Thursday, April 16, 2015

Worth Dying For, Part 3 by David Hayden

On came the goblins, carefully picking through the rubble, wary of potential traps, wary of her springing out at them. Through a break in the rubble she watched them; their eyes seemed to glimmer with malice, although she knew it was just the reflected light from her fire.  Forward they crept, cautiously and in a surprisingly tactical fashion, two carrying shields in the front, a third with a spear behind them. She realized they still thought she had a bow to shoot at them, and had learned to give the weapon the respect it was due. But she did not, and that would make her task all that much harder.

A scrabbling sound behind her drew her attention away from the tunnel. She turned and was startled to see a goblin halfway through the vine-covered window. It took just three strides to cross the room, her spear extended. Her prey noticed her just moments before her blade plunged deep into its arm. The goblin squealed in pain, ineffectively flailing about with its dagger while trying to retreat. She stabbed a second time and was poised for a third when she heard a triumphant cry from the front of the room and turned to see the goblin shieldmen stepping over the joist that was to have been her choke point. They had used the one climbing through the window as bait, although it seemed unlikely the injured creature was aware of that role given how that encounter had unfolded.  She had not expected that level of cunning from such low creatures and swore at her own arrogance for thinking so.

Their elation was short-lived, however, as their movement brought them in contact with several ropes that Niobe had tied across the opening and dulled with mud. Ropes that were anchored to the joist on one end, and the now cold remains of their eager comrade on the other. It had taken a great deal of effort to hoist the body onto the set of spikes she had driven in above the opening, and she bore more than fair amount of pain in the process. But it was totally worth every bit of suffering as the momentum of the two lead goblins brought the corpse down on top of them.

Niobe sprang into action as the pair went down in a heap, screeching in terror of the unknown assailant. The confused look on the face of the spearmen behind them quickly turned to dismay as she caught the now blazing log with the toe of her boot and launched it into the creature’s face. It dropped the spear to try and catch the flaming mass hurtling towards its face, and howled as the flesh was seared from its hands when it did. Niobe stabbed the creature in the throat.

She had no time to see if her thrust had been fatal as there were two enraged goblins at her feet. Their half-hearted sword swings posed little threat as their main focus was getting out from under their comrade’s corpse. She slashed and cut, delivering minor wounds, but quickly found her senses overwhelmed.

Behind her, the goblins she had stabbed before was back at the window, struggling to get through with murder it its eyes.

Above her, the sharp edge of an axe bit into the sagging wood as one of the monsters tried to hack its way in from above.

In front of her, the burnt goblin fell over dead, his face twisted in a combination of agony and confusion. But behind it came the last two goblins, including one that was clearly the leader. It wore a shirt of rough armor, mismatched pieces of metal attached in all manner of ways. On its head rested a dented helm, a scratched shield was strapped to one arm. Of all the weapons the entire motley troop of goblins had carried, its polished longsword was the only one a trained soldier would have been willing to wield.  In another place, the garish combination would have been comical. But here, now, there was nothing remotely amusing about it.
One of the shieldbearers had worked itself free and stood with a growl. She kicked it in the face and felt the satisfying crunch of cartilage giving beneath her boot. The creature yelped in pain, fell backward, and landed on some of her makeshift caltrops, and yelped again. She slashed at the other shieldman, any semblance of finesse or technique lost in the melee, desperate to slay it before the remaining goblins arrived.

The longsword sliced through the air, sundering her bow just below the blade she had tied on. And the one advantage of reach she had was gone.

She stepped back, her eyes frantically searching for a weapon, a way out, anything.

At the window, the frustrated goblin shouted threats in its foul tongue as it hacked at the stiff vines that kept it from climbing through.

On the roof, the would-be lumberjack hewed merrily away, with more vigor than any goblin had ever put toward a task that could be considered work, apparently oblivious to the impact to itself that success in cutting a hole would have, so eager was it to reach her.

Niobe drew her remaining knife, put her back against the wall, and prepared to sell her life as dearly as she could.

The shieldman whose face she had ruined with the flurry from her spear earlier circled unsteadily to her left around the pillar, the one obstacle which remained between Niobe and the goblins. The leader with his bright sword and the other unscathed goblin who wielded a pair of curved daggers moved to the right. Behind them, the second shieldman with the broken nose and two arrowheads embedded in its back finally managed to stand upright.

Above her, the ax-wielding maniac had widened a hole enough to stick its head in and snarl at her before returning to the task with vigor.

The window goblin was still being outsmarted by vines and furious for it.

The armored goblin with the bright sword pointed to her wound leg and spoke in its guttural tongue. She didn’t know the specific meaning of the words, having refused to learn the foul language out of deference to her father, but she understood enough to infer its meaning, and replied with some choice orcish curses her husband had taught her. It clearly understood her reply and with an angry growl, advanced.

The moment froze around her, and in her mind’s eye, she was back at home, a young girl wrapped deep in a blanket to ward off the brisk night wind, her father’s melodious voice echoing from the next room as he sang her to sleep.

And there, amidst the certainty of pain and death, with a child’s lullaby echoing in her ears, Niobe
found tranquility.

Just as suddenly, she was back in the ruins, surrounded by enemies eager to rend her flesh.

With peace in her heart, Niobe charged at the goblins, a most unexpected course of action and one that made her foes hesitate in a moment of confusion. That moment was all she needed as she sprang to the side at the last second, lashing out with her knee, driving it into a startled goblin’s temple. The creature dropped like a stone, as Niobe landed hard beside its corpse.

The remaining goblins quickly recovered and moved to block her escape, mistaking her actions as an attempt to flee.

Above, another board splintered under the axe-wielding assault of the goblin on the roof.

An unintelligible sound that could have been either a sign of progress or admission of defeat came from the window.

The concept of self-sacrifice is simply incomprehensible to goblinkind – it is one of the reasons they will always be a lesser race. Pulling a mate in front of you to block a hail of arrows? That sort of sacrificing comes as second nature to them. But the idea of risking injury or death solely for the benefit of others, that is so foreign a course of action that it may as well be some ancient form of magic.

Thus the completely baffled expression that the remaining goblins wore as Niobe unleashed a thunderous kick not at another of their number, but at the stout wooden column was understandable. A second kick did nothing to alleviate their confusion, but the resounding crack that followed did.

Looks of bewilderment turned to horror and then panic as their instinct for self-preservation overrode any sense of tactics and what little common sense they may have had. Two of the goblins surged forward to stop Niobe, who was shaking off the waves of agony her efforts had made course through her leg. 

Unfortunately for them, their two companions had decided that flight offered a better chance of survival, and the lot of them went down in a tangle of flailing limbs as the two groups, both intent on their individual goals, collided violently.

Niobe drew a deep breath, perhaps the deepest she ever had, although the clarity of certain annihilation tends to magnify everything one experiences. It isn’t that a mortal’s life actually “flashes” before their eyes on that final threshold – the synapses that hold individual memories are constantly firing. It’s just that we are usually too busy or distracted to notice. But in that moment, as Death’s embrace envelopes us, we are granted the priceless gift of focus, and those things that truly matter stand out from all of the static of mundane thoughts.

Niobe’s last thoughts were of her father, and a thousand memories they had shared. Of every hope realized and every nightmare vanquished. Of every rise and setting of the sun she had been blessed to witness. 

And of her daughter, from her first stirrings in the womb to her wailing declaration to the world that she had arrived. To every smile that had passed between them, every embrace shared, every tear wiped away, every night tucked in a blanket of pleasant dreams with elfsong lulling her to sleep.

And these memories brought her peace and joy, and that peace and joy blocked out the pain long enough for Niobe to drive her foot through the pillar with one final thrust.

The goblins, along with time itself, froze in that brief instant when the weakened wood gave way to her boot. Splinters of oak hung in the air. Sound ceased, as if the very waves that carried noise had witnessed her last act and were struck dumb in awe.

Above her, the rusted axe of a determined goblin was in mid-swing, its wielder blissfully oblivious to what had just happened below and enraptured how much more gleefully destructive the axe was when used against dead wood.

At the window, the frustrated goblin looked up with triumph in its eyes as it tore finally free of the vine on which its belt had been caught.

And on the floor in front of her, four goblins clutched at each other, not in some expression of solidarity in the face of a common horrible fate or even pure, simple terror, but in an effort to push their kin aside to try and save their own miserable lives.

Then the ruined inn, along with their entire world, came crashing down.

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