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Noble Sacrifice

by Richard Ford

Chapter Three: Holding Ground

The narrow mountain trail was treacherous, more of a goat trail than a discernible pathway, but Tiberion moved with all haste, seemingly heedless of the danger. Kal was hard pressed to keep up with the hulking warrior as he almost sprinted down the face of the cliff. They had long since lost sight of the goblinoid army, but that did nothing to diminish the pressing urgency of their mission. Unless Wolfpoint were warned, the garrison would never have a chance. The goblins would use the cover of darkness to attack, descending on the garrison in the dead of night, moving silently to overwhelm the meager defense before they had a chance to raise the alarm. It was a tactic they had used all across Isger, and Kal was determined not to let it happen at Wolfpoint.

As the sloping path began to level out into the bottom of a steep-walled cut, Tiberion slowed his descent. Kal stopped behind him, watching as Tiberion narrowed his eyes, glancing up at the rocky promontory that surrounded them.

The Hellknight reached for his sword, and something slashed the air, missing his head by inches.

Then the air was suddenly alive with black-shafted arrows.

Tiberion ducked low and moved ahead, with Kal close on his heels. Now they could hear the high-pitched shouts as the goblin attackers whipped themselves into a frenzy. Kal pulled an arrow from his quiver and nocked it to his bow, but the deluge of missiles that continued to rain down on them was such that he dared not lift his head to take aim.

Two grizzled hobgoblins leapt down from the rocks above, longswords gripped in clawed fists, eyes keen and wide with the prospect of murder. Where goblins cut your throat with bits of sharpened trash, hobgoblins were another story entirely. Here were the true soldiers behind the horde's rush. Tiberion turned to meet them, but Kal placed a firm hand on his back.

"There's no time!" he shouted, above the roar of enemy voices.

"Then go." Tiberion pushed Kal toward where the path continued downward out of the gully.

Kal thought about it for a second, considered leaving the Hellknight to his fate—damn him, if he wanted to stay and face certain death, let him! But something inside disagreed, and instead he raised his bow and fired back into the storm of arrows.

Tiberion awaited the hobgoblins, allowing them to charge as he calmly took up a defensive stance. These monsters didn't howl, but rather moved with a quiet economy not so different from the Hellknight's own. Their swords rose in unison, and then Tiberion was moving, ducking under the left one's blade and letting their combined momentum carry his own sword point-first through the hobgoblin's chest. Blood sprayed, and the Hellknight spun on his heel, hauling the black sword free with the rasp of steel on bone.

The second hobgoblin swung its own blade, but Tiberion was no longer in its path, moving to the creature's flank. The creature barely had time to register its mistake before the Hellknight countered, lopping the sword arm from its shoulder. The goblinoid staggered back with a piercing, strangled cry, only to have it immediately cut short by Tiberion's reverse stroke.

Kal loosed another arrow, doing his best to pin down the cowardly goblin archers beyond the ridge. "We need to go!" he cried. "Now!"

Tiberion didn't argue, leading the way once more down the rocky path.

They ran, almost bounding down the mountainside, but the sounds of pursuit dogged them at every step. The goblins whooped and screamed as they gave chase, loosing their arrows wildly. The missiles smashed against the rocks behind and to either side—the two humans were barely managing to keep just beyond the effective range of the goblins' patchwork bows—but for every second that passed, the goblins' aim seemed to improve.

Something suddenly bit Kal in the back of his left thigh, cutting the leg out from under him. He fell hard, grunting in pain as his forearms met the rocky ground, barely protecting his face. Behind him, the screaming of the enemy rose to a crescendo, trumpeting their victory.

Kal tried to stand, but the wound pinned him to the ground as though the weight of the mountain itself were holding him down.

Iron fists dragged him to his feet. Clenching his jaw against the pain, he put a hand to the gauntleted fist on his shoulder to steady himself and began to move. He would show the Hellknight that the grit of the Steel Falcons was in every way equal to that of the Chelish devil-callers.

Kal limped several yards down the path, half pulled along by Tiberion, before the Hellknight bundled him in behind a huge fallen rock. In its lee, Tiberion examined Kal's wound, both men assessing it with a practiced eye. The arrow had pierced full through the thigh, its red and dripping head now protruding from the front of his leg. Tiberion said nothing, but merely grasped the pointed steel and snapped it off.

Kal screamed in pain, and Tiberion slammed a gauntleted hand into his mouth before grasping the fletching at the back of Kal's leg and swiftly pulling out the arrow. Kal screamed again, feeling as though his whole leg were being sawed off, as Tiberion tore a strip from his black cloak and tightly bound the wound.

"Are you ready?" the Hellknight asked.

Kal wanted to say yes, to carry on their flight down the mountainside, but already he could feel his strength leaking out through that oozing bandage. Pain lanced through him as he attempted to flex the knee.

"We both know I can't run on this leg," he answered. "But I can buy you time."

Tiberion leveled another of those piercing stares. When he spoke, his voice was calm, collected. "We can beat them."

"There's no time. Wolfpoint has to be warned."

The Hellknight nodded, but still didn't rise from his hunkered position. Kal pulled himself up as straight as he could against the stone, throwing back his shoulders as if on parade.

"Sacrifice. That's what you said, right?" He pulled his bow into his lap.

Tiberion said nothing, but Kal thought he saw something flicker in those eyes. Then, still without a word, Tiberion turned and sprinted down the path and out of sight.

Kal was alone. He could hear the enemy drawing closer, their incessant howling revealing their positions up in the rocks. Checking his quiver, he saw he still had four arrows left. He would have to make each one count.

The sound of pounding feet echoed down the narrow pass, and Kal nocked the first arrow, leaning out in time to see a hobgoblin warrior charging toward him. He let fly, taking the warrior high in the chest and knocking him off his feet, then pulled back behind the rock as arrows clattered to the stone where he'd just been.

He waited for two breaths, then leaned out again and loosed a second arrow, pulling back before he could see whether or not he hit. Not that it mattered at this point.

Two left.

The enemy had grown quiet now, no doubt moving forward on his position, ready to make a final rush. He nocked his third arrow.

"Human!" The deep voice rang out from farther up the path, its accent thick and guttural. "I know you are alone. Your coward friend has left you to die. I will do better. Come out and face me, and I will allow you to die a warrior's death, not cowering in the shadows like a worm."

Kal heard the words, and knew it was undoubtedly some kind of trap. Why the hobgoblin didn't just throw goblins at him until he ran out of arrows was beyond Kal, but maybe the leader was running low. And Kal was almost out of arrows. With a sword in hand, he might well have a chance of taking out this band's leader.

More likely, he would die. But at the very least, he might buy Tiberion some more time. Success now was measured in minutes, not arrows.

Kal leaned his bow and quiver against the rock and drew his rapier. Using his free arm to pull himself upright, he stepped carefully out from behind the rock, doing his best to not to limp.

The Eagle Knight half expected to be met by a hail of black arrows, but they never came. Instead, a little way up the path stood a powerful-looking hobgoblin, his face marred by a bestial grin full of pointed, yellow teeth.

"I am Kerschak," said the hobgoblin. "Chief of the Red Tongues. And you will have the honor of dying by my blade."

Too weary to make a proper reply, Kal settled for shooting him a rude gesture some of the enlisted men favored. It wasn't elegant, but it got the point across.

"Kerschak of the Red Tongues has
a high opinion of himself."

With a barking laugh, Kerschak ran forward, blade raised high. Kal tried to duck, thrusting forward, but he had no power in his back leg and only managed a weak stab, which the hobgoblin easily batted aside. As Kerschak attacked, Kal was forced backward away from his supporting rock, limping heavily, his rapier barely coming up in time to stop each blow. The hobgoblin chief was relentless, and clearly enjoying this. Again and again his sword hacked down, and where before Kal might have easily countered and impaled his foe, with his wounded leg he could barely parry the ferocious attacks.

Finally, with a mighty sweep of his blade, Kerschak knocked the rapier from Kal's grip, smashing his fist into Kal's face and knocking him to the ground.

Kal lay on his back as the hobgoblin stood over him, victorious. It leered down, and Kal suddenly understood, in a way he'd only imagined before, what the Isgeri farmers must have felt in their last minutes. Yet thinking of them, he suddenly felt himself suffused with a warm glow. He wasn't ready to die—not really—but an Eagle Knight wasn't meant to die in a bed. Kal's only hope as the hobgoblin raised its blade was that his delay had given Tiberion enough time to reach Wolfpoint before the rest of the horde.

"Enough!"

The hobgoblin spun to face the speaker, and Kal looked past him to see Tiberion standing a little way up the path, sword drawn and expression grim.

Kerschak glanced around wide-eyed, shouting in the goblinoid tongue.

Nothing happened.

"You have no archers left, Kerschak of the Red Tongues." Tiberion turned his black sword so the hobgoblin could see the fresh rivulets of blood that ran from it to pool on the stony ground.

Kerschak looked toward the cliffs once more, then seemed to take the Hellknight's word. With a roar, he bolted back up the path toward the Hellknight, powerful legs churning the ground between them.

Tiberion watched him approach, making no move until the last possible second. When his blade hummed through the air, taking off the warchieftain's head, it was in an almost surgical manner, his feet never shifting in the dust. The hobgoblin's body pitched forward, landing in a crumpled heap as his head spun off to roll wetly down the cliff.

Kal pulled himself back upright, leaning against the rock wall as Tiberion approached. The Hellknight wiped the blood from his blade with the corner of his black cloak.

"What happened to sacrifice?" Kal asked, and though he strove for reproach, his tone was grateful.

"I considered you more suitable as a diversion," Tiberion replied. "Come. We've wasted enough time." He gestured down the mountain path.

"In case you've forgotten, there's still this." Kal touched his bad leg carefully. "I'll only slow us down."

With one fluid movement, Tiberion grasped Kal around the waist and slung him over his armored shoulder. Even as his leg screamed at the abuse, Kal was amazed at how easily the big man took his weight.

"Then it is lucky for you, Kal Berne, that I am strong enough for both of us."

And once more they made their way down the mountain, toward Wolfpoint.


Coming Next Week: J. C. Hay gives us an inside look at life in the undead gutters of Mechitar in the first chapter of “Blood Crimes.”

Richard Ford has written short fiction for Games Workshop's Black Library and the British Fantasy Society's acclaimed journal, Dark Horizons, as well as the novel The Dragons of Lencia.

Art by KyuShik Shin

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Tags: Hobgoblins Kyushik Shin Noble Sacrifice Pathfinder Tales Richard Ford
RPG Superstar 2009 Top 32, 2010 Top 8

Spoiler:
"I considered you more useful as a distraction."

Best line. period.


Great finish to this tale!

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