Fiction: The Goblin Prince

The Goblin Prince
(From the short story collection Tending the Fire)

There came a day when there were no more rats in Lanheim's cobbled streets. Such a thing did not occur all at once, but slowly over months, as the pests dwindled and disappeared like snow beneath spring rain. It was the apothecary, naturally, who first noticed something amiss, as it was his business that faltered and his fortunes that shriveled. Before long, the missing rodents were the subject of a hundred conversations, whispering through windows and echoing through alleyways. There was much rejoicing in Lanheim, as few things were so despised as the rats. Since the founding of the city, they had been plagued by the rodents, which crept up from the sewers to steal scraps from above and spread disease and filth like weeds in a garden.

Besides the apothecary, there was one other who did not celebrate. When word spread to the old priest he only shook his head. It was he who first posed the question, "Where did they go, then?"

He asked the mayor, who had come to church with his daughter, a girl of eight. The mayor laughed at this. "Swept out to the river, most likely."

The priest only shook his head. "I remember when I first came here. I remember trading words with your father, while he planned the sewers." His eyes narrowed. The priest had waited forty years to continue this argument. That the man he’d originally debated was two decades buried made little difference.

"My father's work helped this city flourish," the mayor replied.

"I told him then, if you build a path towards Hell it is only a matter of time before it is found."

"I dislike your tone. Would you have us live in our waste, like... like our neighbors to the west? Lanheim is the cleanest city for a hundred leagues, choose your direction."

"Your streets may be clean," the priest answered, "but that is all."

“Bah!” cried the mayor, and they parted ways. But a doubt was placed in the mayor’s mind, and it wriggled down and settled deep. He could feel it when he lay awake in bed: the priest’s question stayed with him, and he could almost hear it whispered, “Where have the rats gone?”

And as it always does, time provided an answer. It was the mayor’s daughter who first caught sight of something moving in a grate. She ran to her father with her golden hair trailing after her. “I saw something!” she told him. “I saw it move!”

She brought her father to the sewer grate and pointed, but there was nothing there. “What did you see?” the mayor demanded.

“It was... I saw... just eyes,” she answered, shaken. She pulled back, trying to distance herself from the drain, then added, “Red, glowing eyes.”

“It was nothing,” the mayor said, and his words echoed through the streets, spoken by other mouths to help them along. Indeed, there was reason for those words to be said again and again, for other children saw movement, as well. Movement or eyes looking back.

And then one day in spring, after the rain fell hard like cold stones and rivulets ran like fingers through the cobbled streets, the butcher’s wife looked into a storm drain and shrieked. The butcher, who was walking at her side, covered her eyes and pulled her to his chest. Then he called for others, who gathered round to examine the discovery.

Green, spotted skin, slick and wet, hung loose round sharp bone. Animal features and eyes – empty eyes – stared back with a lifeless gaze. The mouth was open, tongue dangling between sharp teeth. The arms slung at its side, twisted and broken, ending in outstretched hands and pointed claws.

“A goblin,” it was whispered, and the question was answered. What is a rat to a man but a pest? But to a goblin, it is meat. No sooner was the word spoken than it was repeated, by a hundred mouths quivering, while one mouth smiled. “Goblins, aye,” the apothecary said to the mayor that same day, “Why, I’ve just the recipe for goblins.”

The town coffers were opened, and money changed hands with few questions asked and fewer still answered. The apothecary, who had known a long season of poverty, found great funds and wealth at his disposal. He went to work, ordering supplies from far-off lands, while the priest watched anxiously. When the mixture was ready, bits of meat and cheese were hung from cords and lowered into the sewers.

That summer, it is said, the smell of death crept into the roads. Hardly a day passed without a goblin body found, washed against a pipe or lying in the street. And yet the sightings increased in number: a flash of motion through a grate or worse: shadows began appearing in the streets in the dark of night. Cats began to vanish, and soon there were none in Lanheim.

The poison wasn’t enough. The mayor confessed this, and he sought other solutions. Traps were set, but these seldom found success. Oil was poured into the drains then lit, although this practice had to be abandoned after a storehouse caught fire and burned to the ground. Hunting dogs were sent for, fed goblin flesh until they grew mad, and were unleashed into the tunnels. Their howls were heard as they hunted, but they never returned. This was never repeated after the shipwright motioned at a hound and was overheard muttering, “Just meat, themselves. Just more meat.”

The mayor spent his days pacing, writing to other cities, and meeting with the townspeople. The priest’s visits were frequent, far more so than the mayor liked.

“You’ve opened the gates to Hell!” the priest shouted. “Now see what’s crawled out!”

“Have you nothing useful to offer?” the mayor asked. “Has the church a single constructive thought on the matter? On any matter?” Of course the priest had nothing but a scowl to give in response.

Soldiers were conscripted to watch the streets. Crossbows and spears were passed around, and they managed to kill a few in the darkest hours of the night. Tragedy struck, however, when the blacksmith’s son, having snuck from his home, was mistaken for a goblin and shot dead. The blacksmith wept for a week, and called for the guilty soldier’s execution. The mayor refused, and in the end the blacksmith left town with what remained of his family. It is said the mayor regretted his decision, for the loss of a blacksmith is harder felt than that of a soldier.

Afterwards, it was made clear to the guards that the mercy shown to one soldier would not be shown a second time. Hands were steadied, and no one fired at moving shadows or shapes unless they could be seen clearly. The number killed decreased like the river in autumn, but such is the price of discretion.

It was in this time, and because of this disaster, that when two soldiers heard a shuffling sound, they readied their crossbows but did not shoot. Instead, they held back, exercising restraint they might have lacked a few weeks before. And from the darkness came a voice, ragged, scratched like a dying bird’s call. And that voice said, “Hold, hold. I’m here... in peace.”

It took the men a moment to recognize that the sounds were words, but once they did, they lowered their weapons. “Who goes there?” One of the soldiers shouted, no doubt thinking it a drunk or an old fool.

But what slunk from the black shadows was not old or drunk. It wasn’t a man, at all. “I have come... to speak,” it spoke; indeed, through jagged teeth, the goblin spoke. “I come... for... aud...sss. Aud..aud-ience.”

Already the crossbows were raised, again. The bolts were aimed at the creature.

“Pleasss. Lower. Peasss,” it said, covering its face. “I come... with message. I....”

“Silence!” one soldier yelled. “Lower things shouldn’t say men’s words!”

“We should kill it. Kill it and never say a thing,” the other said. His finger was on the trigger.

The goblin spoke again, hissing, “Can make... it stop. We leave... message....”

“I think,” the first soldier stuttered, “I think we should take it to the mayor.”

They caged the goblin, using a crate that had once housed hunting dogs. One soldier stood watch while the other went for help. Before an hour had passed, a dozen were surrounding the creature, taunting it. The mayor was led to the cage. Though the story had been told to him a dozen times, he didn’t believe a word until he saw it himself.

“Message,” the goblin said, recognizing the mayor at once.

“My God,” the mayor whispered. “It’s true. It talks.”

“My... father sends... sends me with mess... with offer.”

The mayor looked at the beast uneasily. He motioned to a nearby soldier, for he was unwilling to converse with it himself. If it got around that the mayor was trading words with a goblin, well then Lanheim might have a new mayor before the year was out.

“What are you jabbering about?” the soldier asked, kicking the cage.

“My father is... king. He is king of goblins, and he makes an... offer. For goblins... all goblins... to leave. To never return.”

“Leave our town. Yes, go and good riddance,” the soldier answered.

“There is... price,” the goblin said. “Food. Meat. Three hundred pounds. When the moon is... full. Across river. Every... every month.”

“You’re blackmailing us? You want a tribute?” He struck the cage, and the goblin leapt back.

“To leave... homes. To find new....”

“These aren’t your homes!” the soldier spat.

“Goblins... in mountains... before men,” it answered back.

“It’s lying,” the soldier said. “It’s... extortion. We’ll cut it into pieces and throw it–”

“No,” the mayor interrupted. For the first time he addressed the goblin. “Why are you doing this?”

“Father... grows tired of... of the death. He seeksss a bet..better... way. For people.”

The mayor nodded slowly. “Okay. Tell him we’ll do it. When the moon is full we’ll leave your food across the river.”

“Thank... you,” the creature said. “Is bessst... for all.”

They released it into the sewers, and the next day the mayor addressed the town. He told them of the bargain struck, and the cheers shook the hills. There was talk of celebration, a parade, a feast a –

“Enough!” the priest screamed. “You think, what? You’ve done well, have you?”

“Come now,” the mayor replied, “Even you can’t deny things have ended all right.”

“Oh, but I can deny it. I do deny it. In fact... I deny the devil in all his dealings. You – all of you – you’ve dealt with him. Made a deal with them.” He spat on the ground. Then added, in little more than a whisper, “I pray for you all,” and walked off.

After the priest’s speech there were few discussing feasts and celebrations. In truth, his words touched them. Nevertheless, when the full moon came around, the butcher gladly donated the meat, three hundred pounds to the ounce, which was ferried across the river by the boatsman and left in an open field. The next day a curious hunter passed by and found only bones and scraps.

The second month, however, brought difficulties. The butcher was not willing to give away so great a prize. He demanded payment from the mayor, as did the ferryman for his services. The mayor taxed the town for the difference and thought nothing of it.

But as the third month neared, there was an uproar in Lanheim. “Why should we pay?” someone asked, and someone else agreed. “No other city pays tribute to beasts! Why should we?”

Questions like these were brought to the mayor, who assembled a meeting to debate the issue. “Would you have them return?” he asked. “Do you remember what it was like? The fear. Things disappearing in the dark.”

“It’s no different now!” the cobbler shouted. “They’re still stealing from us! Only now they’ve our blessing for it!”

The arguments went on, with the townsfolk accusing the mayor of weakness and the priest accusing him of far worse, until he had enough. “Does anyone here, anyone at all, have a solution?” The words echoed, and the crowd was quiet. No one really wanted the goblins back.

The silence held for a moment, and the mayor was just about to speak, when a voice did rise up. “I may have a thought,” the apothecary said, grinning. He walked through the crowd and stood beside the mayor. “What if the next payment of food was the last?” he offered, and everyone gasped.

“Is it... could you do it?” the mayor whispered.

The apothecary didn’t talk aloud, but nodded in response.

“Is it right?” a timid voice asked.

“It is a sin to break one’s word,” the priest answered, thoughtfully. “But in this case... no word would be broken. As long as we deliver what was promised... there’s no sin in killing vermin.” And a smile crossed his face.

The mayor hesitated, held by an unformed fear. Then, seeing the look on the faces of the townsfolk, he whispered, “A vote. We need to vote on such a thing.”

A vote was taken, then and there, and though there were dissenters, the measure passed with ease. “All right,” the mayor announced. “Let us prepare a meal fit for a goblin king’s feast.”

Cheers and laughter roared together, and the apothecary set to work. A combination of his finest skill and most wicked poisons, a mix to kill in seven ways, was made and sprinkled upon the meat with salt and herbs to hide the taste.

The ferryman was all too glad to deliver the meat this time, and the guard assisted him in leaving the food behind.

The moon rose blood red that night, or so they say, and the next morn the ferryman, a dozen soldiers, and the mayor himself crossed the icy river to see what remained. There, on the ground, they found the creatures piled dead.

“Sir!” a soldier called out. “Look here.”

And the mayor came running and looked at a pile of stones. “What is it?” he asked. “It almost looks–”

“A burial mound,” the ferryman whispered.

“For a goblin?” a soldier asked.

“For a goblin king, I’d wager,” the mayor laughed. “Well, lets have a look. Dig him out.”

The soldiers did as ordered, though reluctantly, for none had a desire to lay hands upon the corpse. When the stones were pulled aside, the men looked at the body before them.

“He is... familiar,” one soldier said.

“They look alike to me,” another added.

“No,” the mayor said. “This is the one who came to us.”

“He wasn’t the king. He was just the prince.”

“Well, there may be another mound nearby,” the mayor suggested. They searched for hours, but no other grave was found. When the sun was beginning to set, the piled bodies were set ablaze.

As they crossed the river a soldier risked asking, “He’s still out there then, isn’t he? The king lives.”

“Not likely,” the mayor replied. “He... he probably ran off alone to die in the forest. Or... who knows how these goblins think? Maybe we burned him with the others.” But the mayor’s gaze lingered on the far shore.

And no one asked aloud – not guards or ferryman or mayor – if the king was dead, who buried the prince? But every man to the last asked in his heart.

In the weeks that followed there were no sightings of goblins. Nothing vanished but the moon, and, as always, that returned in time. But there was a stillness over the town, which lay quiet like a winter snow. Celebration was visible, but muted. If most townsfolk were unwilling to dance, the apothecary was all too glad. He hung a sign over his shop, reading, “Famed Slayer of Low-Things.” He even painted decoration: to the right of the words a rat lay belly-up; on the left, a fallen goblin. Meanwhile, the priest shouted the town’s praises during his sermons, telling all they had driven back the devil’s footmen, that God’s graces would return to Lanheim.

And so things remained for twenty-eight days, until the moon again rose full and bright. There were few in Lanheim who thought of that night’s significance, and those that did chuckled to mark the passing, before going to their beds content.

But late that night, the mayor woke. A sound, in his own house, like a rat, cornered into fighting by a cat. But in Lanheim there were no rats, no cats, at all. The mayor climbed from his bed, slipped on a robe, and took a lantern to check on his daughter.

He came to the door of the child’s room, and listened, but no sounds came from within. The knob twisted cold in his hand, and he pushed the door open. He held the lantern high, and looked in.

And two red eyes flashed in the light.

Green arms held her, cradling the girl. Her golden hair spread beneath her. Her captor was a goblin in name alone, for in stature he was nearly a man. He stood there, still, quiet, waiting. Waiting for the mayor. And now he smiled, to show the mayor his teeth, his teeth dyed red as blood. He turned the girl the slightest bit to show her neck, torn open.

The mayor tried to scream, but his voice was hardly a yelp. He fell back and watched as the goblin king vanished through a window, carrying the girl’s body with him. At last, too late, he found his voice and shouted, “No! Come back! Give her back!”

But there was only night, only the full moon over Lanheim, over the river and the mountains.

Before the sun rose, the apothecary was woken by a pounding knock. He answered his door to find a dozen guards and the mayor, who stood silent and unmoving. With them was the priest, as well, and it was he who explained to the apothecary what had befallen the mayor’s child. The apothecary stuttered a response, his sorrow at what had happened, his promise that such horror would not go unanswered. He began to speak of poisons, of deaths a thousand times more horrid than any he had yet wrought. But the priest interrupted him. That wasn’t why they’d come, at all. Two guards approached and took the apothecary’s arms. Two more approached, and the priest looked away.

When the sun did rise, it found the apothecary’s sign with a new addition. Beneath the painted rat was hung the slayer himself, with tongue wrenched out and eyes like those of a fish at market.

Yet this was not the end. A month later, when the moon was full, the toy-maker’s son vanished in the dark. A guard was assembled like none before, but it did little good. The creatures, the goblins, for more than a few had survived, knew the sewers well. They slipped in at night to take their prize, their payment claimed in blood. The brewer had twin girls, and one was stolen the next full moon, the other the month after. When all other attempts to stop them failed, a tribute was left: six hundred pounds of pork and beef. This was found, fouled and spat upon but otherwise untouched. Still a child was claimed every month, plucked from its bed or taken while wandering the streets.

It wasn’t long before there was a knock on the priest’s door. He answered to find the mayor and the guard, and there was no one to comfort him as he had the apothecary. Families quickly packed their belongings and slipped away from town, for fear their children would be next.

And so Lanheim was all but emptied. Those too poor to leave fought to protect their young, and more than a few goblins fell. But the creatures were driven by rage and hate, which cannot be bested by steel. The mayor knew well this hate, and in his own heart he matched it. The goblin king had left him alive to feel it. Alive to grow old, with no child, to watch his city wither. No one would move to Lanheim, not with such a curse upon the city. Soon it would be empty rock, and the last man would die alone.

And then the goblins would return.

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