Even when he’d left, even on the days when he sat in the sand or snow, Velan could still remember the humid heat, hear the buzz of insects and feel the wet soil under his feet. As he swam across the ocean he still remembered his home.
It was that place that had shaped him. Given him the strength to do what no other Goblin could. It was there he had learned the truth of war, and gained the name of Velan the Kind. But it had not been kindness he had first shown, or been given.
Baleros. The continent was war and death. So much of it that sometimes the jungles ran red with blood. So much that the warring species, Dullahan, Gazers, Lizardfolk, Centaurs, and Humans, didn’t have time for Goblins skulking in the undergrowth. Until the Goblins caused trouble, that was. Or when a Goblin killed a person.
When that happened they hunted Goblins. They sent adventurers or hired mercenary companies. Velan didn’t know what had started the first raids on his tribe, the Clean Grass tribe. But the Bronze-rank adventurers came and began slaughtering his people. So he fought them. He killed them. And in response, they sent Silver-rank adventurers. And then Gold-rank teams. And he killed them.
Velan had learned to make medicines for his tribe out of the plants and animals of Baleros. Now he created poisons. At first his tribe overwhelmed the attackers and adventurers, looted their corpses and left their bodies as warnings.
But the enemy kept coming. And then they sent a company into the jungle. Velan led Hobs against them and shattered the Screaming Vine company into pieces. But then they sent four companies. And they slaughtered his tribe. So he slaughtered them back. And they fought and fought.
He was not known as Velan the Kind then. He was just Velan. And for his tribe he bathed in blood. Until he grew sick of the slaughter. But they kept on coming even when he ran. They chased him and turned the jungles to ash. So he fled. As Goblins do. As Goblins have always done.
And they killed his warriors. They killed his Hobs. They killed his entire tribe until the broken survivors left. And Velan stood amid the ashes and wept. He left Baleros then. He flung himself into the ocean and swam, not caring if he was eaten or drowned. He swam for days. He swam for weeks. He swam for months. And he did not die. And then—
Rags’ head jerked upright. She heard a blaring horn in the distance. She looked around. Her Carn Wolf raised its head and looked around nervously. The Goblins lying on the ground jerked upright. They heard another horn blare. Rags scrambled to her feet.
“Up! They come! We go!”
She pointed. The Flooded Water goblins got to their feet. They could hear pounding hoof beats. The Humans were coming. The first [Fireball] exploded overhead. Rags shouted as Goblins ran around in a panic.
It was a warning shot. But they had to move now. The Goblins quieted at the sound of her voice. They formed into ranks and began to move. They left campfires unattended, dropped everything not essential and ran. The Hobs grabbed supplies and packed the rest onto the wagons. They pushed the wagons as the exhausted pack animals were spurred into motion. Some refused to budge. They were left. The Goblins ran.
As they did. As they always had done. Rags grabbed her Carn Wolf’s fur and hauled herself up. It whined as she patted it on the head. It loped ahead as the Goblins fled. The Human force was advancing behind them. Not fast enough to overtake them if the Goblins ran, but if they fell behind—Rags glanced behind her.
If there were Goblins who fell behind, they would be dead. She saw the stragglers running to catch up. Some were faltering—but then a huge Hob snapped an order. He ran back with two dozen Hobs. They grabbed the smaller Goblins and carried them, running faster than the others despite their burdens. Pyrite met Rags’ eyes. She nodded.
“Go! Redfangs in front!”
Her tribe ran. Rags rode ahead, her sleep-weary mind trying to work. She saw her tribe looking up to her. Rags sat up straighter. But she was trying to remember. What had Velan done then? What had he discovered? They had killed his tribe. He hadn’t stopped it. And he had become a Goblin King. What was the solution? Did it lie in memory, or in the past? Rags bowed her head. She rode on, fleeing.
As she always had.
It was a pattern. A…shape. Something. Rags understood that. As she scarfed down food while riding, her mind focused. She tore hungrily into the dry bread and bit of horsemeat, watching as the [Cook] Goblin handed out more food from the back of the wagon.
Her tribe was on the march. Rags jogged away from the wagon, watching it roll ahead as more Goblins wearily approached the back and then away with food in their hands. They ate as they moved at a jog. The landscape slowly moved past as Rags ate and looked around.
Exhausted Goblins. Half-dead animals. Carn Wolves, padding along with heads bowed. Rags could see Goblins with red war paint trying to feed their mounts and give them water. They, like Rags, were on foot. The Carn Wolves were too tired to carry their riders. The few Goblins that were on the back of the Carn Wolves were small. Children. Rag’s personal wolf bore a pair of babies held by a female Goblin. Their mother was dead.
The stream of Goblins that moved across the grassy landscape was an army. Thousands of Goblins armed with crossbows, some carrying pikes, and hundreds of Hobs. Rags would have considered this a dominant tribe in any part of Izril. And yet, they were running.
It wasn’t something you could see at first. The Goblins kept moving on their desperate march without any clear reason at first. But then Rags heard a horn blow. She looked up and saw the Goblins ahead of her moving left. Moments later she saw a group of Humans on horseback riding hard at the forward edge of their tribe. They forced the Goblins to run left, through a field of dewy grass rather than continue onwards. Rags could see the [Knights] and soldiers in armor drawing rein with bared blades, ready to charge any stragglers that came towards them.
No Goblin did. They moved, keeping an eye on the Humans on horseback. Rags could see one of the Humans, a [Mage] dressed in robes, raising his fingers to his temple. He was probably communicating with the Humans following them. The main force.
They were following. Over five thousand Humans on horseback, the small army that Lord Tyrion Veltras had brought to Laken Godart’s rescue had dogged the Flooded Waters tribe for the last three days. For three days they’d pursued Rags and her tribe, forcing them to run or die. Rags had tried to evade them or find somewhere to hide, but the Humans were relentless. They were faster than her people and while her tribe outnumbered them, Rags was under no illusion of what would happen if they fought.
She’d seen the Humans galloping towards her tribe. She’d counted the number of Humans in full plate armor, assessed the quality of their commander. They had [Knights], the same kind of warrior as Lady Bethal’s Knights of the Petal. And the regular soldiers were disciplined.
Their commander was a Lord. Lord Pellmia, who had powerful Skills that allowed him to revitalize his forces and move them around even faster than normal. And they had [Mages]. They’d blown open the gates to the city with a single spell and Rags guessed that any one of them was equivalent to Noears, her best spellcaster.
If Rags had to fight an army like that, she would have wanted at least twice as many Goblins at her back and a thousand more Hobs. The Humans had too much armor, and too much magic behind them. They could kill Rags’ tribe, overrun them in a series of charges, regardless of the pikes Rags had at her disposal.
She even knew how she’d do it if she were Lord Pellmia. She’d blast apart the units of Goblins with pikes from afar then charge her [Knights] in with hundreds of soldiers following. Split the Goblins apart, shatter their formations. After that it would be a bloody slaughter. Hobs were strong, but even they would die to Humans charging on horseback with lances.
But they hadn’t. The Humans had just pursued Rags’ tribe these last few days. And she had a suspicion that they wouldn’t kill her tribe, not unless she fought against them. They were driving the Goblins somewhere. Rags had no map of the area, but she knew they were headed east and south. Each day, Pellmia’s forces roused the Goblins at the break of dawn and made them move at a blistering pace across the landscape, avoiding Human settlements.
Why? Rags didn’t know. She only knew that Lord Tyrion, the Human with the cold stare who’d effortlessly crushed her tribe, had a plan. She hadn’t seen him since the first day, but Lord Pellmia had stayed true to his bet. He’d rapidly found Rags’ tribe and forced them to move or die. And many had died.
Many. They’d been fighting the Emperor. They’d been winning, despite the poison, despite the death! They could have won and then escaped, healed their wounds. Instead they were here, with thousands of Goblins lying dead behind them and nothing to show for it. That was her fault. Rags closed her eyes then stumbled. She wind milled her arms and felt someone grab her.
Poisonbite steadied Rags. The smaller Goblin nodded up at her. Poisonbite looked weary, but she bared her teeth. It wasn’t really a grin. She pointed ahead.
“Redscar say there water ahead. Creek. Humans see too. We rest?”
Rags looked around. The Humans on horseback had vanished, but she knew they were constantly keeping pace with her tribe, some moving ahead while the majority stayed on their heels.
“If they let. Get water skins. Buckets. If we not stop, fill as we go.”
Poisonbite jogged ahead. Rags saw the Goblins part in front of her. Some glanced back. They’d already heard her order and it was spreading at the speed of Goblin. Within minutes, even the Goblins at the rear were readying buckets or flasks and moving faster, hoping to drink enough water before they had to run again.
Rags heard a loud voice. She looked around and saw a shape riding towards her. Redscar alone was on his Carn Wolf. He gritted his teeth as he slowed to meet her. He was guiding his mount one-handed. Rags eyed his shoulder where he’d been impaled by Tyrion’s lance three days prior. Redscar looked like he was in pain, but he offered her a hand and swung Rags up despite it. He turned his Carn Wolf.
“Humans slowing. Can drink water. Rest.”
Rags sighed with relief.
“Good. You rest too.”
“Or can rest. Shoulder still healing.”
The scarred Goblin grimaced. He rubbed at his shoulder.
Rags poked him in the back of his shoulder. Redscar snarled. She met his angry glare.
“Not good potion. You rest. Wolf needs too.”
The Carn Wolf looked up and whined. Rags shrugged. Redscar was attached to his Carn Wolf, which was larger than all but Garen’s. He cared more for it than himself, which was why he reluctantly agreed to rest. He’d been riding ahead, scouting the terrain nonstop these last few days. Rags thought it was Redscar’s way of atoning for his failure to defeat Tyrion, or slay the [Emperor]. But it wasn’t his fault. Again, it was hers.
The stream was fast-moving and situated in a prairie filled with yellowed, tough stalks rather than much grass. The exhausted Goblins flocked towards it, drinking and filling their containers. There were so many that Rags actually saw the water level of the stream drop and almost halt for a little bit. She filled her water flask, drank greedily, and then wiped her mouth. She looked around and whistled.
Heads turned. Some of the Goblins who’d been overseeing the others jogged over. Rags’ lieutenants appeared. Quietstab, Poisonbite, Noears, and Pyrite. They joined Redscar as he poured water over his wolf’s head, letting the animal shake itself and muttering soothing words. Rags let her officers drink. She inspected them.
They were all tired. Like her, they’d been moving constantly. And they’d been supervising the other Goblins, making sure essentials were taken care of, like the animals being fed or finding wood to cook food with on the march.
Pyrite looked the most tired. He hadn’t stopped moving since he woke up. He’d helped carry tired Goblins, push wagons out of ruts in the road, and helped carry the supplies that the dwindling number of pack animals couldn’t bear on their own. He sat in the stream, letting the water flow around his legs and splashed some in his face.
“How long do we rest, Chieftain?”
Noears looked at Rags. His hands were sooty. Despite not fighting against the Humans, Noears had been at the head of the tribe. He’d been hitting birds and other animals with lighting, killing them to supplement the dwindling food supply. Rags shrugged.
“Twenty minutes. Humans follow soon.”
The others nodded tiredly. They sat and drank and one of the Goblins brought food for Pyrite, who hadn’t eaten. He chomped the food down fast. Rags bowed her head tiredly. She knew the other Goblins were watching her. But for a moment she let herself sag.
“What did I do wrong?”
The other Goblins looked at her. Rags saw Redscar glance up. Quietstab looked alarmed.
Poisonbite and Noears nodded, although Noears was more hesitant. Poisonbite scowled.
“Good fights. Was winning. Humans cheat.”
“Chieftain did things right. Nothing wrong.”
The others nodded at that. Pyrite just splashed more water over his face. Rags shook her head. It had to be something. She looked at Pyrite. He met her eyes. She opened her mouth to ask him—
A warning cry sounded from behind them. Rags whirled. That was too quick! Lord Pellmia wasn’t an idiot. He knew the Goblins couldn’t keep moving without rest. But it wasn’t he who was bearing down on the Goblins from the rear.
“Get moving, you filth!”
A loud, almost exuberant shout echoed from the young man riding towards them. Around a hundred soldiers were at his back. They rode towards the Goblins from behind. Rags saw the Goblins getting up. She shot to her feet.
The Goblins scrambled to pack their gear and move. The Humans drew rein, watching them move with clear distaste. The first ranks of Goblins surged forwards, wearily prodding the pack animals forward. Rags saw some of the mules lying down. It was hard to get them to stand up, and the Goblins had to force them to their feet with sticks. One of the mules tried to kick, but a nearby Hob grabbed it.
She was wrestling with the mule, trying to get it to move forwards as the unhappy animal began to whinny. The Goblins were all moving ahead of her. Rags saw the Humans waiting, but then the young man who seemed to be leading them decided he was done waiting. He spurred his mount and rode at the Hob with a shout.
“Lord Gilam, wait!”
One of the riders called out a warning, but the young [Lord] paid him no heed. He bore down on the Hob who looked up and saw the danger. Rather than run, she grabbed the club at her side.
Rags was on her feet. She shouted at the Hob, waving her arms. But the Hob didn’t budge. She’d had enough. The Human on horseback swung his sword as he charged her. She tried to dodge, but Rags saw the young man’s blade blur. He cut deep into her shoulder, effortlessly slicing through flesh and into bone. His sword was enchanted! The Hob groaned. Blood ran from her shoulder as the young man laughed.
But she was a Hob. And the cocky Human lordling had only wounded her. The Hob transferred her club to her other hand and raised it. She smashed it into the young man’s stomach. He yelped. The force of her blow was mitigated by his armor, but the impact still sent him reeling back. His warhorse reared, striking the Hob with its hooves. She dodged back and raised her club. Rags saw the Hob run around the side of the horse. She was going to knock the Human off! She grabbed his arm as the Human slashed her. She pulled and he tilted—
Rags heard the snapping of bowstrings. She saw a flight of arrows shoot from the Humans on horseback. They feathered the Hob, piercing her from behind. She staggered. But her hand was still on the Human’s arm. He swore, cutting at her with his sword. His blows were erratic, but the enchanted blade finally sheared through the Hob’s arm. She fell and Gilam rode his horse back. He waved his sword at her nervously until he realized she was dead.
The other Humans rode forwards, surrounding him. They needn’t have bothered; the Goblins were all running. The wagon lay in place, the pair of mules tethered to it straining to get away from the blood and the dead Hob.
One of the older Humans was speaking to Gilam.
“Lord Gilam, your father explicitly said to give the Goblins ten more minutes. Attacking the Goblins goes against Lord Veltras’ orders.”
“Be silent, Kilmet. They’re moving faster now that I showed them what happens when they lag. And I’ve bagged a Hob. You needn’t have interfered! I had it nearly dead on my first strike!”
The young man waved his bloody sword. The older man bowed his head.
“It’s my duty to keep you safe.”
“You and my father! I didn’t ride all this way to stay behind the lines, Kilmet!”
“But this is a war, young lord. And your father—”
Gilam’s face turned red.
“Fine! Enough! I’ll go back since those Goblins are so precious.”
He whirled his mount. The other Humans didn’t quite glare at him as Kilmet sighed and motioned for an escort to follow his master back. Gilam rode back, holding his bloody blade aloft. He turned, looking in satisfaction at the running Goblins and paused.
Rags stood together with the others. She was staring at Gilam. Not running. Pyrite, Quietstab, Poisonbite, Redscar, and Noears all stared silently at Gilam. The young man hesitated. Then he gestured at Kilmet angrily.
“Loose some arrows! I want those Goblins moving!”
“Young lord, you know that’s the Goblin—”
“I don’t care! I want—”
Gilam turned back. He stared at the place Rags had been, but only saw Goblins. They were all moving now, and the chieftain was gone. He glared at their backs, but then turned and rode away. Kilmet eyed the moving Goblins and then turned to one of the [Mages].
“Send a message to Lord Pellmia. Inform him the Goblins have begun moving. We’ll have to follow.”
“Damned idiot. We all need a break, not just the Goblins.”
The [Mage] grumbled as she began sending the spell. She wasn’t a retainer to Lord Pellmia’s house. Kilmet opened his mouth, but forbade comment. He watched Gilam riding back and shook his head. It was an inconvenience Lord Pellmia would not be pleased about, but his affection for his son meant that Gilam would get away with just a lecture. And it wasn’t as if a single Hob mattered to whatever plan Lord Tyrion Veltras had, after all. He let the Hob’s corpse lie and gave orders to untether the mules. That was all he thought on the matter. It was another dead Goblin.
But Rags remembered. All the Goblins did.
Rags looked up. Pyrite sat around the small campfire. He stared into it, chewing slowly on the soup he’d been given. He glanced up.
The dead Hob. Rags nodded. She stirred her soup with her wooden spoon, appetite low. She forced herself to eat anyways. She had to sleep soon.
It was night. The Goblins lay on a natural stone road, which was where they’d gotten when the Humans had stopped pursuing them. They hadn’t even bothered to find a more suitable spot to rest; they’d just collapsed in exhaustion.
Small cook fires were the only sources of light. Goblins lay around them, eating and then rolling over and sleeping at once. Rags sat at her fire with Pyrite. Her legs burned. She didn’t know how far she’d run. With her [Fleet Foot] Skill, her tribe could move very quickly. But the Humans had pushed them to their limits even so.
It was the end of the third day. Unlike the previous two nights, Rags hadn’t called for her lieutenants. She didn’t have another plan that involved outrunning the Humans or giving them the slip. She just ate and stared into the fire. After a while she looked up.
“Know her? Twofeather?”
“Fought with. Knew. Close-by tribe when I was Chieftain. Good fighter. In battle against Humans at city, watched back.”
The Hob touched his pointed ears.
“Wore two feather.”
“Oh. What bird?”
“Liked to eat duck.”
“Duck is good.”
That was all there was to it. Rags bowed her head. She hadn’t known Twofeather personally, but the Hob had been part of her tribe. She’d fought for her, and now she had died for Rags. The small Chieftain stared into the fire. Pyrite finished his bowl and then looked up. He stared at Rags for a while. Then spoke.
“What did you do wrong?”
Rags looked up at him. Pyrite shifted his heavy body.
“Others say you did nothing wrong. But you think you did things wrong. What?”
“Should have run. Shouldn’t have fought.”
The small Goblin shook her head. Pyrite scratched his.
“But Humans attacked first.”
“After we attack army. Should have let be.”
“But were killing Frostfeeder tribe.”
Rags had forgotten about that. She hesitated.
“Okay. Should have run after poison attack.”
“Didn’t know where to run. Humans hunting. You…unconscious.”
Pyrite tapped his head. Rags scowled at him.
“Then run after!”
“But Humans following. Had to take city.”
“Then run then!”
Rags threw her bowl at Pyrite. He raised his claw as the dregs of her soup splashed over him. The two stared at each other in silence. Then Pyrite began licking the soup off his hand.
“Bad soup. Tastes like mule.”
Rags drew her legs to her chest and hugged them. Pyrite watched as his Chieftain sulked. After a while he lowered his clean hand and began scraping dried soup off his chest.
“Chieftain did everything she thought was right.”
“She did. Now we run and many die. For nothing.”
The small Goblin spoke into her lap. Pyrite shrugged again.
“Not your fault. Humans attack. Sneaky [Lord]. Lots of armored Humans. Can’t beat. Inevitable.”
“Could have run.”
“Could have. But didn’t. And Chieftain gave one new thing for all tribe.”
Rags looked up suspiciously.
Pyrite tapped his chest.
“Level. Me. Redscar. Others. Level. I get Skill. Chieftain gets two Skills. And spell.”
“For thousands of dead Goblins.”
Again the Hob shrugged.
“Didn’t say it was good trade.”
Rags stared at him and then laughed. She uncurled from her ball of self-loathing and stretched out. Pyrite was relieved to see that. He looked around.
The Hob grunted and stood up. He came back with a bowl for himself. Rags eyed it. Now she did want soup. Pyrite noticed and got up. He came back with another bowl and Rags took it with a nod. They ate in silence for a while. Eventually, Rag spoke.
“[Rapid Reload]. And flashfire spell…spellcraft? ”
“Mm. And [Burning Blades].”
Rags snorted. She reached for the shortsword at her side and drew the blade. Pyrite saw her lift it up a bit and mutter a word. The blade burst into flame. Rags waved it around and then rolled her eyes.
“Ooh. Good spell.”
That was sarcasm. Pyrite shrugged, and then nodded. Rags’ new Skills were common knowledge now. The Goblins had been suitably impressed by her new levels. And her Skills were good.
[Rapid Reload] was a Skill that affected the entire tribe. With it, her crossbows and archers could fire even quicker. That was a solid, decent little Skill by anyone’s standards. Rag’s other Skill, [Flashfire Spellcraft] was equally useful, if only to Rags. With it, She could manipulate fire, make it form shapes and use it without needing a specific spell. She could also do tricks like fire a [Fire Arrow] three times as large as a regular one.
According to Noears, this was one of the first steps a [Mage] took. The other Goblins had seen it as a sign that their Chieftain was growing in good ways. They all agreed that [Burning Blades] wasn’t a good spell, though.
The thing was, it was just a spell that set one’s weapons on fire. Not with magical fire either. Just on fire. The flames were hot and they’d last for a good three minutes until they went out. Unless the weapon was wooden. Then the fire would just burn the wood up.
It wasn’t a great spell. It wasn’t even a decent one. Oh, sure, there were probably some Bronze-rank adventurers out there that thought a spell like that was useful, but Goblins were practical. Setting your blade on fire just made it hot to hold. It ruined your night vision and it didn’t really hurt your foe. What was a flaming blade going to do that a regular one wouldn’t? If you stabbed someone in the back, a bit of fire wasn’t going to make them die any quicker. Besides, flaming blades were terrible for sneak attacks.
“Maybe spell has hidden uses.”
“Maybe…can chase away biting bugs?”
“Maybe. That useful. Little bit. But stupid spell. Wanted [Fireball] instead. Can use this, but only for one thing. Starting campfires.”
“Mm. Is handy.”
The little Goblin raised her bowl threateningly, but Pyrite didn’t budge. After a while, Rags sat back. She stared up at the stars in the night’s sky. They were beautiful. She lay back and Pyrite ate his soup silently. Then, since Rags had only eaten half of hers, he picked up her bowl and began eating. She didn’t comment.
“I dreamed of him.”
Pyrite froze. He looked up at Rags. She lay on her back, staring at the night sky.
“Not much. Can’t see much. But looked for clue.”
“He attacked other species. They attacked back. Killed his tribe.”
“Like this. We attack, we die.”
“Humans not kill us yet.”
Rags looked up and gave Pyrite a withering glance.
“Yet. They have plan. Then we die.”
The two sat there a while longer. After he’d finished with Rags’ bowl, Pyrite piled the two up. He stared into the fire and then spoke.
“Killed forty three Humans. In battle. Before other Humans came.”
Rags sat up. She stared at Pyrite. Forty three? By himself? Pyrite glanced at her. His crimson eyes were tired.
“I was angry. I killed Humans. Tried to kill the armored one. And a half-Troll. And the pointy-hat Human. Didn’t kill any. So I killed other Humans. Lots.”
“I didn’t kill any. Emperor got away. Tried to make surrender. Couldn’t. Was going to kill when others showed up.”
Pyrite looked at Rags. He shifted, poked the fire with a stick and sent sparks flurrying up.
“Emperor. What was he like?”
Rags closed her eyes.
“He—he strange. He was strange. He had—”
Rags struggled to find the words and then gave up. She showed Pyrite as she spoke in their tongue to him. The strange man—young!—with closed eyes. And yet how he seemed to see her. And his smile. The way he laughed and was sad. And defied peace despite the slaughter both knew it would bring.
The rest Pyrite knew already. Tyrion’s arrival, Redscar’s injury—that was the stuff of despair and legends. But Rags had not spoken to anyone of her meeting with Laken Godart. It hadn’t mattered, but it did matter at the same time. Pyrite nodded along. He looked at Rags as her shoulders hunched and her words ran dry.
“He told me he could not make peace. Because I killed his people. He was sad because he could not. And angry. Sad and angry. Not what I thought.”
“What did you expect?”
“A monster. Wished he was one.”
Pyrite nodded. That would have made things so much easier.
He waited. Rags stared at her hands.
“Was killing them wrong? They killed us. We killed them. Was it wrong?”
Pyrite answered honestly. He could still remember the anger. He could still remember the fury as he faced down the Humans. But he remembered Sir Kerrig and Welca as well. He didn’t know. He wished he did.
He looked at Rags. She was smaller than she normally seemed. Or maybe she was just letting her guard down around him. He searched for words to say that would make his Chieftain stronger, but he had none. Things had happened. There was no changing it. But it had gone poorly. And it wasn’t Rags’ fault. But she had been in command. Pyrite understood that.
The Hob sat restlessly. Rags could see him shifting now and then. She felt tired. Hollow. The weight of her tribe rested on her shoulders. It was…heavy. But Rags refused to cave in. She refused to give up.
She stared into the fire. It crackled, the wood collapsing and the embers burning low. But neither she nor Pyrite made any effort to refuel it. They would have to run again tomorrow, as soon as they rose. Rags stared at her shortsword.
“Running. Fourth day tomorrow.”
“Can’t do forever. Humans bringing us somewhere. But tribe will die before then. Animals already dying. Ate half of them today.”
“And food. Less to carry.”
“Less to eat.”
“Can’t fix now.”
Rags shook her head. She looked at the fire and her sword. She glanced up. Something. There had to be something. She thought of her memory of Velan. And like that she had a plan. Another plan. Rags sat up, her eyes widening. But then she sagged.
It was a bad plan. Or rather, it wouldn’t change things. It might make things worse, actually. But it was all she had. They could keep running or they could fight. That was their only option. She didn’t know which would be better. Running meant they’d slowly die. But she’d fought before. She’d burned the Human’s lands, killed them, broken an army. And it had been for nothing.
The Hob looked up. Rags stared at him.
“Have a plan.”
His ears perked up.
Rags smiled wearily.
“I am your Chieftain. I always have plan.”
“Will it save tribe? Get rid of Humans?”
The Goblin hesitated and then shook her head.
“No. Not enough. Hurt them. Make them mad. Should do? Or…keep running?”
Pyrite hesitated. He fell silent and stared into the fire. When he looked up he shrugged.
“Don’t know, Chieftain. Could make things worse. Could make things better. Don’t know. But trust you to do right thing.”
Rags scowled at Pyrite. All her plans had backfired! She’d gotten her tribe killed! Pyrite looked at Rags calmly.
“Because Chieftain is smart. Tribe still follows. So Chieftain think and decide. And we follow. For better or worse, Chieftain Rags. Show us smart thing. Show us hope.”
“Hope? What hope? There is no hope!”
Rags leapt up. She grabbed at her head as Pyrite looked at her, raising her voice despite the late hour.
“Goblins die! Tribe is running! Humans chase us! We run—and die—and run and die! Again and again! Ever since I lead!”
“But we are here. Because of you. Because you had ideas. Because you didn’t give up.”
“I only did stupid things!”
“But no one else did them.”
Pyrite pointed at Rags. He stood slowly, grunting with effort. He looked down at Rags. And when he spoke, his voice was measured. Calm.
“When I was alone, I did not know how to lead the tribe. When you woke I was relieved. You had the plan that beat the Humans. You defeated the [Emperor]. And when the other Humans came, when they cheated, you were the one who led us away.”
He pointed at Rags.
“You, Chieftain. We could not do it. Quietstab could not. Poisonbite could not. Noears could not. Redscar could not. I could not. But you did. You keep trying. You have plans where we do not. That is why we follow. For hope. Because you see what we can’t. Show us it again. Show us something that will surprise everyone.”
He stared down at Rags. The small Goblin blinked up at him, stunned. Pyrite bowed his head. Then he sat. He lay on his back. He went to sleep there and then as Rags stood, paralyzed by a strange feeling in her chest. She stared at Pyrite as the Hob began to snore.
Pyrite trusted her. Even now. Even after—
Rags looked at her hand. Her fingers like claws. Dirty, small. But hers. She closed them slowly. Then Rags looked around her camp.
Hundreds, thousands of small campfires burned low. Goblins lay around them, silent shapes, occasionally moving. Thousands. Months ago, Rags could have never dreamed of so many Goblins, let alone so many under her command. But they had become hers. They followed her. Trusted her. Rags looked around.
“Not a good plan. But…”
Show us hope. Rags’ tired shoulders rose. Her back straightened. She probably couldn’t defeat so many Humans even if she pulled off her plan perfectly. Maybe, but the odds were small everything would work out that well. But she thought of the young Human riding back triumphantly with blood on his sword. Her hand clenched into a fist. She could hurt them, though.
Oh yes. She could hurt them. Rags turned and looked at the fire. It burned bright as she lay down. She was so tired. But as she slept she felt better. Not because she was rested. The ground was hard and rocky. And not because she was fed. The soup really was bad despite what Pyrite said. No, she felt better. Because she had to be. She was a Chieftain. And at last, Rags thought she understood what that meant.
[Chieftain Level 25!]
Pyrite was sleeping when the horn blew. He leapt to his feet before he was even awake. After four days the need to move was already conditioned into his body. He saw other Goblins scrambling to their feet. Wearily, Pyrite rubbed his eyes. He felt exhausted despite his sleep. He looked around.
“Move! Humans coming!”
The Hob’s voice made the other Goblins look up. They shook other Goblins awake, kicking or slapping them to get the tired Goblins up. The camp roused itself, but Pyrite could sense the weariness in the air. He stumbled as he tried to make his mind work. Food? No, they had to go now. They could dish out food on the wagons. But it was so early. They had to get the small Goblins on wagons and on the back of Carn Wolves, rouse the animals—
Pyrite’s legs buckled a bit as he tried to move forwards. He stared at them, shocked. He was tired. But he couldn’t fall. If he fell, the tribe would all see it. And their wavering morale would vanish. He had to stay strong. But he was so tired. Pyrite yawned as he looked around. Where was Rags? Did she have orders? Where was—
The weary Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe were so tired that they didn’t notice the small shape standing on the back of one of the wagons. It was only when they heard the voice that they looked up. They saw a small Goblin standing there. She was holding something. A shortsword. It blazed with fire. The Goblins stared. Rags held the blazing sword aloft. She shouted.
The Goblins and Hobs turned to look at her. Rags ignored the horns blaring. She had eyes only for her tribe. And they had eyes only for her. Rags was tired. Her body was sore. But she stood tall. She pointed her sword ahead.
“We move! I am Chieftain! I have a plan! Follow it! Follow me! Redfangs to me! Hobs, to me! Pikes! Get crossbows! We move!”
She pointed ahead with her sword. It was probably the wrong direction. But the Goblins stared at her and their weary bodies grew lighter. They moved faster, shedding sleep.
It wasn’t a Skill. Rags hadn’t taken their fatigue away. But she’d replaced it with something. As Rags leapt from the back of the wagon and onto her waiting Carn Wolf, she saw the Goblins staring at her. She sat on the back of her mount, tall as possible. She had to be there. She had to be seen. The Goblins watched her. Their Chieftain. And Rags raised her sword.
It burned. A useless flaming spell. But the fire caught the eye. It was no good for fighting. But it was good for other things. As Rags saw Redfang Goblins hurrying towards her and Quietstab leading Hobs her way she smiled. A Chieftain had to be strong. Had to be smart. But most of all, they had to lead.
“Come. We have big plan.”
“What plan, Chieftain?”
Quietstab grinned up at her. Rags smiled back.
“Big plan. But first we run. Redscar, send riders ahead! I want forest.”
The Redfang Goblins raced ahead as the tribe began to move. Rags kicked her wolf in the sides and it loped forwards. She could hear the Goblins beginning to chatter, wondering why she wanted a forest. They sounded hopeful. They trusted her to do something that would hurt the Humans. And Rags knew her plan would work. It was just—
Well, it felt familiar. It reminded her of what Velan had done. Rags’ smile slipped a bit as she rode ahead. Kill the Humans. And they would kill her people for this. As Goblins do.
As Goblins always did. But what other choice did she have?
“They started it.”
Rags whispered the words and tried to figure out why they sounded wrong.
Lord Pellmia was tired. He rode his warhorse in the center of his command of riders, yawning and cursing the early hour. Sunlight was beginning to shine down on the earth and it was too damn bright for his taste. Pellmia glanced around, for once resenting the way the sunlight bounced off of the polished helmets and breastplates of the soldiers riding next to him.
He was leading the vanguard of the forces Lord Tyrion had entrusted to him. Around him he could see men and women surging up and down on their mounts as they rode after the Goblins. They’d had a later start than the tribe, but they still had to be up quick so they could follow.
It was a necessity. Yes, Pellmia could send smaller detachments of riders ahead to ‘guide’ the Goblins in the direction he needed them to go, but the threat only worked if he could back it up. If he only sent his scouts ahead and tarried just an hour, the Goblins could easily overwhelm the smaller groups of riders and make a break for it. And that would be unacceptable. Pellmia had promised Tyrion he’d be at the meeting spot by the sixth day, and he’d be damned if he broke that promise.
The problem was that he was tired. So were his men. Three days of pursuing the Goblins was hard on anyone, and even mounted, it was hard to keep both horse and riders rested.
“Those damn Goblins.”
Pellmia muttered as he scratched at the stubble on his chin. Moving them wasn’t the same as herding sheep. Not that Lord Pellmia had ever done that. But this was a trick and a half. The Goblins kept moving ahead of the Humans and they ran from his soldiers and when his [Mages] lobbed spells at them, but they were always changing directions slightly. Leading his forces through terrain that was unfavorable for horses, making things difficult to keep the encirclement of them.
Pellmia had to keep his [Scouts] moving ahead constantly to make sure they weren’t headed towards something that would allow them to lose him. Twice already they’d tried to hide in caves or summit rocky hills. Both times he’d had to force them to move by sending his forces in. He had to get them to move at the speed he required, but also keep them alive.
That was the tricky bit. It was one thing to run a quarry to death. But Tyrion wanted live Goblins, and they were incapable of keeping up a breakneck pace forever. They needed water, food, rest. Pellmia had tried to give them the bare minimums, of all three so they didn’t get any ideas. He’d been proud of the way he moved them along, which was why he’d been so incensed to hear about Gilam’s skirmish with the Hobs yesterday.
“You were supposed to keep him away from the Goblins, Kilmet.”
Pellmia snapped irritably at his personal retainer and old friend. Kilmet had been a village boy when Pellmia had been a lad. The two had decades of friendship between them, to the point that Pellmia sometimes joked that Kilmet was his second wife. But they were still master and servant when all was said and done. Kilmet, drinking a weak stamina potion to wake up, bowed his head.
“I’m sorry, Pellmia. But the boy’s hotheaded and eager for a fight. I can’t order him to stay back.”
That was true. But Pellmia was grumpy and didn’t want to hear it. His bones hurt and the thrill of being on campaign had left him after the second day.
“You should have. He’s only Level 20! A pair of Hobs could dice him up, armor or not. And he’s not had any practice in battle. One Hob nearly did for him already! When I was his age…”
“You could wrestle a Hob with one hand and drink two flagons of ale with the other, all before breakfast. Yes, sire. But Gilam’s been in your shadow for years. He wants to prove himself.”
Pellmia grimaced. That was true too.
“He can do that without risking his neck. Or going behind my back! I have to maintain discipline. I can’t do that if my flesh and blood is defying my orders!”
Kilmet sighed through his nose.
“What do you want me to do? I can’t stop him, Pellmia. I couldn’t stop you and your son’s not going to take me giving him orders.”
“He should. You’re my right hand!”
Lord Pellmia growled angrily. Kilmet smiled. He had grey streaks in his hair and his face was wrinkled. He still had a scar down one arm from where he’d saved Pellmia from a rampaging Corusdeer on a hunt gone wrong.
“Right hand or not, your son’s chafing at the bit, Pellmia. He needs freedom. Perhaps it would have been better to let him ride with the other nobles as escort.”
“And have him pick fights with those hotheads? The last thing I need is for him to get hurt or kill someone in a duel. Young [Lords] and [Ladies] can’t be left alone unsupervised.”
“Funny. That’s not what I heard you saying when we were that age. I distinctly recall you ordering me to help you lose your father’s guards, so you could have a nighttime rendezvous with a certain Lady Eskaria—”
Pellmia coughed, coloring. Kilmet smiled and the [Lord] laughed after a while.
“True! Ah, Kilmet! Why couldn’t you have had a son so Gilam could have what I had in you? Instead—”
Kilmet’s smile vanished. He stared ahead as the [Riders] and [Knights] in front turned left, following a road.
“It’s just fate, Pell. Your son—he’ll be a good lord. He just needs time.”
“He needs to listen to you.”
Pellmia moved his stallion closer. He didn’t bring up Kilmet’s child again. He shouldn’t have, [Lord] or not. He’d helped Kilmet bury the poor thing. Overcome by guilt, Pellmia looked around.
“Where is he now? I’ll scorch his ears off and tell him you’re in command.”
“He’s with the scouts. Ahead. Too restless to stay with the vanguard. I gave them strict orders not to let him get close to the Goblins and there’s a pair of [Knights] in that group. They won’t let him do anything untoward.”
The old [Lord] nodded, relieved.
“Maybe that’s the solution. Put him with the [Knights]. They won’t tolerate him ordering them about, and they’re solid. Where are the Goblins now?”
“Passing through a forest.”
The old [Manservant] pointed ahead. Pellmia frowned and blinked his eyes. He rubbed at them angrily.
“Damn. Couldn’t we have forced them to go around?”
“We’d lose an hour or two doing that. It’s not a large forest, but it’s wide. Our riders won’t lose them, Pell.”
“They’d better not. We’re two days away from the meeting spot and I can’t imagine Veltras will be late. He offered me three casks of his personal stock if I made it there on time.”
“He wants those Goblins there badly, then. Did he say why he’s driving them with such a fury?”
“No, but anyone with a brain can tell where we’re going. Straight south. The real question is why he spared so much effort for this group. The Goblin Lord I can see, but a tribe of less than ten thousand? This group is tricky, but what was the point? Unless he was more concerned about that [Emperor] fellow than—”
Pellmia was interrupted by a bout of coughing from Kilmet. The [Lord] frowned.
“You alright, Kilmet?”
“Fine, sire. It’s just a bit of smoke.”
Lord Pellmia stared ahead. And then he saw it. A dark plume of smoke rising ahead of them. From the forest. He frowned. Then he saw someone galloping back towards him.
“Lord Pellmia! The Goblins are in the forest! They’ve set part of it aflame!”
Pellmia cursed and Kilmet signaled the column of riders to swerve out of the path of the smoke. The [Lord] growled, feeling the stinging in his eyes worsen despite the fresher air.
“Of course they would do that. That damn little Goblin’s their Chieftain. Veltras warned me about her. They’re trying to slow us down. It won’t work. Have five of our [Mages] with water spells ride ahead and douse the flames. And tell the scouts to move the Goblins faster! We’ll catch up.”
“Yes, Lord Pellmia!”
The rider turned her mount and rode ahead faster. Pellmia looked at Kilmet.
“Looks like Gilam will have a bit of excitement. Come on, I don’t want the Goblins to have time to set more fires. I can’t imagine how they found the time to set these ones. Do they have spellcasters among them? I only saw the lightning mage.”
“He probably did the fire setting. Lightning can do that.”
Pellmia paused as he saw the rider galloping back.
“Lord Pellmia! There are more fires starting!”
“Well, put them out—”
“We can’t! There are hundreds! The entire forest is going up! Lord Pellmia, the Goblins—”
Pellmia saw a black haze coming towards him, he turned his head, spluttering and coughing as the horses whinnied. The riders slowed. When Pellmia could see again, he froze.
The single smoke trail had multiplied. Now dozens of areas were bleeding smoke. As Pellmia watched, he saw a red glow begin to spread between the trees. Kilmet stared, a wet handkerchief over his mouth.
“Fire. How did they—”
A roar made all the Humans jump. Pellmia saw a shower of sparks fly up from deeper inside the tree line. The red glow intensified. Now the forest blazed from a hundred different spots. Smoke was rising everywhere. Lord Pellmia stared around in horror. How had the Goblins done it? They hadn’t time to start a fire, let alone gather enough fuel for this!
Then he saw a Goblin amid the trees. It was riding away from them, holding it’s blade aloft. The blade was steel, but it burned.One of the [Mages] cried out.
“Enchantment! The Goblins have enchanted blades! That’s [Burning Blade]!”
Several mounted [Archers] raised their bows, but the Goblin disappeared before they could loose. Pellmia turned to the [Mages].
“Stop the fire! Summon some rain!”
“We can’t! We’re not [Weather Mages]!”
“Then douse the fire with water!”
The [Mage] raised her hands.
“From where? We can’t conjure enough! The forest is burning! We have to go around!”
Pellmia nearly tore his mustache off.
“Those Goblins will have nearly an hour’s head start on us! Damn, damn—fine, turn the column! We have to catch them!”
He whirled his mount, about to use one of his Skills. But Kilmet’s voice stopped him.
The [Lord] looked back, harried. Kilmet’s face was pale as he stared into the burning forest.
“Gilam was with the scouts! He hasn’t returned! He must be inside the forest!”
Lord Pellmia felt the blood drain from his face. He stared into the forest.
“No, he rode out. Didn’t he?”
Kilmet looked at the [Scout]. The woman hesitated, and then shook her head.
“I’ve not seen any of the riders. They would have exited the forest the instant they realized it was on fire, but—”
Pellmia didn’t listen to anything else. He charged his warhorse forwards, ignoring the cries from the others. He rode towards the forest, coughing, staring into the inferno. Now fire was licking from the treetops. It had yet to reach the outermost layer, but Pellmia could hear a terrible crackling and snapping from within.
Kilmet caught his friend before Pellmia could charge into the blaze. Pellmia swung his fist and Kilmet staggered but held on. The Lord was shouting as the others caught up.
“Gilam! Where is he?”
“I’m sending a [Message] spell!”
The [Mage] had a finger to her temple. She stared into the fire and then pointed.
“There! East! They’re inside, trying to get out!”
She galloped her mount to the left. Pellmia followed her, heart pounding wildly in his chest. He saw her draw rein and back up her mount. The heat was making the horses shy away from the forest. But then she pointed.
“There! Someone give me a hand! [Wind Blast]!”
She pointed. Another mage cast the same spell and the rush of air cleared the smoke and fire for a second. Pellmia spotted a distant group of shapes on horseback racing through the flames.
“Gilam! Clear a path for him!”
The [Mages] looked at each other, but then they began casting water spells. Pellmia stood up in his stirrups. He and the other riders began shouting, trying to attract the attention of the scouts. Pellmia could see their heads turning. He saw the riders turn towards them. And then—
And then they appeared. Dark shapes moved in the burning forest. The riders halted, and then began to ride the other way. Pellmia stared. Then he saw them more clearly. Bounding shapes. Goblins on wolfback. And running behind them, Hobs and smaller Goblins armed with pikes.
The Goblins were moving. They charged through the burning forest, following the riders. Following Gilam.
“He killed a Hob yesterday.”
Kilmet’s voice was quiet. He was staring into the blaze. A burning branch fell from one tree, sending sparks flying upwards. The forest was turning into an inferno that not even magic could put out. Pellmia saw the riders fleeing. But the Goblins were surrounding them. He pointed with a shaking hand.
“Forwards! Don’t let them—”
“No! It’s a trap! Don’t let Lord Pellmia enter the forest! Stop him!”
Someone grabbed him as he tried to kick his warhorse forwards. Pellmia fought the hands. He screamed as true terror flooded his chest. His boy was in there. He drew his sword and the hands fell back.
“Gilam! Stop! Don’t touch him! Gilam! Gilam!”
Rags stood at the edge of the forest. Her lungs hurt. The smoke half-blinded her, but the wind was blowing north. Away from her. Behind Rags, her tribe was moving far away from burning forest. Goblins clutching burning weapons and sticks put them out and turned to stare at their handiwork.
They were impressed. So was Rags. Her [Burning Blades] spell had worked even better than she’d thought. Yes, it was terrible for use in battle, but free fire was free fire. And this—
This was a lot of fire. The forest roared as if it were alive. The fire sounded like a distant wind, but the burning and breaking trees sounded like thunder. Rags stared into the orange glow. It looked like death in there.
Good. At least two groups of Humans were caught in the blaze. They’d followed the Goblins into the forest, tried to stop them from setting fires. Now they were trapped. Rags could see then fleeing. She’d sent some of her Redfangs in and Hobs. They’d trapped the Humans. They couldn’t stay long—the fire would kill everything inside. But the Humans might still get away. And he was in there. That young Human.
Pyrite stood by her side. Rags looked at him. She nodded.
The Hob nodded. He eyed the fire and looked around.
“Can fight for five minutes. Then probably have burning death.”
“Five minutes good. Healing potions ready. Small group goes in. You stay back in case Humans attack.”
Rags nodded at Pyrite. Then she looked around. The burning light of the forest was reflected in the eyes of her warriors. Redscar grinned as he leaned on the back of Thunderfur. Poisonbite and Quietstab were standing ready. Rags pointed.
“Hobs behind! Redfangs with me! We ride!”
She charged into the forest. Her Carn Wolf howled in fear as Rags crashed through the flames, but Rags had chosen a spot of the forest that had yet to be engulfed. She urged her wolf forwards. She had minutes. But the Humans were in sight. A group of them fought desperately, keeping back from the flames while the Goblins she’d sent in encircled them.
Rags screamed at the Goblins. They looked up and ran as her warriors streamed past them. The burnt Hobs and Redfangs gave way as more of their comrades charged the Humans. Rags stared around. There were thirty-odd riders here. But the one she was looking for—
There. She saw a flash of armor and a panicked figure striking around him. The Humans had their backs to a wall of fire and the only way out was through the Goblins.
Redscar snarled as he raced past Rags. She nodded. The Humans had no choice. They formed a clumsy line and then kicked their mounts forwards. Rags pointed.
Her Goblins screamed as they charged the Humans cut off by flames. Carn Wolves leapt at horses, making the already frightened animals rear and throw their riders off. Hobs filled the gaps, dismounting riders, cutting them down on the ground. Others grabbed the horses, dragging them towards safety. Rags watched the Goblins and Humans mixing in the confusion. But she only had eyes for one person. She waited as she saw him spur his mare past a group of fighting Hobs. Then she pointed.
Her Carn Wolf leapt forwards. The young man lashed out, cutting another Redfang across the chest. He flinched as the Goblin’s sword skated off his breastplate. He turned—and saw Rags.
The fool had a helmet, but he’d forgotten to lower the visor. Rags saw a frightened young man’s face between the wrought metal. He was older than her. But he looked scared, like a child. He flailed at her with his enchanted sword as she charged him, crossbow in one hand, sword in the other. Rags drew her Carn Wolf out of range. Gilam tried to follow her, but his mount reared. A Hob was right in front of it. Quietstab swung a huge stave and the [Lord] screamed and choked as the cudgel knocked him from the saddle.
He landed hard on the forest floor. He was alive—his armor had blocked the blow, but now he was on the ground. Quietstab ignored the young man—he yanked the white mare down as it tried to rear. Quick as a flash he mounted it and kicked it into motion.
Gilam croaked as the Hob took off with his horse. He got up clumsily and looked up as Rags rode towards him. Gilam’s face went pale. He fumbled for his sword. But he’d dropped his sword. He backed up as Rags stared down at him.
Rags ignored his quavering voice. She aimed the crossbow right between Gilam’s eyes. He turned to run. Her Carn Wolf snarled and leapt. The impact threw Gilam to the ground. He rolled over weakly and Rags stuck the crossbow’s tip into his helmet. Yes. Rags remembered Twofeather’s death. This was the moment. She wondered if she should say something. This felt so easy. So…she could hear Gilam panting loudly. It sounded like weeping.
Rags looked up. She heard a desperate shout. Someone was riding through the sea of flames. A man on horseback. Her eyes widened. Lord Pellmia himself was riding towards them, heedless of the fire that was making his horse scream. She looked down at Gilam and put the pieces together. This was his son!
Good. Rags saw the man casting about. Her Goblins were in full retreat. They had what they came for. The Humans were burning or dead. The Goblins had their horses and some of their gear. Staying any longer in the forest would be death. Rags had to follow them. Her finger tightened on the trigger.
Gilam flailed wildly. Rags’ Carn Wolf stomped on his chest and he gasped. Somehow, Pellmia heard it. He turned and Rags saw his form freeze.
She saw the [Lord] riding at them, ignoring the flames that raged around him. She heard him scream. She had heard that scream before. Desperate. Helpless. She had heard Goblins weeping and screaming over their friends, their parents. She had heard Humans screaming the same as she burned their lands and homes.
Rags held very still. She could see Pellmia stop as he saw what was going on. The tip of her crossbolt was aimed straight at Gilam’s forehead. Her finger was on the trigger. Rags met the [Lord]’s eyes. He would see his son die. That seemed fitting. She’d watched him cut down families when his forces assaulted the city. This was justice.
Pellmia’s voice rasped as he held out a hand. Rags didn’t move. Her Carn Wolf snarled in fear and anger as the fire closed in. Rags felt the tension in her crossbow’s trigger. One pull and Gilam died. And Pellmia would be broken.
As she’d broken when she’d seen Relc cutting the heads off her family. He’d hummed a song as he did it. This was vengeance for that moment. For Laken Godart. For Tyrion. For all of it. Only, it wasn’t enough. Pellmia would come for her after she killed his son. Rags would have to evade him.
The small Goblin held still as she considered it. Yes, he’d follow her—or stay with his son. Either way he’d probably die. But if he followed her she’d have to lure him back to Pyrite. He was probably good at fighting. And if she killed him, would the Humans stop or follow? She could hear them in the forest now, calling his name in desperation.
Loyalty. They’d come after her tribe. But they’d be leaderless. Could she beat them? Or would it be better to run and hide? Rags hesitated. She could hear sobbing now. She glanced down in irritation. The young [Lord] couldn’t even die quietly.
It was hot. Rags stared at Pellmia. His face was white. He stood in the forest as it turned to embers around him.
A voice. Rags turned. Poisonbite was waiting. She had a group of Goblins armed with crossbows. They were taking aim at Pellmia. She pointed.
“Hurry and kill! We go! Forest burning! Burning pain death!”
Yes. Rags saw it clearly now. Shoot Gilam. Keep Pellmia back. Aim for his horse. Her finger tightened on the string. The crossbow’s trigger shifted. Kill him. And kill the Humans that came after him. Slaughter them. They’d kill her people otherwise. She had to kill them. Or run.
As Goblins did.
Rags saw a burning farmhouse. She saw a blind man declaring war. She saw a city burning as her Hobs streamed through the gates. She saw a Human army fleeing as she cut them down. She saw the Humans cutting down her tribe from behind. And the pieces fit together. She looked at Pellmia and saw something strange.
Wetness. The fire burned around him, but the [Lord] was weeping. He stared at his son. He knew what Rags would do. And he couldn’t stop her. His hand was raised. His son was weeping too. Rags stared at him. She saw the whole of her history with Humans in the flickering of the fire between them.
Kill. Flee. Ambush. Retreat. Revenge. Run. Attack. Defend. It had happened when Velan lived. And it was happening now. Again and again, since she had been born. And it would go on—
Forever. Rags stared at Pellmia. Then she looked down at Gilam. He was silent. He’d given up or passed out. Rags hesitated. Her trigger-finger itched to pull. But—
She raised her crossbow silently. Her warriors looked at her. Rags glanced around. Poisonbite was staring. Pellmia had frozen. Rags turned.
She turned her Carn Wolf. Poisonbite wavered, but Rags pointed. And the fire was growing more intense. Rags raced her wolf through the fire, sensing its fur begin to burn. The Goblins hesitated, but Pellmia kicked his mount forwards, racing towards his son. They turned and ran after Rags.
He had to be dead. Pellmia tumbled from his saddle, landing hard on the burning floor. Even the dirt seemed to be burning. He knelt by his son, lifted the limp head. He had to be dead. That was why the Goblin hadn’t shot him.
Gilam’s face was pale. Sweat poured down his face and his eyes were rolled back in his head. But he was breathing. Pellmia’s breath caught. He touched Gilam’s face with a trembling hand and saw his son react. Only then did the world start moving again. Pellmia looked up and heard the urgent voices at last.
“Pellmia! Lord Pellmia!”
The man cried out hoarsely. He stood up and looked around.
“Here! Dead gods, get over here!”
He saw riders surging towards him in the flame. He heard Kilmet’s voice, ordering the mages to douse the flames. Pellmia looked around. The fire was intense. He could see a few shapes running in the distance. Goblins, fleeing the fire they’d created.
Pellmia stood over his son. He was alone as his cohort fought to get close to him. He was breathing hard, his armor scorched, his mount burned. He watched as the Goblins ran out of the forest. The last group ran to the edge and paused there. The Goblins looked at him. A small Goblin on the back of a Carn Wolf turned. Rags met Pellmia’s eyes. He stared at her. Then he saw the Goblins standing behind her.
Hobs. Goblins riding Carn Wolves. Crossbow Goblins. Others armed with deadly pikes, standing at the forest’s edge. Hundreds of red, glowing eyes found Pellmia. The Goblins stood at the back of their Chieftain.
In the moment before his escort reached him, Pellmia stood alone, over his son. The Goblins stared at him. They could have turned back through the fire. They could have killed the two Humans. But they did not. They turned and ran after Rags through the smoke as the fire engulfed the forest. Pellmia stood behind as someone screamed a word and water splashed on the ground around him, instantly becoming steam. He stood and then bent and cradled his son in his arms.
Later that day, Pellmia stood in the temporary camp that had been erected just outside the burning forest. He held still as the [Healer] gently applied a healing poultice to his skin.
“The burns are bad, Lord Pellmia. A healing potion won’t cure all the damage correctly. Something about burns—I’ll apply as much as I can, but you’ll need me to reapply this twice daily for several days.”
Pellmia ignored the pain. He’d taken worse. He looked at Kilmet. The scar on the man’s arm stood out as Kilmet coughed. He’d ridden after Pellmia, helped him get Gilam out of the fire.
“Not as bad as that burn you got from the Corusdeer, eh, Kilmet? Now I know what it’s like.”
“You could have just asked, sire.”
Kilmet looked up wearily. His grey hair was blackened with soot. The two older men laughed and the healer shook his head.
“You’re lucky your armor saved you from the worst of the fire, Lord Pellmia. Or there’d be little to laugh about. If you’ll excuse me, I must see to the others. And your warhorse. He won’t be fit to ride for days yet.”
Lord Pellmia stopped laughing and nodded soberly.
“Yes, thank you. Is my son well?”
“Up and about. Shall I send him in?”
The [Healer] left through the flaps of the tent. Pellmia was wincing as he put his doublet on when Gilam stormed through the tent flaps. He was already bandaged and poulticed, and his face was crimson with fury.
Pellmia turned. He tried to embrace his son, but Gilam stepped back.
“Father, the Goblins stole Olli! And my gear!”
“Did they indeed?”
Lord Pellmia blinked at his son. Gilam nodded. He clenched his hands into fists.
“That damn Hob and that little Chieftain ambushed me! He rode off on Olli’s back! My bag of holding was on her, and all the rest of my gear! Father, give me a hundred [Knights]. I’ll ride into their camp and retrieve her. And cut down their numbers so they’ll not dare try something like this again!”
Pellmia blinked at Gilam. He looked at Kilmet who sighed and didn’t meet his eyes. Pellmia nodded slowly.
“I see. So you survived the fire and you want to get your own back, is that it?”
“Yes! All I need are a few men—”
Gilam paused. His face reddened further. The fire had scorched part of his hair off and what hadn’t been burned was reddened. He looked like one of those water bugs that were so highly sought-after. What were they called? Lobsters, that was it.
“But father, the Goblins attacked us! They nearly killed me!”
“But they didn’t. They let you go. They could have killed you, but they didn’t.”
“Only because they knew what would happen to them if they did!”
Pellmia nodded. He thought of the small Goblin who’d met his eyes. His hand closed slowly and then unclenched. Pellmia stared down at his burnt palm. He shook his head.
“They spared you. She did. And I don’t know why. Perhaps it was mercy. Perhaps it was pragmatism. Either way—”
Pellmia turned. He looked at his son and Gilam went silent. It had been a long time since Pellmia had looked at his son like that. Not as his boy, but as a man looked at another man and gauged his worth. He shook his head.
“Yes, Lord Pellmia?”
Kilmet straightened expectantly. Pellmia glanced at him.
“Have my son find another horse. He’ll ride with the vanguard tonight. Under your authority.”
“And if he gainsays you in any way, spank him as you would your own boy. I have a job to do.”
Gilam made a strangled noise. Kilmet covered a smile as he bowed slightly.
“The Goblins, Lord Pellmia?”
“Yes. We have a duty and I’ve promised Veltras they’d be there. This changes nothing.”
Pellmia strode out of the tent. He left Gilam behind. Pellmia stared past the rows of burnt riders towards the forest. It was ash now, ash and smoke. He mumbled to himself.
“This changes not one thing.”
And yet it did. Pellmia bowed his head and then called for his horse. He mounted it, ready to hunt the Goblins down. He still had a duty. The little Goblin Chieftain had not won her freedom. But for the first time, Pellmia thought of her. How small she was. Was that normal? Or was she someone’s daughter? Did they have mothers? Fathers?
Pellmia had lived for over sixty years. He had survived both Antinium Wars, fought the Goblins on his land. He had not seen the Goblin King’s death, but he had celebrated it. He had known the world with the certainty of a man his age could have. Now the world began to crumble under his feet. But he had a duty. He was just no longer certain it was the right one.
Rags sat in her camp, tending to her Carn Wolf. She hadn’t named it like Redscar had with his. Names were a silly thing to give to an animal that would probably die in battle. It was bad to get attached. But she still applied the healing potion gently to its burns.
The Carn Wolf wasn’t happy. It nipped her slightly, expressing its discontent at the pain. Rags let it, but bonked it on the nose when it tried again. She turned as a Goblin poked her in the side.
Poisonbite had missed one of her burns, but only just. The other Goblin frowned at Rags. She still didn’t understand why Rags had let the two Humans live. Still, her exuberance over the battle in the forest outweighed her personal issues with Rags.
“Chieftain, have special things. Magic weapons sorted. Also, bag.”
Rags looked up. She glanced at her Carn Wolf and pointed. Another Goblin took over tending to it. Rags got up and followed Poisonbite. She found Quietstab, Noears, and Redscar sorting through the loot they’d captured from the Humans. A lot of it was just quality steel weapons. There was a weakly enchanted shield, a hatchet with a throwing enchantment on it…and a bag of holding. Rags’ eyes widened when she saw Noears drop a large rock into it and pull it out.
“Good bag. Lots of items can fit.”
“What was in?”
“Food. Gold. Letter. Shared food, tossed gold and letter.”
Noears dismissively pointed to a pile of gold coins. A few Goblin children were having fun throwing the gold coins around. Pyrite was reading the letter. Rags walked over to him.
The Hob shrugged.
“‘Lady Cimeca, your face is as radiant as a pear in the full moonlight. I yearn to stroke it and speak to you of high matters such as romance and a possible union between our houses. You know my father and yours are close friends and I am most struck by your wit and humors and loveliness. Please give me some token to which I may use for remembrance…’”
Rags tilted her head back and forth, frowning. She cut Pyrite off when it seemed that the letter began to repeat itself, only this time comparing this Cimeca’s legs to swan’s necks or something.
“What it mean?”
Pyrite considered the letter and shrugged.
“Want to have sex.”
The Hob crumpled the letter up and tossed it away. Rags went back to the bag of holding. She stared at it.
“Can use. Put heavy things inside.”
“Yes, Chieftain. What about horses?”
Noears pointed. Rags stared at the restless horses. Of all the things they’d looted from the Humans, that was perhaps the most valuable. She eyed the snow-white stallion that was pacing back and forth restlessly and shrugged.
“Put on wagons. Good food and goes fast.”
Noears smacked his lips happily. Redscar came over, flipping a sword up and catching it by the hilt.
“Chieftain, what now? Go this way? Hills. Hard for Humans to follow. Can lose. Or fight.”
He pointed westwards. Rags looked the way he was pointing and saw a distant set of hills. She hesitated, and then shook her head.
“No. We rest. Humans coming.”
Redscar looked crestfallen. Rags nodded.
“Not run. Can’t.”
The Redfang leader grumbled, but he nodded. The Goblins lay about, just resting, looking at the burnt forest. Rags sat with Pyrite. After a while she looked at him.
“Didn’t kill Human.”
“Other Humans kill us.”
“They do that anyways.”
“Yes. But maybe they don’t kill as many this way. Maybe they stop. Maybe—”
A horn blew. Rags looked up. She waited, and saw a line of riders circle around the forest. Pyrite looked up as well. The Goblins groaned and got to their feet.
“Maybe I’m wrong.”
Rags grumbled as she got up. Her body hurt. And she had burns now. But as she prepared to give the order to run, she saw the riders pause. They formed a line a few hundred meters away. Rags stared at them. She saw a familiar shape in front. Lord Pellmia stared towards the Goblins. He did not give the order to attack. Nor did his [Mages] send the customary rain of fireballs to get the Goblins moving. The horn blew again, but the Humans didn’t advance.
“Get moving! Humans moving!”
Pyrite called out loudly. The Goblins began packing up. Still, the Humans didn’t advance. Rags stared at the distant riders. They were giving the Goblins time. Only a few minutes. After about five had passed the Humans began moving forwards at a trot. But that was enough. The Goblins began moving and the Humans followed. The warhorses tethered to wagons snorted, but pulled the Goblins ahead. And Rags saw the Humans following. They didn’t press the Goblins like last time. They just followed.
The two Goblins stood together as the Goblins moved past them. They were tired, but they moved at a good pace nonetheless. The Goblins stared as they moved. At the little Goblin standing next to the fat Hob. She had not crushed the Humans. But she had hurt them. She had even spared some for some reason. She had set a forest ablaze. And she had shown them something. A plan. Hope.
Rags stood with Pyrite. She turned. She and Pyrite began jogging. He looked down at her.
“Maybe. Something will change. Or not. Humans still chasing. We still probably dying. But this is different.”
The little Goblin reached up and touched her chest. She looked at Pyrite and smiled wearily.