Papau felt the shadow pass over. She hit the brush face first. An engine roared overhead. It was blissfully noisy. She couldn’t even hear the screams she knew were there. It was over quickly. They were left in a field of burning bushes.
“Up you worms!” Sergeant Morgan loomed large against the fires. His snout was a mess of burns. Papau wondered could anything kill him.
“Up!” His claws lashed the grass and someone yelped. Slowly the soldiers rose.
“Useless, whimpering dogs! Get moving!” Morgan thrust a claw towards the treeline.
“Sir, yes sir!” chirped someone behind Papau. It was Morgan's goblin servant. In its silly little helmet it marched to Morgan's side. He cuffed it, sending the thing tumbling from its feet. She clutched her rifle tighter.
It was a beautiful turquoise globe. Wispy clouds drifted across its surface, matched by the swell of gentle seas. If it had a name it had to be paradise. Gleaming amidst space, its southern continent was the brightest gem. A mighty jungle stretched from coast to coast. The inhabitants’ settlements blended with the trees, their temples rising above the canopy. From these holy perches songs had been sung of their blessings since the beginning of time. Morgan had designated the name of their civilisation 'Target Practice'
“Water running,” Lak-tak’s call echoed through the trees. A branch snapped above Papau’s head. She instinctively ducked. Lak-tak flew from the foliage. She landed with a whirl, tail waving behind her. Papau met her gaze, scaly expression unreadable “Dark tidings coming,”
“Quiet in the ranks,” snarled Morgan. He craned forward to take a look, dropping a bundle in the stumbling goblin’s hands.
There was indeed a river. The brown waters ran too deep to see the bottom. The unit clustered round, some daring to take a drink. Papau dropped a twig in and it swirled away faster than the eye could see.
Morgan cursed, kicked the goblin, and then cursed again. “Upstream?”
“Cliffs, jagged and cruel,” said Lak-tak.
“No end to it, sergeant,” said one of the other scouts. Papau couldn’t remember their name.
“We could ford it,” suggested Grund.
Papau grimaced. Grund was a bullish warrior with grey skin and bad ideas.
Morgan bared fangs. “A volunteer,”
Grund didn't move. He was a big man though. Morgan picked up one of the smaller soldiers and tossed him into the river. Papau didn't even know the poor guy's name, just the sound he made when the waters dashed him against some rocks. She turned away, studying the trees.
“Anyone else?” asked Morgan.
The canopy formed an emerald tunnel, trees touching and intermingling high above the fast water.
“We could go over it,” she said without thinking.
“Over the top! Over the top!” chanted one of the denser soldiers.
Morgan turned expectantly. Papau sighed, securing her rifle on her back.
Crack. Papau felt the branch beneath her give. The sound stretched out in her mind, and her arm flailed in slow motion. Her toes slipped upon their perch and with a final snap she lost her fight with gravity. Then she jerked to a halt. Scaly hands gripped her leg.
“Not yet, not yet,” Lak-tak said above her.
Papau hung there, rifle slowly slipping from her back. Carefully she reached out and grabbed another branch. When her gun snagged she let it go. There was a splash far below. It felt like an age to get that firm grip, the trees creaking in warning about her. Lak-tak let go once she was safe, dancing across the mess like she was born to it.
“Hurry it up, maggots!” Morgan roared from below.
Papau made the other side double-time. Lak-tak had disappeared beyond, probably scouting deeper. She hung there against the trunk, watching as the others skittered across one-by-one. There was the idiot who'd chanted earlier. It looked like a goblin, but uglier. Papau couldn't help sniggering at that thought. The weird thing was it giggled back. Next came Grund. He grunted and sweated like a pig but he never once lost his footing. He didn't spare her a glance, heading straight for the ground.
And then there was the sycophant. It marched across the branches like they were a parade ground. She hissed at it as it reached her. It turned a blank expression on her; then it yelled. “Sir! Papau lost her gun!”
Papau started. The little worm!
Morgan roared from the other side and the trees groaned onerously. Papau hastened to climb down but the ugly one from earlier popped up.
“Hi!” it said, giggling at her.
On the other side of the divide the hulking form of Morgan appeared. He'd ripped the last soldier to lose their equipment in two and hung the remains on a tree. Papau tried to squeeze past the pair blocking her escape. The sycophant pointed its gun at her. “I have her sir!”
“That rifle,” began Morgan “was more valuable than you are. You are going down in that river and you are not coming out until you retrieve it. Is that clear private?”
He was almost to them. Papau shrank as much as she could against the tree. If she jumped from here she might just sprain an ankle...
The extra ugly goblin shoved her aside. She shoved back only for it to vomit, all over the canopy. There was an unpleasant sizzling.
One moment Morgan reared up, the next he was gone along with all the branches on this side. There was a loud splash.
Papau was too busy holding on to look but she heard a roar from below. It started loud then seemed to fade away into the distance. The goblins peered down in satisfaction.
“Sir! Sir!” mocked Smomag.
They stood in a small half-circle, amidst muddy pools some distance away from the river. Papau felt naked without a gun. Grund didn't seem to care what was going on. Papau eyed agitated Lak-tak. Why had the lizard saved her? The goblins were the only cheerful ones.
“Fellow privates. I, Ipsilon, have both good news and bad news. Which would you like first?”
“Sugar!” announced the extra ugly one.
The one called Ipsilon continued “The bad news is the squad won't be joining us. The good news is I can lead us out of here. Who's with me?”
“So you'd prefer to go back to base-camp and tell them we killed the sergeant?”
Grund frowned “We did nothing, goblin,”
“But they'll shoot everyone, after they burn us, and torture us,” Ipsilon sounded just a tiny bit desperate.
“The trees do not deserve to burn,” said Lak-tak sadly.
Papau looked the goblin over “You said out of here?”
Ipsilon steepled his fingers “Dearly departed sergeant Morgan allowed me to carry the maps,”
Papau sighed. She had no gun and no choice. “I'm with you then,”
Grund knew the way the wind blew or perhaps again he didn't care. He grunted, patting his shotgun.
Lak-tak didn't say anything, just looking at Papau and nodding.
“Bye Morgan!” said Smomag.