The Goblin Tree – Six

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Song Suggestion: Chapter 11 – Always by Peter Gundry

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Six

Bethany returned through the wood to her wagon. The dog was awake and chasing rabbits and the mare was stamping her feet restlessly, but Bethany did not harness her; for better or worse, she was part of the goblin’s game. The girl was curled up in the bed inside the wagon and the cat sat beside the remains of the fire, as if he’d never left it.

“Any advice would be welcome,” Bethany said, sorry she’d been cross with him before.

The cat yawned and she thought he would refuse to speak. But, after several, long moments, he did. “There are many paths in the woods, just as there are in life. Some are narrow, some are wide, some will take you far away, and some just wander about without going anywhere at all. There are times when you would do well to follow the beaten trail, if you don’t want to be lost forever. But there are also times when you must leave the path others have taken and forge your own.” Then the cat curled up on the blankets she’d laid out for her bed, with his tail across his nose and did not say one more word.

At first, Bethany was frustrated, for cats are full of riddles and seem to delight in not speaking clear. Then she set to thinking about his words, half understood, because she sensed there was great wisdom – maybe even an answer – wound up in them.

She pondered for many hours and had an idea by the time the first star had risen, glimmering, above the forest. The moon soon followed it and Bethany saw that it was just as full and fat as it had been before. She took the trail into the trees, this time stuffing her ears before she set off, and the cat followed behind her. The girl stayed shivering by the fire, though, and Bethany let her; this was not her fight any longer.

The goblin was waiting for her on his rock beneath the tree. “Ah, so you’ve come again,” he said with a wicked smile. He snapped his fingers and the lanterns blazed with light. “Would you like to choose or just admit your defeat now and save us both time?”

“Good evening to you too, Master Shrim,” Bethany said, dropping a curtsey to the creature; her grandmother had taught her to be polite, always saying that it did not matter king or pauper, polite respect belonged to all. Even those who did not always give it back. The goblin said nothing, but it did seem to Bethany that he looked at her with a softer expression as she climbed up to the branches of the Goblin Tree.

Bethany did not stop at the lowest branches; she’d spent hours there the night before and not seen a single silver one with both a round door and a green gem upon its crown.

In fact, at first, she found none higher up which had that exact description. If she found one with a round door and a gem, then it was not silver, or if it was silver, it had a round door or a gem, but not both together.

But, at last, Bethany had found some, though it was by no means as large a number as her choices the night before. When she looked up, the tree branches seemed without end and she felt the tiniest twinge of despair and fear; if she could not find the lantern, would she end up like the girl, wandering endlessly, or follow those who had come before them to their doom beneath the tree? She was not sure which choice she would take. And, suddenly, without warning and in keeping with every cat that has ever been, the clever tom was on the branch beside her.

“Can you help me?” Bethany asked.

“I already have,” replied the cat. “Though you seem bent on repeating the mistakes of all who came before you.”

Bethany began to reply, but the cat was already gone. So she carried her lanterns down and set them beneath the tree. Shrim came down from his rock and inspected each one carefully.

“These are lovely, it is true,” he said, turning to her at last. “They are the right size and the gem is upon the crown. But one and all they lack the graven rune of my lady upon the door and are lit with candles and oil and not a star.”

“You said nothing about a rune upon the door,” Bethany said, exasperated.

“Didn’t I?” Shrim asked with a smug grin and clicked his fingers. The lanterns went dark and Bethany found herself standing alone in the first light of dawn beneath the Goblin Tree.

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