Suspense R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author SCI FI
U nder   the   curious   eye   of    the   majical   kind,   the   little   people, humans,   and   giants   are   settling   The   Range,   the   buffer   between the    previous    combatants    for    the    past    two    hundred    years. Neighbors   are   entertained   by   the   customs   and   nature   of   their former   antagonists.   Men   learn   a   troll’s   deadly-sounding   growl means    nothing    more    than    an    indifferent    harrumph.    The hearing   of   the   elf,   the   nose   of   the   ogre,   the   orcs’   sense   of   clan, the   trolls’   strength,   and   laid   back   daemons,   weaves   a   tapestry of   tolerance,   friendship,   love,   tragedy,   personal   growth,   and whimsy. H AMLET   THRIVING   unfolds   in   slices   of   each   explorer’s   life, chronicle     the     people     setting     down     roots     to     become     a community.    The    settlers    learn    their    neighbors    aren’t    the monsters of legends told ‘round winter hearths.
Urban Fantasy
Search for Ike ~ T he   door   to   the   dining   room   swung   into   the   kitchen   and   slammed   against   the   wall with a bang. Sylvia jerked, and looked up at the snouted face of Torc who leaned in. “Ren,”   he   called   to   his   sister.   “Ike’s   disappeared   again.”   The   young   ogre   sighed, tilted his head forward, eyes closed. Sylvia   only   arrived   at   the   inn   that   spring   and   the   runt   Ike   had   run   off   three times   since   then.   The   last   time   the   search   parties   didn’t   find   him   until   the   next   day, frightening   his   mother   half   to   death.   There   were   plenty   of   critters   out   there   to worry   about,   cliffs,   old   troll   mine   shafts,   and   other   potential   catastrophes   that eluded the worries of a four-year-old. “Oh,   that   booger.”   Ren   growled   and   set   the   bowl   she   held   on   the   counter   with   a clang.   “Are   any   of   the   dragons   about?”   The   ogre   hen   puckered   up   her   mouth.   Her tusks dug into her upper lip giving her a mean-looking scowl. “No. Asr says they’ve all gone south together to hunt.” “We’ll   close   the   kitchen   and   help   ye   look   for   him,”   the   gangly,   gray-haired   troll Eina suggested. “That   may   not   be   necessary,”   Torc   said.   “Half   the   guests   are   gathering   to   help. Besides,   not   right   to   starve   our   remaining   guests   because   the   booger   is   hiding   in the woods, frightening every wild creature out there.” “Oh,   Torc,   don’t   be   so—”   Sylvia   clipped   off   her   complaint.   The   young   ogre clearly appeared worried for his littlest brother. “Gladys   and   I   can   handle   the   rest   here   on   our   own,”   Eina   told   Ren.   “Why   don’t ye take Sylvia along with ye. She has a knack at finding the tyke.” “If ya wouldn’t mind.” Ren’s brows knitted together as she looked at Sylvia. Sylvia   smiled   at   Ren   and   nodded.   “I   don’t   know   about   a   knack.   Happened   to select the right canyon a couple of times is all.” The   ogre   hen   doted   on   her   brother   as   a   grandmother   might.   The   concern   was easy   to   see   in   her   eyes,   even   if   her   mouth   balled   up   in   anger.   Looking   at   her,   a twinge   of   anxiety   crept   across   Sylvia’s   shoulders.   Dread   that   never   visited   any   of the   times   he’d   gone   missing   before.   Sylvia   couldn’t   imagine   what   the   baby’s   mother was feeling. Sylvia   took   one   more   swath   at   the   counter   she   was   wiping   and   dried   her   hands. “Let me run over to the dormitory and change into warmer clothes.” “Meet ya out front,” Ren and Torc shouted together. ~ S ylvia   hurried   to   pull   a   second   sweater   on.   She   dropped   her   skirt   and   shift   and pulled   on   a   pair   of   long   underwear   and   lined,   woolen   pants.   If   Ike   wasn’t   found before   the   sun   set   it   was   good   to   prepare   for   the   worse.   Summer   nights   in   the highlands   were   as   cold   as   any   winter   day   in   the   lowlands.   She   sat   and   laced   up   her boots, grabbed her coat and walking stick and headed for the door. Where will I find the little twerp this time? In   the   hall   she   met   a   couple   of   the   seasonal   workers   she   shared   the   dorm   with. They   were   bundled   up   too,   obviously   joining   the   search.   The   boy   and   girl   nodded. Sylvia   smiled   at   them   but   hesitated   to   speak,   embarrassed   she   couldn’t   remember their   names.   They   worked   with   Braes,   and   she   hardly   came   in   contact   with   them. They    rushed    on    toward    the    inn    though    without    hesitating.    Off    the    hook,    she thought. ~ B ick   stood   at   the   top   of   the   veranda   taking   charge.   “Pair   up,”   he   shouted.   “Anyone new to our little searches?” Several   guests   held   up   their   hands   and   Bick   continued   to   give   them   advice   and direction.   “We   don’t   want   anyone   else   getting   lost.   Turn   around   frequently   and look   where   you’ve   come.   It’s   easy   for   one   glen   to   look   like   another   when   you   get   a few   miles   away.   If   you   get   lost,   find   the   lake.”   He   pointed   at   the   looming,   snow- covered peak north of them. “Use her to keep your bearings.” Sylvia    watched    the    faces    of    Ike’s    parents,    Birs    and    Tiff.    They    studied    the gathered   folk,   mostly   humans,   unselfishly   ready   to   help   them   find   their   babe.   The two   ogres’   eyes   shouted   their   thanks,   though   their   long   tusks   dug   into   their   lips. The   ogre   hen   reached   out   from   time   to   time   and   stroked   the   neck   of   the   middle son,   as   though   to   assure   him   it   wasn’t   his   fault   Ike   got   away   from   him.   From   the pier,   Sylvia   had   watched   Ike’s   antics   before.   She   knew   Asr’s   task   of   keeping   up   with his   younger   brother   was   a   tough   one,   even   if   he   wasn’t   in   the   middle   of   his   own chores. “Stay   in   pairs,”   Bick   repeated.   He   slashed   his   arm   through   the   air   to   indicate half   the   crowd.   “Yall   spread   out   and   go   west   and   north.   All   yall   others,   east   and south.”   He   held   up   a   conch.   “When   he’s   found   we’ll   be   blowing   this,   but   likely   you won’t   hear   it   up   in   them   gullies,   so   I   can   only   offer   you   the   best   of   luck—and   the hamlet’s thanks. Any questions?” Heads   shook   and   pairs   of   hikers   moved   away   in   all   directions.   Sylvia   stood   back counting.   There   was   an   odd   number   of   searchers,   which   worked   fine   with   her.   She looked   forward   to   a   bit   of   peace   and   quiet.   She   had   grown   to   like   Ren,   Gladys,   and Eina   a   lot,   but   their   constant   chatter   in   the   kitchen   drove   her   a   little   batty   at   times. By   the   time   she   adjusted   to   the   troll   and   ogre’s   accents,   she   almost   wished   she hadn’t.   The   serenity   of   the   forest   would   be   nice.   The   woods   back   home   had   always been   a   sanctuary.   She   imagined   that   maybe   she   wasn’t   that   different   from   the young   ogre   she   was   off   to   find,   shared   a   bit   of   his   wanderlust.   Why   else   would   she find   herself   in   the   Range,   a   single   woman,   making   a   strange   home   among   those who started out as strangers to her? Silvia took one of the canteens and snack bags Bick handed out, and headed due east   along   the   waterfront.   She   didn’t   know   why   she   selected   that   path.   Ike   took   an ugly   spill   in   the   lake   earlier   in   the   summer,   and   afterward   showed   a   distinct   dislike for   what   was   originally   an   intense   draw.   Though   he   had   no   reason   to   stay   close   to the   lake,   she   had   watched   him   staring   off   toward   the   southern   mountains   more than once. He would have to skirt the lake to head that way. She   reached   the   far   eastern   point   of   the   lake   and   headed   due   south.   She   didn’t bother   calling   Ike’s   name.   She   chuckled,   thinking   about   the   others   wasting   their breath.   Ike   would   more   likely   run   from   anyone   calling   his   name.   Until   he   got   good and   hungry,   that   is.   He   had   a   thick   hide   for   a   youngling.   Them   ogres   are   a   tough bunch. Ike seemed indifferent to the cold at night, even with his bare feet. Little brat. Sylvia   smiled.   A   cute   brat—certainly   skilled   at   breaking   up   the   routine   of   the little   hamlet.   More   wanderlust   swirled   inside   his   heart   than   she’d   ever   seen   taunt anyone else. She doubted he’d remain in the valley until he reached his majority. Instead   of   following   a   single   gully,   Sylvia   diagonally   traversed   the   steep   rolling hills    that    made    up    the    watershed    of    the    valley.    She    couldn’t    count    how    many trickling   creeks   she   passed.   Because   of   the   thick   forest,   she   saw   the   sun   only   when she   crested   the   peaks.   Making   her   way   across   instead   of   directly   into   the   foothills, the   hiking   was   more   demanding,   but   she   believed   it   gave   her   a   better   chance   of crossing the path of the ogre booger—as Ike’s sister constantly called him. Sylvia   halted   at   the   top   of   a   high   rise   to   catch   her   breath   and   watch   the   sun   ooze through   the   far   trees.   “Gonna   get   chilly   now.”   Should   I   go   back?   “What   if   it   was   my son   out   here?”   she   asked   the   growing   dusk.   “You’ll   be   fine,   Sylvia,   if   you   stay   out   of the breeze and build yourself a decent fire.” She   hurried   on   for   another   hour,   halting   only   to   leave   herself   enough   light   to collect   firewood.   With   the   onset   of   night,   the   forest   sounds   changed   from   finches and   jays,   to   hoots   and   howls   of   coyotes   and   wolves.   She   settled   down   in   the   pine needles   and   tried   to   concentrate   on   the   snapping   sap   of   the   wood   in   her   fire.   She pulled   up   her   collar   to   cover   as   much   of   her   ears   as   she   could   and   hunched   up   her shoulders. Gonna be colder than I expected. ~ T he   sky   barely   hinted   of   the   new   day   when   she   used   her   walking   stick   to   spread   out the   fire   and   kicked   dirt   over   the   last   of   the   embers.   At   least   the   movement   got   her blood   flowing   and   made   the   morning   feel   less   cold,   though   her   breath   billowed   in the   chill.   So   much   for   summer.   The   tips   of   her   ears   hurt.   She   had   earaches   and   a headache,   hips   hurt   from   the   hard   earth,   stomach   grumbled.   She   ate   the   last   of   her granola and dried meat as she slowly made her way through the dark shadows. The    quiet    of    the    early    morning    rang    odd    after    the    constant    chatter    in    the kitchen   the   last   two   months.   After   only   fifteen,   sixteen   hours,   she   was   already missing   the   gossiping   and   storytelling.   She   hummed   to   pass   the   time,   keeping   her eyes moving constantly for any sign that a two-legged creature recently passed by. The   rolling   hills   turned   into   fair   mountain   ridges   by   mid-day   and   she   had   to settle   on   sticking   to   the   gully   she   found   herself   in.   She   had   already   considered turning   for   home   when   a   patch   of   disturbed   pine   needles   caught   her   eye.   She scanned about, found more of the same following the ancient elk path she followed. “Too much for one ogreling.” What have I come across? Sylvia    stopped    and    looked    up    through    the    shadows,    and    held    her    breath    a moment   to   listen.   Nothing   but   the   wind   whispering   through   the   pines   far   overhead. She turned and looked down the way she came. “I don’t wanna come ‘cross no—” She   stood   considering   for   a   long   moment,   shivered   against   the   cool   air.   She longed   for   a   meal,   even   a   nap.   Her   feet   hurt.   She   ached   all   over.   “Maybe   they already found that little pain in the arse.” She   finally   shook   her   head.   “Another   twenty   minutes   won’t   hurt   you,   to   see   if these tracks turn into something interesting.” She turned and strode on. The   gully   came   to   a   fork.   A   creek   running   with   frothing   water   heading   toward Black   Lake   ran   to   her   left.   Boulders   blocked   her   way,   so   she   climbed   the   incline. The   effort   aided   in   her   decision   that   she’d   gone   far   enough.   Already   fifty   yards   up the   embankment,   she   continued   to   the   near   ridge,   figuring   hiking   the   saddle   of   the skyline would be easier going than the gully had been. She   almost   didn’t   stop,   thinking   the   noise   was   a   phantom   in   her   ears,   making something   of   nothing   from   her   hard-breathing   and   the   tumble   of   kicked   up   stones. She   paused   to   rest,   and   listened.   It   was   indeed   voices.   They   were   a   bit   away,   but   the tone   made   them   seem   as   though   the   words   were   spoken   in   anger.   She   closed   her eyes and concentrated, turning her head to get a direction. Forward   and   to   her   right,   probably   in   the   gorge   with   the   stream.   “But   do   I   really want to find out who it is?” Sylvia didn’t have to consider that long. Why else did I come this far? She   pushed   her   pace   along   the   mountain   face,   breathing   hard   against   the   thin air,    sweat    trickling    down    her    face.    She    unlooped    the    rest    of    her    jacket    as    she crossed   the   ridge   and   sped   up,   allowing   gravity   to   rush   her   down   the   far   side.   Her loose   footing   made   it   hard   to   slow   down,   and   she   finally   used   an   ancient   pine   to come to a stop. Resting,   a   shout   echoed   through   the   trees.   Sylvia   squinted   through   the   gloom   of the   forest’s   shadows.   Was   there   movement?   Were   her   eyes   giving   her   something   to answer   her   hopes?   More   phantoms?   She   walked   around   the   tree   and   pushed   her heels into the silty soil to keep from falling into a run again. Another   shout   startled   her   as   she   made   her   way   around   a   boulder   the   size   of   a modest   cabin.   She   faced   five   tall,   wiry   figures.   One   of   the   things   was   bent   double, his   hand   held   out,   palm   on   the   head   of   the   missing   ogreling,   holding   him   away.   Ike struggled against the creature’s grasp, kicking at the air, shouting, “Chicken!” “Oh, God,” she said out loud. What are these things? She   had   never   seen   anything   like   them.   They   looked   like   much   larger   versions of   the   orc,   Janding,   three   times   as   tall   and   nearly   as   scrawny,   taller   than   a   troll. They   all   held   bows   and   quivers   and   huge   packs   over   their   shoulders.   One   of   the creatures   swung   around   to   face   Sylvia,   and   the   other   four   followed   his   glare   a moment   later.   The   one   holding   Ike   away   stood   and   let   go   of   him,   grabbing   for   his bow. All five creatures scanned the trees around and behind her. Ike   kicked   the   creature   close   to   him   in   the   shins,   hard.   The   thing   grunted   in pain   but   its   eyes   remained   focused   on   the   forest.   The   four-year-old   ogre   turned   to see what the giants looked at. “Ha,” Ike shouted. “You help me. Run dem off. Don’t belong here!” The   creature   Ike   kicked   reached   out   and   pulled   Ike   into   his   arms,   covering   his mouth.   A   fraction   of   a   second   later   he   ripped   his   hand   away.   Even   from   where Sylvia stood a dozen yards away, she could see blood gushing from a bite wound. “You evil little brat,” the creature hissed, shaking his hand. Ike gifted his nemesis with a volley of kicks and fists. “Stop   it,   or   I’ll   cleave   your   little   head   off   your   shoulders,”   the   thing   shouted   at him. “You go!” the ogreling shouted. Two   of   the   creature’s   companions   rushed   to   their   friend’s   aid,   grasped   at   the four-year-old   menace.   The   tormented   one   managed   to   grab   one   of   Ike’s   arms,   but the ogreling kept pummeling it with his free fist. “Can you stop him?” the thing pleaded. “Ha!”   Ike   yelled.   “You’re   ‘fraid!”   He   managed   to   strike   the   bent-over   thing   hard in the side of the head. “Oh,” the creature groaned, doing his best to lean out of Ike’s reach. One   of   them   managed   to   grab   Ike’s   free   arm.   The   tormented   creature   released Ike   as   two   of   the   companions   held   the   little   ogre   between   them   by   the   wrists.   Ike continued   kicking.   They   pulled   at   him   like   a   chicken   breastbone   ready   to   be   wished upon. “Quiet, or I’ll cleave you like I promised,” one shouted. “I’m   not   ‘fraid   of   ya.   Torc   and   me   and   Asr   could   take   all   five   of   ya.   We   could. Have ya all crying like babies.” “Ike, hush a moment,” Sylvia shouted. The    five    creatures    turned    their    attention    back    to    her,    as    though    they    had forgotten   about   her.   The   expression   of   the   tormented   one   looked   grateful.   His   eyes closed    for    a    moment    and    his    lips    parted    like    he    was    taking    a    deep    breath,    or offering a silent prayer. Ike puckered his lips together, scowling back at Sylvia, but he held still. “You alone, human woman?” one of the giants asked. Sylvia’s   mind   spun.   “Of   course   not.   Why   would   I   be   out   here   alone?   My   hunting party is camped over the ridge.” Heads   jerking   left   and   right,   the   five   of   them   searched   about   again.   Their   eyes were   huge,   mouths   parted   showing   needle-sharp   teeth.   Sylvia   thought   it   odd   giants like   these   would   show   such   terror.   With   so   many   races   living   in   the   valley,   why would anyone be afraid, here? The   answer   struck   her   as   quickly   as   the   question   formed.   Goblins .    They   were goblins, which were outlawed in the Range. Sylvia   sucked   in   her   breath.   It   occurred   to   her   she   needed   to   appear   fearless. She   claimed   she   was   with   others—there   was   no   reason   to   be   afraid.   “Leave   the ogreling be, and go,” she told them. “No harm will come to you.” “There be armed troops about hunting our kind. We know that,” one hissed. “As   soon   as   these   two   are   safe,”   one   of   them   told   his   companions,   “they’ll   send hunters out for us.” Ike   lunged   out   of   one’s   grip   and   swung   toward   the   other,   slamming   his   fist   up into   the   goblin’s   groin.   The   creature   doubled   over   and   groaned,   letting   his   own   grip loose.   Ike   pitched   toward   the   next,   kicking   and   clubbing   him.   “Bam!”   the   ogreling shouted over and over. Sylvia   stood   frozen   a   moment,   not   knowing   what   to   do   as   the   five   goblins swarmed   around   the   near-toddler.   “Bam!”   echoed   from   within   the   fray.   All   she could   imagine   was   they   would   kill   the   lad.   Every   instinct   screamed   at   her   to   run, but   she   couldn’t   leave   Ike.   She   took   a   step   toward   them,   and   one   of   the   goblins separated   from   the   tussle   and   ran   at   her,   grabbing   her   by   her   shoulder.   His   strong fingers dug into her flesh, pulling her down the incline. Ike,   restrained,   was   now   held   under   the   arm   of   one   of   the   goblins,   but   the ogreling   continued   to   kick   and   shout   insults   a   four-year-old   shouldn’t   know.   The four    goblins    turned    and    ran    up    the    gulley,    heading    deeper    into    the    southern mountains. The fifth propelled Sylvia to follow. “My   friends   won’t   take   it   kindly,   you   stealing   us   away   like   this,”   she   told   the beast. “Shut your mouth, or I’ll leave your lifeless body for them to find instead.” “I   can   see   you   mean   no   harm,   no   matter   your   threats.   I   promise   we’ll   leave   you be. Let us go.” He    didn’t    answer    for    several    moments.    Perhaps    he    considered    it,    but    his continued silence wore ominous. “The farther you take us, the harder my people will be on you,” Sylvia pressed. “Your kind kill us on sight no matter,” he said. “We have little choice.” “The   people   of   the   valley   have   no   ill   feelings   toward   your   kind.   I’ve   never   heard of any of the goblins that have been found here being killed.” The   creature   made   a   deep   gurgling   sound   in   his   chest.   Sylvia   wondered   if   it   was a   goblin   laugh,   or   threat.   She   struggled   to   swallow   as   she   imagined   what   they   would do   with   her   and   Ike   when   they   no   longer   needed   them   as   hostages.   Stories   of   goblin atrocities during the wars came to mind. She tried to thrust the memories away. “I give you my oath, we’ll let you be.” “Doubt it will be your decision, little one.” “I’m a leader among my people,” she lied. “They’ll listen to me.” He withdrew a knife that hung from his waist and shook it at her face. “Quiet.” Despite the sweat streaming down her face, she shivered. ~ S ilvia   had   been   stumbling   for   an   hour   when   the   goblins   finally   allowed   her   to   rest. She   had   no   clue   how   she   managed   the   pace.   Every   muscle   cramped,   her   throat   and chest   burned.   Her   breath   came   in   raspy   squawks.   She   fell   to   the   pine   needles   and didn’t budge except to turn on her side to make it easier to breathe. Ike   had   never   let   up   with   the   insults.   Four   of   the   goblins   fell   on   him   and   held him   still,   pushing   him   meanly   into   the   ground,   while   the   other   retrieved   a   rope   to bind   him.   Still   the   little   ogre   called   them   names.   Dung   was   his   favorite   expression, compounded   with   every   creature   the   tyke   could   probably   think   of.   Sylvia   almost smiled at the ogreling’s resolve. He was a tough little piece of work. “Shut   up   will   you,   for   one   minute,”   one   of   the   goblins   pleaded   as   he   dropped down hard on the ground. Ike laughed, a squeal of a thing that hurt the ears. “I’ll close that fat mouth,” another goblin said. Sylvia   lifted   up,   terrified   what   that   might   mean,   but   the   goblin   pulled   off   his pack   and   pulled   a   shirt   out   of   it.   He   used   his   knife   and   cut   a   strip   off   the   hem,   tore another   big   chunk   off.   He   walked   to   Ike   and   tried   to   push   the   balled   up   material into   his   mouth,   only   to   pull   back   bloody   fingers.   The   goblin   stamped   a   booted   foot and   shook   his   hand,   cursing   under   his   breath.   He   grabbed   again   for   the   knife   he had put back into its sheath. Sylvia   sucked   in   her   breath,   but   she   almost   had   to   laugh   when   the   four-year   old somehow   managed   a   lunge   with   his   bound   legs,   catching   the   spindly   goblin   in   the shin.   There   was   a   cracking   noise.   The   goblin   careened   to   the   ground   with   a   shriek of   pain.   His   companions   chuckled,   until   the   thing   pulled   up   his   pants   leg.   The distorted limb proved the ogreling managed to break the goblin’s leg. Sylvia sucked in her breath. All of the goblins cursed, and Ike laughed harshly. “I warned ya, I did. I told ya I’d get ya.” “Shut up!” one shouted. “Stick it in yar ear,” Ike shouted back. A goblin walked up to the lad and slapped him. Ike’s   expression   turned   for   only   a   moment.   His   sneer   returned.   No   wonder   the ogre’s were feared so, during the wars. Hate to see an angry, adult  ogre. “Yar so tough, with one tied up,” Ike shouted. “Yar a coward!” The goblin pulled his knife. “You harm him and there will be no place safe on this world,” Sylvia hissed. “We got us enough problems, Gaerdon,” one of the others mumbled. Ike continued his goading. “Shush! Now!” Sylvia shouted. The   tyke   turned   angrily   toward   her,   his   lips   pursed,   his   brow   knitted.   But   he remained   quiet—the   first   quiet   for   hours.   He   turned   his   attention   back   to   the   five goblins.   His   eyes   reminded   Sylvia   of   a   cat   watching   prey   slowly   making   its   way nearer. ~ T he    goblin’s    leg    splinted,    his    arms    draped    over    the    shoulders    of    two    of    his companions,   the   seven   of   them   were   off   again   within   the   hour.   Ike   got   a   bite   out   of a   goblin’s   leg   as   he   picked   the   ogreling   up.   The   tyke   was   rewarded   with   a   clump   in the head for his effort. Sylvia   felt   sick   from   lack   of   food,   and   wondered   how   much   farther   she   could   go, even though the pace slowed considerably to accommodate Broke-leg. The   sun   set   before   the   goblins   stopped   again.   Sylvia   wanted   nothing   more   but to   fall   to   the   ground,   but   she   went   to   Ike   to   check   on   him.   His   face   was   ashen   but   he glared   at   the   goblins   with   as   much   anger   as   ever.   The   color   of   his   bound   hands didn’t look good. “You have to loosen these,” she shouted at their captors. They   ignored   her.   She   repeated   her   demand.   Still   they   ignored   her.   She   walked up   to   the   one   who   seemed   to   be   the   leader   and   gave   him   a   shove.   He   turned   and glared at her. “I’m   going   to   untie   him,   but   I   swear   an   oath   for   his   good   behavior.   I’ll   watch over him, and keep him in line,” she told him. Another goblin croaked, “I’m tired of carrying him anyway.” “Let them collect the wood for the fire,” another said. Sylvia   glared   back   at   the   goblin   until   he   gave   her   a   slight   nod   and   turned   away. She   walked   to   Ike   and   used   her   most   threatening   tone   to   admonish   him   to   stay quiet   and   behave.   Never   having   much   opportunity   to   practice   a   motherly   voice, having   never   married,   she   hoped   her   scowl   made   an   impression.   He   nodded   to   her and winked. He winked! Scallywag. ~ T hey   hiked   until   mid-morning   the   next   day   without   as   much   as   a   word   being spoken.   Maybe   Ike   had   listened   to   the   conversation   of   the   goblins   the   night   before, as    they    debated    what    to    do    with    their    hostages.    The    ogreling    remained    well behaved,   leading   the   pack.   Little   more   than   a   baby,   Sylvia   remained   in   awe   of   his stamina,   even   though   his   face   was   drawn   and   blanched,   and   he   had   started   to stumble. Sylvia felt encouraged by him. He was a stubborn one. The   five   goblins   conferred   quietly   several   yards   away   while   she   and   Ike   rested, sipping   at   the   last   water   in   Sylvia’s   canteen.   When   the   leader   turned   and   walked toward   them,   her   mind   spun   and   tears   edged   her   eyes.   She   blinked   them   away quickly.   She   couldn’t   read   the   creature’s   expression,   but   she   imagined   the   worse. She   and   Ike   were   no   longer   useful   to   them.   The   goblin   pulled   his   knife,   but   walked to his pack and pulled out a strip of dried meat, and sawed a chunk off. “We’re   done   with   you,”   he   said,   holding   out   the   meat   to   Sylvia.   “We   meant   you no harm. But we couldn’t risk being caught in your hills by your hunting party.” Had   she   erred?   If   she   told   the   truth   originally,   could   she   have   avoided   the   past two days? “Over   the   next   rise   are   the   foothills   that   lead   into   our   territory,”   the   goblin continued.   “It   be   best   your   people   not   follow   us.   It   wouldn’t   be   good   for   either   of our kinds.” “It won’t be—” Sylvia    reached    out    quickly    and    placed    her    hand    roughly    over    Ike’s    mouth. “Hush!” she hissed. “You   should   be   able   to   follow   your   tracks   back.   You   humans   walk   with   a   heavy foot.”   The   goblin   strung   his   arms   through   the   straps   of   his   huge   pack   and   strode away.   The   other   four   followed   him.   Between   his   helpers,   Broke-leg   gave   Ike   one last glare. Sylvia   sat   still.   Tears   flooded   her   eyes   and   she   slumped   forward.   Exhaustion poured through her and she heaved with sobs. “It’s   over,”   Ike   mumbled.   “Why   ya   crying?”   He   placed   a   pudgy   hand,   the   size   of an adult human’s, on her arm. Despite    her    emotions,    she    studied    the    ogreling’s    gnawed    fingernails,    edged black   with   grime.   It   took   her   several   minutes   to   pull   herself   together.   Ike   sat   next   to her and put his arm around her. “I protect you,” he said, as a last sob snuck out of her chest. “You’ve been very brave.” She smiled through her tears. “They didn’t scare me.” They sat quietly for several minutes. “Have   you   ever   noticed   how   teases   between   your   brothers   get   meaner,   one   after the other?” she asked him. “Yeah,” he answered. His brows knitted together. “Gotta show yar tough.” “With    adults,    the    result    of    pride    can    be    a    lot    more    harmful.    Do    you understand?” He   pursed   his   lips   for   a   moment,   but   nodded.   “You   mean   the   army   that   comes from the north ever now and then hunting for da goblins?” he asked. “We   must   not   tell   anyone   that   we   were   held   by   goblins,   do   you   understand?   It must be our little secret.” “I never had a secret before. Can I tell Asr?” “No, not even Ren. It has to stay between you and me.” He   grimaced.   It   turned   into   a   grin.   “It   be   fun   to   have   a   secret   with   you,   Miss Sylvia.” She   pulled   him   to   her   and   gave   him   a   big   hug.   He   giggled,   more   like   the   four- year-old   she   expected.   He   sounded   as   though   he   had   forgotten   the   rough   treatment he   endured   from   the   goblins.   But   then,   he   had   been   harder   on   them   than   they   had been on him. He   pulled   away   and   his   dark,   green   eyes   gleamed.   “Can   we   hike   into   the   plains before   we   head   back?”   he   asked.   “When   I   get   home,   I’ll   be   lucky   to   see   the   sun again before winter comes.”   © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
Fantasy Dystopian
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
Hamlet Thriving Search for Ike ~ T he   door   to   the   dining   room   swung   into the   kitchen   and   slammed   against   the   wall with   a   bang.   Sylvia   jerked,   and   looked   up at the snouted face of Torc who leaned in. “Ren,”    he    called    to    his    sister.    “Ike’s disappeared     again.”     The     young     ogre sighed,     tilted     his     head     forward,     eyes closed. Sylvia    only    arrived    at    the    inn    that spring   and   the   runt   Ike   had   run   off   three times   since   then.   The   last   time   the   search parties   didn’t   find   him   until   the   next   day, frightening     his     mother     half     to     death. There   were   plenty   of   critters   out   there   to worry   about,   cliffs,   old   troll   mine   shafts, and     other     potential     catastrophes     that eluded the worries of a four-year-old. “Oh,    that    booger.”    Ren    growled    and set   the   bowl   she   held   on   the   counter   with a   clang.   “Are   any   of   the   dragons   about?” The    ogre    hen    puckered    up    her    mouth. Her   tusks   dug   into   her   upper   lip   giving her a mean-looking scowl. “No.    Asr    says    they’ve    all    gone    south together to hunt.” “We’ll    close    the    kitchen    and    help    ye look    for    him,”    the    gangly,    gray-haired troll Eina suggested. “That    may    not    be    necessary,”    Torc said.    “Half    the    guests    are    gathering    to help.    Besides,    not    right    to    starve    our remaining    guests    because    the    booger    is hiding    in    the    woods,    frightening    every wild creature out there.” “Oh,     Torc,     don’t     be     so—”     Sylvia clipped   off   her   complaint.   The   young   ogre clearly    appeared    worried    for    his    littlest brother. “Gladys   and   I   can   handle   the   rest   here on   our   own,”   Eina   told   Ren.   “Why   don’t ye   take   Sylvia   along   with   ye.   She   has   a knack at finding the tyke.” “If    ya    wouldn’t    mind.”    Ren’s    brows knitted together as she looked at Sylvia. Sylvia   smiled   at   Ren   and   nodded.   “I don’t   know   about   a   knack.   Happened   to select   the   right   canyon   a   couple   of   times is all.” The   ogre   hen   doted   on   her   brother   as   a grandmother    might.    The    concern    was easy   to   see   in   her   eyes,   even   if   her   mouth balled    up    in    anger.    Looking    at    her,    a twinge    of    anxiety    crept    across    Sylvia’s shoulders.   Dread   that   never   visited   any   of the   times   he’d   gone   missing   before.   Sylvia couldn’t   imagine   what   the   baby’s   mother was feeling. Sylvia    took    one    more    swath    at    the counter    she    was    wiping    and    dried    her hands.   “Let   me   run   over   to   the   dormitory and change into warmer clothes.” “Meet    ya    out    front,”    Ren    and    Torc shouted together. ~ S ylvia   hurried   to   pull   a   second   sweater on.   She   dropped   her   skirt   and   shift   and pulled   on   a   pair   of   long   underwear   and lined,   woolen   pants.   If   Ike   wasn’t   found before   the   sun   set   it   was   good   to   prepare for    the    worse.    Summer    nights    in    the highlands   were   as   cold   as   any   winter   day in   the   lowlands.   She   sat   and   laced   up   her boots,   grabbed   her   coat   and   walking   stick and headed for the door. Where   will   I   find   the   little   twerp   this time? In    the    hall    she    met    a    couple    of    the seasonal    workers    she    shared    the    dorm with.      They      were      bundled      up      too, obviously   joining   the   search.   The   boy   and girl    nodded.    Sylvia    smiled    at    them    but hesitated     to     speak,     embarrassed     she couldn’t    remember    their    names.    They worked   with   Braes,   and   she   hardly   came in    contact    with    them.    They    rushed    on toward   the   inn   though   without   hesitating. Off the hook, she thought. ~ B ick    stood    at    the    top    of    the    veranda taking    charge.    “Pair    up,”    he    shouted. “Anyone new to our little searches?” Several   guests   held   up   their   hands   and Bick   continued   to   give   them   advice   and direction.    “We    don’t    want    anyone    else getting   lost.   Turn   around   frequently   and look   where   you’ve   come.   It’s   easy   for   one glen   to   look   like   another   when   you   get   a few   miles   away.   If   you   get   lost,   find   the lake.”   He   pointed   at   the   looming,   snow- covered   peak   north   of   them.   “Use   her   to keep your bearings.” Sylvia     watched     the     faces     of     Ike’s parents,   Birs   and   Tiff.   They   studied   the gathered   folk,   mostly   humans,   unselfishly ready   to   help   them   find   their   babe.   The two    ogres’    eyes    shouted    their    thanks, though    their    long    tusks    dug    into    their lips.   The   ogre   hen   reached   out   from   time to    time    and    stroked    the    neck    of    the middle   son,   as   though   to   assure   him   it wasn’t   his   fault   Ike   got   away   from   him. From   the   pier,   Sylvia   had   watched   Ike’s antics    before.    She    knew    Asr’s    task    of keeping   up   with   his   younger   brother   was a    tough    one,    even    if    he    wasn’t    in    the middle of his own chores. “Stay     in     pairs,”     Bick     repeated.     He slashed     his     arm     through     the     air     to indicate   half   the   crowd.   “Yall   spread   out and    go    west    and    north.    All    yall    others, east    and    south.”    He    held    up    a    conch. “When   he’s   found   we’ll   be   blowing   this, but   likely   you   won’t   hear   it   up   in   them gullies,   so   I   can   only   offer   you   the   best   of luck—and      the      hamlet’s      thanks.      Any questions?” Heads     shook     and     pairs     of     hikers moved   away   in   all   directions.   Sylvia   stood back   counting.   There   was   an   odd   number of   searchers,   which   worked   fine   with   her. She   looked   forward   to   a   bit   of   peace   and quiet.   She   had   grown   to   like   Ren,   Gladys, and   Eina   a   lot,   but   their   constant   chatter in   the   kitchen   drove   her   a   little   batty   at times.    By    the    time    she    adjusted    to    the troll     and     ogre’s     accents,     she     almost wished    she    hadn’t.    The    serenity    of    the forest    would    be    nice.    The    woods    back home   had   always   been   a   sanctuary.   She imagined    that    maybe    she    wasn’t    that different   from   the   young   ogre   she   was   off to    find,    shared    a    bit    of    his    wanderlust. Why    else    would    she    find    herself    in    the Range,   a   single   woman,   making   a   strange home    among    those    who    started    out    as strangers to her? Silvia    took    one    of    the    canteens    and snack   bags   Bick   handed   out,   and   headed due   east   along   the   waterfront.   She   didn’t know   why   she   selected   that   path.   Ike   took an    ugly    spill    in    the    lake    earlier    in    the summer,   and   afterward   showed   a   distinct dislike   for   what   was   originally   an   intense draw.   Though   he   had   no   reason   to   stay close   to   the   lake,   she   had   watched   him staring       off       toward       the       southern mountains    more    than    once.    He    would have to skirt the lake to head that way. She    reached    the    far    eastern    point    of the   lake   and   headed   due   south.   She   didn’t bother   calling   Ike’s   name.   She   chuckled, thinking    about    the    others    wasting    their breath.   Ike   would   more   likely   run   from anyone    calling    his    name.    Until    he    got good   and   hungry,   that   is.   He   had   a   thick hide   for   a   youngling.   Them   ogres   are   a tough    bunch.    Ike    seemed    indifferent    to the cold at night, even with his bare feet. Little brat. Sylvia    smiled.    A    cute    brat—certainly skilled   at   breaking   up   the   routine   of   the little    hamlet.    More    wanderlust    swirled inside    his    heart    than    she’d    ever    seen taunt     anyone     else.     She     doubted     he’d remain   in   the   valley   until   he   reached   his majority. Instead    of    following    a    single    gully, Sylvia     diagonally     traversed     the     steep rolling   hills   that   made   up   the   watershed of    the    valley.    She    couldn’t    count    how many      trickling      creeks      she      passed. Because   of   the   thick   forest,   she   saw   the sun    only    when    she    crested    the    peaks. Making   her   way   across   instead   of   directly into    the    foothills,    the    hiking    was    more demanding,   but   she   believed   it   gave   her   a better   chance   of   crossing   the   path   of   the ogre    booger—as    Ike’s    sister    constantly called him. Sylvia   halted   at   the   top   of   a   high   rise   to catch   her   breath   and   watch   the   sun   ooze through   the   far   trees.   “Gonna   get   chilly now.”   Should   I   go   back?   “What   if   it   was my   son   out   here?”   she   asked   the   growing dusk.   “You’ll   be   fine,   Sylvia,   if   you   stay out    of    the    breeze    and    build    yourself    a decent fire.” She     hurried     on     for     another     hour, halting   only   to   leave   herself   enough   light to    collect    firewood.    With    the    onset    of night,    the    forest    sounds    changed    from finches   and   jays,   to   hoots   and   howls   of coyotes   and   wolves.   She   settled   down   in the   pine   needles   and   tried   to   concentrate on   the   snapping   sap   of   the   wood   in   her fire.   She   pulled   up   her   collar   to   cover   as much     of     her     ears     as     she     could     and hunched up her shoulders. Gonna be colder than I expected. ~ T he    sky    barely    hinted    of    the    new    day when     she     used     her     walking     stick     to spread   out   the   fire   and   kicked   dirt   over the     last     of     the     embers.     At     least     the movement    got    her    blood    flowing    and made   the   morning   feel   less   cold,   though her   breath   billowed   in   the   chill.   So   much for   summer.   The   tips   of   her   ears   hurt.   She had   earaches   and   a   headache,   hips   hurt from   the   hard   earth,   stomach   grumbled. She   ate   the   last   of   her   granola   and   dried meat   as   she   slowly   made   her   way   through the dark shadows. The    quiet    of    the    early    morning    rang odd    after    the    constant    chatter    in    the kitchen   the   last   two   months.   After   only fifteen,    sixteen    hours,    she    was    already missing    the    gossiping    and    storytelling. She   hummed   to   pass   the   time,   keeping her   eyes   moving   constantly   for   any   sign that      a      two-legged      creature      recently passed by. The     rolling     hills     turned     into     fair mountain   ridges   by   mid-day   and   she   had to   settle   on   sticking   to   the   gully   she   found herself    in.    She    had    already    considered turning     for     home     when     a     patch     of disturbed    pine    needles    caught    her    eye. She    scanned    about,    found    more    of    the same   following   the   ancient   elk   path   she followed. “Too    much    for    one    ogreling.”    What have I come across? Sylvia   stopped   and   looked   up   through the     shadows,     and     held     her     breath     a moment   to   listen.   Nothing   but   the   wind whispering       through       the       pines       far overhead.    She    turned    and    looked    down the way she came. “I don’t wanna come ‘cross no—” She     stood     considering     for     a     long moment,    shivered    against    the    cool    air. She   longed   for   a   meal,   even   a   nap.   Her feet   hurt.   She   ached   all   over.   “Maybe   they already found that little pain in the arse.” She   finally   shook   her   head.   “Another twenty   minutes   won’t   hurt   you,   to   see   if these       tracks       turn       into       something interesting.” She turned and strode on. The    gully    came    to    a    fork.    A    creek running     with     frothing     water     heading toward     Black     Lake     ran     to     her     left. Boulders   blocked   her   way,   so   she   climbed the     incline.     The     effort     aided     in     her decision     that     she’d     gone     far     enough. Already   fifty   yards   up   the   embankment, she   continued   to   the   near   ridge,   figuring hiking   the   saddle   of   the   skyline   would   be easier going than the gully had been. She    almost    didn’t    stop,    thinking    the noise   was   a   phantom   in   her   ears,   making something    of    nothing    from    her    hard- breathing    and    the    tumble    of    kicked    up stones.   She   paused   to   rest,   and   listened. It    was    indeed    voices.    They    were    a    bit away,   but   the   tone   made   them   seem   as though   the   words   were   spoken   in   anger. She    closed    her    eyes    and    concentrated, turning her head to get a direction. Forward   and   to   her   right,   probably   in the   gorge   with   the   stream.   “But   do   I   really want to find out who it is?” Sylvia    didn’t    have    to    consider    that long. Why else did I come this far? She      pushed      her      pace      along      the mountain    face,    breathing    hard    against the    thin    air,    sweat    trickling    down    her face.   She   unlooped   the   rest   of   her   jacket as    she    crossed    the    ridge    and    sped    up, allowing   gravity   to   rush   her   down   the   far side.   Her   loose   footing   made   it   hard   to slow     down,     and     she     finally     used     an ancient pine to come to a stop. Resting,    a    shout    echoed    through    the trees.   Sylvia   squinted   through   the   gloom of     the     forest’s     shadows.     Was     there movement?    Were    her    eyes    giving    her something    to    answer    her    hopes?    More phantoms?    She    walked    around    the    tree and   pushed   her   heels   into   the   silty   soil   to keep from falling into a run again. Another     shout     startled     her     as     she made   her   way   around   a   boulder   the   size of   a   modest   cabin.   She   faced   five   tall,   wiry figures.     One     of     the     things     was     bent double,   his   hand   held   out,   palm   on   the head   of   the   missing   ogreling,   holding   him away.   Ike   struggled   against   the   creature’s grasp,     kicking     at     the     air,     shouting, “Chicken!” “Oh,   God,”   she   said   out   loud.   What   are these things? She     had     never     seen     anything     like them.     They     looked     like     much     larger versions   of   the   orc,   Janding,   three   times as   tall   and   nearly   as   scrawny,   taller   than   a troll.   They   all   held   bows   and   quivers   and huge   packs   over   their   shoulders.   One   of the     creatures     swung     around     to     face Sylvia,    and    the    other    four    followed    his glare    a    moment    later.    The    one    holding Ike     away     stood     and     let     go     of     him, grabbing    for    his    bow.    All    five    creatures scanned the trees around and behind her. Ike   kicked   the   creature   close   to   him   in the   shins,   hard.   The   thing   grunted   in   pain but    its    eyes    remained    focused    on    the forest.   The   four-year-old   ogre   turned   to see what the giants looked at. “Ha,”   Ike   shouted.   “You   help   me.   Run dem off. Don’t belong here!” The    creature    Ike    kicked    reached    out and   pulled   Ike   into   his   arms,   covering   his mouth.    A    fraction    of    a    second    later    he ripped   his   hand   away.   Even   from   where Sylvia    stood    a    dozen    yards    away,    she could    see    blood    gushing    from    a    bite wound. “You     evil     little     brat,”     the     creature hissed, shaking his hand. Ike   gifted   his   nemesis   with   a   volley   of kicks and fists. “Stop   it,   or   I’ll   cleave   your   little   head off   your   shoulders,”   the   thing   shouted   at him. “You go!” the ogreling shouted. Two     of     the     creature’s     companions rushed   to   their   friend’s   aid,   grasped   at   the four-year-old   menace.   The   tormented   one managed   to   grab   one   of   Ike’s   arms,   but the   ogreling   kept   pummeling   it   with   his free fist. “Can      you      stop      him?”      the      thing pleaded. “Ha!”    Ike    yelled.    “You’re    ‘fraid!”    He managed    to    strike    the    bent-over    thing hard in the side of the head. “Oh,”   the   creature   groaned,   doing   his best to lean out of Ike’s reach. One    of    them    managed    to    grab    Ike’s free      arm.      The      tormented      creature released    Ike    as    two    of    the    companions held   the   little   ogre   between   them   by   the wrists.   Ike   continued   kicking.   They   pulled at   him   like   a   chicken   breastbone   ready   to be wished upon. “Quiet,     or     I’ll     cleave     you     like     I promised,” one shouted. “I’m   not   ‘fraid   of   ya.   Torc   and   me   and Asr   could   take   all   five   of   ya.   We   could. Have ya all crying like babies.” “Ike, hush a moment,” Sylvia shouted. The      five      creatures      turned      their attention   back   to   her,   as   though   they   had forgotten    about    her.    The    expression    of the    tormented    one    looked    grateful.    His eyes    closed    for    a    moment    and    his    lips parted   like   he   was   taking   a   deep   breath, or offering a silent prayer. Ike      puckered      his      lips      together, scowling back at Sylvia, but he held still. “You    alone,    human    woman?”    one    of the giants asked. Sylvia’s    mind    spun.    “Of    course    not. Why    would    I    be    out    here    alone?    My hunting party is camped over the ridge.” Heads   jerking   left   and   right,   the   five   of them    searched    about    again.    Their    eyes were      huge,      mouths      parted      showing needle-sharp   teeth.   Sylvia   thought   it   odd giants   like   these   would   show   such   terror. With   so   many   races   living   in   the   valley, why would anyone be afraid, here? The    answer    struck    her    as    quickly    as the   question   formed.   Goblins .    They   were goblins,     which     were     outlawed     in     the Range. Sylvia      sucked      in      her      breath.      It occurred    to    her    she    needed    to    appear fearless.     She     claimed     she     was     with others—there   was   no   reason   to   be   afraid. “Leave   the   ogreling   be,   and   go,”   she   told them. “No harm will come to you.” “There   be   armed   troops   about   hunting our kind. We know that,” one hissed. “As   soon   as   these   two   are   safe,”   one   of them   told   his   companions,   “they’ll   send hunters out for us.” Ike   lunged   out   of   one’s   grip   and   swung toward    the    other,    slamming    his    fist    up into     the     goblin’s     groin.     The     creature doubled    over    and    groaned,    letting    his own    grip    loose.    Ike    pitched    toward    the next,   kicking   and   clubbing   him.   “Bam!” the ogreling shouted over and over. Sylvia    stood    frozen    a    moment,    not knowing   what   to   do   as   the   five   goblins swarmed       around       the       near-toddler. “Bam!”   echoed   from   within   the   fray.   All she   could   imagine   was   they   would   kill   the lad.    Every    instinct    screamed    at    her    to run,   but   she   couldn’t   leave   Ike.   She   took   a step   toward   them,   and   one   of   the   goblins separated   from   the   tussle   and   ran   at   her, grabbing   her   by   her   shoulder.   His   strong fingers    dug    into    her    flesh,    pulling    her down the incline. Ike,    restrained,    was    now    held    under the    arm    of    one    of    the    goblins,    but    the ogreling    continued    to    kick    and    shout insults    a    four-year-old    shouldn’t    know. The   four   goblins   turned   and   ran   up   the gulley,   heading   deeper   into   the   southern mountains.   The   fifth   propelled   Sylvia   to follow. “My   friends   won’t   take   it   kindly,   you stealing   us   away   like   this,”   she   told   the beast. “Shut    your    mouth,    or    I’ll    leave    your lifeless body for them to find instead.” “I    can    see    you    mean    no    harm,    no matter   your   threats.   I   promise   we’ll   leave you be. Let us go.” He   didn’t   answer   for   several   moments. Perhaps      he      considered      it,      but      his continued silence wore ominous. “The   farther   you   take   us,   the   harder my people will be on you,” Sylvia pressed. “Your   kind   kill   us   on   sight   no   matter,” he said. “We have little choice.” “The   people   of   the   valley   have   no   ill feelings    toward    your    kind.    I’ve    never heard   of   any   of   the   goblins   that   have   been found here being killed.” The    creature    made    a    deep    gurgling sound   in   his   chest.   Sylvia   wondered   if   it was     a     goblin     laugh,     or     threat.     She struggled    to    swallow    as    she    imagined what    they    would    do    with    her    and    Ike when    they    no    longer    needed    them    as hostages.     Stories     of     goblin     atrocities during   the   wars   came   to   mind.   She   tried to thrust the memories away. “I give you my oath, we’ll let you be.” “Doubt   it   will   be   your   decision,   little one.” “I’m   a   leader   among   my   people,”   she lied. “They’ll listen to me.” He   withdrew   a   knife   that   hung   from his waist and shook it at her face. “Quiet.” Despite   the   sweat   streaming   down   her face, she shivered. ~ S ilvia    had    been    stumbling    for    an    hour when    the    goblins    finally    allowed    her    to rest.   She   had   no   clue   how   she   managed the    pace.    Every    muscle    cramped,    her throat     and     chest     burned.     Her     breath came    in    raspy    squawks.    She    fell    to    the pine   needles   and   didn’t   budge   except   to turn    on    her    side    to    make    it    easier    to breathe. Ike   had   never   let   up   with   the   insults. Four   of   the   goblins   fell   on   him   and   held him    still,    pushing    him    meanly    into    the ground,   while   the   other   retrieved   a   rope to    bind    him.    Still    the    little    ogre    called them     names.     Dung     was     his     favorite expression,      compounded      with      every creature   the   tyke   could   probably   think   of. Sylvia    almost    smiled    at    the    ogreling’s resolve.    He    was    a    tough    little    piece    of work. “Shut   up   will   you,   for   one   minute,”   one of    the    goblins    pleaded    as    he    dropped down hard on the ground. Ike   laughed,   a   squeal   of   a   thing   that hurt the ears. “I’ll    close    that    fat    mouth,”    another goblin said. Sylvia    lifted    up,    terrified    what    that might   mean,   but   the   goblin   pulled   off   his pack   and   pulled   a   shirt   out   of   it.   He   used his   knife   and   cut   a   strip   off   the   hem,   tore another   big   chunk   off.   He   walked   to   Ike and   tried   to   push   the   balled   up   material into   his   mouth,   only   to   pull   back   bloody fingers.   The   goblin   stamped   a   booted   foot and    shook    his    hand,    cursing    under    his breath.   He   grabbed   again   for   the   knife   he had put back into its sheath. Sylvia    sucked    in    her    breath,    but    she almost   had   to   laugh   when   the   four-year old   somehow   managed   a   lunge   with   his bound   legs,   catching   the   spindly   goblin   in the   shin.   There   was   a   cracking   noise.   The goblin    careened    to    the    ground    with    a shriek   of   pain.   His   companions   chuckled, until    the    thing    pulled    up    his    pants    leg. The    distorted    limb    proved    the    ogreling managed to break the goblin’s leg. Sylvia   sucked   in   her   breath.   All   of   the goblins cursed, and Ike laughed harshly. “I   warned   ya,   I   did.   I   told   ya   I’d   get ya.” “Shut up!” one shouted. “Stick it in yar ear,” Ike shouted back. A    goblin    walked    up    to    the    lad    and slapped him. Ike’s     expression     turned     for     only     a moment.   His   sneer   returned.   No   wonder the    ogre’s    were    feared    so,    during    the wars. Hate to see an angry, adult  ogre. “Yar   so   tough,   with   one   tied   up,”   Ike shouted. “Yar a coward!” The goblin pulled his knife. “You   harm   him   and   there   will   be   no place safe on this world,” Sylvia hissed. “We       got       us       enough       problems, Gaerdon,” one of the others mumbled. Ike continued his goading. “Shush! Now!” Sylvia shouted. The    tyke    turned    angrily    toward    her, his   lips   pursed,   his   brow   knitted.   But   he remained   quiet—the   first   quiet   for   hours. He   turned   his   attention   back   to   the   five goblins.   His   eyes   reminded   Sylvia   of   a   cat watching    prey    slowly    making    its    way nearer. ~ T he   goblin’s   leg   splinted,   his   arms   draped over      the      shoulders      of      two      of      his companions,   the   seven   of   them   were   off again   within   the   hour.   Ike   got   a   bite   out of   a   goblin’s   leg   as   he   picked   the   ogreling up.   The   tyke   was   rewarded   with   a   clump in the head for his effort. Sylvia   felt   sick   from   lack   of   food,   and wondered    how    much    farther    she    could go,      even      though      the      pace      slowed considerably to accommodate Broke-leg. The   sun   set   before   the   goblins   stopped again.   Sylvia   wanted   nothing   more   but   to fall   to   the   ground,   but   she   went   to   Ike   to check   on   him.   His   face   was   ashen   but   he glared   at   the   goblins   with   as   much   anger as    ever.    The    color    of    his    bound    hands didn’t look good. “You     have     to     loosen     these,”     she shouted at their captors. They    ignored    her.    She    repeated    her demand.     Still     they     ignored     her.     She walked   up   to   the   one   who   seemed   to   be the    leader    and    gave    him    a    shove.    He turned and glared at her. “I’m   going   to   untie   him,   but   I   swear   an oath   for   his   good   behavior.   I’ll   watch   over him, and keep him in line,” she told him. Another   goblin   croaked,   “I’m   tired   of carrying him anyway.” “Let    them    collect    the    wood    for    the fire,” another said. Sylvia   glared   back   at   the   goblin   until he   gave   her   a   slight   nod   and   turned   away. She    walked    to    Ike    and    used    her    most threatening   tone   to   admonish   him   to   stay quiet    and    behave.    Never    having    much opportunity   to   practice   a   motherly   voice, having    never    married,    she    hoped    her scowl   made   an   impression.   He   nodded   to her and winked. He winked! Scallywag. ~ T hey   hiked   until   mid-morning   the   next day    without    as    much    as    a    word    being spoken.    Maybe    Ike    had    listened    to    the conversation    of    the    goblins    the    night before,   as   they   debated   what   to   do   with their    hostages.    The    ogreling    remained well    behaved,    leading    the    pack.    Little more   than   a   baby,   Sylvia   remained   in   awe of   his   stamina,   even   though   his   face   was drawn   and   blanched,   and   he   had   started to   stumble.   Sylvia   felt   encouraged   by   him. He was a stubborn one. The     five     goblins     conferred     quietly several    yards    away    while    she    and    Ike rested,   sipping   at   the   last   water   in   Sylvia’s canteen.    When    the    leader    turned    and walked   toward   them,   her   mind   spun   and tears   edged   her   eyes.   She   blinked   them away     quickly.     She     couldn’t     read     the creature’s    expression,    but    she    imagined the    worse.    She    and    Ike    were    no    longer useful    to    them.    The    goblin    pulled    his knife,   but   walked   to   his   pack   and   pulled out    a    strip    of    dried    meat,    and    sawed    a chunk off. “We’re     done     with     you,”     he     said, holding     out     the     meat     to     Sylvia.     “We meant   you   no   harm.   But   we   couldn’t   risk being   caught   in   your   hills   by   your   hunting party.” Had   she   erred?   If   she   told   the   truth originally,    could    she    have    avoided    the past two days? “Over    the    next    rise    are    the    foothills that    lead    into    our    territory,”    the    goblin continued.    “It    be    best    your    people    not follow   us.   It   wouldn’t   be   good   for   either   of our kinds.” “It won’t be—” Sylvia   reached   out   quickly   and   placed her     hand     roughly     over     Ike’s     mouth. “Hush!” she hissed. “You    should    be    able    to    follow    your tracks    back.    You    humans    walk    with    a heavy   foot.”   The   goblin   strung   his   arms through   the   straps   of   his   huge   pack   and strode   away.   The   other   four   followed   him. Between   his   helpers,   Broke-leg   gave   Ike one last glare. Sylvia   sat   still.   Tears   flooded   her   eyes and    she    slumped    forward.    Exhaustion poured   through   her   and   she   heaved   with sobs. “It’s    over,”    Ike    mumbled.    “Why    ya crying?”   He   placed   a   pudgy   hand,   the   size of an adult human’s, on her arm. Despite   her   emotions,   she   studied   the ogreling’s      gnawed      fingernails,      edged black    with    grime.    It    took    her    several minutes   to   pull   herself   together.   Ike   sat next to her and put his arm around her. “I   protect   you,”   he   said,   as   a   last   sob snuck out of her chest. “You’ve   been   very   brave.”   She   smiled through her tears. “They didn’t scare me.” They sat quietly for several minutes. “Have    you    ever