Chapter 2. I become a father.
There were some, though few, reasons you might travel to the Brown Vale before dawn.
You might, for instance, be running for your life and disoriented as to your place and direction. Or you might be hungry. The edges of the Brown Vale were stalked by poachers who planted and maintained tangled piles of refuse they used as bait for the once plentiful vermin that themselves poached from the Goblin infestations around them. These rodents and lice and snakes and mindlessly roving magics of the lost and forgotten were now farmed so closely that their Goblin stewards as often protected as killed their vermin wards. And that protection, since it had much to do with the poachers’ livelihood, was severe.
For this reason, it was dangerous to be on the fringes of the Vale at dawn, when the poaching was best and the competition for it most deadly. Still, in accordance with Goblin principle, if you were willing to place yourself in the path of danger, then there was some likelihood that you might yourself be dangerous. And then it followed that, if travelling to the Brown Vale prior to dawn, for the first time, before the poachers had any immediate reason to think you were not dangerous and only young and foolish, you might well be noticed, but, with luck, you would not be attacked and eaten.
Walking briskly, I passed without incident through the edge of the Vale and into its rotted labyrinth.
An advantage of an early morning sojourn through the Vale was that it didn’t stink quite so much as later in the day. Large mounds of brambles, clumped inside the thin forest between hard-mud anthills and fragile weed-tails, forced me to walk first in one direction and then another — until the differences among directions faded.
I walked until the sun was up, the dew was gone, and the stink of the Vale was heavy — until there was neither sound nor reminder of the poachers and village behind me.
“Twixtamixt,” I said.
Once again. “Twixtamixt.”
Was there something? A rustle? A shift in foul air?
Faeries, Sprites, Banshees and worse rose as gnats and spun into my ears and nose. I snorted and fled, but all paths were now circles and the devilish insects held me inside a thick and timeless bubble of magic.
”Who are you that speaks for Lord Elwyn?” said the buzz.
“I know no such Lord,” said I. “I bring only a word that commands you obey.”
“Twixtamixt,” repeated a single Banshee, now coalesced from the hazy cloud into something faintly Human, stooped and bowed. “You expect a word to command me?”
“Not you, perhaps, but some past magic that steals and hides a young Elf.”
“Nothing is hidden here. Behold.”
A young boy stood beside me, dazed and bewildered. He looked neither Elf nor Goblin, but vaguely Human.
“Do you try to fool me?” I asked the spirit, who bent to pat the young child on its brightly blond head.
“I come here only to observe ancient magic, rare and intriguing.”
“An Elf was captured and killed by Goblins nearby. If this Elf was Lord Elwyn, I have no knowledge of it. Yet I pledged to his aid and now I command you release his son.”
“Lord Elwyn has no son. His only heirs are his cousins and barren maidens, now most likely huddled to divide his estate.”
“Twixtamixt,” said I again, turning from the chameleon to inspect the woods nearby. I saw no other sign of life or magic.
“Twixtamixt,” said the Banshee in echo. The edge of his human form wrinkled in the spotted light of the deep forest. “Is this the name of your magic? I have heard it also called Corcorallum and Beezle and Mahatmadim-el-Haji.”
I felt the boy clinging to my thigh and trembling in fear. I probed his face for Faerie, and rapped his skull for emptiness. The child seemed real.
“What is the value of your life?”
This question was so close to that I had early posed the captured Elf – Lord Elwyn, I now supposed – that I startled. “Goblins do not believe in the sanctity of life. Life and death are equal in Goblin eyes, and only then according to the information they provide.”
“This is indeed Goblin philosophy,” said the spirit. “But perhaps you are not Goblin. Why, after all, do you think Lord Elwyn gave you this duty?”
“I suspect he had no choice.”
The spirit shook its head of buzzes and bees. “I will not speculate on choice, but I will tell you this: Lord Elwyn did not give you his son, he gave you your own.”
“Father,” said the boy at my knee.
I would have questioned the Banshee further, but it dissolved into the rot of leaves on the floor of the Vale, and then further scattered as black ants and brittle wood.
I knelt to inspect the child’s eyes. “I am not your father.”
“I have no other.”
“Your father is a powerful Elf. I will return you to his people.”
“I know nothing of this.” said the child, and his attention wandered. He squatted and played with dead twigs in the dirt.
“Twixtamixt,” I said again, in hope that some new, less vexing child might appear.
“That is what I will call you,” said the child. “You are Father Twixt.”
“And how do you I know you are not some demon in the shape of a child?”
Again, the child spoke without care. “You cannot, for there is this possibility as well: I am not a demon pretending to be a child, but rather a demon within a child who struggles for the child’s well-being. At times you might talk to the demon, and at times you might talk to the child. How will you know one from the other? How will you seek to harm — or to save — one without the other?”
I found no immediate flaw in this argument. Either way — child or demon or some other — my plan seemed unaffected: I would return the child to Elves and receive answers to my questions about life and value. And reward.
“Let’s go,” said I to the child.
“As you wish, Father Twixt,” said the child.