By David Pontier
When Goblins Attack is the property of the author, David Pontier and is used with permission by Candlekeep. Email David with any comments and feedback on When Goblins Attack and visit his website at: http://www.geocities.com/piqsid/stories.html.
Chapter 2: The Coward
"So," Entreri said loudly, as he put down his hammer and stepped away from his home, "Have you come to kick me out again?"
John Irenum, Captain of Garrilport's city guards, sat on his horse and regarded the man suspiciously. This had been the greeting, or some variation of it, that this former assassin used every time the two met. John was not sure exactly how he should react to it. He had tried to apologize for having falsely accused him of the earlier murders, but that was not what Entreri wanted. He had tried to play along with the killer and make up some charges to arrest him, but that joke never played well either.
"Do I have reason to?" the captain tried. "Am I going to get a report of three dead shop keepers tomorrow and have to make a return visit?"
Entreri leaned against the outside wall he had just erected and looked casually up at the captain. "Maybe."
Maybe? John thought. What was that supposed to mean? He knew very little about this man. He had heard many stories regarding Entreri's bravery, his cowardice, his skill, his valor, and his evilness. The stories came from everyone: Buster, the blacksmith; Jerithon, the mayor; Ellen, the mayor's daughter; Elliorn, the ranger, and even Entreri himself. Each person had a story, and each story painted this man as a very different creature. The only person without a story was John himself. He had never seen this man fight. He had been unconscious when Entreri had taken out Quinton Palluge's men in the guardhouse, and from all accounts, he had missed a show. The captain's only knowledge of this man was that he was rich, sarcastic, and an average carpenter.
John just shook his head in frustration and dismounted. It was not common for people within the city to ride a horse. In fact, there was an unwritten law that no horses were allowed on the city streets except for pulling carts or wagons. No one was going to enforce this law on John, though. The broken leg he had suffered during Quinton's brief reign over the city had only recently healed enough for the captain to walk without pain. Most had expected him to resign over the injury, but he did not. He could no longer run well, and the limp when he walked was something he could not hide, but he was still the best fighter in the city. Well, second best.
"Your house is really coming along," John said casually, admiring the work. It was not perfect, but for a do-it-yourself job, it was pretty good. "You know, this area of town isn't really that bad. It is kind of peaceful."
On the edge of town where Entreri lived, there were still plenty of trees scattered about, and their vibrant color in late fall did add a picturesque quality to the most run-down part of the city. "Maybe you should think of moving out here, Captain. I'm sure the locals would enjoy the protection."
John smiled. "I'll think about it."
The two men stared at each other, each wondering what the other was thinking. Entreri broke first. "Okay, John, what do you want? I don't have time for casual conversation right now. I'd like to get this section of my house sealed up before the winter winds hit."
"You've got another week at least," John said, his eyes wandering across the late fall sky. He looked back down at Entreri and saw he was not smiling. "Okay, I'm gathering a group of men to go into the mountains and kill a few goblins."
Entreri flinched. He had not been expecting that. "Hardly seems a task for the City Guards. I mean, by definition, aren't you supposed to guard the city?"
"News came down yesterday that a few people have seen some goblins in the cliffs around their town and are asking for some help."
"Really?" Entreri asked, not buying a word of it. "A few townspeople saw something in the mountains and they just assumed they were goblins? Have you ever seen a goblin, Captain? Do you think they exist? Would you take a troupe of your best men up into the mountains to fight a bunch of fairytale monsters?"
"You have seen one?" John asked, dodging Entreri's question.
The assassin nodded. "Yes. I have. They appear quite harmless. They are just tiny things you see. If you wandered across one, you would almost laugh at it as it attacked you with its pointy stick, or maybe with no weapon at all. It makes a lot of noise and has sharp teeth, but you draw your sword and cut it in half. A ten-year-old boy could kill one. You look down at the dead creature and laugh. You then hear that laughed mimicked behind you and you turn to see twenty more goblins stalking you from behind. You stop laughing. You swing your sword wildly in front of you, tearing up the first four that come too close, but then you feel the jab of a spear in your ribs. Then the cut of a cheap dagger burns across your leg. In seconds you're overwhelmed, and then in a few more seconds you're dead."
John listened to this account in silence, able to see the scene played out in his head. "So you see," Entreri continued. "If one of your townspeople from up in the mountains had seen a goblin, they would think nothing of it. They certainly would not have cause to contact you. If they saw more than one goblin, then they are dead, and not capable of calling for help." Entreri paused for effect. "So why this sudden belief in goblins?"
"You know quite a bit about these creatures," John said, again avoiding the question. "You would be a perfect addition to our group. With your knowledge and fighting skill we wou-"
"Captain," Entreri interrupted, "shut up. I know you are hiding something, and I'm pretty sure I know what it is. There are not three people within a hundred miles that could properly identify a goblin or know how dangerous they can be."
"Meaning there are two people within a hundred miles?" John prodded.
"Within one mile if I had to bet on it," he answered. "One being me, and the other is your mysterious guest."
"A ranger came in to town last night," John said. Entreri was not going to let him get off that easily. He kept waiting for more. "Elliorn came in to town last night. She is the one that spotted the goblins. They killed two men at least, and she tracked them far enough to know where they are. She wants to take at least ten fighting men with her back into the mountains to eliminate them before they attack one of the towns. So, what do you say? Sound like a party?"
Entreri did not say anything. He just stared at the captain.
"Come on," John said, "I know you two have met. She's tall, attractive, blonde hair, walks with a limp." Entreri remained stoic. "I know she knows you, she's asked about you before." Still nothing. "So do you two have some type of history? Was it a nasty break up or something?"
"Or something," Entreri finally said. "I gave her the limp."
John had assumed as much. "So you two used to fight. Big deal. I tried to arrest you for murder not too long ago, if you remember. I was going to execute you. It's all in the past, you know, water under the bridge." Entreri was not biting. "Look, this is too important for a feud to get in the way. You single-handedly saved this town. Whatever gripe she might have with you is ancient history. I won't let her take you away. It's time to put our differences behind us for the common good."
The common good? Entreri thought. Who did this guy think Entreri was, Drizzt? "Let me get this straight," he said finally. "You want me to go with you into the cold, snowy mountains to kill a swarm of goblins and other assorted nasties with a bunch of guys who have never even seen a goblin before led by a woman who wants to kill me."
"Is that a no?" John asked after a contemplative pause.
"Yes," Entreri replied, picking up his hammer and turning back to his wall, "that is a no."
"Are you scared?"
Entreri was in mid swing with is hammer and stopped, almost smashing his fingers. He slowly put the nail down and turned to look at John, still holding the hammer. "Excuse me," he said slowly, "you might want to rephrase that question."
John smiled at him. He was not going to be intimidated. "My fault," he apologized, "I'll try again. Are. You. Scared."
Entreri laughed. He had not laughed in a long time and it felt good. "Leave, Captain. Go with your men and kill a few goblins. You could use a change of scenery. Take your men and follow the ranger. She won't steer you wrong. When you come back, you will have a story to tell for a change, and I will take you out to dinner so you can tell it. Please, just leave me alone before I have to kill you." He turned his back on the captain and pounded the next nail in with one swing.
John watched him secure the wall for a few seconds before limping back to his horse. He would find out what this guy's story was. He would solve the mystery of Artemis Entreri sooner or later. Right now, though, he had work to do.
* * *
"So how did your proposal go?"
John frowned as he pulled his horse up just outside of town and replied to the ranger. "He's not coming." He turned to look at the men he had already gathered. "This is our group."
Elliorn shrugged. "Very well. Who is he anyway? And if he is such a skilled fighter, why isn't he a member of your guard?"
John thought before answering. "Those are two very good questions. When I find out, I'll let you know."
"You don't even know who he is?" she asked, confused.
John looked at her and replied frankly, "No, I really don't." Not allowing further questions into the subject, he kicked his horse into a trot. "We should get moving. We've got about six hours of light left. We can get a good 40 miles in before camp. That should get us into Hillcrest by tomorrow evening."
Elliorn put her previous questions out of her head. They were not important. "Let's go then."
The group of eleven moved at a good pace north out of town. The land became hilly almost immediately after leaving the outskirts of the city. Elliorn led a path that stayed mostly in the valleys. The winding trail added maybe a mile to their trip, but the ease on the horses allowed them to make up that distance easily. By sundown they were well over 40 miles from the city.
The men had brought few provisions with them, thinking to stock up on supplies when they reached Hillcrest. What little food they did bring, they ate, and most went to bed early. Elliorn volunteered for the first watch, and John stayed up with her. They sat on opposite sides of the fire, though neither looked into the flames but kept their eyes searching the surrounding darkness.
"Tell me about goblins," John said after a long silence.
"They are like rats," Elliorn answered. "If you see one, you kill it. If you see a dozen, you move. On their own they can be formidable, but they are more often used as cannon fodder for a more powerful evil race. They are not great thinkers, but they are at least smart enough to know it. If servitude to a more powerful master will bring them what they want, mainly, a chance to kill and destroy, they will willingly serve."
"Why have they made their appearance now?" John asked. "I mean where have they been?"
"The goodly races - humans, elves, dwarves - all have pride within their respective races. They make sure what they learn and discover is passed on to their children and all future generations. We only need to invent something once. The evil races are not like that at all. They live in the present and think nothing of the future. For that reason, when they are pushed back and forced to live deep within a cave or mountain, they need to literally reinvent the wheel.
"The surviving goblins do not prosper as they live huddled and scared in the dark. A few generations go buy and a daring soul wonders what the surface is like. They might retain simple things like fire, since they needed that to survive, but other things like hunting skills or knowledge of seasons and humans are things they need to rediscover. Once they reacclimatize themselves with their surroundings, they can flourish, and given the chance, they will reproduce like rabbits."
"To what level can they be expected to advance?" John continued his query. "I mean you said in your report that the two dead men were killed by crude spears, yet you found a sword on the one in the mountains. Can they forge their own weapons?"
"They have been known to," Elliorn admitted, "though if you find goblin-made weapons, that is usually an indication that someone or something else is running the show. Shaping metal, though, is about as far as you can expect their technology to go. Personally, I would be surprised if this tribe has that ability. They mostly steal from those around them and try to copy if need be."
Both sat in silence for a while. "Tell me about Artemis Entreri," John said after a while.
"Excuse me?" Elliorn was quite startled. "What do you know about him?"
"Not much," John said, speaking the truth, though Elliorn might not think so. "When we had our rash of murders a few months ago, I investigated to see if any similar happenings went on elsewhere. I heard about the murders up north, and then you came into town a short while later, asking about him."
"Why do you want to know?" Elliorn asked carefully. "Do you know where he is?"
John laughed. "No, but I am an investigator like you. I like to know how the other side thinks. I want to know what makes them tick. If he, or anyone like him, should waltz into my city I want to be prepared."
"There is no one else like him," Elliorn argued. "He is unique among all killers you and I have ever known. He does not work for the highest bidder. He works only for himself. He kills for whatever reason suits him at the time and tries very little to justify it afterwards. He says he fears nothing, but I think he fears death more than he would like admit. He has been blessed with skill, and uses it to guard his cowardice better than anyone I have ever seen."
"A coward?" John sounded skeptical. "From the reports I've heard and read, he took on five men at once in halfway. That does not sound like cowardice."
"It is not heroism, if that is what you are implying," Elliorn said. "When we run across the goblins you will laugh at the precaution and attention I have given to them. You will hack through five at a time with your tremendous sword. Does that make you heroic because you are ten times stronger and a hundred times a better fighter? No. Entreri engages what you and I see as amazing odds, but to him, he sees other men as weaker than goblins. He lets that view of their skill cloud his judgement toward their value. I am sure you have seen grown men who are willing to sacrifice themselves in droves to save the life a child. That child contributes nothing to society and is, in fact, a burden at many times to their parents, but people will sacrifice themselves to save that child. Why? Because they see that the value of that child is not what he or she can do, but in the fact that the child is alive.
"Artemis does not see life on its own as being valuable. He instead only judges people on their skill and what they can contribute. Since he sees himself as the best in these categories, he looks down on everyone else, and we are just pawns in his game."
Both were quiet for a while, but before John could ask another question, Elliorn wanted to drive her point home. "Right now, you, me, and nine other men are about to place ourselves in mortal danger. I would be honestly surprised if one of us did not die in the next few days. Why are we doing this? To protect a town filled with people we do not know and will never meet beyond the next few days. Beyond that town are dozens of others that will be in danger if the goblins are allowed to go about their business unchecked. Again, these are people we will never meet. But we act because we can not sit by and let others suffer when we could have helped. We see value in life, even if it is people we do not know.
"If you were to ask Artemis to go on a trip like this, he would probably laugh at you. Maybe the prospect of fighting goblins does not scare him, but he will not risk his own life for no gain. He just does not see others as important. Therefore it is not bravery that allowed him to face off and kill the people he did, but simple contempt."
John pondered this. He wanted to discount what this woman was saying. If what she said was true, and Buster would agree with her, then he really should kick the man out of his city. If at some time in the future Entreri's wants and desires conflicted with his own, and the assassin really did see John's life and the lives of everyone else in the city as meaningless, things could get ugly. After all, her prediction on Entreri's reaction to this trip had been dead on. Entreri had laughed at him.
Still, had not Entreri gone up against Quinton, his mage, and all Quinton's other men by himself, with no visible chance at personal gain? Though he had not seen the battle, Entreri could not have viewed the fight as easy, could he? Was he that good? Or was he that cocky?
"Didn't he fight you?" John asked, pressing the point.
Elliorn paused a long time before answering John's question. At first she wanted to lash out at the captain for questioning her judgement with regard to Entreri, but she checked that with the knowledge that John had a valid point. "He fought me because he had to," Elliorn finally said.
"Did he treat you with contempt?"
"Yes," the ranger replied, speaking before really thinking about her answer.
"Then why didn't he kill you?"
That was the money question. That was the question Elliorn could not answer. That was a question she had posed to Entreri more than once after the fight when he had her tied up. It was a question that might never be answered. "You take the first watch," Elliorn said, changing her mind and rising from the ground. "I will be off in my tent. Wake me in two hours."
John watched her go, her limp especially obvious right now. He smiled. Entreri was not as cut and dry as Elliorn believed he was. Neither was he as noble and reformed as John wished he him to be. It was a gray area. That gray area allowed him to go up against unimaginable odds for no reason before, but not be willing to go up against a band of pathetic goblins for obvious reasons now. John hoped he would be able to figure it out soon.
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