Goblin Reservation by Simak Clifford Chapter 3

The motor sputtered and went dead. The jets hummed for a second and then fell silent. The air sighed shrilly against the metal hide.

Maxwell glanced swiftly at the man beside him. Churchill sat stiff-perhaps in fear, perhaps only in astonishment. For even Maxwell realized that a thing like this should not have happened-was, in fact, unthinkable. Fliers such as the one in which they rode were regarded as foolproof.

Below them lay the jagged rocks of the craggy cliffs, the spearlike, upthrusting branches of the forest covering the hills, clinging. to the rocks. To the left the river ran, a silver ribbon through the wooded bottom lands.

Time seemed to drag, to lengthen out, as if by some strange magic each second had become a minute. And with the lengthening of time came a quiet awareness of what was about to happen, as if it might be happening to someone else, Maxwell told himself, and not to him, a factual and dispassionate assessment of the situation by an observer who was not involved. And even as he knew this, he also knew, in a dim, far corner of his mind, panic would come later and when that came time would take up its usual pace again as the flier rushed down to meet the forest and the rock.

Leaning forward, he scanned the terrain that stretched ahead, and as he did he caught sight of the tiny opening in the forest, a rift in the dark ranks of the trees and the hint of green beneath.

He nudged Churchill, pointing. Churchill, looking where he pointed, nodded and moved the wheel, slowly, carefully, tentatively, as if he were feeling for some response of the craft, trying to determine if it would respond.

The flier tilted slightly, wheeled and swung, still falling slowly, but jockeying for position. For a moment it seemed to balk at the controls, then slid sidewise, losing altitude more rapidly, but gliding down toward the rift between the trees.

Now the trees rushed upward at them and, close above them, Maxwell could see the autumn color of them-no longer simply dark, but a mass of red and gold and brown. Long, slender spears of red reached up to stab them, clawlike hands of gold grasped at them with an angry clutch.

The plane brushed the topmost branches of an oak, seemed to hesitate, almost to hang there in midair, then was gliding in, mushing toward a landing on the small greensward that lay within the forest.

A fairy green, Maxwell told himself-a dancing place for fairies, but now a landing field.

He switched his head sidewise for a second, saw Churchill crouched at the controls, then switched back again and watched the green come up.

It should be smooth, he told himself. There should be no bumps or holes or hummocks, for at the time the green had been laid down, the blueprints would have called for smoothness.

The craft hit and bounced and for a terrifying moment teetered in the air. Then it was down again and running smoothly on the green. The trees at the far end of the grass were rushing at them, coming up too fast.

"Hang on!" Churchill shouted and even as he shouted, the plane swung and pivoted, skidding. It came to rest a dozen feet from the woods that rimmed the green.

They sat in deadly silence, a silence that seemed to be closing in on them from the colored forest and the rocky bluffs.

Churchill spoke out of the silence. "That was close," he said.

He reached up and slid back the canopy and got out. Maxwell followed him.

"I can't understand what happened," Churchill said. "This job has more fail-safe circuitry built into it than you can well imagine. Hit by lightning, sure; run into a mountain, yes, you can do that; get caught in turbulence and bounced around, all of this could happen, but the motor never quits. The only way to stop it is to turn it off."

He lifted his arm and mopped his brow with his shirtsleeve.

"Did you know about this place?" he asked.

Maxwell shook his head. "Not this particular place. I knew there were such places. When the reservation was laid out and landscaped, the planning called for greens. Places where the fairies dance, you know. I wasn't looking for anything, exactly, but when I saw the opening in the trees, I could guess what might be down here."

"When you showed it to me," said Churchill, "I just hoped you knew what you were doing. There seemed to be no place else to go, so I did some gambling..."

Maxwell raised his hand to silence him. "What was that?" he asked.

"Sounds like a horse," said Churchill. "Who in the world would be out here with a horse? It comes from up that way."

The clattering and the clopping was coming closer. They stepped around the flier and when they did, they saw the trail that led up to a sharp and narrow ridge, with the massive bulk of a ruined castle perched atop the ridge.

The horse was coming down the trail at a sloppy gallop. Bestriding it was a small and dumpy figure that bounced most amazingly with each motion of its mount. It was a far from graceful rider, with its elbows thrust out on either side of it, flapping like a pair of wings.

The horse came tearing down the slope and swung out on the green. It was no more graceful than its rider, but a shaggy plough horse, and its mighty hoofs, beating like great hammers, tore up clods of turf and flung them far behind it. It came straight at the flier, almost as if intent on running over it, then at the last moment wheeled clumsily and came to a shuddering halt, to stand with its sides heaving in and out like bellows, and snorting through its flabby nostrils.

Its rider slid awkwardly off its back and when he hit the ground, exploded in a gust of wrath.

"It is them no-good bummers!" he shouted. "It is them lousy trolls. I've told them and I've told them to leave them broomsticks be. But no, they will not listen. They always make the joke. They put enchantment on them."

"Mr. O'Toole," Maxwell shouted. "You remember me?"

The goblin swung around and squinted at him with red-filmed, nearsighted eyes.

"The professor!" he screamed. "The good friend of all of us. Oh, what an awful shame! I tell you, Professor, the hides of them trolls I shall nail upon the door and pin their ears on trees."

"Enchantment?" Churchill asked. "Do you say enchantment?"

"What other would it be?" Mr. O'Toole fumed. "What else would bring a broomstick down out of the sky?"

He ambled closer to Maxwell and peered anxiously at him. "Can it be really you?" he asked, with some solicitude. "In the honest flesh? We had word that you had died. We sent the wreath of mistletoe and holly to express our deepest grief."

"It is I, most truly," said Maxwell, slipping easily into the idiom of the Little Folk. "You heard rumor only."

"Then for sheer joy," cried Mr. O'Toole, "we three shall down great tankards of October ale. The new batch is ready for the running off and I invite you gentlemen most cordially to share the first of it with me."

Other goblins, a half dozen of them, were running down the path and Mr. O'Toole waved lustily to hurry them along.

"Always late," he lamented. "Never on the ball. Always showing up, but always somewhat slightly late. Good boys, all of them, with hearts correctly placed, but lacking the alertness that is the hallmark of true goblins such as I."

The goblins came loping and panting down onto the green, ranged themselves expectantly in front of Mr. O'Toole.

"I have jobs for you," he told them. "First you go down to the bridge and you tell them trolls no more enchantments they shall make. They are to cease and desist entirely. Tell them this is their one last chance. If they do such things again that bridge we shall tear apart, stone by mossy stone, and those stones we shall scatter far and wide, so there never is a chance of upbuilding that bridge yet again. And they are to uplift the enchantment from this fallen broomstick so it flies as good as new.

"And some others of you I want to seek the fairies out and explain to them the defacement of their green, being sure to lay all blame for such upon them dirty trolls and promising the turf shall be all fixed smooth and lovely for their next dancing when the moon be full.

"And yet another of you must take care of Dobbin, making sure his clumsy self does no more damage to the green, but letting him crop, perchance, a mouthful or two of the longer grass if it can be found. The poor beast does not often get the chance to regale himself with pasturage such as this."

He turned back to Maxwell and Churchill, dusting his hands together in symbolism of a job well done.

"And now, gentlemen," he said, "you please to climb the hill with me and we will essay what can be done with sweet October ale. I beg you, however, to go slowly in very pity of me, since this paunch of mine seems grown large of late and I suffer most exceedingly from the shortness of the breath."

"Lead on, old friend," said Maxwell. "We shall match our steps with yours most willingly. It has been too long since we have quaffed October ale together."

"Yes, by all means," said Churchill, somewhat weakly.

They started up the path. Before them, looming on the ridge, the ruined castle stood gaunt against the paleness of the sky.

"I must beforehand apologize," said Mr. O'Toole, "for the condition of the castle. It is a very drafty place, conducive to colds and sinus infections and other varied miseries. The winds blow through it wickedly and it smells of damp and mold. I do not understand in fullness why you humans, once you build the castles for us, do not make them weathertight and comfortable. Because we, beforetimes, dwelt in ruins, does not necessarily mean that we have forsook all comfort and convenience. We dwelt in them, forsooth, because they were the best poor Europe had to offer."

He paused to gulp for breath, then went on again. "I can well recall, two thousand years ago or more, we dwelt in brand-new castles, poor enough, of course, for the rude humans of that time could not build the better, being all thumbs and without proper tools and no machinery at all and being, in general, a slabsided race of people. And us forced to hide in the nooks and crannies of the castles ' since the benighted humans of that day feared and detested us in all their ignorance, and sought, in their ignorance, to erect great spells against us.

"Although," he said, with some satisfaction, "mere humans were not proficient with the spells. We, with no raising of the sweat, could afford them spades and clubs and beat their spells, hands down."

"Two thousand years?" asked Churchill. "You don't mean to say-"

Maxwell made a quick motion of his head in an attempt to silence him.

Mr. O'Toole stopped in the middle of the path and I threw Churchill a withering glance.

"I can recall," he said, "when the barbarians first came, most rudely, from that fenny forest you now call Central Europe to knock with the hilts of their crude iron swords upon the very gates of Rome. We heard of it in the forest depths where we made our homes and there were others then, but dead long since, who had heard the news, some weeks after its transpirance, from Thermopylae."

"I am sorry," Maxwell said. "Not every one is as well acquainted with the Little Folk..."

"Please," said Mr. O'Toole, "you acquaint him, then."

"It's the truth," Maxwell said to Churchill, "or, at least, it could be. Not immortal, for they eventually do die. But long-lived beyond anything we know. Births are few- very few, indeed, for if they weren't there'd not be room for them on Earth. But they live to an extremely ripe old age."

"It is," said Mr. O'Toole, "because we burrow deep to the heart of nature and do not waste precious vitality of spirit upon those petty concerns which make wreckage of the lives and hopes of humans."

"But these," he said, "are dolorous topics on which to waste so glorious an autumn afternoon. So let us fasten our thoughts, rather, with great steadfastness, upon the foaming ale that awaits us on the hilltop."

He lapsed into silence and started up the path again at a more rapid pace than he had set before.

Scuttling down the path toward them came a tiny goblin, his multicolored, too-large shirt whipping in the wind of his headlong running.

"The ale!" he screamed. "The ale!"

He skidded to a halt in front of the three toiling up the path.

"What of the ale?" panted Mr. O'Toole. "Do you mean to confess to me that you have been the sampling of it?"

"It has gone sour," wailed the little goblin. "The whole bewitched mess of it is sour."

"But ale can't go sour," protested Maxwell, grasping some sense of the tragedy that had taken place.

Mr. O'Toole bounced upon the path in devastating anger. His face turned from brown to red to purple. His breath came gushing out in wheezing gasps.

"It can, bedamned," he shouted, "with a spell of wizardry!"

He turned around and started rapidly down the path, trailed by the little goblin.

"Leave me at them filthy trolls!" shouted Mr. O'Toole. "Leave me wrap my paws around their guzzles. I will dig them out with these two hands and hang them in the sun to dry. I will skin them all entire. I will teach them lessons they never will unlearn..."

His bellowing dwindled with distance to unintelligible rumbling as he scrambled swiftly down the path, heading for the bridge beneath which the trolls hung out.

The two humans stood watching, filled with admiration and wonder at such ponderous, towering wrath.

"Well," said Churchill, "there goes our chance at sweet October ale."