The goblins came at night.
Yorrin had figured they would. He’d never seen a goblin, of course, but he’d heard tell of them. Small, vicious, cunning. They liked ambushes, traps, superior numbers. Anything to give them an edge over the larger, stronger men of the Midlands.
After Dylan spotted the totem, they spent the rest of the day looking over their shoulders. Aleksandr insisted they outride in pairs, instead of letting Yorrin or the Whip ride ahead alone. A smart precaution, but they never caught sight of the buggers. A few hours before sunset, Prudence found what she suspected were tracks. Dylan concurred. They just looked like a few dimples in the mud to Yorrin, but what did he know about tracking?
But the tracks were a dead-end, disappearing after twenty feet onto rocky ground on one of the hills. They saw no sign of goblins skulking about, so they kept on the road.
As the sun dipped behind the mountains, the clouds came out with the moon. By the time full dark had descended on them, the sleet had kicked back up again. They took shelter at the base of a hill, beneath a rocky cliff outcropping. It didn’t keep them dry, but it shielded enough rain and ice that their fire didn’t drown. They hunkered down in sodden tents and bedrolls, sleeping in full kit. Yorrin didn’t envy the aches Aleksandr was courting, sleeping in mail and breastplate.
Yorrin elected to take first watch with the Whip. Bear and Prudence would go second, and Alaina offered to wake early with Aleksandr and keep him company while the others slept until dawn.
Yorrin sat on a fallen log on the edge of their camp, near the huddled horses. He gnawed on a hard piece of dried meat, more to keep him occupied than out of hunger. He kept his bow strung and in hand. He was far enough from the fire that his eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom of a cloudy, moonless night. It was cold and thankless, but it was the only way to keep proper watch. In his periphery, he saw the Whip standing watch as well, leaning against a tree.
Time blurred, as did Yorrin’s eyes. An hour passed, at least, but that meant they weren’t even halfway through their posting. It was fine. Yorrin had spent longer in one place, doing nothing but waiting and watching, back in Nasarat. Properly casing a place before going in was not a short endeavor.
The sleet had slowed to a light rain now, and aside from the gentle rhythmic sound of droplets pelting them the night was quiet. The Whip stirred. He slowly made his way over to Yorrin.
“Fire’s dying, going to add another log,” he said, voice low. “One more after that, then we wake them, yeah?”
Yorrin nodded, but he didn’t look away from the vast, dark wilderness around them. He heard Dylan’s boots squelch in the mud as he trudged over to the fire. He stepped on a branch, and the snap was a loud report in the still night air.
Yorrin blinked. His head jerked around, and he saw Dylan walking through a muddy puddle to the campfire. No branches in his path, broken or otherwise. He looked back into the wilds. He’d definitely heard…
A wet rustle from the undergrowth. Neither it nor the broken branch came from the camp, Yorrin realized now. The cliff behind him cupped the sound, echoed it back out. Must’ve tricked his ears. The sounds were coming from out there.
Call for help! Yorrin thought to himself. He stifled that first impulse. If there were goblins readying an ambush out there, any sudden movement or shouting would force them to act. Yorrin kept his breathing measured, and did not shout an alarm. He searched the black, squinting, trying desperately to spot something, anything.
He heard the Whip coming back. He waved him over.
“I’ve got a flask of whisky in my tent,” Yorrin said. He tapped his empty hand against his leg, and jerked his thumb in the direction of the sounds he’d heard. “Get it for me?”
“Can’t you get it yourself?” Dylan asked, sounding a little annoyed. Worse than that, he sounded oblivious.
I should’ve stood watch with Prudence, Yorrin thought to himself. “You were tending the fire, which means you’re already night-blind,” Yorrin said. “So I should keep an eye out there. In case there are goblins. Just be careful you don’t wake Aleksandr.”
He shot the Whip a dark glare, and then pointedly looked back out in the night, once again subtly gesturing with his hand close by his side.
The Whip froze, understanding finally dawning.
With that many signals I could’ve gotten through to a child, Yorrin thought. Uncharitably, perhaps. The children Yorrin grew up with were urchins and pickpockets, after all. Dylan grew up on a farm in the free lands of Victoria, from what he’d said.
“Fine, I’ll get it,” Dylan said. He headed back to the camp, and ducked into one of the tents.
Yorrin kept scanning the wilds. There! He saw a glint in the darkness. A bit of metal, or an eye, something reflective, anyway. He stood, posture lazy, stretching as if he was growing sleepy. He started walking over to some of the waist-high boulders around their camp, unlacing his breeches with one hand as if he was preparing to take a piss.
He heard rustling from the tents. A low, muffled voice or two. He stopped at the boulder, pantomimed pissing against it, groaning loudly to cover the sounds of Dylan waking the others. He glanced over to the glint he’d seen before. He was closer now, and he could just make out the outline of someone. Small stature, ducked behind a hedge, shrouded in darkness.
More noise from the tents. The Whip emerged. If the others were up, there was no way they could get out of the tents without the goblins realizing their ambush was skunked. Time was running short. He heard the Whip come up behind him, and he shook as if he was tucking back into his breeches.
“They’re up,” Dylan whispered. “Waiting for our signal.”
He forgot the excuse, Yorrin thought, annoyed. Yorrin pantomimed taking a flask from Dylan.
“Thanks,” he said, loudly. Quieter, he said: “Good. This rock is as good cover as any. I’ve got sight on one of them, but not the others. When I shoot, just stay low and see if you can spot the others. You see anything, shoot, even if you don’t have a good view. We need to give the others cover to get clear of the tents and the fire.”
The Whip nodded. Yorrin kept his hands hidden behind the rock, and he carefully nocked an arrow. He turned around, facing the night again. He spotted the glint. He took a deep breath. Raised his bow, exhaled, and loosed.
The night air exploded with sound.
First, came the squeal. Yorrin must have gotten the little fucker, because he started wailing. Yorrin and Dylan both dropped down, just barely keeping their heads over the boulder, nocking arrows and trying to spot the rest of the goblins.
Next came the warcries. Howls and roars and words shouted in a guttural foreign tongue. There were more goblins out there than Yorrin had expected. Undergrowth rustled and mud squelched as they shuffled around the perimeter of the camp, no doubt trying to find firing angles on Yorrin and Dylan.
Then came the arrows. They whistled through the night air, clattered off the rocky cover ringing the camp, and thudded into the wet ground. Yorrin heard several of them rip through the canvas tents. He had to trust in Torath’s grace, and believe none of his friends had just died to those arrows.
If they did, there’s nothing you can do for them anyway! He told himself. The goblins had betrayed their positions with the attack. He and the Whip rose up, loosing arrows in the direction the attack was coming from.
The horses began to spook, either because of the goblin cries or because some of them had been hit with arrows. Yorrin couldn’t tell one from the other now. He just kept popping up to shoot at the goblins, hoping his luck would hold and the goblins would not be able to get a clear shot at him. He wouldn’t be much good to anyone if he took an arrow through the eye.
A new sound added to the others, now. Another roar, a battlecry. But this one was not the shrill, howling cry of a pygmy goblin. No, this sound came from deep within a barrel chest, and tore through the throat of a man whose culture prided itself on terrorizing their enemies with their warcries.
Bear came tearing out of the camp, howling the whole way. He held a small axe in each hand, and he hurled them both into the darkness as he ran. Yorrin saw them bounce into the undergrowth—if Bear killed even one goblin with those carelessly thrown hatchets it would be a shock, but the point was to startle the enemy. Distract them, surprise them. Bear was a god damned expert at that.
Yorrin ducked around the boulder, racing out into the darkness, trusting that Bear was presenting too enticing a target for the goblins to notice anyone else. He ducked into the trees and hedges, and in that moment, he knew Torath was with them. A pale shaft of moonlight gleamed through the clouds, so perfect it had to be a gift from god himself. It was dim, barely any light at all, but it was enough.
Yorrin saw three goblins ducked in the foliage, shooting at Bear. They looked a lot like he’d imagined: ragged patchwork clothes, crude weapons, matted dark hair tied in locks. Their backs were to him.
He had an arrow in hand. He nocked it, and put it in one of the goblins. Then he dropped his bow, drawing his short legionnaire’s sword and rushing the other two. They turned in time for one of them to take the sword in his gut. Yorrin ripped it free to the side, spilling a dark, slithering mass of entrails into the mud. The goblin’s face was ugly: beady eyes, oversized pointed ears, a grimacing mouth full of snarly teeth. He crumpled, and Yorrin turned to the last one.
The goblin drew a weapon from his belt, a long knife that looked like it had once been a sickle. It was beaten into a hooked blade, and he darted in, jabbing at Yorrin’s legs. Yorrin backpedaled, tried to counter, but the goblin deflected the blow. He snarled, jabbering in his incomprehensible tongue, and he pressed the attack,
The little bastard was ferocious. He kept Yorrin on the defensive, and Yorrin found himself scrambling backwards until his back hit the trunk of a tree. He waited for the right moment, then thrust in to end it. The goblin surprised him, catching the blow on his dagger and turning it. He lunged, blade seeking Yorrin’s heart.
Then slumped, wheezing, his breath suddenly leaving him. The goblin toppled forward onto Yorrin’s legs, dying. Yorrin saw the feathered fletching of a quarrel protruding from between the goblin’s shoulderblades. He looked up, and saw Prudence creeping away through the undergrowth, seeking another target.
In the fight, Yorrin’s world had begun and ended with the goblins. Now, he caught his breath, and realized he could hear the sounds of battle in earnest. Goblins screamed, horses squealed, and metal sang upon metal. He looked around, and he saw that Aleksandr had used Bear’s distraction as well. The Ruskan sat astride Dascha, riding down the goblins, laying into them with his longsword. Dylan stood near Bear, shooting at goblins that had scrambled partway up the hill to get an angle on them. Bear stood, sagging, near the fallen forms of a couple of goblins. Even in the darkness, Yorrin saw at least three arrows protruding from Bear’s furs. That was worrisome.
Yorrin retrieved his bow and joined Dylan in shooting at the goblins on the rise. When Aleksandr wheeled around as if to charge them, they scattered. Yorrin trudged towards Dylan and Bear, noting Prudence emerge from another part of the brush to do the same.
Alaina and Borthul were hiding behind the boulders. Alaina was the first to come out, rushing to Bear’s side to assess the arrows. Yorrin paused before he caught up to them all, and waited for Aleksandr.
“You alright?” He asked.
Aleksandr was breathing heavily, his short dark hair plastered with sweat. But he looked uninjured. He nodded.
“Da,” he said. “Am fine. And you?”
“Alright,” Yorrin said. “Close call, but nothing I couldn’t handle.” Well, nothing Prudence and I couldn’t handle, anyway, he didn’t say.
“Dylan said you spotted the domovoy?”
“The goblins? Yeah,” Yorrin said.
“Good work,” Aleksandr said, giving a nod. He urged Dascha on towards Bear, and Yorrin followed.
Two of the arrows had caught in the layers of fur and leather Bear wore. Goblin arrows, Yorrin noted, were much like goblins themselves. Gnarled, small little things, cheaply made from the cast-offs of civilized society. Tipped with flint or small shards of old metal. Small wonder Bear’s layers had protected him.
But one arrow had not been so easily repelled. Bad luck, that, Yorrin thought. Well, good luck for the goblin, I suppose.
It had pierced Bear’s side, a few inches below his left nipple. Alaina had stripped off Bear’s layers, though considering how hairy the man’s chest and back was you could scarcely tell.
“How bad?” Aleksandr asked, dismounting.
“It’s not good,” Alaina said. She had drawn a small blade from her bags, and was carefully expanding the wound around the arrow’s entrypoint to dig it out. “But I’ve seen much, much worse. He won’t bleed to death, that’s for certain.”
“These arrows are nasty,” Prudence observed. “Bound to upset his humours. Might go septic.”
“It might,” Alaina agreed. She pulled the arrow free of the wound, then pressed a cloth to it to stanch the bleeding. “But I will do what I can to prevent that.”
Bear stood, still and impassive, while she worked. It had to hurt something fierce, but the big man seemed unconcerned.
“Thank you, Alaina,” Aleksandr said.
“Not a problem,” the priestess replied. “You fought bravely. All of you. And I fear you’ll have cause to do so again, before we’re through.” She pulled a hooked needle and thread from her bag and began to stitch closed the wound. “This is the least I can do.”
“That’s going to scar,” the Whip said, nodding at the ugly wound.
At that, Bear finally broke his stoic expression.
He looked at Dylan, and he grinned.