If Only in My Dreams (Part 4)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Rune and Janks looked at each other and then at the girl.

“You…,” Rune said, struggling to put words together. “How…?”

The girl pointed to a gap in the bricks where the ceiling joined the back wall, barely wide enough for a goblin to shimmy through. Beneath it, someone had piled rolled-up bedding to approximate the shape of a goblin-sized sleeper. She shrugged.

“This whole thing stinks,” Janks said. He stalked to the grate and gripped it with two huge hands—then lurched away with a gasp. “Crashing waves! It’s made of tupping iron!” He pulled off his shamlee cap, and his illusion of a human face dropped as grasped the sides of his head.

“Okay, okay,” Rune said. “Shake it off. Your magic’ll come back in a minute.”

“You think I don’t know how iron works?” the troll spat. “It’s just a bugger to have it ripped away like that!”

“We’ve got more important things to think about now.” He knelt in front of the girl. “These are your people?”

She nodded and pointed. “Lolly” she indicated the younger goblin, “Sketch, and Holda.” She faced Rune. “I’m Tinka.”

“It’s…good to meet you,” Rune said.

“So, you gonna get them out now?”

Rune studied the grate. It reached from floor to ceiling, with a padlock and chain that looked much older than the newfangled lock on the cellar door.

“Let me see that lockpick,” Rune said.

She handed it to Rune and then began to empty her pockets. Lolly reached her hands through the grate to receive her sister’s bounty: treats from the mission, a plastic water bottle, a bus pass, a paper bag of something that jingled like metal striking metal, and finally a fresh pair of little girl’s underwear she’d tucked inside her jacket.

“Holda can use the potty,” Tinka explained. “But she got scared the other night. Had an accident.” Rune spied the portable camping toilet in the corner.

“Stars above,” he muttered.

He tried to insert the jimmy without touching the lock itself, but with little luck. He tucked his hand inside his jacket sleeve, but that just made him clumsy. The iron of the lock grazed his skin, and he pulled his hand away as if he’d been burnt. In that fleeing second, the airy chaos was simply gone—and with it, all his magic. It was excruciating, not physically but psychologically, as if his tether to reality itself had been broken. He moaned and backed away, disoriented.

“Just shake it off,” Janks mocked.

Rune had a thought. “Tinka, you’re young. You have a little magic but not much, right? Could you…?” He offered her the jimmy. She took it and approached the lock. She grimaced when she touched it, but she held on and poked at the keyhole, getting more and more frustrated by the second. At last she turned away. “Jimmy’s too little,” she said. “And the iron’s too cold.”

“Somebody knew what they were doing,” Rune said.

“You ain’t kidding,” Janks said. He’d noticed a wooden bookshelf on the wall. Rune joined him and surveyed the titles on the spines: Grimm’s Fairy Tales he’d heard of, the other titles were new to him, but he could imagine their contents: The Invisible Commonwealth, The Fairy Mythology, and several volumes by someone named Paracelsus. There were old, musty volumes of folklore, alchemy, and Hermetic magic. There were also plastic binders with titles printed in black marker on the spines.

“Rune, heads up,” Janks said.

The elf’s head was still clearing up from the iron, or he’d have heard the car pull up in the driveway. Car doors opened and shut. A male voice shouted, “Marvin!” Then two pairs of feet hurried toward the cellar door.

“Hide,” Rune said. He darted to the lantern and flicked it off. The children in the cage wept and muttered.

Janks was gone in an instant, body shrank and twisted until it was the size and shape of a largish rat. Meanwhile, Tinka scurried into a tight corner behind a stack of plywood propped against a wall.

The cellar door creaked open. Beams of flashlights danced on the walls.

Rune pressed himself against the wall and summoned the airy chaos. Slowly it came to him, and he willed himself to be blanketed in a veil of invisibility. It was something he’d done a thousand times. He’d be safe, even in plain view, as long as he didn’t draw attention to himself.

“It doesn’t look like anybody’s been here,” a voice whispered. They were definitely in the cellar now, moving toward him.

“That don’t explain the door,” the other said. He entered the back section where Rune and Tinka were hiding. He was average height, maybe forty or fifty years old but in good shape. He moved like someone who’d been an athlete in his younger days. He took off his gloves and laid them on the table where the lamp was. He unzipped the front of his jacket and turned on the lamp. He was only a few feet from Rune, but his attention was on the grate.

“Boo!” he shouted. The children shrieked and backed away. The man laughed.

“Henry,” the other man scolded as he came into view. “That’s not going to accomplish anything.” This man—Marvin, apparently—was nearly identical to the first: a little pudgier and wearing glasses, but obviously Henry’s twin.

“Just having a little fun,” Henry said.

“We’re sitting on the greatest discovery in human history,” Marvin retorted. “You can have fun later.” He approached the grate and furrowed his brow. “Deutsch? Können Sie mich verstehen?

“They ain’t gonna talk,” Henry said. “Even if you do find a language you both speak.”

“How many times do I have to tell you? They don’t have to talk, though that would make it easier. They just have to…be. Long enough for me to get a clear sense of what they are, where they came from.” He strode to the bookcase.

“Where they came from? You was there, same as me.”

“Obviously.”

“You drew that circle on the ground, did that mumbo-jumbo with the mirror and the stick and the barbed wire… damnedest thing I ever saw.”

“And soon….” Marvin stopped in mid-sentence and stood up straight.

“What?”

“Something moved. Over there.” He pointed at the plywood where Tinka was hiding. Their backs were to Rune; he tensed his muscles.

Henry pulled a yellow and black snub-nosed handgun from his pocket. “Who’s there!”

Tinka gasped. Rune heard it, but he wasn’t sure the humans did.

Henry yanked down the plywood, and Tinka bolted. Lolly and the other children screamed. Tinka slipped past Henry, who leveled his weapon at her.

Rune gritted his teeth. Before the mortal could pull the trigger, Rune stepped out of his corner. “Hey!” He lowered into a fighting stance, ready to spring. Henry spun away from Tinka and aimed at Rune.

The children shouted, and then Marvinin shouted and stumbled toward the wall. Tinka had kicked him hard in the shin.

Rune lunged for Henry. Henry fired, and Rune’s whole body spasmed. The sensation was like having a painful leg cramp from head to toe. He fell to the floor, his muscles jerking. He felt the sting of two metal stingers in his belly.

“Where the hell did he come from?” Henry sputtered.

“Just secure him!” Marvin ordered. “We’ll sort it out later, once we’ve found that girl!”

The next thing he knew, iron chains rattled, the gate creaked open, and two pairs of rough hands carried him into the cage.

If Only in My Dreams (Part 3)

Part 1 | Part 2

Rune followed, leaping rooftop to rooftop, while Janks followed the girl on the ground. The troll kept his distance, waiting for Rune to make his move. Their quarry was in a hurry and obviously nervous. She kept looking over her shoulder, which forced Janks to turn away or duck into a doorway.

Rune hurried ahead and leaned over the wet, slushy roof a couple of buildings ahead. He caught Janks’s eye and nodded. All he had to do was drop…

A bus pulled up to the curb, and the girl jumped on.

Rune’s stomach churned. But Janks thought fast. He sprinted forward, waving for the driver to wait. The troll looked up a Rune and rolled his eyes before boarding the bus himself.

There was nothing for it but to follow them. The bus turned south onto Baxter, past Cave Hill Cemetery, and then made a slight left onto Bardstown. Through the windows, Rune saw the girl sitting by herself near the back, her arms crossed, her eyes frantic. Janks sat behind the driver and pretended to doze. The bus was nearly empty otherwise, but there were still too many mortal eyes to try anything.

She got off along a stretch of shops and restaurants not too far from Madam Samarra’s. Janks followed as she headed for the back streets.

Rune leaped two rooftops at a time to head her off. Now they were in a residential neighborhood of older houses, modest but mostly well-kept. Christmas lights draped porches and shrubbery, and inflatable holiday characters graced snow-covered lawns. Rune recognized the scene with the baby; the Colemans had that one. He wasn’t sure how this peaceful tableau jibed with the wooden soldiers and candy canes and fat, bearded men, but he was bound to figure it out eventually.

The girl came closer. The street was empty, so Rune took a chance. Drawing the airy chaos around him, he flung himself from the roof to the sidewalk in front of her.

Cahó!” she yelped. She jumped back; the knife in her hand appeared as if out of nowhere. “Nee covóot mii, cohsh! Cwan mii dii haam cot!” She spoke Riverspeak, a creole language from the other side. Don’t touch me, cousin. I’ll hurt you good.

Janks broke into a run. She heard his ponderous steps and shifted her body to keep both of her pursuers in sight.

Rune held up a hand, and the troll held back. He took a tentative step forward, and the girl slashed at him. The serrated blade of her weapon, a steak knife, reflected the multicolored holiday lights.

Nee cwan os dii haam,” he said. We’re not going to hurt you. He allowed his magic to heighten his senses as he had at the mission. He took in her every subtle movement, every shift of her weight, every glance of her eyes.

Those eyes were big and bright and worried. Streaks of tears etched cracks across her dirty cheeks.

Rune continued in Riverspeak. “My name is Rune. That’s Janks.” He extended his hand. The girl flinched. “You’re in some kind of trouble?”

She put away her knife, resting her hand in the pocked of her fleece jacket. Now that Rune had a good look, it was way too big for the child, reaching almost to her knees, and covered in dust and grime.

“What’s your name?”

And then she wasn’t there.

Janks cursed, but Rune spun around, ramping up his magical senses. “Not possible,” he muttered.

“B’the depths, where is she?” Janks said.

“Quiet,” Rune hissed. She had to be close by. If he could hear her footfalls, her breathing, catch a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye, even in the darkness…. He took a deep breath.

Something moved at the top of a driveway: a small, dingy form hiding behind a white van. Rune was after her in a flash with Janks lumbering close behind.

He slapped his hand over her wrist before she knew he was there. She didn’t yell or scream, but she hissed and glared at him and called him several unflattering names in her native tongue.

In her hand was a small metal box with a crank on one side and a hodgepodge of gears beneath a glass panel on the other.

“The indifference engine?” Janks said, finally catching up.

Rune nodded. “It let her pass beneath our notice, but only for a couple of seconds.” He dropped to one knee to look the girl in the eye. “I don’t know who you are, but if you’re in trouble, my friend and I will help.”

“Uh, Rune,” Janks said in English. “I ain’t exactly sure that’s what I signed on for.”

Rune shushed him and kept his eyes focused on the girl.

“You can trust us, cohsh. Alright?”

She pulled her hand away, and Rune let her. Slipping the indifference engine back into her pocket, she motioned for them to follow.

Behind the dark and shuttered house was a cellar door locked with a bright, new stainless steel padlock. The girl reached inside her jacket and drew out a thin metal bar, which she inserted in the keyhole and jiggled around until the lock snapped.

She set her finger to her lips and warned Rune and Janks with her eyes. The message was clear enough: keep quiet.

They descended the rough cement steps into a dark, musty cellar. The girl scampered ahead. Rune and Janks followed, knocking cobwebs out of their way. They moved in utter silence…which only highlighted the sounds of whimpering that assaulted upon Rune’s elvish ears. His heart pounded as he navigated the pipes and the junk.

“Oh,” Janks groaned. “That ain’t right….”

“What? You sensing something?”

“Uh huh. Nothing good.”

The girl flipped on a battery-powered camping lantern. In the blue-white light, the metal grate at the back of the room leaped suddenly into view—and the children locked behind it. There was another goblin girl, much younger than the first, and a half-elven boy holding a toddler, a girl whose big frame and stout facial features marked her as a dwarf.

“Tinka!” the little goblin girl squealed, but the boy quickly hushed her.

Rune and Janks stood there, nonplussed.

Finally, the troll spoke. “Crashing waves,” he muttered. “What kind of monster puts kids in a cage?”

If Only in My Dreams (Part 2)

Part 1

“Did you know mortals exchange gifts at Christmas?” Rune said.

“Or course,” Janks said. “You didn’t?”

“I’ve only been on this side a few months. This is my first Christmas.”

“It’s a lot like Yule,” Janks explained. “Usually me and my brothers get together up north and just kinda cut loose.”

“But not this year?”

The troll sighed. “You know how it is. People say things, do things.” He said nothing for several steps, then, “We ain’t talked in a couple of years.”

Family conflicts were the worst. Rune nodded but said nothing.

“So you wanted to get some mortal a present?”

“My landlords have been…very understanding lately. I’m short on cash, but I’ve got good credit with Madam Samarra. You know about her?”

“Runs that New Age bookshop on Bardstown, right? I hear she sells magic stuff—I mean our kind of magic stuff—out of a back room.”

“That’s the one—and yes, she does. But I just wanted some kind of trinket or something for the Colemans. None of ‘the good stuff,’ as she calls it.”

Rune gestured, and he and the troll turned onto Jefferson Street.

“When I got there, she was beside herself. Says a girl had just made off with something from the back: a little hand-held indifference engine.”

Janks sucked in a breath. “What I wouldn’t give for one of those!”

“She couldn’t exactly call the police, given what the girl had stolen, so…”

“So here we are, tracking down a thief.”

“I’d have turned the job down if it weren’t for the Law of Secrecy.”

“I hear you,” Janks said. “You let yourself be known to folks in the Fallow, there’s no telling what kind of backlash it’s gonna bring. One of my brothers had a horn growing out of his forehead for six months.”

“And a child might not be as careful as we would.”

“Crashing waves, you’re right,” Janks said with a gasp. “It’s hard enough for a full-grown troll to remember the rules, but a kid…”

“Yeah.”

“And Madam Samarra says she was a goblin?”

“Looked like one: dusky-skinned, big eyes, four feet tall or maybe a little more. Said she was almost grown, but she could probably pass for a younger human child if you didn’t look too closely. She ran out of the shop and headed north. All I could do was follow her trail”

“And that’s how come you ended up talking to me.”

“Right,” Rune said. “Here we are.” The rescue mission was a block ahead. He didn’t bother to disguise himself with glamour. He had seen humans with high-arching eyebrows, with hair the color of corn silk, and even sometimes with squarish corners at the tops of their ears. People sometimes noticed there was something different about him, but not often.

The mission was lit up with colorful lights. A couple dozen people sat around folding tables. A Christmas tree gave the room a festive feel, and a big guy in an army surplus jacket played carols on an old upright piano. Some sang along while others shared jokes and stories. A few just stared into space, their expressions indecipherable.

Rune drew to himself the airy chaos, the surging creative force from which his magic sprang. The subtle effort sharpened his senses to beyond even elvish levels. He scanned the room for anything out of place, anyone who might be a thieving young in disguise.

Nearly everyone looked old, or at least worn. Their clothes might have been cleaner or better fitting, but they were laughing and enjoying each other’s company. A woman, maybe one of the clients, busied herself collecting people’s dirty paper plates while a man offered to refill his neighbor’s coffee. Supper was apparently over, but nobody seemed inclined to leave.

There were only a few children; that’s where Rune directed his attention. No, all of them seemed perfectly human.

Footfalls caught his attention. A smiling white-haired man approached him. “Merry Christmas!”

Rune nodded.

“Are you hungry? Most of the food is put away, but I can fix you a plate if you’d like.”

“No, thank you,” Rune said, still scanning the crowd.

“I’m starving!” Janks announced. He had just spotted the dessert table at the back of the room, and shouldered past the man to get to it.

The white-haired man chuckled. Rune took him to be the leader—the reverend, father, gesith? He was never sure about titles in the Fallow. The man turned back to Rune. “How about some coffee then? Maybe a slice of cake?”

“Tea, please—if it’s not too much trouble.”

“No trouble at all.”

Rune sat at the end of the nearest table. The man at the piano started a new song, and nearly everyone joined in singing. Rune pretended to mouth the words. He was lost when it came to the fallowmen’s holidays. He did know that the special days familiar to him were often times when the boundary between his world and this one became thin. Might that explain the presence of Madam Samarra’s thief so soon after Midwinter’s Day? Was she someone from the other side?

The white-haired man brought Rune’s tea before the end of the second verse, along with a slice of chocolate cake. At the same time, Janks sat next to him with two paper plates piled high with sweets of every kind.

“Think that’s enough?” Rune said.

“I can always get more,” he said through a mouthful of divinity.

“We can’t stay long. I’m going to ask around, see if anybody remembers—”

“Hold on,” Janks said. He sniffed the air. “Incoming.”

“She’s here?”

“I dunno. Somebody’s coming. Somebody…ooh!” The troll looked like he’d taken a sniff of something pungent but not unpleasant. “Somebody scared, worried, determined, angry…” He licked his lips and looked Rune in the eye. “She’ll put up a fight if she has to.”

The troll subtly gestured toward the door. She was just slipping in, eyes darting left and right. She looked just as Madam Samarra had described her: short, dusky, in a dingy fleece jacket and a floppy green Santa hat.

The girl skirted around the edge of the room toward the dessert table. Rune sipped his tea as she wrapped a stack of cookies in a paper napkin, slid it into her pocket, and reached back for one more to eat. She did the same thing with the fudge, and then again again with the mixed nuts. All the time, she scanned the room, eyes wide and distrusting.

Janks braced himself to stand up.

Rune said set his hand on the troll’s enormous arm. “Secrecy, remember?”

“Right.”

Rune kept his eyes on the girl. When the reverend or whatever he was approached her, she skirted by him without making eye contact. Open mouthed, he let her walk away.

As she reached the door, Rune stood up and nodded for Janks to follow.

The girl had crossed the street and was hurrying eastward.

“Follow her,” Rune said. “I’ll head her off.” Janks nodded.

Rune ducked between the mission and a neighboring building and let the airy chaos swirl around him, growing into a wild and restless whirlwind. He took in a long, deep breath and took flight.

Part 3

If Only in My Dreams (Part 1)

Who could use a Christmas story? Here is something featuring characters and settings from my work-in-progress, Shadow of the King, in all its unedited glory. Enjoy!

The snow stopped an hour ago, and a starry night was just barely visible behind thinning clouds. Wet, slushy snow crunched beneath Rune’s boots. He zipped his well-worn bomber jacket up to his neck against the icy breeze coming in from the river.

To Rune’s left was the playground at Waterfront Park—deserted this late at night, and with the water play area closed for the season. To his right was the ice-cold Ohio River. His destination lay straight ahead: the Big Four Pedestrian Bridge connecting Louisville with Jeffersonville, Indiana.

He stopped to listen. His sensitive elfish ears had no trouble homing in on the slow, even breaths of massive lungs not too far ahead. He cleared his throat to signal his approach. Rune hadn’t gotten this far in life without learning not to take a troll by surprise.

“Janks?” he called, striding toward the bridge. He tried to make his footsteps louder, then realized, first, that it was nearly impossible for him to do so and, second, that his contact had already marked his coming.

“Rune,” a gravelly voice answered from under the bridge. A figure emerged: nearly seven feet tall, wide-shouldered, big-nosed, bundled in a dark brown long coat, with a green toboggan cap pulled down over his forehead and a matching scarf around his massive neck. “‘Sup?”

Rune took another step forward. “Can’t complain.” He stopped a few yards in front of the troll. “Not much going on around here.”

“It’s Christmas Eve night,” Janks said. “That ain’t exactly peak season for an outdoor playground and water park.”

“I guess not.”

“Kinda like the peace and quiet, though,” the troll continued. “At least every now and then.” He gestured for Rune to approach. “But this ain’t a social call.” There was no malice in his voice and no distrust. He was simply assessing the situation. And, of course, he was right.

“I’m looking for a kid,” Rune said. “A goblin girl. Thought maybe you’d know something.”

“A kid?” The troll’s eyes widened beneath his bushy brow and his froggish mouth curled into something like a grin. “How old?”

“Almost grown.”

Janks frowned. “Too tough,” he said. “A goblin, you say?”

“That’s what my client says. She stole something. I’m supposed to get it back.”

Janks perked up. “So she’s been naughty, eh?” He rubbed his hands together and licked his lips. “That makes things more interesting…”

“Janks,” Rune threatened.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding!” the troll protested. Rune was not at all sure he was kidding. “Like I said, they’re too tough at that age. I’d rather eat shoe leather.”

“I just wanted to know if you’d heard anything about a goblin girl in these parts. My client says she was wearing shabby clothes and one of those stupid pointy hats everybody wears this time of year.”

“Not a peep,” the troll said. “Far as I’m concerned, you can have her.”

“Too tough?” Rune said, quirking an eyebrow.

The troll spread his hands. “I’m just messing with you. You know that, right? That age, they’re just not fun to scare anymore—and their emotions are all over the place.” He made a face as if something left a bad taste in his mouth.

“Fine. I guess I’ll—” Rune stopped short when what Janks said finally registered. “You pick up on emotions, don’t you?”

“I never knew a river troll that couldn’t.” He puffed out his barrel chest.

Rune considered this for just a second. “D’you have any plans tonight?”

Janks eyed Rune warily. “You want me to help you? That’s gonna cost.”

“I’ll owe you one,” Rune said. “And so will my client.” He turned away. Trolls loved excitement, anything out of the routine. That’s what he was counting on. But Janks wouldn’t be forced or cajoled. He had to make up his own mind.

“Shabby dressed, you say?” the troll called after him. “Maybe check over at the rescue mission on Jeff Street. I mean, just a thought.”

Rune stopped. He wiped the smile off his face before he turned back around. “Sounds like a longshot,” he said, “but we’ve got to start somewhere.”

Janks’s eyes lit up. “Just a minute,” he said, hustling forward. He took off his knit cap and shoved it into his long coat. Then he pulled a different had out of an inside pocket, a battered, plaid flat cap. As soon as he put it on, his trollish features dissolved: his eyebrows, nose, and mouth all shrunk to more human proportions, and he might have even seemed a little bit shorter.

“A shamlee cap?” Rune said. “Impressive.”

“We don’t all blend in as good as elves,” Janks said.

“I suppose not,” Rune said. When the troll caught up to him, he turned his back to the river, and the two trudged away together through the snow.

Part 2