She was not prepared for this. For any of it.
That was the first thing Rags realized the day after she became leader of not only the Red Fang Tribe, but all of the allied and subservient tribes under Garen’s control. She was not ready to lead such a host. She knew it, and he said it to her.
It was the first thing Rags thought when she woke up in one of the cleared out Shield Spider nests and pushed aside her dirty blankets and realized what had happened. She climbed out of her pit and stared around.
The small valley where she had made her last stand was still filled with the dead, mostly of her tribe, but also of the Red Fang Tribe’s warriors and mounts. Rags looked around and saw her Goblins awkwardly binding wounds, or making food…of the dead, but most were still slumbering.
They had been pushed to the brink by the Red Fang’s harrying. And only now did Rags see the cost of it.
Garen Red Fang, leader of his tribe and several hundred miles of territory north of Liscor, had been sleeping. But he woke up quick when Rags jumped onto his stomach from the top of the pit. He roared in anger, reached for his sword, and stopped when he saw Rags.
He spoke, with words not in the Goblin language. Rags was still struggling with that. But Garen nodded to her and stood upwards effortlessly, stretching as if he hadn’t been in a fight to the death yesterday and had part of his face melted off.
She scowled at him, but jerked her head towards the top of the pit. Garen’s war cry had woken her entire tribe; Goblins don’t ignore subtle clues like someone screaming and few of them were about to go to sleep after a scare like that.
The snowy world descended into organized chaos as the green-skinned Goblins began scurrying around. Rags watched as those Goblins with levels in [Cook]…or more accurately, its sub-classes, [Butcher], [Scavenger], [Stewer], and so on, began making food. Garen blinked around at his tribe and waved at them. Then he looked at Rags.
“Much to speak of, Chieftain.”
She stared at him, and then nodded. Yes, there was much to speak of. She and Garen wandered off as her tribe got to work, watching the Goblins mill about.
There was organization in it, despite how it might look to a non-Goblin. Each individual had their task and role in the tribe, but they would take over each other’s jobs in the blink of an eye, usually communicating with a grunt or a poke or punch. Sometimes they got into fights and screeched at each other, but that was quickly broken up by the sub-leaders of each tribe: the Hobs.
They were big, generally mean, and generally committed to the idea that if someone else was doing the job, they didn’t have to. They enforced Rags’ orders and helped make decisions. Such as: were the Carn Wolves edible or poisonous? Did the Goblins skin them and keep the pelts, or try to eat them fur and all?
Garen watched his wolves being cut apart with no real emotion, although his eyes did tighten for a few seconds before he looked away. He glanced over where his mount was lying by the fire. Rags looked too.
Of the fifty-odd Goblins Garen had taken with him to harass Rags’ tribe, a little over twenty were left, and all of them were injured. On the other hand, only a handful of wolves had survived; Rags had ordered her tribe to kill the mounts first.
The Red Fang warriors seemed to be getting along fine with her Goblins, Rags noted. In that way they were like any Goblins; they might not be slapping backs with the Goblins who’d been trying to cut them apart, but they understood the changing nature of dominance within the tribes.
The wolves on the other hand were confused by this ceasefire, and still understandably upset, more so after they saw their pack being devoured by hungry Goblins. Several snapped at the Goblins walking around them, and only let their riders tend to them. They calmed down when they were fed dead Goblins, but they still stared hard at Rags’ tribe.
Garen noticed Rags’ stare.
“They will obey. They take time, see you are leader.”
Rags nodded absently. She stared at Garen, and then recalled a bit of what had been said the night before.
It was a question she hadn’t really gotten an answer to. Garen shrugged.
“Must be done.”
Rags didn’t understand that. Her brows furrowed, and she glared at Garen.
You kill many of tribe.
He shrugged and sniffed the air.
You are stronger. Why me?
“Stronger. Yes. But cannot lead. Not like you.”
She didn’t understand. But after they had eaten—roasted wolf that filled the stomach which even Garen devoured readily—she began to realize what he meant when they decided what to do next.
Normally, Rags would be in charge of everything. But Garen was no ordinary Chieftain, and neither was she, for that matter. He told her the rest of his tribe was on the way, with the allied tribes.
“My tribe is quickest. Others are slow.”
Garen flicked a bone into the spider pit as the Goblins dragged the remaining bodies into each one. They could be buried; perhaps the Spiders would eat them, or some other creature would, but Rags had decided it was better than leaving them out and making Liscor’s Watch suspicious.
How many in Tribe? How many here?
Garen shrugged. He looked at a warrior from his tribe, and the Goblin scratched his head with his one good arm. The other was bandaged. They argued, and Garen eventually came up with two hundred as a rough estimate. Two hundred Goblin warriors here. And the rest of his tribe…he had no idea. Lots.
Rags frowned. Most Chieftains knew almost exactly how many Goblins they had in their tribe, but Garen seemed very casual. But she was busy overseeing ways to move the injured, and plotting their next destination. She wanted to take the tribes away from Liscor, back to the cave perhaps, or somewhere else they could rest and regroup.
She wanted to meet the other tribes, but Rags scowled when she heard one of her Goblin scouts reporting that they were dragging their heels, walking towards her tribe at a snail’s pace as word of her victory over the Red Fang tribe was done.
Garen was all for letting the tribes disperse as Rags deliberated what to do. She glared at him: she’d been thinking and he was interrupting her. No one bothered her when she was thinking, not even other Hobs. But Garen clearly thought he was more important than anyone else.
He was right, of course, but it was still annoying.
“Let tribes go. They will come if you tell. But you are not Goblin Lord.”
Not yet, and perhaps never. That was what Rags heard. She nodded reluctantly. With the Red Fang tribe, she would replenish most of the Goblins she’s lost, and as her tribe neared a thousand individuals, she would have trouble keeping track of them all. Managing the thousands of Goblins in all the allied tribes was beyond her, so it was wisest to keep the Chieftains apart rather than cram them together and risk a fight.
Tell them to go, then. But not far.
Garen nodded in agreement, and he sent two of his least injured riders to spread the message. Rags began moving her tribe north as the last Goblin corpses were buried, and then she and Garen found themselves moving at the center of her tribe, in a small space of their own.
Rags was used to it, but the fact that Garen was still following her was annoying. She glanced at him a few times before deciding to bite the poisonous toad, so to speak.
What do you want?
He grinned at her, unabashed by the tone in Rags’ voice. Garen patted his mount, the gigantic wolf he rode who was limping at his side, and replied to Rags casually.
“Am walking. Not good?”
Rags’ brows snapped together. She glared at him, ignoring his growling mount.
I am Chieftain.
“Yes. But I am better Goblin. Older. Wiser. Stronger. Must teach you before you are better Chieftain than I.”
She pondered this. Rags had never heard of a Chieftain being taught – they normally learned what they needed to from observation, or made up everything as they went along. It was a non-Goblin concept, something Erin might come up with. Rags didn’t entirely dislike it, but she had to make one point clear.
I am Chieftain. You are not.
She could have no fighting over her position, especially since Rags knew she would lose if he challenged her. Garen nodded.
“Will not fight, Chieftain. Do not want to lead.”
That was another odd statement, but Rags saw the truth of that once she saw the rest of the Red Fang Tribe. Her Goblins had been moving at a reasonably quick job for little over two hours when she heard a warning cry, and saw the Red Fang tribe approaching.
Her first reaction was of disappointment. Not because there were less Goblins than advertised; there were actually around three hundred by her quick count, and nearly forty wolves not including pups. It was a vast tribe, made even stronger by the fact that they had six Hobs with them, the highest number she’d seen outside of her own tribe.
And indeed, the Red Fang tribe was clearly a giant among the tribes of the area. They had quality armor on most of their warriors, and weapons to match. But Rags was disappointed because when she looked at the Goblins who were not warriors, she saw her own tribe, back when she had not been Chieftain.
All of the non-warriors were thin and scrawny. The children were ragged or naked, and the Red Fang tribe didn’t look like it was carrying much food at all. They were clearly a tribe of warriors, but most tribes Rags had encountered had a simple scale of welfare. If one Goblin was fed, they all were. True, the Chieftain would be fed most, but tribes with a strong fighting force seldom had food issues.
Yet this tribe did. Rags called a halt as she approached the tribe. Immediately, the Goblins bowed their heads and didn’t meet her eyes. She was in control.
Garen sauntered over as Rags did a quick circuit of her tribe. He poked her, and she debated knifing him.
“Should teach how to fight now. Be stronger.”
She shook her head. This was far more important. She had just acquired three hundred new bodies; it was time to reorganize and rethink her tribe’s structure.
Garen frowned, not understanding.
“What? Why wait?”
Rags sighed, but she grunted at him as she looked around at the tribe. They were all watching her intently, the Hobs especially for some reason. She hoped they wouldn’t be trouble. All of these Hobs looked even stronger than the ones in her tribe, and she would need each one.
Food. Clothing. Weapons. Sleeping place. Must have things.
Garen’s brows rose dismissively. He shook his head, and then pointed at a Goblin, seemingly at random.
“Chieftain wants food. Get food.”
The Goblin stared at Garen and then at Rags uncertainly, but no harder than Rags was doing. She watched as he poked a few Goblins and they began to shuffle off. They had no direction, no weapons outside of the ones the Goblins were carrying, no way of retrieving their food—
What are you doing?
Garen looked blankly at Rags.
“They get food. Kill something. Find something. Bring back.”
What if they didn’t have enough food? What about logistics, and the need to find a food source if the tribe would stay in the area? Garen just stared at Rags, and then pointed again.
“Hobs will take care of it.”
Rags looked over. Indeed, one of the Hobs had intercepted the food gathering group and was trying to give them orders. He gave Rags a look of long suffering and then she understood.
Garen might be a warrior beyond warriors, and unbeatable among Goblins, a devious attacker and even a former adventurer who knew more about Humans and other races than even other Chieftains…but he was no leader.
He had no levels in the [Chieftain] class, or even the [Leader] class. His idea of leadership was leading the small group of warriors he had handpicked and trained himself into combat, and letting the Hobs and other Goblins sort the rest out.
In fact, Rags learned to her mounting indignation, Garen hadn’t even really grown his tribe himself. Goblins had simply wandered towards his camp like moths drawn to a flame and he’d let them stay. The only reason he even had a tribe was because he felt the general urge to, but he was incapable of leading any more than his few hundred directly, despite his overwhelming strength.
It wasn’t a huge flaw in a person, but it was in a Chieftain. As the leader of the Flooded Waters Tribe, Rags felt for the Red Fang Tribe, so she sprang into action, much to Garen’s annoyance.
The first thing Rags did was cancel Garen’s idiotic food gathering order and send out scouts from her location. Not to find food; she wanted a place to make camp at the moment, and her scouts would report any good food sources around.
Next, Rags began identifying useful Goblins in the tribe while she ordered her tribe’s food stashes to be emptied to feed the hungry Red Fang goblins. She always brought as much food as her tribe could carry, and so Rags watched as it was devoured by the newcomers.
The Hobs of Garen’s tribe looked on with relief as Rags began separating the Goblins, identifying classes, making the children and mothers and elderly stay together—she took the six Hobs who she’d decided were fairly competent and gave them the task of overseeing the different groups in her tribe.
Rags had dedicated scavengers, hunters, warriors, and many other groups dedicated to doing one thing in her tribe. She’d set up her internal system so that at any given time one group of Goblins could be out doing something, another could be relaxing, and her warriors could be ready to assist or protect the camp at any time.
Garen had none of that. He wandered around as Rags struggled to find a way to manage his Carn Wolves. They were distrustful of her, but they seemed to realize that she was the new boss.
At last, Rags’ scouts came back with a number of locations they’d spotted, and she picked out a large forest sitting at the base of one of the mountains as a good place to stay for a while. They’d also told her that there was a herd of Corusdeer nearby, and as far as she was concerned, that was an excellent source of meat.
Normally Goblins helped mitigate the huge number of mouths to feed in their tribes by eating their dead. But Rags considered that having dead Goblins at all was a sign of failure, so she was extremely careful to find new food sources. By the looks of the Red Fang tribe, they’d been forced to eat their dead numerous times already.
Perhaps it was time to grow food out of the ground like she’d seen Drakes and Gnolls doing. Rags knew it was possible; she didn’t know if it was possible in the snow, but it would be nice to have a reliable source of food. For the moment though, she wanted the herd of deer slaughtered. They could salt the meat; another thing Garen’s tribe didn’t do.
Still, Corusdeer were dangerous. Normally Rags would hesitate to attack a herd, even with her Hobs. So she sent Garen instead. He frowned at her when she gave him the order, along with a large number of warriors armed with pikes and bows, slings, and crossbows to keep the deer at bay and strike them from afar.
“Why? I am not hunter.”
But he was strong. And more importantly, Rags had said so. She glared at him until he went, with strict orders to keep as many Goblins alive as possible.
He came back after Rags had firmly established her camp, with designated places to eat, sleep, and excrete. Garen eyed the orderly camp Rags had made, and the way the young Goblin was organizing several groups each led by a Hob to go out and enter caves and other dens for more food.
The former Goblin Chieftain dismissively tossed a Corusdeer’s carcass down at Rags’ feet. He’d beheaded the alpha stag in the group, and Rags was pleased to note that the group she’d sent with him was only down a few Goblins.
Garen wasn’t even wounded. His skin was like armor, but the deer hadn’t even gotten close enough to gore him. According to the Hobs that had gone with him, Garen had ignored their hunting formation – closed ranks of pikes and stakes to hold the deer back and archers striking deer on the edges of the herd – and had walked into the herd, swinging his sword and cutting down Corusdeer even as they turned the snow into fog.
No other Goblin could do that. Not even a Hob, or a Chieftain. Rags could see the admiration in the eyes of the other Goblins who had gone with them. She understood. She’d felt it herself; it wasn’t just seeing him fight like that which was amazing. She’d seen adventurers striding around in magnificent armor, slaying huge monsters. But this was different. Garen was a Goblin. He was one of them, a being who could fight like a hero.
He was what Rags had dreamed of being, before those dreams had been crushed. But seeing him made her want to be strong again. She was strong as a Chieftain, but as an individual Goblin?
“We talk now?”
Garen was irritated, but he grew less so when he realized there was more hot food available and a comfortable place that had been cleared of snow to sit in. The forest was an ideal campsite for Goblins, so long as Rags made it clear to keep fire away from the trees.
It was time to talk. Rags sat with Garen and they ate again, as she finally asked all the questions on her mind. Some she had worked out, but Garen confirmed the rest.
Garen Red Fang. It wasn’t just his tribe’s name, it was his own. He had been named by the Shaman of the Old Fire Tribe, but he had wandered away from his tribe as soon as he had grown older, dissatisfied with working for his Chieftain and wandering to become stronger.
And he had. Oh, he had. Garen had learned to fight by himself, and he’d leveled up as a [Warrior] quickly. Not only that; he’d become a Hob as well, and ended up terrorizing quite a stretch of land far to the north by himself, clashing with other Goblin Tribes and local monsters until he came to the attention of a Silver-rank team of adventurers.
They’d hunted him down, and nearly killed him, but something strange had happened then. Intrigued by a Goblin who was intelligent enough to fend for himself and clearly independent, the leader of the adventurers had spared his life, instead just chasing him away.
Garen had fled, but not far. The encounter with the adventurers had changed him as well; he grew curious of the Humans and other species who he’d only regarded as enemies and prey. Consumed by his desire to understand more, Garen actually disguised himself as a traveler, hiding his green skin and face behind robes and a crude mask and gone into villages and towns, listening to Humans talk.
His first few tries had been hugely unsuccessful, but Garen soon learned to speak passably in the Human language, and no one would suspect a Goblin of being so tall, or peaceful. Garen managed to even enter cities, usually in secret and while the guards at the gates weren’t watching. But he was strong and clever enough that the few times he was caught, he could fight his way out.
And so Garen had gone searching for the adventurers who’d spared him once before. He tracked them down, and after finding them, he’d challenged them a second time.
He lost again, but this time he’d volunteered to join their group. After much debate, he’d been accepted, and so Garen Red Fang had become the first Goblin to ever journey with adventurers. With his team, they’d take on normal monster-hunting requests and even explored dungeons, eventually progressing to Gold-rank status.
That was how Garen had gotten his sword, and become such a devastating warrior. He’d formed close bonds with the adventurers too, Rags gathered…until the day when he betrayed them.
That was the only thing Garen wouldn’t talk about. The tall Hobgoblin had clammed up about it, sucking the marrow out of a bone and staring moodily into the fire. Rags had let it drop, because the next part of his story was more important still.
After his betrayal, Garen couldn’t stay in the world of non-Goblins anymore. He’d retreated to the area north of Liscor, a land where Goblins were generally ignored aside from the monster-slaying requests posted with regularity in each village. He’d wandered around the High Passes, and even tamed a Carn Wolf when he began to desire a tribe.
In the truest Goblin fashion, Garen had found the biggest tribe around and challenged the Chieftain to a battle. He’d even allowed the Chieftain to fight with as many warriors as he wanted, but apparently the Hobgoblin in charge had taken one look at Garen and fled, quite sensibly too. Thus, Garen had his tribe.
Normally, the story would then become about Garen growing his tribe, thanks to his incredible abilities as a warrior. But as Rags had observed, Garen was a terrible Chieftain and he quickly realized that as well. So instead of expanding, the Red Fang tribe had established a local superiority, rivaled only by the Broken Spear Tribe and Ghostly Hand Tribes to the south.
Until the day the Goblin Lord had emerged.
This is where Garen paused, and Rags sat up. She understood why he’d done what he had, vaguely. He’d gathered his tribe, and the nearby ones, to form an alliance that would be able to defeat the Goblin Lord. The problem was that they were fractured, having no great Chieftain to lead them. Garen was strongest, but he couldn’t manage them effectively. But when he’d heard of an upstart Chieftain who’d absorbed several tribes and was using actual tactics and formations—
Well, he’d tested her, with blood and death, and she’d passed. But Rags wanted to know why he’d decided this Goblin Lord was so wrong.
She knew what all Goblins knew. Obey the Chieftain. But there was a sense—yes, a sense in her head that told her to obey a Goblin Lord. And a Goblin King? It was like the memory of the sun for someone who’d lived all their life in shadows. She wanted a King, so she couldn’t understand what was wrong with a Goblin Lord.
“He is wrong.”
That was what Garen said. He stared into the fire, tossing the fragments of the bone into it.
Who? Broken Spear Tribe Chieftain? Ghostly Hand Tribe Chieftain?
Rags was sure she would have heard if either was expanding; she would have expected them to go after her weak tribe first. But Garen shook his head.
“Neither. Different. Broken Spear Tribe Chieftain surrendered. Ghostly Hand Chieftain is dead.”
That rocked Rags back in her seat. The Chieftain of the Ghostly Hand Tribe was dead? But she was a [Shaman] capable of powerful magic! And yet, apparently the Goblin who’d replaced her as Chieftain and started expanding her tribe was more powerful still.
“I met him. Once.”
Garen had gone south, evading adventurers and cities to meet this new Chieftain when he’d first heard of his power. But the Red Fang’s leader had left as soon as he’d seen the Goblin.
“He is…bad. Bad Goblin.”
It was a word Rags had never heard spoken of another Goblin, but she understood his meaning. Bad Goblin. One who could not be trusted, could not be part of a Tribe. Who must be fought against, even if it meant war between Tribes.
So. I am Chieftain to fight.
Garen looked up and shrugged fractionally.
“Not yet. Goblin Lord is slow. Growing Tribes. Much time. Good. Need time to make you stronger.”
Stronger? Garen nodded.
“You are weak. Must be far stronger. I help.”
That was how Rags found herself sparring with Garen in the middle of her campsite after they’d eaten. She blinked at him as he picked up a tree branch and faced her. She had a shortsword and her buckler, but he only had a piece of wood.
Goblins and Hobs gathered to watch as Rags stood in front of Garen. It was a ludicrous matchup. Despite his lack of arms, he was twice her height and all muscle. She had muscle, but nothing like him.
“Attack me, Chieftain.”
She blinked at him. Rags gestured to her sword.
I will cut you.
Garen grinned at Rags lazily. He poked at her with the branch.
“Cannot. I will show you the difference between us. Your weakness.”
She hesitated. Garen raised a hand and beckoned.
“Come. You will not h—”
Rags lifted a finger and cast [Firefly]. The insect-bird made of fire flew at Garen’s face. He lost his smile and twisted out of the way, but the bird tried to descend on his torso.
Garen dodged backwards, incredibly fast, and swatted at the spell with his branch. His swing cut the air, but all that happened was that he set his weapon on fire.
Which was a good thing if he wanted to hurt Rags, but the firefly spell was still coming at Garen. He backpedaled, striking at the fiery thing again and again. Rags wondered if he didn’t know what to do when Garen hit the firefly again and it burst and vanished into wisps of flame.
Casually, Garen tossed the flaming branch into one of the fire pits and looked at Rags. He grinned.
“Spells can be broken.”
She stared at him. She had no idea you could do that. But now Garen was advancing, barehanded, and she raised her buckler.
She’d fought him once, seriously. Even if he’d been taking it easy on her, she had a chance. Before Garen could strike, Rags darted forwards, shortsword stabbing at his stomach. She saw him draw his right foot back—
When Rags came to, Garen was emptying a potion on her. She nearly screamed as the pain hit her.
Garen hadn’t bothered with dodging. He’d just kicked her shield arm hard enough to send her flying, rolling, and crashing across the campsite. It was enough to merit a potion, and as Garen pulled her up he only grinned.
Rags glared at him, but she could find no words to argue against that.
It was an odd thing, to be taught to fight. It was almost counterintuitive; all Goblins knew how to fight. But the difference between Garen and normal Goblins was that he knew how to fight well.
It wasn’t tactics or strategy. Rags understood that. It was positioning, the way you transitioned from blow to blow, even the way you stood and held your weapons. Garen gave her a crash-course on that before he moved to sparring.
He was big on sparring. It was one of the few things he did well as Chieftain, and Rags immediately saw the benefit of it. His warriors were the cream of the crop despite their low numbers, and they could hold their own even against larger opponents by virtue of their combat prowess.
She’d made it mandatory for all her warriors to spend time sparring, although she’d insisted on blunt weapons. For her and Garen, though, there was no need for restrictions.
“If you can hurt me, you are ready.”
So said Garen as he let Rags attack him, effortlessly dodging and parrying her blows with his sword. Occasionally he would attack, and when he did, Rags nearly always suffered for it.
Garen did not hold his blows back—much. Rags would go flying, find herself waking up in pain, or just occasionally, block and live to regret it. She complained to Garen, but he was relentless.
“Must hurt. Training only works when hurt. Level up cannot be without pain.”
That intrigued her. Rags stared at Garen after one training session.
Can level without fighting others?
“Slowly. Takes much time, but can.”
It was a revelation, but only to her. Apparently that was common knowledge among non-Goblins; just another way in which they were woefully behind. Indeed, when Rags went back into her memories of past Goblin’s lives she realized that older Chieftains had indeed leveled up by training themselves and their warriors.
Garen was intrigued by the Chieftain’s memories. As a poor one, he could barely look back more than one or two generations, but even he had a sense of his heritage.
“Goblin King. Was famous. I asked many questions, but much is history. In books.”
He couldn’t read books, and even his adventurer companions were wary of telling him much about the Goblin King. But what Garen did know was fascinating to Rags as well.
“Was not always warlike. Was peaceful.”
Peaceful? Yes, apparently so. Rags found that some of the Chieftains she’d conquered – the Gold Stone Chieftain in particular – knew more about Goblin history than she did. It was custom for Chieftains to meet and trade on occasion, another thing that neither Rags nor Garen knew.
Neither of them was a conventional Chieftain. But Rags led by virtue of her superior mind which the other tribes respected, and Garen was strong, which was enough.
And yet, apparently the old Goblin King had been beloved by Goblins. That was what the Gold Stone Chieftain claimed.
Was strong. Was smart. Traded with Humans.
Rags and Garen exchanged looks.
The Gold Stone Chieftain nodded importantly as he relayed this information while they ate. The Goblin King had had a tribe larger than any other, and he had been largely peaceful. He had been a Goblin Chieftain at first, and then a Goblin Lord, and then had come the day when others called him Goblin King.
It had been glorious, apparently. What few scraps the Gold Stone Chieftain could recall was of his ancestors being happy, fed, and safe. But then something…bad had happened, and there had been war.
Rags had no idea what to make of that, but one thing was clear: a Goblin Lord was close enough to being a King that all the other species grew very nervous when one emerged. That was enough for them to send armies against the Goblin Lord. They might win or they might fail; either way, it gave her time to make her tribe stronger.
“You do not need to make tribe stronger. You need to be stronger.”
So Garen insisted, and Rags agreed. In part. She willingly practiced with him, but she wanted a strong tribe to rely on as well. Garen disagreed.
“I am [Dragoon]! Strongest [Warrior] and [Rider] combined!”
He thumped his chest and announced proudly to the awestruck Goblins. Rags had never heard of a Goblin receiving a unique class, but Garen had high levels in both classes. And he was a [Beast Tamer].
“I tamed wolves. Hit them. Made obey. Fed with. Hunted with. Slept with.”
His Carn Wolf was a massive alpha wolf among his pack. On his back, Garen was twice as dangerous, and he claimed he was more than a match for any single Gold-rank adventurer, even with magical items. Garen had a few of his own as well; a ring that helped protect him from arrows, another that resisted poisons, and his sword.
Rags stared at the crimson blade suspiciously. It was sharp, and Garen apparently never needed to polish it, but there was nothing overtly magical about it.
Garen grinned as he held it aloft. He muttered a word, and the blade began to glow white hot. He used it to cut a branch apart and watched in satisfaction as the wood caught on fire. Rags grumbled as she stamped out the flames, but she was impressed.
“Is good not to show. Magical blade helps against strong monster. Good surprise.”
Garen put his blade in the ground and eyed Rags’ bronze weaponry pointedly.
“Need magic weapons. Very important.”
He also wanted her to stop leveling up in other classes. Garen had many things he wanted, but he was insistent on this point.
“Must choose what to do. Cannot be everything. Strong warriors are one thing. Archer. Fighter. Mage. Choose.”
Rags disliked that part of him the most. She disliked being pushed to do anything, especially since he was under her authority. But Garen seemed to regard himself as her teacher and thus he treated her orders as suggestions to be ignored or interpreted. It wasn’t ideal, but Rags was willing to admit that she wasn’t able to risk a confrontation with him just yet. As he said, she was too weak.
A few days after they had settled in the forest, Garen came to Rags holding one of the stone crossbows she’d invented. He tossed it dismissively on the ground before her, as he often did when he found something lacking.
She blinked at him. Rags was trying to use one of the holes the Goblins had dug, but Garen didn’t even seem to care. She glared at him, but the former Chieftain clearly wanted a reply now.
Not weak. Good weapon. Easy to use.
He shook his head.
“Too weak. Cannot hurt enough. Arrows better.”
He demonstrated, firing the crossbow at his own palm at point-blank range. The clay pellet shattered harmlessly on his skin. Garen shook his head again.
“For hunters. Not for fighting.”
Rags partly disagreed. The stone crossbows were excellent weapons, and not just for hunting. Their ease of use and cheap ammunition meant they were perfect weapons to give to Goblins who weren’t active warriors. Anyone could use one, which meant she could arm all the children and noncombatants with a crossbow.
But again, Garen was convinced he was right, and as soon as Rags was finished doing her business, she explained why she didn’t have more ‘proper’ crossbows.
No parts. Need metal. Wood. Turning things.
Garen blinked at Rags, uncomprehending. She showed him the screws and explained how hard it was to get them. He just shook his head and laughed.
“Hard? Not hard! Very easy. Come!”
That was how Rags found herself sitting on a hill, staring down at one of the roads leading out of a city. The Goblins could hide fairly well in the snow, and so Garen brought her and a group of warriors out so they could watch the traffic going between Human cities. He’d posted scouts on other hills and observation points, waiting for the right item.
Garen pointed, and Rags saw a covered wagon rumbling out of the city, pulled by a pair of horses and guarded by several armed warriors. She squinted.
Garen had no idea, but it was an ideal target nevertheless, according to him. He explained.
“Not Runner. Slow. No strong guards. Full of not-valuable things. Food, or other things.”
Runners were too hard to catch for most Goblins. Besides, they tended to post large bounties if they were attacked, and Garen had a policy to avoid conflicts with adventurers. If they killed Goblins, that was bad. But if the Goblins killed the adventurers, more would come, and higher-level ones, too.
But wagons? Wagons were fine. Garen had learned to target a few from each city to avoid raising suspicions. He’d even identified some Runners who were good targets.
“See? Thin girl.”
He pointed one slower City Runner out to Rags as she left the city with a few others. According to Garen, she ran with a few City runners at all times and she was a coward. It was easy to send a few Goblins after her and make her drop her packs.
On the other hand, there was a slow runner the Goblins avoided. He pointed her out as well. She was big, ran slowly, but apparently she was made of tougher stuff.
“Strong. She punches hard. And she had nothing good.”
He scowled at her. Rags was of the personal opinion that a crossbow bolt between the eyes would solve any problem, but Garen had insisted that not killing Runners was the smart thing to do, and she reluctantly deferred to his judgment.
They shadowed the caravan with the wagon for several miles as it pulled out of sight of the main city. It was still along the main road, but Garen’s tribe was experienced at these kinds of raids.
He pulled his warriors out of cover and mounted them up behind a hill. Then, Garen had Rags wait in some bushes with archers while his mounted Goblins drew closer to the caravan. Rags held her black crossbow, sighting down the shaft as she waited.
The caravan was rumbling along, warriors reasonably alert, when the travelers on the road heard the howl of a Carn Wolf. It was quickly joined by others, and the Humans realized a pack was hunting.
Most of the Humans began to run immediately. The slower-moving wagons and carts were abandoned, and the warriors on the road drew close to their caravan, closing ranks and looking around wildly.
It was a good tactic. They could probably scare away the Carn Wolves, especially since they had a mage in their group. But they weren’t prepared for mounted Goblins. The Humans gaped in shock and terror as Garen burst out of his cover with his warriors, shouting and charging the Humans.
Rags saw the [Mage] stand up on the wagon and aim at Garen. Her finger pulled on the trigger of her crossbow, and she felt the crossbow snap forwards and the mage fell down. The Humans looked around wildly as her archers stood up, and Garen crashed into them, sword slicing apart their armor with ease.
It was over in minutes. Garen had his Goblins loot the cart, and then he burnt the entire thing and scattered the pieces, as if a spell had obliterated both cart and Humans. His warriors let their mounts savage the dead Humans, and then they were away with their spoils.
As it happened, the cart had been carrying a bunch of weapons, no doubt for sale in another city. Garen gleefully showed the wonderful blades and shields to Rags, and she had to admit that the raid had been a huge success.
Even so, a part of Rags hurt as the Goblins raced away with their prize. She stopped and stood next to one of the bodies, staring down at it.
A female Human stared blankly up at Rags, red hair made redder by blood. Rags bent down and closed her eyes.
Garen walked over, his wolf sniffing at the dead Human. He looked dismissively at the body.
“Annoying mage. Good shot.”
Rags had killed the woman with a bolt in her back. The smaller Goblin shook her head. She wasn’t feeling guilty—no, not really. But she stared at the woman’s face and thought of Erin.
Garen had no such feelings. He kicked the woman dismissively.
“Dead Human. Do not worry. No one will come.”
Rags shook her head.
Not all Humans bad. Some…good.
Garen laughed at her. He shook his head.
“All bad. They hate us. Fear us. We are trash to them.”
That was true and not true. Rags remembered being hunted, remembered the fear and terror and hatred she had of Humans. But then she had met Erin, and her life had changed.
Not all. One is not.
Garen looked at Rags curiously. How could she explain in their limited language about Erin, a Human who defied explanations? Garen listened, but dismissively.
“I have met many Humans. All are the same.”
His cavalier dismissal of Rags’ opinions angered her. She glared at him.
What about party? Adventurers. All same?
“That is different.”
He didn’t want to say. Garen shook his head.
“Is not important.”
He stared at her. Rags folded her arms. She was Chieftain. If he wouldn’t obey, then he was not part of her Tribe. Garen hesitated, ground his teeth, and shook his head.
“Different. Not Humans.”
Drakes? Gnolls? But Garen shook his head. He muttered, trying to find the words to describe it.
“Not Human. Half. Part. Were different. Like me.”
He broke off their conversation, turned his mount, and insisted it was time to go. Rags frowned, but she let him hoist her up and ride back to camp. But Garen’s past was a riddle to her, and she wanted answers.
Why kill them? Why betray?
For several days Garen refused to answer even as Rags pressed him. But at last he gave in. He took her aside and showed her something. Something small.
Just a key. It was a black key, made of a shining material that looked like onyx. It was clearly valuable, but it was just a key, not some magical weapon or powerful artifact. Rags stared at it in complete disappointment, but Garen tucked it away in his belt, more careful with it than he was with his sword. He tapped his belt.
“Is most valuable thing. The key is important.”
Worth betraying his entire party over? Garen nodded.
“Is the key the last Goblin King wanted.”
Rags stared. But that was all Garen would say. He had killed his fellow adventurers over the key when they had found it at the bottom of a dungeon. They had recognized the artifact on sight, and Garen had demanded it for himself. When they had refused, he had fought and been forced to kill many of them before fleeing with the key.
But what did it unlock? Garen knew, but he wouldn’t tell Rags. It was another mystery, but he was adamant that neither he nor she could reach the thing the key unlocked.
“Too dangerous. Not even old Goblin King could reach. Is death beyond death where treasure hidden. Maybe someday tell. Not today.”
And that was it. Garen refused to talk more about it, and Rags found herself pondering the key, but not often. She had so much to do!
Manage her tribe. Find new food sources. Meet new Chieftains. Create new weapons. Devise tactics and formations. Train with Garen. Learn to ride?
Yes, of all the things Rags found herself doing, riding was one of the most surprising things. After she’d met with one of the smaller Goblin tribes to show the new Chieftains who was boss, Garen had taken her aside and shown her his wolves.
He was a [Beast Tamer] and the animals responded to him. But his tribe had adopted the Carn Wolves and so many Goblins knew how to ride and care for the animals even if they didn’t have the class. But Garen was of the opinion that Rags should know how to ride, and so he wanted to find her a mount.
It was a tricky problem. All of his Goblin riders were normal-sized Goblins, not Hobs, since the Carn Wolves could only support so much weight. But Garen had chosen the biggest normal Goblins to ride. Rags was still young, and she was so small that it would be hard to control even a small Carn Wolf.
But Garen had a solution. He brought her to a den the Carn Wolves had created, and showed her a litter of pups that had just been born. Rags eyed the half-blind, furry creatures with a bit of disgust, but Garen bent and picked one up, ignoring the objections of the nursing mother.
“Here. Good wolf.”
He showed her an albino wolf, a runt of the pack. The wolf had glorious white fur, and it blinked at Rags. The Goblin blinked back. She looked at Garen and he explained.
“Wolf will grow. Will become good mount for you. Raise. Teach. Ride.”
He offered the cub to her, but Rags shook her head. She thought about the cub, and looked at Garen.
He raised an eyebrow.
“Why? Too small? Will grow.”
She shook her head.
White wolf. Is target. Normal one better.
Garen stared at her for a few seconds, and then laughed. He put the small albino wolf back with the others, and the small thing bumped over to his mother’s teat and latched on.
“I will find another. Teach you to ride a normal one.”
And so their days continued, but with a small problem. Rags knew she was growing, learning, and her tribe was certainly benefiting from the time to rearm and grow. But she herself was…impatient. She found herself looking south more and more often, until only a week after her victory over the Red Fang tribe, Garen found her staring south on a hilltop.
He still used her title so casually. Rags made a face, but she didn’t answer right away. She was thinking.
She’d left so much behind in Liscor. Not just the inn and the games of chess, but the dungeon. Now of course she was bigger, more important, with a huge tribe at her disposal. But—
But she couldn’t help wanting to go back. She was missing something, Rags felt. Garen was teaching her how to be stronger in his own way, but he was not enough.
What would Erin do? She was weaker than Garen, but she had her own strength. And she had things he had never dreamed of. She had defeated Skinner, and even made friends with the terrifying bugs. Her skeleton lived even though he was dead, and the dungeon—
Rags’ fist clenched. Garen looked at her curiously. He was the strongest Goblin she had met, but was he stronger than Relc? He was a single Goblin, and he thought that was fine, but it wasn’t.
She’d wanted to be strong. She’d wanted to be able to fight for herself, but now she was a Chieftain. Would she become one Goblin, mighty by herself but held back by weaklings?
No, no. There had to be something else. Goblins couldn’t just be like Garen’s tribe, a group of powerful Goblins still inferior to a group of similarly trained and armed Humans. They had to become stronger some other way.
He didn’t know how. But Erin might. She might. And suddenly Rags knew what she wanted.
She looked at Garen. The tall Goblin was staring at her expectantly. Well, he’d snuck into a city once, hadn’t he? She met his curious gaze and explained what she wanted to do. Garen stared at her, and then laughed and laughed until he was nearly sick.
Two Goblins walked through the snow towards Liscor. They were Goblins, but no one looking at them would have made the connection. Externally, they were hooded travelers, a father and daughter perhaps, unwisely travelling in such harsh conditions by themselves down the main road.
The few travelers who passed by didn’t even give the two a second glance, other than to shout greetings. Both travelers waved back, and in no time they came to the city gates. But here they took a detour and walked south around the walls, towards a small inn on a hill twenty minutes’ walk away from the city.
It was a simple inn, but well-crafted, with glass windows of all things. The tall traveler stopped as the smaller one led the way. They would stop for something to eat perhaps, or a bit of conversation. Rather, to listen to conversations. Really, it didn’t matter what happened so long as they were there. The inn was a place of safety, and at least one of the two Goblins was very curious as to what he would find inside.
But something curious happened as the two approached. A black carriage suddenly ran through the snow, making both Goblins stop and watch in amazement as ghostly horses pulled the vehicle to a complete stop. Someone got out. It was a young Human girl that one of the Goblins recognized. She waved to the driver inside, and then walked to her inn.
That was the first interesting thing that happened. The next was that shortly after visiting, a Drake, an Antinium, another Drake [Receptionist], a Human [Scout], and finally, an annoyed [Princess] and a skeleton entered the inn shortly after the girl did. The Goblins hesitated, but entered the inn as well.
And then there was a fight. But that was hardly unusual.
This is the tale of the Wandering Inn, a day before Ryoka returned to Liscor. A day before that, Erin had left her inn behind. She had gone to the City of Adventurers, Invrisil. And there she had met Lady Magnolia for the first time.