Hunter’s Moon – Preview

Chapter One

War

Tormjere crept forward with sword in hand, slipping noiselessly through the damp underbrush towards his chosen spot at the edge of a clearing. He crouched low behind a bush and waited. Behind him, the sun was just cresting the treetops, sprinkling cheerful patches of light through the leaves and onto the path while leaving his own position in shadow. The brown leathers and loose green cloth of his hunter’s garb, carefully layered in an elvish pattern, allowed him to further blend into the surrounding foliage. He arrived not a moment too soon, as the sound of running feet carried down the narrow game trail to his sensitive ears. His hiding spot was downwind, also by design, and a stench strong enough to override the pleasant fragrance of spring flowers hit him: goblins.

Nearly a dozen of the short, greenish creatures came into view, their attention focused ahead as they hurried towards the distant sounds of battle. Though barely larger than scrawny children, they were cunning creatures that were deadly in a group this size. Tormjere studied the motley assortment of weapons and armor each carried as they drew near, plotting the sequence of his attack.

Arrows hissed from the trees, and a pair of goblins at the rear of the line tumbled to the ground and lay still. The rest did as expected, coming to an abrupt stop a few paces in front of him and searching for the source of the attack. Their hesitation proved costly as two more fell.

The largest of them pointed its weapon towards the trees opposite Tormjere and shouted angrily in its guttural language. Obeying the command, the rest charged forward in a disorganized line that left their backs to him.

That was when Tormjere struck.

With violently precise swipes of his sword, he killed one and then another. A third spun to face him, but not quickly enough to save itself.

Thrown into confusion by his assault and the unseen archers, the remaining goblins died without mounting a defense.

When the last had fallen, Tormjere dashed through the clearing and into the opposite tree line. Once under cover, he stopped to survey the woods, quieting his breathing as he looked and listened for any signs of pursuit. He let his awareness extend and tried to read the texture of the forest in ways his normal senses could not. It was an unusual skill that rarely manifested except in times of stress but had always proven reliable.

He felt more than heard the other two Rangers hurry onto the path behind him to search the bodies. It was unlikely they would discover anything useful, but one never knew, and Rangers were always thorough. That much had been drilled into him over the past months as he had trained with the secretive group. It had been an interesting, if unexpected, way to spend his sixteenth winter.

As he wiped dark blood from his blade, he allowed himself a moment’s satisfaction—it had been a perfectly executed ambush.

The hoot of an owl sounded behind him—the Ranger’s call to bring in any sentries on watch. He retrieved the bow and bedroll he had stashed behind a nearby tree and hustled to rejoin his companions, both of whom were dressed in the muted greens and browns common to woodsmen.

Drex, the patrol leader, shot him a questioning glance to make sure he was uninjured, then they were off. Without words, the trio turned south towards the town, spreading into a loose formation as they traversed the rough, heavily wooded terrain. Their pace was rapid but measured, such that it could be maintained over long distances without tiring.

Tormjere travelled without conscious effort, following his own path through the forest while keeping Drex in sight. He took the opportunity to evaluate the recent encounter, his first real combat since the prior summer. It had been easier this time, and far less terrifying. Despite that, he could not allow himself to become complacent—not every enemy he faced would prove as easy to overcome. He could find no flaw with his tactics, however, and turned his thoughts to the sword now secured at his waist.

Expertly crafted by the dwarven smith Fendrick, the wide, double-edged blade had cut through flesh and armor with surprising ease. Fighting his way out of the wilderness with Honarch and Treven the year before had been far more difficult, but this sword was different. It was heavier, made more for cutting than finesse, and suited him better. It was a comforting discovery, even if the current situation was not.

They had been on patrol for a week now, making a sweep along the generally peaceful western border of the Kingdom of Actondel. Although they had expected little trouble, they had stumbled upon a major incursion from the wild lands. Hundreds of goblins had moved through the forest en masse, leaving behind a clear trail. Several hamlets along their march had been savagely swept away, their inhabitants either dead or gone by the time the Rangers arrived.

Tormjere brought his attention back to the present as they stopped atop a low hill on the edge of the forest, nearly a mile from the town proper.

Below them, Jonrin burned. Dark smoke billowed ominously from inside the walled town and rode a gentle breeze into the cloudless sky. A stream of townsfolk could be seen fleeing east over narrow bridges that spanned the river, but from the Ranger’s vantage point there was no sign of either the attackers or defenders.

“This is the worst possible timing,” Drex said, breaking their silence. He leaned on his longbow, a hallmark of the King’s Rangers, with concern plainly visible on his bearded face.

“More a war party than a raid,” Caden said, coming to stand beside him. “At least three hundred. We’re spread too thin to have given anyone warning.”

“And the garrison is stripped and sent east,” Drex spat. “I doubt there are even forty defenders in the city right now.”

Tormjere was equally upset over their failure to predict such an attack. The eastern border of the Kingdom, far from where they currently stood, had been invaded by the neighboring Ceringion Reginum as the last of the winter snows were melting. It wasn’t a surprise, as the indications had been clear the year before. Most of the lords of Actondel had rallied to their king and sent troops to aid the fight. Despite their response, the invasion was said to be moving more quickly than anyone expected, though details were scarce.

Tormjere scratched at the scruff of hair that covered his chin and upper lip but which stubbornly refused to grow on his cheeks and fully hide his youthful countenance. He had been conscripted into service, as had much of the able-bodied population. Before a week was out, he had been plucked from his unit without explanation and rushed south to train with the Rangers. Grueling days that started before the sun rose and ended long after it had set had been all he had known for months on end.

“Coincidence?” he asked. Two attacks of this magnitude at the same time seemed suspect.

“Or opportunity.” Drex shrugged. “It matters little. It’s been almost twenty years since we’ve had problems here, but regardless of why, the effect is the same.”

“We must aid them,” Tormjere said, still staring at the smoke. Jonrin was only a day’s walk from his home valley. People from his village could be down there even as they spoke.

“This is too large for just us. We need to get help.”

“The whole town could be lost before we return,” Tormjere insisted.

“We aren’t front-line soldiers.”

“Even one or two of us could make a difference.”

Drex considered, then turned to Caden.

“Head south to Bendin and alert Lord Rothor. Commandeer a horse if possible.”

“Kenzing is closer,” Tormjere pointed out. “And they’ve more men.”

Caden could be in Kenzing before nightfall, whereas it would take until well past midnight to reach Bendin if a horse could not be found. Extra soldiers had been placed in Kenzing under the command of Baron Cheldiff last fall—Tormjere’s uncle had delivered many of their weapons.

Drex shook his head. “They have their own purpose, though I know not what it may be. The two of us will offer assistance as we can and attempt to determine motives and movements. Look for us in the villages north of here when you return.”

Caden nodded and took off at a run.

“Try to be more cautious next time,” Drex said to Tormjere as they began moving towards the town.

Tormjere raised an eyebrow.

“Had you used your bow first, there would have been fewer to face directly.”

“You two are better shots, and there were only seven by the time I got there.”

“Had more followed, you would have been cut off.”

Tormjere was certain that, had there been more goblins coming for them, he would have known it long before they arrived.

“There weren’t any more.”

Drex let the matter drop, confident that his point had been made. Further conversation ceased as they sprinted across a pasture and took shelter behind a small farmhouse. It was abandoned, though goblins had obviously been through looking for anything of value. Tormjere felt sorry for those who had lived there, given how much of their life now lay scattered about the floor.

Drex peeked around a corner of the building, looking across the fields at the curtain wall encircling the town. “They must be inside the walls now. I see no defenders anywhere along it and no fighting outside.”

“Through the gate?” Tormjere asked. “It looks open.”

Drex agreed. “If they’ve fallen back to the keep we may be lucky and find it abandoned.”

Or we could find it not, Tormjere thought as they continued forward. If the gate had been forced, it seemed unlikely to be left unguarded. The thought of goblins in possession of the defenses was troubling. He still maintained a particular dislike for the creatures, owing to the problems they had caused him on his quest to retrieve the Book of Amalthee a year prior.

He stopped with Drex at the last building. Nothing lay between them and the wall now but an empty field.

“See anything?” Drex asked.

“Nothing. If enemy archers hold the gatehouse…”

“They’d better have bad aim!” Drex laughed as he took off towards the gate.

With a curse, Tormjere followed, sprinting after him across the emptiness of the bare killing field surrounding the walls. The towers flanking the gate loomed ominously, watching their approach, but he could hear nothing over the pounding of his own feet.

Halfway there.

The walls seemed to grow taller the closer he got. He tried to keep an eye on the dark vertical slits in the towers as he ran, knowing that a bowman could be watching from within.

Twenty yards.

Could he dodge an arrow this close?

Almost there, and… he dashed between the towers and through the gate, skidding to a stop beside Drex and giving the senior Ranger a black look.

The street was deserted, and a heavy door on the closest gate tower was cracked open. Drex was already moving towards it, ignoring the sounds of fighting that echoed between the buildings. He kicked the door and they rushed inside with swords at the ready.

The sickening stench of blood hung thick in the cramped space, and the contents of the room were strewn about and smashed. Light from a slit window fell on two men in the baron’s red and yellow who lay motionless on the floor.

Drex motioned him towards the stairs and knelt to check the bodies. Tormjere took them two at a time, but found a similar scene awaiting him on the upper floor. Another of the baron’s men was pitched backwards over a table, and three goblins lay in pools of their own blood. The door to the top of the wall was closed and barred.

He turned and hurried back down the stairs.

“Another dead upstairs, but at least they got some of them first,” he said.

Drex stood, seemingly puzzled by something. “This is a bold raid for them. Were the full garrison present, they would never have breached the walls.”

“Had the gates been closed, they wouldn’t have breached the walls,” Tormjere replied, watching the street through the open door. “How should we handle this?”

“We’ll split up to cover more ground. I dislike the need, but we must discover the scale of this attack quickly. Head for his lordship’s manse and offer your services to whoever is in command. It is there,” Drex said, pointing through a narrow window to a modest stone keep several blocks away, “close to the river. I’ll check the length of the city wall and meet you there. Remember, good information is worth more to the commander than another sword.”

With that, Drex hurried up the steps Tormjere had taken earlier.

Tormjere stepped from the gatehouse. A small crowd of men and women ran past him and out the gate, fleeing the conflict. Hazy smoke drifted through the street, obscuring the keep. With a final glance over his shoulder, he set out in the general direction Drex had indicated. He had visited Jonrin only a handful of times and remembered the arrangement of the city, but it was easy to get turned around. The multi-story buildings were tightly packed, turning the streets into narrow tunnels with blind turns.

A group of goblins burst onto the street ahead of him, but he ducked into an alley before they saw him. They ran past without stopping, headed towards the gatehouse he and Drex had just vacated. Tormjere picked his way through the alley to the next thoroughfare and stuck his head around the corner. Through the smoke, he could make out a high stone wall several blocks away that was doubtless part of the keep. Between it and where he stood a group of goblins was trying to force their way into a house. Frightened shouts sounded from inside. Tormjere knew it would take little more than time before they gained entry.

Unwilling to let that happen, he charged across the street. The goblins were so intent on the door they never saw him coming. He hacked down the first from behind, sending the dying creature crashing into the others. All three went down in a tangle, and Tormjere killed each as they attempted to rise.

“You’re safe for now!” he shouted into the building, then continued down the street without waiting for a response.

As he drew nearer the keep, the smoke cleared, and he got a good look at what awaited him. The keep itself was small and square, and the outer bailey no higher than the buildings surrounding it. Soldiers fought along the length of the wall to repel the goblins. Rather than scaling ladders, the goblins were stacking crates and stolen furniture in piles to try and reach the top of the wall, but the defense appeared to be holding.

Goblin archers had gained the roof of a burgher’s home nearby and were lobbing arrows into the compound. Screams of pain from inside the walls meant that at least some were finding their mark.

There was no way Tormjere could reach the gate, but he might be able to do something about the archers. Altering course, he ran through the open door of the house.

A goblin spun towards him in surprise, a fresh loaf of bread in each hand and its mouth stuffed full. It dropped one loaf and reached for an axe, but Tormjere was faster. He killed it and kept moving—fighting goblins was all about speed. It was a lesson he had learned early and never forgotten.

Another goblin poked its head down from the upper floor to investigate. Spying Tormjere, it drew a knife and charged down the steps with a shout.

Tormjere grabbed a nearby pot and threw it at the creature to slow its approach. The goblin avoided the makeshift missile and dove from the steps at his head. He managed to duck the slashing knife, but the creature’s sharp nails raked painfully across his shoulder. He shoved the flailing goblin off before it could gain hold. It landed hard and rolled to a crouch, but by then Tormjere had his sword ready. A well-timed slash killed the goblin before it could rise.

Tormjere inspected his bleeding shoulder. He should have waited for the goblin to reach the bottom of the stairs where his size would have given him a better advantage. Unhappy with his poor decision, he rushed up the stairs to salvage any momentum he could.

Alerted by the sounds below, three goblins waited for him with steel in their hands. He never stopped moving, burying his sword in the first creature’s stomach before it could react. The goblin contorted in pain and doubled over, pulling his sword down with it.

Tormjere let it fall with the goblin. There wasn’t room for the long blade here. The deer-hooved handle of his elvish knife seemed to almost leap into his hand, and he pressed his attack.

Both remaining goblins descended on him, attempting to force him into a corner. He feinted at one and slashed at the other, then jumped atop a small table to gain space. Before he could bring his knife up, a hand wrapped around his ankle and jerked him to his knees. Tormjere stabbed the creature through the neck, and its hold on his leg loosened.

With a snarl, the other goblin kicked the table, tipping it and sending Tormjere crashing to the floor. The small creature leapt over the table and landed on him heavily.

The goblin fought like the animal it was, biting and clawing as they rolled across the floor, crashing into furnishings. Using a wall for leverage, Tormjere managed to pin one of the creature’s arms behind its back. It squirmed and howled, but he freed his knife and stabbed it through the heart.

Tormjere untangled himself from the dead goblin and winced as he took a deep breath. Battered and bleeding, he recovered his sword and moved into the next room. Sunlight poured through a hole in the roof above, accompanied by the twang of bowstrings.

He scrambled up the pile of furniture beneath the hole and hoisted himself onto the slanted tile roof. Three goblins stood near the edge, firing arrows towards the keep.

The one closest barked something over its shoulder. When Tormjere didn’t answer, it turned to repeat the command. Its eyes widened as Tormjere crashed into it with his shoulder. The hapless creature tried desperately to grab him before tumbling over the edge with a screech and plummeting two stories to the cobblestone street below.

Tormjere’s foot slipped on the slick tiles, allowing the next goblin time to drop its bow and rush at him with an axe. Off balance, his wild swipe was easily dodged by the creature, leaving him staring directly at a recurved bow drawn fully back.

Tormjere threw himself down, barely avoiding the arrow that whistled past his head. The goblin with the axe jumped at him with a wild swing at his head. Tormjere twisted onto his back to bring his sword point up, and the creature impaled itself on the blade.

With no time to stand, Tormjere rolled towards the last creature. The goblin swung its bow like a club, smashing it against his back and snapping the weapon in half. Tormjere kept rolling despite the pain and crashed into the goblin’s legs, bowling it over. With a final kick, he sent it screaming over the edge.

He started to get up when another arrow skipped off the roof beside him. Goblins atop another building a block away had turned to fire at him.

Tormjere scrambled for cover behind a short chimney. As he huddled behind the not-quite-tall-enough barrier, he got his first look over the walls surrounding the baron’s stronghold.

The keep was perhaps four stories in height and crenelated at the top, though there were no defenders to be seen on the ramparts. All appeared to be along the wall or below in the bailey that encircled a handful of structures. Squat, squared towers flanked the main gate to his right, but they failed to match the height of many of the surrounding homes. Most of the goblins had given up on scaling the walls and were now attempting to hack their way through the thick wooden gate. Their small axes weren’t the most effective choice but given enough time they would gain entry.

To Tormjere’s left, a smaller group of the creatures were attempting the same at a small steel door in the wall. The soldiers inside seemed unable to prevent either attack.

Tormjere couldn’t fathom how the unorganized goblins had ever made it beyond the city wall like this.

He shouted to get the attention of one of the soldiers on the wall.

“Why are you on the roof?” the soldier yelled.

“I need to get inside!”

“Go back to your house!”

“I’m a Ranger! I was told to…”

The soldier turned and shouted something behind him before Tormjere could finish. A moment later, an older soldier with grey at his temples appeared on the rampart.

“What word, Ranger?” he called.

“I was told to offer aid as I can,” Tormjere shouted back.

“How many are at our gate?”

“Near two dozen, but there’s only a handful at the postern to my left.”

“Can you take their mind off the door from there?”

“I think so.”

“Do it,” the man said before turning to issue commands.

Tormjere reached for his bow, only to discover it missing. He frowned but had no time to look for it. He scooped up one of the goblin’s bows still laying on the roof and sent arrows flying at the cluster of goblins outside the small door. Though few found their target, the creatures scattered for cover.

As soon as the banging stopped, the door swung open and soldiers rushed out into the street.

Tormjere tossed aside the bow, slid through the hole in the roof, and ran back down the stairs. When he reached the street, however, he found the postern sealed again and the soldiers attacking the goblins outside the main gate.

He ran to help, certain that this was exactly what Drex had told him not to do. Neither as large nor as well armored as the soldiers, he stayed to the periphery of the conflict, striking down any of the creatures that tried to circle behind them.

The battle rapidly descended into a confused melee. One of the men fell with a deep cut in his leg. Another went down from an arrow. The goblin defense stiffened unexpectedly, and the soldiers were pushed back.

The main gate was thrown open behind them, and more soldiers rushed into the street. Evenly numbered but now outmatched, the goblins broke and ran.

Bodies littered the street. The soldiers quickly lifted the wounded to their feet as arrows continued to fall around them.

Tormjere got an arm under the man with the cut leg and helped him hobble inside before the gates slammed shut. The courtyard was aswirl with activity. Orders were shouted, and soldiers were rushing about in response. Arrows were no longer falling inside the walls, but whatever respite they had earned was unlikely to last. Struggling under the weight of the larger man, he eased him down against a wall.

Before he could seek a healer a roll of cloth was shoved into his hand.

“Bind that wound!”

Tormjere jumped to obey. He wrapped the strip of cloth around the gash in the man’s leg and tied it off. The man grunted in pain but clenched his teeth and clapped Tormjere on the shoulder in thanks. A shadow fell across them as Tormjere finished, and he looked up to see the older man he had spoken to on the wall.

“You choose an opportune time to join us, young Ranger,” the man said, extending his hand. “Sergeant Vaunton.”

“Tormjere,” he said, still breathing heavily. “We were on patrol nearby and came to aid as we can.”

Another soldier pulled the injured man to his feet and led him back to the wall.

“What did you see? We’ve heard nothing since the attack started and we locked the gates.”

“The gatehouse to the north was overrun, but they left no one to occupy it. I saw some looting.”

“A raid then, but a big one.”

“Seems likely,” Tormjere said, remembering Drex’s earlier appraisal. He took a long drink from a waterskin that was handed to him. “Word has been sent to Bendin for help. Another Ranger is checking your outer walls and should return here as well. I was told to report to Lord Halthon.”

“His lordship isn’t here. He was attending a meeting this morning at the smith’s guild hall. Squire Browlan has a mind to go retrieve him, so I suggest you hurry along with his squad over there.”

Tormjere looked to where a two-wide column of men was assembling by the gate. “Do you have any bows?”

Vaunton turned and shouted across the courtyard. “Jarreth, fetch one of the spare bows. Run man!” He turned back to Tormjere. “Every archer we had left us a week ago, but some equipment remains.”

The soldier named Jarreth came rushing back and handed Tormjere a bow and quiver full of arrows.

“Luck to you,” Vaunton said, and then shouted, “Squire Browlan! The Ranger’s with you.”

Browlan wore the same red and yellow tabard as every other soldier there, but his mail hauberk and crested helm stood out from the simple gambesons of the other men. He looked sideways at Tormjere and frowned, then waved him to the back of the line.

Browlan signaled, and the gate was opened once more. The squad ran clumped together beneath raised shields with Tormjere ducked down behind them, trying to keep up. Arrows bounced off the street stones around them and stuck in the wooden shields with solid thunks. He pressed tightly against the man in front of him, hoping the goblins would miss him entirely amidst all the bright colors.

Browlan shouted something Tormjere couldn’t make out and the squad turned left onto a narrow, winding street. The arrows stopped as soon as they had turned the corner, and the men lowered their shields and picked up the pace.

It wasn’t long before shouts rang out ahead as goblins attacked from an intersecting route. The soldiers forced their way forward and clogged the street, and Tormjere could do little but watch from the rear. He kept his bow at the ready, constantly checking over his shoulder, but there was little he could do.

When the fighting was finished, one of the soldiers didn’t get up.

“Forward, quickly now!” Browlan shouted.

Tormjere fell in at the back of the line again, thinking unhappy thoughts. He had made better time through the town on his own, and hadn’t gotten anyone killed in the process. He didn’t even know where they were going.

“What’s the guild hall look like?” he asked the man in front of him.

“Red-tile roof with lots of chimneys,” the soldier said without breaking stride. “We’re almost there.”

The squad took a sharp right and burst into a market square, immediately landing amidst general chaos. Isolated pockets of townsfolk fought against the goblins, who were equally disorganized. Windows were smashed, carts overturned, and smoke hung in the air. Across the square, the guild hall’s heavy stone walls looked almost as formidable as those of the keep. Multiple streets emptied into the square, but the squire didn’t seem the type to post a rear guard.

Tormjere shouted to Browlan, trying to get his attention. “I’ll wait here and provide cover when you come out.”

Browlan led another charge directly across the square toward the guild hall without giving any indication that he had heard.

Considering it unwise to stand alone in the middle of the street, Tormjere looked for a place to hide. He spied a balcony with a good view of the area, attached to a house that looked to have been looted already. Tormjere entered through the broken door and made his way up to the balcony. Decorative pots filled with flowers lined the railing, their fragrance mixing with the smoke and his own sweat to create a strangely pungent aroma.

In the middle of the square lay the body of another of the soldiers from the squad. A few feet away a farmer died beneath a swarm of goblins. Tormjere almost loosed an arrow in an attempt to save him, but he might need them more when they found Halthon. As he watched another townsman die, he hoped the baron was worth it.

Thankfully, it wasn’t long before Browlan and the rest of the squad emerged from the guild hall. They ran straight across the courtyard again, this time with Halthon ducked down in the middle beneath the soldier’s raised shields.

Goblins noticed, and one blew a long blast on a horn.

Tormjere let fly, silencing it as it took a breath to blow again. He shot at two others that had turned towards the baron, sending them scrambling for cover. After the squad passed beneath him, he shifted his aim and sent several arrows into goblins fighting the townsfolk.

His conscience mollified, Tormjere hurried back down the stairs and ran after the squad. He was down to only three arrows, and he hoped they wouldn’t be needed for their return to the keep.

They went back by way of the same streets they had used to get there. Luck was with them this time, as they encountered no goblins.

That luck ended as they turned the final corner.

“The Baron approaches! Open the gates!” Browlan cried.

The goblins, who until now had remained unaware of their return, reappeared on the rooftops and came rushing into the street.

Tormjere considered putting an arrow in the squire, but instead he stopped and drew a bead on one of the goblin archers above. Just before he let fly, the goblin pitched forward and fell from the roof, an arrow protruding from its back. The one beside it was struck an instant later.

Tormjere looked over his shoulder to see Drex running towards him. He sent his final arrows at the roof to provide cover, then sprinted with the other Ranger into the safety of the keep.

Chapter Two

A Problem of Priorities

Baron Halthon collapsed against a wall, gasping for breath, his eyes shifting rapidly around the courtyard. His puffy face was red and splotchy, and heavy sweat ran down his clean-shaven cheeks. Tormjere thought it would be ironic if the man survived the assault on his town only to expire from the run.

“Where is my wife?” Halthon asked as soon as he could breathe.

“Safe in her chambers with your children, my lord,” Sergeant Vaunton said. “We’ve over twenty men defending the keep.”

Browlan stepped forward “I made certain they were secure before coming to get you.”

“Well done, Squire,” Halthon said.

Tormjere wondered how getting men killed by running in a straight line through the battle, twice, could be considered a good thing.

“I regret that we were delayed by the attack here,” Browlan replied smugly, “but I am relieved that I could assist in your safe return, my lord.”

“There is more to do,” Halthon said. “What is our disposition throughout the city?”

Vaunton looked at Tormjere. “The Ranger knows it best, my lord.”

All eyes were suddenly on Tormjere. He had never spoken to anyone in the nobility and didn’t have a solid grasp on where the goblins were, other than everywhere.

“We discovered the goblins across the river and followed them here, my lord. We found the north gate was open and the doors were never barred. I made my way here and assisted with the defense.”

They all seemed to be expecting more, but he could think of nothing else to add.

Drex stepped forward to save him. “My lord, it is likely that at least three hundred goblins attacked from the north and west but do not appear to be fortifying any position. I checked the other gates and found them in a similar state. Those who defended them are dead, and the gates open.”

“How could that happen?” Halthon asked.

“Perhaps some treachery, my lord,” Browlan answered. “It seems unlikely for all three gates to have been lax in their defense at the same time.”

“We must beat these things back, out of the city!” Halthon said, shaking his fist.

Squire Browlan shook his head. “My lord, we lack the manpower for an effective counterattack against that many.”

“I will not sit secure behind my walls while my town is ransacked and our people huddle in fear,” Halthon said. “We must be forceful against these creatures.”

Tormjere doubted the effectiveness of the idea but found himself liking the Baron’s attitude nonetheless. Even if they emptied the keep, there were not enough men to drive hundreds of goblins from the city.

“Very well, my lord,” Browlan said. “Sergeant! Two squads of five, one Ranger with each. Secure the market and river gates. Leave the forest gate open so they have a way out. I need to know where and how many they are.”

“Alright, get your kit together!” Vaunton shouted. He continued barking out orders as he organized the men.

“My lord, if I may,” Drex said, stepping forward. “Would it not be best for us to slip outside the wall and see if more goblins approach?”

Halthon’s previously friendly tone disappeared. “I am well aware of your purpose, Ranger. You may answer to our king, but this is my town that is under attack. The king demanded my men for this war and was given them, so I doubt he would object to your aid in this matter.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“When the town is secured you may return to your duties. Squire Browlan, please join me in the hall so we can make plans.”

Browlan gave them both an annoyed look as he followed Halthon into the keep.

Drex pulled Tormjere aside. “This is not how we should be used, but we’ll make the best of it. The market gate is the one to the north that we came through earlier. Be cautious. The goblins may expect some counter and begin to quit the city soon. They doubtless have trailbreakers already in motion.”

He paused thoughtfully. “Or not. This is an odd raid. They aren’t trying to occupy the town, nor do they seem exclusively bent on plunder. Goblins don’t raid just for sport.”

“I’ll see what I can find.”

“Stay safe. And be back here before dark. Then we’ll scout south and blaze a trail for the reinforcements.”

Tormjere glanced up at the sun, surprised that, for all they had done, it was not yet past midday. He turned to find his squad, refilling his empty quiver as he made his way to them.

The gate was opened, and with a final wave to Drex, Tormjere hustled outside once more. The wind had shifted, and a haze of smoke now filled streets that were previously clear. The soldier in charge paused at the first street corner. After peering left and right, he turned and beckoned Tormjere forward.

Tormjere moved beside him, and saw it was the same soldier who had brought him a bow.

“You came this way earlier?” Jarreth asked. “Any idea where they are?”

“They were scattered but seemed more concentrated in the middle of town. The gatehouse was empty, and I didn’t have to fight until I reached the keep.”

“Alright. Stay close on me and shout out if you see anything.” He turned to the squad. “We’ll be safer in the gatehouse than in the open. Move fast and stay alert.”

Tormjere slung his bow over his shoulder and drew his sword as he followed. There would be little need for the ranged weapon until they reached the wall.

They came to a crossing and turned right, past a burning house. Should the flames jump to the neighboring buildings they would quickly become more dangerous to the town than the goblins, but the squad couldn’t stop to extinguish them now. Bodies lay in front of a leatherworker’s shop three buildings down. The squad continued past them as well, but hands tightened on weapons.

The next bend deposited them in a small square where three streets came together. Jarreth pointed across to one.

Tormjere heard running feet and raised a warning hand, but by then it was too late. Men and goblins entered the square at the same time, both headed in the same direction.

“Line right!” Jarreth shouted as the goblins attacked.

Tormjere was jostled aside as the soldiers formed a hasty shield wall. The goblins responded by splitting into two groups that sought to swarm around the ends of the defensive line, and it disintegrated almost as soon as it formed. Jarreth entered the fray alongside his men, shouting curses and encouragement in equal amounts.

Tormjere stayed beside Jarreth, striking at any goblin that made it past the soldiers. They squad managed to fend off the goblin’s initial attack, and rapidly gained the upper hand. Their counterattack was swift and violent, and the goblins fled once half their number had been slain.

Tormjere took a survey of the squad. None of the men had been lost, though many had sustained injuries in the melee.

“This way, now,” Jarreth said, intent on reaching the nearby gate.

Tormjere began to follow, then stopped abruptly as a burning tingle crawled up the back on his neck, as urgent as it was unexpected. He looked over his shoulder down a narrow thoroughfare. It was quiet, and empty but for the pale moon hanging low in the blue sky. But something was definitely wrong.

The sensation returned again, sharp and strangely insistent. With a glance back in the direction the squad had gone, he turned and ran the opposite way. He could catch up with them.

He kept his footfalls light as he followed the winding, empty street away from both gatehouse and keep. In contrast to the damage done elsewhere, this part of the town was as yet undisturbed. If not for the smell of smoke and absence of people, it could have been a normal spring day.

The clash of steel echoed between the buildings, followed by cries of pain. Tormjere rushed around the corner but was unprepared for the scene that greeted him.

A man was collapsed on his knees next to two bodies. Three other men stood over him with naked blades. He fought valiantly to his feet, but the three surrounding him stabbed with their swords, again and again until he stopped moving. Backed against a wall behind them, a girl in a simple but finely cut riding dress crouched in fear, low enough that her long, loosely gathered blond hair reached almost to the ground.

The three men turned and spread out around her. She snatched a sword from the ground and stood, waving it back and forth awkwardly in her left hand to keep them at bay.

“Come on, now,” one of the attackers said. “There doesn’t have to be any more blood.”

“Go away!” she shouted.

“You’re coming whether you want to or not. It’s already been arranged.”

The girl’s panicked, somehow familiar, blue eyes met Tormjere’s from across the street, pleading for help as clearly as if she had said the words aloud. Unwilling to watch her be butchered as her guard had been, he rushed forward.

She took a step to her right, inadvertently doing the best thing she could have. The men shadowed her movement, which kept their backs to him.

Tormjere struck down the closest with a slash to the neck. The second man spun towards him without hesitation, lashing out with his sword. Surprised by the speed, Tormjere barely ducked beneath the blade. He cut low with his sword, severing the man’s leg above the knee.

The last attacker was on him before he could recover, ignoring the dying man as he struck at Tormjere repeatedly. The attacks were well-timed and sophisticated, and Tormjere was forced onto the defensive by the powerful blows. He tried to counter, but his opponent was quick with his blade and each attempt was foiled.

Tormjere was rapidly beginning to tire and searched for an advantage over the larger man. He moved sideways, careful not to let his eyes wander back to the girl but still aware of where she stood. The attacker followed, stepping between them.

Recognizing the opportunity as he had hoped she would, the girl threw her sword.

It struck the man’s shoulder and bounced off. Though not a solid blow, it was enough to disrupt his rhythm. Tormjere batted aside his blade and slashed across his face. The man spun to his knees, clutching his mangled nose even as he reached for the dagger at his belt. Tormjere struck again, and the man toppled to the ground and lay still.

“Are you hurt?” Tormjere asked the girl urgently.

Her blue eyes were wide and her entire body trembled, but she shook her head.

“Into that building. There are goblins everywhere.”

She ran towards where he was pointing, a tailor’s shop by the look of the sign. Tormjere watched her long hair bounce as she ran, certain that he had met someone with eyes so blue only once.

“I’m pleased to see you again, my lady,” he said after barring the door, “though the situation is less agreeable.”

“I knew it was you! You helped me with Bessie last year.”

Tormjere nodded, remembering the dog he had helped raise, and who had later been sold and ended up with the girl.

“Where is she?”

“Home. I had to leave her when…” She trailed off uncertainly.

“I’m Tormjere, now with the King’s Rangers.”

She opened her mouth to respond, then closed it as she struggled with some thought. Their eyes met, and she made her decision. “Princess Kataria.”

That was a surprise. Tormjere had assumed her to be a member of the nobility, but he had never imagined that she was that important.

“Why are you here?”

“We were to meet a trusted advisor who would take us to… to Fallhaven.” Her left hand went to the finely crafted silver disk hanging from her neck. The size of her palm, it was ringed by a decorative outer edge that was divided into three sections, while a large pearl was set low in the center of the flat interior. “I am to join the temple of Eluria there.”

She jumped at the sound of guttural shouts just outside. They sank down behind the table as a group of goblins ran past.

“Those were guards with you?”

“Only two, and they are both dead.” Kataria shook her head sadly. “It was a small group so that no one would know who I was. We were trying to get out of town when the attack came, then ran into… those men.”

Something in the way she said it caught his attention.

“Did you know them?”

“No, but they seemed to know me.”

“Not even the Baron is aware you’re here?”

She shook her head. “No one was to be told. If he knew, there would be dinners and balls and half the kingdom would know where I was.” She must have realized how much she had shared with him already and paused with concern. “You will not tell anyone, will you?”

“Not unless you wish it. Regardless of who knows, it isn’t safe to stay here.”

Tormjere considered their options. Drex expected his return, but Halthon’s keep was undoubtedly still under attack and it would be foolish to risk fighting his way back there with her. The senior Ranger could never have anticipated this.

“I’ll see you to your meeting, Your Highness. Where was it to be?”

Her relief was plainly visible. “We are to rendezvous just outside of town, along the road to Fallhaven.”

“We came in from that direction earlier, as did the goblins.”

“Then I worry for those I am to meet. We must go there at once. I could not bear it if they should come to harm while waiting for me.”

“Then we should move quickly. With luck, the market gate is now secure.” He looked out the window and saw the street was again empty. “Stay close.”

She slipped out the door behind him, and they backtracked the way Tormjere had come.

Shouts came from somewhere ahead, and they ducked between two buildings as another group of goblins ran by. Tormjere glanced back to see how she was holding up, and she gave him a nervous smile.

Once the goblins were well past, they crossed through the square where the squad had battled and took the street towards the gatehouse. Sounds of fighting greeted them as they drew close. Tormjere stuck his head around a corner and saw the gatehouse under assault. The door was now barred, but goblins had climbed the wall and were attacking from the upper door as well. It would only be a matter of time before they broke through and the defenders were overrun. Tormjere’s hands clenched in frustration. He could make a difference in the fight were it not for the princess standing beside him.

He hesitated, then turned from the scene, knowing what he had to do.

“We’ll find another way out.”

Kataria twisted her hair. “Can nothing be done for them?”

“No. We have to get you to safety.”

“How will we get out with the gate blocked?”

“We’ll follow the wall towards the river and find one of the bridges. That way was clear earlier.”

They skirted the fighting at the gatehouse and made their way along a street that followed the city wall. They scrambled beneath a covered doorway as a small group of goblins appeared, but she wasn’t fast enough this time, and one of the goblins shouted.

Tormjere met them head on as they attacked, determined to keep them away from the princess. His sword cut the first goblin almost in two. The other creatures stopped short and scrambled to defend themselves, unprepared for his assault. In no mood for finesse, he pressed his attack. Two more fell in short order.

The last goblin turned to flee but stopped in surprise as its eyes fell on Kataria. Tormjere cut it down from behind before it could reach her.

“Quickly now. Make for that tall house by the wall,” he said.

“Did you see how it looked at me?”

The cuts on his shoulder from the goblin’s nails were starting to burn and he had a fresh cut on his arm, but he tried to ignore them as he led her down the street.

“Goblins look at everyone like that. Hurry.”

The door was barred, so he took a stone from the garden and smashed in a window. He squeezed through the opening, careful to avoid the sharp edges. The house was vacant, or perhaps the inhabitants were hiding in the cellar. He reached for the door, but Kataria was already climbing in behind him. Her dress tore on the remnants of the window, but that was the least of their worries right now.

He led the way up a set of narrow stairs to the third level, where they found a small balcony overlooking the wall. The owner’s need for a pleasant view thankfully satisfied their current requirement to escape.

The distance was such that Tormjere could have jumped it, but he saw no reason to take chances with the princess. He returned to a bedroom, flipped the bed upside down, and pulled the wooden slats from beneath the stuffed mattresses. These he laid side by side across the gap between balcony and wall, and then held them firmly in place.

Kataria looked at him skeptically, but tossed her long hair behind her back and crawled slowly across without protest. Tormjere followed as soon as she set foot on the battlement. Below them, a travelling market with numerous stalls and tents was arranged against the outside of the wall, but no vendors remained to hawk their wares.

“I’ll lower you down as far as I can,” he said, “then let go.”

Kataria looked back toward the keep. Black smoke rose from near the walls, and even from this distance they could see goblins on the surrounding roofs. She steeled herself and moved to the edge of the wall.

He gripped her arm tightly as she eased herself over the edge. When she was as far down as his arm would allow, she let go, falling onto a tent below. She bounced once before sliding ungracefully onto a cart.

Tormjere looked towards the gatehouse and saw that goblins had breached the door. Angrily, he kicked the makeshift bridge down and followed Kataria over the wall, landing hard but still upright.

“Stay low so they don’t see us,” he said, “and we’ll avoid any further unhappiness.”

* * *

The afternoon was waning as they crawled through the underbrush and peered down into a small clearing where five men waited with horses. One, nobly dressed in fitted doublet and breeches, paced back and forth. The other four appeared to be common fighting men but showed a discipline to their movements that marked them as something more. For a camp at the edge of a war, they seemed far more relaxed than the situation warranted. Jonrin was lost in the trees behind them, but sounds of the conflict still carried to their ears.

“Is that him?” Tormjere whispered, pointing to the pacing man.

“Yes. The one in the middle is Erbac, steward of my father’s household. I was surprised he offered to come himself.”

It did seem odd that someone so senior would be here in the middle of the woods, but she was a princess after all, and he supposed that would warrant the added concern.

“Let us get you to your meeting, then.”

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