The wind carried drifting snow that clung to the black fur of Aile’s bearskin pelt as she sat with it wrapped around her. She stooped towards the fire and turned the spit above it with a stick before quickly returning her hand under the protection of the fur. As she pulled the mantle tight around her shoulders, the other figures huddled around the campfire gave her no acknowledgement.
The mutton smelled succulent as it roasted under a frigid night sky that was clear and brilliantly painted in stars and moonlight. “This isn’t how my mother would roast a Solanic feast, but it’s my hope that you would all enjoy it,” she said to the figures in the firelight.
There was no reply save for the wind. Ozmanic men and dwarves are terrible company, she thought, grabbing the bear’s maw and pulling it lower on her head.
Under the pelt, Aile tucked the wolf fur stole around her neck and face, burying her cold nose deep into its long hairs. The smell and sensation reminded her of the lining of her mother’s riding cloak when she was a child. It was green and festive, and she wore it on every Nativity. As a young girl, Aile would press her face into it for warmth while they awaited the Procession of Lights. She imagined that her mother was wearing the cloak right now, cooing over Aile’s nephew in the passing lantern light.
The festival nights in Yales were never so cold as this mountain pass. Their Nativity bonfires were grander than the bent flames before her, and she knew no Solanic priest would be emerging from the toppled shrine behind her to lead a choral of the hymnals.
There was a howl of wind that flapped the folds of Aile’s bearskin. She looked up and beyond the fire to the sparse trees and drifted snow of Creeber’s Notch. A stark and lonely place under the stars, it was the lone route to the forgettable village of Kam at the southernmost tip of the Hernspine. The mountain village was still a day’s travel away, and Aile had yet to see it. She surmised, however, that the people of Kam must be a stout-hearted folk to live so close to the Urlther steppes.
A horse’s annoyed nicker broke the monotony of crackling flames and wind, and Aile turned her attention to Catastrophe. “Oh, don’t you start in again,” she said to the blanketed piebald mare.
The campfire and those around it were shielded from the worst of the wind by ten yards of scorched, ruined wall. The horse was tied to an icy post near the opposite end from Aile and the fire. She looked at the black and white pattern of Catastrophe’s face as the mare pricked her ears forward and pawed the snow with a forehoof.
The woman threw a glance towards the five figures in cloaks and blankets encircling the fire. Cold pierced the shell of her bearskin with another gust and she was grateful for the layers of silk and wool clothing keeping her as warm as she was. Fighting back a shiver, she turned to the horse. “These fellows aren’t much for conversation, Cat,” Aile said to the animal. “They’ll be worse for song. So how about I just sing a hymnal for us all?”
Aile sang and the mare listened to her mistress, as did the tight-lipped travelers around the fire. Her voice was sweet and practiced as it drifted over the snow and followed the savory smell of the cooking food. Fragments of her words reached the scraggly pines several hundred yards distant, where they recounted the broken story of Solan’s coming rebirth to intently listening ears in the dark. They did not understand the words, but did understand that it meant that fresh prey had made the mistake of coming into their mountain passage.
There were hushed, harsh words spoken in Urltheric as a stunted scout clad in white fox fur relayed what he had found to the Sergeant. They had all seen the fire from miles away, but as the scout pointed with his spear, the Urlthmen assessed their pickings. There were six westerners beside the ruined shrine the Sergeant had burned down in midsummer. At least one of them was a soft, sweet-smelling girl that they might capture, and there was a horse that could feed them all for weeks.
The Sergeant grinned with blue lips and jagged teeth above a curtain of his moss-green whiskers. The men west of the mountains were practically blind at night, and the sound of the wind would easily make them deaf to their approach as well. The dozen raiders under his command had easily ambushed and slain greater numbers than this under more difficult conditions. With great confidence he spit out orders to his men, sending his bowmen to circle downward from the north and open the assault. The rest he would lead himself, approaching from behind the cover of the broken wall to the south of the interlopers.
He watched his beefy corporal bark a command to the stunted bowmen before he led them away and into the snow capped trees. The Sergeant looked to his trusted sapper and bodyguard, whose hunched shoulder bore the haft of his readied pickaxe, and a grunted order told him to ready the others for an assault. Drawing his weapon, the Sergeant turned to command the remaining men himself, only to find the axe-hag standing in his way.
She gnawed on one of the blades of her double-headed axe with rotten teeth and lips that tore on the freezing metal. He regarded her black eyes and the cracked, red war paint which adorning her face in the shape of a spider, before he pointed his curved grhi and ordered her to take the wall ahead of the others. Her twisted face was gleeful as she removed her cloak of badger pelts and ran through the snow in only boots and a tattered loincloth. The Sergeant and his men sneered at the sight, and they all hoped this would be the night that she would finally meet her end.
The bowmen prowled carefully though the trees and snow, then moved in closer as the feminine voice that sang the Solanic hymnal became more distinct over the sound of the wind. The Corporal didn’t care for the song, but the smell of the roasting mutton aroused a growl from his stomach. He held his bow notched and ready, as did the scrawny inferiors under his command. He ordered them forward with a grunt. The Corporal knew the Sergeant would have first pick of the soft, westerner girl should they capture her alive, so he set his hopes on the delicious smelling meat instead. The others could fight over the horseflesh.
The four Urlthmen snuck closer and out of the line of trees, moving down the slope of the ridge towards the ruined shrine that once stood alongside the trail at the bottom. At a distance of twenty paces they remained unseen as the singer ended her song sitting with their back to them. The Corporal watched her turn the food on a spit over the fire and re-wrap the bearskin pelt around herself afterwards. The quartet squatted close to the concealing snowdrifts as they waited for a break in the wind, and when it came, they rose and took aim.
Aile heard the sound of an arrow whiz past her before she had any time to react. The shaft struck the hooded dwarf across from her dead in the face, but there was no change in the dull expression of the frozen corpse. She cursed and grabbed the double crossbow from where she had concealed it under her bearskin and lifted it up from her shins.
The unsecured pelt slid off Aile’s shoulders as she stood and leveled the crossbow at the thickset hobgoblin notching an arrow onto his bowstring. She squeezed the lever on the stock and a bolt sailed over the snow, shattering the humerus of the surprised corporal’s arm. He fell backwards clenching the wound and screaming while the trio of goblins around him stood openmouthed.
As the Corporal writhed in the snow, one gave a cry and loosed an arrow at Aile that cartwheeled off the steel plates of her armor with a ding. She aimed the bottom tier of the double crossbow and gripped the second lever. The bolt ripped though the base of the goblin’s neck and he keeled over, choking while the remaining two bowmen shook off their surprise.
An arrow impacted on the steel helm covering Aile’s cheek, narrowly missing its “T” shaped gap centered over her eyes and mouth. She covered her eyes with the armor vambrace upon her forearm, and several more shots were deflected by it as she sidestepped to the right. There she knelt behind another frozen body she had propped up around the fire as part of her subterfuge. The pair of marauders punched half a dozen arrows into the back of the corpse. Crouched behind the dead Ozman, Aile swapped her spent double crossbow for the one that she had placed in his lap earlier.
She rose up from behind the shield of the sitting body with her fresh crossbow and shot its quarrel halfway through the stomach of another bowman. The last goblin watched him collapse onto the bloody snow and wail. He then turned tail and ran away as fast as could though the drifts.
A gust of wind billowed the white surcoat over Aile’s armor, flapping the tails of the wolf fur stole that she had wrapped around her neck for warmth. She roughly grabbed the last loaded crossbow from the dead man’s lap with the clatter of her gauntlets, then took aim at the fleeing target. Aile shot him dead though the back of the skull.
Aile dropped the spent crossbow back into the dead Ozman’s lap and walked to the next figure going around the circle. “Thank you for the help,” she said to the sitting corpse bristling with arrows in its back. “I only wish that I could have been here weeks ago to save you.” The armored woman pulled off a blanket covering a hunched snowman she had sat across a lump of rubble. At the base of the simulacrum rested Aile’s spear and oval shield.
She grabbed the shield and slid her arm into its straps. The moans of the goblin and the Corporal’s curses in Urltheric fought with the howl of the wind as Aile gripped the shaft of the spear. Catastrophe was belting out a series of alarmed snorts behind her, as he had during the entire exchange of bolts and arrows. The horse then gave a piercing squeal in Aile’s direction. “Hush!” she said looking at the animal to confirm that it was unharmed. “Don’t you worry, they’re all dead or dying… Now let me finish off these two, all right?”
The horse squealed in protest and stomped the ground, bringing a puzzled look to Aile’s face. Then, out of the darkness she caught sight of a dark figure running madly across the top of the wall. She leapt off the edge with a bloodcurdling screech and Aile had only an instant to raise her shield as the axe-hag hurled over the campfire. The collision slammed the head of the goblin hag’s weapon shoulder-deep into the shield, cracking it before Aile fell onto her back from the blow.
The axe-hag leaned back on the embedded weapon and screamed as she ripped it free of the metal on top of Aile. The blade had missed Aile’s arm by inches and she wasn’t about to allow the fiend a second swing. The hag felt her footing slip on the shield as Aile rolled over and used it to pin the mad goblin woman under her weight. The hag fought back and clawed with berserk strength, writhing to escape. It was then that Aile felt her fur stole snap tight around her neck as the spry claws below her hooked the garment.
Aile choked out a curse as the wizened fiend howled from her maw of rotten, jagged teeth and knotted the stole tighter. The grey-green hag then spit a foul broth of blood and bile into Aile’s eyes as she struggled for breath. Momentarily blinded and unable to use her spear and keep the she-goblin pinned, she worked her left arm free from the straps of the shield. Once it was loose, she rammed an elbow clad in the steel couter of her armor into the hag’s face. There was the crunch of breaking teeth, and Aile jerked the stole loose from stunned hands.
She shouldered the shaft of her spear and yanked herself to her feet. Gasping, Aile threw the twisted stole aside and raised the spearhead to finish off the axe-hag. Before her blow could fall the twisted, sinuous limbs of the she-goblin threw off the shield, spoiling the strike. The hag leapt to her feet gushing blood from her mouth, and swung her double-headed axe at Aile.
She barely stepped back in time to avoid a blow to her waist. Aile countered with a thrust from her spear that missed its mark. With screams and aggressive swipes, the axe-hag kept Aile pacing backwards while she hunted for an opening. The tenacious she-goblin only stood to the height of Aile’s navel at best, and she worked that size difference to a deadly advantage. She weaved between chops of the axe, keeping too low, far, or close to give Aile a clear strike at her. Finally, she saw an opening and thrust her spearhead at the unhinged goblin.
She missed as the hag jumped to the side, and buried the spearhead into the frozen ground. Aile tried to pull the shaft free, but the twisted little woman pinned the spear with a stomp of her boot and then splintered the wooden pole of the spear with a swing of her axe. She pulled back from the she-goblin, grimacing at the sound of her mad cackling.
Aile stood there, holding the broken shaft flatfooted for a moment, then shook off her surprise and threw the stick at the axe-hag. It smacked the war paint on her forehead, but the half naked she-goblin simply kept laughing. All sag and shrivel; she brandished her axe at Aile with a demented look of joy.
The hag hefted the axe over her head to strike as Aile’s hands darted to the scabbard at her hip. She unsheathed the arming sword deftly and blocked the lethal blow with one hand on the hilt and the other gauntlet bracing the blade’s center. The old she-goblin tried to tug the axe away, but Aile slid her blade up the weapon’s haft, locking it behind the axe’s broad bit.
The two struggled before Aile swept forward with a swift kick to the goblin’s ribs. The impact from her steel greives produced a bony snap and Aile wrenched the axe from the stunned hag’s grip. The loosed axe hit the snow, and the backhanded slash of Aile’s sword decapitated the she-goblin.
The head rolled past the fire as the hag’s body collapsed in a gush of crimson. Aile stood bloodied and winded from the fight, but before she had a moment to think the horse bellowed a new alarm. She looked up to see a small mob of Urlthmen coming around the far corner of the wall. Aile knew that she had truly underestimated the numbers in Creeber’s Notch as she watched a half-dozen goblins the height of human children fight through the snow. They readied their spears into a row while two man-sized hobgoblins, one tall and bearded and the other armed with a pick and hunchbacked, barked orders in guttural consonants behind them.
Her blood turned as chill as the winter night around her. She would have never improvised this trap if she had known there were so many. Aile straightened her back, and the Urlthmen could see her hard stare and determined scowl before she lifted her weapon. With the headless body of the axe-hag behind her, and the bowmen nowhere to be found, the hobgoblin sergeant resigned himself to show no quarter and take no risks against the outnumbered warrioress.
Aile gripped the hilt of her blade tightly. Is this the dread that Father felt outside the walls of New Thalder? She thought. Is this how he felt before the Urlthmen fell upon him? She glanced at the weapon in her hand. Her father’s sword, with its guard crafted as a swan in flight. They had placed it under his folded hands while he had lain in state.
She took a defiant step towards the mustered goblins ten paces distant, and the Urlthmen howled a challenge at her while they leveled their spears. Over the roar, Aile remembered the weeks of mourning and the inconsolable grief of her mother as the Solanic Nativity approached. Remembered how she had refused to don her riding cloak, or even see the Procession of Lights.
Aile had needed to sneak out of the house to see the procession that year. Afterwards, when the crowds gathered outside the temple and the hymnals began, she sang to her father’s soul. She was a girl barely into her teens then, weeping tears from closed eyes as she sang along with the choir. It was then that she felt warmth in the night, a familiar presence that embraced her from within Solan’s light.
She didn’t notice when the choir fell silent, maintaining her perfect pitch and tone as she sang the hymnal unaccompanied. The hushed awe of the crowd was also ignored while she felt Solan’s light on her skin and her father’s stalwart hand on her shoulder. It was only when the priest, clad in red robes and golden mask, knelt down and clasped her hands that she opened her eyes to find herself standing at the heart of a geyser of light.
The goblins charged ahead of a freezing wind that ruffled Aile’s surcoat. The bloodied white cloth over her breastplate bore the same stern and bearded sun-face that the priest had worn that night a decade ago. The young woman lifted an open palm at the Urlthmen, readying her father’s blade with her other hand before she unlocked her arcana.
“The Sun is unconquered!” she shouted. A flash of radiance exploded from her fingers, its blinding intensity many times greater than daylight. For an instant the ridge was bathed in a harsh, white light that could be seen from leagues away.
The Sergeant growled and cursed as the night became a red blur to his eyes. He coughed out an order to hold ranks as he heard the sounds of fumbling weapons and moans around him. There were rapid footfalls in the snow before he heard a scream that followed the crash of metal. A goblin fell back into the Sergeant, gurgling hot blood that soaked his arm before he knocked the body away with his shield. The bearded hobgoblin called out to the bent sapper beside him, and the pair pressed themselves back to back as detail returned to their vision.
There was another scream, another crash into the snow, and then another as the blinded spearmen were hacked down one at a time. The Sergeant could see vague shapes a few moments later, when a tall mass beat a smaller one to the ground while the last goblin howled, then whimpered. After that, there was nothing but the sound of the wind and the thrashing cries of horse, frightened by the smell of blood that now hung in the frigid air.
With his eyesight returning, the Sergeant could now make out the white snow, black sky, and the flickering campfire not far away. He licked his teeth and scowled before he gave a hushed order to the hunchbacked hobgoblin behind him, still feeling that they could take her down. Even if they escaped with their lives from this debacle, they both knew that they would need to present her helmed head to the Lieutenant if they wished to keep their own attached.
There was a nod of acknowledgement from the sapper to his superior as he readied his pickaxe. Then the blade of Aile’s sword hacked his neck nearly in two and dropped him.
The Sergeant bellowed an angered cry as he spun around and smashed Aile’s left shoulder with his round shield. The weight of the blow knocked the armored woman off-balance, and the Sergeant slipped behind her while Aile kept herself from falling into the snow. The tall hobgoblin slashed her with his grhi, an inelegant and brutish weapon whose crescent blade looked like the bastard offspring of a scimitar and a cleaver.
The weapon tore down though the right side of Aile’s surcoat, but inflicted no injury until the Sergeant yanked the sickle-like back of the grhi upwards. Its serrated blade bit into the pit of her sword arm and she winced before the blood flowed. Aile attempted to pull away, but the Sergeant latched his shielded arm over her left shoulder and she felt herself being pulled backwards.
Aile kicked her heels into the backward motion and fought the grappling hobgoblin in the drifts, barely keeping her footing as he thrashed her about. Between tugs and blows, she caught a glimpse of Catastrophe struggling against her halter as their fight staggered close to her. Then the Sergeant pummeled the hook of his weapon deeper into Aile’s underarm. With a cry, she pulled forward then snapped her head back, feeling the bang of his nose on her helmet.
As the Sergeant snorted, Aile grasped her arming sword’s blade with her free hand and used both arms to thrust it like a spear behind her head. The sword point tore a bleeding path across his cheek, forcing the hobgoblin to unhook his weapon and release her before he forfeited his eyes.
Aile turned to face the Sergeant too slowly, and he slashed her neck with a blow from his grhi that would have killed her if not for the metal collar of her gorget. He pulled back the bloody blade for another strike while the westerner still held her weapon too awkwardly to counter. Aile looked past the hobgoblin, then thrust the splayed steel swan’s foot at the end of her sword pommel right between his eyes.
The surprise move took him off guard, and knocked the Sergeant a pace backwards. He didn’t see Catastrophe an arm’s reach to his side, as Aile had. Nor did he see the mare dip her head low to the ground and raise her hindquarters into the air. He only felt the numbing impact of her hooves before she sent him flying into the wall.
Aile watched the body of the tall hobgoblin sag next to the scorched wall. She had heard the snap of bone in the collision, and confirmed his broken neck when she leaned in and grabbed his lolling head by the hair. He coughed out a cloud of hot mist and blood before his large eyes rolled back in his head. Aile thrust the point of her sword past his moss green whiskers, putting him out of his misery.
She staggered back to her feet and surveyed the snowy landscape with a pounding heart. Everything was still as she gulped down a breath of frigid air. The Urlthmen were all dead and dying around her, and she couldn’t imagine there could possibly be any more. As poor as her assessment had been, there was no way a platoon or greater could be stalking the pass.
Even bloody and wounded, she felt blessed to be limping and alive as she approached her warhorse. The mare snorted a plume of mist that was pulled apart by the wind that slipped between the plates of Aile’s armor. Sweat had worked its way into her wool arming clothes, and the icy pain in her fingers and toes was bound to spread if she didn’t cover quickly.
She gave the horse a pat to her blanket and mane while the big mare acknowledged her with a low, rumbling nicker. “Good job, Cat,” Aile panted, “I’m going to find you the sweetest apple tomorrow!” She slowly continued to walk past Catastrophe and towards the humble warmth of the fire. Her armored boots stepped over the blood and melted snow in front of the decapitated she-goblin before she thrust the tip of her father’s sword into the snow and left it standing, hilt to the stars.
Aile bent down to retrieve her bearskin pelt from the ground and wrapped it around her shoulders. Then she stood next to the fire, still surrounded by the frozen corpses and dressed snowmen that she had set up hours before. Her fingers touched the blood weeping from her armpit and running down her side before she looked at the mutton on the spit. It was now black on the underside and hissing on the top.
“I dedicate this feast and victory to reborn Solan,” she said solemnly in the night, “and to my father who now lives forever in his light —”
The wild swing of the mace dented the side of her helmet with a deafening bang that knocked Aile to the ground. Her helm was sent flying, exposing her golden blond hair bound into a square plaited bun. Aile jerked herself up on an arm and shoulder while the world spun around her. Struggling to look back with bleary blue eyes, she saw the hobgoblin corporal looming over her.
His right arm broken and limp from the crossbow bolt still lodged within it, the beefy Corporal growled as he hit her thigh with another clumsy blow of his mace. The swipe could have broken bone, but its awkward impact glanced off her armored leg with a flash of numbing pain instead that forced Aile to cry out. She pushed herself backwards with her palms, barely avoiding a graceless second strike. The eyes of the hobgoblin reflected the light of the fire and his rage as he knelt over to pin and bludgeon her.
Aile looked to her side and reached through the flames. She grabbed the spit that pierced the sizzling mutton and blocked the stroke that would have shattered her skull. There was a snap and spray of pulverized roast as the wooden spit broke in her hands from the blow… Then a scream as the mutton’s blistering fat and juices rolled down the Corporal’s face.
While the hobgoblin wailed from the burns, Aile dragged herself up on her throbbing leg and found the discarded double-headed axe in the snow. She took up its long haft and swung the axe head into the Corporal’s navel. He crumpled over with a gasp and fell to his knees before she tore the blade out of his stomach and lifted it again.
Aile didn’t know if the Corporal was cursing her or begging for mercy in Urltheric as she slammed the axe into his back over and over again. And she didn’t care.
A final blow ended the hobgoblin’s life without a doubt, and Aile dragged the bloody axe as she limped away. She braced its blades on the ground at her feet in front of the fire and leaned on the knob of the upturned weapon. She waited for the pain to lessen, the world to stop spinning and the ringing in her ears to stop. A touch of heat from the fire caressed her cheek and she looked up at the wavering moon and sparks above the flames.
The many slain travelers, and the priests who had tended to them within the modest Shrine to the Dawn that had graced lonely Creeber’s Notch, had been avenged. Moreover, the siege upon the little village of Kam was lifted and her people would no longer be slowly strangled in the mountains. Aile’s wounds and chill felt lessened as she realized the worth of her victory. With the approaching dawn she would ride to Kam, granting them a New Year’s Day worthy of celebration while presenting the heads of the Urlthmen.
She gazed at the stars, and then sang to her father’s soul in the night. Her voice was sweet and practiced as the Solanic hymnal consecrated the frozen ridge.
(c) Jason H. Abbott – January 22, 2015