In which Jägerson daydreams, remembers, and hears good news from Ghost.
Jägerson leaned back against a gnarled tree trunk, tried to ignore the painful lumpiness of it and act like he was comfortable, and let his mind wander. If he ever got back home, and if someone there actually noticed he had been gone, and if they asked him where he had been, and if he told them the truth, and if they asked what it was like—OK, so this hypothetical was just a chain of imponderables, but if—he knew what he would tell them. He was ready with an answer to that least likely of questions.
“The Fey lands,” he would say, “are confusing.”
“Confusing?” would echo this improbable questioner, because if he was going to imagine up a conversationalist he might as well give him, or her—or them, an audience could be nice—the kind of conversational style he found most flattering. Hanging on every word begging for more would be nice. Just speaking his language would be nice, but why dream small?
“Confusing,” he would assert in this fantasy exposition. “I don’t mean how time doesn’t work right and the people look strange,” he would add, though those things were confusing too. “The real confusing part if how no one anywhere speaks any language that makes any sense except for the Ghost, and she only speaks in riddles”—to be fair, the level of riddle of speech had dropped over time, but no need to get into that here—“that usually, when solved, turn out to say obvious things like ‘don’t trust that ogre’ or useless things like ‘I think all that stuff you didn’t understand was at least partially a lie.’”
“Ogres?” would echo his magical audience, latching on to the most exciting bit. “Did you really face ogres?”
“What? Oh, yes, of course,” he’d say with affected ease as if he hadn’t mentioned them specifically to evoke this reaction. “Ogres, goblins, barghests, whirlycows, spiked runkers, nightmares and nightstallions, you name it.” Spiked runkers were actually a kind of innocuous, if unattractive, flower, but no need to reveal that. They sounded terrifying.
“Oh, you are so brave! However did you defeat them?”
Jägerson groaned and dismissed this fantasy audience. Even people he conjured in his head had to ask the wrong questions. How had he defeated all these outlandish foes, their steeds and flowers? He hadn’t. Not even one of them. Ghost had slain a few, but most she seemed to either grovel or bargain her way past. Of all of the things he disliked about this trip, the absolute lack of slaying any of the goblins and their ilk was the one that bothered him the most.
Sure, he understood what Ghost told him, or almost told him, that a dead goblin couldn’t tell them where to find what they sought. He got that slaying them after they told him would make others less willing to help. He understood. But he was a goblin hunter; not just his profession, but his chosen identity. To hunt is to find, and then slay. That’s how it works. To find them, chat them up, and then let them wander off unharmed was… was… well, not pleasant, but you know, a more nasty sounding way of saying that. Even his vocabulary was going.
How long had they been here? Long enough to feel like they had been walking forever twice. Long enough to enter and exit two cities—yes, full on slums-and-overlords cities—full of goblins without slaying a single one. Eating goblin food in rooms full of goblins, sleeping in goblin hovels….
Sleeping. How many times had they slept? More than twenty, he knew that. Fifty? More? This never ending twilight, this incessant play-acting-at-being-ugly world, the never-ending blather of nonsense languages…
“Confusing,” he echoed to his fantasy audience again, hoping to get back that moment of imagined glory, but it was gone.
Jägerson looked at Ghost and the goblin she was chatting up now. Ghost was as lovely to look at as ever, and the goblin was the most obsequious goblin Jägerson had ever seen. “Obsequious,” that was a good word. A high-fluting… high-fluent… high-… a smart-person word. Almost made him feel his vocabulary wasn’t slipping, using a word like Obsequious, until he couldn’t remember a simple word like “highfalutin”. What was wrong with him? Anyway, it was the kind of goblin that you’d expect to be obsequing—was that even a word?—to every powerful anything anywhere, all at once, and getting itself into trouble when they found out it was also carrying favor (or was it currying? No, that didn’t make any sense, it had to be carrying…) with their enemies. The sort of cretin you could be sure was saying whatever he thought you wanted to hear, whether true or not.
Ghost, on the other hand, looked like…
Jägerson supposed that any man, closeted with a beautiful nymph for an evening that stretched into months would have felt that things ought to move past the purely professional. He supposed any man would have eventually suggested this to said nymph. He supposed this because it made him feel less foolish for having done so himself.
It had taken a bit for Ghost to understand what he was suggesting; he had had to be uncomfortably blunt. But she had understood at last, and then she had laughed. Not a nervous giggle that some girls use with flirtatious intent, nor the mocking laugh that a haughty lady might give at such a suggestion, but the all-out honest laughter of a person genuinely amused.
“Jägerson,” she had said at length, “don’t you realize what I am? I’m a dryad. As in tree, plant, vegetable. You’re a human, mammal, animal. You want me to waft some polen at you? Not that I can do even that, of course; I’m also dead. A ghost. Not a flower left to my name.”
“But,” had replied Jägerson, confused, “You’re very clearly a female humanoid…”
And then had come the history lesson. People, she had said, were designed to resemble tree spirits. The trees far predated humans, and when it came time to add humans the human-makers felt they could use a little inspiration and chose tree spirits as the model. “Didn’t get it quite right, of course,” added Ghost, “which is why none of you ever look quite as nice as we do, but the outlines were based on us. The plumbing, of course, was added as an afterthought to make you work.”
Jägerson had left it at that. Ghost did seem to have some “plumbing” as she put it; she certainly took in food and released the parts she didn’t digest, just like every other plumbed person. Still, he had decided not to push the issue.
So now he did his best to see her as nice to look at the way that bindweed is nice to look at. And, he was happy to report to himself, generally succeeded.
The interview with the goblin seemed to be concluding, so Jägerson rose to rejoin Ghost.
“Do you recall,” began Ghost once they were close enough for quiet conversation with little chance of being overheard, “my telling you about my previous visit here?”
“Yes,” said Jägerson. He thought of it often as she bumbled about like she had no idea where anything was. Her alleged past, he called it to himself.
“There was a goblin that figured in that story with some prominence,” she said. “One I met afterwards too.”
“Yes, I know,” said Jägerson. “Wait, do you mean that the goblin you were talking to just now was…”
“Yes,” interrupted Ghost. “He had some, um, suggestions to offer.”
“I’m not altogether sure,” said Ghost. She looked far more thoughtful than Jägerson was wont to think of her being. “In any case, they will bear looking in to. You remember my mentioning that we were going to avoid that one place because of the ladies who lived there?”
Jägerson thought about this for a bit. Ladies? When had she mentioned… oh, right, the green hags. She had seemed genuinely scared of them, whatever exactly they were. “Three sisters, weren’t they?”
“I think,” said Ghost, “that we need to go visit them.”
“Why?” asked Jägerson. “I thought we went out of our way to not visit them.”
“That may have been a mistake. One of them—the middle one, Shandipuka she’s called—may have what it takes to help you resolve your disagreements with that one goblin.”
Jägerson startled. “That one goblin” was his and Ghost’s code for Garzdook, the goblin mage who had stolen his nails. They had followed up dozens of leads and never gotten any closer to him. Now Ghost’s nemesis/benefactor (Jägerson was never quite clear which one her goblin was) was just telling them where they could get help?
“Are we in danger?” Jägerson asked.
“Could be,” said Ghost. “Probably,” she clarified. “Like always,” she added. “But this time, I think we just might win.”