⊰ by Jehoned ⊱
It felt a pair of large, rough hands pulling it into the light. It was then dropped to the ground.
“In Aeas’ name, what is it‽”
These were the first sounds it heard upon entering the world. Although it did not understand the words, it would soon know their meaning.
It was frightened.
The big hands wrapped it up tightly in rough cloth. The light disappeared. It was thrust into another pair of hands, smaller than the previous ones. It was carried. For how long and how far, it was incapable of knowing. It was lowered and gently placed on the ground. The wrapping was eased back, and the light returned.
The light was less bright now. The ground was soft. The face above was kind, and also sad.
“I am so sorry, little one,” were the noises it heard next, coming from the face. These sounds also were kind and sad, nothing like those first sounds. The face turned and moved away, but soon stopped. After a moment of stillness, the face came back. The face was now wet in places.
“I can’t do this.”
It was picked up from the ground. It was again cradled in the small, gentle arms. It liked these better than the ground.
“You don’t look so bad to me. You’re not a monster. Are you, little one?”
It understood these words as scarcely as the rest, but it liked the way they sounded. It made a small noise in reply to express the feeling. “Aww… Yes, that’s right… You’re a nice little one, aren’t you?” At this, it once more sounded its approval. “But, what am I going to do?”
The light was now even less bright. It had almost disappeared again. They were moving, all of them together. The arms were holding it softly and securely. The face above was still wet, but no longer sad. The face looked less troubled than before.
They came to a different place. It knew because of the smell. The place was very quiet. There were only the sounds of slow, steady breathing.
The rough wrapping was removed and cast aside. It didn’t mind. It had been very itchy. The arms then slowly nestled it in among the breathing sounds. It was then aware that the sounds were coming from other little ones, in addition to a single bigger one.
“I’m sorry I can’t take you back to the village, little one. They might find you and take you away. But you’ll be safe here, don’t worry.”
It didn’t worry. This place was warm, and it liked being with the other little ones.
“You must be hungry. I hope you can have goat’s milk.”
It saw a thing to suckle on the big one, and started to drink.
“I have to leave now, or they’ll come looking for me. But I’ll be back, I promise. Farmer Collins is old, and he likes to sleep late. He won’t find you here. I’ll come back first thing tomorrow. I’ll offer to clean his barn and tend the goats. Father has been pestering me to find work, anyway.”
It looked back up at the kind face. The face was smiling. “Goodnight, little one.”
It felt safe and content as it went to sleep.
The kind face and the gentle arms did come back. In the light which had also returned, it saw that the arms and face were actually a part of one being. They were called, “Boy.” It knew because Boy always reacted when the larger being, called “Sir,” yelled that sound.
Boy did a lot for Sir. Mostly, Boy moved things around from one place to another. Boy would use some long object to pick stuff up off the ground, then the stuff would be placed onto some other object. Then Boy would drag the pile of stuff outside, come back in, and do everything all over again. Boy also fed the big one, which was called “Goat,” and made sure all the little ones were well.
Boy always gave it more attention than the other little ones. This made it happy.
It tried to play and be nice with the others, but they didn’t like it. It was different from them; it knew that much. This made it sad, but as long as Goat still let it drink, and as long as Boy was around, it knew everything would be alright.
For quite some time, everything was alright. Boy came every day. After a while, Goat stopped giving it milk, but that was nothing to be concerned about. Boy had started bringing it better things to eat. Some of them were soft, sweet, juicy things. It liked those the best.
It had only somewhat recently started moving around on its own, when one day Sir walked inside. Boy always made sure to hide it whenever Sir was coming, but Boy wasn’t there. It was standing out in the open, plain for all to see.
“What in the… Devil! Devil-spawn!”
It remembered that sound, and it was frightened. It cowered as Sir grabbed the long object hanging on the wall. The fearsome figure advanced. The object was swung over and behind Sir, then violently brought down, slamming hard into the ground, narrowly missing it. It looked up at the face of Sir, and it saw no kindness there. It saw disgust, it saw fury, and it saw violence, all in the eyes of Sir.
In that instant, it knew the look of hatred, and it understood.
It ran past Sir before the object could be raised again. It ran outside into the bright light of day. It ran as far and as fast as it could. It ran to where there was less light, and ran until the light began to dim even further. It was surrounded by big, towering things coming out of the ground when it stopped running. It then found the closest place it could hide.
It was enveloped in darkness again. It was cold. It was tired. It was trembling. It wanted desperately to see Boy. Most of all, it was frightened.
It stayed hidden for a long time, until it was sure that Sir was no longer pursuing it. Then it began to worry about its surroundings. This place smelled very different. The place felt the same as the smell; there was a dankness in the air. There were many strange sounds from all directions, some seeming very close. It wanted to stay still and quiet until the noises stopped, but they never did.
It soon grew hungry. It needed to leave its hiding place in search of food. It did so cautiously. It came upon some dangling, bulbous, colourful things. They looked similar to the sweet things Boy had given it. It took one and bit down. This thing was not sweet, but tough and bitter. It spat the thing out instinctively.
It tried various other things that looked and smelled like food. Before long, it had managed to quell its hunger by many different things. Some stuck out of the ground, or from the sides of the gigantic towers all around. Some wriggled and were buried in the ground or in the towers which were lying down. Some dangled like the bitter things, but tasted alright. Some were even quite good. None could compare, however, to those sweet, juicy delights from Boy, from those days which now felt a lifetime ago.
That was how it lived, day after day, as the days passed into weeks. It foraged whatever it could as it merely wandered. Every night, it found a place where it could be sheltered and out of sight. Every day, it set off anew. In search of what, it didn’t know. All it knew was that every strange sound, every sudden movement in the distance, made it frightened.
It was always frightened.
It did the best it could to remain quiet, and to remain watchful. It was able to avoid many larger beings this way. It quickly hid itself whenever it heard one approach. Some of them looked a lot like Sir. Once they had passed, it moved farther away from where they had come, venturing deeper into the safety of the dark.
One day, it ventured too deep.
This place was wrong. The day had only just begun, yet there was little light. There was also no sound except for its own footfalls, normally soft, but now thudding and echoing. It was about to leave this place the way it came when it saw them.
They were horrible creatures. It had seen the likes of them before, but these ones were massive. Some of them were as large as it. Sleek, black, hard looking bodies with far too many legs. Thin, twitchy, angular legs with deadly sharp points. They were everywhere.
It already knew fear. At that moment, it knew terror, and it understood.
It started backing away, but too late. At once they struck with astounding speed. Slashing legs and burning bites. It beat, and thrashed, and pounded. It felt their bodies crunch and their legs snap against it. It managed to shake off enough of them to make an opening, and it ran. In its haste to get away, it ran deeper instead. It ran through sticky, white threads until it was in a place that seemed made of the stuff. The parts of its body where the horrors had bitten it were starting to go numb. It felt a desperate urge to go to sleep.
Then came the largest of them. Far larger than the others. Far larger than it. Larger than any being it had ever seen. It wanted so badly to close its eyes and rest. But it knew that if it did, it would never open them again.
It was very frightened. The eyes of the giant horror were black and featureless, yet it still saw the fury and violence within.
It was frightened, but it did not cower.
It bellowed the loudest sound it had ever made in its life, and it charged. It went straight for the closest of those slashing legs, and felt the thing crack like the ones before. Or was it somehow easier than before? The deadly spikes slashed and jabbed wildly as it threw itself into them. It beat and bashed, it thrashed and stomped, and the legs began to break apart before it. It smote one into splinters, then another, and another, until the mother of horrors fell with a shuddering crash. Bent and broken legs in the air, thrusting and twitching in every direction. It threw all its might headlong into the exposed belly. It felt the body crunch like the ones before.
The twitching ceased, and the place was eerily quiet once more. It expected the smaller horrors to come at it again, but they did not.
It was so, so tired. It still knew, however, that it could not sleep here. It would have to leave and find some place safe. Just as it was starting to make its way out, it spotted something. Multiple somethings, in fact. Small, white, globular things, clutched together in little groups. They were all around. Some had been broken in the carnage. It sniffed them apprehensively.
They smelled incredible. It lapped up the innards, which tasted as good as they smelled. It hadn’t tasted anything so sweet, and smooth, and delectable since those days it spent with Boy, so long ago. It broke open all the orbs it could find around the sticky, white den, and it feasted. When there were no orbs left, it still felt exhausted, but also rejuvenated. The numb parts where it was bitten were beginning to feel better.
It set out from that horrible place, limping and bloodied, but also satisfied.
As the weeks passed into seasons, it had more encounters with other fearsome creatures. None were as terrible as those horrors from the deep, dark place. It never dared return, despite the bounty which may have awaited.
It now had many scars. The bare spots in its fur left by the burning bites were the worst. Those parts still grew numb at times, and never did go fully back to normal.
It was always careful. Always silent. Mindful of every step. Still wary of any unknown sight or sound. Yet it was now assured that if it couldn’t hide, and if it couldn’t run, it could fight.
It had been in this area for some time. It had made itself a small den, the location carefully chosen for concealment. It knew every sound and every shadow of these woods. It felt it was in control of this place. It had yet to truly learn that comfort and complacency were luxuries it could ill afford.
It heard a sound it knew. A small group of the little, two-legged creatures were moving through the brush. Its keen ears heard through their paltry attempts at stealth. In spite of their size, these things could be very dangerous. They carried potent weapons which more than made up for their stature. They were not to be taken lightly. It began to consider its options for withdrawal, but halted at another sound.
“Gürek, k’ketch! Where is the thing? You said it would be here.”
“Quiet, fool… It is here. It’s close. I can feel it. Patience, boys…”
Boy? Was Boy here? It didn’t hear Boy. It couldn’t smell Boy either… Still, it wanted to be sure. It raised its head so it could get a better look at the group.
Pain… Cold lashes of pain, encircling and penetrating deep into its flesh. The cold snapped first around its neck, then two of its limbs. The decision to run came far too late. Once all four of its limbs were ensnared, all it could do was fall to the ground.
“Yes! What did I tell you!? We got it, we actually got it! It’s payday, boys!”
There it was again. Boy? Where was Boy? Was Boy hiding somewhere among these others? It didn’t think so. It saw now that it had made a very bad mistake.
“I thought you said it was full-grown,” came a different voice, slightly gruffer. “It’s still a pup, practically.”
“So, it’s a little runty. So, what? You think you can catch a mature one this easy, be my guest. Besides, once we carve out the horns and the tail, who’ll know the difference?”
The bonds were very, very cold. The parts of its body that could still feel were getting numb as well. It knew what that meant. It couldn’t hide, and it couldn’t run. It let out a bellow and started to violently thrash against the bonds.
“Your pup’s still got some fight in it,” said the gruff voice, taking a step back.
A third voice, higher pitched, “Oh, just put the poor thing out of its misery already. Let’s get this over with.”
One of them advanced, the point of their weapon aimed straight at it. It thrashed harder, bellowed again, and started snapping its jaws.
“Watch the head, it’ll spit fire at you!”
“Oh, shut your sarding mouth! That’s a kid’s story.”
“Fine. It’s your grave.”
“You’re an idiot!”
“Oh, am I now? Dragons spit fire!”
“This look like a dragon to you‽”
“Enough, both of you. Just kill it alre–,” the higher pitched voice cut off suddenly as some small, sharp object pierced the side of their neck. The body had only begun to fall when a second object whizzed out of nowhere and hit the gruff one just above the belly. The last one dropped the weapon they had been brandishing, and sped away in a panic.
It was still thrashing and snapping, trying to free itself. It heard footsteps approaching. “Hey, hey, easy there, big fella. Shhhh.” A new voice, calm and soothing. It slowed its thrashing and looked up. “I know it hurts, bud. Just give me a second.”
This one was different. It had never seen a being like this, but they somehow felt familiar. Their skin was a similar colour to its own, as was the fur on their head. They had a tail, which was different, but not entirely unlike the one it had. Finally, they had horns, which it knew that it had, although it had never actually seen them.
“Imbued frost. Crude, but effective. I’d expect nothing less from Goblins. I’ll have to dispel the enchantment. Stay calm for me, okay?”
The horned figure winced as they grasped one of the lashings. It then felt something it had never felt before. The sensation was indescribable. The feeling was like water running over its feet, or like wind blowing against its fur, or like the light of day falling upon its face. Except that the feeling was nothing like those things. The sensation flowed out from the figure’s hand for a moment, and the excruciating cold disappeared. They moved from bond to bond until the painful chill was removed from them all. They then backed away from it slowly, staying low and visible. They stopped, but remained crouched some distance away, facing it.
With the biting, bitter cold gone, the bonds were easy to shed. It simply relaxed for a moment, then wriggled itself free. It got to its feet slowly into a hunch, looking at its saviour with curiosity. The horned one wasn’t running away, and they weren’t advancing towards it. They just crouched there, then slowly eased back into a sitting position.
“I bet you’re hungry after all that. Let’s see what I have.” The horned one rummaged around in a pouch, then removed something.
It knew what that thing was in a heartbeat. The thing was small. Smaller than it remembered, but unmistakable. It was that same sweet, juicy delight that Boy had given it; still the best thing it had ever tasted. It stared longingly.
The horned one must have noticed its anticipation. “You like these, huh? Well, here ya are, big fella.”
The horned one tossed the thing towards it. It instantly bolted away into the brush. Instinct. It knew the thrown object wasn’t dangerous, but that didn’t stop it from reacting. It carefully poked its head from hiding, and saw that the thing was on the ground, right where it ought to have been. The thing was as still and calm as the horned one, who had not moved from where they sat.
Slowly and with great care, never taking its eyes off the stranger, it moved out of the brush. It snuck right up to the round, juicy, wonderful, enticing thing which awaited it.
It began to eat. The taste was even better than it remembered.
The horned one, who it has since learned was called “Isaac”, returned to that spot frequently, always bringing more of the fruit. It got into the habit of returning to that spot every day or so. It was disappointed whenever Isaac wasn’t there.
It didn’t feel safe in that area anymore after the attack by the three little green creatures. It knew that it had to move on. Abandoning its meticulously chosen den would be difficult, but it could find another spot. Leaving Isaac behind was a different matter entirely.
One day, it decided to follow Isaac. Perhaps it could find a new den close to where Isaac would be. It followed cautiously, of course, staying well behind and out of sight. Despite this, it was sure that Isaac knew it was there.
It followed until the wilderness gave way to a large clearing. From the edge of the trees, it observed the place which must have been Isaac’s home. There were many other horned ones there. Most of them had horns, anyway. Many of them had tails like Isaac’s, but many did not. Some had legs and feet like Isaac’s, and some walked on feet much like its own: short, hard, and blunt. Some of them even had features which recalled the horrors from that deep, dark place it had barely survived. They had dark skin, hard looking in places, and sharp points coming out of their hands. Yet there were no signs of aggression here. It saw no anger. No violence. No apprehension. No fear.
Still, it did not like how open this place was. The clearing was far too bright, and there wasn’t much cover aside from the small, scattered structures. It lurked on the edge of the wilderness, waiting for Isaac to come back. It waited a number of days, during which it saw Isaac several times, far into the clearing. Isaac at times seemed to return its gaze, but did not beckon it out, and did not make as if to exit back into the woods.
Eventually its curiosity, as well as its longing for Isaac and the fruit, overshadowed its trepidation. It crept into the open, into the light, and towards the horned folk in the clearing. When they took notice of it, they gathered to watch it approach. Some of them, the smaller ones especially, were frightened of it. But these were held fast by those around them. This was the first time it had ever seen fear that wasn’t its own. Yet none of them hid. None of them ran. None prepared to fight.
It continued forward until it was scarcely a leap away from the group. Isaac then came forth, took a few easy steps towards it, and held out their hand. It sniffed Isaac’s hand, and looked up into Isaac’s face. The face was kind and gentle. The hand began to stroke its mane just behind the horns. The feeling was beyond compare.
Many seasons have passed since that day. Some time was needed before it got used to living in this place, with Isaac and the other horned folk. Steadily, however, every one of them gained its trust. They all gave it food whenever it wanted, and they all allowed it to sleep in their shelter, although it always preferred to be close to Isaac.
Isaac would leave the clearing on occasion, as did some of the others. It wanted to follow right away, but was left behind until it had been with the horned folk a few seasons. Now it almost always accompanies Isaac wherever they go. Together the two hunt. Sometimes for food to bring back to the clearing, and sometimes to discourage strangers from venturing too close.
Since arriving in this place, it has never gone hungry. It has never been trapped or pursued. It has never felt unwelcome. Its fur is now soft, clean, and unmatted. The bare spots which reveal the old scars, which still get numb from time to time, are the only reminder of its previous life, now the faintest whisper of memory.
He no longer has any reason to be frightened.
He is safe, he is loved, and he knows that he always will be.
He is home.