Clare B. Dunkle

A background story for Close Kin

By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2004.

Winter in Bledesbach

The Story of Lim and Marak Blackwing

When a reviewer pointed out the echoes between Kate's story in The Hollow Kingdom and the Beauty and the Beast folktale, I decided to write a goblin-world short story that would parallel that folktale more closely, and you will find that story below. Like Beauty, Lim has the option of saving her father's life; she also faces a luxurious captivity, as does the folktale heroine, and she can choose to marry the goblin King or not. But there the similarity ends. Lim is not sentimental; a scholar by nature and training, she looks to history rather than to her own feelings for guidance. Nor does she hope for a fairytale ending: this Beauty knows her Beast will stay a beast.

I often create ancillary stories as part of my research when I write a book because the stories allow me to investigate and test world rules. In this one, I studied elf and goblin personalities. Lim has the typical traits of the elvish race: she is high-strung and sensitive, sympathetic to those in need, and inclined to be a bit nervous. Because of her society's structure and her own upbringing, she has never learned to mistrust men, so she naturally assumes that the goblin King will help her meet her scholarly goals. A human girl would never be so trusting.

Marak Blackwing, by contrast, is a typical goblin: he is aggressive, practical, and callous, and insults don't annoy him. However, he says himself that his human mother has made him into a weak King. His bird traits are a hindrance rather than a help, having occurred as the goblin magic translated into reality the distraught human woman's idea of an Angel of Death. Moreover, his personality is weaker than that of the better goblin Kings: Kate's Marak would never have taken out his frustration and impatience on her by yelling at her, as Marak Blackwing does to Lim at one point in this story.

In Close Kin, Emily learns the story of Lim and Blackwing, so I thought that you might like to read it for yourself. This takes place during the reign of Aganir Zal, the elf King named Dawn and the grandfather of the last elf King.

Lim walked back to the tent, her hair still slightly damp, to find Tibir reading an old scroll and waiting for her. Tibir, the elf King's chronicler, always had old scrolls and books in their tent, sometimes so many that it was hard to roll over without landing on one.

"I'm ready for my food," she announced. Tibir looked up and smiled.

"No, you're not," he pointed out. "You can't go to the evening meal like that. You've forgotten your 'five equal braids of the hair on the crown of the head that must fall over the long hair below.'"

Lim scowled as she sat down. "Another stupid rule," she fumed, "and always for us women!"

"You're not a woman," corrected Tibir as he began the braids for her.

"Females," amended Lim. "Another stupid court rule, along with the constant crown of flowers during summer camp, the constant crown of holly during winter camp—and holly pricks!" Tibir laughed. "Do you write all these rules down in the Elf Kings' Chronicles?"

"If I didn't," he observed, braiding, "I wouldn't have much to write about."

"Do you write that they're stupid?" demanded Lim, turning to look at her fiancé.

Tibir hesitated.

"Yes," he admitted. "A chronicler writes for the scholars. I have an obligation to tell the truth. But I don't think it's much of a risk," he added. "This King never reads anything."

Lim's father was Girzal, Lord of the Foot Star Camp, one of the camps closest to the border of the goblin lands, but Lim and her older sister Kala didn't live in her father's camp. They lived in the King's Camp instead and were part of the King's court. Lim's sister Kala was engaged to marry the elf King's military commander, and her wedding was only a month away.

Kala's husband would be very important, far more important than Lim's own fiancé, but Lim didn't mind. Tibir had contracted with Lim's father for her because even at the age of twelve, she had been interesting to talk to. They shared a passion for history, and Tibir had access to the King's Library. At sixteen, Lim knew more about her ancestors than most of the camp lords did. Tibir thought that she was clever enough to be one of the King's Scholars one day.

After the evening meal, Tibir was summoned to the King. He came back looking puzzled. "I have to go to your father's camp tonight," he told her. "Something worthy of chronicling has happened."

"But why would you need to go there?" asked Lim. Normally, the messengers reported to both King and chronicler. Tibir didn't usually leave the court.

"If I know your father, it's goblin heads," said Tibir with a shrug. "Perhaps the messenger couldn't describe them properly. Maybe your father has managed to kill someone important."

Lord Girzal despised the goblins with a special passion. His camp was vulnerable to goblin attack, and the elf King's Guard was lax. More and more goblins were sneaking around in the elf King's forest. Eight years before, five elf girls from the Foot Star Camp had been stolen for goblin brides, and Lord Girzal grieved bitterly over his lost children. When the elf King refused to listen to his complaints and set a better guard on the borderlands, Girzal and his warriors took on the task of guarding the border themselves. Each goblin he killed was revenge for the five bright maidens whose lives had been destroyed. Lim's father was always at his happiest when he had a new goblin head to exhibit.

"I'd like to come with you," said Lim. "I haven't seen Father in two months."

"No, you're to remain here," Tibir told her. "Goblins must be near the Foot Star Camp. You might be in danger on the way."

But three hours later, Lim's mother arrived at the King's Camp. As Lim kissed her, she wondered why she had been allowed to make such a risky journey.

"What happened at Father's camp?" she asked as they walked off to find Kala. "Did you meet Tibir? He left earlier to write the chronicle entry."

"No, I didn't meet him," said her mother in a low, anxious voice. "I don't know what's happened. Your father didn't return to camp last night, and neither did the warriors who were with him. Your brothers are safe. They were both in camp. Otherwise, I don't know what I'd do."

Lim stared at her in surprise. This was a very serious matter, but the King's court was dancing just as it always did. Why wasn't the King's Guard out hunting the missing lord? Why wasn't there a summoning of warriors, a meeting of advisors? And what was Tibir doing at the Foot Star Camp? What was he supposed to record?

She put her arms around the miserable woman. Lim knew how much her parents loved one another. Everyone knew it. Lim's name told them. Lim was named four because her mother had had four children, something that only happened in the elf world when husband and wife were deeply in love.

"The King sends for you," announced the court steward behind them. Kala was with him, looking worried.

Aganir Zal, the elf King, stood with his two lieutenants under his favorite tree.

"Lord Girzal has been captured by the goblin King," he said. "The lord was hunting goblins off my land." Lim held her breath as her mother gave a gasp. "He killed three goblins on goblin land."

Lim's mother covered her face and began to cry, and Lim, heart aching, hugged her tightly. That was it, then. The goblins would execute Father. Killing elves on elf land or goblins on goblin land was a crime punishable by death.

"The goblin King sends me word that we can still save Lord Girzal," said the elf King, and he looked straight at Lim. She felt a chill run through her, but her mother stopped crying and looked up, tense with hope.

"What do we have to do?" whispered the woman. "We'll do anything."

Aganir Zal gave a little smirk. "It's nothing you can do," he told her sarcastically.

Lim suppressed her irritation. She didn't like the elf King. Few elves did. He was their lord and master, but he was a petty windbag, egotistical and vain.

"This goblin King wants a bride," continued Aganir Zal. "He knows Girzal has two unmarried daughters, and he offers you the choice. If one of you will give yourself as ransom for your father, Lord Girzal will go free. Oh, but, Kala, you can't go. Your marriage is too important. So that really leaves just one of you, doesn't it?" Eyebrows raised, he looked at Lim again and gave another little smirk.

Her mother was crying, turning toward her, but Lim pulled away. She didn't want to see the look in her mother's eyes, that look of fear, of pleading. Her throat tight, she walked out of camp, pushing through the silent court. She pulled a knife from the belt of one of the warriors as she passed. She was going to need it.

Lim stalked through the borderlands in a blind rage. No wonder the elf King had sent Tibir away. He didn't want anyone to talk her out of it. Her marriage wasn't important. Her life wasn't important. It didn't matter that she might have the talent to be one of the King's Scholars. The new goblin King was unmarried, and he would soon start making plans to catch a bride. How inconvenient to worry about the raids that would result. Elves might die, and even worse, the elf King might have to put off his dancing. How much neater to solve the problem this way. No fuss, no raids, no executed camp lord, only one inconsequential chronicler who had to find another fiancée.

But Lim had no intention of ransoming her father. She knew his hatred of the goblins. The last thing Lord Girzal would want for Lim was that she become the goblin King's Wife. They said this one was especially ugly, with wings instead of arms, and Lim wasn't about to throw herself into those goblin wings. She was going to help her father escape.

Two hours before dawn, Lim came to the bare cliffs of the goblin kingdom. Somewhere in these cliffs, she knew, was the goblins' main door, and somewhere in them, as well, was the entrance to the elf prison. She and Tibir had read about it. It didn't connect underground to the goblin kingdom at all. That meant that the goblin guards would have to walk outside to bring her father his meals. If Lim could kill a goblin and drag him to the cliff face, the illusion would let her pass through.

The Tracking Spell turned up many fresh tracks by one particular face. That must be it, she thought with a thrill of dread: their main door. Many goblins would be in the forest nearby. She crouched down in the shadows as well as she could. At least she saw better in the woods than they did, and she was quieter than a goblin, too. As she knelt in the underbrush watching the door, she hardly breathed at all.

After an eternity, her patience was rewarded. Two black-robed figures emerged from the rock, carrying loaded trays. Food for the elves, thought Lim in excitement. As they walked along at the foot of the cliff, she crept after them through the nearby forest, her heart tightening with the instinctive panic that goblins produced. They reached the elf prison and vanished into the rock. Good, thought Lim impatiently, now the panic will lessen. But instead it kept getting stronger. She needed to check her plans, but she couldn't think clearly.

"Two goblins," she whispered to herself. "More inside." That left a problem. Just one knife, but she could use attack spells on the rest if she could get through the rock. "I only have to kill one of them," she whispered, "only one of them, to get through." And she readied herself for the goblins' reappearance. She lifted the white elf knife in her shaking hands and aimed it at the cliff, whispering the words that would send it flying into a goblin's heart when she threw it. But her teeth chattered, and she shivered with dread. She forgot the spell halfway through and had to start it again.

"An elf girl on my land," said a harsh voice, and Lim whirled to find an appalling figure standing behind her in the forest. His skeletal form was clothed in black, but the skin of his face was white and papery, tight on the bones. His forehead was prominent, his brows low over the thin, aquiline nose, and his cheeks were narrow and hollow. Panic and fear rolled out from him like waves to beat against her.

Worst of all were the creature's eyes. They were huge and round and shiny black below that prominent forehead. They had no white to them at all, only a narrow ring of brown. They were the eyes of a hawk, set slightly to the sides of the head, and when he raised his arms, he unfolded a pair of great black wings.

"An elf girl," mused that gaunt, winged wraith, revealing sharp gray teeth. "With a knife. I wonder why." He stepped toward her. Lim saw, from each black wing that was an arm, three thin white fingers above the long, extended feathers. The black wings stretched out toward her, and the white fingers curved to seize her.

The dizzying terror that the shape exuded drove Lim beyond rational thought. She raised her knife and sprang to stab him with a desperate cry. But fire poured out of the figure, and Lim's cry changed into screams. In agony, blinded by the flames, she beat at her own scorching flesh. She heard him shouting words, ghastly spells, and darkness swallowed up her suffering.

"Wake up," a gruff voice commanded, "but don't move." Lim came out of the blackness and opened her eyes. They hurt from the bright light, and she thought she was out in daylight. Feathers brushed over her, and her head was lifted. "Drink this," said the voice.

She squinted against the brightness and found that white face with great hawk's eyes looking down at her. The memory of fire and terror overwhelmed her. She opened her mouth to scream, but all that came out was a whimper. She summoned her strength to pull away, but she could barely move. Whining, gasping, she tried with all her meager power to break free.

"Don't move!" The voice became grating. "Your body is too fragile! The damage was severe. Your bones are brittle!" The hot drink fell onto her, splashing her face. Soft feathers stretched across her, holding down her arms. "I've worked all morning on you," rasped the voice as she struggled. "Stop! Sleep!" And then foreign words.

Lim fought the returning blackness. Hour after hour, she fought the magic sleep. Submerged in its imprecise depths, she tried to find herself, her home, her strength. Vaguely, she registered the hot, dry touch of a scorching hand on her head, the velvet stroke of feathers against her face. Horrible feathers. Feathers were horrible; she knew that now, although she didn't know why.

She awoke to the sound of falling water, and relief filled her uneasy soul. "Home," she whispered, listening for the other sounds: the wind whispering in the leaves, Tibir's soothing voice.

"No, I've brought you into a room with a fountain," the nightmare voice answered instead. "You were resting so badly. It seems to have helped." She opened her eyes to glimpse the nightmare face again. "Don't move," it threatened, baring its sharp teeth for emphasis, "or I'll keep you asleep for the next two days."

Lim stared at it, horror-stricken, but she didn't move. Her body felt like lead.

"That's better," said the monster. "You've been such trouble. Even in your sleep, you were trouble. Now, drink this." Scorching fingers were on the back of her head, lifting her, and a hot, nasty drink choked her. She gasped and tried to close her mouth against the cup rim. The scalding drink was withdrawn.

"Fire," she whimpered, closing her eyes.

"Yes, fire," agreed the voice as the cup rim came back and he fed her the hideous drink. "You attacked me. I wasn't expecting it, and my defence magic almost killed you. There aren't many elves brave enough to attack a goblin King. Not even the warriors. Not even the lords." Lim blinked and stared at those shiny eyes under the prominent brow, thinking about her father staring at them, too. "The mouse doesn't attack the hawk," admonished that ghastly figure. "It's brave, Mouse, but it isn't very wise."

Lim's eyes wandered her prison as she swallowed gulps of the drink. Straight brown stone cliffs met a flat brown stone sky not far over her head. She lay on some sort of platform, sinking into a pallet so thick and soft that it seemed about to suffocate her. Heartsick misery overwhelmed her. She was trapped deep below the earth. She looked up at the stone sky of the cave she lay in and felt a sick panic, as if that sky were sinking down onto her and squeezing out her breath.

"Don't move," he warned again as he lowered her onto the pallet, and she realized that she was beginning to struggle and toss. Lim closed her eyes and tried to calm herself. She couldn't escape. She couldn't push aside the mountain of intervening rock.

"Stolen," she gasped, her eyes tightly shut. Locked in the goblin caves.

"No, you haven't been stolen," answered the voice. "I had to bring you here to heal you. There wasn't time to send you back to the elf King, and that idiot probably doesn't have enough healing magic anyway. When you're well, I'll send you back. I wouldn't steal someone as brave as you to be a common goblin bride, and my own marriage is already being arranged. I regret that now." The voice fell to a gruff tone. "What a King's Wife you would make."

Lim kept her eyes closed, dizzy with hope and fear. He was going to let her go, but only because he didn't know who she was. "You're resting well," he remarked. "Good. Go back to sleep."

The next time he woke her up, she kept her eyes shut, drank her drink, and didn't move a muscle. That appeared to please him, and he sent her straight back to sleep. Lim tried not to fight the spells anymore. Each time she woke up, each time she went to sleep marked one more step toward freedom. Perhaps the next time he woke her up, he would let her walk back out into the forest. She would feel the night wind on her face, and she would go home to Tibir. But the next time he fed her the ghastly drink, he asked the question that she had been dreading.

"You're well enough to talk," he said. "I need to know your name because I have to let the elf King know you're here. I expected a message from him last night asking after you. Your people must be worried." The feathers of his wing fanned out across her as he held the cup to her lips. Lim could smell a sweet, dusty smell from the feathers and felt sure that she would always hate birds after this.

"Your name, Mouse," he rasped. "Don't you want your people to know where you are?"

"They know," she whispered.

"I'm breaking the protocol by not notifying the elf King," he said impatiently. "That moron may not care, but I do."

Lim closed her eyes and finished the drink, ignoring him. She didn't know what else to do. "This is surprising," he considered. "Here's an elf brave enough to stab me but not brave enough to tell me her name." She didn't move or answer. He put the cup down. "I hope she doesn't think I'm letting her go until I know it. If she won't tell me herself, I'll send a message to the elves asking who she is."

Lim opened her eyes again, defeated, and stared at that hideous skull of a face. "Tell me your name, Mouse," it prompted.

"Lim," she whispered. The straight slash of a mouth smiled, showing those gray teeth. She closed her eyes, ill at the sight.

"The fourth," he remarked. "The daughter of happy parents. The daughter of which father?"

"Lord Girzal," she whispered, light-headed from fear. A moment of silence passed.

"I was right about you," said the harsh, firm voice. "What a King's Wife you will make."

"No!" cried Lim. "No! You can't steal me! You gave me the right to decide for myself. Just because I'm here, you can't take it away. It isn't fair, you said so."

"No daughter as brave as you will let her father die," he declared.

"Yes, I will!" she cried, her heart pounding. "Yes, I will. Father is a lord. He understands about risk. He made a mistake, and he got caught, and he can take the consequences."

The goblin King tilted his head to one side and studied her thoughtfully. He looked more than ever like a huge bird of prey.

"You love your father, Mouse," he counselled decisively.

"I do," she said, guilty and miserable. "I love him enough to die for him. He loves me enough to die for me. Death is one thing. This is something far worse."

"Marrying me," he clarified, stretching out one black wing to take her by the hand. She shivered at the hot touch of those three deformed fingers.

"You're so horrible," she confirmed, her words tumbling over themselves. "I can't bear it when you touch me, you're dry and hot and bony, and I would die, I would die if I had to marry you." She found herself jerking her hand with her feeble strength, trying to loosen his grip.

"You're soft and cool," he observed, and he didn't let go of her hand. "Calm down. You're still not well. Every King's Wife starts out just like you, and many of them grow to love their Kings. You won't let your father die just because you're afraid."

"I won't marry you," she said emphatically. A tense silence filled the room. Lim closed her eyes and fought back tears.

"The fourth child," his harsh voice remarked. "Two daughters under eighteen. You must be too young for marriage."

"I'm eighteen a year and three months from now," she whispered. "That's when I'll be married."

"No, I'll marry you in three months, when you're seventeen. Any sooner, and your life might be in danger if you go through childbirth early." Lim cried out in despair and struggled to free herself.

"Mouse! Stop and listen to me," he commanded. "In three months, you will lose your fear of goblins, and you will lose your hatred of my kingdom. You will see your duty to your father, and you will agree to marry me."

She stopped struggling and opened her eyes again. "And if I don't agree?" she demanded.

"Then I will release you and kill Lord Girzal," said the goblin King. "You're right that I gave you the choice, and I won't take it away. On your seventeenth birthday, I will kiss you, and then you may tell me your decision."

Lim shuddered, revolted within the depths of her soul at the thought of that kiss. "On my seventeenth birthday, I will go home," she declared, shaking from fatigue and relief.

"You are home," remarked the goblin King. "Now go to sleep."

The next time she awoke, Lim considered the sentence that had been passed upon her. Three months' confinement in the goblin caves. As the King fed her his repulsive potion, she daydreamed about the night when she would leave. She would walk back to camp and to Tibir. They would stay up late into the day, talking, and he would be so excited about all that she had learned. She imagined him praising her, telling her that no other scholar knew what she knew. Elves who go to the goblin caves don't come back, he said in her daydream, but, thanks to you, the scholars know many things about goblin life. Habits, culture, chronicles, you studied all of it. Lim smiled at his handsome face. I'll make you proud, Tibir.

"When can I get up?" she asked the spectral King. "I have work to do."

He put down his potion, surprised. "What work?" he inquired.

"I'll only be here three months, and I have to study everything," she answered. "I'm going to be one of the elf King's Scholars when I'm older."

"You'll be more important than that," he said. "Healing the burns weakened your whole body, but your bones are strong again. You can get up today if you like, but you won't be up very long."

"Good," she said. "I don't have any time to waste. And I'll need paper and quills and ink, for taking notes."

The petite girl followed him into a further part of the cave, very shaky and dizzy. When he stood up, that tall figure seemed to fill the room. His hair was very short and snow-white, high on the white forehead. It skirted the small ears, and stayed close all over the head, but it formed a straight, glossy fringe at the back. Staring up at it as she walked behind him, Lim shivered. It might not be hair after all. It might be feathers.

"Your shoes survived," he declared, raising a rustling wing to jerk open a cupboard. "Here are new elf clothes. I assume they'll fit. And you can wash up here. I assume you'll want cold water."

Lim followed him around the small room as he rattled off confusing instructions. She looked into a mirror and stopped, aghast, letting out a shriek of horror. The goblin King turned and followed her gaze. He gave a tight-lipped smile.

"Don't squeak, Mouse," he advised gruffly. "I couldn't heal your hair."

Lim washed and dressed after he left, fitting the new elf clothes to herself and staring in dismay at the short black fuzz that had replaced her long hair. The goblin King came back with a satchel and exhibited its contents.

"A blank book," he announced, holding it up.

Lim snatched it eagerly from those bony fingers and ran her hands over it. A book! A thick one, too. A new book for the elf King's Library. Tibir wrote in a book when he chronicled events for the King, but books were far too rare for her to have ever written in one.

"Ink," he went on, watching her happy face. "Blotting paper. Cloths for wiping your fingers. Quill pens."

Lim examined one of them clinically, the tip already split, trimmed, and fire-hardened. Then she registered its black color with a jolt. She gave the goblin King an accusing glare.

"I lose them, as you might expect," he answered. "They make excellent pens."

Lim put everything back into the satchel and put it around her neck. "I'm ready to start studying goblins," she announced excitedly. "What are goblins doing now?"

"The goblins in my palace are eating their midday meal," he replied.

"Then I want to watch them and take notes," decided Lim.

Those hawk's eyes studied her. "It's too soon," he said. "Your body is still weak, and your magic is very sensitive to goblins. If you go to the banquet hall today, you'll make yourself sick."

"I'll only be here three months," she reminded him, frowning. "I can't waste any time."

Lim perched on a chair next to the goblin King at a table overlooking the crowded banquet hall, staring in stunned amazement at the figures moving below her and listening to the wild pounding of her heart. Such deformity. Such wild, nonsensical misshapenness. She laid her hands flat on the table to stop their trembling. The hissing, babbling roar seemed to swell and inundate her, and the scene began to swim before her eyes. She was hot and then icy cold. She opened her book, focusing on the brown page, and started to write, the scratching of the black quill very loud. No ink was on the pen, but she didn't notice. She closed her eyes as the pen slipped from her grasp.

"I was right," his harsh voice remarked in her ear. "It was too soon."

Lim opened her eyes and lifted her head. The goblin was holding her up, those great velvet wings around her, as she stood in the hallway outside the noisy room. For once, she was glad of his feverish heat because she was cold through to her bones. As she hung in his grasp, limp and shivering, she heard the last sound she had expected to hear. Happy elvish voices talking and laughing. She thought she was dreaming.

"Oh, Marak, a new elf!"

"Is she the one we heard about?"

A little crowd of elf women was walking by, heading into the banquet hall. They plucked her from the goblin King, and soft arms went around her.

"Poor dear, she's shaking. Marak, you haven't been mean?"

"It's all right, sweetheart. You'll feel better soon."

Lim noticed vaguely that these commoners weren't addressing her with her proper title of Lord's Daughter, nor were they clasping hands and bowing as they should. But she didn't mind. She closed her eyes, grateful for their friendly familiarity. She opened them again in surprise.

"Igira?" she whispered, staring at one of the women. Igira came closer, looking at her.

"It isn't Kala, is it?" she asked.

"It's Girzal's daughter Lim," declared the goblin King behind her. Lim flinched. She had forgotten he was there.

"Lim!" exclaimed several women, and hands reached out to turn her head or touch her cheek. "Little Lim! Hasn't she grown!"

"Blackwing, what did you do to her hair?"

"Ada, it's Marak, you never remember."

"I singed it off," answered the goblin King. He examined the groggy girl caught up in her interested throng. "That's something you're well enough to do. After lunch, you can study the elf women."

Lim propped herself up at the table, feeling dizzy. It was hard to get used to furniture. It was hard to get used to lots of things. She stared at the nine elf women assembled before her, chattering away to one another. A good scholar writes the truth, she reminded herself, dipping her pen and trying to stop her hand from shaking. But how could she write it? She looked around, uncertain and reproachful. How she write that they were happy?

The women seemed a little uncertain of her, too. They were more at ease with the ghastly form sitting beside her. "Marak, who's her husband?" they wanted to know.

"She's going to be my wife," he answered.

"Oh, wonderful! An elf this time." Those pretty faces beamed at her.

"I'm just here for a visit," Lim contradicted, and they smiled at her reassuringly.

She asked them about their lives. They told her about their husbands and babies. They asked after friends back home and exclaimed over the news. It was as if they had simply moved away of their own accord. Lim looked at the five elf women stolen from her father's camp and thought about his heartsick rage over them.

"But don't you miss the stars?" she asked, trying not to sound disapproving.

"Oh, I cried all the time when I first got here," Igira assured her, "but my Ben was right there to wipe away my tears." Lim rested her head on her hand, white-faced, as the room whirled around her.

"Lillan, you're not happy here," she pointed out a little desperately. Lillan's face was pale and tear-streaked, and Igira had her arm around her.

"Her husband was killed," Igira told her sadly as Lillan began to cry.

"Your father murdered Lillan's husband," growled the goblin King. Lim felt the room whirl again.

That night, Lim lay in the dusky gloom watching the dim light catch and flicker on shiny patterns in the walls and ceiling of this new cave, the goblin King's sleeping room. She tossed and turned, worn out and nervous, on the big, suffocating pallet propped up on a platform in the middle of the room. The goblin King himself lay on a narrow one against the far wall. That he was in the same room didn't surprise her since he persisted in thinking himself her fiancé.

Lim rolled over, her whole body aching from fatigue, and pulled the thick, square cover over her head as she would pull her cloak over her face. But her cloak would cover her eyes without covering her mouth. This cover was the wrong shape.

She pulled it off and looked around. No friendly tent overhead. She hated being up in the air like this, where anything could come at her from any direction. She rolled over and sank into the deep pallet. There had to be a better way to sleep than this. So she slipped off the platform onto the ground beside it, dragging her cover with her. She rolled up in it again and lay with her back to the platform, a little happier.

"Mouse!" called the harsh voice. Lim jumped, not unlike a mouse. "Get up off the floor." She didn't move.

"Mouse," he called again, threatening. "Get off the floor."

"I like it here," she said defensively. "I can't sleep up on that thing."

There was an explosive exhale, and then a thump, and his gaunt shape emerged from the darkness. She scrambled to her feet, thoroughly frightened.

"That thing is a bed," he snapped impatiently, "and civilized races sleep on them." He stretched out one black wing at it, and she lay down on the bed before he could push her.

"This is a pillow," he continued irritably, retrieving the bag of feathers from the ground and propping it behind her neck. "You put your head on it." She turned her head against it miserably, trying to mash down a flat place.

"This is a blanket," continued the tirade. "Stop rolling up in it." He unwound it from her.

"I need a cloak!" she cried in frustration.

"You do not need a cloak," he answered angrily. "You're already wearing everything you own." He cracked it over her head. "This blanket's job is to stay flat over you, and your job is to sleep underneath. Mouse," he continued in an ominous undertone, "you're exhausted, and you're sick. I can feel how tired you are." His voice rose in a furious roar. "Now, why won't you just go to sleep!?"

Lim lay still under the big square cover, anxious and afraid. She ran her hands along the top edge of the blanket since he wouldn't let her wrap it around herself. Back and forth, plucking at the blanket, as the terrifying goblin towered over her. "The King's Throne is rising," she told him in a small voice, "and the Head Star is straight above us. That means the whole King's court is dancing the Dance of Thirty Rings."

There was a moment of silence. Then he let out his breath in a sigh and sat down on the edge of the bed. "Dancing," he grumbled. There was much contempt in his tone, but a little compassion, too.

"And do you know what I would be doing while you danced your Dance of Thirty Rings?" he asked. She shook her head. "I would be sleeping. Sleeping soundly and peacefully. And sleeping is something I haven't done much these last two nights, not with healing potions to prepare and stubborn elves who won't rest unless they're watched over. Sleeping is just what I was doing when my military commander woke me to say that there was an elf girl standing on my doorstep, and did I want him to escort her in? I went out to her as a courtesy and found her plotting a murder, and she's been keeping me awake ever since."

Lim stared at him, thoroughly dismayed. "I didn't know that anyone knew I was there," she whispered.

"I don't know any member of the Guard on duty that night who didn't know you were there," he replied. "Your warrior skills are nonexistent. You'd better keep to dancing." Lim thought about her father and her attempt to rescue him. He had never had a chance, and now he was going to die.

"You're very tired," growled the goblin King. "Your body is still healing. Do you want me to send you to sleep?" A lump aching in her throat, Lim nodded. "Then go to sleep, Mouse." And her eyes closed.

The next two weeks saw Lim regain her health. She drove herself as far as her strength would allow to go everywhere and see everything that the goblin King would let her. She went to court with him and sat on his throne, trembling and sick at the sight of all the monsters, and watched while he conducted the kingdom's affairs. She couldn't understand the barbarous language, so she asked question after question about what had transpired while they ate their meals. She was astonished to find that the goblin court etiquette was not nearly so precise and strict as elf court etiquette, but much more seemed to be getting accomplished. And the dwarves who attended court seemed to be shown every honor. She had been taught that the dwarves were slaves.

"I hear the members of your court making mistakes over your title," she commented one evening.

"They called me Blackwing from the time I was born," he answered. "I've only been Marak for five months. How would you expect them to remember?"

Lim nervously tore her bread into small chunks as she thought about this. The goblin King handed her her food at each meal, and that always upset her. She could never bring herself to eat it right away even when she was very hungry.

"If someone addressed Aganir Zal incorrectly, the King would have him punished even if he were a lord," she said. "A commoner would be severely punished."

"Don't compare me to that idiot," growled the goblin King.

Every day, Lim wrote her new discoveries in her book, and every night, as she lay propped on the superfluous pillow, she imagined that she was home again, telling Tibir all about them. He would look over what she had added and ask her questions, his handsome face interested and his dark eyes shining. She couldn't wait to see him again. She pretended that they were counting down the days together. It won't be long, he promised her. I'm so proud of all that you're doing.

"Your father sends you his love," announced the goblin King one morning as they walked in the lake valley fields. Lim blinked in the bright blue light and stopped in surprise, staring up at that grim face.

"How would he do that?" she wondered, her heart sinking at the mention of her father.

"He told me," answered the goblin. "I visit him every so often and take away his magical strength as it returns. An elf lord with full powers could overcome the prison guards."

Lim thought about her powerful father having to submit to such humiliation, giving up his magic to this ghastly King, living in a tiny prison and awaiting his execution. Now he knew about her refusal to ransom him, but he still sent his love.

"Did Father tell you what he wants me to do?" she asked, guilty and uncertain. The goblin King, his wings folded in front of him, was watching the flight of a real bird in the strange sky above them.

"Of course not," he answered. "He doesn't need to. You know what you have to do."

"I won't marry you," she reminded him, feeling miserable. "It isn't my fault what my father did."

Those huge round eyes looked down at her. "No one said it was."

Lim couldn't complain of her treatment during her captivity. The goblin King escorted her all over his kingdom and answered thousands of questions. When she had learned as much as she could by observing goblin life, he took her to his library. Lim was ecstatic at the sight of the neat rows of volumes. The library was far larger and more orderly than the elf King's. She ran her hands along the books, able to make out their subjects from the many script characters shared between the two languages.

"The Kings' Chronicles," she read. "How far back do they go?"

"They go back five thousand years, to Lionclaw's notes," he replied. "Of course, they've been recopied from time to time."

"Lionclaw!" she echoed in horror. "Our chronicles don't go back that far, but we still tell stories about Lionclaw. He was terrible to the elves, barbaric and cruel."

"When he was young, yes," he answered, "but not once he grew older. Lionclaw was the greatest of the goblin Kings, and he was a great friend to the elves."

"I can't believe that," Lim answered. "Not if the stories are true. We still use Lionclaw's name to frighten our children when they're making too much noise in the children's tents."

"After five thousand years?" He smiled, dark teeth showing between thin lips. Lim turned away from the sight.

"I'd like to meet your chronicler," she said. "My fiancé chronicles the elf King's reign."

"No, your fiancé chronicles the goblin King's reign," he corrected. "I write my own chronicles. So did the elf Kings, back when they had sense. If you don't write down what you've done so that you can read over it and study it, you can't learn from your mistakes."

Lim considered this as she examined the other volumes in the library "The King's Wife Chronicles," she read and looked up, puzzled. "Why do you bother to keep these?" she wanted to know. "The wives of the elf Kings are just mentioned in the Kings' Chronicles."

"That's why your Kings are such fools," he retorted. "We goblins understand that it takes a strong King and a strong King's Wife to produce a great Heir. We study the King's Wives so that we can choose wisely. You're going to be a great King's Wife, Mouse."

Lim shivered. "No, I'm not," she stated, trying to block even the idea from her mind.

"Yes, you will," contradicted the goblin King firmly. "You'll be strong, and you'll be fair. From time to time, I read what you write down in that book of yours. You've always told the truth, even when you didn't like it. You'll bear a great King."

They had similar arguments quite frequently, and Lim always found them very upsetting. She was upset now. She left the volumes and went to stand with her back to him, looking out the window at the brightly lit lake valley. The goblin King studied her slight form, her head with its thick, short black hair sticking up all over it. The short hair made her look very young.

"My mother was a weak wife," he observed. "My father chose badly. She was a human girl, and her family kept an inn nearby; that's a place where travelling humans can stop and eat a meal or stay for the night. The place was busy, and my mother was happy. Father would visit her and talk to her, wrapped up so that she didn't know he was a goblin, and he liked her high spirits and cheerful chatter. But when he stole her, she lost those high spirits and went into a shell. She was afraid of Father, and she never stopped being afraid of him. She never adjusted to our world. She died very soon after I was born. Father didn't work the spells on her that he could have. He thought it was kindest to let her go.

"I am the way I am because my mother was weak. She made me something that she could hate before she even saw me, something that she could be afraid of. Maybe she was fair to my father, but she wasn't fair to me." Lim turned to look at him, thinking about a mother hating and fearing her own child. "You won't do that to our son," he insisted. "You'll be fair to him." Lim thought of her own sweet, loving mother, and she didn't have the heart to contradict him.

The goblin King walked over to look out the window with her. Lim was nervous about his being so close. She turned away from him and stared out the window, too, leaning on the stone sill, but she could still feel the scorching heat of his body near hers.

"I have the eyes of a hawk," said the harsh voice beside her. "I can see very far, very clearly. But it does me no good to see that far because I don't have the speed of a hawk. I can't reach what I see. What am I? Half a bird. What good is that? What are these?" he continued, spreading out his wings behind her. She glanced over her shoulder uneasily. "They're not wings. They can't take me anywhere. They're not arms. Barely hands. Half-hands, and half-wingtips. Hardly any use for what arms and hands should be for."

Soft feathers came around Lim's body, brushing her shoulder. She tried to edge away from the touch, but that brought her closer to his bony form. She stiffened, leaning hard against the stone edge of the window. She felt those hot, dry fingers stroking her bare arm.

"So you see what I am," he said gruffly. "Half a bird. Half a man. Half a man, just like your elf scribbler that you talk to in your sleep."

Lim was startled. She hadn't known that she talked in her sleep, and she was upset to think that he had been listening. "Tibir's not half a man," she muttered. "He's a great scholar."

Blackwing gave a dry laugh.

"At least I'm a hawk, Mouse, and we hunt live prey. Scholars are vultures. They pick over bones, and anything they find has been dead a long time. Your scribbler is just like me, whether you like it or not. He may see things, but it's too late to do anything about them."

That night, propped against the bag of feathers in the gloom, Lim talked this over with Tibir in her daydream. Only another few weeks to go, he reminded her. He's wrong about us scholars, Lim. You're doing great work. Scholars learn the answers to the most important questions, and that's just what you're doing.

"I want to go to the library again," she told Marak Blackwing in the morning. "I want to study a particular question. Some reigns have brought peace between the elves and the goblins, and others have brought war. What's the difference? I think that it's the number of raids the goblins wage and the number of brides they take." She knew he and his military commander were planning more raids on elf camps, but he wouldn't tell her where or when. "What I don't understand," she mused, thinking about that, "is how you're getting through the Border Spell."

"I don't think that's something an elf should know," he answered. "You're wrong, anyway. Peace comes when there are two strong Kings who can respect one another and work to restrain their lords and soldiers from bloodshed. And my brother King is an idiot. I found out that he replaced Lord Darisha with a commoner just because the commoner flattered him better than anyone else. I've learned that there are lords who haven't told their doings to him in years, and he hasn't even noticed. The report is that he and his son don't even know how to hunt, that they barely hold court, and that their advisers know not to give them any unpleasant news or they'll be dismissed. I'm told all they care about is dancing, and they load up their court with complicated rules so that visiting lords who don't know them will look foolish. Is that true?"

Lim considered the statements with deep dismay, wondering how he had learned so much. "I don't think that's something a goblin should know," she said defiantly.

The King studied her for a second. Then he laughed.

"Why are you planning raids on the elf camps?" she demanded. "You don't need more elf brides. You have enough."

"The high families are strong," he agreed. "There's enough diversity in the bloodlines to avoid sterility and weak magic, but that's not why I'm raiding. There's revenge, for one thing. Girzal killed my guards. And the entire border is unprotected, for another. That's an insult to the goblin King. Am I the elf King's military lieutenant, to watch over his border for him so that fool can dance? Would he look after my people for me while I went off and danced? I'm raiding because I can, Mouse. I don't need another reason."

Lim had a good companion for her research. The goblin King had made a thorough study of his own history as part of his training for kingship. Day after day, he took her to his library and read her the stories of the great goblin Kings and their peaceful reigns, and each time he did so, he read the story of the King's Wife as well. Lim realized that she had been wrong. It wasn't just the number of raids. But she began to realize that he was wrong, too. It wasn't just the respect and concord between the two monarchs. The most peaceful goblin Kings had a strong elf wife or a strong elf mother who could be an advocate for her people and teach the callous goblin King compassion for the gentler race. Lim tried not to learn what she was learning, but she couldn't find a way to avoid it. A strong, loving elf woman in the goblin King's life. That was the real secret to peace. This new goblin King had never been loved by any woman. His reign was already shaping up to be bloody.

A few days later, Marak Blackwing sat quietly writing in his chronicles, his wing splayed out against the table. Lim was supposed to be writing, too, but she was pacing the floor, trying to walk away from her feelings and ideas.

"Your father sends you his love," announced the goblin King without looking up.

"His love!" exclaimed Lim. "Why doesn't he send me his knife instead? That would be kinder and much more useful."

"I didn't let him keep it," murmured the King. Then he smiled his tight-lipped smile.

"He always sends his love!" she complained, pacing. "He never tells me what I should do."

"What do you expect, Mouse?" asked the goblin King. "You're old enough to be married in a week. Do you think your father is still going to order you around? He sends you his love because that's all the help he can give you. Girzal's a decent man," he added gruffly. "I understand his frustration. It's a pity his King won't protect his camp, a pity for all of them."

Lim stared at him, struck by his praise for her father. She hadn't heard anything like it before. A trap was forming around her, she could feel it.

"You know I won't marry you!" she insisted desperately. "I tell you so every single day!"

"You tell me so every single day because you know it doesn't make any difference," he replied. "Nothing you say now matters, so you can say whatever you like. You won't make your real decision for another week." And the King went back to his writing.

This was so blatantly true that it horrified Lim. She had been trying to tell herself that her months of protests and justifications added up to something: that they were convincing him, or, better yet, convincing her. But they were just noise. They didn't mean anything. They weren't the real decision. And that might mean—she felt a sick dread—that might mean that the real decision would be different.

All that week, Lim threw herself into feverish activity. It was her last week for research, she reminded herself. She couldn't waste a minute. So much remained to be studied that she never slowed down. She wrote so much in her thick book that she was almost out of pages. Just a few more days of prison. Just a few more days. Then home, wind, weather, stars, music, dancing, Tibir. Whenever she remembered this, she would stop for a second, her face alight at the thought. But the more she wrote in her book, the less she seemed to say, and at night, she no longer wanted to think about showing it to Tibir. She imagined him looking at it, puzzled, dissatisfied. Where is the truth in this? he asked her. I thought you were a scholar.

"I leave tomorrow night," she reminded the goblin King as they sat together in his library. "What should I know that I still haven't learned?"

"If you want to know about peace between the goblins and the elves, you should know the story of Lionclaw," he answered.

Lim knew something of the background, but he filled it in for her. The elves and goblins had originally lived in the mountains near Mesopotamia, but human cultures had sprung up nearby, religions based on sacrifice and blood. The barbarism of these pagan practices affected all the races, and the elves began to lose their identity, swept away in the savagery of their lives.

One great elf King saw that it couldn't go on. In the hour before a battle with the goblins, he worked horrible magic on himself and promised that he would lead the elves to a land where they could find peace. The King died in the battle, but he still fulfilled his promise. The elves awoke the next evening to find him standing in the middle of his camp. All the flesh had fallen from his bones, leaving them bleached and smooth, and this white skeleton led them away to the west. They soon left behind the human civilizations and their bloody ceremonies. Those humans that they encountered now were rustic and few in number. Sometimes the skeleton walked, and sometimes it stopped for months at a time. But it never lay down to rest, and so the elves knew that they hadn't found their home.

The elves followed their dead leader through one elf King's life and then another. In all, they wandered westward for over a hundred years. They crossed great rivers and plains, walked through huge forests, and climbed mountain passes. They spent whole years gathering strength. They even crossed a narrow sea with tremendous difficulty and came to a land of mists and rolling forests. But the goblin King had gathered his people and followed the elves, and it was in this new land that Lionclaw was born.

Lionclaw was the greatest magician of the entire goblin race, and perhaps of the elvish race as well. He was a giant of a goblin, with a big round face, golden eyes, and four white, sharp, curving canines, two upper and two lower, that showed whenever he laughed. His long, tawny hair mingled with his long, tawny beard to form a kind of mane, and his right arm from the elbow down was the front paw of a lion. Nor was this resemblance to the biggest of cats purely physical. Lionclaw possessed a brilliant intelligence and a bold cunning. This great beast had the heart and the mind of a predator, and the prey that he hunted was the elves.

Even as a young prince, Lionclaw stalked elves in the forest, and those he caught, he terrorized and mocked. He made the fingers of a musician three times too long so that he could no longer play his pipe; he made one man's nose huge and another man's ears big, and so powerful was his magic that the elf King couldn't heal them. When Lionclaw caught elf women, he forced them to cook and slave for his goblins, and their husbands had to kiss his feet and beg for their return. When he caught maidens, he gave them to his warriors as brides. The older he grew, the more dangerous he became, and the more clever and unpredictable his tricks. The elves began to starve because they were afraid to leave the safety of their camps to hunt.

Travelling slowly, in terrible distress, the elves came to a large oval lake, and their forward scouts returned to say that another great sea lay a few weeks to the west, with no sign of land beyond it. Word came that Marak Lionclaw and his warriors had subjugated a local tribe of dwarves and had moved into their caves with them. His magic and his cunning still seemed to be growing, and no one had the strength to stand against him. Never had the future seemed more desperate or hopeless, and it was at this terrible moment that the skeletal King lay down to rest. The elves had found their land of peace at last, and they didn't dare leave their camps to enjoy it.

The elf King sent for all his camp lords to assemble in a council. Half of them didn't arrive, and the goblin King sent a message instead. He held the lords as his hostages, and anyone who was brave enough could come take them back from him. The elf King's chief advisor had a daughter named Dara, a young woman of great intelligence and strength. While the people wailed and the King stood helpless, Dara slipped out of camp alone. The next night, the lords returned to the elf King, and with them a message from the elf girl: "I am honored to give up my life for my people. Do not mourn my loss."

Marak Lionclaw was fascinated by his remarkable young bride. With all the curiosity of a great feline, he learned everything he could about Dara. He watched her expressions and reactions with the absorbed, attentive patience of a cat at a mouse hole. He prowled the elusive landscapes of her mind until they became familiar territory, and this leonine King grew to understand his noble wife's every nuance. In writing down all his discoveries about Dara, Lionclaw created the first entries of the King's Wife Chronicles.

"You see how she came to love him," said Marak Blackwing proudly.

But Lim didn't see how Dara came to love Lionclaw, although she had no doubt that it happened. Instead, Lim saw how Lionclaw came to love her. His initial pride and fascination became passionate devotion, not just to Dara herself but to the whole culture and race that had formed her.

Dara tamed her great, indomitable King, and he used his prodigious talents to win her. He and the elf King wove the magic of the truce circle together and met there many times. It was Lionclaw who saw the need for the protocol between the Kings, and he proposed the rules himself. The goblin King and elf King, because of their vastly superior magic, were not to engage in battle except in cases of defence. The goblin King could only walk on elf land, and the elf King on goblin land, for the critical purpose of securing his own wife. The elf King had right of precedence should the two Kings both seek the same human bride because the elf King's choices were more limited. Kings should notify each other when prisoners were taken and return bodies to their families. Lim considered the story of Lionclaw in complete amazement. All the essential rules that fostered peace between the two races had been the gifts of a goblin King to his wife in order to make her happy.

That night, Lim lay in bed and imagined her liberation the next evening. She couldn't wait to see Tibir again. But as she imagined telling him the story of Lionclaw and Dara, Tibir looked at her with a troubled frown. If you know all this, he said to her, then why did you come home? I'm not a heroine like Dara, protested the horrified Lim. I'm just an ordinary girl. Lim, you're a better scholar than that, insisted the daydream Tibir. What do you think Dara was before she married Lionclaw?

The next day passed in a delirium. Lim wrote and wrote, using up the last pages of her book. She had the idea that she must complete it before taking it to show Tibir, but she had no idea at all what she was writing. Shortly before dark, she ran out of pages. Finished, just in time. She paced the balcony that overlooked the lake valley in a state of frantic impatience, watching the water sky darken, watching the lights of the valley begin to glow. Before midnight, I'll be at the King's Camp, she thought. I hope it's cold outside. I want to feel cold air again. In another hour, it won't matter anymore whether I should have been a heroine. It won't matter what decision I should have made.

Marak Blackwing sat on the couch with his wings folded in front of him, watching her pace back and forth. "Come here, Mouse," he called. "It's time for your kiss." And then I can leave, thought Lim. She came willingly. She sat down on the couch a cautious distance from him. When the gaunt goblin came close to her, she screwed her eyes shut. Hurry, hurry, she thought, and then I can leave.

"You don't have to act like I'm going to slap you," he rasped. Lim considered this with her eyes shut. She was sitting bolt upright: probably not a good idea. He might put his wings around her. So she slid down against the couch instead, her head low on the couch back. Hurry, hurry, she thought, bracing herself. I want to go home.

But the kiss didn't come. Instead, she felt a soft wingtip touch her face. It brushed her cheek and then slowly travelled down her arm. It tickled, and Lim flinched. The wingtip travelled back up her arm. She could feel the goblin King looking at her, leaning toward her, that scorching heat from him like a man dying of fever.

"It isn't my fault that my father has to die," she said with her eyes tightly shut. There was no answer, just the velvet brush of feathers. "I didn't commit any crime."

Now those hot, bony fingers were touching her cheek. Lim grimaced and flinched again. "The elf King wouldn't have given up his life to save me or my father," she announced. "He has no right to expect me to give up mine." The scorching fingers ran slowly down her arm. She frowned indignantly at the delay. This wasn't a kiss, and it wasn't part of their bargain. "There's a full moon outside," she said to distract herself. "If I'm not too tired, I can dance with the court tonight."

Lim heard the goblin King sigh, and those fingers returned to lift her chin. Then those thin, hot lips were on hers. But Lim found to her relief that she could still think about other things, and she spent the duration of the unwanted kiss planning which path she would take. Now it was over. She was free to leave. Just one more thing to do. She opened her mouth to announce the decision that she had rehearsed for the last ninety days. But she hesitated for one more second.

"Will you at least kill him quickly?" she pleaded.

"I've already released your father," he said.

Lim opened her eyes and stared at the goblin King in astonishment.

"I couldn't kill your father," he said. "I couldn't cause you that grief. I love you, Mouse. What a woman you are. I never thought to find such a woman among the silly elves. I never thought such a woman could exist. And what a King's Wife you would have been. You're so honest, you would have found some way to love me."

He touched her hand with those deformed fingers, stroking it, looking down at it.

"I know I disgust you," he said gruffly. "I don't blame you for it. Maybe if I'd had more time. But I'm glad that I didn't steal you. You would have hated me, and I couldn't have endured that. Good-bye, Mouse. I'll steal another girl, a human girl, someone completely different from you, and then it won't matter if she hates me."

Lim closed her eyes again, feeling dizzy, and she reached out and laid her hand on his chest. She felt the dry heat of him, the bony ribs, the heart that lay beneath those ribs, beating very fast. He was the best friend or worst enemy her people would have for the next fifty years, and his heart belonged to her. And I've already saved one life, she thought. Who knows how many more I can save?

"I agree to be your wife," she whispered quickly, not letting herself think what it would mean. Then her words caught up with her, and she was choking, sobbing, wailing, trapped inside history where her studies couldn't help her, lost in a foreign world with no way out. Those soft feathers were all around her now, that furious heat against her, and a scorching, hollow cheek lay against her own.

"Oh, Mouse, don't cry," said his gruff voice in her ear. "You'll love me one day, I promise."

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