Thursday, May 12, 2016
The Spear That Roars for Blood - Part 2
The hobgoblins had spread out across the woods keeping watch on their less than enthusiastic goblin conscripts. A few of these green, little rats would always try to turn and run for their warrens rather than fight, and their numbers would always thin when crossing through woodland if a careful eye was not kept over them.They cut a swath of trampled brush, broken branches and hacked boles that a blind man could follow. They yipped and yowled and cursed, making a noise that could be heard far off.
"This is careless even for hobs and goblin," Daghdha said.
"They know better, but these do not seem to care," Arawn agreed.
"How did they pass Pelor's Keep?" Daghdha wondered. "Penard'un would never have missed such a crowd."
"I do not like it," Arawn said gruffly. "Do they know we are about? Are they trying to draw us off?"
"I will not say impossible," Daghdha replied, "but I do not think it so. Strange things have happened of late, much activity, then too much quiet in the hills."
Ogmios came with Nithad close behind. He'd taken the untried ranger ahead to see their foe.
"What is the word?" asked Arawn.
"Many stragglers," Ogmios reported. "They are all in ones and twos across the forest, like a cupped hand with its back to us. They scoop up the larger band of goblins and funnel them forward."
"To where I wonder?" Daghdha mused.
"I have a thought," said Arawn. " I think they mean to come around the hills and up the mountain slope above Draupnir's silver mine."
"Why?" asked Ogmios, "And how would they climb the slope? Draupnir works the southern face where the valley stream has eaten into the mountain’s feet, but the other sides are sheer, the north and west rising to meet the Crowhorns."
"I cannot say, perhaps they have found a path," said Arawn. "But what else is there? They have come from the north or west, where do they go armed for war? Gorakil is due east from here and this small band would be swallowed by the Green Oakwood."
"We waste time," Daghdha stepped in and settled things. "Wherever they plan to go they will not arrive. The hobs we will kill first then scatter their goblin-kin. Two bows, two arrows each. Yes I know it's a waste on such as these, but I want clean kills. Allow no wounded to escape or fall behind our own advance."
"Retrieve what shafts you can from the fallen," added Arawn. "We have but thirty each, that’s only fifteen for every two of us if we are to put four arrows into every target."
Nithad counted on his hand. "Enough for all the hobs," he said.
"If every flight is true," Ogmios shook Nithad by the shoulder. "Do not count on it," he said in a commanding voice. "A stray breeze, a sneeze, or a slight movement can make even the most skilled bowmen’s arrow stray, strike an arm and not a heart or miss an easy shot by a mile."
"No guarantees in battle," Airgedlamh said.
"Enough," said Daghdha. "Let us be off and after them. We split in twos, Ogmios, Nithad on the right, Airgedlamh, you and your brother on the left, Arawn with me. If they turn on us, draw back, return to here," he stamped his foot upon a fallen tree, it thudded hollow, an empty log. "All of you," he emphasized. "Then we can pursue again."
"Or keep on running," said Arawn.
"Yes, we will not fight a hundred to six, no shame in turning tail," said Ogmios. He spoke to all but looked at his trainee. "This fight will be on our own terms or they can follow us to Pelor's Keep or down to Gorakil and let the garrison earn their pay for once."
The animals of the forest ran from the hobgoblins’ advance like a small river of fur and flesh dashing for safety. Behind them came the scurrying feet of goblins. Each carried a short bow of blackened wood etched with intricate carvings. Many of the bows, much older than those who carried them, were passed down among the pack from generation to generation. These goblins carried little in the way of food. They ate what they found including their own. A long march might see a hated foe or a wounded comrade served up side by side as fare.
On their backs were double quivers stuffed with black-fletched arrows. Most used arrowheads of iron, though some used basalt, favored by the southern goblin packs who lived among the Mourning Mountains, a very few used bone, the poorest or the weakest who could not keep their packmates from stealing the better arrowheads. They wore ragged garments, clothes cut from the bodies of human-kind and rough tailored to their size or skins of any fallen prey, not always of the four-footed type. On their feet they often wore no shoes or had a bit of leather wrapped tight. Their feet were tough, calloused and very sure.
The hobgoblins followed close behind the goblin packs. They hooted and poked at them with long staves cut from sapling trees, directed them along the path and kept them from wandering off, or running away. Each wore a massive sack of hide upon their backs. These hobs, like dwarves, could carry a massive weight and march or jog along without showing signs of strain. They wore swords, or stuck small axes in their belts, knives a plenty as well. Some carried spears instead of staves and jabbed their goblin fodder who squealed in pain and left a coat of greenish blood on edge or tip, a coat of festering disease as an added bonus to their spears deadly design. Most of these wore armor of a sort, padded shirts, or leather vests, bits of chain scavenged from a battlefield, a dented greave or metal gauntlet, some token of a fallen knight or richly armored man-at-arms. A small shield was slung upon each back. They bore the same design, a broken sword in black showing a bite taken from its edge on a field of red. These hobs were of the Swordbiter Clan come down from the northern hills. They stomped along on booted feet, thick leather soles studded with iron nails that sparked across the stones.
A burly pair of hobs straggled behind the rest. They kept an eye ahead and glanced from side to side. Their job, to spot some little goblin-rat who'd slipped the net and sought to hide unnoticed till the warparty had moved past. They were vigilant and alert, but did not look behind and never saw the arrows whose flight ended in their deaths. Their heavy packs and shields protected them from behind so Arawn had to come abreast but held slightly back and sent first one and then another shaft into the hob’s unprotected side. It gave a gulp of pain but did not scream and then collapsed. Its partner did the same, two arrows sticking from it, one in its side the other through its neck.
"Two down, thirty-eight to go," said Arawn. He knelt and pushed his arrow through and cleaned the blood-sodden fletching on the hob’s hide pants as best he could.
"I hope the others are following my instructions," Daghdha said, "since we are not. There should have been four arrows in each one."
"We adapt, or would you rather be in the Watch wearing a suit of steel?" Arawn asked playfully.
"I worry about our leprechaun. His first patrol has started with a bang," Daghdha frowned.
"Ogmios will keep him out of harm," said Arawn. "At least as much as possible. Nithad's been trained, he is a ranger’s son as well and a woodsman from his youth."
"I will worry still, but since nothing can be done, well..." Daghdha shook his head.
"Let’s thin them down some more," Arawn stood and waited for his leader to decide to pause or move ahead.
"Right," Daghdha started off at a quick run, "let’s go bag our share."
"There's one!" Nithad said in an excited whisper.
"Quiet," Ogmios hushed him. "I see, I see."
A lone hobgoblin, spear-armed and without care, tromped along the wooded hill. Gracelessly, but with a sturdy brutish lope, he walked by them and jabbed his spear in malicious joy at every passing tree.
"We need a better shot at him than that pack of his. Follow me, we'll get ahead and take him from the front," Ogmios said to Nithad and gestured for the young ranger to follow. "But be careful. For both our sakes watch where you tread, don't trip and don't make any noise."
"I'll do my best," Nithad said glumly.
Ogmios took the lead. First they swung out wide then curved back in and lay in wait.
"I can hear him," said Nithad.
"Shh... don't let him hear you," Ogmios signaled Nithad to stay put. "I shoot first, then you shoot, understand?"
"Yes," Nithad let his displeasure voice itself in a single word.
Without a sound Ogmios disappeared into the woods and underbrush. Nithad waited, a slight chill of nerves made his hand give a shake, but he wiped his sweaty palms and took deep breaths to find the calm as he'd been taught.
The hob pushed through a green budding shrub, he tore it down and split its limbs, and as he did a pair of small green shapes sprang from beneath.
"Hah!" the hob cried. "Trying to run you little rats!" One froze the other kept on running. "Stop you! Stop!" the hob shouted and flung his spear. It transfixed the goblin back to front and pinned him to a tree. From further to the left a call rang out.
"Gnawer!" the voice honked, congested and with a lisp like someone with a thick summer cold. "Gnawer, what have you found?"
"A pair of little mice running for home, Splitlip," The hob pulled its spear free and used its feet to kick the goblin’s corpse from off the shaft.
A rustle from the left and then another hob with a wooden staff came into view. Nithad blanched at the rough pig-like face, its nose a scabbed and bloody mess, flat against its cheeks.
"Should have run," it told the kneeling goblin and then smacked it hard with its wooden staff. The goblin dropped and lay face down and still.
"Shamming, I bet ya," said the one called Gnawer, and he stabbed it with his spear high in its skinny leg. The little goblin squealed and tried to crawl, but Gnawer leaned and put the spear point clean through to the ground.
"Please, please, please...." it cried over and again.
Nithad's shakes were no more but his calm had left as well. Angry now, he loosed his shaft and the sadistic hob dropped its spear, Nithad's arrow in its arm. The other hob jumped back not knowing from where the attack had come, but an arrow took him in the eye and he fell. A second shaft struck him in the neck, wasted, the hob was dead before he hit the earth.
Gnawer, with his wounded arm, did not think to stay or shout, he turned and ran. Nithad shot again. His arrow thudded against the hob’s pack and stuck but drew no blood. Ogmios fired at the fleeing hob, his arrow pierced its other arm the second skimmed across its head and drew a line of blood but did no more than scratch the flesh. Gnawer’s head snapped to the side and with two useless arms he crashed into the brush.
"After him!" Ogmios yelled and from his hiding place burst out.
"Sorry!" Nithad called and ran.
The hills were rough and along this way only deer made paths that man or hobgoblin could cross with ease. These hobs beat the forest down and made their own way, but such a brutal course took time. No quick or easy passage through these woods.
Ogmios sprinted through the brush and leaped over roots sticking from the ground, the wounded hob was just ahead. He'd left his bow behind and as he ran he drew a long and pointed knife. The hob glanced back and started with alarm to see the ranger close, and with that scare he did not watch his way, headfirst he crashed into a tree. It was quick and bloody work, a single slash and the hob was dead, then Ogmios turned with his knife upraised as a crashing body hurtled by.
"Nithad!" Ogmios hissed. "What a mess, what were you thinking?"
Nithad stared down at the gory corpse and without reply went behind a nearby tree and retched.
"Better now?" Ogmios asked him shortly.
"I've never killed anyone before," Nithad said and looked Ogmios in the eyes.
"You haven't killed anyone at all," Ogmios told him flatly. "I did."