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Goblins are naughty creatures. They wiggle and fidget and complain when they work. Their jobs are often very silly. The most important job of all to a goblin is being the goblin that gets to climb to the top of the biggest tree of the goblin’s trees and to sing a very old song at winter solstice while ringing very old bells. Goblins also have great respect for the tree bark sniffers, who can identify the breed and health and history of a tree just by sniffing at the bark, among many other nostril-related marvels. What they do with this information is not very clear, since they don’t write very much down about anything, but it’s extremely important to sniff bark and identify trees, and without them hard at work, it is widely believed goblin society would collapse. They also put great stock in dancing when the leaves fall in autumn. They make big piles of leaves down on the forest floor among their loyal beetle bobs and jump into the piles and swim around while they sing an autumnal song, because it annoys the beetle bobs terribly who lay eggs below the leaves. (Fortunately, goblins are very small and the beetle bob eggs are very hard.) In spring, the goblins take tiny mallets and crack the icicles in the nettles and the edges of frozen creeks because it seems the most mischievous thing to do, to wake and break the sleeping water. In summer, a team of young goblins gather up and redistribute all the seeds of the flowers, as if the wind would not do that already. Much of what the goblins considered important would not seem very important at all to those grimalkin and giant and other sort of hidden folk. In fact, Hulda of the Hidden, the most powerful living creature in this world or the other, disliked goblins terribly, and considered their absence from her garden a great blessing daily. To her, they were little thieves and an annoyance unlike any other.
Why, just now, Rambol Goblin had returned home from stealing a big, red ribbon from the farm house at the edge of their hidden hollow places in the big juniper thicket of the old growth in the forest, and he had ran through the goblin village tree to shout and declare his glorious snatching. (Goblins are thieving little creatures, of course — always have been. Fortunately, they are also very silly and almost nothing they value is really worth anything to any giant who is a regular victim of their persistent pilfering.)
“Come one, come all, for I have achieved the great sneaking! No one sneaks better than little Rambol! No one!”
He was racing and shouting and waking up the little ones and bothering the beetle bobs that lived and worked among the goblins, rolling up the trash into balls and burying it among a million other very important and very serious jobs that no one else in the little goblin town seemed to appreciate, because goblins don’t understand creatures who are very serious, like the beetle bobs in all their useful forms.
Old Gasket blinked and twitched and waved his cane at the noise bothering his first daily nap. Old Gasket was unable to say anything in complaint. He earned his name because a piece of a small metal clock piston was precariously shoved through his head at an angle like a jaunty cap, and hadn’t spoken a word in decades. His granddaughter, Gasketina, knew exactly what he meant with his rude and voiceless gesturing. She stumbled out of the hole and threw a bit of broken bark at Rambol’s racing and bragging. She shouted at him to quiet down.
Rambol was defiant. “Why be quiet when my victory parade is imminent? Behold what I stole! Sneakery and cheekery are my grand victory!”
Gasketina scowled. “Well sleepers are not wanting to creep out here and put their peepers on! It is far too early for a private parade.”
“Boo, Gasketina! Make way for the celebrator of all larceners like brave and glorious and pilfering me!”
Other goblins came out and a very few quietly clapped for the red ribbon before going back to bed. Others through half-eaten breakfast juniper berries, harrumphed and wished for silence and slumber. Goblins always stay up far too late at their mischief-making, and eat far too many juniper berries when they do, which makes their tummies achy, which wakes them early, and makes them extra grumpy in the morning, when more juniper berries is widely seen as the cure for an ache. The only time goblins ever saw a sunrise was when they remained awake all night to see it, and the foggy confusion in their brains from eating all the pungent berries that kept them awake made even that sunrise appear to be a form of dream. Really, Gasketina was right. It was far too early for a parade. Every goblin knows parades aren’t supposed to happen at breakfast bedtime…
…Except, of course, Rambol Goblin, who had not had any juniper berries or other intoxicants, only a bit of moss and nettle salad, to keep his mind clear for his hunt at the farmhouse at the edge of the forest.
Rambol bucked and kicked and whistled and whirled his red ribbon. The beetle bobs in the area were taken in by his exuberance and bounced and bobbed and clicked along to the chortling roots of parade music Rambol was making with his mouth as if a trumpet. Beetle bobs were useful and industrious, but they were simple creatures, easily fooled. It was a kind of parade, for them, and they clicked and clacked along.
Finally, enough sleeping goblins were disturbed that the sticks and rotten juniper berries were thrown and thrown and knocked Rambol’s beetle bobs and ribbon parade down to a fizzle.
He took his fine red ribbon prize and his parade home to his little hollow place among the rocks and branches just above the beetle holes. The beetles had a wonderful morning unlike Rambol. The beatles quite enjoyed the parade and also enjoyed the trash flung down where the beetles could easily reach it. Industrious creatures, and very practical, they immediately got to work gathering up their prizes for balling down below. Rambol, upset, sulked with his ribbon alone, and would not come out for anybody for any reason. He was not seen in any of the usual places for young goblins for two days. His parents were both out sniffing trees on long patrol, and his great aunt would not go down the long stairs at her age to visit the sulking boy over a mere day or two. Hardly anyone even noticed.
Ruthie Goblin, daughter of the goblin king, had a very attractive and bulbous right knee that itched when something was wrong. She was at the goblin gathering branch where young goblins gathered to game and gossip, and she saw Gasketina flipping acorn caps and laughing, which she would not normally do. Her knee began to itch and twitch. She looked around at goblins swinging on rope, and throwing bits of mud at the beetle bobs flying about and suddenly realized who was missing. Her friend Rambol would usually be flipping acorn caps and hurling mud, and he was doing neither. He wasn’t anywhere, at all, in fact. Her beautiful, bulbous knee itched and itched while Rambol was hiding away, sulking, and Gasketina was so happy to see him away. She seemed so pleased to play acorn cap games without sneaky Rambol cheating and throwing mud. Ruthie’s beautiful knee was so itchy. She couldn’t stand by and watch this troublesome dynamic among goblins who should be friends and neighbors. They were, in fact, neighbors. Rambol stayed with his Great Aunt while his parents were out sniffing the bark of distant trees and that meant he was just one hole up from Gasketina and her only surviving family member, Old Gasket. Ruthie was the daughter of the king of all goblins, and made it her very young life’s work to bring peace because it kept people from bothering her father with their demands. Her father was terrifying and huge and mean and hated being king. He had been tricked into it, and no one else will take the terrible job, so he is stuck at it. And, he would take his displeasure out on those who would pester him with a question of a silly and small nature. If there was discord among her fellow young goblins, it was only a matter of time before someone tattled to the king and lost a finger, or worse. Goblin kings had eaten other goblins they particularly disliked, in the past, and Rambol was just the sort of goblin to get eaten. So, Ruthie decided to meddle.
At home in her hole, later that afternoon, Ruthie Goblin snatched an airy beetle bob from the royal hive of airy beetle bobs and touched once between its six eyes for every goblin hole it must skip to reach Gasketina in hers. Then, she opened up the cavity in beetle’s posterior to shout her message. Airy beetle bobs will carry messages by storing up the shouts that goblins shove into their swelling carapaces and then releasing the shouts, later, at the properly counted hole. It was a very inefficient method of communication, of course, and really reserved just for high royal officials and princesses and the like. Most goblins preferred to walk, or pass along a message to be passed along. The beetle bob swelled with its shouted message from Ruthie Goblin and stumbled, bumbling out the royal door to take to the air awkwardly with so much air inside of the carapace. It flew down bobbing and counting until it bounced against Old Gasket’s little door, which was closed, and fumbled into a window, which was open and delivered its shouted message to the first goblin therein, which was Gasketina washing the acorn cap bowls and warming juniper berries and wild walnut mash for her grandfather’s lunch. The message said nothing about the itchy knee, or the trouble in the air, or the king. Instead, Ruthie was asking for Gasketina’s help to clamber down from the high, royal hole to the bottom of the tree where Rambol was sulking in his hole, as soon as she could be spared from her grandfather’s side. Gasketina was very unhappy about this. Obviously, as Ruthie well knew, whoever is happiest about someone else’s sulkery must be the one who is capable of curing it. Gasketina was very unhappy to be found out in this regard.
Gasketina sent the beetle bob swirling back with a bitter response. “Rambol can wallow all he can swallow, Ruthie,” shouted Gasketina from the beetle bob’s butt. “I have more important things to do than crawl you down into his hole!”
Of course, Ruthie had to respond, and it took three different airy beetle bobs to carry her message, one at a time. “I just thought you would be so helpful to me, Gasketina. You know, my very bulbous right kneecap has been bothering me with all the damp in the air, and I want to get down to the bottom of the tree very safely. As you know, I often have important errands to run for my father, the king. I thought with all your experience helping Old Gasket, I would be in good claws. I would never expect you to help anyone feel happy, Gasketina, particularly not Rambol.”
Gasketina sent her response back with all three of the airy beetle bobs. In each one, she sighed, and each stored sigh was larger and louder and more annoyed than the last. Ruthie knew what that meant, of course, as she was a good friend to all young goblins and knew all their sighs and objections well, and practiced her frailest fumble just to be ready.
From her hole, down near the middle of the tree of homes and hollowed storage places, Ruthie brushed the dirt from her hair, and shook the itty bitty bugs and bark bits from her best boots and got on with the task of climbing up to Ruthie’s royal hole.
“At last!” said Ruthie. “Now, help me up!”
Gasketina was not happy about it, but she helped.
It was a long climb down, and they had to stop three times for tea with friends. The busy beetles bumbled, thicker and thicker, the lower they went, and they had to stop two times to allow a large herd of baby beetle bobs to follow their goblin shepherd off the bark trails up and down.
Ruthie’s knee was red and swollen, and not just because she kept scratching at it, certainly not. Why would anyone ever accuse her of such skulduggery? No one would ever accuse her of intentionally scratching at her knee to provide a convenient reason for the presence of Gasketina down… down… down… the bark trails that twisted and bent along the oldest of the roads, the closest to the roots of the tree. At last, they reached the hole in the bark where, once upon a time, some sort of wood boring creature had dug deep and deep into the ancient juniper, and a forest fire had come through, once, blackening the walls of Rambol’s ancestral hole, which he was actually not supposed to be in because his parents weren’t home and he was supposed to be staying with his great aunt, farther up the tree, next to Old Gasket and Gasketina. He was wrapped in fine ribbons of many colors and muttering nastiness in a corner, all stained in juniper berry jam.
Ruthie knocked loudly on the entrance of the hole.
“What?” bellowed Rambol. “Come to shout more? Or did you not get good fun with a berry bomb?”
Ruthie huffed herself up and snorted, indignant at such a suggestion of uncouth behaviour. She would never, ever. In fact, she was so offended that she happened to have a juniper berry in her pocket and happened to throw it and bonk it right off the top of Rambol’s head.
“Of course not, Rambol! How dare you suggest! We came to visit you.”
Gasketina was not happy about that suggestion. “I didn’t come to visit. I don’t care about you, Rambol Goblin! I came because Ruthie needed help getting all the way down here.”
“Well, you’ve both visited. Now, you can both leave.”
“We can hardly do that without a proper tea service, Rambol Goblin! You know better than to sulk when royal princess guests are thirsty from a long climb to check on your welfare and well-being!”
With the sigh of all sighs, Rambol goblin extricated himself from his sulk, which was an impressive sulk what with the juniper juice and bright ribbons and frown as big as his face. It takes great effort to lift up out of such a deep, deep sulk. A goblin can be given a pass for the lingering sarcasm in his preparations for tea, considering the depth of sulking. First, the kettle had to be filled with the rainwater from the leaf basket, and then a little bit of dried earthworm had to be given to the resident firebeetle bob to encourage him to beat his wings into the stove just so, which also needed stocking with sticks and dried leaves. Normally, it all took a few moments, but after such a deep and powerful sulk, the gestures of Rambol were wide and sarcastic, and the waste of time and energy became so frustrating to Gasketina that she stormed over and pushed him aside. (She was a good head-and-shoulders taller than Rambol, who was a hunched and crafty goblin, more nose than heft, and Gasketina was much stronger from hauling around injured elders.) Her impatience showed in her clanging and banging, gathering mint and fennel and borage and many mosses for the goblins’ favorite royal princess tea. She grunted and grumped, where Rambol sulked and scowled in the corner where he curled up.
“What a fine party we have today,” said Ruthie. “You know, I had an idea that we ought to visit the Museum of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goblin Goings-On, today, and seek inspiration. It seems to me that between the three of us, we have the makings of crack Sappers, Seekers, or Sneakers. With Gasketina’s strength, Rambol’s affinity to thievery, and my natural knee-based charisma and Royal stature, why what couldn’t we accomplish? I am an excellent master of costume and disguise, as well, with so many royal pageants to put on at festivals. The giants will suspect nothing under my expert disguises.”
“No,” said Gasketina. She shoved tea into Rambol’s claws, and plopped a carved acorn mug down in front of Ruthie and took what was left and gave it over to the firebug, who sipped it, grateful for the tea.
Rambol shook his head, too. “I can’t sneak for three. I can only sneak for me. You lot would get caught. The giants are clever, and their mewling mistress is a master bounce pouncer from high vantages.”
“No goblin made the Musem of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goblin Goings-On with the giants and their royal grimalkin,” said Gasketina. “That’s easy pickings, and don’t think I couldn’t if I wanted to, steal the jangle from the neck of the queen beast, herself. We have to sneak the capital creatures to make a place in the museum.”
“Steal the tooth of a bear?” said Ruthie.
“Only possible in winter, and it’s been done,” said Rambol. “Even I know that.”
“The tail of a fox?”
“The foxes are our friends,” said Gasketina. “They hunt the mice at the roots of the tree all winter to save the beetle bobs’ winter dens.”
Ruthie was confused. “Do they need all of their tails, though? Don’t they grow back?”
Rambol snorted. “Look, if you want to be a legend, just go to the Museum of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goblin Goings-On. See what hasn’t been snuck.”
“That’s what I’m trying to say!” She said. “Okay, Rambol, thank you for the lovely tea. Would you kindly come with me and let’s find out. Gasketina, I’ll need your help again, my knee is ever so red and ever so lovely but, really, ever so red.”
Gasketina sighed with her whole body, which was such a large sigh and so impressive, the fire beetle hid to protect the little pinch of flame pooting from her posterior like a pilot light from the goblin’s deep and loud exhale. “I suppose I can help you a little longer, Ruthie, but you really need to find another goblin to get you around. As it so happens, I am just the goblin you need to navigate the goblin government tree. This is the last thing, Ruthie; I mean it! My grandfather needs his wound scrubbed daily, and I have to cook the cookery or he’ll gnaw the furniture raw!”
In fact, he was partial to furniture over his granddaughter’s cookery, but this was because a very tasty lichen grew out of his filthy back and spread all over the furniture, and it was such a tasty lichen, other goblins often visited just to take a little bit home for their own cookery. It was popular sauteed with wild onions and a little spruce tip. Even she was fond of it. And, anyway, the head wound scrubbing was something he was quite capable of doing, himself, if he had to. Perhaps this was somehow all his idea. He was a devious goblin, in his time. Goblins don’t survive for so many years with machine parts smashed through their brains unless they are exceedingly excessive in their devious brain bits.
Anyway, all this was to say, at the end of tea service, the three goblins left for the Museum of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goings-On, which was up and over on the next tree, where all the official government huts hid among the knots and branches. It was very difficult to find the right official government hut, and everyone complained that the government was confusing and ineffective because even the workers got lost trying to find where they were supposed to go to do their goblin duty. It was such a common problem that long-serving government workers often moved into their offices, and depended on lost goblins looking for directions to bring them something to eat, along with the occasional confused beetle bob searching for some official beetle-y form or other. The Museum of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goings-On was one of the hardest to find, second only to the parliament building in twistings and turnings. To get to the museum, they needed someone who knew the lay of the land.
The last goblin honored with a ceremony at the Museum of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goings-On was Old Gasket, for his feat of living the longest any goblin had ever lived while having a piece of metal stuck through his skull. It was most impressive. It also meant that his granddaughter, Gasketina, had recently attended a special ceremony to honor her grandfather, and though it was quite a lot of trouble figuring out where the museum was on the government tree, she had learned a secret way from her grandfather who had learned it from his grandmother who had learned it from one of the long lost Bray Birds, which were a sort of half-bird, half-goblin creature that had migrated south for winter once and decided to stay.
Instead of leading them to the government tree, along the winding and confusing pathways from branch to branch, Gasketina took them all down to the very ground, itself.
Rambol was angry. “You’re just wandering! Gasketina, what goblin goes down to go up? This is all combubulation and perambulation! You’ve got a sneaky scheme!”
“It’s not sneaky at all. I know how to get there.”
“No one knows how to get there!”
“I told you that I do. You don’t have to follow me, Rambol.”
“Fine, I won’t!”
Rambol stormed off to the big branch up above that connected the goblin tree with the government tree, while Ruthie and Gasketina watched.
“You do know where you’re going, Gasketina?”
“Of course, I do!”
She jumped down to the ground and snapped her finger three times, calling up the emergency beetle bob brigade. When goblins fell down from the tree, they needed to be taken immediately to their home for rest and healing after tumbling and bonking their heads. Gasketina’s grandfather had taught her how to use this very system to find exact locations of government’s elusive buildings.
The emergency beetle bob brigade took one look at the fallen goblins, and their commander buzzed into place, direct in front of the familiar face of Gasketina. He had noticed that Gasketina was quite prone to falling, just like her grandfather. It was a curious trait to inherent, and that she had fallen down so unharmed was always astonishing. That she had someone new with her was also quite astonishing, but at least the new goblin had a swollen, red, scratched-up knee. Gasketina told the emergency beetle bob captain where to take their fallen, damaged bodies to heal and recover: the Museum of Mighty Goblins and all their Great Goings-On.
The brigade buzzed into action, snagging the goblins up in their beetle bob bindings and rising up into the air, up swirling through the tree limbs and lost paths of the great government tree. Rambol, from his path among the stairways and slow climbers was still busy gathering the bribes required to negotiate a trail among the lost government officials had observed the trick in action and shouted “Cheating! Cheaters! You don’t deserve to be beaters!”
He was, naturally, furious. He was not going to arrive even remotely as fast as they would to the museum unless he jumped.
So, Rambol closed his beady eyes, leaned back and held his breath while he fell and fell, to the forest floor.
The Museum Of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goings On was probably the most important place in the world. Without it, there would be no history for goblins. Goblins don’t go to school. They don’t write books. They don’t like to tell stories about anyone who is not themself or a dear close friend. Truly, the only history goblins care about is how other people will look up to them, forever, for all their individual greatness. The head of the most important organization and operation in all of goblin society was the most important goblin in the world, and she knew it. Kitterwaul, the Director of the Museum and Chief Chronicler and Chief Sculptor of All Goblins was moaning in her hammock, a belly ache greater than all belly aches that had ever come before, a bellyache worthy of a statue and place of honor in the museum. It was obviously the greatest stomachache, because it was the greatest stomach Kitterwaul had ever had and she had the largest belly of all the goblins, and could eat three times the juniper berries and pine nuts of any two other goblins. This, of course, meant her tremendous stomach, a stomach that could jiggle and wiggle with laughter though not a sound emerges, also ached a great deal, much of the time, from eating too much. From her grumpy perch in her hammock at the top of the museum’s dome, strung between the finger of the great goblin magician, who could find berries behind anyone’s ear, and the great goblin warrior who once slapped a furry grimalkin so hard, it went away forever. In this great and terrible groaning grumpiness, Ruthie and Gasketina arrived upon her doorstep, and soon behind them, Rambol who was a most meddlesome and noisy and twitchy sort of little goblin. Truly, it was enough to make bellies ache with agony. They didn’t even bring any nuts or berries in government bribes!
“Hellooooooo!” Shouted Ruthie, up into the rafters of the great and imposing hall of statuary of goblins of size and worth and grandeur. Why, there was even a tiny, little statue of the goblin famous for being tiniest. She had to chop off her arms and legs to win this particular honor, in fact, and quickly regretted it. When she posed for her statue her face was quite hideous and grimaced, even for a goblin.
“Ugh, children! Odious! Foul!” Groaned the groaning Kitterwaul. “Present your bribes and leave me to my misery!”
Rambol arrived, then, hurtled and hurting. He howled and kicked and knocked over the statue of the smallest goblin, which was very easy to miss where it was. Rambol, of course, being exceptionally skilled and nimble, did not miss. He knocked it into a few dozen tinier pieces. Ruthie helped him up and dusted him off cheerfully. Everyone already seemed to be a lot less sulky, and they were in a wonderful place. She was really in a fabulous mood, now. Soon, she’d make these grumpy adversaries go on a quest together and learn valuable lessons about how important Ruthie Goblin really was to them.
“Helloooooo!” shouted Gasketina. This was more than just a very long, loud hello. It was also the official greeting in government offices, because government officials were very lazy and preferred to sleep instead of working. Really, without bribes, noise and a disturbance was the most effective tool of getting crusty, old government goblins off their tuckus.
Rambol did not shout. Instead, he cringed at all the great and gloriousness and how he was the second to arrive. It felt wrong to lose to Gasketina and Ruthie, both, neither of whom were as quick or as cunning as Rambol, the premier pilfering goblin in all the pine barrens and juniper hollows and hills and valleys of goblin and giant and grimalkin and gronk. He snorted and shuffled his feet instead of greeting.
“WHAT DO YOU MISERABLE CHILDREN WANT WITH ME?” shouted the Kitterwaul. She peered over the edge of her hammock, which turned with her weight until she was barely hanging inside of it, at all. Truly, a small sneeze would be enough to send her tumbling down quite a few goblin-lengths below.
“We are here to pursue Goblin Greatness,” shouted Ruthie. “A caper! A skip! A capriole! A frisk! We seek to pilfer the unpilferable, to take what is not ours, that has never been took. What is a goblin to do without any idea of a task glorious enough to merit your attention, oh grand and powerful Catty Paw!”
“THAT’S KITTERWAUL!” She surrendered to gravity, and came crashing down, all tremendous girth and disgruntlement, dropping through the air, and nimbly on her toes at the landing level. Once upon her feet, she adjusted her belt, adjusted her official hat, and felt around for the pin with her name and station upon it. If she was not formally dressed, it would be the same as making it all up as she went, which would not do. “By hook! By crook! By the eldest book!”
She looked the three visitors up and down.
“Well, none of you brought me a berry? Not even one, little one? What’s wrong with you? You want me to work for free?” She left them then in a huff and stumbled back into a backroom, where she could let her corpulance rest through its pains in peace.
“Oh, just tell us a caper, you gorping grump!” shouted Rambol. “Just tell us a caper that’s never been caped! We want our statuary planted here a thousand nights and more until the winter frosts split the wood of the trees of our home and we find another great hall of greatness.”
Kitterwaul could be heard huffing. She picked up a book and tossed it out at them. One of the requirements for these cushy, government jobs? You had to learn to read. Most goblins couldn’t be bothered.
“There’s a list of the missing caperings and japerings if you’ve got eyes to see it. Needs to be fairly tremendous to get a statue. You’d have to really do something. Check after page 77. Start there.”
Rambol could not read. Ruthie, as well, was so beautiful, other goblins preferred to be the one to assist the young goblin who could merely bat her eyes, brush a hand through her black and white hair, and scratch at her bulbous knee, and few would deny her. Gasketina, however, had learned to read because her grandfather had an exceptional medical condition and she needed to be constantly reading about his different medicines and treatment plans. The term ‘read’, of course, is rather loose. She could read enough to keep her grandfather alive. But, she was accustomed to the handwriting of the local goblin witch, which was quite bad, even for a goblin, and the clean and precise artisan lettering in the official guidebook was very difficult to make out. She squinted at it for some minutes before she came up with a solution.
“All that can be sneak thiefed has been snuck thieved,” she said. “I think it says to pilfer among the great goblins, we have to steal a living part of a great beast, a king or queen of things, a ruler worthy of cutting down to size?”
In truth, it was suggesting that the mighty must be laid low by the great goblins, who themselves are laid low in turn by other goblins, so greatness gets to go around a little, like the grimalkins that spit and spat for the best hunting ground above a good woodpile, stealing kingdoms and stealing them back again and again. She was reading, literally, the wisdom that all glories that can be stolen have been stolen once, and it was shared glory and shared shame. Still, this subtle distinction and nuance was far too much for Ruthie and Rambol. Gasketina could probably understand if she read it much slower six or seven times.
“I could steal the king’s thumb in his sleep!” said Rambol.
Ruthie scoffed. “My dad would eat you, Rambol. He would burp your bones.” It should be mentioned, of course, that the lovely and beautiful Ruthie goblin was, in fact, the third daughter of the great King of the Goblins, but she thought very little of the whole royalty thing. Few considered it any great honor to be related to a king. Kings, in the goblin world, were not chosen by birth or ability. No, it’s just the thing they foist upon the nearest, largest sleeping goblin when the old one kicks the bucket. It’s a miserable job, and makes goblins very grumpy. All that waving and making decisions and ordering people about is really the opposite from how any decent goblin ought to behave. It’s a terrible job that no one wants, but it also means the kings are in a very bad mood, all the time. If Rambol attempted to steal a thumb, he’d likely be bonked on the head very hard a few dozen times and then eaten in a pie with juniper berry paste and bits of crispy dried mushroom. One thing about Ruthie’s father is true: He was indeed the largest of the goblins and the meanest and how the crown was foisted upon him is a tale for another time. Of course, Ruthie does not like to mention her father very often, and avoids everything to do with royalty, except of course, for the occasional silly hat and the ever-present opportunity to tell her friends what they should and should not do.
“Well,” said Gasketina, getting very thoughtful, “The grimalkin at the farmhouse is too difficult to approach. They have such keen senses, and very sharp and deadly claws.”
“I’m not afraid of the grimalkin!”
“You steal from under her nose, it’s true. But, how would you steal her actual nose?”
“Oh. No. I never get so close to the feline species. They are far too dangerous and unpredictable. They rule their giant slaves with sharp claws and a masterful manipulation.”
“Well, that leaves only one grand and lofty creature left,” said Ruthie. “Trolls.”
Kitterwaul, that groaning and moaning purveyor of goblin history, shouted down “Trolls have very valuable teeth. Very strong. They pound through nut shells like paper. Bring back the tooth of a troll, and I will declare you a most successful sneak thief. Historical, even. I see a grand though somewhat small statue somewhere behind the Great Tea Brewing Champions on the third balcony, in the back.”
“A statue as a great sneak thief!” shouted Rambol.
Gasketina rolled her eyes. “The troll would just eat you in one big bite, Rambol. You will make a name for yourself as the first goblin eaten by a troll since statuary kept our history here.”
Rambol snapped. “You’re just jealous of my pending greatness! I will steal a tooth from the king of the trolls and you won’t do a thing as worthy of goblin greatness.”
Ruthie frowned. Now everyone was shouting and angry. Why couldn’t they see what was obvious: Goblins that sneak thief alone can only do so much. Really big pilfering, like stealing the tooth of a troll, would take a team with a plan. She huffed and sniffled and scratched her bulbous knee and realized the only one who could drag these two goblins down the mouth of a snoring troll was…
“Gasketina,” said Ruthie. “Were you determined to go down the mouth of a troll, yourself, for a tooth, or did you wish to stay with your grandfather?”
“I do need to get back to grandfather Gasket. He hasn’t been alone this long since I had to go get his medicine from the herbalist and got stuck in a beetle bob autumn mating wiggle swarm.”
Rambol was already victorious in his mind, and a one goblin wiggle swarm all his own. “Then you can prepare my victory parade!” Rambol was determined to take on this dangerous task. Of course, he had no idea what he was doing.
“I won’t prepare a thing for a wingading like you, Rambol!”
“Well, let’s consult Old Gasket about this caper, at least, Rambol. We can’t just hop into a troll’s mouth casually. We don’t even know where one is.”
“Why would he know?”
Kitterwaul spoke with gravitas and authority, if only because she finally saw an opportunity to rid herself of these noisy, shouty young goblins once and for all. Also, she wanted tea and the break room was blocked by the giant girl-goblin, Gasketina. Someday she’d have to rearrange things to get her kettle closer. In the mean time, she gallumphed down from the hammock and growled at the three young goblins. “Old Gasket is one of the cleverest and wiliest of goblins. If anyone might know where trolls lurk with their teeth, it would be him,” she said. “Now move along before you break any more valuable artifacts of goblin history and mystery.”
Gasketina sighed. It had already been such a long journey, and even the thought of Rambol skittering around her home hole was enough to infuriate her. But, it might get rid of him for good if a troll ate him and chomped upon his bones, so it might be worth the trip, after all. She didn’t really want him to be dead, but she was certainly very tired of him, and would be quite relieved to never see him again. He was such a little and squinty and wiggly thing, like a children’s taunt come to life. Gasketina was a practical and responsible goblin, who only got silly and danced on a precise schedule dictated by her grandfather’s medical needs.
For instance, right this very moment, Old Gasket was due for a round of medicinal teas and tinctures, after which he would play his concertina in a ribald manner, and it would be very appropriate to jig for his benefit. Strictly to keep the old goblin’s spirits up, of course.
At least with the current plan, soon Gasketina would be home, drinking chamomile and moss tea with a bit of crushed spider silk in it, and Rambol and Ruthie would leave her be.
Old Gasket, that wily goblin, had not been upset to see his granddaughter away for the morning. He got to sleep in. When he woke up, he was able to eat his favorite breakfast – juniper jam smeared on turnip toast – which she would never permit because he was instead supposed to ingest this hideous green bitter herb salad to keep the swelling down. The swelling never really bothered Old Gasket. It bothered other people, who had to look at it, but he just liked to plop down in his favorite crevice of the goblin hole, with turnip toast and juniper jam, where all the best little skittering gnats scurried past, and he could pick them up and flip them around and confuse them while he ate. It was such sport to make the little gnats bump into each other. Sometimes, if Old Gasket was really on his game, all swollen and proud, he could get gnats to bump into each other directly inside the long hollow of the very gasket lodged in his skull, and that was sport enough to elicit much laughter. If his neighbor, the very much too young for Old Gasket but very bulbous and attractive, Shoobiena the Elder, Great Aunt of rambunctious Rambol, was out on her balcony, he might play for her a tune on his concertina. It was hard to play amorous tunes when his granddaughter was around. She much preferred a jig for dancing, which was not at all what Old Gasket wanted to play, but she was his granddaughter, and it seemed wrong to deny such a buttoned up fussbucket her chance to be silly and dance like a decent goblin should. He did love the girl from the wart on her toe to the crick in her nose, but, without her there pestering him, he got to eat his favorite breakfast, and to play his favorite game with the bumbling aphids, and then he made Shoobiena blush lustily with the cooing lilt of the concertina. It had been quite some time since a single morning had been so delightful. If Rambol goblin was to blame, all the better, because Old Gasket quite liked that rascally little scamp, so like Old Gasket at a young age.
It was with some disgust and not a little startlement that he noticed he had best put away his tricks and peaceful temperament: His granddaughter was climbing down from the high branches, having crossed the government’s huge ash tree back to the juniper where the goblins mostly lived in their little holes in the branches and trunk among the prickly pine needles and tasty berries.
Old Gasket rushed back inside as fast as he could, which was actually very slow at his age, with a huge gasket through part of his head, and tidied up his breakfast to make it appear that he ate nothing at all. Gasketina liked to believe he was helpless without her, and it seemed harmless enough to maintain the ruse for her sake. He sat down and harrumphed in his chair, waiting for whatever chaos would ensue when the young goblin children arrived.
In a whirlwind of shouting, they arrived. Rambol and Gasketina were shouting and shouting and Ruthie was shouting to get them to stop.
Old Gasket was already exhausted. He did what he always did when he thought people were not paying attention to him properly. He flopped over on the ground and pretended to go into the grim rigors of mortal peril.
Rambol was terrified and jumped out the window. Ruthie shrieked and grabbed her bulbous kneecap. Gasketina has seen this all before and leaped into action. She began to give chest compression first aid, and pressed her mouth around his huge nostrils to blow air up into his brain and lungs.
Old Gasket smacked her off and laughed at her. He winked.
“That is always such a mean joke, grandpa!”
He snorted at her. He took the hand of the lovely and delightful young one, with the bulbous knee. She was oddly familiar, but he couldn’t really remember her well. All his daughter’s friends blurred together if he didn’t much care for them.
“Hello, Old Gasket,” said Ruthie, “A pleasure to meet you again.”
Rambol leaned in the window and chortled and cackled. “You sure got us, Old Gasket! You always were a devious, thievius pilfering peril!”
Gasketina was exhausted by the whole morning out of place. She collapsed into a chair and sulked the sulkiest sulk she could sulk. She just wanted everyone to go away and leave her to her tea and tree bark biscuits and medications and scrubbing and concertina jigs. “Just ask about the trolls and go away!”
Rambol rubbed his hands together, with glee. “We consulted with the Museum of Mighty Goblins and all their Great Goings On! To be the prince of the pilferers, the paragon of steal-a-thons, we must lift a tooth from the very mouth of a living troll. Now, we don’t know where a living troll might be, so we came to see if you could help us locate one.”
Old Gasket nodded and thought a moment, and gazed at his granddaughter, who in her resting hollow did appear quite identical to a large and muscular stick trapped in a thin sheen of tasty lichen. It was high time she had a caper of her own, with goblins her own age. And what a fine caper it would be! Naturally, she would never do it on her own, he knew.
Old Gasket immediately began packing critical supplies. Only way to get that girl in a caper was to drag her kicking and buzzing like an angry bee. As it happened, he did know how to find a troll, but he was in no position to explain it out loud. So…
“Grandpa, what do you think you’re doing?” shouted Gasketina.
Rambol jumped and cheered. His great aunt saw him and asked what he was about.
“Auntie, I need food and a good stick. Old Gasket is taking us on a caper to steal the tooth of a troll!”
“Oh my! Does your mother know?”
“Of course not, Auntie. Tell her if she gets back when we are gone and pack me some foooods!”
She gave him quite the eye of stink, and an impressive, large, incredibly stinky eye it was.
“I will do no such thing, you rowdy dingaling. Pack your own things, and tell your mother yourself that you shirk her moss garden for childish gambits.”
Rambol, too excited to care, leapt up to her larder and dodged her swinging switches to snatch some Rowan berries and some young, green moss. Moss was very useful. It was both food and a fine pillow on long journeys. A good goblin always ate the moss last, to make the softest slumber last. He was gone without a scratch, and cackling. She was after him, though, and he jumped behind Ruthie who was flustered and confused.
Old Gasket stood up and held up his stick. No, Rambol was with him. He was not threatening the lovely goblin, no. He was just defending Rambol and urging her to stop. She misinterpreted this, of course, and blushed and cursed and laid her huge, stinky eye straight into a stare from one old goblin to another. Then, she harrumphed like a toad and walked away. Now there was definitely nothing for Old Gasket to stay here over. Gasketina, horrified, got up and tried to stop her wily grandfather, but he grabbed her by the arm and pushed her out the door, then Ruthie, and Rambol cheered them all on from the rear, still wary about he great aunt, who was a crafty and conniving creature like most old goblins, and there was going to be a retribution, no doubt, and soon.
But not before the goblins could follow Old Gasket’s pointing stick straight down to the roots of the old, knotty juniper where all the goblins lived. They went down past the beetle bobs that were gathering up the goblin trash, past the beetle bobs that were carrying squirts of water up and down the trunk, past the beetle bobs that were chasing off the mosquitos that could drink a tiny goblin up in two big slurps, and past the beetle bobs that were standing guard around the edges of the deadly spider webs, flashing off any of their kind that might stumble into a painful spider death. The forest was a dangerous place for beetles, and for goblins. It takes great courage to step away from the comforts of home, and journey into certain danger. Certainly, the road ahead was dangerous. Goblins were fortunately very foul and unappetizing, so most of the smarter predators took one, greasy bite and never bit a goblin again, so foul and murky and malodorous that bite would be etched into their memory for three generations. Even the skunks gave goblins a wide berth, for the aroma of goblins was most distinctive and left the impression that something even nastier than a skunk was passing about. But, that does not mean a passing grimalkin might not swipe at a goblin who encroaches in their kingdoms. Birds might not devour a goblin, but approaching a nest as such a horrific, ugly little leathery thing was sure to net a beak or a claw. And the snakes of the forest were not concerned about the smell. It only made Goblins easier to catch, to be honest. Goblins hated snakes more than anything, and fire beetle bobs were experts at agitating them away from the home trees. In the forest, of course, there was no protection. It was all just brush and moss and fallen leaves and the silence that falls where mountains and hills fold into each other and trees swell. Even birdsongs fade into the branches; the shadows are everywhere, and every passing breeze makes the shadows move just so. In forests, something was always moving in those shadows. Generally it was nothing more dangerous than a dragonfly, but there was always something.
Ruthie scratched at her bulbous knee nervously, and looked over at Old Gasket, who trudged ahead with an odd confidence. It had been years since he’d been out this far from home, and already his muscles swelled with memories, of a life before the Gasket, when he had a name like any other goblin, and stalked the farmhouse like Rambol after pins and ribbons and the occasional sock. Gasketina was horrified, and watched the ground for any rock or stray stick that might cause Old Gasket to tumble and break his hip, again. She was in a white panic, pale and clenched and unable to even process how this horrible day was proceeding horribler and horribler. Of course, Rambol was nowhere to be seen. He knew they were headed towards the farm house, and that meant the farm cat. That foul Grimalkin was the bane of young goblins, and might scratch an eye or a finger off just for sport. The important thing was to pretend to be dead. Cats don’t eat goblins, but they will toy with one until the goblins guts are all a jumble of blood on the ground. Play dead early and often and with great sincerity, is the advice every young goblin receives about that race of furry terrors that rule their patch of land with more ferocity than any goblin king or queen. The largest goblin is only about as big as a fat mouse, so there’s really no way to get past them unless they aren’t in the mood to kill.
Old Gasket was not concerned. He had tangled with cats, before, and he knew this particular grimalkin’s grandmother, once. Past the farmhouse, past the little bus stop by the wooded trails, a hill climbed up and up above a strange and lifeless place full of those giant, two-legged monstrosities that served their feline masters with such carelessness. It is a wonder how cats ever enslaved these hairless forest apes. Certainly, grimalkin were a great match for goblins in wiliness, and Old Gasket and Rambol both had their plan, independent of the other entirely both because Old Gasket could not speak to announce his plan, but also because Rambol was quite certain the cat would find the three loud, clumsy goblins first and he could swiftly act upon the creature from above. Both of their plans, it must be said, were not very good. Rambol had no idea what to do after landing upon the grimalkin’s difficult back. (Old Gasket’s plan was throwing his granddaughter to the creature, and letting her play dead to let the rest escape. She would be sensible enough and terrified enough to do exactly that, after all, and big and tough enough to walk away from it.)
The furry monarch had her own plans. As queen of all she surveyed, she knew there were malodorous and mischievous goblins tromping at the edge of the rye field before they even knew they were in her territory. She had killed three mice in that field, just that morning. She saw the familiar sway in the grass of those terrible little intruders and considered getting up to go get them, kill one just for sport. Still, it was early, yet. They only just entered the kingdom of the cat. Let them come closer, and see if there isn’t an easier angle of attack than head on from the rising grass. She was declining upon a tree stump at the far edge of the field. The tree had been pollarded so much, it was nearly dead, and only the stump remained. It had cracked and shattered a few times, but it still managed to sit the cat up a good foot above the early spring grass. When the rye was ready to harvest, it would be taller than the stump and cat, together. For now, the cat could survey this field, and prepare to hold the ground.
Grimalkin are often misunderstood. They are not animals in the sense that they are natives of this part of the world, who evolved from nature alone. In fact, they are beings of between realms of existence, who exist to keep the different things in their place. Creatures of the forest who attempt to enter human space – mice, birds, the like – are meat for the slaughter. Creatures of the realms mostly unseen – like fairies and brownies and pixies and even horrible grokes – also flee in fear of the sharp and hungry cats. Goblins are forest creatures, who belong close to the junipers and ash and rowan and pine and maple that shelter them from all seasons. To see them at the edge of the grass, for any feline, is a breach in the order of things, and measures must be taken. To transgress into the realm of the farm, the home, the city, no… There must be a price of blood. (That goblins do occasionally and with some regularity slip into the farmhouse for minor acts of thievery is tolerated in the same sense that mice are occasionally able to slip through: not for very long, and not when they are loud and in bustling, bumbling clusters. Pixies and fairies and the like have all long sense abandoned this realm, for the torment of the cats was simply too hard for their delicate bodies, even in small doses. Also, fairies are quite tasty, like a sweet piece of fine cheese. Goblins stink of the medicinal and piney aroma of the juniper berries they eat with such relish in all seasons. Truly, cats wished every goblin tree was s fairy tree, instead.)
Still, the cat was also a very lazy guardian. She waited for just the right moment to spring from her perch and creep down into the rye. It wasn’t really the right moment. It was probably quite late. Really, she would tell other cats that she waited for the right moment, and it would be fine. They’d all understand. Ugh, goblins. Again. They don’t even taste remotely like a stinky can of fish or the delicate, grassy flavor of a young sparrow. Even licking the blood of one off her paw was disgusting. It was just all such a bother. Birds belonged in the air. Mice belonged in the woods. Goblins belonged in their tree. It was all so sensible, and no one ever bothered being sensible. Humans were very sensible, and made sure to stay where they belonged, or at least to return to it before nightfall. It was no wonder cats preferred the company of humans to all other races.
Once in the grass, it was quick work singling out the lone straggler, who had for some reason chosen not to stick with the pack, where it would be harder for the cat to catch him. She quickly snatched Rambol from the tip of the grasses, where he had been trying to move quietly and unseen and threw him down among his fellow goblins with a flourish and a pounce.
“All right, you nasty, little goblins… Who do I kill first?”
One of the goblins screamed and attempted to run, but she was quickl batted back into place. Old Gasket dropped on the ground and played dead like a good, goblin. Rambol, who had a few scars and scratches from the barncat, already, quickly followed suit. It was easy for him to do so, as he had already been struck quite hard and gotten a bit bloodied along his arm. Ruthie had tried to run, and she was quickly plopped down with the others, crying and wailing.
Gasketina was the only one to keep her feet, and her head.
“We aren’t here for your territory, and we aren’t here to be your playthings, foul Grimalkin! Let us pass!”
The cat sat back on its haunches and thought it would be a lovely game to slowly rip apart the mouthy one, limb-from-stinking-limb… But, it would stink up the place quite a lot, and it would stink for a very long time. Really, no one wanted to smell the guts of goblins. Already, their presence was so malodorous that it made the ferocious beast vomit a little in the back of her throat.
“Go back to your trees. This is not your realm.”
“Says who? You go where you like. Why can’t we?”
“I am a queen of this territory. I hold the line between worlds. This is not yours. I’ll kill you if I have to, just like I did your two friends.”
“They’re not dead.”
“What?” The cat, confused, poked at little Rambol, and found him quite still and dead. She poked at the one with the little metal thing sticking out of its head, and that one was also very still. Probably the metal thing. It didn’t look like it should be able to survive that, whatever it fell on. “They seem quite dead to me. Hold up. The screaming one… Stop screaming. Just stop. Should I kill you, too?”
She batted at Ruthie, who was knocked over and bruised, and her bulbous knee was scratched more than would be attractive. It was all very horrific. She did quite down and begin to play dead, like the other two.
“There, see. Another one is dead. Only you remain.”
“They’re only playing dead to fool you. You’re very easy to fool.”
Rambol was furious. He whisper-shouted “QUIET, GASKETINA!”
Taken quite aback, the barncat hissed and pawed the groan and set their hair on edge. “Tricksters foul!” she shouted. “I should paint your entrails upon your trail as a warning to all other foul goblins that DARE enter my realm!”
Gasketina had quite enough. She jumped up and grabbed the left whiskers, hard, and yanked the cat down to her level. “Stop and listen! We aren’t trying to trespass! We don’t have to be enemies! We are just passing through your realm, nothing more, and goblins belong wherever they like to belong and don’t have to put up with any nonsense from you!”
This was, of course, the wrong thing to say and do. The cat snatched Gasketina up in its jaws and took another swipe at the creatures playing dead before her. Then, she hauled Gasketina back up to the tree stump and plopped her down between two, heavy paws and growled at her. “That is no way to speak to your queen, little goblin,” she said. “Now, try again with some fear and trembling in your voice, lest I rip you limb from limb.”
Of course, doing so on her favorite perch was a very unpleasant idea. The cat could only imagine how long it would take for the rain to wash away that awful smell. It would be weeks before she could stand to perch here, again. Ugh, goblins were just the worst. Why couldn’t it have been fairies, or lovely young foraging cardinals out beyond their proper trees? The flavor of the winged things is exquisite. Even lizards up from their proper holes and rocks taste better than a disgusting goblin. And the mouthiness on this one, in particular, was disgusting. Goblins are simply the worst.
“My friends and I are not staying in your realm. We’re not taking anything from it. We’re just passing through! So let us pass.”
“None shall pass. You belong where you came from, not here. This is my field, my house, my home. The place is not where you belong.”
“We’re leaving your place.”
“I should rip you limb from limb,” she said, yawning. Her teeth were very prominent when she yawned. Her boredom was most threatening, indeed. “Where do you think you could possibly go where some other cot does not hold dominion? This is not your proper realm.”
“Who decided what realm is proper and what isn’t?”
“Cats, of course. Aren’t you paying attention. We are a clean and organized aristocracy. Everything in its place. Everything out of place is meat.”
“You don’t even eat goblins.”
“You have never eaten a goblin in my whole, entire life. You have maimed a few.”
“I could maim you.”
“But then I would struggle to leave your dominion, and my blood would make a mess.”
The cat graimaced in the manner of cats, which is to say only a cat would even recognize the qdisgust in its fleeting gesture across the great, orange tabby queen’s face. To anyone else, it appeared as nothing at all but a strange pause.
“You little goblins certainly do stink up the place.”
“We aren’t trying to stay in your dominion,” said Gasketina. “We just want to pass through this time, and then one more time. That’s it. That’s all we want to do. We have no designs on your royal dominion.”
“Today,” said the cat, shrewdly.
“Not today, no. The beetle bobs that work for us in the trees and holes of our home benefit from us. We throw the the berries too rotten for us to eat down to the ground for their babies to eat.”
“I do not want your stinking, rotten leftovers, nasty thing. No, I’d much prefer tearing a leg off of you, and watching you drag yourself back to your little tree.”
“There has to be something you want,” she said. “Something you can’t get and crafty goblins might?”
That made her pause. She tapped a claw beside Gasketina’s head. “That’s a thought… I don’t like nasty, little goblins entering my realm. But, I can see the use of a little forced labor before I throw you back to your nasty, little lives.”
“You don’t need to be rude,” said Gasketina. “I quite like my life, thank you. We all do.”
“I do mean to be rude. It’s impossible to be queen unless one is very rude to everyone, all the time. It’s part of the job, little goblin. You have a king of your own, don’t you? Isn’t he a rude and belligerent sort?”
“He is, at that.”
“See, we who rule must be rude. It comes with the sacred crown.”
“You don’t see my crown? Well, it’s there if you know what you’re looking at properly. If you help me… If. If. If. Nasty little creature, I may choose to kill you, anyway. But. If. If you help me, I may decide to let you pass, for now. I may not. It is the prerogative of royalty to be fickle with their promises, so don’t come whining to me if I think it’s funny to rip your legs off.” The cat prodded the goblin’s squirming, little legs, and instantly regretted it. Goblin skin had such a greasy, nasty film. She could already smell it, with the blood from the previous swipes. She’ll have to lick that off, later, and it will make a mess of her digestion. Then, her servants will have such a mess to clean up off the carpet, and they will not be happy about that. Ugh. Goblins were just the worst, nastiest little thieving creatures.
Gasketina was carried in the cat’s jaws gingerly. The cat had no desire to taste any amount of the goblin’s medicinal, piney, disgusting blood more than necessary. Once inside, the cat looked around for her servants. They would throw such a fit if they found a goblin in the house. Really, it was best for those poor, useless apes to just have a mouse from time to time, to keep their spirits up. It always excited them so.
Gasketina was very unhappy about her circumstances. Of course, she was in mortal peril, and that was a concern. Also, it was very embarrassing for a goblin to be dragged around in the mouth like a beetle bob bauble. If Rambol and Ruthie saw her in such an indignified state, tossed about like a doll in the jaws of a meanie, it could lead to the sort of nickname that replaces her actual name. It could be commemorated in statue at the Museum of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goblin Goings-On. It could be the only thing anyone ever remembers about here. She was carried in the mouth of a grimalkin for a very long time in a most humiliating fashion.
At one point, inside, the grimalkin did, finally drop her, only to run its tongue over a scratching post to try and scrape away that awful flavor from its mouth. Gasketina looked around at where she was. Inside the cat’s jaws, she could see very little of what was happening. It was mostly gums and teeth and the hint of movement. Now on the outside of the cat’s mouth, it was clear she was somewhere new and strange and very unpleasant. For one thing, there was no dust or trees or flowers. Everything was kind of shiny. It was almost like a goblin’s hole, but there was no moss or mold or beetle bobs bouncing around. It was just a very strange, smooth, shiny cave full of objects as mysterious to her as goblin devices would be to us. Even the tea kettles were odd, as they were not at all like a good, copper goblin tea kettle that went on the iron stove, but instead a smooth glassware thing, with a very long tail attached to a wall. Really, it was the strangest place Gasketina had ever seen.
The queen of this place explained the situation.
“My useless servants try their hand at emoluments from time to time. They hide their treasure from me for an occasional bribe. It is improper. I am the queen of this place. All is rightfully mine. Go and retrieve my prize.”
“What am I looking for, in there? What does it look like.”
“It smells strongly of the sea, and the deep creatures there. That is how you will know.”
Gasketina did not know what a sea was, or a deep creature. The cat urged the little goblin to crawl under the pantry door into the darkness, there. Gasketina, as a goblin, could see very well in the dark, as her people made do on the shadows of the dark forest. Night was the preferred time to gather juniper and Rowan berries, and the best time for the mushrooms and mosses. The dark pantry was not so different from a tree in night time, with its rising shelves and craggy boxes and bags and bits so like the varied surfaces of a mossy, mushroom-y, chopped and chipped tree, but it was a great mystery what she was supposed to find.
What she did not expect to find was Rambol Goblin, exasperated, nibbling on little tea crackers where a mouse had gnawed a hole, wiggling his toes and whisper shouting for Gasketina to hurry up.
“Hurry up! We are all waiting!”
“Rambol Goblin, what are you doing here!”
“Grandfather Gasket and Ruthie aren’t master sneakthieves like me. So, I came to fetch you. I have a secret way in and out. A mouse showed me, once.”
“I can’t. The cat wants me to find a treat for it with a pungent aroma of the sea.”
“What’s a ‘C’ Even smell like?”
“I don’t know. Like a cat, I think.”
“Well, all I have are these giant crackers. Bit dry, really. And too salty. They only taste good enough because I stole them from the fleshy, brown large ones, and their horrid furry queen.”
Rambol was high at the top and Gasketina was down at the bottom.
The cat, of course, realized her little goblin had been compromised and jumped forward and snapped her paws and claws under the door. Gasketina was caught by the her and tripped over, but she scurried up onto the crate of cola bottles on the floor before the hissing Grimalkin could snatch her away with a hook.
Gasketina was not a tree sniffer, and her parents were not tree sniffers, and her grandfather was not a tree sniffer. Truth be told, her pointed, hooked nose was just too small for the work. The number of olfactory points of contact did not have the precision necessary for it. Rambol, however, was a son of a tree sniffer, and expected to take up the work upon his maturation. His tiny body could be said to be 1/10th nose. Just think about how much nose that is, and how many olfactory points of contact along the huge nasal passages would result. Anyone who looked at him would say he was destined to be a tree sniffer, which was important work and very respectable for a goblin. He hated the whole idea, of course, and was only interested in becoming a legendary pilferer. Still, Gasketina had a notion he might be able to help her fulfill her deal to the queen. When she suggested as such, Rambol was furious.
“Goblins don’t keep their word when it’s inconvenient! That’s simply not proper goblin behavior! Why would any goblin keep their word when they could just as easily not! And to a Grimalkin!”
The grimalkin hissed at this. “I can hear you, foul goblin. I will kill you. I will kill all of you I encounter.”
“Oh, go chew a chair leg, furryfoot!”
Gasketina shouted back at the cat, “As much abuse as you level upon us, do not be surprised that you are disliked. Now, let me talk to this goblin, and he may be able to help.” She turned back to Rambol. “You are the child of tree sniffers. Your nostrils are bigger than pine nuts and twice as strong. You’re very familiar with the aroma of the inside of a grimalkin’s foul tongue and teeth, yes?”
He grimaced and groaned and beat his head. “I don’t want to help the thing!”
“I agreed to help for safe passage. We will need safe passage again, when we come back with the troll’s tooth. If we can work a deal, we don’t have to risk the queen stealing our prize! Think Rambol! There’s a bigger game at stake than a single walk. How big is a troll’s tooth, anyhow? Will we need some kind of beetle bug cart to shift it? I don’t even know! We need to smooth the path as much as we can, here with this grimalkin queen! Just sniff around for something that stinks like her mouth of murder, and she’ll probably like it and this arrangement can be rearranged again and again and no one has to get bopped and scratched and scrambled about the place!”
“A waste of time. Grimalkin cannot be trusted.”
“Neither can Goblins.”
“Exactly my point. Let’s go!”
“I can be trusted. I am an honest goblin to those creatures, in particular, I will need help from again, someday. Think of the future, Rambol. Think of returning with the tooth, and crossing this territory twice, with a prize in palm. You know Old Gasket won’t leave me behind. You can’t make me go. You have to help me make peace with the Grimalkin, first.
Rambol hacked and spat and spittled and sputtered, but she was right about one thing: Old Gasket would bust Rambol a solid bop if he came home without Gasketina. And, Rambol was not even remotely as large and vigorous as she was. She had developed strong musculature helping her grandfather move about the place, and doing all the chores for him. Rambol was lazy, like a good goblin should be, and never did chores he could shirk, and mostly slunk about the place looking for things worthy of pilfering.
He decided that whatever was so precious to the grimalkin was also going to be precious enough to steal and keep at hand. Why, it could be valuable to some other grimalkin on their journey? Gasketina was right, at least, that it would be much better to bribe the foul kings and queens of these odd caves and rivers hardened into black tar than to continue pretending at death and hiding while getting chewed and bit and scratched and bopped and bothered.
He cleared his sinuses with a few wet snorts right into the cracker crumbs. Then, he went to work, trying hard to remember what it is, exactly, that specific malodorous conundrum of death and stench that fills the mouth of the furry, toothy grimalkin queen. He sniffed the tubs. He sniffed the bags. He sniffed and sniffed the bins and tins. He crawled up and down the place and settled on three things that might be the stench that the creature so desired. One was locked up inside a tight metal lid, and would be very difficult to open without a very strong, firm cutting tool. It was the faintest of aromas, but aroma it was, hidden in that sealed device was something most foul and malodorous and maleficiently grimalkin-like. The other was in a bag and was very easy to open, and really did stink quite a lot, even through the bag. The final thing was a tin of some sort, but the biscuits inside of it were most horrid, and stank like something swam upstream and died. It appeared to be made with actual grimalkin parts, if the label was to be believed, which was truly foul. But, so like a grimalkin to devour their own kind in pellets. They were a brutish, thuggish sort of murderous race, and cannibalism would not be a stretch.
Since the bag was the easiest to hurl down, Rambol handed that up, first. Gasketina chewed open the top of the bag, and kicked it over so it spilled its contents down on the ground, where the foul grimalkin could paw out its prize from the gap between the pantry door and the floor. The cat, greedily, swept up the prize, and coughed.
“You mock me! These are not for feline consumption. Not in the slightest! These are vegetables fried crispy and doused with disgusting things. No.”
Rambol shouted down, “Well, they stink like your mouth, whatever’s in them.”
“They are foul, little goblin, and get stuck in my teeth most unpleasant. Royalty only eat what can be killed by claw and tooth, and given as gifts from our servants. My emoluments remain. Find them.”
Rambol could not do a thing to the can without Old Gasket’s jagged skull injury, so they both pushed over the much lighter tin to see the top, which was not the same metal as the sides, but more of a plastic shield that was stuck on far too hard for a goblin to muster. They really should have just cut it open, but they were both so frustrated by the situation, and angry at each other for a variety of minor, irrelevant foibles, but they had not thought to chew through the plastic like a mouse. Instead, they pulled and pushed at the strange, plastic top to no avail. Rambol decided this was a waste of his time, and he muttered a curse and kicked the thing over the edge. Gasketina desperately held onto the lid where she had it gripped, but it nearly pulled her over and there was no soft forest floor upon which to land. She let go, and the tin fell, and smashed open on the ground where the loose plastic lid from Gasketina’s grip broke free. Soon, tiny brown, crunchy triangles scattered atop the chips. This garnered the cats attention and immediate gluttony. She was too busy trying to drag absolutely all of them out from under the door to even explain herself. Gasketina saw it, as did Rambol.
“Okay, can we go?” said Rambol. “I think that’s it.”
“Wait just a minute,” she said. She clambered down to the ground, and looked carefully at the tin with the picture of a cat on it. How gruesome, she thought, but royalty are always such a strange and odious bunch. It makes sense they would devour each other with such gusto. She picked up a couple of the smaller pieces, and stuffed them into a gathering bag she had on her back for just sudden discoveries while out and about. Then she kicked a few of them out of reach of the mean old cat just to spite her sharp and selfish paw. At last, she climbed up the shelves again, to where Rambol had his path out of the pantry in a mouse hole at the top of the door jamb, where one could only see the hole from inside the pantry looking back towards the door from above. Truly, the mouse that chewed this pathway was a genius, for it was a hole older than any mouse could possibly be, and many goblins had followed it through in the years since into the bounty of the pantry in the wee hours where pilferers proliferate.
Once up into the middle of the wall, they followed an old trail out towards the attic and then the eaves, where they could drop down from a small crack in the stones of the farmhouse wall. It was a tight fit, and Gasketina barely scraped through. In another season, she would grow too large for this path, she knew, because she was still too young to stop growing. Adventures like this were just not for her, and already she hated it. She had to suck her breath in and angle herself carefully, and then pull the strange, stinky bits she took from the Grimalkin through behind her. Rambol was not troubled at all and hopped out like it was a long old goblin hole in a tree. He was much smaller, and leaner, than most goblins his age. Perhaps he had been malnourished from going to bed without his supper so often as a wicked, little goblin tyke, or perhaps his giant nose consumed all of the food his body ate, growing out and out and out until he was more nostril than muscle.
Down they climbed, into the clover and rye that pressed up against the back wall of the house. And, Rambol capered and leapt off into the woodpile, where Ruthie and Old Gasket waited. Ruthie jumped up, a bit bloody and a bit mussed, but otherwise fine, and squealed that Gasketina was alive and all in one piece. Old Gasket just waited for all the noise and bother to finish. It was a long way to the trolls, and it was not going to get any easier if they waited for the cat to hunt them again among the spiders and beetles and mice of the wood pile. Really, where else would the hideous grimalkin hunt, but here, where tiny prey were soon to sneak out and about the little field of clover on the way to the trash bins and compost and raised garden mounds just a little ways away? Best to hurry on from this place, for grimalkins were not the only hunters about, either. A snake would swallow all four goblins up without a burp as silently as a wind in the grass. Of course, once they crossed the threshold of the grimalkin’s farmhouse kingdom, the dangers only increased. What’s worse than a grimalkin? Why, the giants those furry, royal death claws trick and ensorcell into servitude. The giants, in their giant caves and giant pathways and giant, giant beetle bobs, are the most terrifying creatures to a tiny goblin. No good ever came of any goblin ever encountering a giant, ever. They would catch you up and probably squish you, and drag you off to a nefarious den to be tortured for an eternity. Every goblin knows that. Why, the last time any goblin ever willingly interacted with a giant was in the dawn of time, when whole goblin kingdoms were thrown about and chewed up into rubble to make way for the giants’ stony hollows and warmongering. Truly, the giants are the nastiest, cruelest, most wicked creatures in all the known world, and no goblin set foot out onto the hot, black tar that smeared every path their screaming giant beetle bobs careened across without very good reason.
Still, the land of the giants stood between Old Gasket and the mountaintop of the trolls. He knew well how to cross the land of giants, where his old nemesis, the eternal witch, Hulda of the Hidden, disguised herself for her own witchy purposes. It was, in fact, related to the gasket lodged in his skull. First, to cross the deadly, dangerous tar roads, goblins must seek the pipes that run beneath the roads. Second, the giants, themselves, never bothered to watch their careless steps, and never really paid attention to the underside of their tremendous beetles. A clever goblin could slide underneath a beetle bob, and hitch a ride above the ground, but below the giants. Goblins needed to hold on very tight, though, because the monstrous things would jerk and herk and roar berserk. Really, it was not the safest or easiest way to get to the troll mountain. There was not even any way to be sure the hulking beetles were going the right way. The third method across the realm of the giants was much slower, but far more fun and predictable: camouflage! In disguise, they could climb inside the biggest and loudest of the giant rolling beetle bobs and sneak out upon arrival undetected. Ruthie would definitely like this method best. Once Old Gasket handed her a bunch of grasses he had ripped with his teeth and started pushing it into her hair, Ruthie’s heart jumped.
“We are going to make disguises? I love disguises! What guises and surprises comprise our enterprises to the troll tooth prize!?”
Old Gasket grunted. He began to chew more grass with his teeth, but Ruthie had a better idea. Instead of just tying a bunch of grass to their head and back, they could have bark masks and bark shoes to disguise their very steps upon the ground, and even little cloaks. She told everyone to wait there and rushed back deep into the woodpile for supplies. She found old insect husks, and broken bark, and all sorts of little lichens and mosses. Soon she had accumulated a pile where Old Gasket had merely strapped a bunch of grass to his head.
Gasketina was mimicking her grandfather, but her disguise was most inadequate. A bit of bunched grass was not going to fool the sharp eyes of the giants, particularly at her tremendous size and strength. Ruthie shook her head.
“Gasketina, your disguise would not fool a blind grimalkin. Hold still while I help you.”
Ruthie grabbed at Gasketina’s shirt, and stuffed the stalks of leaves just so that the fronds hid Gasketina’s arms from above. Then, she placed a big, hollow acorn on top, and wrapped the spare grasses loosely and wildly, to obscure the edges of the acorn in a massed tangle. It was much better, and didn’t take very long. Rambol had managed to cover his feet with some brown, dead grass, along with a beetle shell on his head, but that was hardly a disguise to fool a giant!
“You’re thinking like a goblin, hiding your footsteps on the ground, Rambol. Giants are too big to see our feets and toes. They see down from above sharp as owls, though. Let me help you. I’m much taller.”
Rambol didn’t want her help, but she was expecting this, and shoved her very attractive knee directly into his guts. He bent over and found he was already being forced into a variety of leaf and bark camouflage that he had not anticipated. It was heavy. It was hot. It rattled when he walked. But, soon, he realized if he sat still and kept his hands close, he would look like a beetle resting on top of a small bit of broken bark. He grumpily thanked Ruthie for the brilliant and very fast costumery.
“I was planning on being an autumn mummer, someday, when my royal duties diminish in time,” said Ruthie. “Costumery is vital to the work of the autumn mummers.” An autumn mummer was someone who made sure the goblin holes along the old trees and hollows were properly disguised by a variety of fallen leaves and branches and bits and old beetle bob parts. They often did their work in full disguise, to protect them from the passing hawks and falcons of the season. The birds of prey wouldn’t dare eat a foul-tasting goblin, mind you, but they might come down and poke one just to see if it was worth it, and it was certainly not, while it was very inconvenient for the mummer to be poked and interrupted in their work. Anyway, they got their name from the songs they mumbled, to soothe the tree to sleep. Goblins knew that trees rested better over the winter if they had a nice lullabye, like any goblin would. It was certainly nice for the trees, but without ears to hear this song with, it was not particularly more special than any time goblins run about heaving hot wind upon their fading leaves on a chilly, autumn morning.
The costumes that Ruthie devised from the materials at hand were quite good, indeed. Moving among the giants meant staying unseen, being completely silent and swift. No good ever came of goblins interfering with things in the realm of the giants, with the exception of the occasional pilfering of a ribbon or a warm, old sock, or perhaps a bit of crackers. Still, the goblins who did that dangerous pilfering were reckless and fast and rarely moved out past the few farmhouses dotting the edge of their forested hills. Old Gasket’s meandering way was definitely achieving heroic distance, even though not every goblin along for the journey was quite convinced the silent, old goblin knew where he was going or why. In fact, only Rambol had full faith in the wily old goblin’s sense of direction and purpose. He was a born pilferer and sneakabout. He knew a clever goblin with a sharp way when he encountered one. Ruthie was unsure if she should say anything. A grimalkin was dangerous enough, but walking among the giants? Surely no statue in the great hall of great goblin greatness was worth such a risk. And Gasketina was very unhappy, indeed. She was not drinking any warm tea, or sitting in any sort of comfortable chair, and once in the land of giants, any moment she could be squished under their indifferent feet. It was all very upsetting for her, really.
Yet, Old Gasket was not a goblin to trifle over things like someone else’s disbelief or disinterest. He was going on, and Gasketina would not be able to stop him, and Ruthie wouldn’t know how to get home without his or Rambol’s pathfinding. Rambol, of course, was wild with excitement. He could almost taste the troll’s hideous tooth. He imagined it tasted like some kind of beetle bob shell and a bit of mud. It wouldn’t be very tasty, at all, in fact. Teeth generally taste like mouth, and mouth generally tastes like the last thing that was in the mouth, and trolls eat mostly weird rocks and wild animals carrion. So, the tooth would not taste very good, at all. The whole-putting-of-a-troll-tooth-in-the-mouth to taste victory idea was probably a bad one, but it was almost required. How else would one know what a troll tooth tasted like if one did not taste it? Still, it was very likely to taste extremely bad…
“Rambol!” shouted Ruthie. “Are you coming, or not?”
“Old Gasket has already taken off. Come on! We need to keep up!”
Old Gasket had an ingenious trick for crossing the dangerous giant kingdom. He didn’t even try to cross it, at all. He merely climbed up the rubber and spokes of a big sleeping beetle’s spinning foot, and crawled around to the back fender, where there was enough room to sit and wait, hidden past the lip of the fender’s curve, until one of the giants came to ride the beast into their clumped structures all huddled together around the black.
Old Gasket settled in, in fact, using bits of the grass he had taken to soften his place, and rest his head, with the gasket jutting through it. The rest of his disguise was not really necessary. Gasketina felt foolish, indeed.
“You didn’t say anything about waiting here,” she said. “Grandpa! And you let Ruthie make such costumes!”
He didn’t even acknowledge her frustrations. He started to whistle a bit through the gasket, itself, while he snored, which seemed to defy logic and science, but it was certainly a snore, and certainly the gasket itself seemed to whistle a little.
Rambol sat down in a huff. “Well, this is no fun. No troll here.”
Ruthie sat down and adjusted her costume. “Well, I thought the camouflage was a lot of fun to make, and I appreciate that he didn’t object to it. Maybe it will be useful later? We will thrive in our disguise when we get closer to our prize.”
It was an excellent place and time for a nap. They had walked for quite a long time, and escaped the Grimalkin, and then walked some more, and then made disguises and climbed into the carapace of a giant’s sleeping beetle bob. There was really nothing better to do than to slip a hand into a pocket for a quick nip of juniper berry and to lean back and stretch out. Ruthie yawned very loudly, and it was quickly contagious, spreading among the goblins who all shut their eyes and felt cozy inside that strange metal curve, how it bent just like a hammock might, and everyone was very tired.
Fortunately, the giant beetle bob was not at all quiet when it decided to rumble and roar and shake awake, and every goblin rattled up from slumber quick, quick, quick, and actually also quite slow. Rambol was exhausted. He hadn’t had a decent bit of rest since the day before, as he had spent the whole night prior in perilous pilfering and daring and the whole day prior to that sulking until Ruthie arrived to plan a great pilfering. He was very, very tired. Ruthie and Gasketina had to kick him awake, and he woke up bitey and very unhappy. He snapped and snarled, and then whimpered because the beetlebob was bustling and bursting with heat and life. Soon, the wheeled feet whipped and swept and spun and the whole hulking halfshell was hurtling along down the hills and between the little mountains to a little town with new shops hidden behind very old walls. The goblins couldn’t see this, of course, because they were clinging for life and huddled in the warming darkness of the bend at the bottom of the old fender, but they would see it soon enough, and the camouflage would prove most useful.
When the beetle bob screeched to a halt, the goblins tucked inside the curve of the fender where all bopped about a bit, from the herky-jerky stops and starts of a giant village with crowded tar pathways and other giant beetle-bobs and giant pedestrians on their mysterious missions among the stones. The goblins couldn’t make sense of any of it where they were tucked away. They banged and bopped and held on to each other and the lip of the fender, and when it ended, and the engine stopped. All the goblins gasped for air except for Old Gasket, who knew exactly what was happening, and he was quick to adjust his disguise and drop out to the ground. Quickly, Rambol jumped after him, and Gasketina moments later. Finally, Ruthie stumbled and staggered and spun her way down. She had gotten extremely motion sick, and was trying not to let others see how nauseous she was feeling. It was easier to do this inside an elaborate disguise, and this is a good reason goblins use them at certain times of the year. Elaborate dancing on too much food is risky. Festival times are precisely when too much food is available. The elaborate costumes goblins built and wore could cover their face and provide a discreet place to deposit any nasty business coming up so that the festival continues on and on and no one is the wiser.
This was not the farthest journey by car by a goblin, by the way. It was not even close. Back in the early days of automobile locomotion, a rowdy goblin fell asleep in a hub cap attached to a dry goods deliveryman, and was spun and spun and spun for hours across the country. When he finally returned, he reported a place as devoid of life as a rockbed, except less than a rockbed. The mountainous towers and vast, lifeless canyons where the giants stomped out everything else were totally unfit for goblin habitation, and he preferred to linger in the hubcaps until the car started up again and hurtled him all over the place, and eventually came back home to the farmer’s field at the edge of the goblin’s home. Since no one believed his fabulous story, no one commemorated his greatness in the Museum of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goblin Goings-On. A very important thing to remember by anyone pursuing true greatness, if you’re a goblin: Make sure your greatness can be verified by at least two trustworthy witnesses. Finding trustworthy goblins can be a challenge. After all, despite Ruthie’s many fine qualities and very attractive bulbous knee, she was notorious for manipulating goblins into what was best for them. And Gasketina, though a very stoic and stodgy sort, is not a kind witness. If she doesn’t like what she sees, she simply wouldn’t bother to show up at the Great Hall and provide an official report. Old Gasket? Well, he can’t talk, so he’s right out and that’s him sorted. Really, Rambol is the only one of our current company that can be relied upon to bear witness where there is needed witnessing. Certainly, this is an important thing to know for later, otherwise this whole paragraph was just a bit of a bother while the goblins were otherwise occupied finagling their escape from the fender and the shadows beneath the car to wherever it is that Old Gasket figured they needed to go next to get to that troll’s tooth. There they went, those wily goblins, in their bumped and battered disguises, out from the fender of the car, down to somewhere behind a huge wheel, and then Old Gasket looked up and down, side to side. He looked and looked, and no one knew what he was looking for, but he kept looking. Ruthie tried looking, too, but all she saw were a whole bunch of giants stepping out of their own misshapen and hideous giant beetle-bobs, trudging with thunderous footfalls into some big cave with a magic door that opened and closed as if a beetle-bob was on door duty, but no beetle-bob was visible. It was all very confusing.
Old Gasket saw whatever it is he was seeking. He pushed quickly out of the beetle’s shadow, and into the shadow of another beetle, and then another, all down the long row of giant beetle bobs that were lined up in front of the strange giant cave in their strange square hills. He pressed into an alleyway that seemed to be a sort of canyon between strange mountains to the tiny goblins hidden by their fabulous — slightly banged about — costumes.
And, everyone hurried after him. He was the only one who knew the way, after all, and he really seemed to know exactly where he was going. It was quite late in the afternoon, and it was all very hot and weird, and there were suddenly no giants at all, and none of the goblins really knew why they were all gone. (I mean, it was Friday afternoon, and that meant a lot of the giants of the region got together to go into one big building and pray to their giant god, and the farmhouse had long been part of that particular religious tradition, but school activities weren’t out, yet, either, so after the prayer, there were many other errands for this particular giant to run, and how did Old Gasket know it was Friday, anyway? What went on inside that mysterious, damaged brain that he remembered such a thing as a Friday, and what it meant for his own exploration possibilities, even at his advanced age? How could he have possibly have known about the bus stop, and the specific bus that he needed to catch to get to the mountain where there is still a troll? Truly, he was craftier and wilier than any goblin really knew.)
In fact, I suspect that he had no idea how exactly he was going to get from there to the sleeping troll’s maw. It became obvious that was so when he reached the bus stop, looked up and down the road, saw no one, and nothing, and furrowed his brow. Really, it was for the best that there was nothing coming, because he likely didn’t know one bus from another, at all. (Let us call them what the giants call them: a bus! A huge steel beetle-like thing with round feet that giants clambored around and whose ways were as mysterious to goblins as the pathways of birds are to the voles in the earth.) Old Gasket knew that he had to go here, and sneak into one. But, with no giants at the bus stop, there was no reason for a bus to stop. And, with no great understanding of bus time tables, even if one stopped, the goblins that got on would be going for quite an interesting ride, indeed. Why, the next bus would be going to pick up children from school, and that would be the absolute worst place for a goblin to be. Children notice things like goblins, even in disguises. They are famous for noticing things that no one else does. (Hidden Folk, like me, your humble narrator of these brave goblins, are terrified of children, above all else. I’m sure I shall tell you more about me when the time is right.)
With this discovery, that despite his knowledge that this method led to a place where trolls lived, once, but now time has passed, timetables have changed, and all the world seemed to cloud and shadow. Old Gasket, no doubt, felt his bones inside his body creak and groan with brittle age, and saw his face in the reflection of the glass bus stop hutch. Goblins do not often see their own reflection. It must have been very disturbing for him, because he grimaced very strongly, and very harshly and made a nasty, nasty goblin face at himself. He spit a wad of phlegm so foul it steamed a little in its own rotten stink.
“Grandpa!” said Gasketina. “Don’t be nasty!”
He stuck his tongue out at her and sat down and began to cry. He was old, and he had been so certain, but now it wasn’t working, and he would have to let the children rely on each other instead of him, and if that wasn’t a cunning ploy, I don’t know cunning.
“Grandpa!” Gasketina sat down and reached out to hold him. Ruthie looked around to see if anyone could see them. She quickly adjusted their camouflage to conceal them from the street.
Rambol was very confused. He had had such faith in the old goblin, and now everything was ruined. He had stopped quite in the middle of whatever scheme was cooking in his clever, old brain, and surrendered to a defeat most gruesome and embarrassing to behold. And, no troll was present. Not one. He looked up and down the little alley, and saw only bits of trash, old water accumulated off the cracks in the ancient cobblestones, pooling in the old runnels and drains of the medieval city’s open gutters along the ground between the hunched hills. He looked up at the top of the nearest square hill, and figured it would be much easier to see a troll up there than down in the damp gutter.
He patted Ruthie and pointed up.
“I’m going to see if we can hide up there.”
Ruthie didn’t even really hear him.
Rambol’s nimble, little hands clawed into every crevice and every cranny and every crook. He scrambled and ambled up the side of the old stone structure until he reached the top of the roof, where, being a modern mountain, it was something like a community square on the roof, with a small space for sunning and even some empty lounge chairs. He was very pleased with his discovery, and bent over to wave at the others to follow him up.
None of them even saw him.
No matter, he could see fine. The square hill was quite tall. It wasn’t as tall as the cathedral, of course, which was a big, old, craggled, imposing behemoth under extensive repairs after the old roof had failed during the final snowstorm of spring. Rambol gazed around at all the hills and mountains about the city, and soaked in the fabulous view. As a young goblin, he had often clambered up to the top of the tree, just below the winter bells, where his hole was, to see as far and wide as a bird, and imagine what might lay across a hill, a valley, a world. He wished to soak it all in, see everything, and know everything a goblin could possibly know, and pilfer wonderful items everywhere they could possibly be. Truly, nothing was more wonderful than finding a beautiful new place from which to steal something.
Speaking of which, he was on a roof, in a village, where there were lounge chairs, and vents, and all sorts of little corners and nooks. He sniffed about after anything a goblin might find valuable, slipping from lounge chair to lounge chair. It reminded him of the time he tried to steal the egg of a bird that had nested on hard, cold river rocks, and it was a scraggly walk over stones to reach a beautiful thing that was far too big for a little goblin to carry, alone. The huge lounge chairs were ugly things, with a plasticine sort of strap that no goblin would ever want to bring into a hole. It stank like a paint thinner doused in pool water to those whose noses were large enough and sharp enough to notice such things. He sniffed around the door for a bit, and a few of the grates. None of the venting pipes smelled safe to jump into, nor would anything of value be down such a thing, really. Rambol found giants very confusing. They put such store and value in big, dead caves in jagged and harsh shapes, with very few things of value in them, but ever so many things that stank of plastic and paint and pompous perfumes. Why, it was truly challenging to find anything as wonderful as that red ribbon he had pilfered from the farmhouse, yesterday. Still, he kept looking around, while he could still hear the sniffling and wailing of Old Gasket in the alley below.
Someone had dropped a few bottlecaps on the rooftop hidden in the shadow of a corner behind a bit of chimney, and they were certainly very interesting, with bright colors on one side, and jagged metallic teeth on the other. They were small enough he could pick up two without trouble, at all. Rambol was very pleased with his discovery of something actually useful. It had a pleasant, yeasty smell about it, and strong metal teeth. It could be very useful cutting hard juniper berries or mashing them, or even placed down for a little footstool or low table of some sort. Why, he imagined it was probably the most valuable thing any goblin could have ever found. Of course, it was not the tooth of a troll, but perhaps that could wait for another adventure. He gathered up as many of these fabulous, colorful caps as he could carry and ran to the edge of the wall.
He dropped them over the edge and let them fall from up high, tumbling down and down and smashing onto the ground around his startled partners in pilfering.
He raced down the wall, after them, calling down thar he found them, and they were his.
“Hey,” Rambol shouted as he scrambled, “I found an amazing thing! I don’t know what they are, but look how amazing they are!”
Ruthie picked up a bottle cap that had so rudely landed on her head. It had left quite a nasty bump, and it was not an attractive bump, like her bulbous knee. It was a very unappealing, unattractive, bruised, and burgeoning bump. The source of it, of course, was something amazing. She marvelled at the bottle caps. They were such beautiful, exotic objects to a goblin of the woods and trees. It was like a shiny flower that could probably help cut open a walnut shell. It was hard to imagine anything more useful than a beautiful thing that might help with the walnut shells. They were such a rare and precious delicacy to a little goblin, who had to rely on great heights and a long walk down and back again to ever taste the flesh inside the tough shells.
Gasketina frowned. “Well, we won’t get into the Museum of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goblin Goings-On with whatever these are.”
Ruthie shrugged. “We had quite an adventure. We outwitted a Grimalkin, and rode in one of those great, big giant beetle bobs. I don’t even know how to get home from here. Do you, Old Gasket?”
He huddled away from everyone, still feeling about as bad as he felt when he wept. He had lost the spring in his step, the jump in his thumps, and the flair in his glare. He was an old, tired goblin with a gasket lodged in his head, and he wanted a big cup of moss tea and a comfy chair, no doubt. Either that, or he wanted to crawl into the gaping maw of a troll in daylight, when they sleep as still as stones, to yank loose one of their precious bone-grinding teeth, and returning victorious to a grand parade and a statue that will last forever in the hall of greatness, and realized that he would never be able to achieve that kind of feat ever again at his age.
“Rambol,” said Ruthie. “Why don’t you climb up and up and up all over again, and see if you can see the trees of home.”
He did climb up, but he did not see the tree of home. He saw trees, though, and trees and trees, and if they were just up into the tree line, no doubt they could sniff their way home to the juniper and ash and oak that hid ancient goblin city in their cracks and crevices and holed out hollows. So that would have to do. Back down below with his goblin companions, Rambol sneered and coughed at Old Gasket to lift the old trickster’s spirits. Nothing brightened an old goblins mood like a good swipe at a younger goblin who was being rude. But, Old Gasket was unmoved. He seemed to fade into the limestone bricks, and become a stone, himself. Gasketina huffed. “His juniper berry and bitter moss medicine quota is low. We need to get him back home, quickly!”
Rambol slipped his little body under the arm of the old thief. “I saw trees. We can sniff our way home from any accumulated trees.”
Together they looked carefully about the place and saw giants with big, shaggy dogs on leashes and giants in huge beetles rumbling along and giants in all sorts of hideous activities from little giants throwing things at each other and big giants sitting outside their caves with stinky, bitter beverages and mysterious devices. It was all so monstrous, so alien, and so unimaginably wrong for any goblin to venture out in such a noisy and boisterous world. For, when they had entered their alleyway, it was supper time and time for Friday prayers, and not a single person was out in the street, and now there were ever so many.
“We will have to wait until the monsters go to bed,” said Rambol.
“That could be forever and ever,” said Gasketina.
“Or we put on our fabulous disguises,” said Ruthie. “Come on, let’s be sneaky and cheeky and squeak like a mouse. We can escape to the trees and sniff our way home.”
Old Gasket was having none of this. He was determined to be a stone in the shoe of progress. He crossed his arms and hunched down and did not move a centimeter. Ruthie decided to make some changes to the costumes. She fashioned a big beetle shell out of bark and bottlecaps and made Old Gasket the center of it, while She and Gasketina worked the beetle legs, and Rambol managed the antennae and led the creature across to wherever a good cluster of trees might be. Groves among the giants were rare and precious places, crowded with birds and other refuge seekers. It was not much of a surprise at all that when they did make their way into a tree of adequate size for safe holes that there was, in fact, another goblin already hiding in it. He was not a young goblin, like Rambol and Ruthie and Gasketina. He was not an old goblin, like Old Gasket, either. He was somewhere in the middle, perhaps not quite old enough to be a father, but certainly not a child. He was picking pinecone nuts from his teeth, and mashing the debris into an edible powder with a long cudgel, deep inside the shadow cast by the roots. When the four journeying goblins arrived, in their elaborate disguise, this lone goblin looked them up and down with not some small amount of alarm, and then went back to grounding pine cones from tooth and down to stony hollow, gathering the flour into little woven reed sacks. He also seemed to be waiting for someone, with a giant pointed stick quite like a tooth pick, but far larger, for some creature not-quite goblin sized, at all.
“Guten Tag, as the giants say, fellow hole holders,” said the fellow with the cudgel and toothpick. “Bit far for mummery, and the wrong season.”
“What do the giants say?” said Ruthie. She was already very impressed by this fellow. Gasketina was not impressed at all. Goblins of a certain age were expected to be working, and this one was acting as if he had very little of worth to do, and she suspected he was here to hide from his responsibilities as a goblin. Rambol mostly wanted to steal the flour. He’d settle for the toothpick.
“Guten tag,” said the goblin. “I’ve been studying their strange ways and mannerisms for some time. I’m a master pilferer, you see, and I’m trying to figure out what is truly valuable among them.”
“We took these,” said Rambol, pointing proudly at his bottlecaps.
The new goblin, who had yet to say his name, I should add, looked at them and cocked a cocky eyebrow that was cocked in a way that would be very rude in other circumstances. “Well, that’s a little bit of nothing,” he said.
“What’s your name, goblin?” said Gasketina.
“What’s yours, young miss?”
“Gasketina. That’s Rambol, Ruthie, and my grandfather, Old Gasket.”
That got his attention. He turned to Old Gasket and bowed respectfully. “The legendary pilferer, himself,” said the goblin. “Truly, you honor my humble hole.”
“Why are you afraid to tell us your name?”
“My name is Whatever-You-Like,” said the grown goblin of this odd hole in such close proximity to the realm of the giants.
“That’s just rude,” said Gasketina. Now she really didn’t like him. “Fine, don’t tell us anything. Rude. We just want to go home to the home tree and here you are hiding and hiding and rude.”
It was not rude, in fact. It was truly his name. His mother asked his father what name the goblin should have upon birth. His father, being a shrewd and careful goblin in all things, stated simply “Whatever you like,” which the groggy and disoriented goblin that had just birthed the long nose and toothily-toothed tiny goblin nodded and declared it so. The keeper of records of all goblins and all names added this name to the scroll of all goblins and all goblin names and moved on without much thought. The shrewd father thought it wise not to contradict anyone, and the bureaucrat did not much mind, at all. No one thought to question anything, at the time, as it was a very cold night, and it was much better to follow official duties by a warm fire beetle bob in a familiar hole, not traipsing about after recovering mothers or harried bureaucrats. So, he was not being rude at all, this new and unluckily-named goblin. He was being very honest. Once again, no one believed him, and thought he was being rude. This is why he lived so far apart, after a lifetime of goblins spitting at him for being honest. All this was well over Gasketina’s head, and Rambol was far too busy searching for things worth stealing to notice, and Ruthie was already quite smitten with this much older goblin that had already proven to be an interesting project by living so far away from the rest of the goblins. Why, she was already plotting and scheming ways to reintroduce this wild and narrow creature back into society, one heroic deed at a time.
Of course, none of this mattered because he saw that his nice, quiet, private life was now invaded by a bunch of goblins who were already going on about his name, and it was the very thing he had come here to avoid, entirely. So, he realized very quickly that the sooner they were out of his hole, and back to home, the better. He had a friend, nearby, that he thought might be willing to help for the right price. He told everyone to stay put, right where they were, and went out whistling after his friend in the neighborhood.
Ruthie, sighed at his back, and Gasketina smacked her. “Don’t start that nonsense. We are still kids!”
“I know that!”
“So don’t start that!”
“Start what?” said Rambol, confused. He found some juniper berries stashed in a hidey hole and passed them around the hungry goblins.
Nobody said anything. They ate and ate some more until their bellies were going to bust with stolen berries. Rambol closed up the hidey hole when he heard the familiar sound of a goblin scrambling down the bark of the tree. Whatever-You-Like arrived with a surprising friend: a large black cat.
“Right, you stinking goblins. I won’t permit any more of you lot immigrating into my kingdom, hear? So time to scamper off.”
“They’re lost, oh mighty King Bitey. Not a one of them knows the way home. That’s why I asked you to come help me get rid of them before they eat me out of home and hearth.”
The large, black tomcat had yellow eyes, as big as pumpkins. It glowered over them from the crevice of the hole. “What do you expect me to do about it, eh? I’m a king, not a lowly errand goblin.”
“But it is a King’s greatest prerogative to be merciful, is it not? It is the greatest sign of strength?”
“You say that a lot, Whatever-You-Like. That I permit you to say it doesn’t mean I believe you. I should kick you out, too. I used to find mice in this hole all the time before you moved in. And rabbits.”
“You never ate a rabbit in your life, King Bitey. You prefer birds, anyway. And the mice were pestering the birds.”
He grunted and hissed. “One thing I don’t like in my kingdom are more goblins. They have to go.”
“If you help them, they leave, now. There’s a farmhouse at the edge of your territory, is there not?”
“Oh, and you know my territory so well?”
“I do, in fact. Take them there and they’ll find their own way home, oh wise and generous king.”
“Ugh… the stink in my fur… What’s in it for me? Kingdoms don’t run on charity, Whatever-You-Like.”
“I will go with them to make sure the children get home in one piece, and tell their parents on them. Then, they will never, ever return.”
“Hey!” Said Gasketina. “My parent is right here and he led us on this adventure and I can negotiate with a Grimalkin just fine without you interfering, Whoever-You-Are.”
“Whatever-You-Like…” he said, by way of a correction, which was completely misunderstood, of course, as an invitation for Gasketina to do as she pleased, as if she needed such encouragement.
“I’m listening, stinky creature,” said King Bitey. “Speak.”
“We seek a troll. If we don’t find one, we will keep coming back.”
“Why would anyone in full faculty of mental powers ever intentionally seek out a living troll?”
“I wouldn’t mind a dead one if it still has its teeth,” said Rambol. “It’s the teeth we need, you see.”
“And what do you have to offer me for this service you request?”
“This,” said Gasketina. She had, of course, in her possession a few remnants of the fish stink treasure of the farmhouse pantry. She presented one in the air like a grand prize. King Bitey, the giant black Tom, took a breath in, a great gasp, and swiftly smacked the prize with his paw to knock it from the air. Gasketina was thrown hard into the wall, knocking the wind out of her. Indifferent to the suffering King Bitey pounced upon the treat, knocking the rest of the goblins about with his huge bouncing body. It was gone in a gulp.
“Your offering is worthy,” he said, “switching his tail and narrowing his eyes upon the tiny goblin. “Have you any more?”
“I do. Plus, I know where to get more. So, will you take us to a troll, or not?”
“I haven’t smelled a troll in my kingdom in… well, ever. I know someone who has. Oh, bother. You’re all going to have to hide in my fur, aren’t you?”
Whatever-You-Like shook his head. “I want nothing to do with trolls. These are children. They really ought to be home in the holes, not stomping around grimalkin kingdoms among the giants.”
“I’m not so young,” said Ruthie. “I stay up as late as I want. My father is the king. He doesn’t even know where I am most of the time.”
“Come children,” said the grimalkin. It lifted a paw. “Climb into my fur and tie yourself in. I dread the stench that will mark me for this, but I will not let you spend the night in my kingdom. Nor will I permit you to show yourselves to my giant servants and get them all grossed out. No more goblins. You owe me, Whatever-You-Like.”
“I am most grateful, my great liege,” he said, bowing gracefully to the great king Tom Cat.
Old Gasket needed no encouragement . He was quick to latch onto the furry underbelly of the huge, fat, hairy king. The other young goblins followed suit. Soon, they were all well-hidden in the tangled mess of filthy, black fur, and fleas were definitely hopping about. This King was a wild thing, not one for refinements and fancy halls with faithful servants. He smelled of the earth, and the musky stench of old rainstorms in fur that is never brushed clean.
In fact, it is the royal task of Whatever-You-Like to brush the cat clean, and goblin hands and combs are much smaller than the hands of giants. Yet, for some reason King Bitey prefers the company of his lone goblin to the demanding job of providing guidance and inspiration to the giant servants, in their tremendous caves. It’s such a high pressure responsibility to be always observant, always demanding, waking them up on schedule and putting them to bed on time. Goblins were much easier. At least, the one goblin was much easier. King Bitey was big enough, for a Grimalkin, that few dared challenge his stride through the neighboring kingdoms. He was something of an overking, really, just because he was so very big. Other Kings looked up to him, paid fealty and offered obeisance. Better that than attempting to challenge such a large and mighty king. Normally a Grimalkin would be mortified to be seen carrying goblins around like baby bats, but not this mighty Tom. For him, he thought it a good time to remind his fellow Kings and queens exactly how powerful he was, because none dared to tease him to his face about such an odious indiscretion. If anything, it pleases him to do things only a mighty Tom could do, like befriending that weird, lonely goblin, and carrying around his little friends in royal exchange of goods and services.
Speaking of goods and services, he owed the little one a visit to a troll, but it was a dangerous thing, indeed, and required the help of a dangerous thing. He loped lazily through the quiet suburban streets towards the house near the heart of his massive kingdom, where the most dangerous being alive hid among the giants.
Perhaps in every town there is a special house – – very old and very quaint and very antiquated house — that is not a museum, but a place where an old woman lives alone, and there is always a very sturdy iron fence – because Iron keeps off the fairies — and there is always a sturdy door of dark and old wood — because such things can’t be knocked down when the wolfmen come to scratch — and this lonely, old woman will quietly tend her patch of green and flowers more beautiful than they ought to be to keep the curious eyes of a city looking for unkempt patches from noticing her little house and she will wave and smile and everyone will know her face but no one will know her name. Invariably, it will be some variation on Hilda or Helga or Hulda or perhaps Abuela. What she is named is not really her name, either. To know her name is to know her tribe, and to know her tribe is to know secrets about the world that belong to another world, entirely. Anyway, this little mountain town with a medieval wall and the ruins of a castle on top of the hill, where everyone says Guten Tag also happened to have an archaic little house on a quiet side street with a sturdy iron fence, lovely garden, and strong wooden door.
Don’t be fooled for a moment into believing this creature that lives in this house is what she appears to be. But, do not be afraid, either. She will not harm those who do no harm. She wishes only to live in peace, laugh at the bumblebees and clumsiest of pigeons, and keep things exactly as they ought to be in this world and in the other one and the one just past that one, too.
The goblins knew nothing of this creature or the ancient races that she served. There was a large plate of milk sitting out, accumulating the evening insects on her porch, and she was watering her very old, very beautiful roses when from the corner of her eye, that great and powerful king walked out into her flagstones as if he was king of all he surveyed. Which, to be fair, in a manner of speaking, he was. But, he was not her master, and she considered spraying him with a hose. He meowed at her, sat back on his haunches, and displayed his passengers.
“There are no juniper trees, here. Take them to the forest. Goblins are nasty, little creatures and I don’t want them here. You are no ruler in my lot and garden, you big, old tom. I will not have you pollute my garden with thieving goblins.”
He meowed again, forcefully. He shook one of the goblins loose. She was an angled, bulbous thing, with one knee far larger than the other. She looked about confused, then looked up at her.
“Of course, I can see you,” she said. “I can’t hear you, though. You’re very small and my ears are very old.”
Hulda turned off her hose, and walked into the backyard, where a beautiful greenhouse glimmered in the fading light. “Bring them, then. We’ll palaver. These are not common wee beasties, anymore. Used to be. Used to be. Quite an infestation you got, there, katzen katzen – tsk tsk.” Of course she was speaking in the language of goblins and grimalkins, not the language of giants, which should be a sign of her dangerous nature, though most of the goblins did not realize how much danger they were in…
Hulda of the Hidden Folk was not at all hidden, but no one would even know what she was or what she was doing, so perhaps that is well-hidden enough, and certainly no one would go looking for a harmless old woman?
In the garden shed, she swiftly hoisted the black cat by its scruff up to the top of a garden bench and plucked the little goblins out one, two, three, four, five.
“That all of them, now? Oh, I know this one…” She picked up Old Gasket by the gasket and shook him a little in a manner most painful. “Naughty naughty goblin, you. A real wicked little beastie.” She put him down, while the other goblins attempted to hide or play dead.
“Okay, calm down, little beasties. I’m no giant to torment you. I’m Hulda of the Hidden, and I want to know what in the name of Wotan’s beard you are up to clinging to the katzen king’s belly in the middle of the city of the giants. Hold on, you’re all so tiny and squeaky. Let me get my conch…”
She rifled through the tool drawers discarding one strange bit of bone or metal after another until she found a rather large conch shell with a wooden attachment so she could plug the tiny end into one of her ears.
“All right, out with it, then. What’s going on that you’d dare bother Hulda of the Hidden?” She listened as one of them – she couldn’t really tell any of the wee creatures apart except for the very naughty one with the gasket in his head – said something.
“Oh, no, dear. I was eaten by a troll once. You don’t want to bother with them, at all. … I got better, obviously. Listen, wee beasties, if you are determined to find an old thing, you will have to go to an old place. These giants are new creatures, obsessed with new things. Even the trees they chop to build their little hovels are not actually very old – certainly older than the giants and older than you, but…! But… Old things are in old places. And, my best advice to all of you little beasties is to go back to your not-quite-as-old places and stay there. Giants cannot be trusted, neither can the katzen-katzen, and old things have older motives, still. I certainly do. Now, let me see if I can’t just shoot you home with a flick of the wrist…”
She quickly snatched up four of the five, and stuffed them into a large envelope that was supposedly for saving garden seeds. She held this envelope up, and let the wind snatch it. Soon, the goblins were tumbling end over end most uncomfortably all the way back to the juniper tree that they called home, confused, disoriented, and upset.
Old Gasket was not among them.
No, she knew that wily old creature, and had a better idea what to do with the old thief with a bit of metal through his head.
“You’ve taken something from me,” she said, to Old Gasket. “I want it back.”
King Bitey, by now completely forgotten by the wily and dangerous but also actually quite harmless old woman, quickly crept away into the garden, and back to his home where the tree was not empty that used to be a goblin hole. It was a fair price to pay for an encounter with Hulda, and best not to test his luck further. Goblins did have a way of turning up again, after all. The grimalkin king would never admit how sad he was to see his goblin servant cast off into the winds.
And off into the wind, the goblins tumbled and bumbled and stumbled, blowing in the evening twilight over tree and house from the land of the giants, past the farmhouse, and up all the way to the forest beyond the farm. Their envelope caught in the branches of a big, gnarled oak with big, grippy branches. They tumbled out of the envelope, at last, confused, and nauseous, and completely dizzy.
Gasketina started to go back to the farm house, but Whatever-You-Like stopped her.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“She took my grandpa!”
“She borrowed him. Totally different. He will turn up in a day or two if he’s clever. Do you kids know how to get home from here?”
“You know,” said Ruthie, “I am hardly a kid. Barely a kid. I mean, I’m practically not a kid at all. Plus, I’m a princess, even.”
Gasketina turned and smacked her on the nose. “You’re a kid, just like me and Rambol. Now come on! We have to get my grandpa back!”
“Hulda will return him when she is done with him. She isn’t a creature collector. She wants everything to be in its place and a place for everything. Didn’t you learn about the Hidden Folk in goblin school?”
“No,” said Rambol.
Goblin school is not quite like a school a giant would recognize. It was more of a wrestling society that told stories about the forest and occasionally stumbled into government buildings to wrestle where a bureaucrat could furiously attempt to stop the children from wrestling, and teach them some letters and numbers. The primary activity goblins learned in school was how to fight and pin and push. In fact, Gasketina had been the very top of her class on account of her exceptional size and the strength she developed hauling her grandfather around and doing all his chores. I mention it because Gasketina grabbed Whatever-You-Like by the wrist and twisted his hand ferociously, to break free of his grasp.
Fortunately, Whatever-You-Like was also an exceptional student. He yanked free and snatched the girl up by the waist and began to carry her on his shoulder, despite her protests.
“Young goblin,” he said, to Rambol, above Gasketina’s protestations, “a nose of such refined distinguished nostril capabilities can certainly lead the way to the goblin tree from across the mountain. Can you take the front?”
“You’re very strong,” said Ruthie. “Is that because you live alone and no one can help you with anything or even know your name?”
Whatever-You-Like was definitely already exhausted of his responsibility with these children, and a headache was quickly forming on the right side of his head, which was not very lucky because he was right handed and hauling the rather large-for-her-age goblin, Gasketina, on the right shoulder. All in all, nothing but bad luck and annoyance had resulted from the appearance of these children in his peaceful life, and the sooner they weren’t his responsibility anymore, the better. He didn’t even acknowledge Ruthie’s question, because he was busy trying to discern what Rambol was doing.
Rambol was busy hopping back into the strange paper envelope that Hulda had used to fling all of them carelessly into the wind, and he was sniffing and rummaging inside of it, searching for who knows what.
“Rambol Goblin! Enough! Lead on to the home tree! I don’t have a clue where I am, and I know you can smell the old junipers in the wind!”
“Wait, whoever you are! I don’t take orders from you!” He managed to find a way to work the envelope loose from the branches of the tree and tried to hold it and carry it. Instead of staying still with him, it snapped up into the wind and tumbled back to the realm of the giants, and Hulda’s Hidden Home, presumably. Rambol said a nasty curse at it, and was very upset that he could not take it. But, he did still have his bottle caps, and that was quite a prize for such a grand adventure. He set his nostrils into the sky, and rolled his eyes. “I can not be the only goblin with half a nose for tree finding. Not when the stink is strong!”
Ruthie turned her nose up and shrugged. “I mean, maybe I smell it. I can smell something familiar.”
Rambol cursed again and led the way across the branches. No one paid any attention at all to Gasketina, who was very uncomfortable, but she was not crying from discomfort. Her grandfather had led them off on a foolish voyage and stumbled into danger and she couldn’t help but feel responsible because she had demanded knowledge of trolls which turned into knowledge of Hulda which turned into the current state of total separation from her most important responsibility in life: her mute and wounded grandfather.
Branch to branch, limb to limb, and steady on home to home. Soon enough, they reached the best juniper tree of all, where the goblins lived in their hidey holes, and beetle bobs buzzed and bowled and bobbled about their beetley-bobby business.
Had anyone even known they were gone? Perhaps, but with Od Gasket with them, none had worried. That old goblin was impossible to stop, and it was a great surprise to all the goblins to see them returned with a stout and sturdy stranger goblin in place of the old coot with a metal rod in his head.
Had Old Gasket found some mystical berry to reverse his age and condition? Had he been in disguise for some time, only now revealing his true self? Or, even more unthinkable, had something happened to the goblin with a gasket in his head for so long that no one knew his original name, and some new goblin who had a name no one knew happened to drag the children back to their home tree?
It was most unthinkable, indeed. The new goblin, sufficiently pleased that he had reached the home tree, dumped Gasketina off on the nearest adult, which happened to be Ruthie’s father, the giant and very cross king of all goblins, and turned his heel without a word back towards his home, wherever it was from here. The sooner he left Goblin society behind, the better, he thought, and his headache receded as more distance passed between himself and the crowd that was gathering around the young goblins returned, alone.
Sufficiently satisfied that his daughter was unharmed, mostly, if a little battered scraped and bruised, the king sniffed the large girl in his arms, and hefted her. He considered taking a bite, but he had already eaten some juniper berries and a very naughty beetle. Besides, as big as she was, he was certain they would make her king, someday, and that would be punishment enough for whatever had happened to Old Gasket in her care.
As the least important goblin in the world, he had very little to say, and even less to do with regards to whatever was happening or going to happen, and very quickly, he had to return to the very busy and obnoxious business of being the king of all goblins, which meant making all sorts of tedious decisions that goblins probably would only bother doing if they felt like it, which they rarely did, and really the goblins and the beetle bobs went about their business perfectly fine without concern for kings and nonsense like that. Far better to be a great goblin pilferer, who brought wondrous things back to the other goblins to admire, like Rambol with his very interesting bottle caps.
Rambol hoisted the bottlecaps up, proudly, and shouted his glory at pilfering these strange and jagged things that could prove very useful to the goblins, but, of course, they belonged to Rambol who had pilfered them, and he could say how such things were used. Still, he was insistent on some sort of parade in his honor.
Gasketina snatched a bottlecap from his hands and bopped him on the nose with the flat of it.
“No parades until my grandfather’s back,” she said. “We need to get a rescue team together. A great goblin is in trouble!”
She knew exactly where to go and to whom she should speak. She began her journey straight down the home tree, towards the base, where the emergency beetle bobs would transport her to the goblin emergency office, and everyone had better get out of her way. And, as she was carrying one of Rambol’s prize bottlecaps, he was quick at her heels and shouting at her to come back with his prized thing.
Ruthie, of course, was convinced that she was needed to keep the peace between them. She also wondered at the strange giant woman, this Hulda of the Hidden, who was not a giant, at all, really, and quite something else entirely. She decided that Gasketina and Rambol were always going to be at such an impasse, until Gasketina could have her grandfather back and Rambol could have his bottlecap back. Ergo, she went to the one person she thought might know something about Hulda of the Hidden, who was also at least quite nearly as old as Old Gasket, and probably twice as wise as she did not have a metal gasket lodged in her head. This, of course, was indicative of wise life choices: At no point in her life did this venerable goblin ever place herself in circumstances resulting in a metal gasket permanently shoved inside her skull.
Rambol’s Great Aunt Shoobiena was busy sorting old bits of pinecone for a variety of household uses when Ruthie arrived.
“Make yourself useful, little one,” said Great Auntie. She pointed at the little stool beside her big pile of old pinecone parts. “Any bit bigger than a hand goes over there for kindling in winter. Anything smaller than hand but bigger than a finger goes over here for the beetle bobs to bother with below. Anything smaller than a finger, I will cut to pins and needles for sewing and sticking and the like. Watch for splinters.”
The broken bits of pine cones had been unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the room by some other goblin, no doubt, and her sorting was the next step in some elaborate network. No goblin would need so many pins and stickers, for sure. Ruthie obeyed, of course, against her nature. (Ruthie did not enjoy working, and avoided working whenever possible. Really, it was better to convince others to work for her than to do it, herself.) However, there was no way to get help from Rambol’s Great Aunt without sitting down and assisting with this menial task. Goblins never did appreciate it when goblins interrupted them when they were busy.
While working, Ruthie turned her head and said, “Gasketina is on quite a tear, you know, and it might be Rambol’s fault.” She said this because Rambol was the great-nephew, and she might be amenable to helping if it was possibly his fault.
“Oh?” she said.
“Do you know anything about someone, or something, living among the giants called ‘Hulda’?”
The old woman startled and dropped her bit of pinecone. “How do you know about that dangerous, old witch? Who told you?”
“A Grimalkin king took us to her to learn about trolls, and…”
“Why were you following some deadly Grimalkin about? Play dead. Grimalkin. Play dead. Every goblin knows this from the biggest of the kings to the tiniest of things!”
“Old Gasket was taking us on an adventure to look for a troll, and we met another goblin who wouldn’t tell us his name who was a servant of a Grimalkin, and…”
“What what what?! Slow down.”
“Well, anyway, Hulda sent us tumbling home and kept Old Gasket. Gasketina is on a tear to the goblin emergency office, and I think it’s Rambol’s fault? I’m not sure.”
The Great Aunt stood up and kicked about among the pine cone bits for just the right stick to use to beat the girl about the bottom. She was muttering and sputtering until she found just the right tool for the job.
“Wait, Auntie! Wait! Old Gasket was taking us to find a troll. We got lost, and a grimalkin took us to Hulda. What’s a Hulda?”
Great Aunt Shoobiena lifted the stick up high, and threw her hands in the air like a storm was in her heart. “Hulda is dangerous! You’re not supposed to know about her! She wants to be hidden! We hid her! We stopped even saying her name to you children! Why would you go poking about after trolls? Where is Old Gasket?”
“Hulda kept him,” said Ruthie. “Gasketina is very upset.”
“She would be!” the old goblin started to pace and fret and shake her hands. “She would be, indeed! We all should be fretting if Hulda is bothered by goblins. She is too dangerous! And trolls! Why would anyone go bothering those brutes? Let them sleep! Let them sleep forever!”
“We need a troll tooth so we can establish ourselves in the Museum of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goblin Goings-On.”
“Oh!” she said, and then paused. She was calmer, then. “Oh, that makes sense, then. Not a lot of great deeds left, by now. Well, that makes sense, at least.”
“Everything made sense at the time, Auntie,” said Ruthie. “The grimalkin seemed to like goblins. He didn’t kill us or anything. Not like that nasty barn cat. He even had a goblin servant. He bargained with Gasketina to help us find a troll.”
The old goblin sat down and tapped the unused beating stick on the ground. “Well, we stopped teaching goblins about Hulda after Old Gasket got in so much trouble. We all decided any goblin pilfering anything worth pilfering would want the biggest pilf. That meant, of course, the most dangerous creature in the whole, known universe. That meant Hulda of the Hidden Folk. You don’t even know how much she knows, or how much she sees or hears. Her people are very, very subtle, and very unhappy to see a goblin. She makes sure no one, neither goblin nor giant nor grimalkin nor troll nor bray bird nor groke – finds her people. She certainly makes sure of that. Never, ever bother Hulda. Forget you know she exists. If she has Old Gasket, she won’t keep him. That’s not her way. He’ll turn up when she’s done with him. He’ll be on his feet, or on his back, but she’ll send him home when she’s done. Did she say anything when she kept him?”
“He took something from her.”
“He did. He most certainly did. And, Hulda of the Hidden Folk never forgets a gust of wind or a blade of grass. She’ll know him. She’ll know what he took. She’ll take what she wants in payment, and… Well, we’d better go get Gasketina. If I know that girl, she’ll be forming a raiding party as we speak, or trying to, and only those few of us old enough to remember will even think she’s making any sense, and it would only put us all in grave danger to bother a Hulda.”
The old auntie got up on her old feet and kicked her way through the pinecone mess and set off for an important task, indeed. She never once thought for a moment anything was Rambol’s fault, and it didn’t matter. The important thing was getting to Gasketina before she could start rumors of the Hidden Folk spreading around, again, because that had always been such a disastrous thing for the young goblins, and if there was ever a Hulda of the Hidden-related statue in the Museum of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goblin Goings-On, it had long since been hidden away by the elder goblins, in the conspiracy of silence intended to protect their children from the old trouble with things far more dangerous than courage allowed.
She was not as nimble on her gnarled knobs as she used to be when one could describe her feet as having toes, so reaching the troublesome children, much less reaching them before they started sputtering rumors about, was going to be challenging in a traditional manner of walking up and down the pathways and stairwells that wrapped around the home tree. No, that was not her method. She threw the little pinecone part cane over a passing beetle bob’s bottom, and held on tight while flinging herself over the edge. The sudden and unexpected weight upon the beetle bob dropped it down and down, wrestling against its own collapse. The noble servant creature was very slow to realize what was happening and flipped end over end a few times, flinging the old Auntie around most rudely before surrendering to the firm guidance of her experienced cane, descending the tree to find the foolish children who were undoubtedly going down to go back up to reach the emergency services office hidden away upon the tree of governance.
Ruthie, of course, was not so nimble and quick. She peered over the edge and thought it looked like quite a lot of work to wrangle and wrestle a flying beetle bob large enough to ease her descent. She decided to walk, after a quick snack from whatever Gasketina had in her hole, which was just right around over there, and no doubt Old Gasket would show up soon enough, because what could any creature as powerful and mysterious as Old Hulda want with a goblin as old as stones and unable to speak at all?
When he did come home, no doubt the old coot would want some tea, and someone had to have the tea ready. Gasketina wasn’t doing it if she was marching around. In their absence, of course the beetle bobs had wandered off to find another goblin capable of punching out the fire in them and feed their inner furnace back to life with bits of pine nettles and leaves and rotten wood. So, first Ruthie had to convince a fire beetle bob to come back. That meant setting up a fire beetle bob trap with a little box and stick tied with a string and a bit of combustible bits for crunching and munching inside the simple trap. While she waited, with the bit of string in hand, for a fire beetle bob to bumble and stumble into a new home and new job. The beetle bobs were always buzzing about, among the goblin trees, in their own manner and way, and not all of them were very helpful at first glance, but the ones who were helpful were extremely so, and everyone had to know how to catch a fire beetle bob. Without one, there would never be even a thin whistle of tea.
While she waited, she tried to picture Gasketina’s life without a grandfather in it. Gasketina had no one in the world except her wily old grandfather, and Ruthie didn’t think Gasketina was ready to live a life without him. She tried to imagine what Gasketina’s life would look like without him in his chair, glaring and huffing and snorting and farting, without cooking and cleaning and pushing and berating that silent withered scowl. It didn’t make any sense, at all. Not to Ruthie. How could there be a Gasketina without an Old Gasket? What would a day even look like in this cozy, little, old hole? How would the neighbors make sense of things if Gasketina was by herself, and far too young for it? Would any of the nearby holes have goblins in them that are even able to sleep without Old Gasket’s whistling snores? If there was ever a time to meddle, this was it. Gasketina was making a fool of herself, and really ought to focus on what truly mattered: stealing a tooth from a troll to be immortalized in the Great Goblin Hall, which they were no closer to doing while she was off fussing about some creature far beyond all of their little lives doing who knows what with an old Goblin who, it was said by those who know such things, would be home soon.
This scheming and thinking was all terribly distracting, and when the fire beetle bob did stumble into the trap, she was so distracted by her own distress that she did not even notice it flittering in, consuming the brush and dried moss, and flittering out when it was done. Too late, she pulled the stick, and the beetle bob box fell upon air, without a single beetle or bit of bait remaining. She had very rarely done this in her own hole, so she was a bit out of practice. Ruthie got up and found some more old, dried bits of things and got to it. Elsewhere on the goblin tree, quite a stir was stirred and Gasketina was the center of the stir, stirring and stirring at the top of her lungs, and even Ruthie could hear the stirring stirred stridently.
“Gasketina!” Shouted Rambol’s great-aunt, perhaps the most formidable and ferocious voice in all of the goblin tree. It was the kind of voice that could keep trees from making leaves, and every child and everyone who was ever once a child, stopped in their tracks and turned. “Gasketina! Stop!”
Gasketina was not one to back down, but Rambol knew right away her mission was doomed, and he slipped off past her towards the great goblin hall with his bottle caps.
“You, too, Rambol Goblin!”
“Oh, Scoot!” He said. He stomped his feet and huffed. He was trapped in trouble, too.
“Both of you, come with me right now. You are meddling in affairs greater than goblins. Enough with your foolishness, Gasketina. I know of whom you will speak, and your grandfather will be unharmed, probably. Unless he harmed her, he will be unharmed. Did he harm her?”
“I don’t know what he did to her, or when he could have done it!”
“He took something of hers,” said Rambol. “She said she wanted it back.”
“Well, then, there you go. She will take back what he took, and send him off home fleet as bees. Come back to my hole, and we will discuss this privately, where your parents won’t know how much trouble you are in.”
“I don’t have parents,” said Gasketina. Her eyes swelled with tears. “Grandfather Gasket is all I have.”
“A sturdy, stout, strong goblin like you crying over a grumpy, old bag of kindling sticks like him? Gasketina, that is enough. It’s time to grow up inside to match your tremendous outside. Come on, then.”
The curious lookers and lurkers dissipated with a single wave of the elder goblin’s firm and authoritative hand. The children were going to be handled, of course, and appropriate discipline would be enforced by someone not even the king of all goblins would dare deprive.
Great Aunt Shoobiena grabbed Gasketina’s pointy ear and Rambol’s giant nostril, and led them back to her hole in the tree, and mossy tea.
The Great and Powerful Hulda, perhaps the most dangerous of all beings in the known and unknown worlds, was most vexed. She was baking a batch of cookies to share with her little goblin hostage, and she had likely forgotten baking powder, because the cookies were flat and chewy and not very good. She checked her reading glasses, and checked the magazine clipping she was using, and everything looked in order. But, she must have forgotten the baking powder, because the cookies were very flat. Perhaps the baking powder was spoiled? Once the first batch cooled enough she took a small bite of one, just to see, and it was horrid. Far too much salt was in the recipe. She must have mixed up the box of salt for the box of baking powder. Really, they were almost inedible. Then, again, goblins were not connoisseurs of fine cookies. They lived mostly on things that creatures only ate if there was nothing else, like juniper berries and moss and whatever sour cherries and bitter acorns they found skulking about their tree branches.
The salt would be bad for goblins, though. Hulda knew their tiny bodies had a delicate balance of fluids which salt would harm. It would be better to make cookies with too much baking powder instead of too much salt. That would be better for her little prisoner.
The venerable, old, disgusting creature, was locked in an iron birdcage that seemed to be from another age. She had a plastic hamster cage, somewhere, but goblin teeth were sharp and persistent, and it would not do to put one in anything that could be chewed. Truly, goblins were nasty, little creatures that stank, stole, and bit. The sooner she was done with this one, the better. She broke off a bit of cookie and put it in her mouth before realizing, for certain, that the whole batch had too much salt. She grimaced and spit it out. She dumped them all into the bin and started over.
These cookies were simple enough. Like liebkuchen, they had lots of honey and ginger and whole wheat, but for the goblin it would also have a touch of chamomile, some valerian root, and a little bit of fennel. Goblins liked fennel. Too much fennel would make it so the goblin would like it far more than she would, and then she wouldn’t be able to eat a single one. Certainly, one should not eat too many cookies. This time, she added no baking soda and no salt, and just ground up a little bit of walnut. The cookie would be hard and thin, and very crispy, with almost no lightness at all. It would be just the thing to keep a goblin’s teeth grinding long enough for the herbs to strike.
It baked. It finished. She cooled them on the counter and went digging through her myriad of tools and possessions for exactly, precisely what she would need for this particular procedure. She laid out her pliers and tweezers, and got water boiling to sanitize them. She peered over at the jagged, little creature who was, it must be said, attempting to squeeze through the bars of his bondage, unsuccessfully. The metal gasket in his head would not squeeze. He got an arm and leg through, and that’s it. His gasket-swollen head held him in place. She pushed him back into his cage while the water rose to a boil.
Magic is a funny thing. A thousand years ago they burned women for feats of mere chemistry. Is it magic to understand the natural world extremely well? Or is it just knowledge. Hulda, of course, had faced fires for her skills before, but nothing so simple as a fire could truly stop Hulda of the Hidden. She was the boundary between her people and the realm of the giants, who would devour everything seen and unseen for such silly and short-minded reasons. Why, they built a road through one of the finest forests left in all the world, cutting a black line through trees older than all countries, just so other giants could drive through to appreciate the very forest that had been chopped through. And cars. Don’t even get Hulda started about the cars.
Anyway, the water was boiling, and the nasty creature had deduced that he should stick his gasket out first, and try to pick the lock with it. It wasn’t working, but it looked very uncomfortable. She snatched him by the gasket and pushed him back.
“All right, you. Tea and biscuits, then. Eat as much as you like.”
She pushed her thin, little, imperfect discs through the bars of the cage. The old goblin was no fool. He kicked them out, and shook his fist at Hulda.
“That’s just rude. Listen, I am going to take what is mine. You can be awake or you can be asleep. Either way is fine. Now, do you want the cookie and tea, or no?”
She held one in to him. He glared at her, and snorted. He would not allow himself to be asleep, because it meant he had no chance to escape. Naturally, escaping from Hulda was only possible if she decided to let you go, but he didn’t really believe that in his cunning and self-importance.
“Okay, then, be awake.”
She put on thick gloves and grabbed her pliers, which were very hot from being sanitized. She grabbed Old Gasket by the Gasket with those pliers, and held him in place while she opened the cage with her other hand. Then, she had her gloved hand reach in and grab the goblin, who bit and snapped and fought against her.
She adjusted her grip on the tongs and got an eyeball view in between the minute gap where the gasket ended and the skin began, which had spent years merging. It ought to be quite a relief to consider losing that thing in his head, but it actually had been quite a while. No telling what he thought about losing his prize, now. She dunked the goblin into a bit of engine grease to help loosen things, and he came out black and coughing. She slowly, slowly, arduously, and gently worked that little gasket loose until nothing but a great, big hole remained in Old Gasket’s skull, where everything was folded over, scarred over, and pulsating gruesomely. Truly, the wound was a hideous sight, but far too old to bleed much. He had been awake for all of it, gasping and twitching and coughing and struggling like a broken doll in the grip of a god.
When she was done, and had retrieved her greasy, rusted, goblin-gore-crusted gasket, she pushed the old goblin back into the strong cage. She did not bother locking it, this time. He was going to be very weak from the extrication of her property, and if he wandered off, so be it. He had nothing more that she wanted, anyway.
“You’re probably going to need some help getting home, now,” she said. “I’ll get you a little car, then, won’t I?”
She rummaged around among her various bits and bobs and boxes and books until she found what she sought. From the outside, it appeared to be just a very old tin, wind-up car, with a huge winder on the roof. But, the doors all opened, and one could put something inside quite well. The little tin man that was supposedly driving the thing was very good at his work, if completely dependent on the springs that moved him. She merely needed to point him in a direction and turn the key and off he would go until he was out of coils. It was a gentler journey than a bit of paper, and presumably he was old enough to know his way home. Hulda could not be bothered to know where absolutely every goblin was hiding in their little hole. No, no, she had far more important things to do with herself. To serve all the hidden peoples, especially the most hidden of them all, of which Hulda was secretly, actually one of, in an incredible and intricate disguise of an old woman, was a constant scurry against the whims of the self-important giants who had, over recent centuries, quite outgrown the gruff and hunkering dwelling places that traveled with herds and time. No longer mere scavenging wolves, they’ve become quite convinced they rule the universe entire. Such a silly thing to want to rule, naturally, and if it wasn’t for Hulda’s constant interventions, they’d wake a troll, or worse!
She reached up to snatch the recovering goblin from his cage, but of course he was already most gone. And good riddance, and she didn’t have to bother retrieving the little car wherever it ran down. Instead, she whispered in the driver’s ear exactly where she preferred it to go, and placed the grotesquely gruesome gasket inside, and then released the device into the garden. The driver led the car to a little gap in the stone wall, past which was a sort of green field of vacant weeds that no one had ever really bothered to build upon, and probably none of the giants had ever even thought to wonder why. There it goes… There it goes… And into the weeds, it’s gone.
Rambol was quick to slip away from his great aunt’s lecturings and pesterings. Once he promised never to speak about Hulda, a person about which he cared very little, to be honest, compared to trolls, who could secure his place in goblin posterity, the elder goblin was fine permitting him to take his prized bottlecaps to Kitterwaul at the Museum of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goblin Goings-On. He went down and down and down to ride the emergency beetle bobs up, and would probably never admit to anyone that he learned of this trick to locating anything on the government tree from Gasketina. But, once at the museum, with his lofty prizes held aloft, he realized that Kitterwaul was not even getting up from her hammock to come down.
“You’re back. No troll tooth, though.”
“I have stolen this from the giants!”
She snorted. “Giants don’t count. You know they probably don’t even know it’s missing. Giants are funny creatures. They get so excited by something new, they throw out something old. What has value if everything gets thrown out? You probably just found some trash, somewhere. Everything is trash to a giant, eventually. Why they have been observed to plant trees only to chop them down later. Can you imagine the silliness of such a thing? Everything is trash to a giant. Everything. It all becomes trash eventually, even if they seem to like it. Now, pay your bribe and go. Don’t be back without the tooth of a troll, whoever you are. You bother me hard at work for the government of all goblin kind over pointless trifles!”
“It’s not pointless! It’s got lots of points. Look!” Rambol began to prick and poke the many different angled edges of the metal caps. It merely elicited an annoyed burp. “Where are the trolls, anyhow? I thought Old Gasket knew but he didn’t know. Then… Well, I’m not supposed to say who, but they said trolls are in an old place, older than trees. What’s older than trees, anyway?”
“Mountains are older than trees, little goblin. Don’t you pay any attention in school? First, the mountains came, then the stones fell of the old rocks, and trees grabbed the stones and held the mountains’ stones to bind the mountains. This is the most basic thing in all of goblin history, boy. You’re all nose, though little knows.”
“I know the mountains got nothing to pilfer worth the stone. Might as well steal leaves. At least those are useful!”
“What do you think the mountains are made of, little goblin thief? What is inside of them?”
“No, boy. Trolls! Every mountain hides a sleeping troll, ready to break and burst and bellow and bustle and break and eat and beat and eat and eat! Their slumber is what makes the whole world possible! Why they have a sentinel sticking his nose up at the top of the tallest mountain around, sniffing after meat!”
“Is that where they are?”
He stood up. He dusted himself off and got his little legs loose for a long, long lurk.
“You even know what it takes to steal a goblin tooth?”
“A lurk about might work it out. Thanks, auntie!”
She threw her little cup at him and caught him right on the top of his nose.
“Not tonight you’re not. You have lurked and shirked enough, Rambol Goblin. Scrub my pots if you have no bribe, and see to your mother’s Moss garden. When the tree sniffers return from their travels, they will thirst for tea. Don’t think I don’t know who your mother is, little nostril. You look of her, and she is a great tree sniffer, indeed.”
He stuck his tongue out and spit, but he did as was told. He snatched up the thrown cup and rummaged for a bit of old berry for the beetle bobs that lived under the sink and squirted our a sticky gum from its carapace that turned to lathering, bubbling soap in the bucket of rainwater on top of the counter. He scrubbed and grumbled, grumbled and scrubbed. When he was done, he dried the few days of dishes with his hairy back hand, and put all of them away, one by one, in a disorganized jumble of nooks and crannies and crooked nannies, in a manner his bent, old Great Aunt would certainly not approve, if she were there, and it was a fair price to pay in bribe, he thought, for such a fine bit of knowledge on his imminent lurk.
He stuck his tongue out again and rushed to find his mother’s moss garden neglected with her off tree sniffing on the other side of the forest, and him off for days and nights pilfering.
While he worked, watering the moss and picking out the dead bits, he considered the task of climbing down a troll’s nose to his buried teeth, and extracting a tooth from the mouth of something as big as a mountain. The key to productive pilfering is planning and preparing. He would need to be able to loosen a tooth, and take the tooth and bring it all back. He had never imagined anything could be bigger than a giant, and trolls were as big as mountains. He thought very hard and decided he would need a pilfering crew, to help put a plan together. He thought really hard about who, among all the goblins he knew, could plan such a heist.
When he returned to his great aunt’s hole, he had an idea but no one was interested in it because Old Gasket had returned, but instead of a gasket, he had a gaping, stinking hole. It was really very shocking. The gasket had been a shock, but everyone had gotten used to it. The hideous, festering hole was something else, entirely.
The crowd of goblins all around the hideous spectacle of Old Gasket trudging up to his hole in the tree, without the gasket that had become so intricately entwined with his life, that the sudden gaping hole was a frightening spectacle. No one would even know what to properly call him, and it put his position as the goblin to live the very longest with a metal gasket in his head, in the Museum of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goblin Goings-On, at great peril. It was really awful for him, as well. He had grown so accustomed to balancing with a metal gasket through his skull that he was wobbly on his feet, and his knees wiggled. He trudged up from the bottom of the tree, up to his hole on unsteady legs, bobbing and leaning. He felt old. It was one of the rare occasions when death’s cold grasp seemed closer, and he hated all of it. He went to his hole, despite the crowd, and sat in his chair, and he ignored all the crowded lookie-lou’s peering and peeping.
“Old Gasket!” shouted Gasketina, upon pushing her way. Wait, that was not Gasketina. That was the other one, who was not as useful as Gasketina, but would have to do. He didn’t bother learning the names of goblins that he didn’t need to know. It’s not like he would say anything out loud to announce it. He only knew his granddaughters’ name because he hated it. He hated the Gasket in his head, and hated that everyone celebrated him for it. Now, he hated that it was taken from him. He had only been trying to find his place among the great goblin pilferers, and Hulda was a great adversary for pilfering, indeed. After he returned home with a gasket in his head, unable to talk, goblins decided on the code of ignorance. They believed some pilferings were too dangerous. They didn’t want the children to know, so no one else would go and pilfer from them. It had contributed to a great weakness in the young, where goblins like his granddaughter were too afraid to do anything brave, push themselves, and expand goblin possessions, goblin greatness, goblin derring-do.
It was hard to think with wind whistling through his brain. Or was that the tea kettle? No matter, something in his brain was whistling. When it stopped, he was sleeping soundly in his chair, whistling from the hole in his head every time he exhaled. He was warm, and comfortable, and except for the giant hole in his head where there used to be a metal gasket, quite peaceful in appearance. No doubt, the whistling of his slight snore would be a peaceful thing to anyone who might observe.
It was three long, long, looooooooooong days before anyone would even listen to Rambol. Even his great aunt was dismissive of her sneaky, little charge when such great events were unfolding, that Old Gasket had returned home without the very Gasket that was his namesake and claim to goblin fame. There was some discussion of taking down his statue in the Museum of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goblin Goings-On, but the museum curator, herself, quashed such talk. Even with the removal of the gasket, Old Gasket had, in fact, lived longer with a gasket in his head than any goblin ever had. Now, he was living with a gaping hole in his head longer than any goblin ever had, as well, which was probably cause for another statue of this great, old, mysterious grump.
Rambol had had quite enough of all this talk of Old Gasket this, Old Gasket that. It was an adventure that Rambol, Ruthie, and Gasketina had been on where it had happened, and no one talked about them, at all. For a pilferer of Rambol’s fine ambition, with his excellent and useful bottle caps that were already grinding hard juniper berries and pine nuts in his great aunt’s kitchen, this frustration only made his desire to capture the tooth of a troll all the greater.
He ground his teeth at night, and clenched his fists hard on the woven straw blankets enough to cut through the fibers like knives. His Great Aunt saw, and told him that his mother and father would no doubt be home from the tree sniffing expedition soon, and no shirking or lurking would be allowed, then. Best to get on with whatever he needs doing before they return.
“I want to get the tooth of a troll,” said Rambol. “First, I have to find one.”
“When I was your age, and I wanted to find something, do you know what I did?”
“Sniffed about until you caught a trail?”
“My nose was never so refined. My brother’s wife was the source of your family’s superior nostrils. No, I climbed up to the top of the tree, up near the bells of solstice, and gazed all about at everything I could possibly see. From there, you may find something useful.”
“I do that, too. I already tried. I can’t go up there,” he said. It was true that he could not. After a goblin had gone up and kicked the bells for fun out of season, waking up everyone in the middle of high summer heat’s afternoon nap, the king had placed guards and blocked the trails to the top of the goblin trees, where the bells were. Mischief was ever the delight of goblins. Occasionally, the bells were wrung by the guards just for fun, but they’d be beaten for it and sent down to beetle bob washing duty. It would take a great deal of sneakery to peek from the peak of the tree’s beak. Well, there was an easier way, but it was also much, much harder than the thought of sneaking past guards and gates. It felt much, much harder, indeed.
But, it would be easier to have her along than not. Disguises would likely be needed, after all, and she was good at bossing other goblins about.
Rambol skipped his breakfast and tea and disappeared up and down the tree, searching for just the goblin he’d need to see. He was very grumpy about this. Or, perhaps he was grumpy because he skipped breakfast. Either way, he was very grumpy.
He walked to the big common branch, where many goblins gathered to gossip over tea and sing songs and pet beetle bobs that wanted to be petted. He sniffed and looked around, but there was no sign of her. He harrumphed and stomped away down, up to the very hole of the king, himself. He did not enter, though. No one ever went into the king’s house. He actually didn’t quite even go up to it. That was not safe, either. He sort of wound around above it on the tree, and peered between the branches down at an angle to see if there was any minister or official clustered around it. If the king was home, it would be swarming with government officers, and what a tedious and terrible that must be, to hound a mighty king that would just as soon eat your leg as answer your question. Rambol sniffed the air and crept down and down, sniffing for signs of anyone who might help. All he got was trash thrown at him by the bustling horde of government officials. Rambol stuck out his tongue and raspberried the lot of them, and ran back down to Gasketina, if only because she might know where he could find the goblin he sought.
To his great consternation, Ruthie had been in Old Gasket’s hole the whole time, and Gasketina was nowhere to be found. Instead, to Rambol’s great and sudden wonderment, Ruthie Goblin was performing all the dutiful daughterly duties for the elder, in the center of the mass of oglers.
“Ruthie Goblin! Why, I would have mistaken you for Gasketina were you not so very short and pretty!”
“Rambol Goblin, last to notice as ever. I haven’t seen Gasketina since her grandfather returned, and who is to care for the old wooly pebble? He needs tea and clean socks!”
“He can take care of himself. He’s been doing it since before we were a wink and a stink. I was looking for Gasketina.”
“Well, she’s gone.”
“I was hoping she could tell me where you were. And here you are! Leave the old coot and lend me your knee.”
“I need to see from the top of the tree.”
“By the bells? You can’t go past there.”
“No, but you can. The king’s stink is all over you. You’re a sacred berry to the bossy guardsmen. They’ll let you through, and you can take me, too.”
“Trolls?! Trolls! Rambol Goblin, after all the misery and fizzery about those trolls, you’d think you’d sniffed the last whiff of trouble. Why just look at Old Gasket’s gaping hole!”
“All for nought, all for nought. Until the tooth of the troll is in my paw, what use all this misery? What do you think Old Gasket would do, eh? He jumped for adventure.”
“Not anymore he doesn’t,” she said. She pointed at him. He was sort of napping, and sort of swatting at the curious beetle bobs that were approaching and poking at the fungus in his head. Ruthie stuck a pine stalk full of needles through the hole to drive away the little beetle bobs, but the barbs were bad for the old goblin, and he startled and grimaced and yanked at the stalk.
Rambol snarled and snatched the pine stick from both of them. He held it up, where Ruthie could reach for it, never snatching.
“Give that back!” she shouted.
“Come and take it, if you can make it!”
Rambol jumped up the side of the hole, and up the pathway on the big trunk of the big tree, towards the very, very top, where the bells of winter solstice hung high and only tinkled in the time of darkness, unless a mischievous goblin gave the king a bit of a metaphorical kick.
“Hey! I know what you’re doing!”
“No, you don’t, Ruthie! Here’s a better question than a troll: Where do you think Gasketina ran off to and left her grandfather all alone, eh? You think she’s out looking for a troll…”
“Of course not!”
“…or a Gasket?”
“Oh.” Ruthie stopped in her tracks. “I hadn’t thought of that. We aren’t supposed to go anywhere near Hulda. She’s too dangerous.”
“Well, we aren’t supposed to climb to the top of the tree and see what we see, either, but it’s the best way to try and get a better angle on the situation for Gasketina, too. I couldn’t find Hulda’s home among the giants so readily. It had no scent to trace, really. It smelled like something, but once we left, it was like a hollow thing in the air, a place with no trace. Let’s go up and take a look see.”
She scratched her nose and her knee and her noggin. She looked back at the oglers creeping over and peering in at the old goblin.
“If Gsketina is in trouble, he’d want us to help. Okay, but no troll. No tooth of the troll. No pilfering. I mean it, Rambol Goblin. It’s been all sorts of trouble we don’t even know.”
He stuck his tongue out at her. “It was your idea, princess!” He threw the pine piece, and led the way up to the edge of the Goblin’s world, where the tree reached the sky, at last, at the very, very highest place it could reach up. Only birds and clouds were beyond. When the two young goblins reached the guards, Ruthie smiled and asked if she could go up where the treetop climbed up above the rest into clear sky, and she swore she and her friend would never touch a single solstice bell. Not one.
The guards didn’t seem to notice. They were both busy tumbling dice in their helmets, and handed Ruthie the key without really listening. She was a princess, after all, and they had to do what she said. From the very top of the goblin tree, the old forest spread out like a snowfall, but green and green and green green green. Below the forest, the giants hunched in their caves and trudged about in such a miserable fashion. Their clean lines and rigid shapes were painful to observe from above because the scalpel of lines was clearly a form of cutting against the forest that provided everything for all the other living things of the world. It was like giant knives had come from the sky and carved these perfect lines where trees should be. Where branches reached too far into the empty sky in the giant hills and grimalkin kingdoms, the cosmic knives came back and cut them all flush.
Rambol and Ruthie looked out and saw a larger world than they had ever imagined before, because they knew some of what lay out in their horizons and could imagine even farther, now. The green horizon was far, and past the forest and the giants there were other mountains, with other forests and other giants. One mountain, it seemed, was a bit taller than others, and had a stone structure on top that seemed oddly out of place. It was like a humongous goblin nose was jutting up from the ground, itself. It was a huge, white stone on a mounded mountain. It was exactly what Rambol realized he was seeking. It had to be the nose of a troll. Or possibly a finger. Nothing else made sense! All he needed was a plan to get there. It was, after all, very far away.
It was in this reverie of planning that a juniper berry was dropped from above and bounced off Rambol’s nose. He looked up, and saw a familiar goblin, sleeping curled inside the largest bell that was propped on its side like a hammock with juniper berries stuffed in his pockets and smeared around the branches.
“Hey!” shouted Rambol. Whatever-you-like was fast asleep and covered in the mess of many juniper berries. “Hey, what are you doing here?”
Ruthie looked up and gasped. “It’s you!”
His groggy head turned like an owl’s, popping and cracking as he twisted it down and around to the two young goblins.
“Oh, no. What are you two doing up here? Where’s your tall and strong friend? Wait… She did something foolish and goblin-y, didn’t she? She had to be a goblin, and go goblin about the place and now you two are… Oh, no.”
He was really very displeased to be woken from his pilfering nap by these two children. He knew no one would notice a few dozen missing juniper berries, to replace the ones the children stole. What’s a little food theft among fellow goblins? He had assumed this was the one place in the whole tree that he could count on a nap, undisturbed. It was very much off-limits and against-the-rules to be up here among the swaying breezes unless it was winter solstice and the one, fortunate goblin was sent up, alone. The bells were all mostly stopped up and plugged, anyway, to keep them from going off in the strong summer winds. With a turned up bell, the moss and fernleaves that are used to stopper them is actually quite comfortable and a good, long nap, undisturbed until nightfall, after a long day of pilfering, was supposed to be part of the plan.
But, Whatever-You-Like took one look at the two goblins, not three, who had climbed up to the best location in the whole tree to scan and scout, contrary to all rules and order and natural goblin law. Obviously, they were looking for their friend, and this was obviously the best place to go to try and find Hulda of the Hidden, again.
“Listen, goblins are never going to be able to find her,” said Whatever-You-Like, “She doesn’t want us to find her, so we can’t.”
“Who are you talking about?” said Rambol. “Is it a troll?”
“No. Hulda of the Hidden Folk. Your friend went looking for her, and has gotten in trouble. The only reason we could find her at all was because the grimalkin are often seeking her counsel for their kingdoms, and pay her great respect. If we try to find her, we will only get spun about and confused until we give up. Here, help me carry these juniper berries back to my hole, and I will help you.”
“You will…?” said Ruthie.
“She’s in real danger among the giants. And more if she finds Hulda. We have to go right now. Can you distract the guards, troll-hunter? You seem the craftiest of us.”
Rambol stuck out his tongue. “Don’t ask me. SHe’s the one who got us up here.”
Ruthie scratched her knobby knee and spit. “I’ll distract the guards. You promise you’ll help us?”
“Goblins don’t promise. I can’t live among the giants in peace if you children are wandering around getting in trouble with them all. If the giants discover us, they will hunt us down like they do the verminous and squirminous. They are monsters that eat forests and everything they touch. Nothing is more dangerous to our holes and kingdom than a curious giant.”
“Except a troll,” said Rambol.
“Yes, except the trolls. And Hulda of the Hidden.” He realized his headache was returning, and he was not going to be able to do anything about it, now. Perhaps he ate too many juniper berries, or perhaps he knew he was going to get involved, again. “Distract the guards so we can go, young lady goblin. And you with the big nose, we’ll need your help to find your friend.”
“I hate using my nose.”
Ruthie flicked Rambol’s nose, ruthlessly. He snapped at her and backed away behind a large bell.
Whatever-You-Like was exasperated and exhausted and extremely exiled from his lost expectations. He had thought to be far apart and away from all the goblin troubles, yet they bubbled and stewed everywhere and even pilfered his precious juniper berries when he was only trying to help. Juniper berries are hard to come by among the giants, who do such terrible things to all the trees unfortunate enough to grow among their precious square caves and hard, stone and tar paths.
Ruthie needed only do one thing to distract the guards. She snatched a small bell and jumped down the branch to the big gate with the big guards. She threw the bell as hard as she could down the path, and both the guards startled and chased after it. The three goblins scrambled, juniper berries tumbling behind them.
“Oops! Sorry!” Shouted Ruthie, to the guards. She kept running behind the escaping goblins, and away and they ran fast down the tree, and down the tree and down the tree, and it is always faster going down than up, and easier, too. Still, they were breathless at the bottom among the beetle bobs, who skittered about the low trunk and leaf litter, very confused.
By the time they were away, one of the very first questions Ruthie had was how that odd goblin from the land of the giants ever survived with a cat for a king and not a single beetle bob to boil his water or carry off his trash. She wanted to ask, but it seemed rude, and they were ever so busy looking for Gasketina, and a cat that could take them to Hulda of the Hidden, and apparently Rambol was quite stuck on the notion of a troll’s tooth despite all the hardship and misery they had all endured. It was all so much trouble for little goblins. It was amazing she had a thought in her head for how anyone might live without beetle bobs. How did he make tea? How did he wash his stinky, goblin feet? How did he bake juniper muffins with acorn flour?
Still, away they went, and soon enough they had reached the edge of the farmer’s field. Whatever-You-Like led the two, young goblins very quietly, but it was no use. Grimalkin were always relentless when it came to goblin intruders.
The Grimalkin in question, that big orange barn cat, was most confused by this sudden and constant incursion of goblins on her royal kingdom. She was most put out by another set of disgusting, stinking goblins, and thought to do something about it, but Gasketina had made her promise not to kill any more goblins, and that was simply the worst. Killing was easy and fun, and goblins did deserve to be killed, for they were nasty, stinking, deceitful creatures that can trick a monarch of girth and worth into contracts that are both binding and compromising.
It seemed worth it at the time to trade free passage to goblin kind to all the treats in the can in the pantry. All for all initially seemed fair, but the treats in the can ran out, and the goblins have not.
Still, the advantage of being a monarch is the ability to judge which agreements are fair, and which are in need of renegotiation, effective immediately. She turned her ears and eyes and the flick of her tail in the direction of the disgusting intruders. When she jumped, she considered how sporting it would be to give them fair warning, but reconsidered when she thought it would be more fun just to murder, outright.
To her great surprise, one of the goblins grabbed her by the paw and bit her. He was a big thing, and feisty. She pulled back, surprised that anyone would dare bite her.
“I do not take kindly to being killed, and I am much more useful to you alive.”
“They all say that!” The great grimalkin queen took another great swipe, which went over the ducking head of the annoying, big one. Then, he grabbed her other paw on the counterswipe and bit that one, too.
“Ow! Stop biting me, you nasty creature! I’ll get an infection!”
The one with the weird, knobby knee shouted at her. “We’re looking for Gasketina! Have you seen her? She was with us last time when she negotiated safe passage!”
“She did! The foul thief made me swear to let goblins pass for all the treats in the tin. I ate them all. Goblins can’t pass anymore. Get out of here, you filthy things. You stink.”
“She came through?”
“Did you take her to Hulda, or just allow her to pass.”
“Who? I don’t know any Hulda. I know you would all be better dead.” The grimalkin hissed and batted, again, but the big goblin was very good and skilled at biting her toes. This was very unpleasant.
“We’re going after the little goblin girl,” he said.
“She’s not little at all! She’s huge! She’s almost as big as you!”
“So you did see her?”
“Of course I did. I let her pass. That was the deal. Where she went past the road is no concern of my kingdom, or me. Skitter on. I’m bored with you, filthy goblins.”
And skitter on, they did. Rambol grudgingly used his nose to find a goblin trail among all the weeds and wild flowers, though he was really more interested in seeking a troll’s tooth. Grudgingly, he stumbled and bumbled among the world of the giants. He grumbled that his talents at pilfering were being wasted on a sniff that any goblin with a big-enough nose could sniff. Still, he kept sniffing. And, the grown-up goblin, Whatever-You-Like was very busy, indeed, looking about for any giants that might be lurking. Nothing was more dangerous than a giant, and really they should stop and put on costumes or disguises despite their hurry. The giants ripped up trees as old as mountains, and ripped up mountains, too. They stepped on insects without even knowing they were there. They put giant, shiny traps up that birds believed were sky, but were not sky, at all, and the birds were knocked senseless, sometimes killed, and no one even wanted as much as a feather of the birds. It was a trap for no reason. The giants didn’t even find joy in discovering the fallen birds. They were annoyed and disgusted and stuffed them in waste baskets. If they don’t want the birds to be smashed into the side of their caves, why don’t they do something about all the traps they set for them? Giants made no sense, at all, and it was their senselessness that was the most dangerous thing about them. Living among them was like living on the edge of a fire that was always burning, and he never knew when it would mean he had to run and hide and dive and duck or else. And, it was better if the young goblins didn’t know exactly how dangerous the giants actually were. It was better if they just thought they were these odd mysterious creatures that stumbled about, ruining everything with an indifference to what is truly wonderful that was like staring into the night sky and knowing the stars could fall at any moment, for no reason at all. Better if the children did not truly know what made these giants such monsters. He kept lookout as best he could for all the traps and tricks and ways the giants might accidentally or incidentally ruin everything. And what did Ruthie Goblin do? She looked around for any sign of Hulda, or Gasketina, or anything familiar at all. Failing that, she kept watch for grimalkin and wicked, wicked hounds which were known to occasionally run wild amongst the giant towns. And birds, as well, for without the trees to shield them, the owls that love the open roads sweep through in twilight. Every goblin knows that owls will snatch them up and swallow and a goblin will be lucky to be vomited up alive, at all, slimed and partially digested and broken bones and hacked back up into the street stones. They needed to be out of the open grassy paths and black tar pathways before twilight came, and that seemed to be where Gasketina’s trail ran on.
There’s a thing about Hulda’s curse against goblins entering her property. First, it isn’t actually a real curse, per se. It’s a curse in the sense that she tells every goblin about it when she can, or used to back when they were a bother, and made sure her garden was full of very tall flowers at the edge of the hedges, and very dense, too, because goblins are not very tall, at all, in fact, and it isn’t a curse so much as it is a carefully-planned landscape designed to hide from them. Also, she has put up a very interesting juniper tree a few houses away, with wind chimes in it, and goblins would be very distracted by such a thing, naturally. It would draw their eye because they would be looking along the branches for any sign of berries. The wind chimes just make it shinier in the sun, so the greedy creatures might be more interested.
Anyway, the point is to say that it isn’t a curse, per se. It could be turned into one, at some point, but it can be such a bother to cast powerful spells like species-specific curses, and really, the maintenance on the current wards was enough bother and trouble over some verminous little thieves that would be as happy with a bottle cap as with a precious and ancient stone.
Hulda, of course, knew goblins were coming, too. Why, after they had found her once, she knew they would inevitably find her again. It was only a matter of time. So, to stop them, she had to go out and work on her garden, to bless the flowers with water and heavy fertilizers to increase the density of their green matter as swiftly as possible.
Of course, she was standing outside, watering on her lonely little street, when she felt the tingling at the edge of her eyes that told her something terrible was tumbling and bumbling up the road. At first, she expected some sort of badly wounded hedgehog, or a lost and wandering kitten. Instead, it was more goblins. Always more goblins. She cursed in a language that is very old and very rare and very quiet, and three of her densest oxlip plants browned on the spot.
She tossed the can of water out and placed it down on the ground and snarled at the nasty, little things.
“Get off the street, you foolish creatures!” she whispered in a way that only the goblins would here “Hop into the bucket. We’ll palaver in my garden shed, again, and have it out for good. I am sick and tired of being bothered by filthy, pilfering goblins! What are you doing out here where you could be seen? You don’t even have any disguises!”
“We were careful,” said Ruthie.
“You are not being careful. Not at all. Now hurry up. No telling what happens if the neighbors see.”
Hulda peered about for the sinister windows that were always open in spring, and it was a sure thing that she would have to put up flyers about finding a lost kitten when she was gardening and putting it in her bucket in case someone saw her picking up these bits and bobs in the grass. Goblins are nothing but trouble. Trolls are much easier. They just eat and sleep. And the Hidden Folk, wisest and oldest of Folk, are wise enough to keep themselves hidden! Giants are dangerous and difficult to manipulate in the open of their purviews and expectations. They must not be aware of certain things if those things are to be protected, at all.
Even the filthiest and sneakiest of goblins ought to be protected from the giants. Anything a giant doesn’t already know, they ought not to know. They are not to be trusted with the secrets of the Hidden and all the creatures and ways of old. Someday, the giants will tire of devouring everything on this planet, and they will stumble off to another. It is their way, of course, to decimate a place, and then move on with no concern for the ruin in their wake. When that day comes, Hulda and all of the Hidden, will quietly heal what has been smashed by these wild, mostly well-intentioned, but very foolish children among the clever races.
And, of course, she would not let these wicked, irresponsible goblins tumble about in the open among the giants. They could not be trusted to keep their word, and they are numerous and tricksy and nasty and bite. There is only one way to protect the Hidden Folk, who depend on boundaries far older and more intricate than the mere edges of maps.
“What are you doing among the giants, foolish ones?” she snapped at them, inside the watering bucket. “And, no I am not letting you out until you tell me why you are here. You are not supposed to be here.”
The big one spoke first, bravely. “Oh, Hulda, we meant no disrespect to you, but we are missing one of our children. We are looking for her.”
“And a troll!” shouted the mean, wiry one with the big nose.
“You, again. I remember you. Looking for trolls? Looking for trouble. I told you where to find them.”
“Gasketina’s missing, too,” he said.
“The granddaughter of the one with the gasket through his head.”
Hulda crossed her eyes and tried not to curse. One mess leads to another and another. Now the goblin girl was missing, and no doubt creeping about the place, seeking her nasty, pilfering vengeance.
“All right, then…” said Hulda. She pressed her fingers into the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath. Already, the goblin stink was potent. “First, we find this wayward child. We can’t have foolish children stumbling about among the giants, and absolutely not in my garden shed! In the future, aim your adventurism to the farmhouse, not the cities. They are accustomed to vermin, there, and less likely to notice foul vermin skittering about. Aren’t there squirrel duchies to raid? Aren’t there precious baubles buried among the great bear duchies? Must you always seek the most dangerous of things for your vanity? I am the only thing more dangerous than a giant that you know of, and here you are, again, adventuring among giants to reach me.”
“Hulda of the Hidden, I am no adventurer seeking glory. I seek only a lost child. Would you do no less for the children of your people?”
She spit. “I have done far more and far less than you will ever know, little stick, and my reasons are my own.” She placed a lid on the bucket, to the great consternation of the goblins inside. She rummaged around her garden shed, then, for the proper tool for the job. It was in one of these drawers, wasn’t it? Or was it in the drawer in the kitchen? She didn’t want to bring the goblins into the kitchen. And, she couldn’t turn her back for a minute on those nasty things. She checked a bin on the top shelf in the back, and then the bin next to it, and then remembered in a flash exactly where it was. It was in the kitchen drawer.
“Oh, bother.” She opened the can. “Listen, you louts. I’m going to help you find your child, but I don’t trust you in my house. Stay here, and wait. I won’t be long. If you leave, I don’t help you. Simple enough of a deal, yes? You can manage that?”
She did not wait for their assent. She rushed into the kitchen, and opened the drawer in the kitchen that kept all the things that could not possibly go anywhere else, so they accumulated together in the place for all of the things that don’t belong. Of course, this is the most magical place in the whole, little house. It was the drawer where anything could happen, and did, because when she opened it, Old Gasket was stuck inside, pulling at the very same thing Hulda was seeking.
“Am I already being invaded, again, by your foul and verminous thievery?” she said, angrily. “And who are you, then?” she grabbed the miserly, snapping old goblin up by his toe, and pulled the whistle out of his jagged claws. “Of course. Well. Why not? Come along, then. You’re looking for the girl, too, and you were smart enough to get this far. You may be a useful creature, yet. Well, I have all your friends, and you can join them in the can.”
Once back in the garden shed, the goblins were all quite surprised to see each other. Also, they were trapped in a watering bucket, which was getting very crowded.
Hulda had just the device to keep the goblins in check, though, despite their mutterings. She had a kazoo. It was not just any simple, buzzing thing. It was a sort of device that carried an ancient wisdom and power, a sort of thing that rattled the ear bones and trembled knees and shook elbows and worked the stones loose, a little. It wasn’t pleasant to listen to, at all. In fact, it was also very unpleasant to weild. But, it was a useful thing, and… She put it up to her lips and started to hum into it. Nothing happened. Her voice did not rattle and shake with ancient power. It was a mere tube. She looked inside and saw that the tricksy, old goblin had not been trying to use the device, but he had hunted it down to destroy it.
“Foolish goblin,” she said, at first furious. Then, she looked down at the pathetic, stinking things, trapped in a watering can, looking up at her like they were angry and frustrated and lost. She smirked at the broken kazoo. She put it down and then began to laugh. She laughed and laughed. She laughed from deep in her belly and deep in her bones. “Oh, you old adversary! You are far more clever than others may know. Well, we still need to find your child before the giants or the hawks or the raccoons or the wild dogs come. She should not be alone among the giant caves and chariots. They are unkind places full of danger to all goblin-kind. You know this, old one.”
Old Gasket, with the gruesome hole in his head still rusted and moldy was mute, and offered no insight into how he had gotten there, why he had sought out the device he found, and what he was trying to accomplish. He seemed to prefer ignoring her, entirely. Ruthie used a little bit of moss from her pocket to clean some accumulating puss from his wound, and decided to speak for everyone.
“We didn’t ask for your help. It’s your fault she’s missing in the first place. You took her grandfather’s gasket.”
“He had it since forever, and now it’s gone, and he’s so unhappy. Can’t you tell how unhappy he is to lose his gasket?”
“It was never his,” she said. “Never. Neither was it his to ruin my little tool.” She looked around her for another tool.
Rambol Goblin scowled. He was very unhappy in part because he realized he was following the wrong goblin scent. Gasket and Gasketina, as closely related goblins with identical juniper-berry diets, smelled very much the same. He realized he had been following Old Gasket’s scent, not Gasketina’s. He realized that he was going to have to admit that he was wrong. He did not like admitting anything. He didn’t want people to know that he had made a mistake, even if it meant they might stop asking him to sniff out things. He hated being a sniffer of things, like his parents, who were very skilled tree sniffers. “Grimalkin can smell us out,” he said. “Summon one of them. If you even have that kind of power. I bet you don’t.”
“Oh, do I? Well, young goblin, I do not need to summon a grimalkin to find your lost girl. But, yes… That may be less messy than the divination of the blood, and I wouldn’t have to sacrifice any of you gruesomely. We’ll try it. But, you all need to stay in that bucket, or I will sacrifice one of you just to prove my point.”
She sighed, and went back into the kitchen to get a quart of milk. She poured some of it into a small dish and placed the dish on her front stoop. She looked up and down the street, and waved at the neighbors who were walking past. “Guten Tag! Tag, ja! Guten Tag!”
And, of course, the local royalty would deign to visit after such a proper and honorable gift from one of the few people who can understand the complexity and beauty of the feline language. He was a familiar visitor to the front garden, and occasionally even deigned to bless her porch with a nap. The dignified king, a very poofy black cat that was oddly on quite good terms with a goblin, strolled up to the offering and squatted on his haunches.
“You may ask of me a boon, fair maiden, and I may grant you it. Would you like to scratch behind my ears? To touch a king is to be rewarded.”
“Oh, pish-posh, grimalkin. I didn’t call you over to fondle your filthy fur. I’m looking for a goblin girl. One’s loose in giant country. Can’t have that. Can’t have that, at all.”
“Oh?” said the grimalkin. He lazily strolled to the bowl of milk and lapped, gently.
“Finish up, now. Do as I ask and there’s more milk in it for you. A whole quart, perhaps, if you’re quick about it.”
“Well, get the milk, then, for I know exactly where the child is hidden away, and it has nothing to do with you or with giants or with anyone. She ran away from home, and she does not wish to be found.”
“I don’t care what she wants. She’s a filthy goblin in giant country, and she’ll go back to her tree one way or another.” Hulda got the milk and poured it out for the furry, little king. The grimalkin satiated himself on milk, though he was lactose intolerant and he knew it would make him sick, later. But that was later. For now, it was a glorious, rich feast of the milk of such gentle creatures meant for happy, little cows, and not at all like the bitter and sour milk of which kittens are weaned in their youth. Delirious, and distracted, he revealed the location of the girl in question, and Rambol and Ruthie smacked their heads with frustration at the obvious hideout, while Whatever-You-Like felt a great weight descend upon him, heavier than when he realized he was going to have to find the goblin girl, himself. No, this weight was greater. She had chosen his own private hole as s hideaway, and that meant she would return and return, and goblins would never let him be,in his tree. They would come and come and come, and eat his berries and drink his tea, and never once bother to pilfer a single matchstick from the giants. Since the arrival of the old goblin and his young charges, Whatever-You-Like had begun a life of one invasion after another.
So, Hulda gathered up her most powerful magics for the occasion: a good hat, a walking stick, and a grocery cart she could pull behind her where the goblins could hide under a head of disgusting and flavorless iceberg lettuce – one of the many strange and bland creations the giants had wrought upon the land of of powerful arugula and spicy watercress and wild onion.
She followed the cat’s directions, of course, to the huge oak with the little hidey hole too small for a squirrel but too big for a beetle. Goblins, it was said, never made their own holes. They merely chewed on the exposed bark of other diggers’ labor and fed the heartwood to water beetle bobs that would mash it up and suck the juices out for later use.
Anyway, Hulda did not permit a single goblin to leave the bag. Not one. She told the grimalkin to bring the girl out and hand her over, which was swiftly done to the great protestations of the girl. Unceremoniously, Hulda dumped the large goblin girl into the sack with the rest of her kind, and closed it up. She placed a quart of milk out at the base of the tree for the cat, in a large, metal bowl, and said that whatever was left tomorrow would be dumped out. Hulda was going to need that bowl back.
And, with mysteries solved, and all goblins reunited, everyone lived happily ever after!
Wait. No, not quite. No, no, no. I was perhaps only wishing to spare the horror of what is to come.
Hulda would give them what they said they wanted: a troll.
And the troll ate everyone, and swallowed them, and the horror of it all is just too horrible. Still, my burden is to tell the story that is true. Whether I enjoy it, or not, means nothing.
Inside the shopping cart, the goblins were told to hush, and they did not keep quiet at all.
No, they spoke quite a great deal about everything.
For instance, the very first thing anyone said was “Juniper Jumpers! Get off my head!” and then, after that “I’m not on your head! Oh, sorry, I am on your head.”
And Hulda told them all to hush.
And, of course, no goblin would ever do anything anyone told them, particularly if that person had stuffed them all into a bag and dragged them around on wheels like groceries.
“Hey, where did you go, Gasketina! We were looking for you everywhere!”
“Well, I was gone a good while. You’re not very good at finding, are you?”
“Where did you go, though?”
“Where else would I go? Anywhere else. I’m not needed. Not really. I don’t know what to do with myself, now. Grandfather doesn’t need me. I thought I should go be an explorer, and see the whole world.” She sighed, and it was a medium sigh, like she was giving up on the sigh before it was even halfway sighed.
“The world’s a very big place, though. And hardly any of it has a hole suitable for a proper goblin,” said Whatever-You-Like. “I should know. I looked almost everywhere until I found one I liked.”
“Well, I didn’t get very far, did I? I got lost and then I smelled something familiar, and so I found the hole and I was hungry and tired and… I didn’t get very far.”
“And we all came looking for you. We were worried you were going after Hulda.”
“I never thought of that. I think grandfather was getting so much help from so many people, and when we traveled with him he needed very little help, indeed. I didn’t believe he cared either way about the gasket. Things would never be like they were. I didn’t know how to be, or what to do. I just… I felt lost.”
“So you went and got lost, to make your inside and outside match?” said Rambol, confused.
“It seemed the sensible thing to do.”
“You should have gone looking for a troll,” said Rambol. “Goblin greatness can keep one focused on what matters most, when we feel like shattered turnip toast.”
“Do you feel like shattered turnip toast, Rambol?” said Gasketina.
He grunted. “I feel like someone’s standing on my foot, again.”
“Does anyone know what Hulda is going to do with us?”
“Eat us, probably.”
“Burn us and churn us and turn us into stones?”
“She said she was going to help us.”
“What’s in it for her?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“Well, we’re stuck in this bag, now…”
“Someone is on my FOOT!”
Rambol stomped and jumped and pushed and shoved, and soon everyone was all atumble bustling and shoving and grumbling and shouting and punching and kicking.
Hulda was mortified. She was waiting for the bus, and people were staring at her bag with all those sounds and struggles.
“I found some little possums,” she said, “they had trapped themselves in a bucket, and now I’m taking them up the mountain to set them free away from my vegetable garden.”
People looked at her very strangely. It was an odd thing to do, really. Why would anyone ride a bus with a bunch of possums in a bag tumbling about? It was probably illegal. Still, she was very old, and no one said anything. It was a bus that would ride up into the mountain, after all, and that was a sensible place to drop a bucket of live possums. Everyone just backed away and tried to ignore the bag, which was wise.
Hulda nudged the sack with her foot and shushed.
The tustling continued all the way on the bus ride up the mountain. It did finally wear out at some point, along the way. It was a very long bus ride, all the way up to near the top of the highest mountain of the area. Once there, Hulda hopped out with her sack of presumed possums and wandered off into the wooded trails that rambled up the mountain and up and up the mountain, to drag the foolish goblins to the very door of the dangerous troll.
And it was a very long, trail, indeed. She had to stop and rest more than once. Her legs were very old, indeed. She had walked from shores more distant than this world could even contain through tesseracts and hidden pathways that will never be found in all the giant maps and all the giant gathering places. She had brought a bottle of hot tea with her, that was still warm enough in the little flask about her neck, to give her vigor and grace. Nothing about this whole scheme was remotely sensible, but goblins were not creatures of much sense, and consorting with them was a sure sign that things were going to be very senseless for some time. Giving them exactly what they claim to want, in fact, was the clearest path to a sensible solution, after all, because the trolls were perhaps the second most dangerous creature in the whole known and hidden world, after only Hulda, herself, who was very dangerous when she wished to be. Of course, part of what made her dangerous is that she would allow goblins to achieve exactly what they want, instead of stopping them from their own doom. Let them be eaten. Problem solved.
She shuffled off into the forest, and looked around, and no one was there, so she kicked over the bag.
“Out, out. All of you out.”
Grandfather made a strong break for it, straight to the nearest tree and up and gone. Whatever-You-Like grabbed at the children to get them to do the same, but Rambol and Gasketina pushed him off. They both turned and looked at each other, and then up at Hulda. All three realized that some sort of conversation was in order; also, there was no time for conversation.
“Top of the hill. Her nose is very big — as big as a tree. Stone in the daylight, but something else at night. Can’t miss it. Be done before darkness settles, or else.”
Rambol was at last near his quarry. Goblin greatness, and a place in the museum, was at the top of a lonely mountain, where giants meandered. They could see the nose, but did not notice at the bottom of it the tip of a hole that was quite possibly a nostril, and if not the nostril, then certainly a maw’s thin edge. It sat at the top of the little mountain, jutting straight up like a memorial stone. Everyone knows trolls are inactive in daylight hours. Their skin hardens into stone in the sun. Also, they are as sneaky as the Hidden Folk, though far less intelligent about such things. Trolls have an animal cleverness, at best, and move solely as predators seeking prey. How many mysterious disappearances of pets and occasional people can be attributed to the hidden huntings of that elder race of stone monsters? Plenty, to be certain. Even Hidden Folk go missing from time to time, and it is likely because of trolls.
Ruthie Goblin stopped everyone and demanded that everyone don fabulous costumes to travel safely among the giants. They had no great rush, now, and no excuse not to really take their time to hide not only from the giants but from the trolls of the mountains, as well. So, the goblins rummaged about in leaves and stones and gathered together enough bits and bobs to hold still upon the ground and be merely fallen leaves. Old Gasket harrumphed and refused to dress in anything, and no one really had the heart to make him, with the giant hole in his head that looked so incredibly uncomfortable. He merely picked at his nose, and picked at his brain inside the hole, and then picked at his nose again.
Once everyone could pass as a kind of weird bug if no one was looking too closely, they commenced to discuss what they ought to do. Ruthie and Rambol were in favor of pursuing the tooth of the troll, as they were here, and might as well get something to show their greatness. Whatever-you-like was against it, entirely. Far too dangerous for children to be pilfering from elder races. Gasketina was too down in her mood to do anything. She wasn’t even sure if she should go back to the goblin tree, at all. She asked her grandfather what they should do, and he harrumphed, again. He stood up and started walking up the mountain, straight to the tremendous stone proboscis, jutting up from the earth like a tower on the top of the mountain. Giants had placed a fence around it, as if were some kind of memorial, but the stone was clearly not just a stone. It was something more sinister. The giants’ instinct to surround it with metal bars was perhaps a subconscious response to the dangerous nature of what was buried beneath the nose.
The goblins journeyed close to their stony quarry. Rambol gave it a good, long sniff, just to be certain it truly wasn’t just another piece of granite. “Phew. Lots of things like to mark this territory. Either that, or there’s a lot of dead things rotting and spotting and dotting up all over the insides of the thing. I mean, it smells like death in a stone.”
“That’s what it is, until nightfall,” said Whatever-you-like. “How do we even find a tooth? How big will it be, I wonder.”
Old Gasket seemed to find what he was looking for. He started to dig down right up against the stone, revealing what appeared to be a small hole, perfect for small things. Before anyone could say anything, he wriggled inside the darkness, and Rambol was close behind.
Rambol and Old Gasket were inside a cavity so profoundly smelly and unpleasant that even the presence of stinging ants seemed like an improvement. The stench was profound. And, the hole kept holing deeper and deeper into the ground, around a strange curve, riddled with weird tree roots that scraped at them, and even trapped Old Gasket’s head hole, and the occasional biting ant. He got truly stuck in that dank and dark, and Rambol had to feel around to shove the old coot free of whatever gnarled roots had caught the hole in Old Gasket’s head. They pushed on, deeper into darkness. As they moved, Rambol realized there was a terrible, low sound, like wind in a cave, but breathing. It was a hollow sort of wind – a winter wind, cold and biting and damp – the kind of wind that would sneak into the corner of a goblin’s coat and lick with a musty, icy chill. It was far too cold in this hole, even for it being underground. It shouldn’t have been this cold. And the breathing wheezing breathing kept on, air moving one way, then another in a steady, slow whispery woosh.
The mouth of a troll is a place of death and ruin. It smells like a sewer that had been flooded, then suddenly drained, and all the dead rats and roaches had been swollen and bloated and accumulated in a heap near the grates, warm and wet. It was a sticky place, and grotesque. The uvula was like a hunk of mud hanging from a clump of roots. The goblins journeyed past the nostril-openings in the back of the monstrous mouth, and gripped the uvula to climb up to the mouth, proper. They scraped over the hard, stone tongue, to the clustered clumps of teeth. The wet, cold air was sickening in such stench. Rambol was gagging, his eyes watered. Old Gasket grabbed one of the smallest of the teeth, which were all very different in size. Some teeth were as big as a branch, and others were twigs. This one was smaller, but still deadly, like a cross between a stone and a root, clearly sharp and jagged all over the top for grinding flesh into pulp, and Old Gasket yanked hard. Nothing happened. Rambol appeared, by his side, slowly, and pulled, too. Nothing happened. They pulled and pulled and yanked and yanked. Not a single movement came. Suddenly, another goblin appeared, surprising Rambol.
“Don’t startle me!” he snapped.
“I’m here to help,” said Gasketina. “Now, where’s this troublesome troll tooth?”
Rambol grabbed her hands and led her to the thing. Gasketina felt up and down its length, and shoved her jagged toe right into the stone gums. She wrapped her arms around the whole thing, and instead of pulling, pushed it down and away. She was a big, strong goblin, and even she couldn’t do it alone. Then Ruthie came, too, and the four of them were working together to push and pull and yank, and everyone was going all in a different direction, and nothing was working.
Whatever-You-Like appeared, then, and he was clever and experienced at such things enough to have a bit of moss burning on the end of a stick. How he lit the thing, I don’t know, for I was busy observing inside the troll’s mouth. I assumed he used a bit of pilfered magnifying glass and sunlight. Regardless, the little smoke seemed to tickle the nostrils of the hideous troll. The creature within whose mouth they currently wrestled did not appreciate the ticklish sensations, nor the lumps of flesh. There was a groan in the depths, a hideous gurgline like a pool of brackish water bubbling.
“Hurry up!” shouted Whatever-You-Like, grabbing at the tooth. “Everyone pull on three. One! Two! Thr…”
The living stone tongue swallowed them all in a swift and sudden flick. The tooth, gripped hard, was ripped out in the powerful swipe of the tongue, and descended with them, down into troll’s even more disgusting belly, to be slowly and miserably digested into bones and troll poo.
So, that was that.
The direst of dire warnings on the dangers of trolls should be heeded, lest they swallow everyone, in a moment so fast, so relentlessly, unstoppably fast, that one moment the goblin friends are struggling together toward their glorious goal, and then in another moment, they are completely and totally eaten – an elephant has swallowed up a few tiny gnats as incidentally as breathing.
Really, this should be the end of the story. Swallowed up by a troll is generally how most stories of would-be heroes ends. That is why defeating a troll is so glorious: very, very few survive being eaten.
So, they are eaten. The story ends suddenly and not with the Deus Ex Machina of something suddenly turning out all right, but more of a Trollish ex Machina, because the troll has arrived, at last, awake and hungry, and nothing in the worlds of the giants or the worlds of the Hidden Folk has ever been as dangerous from the inside of its mouth, right up near the teeth.
Most who aspire to greatness, die suddenly without it.
So, too Rambol, Gasketina, Ruthie, Old Gasket, and Whatever-You-Like have been swallowed whole by a troll.
The end… The end… So much for all pilferings, and that’s that. Ashes to ashes and meat to meat.
Good-night, fair reader, and consider yourself fair warned about trolls and foolish quests.
Oh, and the truly nasty thing about trolls is how they chew and chew and chew. Their jagged, nasty teeth are most vicious, indeed, and rend their tender meats’ flesh from bone gruesomely.
And, if you are very lucky, on a quest against trolls – very, very lucky – you will make your way past the horrible teeth in some lucky fashion – up a nostril, perhaps – where the troll will not bother chewing. If you are very, very lucky, you will be so small, smaller than grimalkin or puppies or even potatoes, that the troll will not need to chew. If you are very, very, very lucky, the troll hasn’t had anything to drink for a while, at least a century, and once inside its mouth, the troll will merely swallow the uncomfortable, tiny morsels whole, and they will quickly be flung down, hard into the stomach region of the troll, where it would normally digest someone, except everything’s very dry right now because the troll hasn’t had anything to drink in quite a while, well…
In the belly of the troll, the goblins were smeared in grotesque and ancient gore, but otherwise unharmed. The fire didn’t even go out on Whatever-You-Like’s little makeshift mossfire torch. The dry stink of the troll’s stomach was something foul and monstrous, but inside this vacuous stone cavern, each goblin gathered themselves back up and looked around the belly. It was a gruesome place, littered with bones and smears of blood along the walls. Without water, no digestion shall occur. And, undoubtedly, the smoke was most upsetting to the troll’s delicate, ancient digestion.
The goblins peered about the bones and antlers of the place, with no idea what to do, next.
Rambol was usually one of the clever and crafty ones, who might come up with an idea of what to do next, but he was so distracted by the revelation that he finally had what he had sought: the tooth of a troll!
He snatched it up and hugged it like an old friend. He cheered and skipped and hefted it up over his head, kicking his little heels and cackling.
“The tooth! The tooth! We have the tooth of a troll!”
Gasketina bonked him on the head. “For all the good it does us, now. I don’t even know where we are.”
Whatever-You-Like peered into the darkness. His ears twitched. He heard a sound, most unpleasant. It was high-pitched and shifty, and untrustworthy and made him instantly cringe. Mice crawled about the place, and goblins hate mice. Whole teams of fire beetle bobs are trained to hunt them down and chase them out of the trees of goblins, out of the holes and homes where mice wreak such havoc with their huge, pointy teeth.
“Get behind me, children,” said Whatever-You-Like. It occurred to him, when he said this, that he was only just not a child, himself, and now he was going to have to fight mice to the death for children. Old Gasket hacked and spit and threw a bone at the face of the first beast he saw.
The mice did not come to fight goblins. They came to pick the marrow from the bones of the dead and decaying corpses.
Old Gasket grabbed a few of the smaller, and easier bits of bone, and stuffed some moss on them from his pocket. He handed one to Gasketina, who quickly understood what to do. She held it out so Whatever-You-Like could ignite it. He did not hand them all out. The bits of bone and moss would only burn for so long.
Gasketina did not ignite anything else.
“Rambol, do you smell anything useful?”
“I smell what you smell: Death everywhere. Filth. Vermin.”
“Damp,” said Ruthie. “Everything’s so very damp and sticky.”
The stony cavernous stomach of the troll was lined with the sort of molds and lichens that grow on fallen fruit left alone under the snow for a long winter, emerging from the frozen earth a dessicated, dry husk of preserved rot.
Gasketina looked around. “We need to move,” she said. “I think this is the stomach.”
“Of course it is,” said Rambol. “And this is its tooth!” He held up his prize like the biggest bean of the bunch, when it was actually very small for a troll tooth, and a bit wooden in nature, not unlike a dirty, jagged cudgel.
“Why are there mice in the stomach?” said Ruthie.
The truth about trolls is they have very delicate digestion. They don’t actually eat the meat of their victims. They eat the mold and lichen and rot that happens as the desiccation occurs. As such, they need other things to clean up the bones and bits that don’t rot. Water helps. It washes bones away and speeds up putrefaction. And vermin help, too, by cleaning the pathways and offering some initial digestion of whatever filthy thing the troll devours. In other words, the mice were symbiotic vermin, along with roaches as big as shoes, and a wide variety of different gruesome biting ants and flies.
The idea was (and it was probably Old Gasket’s idea first, but he never said anything about it) to follow the mice. Gasketina pointed out that the mice were getting around, and that meant mouseholes. If mice could maneuver, so could goblins. And, if they turned to fight, any lone mouse would be outnumbered. Any mouse king conflagration with tails tied and masses mumbling would be heard before it could be encountered. Everyone knows that the king of mice is always muttering with a hundred mouths. And, how could such a thing survive inside a troll?
I’ll tell you exactly how. As they descended down into the curving, filthy passageways, where the mice dragged their bits of bone and gore. Winding and grinding behind the mice, they stopped before a curve in the passageway.
Whatever-You-Like was the first to stop in his tracks. Months and possibly years of living in hiding among the giants had led to reflexes and instincts worth following. He grabbed the nearest goblin, Old Gasket, and pushed him back against the wall. The other goblins saw the startle, and complied.
“It’s a mouse king,” he said, whispering. “I can hear it.”
By now, I should certainly mention that at this very moment, the sun had finished setting in the world beyond the belly of the troll, and it was fully dark, now.
Trolls hibernate in daylight, camouflaged as rocks and stones, and awaken in darkness.
The stones moved and trembled and shook, as the troll woke up. It was a terrible, gigantic thing, with a steel fence painfully installed around its nose by giants who knew no better attempting to protect what they believed to be an interesting monumental rock on top of a nice mountain. It was very uncomfortable to the troll, and it was certainly not nice. Trolls were the foulest, nastiest, hungriest, most Ill-tempered creatures ever to exist. They were very angry about many things, not the least of which is how, despite their tremendous size, they could barely utter a sound. Other creatures could bellow and hoot and holler and yodel, and a troll could, at best, make a sound like a wind whispering through a wooded plain. Also frustrating was the constant hunger. It was a lot of work to maneuver as big as the trolls were, and heavy as stones. They were always very, very hungry.
And another thing about trolls: They are mostly made up of a huge digestive tract combined with an absolutely tremendous nose, with lots and lots of squiggly bits where the wind blows through and they can smell and taste the air, itself, and their whole stony, stinky body, at once. That meant they always knew what was all around them, where it had gone, and what was upwind. In the forested hills and low mountains of the area, there was always a breeze, somewhere, and there was always something worth eating upon that breeze.
Of course, it could sense the tiny goblins crawling inside like bipedal mice. It was old enough to remember a time when goblins did not exist, and knew exactly what they were. It had felt the tooth tugged, and swallowed them up and hoped the mice and molds – which it used in the same way goblins used stomachs – would turn the goblins into meat to eat. In the meantime, it was awake, and it was hunting from where such creatures might have come. Goblins, like many verminous creatures, lived in huge colonies that could be shook loose from their trees and devoured like candy tumbling from a tube. It had been a long time since this troll had tasted the flesh of goblins.
Inside the belly of the troll, where the mice had become entwined into a singular entity, too large to leave the narrow passages and far too angry and hungry to consider sensible negotiations.
“There is no other way,” whispered Rambol. “We can’t go up through his teeth. The tongue would keep throwing us down. We’ll just have to run for it and fight through like brave goblin warriors of ancient times. Survivors get the statue in the hall.”
Whatever-You-Like sighed and looked about him at the old goblin, himself, and these children. “We can’t get past this thing with our noses and toes,” said Whatever-You-Like. “We have to accept that not every goblin goes home. Someday, all of us become the soil that serves the trees. We can wait here a while, but we cannot wait forever. Best for one to go and run across, first, while the others run around the other way.”
Gasketina was very cross. “Giving up? GIVING UP?” She started shouting. “I think not. I THINK NOT!”
They tried to shush her, but there was nothing anyone could do. The mouse king, of course, could hear them, even with their whispers. It could smell them, with their juniper-smelling skin. It could creep in the dark to the edge of the tunnel.
“Ruthie,” she said. “We need a disguise that no mouse king would recognize. We need a puppet that will fall into its mouth with hard bones to chew, and how do you do what you do in the dank and the dark? Are we sneak thieves and pilferers or warriors? We are not warriors! Those days of goblin-kin are gone. And good riddance! Fighting is awful! Goblins get hurt!”
Unfortunately, the mouse king was clever enough to understand a scheme was scheming. Individual mice were not particularly intelligent, and certainly did not know the various clever tongues of the Hidden Folk and the Old Ways and all the creatures of all the kingdoms of the world. But, a scheme it was clever enough to deduce.
Ruthie took a deep breath, coughed a little, and pointed. The mouse king was swollen in the passageway ahead, nipping and staring and swirling in a malevolent swirl of mouths and sharp teeth and filthy, black fur, with the most horrible beady red eyes all bunched and bustling. The mouse king saw them all, smelled them all, and couldn’t quite squeeze into the passage to eat them all.
The goblins backed away, slowly, back and back and up into the big, filthy cavern of the foul troll’s belly. They could feel the gentle jostle if the monstrous footfalls. They knew it was hungry, angry, and hunting in the night.
They had more immediate concerns.
Ruthie surveyed the bits of bone and sinew and slimy fungi that cluttered the hideous stomach. She quickly caught onto a plan not to disguise themselves, exactly, but to use the bound bones as a shield wall, to drive the mouse king back and make room for them to find their next twisting path. The very smelly smeared things all about would be very useful to create some sort of painful diversion if the mice did try and chew through the bones.
“Right,” She said. “Not much to work with but we will see what we can do.” She began pointing and directing.”
Fairly soon, with Ruthie’s expert guidance, the bone wall was built and pulled apart. Once passing through the intestines again, down and around and around and down, to the chamber with the mouse king, Whatever-You-Like was a strong and sturdy sort, and he volunteered to go first to push a path for the next goblin. He grabbed the wedge of bones and led the way. Gasketina was second, with her grandfather just behind her. Then, Ruthie followed closely behind. Rambol, as the sneakiest and quickest of pilfering goblins, would go last, so he could zip into whatever hole or hollow they find to journey past and down the bowels of the terrible troll, whose footfalls gently lumped and thumped and bumped them all about as they worked and walked and worried.
Even mice were afraid of mouse kings, for they, too could be devoured. Their offerings allowed passage, for a time, but often these offerings would be insufficient to keep them from merging, one way or another, with the swirling vortex of filthy fur and red eyes and sharp teeth.
Upon arrival, Whatever-You-Like slowly approached the cavern of the mouse king, with his costumery up. They would appear, from the outside, to be a giant bundle of bone offerings. It would wall them off from the creature like a centurion’s tower shield. He took a deep breath, and looked back at the other goblins, there behind him. Costumery was a far more valuable skill than violence, it would seem. Much better not to try to fight the monster, when it was trapped in its awful troll intestinal tract, in that awful, little cavern.
Whatever-You-Like put the shield down, spit in both of his palms for luck, and rubbed his hands together. He held up one hand to signal to those goblins behind him how he would move forward. As the few torches remaining were all built into the back of the shields, and they were all crowded behind him, it was hard to say if any other goblin could even see the signal. No matter, a signal was given, and Whatever-You-Like pushed forward into the snapping teeth and chaos. He pushed as hard as he could to drive the tangled mouse mass far back enough to make room for another goblin beside him. Gasketina pushed hard and locked her bone shield in place. The mouse king, hideous and hungry, chewed upon the bones with ravenous fury. They would not last long. The next goblin popped out, and then the next. Finally, Rambol goblin pushed his way forward, but he was a small goblin, and not very strong, and really, he was not interested in pushing anything or anyone. He let go of his piece of the wall and jumped around behind Ruthie. The bit he had been carrying was ripped away in a flash, and dragged off by the mouse king.
“Hurry up!” he shouted. “Find the way through!”
Aye, the snapping teeth and mass of mouse, and the chewing, always chewing on all the bones while the goblins pushed and moved. Old Gasket was the next one to break from the wall. He stumbled backwards, losing his grip on the shield, and Gasketina grabbed him and yanked him back, but the surging mass of mice drove a wedge eternal between Old Gasket behind Gasketina, and Rambol behind Ruthie. They were all separated out, pushed off to two sides of the snapping and chewing and twisting stench of mouse.
“What do we do?” shouted Ruthie. She was trying to hang onto her little bone wall, and Rambol was helping, but it was not good. No, it was not good at all.
“I don’t know!” shouted Whatever-You-Like. “We’re going to try and go around to you! Hold! Be bold!”
He pushed and Gasketina pushed, but their boney blockers were being bitten and nipped and nibbled and spit. All thought of finding a way down was lost, now. It was merely a try to get around the ball of mouse to reach Ruthie and Rambol before they were bitten to the bone. The terror of this whole mess was terrible. And, Old Gasket, hacked and spit and came up with his own idea. He grabbed his daughter by the ear and yanked her back and away, shield and all, and the wall was all fallen.
“What are you doing?”
He grunted at her gutterally, and pulled her into the middle, in between Ruthie and Whatever-You-Like. Ruthie’s shield was being devoured, and the marrow in them drew the mice nearby, while others sought to push and eat Ruthie, and still others pursued Gasketina and her grandfather, and Whatever-You-Like, who had no clue what was happening, assumed everyone was lost, and he had failed to protect these children, and he would never, ever go back to the tree without them. Better to die in the belly of a troll than to lose children in his charge. He peeled a bone from the back of his bony shield, and rose it like a club. He charged into the mass of mice, swinging and shouting and fighting.
All the mice in all the mass were pulling and pulling and pulling in all different directions. Some pursued one goblin, others pursued another. A mouse showed up with a king’s offering, with no clue what mortal combat was occurring, and that offering also drew mice from the mass to move and push and drive. A mouse king is a madness of hunger and anger. There is no grand strategy to their rule. Their kingdom is one of pain and rage. Is it any wonder they rule from the belly of a troll?
As the bones fell and mice thwacked and hacked, Whatever-You-Like lost his shield, and jumped back. The mice came after him from the muddle of the middle, and now all the mice were all pulling and pulling in all sorts of directions with all their furious fury.
Well, there was a wet, hideous pop. The mice with their tails tangled, suddenly and unexpectedly, pulled themselves untangled. For a moment, they all rushed in the direction they had pulled, tumbling all over the place and scratching and angry and disgusting, but in moments they realized they were free of the mass, and goblins were punching at them and, really, now that they were free, they could just be mice, running along in the dark, nibbling at fungus and bone marrow and bits of meat. In fact, the troll had awoken, so there was no real need to stay there, at all. Why, what was the point of fighting over scraps, when the path to a rich and verdant forest was at hand?!
The mice scattered in a flush and a wave, and the goblins, those battered and bruised and beaten boy and girls, with their grandfather and the mysterious outsider, Whatever-You-Like, fumbled alone in the dark, gasping for breath among the stench and stink and stunk of the broken mouse king’s burrow in the belly of the troll.
“What happened?” said Ruthie. “Is everyone still… You know?”
Whatever-You-Like lit a small match, his last. He held it up and looked for anything to catch the flame. Everyone saw themselves, alive. Even Old Gasket was alive, and he was very pleased with himself. Once a new torch was lit from the muck and mouse fur and bits of broken bone, goblins silently gathered and looked at each other, at their hideous cuts and scratches that were not going to be attractive scars, someday. They were too small and too infected, already. Really, they all needed to get home and take a big, hot bath.
Rambol, of course, was ecstatic. He felt that rising tide of revelry from the tip of his tail to the top of his head and all the way out to his nose’s warty protuberances.
He still had the troll tooth! And, they had defeated a mouse king! That was quite an accomplishment, and surely would be added to the annals of the statuary!
He started to hum a tune of glory and dance a dance of victory!
Gasketina grabbed him by the tail and yanked him by the tail.
“We’re still in the belly of a troll,” she said. “And, it’s awake. Feel it moving?”
It was moving, indeed. But, it wasn’t moving as easily as before. You see, the mouse king was something kind of like an intestinal organ, an important piece in a very complex digestive system that suddenly exploded and scattered all over the place and ran off, and the troll could feel that loss, and those scurrying whiskers and paws dragging on his walls. Oh, it was very uncomfortable to have so many mice suddenly running all about the place. It threw off the troll’s balance, and all that. It really was a most hideous feeling.
Well, it did hurry along what happened next.
The troll decided to stop for a drink. A very, very big drink. A huge, tremendous drink. When trolls drink, they don’t just sip upon a little cup of this or that. No, when trolls drink, they devour streams and rivers and lakes, pouring the vast quantities of water through, and capturing all the filth and fish that float in the waves for their foul food.
It just so happened that the troll was standing quite near a large factory that was turned off, but that contained plenty of what appeared to be pipes full of water. Naturally, the troll was not considerate of the nuances of modern technology. It saw pipes. It sensed some condensation on the pipes. It grabbed the pipes and opened the pipes and stuck his big, filthy tongue down into the pipes to slurp up all the moisture inside.
But, this was not water that it was slurping. It was similar to water, but really not at all like water. In these mountains, and these old forests, charry farmers gathered their crop together at a local establishment to produce a very old, and very unique product made by seeking the essence of those cherries for sweet tortes in deep winter: Kirschwasser!
The troll was swallowing and slurping a fine and delicious and antiseptic liquid to flush his body back to shape, and it was not at all helpful for the wide variety of lichens and toads and insects and mice. It was not just going to flush them all out. It was going to flood them in a very potent, very medicinal, very sanitizing solution that would, in fact, be very upsetting to the troll. Ancient lore tells us that the real reason humans began to consume fermented beverages, and even distilled fermented beverages, was to make themselves stink of a thing that trolls would not wish to devour. But, it was too late for the troll that carried the goblins in its guts. It had plugged itself into the broken spigot and started to swallow, and instantly realized with deepest regret that it had chosen very poorly, but the stuff kept coming, and it was going to pour over its body – camouflaged against the giants’ sight by its layers and decades of dank, dark mud and soil – or it was going to pour into its body, where it would burn and be very unpleasant, but would not lead to any serious and lasting harm quite on scale with being found hunting by giants.
Really, drinking all the kirschwasser was the most sensible thing.
And, it went down its throat, into the first stomach, then around and down into the second where a mouse king had so recently lived, but now the great goblin pilferers considered their very next move in the direction of freedom.
Well, that was a very unpleasant thing to happen after a great many unpleasant things: the kirschwasser flooded in with a surge, and blasted everyone with the overpowering aroma of the mountain cherries. It flushed and flooded and filled the chamber, and it caused mice and vermin and bones and goblins all to tumble and topple and splot from one cavernous troll unmentionable to another. Trolls have many stomachs, so they can eat many things, and the goblins swiftly flushed from one to another to another to another, tumbling with the flood of kirschwasser, until the liquid had completely flooded through.
Emerging from the troll’s bottom was a very undignified way to reenter the world, among the mass of broken bones and scurrying mice and spiders and grime, smeared in a powerful and intoxicating cherry stink that was most unlike the proper smell of proper goblins.
They fell, in a fluid flush from the bottom hole of the biggest, most terrifying creature they had ever encountered. The troll was so big, it made giants seem like goblins in comparison. It was a huge, rocky, muddy, thing, like a piece of ground had picked up and come to life. And, it had bits growing on itself, here and there, and it rasped and hissed like a bad wind.
The troll had planned on smelling his way to the goblin tree for a meal, but his digestion was a mess, twice now, and there was no point in trying to eat anything. Really, it was time to go lay down and rock and moan, and the only place he knew to lay down was right were he was. The giants wouldn’t know what to make of the thing by daylight. They’d call it a mystery rockslide, perhaps, and when the mountain put itself back together again in a night or two, they’d call it a mystery geological movement.
Of course, it goes without saying that Rambol had, in fact, managed to hang onto that troll’s stolen tooth like his life depended on it. In all that muck and misery and mucous, Rambol Goblin was overwhelmed with accomplishment and joy. His place in the pantheon of pilferers was permanent, and the firmament of goblin greatness would forever remember him until the statue broke in some sort of terrible tumble. This was as close to immortality as was possible for little goblins, smeared in muck and filth and stinking of kirschwasser.
Come to think of it, the overwhelming alcoholic aroma was not helping anyone make good decisions. The goblins were stumbly, and slipped to standing on unsteady feet. They had to hide, they knew, from the coming giants, and what if that horrible troll woke up, again? But, legs were not legging, and feet were not feeting, and everything was indeed most disorienting.
Hulda appeared, then, as mysteriously as she had disappeared. She had long, long tongs wrapped in oilskin rags that she used to pluck the tiny goblins up from the mess of bones and filth, and she placed them into her previously contaminated bag.
The return home was no grand parade. Hulda waltzed straight through the woods on the very old pathways she knew well, to the trees where goblins groaned and moaned that a giant was coming, but it wasn’t a giant. It was far, far more dangerous. Hulda appeared and with absolutely no fanfare whatsoever, placed the bag of bruised and battered goblins on the ground at the base of the goblin tree, and turned heel to the land of giants, where she kept watch over the hidden world and the other world hidden inside of that one and protected all the hidden creatures, and especially the Hidden Folk, who had not been seen a long, long time. (In fact, she stopped only to offer me a spot of tea to help me recover from my difficult journey beside the goblins, from my Hidden observation points, I the great bard and chronicler of the adventures of these goblins, a proud member of the Hidden Chroniclers, but fearful it would expose me and my precious notepads to goblin eyes, I politely declined. Certainly, I would have quite liked some restorative herbal concoction after all these harrowing adventures completely unseen and undetected by goblin, grimalkin, giant, and troll.)
The beetle bobs sniffed about the bag for combustibles or comestibles and the discovery of goblins was quite a fright. The buzzing beetle bobs scattered to the winds, and our battered and filthy heroes emerged from the bag slowly, exceedingly sore in the head and limb, with infected cuts and affection for no one. As smelly as they were, no beetle bob would buzz them up to their holes. They merely crawled up, very slowly, one stair at a time, until they reached their holes in the old trunk. No one did anything, at all, after that for a good long while, except perhaps a bath and some good, strong tea.
When Rambol did, finally make his way to the Museum of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goblin Goings-On, he was quite surprised to see a familiar grimalkin reclining on that branch, surrounded by goblins asking questions while he ignored them all and napped.
“Hey! Move out of my way!” he shouted. “I need to get to the museum!”
THe grimalkin cracked one eye and almost bothered to look.
“Oh, is that so?”
“I have brought the tooth of a troll to the Museum of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goblin Goings-On! I have to get in to show it to the museum director so I can be immortalized forever in a statue of my greatness! This is important!”
“Well, if it’s important…” said the grimalkin. He laid back down and his tail began to flick.
He began to purr.
“Why aren’t you moving?”
He peered up again. “Didn’t you know I have closed this museum. I have decided that no museum should celebrate goblin greatness. It is encouraging very bad behaviour among my loyal servants. As the new king of this community, it is my first official act. Humility is important in goblins. The museum shall be turned into a facility to celebrate the greatness of grimalkin. So have I decreed. So it shall be so.”
While goblins were dueling to the death inside the belly of the troll, struggling to survive and escape from the buttocks of the beast, Hulda had also been busy scheming and plotting.
Why, she went straight to the very grimalkin that had brought her the very first goblin she had seen in decades. The cat was reclining on a warm automobile hood, soaking in the sun. He had recently dined on something that had fought back, and was swollen with food and the afterglow of battle. He was surveying his kingdom proudly.
“You are quite calm for a creature that has vexed the almighty Hulda,” she said, to the cat.
“I have done not one thing to cause strife between our kingdoms, Almighty Hulda. I merely brought a friend by as an ambassador would, to seek an audience. What happened next is not my concern.”
“It is most certainly your concern,” she said. She snatched the cat up by the scruff of its neck. The grimalkin hissed and swiped at air, but Hulda was too strong and too fast. “Come then, king. We’ll palaver as ambassadors might.” The way she said it, it seemed this palaver was not a friendly one between kingdoms, but a prelude to a declaration of war.
Hulda stuffed the cat in her traveling bag that stank of goblins, and sealed him up. She looked about for any giants observing. Finding none concerned about the odd old woman who was picking up a stray animal in a bag, she walked on and got on a bus to the edge of town. She was very tired after all this traveling about, but one thing was clear: If the goblins kept pilfering from trolls and pestering Hulda, she would only be far more tired than this, over and over again. On the bus, the grimalkin protested, but she shushed it with a stern shush, and it was so stern that the whole population of the bus fell silent. The giants may not have known why, but they obeyed her power.
Once off the bus, she was on a long road that ended with an old family farm. It was much smaller than it had been, once, but it was still a farm, and the family that lived there, now, had come from a great long way away to farm, here, and their love of the land was clear in how well the flowers grew in the fields, and how fat their orange grimalkin monarch was from her stump. At the edge of the farm, past the weeds and wildflowers of the unkempt abandoned fields, the old forest rose like a wall. It was a very old forest, one of the oldest for many kilometers all around. It was just the sort of forest where old trees would be full of little holes, and little goblins would live inside of those old holes, and if one listened just right on just the right night, at just the right time, and the winter wind was still, their solstice bells would ring in the air like lost music wandering in from the far kingdoms of ghosts.
Nasty little creatures, very nasty, but not evil. And, like all things hidden from the giants, Hulda would prefer them all to remain so, for giants cannot be trusted with knowledge beyond what is right in front of their faces. They seemed to think the world was theirs, and refused to imagine sharing it with anyone or anything be it a goblin, a troll, a rogue grimalkin king, or a Hulda.
“I have decided that you are a mighty king, indeed,” she said, to the cat in her bag. “Your talents are wasted on the kingdom of giants. You are the rare creature that can stand the juniper stench of goblins. How this is so, I do not know, but stink, they do. They are in need of you to be their king, and for them to serve you. They think they have their own king. But, he does not wish to be a king. Goblins hate being kings. It’s too much pressure for them. They get violent and mean, for they are acting out of their nature. No, Grimalkin… Grimalkin?”
The cat was fast asleep. It made not a peep. She shook it. “Grimalkin, awake! I command you!”
“Oh, bother. Let me out of this hellish place, and I will reward you with the back of my tail.”
“Listen, Grimalkin. Go to the goblin tree and be their king. Kill the king and take his crown. The goblins will serve you. It is right for them to do so. When you do, you will have a huge kingdom, and many servants. You will also have a job. I have a job for you. They have a silly little hole full of statues in one of their trees. Destroy all the statues, and make them glorify you, instead, with their arts. No goblin statues. Just grimalkin. This is my decree. Repeat back to me what I just said, little furry festering fool.”
“Rule the goblins as is my proper place, for they are a lesser race. Ruin their little idolatry, and make them worship me, instead. Yes?”
“Good enough. Did you do anything horrible in the bag?”
“Of course. You did not ask me if I needed a litter break before you took me.”
“Ugh! Disgusting. All of you. Absolutely disgusting!”
She dropped the bag, and let it fall open. The cat was quick to leave. Oh, it was much worse than just goblin-stink, now. She would burn the bag if that didn’t mean drawing too much attention to herself. Instead, she kicked soil over it with her boot, and turned her heel, and hoped her goblin problem would end with the end of goblin glory. If they had nothing to dream outside their holes, they’d have nothing to steal from Hulda and trolls.
That was the idea, anyway, and it seemed a good one, at the time.
So, the Grimalkin had swiftly found and conquered the king of the goblins, who was quite large for a goblin, but not quite as large as a royal grimalkin king of other grimalkin. And, the goblin king had very little interest in fighting for the crown. In fact, the arrival of a large and sharp-toothed creature determined to take control of the goblin government in the role of king was – to be honest – a blessing. It had been years since the goblin king had been burdened with that crown, and it was very unpleasant to be king, and he never wanted the role, but he had fallen ill a bit too out in the open after eating too many fermented juniper berries that really he shouldn’t have eaten, and the royal court was looking for someone to foist the crown on, and this goblin king was already squatting down at just the right angle for a crown. He could not run away while squatting. There was nothing that could be done to stop it. It seemed a fate, a terrible, burdensome fate. Certainly anyone could take the crown if they wanted it. All one had to do was depose the king. Normally no goblin in their right mind would ever do something so foolish.
But, a grimalkin? Well, a foolish creature insistent on being royalty was very much welcome to it.
After removing the crown from his cap, the big, angry goblin, was no longer quite so angry. A weight had been lifted from his delicate brain matter, and the very bones of his head felt like they were decompressing after years of anguish. He pushed his way past the throng of royal advisers and ministers and dignitaries, no longer of any interest or use to any of them. And, just like that, we was free! Free, at last! He giggled like a schoolboy, and kicked up his heavy heals. It had been so long since he had kicked his heels that he fell right over and sprained an ankle, but still he giggled. He hobbled and hopped home to his old, comfy hole, where his broad-shouldered bride brought up their beautiful children, and he, too, could be more engaged with them, like a real father, and do something useful with his time, like polishing bowls out of acorn caps. Oh, it was a glorious day for him!
For the grimalkin, not quite so glorious. The ministers of office crowded about and crowed and cackled and demanded to know by what right he would claim this kingdom.
The grimalkin smacked them all about their ears.
“By the right of I’m going to kill all of you if you disobey your lord and master!” He battered and boxed and bounced every single one of those troublesome goblins, and swiftly asserted his place as ruler.
And, those same ministers never shut up! They kept asking questions and seeking decisions, and many of them seemed very foolish. It did not matter which color the festival chose for the socks of the three official dignitaries of government, for example. Why would anyone even bother a royal liege with such a foolish and trivial question? That one got boxed about the ears. And, then there were questions about which direction foragers should go, and shouldn’t the foragers know how to forage, or otherwise why were they foraging, at all? So, that one was boxed about the ears. And the questions about the beetle bobs, which were all very tedious, and soon, the ministers had mostly been chased off with all their ridiculous questions and ridiculous forms to fill out.
When the very last one was scurrying for the gate to go back down the tree and escape their new king, he snatched it by the underpants, and hoisted it up in the air.
“All right, you. There’s a building with a bunch of goblin statues in it. Where is it?”
“Tell me where it is, now, servant!”
The little old goblin, very uncomfortably hoisted by a claw caught in underpants found it increasingly difficult to speak. He merely pointed, and the king followed until they reached the museum. The king could not fit inside the door. He was far too grand and large for such a tiny orifice, but that could be changed, later. First, he had all the statues, one-by-one dragged out to the branch upon which he was resting. With much glee, he nudged and nudged and nudged each one before all who cared to see, and sent them hurtling down to their demise in the far below places, where they all shattered into bits. It was quite an enjoyable official action for the king. Everyone was so horrified, and tried to argue for each statue, and he let them talk about goblin so-and-so who did this-or-that, all while sneakily and craftily and quietly nudge nudge nudge KABOOM! Being the ruler of goblins was far better than giants. Giants were such a bother bossing about. Goblins were small and terrified, as they should be.
After all this carnage and confusion, the newly crowned king of all the goblins demanded someone bring him a large bowl of water, and he drank it, and fell asleep just outside the door, blocking the museum while necessary reforms were being made inside. For example, the only permitted statues celebrating the glory of anything shall be statues of the wise and noble and nimble grimalkin king.
There, Rambol encountered this furry roadblock to his glorious immortality.
When he calmed down enough to think clearly about it, he rushed to find Whatever-You-Like, which was very difficult to do because no one had yet to actually deduce the goblin’s name, after all these years. Well, it was an ordeal, but he did find him sitting down to tea with Gasketina and Old Gasket.
Rambol came in sputtering and furious and whacked Whatever-You-Like over the head with the troll’s tooth. After that blow, the grown goblin snatched the boy’s wrist and took away the tooth. He handed it over to Old Gasket for safekeeping and said, “Look here, little nostril! You can’t come whacking goblins for no reason!”
“I have very good reason! Your grimalkin ruined the Museum of Mighty Goblins and All Their Great Goblin Goings-On forever and ever!”
“He came here. He crowned himself king, and now he’s wrecked the museum completely. He won’t even let a goblin go inside!”
Confused, Whatever-You-Like put down his tea and looked over at Gasketina and Old Gasket.
“Pardon me,” he said. “I do believe I need to see this for myself.”
“I’ll come with you,” said Gasketina. She swallowed her moss tea whole.
Old Gasket had no interest in seeing anything. He stayed right where he was and began to eat his lunch by himself. Alas, he was holding the troll’s tooth in one hand, and the sandwich before him required two hands to properly lift. It was a very good sandwich with lots of good things in it, after all – juniper berries and wild radish roots and dried sour cherries and bits of green dandelion leaves – so he had to do something with that troll’s tooth.
As soon as the goblins scurried off to the museum, he took one look at the tooth, and then felt the hole in his head with his other hand, and deduced that they were close enough. He stuffed the tooth straight through the old gasket hole in his head and it fit quite nicely, and felt much better than leaving the hole with his brain right there open to the breeze. The troll’s tooth would work very well, indeed, while he ate his sandwich.
It had better work well. After enjoying a delicious sandwich, he reached up to pull the tooth out. He quickly realized he would not be able to pull it out, ever again.