by Trevor Hopkins

"Well, yes," Doonira said irritably, "We know that. But how do you know?"

"I've been watching, always watching," Bragrum replied mysteriously, "I've seen things you can't imagine. Or are prepared to accept, maybe."

His bright eyes twinkled enigmatically from their setting in the folds of ancient skin of his face. Then he straightened up, rubbed his hands together and looked around at the snow-covered forest, and went on in a more conversational tone: "But it's damn cold out here. Why don't we go and chat somewhere warmer?"

I glanced quizzically at Doonira, who just shrugged. It seemed she was prepared to trust this oddball, at least enough for the moment.

"Fine," I said, "Lead on."

The wizened oldster flicked his hood back over his head and turned on his heel without another word. Doonira and I hastened to follow him. Despite his age, he set a fast pace, moving swiftly in a direction not very divergent from the one I would have picked anyway. Not that there was much of a choice of route. This strip of forest was bordered on one side by the road and the steep cliff which had been formed when the route was hacked and blasted through the mountains, and on the other by exposed snowfields and steep drops.

After twenty minutes our mismatched party reached a point where the strip of woodland narrowed and we drew close to the road again. For a few moments, I thought we would have to expose ourselves to the risk of observation, although we hadn't heard any moving vehicles for quite some time. But Bragrum directed us to a culvert, human made, that led under the roadway. It was a circular tunnel of reinforced concrete intended as a storm drain but in this season was quite dry apart from a little wind-blown snow.

On the other side, we found ourselves in a narrow valley with steep sides of broken rock, which would be a foaming rush of water when the thaw came but now just treacherously slippery with ice. I could see that other feet - other Goblin feet, I should make clear - had been here before, although I suspect few humans would have spotted the signs. To the trained eye, there were scrapes plainly visible on the ice at intervals that would correspond to a short-legged gait and occasional scuff marks in the snow which had not been entirely obscured by a careful traveller.

So I was not at all surprised when Bragrum approached a flat and suspiciously smooth-looking vertical rock face set half-way up the side of the little valley. As we got closer, he waved casually, no doubt activating the secret magic that clung to the opening as a disguise. The rock face melted in front of us, to be replaced by a narrow irregular opening that looked, ironically, rather more natural than the concealment that had preceded it.

In single file, we followed Bragrum. There was just enough room for a Goblin to pass through; my size meant that it was just a bit tight for a moment. But few humans - or at least adults - could have made their way inside without the aid of explosives or power tools.

Once within, we were presented with a scene that my great-grandmother would have found entirely familiar. It was very much a traditional Goblin homestead; all a bit old-fashioned by modern standards - that is, the standards of the last few hundred years - but nevertheless quite comfortable, especially compared with the snowbound woodlands outside.

There was a small fireplace built of roughly-mortared stone blocks - Goblins are nervous in the presence of fire more than enough to light a cigarette or lightly cook a meal - but big enough to cast warmth and light throughout the rocky cave. A bedroll was folded neatly on a low pallet along one wall, and a stout chest bound with iron reinforcements was set against another. Between them, a folding chair had been placed so that the occupant could keep his feet warm on one of several boulders that emerged from the floor in front of the fire.

I looked around smiling wryly. I sat down heavily on one of the fire-warmed rocks and drew a half-empty cigarette packet from my coat pocket. I loosened one and fumbled it to my lips, then offered the packet to Bragrum. He accepted one, which he then lit with a splinter from the fireplace. I used a match from a half-used matchbook I picked up at some sleazy bar - I forget exactly where.

Bragrum looked around proprietarily.

"Welcome to my humble abode."

Part 24 Part 26