The backstory I couldn't fit in the summary: Almost two hundred years ago, the goblins were in dire straits. Humans were encroaching more and more on their territory, and even the King's magic couldn't combat everything. There was nothing left but for the goblins to make another Great Migration. However, the question was where? Marak Catspaw was wise enough to realize that humans would follow wherever they went, and would continue to fill the Earth. There was nowhere left above or below ground that would be safe. So instead, the goblins went sideways. In one of the most powerful displays of magic since Marak Lionclaw, Catspaw and his counselors opened a gateway to another world. Humans were few there, and land was plentiful. The only problem was the original inhabitants.
Author's note: So I'm editing this a bit, and may start updating again, time permitting and assuming that people might actually read it.
Lines separate different POVs. Everything takes place at approximately the same time.
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Chapter 1 (Edited)
Marak Hawkeye drummed long, crooked fingers on the stone table before him, gazing sightlessly at the blank wall across the room, while the other goblins in the room eyed him with looks that ranged from curious (for those who didn't know him well) to highly uneasy (for those who did). The Chief Advisor was among the nervous ones, his pointed ears twitching slightly. The King was Thinking. This wasn't the ordinary sort of thinking. This was the sort of thinking that seemed to be reserved for Marak alone, and always resulted in some sort of brilliant but completely mad scheme. This, in and of itself, was not what worried the Chief Advisor. What worried him was the probable subject of the King's thoughts, a subject for which brilliant but mad schemes were simply not practical.
"Bedros," said Marak, suddenly, startling his advisor out of his reverie.
"Yes?" he answered, tentatively.
"This problem has gone on for quite long enough, wouldn't you agree?"
"Of what problem do you speak?" Bedros knew quite well what the King spoke of, but desired to prolong the inevitable.
"Don't play dense, Advisor. It doesn't become you. I speak of the necessity of obtaining a suitable King's Wife."
At these words a ripple seemed to run through the other goblins in the room, one of excitement.
"Yes, of course. You know that I am perfectly willing to speak to the Elf King on your behalf-"
"We have discussed this before. The fact that you persist in this idea of an elf bride-"
"With all due respect, what alternative do you have? A dwarf? Another goblin?" The advisor made a sound through slitted nostrils that (except for the dignified way in which he made it) might have been called a snort. "A Troll?"
There were slightly shocked mutters throughout the room now- what he had suggested went beyond unthinkable.
"You are leaving one possibility out, aren't you?"
This sparked yet another murmur among the assembly.
"A human?" Bedros nearly choked.
"Yes, Bedros, a human. Humans have imagination, creativity, and yet a certain practicality that we haven't seen these past years. We've had elvish King's Brides for so long, and though the magic of the Heirs, and by extension, all our people, has flourished as a result, I'm looking for something different. We've stagnated these last few decades, Bedros. The war with the trolls, our lack of expansion... I've tried my best, but it may be beyond me. I wish for the King after me to be not just intelligent, but creative and adaptable- traits even you must admit have been lacking in the last few King's Wives."
"But… a human? A frightened rabbit of a creature, long oppressed, nearly extinct? Perhaps they once were what you described, but no more! You can't be serious!"
"Are you making some sort of implication about my judgment, Advisor?" The King's tone at once went from mildly playful to glacial as he strode around the table, golden eyes glinting dangerously.
"No-o-o…" said Bedros, drawing out the syllables and frantically trying and failing to think of some way to say what he felt was necessary without angering his all-to-changeable King. "It's just that, well, the humans here… even you must admit that the humans here are simply not suitable material for a King's Bride!"
The King raised a finger and idly wagged it at his advisor.
"But I'm not talking about the humans here, Bedros."
"Not… you don't mean… not the Old World?" The Chief Advisor really did choke this time, and had to have his back pounded by one of the guards. The King courteously waited until he was quite finished with his fit.
"Yes, Bedros, the Old World."
"But the doorway has been sealed for hundreds of years! There's no guarantee that we would ever be able to open it, much less that you would be able to get in, find a suitable bride, and bring her back! And do you realize the changes that could have been wrought in the time since we left? Time runs slower there, but invention moves quickly! When the last party came back, they spoke of growling metal beasts roaming the streets, of machines that fly through the air, of devastating war, weapons that kill hundreds of people, thousands of them lining great trenches in the earth as death fell from the sky! There is a reason we've never gone back since then! Who's to say they haven't all killed themselves by now? Less than a hundred years may have passed for them, but humans die quickly."
Marak watched his advisor's impassioned speech with amusement.
"I am perfectly aware of that. However, it is my belief that humans are far more resilient than you give them credit for. If they are not all dead, then I believe one of them will be a far superior King's Bride than anyone we might find here."
"If! If they are not all dead! If things there aren't as bad for humans there as they are here! If you somehow miraculously manage to find a suitable candidate! You would stake lives on an-"
Bedros stopped speaking mid-sentence, conscious of narrowing golden eyes, of a stiffening of the spine of the goblin man in front of him, and the distinct realization that he had gone too far this time.
"Bedros. I am aware that it is your job to advise me, and, upon occasion, disagree with me. But I will not tolerate this continuing disrespect! Do I make myself clear?"
Bedros nodded dumbly, his mind racing as he envisioned the many possible ways Marak could inflict goblin revenge.
The Goblin King smiled.
"Good. So then, we will see the doorway open within the next month. I, along with Necalli and twelve members of the Guard, will leave with the next new moon. Any other questions?"
Alma was late. Very, very, late. As a result, she was very, very dead. She had promised to be home before six. It was now after eight, and, just to top it off, she had managed to forget her phone.
"Mom is going to kill me." she muttered under her breath as she half walked, half ran through the woods, hoping all the while that the murderess in question wouldn't find out she had taken the shortcut through the park after nightfall too. That would really set her off. Of course, she didn't hold out too much hope. Sherlock Holmes had nothing on Aliane Rivera.
Alma continued through the trees, searching in the dark for the gate that would take her back to the orchard and eventually the bed-and-breakfast where her family was staying, now cursing the once welcome absence of city lights, traffic, and anything but trees, grass, and more trees. Nature was simply not as delightful in the dark, she decided, tripping over a root as she made this mental pronouncement. Perhaps London would have been a better choice for their English vacation.
The goblins had worked tirelessly for almost two weeks to repair the gateway, with nobody working harder than Marak. He was everywhere, shouting orders, performing spells, looking up obscure pieces of magical knowledge that could potentially make the crossing between worlds the tiniest bit smoother. Finally, the night arrived, pitch black, not that any of the goblins cared.
Bedros paced back and forth, worrying and fretting. Marak watched him with amusement.
"Really, Advisor. I already have one mother."
"Well, my personal opinion is that you need approximately fifty to keep you out of trouble."
"Bedros, there is nothing to worry about."
"Nothing to worry about? Nothing to worry about?" Bedros's voice was practically a shriek, his pointed ears quivering with indignation, his white eyes blazing with a combination of fury and fear. "My King is going through a highly experimental magical gateway to a world we left hundreds of years ago! There is no guarantee the gateway works both ways, there are suitable brides here, the Trolls might find and attack this terribly exposed position we're in now, we're practically in their territory, you realize the havoc they could wreak if they get through the gateway-"
"Bedros, there aren't suitable brides here and you know it. We need a human this time. The trolls will not attack. They keep no watch on this area, and we have the bulk of their fighters fairly well tied down far to the east."
The discussion was interrupted by a triumphant shout from the top of the flattened hill. Two stone pillars stood there, and between them a brilliant fire was now raging. Marak smiled. He took no leave of his advisor, merely clapped him on the shoulder as he turned and strode directly into the flames, followed by his military commander and the specially chosen guardsmen.
The gate still stubbornly refused to appear. Alma was beginning to get nervous.
"I am not lost." She growled to herself. "The gate's just farther than I thought it was. That's all. It's not that dark yet. I'll find the gate in a little bit. I'm not lost. Just a little turned around. I'm not lost, I'm not lost, I'm not-"
"Oh, you aren't?" Alma jumped about a foot in the air. The voice was light and pleasant, but with an odd undertone of harshness to it, and a slight accent that was hard to place, though it reminded her of the way people spoke in old British period dramas. And she had the distinct idea that it was laughing at her.
Recovering her equilibrium, Alma decided to respond to the mystery voice.
"No, I am not lost. And I think it's rude to talk to someone when they can't see you."
"Ah. Forgive me, I had forgotten."
"You forgot? What, that people have eyes and they are necessary for sight and they don't work as well in the dark?"
"I, ah, have night vision rather beyond the normal range. I tend to forget that I can see people but they can't see me."
With that, the speaker came forward into the half-light of the wooded path. Alma blinked to make sure she wasn't dreaming, then blinked again. The person standing before her looked like he'd walked right out of Lord of the Rings. For starters, he was wearing a cloak. Not just any cloak- it was a genuine, full-length, black affair with a deep hood and silver fastenings. He also wore highly polished, positively immaculate black boots, which had absolutely no right to be so immaculate given the high volume of mud on the path. And gloves, shiny black leather gloves that encased long fingers. Alma frowned. There was something wrong about his fingers. She couldn't quite tell what it was, but it bothered her.
She managed to nod, though she badly wanted to shake her head and quite possibly clamber up the nearest tree. Her first thought was a strange, hopeful leap: that this was exactly like her books, where the heroine meets the Mysterious Stranger in a lonely wood and magical adventures ensue. Her second thought was more of a self-administered scolding: things like that don't happen in real life. They only happen in books, and daydreaming about them had gotten her into enough trouble. Her third thought was of deranged, sociopathic, homicidal stalkers accosting young women in the woods after which they are never heard from again.
"Well, since you aren't lost, I suppose you won't need any help in getting back to the Lodge?"
"No, I- how do you know I'm staying at the Lodge?" He knows where I'm staying, he knows, he knows, how does he know?
"I didn't, quite, but now I do." Alma could almost feel him smirking beneath the hood. That irritated her, and irritation and righteous anger can be quite effective antidotes to fear.
"Well, now that we've established that I don't need your help, perhaps you would be kind enough to get out of my way!"
"That would be doing you a disservice, my dear. The Lodge is that way." He pointed down the way she'd just come.
"It is not! I've walked this path lots of times! This is the way! And I am not your dear!"
"Much as I hate to disagree with a lady, I assure you that I know this country better than you do. The Lodge is back the way you came, you have not walked this path 'lots of times'- don't argue; I know you're lying- and what would you propose I call you? There are a limited number of nominally respectable things I can call you without knowing your name. So you must either tell me your name or resign yourself to being 'my dear' for the duration of this conversation."
"It will be of short duration. Goodbye." With that, Alma turned and began striding back down the path, forcing herself not to look back. She breathed a faint sigh of relief when she heard no footsteps following her.
Apparently the stalkers here dress like Ring Wraiths. Go figure. Alma steadfastly refused to turn and look behind her as she stalked off towards the lodge, holding onto her annoyance and embarrassment, these being preferable to (totally irrational, she told herself) the dreadful, creeping, almost otherworldly unease.
Had Alma turned and looked behind her, the rational part of her mind might have gone into a tailspin and self-destruct. She would have seen the figure lower his hood, revealing brilliant golden eyes set in a strange, angular face on a large, bony head flanked by sharply pointed ears, whorled inside like a seashell. She would have seen strands of rough black hair sticking every which way, intermingled with mottled brown and gold feathers. In short, she would have seen a goblin.
Marak Hawkeyes smiled. Coming back to Old World was proving a very good idea indeed. Along with the idea of bringing the Painters. He'd acted on impulse, having them redraw the path so that the girl he'd seen leaving town would find him. She had been the first to interest him after days of watching, wandering about some of the ancient paths on the land, even visiting the tree circle, instead of what seemed to be the more tourist-friendly areas. He'd been rather fascinated by her appearance as well, as he'd noted her dark skin and deep brown eyes, and what he considered the curious texture of her black hair, something he'd never seen in the few humans he'd come across in his still fairly isolated, northern kingdom. True, she didn't have the beauty of an elf, but then, no human woman really did. And then she'd scolded him for talking where she couldn't see him. No human from his world would have spoken so, and an elf woman would have simply fled in terror. Yes, the Old World plan had been brilliant. Marak smiled, anticipating the chase. Though what on earth was she wearing?
When Alma finally reached the hotel, she breathed a brief sigh of relief as she noted that there was no police car in front of the large white house. However, this relief was short-lived as soon as she stepped in the door. Her mother stood in the center of the living area on the main floor, hands on hips, the normally gentle brown eyes she'd passed down to her daughter flashing with anger. The small, birdlike woman behind the counter looked like she was about to say something, then changed her mind as Aliane turned her gaze on her.
"Thank you for all your help, Mrs. Reeves." she said, in dangerously soft, gentle tones that made Alma want to run and hide under a rock. "As you can see, my daughter is perfectly fine now. Would you do me a favor and call my husband so he knows to come back from town?"
Alma groaned inwardly. If her father had driven to town to look for her, then they must have been really worried. That did not bode well for the rest of this vacation.