"For Andoran and liberty!" screamed Kal, as above them a dozen figures moved, loosing their arrows as one.
Kal braced himself for the inevitable deluge that would pierce his flesh and leave him bleeding like a stuck pig... but it never came.
Guttural cries of pain pealed out from over the lip of the rock wall, and shouts of anger joined them—not the foul speech of the goblins, but human voices.
From down the passage came the first of the hobgoblin berserkers, and Tiberion took a step forward, ready to cut them down as they charged. But before he had a chance, missiles suddenly rained down from above, piercing the foremost goblinoid's body. It fell with three arrows protruding from its chest as the rest ran into a solid volley, falling and shrieking. Kal loosed his bow into the fray, taking one of the hobgoblins in the throat. Altogether, it was enough for the others to halt their advance, and as the hum of bowstrings announced a second storm, the remaining hobgoblins in view turned and fled back the way they had come.
Silence fell over the dark gully as Kal looked around frantically, trying to spy who had come to their aid, though he could see little in the waning light. Before he could call out, a rope was suddenly dropped down from above.
"You'd best move quick," came a disembodied voice. "They won't stay gone forever."
Kal needed no further encouragement, and he shouldered his bow, then grasped the rope and pulled himself up the rock face. Tiberion was quick to follow, easily scaling the sheer surface despite his heavy armor.
When he reached the summit, Kal was helped up by strong hands. He saw that several disheveled figures hunkered in the dark, their bows drawn against any further danger. On the ground lay several goblin archers, arrows still protruding from their filthy, twisted corpses.
"Thank you," said Kal to the bearded man who had helped him up. "For a second there I thought we were going to end our days with our guts splayed to the winds."
"There'll be time for thanks later," came the reply. "And likely time for the rest as well. For now we have to move."
"And the horses?" Kal looked back over the gully, but could no longer see where they'd dismounted.
With that, the grim figure and his grubby cohorts began to slink off into the dark. Kal and Tiberion followed across the sloping rocks, trailing their sure-footed guides over the uneven ground. How these new men managed not to slip in the dark, Kal didn't know, but several times he found himself losing his balance and falling to his knees, only to be grabbed and pulled to his feet by one of their rescuers. They carried on silently for more than an hour, winding their way further up toward the mountain peaks as the night wind began to whip through the gullies, threatening to fling them into oblivion at any moment. It was to his great relief that Kal eventually spied a campfire in the distance, and as they climbed closer, the welcome smell of cooking food reached his nostrils.
The camp was small, and situated in a narrow gully. Within was packed a motley band of men, women and children huddled together for warmth and safety from the elements. The men that had guided them were greeted with warm embraces and heartfelt blessings, but as Tiberion strode into the firelight, the camp fell silent.
Kal felt the discomfort keenly, and as Tiberion's albeit unwilling companion, found himself obliged to make the introductions.
"A Hellknight's idea of freedom is a strange thing."
"I am Kal Berne of the Steel Falcons," he said, his stomach knotting as all eyes turned his way. "And this is Tiberion. We are part of an allied contingent, sent to root out the remaining invaders in these lands."
"We know what you are," said the bearded man who appeared to be their leader. "I am Ursul, and this," he indicated the camp with a grand sweep of his arm, "is all that remains of Isger's settlements for ten leagues of here."
There were pitifully few for all that, but Kal believed the man. "How did you come to be here?" he asked.
"This was the only place we could run to when the hordes came. Tribe after tribe of goblins swept across our lands, leaving nothing but cinders and corpses. Some fled north, but not quick enough to avoid the slaughter. We ran south, and hid here. And lucky for you we did." Ursul took a seat beside the fire as one of the women handed him a bowl and spooned him some thick broth from a bubbling pot. "You'd best sit, unless you're too good for the likes of us?"
"Of course not," Kal replied taking a seat. He gratefully accepted a bowl of the thick stew, and the smell of it made his stomach gurgle in anticipation.
Tiberion remained in the shadows, seemingly vigilant for any sign of attack. Kal was happy to let him remain aloof, if such was his inclination.
The ragtag band of refugees was keen for news of the world beyond the mountaintops, and Kal was happy to report the progress of the allied forces—how they had pushed back the goblin tribes to the Chitterwood, and how they were optimistic the conflict would be over by winter. This news was greeted with relief by Ursul and his band, and Kal surmised they had doubts as to whether they would survive winter snows up in the unforgiving slopes of the Aspodell Mountains.
As the night wore on, Kal began to feel comfortable among these refugees, and his sympathy for their plight began to grow. It must have been difficult for them, surviving for so long in such treacherous conditions, but their spirits seemed high. So caught up was he with their revels that he almost forgot his mission. It was when he glanced back and saw the stern figure of Tiberion gazing off into the distance that the gravity of his situation suddenly began to weigh on him.
He stood and walked to where Tiberion was perched, staring beyond the thick veil of darkness.
"Anything to report?" he asked.
Tiberion glanced at Kal without bothering to return the Andoren's smile. "Somewhere beyond those peaks stands Citadel Dinyar; fortress of the Order of the God Claw."
"Is that where you come from?" asked Kal, his interest piqued by Tiberion's uncharacteristic spark of conversation.
"No. I was raised in Citadel Vraid, near Korvosa."
That was more than five hundred miles northwest. "You're a long way from home."
"The Order of the Nail goes where it's needed."
"But not necessarily where it's wanted." It was a flippant comment, and one Kal instantly regretted, but Tiberion did not seem to take offense.
"The world is a dangerous place. The Hellknights enforce order and law, and put fallen men back on the path of righteousness. Even when those men are unwilling to walk it."
"Some might call that tyranny." Kal felt himself beginning to flush at the Hellknight's easy arrogance. It was an outlook the Chelaxians were famous for: the sense that they should impose their will on the world, even if that meant enslaving those nations that resisted their ideologies.
"Are you so different in Andoran? Do you not punish the wicked and protect the innocent?"
"Of course we do. But our country has its independence. Its people are free."
"What use is freedom without peace? When the wicked are free to prey upon the innocent?" Tiberion shook his head. "No, only strict application of law can bring true peace. Your freedoms only hinder that."
"At least we're not slaves."
"You are all slaves. You just don't know it."
Kal gritted his teeth against a scathing retort. "So the Order of the Nail only wants peace—is that right? And what then? When you've made your peace, destroyed the last vestige of chaos—or freedom—where does that leave you?"
Tiberion stared at Kal as though searching for something. Locked in that gaze, Kal suddenly felt naked, vulnerable.
"If I live to see that day," Tiberion said solemnly, "I will gladly lay down my arms and live the life of a peaceful man."
"And until then you'll continue to kill. For peace."
"Even it means giving your own life?" But Kal already knew the answer.
"Mine, yours, and the those of every one of these people, if necessary." The corners of Tiberion's lips twitched upward slightly. "It is a small enough price to pay."
Kal had heard enough. With a shake of his head, he left the brooding Hellknight and returned to the warmth of the campfire.
Before sleep finally claimed him, he spent the rest of the night among the refugees, much preferring their stubborn optimism to Tiberion's uncompromising edge, but still he couldn't get their conversation out of his head. He knew there was no arguing with such belief, but part of him couldn't help but admire the steel of the Hellknight's conviction.
As the light of the morning sun gradually crept over the encroaching mountain peaks, Kal was awakened by a sudden commotion within the camp. Ursul was on his feet, talking in hushed tones to a younger member of his contingent. When the youth had finished his report, Ursul approached Kal, also beckoning Tiberion forward.
"There's something you should see," he said, and led them off toward one of the mountain trails that wound up from the camp, higher into the peaks. They eventually reached a high plateau, and Kal could see it looked out onto miles of open country, its vista including the vast Chitterwood and the blue-white serpent of the River Keld.
"There." Ursul pointed downward toward the foot of the Aspodells.
Kal craned forward, at first not seeing anything. Then, as he strained his eyes in the waxing light, he saw them—hundreds of them—moving like an army of insects in the distance and making their way northeast from the Chitterwood.
Tiberion gazed gravely toward the goblinoid war-host. "The horde is on the move."
"And it's headed straight for the reserve garrison at Wolfpoint," said Kal. "The fort's been behind the front lines for a month—they can't be expecting them to swing back down this side. They'll be totally unprepared!"
"Not if we warn them," Tiberion replied. The Hellknight was already moving back toward the camp.
Kal was quick to follow, with Ursul on his heels. They swiftly gathered their equipment, sharing a solemn glance as they realized the gravity of the task ahead. Wolfpoint was miles distant, and they no longer had horses.
"Take the north path," said Ursul, pointing the way from the camp. "It's narrow, but it'll take you straight to the foot of the range, shorter than the goblins' route, and the garrison's only a mile further on. May Old Deadeye speed your flight."
Kal gave a nod of thanks, and Tiberion led the way. Within minutes they had left the camp far behind them as they navigated the perilous track downward in their race to Wolfpoint.
Kal said a silent prayer. He'd seen goblins move before, and he knew Tiberion had as well. Even if their path was shorter, as Ursul claimed, it would still be a close thing. And if they didn't manage to beat the horde, it was likely there would be no one left at Wolfpoint to warn...
Coming Next Week: A desperate race and a comrade left behind in the final chapter of "Noble Sacrifice."
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.