by Trevor Hopkins

I heard a rattling of metal approaching from behind me, punctuated by the splutter of an ancient engine and the crunching of equally ancient gears. As it approached at what seemed only slightly faster than walking pace, I stuck out my thumb in the time-honoured way. The agricultural vehicle rattled to a halt next to me. The contraption might have started life as some kind of Land-Rover from four or five decades before, but now with so many bits bolted or welded on in random places it was difficult to be sure.

"Need a lift?" the driver asked through the open window with the kind of superfluous vacuity demanded in these circumstances.

I nodded, carefully, in case my head fell right off.

"Going into Ducksford," he said in a low monotone, "Can take you there."

I mumbled some thanks and opened the door. The owner's modifications - or maybe just repairs - extended to the interior as well. The driver's seat might have been original, although visibly patched with gaffer tape in several places. The passenger's chair was just that: a superannuated armchair wedged into the space between transmission tunnel and door frame.

I pulled myself over the arm and into the seat, looking around automatically - and unsuccessfully - for a seatbelt.

"Shut the door," the driver instructed, his warbling voice barely audible above the rumbling idle of the engine.

I reached over - my long arms coming in handy, if you pardon the pun - and grasped what looked like the strongest of the protuberances screwed, glued and bolted to the inside of the door. I tugged firmly and the door swung closed, harder than I expected.

"No need to slam," the driver admonished gently.

He wrestled with the gear lever for a few moments, provoking a series of loud graunching noises, then the vehicle lurched into motion.

The driver looked about as old as I am, but achieved entirely without the advantages of Goblin genetics. He was wizened and scrawny, short for a human and nearly as bald as I am. A few strands of greying hair blew in the wind from the never-closed windows, failing to conceal any portion of his liver-spotted pate. He was dressed country-style in worn overalls and gumboots encrusted with authentic quantities of farmyard muck.

"In trouble?" he asked laconically, speaking from a lowered corner of his mouth.

I fumbled for a cover story.

"Stag party," I muttered in my best city-English tones and holding my head authentically, "Dumped me out here. Somebody's idea of a joke."

I didn't feel much like laughing and the old coot at the wheel wisely left me to stew in my own thoughts while we clattered our way along the winding lanes.

Thirty minutes later I was forcing open the door of the vehicle next to the village green in the tranquil English village of Ducksford, also colloquially known as "the back of beyond". My driver had pulled up at the entrance to the car park of the village pub, of course firmly closed at this hour. I banged the door shut, less hard than before, and thanked the old man through the open window. He grunted non-committally, then said, "Hope you get below soon enough," before slamming the vehicle into gear and roaring off in a cloud of partially-burnt hydrocarbons. So much for my disguise as a human, I thought.

The only telephone kiosk in the place stood nearby, its glass and apparatus miraculously unbroken by the local vandals. My wallet and buzzer was still in my pocket. Another of those cheap glamours I favour had concealed it from prying eyes, but everything else had been stolen, except for those broken sunglasses. I needed a smoke, badly, oh, and some change for the phone.

The pub being inaccessible, the only possibility was the village shop, open early for the purpose of flogging heavyweight newspapers to the English landed gentry and red-tops to van-drivers. I strode over the wet grass, adding more damage to my polished wingtips. I pushed open the door, the dim interior of the shop a relief to my eyes, although the tinkling bell was as offensive to my ears as it would be to any sane human.

My diminutive stature - by human standards - has occasionally given me trouble buying cigarettes in parts of the upper world. Here, the harassed woman behind the counter didn't give me a second glance as I ordered a packet of ten and a disposable lighter, and proffered a twenty pound note from the emergency stash in fifteen currencies I carry around with me. Presumably she was used to the local youths puffing their lungs out from the age of eleven onwards.

In case you're interested, cigarettes don't damage Goblins in the same way as they do humans. For us, they're more a tonic for the lungs, the smoke probably being cleaner than most of the air we habitually breathe. This is especially true in some of the deeper caverns, where it's difficult to see more than ten feet in the Stygian gloom and which are home to some very strange creatures.

Part 29 Part 31