When he was young, he had always dreamed of walking among other races. But now all he dreamed about was death and fire. The Goblin King burned city after city to the ground, damning the screaming inhabitants by death and fire. Across the ocean, his Goblin Lords led similar crusades, pillaging, slaughtering.
There was only war. The peace he had sought for so long was a false lie. That was what the King realized. His armies burned across the continent, fighting Drakes, Undead, Antinium, Gnolls and Humans alike. They could not be stopped. There was only death in his heart, and the fury to destroy the world. With it he slew the greatest of heroes they sent against him.
Rage. All consuming. It burned him and he howled it as his warriors fought and died and leveled. He would kill them all.
And then Rags woke. She started, still tasting smoke and blood, still full of the Goblin King’s fury. She slipped and nearly fell—the Carn Wolf she sat on shifted and Rags clung to its fur, eliciting a mild noise of complaint. But it had been trained too well to protest.
In a moment, Rags was sitting upright. She blinked around and realized that they’d stopped. After nearly two weeks of nonstop marching, they had arrived.
The young Goblin sat up on her mount, letting it—him—pace restlessly ahead. She was riding in the center of the army.
Her army, supposedly. Rags frowned as she looked around. As ever, a group of Hobs walked with her, as did several of Garen’s elite wolf riders. And past them?
A sea of Goblin heads flowed past Rags, and the noise of their passing washed over her. Goblins were by and large fairly quiet as a people; they preferred gestures to words and they had learned to be quiet long ago, lest they attract attention.
But thousands of marching Goblins, armored warriors who rattled with every step, noncombatants who carried packs, horses and mules and donkeys, animals liberated from Human farms, and Goblin infants, uncharacteristically quiet for babies but still occasionally noisy—all produced a din of their own.
It was an army worthy of any Chieftain. More than worthy, in fact. Rags knew her own forces, that was to say the former tribes she had personally subjugated and now controlled, were mixed into the lot. But she only commanded the huge mass. The assembled Goblins were not hers, and that was an important distinction.
Still, they didn’t fight or quarrel, and that was important. Disunity could be death here, in the heart of Human lands.
Not that there were any around. Rags looked and saw only trees. They’d been marching through a forest full of annoying trees with burrs the size of walnuts that clung to clothing and pierced skin with their sharp needles. Tall stone loomed ahead of her, and snow mixed with rotting leaves lay underfoot. Only the trees, brown and lifeless, made any impression on the landscape.
They were close to the mountain. Rags stared up at it grimly, knowing they had to be close. This was their destination, after all.
Long ago the flat grasslands had given way to forests and hills, and then to an area of rocky land where a lone mountain sat high above everything else.
It wasn’t much of a mountain to Rags, who’d grown up in the shadows of the High Passes, staring up at peaks so tall that no one had ever climbed them. But the mountain was their destination, and it seemed that after staring up at it for days, they’d finally reached the base of it.
Rags sat astride the large Carn Wolf and stared up at the massive cliff face that met the edge of the forest. She had no idea why they were here, so far from home. Well, she had some idea, but Garen Redfang had been reluctant to tell anyone his full plan when he’d told them where to go when they marched north.
Perhaps she should have argued harder. But Rags had known at the time that he was right. It was just that she couldn’t stand the long days of not knowing what was going on! The assembled tribes needed an ally in their war against the Goblin Lord, that she knew. But would they find it here, near Invrisil, where adventurers roamed in great numbers and slew any monster they found?
Rags hoped so. Or else they would all die here. She shivered in the cold and drew the fur coat more tightly around her. She remembered. This was not a memory of times long past; it was her memory, fresh and vivid.
The Goblin army was a black mass that swarmed up the walls of the Human city, climbing ladders, fighting with the Human defenders among the broken gates.
Black armor. That was what set these Goblins apart from ordinary rabble. Also, no tribe would have dared to attack a Human city. But these Goblins did not fear the burning fire and lightning that the enchantments on the walls spat down at them. Their arrows flew upwards, catching the mages who tried to burn the dark shafts out of the air.
Humans fell and died. It was simply that there were not enough of them to man the walls and stem the black tide that attacked from every direction. This was a Goblin army, superior in numbers to any other force.
The knot of desperate men and women slowly grew smaller around the north gate. Soon the Goblins would gain a foothold there, and then they would be in the city, too late to stop.
Now was the time. Rags raised her hand.
The first wave of Goblins hit the black armored Goblins at the same time as the rain of arrows and crossbow bolts fell from the sky. Elite Goblins mounted on Carn Wolves tore into the unguarded backs of the Goblin Lord’s forces, causing havoc while Hobs strode next to their smaller kin, besieging the bewildered Goblin force from behind.
From where she sat Rags smiled grimly. The Goblin Lord’s forces hadn’t expected to be attacked, much less by their own kind.
Crush them against the walls.
Rags ordered more forces into the fight, reinforcing places where her forces were weak. But there wasn’t much for her to do; she’d already positioned countless archers and her Goblins armed with crossbows where they could rain death down upon the Goblins.
They were outnumbered in truth. But Rags’ forces were aided by the Humans fighting on the walls and the fact that they’d cornered the Goblin Lord here. And one more thing ensured their victory.
A streak of crimson. A Goblin warrior sitting astride a huge wolf. Garen Redfang’s warriors howled as they plunged into the ranks of the enemy, following their leader. Rags watched Garen carving his way through the enemy, feeling both jealous and relieved at the same time.
They were on the same side, and she knew he belonged at the front. But she wished she could be fighting too, rather than stuck overseeing the battle.
And yet, this was it. Rags watched, viciously pleased as the Goblins in black armor began to rout. They’d done it. They’d won!
But where was the Goblin Lord? Rags hadn’t seen anyone remotely like a leader in the army—at least, not like the image in her head. She’d expected a warrior like Garen, or a spellcaster full of magical power. But she hadn’t seen anyone like that. Perhaps the Goblin Lord was like her?
Below her, Goblins fled. Goblins died. But Rags could feel little pity for these invaders who wore another tribe’s colors. She had seen what they left in their wake. These Goblins slaughtered villages, put crops to the torch. They were destroyers, not scavengers. They didn’t fight to survive, they fought to kill and pillage.
And rape. She had seen that too. So Rags cut down the stragglers and wiped this army from the face of the map. And as she stood with her small band of guards witnessing the last of the violence, she felt uncertain. Because the battle was won, but she didn’t know if the Goblin Lord had survived the battle.
Her answer came when Garen rode towards her, covered in blood, still wild-eyed from the adrenaline pumping in his veins. Rags strode towards him. She was nearly hopping with impatience.
Goblin Lord. Where?
She wanted Garen to say he’d killed the Lord. But Garen just stared at her strangely.
“This was not the Goblin Lord’s army. This was just one of his warbands.”
And then the ground fell out from beneath Rags. She stared at the devastation, at the Human city broken by this army. But it was not a true victory for this was only a fraction of her enemy’s strength. She had underestimated the power of a Lord and so for the first time—
She felt fear.
A warband. Rags shivered at the thought. Or maybe it was just because she was cold. She sneezed and wiped her hand on the Carn Wolf’s fur. That was the convenient thing about riding the wolf, for all they were hard on the butt and bounced Rags about. Their fur was nice and easy to wipe hands and feet clean on, although the wolves tended to bite if they noticed you doing it.
Perhaps a Human – like Erin – would have just shrugged and said ‘so what?’ upon hearing that this was a Goblin warband. But Goblins understood how their kind made war. There was a simple, almost instinctual way they organized, and so from this Rags understood the dangers of the Goblin Lord’s main force.
No one had ever taught Rags about percentages, so she thought of it like this. Goblin armies were always a huge mass, but they always fragmented their forces in order to attack most efficiently. Around two thirds would constitute the main force which moved slowly from place to place, devouring and razing everything in its path. But the remaining third would break down into warbands and raiding parties that spread out in the path of the main army, seizing supplies, recruiting other Goblin tribes, and clashing with smaller forces.
A warband constituted around a tenth of the actual army’s force, so that it could be easily replaced if lost. The same went for raiding parties, which were less than a hundredth of the size of the actual army. But what that meant was that if this warband Rags’ forces had crushed numbered in the thousands, the Goblin Lord’s army numbered in the tens of thousands.
All together, the combined tribes of the High Passes numbered little less than two thousand warriors. Rags had known in an instant what would happen if they were to lead their forces against such a huge enemy. Any Goblin could figure that out, really.
Except maybe Garen Redfang. He thought they could skirmish with the Goblin Lord’s forces, but that was because he was used to a small tribe with groups of elite mounted warriors. If all the Goblins tried that they would be very dead, very quickly.
So Rags had ordered their forces north, against Garen’s objections, to buy time. It had taken some doing but she’d pointed out the obvious to the surly Goblin Chieftain. If the combined tribes around the High Passes were equivalent to one of the Goblin Lord’s warbands, they had no hope of facing his main force.
So, north. Surprisingly, once Garen had accepted the idea he had been the one to lead them to this spot. He claimed to know where another Goblin tribe was based, one strong enough to help fight the Goblin Lord.
It had been a long journey, although not necessarily a difficult one. Rags had been more concerned with affairs inside the tribe rather than any external threat. The most exciting thing that had happened had been when they’d spotted the magical carriage. But it had gotten away.
And the trip had been helpful for Rags in another way. She’d gotten to know her tribe better—that was to say, she now knew who was loyal to her and who was not. And she’d gotten stronger.
Rags had leveled many times over the journey. Not so much as a [Mage] or [Tinkerer], and certainly not as her old class – [Scavenger]. But through Garen’s intense training she’d leveled up as a [Warrior], gained two levels as a [Tactician], and more than ten as a [Leader]. Soon, the other Chieftains told her, her [Leader] class would turn into a [Chieftain] class, unique to their race.
That was the good bit. But Rags knew the bad bit started and ended with one simple fact: somehow, in some way, she’d suddenly lost her position as leader over all the tribes. Not that she’d ruled over all the tribes to begin with—this was a coalition army. But…
She was not in command here. In battles, yes. The few times the Goblins had had to defend themselves all the other Chieftains had obeyed her orders quickly and without complaint, as had their warriors. But they were not here, joining together because of Rags. And it was not her authority they respected.
It was his.
Garen Redfang appeared out of the trees, riding his huge rust-red Carn Wolf mount. Rags pulled at her wolf’s head gently, forcing it to slow down. She stared up at Garen, and not for the first time, resented his physique.
He looked like what all Goblins dreamed of being. Garen was strong. His muscles stood out on his bare chest and he looked like he barely noticed the cold. He was covered in scars, he had a magical sword at his side and a mighty beast under his command—he looked like a proper Chieftain, not Rags.
That was the problem.
Garen Redfang and his tribe were under Rags’ command. She had beaten his tribe, and so it was part of hers now. That was how it went, but somehow Garen had made a mess of that simple fact.
He had lost, but somehow, he hadn’t lost. Rags knew he’d thrown the fight, but a defeat was a defeat in Goblin society. She should have taken his tribe and obtained his unquestioning loyalty unless he challenged her.
But he didn’t obey. Garen glanced down at Rags and smiled. But not just in greeting—there was something patronizing about his smile, and indeed his attitude. It was as if he was obeying Rags because it was convenient, not because she was Chieftain.
Frankly, it made Rags furious. She jumped off her mount to give her stiff legs a chance to move. She glared up at Garen, ignoring the way his wolf sniffed at her. If it licked her, she’d punch it in the nose.
He blinked at her, almost as if he was surprised by her tone. But he answered her casually.
“We are here. This is the place where the other tribe lives.”
Rags glanced around the miserable little forest. This was hardly the place she’d have chosen for a tribe. But Garen just nodded.
“Here. In the Human lands.”
They are strong?
Rags wanted to know all the details he’d withheld from her. But her question seemed to amuse Garen. He laughed loudly, and she flushed. Other Goblins would watch them talk! Garen hadn’t dismounted. Did he not understand how to behave in front of his own Chieftain?
Garen pointed at the mountain.
“There. There is where they live. And they are strong, yes.”
He raised his voice. Rags saw Goblins’ heads turn as he spoke loudly. Garen gestured to the sky.
“This is the land where Goblins are strongest. The Humans have built grand cities and their adventurers fight with all monsters. But the Goblins remain, and fight. This is the place where Goblins are mighty.”
Rags had never heard of the tribes living to the north. But she had never ventured out of the area around Liscor, never known more than her miserable existence in her small tribe before this. She looked at Garen.
Strongest Goblins live here?
He shrugged, as if he actually wasn’t sure.
“On this continent. Aside from Goblin Lord. Others live across the sea. On islands. They are strong too. But here? Yes.”
Across the sea?
There were other Goblins on other continents? Rags couldn’t imagine it. But Garen nodded. He had seen the world Rags couldn’t imagine.
“Some live on Terandria, but fewer. Some on Chandrar too; strong tribes, that live in their own places. Few on Baleros. Fewer still on Rhir. Too much death there. Overwhelming death.”
One of the worst kinds of death. Rags shuddered. Garen nodded darkly, baring his teeth in a scowl.
“We live in other places. But the enemies find us wherever we go. The last Goblin King came across sea. Many did. They fought greater enemies than Drakes and Gnolls and Humans.”
But tribe here. It is—
Rags hesitated. Inwardly, she cursed the fact that she still couldn’t speak the common language like Garen could. The Goblin tongue was so…so…hard to use! There were countless words for death, but few words for what she needed.
It is strong? Leader is strong? Will help?
“He is. And he may help. We will see.”
Garen shrugged. Rags wanted to punch him, but he sat too high up. He looked towards the mountain and nodded to Rags.
“I will go. To prepare. You follow.”
That wasn’t what was supposed to happen. Rags was supposed to order him to do that, not the other way around! She opened her mouth to shout that at Garen, but he was already wheeling his wolf, letting it lope towards the foot of the mountain.
Disgusted, Rags watched him ride away, already calling out to other Chieftains and his warriors. Not good. She was losing more control over him each day, she felt. What would happen if she lost what control she had left? She didn’t know, but she feared the result, especially as she prepared herself to meet this new Chieftain.
Goblin politics. As Headscratcher and the band of Redfang warriors had observed, the situation between Rags and Garen Redfang was anything but ordinary. The Flooded Waters tribe, Rags’ tribe, was the largest tribe in the coalition of fifteen or so tribes by a good margin. And the strongest, Rags felt.
They had nearly eight hundred warriors and several thousand Goblins in total, and over ten Hobs, the most out of any tribe by far. And yet, Rags didn’t count the Redfang tribe when she thought of her tribe. They were with the Flooded Waters tribe, but like Garen, they were separate.
He still gave orders to his tribe, although it was Rags who made sure the warriors were fed. She’d taken over, organized them efficiently and taken the burden off of Garen’s beleaguered Hobs, who’d had to do all the work because their Chieftain was a terrible leader when it came to such matters. And yet, if it came down to it, Rags was fairly certain they’d listen to Garen and not her if they butted heads.
Not good. Garen had lost, but he didn’t seem to regard losing as being less superior in any way. Normally, Rags would have killed or exiled him for disobeying her orders, but she couldn’t because Garen was too strong. If she challenged him, he would beat her easily. Ordinarily Rags would have just sneered and had several Hobs beat him up—a Chieftain ruled by more than just force!—but Garen was quite capable of taking down any number of Hobs she sent at him.
And if she used her Goblins, his tribe would defend him. And if Rags made it a battle between tribes, it wouldn’t end until one side was dead and the other crippled. And if that happened, the other Chieftains in this tenuous alliance of tribes would choose sides and either way, it would end in disaster.
This Rags knew, but she didn’t like it. She could only grit her teeth and bear the humiliation and slights Garen offered her seemingly without thought. He was too strong.
She didn’t have to order anyone to follow Garen. He rode off with his warriors and the other Goblins followed. Grumpily, Rags left her wolf—another Goblin would ride it if they could get on without it biting them—and strode off.
She needed to know things. What things? Anything. Garen had told her nothing. But who could she ask? Telling other Chieftains she couldn’t command Garen was as good as shooting herself with her black crossbow, Rags knew. She had to ask someone from her tribe. But who?
Rags had conquered four tribes with her small one. She had made all of them hers, and she knew most of them thought of her as a proper Chieftain. At least two tribes did. One was…well, she’d absorbed them only a few days before meeting the Redfang tribe, and so she hadn’t gained as complete control over them as the others. They respected Garen’s strength more than her cunning.
But it was the Chieftains Rags thought about, the former Chieftains, that was. They were hers, too. Chieftains were smart, some of them, and some knew a lot. So could she ask one of them?
Rags thought. The first tribe she’d attacked was…the Rockjaw tribe. She’d killed their leader herself. Oops.
Well, he was out. What about the second tribe? The Still Grass tribe’s leader was alive, but he was young like her. And like Rags, he had risen to power early and his tribe was weak, only having had one Hob when she’d crushed it. She doubted he knew anything of the world.
The third tribe was the least loyal to her, the Fire Bite tribe. Their Chieftain, a Hob, was hard to control. Rags couldn’t talk to him.
She ground her sharp teeth together. But wait! There was one last tribe.
The Gold Stone Tribe. Rags hesitated. She’d conquered them literally seconds before the Redfang Tribe had attacked, but to their credit, their Chieftain had instantly thrown all of his support behind Rags like a proper Goblin, when backstabbing her would have led to her instant demise.
Could she trust him? Rags closed her eyes and remembered.
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.
Yes, she could trust him. Rags opened her eyes and blinked rapidly. For a second she was still in the past, heart beating rapidly as she stared up at Garen Redfang, sure this was the end. Then she was back in the present, standing on muddy ground as Goblins walked past her.
It was getting easier to do that. Rags had found recalling past events was simpler now that her tribe had grown. She still couldn’t ‘look’ back that far in time, but what she could see was easier, and she could will the visions to happen most of the time.
And it helped in matters like these. Rags began walking through the snow. She didn’t have to search to find the Gold Stone Tribe’s former Chieftain. He was part of her tribe and assigned to managing them on the march, being the most competent Hob at the job.
She found the Gold Stone Chieftain munching on something as he rested near a tree. He was waiting for the Goblins around him to keep moving forwards—Rags had passed by a pile of Goblins. One idiot had slipped and the others had all fallen down because of that.
Rags eyed the former Chieftain as he chewed contentedly, scratching at his belly. He was a classical Hob, fat, trusting in his extra body mass to shield him as much as his armor. But like all Hobs he was strong and Rags knew he was fairly good with an axe and shield.
She was about to yell at him for eating—it wasn’t meal time! Hobs had to respect her rules and stay away from the rations, the same as everyone else. But then she saw what he was eating.
Pine needles. The Hob was chewing them down slowly, letting the sharp tufts stick out of his mouth. He had a handful of the green needles and, as Rags watched, he shoved some more into his mouth.
She had to admire that. The pine needles were easy to get on the march, and it was a good snack. If you could handle the pricking, that was. She saw several other Goblins around the Chieftain trying to imitate him and spitting out the sharp pine needles after a few moments. But the Gold Stone Chieftain just chewed determinedly, grinding the tough fibers into mush.
He turned as Rags marched over. The Gold Stone Chieftain nodded his head towards her—Rags felt better about that. It wasn’t as if Goblins had to salute her or bow, but they did acknowledge their Chieftain.
That was all she said. As far as she knew, the Gold Stone Chieftain had no name. His tribe had no [Shaman] – they were rare – and so he lacked a name. She just thought of him as the Gold Stone Chieftain, which might be how he thought of himself.
His voice was a rumble. The Gold Stone Chieftain said that word and nothing else. He just chewed his food, waiting for her to say something.
Rags pursed her lips, trying to figure out how to ask her question concisely. She could speak in the Human, or rather, common tongue, but it hurt her throat to try. She pointed at the mountain.
This place. Tribe. Is strong?
It was a question with a lot of nuance, which Garen should have understood when Rags asked him. The Gold Stone Chieftain heard Rags’ question and the layers beneath it. Properly translated, her stance, the context in which she was asking and the current state of the tribes meant she was really asking: ‘How dangerous is this tribe? Are they likely to betray us? Why has Garen taken us here, and what can I expect?’
At last, the Gold Stone Chieftain nodded. Rags waited with bated breath for his response.
Is strong Goblin. Goblins here is strong.
That was the problem with other Goblins, even other Chieftains. None of them were particularly verbose, which made sense given their language. All he was telling her was that the Chieftain was as strong as his tribe, which was apparently very. She eyed him dourly, and the Hob shrugged as if apologizing.
Talking wasn’t his strong suit. Rags turned to go, deciding she’d have to figure out what to do herself. But she heard a grunt, and then a rumble, and words in a language that was not Goblin.
“Chieftain. You. Chieftain?”
She turned, eyes widening. The Gold Stone Chieftain stared at her pensively. For a second, white-hot fury flared up in Rags’ chest and she debated taking the shortsword from her belt and stabbing him with it.
But she didn’t. It was a question, not an attack. Rags was so angry she didn’t reply in Goblin, but again in the common language.
“I…Chieftain. I always…Chieftain!”
She glared at him. The Gold Stone Chieftain met her eyes—not afraid, just searchingly. Then he bowed his head and nodded slowly.
Is so. Will not ask again.
She stared at him, but the Hob just went back to chewing his pine needles. Rags looked around. Other Goblins immediately bowed their heads and pretended to be busy kicking snow, picking nostrils, or throwing prickly burrs at each other. But they had heard.
Was the Gold Stone Chieftain questioning her too? No—as Rags left and calmed down she considered what had been said. He’d questioned her, yes, but when she’d declared herself as Chieftain he’d acknowledged her in front of the others.
Maybe, just maybe, she had one supporter she could count on. The other Hobs were loyal to her as well, but she had known they could turn on her if dissatisfied, as one of them had when they were losing to the Redfang Tribe. But the Gold Stone Chieftain…could she count on him?
Rags didn’t know. But then she found herself striding up to the mountain, and saw where Goblins were streaming into fissures in the stone, caves leading into the mountain. She walked upwards and found herself in another world, in the heart of a small kingdom of Goblins. And there she met the one who called himself Great Chieftain, the Chieftain above all others.
Her cold feet left snowy tracks that melted on the rough stone floor of the city within a mountain. Rags saw other Goblins stumbling on the rough ground; though places had been worn smooth, this was no place of architecture and masonry. The vast tunnel they walked down had been hewn out of the very rock one chip at a time.
By degrees, the darkness of the caverns lightened, as bits of fire appeared overhead, lighting the way. Lanterns hung from rough hemp rope or were strapped to lengths of wood dangled off of balconies, sputtering with the cheap animal fat oil.
The smoke of such flames drifted upwards, to the walkways made out of stone and the bridges of rope and timber where dark shapes scurried about. Upwards, and ever upwards the Goblins looked, for the crisscrossing tunnels and passages led up into the heart of the mountain.
At first, they saw the guards, hidden in alcoves or behind barricades disguised as piled stone. Arrows glinted, but the Goblins watched them carefully without putting any to their bows. They wore steel armor which made even some Hobs look on in jealousy.
Next, they saw other Goblins dragging in a dead bear’s carcass, and next to it, the cub, both riddled with arrows. A rat darted out of the shadows to lick at the trail of blood. Another Goblin grabbed the rat, and a few of the roaches which clung to a wall. All things lived here, and all things were eaten.
Upwards, then, traversing stone steps and an open bridge where bat droppings had made footing treacherous. Goblins carrying wood – both firewood and quality pieces cut for the purposes of crafting passed them by, heads bowed, moving fast. There was a rhythm to this place, and a structure.
Then they passed by the huge furnaces which expelled black smoke upwards and felt warmer. The Goblins and Rags saw how the embers in this place never died, being fed coal and wood almost constantly to warm the cavern. And from the fire all things came. Meat was cooked and food made with embers taken from that massive blaze, and metal hammered or the crudest of reforgings done by Goblin [Blacksmiths], whom Rags had never seen before.
And then they reached the heart of the city, and Rags gazed in wonder at the buildings. For after centuries of neglect and habitation by Goblins, the former city of stone still showed traces of what it had been.
Perhaps it was Dwarves who carved into this place, building grand monuments and smoothing the stone. But it was Goblins who broke down windows and walls and strung bridges and rope everywhere that they might travel more easily. As Rags watched, a Goblin climbed higher, headed towards a ledge higher up that led into another passage. The Goblin’s grip slipped as he or she reached for the next part of the rope. They tried to stabilize themselves, failed.
The small body fell, and was soon dragged away.
“This is the hall of the Great Chieftain of the North.”
That was all Garen Redfang said as Rags walked with him. She stood with him and all the Chieftains of the allied tribes at the head of their army. Most of the other Goblins had stayed behind—going somewhere else—but hundreds still followed the Chieftains, warriors and other Hobs, going to the heart of this place.
Where else could it be but the throne room? Here Rags saw the places meant for statues, smashed and turned instead into more places for Goblins to move about freely. But there was still a majesty to the double doors that stood wide, and as she entered the huge hall, she saw the Chieftain of this place.
It was just a glimpse. Rags saw him past the tables and detritus of the room, sitting on a throne of cloth and dirty pillows. A fat, huge Goblin twice as large as any Hob. But her eye was drawn to the long tables, the seats made out of stone that had been dragged up here. This was no throne room after all, but a banquet hall.
And there were Goblins in it, enough for a feast. But Rags didn’t think there was going to be any party, unless it was the bloody kind.
These Goblins were ready for war. They stood next to the dais and the huge Goblin Chieftain, armed warriors, equal in number or perhaps a little more than the Goblins that had entered with Rags and Garen at their head.
Rags immediately noticed the quality of these Goblin’s arms. Steel, again, or iron. Some wore complete sets of plate armor, scavenged from some adventurer’s corpse. Others held swords which glowed—they had magical weapons!
And Hobs. There were a lot of them. Rags blinked as she saw tall Goblins, standing next to their smaller bretheren. So many! She counted over thirty before she stopped, and there were far more in the room. Far more.
By that standard alone these Goblins were superior to the trespassers. And it clearly was a message: we are better than you. We are stronger. For all that, Rags felt that Garen’s Redfang warriors were no less powerful than the best of the warriors who stood assembled here. And of course none of the Goblins could match the legendary Garen Redfang, not the mightiest Hob warrior among them.
Except perhaps their leader. Rags fixed on him as she walked slowly forwards with Garen. The massive Goblin had not bothered to stand; she wondered if he could, fat as he was. But his huge head as was intent as he stared at her. Rags shuddered as she saw his crimson eyes looking towards her, and she sensed his authority. But then the Chieftain’s eyes fixed on Garen.
Garen stopped two thirds of the way into the room, and the Goblins stopped behind him. Rags walked past Garen, which made him frown in annoyance. She ignored that; she was the Chieftain, after all.
The huge Chieftain’s eyes flicked to Rags for a second, and his lips moved upwards in amusement. But he looked back at Garen. While Rags was wondering what to say, his huge mouth opened and he spoke.
“Garen Redfang. It has been long since you trespassed in my lands.”
Rags jumped in surprise. He was speaking in the common language! And fluently! Even Garen didn’t speak like that!
And he had addressed Garen. Rags glared. She had to reply back, teach this arrogant Chieftain who the real leader was.
But then Garen spoke. As if he didn’t realize what he was doing, he smiled and replied back, claiming Rags’ authority in front of the other Goblins.
“It has been long. But I am here for war.”
At that the other Goblins standing next to the Chieftain stirred. Rags froze, and she put her hand on the crossbow which she always kept slung to her back. A second and she could have it out and firing. But the Chieftain sitting on his throne only laughed.
“War? Against us? If you wanted that, you would have brought three times the numbers with you, and no children and females.”
To Rags’ outrage the big Goblin pointed at her as she said that. She heard a murmur from the Goblins behind her, but dared not turn to see if it was in support or agreement with the Chieftain. Garen only smiled.
“I have brought many tribes. Strong ones. Smart ones. The one standing here is known as Rags. She is unique.”
He had named her, as if she was lesser! Rags nearly exploded, but the Chieftain laughed hugely. He peered at Rags, rising a bit from his bed of softness. She didn’t flinch as she met his eyes.
“Hah. Yes. She is small and young, a child still. Do you bed her, Garen Redfang? Or is it because she is your child that you give her power?”
That was it. Rags felt something snap. As she heard the Goblins standing around the Chieftain on the dais laughing, she raised her hand to her back.
The black crossbow was heavy, but Rags could lift it with one hand for a few moments. She pulled it out, cocked the crossbow with one pull that took all her strength, and had a heavy quarrel on the string before the laughter had stopped.
Rags swung the black crossbow up and pointed the bolt straight at the fat Goblin’s massive stomach. The entire room went still.
I am Chieftain here. Not Garen Redfang. I have come with my tribes here. I am Chieftain! Show respect!
She said it loudly, letting her voice ring out through the room. Rags stared up at the huge Goblin sitting on his throne fearlessly. The warriors around them had their hands on their weapons, but she only had eyes for him.
Two crimson eyes blazed in anger. Slowly, ignoring the crossbow trained on him, the Goblin Chieftain stood up. And when he did, Rags realized how huge he was. He was a giant, tall as a Minotaur and bigger still! His voice boomed as he pointed down at Rags, filled with anger.
“I am the Great Chieftain of the North, Tremborag! I met with the Goblin King ten years ago. When he came to Izril, he came to my tribe with his armies! I have seen his face. I know his name. Velan the Kind, last King of our people. You dare to come into my domain and challenge me? Know your place. Kneel!”
His last word thundered in the cavernous room, and the pressure that hit Rags and the other Goblins had to have been from a Skill. Garen gritted his teeth and grinned fiercely as Goblins around him dropped to one knee or cowered.
Rags felt her legs buckle, but she did not kneel. She looked around and saw most of the other Chieftains kneeling as well. Only three—a tall, female Hob and a normal-sized Goblin, both with the second most powerful tribes after Garen’s, refused to kneel. And, surprisingly, the Gold Rock Chieftain. He stood steadily on his feet, blinking and scratching at a layer of fat as he stared at Tremborag.
The crossbow was heavy in her hands. Rags lowered it, but kept the point trained on Tremborag’s feet.
I am Chieftain too. You offer disrespect! Know your place.
Dead silence followed her words. Then Rags heard a voice. Garen, standing behind her, laughed. He laughed loudly, and then spoke to the Great Chieftain.
“See? She is fearless! And she is a Chieftain! My Chieftain.”
That made all the Goblins standing with Tremborag go still with shock. Rags felt countless eyes on her, but stood proudly. She was Chieftain. That could not be taken away from her.
But Tremborag managed to do it with a dismissive glance. He looked at Garen.
“You? Gave way to her? Why?”
The Hob warrior grinned.
“She can lead armies. She is smart.”
As if she wasn’t here! And he—Tremborag had the gall to suggest Garen had let Rags defeat him on purpose! The worst part was that he was right. Rags ground her teeth, but the conversation went on and she couldn’t break into it.
“A Chieftain to lead warriors while you fight in the front! I see! Clever! I would expect nothing less from Garen Redfang!”
Tremborag laughed hugely as he settled back down on his throne. Garen grinned too, but there was a spark in the air between the two Goblins. They were fighting for dominance, and everyone in the room felt it. The trouble was…well, that it wasn’t Rags doing the fighting. And she sensed like all the Goblins that both Garen and Tremborag were matched in their way.
“So. You have a leader and many tribes. Why have you come here, then, Garen Redfang? Did you not swear never to join the Goblin Lord? Did you not fight them, or were you too afraid and fled here?”
From behind Rags she heard Goblins shouting angrily at this—probably Garen’s warriors. But the Hob was calm, and replied coolly.
“We did fight. We fought an army. Goblin Lord’s army. Thousands strong. We slew them all. But it was warband.”
Silence. All Goblins could understand what this meant. Tremborag lost his grin and nodded. His face grew serious. He looked past Garen, and his voice deepened further, if that were possible.
“When the Goblin King lived, his raiding parties were tens of thousands strong. So I have heard. A Goblin Lord stands second-highest to a King. He is strong.”
“Strong. But he is no true Goblin.”
That came from Garen, and it was damning as it was shocking to hear, even though Rags knew his opinion. Tremborag gazed down at Garen silently, and nodded.
“He is not. But I ask again. Why do you come here, Garen Redfang?”
Everyone knew the answer, but Garen had to say it. He bared his teeth.
“To fight against the Goblin Lord. Together.”
Rags held her breath, forgetting for a moment that it was she who should have made the offer. Tremborag nodded closing his eyes briefly. But when he looked at Garen it was with another one of his smiles, as if he was playing some huge trick on the Hobgoblin.
“You say to ally. But here I sit in my kingdom in the mountain. My Goblins are strong. Why should I ally with you, you who has abandoned his home?”
Now Rags could answer. She opened her mouth, but to her outrage Garen stepped past her and spoke in her place. He gestured at her and the Goblins behind him. Rags had her hand on her sword, itching to stab him.
“I am strong. My tribe and other tribes—under Rags—is strong. And she is smart. She can lead armies to battle.”
At least he said that. Tremborag’s eyes focused on Rags briefly again, assessing, discarding.
“So? I have armies and strong and smart warriors of my own.”
Garen nodded. He touched something else, something hidden behind his armor. Rags stared at it, knowing what it had to be. A little key.
“I have something else. A prize. You know what it is.”
Tremborag stared at Garen’s hand. He nodded. Spoke quietly.
“Yes. I know what you have. And that false Goblin to the south shall not have it.”
The two stared at each other for a long minute. Then Tremborag nodded. He rose, and laughed. Then he spread his arms wide.
“So be it! Garen Redfang, we will fight together! This Goblin Lord will not rule us. And he will break his teeth upon this mountain if he should come for battle.”
A moment’s breath as Goblins understood this, and then thunder rang out as hundreds, thousands of voices shouted out. Rags realized the throne room, the banquet room, wasn’t just filled with warriors. Goblins, ones who were lesser warriors or not fighters at all, filled the upper balconies dug out of the rock or stood clustered around the entrance to the throne room.
Garen strode forwards, and he and Tremborag met. They didn’t hug or shake hands, but they stood together and so it was done. Rags knew it. And she also knew something else.
She’d lost her power here. Garen had taken it without a fight and without saying so, but he had taken it from her.
She just didn’t understand how.
She confronted him as the banquet room was filling with thousands of Goblins. Tremborag was as good as his word, and he had declared a feast to celebrate. Huge baskets full of food, cooked meat and raw, and many other foods, vats of bubbling soup, were being taken out to feed the hungry mass of Goblins.
Rags wasn’t eating just yet. She stopped Garen as he finished peeing in a corner where other Goblins had done the same by the smell of it. He looked at her and grinned.
That was it. Rags aimed a kick at the thing dangling between his legs. Garen frowned and blocked the blow.
“Painful. Don’t do that.”
I am Chieftain!
She shouted it at him. Garen just pulled his pants up and shrugged. He looked at her as if he’d done very little wrong; an inconsequential thing she was getting worked up over.
“You are Chieftain. But I am Garen Redfang. And I am strong. So I am Chieftain too, in a way.”
“That is not…how…it works!”
Rags hissed at him, practically stumbling over the words. Garen just shook his head.
“You need me. I, Tremborag respects. Not you.”
It was true, but it didn’t stop Rags from trying to kick him in the same place. Garen just laughed and moved out of the way.
“It is time to eat. Eat, and then we shall talk, Chieftain.”
She watched him go, despairing inside. Well, Garen had said it. He wasn’t under her command. He just pretended to be because it was convenient. Now she knew. And she…
She had to do something about it. Instantly, Rags stopped thinking of the Redfang tribe as being hers. It was not. Her tribe was smaller now, and weaker. And it was in a place where one tribe reigned supreme.
But she was still Chieftain. Filled with that knowledge, Rags returned to the banquet room. Countless Goblins were tearing at food, eating in groups or alone – as alone as you could get in such a crowded room anyways – but the place of choice seemed to be reserved for the Goblins sitting at the massive table in front of the dais.
In truth, it didn’t make sense to Rags. Goblins didn’t use tables! Not unless they had a lot of food and the ground was really dirty, at any rate. And they didn’t do…formality. But these Goblins, Tremborag’s tribe, had clearly adopted the other species’ way of doing things.
It was just another thing that didn’t make sense to Rags, but food was food. She walked towards the table. The seats were almost exclusively filled by Hobs. Some elite Goblin warriors of regular size were there too, but it was clearly based on hierarchy. She saw her fellow Chieftains sitting at the table already, halfway up, and Garen at the far end.
But where did she sit? Rags saw a Goblin hurrying to intercept her. They had Goblins waiting on the table? True, Goblins always brought her food if she wanted it, but this—
Rags frowned as the meek Goblin pointed to a place on the table. Far down the table, near the end. It was where some of her warriors sat, including the Still Grass Chieftain. And it was not where she belonged.
Even if Garen and his tribe were not hers, Rags knew she belonged near the head of the table. She looked towards the throne and saw Tremborag, huge and inescapable, sitting there with Garen and a few of his warriors. The Great Chieftain was watching her. He was eating what looked like the entire bloody leg of a cow, and laughing at something Garen had said. But he was staring at her.
He’d put her here. Rags stared at the empty seat waiting for her. It was a deliberate insult, Rags knew. She stared up at the head of the table, where Garen sat next to Tremborag. Rags didn’t blush; she didn’t feel embarrassed in the slightest. No, the only thing in her heart was anger.
Rags didn’t take the seat. She turned from the meek Goblin and strode towards the head of the table, ignoring the looks she got from the other Goblins eating. They were watching her too. Of course they were. Probably most of the room was watching her, seeing what she did. That was Goblins for you. They watched everything. But Rags had never known a day where her actions mattered as much as now.
She stopped at the head of the table and looked around. Garen was sitting next to Tremborag, who was seated at the head of the wide table. And across from him…
“What is wrong, little Goblin? Are you lost? Your seat is over there!”
A Hob, battle-scarred and confident, sat in the chair across from Garen. He was holding some kind of crude mead in his hands—no doubt made in this very mountain—and laughing at her.
Rags just stared at him. She walked over and pointed to his seat.
My seat. Move.
He blinked at her for a second, and then roared with mirth. The Goblins who’d heard Rags laughed as well, as did Tremborag. Garen was smiling and just watching Rags.
She calmly watched the Hob instead. He was laughing at her. So were the other Goblins, Hobs and normal ones alike. They didn’t respect her.
Was Rags angry? No. She’d gone far beyond that, into a realm where the words furious, incandescent, and wrathful were the soft option. The pure quill of rage was burning in Rags’ chest, which is why she did what she did next without thought for the consequences.
The Hob was still laughing as Rags looked at the table. It was rather high up, so she placed one hand on it. Then she swung herself upwards and stood on the table. Ignoring the dishes, Rags walked across the table, kicking plates out of the way and scattering mugs to the displeasure of their owners. The Hob sitting next to Tremborag blinked at her—
And she kicked him in the face.
It was a good kick. Solid. Rags put her entire body into it. It snapped the Hob’s head backwards, and he tipped backwards in his chair. It struck the ground with a thump, spilling him out of it.
And the noise—
Fighting wasn’t unusual at any mealtime. Any number of brawls or petty squabbles could break out and Goblins would ignore it or get clear or join in without raising an eyebrow. But this was different.
The entire hall went silent. The Hob surged to his feet, angry.
“You. Weak Goblin female! You challenge me?”
Did they all speak the common tongue? Rags stood with both feet planted, ignoring Tremborag’s grin and Garen’s eyes on her. She stared at the Hob and spoke loud enough for all to hear.
I am Chieftain. This is my seat. Will you fight me?
Silence. The Hob stared at her incredulously. Then he snarled.
“I will beat you and take you for myself. You are weak!”
That was it. The hall, which had already been quiet, went still. He had challenged her, a Chieftain. Normally Tremborag would have stopped him, or supported the Hob, but he wasn’t about to do so, Rags knew.
And in that case, her tribe would defend Rags as their Chieftain. She waited. But heard only silence. Goblin culture demanded her Hobs and elite warriors would rise to her defense. But no one moved. Rags felt her heart freeze over. If they did not follow her—
A chair moved back. The Gold Stone Chieftain, sitting far down the table, stood up lazily, as if he was getting up to stretch his legs or pee. And as Goblins saw him stand, Rags saw the Still Grass Tribe’s Chieftain stand, full of nervous energy.
Three other Hobs stood as well, two females and a male. Three, out of the many she commanded. And the Fire Bite Chieftain remained sitting. But it was enough. Rags stared at the Hob, ready to fight. She would claim her authority right here and now, in blood and death if she had to.
The Hob snarled. He raised a fist and moved towards her. Rags called magic into her hand, ready to burn his face. She wouldn’t use her crossbow here; he was too close. Her sword. She had to prove—
“Rags is my Chieftain.”
Garen Redfang pushed back his chair suddenly. The Hob turned, suddenly wary. Garen smiled, his teeth glinting as he raised his voice.
“My Chieftain. You disrespect her.”
Rags stared with narrowed eyes at Garen. He’d stood up late. He wasn’t supporting her, not in the right way. But it was good for Garen. Now the Hob had to take him on; he couldn’t back down. The warrior hesitated, but then he came at Garen, fist swinging fast at the other Goblin’s head.
Too slow for Garen, though. The other Hob waited until the fist was close to his face before he lashed out. He leaned back and kicked the other Goblin in the chest.
Garen hit him so hard Rags could hear the Goblin warrior’s bones crack. The Hob stumbled back, sat down. Then he lay down and didn’t get back up.
Politely, Garen pulled back the chair. Rags stared at him in silence. Then, ignoring the fallen Hob who a few smaller Goblins ran over to drag away, she hopped off the table and took a seat.
“Well. You have claimed your seat, and your faithful warrior has protected you. Good!”
Tremborag said the words loudly, and noise resumed as if he had commanded it. He grinned down at Rags, and she saw how he could easily bite her head off with one chomp of his jaws. But she just stared up at him without flinching.
“She is brave. I told you she would not sit there.”
Garen sat back down, grinning as he tore into a bloody piece of meat. Tremborag laughed.
“Yes. You did. Well, we shall talk, little Rags and Garen Redfang. Talk, but only about small things. For now we eat!”
And as he spoke a plate was put in front of Rags. She stared down at it, askance; who used plates? The crude, clay plate sat in front of her, insultingly stupid. The table was fine—but she took it anyways. Rags grabbed as much food as she could reach, standing on the table much to Tremborag’s amusement.
And so Rags ate her fill, which was unusual for a Goblin. It usually meant everything was well, but as she found her tribe after the banquet and learned they had been assigned their own part of the stone city, and her Goblins had already been assigned tasks to fulfill, she knew all was not well.
Garen Redfang and Tremborag. Goblin legend, former Gold-rank adventurer and Chieftain. And a Chieftain who ruled over an actual palace, who claimed to be Great Chieftain among Goblins and spoke and acted like a Human.
Rags knew that she could not trust them.
Either of them.
It was dark when Rags was finished familiarizing herself with the new role her tribe was filling in Tremborag’s domain. She didn’t like that her people were being split up, given new roles and places to sleep, as if they weren’t her tribe anymore. She didn’t like it, but she knew she couldn’t do anything about it right now.
She wanted to get out and explore this place, this massive city that spoke to her of past glories before the Goblins had claimed it. She wanted to learn more about Tremborag and join in on whatever he and Garen were planning. She wanted to think about her tribe and what she was losing or had already lost.
But two figures stopped her at the entrance to her quarters. Rags had her hand on her shortsword, but she stopped when she saw one of them.
The Gold Stone Chieftain stood lazily next to the door, chewing on something. A bone. He was munching it down, marrow and bone and all. Were his teeth made of iron?
He nodded to her. Rags nodded back, and stared at the other Goblin. He was a Hob, one of hers. Why was he here? Why was the Gold Stone Chieftain here?
I am going.
She wanted to be alone. But the Gold Stone Chieftain just shook his head at her. He tapped his chest slowly, and spoke after a brief pause with a deep frown on his face.
“Should go with. Dangerous…alone.”
He had to use another language, because what he was saying was so foreign to Goblins. Rags couldn’t believe the implications. She might be attacked? Her? A Chieftain welcomed into another tribe’s hold?
She stared at the other Hob and then at the Gold Stone Chieftain. Two Hobs? She needed…?
Slowly, a dark feeling began to steal over Rags. She remembered the Hob’s comments, the one she’d kicked, and Tremborag’s. She wondered what the Gold Stone Chieftain had seen that made him come here. But she knew one thing.
He was loyal. Rags looked up at the Hob, who’d resumed crunching on his bone. She looked at him, and spoke the words that were in her heart.
This place…is not Goblin. Not Goblin.
She felt it already. The other Hob stirred, but the Gold Stone Chieftain just nodded silently. Rags nodded as well.
They are not Goblin. But I am.
It was a declaration that meant a thousand things, and it was one which meant war if anyone else were to hear. But they were alone. The Hob warrior looked nervous, but he stood with Rags. And the Gold Stone Chieftain just tossed the last bit of bone aside. He didn’t say much, but he knew exactly what to say.