It was nighttime, but it wasn't very dark. People claimed that the night was dark and that they had trouble seeing, but Emmeline had never had that curious affliction. Sure, the night was dim, but the sunlight was always so bright and brilliant that it hurt her eyes. Nighttime was better, almost easier to see in, than after dawn.
Emmeline crouched in a particularly deep pool of shadow at the base of the tower, feeling the cobblestones of the courtyard against her bare feet and watching the guards make their rounds along the walltop. Her hair had been slicked down with an almost embarrassing amount of goose-grease from the kitchens, and then tied out of the way with a piece of string. Her clothes were dark-colored and shabby, and there was a pair of boots hung around her neck by the laces. It was almost midnight, when the guards would... ah, there it went.
Softly, softly, the midnight bell tolled to announce the changing of the watch. It was a soft chime, high and sweet, and the guards turned and began making for the stairs as the midnight-to-dawn shift mounted them and headed for their posts. Now was the time to act, if she ever would.
Emmeline turned and ran her hands over the stonework at the tower's base. It was old work, completed a very long time ago by the first ever Baron of Highguard, and the mortar had mostly rotted away. The stones were fit together well and wouldn't slip, but there were plenty of hand- and foot-holds for Emmeline to use. The goblin-child flexed her long fingers and toes, then started to climb.
Emmeline hadn't had any peace for two years now, ever since that Nerys (and even now, her mouth drew itself into a scowl as she thought the name) had come to Highguard and decided to stay. Emmeline's tricks and schemes had a new loathsomeness about them, becoming more grisly and frightening in an attempt to drive the elf-witch away. But even hanging strangled kittens above the elfess's bed didn't do anything.
Everyone in Highguard continued to fawn over Nerys as though she was one of the gods come to earth, and when Fiore had fallen sick it was only natural that the elf-witch would propose to become her personal doctor. The disease that the baroness had contracted was apparently very contagious, but of course elves couldn't catch it, so Fiore was barricaded in her tower room with only Nerys seeing her. Elves and their vile schemes! Emmeline had decided that she hated all of the Undying Folk. They plotted and planned and charmed, and were far too difficult to kill.
Her foot slipped on a slug-trail and lost its grip in the foothold, slipping out to dangle in empty space. For a moment, Emmeline's mind whited out as a blaze of panic swept through her, and allowed all of her weight to rest on her arms. Then she remembered herself, and ran her toes over the stonework until she found a place that would hold them. Like a lizard, the half-goblin scaled part of the tower, then slowly made her way horizontally until she departed from the rounded curve of the tower's bulk, made a ninety-degree turn, then reached the straightness of the wall.
Highguard Castle had suffered infrequent sieges over the centuries, thanks to the occasional foreign warlord who thought that he could carve out a chunk of Albion and make it his own, or else a rebellion against the crown. Either way, someone had used a trebuchet against the wall and knocked a good portion of it down, and it had been rebuilt. The mortar was fresher and the places for fingers and toes less numerous. Emmeline continued her way along the wall, chafing at every quarter-second that was spent searching for a place to put a hand or a foot, then finally made it to the top.
"Who goes there?" a guard with a gruff bass voice demanded, spying the figure creeping across the walltop. His eyes squinted in an attempt to peer through the deep shadows.
Emmeline gave her usual hiss of anger through clenched teeth, sprinting the last few yards and quickly beginning the climb down the other side. She should have brought rope, to hasten this step of the plan. She could see that now. The goblin-child half climbed, half fell the twenty feet down the wall, hearing hobnailed boots striking stone above her as more guards rushed to the spot where their comrade had called out. There was the deep whuuunng of a crossbow being fired somewhere above her head, and the bolt grazed her shoulder. The steel head ripped the cloth of her dress and scraped off a few layers of skin, but didn't draw much blood.
Emmeline gritted her teeth and set out running as soon as her feet hit the ground, pounding along the dirt path towards the village of Highguard. Behind her, there was the creak of the portcullis being raised just enough for the dog handlers to allow the hounds out. Doubtless the guards on duty thought that she was a criminal escaped from the Baron's dungeon, and were doing their best to bring her to heel.
The dogs were baying and howling, their four legs carrying them faster than Emmeline's two, but when they caught her scent their barks turned to confused and frightened whines. The lone dog that was brave enough to crawl up to the goblin-child, ears laid flat and teeth bared in a snarl of menace, received a kick to the snout that made it decide a fight wasn't worth the effort.
Emmeline continued onwards, down the sloping path towards the village. The fief that Highguard ruled over was mountainous, and all of the paths were steep and winding. It was easy for her to see in the gloom, with the light of the stars and the waxing gibbous moon providing light enough.
The village - a huddled clump of dark buildings, with a few solitary lights burning here and there - was an obstacle that Emmeline skirted around. Geese hissed at her, and dogs snarled fitfully from the mouths of their kennels. Several times, the goblin-child was attacked by cats who caught her scent. Emmeline's hands were covered in painful scratches by the time by the time she had finished either snapping the necks of the ones who attacked her or else injuring them badly enough that they decided it was better to slink away rather than continue the fight.
Emmeline's metal heart went tick-tick-tick in her chest, a steady beat only a little bit faster than the rhythm of her own feet hitting the ground. She missed Highguard Castle the way it used to be, before Nerys arrived and ruined everything. The dark corners and the depths of the burial vaults held promises of things unknown then, rather than a dull and tattered oath of temporary refuge from the elfess's horrid light.
Emmeline had known that she would never inherit the barony from Gaerth, since all inheritance (including lands and titles) passed only through the male line, but at least she had been important in her mother and father's eyes. At least they had cared. The night had been hers, the secrets kept hidden away in the dark, the unknown things that lurked in shadow... but then Nerys had come and thrown her light everywhere, banishing the darkness, and Emmeline crept about in what shadows were left like a creeping wild thing forever living in fear of the huntress's arrows. She always felt as though she was waiting to be caught, that eventually the elfess would turn on her with that benevolent smile and beckon her into the light.
It had always been at noon that the condemned criminals hung from the gallows-tree. Always in full light of day, so that everyone could see that justice had been done. Nerys would do that to her, Emmeline knew. If the goblin-child remained free of her influence and elfish charms and refused to do her bidding, then Nerys would dispose of her.
So Emmeline had to dispose of the elfess first.
Her plan was rather shaky, merely a few cobbled-together ideas that had been ventured on the premise that they might succeed and that Emmeline couldn't think of anything better. The goblin-child hated reading and absolutely loathed libraries, which had light everywhere and disgusting books and people expecting her to be quiet, but she had eventually crept in during the night and taken a few history books. Some about the Age of Legends, some about wars and politics. Her tutor had always claimed that all the knowledge in the world was located between the pages of books.
Well, Emmeline had struggled through several. She wasn't especially good at reading, and nor did she enjoy it. None of the books provided an easy solution to the problem that was Nerys. The goblin-child knew that she couldn't trust anyone, however, and would have to seek help from an outside source.
Which meant traveling to Avendalle.
Avendalle had its own healer-wisdom tending to it, and the town was prosperous. It was located at the edge of the fiefdom of Highguard, a good week of travel if you took a horse and went by the Knight's Road. Emmeline was predicting a journey of twice that length, maybe more.
The witch living there might know what to do. You found old women who studied the art of the Wise almost everywhere, and most had an aura of quiet power clinging to them. They served as midwives and doctors and surgeons, and sat up with the dying and kept the vigil over the dead. They banished minor spirits, warded off curses, and helped troubled spirits pass on to the next world. They were the link between the mortal world and the Otherworld, the bridge between mundane and supernatural, keeping everything in balance. If anyone knew anything about what to do with an unwanted elf, it would be a local Wisdom.
Emmeline continued onwards for the rest of the night, stopping an hour before dawn to raid a farmer's henhouse and take half a dozen eggs. The farmer's dogs didn't dare approach her, and she went unopposed on her way. There was a copse of trees she decided to pick as a campsite, and there she ate the eggs raw and settled down for the day, with her cloak pulled over her head to ward off the light of the hated sun.
It fell into a pattern like that, traveling by night and sleeping by day, stealing whatever she needed. Unlike most humans, Emmeline found that she could consume raw meat without becoming ill, and that her digestive system was hardier than that of most men. She also realized that only noblemen wore shoes in the spring - off went the boots she had pilfered, and she traded them for a ragged, stained greatcoat and a floppy leather hat. The nights were still cold, despite the temperatures that the day could rise to.
She was almost caught by poachers, and once a hunter nearly put an arrow through her. Emmeline also discovered that search parties had been sent out for the missing Baron's daughter - one of them rode straight past her on the Knight's Road, armor flashing and jingling, the iron-shod hooves of their horses striking sparks on the cobbles.
It should be said that Emmeline grew more feral as time passed, shunning human contact out of a desire for safety as well as a growing dislike of humanity. Goblin blood stirred in her veins, whispering of abandoned dwarf mines which were safe in the darkness and held hundreds more of her true kinfolk. Mankind had never done anything for her - why should she labor for them, then, why go to such lengths to save one woman? What had Fiore of Highguard done for her, for Emmeline?
She gave birth to me, for a start, and loved me when no-one else would, said the voice out of the darkness, where a speck of light dwelled in spite of all the shadow. Emmeline's feet, though tempted to stray into the wilds and abandon the life she had known, never ventured far from the Knight's Road.
She stole food and slept rough, her hair becoming a mass of greasy ginger tangles. Walking all night and eating sparsely made her already gaunt face become nigh emaciated in appearance, and her bare feet had acquired tough pads of calluses. She stank, carrying around the reptilian odor mixed with something foul and rank like a ferret in heat. Even the cats, her mortal enemies, refused to come near.
By the end of a fortnight and seven days she had reached the village of Avendalle. It was too large for a village and not quite big enough to be a town, but it had its own healer and blacksmith and a small inn.
Emmeline stole a pie cooling on a windowsill of the inn and blistered her fingertips on the dish. The housewife who saw her making off with the pastry screamed and flung a bedpan, splattering the back of the stolen greatcoat with feces and making Emmeline fumble the pie. Part of the crust fell onto the cobbled street, and burning-hot filling slopped over her left hand. Emmeline shrieked and bolted straight back out of town, washing her coat as best she could in a muddy stream and soothing her burnt hand in the cold water. She ate the pie and waited.
The goblin-child didn't return to Avendalle until night had fallen, and only a few solitary lanterns burned here and there. Night watchmen strolled down the streets, their leatherwork creaking and heavy wood batons with lead cores swinging on loops of rawhide. Emmeline avoided them easily and slunk through the streets like the wild thing she was turning into, eventually coming to the house that she was looking for.
Emmeline crouched in front of the door, thanking the Trickster that the portal was in a particularly deep pool of shadow and down a narrow side-street. A pack-mule might have been able to navigate the narrow, unpaved road, but a wagon would be jammed fast between the looming buildings. Two tomcats started a fight not far away, their cries sounding like screaming children.
The goblin-child ignored them and fished a bent piece of wire out of a pocket of the greatcoat, then stuck her tongue behind her teeth and began inexpertly picking the lock on the door. She had never attempted to burgle anyone before, but goblins have always been famed for having clever, grasping hands - it seemed that Emmeline had inherited that trait as well, and very soon the ancient, rusted thing as big as her hand clicked open.
And just as the lock came free, a light appeared in the window.
The light was very bright, most likely an oil lantern, and before Emmeline could perceive anything more than a few bars of light escaping through the cracks in the shutters the door was flung wide open. The goblin-child flung an arm up in front of her face, squinting her eyes against the sudden radiance that blinded her, and saw green and purple dazzle-spots break out across her field of vision.
"What have we here?" inquired a voice. "A thief in the night? Or is it a midden with legs, to judge by the stench?"
Emmeline snarled fitfully and attempted to crawl backwards, out of the puddle of light in the doorway, but something grabbed a handful of her greasy tangled hair and dragged her back. "Oh no you don't," the voice retorted as the goblin-child yelped in pain. "Since you took so much trouble to try and enter my house, you'd better come inside. Mind, I'll probably make you bathe before anything much happens, if only so I don't have to worry lice and filth getting everywhere. In! Now!"
Emmeline obeyed, the hand in her hair maintaining a grip like an iron bar and forcing her to come inside or have her hair torn out by the roots. Already hissing like a scalded cat, the goblin-child outright yowled when she was positioned over a drain and had her coat pulled off and a bucket of water dumped over her head.
"Enough of that already!" the voice scolded, shutting the door with a bang as Emmeline blinked water out of her eyes. "You wanted to come in, now you're paying the price." Emmeline had her head dunked into a basin filled with cold water, and her hair roughly scrubbed with a bar of lye soap. Her face and hands and feet were scrubbed till they were raw and pink and gleaming, but the rest was left untended.
"That'll do for now, I suppose," the voice said. It belonged to an old woman, small and wrinkled like an aged apple, with bright blue eyes peering out of a face that had been tanned brown by years of working in farm fields. She was very tall, as tall as Baron Gaerth, and her hair was the color of stormclouds. She had a hooked beak of a nose and a frowning mouth, and wore a faded tartan dress and a red woolen shawl. She leaned on an ebony cane.
"Well, out with it then," the old woman snapped. "What were you doing, trying to break into a witch's house? Are you an amnesiac that's forgotten how to knock, or are you just stupid?"
Emmeline glowered at her resentfully. "I need help," she ground out, feeling her wet hair sending a rivulet of water down the back of her torn and stained dress. She had worn that and nothing else for three weeks, and it stunk as badly as the rest of her.
"I can see that, and smell it too," the old woman retorted, giving the butt of her cane a sharp rap on the floor. The handle was carved to look like a bird's head, and the eyes were made of glass that flashed in the firelight.
"I need t'kill someone," Emmeline said. "She came and she's 'witched my father, and my mother's ill - the elf poisoned her, I swear on all the gods she did, and..."
The old woman sighed and shook her head. "Sit down before you have a stroke, girl," she said, and claimed a chair by the hearth for herself. Emmeline looked around for a moment. The room she was in was small, with a hearth and several chairs, as well as a table. There was more than one room in the entire dwelling, which suggested prosperity, but if anyone else lived here then they didn't give many signs of their presence. Emmeline sat down on the floor and began the story of what had brought her here, of the witch Nerys who needed to die for what she had done to the Baron of Highguard and the Baroness.
When it was over, the old woman pinched the bridge of her nose like she was very tired. "I'm getting too old to be dealing with this," she muttered crossly, looking weary and ill-tempered for a moment.
"Too old t'deal with what?" Emmeline demanded. This was the longest conversation she had had with anything human in over a month, and her voice had been in disuse for far too long. Telling her story to the crone had made her throat sore.
"Too old to deal with your cheek, Little Miss Saucepot!" the old woman snapped, and rapped her cane on the floor again. Emmeline drew back a little, hunching into a corner slightly and hissing.
The cane caught her on the shoulder, hard enough to bruise. Emmeline yelped and drew back further. "None of that," the old woman snapped, "If you want my help then you should act at least a little more human." She caught the wary look that the goblin-child was directing at her. "Oh, yes, I know what you are. And I know why you're here, too. It's been a long time since any of the Undying Folk have ventured out of their fastnesses in the old places, and to an elf you'd be like a boil on a buttock: unpleasant, ugly, and unwanted. Truthfully, I can't blame the lady."
Emmeline bared her teeth angrily, but twisted away from the cane that whistled through the air beside her head. "She needs to die," the goblin-child growled. "She poisoned my mother."
"I find that extremely unlikely. Elves don't think in terms of poison and sharp little knives in the dark. One of the Undying Folk would be more content to let your mother pass away from old age rather than kill her outright," the old woman said. "They have the time, unlike us mortals." The crone's expression suddenly changed, to display a raffish grin that Emmeline hadn't known she was capable of.
"You've tried killing her already, haven't you?" she asked.
Emmeline snarled fitfully, angry to be reminded of her past failures. "Aye. Oleander, henbane, aconite, vipers in her bed and rabid rats in her dressing room, toadstools in her soup. Nothing worked. 'Twas all fer naught."
The crone laughed outright. "Well then!" she said. "What did you come to me for, goblin-maid? I'm not a miracle worker, nor an assassin."
"Yer one of the Wise. I don't care if you don't kill her, just s'long as ye make her go away," Emmeline said sulkily. She had a feeling that her mission was failing.
"I thank you for the compliment, but my power isn't quite of the level required to drive away an elf," the crone said dryly. "I already have a reputation for being eccentric, but that will degenerate to outright madness if anyone discovers that I've been sheltering goblins - even half goblins such as your own ugly self. You can sleep here tonight, but I want you gone in the morning. Drive away your Lady Nerys on your own, if you want her gone."
"But you can't just - !"
"I can and I will. Do you want a rede, goblin-maid? You want Nerys gone because it was once you who ruled Highguard. Everyone whispered of you, in mingled terror and disgust. Now they whisper in awe and wonder of Nerys. And this elfin maid does not fear you or cower before you, and you have no control over her - 'twas jealousy and newfound fear that brought you to my doorstep in the dead of night, you devil-spawned child, not a desire to protect the woman who birthed you."
Emmeline snarled and felt flecks of spittle coat her lips, unconsciously dropping to all fours and crouching down like an animal that was readying itself for a fight. "Liar!" the girl snarled. "Witch! Heathen! Godless hag! You crone-whore, you leper-mother, you spawn of a three-legged dog and a ten-penny harlot - !"
The old woman's cane banged down on the floor with a sound like a crash of thunder. The window-glass rattled in their panes and the fire nearly died, as though a sudden wind had swept down the chimney and almost suffocated it. The shadows grew long and deep and ominous, but they were not the friendly shadows that Emmeline was accustomed to. These shadows belonged to the old woman, and would give no shelter to a piece of stinking devil-spawn.
"Child, I do not care if you hate me," the crone said quietly, in a voice as sharp and cold as iron in wintertime, "But I do care that you respect me." The shadows surged forward, engulfing Emmeline, muffling her screams. For the first time, the goblin-child understood why humans feared the dark. She had never realized until now that shadows had teeth.
In the morning, Emmeline began the long journey back to Highguard, nursing her bruises and her broken pride, growling and snarling to herself and concocting futile schemes to exact revenge on Avendalle's Wisdom. It took her three and a half weeks to reach the town that sprawled down the steep hillside in front of Highguard's imposing grey walls, and the effects of the single "bath" that she had taken in the Wisdom's home quickly faded.
Emmeline's nails were long and yellow, and beginning to curl into things that looked like claws. Her hair was tangled and wild, her feet black from the accumulated filth of the road, her face gaunt and ugly. Those who encountered her on the Knight's Road assumed Emmeline to be a beggar and steered well clear, holding their noses all the while.
Town watchmen drove her away with their batons when she attempted to walk through the streets to reach the gate. The mottled bruises on her back came from the unkind kisses of their weighted sticks, and Emmeline stole from the inn. Farmers were driving their sheep down from the high and lonely fields along the sides of the mountains, taking them into the downland so as to sell them. Emmeline stole a lamb and slaughtered it in an alleyway, eating the meat raw and crouching over the carcass like a feral dog expecting a fight.
Raw meat tasted better than cooked, in her opinion. Emmeline wondered why she had gone through an entire decade of her life without knowing that.
Throughout that day and night, as the goblin-child stole the lamb and was beaten and chased by the watchmen, she was aware of Highgard's walls looming over the town, and the keep within those walls that was her home. Baroness Fiore was there, and Gaerth who was the man she called "father". Nerys was there as well (a curse upon that horrid name) but still, Highguard was the place that Emmeline thought of as her home. She was going to have to return to it, and face her punishment for running away.
But first, Emmeline was going to have to bathe.
Knight's Road: the kingdom of Albion isn't particularly circular, but the capitol city (Camlann) is situation on the banks of the river Alchessa, which flows from north to south exactly down the center of the country. This is, of course, a random quirk of geography and has nothing to do with the wild improvisation of the author. Roads radiate out from Camlann to all the compass points, like the spokes of a wheel. There are sixteen of these government-maintained roads in total. Each has its own name. The Knight's Road, the Wizard's Road, the Sword's Road, the Royal Road, the Hero's Road...