Sneax and Elaina went to collect on a debt for Draks, but found more than they bargained for. Luckily for them, they met Nathaniel, a half-fire elf mercenary, and his companion Maleeka, a giantess of unknown origin. But it turns out that Nathaniel works for Draks as well, and that he's in Wanderhaven to take Sneax to Ellesburg, a tiny timber town lost in the hinterlands of the Kingdom's northern frontier. Sneax soon finds herself on a ship with her new companions, her friend Elaina far behind.
But that's only the beginnings of Sneax's problems. Soon she and Nathaniel realize that the so-called "deal" Draks worked out is really more of a rescue mission. They and their companions soon find themselves heading north, into the wilderness in search of the goblin bands who've been raiding the local logging settlements, cutting off the flow of valuable timber to the heart of the Kingdom far away.
To say the least, their first battle doesn't go to plan...
The Adventures of Sneax & Elaina Emboo
Part 3: The Priest of Loki
The next day dawned clear but cold. Sneax sat up slowly in her bedroll and took stock of how she felt. Her shoulder ached, and her skin felt tight and itchy where Nathaniel had put in her stitches. All things considered, though, she was doing far better than she had any right to expect. Despite the horrors of the previous day, she’d slept soundly—dreamlessly—and she felt more rested, more whole, than she’d felt in days. Almost as if someone were watching over for her. Whatever spell Nathaniel had cast to heal her wounds, it had worked miracles.
Should’a realized he’s some kind of priest. That symbol on his shield belongs to his god.
It was not a comforting thought. Sneax had been raised in the orphanage at Apollo’s temple in Wanderhaven. She’d learned the tenets of the Twelve at the temple’s school along with her basic letters and numbers. She didn’t recognize Nathaniel’s snake symbol, though. That was bad. Most fire elves worshipped Hephaestus, the god of smiths, fire, and the forge. His symbol was a hammer. This meant Nathaniel was pledged to some other god, some god that Sneax didn’t know. It could be a chthonic god, or something even worse, and he’d used its power to save Sneax’s life. Sneax wasn’t much of a scholar, but if she’d learned one thing in her life, it was that nothing good ever came without a price.
I hope it’s a price I can afford to pay.
There was frost on the ground and on Sneax’s blankets, but Nathaniel had given her a thick wool hat the previous night, and it had long flaps that came down over her ears. She wasn’t looking forward to climbing out of her blankets, but after having to argue the day before just to get the chance to keep trying to do what they’d set out to do, Sneax didn’t want to give Zelda a chance to renege on their agreement. She looked over, saw her combat leathers lying in a heap next to her cloak, and sighed.
“You look well,” Nathaniel said.
Sneax turned and saw him staring at her. “Do you mind? I’m about to get dressed.”
He smiled and turned his back. “My apologies.”
Sneax threw off her blankets and shuddered. She grabbed her leathers, looked them over, and then started pulling the vest on, followed by the jacket. “You stitched these up, too?”
“After you fell asleep,” Nathaniel replied. “Zelda went out to scout the area, and Maleeka’s not much of a conversationalist, so yeah. I needed something to occupy my mind.”
“I guess I owe you one. Two really.”
Nathaniel shrugged without turning around. “It’s all part of the job. We’ve got to work together if we’re going to survive out here.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“I don’t need a lecture, Nate. I’m trying to thank you. But I want to talk to you about what you did.” Sneax finished dressing and sat down to start pulling on her boots. “You can turn around now.”
“I don’t… My faith is a private thing, Sneakatara. It’s not something I talk about.”
“I’m not looking to convert. I just wanna know what you did to me.”
“I need to see to Maleeka,” Nathaniel replied, “and start packing up my bedroll. You should do the same. Zelda will be back any minute, and you know how she is. She’ll want to hit the trail immediately.”
“Fine,” Sneax replied. “But we’re gonna be out here a couple more weeks, Nate. I’m not plannin’ to let this go.”
Nathaniel didn’t reply. He headed towards the other side of the clearing, and Sneax let him go. She supposed that she should be worried—he was definitely being evasive—but if he was a chthonic priest, he didn’t seem to be an evil chthonic priest.
He seemed like a nice guy who’d saved her life.
Sneax didn’t have a lot of experience with nice guys. Trust came hard for her. Still, she had trouble imagining Nathaniel doing something that deliberately put her at risk. He just didn’t seem the betraying type.
A few hours on the trail put an end to Sneax’s good mood. By the time the sun reached its zenith, her stitches were itching, and she felt like the forest was closing in around her. The trail became a dark, piney tunnel that threatened to collapse in on itself. They had started north along a wagon track, but after the fight with the goblins, Zelda decided on a different approach. She now led them up a tiny thread-like goat path that Sneax would not even have seen without Zelda’s help. After a week of traveling, the trees were taller, the canopy overhead was denser, and the undergrowth was an impassable wall of green on either side of the trail. Apollo’s light could barely penetrate the canopy above, leaving the forest shrouded in gloom. Misty dampness permeated the air. With nothing to occupy her mind, Sneax found herself thinking about the battle. She couldn’t see what was around her and didn’t know where she was going, and it started gnawing at her. Every breeze became a goblin; every stirring branch became a worg. She took a deep breath and tried to calm herself, but it was no use. Every time the wind stirred, she reached for her sword or started to shout a warning. Finally, she decided to just grab her hand crossbow and to keep it ready, but loading it was difficult because her hands began trembling.
Eventually she got to the point where she’d had enough. She rode up next to Zelda, who was staring down at some tracks or something on the ground. Quiver was nosing around up ahead, sniffing for whatever it was that dogs sniffed for on an endless forest trail.
“Hey Zelda,” Sneax asked, “if there’re millions of goblins in the forest like you said, how do you expect us to do anything about ‘em? I mean, surely you don’t think the four of us are gonna take on a whole great army, do you? Four against a million? Those don’t strike me as very good odds.”
“Quiet, girl,” Zelda snapped. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
“Sneax…” Nathaniel said behind her. From further back, Maleeka gave Sneax an unfriendly glare.
“What? I have a right to know. You all seem at home out here in the forest, but this is all new to me.”
Zelda stared at Nathaniel, and he sighed. “Fine. But let the good Miss Zelda work, yes? Otherwise, we’ll never get where we’re going.”
“Whatever,” Sneax replied. She just needed a distraction from the forest. Zelda turned and moved further up the trail behind Quiver, and Sneax watched her go. She turned back to Nathaniel. “Well?”
Maleeka groaned, and Nathaniel looked at her. “It’s okay. Why don’t you go follow Zelda? Keep her from getting into any trouble, alright? I can handle the rear-guard for a while.”
“Hmph,” Maleeka replied. She trotted off. Sneax could feel her frustration, though.
“You know, you don’t have to be so difficult, Sneax,” Nathaniel said. “Zelda is only doing her job.”
“You’re not the one that almost got ripped open yesterday, Nate. I wanna understand the plan. You should embrace that.”
“Of course,” Nathaniel replied. He flicked the reins on his horse and let it start walking again, moving slowly up the trail after Zelda and Maleeka. “Well, the first thing you need to know is that goblins don’t usually act in concert. They aren’t civilized. They’re tribal. Clanish. They live in groups of maybe a few dozen or more, ruled over by whichever individual is the strongest. For all of these tribes to have come together, to wipe out an entire series of logging camps… It’s weird. Something’s at work here. It could be something as simple as the rise of a strong chieftain. It could be something else.”
“So?” Sneax asked. “We kill this new chieftain or whatever and… what? What exactly does that gain us? There’ll still be millions of goblins living around here, no? We can’t take on a million goblins, just the four of us.”
“No,” Nathaniel replied, “but without a strong leader, the goblins won’t be nearly such a threat. They’ll still be here, sure, and they’ll still be dangerous. But by nature, goblins are mean and fractious and uncooperative, even at the best of times. They war amongst themselves at least as much as they war with men or elves. If we find what has united them and remove it, Billy Braven and his men will be able to resume logging. Frankly, that is as far as I care about the matter. Once we have what we came for, we’re leaving.”
“So we kill the king, and then we can go home?”
“It might not be as simple as that, but yes, I believe that is Zelda’s plan.”
“So what I did yesterday, that should’ve worked?”
“It did work,” Nathaniel said. “It’s just that you caught the rest of us as off-guard as you caught the goblins. You need to learn to better pick your moments of heroism.”
“Yeah,” Sneax said. “Like you said, I’m not used to working with other people all that much. Except for my friend Elaina. I miss her a lot.”
“This won’t last forever, Sneax.”
“I…” But even as she started to say something else, she realized that she could see Zelda and Maleeka standing in a large clearing just up ahead. “Nevermind. I think we’ve finally reached the camp. Thanks for the pep talk, Nate.”
“Any time,” he replied.
Nathaniel pushed his horse through the trees, and Sneax followed. The trail gave way to an enormous clearing that had been cut into the side of a gently sloping hillside. Tree stumps littered the area, and on the right side of the camp, Sneax could see great piles of denuded trunks stacked haphazardly across the ground. The piles reached thirty or more feet into the air. It looked like the trees had been harvested from the edge of the clearing and then dragged to the one central depository, churning the earth and turning much of the clearing into a muddy hole. The work had obviously required oxen or other beasts of burden, but these were gone now—as were any other signs of life. On the far side of the clearing the blackened remains of a few ramshackle log buildings stood, now burnt and roofless, along with a half dozen collapsed canvas tents. These sprawled at intervals on either side of the trail running through the camp’s center. The air had been full of mist all morning, but that mist now turned to rain—soft but persistent.
The horses became sluggish in the mud as the footing grew treacherous, but Nathaniel guided his mount with the ease of an expert. Sneax had to work just to follow his line. She was no rider, but thankfully, her pony seemed to know what to do. She pulled up the hood on her cloak and tried not to shiver. Nathaniel walked his horse slowly across the clearing, taking his time to make sure of its footing. At last he came to one of the blackened buildings and dismounted. He tied his horse to what was left of a window frame and left his shield hanging from his saddle. Sneax followed. They stopped when he reached Zelda, who knelt studying the ground.
“What do you think?” Nathaniel asked.
“Two, maybe three tribes,” Zelda said. “Could be more, but I doubt it.”
“Can you track them?” Sneax asked.
Zelda shrugged. “Shouldn’t be too hard, unless the rain picks up. But even then, Quiver can—”
At that moment, Quiver barked and then began growling. Sneax froze. The goblins were here, and they were going to kill her. She needed to run and hide. But then she looked and saw that it was worse than that. Much worse.
It was worgs.
Five of them.
They were coming out of the forest right towards her.
* * *
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Book 1: Sneakatara Boatman & the Priest of Loki
Book 2: Sneakatara Boatman & the Crown of Pluto