The Gold Stone Tribe was mobilized and marching towards a gathering point just outside the High Passes as the sun reached the midway point in the sky. The Chieftain looked up, but declined to increase their pace. They were moving fast enough already, and they had many miles to go.
They were going towards a gathering of the tribes. Every Goblin tribe north of Liscor had been summoned by the most powerful tribe in the region: the Red Fang Tribe. Such was the power of their Chieftain and the tribe that the Gold Stone Tribe’s Chieftain hadn’t hesitated and set out at once upon being summoned.
But he still took care not to move too quickly, and his tribe moved with a large scouting perimeter out and all of his best warriors near the center, armed and ready. There was an enemy hiding in this snowy landscape, and it was another tribe of Goblins.
A big one, too. The Chieftain was no great thinker and Goblins weren’t exactly the most erudite speakers, but they gossiped and news of this sort travelled fast.
The Flooded Waters Tribe had come north. That normally wouldn’t be a big issue; their Chieftain was nothing special and they were few in number. But something had happened. In less than a week, their tribe had overrun the Jawbreaker, Sword Taker, and Bloody Hand Tribes, slaying or defeating their Chieftains and absorbing their Goblins into the tribe.
They attacked by surprise and used strange weapons, and their Chieftain could use magic. That was close enough to the Ghostly Hand Tribe to be disturbing, but apparently their Chieftain was also a [Tactician] who could manipulate the battlefield.
That was disturbing, and the Gold Stone’s Chieftain knew that in any other place, this new, ambitious Chieftain might well become a major power among the tribes in time. But here?
No. Not here. The Red Fang Tribe had heard about this incursion, and they had taken swift action. The clans were being summoned, and when they moved as one, this upstart tribe would be ground to dust in moments.
All the Gold Stone Tribe had to do was get to the meeting place soon enough. It was no difficult task; even a Gold-rank team would think twice before attacking the two hundred-odd Goblins travelling across the snowy terrain. And the Gold Stone tribe wouldn’t stay in any one place long enough to warrant an army coming at their backs.
Even if the Flooded Waters Tribe came for them, the Chieftain thought they might be surprised. How big could this new tribe be? They had to have lost many Goblins fighting three tribes already, and he had three Hobs under his command, and many warriors with equipment seized from Bronze-rank adventurers. They wouldn’t be troubled. They—
A shrill horn call rang through the crisp morning air, and the Chieftain’s head snapped up. He looked around wildly, and then saw the Goblins.
A small group of them appeared out of a forest miles ahead of the Gold Stone Tribe. The Chieftain called an immediate halt as his warriors raised their weapons. He counted.
Forty? No. Fifty Goblins at most, and not a Hob in sight. He relaxed. These might not be all of the Flooded Waters Tribe, but if that was all they could muster—
One of his Goblin scouts screeched, and the Chieftain’s head twisted. He saw another group of equal size emerging from the left. A hundred, then. Not a prob—
Another horn call sounded and the Chieftain’s heart sank. He looked right, already knowing what he’d see.
Fifty more Goblin. A hundred and fifty, and if the same held true for behind, two hundred all told. An equal fight, then. The Gold Rock tribe might be surrounded, but they could still bunch up and break out in any direction if need be. They could—
Movement. From the front again. The Chieftain saw the fifty Goblins spreading out, so that they formed a thin wall, each Goblin spread out in the distance. He almost laughed. What could they do like that? Each Goblin had nearly five feet separating them; anyone could push through them.
That’s when the other Goblins stood up.
They’d been sitting or lying on the ground, and at this distance, had been invisible. But now they stood, the real numbers of the Flooded Waters Tribe. Fifty became a hundred, and then the Goblins ahead of the Gold Stone Tribe parted and he saw the core of their army.
A different force of Goblins ran towards the Gold Stone Tribe, taking their position on a small mound ahead of them. They were all Goblin warriors, and there were two hundred of them.
Despair. But the Chieftain had no time to look for a place to escape. He heard a third horn call, long and whining, and then the Goblins raised something. He squinted. It was hard to see, but they looked like…bows?
Suddenly the air was full of arrows and stones. Goblins around the Chieftain cried out as the deadly hail began falling from all sides. He raised a shield to his face; the old iron rang as several projectiles struck it. The horn call blew one last time, loudest yet, from behind him.
The Chieftain turned, and saw the enemy Chieftain. She was sitting on a small hill behind his Tribe, surrounded by warriors. And Hobs.
His heart stopped when he saw the Hobs. Eight of them stared down at the Chieftain. They stood behind a small Goblin who raised a sword that shone in her hand. She screamed, and one of the Hobs raised a weapon. The Chieftain saw a black thing streaking towards his face. And then—
Rags saw the black crossbow’s bolt catch the Gold Stone Chieftain in the chest and grimaced. She’d ordered her Hob archers to take the shot, and she’d also told them to try not to kill the enemy Chieftain if possible. Well, one out of two was good enough.
She watched as the Chieftain fell, and wondered if he’d survive the bolt. If his Tribe surrendered quickly enough ,they might be able to get a potion down to him. She had more than a few healing potions on her belt and in her tribe’s grasp, and Hobs were tough. He might survive.
Either way, she wanted the other three Hobs, so she shouted an order and the rest of her archers carrying bows immediately lowered them while the Goblins holding the bullet-throwing crossbows fired on. They had practically unlimited numbers of the hard clay pellets and stones anyways, and it was the best way to wear down their enemy at no cost to either side.
Rags stood on her hill and watched as the Gold Stone tribe milled about in confusion, Goblins screaming as they realized their Chieftain was down and they were under attack from all sides. She hoped no one would rally them; she wanted this over with quick.
And indeed, the initial deadly volley followed by the rain of pellets quickly broke the spirit of the tribe. In minutes, their warriors were throwing down their weapons and cowering on the ground. Even the Hobs abandoned their weapons and clustered around their Chieftain, protecting him from the painful barrage. They could count. The eight Hobs that Rags had was more than enough of a deterrent by itself.
Rags let the Goblins fire for another minute before she blew on the horn again. It took all of her breath, but the effects were immediate and gratifying. Her warriors ceased firing, and moved in with her as she advanced towards the surrendered tribe.
Things went quickly then; the defeated Goblins knew what to do, and Rags was experienced now. She quickly found the Chieftain and poured a healing potion into the wound in his chest as a Hob helped pull the bolt out.
That done, Rags looked around. The Gold Stone Tribe Goblins were milling about, tending to the wounded or staring at her Hobs with as much apprehension as envy. She raised her voice, and Goblins immediately scrambled to do her bidding.
First, Rags organized her new Goblins, separating them. The children and pregnant females she put with the others, while she took any Goblins with archery skills and weapons and added them to her own ranks. Those with useful skills she put in special groups; the best warriors she added to her personal vanguard and the others she assigned to the largest, unskilled group of Goblins she used for every task.
Then she had the Goblins gather up their weapons, grab their supplies, and add them to her own. The Goblins leapt to obey as their former Chieftain sat up and poked at his chest experimentally. Rags ignored him, and mentally tallied up her latest acquisitions.
Nearly two hundred Goblins and four Hobs? That was an excellent outcome, and not least because this was probably the last tribe Rags could hit safely. The Red Fang tribe was calling all the other tribes together, perhaps to absorb them, but at the very least to come after her. They’d have to retreat soon.
The Gold Stone Chieftain lurched to his feet and lumbered over to Rags. She glanced up at him, and then pointed to some food her Goblins were dragging out. He nodded, and meekly walked over to eat without so much as a word of protest or moment of hesitation.
That was the thing about Goblins. The Tribes might fight, but it was customary for a defeated tribe to follow the victor, regardless of what had passed before. Either that, or they left without incident; slaughtering each other as prisoners wasn’t something Goblins did, regardless of how they treated other species they captured.
Neither was Rags worried about any other Goblin knifing her in the back while she stood in the snow and issued orders. Betrayal and backstabbing was not a Goblin trait, which might surprise Humans and other species. But while Goblins were completely fine with killing an enemy in their sleep, they tended to avoid that amongst themselves, at least within their own tribe. A Chieftain ruled because they were strongest; someone who took that position by cowardice would not lead the tribe well.
Now, declaring you’d be the next Chieftain and putting poison in the old Chief’s food while they slept? That was fine. Even commendable if no one saw you do it. After all, you’d have every Goblin in the tribe watching out for you and they’d tear you to shreds the instant you got close to the camp. A Goblin who could sneak past a hundred watchful eyes and disappear into the night was a Goblin who would make a great Chieftain.
Even the newly defeated Gold Stone Chieftain seemed perfectly happy to munch down on the dead Corusdeer her hunters had killed while she reworked his Goblins into her tribe. He had acknowledged her strength and had given in; his tenuous subservience to the Red Fang tribe hadn’t been worth more than his life.
Rags was relieved of that. This was an easy battle she’d won by virtue of superior tactics and a well-planned trap; but other tribes might have gone down fighting. And best yet, the Gold Stone Chieftain had accepted her. If he’d thought she was completely unworthy to lead, he would have fought her to the very last.
One young Goblin—well, young by Goblin standards, she was only a year older than he—brought Rags a bone with meat on it. It was hot, steaming, and still bloody. Rags tore into it greedily as her Hobs received the same treatment.
Another victory! Now that all the complexities were dealt with, Rags allowed herself to feel her accomplishment fully. And it felt good.
She had defeated a tribe of over two hundred Goblins with no casualties on her side and virtually none on theirs! The very idea of that a month ago would have been too much for Rags. And the fact that she now led over eight hundred Goblins…it boggled her mind. But she’d won, and she’d kept winning after that day in the inn when she’d decided to fight.
And it was so easy! Rags felt like she was walking on clouds, and her head was almost swimming with the joy of it. In one short week she’d absorbed three—now four—tribes into her own, each one larger than the last.
It wasn’t due to luck, either. Rags had planned each victory out and reaped the fruits of her labor. She’d defeated the other Goblins with her mind, not just with a sword and overwhelming numbers.
The other Goblin tribes might have been bigger, but their Chieftains had no concept of strategy. Rags did, and that, combined with her [Firefly] spell and stone bows meant that she could arm nearly every Goblin in her tribe with some kind of ranged weapon, even if it was only a rock.
Surround them, pummel them, cripple their leader. Attack at night or from defensible positions. These were all basic concepts, but Rags had seen how just one of these factors could turn a battle entirely around.
Already she’d leveled up several times as both a [Leader], [Tactician], and [Mage]. Rags had done very little fighting herself, so she was still the same level of [Warrior], but she could feel herself getting stronger. A Chieftain’s strength was their tribe; as their tribe grew, so did the Chieftain. And Rags had put the resources of each defeated tribe to good use.
She’d had more of the stone bows built of course – but the crossbows required specific parts that most tribes didn’t have access to. Fortunately, each tribe she’d conquered had any number of Goblins able to use bows, slings, and in some cases, crude javelins.
Thus, Rags armed her weakest Goblins with the crossbows. They were best in inexperienced hands; it took time to learn how to sling a stone or fire a bow, but a crossbow was point and shoot and even children could roll the clay pellets.
She’d taken the best weapons from each tribe’s collection and outfitted herself and her best warriors with them. She and her Hobs all had armor now; and semi-decent weapons. Steel maces, wicked battleaxes and even a magical dagger—Rags felt strong with all her equipment.
Only her bronze shortsword and shield were the same. There were better weapons of course, but Rags had been given them as a gift by Erin and besides…they were shiny. When she caught the light on her sword, the Goblins were impressed, and that was important.
And she had Hobs. Hobs! That was the greatest miracle of all. They were devastating warriors and each one was worth twenty Goblins. At least.
They were twelve now, former Chieftains and the strongest warriors of a tribe the lot of them. They weren’t all fat, like her former Chieftain and the Gold Stone Chieftain were. Hobs could be huge, round creatures, but some were just tall versions of Goblins. In any case, they were all her best warriors, easily the equivalent of any two Silver-rank team of adventurers.
In terms of Hobs, she had more than even the Red Fang tribe, although that was a poor comparison to make. Rags was well aware that her Hobs were only a drop in the bucket in a larger conflict; they had to be used well or they would be lost, much like a Queen in a game of chess.
She had no intention of clashing with the Red Fang tribe in any case; Rags had decided to head back to Liscor after this. There they could rest and prepare for future battles in peace. Her new tribe would put her on equal terms with the Watch, or at least make them too big to fight.
Besides, now Rags was sure she could hunt the more dangerous types of enemies around Liscor. Rock Crabs were still a problem of course, but her Hobs had fought Shield Spiders, and they told Rags it was easy to destroy a nest with few casualties if you had two Hobs and enough Goblins.
Rags bit into her meal and realized she was at the bone. She began to snap it so she could suck the marrow when she realized all of her Goblins had gone silent. Slowly, she followed their turned heads and saw the wolves.
As a young Goblin, Rags had heard stories but had never seen Carn Wolves in person. The massive wolves—three times as large as a regular wolf at least and capable of bringing down a horse in a single strike—were deadly enemies to Goblins.
But there was one tribe that had tamed the ferocious animals, much as the Broken Spear Tribe had tamed the Shield Spiders. This tribe of Goblins had learned to raise the massive wolves and even learned to ride them. With them, and led by their ferocious Chieftain, they had conquered hundreds of miles of territory north of Liscor.
And here they were, larger than life, watching the Flooded Waters tribe. They’d appeared without warning from her scouts, without a whisper.
The Red Fang Tribe.
Sixty Goblins, sitting on the backs of the rust-red giant Carn Wolves, stared down at Rags’ Tribe. A Hob Goblin sat on a massive wolf at the head of the group of riders, holding a red sword in his hand.
It wasn’t their entire tribe. That was the first thought that came into Rags’ mind after her heart began beating again. This—this was only a scouting group. Led by their Chieftain. But they were barely a drop in the bucket compared to Rags’ forces.
But words cannot lie so easily to the heart, and Rags’ was in her throat and beating out of control. She stared up at the leader of the Red Hand Tribe and saw only strength.
He was a tall Goblin, but not particularly big for a Hob. He would have been around the height of a normal Human man, but that was not what made him so terrifying. It was his presence. The Chieftain of the Red Fang Tribe practically vibrated with his will to fight and his confidence in his own strength. He bore battle scars all over his body, and his gaze was a lighthouse, a red beacon that swept the Goblins below him.
They cringed, all of them, unable to meet his gaze. The Chieftain stared down, looking for someone among the Goblins.
He didn’t find her. Of course. Even armored as she was, Rags was no Hob to tower above the rest. The Chieftain rolled his shoulders and raised his sword into the air. Rags tensed, but the next thing the Chieftain did wasn’t order a charge. Instead, he spoke.
Flooded Waters Tribe! Send your Chieftain to fight! I challenge her!
His words boomed down the hill, echoing in the vast wilderness. Rags stared up at him, suddenly afraid. It was a traditional challenge, one she had heard many times when she had been growing up. But it had never been addressed to her.
Within her tribe, Rags ruled by virtue of her superior intelligence. And she had her black crossbow. Any challenge would have been settled in two seconds and she had always defeated enemy Chieftains with her tribe, as was fair.
But a challenge? No. Rags stared up at the Red Fang Chieftain and imagined trying to fight him. She couldn’t. He would cut her apart with a single strike.
But she had to say something. Her Goblins were looking at her, and Rags couldn’t back down. She stepped forwards, discarding the bone in the snow and stared up at the Red Fang Chieftain.
He saw her then, and frowned. Displeased? She was as far from him in nature as possible. Rags was still young; she was no Hob, and she was not going to accept his challenge.
That was clear from the way Rags stood with her arms folded, staring up at him. She had not run, which would be the sign of an unworthy Chieftain, but she refused to take up his offer. The only other course of action would be to fight, and Rags was tensed for the Red Fang Chieftain to do just that.
Was his entire Tribe nearby? If so, the only option Rags had was to retreat. But if it was just this group of riders…could they actually take down the Red Fang tribe here and now?
Surely not. But Rags had the black crossbow by her side, and her Goblins outnumbered his by a huge margin. Maybe…
The Chieftain moved. He kicked the wolf he rode gently in the sides, and it started to descend the slope. Rags’ Goblins stirred, but she held them back. Instead, she caught the eye of one of her Goblin warriors and slowly drew a circle on her palm. He nodded and stealthily moved off among her Goblins, grabbing others.
Her warriors would circle around, trapping the Red Fang’s riders. They could capture this tribe as well, Rags was sure. But she was still vibrating with nerves, and as the Red Fang’s Chieftain drew closer on his wolf—
Rags stared up at the Chieftain as he moved with his Red Fang warriors. He was the only Hob among them, but each mounted Goblin projected that same aura of strength. They were all armored with unrusted chainmail and thick leather. And their weapons—
They might be as strong as Hobs, each one. That was the sense Rags got. How high level were they? And their Carn Wolves were just as deadly. The great animals didn’t even flinch as the riders moved into the center of Rags’ tribe, and Red Fang warriors looked just as unconcerned.
They advanced down the slope, heedless of the countless bows trained on them. The leader of the Red Fang Tribe sat on his Carn Wolf and stared down at Rags as she approached.
The difference in their heights was beyond staggering. Rags felt like she was staring up at a giant. But it was equally difficult simply because up close, the Chieftain radiated danger. Rags didn’t have [Dangersense], but she was sure it would be screaming at her right now if she did.
The Chieftain looked at Rags and spoke, his voice low and rumbling.
Submit to my tribe. Or die.
He spoke in the Goblin’s tongue, which was short and guttural, so much so that many Goblins preferred to just grunt and point if the problem was simple enough. Rags stared up at him, and felt her mind go blank.
Submit? To his tribe? It was better than dying, which was how she’d gained control of the other tribes. And it was the sensible thing to do. The Red Fang Tribe—they were legendary. Rags knew her tribe was not their match. Even if they had only a fraction of their strength here, it was the smart thing to do.
She should do it. Rags hesitated as the Chieftain waited for her response. She could do it. He would probably let her keep her tribe, and they could go back to Liscor. She could pay tribute, and she would be safe.
It was the best choice. But Rags looked at the Chieftain and his sixty riders. They were in the center of her tribe and her ambush party was making their way around the rear. Could they…?
Submit. It was the smart thing to do. The safe thing. But Rags looked up and remembered a Drake staring down at her with hatred in his eyes. She saw the severed heads and knew her answer in a heartbeat.
Slowly, Rags shook her head. The Chieftain’s eyes narrowed.
Rags didn’t even see him swing his sword. She only saw the Hob next to her move, and then the Gold Stone Chieftain was in front of her, taking the one-handed slash meant for Rags.
The blow broke the Hobs’ shield and cut through his armor. Rags stared as the Gold Stone Chieftain fell, bleeding. The Red Fang Chieftain shook his head, and then raised his sword. And his warriors attacked.
Rags screamed orders as the mounted riders suddenly leapt at her Goblins. Her archers fired and warriors rushed towards the riders, but too slow. The wolves bounded forwards and into the ranks of her Goblins, snarling, and the mounted Goblins stabbed with their spears and slashed downwards, turning the front ranks into bloody ribbons.
The Red Fang Chieftain pointed at Rags and his wolf leapt forwards. Rags stumbled back, and more Hobs and Goblins rushed to protect her. One Goblin raised a crossbow—
And the Red Fang Chieftain sliced off the top of his head. It was a smooth swing that didn’t even slow as it cut the Goblin’s skull open. The Chieftain grinned with battle fury in his eyes as he cut left, right, left, right. Each time he did, a Goblin died.
The Chieftain took an arrow from a bow to the shoulder and didn’t even blink. The arrowhead snapped off as it hit his skin, and Rags realized he had some kind of skill. He swung backwards and delivered a backhanded punch to a Hob that floored the other Goblin. His Carn Wolf seized a small Goblin and crunched the struggling warrior in an instant.
All around Rags, her Goblins were screaming and trying to fight off the wolf riders who had charged into their ranks. Clay bullets and arrows broke or bounced off the Goblin warrior’s armor and the Carn Wolves’ hide. Each Red Fang warrior fought with a ferocity and speed of a Hob, and their wolves were just as horrible to fight; Goblins struggled to even get close enough to strike in the face of those slashing paws, and snapping teeth.
Rags moved backwards, looking around wildly. Where was her ambush group? Still getting into position probably. The attack had been so sudden they’d all been caught off-guard, and now the Red Fang’s Chieftain was cutting his way towards her.
His Carn Wolf howled and rammed its way through the ranks of Goblins, trampling them underfoot. The Chieftain leapt from its back and dodged a bolt as it flew towards his chest. He grinned, turned, cut two Goblins in half, and then charged towards Rags.
She dropped the black crossbow and drew her sword just in time. She raised her sword and braced the flat side with her hand as the Chieftain raised his sword high. He brought it down, and Rags saw whiteness and felt as if the sky had fallen on her head. But though her sword shook and bent, it miraculously held.
The Chieftain grinned, and Rags barely managed to turn her blade to block the next strike. He locked blades with her—on purpose. Rags could feel the unyielding strength behind his blade; if he’d wanted to, he could have cut through her bronze sword and straight through Rags in a single blow.
You are not true Goblin.
Rags felt a shock as her feet struggled for purchase in the snow. The Chieftain stared down at her, looking almost disappointed. He stared into her eyes, red eyes intent on her face.
You are too small to lead. Too weak. I will prove this.
He turned, and his wolf bounded away into the darkness. He roared, and suddenly his riders moved away, cutting themselves free of her Goblins. Rags fumbled for her bow and then raised her hand to cast a spell, but too late.
The Red Fang riders were already racing away as Goblins scrambled for their bows and tried to fire after them. Rags stared around, but saw no fallen wolves or dead Goblins from their tribe. Only her slaughtered Goblins.
Sixty against close to a thousand, and yet they’d fought their way out without a scratch. Rags was in shock. She stared around and the dead and dying and at her hands. Her small hands. They still trembled at the memory of clashing with the Red Fang’s Chieftain.
That was when the Goblin scout raced through her milling tribe, shouting for her. Rags turned, and he nearly fell in his panic. She caught him, and he gabbled his message. Rags felt her head go light with shock.
Over a thousand Goblins, perhaps many thousands—the scout had no accurate number—were marching towards them. The Red Fang Tribe’s main host.
They had to run. Rags looked around and began to shout. The Goblins abandoned the dead and seized the wounded, but as they did, more screams rang out.
Rags grabbed at her sword, but the sounds weren’t coming from here. She looked over the hill and realized what was happening.
The Red Fang Chieftain. He was killing the Goblins she’d sent to encircle him. In the distance, she saw her hiding warriors break and run as his wolf riders fell upon them. The Chieftain was fastest, and he swung his sword at the leader of the ambush team. The Goblin fell, and the Chieftain rode on, swinging his sword. Once, twice. Goblins bled and died.
Rags shouted, and her Goblins streamed out after the riders, but again, too slowly. Even as she watched, the Red Fang riders broke away from the combat, dashing over a hill and out of sight.
This time Rags didn’t hesitate. She ordered her Goblins to grab everything they could and began marching the main body of her tribe away from where the Red Fang Tribe was. But she could sense the Red Fang’s Chieftain was still nearby. He had promised to show her how weak she was? What did he mean by that?
She soon found out. The Red Fang’s Chief struck her tribe eight more times that day, until she finally realized what was going on. And then the next day, and the next. He forced her tribe on the defensive, making them fall back until the days became all the same.
Retreating, fleeing, running.
Back towards Liscor.
They were being hunted. That was all Rags knew. She sat around the small campfire, head bowed, too exhausted for any other thoughts. Her Goblins lay around her, some passed out on top of each other.
It was still light, but that hardly mattered. Her tribe was too exhausted to keep going, so Rags had called a halt. Even so, she’d posted half of her soldiers as a watch, in case the Red Fang’s Chieftain returned, which he would.
He always did.
Rags looked around. Her tribe. It was still mostly intact. Mostly. But over the course of a few days, they’d lost over a hundred Goblins, and half again as many were wounded. And not because the Red Fang Tribe had caught up with them, no. It was all due to the sixty riders and the Red Fang Chieftain.
They kept on attacking. Rags closed her eyes and remembered.
The Red Fang riders charged out of a forest ahead of Rags’ tribe. Her Goblins screamed and scattered, but she reformed them. She’d been expecting this. Rags ordered them into a line and had her archers prepare to fire. As the riders raced at her, she pulled something out of her belt.
A red gemstone. The gem of [Terror]. It had little effect on Goblins, but wolves? Rags raised it and activated the magic.
Terror, pure terror, rolled over the Carn Wolves and made them halt in their tracks. Their confused riders pulled and yanked at them, trying to make the wolves go on, but they refused, trying to retreat.
The Red Fang Chieftain stared at the gem in Rags’ hand and narrowed his eyes. As the first arrows and clay pellets began to bombard his warriors he raised his sword into the air and—
The sound was deafening and bestial. It made Rags’ Goblins hesitate, and the fearful wolves froze in place. The Chieftain pointed towards Rags as her heart stopped again in her chest and shouted.
The wolves leapt forwards, their fear forgotten. Rags screamed an order, and her Goblins warriors surged forwards to protect her unguarded archers, but too slow, too late. The first ranks were completely crushed as the Red Fang riders screamed into them, slashing, cutting—
Pain and defeat. Again and—
This time Rags had set up on high ground, but the Red Fang’s Chieftain didn’t even hesitate. He came up the gorge, so quickly her archers were barely able to target him. But that was fine. Rags waited. The steep incline was only passable in a few places. And in each—
The camouflaged rolls of boom bark were hidden beneath rocks, but the explosions would just turn the stone into deadly shrapnel. She held her hand at her side, the [Firefly] spell hot in her mind as she waited. The Red Fang Chieftain ran on, staring directly at her. The Hobs at her side hid their arrows dipped in oil, ready to fire. Nearly, nearly—
At the last moment, the Chieftain stared at the ground and suddenly pulled his wolf to a stop. Rags stared in disbelief as he studied the perfectly concealed ground where the boom bark was hidden, and then shook his head. He shouted, and his wolf riders turned with him, racing away. Rags stared at their backs, furious, confused, until she heard screaming from behind and realized he’d split his force in two—
And now, today, she’d tried to make a stand and corner him. But he’d spotted every one of her ambush teams and torn into them and retreated before she could get close.
That was the thing. The Red Fang’s Chieftain might be warlike, but he wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t trying to fight head-on. If she could corner him and force him to fight, it might be a fair one. His fifty wolf riders might be strong, but even with the Carn Wolves they were outnumbered eight-to-one by her Goblins.
But they didn’t do that. Instead, they launched devastating attacks on Rags’ Tribe, outrunning her archers and slaughtering dozens of Goblins before turning and running away.
They were too well-armored, too strong individually, and they never fought Rags’ best warriors. Instead, they aimed for the weak spots, the archers, her unguarded flanks. And Rags couldn’t send her Hobs to counter, because of the Chieftain.
If her Hobs strayed anywhere outside the center of her tribe, the Red Fang’s Chieftain would come for them. He was unstoppable. Arrows didn’t slow him or his mount down and he had already killed two Hobs by himself. He was a monster, and at his back his small group of warriors turned into an unstoppable force that bled Rags day and night.
If they could have stopped, they might have found a cave to dig into, or some place to fortify which the riders wouldn’t dare attack. But even that wasn’t an option, because the Red Fang tribe was following in huge numbers, poised to strike down Rags’ tribe if they slowed.
The main body of the Red Fang tribe and all the lesser tribes under their command were advancing slowly, backing up their wolf riders and forcing Rags to keep moving or risk being caught. They were blocking every escape route, forcing Rags and her tribe back towards Liscor.
It was the neatest trap Rags had ever seen, and it was terrifying as well. She couldn’t do anything against these riders; her crossbow was the only weapon capable of hurting his warriors at a distance, and they could outrun her archers and outfight almost all of her Goblins.
Even so, Rags might have had hope. A hundred dead was terrible, but it was only a tenth of her fighting force. They’d killed several of the wolf riders and the wolves in return. But that wasn’t the real consequence of these daily raids, no. It was the effect they were having on her Tribes’ morale, and worse, confidence in her.
Small Goblin! Fight me!
The Red Fang’s Chieftain would roar that challenge with every new day, and his warriors would beat their shields and their wolves would howl. And each time Rags would turn and take her Goblins back, back towards her home.
She couldn’t fight. It was suicide, and her Goblins knew it. But still, they saw their Chieftain retreating and saw too that she was unable to protect them or hurt their enemy, and they lost faith.
Rags tried to project confidence, but that was hard because she had no idea what to do. She had to get back to Liscor. That was her home territory; she knew the landscape and could set a trap. But what?
Luring the Red Fang riders to Liscor would be pointless. The city would close their gates, or send the Watch and the terrible Antinium out to crush both sides. The Red Fang riders would just run while Rags’ tribe was cut to pieces.
They couldn’t hide in the caves either. It was no longer big enough for them, and if they pressed themselves in that small confine, she was sure the Red Fang Chief would walk in and slaughter them one Goblin at a time.
So what else was there? Rags was sure going into the dungeon itself would be death; she doubted even her Hobs could defeat the stone golems past the broken wall. And if not them then there was only one thing she could think of.
Erin. But Rags couldn’t even imagine the innkeeper defeating the Red Fang’s Chieftain, even with her friends to help. And besides—
No. No, this was Rags’ fight. She had half of an idea left, a wild guess. She just had to get back to Liscor to implement it, and soon. Because if she didn’t hurry, she wouldn’t have a Tribe by the time she got back.
The second night after the continued attacks by the Red Hand tribe, Rags had woken up and realized some Goblins were missing. A few families had vanished overnight, as well as some stragglers.
That was normal. Goblins left tribes if they were unhappy, to start their own tribes or wander. But the next night more had left, and then even more. The Goblins were losing their faith in their Chieftain, and so they were abandoning her.
Not all of them; this was mostly just from the Gold Stone tribe, although incredibly, their Chieftain had persuaded most of them to stay. But the exodus was increasing.
More Goblins left last night as well. Rags sat up and counted the empty beds. Twenty six this time. Almost exactly how many she’d predicted. Good? She didn’t feel anything was good right now.
She stumbled over to the campfire, and found the stew cooking on the fire. It was full of rations, dried meat and leftovers. It tasted awful, but it was hot and Rags scarfed the food down. She only realized someone was behind her when she heard the heavy footstep.
She whirled, and reached for her weapons warily. But it was only a Hob. He was one of the ones from the Sword Taker tribe, a tall Hob who used a huge hammer as a weapon.
He was staring at her. Rags hesitated. Did he want food? As Chieftain, she had first rights to food, but there was more than enough in the pot. Was he waiting for her to finish? Some tribes had different customs.
But then the Hob spoke and Rags understood.
It was half a request, half an order. And the Hob shouldn’t have said it, but if he did, it meant others were thinking it. He stared down at her, silently. Rags looked expressionlessly at him, and then around.
More than one Goblin pretended to be asleep, but she realized she had a watching audience. Well, it didn’t matter. Rags looked at the Hob and slowly shook her head.
She wouldn’t die. But she wouldn’t surrender either. Not without one last try. She wasn’t going to sacrifice her entire tribe though; she wouldn’t be worthy of a Chieftain if she were willing to do that. Her Goblins had to trust in her.
But the Hob was insistent. He locked eyes with Rags, and she felt the hairs on her body rising. He wasn’t going to back down, and she couldn’t as Chieftain. She eyed him. He wasn’t wearing armor, but he was still bigger and stronger than she was. He was three times her size, at least.
The two Goblins stared at each other silently, and the tension in the air rose another level. The Goblins stopped pretending to be asleep and sat up. They knew what was about to happen.
The Hob spoke.
Rags dove and rolled as a fist missed her head by inches. She grabbed the crossbow she’d been sleeping next to and fired. The Hob gurgled and fell back, clutching at the shaft in his chest. The other Goblins stared as he collapsed onto the ground. He tried to raise one hand, fell back, and died.
It took Rags a long time for her beating heart to cease. She left the Hobs’ body where it lay; they might use it as food, or not. They had to keep moving. But her head was full of…regret. It shouldn’t have come to that.
None of her Goblins looked at her, although she’d acted in accordance with their traditions. It was a fair fight, at least by Goblin standards. They knew she had the crossbow, and Goblins don’t believe in fair fights. Or rather, everything is fair since a fight is never fair. But it was still bad, for a Chieftain to have to kill her Hob.
Rags made her tribe move, and before long they were attacked again. They fought off the Red Fang’s attack and Rags continued onwards. One last try. All or nothing.
She spoke little that day, only a bit to her Hobs. They stared at her silently, and nodded when she insisted. But when she turned her back she could feel their eyes on her.
Again and again the Red Fang riders surged into her Tribe, but this time their tight formations made it harder for the warriors to stay and engage. Rags took down another rider and two wolves with careful shots, but her ammunition was running low and none of her other Goblins could penetrate the wolves’ thick coats.
They’d reached the very edges of Liscor when they made camp that night. They were just past the cave leading into the dungeon when Rags decided to make camp. Silently, her Goblins got to work as Rags planned out her last stand. She knew the area well; it was only a day’s journey away. They could make it, perhaps late if they had to fight off more attacks.
She went to sleep, worrying, dreaming. Was she making a mistake? No—she had to become strong.
But. But. Should she have given in?
No. Yes. Rags tossed and turned. One last try. What did she have? A final jar of Erin’s acid. Boom bark that the Red Fang’s Chieftain wouldn’t go near. And knowledge of the terrain.
Rags closed her eyes. She was a Goblin. She was not weak. She would show the Red Fang’s Chieftain her strength.
When Rags woke up the next day, all her Hobs were gone.
It was midnight when the Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe finally halted. The Chieftain of the Red Fang Tribe watched them set up in a small valley, but not to sleep. He’d nipped at their flanks all day, slaying Goblins, but their small Chieftain hadn’t reacted as normal. She’d forged ahead, until she reached this place.
He could see why. The valley was a natural trap of the terrain. It would be harder for his riders to get away, and if they were surrounded—but of course there was a second reason as well.
The Chieftain shook his head. He was disappointed, but he would show the small Goblin the true nature of Goblins here and now. He waited, his fifty riders poised and waiting around him as their wolves sniffed and pawed at the snow. They could sense it too, no doubt.
The Goblins in the valley began to spread out, forming a large circular formation, warriors with shields and swords facing outwards while archers and women and children armed with a few slings and the odd crossbows waited in the middle.
It was a pitiful formation, one that failed to rise to the stories he’d heard about the small Chieftain’s cunning. But then, it was all she had to work with.
Her Tribe had lost more than half their numbers last night, and all of her Hobs had gone with the Goblins. And by the looks of it, they’d taken most of her bows, slings, and new crossbows. All this Goblin had left were normal arms. She didn’t even have enough pikes to form a proper defense, not that they would have slowed his riders anyways.
The Red Fang Chieftain shook his head. Time to end this. He raised his hand and his riders tensed. But then the Goblins below began to make noise.
It was the small Chieftain who started it. She stared up at him and began to bang her sword on her buckler. She shouted—a faint voice in the vast emptiness of the rolling plains. But then other Goblins took up the same call.
They began to shout and stomp the ground, rattling their weapons against metal. They screamed at the wolf riders as the Red Fang Chief stared down at Rags. She met his eyes.
Well. Perhaps there was some Goblin in her. It wouldn’t save her, though. The Red Fang’s Chieftain unsheathed his sword and raised it high. It ended tonight. They would break her will with this.
The Chieftain took a breath of the cold night air and roared at his warriors as their mounts howled with him.
The Red Fang warriors shouted and followed their Chieftain as he leapt down the slope. The Red Fang Chieftain was shouting as he sped downwards on his giant wolf, eyes locked on the small Chieftain’s. He couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed.
He’d really expected more of her.
Rags watched the Red Fang Chieftain charge and held her breath. This was it. This was all she had left. Her depleted tribe stood at her back, loyal till the end. There were still enough of them to win. If they could just stop the riders for a second. If—
The Red Fang Chieftain roared as he came down the slope, and Rags felt a chill far colder than the cold air. He was coming. Her sword was sweaty in her palm, and her heart was beating too fast.
But the Chieftain was coming at her in a straight line. Rags watched his wolf dash through the snow, raising a cloud behind him. He hadn’t noticed.
She held her breath. One more step—
The Red Fang Chieftain kicked his wolf, and the huge animal turned, and leapt left, avoiding the hidden pit full of Shield Spiders. It was casual, almost contemptuous how easily he skirted the pit, urging his wolf right to avoid a second one, and then running around a third.
Rags stared at the Red Fang Chieftain, shocked, as he dashed between the Shield Spider pits without even disturbing the snow covering each trap. Despair was in her eyes, and as he halted in front of the ranks of her Goblins, he shook his head. He looked almost regretful as he raised his sword and his riders howled, charging towards her front lines.
Die, small one.
Rags let the look of shock linger on her face for two more seconds, and then grinned. The Red Fang’s Chieftain blinked. She raised her hand and clenched it into a fist—
And the ground shifted.
Behind the wolf riders, the snow-covered Shield Spider pits fell away. The Red Fang riders turned, confused, and saw Goblins. The Red Fang’s Chieftain turned, and his eyes widened as he realized the true nature of the trap.
Shield Spider pits. They were easy to detect even without [Dangersense]. Any living Goblin knew how to spot them. But then, Shield Spiders weren’t much of a threat to a proper tribe. All you needed to clear out a nest was a bunch of Goblins with long weapons. Oh, and a few Hobs of course.
They were all there, all of Rags’ Hobs and half of her tribe. They stood in the pits, Goblins all armed with bows and slings and crossbows. They fired into the wolf rider’s backs and sides as more climbed out of the pits and charged the rider from every side.
Rags shouted a command, and her warriors charged as well. Her archers began to fire, and the Red Fang riders found themselves surrounded on all sides.
The Red Fang’s Chieftain narrowed his eyes at the Shield Spider pits. He realized the problem instantly. In those shelters, Rags’ archers could continue firing without any fear.
Unless of course his riders went in after them.
The Chieftain pointed, and shouted. One of the wolf riders jumped his wolf into a pit and then screamed. His Carn Wolf screamed too; they’d both impaled themselves on the thick wooden stakes planted around the Goblin archers.
Rags grinned, and for the first time, she saw the Red Fang’s Chieftain hesitate. But then he turned to look at her, and she saw not a glimmer of fear in his eyes. Her smiled faded. No. He wasn’t going to…
Any other Chieftain would have surrendered, or tried to flee. But the Red Fang Chieftain just narrowed his eyes, and then raised his sword. He pointed, and shouted one word.
His warriors didn’t hesitate. Fifty Goblins riding Carn Wolves crashed into the ranks of hundreds, and began to cut their way through. They didn’t stop.
A Red Fang warrior screamed as he lashed out with his sword, riding his Carn Wolf into the Goblins. He struck wildly, ignoring the countless hands that tried to pull him down.
A Hob buried an axe in his Carn Wolf’s head. The Red Fang warrior went down, but was on his feet in an instant, fighting with his sword even as countless weapons pierced his body. With his last moments he ran forwards and ripped a Goblin’s throat out with his teeth.
Goblins fell back as the Chieftain swung his sword, cleaving through multiple bodies with one swing. He didn’t even look around as he struck; the blood flew in his wake as he charged straight at Rags.
She had the black crossbow at her side. There was only time for one shot. Rags sighted down the bolt, and fired once. The Chieftain’s Carn Wolf howled and collapsed with a bolt in its neck. But the Chieftain just leapt off its back and cut Goblins down as he ran towards her.
Rags was shaking. Her blood was fire. But she didn’t run. She tossed the black crossbow aside and raised her sword. It was time.
In the snowy night, Goblins fought and died. Mounted Goblins on huge wolves fought against a vast number of Goblins, bleeding, dying, but killing scores for each Goblin pulled off their wolf. And in the center of the fighting and dying, two Chieftains found each other.
Rags and the Red Fang’s Chieftain had nearly a hundred feet separating them, and countless bodies in the way. But they ran as if they were both alone in the world, eyes locked on each other.
They charged at each other through the mud, each one screaming. Two kinds of Goblin raised their swords as their tribes cleared out in front of them. They met in fury and fire, one dodging, retreating, using magic and cunning. The other raged, running through fire, attacking, slashing.
Two Goblins, each with a vision of the future. And as they locked blades, both Chieftains stared into each other’s eyes and for a second, their hearts beat as one.
They both felt it. They heard the voice echoing in their souls as they struggled for purchase on the slippery ground, in each beat of their hearts as they struck at each other.
This. This is Goblin. This is our nature.
It was a scream of a thousand lives, a thousand memories of Goblins who had lived and died before them. It rang in their ears, coursed through their veins.
This is Goblin. This is what we were born to do.
Rags saw a bare foot flash towards her chest and blocked just in time. She felt the impact—as she landed ten feet away. Her arm was broken. She uncorked a potion with her teeth and poured it over the bone, holding it in place as the Red Fang Chieftain charged.
Another potion. Rags downed it and pointed. Fire burst from her fingers and struck the other Goblin in the chest. He roared as the flames burned him but ran on.
Thunder. Rags ducked and rolled between his legs as the Red Fang’s Chieftain sliced at her. He missed, but turned and cut down three Goblins as they ran at him. A Hob tried to get in his way; the Chieftain ran him through without looking in his direction.
The voices in Rags’ head urged her on as she raised her sword, and she knew the Chieftain could hear the same words.
Fight. Fight! FIGHT. Fight or die! Kill or die!
They charged, for the last time. But as they did, Rags heard another voice. It was quiet, but it spoke in her mind, a younger voice, from twenty-odd years ago. The voice of a King. It whispered to her.
This is not who we are.
It made her falter. Rags hesitated as the other Chieftain screamed at her. She heard the voice in her head, louder than the rest.
And she looked up at the Red Fang Chieftain—
And rolled into one of the pits.
It was close enough that Rags made it nearly to the center as she fell into it. She saw the wooden stakes rushing towards her, horribly sharp—
And felt one brush against her side. But she was small, and the burning pain was no worse than the impact of falling. Rags scrambled to her feet, and saw the Chieftain. He was standing on top of the pit, eyes on fire.
He leapt. She knew he would. The Goblins around her scattered, but Rags waited. She felt the impact, and saw the Chieftain roar in agony as a stake struck him. But he was slashing at her before she could blink.
The impact tore through the metal, ramming Rags against the dirt wall of the pit. She fell down, stunned, as the Red Fang Chieftain walked towards her.
He coughed and yanked the wooden spear out of his side. He looked at his blood, and then reached down and seized Rags. She kicked feebly as he lifted her into the air, reaching at her belt, feeling the world go dark.
The Red Fang Chieftain raised his sword and then looked around. His warriors were falling, dying. He was alone in the pit with Rags, but already Goblins were approaching with bows and arrows. He had lost, but Rags was dead.
How? How are you so small but able to do so much?
Rags met his eyes. She felt the cold glass in her palm. She gritted her teeth, and rasped.
I am Goblin. I am small. But I look down upon you all.
Then she raised the jar and smashed it above both of them. The acid rained down, covering both Rags and the Chieftain. They screamed, and Rags fell to the ground, writhing in agony.
Burning. Pain. Death.
Rags couldn’t see. She could barely think. But her hands fumbled at her belt, reaching for her only salvation. The glass was cold, and she broke it on her face, heedless of the shards.
Pain. But suddenly her melting skin was also healing. Rags felt her skin burning away and regenerating at the same time. She screamed, a raw sound, and broke another potion over her head, washing away the acid.
The pain continued, searing into her memory and soul. But eventually, it faded enough for her to be part of the world again. Rags sat up, screamed, and then stood up.
She had to—she had to—
The Red Fang’s Chieftain was lying on the ground, silent, smoking as the acid ate away at his flesh. Rags stared at him. She hesitated, and then uncorked her last potion and poured it over his head.
The wisps of dissolving flesh ceased. Rags saw flesh begin to grow over bone, and prayed she wasn’t too late. But then she saw the Chieftain sit up, and then stand and reach towards his own belt.
A second potion grew back muscles and flesh, and then he was standing over her, healed, and silent. The Chieftain of the Red Fang Tribe looked down at Rags, but it was she who spoke first.
He stared at her. Then the tall Hob shook his head.
Won once. Will not happen twice.
Once is all. No second time.
For a second, she thought the Chieftain would grab his sword and run her through. His face was blank, expressionless, eyes fixed on her face. But then the taller Goblin grinned, and winced as flesh began to grow around his lips.
Is enough. You are Chieftain. Red Fang Tribe will submit.
He raised his fist and roared into the night sky.
Flooded Waters Tribe is strongest! Stop fighting!
Around the valley, Goblins slowly lowered their weapons, and even the handful of Carn Wolves stopped moving. The Red Fang Chieftain climbed out of the pit, and repeated his words to the shocked Goblins. His surviving warriors hesitated, and then took up the call. Rags’ Goblins echoed the shout, and then the night was full of voices. Rags stood in the center of it, listening to the roaring.
The Chieftain looked at Rags, serious now.
You have won. You were strongest, Chieftain.
Rags thought about this. She looked at the dead, the many dying, and thought about all that had passed. And then she looked at the Red Fang Chieftain and smiled.
It was not fair. You let me win.
That was what Rags said after the battle had ended and her Goblins were either recovering or clearing the dead. She stared at the Red Fang Chieftain as he squatted near a fire, not wary so much as curious.
Up close, the Hob Goblin looked like some kind of Goblin war god. His scars shone in the light, and his red-forged sword was beautiful—far too well-made for any Goblin. His giant wolf lay near the fire, glaring at Rags as he stared into the flames.
The Chieftain looked up. He had told Rags his name. Garen. It was…an odd name. Not a Goblin name. But Garen Red Fang was a legend in his own right, and Rags was certain, yes, certain that she shouldn’t have won. Even with a thousand Goblins versus his sixty.
You pretended to lose.
He looked up from the fire and shook his head.
No pretend. Tested. You won. Did not think you would.
Must have good Chieftain. Must have better one than I.
It was an explanation, but not a satisfactory one. Rags had seen Garen fight. He was a devious leader, and a peerless warrior. She said so, but he laughed.
I am not Goblin enough. Not to lead all Goblins.
She understood that even less, but then, Rags was practically asleep on her feet from the healing and the battle. She could ask later, and she sensed he would tell her. He had submitted to her, and, stronger or not, she was now in charge. She was now in charge of the entire Red Fang tribe and all the lesser tribes. It hadn’t sunk in yet. But when they joined the main group…
Small Goblin. Chieftain. What is name?
Rags jerked, and then realized Garen was asking her. No Goblin had ever asked that question before. She hesitated, and then shook her head.
No shaman. No name.
He frowned slightly.
No name is bad luck. Must have one.
Again, Rags hesitated. She knew that. She looked into the fire and then at him.
Others have name for me. “Rags.”
There was no word for ‘rags’ in the language of Goblins. Rags had to sound out the word slowly. Garen frowned, and then laughed as he realized what she was saying.
“Rags? It is good name. Good name for Goblin.”
He spoke! Rags was so stunned she took a step back. Garen had spoken! Not with the Goblin’s language, but like a Human or a Drake or Gnoll! She’d thought that was impossible.
How? How speak?
He shrugged carelessly in reply.
“Many days practice. Many, many days. Learned to once, when adventurer.”
“No liar. Was once adventurer. Became strong. Strongest.”
That was impossible. Even the most tolerant Human would kill any Goblin—especially a Hob—on sight. But Garen just grinned when Rags said that.
“Special adventurers. Once. Trusted me.”
Rags was intensely curious, but Garen’s face closed. He studied the fire, and looked at her.
“Trusted. I fought with them until one day. Then I killed them.”
Rags was suddenly bursting with questions. She wanted to ask them all, but Garen looked at her, and she realized he had something to say.
Came here to find Chieftain. Me or you. Must unite tribes.
Enemy is South. Great enemy. Bad Goblin. Goblin Lord.
Goblin Lord. Rags stared at Garen as his words struck her. No. It couldn’t be. But if he said it—
She stared at the sky. The cloudy sky. It was a peaceful night now, now that the bloodshed had stopped. But if Garen was right, it explained everything. Bad Goblin? A bad Goblin Lord? If that was the case, then—
She looked out at her tribe. If that was the case…if a Goblin Lord was really growing, then it meant only one thing.
It meant all of the violence, all the death before this was only an opening act. A Goblin Lord was rising, and with it, war would engulf this region.
Garen grinned, and in his eyes Rags saw fire and war and death. She couldn’t help it. She laughed, and felt the world begin to move again.