Gizzard Stones

Gizzard Stones

by Garth Upshaw

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Overview

In a dangerous world corrupted by dark magic, an immortal Queen keeps a stranglehold on the source of her power — goblins bred like cattle and kept ignorant of the wider world. Nail an escaped goblin, is on a quest to free his kin. Lianne, a young human, struggles to find her place in a society that sneers at her immigrant forbearers. When she finds evidence of high-level corruption involving the people she's been taught to trust, she must decide where her loyalties lie. As the desperate Queen tightens her grip, Nail and Lianne join together. In this fast-paced adventure tale, fantastical characters battle with stealth, wit, and exciting new magic in a setting readers have never encountered before.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781945528507
Publisher: Ragnarok Publications
Publication date: 10/30/2017
Pages: 310
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 14 Years

About the Author

Garth Upshaw is a debut author and lives in Portland. The short story version of “Gizzard Stones” appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #35, and his other stories have appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, and other magazines.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

The gibbous moon cast puddles of cold light across the causeway, the gate, the Fence.

Goblins trickled out of alleyways and scuttled from the shelter of rude hovels, joining their brethren in a pale green river that spilled into Goblintown's main square. Nail bowed and shuffled with the others, sinking into the miasma of hungry fear that settled over them all like a dank fog. He held Maggot's wrist, shielding her with his body, while he searched for an opening around the feeding trough.

"Queen's largess." The guard brushed flies from his thigh and released the catch on the back of the cart. Table scraps, refuse, and the occasional veya seed slurped into the long, rusty trough. Nail gripped the filed-sharp length of iron, his namesake, that was strung around his neck on a length of rough string. He turned sideways and tried to shoulder through the half-naked bodies in front of him.

The wall of goblins refused to budge. Nail received an inadvertent elbow in the face. He rubbed his cheek and spared a sour look at the feeding cart. The guard seemed bored, standing on the running board with his arms akimbo, billy club holstered at his side. A plastic visor hid his features. He smelled of cheap wine and sex. The cart horses snorted.

The eastern sky grew pink, hurting Nail's eyes. A sated goblin pushed away from the trough so Nail squeezed in, pulling Maggot close with him. They rooted through the scant leavings, feeding on moldy cheese, stale bread crusts, and black, slimy lettuce.

"There's no more veya." Maggot sagged against Nail's side.

"Keep looking," Nail whispered. He and Maggot could survive without the tough, hard-shelled seeds for a time, but veya deprivation would cause weakness and eventual death.

Maggot pulled a round lump from inside a wet broadsheet. "Ha!" She released a whiff of glee. Other goblins eyed her prize, but she snapped her beak and filled the air with a back-off smell that kept them away.

"Eat it quick." Nail picked through the garbage hoping to find more.

Maggot engulfed the fist-sized seed with her beak and bit down hard. The shell snapped, and she spat a handful of shards into her palm. "Share?"

"Thanks." Nail gulped the fragments, saving the largest for Grampa. A rich taste suffused his mouth. For a moment, he savored the faint smell of waving grasses and warm, still marsh water — a far cry from this dismal camp where generations of his ancestors had been born, lived, and died. Nail's gizzard tightened, and the stones inside ground the shards to paste.

"We should head home." Maggot winced at the lightening sky.

Nail scooped a last handful of melon rinds. "Let's go." Grampa's compound was a bit of a walk even if they hurried.

Their feet squelched along twisty, muddy paths towards the low end of Goblintown.

Earthen walls rose around them, sheltering their eyes from the sky. Mud towers loomed at every intersection like giant, half-melted candles. The thrum of waterwheels reverberated through the ground. Far upriver, perched on a knoll above the city, well beyond the Fence, the Queen's Spire poked like an icy accusing finger into the pale clouds.

"Queen's largess." Nail's voice was a pitch-perfect satire of the guard.

Maggot ignored the joke. "Let's check the Fence."

"There's no time." Nail shuffled faster. Maggot always hoped there'd be a morning when she'd find that a flaw in the Fence had revealed a passageway, that a flood had toppled a support pylon, or that a nocturnal creature had dug a tunnel underneath.

Animals avoided the Fence. The pylons were sunk deep in the marshy soil and anchored in concrete. Queen's men patrolled the perimeter night and day. The goblins were penned in like cattle. Worse than cattle. Nail flicked a rock at a pigeon on a far roof, hoping for fresh meat. His aim was true, but the bird flapped away at the last moment.

"Ssst." Maggot held up her hand. "Quiet." She edged to the final corner by their house, back against a crumbling den wall. "Smell that?"

Nail took a deep breath, forcing air through the wide nostrils set over his flat yellow beak.

His stomach knotted. "Reivers."

"And a gleaner." Maggot's hand found Nail's elbow.

Nail was terrified, but Maggot poked her head around the corner, so he did, too. A squad of black-armored reivers as tall as houses surrounded the warren. They held whips and chains, muskets, wicked spiked clubs, and crossbows. The Queen's finest.

A burly pair slammed a steel-tipped ram into the wet, earthen side of Grampa's house.

The heavy tool made a terrible sucking sound when it punctured the wall, like an arrow piercing a lung. The reivers slid catches open and reversed direction. The side of the house ripped outward into the street, torn apart by unfolded spikes.

The gleaner raised its serrated front legs into the sky like a praying mantis about to strike.

Gears clicked and turned in its body, and Nail smelled machine oil mixed with acidic mantid blood.

Grampa huddled inside, exposed in the corner. Bark and Thorn crouched next to him, covering their faces. The gleaner struck — one-two — and in less time than it took to draw a breath, Grampa and Thorn were trussed and thrown over the gleaner's back like sacks of meal.

Bark, the bravest of Nail's littermates, whimpered and dodged out of sight into the yard behind the house. The gleaner stepped forward and raised its legs.

Maggot leapt out of hiding. "No!"

The streets were empty of other goblins, though the scent of their fear lay thick over the neighborhood like a musty blanket. No goblin had ever prevailed against the Queen's men.

A reiver twisted his head towards her and grunted a sharp command. "Halt."

"You fool." Nail pulled Maggot's arm. "Run."

He turned and sprinted back the way they'd come, dragging Maggot into dark alleyways and slipping through open runnels of sewage. The wind shifted, and the harsh metal-and-blood smell of the reivers seared Nail's nostrils.

"Hurry." Nail squeezed under a low arch. The reivers fanned out, driving Nail and Maggot away from the center of town, away from other goblins. Towards the Fence.

Nail ran. Ran across a barren garden and through a murky, overflowing ditch with Maggot right behind him. They made time whenever they moved through water — goblins could swim, and reivers in their heavy armor could not. But the pools were patchy and shallow and the gains they made were quickly lost. And besides, there was nowhere really to run.

Maggot hissed at a shuttered window, pleading to the unseen goblins inside whose terror stink gave them away, but they didn't answer. Reivers turned the corner, and Nail grabbed Maggot and ran until his sides ached and his breath came rough and harsh. No one helped. They cowered in their huts, scared and useless. But Nail knew he would have done the same. Reivers were brutal, invulnerable. Goblins suffered the occasional gathering and tried not to think about it.

Nail crossed a square, cobblestone street bright in the harsh daylight. His nail bounced on his chest, scraping skin. The closed-up buildings offered no shelter. They turned a corner. The houses dwindled as they got closer to the Fence, and soon they had no protection from the fiery sun. Nail's skin popped and dried, pinpricks of pain a harbinger of worse to come.

The Fence itself seemed lightweight, deceptively insubstantial. Wooden pylons coated in creosote supported a network of dried sinew and bones. Goblin bones. They pulsed with sick, gut-wrenching magic. Nail swallowed bile. Marshy wetland extended through the Fence alongside the river, rising a bit and turning into solid ground farther downstream. The tin-roofed shacks of a distant human slum sent jagged reflections into Nail's eyes.

He stopped, unable to push himself against the vile magic, but Maggot thrust her legs and leaped towards the Fence, screaming and clawing the air. Her determination and desperation threatened to overwhelm other subtler odors. She landed on her outstretched arms, twisting them underneath her body, and lay frothing and retching on the ground.

Nail heard the heavy suck and pull of boots in mud. Smelled reivers behind him. A jerky shape appeared above the last row of houses, and the gleaner moved into the open space, sniffing and twitching its feathery antennae. A semicircle of reivers blocked escape. Lights blinked on the gleaner's head. Flat, metallic, black eyes focused on Maggot.

Nail yelled. An inarticulate scream of rage. As the gleaner struck at Maggot, he threw the last fragment of veya he'd had clutched in his hand. The seed hit the gleaner's left eye, and it jerked, its claw ripping into the Fence rather than spearing Maggot's back.

Sparks showered from the rent, and the gleaner leaped backwards, screeching in pain and knocking reivers to the ground. The smell of rotten eggs and burnt metal made Nail's eyes water, but the unnatural, stomach-churning nausea had vanished.

He scuttled forward, grabbed Maggot's ankle, and dove through the tear in the Fence.

Muskets boomed and crossbow bolts flew one-two-three by his head. Reivers charged forward, yelling and cursing, but their boots mired in the thick muck.

Nail hunkered low, Maggot on his back, swimming, then wading through warm stagnant water, trying to keep low, mossy trees between him and the Queen's men. A long black snake arrowed through the water to his right, a wedge of ripples fanning out in its path. Thick stands of pale green grasses with a fuzz of bright orange flowers hid Nail from the brutal sun. The reivers' shouts grew fainter, and their stink was barely detectable. Nail made for the safety of the running water he could smell ahead.

After pushing through one last tangle of ropy vines, Nail slipped into the wide river. Heallowed himself a moment to savor what had happened. Exhilaration filled him. They had done what no other goblin in over two hundred years had managed: escaped from Goblintown. Nail eased Maggot into the water. Her eyes fluttered. "Where —" Nail's heart sank. A black, feathered shaft protruded from Maggot's back. "Don't talk."

He turned her over. A gory metal arrowhead poked from her side. Green blood stained the water, twisting downstream in ominous threads.

"I hurt, Nail. Bad." Maggot pressed her arm against her body. Distant reivers pounded up the causeway, blowing alerts on long, black horns. Her wound smelled like raw meat.

"You'll be all right." Nail cradled her in his arms and kicked upstream, away from the reivers, away from the causeway. Towards the Queen's city. A dangerous decision, but he had no choice. Even now the reivers would be pushing into the swamp in force, poling through the marsh on flat-bottomed skimmers. Likely they'd called in extra squads from the garrison. Hot sunshine reflected off the water, searing spots into Nail's eyes and blistering his scalp.

Maggot and Nail had always been close. Littermates had a special bond, but they'd been the odd ones out even so. Skinnier, smarter. Always together. Most goblins seemed to accept their captivity, sinking into a funk of barely functional despair, but not Maggot. She'd even learned to read. And she'd insisted that Nail learn, too.

His legs ached from swimming. His gizzard stones weighed him down. He and Maggot were the last of their brood. He'd seen Grampa and Thorn gathered. Most likely Bark had been as well. Glaring sunlight reflected off the river water into his eyes. Waterlogged food wrappers and empty bags drifted by or caught in sour-smelling eddies near the banks.

Their Mum had died two winters ago from worms. Tooth had been trampled at the feeding cart. Reivers had gathered Dad before Nail was born. Sparky had thrown himself into the Fence. Stick had succumbed to a nasty, dry cough and wasted away to skin and bones last summer.

When they had them, they'd laid out the bodies, gathered family together, cut the corpses open, and doled out the gizzard stones one by one. Each goblin swallowed their share, round pebbles infused with the essence of veya slipping down their throats into their gizzards. Then they'd tell stories of the dead. Funny ones, sometimes. Other times, sad. Goblin tradition. Old, immutable. Then they sewed the bodies back together, wrapped them in sheets with lavender, and buried them in swampy ground.

Nail's gizzard felt full to bursting.

He swam past wood-and-corrugated-tin houses on the far bank. An old man with feathers for hair fished from a dock. A woman waded in the shallows, washing clothes. Rusty boats were tied to posts up and down the shore. There were too many people. Nail needed a place to hide.

The thousand odors of a city oozed across the water: roasting meat, burning coal, rotten hay. Nail stayed close to shore, beak poking out of the river, holding Maggot so she could breathe. He waited for the washer-woman to turn away before he slipped past.

Nail followed the scent of tainted soil diffusing through the water to an abandoned factory that loomed over a collapsed pier. Residual leakage saturated the earth, turning it green and orange in diseased spots. Blackberry bushes covered the high bank. Red, new berries peeked from behind leaves like vigilant eyes. Nail kicked sideways and worked upstream along the shore. No human squatters had slept in the factory for days, maybe weeks. He could smell rat droppings and pigeon nests. Signs of food.

Maggot's breathing whispered in and out, high and fluttery. Her eyes stayed shut even as Nail pushed thorny vines aside and made landfall. The river had eaten the bank away, and a rocky overhang gave shelter. He dug mud from underneath a large stone and made space for Maggot. Goblins are good diggers.

She lay on her side, opened her eyes, and winced. "Tell me a story." It seemed like she pushed each word out of her body with sheer willpower. The black fletching sticking out of her back trembled.

Nail wished he was brave like Bark. Strong like Thorn. All he could think of was the Queen's men hunting them. Gleaners would roam the banks, poking their long claws everywhere. Reivers were even now surely on the river. He shook his head. "I'll find you a healer. Maybe some veya." The glands under his cheekbones squeezed out a careful drop of soothing scent. A smell that goblin dams used to calm their youngest.

Maggot's quick breaths quieted, but underneath she was still agitated. "Don't leave." Her weak fingers clutched at Nail's arm. "A story." Her voice was gossamer thin. "Slip and Old Father Trout." Maggot grimaced and closed her eyes. "Since we're on a river." Water lapped at their feet.

Nail knew he needed to take care of the arrow, but he convinced himself it could wait.

What could he do during daylight, anyway? He cleared his throat. "I had this tale from Bubble, my great-dam's sister, who heard it first from her father, Breeze, who was told the story by his great-grandfather, Roach." Nail's voice settled into a comfortable rhythm as he recounted the litany of attribution.

Names and relations rolled off his tongue until he reached an ancestor who had lived outside Goblintown. Maggot's mouth twitched. "Like us."

The thought hit Nail again. "Yes." He forced a smile. "Free."

"Tell the story."

Nail squeezed Maggot's hand. "One fine summer night, when the moon glowed above a thick bank of clouds, Slip and his sister Riffle had a bet. They both loved fish, and of all the fish in the world, they loved trout the best. And of all the trout in the world, they had a hunger for Old Father Trout.

"Now Old Father Trout was a wily one, a veteran of many a failed attempt to have him for dinner. But Slip was a champion fish-tickler, and when Riffle proposed a wager, Slip took it in the blink of an eye.

"'A week's worth of cooking and cleaning from you if I bag Old Father Trout before dawn?' Slip licked his beak. 'And the same from me if I fail? Make it a month.'

"Riffle agreed, and the two of them sauntered to the river. It was a beautiful evening.

Night bugs buzzed, and bats flitted in crazy zig-zags through the sky.

"Slip edged into the cool water where overhanging branches dragged through the current.

He lay still, letting the river push him against a submerged log. Every so often, he'd take a breath and slowly, slowly lower his head all the way underwater to see what he could see.

"A minnow darted up, flipping her tail fast-fast-fast just out of range of Slip's claws and beak. 'What for some big ol' ugly goblin doing in our river?' She looked at Slip first one eye and then the other, all suspicious like.

"'Shhh,' said Slip. 'I'm hunting for the moon.'

"'The moon?' Scornful bubbles burst from the minnow's mouth.

"'Yes, ma'am. I'll live for a lifetime on frog eggs and dragonfly wings.' Slip smiled.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Gizzard Stones"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Garth Upshaw.
Excerpted by permission of Ragnarok Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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