By Brian Flood
Chapter 58 - Malk's Gambit
The Caves of Chaos
Near Kendall Keep, Kingdom of Cormyr
Morning, 22nd Day of Mirtul; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
Once he breaks free of the bushes that hide the cave entrance, Malk hears a grunt of surprise from his right. Glancing quickly in that direction, the bard sees two hulking humanoids clad in mail. Those are definitely not goblins , he thinks. More importantly, he notes, each of the lookouts has a long bow with an arrow set on the string.
Malk continues his desperate gamble, headed away from the cave entrance and toward the distant stream. He dodges rocks, bushes and trees as he runs.
Thun! Thun! Behind him, he hears the archers' release.
A few heartbeats later, the bard feels two hammer blows as arrows slam into his back. Unimpeded by any armor, the missiles drive themselves deep. Malk's footsteps slow as the pain begins to set in.
A few steps later, he breaks into the open, leaving the wooded area behind him and headed north and west. To his front, lies another copse of trees and bushes. He stumbles his way toward it as two arrows streak by but fail to find their mark. With a final lunge, Malk enters the second thicket and puts a large tree between himself and the archers to his rear.
* * * * *
Declan rushes back to the cave entrance and tries to watch the bard's flight through the bushes. Thun! Thun! Two arrow strings snap taut. The mage risks a peek through the bushes and sees Malk stumble, regain his footing, and then disappear from sight with hurried but staggering movements.
Looking toward the source of the bow shots, the mage catches a glimpse of two man-sized and armored forms. Each also wields a long bow. Hobgoblins!
As Declan watches, both archers loose another volley at their frantic target. Having seen enough, he quickly ducks back into the cave.
* * * * *
Malk grunts as he tries to remain in cover. He listens for sound of pursuit as he tries to staunch the bleeding. For the time being, he foregoes removing the arrows from his torso.
The bard consciously tries to calm his racing heart as he strains to hone in on any sounds from the other wood line. After a few minutes, he hears nothing.
Deciding that it is time to circle around, Malk draws his short sword from its scabbard. Heading roughly north, he uses the trees and bushes as concealment until he finds the stream that bisects the valley. Carefully, he steps into the water and crosses the stream, finding that at its deepest it comes to about his waist.
Once on the far side, the bard begins to follow the stream back eastward. Slowly, his legs pick up the pace as he starts to run downstream. His pace more resembles a jog, however, as the arrows lodged in his torso react painfully to the increased motion and slow him. Gritting his teeth in defiance to the anguish, he dodges from cover to cover, intending to rejoin the woods behind the bowmen.
* * * * *
Their unexpected and fleeting target now gone from their sight, the two hobgoblins exchange a glance. The taller of the two jerks his thumb toward the entrance to the goblin warrens.
“Go tell ‘em!” he grunts. Without another word, his companion turns and jogs to the cave entrance behind the outpost.
The archer that stays behind reaches into a leather quiver and withdraws another long, broad-headed war arrow. He nocks the arrow to the string of his powerful long bow and resumes his vigil on the entrance to the troll's former lair and the surviving intruders within it.
* * * * *
Kerielle stares helplessly at the cave mouth, an anxious frown revealing her concern for the bard.
Seth pulls himself up. “Bloody fool!” he curses and crawls to Kerielle and Amiel.
“Who would do such a thing?” he asks incredulously. “Declan?”
“ Did you see if he got away?” Amiel asks Declan, her voice a mixture of anger and concern.
“I cannae say for sure,” the mage replies. “'E stumbled a'fore he left me sight, but ‘e was still on ‘is feet. ‘E may ‘ave caught one er more o' those archers' arrows.”
Velgardrin utters several clipped phrases in Dwarvish – all of them curses and epitaphs. Then the priest says to Amiel, “I be thinkern that someone can be standern guard and I be sleepern ter gain healern. Wake me erf I'm neederd.”
The dwarf twists and turns through the group, passes the goblin corpses, and returns to his place at the one-way door. He sits and closes his eyes. He utters a brief Dwarvish prayer for protection before becoming silent.
* * * * *
After covering almost three score yards of ground on the north side of the stream, each step made agonizingly painful from his wounds, Malk reaches the concealment of another copse of trees and brush. He pauses for a moment to catch his breath. Leaning against a tree for support, he can feel the warm seepage of blood down his back, stemming from the arrows in his flank.
The bard takes a minute to rest before resuming his stalk. He creeps south and east, slowing his pace and keeping an eye on the stand of trees across the stream from him. Somewhere in there , he thinks, are the two archers .
* * * * *
Hurkul, the goblin chief and Naghaz, his hobgoblin counterpart, stand in the goblin common room, bent over a makeshift table on which lies a roughly sketched map of the goblin warrens. The map is made of crudely tanned leather – most likely the skin of an unfortunate traveler. The lines and symbols on the map are drawn using dried blood for ink. One of Hurkul's guards stands nearby with a burning brand to provide the light needed to read the map.
The flickering torch light plays on the walls of the chamber. Around the room's perimeter, just on the edges of the light are the slumbering members of the goblin tribe. Males, females, and young lie about in clusters for warmth. In all, more than two dozen snoring forms are present.
“Let us review the plan. My archers are here,” Naghaz says, pointing on the map to a spot outside the cave complex and between the entrances to the goblin tunnels and the cave where the intruders were seen by the goblin escapees.
“That should keep them from escaping into the open. Do you understand what you and your kin are to do?”
“We will have the glory,” Hurkul declares. “We will attack from the door – all of my warriors. The invaders will be trapped. We will drive into them with our spears and stick them like rats!”
And I will be right behind you with a contingent of my solders to ensure that your filthy kind does what they are supposed to do… and absorbs any desperate counterattack , the hobgoblin adds silently to himself.
“But what about the Enemy?” Hurkul asks, pointing to a place on the map that shows a crudely drawn skull just on the other side of one of the chambers of the goblin tunnels.
“I will leave two guards there,” Naghaz replies. “They will give us warning.”
At that moment, a hobgoblin runs into the chamber. He skids to a halt at the table and renders a hurried salute to Naghaz.
“What is it?” the hobgoblin commander demands.
“The intruders,” the newcomer announces between gulps of air. “One escaped. A human, I think.”
“He ran from the cave. We stuck him – twice, at least – but he kept running.”
“Where did he run?” Naghaz asks.
“Further into the woods – away from us and toward the stream,” the archer answers.
Naghaz thinks for a moment. Then he says, “If he is wounded, he will not move fast. He cannot bring help from the human stronghold before our attack. And it leaves one less intruder to deal with tonight when we attack.
“Go to the sleeping chamber,” he then commands. “Wake three of the soldiers and take them with you outside. Tell them to search the valley. If they cannot find the wounded human, they are to stay with you and reinforce the lookout post. The five of you take turns resting. And continue to send us reports. Now go!”
The hobgoblin archer snaps to a rudimentary form of attention before turning and hurrying from the room. When he is gone, Naghaz turns to Hurkul.
“Maglubiyet smiles on us,” the hobgoblin tells his goblin counterpart. “The intruders are desperate. Instead of defending from strength, they slowly weaken themselves. Soon, we will use their skulls to drink their blood!”
* * * * *
Seth stares after Velgardrin and addresses those gathered. “If it is normal for a member of this company... hmmm, what was your name again?” he shakes his head, “to sleep while another is lying dead in the cold dirt then... well, I certainly wouldn't sleep well if I were he,” the elf nods in the dwarf's direction.
“Perhaps it is this gladiator's turn to admit defeat and pray for the mercy of his audience and his foe.” The warrior turns to Amiel, whom he clearly respects the most and asks of her opinion.
“What think you, lady Amiel – is this time for parley?”
“He rests so that he may heal your injured hide!” Kerielle spits out hotly in Velgardrin's defense. “As for talking, they gave no reply when he called out, and seemed most eager to parley with the mage with a shaft. I think you shall have small success with that.”
“Quite so – unless ye kin speak th' hobgoblin tongue,” Declan announces. When the others in the cavern turn to look at him, the mage continues.
“Vel cut me off ‘afore I cae' finish. There be two o' ‘em. Bloody nasty brutes… armored, too. Ye saw they ‘ave bows. An' nae' those lil' coney-stickers ye ‘ave there,” he says, pointing to the short hunting bows of Amiel and Serethaniel.
“They be more like ‘ers,” he finishes, pointing to Kerielle's more powerful long bow.
“Two?” Amiel asks, shaking her head. “No wonder they are outside. They don't have the numbers to try a full assault.”
She then gives Seth a long look. “His name is Velgardrin and what else would you have him do? Charge after Malk? I don't fancy his chances in keeping up, let alone catching an unarmored quarry. Similarly, if he's shot by them, the rest of us are in big trouble.
“Aye, had I known they were goblinoid, I would not have so readily offered the suggestion of parley,” Seth offers in defense of his suggestion. “I loathe waiting, and it seems to me that Vel's decision to rest could be a ‘copper-piece foray' as I heard someone say once, and not part of the plan that altogether we should have,” he offers, keeping anger and frustration from his voice. “Though on its own, it makes sense that our healer should rest.”
“Our best chance is to restore as many of us to health as we can,” Amiel insists. “We wait until then, but we're still going to need trickery to get out of here without getting shot. Does anyone speak whatever hobgoblins speak? What about magicking the troll's screams? Nathan?
“We could try and outflank them by going out the secret door and through the goblins' front door...but again, we need to be at full strength.”
“I thou' tha' tha' door dinnae open from this side?” Declan remarks.
After seemingly ignoring the mage's comment about the door, Seth addresses him suddenly, “Declan, fire is your domain. What is the likelihood of setting fire to the brush outside of the cave that these foes lie within? If nothing else it could make a smoke-screen to conceal our escape.”
Alain looks over to the party leader. “If you wish Amiel, I could run out and kill them.”
Declan looks from Seth to Amiel and then to Alain. “Burn the brush? Aye, I kin do tha' – but it'll bring e'ery curious mind in the vale. An' if we do it now, the four o' ya won't be beatin' any goblin, hobgoblin, troll, or o'erwise in a footrace until yer healed.
“An' wots this a'out Alain heading out? I thought Malk was doin' tha' ri' now?”
“I will have no part in deliberately setting fires,” Kerielle states flatly. “A fire could easily spread to the surrounding woods. Not only that, it would suck the air out of this cave, and we would suffocate.
“Besides, as Declan said, few of us are in any condition to run, even if we had cover from such a smoke screen. The bard was brave, but foolhardy. All we can do is wait until Velgardrin can heal us.” As if in agreement, a snorting gurgling that can only be Velgardrin's snoring sounds from the vicinity of the one-way door.
Turning to Alain, Kerielle continues, “As for you, I do not doubt your skill or courage, but even a single, indifferent archer could skewer you before you reached them. To rush two would be suicide.”
“Stay frosty, everyone,” Amiel grunts. “Malk's tried to lead ‘em away. But there's at least two remaining. All we can do for now is guard the entrance, wait until we've been raised to full strength with Clanggedin's blessings and then try a little deception to ensure that we take the ‘hobs' out without fuss.
“Yes, Seth there'll be no burning until we can move. Goodness knows what'll come looking.
“Here's what we're going to do: Alain, guard the door but first give me your rope. Nathan, Dec – take down that armor from the wall. We're going to use it to try and distract the hobs before Kerielle shoots them. I need something heavy to tie to the end of the rope. Helios, a stone would be fine. We're going to find out how deep that damn pool really is.”
“That at least, I can do,” declares Helios. “I'm not much use for anything else at the moment.”
The paladin slowly shuffles over to the pile of rubbish in the corner to look for something heavy. He clutches his head in an attempt to stop the pounding headache that the troll has nicely given him.
“Uh, Amiel,” Declan begins. “Ye probably couldnae' ‘ear me and Vel talkin' this o'er before… but tha' path ‘round the pool is slick. Walkin' on it'd give someone a chance t' be fallin' in th' pool… an' I cannae' swim.”
“I can swim,” Nathan affirms, “but not very well. I might be able to use my staff to nudge the armor off the wall, but I cannot guarantee that I could catch it before it falls… or I fall… into the pool.”
Frustrated with her inability to act, Kerielle turns her energy to solving the problem at hand. “If we tie the rope about the waist of one who can swim, he can attempt to knock down the armor from the wall. It may fall in the pool – he must catch it, or dive for it if he misses. Even metal armor will not sink so quickly that it cannot be grabbed.
“Either way, if he ends up in the pool, we can pull him back with the rope. Another can stand by with the staff – to give the swimmer something to hold, to steady him on the ledge, and to assist if he goes in.
“That is, unless one of you mages can fly?” Her mouth quirks slightly with the weak attempt at a jest.
“Then I suppose I could try for the armor,” Nathan replies. “But I have some questions. Are you saying I am to leave my staff… with someone else? Then how do I get the armor down? And who will hold the rope while I walk the ledge? And what about Amiel's plan to use Alain's rope to check the depth of the pool?”
Helios looks up from his search. “If I can find a suitable stone to tie the rope to, we can maybe knock it off with that… unless anyone knows how to use a lasso?”
“Forgive me,” Kerielle says tiredly, wiping her brow with her hand. “I am not truly feeling my best.
“You have but the one staff, of course,” she tells Nathan. “You must take it to dislodge the armor. Should Torm's warrior find something, we can test the depth then .
“As to who will hold the rope, I think few of us are capable. He,” she nods toward Alain, “is probably the strongest still standing.”
“In tha' case, I kin go back to watchin' the entrance,” Declan offers as he moves forward to replace Alain, allowing the warrior to get his rope and set to helping Nathan.
Nodding, Alain moves aside, giving Declan the spot to guard the door. Bending down, the warrior rummages in his backpack to retrieves his rope.
* * * * *
Malk picks his way through the foliage, staying to the most concealed route. When he reaches a point where he can cross the stream with minimum exposure, he slowly wades across.
Once again on the south side of the stream, Malk pauses and glances to the entrance to the goblin caves – which lies to his southeast. Sensing no impending danger, he moves into the near wood line. No more than a few paces within its borders, he spots his quarry.
There is only one archer now; the second foe is nowhere in sight. The huge, armored brute is facing west – slightly away from Malk, but focused on the brush that conceals the company's hiding place. The creature is humanoid, stands more than half a head taller than the bard, and easily weighs half again as much. An arrow rests on the string of its long bow.
This is not the time for a fair fight , Malk thinks to himself. Taking a few more steps forward, the bard reaches into his belt pouch and retrieves a piece of phosphorescent moss. Then, the beginning syllables of an incantation already flowing softly from his lips, he stands as straight as his wounds allow.
Coming to the end of his invocation, Malk deliberately raises his voice. The archer spins at the sound. As it does, the bard enunciates a final syllable and points at its eyes.
* * * * *
“So what now?” asks Alain as he hands a coil of hemp rope over to Kerielle. “I could probably give one of the lighter members a hand up.” Alain interlaces his fingers and makes a lifting motion.
“You could – if you think you can keep your footing!” Kerielle retorts dryly, gesturing to the narrow, slippery and slime-encrusted ledge under the armor. She smiles slightly, removing any sting from her words.
“No, the mage should be able to reach it with his staff. You just need to be ready to haul him up with the rope should he slip.”
Taking one end of the rope, Kerielle knots it carefully around Nathan's waist and hands the free end to Alain. “Are you ready?” she asks the mage with a slight smile.
Nathan looks somewhat apprehensive at the thought of climbing along the ledge. Gritting his teeth, he mumbles, “Yes I am ready. I hope you can haul me out if I fall.”
Meanwhile, wrinkling his nose in disgust, Helios continues to weakly shift through the large heap of refuse and debris for the ‘something heavy' that Amiel requested. His hands quickly become filthy from handling the filthy rags, furs, branches, leaves, and the mortal remains of the troll's meals. Finally, he finds an open-faced metal helm. Turning it over, he discovers that it still holds the desiccated skull of its owner.
As the paladin turns to Amiel, presenting his gruesome find, an inhuman roar of anger sounds from outside the cave.
* * * * *
With an irate howl, Malk's prey looses its arrow. The missile flies harmlessly wide of its target. A wry grin begins to form on the corners of the bard's mouth.
The archer begins to furiously rub its eyes with its free hand. With his enemy thusly preoccupied, Malk reaches into his belt pouch, retrieves another small object and takes a few steps closer.
He begins a second casting, finishing a few moments later by shoving his open hand toward the brute, his fingers twisted like a claw.
The lookout suddenly shudders as if chilled. Then it screams again. This time, there is a hint of terror in its tenor. It draws a broad-bladed sword from its belt and spins in a circle, its yellow eyes wide as it blindly swings both blade and bow.
Malk inhales deeply and his eyes alight briefly with a strange, dark delight. Gritting his teeth, he pulls each of the arrows from his flank. Then he closes the distance a bit more, remaining out of the reach of the archer's wild defensive gestures.
Coming to a halt, he repeats his most recent incantation. The archer shudders once more and again screams in terror and pain from some unseen assault. And once again, malevolence flashes briefly across the bard's face as the pain of his wounds dissipates.
The huge creature is now stumbling. The blind, frantic sweeps of its weapons slow in their pace and dip lower to the ground.
Satisfied, Malk draws his short sword. When the archer's back is turned to him, he walks swiftly forward and drives the point of the weapon through the creature's scale mail armor and deep into its back.
His enemy's body arches in pain as Malk's bloody blade bursts from its chest in a shower of blood. A weak gurgle is all the protest that the brute can utter. The bard savagely twists the sword before withdrawing it and backing away to let the corpse fall to the forest floor.
* * * * *
“Curses and damnation,” says Helios. “What now?”
Declan quickly turns toward the cave entrance and says, “Malk must be givin' ‘em ‘ell!”
Meanwhile, Helios turns the helm upside down to remove the previous owner. Then he wanders over to the rest of the group to see if his prize is still needed.
In the time it takes the paladin to do so, another cry – this one of a slightly different tone – sounds from outside the cave. Declan responds by slowly edging closer to the cave entrance, but stopping short of parting the bushes. Instead, he leans his staff against the cave wall and frees his hands for spell casting.
Soon thereafter, a third scream – weaker this time – reaches the company's hiding place. Then there is silence.
* * * * *
Crouching down over the archer's body, Malk quickly goes to work. He unbuckles the creature's sword belt – which holds a quiver of arrows – and tosses it into a pile with its bow and sword. A few seconds later, he discovers a small purse. He shakes it gently and smiles when he hears the clink-clink of coins.
The bard has just slipped the purse down his own shirt when his ears detect a new, rhythmic, clink-clink sound. He instantly determines the sound is that of metal armor, it is coming from the entrance to the goblins' warrens… and it is getting louder.
Company is coming , he thinks to himself, and more than one of them. He glances down to the hulking creature that he killed. If they are friends of this one here, I am biting off far more than I can chew. Time to leave .Malk stands and gathers up the bow and quiver. Then he runs toward the bushes that conceal the company's hiding place.
The content of Company of the Silver Claws is the property and copyright of Brian Flood, and are not to be published or redistributed without permission.
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