyway. "He's not mine," she said. That was right...most surface-dwellers kept and raised the children they bore. The system seemed terribly inefficient to Grell.

"I've never seen a goblin infant," said the elf, stepping closer.

"You thought goblins sprang fully formed from the rocks for you to slaughter?" She jammed a knuckle into Jig's mouth for him to suck. His baby fangs were just beginning to pierce the gums, but the pain in her finger was better than listening to him cry.

"We slaughtered nobody." The voice came from below the outcropping. The elf relaxed his bow and knelt, hauling his companion up onto the ledge. "You goblins attacked us. We defended ourselves."

Grell stepped to the edge and studied the woods below. Goblin blood turned the earth a gruesome shade of blue. Elves wove through the trees, making no noise save the twang of bowstrings and the ripping sound of blades tearing through goblin armor and flesh. "Defended yourselves? Next time, why don't you defend yourselves over in the hobgoblin tunnels rather than sneaking onto our land to do it?"

The archer caught his companion by the arm. "She's an old woman, Jonathan. With a child."

"She's a goblin, Rindar." But he relaxed slightly. He was bulkier than his companion, and the mane of red hair meant he was no elf. Red stubble dotted his chin, though he was too young to grow a proper beard. He wore a heavy mail shirt, with a green tabard depicting a white dragon coiled around a tree. "If we let her live, she'll lead another attack against us."

Grell kicked the corpse of the goblin drummer. "If you let me live, I'll go back to the nursery and get some sleep."

"I won't risk letting you go free," said Jonathan. "Not until my quest is complete."

Grell rolled her eyes. "What is it about you humans and your quests? Last month it was that knight who wanted to hunt a dragon. Before that it was the wizard and those little fellows. But no matter how important these stupid quests are supposed to be, you all have time to stop and kill goblins along the way."

Jonathan glared. "You're lucky honor prevents me from slaying women or children, goblin."

Grell would have to remember that. Next time, they should send an all-female group to ambush the adventurers.

"We will be away from your mountain soon enough," Jonathan went on. "Once we have rescued the stone witch, we can use her power to help overthrow my Uncle Wendel, and I shall take my rightful—"

"The stone witch?" Grell asked. Jig was beginning to fuss again. She bounced him against her chest, but he kept kicking and clawing. Why did baby claws have to be so blasted sharp? She caught one tiny hand and began biting off the tips of the black nails as Jig squirmed.

Jonathan drew his sword, adjusting his grip until the moonlight glinted off the blade. "This sword belonged to her lover, the great knight Gregor Williamson." For a magical artifact, it was an unimpressive thing. Plain, single-edged steel, with a leather-wrapped hilt. The crossguard was hammered brass. "It is the key to resisting the curse laid upon the witch by her traitorous brother, the Warlock of Silverdale. Many years I searched for this blade, while living in the deepest woods with the elves."

Grell spat a bit of claw onto the rock. "Many years?" She was no expert on humans, but she guessed the prince's age to be no more than fourteen or fifteen.

Jonathan's face darkened, but he kept talking. "Even after all these centuries, the edge remains magically sharp, an artifact of great power. With this blade, I will free my—"

At that point, baby Jig interrupted Jonathan's lecture. With a noise that could have come from a goblin twice his size, Jig filled his diaper.

"Disgusting," Jonathan said, backing away.

"What do you feed him?" asked the elf, Rindar. His nose wrinkled, but he seemed less horrified than his human companion.

"Milk diluted with the blood of whatever we happened to kill that day," Grell said. She set Jig on the ground and untied the knots holding his diaper in place. Moving with the efficiency of many years, she wiped him clean, knotted a replacement diaper between his kicking legs, and carried the soiled diaper to the edge of the ledge. Holding it by one corner, she flung the worst of the contents down the mountainside, narrowly missing one of the elven warriors. She bundled the diaper into a ball and crammed it back into her sack. Kralk could wash it when she returned.

Jonathan was still staring in horror. He pointed his sword at Grell. "On your hand...."

Grell glanced down, then wiped her soiled hand on her apron. Drool dripped down Jig's chin as he grinned at her, showing tiny white fangs on the blue nubs of his gums.

"If I take you to the witch's tomb, will you go away?" Grell asked.

They stared. "You know where the witch is imprisoned?" asked the elf.

Grell pointed to the goblin corpses below. "So did any one of them, if you'd bothered to ask." She dumped Jig back into the sling and adjusted the straps. She wasn't looking forward to this hike. Her back and shoulders already hurt, and her knee popped with every step she took. "Hand me my cane. Unless your noble quest requires you to wipe out another patrol of goblins first?"

* * *

Silver minnows darted away from Grell's cane as she waded up a shallow stream. Algae and other plant guck made the footing treacherous. Mud swirled from the rock with each step. She hadn't hiked to the witch's tomb in years. Had the way always been so steep?

"Jonathan will be a great ruler," said Rindar, walking alongside. Jonathan followed a few steps behind, sword in hand as he searched the mountainside for more goblins to defend himself against. The other elves brought up the rear, silent as ghosts.

Like his pointy-eared companions, Rindar showed no trace of discomfort or fatigue. Stupid elves.

"I've done my best to teach him wisdom and peace," Rindar added, "though he still struggles with his passions. His Uncle Wendel ordered him executed when he was barely older than the child you carry. Jonathan was the rightful heir to the throne, the only obstacle to Wendel's power. Only fate saved him. My cousin was at the palace that day, serving as ambassador to the humans. He overheard, and conspired to save Jonathan. When Wendel's servant came to take the child, my cousin spirited him away to the south, where we—"

"Why didn't Wendel just cut the boy's throat?" Grell asked. "Why trust a servant to do it?"

"What?" Rindar blinked, giving Grell a moment of satisfaction. How many goblins could say they had shaken the composure of an elf?

Before Grell could answer, Rindar stopped in mid-step. One hand seized Grell's arm, halting her motion. He raised his other hand, fingers balled in a fist.

Grell's ears perked. She heard it too. The clatter of pebbles farther up the mountain, and a faint whispering.

"What is it, Rindar?" asked Jonathan. Those puny round ears really were as useless as they looked.

"Ambush," whispered the elf.

"The goblin has led us into a trap." Jonathan advanced toward Grell, sword raised, but Rindar shook his head.

"Think, your majesty. Goblins are not known for such carefully laid ambushes. I warned you when you found that sword that there was danger in wielding it. The magic in that blade-

"-can be traced by anyone with the proper skill and power," Jonathan finished, sounding annoyed. "Yes, I know."

"How far to the tomb of the stone witch?" asked Rindar.

"Not far." Grell's legs were killing her. The cold water had soaked her sandals and numbed her feet.

"They will have trouble pinpointing our location," Rindar said. "We should still be able to rescue the stone witch before Wendel's scouts discover us, so long as we move swiftly and silently."

Jig hiccupped in his sleep, bouncing his head against Grell's chest. His eyes blinked open. Grell fished for a sugar-knot, but she wasn't fast enough. Hungry and cold, Jig opened his mouth and wailed.

Horns began to blow. She heard men running and shouting through the trees. She flattened her ears. First the drums, now horns. Couldn't anyone fight a quiet battle?

"Lead them away," Rindar snapped. Instantly, the other elves leapt from the stream, racing between the trees on either side. Rindar grabbed Jonathan by the arm. "We are outnumbered. We must get to the witch." 

The elves had already drawn their bows, firing at targets they could only hear as they disappeared into the woods. Show-offs.

"Come," said Rindar.

Grell finally dug a sugar-knot from her sack. It was covered in dirt and fuzz, but most goblins ate worse things on a daily basis. She would have to stop and feed Jig soon, but hopefully this would keep him quiet until they reached the tomb. Or until Wendel's army killed them.

* * *

Grell put both hands on her cane, resting as much of her weight as she could without snapping the wood. "There," she said. "That jagged crack, behind the fallen pine tree."

She followed them to the entrance. The pine tree was twice as thick as a goblin. (And many goblins could be thick indeed.) She stooped, squeezing through the space where generations of goblins had broken away the smaller branches. Inside, the sunlight dimmed, giving way to a pink glow from the far side of the cave. Insects littered the floor, unmoving and seemingly dead. A young deer lay beyond, its nose almost touching a scattered pile of berries.

Jonathan swung his sword at the fallen tree. The enchanted blade sheared through the branches like they were nothing but smoke.

"The witch is there," said Rindar, pointing to the rear of the cave. A line of boulders blocked the body from view. More than one goblin had tried to see what lay hidden there, but the curse on the witch was too powerful. A single step inside the cave was safe enough. A second left you feeling as though you hadn't slept in days. A third step, and all the war drums in the world would fail to rouse you.

Grell yawned. Exhausted as she was, the fate of the stone witch's was highly tempting.

"Do you remember the incantation I taught you?" Rindar asked.

"I remember," said Jonathan, clutching his sword.

Rindar squeezed Jonathan's arm, a proud smile momentarily melting that frigid elvish face. "This is your moment. The goblin and I can go no farther." He pointed at the deer. "Without the sword, we'll suffer the same fate as that poor creature." He peered more closely at the deer, and his forehead wrinkled. "Those berries are fresh. Someone else has been here."

"They were thrown in," said Grell. Jig was getting fussy, and it smelled like he had filled his diaper again. She sat down, groaning as she dropped her sack and pulled Jig out of his sling.

"Why?" asked Jonathan.

"Because deer like berries." He still looked confused. This was the future leader of the humans? "The deer come into the cave. The curse makes them sleep. The goblins come around every few days and use ropes and poles to drag the deer out. The animals are usually groggy when they wake up, so there's time to cut their throats."

Rindar's left eye twitched. Grell couldn't tell if he was angry or trying not to laugh. "A curse left by one of the mightiest warlocks ever to roam this world, and you goblins use hunt deer?"

"Deer, rabbits, squirrels. Sometimes wolves or coyotes will sneak in to eat the other animals. Once a family of bears tried to hibernate here for the winter. Those were good days." She shook a bladder of milk and snake blood, mixing it all together while Jig fussed.

Removing the stopper, she jammed the end between his lips. The curved neck of the bladder let her shove small, measured swallows into his mouth.

Another horn blew. Jig jumped, and bloody milk dribbled down his chin and chest. He coughed the rest into Grell's face for good measure.

"They're getting closer," said Rindar. He drew his sword and slipped out of the cave. "Be quick, your majesty." Without a sound, he disappeared.

Jig whimpered, and Grell poked the end of the bladder back into his mouth. Jonathan had his sword in both hands, and was taking slow, measured steps toward the rear of the cave.

"A lifetime I've waited for this moment," he whispered. "A lifetime I've borne the injustices of my uncle, exiled to the elven woods, unable even to speak with other humans, for fear I would be discovered. But no longer. Finally, I will return to the northlands and claim the throne for my own." He stopped, glancing at the light coming through the entrance, then at the sword in his hands. When he spoke again, it was in a voice so soft another human probably wouldn't have heard. "And I will leave the only home I've ever known."

Jig choked and coughed. Grell yanked the skin away and sat him up, where he proceeded to spit up. "You barely drank anything," Grell snapped, wiping the warm, damp mess from her leg. "How can that stunted little body produce so much more than it takes in?"

Jonathan took a deep breath and kept walking. Pink light cast weird shadows over his face as he stepped past the rocks. "Rindar never told me she would be so beautiful."

Grell snorted. "Don't you listen to your own bards? Name one song where the hero rescues an ugly maiden."

"Shut up, goblin."

Grell shrugged and turned her attention back to Jig who, from the smell of it, had taken Grell's words as a personal challenge to prove exactly how much more his little body could expel. She waited to make sure he was finished, then set him down with his head resting on her leg. Holding the skin of milk in one hand, she used her other to untie the leaking diaper, wipe the worst of the mess, and wad the whole thing into a squishy ball.

Outside, she could hear the elves and humans fighting in the distance. The occasional close scream let her track Rindar's progress as he led the rest away from the cave.

With one last look at the entrance, Jonathan raised the sword. "Rise, milady. I hold the sword of Gregor Williamson. By the love and power bound within this ancient steel, I command you to awaken." The light at the rear of the cave grew brighter, turning the color of human blood.

The horns blew again. Grell's shoulders tensed. "How much longer?" she asked.

"Soon," said Jonathan. "Soon I will begin to avenge the injustices of—"

"And then you'll be gone?" Grell asked.

"You know nothing of war, goblin." Jonathan took a step back, breathing hard. Sweat dripped down his face. Apparently breaking ancient curses was hard work. "The elves are too few to stand against Wendel here. We will retreat to the safety of the elven forest. The stone witch will need time to regain her full powers. We will strike again and again, sapping my uncle's strength, until we—"

"The elven forest?" Grell repeated. "That's south of here, right?"

"That's right. We will—"

"And this Wendel fellow. His lands are north of here?"

Jonathan nodded impatiently. "As the witch's strength grows, Wendel's will wane, and—"

"And we'll be stuck in the middle of your stupid war," Grell finished. The goblin chief would certainly send patrols out to ambush both sides. Goblins had a long, proud tradition of looting battlefields and defeating enemies who were too battered to fight back. And the whole time, the goblins would beat those thrice-damned drums, the humans would blow their horns, and they would all be screaming and shouting, because none of them would have the decency to die quietly.

"You have something to say to me, goblin?" Jonathan pointed his sword at her. "Speak, if you must."

"Do you want Wendel's throne?" Grell snapped.

Jonathan stared. "My father's blood pounds through my veins like fire, screaming for justice. My mother's dying screams echo in my dreams, demanding—"

"Do you want it?" she repeated. Jonathan's jaw clenched, but he said nothing. Grell rolled her eyes. "Go home, boy."

"You know nothing of justice or honor, goblin." Jonathan closed his eyes and raised his sword again.

"I know children," Grell said. "Go home. Let the rest of us get some sleep."

Jonathan spun, his face dark. "Be careful how you address me, or I'll forget you serve no further use."

"I thought honorable men didn't kill women and children," Grell said.

"You're a goblin. You'd turn on me in the end anyway, and I'd be forced to cut you down." Jonathan began to move around from the witch's stone grave, sword held high.

He had taken only a single step when Grell grabbed the wadded diaper and hurled it at him.

The prince moved with the reflexes of an elf-trained warrior, instinctively moving to block the missile with his sword...his enchanted sword, with the supernaturally sharp edge. The blade sliced clean through the diaper, spraying its contents all over his neck, chest, and arms.

Grell had never seen such an expression of horror and disgust. For several heartbeats, Jonathan stood frozen. Then he was screaming and ripping the tabard from his body. The sword clattered to the ground as he tried desperately to get the tabard over his head while avoiding the soiled spots.

He didn't have time to realize his mistake. With the tabard still raised partially over his face, Jonathan toppled to the ground, asleep.

"What a shame," Grell said. The body of the would-be prince had fallen behind the rocks. "Waste of a good meal."

* * *

Grell found Rindar in hand-to-hand combat with two human scouts. For some reason, Rindar had gone back to using his bow and arrow, while the humans thrust at him with short swords. Rindar twisted and leapt, avoiding lunge after lunge until one of the humans stumbled. Quicker than Grell could see, Rindar drew and fired. The arrow ripped through both men, who collapsed to the ground.

Elves were such show-offs. Grell hobbled closer, slapping the rocks with her cane so he would be sure to hear.

"What happened?" Rindar asked. "Is Jonathan—"

"He got halfway through his incantation and dropped his sword."

The sound that escaped Rindar's open mouth was somewhere between a laugh and a sob. "How?"

Grell shrugged. "I was busy with an oozing diaper at the time. Maybe the warlock placed a second curse to trap any would-be rescuers. Maybe his hands were sweaty and he lost his grip. Maybe he just didn't want to be king. How should I know?"

Rindar's face went still, losing what little color it had. "Jonathan...the sword...can we retrieve it?"

"He was standing behind the tomb when he fell." She leaned on her cane, using her other hand to bounce Jig in his sling.

Rindar slipped his bow over one shoulder. He looked like he was about to fall down. "I shouldn't have left him," he whispered.

"You said he was the last heir to that throne, right?" Grell asked.

Rindar nodded.

"So his uncle would be the legitimate ruler now."

Another slow, stunned nod.

"Which means there's really no reason to keep up all this fighting?"

Rindar moved slowly, like a man underwater. He removed a silver chain from around his neck. A long, gold whistle hung at the end of the chain. The high, piercing sound was more than enough to start Jig crying again.

"I failed him," Rindar whispered.

Grell was already making her way back to the cave, flattening her ears against Jig's crying. If that fool elf kept standing there all forlorn, he would be an easy target for Wendel and his human soldiers. As for Grell, there was no way she was going to hike back to the lair with humans and elves racing about the mountain. Goblins too, once they scrounged another drum. She could wait until tomorrow, when the elves had retreated and things settled down.

Inside the witch's cave, she emptied out her sack and set the still-wailing Jig inside. She stifled a yawn as she looped the strap over the end of her cane. With both hands, she lifted the sack further into the cave until Jig's cries died down.

With that, she gathered the fallen branches from outside the cave and lay them down beside her. She bundled a clean rag beneath her head and closed her eyes. The sticks would prevent her from rolling into the cave and falling under the enchantment. Rocks dug into her back, and the pink light from the back was a bit distracting, not to mention the pine-scented breeze blowing in the entrance.

But for the first time in days, neither horns nor drums nor wailing children interrupted her rest.


Author's Note: From the very first day I started writing about Jig, he was always the runt of the lair. He survived through luck and cleverness, with some help from his fire-spider Smudge. But after writing the first two books, I found myself wondering how he had survived as an infant. Goblins didn't strike me as being terribly protective of their young, so how did Jig live long enough to grow up and start looking after himself?

When Brittiany Koren invited me to write a humorous fantasy story for Fantasy Gone Wrong, I knew it was time to answer that question. Getting to write about a younger Grell and Kralk was a bonus.

This story was dedicated to my then four-month-old son. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out why.

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