At the gates to the town, two armies faced. One formed of men and women, fighting for their lives. The other, a horde of rot eating monsters. From her perch on the town gates, Minoka could see the green monstrosities forming loose ranks at the base of the hill the village of Thimble had been built upon.
“Ugly fuckers aint they.”
Minoka leapt as she looked at the Towa, the old woman with short cropped gray hair she had first seen at the fire the night before. She was adorned in thick black leather armor, adorned with studs of tarnished bronze. A hand and a half sword, worn from use but well maintained hung over her shoulder as she stared down at the gather army.
“A very astute observation.” Minoka whispered under her breath.
Towa laughed, a deep lovely sound. In truth, this was the first time Minoka had ever laid eyes on Goblins. They were larger than she had believed, standing at about four feet tall, looking almost childlike in appearance, save for their green skin and bat like ears. What drew her gaze most of all however, was the Goblins mouths. Each bore a gaping grin, extending from one ear to the other. The things appeared to have no lips, only a jagged row of green interlocking teeth reminding her of the carnivorous plants which grew by the many ponds around the Citadel.
“You know, when you kill a goblin, they don’t bleed.” Towa said, casually, “Not like you and I do at least. No, when your blade bites into their flesh, it’s like cutting into a tree. Pulpy and thick. Blood is green too, because why wouldn’t it be. And if you don’t burn the bodies, new Gobs wills sprout from their withered corpse come spring.”
Minoka blinked, turning from the grotesque horde to where the old woman stood at her side. Towa never looked back. Her smoke gray remained on the growing horde. At first there were little more than ten. Then twenty. And then still more. Beating on makeshift shields of wood and bone. Armed with whatever weapons they could steal or make.
“My grandson will be fighting today. He has never killed a goblin either.” Towa said, “That is why I am here. Because I failed him. Told to may stories, of my time as a wandering sword. Filled his head with too many lies of the glory of battle. I wanted him to be a farmer. A barkeep. A fucking shit shoveler. Anything but this. But I failed and now he is here with a bow and arrow aimed at a fucking army of goblins.”
Minoka stared at the woman. If she had to guess, she was nearly sixty-year-old, only a few years older than Minoka herself. Humans lived so short of a time. They fought. They loved. They made families. All in the span of time it had taken for her to feel like little more than a child. Towa was nearing the end of her years on this mortal plane.
And she was spending them fighting by her grandson’s side.
“What is your boys name.” Minoka said.
“Bran,” Towa said, before leaving the wall and joining the ranks of men and women below, “Sing him a song won’t you. A pretty tune for him to die too.”
“I don’t sing those kinds of songs, Ser Towa,” Minoka said, “I sing the songs of heroes.”
Towa stopped at the final step to the wall.
“In my experience, Minoka of the Song, it is the same tune.”
“Don’t you have a battle to be preparing for?”
Mosh opened an eye and flashed the annoyed Sinette a smile from where he lay on the cot. Her Golden eyes were narrowed in annoyance, the nails of her hands sharpening to talons as her fingers tapped nervously against her arm. The Naguai girl was doing her best to hold in her rising anxiety. A good trait to have in the person who would be stitching him up later he supposed.
“Anyone tell you you’re kind of pretty when they are facing possible death and dismemberment?
Sinette turned her back to him, going about the never-ending tasks she had to do before preparing for the battle to come. Brandy on other hand, seemed to be busying herself with getting drunk, taking sips from the various bottles that jangled around her waist. Mosh pushed himself off of the cot, leaping to his feet and placing his hands into his pockets as he followed Sinette about the medical tent. For the girl’s part she did her best to ignore him. It was only as he began juggling various medical equipment Sinette whirled on him, snatching the items from him an annoyed look in her eyes.
“What do you want, Mosh?” Sinette snapped.
“You know who you remind me of?” Mosh asked, ignoring Sinette’s question with the ease of the insane. “My little sister, Bajee. She was like you. Small.”
“Neat.” Sinette said, placing down the glass vials and forceps he had been juggling moments before. In one breath, you think I am pretty. The next you think I am like your sister. How incestuous.”
“I don’t know what that means, but I meant it as a compliment.” Mosh said, leaning against a table. “My sister was the smartest person I knew. You know what her Anima was? A rabbit. A fucking rabbit, born amongst a tribe of wild dogs and wolves.”
Sinette stopped despite herself. It was rare, the thing Mosh was describing. Every Naguai was different, but it was almost unheard of to hear of a sibling Anima being of a completely different species. And for the Anima to be the prey of another was unthinkable.
“Bajee was smart, in all things except me.” Mosh continued, his reddish-brown eyes staring off into a past unseen to any but him. “She wanted to believe I was like her. She wanted to believe I wasn’t like the rest of our tribe. That I wasn’t a monster.”
“I told her to run before the full moon rose. Bajee was smart, but not when it came to me. The fool moon came, and the change took hold of all.” Mosh said, “She didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to listen. So, I fought, I fought them all. Wolf. Hyena. Coyote. Dog. I held them back and I begged her to run.
Mosh pushed himself off the table, his eyes never meeting her. For the first time, Sinette looked at the numerous scars that crisscrossed man’s bear arms and chest. Scars formed from claw and tooth. Mosh didn’t look back as he made his way out of the tent, only stopping at the billowing flap of the way out.
“Bajee was the smartest person I knew.” Mosh said, “And when she saw the fight could not be won, Bajee ran. Know when to run. Know when the fight can no longer be won.”
The ground shook as a heavy shadow fell over Caelus. He didn’t bother to look up as he hurriedly worked trigger to the large ballista, he had hastily made with less than a few hours’ time. Too hastily it seemed.
“How is it looking, Caelus?” A gravelly voice boomed behind him. Caelus cast an annoy look over his shoulder, his temper rising at the asinine question only to die in his throat as he saw the monster looming over him.
Caelus had known Naguai in his day. He had fought beside them during his time in the town Militia in his hometown of Knot. He had always believed them to be wild men, little more than beasts. A useful too when one need to beat an enemy back. But Rowan, Rowan was something different all together. A berserker, fully in control of his curse and able to change at will. His very aura radiated madness, a madness which seemed to affect all who laid eyes on him. Even Caelus, with his advanced mind and self-control could feel the touch of Rowan’s power.
The Leader of the Vagabond arms now stood some thirteen feet in height, not counting the massive antlers adorning the Naguai head like a dark crown. Rowan had discarded his tunic and trousers, choosing to wear instead a large kilt formed of stripped leather. The large bronze war hammer was now held in a hand twice the size of Caelus’s head. Caelus clenched his teeth as he looked into the dark brown eyes of the Naguai’s gaze, white fur covering every inch of the man face.
“The trigger is broken.” Caelus said, fighting to keep his voice steady. “I need more time.”
Rowan turned his gaze away from the man, peering over the walls and looking at the gathering army at its gate.
“Time is something we don’t have.”
“I-I can fix it.” Caelus sputtered. “And I have fire carts set up. The villagers are ordered to fire once the other goblin camps come into range.”
“Do that.” Rowan said, turning toward the village gates. “I will buy you what time I can, As will the others. We need you Caelus. I know you won’t let us down.”
There were no other words. The time for words had passed. A roar escaped the giants throat, echoing loud throughout the village walls and reverberating in the hills beyond. A rally cry rose in response as the twenty-four members of the Vagabond arms charged out the gate to face an enemy outnumbering them ten to one.
Gobnob had lived a good life, in Goblin terms at least. He had been alive long enough to see four springs. He had killed a dozen fluffy wool gobs. Kill one of the ugly tall gobs and left him out to rot for a dozen moons before eating his intestine. He had eaten a lot of maggots and flies. And today was the best day of all.
Because today he was going to war.
Gobs loved wars. They loved stabbing and bludgeoning and tearing flesh. They loved the sound of dying men and women. The smell of blood and shit coming from dying pale gobs. The cries of tiny ugly gobs when they were pulled from there cribs. Today Gobnob was going to find his way in the village and eat one of those screaming things fresh. Gobnob loved his meat cold and dead, but he would make an exception. You only live once after-
A guttural cry escaped from his left. He turned to see one of his clan brothers with a stick protruding from his left eye. The Gob stumbled back and forth, swinging an axe mad of a moss-covered stick and the jawbone of a fluffy wool gob. The air whistled by his side and two more stick poked out of the other Gobs chest. The Gob fell then and Gobnob took his axe. He liked the dead Gobs axe. It went well with his spear. Looked good for killing Ugly tall Gobs.
Gobnob looked up the hill to see a group of Ugly tall gobs charging toward him. Most looked like the one he had killed, with their long limbs and ugly not green skin. Some wore hard beetle like shells and carried cutting sharp shiny blades. Others wore weird soft loose skins shooting sticks and carry small point blades. But others, seemed to Gob of which he had never seen.
One charged froward, big spear crown tearing through two other gobs. Another pounced biting snarling slashing. Another, fucking was screaming rhyming words, cutting with a stick of bow and hair. Gobs was so confused for a moment he forgot about the killing he was so looking forward too.
For a moment.
An ugly tall Gob swung at him with a shining metal sword, ripping through his right ear. Gob nob screamed. He rolled under another slash, nearly taking off his beautiful green head and thrust out with his spear. The tall Gob let out a grunt of pain as the bone tip of his spear glanced off of her thigh. Gobnob let out a cry of delight. It was a small wound, but enough for the poison to take its grip. He leapt on to the tall Gob then grabbing a handful of silvery gray hair as he snapped at the tall Gobs throat.
The Gob appeared old for her kind, though it was hard to tell with Gobs so ugly. Still, the Gob was strong. A large hand gripped Gobnob by his leg and swung him off. He landed hard in the dirt, the tall old Gob standing over him, blade raised over head. Gobnob roared lashing out with his new axe and catching the Gob just below the ribs. It cried out in agony as it brought the shiny metal blade down, driving the tip through his rib cage.
Gobnob gasped as the blade pierced his spine pinning him to the earth. He wheezed out a guttural snarl of hate as the old gob drew out her sword and took off another Gobs head. He was dying. He wasn’t supposed to die. Gobwrot hadn’t told he was going to die. No, Gobwrot had promised they would kill the ugly tall Gobs. Why else would they let the slithery black rot into their dens. Why would they build an army if Gobnob was going to die.
Gobnob did not get contemplate his death for long. He did not get to lament the lost chance of eating babies and the feast of rotting corpses he was promised. His mind became occupied by other things. Largely, the giant hoof of a Naguai berserker.
Rowan let out a grunt of disgust as his foot crunched a goblin skull as his hammer exploded another. Beside him Towa staggered, falling to her knee as her blade cut a goblin from head to crotch. She looked pale, white spittle forming on her lips as she pushed herself forward. A moment later she stumbled. Only to be caught by a young man with brown floppy hair.
“Grandmother,” He cried, “You hurt. You need to go to the medical-”
The boys head whipped back as the back of Towa’s gauntleted hand caught him under the jaw. He fell to the ground eyes wide with shock as the old woman whirled on him grabbing him by the collar and dragging him to his feet.
“What do you think this is, boy?” she snapped, “This is war. We fight. We get hurt. We move on. You want to be a killer? You want to find glory in battle. This is it. This is all there is. So, either run on home or fall behind me a shoot your fucking bow.”
Towa shoved her grandson back, knocking him back two steps before marching forward, kicking a charging goblin in the head, and stomping its head in with her boot. Rowan moved forward as well bringing his hammer down on a Goblin archer and killing another with his fist. Three arrows buried themselves in his chest. He tore them out with snarl of pain. The poison meant little to him. His body would burn off most of it. Brandy would take care of the rest.
“Tough old bitch aint she?”
Rowan turned to see Mosh dash past, spinning wildly as he threw a pair of bone knives into a couple of goblins eyes. A large goblin, standing some five feet tall bellowed as it charged the crouched Naguai male. The young Naguai male howled in delighted as he sidestepped the blow and raked the Gobs eyes out with his clawed fingers. With his free hand he ripped the club out of the Goblins hand and beat him with it until his skull was little more than green pulp. Mosh stared at the club admiringly before extending it to Rowan.
“Did you get one? You know they are just handing it out. Like for free!”
The air whistled as a barrage of poison tipped spears shot toward the pair. Rowan swore as he threw his hammer at the ambushing goblins hiding behind a boulder set at the base of the hill, catching one of the spear throwers dead in the chest. He leapt back, barely avoiding the spears as Mosh let out a bellowing laugh, catching a spear with his free hands and spinning out of the way of the others. He landed on the boulder, shouting with glee before pouncing on the ambushing goblins.
By the time Rowan made his way to the young Naguai the Goblins were dead and Mosh was carrying a bundle of poison tipped spears, a wolfish grin on his face.
“You’re enjoying this too much.” Rowan murdered grabbing his hammer.
Green blood splattered Minoka’s face as she dashed through the battlefield, slicing wildly with her violin bow. Somewhere in the chaos of it all she had lost the group of mercenaries she had befriended the night before. But as moved blindly about the battlefield she found herself swarmed, with little time to think of anything but what was right in front of her.
Minoka had once believed herself a soldier. She had stood beside Malc as he raged his rebellion against the crown. She had watched as men fought and died, believing herself to be amongst them by their leader’s side.
She was wrong.
War was not some glorious thing. It was terrifying, loud, and horrible. She watched as a man was disemboweled, crying out in agony as Goblin ripped the flesh from his face with those savage green fangs. She slipped in and fell to her knees in mud formed from red and green blood. She tried to push herself up, only to barreled over by a mass of stout green muscle, jagged green fangs snapping at her throat.
Even with her inhuman strength she couldn’t get the leverage to push the thing off of her. She tried desperately to hold the thing back, but with every snappy bite the Goblin drew closer to her throat, black beady eyes rolling mad with blood lust. She cried out as a jagged tooth drew a burning line of bubbling blood as it bit down into her flesh.
“No, no, Gods please no!” She cried.
The goblin suddenly jerked, convulsing for a moment before going forever still. The weight was suddenly ripped off of her as a strong hand pulled the goblin off of her by the ear. She was yanked to her feet by a young man with mud speckled hair and dark grey eyes.
“Are you hurt?” he shouted over the roar of battle, “Can you fight?”
“Y-yes.” She shook her head for a moment before answering. “I just got overwhelmed for a moment.”
“Yeah, me too.” He said, “I-I am Bran. I never fought like this before. Never fought at all really. The Goblins, they got past the front line. Me and some of the other archers are holding them back as best we can, but they are going to make it to the gates.”
Minoka stared at the battle around them, at the dozen or so men and women still standing swarmed by goblins. A few had managed to stagger past the lines of mercenaries and were making their way to the medical tent. Most did not.
“We are going to lose.” Minoka said. It was strange to say it out loud. To admit she was going to die today. To bring a voice to the realization they were all going fail was painful, but also brought her peace. After all this time, it was over. At last, she would pay for all the evil she did. It was something she could-
Her thoughts were cut off by a fist colliding with her face. It didn’t hurt so much as catch her off guard. She blinked as Bran caught her by the collar and yanked her within an inch of his face.
“What do you think this is? This is war. We fight. We get hurt. And we move forward.” He yelled. Minoka blinked. Bran seemed as shocked by his own words as she was as he let her go and drew another arrow from his quiver. “So, either run on home, or help me kill some fucking goblins.
Towa staggered forward, blood tinging the white foam on her lips as she raised her sword again over head.
A goblin screamed as her blade shredded bone and muscle, biting through the goblins right collar bone, and embedding itself in its pelvis. She grunted as an arrow whistled through the air, its tip cutting a line of fire across her cheek and ear. Her hand shot the side of her face, the torn Cartlidge blazing as poison at away at the severed ear. Her eyes shot down the path of the arrow toward where the goblin archer stood, small, clawed fingers reaching for another shaft from its quiver. She pressed a boot against the dead Goblins torso and ripped her blade free.
She was a foot away from the Goblin archer when an old woman rushed past her, driving the tips of a pitchfork into its chest, and pinning it to the earth. The woman, older than even her turned toward Towa, and smiled. It was the last thing she ever did before the bone club of a Goblin shattered her skull.
“No!” Towa roared, as a trio of Goblin brutes leapt upon the dead woman’s corpse. She lashed out with her all her rage, Cutting the first across the middle. The second thrust her with a spear, missing her by an inch as she whirled out of the way. She fell to her knees, slipping in the blood-soaked mud as she buried her blade to the hilt in the Goblins guts.
The last Goblin slammed into her, its protruding fangs tearing into her shoulders. She screamed out in agony as the ugly green thing slammed her into the dirt. Its claws tore at her armor as its head shook wildly rending her flesh. The world narrowed and darkened, her limbs turning to lead as the goblins mauled her dying body.
*Tell me another story, Nana.
Tell me of how you saved the villagers from a dragon.
When I grow up, nana.
The world came back in a rush as her head slammed into the face of the Goblin tearing at her flesh. Her hand caught the gnashing fiend by what little excuse for a neck it had, tearing the things teeth from her shoulder. She kicked off the muddy earth and rolled on top of the Goblins squat body, teeth still snapping at her as it struggled under her grip.
“Twenty. Twenty. Twenty.” She snarled, punctuating each word with a pound of her gauntleted fists. “Twenty. Dead. Fucking. Goblins.”
The odds had always been that. Ten to one. Ten for her. Ten for Bran.
Twenty and she could say she covered his shared of death. Twenty and Bran would live. He would have to live.
Towa whipped her head to the left as a Goblin screamed in its guttural tongue, axe raised over head. She didn’t have time to block. Didn’t have time to move. Only wait for the bite of the axe to-
The goblin whipped back as if pulled by invisible strings, a spear slamming into its chest and suddenly arms were wrapped around her waist. She looked down to see the pulped skull of the dead goblin. Fragments of bone and viscous green blood coated her arms. Only then did she see the twin blades of bone sticking from her gut. Goblin made daggers. Her vision spun as she fell against the blood matted hair on Mosh’s chest.
“Get her to the medical tent, now!” Rowan roared.
“Twenty.” Towa gasped. “I owe you twenty.”
“What the fuck does-”
Rowan’s words were cut off by a bellowing roar across the field of battle. Out of the haze of her swirling vision she saw it. She saw him. A Goblin, standing as tall as any man, with an arm made of swirling black tendrils and carrying a sword of black obsidian. A low snarling growl reverberated throughout the hills as the sun fell below the horizon. Six Enormous dogs, three on each of the Goblin chieftain’s side emerged from the mine shaft. Black tendrils twitched from a dozen stab wounds in the dead dog’s sides and behind him the cry of the goblin reinforcement roared.
“Get her back to the village Mosh.” Rowan said, fear tinging his words for the first time, “And tell Caelus to fire the damn Ballista and everything he has left. Send the others back to protect the village.”
“Rowan,” Mosh said, his voice soft, “What about you.”
And with that Rowan broke into a run. Straight toward the Goblin Chieftain and his gathering horde. In that moment, as the poison raged her body, Towa had a singular moment of clarity. A single moment when she realized who Rowan was.
Rowan Whitehorn was not a born leader. He wasn’t the man who brought people together. At his heart, when everything was boiled away Rowan was one thing. He was a man who time and time again had found himself being an immovable wall. A thing one placed before an unstoppable force, to see which one would break first.
And that was why he had formed this Vagabond arms. To gather those who fought, for those who would answer the call and place their lives in danger for those who could not. Rowan had sought to build a home for the wandering warriors in the land who would answer the call of the weak.
And For Rowan, those men, and women he called his own, was worth breaking himself over.
Back, at the village Brandy and Sinette treated the wounded as the call for retreat rang throughout the town. Sinette, hand shook as the axe wound to the young man face stitched itself close. The air filled with the verdant scent of her Magick as the man, let out a groan of discomfort.
“You will be fine.” Sinette, said stumbling slightly as she her head spun with exhaustion. “The poison will burn away soon, and you will fell a little-”
“I need a medic, now! I am losing her.
She turned as Mosh burst into the tent, carrying the unconscious form of Towa in his blood-soaked arms. Brandy gestured to a cot and Mosh set her on it. The old woman’s eyes were rolled back in her head and her body shook with convulsions. Blood poured from multiple lacerations, an arrow and two daggers protruded from Towa’s Torso. Sinette ran to a table and grabbed a bundle of boiled gauze, a sewing needle and a handful of medicinal salves. When she came back Brandy staggered back, eyes filled with a look of shock and terror.
“Where is he.”
“I don’t know.” Mosh said, “he ordered the retreat and then-”
“Rushed head long into the fray without a thought.” Brandy snapped, looking around the medical tent filled with wounded and dying soldiers. “Of course, he did.”
Mosh snarled and pounded his fist against the leg of the cot.
“I shouldn’t have left him. I should have stayed and-”
“Died.” Brandy snapped, yanking a thin metal vial from her corset. “All you would have done is die, boy.”
Sinette looked up to see Bran, stumble inside half carried by a bloodied and battered Minoka. The boy all but fell by his grandmother’s side, hands shaking as they reach toward the hilt of a dagger buried in her gut.
“Stop that!” Sinette snapped, “We have to leave it in until I am ready to close the wounds. She will bleed out if I don’t.
Bran reached down and grabbed the old woman’s hand. Tears running freely down the boy’s face. To her surprise the woman squeezed back. Opening eyes seeming impossibly tired she opened her mouth croaked in a voice that seemed far too strong for a woman in her state.
“Sixteen.” Towa said. “I only killed sixteen. I am sorry.”
“What?” Bran said.
“Twenty, my heart.” Towa said. “Ten for me. Ten for you. It was a deal made with the dead gods. Twenty and you live. I didn’t keep my promise. I. Am. Sorry.”
Her eyes fluttered and she was lost again in unconsciousness.
Bran wiped the tears from his eyes and got to his feet. He winced as he placed weight on his ankle. Behind him Sinette watched as Brandy untwisted the cap to the vial and pulled out a small eye dropper. Three drops of a blood red fluid in each eye and the woman stumbled to a the side of the tent grabbing a pole for support.
“Two.” Bran said, suddenly seeming older as he pulled his shoulder. “I killed two goblins. I have to kill at least two more and she lives. You hear that doc. I kill two more and you save my grandmother.”
Sinette looked at the old woman. Her body ravaged by poison and goblin blade. It was a miracle she had last this long. In any other situation she would have slipped her the sleeping poppy and let her pass painlessly from this world.
“That is the deal.” She said, in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Cool. Cool, cool, cool.” Brandy said., her voice rising to a shout. “Save the woman and everyone else. You kill some Goblins. “Caelus, I know you can hear me, get those fucking ballista’s working. If there are any questions, ask the little bird while I am out.”
“Where are you going?” Mosh asked, leaping back as the tent pole shattered in Brandy grip. Sinette felt her throat tighten as Brandy turned to face her, rivulets of blood pouring down her cheeks from eyes transformed. The whites had been swallowed up by smoldering red cracks of burning ash, a black slit replacing the pupils. She had seen eyes like that only once before, when one of the princes of Oberon had flown into the woods near her tribe. Brandy plucked a vibrating vial of bubbling liquid from her belt and downed it in a single gulp.
“I am going to save that fucking idiot with whom I stupidly fell in love.”
And in a gust of wind the woman was gone, the flap of the tent billowing behind her.
“What the fuck was that.” Minoka asked.
“I have an idea,” Sinette said, “but it’s an impossible one.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Bran snapped. “We have to defend the village and kill these fucking goblins. Minoka, come with me to the walls.
The young man stormed out. Minoka blinked in confusion staring at the pair of Naguai before slowly backing out of the room and following the young man, a slight blush on her cheeks.
“Is it me or is the princess beginning to crush on the farm boy.”
“I don’t have time for your madness, Mosh.” Sinette snapped as she laid out her medical tools, “In case you haven’t noticed the woman I was apprenticing under just went running off into a warzone, leaving me with a tentful of wounded.”
Mosh took in a breath crouching by her side.
“What do you need?”
Sinette let out a slow breath and steadied herself before going about the business of saving Towa’s life. Despite herself, she couldn’t help but stare at the metal vial laying on the floor by the broken tent pole. She had seen eyes like that before, but not by the prince of Oberon.
But by the dragon he had flown upon.