Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Worth Dying For, Part 2 by David Hayden

Niobe was struggling back down the slope when she spotted it. In the distance, wrapped in twilight shadows, stood the ruin she had passed just a few hours before. Like most who felt at home it the wild, she disliked the confinement which most structures offered. She found none of the comfort that many creatures did in fortifications; they seemed as much a cage for those who sought protection as a deterrent to those from whom the protection was needed.
But the light was fading, a fitting backdrop for her current circumstance, and the ruins likely offered her the greatest chance to dispatch as many of the goblins as she could. And so she headed toward it.
Judging by the undecipherable sign that hung loosely from a broken pole, the ruined building must have been an inn back when the now overgrown track that ran beside it was still used. The entire roof had collapsed onto the second floor, much of which has subsequently collapsed onto the first, but the center of the inn still stood. The place was dank and foreboding, cave-like without Nature’s comforting touch. No animal denned here - the parts that hadn’t collapsed seemed as if any moment they might, and the forest creatures instinctively understood the danger.

She circled the building with a critical eye. There were but two entrances; a vine-covered window, and a narrow gap between two fallen timbers that led to what little open space remained inside. Niobe peered into the darkness and couldn’t help but think that it most resembled a tomb. She chuckled at the thought, the irony not lost on her.

A cry from the hill behind her interrupted her assessment. Spying the goblin that stood on the crest, and knowing by its not unexpectedly unsubtle manner that it had seen her too, she turned and crawled into the gloom.

Niobe twisted through the tangle of boards fallen from the ceiling and general debris. She noted the holes in the floor, most likely leading to a root cellar or storage below. Lighter than she and unarmored as well, the goblins were even less likely to break through the rotted wood. If only she had more time, fashioning a deadly pitfall would have been an easy task. But time was not a resource she could not claim. Nor was a working bow.

She climbed over a collapsed joist, taller than the length of her dagger.  Though far from spacious, there was space beyond. A massive pillar, as wide and deep as the joist, loomed before her, the pocket around the post accounting for most of the interior that remained passable. The worms and the wet had both weakened it though, and it bowed under the weight of the rafters and the debris they held.

The window she had spotted from the outside was just beyond the clearing around the pillar, across a pile of rubble laced with sinister weeds.  With a warrior’s eye she surveyed every aspect of the interior, looking for any advantage she could find. The hooting that announced that at least some of her tormentors had arrived did not distract her – they would be hesitant to enter, given her previous traps that had claimed several of their kin, and the fact that they did not know the condition of her bow. No, she had a bit more time before the creatures worked up the courage to come in after her. Time she would use wisely. Content that she had gleaned every potential advantage her environment might offer, Niobe set to work.

She drew a long knife and cut the string quickly, before she could change her mind. She lashed the knife to the end of the bow, her nimble fingers threading the strands quickly. Testing the makeshift spear, she found it wanting, but she also knew she did not have the resources to make a proper weapon or the luxury to be a perfectionist. She drew forth her last bandage and considered it, acknowledging that there was little chance she would have the opportunity to use it as intended, to heal. Her jaw set with sober purpose as she tied the linen tight around the bowstring, hoping the extra support would be enough. The weapon was crude, even by the measure of goblins, but it gave her the advantage of reach, which combined with the narrow confines of the ruins she now occupied, would help even the odds a little.

That done she made her way to the massive joist, and quickly cleared the rubble from the floor directly behind it. Drawing her half-dozen remaining arrows, she snapped the shafts just below the heads, wincing, in actual pain as she broke each one. Steeling herself again, she embedded each arrow head into the rotting boards and refuse behind her. Much inferior to those cast from steel by talented blacksmiths, her coarse attempts at caltrops would have to do.
She tested her escape route; stepping gingerly for she knew that although the floor looked mostly solid, dry rot and burrowing insects might have eaten it from within. There were a few spots where the wood gave way, but there seemed to be solid ground beneath in what had likely been the inn’s center. She stomped a few places to weaken them further – even without a room below to fall into as there was at the entrance, an oblivious enemy might snap an ankle or impale themselves on the jagged wood.

She memorized the route that would take her to the window, and the slim chance it offered her of every leaving this crypt of her own making. Each step would need to be exact to avoid the snares and obstacles she had arranged in the hopes the goblins continued to be blind in their fury. With nothing more to do, she lowered herself down behind the joist to wait.

It seemed like the goblins argued for hours, although she suspected her sense of time had gone awry some time ago.  Finally the shouting stopped, and their voices dropped to whispers. Whispers she could still clearly hear, but their failed efforts to be unheard were enough indication of what was to come. Recognizing the intimate nature the immediate future held for her, Niobe noiselessly slid her remaining knife from its sheath. The spear would not be of use yet.

Moments trickled by, but she kept still and listened. Her patience was soon rewarded with the scrap of a booted foot against a stone. Despite having put more effort into moving stealthily than it had ever put into doing anything in its short, miserable life before, the “volunteer” scout might have been wearing spurs given the racket it made. Her hunter’s senses understood where her quarry was, and where its next step, and the one after that, would be. And soon, the creature put one hand on the joist, and, oblivious to her presence below, climbed over.

Niobe was on it with a snarl, her long knife slicing into and across its stomach as it raised its hands in a startled effort to defend itself. Warm entrails tumbled over her hand, and she fought back a wave of revulsion as she stepped back. The goblin dropped its sword and clutched its stomach with both hands, as though it could somehow pull the gaping wound shut, looked at her with utter disbelief, and fell to its knees, whimpering as its blood drenched the soil. Niobe drove her blade through the back of its neck, severing the vertebrae just to make sure it was dead. She had seen more than a few warriors dragged down by foes they had thought slain, and was determined no such mistake would be her undoing.

A short distance back towards the entrance stood a second goblin, horror etched across its face at the slaughter it had just witnessed. It turned and fled, shrieking in fear, before she could reach down for her spear.  

Niobe felt some small measure of satisfaction, but was well aware the respite was likely to be brief. She ducked out of site and crawled to the other side of the tunnel, crouching in wait amidst the collapsed timbers.
Through the cracks in the ceiling she could tell the light had retreated from the sky. She was not particularly surprised that the remaining goblins had waiting for darkness to settle before returning to the ruins. At least one clambered about on what served as the roof, pulling at loose boards, trying to find a way in. She thought the little bastard might bring the whole building down on her at any moment, and in thinking that realized, wryly, that would certainly remove any threat of them torturing Moonwind’s location from her. Still, she decided she would much rather avoid such a fate if possible. With her makeshift spear in hand, she moved stealthily beneath the goblin, and when she spotted the shape of a boot through one of the small holes in the ceiling, she stabbed it. The sharp blade cut through the thick leather sole with ease and the goblin wailed before hopping away. The loud crash that followed made her wonder if it had fallen off the roof entirely. Perhaps it had broken its neck in the fall. The thought warmed her.

She realized that she was shivering. The mild autumn day had given way to the evening’s chill, and she had neither a cloak nor mantle to keep her warm. Outside, the goblins waited. She could hear them squabbling and moving about. None of them were brave enough to be the first to venture in, but eventually they would work up the nerve and come in as a wave. Such was the strength of the optimism driven by their lack of intellect – as long as they had an enemy outnumbered, each one expected that it would be some other goblin that died horribly.

She shuddered again, quietly cursing her lack of a cloak to ward off the cold. The thought struck a chord – there was no reason she needed to freeze while they marshaled their courage. She knew they saw much better in the darkness than she did, even with her father’s elven blood. A fire would give her warmth, and possibly another weapon, and the ruins around her held the damp enough that there was no concern about them catching.

The arrow shafts in her quiver had been carefully crafted by her own skilled hands. They deserved a better fate than to become kindling, but what one deserved and what fate delivered did not always agree. She broke them further, to give the flames an easier purchase, and then pulled out her tinderbox. A few minutes later she has a small, smoky fire, hardly ideal for the brisk autumn evening, but it was something. The light it cast was feeble but gave her a chance to look around for other potential fuel.

The fire had a much greater effect on the goblins than she had anticipated. Just a short while after she had managed to build it to a respectable flame, she could hear them arguing again, their grunts and curses more heated than before.  The prospect of sitting miserably in the cold while she warmed herself was clearly too much for them to bear. They would come soon.
She stood, stretched away the stiffness that being still had brought, and checked her surroundings again, to ensure everything was as it should be. The pain in her leg had turned into a deep, dull throb. She had not bothered to tear off more of her shirt to replace the dressing, which had turned ruddy brown hours ago as the older blood had dried. She knew such poor hygiene was an invitation to infection, but couldn’t get past her more pressing concerns to care. From the entrance to the tunnel to her new lair, the cacophony of goblins trying to be quiet assaulted her ears. She threw the driest piece of timber she had found and saved for this moment on the fire, and the flames responded. Moving to the alcove beside the tunnel entrance, she readied her spear.

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