Sunday, May 22, 2016
The Spear That Roars for Blood - Part 8
They made their way through the thick woods and hid at its edge looking out onto the path. The dogmen had run back up the road to the shelter and the bloody scene of the fight, but along the path more were coming, this time with the skraeling at their head, leading them.
As they left the small side path the dogmen spread out across the road and waited in small groups. The skraeling paced back and forth looking first down the path then up the road to where his scouts had gone.
The sound of marching feet and the grumble of voices could be heard. A long file of hobgoblins appeared, two abreast, along the narrow path. They marched out onto the road and spread out till they filled it side to side, then kept moving south and east toward Gorakil and the lowlands beyond.
A large and heavily armored hobgoblin detached itself from the front rank. It shouted an order and the pig-faced monsters began to march twice as fast, almost at a trot, their feet rose and fell as one and the ground shook beneath their heavy tread.
The skraeling looked eye to eye at the hobgoblin chief, its muzzle-like mouth coughed out words the hobgoblin could understand. It pointed to the north and shook its head. The hobgoblin shouted back, but Arawn could understand neither tongue.
"What they say?" Arawn whispered to Sharptooth.
"Dogman chief, it not want to go south," Sharptooth almost laughed, "It want to look for you and me. Ironskin chief, he say, dogman told to scout ahead, big ones be mad."
The skraeling gave a loud barking shout, the dogmen gathered themselves and began to run up the northern way. The skraeling gave one more coughing yell and the hobgoblin shrugged, and shouted at its hairy back.
"What was that?" asked Arawn
"It say, 'your funeral' when the big ones catch up with them." this time Sharptooth did laugh but he hid it in his hand. "What we do now?"
Arawn watched the hobgoblins march by, their numbers were great and growing with every passing moment. They cut the ranger and the hob off from the south and the east like a mobile wall.
"They are coming along the river, and this path keeps us from crossing to the south," Arawn looked around. "We will have to go back north and cut across the road where they cannot see, then head back east and south through the woodland on the roads other side."
"Maybe we go find friend. He know what way best," Sharptooth said with conviction.
"Friend already want us to go south," Arawn replied and eyed the bespelled hob. Was Daghdha's charm wearing thin, he wondered?
Arawn and Sharptooth paralleled the road and moved north. The ranger kept them out of sight and far enough inside the wood so that Sharptooth's noisy passage would not call down the attention of the dogmen upon them.
They'd traveled for several minutes before Arawn stopped them and checked the road. "Stay here!" he told Sharptooth. "I'll see if the road is clear."
Sharptooth nodded, but as soon as Arawn had disappeared the hob took off heading north.
"Dogmen, curse them," Arawn thought to himself. The skraeling chief and its patrol had met the scouts returning with the wounded dogman that Arawn had left behind. They barked back and forth. What did they say? Arawn wished he'd picked up some words of their uncouth tongue.
The skraeling became enraged. It pushed at the wounded dogman, knocked it from the supporting arms of its fellows and began to kick it unmercifully. There was a growling discontent, the skraeling carried an iron rod and swung it suddenly without warning. It struck down the nearest dogman, brought the tall beast to its knees. The skraeling struck again and again till the dogman's head was a bloody pulp. The other dogmen all backed away, some whined in fear and cringed. With a loud, deep bark the skraeling set them running, back to the south and the hobgoblin troops. But before it disappeared down the road, Arawn saw the skraeling glance back north with a look of fear on its own face, the mirror of the cringing dogmen.
Two bodies lay upon the road. As Arawn watched the one-fanged wounded dogman pulled itself along the ground and off the road. When it reached the woods along the eastern verge, it collapsed and lay still. Arawn knew it couldn't have died, that dogman was born for hanging, since sword and savage beatings could not seem to end its life.
The road was clear at last. Now to collect that dragon–footed clumsy hob from where he'd left him, thought Arawn.
The trail led to a three-boled tree, a hollow center stump whose limbs had grown when the parent trunk had died. He'd left the hob leaning back against it, propped up like some woodland king upon a bark covered throne, but the seat was vacant when he returned.
"Sharptooth," Arawn hissed. He looked around the tree, no hob in sight. "Sharptooth, curse you hob. Sharptooth!" he spoke as loud as he dared. The hob was gone, Arawn circled the tree once more but with a ranger's eye. There! A branch pushed back, broken, the hob moved north. Arawn set off in pursuit.
He had not traveled far when the sound of feet upon the road came through the wood. Had the hobgoblins turned north? Arawn paused. No, the sound came from the north and grew louder with each moment. There were shouts and rough bits of song and many, many voices calling back and forth. The footsteps rang out, a distant drumming sound, but imprecise, a wave of noise, not the ground shaking rhythm of the ordered hobgoblin ranks of the other tribe.
Arawn came to the wood's thin edge and crawled across the underbrush to view what creatures passed along the road.
Hobs, curse them all. These were the rest of Sharptooth's tribe. They bore painted shields carried on their backs and some had colored banners that showed the bitten sword, the symbol of their clan. They packed the road and moved as a great crowd, some ran ahead, then dropped back, others marched arm in arm and drove all from their path, some ran and tried to break the line, some with success forcing the marchers apart, others thrown to the side or on the ground. It was like some festival, a merry drunken crowd that laughed and sang, and had all day to get there and no place they had to be.
The trees gave a rustle behind Arawn and to his right. Sharptooth came crashing out, he shouted and called to the approaching band and stopped before them in the center of the road.
"That hob, I'll be his death," Arawn swore. He lay in wait but drew his sword and prepared for one last desperate fight to make them pay as dearly as he could before they took his life.
The hobs did not stop but several ran ahead and greeted Sharptooth merrily.
"Chief send you?" A large hob asked.
"You hurt?" another said.
"Look!" one called and pointed to a ragged gory banner, a dogman's hide uncured and still dripping with blood was held aloft upon a spear. "We find in road back there," it said.
"Chief dead, I escape," Sharptooth told them.
"The chief dead!"," What happened!"," Good!" all three said at once.
"Humans, warriors, they come, kill chief, kill many of tribe...." Sharptooth explained.
The roar of the approaching hobs drowned out what else Sharptooth said from Arawn's ears.
The others must be dead Arawn felt it in his heart. They would have found him along the road, or at least made some try at slowing these beasts' advance. Word must make it through to the lowlands. Arawn knew he must live long enough to tell of these monsters. The river was the only way.
Arawn crawled back into the woods. With his last glance at the road he saw Sharptooth surrounded by his clan and a new shout of anger and concern rising above the bouts of song and laughter. Out of sight, he stood and began to run.
The river was not far off, not here along this length of road, but a little further and the path curved and twisted around the sides of hills. The river flowed down an almost straight course till it reached the walls of Gorakil and ran north following a valley basin where the Green Oakwood and the town of Highaelph lay. The water would be the quickest way.
No boats sailed down the Aelphstream from its source, the river was fast and teamed with falls and rapids, but there was no other way. The hobgoblins would be before the walls of Gorakil by dawn if they marched all night. The river would take but half a day if he could survive the passage.
The woods thinned again as he neared the water's edge. They ended in a cliff that stood a good two score of feet above the rushing water. A narrow bank below was lined with marching troops; more hobgoblins, but to the north their rearguard marched along and a troop of formorians followed at a leisurely pace.
"The mountains must be empty. Will this horde of monsters never end," Arawn said to himself. The wooded cliff rose higher further to the north and jutted out closer to the river's edge. Arawn cursed the loss of time and turned his back on Gorakil, heading north. He weaved his way through the trees till he reached the jutting ledge of cliff. He heard the formorians and the steady thrum of the water far below.
Looking down he saw a formorian struggle past the narrow curve of path, though any human, dogman or hob would have had room to do a dance. Arawn dropped his pack and took off his leather vest. The pommel of his sword he tied down and then made his belt into a baldric and pulled it secure over his shoulder. His boots he laced together and held them tight, then with one final glance below, Arawn threw himself from the cliff, out far as he could go, and fell past startled formorians then splashed into the stream.
Cold, a sudden shocking breath-stealing cold; This close to the river's source all melting ice and run-off from a mountain lake. Arawn gasped, a stream of bubbles escaped, he sank deep and grazed the very bottom of the stream in his fall.
The current shoved him along as he swam up, his air was gone, his lungs emptied by the crash and the shocking icy water. It was not far to the surface but every moment felt like an eternity.
His head broke free. He coughed, spit water and gasped for air. He gulped it in and sputtered, he drank down a mouthful of both with every breath. The water roared about him and downstream, not far ahead the roaring sound increased.
"The fall!" he shouted to himself, the words were faint above the broken chorus of the stream. Another dive, such as his jump from the cliff, lay straight ahead, but now he would be joined by countless tons of foaming river.
A formorian, an average looking brute, heard Arawn's splash. It turned its head to see what made the noise and a spray of water caught it right across its face and chest. The formorian's eyes were blinded for a moment by the unexpected dowsing. It bellowed out a roar of shock and lost its balance on the narrow path. An out-thrusting wall of rock made the river's edge a tight squeeze for his massive kind. Its arms flailed out but its head struck the stone cliff wall, the formorian reeled and with a bloody scalp fell backwards into the river's speeding course.
The freezing water brought the monster round, but its injured head made all the world look hazy and doubled in upon itself. The formorian swam, but the river was not so deep that its feet would not have reached the bed and let it walk if it could manage against the rushing force of the stream. Its stomach heaved like a landsman's might upon the sea, and cold though the water was, a fierce heat beat between its eyes and in its chest.
Great arms rose and fell, the formorian speeded on. The water pulled and pushed it fast down toward the fall close ahead. Some bit of jetsam bobbed in its path, it tried to veer aside but the formorian moved to fast.
Arawn shook with cold, his teeth chattered though he held them tightly clenched. He bit into the leather of his boot to keep them still. His body felt mostly numb, his wounded side was a dull ache that ebbed as the water chilled it to a senseless lump of flesh. A small cloudy splash of red hung around him as he was rushed downstream.
Two swimmers crashed, one small and riding on the stream, the other of giant size and with massive arms splashing forward at great speed. Arawn did not slow the formorian down one little bit. He was buffeted by the monster's bleeding head and caught against a shoulder the size of some great tree. The ranger reached out and grabbed onto a thick hide vest then pulled himself up by handfuls of the formorian's sodden hair. With a heave Arawn made it to the formorian's back and like a child with arms around its parent's neck, held on for his dear life.
The formorian's back was wet and cold and its arms sent up great splashes which rained down upon Arawn as he clung to the monster's neck. Still the day was warm for the time of year and the sun felt good between the chilling drops.
The roar of the fall grew louder and the shouting from the shore was drowned out. A long line of hobgoblins stopped and pointed at Arawn and his unlikely living watercraft, they screamed and roared themselves hoarse but the river's voice was stronger. Some sound of it must have reached the formorian's ears, it shook its head and Arawn flailed about like a small dog on a stranger's trouser leg. The formorian turned itself and fought the current. It swam for the river's edge. The hobgoblins hooted with a glee that the ranger could not hear.