He sat in the dark house, waiting. His breathing was slow, deliberate. His heart beat a touch faster than necessary, but that was all. Everything he had put in motion was coming together and his role was almost exclusively that of a watcher. He had only one task to play.
Still, he was angry. Laken spoke into the silence.
“She lied to me.”
Someone stirred. A young man, Nesor, sat across from him. The young [Mage] was sweaty, pale-faced. He had wanted to stand, but he’d been so nervous that Laken had made him sit. Nesor could not be allowed to faint. That would ruin everything. Laken turned his head, but not to address the young man. His sightless gaze stretched far into the distance, tracking something Nesor couldn’t understand from where he sat.
“She lied to me. I understand why, but…no. There’s nothing I can do about it. The plan won’t change.”
Laken’s words were bitter, cold. There was no room for doubt or hesitation, not now. Part of him was afraid, but the rest remembered hate. So he sat as Nesor shivered. The young [Mage] kept glancing at Laken and then away. Why? He was only younger than Laken by a few years. He should have more backbone. But he would serve.
They were moving. Laken saw it all unfold in his head. Like a movie, or what he’d always imagined it to be. He sighed.
Nesor sat back uneasily. Laken sat, his chin resting on his hand. He waited, sensing it all coming together. Cold. He felt quite cold. Only it wasn’t his skin, it was in his heart. He waited, for bloodshed, for the right moment. Funny. He had never felt this way before, in his world.
He had thought he knew anger, knew what it was like to despise someone. But this was different. For the first time Laken knew what it was like to hate. He knew what it was like to have enemies. His teeth ground together. He uttered one word, restlessly.
The tribe had stopped for a break in the trees after a long day of marching when Poisonbite decided to speak to Rags. It wasn’t a spontaneous decision; she’d been contemplating it all day, really. And now, with evening drawing on, there would be little time before it was dark. Rags was a solitary eater and preferred to have her food alone; if there was any time before she slept to talk to her, it would be now.
The fading sunlight played off of metal as Poisonbite walked out of her all-female unit of Goblin warriors. She made her way across the busy camp, grunting as some Goblins waved at her or made suggestive motions for her to eat with them. Some wanted her company, others were more interested in her. A Redfang warrior looked hopeful until Poisonbite passed right by him without so much as a second glance. His companions hooted and laughed at him.
Redfang. To Poisonbite, they were a separate entity, even within Rags’ tribe. They didn’t precisely bother her, but she was always conscious of the difference between their elite group and her warriors. Poisonbite’s raiders had been good within Tremborag’s mountain, but the Redfangs were the best around without a doubt. That irked her, because she regarded Garen’s former tribe as a male fighting force, while hers was made of female Goblins and Hobs.
True, the Redfang elites took in any Goblin regardless of gender if they could fight. But their Chieftain, Garen, had placed his trust in male Goblins more than female ones and his thinking had influenced his tribe. Less than a quarter of all Redfang warriors were female and none of them were leaders. That annoyed Poisonbite, not least because Redscar hadn’t changed anything after he’d replaced Garen.
He was a fantastic warrior, she had to admit. Better than her. And he listened to her and respected her opinion when she gave it, which was good. But she wished fiercely that her raiders would one day be the equal of the Redfangs.
Someday. Poisonbite ignored the other Goblins, male and female, vying for her attention. Friendship aside, sex was not on her mind. Have too much of it and you’d stop being a warrior and instead be a mother. Everyone knew that. And Poisonbite couldn’t stand the idea of not fighting. There was too much to do! Especially now.
It was growing dark and the Goblins of the Flooded Water tribe were gathered around campfires. They could see well in the dark, but even they hated pitch-blackness. Poisonbite smelled cooking and quickened her pace.
She had something on her arm. Both arms, actually. It was a new addition to her armor. She looked down at the bracers on her arm. They were made of bark, of all things. Bark, padded old cloth, and bits of leather. She kept feeling at it, patting the bracer, touching the rough bark and the crude straps the [Hammerer] had made for her.
It was a strange thing. Poisonbite had received it a few hours after she’d woken up. It was one of the first pieces of scrap armor to be made in the tribe and it had been made for her. It was the how it had been made that had mystified her.
[Hammerers] were crude Goblin-versions of [Blacksmiths] who could repair dents and resize some armor, but they couldn’t make new armor this quickly or this well. And yet, all of the Goblin armorers in the tribe had been seized by creative genius upon waking and begun turning out crude armor made from scraps of metal, thick pieces of bark, leather, twine, and anything else they’d found. A good deal of the tribe was receiving new scrap armor to complement their existing armor.
The reason for this sudden boon wasn’t hard to figure out. It was Rags. It had to be. Word had quickly spread that she’d earned another Skill that affected her entire tribe: [Scavenger Armor].
It was no secret. Poisonbite understood keeping some Skills secret, especially in Tremborag’s tribe where infighting was how Goblins lived. But in a regular Goblin tribe? A Chieftain’s Skills were vitally important so every Goblin usually kept track of what their Chieftain’s level and best Skills were.
This was a good Skill. No one was denying that. But it was Rags’ reaction that prompted Poisonbite to approach her fire. Rags was sitting and staring moodily at the flames. Her eyes were shadowed. She’d been quiet and grumpy all day, on a day when her mood should have been happy. No one had asked her why. So Poisonbite took a risk and sidled over to the fire.
Rags looked up. She seized up Poisonbite’s wary stance, her new bracers, and her expression in one glance and understood what the other Goblin wanted. She nodded grudgingly and Poisonbite took a seat.
Rags eyed Poisonbite’s new bracers. The Goblin [Warrior] chewed her lip and shrugged. She replied as any good war leader would, giving Rags her unbiased opinion.
“Is good. Armor is not like metal but…”
She tapped her chest, shifting her outer layer of clothes to reveal a flash of steel. Rags nodded. Poisonbite indicated one of her prized possessions, the chainmail she wore at all times, proof of her rank. It had saved her life eight times already and had only three holes, one under the armpit, a small tear along the lower back, and a series of torn links near her neck where it had saved her from a farmer’s woodcutting axe.
What she meant was that her new bracers were good, but hardly strong as real worked metal. They wouldn’t stop a powerful blow and they’d break quickly. It was cheap armor, but better than nothing, which was good. For a Goblin, free armor was an amazing gift. It would save lives in the long run, make the tribe that much stronger.
And yet, Rags’ expression remained dour. The smaller Goblin shuffled her feet, irritably swatting at a bug that was biting her arm. Poisonbite heard her mutter a Human curse and decided to ask.
She pointed at Rags’ eyes. Goblins had no whites of their eyes like Humans, and their crimson eyes were naturally red, but it was still obvious that Rags had slept poorly. The Chieftain muttered to herself, not wanting to answer, but then she gave in.
Poisonbite shrugged. Oh. That was it? She was almost a bit disappointed. She considered the fire for a moment and asked out of curiosity.
This time there was a longer pause.
Rags stared into the fire. Poisonbite paused in surprise. Then she laughed.
She laughed and slapped her legs, but Rags’ response was a silent glare. Poisonbite quieted down, realizing she was serious. The older Goblin’s forehead wrinkled.
Nightmares she could understand, but all of her terrors had living things in them. Humans with burning torches, monsters snuffling around her as she hid—but dead Humans? If it was the undead she would understand, but Goblins were specific. Dead Humans. Why would that of all things make Rags unhappy?
Then something hit Poisonbite like a bolt of Noears’ lightning. She sat up and eyed the young Goblin. Was Rags interested in…? She looked around and found the Human in a moment. Even with thousands of Goblins around him, she could pick Sir Kerrig out by the way Goblins moved around him. Some cautiously, others curious. He didn’t belong and the tribe eddied around him. Poisonbite pointed.
Rags’ immediate denial made Poisonbite sigh in relief. That would have complicated things greatly. Rags chewed her lip, glaring at Poisonbite, who shrank a bit, realizing she might be prying too far. But Rags only muttered to herself again and then spoke.
“Killed many Humans.”
Poisonbite scratched a bug bite on the back of her left ear.
“So? Killing Frostfeeder Tribe.”
The Humans had been running down the Goblins, slaughtering them. Over half the tribe had died and the remainder were now part of Rags’ tribe. They’d babbled about Humans hunting them mercilessly over the last week, finding all their hiding spots. They’d been exhausted, worn down—the appearance of the Flooded Water tribe had been nothing short of a miracle for them. Poisonbite considered that any Humans hunting Goblins should die painfully, perhaps from a thrust from one of her poisoned daggers. But Rags thought differently.
“Humans will think dangerous.”
“So? Run or kill. Or hide.”
Poisonbite’s dismissive tone made Rags look up. She growled and Poisonbite swallowed hard.
“We are not Humans. We can be better.”
The question went unanswered. Rags just stared moodily into the fire. After a while, Poisonbite got up and edged away from the fire. She was done. Food was coming and she had no desire to provoke her moody Chieftain any further. Rags was strange. Smart, but strange. She walked back, intending to get food with her warriors, but then she saw a ripple pass through the tribe.
Goblins sprang to their feet. Some grabbed weapons, and others rushed to put on armor. No one had blown a horn, but they’d spotted other Goblins doing the same. And those Goblins had spotted other Goblins, and so Poisonbite knew something was wrong. Her pulse became electric though she didn’t know why until a few seconds later.
She turned and called the instant she saw a Redfang warrior riding his Carn Wolf through the camp. Rags looked up—she hadn’t noticed the reaction of her tribe—and immediately sprang to her feet. She ran towards the Redfang warrior as more Goblin officers ran over, having already sensed the change in the atmosphere.
“Chieftain. Humans riding north. On road. Four.”
The Redfang scout spoke in quick Goblin, gesturing south. Poisonbite frowned. He’d spotted Humans heading up the road? Who cared? Rags’ official policy wasn’t to waylay travelers unless they were carrying something really important, and the way the Redfang warrior had dashed into camp had suggested an attack! She opened her mouth to curse at the warrior, but Rags held up a hand.
She glared at the Redfang warrior, but he didn’t shrink as his Carn Wolf huffed and sniffed the ground. Poisonbite stayed well clear of the massive wolf; she didn’t trust the gigantic Carn Wolves. Rags just pushed the giant muzzle out of her face as the wolf sniffed her. The Redfang warrior pulled his wolf back a pace as he struggled for words.
There was no Goblin word for what he wanted. So he spoke a Human one instead, one laden with as much feeling as he could convey. He pointed.
The Goblins around Rags went still. Rags stared up at the Redfang warrior, frowning. Poisonbite froze. There was only a limited number of ‘hers’ it could be. And the first that sprang to mind was—
She stood on a distant hilltop, fanning herself lightly as the armored pink [Knights] advanced. They cut down the charging Goblins, not slowed by the jabbing pikes or blades that bounced uselessly off their armor.
Poisonbite saw a Hob go down, a sword buried in her chest and slashed at the [Knight] in front of her. Her daggers didn’t scratch his armor and she saw the [Lady] turn and point as more of her warriors strode down the hill, killing, as Goblins screamed and died—
“Lady Bethal Walchaís.”
Someone muttered. Poisonbite turned and saw Pyrite. He’d been speaking with the Human, Sir Kerrig. One of the pink knights. He looked at Rags. She had frozen. All the Goblins were tense. Rags looked back at the Redfang warrior.
“Four? Her? Sure?”
He nodded three times, impatiently. There was no way he would have forgotten. How could any Goblin forget so soon? He pointed again.
“Four. Two…[Knights], Chieftain. One her. Other…him.”
The one with the rapier, the one who’d dueled Greydath of Blades. The tension around Rags skyrocketed even higher. Poisonbite reached for her daggers and felt sweat running down her claws. Four? They could beat four, couldn’t they? But was it a good idea? What if there were more? But if it was four—
“More Humans? Any?”
Rags demanded, but the scout just shook his head. No other Humans coming down the road. They were alone. Rags gnawed her lip. She flicked her eyes to Pyrite, to Redscar who was glaring, and then to the Human sitting on his wagon. Sir Kerrig was looking their way although he had no idea what was happening. Poisonbite saw Rags study the [Knight]’s stupid, confused face, and then saw Rags nod. The Chieftain turned and spoke sharply.
“Five—eight pikes. Noears, Poisonbite raiders, eighty Hobs. Six…six crossbows. And all Redfang warriors. Riders surround. Hurry!”
Poisonbite felt her heart leap. They were going to attack! She grinned fiercely and ran as Rags’ words instantly created chaos in the camp. Organized chaos. Units of Goblins raced into formation as the Redfang Warriors took into the trees, silent, racing to encircle the road. Rags whistled and her personal Carn Wolf bounded over, abandoning its meal. Rags climbed up and Pyrite appeared with his enchanted battleaxe. Poisonbite raced back, her best [Warriors] and five of her Hobs in tow. Rags pointed and the Goblins streamed after her as Goblins with the long wooden pikes and Hobs streamed towards her. Rags raised her voice as she rode through them all.
“No attack! Not until I say.”
No attack? Poisonbite stared at Rags’ back then pumped her arms and legs, racing after the small Goblin. What did she intend to do? Lady Bethal was here! It was a chance for vengeance! But—
‘We can be better.’ That was what Rags had said. What did she mean? Did she have a plan? Poisonbite ran, confused, following her Chieftain. What was Rags going to do? Just as importantly, what were the Humans going to do? If they attacked—Poisonbite’s grip tightened on her daggers.
There were only four this time. Let them attack. She could always use new armor.
“Sire? Should I—”
“Wait. On my command, Nesor. Not a moment before. Wait—wait—”
“Movement in the trees!”
Lady Bethal Walchaís was dozing slightly, riding through the forest and waiting until Sir Thomast decided they should make camp when the voice of one of her Rose Knights split the silence. Her head jerked up and she saw the [Knight] ahead of her, Sir Nil Moxae, unsheathe his blade. His companion, Dame Truvia Cartiil, turned, raising her spear as her mount started. Bethal looked around.
“Movement? From what?”
“I will ride ahead. Dame Truvia, with me?”
The two [Knights] galloped forwards, abandoning their mistress for a moment. Lady Bethal wasn’t afraid though—the man riding next to her was all the protection she needed. Usually. Thomast’s rapier was already drawn and she could see he was preparing to leap from his saddle if need be. He fought better on foot.
“Do you think it’s an ambush? Were we followed?”
“Impossible to say.”
Her husband turned his mount warily, keeping his eyes on the trees. Bethal couldn’t see anything in the growing darkness, but the enchanted lanterns she and her company carried could only reach so far into the trees. She heard a howl suddenly and jumped; her mare flicked its ears skittishly, but it was too well-trained to rear or bolt.
Sir Thomast looked left and right. He frowned and turned.
“Keep your aura up.”
Lady Bethal had activated her Skill the moment Sir Nil had spoken. The air around her felt barbed and while her mare was safe, anyone touching her against her will would cut themselves on something as sharp as steel. Still, Lady Bethal drew closer to Thomast, looking around uneasily.
A cry came from ahead of the two, startling Bethal. She saw both of her Rose Knights riding back, furiously spurring their mounts faster. Dame Truvia pointed into the trees as another howl echoed—this time from their rear.
“Goblins, milady! A score of them in the woods, all riding Carn Wolves!”
“Carn Wolves? But those are—”
“The same Goblins we faced a week ago! They must have driven south! We had no word of them—”
“There are more approaching on foot! We’re surrounded. Sir Thomast, your orders?”
Both [Knights] looked to Thomast rather than Bethal. The [Chevalier] looked around.
“They’re already to our rear?”
“A score of them, sir. The ones on foot are coming from ahead and to the right.”
“We ride back. Bethal, follow me!”
Sir Thomast turned his mount and Bethal did likewise. She kicked her mare in the flanks and the horse shot forwards. Sir Nil and Dame Truvia raced ahead, but they got no further than a hundred yards when they cried out.
Lady Bethal jerked her reins and her horse screamed and nearly reared. Sir Thomast stopped his mount and Sir Nil shouted.
‘There are two dozen mounted Goblins ahead of us! More circling!”
Lady Bethal looked around. The trees were full of movement now. Sir Thomast glanced at her. Sir Nil turned, his sword and shield raised.
“We can cut through. If Sir Thomast can ward Lady Bethal—”
“Lady Walchaís’ mount isn’t armored. She’ll be dehorsed before we cut through!”
Sir Nil bit back an oath, looking back at Bethal. It was true; neither she nor Sir Thomast was riding a warhorse and neither mount had any barding. He looked around desperately.
“Lady Bethal, let us draw them off. We’ll ride left and attack them from the side. Perhaps then—”
“Don’t be foolish, Sir Nil. They’ve already marked all of us. Goblins won’t abandon one target for another. We break through together or not at all.”
Lady Bethal cut him off calmly. She looked around. Sir Thomast was studying the moving forest around them. She turned to him.
“We were so busy trying to throw off anyone that might pursue us that we forgot to worry about them. The Goblins, I mean. It’s such a silly error, isn’t it, Thomast?”
He didn’t immediately reply. Lady Bethal turned around in her saddle. Her horse was nervous now; it could sense the approaching Goblins. Bethal tried to sound jovial, though her heart was racing. Goblins—
“I wonder, was that why Emperor Laken was so concerned about which way we were going? Did he know, I wonder? We shouldn’t have lied to him. But I thought—”
Thomast’s voice made her grow quiet. He looked around and she realized the howling had stopped. Lady Truvia shifted.
“Sir Thomast, if we’re to break out—”
“We were already encircled. We defend my wife. Prepare to dismount and fight among the trees if need be.”
“The Goblins will pursue us unless we make it clear it isn’t worth the effort. I will aim for their Chieftain; you shield her from all attacks.”
He turned, his rapier shining in the darkness. Thomast’s eyes were filled with worry. He reached out and gripped her arm. It was so unlike him that Bethal nearly gasped. A sign of the true danger. He looked at her.
“Stay with me.”
There was no time for anything more. Bethal saw the first Goblin riding a Carn Wolf bound out of the trees. Sir Nil turned to face him, uttering a challenge. More mounted Goblins appeared out of the darkness, more and more. From the front, from behind—all sides. Goblins carrying terribly long pikes, more aiming crossbows directly at the four Humans. Hobs, dozens upon dozens of Hobs, striding along.
And then Bethal saw her. A small Goblin, barely larger than a child, riding a large wolf and carrying a black crossbow. She aimed it directly at Bethal’s heart as Sir Thomast and the two [Knights] surrounded Bethal on all sides. Bethal felt her breath catch. Was this how she died at last? Goblins killed her family. Her father, her mother, her sisters—had they finally caught up to her?
She was afraid—
“Cast the spell, Nesor! Tell her to do it now.”
Rags was afraid. She felt her heart pounding. Her sweaty grip on the black crossbow was bad; she adjusted her grip so the recoil wouldn’t send the crossbow spinning from her hands. She aimed at the woman in front of her and felt it in the air.
Danger. It screamed at her. The man with the rapier was staring at her. The two [Knights] flanked their lady. The Goblins holding crossbows aimed at the four. Hobs stood in the darkness as Carn Wolves growled. There were over two hundred Goblins surrounding the four, but Rags still felt alone.
It was her. Lady Bethal. The one who’d led her army of knights against her tribe. Rags could still remember the battle. Her finger tightened on the trigger.
Kill her. The rush of blood in her veins made every moment feel like years. She could feel Redscar on her left, his sword drawn. Pyrite stood on her right, the battleaxe burning.
“So. Sir Kerrig and Welca perished. I hoped they managed to escape. Alas, I underestimated your kind.”
Lady Bethal spoke first. Her lips were pale and she shook, but her finger alone was steady as it pointed at the sword Redscar held. She shifted her finger and Pyrite grunted. Lady Bethal turned her head, keeping her chin high.
“It was truly a shame. I thought the Goblin Lord was the true threat. I thought a tribe could be left alone, no matter how cunning their Chieftain. Ah, but this is fitting.”
She looked at Rags, right at her. Rags felt a shock and her finger twitched. The man standing next to her raised his rapier. He could strike her from this far, cut the air. The Goblins around Rags tensed. If they fired, the [Lady] died. The [Knights] would not. Neither would the [Chevalier]. Rags exhaled slowly. She raised a hand and the Goblins relaxed a fraction.
Lady Bethal had gone still. Now she looked at Rags.
“Well? What are you waiting for? An invitation? You have it!”
Her voice trembled a bit as she snapped. She was afraid. She was afraid of them. Rags saw it in her. The young Goblin fought as her head told her to fire. Vengeance. But her memory showed her the Humans she’d butchered yesterday. And her heart showed her a face.
Erin stared at Rags, her face pale, her hands gripping the reins of her petrified mare. There was nothing similar about Bethal and Erin. Not in face or body. But that look. That look in her eyes. Rags felt her finger squeeze the trigger. Then relax. Slowly, painfully, she lowered the crossbow.
She said it once, and then louder.
The Goblins around her started. They looked at her and then at each other, but slowly the crossbows lowered and pointed at the ground. The Humans stared. Lady Bethal stared as Rags urged her wolf forwards a pace. Rags met the [Lady]’s eyes.
“You killed Goblins.”
Bethal blinked at her. This wasn’t what she’d expected. Rags repeated herself again, urgently.
“You killed Goblins. You. But we—not kill you. You are…prisoner. Like other two.”
A scoffing, angry sound came from the male [Knight]. But Bethal held up a hand. She stared at Rags.
“Other two? Do you mean Sir Kerrig and Lady Welca? Are they alive?”
“Yes. They prisoner. You. Prisoner.”
Rags didn’t know why she was saying it. But the image of shooting Lady Bethal through the chest, the thought of pulling the trigger—was hard. She hadn’t attacked this time. She’d been riding. She’d killed Goblins, but Rags had killed Humans. Somehow, it made a difference. Rags pointed.
The [Knights] behind Lady Bethal bristled. Rags scowled.
“Drop. Or shoot.”
“We will cut down every Goblin here should Lady Walchaís fall!”
One of the [Knights] promised darkly, raising her spear. The Goblins tensed. Lady Bethal frowned.
“Lower your spear, Truvia.”
“Lady Bethal! Surrendering would be a death sentence—”
“I know. Let us go, little Goblin Chieftain. We will not surrender. Let us go.”
Bethal urged her mount forwards a step. The man beside her reached out and she held up a hand.
He subsided. Rags stared as Bethal approached. Her gaze bored into Rags’ head. There was a pressure about her. A prickling sensation, as if the air around her were the spines of an animal. But more—she felt vast.
“If my people are alive, I will ransom them. And I will ransom myself and my company.”
The word was known, but unknown to Rags. Bethal nodded.
“Pay. It need not come to death, Goblin Chieftain. I will give you a fair price for our safe passage and my people’s return, my honor on it. Will you accept that?”
She pushed and Rags felt the urge to agree. But she bit her tongue, gritted her teeth.
She raised the crossbow and aimed at Bethal. The [Lady] didn’t flinch, though the two [Knights] and her husband tensed. She stared at Rags curiously.
“So small. So fierce! Are you really a Chieftain?”
The question made the Goblins around Rags shudder with anger. What an insult! Bethal looked around, bemused.
“Are you truly the same kind of Goblins as the ones I know?”
The question went unanswered. Now everyone was staring at Lady Bethal. She looked back at Rags.
“I saw the Goblin King. I met one of his Lords. You are different. Prisoners? Do Goblins do such things? Velan the Kind knew no such mercy.”
Velan the Kind. Rags shuddered. She had to take her finger away from the trigger again or risk pulling it. She looked at Bethal. The woman’s gaze wasn’t hostile. She searched Rags’ gaze.
“Peace, little Goblin. Why do you want us as prisoners?”
Rags growled. Bethal nodded.
“Safety. I understand. But know that my people will not rest until I am returned. I killed your people. I will pay the cost of their lives. In magic and gold.”
Her voice was too high-pitched. The Goblins shifted. Bethal didn’t blink.
“It is all I can offer. Please, Chieftain of Goblins. If my [Knights] are truly alive, show me. Offer me goodwill and I will return it.”
“Show me. Let me see them. And I will offer you peace. A boon. Protection from other Humans. Safe passage. Whatever you wish.”
Her words were soft, tempting. Desperate. Rags saw that in her as well. Bethal spoke quietly as Rags fought.
“There is nothing to be gained from killing me. The cost would be too high. But if there is a chance—are they truly alive?”
The crossbow was heavy. Rags lowered it slightly.
“Are they close? Unharmed?”
“Man is. Female ran. She—”
Rags heard a horn blare in the silence. She jerked. The Goblins around her raised their weapons. The mare danced and Lady Bethal turned as the [Knights] and her husband moved forwards. She looked north, back the way Rags and the Goblins had come.
“What was that?”
Rags didn’t know. She heard the horn blow again, frantically. Three short blasts. A distress call! She looked at Bethal, suddenly afraid.
“What you do?”
The woman looked taken aback. Rags lifted the crossbow and saw the man’s grip on the rapier shift. Pyrite lifted his axe. Bethal held up a hand.
“I swear it! On my house and name!”
Rags held her gaze. She turned. Redscar was looking back. The horn blew again, and another one blew, desperately. Rags looked at him. Redscar snarled.
They had to go. Rags hesitated. She looked back at Lady Bethal. The woman was watching her. Rags pointed.
The wolf riders dashed into the forest, howling. The Goblins on foot shifted. Rags leaned out of her saddle and snapped an order.
“All go back! Fifteen Hob and half crossbows stay!”
The warriors rushed backwards, leaving only a handful of Hobs and a lot of Goblins with crossbows. They kept their weapons trained on Lady Bethal. Rags turned—Pyrite grunted and pointed. She nodded. He ran. She turned to one of the Hobs in charge and lowered her voice.
“Aim at her. If attacked, run.”
The Hob nodded, glancing at the frozen Humans. Rags sat back upright and snapped at her personal escort.
She kicked her wolf and it leapt into the forest, following the Goblins running around her. Rags turned her head back and saw Lady Bethal staring at her. For a moment their gazes locked, and then Rags was racing ahead, running. The camp was only a short distance away. What had happened? What—
She burst through the trees and saw shadows flickering through the trees. No light. Just shadows. Flickers of light caught her attention—burning embers from scattered campfires, fallen torches—but no light. She heard Goblins screaming, heard the pounding of hoofbeats—
Hooves? Goblins rode wolves! She turned and saw a Goblin scream as a shadow passed by. A dark shape slashed and Rags saw a sword flash. The Human rode past her, trampling a Goblin. Not one Human. Many Humans! They rode, shouting and cutting down Goblins around her, too fast to track in the near darkness. She heard them screaming.
“Laken! Laken and the Unseen Empire!”
“Follow the Captain! This way!”
She saw a rider in full steel armor whirl and turn. He cut a Hob across the face as the Goblin ran at him and the riders following him speared the Hob. The armored rider pointed and the Humans on horseback charged forwards again, running over Goblins and Hobs alike.
But that was wrong! Rags gaped. Where were her warriors? They should be in formation, fighting! There couldn’t be more than a few hundred riders here at most! Where was—
Rags called a ball of searing white light into being and threw it up. The shimmering orb flew up through the trees and cast the shadows into relief. Rags looked around and saw what she’d failed to see before. There was something in the trees, drifting past her.
Fog? Mists? No. Smoke. It was dark black and green and drifted at head-height through the trees. It was thick and Rags saw it was cutting off over half the camp. The riders streamed away from it, cutting down the Goblins in the clear space. But in the smoke? Where were the others?
Rags saw a group of Goblins stagger out of the smoke. She urged her mount forwards, shouting at them. They were armed! Warriors! She raced towards them and saw them staggering. Falling? Rags stared as, one by one, the band of Goblins collapsed. Half fell, coughing, grasping at their throats. The others weakly tried to raise their weapons, covering their eyes.
Their eyes? Rags saw something leaking from a Goblin’s eyes. He screamed, a rasping, choking cry. He looked to her—and an arrow sprouted from his chest. Rags jerked. She heard a whistling sound and beneath her, her Carn Wolf howled. An arrow had pierced his side! He jerked and Rags heard more arrows thud into the ground. She looked in the direction of the archers, but saw nothing.
They were under attack! Archers, poisonous smoke—and the cavalry. Rags couldn’t see the Redscar warriors, but she could hear howls, spread out in the darkness. How were the Humans seeing? She looked for her warriors, her organized units and saw nothing.
Rags screamed the word. She raised her hand and shot another ball of light into the air. Her Carn Wolf howled and she saw more Goblins moving towards her. Some were in the poisonous fog. They stumbled out, blind, coughing. And Rags saw the mounted Humans turn.
“Rally! Form line!”
She shouted at them, reaching for her sword. The Goblins ran towards her, many falling, and Rags saw something flicker overhead.
Arrows. One flashed by her chest. She jerked and felt something strike her mount in the head. It fell and Rags cried out as her Carn Wolf crashed to the ground. She rolled away and saw the light above her head go out. Someone had ended her spell.
Goblin screams. Rags struggled up, looking around wildly. She didn’t see the Goblins. She heard more arrows landing and ran, desperately. Something was ahead. Rags saw the air darken and jerked backwards. The poison! It was drifting across her camp. Had the Humans put it there? Where was Pyrite? Where was—
A voice amid the screaming. Rags turned and saw a Hob running towards her. He had a spear and his eyes were wide. He couldn’t find anyone in the darkness. She gasped to see him.
“Come! Must get light!”
She ran towards him. The Goblin opened his mouth and then turned. He snarled; Rags saw a shape amid the trees. She heard a shout and saw a black rider flash past her. He cut and the Hob in front of her fell, gasping, clutching at the axe stuck in his chest.
Rags ran towards him. The Hob grabbed at the axe as the Human on the horse cursed and rode on. He grabbed the axe as Rags stopped. She fumbled at her belt. Healing potion. She had to have—
The Hob’s lungs were filling with blood. He pulled the axe free before she could stop him. She heard a wet, tearing sound, and then silence. She lifted the potion and saw the limp body on the ground.
She reached for him, but there was nothing there anymore. Rags slowly corked the healing potion and stood back up. She looked around. She could hear more shouting, see more riders moving through the darkness. Arrows were landing. The poison was moving.
“Rally! Rally here!”
Rags screamed the words, searching for Goblins in the darkness. But there was no one around her. It was as if the Humans had brought madness with them. Rags saw Goblins fleeing into the poisonous smoke, running from riding Humans, shooting back wildly at the archers they couldn’t see. It was chaos. She was alone.
Alone. Rags shouted but no one could hear. The poison mist was drifting through the camp, covering staggering Goblins trying to run. Arrows flew around her, cutting down the Goblins emerging from the poison. And in between the poisonous fog were the riders, galloping, scything down her people. Turning, wheeling.
Humans. They were killing her tribe. Where had they come from? They weren’t Bethal’s people. Rags felt—shocked. Something beyond shock then reached her core. Her head rang. She stumbled, looking for her people.
A poison cloud at her back, the riders ahead. Only the dead around her. Rags raised her head and saw them at last. A flicker of light. A group of Humans far away, aiming their bows. And a cauldron—many bubbling pots and Humans fanning the smoke, blowing it their way. They loosed another volley and Rags heard the Goblins scream. Then the black riders raced past her, cutting down a group of Goblins that tried to form a pike formation with a third of their number.
They’d ambushed them. Just like they’d done. Somehow, the Humans had known they were there. Rags nodded. That made sense. She looked around. It was the same. They’d come for her tribe, come for her. She hadn’t expected it. But that was what was happening. They had come and were killing everyone.
Rags felt—pain. Pain, and hurt. But nothing else. She looked inside her heart for anger. She looked for rage, reached for it and found nothing. Because, in her soul, in her inner self, nothing in Rags was surprised. She looked around at the blood. At the silent bodies.
Look at them. All of them. The small ones curled up to the adults. By poison, by blade, by arrow. It was all the same.
This was how things were. Again and again, for years and centuries. Forever. This was what they did. Rags slowly reached for the crossbow she’d tied to her back. Slowly, awkwardly, she drew it and looked around.
The riders streamed past, shouting. Rags raised the crossbow and aimed. She pulled the trigger and felt it kick against her arm. One of the dark shadows fell and a horse reared. Rags mechanically felt at the quiver at her side. The horses rode past her, turning, cutting.
Place the bolt. Cock the crossbow. Rags lifted it and turned. Again she pulled the trigger. Another shape fell.
They were turning. One pointed his sword and Rags knew there was no time. She raised her hand and fire flew. It struck a horse and Rags saw the rider flailing as the animal screamed.
This was how it happened. Every time. She saw the Humans charging, heard the cry. She held her ground. Her finger shifted, another rider fell, burning.
A Human in armor was leading them. He rode towards her, his face obscured by a dark steel helmet. Rags pointed at him and the flaming arrow struck his chest. Too weak; he rode through it. He had a sword in his hand. Rags reached for hers.
Sword. Buckler—she fumbled and dropped it. The rider lowered in his saddle. She thought she could see his face through the helmet. She heard a word as he leaned down. She swung and heard the rushing air, felt her blade bite into the horse. And then she heard his voice as he cut her chest.
It was a whisper, lost among the screaming. For a moment, a frozen moment, Rags looked up and saw his eyes. And then the blade cut into her chest. Rags twisted with the impact, her grip loosening on her sword. The horse screamed as her blade was ripped from her hand. She blinked and looked at the blood streaming from her chest. The rider wrenched his sword and the world blurred. Rags stumbled and she saw him kick his stallion. He raced past her. She heard Goblins scream around her as she sank to her knees.
Rags clutched at her chest. Blood dripped between her claws. She wavered and felt her knees give. She lay down, staring at the sky.
Her chest was wet. She felt tired. Cold. There was nothing in her heart. No fury. Not enough hate to make her reach for the potion at her belt. She should never have expected anything more.
The Humans rode past her, whooping, shouting war cries, cutting down the Goblins that fled. Ignoring her. Another body on the ground. Rags wanted to tell them to stop. She hadn’t started it. She hadn’t killed the lady. She’d tried—
But they’d killed the Human army. The ones chasing Goblins. And these Humans knew. Or did they care? They were cutting down children and Goblins with no weapons, laughing, screaming. The poison cloud drifted over Rags’ head and she felt her lungs burning.
This was what they did. Rags closed her eyes and coughed once. She thought—
Pyrite turned and shouted for Rags. He couldn’t see anything in the darkness. The darkness was nearly perfect in the forest. All of the campfires were scattered. The torches had been knocked over and the Humans were riding through the forest, cutting Goblins down!
How could they see? How could they know where each Goblin was? Could they see in the dark? The Hob saw a flash and saw an arrow land close to his foot. He shouted.
The Goblins around him instantly raised their shields. He heard thudding impacts and then a scream. A Goblin fell in front of him. He looked around wildly.
There was no vision! No order! Black and green smoke was obscuring half the forest. Pyrite had sent a scout into it and the Goblin had begun choking halfway in. Poison of some kind. The riders were dominating the other half—they were bearing down on any group of Goblins. There were only a few hundred of them, but they’d scattered the Goblin’s formations. Pyrite had arrived with a group of pikes, crossbows, and Hobs to find nothing at all.
“Where are Redfang? Where is Rags? Where are warriors?”
He shouted desperately. The Goblins around him looked around wildly. Nothing. There was howling from Carn Wolves, but it sounded like it was coming from inside the black smoke. On the other side? Pyrite looked around. Arrows, riders—what was the priority?
He heard a howl from his left and saw a Redfang warrior on a Carn Wolf charging. Alone. He had a bloody blade and was headed towards a cluster of shadows—
No wait. Those were Humans! Pyrite’s vision picked out a dark group with bows and a few flickering fires. A group of Humans, archers! They shot the charging Redfang warrior and his mount dead as Pyrite watched. They had set up in front of three black cauldrons belching smoke.
Cauldrons. Pyrite’s eyes widened. He pointed at the burning vats and shouted.
The Goblins around him charged after Pyrite as he ran through the forest. The Humans with bows noticed him running and called an alarm.
“Hob charging! Loose!”
Pyrite heard the bows sing and raised his arm, covering his face. He felt something strike him in the chest and roared as the burning pain filled his shoulder. But the arrow had lodged in his fat; another struck him in the belly, another in the arm. Missed his head. Pyrite lowered his hand and saw the Humans in front of him. To the side were the pots. Pyrite lifted his battleaxe and roared. He swung and the Human [Archer] fumbling with her shortsword disappeared. Pyrite felt the impact as his battleaxe sheared through her and roared.
The Humans screamed as Goblins charged past Pyrite. They rammed into them with pikes, impaling the Humans as Pyrite swung again. The [Archers] fled, shouting in panic.
“Fall back to the horses! Retreat!”
Pyrite bellowed at the Goblins. He saw a Hob kick over a pot and swung at the other two, knocking the cauldrons to the ground and spilling whatever was inside. Smoke shot up as the flames were doused; Pyrite coughed and felt his eyes and throat begin to burn. He staggered away and coughed before shouting an order.
The Goblins heard him and avoided the poisonous fumes. They chased the Humans, cutting down half as they scrambled onto their horses tethered nearby. The Humans fled and Pyrite called them back.
“More archers! More pots! Find!”
There had to be. He roared at the Hob who’d kicked over the pots and he and six other Hobs led another group of Goblins back through the forest. Pyrite ran ahead, snapping the shafts of the arrows, bellowing.
They needed to see! A Goblin grabbed a piece of wood and tried to stoke the fire the cauldrons had been burning on. He lifted a torch and Pyrite, remembering his axe, swung it into a tree, bellowing.
The tree caught alight as the enchanted axe set it aflame. Goblins rushed forwards with branches and sticks and Pyrite pointed. The riders were still circling the camp.
The Humans had spotted the Goblin warriors and charged towards them. Pyrite roared and raised his axe. The first Human had a spear. It was leveled at Pyrite’s chest. The Hob charged forwards and then dodged right at the last moment. Into the path of the horse! The startled animal reared, but Pyrite didn’t give it a chance to strike him with its hooves. He swung and felt an impact. The rider and horse fell and Pyrite kicked. The Human took the blow in the chest and fell, gurgling. More riders came at him. Pyrite swung his axe, roaring.
The Goblins around him remembered their training and set their pikes. The horses ran into the pikes or tried to turn and the riders crashed into the Goblin formation. Hobs and Goblins armed with axes and swords ran between the pikes, and fell on the immobilized riders. Pyrite roared and advanced, his axe cutting down Humans and horses alike.
“Break away! Retreat!”
A panicked voice signaled a second retreat. Pyrite shouted for the Goblins not to pursue. This wasn’t important! They had to find others!
He roared again, louder. The Goblins snatched up branches. Pyrite saw another group of Humans loosing arrows and ordered another charge. This time the Humans ran before he could close the distance.
“They’re reforming! Get away!”
“General Wiskeria’s ordered the retreat! Move to the rally point!”
“Take down that Hob!”
Someone shouted from the left. Pyrite spun and saw an armored Human bearing down on him with a group of mounted Humans. He swung and the Human cursed, pulling his mount away to avoid Pyrite’s strike. He rode past Pyrite, hacking down a Goblin and Pyrite cut down a Human trying to strike him.
“Captain Beniar! We have—”
A man screamed as Goblins swarmed his saddle. Beniar, the armored Human, turned, but before he could charge again, a snarl made his horse rear. A Carn Wolf leapt out of the darkness, riderless, and Pyrite saw more Redfang warriors stream out of the night. Half were coughing, and their mounts were in similar pain, but they bore down on the riders.
“Pull out! Back to Wiskeria!”
Beniar shouted the order and his horses wheeled. They raced through the forest as the Redfang warriors gave chase. Pyrite saw a shower of arrows flying and two riders fell with their wolves. He shouted.
The Redfang warriors pulled away as more arrows began cutting them down. The Human [Riders] rode on, shouting, and Pyrite saw the largest group of [Archers] yet. They were shooting down the Goblins that were trying to pursue. Pyrite took a deep breath and bellowed.
Every Goblin in earshot turned. They broke off their pursuit and dashed towards him. The Redfang warriors rode over and Pyrite shouted up at one of the leaders.
“Humans with bows! Do not go!”
“Redscar says attack!”
“No! Find Goblins! Find Chieftain! Find Noears and others!”
The Redfang warrior hesitated, and then nodded. He took his riders back, circling the camp, as Pyrite saw the Humans continuing to retreat. He looked around at the Goblins under his command.
“Hobs! Find Chieftain! Find others!”
The Hobs around him nodded and broke up, forming groups out of the smaller Goblins. It wasn’t Rags’ tactics, but traditional Goblin ones. It was all Pyrite could think of; the Humans were running and he had no idea how many Goblins were alive. They needed Rags! Where was she?
Figures emerged from the darkness as Pyrite’s blood cooled a bit and he began to feel the pain from the cuts in his arms and three arrows. He saw lightning crackling, and Noears emerged from the darkness. The Goblin was uninjured, but he was followed by Poisonbite whose eyes were swollen nearly shut. She was wheezing, barely able to breathe.
“Pyrite! Where Chieftain?”
Noears looked around, his hands giving off the smell of burnt air. Pyrite yanked an arrow from his chest with a growl and poured a bit of healing potion on the wound. He shoved the rest at Poisonbite who fumbled for it.
“Don’t know. Search. Need lights!”
Noears immediately threw a ball of light into the air, illuminating the dark forest. Pyrite nearly hit him—if he could have done that, why didn’t he do it earlier? But the [Mage] clearly hadn’t been thinking of that. And the light attracted more attention.
Redscar rode out of the darkness, his enchanted frost blade covered in blood. He was unharmed, and his Carn Wolf had bloody fangs. He was positively alight with fury. He pointed at Pyrite.
“Where are Humans?”
“Running. That way.”
Pyrite pointed. Redscar snarled.
“Hunt them down! Redfangs!”
He made to ride, but Pyrite caught the wolf and yanked it back.
“No. Find Chieftain!”
The Carn Wolf snarled and tried to bite Pyrite. The Hob punched it. Redscar howled in fury and spat at Pyrite.
Pyrite bellowed at him. Redscar hesitated. Then he turned and raised his war horn and blew two long blasts and two short blasts. After a moment a howl answered him and he turned.
“Smell her! Follow!”
Pyrite ran after him. He ran past Goblin bodies, over one that groaned, past a downed horse, through a burned campfire—so many bodies. He ran through a clearing patch of smoke, eyes burning despite having kept them closed through most of them, and saw Rags.
She was lying on the ground, her head lying at an angle. Goblins stood around her as Quietstab knelt by her side. He had an empty potion bottle by one side. The ground was covered in blood. Pyrite’s ears rang. He ran forwards, nearly throwing Quietstab aside. He reached for Rags.
“One. Need more!”
The bottle Quietstab had taken was from Rags’ belt. Pyrite reached for his bottle and realized it was empty. So was Quietstab’s. He turned and roared.
Redscar leapt from his wolf’s back and grabbed a bottle. He tossed it to Pyrite and the Hob tore the stopper out. He reached for Rags and carefully lifted her. She was cold.
“Chest. Healed, but—”
Rags wasn’t responding. Pyrite forced her mouth open and poured the healing potion down her throat. Anxiously, he felt at her chest, put his hand over her mouth. Was she…?
He felt the slightest of heartbeats, the faintest of breaths and a cough. She was alive! Barely. Pyrite sat back.
Redscar looked worried. All of the Goblins were clustering around, their eyes wide. Pyrite hesitated. Rags was still unconscious. She was breathing. That was what mattered. He stood up and forced the Goblins back.
“Give room! Quietstab, guard!”
The Hob nodded. Pyrite looked around. Redscar glanced at Rags and then turned his head.
“Ambush. Poison and darkness and arrows.”
Pyrite agreed. Redscar snarled. He slashed with his sword, spraying half-frozen droplets of blood.
“We hunt! Redfangs go. Hobs too!”
“No. Chieftain is wounded.”
“Humans are running!”
Pyrite shook his head. He’d seen it. The Humans were pulling back, but they’d been baiting the Goblins into following so they could tear them apart with bows. Redscar snarled.
“Not enough Humans. We go.”
Pyrite grabbed Redscar’s arm. The other Goblin was smaller, far smaller than Pyrite. Redscar froze and looked up at Pyrite.
His sword raised and Redscar’s eyes narrowed dangerously. But Pyrite refused to let go. His grip tightened. Redscar’s arm groaned and the Goblin stared into Pyrite’s eyes. Pyrite rumbled.
“Your duty is to tribe. Obey.”
“Chieftain cannot give orders.”
“Chieftain is Chieftain! And I am second! Obey!”
Pyrite felt Redscar’s bones under his hand. The Goblin growled and Pyrite growled right back. The two stood together and then Redscar abruptly nodded. Instantly, Pyrite let go and Redscar snatched his hand away. He sheathed his sword angrily.
There was fury burning in his eyes, but he was obeying. For now. Pyrite looked down at Rags. She looked so small, so weak lying there. She had to be alright. She would wake up. He looked around at the wounded Goblins, the destroyed camp and felt a weight on his shoulders.
“Now? Find wounded? Count living. And make ready. Humans will come back. Lots of them.”
The Goblins looked at him. Redscar growled. They all knew it was true. This was only the start. The Humans had found them. And they would be back.
“G-general Wiskeria says they’re pulling back. For tonight. The Goblins aren’t pursuing any longer. She says there are too many to attack. Unless you think otherwise. Do you want…want me to send her another [Message], Emperor?”
“No, Nesor. Tell her to pull back and treat her wounded. The plan is a success. Tell her congratulations and to prepare for another message within the hour. Understand?”
I sense Nesor’s pale face nod towards me. The [Mage] closes his eyes and his lips begin to move, forming the words he’s sending via [Message] spell. He’s a poor caster so it takes him laborious minutes to send my words to Wiskeria’s [Mage]. And even longer to hear her reply.
“She says that she understands and is holding. Emperor Laken?”
He looks at me, sweat rolling down his head. I can sense his fatigue, smell his body odor. He’s kept me in constant touch with Wiskeria this last hour and the effort has taxed him. I nod and rise.
“That’s enough. Good work, Nesor. Take a break; I’ll handle things from here.”
“Thank you, your Majesty.”
He breathes a sigh of relief and slumps in his chair. I look around the dark house. This is Wiskeria’s home, unfurnished in large part. It’s quiet. Dark. I don’t need illumination so I haven’t bothered to light a candle despite the late hour. It must be close to pitch-black for Nesor, but I navigate my way to the door with ease.
“Get some rest. Here.”
“Here? But isn’t this—”
“I may need to speak to Wiskeria again. Sleep here, Nesor. Eat if you need to—but be ready for the morning. I need to speak to the others.”
I pause, thinking. Nesor’s worn out.
“Verdammt! I need to send those [Message] spells. Nesor, send a brief [Message] to Wiskeria and see if Lady Bevia’s [Mage] can do it. If not—”
“I can do it, Your Majesty. I think…if I have a mana potion.”
Nesor fumbles weakly at his belt. I nod.
“Good. In that case, I’ll rely on you.”
I pause at the door.
“Excellent work, Nesor. Lady Rie will be proud, I’m sure of it.”
I sense a smile light up Nesor’s face.
“T-thank you, your Majesty.”
He slumps back in his chair and drinks half his mana potion. After I leave. I watch him with my [Emperor] senses for a few minutes as I stride through the village, but he seems fine. I had wondered if he’d be up to the challenge, but he came through. And it worked! My heart is beating too fast, and I feel blood thundering through my veins, though I haven’t done anything. All I could do was watch.
But I felt like I was there. I saw Beniar and my Blacksky Riders sweeping through the Goblin camp. I saw Wiskeria’s brew do its work, blinding and suffocating the Goblins while her [Archers] shot Goblins from afar. Damn that Hob and those mounted Goblins. If they hadn’t attacked, we might have—
No, focus. This is enough. I have to make the next part count. I stride towards a familiar person in Riverfarm, wrenching my attention away from the Goblins. I can still sense them, on my lands, regrouping, salvaging their ruined camp. They’re still there, many of them. Thousands. But less now. A good number less.
The man turns and I sense he’s holding a torch.
“Emperor Laken? Is everything…?”
“Fine. The plan’s worked, Mister Prost. Have you called the others?”
“Yes, your Majesty. They’re all there. Some are complaining, but only to each other.”
“They’ll shut up as soon as I tell them. Come.”
I nod and Prost pushes open the double doors to my meeting hall. The audience chamber is cramped with all the [Lords] and [Ladies] present, but they turn as one and give me room to stride towards my throne. I sense Durene in the crowd, and Lady Rie. Both hurry towards me.
“Laken, what’s going on?”
“Your Majesty? Mister Prost summoned us all here—disturbing several nobles from their beds! May I ask what—”
“Silence, Lady Rie.”
I turn my head and she falls still. I reach out and grab Durene’s hand.
“I’ll explain everything in a moment, Durene. Just wait. Gamel?”
The young man stands by my throne, standing at attention.
I hear Gamel take a deep breath, and then shout, surprising the nobles of Izril.
“[Lords] and [Ladies] of Izril! His Majesty, ruler of the Unseen Empire, Protector of Riverfarm and Durene’s Cottage! Emperor Laken Godart!”
I take my seat on the throne and hear a susurration throughout the room. The nobles wince, their ears ringing and stare at me as I sit on my throne. I sense some of them hesitate. I know what they’re thinking. Why are they here? Are they supposed to kneel? Why have I called them? I put their fears and speculations to rest as I raise my voice.
It’s soft after Gamel’s shouting, but I make sure it carries throughout the room. Calm. Loud voice but not too loud. Controlled. I turn my closed eyes from face to face, noting their reactions. They can’t meet my eyes, closed or not.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I bid you welcome. I am sorry for waking you at this late hour, but I have news of grave importance. As you may know, I have sworn to defend the roads and lands around Riverfarm. Yesterday, it came to my attention that another force had entered my domain.”
I hear a murmur and sense the nobles grow apprehensive in front of me. I raise my voice, continuing.
“It is my regret that I must inform you all now that an army of Goblins had entered my domain. A portion of the Goblin Lord’s army is currently camped approximately forty two miles north of here. They number about eight thousand strong.”
I hear gasps, and then a cry of horror from the nobles. A [Lady] swoons and her husband catches her. Shocked voices, a loud exclamation, and then Sir Tourant’s voice.
“Emperor Laken! Your Majesty! Are you certain of this?”
I turn my head towards him.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, Lord Tourant. The Goblin Lord has sent nearly eight thousand Goblins by my count. Two days ago, they entered the furthest reaches of my protected lands, laying waste to a local army from the city of Filc in a pitched battle. They came further south after that, marching directly towards my domain. Towards Riverfarm.”
I hear a groan from my audience, and then a sharp voice.
“I take it that you are not informing us merely so that we might evacuate in time, Emperor Laken? Or else you would have informed us yesterday.”
I nod towards the woman standing in the back.
“Correct, Lady Bevia. I have not been idle upon learning of this threat. I immediately consulted with my [General], Lady Wiskeria, and formed a plan to combat the Goblin Lord’s army.”
“Why were we not informed of this?”
I turn, seeking out Lord Melbore in the crowd.
“To prevent a panic, Lord Melbore. If I were to raise the alarm too early, the Goblins would have been alerted that their presence had been discovered. And thus my army would have failed to ambush the Goblins. As it did not an hour ago.”
That gets them. The nobles are in an uproar. Again, Lady Bevia’s voice cracks through the chaos like a whip.
“Emperor Laken, please do not spare us the details. What has happened?”
I incline my head a fraction as the voices calm, waiting for my response.
“In a word, Lady Bevia? Success. I sent a mobile force of [Riders] and [Archers] to attack the Goblins in their camp. Around six hundred soldiers all told, many levied from nearby cities and towns. They proceeded to strike the Goblins in the heart of the night, killing at least a thousand of their warriors before retreating.”
Again, uproar. Again, I wait for the voices to subside. Lord Tourant is the one to question me this time.
“A force of six hundred slew a thousand Goblins? How? How many casualties were there?”
“Less than a hundred.”
“A hundred? How? Were they all asleep?”
“Hardly, Lord Tourant. My force triumphed by virtue of superior tactics. My [General] and [Captain], Lady Wiskeria and Sir Beniar, were able to divide the Goblins under the plan I devised with them.”
This time I don’t elaborate and the intrigued murmur goes on for a second. I can see Lady Rie glancing at me. Perhaps she noticed some of my preparations.
The plan was a simple one. Use poisonous gas to cripple the Goblins and [Blacksky Riders] to strike at night. With more [Archers] to lend them support, they could easily take down the Goblin army.
The key was really in Wiskeria’s brew. She knew how to make a poisonous smoke—a byproduct of another concoction, really—which would suffocate and burn the eyes and make breathing almost impossible. It would cripple any Goblin who inhaled the smoke. All she needed were enough ingredients and hands to brew the mixtures and fan the smoke into the camp. Hellebore leaves, charcoal, a white, parasitic root that grows around old trees…she had me looking for ingredients for hours, but I found enough for the plan to work.
After that, it was just a matter of coordinating. With Nesor and one of Lady Bevia’s [Mages] I could tell Wiskeria exactly where the Goblins were and when to strike. Lady Bethal’s presence only helped the situation by drawing off a good portion of the Goblins. The rest went like clockwork.
Mostly. The Goblins fought back, but I don’t focus on that. The nobles of Izril are clamoring to know what I’ll do next.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please. I am aware that the Goblin Lord’s army is still a great danger. They have been wounded, but their host is still far vaster than my army can defeat. Alone, that is. I intend to levy every city in the region and cooperate with every Human settlement. As it is, the Goblins are still far north of Riverfarm and I assure you, they will be stopped.”
Dismayed, the nobles begin arguing among themselves.
“A thousand dead? But that would leave seven thousand remaining! Can any city stop that?”
“If we can head down the eastern road—we might outdistance them—”
“You want to travel with Goblins about? Madness!”
I raise a hand.
“I have no intention of keeping you here, but I fear that Riverfarm may be the only safe place. If you wish to take your chances, I will attempt to escort you, but my army will soon march to reinforce General Wiskeria.”
“How do you intend to combat such a large force, Emperor Laken?”
“With cooperation, Lady Bevia. The Human cities nearest to the Goblin Lord’s army have standing garrisons of their own; I intend to coordinate with them to push back the Goblins.”
With my levied army I would be outnumbered. But as Lady Rie pointed out, there are a number of cities who don’t like me to the north. Cities that can either bar up their gates and hide from the Goblin Lord or join me and fight. Either way, the Goblin Lord’s forces will be chipped away.
Ruthless. I lean forwards on my throne.
“As we speak, [Messages] are being sent to every city in the region to communicate what I have told you, ladies and gentlemen. We have defeated the Goblins once before and we shall do so again. And now, I am afraid I must coordinate with the other settlements who no doubt have questions of their own.”
I rise from my throne and hear a babble of voices as the distressed nobles press forwards. I raise my hand and they pause.
“Lady Rie will handle any questions you might have. I would welcome any assistance you might be able to bring to bear on this matter, but I must consult with my [General]. I bid you all good night.”
Before they can object, I stride through them towards the door. I sense Lady Rie being mobbed behind me, and Gamel and Prost screen my exit. In a moment I’m outside and in the chill night air, alone. For a second. Then I hear the doors open, hear a babble of shocked voices, and a voice.
I embrace her, feeling her rough skin. Durene hugs me, but I can tell she’s shocked.
“Was all that true, Laken? You didn’t tell me!”
“I’m sorry Durene. I wanted to, truly. But I couldn’t let anyone know what was happening or they might run off. And you’re a terrible actor. Not even Mister Prost knew—until tonight. Only Wiskeria, Beniar, and the soldiers knew.”
“I understand that. But the Goblins! Are there really thousands of them?”
I pause and cast my mind north. They’re already marching. Wiskeria told me the effects of the gas would last for days. Hopefully she can press the advantage. I nod, grimly.
“There are. But we did a lot of damage, Durene. Wiskeria and Beniar will harry them and I’m sending the army north tomorrow at dawn.”
“I’m going with them, of course. Right?”
I hesitate. I want to say no. Because I’m not going. Wiskeria and Beniar both insisted and I had to agree. It makes no sense, not if I can use a [Mage] to tell them exactly what they need to know. I’m a liability in battle for all I can influence the Goblins. But Durene—I squeeze her hands.
“You don’t have to.”
“I do! If there are Goblins and everyone’s fighting, I have to fight. I’m a [Paladin], Laken.”
“I know. I know.”
I take a few deep breaths. I knew that Durene would say that. Which is why I sent Wiskeria and Beniar first. Now the Goblin Lord’s army is wounded. And by the time Durene gets there…
“The main army will march towards the Goblins and meet up with Wiskeria. She’ll wear them down as much as she can until then. I’ll have every city send as many soldiers as I can. Hundreds—I can levy at least a hundred warriors from the smallest towns alone. You’ll outnumber the Goblins—barely, I think. Wiskeria will make sure only to pick battles we can win easily. So don’t get hurt, okay?”
Durene sounds fierce as she hugs me. I hug her back, hearing the commotion in the meeting hall get louder. I hear a muffled laugh from her.
“They’re angry. Did you have to tell them like this?”
“Oh yes. Because now they’re stuck here. And all the cities have to deal with the Goblins. Not just us. We’re not going to be alone in this fight, Durene. We’ll win, I promise.”
I hug her tightly, taking warmth from her body heat. I whisper to her as I feel Wiskeria and Beniar setting up camp, sense Humans tending to the wounded, the nobles surrounding Rie in the meeting hall, shouting—
And the Goblins to the north. Marching, moving fast, many still coughing, blinded by the fog. They leave behind their dead, not bothering to bury them. Dead Goblins. I count them. Small ones, big ones, it makes no difference. They’ll all die. I won’t let them touch Riverfarm.
Not again. Not ever again. I’ll slaughter them all with traps and poison, whatever I have to use. I’ll crush them.
I swear it.