Before Caleb the world had been very simple. Every day was about survival and staying away from her former clan. Easy-peasy.
Then Caleb came, and everything got more and more complicated day by day. Some scruffy, squishy, and filthy human man shouldn’t have lasted more than a few days deep in the forest. Especially with how beat up he’d been, how his ankle had that funny wobble to it… as Nott watched him in the dark her first thought was that he reminded her of the deer that would sometimes wander into her old clan’s territory.
The weak ones are easy kills, she remembered her clan leader telling her as they aimed their crossbow at a fawn. A little baby, speckled thing with big eyes and a swishing tail. Injured, the word was like oil between pointed teeth, are even easier.
When Nott looked at those deer she didn’t see easy. Her heart didn’t soar the way it should, her tongue didn’t salivate the way it should. The same thing happened when she looked at this human, all alone deep in the woods, some dried blood and filth caked along his neck. His leg dragged along side him and Nott squeezed a small rock in her fist as she purposely stepped on some branches.
He jumped, his eyes wide in the dark, turning toward her but not seeing her.
Poor little fawn, all alone in the woods, her clan leader would snarl just before they released the bow, the light fwip the only warning before an arrow lodged in the animal’s neck.
“U-Um,” Nott spoke, her voice cracking after years of disuse. “Do you know where you’re going? I don’t want to be… impolite or nothin’ but you’re headed in a terrible direction.”
The man laughed.
“It seems I have terrible direction in life.” He cleared his throat and murmured under his breath. Three orbs of bright light sprung from his hand, warm and soft. Nott gasped, flinching because now he could see her. His eyes found her immediately and she hadn’t thought to hide her face— and the man’s eyes widened right before he smiled. “What are you doing out here all alone, little one?”
“I’m not that little!” Nott replied immediately, so used to defending her size to the rest of her clan. “I’m no runt!” Liar, Nott thought. She was absolutely the runt. Cowardly, weak, useless runt. She glanced around nervously. “Could you, erm, please put out those lights? Please?” The moment she asked, the lights vanished. She strained her ears and didn’t hear anyone approaching. Yet. “That way,” Nott pointed despite him not being able to see, “will lead you right to my clan.”
The man hummed.
“That doesn’t sound too bad, not if the rest of your clan is like you.”
Nott laughed, loud and uneven.
“Ain’t no goblin like me.” Her giggling tapered off, into the growing maw of miserable silence that had followed her years since she had run away. If she only could be like the rest of her clan… she could be happy, not going for days without food and shelter. She was broken, something about her wasn’t right. Her throat was tight as she approached the man, tugging on his coat. “They will kill you. You’re weak, injured, and you’re skinny but there’s enough meat on you to be worth the effort.”
The man shivered.
“O-oh.” His hand waved in the air and for a moment Nott thought he was going to cast out those lights again, but instead his fingers found the top of her head. She jumped, but stilled when his fingers gently carded through her hair. “Would you know a safe passage out?”
Nott did. But leaving the woods would mean being exposed to all sorts of people who weren’t goblins and people who weren’t goblins didn’t like goblins. The man kept his hand on her head, petting her hair like she was… something to soothe. If anything, his motion relaxed him, like she was the one comforting him. His voice sounded odd, also worn rough around the edges. Nott wondered how long he’d been wandering all alone.
“What’s your name?”
“I am Caleb Widogast.” He laughed a little. “Caleb the Navigator.”
“I’m Nott. Nott the Brave.”
She took his hand with a smile and that was when her life went from simple to complicated.
Caleb knew a lot of things. He read a lot and knew magic. In Nott’s book that made him some kind of genius. But he knew a lot of little things that Nott knew wasn’t exactly magic, per say, but it was just as mysterious. Parlor games, wordplay, holidays, Caleb knew about all these things that Nott had never heard of. Even saying the words felt strange on her tongue.
“Hold your hands out like this.” Caleb sat across from her with his legs crossed. They were staying in a barn, in a loft of hay where cows mooed below them. He held out his hands out in front of her, palms pointed to the floor. Nott copied him. “Okay, now I’m going to put my hands like this,” he moved his hands under hers, a few inches under with his palms facing up, “and I’m going to try and—”
He moved quick, or what Nott assumed he thought was quick, to try and hit the top of her hands. She pulled her hands back. He smiled, pushing out a breathy, tired laugh. Nott frowned.
“This is… a game?”
“Well, it is if the players have approximately even reflexes. I’m no match for you, I’m afraid.”
Caleb would look far away sometimes, like he was thinking of the past they both silently agreed to never ask about. It was a look Nott didn’t like, it aged him terribly, pulling at his face until the lines at the corner of his eyes and mouth deepened. Nott swallowed and nudged his knee with her hands, pulling him out of the past.
“What if,” Nott’s voice wobbled the way it did when she’d gone a few days without drink, “what if I could teach you? How to be like me? That way we could play your game.”
Caleb’s eyes widened, big and blue like clear river water.
“You think I could learn?”
“Sure you could.” Nott waved her clawed hand in the air breezily. “I’ve seen you. You sneak pretty well enough already.” Nott glanced to the side nervously, her left hand clutching her right arm and squeezing. “Could you,” she swallowed and she could feel him looking at her, always with so much focus and attention that Nott didn’t know what to do with. “Could I maybe learn some magic… from you?”
“Yes.” Caleb clasped her hands in his. He grinned and the lines in his face softened and it was hard to breathe. He looked so happy and Nott never made anyone happy before. “I would love that, you would really— you would study? With me? It will be hard work, but you can do it, with enough concentration and dedication, you can do it!”
Nott had to swallow a few times around the tightness that had seized her throat. Her hands trembled in his, but for once it wasn’t about the itch or alcohol.
“I will, I’ll study as hard a-as I can. I won’t let you down, Caleb. I promise!”
His smile got that odd quality to it, like he was hurting, but before Nott could get a closer look, he ruffled her hair and pulled her into a close hug. Hugs were something Caleb had showed her. Nott had seen it before, but no one had ever… no one had wanted to hug her. Hugs had scared her before, because it was letting someone so close, and letting others close meant letting herself get hurt.
Hugs with Caleb didn’t hurt.
“Don’t worry about those villagers,” Jester’s voice rose and fell over her words like a singing bird. Nott sniffed, nodding even though she did worry. She worried a lot. “My mother said that people who are ignorant see in black and white. Could you imagine, a world with no colors at all?” Her hands were gentle as she brushed Nott’s hair back to expose the long cut across her cheek. “I feel bad for them. They can’t see how we are all beautiful flowers.”
They were all out of breath and a little banged up from having to run for their lives out of a small town. Fjord was bent over Caleb, his lips pressed into a thin line as he wrapped shredded bits of cloth around a nasty cut on the wizard’s arm. Beauregard held a wet cloth to a fresh black eye and she smiled despite the blood that seeped between her teeth.
“Yeah. Fuck those assholes.”
Molly sat close to their dwindling fire, tending to the end of his beautiful robes which had been torn in a few places during their escape. He sewed with a steady hands, humming a slow, sleepy tune.
Nott did worry and she should be worried. The whole reason they’d been caught was because of her. They’d been drinking at the tavern, and Nott had been so used to their company, so used to them not caring about her eyes, ears, and teeth, that she got lost in the story that her and Caleb were telling. It was about one of their old cons that had backfired, how they ended up running through a field of golden grain and disturbing a whole lot of frogs in order to hide.
To really capture the frog’s expression, Nott needed to use her entire face, and she hadn’t thought twice about removing her mask and continuing talking. And the thing was… no one in the group had thought twice about it either. She did it all the time. It was no big deal, as Beauregard would say.
Nott hadn’t noticed the other patrons. She was focused on her companions. Her friends. How they smiled at her, how Caleb’s arm was warm around her shoulders, and how his laughter was clear like crystal bells, no nostalgic bitterness to it. She’d been so happy.
Weak, her clan leader’s voice whispered to her like a ghost.
By the time the first man had grabbed her, it was too late. Three more went running, shrieking about a goblin in their town. He’d grabbed her mask and flung it against the wall, shattering it into too many pieces to pick up. If Nott had been a proper goblin she would have released a war cry and killed him on the spot. If Nott had been a proper goblin she would have done more than just freeze, her mind just blank with a strange, incredulous serenity. For two blissful seconds she had forgotten that she was a goblin. She’d simply been a friend. For those weird, sliver of moments in time, she had absolutely no idea why the man was reacting with such disgust and rage.
Then she remembered.
She was a goblin. A terrible goblin that had to flee her own clan. And everyone hated goblins. Right. Of course.
Jester rubbed an herb’s leaf between her fingers and she brushed the resulting paste across Nott’s cut. It left a shimmer of pain in its wake. Caleb took the first watch shift, which meant that Nott stayed up with him. He pulled her close, a habit he had after a rough battle or sometimes if he got that far-away look. As the others slept, Nott finally spoke, her voice muffled against Caleb’s arm.
“It was my f-fault. I forgot… I forgot to never take my mask off. I’m sorry, Caleb—”
His hands were in her hair, brushing past her ears. He pulled her into a hug that Nott loved so much. He just breathed, and she copied his pacing until her limbs felt more like her own. Her arms tightened around his neck and she felt Caleb’s cheek move against hers in a smile.
“You shouldn’t have to hide.”
“But I’m a goblin.”
“I don’t care. And neither should anyone else.” Caleb’s accent got thicker, his tongue slurred around something caught in his throat. His grip on her tightened. “You are Nott the Brave. That’s all that matters, do you understand?”
She didn’t, but she didn’t like the tremor in Caleb’s voice, delicate, thin, and angry at something larger than the two of them. She nodded, and she breathed a sigh of relief when Caleb relaxed.
Mollymauk’s hand was warm when he reached down to flick Nott’s ear gently.
“Here,” he pulled out a parcel from inside his teal, gold, and green jacket. “I was saving this for your birthday, but since we’ll be heading into town soon I’ll just find something else for the occasion.”
It was wrapped in thin paper with flecks of silver adorned on it. Nott gently peeled it back, taking care not to rip it. A cloth mask with pink lips intricately stitched onto it. But it wasn’t just lips like her old mask, but flowers, butterflies, and ladybugs. It was a colorful menagerie and Nott swallowed hard, her fingers shaking as she tied it around her face.
“T-Thank you.” Nott squeezed Molly’s hand. “Thank you, Molly. But don’t worry about a birthday. Haven’t got one.” She kept walking because they’d wanted to get to town before the sunset, but when she realized no one was following she turned. “What is it?”
Molly he had an odd expression on his face, like he was struggling to remember lyrics to a song in another language. Fjord flinched, Beauregard’s exhaled a long “oh shit,” while Caleb made a soft sound in the back of his throat. Before Nott could think to apologize, for what she didn’t know but an apology was always a step in the right direction, Jester threw up her arms.
“Then today is your birthday! It has been declared by me and has been blessed by the Traveller!” Jester bounded over and lifted Nott up into the air, twirling her like a pretty dancer in a music box. “Happy birthday, Nott!”
Birthdays were special days, Nott learned. The bar gave her free drinks and even brought out a slightly misshapen cake with pink icing. Birthdays meant presents which ended up being a bunch of baubles that their odd little group had been collecting. There were even songs to sing in celebration, and their night was spent drinking and singing.
Fjord shook Nott’s shoulder, his cheeks flushed from alcohol after he sang a sea shanty.
“Next year we’ll have a more prepared celebration, Nott. On my honor.”
To be honest, Nott couldn’t imagine how birthdays could possibly get better, but she believed Fjord. Molly pulled her up onto his lap, his hands working his cards as he told her fortune. Jester pulled more sweets out of her bag as Caleb sent Frumpkin over to purr and cuddle in Beauregard’s lap.
“Ooh,” Molly’s many rings and bracelets jangled as he placed down the first card. “The Magician. A large power within you.”
Nott turned to raise an eyebrow at him.
“Are you sure it doesn’t mean Caleb? He is a wizard.”
“Sure, but you’re learning magic as well, aren’t you?”
The next card made Molly whistle.
“Suit of Swords, the Knight. It means you are fierce. Which is certainly true on the battlefield.” Nott made a sound, and Molly flicked her ear. “Don’t even start, I’m glad I’m not an enemy, not the way you blend into the shadows even as your readying your crossbow.”
“If you want to sneak I can teach you. I taught some to Caleb.” Nott tapped his hands. “If you teach me your sleight of hand tricks.”
“Nott, I am merely a vessel for the spirits and the unknown gods of the beyond—” he flipped over the final card, the Star, and leaned in close to whisper in her ear. “You’ve got a deal.”
“What are you two planning?” Caleb sauntered over, his saunter clumsy due to the amount of drinks he’d consumed. “I can see you,” he gently poked Molly’s cheek, “conspiring.”
Molly batted his eyes with a fanged leer.
“Just a birthday fortune, my dear Caleb.” He hugged Nott with one arm as he swept up his cards back into his hand. “Happy birthday.”
They retired to their rooms as a group, Jester and Beauregard pulling Nott along with them as the rest of the men went to their room. Beauregard kicked off her robes and fell onto the bed.
“Dude,” she held up her hand and Nott rushed over to give her a high-five. “Best birthday ever?”
Nott nodded, grinning without restraint.
“Best birthday ever.”
Nott was an adventurer. She realized this as they travelled, fought monsters, and made allies along the way. The more spells she learned with Caleb, teaching the rest of the group how to steal, and adding more stories to her collection. She was a goblin, but also an adventurer. It was a good feeling.
“Hold your hands out like this,” Nott sat with Beau as Fjord cooked something that smelled delicious over the fire. She put her hands out with her palms facing the ground. Beau copied Nott’s position. “I’m going to move my hands under yours like this,” Nott moved her hands under Beauregard’s and faced her palms up, “and I’ll try and hit you.”
Before she could finish the word you, Nott struck and Beauregard’s lips split into a smile.
“Let’s go again.”
On the other side of the fire, Caleb had dozed off while reading a book, his head lolled back and his mouth open. Fjord had draped his jacket over him. Molly polished his swords, and Jester peppered Fjord with questions about his recipes. Nott hit Beauregard’s hands, but the next time she tried Beau had pulled back in the nick of time.
Fjord pulled his ladle to his lips and blew on it. The trees around them whispered with the wind, but there were no sounds of insects or animals. Really, if Nott had been paying attention, she would have noticed, but she was so focused on Beauregard’s grin as she reversed their hands.
She did hear the fwip of the first arrow, and Caleb’s scream as it pierced his arm.
Nott recognized the coloring on the arrows. And immediately she knew what had happened. Their party had gained a bit of a reputation as an odd group of heroes. It was known, to certain circles, that there was a goblin in that band of heroes.
Her clan had returned to collect her because Nott was not a proper goblin. Nott was a disgrace.
Goblins that were a disgrace were beheaded.
Her clan was huge and during her time away she was sure it had only grew in size. Molly eased the arrow from Caleb’s arm so Jester could heal it. Caleb wailed.
“Nott,” Beauregard had stepped away from Nott but was looking to close the distance, once she got a look at her face. Nott knew that her clan wouldn’t stop, not until they got what she wanted. “Nott, no—”
She took off. Because she was no longer a goblin. Goblins left the weak behind. Goblins did not have friends. Goblins did not have birthdays. Goblins did not learn magic. No… Nott was an adventurer. Adventurers traveled, bonded, and they were brave.
Her heart hammered in her chest as she ran toward her clan, winding her copper wire just so.
“Caleb,” her voice shook and her heart hurt. She didn’t feel brave as arrows flew around her, some striking the ground just next to her, but at least they were no longer shooting at her friends. “Caleb, there are too many of them and they want me. I don’t mind going,” her voice cracked and she could hear Caleb’s soft no-no-no but she kept talking. “Thank you.”
She knew it wasn’t enough, those two words. Two simple words that weren’t proper enough to really capture the gratitude. The distance grew too long and their connection was cut. Nott drew her short sword.
It had been a good run, she thought. She had more than she had ever dreamed of having. Her simple life… it had blossomed into something beautiful.
And Caleb, he was a smart man. He would know, and surely the rest of them would know, that her tiny life was not worth all of theirs. He would be sad, but he would be alive. It would be fine.
Fire crackled and roared up the trees. Nott skidded to a stop, the screams of her clan an eerie howl on the wind as the forest burst into flames. Nott cut down some of the clan members that came after her, instinctively, as Beauregard leapt in with her staff. She heard Molly’s infernal and saw Jester’s pink lollipop.
Fjord ran next to her, his sword out and crackling with dark energy. Thin fingers touched her head. Caleb stood next to her, his blue eyes shining.
“You’re not alone anymore, liebchen. If they want to take you, we will put up a fight.”
Ever since she’d met him, Caleb had made her life complicated. Nott smiled, her throat too tight for speech as she nodded. She turned back to the fray and joined the fight with a smile.