tjmteb1 – (wc 1500)
Raffael sat on top of Aegis and guided him through the dark forest. Lemma and Heroff, the two Wolf Riders he chose to accompany him, followed far behind and to either side. He stopped his mount and pulled out a crinkled parchment. If he read the poorly scrawled map correctly, the third possible location for the hobgoblin camp should be over the next ridge.
The first two sites had showed signs of recent activity: over-turned fire pits, footprints, bits of litter scattered about. The second even had a deserted tent. A quick search had revealed it had been cleared out, but it served as proof the monsters had been there.
An orange glow flickered momentarily through the trees. Raffael stood in his stirrups and squinted through the shadows. His night vision made the forest seem like dusk, but it didn’t reveal the source of the light. His whiskered nose twitched. A hint of burned cedar hung in the air.
He glanced over each shoulder and chattered.
Moments later, Heroff rode up from the right. He pulled his black wolf next to Raffael’s blue-gray one. Lemma joined them from the left riding his own tan wolf.
“A fire burns ahead.” Raffael pointed toward the ridge where he saw the light. “Heroff and I will creep forward and get eyes on it.”
He studied the woods around him. The ridge fell at a gentle angle from the south down into a valley to the north. “Lemma, I want you to position yourself on the high ground over there. You’ll be my eyes and ears if anything tries to come behind us.”
Heroff shifted in his saddle. He was the youngest of the group and had been a member of the riders for only three years. Raffael chose him because he was deadly with the sword. Lemma, on the other hand, had been a rider for nearly as long as Raffael and there wasn’t a Forest Kin alive who could match his skill with the crossbow.
“Heroff, follow me, but stay off to my right.”
“We all set?” Raffael looked at the two. They each nodded. “Good, let’s go.”
Lemma turned his wolf uphill and disappeared into the woods.
Raffael dismounted with his sword, then gave Aegis a paw signal to remain. Heroff followed his lead.
They walked toward the crest of the ridge. As they neared the top, Raffael dropped to all fours and crawled the remaining distance. The smoke grew stronger as they climbed.
At the crest, the captain stopped and surveyed the scene. His eyebrows drew in as the odd sight registered. Below them and about fifty paces was a small lone campfire. It illuminated the center of a narrow clearing. Raffael searched the woods, but saw no other signs of hobgoblin presence: no tents, no litter; nothing disturbed the ground other than the little fire.
Raffael looked to the younger Rider. He held a paw up and shook his head.
He rose slowly and started down the hill. His peripheral vision confirmed Heroff followed. His head swiveled left and right. He couldn’t understand why this fire was here, but nothing else. They took two steps into the clearing when a short chatter came from uphill. Raffael halted and twirled a half circle.
Deep roars surrounded them. Hobgoblins appeared from all sides. They brandished maces and crossbows and were armored lightly just as the one he had encountered a few days prior. These, however, were covered in dirt and leaves masking their scent. The monsters surrounded them.
Heroff drew close to Raffael and held his sword in front of him. “What now?
The hobgoblins closed in tighter, but did not attack. A tall man dressed in fine green leather and armed with a serrated long sword, pushed his way past the hobgoblins and entered the circle. “Drop your weapons!”
Heroff looked to Raffael; his eyes were dark.
Raffael saw he wanted to fight, but now wasn’t the time. He bent slowly over and laid his short sword on the ground. “What’s the meaning of this? Why have you come to our woods?”
“I’ll be the one asking the questions here.” He took a step forward, kicked Raffael’s sword away and curled his upper lip at Heroff. “Now you!”
Raffael gave him a nod and the Forest Kin did as ordered.
The man brushed Heroff's sword to the side and stepped back. “Now call to the one you have hidden. Tell him to approach unarmed.”
Raffael raised his head and chattered to Lemma. The signal was returned. “He will be here momentarily. Now, why have you captured us?”
“You will tell me how best to breach your puny village’s walls.”
The leader pointed his sword at Raffael’s chest. “You will tell me, or you will die.”
A long low howl echoed from the valley, followed by another higher pitched one. The hobgoblins turned toward the sound.
One monster fell forward, landing on his face next to Raffael. An arrow stuck in the back of his head.
“Now!” Raffael sprang and rolled in the grass toward his weapon. He grabbed his sword and allowed his momentum to bring him back to his feet. He swung at the nearest hobgoblin. Blood spewed from the creature’s stomach.
He looked back toward Heroff. His sword was a blurr. He sidestepped and lunged, then sidestepped again. The two monsters in front of him swung their weapons, but only found air where the Forest Kin had once stood.
Raffael spun, cleaving his way through another hobgoblin. He reversed direction and found himself facing the human.
Two creatures behind the man fell; Aegis stood over them and bit at their faces.
The leader swung his weapon at Raffael’s head. He ducked and swiveled his hips. A breeze ruffled his fur as the sword passed overhead. As he turned, he struck out at the man’s leg. As soon as the weapon hit, he reversed again and attacked the other.
The human screamed. He dropped to the ground on his knees and attacked again.
Raffael parried. His arms vibrated from the impact. He kicked the human’s chin as hard as he could.
The man’s head flew back. Raffael thrust his sword and impaled the man at the base of his throat. A sickening gargle escaped his mouth as he fought for breath.
Raffael pulled back on his sword and kicked the man to the ground. He searched the clearing. Aegis and the black wolf both hovered over fallen hobgoblins. Nothing else stood. A dozen monsters with sword wounds or arrows protruding from them, dotted the clearing.
“Heroff, gather on me.” Rafael turned searching the woods. The young Forest Kin wasn’t in sight. “Heroff!”
A groan called from across the clearing. Raffael ran toward the sound. A furry blood-soaked arm reached out from underneath a dead hobgoblin with bite marks on the back of its neck. He rolled the monster aside.
Heroff lay on the ground, eyes closed. The fur on the side of his head was gone, scraped away by a mace blow. Blood flowed profusely from the wound.
Raffael’s heart threatened to beat from his chest. He dropped to his knees and placed his ear against his companion. The hollow flow of air was quick and short. He heard Heroff’s heart pound out two beats then stop. Air hissed from Heroff’s mouth.
“No!” He grabbed the Forest Kin’s shoulders and shook him. “Wake up!” Clawed hands grabbed him from behind. He turned and swung his fists.
Lemma blocked the blows. “Raffael. Let him go. He’s gone.”
“No!” Tears soaked the fur around his eyes.
“Raffael, we have to get going! We don’t know if there’s any more out here.” Lemma’s head turned left and right.
Raffael wiped his eyes then stood. “You're right. Bring Heroff’s mount. We can’t leave him.”
Lemma secured Heroff’s body to the black wolf as Raffael searched the dead human leader. In one of his pockets, he found a rolled up scroll. He brought it to the dying fire and unrolled it.
The scroll detailed a plan to take over Jargon Woods using the hobgoblins as their muscle. Afterward, the man, named Darrius Radtke, would claim the area for himself, then wait the arrival of his human troupe of thieves, bandits and assassins. The plan’s goal was to use the area for his headquarters and resupply point for illegal activities.
Raffael rolled the document. He would need to report this to the Council. Although the leader is dead, the others may not be far behind.
He walked over to Lemma and patted him on the back. “Thanks back there.”
Lemma nodded. “He was a good Kin and would have made a great Rider one day.” He embraced Raffael in a one-armed hug. After a moment he stepped back. “You ready?”
“I think so.” Raffael turned his head and whistled.
From across the clearing, Aegis ran to Raffael’s side. The captain hopped onto his saddle and pulled the reins. “Let’s go home, Boy.