He is coming. He is nearly here. He is coming. He calls. He is a Lord and he calls your name.
The Goblin awoke. He lay and stared up at the dark stone ceiling overhead for a second, and then rolled out of his bed. The rough, woven mattress barely bothered his thick skin. He had wool and cloth, scavenged or stolen to make it warmer and more comfortable, but it was hardly luxury.
In this place, other Goblins slept on silk blankets stolen from merchant caravans carrying goods from as far away as Chandrar. But this Goblin liked the simple, undecorated room he lived in. It was bare, without comforts. A warrior’s room.
The Goblin walked over to a pile of clothes and grunted as he kicked through them. Goblins didn’t bother with laundry unless something was really dirty, and many considered clothing an option rather than a rule in most circumstances. However, this particular Hobgoblin was used to wearing clothes and so he dressed himself before putting on his armor.
Simple leather armor. Worn down, but flexible. Unenchanted. In times past, he could remember wearing heavier stuff. However, most Goblins fought in rapid, brutal offensives. Speed mattered more than protection. If you got hit you were dead. And if you were up against enchanted weapons, leather made about as much difference as steel plate.
Clothing. Armor. The Hobgoblin looked around. His crimson eyes were weary as he rubbed at them. But that was a weakness he only showed in this room. By the time he pushed open his door—another sign of his rank—he was wide awake.
There were Goblins waiting for him. Two—one a regular Goblin, short by Human standards, and the other, a Hob, thinner than he should be but wiry with muscle. Both male. Garen grunted at them and they nodded.
Guards on his room. Another odd thing in this place. Posting two of his followers at his door had been a hard choice for him. It wasn’t like Garen had anything to steal. And he didn’t want to give away the impression he was afraid of being attacked in his sleep—Garen was confident he could kill anything creeping into his room. Nevertheless, he’d given in. It was a symbol of authority, and while it wasted time, his faction expected it of him here.
His faction. This place! Garen growled under his breath as he stalked the halls. Goblins were always up and about here. The small ones avoided him, rushing about with their work. The Hobs gave Garen space as well. They were Hobs and he was a Hob, but only a fool would have thought that meant he was on their level. And Garen had killed enough fools to make his point already.
This was the mountain. Dwarfhalls Rest, the former home of Dwarves in another age. Now, a Goblin bastion, home of the largest tribe in the north. The domain of the self-styled Great Goblin Chieftain, Tremborag.
And the tribe that had ignored the Goblin Lord’s summons. Here waited those who had refused to join him, who hated everything he represented. Garen bared his teeth and a Hob thought twice about walking near him and edged to one side of the corridor. But not all Goblins in this mountain were alike.
He was Garen Redfang, and if Goblins had anything close to a legend or hero, it was he. His name was famous. Once a Gold-rank adventurer, the only Goblin to ever hold that rank. Garen had infiltrated Human cities under disguise, taught himself to speak. And when he had left civilization he built a tribe like no other, a tribe of warriors trained in his image. And he had settled in a place Goblins called death. The High Passes.
As Goblin Chieftains went, Garen stood above all the rest. Or he should have. His tribe was powerful, and Garen was as strong as any Gold-rank adventurer.
And yet, he had come here. To another Chieftain’s hold. To join with another tribe, fleeing the Goblin Lord’s advance. Because—his tribe wasn’t nearly large enough to defy the Goblin Lord alone. If that were all, it would have mattered little. But there had been an unexpected complication. A young Chieftain, a genius whose talents were a mirror to Garen’s. Young, weak, inexperienced, but able to command a tribe far larger than her own with her ability to command, to lead, to think. Garen’s fist clenched.
Rags. The small Goblin from Liscor. She had left the mountain, claiming Garen was no true Goblin. And she had taken her tribe, many of the tribes he had gathered, and his tribe. His warriors. Over two thirds of them had gone with her. Those that had remained had refused to fight their traitorous kin. They had suffered Garen’s rage that day.
Power, fame, influence. These were Human concepts. In another place, in another tribe, it wouldn’t have mattered. Garen was Chieftain. The idea that his tribe, his warriors, would leave him was impossible. But in this place Goblins learned treachery and to think of things in terms of gain and loss, and not the good of the tribe. They replaced loyalty with ambition.
Politics. In the mountain, Garen was one of many Goblins with the rank of Chieftain. There were multiple Hobs with that status, with the drive and ambition to have tribes of their own. Yet all were somehow part of the same tribe, underneath the Hob that had created this anomaly. The Great Chieftain.
It was to this Goblin that Garen strode, despite the early hour. The burning certainty in Garen’s mind made him too restless to sleep. He had felt it. The Goblin Lord was coming. Like a blazing bonfire growing brighter, drawing closer, his army was marching on the mountain. Garen felt this knowledge in his core, in his bones, in his very soul. And if he had felt it, Tremborag surely had.
The mountain was not quiet. The halls echoed with Goblin’s chatter, the pounding of Tremborag’s Goblin [Smiths], the creak of the wooden bridges crisscrossing the mountain enduring the weight of hundreds of bodies every minute.
And screams. Oh yes. Not Goblin screams either, most of them. There were Humans and other species in the mountain. Prisoners. Captives. Some kidnapped, others captured during a raid or battle.
Women. Females. Garen tried to block out the sound. But two voices stood out from the rest. He heard male voices, shouting in agony. Garen remembered them.
Gold-rank adventurers. A scouting team, sent from one of the local cities to investigate this place. News of a Great Goblin Chieftain had shaken the Human cities’ complacency, and they had begun connecting the Goblin raids over the years, wondering if the villages, cities, and towns raided over the last decade could have been the work of one tribe.
So they had put out a request to scout the mountain and a Gold-rank team had taken it. Why not? It was dangerous, but the pay had been provided for by multiple cities. They could always run. And they were Gold-rank adventurers. What could Goblins do to them?
Screams. Garen listened. The adventurers were being tortured. The Gold-rank team had been a group of three. The two males were howling in agony. Somewhere, in a room nearby perhaps, Goblins from Tremborag’s tribe were torturing them. For information? Garen wondered. Perhaps they just enjoyed it. He shook his head. This place was too different. Too alien to what Goblins were. Too…Human.
Two voices. The Gold-rank adventurers had been experienced, strong. They’d infiltrated the mountain well, until they’d gone in too far. Garen had ambushed them, with a group of Hobs. The adventurers probably had no idea that Goblins could detect them even with [Invisibility] spells and other concealing enchantments. They’d put up a good fight. Garen’s side still hurt from where an enchanted blade had struck him, despite the healing potion he’d used. But he had slain more than a few Gold-rank adventurers himself, and Hobs were as strong as a Silver-rank adventurer without magical equipment.
All three had been taken hostage. But Garen didn’t hear the female adventurer’s voice. He suspected she’d killed herself with poison. He’d seen her chewing something as the Goblins had subdued the three. It wasn’t something male adventurers really thought of. He wondered if the two living adventurers envied her foresight.
More screams. Enough! Garen strode faster, outdistancing the sounds as best he could. He headed to two massive, open doors as his corridor widened. The center of the mountain was a vast feasting hall, a place where the Goblins of the mountain ate and feasted. And it was here their Chieftain could almost always be found.
Garen shouted one word as he strode into the room. It wasn’t a meal time, so there were fewer Goblins in the room. Some off-duty Hobs, eating, as was their privilege, scurrying servantile Goblins, carrying food, and a huge Goblin at the head of the room.
An enormous, fat Hobgoblin sat on a ‘throne’, surrounded by female Goblins and some of his most trusted lieutenants. He was eating savagely, and the other Goblins were maintaining a small distance away from him. Tremborag, Great Chieftain of the Mountain City tribe, looked up. His crimson eyes flashed fury for a moment, and he stared down at the approaching Hobgoblin.
Tremborag’s voice was a growl. Garen paused, his hand reaching unconsciously towards his sword. The other Goblins surrounding Tremborag stared with fear and envy at the red blade Garen carried. It was that which had earned him his second name. Redfang, for the enchanted blade. Garen, for the name he’d claimed himself. They backed up as Tremborag rose.
Up, up! A mountain of flesh. Tremborag was huge even by Hobgoblin standards. Many Hobs tended towards fat, but Tremborag had surpassed them all. He was massive, gargantuan. Compared to Garen’s lean, trained body he looked too slow and heavy to move. But Garen knew that was an illusion. Tremborag had not created this tribe, arguably the most powerful in the north, by being soft. The two Chieftains glared at each other.
It was always like this. In Tremborag’s mountain, Garen was his second-in-command. He couldn’t be anything else; Garen was too powerful, too influential not to be followed by a large faction, his Redfangs. And yet, Tremborag was his Chieftain. In any other tribe, Garen would have left or fought Tremborag for control. But it was different here.
With effort, both Hobs restrained themselves. Tremborag glared at Garen, his mood sour and savage. He reached for a haunch of meat and tore into it, letting fat and oil drip down his chin.
“What, Redfang. More adventurers, seeking to enter my mountain?”
Tremborag’s voice was deep, booming. It was also fluent in the common tongue. Garen replied less fluently, although practiced from past years of use.
“No. You know what happened. He is coming.”
The Great Chieftain paused in chewing a mouthful of meat. He glanced to one side.
The Goblins around him scattered. Tremborag watched them swiftly exit the banquet room with the other Goblins, leaving Garen and him alone. Then he looked down at Garen.
“He marched slower than I thought he would. This Goblin Lord.”
“Battle. He fought one at Invrisil.”
“True. But his tribe would heal on the march and grow. The Goblin Lord took his time. He has not sent out any raiding parties, any other armies.”
“Because he is coming here.”
The Chieftain of the Redfang Tribe bared his teeth. Tremborag nodded once.
“Because I am here.”
“Does it matter? He senses the Goblins here. And he is drawn to us. He wants my strength. Our strength, to add to his own. And he will not have it.”
The Great Chieftain crushed the bone he held in his hand. He tossed the fragments of bone aside, snarling. Garen repressed the urge to snarl as well. Both of them knew what the Goblin Lord wanted. Both of them felt his call. And both had refused. Garen, out of disgust. Tremborag…for other reasons.
“I felt it too. His call. The arrogance of it. To command me. To pull every tribe in five hundred miles into his army! But I refused the Goblin King and I refused him. If he comes to my mountain, he will leave with nothing. Or he will die.”
It was reassuring to hear Tremborag say that. Garen shifted his posture, keeping his balance, still wary of the Great Chieftain in front of him. A Goblin Lord. Among Goblins, they were rare. Powerful. Normally a Goblin Lord would be a thing of wonder, of pride. But this Goblin Lord—how could any Goblin follow someone like him? Garen had felt it. How could any Goblin Lord be like him? How could anyone treat with the undead, and worse—be a slave?
His disgust must have been apparent on his face, because Tremborag paused as he reached for a handful of walnuts drizzled with wild honey. He stared at Garen intently. The Hobgoblin shifted again, disliking the look. Tremborag seldom talked with Garen, save to make plans or order a raid. They did not work together well. But the giant Hobgoblin’s voice was thoughtful.
“Redfang. How old are you?”
The question caught Garen off-guard. He glanced up at Tremborag, frowned and thought about refusing to answer. But he reluctantly replied at last.
“Hah! Old for a Goblin. Young for anything else.”
Tremborag laughed as he stuffed the walnuts into his mouth. He chewed, swallowed, and glanced at Garen.
“You were young when Velan appeared, weren’t you? Do you remember him? Our beloved, late, Goblin King?”
Another odd question. Garen had to think honestly before he could answer.
“You never saw his face?”
“No. Heard him appear. Saw tribe leave. Many to follow. Never saw him. Only saw a Goblin Lord once.”
“Because it was war.”
Tremborag’s eyes gleamed. He picked up a pitcher of wine, kicking his foot and offering Garen one of the cups lying about. The Hobgoblin shifted his head a fraction to the left, declining the offer. Tremborag drank, speaking savagely. It was incredible to Garen—he had never heard any older Goblin speak of the Goblin King, Velan the Kind, with anything but regret and longing. But Tremborag’s voice was bitter.
“He told the young to hide. He told the old to hide! He told the pregnant and those afraid to fight, to hide! He took only the warriors, only those willing to follow him to death. So that when he fell, Goblins would quickly would rise again.”
“He knew he would fall?”
“Knew? He expected it! He came across the sea. From Baleros, fleeing his enemies. He knew they would follow. But he fought! He took every Goblin warrior in the world into his army and fought. He knew he would fall, he must have. If he had died in Baleros, he would have ended it all there. But he fought. And he invited us to share his folly.”
Tremborag drained the pitcher, threw it aside. It shattered as the Goblin glared down at Garen, his red eyes flashing.
“The arrogance of him. The waste! You never saw his face. But I? I sat here. On this throne when a Goblin Lord came to my mountain. I refused him then, and the Goblin Lord left. I sat here in this very spot when the Goblin King came here. And I looked him in the eye and refused to follow.”
The words made Garen shudder. He had refused the Goblin King? Tremborag? He tried to imagine it, and failed. He had never seen Velan, only felt the pull as a young Goblin, urging him to war, feeling the fury, the rage of his kin. And then—the loss. But Tremborag had refused the King to his face. Garen tried to see it. All he saw was a fat Goblin. Old, dangerous, but hardly the stuff of such legends. And yet, Tremborag’s voice betrayed that beast, that monster lurking within.
“A Goblin King could not rouse me from my home. Now another upstart claims to be Lord. If he comes to claim me, let him break his army on my mountain home. I am Great Chieftain of the Mountain and I bow to no Lord or King.”
Powerful words. Fighting words. Garen bared his teeth, relieved to hear them. He was coming. The Goblin Lord. And he would find nothing but blades at his throat. That would make all this, all this frustration worth it. And perhaps afterwards…
Garen felt at something in his pocket. Tremborag saw the movement and his eyes narrowed. Garen noticed and took his hand away from the tiny key, his hand sliding over the hilt of his sword. Tremborag ignored that and spoke slowly.
“A secret. I dream of it too. The secret Velan hid. And I will have it, Redfang.”
“We will have it.”
Garen glared up at Tremborag. The Great Chieftain eyed him and Garen tensed. He had magical artifacts, his sword, and his experience from years as a Gold-rank adventurer. But Tremborag was at least twice his age. Neither knew what would happen if it came to a fight between them, but both knew it would be to the death. At last, Tremborag nodded.
“One of us will. When the Goblin Lord is over, we will decide who.”
Slowly, Garen relaxed. He nodded. The dream burned in his mind. Memory. A Goblin Chieftain remembered the past, looked backwards through time. When Garen touched the key he could remember what Velan the Kind had hidden. Not what, but where. With a key. With two keys.
“Ready the mountain.”
Tremborag’s voice was low. He stared at Garen’s pocket, and his claws tightened on the arms of his throne. His voice rose.
“Summon to me my armies. Bar the gates! Sharpen swords and eat! The Goblin Lord comes. And we wait for him. There will be death soon. Death! Let the Goblin Lord come. He will never take the mountain.”
Garen bared his teeth in a fierce smile. Tremborag grinned as well, dark mirth. Their crimson eyes shone in the darkness. The Goblin Lord was coming. But all they could do was wait. To the south and west, another tribe, far smaller, was moving. And neither Garen nor Tremborag had forgotten, or forgiven.
Rags snarled the order as arrows sang through the air overhead. None of the Goblins around her argued. They broke into a run, streaming down the hill, as a force of Humans a thousand strong chased after them, loosing arrows and magic at their backs.
A Goblin with no ears panted as he broke into a run. Rags was mounted and she wheeled her Carn Wolf. Her hand rose and she pointed.
“Stall. [Firefly]. [Fire Arrow].”
Her words were punctuated by a flying bird or insect made of fire and a trio of fiery magical arrows. They flew into the ranks of the Humans, making them throw up their shields and halt. The Goblin running behind her grinned and pointed back as well.
Lightning crackled. Thunder roared. The ranks of the Humans flew apart as a bolt of lightning blasted the first rows of Humans. Rags heard screams and an order. The Humans held their ground and more archers and mages began filling the air with projectiles.
“They stopped. Move faster!”
Rags snapped at the others around her. A group of Hobs and smaller Goblins ran behind her as she kicked her Carn Wolf in the side. The gigantic wolf with rust-colored fur bounded ahead. Rags heard a snarl as a Hob was struck by an arrow in the back, and a shout of pain as someone was hit by a magic spell. But the Goblins kept moving. The Humans were too far away for their arrows and magic to do much good, and they weren’t high-level. But there were a lot of them.
And there were only about forty or so Goblins. True, nearly a third of that number was Hobs, but the Humans could overwhelm them with bodies. The infantry was slowed, wary of the magic spells that had come their way, but Rags turned her head and saw another problem heading at them fast.
She snapped as she saw a line of cavalry headed straight for them. The [Riders] were lightly armored, and there were only fifty or so but they could definitely tie up the Goblins long enough for the rest of the army to catch up. Or cut them down on the run.
Rags made a quick choice. She leaned out of her saddle and barked a command.
“Spell and arrow! One volley! Then run!”
The Goblins instantly reacted to her words. Half of the Goblins stopped, raised crossbows or grabbed an arrow and put it to their bowstrings and loose. Rags brought up a black crossbow with both hands, sighted, and fired. One of the Humans riding the horses cried out as his mount went down; the other arrows and another burst of lightning made the riders spread out. The Goblins didn’t pause. As soon as they’d fired they were running again. Enraged, the riders came after them.
Noears gasped as he ran, both legs churning up a hill. Rags was the only Goblin mounted; she saw Noears was at the back, with several of the fatter Hobs. She urged him on, shouting.
The Goblins knew the riders were right behind them. They crested the hill as the first of the riders began to ascend, swearing, swords drawn, spears leveled. The lead rider was aimed at Noears’ back. Rags pointed and an arrow of fire struck the horse in the face. The flame was too weak to do more than burn, but the horse reared, throwing its rider. Rags felt bad for the horse—less so for the Human. Up until this point Rags and her Goblins hadn’t killed a Human! They’d just been looking.
She wheeled her snarling Carn Wolf and urged it down the hill. Her wolf bounded past Goblins as they sped down the slope. The riders had to slow again when coming down the hill; they weren’t experienced enough to race downwards. But they were nearly on top of the Goblins. Just a bit more! Rags could practically hear their thoughts. Just a bit more and they’d be able to run them down! She glanced towards the forest in the distance. Too far away to reach in time. If you were on foot, that was. She grinned as she heard a horn blaring.
Just in time. The Humans on horseback hesitated when they heard the single, shrill blast. It echoed out of the forest, and then again. Rags heard a Human voice calling in alarm.
“Mounted Goblins coming out of the forest! A hundred of them!”
It was only around eighty. Rags saw a wedge of Goblins riding Carn Wolves, all regular Goblins, not Hobs, riding across the short distance between them and the Humans. They were whooping, holding weapons and screaming war cries. She heard them shouting a word as the Humans rapidly lost confidence behind her.
It was a name to inspire fear among Humans. The Redfang Warriors, mounted on the fierce Carn Wolves of the High Passes were a known threat. The Human leading the riders made a rapid decision.
It was the only smart thing to do. Rags grinned as the Redfang Warriors raced past her, harrying the Humans who were now on the defensive. They were a perfect counter to most riders; their wolves were lower to the ground and scared horses, allowing the Goblins to tear a mounted brigade to shreds in moments.
There was no tearing this time though; the Redfang Warriors just ran the riders back while Rags and her group of Goblins beat a fast retreat to the forest. After all, there was still an army at their backs and the Redfang Warriors couldn’t fight ten times their number. Well, they could, but Rags wasn’t about to try it.
Soon the Goblins were in the forest and after a few more minutes of running, Rags decided they were far enough away that the Humans would give up the chase. Their foot soldiers couldn’t run that far and they’d be wary of an ambush. She raised her hand and the Goblins slowed from their mad dash, gasping and pausing to pant.
“Five minutes rest. Heading back. Check injuries. Any missing?”
The Goblins looked around and shook their heads. One of the Hobs reached out and patted the Hob with an arrow in her back. The Hob grunted; the other Hob pulled the arrow out fast and applied a drop of healing potion, closing the wound somewhat. The injured Hob only grunted and patted her friend on the back. Hobs were tough.
Rags turned her Carn Wolf, patting it on the head and feeding it a bit of dried meat as it panted. She turned and saw the Redfang Warriors riding into the trees. One of them, a bigger Goblin with a scar over his face, waved at her.
Redscar, the leader of the Redfang Goblins and former second-in-command to Garen Redfang himself, looked expectantly at Rags. He was older than she was, and more experienced. But he instantly obeyed Rags’ commands, posting several of his warriors on watch and taking the rest of them ahead. They were heading back. As soon as the Goblins had taken a breather, Rags set a quick pace through the forest. She saw Noears looking up at her and hopped off her Carn Wolf’s back to jog alongside him.
“Lots of Humans.”
He grunted at her, grinning as if being shot at was normal. Which it was, if not exactly pleasant. Rags nodded sourly.
“Lots of them. Very wary. No good this way.”
“No good this way. No good that way! No good anyway, eh, Chieftain?”
She had to refrain from nodding. Rags scowled and kept her feet and arms pumping. It was like this everywhere. Humans were patrolling, hunting down Goblins in large armies. Rags had led her scouting expedition thirty miles north and run straight into a small army of Humans. She’d been hoping to find a way south, but no joy. The appearance of the Goblin Lord and his battle at Invrisil had set the north ablaze with worry. And Rags and her tribe was caught in the middle of it.
The Flooded Waters Tribe. Originally a small, barely surviving tribe based around Liscor. Now a tribe thousands strong, with many Hobs and a mounted force of Carn Wolves. In any other year, they would have been one of the strongest tribes in the region. But with the Goblin Lord facing off against Tremborag’s Mountain City Tribe, they were the smallest fish caught between two giants. And all the angry Humans. And yet, as Rags and her company of Goblins rode back towards the forest of tall trees, she didn’t see much anxiety among her tribe.
Oh, they were watchful. The Goblins posted in the treetops spotted the approaching Goblins from far away, which was good—Rags would have kicked their butts if they’d missed them approaching. But as she passed through a wooden barricade, Rags saw her tribe was getting about business as usual. Business as usual when they weren’t trying to run or hide or flee for their lives, that is.
What did Goblins do for fun? It was generally eat, sleep, have sex, poke each other and make Goblin conversation, or find something fun to do. Usually in that order. Goblins didn’t always have a lot of free time; scavenging for sustenance was an important job, especially if your tribe was big.
But Rags’ tribe was organized. They had tents, cook stations, supplies of food—a luxury—and latrines, the most important of Rags’ innovations. They’d dug into the forest and made it their own. There was food here, a handy lake for water, and a very defensible position. They’d fought off Lady Bethal and her Rose Knights here not a week and a half ago. Now they were living life well, which was to say, lazing about. It would be a shame to move.
But that’s what Rags had to do. She’d known it the instant she saw the small Human army patrolling the road south of here. She barked a command as she rode into camp and saw Goblin heads turn. The Chieftain was back! Like a ripple, that fact and Rags’ demand was transmitted through camp. She only had to wait a short while until she saw several Goblins approaching her.
A Hob looked up at her, squinting up at her and the Carn Wolf she was riding. The wolf sniffed the Goblin—the Goblin sniffed right back. Rags pointed.
“Moving out. Can’t stay here. Start get—getting—ready. Where Pyrite?”
The Hob pointed. Rags nodded and hopped off her Carn Wolf. She pointed.
It was a Goblin word, and the Carn Wolf had been trained to understand basic commands. It joyfully bounded over to a group of Goblins who were coming over with food for the Redfang Warriors’ wolf mounts. Rags strode through camp, feeling all eyes on her.
Rags. She was short, attractive, and just past four years of age. By Goblin standards that made her around twenty years of age, at least developmentally. Goblins could function as adults by the time they turned three, and although that meant they could work and develop quite quickly, there was still a huge gap between having an adult body and actual maturity. Normally, Rags would have been an ordinary Goblin in a tribe, but her fortunes had risen dramatically this last year. As had her levels.
Level 19 [Chieftain]. Level 13 [Mage]. Level 18 [Tactician]. Level 11 [Warrior]. By any standard, Rags had grown exponentially from when she’d first been a Level 2 [Backstabber] and Level 5 [Scavenger] hiding in the grass around Liscor. Her incredible growth was due to her genius. And yet, Rags knew it wasn’t enough. She passed through her camp, grunting as Goblins waved at her, keeping an eye out for one particular Goblin. She found him standing by a tree, eating. That, at least, was predictable. He was always eating.
Pyrite was facing Rags, but he was intent on something cupped in his hands. He looked up as Rags approached and she saw he was chewing on a handful of small, writhing maggots. The tree behind him was partially denuded of bark and Rags saw that there was a colony of some kind of insect burrowed into the wood. The Hob had raided the nest, judging by the angry insects trying to swarm out from the tree. Pyrite chewed on his snack, ignoring some of the biting brown insects on his arm and chest.
He nodded at her. Rags eyed him and nodded.
“Big ant-things. Bitter. Want?”
He offered her a maggot. Rags eyed it, and accepted one. She popped the squirming thing into her mouth and chewed. Then she shrugged.
“Small. Good rations?”
“Too much work.”
Pyrite shook his head. He mimed clawing his way into the tree and Rags nodded. Pleasantries done, Pyrite walked after Rags. He was a big Hob, classically fat, and deceptively placid-looking. Rags knew he was actually quite sharp at times, although she had trouble reading his face. Pyrite treated words like food; he had some at all times, but he didn’t generally share what he had with others. He was her second-in-command and she trusted him implicitly.
“Yes. Lots of Humans south.”
Pyrite nodded, unsurprised.
Rags pointed past the lake, west and slightly south. Pyrite nodded.
“Will make tribe go.”
He walked off. Rags watched him poke a Goblin and mutter a word and offer a maggot, satisfied. If their conversation had been short and unfulfilling by Human standards, it was simply because Humans had not made their mode of communication as streamlined as Goblins. There were no wasted words between them.
Rags had identified the problem; that their tribe had lingered in the area far too long and needed to move before the Humans encircled them. Pyrite had queried their direction and intent. Rags had given him a direction steering their tribe out of the path of any of the Human settlements she’d scouted. Thus, their tribe had a purpose. Pyrite spread the word and within minutes, the tribe was bustling with purpose.
Goblins loaded food and supplies onto wagons. Others grabbed weapons—crossbows, twenty-foot-long wooden pikes, and a host of assorted weaponry, some of it enchanted. Warriors moved into their assigned groups while children and non-combatants clustered in their assigned spots, gabbling to each other, moving with purpose.
Rags watched it all proudly, occasionally snapping an order and correcting a wayward Goblin. This was her ability, and her tribe. She was organized, and as such, everyone in the forest moved far more efficiently than any other Goblin tribe in the world. They were happy with her leadership by and large. If there were any exceptions, it would be the loud, irritated voice coming from a Human woman dressed in filthy clothing, being herded towards a wagon.
“Don’t touch me, you filthy monsters!”
A young woman with black hair and pale skin from lack of sunlight was snapping at the Goblins around her. They were patiently urging her onwards, trying to poke at her with sticks and sheathed swords. She was having none of it. Welca Caveis, former Knight of the Petal and now captive of the Flooded Waters tribe, swung a fist at a Goblin, making him duck. She lunged at a Goblin carrying a sword and was forced back as the other Goblins poked at her menacingly. Rags strolled over to watch. Welca spat as a Goblin poked her, pointing to a wagon.
“Just kill me already! I refuse to—stop poking me! Give me a sword and fight me like a—stop poking me!”
“Dead gods, stop arguing with them and just walk, Welca! They want you to get into the wagon.”
A tired voice snapped at Welca and the young woman straightened. An older man, his beard unkempt but his clothes in much better shape, walked past Welca. He wasn’t being herded.
“Sir Kerrig! We don’t know what these Goblins mean to do with us!”
The older [Knight] paused and turned to Welca. She was giving all the Goblins around her a look of deep mistrust—which was slightly hurtful, even to the Goblins. Sir Kerrig Louis, another Knight of the Petal who’d been stripped of his arms and armor, sighed.
“They’re moving, Welca. Marching, I have no doubt. And they intend to take us with them.”
“And we should just let them?”
Kerrig turned. His eyes found Rags, who regarded him curiously. He nodded slightly at her.
“It’s that or be forced there. Don’t waste your energy fighting.”
“If they intend to take advantage—”
“They would have done it yesterday, or the day before that. Or last week. They’ve fed us, given us clothing—which you turned down—and haven’t laid a finger on us.”
“They stole our armor! They stole my sword and attacked us!”
“After we slaughtered them. Welca, I am ordering you to get on that wagon as your superior. Stop wasting time.”
Kerrig pointed towards the waiting wagon and Welca hesitated. Neither [Knight] was bound, and after a moment Welca went towards the wagon without another word. Her cheeks were burning as she climbed up. Kerrig nodded towards Rags and followed her. She watched him climb onto the wagon next to a sack filled with looted potatoes and the Goblin driving the wagons clucked his tongue at the pair of mules hitched to it.
They’d captured two of the Rose Knights about a week ago, after dropping trees on them. Incredibly, the armored [Knights] had survived the crushing impact, although it had knocked them out. Lady Bethal had abandoned them rather than continue fighting in the trapped woods, and so the Humans had become Rags’ prisoners. It had been an odd thing, but Rags had elected to keep the two as prisoners rather than have them wander off and get eaten or lead a group of Humans right to them. She still wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with them, actually.
The first night after they’d been held captive and found themselves tied up, the two Humans had tried to escape. They’d overwhelmed one of their guards, stolen a sword, and promptly been flattened by a dozen Hobs. Without their armor, the two deadly Rose Knights were much less of a threat. What had happened after that was interesting, to say the least.
The younger Rose Knight was Welca Caveis, the very same warrior that Pyrite had dueled and nearly drowned in battle. She was defiant, raging at the Goblins, treating her every waking moment in the camp with hostility and suspicion. She feared the Goblins as much as she hated them, and was clearly a very nervous young woman; she feared for her chastity, her honor, her reputation, and a bunch of other things that confused the Goblins guarding her.
All they wanted to do was give her food and clothing so she’d stop smelling bad and complaining. Rags had made her treatment of the prisoners very clear. No one would take advantage of her prisoners, male or female. She had left Tremborag’s mountain for the way he treated his prisoners, among other things, and she would not compromise her beliefs. Nor would the Redfang warriors, who had made it clear what would happen if any Goblins disobeyed Rags’ orders.
Nevertheless, Welca seemed incapable of realizing this fact. Her fellow [Knight] and senior on the other hand was different. Sir Kerrig Louis had cooperated with the Goblins after he realized neither his life nor Welca’s chastity was in immediate danger.
He’d readily answered their questions about his name, whether Bethal was likely to return, and whether he liked raw meat or cooked meat—Kerrig Louis, not likely, and cooked meat—and been bemused when they’d left him and Welca largely alone. He hadn’t been permitted to roam, but Rags had noticed him observing everything with interest. She’d debated talking with him, but she’d been very busy these last few days.
The Goblin Lord was moving. He’d won a big battle and killed someone important, apparently. That was all the Goblins could find out, but it was enough. Like a kicked anthill, the Humans were out for Goblin blood and paranoid they might be attacked next. So Rags had been actively scouting for a way to head south, away from the Goblin Lord. The only route that she’d found that didn’t take her too near Invrisil, the Goblin Lord, or Tremborag’s mountain was west and then south. So that was where they were headed.
Rags saw her tribe was about ready, so she whistled and saw her Carn Wolf bound over to her. She rubbed its head and climbed up its fur. The Carn Wolf waited patiently until Rags urged him forwards, and then he padded towards the head of the tribe. Rags sat and turned in her seat and saw thousands of green faces and crimson eyes staring at her. She felt the eyes of her tribe on her, waiting, trusting her. Rags scowled.
She pointed and the Goblins went. In her wake followed her Hob escort, and her officers. They came out of the crowds, riding or walking behind Rags, a group of their own. Sir Kerrig watched the Hobs pass by his slower wagon and identified each of them at a glance.
Redscar, the normal-sized Goblin riding his Carn Wolf.
The appropriately named Noears, a powerful [Mage], walking next to Poisonbite, another normal-sized Goblin with a pair of poisoned daggers.
The Rockfall Chieftain, a female Hob who had commanded a fairly strong tribe before joining Rags’.
And a Hob from Tremborag’s tribe, nicknamed Quietstab, a seasoned raid leader who represented the rest of the Mountain City Goblins.
They had established themselves as her chief officers, her most trusted and influential lieutenants. Aside from Pyrite, her second-in-command, Redscar could be said to be strongest of the group as he lead the former warriors of Garen’s tribe. After him was probably Poisonbite and Noears, Poisonbite for her large group of female Goblins warriors and Noears’ for his small group of Goblins who could cast magic.
They were a formidable bunch and if Rags compared herself to them, she fell behind. Each Goblin was better at what they did than she was. Noears could throw lightning, Poisonbite was a better fighter, Redscar a better fighter and battle leader, and the Rockfall Chieftain and Quietstab were both probably stronger and definitely older than Rags. But what they didn’t have was Rags’ mind. That was why she was Chieftain.
Rags rode ahead as the Goblins behind her assessed her, judging her performance, arguing about what was the best course of action, but being loyal. Being Goblins. Although, it had to be pointed out that the definition of Goblin was still up for debate.
The officers talked quietly as Rags rode ahead, supervising her tribe as it began its march. Poisonbite stared at Rags’ back, looking around at the others. Not exactly challengingly, but questioningly. Noears shrugged.
“Less Humans that way. Lots of scouting. Doesn’t want fight.”
“Ran into Humans. Smaller. Thousand. Not too dangerous but bad fight many.”
The other Goblins nodded at this. Still, the Rockfall Chieftain sucked in her cheeks.
“Must fight soon. Cornered death otherwise.”
Her words gave the other Goblins pause. It was true that running wasn’t exactly an option forever. Still, Redscar seemed positive.
“Good run not fight now. Good food, good moving.”
He looked approvingly at the stream of Goblins marching. It was a multi-faceted comment, speaking to Rags’ ability to get her entire tribe moving very quickly, the way she interspersed Hobs among the regular Goblins to keep order, her patrols of warriors in case of danger, and not least, the speed at which the Goblins moved. One of Rags’ newest and best Skills was [Fleet Foot], a Skill that affected her entire tribe and allowed them to cover far more ground. And Goblins were already good at moving fast!
Grudgingly, the Rockfall Chieftain agreed things had been good with a pat of her belly. Goblins were always hungry, especially Hobs, but they’d been less hungry of late, and what was better, they hadn’t had to eat their own dead. In that sense, Rags was doing very well.
“Going march. Liscor?”
Quietstab looked around. The other officers shrugged. Maybe? Rags’ desire to return to her home was known, and the rumor in the tribe was that she planned on returning to the dungeon. There was food and magical items in a dungeon. True, there was a lot of danger there too, but if they had to choose between a bunch of angry Humans and a dungeon…
It was a matter for debate. Rags’ lieutenants often talked amongst themselves. It wasn’t that they didn’t trust their Chieftain—they’d left Tremborag’s mountain precisely because they trusted Rags more than him. It had been a moral choice. But Rags was young and her tribe was made of very disparate factions, so this…debating had become a normal practice. It wasn’t politics. Rags was Chieftain. But it seemed to the Goblins that she could be more Chieftain at certain times.
Still, if Rags had more than just her mind going for her, it was her right-hand Goblin, Pyrite. The big Hob was respected by all factions. He’d been part of Tremborag’s tribe when he was young, he was a good fighter which the Redfang Goblins loved, and he was experienced and steady, a good match for Rags. The real question was whether he was interested in Rags, which the data was inconclusive on. Goblins didn’t play card games, which was fortunate because Pyrite would have had the world’s best (and first) poker face.
“Pyrite. Where going?”
One of the Goblins decided to put the question to Pyrite himself. They came over as Pyrite was sharing the last of his larvae among some Goblin children. The Hob straightened, frowned, and flicked his ears.
He pointed. Poisonbite ground her teeth impatiently.
“That way lots Humans? Fighting? Or run and hide to Liscor?”
Pyrite thought about this.
“Don’t need fight Humans. Waste time. Hurts. Chieftain smart.”
That was his opinion plainly put out there all right. The other Goblins muttered to each other. Poisonbite folded her arms.
“No fight. Can’t level. If we can’t raid, can’t eat.”
Her words got a nod from some of the others, but Pyrite just scratched his chest. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a dandelion. A handful of them, actually. He offered them to the milling Goblin children, but they weren’t hungry enough to want the bitter things. That was a good sign. Undeterred, Pyrite chewed on the plants before replying.
“Raiding gets pink Humans. Undefeatable death.”
A bit of Poisonbite’s bravado faded as she recalled the nightmarish attack by Lady Bethal and her [Knights]. Hundreds of Goblins had died and only Rags’ quick thinking—and the reveal of Greydath’s true identity—had saved them. She stared at Pyrite and nodded slowly.
“Old Goblin. Goblin Lord. Greydath of Blades. Knew you.”
She pointed at Pyrite. The other Goblins stared at him. Just saying Greydath’s name, knowing that a Goblin Lord had been here, among them was amazing. But it was true. Pyrite had known Greydath. He’d stuck around the old bearded Hobgoblin. Everyone was thinking the same thing: had Pyrite known? He must have. And if he had, had Greydath taught him anything?
Pyrite farted. He let the other Goblins cough and back away and then shrugged.
“Old Goblin. Liked talk. Very secretive. Didn’t know much.”
He chewed another dandelion, passed more gas, and walked away. The Goblins eyed his back. Skepticism was heavy in the air—as was a powerful stink. That had been a very convenient fart.
Still, if Pyrite wasn’t going to speak, there was always more to talk about. Rags’ tribe marched fast, propelled by her Skill and the Goblin’s own quick pace. If anything, it was the pack animals who had to struggle to keep up. The tribe had acquired a lot of them and the plodding beasts were treated with care until they passed on, usually of old age. Then they were eaten as food, but Goblins knew the value of getting someone else to carry stuff for you. Plus, pack animals were a valuable emergency food source, not a primary one.
Soon the tribe passed out of the forest and around the lake and into wilder territory. Izril was vast, and Humans had yet to settle or intrude into some parts of the continent, despite having lived there for millennia. Oh, perhaps they had built structures here in centuries past, but monster attacks or disease or simply bad luck had erased their presence here.
The Goblins were well aware of the risks of travelling in large numbers in the wild and Rags had assigned a heavy scouting presence to match the guards keeping pace with the tribe. She received reports of wild animals, monsters, and steered her tribe accordingly. Redscar, as her subordinate in charge of military matters, got the same reports. His warriors attacked lesser monsters and animals where they could, scaring them off or collecting animals for tonight’s dinner. Only once did the tribe change directions as a whole—in response to seeing an entire colony of skunks.
Soon, the tribe found themselves reaching the first obstacle in their journey. They had entered a humid, wet area. Swampland, or maybe just an area flooded by the spring rains. The Goblins grumbled as they found themselves marching through the muddy ground. That wouldn’t be so bad; it meant few Humans were about since they hated getting dirty, but the passage of so many bodies stirred a far worse menace into the air.
Insects. A biting, flying swarm of midges and larger mosquitos and other pests descended on the tribe. There were so many that Rags had to actually pull her Carn Wolf out of the way to avoid riding right through a cloud of them. They followed her and Rags saw several mosquito-things land on her arm. She smacked them angrily, but more landed on her as her hand squished a trio of the offending insects.
One of the Goblins moaned as the insects descended on the tribe. There were so many and they bit and stung! Rags felt her skin swelling and starting to itch. The Goblins in her tribe began to complain loudly and the scouts rode back with bites all over their bodies, reporting that the swampland stretched for miles ahead.
Rags scowled as she heard the complaints mounting. The animals were going crazy as they felt the insects feasting on them and the Goblins were no less happy. She raised a hand and called an immediate halt. Swiftly, Rags called out and a group of Goblins descended on her position.
“Swamp! Bugs! How to fix?”
She’d called all the older Goblins, all the ones whose tribes had lived in areas like this to her location. There were about a hundred of them and Rags’ question immediately got a lot of headscratching. But one Goblin had an idea and she was immediately ushered forwards to Rags.
“Keep off skin. Got to keep bother. Swat fast. With flap thing.”
Rags scowled in confusion. The Goblin woman shrugged and poked her husband standing next to her. He muttered with her, found another Goblin to poke, and set off a chain reaction. Within minutes the Goblin woman found what she was looking for—a bunch of stringy reeds. She shredded them, creating a fine whisk of fibers and bound the lot onto a wooden handle. Then she flapped the whisk, stirring the air and chasing away a cloud of midges around her.
It was…Rags stared. What was it? It was like a whip, but made of many small parts. It wasn’t meant to hit things. How could it kill bugs? Then she realized that it wasn’t killing the bugs, it was just scaring them off! The insects sensed the whisk flying through the air and wouldn’t land so long as the Goblin woman kept it flying around her. Rags held out a hand and analyzed the fly whisk the woman gave her. She looked up and nodded.
“How many, Chieftain?”
A Goblin scratched his side as he asked her. Rags pointed to the tribe of Goblins waiting and slapping their arms, chests, legs, and each other’s backs.
This was how it worked. Each of the Goblins who’d seen the fly whisk knew what it looked like. They wandered into the tribe, poking, describing what Rags had shown them, and the Goblins they’d poked communicated that idea. All of the Goblins who knew anything about crafting immediately poked back with a general understanding of what was needed. Reeds or long plant fibers, sticks for the whisk, and so on. Goblins began gathering the material from the landscape or their stores and assembling the mosquito whisks rapidly. It was a communal effort which every Goblin in the tribe took part in.
Within the hour, these mosquito whisks were being used up and down the line of Goblins and more were being made on the march. Goblins waved them in the air, swatting any bugs stupid enough to land, and the amount of biting insects diminished greatly. This was a great relief, and also a talking point for Rags’ audience. They jabbered to themselves as Noears solved the bug problem around them by creating a charged field of air around his group. The bugs sensed the impending lightning and made themselves scarce as he talked with the others.
Now, how would Garen Redfang have handled a situation like that? Or Tremborag? Or another Chieftain? The other Goblins conferred, assessing Rags’ performance.
Garen would have ordered his Goblins to march through it and ignore the bugs. He probably would have regarded stopping to make anything as a waste of time and told his warriors to ignore the bites and march faster. Not exactly ideal, even Redscar had to admit.
Poisonbite and Quietstab had to admit that their Chieftain wouldn’t have been much better. Tremborag wouldn’t have cared about other Goblins. He’d have made sure he wasn’t being eaten alive and maybe some of his lieutenants would have proliferated the fly whisk designs, but nothing else.
And another Goblin Chieftain might have left the area rather than have to deal with the bugs. On the whole, Rags had reacted quickly and decisively. She’d seen a problem and solved it. With her head! True, she hadn’t come up with the idea, but asking for and implementing a solution wasn’t a natural Chieftain’s skill. Rags had also attended the suffering pack animal’s needs and they were being carefully protected by a few whisking Goblins as well.
On the whole, it was a good performance and the tribe found itself marching onwards without issue. Pyrite, who was suffering the most from the insects coveting his plump form, found himself lagging behind as he tried to make a longer fly whisk that could chase off more insects. He was grumbling and searching for appropriate reeds when he heard a sound.
“Don’t touch me! Don’t touch—”
He straightened instantly and turned his attention towards the source of the noise. Somehow, Welca had veered away from the main group of Goblins and was surrounded by a group of Goblins. Pyrite nearly reached for his axe before he realized it was missing. He began to run.
A group of Goblins and Hobs was surrounding Welca. They were from Tremborag’s mountain. She was shouting and trying to keep them off her—Sir Kerrig was shouting as well, trying to draw the attention of Rags and her tribe. But they were too far away. One of the Hobs caught Welca’s hand and grabbed her other one as she punched at him. He let another Goblin grab at her clothes as he laughed, and then felt a hand like a vice grab his head. He turned around, saw Pyrite, and paled.
There were six Hobs and about nine smaller Goblins. They whirled as Pyrite grabbed the first Hob. The former Tremborag Goblin was Pyrite’s height, but a lot thinner. He was muscled and strong and grabbed Pyrite’s arm. Pyrite squeezed the Hob’s head and heard a scream. He squeezed harder and the Hob punched at him wildly. Pyrite lifted the Hob, smashed his head into the side of the wagon and turned. The other Goblins stared at him.
One of the Hobs raised his fists. He punched and blinked as Pyrite ducked. He looked down and saw a fist coming up that broke four teeth. And his jaw. Another Hob punched Pyrite from behind, pummeling his body with furious blows. Pyrite turned, swung, and the Hob realized that a lot of Pyrite’s fat concealed muscle. He was bigger than all of the Hobs present and when he hit, the other Hobs fell down.
“Get back towards the cart!”
Kerrig shouted at Welca as he struck another Hob repeatedly in the face, dodging back as the Hob swung at him. Unarmed or not, the [Knight] was a better fighter than the other Hobs. Pyrite grabbed a third Hob and head-butted him, and then turned to one of the smaller Goblins. He had a knife. Pyrite raised a fist, pointed. The Goblin considered what might happen if he stabbed Pyrite and threw down his weapon. So did the other Goblins. The two Hobs remaining backed up. Pyrite glared around and raised his voice.
He bellowed across the swamp, making Welca and Kerrig clap their hands to their ears. The sound did what all the shouting could not. Pyrite saw Rags’ head turn and several Redfang Warriors immediately rode towards them, swearing angrily.
All of this had taken place within the protective circle of Rags’ scouts. Within a minute Rags was riding towards the Hobs with murder on her face. One of the Redfang Warriors was gesturing with a spear and the Goblins still conscious were being herded towards Rags for punishment. Some of the Redfang Warriors were already beating the offending Goblins before Rags called them off.
Pyrite had bruises and a cut along one arm from a claw. The Hobs lying on the ground had broken bones, missing teeth, and concussions. He turned towards Welca, who was covering her ripped clothing and staring at him. Sir Kerrig was panting, his knuckles bloody.
Pyrite looked at Welca. She backed up from him, and then slowly got out of the cart.
“You saved me?”
The Hobgoblin shrugged. Welca looked at him, and her eyes flicked to Sir Kerrig and the busy Goblins kicking the offenders. She hesitated, and then smiled at Pyrite.
“Thank you. I’m very grateful.”
He grunted, eying her. Pyrite turned his head and then jumped as Welca laid a hand on his arm. She smiled again, looking somewhat pained, and then pointed to the wagon.
“I must lie down. I’m very distressed.”
She waited until Pyrite nodded to walk back to her wagon. Welca eyed the Goblins, watched Rags snap orders at an arguing Redscar, and then slowly backed away from the wagon. Then she turned and ran. All the preoccupied Goblins looked up, surprised. Welca might have managed to run for a few minutes, if Pyrite hadn’t known exactly what she was about to do. He picked up one of the unconscious Hobs and threw the Goblin at Welca.
Pyrite was rewarded with a loud cry of pain and quickly stomped over. Welca looked up just in time to see his fist descend. Pyrite hit the young [Knight] over the head. Gently, which meant that Welca was still conscious enough to regret her escape attempt. The Hob slung her into a wagon as he kicked the groaning Goblins awake. He lifted up the Hob he’d thrown and glared at the befuddled Goblin. The Hob jerked awake, saw Pyrite, and tried to take a swing.
Pyrite caught the fist. The Hob stared at him and wilted. Pyrite looked back at Rags. She was watching him, and Welca. Sir Kerrig looked at Pyrite as well.
“I take it there are criminals among Goblins as well? What a thought.”
“No criminals. This—wrong.”
Rags spat the words. Sir Kerrig nodded. He looked at Pyrite and the Hob saw the older man straighten. Sir Kerrig had grey hair mixed with his brown. He was in his forties, for all he had the body of a younger man. He bowed his head slightly to Pyrite.
“My thanks, sir. Your people aren’t at all like what I’d given to believe.”
Pyrite blinked at him. The older [Knight] looked tired. He gestured.
“Might we speak? We are your captives, and I know our attack on you merits us no sympathy—but I would be in your debt if we might talk honestly. I’d heard Goblins could be peaceful, but I’d scarcely given it credence after Velan the Kind. ”
His words, the way he looked at Pyrite…the Hob stared at him. He rubbed his cut arm and then nodded. He looked around and waved at Rags. Welca sat up blearily in time to see Pyrite offer Sir Kerrig a slightly muddy dandelion. Pyrite smiled as the man stared at it in bemusement.