â€œYouâ€™d better do something quick, Jaron, or theyâ€™re gonna kill us.â€
Jaron looked away from his friend and back to the gathering crowd of goblins, which were forcing the two humans back against the decrepit stone wall of the abandoned keep. The pair stepped back onto a raised platform, alongside a rotted executionerâ€™s block. How appropriate, Jaron thought.
â€œThe short oneâ€™s got some meat on â€˜em,â€ one of the smaller goblins said, his mouth moving up and down in simulated chewing, â€œbut the other one is jusâ€™ skin anâ€™ bone.â€
â€œBones is the best part,â€ a bigger goblin said. â€œNice â€˜n crunchy. Anâ€™ you kin suck the marrow right out.â€ He held out his fingers to grasp a simulated bone, then made a loud sucking noise.
A dozen slime-green faces turned to look at Jaron and his partner Bren, eyeing them like a pack of starving wolves would a wounded deer. The goblins crept closer, jagged knives and axes raised to strike.
â€œNice knowinâ€™ ya,â€ Bren said.
He was shorter than Jaron, and less athleticâ€”a physical distinction that also manifested in their personalities. Bren was not as brave as Jaron, nor as skilled at fighting. Then again, such a comparison suggests that Bren had at least a modicum of fighting ability, which he did not. Bren liked to think he was the brains of the partnership, and Jaron was happy to let the younger man think it. Jaron had been through enough to know not to cast aside aid when it presented itself, regardless of the form it took.
â€œWell, what do you want me to do about it?â€ Jaron said, raising his sword defensively.
The two humans were standing above the group of goblins on the raised platform. It was like a stage, the perfect place for the scene of their bloody end. Jaron wracked his brain for an answer; his mind kept settling on the concept of a stage, a show. It would take some trick to get them out of this trouble. A trick. Magic. Stage magicians, misdirection, sleight of handâ€¦It could work.
â€œWait!â€ Jaron yelled. The marching troops froze in step.
â€œWhaddya waitinâ€™ us for?â€ the big goblin asked.
â€œWellâ€¦umâ€¦â€ Jaron sought the right words. â€œWell, you wouldnâ€™t want to just kill the best traveling entertainers in the Southlands, would you? I mean, not without one final show.â€
â€œEntertainers?â€ the smaller goblin said, spittle launching from his mouth like boulders from a catapult.
â€œRight, right,â€ Jaron said. â€œWe are theâ€¦theâ€¦Amazing Rezzletons!â€
â€œI ainâ€™t never heard of ya!â€ the big goblin yelled.
â€œOf course, of course,â€ Jaron said. Bren stood silently and watched, his mouth hanging open, his eyes open wide in awe of his silver-tongued friend. â€œWe donâ€™t usually come around the goblin villages. You know, the whole not wanting to be eaten thing and all.â€
â€œYeh, that makes sense,â€ the smaller goblin said. â€œSo whazzit you do then, Rezzelton?â€
â€œWellâ€¦let me show you,â€ Jaron said forcing a showmanâ€™s smile. â€œIâ€™m going to need a volunteer. You my good manâ€¦â€ he pointed out a small figure in the crowd.
â€œGoblin,â€ the goblin corrected. â€œAnd I ainâ€™t good. Donâ€™t insult me.â€
â€œAh, yes, my apologies,â€ Jaron said. â€œWould you mind helping me out, my bad goblin?â€
â€œWell, since you apologizedâ€¦â€ the goblin said, dragging his short body up onto the platform, his rusty knife clanging against the old wood.
â€œBreak a leg, runt!â€ the big goblin shouted.
â€œUmâ€¦would you mind leaving your knife with one of your friends there?â€ Jaron said, a bit sheepishly. â€œIt might get in the way.â€
â€œThese ainâ€™t my friends,â€ the goblin said, but he handed off the knife anyways.
â€œRight, right. So what is your name then?â€
â€œThey call me Slugtongue.â€
â€œOh, lovely name.â€
â€œI hate it.â€
â€œRight. Right. Well, Mr. Tongue, do you see what I have in my hand?â€
Jaron held out a gold coin, directly in the gaze of the small goblin.
â€œGold!â€ Slugtongue screamed, reaching out for the coin.
â€œWait, wait, wait!â€ Jaron shouted, placing a hand out to stop the grabby goblin. â€œYou can have this coinâ€¦ifâ€¦you can find it.â€
Using a trick he learned as boyâ€”when he had been forced into thieving in order to surviveâ€”Jaron made the coin vanish from sight, slipping it noiselessly into his wide sleeve. He raised the hand in an elaborate performance, feeling the coin drop down into the tuck of his jerkin where the sleeve met the torso. Every green mouth dropped in astonishment.
â€œWhereâ€™d it go?â€ the big goblin shouted.
â€œIt jusâ€™ disappeared!â€ Slugtongue exclaimed.
â€œIs it in my hands?â€ Jaron asked, revealing his palms to the still open-jawed Slugtongue. â€œOr in my sleeve?â€ He pulled open the sleeve opposite the one holding the coin, willing the goblinâ€™s attention to the wrong place.
â€œNo, it ainâ€™t there,â€ Slugtongue agreed.
â€œOn the ground perhaps?â€ Jaron said.
The goblin bent over, examining the floorboards of the old executionerâ€™s platform. While he did so, Jaron dropped his arm, returning the coin to his hand.
â€œOh? Whatâ€™s this in your ear?â€ he said, reaching out and revealing the coin to the crowd.
â€œHa! I always said yur head was full of air!â€ the big goblin said. The crowd cheered. Jaron bowed.
â€œMy gold!â€ Slugtongue screamed, reaching more violently for the coin.
â€œOkay, okay,â€ Jaron said, backing away. â€œIâ€™ll give it to you, after one more trick.â€
One more trick. Jaron was out of tricks. He didnâ€™t know what else he could do. He had so far managed to distract the goblins from their ravenous intentions, but he had no idea where to go from here. His eyes lingered on the executionerâ€™s block.
â€œCome, stand up on this block here,â€ Jaron said, guiding the small goblin who grunted as he climbed atop the block.
â€œDo any of you have a large cloth or blanket of some sort?â€ Jaron asked the waiting crowd. â€œSomething to cover our Mr. Tongue with?â€
After some grumbling and bickering, a brownish goblin emerged from the group, a bloody cape in his hand.
â€œGot dis off a caravan master,â€ the long-nosed goblin said, handing Jaron the cape but not letting go. â€œDa blood is pleasantly fresh, so I wants it back.â€
Jaron nodded and tugged the cloth free from the goblinâ€™s grip. Then with an air of showmanship, he draped the cape over Slugtongue, who was still patiently waiting on the block. As the crowd waited in anticipation, Jaron stepped over to Bren.
â€œBe ready to run,â€ Jaron said.
â€œYouâ€™ve done well so far,â€ Bren said reassuringly.
â€œYeah, but Iâ€™m out of ideas. I say we shank the little guy and make a break for it.â€
â€œI donâ€™t like our chances.â€
Jaron looked around. There was a narrow path on the left side of the group of goblins, which ran along the old stone wall. Depending on how fast the goblins reacted, the two humans could have a significant fight to get through and escape. Jaron didnâ€™t like their chances either.
â€œNo, but I donâ€™t see any other way,â€ Jaron said.
Bren looked him in the eyes for a long moment, then nodded. Jaron swung back around to where Slugtongue was waiting, but his boot slipped on the end of the cape. The cloth yanked tightly, dragging Slugtongue to the floor with a crash. An audible crack echoed off the stone walls. The goblin screamed in pain. Jaron pulled the bloody cape away to reveal to murderous eyes stabbing at him.
â€œAhhh!â€ Slugtongue screamed, â€œHe broke my leg! Bastard broke my leg!â€
Jaron stared at the writhing goblin, terror gripping his thoughts. Then he looked out at Slugtongueâ€™s dozen green companions, expecting them to charge the platform in a rage. He couldnâ€™t breathe. For a moment, everything was still, the goblins looking on in confusion, Jaron and Bren frozen in fear.
Then the big goblin slapped his thigh and screamed, â€œHa! Broke his leg! Ha! Whatta laugh! Whatta riot!â€
The rest of the horde started laughing loudly, some slapping others on the back, some holding their bellies in pain.
â€œWhyâ€™re ya laughinâ€™?â€ Slugtongue yelled at the others. â€œYou no good snots! Itâ€™s not funny!â€
â€œNo, itâ€™s hilarious!â€ the big goblin shouted in reply. â€œWe didnâ€™t know you guys were a comedy troupe. Of course we canâ€™t kill ya now. Somebody pick up the runt.â€
Slugtongue glared at Jaron. A pang of guilt rose up in the man as he watched the stupid creature; part of him pitied the poor wretchâ€™s life.
â€œWhatâ€™s that in your ear?â€ Jaron said, twirling the gold coin into his hand. Slugtongueâ€™s eyes opened wide, his growl transforming into a bright, childish smile.
â€œWe had a promise, right?â€ Jaron said, handing over the coin.
The other goblins came and lifted up the broken source of their amusement, raising the small goblin into the air like a hero. The big goblin slapped Jaron hard on the rump, still laughing hysterically. The mob stomped out of the ruins and into the valley beyond.
â€œYou never cease to amaze me, friend,â€ Bren said.
â€œSometimes I even amaze myself,â€ Jaron said with a roguish smirk.
The pair gathered their things that had been scattered by their meeting with the goblins, and headed off towards the nearest village. They could get there by nightfall, provided they did not need to put on any more shows. Jaron plotted the most probable goblin-free route in his head, directly from the ruins to the village tavern. He needed an ale, or two, or threeâ€¦and boy would he have a story to tell.