We’ve really kicked the beehive now.
Yorrin couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps Kerfuffle had been right. Perhaps trying to break through the fort was a mistake.
Too late for those thoughts now, he reminded himself. It’s do or die, so let’s make sure they do the dying.
He looked out across the stone “courtyard” of the goblin fort, where the battle had already begun.
The middle of the fort was intersected by the Underpass road. Some twenty feet wide, smooth and clear of obstructions. The walls—both the ones the goblins had built and those of the natural cave—encircled a large open cavern. The ground was rough and uneven, and numerous rock formations broke sightlines and formed small, natural barriers. Interspersed throughout the cavern, a few dozen crude goblin hovels had been erected.
Yorrin stood in the threshold of one such hovel. The building was near the open gate, so he had gone there before Aleksandr rode through. He’d already knifed the goblin sleeping within, before the alarm sounded. Now, he used the rough wood and hide walls for cover as he surveyed their situation.
A number of goblins on the far side of the fort had been awake, standing guard on the opposite wall. They’d seen the gate open, and they had called the alarm. Two of them, the two on the wall, had bows out. It was towards them that Aleksandr was riding. He held his left arm up, protecting his unarmored face with the mail covering his forearm. Behind him, Bear, Perrin, and Geoffrey jogged in on foot.
Yorrin saw more goblins emerging from one corner of the cavern, where the largest concentration of goblin hovels were illuminated by waning firelight. They shouted wildly, screamed, brandishing blades and spears. They rushed for Aleksandr, and for the others.
Yorrin bent his bow against this knee and strung it. He had less than a dozen arrows, but they would have to do. He moved quietly along the cavern wall, keeping to the shadows. When he started to sight a goblin on the wall, a sudden movement near him caught his eye. A bleary goblin was emerging from a small hut no more than twenty feet from him. The aurin warrior was shirtless, his body marred with ritual scars Yorrin could make out even in this dim light. He bore a small, curved blade, and with his empty hand he was punching himself in the leg.
To rile himself up? Yorrin wondered. He didn’t direct much thought to it, however. Instead, he pivoted, took aim, and put an arrow in the goblin’s unarmored back. He looked back at the wall, trying to orient himself on the goblin archers again. He focused, took careful aim, and loosed.
It was a considerable distance, in dim light. The arrow did not find its mark, but the goblin seemed to notice it clatter nearby, and he ducked down.
Well, means he’s not shooting at Aleksandr, at least. Yorrin moved closer to the wall. He went to sight again, on another archer that had not taken the hint.
The goblin suddenly staggered drunkenly, and then toppled off the wall. Before he fell, Yorrin noted the small crossbow quarrel jutting out of his chest.
Nice shot, Prudence, he thought. Wherever you are.
The other goblin popped back up, no longer looking at Aleksandr. Instead, he stared out into the dark cavern, no doubt trying to pick out Yorrin or Prudence. Yorrin already had an arrow nocked, and he’d been taking aim at the goblin nearby, so it was a simple matter to adjust his sights.
This time, his arrow flew true. The goblin hadn’t even spotted Yorrin yet when he took an arrow in the face, just below his eye. Yorrin could hear the poor bastard’s screams echo across the chamber as he collapsed.
The goblin archers taken care of for the moment, Yorrin looked back towards his allies. By the gate, he saw several horses and figures slowly slipping into the fort. At the forefront rode Dylan, bow in hand, watching for goblins. Lefty moved in on foot behind him, sword drawn. The wounded and haggard Taraam boys were helping those unable to walk under their own power, and Alaina was there with them. Borthul trotted in with the wounded. Not helping, but at least he looked awake.
The plan was for them to skirt the fighting and make for the far gate, while Aleksandr and the others held off the enemy. For that to work, Aleksandr and the others would have to be holding their own in the thick of the fighting.
Yorrin looked their way, and saw that they were doing just that.
Aleksandr had crashed into a thick cluster of goblins, enough that he hadn’t been able to ride through them. They surrounded him, jabbing and slashing with their vicious little weapons. Even so, it would be wrong to say he fought alone. Dascha was as much a warrior as his rider, after all. He kicked out, crushing goblin skulls with his massive hooves. Aleksandr swept his longsword down across the aurin ranks, forcing them to keep their distance or lose a limb.
About twenty paces back, Wallbreaker, Perrin, and Bear fought another cluster of aurin warriors. Bear roared, a sound that was more elated than angry. He wielded his heavy bearded axe as he always did, favoring broad swings that looked powerful enough to cleave one of the goblins in half. Nearby, Wallbreaker and Perrin had gone back-to-back to face the throng.
Yorrin put an arrow into the crowd surging around Aleksandr. Then another, and another. He turned his attention to relieve some of the pressure on Bear, as well, but a snarled cry that was far too close caught his attention.
Yorrin acted on pure instinct, diving to the ground, his bow clattering across the stone. He scrambled forward on hands and knees, twisting around to see behind him.
An aurin warrior glared at him. Its face was scarred and pierced with small bone studs. Lips especially, sporting half a dozen small rings of bone and bronze. He carried a long, jagged blade, and it lunged for Yorrin a second time.
Yorrin drew a dagger in his left hand as his right fumbled for his sword. The scabbard was tangled in his legs. He was still sprawled awkwardly on his ass when the goblin struck. Yorrin turned the first blow with his dagger, but in this position the goblin had superior reach. He couldn’t retaliate, so he just struggled to bring his sword out.
The leaf-shaped blade cleared its scabbard as the aurin came in for another strike. Yorrin caught this one on the shallow hilt of the Cassaline sword. Before he could react further, the aurin suddenly gasped.
Yorrin looked on in confusion as the goblin crumpled to the ground. Behind him, Kerfuffle planted one foot on the dead goblin and jerked his blade out with a fierce tug. Yorrin blinked a few times as he took this in.
“Thanks,” he said finally.
Kerfuffle looked at Yorrin and smirked. Then he was gone, rushing off to engage more of his brethren.
Didn’t he agree to follow Aleksandr in order to spare one of his kin? And now he kills his kin, to spare us?
Yorrin found the goblin’s actions perplexing. But there wasn’t time to consider it. He sheathed his blades and scooped up the bow. Aleksandr still fought tooth and claw with a dozen aurin, more keeping them at bay than really defeating them. The Whip rode around the melee, putting arrows into any goblin that looked exposed.
The overwhelming majority of the goblins were unarmored. Presumably a consequence of them being roused from bed, or just dumb luck. Yorrin wasn’t going to question Torath throwing them a bone. He put an arrow in the unprotected back of a goblin that was trying to approach Bear on his flank.
The goblins were hard-pressed, despite their numbers. They were disorganized, tired, and unarmored. Yorrin’s companions had planned every step of this fight, and so far it was proceeding according to plan. Aurin corpses littered the Underpass road, and Yorrin saw the wounded picking their way carefully around the battle.
A cry went up from the goblins, then. They began to fall back, pulling away from the intense melee in the center of the fort. They shouted and screeched, but they still withdrew.
I’m no soldier, but that’s too orderly to be a rout, Yorrin noted. Which means…
A roar echoed across the chamber.
This sound was nothing like Bear’s shouting, or the screeching of the goblins. It was deep and rough, like gravel scraped over bricks. It went on and on, until Yorrin couldn’t tell where the roar ended and the echoes began.
A moment of total silence fell upon the cavern. All eyes looked to the source of the noise, Yorrin’s included.
It emerged from the largest cluster of hovels. Even in the dim light of scattered torches and mosslights, Yorrin could make out the creature clearly.
Creature, not man. The thing stood easily ten feet tall, likely more. Humanoid, in the sense that it had two arms, two legs, and a head.
It’s head was hairless, large ears curved into wide, pointed shapes somewhat reminiscent of the goblins. Its small, dark eyes roved across the yard rapidly. Its mouth lolled open, showing sharp teeth stained brown and yellow.
It wore a crude hauberk of interlocking bronze discs, and little else. A lot of flesh was showing, and in the dim light the creature’s skin looked to be a sallow yellowish color, mottled with rough warty growths. It was huge, but for its height it looked relatively lean. A slightly swollen potbelly protruded on an otherwise gaunt frame. Its long arms and legs were bare skin stretched taut over cords of muscle and sinew.
An ogre, Yorrin thought. When the moment of shock wore off, he began quickly repositioning. I’ve heard legends of such creatures. Dwelling in the deep mountains and far-flung wilds. They say there are giants along the border of Spatalia, too. But… God’s fangs, giant doesn’t do this thing justice.
The ogre carried a weapon that looked rather like a small tree trunk, uprooted and whittled clean of bark and branches. A wide, curved bronze blade that was the size of an aurin sword had been affixed to the end of it, forming a sort of simple axe. The ogre leveled the weapon at Aleksandr, and growled something that might have been a language and might have been nothing more than a menacing snarl.
The goblins had regrouped, and more had joined them. They began chanting and howling in their mongrel tongue. When the ogre advanced on Aleksandr, the goblins surged forward as well.
Bear, Perrin, and Wallbreaker had taken up positions near Aleksandr. They stood amid a field of carnage, at least ten goblin corpses sprawled in pools of blood on the stone. Yorrin saw Lefty and another of the Taraam men picking their way through the dead, to stand alongside the others. Lefty and his men exchanged a look. The Whip sat in the saddle, just off of Aleksandr’s flank, spear in hand, eyes on the enemy.
Alaina was leading the wounded and the old wizard out by herself. Yorrin had to trust that she could handle it, because he suspected Aleksandr was going to need every bit of help that he could get.
The ogre growled again.
It’s speaking language, Yorrin decided. Those sounded like orders.
The aurin howled when they heard whatever the orders were. The rattled their weapons in the air, and then rushed forward in a wave. Easily twenty of them, against seven men. The ogre moved up behind them at a lazy pace.
Yorrin saw one of the goblins stumble and drop, a crossbow quarrel in his guts. Yorrin put an arrow into the crowd, and then another. As he reached for a third, he realized it was his last. He held it, hesitating, watching the fight unfold.
The goblins were nearly upon Aleksandr and his battle line. The ogre was still a good forty paces behind, or maybe fifteen considering the length of its stride. Suddenly, Aleksandr raised his sword and shouted, spurring Dascha forward. Dylan’s steed broke into a gallop just behind Dascha, and the two of them rode right into the goblins.
No, through them, Yorrin realized. Aleksandr and the Whip laid into the foes as they hit their ranks, but mostly they just let the power of their warhorses see them onto the other side.
Only a few fell to Aleksandr’s countercharge, but the goblin’s momentum had been totally disrupted. Bear and the men of Taraam surged forward in the wake of the horsemen, and things devolved into a bloody melee.
But Aleksandr and Dylan kept riding. They rode right for the ogre, and the creature stopped its advance. Instead, the ogre set its stance wide, axe ready, and it roared at them.
Yorrin’s heart thumped in his chest as he saw them charge the ogre. Aleksandr raised his sword high as he rode in, and the ogre swung for his head. Time seemed to stand still.
Then Aleksandr suddenly ducked down, nearly dropping off of Dascha entirely, and the warhorse lowered his head as well. The axe swept empty air, and Aleksandr raked his steel longsword across the ogre’s flank as he passed. On the other side, the Whip rammed his spear into the ogre’s left shoulder, where the armor gave way to bare flesh.
Dylan’s spear pierced so deep that it was torn from his grip as his horse carried him past. Worse, the ogre lashed out with its empty hand, and clipped Dylan just before he had ridden out of reach. The Whip flopped bonelessly off of his horse, thumping hard onto the stone ground.
Yorrin suspected that Aleksandr had intended to hit-and-run, but with the Whip disabled and in easy reach of the ogre, he reconsidered that plan. Aleksandr wheeled Dascha rapidly, staying close, slashing out at the ogre in a flurry of blows. The ogre yanked Dylan’s spear out of its body and let it fall to the stone. It turned to keep Aleksandr in front, and then slammed its axe down. Aleksandr turned the blow with his blade, though from the way his body shook Yorrin could tell the impact was substantial.
The ogre went to press the attack, raising its axe again, but a crossbow bolt streaked out of the shadows and buried itself in its side. The creature roared, and Aleksandr nudged Dascha forward enough to thrust his sword for the ogre’s face. It intercepted the blow with a free hand, and dark blood gushed from the wound Aleksandr opened on its palm.
Yorrin spared a moment of attention for the others. He saw that the men of Taraam had formed a tight circle, with goblins pressing in on all sides. Bear fought alone. He swung his broad axe with one hand, and in the other he had picked up a goblin sword. The big man was shouting and laughing as he waded through the crowd. Most of the aurin seemed reluctant to engage him for fear of catching one of his brutally strong blows, opting instead to mob the Taraamites in their formation.
Still, Yorrin thought, it’d only take one of them to stab him in the back at the wrong moment.
In fact, Yorrin saw an aurin maneuvering behind Bear at that very moment. The barbarian’s focus was elsewhere, engaging another goblin in front of him. Yorrin had been hoping to save his last arrow to help Aleksandr, but he took aim and loosed. The goblin crumpled just as Bear roared and brought both his weapons down upon one of the goblins, cleaving deep into its skull.
One of the Taraamites went down. Yorrin drew his sword and began jogging closer, but he wasn’t sure if he was going to fight the aurin or the ogre. He glanced at Aleksandr.
Dascha and Aleksandr were dancing with the giant. It was beautiful, in a way. Steel and bronze clashed in clamorous blows, and somehow Aleksandr was holding his own. Yorrin saw a narrow miss as the axe scraped across Aleksandr’s backplate, but still he kept the saddle and he kept the huge beast occupied. Two more crossbow bolts protruded visibly from the ogre’s back and side, but its strength had not flagged.
Yorrin opted for the bigger melee, trusting that Aleksandr could hold his own a little longer. He converged on Bear from across the cavern, and when the barbarian spotted him he grinned widely.
“Yorrin!” He shouted.”To me!”
He began fighting his way to Yorrin. Yorrin did likewise, thankful that most of the aurin barely seemed aware of him. He stabbed one in the back, and then dispatched another just as the poor bastard turned to face him.
When he reached Bear, the big Ruskan barbarian’s grin only broadened. His face and beard were spattered with blood, as were the furs he wore. “Is good fight!” he growled. “Is good way to die!”
“We’re not dead yet,” Yorrin said. The goblins around them were all dead, or fled. Still, the Taraamites were still embroiled with a handful of them. Yorrin noticed that Kerfuffle had shown up, and now stood in rank between Perrin and Wallbreaker. Fighting his kin again, in defense of these invaders. It was baffling, but Yorrin had no time to question it.
“We fight little mans, or big man?” Bear asked, glancing between Aleksandr and the Taraamites.
Yorrin’s mind raced. One of the Taraamites was limp on the ground. Perrin had lost his shield, and his left arm hung slack at his side. Lefty’s tabard was so soaked with blood Yorrin feared he’d taken a grievous wound, though he could not see it in the dim lighting. They needed more help than Aleksandr, it appeared.
A loud crash pulled Yorrin’s focus away. He looked to Aleksandr in time to see the ogre’s axe rebounding off of Aleksandr’s iron breastplate. There was a visible gouge and dent where it had struck, and Aleksandr was launched out of the saddle. He hit the ground with an audible crunching sound that Yorrin hoped was just his armor. Still alive and conscious, however, Aleksandr rolled to his feet before the ogre could strike again. He kept it at bay with his longsword. Still, he was unsteady on his feet, clearly injured. He whistled, and Dascha bolted out of the ogre’s reach.
Bear and Yorrin exchanged a look.
“Big man?” Bear asked.
They rushed to Aleksandr’s aid. The ogre’s blows were growing more wild and furious, and Aleksandr was staggering under the onslaught. He was clearly favoring one leg, and his footwork was substantially slower for it.
Bear was more than a head taller than Yorrin, and that was reflected in the length of his stride. He pulled ahead quickly, shouting a challenge at the ogre. He whipped his left arm forward, hurling the goblin blade. It smashed into the ogre’s back. The weapon tangled in the bronze scaled armor, not likely inflicting much real damage. But the ogre glanced over its shoulder, and saw Bear charging down on it. He held his axe high, gripped in both hands, screaming with barbaric fury.
The ogre tried to split its attention between Aleksandr and Bear. By the time Yorrin arrived, the huge monster was already sporting several new lacerations. He jabbed at its sinewy legs and strange, knobby knees.
The ogre was huge, and freakishly strong. It was no surprise that it could endure more than a mere mortal could, as well. But it had sustained wounds enough to kill a normal man several times over. As they hammered it from all sides, it visibly began to flag. Its attacks grew sloppier, more reckless. It hammered into Bear, driving him back, and Aleksandr lunged in as an opportunity presented itself.
His steel longsword slid two feet into the ogre’s armpit, driving deep into its chest. Yorrin saw the tip protrude from the ogre’s neck, just above the collarbone. The ogre froze midswing. Its axe clattered to the ground from nerveless hands with too-long fingers. The ogre still stood, but Yorrin saw the light go out of its beady dark eyes.
Aleksandr jerked his sword free in three heavy pulls, but as he did, the ogre began to topple. The motion of pulling his sword out pushed the balance of the dead giant, and the huge corpse came down on Aleksandr with a thunderous crash.
As when the ogre first roared, the sound of its death resulted in a sudden silence.
Yorrin looked around. The goblins, those that remained, routed the moment their champion fell. They scattered, trying to flee. Lefty’s men descended upon them with vicious efficiency.
Yorrin had no time for that. He darted around the dead ogre, trying to see if Aleksandr had just been crushed. He felt a wave of relief wash over him when he realized that most of Aleksandr’s upper body wasn’t really pinned, and he saw a very much alive Aleksandr struggling in vain to push the ogre off of him.
When he saw Yorrin, he stopped. Their eyes met.
Aleksandr looked like hell. His short dark hair was plastered to his scalp with sweat. Blood was smeared across one cheek, and into his beard. His frame rose and fell with deep, ragged breaths.
“Aleksandr,” Yorrin said. He felt himself panting, too.
“You alright?” What a stupid question.
“Alive, at least,” Aleksandr said. “Hurt, but… da. Alive. My leg, it hurts. May be very bad, is hard to say.”
Yorrin glanced at the ogre. “You killed it.”
“Da. It very nearly killed me back. You can help, da?” He gestured to the ogre, and futilely shoved against it again.
“Me?” Yorrin gestured to his small frame. “Not much.”
Then he laughed. He couldn’t help it. It was inappropriate, in a way. They’d nearly died. Chances were good one or more of the Taraamites had died. To say nothing of all they’d lost so far.
But it didn’t matter. It felt good, a release of sorts. He laughed, helplessly, until Aleksandr joined in. Bear came around the ogre, clapped Yorrin on the back with altogether too much force. He was laughing too.
“Da, is funny!” he said. “We almost die! Good to laugh at death!”
Yorrin shook his head as the laughter faded to a chuckle, and then to nothing. He took a breath. He gestured to Aleksandr’s predicament. Bear nodded, dropping his axe to the stone with a clatter. He hunkered down and took hold of the ogre by one arm. With a strained grunt, he began to lift the ogre.
Yorrin decided he would be more useful helping Aleksandr directly. He grabbed hold of Aleksandr’s arms, and as soon as Bear had lifted the ogre a short distance he began to tug. It was the work of a few moments to pull Aleksandr clear, and Bear let the ogre fall back onto the stone with another echoing thump.
Aleksandr’s breastplate was dented, scratched, and spattered with blood. But he looked well enough. Neither of his legs were bent at any horrible angles. He tried to sit up, and winced. He touched his left leg gingerly.
“Hurts,” he said. “Maybe broken.”
“Clean break, if so,” Yorrin said.
“Dylan? Is he…?” Aleksandr’s voice trailed off as he looked towards the fallen mercenary.
Yorrin glanced over, and saw the Whip’s chest rise and fall with a few regular breaths.
“Alive? Yeah. Well? Dunno.”
Aleksandr nodded. “We should have Alaina see to him.”
Yorrin looked around the yard. Bodies littered the ground. The smell of blood and shit was thick in the air. The Taraamites had regrouped, and even Alaina and the wounded had joined them. Kerfuffle stood among them, and none of the others seemed to think twice about it. The priestess was hunkered down next to one of the fallen mercenaries.
“Yeah,” Yorrin finally said. “And she should see to you. Quick as we can. Then we get the fuck out of this place.”
Aleksandr looked around the dimly lit cavern. Finally, he looked back to Yorrin, and their eyes met again. This time, they did not laugh.
“Da,” he said. “I think this is good plan.”