These mercenaries are a strange lot. I’ve always thought that we are barely mercenaries, but they seem even less the part than we do. Perrin found the thought a little unsettling, in a way. Could there be some hidden motive? Chance met in such a terrible place. Without them, we’d probably be dead already. Is this God, subtly guiding their path to us? Sheer luck?
It was impossible to know, of course. But that didn’t keep him from wondering. A priestess, emissary of Torath’s faith, brought to them in their hour of need. Saving the Captain’s life. Perrin had never been a deeply religious man, but the last few days in these caves had tested him in a way he had never dreamt of. So many dead, so many close calls.
It was enough to leave any man grasping for a sign of God’s coils weaving through the tapestry of his life. Any sign. Analyzing every event for deeper meanings, looking for evidence of divine intervention in every lucky happenstance.
Though I have to say, Perrin thought to himself. Aleksandr Kerensky and his people make it easy.
Their entire group was marching through the Underpass together. The smooth road was easy enough to traverse, and this stretch felt especially claustrophobic with walls on either side and no more than fifteen feet of road between them.
The fort was an hour behind them now. No going back. It was freedom or death, now, and only the next day or so would tell.
They’d formed a loose sort of column, with the priestess, the old man, and Captain Olivenco at the center. Aleksandr and the big barbarian rode at the front, with the gangly and aptly named Whip keeping watch in the rear. Perrin was marching at Lefty’s side, both of them just a few paces behind Aleksandr.
The two smallest members of Aleksandr’s company were nowhere in sight. Their horses walked alongside Aleksandr. Aleksandr had offered them to men whose wounds would slow their march, so Lefty had told Brandon and Little Geoff to climb on.
Brandon had taken a goblin arrow in the leg two days back, and it had taken a bad turn before Aleksandr and his people arrived. The priestess, Alaina, had cleaned and dressed it before they set out; she said he was like to keep the leg if they could keep it clean and keep him off it. Brandon tried to keep a stoic face, but he let out little whimpers whenever he bounced too hard in the saddle.
Little Geoff—so-called because he was smaller than Geoffrey Wallbreaker, although he wasn’t much shorter than either Perrin or Lefty—had broken one of his ankles when they seized the goblin fortification. Perrin had set Geoff’s splint personally. Alaina had ensured that it was set as well as could be, and she’d commended Perrin on the job. But Little Geoff wouldn’t be moving quickly for a few weeks at least, so the horse was a godsend.
A godsend. Perrin thought. That word again.
His musings were disrupted by the Lieutenant. “Aleksandr,” Lefty barked.
“Da?” Aleksandr’s reply was calm and quiet. He barely turned his head, just enough to keep Lefty in his periphery.
“Your man, Yorrin. You really think he’ll see an ambush coming?” Lefty frowned. “Even when the bastards are like to come right out of the fucking walls?”
“Is not sure thing,” Aleksandr replied. “Yorrin, he is not perfect. But he is best I know, at this sort of thing. Him and Prudence.”
“Hm,” Lefty grunted. A single, terse sound, but Perrin knew it well. The sound of doubt. “Not too sure about the girl.”
Perrin recalled the night before, when he and Prudence had sat together for a time. She was a strange woman. And not a girl, despite how she looked at first glance. When Perrin told her he'd left home at five-and-ten, and been training at Fort Taraam for about five years, she'd chuckled.
“No wonder you've got no beard to speak of,” Prudence said. “You're still a boy!”
“Am not,” Perrin replied, annoyed. “Just a few more months and I'll be twenty.”
“A boy,” she said again.
“How old are you, then?” Perrin challenged.
“Old enough to know a boy when I see one.”
“Twenty’s plenty old enough,” Perrin said. “Quickblade’s not past twenty yet, and Lefty just made him a serjeant.”
“Quickblade,” Prudence said. “The smarmy one, with the ugly smile?”
Perrin shrugged. “I suppose? He's my brother in arms, Prudence. I won't speak ill of him, not behind his back.”
“His name's Connor, yes?”
“Yeah, the smarmy one,” she confirmed.
Perrin hadn’t wanted to say as much to her, but Prudence’s assessment of Connor Quickblade was spot-on. The man was a competent tactician, and he lived up to the boast of his nickname. But he was sharp-tongued with men and slimy with women. Perrin found him the least admirable of all of Taraam’s serjeants.
And Prudence noticed it after observing us for less than an hour, Perrin thought. She was sharp-eyed, and more than that. She seemed to have a keen intuition. It was no wonder Aleksandr had her scout ahead.
“Oh? What is your problem with Prudence?” Aleksandr asked.
His tone was still mild, but something in the Ruskan’s body language made the hair on the back of Perrin’s neck stand up. Aleksandr was a dangerous man, and it seemed clear that he was as protective of his people as Lefty and Olivenco were of the Taraam boys.
Maybe more, Perrin admitted to himself.
Lefty just shrugged. If he noticed the same subtle tension that Perrin was sensing, he didn’t show it. “Just a little slip of a thing, ain't she? A boggin warrior would tear right through her, ‘e would.”
As they meandered down the road, the wall opened up to their right. The light from their torches and lanterns cast shadowy illumination into a rough cavern that sprawled out beside them. The ground was rougher than the unnaturally smooth Underpass road. Interrupted by twisting, jagged stalagmites. Their lights gave visibility out to fifty feet, maybe a little more, and the cavern stretched on beyond that.
“I am confident in her abilities,” Aleksandr said to Lefty.
Perrin saw him tense the muscles of his legs, just a subtle motion, but his horse increased the pace of its trot. He wasn’t moving past them, but he moved just far enough that Lefty would need to raise his voice to continue the conversation.
I hope Lefty didn’t offend him, Perrin thought. Lefty’s blunt, for sure. He’s not wrong, though. She’s no warrior.
She’d said much the same to Perrin.
“You’ve been fighting the aurin—the goblins—for days?” She asked.
Perrin nodded. “It’s been bad. Worst the first night, when they ambushed us at a tight bend in the Underpass. We lost a dozen men in less than an hour.”
Perrin felt he was keeping up a stoic face, but Prudence seemed to see right through him. She reached out and took his hand in hers. Her hands were small. Soft skin, marred with a few hard calluses.
Perrin frowned. He wasn’t going to crack. Not now, so deep in enemy territory. If he did, he wasn’t sure he could put himself back together in time for whatever was coming next.
“We’ve left scores of them dead on the rock, but they just keep coming,” he said quietly.
“It hasn’t been nearly so bad for us,” Prudence said. “Like Aleksandr was saying, the two groups are fighting each other. We struck a sort of devil’s bargain with the ones east of here. They let us pass, so that we could fight the other goblins.”
“Pitting their foes against each other,” Perrin said. “Smart, especially for goblins.”
“Not sure about that. The especially, I mean. They’re no smarter or dumber than normal men, I don’t think.”
Perrin cocked his head. “But… they’re savages,” he said.
“They don’t know the same things we do,” Prudence said. “But they clearly understand other things well enough. You shouldn’t underestimate them.”
“No, surely not,” Perrin agreed. “If there’s one thing they’ve taught us, it’s that.”
He did his best not to think of the Captain, and his wound.
“Us too,” she said. “We’ve had a few close calls of our own, even fighting less than you.”
He looked at Prudence. Not for the first time, he was struck by how small and slight she was. She wore no armor, just a few layers of dark clothes. Beneath the shroud of her cloak, the only visible weapon she bore was a crossbow hanging from a strap on her belt.
“No offense,” Perrin said. “But you don’t much look like a fighter. The men and I all assumed you were the aide to the priestess.”
His words were not entirely true. A few of Perrin’s fellow mercs had made even less charitable assumptions than that. But Perrin had seen how Prudence handled herself in the tent, helping Alaina as she treated the Captain.
Prudence just smirked, and let out a breath of laughter.
“No,” she said. “I don’t work for Alaina. I work for Aleksandr. But you’re right: I’m not a fighter. I haven’t the knack for it. Not really.”
“Then what are you?” Perrin asked. He paused. “That may have come out wrong. I didn’t mean any offense.”
Prudence laughed again. It was a quiet sound, just an exhale with a musical lilt to it.
“None taken,” she said.
They sat in silence for a time. Finally, Perrin spoke again.
“Sorry, but…” he hesitated, searching for the right words. “If you’re not a fighter, and you’re not a healer… what are you doing in a mercenary company? You didn’t really answer me.”
Prudence just smiled. “No,” she said, eyes twinkling.. “I suppose I didn’t.”
She’s hard to read, Perrin thought as he walked. That’s for damn sure.
The Lieutenant, however, was more concerned with the way Aleksandr had exited the conversation.
“Hmph,” Lefty grumbled. “Knights.”
“Eh? What’s that, boss?” Randal Redbreast spoke up from a few paces behind them.
Randal’s tabard was torn where a goblin’s blade had been just barely turned by the mail underneath. His namesake, the patch of crimson he’d sewn above the black tower of Taraam, hung from the tabard by a few threads. A sad, shredded flap of cloth. Somehow, Perrin felt that was symbolic of… something.
“Knights,” Lefty said again, nodding after Aleksandr. “Don’t make no difference whether they’re Middish, Loonie, or Ruskie. They all think they’re better’n you, lads. Don’t forget it.”
“That’s not charitable,” Perrin said. “He’s just defending his men, same way the Captain would defend any of us.”
“His men, Perrin?” Lefty said. “Your eyes going? If that little girl’s a man, we’ve got bigger—”
A sharp whistle pierced the musty air of the Underpass. Lefty fell silent instantly. He shifted grip on the shield strapped to his left hand, and his right settled onto the hilt of his sword. Perrin reacted much the same, scanning the firelit passage for some sign.
A dozen paces ahead of them, Aleksandr had drawn his sword. Beside him, the barbarian Bear dismounted and hefted his axe. Aleksandr wheeled his horse around, making eye contact with Lefty.
“Incoming,” was all he said.
Lefty repeated the warning to the other Taraamites, keeping his voice low and calm to keep from causing a stir. Perrin watched the darkness ahead of them.
Suddenly, a pale face emerged, wreathed in tangled locks of unkempt hair. Yorrin’s dark gambeson, gloves, and leggings rendered the rest of him nearly invisible in the half-light. Only his face, and the gleaming reflection of an iron blade in his hand, stood out.
He pointed with the sword, gesturing to Perrin’s right. Aleksandr turned to track the motion, and the others followed suit.
“I don’t see nothin’,” murmured Randal.
“Shh!” Perrin hissed. He squinted, staring into the dimly lit cavern.
He’s got a point, Perrin thought. He found himself studying the flickering shadows of the stalagmites. He wondered if perhaps the warning was premature. Had Yorrin mistaken a dancing shadow for—
“Shields!” Lefty’s voice echoed across the cavern.
Perrin raised his shield reflexively, taking a half step to his right to close ranks with Randal and Lefty. His brothers in arms all followed suit around him, forming a shallow line of defense facing out towards the sprawling cavern.
Reverberations rippled through Perrin’s arm as he felt impacts strike his shield. Goblin arrows glanced off and clattered to the stony road under their feet. Dark wooden shafts, fletched in crow feathers, tipped with shards of metal or chipped stone. He heard a pained shout from elsewhere down the line.
Suddenly, howling cries filled the cavern. In the gap between Perrin’s and Randal’s shields, he saw shapes emerge from the darkness. Small, dark shapes, bearing oversized weapons for their stature. Blades, spears, axes. The goblins screeched out feral warcries as they rushed across the rough and rocky ground.
Like most of the Taraamites, Perrin had lost his spear in an earlier engagement. He drew his sword and held it high, in position to make downward thrusts over his shield. It wasn’t the most efficient stance, especially given the height of the typical goblin, but his sword was too long to easily use in the close phalanx style of the south. This would have to do.
The first goblin to reach him was screaming as he charged. His face was marked with intricate, ritualistic scars. He carried a jagged blade fixed to a long stick. The haft was long for an axe, but the blade was too jagged and wide for a spear. Whatever it was, the goblin swung it low, clearly hoping to slip under Perrin’s shield and sweep his legs out from under him.
Perrin brought the shield down with sharp force, smashing the weapon down into the flat stone road. In the same motion, he extended his sword arm its full length, twisting his hand as he drove the blade down toward the goblin.
He felt an impact shock through his hand, and then it gave way. The goblin screamed as Perrin’s sword entered his flesh just below the neck, glanced off his collarbone, and pierced through softer muscle. The goblin went down, and Perrin held fast to his sword to keep it from being yanked out of his grip.
Another goblin was right behind the first. It threw itself at Perrin, hacking wildly with a battered and rust-flecked sword. The weapon was goblin-forged, or at least goblin-reforged. Its blade was single-edged, with a sweeping curve. Jagged, thorn-like hooks lined the inside edge of the sword. It hewed into Perrin’s shield over and over, a wild onslaught that kept Perrin on his back foot. Chips of wood and shreds of hide flew from his shield with every blow. Perrin carefully brought his sword to bear, leveraging the tip in the small gap between his shield and Randal’s.
The maneuver was better suited to short Cassaline legionnaire blades, like the one Yorrin carried. Perrin had drilled with them, but he didn’t carry one. Fortunately, the goblin’s attack was as sloppy and predictable as it was ferocious. Perrin kept his calm, breathing deeply as he placed the tip of his sword into position.
Then he pushed forward with his shield and sword simultaneously. The shield pressed into the goblin’s reach, fouling his next blow. The sword thrust in behind it, unseen. It pierced the goblin’s chest, just below the shoulder. Perrin took a firm grip and jerked the sword out sideways, opening a grievous wound.
The maneuver left the goblin dying on the ground, but it had also put Perrin too far forward, out of the battle line. He looked around, pulse thrumming in his ears.
What battle line? He thought to himself.
The Taraamite line had been just eight men, since they had two lamed on horseback and two staying close to the Captain. There was never any chance of it persisting for an entire engagement. Perrin realized now that it had dissolved within the opening contact with the enemy. A few men, like him and Randal, had stayed close to each other to provide shield coverage… but he saw others well out of position.
Wallbreaker and the barbarian, Bear, had taken up a position between two stalagmites. They were bottlenecking a pack of goblins, forcing engagements that favored the big men and their vastly superior reach. Connor had led two lads into the fray, forming a triangle of blades and swift retribution. Further out, Perrin saw Dylan the Whip and Aleksandr Kerensky riding through the goblins; trampling them, cutting them down, staying so mobile that the goblins scrambled to even engage them.
Close by, Randal struggled with his own goblin, and Lefty was beset by two of them. Perrin took a step towards Lefty, until a goblin came howling out of the darkness. Perrin brought up his shield and engaged in a brief flurry of exchanges. He moved on instinct, striking and parrying in rapid sequence until the goblin stumbled back. The small creature whimpered, and looked down as wet red ropes slithered out of his belly.
Perrin whirled to help Randal and Lefty. He saw Randal first, sprawled on the ground. Red blood pulsed out of his opened throat. The upper half of his tabard was soaked through. A goblin stood over him, grinning, lips ringed with half a dozen small hooked piercings. He was struggling to jerk his sword out of Randal’s neck.
Perrin ran the bastard through.
Beside him, Lefty kicked one goblin back, and hewed his blade through the other’s skull. Perrin turned to aid him, and they cut down the other one in a few moments. They locked eyes for a moment, panting with exertion. Lefty’s sword hand dripped blood, though Perrin couldn’t make out the source in the dim light.
The call cut through the clamor of battle. They both turned, and saw that behind the main fray, a new battlefront had developed. Goblins had emerged from a hidden side passage on the opposite wall, and they were inflicting bloody chaos on their victims.
Little Geoff had been pulled off his horse, and lay unmoving on the road. Brandon was wheeling in circles on his horse, desperately stabbing at goblins with a sword. The old man, the one Prudence called a wizard, was frantically flipping through a book for some ungodly reason. He and Alaina had used their steeds to get some distance, but goblins were still closing in on them.
But most of Perrin’s attention was on the Captain.
One of the men guarding him had fallen. The other, Edric—called Lordling—was kneeling beside Olivenco’s prone form. Several arrows stuck out of his tabard, and Perrin could only hope they’d all been stopped by his mail. He still held his sword and shield, and he struggled to defend the Captain. An impressive effort, but his strength was clearly flagging.
Only one man seemed to still be standing between the goblins and the Captain.
He was barely a head taller than them. He carried no shield, just a short Cassaline blade in one hand and a purse-cutter in the other. He was beset by several goblins, bleeding from a gash across the brow. Yet somehow, Yorrin fought on.
He’s no soldier, Perrin thought. But he’s definitely a scrapper.
Yorrin’s sword darted forward, opening a goblin’s neck. He shuffled back to avoid a retaliation by another of the little blighters, and Lordling lunged into the gap, skewering the surprised goblin with his sword.
But more moved in to replace the fallen.
We aren’t going to make it.
Perrin and Lefty were rushing to the Captain’s aid, but there was a melee between them and Yorrin’s stand. They began bulling their way through, but Perrin’s heart thumped with fear. He watched as another goblin came rushing towards Yorrin on his rear flank.
“Yorrin!” Perrin cried out. “Behind you!”
Yorrin dove to the side, out of the paths of both goblins. He rolled across the stone, and as he came back to his feet he whipped his left hand forward. His slender dagger sailed through the air and caught one of the goblin’s in the side. The other goblin turned to face Yorrin, raising its axe high.
Perrin watched as the Captain struggled to sit up. With his one remaining hand he drew Besito, the long dagger he kept on his belt. The goblin took a step towards Yorrin, then stopped suddenly when Olivenco’s dagger slid cleanly between his ribs. The goblin fell, and Olivenco collapsed back onto the fallen litter.
Lefty broke through the melee, coming to stand beside Lordling. Perrin was a few steps behind him. Yorrin joined them, pausing only to brace his boot against a writhing, dying goblin and forcefully jerk his dagger out. He nodded at them.
“Thanks,” Yorrin said. He sounded terse, but calm. Confident.
Unflappable. Just like his commander. Perrin couldn’t help but feel impressed. But he had little time for it, as he heard more goblins screeching. Six more shapes emerged from the hidden side passage, surging towards them.
How many of them are there?
Perrin, Lefty, and Yorrin formed up around the Captain. Lordling collapsed beside Olivenco, his energy spent. The six goblins circled around them. In the corner of his eye, Perrin saw the others were still fighting on the other front. No help would be forthcoming.
The fight was joined in earnest. They were outnumbered, two goblins for each man. Bad odds. Deadly odds. Perrin stayed on the defensive, but when he saw yet another small shape emerge from the shadows, he despaired. The small figure raised its arms, brandishing a small wooden weapon.
One of the goblins facing Yorrin gurgled. The feathered shaft of a quarrel seemed to sprout from the goblin’s throat, and it crumpled to the ground. The small, shadowed figure stepped into the light. One hand dipped beneath its cloak and emerged with a shard of gleaming iron.
She stepped up to the two goblins trying to attack Perrin. One goblin’s eyes goggled hugely as a hand snaked over his shoulder and drew across his neck. His throat was opened to the bone, without even time to struggle.
Perrin’s eyes widened as he watched Prudence work.
The second goblin had time to glance towards her, realization that his odds had just been flipped sinking in. Before Perrin could strike, Prudence darted in close and buried the blade in the goblin’s eye. He died screaming. She was so damned quick.
Perrin made eye contact with Prudence. She winked at him, then turned to help Lefty.
“I’m not a fighter,” Prudence said.
Perrin remembered the words, as he watched her fight.
“I haven’t the knack for it.”
It was clear now, there were at least three things Prudence had a knack for.
Scouting, fighting, and lying.