The instant Garen Redfang heard about the failed attack on Lady Rie’s mansion, he stormed into the feasting hall where Tremborag sat. The self-styled Great Chieftain of Goblins looked up as he clutched an entire roast sheep in his claws. Garen snarled as he strode down the length of the messy hall towards him.
“Garen Redfang. What has you so angry this time?”
Tremborag’s voice was huge and surprisingly intellectual, but tinged with the same irritation Garen had been feeling lately. The few Hobs and other Goblins accompanying him at this moment—many of them female—eyed the Goblins behind Garen.
The Redfang Tribe had largely abandoned Garen when Rags had fled the mountain. But many was not all, and already more Hobs and competent warriors had joined Garen Redfang’s faction within the mountain. He was the pinnacle of martial ability to aspire to, and if his new ‘tribe’ was not as well-trained as his old one, they were a fighting force Garen had led on many raids.
And it was the raids that were the issue. Garen glared at Tremborag and spat.
“The Goblins who went to attack the [Lady] are dead.”
The huge Hobgoblin paused. A bit of grease dripped from his hands. The Goblins around him froze.
Over twenty Hobs had been chosen to assault the mansion, as well as one of the [Shamans]. It had been considered overkill for such a small town and even a [Lady]’s personal residence. Unlike the Five Families, most of the minor nobility lacked huge arsenals of magical defenses.
And yet, the attackers had been destroyed. Garen spoke sharply.
“They were slaughtered by a Human alliance! They are gathering as I said! And you provoke them with more raids. No more. No Goblins will go to that place; none return anymore. I forbid it.”
His command of the common tongue had increased markedly since he had stayed in the mountain. Or rather, he was having to speak more often. As he had in the past with his friends. Garen pushed the memory back. Tremborag dropped the sheep and stood.
“You forbid? I am Great Chieftain under the mountain.”
“And I am Garen Redfang, who knows raiding and Humans ways. Continue to send more raids and they will die. Fool.”
The hall had gone silent. The Goblins around Tremborag had retreated and Garen’s Redfang warriors were eying Tremborag uneasily. The Great Chieftain’s crimson eyes flared with fury. He and Garen growled at each other, drawing closer.
The air was hot with bloodlust. Garen felt his hand tightening on the hilt of his famous red sword and Tremborag suddenly looked taller, less fat and more like the monster he could become. But both Goblins forced themselves back. They were allies.
“Hah! You have not dulled your fangs since coming here.”
Tremborag broke the stalemate first. He sat and picked up the sheep and ripped into it with one hand. Breathing hard, Garen sat at a table, facing him.
There was a reason for the irritation between them, and not just because of Rags’ escape. What had she taken? Some of the magical items? Most of the truly powerful artifacts had been spread across the Hob lieutenants and other warriors in Tremborag’s tribe. Goblins didn’t hoard practical treasures. And food? Again, not an issue. The Human women—
No. Garen ground his teeth together. There was only one true reason for their anger.
“The Goblin Lord comes.”
Tremborag ate savagely, crunching bones in his mouth. He spat a fragment onto the ground.
“I feel him coming. He comes for you and I, Redfang. We are the only ones who could oppose him. But there are others he calls.”
Garen was surprised. Tremborag laughed.
“You think you are the only famous Chieftain, Redfang? Far to the north there are other tribes who make Humans tremble, just as there are ones to the south and on other continents. Two I think of. A pyromaniac witch and a brute who loves combat.”
“Would they join us? Or would they join the Goblin Lord?”
Again the Great Chieftain laughed.
“I have asked, and they have refused me. They would refuse him too, I think. The witch, she refused the Goblin King as I did. As for the brute, he accepts no one as his master. No, they will wait, I think. The Goblin Lord comes for only we.”
“Unless the Humans come first. You provoke them.”
The Hob crossed his arms. Tremborag nodded.
“They have forgotten why they fear us. Let them come to the mountain. We will break them in the tunnels, lure them in and crush them. And in their fury, they will hunt that wretch, that thief, the Goblin who takes a Human name!”
Rags. Angry as he was, Tremborag still refused to speak her name. Garen stared at him and turned.
“And when the Goblin Lord comes? Then what? Will you sit and eat until he comes to your doorstep with a host far vaster than yours?”
“Let him. I am the Great Chieftain of the mountain. I will bow to no Lord, no King. And one last thing.”
Tremborag’s voice boomed as Garen strode out of the hall. The Hob turned. Now Tremborag was serious.
“Go to the mansion and destroy it, Redfang. If the [Lady] remains, slaughter her people and bring her back to the mountain.”
Garen stared at him. Vengeance, retribution. An eye for an eye. Tremborag was very Human in that regard.
“And if they are not there? If they are under the protection of the one who builds those wooden markers, who calls himself an [Emperor]?”
The whispers had reached the Goblin ears as they skulked around the edges of that strange land. Tremborag grinned and his eyes were fury.
“In that case, we will destroy every village, town, and city in that place until all is gore and ash. After the Goblin Lord or perhaps—before? Go.”
For the moment he was Garen’s Chieftain, so Garen went. He took a massive force of Hobs and Goblins to the home of the Valerund House and found the mansion deserted. He burned the mansion and determined that there was no point riding after the lady.
Garen had Skills from the [Raider] class that allowed him to appraise targets. And so he destroyed a town many miles to the north instead, robbing it of many lumps of gold recently acquired from a mine. And as he rode back to the mountain Garen wondered what Rags was doing. The Humans would not suffer the Goblins much longer.
Already, they had begun to counterattack.
The Goblins in the Flooded Waters tribe weren’t restless. At least, most of them weren’t. They raided roads on a daily basis and clashed with monsters and small bands of Humans regularly. Moreover, they were secure in their semi-permanent home in the forest of tall trees around the lake. Already, the Goblins were beginning to think of it as their base. But more importantly, they were filling their bellies from their raids and they were not in danger, not in want. They were content.
But the Goblins who thought of the future, those who were leaders like Noears, Poisonbite, Redscar, the Rockfall Chieftain, and other Hobs of Tremborag’s mountain thought otherwise. They could tell what their Chieftain wished because they were connected. They were part of the same tribe. And what those Goblins understood was that Rags was…aimless.
“She does not know what to do.”
Poisonbite declared this as she sat with her unit of female Goblins around a fire. She had a few guests. Two Hobs from Tremborag’s faction, Noears, the Rockfall Chieftain, and Redscar. They were just guests. But that they were here, listening, was significant.
Each one had their own agendas. Noears, who was very intelligent and dangerous because of it, played with a spark of electricity, letting it crawl over his hands. The other Goblins looked around surreptitiously.
They were looking for Rags. Or Pyrite. The Goldstone Chieftain was staunchly loyal to her, which might be troublesome if he heard anything. Not that they were doing anything; they were just talking. But in Tremborag’s mountain, talk was dangerous enough.
Here it was…a sign of wariness. Noears flicked the spark into the fire, making it jump, and looked up.
“She is aimless, but not, I think, lost.”
The others nodded at that. Noears continued.
“She does not know whether to stay or go. This is a good place. But not what she wants. She wants to go south. But the Goblin Lord is there.”
Redscar grunted. He wasn’t talkative. He flicked a dagger up and caught the blade between two fingers.
He wanted to return to the High Passes. Noears scratched at the ragged holes where his ears had been and shrugged.
“Perhaps. But she is—”
He broke off as a Goblin that was known to be too talkative for his good passed by the fire. The other Goblins stared blankly at him and looked around the camp. No Rags. She was snoozing by her fire. And Pyrite? Sitting under one of the gargantuan trees by the lakeside.
Safe. Noears stuck a finger in his earhole and came out with some sticky earwax as he went on.
“Chieftain wants to go back. Goblin Lord is dangerous. So she waits. Not lost, but waiting. For right chance. Smart. I agree, which is why I follow her.”
The Rockfall Chieftain nodded at once. She was a supporter of Rags, which is why her listening here was good. All opinions mattered. But Poisonbite was restless. She was no Hob, but it was the opinion of those around the fire that she had the same rank as one. Just like Noears was the strongest [Mage] in the tribe by far—being small didn’t mean weak. Rags was an example of that.
“Still should do more. Build base here. Raid harder.”
She disliked only robbing travelers on the road, especially since they were growing fewer as of late. Redscar nodded his approval as did two of the Hobs. Noears frowned and looked around.
Rags? No sign of her. Pyrite was on his feet, breaking up a fight between a few Goblins. He grunted, but it was another Hob who spoke.
“Chieftain. Needs fight. Goblin Lord.”
A simple sentence, but one with nuance, as his jiggling leg indicated. The idea of fighting a Goblin Lord was of course, wrong, but if he was like what Garen Redfang had claimed, what other choice was there? He used dead Goblins, raised the dead. And he slaughtered Goblins who did not obey him.
“Should talk first.”
Noears was the first to dissent. Redscar glared, and the argument descended into infighting. It was just talk. They kept glancing over towards Rags, just to reassure themselves she was asleep. And now Pyrite was tending to a fire, sniffing hopefully at a stick of mushrooms roasting by it.
“Chieftain is young.”
“Yes. Needs help.”
Scoffing from other Goblins.
“Help? Like Garen Redfang? Another Chieftain? Two?”
Hand wave, claw clenched into fist. Subtlety, of course not the first interpretation, but a more nuanced answer.
“Not Redfang. But advisor. Someone strong.”
“She is not strong?”
All heads turned. Rags didn’t appear to stab them. Pyrite was lifting a Goblin child up, grunting as he peered at a rash. All turned back to the talk.
Waggled finger. More nuance. Smart is not enough necessarily. Goblins need a daring leader and a cautious one is not as good. However, the raised eyebrow indicated skepticism of this very idea. The Rockfall Chieftain surprisingly spoke up next.
“Good to have mate.”
All stared at her. There, it was said, and by one of Rags’ own at that! Mate. Yes. Have sex. Or rather, have someone who could guide your opinions, a capable lieutenant. Only—
“Pyrite is good.”
Poisonbite said that and all agreed. Pyrite was. He was capable, solid, a good fighter. And he was calm, a perfect second-in-command. What he wasn’t though was aggressive. Noears chewed on his lip and frowned.
“Good, but simple. Has odd companion. Old. Greybeard.”
That was true too. Every head turned as Pyrite bent to talk to a Goblin sitting by a fire next to theirs. Greybeard grinned as he slurped at some soup and chattered to the big Hob. Poisonbite scowled and Redscar looked at her.
“Old Goblin. You know?”
“My unit. Good at running away, better at not be cut.”
She flicked her fingers dismissively and Redscar nodded.
“Never met Goblin with beard.”
“Hah! No point. But if not Pyrite, who?”
Who indeed. All eyes shifted to Noears and Redscar, the most probable choices. Noears shifted and Redscar growled. Neither one was particularly into the idea. It was common knowledge that Noears liked big Hob females, and Redscar liked Goblins who had certain body parts that Rags lacked. Added to that, no one wanted to imagine Rags being swayed by one side more than the other.
And yet—aimlessness. The other Goblins hesitated. Noears grimaced.
“Chieftain must do something.”
Poisonbite rolled her eyes as someone asked that. Her voice was laced with open scorn.
“Because aimlessness is bad, stupid.”
“Yes! Why we talking if not?”
She turned angrily to the speaker and her green face went white. Pyrite stood over the fire, crunching on a giant Barkeater Beetle. He waved at the group calmly.
Where had he come from? The other Goblins stared in shock. Pyrite had appeared without them really paying attention from across the camp. He’d snuck up on them like—like a mountain, always in plain sight, but never really noticed. He sat and all the Goblins edged away from him. All save for Redscar, who just looked wary.
“Chieftain is aimless.”
Pyrite’s voice hushed the other Goblins. He nodded and offered the giant beetle with huge mandibles around. No one wanted a bite. He went back to crunching as the beetle’s guts oozed out the back.
“Aimless. Young. No sex. Not Hob. Not warrior. Not going to war and not building base.”
He paused, having summarized the complaints of the others. They waited. Pyrite fished a wiggling leg out from between his teeth and crunched at it for a second.
Every eye was on him. Pyrite shook his head. A voice cackled—they realized Greybeard had appeared at their fire. The elderly Hob was sipping from his bowl and glancing at Pyrite. The former Goldstone Chieftain nodded.
“So what? Young is young. Aimless is temporary. Chieftain is Chieftain. Will grow.”
“So he says!”
Greybeard laughed into the thoughtful silence Pyrite’s words had caused. He clapped Pyrite on the back and the Hob grunted. The old Hob sighed.
“Wait and see? Is good plan if nothing coming!”
Poisonbite had been alarmed at Pyrite being here, but the Hob was clearly as affable as ever despite the…talk. Greybeard on the other hand was a nuisance. She wouldn’t have suffered him if Pyrite clearly didn’t favor him. Come to that, he was always hanging around the old Hob. Poisonbite didn’t see the point. But then, Greybeard only really talked to Pyrite.
Noears wondered what he said as he stared at the Hob. Greybeard looked up, beard soaked with soup, and his eyes flashed.
“Something is coming. Can’t you feel it, younglings?”
The other Goblins stared at him, surprised by the sudden change in his tone. Pyrite stopped crunching his beetle and looked up. Then all the Goblins in the camp heard the horn call in the distance. Rags shot out of the hammock she’d built by her fire and one of the Goblin lookouts perched in the trees shouted. Something was coming.
“My, but they are upset, aren’t they? Look at them looking around like ants. Or is that because we’re on a hilltop?”
Lady Bethal Walchaís stood on the hilltop and stared down at the Flooded Waters tribe as the Goblins shot to their feet and began reaching for weapons. By her side Sir Thomast the Chevalier and her husband said nothing. Neither did the ranks of [Knights] dressed from head to toe in red-pink armor. They were her personal order of warriors, known appropriately as the Knights of the Petal or as she sometimes called them, her Rose Knights.
And they were here to kill the Goblins. However, one of the oddities of the scene and probably the reason why the Goblin Chieftain hadn’t ordered the attack was the disparity in numbers. There were several thousand Goblins below. Probably six thousand. Eight? Not all were combatants obviously, but they were enough to become a sea of green. Whereas Lady Bethal had brought half of the [Knights] under her command and left half to guard her fiefdom.
That meant just over forty Rose Knights were arrayed in a line on the hilltop. And yet, Lady Bethal looked unconcerned. Dressed in elegant riding clothes and mounted on a stallion as she was, she might have been out for a ride with her retainers. She peered down towards the Goblin camp and pointed.
“There. That is their Chieftain.”
A small Goblin riding a Carn Wolf and carrying an outsized black crossbow was her target. Bethal clapped her hands and her Rose Knights stood straighter.
“Kill the Chieftain, and destroy as many Hobs and high-level Goblins on your way to her as possible, please. I will allow six to guard me, including you, Thomast.”
He looked at her. Bethal’s tone softened for a second.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that. We spoke about this! Or rather, I did. You know it has to be done.”
He stared at her in silence. Bethal’s tone sharpened. Her fingers dug into his arm. Thomast wore no armor; the silk doublet he wore would have fit just as well at the party where he and Bethal had met with Lady Magnolia a few weeks ago. Neither did he flinch as Bethal’s long nails dug into his arm.
For a second the air around Bethal was thorny, and then she was letting go, withdrawing her nails, clearly upset. She brushed at his arm and drew herself closer to the taller man. She spoke softly.
“They are raiders and they slaughtered those villagers, Thomast.”
The Chevalier said nothing, but his silence spoke louder than Bethal’s words. She shifted.
“Yes, they killed off a Goblin tribe. What of it? Magnolia has asked me personally to settle this, and so I shall. These Goblins cannot be allowed to continue disrupting trade, and if they joined up with the Goblin Lord—ah, honor’s end, Thomast! Do you see them using pikes and crossbows? What if all the Goblins fought so? They must end here and now.”
She glared again. He was silent as the wind ruffled his hair. Bethal’s anger collapsed.
“I know! But—oh, Thomast.”
The Goblins had begun forming up into ranks, and the front rank was holding terribly long pikes, while a group of mounted Goblins on wolf back circled through the forest. They were approaching as a single mass, and yet no one interrupted Bethal’s soliloquy. Or was it a monologue? It was hard to call it a dialogue.
“What must be, must be, my love. Do not begrudge me for ordering you this.”
Thomast bent his head and Bethal wept as she clung to him.
“It must be! I—a small wrong, an evil to make the world better for some. So Magnolia says and so I believe. But do you? Will you fight for me, my love, even if I am wrong? Even if the world would judge me so? Would you abandon honor for me? And would you love me after, my heart?”
His arm encircled her body. Thomast bent and whispered a word.
The two stood thusly for a second, and then turned. The Goblins were streaming out of the forest, lining up in formations. Already some were taking ranging shots with their crossbows or slings, but the small Goblin mounted on a Carn Wolf was ordering them to hold their fire. Bethal sighed.
“Let us begin, then. My Rose Knights—advance!”
And they did. The Rose Knights of Walchaís charged down the hill with a roar, crashing into the ranks of the disbelieving Goblins.
Rags had been having a bad day. Indigestion had plagued her from the Barkeater Beetles that Pyrite had convinced her to try, and she was certain someone was talking behind her back. More than that though, she’d felt horribly aimless and out of sorts, feeling the Goblin Lord’s approach and not knowing what she should do. All her certainty about how she would ride out and confront him had melted away.
So she’d been pleasantly surprised by the news of the [Lady] and her small escort. Robbing a rich noble blind and finding out what her magical artifacts did would be a pleasant diversion. So why—why—
Why were they losing?
The thirty or so armored Humans ran straight into the ranks of the twenty-foot-long pikes that Rags had drilled her Goblins with. They could stop a charging group of cavalry and had done so more than once. It was suicide for anyone to run into that wall of spikes. Or it should have been.
The first Rose Knight was struck by two pikes in the chest and shoulder. The Goblins hadn’t been content to wait for him to come; Rags had ordered the charge and they’d rammed into him at high-speed. Impaling speed.
But the tips of both pikes just glanced off his armor. Another one caught him in the midriff and Rags saw something improbable happen. Instead of the armor deforming under the pressure of the blow, the shock of impact travelled down the sturdy pike and made the eight Goblins running with it slam into each other.
The pike had struck the Human in armor head-on and his armor had been the victor. The Rose Knight ran past the pike, the axe in his hands raised. He charged into a Hob and took a heavy mace hit to the head. He ignored it and cut the Hob down with one tremendous blow. Across the line of pikes and infantry, the same was happening. That was when Rags knew she was in trouble.
Enchanted armor! She waved her hands desperately and shouted. Goblins who had been assigned to watch her in the middle of battles picked up on what she wanted and the scrum of infantry around the Rose Knights drew back. They left eighteen Hobs dead and over fifty more Goblins when they did.
So many casualties. Rags’ eyes burned as she raised a fist and clenched it. The Rose Knights looked up as Goblins wielding crossbows—hundreds of them—sitting in trees or line up in formations, loosed as one.
Steel and wood-tipped bolts struck the armored knights from every side in a huge semicircle the Goblins had formed so as not to hit one another. For a second, the air was filled with so many projectiles that Rags could see nothing amid the splintering bolts and—
The Rose Knights strode out of the hail of arrows, unscathed. Their armor gleamed pink and red with blood. The Goblins stared. Rags’ eyes slowly travelled up to the woman standing with an escort of six knights around her. She could have sworn the [Lady] was smiling at her.
Unacceptable. Rags’ eyes flashed. She raised her voice and shouted as the Rose Knights charged once again.
Pyrite heard the call and knew it was a bad one. It was the only one Rags could make, but it was still a bad one. He shifted as the rank of Hobs around him surged forwards. Pyrite charged forwards and saw a press of huge bodies in front of him, fighting the strange pink knights. But already, Hobs were falling.
Their enemy was too strong.
Magical weapons cleaved through the air, splitting steel shields, emitting jets of fire or in one case, leaving sharp after-trails of light in the air that cut whatever they touched. The Rose Knights were unstoppable. Because of their armor.
It was too strong! And though Rags had had a good idea, the thinking part of Pyrite, the calm part that analyzed everything told him that if an enemy had come here, they would have taken measures against mere strength or spells. Sure enough, the Hobs failed to damage the armor even when they swung with their full strength. And the lightning coming from Noears and the other [Mages] glanced off the armor harmlessly as well when it should have shocked the wearers to death.
Impressive magic. Was it not metal they were wearing? Pyrite’s eyes narrowed as he came face-to-face with one of the Rose Knights in the scrum of bodies. He swung and the Rose Knight raised his shield as he countered with a thrust of his sword.
Bad trade. Pyrite halted his swing and backed up. The thrust missed him, leaving a trail of freezing cold in the air behind it. The [Knight] paused, and then swung again, raising his or her shield.
Nope. Pyrite knew they were waiting for him to strike so they could exchange blows. It didn’t matter if they got hit. He knocked aside the blade with his axe’s head, feeling the chill on his hands. Enchanted blades, enchanted armor—
The roar was going up from the Hobs around him and they were scrambling to get back as the Rose Knights cut them down. Pyrite was glad to hear it. Rags was no fool. She’d realized the Hobs would only be slaughtered and now she was bringing in—
Pyrite glanced over his shoulder as the [Knight] thrust at him again. Casually, Pyrite knocked the blade away again; it was easy if you kept backing up. Goblins were drawing back, inviting the Knights into one-versus-hundreds battles in every direction. And the pink knights were taking the offer.
That was bad. Pyrite walked backwards quickly, letting the knight charge towards him. Other Goblins were jabbing at the pink knight from all angles, but he—or she—had clearly decided Pyrite was dying first. The knight ignored the attacks on his armor, beheading a Goblin with a cut to one side.
Pyrite’s eyes narrowed. He slid to one side as the knight lunged and brought his axe down like a hammer on their back.
[Power Strike]! Pyrite hadn’t learned a more advanced Skill, but he had once cleaved through a warhorse’s armor and spine with this blow—
His axe shattered as he struck the Rose Knight. The armored warrior stumbled mid-step and then turned towards Pyrite. The Hob and the Goblins around him stared at the Rose Knight and then backed up. This wasn’t fair at all.
A group of Goblins with pikes charged into the pink knight, holding them off for a few moments. Pyrite backed up again, and saw the battle was going the same way throughout the forest. The Rose Knights were carving their way through the Goblins trying to damage their armor with impunity. It was carnage, and Pyrite felt the fury in his heart rising as he saw his people dying.
Yet the cold part of him still approved. This made sense. How did you destroy an enemy most efficiently? You sent in warriors—you didn’t have to have many—to fight. Warriors the enemy could not harm in any way.
Because of levels. Because they didn’t have enough enchanted weapons or Skills. Or if they did—Pyrite saw one of the Rose Knights raise his shield and it was like a wall the Goblins couldn’t break through. Another was cutting with his battleaxe as if it were light as a feather, and one more had used a Skill that had sent a group of Goblins flying.
They were high-level too. And so Pyrite realized what Rags would do next. What she had to do.
But where could they go? The Rose Knights would harry them, cut them down or aim for her. A group was already cutting towards Rags. And she was pointing—at the [Lady]?
Pyrite realized what she was doing. Harm the leader if you can’t hurt the soldiers. A rain of crossbow bolts fell like rain from the sky at the unarmored woman. She in turn raised a hand and—
The bolts and arrows parted in the sky—as did the clouds, in fact. Pyrite, Rags, and the Goblins who had time to look stared as the [Lady] smiled. The bolts rained down around her and her escort, in a huge circle of—of tranquility around her. The clouded sky was blue above her head.
That wasn’t fair. It was ingenious, but not fair. Rags was practically screaming as she ordered a second volley. The [Lady] couldn’t do that twice!
She didn’t have to. As the crossbows raised a second time, one of the Rose Knights roared. For a second he towered over the Goblins, his armor twisting, the gaps in his visor shining with terrible light. He was a monster—every bow and crossbow turned towards him and loosed at once.
The knight took the hail of death without flinching. Pyrite rubbed his eyes and the illusion was gone. But another Knight had begun hammering on their shield, using another Skill which created a target for the Goblins to hit.
They were dominating the battlefield with their Skills. And as a group of Hobs and Redfang warriors charged into the escort around the lady, Pyrite saw the only other unarmored man on the battlefield step forwards.
He was a [Fencer] if the rapier was anything to mark him by. And he was good. The man stabbed five Redfang Warriors through their guards as they charged him at once, and the six pink knights cut down the other Goblins without budging from their place surrounding the [Lady]. She wrinkled her nose as blood fountained into the air.
Death. Pyrite felt it in the air. He looked around—Rags was sitting on her mount, looking stunned. The Carn Wolves and Redfang warriors, her elite, were dueling the Rose Knights now and still, the knights took no damage. They were invincible.
The Goblins had to retreat. Pyrite grunted as the knight who’d been pursuing him broke past the pikes and began cutting towards him. He glanced over his shoulder. Only water behind. The lake would cut their retreat off. Rags would have to run them through the forest, but what if there was a second force waiting? Or what if they had ways to catch up with them? The lake’s waters were turning red as blood ran into them—
Water. Lake. Pyrite blinked and turned as the freezing longsword swept towards his head again. He backed up, then turned and ran.
The knight followed. Pyrite splashed past ranks of Goblins in the water. They’d already been pushed this far? He turned and raised the haft of his broken axe as he stood in stomach-deep water. Predictably, the knight had followed him. His blade was freezing the water around them as he waded towards Pyrite. That was interesting.
And they were clearly not thinking straight. If they had been, they would have realized that the water slowed both Hob and knight. Yet the sword came swinging at Pyrite all the same, and he had to admit—it was dangerous.
Pyrite ducked. The knight cut into the water and was rewarded with an impact at last. Blood spurted up in the water, but the blow hadn’t been decisive, slowed as it had been by the liquid. The knight raised their sword for a final strike—
And Pyrite fountained up out of the water. He body slammed the knight and they crashed into the lake together, underwater. He felt the knight flailing, sensed them trying to get up and reached for their neck.
Flaw. The Rose Knights were strong, but a Hob was still stronger. And in the water, they were slow enough to be caught. Pyrite seized the visored head and felt the Rose Knight twisting. Too late.
Second flaw. Everything had to breathe. Pyrite thrust the head down and then stepped on the struggling body. He ground the knight into the lake’s muddy floor and felt them struggling frantically. All things breathed. Unless they couldn’t.
Pyrite’s deep voice bellowed across the battlefield, turning Goblin heads. He saw Rags turn to him, eyes wide, and then he lifted the rose shield in his hand. The knight was struggling under his feet, but he was standing on them now.
Rags understood at once. She screamed and horns blew; the Goblins retreated as one towards the lake. But now the Rose Knights were determined to stop them. They formed a line of death and marched into the Goblins, cutting them down, aiming at Rags now. Pyrite groaned. They were going for her! And he couldn’t be there to stop them.
He grunted, dove into the water and pushed away a frantic hand. The Rose Knight was still struggling! He—or she—was getting air from somewhere, or they could hold their breath incredibly long. Pyrite surfaced and turned, desperately.
There was only one Goblin who could—where was he? He scanned the battlefield frantically as he put the weakening knight in a headlock underwater.
There. Greybeard was fighting with his old greatsword, laughing as a knight with a battleaxe traded blows with him. But the elderly Hob had dodged every blow. He could—
A dagger stabbed into Pyrite’s side, a blade that froze his innards. He gasped and tore the blade out of the knight’s hand. He refused to let go, though the knight was pounding on his wound.
Stupid. Should have thought of—Pyrite saw the [Lady] turning her head towards him. Greybeard. He had to be—oh, of course. Why have [Knights] only specialized in swords? Some had bows, others had spells.
Stupid not to think of it.
“Take down that Hob.”
Bethal pointed, and one of the knights by her side abandoned his weapon to draw the bow on his back. The enchanted bowstring thrummed once, and the Hob who’d manage to down young Lady Welca Vis—a knight-errant in training who Bethal had accepted into her ranks—fell, two arrows in his chest. The Rose Knight surged upwards, searching for her weapons as the Goblins roared and the one on the wolf’s back screamed fury and drove her mount into the lake after him.
“Is young Welca alive? Oh, I see she is.”
Bethal sighed as the knights around her closed ranks once again. The Goblins had given up assailing her; Thomast’s blade and the piles of Goblins’ bodies had proven the futility of it. And the rest of her warriors were too experienced to be lured into the water like that.
“A pity. That Hob looked almost intelligent.”
Thomast turned to her, a hint of reproach in his eyes. Bethal sighed.
“I know. I know. But a monster who kills is…we could fish him out afterwards if Welca lets him live. Or maybe—I say, what’s going on over there?”
She frowned, and pointed to a spot where Goblins were fighting the Knights of the Petal. Almost all of them had retreated, leaving hundreds of dead bodies behind them. But one Goblin hadn’t retreated.
Greybeard had been dueling the Rose Knight with the battleaxe—Sir Kerrig Louis—as soon as he’d crashed into Poisonbite’s formation. He alone hadn’t been cut down, although the battleaxe’s head burned in the open air and Sir Kerrig was a master in using it.
Instead, Greybeard had pushed the Rose Knight back, landing heavy blows on the man’s armor and making it ring. The halt in their advance had drawn the attention of the other Knights of the Petal and they’d come to assist Sir Kerrig in dealing with this troublesome foe.
Now there were six of the Rose Knights surrounding him as Greybeard struck and countered each blow in a whirlwind of steel. The advance of pink halted and Lady Bethal’s eyes widened as she noticed the disturbance.
“Thomast, who is that Goblin?”
The Chevalier had no reply, but his eyes narrowed as he saw Greybeard fighting. The other Goblins stopped too, as the old Goblin dodged two blows and countered three at once, his greatsword flashing in a ringing arc. He twisted, and simultaneously countered one blow and parried another. When he spun and kicked, a Rose Knight was knocked off his feet and into the muck.
Lady Bethal’s eyes widened as she saw the Goblin fight. And not just for that. She saw and sensed the battlefield turning against her.
The Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe stopped their retreat as Greybeard fought. The sense of desperation, of hopelessness that dragged down their limbs evaporated as more and more of them saw the sight of a Goblin who hadn’t fallen. They pointed and roared, and Rags saw a flicker of victory in the darkness.
It was inspiring. A single Goblin held down eight [Knights], forcing them back, his sword singing through the air as he laughed. Pyrite stood in the water, blood dripping from his wounds. Noears found more lightning and hurled it through the air. Goblins stopped retreating and held their ground. How could they not?
They had seen a hero.
On her Carn Wolf, Rags saw the battlefield shift. She raised her sword and screamed.
There was no tactic in her words. Rags simply felt a current, far vaster than the one she could create, sweeping her ahead. And as she kicked her mount forwards, her tribe did the same. Goblins streamed across the muddy ground, shouting. They rushed towards the surprised [Knights], ignoring the enchanted blades, pounding on the enchanted armor.
The momentum had turned against the Humans. They backed up rather than be swarmed, forming a wall of steel around their [Lady]. She glared and pointed. Her voice crackled like lightning across the battlefield.
And there he was. The [Duelist] at her side strode forwards, and his blade lashed the air. Goblins fell before they drew close to him and then there was a pause in the fighting.
The battered Rose Knights fell back as Greybeard lowered his sword. He wasn’t panting, but a light sheen of sweat steamed off his body. Thomast raised his rapier and saluted the Goblin. Greybeard grinned and lifted his greatsword.
They leapt forwards as the Humans and Goblins drew back and met in a clash of blades. Only, there was never any true contact of metal meeting metal. The two struck at each other simultaneously and Thomast’s rapier was faster. He flicked the point towards Greybeard’s eyes and the Goblin twisted his head around the blade. He cut—impossibly fast for a sword so large—towards Thomast’s chest and the [Duelist] stepped back, letting the blade pass a fraction of an inch away from his clothes.
And then they danced. There was no other word for it. Rags had seen the Redscar warriors fight, all precision and grace, but the [Duelist] and Greybeard were on another level entirely. Each strike was so quick and fluid, and led into the next. Rags couldn’t imagine herself trying to fight one or the other. She would be dead in the first blow.
But neither one had scored a hit on the other yet. Thomast stepped back, frowning, and then slashed his rapier through the air. There was a good distance between them, but Greybeard twisted his body out of the way. Behind him, a Hob cried out and fell, blood streaming from his chest.
He was cutting the air! Rags’ eyes narrowed as she stared at the Human’s rapier. Now the [Duelist] cut and Greybeard had to close with him or risk the Goblins behind him taking injuries. So he did, in a lunge that took him low across the ground. And Thomast was waiting.
As he thrust, a silvery blur struck simultaneously, so that it appeared as if Thomast suddenly had two arms in the place of one for a fraction of a second. Both were aimed at Greybeard’s heart and both—missed. The lunging Greybeard vanished, and Thomast turned.
Two Greybeards were standing at his back. They struck simultaneously and the man leapt out of the way, the first ungraceful move to come in the duel. And when he landed, three Greybeards were waiting for him.
Was it an afterimage caused by speed, or a Skill? Rags didn’t know, only that Greybeard had suddenly multiplied. A mirage of the old Goblins cut as Thomast backed up, his flickering rapier now on the defensive, warding off the apparitions.
And then—Thomast lunged forwards, shooting across the ground at what had to have been the true Greybeard, his rapier thrusting. It was a lightning-fast blow. And still Greybeard was ready. His greatsword skated down the length of Thomast’s rapier and gently, oh so gently opened the man’s chest and stomach up in a single strike.
It was elegant and, Rags had to think, intentional. Thomast staggered, turned, and clutched at his chest. Blood streamed from cut arteries and a woman’s voice screamed.
Bethal rushed forward and so did the Rose Knights. They formed a wall in front of the grinning Greybeard. Only the tip of the Goblin’s greatsword was bloody. Bethal threw herself across her husband’s chest as a knight knelt, fumbling with a healing potion. She shouted as the knights seized the wounded Chevalier.
“Withdraw! Knights, shield my husband with your lives!”
They were retreating? Rags stared in disbelief, but the fallen man was clearly more important than anything else. The [Lady] stood, her riding dress stained with blood, and her eyes were murderous as she stared at the grinning Greybeard. She tossed her head and spoke in the silence.
“Prepare yourselves, Goblins. Tomorrow I return. Flee before then, or I will come back to crush you.”
Then she turned and hurried away with the Knights of the Petal. The Goblins let them go without another word. The cost of a battle was too high and besides—
There was Greybeard.
He stood in the remains of the battlefield, untouched. Where strong Hobs and veteran Goblins had been cut down like wheat he alone was unscathed. Rags rode over to him and noticed how her Carn Wolf shied away from him, refusing to draw near. So she dismounted and strode over to him.
This time the old Hobgoblin didn’t bow to her. And Rags was sure he shouldn’t. She stared at him, seeing none of the old innocent dementia of age in how he carried himself now. She had never seen an old Goblin. She had no idea Goblins could be old. And now she felt like a fool.
“Who are you?”
He just grinned at her. Greybeard turned, planting his sword in the ground and looked.
“Where is Pyrite?”
The Goblins turned. In an instant, they’d located Pyrite. He was being tended to; Rags had used her best healing potions on him, but the two arrows to his chest had come close to his heart. Only his fat had protected him. He staggered upright as Greybeard walked over.
“Good thought! Smart. You were always smart. But invincible is invincible, eh? Good that you meet Humans like that now rather than later. There are always warriors like that. Should make you train harder, you lazy dreamer, you!”
Greybeard praised Pyrite, patting him affectionately on the head and shoulders as Pyrite grunted softly. Rags had followed the two; all the Goblins had. She waited until Greybeard had turned to ask again.
“Who are you? You are not…”
“Not Graybeard, Chieftain? Not me? I never said who I was. I am just old Goblin. What is surprising about me knowing how to fight?”
The old Goblin spread his hands innocently. Rags narrowed her eyes, taking in the collection of scars across his body. She was angry at being lied to, and perhaps Greybeard saw it.
If he did, he didn’t care. She opened her mouth a third time and Greybeard laughed. And the laughter consumed words and sound alike. He walked back to his greatsword and turned. All of the Goblins stared at him. And now he was taller.
“Who am I? I am Greydath.”
The name meant nothing to Rags or the other Goblins. Save for Noears. He moaned aloud and fell to his knees. The old Goblin laughed again. He stood tall and his voice echoed in the forest, across the lake. And now he was taller still. A giant contained in a small body.
“In years past they knew me across the world. They shouted my name. Enemies, allies. The world trembled as we built, and then destroyed. And though many have forgotten his face, so long as one Goblin lives, his dream continues. I served Velan the Kind. And he named me his servant of arms.”
The old Goblin was decrepit, scarred by thousands of battles, missing most of his teeth. An elderly, battered warrior. And then he drew his sword out of the ground and he was different. His eyes blazed, his smile could eclipse the sun. He raised his blade and Goblins fell to their knees around him. His voice echoed as he raised his sword, proud, unwavering. Another Goblin, dignified, ancient, and vast as the sky spoke his name to the world.
“I am Greydath of Blades. Once, a Goblin Lord.”
He bowed, mockingly, towards Rags. She felt her skin chill and freeze. A low sound swept through the Goblins, like wind, like the heart of a storm.
Here stood a Goblin Lord. Out of nowhere. It was impossible and yet—who could deny it? Surely no other Goblin had his skill, his strength. And no other Goblin could lie, would lie about this.
Something was wrong, though. Rags searched Greydath for any sign that he was who he said he was. And found nothing. He had no pull among the tribe, no mental draw or connection that told him he was her greater. He had no aura that marked him as unique, or even as a Hob. That was something intrinsic to all Goblinkind and he lacked it.
The awe the other Goblins held him in was a product of his might, not anything else. Rags had felt the pull of Chieftains, weak and strong. She felt the distant call of the Goblin Lord, urging her to heed his call. All Goblins called each other, all were connected. But here stood a Goblin Lord, a true Lord, a vassal of the previous Goblin King himself and she felt nothing.
He…was like a ghost in the world. He didn’t fit with the others. He didn’t pull at her, didn’t meld with her being like other Goblins did. Why? Or more probably, how?
Rags narrowed her eyes. She didn’t know if this was Greydath’s choice or…a consequence of the last Goblin King’s death. And yet, she did not doubt for a second he was telling the truth. Greydath stood with his rusted and battered greatsword stuck in the dirt beside him, ragged grey beard waving in the cold wind, and still he crushed everyone with his presence.
But why had he come here—no, why had he revealed himself now of all times? Because the enemy had been too great? From the way he had simply wounded the Chevalier, Rags was certain that wasn’t it. She stared at him and forced saliva into a dry mouth.
“Why are you here?”
The old Goblin’s wrinkled brows raised. He grinned at her with his remaining teeth.
“To see whether you are worthy.”
He pondered the question as the hearts of thousands of Goblins thundered in the silence. Here stood a Goblin Lord. And his reply was simple.
He shook his head and Rags stood, staring at him. She felt crushed, though it was one word. She felt small and worthless. Greydath looked at her and she was a child, looking up at him.
“You are too young. Too small. Too weak.”
He stooped, bending down to look at her, a kindly Goblin who had brought down empires.
“But most of all? You are not enough.”
“You do not crush others with who you are. That is all.”
Rags did not understand and Greydath saw it. He turned and raised his sword. His voice echoed across the lake. He swung his blade and there was a tearing sound, a howl. Goblins threw themselves flat. Across the lake, the waters parted, cut by something Rags could not see. They flowed together and Greydath roared.
“Overwhelming! Goblin Lords define themselves by their overwhelming talent! In combat, with sword or axe or bow or magic! With their minds, or hearts! Goblin Lords must stand above all others!”
He swung his weapon again and a tree fell. Hundreds of feet high, it tumbled into the waters. Greydath raised his sword and roared.
“A Goblin Lord rules over other Goblins! They are unmatched! I am the greatest of blades, the one who could not be defeated by force of arms! I am Greydath! And you would be a Lord? Equal to me?”
Rags couldn’t answer. The air grew tight around her throat and she gasped for air. Greydath laughed and turned away. She coughed, breathing in painfully.
“You. You are not enough, child Chieftain. Tremborag is not enough. He is old, lazy, fat on his arrogance. Garen Redfang is complacent in his strength. That is what I see. But I wonder, is the Goblin Lord truly as flawed as others claim?”
Is he like you? Rags could barely breathe. Greydath laughed mockingly again.
“No. He is young. But he must be worthy of his position. But even if he is—I rode with the Goblin King. He is not my equal. And you are not worthy, child! Not yet. None of you are worthy to even remember the face of the Goblin King!”
Where had the kindly old grinning Goblin gone? Greydath swung his sword again and this time Rags felt a hammer drive her flat into the ground. He’d struck her! With something—air?
She gasped and curled up into a ball, feeling flashes of pain. Now the other Goblins moved. Instinctively they tried to protect their Chieftain. One paused as he stepped in front of Greydath—the Goblin Lord swung his sword and the Hob flew through the air, crashing into others. Other Goblins surged forwards; Greydath sent them flying or crashing down with casual swings of his sword.
“Old one. Stop. Stop.”
Pyrite stumbled forwards. Greydath paused, sword raised.
Deferentially, Pyrite bowed his head to Greydath as Rags uncurled, gasping.
“Too far. You are too much.”
There was no apology in Greydath’s tone. He turned.
“I am going, young Pyrite. Going to see what the Goblin Lord is. Your Chieftain is too small, yet. She may be something if she grows, may be not. I will not wait.”
He began to walk away. Rags croaked a word, and then she scrabbled after him. She grabbed Greydath’s foot as he walked away, ignoring the mud that clung to her body. He stopped and stared down at her.
Rags could only say that word. But what she meant was why everything? Why was he in hiding? Why did Pyrite know him? Why had he not—not—
Why had he not led his people as they died? Greydath bent down. His voice was low as he met Rags’ eyes for the first time. She saw sorrow in the depths of his crimson gaze. Sorrow, a burning hatred that had lasted for ages, and something else. Regret?
“Because I cannot be King.”
Then he lifted Rags up by one hand and casually tossed her aside. Rags tumbled through the air and landed poorly on the ground. The other Goblins backed away as Greydath strode through the destroyed camp, out of the forest and into the distance. When Rags picked herself up, he was gone.
The Goblin Lord had been here all along. He had hidden himself, a legend from the past, among them. Poisonbite was almost out of her mind, gnawing at her hand, remembering every time she had been around the old Goblin. And he had stayed in Tremborag’s mountain for years! Why?
No one knew. But they had all seen him, all heard his words. Their Chieftain was not ready to become a Goblin Lord. That was natural, perhaps. But to see him and to see the small Goblin who’d picked herself up afterwards—
Overwhelming. That was the word that defined Goblin Lords. So Greydath had said. Overwhelming. He had been unmatched in battle. The Humans who had decimated Rags’ careful strategies had broken themselves on his blade. And now he was gone.
The Goblins longed to follow him. Noears was sitting, pale and quiet by the fire. Redscar was staring at his sword, as if he suddenly realized he’d been playing with sticks all his life. The other Goblins were the same. They would have followed his back, abandoned their tribe without a second’s thought if he’d but asked. But—
He was like a ghost, like Rags had sensed. He had a physical presence, but no mental connection to the tribe. He had been a Goblin Lord once, yes, but he was not one now.
It was Noears who said it first. The other Goblins looked at him. He nodded to Rags. She was sitting where Greydath had tossed her, staring at the ground. He looked around.
“Not yet. Maybe not ever?”
Would that be a bad thing? A Goblin Lord was rare. And yet…Noears was staring at the place where Greydath had stood. His hands were trembling.
“Another tribe could be. Could be—”
A Goblin Lord. The thought made all of them shudder with fear and longing. The Goblin Lord to the south was not worthy, but everything in their natures cried out for one. A Goblin Lord, and a Goblin King. If Rags could not be one, then—
A voice spoke. Noears spun. Pyrite stood over them, rubbing at his newly-healed chest. He shook his head.
“Not go. Chieftain is young. Small. But not unworthy.”
His voice gave the other Goblins pause. Yet in the face of what they’d seen—one of Tremborag’s former Hobs raised his voice, speaking in a wheedling, obsequious tone.
“Chieftain is young, yes. But you are strong. One of Greydath’s students? Could be Chieftain?”
The other Goblins held their breaths. He was suggesting treason. Pyrite stared blankly at the Hob, and then raised his hand. He made a fist and punched at the Hob’s head.
The other Hob was a warrior, and a good one. He raised his arm, yelping denials. He was going to block. So Pyrite changed the angle and arc of his punch mid-blow. He casually walloped the other Hob in the head without missing a beat. The sound was heavy and satisfying, but the blow itself made all the other Goblins gape. Across the camp, several Redfang Warriors sat up with interest. Redfang stared at Pyrite, impressed.
Pyrite shrugged as the other Hob toppled over. Redfang stared at the fallen Hob and narrowed his eyes.
“Greybeard—Greydath teach you anything?”
The big Hob paused. He shrugged impassively, not a flicker of emotion crossing his face. He was either simple as he seemed or—the other Goblins recalled Greybeard’s false persona—a truly magnificent actor. Pyrite scratched at his belly as he replied to Redfang.
“Teach some. Some. Important things, not important things. Some.”
The other Goblins looked at each other.
Pyrite shrugged again.
“Not much. Old things. Stories. But I left mountain long ago. Made own tribe. Long past.”
He flicked his hand and no one bought it for a second. Poisonbite narrowed her eyes.
“Rags beat your tribe.”
“Lots of arrows. Can’t dodge good. Plus—Garen Redfang. Good not to fight, I think.”
Pyrite steadily returned her gaze. He turned and bowed his head.
Rags stood behind the Hob, small, looking pale. The other Goblins hesitated a second before getting to their feet. And she saw it. Rags stared at Pyrite, and then at the other Goblins.
She said the words bitterly. None of the other Goblins could look her in the eye. Save for Pyrite. He nodded and moved on.
“Chieftain, Humans are coming back. What to do?”
She blinked at him. The listening Goblins blinked at him. But Pyrite just waited, patiently as ever, for Rags’ orders.
The small Goblin hesitated. She scuffed at the ground.
Pyrite pointed that out and she glared at him. Rags opened her mouth to tell him fighting was impossible, that Greydath had been the only one who could fight! Then her eyes caught something at Pyrite’s side. She stared.
He blinked and looked down. The axe Rags had given him—her first gift to any of her followers after the raid with Tremborag—had broken. He lifted it and shrugged.
He handed it to her and Rags stared at the broken metal and wood. She looked around. The forest was full of trees. Tall ones. And yet, Greydath had toppled one in an instant. She stared at the fallen tree, and the Goblins saw something flicker across her face. The small Goblin was small. But then she smiled and she was a bit taller.
Their Chieftain turned to face the others and lifted the axe in her hands. She hefted it with a grunt and looked towards the trees.
“Get cutting. We do not run. We prepare.”
The Goblins looked at her and then at each other. Then they stood up. Pyrite spoke for all of them.
The next day, forty Rose Knights, Lady Bethal, and the Chevalier Thomast stopped in the same spot and saw the Goblins had not fled. If they had it wouldn’t have mattered; the Knights of the Petal were as adept at fighting on horseback as they were on foot. That they had to dismount to maneuver in the forest mattered not at all.
However, one thing had changed. Lady Bethal’s brows rose as she saw a few trees had been felled in the interior of the forest. And out of the wood the Goblins had built—
Thomast had healed from his wounds of yesterday, but still Bethal had refused to let him be first into combat. Should the Goblin with the greatsword appear again this time, he would be dealt with by others. The Rose Knights would surround the old Goblin and wear him down with numbers and magical artifacts instead. Only, it seemed that rather than send their champion out and base their strategy around him this time, the Goblins had been building.
A wall of wood, a mighty barricade from which Goblins could repel any attacking force. There were four such walls, each one twenty feet in height, forming a box amid the trees. There the Goblins had decided to make their stand, in their fortress of wood amid mud and snow. It was a worthy place to be besieged from. Bethal could spot more Goblins behind the walls, ready to hold it for as long as it took. She sighed and shook her head.
“How ingenious. They did that in one day? I would say it is commendable—but I won’t. Thomast? Destroy the walls.”
Her Chevalier nodded. Reluctantly, Bethal thought. Even after he’d been nearly killed—her heart beat faster in fury. He was too kind. He nodded at one of the Rose Knights standing next to him. The Goblins watched, curious. They had heavy shields on their walls and barriers made of thick wood. They were probably confident they could withstand however many arrows the Rose Knights had brought.
One of the Knights of the Petal who looked less bulky than the others raised a staff in their pink, gauntleted hands and pointed it towards the walls. He spoke a single word, pointed. One of the Goblins on the walls with no ears shouted an alarm—
Too late. The [Grand Fireball] spell shot through the forest and burst across the walls. Goblins screamed and disappeared into an inferno and the flash and smoke blinded everyone for a second. When it was over, a huge hole had opened up in the thick walls and thousands of Goblins were suddenly afforded a spectacular view of the Rose Knights. And vice versa.
“[Knights] can be [Mage Knights] too, little Goblins. Advance!”
Bethal’s voice snapped and the Rose Knights charged once more. They raced towards the Goblins who met them with a roar. Only, now they were boxed in, trapped by the fortress they had worked so hard to design! The Rose Knights charged towards them, intent on holding them in place and capitalizing on this mistake.
The ruse lasted until the first pink knight was nearly upon her Goblins. Rags, sitting on one of the back walls, gave the order. She raised her hand and Pyrite pointed. Goblins hidden behind one of the huge trees saw the signal and pushed.
Goblins and trees. Of course, they’d cut a few down to build this stupid little fort, but they’d spent the rest of that time carefully, carefully sawing at the base of the trees, making sure they were still standing upright, but able to be pushed—
The first tree, an ancient guardian hundreds of years old, fell with a thundering crash upon the Rose Knights. They cried out, unprepared for a few thousand pounds of wood to hit them. Rags clenched her fist as two of the Knights went down, pinned by the branches. And one more had been directly hit! She shouted in celebration—
Until she saw the knight was still moving. Weakly, yes, but the impact had only dented their armor. Rags stared. The other Knights were lifting at the tree, trying to recover their comrade—
She pointed to Pyrite. He nodded and pointed to two more trees. The Hobs and Goblins hiding behind them heaved and down the trees went. It was hard to aim them of course, but it was fortunate the pink knights were such a colorful target.
One huge tree was aimed straight at Lady Bethal. She blinked at it. Ten of her Rose Knights roared as they leapt towards the tree. They braced themselves and caught the tree as it fell towards them. Rags gaped.
Four more trees were toppled, but the Rose Knights were retreating out of the forest now. Two of their comrades lay on the ground—unconscious or dead, it was hard to tell. Some of the other Rose Knights had dented armor.
It was a paltry victory in Rags’ mind, but the Goblins around her cheered wildly to see the invincible Humans retreat. And without Greybeard! She could see them staring at her, and sat a bit straighter.
Overwhelming. She knew she was weak as a warrior, but her mind? Rags narrowed her eyes. What would the Human [Lady] do next? Burn the forest down? Attack from afar? Rags had prepared herself for everything, but she was still not ready for what Lady Bethal did next.
“That little minx.”
Bethal narrowed her eyes as she stared at the downed trees and eyed the Goblin fortress. She couldn’t spot the Goblin Chieftain this time; if she had, she might have had her shot from afar, never mind Thomast’s objections.
One of her Rose Knights who’d survived having a tree dropped on him saluted her. His helmet was dented and he was unsteady, but his voice was clear and worried.
“Milady, they are attempting to surround our position.”
He pointed to the Goblins as they streamed slowly out of the forest. Did they have another plan or was this a feint? Were the two of her [Knights] alive? Bethal’s heart ached and her head hurt trying to figure out what might happen next.
“Sir Kerrig, it seems we’ve been caught off-guard. What do you propose we do? If the Goblins can take out two of my Knights of the Petal, is it worth risking more of your lives?”
He bowed, fearless, wobbling only a bit as he straightened.
“My Lady Bethal, we do not fear death when valor awaits! Only give the word and we will slay the leader of these Goblins. With your permission, we can retreat you to a defensible location while a core of us strike at the Goblin Chieftain. If we kill her, the rest of the Goblins will lose their command—”
Bethal said it suddenly and decisively. Sir Kerrig and the other Rose Knights stared at her. He wavered.
Lady Bethal looked at the two Knights pinned underneath the tree, thought of the old Goblin, and looked at the Chevalier Thomast. Her voice held a note of complaint in it as she addressed her husband.
“Thomast, I’m not in the mood to hunt Goblins any longer. Let’s go home.”
He blinked at her. Bethal stared back. Thomast turned.
“Sound the retreat.”
The Goblins wavered when they heard the horn call and saw the line of pink knights moving backwards in tight formation. Rags frowned as she saw Lady Bethal unhook one of her earrings—she’d worn earrings to a battlefield—and lightly touch the gem. She began speaking into the gemstone, and part of what she said drifted through the wind and was picked up by Rags’ keen ears. And the ears of the rest of the Goblins.
“Magnolia? It’s me. Yes, Bethal. I’m not hunting the Goblins anymore. What? No, I see them. They’re right in front of me. But I’m giving up. Okay? Wait—stop shouting!”
There was a pause as Bethal listened to someone on the other end. Rags’ jaw dropped slowly. Bethal’s voice rose, indignant.
“I lost two of my Rose Knights. Two! You said they’d be easy to—no, don’t shout at me! There were unforeseen circumstances that—how many were killed? A few hundred…maybe a thousand. Yes, there are lots more. No, I’m not doing it! There’s too much risk and I don’t feel like it. Yes, I don’t feel like it. I’m going back to my estate. Send a carriage to—hello? Hello?”
She threw the earring to the ground and stomped on it. Thomast bent to pick the earring up from the frosted ground. Bethal tossed her head angrily.
“The nerve of that woman! I was about to tell her about that old Goblin—not that he was that much of a threat. You underestimated him, Thomast.”
“I did not.”
She stomped her foot.
“Yes you did! I keep telling you not to and you do! You could have beaten him—”
“He reminds me of an old story.”
Thomast straightened, cleaning the earring with a handkerchief one of the Rose Knights offered him. He watched the unmoving Goblins over Bethal’s shoulder as he spoke.
“During the Second Antinium War, there were mighty Goblin Lords. Each known for their abilities in some way or another. One was known as the greatest warrior, someone whose skill at arms let him cut the air itself, a Goblin who could match any [Blademaster], any [Sword Dancer] or [Duelist]. He was called Greydath, I think. Greydath of Blades. That old Goblin reminded me of him.”
Bethal stared at her consort for a second and then burst out laughing. She patted his arm lightly, chuckling and wiping tears from her eyes.
“Don’t be silly, Thomast. The Goblin Lords all died out. They fell when their King did, or led their armies into oblivion shortly thereafter. He’s just an old Goblin. A veteran of the Goblin Wars, perhaps. You are prone to your silliness, aren’t you?”
“My apologies, milady.”
He bowed to her and she pouted.
“Call me ‘my dear’, or ‘wife’, or Bethal. Oh, Thomast, I’m feeling invigorated after all that fighting. I don’t know how I’ll explain the loss of two of my Rose Knights to Magnolia or their families. Comfort me?”
She clung to him. Thomast shook his head.
“Prudish. Do be a dear and find us a nice deserted house so we can be alone. Or a tent. Or a bush. Or we can just find some grass and order everyone to look away.”
He smiled and lifted her into his arms as the other Knights of the Petal coughed or looked away. Slowly, Thomast turned and, still carrying Lady Bethal, he began to march with the other knights into the distance. It was as if the Goblins had completely been forgotten by all of them.
Chivalry, valor, passion, and dignit—and virtu—and nobility. Such were the aspects that governed Lady Bethal and her house. The Rose Knights marched away as the Lady of House Walchaís let her husband carry her off into the distance. The Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe watched them go in silence. Rags closed her mouth after a while and looked around.
Blood and death remained. The scars of battle were fresh in the memories of the Goblins; they had burnt their dead out of respect. And there were fallen on Bethal’s side. Yet the lady turned away. And there was something admirable about that as insane as she clearly was. She lived for her whims. And there it was. Valor, passion, pride—it was something like that.
Rags scratched her head. Goblin Lords and [Ladies]. Pink knights. She really wished Erin were here to explain things to her.
“House Walchaís? Um…they’re one of the larger houses in Izril. They’re not one of the Five Families, obviously, but they came soon after the original noble families did and they can trace their roots back to Terandria.”
Lyonette paused and looked up. She was scrubbing the bar with Erin, a rare moment when the two of them could chat. She frowned, her forehead wrinkling as she tried to answer Erin’s question precisely.
“They’re mad as loons, all of them. They’re the kind of nobility who love to go on quests, and who train [Knights] and duel people over insults. From what I can remember…Lady Bethal Walchaís is the current scion of the house. She married a famous [Duelist] after eloping with him and then came back to establish her own branch of [Knights] and take control of her family. She’s arrogant, prickly, and her husband has killed twelve people in duels of honor.”
Erin blinked as she raised her wet dust rag and scrubbed at a stain.
“Whoa. That’s a lot. I think. Is it? No—twelve people? That’s a lot.”
“And those are just the ones killed, remember. Lady Bethal has many friends, but many more enemies.”
Lyonette grimaced and took a drink of cold water before wiping away a bead of sweat. Now it was coming back to her, all the little squabbles and ever-shifting networks of names and political alliances. She smiled as she recalled something Erin might like.
“She’s also known for her flights of passion. Did you know she once bought five hundred prime horses to establish her own horse breeding industry? Only, within a month she’d gotten bored so she fenced off twenty thousand acres of land and let them roam wild. They kept repopulating until there were so many that her lands became famous for exporting war stallions anyways.”
“Whoa. Hey, how do you know all of this? Do you know these Wal—Wallchase people personally?”
The [Princess] turned [Barmaid] rolled her eyes and laughed.
“Erin, I was a [Princess] who took part in the politics of the realm. I have to remember all of it. Only, I was a bad student so my tutors always despaired. I suppose memorizing orders as a [Barmaid] helped my memory. But why do you want to know about House Walchaís anyways? Do you have an issue with them or know them somehow?”
Erin opened her mouth and frowned.
“You know what? I have no idea. Oh. Right! I didn’t mean to say Walchaís, I meant to say Welch’s juice. You know—grape juice? Oh right, you don’t know. Anyways, they make grape juice. I wish I had some.”
Lyonette stared at her. Erin stared back and then raised her hands.
“Right! Back to work!”
They went back to cleaning the tables. After a while, Lyonette raised her head.
“I wonder if there are any vineyards around here. Terandria has a lot, but do Drakes or Gnolls raise grapes? Do they even grow in this climate?”
They stared at each other and shrugged. The Goblins were downstairs, sleeping off a food coma, the inn was quiet, and for the moment there was tenuous peace. After a while, Mrsha rolled across the floor, chewing on a magic wand.
It was a relief to have a peaceful day in the inn. Especially after all the trouble with the Goblins they’d had. And all the trouble they were about to have. Erin shook her head.
“I sort of wish I was with Rags right now. I bet she’s keeping nice and quiet, you know, keeping her head down while all this Goblin Lord business sorts herself out? She’s smart.”
She tapped her head. Lyonette nodded obligingly.