They flooded into the mountain wearing black armor. Black, like bugs. Garen had heard of the Antinium, a race of insects. He imagined they must be like the Goblin Lord’s army—a vast, ravenous host without fear or thought.
But the Goblins that besieged Tremborag’s fortress weren’t insects. They were people. For all they were monsters in the eyes of all. They thought. They bled. And they could be broken, Goblin Lord or not.
The first wave struck two hours after the ambush in the woods. Goblins raced up the rocky slopes of Dwarfhalls Rest. As mountains went it wasn’t the largest by far. Compared to the High Passes it was a foothill among giants. But it was large enough. No citadel was taller, and even the climbing was treacherous. But the Goblins were warriors and spurred on by their leader, they swarmed up the mountainside. The battle began when they located one of the entrances to the mountain.
A dark tunnel mined out of stone, partly invisible against the rock face. The first Goblins in black armor entered the passage, shouting back at their companions. They made it in about twenty feet before they were swarmed from the shadows. Other Goblins, not wearing the signature black armor of Reiss’ troops, dropped on the Goblins from above, shot arrows, and charged out of the shadows with blades in hand. They did not wear metal armor by and large, but their blades were no less deadly.
The battle began as the Goblin Lord’s troops poured into the tunnel, shouting furiously. They bunched up, fighting with Tremborag’s Goblins as both sides fought in the narrow bottleneck. However, the battle had been of the Mountain City tribe’s choosing and so the Goblin Lord’s soldiers found themselves at a disadvantage.
Goblins with bows crouched on hidden ledges in the tunnel and more used higher ground to loose arrows or throw stones at their enemies. The rest, Hobs and normal Goblins alike, fought in an unending torrent of reinforcements. They would fall back if injured, fight on if not. The Goblin Lord’s forces found themselves unable to advance another step.
They could hold this spot forever. With that knowledge in mind, the Goblin Lord’s army quickly set about finding more entries into the mountain. They knew there had to be countless routes in. Goblins would have built themselves bolt holes and secret passages over the years. Sure enough, another entrance was located within minutes and more Goblins poured into the gap.
Again, they ran into a choke point filled with Tremborag’s Goblins. Undeterred, the Goblin Lord’s army fought in the tunnel while more scouted for other entrances. They found another. And another.
By this time the Goblin Lord’s army covered the mountainside like the insects they had reminded Garen of. They were already starting to establish a camp at the base of the mountain and the Goblin Lord’s officers were making their way up the slopes to take command of the fighting. More Goblins were circling around, running to find more secret entrances. That was when Garen struck.
Down he came, out of a hidden spot high above with his Redfang Warriors. They howled as they raced down the rocky slopes. The Carn Wolves easily bounded from rock to rock, remembering their home habitat of the High Passes. The band of the Goblin Lord’s soldiers looked up in time to see Garen Redfang charging down at him and hear the rattling of stones as more Goblins armed with bows raced out of the mountain. They raised their weapons and Garen charged into them atop his Carn Wolf.
He roared as he slashed down at the first Goblin. His sword slashed through the sturdy wooden haft of the Goblin’s halberd and into the Goblin’s face. Garen wrenched his sword up, turned, and cut again. He needed no Skills—his enchanted sword cut through the crude black armor with ease. Before him the Goblin Lord’s warriors scattered as the rest of Garen’s warband cut them down with ease.
Garen finished off the sixth Goblin when he heard the warning shout from above. A shower of arrows flew down from above and glanced off raised shields. The Goblin Lord’s army had seen the fighting and thousands of Goblins were pouring up the mountain. Garen pointed back up.
He and the Carn Wolves raced back up the slope, howling in triumph. They retreated into the mountain passage as the rest of Tremborag’s Goblins harried the approaching Goblins and then fell back. Soon, there was fighting in this passage as well, but again the Goblin Lord’s army found themselves stalemated. Garen raced through the mountain’s interior to another one of the secret passages carved out of stone.
Twice more he fell on the Goblin Lord’s army, inflicting many casualties before retreating. After the second time he was forced to abandon his raids—by this point the Goblin Lord’s army had entrenched themselves thoroughly on the mountainside. That was when the siege began in earnest.
“Snapjaw, take control of west. Eater of Spears, watch top of mountain. No leader enters the mountain. Send only our warriors. Now. Bring me my [Shamans] and [Mages].”
Standing at the base of the mountain, the Goblin Lord named Reiss stared up at the lines of his soldiers moving slowly up the rocky terrain. What appeared to be chaos at first was in fact an organized system. Goblins would divide themselves up into groups, moving towards camps that had been set about each entrance to the mountain. The army was fighting on sixteen different fronts and each one had to receive a constant flow of supplies, reinforcements, and have a spot for the wounded to be brought out.
Not that there were many wounded. Goblins died before they could retreat in the narrow passageways. Reiss stared up at the mountain, listening to a report from one of his Goblins.
“Bad-bad box with Goblin archers! Much raining death and chop death from Goblins! Many Hobs! Many strong-cut death swords!”
“How many [Shamans]? Any special Goblins?”
The smaller Goblin had to think.
“One glow [Shaman]. Other smaller glow. Special Goblins—no. Many Hobs.”
“I see. Go get food. Eat.”
The Goblin nodded and ran towards a spot where food was being passed out to hungry soldiers and Goblins alike. The Goblin Lord’s force wasn’t all soldiers—many of the Goblins around Reiss weren’t armed at all. He had elected to camp on the base of the mountain, rather than ascend any further. Now Reiss stared up at the mountain. His army had covered one face, but the summit and the rest of the mountain had yet to be explored.
“Many holes in mountain. Many ambushes. They have prepared a long time. Do you think it is a bad battle?”
He glanced to one side and saw a stranger among his camp. Osthia Blackwing, the sole prisoner of the Goblin Lord’s forces, glared at him. But she didn’t waste time replying. Her gaze was bitter but calculating as she stared up at the mountain.
“It sounds like this other tribe has fortified the mountain well. Those choke points will be the death of your army—you won’t ever take them by force.”
That had been Reiss’ thought. He nodded slowly, weighing Osthia’s words against the way she moved, her body posture. She was telling the truth.
“But there are many entrances to the mountain.”
Reiss gave Osthia the aimless shrug of a true Goblin.
She eyed him sourly. Her tail lashed a bit.
“That’s a foolish mistake. No Drake fortress would ever have so many entryways.”
“No. But it is a good thing for Goblins. They will ambush from behind. And many ways in means many ways out if they are losing.”
“That’s exactly what I would expect from a Goblin army. Well then, I’m sure there are some places that haven’t been fortified as well. If you attack from ten different spots and gain a foothold, you could push in.”
Osthia snorted and turned away. The Drake had lost her armor and her clothes were worn from days on the march. Her wings twitched in their metal manacles as she paced a bit. She glared up at the mountainside.
“You know they’ll ambush you if you don’t surround every passageway, don’t you? And doing that will spread your forces too thin.”
“I know. My lieutenants will begin building defenses soon. We will surround two thirds of the mountain. Leave the back way open with watchers. If they come out, we will kill them there.”
The Drake grunted. It was as much approval as he would get from her. Reiss watched her calmly for another moment.
She wasn’t helping him. She wasn’t—and yet she was willing to talk strategy with him. He could have come up with all the conclusions she’d led him to on his own, but it was good to have another mind to think on these subjects. Reiss knew that Osthia would deny it if he asked her, but she had become more willing to speak to him these last few days.
There was nothing magical about it. He had not coerced her or threatened her or done anything else. It was just that she had been in his camp for so long that she had to talk to someone or go mad. The other Goblins fed her and left her alone by and large. It was the isolation that had turned her into a reluctant advisor. Reiss could understand that. No one wanted to be alone.
A roar from the top of the mountain drew his attention. A Goblin had emerged from a hidden spot and was pointing down at his forces. Reiss narrowed his eyes as he saw the aura of magic around the Goblin. He—no, she was a [Shaman]!
High above, Ulvama, Chief [Shaman] of Tremborag’s tribe cackled and waved a staff. The paint on her bare breasts and mostly uncovered body gleamed as she pointed down at the Goblin Lord’s army. From her staff she shot fire, great masses of it that drifted down and blanketed the grouped-up Goblins. They screamed and fled as the fire baked them in their armor. Behind Ulvama more Goblins streamed out of the mountain. Young Goblins—Hobs and regular warriors. They burned with passion. Ulvama pointed at them. She screamed as she gathered magic to her.
“Go! Kill the weak Goblins! Kill the slave-Goblins! Be wild! Be monsters!”
The Goblins roared as she cast a spell on them. The red lights in their eyes brightened and their bodies grew slightly as they raced down the slopes. Propelled into a battle madness by her [Bloodfury] spell, they hurled themselves against the Goblin Lord’s forces until they were all dead. Ulvama retreated back into the mountain, laughing. It was too easy!
“You’re in trouble. That was a high-level [Shaman], wasn’t it?”
Reiss watched as the last of the enchanted Goblins were subdued by his forces. Already he had a sense of how the battle was stacked up. On his side he had more numbers than Tremobrag’s forces. He had an army of over a hundred thousand—although a good third of that number was filled with Goblins who wouldn’t fight unless backed into a corner. Children, heavily pregnant Goblins, those who didn’t want to fight, and so on.
On Tremborag’s side were probably forty thousand goblins at most. But they could hold the mountain so long as they held their tunnels. They knew the mountains. They had left traps—collapsing ceilings, spikes that swung out of the darkness—and they could keep withdrawing into their home if defeated on any one front.
It wasn’t a battle Reiss would have taken normally. But two things made him believe he could win. Firstly, if Tremborag and Garen Redfang fell or were captured, the tribe would instantly join his. He didn’t need to slaughter all of the Mountain City tribe—in fact, he wanted them largely intact. They would make his army half again as large. Assuming he could defeat the enemy Chieftains, of course. And to that end—
Reiss felt the magical auras as a group of Goblins approached him. Many were wearing armor like regular soldiers, although some had found robes both magical and mundane. All held some sort of catalyst, although again, the quality varied from a magical stave or wand seized from a Human to a pointy stick with leaves still growing from it. Reiss turned and his [Mages] and [Shamans] bowed to him.
“It is time. Send in the undead.”
In the mountain, Tremborag was already celebrating. He ate on his dirty throne, laughing, as his warriors not fighting on the front ate and shouted triumphantly. It was an act that boosted the morale of his tribe. Not only could Tremborag feast himself during a siege, he was confident enough not to fight. The Great Chieftain drank deeply from a vessel of wine and turned to Garen Redfang. The Hobgoblin was staring at the indulgent display with contempt. Tremborag waved at him.
“Eat, Redfang! Or are you afraid the Goblin Lord will pop out of the food and slay you?”
He laughed raucously and the Goblins around him laughed too. Garen turned his head and stared silently at Tremborag. He and his faction of Goblins ate lightly, readying themselves for the next battle. Undeterred, Tremborag grinned, exposing all of his teeth.
“The Goblin Lord has not passed through a single tunnel so far. We slaughter his soldiers at each spot! And he will not find an opening into the mountain that is not trapped or watched. What say you? Is this not the battle you wanted?”
“His army is big.”
Garen’s comment made Tremborag laugh all the harder. He slapped one knee, making the fat and flesh jiggle.
“Big? Oh, for a tribe. For a Chieftain! But for a Goblin Lord? His army is weak! Small! Raw. My tribe is greater than his! I have been Chieftain for decades. How long has he been Lord? Half a year? He should never have come to my mountain.”
There was more truth to that boast than not. As armies went, the Goblin Lord’s force was fairly well-equipped and trained. But they didn’t stand out like other forces, or like Garen’s elite warriors who were far superior in individual fights or in equal matches. On the other hand, Tremborag’s tribe was vast as befitted his title and he had many Hobs and experienced warriors of his own. The Goblin Lord’s forces were made up of many smaller tribes of varying, often mediocre quality—Tremborag’s forces could be said to stand a notch above them in quality.
All of this was true. And yet Garen did not relax. Tremborag lost interest in taunting him and turned back to his food. He was about to call a Goblin female over—why not?—when he heard a distant commotion. He stopped eating and the Goblins around him looked up uncertainty.
The doors flew open and one of Tremborag’s lesser lieutenants rushed into the room. Tremborag rose, annoyed. This Hob should have been overseeing one of the besieged tunnels.
“Great Chieftain! Bad trouble!”
“What is it?”
“Undead! Many-many undead coming! Overwhelming, sneaky death!”
The Hobgoblin looked frantic. Tremborag stared at him and then roared.
“Undead? So what? Kill them! Shoot them with arrows! Chop off their heads!”
“Great Chieftain! Can’t!”
Enraged, Tremborag strode forwards off his dais and snatched the smaller Goblin up. He glared at the Hob as every Goblin around him held their breath and backed away.
The Hob gasped as Tremborag’s massive clawed hand squeezed him. He looked into Tremborag’s furious face and spoke weakly.
“Undead go boom.”
They walked into the tunnels. Shambling forms. Pallid bodies. All were rotting. The unholy, damned light of undeath shone in their eyes. They moved forwards. Zombies, mainly. A few skeletons. Ghouls in small packs and a handful of the deadly Draug. The Goblin Lord’s living forces moved aside to let them pass. The undead moved into the kill spots and grappled with the Goblins there. They threw themselves relentlessly towards the defenders, ignoring all but the most debilitating of injuries.
If that were all they would have been held back. At cost, but with no more difficulty than the regular soldiers. But mixed among the undead Humans, Drakes, Gnolls, and regular Goblins were…children. Undead Goblins who moved a bit faster than the rest. They snuck closer amid the fighting, directed by far-off [Necromancers] and [Shamans].
And when they were amid the struggling lines of the Goblin defenders or worse, among a group of Tremborag’s Goblins, they would bite at an ankle or strike weakly with their small bodies. Of course, they would be instantly crushed by or speared or hacked apart. And that was when they would explode.
The first few detonations killed dozens of defenders each. Shock and confusion allowed the undead to push forwards. The Mountain City tribe fell back in disarray, not understanding what the sudden explosions had been caused by. They suspected [Mages] and looked for invisible Goblins or ones armed with scrolls or magical items. By the time they realized the small Goblins were the source of the detonations, they had taken heavy losses.
Tremborag stared in disbelief at the steam of wounded Goblins fleeing from the forward tunnels. He saw many were wounded and far more were terrified. Tremborag roared and the Goblins rushing towards him froze. He swung a claw and sent the closest Goblins to him flying with broken bones.
“Cowards! Get back to fighting!”
The Goblins looked at their Great Chieftain and wavered. They weighed the odds of dying with incurring their Chieftain’s wrath and slowly turned. Tremborag growled furiously as he heard more detonations echo distantly back into the mountain.
“Exploding undead? This Goblin Lord has a second army. An army of tricks! Cowardly little tricks!”
Tremborag turned, his eyes narrowed. Garen stood behind him. The Hob stared past Tremborag with a frown.
“The entrances are lost. Too small. Too narrow.”
Tremborag knew he was right. The Great Chieftain roared in anger and stomped about, but he had figured out the same thing Garen had. In the narrow tunnels the exploding undead would utterly destroy the defenders as they bunched up. Tremborag snarled but growled an order to one of his Hobs.
“Pull back! We will slaughter them in the open!”
The Hob raced off shouting to do Tremborag’s bidding. Garen looked up at the huge Hobgoblin.
“More fighting. On bridges, in open. Means fighting in tunnels. Harder to hold. More deaths.”
Tremborag was close to lashing out. He held himself back from striking Garen with effort. His voice deepened with fury.
“We will slaughter them in great numbers, then! You will fight, Redfang. You and your Goblins. And I will hunt down the Goblin Lord’s officers. Tomorrow we will go hunting.”
Garen nodded. Tremborag strode back into his throne room and resumed eating with such fury that no Goblin dared to disturb him. In the mountain, the Goblins pulled back. They abandoned the narrow entrances to the mountain and ran into larger tunnels. They were the last stopgap before the center of the mountain which was crisscrossed with bridges and wood scaffolding. The invading Goblins and undead followed them and clashed against the solid barricades that had been set up, screaming as oil and boiling water was poured on them from above.
Osthia listened to the garbled reports coming into the Goblin Lord’s tent, trying to make sense of it all. The crude language of the Goblins and their partial mastery of the common tongue as well as multiple reports being delivered at once made understanding anything hellishly difficult, but she had learned that part of Goblin communication was body language. Too, she thought she almost understood some of the Goblin’s speech. A few words that were repeated, a phrase here and there—useless, of course, but it helped knowing what was going on.
“They’re fighting in wider spaces. Looks like they’re trapped. Your exploding undead will do less good there.”
“Yes. But they can go through other tunnels. Now the Great Chieftain must defend from me.”
Reiss turned and grinned. Osthia looked at him and tried to find the disgust and hatred in her heart. All she felt was a bit of anger. She’d been his captive too long. She had hated him, tried to kill him after Zel Shivertail had fallen. But she had known it was the Necromancer who had killed him. And Reiss had left his body for the Humans, wept. She wanted to hate him. That would make things simple. Easy. But she couldn’t. So Osthia glanced up at the mountain, aglow with torches.
“What now? Any Drake commander would dig in and find the most advantageous spots to keep slaughtering your troops. How will Goblins fight?”
“Not dig in. Mountain too much stone.”
The Goblin Lord grinned and Osthia realized he’d made a joke. She stared at him stonily. He gave her another shrug.
“Goblin Chieftain cannot ward all tunnels from undead and my soldiers. Now there are spots. I will send in Hobs, strong warriors. Try to find ways towards him.”
“Yes. And he will hunt my officers. Now it is a battle to kill each other’s best warriors. Mages. Special Goblins.”
Osthia nodded. That was another way of fighting. Take out the head of an army, the [Strategists], high-level warriors and so on, and all you had left were fodder. She looked at Reiss and wondered again if she wanted him to win or lose this battle. If he won he would be even stronger. But a Goblin nation—if he conquered a city in Human lands, would that really be the worst? He had promised to set her free if he made his kingdom a reality.
On the other hand, if this Great Chieftain won, what then? The Goblin Lord’s forces would retreat, be forced to raid and build up. And he was the Necromancer’s enemy, or so he claimed. The sooner Osthia could escape and warn her people…
“Will your master join the battle? Or will he reserve his help for when you’re cornered?”
Reiss’ smile twisted into a scowl. He looked at Osthia with his black eyes and then shook his head.
“The further we are from him, the harder it is for him to cast magic. He will not help. And if I go further still—”
Reiss’ eyes travelled back towards the mountain. Osthia stared at it and shivered. An old Dwarven home. It was a powerful refuge. If Reiss occupied it, would this be his Goblin kingdom? Or an outpost? Or would he abandon it? She didn’t know. And as Reiss turned back to issue more orders, Osthia wondered what the Humans were doing. They had to know the battle was going on. Would they wait until both sides were exhausted before moving in? She was afraid that would be a mistake. The Goblins might hate each other, but a common enemy could unite them. Or would they fight each other to the end despite the new threat, like her people?
Overhead the moon rose. As the first day of fighting drew to an end, the siege continued with the undead besieging the mountain while the Goblin Lord’s forces rested. Parts of the army would awaken to night raids and quiet assassinations in the dark. The siege would heat up the next day. Both sides would throw everything into the conflict and it would take only a few lucky strokes for one group to gain a decisive edge over the other.
Ironically, less than a hundred miles away a different siege would be playing out quite differently on the exact same day.
The stones fell from the sky. Like birds falling from the sky. Only, they weren’t birds. Massive chunks of stone fell on the city filled with Goblins, smashing through the rooftops of buildings, sending the cobblestone street fountaining up in explosions of dirt and shrapnel. The two trebuchets fired a stone every ten minutes at most—the Humans swarming over the trebuchet had to pull back the arm, drag over a boulder and adjust the aim each time. Nevertheless, the stones falling on the city were a terrifying thing for any besieged army to contemplate. The Goblins stood on the battlements and stared.
In wonder. It was less fear and more awe that had children and adult Goblins alike sitting on the battlements, watching the trebuchets reload. Of course, when the stones flew the Goblins scattered out of the likely flight path, calling warnings. But until that brief moment they were more impressed than anything else. Where any other species might have felt fear, Goblins were surprisingly resilient.
The sky had begun throwing stones at them. Okay. It wasn’t pleasant, but to the Goblins it was just another way to die. They were more concerned with whether they’d have to stay in the city while the rocks kept falling. It was easy to dodge the boulders if you had sentries on the walls, but what about if you were asleep? And soon the city walls would be full of holes.
Rags had grasped all of that the instant she’d seen the trebuchets. Her vision of a secure city melted in the face of the Human’s strange devices. But her anguish over her ruined plans had been replaced by an idea. A plan.
The small Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe screamed a word as Goblins ran about the city. Pyrite was making his way up the steps of the walls, looking worried. Rags could see Sir Kerrig below as well. The [Knight] was making the smallest Goblins hide in the shadow of the walls. She understood. Of course—taking shelter in the lee of the walls would be the safest spot since the boulders would either hit the wall or go past it. She called out an order and pointed. Goblins began running to reposition themselves.
Pyrite panted a bit as he crested the stairs. He took one look at the trebuchets and said a bad Human word. Rags nodded absently.
“Human thing. Far-crushing death.”
The big Hob said the bad word again. He stared at the trebuchet as it was slowly reloaded. The arm bent back.
“What now, Chieftain? Leave city? Walls will have many holes soon.”
“Mm. Not too soon. Humans have bad aim.”
They had two massive trebuchets. They must have taken ages to drag across the landscape. And for all that they could hurl huge stones, their aim was fairly bad. Rags’ keen eyes picked out the operators on both trebuchets. It looked like a Human female was aiming one of them. That trebuchet seemed more on target. Two of the three stones it had hurled had hit the walls. The other trebuchet had hit a different spot each time. Yes, give them time and the city would slowly be demolished. However—
“Chieftain, you called me?”
A voice made Rags turn. She saw Noears panting harder than Pyrite. He looked warily at the trebuchets. Rags pointed.
“Big falling stone.”
Noears grimaced, his face expressing a whole host of emotions. Rags nodded. She could see her lieutenants making their way towards her, keeping an eye on the sky. Yes, the trebuchets could do a lot of damage by accident, but it would be hard to hit a specific target. She could work with that.
“Noears, how much mana? How many potions?”
He blinked at her and scrubbed a hand across his bald head.
“Can cast lots of spells, Chieftain. Got four potions.”
He patted his belt where one of them hung. Noears warily eyed the trebuchets in the distance. He shook his head.
“Too far. Get close is dangerous. Use fire and arrows instead?”
He looked hopefully at Rags, assuming she wanted him to get close and zap the trebuchets. Rags shook her head. She pointed up.
“Good aim? Can hit stones?”
Noears blinked. He looked up, and then grinned.
The next boulder flew as Rags was calling for more Goblins. It had a good arc and would have plummeted into the city center. Only, as it neared the walls of the city, Noears pointed up and shouted.
A flash of lightining and a boom made every Goblin look up. Stone shards rained down from above, making the Goblins on the walls shield their eyes. The boulder tumbled and fell—not on the city center but hitting one of the walls. Rags shook her head as she heard a scream and saw Goblins fleeing the impact site.
She shouted at Noears. The Goblin [Mage] grunted.
He took a position on the walls. His lightning bolt spell was powerful, but it could only crack or change the boulder’s trajectory. Rags thought he could protect the city for an hour at best. She nodded to herself.
More Goblins approached. Quietstab, Redscar, a few Hobs, and Poisonbite. The female raid leader coughed a bit, but her breathing sounded much better. Rags looked at her.
“Can fight, Chieftain! Want to destroy big wood thing?”
Poisonbite grabbed one of her daggers and pointed at the trebuchet. Rags shook her head. the Human army was camped all around it and they outnumbered her tribe a good bit.
“What then, Chieftain? Sit here not good. Slow crush death.”
Quietstab looked apprehensive, but Rags just sneered at him. She struck an arrogant pose, aware that below, Sir Kerrig was watching her.
“Sit here very good! Sit here all we need! Flooded Waters tribe not afraid of rocks, right?”
The other Goblins chorused uncertainly. Rags pointed at Redscar.
“You get nails.”
She pointed at Quietstab.
“Get wood. Break houses!”
She pointed at Poisonbite.
“Got stones! Big stones. Like boulder.”
Finally, she pointed at Pyrite.
“You get lots of Goblins. Wait for signal.”
They nodded hesitantly. Rags turned to the second group of Goblins she’d called. They weren’t Hobs, save for one. Over two thirds of the Goblins didn’t even carry weapons! But they all had a specific class.
[Tinkerer]. [Builder]. [Hammerer], [Armorer], [Scavenger]. They were a group unique to her tribe. Every Goblin tribe had someone good at repairing armor or making crude spears, but Rags’ tribe had learned to create crossbows. They had built their crude armor thanks to her [Scavenger Armor] Skill. And she had aquired a level or three in the [Tinkerer] class too. Rags pointed at the trebuchet.
“Human thing. Throw big rocks. Want.”
The Goblins stared at the distant trebuchet. They scratched their heads. Not a single one told Rags it was impossible. They just stared. After a second, one frowned.
“Big turn thing.”
The Goblin had identified the fulcrum, or axle the trebuchet was rotating on. She pointed it out to Rags and the others. Another Goblin observed the way the Humans were reloading the catapult and triggering it with ropes. A third stared at the counterweight, watching it swing down. Another watched Noears blow the stone out of the sky because that was fun to see.
It wasn’t as if the trebuchet was that hard to understand. Arm went down, arm went up. Stone goes in sling, stone goes flying. The Goblins may not have ever studied calculus or observed more than basic physics, but they had eyes. And the Humans had helpfully given them two trebuchets as an example. The real problem wasn’t even resources—Rags had already sent her tribe demolishing parts of the city for whatever they needed. The real problem was in copying the trebuchet perfectly.
“How big is arm? How long is rope?”
Rags frowned at the distant trebuchet. That was the thing. She was fairly certain that if the rope was too long or the trebuchet was poorly made it would break. In making the crossbows she’d seen how poor wood or faulty recreations snapped in the user’s faces. So she and her engineering team stared hard at the trebuchet, trying to figure out a way to copy it. They hit upon their idea after three minutes of staring.
“Human there. Got helmet.”
One of the Goblins pointed at a Human [Soldier] who looked bored as he stood to attention besides the trebuchet. He was watching it move and was standing close. He was perfect. The other Goblins focused on him and one ran to get a Human-sized helmet. Yes, Human heads varied in size, but not greatly. They began piling up helmets and arguing over how tall the Human was. As they did, they stared at the Human and began comparing his head to the length of the trebuchet arm.
Rags saw several Goblins measuring with their claws and then bringing out little bits of string which they marked with their new measuring unit. How many Human heads across was the trebuchet’s arm? How wide was it? She did her own calculations, poking Goblins and arguing with them. For once they argued back.
The engineering team bickered, threw one of their own off the walls in fury, ducked as another stone flew past them, and then swarmed off the battlements. They descended on the ready supplies, poking other Goblins and conveying through hand gestures and short sentences what was needed. The other Goblins listened, scratched their heads, and got to work.
It was incredible. To Sir Kerrig, the trebuchets employed by Laken Godart’s army were nothing short of miraculous in themselves. The Drakes knew how to build siege weapons, but they had classes! An [Engineer] was as valuable as a [Knight] equipped in full plate armor—more, in fact! If he had gone to any group of Humans and told them to copy a trebuchet they would have laughed at him or given up after a few attempts. But Goblins didn’t say ‘that’s impossible’ or ‘I can’t do it’. They just did it or got a whack from their Chieftain.
Of course, not everything was straightforward. Finding the right timber to use for their first trebuchet was hard since they only had beams from houses to work with. The first arm of the trebuchet they cobbled together broke due to the weight they placed on it. Too, the measurements of the arm were off and so the first trebuchet simply collapsed before it could be built.
To fix these problems, Rags sent a group of Hobs out covertly from the city. It was a risky thing, but they managed to get to the forest and down a tree before the Humans sent a patrol at them. Redscar’s Carn Wolves and a host of Goblins with crossbows on the walls convinced the Human army to let the Goblins do…whatever it was they were doing. Who cared so long as most didn’t escape? They moved along the forest’s edge, encircling the city at a distance from the other side.
Indeed, for the most part the Human army’s morale was soaring. They sat at a distance, jeering, as their trebuchets launched more boulders at the walls of the city. There were already holes in the western wall and Noears had run out of mana and been forced to rest. The army was content to lounge about. Why, within a day or two the city would be so full of holes the Goblins would either run or be dead! They were confident. Right up until the saw they first boulder flying towards them.
To be fair, the first stone wasn’t half as large as the ones that had been flying at the city. And it landed well short of the Humans’ camp. But the fear and shock it caused sent a physical ripple through the besieging force’s lines. It wasn’t just the danger. It wasn’t just the shock of seeing their specially designed, unique trebuchets copied so quickly. It was a basic, simple feeling.
That wasn’t right. That wasn’t fair. Goblins couldn’t create devices! They weren’t smart enough to copy things like that! They couldn’t just replicate something that had taken a team of [Engineers] to build! But as the second and third boulders flew from the city walls, the Humans had to face facts. The Goblins had built a trebuchet of their own.
One. Sir Kerrig could see it being loaded and the arm pulled into place by the team of Goblins as more argued over a second one. It was incredible, but the Goblins worked in perfect synchronization. They had the materials, the manpower, and the motivation. But all of that might have been for naught save for their Chieftain.
There she was, striding past the first trebuchet, snapping at other Goblins and moving the rest. Sir Kerrig stared at Rags. Such a small Goblin! But she was terrifyingly smart. She had organized this tribe, defeated every attack sent against her. She was dangerous. But she could also be reasoned with. That was his hope. There was some goodness, some innate quality that could be redeemed in her. If not her, then certainly in Pyrite. If only he could end this fighting!
Such was Kerrig’s wish. But he had been flatly rejected by Rags once before. That was why he was astounded and not a little bit suspicious when Rags herself strode up to him. And the first thing she said made him warier still.
“Time for peace. You go.”
She pointed at the gates, which had been partially collapsed by a shot from the Humans. Now both sides were flinging stones at each other as fast as they could. Sir Kerrig saw a boulder smash into a wall and send up a spray of stones and stared at Rags in disbelief.
“Now? You must be joking.”
“No. Now is best time for peace.”
She grinned toothily at him. Sir Kerrig frowned at her. He looked over Rags’ shoulder at Pyrite. The Hob was keeping one eye towards the sky as he watched Rags talk.
“Your tribe is willing to offer some assurance of peace?”
Rags pointed at the second trebuchet being built. Sir Kerrig stared at her. His head began to hurt.
“That is the opposite of what I spoke of. I told you that there must be proof of your goodwill! Proof that you can be trusted!”
The small Goblin stared at Sir Kerrig, tilting her head back and forth. She nodded.
“Trust. We not trust Humans. They attacked us. First.”
She emphasized the word. Behind her, Pyrite nodded. Rags pointed to the trebuchet.
“Humans come here to kill. Bring rock throwing thing. But we have rock throwing thing now too.”
“Good name. They cannot get rid of us. We cannot leave with them. So trust. They go, we run away. Otherwise we stay and both starve.”
There was a twisted logic to it. But Sir Kerrig felt a fire in his chest as he stared past Rags at Redscar. The Goblin was sitting on a Carn Wolf, clearly enjoying watching the trebuchets firing. He was gesturing at one, asking for a turn aiming it.
“That may be far too late. Your people raided the countryside. You slaughtered innocents! If you had asked me four days ago, my response would have been different. What proof have I now that you won’t immediately strike once you have retreated?”
Rags looked thoughtful. She glanced at Pyrite and he reached for something at his side. He was holding his sack and Sir Kerrig blinked as he pulled out one of his pieces of gold. Rags pointed at it.
“Gold? Are you trying to buy a peace treaty?”
Sir Kerrig didn’t know if he should be outraged or impressed. Rags nodded a few times.
“Good. Buy. Don’t need shiny things. We give for dead. Humans let us go away.”
The [Knight] gritted his teeth hard.
“That does not excuse all the death.”
“No. But enough dead on Human side now. Makes up for Goblins.”
The small Goblin peered at Sir Kerrig. She wasn’t exactly smiling. But her eyes—Sir Kerrig shuddered as he saw the simple calculation in Rags’ gaze. You killed us. We killed you. Now we’re even. Rags pointed at the bag Pyrite was holding again.
“Give to Humans. You take one to big Human leader. General? Emperor? Tell more if go. Humans get shiny things. We keep that.”
She pointed at the Goblin-made trebuchet. Sir Kerrig stared at it.
“You want to keep that?”
“No. Keep know how to make. We take and go. Humans let us go.”
Sir Kerrig tried to find words for how unacceptable the idea of that was. Goblins with the ability to create siege weapons? And this tribe. He looked at Rags and knew what his answer was.
“Chieftain Rags. I am afraid my answer is no. I cannot trust your motives. I cannot trust you. As for the Unseen Emperor—I am certain I would not be able to convince him of anything you have said either.”
He kept his tone level, wondering if Rags would order him killed or stab him herself. The small Goblin’s eyes flashed at his words. She stared at him and then stomped her foot.
“Trust? Trust? Why Humans only ones who need trust? If trust wanted—get mage! Get truth spell! Get [Emperor] to come here and talk! Then I say tribe is leaving, no want fight. And truth is known to all! We did not start fight. We will end it! If trust you want—get way to trust us!”
Her raised voice made the other Goblins look over. Rags glared at Sir Kerrig. He sat back, surprised. A [Mage]? Truth spells? How did she know about those? Then again, nothing about Rags could surprise him anymore. And the thought was…
“You would swear on truth spell that your motives are genuinely peaceful?”
“Would swear. Get Humans to stop attack, we go. Tell [Emperor]. We meet. We talk. Safe ground.”
“No [Emperor] would risk himself that way, surely.”
Rags rolled her eyes.
“Then go shout at each other from far away! Any way works! You go. Ask!”
She pointed towards the gates. Sir Kerrig stared at her. Was she serious? He looked at Pyrite. The Hobgoblin was waiting patiently.
“Sir Pyrite. What do you say? Is your tribe’s goal truly peaceful?”
The Hob considered the question and Sir Kerrig watched closely. Pyrite chewed on something, frowned, chewed again, and then nodded. He spoke slowly, deliberately.
“Goblins want to live. Emperor? Humans? Other tribes? All danger. Want peace. Big battle not good idea. You go best way to let all live. So you go. Or is peace not better than war?”
He looked pointedly at Sir Kerrig. The [Knight] slowly nodded. He stood and looked at Rags. The small Goblin watched him carefully. Warily. He nodded to her.
“Chieftain Rags, if your words are sincere, I will attempt to broker peace with Emperor Laken. I cannot guarantee that he will agree. But give me your message to him and I will carry it. I may need a horse.”
Rags nodded. She whistled and shouted a word. A Goblin raced off. Rags looked back at Sir Kerrig.
“Can try for peace. May work, may not. But now is a good time.”
She pointed at the trebuchets again. One fired and the Goblins cheered as the boulder went flying towards the Humans. Rags grinned.
“Peace is best when both sides have big sword.”
Sir Kerrig looked at her and shook his head. He tried to tell her she was wrong, but she was right and wrong at the same time. So young. He wished he could explain it to her, but he doubted she would listen and now was not the time. He prayed he would have the opportunity to tell her what peace really meant. For now he looked towards the Goblin pulling a horse towards him and braced himself. When he rode out of the city it was carrying a white flag and a golden nugget in a pouch by his side.
Durene’s ears twitched as she heard another thump as a stone thudded into the ground close to where she was walking. She looked back and saw the stone. It had landed and smashed out a small crater a few feet away from the tents that had been set up in the center of the camp. She saw a Human bowman staring at the boulder. It had landed only a few feet away from him. His hands shook as he held the piece of bread he’d been gnawing on.
“Miss Durene! Over here!”
Beniar waved her forwards, urging her closer to the back of the camp. Durene followed him as the former Silver-rank adventurer strode into the large war tent that had been set up. Wiskeria, that was to say, General Wiskeria, was talking with a few low-level [Lieutenants] and [Sergeants]. The allied forces that Laken had levied had sent several officers, but no one was close to Wiskeria’s rank, or even Beniar’s. The Humans straightened and stared at Durene as she ducked to enter the tent. She pretended not to see one of the men gulp nervously, or how he checked his sword belt. She was used to scaring people. And to be fair, she was scarier than normal at the moment.
Durene wore a huge leather jerkin, stitched together to cover her body. She had a gigantic tower shield made from a converted door and a club just as long at her side. Both weapons were crude—Durene had been offered a greatsword and other forms of armor, but the club was actually the best weapon at the moment. She’d broken a greatsword in training and until proper armor could be made for her, this was better. Besides, she’d beaten over a dozen Hobs with the club alone.
“Durene, thank you for coming. Please give me one moment.”
The half-Troll girl nodded and waited, watching Wiskeria discuss the new situation with her officers. Salvia, Gamel’s girlfriend, was here as well. The [Engineer] looked beside herself as Wiskeria spoke to her.
“I don’t know how they did it! Yes, you can make a trebuchet, but that was far, far too quick. They must have copied our design! We have range and power—not to mention accuracy—on them, but I can’t stop them from making more.”
“Can we make more?”
“We’ve been trying, but few of the [Soldiers] have [Carpenter] classes or so on. And we have to train them to use the trebuchet or else the engineering team will be stuck operating that.”
“That’s a no, then.”
“If we brought everyone from Riverfarm or had more help we could rely on…”
Salvia trailed off helplessly. Wiskeria nodded and tugged the pointed hat lower on her head. She often did that when she was thinking. At last, she looked up.
“Try and aim for those trebuchets. I know they’re hidden. Just…guess. And keep breaking the walls. Everyone else—we have to stay put. If we pull back any further, the Goblins could make a break for it. We’ll set up the sleeping tents and bedrolls out of range, but I want the army to stay put.”
She dismissed Salvia and the others and turned to Durene at last. Beniar growled as he folded his arms.
“Goblins building trebuchets! Those little thieving bastards will steal anything, won’t they?”
“This is the most dangerous tribe I’ve ever encountered. That Chieftain and those wolf riders—I’m almost certain this is the Redfang Tribe we’ve heard about. Only, they belong in the High Passes.”
Wiskeria rubbed at her eyes tiredly. Around Durene and Beniar she slumped a bit. Durene shifted awkwardly.
“How’re you doing, Wiskeria? Do you think the Goblins are going to attack?”
“Not likely. They’re safe in their city. We could attack them, but they’d be fools to attack us. The trebuchets make things more complicated. We could have hoped to bombard them until they had to leave. Instead, they’ll eventually hit our siege weapons or do enough damage to us at the same time. We can either trade shots or—”
“Charge the monsters!”
Beniar made a fist and punched it into his gauntleted hand. He looked excited at the prospect. Wiskeria did not.
“It’s an option. One I’ve informed Laken of. But even if we put another dozen holes in the walls I wouldn’t be happy with it.”
“Why not? We outnumber the Goblins!”
“And they have the city walls. And they have Hobs, their wolf riders, and at least one [Mage] capable of throwing lightning. They’re dangerous, Beniar.”
“So are we.”
The [Captain] glanced at Durene, nodding confidently. Durene looked back at Wiskeria. The [Witch] was shaking her head. Durene understood the issue, although she didn’t know what the best solution was. She had one real question, though.
“Why am I here, Wiskeria? I’m just a warrior. A [Paladin], yeah, but I’m no good with strategy.”
She was a fighter. It was an odd thought to have, but Durene felt right when she was in the thick of battle. Having people look up to her, being depended on, was a giddy feeling. She trusted Wiskeria to do her job. But it seemed the [General] had summoned her for other reasons. Wiskeria strode over to the tent flaps and closed them firmly.
“I’ve been in touch with Emperor Laken. Via [Message] spell. He’s told me to continue hitting the Goblins. Given the situation he wants to assault the city as soon as possible, rather than risk them making more trebuchets or worse, escaping.”
“Sounds good. When do we go in?”
Wiskeria ignored Beniar. She focused on Durene, meeting her eyes.
“I’ve asked him to wait. And I’d like you to do the same, Durene. I think he’d listen if you asked him to delay for a day or two.”
For a moment Durene was so astonished she couldn’t speak. Wiskeria wanted her to speak to Laken. She stared at Wiskeria and then her brows shot together.
“You want me to talk to Laken?”
Durene stirred. She glared at Wiskeria and stood a bit straighter.
“And say what? Not to fight? They’re Goblins, Wiskeria! Look at them! They destroyed the city! Didn’t you see all the homeless people we passed by?”
She pointed furiously, forgetting that Wiskeria had just closed the tent flaps. The memory of the homeless refugees the army had passed was clear in Durene’s mind, though. Wiskeria didn’t reply right away. She tugged on her hat’s brim again.
“I understand your feelings, Durene. But strategically—”
“Laken wants to attack, doesn’t he? He saw how many Goblins there were!”
“Yes he did. But he hasn’t seen this city. His…vision…has been compromised with each lost marker.”
“But he’s still our [Emperor]. Your [Emperor]. Why not trust him?”
Durene glared down at Wiskeria. Her voice was fierce. Durene wanted to grab her club and attack the Goblins. She felt—she had never felt so angry before! Righteous fury gave her strength. But Wiskeria just tugged at her pointed hat and sighed.
“He’s not always right.”
The half-Troll girl hesitated. That was true. But he’d been pretty right so far! She was just about to tell Wiskeria that and ask what else they could do when someone knocked urgently at the tent flap. Durene turned as a [Soldier] pulled the tent flap back.
“General! General Wiskeria!”
“What is it?”
Wiskeria snapped at the [Soldier], clearly displeased about being interrupted without warning. But the young woman who entered was breathless. She pointed back into the center of camp where Durene could see people pointing and gathering.
“General, you have to see this.”
Durene hurried out of the tent with Wiskeria and Beniar following. The half-Troll girl saw clearly over the heads of the people and horses. She saw a lone figure riding out of the city with a flag waving over his head. She blinked, rubbed her eyes, and stared again.
Wiskeria stared as well. She looked around and found the [Mage] that Lady Bevia had loaned to Laken. She waved at him and raised her voice.
“Send a [Message] to Emperor Laken. He’ll want to know about this.”
“You’re serious. A peace offer? That’s seriously what Wiskeria heard?”
Nesor stands in front of me. Again, I sit at Wiskeria’s table. It might as well be our war cottage at the moment. It’s private and we’ve set up all the maps we need. I focus on my mental image of the camp. I can sense a good space around a wooden marker set up right next to Wiskeria’s tent. Heck, I can sense her offering the [Knight]—Sir Kerrig—a cup of tea in her tent. In every direction I see soldiers. A good distance to the left, Tessia is overseeing another boulder being loaded into the trebuchet. But beyond that? Nothing.
In every direction, there’s only blankness. Not blackness, not static. Just emptiness. Every marker in the area has been destroyed and so I only have this one, solitary image of the war camp and the space in front of the city. Of course, I have many more markers set up in the nearby area, but the network is slowly collapsing. The Goblins have sent small teams out and are attempting to destroy each marker, and Wiskeria can’t spare enough men to cover every totem.
I curse as I feel another marker vanish and another part of my empire fade out of my mind. So many holes! If the Goblins wanted to escape, they would only have to run out of the city and take refuge in one of the blank spots. Assuming Wiskeria lost sight of them they could make a break for it.
Would that be so bad? Yes, surely. They’d come back and raid my lands or do damage somewhere else. Or they could circle around, begin harrying Wiskeria’s army. The Goblins have already done so much damage. Which makes this latest revelation all the harder to accept.
“Peace. Really. This [Knight], Sir Kerrig, has been in the Goblin’s tribe the entire time. And only now does their Chieftain send him to sue for peace?”
“T-that’s what General Wiskeria reports, sir.”
I whistle softly. I can’t believe it. This has got to be a trick.
“Tell me again, Nesor. What exactly did this Sir Kerrig say?”
I hear the [Mage] gulp. Behind him, Lady Rie speaks up.
“Allow me, Emperor Laken.”
I nod and Nesor gratefully steps back. Lady Rie speaks slowly. She’s been here practically every moment she’s not reassuring the nobility. Prost is keeping the village running and Lady Rie—well, she’s helpful.
“This Sir Kerrig rode out of the besieged city carrying a white flag. He was intercepted by General Wiskeria’s soldiers and immediately met with her. He bears a message—this offer of peace—from the leader of this Goblin tribe. The Flooded Waters tribe, apparently. Not one I’ve ever heard of. Not the Redfang tribe that we had assumed they were. At any rate he claims the Goblins can be reasoned with. This tribe is allegedly different. It isn’t part of the Goblin Lord’s forces or the raiding parties sent by this Great Chieftain. It may be that they’re willing to peacefully…negotiate.”
Lady Rie pauses. The silence in the cottage is incredible. Peacefully negotiate. No way. I hear her swallow and go on.
“Your majesty, I don’t know what to believe. This man is a member of the Order of the Petal and General Wiskeria claims he isn’t enchanted, but still.”
“Order of the Petal? Where have I heard that name before?”
“Ah. An order of [Knights] that obeys Lady Bethal.”
“I see. And they’re trustworthy?”
“I have never heard of a member being impugned for lying, Emperor Laken. By Sir Kerrig’s account he was part of a force that attacked this particular tribe and was captured.”
“Lady Bethal never mentioned that to me.”
“I imagine she wouldn’t have wanted to admit that fact. And Sir Kerrig was apparently given up for dead. The idea of a Goblin keeping a hostage alive—or rather, honoring any convention of war—is incredible.”
“And he’s not delusional? Or—enchanted?”
“General Wiskeria says she believes he is genuine, sire.”
I focus on the image of Sir Kerrig in my mind. Yes, I can ‘see’ him, standing in Wiskeria’s tent. He doesn’t look injured and he seems animated enough. He’s…well, he’s in good shape. But everything about what he’s said has turned my mind upside down.
“And Wiskeria wants to hold off the attack because of this.”
“Yes. She’s reiterated her points about the dangers of sieging the city.”
Rie’s voice is cautious. I mutter under my breath, wishing Frostwing were here. Or Bismarck. Both animals have been getting restless without me. But they’d hardly fit in here. At last, I nod.
“Tell Wiskeria to hold off from attacking. Keep bombarding, though. Aim for the Goblin’s trebuchets if you can. How can they make them?”
“Apparently they copied our designs from a distance.”
“Scheiße! Alright. Alright. Tell Wiskeria that I want her to send this Sir Kerrig to Riverfarm. Give him a small escort. Speed is key. Tell her to be ready to attack, though!”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
Rie goes to confer with Nesor and I sit back in my seat. A peace treaty? Or rather, peace talks? With a Goblin? How can I take this seriously?
No, that’s not what’s bothering me. What’s bothering me is what Wiskeria reported first. These Goblins aren’t like the others. They didn’t want to fight. They’re…peaceful? No. How could that be?
Intelligent Goblins? I can believe that. But peace? I think back to the Goblins raiding my village, the slaughter, the way they laughed and cut down my people. No. Goblins in stories have always been dangerous. Untrustworthy.
And yet, this is a world of fantasy. And Durene is half-Troll. By that logic she would be—
That’s Durene. That’s someone who’s never hurt a fly! Okay, she raised pigs for slaughter. But she never killed anyone. And those Goblins—they slaughtered an army from Filk! I saw them attack the army! Unprovoked! They slaughtered the soldiers there.
However…a thought nags at me. Wasn’t that army chasing another group of Goblins? A tribe? I vaguely recall tipping off the city about a tribe of Goblins in their area.
No. No. If that were true, that would mean—
I look up. Well, I don’t ‘look’ at anything, but I raise my head.
“Lady Rie, tell Wiskeria that I want this Sir Kerrig in Riverfarm by the end of today. Gallop the horses and switch out as many as you need. I want to speak with him now.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
I can sense Wiskeria responding to my orders, giving some of her soldiers directions. Sir Kerrig is already moving, riding down the road. He disappears out of my range for a few moments, and then reappears in another region I can still ‘see’ into. Meanwhile, I sit in the cottage, and feel a twisting pain in my stomach. I know it well. If I had to describe it, it would be if I lost my cane and was wandering around a place I didn’t know. That vague, nebulous fear of the unknown.
Uncertainty. And in my mind, the trickle of doubt becomes a nagging worm of fear. I silently urge Sir Kerrig to move faster. He’s at the edge of my vision, racing down the road with a group of six soldiers. And behind him, sneaking into my lands is another group of Goblins. They rush towards the marker with axes in hand and chop at it. Another spot goes dark. I pray I’m not making a mistake. At least I can still see Durene and my army camped around their marker. I will be able to see the battle if it happens.
If it happens. I was about to order Wiskeria to assault the city by the end of the day or tomorrow at the latest. Now I’m not so certain. I pace back and forth in the cottage, waiting. Uncertain.
There’s nothing I can do for now. Nothing but wait. So I leave Wiskeria’s cottage and go for a walk. It’s hardly restful. The instant I’m out the door I’m besieged by my people.
Ah, my people. They come up to me with greetings, offers to run and get food if I’m hungry, well wishes—all pleasant things, but what they’re really coming to hear is whether or not there’s been a battle. The latest gossip, the facts from my mouth. I understand what they’re feeling but it’s not what I want to deal with, so I let Rie and Prost disperse the crowd.
Of course I understand my people’s anxiety. They’re worried. The confidence of a few days ago, of knowing the Goblins were on the run, is gone. Now they’re biting their nails, same as me. And they look to me for reassurance I can’t give them.
What a mess. Prost hurries up to me and gives me a cursory report.
“More folks are coming in from villages, sire. Families, friends of folk living here—and there’s three messengers screaming to speak to you directly.”
“Let Lady Rie handle it or talk to them yourself, Mister Prost. There’s nothing else I can say right now.”
I have to be alone. Steady myself. I walk away from Prost, towards the only people I want to be around. Bismarck and Frostwing. My bird has grown to the point where she’s self-sufficient, or at least, able to fly about and poop wherever she wants. And it just so happens that she enjoys perching on Bismarck while the bear lounges about.
I walk up to the Mossbear and pat him affectionately. He snuffles my shirt, and Frostwing shrieks, perhaps sensing my mood. I stroke Frostwing’s head and let some of my tension go with the two animals. Before I know it, a good while has passed. Reluctantly, I pull myself back and check on Sir Kerrig’s progress.
“Damn. He’ll be gone for hours yet! And those Goblins are still taking down my totems!”
A marker behind Sir Kerrig and another a few miles west vanish. The Goblins keep destroying my totems and they take a long time to replace! I should have sent Sir Kerrig back into the city and demanded this Chieftain stop while he came here. Argh. But the city’s still surrounded. I think of that, and then frown.
I stride back into Riverfarm’s main street and find Lady Rie overseeing a group of arguing adults. They’re fighting over who gets a house next—a minor dispute fueled by their anxiety. I interrupt them and grab Rie.
“Your [Mage] is with the nobility. Come with me.”
I leave the villagers behind and head to the newest houses that we converted into temporary homes for the nobility when it became clear their stay would be longer than most. The noble’s personal escorts guard the houses, sounding bored as they seem in my mind. They stand straighter as I approach and instantly one of them goes to announce me. I walk into one of the houses and find Lady Bevia Veniford and a small collection of nobles sitting and having tea. That’s not what I mind. What I mind is Nesor, practically sandwiched between two of the younger [Ladies], teacup in hand.
“Why, your Majesty! What a pleasant surprise!”
Lady Bevia rises instantly to greet me. I nod slightly to her as Lady Rie greets Bevia.
“Lady Bevia, it is as always a pleasure to speak with you. I trust you are not too starved of entertainment? I understand your current situation leaves much to be desired.”
She laughs, sounding two decades younger than Lady Rie tells me she is.
“This is far more than I would hope for, given a Goblin army is marauding about the landscape, your Majesty! I am quite content for the moment, as are my peers. We are somewhat starved for information, but we do try to keep up.”
“So I note. I see Nesor has been quite stolen away by the company here.”
The older [Lady] twinkles merrily at me.
“Yes, well, I’m afraid we are simply dying to know what is going on. Do forgive an old lady’s curiosity.”
“Of course. But I’m afraid I’m in need of Nesor’s services once again. Nesor?”
“Yes, your Majesty! P-pardon me, miladies.”
He stands up, sounding relieved, guilty, and regretful at once. I excuse myself quickly from Lady Bevia and get out of the house as fast as I can. Lady Rie is mortified once we have a chance to speak in private.
“I am deeply ashamed, Emperor Laken. I had no notion that Nesor was being sought out like this. This is unacceptable. Please excuse him. Any man—and most women—would be hard-pressed to resist Lady Bevia’s charm.”
“I understand. But that cannot happen again. Nesor knows everything that’s been going on.”
“I will keep an eye on him. Please let me assure you—”
I listen to Rie’s apology, hear Nesor’s stammered plea for forgiveness, and let them go. It’s nothing more than I should have expected, honestly. The nobles have been playing their own game, sending [Message] spells of their own. I sigh and rub at my temples.
“I need a rest.”
“Would you like me to prepare a bed…?”
“No. I’ll nap in Wiskeria’s cottage. Just for an hour or two.”
So saying, I leave Rie and Nesor and lie down in Wiskeria’s bed, which is really my bed since I don’t think she’s used it as much as I have. War cottage indeed. I close my eyes and drift off, hoping that Sir Kerrig will get here by the time I wake. Only, it’s not that which wakes me. At first I think I’m dreaming. But too late, I realize its reality and shoot out of bed.
“What the hell is going on now?”
Far, far north of Sir Kerrig who is yet an hour away from Riverfarm at the fastest gallop, I can sense something happening in Wiskeria’s camp. Soldiers are moving. I can sense horses being saddled, see someone blowing a horn. They begin moving as I sense the entire army moving. Horrified, I shout out loud.
Wiskeria looked down at the map of the landscape and cursed. She looked up at the [Mage] who’d just interrupted her in her tent and stared at him.
“You’re serious. That’s what he said?”
“I received the [Message] not a minute ago, General.”
The [Mage] rubbed at the shadows around his eyes. Wiskeria wished she could believe he had misinterpreted the [Message], but she had sent two follow-up spells and received the same reply, each time more impatient. Her knuckles went white as she gripped the edge of her table.
“What does he mean, the ‘situation has changed’?”
The mage yawned and then rubbed his eyes again before standing straighter.
“I do not know, General. But the order is immediate. No delays. If you wish I can query a third time—”
“No. He must know something. Okay, now. Now.”
Wiskeria’s heart leapt in her chest. She stared at the map of the city and the Goblins. Attack. The last three messages had been explicit. She looked around desperately.
“Shit, shit, shit—sound the horns! Get me Beniar, and prepare to advance on the city! I want to hit it from the east and north and keep the Goblins off my back. Tell Salvia I want her firing throughout the battle! Hit those battlements now—”
They’re attacking. I run out of my cottage and shout for Lady Rie. She approaches as I dash over to her and I sense the people watching. But that doesn’t matter right now.
“Rie! The army is attacking the city!”
“What? But your Majesty, you wished to wait—”
I’m already shaking my head. My mind is spinning.
“I didn’t order that. I sent no [Message].”
Lady Rie paled. I grab her shoulder and shake her roughly.
“Where the hell is Nesor? Get him. Now. And find the [Mage] the nobles have been using and stop them from casting any spells!”
“There may be other [Mages] or even members of the nobility capable of casting the spell, Emperor—”
“I don’t care! Get me Nesor!”
I whirl, searching for him. Where the hell is he? Only, he’s gone. I turn in place, but I’m scanning with my mind the entire time and I sense no Nesor anywhere in the village. Anywhere in Riverfarm.
“Nesor? Where the hell has he gone? Where the hell is Nesor?”
Lady Rie has no idea. Nesor’s gone. Where she thought he was sitting in her cottage she finds no one. Only signs of a scuffle. And when I finally locate Nesor, unconscious, a lump on one head, dumped behind a stand of trees far outside the village, it’s too late. By the time I grab the other [Mage], order Wiskeria to pull back at once, the army is already advancing on the city. They’re already fighting. And all I can do is watch.
It was Pyrite who saw the Humans coming. He didn’t expect it. He was rather surprised, to be honest. But when he saw the army coming he didn’t hesitate. He stood and shouted an order. The Goblins looked up, surprised. An attack? But they’d done the peace thing!
It made no sense. But perhaps that was a lesson in itself. Pyrite hefted the battleaxe and stared at the wall of Humans coming at him. He pointed and bellowed orders. Goblins raced to grab pikes and Redscar, Poisonbite, and the other Hobs ran to their units. Pyrite stared at the Humans.
They were shouting as they marched towards the city. Soon they’d be in bow range. Behind them, the trebuchets were still firing. He saw a boulder crash into the wall of the city. He felt the stones shake. He stared at the Humans and felt his blood pumping.
So it would be a battle after all. This is what the Humans thought of Goblin peace? Very well. He lifted the battleaxe and his eyes burned crimson. They had not seen a true battle yet. If they wanted to fight, fine. It was time to show them a Goblin’s war.