Hello, hooray, it's a Wanderverse update! In case you don't recall, Wanderverse is the cozy fantasy world that I'm cultivating. Today I have the pleasure of presenting "Elm and Keep," a CC0-licensed short story commissioned from @strnglft. The titular characters are bumblers of the most charming sort — well, you'll see 🤗
Creatures discovered in Wanderverse so far:
- Botanical fae,
- humans (!),
- and goblins (!!).
Don't worry, you'll hear from Plumule again soon, plus a surprise — and of course I'll be tying these narrative threads together, which is an exciting (to me) next step for the project. In the meantime... read on! Goblins!
Since he was a child, Elm had dreamed of adventuring to the desert caves of the south, but he had never imagined that it would be like this. Hot sand, jagged rocks, too few supplies. Briefly he'd considered hiring a guide from the nearest village — which was now days away.
In his youth, when Elm daydreamed about the desert, his teachers would warn him about the goblin menace native to the area. Goblin society was a paltry one, they would say. The only values that goblins had were of particularly shiny rocks and powerful explosives. No camaraderie, only fly-by-night allies in brutal, reckless raids; no hierarchy, nor… anything sophisticated enough, really, to organize their way out of a loosely-packed wooden crate.
Elm would listen intently to his teachers without ever entertaining their words as some cautionary tale. Instead he dreamed of a life so free, frenetic, and fun.
Now the irony was not lost on Elm as his clothes, torn to rags, did little to abate the burning of the sand on his back. Howling gusts blew across his nose, filling his face with sand as he lay in the dune, praying that soon night would make the sands tolerable to walk on. Elm was bitterly envious of the alleged goblin incapacity to consider any fortune or future even a minute past the present moment. But maybe they had shared this all along.
For an instant it was all too funny to Elm to despair, not that it would've mattered. Before he could drop his head to accept defeat, Elm spotted a growing shadow along a westerly direction. The desert, by comparison, was so flat that any angular shadow was enough to be hopeful. Caves, the steeple of some small desert town, maybe even an oasis! Elm turned over on his side and stuck his fingers into the sand, and though it still burned, his vigor was somewhat renewed; the hope of water, no matter how faint, was all that was needed to keep a man going.
He faced no small trek. Elm had been positive that the shadow indicated intelligent life, but as he made his final approach, it seemed much more apparently a large rock not at all dissimilar from a spire, breaking out into the heavens. Luckily for Elm, it was very tall, casting shade into the desert much like a walkway, the invitation to a better fortune. Yet coming over the dune, Elm had to pause with amazement, as the single rock was now revealed to be something of an earthen masthead for a series of caves. There was the obvious light of fire, made much more apparent in the contrast of a coming night, a fact which Elm did not simply think but feel in the bottom of his stomach. He had found them, he thought. A single word. Goblins.
No doubt Elm would've been more confident with a sword, a slingshot, or perhaps even a canteen full of water. When it's too late to turn back, though, men are very good at convincing themselves the odds against them are made of blessings. "Goblins aren't very bright," he thought. "I'm not that bright either, but I am bigger than them all."
"Surely," he said aloud. "That must count for something."
Clinking and clanking, pittering and pattering, screeching and rasping, even the occasional retching; goblins indeed! Advancing toward the edge of the caves, it was a stroke of luck for Elm, as a particularly witless man, that the sand greatly quieted his footsteps. You always hear goblins before you see them, and to his benefit the local goblins were exceptionally loud creatures. It was part of the reason for Elm's affinity to them.
He veered around a corner and was shocked to discover it was assembled much the way any common town would be. The natural location for the central town square was filled with bones, scrap metal, rocks, perfectly fine human clothes; all manner of things regarded by goblins as trash. Elm thought this proclivity noble for some reason. All along the walls of the caves, tiny dugouts which Elm knew to be their warrens, had all manners of rodents and creatures of the sands hanging to cool; abhorrent cooked dishes the goblins considered a delicacy filling the streets with an exceptionally vile stench.
His eyes were then averted to something much more suspicious. "A dome," he thought. Something about it seemed odd, as Elm had always considered a dome to be an unnatural thing of human architecture. Yet clearly, it had an entrance dimly lit by some fire. His eyes were then caught again by something right behind the dome, the broken and refracted sheen of fire upon the face of water. Elm clenched his fingers against the side of the rock he was using to support himself, gritting his teeth to dig up whatever resolve he could muster. "I have to," he told himself.
Elm started out, stammering a bit at first. "What are they afraid of," he asked, settling into a saunter. "How do you scare things which can't comprehend a future?" he wondered, as he hit a brisk run.
Just then, he spots it; a cracked club propped up against the entrance of the domed hut. "Force!" he exclaimed, grabbing it and rearing it above his head ready to strike at whatever was inside the hut.
Yelling like what he thought was a barbarian, and sounding closer to the village idiot, Elm stopped cold as a blast rang through the door of the hut, sending two goblins to the ground. One stood profusely bleeding yet somehow unaware of this, then ran off with what can only be described as a peal of pained yet maniacal laughter. It was the other goblin which puzzled Elm, however. His clothes were burnt, smudged articles no different from a shopkeeper's garb. Around his neck, there were no jewels nor shiny rocks, but instruments. Elm noticed a jeweler’s eyeglass, which made sense, but a compass and protractor which did not. Instead of being tied with rope or even some gold chain, these items were strung through with a basic but small chain linking, something not too gauche but much too complicated to be the handicraft of goblins.
The goblin had noticed Elm as well. Elm had never put much thought to a goblin's capacity to feel real joy, but the disgusting smile that grew across the goblin’s face couldn’t have been motivated by anything else. Entirely lacking fear, the besmudged yet jingly goblin approached Elm and began inspecting him. Tugging at his clothes, running his greasy fingers through the remnants of Elm's satchel of supplies, torn and slung to his right. The goblin pulled out the map and compass, immediately shoving them into his breeches. Next he revealed a handful of minted currency.
Elm studied the goblin as the goblin studied the coins, noticing that the goblin appeared captivated not by the metal of the coin, but by the standardized engraving of the king. It struck Elm close to the way fear of deadly knowledge strikes any man: This goblin knows what currency is! Not just a standard note of exchange, but that he understands the concept of currency. Elm found himself slightly offended, given that he himself had struggled to learn this for quite some time.
With evident delight, the goblin stole everything that Elm had brought with him and marched back into the hut, leaving Elm free to drink from the small pool of water next to the domed hut. Given this opportunity, Elm collapsed into the water, shocked at how clean and even sweet it tasted. Like no water he had tasted before. It sated the tongue, but even soothed the body and the spirit. It was like a salve on his burns, a cool balm for his aching bones. None of this seemed remotely curious to Elm though, anywhere near as curious as who or what this goblin presumed to think of him. Caution now removed from his character, he pulled himself out of the pool of water and made for the domed hut.
Elm stretched his hand through tapestry after tapestry, aghast at the similarity to shops from his home village until he finally saw why: the goblin sat, one could say smugly, next to a host of trinkets most goblins would consider nonsense, dressed up like an item at any common market. In one hand the goblin held Elm's money, and with the other he gestured to display all that he would like to barter for it. Elm was so dumbfounded he couldn't bring himself to quarrel over the map and compass, which were now also on a stand — to be sold back to Elm.
"You're a shopkeeper," Elm said. The goblin didn't seem to register language. Elm moved in closer and pointed toward the goblin, along with the rest of his wares. "You're a goblin shopkeeper." Perusing, Elm saw things recognizable and useful only to people. Books bound in the most exquisite materials and adorned with the most intricate engravings, tomes on everything from alchemy to engineering. He noticed common razors for shaving, embellished as quaint human weapons of war with stunning detail. Travelers' sacks and coin purses, all emptied of coin naturally, but laid flat to display the extravagant materials used to fashion them. A long, wooden rack of gaudy noble clothing, things much too big for any goblin, hung in a tiny nook of the hut.
Elm thumbed through the wares and set his eyes on a single canteen, the front expertly engraved with a dramatic scene of a galleon being thrashed about by waves. Recalling some other childhood wish for adventure, he scooped it up and confidently walked to the shopkeeper with a smile on his face, oblivious to the drama of the evening at all. To Elm's surprise, the goblin shopkeeper reached out to shake hands. Elm began to ponder the implication, but his fragile cognition was interrupted by a faint hissing and yelling that rapidly grew louder.
Before either the shopkeeper or Elm could assess the situation, another goblin entered the hut, screaming. Something was on his head, and it was on fire. Curiously, it seemed nestled in the satin hat that a noble from Elm's home would wear, smushed between a lit fuse speeding into the barrel. Elm glanced at the shopkeeper, instantly aware of where the hat came from.
In the blink of an eye, Elm, the shopkeeper, and the goblin bomber were torn from the building. The goblin arsonist landed in the water, somehow still moving, with Elm laid flat onto his stomach and the shopkeeper laid on his back. For the second time, Elm groped about at the verge of despair. Sirens rang out, alerting the shopkeeper which confused Elm. The merchant pulled at Elm's collar, tearing his shirt. He then latched onto Elm's ankles, trying to tug him from the scene. Elm's confusion cleared when he began to hear the grunting and screeching of goblins mobilizing into the streets, brought to a riotous fervor by missing out on the excitement of an exploding bomb.
Elm shuffled to his feet to follow the goblin, but not before pressing his canteen into the fountain to fill it. He was uncertain where they'd be running to, but certain they'd be running there together. Water would certainly help both of them. Minutes later they all stood at the spire, gazing toward the goblin's shop, the shopkeeper watching in horror and Elm in envy as goblins took turns blowing themselves up in the former shop.
Just as Elm had never conceived of a goblin feeling joy, he couldn't have known how the shopkeeper was laid low by seeing his work destroyed in some concussive festival. Elm pulled at the shopkeeper's collar, saying: "There, there, Keep. No need to worry about your shop, you can make a lot more money where I'm from."
The goblin didn't understand anything Elm had told him of course, but what he did realize when he turned to look at Elm was that the human had a mechanical contraption around his wrist. Maybe someday he would learn to know it as a watch, and that humans are very concerned with time, but what he did know instinctively was that people pay for things that move. Frantically, he gestured at Elm trying to figure out where he got it.
"This thing?" asked Elm. "It's just a watch. Lots of humans have these."
The shopkeeper understood none of it, but he did understand Elm pointing in a direction back toward civilization. One which no doubt had abundant things to plunder and sell.
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Header image: 19th-century Japanese ivory carving.