The Humans came with the dawn. They blew war horns, waking the Goblins of the Flooded Water tribe from their sleep. But the Goblins knew the Humans were coming and so many were already awake. They surged out of their camp as the Humans appeared in the distance. Only, this time there were no [Fireballs], no spells or arrows loosed. The Humans let the Goblins begin their march in peace.
That was something. A very little something, but every Goblin noticed it. And they debated why. Unlike the last four days, today the Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe gossiped as they ran. Some, the smallest or wounded or most tired, sat on wagons pulled by some very fine looking warhorses. And they talked.
If it was characteristic of Humans to play power games and for Drakes to bicker amongst themselves, and for Gnolls to form packs, then chatter was endemic among Goblins. Not gossip or talk, but chatter.
As Drassi might have put it, gossip was a product of cities, of largely peaceful populations who had to coexist with each other. Sometimes gossip was about the most dire of worldly events or politics, but other times it was mundane, petty. Silly. A social activity that existed to let people relax and insult neighbor’s cooking behind their backs. But Goblins had no time for that.
They had no [Gossips], but every Goblin communicated. Not talked. They were masters of sign language and interpreting body movement and posture. They relayed information about dangers, opportunities, and so on as a way to survive. So they chattered about what had happened yesterday.
About Rags. Of course the Goblins had all seen the forest fire. And they were quite impressed. Rags had turned her [Burning Blades] spell from a rather useless enchantment into a real and deadly weapon to use against the Humans. All the Goblins were rather proud about that. That was what you expected of your Chieftain. They had a smart one. The real issue of contention was the battle in the forest, though.
Again, it was an impressive battle. Only three Goblins had perished, and they’d taken down a number of Humans. More importantly, they’d gotten the horses and equipment. That was a real win. But Poisonbite had openly shared what she’d seen. Rags had cornered the Human lordling, the one who’d killed Twofeather. And she hadn’t killed him.
The reaction from the Flooded Waters tribe was mixed. Many Goblins, especially those in the more militant groups like Tremborag’s former Goblins and the Redscar Warriors were annoyed. They wanted the Human’s blood and as much of it as possible. The other Goblins were just confused. Some wondered if Rags had done it to avoid the Humans getting angrier. If so, that was a fair decision, but Rags hadn’t said that.
They’d all heard her. And by ‘all’, one Hob had been listening to Rags and Pyrite talk while he bandaged his arm. But he’d obviously told everyone else, so it was the same.
Rags had said it wasn’t just about not angering the Humans. She’d said it was something else.
Maybe. Maybe something will change. And it wasn’t the Humans that would necessarily change, but the Goblins. That made no sense to the Flooded Waters tribe as a whole. Several poked their chests, feeling no different. Why would they need to change? And why would Humans ever, ever try to stop killing them? Unless there were too many Goblins, the Humans would always attack.
It was a mystery. Their Chieftain’s mind was strange. Most of the Goblins had no clue what Rags had meant. And she was prepared for that. As her tribe began their march on the fifth day, Rags was prepared for angry Goblins to question her decision. She was prepared for fights as she watched the Goblins chattering without speaking more than a few words. Most of her tribe did not understand. But some of them did.
It surprised Rags. She saw a few smaller Goblins and a single Hob push their way into the conversation, signaling with their hands and arms dramatically to get the attention of the Goblins around her. They pointed at Rags and made complicated gestures. The other Goblins turned and listened.
This is what the few said. Not in words, but in action. In deed. Showing the other Goblins, patting their stomachs, smacking their lips. They told a story, a simple message.
Yes, of course the Humans would kill them. Of course they would not change from a single spared life. Of course they still harried the tribe.
But there were Humans that mattered. There were Humans that changed. And there was a reason to save some.
They had met her. A destroyer, the one who killed their old Chieftain. But he had tried to kill her. And when she killed him, she had not killed Goblins. She gave them food. She had been kind.
There was a reason.
The other Goblins looked askance. They ridiculed the few Goblins, and then fell silent as another fact was made aware to them. The few Goblins who argued with the rest and told the story weren’t strong or quick or exceptional. In fact, they were overwhelmingly mediocre in terms of Goblin quality. The tribe they had come from was tiny and it only had one Hob. But it had been the Flooded Waters tribe. The original tribe that Rags had taken over.
They had known Erin. They had been in her inn. Long ago, or so it seemed to the Goblins, they had walked fearfully into the inn and seen the strangeness. The wonder, too. The games of chess, the skeleton who served drinks. And the smiling [Innkeeper] who served them blue juice and pasta.
It sounded like a fairy tale to the other Goblins. Of course they had heard rumors of Rags’ past. But this was the first time the stories of Erin Solstice became public knowledge. Some were fascinated by the tales, others scornful.
The first Goblin to approach Rags was Noears.
“Is it true?”
Rags glanced at the [Mage]. He was riding Oli, the white mare that had been taken from Gilam. No one else objected; Noears looked worn from shooting animals with lightning for rations. But he grinned at Rags and raised his eyebrows.
“Chieftain knew Human? Good…Human?”
Rags shrugged. Noears blinked. He rode back to tell the others. After a while, Pyrite jogged over.
The little Goblin sighed and looked ahead as her Carn Wolf paced forwards. She patted it on the back, feeling its exhaustion. Pyrite shrugged his broad shoulders.
“Not question. Chieftain, Goblins are tired. Hobs. Bad thing.”
Rags looked around. Of course her tribe was tired, but Pyrite was pointing out a new development. Some of her Hobs, who’d been unwavering as they carried supplies and even other Goblins, were finally reaching the limits of their stamina. She could see them faltering, grunting with the effort of keeping up. She frowned.
“Put on wagons. Trade off.”
“Hobs are heavy.”
That was obvious too, but also important. Rags gritted her teeth and glanced behind her. She could see a group of Humans keeping a wary distance to her right.
“Can’t slow down. Humans not that kind. Trade off.”
Pyrite moved away, signaling some of the most exhausted Hobs to take a break. Then he jogged back.
“So. Kind Human.”
“Yes. Gave name. And helped learn magic.”
Pyrite looked very interested. He peered up at Rags. She nodded absently, remembering.
“Not her. Pisces. She—taught me chess. Became [Tactician]. Gave me food.”
The Hob grunted with clear interest. Rags stared ahead. Oh yes. How simpler it had seemed then. She’d liked Erin. And hated her too, sometimes. For being too nice, too naïve. As if making friends would bring back the dead. But she missed Erin now.
And now—Rags’ head snapped to one side as she saw a ripple in her tribe. The jogging Goblins parted and she saw something that made her heart lurch. A fallen Hob. He’d tripped and was too exhausted to get up. He lay on the ground, panting. Pyrite pointed at him.
“Get to wagon! Keep moving!”
Rags leapt from the back of her Carn Wolf. She ran over. The Goblins parted for her and Rags saw that many stumbled as they moved. They were more tired than she’d thought. The Hob looked up.
“Chieftain. Leave behind.”
He was breathing hard and his bare chest was covered in sweat. He was a fat Hob, like Pyrite, but younger. It wasn’t hard to see why he’d collapsed. Pyrite and several Hobs came over. They wanted to lift the Hob, but Rags waved them back. She knelt, thinking hard.
They couldn’t keep on like this. This Hob was the first, but the wagons were already overloaded. Even with the horses they’d acquired, the Goblins were hitting a wall. But what else could she do? She had the bag of holding, but Noears had told her that it could not hold living beings. Or if it did, the people inside would quickly become not living.
All the Goblins had stopped. They watched as Rags knelt by the Hob. They were waiting for her to have a good idea, Rags knew. Only, she didn’t have a way to beat sheer exhaustion. She didn’t have a plan.
But she was a Chieftain. And maybe that was enough. No, it had to be enough.
Rags looked around. The Hob was lying on his back, resigned, unable to move. He wasn’t prepared for Rags to leap onto his broad stomach. He grunted and then looked up. Rags was standing on his gut. She looked around at the Goblins. Tired faces stared back.
“Why are you tired?”
The Goblins looked at each other as Rags shouted. They scratched their heads. The answer was obvious. Rags pointed behind them.
“Humans chase us for five days! Only five days! Not even throwing fireballs anymore! Why is hard to run?”
She leapt from the Hob’s stomach and landed on the ground. Rags looked around and then slapped her chest.
“Follow me! Is not hard!”
She took a few steps forwards and turned. The Hob lying on the ground stared at her. She gestured at him.
“Up! Why is Hob with big legs slower than small Chieftain?”
“Tired. Carry lots of things.”
He grunted at Rags, almost indignantly. Rags sneered at him.
“Big Hob can’t even walk another step? Can’t even stand?”
The fat Hob glared at Rags. He shifted and sat up as if to prove her wrong. He pointed at his back.
“Chieftain not carry club.”
Rags saw the Hob had strapped a huge club to his back. It was a monster of a weapon, the kind you’d use to hunt bears or [Knights] in full armor. It had to weigh a ton. But Rags just sneered. She struck a pose and pointed to her shortsword hanging at her side.
“That because Chieftain smart. Uses sword. Sharp. Better than wooden club. Only good for firewood.”
The Hob huffed as the other Goblins laughed.
“Not if fight Gargoyle.”
“You fight Gargoyle?”
Rags paused. The Hob nodded proudly.
“Not Redfang. But fought one once.”
The other Goblins murmured in appreciation as he showed them a large scar on his stomach. A few of the Redfangs nodded, acknowledging the deed. Rags smiled.
“Can kill Gargoyle, but not stand up?”
“Can stand! Not run. Too tired! Heavy club!”
The fat Hob shouted at Rags. She shook her head dismissively. She switched to the common tongue.
“Only heavy club? In that case, get bag of holding! Noears!”
The [Mage] rode over. Rags pointed at the bag of holding he’d been entrusted with.
“Take club. Then Hob run. Too lazy otherwise.”
Noears glanced at the Hob. The fat Hob blinked and stared at the bag of holding. He opened his mouth to protest, then realized he’d been tricked. Silently, he unfastened the club from his back and handed it to Noears. The club vanished into the bag of holding.
Rags looked at the Hob. He hesitated and then stood with a groan. Rags smiled. She looked around.
“Other Hobs have heavy weapons? Give to Noears! Give armor, too!”
“But armor for fighting!”
One of the other Redfang Warriors protested. Rags glared at him.
“Where fighting? We run! Come! Humans following! Follow! Not hard! Chieftain can do it and she smaller and younger than you.”
Rags jogged forwards. The Redfang Warrior flushed as the other Goblins laughed and shrugged off his armor. He tossed it at Noears as he easily caught up with Rags. She grinned at him.
“Redfangs supposed to be strong! You ride wolf too much.”
“So does Chieftain.”
The Redfang Warrior grunted thoughtfully. Rags turned.
She began to run. Not quickly, but at a lazy jog. The Goblins watched her. Rags wasn’t moving fast. Not at all. Why, you could sprint three times as fast easily. Four times as quick if a monster was chasing you. A few of the children ran after Rags. They waved at the adults. Look! Look, we’re following Chieftain!
Rags smiled. She moved through her tribe, reaching the front. The Goblins in front watched as she jogged past them lazily. She waved and then heard a thumping pair of steps behind her. She turned her head and saw the fat Hob had caught up.
He complained loudly, but he was running, matching her shorter strides with his long ones. Rags laughed at him.
“Chieftain run too fast for you?”
A spark entered the Hob’s eye.
“This fast? Easy. Can run for hour. Without club.”
“Good! Hey! You, follow!”
Rags grinned. Her tribe watched her as the children, the fat Hob, and the Redfang Warrior jogged after her. They looked at each other.
A female Hob was next. She grinned as she tossed a dented helmet at Noears. She ran forwards, her long legs easily catching up. A pair of smaller Goblin females followed her. And then a dozen Goblins. And then hundreds. And then all of them.
Noears pointed and shouted. He was being besieged from all sides. The Goblins were throwing armor and heavy weapons at him and the Goblin [Mage] was swearing as he tried to collect it all. He leapt from the back of the mare and began to run, stuffing objects into the bag of holding. All the Goblins were running now. Pyrite grinned as he ran next to Quietstab and a group of Hobs. They’d found a second wind during the short break. All the Goblins had.
“This fast is easy! Slow! I swim faster than this!”
Rags shouted at the Goblins behind her. They hooted and some shouted back insults. After all, Rags had rode this far! What did she know?
But now she was running and all the Goblins could see. Rags hadn’t abandoned her shortsword or her belt. She declined to give it to Noears. And she was running faster now. Not too much faster; it was easy to keep up. So her tribe did.
They spread out behind her, Hobs and Goblins. Most couldn’t even see her; Rags was so small that she was eclipsed in height even by a lot of regular Goblins. But they knew she was there. And if she was running, why couldn’t they? She made it look easy. Because it was. It had to be. So the Goblins began hopping off wagons and copying the rest. They had the energy to run for another hour! If it was this fast.
The pack animals and horses grunted in surprise as the Goblins began abandoning the wagons and running ahead of them. Their burden was quickly replaced by weapons and gear that couldn’t fit in Noears’ back of holding. The Goblins divested themselves of everything, from weapons to armor to clothing in a few cases. And they ran.
Children. Non-warriors. Even some of the wounded hopped off the wagons and ran. They matched the pace of the Goblins around then, in front and behind. It wasn’t that they had more energy. They were tired, worn down. But they were together. And they were following her.
Their Chieftain. The Flooded Waters tribe began to move as one. Their footsteps became a solid drumming—a hundred feet hit the ground at the same time, and then a thousand. And the Goblins felt it.
A sense of exhilaration. A primal sense of connection. Together. They looked at each other and smiled.
They did not laugh or cheer, as Humans might have done. Goblins didn’t make unnecessary sound. But they did smile. The Goblins ran in silence, but not silent. They spoke, gesturing at each other with hands, pointing. Ahead. At her. Telling stories. Creating another.
The tribe ran faster, propelled by something that could not be explained by the symmetry of muscle or the biology of bodies. Faster, forgetting the exhaustion or the pain in their legs. Faster, as if they could run forever so long as that little Goblin led them.
Lord Pellmia rode with Kilmet, speaking quietly with one of the [Mages] who’d been assigned to his command. Her name was Genviere and she was a personal [Mage] employed by Lord Erill. She’d been placed under Pellmia’s command but as a [High Mage] who’d graduated from Wistram she was by no means a subordinate to be ordered around.
There were other [Knights] of course, some of quite high level. And a [Captain], a [Tactician] assigned to the riding division, and two other lesser [Lords]…it would have been a good test of any [Lady] or [Hostess]’ Skills to tell who outranked who. In practice, it was a matter of who had the highest levels, and that meant Pellmia was only followed by Genviere.
“I understand, Magus Genviere. I do.”
Lord Pellmia inclined his head as he rode with the [Mage] at the head of their company. They were setting a decent pace. With his [Far Riders] Skill, even a slow horse could outdistance most horses without any Skills. However, it wasn’t an excruciatingly fast pace, and their quarry—the Goblins—could keep ahead of them at a slow jog with their Chieftain’s Skill. That was the issue, and Genviere had been selected to bring it up with Lord Pellmia.
“The Goblins are slowing, Lord Pellmia. I realize they’re reaching their limits from the pace we’ve set, but we must harry them or they’ll continue to slow or stop. Allow us to harass them.”
“No. Not yet.”
Lord Pellmia saw the woman sigh. She was strikingly beautiful, her face almost half-Elvish in beauty, her cheekbones high, her features delicate and sharp in the classic Terandrian vision of attractiveness. But it was an illusion.
One of the clues Pellmia had was that Genviere bore none of the marks of travel despite having been camping for five days. The second was that she was a female [Mage] and they were notorious for using illusion spells. But Pellmia forbade comment, as mentioning an illusion spell was highly offensive to most ladies in polite society. Still, this illusion was a good one. Dead gods, she even smelled fragrant.
“Lord Pellmia, is this in regards to the incident in the forest yesterday?”
Genviere’s spelled features contorted into a deep frown. Pellmia glanced about. He could see the rest of the riders nearby studiously not listening to their conversation. He raised his voice so they could hear better.
“Yes. The Goblins spared my boy, Magus Genviere. I owe some a debt. You might not agree, but they could have killed him. They did not.”
“They killed a number of our own. [Soldiers]. [Knights]. [Scouts]. Not all by blade, true, but they left the rest to burn in fire. It was not a bloodless engagement.”
Genviere frowned deeply. Pellmia took a breath and nodded.
“That is true. And I will personally see that the full restitutions are paid to the fallen. However, this is a matter of personal honor. Do you object to my command?”
He looked sideways at the [Mage] as she thought. Riding a few paces to the left, Kilmet looked up as well. If there was any dissention, it would begin with Genviere. At last, the [High Mage] shook her head. Her glossy, grass-green hair shimmered as it caught the light. Another big clue, that. Mages loved making their hair turn outrageous colors. Actually, most young folk loved that.
“I am no [Soldier], Lord Pellmia. I lent my aid to Lord Tyrion Veltras because of my ties to Lord Erill and the Goblin Lord’s threat. With that said, I understand the inevitability of casualties in battle, especially given our unusual mission. I also recognize gratitude, even towards Goblins, as amazing as this case is. But we have a duty and I fear that at this pace we will not reach the rendezvous tomorrow.”
Pellmia bowed his head. He had promised Lord Tyrion they would be there, but the Goblin’s pace had slackened. Without killing the stragglers, they would slow. He bit the inside of his cheek. At last, he raised his head.
“We’ll see how far they’ve gone by midday. Make no mistake, this is my responsibility, Magus. If we fail to reach the rendezvous point, I will take full blame. However, if it is possible to move the Goblins close enough—”
Genviere was nodding politely and Pellmia thought she would agree, especially if it meant she bore none of the fault. He broke off though. Someone was riding back towards him. A [Scout], moving fast.
Pellmia cursed inside. If the Goblins had stopped, he would have to get them moving. But the [Scout] wasn’t bearing that message. He drew up as the [Lord] and [Mage] turned.
“Lord Pellmia, the Goblins are speeding up.”
Pellmia stared at the [Scout]. He spurred his mount and sped forwards. By the time he crested the slight rise, he could see the Goblins marching ahead of him. Only, they weren’t marching anymore. They were running.
Not quickly. Not at the full speed a Goblin could go. But it was a decent jog, and combined with the Skill they were under, they were moving fast. Pellmia stared at them and then turned to Genviere, who’d ridden up behind him.
“It seems the issue has resolved itself, Magus Genviere.”
“Indeed. One wonders why.”
Pellmia did too. But the Goblins were moving faster and that was what mattered. He turned and raised his hand over his head.
“Company, advance! I don’t want those Goblins out of our sight! Tell the [Scouts] to move the Goblins southeast! Kilmet, my maps!”
As he rode forwards, Pellmia began adjusting their course again. He accelerated as he conferred with Kilmet and Genviere, moving up to catch the Goblins. He could see them staring at him and the other riders.
They were five thousand strong. Not nearly as large as some town’s garrisons, but a fearsome force given their level. The [Knights] rode with pendants flapping in the wind. The [Soldiers] and officers wore their city’s insignia proudly. The [Lords] and their [Retainers] laughed as they rode, resplendent in their colors. They were secure in their knowledge that they could eradicate the Goblins.
Normally, the sight of Lord Pellmia’s forces would have made the Goblins shy away. However, this time they didn’t budge from their course. All to the better, but it was strange. And something happened as Lord Pellmia was riding and checking the map. He looked up as the paper bounced awkwardly in Kilmet’s grip and frowned. The Goblins were pulling away.
“Faster! Why is our pace flagging?”
He snapped at the [Knight] in the lead. The woman touched her finger to her brow.
“Apologies, Lord Pellmia. The Goblins have sped up again.”
“Again? Well…follow them!”
Lord Pellmia glanced back down at his map as his company accelerated as his mount moved to keep pace. He inspected his map and made quick calculations. When he looked up again, he frowned. The company wasn’t moving at a trot anymore. They were actually moving at a quick canter. And the Goblins were running.
“Are they…racing us?”
One of the [Knights] stared at the Goblins. Lady Welca Caveis, who had been assigned to Lord Pellmia’s command to help with locating the Goblins to begin with, stared as the Goblins began to run. One of the [Lords] laughed uncertainly.
“Stupid Goblins. They’ll never keep that pace! They’ve got to be exhausted.”
That was true. But Lord Pellmia wasn’t about to waste the opportunity. If the Goblins wanted to make his life easier—he rode forwards.
“I don’t care why they’re running. Increase our speed! And add more riders to the flanking patrols. I don’t want them trying something again.”
The Humans rode faster. Now the ground was moving past them fast. Lord Pellmia tried to calculate how fast they were going. His [Far Rider] Skill didn’t exactly double a horse’s speed, but it could increase their pace a great deal. If they were cantering at—what, twelve miles per hour and the Skill was working on them…how fast were the Goblins going?
“Dead gods. They’re moving quick! Looks like they’ve taken off their armor and weapons—you can see it in the wagons.”
Kilmet rode next to Pellmia, eying the Goblins. They’d slowed a bit from the full-out run, but they were jogging fast. And together! They moved as if they were one unit. The sound of their feet hitting the ground was distant thunder. Combined with the horses’ hooves, the air was filled with noise.
And the Goblins kept going. At first the Humans laughed and took bets on when they’d slow. The first hour was jokes. The second confusion. By the third, the riders were checking their mounts anxiously. Because the unbelievable was happening.
The horses were getting tired first. They had to carry armored riders, supplies, and their own armor in the case of the barded warhorses. Before it hadn’t been an issue because the Goblins tired quicker, but now—
“Do we break, Lord Pellmia?”
One of the [Lieutenants] looked uncertain as the Humans paused to let their horses drink a bit of water. Pellmia stared at the Goblin tribe running ahead of him. He could see the little Goblin in front, running with Hobs behind her.
Lord Pellmia did not like her. She was a murderer, a monster. That she had saved his boy did not change that. But he could not help admiring the sight. He shook his head and swung himself off his horse.
“Stop? Are you insane, boy? The Goblins are finally moving! We follow!”
“But the horses—”
Pellmia turned his head and shouted.
“Dismount! We run alongside the horses! Don’t give me that look! Have none of you been on campaign before? The [Knights] have trained for this! The rest of you, run and I’ll restore your vigor with [Second Wind] when needed. Get those horses moving!”
The other riders stared at Pellmia, but the [Knights] and more experienced [Riders] were already dismounting. Pellmia heard grumbling, mainly from the inexperienced [Lords] and [Soldiers]. He saw a familiar face among the discontented. Gilam was arguing with Kilmet. Only today, the aged retainer was having none of it. He pointed and his voice was a field roar like Pellmia’s.
“You heard Lord Pellmia! This is no joyride! We move at a trot! Anyone who can’t keep up can return at their own pace. Move out!”
He suited action to words. Soon the entire group had dismounted and was running alongside their horses, following the Goblins. Pellmia huffed as he ran, despite having put his armor in his own bag of holding. He was too old for this! Kilmet’s face looked set as he kept pace. But then again—he glanced around. Despite the grey in his and Kilmet’s hair, they were still doing better than some of the others. Genviere gave Kilmet a long stare as she tried to run without tripping over her robes.
“Why’re they doing this, Lord Pellmia?”
Kilmet gasped a question. Pellmia shook his head, loathe to answer.
“The Chieftain. It must be.”
He stared at the little Goblin leading the others. She was running at the front of the entire tribe. She hadn’t used a Skill—if she had one she surely would have used it before. She was just running. But why was that so important? Pellmia looked around, and then he realized it.
Because it was her. Because she was their Chieftain. He could see his company moving around him, some running ahead, some behind. Pellmia thought about running to the head of their group, but thought against it. He was too old to set that kind of pace and besides, this wasn’t a company of his soldiers. Many of the men and women here didn’t owe him allegiance.
But her? The small Goblin ran ahead, occasionally turning to shout at her tribe. And they raised their hands and shouted, following her. Believing in her. There was something to admire about that. Something to admire, and fear.
“That’s a leader if ever I saw one Kilmet. A Goblin leading other Goblins.”
Kilmet agreed. Pellmia saw his old friend’s pallor fading and resolved to issue stamina potions and use [Second Wind] soon. He nodded curtly.
“Something to watch for. She cannot escape. But I see why Lord Veltras was so insistent we leave the Chieftain alive. She leads that tribe. Without her, they’d never have made the journey.”
That was all Kilmet said. Pellmia kept up his pace, panting as his horse cantered next to him. He thought it was funny. Somehow, in some strange way, the Goblins had flipped the nature of things on them. It was he who was pushing the Goblins. Theirs was the superior force. But somehow, they’d fallen into the Goblin’s pace.
And he saw that they knew it. The Goblins ran faster. Following their leader. They didn’t falter, and they ran so hard that in the end it was Pellmia who was forced to stop them so his people could rest. He couldn’t believe it. They’d been dead on their feet yesterday. Where was their energy coming from? How were they doing it?
It was her. There was no magic in it. No Skill or things of classes. Perhaps there was something Goblin about it, but if there was, it was nothing any Goblin could explain. It was just morale.
Rags ran at the head of the tribe on the second day, before the Humans even had time to blow their horns. She set the pace and her tribe ran after her. Children and adults. Hobs and regular Goblins.
They were all tired. Their legs hurt from the pace they’d set yesterday. But when they saw her back, the Flooded Water tribe couldn’t help but follow. They found their aches and tired legs disappear as they stared at their Chieftain.
Onwards! Ever faster! If she led them, they could run forever! Even the Humans couldn’t keep up. The Goblin’s flagging spirits surged. They cheered their leader, shouted along with the Redfangs as the warriors roared and took the lead behind Rags.
The Goblins forgot about the battle with the [Emperor]. They forgot about the deaths at the city, their pursuers. They forgot about Tremborag and the danger they were in. They ran as if they’d never stop, across hills and valleys, fields of grass and through forests. The spring air was cool on their faces and the sun shone down. The Goblins ran and ran—
And then they stopped. Rags had halted. A group of riders had cut her off from the front. The Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe halted, coming out of their running trance. They saw Lord Pellmia’s riders forming a line in front of Rags as she stared at them uncertainly. The wagons rolled to a stop. Rags stared at Lord Pellmia as the Humans ahead of her blew on their horns, clearly telling the Goblins to halt. She looked around.
Where were they? The ground was filled with bright green stalks and they were standing almost on a dirt road winding south. A few rocks interrupted the plant life and she could see a lake far to the east. To the north a distant mountain sat isolated, and if she looked south she could see the High Passes, far away as they were. But there was nothing of note.
Except, Lord Pellmia clearly thought there was a reason to stop. His riders rode in a circle around Rags’ tribe, forcing them into a circle. Then the [Lord] dismounted. He pointed and his people moved a hundred paces west, out of bow shot. Then they began setting up camp.
“What are they doing, Chieftain?”
Poisonbite ran over, looking confused. Rags stared at the Humans as they began setting up tables to eat off of. They were even making a fire! She frowned.
“Resting. Must be at spot they wanted us to go.”
The female Goblin looked around skeptically. Rags shrugged. She eyed the landscape again, but she couldn’t see anything. All the way to the north there was nothing but grasslands. The Humans hadn’t colonized this part of northern Izril, and the horizon was just a distant black line. She looked behind her. She could see…a human settlement right on the edge of the horizon? Or was that just a clump of something else?
“Can’t move. We wait. Get food out! And get weapons! Just in case.”
Rags waved her hands. The Goblins in her tribe sighed. They flopped onto the grass. Some wandered over to the wagons and began unloading weapons. Rags saw the [Cooks] getting to work and flopped onto the grass.
There was no fuel for a fire, but Rags had collected enough firewood in the bag of holding that she could make a few large cook fires. It wasn’t cold enough for her tribe to need them anyway. So Rags lay in the sun as the wind blew, cooling the perspiration on her body.
The sun was warm, the sky blue. She felt good. She’d pushed herself hard, running yesterday. But somehow she’d done it. It was like she couldn’t get tired, not while she was leading her tribe. She felt…strong. Well, not strong in terms of arm muscle, but…something like that.
Rags didn’t feel like she needed to figure it out. She felt good, and as a Goblin brought her one of the first bowls of millet soup seasoned with lightning-fried fish from a pond and a bit of frog and mealworms and insects for taste, she was content. Even if the food was ick. Rags glanced north absently. The sun was warm overhead. But she was a bit warm—it felt like the heat from one of the bonfires north of her was being blown downwind.
Predictably, Pyrite appeared. Even more predictably, he’d chosen to supplement his bowl of soup with food. Some of the growing wheat, still green, and a colony of ants. Rags stared as Pyrite tossed several white eggs into his bowl. She grimaced—she hated how they tasted. But Pyrite happily gulped his food down, then flicked a few of the red ants into his bowl. They were still clinging to his arm and biting him.
The two Goblins looked at each other. Pyrite’s face was very calm, and he was eating with his usual placidness. But Rags noticed that the Hobs and Goblins with pikes had been moved to the edges of the seated Goblins. And they all had weapons now.
The elation she’d felt drained away slightly. A bit of tension entered Rags’ stomach. This was it. She felt it. So did Pyrite. They were at their destination. Now, whatever the Humans had planned for them would occur.
She had no idea what it was. She’d imagined they were being herded in this direction to fight something. Or maybe to a city so they could be executed for all the Humans to see. But this? This was nowhere. And yet—Rags glanced at Lord Pellmia. His forces were all in one spot, but they could easily run the Goblins down in this flat area. He was clearly waiting. For Tyrion Veltras?
“Good run. Chieftain was Chieftain today and yesterday.”
Pyrite chomped on his food. Rags glanced up at him. She shrugged, feeling a bit embarrassed.
“Was Chieftain thing to do. Not special. Other Chieftains lead all the time.”
“Yes. But was special because you did it. Smart Chieftain. And strong. Better than me. Better than Garen. Leader, not just Chieftain.”
The Hob looked calmly at Rags. She flushed at the unexpected compliment. She glanced around, feeling warm. That stupid fire was hot! Rags shook her head.
“Still not good enough. Not yet.”
“But learning. But change.”
Rags glanced at Lord Pellmia. She could spot Gilam among the tired Humans. He looked miserable, which made her feel better. She emptied her bowl—she was hungry!—and stood, stretching. The Goblins of her tribe watched her. She looked at them and they nodded.
There was something in their gazes that had changed these last few days. No, these last weeks. She had led them against the Humans, fought off Bethal’s knights, defeated the [Emperor]. Led them. Pyrite was right. Now, more than ever, she was their Chieftain. It felt strange. Rags felt large, despite her small body.
And hot. She glanced about irritably. Had someone dumped all the spices in one pot again? No—it was the fire. She fanned herself and decided to walk out of range of the heat. Pyrite noticed.
Rags pointed north. Pyrite looked around and frowned.
“Fire? All fires downwind.”
“No. Fire there—”
Rags turned and stopped. Her finger was pointing north, towards the mountain. But there was no cook fire in front of her. But the heat was real. The heat and the sense that there was a…a fire nearby.
Slowly, Pyrite stood. He looked around and frowned. He sniffed the air, checked the direction of the wind. Then he looked at Rags.
“Something north. I feel too.”
Confused, Rags glanced up at Pyrite. He nodded and squinted north.
“Brightness. Stars. Glowing gem. North.”
That wasn’t what Rags felt. She frowned.
“I feel fire.”
“Fire? No. Bright light. Like in dark tunnels far underground. See light.”
“No, fire. Hey, Redscar!”
Rags turned and waved her hands. Redscar looked up from feeding Thunderfur. He jogged over. Rags pointed north.
“Feel something? North?”
The Goblin frowned. He cast about, scratched his head, and then paused. Slowly, he nodded.
“Feels like…mountain. Like High Passes north.”
Rags glanced south, towards the actual High Passes, the eternal, gigantic mountain range. Redscar frowned as he tried to explain.
“Like tall mountain. Like…like stair up and see high mountain. Over there.”
He pointed. There was a mountain that way. Dwarfhalls Rest. But it was a lot smaller than any of the mountains of the High Passes. Barely more than a giant hill, really. Rags glanced around and then realized something.
All the Goblins could sense it. They were eating, chattering, or just lying down to sleep. But somehow, they were all facing north. And they kept glancing north, idly, as if looking for something.
And now Rags could feel it for a certainty. There was a burning north of her. A fire. But she could only see the empty grass, rocks, the road, and the black horizon line north of her. She frowned.
“Something that way. But what?”
Rags stared north. The wind blew in her hair, and a bit of dirt. She cursed and wiped her eyes. She was about to order Redscar to send a few riders north—then she remembered that the Humans would probably stop the Goblins. She glared at the black horizon line. And then she frowned.
Was the horizon…getting larger? It seemed that way. On the edge of vision, where the sky and land mixed, the world was black. But the black line was getting larger. And now the wind was blowing south and Rags felt more grit blowing into her face. She cursed, turned her head and felt it.
Fire. Her head turned back. And then she saw it. The line was moving. And it was no line in the sand. It was a bunch of bodies. Bodies wearing black armor.
Rags looked around. She saw the Humans stirring from their camp. Rags looked at Redscar and Pyrite. They were still frowning, trying to understand what they were sensing and feeling. But now Rags was sure. She kicked Pyrite.
He looked at her. Rags pointed.
“Get tribe up! Move them!”
Redscar stared at Rags. She was scanning the landscape.
“There! East! Two hundred paces! Hurry!”
The two Goblins stared at her. Rags cursed.
“Just do! We’re in way! They come!”
Redscar demanded as Rags ran into her tribe, shouting orders. He stared back at the strange, moving line of bodies. Then his eyes widened. Not all the bodies were wearing black. Some were green. And then the distant shapes made sense.
It wasn’t a line. And it wasn’t one single thing that was coming towards them. Redscar saw a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand moving shapes. They were spread across the plains, moving at a run. So many that they filled the horizon, an unending mass of them.
Lord Pellmia and Kilmet rode their horses east, pursuing Rags’ tribe. They stared north. They had known what they were supposed to see, but nothing could have prepared them for the sight.
Goblins. Over a hundred thousand of them were running south. Goblins in black armor, Goblins without. Thousands of Hobs. Smaller Goblins. All running. Lord Pellmia felt his breath quicken as the ground seemed to fill with Goblin bodies.
They were far off. Miles away. But already, Lord Pellmia could hear the sound of approach. It sounded like distant thunder. He stared north and saw Kilmet’s face pale. Both men were thinking the same thing.
“I’ve not seen so many Goblins since the Second Antinium War. Pell, there are so many Goblins—”
“Steady, Kilmet. Steady. Company, we’re abandoning the Goblins! On me!”
The Humans started as Pellmia raised his voice. He kicked his warhorse. The animal was only too glad to get out of the way. It snorted and Pellmia calmed it with a hand. He rode east at the head of the company, out of the way of the Goblin migration. But he couldn’t help looking north with the others.
So many Goblins. It seemed as if there was no end to them. And Pellmia couldn’t quiet the shaking of his hands on his reins. He remembered a similar sight.
Millions of Goblins, following the Goblin King. Each army hundreds of thousands strong, led by Goblin Lords and Chieftains. Tens of thousands of Hobs. So many Goblins it seemed as though they could drown Izril in bodies. And at their head, the Goblin King, howling as he cut a hole through Humans, half-Elves, Drakes, Gnolls, Selphids and Lizardfolk and Dullahans and—
Lord Pellmia heard Kilmet’s voice. He realized he was galloping. He forced himself to slow and turn. They were out of the way of the Goblins heading south. But so many. So many!
“They could sack practically every major city with an army this large. We don’t have walls on most of them. Invrisil would fall! Only First Landing would survive. That and maybe—”
Kilmet stared at the Goblins. Pellmia shook himself. He had to stay calm. He looked around.
“They’re coming. Keep an eye on the Goblin tribe we brought. If they make a break for it, we have to force them towards that lot.”
“And if the Goblins in front decide to charge us?”
Genviere had paused. She was looking pale as she studied the Goblin line approaching. Pellmia shook himself.
“If that happens, we’ll retreat. But we’re not alone. There should be guides—there!”
He pointed. Another group was raising a dust storm. A group of riders to the east and west was moving south, ahead of the Goblins. They were specks in front of the Goblin horde, but they had to be at least a thousand men strong. At least! And they were not Goblin. Pellmia gritted his teeth.
“This is all part of the plan. Steady. We’ve nearly completed his task.”
“All of this was his plan?”
Genviere looked at Pellmia. The [Lord] nodded. He scanned the horizon, not looking at the Goblins now, but for what he knew must be behind them. Lord Tyrion Veltras. All of this was his plan. He’d done it. This force had to be the Goblins from Dwarfhalls rest. He’d marched them south, as fast as Lord Pellmia had run Rags’ tribe. The Goblins of the Great Chieftain of the Mountain’s tribe. But not just them. The Goblin Lord’s army had been besieging the mountain. And Lord Tyrion had brought them too. He’d brought…
All of them.
Rags stared as the horizon was filled with moving bodies. There were more Goblins than she’d ever seen in her life. And that was only the first rank. Goblins streamed towards them across the grassland, running down the road, others through the fields, trampling everything underfoot. Black armored Goblins ran in front, warriors wearing the iconic black armor of the Goblin Lord. And behind them?
Goblins. Green bodies, so many that they blended together. Crimson eyes, distant pinpricks of light at a distance. Rags found herself backing up. The Goblins were headed straight for them. She looked around and saw her tribe was transfixed.
Rags’ voice made the Goblins start. She shouted above the growing thunder of the Goblins moving towards them. She waved her arms and pointed.
“Pack! Get wagons moving!”
“Chieftain! Which way?”
Noears looked alarmed as he stared at the Goblins. Rags hesitated. She stared around and saw Lord Pellmia. His group had retreated far out of the path of the Goblins. She looked around. If they ran for it—
No, they were still too close. And Rags could see a glittering line of riders coming from their west. She hesitated, and then pointed south.
“South! Move slow! Pikes to rear!”
The Goblins moved to obey. They loaded the wagons and began to walk. Slowly. The Goblins with the twenty foot-long pikes ran to the rear. They didn’t quite aim them at the approaching Goblins, but Rags could sense the tension.
Was this Goblin force hostile? Why were they marching? Those were the Goblin Lord’s warriors, weren’t they? And that burning—Rags cast her glance north again.
It felt like a giant bonfire was moving towards her. She felt like she should be able to see it, a roaring pillar of flames coming ever closer. It made her nervous. But the fire wasn’t scary in itself. It actually felt warm. She felt alive. But she didn’t know why and that was the cause of her fear.
“Chieftain. Lots of Goblins. We fight? We run?”
Quietstab appeared at Rags’ left. She could see Poisonbite marshaling her group of warriors. Redscar had assembled his Redfangs and was glancing at the Goblins approaching them. Rags looked around for Pyrite. He was standing with his Hobs, glancing at her and then behind.
“Can’t run. Don’t want to fight.”
The Hob smiled nervously. Rags saw the Goblins around her shuffling forwards. She whistled for her Carn Wolf and it bounded over. Rags mounted and pointed.
Her tribe did. They stared back as the first row of Goblins in black armor finally came within close range. They were running, closer to running than a jog at any rate. The Goblins moved in a rolling wave, some forging ahead, others falling behind, but none daring to stop. Such was the momentum that any Goblin who tripped or fell would surely be trampled by the thousands behind them.
So many! Rags saw wagons, Hobs loaded with supplies, and pack animals by the hundreds, just like her tribe. She also saw a good number of Goblins were mounted. And—her blood chilled for a second—Shield Spiders. Large ones. Many scuttled ahead, given a wide berth by most of the Goblins, but some were large enough to ride. Rags saw Goblins in black armor sitting on their backs.
Pyrite bellowed an order. The first row of black Goblins wavered as they moved towards Rags’ tribe. They were clearly surprised to see more Goblins. They raised their weapons uncertainly as Rags’ rear line raised pikes. The Flooded Water tribe halted and the Goblins behind them froze.
They stared at the pikes. Twenty feet long and tipped by metal. The Goblins that held them were armored in scrap metal and Hobs stood behind them, armed with steel. Yes, the formation was one that was designed to slaughter most groups of cavalry, but if the Goblins charged, the pikes would do a pretty good job at impaling anything, really.
The Goblins in black armor hesitated. They eyed Rags’ forces and made a snap decision. They broke to the left and right of Rags as their comrades kept moving, splitting like a parting ocean in front of Rags’ tribe. Rags saw her Goblins looking around uncertainty, but the Goblins in black armor gave them a wide berth and made no move to envelop them.
They weren’t here for a fight. Rags felt a pang of relief. She looked back. More Goblins were following behind them, clearly as shocked to see another tribe just standing there. They too parted and Rags realized her tribe was like a rock in the middle of a river. She shouted, getting the attention of her tribe.
“March! Forwards, slow!”
Her Goblins turned. The ones with pikes shouldered their burden and the wagons began to move ahead. Slowly. It allowed Rags’ tribe to further enter the stream of Goblins. Her tribe glanced about, but now some began to shout and wave at the Goblins passing on either side. The other Goblins shouted back, and drew a bit closer.
“So many Goblins! From where?”
“From mountain. These are Goblin Lord tribe.”
“Not just them. Chieftain, I see Goblins. Mountain City tribe!”
Rags looked around. Quietstab pointed out a passing Hob he recognized. Rags hesitated. She’d expected to see the Goblin Lord’s forces, but Tremborag’s Goblins too? Had the Goblin Lord taken the mountain before the Humans had chased him away? Or was this…
The Goblin army wasn’t just warriors. There were children and Goblins who clearly weren’t warriors moving with the rest. They stumbled past Rags’ tribe, staring with wide eyes at the rested and comparatively healthy Goblins.
It was a stark contrast. These Goblins looked worn, practically dead on their feet. Rags watched the first wave of Goblins move past her position and eyed their speed. They didn’t have [Fleet Foot]. They were moving a lot slower. But they were still moving at a fast jog. Rags didn’t understand why, until she glanced behind her and saw the end of the winding Goblin migration. In the distance, the black line had changed to one of silver.
A glittering wave of [Riders] filled the horizon behind the Goblins. Thousands, tens of thousands of mounted Humans rode forwards, so many that Rags quailed to see them. Humans mounted and, Rags heard from the Goblins shouting at her tribe, countless more behind them. On foot.
“The Humans have made a huge army to crush Goblin Lord! Big army! Biggest! [Mages] and [Knights]! [Soldiers]! Gold-rank adventurers! And her! Kingslayer!”
Rags’ heart skipped a beat as she heard Quietstab give a report. Her other lieutenants looked nervous. Kingslayer. Ellia Arcsinger, the slayer of the Goblin King. No wonder the Goblin Lord was running.
“Chieftain, what is plan?”
Pyrite looked at Rags. Goblins were streaming past their small tribe. And it was a small tribe. There were probably twenty…yes twenty Goblins for every one of Rags’. At least! Rags felt overwhelmed, but she squared her shoulders.
“What can we do? We march! Keep pace with rest, but don’t let others come near! Talk more! Redfangs, patrol right. Poisonbite’s warriors left side! Pyrite takes rear! Quietstab in front with Noears!”
The other Goblins looked relieved. Rags wished she was certain in the orders she was giving. She got her wagons moving and sat in the center of her tribe, looking around restlessly.
None of the other Goblins was making a move on her tribe. But they knew there were others. Like before, chatter spread throughout the entire force of Goblins, only on a much larger scale. At first, just the news of another Goblin tribe was relayed, and then details about the tribe. It was hard to miss the Redfang Warriors mounted on Carn Wolves, and Rags herself stood out as the Chieftain. And when that information spread back through the lines of Goblins—
She first heard it as a roar that went through her bones. The Goblins around her froze. Then Rags saw the crowd of Goblins to the left part. She saw a huge shape looming above even the tallest Hobs. A gigantic figure with pale green skin from sitting in the darkness for so long. A massive, fat face. And a fat body. Really, all of him was fat. But there was so much.
Tremborag lumbered through the ranks of Goblins, a giant Hob, obscenely fat. His arms and legs were huge pillars that casually threw Goblins aside. He approached the Flooded Water tribe and stopped. His crimson eyes widened in surprise. They swept the ranks of Goblins, narrowing when he spotted Quietstab and the other Goblins formerly of his tribe. Then they stopped. He had found Rags.
Tremborag’s voice was deep. Loud. He stared at Rags in shock as she turned her Carn Wolf to face him. The animal growled nervously. Tremborag’s eyes were wide with shock. Then his expression changed into a snarl.
He roared. The Goblins around Rags flinched. Tremborag lumbered forwards, his hands clenching into fists. And suddenly, his huge body wasn’t so flabby. Muscles seemed to grow out of fat and his skin tightened. Tremborag’s round face grew bestial and his teeth and claws lengthened. He loomed over Rags, moving towards her faster, faster.
“This is your fault you traitor!”
Tremborag howled. The Goblins around him fled as the Great Chieftain of the Mountain charged. Rags scrabbled for her sword. She saw the Goblins around her panicking, then heard a voice.
Pyrite roared as he pushed forwards. The enchanted battleaxe glowed in his hands. A group of Hobs charged forwards. Suddenly, there were two dozen Hobs between her and Tremborag. They hunkered down as Goblins with pikes charged forwards, screaming wildly. They set themselves and Tremborag was suddenly facing ten pikes aimed at his chest. His wild charge slowed. But he did not retreat. He swiped at the pikes, splintering one and throwing the Goblins holding another. He tried to advance, but Rags had recovered herself.
The Goblins around her started. They raised their crossbows, aiming at Tremborag. Then the Great Chieftain’s arms tensed. He raised his hands in front of his face, but his eyes were burning hatred and his jaws were dripping with saliva. He roared and the Goblins flinched. Rags held up her hand, seeing Redscar charging left, flanking Tremborag with his warriors. She locked eyes with Tremborag, wavered—
And the sea of Goblins parted. A Goblin, a Hob on the back of a Carn Wolf, leapt over the heads of the Goblins. More riders charged out of the chaos. The Hob on wolf back charged towards Tremborag. He halted as he saw the confrontation. His gaze swept past Pyrite, found Rags. The Hob’s eyes widened in recognition.
Garen Redfang stopped and stared at Rags. She stared back. There he was. Tall and proud, carrying his famous red blade in one hand. He didn’t look as weary as the other Goblins and he still radiated strength. He was just as she had remembered him. But she wasn’t.
The cry went up from Garen’s right. He turned and Rags saw Redscar and his warriors appear out of the chaos. The warriors mounted on Carn Wolves were howling, ready to attack. But they froze as they saw Garen. They halted as one.
Redfang Warriors. His Redfangs. Only, they were of Rags’ tribe. They had betrayed him. Rags saw Redscar freeze up as he saw Garen. The true Chieftain of the Redfang tribe looked at his warriors and then at Rags.
Tremborag spat. His body was halted in mid-transformation. He was raging, but even in his fury Tremborag was no idiot. He could see how many Goblins were between him and Rags’ tribe. He might be the biggest and most deadly Hob, but Rags had hundreds of Hobs, pikes, and crossbows aimed at his chest. Plus the Redfangs and Noears, who had a ball of lightning in one claw, ready to loose. Tremborag hesitated.
“I’ll break these pikes. You kill her, Redfang!”
Garen hesitated. He stared at Rags and his hand tightened over his blade. Rags reached for the crossbow on her back slowly. By her side, Quietstab and Poisonbite tensed. And then all the Goblins heard a voice.
“Make way! Make way for Goblin Lord! Cease fighting!”
It was a bellow, a surprisingly educated voice. Rags turned her head and saw another towering figure emerging from the ranks of the Goblins. This Hob wasn’t as large as Tremborag but he was all muscle, unlike the fat Great Chieftain. Eater of Spears parted the Goblins around him with his arms and then turned. A Goblin rode past him. A Goblin riding a horse. Her head was too large and her teeth were bared. They were silvery and grey, metallic. Snapjaw rode her mount in a tight circle, scattering the Goblins even further. And then a third Goblin appeared.
He appeared out of the crowd, seated at first. Only Rags couldn’t see what he was sitting on so it looked like he was just sitting on the air. Then she saw a huge black body, scuttling legs. The Goblins flinched as a Shield Spider, three times as large as a horse, scuttled out of the crowd. It was massive, a true giant of its kind.
And it was dead. Something or someone had torn the head off it. So what the Goblin was really riding was a headless corpse. The Shield Spider had taken grievous injuries in other places, so that part of its body was ripped open, exposing dark internal organs, rotted and putrid. But still the spider moved at the will of its master who sat on its back.
The Hob was thinner than Garen, not built as strongly. He was certainly not fat as Tremborag, and he could almost have passed for a Human if it weren’t for his green skin and pointed ears. His head turned as Snapjaw and Eater of Spears flanked him. A group of Hobs in black armor rushed forwards, putting themselves between the Hob and Tremborag and Garen. The spider rider saw Rags’ tribe and his eyes widened. He glanced at Tremborag and pointed.
His voice was loud and he spoke in the common tongue! The Hobs rushed forwards at his command without question. Tremborag snarled and retreated. Garen whirled his wolf and rode back as the black-armored Goblins formed a line between them and Rags’ tribe. They completely ignored the pikes and other Hobs at their back. The Goblin stared at Tremborag.
“You do not give me orders.”
Tremborag’s voice was barely controlled rage. The Hob ignored him. He looked at Garen. The Hob looked up with clear hatred in his eyes. Garen didn’t bother with a response. He just turned and rode back through the crowd. Rags saw the Goblins he’d brought with him—all with red fangs painted on their shoulders—turn to follow. Tremborag turned and bulled his way through the Goblins as well.
The Hob on the spider’s back watched him go. Then he turned. His gaze swept the Goblins of Rags’ tribe and they shuddered. Partly in fear, partly in longing. They stared at the Goblin on the spider’s back as if he shone. And he did. In their minds.
Rags stared too. The Hob’s eyes weren’t crimson like every other Goblin. They were black, with white pupils. She had never seen any Goblin with eyes like that. She shuddered. But then the black gaze moved towards her. Rags steeled herself and didn’t look away. She locked eyes with the Hob riding the undead spider.
The Goblin Lord stared at Rags and she met his eyes for the longest second in her life. Then his gaze flicked back. He looked up and frowned. Then the Goblin Lord pointed.
“The [Mages] have noticed. Clear the area!”
His voice sounded…normal. It wasn’t like a Goblin who’d learned to speak the common tongue, but like a native speaker’s. It wasn’t guttural or harsh or deep or…anything. It was just loud. But there was a reverberation to it. Power in his words. The Goblins around him rushed to obey and Rags saw her tribe moving away, obeying without thinking. She started as her Carn Wolf padded back and realized she was moving too! She jerked her Carn Wolf to a halt and looked up.
Something bright was falling from the sky. Rags stared at it as the Goblin Lord calmly rode his undead spider back. Rags’ eyes widened as the fiery thing resolved itself into falling meteors and fireballs, glowing orbs, and a rain of magical arrows. She turned her head and screamed.
The Goblins around her needed no encouragement. They raced out of the way as the spells fell. The first meteor struck the earth with a roar and sent up a plume of earth. Rags felt some of it land around her and heard more explosions.
The falling spells detonated as they struck the ground. Goblins fled as the [Mages] unleashed another volley, forcing them to run or die. Rags shouted for her tribe, trying to keep them together. Somehow, miraculously, they managed to escape the bombardment intact. The spells rained down for a minute, but only in the spot where Tremborag had been facing off against Rags’ forces. The Goblins moved forwards in a mass and Rags found her tribe caught up in the procession. She shouted, waving her arms, restoring their ranks.
“Keep moving! March in line! Keep other Goblins back!”
The Hobs reacted slowly to her commands, but they did get the job done in the end. The Goblins of the Flooded Waters tribe shakily began marching, but they kept glancing back towards the spot where the Goblin Lord had been. So did Rags. She started as someone approached her from the side.
Pyrite. The battleaxe was on his shoulder. He stared back towards the destroyed craters in earth. Fire had spread to a few of the growing plants and the Goblins running past stomped on the flames before they could spread. The Hob shook his head as the Humans following the Goblins loosed another volley of spells and arrows, this time forcing the rear-most ranks of Goblins to hurry up or die. He glanced up at Rags and spoke quietly.
“That was Goblin Lord.”
Rags looked for the Hob, but he had vanished into the mass of Goblins. She thought she could see Tremborag standing above the others and maybe the other huge Hob—Eater of Spears. But she wasn’t sure. She turned to Pyrite.
“And Tremborag. And Redfang.”
That seemed wrong to Rags. Garen had sworn he would oppose the Goblin Lord. And Tremborag had seemed just as adamant, for all he was content to hide in his mountain. Why weren’t they fighting?
The Humans. They were chasing the Goblins. And they were willing to blast the Goblins apart to keep them moving. It didn’t explain everything, but it explained enough. Rags glanced ahead. The Goblins were marching. They’d never really stopped. They looked tired, but Rags was sure they wouldn’t stop until nightfall.
Everything was different, but some things were the same. Rags took a few steadying breaths. She didn’t know what was happening. But she could guess and she knew that she was relatively safe for the moment. She had to move her tribe. So with that in mind she turned to Pyrite.
“We march again. Pyrite, take rear. Don’t let other Goblins get close.”
The Hob eyed her.
“What you do?”
“Same thing as yesterday.”
Rags slid from her saddle. She gritted her teeth in determination. Pyrite looked concerned.
“Can’t stay in back. Get lost or trampled. Hey! Follow!”
Rags waved her arms. The Goblins around her stared. Her tribe looked shocked as Rags jogged ahead. But then they followed. They broke into a jog, and then a run. Rags saw the Goblins ahead of them turn and part ways in surprise. The Flooded Water tribe ran past them, accelerating, faster, faster.
She had a Skill. Her tribe had a Skill. The other Goblins did not. They stared as her Goblins zoomed past them, heads held high. They shouted as they ran. The Goblins from Tremborag’s tribe, from the Goblin Lord’s army looked back in alarm and surprise. They fell back, moved out of the way.
Rags’ tribe surged forwards, moving faster than the rest. The weary Goblins stared as the small Chieftain running ahead. Their eyes followed her. So did Garen’s. Tremborag spat as he forced his burning legs to move. And Reiss stared in curiosity at Rags’ back. She could feel his gaze there, but she didn’t turn. Rags ran at the head of a hundred thousand Goblins, seeing the Humans racing ahead of her to guide the Goblins. And she had to wonder where they were going. And why.
Lord Tyrion Veltras was busy. He stood at the heart of a ring of people, all of whom wanted to speak to him. [Mages] bearing messages, [Messengers] with the same, [Scouts], officers with questions or issues that required his attention, and not least the nobility. There were a number of [Lords] and [Ladies] and [Servants] who had come on behalf of their masters to speak with him. Tyrion dealt with it all coldly and calmly.
“Recheck the supplies for spoiled goods. Have the [Quartermaster] in charge of that section replaced and administer punishment. If necessary, find more supplies at the next village we pass. Tell Lady Faima that the soldiers are not hers to order about. If she requires a bath, perhaps she should seek it in a town and stop following this force. Or she may have her servants draw it for her. But her personal soldiers are under my command for the duration of this campaign and I will have her respect that. Sir Niels, resolve your grudge with Sir Vecle later. I won’t have duels of honor in my camp. Lord Bhors—”
Lord Pellmia stood at the back of the gathering. He watched as Tyrion efficiently reduced the number of people circling about him. The nobility he dealt with brusquely in most cases, while he devoted the most time to problems concerning the army. It was really a matter of him deciding what action to take. In most cases, the other [Lords] and officers he’d appointed could handle the details. Soon, Lord Pellmia could step forwards. He did not.
It didn’t take Tyrion long to spot him either way. The younger [Lord] waved aside a [Mage] with a stack of transcribed messages for him.
“I’ll review them in my tent. The rest of you, leave us. Lord Pellmia, I congratulate you on your efficiency.”
“You’re too kind, Veltras.”
The two men found themselves alone. The evening light shone into Pellmia’s eyes so he turned sideways. Tyrion had the sun at his back. It was nearly night. Tyrion’s forces were already camped and the Goblins were sitting in their own camp. The campfires and distant shapes were still a huge mass, but Pellmia had grown slightly used to looking at them. He couldn’t even tell where the tribe he’d been shepherding had gone.
“It seems you’ve won our second bet. I will of course honor it. My stores are yours to peruse when we return from the campaign. Or if you have a preference, inform my [Majordomo].”
Tyrion didn’t waste time on small talk. Pellmia inclined his head politely.
“I will. And I thank you, Veltras. But I’m afraid I can take little credit for the Goblin’s arrival. They moved fast. I have no idea how you managed to force so many to march this far without a Skill.”
“It’s been a challenge. But hardly an impossible one. Arcsinger’s Skills have aided with the task. As have the [Mages]. We are on schedule, however. With your success, we have all the Goblins in the same spot. Now all that remains is to keep moving them. I intend to reassign the riders under your command to interception duty. Lord Pellmia, it’s my opinion that you would be well suited towards the left flank. I have Gralton and several [Captains] in joint command, but none of them have the right temperament to take control of the entire wing—”
Tyrion broke off. Lord Pellmia cleared his throat. He felt weary and unhappy, but this needed to be said. He inclined his head to the younger Lord Tyrion. They had to have, what, twenty years of difference between them? It felt like a century today. Pellmia kept his voice as formal as he could as he spoke.
“Lord Tyrion Veltras. I regret to inform you that…I can no longer aid you in your task. My men are yours. But I have not the stomach for this anymore. I resign my command.”
Pellmia stood straight as he spoke. He waited for Lord Tyrion to speak. But the Lord just looked at him. Tyrion stroked his beard, looked Pellmia up and down, and spoke curtly.
“I heard a report from one of my people. You engaged the Goblins in the forest. They set a forest fire. Your son was nearly killed.”
Of course he knew. Pellmia nodded slowly.
“They could have killed my boy. They didn’t. I don’t know why, but he lives. He lives and that—that’s enough. I will be returning to my estates. With Gilam.”
Tyrion lifted one eyebrow.
“So suddenly? The boy was in danger, but he is a warrior. Or do you mean to shield him forever?”
“He’s young. And doesn’t understand how close to death he came. He is young, but a fool. I think…”
Pellmia’s throat closed.
“…I think my legacy is more uncertain than I would have liked to hope. My son is not the man I hoped he would be. He might be, but I refuse to risk him any further.”
“I see. However, you need not leave, Lord Pellmia. A man of your level is hard to come by. I would consider a personal favor if you stayed. This business with the Goblins—they killed good men and women. There’s little to thank them for.”
“I know. But they spared my son. The Chieftain did, Veltras. She could have shot him through the head. She did not. I can’t forget that.”
“And you’d halt your campaign for that?”
Tyrion looked uncomprehending as he shook his head. Pellmia nodded. He wondered what his peers would say. He wondered what his wife—he shook his head again.
“I apologize, but my mind is made up.”
This time Lord Tyrion visibly sighed. He drummed his fingers on his forearm and then looked up.
“I need as many [Lords] as possible. Lord Pellmia, if you won’t take part in the cavalry’s movements, could I at least persuade you to take charge of the foot? The infantry are struggling to keep up and your Skills would be invaluable there.”
That surprised Pellmia. He hesitated.
“But my son—”
“He would be quite safe in the rear. I could station him under the command of my adjutants. They have some of the younger [Lords] in check.”
Tyrion watched Pellmia’s expression closely. Lord Pellmia grimaced, rubbed at his face, and then nodded abruptly.
“I accept. Thank you, Lord Tyrion.”
“It is I who should thank you. Regardless of any incidents, you’ve done what I asked. I would be honored if you joined my table at tonight’s dinner.”
“I shall. And I shall leave you to your work. Until later, Veltras.”
Lord Pellmia walked back. Tyrion watched the older man go, and then made a note to inform his people about the change. He glanced at the Goblins in their camp and shook his head. Lord Pellmia lost his nerve? That was unthinkable, or it should have been. The man had fought the Goblin Lord with distinction. Was he that concerned for his son? Or had the Goblin Chieftain shaken him that much?
For a moment Tyrion wondered, then he put it out of his mind. He beckoned one of his [Mages] over. She had been screening his conversation with Pellmia, preventing anyone from listening in. Tyrion spoke curtly as she approached.
“Jericha, we’re on schedule. Send word to Emperor Godart. Tell him—no, inquire if he will be able to fulfill his side of the bargain on time. And have Lord Pellmia take charge of the infantry. Move Yitton Byres and Lord Erill up to the front. I want the supply wagons moving as fast as they can to catch up.”
“Yes, Lord Veltras.”
The [Mage] stepped back. Tyrion glanced around. He was alone for a moment. He stared back at the Goblin camp. Over a hundred thousand of them sat in the darkness, around fires, eating, moving about tiredly. Tyrion grimaced. He looked up as Jericha returned. Magus Genviere was with her. She bowed politely and Tyrion nodded.
“Magus Genviere, I appreciate your support of Lord Pellmia.”
“It was mildly eventful. May I take it that the operation was a success?”
“You may. And now that the Goblins are in place…the Chieftains have kept their tribes together. But they’re no longer needed. We only require the Goblin Lord.”
Genviere’s eyes flashed with interest. Tyrion nodded. He glanced at Jericha, who was watching Genviere warily. Between the two, Genviere was the better [Mage]. But Jericha was more loyal—the [High Mage] worked with Lord Erill, but she wasn’t his, just an ally of convenience.
An important distinction, that. The tension between the two also probably came from the fact that Jericha hadn’t studied at Wistram. She’d learned from the mage’s academy in First Landing. It mattered little to Tyrion as Jericha was one of the best spellcasters he employed, but it was everything between [Mages].
At last, Jericha looked at Lord Tyrion.
“The incident on the march seemed to be due to the new Chieftain. Lord Veltras, it appears that the ah, Great Chieftain and Goblin Lord both took an interest in this Chieftain.”
Tyrion raised one eyebrow.
“Interesting. In that case, monitor the camp. I won’t tolerate the Goblins slaughtering each other before I can use them. But if there are tensions, I want to be aware of them.”
“Yes, Lord Veltras.”
The [Mages] bowed. Tyrion turned his attention back to the camp as they left. He stared at the Goblins in distaste. It would be so easy to attack them. But not yet. Just a little longer, a little longer…his hand clenched.
He’d been waiting a long time for a chance like this. And he refused to let it pass him by. So Tyrion waited. Another night fell as the Humans got to work, monitoring the Goblins, much as things had been the last few nights. But in the Goblin camp there was chaos. Tyrion thought of Goblins much as the same people, but you couldn’t suddenly add in a new tribe without consequences. And given that it was Rags’ tribe, the effects were large indeed.
Chaos. That was all Rags could see when the Humans finally had the Goblins halt. There were so many Goblins milling about that she thought they’d never get anything done. But to her surprise, the Goblins got their camp ready in good time. Not as quickly as her tribe of course, but faster than so many Goblins had every right to be.
And oh, it told Rags everything she needed to know. You could summarize the entire situation in a glance just by looking at the camps at night. The Humans camped behind the Goblins , the smaller camps encircling the Goblin’s position and flashes of light from constant patrols—and the Goblin camp itself. Or rather, the camp of two sides. Three, if you counted Rags’ tribe.
The largest camp was arranged in a tight circle. Large tents were set up, and Goblins moved in lines, eating, using the latrines, sleeping, and so on. And not a stone’s throw away was a mess of tents and Goblins sleeping out in the open. They were cheek-by-jowl next to each other, but the two sides were clearly sides.
Hobs and armed Goblins stood, at the edge of each camp, glaring at each other. But they didn’t fight. There was no fighting in either camp, except for squabbles over food. Rags had been on guard, but none of the Goblins had tried to start anything with her tribe either.
Strangely, there was peace there, despite the separate factions. The threat of the Human army made infighting a stupid idea. Plus, the [Mages] would actively bombard any group of Goblins that fought against each other, discouraging conflict even more. So the camp was at peace. But there was an undercurrent, a tension running throughout all the Goblins. They weren’t one people. They weren’t united.
There were factions. Rags could sense it, a confusing tug-of-war between the various sides. It was like being trapped in—in a current. Like the ones Liscor had when it rained. Rags had never seen the ocean, but she had swum in those waters. They were constantly being sucked downwards, disappearing into the earth. Every Goblin learned to read the currents when they dove or be drowned, sucked into some deep crevasse. The camp felt much like those waters.
The Goblin Lord was obviously the biggest pull. Rags could feel him nearby, like a bonfire’s heat just out of sight. But the pull from Tremborag was very strong too. She could even sense Garen’s presence, and some of the other Chieftains. A lot of them were with Tremborag and they were holding the Goblin Lord’s pull at a stalemate.
Still, the balance was fraught and ever-changing. As Rags stood in her camp she could see Goblins scurrying around. Reiss’ war camp was organized, rows of military tents set up like a Human army. Tremborag’s faction was a mess by comparison, but very Goblin-like in that regard. Armed Goblins stood watch on the edges of both camps, but a surprising number of Goblins went back and forth between camps.
“Lots of Goblins moving between camps. Some come to ours.”
Quietstab’s voice made Rags turn. Their camp was on the edge of the other two, like a strange new growth. As of yet it wasn’t part of the entire hubbub so Goblins had yet to readily enter their camp, but Rags could see several groups looking at her neat setup and cooking Goblins with clear interest. She pointed to the outskirts of her camp, which was marked by a clear stretch of grass about four feet wide.
“Keep some Hobs on edges of camp.”
Quietstab nodded. He’d figured out what Rags had.
“Not to let Goblins go?”
Rags turned her head.
“No. To not let them come in.”
The Hob blinked. He looked questioningly at Rags, but she was already moving past him, waving at Poisonbite. Quietstab scratched his head, but went to do what Rags had ordered. And she was right.
Before their camp had even been fully erected, the Hobs on the edges of the camp stopped several groups of Goblins varying in size—one a family of four, another nearly a hundred strong—from entering the camp. They seemed confused why they couldn’t enter. Some tried to bribe the Hobs with food they were carrying or showed willingness to do tasks, but they were turned away in the end.
It was strange behavior. Definitely odd for Goblins who usually lived and died by their tribe. But so many competing Chieftains and a Goblin Lord had created the most unusual of circumstances. Noears summarized it best as he ate with Rags and her officers. Today’s dinner was horse. Not all horse, but that was a definite component. Rags felt slightly bad, but the white mare had broken a leg in the chaos and that was that. Noears nibbled at his fried meat and gestured at the Goblins still trying to get into the camp.
“Those are not-loyal Goblins. Bounce between factions. Want best food, most protection. Caught between strong Chieftain. And Goblin Lord.”
“Not loyal. Cowardly. Run to biggest Goblin to hide behind.”
Poisonbite scowled darkly. She’d been wary all day, especially given how many of Tremborag’s Goblins were marching around her. They’d recognized their friends in Rags’ tribe and not been happy. Only the ban on fighting had prevented some unpleasant confrontations.
Redscar nodded. He was feeding his Carn Wolf. He paused as he stared past the aimless Goblins being blocked by Hobs. A few of the Goblins waiting in the back looked like warriors. They had red paint on their bodies. He pointed at them.
“Some are Redfangs. Want to talk. Should let in.”
Quietstab corrected Redscar. The other Goblin glowered at him.
“Redfangs are Redfangs. Not like other Goblins.”
He glanced around for support and got only a brief nod from Pyrite, which was probably only for politeness’ sake. Rags saw Noears gulp down his meat and then look at her curiously.
“Why not let other Goblins in, Chieftain? Get more food, supplies. And hands. They help, do things for tribe.”
She grunted irritably.
“And spy. Let none in. Not even Redfangs.”
Redscar looked indignant.
“Goblins do not spy. Redfangs do not.”
“Then talk outside camp. Or will you go to Garen camp?”
Rags looked up and met Redscar’s eyes. The Goblin paused and the others froze as they stared at him and Rags. Redscar glanced at the other Redfang Warriors behind him and slowly shook his head.
“We chose you. Chieftain.”
He met Rags’ eyes. She nodded slowly, not apologizing. She had to know. She glanced back towards her Hobs and then stood up.
“Uh oh. Bad thing.”
The other Goblins looked over and then stood up. A group of Goblins had gathered outside the edge of the camp. And these ones weren’t opportunistic Goblins. They were Tremborag’s Goblins. A few of the high-ranking Hobs and their warriors were facing off with Rags’ Hobs. And both sides were armed.
The Goblins of the Mountain City tribe howled and raised their weapons. They were angry, pointing at their former comrades. One threw a rock at Poisonbite. The others stepped forwards, brandishing their weapons. There were a lot of them and they looked ready to attack. Rags instantly snapped an order.
The Goblins from Tremborag’s tribe didn’t look afraid. They outnumbered the Goblins around Rags. Then they saw hundreds of Goblins behind Rags grab crossbows and aim it at them. The Goblins turned and fled back towards their camp.
“No shoot! Get crossbows behind Hobs! And keep other Goblins back! No Goblin gets in, no Goblin goes out!”
Rags shouted at the Hobs, who grunted and nodded. Pyrite looked around, eying the other camps.
“Have to talk sometime, Chieftain.”
“Not now! Not to them. Will talk soon. We wait for him.”
Poisonbite looked confused. Rags glanced at Pyrite. The Hob nodded. Of course he would be here soon. Tremborag? Possibly not. But Garen Redfang wasn’t patient. Or afraid of confrontation.
Sure enough, it was only an hour later that Rags heard a commotion again. This time she didn’t get a chance to get to the front. Garen Redfang ignored the Hobs standing guard. He rode his Carn Wolf down on a pair of them and kicked the female in the face while his Carn Wolf knocked over the male. He rode straight into the camp with his warriors spreading out behind him. Goblins backed up as Redfang looked around. He bellowed one word that made both camps go silent for a second.
And then she was there. Rags strode forwards, unarmed, Pyrite, Redscar, Quietstab, and Poisonbite at her back. Noears was having violent diarrhea somewhere else. Garen stared down at Rags. His eyes narrowed.
“You betrayed me.”
Rags sighed. It wasn’t like Goblins did small talk anyways. She looked up at Garen and raised her voice.
“I betrayed no one. I took my tribe from mountain. It was bad place. Not-Goblin place!”
Garen snarled. His Carn Wolf growled loudly, and the smaller Carn Wolves backed away as the alpha wolf bared its teeth.
“You stole my warriors! My Redfangs!”
Rags folded her arms.
“They came with me. Your fault. You let Goblins rape Human women. You gave tribe to Tremborag. I was your Chieftain. Not him.”
“They were my warriors!”
Garen howled. He had a hand on his sword. The Goblins around him tensed. But Rags just shook her head. She felt…bad. Not bad as in scared or upset. Just disappointed. She’d wondered what Garen’s reaction would be. And it was everything she’d thought. He was just how she remembered. But she was not.
“You lost them, Redfang. Not me. They followed me because you were poor Chieftain. Ask Redscar.”
She stepped to one side. Garen turned his burning gaze to the Goblin who was studying his feet with interest. He growled a word, a note of betrayal.
At last, Redscar looked up at Garen. The two locked eyes. Garen leaned forwards over his Carn Wolf. Redscar’s own wolf, Thunderfur, slunk over, growling at Garen’s wolf. The two stared at each other for a long moment. The Redfang Warriors behind Garen and the ones in Rags’ camp stared between the two Goblins. At last, Redscar spoke.
“That was not Goblin. You told us.”
“I told you to obey. We fought Goblin Lord! Tremborag’s Goblins are them. We leave them be. Deal with it!”
Garen shouted at Redscar. The Goblin gritted his teeth and shook his head.
“What about pride? What about Redfangs? We are warriors, not—that!”
He pointed scornfully at Tremborag’s camp. Garen growled.
“You betrayed me. You are not Redfang.”
Redscar’s eyes blazed. He slapped his chest and raised his voice.
“I am Redfang! I led tribe! I fought! What did former Chieftain do? Hide in mountain? Hurt Human females? Chieftain was coward! Not-Goblin! Rags was better Chieftain than Garen could be!”
The Redfang Warriors roared. The ones around Garen surged forwards. Garen unsheathed his blade. His Carn Wolf crouched—and then stopped. So did Garen. He stared down at the glowing, fiery battleaxe whose edge was inches away from his Carn Wolf’s nose.
“This is an axe.”
Pyrite casually held the battleaxe in front of Garen’s Carn Wolf. The Hob stared up at Garen. Then he pointed a thumb. Garen turned his head.
Dozens of Goblins with crossbows were aimed at him. And Goblins with pikes were set up, ready to pincushion Garen and his warriors. Garen looked around and saw Rags.
“Beat you once. Strategy or not.”
“Try again. Go on.”
Garen didn’t. He glared around, hand tight on his blade, but slowly sheathed it. He looked down at Rags in disgust, completely ignoring Redscar.
“This is your fault. Humans chased from mountain. Goblin Lord here. Should die.”
“Didn’t look bad to me.”
Rags countered, although that was half a lie. She still shuddered to remember the Goblin Lord’s unnatural eyes. And she’d seen more undead lurching around in his army. But Pisces had been a [Necromancer]. And his Goblins didn’t look any worse for wear than Tremborag’s forces. She glared up at Garen.
“You told me Goblin Lord was evil. Used undead. Treated Goblins bad. Was that a lie?”
“He is a slave. He betrayed kind.”
Garen hissed at Rags. He seemed serious. And he was a bad liar. Rags considered this.
“Didn’t look bad.”
“You know nothing! He is slave! Ask! He raises undead! He has master! He is not-Goblin!”
Garen shouted at Rags. He pointed to the camp and his voice was loud enough to be heard by everyone.
“The Goblin Lord is a traitor! He betrayed kind!”
“Like Garen betrayed his tribe?”
Rags stared up innocently at Garen. His eyes bulged. He made a strangled noise and nearly drew his sword again. At the last moment he caught himself. He stared at Rags and turned.
“This is not over.”
He turned and rode his Carn Wolf out of her camp. His Redfang Warriors followed, glaring at their comrades in Rags’ camp. Rags watched Garen ride back to Tremborag’s faction. She could see the Great Chieftain sitting there. His face was turned to her, but as she looked over he turned away and began eating.
Poisonbite scowled and sheathed her poisoned daggers. She stomped away now that the threat of violence was done with. Rags just wiped her forehead. She looked at Redscar, who was scowling at the ground.
He looked up and at Rags. There was pain in his eyes. Rags nodded. She left Redscar behind as the other Redfangs clustered around him. The other Goblins dispersed, clearly shaken by the confrontation.
Noears staggered towards Rags, clutching his bottom. She wrinkled her nose and backed up. The [Mage] gave her a pale grin.
“Chieftain, bad? Fight?”
“Not now. You go poo there.”
Rags pointed back to the latrines. Noears nodded gratefully and shuffled off. Rags backed away and decided to check the horse meat again. She was just finishing and wondering if it was time to sleep—after all, they’d be marching tomorrow—when she heard the sound of Goblins chanting. She turned.
The Goblins in Tremborag’s faction were shouting. Not many of them—barely a thousand or so. They were shouting one word. Redfang. Rags didn’t hear Garen’s voice, but the Goblins shouted again and again.
It was clearly a provocation. Rags saw the warriors in her camp stir. They formed into their own group and began shouting back.
The same word, a different meaning. The Carn Wolves began to howl as Rags’ Redfang Warriors shouted and stomped. Redscar led them, shouting angrily at Garen’s warriors. The Goblins fell silent for a second, and then came back with another chant.
“Ga-ren! Ga-ren! Ga-ren! Redfang! Ga-ren!”
The Redfang Warriors in Rags’ camp faltered. They stopped chanting. The ones in Tremborag’s camp kept shouting Garen’s name until a [Mage] from the Human camp threw a ball of air that exploded overhead. Then all the Goblins slept in silence.
Rags lay down and slept uneasily. She didn’t know what to make of Garen. Or Tremborag. She didn’t feel safe, but she didn’t want to be the first one to attack. And she could still sense it, practically on top of her now. A roaring flame. A burning sensation. Fire, bright and beautiful, close enough to touch. Alluring in the darkness. But—putrid? No, not entirely. But something foul mixed into the flames. A foul smell that was feeling rather than scent. Rags wrinkled her nose. But the fire was still glorious. She raised her head and looked across the camp. She could not see him, but she knew he was there. And he knew her.
The Goblin Lord.
It was the same and not the same. This time the horns blew and [Mages] blasted sound spells over the Goblin camp. It was definitely a rough start, but Rags’ tribe was used to the routine now. So were the other Goblins. They were up and moving, eating on the go before the sun was even risen.
Rags had a system now. She declined to lead her tribe seeing as the Humans now set the pace. Instead, she had the wagons all set up. Since they were actually moving slower now, given that the Goblin Lord and Tremborag both lacked movement Skills, she could burden the wagons a bit more and let the Hobs lend their strength to the job.
Now her [Cooks] were making food on the wagons’ back. And Rags had set up a mobile rest room on the wagons so Goblins could do their business without having to catch up. It was a glorious invention hampered only by the smelly poo that other Goblins had to avoid. She even had a wagon for Goblins to sleep on, and she had to assign several Hobs to keep Goblins from other factions from climbing on.
Her tribe marched at the front of the sea of Goblins. Rags didn’t want to get near Tremborag or Garen, who were closer to the back. But that put her closer to the Goblin Lord’s army. And while the black-armored Goblins gave them space, it was only a matter of time before something happened.
As it turned out, it was Pyrite and Redscar who were at the front when it occurred. Both were on the right side of Rags’ tribe, talking. Redscar was disconsolate after his encounter with his former Chieftain, and Pyrite was lending him an ear. It was mainly Redscar talking and Pyrite offering a word or two now and then. Or a grunt.
The two were keeping an eye on the ranks of Goblins in black armor. They saw the shift in the movement of the Goblins and broke off speaking quickly. Then Pyrite saw the black goblins start to advance and recognized the huge Hob that pushed his way forwards. Eater of Spears appeared on the front and Redscar cursed.
Pyrite roared. Goblins with pikes rushed forwards, setting themselves up. All around them, the other Goblins screamed and moved back. Pyrite kept the Goblins moving, but now there was a wall of pikes between them and the Goblin Lord’s army. He could see more Goblins moving forwards and heard Rags calling out orders as she repositioned her forces. And then—
It was like light in the darkness. Like the light of the sky after the time Pyrite had gotten lost in the caves for two days. The light of gemstones. A glorious light. A terrible light. A wondrous thing he couldn’t explain. Glorious—but dark. There was something tainted. But it was beautiful.
Pyrite saw the Goblins in front of him stir. He felt something seize hold of his heart. He saw the black bodies part. And a Hob rode forwards on the back of the undead Shield spider.
There he was. His black eyes shone as the Goblins fell back in front of them. They couldn’t help it. Pyrite and Redscar stared up at the Hob riding the undead Shield Spider. They felt it too. An urge to move aside.
It was different from Tremborag. He had commanded them to kneel. But that had been an order. This was different. As Reiss rode forwards, the Goblins stepped aside, staring at him, not even realizing what they were doing. They looked up not in fear, but with awe.
Here rode a Goblin Lord. His black gaze swept the Goblins. And not even Rags’ warriors could meet his eye. They parted for him automatically, the pikes lowering as the Goblin Lord rode slowly forwards. All but two. Redscar and Pyrite held their ground, but wavered as the Goblin Lord came closer.
Redscar’s legs began to move. He reached down and pulled out a dagger. He stabbed himself in the leg, grunting. Thunderfur whined and Redscar clung to him. He glared up at the Goblin Lord.
And Pyrite? The Hob looked up and closed his eyes. He felt the Goblin approaching. That brilliant light grew brighter in his mind and he felt the urge to obey. Here was something wondrous. Powerful. Greater than him.
But. It was not the first time he had seen that light. And as Pyrite opened his eyes, he met the Goblin Lord’s eyes. He looked up at the Hob riding the headless, undead spider and spoke a word.
The Goblin Lord blinked down at him. Behind him rode Snapjaw and Eater of Spears trudged on his other side. He looked at Pyrite and then decided he’d heard the Hob wrong. He glanced past Pyrite and tried to ride forwards.
Pyrite casually lifted the battleaxe. The Goblin Lord stopped and stared down at him.
“This is an axe.”
Redscar grinned. The Goblin Lord didn’t get the joke. He looked at Pyrite and then glanced at Eater of Spears. The gigantic Hob stepped forwards. He and Pyrite appraised each other for a long second. Pyrite wondered if he could beat Eater of Spears. He did a few calculations that involved him getting thumped on the head repeatedly, and then heard a voice.
The Hob turned. Rags rode past him. Pyrite lowered his battleaxe. Rags’s Carn Wolf stepped past him and Eater of Spears moved back. The Goblin Lord looked down. He and Rags stared at each other as Rags’ warriors and the Goblin Lord’s army faced each other in silence. Pyrite was ready for anything. But after a long minute, the Goblin Lord smiled.
“I am Reiss. Goblin Lord. I would know your name, brave Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe.”
Rags blinked. She stared at the Goblin Lord in surprise. Then she raised her voice.
“I am Rags! Chieftain of the Flooded Water tribe! Why do you come, Goblin Lord?”
Her question seemed to surprise Reiss. He looked at her.
“Why? Because your tribe shines. Because it is good. Because you and I—”
He touched his chest.
“—are Goblins. We are kin. And I would help you and have you help me. The Humans pursue us both. But are we enemies?”
He looked at Rags. The smaller Goblin folded her arms.
Reiss tilted his head.
“Why do you believe that?”
“You are slave. You hurt own Goblins. You are not real Goblin Lord. Is what other Goblins say.”
There was a cry of outrage from Snapjaw. The Goblin Lord’s warriors growled and shouted in protest. Pyrite blinked at the unexpected denial. And Reiss? He laughed.
It was such a peaceful, happy sound. Reiss laughed and leapt from the back of his Shield Spider. He landed lightly. Rags stared at him from the back of his Carn Wolf. Reiss walked forwards and Pyrite tensed, but the Goblin Lord didn’t attack. He walked next to Rags.
“We must keep moving. The Humans will attack my people if we do not move.”
He pointed to the rear where the Goblins had halted due to the confrontation. Rags glanced in that direction and frowned.
“Those are Tremborag Goblins. Not yours.”
“They are Goblins. My people. They should not die.”
Reiss looked at Rags. She blinked and then slowly nodded. She pointed.
Her tribe began moving. Reiss pointed and his army did the same. Rags expected him to get back on his Shield Spider, but to her surprise it began to shuffle back into the line of Goblins. Reiss started walking. He glanced up at Rags.
“Will you walk with me, Chieftain Rags? My warriors will pull back. Snapjaw, Eater, return and wait for me.”
Snapjaw protested, but Reiss shook his head. Eater of Spears pulled her gently back and they disappeared into the crowd. Rags hesitated.
Now would be the time to kill the Goblin Lord. If she were Garen. But she had real reason to doubt Garen’s words. Especially now. She looked at the Goblin Lord. Then she shrugged and leapt from the back of her Carn Wolf.
“No walk. Will jog.”
Reiss began to jog. Rags ran with him. The two moved ahead as the other Goblins gave them a wide berth. It was strange. Reiss ran naturally, breathing steadily. Rags had to run harder to keep up. She didn’t know what to say to him. He wasn’t like what she expected. She had thought he would be a monster. But he wasn’t. He had black eyes, but everything else about him was normal. Friendly, even.
“I don’t hurt my tribe.”
Reiss spoke first. He looked at Rags seriously.
“They fight for me. Die for me. And I lead them. Sometimes poorly. But I don’t mistreat them.”
Rags shrugged noncommittally.
“You make them undead.”
She pointed to a group of zombies rapidly shuffling to keep up. They were given a wide berth by other Goblins. Reiss nodded.
“That is true. But I am a [Necromancer]. I raise the dead. The Goblins who died fight for me. So other, living Goblins won’t die. I would let them rest if I could, but I cannot. Is that wrong?”
Rags conceded the point. This was strange! Reiss actually sounded sad. And his voice—Rags peered up at his eyes again.
“Are you slave, though?”
This time, Reiss hesitated. He looked at Rags and then glanced behind her. She knew Garen and Tremborag were behind them. She could vaguely sense them too. Although they were embers to the Goblin Lord’s fire.
“Who told you that? Garen Redfang? Tremborag?”
“Maybe. Is true?”
“True. And false. I have a master. But…”
Rags turned. She heard a shout and the sounds of fighting. She turned and saw Snapjaw and Eater of Spears crashing back towards them. Pyrite swung his battleaxe, but too slow. Garen parried the blow and charged towards Reiss.
His eyes blazed. He swung his blade up as he charged the Goblin Lord. Reiss had stopped. He watched Garen charge him. His hands turned black with magic and he pointed.
A bolt of black energy shot from his hands. Garen dodged in his saddle. He roared and his Carn Wolf leapt. Rags shouted as Garen swung his sword down, ready to cut. She raised her hand. Reiss and Garen were aiming at each other—
And Rags blew fire into the Carn Wolf’s snout. The wolf howled and leapt back. Garen sliced, but he was too far. Reiss shot another bolt of energy at Garen and the other Hob blocked it.
There was a commotion. Pyrite charged forwards, covering Rags. Redscar and his Redfangs formed a circle around Rags and Reiss. But then Snapjaw and Eater of Spears were charging them with the Goblins in armor and Garen was getting up, murder in his eyes—
It was Reiss’ voice who halted the violence before it could begin. All the Goblins paused, even Garen. The Hob looked around as the other Goblins aimed their weapons at him. Reiss’ voice was cold.
He looked at Rags and shook his head.
“You knew Garen Redfang, didn’t you? He told you I was evil. Not a Goblin.”
Rags looked between Garen and Reiss. Garen Redfang was staring at Reiss with hatred in his eyes. And when the Goblin Lord looked back, there was sorrow in his. He shook his head.
“True and not true. He called me a slave. I have a master. But I am no slave.”
“You are not Goblin!”
Garen shouted at Reiss. He brandished his weapon. Reiss turned, ignoring him. He looked at Rags, looked at the Goblins standing around. Watching. Staring.
“Garen hates me. He has a reason. We were once friends. He and I met ten years ago, when I was a small Goblin. When he first became a Hob. Garen and I were…the Humans would call us ‘brothers’. We had the same dream.”
Rags’ jaw dropped. The other Goblins stared, becoming waxworks. Garen froze. Reiss looked back at him.
“We met seven years later. Garen when he had become a Gold-rank adventurer. I, when I had found my master. You were furious. You told me I lost my way. You called me not-Goblin. But my dream was the same. Our dream was the same. I would become a Chieftain. No, a Lord. And you would be my finest warrior. And give me the greatest weapon to save our people with.”
Garen was silent. Reiss looked at him. He looked around at his audience, who were speechless. He looked back at Garen. And then his eyes narrowed.
“We never spoke after that. But I followed you, Garen. I listened to rumors of you. I knew you fled, became hunted, settled in the High Passes. That was why I came to find you. You have it, don’t you? You swore to me you would find it. And you did. You became a Gold-rank adventurer, searched the entire continent for years. And you found it. You betrayed the Halfseekers for it.”
Garen’s eyes burned. He still said nothing, but his grip tightened on his sword. His other hand was at his belt. Clutching something. Reiss’ voice was loud in the silence.
“My master searched, but he was not a Goblin so he and his creations could never find it. And I never told him of the memory.”
“Memory? What memory?”
Rags spoke up. Reiss turned to her. His black eyes shone. It was a beautiful light. A terrible light. He was hope and dissonance and wonder and corruption all at once. He was not a Goblin. But he was a Lord. And he spoke and shook Rags’ entire world.
“The legacy of Velan the Kind. The thing he hid in the High Passes. The treasure of the Goblin King. And Garen has his key.”
He pointed at Garen. The Hobgoblin stood as all the Goblins stared at him. Garen looked around, clutching something in his belt. His eyes burned. He looked at Reiss, looked the Goblin Lord in the eye. For a second he looked at Rags and she saw a thousand unsaid things there. But then Garen turned away. He shook his head and said one word.
All the Goblins stared at him. They looked at each other. In the end, all things considered, they could agree on one thing.
Garen Redfang was a terrible liar.