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 here 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, of course, that's only the beginnings of Sneax's problems. Soon she and Nathaniel realize that the deal Draks worked out is really more of a rescue mission. They and their companions Zelda and Maleeka soon find themselves heading 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...
The Adventures of Sneax & Elaina Emboo
Part 3: The Priest of Loki
Zelda scampered ahead of the others, following her dog Quiver along the trail to Camp Athos, the largest of the logging camps north of Ellesberg. Quiver was a great shaggy-haired brute of a beast, dark in color and particularly ill-tempered towards goblinkin. That made him a fine companion for the trail, adept at tracking and fetching and possessed of a nose for spoor that defied imagination. He frequently found trail signs that would have eluded even Zelda’s keen forest senses, and for that—and a host of other reasons—Zelda found his help indispensable. He was still a dog, though, and he took a uniquely canine pleasure in rolling in whatever spoor he found when they were out on the trail together. Well, no one was perfect. Fortunately, Quiver was good company no matter what he smelled like.
Unlike Zelda’s other companions.
They’d seemed like a competent group back in Billy Braven’s tavern, but since hitting the trail, they’d been singularly useless. First Nathaniel had insisted on horses—and then spent hours dickering with Billy over which ones he and his companions were going to take. Then, once they’d finally gotten on the trail, it had become painfully obvious that the little one, Sneakatara, didn’t know the first thing about riding. The girl was tiny and needed a mount if she was going to keep up with the group, but learning to ride out on the trail was a tough way to go. She’d been as sore as anything after just a few hours in the saddle, and she’d made sure that everybody knew it. Zelda would have left her and her companions behind if she hadn’t needed their help—any help—so very badly. As it was, she had little choice.
On the trail ahead, Quiver’s body came to stiff attention, left foreleg up, nose pointed out into the forest. Zelda banished thoughts of her companions and raised her hand, fist clenched—the signal for the others to hold their ground.
“Again?” Sneax’s whined.
“Quiet!” Zelda unlimbered her bow and began stringing it. “We were bein’ cautious before. Now we’re less than a day’s march out of the nearest camp. There could be goblins anywhere.”
At first, the goblin raids hadn’t seemed like a big deal. Living on what humans called the frontier, a certain amount of conflict with the creatures was unavoidable. But the raids had been increasing in size for months now, until it had become clear that a true confrontation loomed. Goblins were crude, but they were not stupid, Zelda knew, and they considered the forests to be their sovereign territory. They were usually too fractious and tribal to offer much threat to Ellesberg and the other nearby human settlements, but they would have long since eradicated the Kingdom’s presence in their lands if they’d possessed the requisite unity and sense of purpose. It was not a lack of hatred that stopped them, nor was it a lack of numbers. It was a lack of common cause.
For some reason, the goblins had begun banding together of late. Zelda herself had seen large, multi-tribal patrols moving through the forests nearby, and there were signs that the goblins had begun training wolves and even using worgs in battle. That was the kind of thing that only happened when a strong chieftain arose to unite the tribes. It almost always presaged the coming of war.
If they united as a nation, the goblins could become a threat to the entire region. Zelda’s father had seen the danger, but the resources of Zelda’s house, House N’Haume, were not sufficient to confront the problem directly. Nor did House N’Haume need to. Zelda’s people were native to these lands and would survive the fall of Ellesberg when it came. The same was not true of Billy Braven and his human followers. However, Billy had refused to heed Zelda’s warnings. He and his men only cared about the value of the timber they extracted from the forest. So long as there were enough timber stands nearby and ready for harvest, the men of Ellesberg would sit in their town and wait. Perhaps they would worry, but worry would not save their homes from an enemy that they had refused to recognize until it was far too late.
This left Zelda in a tough spot. She held a forest ranger’s commission from Baron Pavelovitch, and with it she could guide the Kingdom’s logging efforts and preserve the balance of nature within the region as a whole. If the goblins destroyed Ellesberg, however, everything would change. The men of the Kingdom would never abandon the area’s resources, and when they returned, they would come to destroy. They would burn great swaths of the forest and eradicate the goblins down to the last tribe. When they began logging again afterwards, their appetite for timber would know no limits. They would seek recompense for the costs of conquest and revenge, and that would drive them even deeper into the forests that were House N’Haume’s home. Against that potential nightmare, Zelda had only her dog, her bow, and her three new companions, none of whom seemed particularly promising.
Perhaps fortunately, Zelda saw something just then that distracted her from her concerns about both her newfound allies and the future of the region. She saw the tracks that had gotten Quiver’s attention.
Zelda called yet another of her seemingly endless halts, and Sneax couldn’t help being annoyed. Then Zelda’s dog bounded off into the woods, and Zelda herself strung her bow, and suddenly Sneax realized that this time things were different. She turned her pony in time to see Nathaniel unlimbering his shield.
“Finally,” he said. He winked at her. “It’s about bloody time, eh?”
Next to him, Maleeka pulled the maul off of her back and hefted it in a single, massive ham-sized fist. She grunted in agreement.
Maybe Nathaniel was excited, but Sneax was scared. She’d acted tough before, but the truth was that this whole forest thing was well outside her experience. She could play rough with the knuckleheads on the docks back in Wanderhaven, but that was different. That was scuffling for money, enforcing debts, maybe breaking the occasional leg… But nobody ever died. If things got out of hand back in the city, the healers at the Temple of Apollo were always fairly close by. Sneax had used them herself many times.
Plus, Elaina Emboo was back in Wanderhaven.
It was different out on the frontier, in a trackless wilderness that stretched out past the edges of the Known World. There was no wizardly best friend here to back Sneax up, no temple to heal her if she got hurt. This was real. These goblins weren’t just trying to bust Sneax up to send a message back to Draks.
This was war. Blood had already been spilled on both sides.
Thinking about it sent Sneax’s heart racing. She heard her pulse in her ears. The pony beneath her had never felt natural, but now it was worse. She felt exposed. She looked around, but she could barely move; she could barely even breathe. Nathaniel had insisted on the horses before they’d left town—at least for him and for Sneax—and he seemed perfectly at home sitting on top of his. But while he might have been prepared to fight from horseback, Sneax had until that very week never even seen a real horse, much less touched one. She was about to be surrounded by a ravening horde of goblins, and she was stuck on the back of a beast she could barely control, up high and exposed like some stupid knight from a storybook. Sneax knew she wasn’t a knight. She wouldn’t survive if she tried to act like one.
She had to get away.
She was up a tree and skittering through the branches before she’d consciously made a decision. The trees weren’t quite the same as the rooftops of Wanderhaven, but she’d been born a climber, and there were plenty of handholds for a clever girl with nimble fingers. Even the slimmest branches supported her weight with ease. A great green canopy stretched before her, offering plenty of places to hide.
Her heart still pounded, but Sneax felt better once she was tucked safely into the foliage above the forest floor. Her companions looked like dolls moving off the trail down below. Zelda had knocked an arrow. The dark shadow of Quiver stood sniffing the ground off to her front. Maleeka came up from behind, jogging effortlessly even after days of following people mounted on horseback. Nathaniel held the reins to Sneax’s pony and looked around in concern.
Sneax smiled at that. Nathaniel didn’t know where Sneax had gone, and now that she’d gotten away, she wasn’t about to break cover to tell him. She leaped away and began bounding through the branches, springing from tree to tree like an over-large squirrel. Soon she was poised above Zelda, looking out over Quiver’s head and down into the forest below. In the distance, she saw movement, and suddenly Quiver barked. The dog froze and began a low, steady growl.
Sneax eased her hand crossbow from its sheath and set a quarrel on its string.
Nathaniel set his shield, checked his sword, and watched as Maleeka jogged up the trail. He was about to turn his horse and follow when there was a rustling off to his right. He looked and saw that Sneax’s horse had lost its rider! His sword flashed out. He was about to set spurs to his horse’s flank, but try as he might, he could not see what had taken Sneax from the saddle. He turned and looked, nearly frantic. Then he realized that there was no blood. Sneax wasn’t lying on the ground with a black-fletched goblin arrow sticking out of her gut.
I should’ve expected this, he realized. She’d been acting squirrelly ever since they’d entered the forest. She’s a city girl. Of course she’s nervous. Never even sat a horse ‘til I made her take this pony out of Ellesberg. He shook his head. Her nerves are like to get us all killed if she’s not careful, though.
He snatched Sneax’s pony’s reins and looked around, unsure where his smallest companion had gone. Then he heard a rustling above and instinctively raised his shield, sure that goblin snipers had somehow gotten the drop on them. But there was Sneax, leaping from tree to tree like some preternaturally quiet forest monkey. She moved again, and then she was gone, lost amongst the branches as completely as if she’d never been.
He shook his head again, amazed despite himself.
“Should’a seen that coming, too,” he muttered. “The Trickster watches over beggars and fools.”
Up ahead, Quiver barked, and Nathaniel knew it was time to stop fooling about. He looped Sneax’s pony’s reins over a nearby branch and urged his own horse forward. In a moment, he was up by Maleeka, who crouched in a stand of undergrowth some fifteen yards short of where Zelda stood with an arrow knocked, gazing intently into a wall of greenery directly to her front. Nathaniel pulled up short, waiting for the situation to develop. When the goblins showed en masse, he would charge and scatter them, striking with equal parts steel and shock effect. But he had to pick his spot carefully. A charge would be ineffectual without a massed target and suicidal if he allowed the goblins to surround him piecemeal.
He stopped when he heard a sound like a twig snapping. It was followed by a yelp of pain from beyond the wall of trees. A guttural goblinoid voice began barking commands, and Zelda drew back her bow. A rough shaking in the trees above was followed by a sound like a branch whipping through the air, and then a tiny figure took flight as though shot from a catapult.
Zelda’s arm went slack as she stared, and Nathaniel could well imagine her amazement. “Odin, All-Father preserve us,” he muttered. “Trickster, praise thy name.”
He put spurs to his horse, all thought of tactics flown from his mind.
Sneax could see the goblins advancing in a ragged line towards Quiver and Zelda from where she stood in the trees. They were disgusting little beasts, green-skinned and black haired but not much larger than Sneax herself. They wore crude skins and furs and carried rough, homemade spears that looked as if they’d been cut from nearby tree branches and then tipped with heads made from sharpened stones. Seeing them, Sneax’s fear fell away. She was a match for any of the little bastards; she knew it immediately.
The goblin leader sat atop a massive wolf at the center of the line, directing his followers with silent hand gestures. Sneax didn’t think he’d seen Quiver yet, much less Zelda and the others, but he clearly had a sense that something was out there. The leader was larger than his fellows and much better armed. He had a black horn short bow and some kind of animal skull that he wore as a helmet, in addition to the same kind of crude spear the others of his band carried. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the leader that Sneax was worried about. The wolf he was riding, that was what scared her. It was a ravenous-looking beast, at least large as Sneax’s pony, and even from her perch in the trees, Sneax could see the thing’s jaws slavering in anticipation of a kill.
All I have to do is take out that wolf, Sneax thought, and it’ll just be me and the leader. I can end this right here, and we can all go home.
Her little crossbow was already in her hands. The wolf’s head was an easy shot; she’d made tougher many times. Sneax made her decision and raised her weapon, leveling it carefully. She took a breath and let it out slowly.
She squeezed the trigger.
The string snapped. Her bolt flew. It struck the wolf just above its left eye, and the beast cried out in pain. Sneax didn’t wait to watch it fall. She was already bounding through the branches, her crossbow back in its holster, her short sword and dagger coming instantly into her hands. The goblin leader began barking out commands, and Sneax jumped. She hit a branch and felt it sag and then snap back. She let out a cry, and then she was flying.
Even before she landed, Sneax could see the leader’s massive wolf recovering from the shot she’d landed with her crossbow. The thing had a jagged-looking cut above its eye, but Sneax’s bolt hadn’t pierced the thick bone of its skull.
She hadn’t killed it. She’d only made it mad.
Sneax was already in the air. She was falling towards the leader and needed to make the most of it. He looked up just as she hit, striking him squarely in the chest with her outstretched foot and catapulting him from the saddle. She slashed with sword and dagger as both she and the goblin fell, feeling a drag on her weapons as they caught and bit deep in the leader’s chest and torso. He landed hard on his back, and Sneax tucked and rolled through, expending the momentum of her fall with practiced ease. She spun and came nimbly up to her feet. The goblin leader had taken the worst of the fall by far, and Sneax was satisfied to see that the ugly-looking gremlin was down and seemed unable to rise.
Unfortunately, the leader wasn’t alone. His wolf had been thrown, but it recovered with animal quickness. Sneax had barely set her feet when she saw the beast pop back up and whirl, fangs bared. It snarled, and the sound was like ripping canvas. Ropes of saliva hung from its jaws, and blood dripped down over its face where Sneax’s bolt had cut the flesh above its eye.
The thing was enraged, and it would have its prey.
More goblins turned and began surrounding her. They’d been focused on finding her companions, but Sneax had given them a closer target. To a man they stared with rage in their eyes.
Goddess Athena, Sneax thought, this is the part where Elaina always saves my life.
The giant wolf leaped at her, jaws opened wide.
Nathaniel laid about himself with his sword, slashing left and right at the goblins that now surrounded his horse in exactly the manner he’d feared only moments before. What choice did he have? He had seconds before the brutes came crashing down onto Sneax like an angry wave, dragging her under in a melee of torn limbs and broken spear points. To his left, Nathaniel could see Zelda letting fly arrow after arrow into trees through which he couldn’t yet see. Her face was set in a grimace, but her arms worked with mechanical precision. Nathaniel couldn’t make out the effects of her work, but he could imagine it easily. He cut down another goblin and, heedless of the brutes surrounding him, spurred his horse straight into a stand of shrubbery. Branches battered at his arms and shoulders, and his horse shied, but he dug his spurs deeper and kept the horse moving. He beat at the worst of the leafy undergrowth with his sword and shield.
“Sneax!” he cried.
The clearing where Sneax had landed was a mess of blood and torn bodies. A large goblin with a hart skull on its head lay sprawled on its back, bleeding freely into the earth. Sneax must have landed on top of the brute. More goblin bodies lay face down on the mossy ground nearby, green-fletched arrows from Zelda’s bow sticking into the air at odd angles from their ruined backs and shoulders. Sneax herself had her weapons drawn, but she looked wild-eyed, and there were at least twenty goblins surrounding her with their spears leveled. Worse, the goblin leader had been riding a worg, and though the beast was bleeding from a cut above its eye, it looked ready to rend Sneax limb from limb.
Say what you will about the girl’s mad-capped dive, it’s certainly focused the minds of the enemy.
With the goblins facing away from him, Nathaniel could ride them down from behind and reach Sneax in moments. But Nathaniel’s horse balked when it saw the worg, and he had to use his spurs yet again to regain control. The worg pounced. Sneax went down instantly, and a hideous ripping sound filled the air. Nathaniel was sure she was dead. But then Quiver came snarling through the line of goblins like a black-furred ballista bolt, landing on the worg’s back and tearing into its neck and shoulders with his own huge jaws. The worg turned and flicked its head, sending the much smaller Quiver flying, but that gave Sneax the time she needed to roll away and climb back to her feet.
Sneax did not look good. There was blood in her hair and all down her left arm, which hung limp at her side. Her black leather armor had been torn on that side, leaving one shoulder exposed. With all that blood, Nathaniel couldn’t tell how badly she’d been wounded.
By then the goblins were pressing in around him on every side. With his advantage gone, he had to turn away. He laid about with his blade, hacking at spear points and driving the goblins back, but then his horse spooked again. It reared and nearly threw him. The crazed beast came down with its fore hooves atop a goblin’s head, but there were countless more surrounding them. Nathaniel’s shield rang with the sound of spear points as he blocked strike after strike, riposting when he could, but there were just too many. Across the way, the worg snarled, but Nathaniel had no time to worry about it.
A shriek of rage rose up. Nathaniel had never heard its like. Then the goblins to his front went down as though cut by a scythe. Maleeka charged through, red faced and furious, hacking relentlessly with her maul, blasting goblins out of the way like they were so many errant bowling pins. More goblins fell back before her, and Maleeka turned to roar a challenge. There were still a dozen standing, but they backed off en masse and cowered. Even the worg turned to face the giantess, and Nathaniel saw his moment. He urged the horse forward, and for once it obeyed, charging at the worg, its own rage and fear let loose at last.
Nathaniel stood in the saddle and raised his sword. Ouroboros shone like fire on his shield. He called out to his god in a thunderous voice, “Loki, Father of Lies!”
* * *
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Book 1: Sneakatara Boatman & the Priest of Loki
Book 2: Sneakatara Boatman & the Crown of Pluto