The party worked their way down from the ridge on what was little more than a game trail. The grade was quite steep but rarely treacherous. The trail wound its way through the dense forest and the occasional rocky clearing.
It was just after they had passed through one such clearing and into the trees again that Thorn signaled for them to stop.
“What is it? They following us?” Knuckle asked him.
“I dunno. But if there were double our number, or more, up there, then I’m sure they are. I haven’t seen nothin, but that don’t mean anything. If they’re hanging back properly, then there’s nothing to see. It aint like we’re gonna be that hard for them to track, what with a mule and ye crashing through the bush just like one yarself.”
“Oh. Sorry,” Knuckle said.
“Forget it. That’s how grunt soldiers be. Anyways, let’s set up and wait for a bit and see what we see.”
Thorn put Choke and Knuckle on either side of the trail, just inside the tree line, behind trees he had specifically chosen to give them total cover from above. He had Peep set up with their mule further down the trail about twenty meters, just above where the trail curved out of sight. She tied the mule up and was to sit on the trail next to it as though taking a rest, with her bow ready but hidden just at hand. Thorn and Pinch worked their way about ten meters over to the side where they hunkered down with their bows behind a small outcropping of rock in the clearing. Then they waited.
Everyone in the squad had strict instructions to stay exactly where they had been posted without any peeking up the hill that might give them away. Only Thorn had the privilege of looking out from where he was hidden. He was lying motionless and almost prone against his craggy rock, with his cloak’s hood up and pulled low over his brow.
It took only about fifteen minutes for the goblins to catch up to them. There were over a dozen of them, but there was no way that Thorn could get a clear count. Most of the goblins stuck to the trail, but they were flanked by others that fanned out into the clearing and moved down through it with eerie silence. The goblins used all the cover that they could. Being small creatures, no taller than a meter, with small torsos and long, gangly arms and legs, and having naturally camouflaged skin tones of splotchy browns, greens, and yellows, they were very easy to miss.
The goblins were moving quickly, but still cautiously, to keep the same pace as the humans they were following. They would pause to crouch down behind cover to carefully scan the way ahead, while the ones behind would break their cover to dash on ahead. In this way they would leapfrog each other, with each individual moving in alternating bursts and rests. They did this naturally and without any apparent coordination of leaders.
This warband was all armed with a collection of javelins and melee weapons, mostly made from wood, stone, and goblin bone, sinew, and teeth.
The human squad had specific orders about when to attack, so Thorn had no need to signal them as the goblins loped on down into their ambush.
As the goblins came down through the sunshine of the clearing, they could not see anything into the trees below them. When the lead pair reached the trees, they crouched down to take cover and peer down the trail into the forest. There, they saw Peep down the trail at her leisure with the mule.
Both the goblins made quick hand gestures and all the goblins on the move behind them stopped where they were and took to cover. They all stayed as they were for a long minute, in total silence, as the lead two assessed the situation. The two glanced at each other and reached their decision. With just a small human female alone guarding a big, yummy mule, the goblins’ predatory instincts overrode their caution. They signaled the attack with simultaneous hand gestures.
Thorn had chosen the ambush spot well. The forest that Choke, Knuckle, and Peep were set up in was evergreen: a stand of tight-grown pine trees, with some bigger, bushy ones at the edge of the clearing. This meant that there would be no easy passage through the trees for the goblins to flank the trail. Even so, a number of smaller ones dropped down and slid under the low-hanging bottom branches on their bellies; as the rest moved to funnel themselves down the trail to take Peep, and whoever else, in a fast rush.
After about half a dozen had entered the woods on the trail, Thorn signaled Pinch that it was time and rose up with his Scythan warbow. There were still a bunch of goblins clustered at the tree line. Thorn did not miss. He felled a bigger goblin with a war arrow that went almost entirely through its torso.
Pinch rose up from behind the outcropping and took just a second to aim before felling a second goblin himself. Unlike Thorn, he was using a shortbow with a fairly light draw weight. This meant that he was able to hold two extra arrows in his left hand that held the bow. It was a simple matter to grab them below their flights and slot them on the string to be fired in quick succession.
With a full-powered warbow, Thorn could not be so unorthodox in his technique. Even so, he was able to pull his second arrow from his quiver and loose it by the time Pinch had shot his third. Thorn dropped another goblin. Pinch managed to wound one with his second shot, which stumbled on into the trees, and then missed with his third.
In the woods, Choke and Knuckle held off in springing their ambush until the goblins spotted them. With them fixated on Peep down the trail, it was the fourth one to pass that actually noticed them. It glanced over its shoulder as it ran down the trail and gave a loud, birdlike squawk as it saw Knuckle hunkered down behind his tree just to the side of the trail.
Both Knuckle and Choke had their loaded crossbows in hand. They each shot one of the goblins charging Peep in the back, killing them both. Peep picked up her shortbow and shot the lead goblin coming at her in the neck. That left just two coming down at her.
However, two more goblins passed by Choke and Knuckle’s position, unable to halt their forward momentum, leaving four goblins on the trail between them and Peep. Both Choke and Knuckle picked up their weapons and stepped out into the trail.
Using the roundshield and his longsword, Choke swung the edge of the shield out into the trail as he pivoted onto it. Its edge bashed a goblin to the ground and Choke stabbed it in the belly to finish it off.
In the tight confines of the forest, Knuckle’s greatsword would be both difficult to wield effectively and likely as much a danger to Choke as any goblins. He lashed out with his warpick at the last goblin to run past their position and smashed open the back of its skull. Then he headed fast down the trail at the remaining three. Peep shot one of them, and the other two scrambled off to the side of the trail into the underbrush.
With Choke square in the trail with his roundshield raised in front of him, the goblins up in the clearing scattered. Pinch missed his next shot as they did, but Thorn was able to fell another. Then, as fast as they had burst upon them, the goblins disappeared: all gone to cover as they crawled through the forest’s underbrush or the field’s tall grass. Thorn hazarded one more shot into some bushes that were moving, but there was no indication that he hit anything.
“Right! Good work!” Thorn called as he and Pinch joined Choke at the edge of the clearing. “Let’s get our ears and deal with any infants quick!”
The kill count was not bad at all. Thorn had killed three; Pinch one; and Choke, Knuckle, and Peep had each accounted for two; for a total of ten. The squad quickly finished off those goblins still clinging to life and sliced the ears off of their kills as they checked them for nursing infants.
“Huh,” Thorn said, clearly perturbed, as he looked over the cluster of corpses up top. “Fuck. Anyone find any babies?” he called out.
Everyone answered in the negative.
“Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of. They’re all fuckin males,” Thorn said, poking at a corpse with the arrow he had retrieved from it.
“How can ye tell?” Pinch asked. “They all just have that big asshole business downstairs.”
“That’s a cloaca. Like birds. There’s no way to tell by looking at their crotch. The females always have nursing infants or, at least, long nipples from nursing.”
“How do they fuck?” Knuckle asked.
“How d’ye think? By rubbing shitters together, like chickens. Okay, that’s enough standing around, huh? There’s no telling how many are left. Let’s move!”
With this sudden barked order from Thorn, the squad grabbed their gear and formed up to continue on their way.
They pushed on hard through the afternoon and into the evening, stopping twice to rest and check that they were not being followed. When it was almost dark, Thorn found them a fairly defensible spot to spend the night in a cluster of boulders just off the trail they had been using. They had made good time and had reached the valley floor. Peep and Thorn conferred as they settled into camp and reckoned they were no more than a few hours hike from the village of Splitrock (which they, of course, would be avoiding).
“No fire. And keep quiet. Pinch and Knuckle, take the mule to the crick to get him a drink and fill up our waterskins. Peep, climb up on that boulder up there and keep watch. Choke, I probably should take a look at yar feet for ye, huh?”
Choke look surprised that Thorn would bring it up, but gratefully pulled his boots off so that Thorn could check his feet. The ranger grimaced as he peered at the bloody and raw popped blisters.
“How did you know?” Choke asked.
“Ye aint the first horseman I spent a day marching with. Ye done good, though. Ye hid it well.”
Thorn cleaned up Choke’s feet with water from the skin that Pinch brought him. Then he smeared the wounds with a greasy salve and bandaged Choke’s feet. Choke felt much better for it.
They ate a simple meal of hardtack bread with cured, dry meat and more trail mix. As they arduously chewed their way through this miserable meal, Pinch spoke up:
“So, Thorn, up top there ye seemed quite concerned that there weren’t any breeding females among the dead. Why is that?”
“Huh? Oh, right,” Thorn said, almost started out of a kind of trance by the question. “Well, as ye probably know, gobo males and females behave the same. They both fight, and there’s no real difference between them. They grind shitters to fuck, and then the females crap out litters of up to ten at a time. They got between eight and twelve nipples, so then they stick the sucklers on and then just ignore em until they get big enough to scrape off. Then the juveniles fend for themselves, usually by eating the smaller ones.”
“Okay, about that. Goblins have that wretched cloaca hole, like birds or fish, right? But they give birth to live young, not eggs. And then they nurse them with milk? That’s all mixed up, isn’t it?” Choke asked.
“Yeah, it is. Goblins are all kinds of fucked up,” Thorn said. “Anyways, when they’re in the wild doing their normal thing, the adults will usually eat their own young. They just regard them as a source of food. And because females can crap out a litter about every three months, this serves as a steady food source as well as population control, right? Goblins reach full size after about a year and a half, and can start breeding after about a year. So if they let all them youngsters grow up, ye can imagine how many fuckin goblins there’d be with a couple of years.”
“Yes, this is why them getting lose in human lands is so dangerous, right?” Pinch said. “Because with a steady food source, their numbers explode.”
“Exactly. And they’ll eat just about anything,” Thorn said. “So those gobos that got away from us are up there chowing down on the corpses of the ones we killed. Guaranteed.”
“Okay, I get all that,” Pinch said. “So why is it a bad thing that there were no females up there? That’s a good thing, isn’t it? It means there aren’t going to be any babies growing up from that bunch.”
“No, it aint good at all. Think about it for a second. Goblins aint animals. They’re as smart as us, just all fucked up in their thinking. They’re cowardly and opportunistic and usually disorganized, sure. But they’re also sneaky as hell and generally quite clever, in their way. Also, like I said, there’s almost never any difference between males and females’ behavior. They all act the same. Right?”
“Okay. So?” Pinch asked.
“So, that means if there weren’t any females up there, it’s because the goblins planned it that way, right? And there’s only one fuckin reason they’d be doing that. It’s what they always do when they get a steady food supply. The females settle down to breeding as fast as possible. And what did we find up there? A squad of males set up in an observation post, watching the garrison. That can only mean one thing.”
“A big attack,” Pinch said.
“Not just an attack. Maybe an invasion. If they got a steady food supply, from somewhere, and have been building up their numbers with it, that means they got a leader with a plan. That’s the real bad news. When that leader figures they got enough gobos, they’re gonna flood outta the bush and do what they do,” Thorn finished grimly.
“So, what do we do about it?” asked Pinch.
“I think we finish what we started here, and then we get back to warn the Baron and Father Morrenthall. It’s only gonna take us a day or two to wrap this up, and if an attack was imminent, we wouldn’t a got off that ridge alive. There’d a been way more of them up there. So we got some time.”
“Well, thank Stron for that, at least,” Choke said, making the sign of the Wheel over his breast as he did.
“Yeah, no doubt. Okay, we need to rest now. I’ll take first watch. And if I catch any of ye sleeping on yar watch, I’ll cut yar fuckin throat,” Thorn said.
There was no one there who did not think he would.