Six Goblins. Twenty goats. It wasn’t a heroic battle, the kind you’d hear about in stories. It wasn’t one anyone would celebrate or long remember. But it was a proper Goblin’s battle. Close, intense, and perhaps meaningless. But the Goblins fought as if it were the battle to end all battles.
Because it was that or die. And while this might be the place that they did die, so long as one Goblin was standing, the Redfang warriors refused to fall.
Headscratcher’s weapon was a shortsword. It had been a regular sword before he’d been a Hob. Now it stabbed into a goat’s side and his other hand was free, so he grabbed the goat and pulled it into the blade, spearing it.
It kept moving. The Eater Goats were inhumanly tough, which was understandable, but they were also tougher than any goat had a right to be. They swarmed the six Goblins, and it was only their teamwork that kept the Redfang warriors alive in the first charge.
Stand in a circle. Keep moving—defend each other’s backs, watch the flanks. The Redfang warriors had fought hundreds of battles like this, and they slashed at the goats, keeping them at bay while they tried to score a critical blow.
Fast. The Goats leapt and weathered cuts with their bodies, screaming, darting in to try and bite a leg or arm. Have one on you and it wouldn’t let go until it had eaten you or died, Headscratcher knew.
He spun and kicked as beside him, Bugear punched a goat into the ground and hacked at it. The goat Headscratcher was aiming at glanced off his leg, and he slashed futilely at it as it bounded away.
Too slow! Headscratcher raged against his own weakness as he took a step back, watching three goats circle around him, all waiting to pounce. This wasn’t right. He was stronger than before! But his body was so very weak. He was hungry. Headscratcher fought the feeling down. A weak Hob was still stronger than a Goblin.
A Goat leapt at the same time as two of its companions. Headscratcher dodged the first and knocked the second away with his sword, but the third bore him to the ground. He shouted as its gaping mouth was suddenly inches away from his face, biting—
Someone pulled the goat off him. Headscratcher rolled away and saw Bugear hurling the Eater Goat to one side. The other Hobgoblin never saw the second goat until it had leapt on his back. He whirled, and there was a brief flash of metal, a ripping motion, a spray of blood. The Eater goat leapt away, and Bugear stumbled.
His throat was missing.
Headscratcher rose. A goat charged him. He kicked it. Bugear was stumbling, swinging weakly. He fell. Headscratcher ran forwards as Badarrow and Shorthilt charged into the Goblins screaming and scattering them.
He caught Bugear. Headscratcher looked into his friend’s eyes as Bugear clutched at the remains of his throat. The other Goblin looked into his eyes and squeezed his hand, then turned. He grabbed his blade and rose. An Eater Goat fell as he drove the blade into its side. Bugear made a sound as his ruined throat bubbled with blood. He charged into the goats, mouth open in a silent scream.
So many. The formation was lost. Badarrow snarled as he slashed at a goat, a dagger in one hand, a shortsword in the other. Headscratcher ran after Bugear as the Hobgoblin was swarmed. No, no!
Headscratcher threw one goat to the ground and stomped on it. The goat broke. He turned and another caught his arm. It bit down to the bone and tore a chunk away as Headscratcher raised his sword. He knocked the goat away and speared it on the ground with his sword.
The Hob turned and roared. The goats ran towards him and he cut them down. One. Two. Three. He was burning with rage. But the goats kept on coming. They were fearless. And he—
Something knocked him to the ground. Headscratcher fell. A goat was on top of him, and he was fighting it. And then he heard a whistling sound, heard and felt the thunk. The goat stiffened on top of him and he pushed it away.
A knife was buried in the goat’s back. Headscratcher looked around. Who had thrown it? He saw a girl, standing in the melting snow, staring at him. Then she raised a hand.
“This way! Hurry!”
The Hobs looked up. Five of them, now. The Eater Goats were savaging Bugear. They all saw the girl and there was a second of hesitation. Just a second. Then they ran, and the goats followed.
Erin was the first to react after the first Eater Goat leapt the walls. She hurled her knife and the goat dodged. It skipped left and the blade bounced off the ground. Then it ran at Erin, screaming.
“To the houses! Lock the doors!”
Wirclaw loosed an arrow at the goat. It pierced the goat’s side, making it stumble, but the goat came on. The other villagers ran for the doors. A few raced out as the rest barricaded themselves in, holding pitchforks, a cleaver, a rake—
Erin had a small vial in one hand. She hurled it, and the goat caught it in the face this time. The vial exploded as it broke on impact, and the miniature fireball roasted Erin’s face. She yelped, turned, and ran. That was wise, because after a second the goat charged out of the flames. It was burning, and part of its face had been blown away. But it was still coming.
A huge furry hand caught the goat as it leapt for Erin. Wirclaw hurled the goat to one side and both he and Erin rushed over. Before the goat could get up they kicked and stomped on it. They only stepped back when it stopped moving.
Wirclaw bent over the goat, chest heaving, eyes wide. He had clearly never seen anything like it before. Erin looked towards the walls and scrambled for her knife lying in the ground.
“More are coming! Hurry!”
She and Wirclaw ran up to the watch post above the walls again. This time Wirclaw loosed arrows as fast as he could, aiming at the goats before they could perform their jumping trick. Erin was with him, another small vial in hand. She’d only thought to bring two! She saw the goats breaking away, leaving only six or so of their number behind. Why?
Then she heard the laughter. It was fierce, distant. She turned, and saw the Goblins.
Hobgoblins. They stood in a line, six of them. One was loosing arrows at the Eater Goats; the others were waiting for the goats to charge. Wirclaw spotted them and lowered his bow for an instant in astonishment.
“Goblins? Why are they here?”
“I don’t know. I think they’re—helping us?”
The Gnoll shook his head, but Erin was sure. She grabbed Wirclaw’s arm.
“Yes! They’re drawing the goats away!”
“They will be slaughtered. These goats are monsters!”
The Gnoll pointed to one of the goats below. The horrible thing had eight arrows lodged in its side, but it was still running about, bleating and screaming. Erin stared at the goats. She stared at the Goblins. Then she uncorked the second vial. Wirclaw recoiled as a viscous smell rose from the vial.
“What is that?”
“Acid. Octavia makes it. It’s strong, so keep back. And cover me.”
Erin walked down and went to the gates. She unbarred it with one hand as Wirclaw roared at her. The gates opened, and the villagers behind Erin shouted as the six goats charged her.
Erin raised the vial in her hand. She tossed the acid onto the faces of the first two goats who ran towards her, and raised her fist.
Another goat went flying. The remaining three were outnumbered, and the villagers charged them, weapons raised. The danger was in their numbers as much as their insane resistance to damage! Erin ran out of the gates, hearing Wirclaw’s arrows thunk into the ground behind her. She turned and saw the Hobgoblins fighting for their life. And behind them—something else.
Erin stared at the distant figures and waved her hands. She pointed once, and ran towards the goats and Goblins. She hoped they’d gotten the message.
They all ran. The Human girl, the young woman, waved her arms once and then raced away. Not towards the village, but just away, through the snow. The Goblins followed her, because they had no other choice.
The goats gave them a few seconds of lead as they fought over Bugear and their comrades. Then, sensing their prey might get away, the rest turned and ran.
There were eleven or so now, all injured, but Eater Goats never gave up. And they were quick! Headscratcher turned as one raced behind him. He shouted, and Badarrow twisted. The goat bounced off his raised arm. Numbtongue spat as he lifted one of the two swords in his hand and threw it. The goats dodged around the sword, slowing them down.
Now Numbtongue was down a sword. That meant he ran faster. The Hobgoblins were nearly caught up with the girl, and so were the goats. She was floundering in the snow. Headscratcher turned, ready to fight, to die—
An arrow shot past his head. It curved around Rabbiteater who was in the rear and struck a goat in the head. The goat dropped. His buddies halted and looked around.
On a snow-covered hilltop sixty feet away, Bird lowered his bow and reached for another arrow. He fumbled as he grasped for it, and his fingers brushed one of the newly-healed wounds on his chest.
“Are you okay?”
Beside him, Lyonette turned anxiously. She and Drassi were standing in the snow. So was Mrsha, despite Lyonette’s attempts to keep her in the inn. All three had potions and other alchemist weapons in their hands. Bird nodded.
“I believe the arrowhead of one of the arrows is lodged in my carapace. It will not bother me when shooting.”
As he spoke he loosed another arrow. This one caught a goat leaping for Erin’s legs. It fell too.
Erin and the Goblins were all running towards them. Lyonette gulped. She turned to Drassi.
“Ready? When they come—throw!”
The Drake was pale-faced but she nodded. Mrsha lifted a bottle and Lyonette would have grabbed it if her hands weren’t full too. More arrows were flying from the direction of the village, but the suicidal goats kept coming.
“Erin! This way! Duck!”
Lyonette waited until Erin and the Hobgoblins were twenty feet away before throwing. Drassi threw at the same time. The Human girl and Hobgoblins covered their heads and ducked as they ran. The Eater Goats looked up and saw two vials spinning towards them through the air—
They turned as the vials plopped into the snow and exploded into crackling lightning and a shower of thorny spines several feet away. Bird stared at the [Barmaids] as he reached for another arrow. And then Mrsha tossed.
Her aim was good. Her arm was terrible. The red vial with a shining orange center spun lazily down, just above one goat. It would have missed. Would have, but the goat, eternally hungry, leapt up and bit the vial in midair.
It exploded. Fire and bits of goat rained down. The other goats scattered, and then backed away as Mrsha, Lyonette, and Drassi threw again.
A tripvine bag exploded, catching two goats in the thorny tendrils that raced along the ground. A vial of pepper potion was swallowed by a goat that hadn’t learned the lesson the first time. That goat rolled around, shrieking. And Lyonette’s vial of Silverfrost missed everything and exploded into a frozen cloud next to the Hobgoblins.
Bird loosed an arrow. Erin turned. She had no knives, but she raised her fists anyways. The five Hobgoblins turned. They saw two goats tangled up in vines, chewing their way out, one rolling around on the ground, and a final goat, charging at them and bleating.
The final goat stopped. It looked back and saw a trail of its fallen friends, arrows sticking out of their heads, a flaming bit of snow where one of its friends had exploded, and another goat riddled with arrows from Wirclaw. It looked at the Hobs.
To its credit, it didn’t hesitate as it charged. The Hobs cut it down in moments and then turned to the three immobilized goats. They butchered all three with swift, precise blows.
And then it was over. Erin bent, panting, forehead covered with sweat despite the cold air. The Hobgoblins stood, blades dripping with gore, staring at each other and the odd company on the hilltop. Bird carefully drew another arrow and aimed it at Badarrow.
“Are you okay?”
Erin said it first to Lyonette, and then to the Goblins. They stared at her. Lyonette was the one who spoke.
“I—we’re okay, Erin. We found Bird lying on the ground a few minutes ago and he told us there were Goblins—we saw the goats attacking the village from a distance and came here. But what—”
“Goblins? Wait, why was Bird—”
“They shot me, Miss Erin. I regret to inform you that I did not manage to kill any of them. However, that may be good since your rule stipulates not killing Goblins. However, they are Hobgoblins so I did try. But they had better teamwork and so I was shot and fell off the roof. It was quite painful, but fortunately Miss Lyonette had healing potions.”
Bird calmly aimed at Badarrow as he spoke. Erin’s eyes widened and she looked at the Hobs. They glanced at each other and Shorthilt covered his face as Badarrow glowered at Bird.
“Wait, but they saved me! I mean, the village we were in was under attack by those goats. Why did they attack you, Bird?”
The Antinium hesitated. He looked at the Goblins and they, remembering, glared back. Bird didn’t exactly meet Erin’s eyes. He shuffled his feet before he spoke.
“I may have tried to shoot them from afar.”
He glanced at Erin and hunched his shoulders.
“I am supposed to hunt monsters.”
“But they’re Goblins! Wait—”
Erin closed her eyes as she held up a hand. Everyone looked at her. She took a breath.
“Okay. I think I get it. Lower your bow, Bird.”
“It’s okay, Lyonette. Trust me. Bird, lower your bow. These Goblins aren’t going to attack. Right?”
She glanced over her shoulder. The Hobgoblins blinked at her, and then edged away from her and the others. They glanced back across the snowy plains. One of them took a step away.
They turned to look back at Erin. The Goblins stared at her, and one raised a hand. Drassi screamed and Mrsha hid behind Erin as the Hob who’d raised the hand glanced at her. He turned away.
“Ancestors, Ancestors, oh Ancestors—”
Lyonette grabbed the shaking Drake. Drassi had faced down the Eater Goats despite her fears, but close proximity to the Hobgoblins was making the Drake tremble like a leaf. Erin called out after the Goblins as they trudged away, and then saw a group of Gnolls and Drakes heading her way.
“Uh oh. I’d better deal with that—come on!”
The others followed her as she jogged through the snow. The villagers lead by Wirclaw caught up with her, holding bloody weapons. None of them were hurt, which was a relief. Wirclaw half-raised his bow as he spotted Bird, and then glanced towards the Hobs in the distance.
“Miss Erin! Are you unharmed? Why did you leave? Those Goblins—”
“They saved your village, Wirclaw. No, don’t argue about it. Look, Lyonette and Mrsha and Drassi here helped you all. Can you take them back to your village for a little bit? I want to bring back the milk with them, and I think Drassi needs to sit down.”
Erin turned to Bird, ignoring the Gnoll.
“Bird, you go with them. Keep your bow out just in case I guess, but don’t shoot anyone unless they attack! Got it?”
The Antinium nodded. He looked at Erin.
“And what will you do, Miss Solstice?”
Erin squared her shoulders and then twisted her neck with a grimace. She must have twisted something while she was running or fighting. A healing potion would sort that out. But first things first. She turned and looked towards the five Goblins. They were standing around the spot where they’d first fought the goats. There had been six of them, then. Erin nodded to the Goblins and looked around at everyone staring at her.
“I’m going to talk to them.”
Bugear lay on the ground. Or rather, what remained of him lay there. Most of his body was gone but his head had been mostly spared from the savaging. Headscratcher knelt in the muddy ground and snow and picked it up. Bugear’s expression had slackened in death, but Headscratcher could still remember his wordless snarl as he charged the Eater Goats.
He had known he wouldn’t survive, so he’d thrown himself into the fighting to distract the goats. It had bought them enough time to survive. The other Goblins knew it. They stood around Bugear in silence.
There were no recriminations. No words of reproach for Headscratcher, or indeed, no words of any kind. It was done. They’d fought and now they were fewer. Again.
Redfang warriors did not weep for the fallen. They were warriors; they knew what their fates were. They did not cry, because their leader, Garen Redfang, didn’t believe in it. So the five Goblins did not weep for their brother.
A timid voice interrupted their moment of silence. The Goblins turned. Headscratcher wiped at his eyes that weren’t full of tears. He stopped and stared.
A girl stood in the snow. The same girl who’d helped save them, the one whom they’d seen on the walls of the village. She stared at them. How could she know what thought was running through their minds? What memories, what tragedies?
There were no words. And Redfang warriors did not weep. So the others brushed a bit of sweat, maybe melted snow water from their eyes as they looked at her. She was Human, an enemy most of the times, prey others. But they had met one who was neither. Once.
How could she know? She couldn’t. But the young woman saw their tears. And because she stood in front of them without a sword or spell blazing in their hands, they listened. The Redfang warriors had no hope of anything in particular. They were just lost and very tired.
And the young woman looked at them, at the head in Headscratcher’s arms, and did something they had never seen a Human do before.
Erin bowed to the five Goblins. The snow was stained red, and when she raised her head, she saw they had mostly wiped their tears away. The five Goblins stared at her. She said it again.
“Thank you. You saved us. I owe you my life.”
Silence. The Goblins looked at each other. Erin looked at them.
Five Goblins. Five…Hobs. She had only ever met two Hobs before in her life. Erin remembered the Goblin Chieftain, a lifetime ago, and the other Hob who she had met with Rags. These five were not like either.
They were ragged. They had loincloths, ill-fitting pieces of armor that were too small on their bodies, and weapons. Their blades were well looked after, but obviously well-used as well. Erin thought they were good iron, rather than steel.
And each of the Hobgoblins was injured. One, the one carrying the head, had a huge chunk taken out of his arm and a bad gash down one leg, but he didn’t seem to notice the blood running from him. Erin did.
She said it a third time, mostly because she had no idea of what to say next. The Goblins looked at her, and then each other. One, the only Goblin carrying a bow, growled and turned away.
“I’m sorry about your friend.”
The other Goblins looked at Erin, and then at the head of their companion. They said not a word. Another Goblin broke away from Erin. The rest just stared at her as if they’d never met a Human before. Or rather, never talked to a Human before.
What could she say? Thanks? She’d said that. I’m sorry? Ditto. Erin didn’t know what she should do. The Goblins had saved her. If they were anyone else—a group like the Horns of Hammerad for instance—she would have offered them money, asked where they were from and so on. But these Goblins…
One of them, the one with the bow, was retrieving arrows from the goats and butchering them at the same time. He glanced up and growled something at the others. Two more broke away and began helping him. His look was the least friendly as he stared at Erin.
That was the only explanation Erin could think of. The goat meat didn’t look good and she would have bet it was stringy, but the Goblins were cutting them up quickly. Her words made the Goblin with the bow look up. This time he rolled his eyes.
“Okay, I got that. You’re hungry. Do you want something to eat?”
Five growling stomachs answered her. Erin stared at the Goblins. She knew she shouldn’t. She knew it might be a bad idea. But they were staring at her, and there was nothing simple in their eyes. One of them, the Goblin cradling the head of their friend, was staring at her like—like—
“Would you like to come with me? I have food to eat. You can have it. Free. You don’t have to pay.”
It popped out of her mouth, and once said, it was impossible to take back. The Goblins all turned. The one with the bow straightened. The one with the head dropped it, and then scrambled to pick it up.
“I—I have an inn.”
Erin felt she should explain as the Goblins looked at her. She pointed, and they stared across the rolling snow-covered hills towards her inn in the distance. They exchanged a look.
“You can go there if you’re hungry. I have food. Lots of food. And you could bury your friend…”
Erin’s voice trailed off. The Goblins were just staring at her. There was nothing hostile about their gazes, but they were so bewildered. So lost. She coughed.
“You know what? Meet me there. No one will hurt you, I promise. I’ll have food. You don’t have to come, but if you do…food, okay?”
She mimed walking to her inn. The Goblins stared at her. One nodded. Erin stopped pretending to walk, feeling silly. They weren’t stupid. Rags had never been stupid. If she were here, she would have been rolling her eyes, making rude gestures and telling Erin she got it already.
But she wasn’t. So Erin pointed again, and slowly backed away. Then she went to find Lyonette and the others.
“We might be having guests in a bit. You all okay?”
They stared at her. Erin pointed at her sled, still carrying all the milk she’d bought.
“Come on, let’s go back. Bird, I’ll pull the sled. Mrsha can ride on it. Let’s go.”
She turned and pulled by momentum more than anything else, her employees and Mrsha followed. Erin walked slowly back to her inn, hearing Drassi burst out into nervous chatter after a while and Lyonette soothing Mrsha. But her eyes were on the Goblins all the while. And when she made it to her inn and paused at the open doorway, she could tell they were still watching her.
In the Redfang tribe, stories were still told of Garen Redfang and how their Chieftain had once walked through Human cities, often wearing a mask and a hood to conceal his features. He had spoken with Humans and other species, traded with them, and fought as a Gold-rank adventurer for a time. More than a few Goblins had dreamed of doing the same, but only dreamed.
It was a legend, a myth. No real Goblin would ever walk through a city unless they were there to be executed, or if their tribe was raiding it. And while the Redfang warriors had entered Human dwellings before, they had never gone into one without swords in hand.
Now they stood outside of an inn just a short distance away from Liscor and stared up at it. Not one of the five Goblins had a sword in their hands. It was a surreal experience. Headscratcher hesitated at the wooden door to the inn for several minutes before he pushed it open. Numbtongue stared up at the inn’s name as the other Goblins walked in.
The instant they stepped through, a voice shouted. The Redfang warriors flinched and braced themselves, but all they saw was a girl. The girl. And she was smiling at them.
True, it wasn’t a great smile. It was tinged with nerves and a bit of fear, a bit of uncertainty, but it was still a smile. The Redfang warriors were too afraid to smile back.
“Come on in, don’t be shy. Sit. Here’s a table—sit down. I’m just going to get—Lyonette!”
The Goblins jumped as the young woman ran through a door behind a counter. They looked at the table and hesitantly pulled at the chairs. Chairs were another odd thing, but the five Hobgoblins perched on them hesitantly. Rabbiteater’s ears kept twitching, and he turned his head sharply a moment before the Human girl rushed back into the room.
“Here. I have this—I know you need it.”
She had an armful of potions. The young woman carefully approached the table and the Goblins just as carefully leaned back. She hesitated and then dumped them onto the table. Headscratcher caught one before it could roll off and onto the floor.
The young woman froze at the same time the Goblin did. He’d reflexively started to hand the potion back to her, and she’d unconsciously begun to take it. It was a universal experience, and they stared into each other’s eyes for a moment before breaking away.
“You keep it. It’s for you. For your injuries.”
The young woman backed away as Headscratcher lowered his hand. She pointed to his arm. He started, and then glanced at the crimson bandage he’d tied to his arm. The other Redfang warriors blinked too, and then recalled.
Yes, their injuries. Some were quite terrible. Headscratcher might lose that arm to infection or never gain its mobility, such was the damage. Badarrow had bites that went down to his bones on his legs, and the other Goblins were just as injured. And the potions were—
Healing potions? They had to be, but for them? The Goblins stared at the young woman, expecting, suspecting a trap. They eyed the bottles on the table.
Remembering the ones that had exploded earlier, the Goblins were hesitant, but then they recognized the liquids within. Most Goblins couldn’t read, so they identified potion types by their appearance. And these looked like healing potions.
But who would give healing potions to a Goblin? That was what made the Goblins sure it had to be a trick. Not that they suspected the young woman of tricking them, but—
Logic warred with the evidence before their eyes. It was Numbtongue who moved first. He picked up a vial and squinted at the tiny label on it. After a moment he nodded and the others immediately uncorked the vials and bottles and poured it on their injuries. Then they received another surprise.
The healing potions were high quality. Headscratcher gaped as the chunk of flesh missing from his arm regrew over the course of a minute. This was good stuff! He looked at the young woman. She smiled hesitantly at him.
“Good? Use more if you need to.”
Mind boggling. The Goblins treated their wounds and then hesitantly recorked the bottles and pushed them together on the table. They felt guilty, as if they’d used too much, and eyed the diminished potion levels in the bottles uncertainly.
“You’re done? Cool. Let’s—why don’t I sit? I’ll sit here and we can…talk.”
So saying, the young woman scooted a chair out from another table and sat facing the Goblins. They looked at her. She looked back. The silence was unbearable.
“I am Erin. Erin Solstice. I’m an [Innkeeper].”
The Goblins stared at Erin. She coughed.
“Um. I know I said thanks, but thanks again. You saved me. I don’t know where those evil goats came from, but you were just in time. And I know your friend died…I’m sorry. And I’m also sorry that Bird shot at you. He’s the Antinium. The one on the tower.”
Silence. Erin shuffled her feet. The Goblins wondered if they should say something. And if so, what? They looked at Numbtongue. He shrugged.
“Are you with the—the Goblin Lord?”
Every head snapped back to Erin. She leaned back a bit and raised her hands.
“Not that I’m angry if you are. It’s just—I hear he’s not a great guy. But if you think he is, that’s fine! I’m not judging. But I just uh—”
All five Redfang warriors shook their heads at the same time. Erin looked relieved.
“Really? That’s great! You know, I thought he was a jerk, especially when his soldiers shot arrows at my inn, but I was thinking, here’s a bunch of Goblins and his army was just here, so…ahem.”
She broke off, and Headscratcher looked at the others. He raised a hand and crooked it towards her, tilting his head and baring his fangs. It was a quick statement, but he’d conveyed a general surprise that any building would have been left standing after the Goblin Lord had passed by. Shorthilt’s raised eyebrow and glance at one window told the others that his personal opinion was that this building had to be enchanted in some way.
The Human got none of this. She was fidgeting, glancing around, muttering under her breath. She looked at them and all five Goblins snapped back to attention.
“Okay. This might be weird, but…do you know a Goblin named Rags?”
Four jaws dropped. Badarrow’s eyes narrowed. Erin glanced from face to face. Her eyes widened. Rabbiteater nodded fractionally.
The Redfang warriors glanced at each other. How did she know Rags, let alone by name? Erin was bombarding them with questions while Badarrow kicked Rabbiteater under the table. He nodded to Erin, and then twirled his finger around, indicating the room as a whole.
The other Redfang warriors followed his gaze. They stared at the Human girl, looked around the inn, her inn, and put the pieces together at last. The five Hobgoblins shuffled their feet and exchanged awkward glances.
This was so embarrassing.
Of course, Erin had no idea what they were thinking. She only saw their postures.
“Wait, what’s wrong? It’s not Rags, is it? Is she okay? I haven’t seen her in a long time—is she mad at me? Or…?”
Again, the Goblins shook their heads. How could they explain the inter-Goblin politics that had seen Rags absorb every tribe in the area to repel the Goblin Lord? Erin stared at them.
“Do you know where she is?”
They shook their heads. She hesitated.
“Okay. But is she well?”
They shrugged. Erin had to think.
“Do you…where are you going? Do you know where you’re going?”
They shook their heads again. Erin looked from face to face. Each Redfang warrior met her eyes, and then looked away. It was just a moment, but somehow, each felt like she’d seen a bit of the pain and despair they carried with them. Just for a moment.
She wavered. As she did, Rabbiteater’s belly rumbled. Everyone stared at him. Erin shot to her feet. Rabbiteater nearly tumbled out of his chair.
“I’m so sorry! I totally forgot. I promised you food, right? Wait right here!”
She dashed into the kitchen. The other Goblins exchanged a look of wild surmise. Food? They’d buried a lot of the Eater Goat meat in the snow just in case, and they were hungry. But after the potions, they had to wonder. Would she actually feed them? Actually? With—with forks and the fancy tools Garen had told them all about?
Would there be anything to drink?
They heard banging in the kitchen, and Erin’s raised voice, arguing with someone else. The Goblins stared at the kitchen anxiously. All but one.
There was a blackboard with words written on them in chalk hanging from a ledge above the bar’s counter. It was a menu, although it had only been written once and never updated. Most people ignored it, but one of the Redfang warriors had spotted it.
Numbtongue studied the words written on the menu written above the bar’s counter. He nudged Shorthilt, grunted and pointed. Shorthilt stared blankly at the letters. He shrugged. Numbtongue sighed. He carefully studied the words written on the menu until Erin came back.
“Here! Food, as promised!”
She had a huge platter and five plates awkwardly stacked on them. They were thick, filled with heaping mounds of spaghetti pasta, and covered with little black things. The other Goblins had no idea what the black things were. They were squishy, and looked edible, and that was good enough. Rabbiteater reached for one of the plates as Erin carefully placed it in front of him, but Numbtongue caught his hand. He shook his head and the other Redfang warriors, seeing the motion, froze.
Erin looked at them, concerned. Numbtongue hesitated. He sucked in his lips, and then scowled. He hated doing this. Reluctantly he opened his mouth and pointed to the plates and black things on them.
“Acid flies? Blue…fruit?”
Everyone stared at him. Erin’s jaw dropped. She stammered.
“How did—buh—I mean, I don’t have any acid flies. Those are olives! They’re healthy, I swear—I didn’t know they existed, but—this is spaghetti and olives! It’s uh—I’m out of blue juice too. Did you—can I get you something—wait, I have more!”
She rushed into the kitchen. The other Goblins stared at the olives. Badarrow picked one up and sniffed at it with deep suspicion. Rabbiteater gave into his stomach and popped one into his mouth. He chewed, brightened, and began to shovel spaghetti into his mouth. The other Goblins looked at him, and then seized spaghetti in both claws.
Erin came back to find the Goblins shoveling spaghetti down their throats with incredible speed. If not delicacy. Watching Shorthilt tilt a plate back and slide all the spaghetti into his waiting mouth was an education in itself. The amazing bit was that not a single speck of spaghetti or olive was dropped. The Goblins cleaned their plates.
Slowly, the Human girl approached and the Goblins stopped eating. They stared at the mugs in her hands. Erin smiled and weakly raised the mugs filled with ale.
“I’ve uh, got drinks! Does anyone want a second helping?”
Erin had watched eating competitions on television when she was younger. It was a thing. She hadn’t exactly liked seeing someone wolf down over forty hotdogs in one sitting, but she had to admire the speed at which it was done.
However, one of the things Erin had objected to was that in a food eating competition, none of the contestants ever seemed like they liked eating the food. It was about getting as much food as possible inside them as they could, not savoring the food.
By contrast, the Goblins sitting in the common room of her inn were a joy to watch eating. Because they clearly loved every bite. Oh, they still ate like starving wolverines, but every now and then one would pause and close his eyes while chewing, or make a grunting sound that expressed pure satisfaction.
Erin got to see only a bit of this, because she was rushing into the kitchen and out of it every few seconds. The Goblins didn’t stop with the spaghetti, or the meatloaf, or the lasagna, pizza, or even the steak! They ate and ate, and ate!
Erin kept going into the kitchen and coming back with more pre-made dishes and watched them disappear. The Hobgoblins ate as if they were starving, which they must have been. They didn’t look that scrawny, but Erin realized that if she compared them to the Hobgoblin she’d met before—the one who’d come in with Rags that one time—they were definitely a lot thinner.
She was worried they’d puke or their stomachs would get full, but the Goblins seemed to be able to digest the food as quickly as they ate. Their thin bellies inflated very slowly. As Erin grabbed a whole fried chicken seasoned with hot peppers, she decided she had to take a break. She turned to the Drake who was shakily cleaning dishes.
“Drassi, I need you to take over. Take this chicken out to the Goblins, will you?”
The Drake jumped. Her pale scales grew paler and she raised her clawed hands.
“Erin, I can’t. I can’t even—I don’t know how you can have them here! Here! At least have Bird come downstairs with his bow! We should be calling the Watch, or, or—I can’t do it.”
Erin shook her head.
“Just serve them, okay Drassi? They won’t be dangerous and Bird is right there! Lyonette’s upstairs with Mrsha—I need to make more food or we’ll run out!”
“Go out. Like this…hi guys! This is Drassi. She’s going to put the chicken down on the table. I said down on the table, Drassi—okay, why don’t you put it on this table?”
Erin managed to get Drassi to put the chicken down on the table and get her back into the kitchen. Drassi was trembling so hard she’d nearly dropped the whole thing. Erin had a suspicion that if she had, the Goblins would have picked it off the floor or just sat down and eaten it there.
“Okay, was that so hard?”
Drassi glared at her. Erin sighed.
“But you did it. Just put the food on another table, okay? I’ve got to make more food. Uh…where’s the butter? And sprouts? They could probably use some greens with all the heavy food they’ve been eating.”
She began to fry greens, put together a soup, and start a few loafs of bread all at once. Drassi took out a few more dishes very reluctantly, but reported the Hobgoblins did indeed seem to be slowing now. Erin let her finish putting all the food onto platters for later and tending to the soup—and mountains of finished dishes, and walked out into the room.
Five pairs of eyes instantly focused on her. Erin froze, and then waved. One of the five Goblins waved back. The others just watched her.
Drassi’s fear was understandable, Erin felt. Each time she moved, the Goblins all stared at her. Erin waved at them and pointed.
“I’m just going upstairs. Okay?”
They didn’t reply, but watched her as she climbed the stairs. Erin found Lyonette and Mrsha’s room and hesitated before knocking on the door.
“Lyonette? Mrsha? Are you two okay?”
She heard a lock turn and then the door opened. Lyonette opened the door a crack.
Erin edged into the room and saw that Lyonette was sitting on her bed with Apista and Mrsha. The bee was crawling onto her pillow and Mrsha was shivering in Lyonette’s arms.
“Is Mrsha okay?”
“I think so. She’s not that afraid any longer, are you Mrsha? She’s just—she can smell the Goblins downstairs, Erin.”
Lyonette didn’t quite look at Erin as she ran a soothing hand over Mrsha’s back. The Gnoll flinched when she heard the word ‘Goblin’. Erin paused.
Mrsha had her past with Goblins. Erin had almost forgotten that. She sat by the bed. Mrsha looked at her. Erin offered her a hand and the Gnoll licked it.
“It’s okay, Mrsha. They’re not bad, I promise.”
Lyonette spoke for the both of them. Erin hesitated. She looked at Lyonette. She realized she’d made a mistake. She’d assumed Lyonette would understand the Goblins being here, but the other girl was clearly as upset as Mrsha was. Erin paused, stroking Mrsha’s head.
“You never really knew Rags, did you?”
“I remember seeing her and screaming. But I didn’t, no. I’m sorry.”
“Right. And she was only here…look Lyonette, I know you’re nervous. Drassi definitely is. But these Goblins aren’t dangerous. I’d feel it with my [Dangersense] if they were. And they helped us.”
Lyonette nodded, but she didn’t look convinced. She stared at the floorboards, and then Apista as the bee crawled up a wall. She took a breath.
“I know your friend—Rags—was a guest here. But Erin, I have to say it. These aren’t normal Goblins. They’re Hobs. They lead other Goblins and they’re very, very dangerous. One Hob is a match for most Silver-rank adventurers. More than a match, sometimes.”
“I get that. But Lyonette, they saved us. They saved me, and they didn’t have to.”
“I know. I saw. They saved you from the goats, but they also shot Bird. I was the one who heard him fall. Erin, he would have died.”
Erin nodded. Her hand clenched. Bird was upstairs. He had a small room on the third floor and she’d ordered him to rest after his near-death experience.
“I know. But it was self-defense. And I owed them something. Look, I’ll feed them for now and we’ll see what happens, okay?”
“You’re the boss.”
That was a bad answer, and Lyonette clearly wasn’t happy about it, but it would have to do. Erin nodded, relieved. Then she bent down to Mrsha.
“I know they’re—I know they’re Goblins, okay Mrsha, honey? But they’re not like the other ones, I promise. They won’t hurt you.”
The Gnoll was still shaking, but she raised her head as Erin spoke to her. Erin was prepared for tears or fear, but that wasn’t what was in the Gnoll cub’s gaze. Her eyes blazed. They narrowed as Mrsha stared at Erin. There was anger there. Anger and deep reproach.
She had no words. But Mrsha made her opinion clear. Erin froze.
“Mrsha? They’re going to stay a bit longer. But they won’t come upstairs. Got it? If they cause any trouble, they’re gone. I promise. Just wait here, okay? I’ll get Drassi to come up with food—”
For once the promise of food didn’t satisfy Mrsha. The Gnoll swiped at Erin’s hand and she stared at Erin until the young woman left the room. Erin walked down the stairs and took a deep breath. Then she groaned.
“Oh no. What now?”
Someone had entered the common room ahead of her. An Antinium was holding a bow, and the room had frozen. Drassi was standing, shaking, mugs in hand, and the Goblin warriors had frozen, half of them about to leap out of their seats.
Erin ran down the stairs. The Antinium turned his head, but his arms kept the bow trained on the Goblins.
“Miss Erin, they were attempting to leave.”
Erin looked at the Goblins. They hesitated. One pointed towards the doors.
“You want to go? Why?”
Again, hesitation. The Goblin pointed down. Everyone stared at his crotch. Erin’s face went slack until she realized what he meant.
“Pee? You want to—Bird, he just wants to go to the bathroom!”
“Oh. That was the reason I descended as well.”
The Antinium slowly lowered the bow. The Goblins relaxed just as slowly. Erin strode between them, raising her hands, trying to play peacemaker again.
“Let’s all calm down. We don’t want any accidents…especially the yellow kind. There’s outhouses for everyone. The bathroom’s right outside. Here, I can show you—”
That seemed to be unnecessary. The Goblin shook his head as he walked towards the door. He put a hand on the handle and pulled it open. The door revealed a startled Jelaqua Ivirith, her hand raised to push at the door. She stared at the Goblin, and her eyes went wide. The Goblin stared back.
Jelaqua backed up. Her face was always dead white, but now she seemed to be stunned. Horrified. She opened her mouth and stared at the Hobgoblin standing in front of her.
The Goblin stared back. He recognized the word, Erin saw. He opened his mouth.
A giant hand reached past Jelaqua. Moore grabbed the Goblin and threw him across the room. The Hobgoblin crashed into a wall. Jelaqua sprinted into the room as the other Hobgoblins shot to their feet.
The Goblin who’d been thrown struggled upright. He swung wildly at Jelaqua—she grabbed one arm and then brought his head down to meet her knee. The Hobgoblin stumbled, and she knocked him flat with one punch. Jelaqua stood over the downed Hobgoblin and looked around. Then she looked at the unconscious Goblin at her feet.
“Oh. It’s not Garen. I was worried there for a second.”
The other Hobgoblins leapt over the table at her, roaring. One jerked as Seborn clotheslined him in midair and slung him to the ground. The Drowned Man leapt on the Hobgoblin and started beating him down with his fists.
Erin shouted, but Moore’s staff was already spinning. He flattened one Hob, and kicked the other. Jelaqua’s gauntleted fists flashed and the final Hobgoblin jerked back, stumbling from her punch. He feinted and jabbed at her; the Selphid let both punches meet her armor and hit him in the gut and chest with solid, heavy blows that made the Goblin stumble.
Erin’s shout this time was backed up by more than just sound. The air in the inn cracked and the floor rumbled. The Halfseekers paused, eyes wide, and the two Goblins still on their feet halted as well.
Slowly, very slowly, Erin turned to look around the room. Jelaqua’s eyes flicked to the Hobgoblins, to Drassi poking her head out of the kitchen, and Bird who opened the door and paused when he saw the chaos. She looked at Erin and groaned.
“Please tell me this isn’t what it looks like.”
The other two Halfseekers looked around. Moore shook his head. Seborn got up slowly.
“Miss Solstice, I believe we’re owed an explanation.”
Erin looked from face to face and tried to smile weakly. The normally jovial Halfseekers didn’t return the smiles. Right. They didn’t like Goblins either. She gestured to the tables.
“Why don’t we all sit. Does—does anyone want a drink?”
The drinks did help, but barely. The Goblins sat in a corner of the room, their injuries healed once again with Erin’s potions. Jelaqua shook her head grimly as Erin finished the story.
“And so you invited them in. Why am I not surprised?”
“It’s just—they saved my life, Jelaqua.”
Erin spread her hands helplessly. Jelaqua turned and glared at the Goblins. They flinched. There was a clear distribution of power there, and they could tell they were on the losing end of it. The other two Halfseekers looked just as grim.
“We like all kinds of species Erin, but our group has its problems with Goblins. You do know we lost half our members to one?”
Jelaqua’s statement made the other Goblins sit up at their table. Moore’s eyes were shadowed as he watched them. Seborn’s gaze could have fried the egg in front of him. Erin waved her hands, trying to defuse the situation.
“I know, I know! But these are good Goblins, guys! Just give me a moment. They might not be here long. I’m just feeding them!”
“Right. Well, you’d better explain that to the others.”
Jelaqua glanced towards the door. Erin looked as well.
“Your usual crowds. Who else? I saw the Horns finishing up their request at the Adventurer’s Guild a while back. They’ll be here soon too, and a bunch of people from Liscor. You’d better have a good explanation ready for them, too.”
“Oh no. Wait here. Drassi! Go to Celum and make sure no one comes through! Jelaqua, Goblins—stay here!”
Erin ran for the door. She threw it open and saw the Horns of Hammerad and a number of other people trudging towards her inn through the snow. Her dinner crowd, as usual. Erin raced down the hill towards them.
“We’re closed! Go away! Shoo!”
The people heading towards her inn hesitated as Erin ran towards them. She shouted, waved her arms. Ceria frowned as Erin shouted at the others.
“Erin? What’s going on? What do you mean you’re closed?”
“Does this mean there is in fact, no food?”
Pisces peered at Erin, looking concerned. She grinned desperately.
“That’s right! No food! We have a—a thing going on. A thing with the food! I’m sorry, but you’ll have to come back later! Not you, though.”
She grabbed Pisces as he turned around and dragged him back. The other Horns of Hammerad clustered around Erin as she whispered to them.
“There’s a minor thing in the inn, okay? We’ll all go up and nobody scream, okay?”
Every head turned. A Drake who’d approached the inn from a different spot on the hill backed out of the door, scales pale. He turned to them and ran down the hill, waving his arms and screaming.
“Hobs! There’s five Hobgoblins in there! It’s an invasion! Run for your lives!”
Erin groaned. She saw her guests turn and began fleeing towards Liscor’s gates. Alerted by the commotion, the guards on the walls began shouting down at the people below. In moments, horns were blowing.
Ceria looked at Erin. Yvlon, Ksmvr, and Pisces did likewise. Slowly, Erin turned and grinned weakly at them. Ceria crossed her arms.
“Erin. What have you done?”
Erin flinched as the door to her inn slammed open. The five Redfang warriors would have jumped to their feet, but the two adventurer teams kept them seated. They tensed as a group of heavily-armed guardsmen led by Zevara herself stormed into the room. The Drake Watch Captain halted when she saw the Hobgoblins, and then rounded on Erin.
“I didn’t believe it when I heard it. I thought even a Human, even you wouldn’t be stupid enough for this. Harboring five Hobgoblins? Now? While the Goblin Lord is marching on our cities? Have you lost your mind?”
“I can explain!”
Erin strode forwards quickly and put herself between Zevara and the Goblins. She saw Relc standing behind Zevara with a group of Drakes in full plate armor. He and the other guardsmen were ready for a fight. But it couldn’t come to that.
“Speak quickly Human.”
Zevara lashed her tail as she stared at the Hobgoblins. Her sword was half out of its sheath, and the [Guardsmen] behind her looked ready to fight. Relc’s eyes smoldered as he stared at the Goblins. They were tense, but they waited for Erin to speak.
She explained as fast as she could. Zevara was incredulous.
“You were attacked by goats?”
“Eater Goats, Captain. They have to be. Those buggers are nasty. If there’s a herd coming down from the High Passes—”
One of the guardsmen murmured to Zevara. She turned to Erin.
“We’ll inspect the bodies. But if these Hobs fought them, so what? Monsters fight monsters.”
“But they did it to save the village! I’m sure of it! They attacked the goats when they were about to jump over the walls! Look, Captain, I know they’re Goblins, but remember Rags?”
Behind Zevara, Relc twitched. Zevara glanced at him, then at Erin.
“I remember a group of Goblins starting to raid the roads around Liscor before they vanished. If that’s your argument—”
“These Goblins aren’t a danger! I promise!”
“Hah! And I’m supposed to let five Hobgoblins sit here while—”
“It’s five Goblins.”
“Five Hobs! Do you understand how dangerous that is? A Silver-rank team wouldn’t be a match for them! And why are they without a tribe? They could be spies, saboteurs—”
“Why did they sit in my inn and eat food for the last two hours, then?”
Zevara hesitated. She eyed the Goblins. One waved at her. The other raised his middle finger.
“It could be a Goblin ploy—”
“Oh come on. Really?”
Some of the guardsmen shifted behind Erin. One murmured.
“She has a point, Captain. That would be stupid, even for a Goblin—”
“They might have heard there’s a softhearted Human with a fondness for Goblins around here. Maybe they lured the Eater Goats here themselves. I don’t know, but I’m not having them here! And you, why would you think this is a good idea?”
The Drake Watch Captain glared at Erin. She glared back.
“Haven’t you seen the sign outside my inn? Didn’t you see what it read? It says, ‘no killing Goblins’!”
Erin glared at her. She rounded on the other Drakes and Gnolls in the Watch, raising her voice.
“Did you think that was a joke? That I wasn’t serious? I am. Unless the Goblin is attacking me or other people, or stealing or—or being a jerk, I won’t let you harm them.”
Zevara’s eyes narrowed dangerously.
“This is Watch business, Human. You may not be in Liscor, but you’re close enough to fall under our jurisdiction.”
“So what, you’ll kill them right here and now because you think they might be a threat?”
The Drake hesitated. She eyed the Goblins. They were watching her. At last, she nodded.
“That was our intent.”
All five Redfang warriors shifted at once. The Watch did likewise. Zevara held up a hand.
“We won’t have a fight here. I’d rather force these Goblins to leave the area than risk any deaths.”
Slowly, the Redfang Goblins relaxed their grip on their weapons. But Erin was the one who objected this time.
“They’re starving. Can’t you see?”
She pointed at the Goblins. The Redfang warriors glanced at her in astonishment. Erin spread her hands.
“They were hungry when they came in, and I think they’re on the run. They aren’t allied with the Goblin Lord—I think they’re part of Rags’ tribe. Look, Captain Zevara, why can’t I let them stay in my inn for a day or two?”
Everyone was gaping at her. Zevara shook her head.
“You really are as crazy as Relc says. I won’t allow it.”
“Well, I won’t let you lay a hand on these Goblins! Give me a day or two and I’ll let them go—maybe out of Celum. But no one’s hurting them here.”
Zevara stared incredulously at Erin.
“And what will you do if we decide to move them? Stop us? By yourself?”
She glanced around the inn. Both the Halfseekers and the Horns of Hammerad were present, but they didn’t seem inclined to stand up for Erin the same way as they had before. Erin nodded.
“If I have to.”
Someone in the group of guards people laughed. Zevara stared at Erin.
“Stand aside. We’re removing the Goblins.”
Erin’s eyes narrowed.
For a heart-thundering second, Zevara’s hand tightened on her sword’s hilt and every warrior in the room tensed. Then the door opened. Half a dozen swords cleared their sheaths, but the figure standing in the doorway made everyone hesitate.
“Enough. Watch Captain Zevara, stand down.”
Zel Shivertail stood in the doorway. He glanced around, pinning the Redfang warriors with a glance. The Drakes backed up and he strode forwards to speak with Zevara. The two Drakes bent their heads. Erin couldn’t hear anything, but she saw Zevara’s tail lashing and caught a few words.
“—on my authority—can’t be s—quite. The situation—won’t allow—follow orders.”
At last, Zevara turned. She looked like she was ready to blast Erin with flames, but she held back. She clenched her claws into fists and glared pure murder at the Goblins.
“If they hurt anyone, it’s on your head, Human!”
She whirled and stormed out of the room. Slowly, the guardsmen followed her. In the newfound still, Zel Shivertail looked at Erin. He sighed.
“A word, Miss Solstice?”
They stood outside and spoke in the cold.
“Thank you for helping me. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t.”
Zel inclined his head slightly. He glanced through a window into the inn, where the Redfang Goblins were still sitting, tense, watched by both adventurer groups.
“Truthfully, I don’t know if I should have. Goblins are dangerous, Miss Solstice.”
“I know that. But I think these ones are good. Why did you help me, by the way?”
“Call it instinct. Not mine. Yours. You picked out Regrika Blackpaw and her associate’s treachery. If you can do that, perhaps you’re right about these Goblins. But truthfully, I have ulterior motives.”
Erin studied Zel, but he didn’t meet her gaze.
“I’m sorry. But I can’t say. Regardless, I managed to convince Watch Captain Zevara to back down. However, if those Goblins cause any kind of disturbance—”
“I’ll make sure they won’t. And they won’t necessarily stay here. I just—I couldn’t leave them alone, you know?”
Erin shrugged helplessly. The Drake [General] eyed her and sighed.
“No, you really couldn’t, could you? Well, I will let you handle this at your discretion—however many misgivings I have. But if you…no. I’m afraid though, that if you do intend to shelter the Goblins, I won’t be staying at the inn.”
Erin stared at him. Zel Shivertail paused.
“I fought Goblins back in the Second Antinium war, and countless times before and since. They’re monsters to me, I’m afraid. I wouldn’t be able to sleep under the same roof as them. I’m sorry. I’ve seen what they can do, and while I can trust your word…I’m sorry.”
He looked at Erin. She hesitated, and then nodded slowly.
“I get it. But I think…I think I will offer them a place to stay for now. I don’t think they have anywhere to go. And I…want to know about Rags.”
“In that case, I’ll move out before tonight. I wish you luck, Miss Solstice.”
He turned. Erin called out behind him.
“Why did you do it? Stand up for me? And why were you sure I’d give them a place to stay?”
Zel looked back.
“You’re kind to strangers, Erin Solstice. That’s all. And that’s not a bad thing. If you can prove some Goblins are worth living, well, who am I to stop you?”
Then he walked into the inn. After a second, Erin followed him.
“Do you…have names?”
Erin sat with the Redfang Goblins. They stared at her, and glanced behind her. Zel Shivertail was talking quietly with Lyonette, who was upset with Erin, and he was talking to Mrsha, who was clinging to his leg. Sitting around the room were the Horns of Hammerad and the Halfseekers, who were both watching them as well.
Erin tried to ignore all of them. She focused on the Goblin ahead of her.
“I’m Erin. But you know that. Do you have names?”
They hesitated. The Goblins looked each other, and shrugged. They weren’t proper names, not like Rags had. But they were something. Erin looked at Headscratcher and pointed to him.
“Okay, what’s yours?”
He scratched his head. She waited. The Goblin looked at her and scratched his head again.
“You don’t know?”
He shook his head and the pointed to it. He slowly and deliberately scratched his head.
Pisces coughed. He cleared his throat as Erin looked at him.
“I believe, Miss Solstice, that the answer is far simpler. That is his name. And rather than Headscratching, I believe you would call him…Headscratcher?”
Headscratcher nodded in relief. Erin stared at him.
The skepticism in her voice hurt more than any ridicule. Headscratcher drooped and Erin tried to reassure him.
“No, no, it’s a great name! I’m just surprised. You’re Headscratcher. That’s cool. And uh, what about you?”
She pointed at Shorthilt. The other Goblin began to pantomime as well. Erin’s brows furrowed as she tried to work his name out.
“Short. Right. I got that. Short…short…sword? No? Short hilt? Shorthilt? That’s your name?”
He gave her a short nod and stared challengingly at her. Erin sucked in her lips.
“Right. It’s uh, a good name! Very original. I think.”
Slowly, she went around the table, getting each name from each Goblin. Rabbiteater and Numbtongue were hardest to figure out, especially because Erin had neither rabbits nor numbing agents in her inn. But they got there.
“It’s nice to meet you all. Headscratcher, Shorthilt, Badapple—sorry, sorry! Badarrow, Rabbiteater, and Numbtongue, right?”
They all nodded. All four Goblins had repeatedly elbowed Numbtongue throughout the conversation, but he’d refused to open his mouth. Now Erin smiled at them. Goblin hearts did odd things in their chests and more than one Goblin poked at his heart experimentally.
“Good to meet you all. Sorry about everything earlier. Let’s do this properly. I’m Erin, this is Ceria, Pisces, Ksmvr, Yvlon—Drassi’s hiding in the kitchen. She’s the Drake. Lyonette and Mrsha are upstairs…Mrsha’s the cute little Gnoll. And uh, this is Jelaqua—”
The Selphid leaned over her table. She wasn’t smiling.
“Where is Garen Redfang? How do you know him?”
The Redfang warriors looked at her. Her eyes were fixed on them. Slowly, Headscratcher raised one finger. He pointed at himself and the others, spoke a word.
Erin stared blankly at Jelaqua. The Selphid frowned. Someone else spoke up.
“They must be his tribe.”
The Halfseekers turned and looked at Yvlon. The armored woman cleared her throat as everyone stared at her.
“I know a bit about them. I don’t know about Garen Redfang himself, but the Redfang tribe…they’re a notorious Goblin tribe around here. They’ve been active for years and no one’s managed to defeat them or find their lair. They live in the High Passes.”
Seborn shifted in his seat. His gaze hadn’t shifted from the Goblins since he’d sat down.
“We heard about that. What else do you know?”
Yvlon conferred with Ceria for a moment.
“They’re supposed to be the most dangerous Goblin tribe around the High Passes. The best at fighting—some of them ride Carn Wolves, and they’re rated as a threat that no single Gold-rank team should try to handle alone. By all accounts, they’ve done away with several Gold-rank teams and quite a lot of Silver-rank teams over the years.”
The other Redfang warriors looked proud. Headscratcher kicked them under the table and they paused, and then shuffled their feet. Jelaqua shook her head.
“That’s what we heard. But I only care about Garen Redfang. Your leader. Where is he?”
She looked at Headscratcher. He and the others all shook their heads and shrugged at the same time. Jelaqua made a sound of disgust and rose to her feet.
“Great. I can’t sit here. Moore, come on. Seborn, you stay in case something happens.”
She stomped out of the inn. Erin watched her go. Then she looked at the Goblins.
Now then. Now, after all the drama…she still didn’t know what to do with them. Part of her wanted to go tell Zel that they were leaving and he could stay. The rest of her knew that she’d made up her mind as soon as she’d seen them.
Goblins. Hobgoblins. Did it matter? The five who sat at the table warily eying her and the others in the room were like Rags and unlike her in so many ways. They were bigger, all male, and clearly trained warriors, but their eyes were the same. There was the same hurt there, the same curiosity when they stared at her magical chessboard or saw something new.
And they had seen too much. She remembered seeing their wounds and they had too many scars. They had been starving. Their stomachs were bulging, but they still looked like they could eat.
And one more thing made Erin sure. A memory. That last time she had seen Rags, she had turned her away. This time…Erin closed her eyes. She took a breath, and looked at them.
“I know a lot of people came by and threatened you. However, you all don’t seem to know where you’re going, am I right?”
The Redfang warriors shuffled their feet. Shorthilt nodded. Badarrow kicked him under the table. Erin smiled for a second.
“In that case…stay, okay? No one’s going to kill you. Not while I’m here. Stay. If you’re looking for Rags, well—you can stay here for a while at least. You need to eat, and sleep. I promise you, if you’ll stay, you’ll be safe.”
The Goblins looked at her incredulously. So did the Horns of Hammerad, Lyonette, Drassi, and everyone else in the room. Zel just sighed and hefted his pack onto his back. Erin hesitated. She looked into Headscratcher’s eyes.
Was she making a mistake? Yes. No one would come to an inn with Goblins. No one. The door to Celum had opened twice despite Octavia’s attempts and the people had fled screaming when seeing the Goblins. Zevara was angry, Relc was angry—Erin had no idea if Klbkch and the Antinium would be too. This was not smart. And yet—
A Goblin’s tears. She looked into Headscratcher’s eyes and remembered. Crying for their friend. Who’d died to help protect her. Without thanks, without a grave. Without a word spoken.
She reached out and offered her hand. The Goblins stared at her. Slowly, Headscratcher raised his hand. He raised it and slowly extended it. His palm was callused, his grip as tentative as a feather. His blood pulsed beneath his skin, and he looked Erin in the eye.
She smiled. And then she turned and looked around the room.
“Who else is staying?”
It might be no one. Lyonette was willing to stay, but Mrsha might have to go the city, in which case Lyonette would go. Erin wanted to try a single night at the inn, but she wasn’t sure. As for the Horns of Hammerad, they had a quiet discussion in a corner. Ceria was very upset, which in turn made Erin upset.
“Look, just be cool, okay? They can stay in the—in the basement for tonight. Okay?”
“Erin! We sleep in the basement! And these are Hobs! I get Rags, I really do, but—”
“Ceria. It’s not a discussion. I’m sorry, but if you really can’t deal with them you’ll have to go somewhere else. But look—they’ll be in the basement but you won’t.”
“What do you mean?”
Ceria frowned. Erin smiled weakly at her.
“I finished upgrading my inn, remember? And I have all those new rooms—I was going to offer them to you anyways. You’ll get rooms on the second floor if you stay. Okay?”
The half-Elf looked at Erin uncertainly, and exchanged a glance with Yvlon. Beside her, Pisces’ eyes lit up. He nudged Ceria in the side.
“Take the offer, Springwalker.”
“Oh come on. You can’t be serious, Pisces—”
The half-Elf turned and glared at him. He glared back.
“I would live with a Creler in the basement if it meant a private room for myself, Springwalker. Five Goblins is a small price to pay for an upgrade.”
“Plus, you’ll all get separate rooms! And mints on your pillows as soon as I learn how to make them! Please? Come on Ceria, you remember Rags. She was cool! These guys are cool too! Probably.”
Erin pleaded and begged, and in the end Ceria gave over, mainly because rooms at Erin’s inn were infinitely preferable to cramped rooms in Celum or Liscor, especially with the prices they might have to pay. That was one issue solved.
The other one was more serious. Erin had two new hires, and she suspected both objected to the Goblins in no uncertain terms. At least, she knew Drassi did. She hadn’t seen Ishkr for a while. He was still in mourning.
In any case, Ishkr was still missing, but Drassi was on the roster for tomorrow and the day after as well. Erin sat with her as the Goblins…did something in the basement.
“Honestly, Erin, I don’t know if I can. I—it’s not that I don’t like you or trust you, but having monsters under this roof—”
“I get it Drassi, I do. And I know you’re upset Jelaqua, Moore, Seborn. I wouldn’t blame you if you left, but please give this a chance?”
She was begging with the Halfseekers as well. They were hesitating for the same reasons as Ceria had. There weren’t many places that catered to Selphids and half-Giants both. Still, Jelaqua’s jaw was clenched and she kept glancing towards the trapdoor leading to the basement.
“Just tell us why, Erin. I get that they saved your life, but a meal’s thanks enough. So these Goblins are lost. So what? What makes them worth trusting?”
“I don’t think they’re monsters. I think they’re lost. They look lost, Jelaqua. And so…so sad. I couldn’t just tell them to wander off and get killed by adventurers or monsters.”
“And you trust them? You trust them not to slit your throat in the night? Because they could. You’re in danger, and everyone in this inn. You might trust them, but…how sure are you? Are you willing to bet your life on this?”
The Selphid eyed Erin. Drassi looked at her as well. Erin bowed her head. Then she raised it.
“I am. I believe in people. I believe that Goblins are more than monsters. Because they act like people. They might act like monsters, but—don’t people say that about Selphids? To a Human like me, a Drake might be a monster. Or a Gnoll. But they have feelings. And so do the Goblins. They might not speak, but they cry. And I think that if you can cry, you’re a person.”
Erin clenched her hands on the table. Drassi looked at her, and then blew her nose—or rather, nose holes—noisily on a handkerchief. Jelaqua stared at her, and then looked at Moore and Seborn. Moore brushed at his eyes. The Selphid sighed. Seborn looked at his human hand and his crustacean side. All three Halfseekers had the same look, bordering on tears of their own in their eyes. They nodded. Jelaqua made an unhappy face.
“When you put it like that…how can we up and leave? We’ll stay too. Just in case you need us. But we won’t hang around with them, Erin. I just can’t.”
“I get that. I can serve you breakfast whenever, or make up a bag—thank you so much.”
Erin rose and grasped Jelaqua’s hands. The Selphid laughed and shook her head.
“Do you know how many people shudder when they hold my hands? Do you know how many people think Moore eats people? A chance. Dead gods, I guess I’ll try anything once.”
“Once upon a time, I remember you saying the same thing when a Hobgoblin wanted to join our group.”
Moore’s eyes were distant. Seborn nodded.
“We were betrayed once. But remember what Ukrina said? ‘If we do not give other species a chance, what hope is there for the rest of the world?’ Once more, Jelaqua.”
The Selphid turned to Erin and gave her a crooked smile.
“You heard them. Sentimentalists, that’s us. Okay, let’s do this.”
And that evening, Erin stood in her common room and felt a strange sensation creeping up on her. A familiar feeling.
Emptiness. Silence. Isolation.
Her inn, normally bustling, was deserted. Her upper floors were almost empty. Mrsha, happy Mrsha, refused to come downstairs. Drassi was hiding in the kitchens and the fire in the common room was low.
And yet, she didn’t feel terrible. Erin stood in the common room and felt a chill. She brushed her arms and realized only part of that was coming from the fire. She went over and fed it fuel, but the feeling persisted.
Rags. Goblins. A dying Goblin lying in her kitchen. The smell of burnt oil. Erin couldn’t give the feeling in her heart words, but perhaps. Perhaps what Zel, what Jelaqua said was true. Was she making a mistake or—
A foot creaked as it met a floorboard. Erin whirled, and saw a big shape hunched by the open trapdoor. A Goblin crouched, crimson eyes on her. Erin stepped away from the fire, heart pounding, and the figure was cast into relief.
Headscratcher crouched by the trapdoor, frozen in place. He stared at Erin. She stared back. He wasn’t holding a weapon or anything. And he wasn’t wearing anything. That was very apparent.
Her eyes travelled down. Headscratcher was very naked. Erin raised her voice.
“Drassi? Go into the city and buy some pants, would you? I think the Goblins need extra pairs. Their loincloths are, um, bloodstained.”
Drassi poked her head out of the kitchen and stared before screaming. Headscratcher shuffled down the trapdoor, looking very embarrassed. Erin turned away and heard the trap door open and close. She hesitated, and then went into the kitchen to calm Drassi.
When that was over, Erin laughed to herself. Silly Goblins. For some reason that reassured her. If you could be silly, if you could be embarrassed, you weren’t a monster, right? You were only a monster if people called you that.
Her eyes travelled back across her empty room. Yes, the word had spread. Now everyone in both cities knew. She had Goblins. Erin laughed. So what? They weren’t evil, she was sure.
And this time, Erin swore, she’d treat them better. As Drassi hurried out of the inn, Erin found the sign that had been buried all winter in the snow. She eyed it, dug it out of the frozen ground after much swearing, and replanted it. Right in front of her inn, by the door. For the world to see.
“This is my inn. Mine.”
Erin spoke to the warming world, into the darkness. She rested a hand on the cold wood. Yes, this was who she was. What her inn was.
The Wandering Inn. It had one rule. No killing Goblins. Erin smiled to herself. Yes. This time she’d do it right. She’d be better. And show them—show everyone—there were some Goblins who weren’t evil.
She turned and froze. Headscratcher, Badarrow, and Shorthilt all froze as they crept through the snow. They were all naked, and all, apparently, in dire need of the outhouse. She stared, and then shouted.
“Put some pants on!”