Lady Bethal stared at the Goblins as the night tore itself to pieces. Screams and drumming horse beats broke the silence in the distance. War horns blew, shattering the calm, making her heart pound every time one blared. But she didn’t move. She held her position on her horse, soothing it. Her poor mare was terrified and exhausted in equal parts and she might have bolted if Bethal weren’t holding her in place. Lady Bethal stroked her side reassuringly and looked up.
At crimson eyes. The Goblins watched her every move, the tips of their crossbow bolts aimed unerringly at her. There had to be at least a hundred and twenty, formed into groups of thirty, all of them standing or kneeling in ranks ten Goblins deep. They surrounded her from three sides so that if they fired they wouldn’t hit each other.
Two [Knights] in pink armor held their position in front of her, shielding Bethal with their bodies. Sir Nil and Dame Truvia held their weapons at the ready, their faces set. They didn’t move.
Next to Bethal, Thomast kept his rapier lowered but she could feel him shifting, readying for action. Ahead of him a group of Hobs held their ground, watching the Humans, their eyes flicking. They didn’t look around as another horn blew, startling the horses again. Bethal saw the Goblins shift. But they refused to move. And the Humans didn’t attack.
It was a stalemate. Thomast could kill some of the Goblins with crossbows before they could fire. He could probably knock down a bolt or two with his rapier himself. Sir Nil and Dame Truvia would shield Bethal with their bodies and her [Aura of Thorns] Skill was powerful—but not enough to stop a crossbow bolt at close range.
Lady Bethal had a Ring of Sufferance on one finger, but even if she survived the first volley, even if Thomast and her [Knights] took out every Goblin assigned to watch them, they wouldn’t be able to escape without the Goblins first raising an alarm. And they would be hunted.
Against the hundreds of Carn Wolves and riders, their odds of escape would be perilously slim on foot. And it would be on foot; the horses wouldn’t survive ten miles with the Goblins trying to hamstring them every chance they got.
So they stayed put, as the majority of the Goblins raced away and distant horns began echoing through the woods. Minutes passed and no one spoke. Bethal felt her heart pounding. She couldn’t make it calm. She had faced death before. But this—this was at the heart of her fears.
Goblins. Their eyes made her shudder so she looked at Thomast to calm herself. He was here. He would protect her. And if he could not—she would not run. That was all there was to it.
But it didn’t come to that. Bethal was listening to her mare relieve herself on the ground and the Goblins were wrinkling their noses when another Goblin burst out of the trees. Instantly, both Humans and Goblins tensed. But the Goblin just shouted something and the other Goblins turned. They stared. Then, as one, they abandoned their formation and ran.
“What on earth?”
Lady Bethal watched, surprised, as the Goblins holding crossbows turned and ran. Only thirty of them held their ground, aiming at the Humans. But now they were backing away, clearly intending just to scare the Humans. Two Hobs stayed with them, holding their ground, raising their axes threateningly.
They were running. What was happening? Lady Bethal turned her head, expecting a trap. But the Goblins were already vanishing into the forest. By her side she sensed Thomast move. She didn’t have to hear him to know what he was thinking.
Now would be the time to strike. Her [Chevalier], shifted his grip and Lady Bethal bit her lip.
Her soft voice made the Goblins start. One of them accidentally pulled his trigger and fired straight at Bethal’s chest.
The bolt shot towards her. Bethal blinked. She didn’t have time to think of dodging—it was streaking towards her and then Sir Nil was there. The bolt shattered on his shield and the Goblins froze.
Dame Truvia lowered her spear, shouting in outrage. But Bethal’s voice stopped her and the Goblins shifting their aim.
“Stop! Don’t attack.”
She pointed and Truvia held her ground. The Goblins backed up a step, uncertainly aiming at her. Bethal turned to Thomast.
That was apparent, but someone had to say it. Thomast never would. He nodded, watching the two Hobs. They stared at him with grim resignation, knowing they couldn’t beat him. Still, they held their ground, barking orders and making the smaller Goblins aim back at Bethal.
“Something’s attacked the Goblins. Not all those war horns sounded like Goblin signals. If there was a time to make an escape—”
“No. I want to see Sir Kerrig. If he is alive…”
Sir Nils started.
“You want to ride into that? Lady Bethal—”
“If there was a time to find him, it would be now, wouldn’t it? Say, you Goblins!”
The Goblins jerked as Bethal waved at them. They stared at her. Bethal raised her voice.
“I agree with your Chieftain’s demands. We will be your prisoners! Take us back to your camp!”
The Goblins stared. They looked at each other, and then at the two Hobs leading them. They were a pair, male and female. The Hobs glanced at each other and the female one grunted. She shouted in the common tongue, making Bethal blink in surprise. More than just their Chieftain could speak?
Thomast calmly replied, edging his horse forwards. The Hobs raised their weapons. The male growled.
“Prisoners! Drop weapons!”
“No. We’ll keep our weapons.”
Sir Nil rode forwards and the Goblins instantly backed up again. There were thirty of them and two Hobs. One of the [Knights] could rout them alone and Thomast could do it with one arm. Bethal’s ‘surrender’ was meaningless and all the Goblins knew it. All they could do was shoot her and then be slaughtered. The female Hob eyed Bethal and then pointed.
The three armed Humans hesitated. They looked at Bethal and she nodded. The Hob waited until the rapier and sword were at Sir Nil and Thomast’s sides and Truvia had lowered her spear. She hesitated and then nodded. The Goblins lowered their crossbows.
“Draw sword and we all kill you.”
Bethal inclined her head graciously, trying not to let her nerves show. Believe they’re reasonable. She had no reason to expect it of Goblins! But the Chieftain had spoken rather than slaughter her at once. She’d negotiated—and Sir Kerrig might be alive.
The Hob grunted and led the Goblins into the forest without a backward glance. Bethal was sure that they were ready to turn, shoot, and then run if Thomast so much as sneezed. She nodded to her escort and they hesitantly followed her into the tree line.
“We should go instead, milady. Let Lord Thomast and I go ahead while Sir Nil remains on the road with you.”
“No, Dame Truvia. We go together. I hardly think this is a ruse. The Goblins had us right where they wanted us. Something’s attacked them.”
“And will whatever attacked them attack us?”
“If it does, we will deal accordingly. But I want to find Sir Kerrig. I thought he was dead, truly.”
“It would be like him to survive. And Lady Welca lives too? If she’s escaped, why haven’t we had word? Unless it was recent—”
Thomast’s voice stilled the urgent discussion between Bethal and her [Knights]. He rode ahead as the forest became sparser and Bethal saw ghostly mage-light illuminating the forest. She inhaled sharply as she rode into the Goblin’s camp. Or what was left.
Broken tents, scattered fire. Smoke in the air and a foul, acrid stench that reminded Bethal of an [Alchemist]’s shop. Blood, too, heavy in the air. Faint cries—howling from the Carn Wolves. Shuffling feet, but too little sound. The forest floor was dark, trampled. And the bodies lay everywhere. Hundreds. Possibly a thousand.
The camp of the Flooded Waters tribe was destroyed. Goblin bodies lay everywhere, being searched for life by the living. It had been a slaughter. Lady Bethal looked at the still forms of Goblins, some covered in blood, others apparently unharmed but dead all the same.
The Goblins who’d been watching Bethal’s group stood in their camp, frozen by the sight. Bethal saw the pair of Hobs stare around and then raise their voices, shouting something in their guttural tongue. The other Goblins looked around and then ran, their discipline breaking, running into the chaos, shouting. Bethal looked around, confused.
“Wait. What about us?”
The Goblins had forgotten all about the four Humans on their horses. They combed through the wreckage, many of them picking up shapes, shaking them, and then letting them drop. Bethal blinked, her eyes stinging, and heard Dame Truvia utter a warning.
“There’s poison in the air! Lady Bethal, back!”
She was raising a ring that glowed with black light. Bethal looked around. She could see nothing, but she instantly rode back as Truvia covered her mouth with a handkerchief and checked her ring.
“It seems—weak. My ring isn’t detecting more than a low-level miasma in the air. But what happened here?”
“An attack. It must have been. Poison, arrows, and the ground is churned. I see hoof prints.”
Sir Nil had dismounted to check the ground. He coughed and looked around. Bethal felt her eyes stinging—perhaps the poison? She fanned at her face and froze.
“Is that…a child?”
A small Goblin was wandering past the warriors, shouting in a high-pitched voice. She had to be a child. There was no other word for her. The small Chieftain that Bethal had met had been small, even for a Goblin. But this Goblin was no bigger than a toddler. She had none of the knowing look that had been in the Chieftain’s eyes.
Bethal stared. She had never seen a Goblin child before. She expected the—the thing to look evil or to have fangs or some feature, but the child just looked lost. It kept shouting something. A word. And it was crying as it searched the bodies.
Lady Bethal Walchaís drew back and her horse retreated a step. The Goblin child ignored her completely and utterly. It ran over to a downed Goblin and tried to turn the body over. It gave up and bent down to look at the face and then turned away. It looked around, searching, shouting the same word and Bethal saw liquid dripping from its bright, crimson eyes. The [Lady] froze as the Goblin child stared past her, like a deer caught by a [Hunter].
She had never seen a Goblin cry. She hadn’t known they could. Bethal watched the child turn. In that moment she learned two things. Goblins wept tears just like any other species. The same color, the same look. And secondly, she learned that a Goblin could weep. Bethal stayed put, her heart pounding. Impossible. Impossible. But the truth defied her to her face. Goblins could weep. She had never seen the like.
When the Goblin King rode upon First Landing with his hordes there were no tears. Only screams of rage as his armies hurled themselves upon the walls and pushed through the gaps in the broken masonry. There were no children, only warriors. Bethal could remember the blood, the eyes of the Goblins as she hid among the dead—
A voice broke Bethal’s reverie. The Goblin voices calling out silenced at Dame Truvia’s call. They turned and Lady Bethal saw a Human face among the sea of Goblins. Sir Kerrig was bending over a silent form, doing something. He turned and his face went pale. He broke into a run and Bethal urged her horse forwards a step—
Goblins flooded the ground, waving crossbows, aiming at both her and Sir Kerrig. Dame Truvia froze, raising her spear and Thomast appeared by Bethal’s side. But the Goblins weren’t attacking. They shouted at Bethal, pointing.
“Stop! No horse!”
They were pointing at something on the ground. Bethal looked down and realized Goblin bodies were strewn in front of her. She had nearly ridden through them. She hadn’t noticed. She backed up on her horse as the Goblins shouted at her, waving their arms.
“I’m stopping. I’ve stopped.”
They formed a wall, forcing the Humans back. There was nothing Bethal could do but back up and let Sir Kerrig come to her. The Goblins had remembered their unwanted prisoners and after an argument, a group of Goblins took up a position, aiming bows and crossbows at the Humans again. But the rest immediately flooded back into the camp. Confused, the four Humans met Sir Kerrig and Lady Bethal dismounted to clasp his hands.
“Sir Kerrig! We’d assumed you were dead! How are you alive? Dead gods man, are you injured? Let’s get you to safety as quickly as we can!”
Sir Nil clasped Sir Kerrig’s arm, urging him to mount his stallion. Sir Kerrig shook his head. He looked bewildered and there was blood on his hands. Not his own.
“Lady Bethal! Sir Thomast! How did you come to be here? Did you have a part in the—it’s dangerous to be here! If the Redfang Goblins catch sight of you they’ll attack! They’re out for blood.”
“Redfang? What are you talking about? Sir Kerrig, where is Lady Welca? Are you unharmed? What is going on?”
“Let him speak, Sir Nil!”
Lady Bethal spoke sharply and Sir Nil bowed his head instantly. Sir Kerrig coughed and Bethal noticed a rasp in his voice. She immediately motioned and Dame Truvia offered him a high-grade healing potion. Sir Kerrig took a sip and his voice cleared of the rasp.
“Thank you. There was poison in the air. Some kind of mist or alchemist’s brew. I have no idea. As for what happened—I helped Lady Welca to escape not a day ago. I thought she would have reached some kind of civilization by now, but we had passed through the wilderness for the last few days. Perhaps she’s still riding—I had remained with the Goblins until the camp was attacked! Their Chieftain, Rags, rode forth with a good portion of the warriors. Shortly afterwards a group of [Riders] struck the camp, hundreds of them. They doused the campfires and torches and another force began sending a poison gas through the camp and shooting every Goblin that moved!”
Lady Bethal listened to Sir Kerrig’s description of the attackers and his sojourn as the Goblin’s captives, watching the camp as she did. The Goblins were in chaos, but as time passed someone began restoring order. Patrols of Goblins began combing through the wounded and dead methodically, calling out when they found a living Goblin. They also gathered up the trampled supplies and ushering other Goblins back into the center of the camp.
“They’re on the march. The army that attacked them retreated, but I’ve no notion of where they’re based or what their numbers are.”
Sir Kerrig finished and coughed again. His eyes were watering and he poured a tiny amount of the healing potion into his hand to splash at his eyes. Dame Truvia looked at him with concern.
“The poison smoke you described. You were caught in it?”
“Briefly. I immediately escaped when I noticed, but it was powerful enough to kill anyone trapped inside long enough. Most of the Goblins escaped, but they’re unable to breathe or see at the moment.”
“These attackers. Did you see their insignia?”
The [Knight] shook his head in reply to Sir Thomast’s question.
“No, and I have no idea where they came from. I thought perhaps Heldeim, a city to the east of here, but that would be unlikely. They have a small garrison. More to the point, they’re inexperienced, lacking a high-leveled officer of any kind. Hardly able to execute this kind of attack.”
He hesitated, wiping liquid out of his eyes.
“I did hear them shouting some kind of war cry. It was ‘Emperor Laken and the Unseen Empire’. But I’ve no notion…”
He broke off as Bethal gasped and the others shifted. He looked questioningly at Bethal.
“You know them?”
“We just visited them. It’s a small village and the surrounding area. There’s an [Emperor] there. Thomast, you don’t think…?”
Bethal looked at her husband. He nodded.
“Emperor Laken introduced us to his [General]. You remember her? She was a [Witch]. They know how to use poisons.”
“A night-time ambush using poison? Hardly befitting of an [Emperor]!”
Dame Truvia frowned. Sir Nil glanced around.
“Ideal for a larger force, however. Sir Kerrig described only a few hundred [Riders] and mounted [Archers] and warriors. They’ve slain several times their number, at least.”
“It was the absence of their Chieftain that presented the opportunity. Had she been here—”
Sir Kerrig was speaking urgently, pointing to the Goblins. Now they had formed into units again. Bethal saw they were coming towards her and shifted uneasily.
Hobs and mounted Goblins riding Carn Wolves approached them. They formed a semi-circle between the Humans and the camp, staring at Sir Kerrig and then Lady Bethal’s escort. They had weapons, but they stared at the Humans blankly. Sir Kerrig looked wary and Thomast and the two [Knights] moved in front of Bethal again, but she didn’t see hostility in the Goblin’s eyes.
“Why aren’t they angry?”
The Goblins were staring at them. Just staring with a blank, empty gaze. They were aware of the Human’s threat, but it was like they were just going through the motions. Behind them, the Goblins searched their dead, the same empty look in their eyes.
“I think they’re mourning.”
Sir Kerrig’s reply made all of the Humans glance at him sharply. Lady Bethal opened her mouth to say that was impossible, but she stopped as she saw the Goblin child again. It—she—wasn’t the only Goblin child, but somehow Bethal recognized her. The Goblins checking for the living had passed her section of the camp, but the Goblin child had found who she was looking for. She sat next to a bloody body with two arrows sticking out of its chest. Sat and wept, her eyes overflowing.
The Goblins around the child ignored her, going about their tasks. Not once did they glance at Lady Bethal and her shining [Knights], at Sir Thomast. They had to remember. They had to know how dangerous the Humans were. But they were not the ones who’d committed this slaughter. They were not important. So they worked mechanically, eyes empty, moving like puppets. Ignoring the Humans.
And slowly, it dawned on Lady Bethal that her small company didn’t matter to the tribe of Goblins right now. Not at all. They were a footnote unless they chose to attack. It was as if the Goblins were truly grieving. But they didn’t show it. They didn’t cry. They moved, packing up their camp, preparing to march.
They left the dead where they were. More Goblins moved into groups, loading up wagons, calling their fellows away. At last, it seemed as though someone noticed Bethal’s group and decided it had to be addressed. She saw a wave of Hobs and Goblins with crossbows returning and a fat Goblin leading them. Not Rags.
He said one word, his voice raw, rasping. Bethal saw that the Goblins behind him were already marching. On the fat Hob’s left stood a [Mage] with electricity crackling around his fingertips. To his right rode a Goblin with a scar across his face on a Carn Wolf. He glared at Sir Thomast in hatred.
“Where is your Chieftain?”
Lady Bethal waited. The fat Hob just looked at her. She expected him to reiterate her Chieftain’s demands and was preparing to negotiate. She’d promised them wealth hadn’t she? If it came to it, could she get Sir Kerrig—
Bethal paused. The Hob pointed. He was holding a battleaxe that shone with a fiery enchantment. Sir Kerrig’s battleaxe! And was the scarred Goblin holding Welca’s sword? Bethal looked at him uncertainly.
“Leave. No prisoners. Take Human with you.”
The Hob pointed at Sir Kerrig. Then he turned and began to walk away.
Grudgingly, the Hob turned back. Lady Bethal looked at him, confused.
“You’re letting Sir Kerrig return to us? Without a ransom?”
“Yes. That is what I said.”
The Hob glared at her. Bethal waited. But there was nothing more. The Hob looked around and issued an order. Some of the Goblins broke away and streamed towards the marching tribe.
“You won’t attack us?”
“No point. Humans too hard to kill.”
“And you’re not worried about what we might do?”
The Hob glanced at Dame Truvia.
“Truvia! Enough. We had nothing to do with this attack.”
Bethal informed the Hob. She had no idea why she said it. They were Goblins. But the Hob nodded.
“We know. You killed Goblins before. Not now. So go.”
More silence. Bethal sensed Thomast shift. He looked at her and nudged his head. They should go. She knew he was right. But she wanted to—Bethal’s eyes flicked back to the Goblin child. Now she was looking at Bethal. Staring. For some reason Bethal felt guilty. Guilty?
“This was a—harsh tactic. Poison. Not honorable. But surely your tribe expected this. Surely you knew you were being hunted.”
Why was she trying to excuse this? Bethal saw the Goblin’s eyes flash as one. The Hob raised his head and met her eyes. There was no fury there. But a trace of anger flickered past the empty expression.
“We did not attack these Humans.”
“But you attacked Humans before. Sir Kerrig told me. You routed an army not a day ago. This conflict—”
The Hob cut her off.
“We destroyed a Human army. Hunting Goblins. We kill Humans who attack.”
“There is a difference. We are not the Goblin Lord army. We are not raiding Goblins. We are not the same. There is a difference.”
There was. Only, Bethal had not ever made the distinction before. This was a tribe and they were not the same as the Goblin Lord’s army. So they told her. She felt ashamed.
“We will leave, then. I apologize for my error.”
The Hob nodded. He looked at her, waiting. He knew she had more to say. So he waited. Bethal looked around the camp. Goblins were streaming away. The child was still sitting there.
“Won’t you bury your dead?”
“No. No burial. Leave.”
Alien. Incomprehensible. How could they not care for their dead? The crimson eyes watched her. Bethal pointed. The Hob turned as she pointed at the crying Goblin child. She hadn’t budged, though Goblins were urging her to get up and leave.
“Why is only she crying?”
The Hob looked at the child and shook his head.
“Tears are a waste of water.”
He turned and walked away. The Goblins behind him hesitated, and then streamed after him. They marched, many of them still wounded, some coughing, eyes streaming. Bethal saw the Hob stump over to the Goblin child and say something. An order. The child shook its head, eyes and nose streaming. The Hob repeated the order.
“I will stay. Someone has to witness this.”
Bethal didn’t hear Sir Kerrig’s argument with the others. She watched as the Hob bent and pointed. He touched the body, shook his head. Pointed. The child shook her head. She clung to the body as the Hob reached for her.
Shielding their bodies so the Goblins couldn’t see, Dame Truvia pressed her enchanted dagger into Sir Kerrig’s hands. He slipped it into his clothes and nodded. Bethal saw the Hob pulling, saw the child hold on with all its strength. Clinging, clinging—the Goblin child held the body as the Hob pulled her up and then separated the two. Then she did wail, once. She beat the Hob as he carried her away.
He let her hit him and walked without looking back. He shed not one tear, but he bled as the Goblin child bit his hand. Bled, but didn’t stop. Bethal watched them go until they disappeared between the trees. She glanced down at Sir Kerrig, who was preparing to run after the Goblins.
“I did not know they could weep.”
“Neither did I, milady.”
“Follow them, Sir Kerrig. If you wish it. I will return to my estates. I—”
Lady Bethal never finished the sentence. She eventually turned and rode away as Sir Kerrig jogged after the Goblins. They were marching already, moving swiftly through the forest. Injured. Many wounded. But they still numbered thousands.
If they had wished it, they could have slaughtered Lady Bethal and her escort despite the cost. They could have overwhelmed the [Knights], brought down Thomast by sheer numbers and slaughtered Bethal. They could have. But they hadn’t. They had every right to fury. And perhaps it was there. But their despair, their grief was stronger. It was all consuming. So the Goblins left the [Lady] behind and walked.
They did not cry. They marched, blood dripping in the place of tears. Tears were a waste of water. The Goblins marched away as the night turned to day. They left their dead behind. They left family. They left friends. They left their loved ones, their hearts, and their blood. And they did not weep. Except on the inside.
After a while the blood stopped. The child stopped biting him. Her teeth had left cuts in his hand and she’d torn the flesh as if she was tearing flesh from raw meat. Pyrite ignored the pain. He carried her as she wept, striding past the lines of Goblins. The child was young. So young she hadn’t learned that crying was a waste of water, dangerous sound. He would have told her to stop, but there was no point. The enemy had come and gone. So Pyrite walked.
She clung to his shoulder. He bled. The blood ran down his hand, stinging. It dripped into the soil. It was such a meaningless thing. Pyrite remembered the body he’d torn her from.
He marched to a wagon with Goblin children and tried to make her let go. She clung to him then, not wanting to. But he made her. He was strong as she was weak, for all she tried to lace her fingers together, grip him tightly. He put her with the older Goblin watching the children.
Nothing else to say. Nothing else to do. Pyrite looked down at the child and then ahead. The trees were thinning. He strode past her as the muffled crying grew fainter behind him. Pyrite reached another wagon and looked into it.
Rags lay in the center of the wagon, covered with a blanket, her face pale. She was unconscious. They hadn’t been able to wake her and she’d lost so much blood. Too much for even a healing potion to properly heal. Pyrite walked next to the cart until he remembered he should be doing something.
“You. How many sentries? Where warriors?”
The Hob he pointed at looked blankly at Pyrite. He walked over and poked another Goblin who barely responded. Pyrite shook his head. He had to think. Rags was unconscious. That meant Pyrite had to take charge. He turned to another Goblin.
“Sentries ride ahead. Get Redscar. Put pikes here and here. Move!”
He had to push the Goblins, sending them racing ahead and behind to move the tribe into position. Just in time. Not ten minutes later, Pyrite heard a howl and saw a flash of movement. He saw a group of Humans burst out of the trees. They rode towards a group of Goblins who looked up and stared at them.
Just stared. Pyrite saw the Humans. He knew what they were going to do. But he failed to react. He saw a rider in armor cut down a Goblin and then he woke up. Pyrite saw the Goblins raising their weapons weakly. The Humans trampled them. No. Pyrite inhaled. He shouted at the Goblins who were just staring.
“Humans! Move! Attack!”
Goblins turned and stared at him. Pyrite bellowed. The numbing emptiness in his chest filled. His blood began to surge. Humans. Their leader wheeled, his sword red. They raced down the line, away from Pyrite. He pointed at them.
He roared the word and the Goblins looked up. Their exhausted heads rose. Their eyes opened wide. Wider. Pyrite pointed and Goblins ran. He heard one scream, an angry, bitter cry. The others took it up. The warriors streamed towards the fleeing Humans. Pyrite wanted to run, but he held his ground. Wait. He shouted at other Goblins who were abandoning their positions.
“Stay! Wait for order!”
They held. Reluctantly, they held. Pyrite heard another howl to the south and this time he was ready. He roared and Redfang warriors streamed towards the attacked site and within minutes he heard a Goblin horn call. All clear. The Humans were gone. They’d attacked and fled.
So this was how it would be. Pyrite closed his eyes. They were already striking again. It made sense. He was exhausted. He was wounded and his tribe was barely able to function. He saw Redscar riding towards him. The Redfang leader was furious. He pointed in the direction of the fleeing Humans.
“Attack! We ride!”
“No! Guard tribe!”
Pyrite snapped at him. He was too tired to convey all of what he understood—that the Humans were baiting them, trying to get the Goblins to chase them, to lure them into a trap. Redscar growled, but he assented after a moment of hesitation. Pyrite looked around.
“Where Noears? Poisonbite?”
The answers came too slowly for his tastes. But they did come. Poisonbite was hurt and among the wounded. Noears was at the back. Pyrite grunted.
“Noears go back. Redfangs spread out! Crossbows ready. Not spread out. Keep moving!”
Redscar growled and nodded. He took the front and Pyrite reorganized the rearguard. The Goblins marched for two hours as the sun lightened. Pyrite had no idea where they were going. They needed to find somewhere to rest, somewhere defensible. But sending scouts out now would be a bad idea.
The Humans hit them as they were leaving the forest. They rode into the tree line, at least a hundred of them and began loosing arrows as soon as the sentries called the alarm. Pyrite growled as he saw they were attacking a spot with heavy pikes and wolves—and few archers! He saw Redfang warriors racing after them and the Humans retreating. Several mounted Goblins disappeared into the trees and Pyrite called the rest of them back.
“No follow. Get crossbows!”
Goblins with crossbows scrambled to the front. Pyrite heard wolves howling in pain and then silence in the trees. The Redfang riders didn’t return. But the Humans did. They rode out of the trees and loosed another volley, shouting triumphantly.
Were there more of them this time? Pyrite kept a wary eye on his flanks and rear as the units of Goblins wielding crossbows returned fire. That surprised the Humans—they’d clearly expected more Goblins to chase. Instead, several horses went down and some riders fell, screaming. At this distance both sides were too far away for accuracy; the clumped-up Goblins suffered more than the Humans. But the Humans did fall.
After the second volley, the archers among the trees vanished. The Goblins waited and Pyrite sent a group of Redfang Warriors to investigate. They found tracks, but the Humans had fled. Pyrite ordered them not to follow to Redscar’s disgust and posted twice as many sentries, twice as far out.
They had to rest. Pyrite knew it, but he was dithering over leaving the tree line. Beyond the forest was a hilly landscape, open, but terribly exposed if the Humans launched another night attack. He followed the forest until the next wave of attacks. This time it wasn’t a full-fledged assault. Pyrite heard a howl as the Goblins tried to sleep and jerked awake. Redscar raced towards him, shouting.
Half of the sentries Pyrite had sent out to the west had been ambushed, their locations found and the Goblins feathered with arrows before they could raise the alarm. Only the last group had raised any alarm.
“Heard horn call. Too late. Fleeing Humans. Ordered not to pursue.”
Redscar growled as Pyrite tried to wake up and think. Redscar pointed.
“Humans leave tracks! Can follow!”
Pyrite repeated himself stubbornly. He knew it was true. Redscar knew it was true. But the Goblin had a different idea about it.
“Let us spring!”
He wanted to take two hundred wolf riders and hunt the Humans. Pyrite shook his head.
Redscar growled. Pyrite glared at him. After a second Pyrite nodded.
“Put sentries back. Closer. Split riders. Ready to reinforce any moment.”
He held Redscar’s gaze until the other Goblin nodded. Pyrite was second in charge. With Rags unconscious he led. But neither Goblins spoke what both knew. The Humans would be back, sentries or not.
They had to leave the forest. Pyrite marched the tribe into the hilly plains, watching the sun setting and searching for a spot, any spot where they could put their backs against a wall. He found nothing. He marched the tribe on until nightfall, watching the hills grow closer in the distance. Maybe if they dug ditches? Or camped on the hills?
They never made it that far. Pyrite noticed only when he had to ask why the tribe was lagging behind twice. He strode back and saw the Goblins at the back were gasping for air.
“Can’t breathe, Pyrite.”
Quietstab pointed to a Goblin who was trying to inhale. His lungs were making a terrible rasping sound. Pyrite stared at the Goblin in dismay.
“Can’t fight. Can’t run. Can’t see. Some. Got rest. Or potion.”
They didn’t have enough potions. And there were hundreds, no, thousands of Goblins who’d inhaled the poisonous gas. Maybe a third of the tribe! Pyrite turned to Poisonbite who was making the same horrible sound.
“How long heal?”
She gasped for air. Her eyes were weeping and she was keeping them closed. She had to try twice before she gestured weakly with her claws. Two claws. Four. She shook them weakly.
Two days or four days. And then—a pause. The fingers clenched slightly. Or two weeks. Pyrite looked at Quietstab. He checked the landscape. Open ground. They should have stayed in the forest. Rags would have stayed. Pyrite had no choice now, though. He pointed.
“Make camp! Get Redscar and others!”
The council of war was brief. Pyrite gathered Redscar, Noears, Quietstab, and any of the Hobs who knew how to fight. He divided them up and posted them around the camp. The trouble was that with so many wounded Goblins, it was impossible to encircle the entire camp and not be spread too thin. Pyrite tried to figure out if they could construct defenses. Ditches? He looked at the exhausted Goblins who hadn’t slept since the day before yesterday and shook his head.
Pyrite ordered the Goblin warriors able to fight to sleep in shifts until the attack came. He kept torches lit and burnt as much fuel as he dared. Because the Humans would surely come again. When they did it was in darkness.
This time the scream came near Pyrite’s position. He pushed himself up, grabbed his battleaxe and ran. He saw horses flashing in the chaos and more shooting arrows behind. He roared, cut down a Human on horseback, saw another dragged off his horse and watched the rest run. They were good at running! If the Redfangs could follow—
No. Too risky! Pyrite cursed as he watched the Humans leave.
This time the attack was bloody on both sides. The Humans pulled back after a single charge, leaving behind two dozen dead or wounded. But they’d cut down far too many Goblins. They’d attacked where there were no pikes or crossbows ready. How? Pyrite had no idea. The sentries had been hit first, but they had been alive right until the attack and the surviving warriors swore they hadn’t so much as seen a Human. Did they have a high-level [Scout]? Some kind of invisibility spell? A scrying spell?
They weren’t even that high-level. Pyrite whirled as he heard a howl. He saw Redfang riders streaming past him and saw a Goblin shouting and pointing after the Humans fleeing into the darkness.
Redscar roared as he tried to ride past Pyrite. The Hob charged at him, forcing the Carn Wolf to halt its dash. Pyrite tore Redscar from the saddle and felt two things happen at once. A painful, familiar cold sting in his right arm and a pair of jaws clamping over his hand. Redscar shoved his sword into Pyrite’s arm as his Carn Wolf bit. Pyrite made a fist and forced the wolf’s jaws open.
Redscar snapped and his Carn Wolf let go. The Goblin kept his blade pressed into Pyrite’s arm, though. Pyrite roared at him in frustration. Redscar roared back. Around them the Flooded Waters tribe froze, watching the two Goblins in fear. Only then did Pyrite realize what was happening. He was fighting with Redscar! What was the point? He let go of the smaller Goblin slowly and felt the freezing blade’s tip withdraw from his arm.
The two Goblins stared at each other, breathing hard. At last, Pyrite jerked his head.
“Sixty riders. A hundred warriors. No you.”
Redscar sheathed his blade and called. Instantly sixty of his Redfang warriors charged into the darkness. Pyrite turned.
“Pikes and crossbows! Twenty Hobs!”
Goblin warriors raced forwards at his command. Pyrite pointed and they followed the Redfang warriors. The mounted Goblins were already racing across the plains. They rode after the Humans, howling with rage. Sixty mounted elites and a hundred Goblins on foot, enough to tear apart a force twice their size and harry the riders before retreating in turn.
Pyrite felt the blood running down his arm and rubbed at the wound. Redscar eyed the frozen skin and blood, but Pyrite didn’t reach for a potion. He pointed back to the camp.
“Reform defenses. Humans might attack. Other side.”
Redscar nodded. He whistled and his Redfang warriors followed him back into camp. Pyrite trudged back to his sleeping spot, but he was awake now. He waited as the Goblins who’d been sleeping tried to get some rest. But no one could. They were all listening as hard as they could. They’d been hit by what, a hundred and forty riders? They’d sent more than that after them.
Surely they’d catch their enemy. If they were outnumbered they’d retreat. Redscar would race to their aid the instant they heard anything. Pyrite would let him. If they could bloody the Humans, force them to defend…the instant they heard anything Pyrite would move. He’d defend from the other side because of course that was when the Humans would attack. He waited, listening. Waited, waited…
Three passed then ten minutes. Then half an hour. The Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe waited. They listened for howling, stragglers—anything. They heard nothing. Pyrite thought he heard a distant war horn—once. Then nothing. After that, Redscar did not try to follow the Humans, though the camp was attacked once more that night. Always with perfect accuracy, always in the weakest point, the flawed sections of the camp’s defenses that Pyrite himself hadn’t spotted.
We’re winning each encounter. They’re moving each day, but they haven’t sent any more patrols. Heading towards a city—Lancrel. Orders to keep pursuing?
I tap my fingers together. I don’t have to hear Wiskeria’s reports to know what’s happening. My mind is with her mobile attack force almost all the time. With the Goblins too. I can tell how many have fallen. Hundreds from the raiding. But not enough. There are still thousands, for all they’re still poisoned.
Nesor’s face isn’t that pale today. He’s gotten used to sending and receiving [Message] spells and he’s faster and has stopped stuttering as much. I turn to Lady Rie.
“Lancrel. Where is it on the map?”
“Here, your Majesty.”
She finds me the place on the map instantly. I touch the spot and try to line it up in my head. Yes, the Goblins are headed that way. Aimlessly, it looks like.
“That’s not one of our cities, is it, Rie?”
“No, your Majesty. Lancrel has refused all messengers and did not reply to your levy. We have appraised them of the Goblin threat, but they declined to send aid. Their walls and gates are thick; I believe they think they’re well-defended.”
“Especially with Wiskeria harrying the Goblins.”
I appraise Lancrel in my mind. A small city. It might hold as many as ten thousand people at most. I don’t bother to count.
“Ten thousand is a small number? They could outnumber Riverfarm three times over.”
“Nothing. Lancrel outnumbers the Goblins, and their walls are…probably six meters? How much is that in feet? Twenty? I doubt the Goblins will head towards it. Nesor, tell Wiskeria to keep raiding.”
I sense Rie standing by my side. I focus my attention on another group moving towards them.
“Nesor. Tell Wiskeria her first group of reinforcements is headed her away. Two kilom—I mean, one mile and a bit south of her. Tell her to find them. They have…some horse, but mainly [Archers] and [Warriors].”
“They’ll be in position by evening.”
I hear Rie fumble with some figures. She’s changing the map in front of me to reflect what I’m describing. I nod.
“Wiskeria can keep harrying them, but the infantry can’t launch rapid attacks. She can set up a trap and commit all of her mounted soldiers to attacking. No full assaults. The main army will finish them.”
I can sense Durene marching with the bulk of the levied soldiers. [Soldiers] marching in ranks, levied from multiple cities. More cavalry, archers, thousands of them. I add the numbers up again. They’ll outnumber the Goblin army. Barely. Barely, but it’s enough if it’s Goblins. We did it last time. But Durene’s marching and I’m stuck here. I grit my teeth.
“Harry them, Nesor. Tell Wiskeria to harry them. They’ve shifted almost all their crossbows to their west side. Almost undefended towards east, about a hundred paces north of where Beniar hit them two hours ago. I count two groups of pikes spaced out ten meters…scheiße. I mean, thirty feet apart. Tell Beniar that if he approaches northeast, he can slip past them. There are five sentries. If he sends a group of ten, he could take them out and loose some arrows—”
Sleep. Attack. Wake. Attack. The next day was filled with marching and sporadic, deadly raids by the Humans. Always in bad spots. Never in any of the traps. Hidden Goblins lying down with crossbows, Goblins pretending to be napping, Noears hiding in a tent, none of it worked. The Humans knew exactly what Pyrite was doing. Somehow. They’d actually aimed at Noears when he’d been in hiding. They could tell he was a [Mage], where he’d hidden—
How? Noears had suggested magic, but that was too convenient. Redscar was of the opinion some kind of fantastic [Hunter] or [Scout] was spying on them from some incredible distance. It wasn’t anyone nearby. In desperation, Pyrite had sent out the Redfang warriors en masse, hunting for a Human spy. They’d found nothing. No Human [Scouts] for ten miles in any direction. They were sure. So it was something else.
Pyrite didn’t know what, exactly. But he’d come to one definitive conclusion.
“They know where we are. Always.”
Quietstab looked around as if the Humans could see them. Pyrite shrugged.
“Don’t know. But can see. Can’t follow.”
If the enemy knew exactly where you were and what you were doing at all times, sending out a force to attack them meant they would be surrounded and killed. The only safety was in overwhelming numbers. The Humans were still outnumbered by the Goblins. That was what Pyrite took comfort in. For all of five hours. Then he heard the frantic horns blowing and heard a scream.
Another raid! Pyrite grabbed his battleaxe. He ran towards the shouting and froze. He could see the riders loosing arrows and charging again, but just as quick he was intercepted by Redscar himself. The Goblin was sweating. He pointed southwest.
“Human army approaching!”
Pyrite pointed towards the fighting ahead. Pyrite shook his head.
“Big army. Big army.”
An army? Pyrite looked up at Redscar, his heart beating even faster.
“Thousands. Days away. Sent [Scouts]. One survived.”
For a second the Hob’s ears rang. He looked up. Redscar looked grim as he shifted his grip on his sword. Pyrite looked around in desperation. Southwest? Redscar had sent—
No, no time for arguing. Pyrite knew now. He had to move! Keep ahead of the army! Half the tribe still couldn’t breathe. Rags was still unconscious, being carried, her face deathly pale. They had to move.
But the Humans on horses—Pyrite heard more screaming and looked up. There. He saw two of the Humans. One, the Human all in armor who led the raiding. The other he’d spotted. A Human woman with a pointed hat. A spellcaster throwing fire. They were tearing up the Goblins in front of him. No one else could reinforce them! If they did, the Humans would just attack the unguarded spots. Pyrite roared. He pointed at Redscar.
“Guard rear! Quietstab, follow!”
He charged towards the gap in his lines. Goblins surged to follow him. Gasping. Wounded. They were so tired. They just needed a chance to rest. Two more days. They were breathing better. But the poison—
She was the one behind it. Pointed hat. [Witch]. Pyrite was sure of it. He roared as he charged past Goblins, cutting down a Human on horseback. Blood splashed his chest and Pyrite howled. If it was this they could win! If it was a fight the tribe had Hobs, had warriors, had strategy! But they were hurt! They weren’t able to use their strength! Their Chieftain was asleep.
But she would wake up. Pyrite felt a Human slice his back, but it was a shallow cut. He spun and saw Quietstab hamstring the horse. Rider and horse went down and Pyrite heard the Humans shouting.
“Retreat! Let the archers cut them down!”
Flee. The Human in armor was too far away. Pyrite saw the [Archers] on horses loosing another volley. They had to be chased off. Goblins with crossbows were coming. They just had to buy time.
Strong. This tribe was strong. Pyrite looked around and saw Goblins fighting, coughing, some blind, others exhausted. They just had to rest. Everything would be alright when Rags woke up. If it was a fight, a proper fight—
He had to hold on. Pyrite charged at the Humans loosing arrows, preventing the Goblins from organizing their ranks. Give them a target. Pyrite shouted as he ran. The arrows flew past them. One struck his shoulder as Pyrite covered his face. All he had to do was hold on. Another struck his stomach, and another. Something struck his shoulder and burned. Pyrite screamed and kept running.
Believe. All he had to do was—five arrows struck Pyrite’s chest and he slowed. His blood spattered the ground.
When the waters rose, the Flooded Waters tribe ate well. It was dangerous of course, but Rags remembered the rain with fondness. Goblins loved fish. They could hunt fish easily so long as they watched out for predators. All you had to do was find a big school of fish and surround it.
It didn’t matter if they were fast or small. When there were so many you could attack it from every side, find the stragglers, the slow ones. And then you took them. If you were quick enough you could have an armful of fish and your belly would be full. If they couldn’t fight back it was so easy. All you had to do was surround them with some other members of the tribe and then you could eat and eat. Rags had never known what it was like to be a fish.
And then she opened her eyes and the fish were Goblins.
The world swam in front of Rags’ vision. She looked up and saw a blank piece of canvas stretched over her head. A tent? No—she felt rough wood under her back and sat up. She realized she wasn’t in a tent. She was in a wagon.
Someone was crying. It was a high-pitched sound. An unfamiliar sound. Rags hadn’t heard crying in…it wasn’t a Goblin thing to do. But someone was crying and it was a Goblin who wept. Rags was sure of it.
She sat up and felt at the canvas covering the wagon and her. Only, halfway up Rags was seized by a horrible coughing fit. She coughed and pain coursed through her body. Her lungs were on fire! And her eyes burned. She scratched weakly at the canvas and heard a gasp. Someone wrestled with the covering and then there was light.
Rags sat up slowly, her eyes watering, coughing, and saw a hand offer something to her. Blindly, she reached out and drank. It wasn’t a healing potion, but the tepid, stale water did the same job. She stopped coughing and looked into the eyes of a small Goblin. A child.
To be fair, Rags was a small Goblin. This one was a proper child, not adult even by Goblin standards. She stared at Rags and she noticed the child had redder eyes than usual. She’d been crying.
Rags growled at the child and coughed. The small Goblin scampered back as Rags got up. Her body ached. Her chest felt terribly, terribly weak where she’d been cut. But she was alive. And she felt it. Her tribe needed her. So Rags rose. She stood up in the wagon and gasped. Coughed. But then stood tall.
Like nibbling fish. Like Goblins slowly tearing apart a school of fish. Like slow death, like a thousand stinging ants. Like blood dripping from a wound.
She felt her tribe’s anguish, even if she didn’t know why. Rags took a step, stumbled. A pair of hands steadied her. She looked at the small Goblin. Had she been crying because Rags was unconscious? No—it was more. Death. Rags could remember that.
She felt the hands retreat and took another step. And another. Rags made her way over to the wagon’s edge and looked around. She could hear…silence. A lack of noise where noise should be. The tribe had stopped. There should be working Goblins, chattering, movement. And she shouldn’t have been covered in a wagon. This was bad. Rags made to leap off the wagons’ back and paused. She looked back at the child and saw two huge eyes staring back at her. Someone had to tell her.
“Crying is waste of water.”
The Goblin child stared at Rags and shrank slightly. The Chieftain of the Flooded Water tribe held her gaze and then smiled briefly.
“Unless it wakes Chieftain. Then it good.”
She leapt from the wagon, landed hard on the ground and got up. Staggering and then feeling her leg muscles work at last, Rags walked. The small Goblin child leapt off the cart after her. First it was one Goblin.
There was a Hob standing guard next to the wagon. He was healthy, but tired. His arm was bandaged and though he had no wheezing cough, his breathing was still labored. He was dozing on watch, which is why he’d missed Rags waking. She walked up to him and kicked him. He jerked upright, swung at her with his quarterstaff and stopped.
She glared at him.
“Where is Pyrite?”
He looked around wildly and pointed uncertainly. Rags strode past him.
The Hob saw the Goblin child follow Rags. He slapped himself, grinned as he realized he wasn’t dreaming, and followed, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. And then there were two.
Rags walked through her camp. It was her camp, but it was not her camp. It was all wrong. The fires were too close together. No—there weren’t many fires lit. The Goblins were lying too close! What if they were sick? What if there was an attack? What if they needed to pee? Too many were coughing, and it looked like many hadn’t eaten. Food was low. Water was low. And the wounded—
Too many wounded. Rags stumbled forwards, remembering what had happened. The attack! Poison. The coughing. Pieces came together. She saw Goblins look up, glance at her, away, and then do a double-take. They got up. Rags waved at them, croaking.
They pointed. Rags quickened her pace. She didn’t tell the wounded to follow her, but they did anyways. They got up and the other Goblins saw the motion. They looked at each other and poked each other. They didn’t see Rags, short as she was, but they knew. And then there were handfuls.
The center of the camp was too full. But the perimeter was too sparse. Rags saw Goblins dug into hasty fortifications in the earth. They were in the plains! When had they gotten here? The Goblins on duty were too divided. Rags frowned. Why were they spread out? It was as if the camp was expecting an attack from any direction at any moment. But that wasn’t how you defended. You put your best soldiers where the enemy would attack, not weaken yourself by spreading yourself out. What had happened?
She snapped the word and the Goblin soldiers looked up. They gaped and rose. Some pointed. Rags shouted at the ones who tried to abandon their positions.
They did. But the shouting, the familiar voice made heads turn. The Goblins in earshot looked around. They stood up, craning to see. And they spoke.
It was an uncertain word, a tremulous question. Hope, and its cousin, fear, wavering for fear of the truth. But the word was repeated. It spread as more Goblins rose, defying exhaustion to see. And then they were many.
“Chieftain is awake.”
They rose and followed. And then Rags was followed by hundreds. And the tribe took notice. Word began to spread from Goblin to Goblin. Rags was awake. And she was headed for Pyrite. Every hand began to point the way before she asked. The broken network of Goblin communication restored itself for one purpose. And as Rags walked her tribe formed itself around her. Around their Chieftain.
When they reached the sitting Goblin they were thousands. Rags stopped as the Goblins showed her to the Hob sitting on the ground. He was drinking from a half-empty bottle as Goblins fussed about him. Blood covered the ground around him. His battleaxe was covered with gore. And they had plucked too many splintered arrows and arrowheads from his flesh to count. Pyrite looked up and smiled around the blood.
Rags stopped in front of him and looked down. Pyrite drank from the healing potion and sighed. She stared. He was bleeding. She couldn’t tell from where. He was covered in blood. He’d taken sword wounds, tearing mace blows, arrows to his chest, his sides, his back, cuts from daggers, burns from fire. And he’d stood among it all. The fat on his body was torn. His blood ran with it. Slowly.
He’d taken so many wounds that the healing potion was failing to recover all of them. Rags saw a gash on his stomach oozing fat slowly knit together and then—stop. She looked around, head spinning.
Pyrite tossed the empty bottle to the ground. Again he tried to stand. This time he did. Rags looked at him. Pyrite swayed, frowned, and regained his balance. He bled. But he stood. And when he glanced at Rags, it was expectantly. He wanted orders. He said not a word about his wounds. Rags looked into his eyes.
And the Hob smiled for the first time in days. He nodded and turned, his ravaged body as light as a feather. He said the words he’d waited so long to say.
By night they rode. By day they came. With arrow and sword. With fire and spell. Warriors of the Unseen Empire. From every direction, with traps and quick, lightning-fast attacks. And though they were fought off each time they exacted a price. Hundreds of dead. Hundreds. Rags saw the missing faces. Day after day the Humans had come. And for three days Pyrite had fought them off.
Three days. Three days he’d kept them marching while a third of the tribe was unable to do more than move, struggling for breath.
“Enemy not that smart. Weak leader. But Humans on horse can see at night. And they know where we are. Always.”
Pyrite stood with a crude map of the landscape drawn for Rags. She watched his chest rise and fall. He still bled, but his wounds were bandaged. They’d given him food—dry oats meant for fodder. There had been no time to forage so the tribe was hungry.
“Don’t know, Chieftain.”
Noears grinned at her. His head was bandaged and he looked exhausted, but he couldn’t stop grinning. At her. He gestured around.
“No spell. Can’t sense.”
Redscar folded his arms. The Goblin warrior hadn’t shown his elation on seeing her, but he’d arrived as fast as the others. Rags had heard of his disastrous attempts to pursue the Humans. She understood. But—she turned back to Pyrite.
Pyrite shrugged. He pointed back at the crude map, drawing her attention.
“City nearby. Big. Got walls. Lots of Humans.”
They’d come to a city, fleeing the Human’s advancing army. Pyrite pointed to the Human army, grimacing. Rags grimaced too. Thousands of Humans, approaching slowly on foot. Not the mounted raiders, but far more of them. They’d be able to finish off Rags’ weakened tribe. So Pyrite had taken the tribe away—right into a Human city.
“Not moving. Not yet.”
Poisonbite wheezed as she squatted next to the others. Her lungs were better, but she still had trouble breathing. Rags shifted her attention to her. Poisonbite was wounded, even if it wasn’t a visible wound. Over a third of her tribe was wounded. Vulnerable. The Humans had been chewing apart the warriors as they struggled to defend their helpless tribe from every direction.
“Mistake to leave forest. No cover.”
That came from Quietstab. There was no recrimination as he glanced at Pyrite. Both Hobs nodded, as did the other Goblins. It was a statement of fact. Rags chewed her lip, agreeing. If they’d stayed in the forest they could have built another fortress. Maybe. Or would the Humans have used poison again on a stationary target?
It didn’t matter. She focused on the map.
“Humans on horses. From city?”
That voice came from no Goblin. They all looked at Sir Kerrig. He was squatting with them. Rags stared at the [Knight]. He looked up at her and nodded respectfully.
“The raiding Humans are part of the Unseen Emperor. Under the command of one Laken Godart. An [Emperor].”
Sir Kerrig waited for the Goblin’s response. They just stared at him. He coughed, slightly surprised, and went on.
“Goblins attacked his empire once before. The Great Chieftain’s forces, or so I believe. He may suspect you’re part of that force. Or a raiding army sent by the Goblin Lord.”
Rags said that firmly and all the Goblins nodded. Sir Kerrig hesitated.
“I don’t believe the difference would occur to Emperor Laken. Nevertheless, I can tell you that the city—it is called Lancrel, incidentally—is not part of his domain.”
Rags absorbed this information and promptly discarded the details about the name. She stared at Sir Kerrig. Then she turned to Pyrite.
“Why he here?”
“Human [Lady] come. She go. He stay.”
Pyrite shrugged, seeming to enjoy the motion despite how it opened up the wound in his shoulder. Rags glanced at Sir Kerrig. He met her gaze levelly.
“I wished to observe your tribe, Chieftain Rags.”
She gestured angrily around at the injured Goblins. Sir Kerrig paused. He looked at some of the injured Goblins. Rags had heard that he’d helped tend to the injured. She didn’t care. At last the [Knight] responded.
“What would you have me say? I witnessed you destroy a Human army. Just or not, Laken Godart’s attacks are in retaliation for Goblin raids on his lands. He is protecting his people with preemptive strikes. He regards this as a war.”
“Against Tremborag. Against Goblin Lord. Not us.”
“He cannot tell the difference, Chieftain Rags.”
“So tell him. Why not stop? Go shout at Humans!”
Incensed, Rags glared at Sir Kerrig. He’d come back here? To do what? Watch? As if it was his choice? Sir Kerrig spoke defensively.
“I am an observer. I cannot speak for your intentions. If I requested peace and your tribe attacked innocents, the blood would be on my hands!”
Rags just stared at the [Knight]. He looked apologetic.
“Chieftain, if you can give me an assurance that your tribe would truly stop fighting, I could attempt—”
She leaned forwards and spat. Sir Kerrig jerked and wiped at his face. Rags turned away.
She ignored the [Knight] and looked back at Pyrite. He was glancing at Sir Kerrig, half-smiling. So wounded. She saw what he was doing. Could she have done better? Perhaps—she would never know. But now she was awake, Rags understood. An enemy that knew where you were. An [Emperor] with an army pursuing them on horse and a larger one following behind. A city full of Humans. A stupid, silly Human [Knight]. The pieces fell together and she sighed.
Her tribe looked at her. Not just her officers, not just the red-faced Sir Kerrig, but all of them. Goblins stood around her meeting spot, waiting. Watching her. Watching their Chieftain. She had led them into this land. She had attacked the first Human army. She had fallen and left them for three days. So they waited, judging her, waiting for her to bring them hope.
Rags closed her eyes. So many dead. The poison. The black riders in the night. All of it. Why? Because—because some [Emperor] thought they were the wrong Goblins? Her heart hurt. Her chest burned. But this was fitting. This was right. This was—
“This is the way Goblins die.”
Her tribe looked at her. Rags stared up at the blue skies. In Liscor, it would be raining. She spoke, still smelling the poison in the air, still seeing the arrows falling. How dare he.
“Running, fighting, protecting, friend and friend. Humans hunt us, monsters to the end. Not people, not anything worth anything. Again, they come, for Goblin children, for Goblin Kings. Forever, forever. All the same in the end.”
She rose. Her officers stood with her. Rags looked around. An [Emperor]? Protecting his people? Replying in kind. How silly. Rags looked at the map. The Humans could be anywhere. They could attack from any direction, at her weak spots. What did you do about that? She jabbed her finger at her answer and the Goblins stared at her.
General Wiskeria of the Unseen Empire was brewing tea in a pot when the [Mage] responsible for receiving [Message] spells, Allais Vermot, ran towards her.
“They’re moving straight for Lancrel!”
Wiskeria nearly dropped the ball of dried herbs she was dipping into the kettle. She stood up as Beniar raced over. The former Silver-rank adventurer and now [Captain] and [Cataphract] listened to Allais’ report.
“They’re headed straight to Lancrel as fast as they can.”
“Do they think we’re based out of the city? Or are they trying to take it?”
Wiskeria shook the wet tea bag as she took the kettle off the fire. Beniar’s eyes shone.
“They must be insane! If they try for a siege we’ll hammer them against Lancrel’s walls! Wis, this is our chance!”
The [Witch] frowned and not least because Beniar had called her ‘Wis’.
“Hold on. The main army is still a day or two away at best. We don’t have more than eight hundred soldiers here. The Goblins still number over seven thousand!”
“So? Lancrel can hold its walls and we’ll hit the Goblins while they’re stationary. If they commit—we don’t need the rest of the reinforcements! We can smash them against the walls right here and now!”
It was tempting, Wiskeria had to admit. Lancrel had refused to field its army in response to the Goblin threat. By attacking the city, the Goblins were adding another enemy. She nodded after thinking it over. There was really one thing they could do.
“Move out! Beniar, keep your cavalry back. I want them to start attacking the city before we strike. We’ll pin them there!”
Beniar grinned and Wiskeria sighed as she ran for the horses. She hoped it would all go according to plan. In the worst case the Goblins would dig into the nearby landscape as they constructed siege towers or rams. They could prove difficult to uproot if they remained still, rather than kept moving. Of course, by then the army would get there…
It was all a matter of time. Within the hour she and the entire camp of mobile horses were racing towards Lancrel. By the time they reached the city the Goblins were already closing in on the walls.
“Goblin army approaching!”
Lancrel had seen the Flooded Water tribe coming miles away. And they were warned. By the time the Goblins approached the walls from the east, the majority of the garrison was deployed and waiting. They laughed as they saw the Goblins approaching, though the size of the army was slightly concerning. However, as the Watch Captain reassured his men, there was nothing to worry about.
“There’s twenty feet of wall between us and those damn green freaks! Twenty feet! Keep the ladders off—if they have any—and we’ll slaughter twenty for every one that even makes it on the walls!”
His men laughed, reassured. They watched the Goblins stream towards them. They had wolves, some of them! Huge, loping monsters, three times as big as normal. That too was concerning. But again, the walls were there. It wasn’t as if the Goblins had brought siege towers.
“Hold your ground, men! We’ll push this Goblin Lord back, without this so-called [Emperor]’s help!”
The Watch Captain was still laughing as the first rank of Goblins entered bow-shot range. Instantly some of the [Archers] on the walls fired, their shots going astray. The running Goblins paused and their mounted wolf riders pointed. The Watch Captain nodded.
“See that? They’re going to pull back, send their ladders first. Hold your shots you idiots! Focus on the Goblins with ladders—”
He bit back his words because the ranks of Goblins broke into a run. Straight towards the walls. The Watch Captain looked around wildly.
“Ladders! Aim for the Goblins holding ladders!”
Confused, the Humans looked around. Where were the Goblins with ladders? They weren’t carrying any?
“Watch Captain! Those Hobs have a ram?”
The Watch Captain spotted a few Hobs with a smaller version of a ram. He pointed.
“Aha! Not even ladders! On my mark, bring those Hobs down! Loo—”
Those around him felt a kick and heard the roar after the impact had tossed them off their feet. The unlucky Humans who’d been knocked off the walls fell screaming. The ones around the Watch Captain who’d landed on the battlements looked around. They didn’t see their Watch Captain, only a smoldering corpse. They looked back down and lightning flashed upwards again, straight from the fingers of a cackling Goblin with no ears.
“Bring it down!”
Panicked shouts came from the walls. The [Archers] began shooting wildly, aiming at the Goblin who’d thrown lightning. He ducked behind a Goblin with a huge wooden shield. And then the Goblins behind him raised something. The Humans blinked. Were those crossbows?
They saw the bolts fly up. The first volley took many of the [Guardsmen] and [Soldiers] off-guard. They fell back, screaming, as the bolts shattered flesh and bone. The Goblins reloaded as the defenders of Lancrel took cover. The Goblins were dangerous! But they still had the high ground and reinforcements. They could hold on the walls so long as the Goblins didn’t—
A voice shouted the word. The Humans looked around. Throw? Who had shouted that. One of them looked over the walls, ducking as an arrow grazed his helmet. He saw something strange below. A pair of Hobs, cupping hands. And a small Goblin with a glowing blue blade, running at them. The Goblin leapt and his foot landed in the Hob’s cupped hands. They heaved and he flew up, twenty feet into the air. The Human [Soldier] gaped as a hand grabbed onto the ledge in front of him.
He raised his sword and Redscar’s enchanted blade went through his helmet. The Goblin reached up and used the dead Human’s body to haul himself onto the battlements. He grinned as, across the wall, more Redfang warriors were launched up by the Hobs.
The defenders of Lancrel gaped at Redscar as he looked around, his enchanted sword raised. It was bloody. A Human jabbed at Redscar with a spear. He sidestepped the thrust contemptuously and swung. His sword sheared through the thick haft of the spear. The Human backed up as Redfang turned. The second swing beheaded him.
“Kill the Goblin!”
Lancrel’s soldiers rushed at Redscar. But too many were armed with bows! The Goblin ducked between the bigger Humans, stabbing in the confined press of bodies. He heard screams and ducked as a sword flashed towards his head. He turned, cut down a Human, and kicked another one as the Human overbalanced from a swing.
The screaming Human toppled over the battlements. Redscar turned, grinning, his face alight with fury as more Goblins flew up to grab the walls. He spun, laughing, and the Humans backed away from the shorter Goblin with the enchanted sword. At last! This was a real battle!
“Goblins on walls!”
Rags saw more Goblins flying upwards, propelled by the Hobs assigned to throwing duty. It was a completely stupid idea. Only regular Goblins were light enough for a trick like this and only Hobs were strong enough. But Pyrite had inspired her with his games of throwing Goblins into the lake. More to the point, it had worked because Lancrel’s defenders were being suppressed by the rain of arrows, bolts, and slings her army was throwing up at them. And Noear’s lightning. Rags pointed and sent a fiery arrow straight into the face of a Human woman with a bow. The defenders of the wall were well and truly occupied. So she turned and bellowed.
A group of Hobs answered her call. They thrust their way forwards, holding the smaller rams they’d made on the march. They charged towards the doors as Goblins made way. Hobs. She heard Humans on the walls shouting in alarm. They’d probably never seen more than one or two Hobs. But she had hundreds in her tribe. And the ones who began pounding on the gates were fresh.
This was the Flooded Water tribe’s fighting force. The wounded and sick Goblins clustered against the walls while the Human defenders were distracted by the climbing Goblins. They had probably two thousand warriors they could send. Rags knew the Human city probably held as many as ten thousand Humans. But how many would man the walls? How many could fight? A Human with a few levels in [Warrior] was not the same as a Redfang Warrior. Or a Hob.
And she’d sent her best. Rags watched as the Hobs she’d sent to the gates roared and struck the gates again with their hand-held ram as the rest rammed the door with their shoulders. The impact made the wood crack and splinter. They drew back and struck again as one. Again! Again! Ag—
The gates broke with a thunderous crash inwards and the Hobs roared and heaved. The Humans trying to hold it shut went flying and the Hobs charged in with hundreds of Goblins at their back. Redfang warriors, groups of Goblins with pikes—they smashed into the stunned defenders. The twenty-foot long pikes pierced through the defender’s shields and armor before the Hobs came in swinging. At their head was Pyrite. He roared as he cleaved through a Human’s shield and pointed. Goblins swarmed after him.
Impossible! Rags could practically hear the Humans shrieking the word. She grinned viciously. This was her tribe! This was their might! Then she turned her attention to the Goblins outside the walls.
Most of them were coughing, exhausted, barely able to move after their mad dash to the walls. Many, thousands, weren’t even warriors. Women and children huddled right next to the imposing stone walls, right in range of bowshot and where a vat of boiling oil or water could hit them. But the defenders were fighting Rags’ warriors! Lancrel was at their mercy.
Which meant that the Humans closing on their rear now had a clean shot at all of Rags’ weakest warriors and noncombatants. Rags looked over her shoulder.
There they were. Right on time. She saw Human riders streaming across the plain. Six hundred…eight hundred? A good force to harry. Not to charge an entire tribe. But Lancrel was being overrun. Rags could hear and see the Goblins pressing forwards. She’d committed nearly every Hob and all of her Redfang warriors to the push! Of course it was falling fast. But therein lay the weakness.
Rags tried to imagine what the enemy commander was thinking. Well. The foolish tribe may have gained the city, but now they’re trapped. They’ve sent their warriors ahead, all of them. You could ride them down from behind and slaughter them. They’d barely be able to put up a fight. They can’t breathe. They can’t see. Rags felt the burning in her chest and knew that was true. She watched as the Humans made a quick decision.
They charged. She saw the riders with spears, swords, and axes taking the lead while the ones with bows followed. They’d hit her from behind and pin her tribe against the walls! Packed as tightly as they were, it would be a slaughter. The Hobs wouldn’t be able to return until half of the tribe was dead! All the Humans had to do was strike before Rags could get her tribe inside the walls. She could see the Humans accelerate. Rags nodded to herself.
There was no good way to beat an enemy who knew what you were doing at all times. Not out in the open. Traps wouldn’t work. But what about something you knew was going to happen? She narrowed her eyes. The enemy commander was good at spying. But strategy?
The first line of riders was two hundred paces away from the walls when Rags gave the order.
Every Goblin, child and elderly, sick and wounded, turned. They raised the crossbows they’d been given. The Humans on horseback wavered as they saw the wall of Goblins turn into ranks of waiting archers. Rags pointed.
The wounded Goblins aimed and fired. The first volley of bolts took scores of riders from their saddles, toppling screaming horses. Stones from slings and the weaker stone crossbows landed among the Humans, denting helmets, shattering bone. A few of Rags’ wounded Hobs shot with their bows, taking down Humans with precise shots.
Rags reached down and pulled at her crossbow, laboriously cocking it. She slapped another bolt into the slot and aimed. Where was the armored Human. Didn’t matter. She focused on a Human with a spear charging at them. Rags sighed, coughed.
The second wave of bolts cut down more riders. The Humans tried to keep charging, but the falling horses and Humans tripped up the ones behind. They pulled back as whoever was in charge realized they wouldn’t get the walls. There were thousands of Goblins and Rags had hundreds of crossbows firing at once. The force of eight hundred wasn’t enough! The riders circled as Rags continued to order the Goblins to reload and fire, marking targets.
Suddenly, the walls behind them weren’t a trap, but a shield. The Humans on horseback couldn’t circle the lines of Goblin crossbows and Wiskeria’s archers found themselves outnumbered by the volleys of bolts that rained onto their position. They retreated, breaking, falling, racing back.
What now? They had to keep Lancrel from falling! Another gate! They could enter from another gate! The defenders raced to the southern gates to reinforce Lancrel only to find they were too late. The gates were open and Humans were racing out.
“Into the city. Crossbows on walls. Get pikes in gate.”
Rags pointed as her tribe streamed further and further into the city. Humans fled from them by the thousands, wailing, fleeing the Hob’s advance. Rags rode through the city as her Redfang riders spread out, seeking out the Humans who’d continued to fight.
Whomever this [Emperor] was, he didn’t understand war like she did. Count on a city to defend itself? Against a weaker, smaller tribe, perhaps. But Human cities weren’t like Drake cities. They had no enchantments on their walls. Their populace didn’t fight to the death. And their walls were too short.
And worse, yes, worst, the Humans of Lancrel had failed to understand how fast the Goblins could take down a gate made of wood. They could have fought the Redfang warriors off on the walls in time. They could have held. But wooden gates? Rags shook her head as she saw Humans streaming out the other exits of the city. The Humans on horseback wouldn’t gain entry from any of the other ways in, if they’d been stupid enough to try. Lancrel’s citizens were pressed against the gates, screaming, shoving to get out. The Goblins were inclined to let them. They were tired.
Quietstab shook his head and stared from his position atop the battlements. He turned to Pyrite, awestruck.
“Took city. Without siege!”
Pyrite grunted. He was feeling a lot better. His belly was full—they’d ransacked Lancrel’s stores and found lots of food. And healing potions. He stood on the walls, watching the Humans slowly marching away from their city. Lancrel’s refugees had immediately turned to the Humans on horseback and the Humans had no choice but to try and guard them—and watch the city. More had arrived on foot. A good two thousand, but they were keeping well back, wary of a Goblin attack.
They had no idea that there was little chance of that. The exhausted Goblins had almost all collapsed after eating their fill. The only ones on the walls were just there to look threatening; the Redfangs were the only group still active enough to keep searching the city for supplies. Pyrite leaned against the battlements as he replied to Quietstab.
“Bad city defense. Other tribes take cities. Mountain City tribe did.”
He was referring to the city they’d taken with Gold-rank adventurers. That had taken more planning, but it had happened. Quietstab nodded.
“But Tremborag leads. Great Chieftain. This time our Chieftain leads.”
Pyrite thought about that. Rags led. She’d woken up. And just like that, things had changed. He felt—relieved. Ashamed. He hadn’t thought of this. But she’d woken up and like that she’d saved them.
“Can rest here. Hold walls against twice as many Humans.”
Pyrite wondered about that. The Humans would come. There were thousands more coming and probably even more that would be angry about the city. They’d bought time, that was all. His ears perked up as he heard a grumbling complaint. Both he and Quietstab turned and saw Rags coming up the stairs.
She had a bag in her hands. Quietstab made way for her and Pyrite eyed the bag. It was full of Rags’ possessions. He hadn’t ever seen inside, but it wasn’t filled with much.
“Chieftain. Want food?”
He offered her a handful of dried nuts he’d been snacking on. She glared at him.
“No. Help me up.”
She pointed and Pyrite lifted her up. Rags perched on top of the battlements, dangerously close to the edge. She didn’t care. She stared at the Human army camped far outside of range of the walls. They were watching the Goblins.
“Lots of Humans. Will attack if leave.”
“Attack them, Chieftain?”
“No. Will run. Probably. More coming.”
Rags grumbled to herself. She opened her cloth bag and glared into it. Then she hurled it at Pyrite.
“Where is? Search. Small red stone. Scary.”
Bemused, he opened the bag and rummaged through it. He found a battered chess piece, the ruby he’d given her, some battered pieces of parchment and then—
Pyrite inhaled sharply. Rags looked up.
She took the object Pyrite handed to her. Quietstab peered, interested, and then stopped as Rags looked at him.
“Quietstab. Get Redscar. Get Redfangs. Mounted ones.”
She glanced at the Humans in the distance. Pyrite watched her gaze, no longer complacent. Quietstab nodded, glancing at the thing she held.
“How many Redfang?”
The Hob blinked. Rags glanced at him and he ran. Pyrite looked at Rags.
“Chieftain? What is that for?”
He pointed. Rags held the red stone up. It was shiny. A ruby gemstone. But the way it made him feel—she turned it and Pyrite’s stomach lurched. He looked at her face and his stomach lurched for different reasons.
Rags looked up. Behind her, in the city, Pyrite could see Redscar riding towards them. Rags looked at him.
“Not done yet. Pyrite.”
She pointed to the Humans beyond. Pyrite looked at her.
“They’re coming out of the city!”
“Are you serious?”
This time Wiskeria didn’t wait for a reply. She shouted and every [Soldier] under her command leapt to their feet. The Goblins were attacking? She wavered between attack and retreat. How many? She paused as she saw—
“The wolf riders?”
They streamed out of the city, hundreds of them. But only hundreds. They formed into a wedge and raced out of the city, following a pair of short Goblins who rode forwards. Beniar growled.
“They’re making a break for it! Wis, we have to—”
“I know. Intercept! Everyone, towards the Goblins!”
Wiskeria raised her voice and thousands of Humans raced towards the Goblins. The Darksky Riders lead by Beniar raced forwards. Their numbers were reduced, but all they had to do was hold the Goblins there! An easy task. Wiskeria could tear the Goblins apart. Maybe then the disaster of Lancrel could be mitigated.
She saw Beniar heading straight for the pair of Goblins. One small. The other held the enchanted blade. She saw the small one raise something in its hands. And then—
Something changed. Wiskeria felt her heart stop in her chest. Her beating, wonderful heart stopped dead. For a second. She stumbled and around her [Soldiers] cried out and halted.
The red eye pulsed as the Goblin held it over her head. In its depths something stirred. It looked at Wiskeria. It knew her name. Something called to her. It crawled in her head. It had a name. It was flesh. Putrefaction. It screamed and she screamed. Skinner! She turned and fled, she—
Wiskeria shouted, breaking herself free of the [Fear] spell. She turned and saw the soldiers stumbling backwards and then recovering as she had. They shuddered as the gem struck fear into their hearts, but at her urging they kept running. However, it was too late. The [Fear] spell had done its work. Not on the Humans, but on Beniar and the riders.
Humans could withstand the spell. For them it was only fear. But animals were different. The charge of the Darksky Riders broke for the second time that day as Wiskeria watched. Half of the horses turned or reared, some throwing their riders to the ground. Beniar’s advance halted in its tracks as the Carn Wolves raced past them.
If they’d been faster by a few seconds. If the [Fear] spell hadn’t been used. The Goblin lowered the stone as it ceased to shine and tucked it into her pack. Wiskeria watched helplessly as the Carn Wolves outraced the horses, heading into the forests. She saw Beniar turn and whirled.
“Alais! Send a spell to Laken! I need to know where they’re going! Now!”
So this is how it ended. Dreamily, Rags rode with the wind blowing across her body. The Redfang warriors whooped, exhilarated to finally run, triumphant over their small victory over the Humans. Redscar drew his wolf over to Rags and pointed as they slowed.
She offered him the now inactive [Fear] gemstone. It wasn’t that useful, certainly not against Goblins. And it ran out of magic. But it was good for a distraction when she’d remembered it. Redscar eyed it appreciatively and then handed it back.
They halted miles from the city, having outdistanced their Human pursuers for the moment. Rags turned her Carn Wolf, seeing the eyes of all the Redfang warriors on her. Curiously. She knew she was not their real leader. They had abandoned Garen for her. But they were still Redfang. Still his.
And yet. She looked at Redscar. He paused. The other Goblin had been exuberant since the battle for Lancrel. His fury against the Humans had been quenched in part. But Pyrite had told her what he’d done.
“When Chieftain was asleep.”
“Pyrite ordered not to.”
Redscar shifted, avoiding her gaze.
“Redfangs know how to fight.”
“So does Pyrite.”
Silence. The Redfang warriors looked away. Rags could sense their good moods fading. They did not want to see their leader be dressed down. She sensed their resentment. But Redscar eventually looked up.
“Angry. At Humans.”
Rags nodded. Anger. It was such a strange feeling. She had woken, feeling her tribe torn. She had seen the empty look in the eyes of her Goblins, heard their grief. But anger? It was in Redscar. But three days of fighting had left only embers.
“Anger. Rage. Orders is still orders.”
A pause. Redscar lowered his head.
Rags turned her head. Redfang warriors looked at her or stared at their wolves. Some challengingly. Others unashamed. Some regretful. Anger. Fury. She reached in her chest.
“They killed us.”
The Goblins looked at her. Rags looked around. Fewer faces. Fewer wolves. The Redfangs had survived the fighting more than most by virtue of their superior levels and skill. But they had lost numbers too. Rags could see it when she looked around her tribe.
“They poisoned us.”
Like rats. Rags’ grip tightened on her Carn Wolf’s fur and it whined. She let go. She looked at Redscar and then around at the Redfang warriors.
“Who is Chieftain? Who is leader for Redfangs?”
They looked at each other. Redscar called out, his voice loud.
Rags nodded. It had to be said.
“Follow orders. Follow my orders.”
She gave them. The Redfang warriors looked confused. Then, as they realized what she wanted, they sat in their saddles. Their eyes burned. Rags pointed. In the distance Humans were pursuing them on horseback. Too few. Too slow.
“Go. Go and show them.”
She pointed west. The Redfang’s heads turned as one. Rags pointed east. They looked. She pointed north and south and shouted.
“They attacked us! They killed us! So show them same! Show them pain! Show them hate. Show them Goblins.”
She kicked her Carn Wolf and rode past the Redfang warriors. They raised their weapons, shouting. The wolves began to howl.
“Burn the villages and towns and fields. No mercy. No Humans spared.”
Redscar’s eyes shone as he pointed. Redfang warriors roared. Rags reached inside her chest. There it was. Something darker than anger, thicker than fury. She reached for it and a black tingling ran through her veins.
“Kill them. Ride. Burn the playthings—”
She broke off, touched a hand to her head. The Redfang warriors waited. Rags looked up. She saw the Humans racing towards them. She saw Erin’s face, plastered on the corpses. And then she saw the dead, lying on the ground in the darkness. She turned and the blackness inside her spoke for her.
“Emperor Laken? General Wiskeria is asking you for an update. She is in pursuit of the Goblins riding wolves.”
My hands are sweaty. I’m shaking. Reeling, rather. Lancrel has fallen. The Goblin took it in less than an hour. It’s fine, though. They can be defeated. Just so long as the army reaches them—I need to send trebuchets. But this force—I follow it with my mind.
“I see them. They’re headed south. They’ve stopped. Wait—wait. What are they—”
Something’s happening. I see the small Goblin raise her hand in my head. The Goblins roar. And then—they move. But not in one direction.
The image of the wolves splinters in my mind, the solid mass of Goblins breaking up into groups of ten, of two, riding in every direction. They race across the ground, not one mass, but splitting up, into smaller groups. Smaller and smaller. In every direction.
“No, no. This can’t be happening.”
“Emperor Laken? General Wiskeria is requesting a location. Emperor Laken? Your Majesty?”
I raise my head, sightless, my hands clenched. Nesor’s sweaty face stares back at me. Lady Rie pauses.
“Where are the wolf riders headed? Emperor Laken?”
Rags rode. The wind felt hot in her face. She was alone. Behind her, Redfang warriors broke up. Riding in every direction, howling. They split up, the single mass of them fracturing. Rags rode alone for the moment. Her head felt light. Something black rose in her chest, as if she could spit it out.
It was so simple. So very simple. Pyrite didn’t see it because he was kind. Redscar didn’t see it because he was a warrior. But she saw it because she was Rags. Because she thought like her opponent. Erin had taught her that.
If you could see everything, if you could see every move your opponent made, what was the way to counter that? A trap? No. You couldn’t trap something like that. But you could overwhelm it. Give it a hundred targets.
They’d found a map of the region in Lancrel. It burned in her head. Villages, cities, towns. Farmers and their fields. All neatly written down. Targets.
Burn the villages. Destroy the mills. Cut them down as they flee. Set fire to forests. Raid their homes. Hurt them. Vengeance.
Across the landscape Redfang warriors rode, howling. They didn’t ride against the pursuing warriors. They rode into villages with flaming torches. They descended on fields, on Humans sleeping or heading to bed. They rode with no goal in mind.
Only hatred. Only fury. It was in her. After the brilliance was done, after the battle and saving her tribe, something else was in Rags. Not a Chieftain’s desires. Not a leader’s thoughts. Something dark. And primal. It was in her heart and she’d opened the door.
No more. They slaughtered her tribe. They used poison. They killed children, those who couldn’t fight. Rags heard the thoughts flash through her head. Excuses. It wasn’t howling anymore. It was a scream. The scream of wind. Of Goblins bringing death. A scream in her mind. She whispered as the screaming grew louder.
“They started it.”
No one replied. No one told her it was wrong. No one had to. But it didn’t matter. Ahead of Rags she could see a farm. A village attached to Lancrel, maybe. It didn’t matter.
It was everything that mattered. The Goblin rode alone as the air grew hot around her. Fire burned in her hands. She saw the dark building rise in front of her and remembered an inn. The two buildings were nothing the same. But they were exactly the same. Rags raised her hand and shot fire onto the roof. She blasted in the windows with flaming arrows. She wiped at her eyes then she drew her sword. Rags heard the screaming, going on and on.
It was coming from her.
One last thing. As the Redfang warriors rode, as Pyrite took charge of the tribe in the city of Lancrel, as an [Emperor] shouted desperate orders too slowly, too late, as [Message] spells moved too slowly to catch the wolves that rode through the night, a [Lady] paused on the open road far north of it all.
She’d ridden far outside of the Unseen Empire and now she stood at the edge of the campfire. A man stood with her, his hand on his rapier. Always watchful, always wary. But the [Lady] paid no notice to the darkness. She spoke into the magical earring she held.
“Do you remember how we met, Magnolia?”
“I don’t care to recall. Is it germane to the conversation?”
The voice that spoke back was crisp, impatient. Bethal shifted.
“No. Perhaps. Yes. I had cause to remember it a while ago. Do you recall?”
“I should hardly forget. You nearly killed me.”
“After you slapped me and told me to run or be cut down with my family. I never thanked you for doing that.”
“Of course not.”
Bethal paused. She glanced over her shoulder. The fire was inviting. Her personal tent waiting. Her two [Knights] traded places for sentry duty. Bethal sighed.
“I’m done killing Goblins for a while.”
“Don’t ask for my Knights of the Petal either. You may keep them at Invrisil if you need them. But I want sixteen to meet me.”
“Are you taking a role in this conflict with the [Emperor]?”
“I don’t know.”
“Bethal. I need you closer to home. Tyrion is moving.”
“The Goblin Lord is approaching the mountain. He’s slowed. Gathering more Goblins. But when they meet—”
“Yes, yes. And Tyrion will do what, exactly? Why is he delayed?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you can guess.”
More silence from the other end. Bethal sighed into the earring.
“Which side will win, Magnolia? This Goblin tribe or the [Emperor]? The Great Chieftain, Tremborag, or this Goblin Lord? Which do we want to win? And where will Tyrion fit into all this? Will you tell me or leave me guessing?”
“I should hope at least some of those answers would be obvious.”
“Not anymore. I thought I knew good and evil, Magnolia. But all this? This? This is madness.”
Bethal looked around. Distantly, far distant, she thought she could see sparks of light growing against the dark horizon. She wondered if someone was starting a fire. But at that distance—Magnolia’s voice was calm.
“Not madness, Bethal. This is what has always been. Goblins or Humans. It is always the same.”
Bethal closed her eyes. She was still for a very long moment as Thomast put his hand on her shoulder. At last she whispered.
“I don’t think it’s the same. Magnolia. I think it hurts differently each time.”
Without waiting for a response she dropped the earring and turned to hug her husband. And in the distance, the fires grew brighter. And brighter. And darker.