Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Beyond the Hedge, (part 6)

We return to the tale of Barley Hedgeman, esquire. The previous parts are all linked on part five. If you thought the continued adventures of our good Hedgeman have been too long delayed, you are bound to be at least partially satisfied by this resumption of his adventures.

They had crossed over into the wild and soon there were no more ruins nor signs of habitation at all. Alandrya assured him that elves had once lived in this fair land. Time, it seemed, had undone the great houses that once stood warden over the silent hills. And it was true that time and again they would see a great heap of marble rubble. Barley realized only after walking close by one and seeing the cosmophilic carvings heaped upon the broken stones that they had once belonged to a grand manor house of the elves.

Some time near noon on the fifth day, they caught sight of a goblin picket moving among the hills. It was coming from the northeast, which meant it was likely they had been going to scout out the location of the army. Barley said as much to Alandrya and the elf agreed with him. She hurried to don her shining mail and even with Barley fastening all the straps it took near on ten minutes to struggle into it.

Once she was sheathed in her silver armor and her blade was drawn she whispered to Barley, "Go and hide."

"Mistress?" Barley gaped. He had drawn his own dagger, a pathetically small thing compared to the long sickle-like blade Alandrya carried. "I won't abandon you." He set his jaw squarely and frowned so hard that Alandrya had no choice but to nod and turn back to the matter at hand.

The goblins were drawing near now, and it was clear that they were in fact a mixed force of the creatures. The small cunning leaders hung back, the brown fuzz that they called fur bristling, while two of the huge bugbears loped forward, their green-gray skin reminding Barley of what he had heard of orcs—save orcs despised sunlight and lived below ground when they could. Goblins, it seemed, had no such fears.

There were three big bugbears in the picket, dressed all in thick leather coats and jerkins. Behind them their diminutive cousins called out encouragement in the strange and filthy sounding goblin tongue. Each of them bore a distinctive badge: a round black orb clutched in a red talon. The bugbears wore it upon their breasts and the little goblins on their helms.

Barley was amazed at the speed with which the huge bugbears could stalk down the hillsides towards them. They seemed to be coming at a good clip, but never once did they make a sound other than to shout words to the goblins. These huge sinuous creatures were as silent as elves themselves when they went from hill to hill. He could sense Alandrya's fear beside him, so he tightened the clutch on his knife.

The hilt was slick with his sweat and he wondered frantically just how he would fight a creature four or five times his own size. He passed the knife from hand to hand, wiping his palms on his legs, and closed his eyes for a moment. He whispered a soft prayer to himself, asking Leesha for forgiveness for all his wrongs and to give him at least a few more years a-wandering.

As if in reply, there was a brazen blast of trumpets from somewhere in the tall hills. They blew long, and high, and far off as though through a thick screen of gauze. Barley opened his eyes. Alandrya still stood at the ready, but something was off: the bugbears were tacking away from them. When he glanced to the hilltop where the knot of little goblins had been conferring he saw what they saw.

Arrows were falling amongst the goblins. Several of them were dead, and those that were not seemed in mortal haste to get away. Alandrya shifted her stance and sheathed her sword as the bugbears clearly made for the open gap to the east. "They're going back into the dragon lands," Barley said, shielding his eyes against the cold noonday sun to get a better look at the retreating figures.

Elves appeared around the crown of the far hill, and soon it fell to swordwork. The two of them hastened to join the elf-knights as they dispatched their duty, but by the time they arrived the battle was already done. Goblin corpses where being heaped upon the hilltop and made ready for burning. Elves buried their dead, but they burned fallen goblins and orcs as a matter of course.

Barley saw that all around the ring of warriors were hard faces. Eyes that stared for rods and rods, grim expressions wrought by war. Alandrya urged him forward to give introduction, so he cleared his throat and clasped his hands behind his back. In his best Solia he said: "The Mistress Alandrya, eyes and ears of the Lady."

Alandrya smirked and stepped forward, inclining her head. The other elves murmured to one another until one who was clearly their captain drew himself out of the ranks. He wore long full hair to the shoulder and armor that was laced with wire of gold. "We are honored," he said. "And our honor would be the greater if Mistress Alandrya and her squire would ride with us to the camp."

"I'm just a humble porter," Barley muttered, but he was ignored.

Alandrya's smile widened. "The camp is near? Then we haven't lost too much time."

"No, my lady Alandrya," the captain agreed. "You have not—though if you had been but a few hours further behind us on the road you may have suffered an unkind fate."

Barley glanced at the heaped piles of goblin dead even as the kindling was lit below them. A gruesome end it would have been.

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