Monsters and Spies
She crouched low to the ground, feeling the warmth radiate off the sand as she followed the prints left by her quarry. As she crested the dune, she knew this trail would lead one of them to their death. The wind hadn’t done enough to cover its path, meaning she was close. Her emerald eyes studied the tracks as she hurried along, deciphering clues about her prey. The prints were getting closer together, a sign that it was running out of energy. It would have to rest soon, most likely stopping near a source of flowing water. There was only one place in the area where that could be found. She smiled, breaking into a light jog as she headed toward the river. Her hunt was close to its end. She would be the bringer of death to this beast, for she was a famous monster huntress, just like her father.
Sand blazed against the soles of her feet with every soft step, as the grains wiggled their way between her toes. She wiped a trail of sweat off her cheek with a dusty hand, leaving a smear of dirt upon her tanned face that begged to be scratched. The discomfort would have to be tolerated, though, because she was close now. She knew this land well, having lived in the area since she was four. The monster was at a disadvantage because she had stalked and hunted and roamed throughout the area for nine years. Her hand reached down to grip the hilt of her sword and she took cover behind a large boulder. The pond was on the other side and, if her deduction was accurate, so was her target.
It was her first time hunting a black-tailed warg, the most ferocious predator within fifty miles of Tirgoth. Her father had killed one last month, bringing home its massive pelt as a trophy. The black-tailed warg were extremely rare around their village, but she was a skilled hunter and tracker. Just like her father. She knew that the bigger and meaner the monster, the better the prize at the end of the hunt. This would become the crown jewel in her collection so far.
She poked her head around the edge of the stone. Her prey was bent over the small river, taking a sip of the cool water. A thick black stripe, the distinguishing mark of the monster, ran through its matted, sand-coated, gray fur. The monster was massive, likely three heads taller than her father. Pale yellow eyes looked around, alert and afraid. Black lips were pulled back in a low snarl that revealed fangs as long as her arm. It was trapped now. Ava slowly drew her blade from its sheath. Tension fled from her body with every breath she took, as she sought the calm of the warrior within herself. She silently prayed to Eodran that the the bright sun would not reflect off the blade and tip off the beast. She tip-toed through the sand in a crouch and closed the distance with practiced stealth. And then the monster lifted its head and sniffed the air. It tensed and showed signs of wanting to flee.
The warg spun around. She raised her sword to strike it with a lethal blow. Fear danced in its yellow eyes, and it cowered backward. Ava brought her blade down, driving it deep into the sand. The warg tumbled backwards into the calm shallows of the pond. It resurfaced, spitting water from its mouth and gasping for air, as she pulled her sword from the sand.
“Why am I always the monster when we play monster hunter?” asked a young boy, as he swam toward the river bank.
“Because,” the girl said, “my father is a monster hunter and yours isn’t.” She turned away, the evening sunlight reflecting brilliant hues of pinks and reds off her fiery hair. The boy pulled himself out of the water and shook himself off like a dog, spraying Ava.
“I’m tired of running away, hiding, and dying, Ava,” he complained. He attempted to smooth his sandy blonde hair. “I want excitement and adventure for a change. Next time, I get to be the hunter.”
Ava scowled at the boy, sighing. “Fine, Edgar. But you make a much better monster.”
Edgar laughed and snatched the wooden sword from her hands. He ran back toward the village while challenging her to try and catch him. She dug her toes deep into the sand, crouching low to the ground before taking off into a sprint. The distance between them closed. Her lungs ached as she gasped for air, but she pressed on, determined to catch Edgar. He was only a few strides ahead now. She could almost reach out and grab his shoulder. She matched his rhythm while elongating her own stride, mentally preparing to drive him to the ground with a tackle. Sensing her plan, Edgar cut north, away from their village and toward the mountains. A joyful giggle burst from her and she gave chase.
They both slowed a bit yet neither gave up. She was further behind him now, having lost ground when her feet slipped in the sand with the sudden changes in direction. His zigging and zagging, and sureness on his feet as he shifted his path ahead of her, was one of the reasons he made the better monster. The wind felt refreshing as it rushed over her skin, providing a temporary relief from the afternoon sun. Her hair waved and danced in the breeze. The grains of sand beneath her feet disappeared, replaced by rocky dirt and poky patches of brown grass. She let out a hearty laugh and leaped with all her might, tackling Edgar to the ground. They rolled along the dirt, a cloud of dust forming in their wake as each one tried to wrest the wooden sword from the other’s grip. Arms and legs tangled together as they struggled to gain mastery of the weapon. Their skin grew slick with sweat and became coated in dirt, making it harder keep a firm grip. A sharp stab of pain bit into Ava’s thumb from a small splinter but she ignored the sensation and redoubled her effort to win the battle over her blade. Both of them were laughing gaily by the time Ava pulled it free from Edgar’s hands.
Their merriment was cut short by a deep grumble. It sounded distant but the noise was so out of place in the area that it made them both pause. Ava raised a hand, signaling for silence while turning toward the sound. The grumble repeated a few moments later, answered by a higher-pitched whistling sound. Ava slipped a knife from her belt, handing it to Edgar before unsheathing another knife for herself. She motioned for Edgar to follow as she crept toward the noises.
They ducked behind a large rock. They stood still for a moment, not breathing as they listened for a change in the noise. She stood in silence, motionless, eyes closed, taking in the pattern of the sounds. Hearing nothing out of the ordinary, Ava peeked around the edge. “Goblins,” she whispered to Edgar. “Two of them are asleep in the clearing. They must be a scouting party.”
“I bet they are checking out the village, to see if we’re undefended now that father and his men are gone on a mission. We can’t let them report back, or we’ll have the whole horde swarming down on us before dawn breaks.”
“But how are we supposed to keep them from telling the other goblins?”
“I guess we’ll just have to kill them,” Ava said, hoping her voice didn’t carry any of the fear and uncertainty she felt welling up inside her.
“I’ve never killed a monster before,” Edgar whispered back. “What if I miss, and it claws my eyes out or rips my heart from my chest?”
“It is sleeping. It’ll be dead before it knows we’re attacking. We have no choice, Edgar. The elders need to be warned, but they will never believe us without proof.”
“But they are alive, Ava,” Edgar said. She could see he was wrestling with the morality of the task. It was an issue she struggled with as well, even though she had been training to become a hunter of monsters for her entire life. Ava knew she had to act fearless, to be firm in her conviction like a member of the Order of the Light, if they were to protect the village. Any sign of weakness and the goblins could escape to raise the alarm. If that happened, everyone in Tirgoth would be in danger so they needed to do this in order to save more lives. Edgar needed to arrive at that same conclusion, and fast, otherwise the goblins could wake and present even greater danger to themselves and the village.
“So are silvertails, but that doesn’t stop us from catching and cooking them for food. This isn’t much different. You take the left one and I’ll take out the one on the right.” Edgar numbly nodded his agreement and the matter was settled. A chill ran down Ava’s spine, although she wasn’t sure that it was because of the cool breeze.
Ava motioned for Edgar to circle around the rock. She clutched her knife in her hand and snuck toward the sleeping goblins. As she moved she recited a prayer she heard her father use before. “Eodran, ruler of the 14th Kingdom and Father to us all, I ask that you would guide my blade and let it strike true. Lead me as I encounter this trial before me, and guide me to safety. Amen.” A warm calm washed over her as she ended the prayer and turned her focus toward the monsters in front of her.
The goblins were as hideous and disfigured as she imagined every time her father described them. Their skin was black as obsidian and looked like rough, bumpy leather that had cured in the sun for too long. Their joints were knobby and stuck out at angles that looked painful. Thick, pointy ears stretched above the crown of their heads and a long, crooked nose jutted from their face. The goblin nostrils seemed to be wide enough to fit her hand inside. She watched one snoring, its mouth open to expose the rows of small, sharp teeth that could tear the flesh off a man with ease. Small patches of wispy yellow hair were matted down atop their heads, failing to conceal the pattern of baldness common among their species.
Things were going as planned. She was over halfway to her goblin, and she knew Edgar should be close to his by now. Her father would be proud that she used her wits to win in her first true monster encounter. She imagined his warm embrace, the rapt attention as he listened to her recount the tale and the proud look in his eye as he promised to take her as an apprentice on his next hunt.
A sharp cry of surprise shattered her thoughts and froze her in place. Ava glanced back to see Edgar sprawled on the ground. He tripped over something and cried out. Two pairs of beady black eyes flashed open and Ava recoiled from their gaze. The larger of the goblins let out a shrill screech and grabbed its weapon. It was slow getting to its feet, but it stood as tall as Ava. The other goblin scrambled to its feet immediately, standing about chest-height. She watched it process the ambush before turning and running away. Ava begrudgingly let it escape. She was too far away to chase after it, and she still had the large goblin to concern herself with.
She looked back in time to see the remaining goblin approached her. She stepped to her left, avoiding the swipe of its black, claw-like nails. She thrust with her knife and was rewarded by scoring a shallow cut on its arm. It bounded back a few paces and crouched low to the ground, snarling at her. It drew a short, curved sword made from bleached bone and cackled at her as it advanced.
She stood her ground as it approached. Panic and fear mixed with the excitement and adrenaline of the moment. The goblin gripped the smooth bone hilt of its sword in both hands and raised it for a powerful overhead cut. Ava seized the window of opportunity and threw her knife at the exposed body of the goblin. She missed her mark and the blade grazed along its side. A small trickle of black blood welled on the surface of its skin but the goblin seemed unphased by the cut. Ava jumped back as its sword came down, evading the attack. She drew her wooden sword, aware that it was going to prove an ineffective weapon against the goblin’s bone blade, and stood ready for its next move.
The next strike came quickly. The goblin brought its sword in an upward arc across its body. Ava blocked the sword mid-swing with her own, halting it as bone clashed with hard oak. They tested their might against each other and found each other as equal in strength as they were in size. Ava’s arms shook from the strain after a while, her arms still not used to meeting such strong resistance. This goblin was far stronger than Edgar. Seeing its opening, the goblin kicked some loose dirt in her face. Their swords unlocked, and Ava staggered back, rubbing her eyes with her left hand. The monster strode forward, thrusting its sword while she was blinded. Before the sword could find its mark she was tackled to the ground by Edgar.
They landed hard on the grass below, caught in a tangle of arms and legs. Ava shoved him off with her free arm, bringing the wooden sword up in time to catch another swing. The goblin pressed its sword down hard, adding its weight to the effort. Ava angled her sword as it inched closer to her body. She strained to keep the blade from reaching her, and her arms quivered. She could feel the wood of her sword cracking beneath the pressure and knew it was a matter of time before her own weapon broke in two. Edgar was back on his feet and pushed the goblin aside, sending the monster tumbling to the ground. He had his dagger in one trembling hand, staring down the monster. Ava scrambled back to her feet and shifted in front of Edgar as the beast rose again.
Edgar winced as the blades clashed mid-strike again, but this time the impact shattered both blades. She had expected her own to break, but the destruction of the goblin blade took her by surprise. Ava sidestepped a thrust from its fractured weapon and punched the goblin with all her might. She could feel the bone of its nose break under the impact and the monster staggered, dazed and dripping with blood as dark as its evil heart. Ava turned and swiped the knife free from Edgar’s hand and attacked the monster with a swift slash that sliced the goblin open from shoulder to abdomen. Thick, black blood oozed from the wound as the monster staggered backward, clutching the gash with both clawed hands. She thrust the knife into its throat, cutting short its wail of pain. The rotten egg-scent of sulfur filled the air from the corpse and made Ava nauseous. Edgar sat down on a fallen log, pale with fear. She turned away as he retched in the grass.
“We can’t rest now, Edgar,” Ava snapped as she wiped her blade clean on the grass. “We’ve got to get back and warn the village. One of them escaped, which means we might have an army of goblins besieging the village by nightfall.”
Ava retrieved a token from the dead goblin’s belongings and another from the abandoned pile of stuff belonging to Edgar’s escaped goblin. The latter had left behind a bag made of thick hide and tied with a thick cord. She opened the bag, reached inside, and squeezed her eyes shut as her hand grazed something wet and gooey. She dumped the contents out and crinkled her nose at the gelatinous glob radiating on the grass. Did goblins really eat that? Gross. She snagged a brass helmet from the midst of the goo and wiped it on the ground. The relics would be proof of the encounter for the village elders and her father. Then she ran back toward the village with Edgar trailing behind.
The Council of Elders
In Ava’s mind there was only one place they could go to submit their case since her father was gone: the Council of Elders. There were always five men on the council, and they were the ones who ruled over Tirgoth’s daily affairs. The main requirement, apart from being born a male, was the ability to cast magic, and so anyone born with even a hint of magical talent spent years learning laws and rituals of magic so they could one day join the Council of Elders in Tirgoth. When one of the five died another from the village was elected to take their place..
Nothing exciting ever really seemed to happen in Tirgoth, at least not since they appointed Ava’s father, Tristan, as honorary protector of the village. That title had been bestowed during a time of despair. That was when the invasion of monsters appeared to be imminent and the village lived in constant fear of monster attacks during the day and the night. They had erected makeshift walls, formed from a mixture of mud and clay and standing about waist-high, on the outskirts of the village, but it hardly seemed to help keep the monsters at bay. Ava’s father hand-selected and trained a small band of men and women who were willing to fight back and they had eliminated all nearby threats and brought about almost six years of relative peace in Tirgoth. After the defeat of the monster threat, the Order of Light had also gained a foothold in Tirgoth, a small sect of men and women preaching about how monsters are creatures of the Darkness who should be executed without exception.
The years of peace for Tirgoth appeared to be at an end, thanks to those goblins. Ava knew that the elders needed to be informed and involved whenever there was a major decision about the village. If they thought sporadic droughts and wind-damaged huts were important enough to listen to and respond to, then she assumed they would certainly be swift in executing some manner of defense after hearing her story. Goblin invasions were far more serious than damaged huts.
They approached the Council of Elders. The five men were seated in the center of the village on stumps and stones indented and worn from years of overuse. The elders formed a half-circle and were in the middle of a heated debate amongst themselves when the children approached.
“The time has come for the village’s funds to go toward something more productive,” one of the elders said.
“Agreed, there hasn’t been a genuine monster threat to the village in years,” the head elder replied.
“But what if those monsters return once we disband those protectors?” another chimed in. Ava coughed but none of them looked her way.
“Nonsense,” the first elder said, “Tristan and his men have been going on much longer expeditions for a year now. Clearly they have to travel a long way to encounter any sort of monsters. He’s clearing the borders for places other than Tirgoth, mark my words. I bet he’s being paid by them, as well, and hoarding gold for himself.”
“Do you remember what it was like, all those years ago?” an elder in blue said, standing up. “Back before Tristan was here, things were terrible. Tirgoth was nearly wiped off the map before he arrived. Even if he is pulling in double pay somewhere, I say he’s earned it ten times over. Without him, we wouldn’t be here arguing over the village’s funds.”
The head elder opened his mouth to respond and then stopped, his gaze focusing on Ava and Edgar. Silence hovered in the air. Ava bit her lip, not knowing what to say. They wanted to stop having father defend the village? Well, she would change that stance when they heard about her goblin encounter.
“What are you doing here?” the elder in red said, his face brightening to match his robes.
“I have something you need to hear,” Ava answered.
“It can wait, child,” the head elder said. “We are in the middle of discussing important village business. Send a formal request to meet the council and we’ll hear your tale.” The elders stared at her with arms crossed. Ava sighed and took a step back. But no, they were wrong. They needed to hear this and to hear it now. They couldn’t wait days or even hours. It had to be now.
“You don’t understand. We’re going to be under attack.” She held her breath, waiting for them to dismiss her again. The head elder sighed and waved her forward.
“You can’t be serious,” the one in red snapped. “She’s a child. Send her home and tell her father to make sure she doesn’t intrude on council business again.”
“Silence, Bartz. Even a child’s tale can hold merit for those who care to listen. Speak, child, and be quick about it.”
Ava took a deep breath and recounted the events of their day. At the end of her tale she stepped toward the five elders, and placed two goblin trinkets in front of them as concrete evidence of her story. She stepped back beside Edgar and waited expectantly for the swift pronouncement to rally the defenses of the village.
The man in the center of the half-circle of elders raised a gnarled finger in the air. All eyes turned to him, awaiting his words. He was dressed in a robe of four colors: red, blue, green, and yellow. There was no pattern to the way the colors merged within the fabric, and it lent the clothing a chaotic appearance. Ava had never understood why the head elder would wear such silly clothing. The other four wore plain robes that bore one of the colors found on the head elder’s robe. Ava always wondered if the elder’s robe was really made from patches of the other four robes that were sewn together into one garment. But she had never been able to get close enough to look for the stitching to prove or disprove her theory.
Ava fidgeted while they watched the elder inspect the trinkets. The torch light gleamed as it was reflected off the grimy brass of the goblin horn she stole from the first goblin. Runes from an ancient tongue were chiseled into the bone mouthpiece and it felt like the elder spent ages studying those characters, tracing them over and over again with his finger. Ava exhaled with relief when he set it aside, hoping to hear his judgment, but he picked up the second trophy instead.
She knew there could be no doubt that this one belonged to a goblin. The brass helmet was poorly forged, held together in places with rusting bolts, and its shape could only fit upon a goblin’s head. Most of their helmets had slits for their ears, but this one was designed to provide an armored cover for the delicate goblin ears. Ava realized was lucky that she caught these goblins sleeping, otherwise her battle would have been against a fully armored goblin, armed with a wooden sword and a small knife. Her mind wandered while the elder observed the helmet, and she found herself wondering if the goblin armies had mounted knights like humans did and, if so, what they rode into battle. Surely a horse was too large and a pony was more likely to be prey than a mount. Maybe they rode on the backs of tigers or small bears? The thought of facing a goblin atop a great black bear gave her chills and she banished the thought from her mind.
The head elder licked his cracked lips and looked up at Ava and Edgar, beckoning them to move into the center of the circle. Ava was disappointed to note, as she knelt in front of him, that his robe was not made from patches of other robes but was expertly woven into that mesmerizing pattern of colors. He spoke in a raspy voice, saying, “Children, I have considered your story with great care. While these appear to be authentic goblin possessions, your tale is too far-fetched for me to believe.”
“But we did fight the goblins,” Edgar insisted. “Well, Ava really did the fighting, but we’re telling you true. She has scrapes to prove it”
“Edgar,” the elder answered with a small smile, “We all know how rough you and Ava get when playing your imaginary games. Would your mother believe such a tale?”
“Well,” Edgar began, frowning at his feet, but the head elder cut him off by asking for silence. The tips of Edgar’s ears turned red and blotchy spots broke out on his cheeks.
“And Ava, what would your father make of these claims?”
“He’d believe me,” she answered without hesitation, “and you’re just a bunch of old fools if you do not! The Order of Light would believe me. Maybe I should go to them, instead.”
Murmurs of surprise rose from the other eight, but they were silenced by the head elder. “Old we may be, but fools we are not. Ava, there hasn’t been a goblin sighted in these parts for nearly six years. Your own father was the one who led the expedition that purged them, along with all other monsters, from the surrounding areas. It is on that basis that we are forced to dismiss your story as a fabrication and you will find that all others in this village will agree with our perspective on the matter. Now tell me true, child, you found these when you were playing in your father’s room, yes?”
“I took them off the goblin that I killed,” Ava shouted. She rose to her feet and clenched her hands into fists at her sides. “You need to assemble the guard, post sentries along the outskirts of the village, and fortify the perimeter. They are coming.”
“Enough,” the head elder said. He shot her a sad look. “You have worn my patience with these half-truths. Go back to your homes, both of you, and do not mention goblins again unless it is to confess the falseness of this story.”
Ava spun on her heels and stormed away from the gathered elders. She murmured under her breath about how foolish and old they were. She wished her father was there to help convince them. He would believe her, wouldn’t he? As much as she wanted to believe that he would, she knew he would still voice his own doubts. He would have offered some of the same criticisms as the elders. The peacetime had grown too long around the village and they were growing complacent in their attitudes towards the monsters. But they were all wrong. The elders would have believed the tale if it had been an adult or someone within their inner circle bringing it before them. It wasn’t her fault that she was only 13 and a girl and non-magical.
She cut through the village toward the largest of buildings. The thatched roof was covered with a layer of crescent-shaped clay tiles and the walls were reinforced with fresh-mined stones from the mountain. Twin doors, made from hearty oak with strips of iron running horizontally across the surface. Heavy brass rings gleamed in the sunlight and a trickle of incense smoke trailed out of the cracks around the doors. Ava could hear the muffled sounds of a woman speaking inside the building and the occasional chant or cheer that followed. The children pulled the stout door open and slipped inside.
Cinnamon and clover wafted into her nostrils, the initial wave making them both cough. A half dozen heads turned to stare at them and Ava felt the heat rushing to her face. Her bare feet padded across the velvet runner along the stone floor, the softness a welcome sensation. The woman at the front was dressed in ivory robes that trailed behind her, trimmed with gold threads that glimmered in the torchlight. Four men and a woman knelt on the ground at the woman’s feet. Ava suspected they were the usual bunch that gathered here, praying for the prophesied scourge to come and sweep the monsters free from the 13 kingdoms.
“Yes, my children?” the old woman asked. Her voice was flat and her gaze froze them to the ground.
“You teach us that all monsters should be eliminated, right?” Ava asked. The woman’s mouth turned up in a slight smile.
“Yes, my child. The day will come when the Child of Light will fight back the Darkness, but until that day we must battle the monsters on our own.”
“We fought goblins,” Edgar blurted out. Ava sighed and made a mental note to talk to this boy about tactfulness.
“Where? When?” the woman kneeling asked. All eyes had turned to the woman at the head of the room, whose expression had not changed.
“We fought two of them not more than an hour ago, off to the north. We caught them sleeping, killing one while the other escaped.”
“Ava thinks they are going to lead an invasion,” Edgar chimed in.
“Child, what proof have you of this?” the woman asked, folding her arms across her chest.
“We had proof, but the Council of Elders took them and didn’t give them back.”
“And so the Council is preparing for this invasion?”
“Well, no. They didn’t believe me.”
“And so you expect me to accomplish what, child?”
“You need to rally the village. Get them to build the defenses. To prepare for the goblins to come!”
The woman stood like a statue at the front of the room. The men and women kneeling before her had their heads upon the stone floor, muttering inaudible prayers. Ava could tell, before the woman spoke again, what the answer was going to be. She couldn’t believe how blind adults could be to the dangers surrounding them.
“My brothers and I have no authority to call the village to such an action. And even if we did, my child, we would need more proof than the word of a young one to go off. Now begone before you waste any more of the time of the Order of Light.” Ava spun on her heels and stormed out of the building, leaving the door flung wide open. Her knuckles were white and a single tear trickled down her cheek.
Edgar caught up to her, matching her stride as he fell in beside her. He wore his disappointment on his face, but his voice masked his frustration. “Maybe they won’t come,” he said.
“You’re as big a fool as they are if you believe that,” Ava answered without looking at Edgar.
“But what do we do now? We can’t go and meet a goblin horde by ourselves. We should ride after your father and convince him to return. He would know what to do.”
“No. He would tell us the same things they did. It is no use trying to convince anyone that the goblins are coming, so we need to do what my father would do if he had seen them.”
“What is that?” Edgar asked.
“We’re going prepare for battle,” Ava answered.
Ava and Edgar had the attention of the entire village that night as they took turns patrolling atop the tower. The villagers spoke in whispered hushes as the two of them placed sharpened stakes around Tirgoth’s perimeter. Many women brought them dried fruits and meats and one even brought some fresh baked bread. Even Hazel, Ava’s neighbor and the usual caretaker when her father was gone, appeared to support her cause by bringing food and warm clothes for the night. But she was also quick to point out that Ava should come inside when she was “done playing at this foolish game.” They feasted that night before keeping watch in shifts beneath the stars.
They still had some sympathetic onlookers the second day, but only Hazel brought them food. Instead of smiles and kind words, they received silent frowns and shaking heads. Edgar tried to talk her out of their vigil twice that day. Both times the argument ended in hours of silence between them. But he still stayed with her. Hunger gnawed at them as they lay atop the tower that night and it prevented either of them from getting a restful sleep beneath the clouded night sky.
Ava and Edgar were both weary and irritable by noon on the third day. She stared out into the distance and tried hard to ignore the sight of Edgar walking into his house. She failed miserably. Her blasted peripherals caught every step he took away from the tower and witnessed him disappearing through the doorway into his house. He promised to bring her some food later, but Ava knew that was only an afterthought.
She suspected the real reason he was going home. He didn’t believe her conclusion anymore, even though he had been there to see the goblin scouts. And, worst of all, he didn’t think what she was doing was important or would make a difference. His words from this morning echoed in her mind, the claims that he was tired of taking orders from a silly girl with a wooden sword. She knew the whole village thought that by now; the elders, Hazel, the villagers passing by beneath her, even the Order of Light. And now Edgar had said as much. If the rest of them weren’t saying it in her presence they were whispering it when she wasn’t around.
Ava missed her father and tried to think about what he would do in her place. She knew it had been like this for him in the beginning. They all believed his stories when they moved eight years ago, and they all thought it was tragic how his wife died during a monster attack, but none of them could be convinced that the monsters were a threat to them. He had told her, once, about that first week in Tirgoth. She thought back to his tale now, struggling to remember the details.
He told her it had been the thought of her safety that kept him going in the face of the criticism. He confessed that he would have found a way back to his post atop the tower if they had succeeded in removing him against his will. It was his love for her that allowed him to endure the long nights. Ava just needed to figure out whose love would keep her here. The head elder and the rest of the five didn’t deserve her love. They had a chance to believe her and chose to ignore the facts. Her neighbor, Hazel, always had been kind to her and even gave her sweets sometimes. She watched over Ava when her father was gone, protecting her even though Ava didn’t really need that protection. It was funny, when she considered it, that Hazel was supposed to be protecting Ava when her father was gone. But here she was protecting Hazel in the face of all this criticism. Ava didn’t think she deserved to die but she didn’t love Hazel’s constant chiding about her father’s love life and the need for a sensible woman around the house to raise her the right way. Or her idea that Ava should be brought up as a “proper lady”. No, she didn’t love her enough to endure the long nights on Hazel’s behalf.
Edgar’s face came to mind, unbidden. She brushed that crazy notion aside and thought about some of the other people she knew in the village. Edgar kept looking like the better choice compared to the rest of them. It was obvious that he loved her. Even at 13 Ava knew he was smitten. But to her, he was still the boy that had to be the monster because he wasn’t a good hunter. It was his fault that she was up here, after all, because he fell down and let his goblin escape.
Her anger increased the more she thought about that last point. It was entirely his fault that she was suffering alone atop this tower. And he had the nerve to go run home and eat a hot meal and take a nap in his bed and play with his brothers. Ava picked up a rock and threw it as hard as she could. It kicked up a little dust as it slid along the road and the exertion from throwing it made Ava feel better so she threw another. And one more, chucking it as hard as she could into the distance.
Then she noticed the two clouds of dust stirring from the ground, one in the west and the other to the north. The smaller cloud was to the coming from the desert in the west and was much closer to Tirgoth. The one to the north, moving down a mountain, was large enough to worry her. She hadn’t ever seen an army marching but she had heard enough stories to understand that there were a lot of people coming from that direction. Or a lot of goblins.
Preparations for War
Ava hurried down the tower as fast as she could. As she moved, she debated whether she should wake Edgar first or tell the elders. They needed to know and would know what to do to get ready and they needed to be told as soon as possible. But she didn’t want to talk to them alone. It had been only a few days since they rejected her story of the goblin encounter outright and she was still upset about that. If she went alone they might do it again, and then everyone would get hurt. But Edgar had also abandoned her and left her to keep watch alone so he didn’t really deserve to help spread the news. By the time her feet hit the ground she had made up her mind. She would get Edgar first, even if he was the clumsy boy that caused this trouble in the first place.
The residents of Tirgoth were going about their daily lives as though there wasn’t a clear threat about to descend upon them. She passed by the rickety old carts with hawkers selling their wares, bronze-skinned farmhands tilling the ground in desperate attempts to get something to grow, dark-skinned young women balancing buckets of water on either end of a wooden pole; Ava couldn’t believe they were so blind to the danger around them. Had they grown so complacent in the years since her father drove off the monsters? Were the old spinsters baking fresh bread in the hopes of offering the monsters a welcoming feast? Grownups were so blind! An invasion was descending upon them! Their priority should be on preparation to meet the enemy force, or else all those fields would be torn apart by the goblins, and the bakeries and market carts would be burned to the ground.
Ava did her best to put those thoughts out of her mind. She rounded a corner on the dirt path. Edgar’s house was up ahead, a shabby two-story wood house encircled by a rotting fence. It was one of the many houses with the scent of baked goods pouring into the air through an open window. Any other day, Ava would succumb to her grumbling stomach and beg for a slice of hot bread slathered in fresh-churned butter and dripping with warm honey. But she had more important matters to attend to. She heard Edgar’s snoring as soon as she entered his house. It was a sound that would have infuriated her if she wasn’t in such a hurry to tell the elders what she saw. Every minute she wasted on this impossibly clumsy boy could be the difference between life and death for them all.
Edgar was sprawled out in his bed at the back of the house, arms and legs tangled in a heavy wool blanket. A small clay cup of water was on the table beside the bed. Ava tiptoed closer, formulating in her mind an unpleasant wake-up call for Edgar. She grabbed the cup and dipped a pinky in to test the water’s temperature. She was pleased to discover that it was still quite cold with tiny shavings of ice still circulating along the top. He would be mad, of course, but he deserved at least this much as a punishment for deserting her during the watch.
Ava emptied the contents of the cup onto his face. The cold liquid splattered on his skin and soaked his bed and shirt as well. Edgar tried to jump to his feet but his arms and legs were entwined in the blanket. His limbs flailed around as he crashed onto the floor. Ava laughed at him and set the cup back on the table while he scrambled out of his blanket.
“What’d you do that for?” Edgar snapped as he wiped water from his eyes with the first hand he untangled from the blankets.
“You need to come with me,” Ava said as she grabbed his arm. She tried to drag him along but Edgar wouldn’t budge. While she was faster than him, he was still the stronger of the two.
“I can’t keep patrolling with you, Ava,” Edgar said. “Mother has forbidden it.”
“I don’t want you to come keep watch.”
“I said . . . wait, what?”
“I need you to come with me to talk to the elders again.”
“They already said no. If that is all you wanted I’m going back to bed.” Edgar sat down upon his mattress and started wringing the water from his blanket.
Ava sighed and reminded herself that Edgar didn’t know about the approaching horde yet, just like the rest of the villagers. “I saw something. Two somethings, actually, and they are coming this way. The elders need to know so we can be ready to meet whatever is coming, friend or foe.”
“You’re certain?” he asked while scratching his damp head. A few droplets of water sloshed onto her forehead but she ignored them.
“I wouldn’t be wasting my time with you if I wasn’t. Now come on,” she said, turning to walk out of his house. Edgar called for her to wait up just as she stepped outside. A hint of a smile crept on her face and she slowed down a little so he could catch up. It seemed right to have him at her side once more.
All five of the elders stopped their discussions and frowned when they noticed Ava and Edgar approaching them. Two of frowns deepened into scowls when the children stepped into the center of their half-circle. It was not the reception Ava hoped to receive but it was the one she expected. Maybe this was even a warmer welcome than she had expected from these fuddy old men. Suddenly she was thankful she had decided to bring Edgar along.
“Let me guess,” one of the younger elders, Damien, called out, “you have some new relic to show us that you dug up somewhere? In your father’s basement, perhaps? Or maybe this one came from under his bed?” A few light chuckles trailed on the heels of those comments but Damien folded his arms across his chest and glared at her. The elders still thought she was making things up, like in the stories where Analise told the her parents that a griguar was under her bed. But while Analise finally told the truth the last time and no one believed her, Ava had been telling the truth the whole time but the adults wouldn’t listen. Maybe these elders would become a story that kids would tell to remind adults to listen to their children more often.
Ava answered his scowl with a forced smile, wishing she could make his thick robe catch on fire. He wouldn’t talk to her that way if she was older, or a boy. Or if she could do magic like they could. “We’re going to be under attack before sunset,” she said, turning her focus to the head elder.
“Where is your proof, child,” he asked her, wheezing as he struggled to fight back a hacking cough.
“If you come up onto the tower I could show you,” she answered. “There are signs of two different groups advancing toward town. One of them seems like it should be a small group and the other looks like an army marching.”
“You have both seen this?”
Ava looked down at her feet, shifting uncomfortably under his gaze. She raised her head and brushed her red curls aside with a hand. She had to admit the truth of the matter. It was a punishable offense to lie to an elder and all the children knew that by the time their turned four that the elder’s magic was able to detect lies.
“Aye, we both saw it,” Edgar answered. Ava blinked. She was shocked to hear Edgar backing up her story. Ava had never heard him lie to an adult before, much less the circle of elders. The head elder looked at Edgar and studied him with a critical eye. Ava bit her lip as she imagined the silent incantations the elder must be performing to discern the truth. He would see right through Edgar’s lie, and that would doom them both. But to Ava’s surprise he nodded, looking at the four elders gathered around him.
“We will send someone up with these children to see if their story is true. If there are strangers approaching, monsters or otherwise, we would be wise to be prepared to meet them.”
Ava watched the flurry of activity going on in the village with a smile on her face. She could picture the look of disbelief that must have been on the faces of a few of the elders when they heard confirmation of her story from Damien. Within minutes the five elders had spread throughout the village. Men, women, and children rushed throughout the village to complete the tasks being assigned to them. The elders even convinced a few of the devoted from the Order of Light to help prepare the village. Ava hadn’t seen any of the elders move so fast.
As the forces of Tirgoth gathered together, Ava thought they formed an interesting line of defense: more than half of the men were wielding pitchforks and scythes rather than swords or spears. A few tried to piece together makeshift armor, throwing on rusty patches of iron to protect a shoulder or to cover a leg. Ava was pretty sure she saw at least one man wearing a tin pot on his head but no one else seemed to think the sight was amusing. A real army descending upon the village would laugh at the sight of them and brush aside the possibility of real resistance. Would a goblin army see the humor in this line of defense or would they be discouraged by even a hodge-podge force like this? Ava hoped to find out when she was standing on the front line of the battle, brandishing one of her father’s swords in her hands as the first wave rode into town.
She was busy ever since finally convincing the elders of the danger. Ava and Edgar went to her house in order to get suited for the upcoming battle. Her house was identical to many of the others in the village. It was formed from a combination of wood and clay with a thatched grass roof. To an outsider, it would be impossible to distinguish who lived in each house, but Ava had lived here for nearly eight years now and, to her, there was no other house exactly like hers. She couldn’t even remember where they had lived before moving to the village of Tirgoth because she had been too young. As she got closer, she could see deep gashes in the sides of the building, scars from her imagined duals with hordes of monsters from her father’s stories. She had been lashed when her father realized she had dulled the blade of his favorite sword by hacking into the clay bricks and wooden posts. He had forced her to spend hours sharpening and polishing the steel blade until he deemed it restored to its original condition. It was a lesson she never forgot and the bricks served as a daily reminder to take more care when she snuck out with her father’s weapons. She hadn’t been caught since. Nor had she treated them so recklessly.
She raided every room of their house in search of armor that mostly fit her. She had on a layer of black leather armor, complete with greaves for her legs that were a little too long. She tried to fit into a suit of plate mail but it was far too heavy for her to stand without assistance. Edgar laughed for a long time before helping her back onto her feet. His laughter died quickly once she smacked him upside the head. Ava settled for a coat of chain mail instead which was heavy, but still allowed her to move enough to fight. None of her father’s gauntlets fit her small hands, but she found some leather gloves that were secure enough to work once she stuffed them with old rags. She finished off the armor with a half helm of steel that nearly covered her eyes even with a cloth bundled in the top. She wore a thick hide belt around her waist with a slender dagger sheathed on her right side and a long sword on her left. The tip of the sword dragged along the ground as she walked but she didn’t plan on that weapon remaining in its sheath for long once the battle began. A short bow was slung over her shoulder, accompanied by a small quiver of arrows. She was no markswoman with a bow, but she was determined to try and take a few goblins down before they reached the village.
She had offered to arm Edgar in a similar manner but he had opted instead for an old set of leather training armor with a leather helm. He had a short sword strapped to his back and a recurve bow in his hands. Ava knew that he was clumsy and slow with the sword but he was a decent marksman with a bow. Far better than she was, although she would never confess that in range of his hearing. He had made shots that she could only marvel at and could usually duplicate any impressive shot. She made sure he had plenty of arrows to fire because she knew each one was likely to claim the life of a goblin.
Ava wove her way through the line of villagers, wanting to get a close look at the approaching figures. The smaller group had been making good time. They emerged from the desert an hour before Ava anticipated. She could see the outlines of men atop horses as they neared the village but they were still too far to be recognizable and the waning sun cast them as dark figures on the horizon. Hushed whispers buzzed through the air as everyone weighed in with an opinion on their identities, ranging from Ava’s father to a dispatch from the King’s army to disguised lizardmen, known as Drakhari. She squinted, straining her eyes to try and see who these men were and was rewarded by being the first to identify them. Ava let out a squeal of delight and ran along the road to greet them. Her father returned home in time to fight the goblins with her!
His face was haggard and gaunt and his clothes were rent in a dozen places. He had an empty sheath on his back and many of his weapons had been chipped or cracked over the course of his adventure. He had a curved horn, coated with dried blood, strapped to the saddle of his horse. Ava wondered which monster he vanquished to earn that new trophy. She couldn’t wait to get home and hear him tell her all about it but she knew that he needed to hear her adventure first. There would be time for storytelling later that night once the goblin invasion had been repelled.
He pulled her up into the saddle with him and took in her appearance with a curious stare. It was unusual attire, even for her, and he was almost certain to guess there was a story to accompany her appearance. But even that could wait. She wrapped her arms around his torso and hugged him tight. For a few moments neither one said a word, choosing to enjoy the reunion. Finally he broke the silence and spoke in a quiet voice.
“Avalina, why in Eodran’s name are you dressed for war?”
“Father,” she answered, “you’ll never believe what happened. Edgar and I found a goblin patrol and I killed one of them, but one got away and now there is a horde descending down upon the village.”
“Goblins? Near the village? There hasn’t been a goblin sighting in years. We drove them off for good and made sure they knew the consequences of returning to disturb Tirgoth”
“That is what the elders said but I proved them wrong. I stood watch, just like you did when we first came here, and I showed them proof. The goblins should be here before sundown”
Her father uttered a curse under his breath and urged his horse into a gallop. The villagers scattered as Ava and her father raced past. She was pleased to see that he was riding straight to their house. He believed her! Of course she always knew he would, but it was nice to have something turn out as it should for a change.
Her father dismounted outside of their house, pausing only to lend a hand to Ava so she could dismount as well. She was pretty certain she would have fallen without his help, encumbered as she was by the oversized armor. He limped as he crossed the threshold of the doorway, and then paused to hold it open for her. The stress from his job had added lines to his face that made him appear much older than his 37 years. Flecks of white peppered his short beard and his eyes were as gray as the steel of his sword. His face masked all expression as he watched her approach and he stepped aside to let Ava into the house. He had more weapons strapped to his body then he usually wore; most days he had a sword on his back and a pair of long knives in his belt. Today his armament included a bow and two quivers of arrows, a dozen short daggers concealed in various places, a spiked mace, a hand ax, two swords and a coil of rope. On most men this would look ridiculous, but not on her father. He looked menacing, like he was ready to wage a one-man war. In a way, that was exactly what he had just done on his hunt. And what he was about to do again tonight with the goblin horde. He stripped off the layers of battle-worn clothing as soon as he stepped in the door. Ava noticed there were large tears in the armor underneath. She gasped when she saw a giant gash in his side. He stopped and looked at her with a tired smile.
“The hrundtboar put up a mighty battle, but no monster is a match for your father. You’ll enjoy hearing the tale once we ward off these goblins. And it sounds like you have a tale to tell to rival it.”
“Don’t you want to go on the tower and see proof that there are goblins coming?”
“I’ve heard and seen all the proof I need with you,” he answered as he wrapped some linen over his wound and deftly tied it with one hand. “How long before they will arrive?”
“They were a little farther from here than you were when I saw them. And they were going slower. There are probably a few eager ones ahead of the main group and I think we’d see those within the hour. The rest of them shortly after.”
“Good. Let’s prepare a surprise for them.” He walked over to the table and picked up a small bundle of mauve-colored cloth. “This is for you, Avalina,” he said as he handed the bundle to her. “I was going to wait until you were a little older but it seems wise to give it to you now.”
She bit her lip and reached for the bundle. She could feel something hard and heavy inside. The shape and weight seemed somewhat familiar. Ava peeled away the layers of fabric and squealed in delight at the treasure in her possession. She grasped the hilt of the sword and could feel the symbols engraved in the leather pressing into her skin. The sheath was made of the same tanned leather as the hilt. The guard was formed from polished bronze that reflected the sunlight peeking through the windows. She pulled the sword free, a soft ringing sound filling the air as the weapon slid free from the leather. She recognized some of the ancient glyphs engraved along the length of the steel blade. Her father had shown her the same symbols of strength, victory, and protection on some of his own swords. The other side contained a single glyph. She knew from her father’s swords that it would be the name of the blade so that the foes might know the means of their demise. But she didn’t recognize this symbol.
“This sword belongs to you now, Avalina,” her father said. He brushed a strand of her red hair aside with a calloused hand. “Do you remember what I taught you about the tenets of a swordsman?”
“Yes, father,” she replied, sighing.
“Let’s hear them.”
“A swordsman is a weapon unto himself, the sword is merely a tool. A swordsman uses his sword to ward evil, never to cause injustice. A swordsman keeps . . . but father, I’m not a swordsman. I’m a swordswoman!”
His hearty laugh in response warmed Ava more than any fire in a hearth and soon they were both laughing without control. Her father wiped tears from his eyes as he regained a serious demeanor. “Do not torment that boy with your sword, Avalina. Remember all that I have taught you because you will be a protector for this village, and for those anywhere you go who are unable to defend themselves against the creatures of darkness. It is a serious and sacred task, one entrusted to me for years. Now it is your time to join me in this vigil.” He took the sword from her and traced his finger along the name of the sword. “The sword is named Seraphina, which means ‘burning fire’. Let it be the torch that guides your path and keeps our home safe.”
He handed the sword back to her and she stared at the glyph. Ava marveled over the intricate design that represented its name. Seraphina, she thought as a smile crept onto her face. She bowed her head and said a prayer asking for the sword to be blessed, to grant her the ability to serve and protect the ones she loved and cared about. Her father watched in silence, his slate eyes full of warmth. He pulled her into an embrace after she finished the prayer. The bare metal of Seraphina felt cool against her naked arm as it pressed into her. Ava didn’t want him to let go but she staved off the urge to tell him so. She needed to be strong in front of him. A proper swordswoman doesn’t need hugs from her father and she was a proper swordswoman now that she had a sword of her own.
“Help me with this, Avalina.” He said. He was pointing to his spare armor on the wall. She walked over and helped him put on a gleaming coat of plate armor. The edges of the metal were sharp and pressed painfully into her fingers but she didn’t utter a word of complaint while helping dress her father. By the time he was finished he was armored as well as any knight, weighed down by thick metal that covered his entire body. Ava felt quite silly in comparison with her odd ensemble of armor.
“When do we go to meet them?” Ava asked her father as he strapped on a second brace of knives.
“We aren’t going to meet them,” he answered. “I am going to meet them. You are staying with Hazel.”
“There is no point in arguing the matter, Avalina. You and Edgar are far too young to be parading around the village during an attack. You could get hurt in the battle or cause someone else to lose focus and get hurt. I gave you Seraphina so that you can protect yourself in dire need. Not so you could go rushing headlong into danger. You will both stay away from the battle until we come and get you. Is that understood?”
“But I was the one who saw them. And I killed one goblin already.”
“I know,” he said as he tried to hug her through the stiff armor, “and I am proud of what you have done. But I can’t risk losing you to this goblin horde. We have enough men to ward them off but if it looks like we’re losing I will send for you.”
“Promise?” she asked him, a hint of a smile creeping on her face.
“I promise. Now go and head over to Hazel’s with Edgar and try to have some fun with the boy. Maybe you should let him be the hunter for a change.” He flashed her a smile and ruffled her hair.
“He is supposed to be, but I don’t think he’ll be very good at it. He makes a much better monster.” Her father’s laugh lifted her spirits, and he ushered her to Hazel’s house.
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