Kerfuffle proved to be a greater asset than Yorrin had imagined.
The goblin warrior seemed to take his promise to Aleksandr seriously. A fact that Yorrin still found almost baffling, when he considered it.
Why hasn’t he double-crossed us yet? He wondered. The goblins are all heathen savages, and the aurin seem to be the worst of the lot. Devil-worshipers. Howling, bloodthirsty battleragers. And yet Aleksandr says the little bastard promised to guide us out, and now he’s actually doing it?
Yorrin glanced beside him, at the goblin. Kerfuffle stalked the tunnel, feet padding quietly on the stone, the rustle from his armor mostly muffled by strips of cloth he had threaded between the iron discs. Prudence stalked behind them, crossbow ready to put a quarrel in the goblin’s back if he turned on them.
But so far, Kerfuffle had kept his jagged sword in what passed for a sheath in the Underpass—a crude leather thong and six inches of wooden slats to hold the bare blade in place. He hadn’t said a word of complaint. Not that he could, of course, but even so. He hadn’t even given Yorrin the evil eye. He just scouted ahead with them, a silent shadow. He signaled with his hands when they should pause, or advance with caution, or pay particular attention to a specific place.
He didn’t seem to mind the nickname Yorrin had given him. Whatever his former name, he had no way of telling it to them. So Kerfuffle it was. He answered to it readily enough, at least.
For all his misgivings, Yorrin could see the wisdom in Aleksandr’s plan. The last several hours had passed quietly. Twice, Kerfuffle had directed them off the Underpass road entirely, cutting through large caverns not unlike the one they’d been ambushed in before. Yorrin couldn’t count how many times the goblin had signaled for them to wait, and after five or ten or twenty minutes he then nodded them forward.
Might be he’s just lulling us into a false sense of comfort, Yorrin considered. Then, when we think we’re in the clear, snap goes the jaws of an aurin trap, all around us.
He couldn’t rule it out entirely. But neither could he deny that Kerfuffle’s guidance had worked so far. He’d seen some of the goblins in the distance as they skirted around possible ambushes. If it was a ploy, it was a masterful one.
Kerfuffle waved to Yorrin, and Yorrin immediately shuttered his lantern. He’d had it open no more than a quarter, just a sliver of a bullseye to light their path. Now, his eyes were thrust again into near-total dark.
Yorrin’s eyes adjusted after a few moments… the tunnel was not completely without light. A distant glow down a narrow side passage and the faint glow leaking out of the cracks in his own lantern provided enough light that he could just barely make out detail a couple feet in front of him. He felt a tap on his shoulder, and he looked to Kerfuffle. The goblin pointed ahead, then back towards the rest of the column. He drew a thumb across his throat in what Yorrin considered to be a universal gesture.
“Best reconsider that,” Yorrin hissed. “If they die, you die.”
Even in the darkness, Yorrin saw the goblin roll his eyes. Kerfuffle shook his head, and repeated the gesture. This time, he followed it up by tapping pointedly at his own chest, gesturing to the caves at large, and then putting on an exaggerated grimace. Finally, he pointed, very decisively, down the path. And then back to Yorrin’s lantern.
Well, Yorrin considered, I at least get that last bit.
He lifted the shutter of his lantern, and pointed it along the path Kerfuffle had gestured.
Oh. That’s what he was trying to say.
Behind him, he heard Prudence suck in a sudden, shocked breath.
“God’s embrace,” she whispered. “That’s…”
“A totem,” Yorrin said. “An aurin totem. Fuck.”
His lantern shined directly onto a crude stake of wood, laid out in the stone with a simple scaffolding to support it. Impaled upon the stake was a dead man. From the smell and look of him, he’d been dead a few days.
The body had been partially skinned, his flesh hanging in bloody strips. Yorrin could see strange goblin sigils had been carved deep into the tissue. The dead man’s face was cut into a rictus of agony, eyes gouged out, jaw hanging too far open. What little clothes he still wore were filthy rags, but they were rags that Yorrin recognized. Blue and gray and black.
The colors of Fort Taraam.
This man was part of their expedition. One of Lefty’s—Olivenco’s, really—men, fallen during their slog through the Underpass. He was their friend, their brother in arms. Reduced, now, to a macabre warning totem.
“Your people have a lot to answer for,” Yorrin said to Kerfuffle.
The goblin just gave him a hard look. He didn’t signal anything in particular, but even so, Yorrin felt he knew what Kerfuffle was trying to say.
“Tell me about it.”
“They’re not going to take this well,” Yorrin nodded his head back towards the darkness of the tunnel, where the rest of the group was trailing behind them.
“No,” Prudence agreed. “They aren’t. Should we cut him down?”
Yorrin nodded. “We can’t spare the labor to haul his body out for burial,” he said. “But Alaina can give the poor fellow last rites, at least. Send him off to Torath’s grace properly. Like she did for the men that fell in the last skirmish.”
He took a step towards the totem. Kerfuffle’s small arm shot out, catching Yorrin’s chest and stopping him in his tracks. The movement was so sudden that Yorrin jumped, and nearly drew his sword. But the goblin’s look was not threatening, and his own sword remained sheathed. Instead Kerfuffle just gestured at the totem, and then pointed at the ground in front of it, sweeping his finger around.
“Around the body? What’s around the—” he froze. “Fuck.”
Kerfuffle just nodded at the curse.
“Trapped?” Prudence asked.
Yorrin and Kerfuffle nodded together. “They’re doing this on purpose,” Yorrin said. “Desecrating the dead. Not just as a warning… as a trap. They know the Taraamites will be compelled to cut down their brother.”
“So we find it and we disarm it,” Prudence said.
“Obviously,” said Yorrin. “But let’s look around a bit. Scout ahead, maybe. There could be another ambush, waiting for the opportunity provided by the trap. Kerfuffle?”
The goblin nodded, confirming that Yorrin’s estimation tracked with a possible aurin strategy. They skirted around the totem, giving it a wide berth, keeping their eyes peeled for more goblins or other signs of trouble.
They didn’t find more aurin, but they found something very nearly as bad.
More dead Taraamites lashed to totems.
Yorrin shined his lantern down the tunnel, fully lifting the shutter for a moment. He counted three more shapes, in addition to the one they’d just found and the original one behind them. Each appeared slightly different, but basically the same. Dead men, clad in shredded bloodstained rags bearing the colors and crest of Taraam. Their bodies were mutilated beyond reason, strange symbols carved into them.
“Any one of them could be trapped,” Yorrin said. “Or all of them.”
Kerfuffle nodded. His face was inscrutable as ever: beady eyes narrow, thin-lipped mouth drawn shut. Yorrin found it hard to believe that the goblin felt anything for these men. Hell, he might have killed some of them. But the goblin was at least wise enough to stay completely neutral.
“Do we have time to check them all? Cut them down?” Prudence said. “That’s likely what they’re counting on.”
“Of course it’s what they’re counting on.” Yorrin scratched the scruff on his chin, considering their situation carefully. “Alaina can give them rites where they are. Carefully. That’s the most we can do for them.”
Prudence gave Yorrin a skeptical look. “You want to tell them that? Somehow I don’t think Lefty or the others will agree.”
“They’ll have to,” Yorrin said. He clenched his jaw, mentally preparing himself to be stubborn. “Yeah, I’ll tell ‘em. No way around it. Let’s double back before they spot the first one.”
He didn’t wait for a reply. He turned and began stalking back to the main column, confident the other two would stay close behind.
Lefty didn’t like it, obviously. None of the Taraamites liked it. More than one murderous glare was cast towards Kerfuffle. The goblin stood beside Yorrin, expressionless, his arms crossed over his chest.
But, like it or not, they knew Yorrin was right.
“We can barely get out of here with our wounded,” Lefty said. “No room to spare for the dead. Ugly business, but it is what it is.”
Yorrin glanced at the wounded. He didn’t know all their names, but they were definitely in a bad way. The one they called Lordling had ended up being dragged in a crude litter of his own, once Alaina had extracted a frightening number of goblin arrows from his flesh. They’d lost some wounded, but they’d been quickly replaced with others. Only Lefty, the young man named Perrin, and the big fellow called Wallbreaker were both still walking and not completely occupied with carrying the fallen.
Lefty glanced at Alaina. “You can say a few words for them, at least? Make sure they make their way on to God’s coils?”
Alaina was standing nearby, having given up her steed to one of the wounded. She nodded. “Of course,” she said. “Though I assure you, God does not need my words to find and claim the faithful dead. Torath is with us, always. Most of all in our times of greatest need and tragedy.”
Yorrin knew she’d said as much when she performed the last rites for the dead men they’d had to leave behind already. Now, as then, Lefty just nodded. “Aye, alright. But even so…”
Alaina reached out and touched the harrowed lieutenant’s shoulder with a gentle hand. She smiled, not with mirth, but with compassion. “Of course, Emmett,” she said. “It would be my honor.”
Emmett? Does she mean Lefty? Yorrin wondered. When the hell did she learn his real name? Did I hear it too, and just forget it amidst all the action?
Lefty, for his part, seemed to soften a little at the words. Yorrin saw a ripple of grim relief pass through the other men of Taraam as well. It had to be a small comfort, but even a small comfort was better than the cold, unforgiving stone of the Underpass that they’d been subjected to until now.
They passed by the totems carefully, as a group. Yorrin, Prudence, and Kerfuffle stayed towards the front of the column and watched for any sign of an ambush. The rest picked their way through the road, mindful not to get too close to any of the totems.
True to her word, Alaina paused at each fallen man and spoke a few words from the scriptures, urging the fallen souls on to the afterlife in Torath’s embrace. After three of these, Yorrin found Aleksandr drift towards the front of the group. He was on foot, Dascha trotting a few paces behind him.
“Everything alright?” Yorrin asked. He kept his voice low, still wary of a potential ambush. Kerfuffle hadn’t gotten wind of anything yet, or at least he didn’t act like he had. But Yorrin wasn’t born yesterday, either, so he kept his guard up.
“Fine,” Aleksandr said. “Is just… I would rather let them grieve in some privacy.”
Yorrin snorted. “Not much privacy to be had down here.”
“No,” Aleksandr agreed. “There is not.”
“Ah,” Yorrin said, as understanding dawned. “Hence the distance.”
“Da. Bear and Dylan are watching at rear. Lefty and his men have some—hm. Breathe room?”
“Breathing room,” Yorrin corrected. “Right. What about the old man?”
Aleksandr shrugged. “Dozing, it seems. In the saddle.” From his tone, Yorrin could tell Aleksandr did not approve. “He says he will be sleeping much of next few days. Said was something… I did not understand. Is because of magic, he says? I am not sure.”
“Suppose he’d know,” Yorrin said. “He’s the wizard, not us.”
“Da,” Aleksandr agreed. “So long as he keeps his horse… is fine.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes. Prudence and Kerfuffle were about twenty feet ahead, so Yorrin kept his attention focused on the walls. He wasn’t confident he’d be able to spot one of the hidden passages before it was too late anyway, certainly not better than the goblin could. But even so, he did his best to study the contours and cracks in the rocky walls.
Until Kerfuffle suddenly popped up in front of him. Yorrin jumped, just a little, but he kept his calm. The goblin looked alarmed, and behind him Yorrin saw Prudence. Her expression was hard to read… frowning, but more confused than concerned.
“What is it?” Yorrin asked.
“I’m not sure,” Prudence admitted. “He insisted we fall back to you…”
Kerfuffle had drawn out his stick of charcoal—the first thing Yorrin gave him when they began scouting together—and he was hastily sketching something on the smooth floor of the Underpass road. Yorrin dropped to squat down beside him, studying the drawing as it formed. Aleksandr did the same.
“Is us?” Aleksandr asked, gesturing to part of the sketch. Kerfuffle nodded, not looking up from his map.
Of course it’s us, Yorrin thought. And that’s the tunnel, and those are the totems behind us. The road opens up into another cavern up there. And that—what’s that?
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing.
Kerfuffle frowned, quickly gesturing with his hands. He held his hands out, palms flat, in a sign that Yorrin couldn’t quite comprehend.
“Wall,” Aleksandr said quietly. “Da? A fortification.”
Kerfuffle nodded, his ugly features showing clear relief that Aleksandr had taken his meaning. Then he returned to the drawing. He sketched out a fort in the road, and he drew a path that led well off the Underpass road. It drifted out into a side cavern, far into the cavern. And then beyond, into what Yorrin assumed was some kind of tunnel. Kerfuffle ran out of space to draw.
“You want us to leave the road completely?” Yorrin asked. “Venture into the tunnels?”
“Sounds risky,” said Prudence. “If there’s one thing everyone says about the Underpass, it’s that you don’t do that.”
“She’s right, for once,” Yorrin said.
Kerfuffle frowned. He placed his charcoal on the crudely drawn fortification and then furiously began scribbling across it, covering it in X after X.
“Something inside,” Aleksandr said. “Dangerous. Very dangerous, da?”
The goblin’s nod bordered on the frantic.
“Aleksandr…” Yorrin said. Aleksandr glanced up at him, meeting his eyes. “You know we can’t trust him, right? He’s steered us well enough so far, I’ll admit. But that could be a ploy, a trick to lull us into complacency.”
“Could be,” Aleksandr said. He glanced at Kerfuffle. “But I do not think this is so. He looks…iskrenniy. Uh...” He searched for the right word.
He looks scared shitless, is what he looks like, Yorrin thought. But he said “Sincere?”
“Da,” Aleksandr agreed. “Sincere.
“He does. But we can’t rule out the alternative completely. We’ve got to be close to the end by now. This could be his last chance to lure us into a trap. And… off the road, Aleksandr. In the Underpass? Prudence is right. That’s suicide.”
Aleksandr studied the crude map in silence, brow furrowed. He ran a gloved hand through his beard. Finally, he glanced at Kerfuffle.
“Is Yorrin right?”
The goblin shook his head. He gestured to his sword, and then to Aleksandr. He thumped a fist on his chest, and then once again pointed to Aleksandr.
“No,” Aleksandr said. “Not that. I do not think you are lying. Is Yorrin right that we are nearly out?”
That gave the goblin pause. Kerfuffle seemed to consider the question for a moment. Finally, reluctantly, he hunkered down and added to his drawing. He sketched out the tunnel beyond the cavern he’d drawn. Beyond the fortification. He drew tunnels for a foot or two of length, and then stopped. He terminated the tunnel with a circle, then circled it twice. Thrice.
Oh shit, Yorrin thought. If this was a trap, he’d have lied.
Aleksandr stared at the drawing. “So close?”
Kerfuffle frowned, but he nodded.
“That distance,” Prudence said. “You’ve got no scale on here. How far, from the fort to the exit? An hour? Two? Three?”
The goblin paused. After a long silence, he held up a single finger.
Yorrin, Aleksandr, and Prudence all shared a look with one another. Wordlessly, they weighed their options. Something was up ahead, and dangerous enough that it had Kerfuffle wanting to give it a wide berth. But just beyond it was freedom. Open air. The rest of the men at Fort Taraam. The road north.
And an end to these fucking goblins.
“If he’s not tricking us, then the safe bet is following him,” Prudence said. “Dangerous, sure, but… he’s scared, guys.”
“We’ve noticed,” Yorrin said. “But offroad’s got its own risks.”
“Is a risk either way,” Aleksandr said. “But… We have wounded. Sooner we are out of here, sooner they return to their fort. Is possible this could mean the difference between life and death, for Taraam men.”
Well, that settles it. Risk or not, if a man’s life is at stake, Aleksandr’s mind is made up.
Yorrin wasn’t remotely surprised at his commander’s next words.
“We go through,” he said. “Punch through this wall with all our strength. And make all haste for the exit.”
Kerfuffle grimaced. It was hard to tell, with his face as scarred and ugly as it was, but Yorrin could still tell. The goblin crouched back down, and he made a single swipe across his map.
He’d made stark, black line. It started where they were, and cut across the entire drawing, all the way to the circle at the end.
“Right,” Yorrin said. He gave Kerfuffle a tense pat on the back. “Let’s hope it goes that easy.”