Yorrin wasn’t sure the plan would even work.
But everything was in place, so they had to give it a shot. He lifted the hood of his lantern, shedding an orange glow across the cavern. He knew Aleksandr and the others would see it, trailing back though they were. More importantly, the goblins would see it. Yorrin hooked the lantern onto his saddle with a loop of cord. It bounced against the side of the saddle with each step the horse took, and it wasn’t even moving faster than a light walk. It might well catch fire if left there for too long.
That’s fine. I won’t leave it there long,Yorrin reminded himself. And if it scorches my saddle a little, well… Small price to pay.
The lantern kept bouncing along, giving Yorrin the freedom to act independently. He made the necessary preparations as quickly as he could. Though he couldn’t see her, he was confident Prudence was doing the same.
In the lantern light, the tripwire was more obvious than the last few had been. The horse didn’t see it, of course, but Yorrin did. He could’ve stopped it from triggering. But that wasn’t the plan. The wire went taut against the horse’s legs, then snapped.
Now! Yorrin thought. He whistled, a sharp,shrill sound Aleksandr had spend days teaching him back when they first bought mounts for everyone. Yorrin’s steed was not a proper destrier like Dascha, but it was a well-trained little steed nonetheless. It knew the whistle, and it instantly broke into a gallop as the trap sprung
This was one of the riskiest moments. Yorrin and Prudence had intentionally left this trap in place, despite the risk it posed. As the wire snapped, it released the catch on the crude cage above. A cascade of stones big and small tumbled out, crashing down on the Underpass in a small avalanche. The sound was thunderous, echoing up and down the passage.
Yorrin’s horse galloped full speed ahead, and cleared the avalanche. The lantern bounced madly against the saddle, casting a twirling bullseye of light around the tunnel and causing shadows to dance in every direction.
The goblins no doubt figured that the trap would spring on a group. If it had, then even if the man that sprang it could get away, his friends wouldn’t be so lucky. But the rest of the column was a good fifty feet back, still catching up, so the stones crashed down onto the empty road.
Now came the true test. Yorrin’s plan counted on the goblins having an imperfect view of the Underpass. They no doubt had some eyes on the road, to know when to ambush. But if they weren’t sure exactly how many were taken by the trap, then…
Amidst the echoing crash of the trap, the grinding sound of a stone passage opening in the wall was lost. But Yorrin still saw it. The wall dropped away, and goblin warriors came surging out. The first one out held a crude little bow, and he loosed an arrow just above the light on Yorrin’s horse.
The arrow hit the far wall. Yorrin wondered if the little bastard had caught on already. He got his answer when the goblin nocked another arrow and tried his luck again.
More goblins spilled out, heading for the rubble of the avalanche. Yorrin heard a smattering of goblin-speak, some kind of pidgin tongue of which Yorrin could understand maybe every twentieth word.
It was clear that they were annoyed to find the avalanche field empty. And even more annoyed, when they heard a roaring battle cry come from down the tunnel. They saw lanterns bearing down on them. Aleksandr in the lead, Bear and Dylan on his flanks. Bear was bellowing up a storm as he rode. They charged the goblins full speed. Dylan held his bow ready, arrow nocked. As they grew closer he stood up in the stirrups, narrowed his eyes, and loosed.
The arrow took the lead goblin in the chest, and he went down. A moment later, Aleksandr was upon them. The goblins were small, outclassed compared to mounted men, but they put up a good fight nonetheless.
The goblin archer took a third shot above Yorrin’s horse, and then he finally seemed to catch on. In the shadows, with the lantern’s bullseye swinging to and fro at random, he’d failed to realize one simple, obvious fact.
Nobody was riding the horse.
Yorrin watched realization dawn on the goblin from his hiding place, a rough formation where some natural rock had fallen onto the Underpass road. He had his own bow out, an arrow ready in the string. He lifted it carefully and took sight. He pulled back the string and loosed in a single fluid motion.
The goblin archer was just turning to the open doorway, opening his mouth to speak, when Yorrin’s arrow found him. It sprouted from the side of his neck, and the poor little fellow’s words turned to a gurgle in his throat. He heard shouting from the open passageway.
Yorrin was already on his feet, bow discarded, rushing to the open door. Most of the goblins had poured out and formed a line to face Aleksandr and the others. Yorrin yanked his sword free of its sheath as he reached the doorway.
Three goblins stared back at him. Two of them were clearly warriors, armed with torches and crude swords made from beating metal tools into shape. The third was a familiar face. Wizened, shriveled, adorned with piercings and tattoos, brandishing a strange little staff. The shaman. Yorrin’s target.
Except he’s still got friends, Yorrin assessed the two guards, hesitating. Their gear was crude, the castoffs of civilized society. But they carried themselves with confidence, and they snarled at Yorrin as he approached.
One of their snarls was cut short when a slender feathered bolt seemed to erupt from his right eye. He froze, then toppled over without another sound. Yorrin didn’t need to look over his shoulder to know that Prudence had just done what she could to even the odds.
Thanks, Prudence, he thought the words he’d never say.
It was the best opening he’d get. Yorrin darted forward as the remaining goblin guard rushed to intercept him. The goblin jabbed at him with his “sword”—a scythe blade beaten into a curved blade, Yorrin was sure. It was a crude weapon, but the goblin wielded it with skill. Yorrin scrambled back, narrowly avoiding a nasty wound. He tried to counter, but the goblin turned his blade away. Behind him, the shaman pressed the rough, gleaming stone tip of his staff against the wall. He began to intone a chant, and Yorrin heard the grinding sound of stone on stone.
He’s closing the door! Yorrin realized. Trapping me in here?
He had to act fast. Yorrin’s left hand strayed to his belt, and he drew a slender dagger he kept near the small of his back. The goblin lunged in again, blade seeking Yorrin’s heart. Yorrin whipped the dagger forward with a sudden burst of speed.
Fast, but not fast enough. The goblin saw the attack coming. His lunge shifted into a crescent sweep as he batted the dagger out of the air.
His sword thus occupied, Yorrin darted in with a lunge of his own. The short leaf-shaped blade of his sword rammed through layers of hide, rags, and gnarled flesh. The goblin hissed out a final breath as Yorrin jerked his sword out of the poor little bastard’s chest.
Yorrin stepped over the goblin’s corpse and leveled his sword at the shaman. The last third of the blade dripped red.
“For your sake, I hope you speak Middish,” Yorrin said. “Shut that door and you die.”
The shaman stopped. The door stayed as it was, about a third of the way closed. Yorrin grabbed the staff out of the shaman’s hands, and roughly shoved him out the door and into the Underpass tunnel.
Two goblins had broken off from the fight and had been attempting to flee. They froze when they saw Yorrin march their shaman out of the side passage. Yorrin had the tip of his sword pressed to the shaman’s back, and he held the stone-tipped staff in his left hand. The goblins looked back and forth, Yorrin ahead of them and Aleksandr behind.
Yorrin was glad to see all three of his comrades still alive. Aleksandr and Dylan were mounted, blood-spattered sword and spear in hand respectively. Bear had dismounted, and he stood amidst a scattered pile of dead goblins. He was panting with exertion, but a broad smile was spread across his face.
“Follow his example,” Yorrin advised the goblins. “Or die. Your call.”
The shaman growled something in the goblin’s tongue. The two goblin warriors threw down their weapons.
“Smart,” Yorrin said.
Dascha trotted up behind the goblins, and Aleksandr dismounted. He winced as he came off the saddle, as if one of his legs pained him. But he moved without a limp as he came up to the shaman.
“Yorrin,” he said. “It worked!”
“Don’t sound so surprised,” Yorrin said.
“I am not,” Aleksandr protested. “Was a good plan.”
“Not really,” Yorrin paused, then said “Well, good enough. We got him.”
Aleksandr looked the shaman up and down. While he did, Yorrin saw the others closing in around them. Prudence emerged from the shadows. Her crossbow was stowed, and she held a length of rope in her hands. Bear stepped in and bodily grabbed one of the goblin warriors, holding him down while Prudence bound his hands and feet. Dylan held the other for the same treatment.
“You speak Middish?” Aleksandr asked.
The shaman grimaced, baring his teeth.
“Your people attack us without… without cause,” Aleksandr said.
“Unprovoked,” Yorrin offered.
“Da. They attack unprovoked. This bloodshed is not to your advantage so far. If you are to be continuing it, we do as we must. Your blood can mix with that of your kin.”
The shaman growled, a guttural sound from the back of his throat.
“We would rather it end,” Aleksandr said. “We only wish to pass. Nothing more. You must fight us for this?”
“Trespassers,” growled the goblin.
Yorrin damn near dropped his sword. He’d begun to accept that the creature didn’t understand them, and had only yielded because a bloody sword pointed at your throat spoke a sort of universal language all its own.
“You do speak Middish,” Aleksandr said.
“Do you have name?” Aleksandr asked. “I am Aleksandr. Aleksandr Kerensky.”
“Too long,” the goblin said. “Am Voresh.”
Behind Aleksandr, Yorrin saw Alaina and Borthul approaching.
“Voresh. Did you understand what I am saying?”
Yorrin decided not to bother correcting the shift in tense. Voresh wasn’t likely to notice, or care.
“Ya. You want truce.”
“A good word.Da. I want truce.”
Voresh was silent for several long moments. Then, he growled again. “Fine. Ya. Truce. You let me go?”
“Bad idea,” Prudence murmured. “We can’t exactly trust him.”
Wise words. Trust a heathen goblin? I’d trust him to stab me in the back, and not much else. Yorrin thought. He didn’t see much point in chiming in. Better to present as unified a front as possible, whatever they decided.
“If we won’t trust him, why are we bothering with diplomacy at all?” Alaina asked.
…Huh. No clever rejoinder to Alaina’s words came to mind. It was a fair question.
“Human never trust Racharin. Nothing new,” Voresh said.
“Racharin?” Aleksandr said. “This is… domovoy? Uh—goblin, I mean? In your tongue?”
“Sons of Racha, it mean,” said Voresh.
“Racha is an animistic deity,” Borthul said. “The goblins think he is the father of the stone. And perhaps, of the goblins themselves?”
Voresh snorted. Yorrin knew a sound of derision when he heard it. “Racha is Earth Father. Father of all. But we Racharin are only that remember.”
“We’re pretty far afield, here,” Dylan said. “The Priestess is right. Either we can trust the little bugger or we can’t.”
Aleksandr had been silent for a time. He’d hunkered down, putting himself on Voresh’s level. He stared into the goblin shaman’s eyes intently. Voresh stared back, unafraid.
“Your people,” Aleksandr said. He spoke slowly. Deliberately. “Much more aggressive than usual. Is what I hear. True? You attack travelers, mark roads with your totems. Something… something has changed, I think. Da?”
Voresh gave a single curt nod.
“I am thinking you can be trusted, Voresh,” Aleksandr said. Yorrin bit his tongue. “But trust is fickle thing. Is not given. Earned.” Aleksandr leaned in close, and lowered his voice. “What has changed?”
Voresh was silent a long time. He stared back at Aleksandr, black eyes searching for… something. Yorrin wasn’t quite sure what. But when he was close to giving up and intervening, the goblin finally spoke. His voice came out hushed, a raspy whisper that set the hairs on the back of Yorrin’s neck to standing up.