Authors: T Kingfisher
Tags: #elves, #goblin, #elven veterinarian, #goblin soldier
Copyright 2013 Ursula Vernon
Published by Red Wombat Tea Company
Artwork by Ursula Vernon
For Kevin, who had to put up with this story
for a very long time.
It was gruel again for breakfast.
It had been gruel for dinner the night
before, and it would be gruel sandwiches for lunch, a dish only
possible with goblin gruel, which was burnt solid and could be
trusted not to ooze off the bread. It usually had unidentifiable
lumps of something in it. Sometimes the lumps had legs.
Once, Corporal Algol had found an eyeball in
his gruel, the memory of which he carried with him like a good luck
charm and inflicted regularly on his fellow soldiers.
“Did I ever tell you guys about the time I
found an eyeball—”
Algol wasn’t a bad sort, really. He was
bigger than usual for a goblin, a whopping four foot ten, with
broad, knotty shoulders and enormous feet. He had the ochre-grey
skin of a hill goblin, and he wasn’t all that bright—but then, he
was a goblin officer.
Smart goblins became mechanics. Dumb goblins
dumb goblins became officers.
One of the latter was gesturing grandly from
the top of a nearby rise. Nobody in the Nineteenth Infantry (better
known as the Whinin’ Niners) could hear what he was saying, but
this was probably a good thing. If you couldn’t hear what the
officers said, you couldn’t be said to be disobeying orders. It was
amazing how selectively deaf goblin soldiers could be, particularly
when words like “Charge!” and “Advance!” and “Get your finger out
of there, soldier!” were involved.
“What do you think he’s on about?” asked
Weatherby, jerking his thumb in the direction of the officer.
Everybody turned and looked, since there was
nothing else to do. They had been sitting in the middle of a stony
wasteland for a week, and it was either watch the officers or watch
the bird. (There was only the one bird, and it had been hanging
around waiting for something to die for most of that week.)
The officer was waving his arms wildly now
and hopping on one foot, like a man being attacked by ants. His red
coat flapped in the breeze like shabby scarlet wings.
“We’re going to move out,” said Murray.
Murray nodded. “He’s making a big speech. He
only does that when he thinks we might get into a scrape with the
enemy. The enemy’s not gonna come at us here, so we must be moving
For a goblin, Murray was a genius. He’d
washed out of the Mechanics Corps for being too good at his job.
Goblins appreciate machines that are big and clunky and have lots
of spiky bits sticking off them, and which break down and explode
and take half the Corps with them. That’s how you knew it
If it couldn’t kill goblins, how could you trust it
to kill the enemy?
Murray made small, neat, efficient devices
that didn’t even maim anybody during the construction phases.
Nobody believed for a minute that the things would work, and Murray
was sent down to the infantry in disgrace.
When his designs later proved dramatically
successful, leaving enormous craters in the enemy ranks, and on one
notable occasion, causing an entire platoon of elves to
simultaneously wet themselves on the field of battle, nobody could
remember who’d built them. There was such a rapid turnover in the
Mechanics Corps that the people who’d thrown him out were now
mostly scattered in bits across the landscape, or had transferred
back to Goblinhome to teach.
Murray was, therefore, the exception to the
Whinin’ Nineteenth—and indeed, to most of the surviving Goblin
infantry. “Too dumb to desert. Too smart to die.”
Even this was more clever than accurate.
There are situations where no amount of smarts keeps you from
getting killed. Blockhammer had been sitting down at breakfast a
week ago, as canny a goblin veteran as you could wish for, and one
of the supply rocs had gotten sweaty claws. The gigantic bird had
been passing directly overhead, and the elephant it was carrying
popped right out of its talons and landed directly on Blockhammer’s
head. (Also on his body, his camp stool, and all the space in a
fifteen foot radius around him.)
When they went to bury him, they couldn’t
figure out which bits were Blockhammer and which bits were the
elephant, so the Nineteeth had buried his sword instead. They
rolled a stone over it, and Murray wrote “RIP- BLoKhaMer” on it
(his genius did not extend to spelling.), and Nessilka had sung a
goblin lament. Everyone was very moved, and toasted Blockhammer’s
memory repeatedly over the next batch of elephant gruel. (It was
possible the gruel also contained bits of Blockhammer. Nobody
wanted to dwell on this.)
The other half of the saying wasn’t too
accurate either. Weatherby, for example, had deserted no less than
fifteen times, and he was so dumb it was remarkable he hadn’t been
tapped as officer material.
It was really pretty easy to desert—people
did it all the time—but Weatherby had made an art of it. He would
nod to the rest of the Nineteenth, as they sat around the campfire,
and say “Right, I’m off then!” and then walk in a straight line
until he hit the edge of the Goblin Army encampment. Once he was
fifty feet from the edge of camp, Weatherby proceeded to rip off
his clothes, run to the nearest hill, rise or tree stump, and begin
dancing wildly in the moonlight, while shouting “I’m free, you
sods, free! I’m a free goblin! Waahoooo!
Eventually the guards would come get him and
bring him home again, although his clothes were usually a loss.
Since the Goblin Army had blown almost all
its uniform budget on red coats for the officers, everybody was
wearing loincloths from home anyway, so nobody much noticed.
A runner came up to the edge of the fire
where the Nineteenth were sitting. “New orders, Sergeant!” he said,
Nessilka muttered something under her breath.
She was the ranking member of the Nineteenth since Blockhammer had
gotten splattered, followed by Murray and Algol, who were
corporals, and everybody else, who weren’t. You could tell the
ranks by the stripes on the loincloth, although this system had
drawbacks if you were trying to tell the difference between a
general and somebody who just didn’t do laundry often enough.
Nessilka didn’t like being in charge. She was
at it, but she didn’t like it. She had been the oldest
of six children and was the veteran of three campaigns, and as a
result, both responsibility and suspicion of rank were etched in
Nessilka’s bones. Finding herself as the senior member of the
Whinin’ Niners was like a constant itch between her
“What’s the word, then?” she asked.
“General Globberlich says to break camp.
We’re movin’ out!” He saluted again. He had to be new. Nobody was
that enthusiastic after the first month.
“Will do,” said Nessilka, and waited.
The runner saluted again. He was a scrawny
little green fellow, probably with imp blood somewhere a few
He saluted for the fourth time, hard enough
to bruise his forehead.
Sergeant Nessilka took pity on him and
saluted back, and he ran off to the next camp.
Nessilka was a female goblin, which meant
that everybody was a little scared of her. Occasionally you saw
women in the enemy armies—generally slim, willowy young women with
longbows and grim expressions. She wondered if everybody on their
side tiptoed around them like naughty children with an
Somehow, she doubted it.
There was nothing slim or willowy about
Nessilka. She was built like a chunk of granite, and she could
carry a live boar under one arm. The only concession to femininity
was that she wore her hair in a bun instead of a long queue, and
she wore slightly fewer earrings than everyone else.
“Alright, maggots, you heard the man,” she
growled. “Pack up and move out!”
Most of the Whinin’ Nineteenth groaned and
grumbled and sulked. Murray and Algol, however, got to their feet
and went to start packing their kits, and eventually, the rest
Sergeant Nessilka had just shoved her spiked
club into her belt when a flash of red indicated that the officer
had returned to his position on the cliff. Now he was mounted on
his parade pig, a big white porker with its hooves polished and
ribbons twined in its tail. He made a sweeping gesture with his
sword. The pig squealed.
“And that’s our cue,” Nessilka said. She
slung her pack over her shoulder, and looked around her unit. They
were mostly packed. Murray was helping the two newest recruits get
their gear arranged. Algol had the lead rope for the supply goat.
Gloober had a finger up his nose.
The Whinin’ Niners moved out.
How the Goblin War (if you asked the humans)
or the Glorious Conflict Resisting The Ongoing Human Aggression (if
you asked the goblin generals) or the Bloody Miserable Mess (if you
asked the Nineteenth Infantry) got started really depends on which
side was doing the talking.
Humans and elves will tell you that goblins
are stinking, slinking, filthy, sheep-stealing, cattle-rustling,
henhouse-raiding, disgusting, smelly, obnoxious, rude, unmannerly,
The goblins would actually agree with all
that, and they might add “cowardly” and “lazy” to the list as well.
Goblins have lots of flaws, but few illusions.
As far as the human side of the war is
concerned, one day the goblins, who had been keeping to themselves
pretty well in the high hills and deep mires, came out to a human
settlement, riding their pigs and waving banners, and holding a
list of really laughable demands.
The humans refused, and the next day they
were hip-deep in short green-and-ochre people with tusks. The
humans retaliated, the goblins retaliated for the retaliation, the
elves got involved, the orcs got involved because the elves were
involved, and by the end of six months it was a horrible churning
entrenched mess, where troops on both sides sat around for weeks on
end and occasionally ran at each other screaming.
Again, the goblins would agree with most of
that account, but there was more to it than that.
Once upon a time, goblins had lived
everywhere. Like rabbits, goblins are an immensely adaptable,
quick-breeding lot, capable of living under practically any
conditions. There are hill goblins and marsh goblins, forest
goblins who live in trees and savannah goblins who live in
networked tunnels like prairie dog towns. There are desert goblins
and jungle goblins, miniature island goblins and heavy-bodied
tundra goblins. Goblins live
Wherever a goblin happens to live, he
complains about it constantly. This is actually a sign of
affection. A desert goblin will complain endlessly about the
beastly heat and the dreadful dryness and the spiky cactus. He will
show you how his sunburn is peeling and the place where the
rattlesnake bit him and the place where he bit the rattlesnake. He
will be thoroughly, cheerfully, miserable.
If you took him away from the desert, he
would be lost. He wouldn’t know what to complain about. He might
make a few half-hearted attempts, but he would eventually lapse
into confused silence, and return as quickly as possible to the
desert he loves. Complaining is how he shows he’s paying attention
to all the little nuances of his home.
This is basically goblin psychology in a
nutshell. Goblin cooks wait in anticipation for the rude comments
about the flavor. A goblin courting the lady goblin of his dreams
will point out the new lumps and splotches on her skin and ask if
she’s been sick lately because she looks off color and hey, is that
a tick behind her left ear?
Goblins are in many ways stoics. When they’re
genuinely unhappy, they shut up and put their heads down and just
try to blunder through. (Goblin divorces are notable for their lack
of screaming.) If a goblin eats something without complaining, it
was so bad he doesn’t want to dwell on it. (Gruel among the
Nineteenth Infantry had recently reached this point, and breakfast
had become a silent, glum affair.)
A goblin trying to make the best of things is
a very tragic sight indeed.
So the goblins lived over much of the land,
and the woods and plains and deserts and whatnot rang with the
cheery sounds of goblin complaints.