So here it is. My first test as an [Emperor]. I, Laken Godart, am facing my first true crisis since I claimed Riverfarm. The avalanche was one thing, but I had the means to save the village at my fingertips. This time, I have no such ability.
The Goblins are here. Monsters with the cunning of people who want to destroy my village, slaughter my people, take all we’ve made. I don’t know who they are or what to do.
I have protection—two Silver-rank adventuring groups. I thought it was enough, but in their first attack they killed one of my adventurers and nearly got Beniar. Now they’re out there, probably planning to strike again and I have no idea what to do.
I’m no military buff. I don’t know how to deal with an enemy that fights like this. And yet, ironically, I can put myself in the Goblin’s minds. I know what I would do if I came to a village like this. Pick off my enemy one by one. Hide, ambush them, whittle them down and starve them if possible and then go for the kill.
So I suppose I do know what I have to do. I need to find the Goblins and kill them before they kill me. Simple to say, hard to do. I have to rely on others for this. I cannot fight. I cannot see past the boundaries of my village.
“Odveig, take your Trackers and find the Goblins. Don’t attack if you think it’s dangerous, but I want to know where they are and how many there are.”
“Yes, your majesty.”
“Prost, I want those palisades built now. Forget about the houses—go around the village and find out how many entrances there are. Don’t go alone though—from now on, no one strays beyond the boundaries of the village unless they’re with an escort. And within it…we need sentries, weapons in case there’s an attack, a place for children and the elderly to hide—”
People around me burst into action as I snap, breaking the silence Beniar’s words have caused. I’m scrambling, searching for the right orders. Are they the right ones? I don’t know, but I am obeyed. And no one else will take charge; that’s my job.
The minutes after Beniar tells me about the ambush are watchful, tense. The rest of the Windfrozen Riders and the Celestial Trackers led by Odveig head out while Wiskeria mixes more of the poultice to neutralize the poisoned arrow.
Beniar has fainted. He screamed as we pulled the arrow out. Now he’s pale, but the poison in him seems to be neutralized by whatever Wiskeria’s made. I saw her pulling roots, dried bugs, and even an egg out of a pouch and pounding it all into the paste she made.
I’m glad she’s here. I pace around the barn until I realize everyone’s staring at me. Then I force myself to wait for an age before Odveig gets back.
“We found the place where Beniar was attacked. There’s no sign of Fabiel or his horse. We followed the tracks for a bit, but we pulled back.”
Odveig hesitates. She draws me aside and I realize I shouldn’t be discussing this where all of the frightened villagers can hear. She whispers to me.
“I felt we were being watched from afar. I couldn’t tell where the Goblins were and if we were ambushed—”
“I understand. I trust your decision. However, we have a problem Odveig. What should we do now, according to your expertise?”
She looks at me. I can sense her head turning, hear the hesitation and fear in her reply.
“I—your majesty, I’ve hunted Goblins before. But I’ve never been hunted by them. Were I alone, I’d track them and risk a battle on their terms or retreat until I could set my own traps. But defending a village means I can’t do either. I could send half of my group out and keep the other half here to defend, but that would create two weak points for them to exploit.”
She’s explaining. That means she doesn’t know. I nod.
“In that case we’ll wait. Pull your team back around the village. I’ll—decide whether to send out scouts later.”
“Yes, your majesty.”
So there it stands. As Wiskeria finishes tending to Beniar, she estimates that he’ll be able to take a healing potion the next day. Prost is mustering the villagers, and they’ve begun working. The Celestial Trackers and Windfrozen Riders are keeping a tight perimeter around the nearby forest and village.
And I’m sitting by myself, trying to figure out what to do.
The enemy is out there but invisible. Their numbers are unknown. Their levels unknown. They could be just a stone’s throw outside the village’s limits and I wouldn’t know. There’s a way to deal with that, actually. I’ve been working on it for a while, but I’ve been told that it will take a few more days. I want to insist, but it’s only a chance. Not worth counting on.
What are my assets? What are my weak spots? My assets are two Silver-rank teams. My weakness is a need to defend my village. The Windfrozen Riders are a group of ten—were a group of ten suited to rapid attacks and retreats. Perfect for scouting—not for taking out armored enemies or hunting hidden foes. If they know where the enemy is I can send them at the Goblins. Assuming they’re not hopelessly outnumbered.
The Celestial Trackers are the opposites of the Windfrozen Riders in many ways. They’re experienced at ambushes, tracking their prey—finding hidden monsters, in short.
I’ve a [Mage] in the Windfrozen Riders who can cut his opponents with air spells. Nothing powerful; it’ll take an eye out and he can cast while riding, but Wiskeria’s the only truly specialized spellcaster in either group. And she can’t throw fireballs. I asked.
“Your majesty? Prost is asking permission to fell a few trees further into the forest. Miss Odveig thinks it’s safe, but he wanted to ask you.”
I look up and sense Gamel hovering about me. I nod.
“That’s fine. Ah, what else is going on? Have you, Durene and the others begun training? Without Beniar, you’ll need to get another adventurer to teach you—and what about the markers Jelov was working on? How many has he finished?”
“Three, sire, with one for varnishing. But he says he’ll have another one tonight…”
And just like that, the day continues. Villagers get to work, taking care not to stray far but doing everything they were doing yesterday. Cutting wood, building—only there’s an undercurrent of fear to everything, now.
Odd, it feels as though everyone should be hiding or getting ready. But you can’t tell when the enemy will come. So the day passes, filled with anxiety and watchfulness, but nothing else. That’s life now. The threat of death is in the air, but we have to continue living.
Damn the Goblins.
I think everyone in the village was awake late at night. Certainly the villagers were a lot quieter the next day. I felt awful and Durene wasn’t her spirited self; but we got through the morning and midway through the day without incident.
Beniar was up and about by that time. The poison had been flushed out of his system and a healing potion had him on his feet in minutes.
“Your majesty, I’m as fit as can be. I’d ride out to hit those Goblins in a flash if we knew where they were! Just give the order and I’ll scout with my group—far faster than the Trackers!”
He’s also itching to find the Goblins and exact payback for Fabiel, his teammate. I have to overrule Beniar, though.
“I can’t let you leave the village unprotected, Beniar. I’m sorry for your friend’s loss, but it’s too risky. If you’re shot at again—”
“I’ll know it’s coming this time, sire. Last time was an ambush. This time I’ll dodge.”
“I have no doubt you would. But my villagers can’t dodge arrows like you.”
Instead of Beniar riding forth, I let him teach the villagers and Durene. There’s definitely a renewed interest in learning to fight now, and thanks to my Skill, the villagers are fighting well. But we don’t have enough swords to go around; Helm is working on forging some, but he lacks enough iron, let alone steel to make many. Without that, people are training with pitchforks, shovels—Gamel has a club he’s hammered nails into. He keeps asking to trade it for a sword with someone.
“A ragtag army, sire. But it’ll do for a small group of Goblins.”
Beniar’s professional opinion is that the villagers are ready for a fight if the adventurers support them. I wonder if they’ll break and run if it comes to that. The villagers might have the ability to fight thanks to my Skill, but the temperament? No.
As the sun is halfway down in the sky, I hear a horn call and leap to my feet, abandoning a lunch with Durene. It’s not a Goblin horn—this one’s from the Celestial Trackers and urgent. I rush outside with the others and see a woman wearing a dark brown cloak sprinting into the village, shouting.
I think we were all waiting for it. The villagers freeze and I turn my head.
She’s already running to the adventurer.
There’s no hesitation in her voice now, as there always is around me. The woman gasps for air—she must have been on the perimeter, scouting the forest.
“Goblin group. Five hundred meters to the southeast—I saw two Hobs and at least thirty smaller Goblins!”
“That’s our cue! Let’s ride!”
Beniar’s already mounted. Odveig turns to me as Wiskeria runs up, clutching her magical wand.
I hesitate only for a moment.
“Do it. If you hear a horn call from here, double back at once.”
The adventurers nod and race out of the village, Beniar leading and shouting, sword already drawn. They’re gone for five agonizing minutes and I hear nothing. Then, to my surprise, they all return at once.
Odveig and Wiskeria are on foot, and practically dragging an incensed Beniar back. He dismounts, shaking with anger.
“Nothing. They’ve covered their tracks. We could follow them, but Wiskeria and Odveig both agreed we’d be walking into an ambush. We let them get away!”
“It was the only smart choice, Beniar.”
Wiskeria defends herself as she argues with the leader of the Windfrozen Riders. Beniar’s voice is hot.
“I’d ride them down if I knew where they were, ambush or not! We could have attacked—”
“And done what? Two Hobgoblins were in that group. If they got the drop on your riders—”
“Better than letting them attack again! I’m telling you, we had the advantage!”
“Against thirty? You idiot, together we’re only twenty in number, and with two Hobs—”
I raise my voice to stop the argument. Everyone looks at me. I’m aware of the villagers listening to the adventurers shouting. This can’t be good for morale.
“You three, come with me. Prost? We’re going to make a plan.”
And so we do. It’s not easy, and no one’s happy by the end of it. All three adventurers reluctantly agree that pursuing the Goblins is a bad idea without making absolutely sure there’s not a trap waiting. If there are only thirty, it’s a close match thanks to the two Hobgoblins. If there’s more we haven’t seen…
Guard duty. The Windfrozen Riders are now to stay in the village while the Trackers keep watch. At the nearest sign of trouble, the Riders will attack any Goblins that are spotted. That’s all we can do. Meanwhile, Prost is working double-time on the palisades. We’ve got the portion of the village around the barn walled off; hopefully that will help if we’re attacked.
If we’re attacked.
What a thought. That night, I stay up while Durene sleeps beside me. I can’t say she’s not as worried as I am, but she’s been hammering sharpened logs of wood into the ground and lifting felled trees all day. She sleeps like a rock, snoring gently beside me.
Frostwing is agitated. I think she can smell the Goblins, or sense the tension in the air. She flaps her wings at night, forgetting she’s supposed to be asleep. I have to get up and soothe her.
“Shh, Frostwing. There’s a good bird. Eat some meat—damn, not my finger! I know. I know. There are monsters out there. But you have to wait, understand? We don’t know where they are.”
She cocks her head at me in the darkness. I think she’s beginning to understand more of what I say. I smile as I stroke her head.
“A shame you can’t find them for me. I did ask, you know—I’m not an idiot. But Odveig says Goblins eat anything they can kill, and I won’t risk one putting an arrow into you.”
Frostwing nips at my fingers as if to agree. I’m laughing when my heart stops. It does stop, I’m sure. For a moment the steady beat in my chest falters. The next, I’m shouting.
“There’s a Goblin in the village!”
Durene wakes up as I shout. She struggles in her bed, flailing around for me.
“Laken? What’s happening? Is something wrong?”
“Durene, get up! There’s a Goblin in the village! It’s gotten past the adventurers!”
“Oh no! Dead gods—where?”
She springs to her feet. Durene sleeps practically naked. I grab her bare arm.
“It’s got a bow and a knife. I think they’re poisoned.”
I can sense the Goblin all the way in the village. It’s moving slowly, very carefully avoiding the attention of anyone awake. And it’s making for—
“Where, Laken? I’ll raise the alarm!”
Durene’s voice is tense. I can sense her fists clenched. I hesitate for a moment out of fear. What if she’s hurt? But she’s Durene. I make up my mind.
“Go! It’s behind Prost’s house!”
She doesn’t wait for another word. I hear thundering footsteps, and then the door to Durene’s cottage is thrown open. The half-Troll girl races down the road, running faster than I’ve ever seen her go. I pause at the doorway, about to run out myself and realize I’ll never catch her.
So I close the door as the icy wind pours into the cottage and Frostwing screams. I find one of Durene’s knives and dress myself as I mentally follow her progress down into the village.
She’s running. The Goblin is doing something behind Prost’s house, checking a window, seeing if it’s unlatched. It freezes as Durene comes running into the village and squeezes down, hiding. Durene races around Prost’s house and it freezes.
It has a dagger in its hand. I can see it all in my mind, like some kind of awful movie without sound. Durene doesn’t see the Goblin—she’s looking right in its direction, but she doesn’t see it.
Then the Goblin leaps. It jumps out of the place where its hiding and slashes at Durene. She recoils—the Goblin runs around her, racing for the forest. I see Durene turn, and then her hand. She grabs the Goblin and it slashes at her arm.
I sense the blade sinking into Durene’s skin; see her mouth open in my head, the wordless howl. But then Durene’s other hand comes up. She breaks the Goblin’s neck like she would a chicken’s, in a moment.
It’s all over. I can sense Prost and his family waking up in alarm, sense villagers and the adventurers racing towards Durene. By this point I’m running towards the village.
That’s the first pronouncement one of the [Scouts] in the Celestial Trackers makes when we’re all in the village. The Goblin’s corpse has been dragged out into the center of the village and everyone is shivering around it, staring down at the small body in the snow.
I’m there too, the only person who’s dressed. Durene is hiding in Prost’s house. She’s naked, and by that I mean she’s got underwear on and—yeah, that’s about it. Modesty came after saving Prost’s life, and so she’s a hero everyone politely thanks—through a closed door.
Wiskeria is kneeling by the Goblin, intent on it. Beniar and Odveig are both patrolling, looking for more Goblins. They’re rattled by one getting through their perimeter and worry another one’s out there.
I know there’s not another Goblin in the village, but I don’t tell anyone how I know. To the villagers, Durene’s simply a hero who uncovered the Goblin by accident. It’s better that way.
“You’re sure it’s dead?”
Yesel asks the [Scout] anxiously as she clings to her husband. Prost has a pitchfork—hardly an elegant weapon, but the tines are sharp and he seems ready to use it. The [Scout] nods as he inspects the body.
“Neck’s broken. Not many Goblins survive that. You say that Miss Durene did it with one hand? Never heard of that before.”
He shakes his head and whistles quietly as the other villagers murmur. I’m not surprised; I know how strong Durene is.
“So what was the green skinned bastard doing here?”
Prost’s voice is rough as he steps forward and looks at the Goblin. I start.
Green skin? I’ve never seen colors, but I know how things are supposed to look. Grass is green. And Goblin skin is the same color? I can’t imagine it, or fit together the feel of grass with—with a Goblin.
“At a guess, it was coming here to slaughter you all in your sleep. The dagger isn’t poisoned, but it’s dressed in black, see? No need for poison when you can cut a throat easier.”
Yesel buries her head in Prost’s shoulder. He clutches one of his daughters to his side.
“We’ve you to thank Durene, truly.”
“I’m glad you’re okay!”
Durene calls from inside. The [Scout] is checking the Goblin for anything else as I kneel down next to him.
“You said the Goblin has green skin? Ah…it’s Jeighya, isn’t it?”
“Yes, your majesty.”
I sense him looking sideways at me, and starting a bit as he realizes that I wouldn’t know what a Goblin looks like. He clears his throat.
“They’ve all green skin, some shade of it, sire. Red eyes, too. The color of monsters. Just as well this one won’t open its eyes again.”
It takes me a minute to remember how our eyes are supposed to look. White and colored in the center, right? Just another thing to distinguish Goblins, but in my head—
“I’ve never seen one. It’s not dangerous in any way now, right Jeighya?”
“No sire, but why—”
I kneel down and gently feel the Goblin with my hand. I pat gingerly at the skin, feel the arms, and then, slowly, the face. It’s a surreal feeling, touching something dead.
So this is a Goblin. I kneel down and touch the body gently. It feels…like any body would, I guess. Only smaller. Colder.
I feel like I’m touching a dead child. I shudder and pull my hand back. But for the sharp ears and pointed teeth, I’d think it was a young Human kid. I can’t see the green skin or the crimson eyes.
Standing, I look at the other villagers. They’re anxiously clustered around. I raise my voice, grateful I’m dressed. The dignity of an [Emperor] and all that. I’m not about to recreate the story of the emperor’s new clothes right now.
“We’re safe for now. Please thank Durene for finding and taking care of the Goblin. In the morning, though. Right now I think everyone should get to sleep; I doubt we’ll see more trouble tonight.”
The villagers are hardly reassured by my words, but they do take some comfort by a dead Goblin. They disperse slowly, murmuring anxiously. I turn to Jeighya.
“Keep a watch. They might try this again.”
Unfortunately, that night I’m made into a liar. There are no Goblins that I sense entering the village, but they are active after Durene makes her way back to her cottage, modesty preserved by a borrowed towel.
Two hours after the Goblin is caught, someone fires a flaming arrow into the side of the barn. The villagers put the fire out before it spreads, but a second arrow hits a house and sets the roof ablaze. The village is filled with fear and no one gets a lot of sleep that night.
Discontent. That’s the mood in the village the next day, after the villagers wake up from a sleepless night and see the smoke and burnt roof.
Many of them haven’t slept since the first fire. Neither have I. I slept through the first arrow until Gamel ran to wake me, and when I sensed the second fire starting I went down to the village and stayed there until morning.
The roof of one of the villager’s houses is toast, but it could be worse. That’s what I tell myself as I cough, smelling the burnt wood in the morning. But it’s still bad.
The Goblins are harassing us with attacks, striking and fleeing since their attempt to send an assassin in failed. The two arrows were fired from the forest. Both times the Celestial Trackers found the Goblins and exchanged shots with them in the dark. The second time they got one of the Goblins in the stomach, but they found only bloodstains and no body when they went to check.
No one’s happy about that. But the villagers are the least happy it seems. Especially the ones from Windrest.
They don’t know me. I’m an [Emperor] to them, a strange, majestic class and a blind man with few impressive qualities to recommend him blended into one being. I must confuse them terribly.
I’ve talked with them of course, and tried to reassure them along with the Riverfarm people, but I know I’m not too convincing at this moment. I don’t have the same bond with them as I do with the Riverfarm people. And it shows.
If I separate the interactions I have, the people fall into three broad groups. The first are like Helm and the older villagers like Jelov. They treat me like Prost and Gamel and the others, grateful for the protection I offer mainly.
The others are more distant. I’m a [Lord] to them, and since the aristocracy of this land can be touchy, they’re wary of me. Still, if they have their complaints they keep their feelings private.
However, the last group is vocal in their grievances. Quietly vocal since saying I’m a bad ruler is an invitation to a fight if someone like Gamel hears it. But nevertheless, the lid is boiling. And things get worse when the Goblins step up their attacks the next morning.
One of the [Hunters] comes back with an arrow in his thigh and cuts along his arm. The Windfrozen Riders gallop off as I hear what happened.
“Arrow. I was at my post when I saw a group of Goblins coming towards me. They showered my position—ran before help came.”
He’s not badly wounded, but the incident speaks to how defenseless we are. And the Windfrozen Riders don’t find the Goblins either. Too slow, and the Goblins know how fast the horses can move. So we get back to work. We have healing potions, but how long until they run out? I can hear the villagers talking, sense their nervous postures, and sense the few who are vocally worried. That worry and fear turns to resentment.
But what can I do? Wiskeria’s still arguing against any attempts to go out and hunt the Goblins down, and I agree. But Beniar points out the obvious each time too—if we don’t do anything, we’ll just keep being attacked. I think Odveig wants me to decide and I—
I can’t risk it. It’s too dangerous. And while the adventurers understand that, the villagers only see them patrolling and not hunting the monsters. That leads to an incident at lunch.
I’m about to go check on the villagers training with Beniar. It’s the one thing I feel like I have control over, the thing that I can do to really prepare for the Goblins. I hear someone’s voice raised as I pass by one of the tables set up in the barn where food is distributed communally.
“Some [Emperor]. Any proper [Lord]’d keep his people safe, but this one just sits about while we suffer in fear. I thought we were supposed to be safe here!”
I’m clearly meant to hear that. I turn my head and sense a group of Windrest folk sitting at a table. The person who speaks…I think it’s a woman sitting in the middle of the party.
Her words don’t pass by unnoticed either. Heads turn. There aren’t many villagers in the barn, but the ones who are from Windrest stare at me and the ones from Riverfarm stand up.
Uh oh. I wave to my villagers and walk over to the woman before her words can start a brawl. She’s sitting there, defiant, surrounded by her friends. I stop before her table.
“Do you have an issue with me, Miss?”
I’m looking right at her. That throws her for a loop already, I can tell. But the woman rallies in a moment. She looks around the room and speaks directly to me.
“I do. You’re an [Emperor]. You promised us folk of Windrest we’d be safe if we joined your village. But those Goblins are attacking and you’ve not done a thing! You hide here while we’re shot at—in a few days we’ll be dead for you doing nothing!”
Her words cause a susurration around the barn. And for all the people of Riverfarm are speaking angrily, watching the woman with ill-intent, I can tell they’re agreeing a bit with what she said. I speak calmly, looking down at her.
“I am doing everything in my power to keep you all safe. I assumed two Silver-rank teams were adequate protection for Goblins. I was wrong, and for that I am sorry. However, you are still safer here than you would be on the road or in another village. It’s too dangerous to risk sending the adventures out to hunt the Goblins—they could walk into a trap or leave the village defenseless, and in both cases, we’d all die for my mistakes. I’m not willing to take that chance. You may disagree, but I am choosing the best options as I see fit.”
My words are the truth. That’s my weapon and how I sway the villagers. I can sense some nodding around the room. How could you argue with that logic? And I do have a plan for the Goblins. I just need more time. A little more time and…besides, how could you argue with that?
With emotion, that’s how. Perhaps she feels like she’s at a disadvantage now, but the woman stands up. I think her name’s Rehanna. I can sense her glare, even if I can’t see it.
“Big words for a man who can’t see! How’re we supposed to trust the word of a blind man? You can’t tell who you’re talking to, can you? We must all be the same to you.”
That makes me mad. Why do some people seem to think that blindness means I can’t tell people apart or sense where I am? People have voices, tones, and ways of speaking. Idiots who try and change their voices to make me think they’re someone else really get on my nerves. But I don’t snap. I cross my arms.
“I am blind. So what? I am an [Emperor], not a [Warrior]. Why shouldn’t I be as capable as any other [Emperor]—let alone a [Lord]—at my job?”
“You know why. Blind people are—they’re not the same!”
Now that—that’s an insult. I hear a woman behind me shout something towards Rehanna. It sounds like a threat. I cut her off with a hand. I’m angry now. My voice is loud in my ears.
“If I was a [Warrior], I suppose being blind might be a problem. If I were a [Painter], I would understand people having their reservations. But I have known blind painters, blind singers; men and women who have done as well as—if not better than any person with sight in their own way. A blind man climbed the world’s highest mountain. I have met him and shaken his hand.”
Silence. I have spoken the truth. But the woman denies it. To my face. She shakes her head and makes a sound like a scoff. Because she doesn’t want to believe what I say is true, she thinks I’m lying.
The nerve. I’m fighting not to open my eyes and use [Intimidating Glare]—or punch her at this point. Either one would be satisfying, but it’s not how I win this argument. People are watching. I’ll beat her with words.
“I don’t think you’re a proper [Emperor], not a real one. I won’t bow to you. What do you say to that? Will you throw me out for disobeying?”
“No, but I might cut off your head.”
Just words. Satisfying, savage words. The woman chokes. I fight down some guilty pleasure as the people around me gasp in horror. I smile slightly.
“I am an [Emperor]. Do you think a true [Emperor] would let a challenge to his rule go unanswered?”
I don’t think she did. I turn around the room, speaking to everyone listening. Calm. Project calm and confidence.
“I am an [Emperor]. If I walked around naked or covered in tree sap, I would still be an [Emperor]. Your belief matters not. I am an [Emperor]. And this is my demesne.”
I don’t think she knows that word either. The woman makes another sound but refuses to back down. She’s cornered by her own actions now. I can sense her approaching. She stops a few feet away from me, glaring.
I don’t speak to her, but to the Riverfarm men and women who approach, looking ready to grab her. They stop, reluctantly, and I stare up into the woman’s face. She’s glaring at me.
Hah. That’s funny. I smile and sense her stare faltering. She doesn’t get the joke.
Fierce, glaring…it doesn’t matter. I don’t bother to use [Intimidating Glare]; there’s no point. I can show these people that I can stand up for myself without a Skill.
She’s pretty tall. I look up and meet Rehanna’s eyes with my closed ones. I feel her hesitate. I almost smile, but keep my composure. Internally though, I have to smile a bit. Yeah, that’s right. Didn’t think about it too hard, did you? What’s the point of trying to scare me?
There’s no way to stare down a blind man.
“You are frightened.”
She starts and opens her mouth. I talk over her.
“You are frightened of the Goblins and afraid. I understand that. Everyone is frightened. However, we must work past our fear.”
Heads are nodding around the room. I look past Rehanna, hearing her splutter for words, and then back at her.
“That doesn’t excuse what you have said, but it tempers my decision. I won’t kick you out of my village because that would be cruel and you would die. And I won’t order you beheaded or beaten, and I’ll make sure no one harasses you. When this is over, you’re free to go. But until then, you will address me with respect.”
She hesitates. Now would be the time when she apologizes. Does she? Not a chance. That would imply she’d thought any of this true. Instead, she thrusts her chin at me.
“I won’t kneel to you. I came here to survive, but I won’t bow and scrape under your rule no matter what you offer.”
I hear someone growl. Actually growl. I just sigh. Why is it that some people will keep digging a hole when they’re already ten feet under?
“I won’t ask you to kneel, but I will have you obey. And if I were you, I wouldn’t say another word.”
I turn. At some point you have to walk away from a stupid argument or end up being just as stupid. And I have more important work to do. I’m halfway out of the barn when I hear the woman’s voice.
That’s it. I pause. The barn is silent, and I can sense the woman behind me. Trembling with bravado and fear. Trembling. I can see in my head her every flaw, her imperfections. Why does she pretend? I can see right through her.
I don’t turn. I open my mouth and say one word.
I hear a gasp and someone falls to her knees. I keep walking and don’t look back.
Do I feel good about that moment? Yes. I gave Rehanna every chance and she kept pushing. I was lenient in this. Far too lenient, perhaps. But everyone saw.
Next time, if she’s stupid enough for a next time, I’ll have to get nasty. I don’t want to imagine what I’ll do, I only know that it will be unpleasant for me—and quite unpleasant for her. I don’t fully care. Sometimes you have to trample over people, I guess. That’s what it means to rule. She’ll obey, or I’ll have to crush her—
Wait, crush her? Where did that thought come from?
Troubled, I make my way over to the training grounds—a patch of cleared dirt where I can hear people shouting and hitting each other or the wooden sticks that have been set up. And then I hear a far more pleasant female voice.
It’s Durene. I hadn’t seen her this morning—as usual she’s been rushing about the village, helping people out. I regret not being able to spend more time with her. And she has a surprise for me.
“I’m a Level 9 [Paladin]! I got a Skill—guess what it is? Guess!”
She must have leveled up from the training and killing the Goblin. I smile at her.
“I’m no good at guessing.”
“Just guess anyways!”
“Okay…[Shield of Radiance]? [Holy Hands]? [Sword of Justice]?”
A pause. Durene sounds downcast.
“No…those sound like great Skills. Mine isn’t that good.”
“Durene…I made those up. Whatever Skill you have is wonderful. But you did ask.”
I sigh, but smile at her. Durene perks back up.
“You did? Okay, then. Well I got…are you sure you don’t want to guess again? No? Okay, I got…[Quick Strike]!”
“Oh! That’s great!”
I try to sound as happy as she is. Honestly, I have no idea if that’s a good Skill. It sounds…cheap? But Durene seems happy about it.
“Let me show you how it works. I was going to try it with Beniar.”
“Yes, Durene told me all about it. [Quick Strike]’s a basic move. It’s more common to get [Power Strike] and move from there, but Durene’s strong enough. I’ve a shield—why don’t you try and touch me? She hasn’t so far Emperor Laken. Today might be her lucky day, though.”
Beniar’s a bit too cocky and full of pent-up energy at the moment. I’ve seen him training with Durene and the others and he doesn’t let anyone touch him with a sword no matter how hard they try. I suppose he’s got the Skills, but it does seem like bullying at times.
Durene’s never come close before. She has that wooden club of course, and her shield, and both are too slow for Beniar who’s adept at dodging and keeping his distance. Now Durene takes a stance and gingerly swings at him.
Beniar laughs as he ducks her club and nimbly springs forward to tap Durene on the stomach with his practice sword. She jumps and swings her shield at him, but he’s already moving back. I sigh internally, frustrated a bit.
It’s not that Durene’s that slow, I think she’s also afraid of hitting Beniar, a fact which he capitalizes on. I’ve seen them do this before, and I don’t want to see Beniar bullying Durene for a few minutes. However, today’s my lucky day.
Durene lashes out with her shield and Beniar sways back. The shield misses him and he grins. He’s taking a step back when Durene shouts.
Her arm blurs. I hear Beniar’s voice and a thud almost at the same time.
To his credit, I think Beniar saw it coming. He tried to block and then dodge when he saw the club coming. But he was too slow.
Thanks to my [Emperor] senses, I saw the entire thing. Beniar stepping back, the sudden acceleration of Durene’s club to wicked fast speeds—and the impact. I enjoyed it more than I should.
In the aftermath, Durene stands horror-struck over Beniar as everyone turns to stare at her.
“I didn’t mean to! I didn’t—is he alive?”
He’s groaning on the ground, which answers her question. I squat next to him and speak gently.
“Good thing Durene was aiming for your chest, huh, Beniar? I don’t want to imagine what your head would have been like.”
“Agh! No, sire.”
A bit of fun, a bit of frustration. Neither occurrence goes unnoticed. Soon, Beniar’s up and treating Durene with a lot more respect, and Prost’s seeking me out.
“I heard what happened, Emperor Laken. I’ve had a word with that Rehanna woman, and let me apologize for her words, sire. Few folk think like her—”
“But they do think like her, Prost. Don’t worry, I’m not offended—or vengeful. But if people feel that way, I’d like to know. Preferably without the rudeness, but I’d still rather know than not.”
“Yes, sire. I’m sure she’d never have said as much, but that woman’s a hothead and a malcontent. And I think she was prompted to it.”
That gets my attention. I stop as Prost and I walk around the village.
“Yes, sire. Rehanna won’t speak to me—stubborn as a mule—but her friends say she’s been talking with someone else, getting an earful of what to say to you, maybe. Apparently she’s been having a drink as she does. Building courage to say such things.”
“Alcohol? I didn’t buy more than a cask—we don’t have any in the village, unless the Windrest people brought it…?”
“No, your Majesty. And Rehanna didn’t have any herself. There’s only one group that brought some drink with them—”
“Yes, sire. If you want I can ask around, see who’s been spreading rumors about you—”
“No, Prost. Thank you. I think…I have an idea of who it might be. I’ll handle it myself.”
Oh boy. That’s not good. I excuse myself and leave Prost behind and go for a walk. I have a bad feeling in my chest. I’ve had it before, but I was worrying about the Goblins. Now…a few things are falling into place.
Pieces. It’s just pieces in my head, but they fit together in a way I don’t like. A few odd events have caught my attention. Someone breaking into my cottage while I was away, the missing Mossbear fur and it attacking the village—and now someone stirring up trouble and prompting people to challenge me.
It could all be coincidence, but I know for a fact that the people of Windrest were all settling in on the day my cottage was broken into. None of them would have known where I lived, much less done anything on that day.
And the Windfrozen riders were all riding patrol—save for Beniar and a few who were training the volunteers from the village. That rules them out.
So that only leaves the Celestial Trackers and the people of Riverfarm as suspects. If you rule out Riverfarm—because if they were going to snoop, why not do it when I wasn’t there?—then that leaves only one group.
And of that group…only one person I can think of would want to get ahold of Mossbear fur. After all, [Witches] can hex opponents and cast all kinds of spells. Why not do voodoo tricks with hair? As for my cottage and stirring up the Windrest villagers, well, if it’s all part of a larger reason…
Suspicions. I can’t rely just on my intuition and throwaway guesses for this. I have to confirm it.
It’s not hard to find Jeighya. He’s not patrolling and the man is maintaining his bow. I sit with him and he reacts—well, cautiously but with a good deal of friendliness. I’m not some aloof [Emperor] and we have bonded over a dead Goblin’s corpse.
“I’ve been wondering about your group, Jeighya. It seems weird to me that a [Witch] is part of your party. I’ve never met one and I was hoping you could explain their class to me. I’d ask Wiskeria, but I wouldn’t want to be rude.”
“Oh? I’d be happy to share what I know, your majesty. [Witches] are a rare class, I’ll say, but they’ve got useful Skills and spells most common [Mages] would turn their nose up at learning. Wiskeria’s been a boon to us, for all she’s new.”
My heart sinks. The man with the bow nods as he fumbles with an arrow.
“She wasn’t in our party last spring. Wiskeria and Odveig—they’re old friends. Older’n they seem, I know. Odveig formed our group a while back—she’s not always leading us, but she’s always around Invrisil.”
“Oh. I thought she’d been part of your group forever. And Odveig’s not your leader?”
He pauses, scratches at his beard.
“Not so much that she’s not our leader as much as that we don’t adventure together all the time like most groups, sire. Begging your pardon. We don’t take on that many contracts each year; a lot of us make our livings from hunting and join up when she says there’s word of a good contract. But Wiskeria now, she joined the group not two months ago. Came out of nowhere, but Odveig knew her and she’s a good thinker. Her spells have gotten us out of a lot of scraps.”
“I see. And she’s got a lot of talents? Did I hear she can manipulate animals?”
“Oh yes! Very helpful that is. I saw her pull a Corusdeer’s fur out one time and summoned an entire herd later. Helped us take down some Snow Golems. ‘Course, it’s harder to make animals do what doesn’t come naturally, but Corusdeer love killing Snow Golems. Natural enemies.”
“You don’t say.”
Wiskeria. I let Jeighya drone on about monsters as the worry in my heard grows. It was just a suspicion. Now…now I think I have a serious problem.
That night I summoned Wiskeria to Durene’s cottage. It wasn’t hard; I mentioned that I wanted to see her, and so she came. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Nothing out of the ordinary with Durene being there either. Frostwing being gone might have raised an eyebrow, but she doesn’t mention it. Durene barring the door though…
“Your majesty? Is something wrong?”
Wiskeria glances towards Durene as I sit at her dining table, across from Wiskeria. I sigh. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be right.
“Nothing much. I just wanted to clear up a few things, Wiskeria.”
The [Witch] glances towards Durene and back at me.
“I’m at your majesty’s service.”
“Are you? Good. So tell me something. Why’s there a clump of Mossbear fur in your pouches?”
She freezes. I stare at her. It wasn’t hard to sense the distinct fur in Wiskeria’s belt pouch. And when I found it, I knew.
Silence. I can sense Durene glaring at Wiskeria. She knows. I told her, and no one else. I didn’t want to alarm anyone in case I was wrong, but…the fur. I’m waiting for an explanation and hoping against hope that I’m mistaken.
Because I think Wiskeria’s trying to sabotage my village. I think she’s my enemy, and I don’t know why. But something Ryoka mentioned to me makes me think she might be in this Lady Magnolia Reinhart’s employ. It’s just a hunch, but Ryoka says Magnolia sent [Assassins] after her. Why not a spy masquerading as an adventurer in Wiskeria’s case?
At last, Wiskeria opens her mouth. She glances at me and Durene, and I’d bet she’s lost all color in her face. I always wondered what that would look like. How would that work? And why does it happen when you’re scared? Blood flow? It makes no sense.
“I—know how it must seem, your majesty. But I swear I took the fur before the Mossbear woke up, while it slept! I was sure I did it stealthily enough not to wake it—you have my oath on that!”
“Oh? And so this Mossbear just woke up around the same time you cut the hair? You didn’t set it on the village with a spell?”
“Me? Set it on the village?”
Wiskeria repeats my words as if she can’t believe what I’m saying. She hesitates. The pieces click together and she bursts out.
“But I—no! I would never intentionally wake it if there was no reason! Emperor Laken, please believe me! My taking the hair was just a precaution! I’ve no notion why the bear woke up. If it was my fault, it was a mistake I truly regret!”
I stare at her. Wiskeria’s trembling. Is it an act? I clear my throat.
“Very well. Say I believe you, Wiskeria. Onto another matter.”
She says it as if she has no idea what might be coming next. I nod gently.
”Someone was in my cottage. It wasn’t one of the villagers. I’d suspect one of the Windfrozen Riders, but they were patrolling a good ways out from the village. However, I recall that the Celestial Trackers were deployed closer to the village. Just in case. Which means you could have snuck in on that day.”
I fold my arms. I can hear Durene’s teeth grinding from here. Wiskeria makes a few incoherent noises. Then—
“I didn’t do it. I cannot prove I wasn’t there, but—I would swear to it under truth spell.”
“Too bad we don’t have one. And I suppose you had nothing to do with a villager from Windrest named Rehanna challenging me publically today?”
“No! How could you assume I’d—”
“Mossbear attack, going through my cottage, inciting my subjects…all actions worthy of a [Spy].”
Disbelief. Shock. A hint of outrage, but mostly confusion and fear. That’s what my ears tell me and my senses confirm Wiskeria’s posture matches these emotions. For a moment I feel uncertain.
She sounds very convincing for a spy. But isn’t that what any trained spy would sound like? My stomach hurts. I can only trust in what I’ve observed, the conclusions I’ve come to.
“Emperor Laken. Your majesty.”
Wiskeria licks her lips, clearly afraid. She glances at Durene again before speaking urgently to me.
“I did not do—any of the things you believe I did. I did take the Mossbear’s fur, but only as a precaution! Its attack was a mistake, and I swear that’s the truth.”
“And the other things? Are they coincidences?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. They seem suspicious—but I can only say I had nothing to do with them.”
She says it faintly, knowing how it must sound. I sigh.
“I don’t believe you, Wiskeria.”
I hold up a hand as she protests.
“…But I can’t prove you’re not telling the truth. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to imprison you. Take away your wand, put you in a house and under guard…and ask some questions. If you can’t answer them, or your friends can’t, well—”
“I can’t accept that. Sire.”
Wiskeria interrupts me, sounding panicked. She half-pushes back her chair.
“I would be in danger for my life if your villagers found out what I was accused of. They—your subjects would kill for you. I don’t want to die or be held captive for weeks.”
Durene growls at Wiskeria. The [Witch] hesitates, and does not. I look at her.
“You have no choice, Wiskeria. I’m not about to risk another incident, or working with someone I can’t trust.”
I can’t. Not now so much is at stake. But Wiskeria is shaking her head.
“No, I can’t—won’t be held here when there are Goblins about! What if they attack?”
She speaks pleadingly to me.
“I’m willing to leave and void my contract, Emperor Laken. After the Goblins are dealt with. Or return with a truth spell testimony proving my innocence. But I can’t let you take my wand.”
“Wiskeria, I have no choice. You have to know how this looks—”
“I do. And I’m sorry for this. [Paralyzing Touch].”
Before I can react, I feel her finger on my chest. I gasp and my body goes rigid. Durene shouts. I sense Wiskeria going for the door.
My body’s frozen, but my mouth can still move.
“Wiskeria, stop! Don’t make this worse!”
She doesn’t reply. She’s ducking around Durene, hand raises, shimmering with magic. I can sense Durene hesitating. What do I do?
No good answer. But I know she can’t get away. I look to Durene standing by the door.
“Durene. Hit her. Gently, so she can’t get away.”
Wiskeria backs up, hands raised as Durene makes a huge fist. She knows how strong Durene is. My half-Troll girlfriend could kill Wiskeria with a punch. Durene looms over Wiskeria, abandoning the door.
“Give up or I’ll hurt you.”
Wiskeria slowly raises her hands and backs towards a wall. She glances at me, and realizes she’s got no excuses. But she still speaks desperately.
“I’m innocent. You’ll see that in the end. Just don’t—I don’t want to die. Not here! I didn’t even want to take this contract on! I was against it!”
Durene pauses for a second. Wiskeria speaks rapidly, eyes flicking left and right, too afraid to move and be hit.
“We normally take on contracts for monster exterminations, scouting, that sort of thing! We get the occasional request from the Reinhart family! I told Odveig there was no need to spend this much time on escort duty, but she insisted!”
“Yes! She insisted! Said we’d get no better deal though we could have been hunting Frost Golems or making gold coins selling pelts! I have no idea why she wanted—”
“Wiskeria? I heard [Emperor] Laken wanted to talk to you, and I heard shouting. What’s going…?”
Someone opens the door. I sense Odveig come in.
“What the—? Odveig?”
Wiskeria gapes at her friend. Durene turns, but keeps her focus on Wiskeria. I’m…
Dumbfounded. Was that coincidence? No, it can’t be. That was movie-level timing right there. Was Odveig outside? Why was she here? I didn’t notice she was outside the cottage!
And suddenly the pieces in my head change. Odveig. Wiskeria’s actions. One of the Celestial Trackers. I shout.
“Durene! She’s the spy! Get her!”
Durene swings around. Odveig curses.
“Damn. He is smart.”
She steps nimbly to one side, unhooking her mace. Wiskeria is gaping, staring at me. Durene raises a hand.
Durene grabs for Odveig. The [Macewoman] steps back and as Durene misses, slides forward like a ghost. She taps Durene behind the knee with her mace and Durene’s leg collapses.
The half-Troll girl goes down onto one leg, sounding stunned. She turns, reaches for Odveig, and Odveig taps her on the head with the mace.
I hear Durene hit the ground. My protector, my mighty [Paladin] knocked out. Just like that.
Wiskeria raises her hand. Odveig steps back as Wiskeria tries to touch her with the [Paralyzing Touch] spell. She hits Wiskeria; I hear a cry.
“Sorry, Wis. I didn’t want to let you take the blame…or let you find out this way. But I have a few secrets.”
The [Witch] crumples to the ground. I’m still locked in place by her spell. I sense Odveig coming around behind me, still holding her mace.
“Well, you are a very intelligent young man, Laken Godart.”
“Thanks. Is this the part where you tell me why you did what you did?”
I’m stalling for time. Odveig shrugs.
“You guessed. I’m a spy. That’s not my class, but…how did you know I broke into the cottage? How did you find out what was in Wiskeria’s bags without looking?”
“I sensed it.”
I feel all the hairs on the back of my neck trying to dance. I wait. Odveig moves closer.
“I have so much I’d like to ask you, but your protector might wake up soon and my cover is gone. So I’ll just say this.”
I feel someone brushing hair around my ears, and then a higher-pitched voice, an elegant tone, so unlike Odveig’s accented words.
“Lady Magnolia sends her regards. She will be very interested to speak with you once I deliver my report. If you survive.”
I feel a chill as Odveig whispers into my ear. I’m afraid to make the wrong move, tense. I can sense her holding her mace at her side.
“Who are you really? Why did Magnolia send you? What does she want?”
“I’m afraid I can’t say much, Laken. But my real name is…Sacra. I regret that we couldn’t speak under more pleasant circumstances.”
She shifts. I wait for the end, or at least, unconsciousness. But Odveig doesn’t lift it and smash my brains out. She turns and strides out of the cottage. I sense her pick up speed as she leaves—she’s running down to the village incredibly quickly. Then she’s on a horse, trotting it out of the village until she’s out of sight, and then racing it—
It takes five minutes before my body starts being able to move again. Wiskeria’s magic wears off slowly, and I feel like I’m moving through molasses. My arms and legs tingle like they’ve been asleep. At last, I stand up, around the same time Wiskeria and Durene wake up.
Both of them get up and immediately start a riot. Wiskeria runs out of the cottage and Durene chases her shouting for Odveig. That leaves me in the cottage, alone. I put my head in my hands.
“Damn. I feel like an idiot.”
I’m an idiot. That’s my conclusion after the chaos, with Prost rousing the village and the Celestial Trackers demanding to know why Odveig’s run and Wiskeria trying to defend herself and avoid Durene hitting her. I sort it out by shouting at everyone and kick myself that night.
I’m an idiot. Have I said it enough times? No. To put it in a delightfully American way, I done goofed. That’s an appropriate way of thinking of how stupid I was.
What was my plan? Confront Wiskeria and hope she’d confess? And then what? Confine her as a prisoner or—kill her? Let her go? Aside from the fact that I was wrong, I didn’t give any thought to what I was going to do.
I panicked. And because of that, Odveig’s gone and I’m left with more questions and one less warrior to defend the village. If I had been smarter, I could have observed Odveig and let her help me—or see how far Magnolia was willing to go to attack me and my village.
Now I’m down another adventurer, and a good one if she can knock out Durene in a single hit. If only I’d…
Too late now. Too late. At least one of my worries has resolved itself. Only, now it’s a bigger worry and I still have to worry about them.