Goblins! Goblins, Goblins, Goblins!
The word was on everyone’s lips. From the Walled Cities to the Antinium Hives, from the tribal Gnoll camps to the Human cities like Invrisil, the news had flown on the warming winds. Goblins were back.
And this time there was a Goblin Lord.
For some, the news was just the conversation of the day. Those who were hundreds or thousands of miles away took comfort in their distance. So long as this Goblin Lord was dealt with swiftly, there would be no problem for them. Now, a Goblin King? That would be disastrous, which is why the leadership or command or someone in charge was doing something about the Goblin Lord.
People closer to the Goblin issue were less sanguine about the entire affair. They demanded, sometimes loudly, that something be done. Because the Goblins were a menace, a threat, a pest that had to be wiped out every few years. Only, unlike plagues of cockroaches, rats, mites or other vermin, Goblins were a lot more dangerous. And they became something truly frightening given half a chance.
No one gave them that chance. Armies were being raised. Humans, Drakes, and a few Gnoll Tribes began making preparations to end the threat before it had fully begun. The Goblin Lord had crushed two Drake armies; so four would be sent this time. Or six. Or eight. The Humans were already fielding huge forces of their own for the Goblin Lord if he marched north.
In no one’s mind was the idea of negotiating with the Goblins, or making peace. Or defeat. Goblins would do damage, but they would die. They would always die, and it was just a matter of the cost. Everyone knew that.
Strangely, so did the Goblins. In all the commotion about their species, few people gave thought to what the Goblins were actually thinking. Oh, there was all sorts of speculation and predictions about what the Goblin Lord might do, but what he as a thinking individual thought? None.
But in three parts of Izril, so late into the night that it was becoming day, three Goblins looked up. They all had a sense. A premonition.
Because, after all, they were all of the same species. Their fates were intertwined.
The first was the Goblin Lord. He looked up as his armies marched past the city of Liscor. Around him, his Goblins cheered and whooped, sending arrows towards the walls until one of his lieutenants ordered them to stop wasting ammunition.
Silent watchers on the walls watched as the Goblins passed, not returning fire. They might have against a lesser host, but none dared provoke the flood of Goblins in black armor. The Goblin Lord’s army was tens of thousands strong and they marched across the plains. Northwards.
The Goblin Lord turned his head, seeing almost perfectly in the darkness. Liscor’s walls rose to his left. He sneered at them, at the Drakes hiding behind stone. But he did not order his army towards the walls. He had orders.
There was a structure on one of the hills closest to the city. An inn, a very odd one with some kind of tower. The Goblins shot flaming arrows at it, grumbling when the arrows failed to set the building aflame. Indeed, some of the arrows bounced off the glass windows, which was rather unusual. But it was too close to the city to loot, and was probably empty, anyways.
So the army marched on, northwards. The Goblin Lord sighed. He could sense them. His people. Goblins. He was coming to claim them, by blood if necessary. And if they refused to kneel? He would have their bodies, at least.
And they knew it.
Garen Redfang stalked the halls of Tremborag’s mountain, sword in hand. A few of the Goblins from his tribe followed, the ones who hadn’t joined Rags. They hung back as Garen walked forwards, his red blade at the ready.
Ahead of him, Goblins got out of the way. Hobs, regular Goblins—when he had first arrived, they had treated him like any ordinary Hob or an inferior outsider. Several fatal duels had established his rank.
Garen was angry. He was always angry. He hated sitting in the mountain, hated that Rags had left and hated Tremborag. He and the Great Chieftain did not get along. But he acknowledged Tremborag’s might. And it was might they needed.
So the leader of the Redfang tribe walked. He could feel the Goblin Lord coming. Tremborag could too, which is probably why he was eating alone, roaring for females and wine. The fat Goblin had to know.
An end was coming. For Goblins. A crossroads. And though the Goblin Lord was meant to unify the tribes, Garen would never kneel to him. Never. So the Hobgoblin walked, restless. Waiting for the scent of blood on the warming winds. Waiting for war.
And the last Goblin to look up and sense something on the wind was Rags. The small Goblin was listening to some of her Goblins having a farting competition and grimaced as Pyrite took the lead in a noisy—and smelly—way. She pulled her blankets over her head and growled to herself.
She couldn’t have said why she was restless. If she had to put words to it, it was probably the very smelly odors drifting on the wind towards her. In the end she sat up and shouted for the other Goblins to stop, or go somewhere else.
They did, grumbling. She was Chieftain, after all. Rags turned over in her blankets and tried to sleep. But she couldn’t. There was something on the wind. She sat up and glared at Pyrite. He shrugged apologetically.
Three Goblins, all of whom were linked. In some way, they were chosen. But what did it mean? What was their purpose? Did they have a purpose? The three sat, feeling restless and waiting. A faerie might have said their destinies drew closer, but there were none to watch and listen. Frost Faeries were leaving this world, and those that still remained did not watch Goblins. Never Goblins. They might cry if they did, and the fae did not like to weep for the past.
The next day dawned slowly. And for the Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe, it was an interesting day. It was always interesting when their small leader woke up. They woke up, yawning, searching for food or worms or bugs to eat, and looked around. Waiting. They didn’t have a purpose, like every other species. Theirs was only survival. Their Chieftain decided what to do.
And her name was Rags.
His name was Pyrite. And he had bad gas. It might have been last night’s jumbled soup containing some slightly rotting Mothbear flesh. Or it could be the tree bark he’d been munching on, or the colony of black beetles and larvae a Goblin had dug up. Pyrite had gotten a handful of them and crunched the beetles down. Or maybe it was the soap?
The Hobgoblin sat by the embers of the fire as the day fought the night. It was that ghostly hour before true day, where the light had begun to illuminate the world. The hours before birds woke up, a ghostly moment where everything seemed asleep.
He farted. The Goblins around him groaned. One threw a rock. It bounced off Pyrite’s back and the Goblin shifted. Yes, it was probably the soap.
It was high quality stuff. The Hobgoblin looked down at the lump in his hands. The Flooded Waters tribe had stolen it from a caravan a day ago. It was bright blue, nearly perfectly clear the entire way through, and smelled of sandalwood and something else. Something…turquoise.
Smells were like colors to Pyrite. Smells were taste, color, feelings—the Goblin sniffed the soap he was holding appreciatively. He nibbled at it. It certainly didn’t taste as good as it smelled.
Pyrite would be the first to admit that he wasn’t that smart. He was just a former Goblin Chieftain of a small tribe that specialized in mining. Sure, they’d done a bit of smelting and attempted some armor crafting of their own to limited effect, but he considered himself a rather weak example of what a Chieftain could be. He wasn’t that smart about a lot of things.
For instance, he thought that soaps were a product of some plants, namely the ground up roots which, when combined with water, created a nice lather for people to use. Of course, that was some kinds of soap; it was also possible to mix leftover fat and oil with some ashes to create another variant of the stuff. That was probably what he tasted here. Pyrite’s palate detected traces of lye, which made sense since this was high-quality lye soap probably intended for the Human marketplace.
Of course, he could be completely mistaken. He wasn’t that smart. The Hobgoblin chewed thoughtfully, feeling the soap dissolve in a pleasant way in his mouth. He didn’t mind the taste. The Hob had eaten far worse things than soap. Huge insects, rocks, dirt, other dead Goblins…soap wasn’t a problem.
He didn’t need to eat the soap, strictly speaking. But if he didn’t, who would use it? Certainly not the other Goblins. Soap was a useless product to them by and large. It smelled good, but Goblins didn’t wash.
Rags did. She’d picked up the basics of hygiene somewhere and forced her Goblins to adopt a variation of it. But that was only to the extent where if a Goblin’s hands had a lot of ick stuck to them they had to swish it around in water or rub it off first. Washing each time with hot water and soap was something only other species did.
Of course, Rags might use one bar or two herself. Pyrite nibbled at a bit more soap as he thought. But she wouldn’t use much, and the other Goblins would probably cut it up, hoard the shiny fragments of soap until they got dirty, and then toss it when they got bored. Or eat it.
The last of the blue bar disappeared into Pyrite’s mouth. He grunted. This time he could definitely feel the pressure building. Yes, the soap was giving him gas. He’d heard that some kinds of soap used toxic plants, which presumably meant you weren’t supposed to eat them. But again, he was used to eating unhealthy things. He was a Goblin, and more than that, a Hobgoblin, one of the giants and leaders of his kind. He could eat almost anything.
And it was a habit for him to always chew something. Pyrite fished around in the wax bundle sitting in front of his crossed legs and came up with a red bar of soap. It was flecked with bits of yellow inside and it was semi-transparent and smelled spicy. He eyed it appreciatively and then took a bite.
He liked to eat. Eating was productive for him. It helped him build fat, and fat was important in case he fought or starved. Pyrite had no knowledge of the biological issues caused by excessive weight gain, and if he had, he wouldn’t have cared particularly much. His argument, if he’d been pressed to make it, would be simple.
Fat was important for Goblins, far more than for Humans or other races. That was because Goblins did not enjoy the security of a set food source by and large. Starvation was a facet of life, not an event to be avoided by most tribes. Additionally, Goblins had to fight for their lives on a regular basis.
Everything in the world wanted to kill them, and lacking armor that was specially crafted for their kind, a Goblin had to rely on their ability to dodge or survive something like an arrow hitting them. As Pyrite was definitely not shaped correctly for any kind of traditional armor, the layers of fat on his body were his only shield. Ergo, gaining weight was for him, a necessary task until it began to impede his movement or health in a dramatic way.
That was what he would have said if anyone asked him. But no one did. Pyrite was known to be a silent character of few words. And he wasn’t that smart.
The Hob had gotten through the red bar of soap and was looking for the pink one he’d spotted earlier when Rags woke up. He paused in the act of calculating how much the soap was worth—by his rough estimates, he’d probably eaten a few hundred gold pieces worth of the stuff, especially if it was going to be used by the nobility. The sun had risen high enough to illuminate the world and Rags was up. He could tell because she was shouting.
Up, up! Goblins stirred, groaning at the young Goblin’s voice. But they got up quickly; a slow Goblin was a dead Goblin, and faster still because they could smell food cooking.
Pyrite carefully bundled up the soap he’d been eating and lurched upright. His legs weren’t asleep though he’d been sitting for hours; he had taken care to adjust his position throughout the night and stretch them now and then. He moved quickly and slipped into the front of the line for one of the soup pots before the other Goblins could get there.
That was the beauty of Rags’ tribe. What elevated it above all others, save perhaps Tremborag’s Goblins. As the Goblins woke up and poked each other, feeling their empty stomachs grumble, there was already food. Because the [Cooks] and [Stirrers], the less advanced Goblin version of [Cook], had woken up an hour before the others and begun making food.
Organization. It was a foreign concept to most tribes. Pyrite’s belly grumbled as he sniffed the air and detected a good deal of flour, butter, and animal fats in today’s soup. Not much meat which was normal, but quite a good bit of the spices they’d stolen yesterday. The Goblins would eat well again.
And best of all, they didn’t have to eat their own dead. It was an unspoken thing among Goblins who rarely spoke anyways, but everyone knew that in times of hunger, meat was often the most plentiful food source around. But they didn’t relish that knowledge because that meant the meat they were eating was their own kind, chopped up, boiled, or sometimes eaten raw.
Of course, the Goblins ate it. But contrary to what other species might have assumed, not a single Goblin liked eating their fallen. It was something they did to survive. So given half a chance, dead Goblin would not be on the menu. Pyrite took a big bowl of soup appreciatively from the Goblin in charge of serving, sniffing it. Yes, there was nothing like non-meaty soup to raise his spirits for the day. Anyways, he liked fish more than red meat. Most Goblins did.
Rags was already sitting by her personal campfire as Pyrite approached. He didn’t bother with a spoon, but gently sipped at the bowl as he walked towards her. She was sitting on a log.
They were in a forest by a lake. It was, in fact, the same forest by the same lake they’d been camped at for quite a while. It was their semi-permanent home at this moment. For good reason.
The lake had fresh water so long as no Goblin had peed into it, and the forest had useful wood for fires, equipment, and so on. There was wildlife nearby, and the branches provided some protection from the snow and cold winds. That wouldn’t be an issue as the world continued to warm, but it had been one of the concerns that made Rags camp here.
And one last thing. The forest by the lake was placed near several smaller cities and towns. It was the perfect place to strike from. Already, the Flooded Waters Goblins had raided several caravans on the road and plundered a few farms.
Nonviolently. That was to say, the Goblins came in, aimed crossbows, chased the Humans away and didn’t kill anyone unless they were attacked first. It was a good system. And it had made their little tribe rich on the spoils, even if what they got was sometimes less useful, like soap.
Rags was sitting on her log. Pyrite sat in the dirt, noting that she’d already gotten halfway through her bowl. One of the perks of being Chieftain was that she didn’t have to line up. That was right and proper. He grunted at her, but said nothing. She eyed him.
She was probably holding a grudge from last night. Pyrite still felt gassy, but held it in as he ate. Rags looked at him, and then around her bustling camp.
“Last night. Anything happened?”
She still pronounced the words with difficulty, but her ability to speak in the common tongue was far better than it had been. She was a quick learner. It had taken Pyrite years to learn how to speak, and that was with a dedicated teacher. He shook his head.
That was all he said throughout breakfast. When he’d finished his bowl of soup, Pyrite put it by the fire to be picked up by one of the Goblins on bowl-picking-up duty and opened the satchel of soaps again. He selected the pink one and Rags edged upwind from him.
Why didn’t the soaps make his farts smell good? It was a mystery. Pyrite sniffed the soap. Some kind of perfume. Too cloying for his tastes. He began to nibble it anyways.
In a few minutes, a Goblin passed by their fire. He picked up the bowl Pyrite had put on the ground and the one Rags tossed at him. He wandered off with the stack of bowls, bringing them towards a Goblin who was filling up more bowls with soup for Goblins in line.
Pyrite watched the Goblin go off. He must have had the duty to pick up empty bowls for the day. And the Goblin pouring soup had that duty as well. No matter how many times he saw it, the Hobgoblin was always impressed. Because the fact that those two Goblins had woken up and remembered what they were supposed to do was a sign that Rags was a great Chieftain.
She had brought organization and systems to this tribe. She and she alone had done that. No other tribe save for Tremborag’s had implemented daily work rosters, much less a rotating duty schedule. And Tremborag’s tribe had only developed such systems through the efforts of many, many Hobgoblins and out of sheer necessity. But Rags had come up with it all on her own. With her head.
She was a genius. The other Goblins knew it. It wasn’t that they used that word lightly; most of them didn’t know what that word meant at all. But it was clear that Rags thought where other Goblins didn’t. She’d taught them how to make crossbows, created a unit of Goblins who used the deadly twenty-foot-long pikes made out of wood and scrap metal, and found a way to scavenge and steal enough food each day so that they didn’t have to eat their own.
And she was so young. Pyrite glanced at Rags. Yes, young. He wasn’t sure how young and she had never said, if she even knew, but she was clearly outstanding. She was like he was, in fact. Extraordinary. Pyrite only wondered why she hadn’t become a Hob yet.
The system was simple among Goblins and universally understood. If you were special, you’d turn into a Hob. That meant getting bigger in some way, stronger, and generally, smarter. Hobs were natural leaders, material for Chieftains, and savage fighters. They could stand toe-to-toe with the average Silver-ranked adventurer and were smart enough to use tactics in battle or implement their Chieftain’s orders with finesse.
Rags wasn’t a Hob. She should be. But she wasn’t. It was one of the puzzles Pyrite was working on in his head. He had a few. He thought about many things, but didn’t have solid answers for a lot of them because he wasn’t as smart as Rags. He wondered why Rags wasn’t a Hob, first off.
He wondered how magic worked and if he could teach himself some. He hadn’t found a spellbook yet, but he had hopes of convincing Noears to teach him when the Goblin had time.
He thought about the last Goblin King, and why he had died. Pyrite wondered why the Goblin King, Velan, had been known as Velan the Kind. He wondered what that Goblin King had known, what he had thought.
Pyrite sometimes questioned what the stars were. They hung in the sky at night. But why only at night? And why were some different colors? What did they mean? Also, why did their positions change with the seasons? He’d tried mapping them over the years, but he’d given up. Not enough parchment to be scavenged.
He wanted to know what Rhir was like. Goblins knew of it as a place where death was kinder than living. But what was it like? And what was Chandrar like, or Baleros, or Terandria? Most Goblins had never heard of those continents, but Pyrite had.
And how had Tremborag turned into the giant form he used to slaughter those Gold-rank adventurers in battle? Pyrite had seen him do that once before, when he was young and still living in the mountain. Before he’d run away. How had he done that? Could other Hobs do the same?
Exactly what was the thing Garen Redfang had shown Tremborag in secret, the thing that had convinced the Great Chieftain to ally with him and Rags’ tribe? Pyrite had seen them talking with it. It had looked like a key, and both knew what it was. What did it unlock?
Pyrite farted. He blinked, and felt a bit of dirt hit him in the side of the head. He looked up and saw Rags poised to throw. She showered him in dirt and Pyrite closed his eyes. She edged around the fire and he sighed.
These were just idle thoughts. He had many of them. Pyrite sometimes wondered if he thought too much. Probably. But it was good to think, and for Rags’ tribe to have systems that made sense.
Already her Goblins had learned to fight in a different way, in formation with the aforementioned pikes. They had adopted crossbows for use alongside their slings, and had begun to train in their off time thanks to the Redfang Goblins. They had begun to learn different things.
They were growing smarter. It might not apply to every Goblin, but as a whole, the intelligence of the tribe had risen notably from the average tribe. Pyrite knew that; his tribe had been competent enough, being able to mine and sort out minerals from rocks when he’d shown them, but he’d still had to direct his Goblins and manage them constantly. These Goblins had begun to think about what they should do in a given situation.
And they were the same Goblins. But smarter. Yes, smarter. Pyrite had seen a Goblin who’d been in his tribe figure out how to start a fire. And Pyrite had been shocked, because when he’d been in his tribe, the said Goblin had injured himself twice by sticking his hand into a fire and screaming when it burned.
But that was to be expected. You see, Goblins stole everything. And what they couldn’t steal, they copied. And what all the Goblins in Rags’ tribe were stealing from her was intelligence.
Pyrite paused. Stealing might not be the best word, but it was appropriate. Perhaps…the huge Hobgoblin’s forehead wrinkled with concentration. Goblins had no word for it, but the word ‘borrowing’ sprang to mind. It was an unfamiliar concept. Teaching? Perhaps teaching was it.
By and large, Goblins were only as good as their Chieftain. They learned from example, and so a tribe became molded after their Chieftain. Their best qualities were passed down, which was how Garen Redfang’s tribe had become so mighty, and how Rags’ tribe was learning to think.
It was a beautiful, wonderful thing. And it made Pyrite think on some nights that he’d made the right choice. To stick by Rags instead of abandon her in the mountain. Because she could lead the tribes. She could become the Chieftain they needed. She might become a Lord. She was special.
The sun was rising. The Goblins chattered or ate silently. Rags got a second bowl of soup. And in Pyrite’s mind, a few words joined together in his head.
The wretched few gather;
Under her command.
Her back they follow after;
She alone knows the plan:
To live and strive and struggle;
And claim a Goblin’s land.
So we fight and travel;
Until our final stand.
Pyrite’s nose wrinkled. Where had that come from? That was…odd. He’d heard similar words before, sung out loud by Humans shortly before his tribe had leapt out and slaughtered them. But why had he thought them?
They fit together, in a way he liked. Still, it wasn’t that good. The entire thing was too simple, like he was.
Still, there was promise in them. ‘Claim a Goblin’s land’ had a nice ring to it. With a bit of work, and more fancy words, it might be worth saying aloud. Pyrite considered writing it down for a second and then thought better of the idea. There was no point.
Besides, he couldn’t write.
Time passed. Pyrite finished another bar of soap and gave up on eating the rest because Rags kept throwing things at him every time he farted. He wrapped the soap up in wax paper and fished around in a little bag he kept at his hip. He pulled out something else to eat.
It was a rock. Rags stared at Pyrite as he put one of the smooth stones he’d taken from the lake’s bed into his mouth. It was hard, dirty from the pack, and had a bit of moss on it. He began to crunch it into pieces.
Smooth rocks were fun to eat. There was something satisfying about savoring their texture and then crunching them up into dust. Of course, they weren’t good to eat too much of, so Pyrite switched from the stones to thick slabs of bark taken from the trees when he got bored.
In time, other Goblins approached the fire. They were all important, and Rags and Pyrite greeted them with grunts, shoving over to make room around the fire. In time, all the Goblins that needed to be present were, and they looked at Rags expectantly.
They were Noears the Goblin [Mage], Poisonbite, a skirmisher and raid leader who liked to poison her daggers, Redscar, the former Chieftain of the Rockfall Tribe, and…Greybeard.
Pyrite eyed them all as they sat around the fire, saying little but speaking volumes with their actions. Goblin politics were complex, and each one represented a powerful voice in her tribe. Each one was important.
Noears and Poisonbite were obvious. They were normal Goblins, not Hobs, but they represented Tremborag’s faction that had broken away to join Rags. Noears was a [Mage], a rarity among Goblins and he could throw lightning. That made him special. As for Poisonbite, she was a good leader and fighter, and that mattered because other Hobs had let her represent them.
Between them, they represented a solid portion of Rags’ tribe, but it was the scarred warrior who sat on his haunches next to them who was perhaps the most influential figure besides Pyrite and Rags. Redscar represented the whole of the former Redfang tribe, the elite warriors that had united under Garen Redfang and then left to follow Rags. He was a fierce warrior and the one Rags listened to often in combat.
Next to him, the Rockfall Tribe Chieftain sat with a second bowl of soup in her hands. She was the Goblin who represented all the other tribes. She wasn’t exceptional in any way, but she was a good shot with the longbow she carried and she had a place here because the other former tribes wanted one of their own to be heard by Rags.
And the last was Greybeard. Pyrite included him in the group of counselors to Rags because the old Hobgoblin wandered over often. He liked to chatter during such sessions, but Rags put up with him despite that. That was smart.
Pyrite nodded to Greybeard and offered him some bark. The old Goblin laughed and sat next to Pyrite, warming his feet by the fire. He had a white beard and he was older than any other Goblin that Pyrite had ever met. By far.
Across the fire, Redscar was eying Greybeard. Pyrite could tell the other Goblin was wondering why Greybeard was here, but he said nothing since Rags did not. Pyrite knew Greybeard should be here. He was important. Very important.
He’d solved part of the mystery of Greybeard long ago. The rest Pyrite had been content to wait and find out later. He wondered if Rags would notice Greybeard for what he was first, or if he would tell her.
So. The other Goblins sat around the fire and waited for Rags to speak. Each one was a powerful lieutenant who could speak to her without fear. They all had their own opinions and desires, and so they came each morning to talk and sometimes argue and persuade Rags to listen to them.
They were not like the Hob factions under Tremborag. Not. But they were still representatives of different ideologies within Rags’ tribe. It had to be that way, but the key was that they did not squabble for power. They had a Chieftain, that was that. There was no…ranking between them.
Today’s strategy meeting was about what to do today. Pyrite listened.
“Should raid more caravans. More food. More steel. Good steel.”
Poisonbite sat forwards at the fire, looking eager. Of course, she had been used to raiding for supplies since that was her old job in Tremborag’s mountain. She liked the way Rags did things. Outnumber the caravans, scare them away, and best of all, you didn’t have to risk getting hurt. You just scared the Humans and let them run.
“Should find better place. Too much same spot is bad. Go south.”
A dissenting opinion came from Redscar. He crossed his arms, looking annoyed. His posture spoke as much as his words. His opinion was clear. He wanted to find a more defensible location. Actually, he wanted to go back to his home in the High Passes. The Redfang tribe clearly wanted an actual fight, not raiding, and they were growing antsy with inaction.
“South? Towards Goblin Lord? Yes. Lots of fighting there. Bad fighting! Or want to hide?”
A cackling laugh came from Greybeard as he gobbled down another bowl of soup. Everyone stared at him, and Rags turned to Noears.
“Not Goblin Lord. You. You said there is another tribe. Where?”
She had a map. Noears squatted by it, scratching at the holes in his head where his ears had been. He pointed.
“There, Chieftain. The Undercrawler tribe. They dig.”
Pyrite sat up, intrigued. His love of mining had set his tribe apart from the rest. He liked shiny rocks, even if eating them didn’t agree with him. Noears shook his head.
“Just dig. Eats lots of bugs.”
Rags studied the map. Pyrite saw that they were a half a day’s march from the Undercrawler Tribe’s location. Half a day with Rags’ [Fleet Foot] skill, that was. She nodded.
“Good. Could use diggers.”
All the Goblins stared at her. Poisonbite scratched her head.
Rags scowled as if it was obvious.
“Good for digging! Dig holes for traps. Dig places to pee. Dig hole to toss stupid Goblins into!”
Pyriate nodded. He’d come up with the same conclusion himself. Rags pointed at the map, and then looked around the fire. She chewed her lip before giving orders.
“Find Undercrawler Tribe. Steal more food. Find better place. Go now.”
Redscar smiled, satisfied, and the other Goblins nodded. Poisonbite didn’t look too upset. Rags had outlined their strategy, which translated into Pyrite’s mind, meant first of all marching towards the Undercrawler tribe, no doubt to recruit them if possible. Rags had assimilated a few local tribes and she was clearly trying to increase her tribe.
Additionally, she’d also specified the need to raid for more food as a concern, which meant she was still focused on building up their supplies. That meant they’d hit a caravan on the road if they found one, although she clearly didn’t think that was likely. Pyrite didn’t either; word had spread about the marauding Goblins and only an idiot would take to the roads where they were nearby. Then again, idiots were plentiful.
Lastly, they were heading south and scouting for a second place to build their camp if they decided to head south. A good place to sleep and strike from. All things considered, she’d appeased everyone’s wishes and set some good, open-ended objectives for her tribe to pursue in lieu of better ones. Of course, she hadn’t said all that out loud but they’d all gotten that from her posture.
That was their mission for the day. The other Goblins nodded, and Pyrite began to execute Rags’ orders. He was her second-in-command and thus expedited the process. He walked over to a Goblin loitering around, licking her empty bowl of soup and poked her.
She looked at him. Pyrite grunted.
“Go that way. All.”
He pointed southeast, in the vague direction Rags had specified. The female Goblin nodded. She wandered off with her bowl, and poked another Goblin. She repeated more or less what Pyrite had said, then she and the Goblin she’d poked went off to find more Goblins to poke.
That was how the Goblins worked. True, they could have used a horn call or some other system, but Goblins were a social bunch. As soon as they realized something was happening, the other Goblins began to move with the rest, even if they didn’t know exactly what it was they were doing.
Within twenty minutes, all the thousands of Goblins in Rags’ tribe had packed what needed to be packed, lined up by the groups Rags had painstakingly assigned them to, and were marching away from their camp. It would have brought tears to the eyes of some military commanders, but it was normal for the Goblins. They didn’t waste time since they didn’t usually have time to waste.
The march out of the forest was swift. It was a small forest, for all the trees were very tall and wide. The Goblins began to cross into the relative open, sticking to hills, other stretches of rougher terrain, but not trying for too much stealth. Their advantage was the speed of their march and the fact that they were too big for most threats.
They crossed a road and scared a City Runner out of his mind. He ran away screaming and some of the Goblins raised their crossbows, laughing. They were shouted at by the Hobs in charge of their group and Rags. No killing Humans. Or Drakes. Or other species, if they could help it, really.
She had a soft spot for Humans, though. Her tribe had killed very few of them in the time that Pyrite had been with them, and she’d been only too willing to liberate the ones kept captive in Tremborag’s mountain. She’d met a Human, once, it was rumored. A strange Human who lived around Liscor and fed the Goblins and Rags often.
Pyrite would have loved to meet her. He’d never met a Human who hadn’t tried to kill him. His first memory of a Human was being stabbed by a farmer with a pitchfork on a raid. That day, the [Farmer] and his helpers had been too high-level and too many. They’d slaughtered the Goblins who’d come to steal eggs and chickens. Pyrite had crawled away in the mud and nearly bled to death.
Memories. The Hob walked along, munching on bark. It didn’t bother him to remember. Not more than it did to know that the Goblins had come back the next night and slaughtered the entire farm. That was how it was. Death was a Goblin’s life. There was nothing they could expect beyond that.
But they should. Pyrite’s hand clenched and crushed the bit of bark. He stared at the fragments in his hand, and gave up eating for the moment. Instead, he increased his walking pace and moved past other Goblins towards a pair of Goblins riding Carn Wolves and arguing hotly. Rags was shouting at Redscar as Pyrite approached.
“Will not fight. Pointless. Waste of Goblin lives!”
The warrior bared his teeth at Rags.
“Must fight. Not strong if not fight. Death means stronger Goblins who survive.”
“This means Goblins don’t die and win.”
Rags pulled out her black crossbow meaningfully. It was huge, and Redscar nodded grudgingly. But he pointed to the weapon.
“One. Many Goblins. Is not enough.”
The other Goblins had copied the design, but there was no making something of the same quality as the Dwarf-made bow that Rags had found. She scowled, but couldn’t come up with a good response.
His turn. Pyrite grunted and both smaller Goblins looked at him.
The Redfang leader grinned up at him.
The name of the monster was unfamiliar to Pyrite. Redfang nodded.
“Big herd in High Passes. Will fight. Eats Carn Wolves. Good fight. Makes tribe strong.”
Eater Goats? And they ate Carn Wolves? Pyrite was familiar with the huge red wolves that the Redfang Tribe rode. And he wanted to train the new Goblins by making them fight those goats? He really was crazy.
Rags muttered the words, but Pyrite could see she was mulling the idea over. Her tribe was filled with Goblins, but only a few were elite warriors. Tremborag’s Goblins had quite a lot of battle-ready Hobs among them, and the Goblin Lord’s army had well-equipped Goblins of their own. Apart from her Redfang elites, Rags lacked the same kind of fighting force. Pyrite was about to ask Redscar exactly how many Goblins survived an encounter with Eater Goats when they heard a Goblin cry from the front.
Instantly, all three Goblins raced to the front of the line, argument forgotten. They saw a Goblin pointing and turned left, saw a tree.
And then saw what hung from it. They found the Undercrawler tribe too late. Humans had gotten there first.
A single tree had grown from the rocky hillside where the Undercrawler tribe had burrowed into caves and around rock. It was old, and bore no fruit. But something hung from it now. Awful rotten fruits, swaying in the breeze.
Bodies hung from the tree. Dark shapes, half-eaten by birds some of them. Most untouched in the cold. The rest were piled around the tree, or lay where they had fallen.
Pyrite’s foot crunched in the snow. He stepped towards the tree, looking up. Hung bodies. And the rest—he saw Goblins fallen, most of them—
Most unarmed. Pyrite looked around as the rest of Rags’ tribe halted and more Goblins entered the site of the massacre. They stared around. They could see what had happened.
Goblins fought. Goblins fell. But see how they fell? Most had wounds on their backs. Few had weapons. They hadn’t been fighting. This was a slaughter. And most had died in the first attack. The rest—
Had been hung. Pyrite stared up at the ancient tree, branches carrying the swaying bodies. Hung. What was the purpose? He couldn’t understand it. Humans killed Goblins. But hang them?
“A warning. In case other Goblins come.”
Redscar stared up at the tree, jaw clenched, hand on his sword. Rags had dismounted. She pushed her Carn Wolf’s head away from the body it was sniffing and looked around.
Death. It wasn’t the first time Pyrite had seen it. But the destroyed tribe hurt his heart. He’d seen it too many times. He tried to push the feeling down, until he saw the message carved into the tree.
“What is this?”
Rags stared at the words. Pyrite stared too, but he couldn’t read. She could though, a little. And so could Noears. She called him over and the Goblin approached. The [Mage]’s face was silent as he stared at the words.
Rags and the others stared at him. Noears spoke slowly.
“What happens to Goblins. What happens to filth.”
For a while, Rags stared at the words carved into the bark. Then she put a hand to the tree’s trunk. Her hand glowed, and the bark began to smolder and ignite under her palm. Her face was—Pyrite turned away. He stared up at the body and then saw something.
A hand. Twitching. Was it just the wind? No. Pyrite watched and saw the hand moving again. One of the bodies overhead was still moving. One was still alive. Pyrite’s eyes went wide. He grabbed the steel axe at his side and raised it. Too short. The Goblin that was still moving was very small and hung higher than he could reach.
Pyrite turned and barked. A Goblin looked up at him. Pyrite pointed.
The other Goblins saw the twitching Goblin. They crowded around the tree and several Goblins were thrown up. They clung to the bark and began to climb towards the branch the Goblin was hanging from.
Pyrite stood below the Goblin and stared up. The one that was alive was no more than a child.
He was still alive. The Goblins were too small, too light to hang properly. The rope had failed to break his neck, and so the child had suffocated here. Pyrite caught him as a Goblin cut the rope and cradled him in his arms. The Goblin gasped and choked.
Rags appeared with a potion. She threw it and Pyrite caught the small vial. He stared at her for a moment. Any other Chieftain wouldn’t waste a potion on a single Goblin. He wasn’t sure he would. She glared at him.
No time to question. Pyrite carefully uncorked the vial and poured it sparingly onto the child’s throat. The small Goblin began to shudder.
The healing potion began to reduce the swelling around his neck, cure the puffy skin around his face. But he was so cold and small. Pyrite held him. The Goblin child was gasping, but his eyes were closing.
“Don’t sleep. Open eyes.”
Pyrite spoke to him. The Goblin gasped, and Pyrite slapped his face gently. He couldn’t sleep. If he did, he would die. Healing potions only cured so much. If the body was out of energy, they died.
The child’s eyes began to close. Pyrite roared at him.
An eye opened. Two crimson eyes looked into Pyrite’s. He cradled the child and saw Rags approaching. Pyrite lowered the child and Rags stood over him.
Somehow, the Goblin recognized Rags as a Chieftain. He gurgled, choked. Rags knelt by him.
She spoke in the Goblin tongue. The child gurgled, coughed. His eyes were flickering. Rags knelt and Pyrite poured more healing potion on his neck. Rags bent her head by the child’s.
“Who? Tell me. Who?”
A whisper. The Goblin reached out and Rags grabbed his hand. She bent over him as Pyrite felt the child growing colder. He shouted for a blanket, a fire.
The hand went limp in Rags’ hand. The child’s lips stopped moving. He closed his eyes. Pyrite grabbed his shoulder and shook him. Roughly. The Goblin’s head bounced, but he didn’t open his eyes.
He couldn’t sleep. If he did, the healing would—Pyrite felt someone grab his arm. He realized the child was cold. Very cold. He looked over his shoulder and saw the Rockfall Chieftain was holding him. She shook her head.
Slowly, Pyrite let go of the small Goblin. He put him on the ground and stood up. The empty potion bottle dropped from his hand. Then Pyrite slowly bent and picked it up. Not good to waste—waste—
He looked around. The other bodies hung from the tree. They lay on the ground, silent, unmoving. Rags stood in the snow, looking around. Her Goblins were looking at her.
Her eyes were bleak when they fixed on Pyrite. She looked past him and at the Rockfall Chieftain instead. She nodded to the Hob.
“Burn tree. Leave rest.”
She turned away. Pyrite stood in the snow until the tree went up in flames. The bodies burned and fell, and he placed the Goblin child on the pyre and left.
For the council of war.
There was a Human town nearby. A large one, with guards and walls. It had probably been the one to send the adventurers after the Undercrawler tribe, but it wasn’t certain. The Goblins were split.
Half wanted to destroy the town. The other half…didn’t see the point. Tremborag’s former Goblins were among the latter, surprisingly. They were all for slaughter, but they’d agreed with Rags’ non-violence policy when it came to Humans. Don’t hurt them, and they weren’t such a large threat.
Redscar and the Rockfall Chieftain were for vengeance. So was Pyrite. But he sat in silence, waiting, watching Rags. She kept staring at her hand, the hand she’d held the child’s with.
She did not kill Humans. She liked them. At last, the Goblins stopped quarrelling and fell silent. Looking at her. There was no proof. Anyone could have sent the adventurers. They could have come from anywhere. But it was the town, Pyrite was sure. They had asked, and a group had come to slaughter the tribe.
But there was no proof. And everyone was watching Rags, now. Did she side with the Humans? The Undercrawler tribe had surely raided the town or nearby villages and farms for food when they were hungry. Maybe they’d killed some Humans who’d been alone. Maybe. Probably.
That was life. But in the end Rags had looked up and spoken.
An hour later, the Goblins were within sight of the town. They marched on it. Quietly.
At first, the few guards on the walls didn’t seem to realize what they were seeing. But as Goblins appeared in the distance, marching towards the ten foot high walls, they raised the alarms. Pyrite saw people appearing on the walls in the distance, raising bows. There were a lot of soldiers at the gates.
He didn’t care. Rags raised her arm, and crossbows snapped up. Goblins began to throw rocks from slings and loose bolts into the air. The defenders returned fire, but they had only a few bows, and Hobs with their own weapons picked them off one at a time.
The gates opened, and an armored group of riders rode out. They began to race around the Goblins, only to find a wall of terribly long pikes swinging in to face them. The Goblin pikes charged, and the riders had to retreat. Two were too slow and their mounts were impaled by the charging Goblins. The rest fled back into the gates.
Pyrite marched behind the Goblins with pikes, hearing the thunk of crossbows firing, hearing a scream as a Goblin was hit by an arrow. A [Mage] blasted Goblins from the battlements for a moment before Noears hit him with lightning and arrows struck the mage from twenty bows.
The gates were thick and heavy, meant to withstand a monster attack. Pyrite and eight Hobs grabbed a battering ram that Rags had ordered built and slammed it into the gates. It took three hits before the wood began to splinter. The Goblins behind them pushed, and the wood broke.
The Goblins streamed into the city with a howl, meeting the defenders in a scrum at the gates. The Humans were numerous. They screamed in fury, defending their homes. The Goblins howled and rushed them.
Pyrite was first into the fray. He charged into a man with a sword and felt the sword bite into his stomach. But the Human hadn’t expected Pyrite to run into the blade. The Hob grabbed the screaming man and struck him once with the axe.
He was wearing a helmet, but the Human died anyways under the crushing blow. Pyrite picked him up and heaved the man back towards his friends. The armored corpse knocked over several Humans and the smaller Goblins swarmed them.
Blood and sweat and heat. The cold and the burning cut in his stomach were distant sensations to Pyrite. He strode forwards, and saw a man with a heavy mace bashing down a Hob. He was an adventurer; his mace shone and he had a shield that was deflecting every weapon that came at him. Pyrite charged towards him and the adventurer turned.
Silver-rank, probably. He was confident, trusting in his shield to protect him. The adventurer turned from the Hob and shouted.
“Come on, you damn Goblins! Fight me!”
He raised his shield and Pyrite’s axe crashed into it. The shield didn’t break, and the adventurer barely staggered. He lashed out with his mace. It had a spiked head and tore away part of Pyrite’s stomach. The Hob grunted, stepped back.
“Come on, come on! What are you waiting for?”
The Human snarled as he lashed out at Pyrite. The Hob had no shield and blocked with his axe. He was hit in his arm, and again in his chest. Both times the mace came away bloody, but Pyrite said not a word.
He fought silent. Where the other Hobs and Goblins around him shrieked in fear and battle fury and howled as their friends and family bled and died, Pyrite hacked and cut and sometimes dodged in a void of sound.
It bothered the Human. Pyrite’s expression never changed. He just stared at his opponent as the Human cursed at him. He swung his mace and Pyrite knocked it back with his own axe. He swung, and again the magical shield came up, taking his blow.
Stalemate. The Human’s friends were dying, but he was helping hold the line. He raised his mace and Pyrite paused. He looked past the Human and spoke in a level, normal voice.
He pointed. The Human’s head instinctively turned. Too late, it snapped back. This time his shield was too low. Pyrite buried the axe in the Human’s shoulder, grabbed the screaming Human’s mace, and buried it in his head. He stepped back, breathing hard as the line of warriors broke without the adventurer to hold it.
He wrenched his axe free and walked past the Human. It was surprising how many times that worked. But no one expected a Hobgoblin to say anything in their language and so sometimes they looked, or just hesitated for a moment. A moment was all Pyrite needed.
The rest of the Humans began to crumble once the Goblins got past the gates. Rags’ tribe outnumbered the Humans far too greatly, and her tactics were superior to theirs. She charged her pikes into the Humans while her crossbows hammered them. Pyrite didn’t fight another Human; the combination of the pikes and Redfang warriors waiting behind them was an impenetrable wall that the Humans defenders couldn’t break through.
They found the majority of the townsfolk clustered in the square. They’d tried to flee through the opposite gates, but a second force of Goblins from the rear had blocked their escape. Poisonbite and her warriors had cut down several of the Humans, but they stopped when Rags strode towards them.
The Humans stared at the small Chieftain with horror and fear. She looked at them. One of the Humans spat—the others dragged him back, afraid of her. But they hated her, and the other Goblins. Pyrite saw it in their eyes. Rags stared at them and then turned to him.
“Bring me rope.”
The Humans stirred. Some cried out in horror. Others began to beg. Pyrite stared at Rags and then got her the rope. He didn’t know what she was going to do.
She hung the bodies from the houses. Not live ones, but the dead Humans. When Pyrite heard her orders he felt relieved. Relieved because she wasn’t retaliating in kind? The Humans would have hung them all. He thought about that as he oversaw the Goblins clambering on the rooftops.
They hung the dead adventurer and guards from the rooftops, a grim mockery of what had come before. Then Rags pointed, and Goblins streamed into buildings, forcing out screaming Humans, coming out with grain, barrels of goods, sacks and objects like hammers, shears, buckets, pans.
They looted the town for an hour and left. They took everything they could grab and carry. Food, supplies—
The Humans tried to resist once. A man tried to stop them from taking some jewelry, saying that it was his wife’s. Pyrite thought of the dead child and broke his jaw and arm.
The Flooded Waters tribe left the town in ruins. Both gates were broken, their defenders slaughtered. But they left the people alive. Poisonbite had argued against it, and so had Redscar. They didn’t want to leave witnesses.
Rags didn’t care. Pyrite had seen her looking at the Humans, looking at children, and, for some reason, a young woman with brown hair. She’d forbidden the Goblins from touching them.
So they’d left. There was no celebration as the Goblins marched back towards their camp, laden with their spoils. Not this time.
It was a silent camp that ate and sat around the lake. Pyrite washed his wounds in the water, watching the dried blood float into the lake. It hurt, but he didn’t want a healing potion. That was a waste.
The mood was too quiet around camp. Goblins sat around, poking with sticks at the ground, not doing much of anything. They should have been celebrating. They’d won a battle. But what they’d seen bothered them.
It bothered Rags. And Pyrite. And because their Chieftain was silent, the Goblins learned from her. Pyrite stared at a young Goblin, practically no more than a child, staring moodily at the lake. He felt that shouldn’t be so. They had to smile. If they didn’t smile, what was the point of being alive?
After some thought, Pyrite approached the small Goblin. He poked him. The Goblin looked up. Pyrite nodded to the lake.
The Goblin stared at him, and then nodded cautiously. Pyrite smiled.
Then he seized the Goblin, lifted him up, and threw him across the water. The small Goblin flew across the lake, screaming until he splashed into the water.
Every Goblin head in the vicinity had turned the instant Pyrite had seen the Goblin. They stared at him, afraid he was angry. They watched the Goblin splash down, spluttering, and then swim towards the edge. Pyrite smiled again.
He looked at some of the small Goblins, the children. They edged away from him. Then a brave young female Goblin stepped forwards. She shrieked as he lifted her, and then tossed her into the air.
She flew far. Pyrite was a Hob and she was very light. The other Goblins watched with open-mouths as the Goblin child cannonballed into the water. Half seemed perplexed, but the other half caught on.
Pyrite threw the Goblin. Throwing was bad. It hurt if you hit the ground. But what if you landed in the water? In that case—
The next child went screaming into the lake, but he was laughing when he climbed out. And then other Goblins approached. Pyrite hurled an adult into the water and as the Goblin climbed out he shouted at the other Goblins, grinning and miming flapping his wings. Then they all wanted to try.
Rags found Pyrite and a group of over twenty Hobs hurling Goblins into water. The sound had drawn every Goblin in camp, and the Hobs seemed to be enjoying the activity. They were competing to see who could throw Goblins the furthest, highest, or make them puke as they spun into the lake.
Pyrite turned, sweating in the cold, bleeding slightly from his stomach where his wounds had opened up, to see Rags standing with arms folded. She stared pointedly at his stomach.
He shrugged. She was very smart sometimes, but not all the time.
She looked past him as a screaming Goblin cartwheeled into the water, much to the entertainment of every other Goblin watching. She shook her head.
She turned to go. Pyrite grabbed her. Rags struggled, shouted, but it was too late. He heaved, and his Chieftain went flying.
She was very light. The other Goblins stopped and stared as they saw their Chieftain arc high into the sky before crashing into the water. The entire time, Rags’ eyes were locked on Pyrite’s face.
She glared at him the entire time she was flying, until she hit the water. That was rather impressive, actually. Rags swam out of the lake quickly, unlike the other floundering Goblins. That surprised Pyrite until he thought about it for a moment. Of course. The Flooded Waters tribe was good at swimming.
That night, Goblins played in the water, laughing, some drowning until they were fished out. But they were laughing. The water was very cold, but they didn’t care. It was something new. And that night, Pyrite sat by his fire, wet, cold, bleeding a bit, but better.
Around him, Goblins were sleeping. Pyrite was still up. He was always awake during the nights. He’d had a few good hours of sleep earlier, and it was important for him to be up while Rags slept. Just in case. As the fires dimmed and Goblins began snoring around him, Pyrite stared into the flames.
And spoke. Quietly, giving voice to words in his chest.
“We are not monsters yet;
But we do not forget;
We are lost, outcasts all.
I caught him too late. His sigh—
A shudder. Last goodbye.
Time passes, cities rise and nations fall;
And yet they will always hate us all.
Goblins. Why do they hate us so?
Why does the wind blow?
I suppose I will never know.”
He paused, but no one had heard him. Pyrite whispered the words a few more times. Not bad. But not good. He’d used ‘all’ twice, and he wasn’t sure about the second to last line. Why does the wind blow? A bit too silly, he felt. But it had promise.
Pyrite thought the rhyming at the end of the lines was important. But he wasn’t sure. It sounded pleasing to his ears, though. He wondered if other species had something like this. Songs? No, this was different.
He sat, and slowly fished out a burnt out coal from the fire. It was still very hot. He bit into it anyways, and chewed slowly as the night ended and the sun began to rise. This was how he lived. Day by day, hour by hour. Sometimes he despaired. Other times he laughed.
But always, he dreamed of a day where Goblins would live freely. He looked south and added one more thought to the list in his head. He wondered if there was a way for Goblins to live in peace with other races.
Probably not. But he waited for Rags to wake. To wake, and show them, show all Goblins she was worthy of being a Chieftain. Of being a Goblin Lord.
Of someday, perhaps…
Being a King.
The night ended. Rags woke up, this time without a bad smell in her nose. She yawned as her camp began to stir with the dawn, and spotted a familiar shape. Pyrite, the former Gold Stone Chieftain, sat by a fire, chewing on something. She grunted, pleased he hadn’t fallen asleep. But then, he never did.
He was dependable, like that. Rags got up, stretching, and saw Pyrite’s head drift towards her, and then back to the fire. She shook her head as she wandered over to where the Redfang warriors were already training for the morning.
Some days Rags wondered what Pyrite was thinking. The huge Hobgoblin sat in front of the fire, chewing calmly, staring into the flames. He was always so calm. And he never seemed bothered by anything.
He was delightfully simple, Rags concluded. He could think deeply at times, but by and large he was uncomplicated and straightforward. She envied him for his narrow view of the world. It wasn’t easy being her. Not easy at all. She walked away, and began thinking of what to do next. Time to lead her tribe again. Life was hard.
But she was up to the challenge. And behind her, the Gold Stone Chieftain sat and chewed, and thought.
Then he farted.