Every species had a way of meeting. Not individually, but in large masses. For instance, Gnolls had no written law, but they still obeyed tradition quite scrupulously and they had a number of customs that related to interaction between two or more tribes.
When two tribes of Gnolls met, there were ceremonies to be observed. The Chieftains would meet and declare peace—or war. They would exchange gifts in the case of the former or part for one day in the case of the latter. Other species might scoff at these particular formalities, but they all had places of peace, and ways of meeting.
The Centaurs had gathering spots where no weapons were allowed to be brought, neutral ground where all might walk in peace, criminal and enemies alike. The Dullahans regarded steam baths as inviolate and would never sanction an [Assassin] to lie in wait there, or plan a trap of any kind.
[Ladies] had tea parties. Drakes (generally) didn’t fight under white flags, and even then, it was usually only punching each other in the worst of cases. Dragons tended not to do battle when one or more of their hoards were at stake. And Goblins? Well, Goblins had the sit-about.
Infighting between Goblins was rare. Usually one Chieftain would crush another by force or trickery and that would be that. However, larger battles and lasting animosity like the war between Garen and Tremborag’s factions with Reiss’ weren’t unknown.
And while it was unthinkable for them to share a confined space without one side attacking the other, the peace had been maintained by the Humans. Thus, the Goblins had declared a hiatus on killing each other and enacted a rare scene from Goblin tradition, the aforementioned sit-about.
It was simple. Two enemy tribes of Goblins found a big space and sat. One side faced the other, or in this case, since Rags was present and Garen and Tremborag were two different Chieftains, they formed into four sides, such that a square of space lay between them. From overhead it looked more like a rhombus, but no one was holding the Goblins to exact geometry at the moment.
A rhombus, with a bit of space between each Chieftain and the Goblin Lord. Each one sat at an inside corner, facing the others. And here was the curious thing about the Goblin sit-about; while the tribe of Goblins sat behind their Chieftain, eating and chattering and passing along what was said in the center, the actual amount of space that separated Rags from Garen and the other chieftains was only about five feet in any direction.
There she sat, on the grass. There he sat, five feet away, across a fire. Behind Garen, his entire tribe—barely more than eight hundred Goblins, all wearing the red stripes that marked them as ‘his’ Redfangs—sat. Rags glanced left.
A giant Hobgoblin, a massive blob of fat, chewed noisily on a dead cow’s haunch. Tremborag glanced down at Rags as he tore meat from bone, his eyes flashing with clear annoyance and hatred. Five feet separated them, but such was Tremborag’s size that he could reach out and strike Rags. He did not, because of the rules. And also because of who sat across from him.
Reiss, the Goblin Lord, sat to Rags’ right. He was cross-legged, with Snapjaw and Eater of Spears sitting just behind him. He stared at the crackling fire and glanced up. Rags saw his eyes flick towards her, but made no move.
The atmosphere was…well, tense was hardly the word for it. Rags had never been in a sit-about before. She only knew of it from looking back at other Chieftain’s memories. And what she remembered of the sit-about was that it usually didn’t end well.
During the sitting it was peaceful. Oh, the close proximity meant that sometimes Chieftains would shout or throw things at each other, but actual violence would be so wrong that their tribes would usually revolt rather than see one of their Chieftains break the peace. So the two Goblins, or in this case, four, would have to share one meal together, sitting practically cheek-by-jowl.
The violence was what came after. The sit-about was considered the last attempt for two tribes to make peace if one Chieftain refused to cede to the other. If they didn’t find some kind of common ground, then the next day they usually slaughtered each other. Rags didn’t know if that would happen here, but she was on edge.
Her entire tribe sat at her back. Pyrite on her left, Redscar on her right. Poisonbite sat on Pyrite’s left, Noears on Redscar’s right. Quietstab sat directly behind Rags, chewing on a bit of pan-fried beef. The rest of her tribe sat behind her lieutenants, chomping down and watching Rags from behind.
There was a bowl full of chopped and fried beef in front of Rags. Good, hot food that made her stomach growl. The Goblins had run across a herd of cattle on the march and so they were dining well tonight. Normally Rags would have been stuffing her face, but she knew she was being watched. Every Goblin would assess their Chieftain and the other Chieftain’s performance, weigh what they said. Thus, every move had to be made with care.
Rags thought like that for about five minutes. Then she gave up and began gobbling her beef because she was hungry. The fire crackled as it grew lower; it had been made right when the sit-about had been declared and no one had fed it yet. The four Goblins eyed the fire. It was Tremborag who broke the silence first.
“The fire’s getting low.”
The other three looked at him. All the Goblins looked at Tremborag. Some nodded. That was a neutral statement, a fact. A good opening. Garen glanced at Reiss. The Goblin Lord nodded.
He was agreeing with Tremborag. That was good. It meant the two agreed on something, however small. There were nods all around. Garen growled, not wanting to be left out.
“Should probably add more wood. Other Goblin should do it.”
His Redfang Warriors smiled decisively as if Garen had pointed out something no one else had. Rags rolled her eyes and didn’t comment. Tremborag tore off another chunk of meat. He spoke while chewing.
“Make the nameless child refuel it. She’s better suited to that than leading a tribe.”
The convivial atmosphere became glacial in a moment. Rags stiffened and her tribe sat up. Redscar half-rose, his eyes flashing, but Noears and Quietstab grabbed his shoulders in an instant. Rags had to be the one to respond. She glanced coolly to her left at Tremborag and replied.
The Goblins stirred. Some of them, smaller ones and females, glanced admiringly at Rags for her confident reply. Tremborag’s eyes only narrowed. He waited, but Rags went back to eating.
Rags glanced back up at Tremborag.
“Don’t want to.”
Tremborag smiled mirthlessly. He tapped one huge finger on the ground as a spark flew from the fire and died in the dirt.
“The fire will go out. Someone must tend to it. Why not you?”
It was a cunning philosophic trap, at least in Goblin terms. Why shouldn’t Rags refill the fire? But the little Chieftain was equal to the challenge. This time she looked straight at Tremborag and raised her voice slightly.
“I said no. Big fat Hob deaf as well as stupid?”
Tremborag’s jaw fell open. There was a guffaw from behind Rags and laughter from other Goblins. The gigantic Hob growled, but nothing could take away the amusement on Reiss’ face, or the way Garen was clearly trying not to laugh. Rags smiled to herself, then felt a poke in her side. Every head turned to Pyrite, who looked troubled as he withdrew the finger. Rags nodded.
“Sorry. Big fat, ugly Goblin. That better?”
She looked at Pyrite, who grunted with approval. Again, laughter came from behind Rags and from Reiss’ camp. Tremborag’s face was murderous. He swung around and the faint, stifled sounds behind him went instantly silent.
That had been a perfect riposte with Pyrite’s help as verbal duels went. Rags sat a bit straighter, knowing that if there was a score, she would be ahead. Tremborag was fuming, but unwilling to try to attack Rags again and Garen was recovering himself. Reiss chuckled and turned his head.
Instantly, the Hob with the metal teeth turned and waved a hand. She shouted.
One of the Goblins behind her threw a split log. Snapjaw grabbed it and handed it to Reiss. He pointed at the log and flicked his fingers. The piece of firewood flew up and landed in the fire, sending up a flurry of sparks. There were murmurs from all sides and Rags saw Noears sit up with interest. She was staring at Reiss as well, trying to figure out how he’d done that. Pisces had tried to teach her telekinesis, but she hadn’t mastered it to that extent. Or at all really.
The fire crackled with the new fuel in place. Garen grunted and pointed. One of his warriors strode forth and dumped some firewood next to the fire, adding a few logs. The other Goblins watched. Obviously the fire hadn’t been the issue. It had just been an opening joust of words and actions. And Reiss had cleverly found a way to set himself ahead as well.
His trick with the firewood was a display of magic, meant to impress. And it did. Goblin [Shamans] couldn’t levitate objects, at least not as casually as [Mages] did. That set Reiss apart and more than a few Goblins were staring at him now. Tremborag, glaring, rumbled.
His words were meant to be an insult, but Reiss just smiled slightly. He turned his head and stage-whispered to Snapjaw.
“Better cute than being big, fat, ugly, deaf and stupid.”
She laughed loudly and again, Tremborag turned a mottled shade of red and green. His huge claws clenched and unclenched. Rags watched him out of the corner of her eyes as she sipped some water from her cup.
He wasn’t good at this. Tremborag might have a commanding presence, and he was dangerous, but he had never really suffered challenges to his rule in the mountain. Thus, he wasn’t as nimble in places where words mattered more than power, like the sit-about. And Garen was likewise stuck. The Redfang’s Chieftain was no conversationalist and though he kept sitting forwards, he missed his chance to jump in time and time again.
Reiss glanced at the two fuming Chieftains, and then at Rags. He tapped his own bowl and then there was silence again. This time, his face was more serious as he looked at Rags.
“Why does your tribe fight Tremborag and Garen’s? I hear rumors, but not why. Chieftain Rags, tell us.”
Rags sat up. Now they came to the real issues. She glanced across the fire at Garen. His face was stony. Rags shrugged.
“My tribe was Garen’s tribe. He was mine. I beat his tribe.”
There was a rumble of protest from Garen’s side. Rags raised her voice.
“He called me Chieftain! He advised me to go to Tremborag.”
“And you betrayed me!”
Tremborag interrupted. He thrust a huge finger at Rags.
“You were the traitor! I welcomed you into my mountain, offered you food! And you fled, coward, nameless Goblin! You fled with my treasures, my people! You are no Chieftain, but a thief! You dared not challenge me so you fled in the night!”
This time Tremborag’s words caused an commotion among the Goblins listening. Stealing was one thing, but stealing from a tribe that had welcomed Rags into their hold? Rags held up a hand, her heart beating faster.
“I left, yes. But for good reason! Your tribe kidnapped Human women. Did bad things to them. Sex things. Not-Goblin things.”
The Goblins went silent. Reiss stared at Rags in confusion, then his brows drew together. He looked at Tremborag with disgust.
“Rape? They captured Human women for…?”
He looked at Rags for confirmation. She nodded. The Goblins behind Reiss looked at each other, some uncomprehending, others like the ones sitting next to Eater of Spears, clearly appalled. The Goblins sitting behind Garen shifted and he stared at his lap, silent. And Tremborag?
He laughed. The Great Chieftain slapped his belly so his flesh rippled and laughed long and loud, so that every eye fell on him again. He laughed until tears began to leak from the corners of his eyes. He wiped one away and then looked around. His eyes fell on Rags and he leaned forwards.
“That was what you objected to? That? Yes, we captured Humans. So what? They are Humans. What does it matter what happens to them?”
His words provoked an uproar from the Goblins behind Rags. Redscar shot to his feet, as did many of the Redfang warriors. Some of the Goblins in Reiss’ camp also shouted. But the Goblins sitting behind Tremborag jeered and shouted back. For a few minutes there was chaos as both sides shouted at each other. And then Reiss raised his voice.
And there was. Rags heard the shouting Goblins go silent as if Reiss had cast a spell. She stared at him as the Goblin Lord turned to the silent Goblin. Garen Redfang. Reiss looked at the other Hob, who sat with both hands on his knees, bare-chested, his scars glowing in the firelight.
“Tremborag says raping and kidnapping Humans is meaningless. Rags says it is not-Goblin. I say it is wrong. But what do you say, Garen Redfang? You walked among Humans. Why did you stay when Rags and your warriors left?”
It was a cutting question. All the Goblins went silent. They fixed on Garen. He chewed his lip, then looked up.
“It is Tremborag’s tribe. He decides. Deal with it.”
His gaze passed right by Reiss as he stared at Redscar and his warriors, sitting across the fire. The Redfangs shifted. Redscar clenched his fist in anguish and shook his head. So did the others.
It was not a good reply. But it was the same one he had made before. Some of Garen’s warriors looked unhappy with it, but there was nothing more to say. Reiss just nodded.
“So. That is why your tribes are at odds. I see now.”
He cupped his chin in his hand. Rags stared at him. Reiss’ eyes flicked to her and to Garen. She stared at him. If the sit-about was just between her, Garen, and Tremborag it would already be over and they would be preparing for a battle. But Reiss was the unknown factor here. She looked at him, and then at Tremborag and Garen.
“Why are you fighting them?”
The other two Chieftains started. Tremborag glanced at Rags, and then his eyes narrowed.
“Yes, Goblin Lord. Why do you attack your own kind? You talk of fault when it is you who attacked first! You came to my mountain and besieged it. You chased us out, brought the Humans here! If you had never marched north, then all our tribes—Garen’s, mine, and…the child’s…would be at peace! This is your fault!”
He pointed at Reiss. The Goblins behind Tremborag shouted agreement. They stared at Reiss with real anger. They had lost their home because of him. But again, Reiss was calm. He stared at Tremborag and then shook his head.
“I did not attack first.”
Tremborag snorted in disbelief. His Goblins began shouting. Reiss raised his voice.
“I did not attack first. I came north seeking allies. I came to your mountain to seek you out, Tremborag. Your tribe, that I might fight the Humans. And you laid a trap when we met under peace. You attacked me first.”
His words caused a hush from the Goblins behind Tremborag. The Great Chieftain hesitated.
“You still came north, bringing attention on my tribe. If you hadn’t—”
“I was not the one who declared war first, Tremborag. Even before I marched on your mountain, my armies were under attack. I sent many north. Raiding parties, armies to fight the Humans. And they were attacked. By Goblins.”
This time Reiss looked at Rags. She bit her lip and glanced at Garen. The Goblin Lord’s forces. She remembered attacking at least two armies. It had seemed so obvious at the time, but—was all of this just a misunderstanding? Reiss held his gaze on Rags and then looked at Tremborag.
“I had cause, Tremborag. As for you—I am a Goblin Lord. You are a Chieftain. Great Chieftain, perhaps, but a Chieftain nonetheless. When I call, would you not at least give me the courtesy of speaking first? No. Instead, you attacked my people. You killed them.”
Tremborag’s eyes flashed.
“I killed a bare few. You were the one who brought war to my mountain.”
“Yes. For those you killed. For the dead slain by Garen Redfang.”
The Great Chieftain laughed incredulously.
“For a handful of Goblins? Are you a fool?”
Some of his Hobs laughed as well, but the rest did not. Rags did not laugh and no one behind her laughed either. Wasn’t that what a Chieftain did? Tremborag’s boisterous laughter died out as he realized all the other Goblins were just staring. Reiss slowly shook his head. His gaze, when it met Tremborag’s was dark. This time it seemed like the light retreated from him as he spoke.
“For one Goblin I would kill you, Tremborag of the Mountain. For one of my people I would bring ruin to your mountain and shatter your tribe. For the thousands that have died, I will make you suffer before you go.”
The sitting Goblins were silent. Tremborag’s face went still as he met Reiss’ eyes. Rags was still as she watched Reiss’ face. There was nothing amused about Reiss now. His pleasant demeanor, his educated speech—she forgot all about that when she stared at his eyes and saw the little white demons staring out from behind his pupils. Promising death.
And yet Tremborag did not look away. The Great Chieftain sat, the bones of half a cow in front of him. Grease and drippings covered his front. He looked down at Reiss. And then he changed.
Fat changed to muscles. His body contorted. His eyes grew wide and then sunk slightly into his face. His body shifted, grew. The Goblins edged back as a monster, a beast of muscle and sinew appeared where Tremborag had sat. This Goblin was not the fat, laughingly arrogant Great Chieftain of the Mountain. It was something else. Tremborag looked down at Reiss and his voice was quiet when he replied.
“I will eat you slowly, little slave.”
Reiss made no reply. The two sat like that for minutes, perhaps as many as ten while the other Goblins sat around in silence. Rags felt sweat rolling down her shoulder blades. If any Goblin behind Tremborag or Reiss moved, she felt like there would be a battle, sit-about or not. She could see Garen tensed, hand on his blade, looking from face to face. Rags had no idea how to break the tension. Neither Reiss nor Tremborag were willing to look away first. The tension filled the air, growing worse by the second until—
Rags’ heart nearly stopped. She heard a loud, muffled fart coming from her left. She whirled, and saw Pyrite. He paused as every Goblin, Reiss, Tremborag, Garen, and the tens of thousands of others, looked at him. He fanned at his behind as Poisonbite choked and threw herself back and apologetically shrugged.
There was a nervous titter from the Goblins, and then laughter. Tremborag relaxed and his features shifted back to normal. Reiss smiled and glanced away. The tension defused—somewhat. Reiss and Tremborag avoided meeting each other’s eyes, but the lingering threat was still there, just beneath the surface. Only, the danger of imminent violence had passed.
Thanks to Pyrite. Rags nodded at him as the Hob endured Poisonbite kicking his side. The Hob smiled at her and kept eating. After a little bit, the relieved laughter and other Goblins copying Pyrite’s example and letting off humorous farts quieted down. Rags found herself sitting in silence again, only this time all eyes were on her and Garen.
Negotiations had failed between Reiss and Tremborag’s forces. That was clear. But the sit-about wasn’t over yet. Garen and Rags had yet to state their positions and while Garen’s was clear, Rags was still up for debate. And it was she who decided to ask the burning question once more. Rags sat up and pointed at Reiss. Every eye turned towards her. The Goblin Lord looked at Rags. She met his eyes, ignoring the sense of unease his white pupils and black eyes provoked in her.
“He called you slave. Are you a slave?”
“No. I told you. I have a master. But I do not consider myself a slave.”
Two voices said the same thing. Tremborag and Garen. They stared at Reiss. He looked back at them, and they glared. Rags looked from face to face and waved her arms.
“Stop glare! Explain! Why slave, why not a slave? What master?”
Reiss looked at Rags, and then around at the watching Goblins. He nodded at Garen and Tremborag.
“They call me a slave because they know my past, Chieftain Rags.”
“And what is past? Explain. Tell. Garen calls you not-Goblin. Why? Who is master?”
The Goblins sitting behind Reiss were troubled. Snapjaw poked Reiss and whispered to him, and Eater of Spears leaned down to converse as well. Reiss listened to his lieutenants, and then shook his head.
“No. Snapjaw. Let them hear the truth.”
The female Hob looked troubled, but she nodded and sat back. Rags was surprised.
“You tell? Just like that?”
Both Garen and Tremborag looked shocked as well. But Reiss just smiled. A trace of amusement reentered his gaze. He shrugged.
“It is not a secret. We are Goblins. If you ask, I will tell you my story. You want to know how I became a Lord? About how I knew Garen Redfang? You want to know about this?”
He pointed at his black eyes. Rags hesitated and nodded. Reiss sat back. He looked thoughtfully at the stars.
It was a clear night. The many campfires of the Goblin sit-about blew smoke into the sky, but you could still see the distant lights high above. To the north, the massive Human army’s fires were also bright, but above the sky was peaceful. Soft. Beautiful. Reiss sat with an audience of hundreds of thousands of Goblins around him. The ones behind Reiss seemed to know what he would say and sat back, relaxing, willing to hear the story again. The other Goblins sat, attentive, some wary, but all curious. Garen looked away and growled for more food. Tremborag spat and called for wine.
After a moment, Reiss began. His words were listened to and passed from Goblin to Goblin, so even the ones sitting on the very edges of the sit-about knew what he said.
“Once upon a time, there were two Goblins. One was a Hob. A wanderer with no tribe. The other was a small Goblin who knew magic. They met by chance, on a day when the winds and water blew a wyvern from its nest. The Hob found the small Goblin running, trying to escape the wyvern. He saved the small Goblin, and with his help, the two Goblins slew the wyvern.”
The Goblin Lord turned to look at Garen. The Hob sat back, not looking at him, staring up towards a cloud in the night sky. Rags held her breath. A wyvern? They’d killed a wyvern? And was Reiss the Goblin with magic? The Goblin Lord smiled and went on.
“The small Goblin had no name. But he impressed the Hob. They were the same age, despite one being smaller. And they talked. The Hob wanted to be a famous warrior. The small Goblin wanted to be a Chieftain and teach all Goblins magic. They were very different, but they liked each other. So the small Goblin took the Hob to his tribe. He convinced the Chieftain to let the Hob stay and the two worked together. They became friends. And after a while, they were like brothers.”
All of the Redfangs, both on Garen’s side of the fire and Rags’ sat up. They stared at their leader, their hero with eyes that shone. They had never heard this story. Garen didn’t deny any of it. Tremborag ate savagely, ears twitching, but listening. So did the others. Reiss drew a handful of dirt up and threw it on the fire. As smoke rose, he pointed his finger. And the smoke twisted into shapes, following his words.
“One day, the small Goblin became a Hob. And it was the best day ever. He and the other Hob, who called himself ‘Garen’, decided they were strong enough. So they challenged their Chieftain. And they lost!”
He laughed. The smoke turned into a pair of scrawny Hobs fleeing from an angry Chieftain and others Goblins chasing them.
“They fled, shamefaced. But they resolved to grow stronger. The problem, the Goblin with magic said, was that they did not know the world. They had not fought under the Goblin King. Humans had adventurers. Drakes had cities with magic walls. How could Goblins surpass them? The Goblin with magic pondered until Garen told him that he wanted to become an adventurer. To fight monsters. And then the Goblin with magic had an idea.”
Garen’s voice was an echo of Reiss’. In the sky, the two Hobs stood apart.
“It was not an easy choice. But to grow, to become the great warrior and Chieftain they wanted to be, they decided to split up. One would go north and become a famous adventurer in Human lands. The other would study in Drake cities and become a [Mage] like no other.”
“Just like that?”
The whisper came not from Rags, but from Pyrite. The Hob stared at the smoke with…a strange look in his eyes. Reiss nodded.
“They were fearless. Overconfident. The two Hobs thought they could do anything. So the one called Garen made a mask and wore a hood. The Goblin with magic taught himself an illusion spell. They swore to meet seven years later at this very spot.”
The two Goblins made of smoke pointed to the ground and then walked away from each other, waving. Reiss closed his eyes.
“The Goblin with magic did not see Garen for many years. He wandered Drake cities, sometimes being found out, other times staying for a week, a month. Learning. Fitting in. He could not go to the larger Drake cities, but in the smaller ones there was no [Mage] who could see through his spells. And he began to hear tales of an adventurer in the north, the strangest of things. A Goblin adventurer. And he worked harder than ever because he remembered his promise.”
The smoky Goblin sat and read books, reading, talking with Drakes and Gnolls. Rags was entranced. She stared at Garen’s face. The Hob pretended not to be paying attention, but he never took his eyes off the smoky shape that was Reiss. The Goblin Lord paused, and his smile faded.
“And then one day, nearly two years after he had set out on his quest, the Goblin with magic met a man who brought death. He came to a Drake village, posing as a [Merchant]. It was a peaceful place, a rare settlement without walls. The [Merchant] arrived bringing goods, asking for news. He met the Goblin with magic and stared at him because he saw through the Goblin’s illusions. But he pretended to be kind.”
A stranger made of smoke with a fake smile appeared, a wagon laden with goods behind him as the smoky Goblin and Drakes gathered around him. Rags felt a bit of unease. Even as a figment of smoke, there was something unsettling about the man’s smile. Reiss’ voice quietly went on.
“That night, the undead attacked. Zombies. Ghouls. Crypt Lords. And worse. They slaughtered the Drakes. The Goblin with magic fought them as the kind Drakes died. He would have run, but the man of death cornered him. He revealed his true face and they fought.”
The smoke spun into a confusing scene. A Hob fought with magic, leaving smoky trails as he shot spells at a laughing man surrounded by lurching shapes. Then the smoke drew together. The next scene was of a Goblin lying on the ground and the man standing over him.
“He lost. That was the first time I met my master. The man of death. The one who hated Drakes, Gnolls, Human, hated everything. He did not kill me that day. Instead, he offered me a choice. Serve him in life or serve him in death. And I chose to live. So I became his apprentice. The one student of Az’kerash. The Necromancer.”
Every eye was fixed on Reiss. Rags’ breath caught in her chest. Tremborag stared at Reiss and then crunched down on his bone.
The Necromancer. Rags had known someone powerful had to be Reiss’ master. But this? She looked around and saw shock on Pyrite’s face. Disbelief on Noears, Quietstab and Poisonbite’s. As for Redscar—he looked blank.
Quietstab leaned over to whisper. More than a few Goblins were confused. They did not know the history of Izril. But Rags did. Reiss let the whispers continue and then spoke.
“Yes, the Necromancer. The one who came from Terandria. He fought in the Second Antinium War. He battled the Antinium, the Humans, the Drakes. He even clashed with the Goblin King. He was alive. In hiding. But he had not lost his hatred. And he saw a chance in the Goblin with magic. A chance to create a Goblin King of his own. A weapon to strike the living with. That was his plan.”
Rags’ gaze swung back to Reiss in disbelief. The Goblin Lord looked at her and smiled crookedly.
“He failed. Or rather, even the Necromancer could not make a King. But his student did become a Goblin Lord. For five years he studied under Az’kerash, growing in power until he was stronger than any Chieftain.”
“Not any Chieftain.”
Tremborag drank from a wineskin. Reiss looked up at him.
“No, perhaps not. But stronger than most. Strong enough to fulfill his master’s plans. It was then that the Goblin with magic went back to fulfill his promise. He walked to the spot where he had sworn to meet his friend. His brother.”
The Hob made of smoke reappeared. He looked taller. Older. The smoke could not capture fine detail, but with every step, it looked like the Hob was moving faster. He arrived at the meeting place, a hill with a rock and waving grass and looked around. And another Hob was there, sitting on the rock. A sword was strapped to his back.
“His brother was waiting for him. He was a famous adventurer, then. So famous that the Goblin with magic had heard of him even in his master’s lair. The Gold-rank adventurer who was a Goblin. Garen. Garen Redfang of the Halfseekers.”
Garen stared at the smoke as the two Goblins embraced and sat down, laughing and talking. The Hob’s crimson eyes were distant. Reiss looked up at the smoke and clenched his hands.
“At first they were ecstatic. Both had fulfilled their promise. Both were alive. Garen wanted the Goblin with magic to join the Halfseekers. The Goblin with magic wanted something else. He told Garen about his master. And he showed him what he could do.”
In the air, the Hob with robes pointed. A zombie burst out of the earth, startling the Hob with a sword. He backed away, sword drawn. The smoky Goblin with magic pointed at the zombie, waving his hands. The Hob with the sword shook his head. He leapt forwards and slashed the zombie in half.
“Garen did not accept what the Goblin with magic had done. He called his brother a traitor. A slave. What Goblin would kneel to a Human, let alone a [Necromancer]? Goblins could not be slaves. And undead—he hated the undead.”
In the air above the fire, the two Hobs quarreled.
“They argued. Then fought.”
The Hob with a sword swung at the Hob in robes. Light flashed amid the smoke and Rags saw the Hob with magic firing spells. The two retreated.
“Garen could not accept that the Goblin with magic had a master. He did not wish to be part of the Necromancer’s plan—to make a Goblin Lord. He swore to oppose his friend, his brother, if he ever tried to carry out the plan.”
Rags stared up at the smoke as the two Hobs stared at each other. She looked at Garen. The Hob looked up at her. His red blade sat on his knees.
“Because of the undead. Because of him. The Necromancer. Because we are not slaves. Because of the undead.”
The hate in Garen’s voice was physical. But Rags thought of Pisces and her heart hurt. She looked at Reiss.
The Goblin Lord’s eyes were sad.
“Velan the Kind hated undead. And we are his people still. Garen refused to listen. He and the Goblin with magic separated. That was the last time they saw each other for years. The Goblin with magic went back to his master, heartbroken. In time he would leave and form his own tribe. Become Chieftain, and then a Lord just as he said. And Garen would go north. He would be an adventurer for another year until he betrayed his team and escaped to the High Passes. There he would form the Redfang Tribe and ride against his brother.”
The smoke showed two Hobs. They looked older and stood apart from each other. On one side, a Goblin in robes stood with shambling undead and undead at his back. On the other, a Hob with a sword pointed and Goblins mounted on wolves rode towards him. Rags felt her heart squeeze as the two met. Reiss and Garen looked at each other.
“We can still join together, brother. It does not have to end like this.”
Garen stared up at the smoke. He moved suddenly and his sword slashed the air. The illusory figures made of smoke vanished. Reiss lowered his hands and shook his head.
“I betrayed no one.”
“You claim that. But you serve the Necromancer. I lived while he destroyed the Humans in the north. I saw him, once.”
Tremborag spoke up suddenly. He leaned forwards, for once not sneering or furious. He looked at Reiss, one Goblin to another.
“He is not Human. He was once, but whatever that part was is gone. He is a monster and he will use you as a pawn.”
Garen nodded. He stood and pointed at Reiss. He had spoken little, but now his voice was loud. So loud that every Goblin heard it.
“You are a slave. Reiss! You betrayed Goblins! You served the Necromancer! You are not Goblin. You are a tool! Better to be dead than join you! Better to die than be undead! Better—”
He stared at the wisps of smoke trailing upwards. Garen’s voice grew quiet.
“—better not to be a traitor. Why did you have to betray us?”
He looked at Reiss. The Goblin Lord’s eyes flashed. He stood as well, thinner than Garen, his magical robes sweeping about him.
“I betrayed no one! My master offered me a chance and I took it! Yes, he uses me. But he gave me power. The power to do this.”
Reiss raised his hands. The fire went out. And something rose in its place. A spire of bone. No—an undead. It was folded up, compacted. But as the earth shook loose, it unfolded. A creature taller than all but Tremborag. Old, yellowed bone forming strange arms. It was humanoid, but the bones were oddly proportioned. Only when Rags saw the head did she realize.
It was a cow. A cow whose bones had been rearranged to make it stand upright. It towered over Garen as he raised his sword. The Goblins shrank back. Reiss shouted.
“Look at it! It will fight! It will die at my command! Instead of Goblins! How can that be so wrong? It’s just—just—”
He looked around. The Goblins of Reiss’ tribe looked at him, fearful. The others stared at the horror he had brought to life. The Bone Horror’s dark sockets burned with green light from within. A Goblin child hid behind Pyrite. Reiss faltered as he saw the terrified eyes. The Bone Horror collapsed silently onto the ground, amid the embers.
“Redfang called you traitor. He was right.”
Tremborag spoke in the darkness. The Great Chieftain was a shadow as he stared at Reiss. He pointed at the pile of bones.
“You serve something no different from that. Traitor indeed.”
“You think so?”
Reiss stared at the fire. He pointed and the fire burst back into life. The bones cracked as the sudden heat engulfed them. The Goblin Lord strode back to his seat and sat. He reached for his cup of water as Garen sat as well. Reiss drank and pointed at Garen. His face was twisted by anger and grief.
“If we’re speaking of traitors. You had a tribe, Garen. Not one of Goblins, but of adventurers. The Halfseekers were famous in Izril. They championed all races and they alone let a Hobgoblin enter their ranks. And you betrayed them. You slaughtered half of them and fled. You are the traitor as much as I.”
The Goblins turned to look at Garen. The Hob went still. His eyes burned as he slowly looked up at Reiss and shook his head.
“They were not my tribe. They never believed I was one of them.”
Reiss’ eyes narrowed as he gulped more water.
“But they were yours. They trusted you. And you killed them. For the key. Do your Redfangs know that? Garen killed his own?”
His Redfangs did. At least, Redscar did. But even his gaze was uncertain. They must have heard the tale from Garen. But Reiss had thrown that into doubt. Garen shifted.
“I did everything for Goblins. For Goblins.”
“So did I!”
Reiss nearly stood again, but Eater of Spears patted his shoulder. The Goblin Lord visibly calmed himself and kept drinking from his cup. Garen copied him by eating from his bowl of meat. The two of them glared at each other, looking so alike in that moment that Rags could see them sitting together, just like they had in the smoke.
At last, Reiss sighed. He tore his gaze away from Garen and looked at Rags.
“So, little Chieftain. That is our story. That is our past. That is why Garen calls me slave and I do not. I have a master. I will not pretend he thinks of Goblins as anything but tools. But he will give us power if we fulfill his wishes. What other option is there?”
Garen spoke quietly. Tremborag crunched a bone.
“So you say.”
Reiss looked back at the other two Chieftains. His gaze fixed on Tremborag.
“You sat in your mountain, ‘Great Chieftain’. The Goblin King called and you did not answer. You grew your tribe and it was mighty, yes. But for what? Are you content to hide from Humans forever? Why have you done nothing?”
Tremborag tossed aside the cow’s femur.
“You want to know my past? You want to know why I refused Velan? How I became Great Chieftain? The secret of my strength?”
He flexed one arm and muscle grew out of fat. Reiss nodded. The other Goblins leaned forwards. Tremborag gazed around.
“No. That story is mine. I am Tremborag of the Mountain and I will reclaim my home. I bow to no Goblin Lord. You traitors I will hunt down. That is the only story you need know.”
He pointed at Poisonbite, who jumped. Reiss shook his head. He looked towards Rags.
“So. The Great Chieftain refuses. Garen refuses. But do you see, Rags?”
Rags did see. She saw pride in Tremborag, and that burning fury and loss in Garen as well as Reiss. The two were separate, but they had been—she hesitated. Rags looked from Garen to Reiss. Her eyes narrowed.
“One question. You two have sex? Lovers?”
Reiss choked on his water. Garen paused as he chewed on his meat. Both Hobgoblins stared at Rags. Then Garen dumped his bowl of meat onto the ground and spat out what he was eating. Reiss shook his head.
“No. We were never—no.”
Rags shrugged. The Goblin Lord’s face was a mix of chagrin and amusement as he wiped his mouth. Redscar looked amused as well. Garen did not.
“Fah. That was your question?”
Tremborag eyed Rags as he found another wine flask. Rags shrugged.
“Good to know.”
Tremborag snorted and glanced dismissively at Pyrite. His gaze found Pyrite’s face and then paused. The Great Chieftain frowned and put down his wine.
“Wait. I recognize the other traitors behind you. But you. Do I…know you?”
He stared hard at Pyrite. The Hob glanced up. He was breaking up bone and sucking the marrow out. He shrugged.
Tremborag wasn’t convinced. He stared at Pyrite.
“I…do. You were of my tribe once, weren’t you?”
Reiss glanced between Pyrite and Tremborag with interest. Garen frowned. It seemed like a distraction, but Rags could see how Pyrite’s left foot tensed up as he stared calmly at Tremborag.
“You were in my tribe.”
The Great Chieftain insisted. Pyrite nodded at last.
“Small Goblin. No name.”
“Yes. A worthless little Goblin. But for some reason—”
Tremborag peered at Pyrite. Then his huge eyes widened.
“Now I remember! You were with him all the time. That decrepit old Hob. Grey…Greybeard! Yes, that was it! That useless fool and you were always together. Where is that traitor? Dead?”
All the Goblins in Rags’ tribe stirred. They looked at each other and then at Pyrite. Redscar sat up and stared hard at Pyrite. All of Rags’ lieutenants and Rags herself remembered. And Reiss sat up too. Snapjaw was poking Eater of Spears urgently and the huge Hob was nodding. Garen sat bolt-upright, his eyes widening as he realized who Tremborag was mentioning.
Only Tremborag himself didn’t notice. Pyrite glanced around and seemed to sigh. He nodded.
“True. I was with Greybeard. But not right name. He had another.”
Tremborag smirked. He opened his wineskin with one claw.
“What was it? Was he an old Chieftain from another tribe? A wanderer who stole his name like the child? What did he call himself?”
“Greydath of Blades.”
The wineskin slipped from Tremborag’s claws. It landed on the ground, leaking wine. Tremborag stared at Pyrite.
“Do not lie.”
Pyrite met Tremborag’s gaze. The Great Chieftain drew himself up to shout, and then, at last, caught the mood around the camp. The Goblins in his tribe stared at Reiss’ face, at Rags’ expression, at Garen and the other Hobs.
They knew. Rags remembered the grinning Hob with the grey beard. Tremborag’s jaw worked soundlessly.
Perhaps if he was Human he might have denied it. But Goblins seldom lied, let alone to each other. And the truth was written on every face. The Great Chieftain’s face changed from shock to fury to confusion and a host of other emotions as he tried to process that information. Then, at last, he croaked.
“Greydath? But he died—”
Pyrite nodded amiably. He fished around in his pile of bones for a new one. Looking unconcerned at all the eyes on him, he cracked another bone and hunted for the marrow.
“True. Greydath died in war. Probably like Necromancer. Probably was just imposter. All he had was rusty greatsword. Didn’t do much. Ate. Slept. Worked. Cut Griffon in half. Go poo. Talked. Taught me.”
“So that was Greydath who visited my tribe?”
Reiss stared hard at Pyrite. The Hob looked up and met his eyes. He shrugged at the Goblin Lord, which was incredible in itself.
“Maybe? Old Goblin? Beard? Cackle like this?”
Pyrite made a good attempt at Greydath’s crackling laughter. Reiss hesitated.
“He spoke to—what did he want? What did he teach you?”
Every eye was fixed on Pyrite. The Hob seemed reluctant to speak. He looked around, saw Garen’s burning gaze on him, scratched his butt, and then shrugged again.
“Names of rocks. Edible moss. Good bugs to eat. Bad bugs to eat. How to poo smart. How to make tweezers for splinters.”
Rags stared at Pyrite slack-jawed. Then her eyes narrowed. His ears were twitching slightly. She reached over to punch him in the side. The Hob blocked her fist effortlessly. He paused. Tremborag was glaring at him, as were the others. Pyrite sighed again.
“How small we are. How strong Humans are. What it means to be Chieftain. And…stories.”
Redscar stared hard at Pyrite. The Hob nodded.
“About old Chieftains. Famous Goblin warriors. About Goblin Lords. And—about a key.”
He looked up, straight at Garen. The Hob froze. His hand clamped to one side. Every eye turned to him.
The key. Rags glanced at Pyrite. The Hob watched Garen carefully and then went back to his bone. His ears were still twitching.
He’d diverted the conversation successfully. But while that had fooled the others, it didn’t fool Rags. Or the other Chieftains or Reiss. All three glanced back at Pyrite, but now the focus was on Garen. Tremborag growled furiously at Garen.
“Redfang, you told them about the key?”
Garen defended himself. Reiss nodded.
“He didn’t tell us. I already knew. Besides, Garen is simply a bad liar.”
The Redfang’s Chieftain glared, but didn’t deny Reiss’ claim. Tremborag looked furious as he glanced swiftly at Reiss and at Garen, clearly worried. The only one in the dark was Rags. She threw a stick on the fire for attention.
“The key. What is it? Secret to Goblin King treasure? What treasure? How you know?”
Reiss looked at Rags. Instantly, Tremborag spoke up.
“Don’t tell her. This is a secret for true Chieftains, not mewling pretenders.”
Reiss ignored Tremborag. He glanced at Garen, who was giving him an unspoken look. Rags thought it was that which made Reiss decide to tell her.
“It is a memory, Chieftain Rags. A memory I saw. And Garen. When we were young, we were part of the Ghostly Hand tribe. We could not remember, but our Chieftain did. And our tribe was large so she looked back and saw the memories of Velan the Kind. Or rather, the months before he died.”
The other Goblins stared at Reiss. Rags did too. She had experienced Velan’s memories, but only in fragments, when he was younger. She had no idea what had made him go to war. He was so different from the Goblin that had set fire to Baleros and Izril. Reiss nodded.
“She was curious. So she looked. And she saw a strange thing. The histories of other species do not record this except in passing. In a book I read—it was written something like this.”
Reiss closed his eyes and recited from memory.
“‘The Goblin King had rapidly moved south with a small force, entering the High Passes. There he vanished for eight days.’ That is all that was written in any account. For eight days the Goblin King vanished, and the Humans believe it was to clear the High Passes. But Velan did not clear the passes. Instead he hid something there. His treasure. And he locked it away with a key. Not just one key, in fact. Two. He gave one to Tallis and kept the other for himself.”
Keys? Treasure? When had this turned into fairy tale? Rags wanted to laugh. But then she remembered the key Garen had been so attached to. And he’d been certain that Tremborag would accept his and Rags’ tribe. Because of the Goblin Lord? Or because—
Rags glanced quickly at Tremborag. The Great Chieftain did not look happy. Reiss looked at him and Garen. He pointed at the hand Garen had clamped over his side.
“There are two. My Chieftain puzzled long over that mystery until she realized that. That is the second part of the secret. There are two keys that Velan hid, and his treasure cannot be found without both. Garen found one. But I wonder, do you know where the other lies?”
He looked at Garen directly, then shifted his glance to Tremborag. The Great Chieftain tensed up. At last, he spoke one grudging word.
“No. And if we did know, we would never tell you, brat.”
Rags studied Tremborag. But his face was unreadable. So instead she looked at Garen. So did all the other Goblins. The Hob looked past Reiss’ head into the sky, scowling. His face was one solid grimace, but—his ears were twitching violently.
“Have no idea.”
Reiss stared at Garen’s ears. Rags stared at Garen’s ears. All the Goblins present, including Garen’s own warriors stared at the Hob’s trembling ears. Tremborag uttered an oath.
“I’m going to kill you, Redfang.”
Garen looked confused. He didn’t seem to realize his massive tell. But it was Reiss who shook his head.
“One key is worthless. As for the other—if it were easy to obtain, you two would have taken it. But I believe that even with both keys, Velan’s treasure lies well hidden. Or else Garen would have found it after years of his tribe living in the High Passes.”
So that was why he settled there. Rags’ eyes widened. She glanced at Redscar and saw the Goblin’s mouth was agape along with the other Redfangs. Garen had been searching for the treasure all this time. The Hob looked extremely upset, but he wisely didn’t say anything else.
For a few minutes all the Goblins were thinking, trying to process all they’d heard. Then Tremborag spat and sat up.
“So. Keys. Promises between children. Betrayal. None of it changes the truth. You came to take our tribes. And you brought the Humans! To serve you is to serve the Necromancer. And why should we do that? Even the nameless Goblin can see what folly it is.”
His huge finger pointed at Rags and then Reiss. The ‘nameless Goblin’ glared at Tremborag. He wasn’t helping his argument by insulting her. But Reiss looked calmly at Tremborag.
“I told you, my master cares little for Goblins. But he knows the value of a Goblin Lord. And I am his apprentice. He would aid me, if only to hinder the Humans and Drakes.”
“And he will throw you away when you are done. Don’t fool yourself, brat!”
Tremborag laughed at Reiss. Garen nodded.
“You are a tool. Slave!”
The word seemed to nettle Reiss. He avoided looking at Garen as he stared at the dying fire.
“A tool. Perhaps. But this tool is not mindless. I choose which orders to obey. I have disobeyed my master once and I will do it again. He controls my actions, but he does not control me.”
“A slave’s words.”
Reiss’ voice was a hiss. He stared at Tremborag, his eyes burning. Snapjaw and Eater of Spears sat up behind him. Reiss calmed.
“But I will be a slave if I must. Because I dream. I dream of a city. You sit and hide, Tremborag, but I dream of a place where Goblins will be free. I dream of streets where Goblins walk about without fear. I dream of homes made by Goblins for Goblins. I dream of a nation. A kingdom of Goblins.”
Tremborag laughed. He upended his wine skin.
“Am I? I did not become a Goblin Lord or sacrifice so much just for my master. I did not give—”
Reiss passed his hands in front of his black eyes.
“I did not give away what I did for power alone. I gave it for a dream. And now I am close. Look around you! There are hundreds of thousands of Goblins here! Enough to conquer all but the largest of cities! If the Humans were to falter, if you would follow me—”
“You would what, take a city? How long would that last? A week? Until the adventurers came for you.”
Reiss shook his head.
“I would take it and hold it. Let the people inside go in peace. Negotiate with the Humans or Drakes—”
Snapjaw leapt to her feet. She glared at Tremborag, hands clenched. She was quivering with emotion. She spoke for the first time that night.
“Reiss can do it! Make nation! Make us safe!”
“It will never happen. The Humans would turn their own cities to ash rather than let Goblins hold it.”
Tremborag sneered at Snapjaw. She took a step forwards, but Reiss held up a hand. He stared at Tremborag.
“It can. If enough Goblins are there. If they are strong enough to make attacking them impossible. If they make a deal. And if they have an ally.”
The Necromancer. Rags stared at Reiss, her jaw open. That was his plan. Reiss turned around to the staring Goblins, ignoring Tremborag’s derision.
“It can happen. My master is strong. If I take a place that can be held, he will support me. And with magic and fortifications, even the greatest of Human armies would not be able to break into my home. I came north for the army to make that dream a reality. If the Humans had not attacked the mountain, I might have taken that.”
Tremborag paused and looked up, eyes glowing. Reiss nodded, meeting Tremborag’s eyes.
“I would not copy you, Tremborag. I would not hide. I would make peace with the Humans, give them what they needed for peace—”
“Your head! And all the heads of the Goblins in the mountain! Don’t fool yourself! Your dream will never come true!”
Tremborag roared in frustration. Reiss was unmoved.
“It can. And it will. Any Goblin who dreams of peace, of a place where a Human will not burn them out of their caves or kill them for their ears—that is my dream too. And I will make it. What will you offer them, Tremborag? The safety of your mountain until it disappears? I have a dream. You have nothing.”
He looked at Tremborag and then at Garen. Then Reiss turned.
“Dream, my people. Dream. That is why I fight. For a dream. A home.”
The fire was dying behind Reiss. But at his words, the embers glowed one last time. A plume of smoke shot into the air. And a city formed there. A city as real as mist, as far from reach as the stars. But a city nonetheless. It hung in the air, tall houses hidden behind walls. And little Goblins stood in the streets, walked along the walls. The assembled Goblins looked up and saw Reiss dream for one glorious second, written in the sky in smoke and dying sparks.
For a second it took Rags’ breath away. A Goblin nation? A place where they could be safe? For one moment she tried to imagine it. Walls of stone? Houses, like the ones Humans and Drakes built? Roads? Goblin…adventurers?
For one second it was there, a glorious city shining in Rags’ mind. And then the dream fell apart. Rags began wondering how any nation of Goblins would survive. Surely the Humans or Drakes or even Gnolls would declare war. How could they protect themselves? Would they trade? Where would they make this nation? She shook herself and stared around.
Her tribe was staring upwards. Almost all of them. A few like Noears, were frowning. Some like Redfang were measuring the cost in blood. But many, even Quietstab and Poisonbite, were caught up in the vision. Rags understood that.
A place to be free. A place to be safe. Forever. It was such a tantalizing idea that it hurt. But only a child would dream of something like that. Every Goblin who’d lived for even a year knew it was an impossibility. But Reiss stood in front of that dream and shouted it would be true. And you almost believed—
Almost. Rags looked to her left and saw a pair of crimson eyes staring at her. Pyrite too had wrenched his gaze away from the city. He looked at her, and flicked his eyes to the city. There was longing in his gaze. But like her he saw the cracks.
And yet, the city of smoke hung in the sky, tantalizing, held there by magic and the wishes of a hundred thousand Goblins. Until a shape rose. A huge hand pushed through the city and it vanished. Rags started as Tremborag waved the smoke away. Every Goblin stared at him, hurt, furious, but the Great Chieftain paid no heed. He sneered down at Reiss.
“This farce is over. Your dream is just that, Goblin Lord. A dream. It will never come true. The Humans chase your great army. And your master has abandoned you. You may fool the child, and you may have a history with Redfang. But I will never make peace. We run in the same direction because of the Humans. Because of the Kingslayer. But when there is a chance, however small—”
He leaned forwards. Rags saw Reiss tense and his warriors grip their weapons. Tremborag breathed a foul mix of wine and meat fumes into Reiss’ face.
“—I will kill you, slave. And you, thief, nameless Goblin. You and all the traitors.”
He looked at Rags. Then he straightened and turned. He lumbered away, out of the Goblin sit-about. And like that, it was over. Tremborag’s Goblins hesitated. Some cast last, longing looks towards the fire, or towards Reiss. But they followed their Chieftain. Reiss stood, watching the Goblins go. He glanced to his right. At the Hob standing there. The Hob with the sword. Garen stared at the spot the city had been. Then he looked at Reiss. The Goblin Lord smiled wearily at him.
“I have not changed, Garen. Have you?”
For a second, Rags saw Garen hesitate. For one second, the two Hobs stared at each other and the past swirled around them like smoke. But then Garen shook his head. He drew his sword and pointed it at Reiss’ chest.
“I am Garen Redfang. And you are my enemy.”
He turned away. Reiss nodded. He closed his eyes as Garen turned and whistled. His tribe followed him away. Reiss watched them go, and then turned to Rags. He said nothing. Just waited.
Rags stared at the fire. It was just dying embers now. Just ash. She looked around and thought of all she’d seen and heard.
So many stories. None of them were hers. Reiss and Garen had played their story out, been brothers and then enemies before she’d been born. And Tremborag—she felt like a stranger. But she was here too. And her tribe stood behind her, waiting to see what she would say. Rags looked at Reiss. At last, she shook her head.
“I am not yours. I am not Necromancer’s tool.”
He sighed. The army of black-clad warriors sighed behind him. Snapjaw gritted her teeth and Eater of Spears shook his head. Rags held up a hand. She pointed at Garen and Tremborag’s backs.
“I am not yours. But I think they’re stupid. We talk again. Goblins are not the danger here. Humans are.”
Reiss’ eyes widened. He looked at Rags, then smiled and nodded. She nodded back carefully. Then she turned. Her lieutenants looked at her. Rags shrugged.
Pyrite crooked a smile.
“Talk is good.”
Rags nodded. She smiled and walked back. Her tribe walked with her as she moved back to her camp. She saw Reiss’ army doing the same. Rags lay down, her Goblins chattering. She stared up at the stars.
It was strange. For a while she’d forgotten that they were being chased by the Humans. For a while, she’d felt like this was a story about Reiss and Garen, of Goblins and their dreams. But then she sat up. She stared at the Human’s camp to the north.
Perhaps there was a story about Goblins here. But the Humans had their own goals. And Rags wondered if it involved any Goblins surviving. She looked to Garen and Tremborag’s camps. They were determined to fight Reiss to the end. But was he the enemy?
Rags wasn’t so sure anymore. So she rolled over and went to sleep. And in her dreams she saw a city made of smoke and chased after it. But the fire always went out no matter how many times she tried to catch it. And yet the city was still there in her mind. Always, always out of reach.
The next day, the Humans roused the Goblins by blasting sound spells overhead. The Goblins shot out of their beds and were marching within minutes. The peace and talk of last night felt like a dream, especially once the Goblins looked back and saw the wave of Humans following them, promising them death.
But it hadn’t been a dream. And the first effects of the Goblin sit-about were seen almost immediately. Tremborag and Garen’s forces marched together, both near the rear of the Goblin procession. Not by choice; it was just that Rags’ tribe was faster and Reiss’ army was too large to push past. Normally, Rags would have kept her people moving faster to stay ahead of Reiss by a comfortable margin.
Not today. Today, Rags raised a hand as her tribe moved ahead of the rest. Her warriors slowed. Rags hesitated, then pointed.
She indicated the first rank of Goblins in black armor. Her tribe hesitated, but then it began to move towards Reiss’ army.
The reaction from the Goblins in black armor was immediate. A ripple went through the Goblin Lord’s tribe, and Rags half-expected the warriors to warn her tribe away with weapons or draw back. But then she saw Reiss himself appear in the sea of Goblins. He pointed and his tribe began to move towards Rags’.
Both sides halted before they crossed paths. A line of Rags’ warriors marched side-by-side with Reiss’ armored Goblins. They looked at each other warily, sizing each other up. Then Rags saw a huge Hob push his way through the Goblin Lord’s army.
Eater of Spears walked at the head of his warriors, head-and-shoulders above even the next tallest Hob. His muscular body strode forwards as he glanced at Rags’ Goblins, who edged away from him. But then a Hob from Rags’ side strolled forwards, battleaxe propped on one shoulder.
Pyrite took a spot on Eater of Spear’s right. The Hob moved into place as if he was just looking for a spot in the shade, which the huge Hob conveniently provided. Pyrite was chewing something. He glanced up at Eater of Spears and the Hob looked down at Pyrite. The two Hobs nodded at each other. After a second, Pyrite offered what he was eating to the bigger Hob.
It was a cluster of roots. Somehow, Pyrite had found some edible roots—or roots he deemed edible at any rate—and dug them up. He’d washed them, but hadn’t bothered to do anything else with them. Even the other Goblins looked askance at the hard roots, but Eater of Spears reached down and delicately took a few. He popped them into his mouth and began to chew. He nodded at Pyrite and the fat Hob nodded back.
And like that, the ice broke. Both sides were still wary, but the bolder Goblins pushed forwards. Poisonbite led her all-female squad into place behind Pyrite, clearly trying to intimidate the male Goblins. Her unit hooted and made rude gestures at the Goblins in black armor—until a group of Goblins riding horses replaced them.
Snapjaw grinned down at Poisonbite, who blinked up at her. The Goblin’s metal teeth shone in the light as she offered Poisonbite a hand. The smaller Goblin was deeply distrustful, but then she looked and saw that Snapjaw’s riders were mostly female. She took the Hob’s hand and was swung up into the saddle. The two females began chattering, and soon they were quickly laughing.
Rags watched her tribe begin to mingle with Reiss’. She kept her eyes on Pyrite and Eater of Spears, but to her surprise, they actually seemed to like each other.
It made sense. Both were naturally stoic, silent Hobs. And despite Pyrite being fat and Eater of Spears muscular, they shared a number of interests. Pyrite was particularly pleased to find a fellow connoisseur of all things edible in Eater of Spears.
Again, he needn’t have been. Like Pyrite, Eater of Spears understood the great importance of eating at all times to keep up a proper weight. Especially if you were a Hob and food was scarce. Surprisingly, he found that Eater of Spears actually admired Pyrite’s bulk more than his muscles.
“My tribe was not fortunate. We had to fight monsters often. Very tough. Very little food sometimes. Can’t build fat. All of it turns to this.”
Eater of Spears rumbled as he tapped one straining bicep. Rather than guttural speech, every word of his was perfectly enunciated and chosen. Pyrite grunted as he scratched at his belly.
“Can’t eat monsters?”
“They were Stone Starers. Big eyes. Stone skin. Strong arms, but little meat. Eyes tasted horrible. Partially acidic.”
Pyrite tsked sympathetically.
“Not good for eating. My tribe live in mountains too. Not see Stone Starers.”
“Your tribe rich. Fat Hobs, pretty stones. Must be good Chieftain. I was poor Chieftain. Only hit things.”
“Just need to look for good food. Can find lots of food in caves, underground. Trick is growing some food. Use stream. Make dripping along roof, plant mushrooms and lichen. Also attracts bugs and animals.”
“Mm. Very smart.”
Eater of Spears listened appreciatively as Pyrite spoke. The two Hobs ambled along as Snapjaw and Poisonbite laughed with each other. As for Rags, she held back until she saw Reiss appear on the back of his undead spider. Then she rode towards him.
The Goblins parted to let her pass. Rags stared at the Goblins in black armor until her Carn Wolf growled. She looked up and saw the headless undead Shield Spider crawling ahead of her. She waved.
Reiss bent down to smile at her. His eyes flicked towards the growling Carn Wolf and then to Rags herself. He nodded.
“Let me dismount. Animals hate undead.”
Rags commented neutrally. She leapt from her Carn Wolf and patted the animal, pointing back to her tribe. She and Reiss began to jog on foot, as his warriors moved back to give them space. Reiss ran easily despite his robes, watching as Rags jogged to keep up. Her feet hit the ground at the same time his did, but she seemed to travel further with each step.
“You have a Skill?”
The two ran for a little bit in silence. Rags kept glancing up at Reiss. She was wondering what she should say.
Her decision to move her tribe next to Reiss’ didn’t indicate her sudden trust in the Goblin Lord. She had found the revelation of who his master was to be more and more troubling the more she thought on it. But Rags had also observed Tremborag and Garen and on the whole, Reiss was definitely the more cooperative and reasonable of the three. He hadn’t tried to kill Rags and it seemed like one of the things Garen hated most about him was the undead.
So she was giving him a chance. And she thought that Reiss understood that, because the first thing he did when he began speaking was to bring up his master again.
“I can contact my master, Az’kerash via spell. But it is possible for him to look through my eyes, even cast through me. I have been attempting to contact him for the last few days—ever since the Humans drove us from the mountain. But he has not responded.”
“He say nothing? Why?”
Rags was astonished. Reiss’ smile was grim.
“Ever since the death of Zel Shivertail, he has contacted me less and less. I believe he is attempting to create more servants, which is a time-consuming task. Even for him. He creates unique undead, beings that can think and act independently.”
Reiss expected Rags not to comprehend, but she nodded instantly.
“Oh. Like Toren.”
“Talking, thinking skeleton. Works in inn. As [Barmaid].”
Rags saw Reiss stumble. He stared at Rags and poked one finger in his ear.
“Tell you later. Your master. If he responds…you trust him to help?”
This time Rags watched Reiss’ face closely, wishing she had a truth detection spell. However, he was a Goblin and so was she, so the odds of him being able to lie to her were remote. She noted his hesitation, and then Reiss shook his head.
“No. I expect him to use me for his own gain. But it is in his interests to keep me alive. As a…tool, I am valuable. And as his apprentice, I have worth. If there is anyone to guess at what the Human’s plan is, it will be him. He may be able to stall Tyrion Veltras somehow.”
“He figure out what plan is? How?”
“He has informants all over the continent. Across the world, I think. More than one Drake in a position of power is his ally and there are a number of Humans he works with too. There is a Human conspiracy that he gives aid to, though they don’t know it is him—his ability to disguise himself with magic is second to none. He can even fool Gold-rank adventurers and his servants can cheat [Detect Truth] spells.”
Rags whistled. She wondered if she could learn an illusion of that magnitude. If she could enter a city—no, forget that. If she could disguise her warriors that perfectly, why not turn them into rocks on the ground? Or make them invisible? Reiss seemed almost apprehensive about his master, though.
“How much he aids us will depend on his mood. I have no doubt he will have questions. When he contacts me—he may wish to speak with you or the other Chieftains. Garen and Tremborag I cannot control, but mention nothing about the key to him.”
That made complete sense. Rags nodded. Reiss frowned.
“I wonder, though. The Humans have a plan. They have not attacked my army and they have the numbers to win. They are pushing us south quickly. I wonder what their goal is?”
Rags shrugged. She’d been brainstorming the same thing. She casually glanced ahead of them. She could see the mountains looming ever closer with each day.
“Going to High Passes. Maybe to Liscor?”
“Yes. That seems likely. I had wondered if this Tyrion Veltras wanted us to attack Invrisil, but we passed the city by without issue. If he intends to force us past Liscor—it’s raining, isn’t it?”
“Mhm. Wet. Lots of water.”
“That would stop his army. If he intends to take us into the High Passes we will know. Otherwise…Liscor is as far as he will go.”
That was true. Rags scratched her head. She frowned.
“Maybe he wants us to attack Drakes. Go to their lands. Cause trouble.”
“He may try. But we are not mindless. He cannot force us to attack anyone. And if we escape his army, I intend to vanish. My goal was to create an army capable of founding a nation. And if the threat of the Humans vanishes…”
He glanced back, his eyes seeking out Tremborag and Garen’s forces. Rags shivered. If the Humans left them alone, it would be a war among Goblins. And if that was the case, she didn’t know if she trusted Reiss. She pretended to be nodding when Reiss looked back ahead.
“Good plan. Don’t know, though. Humans strange. Do stupid things.”
“No. I suppose we don’t. But there is someone who might know. Come with me. I wish to introduce you to someone. As a sign of trust.”
Rags eyed Reiss warily. She didn’t think following him deep into the core of his army was a good idea. But he seemed to understand that and ordered the mysterious person brought to them. Rags saw a stir in the crowd of marching Goblins, and then some rather tall Hobs appeared. They were blocking someone from sight. They parted as they neared Rags and Reiss, forming a circle shielding them from view. And in the center of the cluster was—
The little Chieftain’s jaw dropped. A Drake was marching amid the Goblins. Her clothes were dirty and she had shackles on the two wings sprouting from her back, but her arms and legs were free. She looked at Reiss and then at Rags with deep suspicion.
Reiss motioned Rags to be silent. He nodded to Rags and pointed at the Drake. She had bright yellow scales and the spines on the back of her head were clear blue.
“This is Osthia Blackwing. Osthia, this is the Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe. Rags.”
“That’s a Chieftain?”
The Drake peered incredulously at Rags. The little Goblin stared at Osthia. She looked at Reiss.
“She was a captive from one of the Drake armies I faced. My master ordered her slain. I kept her alive for her knowledge of the Necromancer. Among other things.”
“You did it to defy him. I would have rather you killed me, but I have a duty to tell others about Az’kerash. Don’t think it means I won’t kill you if I thought I could get away safely.”
Osthia stared hard at Reiss. The Hobs around their Lord glared, but the Drake seemed used to it. Rags frowned at her.
“Why not chains? Could run away to Humans.”
Her words made Osthia snort. Reiss smiled.
“Apparently she doesn’t trust the Humans. And it would be hard for her to run. She is always among Goblins.”
“I don’t intend to run to the Humans, least of all Tyrion Veltras. I’m a soldier. An officer! I’d be interrogated and then executed. I’d rather wait and take my chances. We’re heading south each day, after all.”
Osthia folded her arms. She didn’t look a tenth as bad as the prisoners under Tremborag’s captivity. Indeed, she was jogging along with the other Goblins without even a hint of fatigue. Still, Rags was uneasy about any prisoners. She narrowed her eyes at Reiss and watched his and Osthia’s reaction.
“She prisoner, though. You have sex with her?”
Reiss nearly tripped again. He began to laugh. Osthia turned and gave Rags an offended look.
“I would rather die. Any Goblin—no, any captor trying to assault a Drake prisoner had better be prepared to have whatever they cherish most torn off. Or bitten off.”
She bared her teeth and all of the males around her edged back. Rags nodded.
She glanced at Reiss. The Goblin Lord stopped chuckling and nodded.
“You are a strange Chieftain. But I respect your beliefs, Chieftain Rags.”
Rags didn’t know what to say to that. It sounded like an empty statement, but Reiss looked anything but insincere when he said it. In the end, she just shrugged again.
“I am me.”
“So why am I here? To speculate on what Tyrion Veltras is trying to do?”
Osthia interrupted the two Goblins. Reiss nodded.
“Rags is an ally. I want to know what she thinks.”
“And can this…child talk about tactics?”
The Drake soldier eyed Rags. She received a similar look in reply. Rags jabbed a finger towards her chest.
“I am smart. Are you smart? Can you play chess?”
Osthia stared at Rags. She opened her mouth, and then frowned. Reiss was frowning too.
“You can play chess? Will you teach me? Osthia refuses to teach me.”
Rags hesitated. It had been a long time since she’d played the game. But why not? She shrugged and smiled.
“Sure. But first—tell me more about Az’kerash.”
She looked sharply at Reiss. The Goblin Lord hesitated. His gaze moved to Osthia, who was watching him with unconcealed interest. He nodded slowly.
“I will tell you all that I can.”
All day Rags marched with Reiss and Osthia. Her tribe moved with the Goblin Lord’s forces, talking, exchanging ideas, stories—talking. It wasn’t anything of great consequence. Neither Rags nor Osthia nor Reiss could make any definitive statements about what the Humans had planned and nothing monumental came of the other exchanges.
And yet, something did happen. Pyrite and Eater of Spears walked together in amiable silence for hours, chewing on whatever one or the other found. Poisonbite only left Snapjaw’s mount when the marching had stopped. And other Goblins like Noears had struck up conversations with [Mages] and [Shamans] in the Goblin Lord’s army. Even Quietstab had found a friend in another Goblin [Rogue].
Only Redscar hadn’t been socializing, and that was because he had been riding ahead. But the rest of Rags’ tribe had formed a tentative bond with Reiss’ forces. They pitched their camps a bit closer together that night.
The change was not lost on either Tremborag or Garen. In response, the two other Chieftains camped practically cheek-by-jowl. There was no thought of a sit-about tonight. And indeed, as the Goblins began preparing dinner, a familiar sound began echoing from Garen’s camp.
All of the Redfang Goblins in Rags’ camp looked up. The Goblin of Garen’s tribe were on their feet. They stomped and shouted.
It was the same as last time. Rags watched as Redscar and his Redfangs bristled. They formed up in a group of their own and shouted a reply back.
A shout of outrage issued from Garen’s camp. They shouted back, but Redscar and his warriors kept defiantly shouting the same word. Rags saw the Goblins pause, and then heard another shout.
The Goblins in her camp went quiet. Instantly, the Goblins took up the shout.
“Ga-ren! Ga-ren! Ga-ren!”
It was exactly the same as last time. Rags saw Redscar glancing uncertainly at her, and then at the lone figure that stood in front of his campfire. The Goblin with the crimson blade. Garen faced his former warriors as his tribe screamed his name.
Quietstab looked uncertainly at Rags. She held up a hand.
“Wait. Humans throw spells. Shut up soon.”
Her eyes were on Redscar. Rags could intervene, but this was his former Chieftain. His decision to make. She saw Redscar turn away from Garen, clenching his fists. Then he turned. He looked around wildly, and his eyes found hers. Redscar locked gazes for Rags for a few seconds and then thrust his hand up in the air. He bellowed a word.
The other Redfangs jerked in surprise. They stared at Redscar, but then they turned to each other. There were nods, and then as one they shouted the same word.
Rags felt her heart stop. She stared as all the Redfangs began shouting the word. And then some of the other Goblins took up the chant. Not Redfangs. Her tribe. They screamed the word, shocking Garen’s tribe into silence.
“Rags! Rags! Rags!”
It wasn’t just the Redfangs. It was all the Goblins. Rags saw Poisonbite look up, and Pyrite stopped digging in the ground. The Hob stood up and thrust his fist up. He roared.
And then it was every voice. Hobs, small Goblins, children, Redfangs. Quietstab stood in front of Rags, shouting, his face alight with joy.
The sound eclipsed the chanting from Garen’s camp. His tribe tried to shout Garen’s name, but they were outnumbered by the Goblins in Rags’ tribe. Both Tremborag and Reiss’ Goblins turned and watched as Rags’ tribe chanted her name. Rags stood in the center of her tribe, heart beating wildly, staring around.
Her. They were chanting her. Redscar looked at her as he raised his fist. And Garen—he stared at Rags. She couldn’t see his face, framed by the firelight as it was, but she could feel his shock.
The chanting went on for minutes, until a fireball exploded overhead. Then the Goblins scattered and everything was silent. But the memory lingered. Rags stood in the camp as the Goblins looked at her.
Just looked. They didn’t slap her back or cheer her afterwards. They just nodded and got back to eating or sitting about. But she remembered. And she stood taller still as she went to sit next to Pyrite. Rags watched him digging about, hunting for a mole. He didn’t say much and neither did she. But she felt like a giant. And she was smiling.
That night, the Flooded Waters tribe celebrated. Exactly what it was for wasn’t said. If they had to put it into words, they might have said it was the realization of Rags as their true Chieftain, the final acknowledgement of the Redfangs of who their leader was, or the bittersweet parting of ways with the past. If they had to put it into words. But some things were better left unsaid, and the Goblins were just happy.
They ate well and slept. Their camp hugged the Goblin Lord’s, and their guards were more relaxed. For the first time it felt like they had an ally, rather than an enemy on all sides. Even with the Humans, that was something.
Quietstab was particularly happy. He staggered past the sentries at the edge of Rags’ camp, towards the latrines they shared with Reiss’ forces. Rags had decided to put them outside of her camp after a few unpleasant incidents that involved sleepwalking Goblins last night. Quietstab navigated the short distance on unsteady legs. He was pleasantly sloshed.
Alcohol wasn’t an essential that Rags had kept on their frantic march, but Noears had the bag of holding and unlike Rags, he had a fine appreciation for some of the luxuries that Humans enjoyed. So did Quietstab. He’d followed Rags of course, but he still missed some of the things that Tremborag’s Mountain City tribe had enjoyed. Like alcohol.
The one downside of course was the need to pee. Quietstab nearly fell into the first latrines he came to. He wavered unsteadily at the edge, electing to pee standing up. The latrines were big and he was only missing half the time. He was so preoccupied with his task that he was quite oblivious to everything around him. That was until he turned, fumbling with his loincloth and saw the shape looming above him.
Tremborag stood over Quietstab, a mountain blocking out the night sky. He had appeared silently. Quietstab’s eyes went wide with terror. He backed up and nearly slipped into the latrine. He windmilled his arms unsteadily and Tremborag caught his arm.
The gigantic Great Chieftain lifted Quietstab up. The Hob opened his mouth to shout as he flailed with one arm at Tremborag. The Great Chieftain’s other hand shot out. He gripped Quietstab’s head and twisted.
Crack. Quietstab’s flailing arms went limp. Tremborag studied the Goblin for a second. Then he grinned and tossed Quietstab into the latrine. The Goblin fell into a heap. Tremborag turned. His crimson eyes glowed.
“Suffer, traitors. Suffer, child. I will make you weep before you die. You and the slave. I am Tremborag. See how I keep my promises.”
Tremborag laughed. He turned and walked back towards his tribe, smiling for the first time since he’d left his mountain.
And in her camp, sleeping amid the furs and blankets, Rags shot up with a cry of pain. She clutched her chest as she felt something snapping, the pain, and then the loss, the emptiness in her chest. She stared around blankly, not understanding what had happened as the Goblins around her roused, asking questions. She sat there, weeping, not knowing why.
Not until tomorrow.
And as Tremborag walked back towards his camp and Rags sat amid her tribe and looked for the source of pain in her heart, someone moved next to the latrine. A patch of air resolved itself into a shape. Reiss stood frozen, halfway through doing his own business. He stared into the pit, at the broken shape that had been a Hob. Slowly, he stared at Tremborag’s retreating form and looked around for other witnesses.
There were none. Reiss knelt. He stared into the latrine and clenched his fist. But he made no move to raise the alarm, or retrieve Quietstab. He spoke softly.
“I’m sorry. But she is my ally now. Tremborag has Garen. I will have your Chieftain. And I will lead her tribe to a safer place. I promise you.”
He bent his head. Then Reiss turned. He whispered a spell and vanished, leaving only silence and death behind.