“Though goblins are the most secretive of all peoples, audiences with Matrons granted me some insight into their people. The Tribes have no true concept of war because there is no such thing as peace, to a goblin – only the temporary witholding of violence.”
– Extract from “Horrors and Wonders”, famed travelogue of Anabas the Ashuran
There was nothing quite like a spot of murder to get the blood going in the morning. There weren’t any proper roads this close to the southern Marchford hills, but there was a dirt path wide enough for carts to take. Special Tribune Robber’s detached cohort had never set an ambush there before: it had been easier to catch them close to Dormer previously, but since that whole region had gone up into literal flames he’d had to readjust. The Wasteland was bleeding people and wealth like a slow fucking raider, and all the meat was headed for Liesse. Not a week past he’d watched a full thousand Taghreb household troops march to Heiress’ – well, Diabolist now if the rumours were to be believed – stronghold in an orderly column. That had been too much of a mouthful for his people to swallow, though he’d had the wells ahead of them poisoned as a ‘welcome to Callow’ present. They’d get a few corpses out of it before wising up and sticking to their own supplies.
This particular bunch was more in his wheelhouse. Only a hundred of them, though his scouts said they were heavy on the mages. That was fine. The Tribes had not gone through seven goblin rebellions without learning how to deal with those, even before the War College had shoved anti-caster doctrine down his trousers. Hit first, hit hard and mess with the field of vision. Robber’s cohort had been lying in wait for half the night, and now that dawn had broken the Praesi were on the move again. Five carts, dragged by oxen. Hard to tell what was inside with the cloths over the loads, but the last two they’d caught had been full of stone and metals. What the Diabolist wanted those for was anyone’s guess, but to the yellow-eyed tribune it smelled of a flying fortress. He kind of hoped it was. Not only would it mean he’d get to assault one of those before the year was out, it would also solve the Boss’ refugee problem.
Call him a cynic, but he doubted the Diabolist had let all of those people into Liesse out of the goodness of her Wastelander heart. They might as well have ‘ritual fuel’ branded onto their foreheads.
All of his raiders were old hands at this by now, so there was no need for him to give any orders. The tribune remained pressed into the ground, his form covered with grass and leaves. Most of the time putting soldiers on both sides of the road meant you were a fucking amateur commander and losing a few of your own to crossfire, but his people weren’t greenhorns. They wouldn’t blindly volley into the mass: his cohort wasn’t rich enough in ammunition to afford not picking its targets. Wide unblinking eyes watching the Praesi approach, Robber silently counted down until the fun began. Just as the middle of the procession hit the ground they’d picked, Captain Clipper whistled and the demolition charges blew. Lieutenant Rattler had dug underneath the path during the night to place them. By the looks of it, she’d flavoured the mix with a few smokers. Robber approved, it was a vicious little twist on the usual recipe: even as the oxen panicked, three patches of billowing toxic smoke spread along the enemy column.
“KILL THEM!” Robber called out, rising to his feet.
“TAKE THEIR STUFF!” the call came back.
The Praesi just screamed, which wasn’t anywhere as snappy. Bad form, the goblin mused. Even the usual yells of you can’t do this or do you know who I am had more of a flavour to them. That flavour was usually blood, more specifically blood in their mouths, but who was he to judge? Still alive, that was who. The tribune left his crossbow on the ground, leaning into a run even as he unsheathed his knives. Borer was in charge of the shooting, and though the man remained hopelessly worthy of his name bolts began taking lives before the special tribune stepped into the fray. A streak of lightning from the column hit the ground with a spray of dirt ahead of him, but Robber adjusted his stride to go around without missing a beat. The casting from the mages was sporadic, and wherever it came from was drowned in brightsticks before they could manage a second round. Sliding under a frenzied ox, the yellow-eyed tribune emerged at the back of black-robed Taghreb and punctured her kidney without any warning. She tried to get a last word out, but a knife to the throat took care of that. Blades still dripping, the goblin moved on.
He’d given orders to take a few prisoners, but his merry minions did tend to pull the trigger whenever something got into their crosshairs. He didn’t entirely blame them: any Praesi important enough to know something would have a few nasty curses in their arsenal. Smoothly scuttling under a cart, Robber sought his next target. Of the original hundred Praesi, half had died to the initial charges and volley. Another few had been incapacitated by the smoke and maybe twenty had died to the blades of the raiders who’d gone charging in. Borer’s boys were putting bolts in any isolated ones, and that left… a nice little cluster of twenty near the middle of the skirmish, shielding a furious-looking Soninke from the violence. Now that looked like someone who’d give up useful stuff under the knife. Robber sheathed one of his blades, took a brightstick out of his haversack and shoved it under his armpit as he struck the match. A heartbeat later he popped out from under the cart with a lit cylinder in hand, running at the cluster as fast as he could.
Two robed men turned their eyes to him immediately. Robber grinned nastily and went though the old drill. One, they cast. Two pairs of hands rose and two pairs of lips spoke words in the arcane tongue as his feet devoured the distance. Two, they aim. They’d been trained for battle-casting, he saw. They only picked their angle once his feet were on the ground, between steps. Three, be elsewhere. He rolled to the side, the space he’d occupied a heartbeat earlier filling with flame and sizzling dark energy. Smoothly returning to his feet, he tossed the brightstick right above their heads and closed his eyes. The bright flash and loud bang would make sure they weren’t able to cast a second time before he was on them. Pupils contracting even under his eyelids, Robber blessed the Gobbler for having made his people’s senses harder to shake than those of humans: he’d been in the brightstick’s range too, but he’d get back his eyes and ears before the mages did. Leaning so far forward his chin almost touched the floor, the tribune sliced through the back of one’s leg and simultaneously buried his other blade in the other’s belly.
The Praesi in charge was still blinded, he saw, and with a grin he leapt onto the man’s face. Wrapping his legs around the Soninke’s neck as he toppled to the ground, Robber sunk his teeth into the flesh beneath the hair. Much screaming ensued, to his amusement. Please, I didn’t even touch the skull. Unlike orcs fangs, goblins ones weren’t capable of crunching through bone: his kind were more scavengers than predators.
“I got the big one,” he called out. “Wipe out the rest.”
“Crossbows, fire at will,” Captain Borer calmly ordered. “Munitions, withhold.”
The tribune’s second-in-command lacked that touch of in-your-face that was the usual signature of sappers, but something had to be said for keeping your calm when the blades were out. He almost reminded Robber of Hakram, if the orc had traded away his sense of humour and a few feet in height for superior goblin good looks. Poor Hakram, sadly born one of goblinkind’s homelier cousins. Thick skin, thick bones, but small eyes like a ferret and too much muscle to ever crawl his way through a tunnel. The Soninke under him was panicking so Robber let go long enough to kick him in the face until he fell unconscious. A handful of crossbow bolts later and no Praesi were left to make trouble, his people swarming the field eagerly. Robber wiped his blades on the unconscious Soninke’s face before sheathing them.
“So what have we got, my pretties?” he asked.
“Stone, Special Tribune,” word came from further down as canvas was ripped off carts.
“These guys have the worst loot,” Lieutenant Rattler complained.
“Rattler, stop whining and bind this one,” Robber said, pointing a foot at the unconscious Soninke.
“You know I’m right, Chief,” she muttered, eyes flicking down and lips demurely covering her teeth in a display acknowledging his authority.
She’d been Loud Eagle tribe before joining the Legions. One of the few surface tribes that still raided regularly – their Matrons and women took more of an interest in matters of violence, as a consequence. War was still spoken of of male’s work with that understated contempt, but no Matron would let a matter so important to her tribe entirely in the hands of males. There was a reason Robber didn’t put anyone fresh from the Eyries in her line: Rattler was opinionated enough that she’d reinforce bad habits from home. A lot of male goblins deferred to women, even those of lower rank, for their first few years in the Legions. Fucked with the chain of command, not that the Special Tribune cared a lot about that – but officers afraid of contradicting a female wouldn’t speak up themselves, and that he actually gave a shit about. Didn’t help that there wasn’t a single female goblin in the Fifteenth that wasn’t an officer, since they didn’t enrol in the ranks: it was the War College for them or nothing at all. Command was the birthright of their gender, after all.
The Special Tribune spat to the side. There was a reason unruly types like him were dumped into the Legions: back home he’d have started to ask questions eventually, and though he’d have gotten a shallow grave for it the Matrons didn’t like anyone rocking their boat.
“Well, would you look at that,” Captain Clipper called out. “Chief, we’re rich.”
Robber flicked a glance in the direction: Clipper was in the middle cart, sitting on what looked like a pile of solid gold ingots. The Special Tribune whistled.
“There’s your prize, Rattler,” he said. “Praesi gold. We get any richer than this and it’ll start the Eight Rising.”
“I nominate myself as Goddess-Queen of all the Tribes,” Clipper announced imperiously.
“Will you use your power for good?” one of the sappers asked, grinning.
“No,” Clipper decided. “Fear me, expendable minions. You will die in droves for my amusement.”
“As rival candidate, I nominate Borer wearing a wig,” Robber yelled.
Considering goblins were hairless, the hilarity of an expressionless Borer ruling with luscious blond curls was not to be underestimated. There were murmurs of approval among the horde.
“You can serve as my treacherous consort, Robber,” Clipper generously allowed.
The seductive flash of fangs was nothing new – the captain was a notorious flirt – but the way she’d accented his name in Lower Miezan had him frowning. It was almost the same that his name would be pronounced in stonetongue. Well, the last part of it anyway. Though in the bastard tongue of the Empire he was called Robber, a more accurate translation of his name in the Eyries would be the-glint-in-the-eyes-of-one-about-to-rob-the-unwary. Doing even that much was walking the line of what got you Preserver attention. Robber was not eager to have the hounds of the Matrons slaughter his entire cohort in their beds for leaking parts of the stonetongue to outsiders. He’d chastise her later in private.
“Float the notion by the Boss, see how that turns out,” he suggested.
“Fifty fifty odds, if it results in dead Truebloods,” a sapper called out.
There was a hearty round of cackles. His cohort set to torching everything but the gold cart – that was headed back to Marchford with their wounded – as Robber signalled for Borer to join him and they headed together for the still-unconscious Soninke. Rattler had tied him up good and proper, so they wasted no time in slapping the Wastelander awake. Eyes opened blearily and filled with rage before a heartbeat had passed. Gods, they were so predictable sometimes.
“Do you have any idea-“
Robber slapped him.
“Name?” he asked.
“I am Mulade Humin, heir to-“
Robber slapped him again.
“Nice to meet you, Mumu,” he said. “I’m Special Tribune Robber, official lesser lesser footrest to the Lady of Marchford.”
“What is the meaning of this attack, goblin?” the Soninke spat.
“You mean, like, in a philosophical sense?” Robber mused.
“I mean how dare you attack a highborn under the protection of the Lady Diabolist?” the noble sneered. “We will have your hide for this.”
Robber slapped him a third time, this once more for his personal satisfaction than anything.
“I’d worry more about surviving this conversation than what’s going to happen to me, if I were you,” the goblin said. “Borer, show him the knife.”
Captain Borer sighed and went fishing in his haversack, producing an oversized dagger with saw teeth and a ruby the size of an egg set into the pommel.
“This is the murder knife, Mumu,” Robber said. “Every time you don’t tell us what we want to know, we’re gonna use it.”
“Cheap tactics will not-“
Borer stabbed him in the shoulder without any need for prompting. The Soninke screamed.
“It’s like you’re not even listening,” Robber said, sadly shaking his head. “Now, Mumu, what does dear ol’ Akua need all this stone and gold for?”
“I don’t know,” Mulade said.
“Guess,” Robber said before Borer stabbed the man in the other shoulder.
“Sandstone is used in rituals,” the noble finally panted after another bout of screaming. “It has the property of clarity and you can’t find the right kind in the provinces.”
“What’s she building?” the Special Tribune asked.
“No one knows,” Mulade babbled hastily. “The Empress is trying to find out.”
“And if I asked you to guess?” Robber said, brow raising again.
“I’m not a mage,” the noble replied mulishly. “And you killed all of mine.”
“Fair enough,” the goblin shrugged.
He rose to his feet. Borer, without missing a beat, slit the prisoner’s throat. The man didn’t even have time to panic. Which was good, fear gave human flesh a bad taste and they were low on rations. The Special Tribune took a brightstick out of his haversack and began flipping it absent-mindedly. His cohort had done good work down here, but it was all diminishing returns from now on. Fae moved fast, and there was no telling how far up north they intended on going. Slitting Praesi throats was one thing, but tangling with a Court? Robber’s minions didn’t have the munitions for that. Nowhere near enough goblinfire in stock. His instincts told him it was time to bail before the hammer fell, but leaving a mystery untouched behind the walls of Liesse didn’t sit right with him either.
“Borer,” he finally said.
“Special Tribune?” the other goblin replied calmly.
“Take the cohort back to Marchford with the gold,” he ordered. “I’m taking a tenth south to have a closer look.”
“Is that wise, sir?” his captain asked, large eyes more green than yellow blinking.
Robber grinned unpleasantly, tossing up the brightstick.
“You know what they say, Captain – only cowards live to fifteen.”
He was thirteen, now, going on fourteen. About time he started taking some serious risks.
They’d waited for a moonless night. Swimming in the Hengest Lake wasn’t exactly his idea of a good time – as a rule goblins made better drowners than swimmers – but whoever ruled Liesse with the Diabolist gone ran a tight crew. Patrols were regular and wary, wards had been put everywhere and no cart passed the gates without a thorough inspection. Couldn’t put wards on water, though. It was one of those weird magical rules, like being unable to scry underground. Robber’s tenth emerged by the docks in silence, keeping to the shadows until the patrol above them passed. The Hellhound would be pissed, the goblin thought, when she heard that Liesse had tighter defences than Marchford. He’d make sure to send her a written report about it so she couldn’t ignore him.
“Rooftops,” Robber whispered, and his raiders nodded.
Going up was an old favourite of his people when forced to infiltrate cities. Unlike goblins humans rarely looked up unless given a reason, and Robber’s kind had no problem scaling stone walls – anything that couldn’t climb and lived in the Grey Eyries wouldn’t get to live long. Liesse was good territory for this kind of travelling, even better than Summerholm. The Gate of the East had been built to resist the Legions so its districts were punctured with wide avenues meant to stop exactly what he was doing, while Liesse was just an old maze of narrow streets this far into the city. Keeping out of sight, the dripping goblin waited for the rest of his tenth to join him. Going through the lake sadly meant they’d had to leave their munitions behind: the haversacks had been made with resisting rain in mind, but swimming was a little too much. Lieutenant Rattler was the last to scuttle across the tiles, and all of them knelt quietly as another patrol passed below.
“We’re going to trigger a ward sooner or later,” Rattler murmured.
“There should only be alarms, this deep,” the Special Tribune said. “And those are prone to triggering too easily. As long as we move fast we have a chance.”
“The Ducal Palace will be a fortress,” a sapper whispered.
“That just means it’s where the good stuff is,” Robber grinned, baring his fangs. “Quiet as the grave, my lovelies, or we’ll end up in one.”
They moved out. Parts of the city weren’t as he remembered, the goblin saw. Entire areas had been torn down and rebuilt in stone. And there’s guards on all of those. Whatever the Diabolist was up to, it was big. The Special Tribune made a point out of memorizing the layout as they travelled: the warlock’s get might be able to make something out of the pattern. Getting a closer look at whatever was inside those new buildings might have been even more useful, but it would also mean giving up the game early. Wastelanders always put the important stuff in the palaces, it wasn’t worth scrapping their chances to have a look there just for some minor hints in the inner city. The raiders only slowed when they reached the furthest edge of the roofs, the open expanse in front of them allowing no discrete path into the headquarters of the Praesi in Liesse.
Even at this hour of the night, the Ducal Palace was an orgy of torches. Most of those were fancy blue ever-burning flames that weren’t actually ever-burning – they needed regular juice from mages to keep going. Sadly, they did cast better light than regular torches. There was a full company of guards around the main entrance and from their perch they could see that behind the wall surrounding the palace there were more soldiers patrolling. Like they’d thought, the place was a fucking fortress. And if it didn’t have more wards than the average mage’s tower, Robber would eat his own toes. They waited for an hour in silence, trying to find a pattern in the patrols before admitting it would take too long to figure one out. Likely the Praesi had borrowed Legion doctrine anyway, which meant varied intervals.
“Side, has to be,” Lieutenant Rattler finally said.
“We won’t have long before a patrol passes,” Robber said. “I want us up that balcony with the closed doors within sixty heartbeats.”
Tricky, even for his folk. Goblins were usually faster on their feet than humans and he’d taken no deadweight with him south, but that was a very narrow window of action even for them.
“We could send a bleeder,” a sapper whispered.
Robber shook his head. It was an old raiding tactic to send a few young boys to bait the enemy while the real raiders struck another flank, but it wouldn’t work here.
“The moment they see one of us this entire place goes on lockdown,” he replied. “They’ll activate all the wards until sunup just in case, and that’s the end of it for us.”
Triggered wards, they could deal with. You just had to be lucky and quick enough not to get the nastiness going, or not be there when it did. But Praesi with enough magic to burn would just fill an entire area with flame so no one could pass through, and he wasn’t going to bet that the Diabolist didn’t have the juice. Heroes might have the constitution to walk through blockades like that, but Robber’s tenth was a great deal squishier.
“On my mark,” the Special Tribune said.
They waited for most of an hour before making for the outer wall. Robber took the lead, and was exceedingly careful about looking for runes when scaling the stone – he didn’t see any until he reached the top, and leapt down instead of risking putting his feet too close. His tenth followed him like shadows as the padded across the promenade and reached the side of the palace. Above them, two stories up, the balcony that would be their way in towered. There was a mark against the wall where what he guessed had been a trellis once stood, but the Diabolist’s people had removed it. Bare hands would have to do. The old stone didn’t give them much purchase, since it had been recently polished, but the mortar lines were enough for a goblin. Robber was the first over the balustrade, and there he froze. Two things gave him pause: first the doors to the inside were cracked open just large enough for someone to get through. Second, he’d just set foot on a rune trigger array.
“Chief?” the sapper behind him asked.
“I am so invincible,” Robber decided, “that even magic refuses to get into a fight with me.”
Someone climbing up cursed and he moved to make room for the others. Kneeling over the runes carved onto the floor, he ran a finger down the grooves.
“Huh,” Rattler said, once again last to arrive. “How are we not dead?”
“Someone was here ahead of us,” the yellow-eyed tribune murmured. “Someone who can make wards dormant.”
“You think the Boss went through?” a sapper asked.
“If she had, there’d be a hole in the ground and half the city would be on fire,” Robber noted. “Boss isn’t great at quiet.”
“But Named work, you think,” Rattler guessed.
“Could be the Eyes,” he frowned. “But whoever did this, they’re inside now.”
He rose back to his feet.
“Too late to turn back,” he said. “We go forward.”
They didn’t wander around blindly. Robber had been in the loop before the Battle of Liesse, when the Hellhound had ordered Pickler to draw up plans to breach the palace if the rebels holed up inside. He’d been more interested in the choke points he’d need to blow to separate the defenders, but he’d gotten a notion of how the Ducal Palace was laid out as a result. The rooms the Dukes and later the Imperial Governors had claimed for their own were in the back, with a view of the lake, but there was no point in heading there. The Diabolist wouldn’t be keeping anything interesting upside where anyone could find it. No, it would all be below. Thrice the goblins found other dormant wards on their way to the cellars, at least one of which they would have triggered before noticing it. Merciless Gods, whatever was down there the Diabolist really didn’t want anyone to find. The room that barred the access to the cellars, they found, had a closed door. Robber pressed his ear to the wood and heard nothing. Empty or warded to be soundproof? Whichever it was, the risk had to be taken.
“Blades out,” he ordered.
He pushed the door open, knife in hand, and found a room full of guards. All of which were on the ground and unmoving.
“Fucking Hells,” Lieutenant Rattler breathed. “The Assassin?”
Well, it certainly wasn’t the work of the Eyes. They were good, but not that good. The Special Tribune ushered everyone in and closed the door behind him, only then taking a closer look at the guards.
“No, not the Assassin,” he replied, seeing one breathe. “They’re still alive.”
“Shit,” a sapper hissed. “That reeks of hero, Chief.”
The situation did have the right combination of overwhelming skill and rank stupidity to be heroic work, he had to admit.
“Draper, slit their throats then catch up,” he ordered. “The rest of you with me.”
The stairs down beckoned him, the way wide open. The goblin froze for the second time tha night when he felt the touch of steel on the side of his neck.
“Draper,” a voice spoke quietly. “Don’t slit those throats. I don’t like leaving corpses behind. Good thieves don’t need to.”
Robber knew for a fact that a heartbeat ago there had been absolutely nothing to his side. And yet, right now, a woman stood there. Callowan, by the skin tone, with short dark hair and wearing comfortable leathers. Sharp blue eyes were studying him amusedly. They had met before, once.
“Evening, Thief,” Robber said. “Taking a stroll?”
“What can I say,” the heroine smiled. “I’m the curious type and there’s just so much here to be curious about.”
“Was thinking the same thing,” the goblin grinned. “Mind you, would you sheathe that knife?”
The woman raised an eyebrow.
“And why would I do that?”
“’cause I’ll sheathe mine,” Robber said, lightly tapping the blade he had pointed at her kidney.
“I could kill you before your wrist moved,” the heroine said.
“Probably,” Robber shrugged. “It’ll get messy afterwards, though. And hey, if I’m croaking, you can be sure I’m not gonna do it quietly.”
“You’d be sacrificing your own soldiers,” Thief said, narrowing her eyes.
“Lady, we’re sappers,” Lieutenant Rattler chuckled. “The only way we die is loud.”
The Callowan thinned her lips.
“No throat-slitting?” she asked.
“Goblin word of honour,” Robber grinned.
“What’s that actually worth?” the heroine asked with morbid curiosity.
“Gold, as long as you’re winning,” the goblin chuckled.
The Thief rolled her eyes, but the blade returned to its sheath.
“Well, this was delightful but we can go on our merry ways now,” Robber suggested. “We just want a peek downstairs.”
“You can’t,” the heroine replied. “It took me an aspect to get through those wards, and when you trigger them you’ll empty half a Hell.”
The Special Tribune hummed.
“We trade gossip, then,” he said. “What’s in the basement?”
“A millennium of paranoia carved into the walls,” the Thief said. “And over a dozen Deoraithe strapped on stone beds.”
Robber chewed over that for a moment.
“Are they Watch?”
“No idea,” Thief shrugged.
“Doesn’t sound good even if they aren’t,” the goblin admitted.
“There’s a reason we’re even having this conversation, goblin,” the heroine replied frankly.
Robber decided to let that one go. Heroes in general did not have a great many quandaries on the subject of stabbing goblins.
“So, word is you robbed the treasury in Laure,” he said.
“I like shiny things,” the dark-haired woman smiled.
“Boss might take offence to that, when she’s back,” he said.
“Everybody knows Foundling’s in Arcadia,” the heroine snorted. “She’s not getting out for a few years, if ever.”
“I’ve known Squire for two years now,” Robber said. “And I’ve never known anyone to make a profit by betting against her.”
The Thief rolled her eyes.
“It’s one thing to kill a hero, another to fuck with the Winter Court,” she said. “And if she’s got issue with what I’ve been doing? She can take it up with me. I’ll be in Laure, wearing her jewels.”
Robber would have replied, but before he could he was once more looking into thin air.
“Chief?” Rattler prompted. “What do we do now?”
The goblin sighed.
“We run, my lovelies, all the way back to Marchford,” he said.
“We can steal the silverware on the way out, at least,” he decided. “Wouldn’t feel right not to.”