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What did they think when they looked at her? Did they see just another Human, another enemy? Did they judge her by her comments, the way she refused to so much as look at her captors or touch anything they handed her? Did they hear the revulsion in her tone and care? Did they even care?

Surely they must. Surely they heard every word, noticed the way she glared at them and tensed, clearly wishing for a sword in her hand. Sir Kerrig had noticed the difference in the quality of the food they’d given him as opposed to Welca, his junior. He received his bowl of soup or baked potato and hot slice of meat first; she got the colder portion or the dregs.

That was unlikely to change Welca’s opinion of the Goblins. But by the same token, Sir Kerrig could not find it in his heart to lower his opinion of her. She and he were of the same order, the Knights of the Petal, sworn to the Walchaís family.

She was from a larger house while Sir Kerrig was of the landlord nobility—that was to say, someone whose only claim to aristocracy came from their small holdings, diminished over the years. Sir Kerrig had inherited a small plot of land from his father, an unused property that had once been home to a village and small estate a century ago.

It had been worthless to him, save as proof he was in fact a lesser [Lord] of the realm. In name alone. Sir Kerrig had become a [Knight] instead, a rarity among first-born sons, and he had risen through the ranks of his order for years. He had seen war, fought against Drakes, ridden against Goblins and monsters for over three decades. To Welca, he was an experienced senior in her order, despite her greater social standing.

All of this meant that they were companions, the two unlucky [Knights] who had been hit by falling trees in the Goblin’s trap. They had expected to die and fought their captors upon waking. Welca hadn’t bitten her tongue or taken the easy way out in that first moment of horror either. She’d fought, resigning herself to whatever fate she might suffer. That she might live and return to her order. Sir Kerrig admired her courage.

How could he in good conscience condemn her hostility towards the Goblins? It was natural and she was young. So he didn’t snap at her or order her to silence. He tried to explain as they sat together in the smelling, bumping wagon. He tried to teach her something the Knights of the Petal wrestled with—something all knights of this day and age had to reconcile. That there was a difference between being a [Knight] and a knight.

“Look at them, Welca.”

“I’ve looked at them enough, Sir Kerrig. There’s nothing to see. They all look alike. Hobs, goblins, males, female—there’s not a shred of decency among them.”

“None?”

“They attacked us! Attacked me not five minutes ago!”

“And we were saved. By another Goblin. A Hob.”

“One of them. I’ve memorized his face. One of the tribe’s officers, like that group arguing over there.”

Welca nodded surreptitiously towards the Goblins. Her head was still ringing from the punch she’d taken from her savior, ironically enough.

The one who’d saved her, the one Kerrig had heard being called ‘Pyrite’, was standing next to the tribe’s Chieftain, a small Goblin mounted on a Carn Wolf. She was scowling and listening to an angry Goblin with a red scar on his face pointing towards the cowering Goblins who’d attacked Welca. The young [Knight] lady glared at all of the Goblins.

“I’ve memorized their faces. One of us has to spread the word when we’re freed. A tribe like this—”

“When we’re freed? Lady Bethal will not send reinforcements. She doesn’t know we’re here. She abandoned us, Welca.”

“She’s expecting us to return to her!”

The young woman’s eyes flashed. Sir Kerrig bit his tongue on a retort. Welca was enamored with Lady Bethal, the leader of their order and patron. Lady Bethal inspired the younger [Lords] and [Ladies] of Izril, to the extent that some had become [Knights] just to serve her. All well and good, but Sir Kerrig had known Lady Bethal since she was a child and he was aware that her passion and noble gestures were only half of who she was. Lady Bethal could be caring, driven, compassionate—or as uncaring as the sun.

“She left us, Lady Vis. If she had intended to free us, Sir Thomast or a force of our own would have assaulted the Goblins a week ago. You know as well as I that Goblin prisoners do not last long. Lady Bethal left us behind.”

“I know that.”

Welca’s shoulders slumped. Sir Kerrig looked away. It was a hard thing to swallow. He spoke dispassionately.

“It was the correct decision, if a hasty one. The Goblins were dropping trees and I could well imagine they had more traps ready to block a retreat. Lady Bethal is nothing if not pragmatic. I suspect she believed us dead in any case. She probably isn’t aware of our capture.”

“All the more reason to—”

Welca broke off, glancing around suspiciously. There were no Goblins around them in earshot. But she lowered her voice all the same.

“We must escape, Sir Kerrig. Our hands are untied. We could seize arms and make a break for it.”

“And fight off every Goblin that followed us? Assuming we could outrun the ones on foot, the mounted Goblins would hunt us down. They have Carn Wolves, Lady Vis. Born hunters. They don’t need to tie our hands to recapture us.”

“Then the Chieftain—”

“No.”

The force of Sir Kerrig’s tone made Welca look up in surprise. She glared at Sir Kerrig and he found himself frowning back.

“Sir Kerrig! We are [Knights] sworn to protect our people! If we have a chance—”

“Lady Welca Vis.”

The older knight’s tone was full of authority. Welca broke off, hearing it. Sir Kerrig sat up against the backing of the wagon’s side.

“As your superior, I am ordering you not to take any action against the Goblins. Or to attempt to escape. Instead, I am telling you to listen. To watch and when that Hobgoblin returns, to talk with them.”

“Why?’

Sir Kerrig glanced towards Pyrite, towards the young Goblin named Rags. He saw Rags turn her head and glance back towards him, her red eyes sharp with understanding. She met his gaze and then looked past him. Sir Kerrig slowly nodded.

“Because these Goblins are not savages. They are not the marauding bandits that have been striking across Izril. They did not kill us. Some of them believe in honor, in the accords of war.”

“So?”

Welca was shivering. She was dressed lightly and she’d refused a change of clothes. Sir Kerrig looked at her.

“I have killed many Goblins, Lady Vis. More than I can count. Not once did I offer them mercy. I expected the same from them. But you and I woke up as prisoners, not as corpses, or worse. Watch this tribe. See if they are different.”

Why?

The young woman’s petulant tone would have been better suited towards a [Lady], not a knight. Sir Kerrig sighed.

“Because it matters.

Welca looked at him. Sir Kerrig turned his head back towards the Goblins. In silence he watched and listened, and wondered if he’d been blind all his life, or if he’d simply ignored the truth. Because to his horror, when he looked at the Goblins standing and arguing, turning to their leader, ignoring the children running around the muck, brushing away flies, shifting impatiently, talking, thinking, speaking, he was terribly afraid. Afraid that he hadn’t been killing monsters, but people.

 

—-

 

Pyrite had a cut on his arms and bruises on his body. Some of the Hobs had hit him pretty hard. Still, it was nothing worth using a healing potion on. He stood next to Rags, resisting the urge to pick at the drying blood on his arm. A bloodsucking insect tried to land on the spot; Pyrite slapped it.

The smack of flesh meeting flesh made the other Goblins look up. Redscar scowled as he pointed at the Goblins sitting and shivering, the Hobs and regular Goblins that had attacked the [Knights]. Against Rags’ orders.

“Punish.”

Redscar said only one word, but it made all the sitting Goblins cringe. There was no sympathy, no compassion in Redscar’s eyes. Just fury. His Redfang warriors had been hitting the Goblins repeatedly until Rags called an end to it. Now Rags sat on her Carn Wolf, listening, a scowl on her face.

Punishment. Redscar’s word meant more than a slap on the wrist or no food for a meal. His version of punishment was digging a hole in the swamp and burying the Goblins up to their necks. If they survived, they were free to live. On the other hand, the Goblins standing across from him in the small circle shook their heads.

“Exile.”

So said Quietstab and his Goblins, the former members of Tremborag’s mountain faction. They glanced at their fellows with a mixture of scorn and sympathy—they had disobeyed their Chieftain, and yet none of them wanted to see their friends die.

“Wrong. Broke rules. Attacked! No honor!”

Another Redfang Warrior, a Hob, growled at Quietstab. The Redfang Warriors muttered agreement, looking at the offending Goblins darkly. They’d taken this offense most to heart; the idea of assaulting anyone, much less a prisoner, ran against everything Garen Redfang had taught them. It was Poisonbite who offered another solution to the stalemate.

“Cut.”

She grinned and flourished a dagger as all the Goblins stared at her. The Goblins sitting on the swamp floor—the male Goblins blanched at the suggestion. The female Goblins of Tremborag’s tribe had their own version of justice, a product of the gender gap in the Mountain City Tribe.

However, that was one opinion. Quietstab vehemently rejected Poisonbite’s suggestion with a slash of one hand. She grinned at him, showing all her teeth. But she didn’t take it further than another fairly explicit gesture. All eyes turned instead towards the true arbiter here.

Rags. The young Goblin Chieftain sat on her Carn Wolf, scowling, thinking deeply. Pyrite stood next to her, swatting bugs away, waiting. And thinking. This incident had placed Rags in a tricky spot. Pyrite had been a Chieftain once, and he could tell what she was thinking.

The problem stemmed from this tribe being made up of separate groups, other tribes. They still lacked unity, for all they acknowledged her as Chieftain. If they had been fully united, this would not have happened. As it was, the situation was tricky. Killing the offending Goblins was simple, but it would make the former Tremborag Goblins very unhappy—the male ones, at least.

Some of them still regarded rape and any form of torture done to Humans as quite acceptable, for all they’d left the mountain. On the other hand, giving the traitorous Goblins a lesser punishment would upset the Redfang Warriors, who loathed such actions to the core. And exiling the Goblins wasn’t a good option either; they’d probably run straight back to Tremborag’s mountain if they managed to survive, and that meant trouble in the long run for the Flooded Waters tribe.

A tricky situation. But not one that Pyrite would have struggled with long. He would have taken Redscar’s suggestion and had done with it. Chieftain was Chieftain. But Rags was different. He waited to see if she would surprise him, give the angry factions the answer he couldn’t. When she finally did look up and swat a fly on her forehead, Rags spoke.

“Punishment.”

She held up a claw as the Redfang Warriors grinned and the sitting Goblins tensed. Quietstab’s objection froze in his mouth as Rags looked at Redscar.

“Punishment. Not burying death.”

“What then?”

The elite Goblin warrior frowned at Rags. She tapped the shortsword at her hilt and then pointed at the Goblins.

“Punishment. Redfang style.”

It took a few seconds for Rags to communicate the idea to the other Goblins with a few additional gestures. Sometimes ideas were hard to express with the Goblin’s intuitive body language reading. When they finally understood, the Goblins looked at each other. Quietstab nodded in agreement. And it was Redscar who grinned.

“Fine. Punishment.”

The sitting Goblins looked up, half-relieved, until the Redfang Goblins glared at them. They cowered. Rags pointed.

“Marching. Enough time wasted!”

The sitting Goblins were forced up and scurried back towards the main tribe, who’d had to patiently wait this entire time, swatting bugs with their mosquito whisks. They were followed by the Redfang Warriors, who muttered insults at their backs and kicked at their behinds to get them moving faster. Pyrite watched. It was a good solution. Thoughtful. He nodded at Rags.

“Want talk.”

“Who?”

She glanced at Pyrite. He pointed.

“Humans.”

“Talk?”

Rags looked blank. Then she shrugged.

“Good. Talk.”

“You, Chieftain?”

She frowned and shook her head.

“Busy. You talk. Talk about what?”

For all her natural inquisitiveness, there was a limit to how much Rags wanted from the prisoners. Pyrite thought she was unsure of what to do with them, which is why she hadn’t released or killed them yet. It wasn’t as if they had anything to give her; Rags had asked them about Lady Bethal and heard about the plan to assault the Goblin Lord at Invrisil.

Beyond that the [Knights] had literally nothing to offer. And Pyrite didn’t know what Sir Kerrig wanted either. The fat Hob just shrugged as he felt something sting his shoulder. Quick as a flash he slapped the spot and stared at a smashed insect’s carcass and the blood it had sucked. He wiped his hand on his belly.

“Dunno. Human things, Chieftain.”

“You talk. I go. Practice. Talk next break.”

Rags scowled and Pyrite nodded. The tribe was moving again. The former Goldstone Chieftain trudged back towards the Goblins as another Goblin rode towards him. Redscar pulled his wolf back before it could slobber on Pyrite’s chest.

“Pyrite. Good job.”

It was high praise coming from him. The Redfang’s number one warrior was usually taciturn, but he looked approving. Pyrite nodded at him.

“Redfangs watch?”

“Yes.”

A group of Redfang Warriors were heading over to replace the regular Goblins on guard duty. Pyrite eyed them and spoke.

“Watch big one. Smart. Strong.”

Redscar nodded. He whistled, and two more Redfang Hobs came over to reinforce the area around Sir Kerrig. Pyrite grunted approvingly. He didn’t think the [Knight] would cause trouble, but if he did, it was better to have good warriors around him. Just in case. Redfang nodded to Pyrite and rode off, more mounted Goblins following him into the swamp ahead.

“Hey there!”

A voice made Pyrite look over. He saw Sir Kerrig seated in the wagon as a small Goblin climbed up and started the donkeys moving again. The Human waved at Pyrite. The Hob waved back. The puzzled look on Sir Kerrig’s face said that he didn’t understand.

“Talk?”

Pyrite waved again. He didn’t feel like shouting. The [Knight] stared at him and Pyrite pointed. Towards the moving tribe. The [Knight] nodded and sat back.

Talk? What a thought. Talk to Humans? Pyrite didn’t know what to make of it. Fortunately, he didn’t have to worry; there wouldn’t be time for talk right now. The tribe was moving and that meant he had a job to do.

 

—-

 

The issue of the traitorous Goblins had only taken around ten minutes to settle, from Pyrite finding them to Rags passing her judgment. Not much time was wasted and already the tribe was moving on. They needed a good spot to camp for midday—squatting in ankle deep water wasn’t appealing at all. However, the mud and difficulty of lugging the wagons meant the beasts of burden had to rest. Rags had Hobs take over as the bemused horses, donkeys, and other animals got to plod along next to grumbling Hobs pushing and pulling the wagons.

Pyrite strode back into the convoy as Rags watched. Each of her officers had a duty at times like these. Redscar was usually the scout, occasionally with Quietstab and his Goblins on foot. But usually Rags would keep a few of her better leaders in reserve in case of an attack. Poisonbite for instance usually marched with her warriors. But the rest of her Hobs and officers were spread around the marching tribe. To deal with problems.

What kind of problems? Just…problems. Most Hobs could handle things like a Goblin picking up a stick that turned out to be a biting snake. But sometimes Hobs got into trouble, like one that somehow shoved a stick up its nose and couldn’t get it out. Stupid problems, sometimes fairly dangerous problems. It was that which Pyrite sorted out, pulling out sticks, breaking up fights, making sure wagons didn’t get stuck or run over other Goblins, and so on. It wasn’t Rags’ duty to deal with squabbling; she got to ride along in peace until a major problem occurred.

So Rags occupied herself as she rode. She rode up to a band of Goblins sitting on a wagon, a mark of privilege. Noears grinned at Rags as all the hair on her Carn Wolf tried to stand on edge. Her wolf grumbled, but Rags patted his head and offered him some meat. She rode closer and saw Noears was holding some crackling electricity in his hand.

“Chieftain.”

“What teaching?”

She pointed at the lightning. Noears grinned and pointed around. Rags saw he was surrounded by fourteen adults and eight children, some of whom were clinging to the sides of the wagon since there wasn’t enough space.

Noears was teaching them magic. Rags wanted to know what kind. Noears pointed and the lightning in his hands jumped onto his finger and shot across the swamp. There was a crack and a thwoom of sound—all the Goblins around Rags jumped and several Carn Wolves howled. Rags glared at Noears, her ears ringing. He just laughed and held up his claws.

“[Lightning Bolt].”

All the Goblins around Noears stared at the Goblin [Mage]. He produced another handful of electricity and they ducked. Rags felt her Carn Wolf shift and patted his head. She raised her hands and tried to duplicate Noears’ feat.

Goblins didn’t believe in small spells. The theory was that if you were going to learn magic, you might as well learn something useful. Who needed [Electric Jolt] when you could learn to throw lightning? Noears certainly believed in that theory; he described the spell as the Goblins listened intently.

“Lightning go like this. Build up. In air. In hands. And then—shoot!”

He gestured. The simple explanation made more sense with his gestures, although the concept was abstract. He was telling the Goblins to build up a charge in the air, similar to how it felt right before a really big storm. Then to concentrate it in their hands and reach a critical mass of energy before unleashing it. All the Goblins concentrated, trying to reproduce Noears’ theory with varying degrees of success.

Rags watched the lesson, mildly upset. None of the Goblins here had any formal training. None of them had ever unleashed their magic like Pisces had done for her and Erin. Noears’ explanation of the spell was rudimentary, crude. It was how he’d taught himself. Rags thought of Pisces’ detailed explanations of how a spell should work. If she’d learned more—

But she hadn’t. And Noears was a better [Mage] than she. All Rags knew was how to cast [Firefly] and now [Fire Arrow], a spell Noears had taught her. The Goblins sitting on the wagon were all gifted, prodigies who’d awakened magic within themselves. They’d learn the spell—or not—and their chances of survival would depend on how much they could discover about magic from Noears or by themselves.

There was a bitter sense of fairness to it, in a way. Not even the Chieftain got special treatment. Rags concentrated, trying to form the image that Noears had described. Electricity crackled around her fingers, but failed to coalesce.

Lightning. It made less sense to her than fire. Fire was easy. All Rags had to do was feed it her mana and let it burn. Noears wasn’t good at fire, though. He understood making this energy come to him. How? Rags furrowed her brow, sweating as her Carn Wolf whined under its breath. Lightning, lightning…this was the problem. Noears was a lightning expert and she was fire.

Still, Rags persisted. She built up a charge with the other Goblins, trying to collect energy and not let it slip away. This was magic. It was tough, like wrapping your mind around a problem you only half understood, could only think of in abstract terms. Once you got it you understood. But until then…

“Chieftain? Break?”

Rags opened her eyes. She was sweating and covered in many bug bites. She saw Pyrite walking next to her and realized the tribe had stopped. The swampland had opened up into a slightly drier area and the Goblins were setting up for lunch and a break. Rags looked at Noears’ class and saw most of the Goblins were lying around, listless, having used up their mana. She wasn’t that badly off, but she was fairly tired herself. She nodded and leapt off her Carn Wolf.

“Lunch.”

Pyrite nodded.

“I go talk. You?”

He looked at her. Rags scowled. Noears was making a bit of lightning jump from his hands to a young Goblin child’s, laughing as the small Goblin shrieked with glee. She stomped over to the fires.

“I practice.”

She wished she had a spellbook. Or Pisces. Magic was so difficult when there was no one to explain it! And Rags wasn’t good at intuitive magic, self-taught like the way Noears and the other Goblin [Mages] cast spells. She liked books. She liked reading.

Of course, she liked being a Chieftain more. Her ears perked up as Redscar rode towards her. Rags walked towards him as the Goblin leapt out of his saddle. She didn’t notice Pyrite wandering over to the Humans. They weren’t particularly interesting. What could Pyrite possibly have to talk with them about?

 

—-

 

“Thank you for talking with me. And thank you for assisting us earlier.”

“No need.”

“Excuse me?”

“Bad goblins. Disobeyed orders. Punished. No need thank.”

“I see. Well, you have my thanks regardless.”

“Mm.”

They sat in front of each other, eating fish. Pyrite’s was cooked with bones and eyes intact—Sir Kerrig’s had been deboned first. They were wrapped in thick, broad leaves to keep the temperature and by his side, Sir Kerrig saw Welca peeling off the skin of her fish with a look of disgust. She was used to travelling, camping in miserable conditions, and so forth, but always on pre-prepared rations. Welca was a typical [Knight] in that she went on quests, expeditions against monsters. She didn’t live off the land.

The fish was tasty, if slightly bland. The seasoning was light and hunger was the best spice for this meal. Sir Kerrig sat cross-legged as Pyrite casually swatted at a fly and crunched on the bones of his fish. The Hob ate his fish, the leaves that had held it, and then pulled out a bundle. He opened it and produced several rich, fragrant soaps. Welca stopped eating and stared. Her mouth dropped open as Pyrite began eating the soap.

“What in the name of…?”

“Welca.”

Sir Kerrig nudged her. He stared, fascinated, as Pyrite began consuming the soaps, biting off pieces and grunting in satisfaction. The [Knight] cleared his throat and Pyrite looked up.

“Sir…Pyrite?”

“Mm.”

Pyrite’s ears twitched slightly. He seemed to enjoy being called by his name. Sir Kerrig stared at him. He was so quiet, so patient. He’d spoken very little when he’d come over with the fishes, save to speak his name and warn them the fishes were hot. Still, that alone had seemed so…normal.

“My name is Pyrite.”

“Fishes are hot.”

The second sentence was crude, but each word was pronounced correctly and the Hob didn’t stumble. He seemed to be at ease sitting with the Humans, although he kept glancing from Welca to Kerrig. There was nothing for it but to talk. So Kerrig did. He took a deep breath, and spoke.

“What does your tribe want of us, Sir Pyrite?”

The Hob paused in chewing a piece of soap. He swallowed, burped unapologetically, and then shrugged.

“Don’t know. Chieftain decides.”

Welca and Sir Kerrig exchanged a quick glance.

“Do you want a ransom? It may be that Lady Bethal would consider it. But she had no idea we’re alive—”

“Mm. Not really. Chieftain doesn’t want. She decides.”

“So we’re prisoners then? For…?”

Sir Kerrig’s voice trailed off. Pyrite stared at him, shrugged.

“Chieftain decides.”

That was a dead end. Sir Kerrig nodded.

“I understand. Then may I ask another question?”

“Yes.”

The Human paused. Pyrite looked up, face blank. Not a hint of laughter was on his face, not the smallest glimmer of a smile. And yet, it was there, right in his eyes. Sir Kerrig felt himself flailing, off-guard. Welca was just staring. Was this a Goblin? Was this a Hob? Unintentionally, Sir Kerrig asked the important question, rather than a trivial one.

“What does your tribe want? What do Goblins want?”

“To live.”

The answer came back so quickly that it was a shock. Sir Kerrig waited, but Pyrite said nothing more. He chewed and swallowed.

“To live? Surely there must be something else.”

Pyrite flicked his eyes up towards the trees above. He scratched at an insect bite, shook his head.

“No. To live. Tribe wants. Goblins want. To live. Nothing else.”

“But what is your tribe doing next?”

Pyrite frowned and Sir Kerrig wondered if he’d asked the wrong question. But Pyrite just shrugged. He pointed.

“Go that way.”

Both Humans turned and looked. They saw swamp, they saw trees. Dismayed, Sir Kerrig looked back at Pyrite.

“Sir Pyrite. We are your prisoners.”

“Mhm.”

Another pause.

“You’ve treated us well, with hospitality despite the lives we took. I must confess, I did not expect your tribe to be so—civilized.”

“Humans don’t.”

A deadpan reply. Welca glanced at Sir Kerrig’s slack expression and glowered at Pyrite.

“You Goblins have been raiding Human settlements for weeks now! Why?”

Pyrite raised an eyebrow.

“Not our tribe.”

What?

He turned and pointed another direction into the swamp.

“Great Chieftain of the Mountain City tribe raided. Not our tribe.”

“Are you serious?”

Pyrite looked blank.

“Am.”

“You’re lying.”

Welca glared at him. Pyrite blinked at her. The young [Knight] clenched her fist.

“Everyone knows Goblin tribes raid and steal constantly! This tribe attacked caravans!”

Pyrite nodded.

“Mhm.”

The [Knights] stared at him. Pyrite waited. After a while he popped more soap into his mouth.

“So?”

So? You were lying!”

Welca burst out, enraged. Pyrite considered this.

“Not lying.”

“You said—”

The young woman made a strangled noise as Sir Kerrig gripped her arm. Pyrite shook his head.

“Didn’t lie.”

Before either Human could respond he continued.

“You said ‘raided settlements’. This tribe attacked caravans. Didn’t raid settlements. Attack settlement. One. Only took from caravans. Didn’t kill. Not like Mountain City tribe.”

“That’s splitting hairs! You can’t talk your way out of—”

Welca broke off as she realized what she was implying. She turned pale. Goblins? Arguing over the definition of language? Sir Kerrig eyed Pyrite.

“That was why we were summoned. You attacked a small town and killed a number of residents. You hung their bodies from the roofs.”

“Mhm.”

Pyrite didn’t seem to object to Welca’s fiery glare. He picked up another soap, sniffed it. Sir Kerrig waited.

“Why?”

The Hob paused.

“Killed Goblin tribe.”

“Who?”

“Human town. Killed Goblins. Killed adults, killed children.”

The two Humans looked at the Hob. He didn’t meet their glances. Slowly, his claw sank into the soap and he tore a piece off. Chewed it. Swallowed.

“So you killed them?”

“Mhm.”

“For vengeance?”

Welca’s hot tone made the Hob look up.

“They killed Goblins. We killed Humans. Same number.”

“How do you know?”

The Hob’s eyes flashed crimson.

“We counted.”

Silence. The swamp was humid, but the sweat on Sir Kerrig’s skin was only due in part to the climate. Pyrite’s expression changed back to normal and he sat, once again a quiet, affable Hob content to eat soap. Welca tried to find a response.

“It wasn’t your tribe, though, was it?”

“No.”

“Did you know them?”

“No.”

“Why did you do it, then?”

Pyrite stopped eating soap and met Welca’s eyes.

“They killed Goblins. Why did you come to kill us?”

Because Goblins killed Humans. It was a simple logic. Silence. Sir Kerrig felt sweat rolling down the back of his neck. Pyrite seemed content just to sit there. His ears flicked as he glanced at Welca. She stared at him. The Hob slapped a fly that landed on his arm.

“It was because Goblins were raiding that the town did that.”

Welca seemed to feel the need to excuse the slaughter somehow. Pyrite nodded.

“Goblins raid. Because Humans kill.”

“We only kill because Goblins are a threat! You kidnap and rape and steal and murder!”

“I don’t kidnap. Or rape.”

Pyrite’s voice was calm. He squished the soap into a ball and took a bite out of it.

“Sometimes steal. Sometimes kill. Can’t live otherwise. Humans kill Goblins. Goblins kill Humans.”

It was like talking in a circle. Welca’s angry intake of breath was cut off as Sir Kerrig leaned forwards.

“Can there be peace between Humans and Goblins?”

“Maybe?”

The Hob shrugged again. He was out of soap. So he began to eat the wax paper. It didn’t seem like he was hungry—he was just mechanically eating, as if not eating were boring. He spoke as he shredded up the wax paper and munched on it.

“Some Goblins raid Humans. Some Humans kill Goblins. Not all. This tribe only kill Humans when fight. Some tribes never kill.”

“That’s impossible. Goblins always—”

Welca yelped as Sir Kerrig kicked her in the ankle. He leaned forwards.

“Really?”

Pyrite nodded.

“Was Chieftain. Goldstone Tribe. Never fought Humans.”

“You were a Chieftain?”

“Mm.”

The two [Knights] exchanged a glance. Once again, Pyrite waited without elaborating. It was Welca who asked a question next. She couldn’t help herself.

“Goldstone? Why was your tribe called that?”

Predictably, Pyrite shrugged.

“Gathered gold stones. For fun.”

“What? That’s it?”

Welca’s skepticism put a frown on Pyrite’s face for the first time in the conversation. He grunted, stood up. The [Knights] watched him warily. Pyrite paused, farted. Welca recoiled.

“Sorry.”

Pyrite fanned apologetically at his backside and walked off. Sir Kerrig coughed. It was a…floral scent in the air, horribly corrupted by other smells. He looked at Welca.

“Did that question offend him?”

“I have no idea! Sir Kerrig, why are we talking to a Hobgoblin?

“I don’t know. But isn’t it fascinating that he’s able to respond? His command of our language was rough, but he answered every question!”

“It’s not fascinating, it’s disturbing. Goblins speaking our language? What next? And what was that question about peace, Sir Kerrig? What about Velan the Kind?”

“If there’s a chance, Welca, I’d rather see less death, especially if this tribe takes the offensive. Maybe if we—”

“Hold on. It’s coming back. He—I mean.”

Welca pointed. Pyrite had walked off. Now he was returning with a large hemp sack. It was quite old and very dirty, but it had no holes. Pyrite sat back down next to the two [Knights]. He rummaged in the dirty sack as Welca edged back as much as she could. Sir Kerrig waited curiously. Neither Human was prepared for the glittering, shimmering nuggets that shone in Pyrite’s hand.

Gold!

The raised voices attracted some attention from the main Goblin tribe. A few Goblins looked over, grunted, and looked away. Pyrite held up a handful of shining gold nuggets. Sir Kerrig gaped until he realized something.

“That’s not gold. That’s—pyrite.”

Pyrite grunted and smiled. He was holding nuggets of pyrite, the crystalized, hard fool’s gold glinting and rubbing together. Flakes of it fell to the ground as he placed it on the ground. Then he reached into his bag and pulled out another handful. Pyrite, pieces, larger hunks, and there, gleaming among the fake gold—

“Is that a nugget?”

Welca’s breath caught in her chest. Pyrite glanced dismissively at the duller gleam among the pyrite. It was a gold nugget as thick as two of the Hob’s fat fingers put together and nearly as long. Welca stared at it. Pyrite picked it up.

“Hm. Nugget?”

“That means a piece of gold. That is gold, isn’t it?”

“Nugget. Mm. Yes. Is gold.”

Pyrite shrugged.

“Worthless.”

He inspected the gold nugget carelessly and tossed it into the mud. The pyrite gleamed as Pyrite held it up.

“This is better. Lighter. Shiny.”

What?

That seemed to be Welca’s phrase of the day. She stared at the pyrite and then pointed at the gold nugget.

“How is that worthless? You could sell this and buy something! Armor! Weapons! Enchanted goods!”

“Humans can. Goblins can’t.”

Pyrite shrugged, which was his action of the day. He turned his head and Sir Kerrig jumped as he saw several Goblin children had crept up on them, attracted by the glitter. They fled when the [Knight] looked at him, but a few of the braver ones edged behind Pyrite. One pointed towards the gold nugget. Another grabbed for it.

The darting hand was quick, but Pyrite was faster. He held up the thieving Goblin child and spoke a word in their crude language. The Goblin child shrieked as Pyrite tossed him—no, her—over his shoulder. The child landed lightly, and then got up and gabbled at Pyrite. She pointed at the gold nugget, clearly desiring it. Pyrite replied without turning his head. The child stomped her feet and then ran off into the swamp.

“What was that about?”

Welca looked blankly at the child. Sir Kerrig looked away. A Goblin child. You saw them in tribes. Not usually among warriors. But when a Goblin tribe had to be eradicated, there were always the children at the end. It was easy if you had [Mages]. They could just cast a spell. Otherwise you had to chase them down, and it was with a sword that you had to—

No one talked about that part of duty. After the first time, it was…easier. Welca had yet to participate in that exercise, Kerrig was sure. He saw Pyrite staring at him and turned his head. Before he could muster the courage to say anything, before he could push away memory, the Goblin child was back. She had a bowl filled with something black and squirming. Welca took one look and nearly leapt backwards.

What is—

“Tadpoles.”

Pyrite inspected the full bowl approvingly. The tadpoles had been washed with water, although they were still slimy and wet. They wriggled about in the air, many already still and lifeless. The Hob grunted and the child held it up. She spoke a word and he nodded.

The Hob held the gold nugget out to the Goblin child and in front of Welca’s disbelieving eyes, exchanged the gold for the handful of wriggling tadpoles. Pyrite grunted as the child ran off, cackling and holding the nugget aloft to show to her friends. The Hobgoblin began popping the tadpoles into his mouth, one by one. Welca turned green and gray with horror.

“You can’t eat those!”

“Hmm.”

Pyrite thought about that as he swallowed.

“Can.”

Oblivious to her horror and Sir Kerrig’s lurching stomach, he scooped several of the black things up and popped them into his mouth. When he chewed both Humans had to look away. A short recess ensued until Pyrite finished his bowl. When he had put it down Sir Kerrig pointed at the pyrite lying on the ground.

“You said it’s useless? So your tribe collected the stones for…fun?”

Pyrite nodded, and then seemed to reconsider. He shook his head instead.

“Not always worthless. Sometimes useful.”

“How?”

“Human bait.”

The Hob grunted as both Humans stared at him incredulously. He held up a big piece of Pyrite which shone in the light filtering down from above.

“When Humans come to attack tribe, used this. Toss at adventurers. Or army. Big stone, or many small ones. Shiny red stones, blue stones…makes stop. Causes big fight.”

Sir Kerrig tried to imagine the Hob heaving pieces of gold at an attacking army. Welca made a disbelieving sound.

“That works?”

“Mm. Sometimes.”

“You mean, you threw gold and pyrite at Humans to get them to fight over that? And—shiny red stones? Do you mean rubies?”

“Rubies?”

Pyrite looked blank. Sir Kerrig tried to explain. Pyrite nodded.

“Shiny red stone. Is ruby. What is shiny blue stone called?”

“Sapphires. At least—some kinds of sapphires are blue.”

“Sapphires.”

Pyrite savored the word thoughtfully. He frowned and fished around in his sack. This time he produced a cobalt-blue sapphire gem, the size of an egg.

“Here.”

Welca’s eyes went round as Pyrite offered her the polished sapphire. She nearly reached out to take it, stared at Pyrite, and yanked her hands back. She glared at him, but her eyes kept flicking to the sapphire he held. The Hob waggled it in front of her.

“Take.”

Slowly, Welca held her hands out. Pyrite dropped the stone into her palms and Welca nearly dropped it. She held it up.

“Dead gods. It’s polished! And cut!”

“Mm. Lots of work.”

You did that?”

Sir Kerrig stared at Pyrite. The Hob nodded. He flicked his fingers at the stone.

“Many stones. Learn to make shiny so Humans fight harder. You want?”

He addressed Welca. She jumped.

“Want? You don’t want it back?”

“No. Keep.”

The young woman stared at him, at a loss for words. Sir Kerrig knew that Welca was a third daughter. Her family had to have gems, but one this big? Perhaps, but the odds of one being passed to a younger daughter was—his fingers twitched and Pyrite noticed.

“Want?”

He fished in his bag and came out with a piece of polished turquoise. He offered it to Sir Kerrig.

“Are you sure?”

The [Knight]’s fingers trembled as he stroked the lovely gem. Pyrite didn’t care so much about shape as much as shine, so the gemstone was somewhat lopsided, but you’d only see quality of this kind in a shop for [Mages] seeking stones for magic, or a high-class [Jewelers]’s. It was certainly nothing Sir Kerrig would ever own himself. But Pyrite just nodded, as if it meant nothing for him to give away.

“Many. Can find in mountains. Not hard.”

The two Humans stared at him. The Hob smiled. He looked slightly proud that his gemstones were the subject of so much attention. Sir Kerrig remembered what he’d said. Human bait.

“Question.”

It was Pyrite who asked a question. Both Humans stiffened and Sir Kerrig carefully lay down the piece of turquoise.

“Yes? I—we would be happy to answer any questions you have, Sir Pyrite.”

He glanced at Welca. She opened her mouth, nearly fumbled the sapphire, and closed it. Pyrite nodded.

“Good. Question. Magic. How does it work?”

Sir Kerrig paused.

“What do you mean, how does it work? Are you asking about how it functions? How magic spells are created? Or cast?”

“Mm. No.”

Pyrite shook his head. He pointed across the tribe of sitting Goblins, at Rags. She was sitting on a log, shooting flames upwards and scowling as Noears talked with her.

“Magic. How?”

“How what?”

Welca’s eyebrows crossed as she started to get annoyed. Pyrite looked at her and scratched his head.

“How everything?

 

—-

 

So the [Knights] explained magic to the Hobgoblin. They sat and talked about it. None of them could cast magic. Welca had very little aptitude so she had decided to be a [Knight] instead of a [Mage]. Sir Kerrig hadn’t been tested so he’d never learned. And Pyrite had too many questions. And try as they might, Welca and Sir Kerrig didn’t have enough answers.

“Magic is a fundamental force in this world. It is a part of everything, to some degree.”

“Why?”

Sir Kerrig paused. He knew enough about magic from spending time with [Mage Knights] in Lady Bethal’s service. Of course, he knew more practical lessons like how to survive a [Fireball], but he still understood magical theory. Except that some questions were just…

“It just is. Magic is a constant in the universe. Mages can draw on it to cast spells.”

“How?”

“They harness it!”

Welca looked annoyed. She raised a hand and a slight breeze blew towards Pyrite. He furrowed his brows and stared at her hands.

“See? There! Magic! Most species have the talent!”

“How, though? How can harness?”

“They exert their willpower and magic obeys.”

“Why?”

“Because—it just does!”

“Where does magic go when used?”

“It takes the shape of what spell was cast.”

“Where new magic come from?”

“From…people? Plants? The ground?”

“Why?”

“It just does! People produce mana. Plants produce mana. Just a tiny bit, but enough in most cases! Mana’s everywhere. Some places it’s stronger, other places it’s not.”

“Mm. What does it want?”

“What?”

“What does magic want?”

Pyrite looked from face to face. Welca and Sir Kerrig traded glances. Welca was the first to speak in a strained voice.

“Magic doesn’t want anything.”

“Mm. It does.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

Pyrite shrugged. It seemed to be his response whenever anyone said something he found silly. Welca inhaled, choked on a flying bug, and started coughing. Pyrite sighed. He looked around wistfully. The swamp was filled with insects and Sir Kerrig had already given up on counting his bites. Pyrite didn’t seem to mind the bites on his skin. He rumbled a complaint as Welca spat out the bug.

“Magic makes no sense. Goblin magic makes some sense.”

“Goblin magic?”

“Mm. Like this.”

Pyrite turned and bellowed a word. A hundred Goblin heads looked towards him and several of the Redfang Goblins on watch jumped to their feet. Pyrite shouted a few more Goblin words as Welca and Kerrig winced at his volume. The Goblins stared at him. Pyrite shouted a word at them. The Goblins all nodded and turned back to what they were doing.

“What was—”

Welca gasped as Pyrite turned and held out his hand. A ball of flame erupted from his palm, bright and hot, chasing away the bugs around him. Pyrite held the flame, tossed it up, and then flicked it. It soared past Welca and Sir Kerrig as they ducked, and splashed onto the ground. There it burned for a few seconds before going out on the wet ground. Calmly, Pyrite brushed at his palms as Welca stared at him.

“What was that?

“Goblin magic.”

“Shamanism. Tribal magic.”

Sir Kerrig’s voice was only slightly shaken. He looked at Pyrite.

“How did you do that?”

The Hobgoblin shrugged. He pointed backwards at all the Goblins he’d shouted at.

“Fire. Told them to think of fire.”

“And why does that work?”

“Because Goblins believe.”

“What? That makes no sense! How does that make fire?”

“Because they believe. Why does magic spell make fire?”

“Because—wait, hold on. That’s not fair!”

Pyrite smiled. Sir Kerrig stared at the smile and found it human. Despite himself, he smiled back.

 

—-

 

Somehow, Welca found herself talking with Pyrite. Somehow, Sir Kerrig found himself chatting to the Hob about combat tactics and what it was like being a Goblin. Somehow, they had a normal conversation in the swamp, as bugs buzzed around them and the tribe’s lunch ended and they began to pack up.

It was surreal. But somehow, it felt like they were just talking to a stranger. A green, heavy stranger with a sack full of precious gemstones, and crimson eyes. Named Pyrite.

“Why don’t you use magic if you know how? Why don’t you have the [Shaman] class?”

“Want to be [Mage].”

Why?

Pyrite shrugged.

“Shamans concentrate hard. [Mages] use spells like…”

He gestured, flicking his hands.

“Easy. Want that. Too hard to dodge and use shaman magic. Small tribe magic not any good anyways. Also, no other Goblins want to be [Shaman].”

“Why not?”

Pyrite paused.

“Humans kill Goblin [Mages] first. Big target.”

And then there was that. Every so often, every few minutes, the conversation would grind to a halt for a moment. The divide between Goblins and Humans would appear in the most innocuous of place. It hung over the three of them, Sir Kerrig most of all.

You killed us. You kill us. We will kill you and you might kill us. But we’re all sitting around like people. We call you monsters. And you—speak. You gave us gifts.

Pyrite had more questions about magic, questions so simple and yet so complex that neither Welca nor Kerrig could guess at answering them. Why are spells cast from the hand? How can spells be written down? What is a mana potion made of? Why does it work? And perhaps his biggest question—why is there more magic in some places than others?

“How do you know that’s the case? You can’t prove it! How do you know?”

Welca was impatient. Pyrite kept returning to this point, again and again. The Hob stared at her and spoke.

“Magic more here.”

He tapped his chest.

“Than here.”

He waved at the air. Welca frowned.

“That’s…sort of true. But that’s because you’re a person! Things don’t have much mana.”

“Why some things have more mana than others?”

“Like what?”

“Like enchanted things. Like swords and shields. And shiny stones.”

“What? Gemstones don’t have more mana in them! Do they?”

Pyrite nodded. He reached into his sack and this time pulled out a yellow stone. Not gold, but a topaz. It was polished, and the depths were darker. Pyrite showed them the gem.

“Has more magic than this. Why?”

He tapped the pyrite on the ground. Bemused, Welca looked at Sir Kerrig.

“I don’t know. Maybe a [Mage] would know.”

The Hob grunted in dissatisfaction.

“Noears not know. Why magic in stone? Why magic in stone want to be something else?”

“Want to be?”

“Mm. Like this.”

Pyrite held the topaz up to the light. Slowly, he regarded the sparkling depths of the topaz. Then he popped it into his mouth. Welca heard a sharp crack and then the loudest crunching sounds she’d ever heard in her life. She yelped and nearly told him to spit out the gemstone before he hurt himself. But Pyrite chewed deliberately and then held up his hand. He placed it gently on the ground and said one word.

“Sink.”

His eyes flashed yellow. Sir Kerrig leapt to his feet—just in time. The wet ground, already soft, began to turn to liquid. Welca shouted in alarm as she and Pyrite sank into the earth. She thrashed as the ground began to engulf her lower torso. Pyrite held still, his hand and body sinking into the mud. Then, suddenly, he breathed out and Welca felt herself stop sinking into the ground. She yelped as she struggled to get up and found her legs had sunken into the earth.

“What was—how did—”

Pyrite looked up at her, and then at Sir Kerrig, standing to one side. Thoughtfully, he spat out a mouthful of yellow gemstone fragments—and a bit of blood. He wiped at his cut mouth and looked at the [Knights].

“Why did that happen?”

Neither of them could speak.

 

—-

 

Rags was just watching the tribe pack up when she felt someone casting magic. She turned her head and saw a flash of magic. From Pyrite. She gaped as he put his hand to the earth and turned it into mud. Whatever magic he’d cast lasted a fraction of a moment—he and the female [Knight] sank into the earth and stopped there. Rags stared and then ran over.

What?

The female [Knight] was shouting that word. Rags ran up and kicked Pyrite in the back. He was extracting himself from the ground. He turned.

“Chieftain?”

“What that?”

He rubbed at his back and shrugged.

“Magic shiny rock. Has magic. Can use.”

“How?”

“Chew.”

Rags stared at Pyrite. He mimed chewing and then reached into his mouth with a frown. He extracted a bloody fragment of topaz and grimaced.

“Sharp. Not fun.”

“You can use magic in stones? He cast a spell—or did something! But he’s no [Mage]!”

Welca was pointing at Pyrite, horrified and awestruck. Pyrite just shrugged. Rags looked at him.

“How learn?”

He pondered the question.

“Learn long time ago, Chieftain. Try to eat stones. No good. Can do things with stones if chew. Hard. Not worth doing. So stopped.”

He shrugged, pragmatic as always. Rags stared at him and then pointed to his sack.

“Got more?”

“Mm. Want one? Got many colors. Which one?”

Rags hesitated.

“Give red one.”

“Want big?”

“No.”

Rags waited patiently as Pyrite fished about in his sack. He produced a shining red ruby half as large as her fist, a tiny, luminescent pink-and-cherry gemstone, and a lively currant red gemstone that had yet to be cut out of the rock surrounding it.

“Are those—”

Welca inhaled sharply. Sir Kerrig leaned forwards.

“That’s a ruby, but the gem there—is that a pelica gemstone?”

Rags looked blankly at the tiny, shining pink gemstone he was pointing at. She looked at the three gems and pointed at the biggest one.

“Give ruby.”

Pyrite obligingly handed it over. Rags weighed it in her hands, impressed at the color and polish. It did have magic in it! Just like Pyrite had said—you had to hold it to feel it, but there was magic inside! Could she take it out without breaking the stone? Could she put magic in?

The Hob seemed to sense the gemstone was important. He looked at Rags.

“Good talk. Chieftain. Magic is hard.”

She looked at him. That was what they’d talked about? She raised an eyebrow as she glanced at the [Knights]. Both were watching her speculatively.

“Talk about magic?”

“Mm. And peace. And Goblins and Humans.”

Rags laughed. Peace? She scornfully glanced at the [Knights]. The older male one looked away. Peace? They’d killed her Goblins, her tribe! And she’d killed theirs. She was all for avoiding fighting with Humans, but that was by being strong and smart. Peace with Humans? Rags thought of Relc. She thought of Human adventurers, of the village and the dead Goblins lying where they had been slaughtered.

“Peace? No peace.”

She turned away, trying to put the ruby in one of her belt pouches. It made everything sag, so Rags decided to store it away with her things. She hadn’t known Pyrite had so many useless stones. They were pretty, but only children collected them. It was just another of his weird habits. Then again, these stones might actually be useful. Rags considered her new prize and nodded to Pyrite.

“Get Redscar and other warriors. Marching. But best warriors come here first.”

He nodded and stomped off. Rags glanced at the [Knights]. The older one bowed.

“Chieftain Rags? My name is Sir Kerrig Louis. Might I have a word?”

She stared at him. He was older, not as fierce as the young one beside him. She was holding a blue sapphire in her hands, cradling it. The older [Knight] looked like there was pain in his eyes when he stared at her. Pain. Perhaps regret. He hadn’t given the Goblins any trouble, and he’d been polite and talkative. She met his eyes.

“No.”

Rags turned and strode away.

 

—-

 

Redscar, Quietstab, a group of Hobs and three smaller Goblins met Rags with Pyrite. She strode up to them and spoke without preamble.

“Divide up new weapons and armor. Pyrite gets first pick.”

All the milling Goblins brightened at once. They whooped with glee, and their companions, supervising the moving tribe, shouted insults back and shook their fists. Immediately one of the wagons was unloaded and a set of pink armor, two shields, a two-handed battleaxe, and a sword were dumped into the mud. The Goblins greedily peered at the enchanted arms looted from the Rose Knights, nudging each other and pointing. But they deferred to Pyrite, who looked at the enchanted weapons.

“Me, Chieftain?”

Rags nodded. It was an easy decision. She’d really only wavered over selecting a few of the items for herself—she fancied the enchanted sword that Welca had been using. But Rags was a realist and she knew her best warriors could use the magic equipment better than she could. She gave preference to Pyrite because he’d broken the axe she’d given him—and helped beat Welca during the battle. The gemstone he’d offered her also helped, and he was her second-in-command.

After him she let Redscar choose, as her best warrior, and then Quietstab to placate his faction. The Goblins after him she chose in rough order of how good they were and how much she liked them. Impatiently, all the Goblins waited as Pyrite pondered the armor and weapons.

Pyrite was conflicted. Most of the objects on the ground didn’t fit him, having been made for Humans, not fat Hobs. He could use a shield, but the sword and battleaxe struck him as important, especially since he’d lost the good axe Rags had given him. Behind him he could hear the two [Knights] arguing.

“That’s my sword!”

Welca was outraged as she stared at her equipment lying in the mud. She nearly got up, but Sir Kerrig tugged her down with a sigh.

“And that’s my battleaxe. Our equipment is forfeit, Welca. You knew that.”

“But they can’t just divide it up like—like that!”

“Why not? [Bandits] do the same thing. Adventurers too.”

“But my sword—

The young woman looked almost tearful. Kerrig felt a pain as he saw Pyrite lift the battleaxe out of the mud. It was a fine weapon, enchanted with a flamestrike enchantment and gifted personally to him by Lady Bethal from her armory. Welca’s sword had been the same. Armor and a weapon made a [Knight] as much as their levels. Without it, they were nothing more than elevated [Warriors]. He looked away as Pyrite lifted his weapon.

Heavy.

Pyrite considered the battleaxe. It was definitely a lot bigger than most axes used for war. The head was massive, and it had been made for a world that saw people battling monsters as much as people. You didn’t need an axe this big unless you were fighting something a lot bigger than a Human. It was made under the assumption that you had the strength for it. Like a decently high-level [Knight]. Or a Hob.

“Good weapon.”

Redscar squatted by the pile of weapons, eying the battleaxe approvingly. Pyrite just shrugged. He wasn’t a fan of the two-handed weapons. They were heavier and Pyrite had learned that a quicker blow meant you didn’t give your opponent a chance to stab back. On the other hand, it was enchanted and he’d lost his good steel axe fighting Welca. He grunted as he tested the battleaxe.

Definitely too unwieldy for one arm. Still, the weapon was balanced well. It wasn’t too heavy, although it was quite long. Pyrite could swing it quite quickly and the axe head was simple, without any kind of strange decorations.

Weapon making was an art, and unfortunately the use of magic could create try pieces that were more form than function. Strangely curved blades, useless decorations—you could make a blade like that work by enchanting it to be lighter weight or cut keenly, but form was still very important. And this axe—Pyrite executed a quick cut that made Redscar nod approving—was a good one.

“Want?”

“Good. Yes.”

“Good!”

With that, Redscar picked up the sword off the ground, to Welca’s dismay. He executed several quick slashes and Pyrite felt the cold air swirling around the tip of the blade. He rubbed at his side—Welca had stabbed him with that sword and it hurt.

Quietstab was clearly dismayed not to have one of the two weapons, but he recovered enough to pick out one of the two shields. The other Goblins descended on the armor, jostling each other for a good pick, but held back when Redscar barked an order. He pointed at the twin sets of bright pink-red metal and looked at Pyrite.

“Want?”

It was a surprising question, given that the form was to give one piece of enchanted equipment to the best Goblin warriors. But Redscar clearly thought Pyrite could use the armor more than his warriors. Pyrite considered the offer as he eyed the armor, but shook his head.

“Pink armor. Too bright. Also—”

He indicated his wide stomach. Redscar laughed. The leader of the Redfang warriors gestured and the Hobs and Goblins fought over the armor, each stealing a piece—vambraces, gauntlets, helmet—for themselves. One poor Hob was left with nothing but the boots and stomped off, muttering curses as the other Goblins laughed at him.

 

—-

 

Soon, the wagon with the [Knights] was rolling faster, catching up to the tribe ahead. Rags rode forwards, pondering the ruby gemstone as Pyrite and the other Goblins tried out their new equipment. For all the deaths the Rose Knights had caused, the addition of such powerful artifacts was worth it—from a military perspective. Rags smiled to herself, pleased that she now had weapons that might actually damage the Knights of the Petal if they ever returned. True, she only had two, but two was better than none.

Her body itched all over from bug bites, despite her usage of the mosquito whisk. The Goblins in her tribe were tired, but they’d marched for two hours past lunch and the swamp was already giving way to solid ground. Tonight, Rags would see about creating some kind of balm for itchy skin. But she thought her tribe would be in good enough spirits knowing they wouldn’t have to camp in the swamp. In fact, they were passing through a fairly nice lowland with a few bushes with unripe berries. Perhaps they could—

Chieftain!

Rags snapped to attention as a voice called her name. She swung around and saw a Redfang warrior racing towards her on a Carn Wolf’s back. He was slung low across the wolf and it was bounding towards them. Rags hadn’t heard a horn call, so she knew there wasn’t’ a battle. But her heart beat faster as Redscar raced to meet the scout and her.

“What?”

The scout’s Carn Wolf stopped itself just before it could run into Rags’ mount. The Goblin on its back opened her mouth now that she’d stopped—it was all too easy to accidentally sever a tongue when riding the Carn Wolves.

Human army. Moving up ahead.

Her words made Rags freeze. A Human army? Redscar swore and waved a hand—the Redscar warriors lost their good cheer and began preparing for combat. Rags jabbed a claw at the scout.

“They see?”

No, Chieftain! Humans are on road. Big road.

“Big road?”

Dismayed, Rags looked at Redscar as Pyrite jogged up. Had they cut through the swamp just to reach more Human lands? She ground her teeth.

“How many?”

The scout muttered as she tried to do math on her hands. She conferred with Redscar. The Redfang Warrior looked relieved.

“Eight hundred, Chieftain.”

Rags perked up. Eight hundred? She outnumbered that force many times over. Unless these were elites like Lady Bethal’s warriors—which the scout seemed to doubt—they weren’t a huge threat. A big one, yes. But the important question was whether they could be avoided.

“What are doing?”

The Redfang scout’s face turned grim. She pointed in the direction of the army.

“Hunting. Goblin tribe.”

 

—-

 

Normally adventurers hunted Goblin Tribes. Normally. But when a tribe got too large, or when they were deemed a credible threat—or nuisance—a Human city might turn out its garrison or combine its standing army with another city or town to destroy a Goblin tribe.

After all, what adventurers excelled at were surgical strikes. They could take out a Chieftain and all the warriors and scatter the Goblins, but eradicating an entire tribe completely was usually too difficult or tiresome for them. But an army could ride down stragglers and rout a large tribe.

Normally it wasn’t worth the effort and the inevitable casualties. But with the Goblin Lord’s victory at Invrisil, inaction was dangerous. And weren’t Goblin tribes a threat? They could join the Goblin Lord or grow in size. It made sense to destroy them.

None of that stemmed the painful, biting sensation in Sir Kerrig’s stomach. He listened to the distant horns blowing, the far-off sounds of screaming and shouts in the distance, and saw the Goblins of the Flooded Water tribe arming themselves.

For battle. Rows of Goblin warriors were picking up the long, twenty-foot pikes and lifting them in teams of four. More Goblins were lifting conventional swords and spears and axes and so on and forming into units. Some had crossbows—there was a small group of Goblin [Mages] being led by the Goblin with no ears. Last but not least were the Hobs, armored and deadly, and the mounted Redfang warriors.

It was a fearsome army. Only an elite group like the Knights of the Petal could hope to defeat it with a smaller force, and they’d still been forced to retreat. Sir Kerrig thought of the Human army marching a mile or two away and his skin prickled.

“Sir Kerrig.”

Welca’s eyes were wide and uneasy as she watched the Goblins readying themselves. She and Sir Kerrig hadn’t heard what Rags had, but they’d put the pieces together easily enough. Those were Human war horns and they were clearly unaware of the Goblin army about to ambush them.

“We have to stop this.”

“How?”

Sir Kerrig stared at Pyrite. The Hob was marshaling a group of Hobs armed to the teeth. He was holding Sir Kerrig’s battleaxe. The smile was gone from Pyrite’s face and he looked nothing like the Hob that had sat with them, showing off his collection of gemstones. As the evening light played off his face and he turned, his red eyes searching, he looked like a monster.

But Kerrig had seen his humanity. The [Knight] got to his feet, his unused muscles protesting.

“We have to try. Welca, stay behind me.”

Grimly, the [Knight] took a few steps forwards and heard a warning sound. The Redfang Hob standing next to his wagon looked at him and lifted his spear threateningly. Sir Kerrig pointed towards Rags.

“I want to speak with your Chieftain. Will you allow me to go to her?”

The Hob considered this. He glanced at his companion, another Hob, and they grunted at each other. Then the Hob went and poked a smaller Goblin. That small Goblin wandered into the crowd, poked another Goblin who poked another and—

Rags was at the center of attention, snapping orders, pointing, sending rows of pike Goblins to various locations. But as soon as the Goblin had begun poking the others her head turned and she looked straight at Sir Kerrig. She snapped an order and hopped onto her Carn Wolf and rode straight at him.

The Carn Wolf was huge and smelled the excitement in the air. It huffed and growled at Sir Kerrig as it bounded over. Welca tensed, but Sir Kerrig held his ground.

“Chieftain Rags! I beg an audience!”

“What?”

She glared at him. Sir Kerrig hesitated. He looked up at her.

“May I ask whom you are preparing to attack?”

Her eyes glinted.

“Humans. Big army marching down a road.”

Sir Kerrig heard Welca mutter an oath. He looked up at Rags.

“Can I convince you to refrain from attacking the army? They have not noticed your force. You could easily evade them.”

She stared at him.

“No. They hunt Goblins.”

Sir Kerrig felt a chill run down his back.

“Your people?”

Rags shook her head.

“They hunt Goblins. Another tribe. So. We hunt them.”

She grinned savagely. Angrily. Sir Kerrig hesitated.

“Can you not drive off the Humans army without bloodshed?”

“Why? They spill blood. We spill theirs.”

Rags growled, her smile vanishing. She stared at Sir Kerrig.

“Humans kill Goblins. Goblins kill Humans. Humans do not leave us alone.

“I know. But—”

Sir Kerrig tried to reach for the words that would matter, the words that would calm Rags’ fury, convince her to relent and simply scare off the Human host. He was no [Diplomat], no [Courtier]. But he had seen the civilized nature of the Goblins, the humanity showing through. If he could just—

Welca interrupted him. She glared up at Rags and spoke harshly.

“Do you think slaughtering Humans will stop us? If you kill them, we’ll be forced to kill you!”

Sir Kerrig closed his eyes. He heard a growl, and then the small Goblin shifted. She leaned down towards Welca, her teeth bared.

“Kill us? Humans always try to kill us. What new?”

The [Knight] stared into Rags’ eyes, her face pale.

“You don’t have to do this. You could be merciful.”

Rags laughed. It was a mocking, loud sound. One full of regret, disdain, longing—too many emotions to count. She turned and looked at Sir Kerrig and Welca, almost sadly. Rag shook her head.

“Mercy? They started it.”

And then she turned and rode away. And her tribe followed. All the [Knights] could do was watch.

And listen.

 

—-

 

They came out of the twilight, as the Human army was pursuing the last of the Frostfeeder Tribe. The Frostfeeder Goblins were running down the road, some breaking off to dart into the trees, the rest fleeing in a great mass down the road.

They had no choice. Those that fled into the trees screamed and died as Human [Riders] cut them down. The Human army was pursuing them with infantry while the cavalry cut off all routes of escape. All they needed to do was encircle the Goblins and crush them with their bows and infantry.

However, the Goblins were proving difficult to corner. It wasn’t that they were fighting back; the bulk of warriors had been cut down hours ago. But the Goblins kept running, so fast that even the horses were struggling to outdistance them. And when the cavalry did charge them to turn them back, the Goblins just kept running. When the [Riders] cut them down, the family of the stricken Goblins would run on, trampling the fallen. Running, running—emotions didn’t come into it. It was run or die and the Goblins knew that stopping was death.

Neither could the cavalry form a wall. They had to be careful and pick off the Goblins—drive into the center of the fleeing Goblin mass and the [Rider] would be dragged from his or her saddle and killed. The Goblins still had teeth.

So it was a test of endurance. The Humans had stamina potions, the ability to rotate their soldiers to stay fresh, and horses. They could use bows to harry the Goblins and send their soldiers ahead to direct their prey. The Goblins could only run and hope to tire out their pursuers.

But they were slowing. And more Goblins fell each minute. The Human army chased them relentlessly, shouting and blowing war horns. The [Riders], a hundred or so, streamed towards the Goblins on the right flank, hoping to drive them back towards their infantry, even if that meant some scattering into the forest.

The Goblins turned, saw that they had no chance of continuing down the road, and made a break for both edges of the road. The [Riders] split into two groups and pursued them. They were busy cutting down the back rank of Goblins when they heard howling. The horses reared and the armed Humans struggled to calm them, looking around and wondering if a wolf pack was nearby.

That was when the Redfang warriors struck. They streamed out of the forest, screaming. They caught the first group of riders completely off-guard and the wolves charged the frightened horses. The Goblins cut down the paralyzed Humans as the running army slowed, stunned by the sudden appearance of the wolf-riding Goblins ahead. Then they heard more horncalls, from their rear and sides and realized they were surrounded.

Form a square!

The [Captain] in charge of the infantry was no seasoned commander, but a younger officer. He ordered his soldiers into a box formation, archers in the center, spears and swords facing outwards in all four directions as his [Trumpeters] frantically signaled the remaining cavalry to retreat. The Humans on horseback spurred their mounts, trying to reach the safety of their comrades in time.

They never got there. A Goblin warrior riding a large, black Carn Wolf charged into their ranks, his magical sword cutting down riders and numbing their arms and bodies where it struck. He twisted and dodged a sword that swung at him and ducked an axe meant to cut off his head. His wolf howled and the horses reared instinctively. Their flailing hooves missed the rider as he and his wolf darted out of the sea of horseback riders. And by the time the horses were running again, they’d lost their window of time. The Carn Wolves encircled the riders and the Redfang Warriors closed in.

“Don’t panic! Hold formation!”

The [Captain] struggled to calm his frightened troops. The Redfang Warriors were cutting down the last of the riders, but they could be defeated! The Carn Wolves would fare poorly against his [Soldiers] standing shoulder-to-shoulder, especially with bows and magic attacking them from afar. The [Captain] was ordering a volley when he saw a black mass approaching him from the tree line.

“What is—”

Goblins. They charged out of the forest, a square of them. They were carrying long, long pikes, longer than anything the Humans carried. They charged straight at the [Captain], who could only stare for a second.

“Shoot them down!”

He screamed and the bows and [Mages] blasted the first formation, sending Goblins tumbling to the ground. But for every Goblins that fell, there was another to carry the wooden pikes! And as the [Captain] looked around he realized there wasn’t just one Goblin pike unit coming at his formation. There were dozens.

They charged the stationary force of Humans from every angle. Goblins, carrying wooden pikes. It was nothing compared to the steel weaponry the Humans carried. Nothing! The Humans had shields and spears of their own. But the range—the first rank of Goblins struck the Humans from twenty feet away, their pikes reaching the Humans long before the Humans could strike back. And then the second layer of pikes struck, and the third!

The lines of defenders buckled. Then broke. The Humans had to advance into the layers of thrusting pikes or be torn apart. And once they reached the Goblins they realized the warriors were armed.

And there were Hobs among the regular Goblins. The Hobs tore into the fragmented ranks of Humans, roaring, as the [Captain] struggled to escape the deathtrap.

Archers! Loose at will! Do you hear me? Archers!

The [Captain] was shouting as loudly as he could, but the Goblins were screaming and his voice wasn’t loud enough! The group of archers was loosing arrows into the darkness, shouting in panic. A Carn Wolf leapt into their formation, scattering them, and then the [Captain] saw a bloom of fire.

A Human [Mage] blasted the Goblin off his wolf, making the Carn Wolf howl and flee, its fur on fire. The [Mage] whirled, and a bolt of lightning blasted her in the chest. Her charred body fell as a rank of dark figures cut the [Archers] off. The [Captain] saw a gout of flame, but it wasn’t the [Mage]. A Hob cut through two archers and strode fowards. He was holding a massive, enchanted battleaxe in two hands. He headed straight for the [Captain], who raised his ordinary, unenchanted sword.

Pyrite raised his battleaxe and the [Captain] found the courage to charge, sword swinging wildly. The Hob backed up and slashed. The axe bit into the Human’s torso, so deep the man was dead and collapsing onto the fiery battleaxe before he’d taken another step. Pyrite kicked the man off the battleaxe and hoisted it into the air. The unit of Hobs behind him had already cleared away all the archers. They turned to Pyrite and he roared.

Follow!

They charged into the Human [Soldiers] struggling with Poisonbite’s skirmishers from behind. It was quick, and bloody. On one side. Pyrite turned his head, searching for new enemies and saw the battlefield was full of running Humans and Goblins in formation and little else. It was a complete and utter rout.

Chase?

One of Pyrite’s Hobs had a bow and was aiming at some of the running Humans. Pyrite knocked the bow down and grunted.

“No chase. Chieftain said.”

He pointed. The Goblins looked back. Rags sat on her Carn Wolf in the trees, throwing fire at a group of [Soldiers] still struggling with some of the Goblins on the far right. She turned, her eyes glowing. Behind her, crossbows loosed bolt after bolt, cutting through armor. She held up a hand and the crossbows ceased. the Humans ran. The Goblins remained.

The Frostfeeder tribe looked up in awe. At Rags, at the Goblins who’d saved them, the Redfang Warriors riding Carn Wolves. They had no word for these Goblins, this tribe. But if they had Human understanding, Human sensibilities, perhaps they might have thought of one word—

 

—-

 

“Knights.”

“What?”

Sir Kerrig looked at Welca. She was burying her head in her hands, listening to the screams and horn calls in the distance. It was obvious how the battle was going. Had gone. Sir Kerrig looked at the Goblins still present. Elderly goblins and children, mainly. Save for a small guard of Redfang Warriors, Rags had taken her entire army to the front. Now he looked at Welca.

“They may be to Goblins what we are to our species.”

“What, exactly?”

Sir Kerrig sighed.

“Knights. Champions. In their own way. This tribe hunts down Humans that kill Goblins. We hunt down monsters that kill Humans. There is a similarity.”

“A terrible one.”

Welca looked at her hands. They were trembling. She was a [Knight]! How could she just sit here? She felt something hard in her pockets and pulled it out. The glittering sapphire. Welca gripped it tightly and raised her hand to throw it away. Sir Kerrig caught her arm.

“Don’t.”

She tore her arm away.

“Don’t stop me! These Goblins are monsters! They might be able to speak, but they’ll always be our enemy.”

“By choice or by nature?”

“What?”

“You met Pyrite. You met the one who leads them. The one called Rags. You saw they’re capable of reason, capable of emotion. They can be reasoned with.”

“Not enough to stop this.”

Sir Kerrig’s shoulders slumped.

“No. But perhaps they are capable of more. Perhaps—at the very least, they might be taught to live apart from Humans. To take up a trade in peace. Mining, perhaps. Dead gods, at least one has the talent for it! They are not peaceful, but they aren’t unthinking savages, either. They can be talked to. And that means they can be reasoned with.”

“Yes, but—”

Welca lowered her hand as Sir Kerrig let go of her hand. He stared at her.

“Do you understand everything I’ve said?”

“I do. But Sir Kerrig—”

“Not now. It’s time to go.”

“Huh?”

She looked up. Sir Kerrig was looking around. He pointed.

“There’s a horse. See it?”

Welca looked and saw a horse tied to a wagon. It was a stallion and clearly unhappy at being forced to pull the wagon. It was pacing irritably, pulling at its tether. Sir Kerrig nodded.

“This tribe doesn’t use horses. They must not be able to work with the wolves. Take it. Use the gemstone if you have to, but get to a village, a town, anything. You’ll be able to reach Lady Bethal from there.”

“Me? What about you?”

Sir Kerrig smiled slightly as Welca looked at him.

“I’m staying. Their leader is unlikely to kill me. The Redfang faction seems to have a sense of honor as well. But Lady Bethal must know.”

“But Sir Kerrig—”

“No arguments. That Hobgoblin—Pyrite—seems willing to listen to me. If I can influence him, or talk to their Chieftain…I have to stay, Welca. If there’s a chance we can avoid this tribe running amok—it’s unlikely our order would manage to subdue them alone. They would escape again and again, and worse, begin to retaliate. Tell Lady Bethal that, and everything you’ve seen.”

“Sir Kerrig—”

Welca grabbed his shoulder. He looked at her and she stared at him. Then she grabbed his arm.

“I will return.”

“I have no doubt.”

He grasped her arm and then turned. The Goblins sitting around their wagon looked up as Sir Kerrig and Welca jumped out. The Redfang Hob with the spear raised it and then seemed to sense what was happening. He whistled shrilly and more Goblins and Hobs poured out of the darkness.

Five Hobgoblins, eight regular Redfang Warriors. Redfang Warriors, which meant the odds were worse than when they’d been attacked in the swamp. Sir Kerrig looked around.

“I am Sir Kerrig Louis. [Knight] in service to Lady Bethal Walchaís.”

The Hob with the spear laughed. Sir Kerrig eyed him. The Hob was strong, fit, young. Sir Kerrig nodded to him as Welca edged backwards, looking for a way out of the circle.

“Welca, don’t move until I fall.”

“Understood.”

The [Knight] felt the cold air on his skin. The Hob had leather armor. Not metal. Good. Sir Kerrig raised his fists, taking a boxer’s lowered stance. The Redfang Hob blinked, and then grinned. He tossed away his spear and put up his fists, copying the [Knight]. The other four Hobs and eight Goblins watched silently. Sir Kerrig waited until the Hob swung and then blocked the blow with one hand. As the Hob gaped his other fist came up and lashed out.

The trick to being a prisoner was to teach the enemy just how strong you were in a fight beforehand so they’d lower their guards. Welca had yet to learn that.

 

—-

 

Victory. Rags rode through the forest, flushed with battle fury. She hadn’t done more than cast a spell, but her tactics had crushed the Humans. It had been flawless, easy, even. Almost disappointing.

Almost. The Humans had fought with their backs to the wall. They’d killed Goblins, Redfang Warriors—exacting a bitter price for victory. Rags glanced at the three Goblins running to keep up with her Carn Wolf. Each one was wounded. Two Hobs and a Goblin. Of the Goblins who’d attacked Welca, only three had survived. All of them had gone in with the first wave, taken the brunt of the Human’s arrows and spells. Those that remained were warriors. They’d paid the price of treachery in battle.

It was a fair thing. Rags put them out of their mind and raced into the clearing where the noncombatants had been kept. She was set to celebrate, to meet the Frostfeeder tribe and rejoice, when she saw the commotion ahead. Several Redfang Warriors were surrounding a shape, a Human sitting by the wagon. A lone Human. Rags’ blood ran cold.

Sir Kerrig was sitting against one of the wagon wheels, surrounded by Redfang Warriors. He was cross-legged, smiling slightly. His face and upper body were swollen and dark bruises stood out on his skin. Around him lay five Hobs and the eight Goblins. All unconscious, some of them groaning.

“What happened?”

Rags said the words stupidly as she jumped down and looked at the Goblins. They were all alive. None of them were holding weapons. Sir Kerrig gestured to them and winced.

“They fought me one-on-one. Each of the Hobs, one after another. Barehanded. I did not expect that.”

“You did? Where is other?”

Rags shouted at Sir Kerrig. He just smiled at her and winced.

“I apologize. But we are similar.”

He smiled at the young Goblin Chieftain as she screamed at him and then ducked when she jumped at him with her sword. Rags didn’t mean to kill him, but it still took three Redfang Goblins to hold her back before Pyrite arrived. The Hob took one look at the situation and then at Sir Kerrig.

“Good idea?”

Sir Kerrig shrugged.

“I have my duty, Sir Pyrite.”

The Hob nodded. He looked at Sir Kerrig and motioned. Sir Kerrig stood up. Pyrite grunted.

“I have too.”

Pyrite swung first and Sir Kerrig dodged back. He was lunging when Pyrite stepped out of the way and kicked Sir Kerrig in the chest. The blow cracked Sir Kerrig against the cart and when he looked up, Pyrite’s fist was the last thing he saw for the next six hours.

 

—-

 

That night, Pyrite and the Goblins passed the road where the bloodshed had taken place. Sir Kerrig looked around, his head still ringing, and shuddered at the carnage. The Human bodies had been stripped of armor and weaponry, but they had been piled together and burned. Goblins were aware of the undead threat as much as any other race.

“Were they any survivors?”

“Some. Humans run away, drop weapons. Chieftain say no follow.”

Redscar grunted at him. The Redfang leader was the only Goblin willing to talk to Sir Kerrig. Pyrite was busy and Rags was incensed still. But Redscar and the Redfang Warriors had had something of the opposite reaction; they’d accorded Sir Kerrig a lot of respect for taking out five Hobs in a row. Enough so that Redscar himself was riding his Carn Wolf alongside Sir Kerrig on a pony. There was no doubt that he was going to be under heavy guard from now on.

But it was worth it if Welca could get away. Sir Kerrig sighed. She was a junior [Knight], but no member of the Knights of the Petal was ever admitted without reaching at least Level 20, which was the prerequisite for the [Knight] class anyways. So long as she had the horse she could probably outrun any danger. As for brigands…

“Hey. Big fight. Goblins win. Good thing, eh?”

Redscar grinned at Sir Kerrig, gesturing at the burned bodies and bloody, churned ground. Sir Kerrig opened his mouth to reply and caught himself. Redscar was much like a [Soldier], a seasoned warrior who had no qualms about a bloodbath so long as his side wasn’t the one dying. Mutely, the [Knight] nodded.

“A Goblin victory, indeed, Sir Redscar.”

The Goblin preened. They were happy to be called ‘Sir’, Kerrig had noticed. The [Knight] glanced around and asked a question to change the subject.

“The rest of your tribe is marching to the campsite, but I would have expected your Chieftain to make a speech at least. Have you no songs to sing in victory?”

“None. Too noisy. Brings trouble.”

Redscar grinned. Sir Kerrig looked dismayed.

“If this were a Human army, there would be feasting. Toasts. Do Goblins lack celebration—rituals of any kind?”

“No. Chieftain does Chieftain thing. Sometimes feast. This Chieftain and old Chieftain don’t. But good thing anyways.”

“What thing?”

Redscar didn’t elaborate. Slowly, he and Sir Kerrig rode past the battlefield, towards the ranks of Goblin warriors. Some were injured, but the vast majority were simply tired. Tired and unharmed. They stared up at Rags as she turned her Carn Wolf to face them.

The Goblin warriors waited in silence. Their red eyes shone as they stared up at their Chieftain. Rags raised her sword and fire burned from her hands. It lit up the darkness and the Goblins stared at her. Their Chieftain.

Sir Kerrig didn’t see a signal. No Goblin spoke, not one made a move. But as one, the Goblins raised their hands as one. Those that held weapons thrust them into the air. They held them there, silently, a war cry without sound, a speech without words. And yet every line in their bodies screamed the message to the watching Human.

Triumph. Slowly, the Goblins lowered their weapons and then they laughed, clapped each other on the back, and Rags pointed. The Goblin warriors marched down the road, the rest of the Flooded Waters tribe following. They held their heads high, full of pride.

Sir Kerrig found his eyes stinging, thought he couldn’t say why. Wonder at something he couldn’t comprehend? Empathy? Relief? Disappointment? Regret?

Envy?

Whatever it was, the emotion followed him as he gently urged his pony forwards. The [Knight] rode after the Goblins, a watcher, an observer, a stranger among a strange…people. Watching, listening, judging. And hoping he could change them. So that monsters could be more like people. So the people who looked like monsters could live with real people.

 

—-

 

The tribe marched, the tribe camped. The Goblins divvied up the loot, used a mixture of healing potions and some herbs to create a balm for the itchy bug bites, ate, and slept. Afterwards, when the patrols were keeping watch and the rest of the Goblins were sleeping happily, two Goblins met near a crossroads. A signpost pointed north, southwest, and east. One of the Goblins, the bigger one by far, stared at the sign.

“Lots of places.”

“Human places. We go that way.”

Rags pointed south dismissively. She eyed the Human writing. Names. Useless names. She shook her head as Pyrite inspected the words, always curious. The Hob had taken no injuries from the battle, but he still itched a bit from his bug bites in the swamp, especially on his back.

He leaned against a large wooden post planted in the earth next to the crossroads sign. Its surface was rough; it might make a good backscratcher. It was hard for Pyrite to reach his back and it was more fun to scratch his back like bears did. You could learn a lot of tricks from animals, he’d learned. Rags watched him with interest for three seconds, and then got bored.

“Human ran away.”

“Welca Vis. Human [Knight].”

Rags shrugged.

“Other Human stay. Why?”

Pyrite grunted and shrugged. Rags kicked him. She didn’t have time for his fake ignorance. Pyrite chewed at his lip, and then responded.

“Wants to learn. See Goblins. Thinks Goblins are like people.”

“Like people? Like Humans?”

“Mm.”

Rags made a disgusted noise and spat.

“Goblins are like Goblins. Watch Human. Don’t let run.”

“Other Humans more dangerous.”

The Chieftain nodded reluctantly.

“Other Humans follow. But Goblins move faster. Liscor is not Human place. We go. They don’t follow.”

“Yes Chieftain.”

That was it. The two Goblins stood in silence for a second, and then Rags grunted.

“Get balm for back. Back scratching look stupid.”

She walked off. Pyrite stopped scratching himself like a bear and considered she might be right. Then again, it was sort of fun. He continued scratching his back as Rags went to her bedroll and lay down.

A battle, an escape, magic in stones…it was another Goblin day. An ordinary day? She’d killed Humans. Lots of them. They’d been killing Goblins, but—

“Hey Rags! I didn’t see you there! When did you come in?”

A voice echoed. Rags turned her head towards her campfire and saw another fire. Warmer, welcoming. She heard a voice. She smelled pasta, slightly overcooked, and heard a young woman’s voice. Rags saw her face, staring, eyes open, a hundred times. On the dead. She shuddered.

“Humans kill Goblins. Goblins kill Humans. Humans kill Humans. Goblins kill Goblins.”

She could feel him in the distance. He was close and far. He knew her. He was near the mountain, she was sure. The Goblin Lord. There were Humans hunting Goblins. Bethal and the Human [Lord] and…

She felt uneasy. Bad. As if she was being hunted now. Ever since they’d marched out of the swamp she’d felt bad. Something was coming.

The Goblin Lord. The Humans. Tremborag. Rags curled up into a ball, curling into the blankets. Just for a moment she imagined she was safe and back in an inn, scowling, but secretly pleased, playing chess, drinking sweet blue juice…

“H—h—”

“Hello.”

“Hello, Erin.”

“Hi.”

“Hello. I am Rags.”

“My name is Rags.”

“I wanted to say—want to say—say…”

“…”

 

[Chieftain Level 20!]

[Skill – Tribe: Scavenger Armor Obtained!]

 

“Thank you.”

 


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65 thoughts on “5.20 G

  1. I’ve got a feeling…that there might be some plot inconsistencies with this chapter. It’s a hunch at the back of my head. Certainly there are typos. But hey, what’s new?

    It’s interesting, writing Goblins. I find that they’re hard (I find every character hard at some point) because they’re not as easy to pin down as some characters .Pisces, for all his subtleties, is always Pisces. But Goblins are ever-shifting, and they deal with moral ambiguities.

    Take Sir Kerrig for instance. Is he a man awakening to the nature of Goblins, or a hypocrite judging them for things he and his people do? Is Rags a misguided child or far older than her actual age? Are all her choices right, or are they inherently flawed?

    Good character building dictates that a character should be flawed. But then, what about monsters? Because we have them in the real world. Monsters and genuinely good people. It’s a puzzle, but I hope at the end of the day that something in what I write fascinates you.

    Thank you for attending Musings on Character Concepts 101 by pirateaba. I hope you’ve enjoyed the chapter–let me know what you think and as always, thanks for reading!

      • The Redfang Punishment was to bury them up to their heads. If they manage to escape, they live. If not, its a slow death by starvation or be eaten by monsters.

        The revised version was to let the guilty Goblins take the point (in the front) of the battle against the Humans. If they survived, they are done with their Punishment.

    • Rags and the goblins are reflections of the human moral evolution’s beginning. We were animals, and now we are people. What does that mean for us?

      Goblin chapters are among my favorite because I really like the way you examine these ideas. Erin gets it, now Sir Kerrig is getting it. What took our species 250,000 years to figure out, goblins are working on in the span of a few months.

    • Well, the only plot inconsistency is that Kerrig Louis was shown to have left with Bethal at the end of the battle, so he is NOT one of the 2 Knights knocked by the trees and taken prisoner.
      But well, you can always go back to 4.39G and change the name of the Knight who speaks with Bethal before their retreat.

  2. Leave a typo if you’re a flawed character! Leave more typos if you’re perfect.

    (Perfectly flawed readers: Grimmend, M, Lhans, Crique, ACarpDM, MrWiggles, iumeblog, Painterly)

    • They fought me one-on-one. Each of the Hobs, one after another. Barehanded. I did not expect that.”

      “You did? Where is other?

      -Did Rags mean to ask “You didn’t?” or did Sir Kerrig mean to say “I expected that”? Or did Rags say what she meant?

    • One thing looked odd to me.
      Rags thought of Pisces’ detailed explanations of how a spell should work. If she’d learned more—
      But she hadn’t. And Noears was a better [Mage] than she. All Rags knew was how to cast [Firefly] and now [Fire Arrow], a spell Noears had taught her.

      Rags said that she didn’t really improve as a mage, with the exception of having learned a spell form Noears, and yet she leveled from [Mage] Lv. 6 to 13.
      While 13 is clearly still low, it is nevertheless more than twice as much as she had earlier. 7 whole more levels seem to be a bit too much.

      It’s true that you level faster when your level is still low, though her overall level was at that time already over 40 so should have made leveling generally harder, but you would still have to do something to gain new levels in the Class.

        • My thought on this is that the tribe might help the chieftain gain levels through their actions, just as the tribe reflects the chief, the chief reflects the tribe. That’s why the Goblin king was so strong and why he was able to raise his lords so quickly. That or goblins just have an Innate ability to gain levels easier.

    • 2 Typo:
      1)
      …Rags put them out of {their} mind and raced…
      Should be {her} = …Rags put them out of {her} mind and raced…

      2)
      …The Goblin preened. {They were} happy to be called ‘Sir’…
      Should be {He was} = …The Goblin preened. {He was} happy to be called ‘Sir’…

    • “together in the smelling, bumping wagon.”
      ‘smelling’ suggests a live wagon. ‘smelly’ or ‘foul-smelling’ would both work as replacements.

      “Did they hear the revulsion in her tone and care? Did they even care?”
      ‘care’ is repeated twice – is this deliberate?

      “so she knew there wasn’t’ a battle”
      Remove the extra apostrophe

    • In this Chapter it is stated the following:
      …She liked books. She liked reading.

      But in Chapter 4.32 G it was stated:
      …he couldn’t read. She could though, a little.
      (She had to call Noears to read the message carved into the tree.)

      My Question is, how can she read books when she can barely read.

    • The Human bodies had been stripped of armor and weaponry, but they had been piled together and burned. Goblins were aware of the undead threat as much as any other race.
      “Were any survivors?”

      –> they = there

    • “Hobs, goblins, males, {female}—there’s not a shred of decency among them.”
      {female} -> {females}?

      “Pyrite had {a cut on his arms} and bruises on his body.”
      {a cut on his arms} -> {a cut on his arm} or {cuts on his arms}

      “The {Redfang’s} number one warrior was usually taciturn, but he looked approving.”
      {Redfang’s} -> {Redfangs’}?

      “Do you want a ransom? It may be that Lady Bethal would consider it. But she {had} no idea we’re alive—”
      {had} -> {has}?

      “The divide between Goblins and Humans would appear in the most innocuous of place.”
      {place} -> {places}

      “And this axe—Pyrite executed a quick cut that made Redscar nod approving—was a good one.”
      {approving} -> {approvingly}

      “Rags hadn’t heard a horn call, so she knew there {wasn’t’} a battle.”
      Stray apostrophe.

      “Can you not drive off the {Humans} army without bloodshed?”
      {Humans} -> {Humans’} or {Human}

      “She held up a hand and the crossbows ceased. {the} Humans ran. The Goblins remained.”
      {the} -> {The}

      “But {as one}, the Goblins raised their hands {as one}.”
      No typos, just redundant.

    • Hm. The feeling I got is that Rags is stammering, trying to find the right words to tell Erin how much Rags appreciates her (English not being her first language) rather than not being able to talk and thank her.

  3. Pyrite is my favorite character. He is wise and strong but also very very simple in his outlook on life and has precisely zero fucks to spare. It’s a pleasure to read his storyline every time.

  4. I think the chapters where you write about Goblins are my favorite. To me, the real mystery of the story is finding out the history of the Goblins, why Velan the Kind decided to fight for vengeance, and to see what happens to each of the Goblins we know. Whether it is Rags, the Goblins at Erin’s inn or even the Goblin Lord, I love reading about them and the way they think .

    Thank you for another wonderful chapter.

    • I feel like it has to do with how Goblins came about or just the nature of the world in general. As we’ve seen the leveling system seems to affect people and can even make a person into a “monster”. So, I feel like Velan found out that the Goblins use to live peacefully or were another race entirely at some point. But then they either transitioned into what they are now via the leveling system or people started regarding them as monsters.

      • Goblins are the youngest race (the fairies and the dragon called them children) and because of their primitivity and base hostility they are branded monsters and not given the peace and the place to build up a civilization. Let’s face it, there are more monstrous races out there, but because they had more advanced civilizations and probably communications between species earlier, now they are met only with racism, not kill on sight attitude.
        What do you mean Velan found out goblins used to live peacefully…? They lived peacefully when he was alive (and that was already after one major goblin war). But after they waged war on the world again they are viewed as a huge threat if left alone long enough to grow numbers and [Goblin Lords]. There are secrets, questions and mysteries about them, but I doubt they used to be another race of people and changed (basically you say degraded) because of the system. More likely is that they were really monsters and evolved at some point.

        • Velan said his reason for fighting was “vengeance,” and he only sought vengeance after he became a Goblin King, who has access to his entire race’s memory. So something very unjust happened to the Goblins way, way back in their history. That implies that they weren’t always monsters – Velan would hardly consider it unjust for mindless monsters to get killed.

      • My theory on Goblins is that they are Elf children, somehow cursed to never mature. It nicely ties together the disappearance of the Elves and the origin of the Goblins. They were betrayed by the other species and cursed to always remain in their immature forms.
        The Dragons and Fairies refer to the Goblins as the children. Their sadness for the children would make sense if they’re referring to a proud race they used to respect and admire, which has been brought low to a shadow of their former selves. They seem to exist on all of the continents, which would make sense for a once-mighty race.
        We’ve seen that the children of Gnolls and Drakes retain some of the more animal instincts (stronger sense of smell and running on all fours for Gnolls, having a tendency to bite for Drakes). Similarly, Goblins are the more aggressive, simple, and innocent versions of what used to be a race of Elves. Also they have pointed ears, and those ears have some alchemical properties – as expected from magical beings.
        Until we met the old Goblin Greybeard, I thought that maybe Goblins just mature into Elves so slowly that they never reach adulthood in their new, chaotic world, hunted by all. Maybe the old Goblin is just pretending to feel the effects of age? A bit of a stretch, but it’s fun to think about.

  5. Velan the kind….. My guess as to what happened? Velan was genuinely kind goblin hoping for peace and a goblin kingdom. But when he got enough goblins together, his memories went back far enough to when goblins and humans were at peace/had a civilization and he found the humans/other races tried to wipe out goblins. Drove him mad. Thats why people say goblin kings always attack. Because they remember

    • Probably, although I still wonder whether the Dead Gods have anything to do with it.

      We know the people who would know most about them (eg Magnolia) are terrified of them. We know the system/world has stagnated/declined since they died and ‘kinks’ have appeared in the system from this (eg confusing chess/board games with real battles). We also know the system defines what is a person/monster is and changes them according to their class/level/skills/race.

      Essentially, are the goblins stuck the way they are because the Dead Gods/system cursed their race or for some other reason. Same goes for half-elves, who are forever stuck as halfs.

      • You know, i can totally see that. Like, the goblins trying to kill the gods and then the gods cursing them or something. Or hell, goblins SUCCEED in killing the gods and the peoples band together to wipe them out. Because lets be honest, goblins are fucking broke OP as balls. More power proportional to the number of goblins? Imagine a civilization with the ability and means to reproduce limitlessly AND fully mature in 3 years. And for each additional citizen the lead shamans get more power. Yeah, godlike aint too far off. Hell, maybe the goblins WERE the gods and now that most of them are dead the shamans lost their power and died off too.

      • I agreed with them being cursed by the dead gods or something related to the death of the gods and to the half elves. They are the only race of people that the frost fairies never torment; they only look at them with pity and sadness in their eyes. There is also something that Velen thought in a memory that Rags experienced in 2.01 G, “No quarter! No mercy! The playthings must die! Kill them. Burn them. All that the Gods have wrought must be destroyed.
        His rage was endless. The Goblin King threw himself into battle, killing Humans, Drakes, Gnolls, and every species that got in his way. He only paused when the half-Elven archer raised her bow. The Goblin King’s last thought was regret as the arrow pierced his skull—”

        There is a lot of evidence in that memory, but the what I focus on is the word ‘Playthings’ the only other time we see this word is when the frost Fairies are talking to Ryoka in 2.28 “Your…classes, fool! Your levels and foolish things. You are a plaything, and you know not what that means or who plays this game.” and “Lies, you are all playthings! Ignorant slaves!” the word is not used in any other context in the 6,000+ pages of this story and that is quite telling. I believe Velen learned something about who cursed his race and the chains forged by the voice of dead gods and he rose up to try a break something about the world.

        • Could be that the goblins are a creation of the elves, before the elves were cast down for trying to mimic them and create life. The elves were struck down before the goblins could be finished or perfected (like orcs transitioning into Uruk-hai because of saruman) and left to build up from point zero without any guidance. Then you get the long running genocide from other races and boom, a history that could twist any soul into a rage fueld warlord

  6. So the people who looked like monsters could live with real people.

    So sad for the Goblins. Races like Drakes, Nagas, Selphids, Minotaurs and the like, seems more monstrous than the Goblins. Unfortunately, the average Goblin doesn’t speak English very well if at all. That got them placed in the monster category since they can’t speak up for their rights.

  7. I’m hoping the plot involves them wandering into the Unseen Empire. We’re all anticipating the inevitable reunion with Erin, but before that I suspect their path will take them through the empire.

    • They are already within the Unseen Empire territory, the wooden post is a sign and also how Rags feels like her tribe is being hunted down from the moment they left the swamp, that might imply that they are within the range of Laken’s perception.
      Also, next chapter is an E chapter.

  8. Plot hole: we know that mages learn new spells every few levels. How did Rags reach her current spellcasting level without getting another basic fire spell or something?

    How can Rags be unaware of how hard it will be to cross Liscor? She’s 4 years old: she must have noticed the yearly flooding!
    And of course there’s the fact that the loals will try to kill her. It feels like she’s underestimating that somehow, even though she lived there for years and her tribe was struggling.

    • I believe it has been mentioned that goblins gain levels and skills differently from all other enlightened races. Probably related to who they are/where long ago (i.e.: cursed by the gods for killing them/forcing them into a slumber).

      As for the Liscor flooding, her tribe IS called Flooded Waters. They most likely know how to swim well and build rafts.

  9. I love how Pyrite can use the gemstone to cast magic, but neither he nor I nor either human has any idea how or why it works.

    I love Sir Kerrig finding common ground with Pyrite and the Redfang Warriors with their respective codes of honor.

  10. Velan the Kind, what happened to him. I want to know.
    In my opinion his tribe found an artifact so very strong it could rival the Dragons, but due to his personality and his memories of past Chieftains he feared it would become the Death of Everything (think that’s how Goblins would call it) And so he took it with him and fled Baleros, looking for a place to hide this thing without anyone imagining it, thus the two keys and how he forfeited his last fight after managing to hide it.
    He had sacrificed his tribe and his people to keep the world safe, thus the Kind King falls.

  11. Hello. My name is Laken Goddart. I am an [Emperor]. I also happen to be blind. But I see this army of Goblins. They’ll be my subjects soon. Because I am an [Emperor]

  12. Sid Kerring seems weirdly adamant about helping goblins, which isn’t a bad thing but still weirldy jumping on the help train.

    • I’d consider it a crisis of conscience. He’s been slaying things he’s thought to be monsters for years, and ow they’re showing him they aren’t so one dimensional. His way of dealing with an onset of guilt? Perhaps because knights are defenders of justice, and justice isn’t slaughtering people like the monsters they appear to be?

  13. I’m not quite sure about the phrasing in the following passage. I think there is a typo here somewhere. I don’t think that an enemy would lower their guard if they think that you are strong in a fight, but rather if they thought you were weak.

    “The trick to being a prisoner was to teach the enemy just how strong you were in a fight beforehand so they’d lower their guards. Welca had yet to learn that.”

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