Chapter I: A Princling On The Run
For the second time in as many days, Djar tasted blood in his mouth.
"Get up," snarled the thick green lump of a Goblin with a twisted grin.
Djar tried once more to make the Goblin Captain understand, "I tried to tell him you ordered it, but he simply wouldnít listen. He said he wouldnít ... couldnít give up any more of his stock. He said with summer waning, he had to prepare for winter and needed every animal left to trade for food, equipment and money to keep the farm going next season. With all due respect, Karn, you may be pushing them to the brink."
The Goblin rolled his eyes, which was an eerie sight. They were a shiny yellow, his iris and pupils both very cat-like. He sank back onto what used to be Djarís fatherís throne, which seemingly added more girth to his bulging belly. He wasnít very large for his kind, but still substantially heavier than all but the largest of Humans. "Princling, you are alive for one reason, and one reason only," he said, pausing to wave Daelwoo, the royal scepter used by Djarís family for generations, mockingly in front of Djarís nose. "You are instructed to have your people refrain from all forms of civil disobedience with no exceptions or excuses!"
"I will try again next week, Kar-uh, Sire"
He smiled, revealing a number of menacingly sharp, yellow stained teeth. "You will try immediately."
"Kara, get your stuff, weíre getting out of here - now!"
"Oh, Djar," cried a lithe and pretty young woman, wildly springing up from her sitting position on the floor. "He hit you again? That Monster!"
"Yes," Djar answered, bringing his hand up to his lip to feel the now hardening blood and test the swelling. "But he wonít get another chance. Just get some traveling things packed - and I mean only the bare essentials. Iíll tell you whatís going on after we get into the Durn.
Kara was off to her room in a blur, while Djar began stuffing his own essentials into a small red leather bag. Pausing, he ran his fingers over the griffin insignia on the brass buckle - that of the House of Lahroan. So much had happened so fast that it still made his head swim. It seemed like only a few days ago - though in fact it had been nearly six months - that Mahhrain had been overrun by Karn and the rest of his Goblin hoard.
He resumed his packing, violently cramming needed things into his bag. He knew he would be glad to be rid of the life that had been thrust upon him - no matter what the outcome. It was completely draining, always feeling like a gutless little traitor. Of course, his father may have been proud of him. He would have said that it was better that he served his people in any way he could, as lives would be spared and that was paramount. That was what mostly kept him going. That, and just a small measure of hope; hope that something would happen to drive the Goblins out of their great city.
Thinking of his father brought tears to his eyes, but this time he choked them back. He simply had no time for that now. He had to resign himself to the fact that his family was gone, murdered by the leathery green force that now patrolled their castle.
But, perhaps now he could do something about it. The ever-battling Goblins had spread their army just a bit too thin; increasingly, they had trouble keeping the provincial peoples in check. More and more landowners missed their tax deadlines, and Karnís division found itself busy with the sometimes petty and oftentimes boring administrative tasks of occupation - not something the violent Goblins relished. They were much better at ransacking than running a city. Also, vandalism, looting of the Goblin stores, and acts of ítreasoní plagued the conquerors. They were finding that it was one matter to overrun a castle, quite another to run the entire duchy with any semblance of efficiency. And not only was controlling the city and surrounding countryside a problem for the aggressive Goblins, they were also expending a lot of bodies in their campaign to overtake Fort Durn. Djarís situation was bleak, but perhaps the Goblins were just a bit vulnerable for the first time.
His job - in the vast scheme of Goblin ideals - was to explain to the guilds, traders and landowners that the new administration deserved their tribute, and that he was there to collect it before the tax department was forced to pay a visit. Djar usually forgot explaining the deserved part, but he never forgot to tell of the risks of non-payment. If he didnít get what the Goblins were after, his visit was eventually followed by a visit from a Maa-Ruk, a Goblin undertaker.
Djar stopped packing and sat on the bed a moment. Though he felt like a coward and traitor sometimes, deep down he knew his calm reasoning had saved many lives. The majority of his people were farmers, not warriors. Many of the fighting men and women had been killed in the battle for the city, or had retreated and later headed north to regroup with the army at Fort Durn, where they now waged a desperate battle for their own lives.
He stood up. There was one more thing to do. He retrieved Dybol, the beautiful sword of his forefathers, from its hiding place underneath a loose floorboard where it had rested since the occupation began. He strapped it to his back under his woolen travel cloak, hiding it as best as he was able, then ran over to Karaís room, pausing just for a second in the dimly-lit hallway to make sure there were no Goblin sentries about. Though it wasnít likely that he would be searched, it was important that he be careful. If caught in the palace with the magic talisman, it would mean a quick end to his plans, and he would lose the priceless and essential sword.
For the past few months, Djar used his family name and diplomatic skills to help his people, basically keeping them from doing anything to get themselves killed. The Goblins, not quite understanding that Djar actually cared for his people, simply believed him to be scared into doing what they wanted. They usually let him go about his daily tasks in peace once they gave him their orders each morning. After the occupation of the city and murder of his parents, Djar tried to escape, and meet up with the soldiers at Fort Durn, but he was caught and quickly subdued. He was locked away in one of the castleís rooms near where Captain Karn set up his office. He wasnít sure why he was spared until days later when the Goblin captain gave him an ultimatum: Djar was to ensure that his people would not hinder the Goblins, or they would inflict as much suffering as possible.
Djar paused as he passed a polished silver platter hung in the hallway outside Karaís room. He stared at his reflection. Karn had also told him that his parents were killed because Karnís superiors felt they could not be controlled. Even though several months before, on his twentieth birthday, Djar had taken his rites of manhood, he was still seen as a boy - the Little Princling - and really nothing to be all that concerned with. So, was he doing the right thing? He had thought about leaving over and over and it could be maddening. If he did nothing, thousands could still die. If winter set in and the Goblins continued to take everything in the entire duchy for their own, the people could not prepare for the harsh season to come. He had to try something. But what if Karn set his hordes loose to kill as many as they could after Djar left - just as he said he would? No. Djar couldnít be sure, but somehow he didnít think Karn would do it. He had spent enough time over the past few months with the captain to see he was a bit different than some of the other Goblins. Karn was certainly aggressive by Human standards, but he seemed less bent on senseless violence than most of his underlings and more concerned with making his life as easy as possible. He was lazy.
Djar took one last look at his reflection before dashing into Karaís room. Hopefully, the Goblinís underestimation of him would come back to haunt the conquerors.
"Ready?" whispered the pretty brown-eyed nymph of a woman. She was suspended between the top of the doorway and the ceiling like some kind of spider. Among her many talents, she could climb nearly anything - and she regularly practiced though it was sometimes disconcerting to Djar. Or, maybe he was just a bit jealous. He could hold his own in virtually any athletic endeavor, but Karaís finesse was simply amazing.
"Yes, and get down from there. Itís time to head out."
The young woman went limp for a split second, flipped over and sailed to the floor, landing on all fours. "I heard someone - you - coming so I wanted to be careful. Iím almost ready to go." She grabbed her hunting pack off the four-poster bed. It was bulging with a variety of little things that would make life on the trails more comfortable: A tinder box, a couple of small plates and utensils, her short hunting bow, her short sword, string, fish hooks, rope and bandages. She then grabbed another, smaller bag and walked over to her nightstand. There were two bowls: One with dried meats and the other had a variety of dried fruits. It wasnít much, but she didnít think Djar had wanted them to risk going to the kitchen or storerooms. There always seemed to be plenty of Goblin sentries near the food. This little bit would be enough to begin their journey, and Kara knew the Durn quite well; she could forage for food on the way - to wherever it was they were going.
Djar sat on the edge of her bed watching her finish getting ready. Nearly ten years had passed since Djarís father had found her living alone in the wilderness. Though she was now an adult, she still looked very young - and indeed she was - in terms of Spritean life expectancy. Though she was probably more than ten years older than Djar - they didnít know her exact age - she looked his age or even a bit younger. It was well known that Sprites lived about forty-to-fifty years longer than Humans.
Most of the others of her kind, including Karaís family, were killed in the early days of the Goblin Wars, before the Power Nations even bothered to take notice.
She began to strap the packs carefully to her jerkin so they wouldnít shift or rub and cause any sore spots. She rightly figured it would be a long journey. Djar closed his eyes for a moment, thinking about Karaís family being killed, his familyís murder and all the other trouble the Goblins caused. Yes, it was time to fight. After all, doing nothing was the reason they were all in this mess. If the peoples of The Land would have ended their attempts at appeasement and put up a unified front, the Goblins may well still have been far away in their northern territory. But those days had quickly slipped by. Inaction, bred by self-centered administrations with private agendas, assured the Goblins one victory after the next. The stark reality proved to be that none of the nations could handle the Goblins by themselves, though that was what each seemed to want to do.
After nearly exterminating the Sprites, the Goblins took several small border areas formerly governed by Humans. They took Naru, the one city settled and ruled by nearly all peoples - a city most despised by the Goblins. Next, they occupied cities in The Dwarf Lands. Northville fell easily, though the great Dwarven city of Confluence was - and still is - another matter. The city proper is occupied, but the Dwarves still rage a valiant underground war in their vast tunnels, making the Goblins expend still more of their energies. Of course, how long the noble but rag-tag army could hold out was a matter of debate.
The most brazen of all the heinous Goblin attacks, however, was their assault on Mahhrain. The duchy was the largest - and most powerful - of the three major Human cities in all The Land. Just a few years ago an attack on any of the Human duchies would have been unthinkable. The greedy monsters would not be happy until they push all the way down into the West Wilderlands, the home of the Elves and handful of remaining Sprites. Would even that be enough to satisfy their blood lust?
Kara signaled she was ready, so Djar got up. He took a quick look around at her room. It could very well be the last time he ever saw it.
They made it out of the palace without incident and walked toward the stables, much as they always did.
Djar eyed a Goblin sentry leaning up against the wall of the green barn next to the stable gate. He recognized this one as Gamol, which was a relief. Gamol was certainly no friend, but he was lazy enough that he paid scant attention them, but Djar still being a bit nervous, however, steadied himself as he realized the guard shouldnít suspect anything out of the ordinary. Sure, they carried packs full of traveling items, but they often had to bring things here and there to complete their daily routines.
Kara stopped at the entrance to the barn, not five feet away from Gamol.
"Weíre going back down to Josh Bucklynís place to see if he will give up some of his herd in lieu of this monthís payment," Djar said.
The disinterested guard just growled and looked away. It looked as if he would fall asleep on his feet, slumped against the wall as he was.
They entered the once resplendent home of the Royal Horses.
"What a mess," Kara said.
The building itself remained grand, but some of the white trim was getting dingy. Things inside were in disarray and it smelled worse than even a barn should. The Goblins certainly didnít worry about things being clean and they never seemed concerned with repairs, so their Human subjects had long since stopped caring as well.
"Itís such a shame," Djar said, walking up to the third stall on his left. Kara stopped at the fourth, where the most ragged mounts were kept. They went to work saddling their horses in silence. Djar looked at the beautiful, tooled-leather saddle. It was strange putting such fine tack on such a poor old beast. The Goblins had long since confiscated the prime battle stallions and sent them here and there for use by their high-ranking soldiers, but they had no use for Human saddles as they were far too small for their hulking frames.
They mounted the horses and slowly made their way out of the barn, past Gamol and out to the Grand Circle, a hard-packed dirt roadway that encircled the palace and surrounding grounds. A variety of roads and trails branched off, heading to many different areas. They wound around to the southwest, and started down the Southern Road, toward Josh Bucklynís.
"Weíre not really going to Bucklynís, are we?" Kara asked.
"No, but we are going south," Djar said.
"Are you going to tell me where?" she asked, a bit irritated.
"Iíd rather not; youíre not going to like it," he said smiling.
She edged her horse as close as she could. "Where, Djar?"
"Weíre going to go ask Salana for he-"
"Salana?" Kara yelled, "You canít be serious?"
"Kara, weíve talked about this before. Salana is the only one I can think of who may be able to help. With all the fighting going on in the Durn and Confluence, the Goblins may not be able to properly defend a concentrated attack on Mahhrain. You see how lazy they are. Iíve come to think that the Goblin leaders must put their least-competent soldiers in charge of administrative tasks. Karn and most of his men are lazy. They are nothing like the monsters who ransacked the castle.
Kara didnít say a word and she didnít look convinced. She pulled on the reigns and her horse stopped. Djar stopped right next to her.
"Kara, she may be able to help us somehow regroup. Weíve gone though our lack of options too many times. We canít simply stroll up to Fort Durn and expect the Goblins to let us past the siege. Getting to Confluence would be difficult at best with all the Goblins in the north, and weíd be faced with the same problem even if we did make it. We need to think differently and it will be easier going south."
"But ... Salana! I get frightened just thinking about her! Anyway, isnít it treasonous to attack your own castle?"
"Donít be funny, Kara. This is serious," Djar scolded. "No matter what we do, many people will probably end up dying. The Goblins arenít going to get bored and go home. Theyíll wring everything they can out of Mahhrian, and anywhere else they go.
Kara smiled. "Of course, we could be the first to die, if Salana doesnít take kindly to intrusions, or any of the bedtime stories about the old witch are anything close to the truth."
Djar just smiled, then softly heeled his horse, Kara followed.
Among other things, the old sorceress was said to be an evil recluse. Although no one in Mahhrain had actually seen or heard from her in nearly thirty years, most still believed she yet lived, wielding ancient magic. The trouble was, Djar was unsure if the stories of her necromantic powers were exaggerations. Some said she was simply a hermit and the stories were made up to scare bad little children. The tales differed from teller to teller. Some said she ate children, others said she was, not evil at all; that she just didnít like to be bothered with people. The reason Djar even considered the trip in the first place was that his grandmother used to tell stories about seeing the witch when she was a little girl. Being the daughter of a Duke gave her certain traveling privileges, and one of her most memorable trips was nearly to the border of the East Wilders, and to Salanaís Keep. Her father had been on a quest to get some information from the witch. Djarís grandmother never relayed what it was that his great grandfather needed - or if he ever received any help from the mage - but she had told him that Salana appeared to be both powerful and compassionate, albeit a bit eccentric. She mentioned many strange goings on in the keep; things that could only come about from someone with vast powers. She also said that Salana wished to be free of political squabbling, and that was the part that worried Djar, but he had to try to engage the witch.
Djar groaned. It was Demron, the thick-skulled Goblin arms master posted at the south portcullis that separated the palace and commercial areas of Mahhrain from the grassy rolling hills of the province.
"Show your orders, Little Princling."
Djar slowly reached into the front pocket of his cloak and produced a piece of parchment covered with the crimson scrawls of Captain Karnís administrative assistant. Djar had to suppress making a face every time he looked at his orders. The blood-red ink was such an obvious effect.
Demron slowly studied the writing, clearly having trouble with the content. Kara finally yelled: "Weíre in a hurry. Must you detain us from the Captainís ordered duties every day?"
The guard menacingly drew his ax, which up until Kara got rambunctious, was strapped to the back of his leather and chain mail jerkin. Demron was not like Karn and most of his lazy men. He was far more aggressive, and he was serious about his duties. "Stop, Sprite, or Iíll cut you like a finger through ham."
Kara shot Djar a strange look after hearing such a ridiculous saying, but she kept on.
"Wait, Kara! Demron is only doing his duty," Djar shifted uncomfortably in the saddle, realizing that Dybolís pommel was pushing up his cloak in the back.
Albeit not the brightest creature, even for a Goblin, the movement was not wasted on Demron.
"Whatís that?" he said, pointing to the protrusion in Djarís cloak.
"Thatís not ínuthin.í"
"Correction. Itís not something."
"Get down off the horse."
"Can I get up off the horse?"
The last statement left the obtuse guard in a quandary for just a moment. Fortunately a moment was all Djar needed to realize that it was time to quickly vacate the premises. He put his heels to the horse, working the chestnut mare into a frenzied gallop. Kara didnít need to be asked to follow - she was quickly pursuing. Djar felt a strange sort of exhilaration - like a warrior on the charge. The feeling didnít last long, however, as he saw Demronís spike-armored warhorse tethered to the hitching post, just a few feet away. His heart sank.
The chase was on and the two companionsí mounts galloped as best they could, but Demronís warhorse Ghaarhart, steadily gained on them. Ghaarhart was heavily armored and carried an immense passenger, but the beast was much younger and of a far different breed than the other horses. Just as they reached the main trail leading into the Durn, Ghaarhart and Demron caught up to the fleeing companions.
"Stay here, Kara," screamed Djar, whipping his horse about.
He clumsily freed Dybol from its leather scabbard, and charged. At first, Demron was taken aback by the audacity of The Princling, but eventually figured that it was a great excuse to teach the whelp his final lesson. Besides, he never understood why Karn hadnít simply eaten the boys innards and been done with him.
The two met in a mixing of dust and clash of metal. Djar brought Dybol up to block the powerful lunge of Demron. The force from the savage blow sent him sprawling from his mount.
"Give up now, and I may let you live. At least until Karn hears about this."
"Itís you who should give up Demron, for I wield the mighty Dybol," Djar said, waving his sword menacingly at the Goblin.
Demron let out a laugh that could more easily pass as a snarl. He then began a slow advance on the young man. The Goblin hesitated, however, when the entire blade began to faintly take on a greenish glow - even in the bright daylight. The eerie green color grew stronger the closer he came.
"She anticipates the blood of an enemy, Demron!" cried Djar, hoping the glowing sword would unnerve his gigantic foe.
Apparently, it did. Beads of sweat began rolling down Demronís sloping forehead, splashing like raindrops at his feet. This made Djar feel a little better. Though he was well trained in the martial arts and swordsmanship, the fact was he didnít have any real combat experience. At least his tutors were among the best fighters and blade masters in Mahhrain. This was somewhat comforting, and helped his resolve.
Of course, the Goblin wasnít going to back down. Though a bit shorter than Djar, the creature outweighed him by over fifty pounds, and thought the boy would be an easy match. On he came, bringing his own weapon to bear. Then, suddenly, the mass of green muscle lunged, his speed belying his bulk. The enormous battle axe just missed taking off Djarís ear and part of his shoulder as he quickly ducked right.
Then it was Djarís turn: He purposely fell to his side, quickly slashing upwards with Dybol. The possum and the scorpion was an effective maneuver that his fatherís bodyguard Dermatt had taught him long ago. He put a nice scratch in Demronís thigh, and then rolled away from the Goblinís powerful down stroke. It was a masterful move.
Djar stood and quickly retreated as the angry Goblin came at him again. But how could that be? How could Demron simply shrug off a wound from Dybol if the stories about the sword were true? Djar backed away a step as Demron came toward him. True, he had years of practice, and was a master swordsman, but he had never killed anyone and it appeared as if he would have to get much more serious to stop a creature such as Demron.
But the Goblin didnít get much closer before he stopped. He fell to his knees grabbing at the seemingly insignificant flesh wound. "Unnngh ... what devilry is this, boy!"
"No devilry, just a bit of old world magic to keep Goblins away!" laughed Djar. He thought about the advantages of taking Ghaarhart, but then changed his mind. Djar had no idea how long Demron would be incapacitated so he yelled, "Letís get out of here, Kara!"
Demron was still on his knees and had begun to vomit. Thanks to Dybol, he would feel that way for the next few days.