“I’m going to burn out the whole cave and cook every one of them.”
“Really?” Nadler didn’t expect Addi’s response to be so decisive. Or violent. But there was his red hair to consider.
“No. Not really,” Addi swallowed a mouthful from the growler of Timos Kilson’s beer that Nadler brought along on his visit to the Trueheart cabin. The brew was warm but was still delicious medicine for Addi’s parched throat. Digging a grave was not easy work.
Addison Trueheart had buried his father in a patch of soft dirt behind their cabin. The location had rich soil and was drenched in sunlight on clear days but Frank had kept it unsown since Maggy passed. He swore that it was reserved for the flower garden she always asked for but the project was perpetually one spring away. Addi knew nothing about flowers but he had never seen his father more content than when the tireless man finished the day covered in good soil.
Addi passed the jug back to his friend. Nadler came knocking after lunch and they spent a long, mutually understood stretch of silence sitting in the cabin. Drink. Pass. Drink. Pass. It didn’t take words to follow along.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Addi confessed. “Part of me wants to do exactly what Jaupis suggested. Do they really deserve any better?”
“I don’t know. Did those pinkys seem all that dangerous to you?” Nadler said and plugged the growler with the cork when Addi waved off his turn.
“No. They seemed crazy. And maybe lost.”
“Yea. Same. I’ve never heard of goblins doing anything other than mine for bat shit and hide from everything.”
“Yea. Same,” Addi picked at his befuddlement but his mind sputtered with fatigue and was marinating in Timos’ brew.
“I don’t know,” Nadler said. “But I do know that if you don’t kill those goblins, someone in Windy Wood is going to. You should have heard them back at the bar when I left. I think they’re actually expecting you to lead the whole thing after what happened with your dad.”
“Why would they expect that?”
“Because you’re twice their size and better you than them! Also it’s just what young men are supposed to do in these situations I guess. You should probably show up at least. You don’t want the whole town thinking you’re a coward.”
Nadler drank and passed.
“My Goddess, I don’t want to deal with them or the pinkys. Let’s say I kill them. Then what? Nothing changes. And how many can there be left anyway? You should have seen how many bodies Dad and I cleaned up yesterday. There can’t be but a handful of them still alive in those hills,” Addi rationalized.
“You can’t do nothing,” Nadler, like usual, cut to the root of his friend’s rhetoric.
“I know,” Addi confessed.
The two friends revisited the silence that started their conversation. Nadler sulked about how quickly and ruthlessly fate could rearrange her pattern when she wished. Just two days ago, he and Addi were commiserating over missing out on Landyn Broxton’s latest heroic fiction novel; now they were weighing the merits of goblin genocide. Nadler eyed Addi’s leather bound stack of ‘The Sword and the Road’ novels in the corner. Though he owned many more stacks of literature himself, he was always envious of the craftsmanship and quality of materials that went into Addi’s edition of Broxton’s trilogy.
“Maybe there is a way we can get rid of those pinkys with as little work as possible,” Nadler said.
“‘The Sword and the Road.’”
“How did the hero prevent “The Third War of Hearts” with the rival tribes in the climax of the second book? When everyone was calling for the Supreme Warrior’s head, what did he do?”
“He negotiated,” Addi knew the story inside out.
“Exactly. He negotiated. We handpick the most intimidating folk from all those aspiring killers back at the bar and we march up to that cave. Then I put my fluency in goblin to a noble use by convincing those pinkys to move out and be spared or stay and be slain,” Nadler was sitting up straight by the end of the presentation.
“I really don’t want to slay anybody.”
“It won’t come to that,” Nadler promised.
“Are you telling people that you’re fluent in goblin now?”
“Maybe it’s worth a try,” Addi admitted aloud. He didn’t want to be responsible for leading a pack of exterminators on a revenge mission but he also didn’t think the pinkys should get to keep living as neighbors to Windy Wood after the insanity of recent events. More than anything, he just wanted to be left alone by goblin and townsfolk alike so that he could grieve in solitude and sleep for a month.
“How do we start?” Addi asked.
“Don’t worry about a thing. Just meet me outside your cabin when the sun goes down,” Nadler stood up with purpose.
“Where are you going?”
“To gather the most terrifying collection of maniacs Windy Wood has to offer,” Nadler left the cabin with fire in his blood and beer on his breath; even Addi’s heart was beating a little faster. He was familiar with Nadler’s history of overestimating his own schemes, but at least they had the seed of a plan. That seed, when watered with a growler of Timos’ brew, filled him with fresh confidence.
“Those pinkys are going to regret invading my life,” Addi vowed.
True to his word, once night arrived, Nadler had mustered a crew of soldiers outside of the Trueheart cabin. When Addi walked out his front door, he was still vacillating between wanting to shoo the tribe of pinkys or settling their debt with steel. However, the army that Nadler managed to recruit took the decision out of Addi’s hands.
“Three people?! You were acting like the whole town was ready for war!” Addi somehow managed to shout while whispering. Nadler and him, the de facto generals, were hiding on the side of the cabin and finalizing strategy. “How can we possibly fight anybody with three people?”
“Not fight. Intimidate and negotiate. That’s what I said,” Nadler held his palms towards Addi.
“Intimidate? You said you had a tavern full of bloodthirsty killers.”
“I did until you gave them all day to sit and drink. What is my dad supposed to do? Not sell them beer?”
Addi squeezed his hands until his fingernails pressed like dulls knives in his palm. Arguing with Nadler was a fool’s errand. Nothing was ever his fault. No point would be conceded. It was a staring contest and Nadler didn’t know how to blink.
“Ok. Fine. What do we do?” Addi redirected.
“We stick to the plan. This can still work and nobody has to get hurt,” Nadler said with authority and took Addi’s empty stare as agreement. “Now go and meet your army while I take a leak. Then we’re off!”
Marshal Rodger Bellick had been the sole security in Windy Wood for as long as Addi could remember. The elderly swordsman was gaunt and his body looked held together through sheer pride. He wore light fighting leathers and a sword sheathed at his hip. He had forgotten his age but the marshal claimed to have served in the royal guard for West Cartia’s last king and the throne had been abandoned for nearly fifty years. Wrinkles aside, the soldier shook Addi’s hand with fingers forged from iron.
“It is an honor to seek justice for your father, lad. I knew him—“ the old soldier winced and clutched at his midsection. “Apologies. All this recent excitement has my bowels in a twist. Age vanquishes all, it seems.”
Addi remembered how the marshal depleted his stamina early in the goblin raid and relied on a stool to stay in the fight. How would he possibly fare well hiking around in the hills at night? The last thing Addi needed was being responsible for a senior citizen but he appreciated the soldier’s obvious affection for his father.
“Thank you, Mr. Bellick.”
“Think nothing of it. I am duty bound and please, call me Sir Rodger Bellick.”
“Ok,” Addi said and moved down the line.
Next in Nadler’s army was a boy no more than ten summers old. The child smelled and his hair was a mix of mats and cowlicks. His name was Krewg Harring and Nadler had first met him behind the Kilson Tavern playing with party rockets he claimed The Dealer sold him. The boy had impressed a rat into service as a test pilot and tied the animal to a bundle of explosives in a quest to send life to the stars. By the time Nadler smelled out the launch, the boy had already written off the half cooked pilot as a miscalculation and was working on another rat. Krewg promised Nadler that he knew the precise location of the goblin’s cave. He was unarmed and carried only a backpack.
“I won’t let you down! I’ll kill more goblins than that old guy for sure!” the child exclaimed. Addi wished Nadler would have left Krewg at home to torture vermin but he did appreciate the kid’s enthusiasm.
“We’re going to talk to the pinkys, Krewg,” Addi said.
“Right, talk. I should think of something cool to say. Good idea,” Krewg’s brow scrunched.
“Ok,” Addi said and moved down the line.
Ember Faey wore an outfit of soft cotton, dyed black and cinched tightly with leather ties at the seams. On her feet was a matching set of boots with soft soles. The attire looked quieter than a gnat’s sneeze and her grin impelled Addi to watch his back.
“Happy to join your gang, apple farmer,” Ember said with a perfect curtsy.
“What are you doing here?” Addi replied.
“Your friend said you needed help with an adventure and, if you recall, I am in need of adventure related help as well,” Ember spelled it out.
“Then he told you wrong. I don’t need your help.”
“Are you sure about that?” Ember eyed the child and elderly man standing in rank.
“I’m not but still, I don’t need your adventure.”
“Well, at least let me tag along. I’ve been cooped up for three days and I could use an excuse to get out of that stinking tavern. Besides everyone back in your town is as dull as the Gods can make them but not you. You’re different. You’re interesting,” Ember fingered at her braid.
“I’m not going on your adventure,” Addi felt a sudden need to reaffirm his stance. He had no clue what manner of spellcraft was taught at the First Academy of Mages but he was beginning to suspect the curriculum included a course or two on hypnosis.
“Ok,” Ember said and Addi moved on.
The war party set out under the matte white glow of a full moon. The air felt sticky and warm but Addi preferred a little sweat to working with a chill. Throughout the march, he reflected on how much his dad would have loved to pull an all-nighter on some project when the moon was naked in the sky and the temperature pleasant; but the thought only brought pain. It was just one more moment that would remain planted in the past, never to grow anew.
Krewg led them winding up into the wooded hills where the group had to bushwhack their own path at times. Nadler hacked with his dull sword through deadfall and brush that clawed at everyone’s clothes. Sir Rodger Bellick quickly surrendered to the terrain and offered to sit in the forest to protect their rear. Though all present had seen what a formidable foe the marshal could be while stationed on his backside, Addi couldn’t abandon the old man and insisted that he be carried. In the end, duty defeated the marshal’s vanity and Addi wore Sir Rodger Bellick like Krewg’s backpack for the remainder of the hike.
The marshal’s sword hung from his hip and slapped Addi’s flank when they walked like a jockey driving his horse. Word of their presence spread rapidly amongst bloodsuckers in the forest and before long, Addi was spitting out a buffet of bugs.
“This doesn’t resemble any fellowship of heroes I’ve ever read about,” Addi griped silently.
Krewg brought them to a worn path that snaked in a ridiculous manner and indicated the traffic of pinkys. The child declared that they were nearing the cave when Ember moved to walk shoulder to shoulder with Addi.
“Why are you doing this?” Ember opened.
“What do you mean? Someone has to do something,” Addi huffed and his pale cheeks were flush.
“Yes, but why you? You said it yourself: you don’t need adventures and your father just died. Sorry about that, by the way, but you have every reason to be home nursing a bottle. As far as I know, nobody’s asked you to do this.”
“Look,” Addi stopped and adjusted the man clinging to his back like a sleepy toddler. “You’re right but someone has to do something and if I wait around for others to do the work for me, I can’t be upset when nothing gets done. You know who said that?”
“Your dad,” Ember guessed.
“My dad,” Addi confirmed. He was in no hurry to move his feet again. His back was screaming and he was beyond annoyed with feeling Sir Rodger Bellick’s hot breathe puffing on his skin. “The truth is: I haven’t really had any time to think about what’s going on. Forget about why it’s going on. Things just keep happening and I’m just trying to keep up. Right now, I’m taking care of this. After this, who knows?”
Ember felt a stab of empathy in her chest. How could she not relate? The well muscled youth just laid out the plotline for her entire life.
“I get it,” Ember’s hand moved on its own and rested on Addi’s arm.
The air was different. For a blink of a second, Addi thought Ember might have slipped up and let her defensive latticework of magic waver. Ember saw the look in his eyes and realized her folly.
“I must make waste,” Sir Rodger Bellick whispered discreetly into Addi’s ear.
“What?” Addi flinched.
“I must make waste. Imminently,” the marshal repeated. Panic was already soiling his tone.
A slew of disgusting possibilities spurred Addi’s feet and he sprinted into the first set of bushes at hand. He nearly dropped Sir Rodger Bellick and turned around to preserve what dignity the marshal clung to. Sir Rodger Bellick was immediately engaged in a brutal battle with his digestive system. The old soldier’s grunts and gasps rang out above his internal clash. Addi pretended as if some great wonder had his full attention in the opposite direction.
“Addi, lad,” Sir Rodger Bellick spoke when he could. “I must confess: I heard some of your conversation just now with the lass.”
“You did?” Addi played along.
“I did and it is not my place to school you but I must say one thing. Look at me, lad,” the marshal implored.
“Oh, I can hear you just fine, sir.”
“Please, it is important. Look at me.”
Addi met the grave stare of Sir Rodger Bellick. The marshal squatted atop a fallen tree with his trousers encircling his ankles and the loose skin of his buttocks flapping in the breeze.
“Addi, there is no shame in desiring revenge and you cannot afford to be burdened with doubt when we reach our foes. Remember your father, lad, and strike sure. Shame will only slow your sword arm,” Sir Rodger Bellick preached.
“Yes, sir. Are you finished? Do you require um, assistance?” Addi dreaded the answer.
“Nope! False alarm, lad. Relief, it seems, is an elusive quarry tonight,” the old man stood and buckled his pants. “Let us proceed.”
Krewg guided the group through the final leg of the trek. The path twisted up a small mountain to dead end at a flat patch of rock overlooking the whole of the land beneath. Addi spotted Windy Wood in the distance and thought the town looked so vulnerable from way up high. It was nothing more than a family of fireflies cornered by an encroaching sea of dark trees and hills.
A cave, which bored deep into the side of the mountain, opened onto the rocky overlook where the party stretched and groaned. The goblins within the cave had spotted the invaders well in advance and what remained of the hill tribe crept into the moonlight to meet them on their porch. Addi placed Sir Rodger Bellick onto his feet and he stood beside Nadler in the front of their group.
From within the shroud of the cave, where light was uninvited, a particularly gruesome pinky pushed through the collection of onlookers and posted directly across from the leaders of the humans. His back was raw and oozed pus and plasma. He snarled with a blend of excitement and drool. In his hand, he held a freshly snapped tree branch. One end of the stick had been chewed until it was a point sharp enough to concern mothers with young children.
“Huuuyuckhuk kuhweee, Gwerk uk uk. Uhwheee hooo wha,” the pinky squeaked.
Nadler thumbed through his goblin dictionary and nodded several times before facing Addi.
“He says he is ‘Gwerk the Burned’ and his stick is called ‘Belly Poker.’ We are to deal with him,” Nadler translated.
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