Long Road 23: The Guide

The fighting only ended when the last goblin died.

Yorrin dropped to his knees in front of the prone form of Olivenco. His whole body ached. Each breath caused his lungs to burn in his chest. His left eye had squinted shut from the blood flowing down from his wounded brow. The eye stung something fierce, yet he could barely feel the gash above it. That seemed strange, somehow. He drew a few strips of cloth from a pouch, wiping the blood from his dagger and sword before sheathing them. With another clean linen he wiped away some of the blood gathered around his eye.

He glanced beside him, at Olivenco. The Taraamite captain was alive, but still too infirm to do much of anything. Still, he’d risen to the occasion when it had come down to it. He still clutched a dagger in his one remaining hand, goblin blood staining the blade. He returned Yorrin’s gaze with a heavy-lidded eyes and a lip curled in disdain.

“You fight like an amateur,” the captain rasped. “Sloppy. No style, no maestría. No grace.”

Yorrin shot Olivenco a glare. “Suppose next time I could just let them kill you.”

The captain shrugged, then winced at the exertion to the stump on his right shoulder. “Si,” he said. “Buena idea. Would be for the best.”

Of course. I almost forgot, the man wants to die. Yorrin rolled his eyes. If I was Aleksandr, I’d probably have some words of encouragement.

Yorrin respected Aleksandr, but he couldn’t be him. Not in a situation like this, giving comfort to a self-pitying cripple.

“If you really think that,” Yorrin said. “That you’re useless, that you’re better off dead than one-armed… don’t waste our time. This Underpass road passes plenty of cliffs and drop-offs. Next one we pass, drag your sorry ass off the edge and be done with it. Take the coward’s way.”

Olivenco frowned. “Coward? You call me this?”

“If the shoe fits,” Yorrin said, shrugging. “What would you call it, being so afraid of having to change, to make a new life, that you’d rather die?”

“And what would you know of it?” the Captain said. He sneered.

Rein it in, Yorrin told himself. Won’t do anyone any good to make this fellow your enemy. Besides, you’d be cranky too, in his place.

“I might know a little,” he said. “I won’t pretend a change like that’s easy. But… it’s worth doing. Or it could be, anyway.”

Olivenco fell silent. Finally, he gave a single, slow nod. “Perhaps,” was all he said.

Yorrin was about to look away when the Captain spoke again. “You fight like an amateur,” he said.

“Said that already,” Yorrin pointed out. “You feeling feverish?”

“Amateur is not so bad,” Olivenco said. “You lack good habits, but bad ones too. And you are quick. Determined. Good instincts.”

Yorrin furrowed his brow, and with the movement he finally felt the cut sting. “Thanks?”

“You could be good,” the Taraamite Captain said. “Excellent, perhaps. A true maestro. With the right training.”

What the hell does that mean? Yorrin wondered.

He didn’t push the conversation. One of the Taraamites moved past him, checking on one of the mercs that had collapsed nearby. The fellow was pincushioned with arrows, but his chest rose and fell with each breath. He wasn’t dead yet, at least. Yorrin looked out and saw bodies of the Taraamites scattered across the battlefield, but they were dwarfed by the fallen goblins.

So many, he thought. They came at us with so many. But we survived. How did we survive?

The remaining men of Taraam were moving quickly between their fallen comrades, trying to triage the wounded and save who they could. Yorrin saw Alaina kneeling beside one of them, blood pooling around them, her arms already red up to her elbows..

He wasn’t sure how many of theirs were dead. But he saw Bear limping towards the road with the big Taraamite, Wallbreaker, at his side. And he saw Dylan, still mounted, trotting over to regroup with the rest of them. He even saw Prudence, standing away from the rest of them. She stared off into the cavern. Silent, still, crossbow in hand.

There was just one member of their group that Yorrin couldn’t see.

How far out did Aleksandr go? The last he’d seen of their commander, he was riding that huge horse of his deeper behind the goblin lines. There was no telling how far the cavern went, or what he’d found out there.

Yorrin lurched to his feet. “Whip!” he called out.

Dylan dismounted and carefully led his horse through the wounded Taraamites. “Yorrin?” he said, once he was in easy earshot.

“I thought you were with Aleksandr,” Yorrin said.

“I tried to stay at his back,” the Whip agreed. “Didn’t quite work out. The ground out there is treacherous, and the goblins were screeching like madmen. Sky nearly threw me.”

His dapple gray snorted nervously, clearly  shaken by the battle. Dylan stroked its neck and scratched its nose, trying to calm the animal.

“So we don’t know where he is,” Yorrin said. Once again, he looked out in the direction Aleksandr had ridden. The cavern stretched on for a great distance, and most of that was a wall of inky black. A few scattered torches and blue-green mosslights twinkled in the darkness. Unmoving, the goblins that had carried them dead.

The possibility that Aleksandr had met his end out there, surrounded by howling goblin battleragers, was not something Yorrin wanted to entertain.

“We don’t,” the Whip agreed. “But I’m sure he’s fine.”

Empty platitudes did not reassure Yorrin. Another figure slipped past the Whip, crouching down beside Yorrin. It was another of the Taraamites, the one that had been sitting with Prudence. Yorrin had found their casual familiarity somewhat offputting, but he didn’t have the patience or interest to care any longer.

What was his name? Perrin? Yorrin pondered. He was fairly sure it was Perrin.

Perrin was holding a hooked needle and a spool of thread, perhaps catgut. “Thought I could help with that,” he said, nodding to Yorrin’s brow.

Yorrin tilted his head up, allowing easier access. He offered Perrin the linen he’d used to mop the blood from his brow. Perrin cleaned the wound a little more thoroughly than Yorrin had, then began stitching it closed. The cut itself had begun to throb, finally, and now Yorrin winced as the needle inflicted a series of small, sharp pains.

“Sorry,” Perrin said. “But Alaina is busy with—well—” he cut himself off.

With the men much worse off than I am, Yorrin finished the mercenary’s sentence in his head. Men that are likely dead before the hour’s out.

“No problem,” Yorrin said. He focused his resolve, and kept from flinching as Perrin finished stitching the wound.

That finished, he climbed to his feet. The Underpass was a bloodbath. The smell of gore and shit was thick in the air. He stepped carefully as he walked out towards the open cavern. As he stepped through a pool of drying blood, he felt the tacky consistency of it tug slightly at his boots. For some reason that was nearly enough to break his stoicism, as he felt his stomach churn.

He focused his attention elsewhere, which helped quiet his nerves and his nausea. He saw his lantern, fallen and forgotten on the ground. As he approached it, he scanned the darkness, looking for some sign of Aleksandr. When he stopped, he heard a faint noise behind him. A rustle of cloth. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

“Prudence,” he murmured.

“Haven’t seen any sign of him yet,” Prudence said. Her voice was calm, but Yorrin thought he could hear an underlying tension.

“He’ll be back any minute,” Yorrin said.

“And if he’s not? How far into the caverns should we go, looking for him? He could be—”

Dead. Yorrin thought. He could already be dead. Shut up, Prudence.

He tilted his head to glance at her, and saw her cheek flex as she clenched her jaw. She swallowed whatever words she’d been about to say. After a long silence, she gave a single terse nod.

“Right,” she said. “Sorry.”

Yorrin picked his lantern. It had been snuffed by the fall, and he took a few moments to clean some spilled oil before he lit it again. The movements were simple. Repetitive. They helped keep his mind occupied.

Once the lantern was lit, he looked at Prudence, then out into the darkness. She met his eyes, and her nod was so slight it was almost imperceptible. Wordlessly, they turned towards the yawning cavern and followed after Aleksandr.

They didn’t get far. Less than fifty paces out, with the rest of the group still in view, they heard it. The familiar impacts of a heavy stallion’s hooves hitting the stone floor of the cavern. Yorrin directed his bullseye of light towards the sound, and he saw Dascha walking alongside Aleksandr.

What the hell… Yorrin cocked his head when the light trailed down to Aleksandr, and then to the figure walking ahead of him. Is that a goblin?

It was indeed.

Aleksandr walked slowly, but steadily. He was spattered with blood, and his armor showed clear signs of damage, but from the way he moved he looked relatively unhurt. He carried his steel longsword in his right hand, and one of the strange blue mosslight torches in the other.

The goblin marched in front of him. Four feet tall, or thereabouts, with leathery grayish skin, beady eyes, and oversized ears. Its face was marked with myriad scars, and many of them had the look of intentional markings. Symbols, carved or burned into the goblin’s flesh. These aurin seemed fond of ritually injuring themselves, in a way that Voresh’s racharin largely did not.

The most notable thing about the goblin, however, was that he was armed and armored. A shirt of metal discs hung from his shoulders, and he carried a long—relative to his size—sword with a sweeping, jagged curve.

Why the hell is he armed? Yorrin thought.

He wasn’t alone in wondering. As Aleksandr and the goblin approached, Yorrin began to hear murmured words behind him. By the time they had closed the distance, a small crowd had formed. Near everyone that wasn’t wounded, or seeing to the wounded, was gathering.

Yorrin stepped forward, looking with some distaste at the goblin, and then moved to stand at Aleksandr’s side. Aleksandr tapped the goblin’s shoulder, and shifted so that he was standing ahead of the little man.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Yorrin said quietly.

“Da, I hope this also,” Aleksandr said.

“I trust you,” Yorrin said. In the back of his mind, he marvelled that the words were true. “But even I’m wondering what the hell this is about. Don’t forget: these men, they’ve lost friends to that little blighter and his kin.”

“I have not forgotten.”

“Course not. But if it looks like you have… if they take it as disrespect to the fallen…”

“Yorrin,” Aleksandr said. His voice was firm. “We need him.”

What? We need a gobbo murderer? Like hell we do!

“You gone mad, boy?” Lefty growled once he was in earshot. He held his blade unsheathed in hand. “Step aside and let me skewer that little shit.”

“Lefty,” Aleksandr said. “Calm, please. Let me explain.”

“The fuck is there to explain? You’ve caught one of ‘em! Nothing to do but kill him.”

“He armed the bugger,” pointed out Connor Quickblade. He wore a disdainful smirk, which normally bothered Yorrin not at all. But he was directing that smug look at Aleksandr, which Yorrin had no patience for.

“He had a reason,” Yorrin said. He spoke with confidence, but the truth was he had no clue what Aleksandr’s plan was.

“Can’t think of no reason good enough to keep a boggin alive,” Lefty said. He took a menacing step towards the goblin.

It was not Aleksandr, or Yorrin, that intervened. Bear stepped into Lefty’s path. Behind him, the Whip loomed, staring at the Taraamites with a quiet calm.

Bear placed one meaty hand on Lefty’s tabard, pressing his palm flat against the lieutenant’s chest. “Stop,” he said.

Lefty stopped. Bear grinned, but he did not lower his hand.

“I am sorry I startled you. All of you,” Aleksandr said. “Is not my goal. I take this captive for a purpose, Lefty.”

Lefty tensed. Bear stood before him, an impassive wall of muscle, and Lefty finally exhaled a deep breath.

“Torath’s fangs, man! Fine! What reason could you possibly have?”

Aleksandr raised his sword arm, and pointed the blade at the Underpass road. “We have some distance yet ahead of us,” he said. “Domovoy—boggins—assail us at every turn. Their ambushes will kill many more, I am thinking.”

Lefty shrugged. His shoulders sagged, and the tip of his sword touched the stony ground. He looked… helpless.

“Reckon you’re right,” he said. “Nothing we can do about it, though. We just have to push through, and—”

“No we don’t,” Yorrin blurted out. Realization struck him like a thunderbolt. “That’s what Aleksandr’s trying to tell you.”

The Taraamites quieted, and looked at Aleksandr expectantly.

“Da,” Aleksandr said. “This fellow surrendered. I let him keep his sword, for now, as show of faith. He is aurin. Of the enemy. Is part of these ambushes.”

The mercenaries stared at the goblin, trying to gauge how much they trusted it.

Damn close to not at all, I expect, Yorrin thought. Who can trust a heathen savage?

“Deal we make is simple,” Aleksandr went on. “He guides us out of Underpass. Guides us past ambushes. Around them, if we can, or he warns us if not. In exchange, he keeps his life. I do not expect him to fight his kin in our defense. If we must, we disarm him. But I expect him to get us out of this place. Benefit to him and us, both.”

The declaration was met with utter silence. Finally, after a time, a voice spoke.

“Can we trust him?”

Aleksandr met the gaze of the man that had spoken. “Absolutely not,” he said. “But he wants to live. I trust this much. If he was truly filled with blind battle rage, he would not have been capable of surrendering as he did.”

It was a good point. The Taraamites voiced a few more concerns, but Aleksandr deflected each of them in turn with his typical calm. The goblin, wisely, remained silent. He stood nearby, ready to act, but given no commands.

It took some time for things to settle down. Finally, they made their way back to the column. Yorrin looked the little savage over again.

They sure are ugly, he thought. But at least this one seems to understand his place in the world.

Yorrin leaned a little closer. “Hey,” he said. “You.”

The goblin glanced at him, wrinkling its nose in confusion.

“Have you got a name, or are we to just call you goblin the whole journey?”

The goblin bared its teeth in a facsimile of a smile. It shook with silent laughter, and gestured at its own neck.

Yorrin saw the scars, then. A violent tangle covering much of the goblin’s throat. It kept grinning in a wide, threatening expression. Yorrin finally realized why when he looked closer.

No tongue. A mute, then? Aleksandr wanted a captive goblin, and he picked a mute?

“You can’t speak,” he said. The goblin closed his mouth, and shrugged.

“But you understand Middish, then?”

The goblin raised an empty hand, wiggling it in the air in a kind of “so-so” gesture.

“Hm,” Yorrin muttered. “Probably better this way. If you could talk, just be a matter of time before you said something so stupid that Lefty and his men felt compelled to kill you.”

The goblin scrunched his little face into a frown.

“Don’t blame me,” Yorrin said. “You’re the savage. You saw how they reacted to you.”

The goblin seemed to consider that for a moment. Then he shrugged.

“I just hope you’re worth all of this. Don’t let Aleksandr down,” Yorrin said. “You’ve caused quite a kerfuffle already.”

The goblin’s expression was inscrutable. It was just as well, really. Yorrin had nothing left to say to him.