by Trevor Hopkins

The Old One lowered her head right down to face me, the heat of her breath - just unpleasantly warm at the moment, rather than the fiery blast I knew it could become - brushing against my face. I resisted the urge to step backwards, fighting my instinctive nervousness when faced with a being who could bite my head off without really trying.

"Ah, yes, the insightful and perspicacious mind of Findo Gask, once again hard at work," she rumbled, adding, "Whatever am I going to do with you?"

As I watched, Madonna's wise and ancient eyes glazed over of a few moments, as if the locus of her attention was elsewhere, or perhaps elsewhen. Then her gaze returned to focus on me, coupled with a strange distant expression on her face.

"It appears you are to be trusted," she said, sounding uncertain, perhaps even more than a little surprised at her own uncertainty, "Although I do not quite see how."

The fabled prescience of the Old Ones had its limits, it seemed. On the other hand, I wasn't entirely surprised. Surely every sentient creature needed to retain some level of uncertainty in their future, otherwise ennui or even madness would inevitably take its toll.

The sinuous neck twisted and stretched again, raising the Old One's head to its highest elevation. Her gaze drifted to the nest of precious eggs at her side.

"It also seems that I should answer your questions," Madonna continued sadly, almost talking to herself, "For all that it marks the end of a millennium of scheming."

She paused as if composing herself for an ordeal, then spoke again in tones of measured calm.

"This time has been in preparation for, oh, so long. I have put myself through centuries of practice to keep my thoughts to myself and, even more so, to avoid any indication that I was concealing a portion of my mind. in the end, it became easy, second nature. Now I can almost understand how it is that creatures such as yourselves can live only inside your own heads, your thoughts unshared with others of your kind."

The three of us were spell-bound, listening with bated breath to the words being so casually dispensed. Doonira and Bragrum were clearly overtaken by their long-held passion of the habits of the Old Ones. In the good Doctor Quaig's case, I'm sure that the insights of this unexpected fieldwork would propel her through several years' worth of productive paper creation, not to mention the public debates, the conference attendances and the peer review correspondence. Enough to keep the professional academic nicely busy as well as enhancing her promotion prospects. Always assuming we made it out of here with body and mind mostly intact, of course.

"In my new-found mental privacy, I found myself thinking unorthodox thoughts," Madonna went on, "We Old Ones have lived a long time, sacrificing the challenge of growth and the risk of novelty for the certainties of continued existence. I was a choice made a long time ago, a pact agreed and ratified while I was a mere youth. But now, I contend, the time has come for change. And I have no appetite for the endless and exhausting debates my kind favour, cases which are argued back and forth to wile away the aeons."

And, as for me, I had a different reason to be transfixed. The Old Ones had fossilised, mentally. For all their prescience and vast intelligence, their surveillance of the bustle and activity of the Goblins - and the humans too, for that matter - they had no true understanding of the drives and motivations of the base creatures whose world they shared. Madonna had stumbled on a truth, it seemed.

"So you took action, unilaterally," I interjected, my voice deliberately a snarl of weary cynicism, "Something borne out of a combination of maternal instinct and desire for an improvement in the lot of you and yours. Biology and politics - always a potent combination. And even now you hope to keep it secret from the others of your kind."

Madonna stiffened at the tone and tenor of my words, then relaxed as the intent and meaning became clear to her.

"And," I went on, "Unless you Old Ones are completely different from all other creatures on this planet, your motherhood means that there must me at least one other involved, at least peripherally."

Part 32 Part 34