Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Adventures of Sneax & Elaina Emboo (Part 20)

Our Story So Far:
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 trackless 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.  

Sneax is nearly killed in her very first battles.  Her new friend Nathaniel revives her, but only by using his connection to the dark god Loki, Norglander god of lies and chaos...

The Adventures of Sneax & Elaina Emboo

Part 3: The Priest of Loki

Chapter 11

I can’t believe I agreed to this, Sneax thought.  Stupid Nathaniel and his stupid god of tricks…
She wanted to shake her head or scream in frustration, but she didn’t dare.  She stood in the treetops above the Red Antler tribe, one of the goblin tribes lying in wait to destroy the town of Ellesberg.  A wrong move would mean her death.  There were goblins everywhere below.  Sneax tried not to think about it.  This was the third time she’d snuck into one of the camps in as many days, and the stress of it was starting to weigh on her.  
The forest was thick around the camp, the trees large and well developed.  That was good because it meant that Sneax didn’t have to approach the camp from the ground.  But it was bad because if the trees had been a little sparser, Nathaniel’s mad plan would have been an utter impossibility.  Maybe then Sneax wouldn’t have had to risk her life so outrageously over the past few days.
She stood on a heavy evergreen limb some forty feet above the ground.  That was high enough that much of the forest’s canopy lay below her, obscuring her from whatever watchful eyes were hiding on the ground below.  A few of the taller trees reached higher even than where Sneax was perched, but these were individuals rising from the great mass of greenery below.  They were like towers rising from a tide of piney surf that swayed gently in the evening’s breeze.  Off to the west, the sun dipped below the horizon, and from where she stood, Sneax could see the colors of sunset painted across the sky.  She took a breath and remembered nights spent in the Argo’s crow’s nest.  That seemed like a lifetime ago.
Already, the goblin camp beneath her lay in darkness.  A few torches had been lit around the camp’s perimeter, but these did little to dispel the gloom.  The torchlight was enough to throw shadows, but it did not go far in the forest.  The tree canopy blotted out whatever light was left from the day, and it was getting darker every second.  The only real light in the area came from the tribe’s central fire pit, and even that only stretched so far.
The camp itself was a makeshift affair.  Sneax knew the thing was only meant to be temporary, but it was rude even so.  A single lean-to stood to one side of the camp’s center.  It had been built from fallen branches and thatched with pine needles, and according to Zelda, it was where the tribe’s chieftain would sleep.  Most of the young goblin warriors had simply thrown their blanket-rolls down on the ground at random somewhere nearby, as close to the central fire pit as their status in the tribe would allow.  The fire pit was the heart of the camp itself.  Two dozen or more goblins sat around the thing, each jostling to get closer to the fire and either warm themselves or else cook whatever meat they’d managed to scrounge or hunt over the last few days.  The rest seemed content to laze on their bedrolls, though even there, Sneax could see a good bit of jostling and boasting as different goblins vied for status among their peers.  Sneax saw no female goblins or goblin children, so this was clearly just a war camp, but still, the detritus of the goblins’ stay had collected in smelly piles all around the camp’s perimeter.  Bits of bones and discarded meat—and worse—made up the piles, and seeing them, Sneax was once again glad that she’d not had to risk sneaking into the camp at ground level.
Sneax had made it into the trees above camp without being seeing, but now she had to get down.  Zelda sat in overwatch some thirty yards away, ready to shoot any goblin she saw if the alarm was raised.  Sneax didn’t know if this would be enough to get her out of the camp alive if she was seen, but it was far too late for such concerns.
I’ll just have to make sure no sees me.
She crept quietly across the limb she was on, passing over the edge of the camp and into its heart.  She leaped as lightly as she could from one limb to the next and then worked her way out further onto that one, but then the next bough began shivering as soon as she put her weight on it.  Sneax froze, and a long moment passed.  She listened as hard as she could, but she didn’t hear any goblins crying out or otherwise raising the alarm.  She waited for her heart to settle, and then she started working her way through the trees again.  Two more steps and she leaped out and down, grabbing a long, thick branch with her outstretched hands.  It didn’t even stir when she grabbed it.  She swung her right leg over the branch, and then she was up and on top of it, looking down at the clan leader’s lean-to directly below.
All of this for a bunch of black-fletched arrows, she thought.  Yeesh.  
She turned and began working her way towards the tree’s trunk, pushing small limbs and pine needles out of her way and eventually coming to a point where she could grip the trunk with both hands.  She grabbed hold and slid, using other branches as handholds to work her way down.  Sneax’s back itched as she climbed, and she was keenly aware that there were goblins all around her, but the night was dark, and again, no one raised the alarm.  A moment later, she was on the ground.  
She stopped in place and stood, watching and listening for any sign that she’d been noticed.  The nearest torch was a mere ten feet away, but it was on the far side of the trunk she’d just descended, and Sneax herself stood covered in shadow.  To the extent that any of the goblins were on watch, they faced outward and away from where Sneax was hiding.  Still, Sneax’s heart beat fast in her ears, and she had to work hard to control the pace of her breathing.  Her right hand closed absently around the hilt of her silver sword.
There was nothing.  The camp didn’t react at all to her presence.
Either the goblins hadn’t seen her, or they had, and as soon as she moved, the entire horde of them was going to jump out and slit her throat.  In either event, her best course of action was to move.  It took Sneax a pair of heartbeats to gather her courage, and then she leaped out of the shadows and dove headfirst into the lean-to, drawing her sword and whirling as soon as she rolled back to her feet.
In the back of her mind, Sneax felt like she could hear the laughter of a god.  Was she imagining it?  She remembered floating in darkness, feeling the touch of something from beyond as it pulled her back towards the land of the living.  This was not the time to worry about Nathaniel and his crazy god, though.  Frustrated, Sneax pushed the laughter from her mind and sheathed her sword, forcing herself to focus on the task at hand.  
Zelda needed more of the goblins’ black-fletched arrows if they were going to have a chance of making Nathaniel’s plan to split the tribes work.  In that, Sneax realized she’d been lucky at last.  The chief of the Red Antlers was something of an archer.  His lean-to had not one or even two thick bundles of arrows but actually three of them, all wrapped together neatly in sinewy cord.  There were more arrows there than Sneax could carry, though she’d have to try to take as many as she could.  She again got the feeling that the god of mischief was laughing at her.  She knelt and shrugged off her pack, ignoring whatever it was that was hiding in the back of her mind.  When she got her pack open, she began stuffing in bundles of arrows as quickly and as quietly as she could.
Alright Loki, Sneax thought, if you’re really watching me, now’s the time when you need to help keep me safe.  But she’d no sooner had the thought than there was rustling outside the lean-to, followed quickly by a handful of gruff goblin voices.  Sneax melted back into the shadows as far as she could go.  Stupid Loki, she thought.  You’re supposed to be helping me.
Zelda watched Sneax work her way into the lean-to at the center of the camp.  This was the third time she’d seen the girl sneak into one of the camps, but it was still incredibly impressive.  Zelda herself hadn’t thought much of the plan of trying to sneak into the goblin camps, steal their arrows, and then use them to start a civil war between the various tribes, but though the plan had seemed crazy, it looked like Sneax had every chance of pulling off her part of it.  The girl was, well, sneaky.  Zelda didn’t know if Sneax had given herself her particular nickname, or if her given name really was Sneakatara and “Sneax” was simply a convenient abbreviation, but either way, the name was appropriate.  
That was good.  They’d found just a few of the goblins’ traditional black-fletched arrows so far, so if Zelda had to start shooting to cover Sneax’s egress, she’d only be able to do so for a minute or so before she ran out of the goblins’ ammunition.  Then she’d have to start using her own.  That might save Sneax’s life, but it would also tell the Red Antlers that they hadn’t been attacked by another tribe.  Then Nathaniel’s plan to fracture the goblin alliance would be over before it had a chance to truly begin.
It was the kind of plan that could only come from an acolyte of a god of trickery.  Yet Zelda herself was now committed to it, and Sneax was risking her life to make it a reality.
Zelda drew one of the precious black-fletched arrows from her quiver, set it on her string, and waited.  Sneax’s head peaked around the side of the lean-to, but before Zelda could breathe a sigh of relief, she saw a trio of goblins.  They were headed straight for the lean-to!
Sneax would never make it.
Sneax saw the goblins and darted back inside.  Zelda didn’t think Sneax had been seen, but there was no way she was getting out.  Zelda drew and was about to fire, but then she stopped and blinked.  The darkness around the lean-to coalesced, plunging the entire area into shadow.  
The goblin trio reached the lean-to, and Zelda didn’t have time to worry about shadows.  Even if the goblins somehow missed seeing Sneax, they’d certainly realize she was there when they sat on her.  Zelda drew again and aimed, exhaling slowly and settling into the shot.  She loosed, and the largest of the goblins went down instantly.  The next goblin cried out, but Zelda loosed again before that cry became anything more than an incoherent shout.  The third of the trio turned and ran, yelling, but Zelda took him down with an arrow between the shoulder blades.  
It wasn’t time yet, and Zelda had less than a dozen goblin arrows with which to make the plan work, but it was too late to worry about that.  The damage was done.  Goblins had begun stirring all around the camp, and soon shouts sounded across the night.  Zelda fired off a few more shots, downing a pair of goblins that stood near the fire, and then she slid to the ground.  
“To arms!” she cried in the goblin tongue.  “To arms!  The Black Bear Tribe!  The Black Bear tribe is attacking!  To arms!”
She turned and fired the last pair of her black-fletched arrows into the nearest of the sentries from the Black Bears, hoping to spread as much confusion as she could.  Then she sprinted away into the night.  
Zelda hoped that she’d done enough to let Sneax get away.
An arrow took the leader through the throat in the instant before Sneax was about to leap from the shadows.  He collapsed, and one his fellows turned, crying out.  He too dropped in place.  Sneax held perfectly still.  The third of the trio panicked and began running towards the fire, shouting.  Sneax let him go.  She darted from the lean-to and ran, making for the shadows furthest from the central fire.  Behind her, the whole of the camp became a madness of shouting and confusion.  Goblin war drums sounded, along with blowing horns.  It was a madness that served Sneax well.  The goblins were looking for an attack from the other side of the camp.  None of them noticed a tiny sprite girl running for her life in the other direction.
Sneax again heard the laughter in the back of her mind.  Darned Loki, she thought.  This is all Nathaniel’s fault.
Nathaniel walked his horse out of the tree line, checked his weapons, and climbed into the saddle.  A rocky expanse of open ground spread before him, one of the innumerable clearings that dotted the forest north of Ellesberg.  The mass of trees resumed a little more than a quarter-mile distant, and there, in the shadow of those trees, the goblins had made their camp.  Those shadows were getting deeper now.  The sun was setting in the west, and even in the open space of the clearing, it was starting to get dark.  
Nathaniel turned to Maleeka.  “It’s time.  Are you ready?”
Maleeka held out a half dozen spears, their ends coated with tar.  Her maul was strapped securely in place across her back.  “Hup,” she replied.
Nathaniel reached into his pouch, pulled out flint and steel, and struck sparks.  It took three strikes, but eventually the tar caught.  Soon Maleeka held two sets of blazing brands—three flaming spears in each hand.
“Quickly now.  I’ll be right behind you.”
Maleeka nodded but said nothing.  She took off across the clearing at a trot.  There was no point in trying to hide.  The pair of them would be visible across the open ground, and even if they weren’t, the goblins on the far side of the clearing would see Maleeka’s flaming spears.  They were supposed to see the spears.
Nathaniel gave Maleeka twenty yards of so and then flicked the reins, setting his horse into motion.  He closed the distance quickly but held back, letting Maleeka set the pace.  Save for the clatter of his horse’s hooves and the soft rattling of his mail, all was quiet.  The moon was a sliver on the horizon, the sky a deep violet above the fading colors of the near-forgotten sun.  It was like that for a few long moments—peaceful—with Maleeka running across the open ground, the spears burning merrily in her hands, the night eerie and still.  But then she got to within fifty yards of the far tree line, and a horn sounded, followed by another.  Maleeka surged forward, moving into a sprint that saw her fairly flying across the open ground.  
Nathaniel nudged his horse, urging the beast to keep the pace.  He reached back with his right hand to the first of the makeshift quivers that he’d tied behind his horse’s saddle.  His left hand gripped the black horn shortbow they’d taken off the goblin leader after their first skirmish in the forest, now long days ago.  Nathaniel didn’t like the bow, didn’t think he was particularly good with it, but he certainly knew how to use it.  He drew closer to the trees and saw goblins moving forward—mostly archers, carrying bows and arrows of their own.  
Maleeka stopped abruptly, maybe fifteen yards short of the tree line and the edge of the goblin encampment.  She stuck her spears in the ground, still flaming, and drew one.  Behind her, Nathaniel knocked an arrow.  From the trees, the first of the goblins took aim.  Nathaniel took aim in return.  Maleeka hurled her first spear.  It streaked through the sky like errant star and fell.  Goblin arrows shot from the forest, going wide of Maleeka, and Nathaniel loosed a return shaft.  His own shot went wide as well.
Maleek threw her second spear and then her third.  Around her, a rain of arrows began to fall, intermittently but closer at every turn.  Nathaniel couldn’t see what Maleeka was aiming at, but something in the forest caught, and soon tiny tongues of flame began to spread.  Cries went up from further back in the goblin camp, and Nathaniel loosed a few more arrows, still without result.  More arrows fell around Maleeka, also without result, but they were still getting closer.
“To Surtur with this!” Nathaniel cried.
He threw down the bow in disgust, unlimbered his shield, and nudged his horse back into a trot.  The horse got up to speed, and he urged it on, sending it into a galloping run parallel with the line of trees.  The goblins noticed immediately, and another cry went up.  Nathaniel reached back to his other quiver and drew out a spear of his own.  Goblin arrows plunked off his shield even as his horse went tearing past their line.  Nathaniel could’ve reached out and touched the nearest of the trees, but that was well enough.  He threw his spear and took a goblin through the chest from less than ten feet away.  The creature shrieked and went down, but then Nathaniel was past and galloping away.
Maleeka threw her fourth flaming spear.  
There were several fires now deep within the goblin encampment, and Nathaniel could hear war drums coming from even further back.  He wheeled his horse and grabbed another of his spears.  The goblins had started aiming at him now, but that kept Maleeka safe, and he at least was wearing armor.  He drove his horse back into the rain of arrows, and threw.  Another goblin screamed and went down.  Arrows struck Nathaniel’s shield like drops of rain, and it was only a matter of time before one struck his horse.  He wheeled her again and headed back towards Maleeka.
“We can’t stay here.  The whole bloody camp is about to come boiling out of those woods.”
Maleeka launched her fifth spear and reached for the last, but Nathaniel put his hand on her arm before she could grab it.  “Leave it.  We’ve done enough.  Now we’ve got to get out of here.”
Maleeka looked at the spear for a long moment and then looked at Nathaniel.  Arrows began falling around them again, and at last she nodded.  She took off at a run back towards the far side of the clearing, and Nathaniel turned his horse to follow.  Another goblin horn sounded before he got the horse moving, though, and when he looked, he saw a pair of worg riders coming out of the trees.  
A third figure followed.  Larger than a wolf but smaller than a worg.
A werewolf.
“Here we go,” Nathaniel muttered.  “Now all we’ve got to do is live long enough to make this trick work.”
* * *

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