The Goblin Road
By midafternoon, they had come to a more open part of the forest. There was more space between the trees, and undergrowth was sparse. Consequently, more sunlight was allowed beneath the canopy, and the heat was similar to that of a warm summer’s day. Seymour could walk no further with Seoc on his back, and Simon had been complaining about blisters for hours, so they stopped.
There had been a change in the goblin path that they had been following since morning. It had broadened and become more obvious, showing clear signs that it was more likely a well-traveled road than a coincidental route. Thus, Seymour had them march nearly half a mile off-trail before setting up camp. Furthermore, he forbade a fire.
“But we need a fire,” Simon insisted. “We need a fire to boil the water, or else we’ll all get dysentery and die!”
“No, we won’t,” Seymour replied bluntly. “We’re too far from the river to use that as a water source, and I doubt the smaller streams are contaminated.”
“But what about food? How are we going to cook our meals? I’m hungry!’
“Don’t,” Seoc snarled dangerously, “start that again.”
Seymour scowled. “Do you think I’m coordinated enough to catch anything that requires cooking? Well, I’m not. That fish was an improbable exception.”
“What are we going to eat, then?”
The Aechyed looked around, scanning their surroundings. “Erm, walnuts…wild onions…blackberries…”
“Where are you seeing blackberries?”
Seymour pointed. “Over on that blackberry bush.”
Simon pouted, crossing his arms. “They’re all dried out.”
“They’re still edible, aren’t they?”
“Yes, I suppose they are, but—”
“Then what is there to complain about? Shut up and start collecting.”
Simon managed to obey half of that particular request. Stomping melodramatically over to the patch of dehydrated blackberries, he began to pluck the sad, hardened raisins from the vine, bemoaning their predicament. “But why can’t we have a fire? You’ve dragged us far enough away from the goblin road—surely they couldn’t see the smoke.”
“I’m not entirely sure that the goblins are all we have to worry about. And yes, in fact, they probably could see the smoke if they happened to look down upon us from a hill. We cannot take those sorts of risks, Simon.”
Simon pulled a face. “But we can afford to risk our health and safety by eating wild plants and drinking straight stream water?”
“Says the man who was eating bugs this morning!”
“I was hungry!”
Seoc spread the blanket in a patch of sun and sprawled out upon it. “If you two keep bickerin’ like this, it will no’ matter whether we have a fire or no’. The bluidy goblins’ll need only ta follow the sound o’ yer raised voices.”
Simon deposited his handful of dried berries on the fabric of Seoc’s blanket. “I suppose the goblins would have a campfire.”
“Probably,” Seymour replied absently.
“And they would have meat to cook on it, and safe water.”
“Most likely they would.”
Simon frowned. “I wonder—do goblins generally treat their prisoners well?”
“Generally,” Seymour answered. Then he realized where the discussion was leading. “Don’t you DARE, you little bastard!”
But Simon had already dared. “OY! GOBLINS!” he yelled at the top of his lungs, dancing away before Seymour could catch him. “COME GET ME BEFORE I’M STARVED TO DEATH ON RABBIT FOOD! OVER HERE! OVER HE—mmmf!”
Seymour managed to seize Simon by the collar and pull him into a headlock, his webbed hand pressed against the human’s mouth to stop his shouting. “You little fucker,” he growled. “If you try and pull anything like that again, I’ll wring your neck, to hell with the consequences. Understood?”
“Mm-hmm,” Simon grunted affirmatively.
“Good,” said Seymour, releasing him. “Now, please trust me and try to do as I tell you. It would make my job a whole fucking lot easier.”
Simon glowered at him. “Why should I? What makes you better than the rest of us? You’re just an ill-tempered, foul-mouthed, drunken newt that thinks he’s brighter than he actually is.”
It took all of Seymour’s self-control to stop him from picking Simon up by the shoulders and shaking him. He couldn’t rebut the accusations—he knew they were all true. And so he just stood there, clenching and unclenching his fists.
“Answer my question,” Simon demanded.
Seymour opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
“Leave him alone, Simon,” Seoc muttered tiredly. “His life isna yers ta judge. Anyway, he saved both o’ our lives. Does that no’ make him worthy o’ yer respect?”
Simon furrowed his brow. “You keep saying that, but I fail to see when.”
“When he saved our lives. The first I saw of him, he was passed out on a rock and the horses were gone. Where did the other one go, the old one?”
Seoc blinked, bemused. “I’m no’ followin’ you, laddie.”
“The old merrow woman. Where did she go?”
Seymour and Seoc exchanged a meaningful look, both of them choking down grins.
“What’s so funny?” Simon inquired.
The Aechyed had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. “The old merrow woman,” he managed, “was yours truly in a dress and a wig, honey.”
Simon’s mouth dropped open. “That was you?”
“The one and only.”
“Why…why did you not tell me earlier?”
“Well,” Seymour replied with a shrug. “I assumed you’d have already made the connection.”
The young man’s shoulders slumped, and he dropped his gaze to his feet. “I…I’m terribly sorry, old chap, I…I didn’t realize…in fact, I rather thought you had done something with her, or she had to return to Waelyngar or suchlike; I never once suspected she and you were one and the same. Will you forgive me?”
“Of course I will,” Seymour replied. “Now, come help me dig up those onions while there’s still light in the sky.”