Passing the Bar-d

It was going to get worse before it got better.

 “Your honor! Your honor, if I may plead my case?”

The judge farted in his chair as a response, picking at the white-lace collar around his neck. Behind her the courtroom howled and threw plates at each other.  

Hannah told the ‘judge’ the collar was a necklace of Supreme Judgement, but she found it in the bottom of the barbarian’s bag. She suspected it was a makeshift handkerchief of questionable cleanliness.  

Howls and high-pitched shrieks echoed around the ‘courtroom’ as the congregation eyed their prospective snacks. Goblins were known for a lot of things, and patience wasn’t one of them. 

“You go. Talk-talk.” The chief pointed at her, leering. “Then, I say no. Then we eat-a.” 

The prosecutor thumped his nail-studded mace on the table in profound enthusiasm. 

In the cage, Gronk and Garion sat in their shackles, watching her with faintly amused expressions. The goblins tied Gronk hand and foot, and then after murmured consternation, elbow-to-elbow. He resembled a trussed goose…if a goose was six-three and a mountain of tattoos and muscle. Garion’s hands were tied, but after he set half the jail cell on fire with two words, they took the added measure of gagging him. 

Hannah didn’t want to think about what the wad of leather in his mouth tasted like. 

“Your honor we talked about this. Remember? You said you’d give us a trial? Right?” 

She took a step forward, trying to ignore the creaking of bowstrings. The shadows behind the rock outcropping were huge and looming. The darkness twenty feet away swallowed her words without so much as an echo. There could be as many as two dozen archers clutched in those depths, waiting to put an arrow in her eye. It was a fine line to walk, talking to the chief of a bloodthirsty goblin tribe in small enough words he could understand, without talking to him like an idiot. 

“Yes. Say talk-talk. Then I eat.” The chief thumped his chest with a fist. He was a big boy, she had to give it to him, especially for a goblin. He looked like he could eat them. 

Hannah considered the notes in front of her, licking a finger and shuffling between them. On top was a shopping list for Gronk’s dinners this week, with a notation in arcane runes running up the side. She considered it with a heavy sigh. They wanted a show. She’d give them a show.

“Your greatness!” She spun and raised her arms, half-bowing in his general direction. The judge sat up in his chair, preening the stained leather-and-fur armor holding in his swollen torso. He liked that. 

“We are humble travellers, three poor souls, destined to walk the lands together. We came to your great and majestic caves in search…” 

“You! You shut-a. You, talk-talk more. Big caves. You talk-a big caves.” The chief-turned judge adjusted his handkerchief of Justice, gesturing at the soggy rocks around them like it was the palace of Ninterdel.

Gronk interrupted her with a hacking cough. One of the guards by the cage jabbed him into silence with the butt of a spear, snarling in goblin. The barbarian lapsed into silence, one eyebrow raised at Hannah. 

“Ah…yes. We came to your cave in search of…the best tribe of goblins in the land!” 

Gronk’s other eyebrow rose. The wizard made an inquisitive sound behind his gag. The judge leaned forward. The rock beneath his claws scraped as his nails dug furrows in his excitement. 

“Yes. Yes, it’s true. We were sent by the…the…your fellow goblin chief, Bombardy!” 

She was off the reservation now. The chief turned to his bailiff–a stocky goblin with a nasty burn covering half his face–in muttered conversation. She couldn’t follow the conversation, but there was much pointing and shrugging. After a moment the chief turned back. 

“What means, Bombardy?” 

“It’s, uh…it’s a name?” Hannah cleared her throat. “Yep. It’s a name. Bombardy, the goblin chief. He has–” 

“Chief? Me, chief.” The judge waved a clawed hand at her, pointing to it as proof. 

“Yes, I understand, this is a different chief.” 

“No!” His shriek sent yipping ripples through the congregation. Goblins leapt from the rock benches and outcroppings, banging rusty hatchets and splintered swords in approval. 

“No! I, chief. No him chief! Me!” 

The judge spun to look behind his chair, like Bombardy would appear to challenge him. 

“Judge–chief, I’m…we’re getting off the subject. It doesn’t–chief. Chief, over here.” She snapped her fingers. The judge resumed his chair, muttering darkly about being the only chief. 

“We are looking for the strangest goblin tribe in all the land. We have…we have a prize for them! We–” Hannah gestured at the two captives and herself. “We wandered into your caves looking for you. Do you know where we can find the strongest tribe of goblins in the land?” 

It took a minute, and another muttered conversation with the bailiff. When the chief spun back around, excitement was plastered all over his face. 

“Us big goblin-tribe! Durn tribe, big tribe!” He thumped his chest. Hannah wondered if he wore the armor just to protect his torso from himself. The gathered crowd went wild at that, cheers galore. Perfect.

“Yes, yes of course! We were looking for you, to make sure you were the best goblin tribe! We shouldn’t be punished. All we want to do is help you. That is why we came into your caves–to make you the king of all the goblins in the land!” 

The judge sat back in his chair, all but preening with excitement. The bailiff was at his elbow, chattering. Hannah sat down behind the table, straightening her papers and trying not to appear too pleased with herself. When the hubbub died down, the judge looked around. 

“We eat-a now?”

“Ah…no, your honor. Now it’s time for you–that’s you all, not you personally, your honor–to talk. You need to present a case against us.”

This information was met with a blank stare. Hannah sighed. 

“I talk-a. Now you talk-a.” 

There it was. More hushed conversation, this time gesturing at the table across from her, where the prosecuting attorney was busy picking his nose. The judge seemed concerned about something. Hannah had to resist the urge to put her bootheels on the table and lean back. This was too easy; she’d have Gronk and Garion out in twenty minutes flat. All she had to do was talk. To quote an ex-lover, ‘you talk real good.’

After several back-and-forths the bailiff ducked away and plunged into the darkness. Hannah frowned. She didn’t expect them to actually get anyone.

Three minutes later the bailiff returned, this time followed by a diminutive figure clutching a pile of parchment, huffing and puffing. He was wearing robes, cut to fit his small frame. Long-healed scared traced their way around his collar and neck, fine white lines. 

“Sorry, chief. I was sleeping, I didn’t know you needed me.” 

“Hey! Who the–” The spear-butt choked off the rest of Gronk’s accusation, slapping his head against the iron bars. Hannah shot out of her chair. 

“Uh–your honor? Your honor!” 

“You say talk-a. Thrash talk-a good.” The judge flapped a hand and the newcomer took his seat, shooing the previous prosecutor away as one would a gnat. 

“No, that’s not–he’s…your honor who is this?”

 “Oh, my apologies. My name is Thrash.” If she closed her eyes, the goblin would have sounded like one of her colleagues in the cage. His commonspeak was perfect.

“You–no, you can’t–I..I wasn’t expecting you.” She finished, somewhat lamely.

“Right. You were expecting to dazzle the judge there with a half thought-out speech and then waltz out of here with your companions and without consequences.” The goblin bared his teeth in a would-be smile. She opened her mouth, hesitated, and closed it.

Reaching into his pocket, the newcomer pulled out a pair of spectacles, hooking them around his ears. He, too, licked his fingers and flipped through a stack of parchments. 

“Your honor.” The goblin cleared his throat. “I’d like to ask just one simple question; what exactly were the three adventurers doing in the caves when they were arrested?” 

“No, no I don’t think–” 

“Excuse me.” Thrash turned, almost-surprise flitting across his dark eyes. “Are you interrupting my opening remarks? I don’t believe anyone interrupted you when you were regaling the court about your intentions to…find the strongest goblins. That was what you said, wasn’t it? Ma’am?”

A coal-black warg with teeth the width of Hannah’s palm sitting in front of the judge’s bench yawned loudly and sneezed. It eyed the barbarian and wizard lazily before putting its paws and falling back asleep.

Gronk and Garion were looking distinctly less amused now. 

Hannah mumbled something under her breath. 

“That’s what I thought. I suggest, your humble honor, that the accused were actually in the village galleries setting fires and murdering your humble subjects. That’s right, your honor, the so-called adventurers were killing innocent goblins! Your own people!”

“Oh come on. That’s ridiculo–” 

This time the goblin guard flipped the spear around and threatened Gronk into silence with the business end, exacting a carmine pearl at the base of his throat. Hannah waved at him to shut up–there was a reason he was in the cage and she was making the arguments.  

The judge’s eyes drew closer. “Me what? Thrash, you talk-talk fast. Say?”

“Bad-bads kill Durnfolk. She say good-goods, Thrash say bad-bads.” 

The crowd behind her burst into shocked whispers. Hannah tried not to look like she’d just taken a bite out of a lemon. She could count on the fingers of one hand when she’d lost an advantage and been put on the back foot in so little time. To be fair, she hadn’t banked on arguing against someone who could string two sentences together. 

“That, your honor, is what the people are here today to prove. Would you like to call your first witness…?”

“Hannah. ‘People’ is laying it on a little thick, isn’t it?” 

Thrash flashed another grin at her, sidling back to his parchment-covered table. “We goblins are a work in progress. Unfortunately, we’re not the ones being charged in this kangaroo court, are we? You are. You and your band of merry murderers. You seem to be a little late to the defense, aren’t you? Unlucky that way.”

The last was hashed under his breath to keep the judge from hearing. It was all she could do to grit her teeth in a would-be smile. She needed a new strategy. 

“The defendants call Gronk Gravedigg to the stand.” 

It took six goblins the better part of ten minutes to poke, roll and generally threaten Gronk upright and onto the squat rock sitting in the middle of the dining hall turned courtroom. The barbarian glanced at the warg hunched below his seat, sniffing his feet with no small amount of curiosity. 

“Gronk–ah, Mr. Gravedigg. What is your occupation?”

Gronk cleared his throat. “I’m…uh…an adventurer?” 

It sounded better than ‘blood soaked murder hobo’, she had to give it to him. She nodded before he could get himself in any more trouble. 

“Correct. And would you say you’re a good judge of how strong someone is?” 

“Yes, I would.” 

“Would you also say, Mr. Gravedigg, that there are only a handful of ways to tell how strong an opponent is?” 

“Objection, your honor, leading the witness.”
The judge perked up. “Thrash, what say?” 

“She try trick Durn. Need talk-talk no tricks.” 

“No tricks!” The sword unsheathed from his side with a wet rasp. He slammed it against the rocks around his seat, producing sparks and chips of metal in equal measure. The blade was pockmarked and already ragged–Hannah guessed this was a regular threat. Gronk watched this display with a barely suppressed whimper. 

“You! Talk-talk no tricks. Thrash, you watch.” The judge gestured with the blade. 

“That means ‘sustained’, in case you were wondering.” 

Hannah’s hand curled into a fist at her side. She wanted to wipe the satisfied smirk right off his face. She would have, if she wasn’t surrounded by a dozen goblins each toying with some variation of crude weapon. 

“Mr. Gravedigg, in your experience, what is the best method of determining how strong an enemy is?” 

“You know, you can buff those nicks out of your blade if you have a whetstone, all you–”

“Mr. Gravedigg! Focus please. How strong an enemy is?” 

“Uh…how strong…oh! You gotta fight ‘em.” 

Gods bless him, Gronk got there in the end. Hannah swallowed the relief before it could show on her face. 

“You have to fight them. Interesting. And what, Mr. Gravedigg, would you say you were doing when the goblins placed you under arrest?” 

‘Placed under arrest’ was a generous term. ‘Dropped a boulder the size of a small horse’ was a more accurate term; the swelling and livid flesh coating his right arm was just now beginning to turn a riot of blue and purple. 

Gronk blinked like he was missing something. “I was…fighting goblins. All of us were fighting–”
“Yes that’s enough.” She rushed in before he could get them all killed with a sentence or less. “Your honor, I put it that when we were arrested–unlawfully, I might add–we were in the process of determining how strong the goblins of Durn are, exactly. My witness is an expert in combat, a seasoned warrior and a long-time brawler, was fighting the goblin tribe in an effort to tell if they were strong enough. Strong.” She lingered, hoping it was enough to drive her point home. 

“Mr. Gravedigg, thank you. You can go back into your, ah, cage.” 

“I mean, I’d rather not.” 

“Excuse me, counselor, but I believe it’s my turn to question the witness.” Thrash slid out from his chair and walked around the table, smooth as elven mead. Hannah’s fingers twitched at the handle of the dagger stuffed down the back of her trousers, but after a two-second pause she sat back down. 

“Mr…Gravedigg, was it? That’s a lovely name. Father’s name, no doubt?” 

“Yes.” 

“Were the two of you close, you and your father?” 

“Objection your honor! Irrelevant.” 

“I’m just getting to know the witness, your honor.” The prosecutor’s smile was white and straight, charming. “Mr. Gravedigg? Close with your father?” 

“I mean…we’re friendly. He’s still the, ah…chief of the tribe, so we don’t exactly see each other that often.” The judge might have missed the flush working it’s way up Gronk’s collar, but Thrash didn’t. Hannah didn’t either. In her ‘inside voice’ she started a colorful and blistering stream of inventive terms for the newcomer.

Thrash cocked his head. “He’s the chief? That’s curious. I mean, as a…what was the phrase, an expert in combat, a seasoned warrior and long-time brawler, wouldn’t the title of chief naturally fall to you? His son?” 

A muscle in Gronk’s neck flexed. “At my naming ceremony, my father decided that, instead of naming me the next chief, he would stay in command. Until he decided I was ready.” 

“Until he decided you were ready. Interesting. So, he found your abilities…lacking?” 

Gronk’s silence was ugly. 

“Mr. Gravedigg.” 

“Yes.” He spat the word like it was a razor blade taking inches off his tongue. Thrash smiled, indulgent in victory. 

“Thank you, Mr. Gravedigg. Interesting, isn’t it, your honor, that Mr. Gravedigg’s father, the chief of his own tribe, found his son an inadequate heir. Is this the man the opposition claims was judging your best and brightest? A warrior barely fit to take on his father’s mantle? If the adventurers were truly here to measure the strength of Durn’s fighters, would they choose such a lackluster fighter?” 

“That’s not–” 

“Thank you, sir.” The goblin interrupted, stemming the bile poised to spew from Gronk’s lips. A vein pulsed in the huge man’s forehead. 

It took an additional four goblins to wrestle the man back into the cage, kicking and screaming. At one point the barbarian tipped himself over and crushed a goblin beneath him. 

“My witness, your honor. The people of Durn call Vasha Dindle to the stand.” 

Hannah turned with the rest of the crowd to see a female goblin enter through the cracked doors, escorted on either side by guards. She walked with a limp, stumbling more than once, refusing assistance. Her left arm and torso was an angry red mass of blisters and cracked skin. The crowd murmured in hushed tones, staring at the injury she carried proudly. 

“Shit.” This wasn’t good. 

The goblin woman sat on the rock, reaching down to give the warg an affectionate scratch between its ears. 

“Please state your name, miss.” 

“Vasha Dindle.” The goblin spoke common with a thick accent, like there was a wire in her jaw. 

“Vasha, can you please describe the events that took place this morning?” 

Hannah closed her eyes. 

Vasha woke early, on her way to the well to draw water for breakfast. Her mate, it was explained, was one of the Chief’s guards and was due at the upper galleries early. The first screams echoed up the streets as she was standing at the well.  She described Gronk without turning to look at him, covered in viscera, cleaving through the scouts attempting to retreat into the village to raise alarm. Behind him came Hannah, half-screaming spell-words as she impaled corpses with her rapier. Like stacks of firewood, bleeding into the streets.

Hannah remembered it a little differently. She remembered the goblins leaping from hidden alcoves and out of crumbling structures, wielding poison-slathered scythes and short swords. Gronk, bleeding from half a dozen nicks and arrow wounds already, fighting to stay alive. 

“He behind the woman. The man with fire in his fingers. The fire ate everything it touched. Rock, wood…and flesh, most.” 

Garion’s eyes flickered. Usually unscrupulous, something brewed in the back of those hazel depths. Empathy, or close to it. He wasn’t a bad person–none of them were bad people. Unless of course you asked the goblin on the stand. She was currently describing the death throes of her mate beneath Gronk’s axe-blade which didn’t exactly paint them in a generous light. With every word the judge’s face grew harder. 

“And, did the so-called adventurers stop, at any point?” 

Vasha shook her head. There were actual tears in her eyes.

“Did they say anything about testing how strong the warriors were? About how they needed to speak to the chief? Did they say anything at all?” 

Another head shake. Thrash tutted, shaking his head mournfully.

“What did they do, Vasha?” 

“Kill.” The goblin woman couldn’t bring herself to look up when she said it. The rocks swallowed her words, impassive as the inked shadow pooling around them. “They kill.” 

“Your witness.” 

Hannah stood. Her knees weren’t as steady as they were five minutes ago. 

The discovery of goblins earlier this morning had, at the time, felt more like a bit of sport than anything dangerous. Goblins weren’t a problem–they’d dealt with far worse beasties in their time. Plus, the barbarian reasoned, goblins were evil. Bad guys. What did they do with bad guys? 

Killed ‘em.

But listening to someone else recount their exploits…they sounded like the bad guys. Looking at Vasha shivering alone with her wounds, Hannah had a hard time convincing herself otherwise. 

She had questions. What was her mate doing when he fell? Why didn’t anyone surrender, or stop to ask them questions? But staring at the goblin, the questions tasted like ash in her mouth. 

“No questions.” Hannah mumbled. 

Vasha left the courtroom between her guards. She didn’t look at Hannah, and Hannah didn’t look at her. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Silence reigned in the courtroom. Thrash looked at her. The wizard and the barbarian looked at her. The judge sprinkled salt and pepper on the wizard and the barbarian, licking his lips. 

“Your witness.” The goblin said, flicking an invisible piece of lint from his shoulder. 

 She stared at the table. She had one card left up her sleeve. 

“Your honor, I’d like to speak to Garion Fadstabble.” She gestured to the wizard. 

“Objection!” 

She spun on her opponent, flaring immediately. “On what grounds, counselor? Are you suggesting I should be unable to call one of my witnesses? How dare you?” 

The goblin was unfazed by her tone. “How are you planning on speaking to him, though that gag around his mouth?” 

Shit.

“I was planning on taking it off, thank you very much.” 

Thrash’s laughter squawked through the dining hall, prompting a weak sort of ripple effect through the crowd. Even the judge joined in, entirely unsure of why he was laughing. 

“So he can set us all on fire with a single word. Hardly. No, the wizard stays gagged.” 

“That’s not fair!” 

The goblin shrugged. “Take it up with the judge.”

Silence loomed in front of her. She couldn’t, and she damn well knew it. Her last card, and she might have well have set it on fire for all the good it did her. The goblin was outplaying her at every turn. Not just that–he was outthinking her. Playing her own game better than she was. 

“Hannah!” It was Gronk’s voice that finally snapped her out of her trance. He ducked around the spearpoint darting between the bars, glaring at her. “You want to help us out here, or what?” 

“Yes Hannah. Do you want to help out your colleagues?”  The short goblin across the aisle was grinning, leaning backwards in his chair. He pulled off his spectacles, polishing them on his shirt. A shadow danced on the inside of his forearm, a black tattoo in geometric patterns. Half the goblin tribe sitting in the courtroom sported ink seared into their skin. The barbarian had eight inches of clear skin over his whole body–even Garion had an arcane tattoo scrawled over his left shoulder blade. He claimed it was a component to a spell, but it looked suspiciously like a recipe. 

Something stank. A suspicion began to grow in the back of her mind. 

“Your honor I’d like to call Thrash to the stand.” 

The goblin froze mid-polish. The judge sat up, his ears perking vertical. 

“Thrash? You talk-a Thrash?” 

No one was expecting it, which was good. The only way off your back foot was to do something no one expected. Her opponent recovered first; he put his spectacles back on and meandered to the chair with his hands in his pockets, easy as could be. He made a show of cleaning the rock before sitting on it delicately, one leg folded over the other–he glanced at the judge and shrugged, a smirk clutched in the corner of his mouth. It would have infuriated Hannah–had she been watching him. 

But Hannah wasn’t watching Thrash. She wasn’t watching the judge. 

Hannah was watching the warg. 

The dog-like beast perked up, the muscles in its nose twitching. Thrash ignored him, eyes boring into Hannah’s.

“Well, counselor? I’m waiting.” 

The warg got closer, blinking sleep away. 

“Mr. Thrash. You’re a goblin, correct?” 

“I am.” 

“And how long would you say you’ve lived with the tribe of Durn?”

The warg sat up, eyes narrowing. Low thunder, a constant rumble, rolled from it’s chest. 

“Skretch! Shut!” The judge roared, slapping his blade against the rock. The barbarian winced. 

“Ahchoo!” Thrash sneezed, whipping a handkerchief out of one sleeve just in time. “Beg your pardon. Allergies, you know.”

His fingers flexed around the linen and he dropped it, carelessly. The hound sniffed the handkerchief, sneezed once, twice, three times. It shook its head as though dumbstruck.  The rumble went away. 

“What was the question again? A thousand apologies.”

“How long would you say you’ve lived with the tribe of Durn?” 

“Oh, that’s easy. All my life. I was born in the tribe.” 

“Your honor, is that true? Was Thrash born in your tribe of most-excellent warriors?” 

The judge thumbed a fist against the rock. “Thrash Durn-kin. Good goblin.” 

“And, ah…who was your mother, Thrash?” 

The goblin’s eyes narrowed. “Objection.” 

Hannah smiled sweetly. “Just getting to know the witness. Answer the question.” 

“My mother’s name was Gartras. She lived on the outskirts of the lower galleries. She, ah…died, when I was just a pup. A water hag tranced her and she drowned. I’m sorry, if I could–” Thrash choked on the end of the sentence, whisking another handkerchief out of his pocket to dab at his eyes. 

“Oh I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure that must have been very hard.” Hannah was, in fact, not sorry at all. Which was okay, because Thrash wasn’t really upset. Tears shimmered in his eyes and he sniffled appropriately…but if his emotion was genuine, she was a halfling milkmaid.

“What about your father?” 

The goblin took his time dabbing at his eyes. He put his glasses back on, blinking. 

“Thrash?” 

“I’m sorry? Oh, yes of course. My father was…my father was…oh yes, of course. My father was Grikk Sheev.”

A line scratched into the bailiff’s brow. 

“Grikk Sheev? Is Grikk Sheev still with us?”

 “No, no he was eaten by a cave-troll during a raid in the upper galleries some years ago. Lost his life in battle, just the way he wanted to go.” 

“How convenient.” Hannah murmured, just for Thrash to hear. A line tightened in the corner of his mouth, but he didn’t say anything. “What did your father do for the tribe?” 

“He was a forager. He spent most of his time in the reaches below the lower galleries finding mushrooms, herbs and the like.” 

The bailiff pulled at the judge’s elbow, whispering. Hannah saw it; Thrash did not. 

“Sounds like an important job.”

“Ah…no, no I wouldn’t say that. He was pretty easy to miss. Small man, you know.” 

The judge was now looking at Thrash with narrowed eyes. The bailiff was still whispering in his ears. . 

“Your honor, you’re a good chief, yes?” 

“Durn good chief. Strong. Much smart.” 

“Thrash, as a part of Durn’s tribe, you of course would echo my sentiments when I say that the chief here is an excellent chief, would you not? As he says, much smart.” 

The goblin’s brow quirked. The gallery behind Hannah was starting to mutter, jerking chins and nods at the goblin sitting in the proverbial hot-seat.
“I, ah…I mean, yes of course…” 

“And chief, you know each of the goblins in your tribe, yes?” 

The bailiff adjusted the grip on his spear, taking what he considered a nonchalant side-step. Thrash clocked him, his eyes darting to the side. 

“I know goblins.” Durn growled. “I know all goblins. I know Gartras. She die no cubs. I know Grikk Sheev.” 

The doors to the dining hall closed with a squeak and clatter. 

“Grikk Sheev die no mate. No cubs.” 

“No mate, and no cubs.” Hannah stuck out a lip and tapped a finger. “Now, I’m no expert in ancestry, but I’m pretty sure that if your mother died without having a child, and your father died without having a child, that would mean you…don’t exist.” 

The silence was thick enough to cut with a knife. 

His claws against each other echoed thinly in the empty air, hollow applause for no one. 

“Well well, you smart bitch. Look who finally figured it out.”  His gaze bored into her, malicious in every variation of the word. “Took you long enough.” 

The chief dropped from the elevated bench with a heavy thud. The broadsword scraped against the rock behind him. 

“Do you want to tell them who you are? Or would you like me to do it?” 

Thrash licked his lips, his smile turning hungry. “Well, since we’re all friends here.” 

A shudder rolled his shoulders in a shockwave. The tattoo on his arm gleamed. 

The tan hide rippled like it was a viscous liquid, churning. The spiderwebbed scars sunk below the surface. Long, sharp nails twitched and forced themselves back into stubby fingers, which were lengthening, growing slimmer. He shivered again, and the next time his mouth stretched in a grin the chipped yellow fangs were squared-off, straightened. Hair sprouted from his scalp, pale as sun bleached bone. 

The goblins were screaming. Chief Durn slammed his sword against the cavern floor, blustering threats. The barbarian’s eyes were the size of dinner plates. 

“Hannah! Get him! That’s the–” The barbarian was screaming information she already had.

Fifteen seconds after it started, it was over. Thrash the goblin was gone, evaporated. Where he’d stood instead was a swarthy halfling, tucking a strand of greasy hair behind one ear. Tattoos scrawled up his arms. 

“Well, well. Look who’s a smart–” 

The rest of his sentence was lost beneath the screech of lightning and deep-belly roar of thunder. A concussive blast exploded between them, sending the benches and tables splintering against the walls. Goblin bodies went flying helter-skelter. 

When the dust settled the only ones standing were her and the mage, much to her displeasure. A blue nimbus expanded from his outstretched palms, holding splinters of rock and table in mid-air. She’d never seen a protection spell cast so quickly before. The wizard and barbarian slumped in their cage, out cold. Even without the gag, she doubted Garion could have cast a spell quick enough. Whoever this one was, he was dangerous. 

“That wasn’t very nice of you.” The mage grinned. 

The goblin-chief groaned from where he sprawled, shaking his head and climbing to his feet. All around the room goblins were regaining consciousness. They picked up whatever weapons were closest, closing the space around the newly-revealed halfling. His narrowed eyes darted, taking in the sheer number of them, the dozens of spears, arrows and swords. He could kill half of them with a spell and there would still be fifteen, falling on him. 

“Until we meet again, wench.” He winked. The mage twisted a finger, his lips moving in a too-familiar incantation. 

“No!” Hannah reached for the first thing that came to mind; the dagger, stuffed into the back of her pants. It whistled as it split the air, howling for the hobbit already disappearing into a plume of silvery mist. 

A heartbeat later, the mage was gone, her dagger with him. A splattering of blood on the rocks led into the darkness, deeper into the caves. She missed.

The goblins turned to her. 

“You! You trick Durn!” The chief slammed his sword against the rock. His black eyes were surrounded by a corona of scarlet veins. He pointed the splintered remains of his broadsword at her, spittle flying from his lips. “Durn punish! You pay! Goblins–” The rest of his sentence devolved into guttural goblin-speak for what she could only assume was a series of colorful ways of seizing her. 

Well this was far from ideal. 

———-

Art credit goes to Svetlin Velinov. Check out their incredible work at https://www.artstation.com/velinov

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