Night animals bayed as the damp leaves blew in the gentle night's breeze. Panthera grinned. The time of the hunt was upon her. Even more exhilarating was the fact that she was hunted as well. The arrogant Prince Ruleif had locked her in the high tree tower these weeks before the wedding. Tonight she had slipped the bonds. Like a beast she was treated, and like a beast she would become. She waited in the trees for her prey. And there he was, the lone goblin snatcher she had been tracking these many nights. It would be morning soon and she must act swiftly.
Silently, the elf princess dropped out of the tree behind the goblin. The goblin raised his bald green head and smelled the air for signs of the enemy. The princess stepped up behind and held a knife to the invader's neck. She could feel the goblin slowly suck in his final breath. After an eternity the goblin lifted a muscular arm and put his hand on her wrist. The princess spun him around in a violent motion and kissed him full on the mouth.
"Panthera!" exclaimed the goblin. "I knew it was you."
"Ashnak, my love," said the princess, "there isn't time for your nonsense."
Hand in hand they ran through night's forest, stopping when they reached the lake, dark and wide. At the shore they lay while the wood slumbered. The Forest Spirit lifted its head above the water. Chattering to itself, the spirit slapped the surface of the lake with its tail. Ripples flowed out to the shore and splashed Panthera's fingers.
The elf awoke to find the goblin lying next to her, already awake. Together they rose. The sun sent shafts of light into the water's clearing. Animals stood at the threshold, silent and curious. Panthera took the goblin by the arms and stared into his glowing red eyes.
"You will bear my child," said Ashnak, "and one day I must come for her. Even the Forest Spirit has seen this."
Stunned, Panthera pulled away from Ashnak and backed away. He was a goblin like all the rest: thief, murderer, and baby snatcher.
"Your world or mine," said the goblin. "It is her choice, not ours."
The vine curled itself around a large branch by the will of Princess Panthera, drawing her up into the mighty tree's embrace. The haughty elves broadcast their disgust, some by turning their backs, others by looking on with morbid curiosity. Panthera stepped onto a great limb and walked toward the courtyard, her nose in the air. "She is with child!" whispered an anonymous onlooker. Panthera shot a furious look this way and that. "No way it could be Prince Ruleif," came the voice again, "that weeping branch."
The queen met Panthera on the flat courtyard at the center of the tree. All around, great houses were grown out of the wood of the gigantic plant. Vines hung down everywhere, sensitive to the touch of the elves as was the wood itself. The queen was not alone. She had brought the great druid Nacelous as well as the devious Prince Ruleif. Panthera knew there was no easy way out, but she had chosen this path. With this in mind, she stepped forward to meet her fate.
"I must be disappointed in you, daughter," said the queen, "for forcing me to do now what I must do."
The queen turned to Ruleif, a somber look on her face. The prince leered at Panthera. It seemed he couldn't cage the wild beast. He laughed to himself. There was more than one way to deal with a feral dog.
"I gave you great license in the way you courted my daughter. You have failed. I no longer call you Prince Ruleif," said the queen. "Leave us."
Fierce with anger, Ruleif reached for his dagger. Before he could touch the hilt, a pair of elves descended upon him on ropes from above. One guard seized his arm and bent it until it locked in place. The former prince tried to speak but the other guard drove his fist into the loser's gut. The Queen nodded and the guards dragged him away, coughing and wheezing.
The night Durangel was born, all noble elves gathered around. The dead king's family stood beside the queen and her selected nobles. Standing over Panthera while she rested on a giant leaf was Nacelous the druid. Nacelous called on the spirit for power, bidding the forces of nature to deliver a healthy baby. The elves all began to chant. Then another cry joined them.
"A girl!" cried Nacelous.
The druid passed the child into Panthera's hands, an angel with the queen's bright silver hair. It seemed that everything would finally be alright. Then the angel opened its eyes. The eyes Panthera saw were the glowing red eyes of her lover, Ashnak. A piece of furniture crashed to the ground. Someone shouted, "What have you done?"
It was a secret that court revealed slowly. Few at a time were allowed to see the princess's new daughter. Shocked though they were, none could deny the girl's charms. In a few short years, she had mastered three dialects of the elven language and memorized the five books of druidism to the letter. It seemed that there was no elf that did not love her. Sadly, this was not the case. There was one.
A dagger in his teeth, Ruleif crawled up the branch to the royal suites by hand and foot. He could not use vines lest the tree reveal his purpose. He had been shut out of the royal house unjustly, and for the love of a goblin! If there were a greater obscenity, the gods of the underworld could not dream of it. Now the cursed result of that union, little Durangel, would die.
As Ruleif crawled onto the deck, he found Panthera standing in a flowing gown, a wooden sword held low at her side. The fallen prince took the knife from his lips and breathed hard, his murderous gaze never leaving Panthera's body, a body once promised to him. "You look thin, Ruleif," said Panthera. "You should take better care of yourself." Ruleif flipped his dagger into an over-hand stance and began to circle. Panthera followed him with her eyes, her body motionless.
With a high-pitched scream, Ruleif charged. Panthera remained frozen in place. Her heart beat twice before Ruleif reached her. She dodged to the side with not a second to spare. Her sword swung through the air in a complete circle, slamming into Ruleif's back and sending him hurtling into the empty space beyond the deck of the suite. In vain he called upon the branches to break his fall. The forest had spoken. To his death, Ruleif plummeted, disappearing into the leafy abyss.
"Who was that?" ask Durangel, rubbing her eyes as she emerged from the sleeping knot.
"I had hoped," said Panthera, "to spare you the evils of my past."
The princess mother brushed the hair out of Durangel's red eyes. "That elf is gone," she said. "There is no one left to harm you."
As she looked into daughter's face, a tear fell from her cheek, for she knew this was not true.
Slowly, the goblins made their way through the ferns, toward the elf stronghold. Everywhere the night creatures of the forest watched the trio as they advanced. Ashnak knew the hated Forest Spirit was watching them. He also knew that no spirit could lift a finger to stop him as his quest was one set among the righteous.
With the skill learned of a hundred years' burglary, Ashnak slipped under the noses of a dozen sleepy elf guards. He made his way to the center of the elves' grove, a giant tree lit by faerie light. The top was clouded by leaves and darkness. It was the most hostile climb a goblin could dare, but Ashnak did not hesitate. He had been there before.
Panthera watched as Durangel danced on the platform high above the treetops. She sipped dwarven wine from the horn of a ram she had known well. Soon Durangel would undergo the rites of adulthood. Then she would attend the academy and learn to speak to the denizens of the forest and the animal people that cared for them. The girl spun, flashing her red eyes at Panthera. She would make a great queen one day, or perhaps a great druid. Any glorious future would be hers to choose.
Another pair of red eyes appeared in the darkness, behind Durangel. Panthera's heart jumped in her chest. Cautiously, she rose, careful not to move too quickly. The goblin stepped into the light, placing his hands on the girl's shoulders. Durangel looked up to see her father's face. All drunkenness fled from Panthera's body. She slid the dagger from her boot.
"Don't you touch her," she growled.
"It has been willed," said Ashnak, "and what has been willed by the Spirit must be."
The elf princess charged with a mighty snort, her blade held ready to strike. Ashnak simply picked up Durangel and tossed her over the side. Panthera screamed and launched toward the precipice. The goblin caught her by the shoulders and held her back. Fighting for breath, Panthera watched as a goblin caught Durangel as she fell past a branch halfway down the tree. He shoved her into a black bag. The last Panthera heard of her daughter was her muffled cries as the goblin bore her away. Tears in her eyes, Panthera looked into Ashnak's face, a face stricken with an unaccustomed kind of pain.
"Tell me she'll be alright," cried the princess.
"You know I cannot," said Ashnak. "If she is strong she may survive, but even this I cannot promise."
The elf wept, her head on the goblin's chest. He released her arms and embraced her in misery.
"Watch over her then," sobbed Panthera.
His eyes burning with sorrow, Ashnak stared out over the endless treetops.
"I will do what I can," he said.
With a boot to the ribs, Durangel tumbled out of the sack before an iron door. Two giant trolls stood guard. All throughout the torch-lit dungeon, unseen goblins hollered out threats and insults. A goblin snatched up Durangel by the hair and held a truncheon beneath her chin. "I will take this one," said Ashnak, shoving the goblin away. He signaled the troll to open the door. As Ashnak guided Durangel down the hall, he spoke to her.
"There is not much time, and you must depend on your own wits to survive," he said. "It is here you will learn the true nature of power. Be you an elf princess or nightmare lord of the underworld, a knife in the back will kill you just as well."
He looked at his daughter's face, full of tears. With a green thumb, he wiped them away.
"Tears are a sign of weakness," said Ashnak. "You must not draw attention to yourself."
He turned away abruptly, continuing the march. "It will not be easy for you, as you bear the eyes of the True People. I will do what I can for you, but you must learn to trust no one. Not even me."
The door slammed behind Durangel, locking her in a cell with a host of wretched hostages like her. A homely dwarf girl approached.
"You have strange eyes for an elf," said the dwarf. "What is your name? I am called Bagbura."
The two became friends. Bagbura taught the goblins to make new machines while Durangel protected her back from jealous goblin blades. As the months passed into years, other denizens of the dungeon grew envious and hateful of their bond. They watched as the other hostages succumbed to disease or murderous goblins. As soon as they were the only ones left, a new batch of hostages were brought in. A guard came to release them from the youth pit. It seemed, at last, they were safe.
Smiling as she walked down the corridor, Durangel saw Ashnak standing at the corner. "Where is Bagbura?" she asked. "I missed her at the armory."
The goblin responded, "Bagbura went in front of Grisnal in the soup line."
The blood drained from Durangel's face. She reached out to Ashnak. He slapped her hand away.
"She is gone," said Ashnak, "and you still live. You have great strength, and I will follow you." He slapped a carved rock dagger into her open palm. "Use this. Take vengeance against Grisnal and become a goblin warrior."
"I smell the spirit of the forest," said Grisnal as Durangel approached. The other goblins laughed as they lounged outside the sparring hall.
Fierce and young, Grisnal had risen swiftly in goblin circles. Already he had commanded three raiding parties and burned a dwarven caravan. He collected a chest of gold trinkets for his own and had been noticed by some of the greater factions in the dungeon. The road was wide with possibilities. In his dreams he saw himself as the first goblin king, shaking off the yoke of the underworld and claiming the fortress for his own.
Walking right past Grisnal's laughing friends, Durangel pulled the rock dagger from her belt and thrust it through the goblin's gut. Blood spattered on the shocked goblins as Grisnal collapsed, Durangel still upon him, stabbing him about the neck and head. She looked around to see the goblins had gone and spit on the leaking corpse. Dropping the dagger by the body, she made to run for the dorm but was taken by a strange hunger and turned back. An iron fist seized her by the collar. She turned to see the crude metal mask of the goblin guard.
"Are you affiliated?" asked the guard.
"I will fight with any goblin who will have me," said Durangel.
"Do you claim Grisnal's tribe?" asked the guard.
"Claim? You mean do I like Grisnal's tribe? It is clearly better now that it is rid of him," joked Durangel.
"Come with me," said the masked goblin.
As they walked down the hall, goblin whelps scrambled out of the way and into the cracks. Red glowing eyes stared at them from the barred windows of locked wooden doors. The guard spoke, his face forward.
"The hunger you felt was the Ferrudei," said the goblin. "All elves feel it when they kill."
Durangel pulled away from her captor. "I am no elf!"
"Not anymore," said the guard. "You are a goblin warrior now. Come."
Durangel hesitated outside an iron door, above which was a symbol painted in red. "That is the mark of the Black Bear, Grisnal's clan. Inside. They are waiting for you."
Inside the hall of the Black Bear the walls were decorated with torches and bones. There were many goblins gathered around. They wore finely crafted leather armor, much different from the rags of the goblins in the youth pit. Durangel sensed the power in the room. The warriors stepped aside to reveal a fierce-looking goblin sitting on a stool, sharpening a curved sword against a rotating stone.
"Ashnak," said the goblin leader, "leave us."
The goblin removed his mask, bowed slightly, and left without a glance. The girl watched him leave, stunned. Ashnak, thought Durangel. That is the name of the mysterious goblin. Durangel's mind was racing. These were among the most powerful goblins in the tower, feared and respected. Their reach extended to the furthest cracks of the dungeon. No goblin acted against them without retribution. She had killed their boy. Why had Ashnak brought her here?
"Do you like my grinding wheel?" asked the head goblin.
Durangel came back to the moment instantly.
"Bagbura designed it," said the goblin, rising from his seat. "Grisnal was a fool to kill her." The warlord stepped in front of Durangel and clicked the tip of his saber against the side of his boot. "You have the eyes of a goblin. This is well if you wish to lead. You will have the respect of the people. That is good for it is said that no goblin can unite the tower."
The goblin looked at her youthful face, drawn thin and sharp through hardship. "If you be the Chosen One, you must prove yourself. A small thing -- you will lead Ashnak's planned raid on the elf forest. There you will snatch the son of Queen Panthera from the home tree itself!"
Five goblins rushed through the woods, as silent as the night wind. Durangel took the lead, her bright silver hair wrapped in a black turban. Ashnak followed close behind. Durangel drew the squad to a halt with a quick hand signal. They watched, motionless, as an elven guard crossed their path and disappeared into the brush. Ashnak wondered at how easily she had taken command. It would make his next task all the harder.
"You see there?" asked Ashnak. "That is the home tree, where you were taken from your mother."
There in the distance, an open deck sat upon a mighty branch at the top of the tree. Durangel's face began to burn. She could remember nothing before being thrown into the youth pit. To hold onto such memories could bring only pain and weakness.
The goblins waited until the elf sentries departed and began their climb up the great tree. Ashnak noted with wonder how the tree seemed to bend at Durangel's grip, changing shape to give her better purchase. She stopped to study the royal house, while the goblins waited.
"That is the house where you danced for your mother," said Ashnak. "Wouldn't you like be there again?"
"Why are you always talking about my mother?" cried Durangel. "You have served well as a guide. Perhaps you have outgrown your usefulness. Kill him."
A knife slashed up, missing Ashnak by a hair. Ashnak chopped the edge of his palm into the goblin's throat and flipped him over the side. Durangel's eyes went wide with fear. She scrambled up the tree, using footholds only her childhood memory could find. Ashnak struggled to keep up. An arrow struck him in the back, leaving him hanging by his fingers.
Horns blared out alarm. Elf archers filled the trees. Panthera crouched by the cradle of the young prince, an arrow in her fingertips ready to shoot death at the first goblin to come over the lip of the platform. Up she came, a warrior in red-painted armor. She jerked to the side as the arrow struck her chest. The evil fighter snapped the arrow off and advanced. Panthera growled and drew her blade. Durangel smiled and came on.
"Stop," said a voice from behind, "that is not your enemy. She is your mother!"
Her gaze shooting between the red eyes of the warrior to the eyes of the goblin standing behind her, Panthera cried out.
The elf grabbed her daughter in a fierce hold. Durangel raised her dagger to strike but Ashnak caught her by the wrist. The evil half-elf looked into her mother's eyes and was overcome with emotions she had long learned to forget. Memories of a safe, peaceful life flooded her mind. She let her dagger fall to the floor.
"I have brought her back to you," said Ashnak. "Now I must go and end this thing."
The elf queen reached out for him as he leapt over the side. "Durangel is slain! Fall back!" he shouted.
Panthera sank to the floor, Durangel curled up at her knees. Her daughter was a woman now, a goblin warrior. The girl shook as Panthera freed her hair from the dark wrapping. "I have something that will ease your suffering," said Panthera as she rose and walked to the cradle. She brought a bundle back to Durangel, who was now openly weeping. "Meet your brother," said Panthera, handing Durangel a baby with bright green skin, "little Ashnak."
Panthera's husband-to-be tried to lock her up in a tree tower, she became (somewhat) ostracized when she was pregnant, she and her goblin lover could not be together freely, Ruleif was cast out of the nobility, and Durangel had to decide which society she wanted to live in. At the same time, the half-goblin Durangel managed to win over almost all of the elves as a child, even though there was a scandal (resulting in the information being metered out slowly). In terms of game mechanics, there would need to be intermediate states members could occupy between being loved and kill-on-sight, and these would need to depend on the history and state of the member with regard to various rules and so on. For important creatures and during local interactions, it could also be broken down to the individual level. Anything reasonable that breaks up the uniform nature of entity membership is good here.
The elves had a childbirth ceremony that was officiated by their druid. It's not clear if anything magical was actually going on, but these rituals are important nonetheless. There were also "rites of adulthood". The goblin culture had several traditions of its own, including killings and tasks as rites of passage and the idea of a "sign of weakness" as well as the "youth pit". A possible reason for child-snatching was also explored, in this case to provide a competent leader for goblins that tend to lack such skills, although the tower certainly had important goblins with initiative or dreams of kingship.
Ashnak guards over Durangel in secret during her years in the goblin tower. The notion of a secret protector is something that often comes up in myths and literature, and though it is a bit complicated, it would be cool to try to get that kind of thing to happen in DF. It would depend on a reason to remain secret, such as the rules mentioned in the first analysis paragraph. For instance, in goblin society, having a protector would be a sign of weakness, so the protection needed to be hidden. The rules and the need to protect in the first place establish the relationship. It would be tricky to get them to understand everything, but the pieces aren't impossible to put together.
Repressed memories and cathartic moments came up. The technical aspect of adding more and more layers of awareness of memories is a problem somewhat similar to storing knowledge in general, in that it can quickly spiral out of control, but simple implementations could be explored.
Interbreeding arose again. The children could take after parents in different ways, even between siblings -- colors in this story were selected that highlighted one race or the other. This would be an easy enough process through the color modifiers -- matching up body parts remains the significant hurdle, especially for creatures that look quite different but can still interbreed, but general purpose tags such as the existing "HEAD" tag and so on make this possible. More complete matching information can be established as necessary.
The spirit had pregnancy detection and could tell the gender of the baby and it conveyed that information over to Ashnak somehow (presumably). Elves could shape the trees to help their movement -- it was unclear how exactly this worked, but the Forest Spirit was involved somehow since Ruleif lost the ability. Homes were grown out of the living tree, presumably through a similar process. The growing process became automatic enough that Durangel could still do it as a natural/automatic/possibly unconscious act upon her return. The trees could somehow communicate the use of this ability, alerting danger. There was the further idea of learning how to speak to animals, possibly in a similar fashion.