Down in the next valley, the five young men rode for the whole morning before stopping for lunch at a little tavern. Following this, they left the track they had been on and rode across the valley on a decent road through a little town. On the other side of the valley, they connected with another good road that actually sported a sign pointing out the way to Strana. This soon wound its way up into more forested hills, but stayed relatively wide and well-maintained.
There had been little traffic on the road that day, but as they reached a flat stretch where the road curved around the crest of a hill, they caught up with a four-horse stagecoach heading the same direction they were. To the left of the road the forest encroached close, but there was an open, rolling meadow to the right. They were still about a hundred meters back from the coach as they fell into single-file and spurred their mounts to pass to the right on the meadow side.
Suddenly, as they closed to within fifty meters of the coach, a tree came down right in front of it. The stagecoach shuddered to a skidding halt and almost flipped over with a terrible sound of crashing wood and screaming horses. Before the squad could even react to this, a swarm of little figures came leaping out of the bushes around and the trees above the coach, with a good half dozen landing on its roof and sides.
“Goblins!” barked Mannis. “Get em!”
Dungar was the first to reach the stagecoach. He kept his original course to pass it on the right, and speared one of the goblins on the roof as he did. Mannis followed immediately behind him and did likewise to another. They both rode on out in front of the coach and wheeled their horses as a javelin flew over their heads from the meadow and hit the coach driver in the chest.
Choke was the third on the scene. He speared a goblin clinging to the coach’s rear luggage rack, dropped his spear, and drew his sword as he slid from the saddle to the right of the coach. A goblin was clinging to the coach’s side, trying to get the door open. It snarled and sprang at Choke like some kind of tree frog, but Choke bashed it to the ground with his shield and sliced deep into its torso with his sword.
Pinch rode right up to the rear of the coach and leapt up onto the luggage rack. He then scrambled onto the roof and stabbed the goblin that was clubbing the crossbowman guard seated next to the dying driver.
The last in, Knuckle dismounted at a run with his greatsword in hand. He went to the left side of the coach, where a goblin was clambering into the passenger window with its arms and head already inside. Knuckle chopped downwards to cut it in half just above the hips. The front half fell into the carriage with a geyser of blood and spilling entrails. The screaming and shrieking from inside the coach intensified.
Out in front, Mannis and Dungar smartly began dealing with the javelin throwers hiding in the tall grass of the meadow. Mannis dropped his shield and spear in favor of his bow and shot the one that had killed the driver as another javelin narrowly missed his horse. One more hit him in the chest, but his armor stopped it and Mannis repaid its owner with an arrow through the belly. Dungar rode further down the road and then looped out into the meadow, seeking to flush out more goblins. One popped out of a bush right in front of him, and he trampled it down with his horse. Two more broke cover, ready to throw. Mannis shot one in the back. The other threw at Dungar’s horse and hit it in the haunch before leaping back into the bushes with a cackle.
Back at the stagecoach, things had not settled down. There was one more goblin on the roof, but it did not like its odds with Pinch and the guard flanking it, so it leapt down onto Choke, cracking him over the head with its knobby warclub as it fell on him. Choke’s iron pot-helmet absorbed the hit, but he was immediately face to face with a snarling, snapping maw of razor-sharp, black teeth. With the goblin basically riding him and trying to eat his face, Choke dropped his sword and shield and rammed the goblin into the side of the carriage wheel by running right into it. This stunned the goblin just enough that Choke could get a grip on its throat with his left hand and draw his dagger with his right to stab it in the face repeatedly.
On the left side of the coach, with the forest immediately at his flank, Knuckle was swarmed. He managed to slash two charging goblins down with one sweep of his greatsword as three others closed and stabbed and struck at him with shortspears and warclubs. One little goblin popped up from under the carriage and bit into his calf just above his boot. A club cracked Knuckle on the knee and a spear stabbed him in the upper arm as he stumbled to a knee. Another goblin lunged at his throat with its teeth. Knuckle dropped his sword and swept the neck-biter aside with his left arm as he pulled his backup weapon: a footman’s pick.
With a claw-like pick for penetrating armor on one side of its head, and a heavy, four-pointed hammer on its other, the pick was just forty centimeters in length. Knuckle lurched forward and cracked the skull of the club wielder as he fell. Then he rolled and hooked the leg out from a spear wielder with the pick. That one got a solid crack in the skull as well to put it down for good.
However, now prone, with a juvenile goblin still munching on his lower leg, Knuckle was in a dire situation. The neck biter and another goblin with a spear were right there and set to finish him. Just then, though, Pinch leapt down onto the spear wielder from the coach’s roof and stabbed it as they fell in a heap together. The neck biter scampered off into the woods. Knuckle, cursing fit to wake the dead, cracked the skull of the little one on his leg.
Having finished improving his goblin’s face with a good half a dozen deep stab wounds, Choke let it fall and peeked under the coach to see how Knuckle was doing. Pinch was helping him to his feet. Out in the meadow, Mannis and Dungar had not managed to scare up any more trouble, so Choke was satisfied that things were handled. However, there was still a great deal of racket from both the passengers inside the carriage and the horse team out front, which seemed to be tangled up in the spruce tree that had been felled in front of them.
With his dagger at the ready, Choke yanked open the stagecoach door next to him. An awful mess spilled out right in front of him. A man and the top of the goblin that Knuckle had cut in half fell out of the coach onto the road together. The goblin had died with its bite locked on the man’s pectoral, with its thick lower jaw in his armpit. Thoroughly tangled in the goblin’s guts, the man thrashed around as he screamed in horror.
Glancing into the coach, Choke saw a pair of young women inside who were in a state of extreme distress. When they saw Choke, a Scythan, at the door, spattered in goblin blood with dagger raised, their screams intensified. Choke ignored them in order to help the man still struggling with the goblin corpse. He knelt down and pinned the smaller man to the ground with his knee. Then, as he had been trained, he worked his dagger blade into the goblin’s mouth, laterally across the lower jaw, and snapped it with a hard twist to release its bite.
“Well now! That was bracing!” Mannis exclaimed happily as he rode up to Choke. “Are we all well and accounted for?”
When Dungar, Choke, Knuckle, and Pinch had all sounded off, Mannis leaned down in the saddle to peer into the carriage. The young women had settled down somewhat. Mannis’ face broke into an even wider grin.
“Well if it isn’t the sisters Maythorn! Anise and Clara! It’s me, Mannis! How do ye do? Sit tight just a minute while we secure this scene. You are quite rescued, I assure ye.”
Mannis shut the coach door on the ladies and had another look around. Choke was dragging the injured man out from under the goblin and over to the meadow; Dungar was tending to his horse’s javelin wound out in front; Pinch was helping the coach guard who had been bludgeoned; and Knuckle was cursing loudly as he prodded at his bitten calf.
“Knuckle!” Mannis barked. “To me! Let’s tend to the horse team!”
It turned out the goblin’s ambush had been more malicious than a simple tree felled in front of the carriage. They had lashed many sharpened stakes to the tall spruce, pointing in all directions, so that it resembled an irritated porcupine. The stakes had done cruel work on the lead two horses. One was dead already, and the other would not recover. Mannis quickly slit the wounded horse’s throat before he and Knuckle dragged the tree away and threw it in the ditch.
Having gotten the wounded passenger clear, Choke began the tricky task of calming the remaining two stagecoach horses so that Mannis and Knuckle could unhitch the dead ones and disentangle the team. This took some time, and Dungar was able to join them to help.
“How’s your mount?” Choke asked Dungar as they worked.
“The javelin didn’t go deep, so he should be okay. If the wound doesn’t foul.”
Finally, they had the stagecoach free of its horses, dead and otherwise, so they pushed it backwards away from the carnage by hand and set the brake. The two surviving horses were calm enough by that point to be rehitched, so Choke did that while Mannis had another look around.
“Alright, then. First of all, we need to check the gobos for litters! We don’t want any babies getting away. Pinch, can you handle that?” Mannis said.
Pinch had been tending to the wounded passenger while they worked on the stagecoach, but with the man’s bite dressed there was no excuse not to do as ordered. Pinch grimaced in distaste but got busy checking the goblins for babies. He found two females who were nursing litters of six and eight infants respectively. The baby goblins were about the size of hamsters and were still clinging to their dead mothers’ teats. Their mothers’ deaths did not mean the end of them, however. When the milk dried up, the infants would consume their mothers. Pinch hacked all the babies up with his shortsword.
With the goblin infants taken care of, Pinch and Knuckle went over the scene and sliced off every goblin ear they could find. The kingdom offered a ten copper coin bounty per ear, reedemable in almost every inn, tavern, or roadhouse.
The goblins were all about a meter tall, with long, gangly arms and legs and lumpy, unpleasant bodies. Since they wore no clothes, their skin tones of mottled green and brown of varying shades gave the goblins fine natural camouflage. Looking somewhat like bats, they had big eyes and pointed ears, with powerful jaws housing large, sharp, obsidian black teeth. Even nude as they were, with the exception of the nursing mothers, it was impossible to differentiate the males from female, since both sexes only sported big, puckered cloacas between their legs.
This band of goblins seemed to be particularly barbarous, without any appropriated human clothes, tools, or weapons. Being opportunistic cannibals, goblins make most of their weapons out of the bones and teeth of dead goblins. Goblin bone is dense and strong, and their teeth are razor sharp. Their javelin and shortspear shafts might be sticks, but the heads are shards of sharpened goblin bone. Warclubs are usually goblin skulls mounted on goblin femurs, bound down with goblin gut and sinew. Wooden warclubs are enhanced with rows of goblin teeth; daggers and shortswords are sharpened femurs. In goblin society, nothing goes to waste. To fall in combat and nourish one’s fellows with one’s flesh and provide them more weapons with one’s inedible remains would seem to be an honor for the goblin.
With everything now well in hand, Mannis looked over the bitten passenger and the stagecoach guard who was sitting in the grass near him. The guard had taken a nasty knock on the head that had bled a fair bit, but seemed to be getting his wits about him.
“What did ye bandage him with?” Mannis asked Pinch, gesturing to the passenger.
“There was a medical kit under the driver’s seat,” Pinch pointed out the leather satchel on the ground.
“Ah. Good. Was there any kind of antiseptic in it?”
“Yeah, some kind of honey and herb mix. I used it on buddy, here.”
“Excellent. So listen up people! Does anyone else have a bite? They need attention immediately, or they will go off! Once goblin rot takes hold, there’s no stopping it without a priest!” Mannis shouted at everyone.
Only Knuckle presented himself for treatment. Pinch rinsed his leg wound out with some water from a skin and smeared it full of the honey-herb mixture before bandaging. Then he quickly tended to Knuckle’s fairly minor stab wound to his upper arm.
Still in the saddle, Mannis surveilled the scene again.
“Well done, lads! Well done! That was really tight. The Holy Stoners know their business, I’ll give them that. I feel like half a lord with ye riding behind me! We should not linger long here, though. For every goblin seen there are usually two or three more lurking. Let’s check on the Maythorn sisters, shall we?”
Anise and Clara Maythorn were quite ready to get out of the stagecoach, whose interior had been rather festooned with goblin gore during their ordeal. Out in the sun they did their best to clean themselves up with grass while they fussed over their wounded chaperone. Then they remembered themselves and made a show of thanking Mannis and Dungar for rescuing them so heroically. They spared Knuckle, Pinch, and Choke little more than a glance, and seemed to assume that they would be gratified to be thanked in proxy, as any servant would.
“So, girls, what are we to do with you? Where were you headed?” Mannis asked.
“Father has decided to send us to the Lilydale Finishing School for Young Ladies,” Anise, the elder of the two answered. “He hopes that with some polishing and good dowries, we might entice a husband with title.”
“With both of your charms, I am sure he is right,” Mannis said with his winningest smile. He then turned aside to his brother Dungar: “Anise and Clara’s father, Mr Douglas Maythorn, is a rather successful yeoman farmer with holdings enough to raise a levy of ten longbowmen for our father.”
At this point, the bitten chaperone, who had mostly been writhing and groaning quietly in the grass finally rallied enough to make his mark on the conversation.
“Who are ye, man!” he yelled.
“Ah. My apologies, sir. I did not realize that ye were still among us. I am Mannis, bastard of your lord, Count Vallent.”
“Oh, praise Altas! Praise him for granting us some favor to temper the Devil’s work done on us today! Mannis! Ye must help us!”
“I fully intend to, sir. How can we be of service?”
“Firstly, bastard or not, ye must remember yar honor, and that of yar father. Swear to me to preserve the chastity and honor of our two girls!”
“Of course,” Mannis said with a sour look. The two young women giggled at each other.
“Fine then. I swear to preserve their honor. Alright? But, more practically, we need to get out of here. What to do about that? How did his wound look, Pinch?” Mannis said.
Pinch winced. “It was deep. I don’t think he should bleed out from it, but…”
“Indeed. A deep goblin bite to the torso. Not good,” Mannis said. He stepped over top of the chaperone and looked straight down at him. “Sir, I am afraid if we don’t get ye to a priest, ye’ll go rotten within a day and die. But yar coach is down two horses. Pushing on is not an option. We need to turn back to Branick,” Mannis said, naming the town they had passed through earlier that day.
“Ahhh! No! The girls need to be delivered to the school on time! I swore to Mr Maythorn!”
“Sir, ye are in no condition. Pushing on is madness! It’s another three hours’ ride to the next roadhouse, and that’s on horseback! With a four-horse stagecoach down to two horses we won’t get there until well after dark. And there is no priest there that I know of. We need to take ye back to Branick, or yar gonna die.”
“Ohhhh! Altas preserve us! Oh, I have failed. Oh Altas, have mercy.”
Mannis looked thoughtful for a second. Then a predatory gleam flared in his eyes before he masked it with a look of earnest concern. He looked to the stagecoach guard.
“You. Can ye manage that carriage with just two horses back down to Branick by yarself?” Mannis asked him.
The man nodded ponderously. “Yes, sir. I reckon I can. It’s mostly downhill, and I’m a teamster too. I got my start driving stagecoaches outta—”
“Marvelous!” Mannis interrupted him. “This is what we shall do, then. Sir!” he shouted back down at the chaperone. “We can make this work. The coach guard can handle the two-horse team back down to Branick.”
“The guard? What of the driver?” the chaperone stammered.
“The driver is dead. He caught a javelin.”
“Oh, no! Altas preserve us! Ohhhh!”
“As ye pointed out previously, Altas did preserve ye by putting me and my boys in yar path when he did. And now I am telling ye how it is. We will preserve yar life and fulfill yar mission. Where is this school the girls need to be delivered to?”
“Yes, man. The school!” Mannis snapped. He turned to Anise. “My dear, where is your school?”
“Near Strana. Someplace,” she answered with a very fetching smile and a naughty wink.
“Good. We shall find it.” Mannis returned the wink before he turned back to the chaperone: “Sir! This is what we shall do now. The guard is going to drive ye back to Branick to see a priest. We will take over yar charge and escort the young ladies to their school.”
“You? Upon what mounts?”
“They can ride behind me and my brother on ours. For a lady to double with her protector is perfectly acceptable in times of emergency, which this certainly is. My brother, by the way, is another of our lord’s bastards, and a recent graduate of the Pekot school of the Brothers of the Holy Stone. As are his three mates. Your girls shall be in good hands. Their virtue is safe. You have my word.”
“To double on horseback? With ye? For how long? No longer that is absolutely necessary!”
“I understand sir. We shall hire two horses for them at the earliest opportunity. With my word and our lord’s name that shall be no problem.”
“Ladies’ saddles! They shall not ride astride, I say!”
“Of course! Of course, sir. I would not dream of parting their legs in any contrivance. I shall just need some funds to see to their settlement. I am sorry to bring it up, but I was not prepared for such an expense,” Mannis said.
“Money, man! For their horses and ladies’ saddles. And room and board in secure rooms in reputable establishments, of course. This requires money, yes?”
“Oh! Of course. In my breast pocket. My purse. Take what ye need,” the chaperone managed, quickly beginning to fade from the strain of the conversation.
“Thank ye, sir.”
Mannis got the purse and dumped its entire contents of silver and copper coins into his palm. Then he fished out a few smaller tokens to return to the purse, which he put back in the chaperone’s coat.
“Right!” he exclaimed. “It’s settled. Ladies, please pack yourselves a light bag of bare essentials for the road. Yar steward can send the rest on from Branick later. Anise, it would be my honor to take you on my horse. Clara, I am sure my brother, Dungar, would be similarly honored to do likewise for you. Acceptable?”
The young women assured Mannis and Dungar that it very much was.
“Knuckle, be a gentleman and help the ladies get their bags, would you?” Mannis said.
When the women were busy getting themselves organized, Mannis turned to the other lads:
“Okay, let’s get this tiresome prat into the coach and then tie the driver’s body down on the roof. Ye help these two with that, yes?” Mannis said to the guard, gesturing to Choke and Pinch. He then flicked the man one of the chaperone’s big copper coins.
“Well now, brother, this has been a most fortuitous day, hasn’t it?” Mannis said to Dungar with a low voice as everyone else hopped to it. “A bit of fun with goblins to kick things off, and a whole lovely trip of even greater fun set for us ahead! What could be better?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. But what about yar oath to preserve their virtue? Yar not gonna abide by it? Dungar asked.
Mannis laughed. “Of course I will, brother. Their virtue shall remain in the exact state as we find it now: well tarnished. Just, whatever ye do, take care not to cum inside Clara and we’ll be fine. We don’t need to be getting either of them into that sort of trouble, right? After all, their father is an important man of ours.”