Grimlor thought another unwanted guest was beating on the door as his eyes blinked open, but it was only the drumming in his head from far too much wine the night before. A faint early morning light peaked through the windows high above, yet it seemed like the sun sat inches from their bed, causing him to squint while he hoisted his heavy body out of bed. A green hand braced against the side table. He saw it and shocked himself out of his stupor. He almost tripped over his feet twice running to the amber flask that sat incredulously amongst his wife’s perfumes. The potion soothed this time as he narrowly avoided an impossible situation to explain. Everything transformed and he looked to the bed—his now wife remained fast asleep. If she had seen him, he felt no guilt in having to kill her, but it would further complicate an already convoluted assignment.
The gaunt man’s visit entered Grimlor’s thoughts, prompting him to get dressed. The plan he had concocted in his daze remained intact through the sobering sleep. He had to get back to the goblin camp and let the general know of the news of dissension within Bravlem’s leadership. It offered an opportunity they could not pass up. His wife remained motionless the entire time he dressed, even when he knocked a silver cup and it clanged on the stone floor. Knowing that she would wonder where he was when she did wake up, he wrote a brief note that simply said that he had an errand to attend to and would be back in the afternoon. He hoped it would suffice.
Aromas of bacon and some treat that smelled sweater than wildflowers almost dragged him into the banquet hall. Using considerable restraint, he kept on his way and took a carriage down to the city entrance below. Upon arriving at the wall, a stable hand stopped and asked if he intended to take a horse. A fleet of horses covered in royal colored skirts flanked against the food troughs, munching on hay and oats. Without so much as a word, he took one and made his way toward his kin.
The countryside had a different view this day. He figured it was because his head felt like mush, but realized that one always saw different things riding as opposed to walking. The horse carried a stalwart posture as it galloped. Grimlor had never felt such a solid-footed creature before. In the breaking of goblin horses, many of them were truly beaten into submission, always leaving behind some wound that effected the animal’s gait; a broken rib, one leg weaker than the others, missing teeth—any manner of such injuries caused the horses to fall short of its potential.
A pack of goblin guards outside the camp flexed and rustled up their weapons upon his approach. However, another halted the two from firing arrows as Grimlor’s face came into full view—clearly the general and his officers had explained his new appearance to some, but not to all. This fact did not prevent the derisive scowls and snarls of disapproval of his new façade as he passed by. He avoided contact with others as much as he could as he rode around the side of the camp to the western edge where the General’s tent sat.
Stepping down from the horse as one of the tent guards took the reins, his head swashed, still feeling the effects of the wine combined with riding on an empty stomach. The original seven officers stood beside the general, who was ever hunched over the table map as if it contained a riddle he needed to solve. Similar looks like the guards laced Grimlor’s superiors’ faces—he couldn’t tell if it was out of disgust for his new form or if was out of jealously over his prized assignment.
“Ah yes, Grimlor the goblinman has returned.” The general said with face down before he could greet the elder. “Figure you out already? Or do you come with something useful?”
Grimlor glanced at the officers and then back to the general who had risen from the map and stared at him. “More useful than we’d previously thought, general.”
The old goblin raised a finger. “Let me be the judge of that, boy.”
Grimlor nodded. “Yes of course.” He cleared his throat. “The city is primed to fall, my lord. Fortune favors our timing as there are usurpers amongst the leaders of Bravlem who wish to supplant the king.” He paused to see what effect this had.
The officers’ mouths opened, but before they could give into their shock, they turned to their superior for confirmation. Truly cowards these so-called leaders, Grimlor thought. The general pursed his lips and the stringy hairs that remained on his brows tittered.
Uncomfortable with the silence, Grimlor continued. “I have it on a reliable source that they will be ready within a few days. My plan.” He stopped himself before he entered a dangerous realm. “My thought … was to let them fight it out amongst each other first. Let them drain the blood from their best soldiers and then, when they are weak, we strike.”
The officers repeated their insecure checking of the general before having an actual opinion of their own. If the old goblin had a thought, one way or another, all Grimlor’s powers of deduction could not figure it. His superior’s ability to stay stone cold in light of any such news or confrontation came from years of biding one’s time, waiting for the perfect moment to exact their plan on the world of the so-called peace-bidding races of Prima Earth. It was something to awe at and aspire to in one’s own military endeavors. Grimlor knew in that moment he admired the general in all of what he had to teach him, so that one day, he himself, could lead.
“Your plan … as you denoted correctly … is one I dare say I would have thought of. One that minimizes our losses and increases our chance of victory. However,” the general struggled to stand akimbo and his legs bowed as he made his way to a step from Grimlor. The musk from the old one’s head reeked of caked sweat and grime, too many days and nights spent pouring over maps and military strategies to bathe. Grimlor had never noticed it before, but now having spent time with their enemy, he realized the difference between filthy and pristine. “Never.” The general continued. “Never, I say, assume your thoughts to be plans. You report. I decipher. I plan. You enact. Got it?”
There was nothing for Grimlor to think about, as the officers admired the old one and his way to return others to their rightful place. “Yes, sir.”
The general kept Grimlor aside as they detailed the plans for their attack, making several contingencies based on the human usurpers own fight, ranging from highly successful to an abysmal failure—any which way they would be prepared. The officers stymied his attempts to add anything else and the general allowed it as he was too entrenched in war mind. They agreed to stay in touch via messenger birds until the attack, making contact much easier.
He was given no drink, no handshake, nor even a single congratulatory word when it came time for him to leave, they simply broke apart from the map and looked at him as though any fool knew he was no longer needed there. The unceremonial exit and underlying derision from the other officers turned what should have been a triumphant ride back into Bravlem a maddening one in which his anger stair stepped to rage by the time he made it to the castle.
The same rotund chauffer informed that his wife was out for the day and would return before dinner. A pleasant surprise for the thought of entertaining a conversation with her at this time sounded as welcomed as removing his fingernails. The expectation of solitude soon quashed as the gaunt man from the night earlier awaited him on the stoop of his abode, swathed in black.
“Another fruitful day on the political battlefield, eh?” The shrill man could hardly contain the humor in his own chide.
Grimlor raised a hand to the rotund man and sent him away. “Hopefully not as fruitful as yours.”
“I feel safe in saying so.”
They both stepped inside, Grimlor threw the pin and locked the door and stepped into their quant parlor and poured himself a glass of wine, of what vintage he knew not. The taste had grown on him over the course of one evening and he now understood the allure.
“Out with it. What do you have for me?” He said, wanting the man gone as soon as possible.
“Aren’t we a bit prickly?” The man feigned a sigh. “Like most great artists, I’ll never be fully appreciated in my day. The abridged version then. On the morrow, during supper, we will take the king and his guard in the banquet hall with commander Resht at the helm. We will barricade the castle thereafter. Of course, word will make its way down into the city and across the country. We will brace for an assault on the walls, but will pinch them from behind with your friends from the south. After their band is quelled, we will honor a new king and a new reign will commence.”
It will be the shortest monarchy in the known world, Grimlor chuckled to himself.
“Is that everything?” Grimlor tried not to sound impressed.
The smug visage slowly lowered from the man’s face, looking like he wanted to curse him in a thousand tongues. Grimlor’s human inhabitant’s position kept this at bay though.
“Dismiss all you like. It is a sound plan brought forth by the commander. One that a few days ago would have more than met your satisfaction.” The spindly man took a labored breath. “We ask only two things: you send your official word to our friends in the south, letting them know the plan … and you do not attend supper tomorrow.”
Grimlor cast him a look of question.
The man caught on. “So as not to raise any suspicion that you had a hand in it or might get caught up in any crossfire.
Grimlor held out an open hand, motioning to the door. “Now if you don’t mind.”
The man hesitated for second and with considerable effort forced a bow before exiting.
The clank and bolt of the lock chimed like a songbird’s poem to Grimlor’s ears. Solitude. He threw back the inch of wine, the dry liquid making his cheek quiver. What he wouldn’t give to have quarters back with his kin that were capable of locking; one where any snaggle toothed cipher couldn’t enter like it was their own domain. He wondered if he would be granted such a thing after they took over Bravlem. Would he even be allowed inside the castle? Or would he be sequestered to the muck of the lower cohorts to fight for space like a stump legged, disease riddled burden? The mere fact that the question existed whether he would be taken care of after risking his life, inhabiting the paisley body of a man, and connecting multiple stratagems, made his eye twitch. The pierce of shattering glass and slit fingers interrupted his fuming. Shards of his goblet, dressed in red blood, crumpled to the floor, falling from a shaking fist. He threw away the rest of it in disgust, a string of Ephes’s blood trailing it.
He ripped through the curtain barrier out to the balcony and looked over all that was Bravlem. An unavoidable and inexcusable sense of well-being crept over him as he watched. Everyone had, what humans called, manners. There was no shouting, demanding or forcing of one another, there was only conversation and politeness. A conflict between retching and submitting to the pleasant feeling warred inside as he followed a different person every few seconds. It was a colony, in the truest sense of the word. They most likely knew it, unlike his kin, who most, undoubtedly, would struggle to define the word. The scent of spring coalesced with perfume, and the aroma of baked treats wafted up from below. Could there be something to their way of life, he wondered. They seemed happy enough. Happiness … it was not something he ever thought about before. The new vessel of which he now inhabited was the cause of this existential conundrum, he reasoned. The sooner to be gone with it the better. Life is simpler without questions of happiness or misery—it allows for the doldrum of existence to simply be. A little while longer and he could say goodbye to it forever.
The sun ticked lower and turned from yellow to orange, giving the city below a golden tint. Grimlor remained entranced as he watched everything and nothing at the same time. He turned slightly and the amber flask clanked against the balcony stone. He shook his head and pulled it out, no telling how long he could go without a drink. Throwing down a snifter of potion, he sighed at the confusion that plagued him ever since he took on this assignment. Taking a man’s life, truly taking a man’s life, was far more difficult than he ever imagined.
“See anything you like?” his wife’s voice came from behind, sending a chill down his spine.
He turned around to greet her. The bosom of her dress opened down to her waist, strategically covering half her breasts. The setting sun’s rays glimmered off her peerless olive skin. The stirring in Grimlor’s diaphragm halted any sort of rebuttal to her advance. Curiosity, to see where this could lead, pummeled his usual restraint and focus on the mission. Her leer frightened him, yet he was helpless to look away like a starving man staring at an apple he could not afford. As if pulled by an invisible chain, something lured him to her. Her hips turned in a sultry manner, welcoming his advance. Before he knew it, their bodies collided and lips joined. Their hands ran up and down the other. In a sudden jolt he ripped off her dress, she gasped in pleasure. He went to force her down and have his way, but he remembered—be gentle.
They glided to the bed, locked in embrace the entire way. Their naked bodies intertwined fully when he, without force, entered. He slowed his movements to synch with hers, caressing and kissing instead of restraining and cursing—like the dozen times he’d done this before.
Once in his youth, he had seen a shooting star. It was a memory he had forgotten, or more likely, blocked out. His mother, the actual female who birthed him, had come to his quarters while their kin still lived under the mountain. He had only seen her twice before, only from a distance and never said a word. That was customary though. A day after birth he had been sent, like all males, to the barracks and taught to fight as soon as his hand could make a fist. This day though, she had intentionally come to see him, to talk to him. She told him to come with her, that she had something important he must see. They climbed through cavern after cavern, at times squeezing through slim wormholes in the mountain’s underbelly. He smelled it first, a freshness that recycled itself every second, then he felt the movement of the wind against his skin—she had taken him to the surface. It was a moonless night that allowed the diamonds in the sky to shine their brightest, she explained. They sat silently in the warm breeze for hours and watched as the largest star dropped from its perch and shot across the empyrean, leaving a trail of light as it moved. Then, without warning, it burst into a million jewels. Tears cascaded down his face, captivated by the rare spectacle of a dying star, and even more unexpected, the warming presence of the one who birthed him.
That … is what it felt like with Ephe’s wife—his wife. The warmth, the calm, the serenity, and like the night sky exploding inside him, it released a jubilance of celestial proportions. The tears, like before, streamed down his face, finally ceasing when he succumb to slumber.
The potion tasted like water, he had drunk so much of it. He filled a goblet a quarter way full so he would not have to take any more until well into the following day. He watched the shroud of darkness lift as dawn approached, the shape of his wife becoming clearer with each pass. Her velvet skin seemed to blossom in the sun, the sheets draped over from mid-hip to toe, exposing her intoxicating silhouette. His hands trembled as they wanted to possess her again, hold all that was her and bond them in a way only meant for lovers. The worry, the one that shook him from sleep, tapped on the front of his mind, his very mission here would result in her end.
His fingers fumbled as he set down the goblet, almost spilling the residue of potion. How could there be any doubt about what actions he must take? His mission was to plot the demise of Bravlem, without question or concern for any of its citizenry. However … more than concern plagued him at this moment. He had little time to complete his next task. Up in the high tower, in the cages, two birds sat, any pair out of the dozens would do, waiting for him to attach his message. One was destined for the south to advise Ephe’s and the gaunt man’s allies on the plan for attack the following morning. The other bade a darker destination, his kin’s camp, addressed to the general. This one would detail the insurrection and their instructions to follow the day after the city was taken and wipe out all who called Bravlem home.
A deep sigh in his wife’s sleep drew him away from the quandary. How tender she was. In that moment he felt it soothe an unknown place within, that he preferred her gentile nature to that of females of his kind, to the constant struggle that existed in anything they did that could elicit feelings of companionship. He gave a sigh of his own as this reality settled in. It was a truth that could not be undone, unlearned or banished, it would remain until the day when either sword or age struck him down. He turned to his desk where the two scrolls brandished with his seal sat, awaiting their aviary emissaries. A pale feeling like the moment when the deer learns that its plight is to sustain the wolf rolled through him, crippling any strength to recapture the old way of himself. He could carry out his mission, yet there would be no joy in it now … or reveling in the fruits of it in the years to come.
In the time it took him to reach the highest towers and the bird stock, a mass of rain clouds masked the sun. A damp breeze rushed through his hair as he made his way through the open-air room. The birds: ravens, crows, an eagle, and a few other species, their usage all based on distance, weather conditions, time of year, and hostile activity, meaning if there would be arrows to contend with—all sat calmly in cages of their respective species. For this task, crows would do fine. He pulled both scrolls out of his pocket.
The weight of his mission barred down on his fragile mettle—yet he had a duty to his kin.
Shutting his chamber door behind him, he struggled to breath. His wife had woken up and he could hear in one of the other rooms. He removed his coat and sat on the empty bed, sheets still rustled, smelling of her. Drawing in a deep breath to hold the scent for as long as possible, he ran a hand across her side of the bed.
“There you are.” She said, coming into their main quarters, her hair pinned up and face lightly painted as if she were headed out the door. She kissed him on the cheek and continued on to their large mirror. “Where were you this morning?”
He felt his pocket, where the scrolls had just sat, but felt nothing but the garment’s stitching. “Nowhere. Couldn’t sleep so I decided to walk around the grounds.”
“Sounds exhilarating.” She faked a smile.
He nodded and looked down at his empty pocket.
“Is everything alright, my love?” she asked mid-brush of her hair.
“Yeah.” He said unsurely. “Just tired I guess.”
She put down the brush and turned on the stool. “I know when you’re tired and when you’re lying. Come on, out with it.”
“Have you ever been stuck between two decisions?”
Her brow furrowed.
“Both could be argued are the right decisions, but then both could be argued they are the wrong ones.”
“How could that be?”
“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “But it is.”
“Is this about the trade discussions?”
He had to physically bite his tongue before it divulged everything of the past few days and he still wished to tell her, but he lied instead. “Yes … nothing is ever final in politics. Someone is always jostling for a better position well after negotiations cease.”
“I’m sorry, my love. That sounds exhausting,” she said as she walked to him and pulled his head into her abdomen and stroked his hair.
If you only knew, he thought. “Stay with me here today,” he said aloud.
They locked eyes at the same time, him looking up and her staring down. She paused and studied him. His face must have said more than his tongue was allowed. “Of course.” She leaned down and kissed his forehead. “We’ll stay here until dinner.”
He pulled her into the bed, her clothes dropping off in the process. He was powerless to resist her allure and the temptation of the human lovers’ dance.
They slept throughout most of the day, only waking on occasion to engage in more carnal activities. As the day dimmed into twilight his wife prepared herself for dinner while still in the nude. He watched her go from bathing, to hair, to painting her face as he remained in bed. His smile dropped when he remembered what was supposed to occur at dinner.
“Best get up now or we’re going to be late,” said as she slipped on a sky blue haltered top dress that accentuated her ample bosom and sun kissed shoulders.
“I still don’t feel right. I think I’ll dine in room tonight.” He said, hoping she would take the bait and want to join him.
“Oh no you don’t. We didn’t attend supper last night and we’re not going to miss it tonight.”
“Please, dear, I feel awful. Can’t we stay in again?”
She came to him in her confident stride. “There’s nothing more I’d enjoy than stay here in bed with you, but we do have obligations to be seen and see others.” She flashed a wry smile. “I promise I’ll make it worth your while … afterward.”
He was about to object again and let her go by herself, but a dreadful thought occurred to him—what if she fell in the line of fire? What if the commander and his men were not careful and they killed more just the king and his guards? The darker side of him spoke out against his conscience and raised another question. Why does it matter when she dies? She will die by the hands of her own kin or of his. He suppressed the question, deciding he must keep her alive as long as possible.
“You’re right, my love. We must be seen.”
He threw everything together in a quarter of the time it took her. The banquet hall brimmed with activity by the time they entered. Grimlor’s eyes darted around to find the gaunt man and the commander Resht. He halted at the same area, directly across from the king’s dais, sitting together, both scowling at his presence. He quickly turned away and followed his wife up to their seats.
“I heard they’re serving your favorite tonight, broiled lamb drowned in a lemon rosemary sauce.” Her face lit up as she said it. “The king is so good to us.”
Grimlor tilted his head to look to the king. The young monarch panned around at his people and finally settled on him, raising a silver goblet and nodding.
“Listen to me.” Grimlor pulled his wife in close. “Smile and pretend that I am telling you something pleasant.”
She frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“Please! Do this. We don’t have much time.” He smiled and her frown slowly turned to one as well. “Thank you.” He took a drink to settle his nerves, the wine calmed only slightly.
“The king’s life is in danger tonight.” He started. “Don’t ask me why I know. He and all his guard will die if we don’t do something.”
“How can that be?” Her face turned serious.
“Keep smiling, we’re being watched.”
She feigned one as best she could.
“Something must be done to stop it, but I can’t be the one or they will become suspicious. I need you to go tell the king that commander Resht is planning a coup and that he must round up all the guard into the banquet hall immediately.”
Her face held somewhere between a smile and horror at receiving the news.
“Tell me you can do this.”
After a pause, she smiled as big as she could manage without looking maniacal. “As you wish, my love.” She calmly left her seat and walked toward the king.
Grimlor turned away, trying not to look to her, Resht, or the gaunt man. He felt their eyes burning into him like embers as his attention focused on everything and nothing. The tension wrapped around his throat like a calloused hand. Movement started where the usurpers were seated. He flashed by and saw a few armed men, not kings guard, in a heated conversation with them. Turning to his wife, the king’s smile evaporated into a jaw-clenched fume as she spoke calmly. Grimlor looked back to the gaunt man, who pushed one of the armed men out into the hall. He’s going to get the rest of Resht’s men! Grimlor panicked and went to stand up but tripped, his feet getting tangled in the chair. A gasp came from the woman to his right as his chin slammed against the long table. He didn’t check but knew it drew blood.
“Kings guard to me!” The king hollered, sending some relief to Grimlor in his panic. A succession of calls from the king’s guard members echoed throughout the castle—an indiscernible code word they used to alert each other that changed every week. “Lock the doors!” The king commanded, a series of slamming doors and bolts thrown at all except the eastern passage, where the rest of the guard filed in.
Grimlor recovered and pushed himself akimbo. Rasht and the gaunt man, with only a few of their own armed soldiers behind them, glared at him. Ignoring them, he looked to the king who once seemed incapable of anger, seethed as he looked toward his betrayers.
“To Resht, my guard!” The king jabbed a finger, the white of his knuckles looking like pure bone.
Some hundred guardsmen circled the six men, while the surrounding guests removed themselves to a safer place across the room. A soft hand ran across Grimlor’s lower back and rested on his hip, he knew it was his wife’s without looking. The gaunt man sighed and made a conciliatory gesture, causing his few armed soldiers to raise their arms and allow the guard to disarm them—after a few seconds Resht followed suit.
“Anything to say for your treason?” A collective gasp came from the other guests as soon as the treacherous word left the king’s lips.
“It matters not,” said the gaunt man, his features sharpening with hatred. “Word has been sent to those who will finish what we’ve started.” He held out an open hand in the direction of Grimlor. “Your dearest Ephes saw to that. Didn’t ya, boy?”
His wife’s hand flinched on his side as all eyes shifted to him like a killing squad with their arrows at the ready. The only face he could see clearly in the haze of nervousness was the king’s, it was one of pure heartbreak that would have made a dog weep. He had to face his crimes, he had to divulge his sins.
“No.” In one word, he ceased the trembling of his heart. “No such correspondence was sent. It is true I had a part to play in this coup.” He turned to his wife whose eyes held a bucket of tears, ready to empty. “However, after much deliberation I chose to shoot down the bird carrying your message. No army is coming to aid you.” His gut wrenched as he uttered the last word, for one betrayal was averted, yet another was compounded. He could never return to his true kin now. There would be too many questions and goblinkind turned to flaying and the pulling of intestines in the midst of too much talk.
“You see.” The king’s words came out hoarse. “Ephes played you like the fools you are.” His voice recovered and he glanced at Grimlor with tender eyes. “Our country is now safer because of him. Guards, lock them in stocks and throw them in the pits until their trial.”
A trial? A tinge of relief bubbled up from Grimlor’s tortured gut at the sign of honor from a man who was going to be assassinated minutes before—he truly was a righteous king. No such thing was ever granted amongst his kin—even in an unfair fight there was no quarter. For a moment, a truth cleared his mind and guilt, that this king, these people, were indeed good. He clung to the epiphany like a tree clings to summer—but soon autumn comes and turns to winter, leaving one barren and suffering in the cold of its own reality.
Few stayed for dinner, even fewer talked and every knife or fork scraping could be heard clearly as a calling bird. Grimlor forced food into a ravenous stomach, ignoring all glances—even his wife’s.
Without being asked, he excused himself and saw out of his peripheral, the king standing and watching him leave with a concerned look. He felt his wife’s hand come into his, interlocking their fingers. She squeezed tight as they made their way to their quarters. Crawling into bed, they held each other in silence through the night. He felt her relief and envied it as she drifted into what he was sure a pleasant sleep. A war waged in his mind and a heart he never knew he had. Each side unleashed an impressive gauntlet, causing him to shock awake minutes after he’d fallen asleep. Exhausted, he conceded to the fact that he was powerless against such unbending foes. Like two ancient armies, steeped in glorious tradition and military prowess, they would fight to the death, leaving him to watch and wait, sleepless.
The morning broke with the sound of terror, one that Grimlor knew full well. A company of gutted bone horns pierced the gentle calm of the city, volleying a pitch like tortured infants—a call that was meant to rattle those on the receiving end. How did his kin come to attack so early? Why did they come the morning after the king was supposed to be killed? It wasn’t in the plan and Grimlor had not sent the letter he was supposed to. He froze in a seated position in the bed and realized, it was because he did not send anything that they came now. For all the wisdom of the general, he remained a goblin and as petulant as any who followed the scent of war, he would not be denied the chance to taste the viscera of men.
His wife shook awake and immediately turned to him. Grimlor had already stood up and started to put on his armor.
“What’s going on, Ephes? What’s that sound?” She said in a panicked voice.
“It’s the goblins.” He answered truthfully, feeling no use in lying now. “I must warn the king. You need to stay somewhere safe.”
“Why do you have to go? You’re not a soldier.” A window of tears closed over her eyes.
He fastened the final strap of his breastplate into position and slid beside her above the sheets. “You will know all in time, my love. I cannot explain it now but the king needs me—especially me to defeat this army. Swear you’ll get somewhere safe and stay there until the fighting is over.” He lifted her chin so that her eyes leveled with his. “Swear it.”
Her lips pursed as she nodded. “I swear.”
He took in a deep breath and planted a fierce kiss on her. Grabbing his sword and scabbard, he flew out the door. In his haste to get ready, he realized that his transformation into the man he had killed, who he had stolen the identity of, was complete. There would be no coming back from fighting his own kind. If they made it to the castle, inside the walls, and captured the city, they would seek him out and crucify him for the traitor he had become. He could not abandon the woman he now called wife, the will to explore such a union overtook any such past desires, the time to win this fight and afterward, to find a permanent transformation, had commenced.
The king and his guard already stood atop the castle parapets, along with the palace’s entire force below bolstering the gate, looking out to the city below and the black mass that lurched into rank before it’s outer wall. Ladders, catapults, oil drums, and siege engines the size of a galley, made it clear the goblin general had spread word to many of the other clans to support this first strike on man in over four millennia. Grimlor could see a stream of the city’s soldiers sprinting up to the wall’s platform and the outer gate, the sound of the awful bone horns drowning out the panic of the citizens and knights throughout the city below.
Grimlor weaved his way through to the king who stood frozen, looking over the breadth of their impending doom.
“Your Grace,” said Grimlor as he settled beside him. “Give me command of the army and they will not break the outer wall.” He wasted no time in discussion.
The young monarch turned to him, his eyes gaped as wide as his mouth. Bewilderment, not fear, clouded the man’s usual countenance. “Ephes?” The king asked. “Is that really you in there? You’ve never lead a chorus let alone an army.”
Grimlor waived a hand. “It doesn’t matter what I’ve done. It matters what I can do. I can defeat this enemy. They are hungry for revenge, but they are inexperienced and brash. They will stop it nothing to spill your blood and I will use this lust against them.”
The king shook his head with a pained look. “How do you know all this?”
Grimlor sighed. “In time, I promise you, I will reveal everything. But now, we waste time discussing this. Let me lead your army to victory.” His lips and eyes froze, forcing the king to answer him.
“Very well.” The king said helplessly, motioning to a few of his men.
A troupe of the king’s guard rushed Grimlor down to a pack of horses and they sped through the castle gates, down the mountain’s road, entering through an ingress no goblin horde could access. They rode hard to the city’s outer wall, the petrified faces of women, children, and the elderly flashed by in a blur of terror. The homes near the front of the rampart had emptied, fearing the catapults reach, and their inhabitants rushed into the open arms of those abodes well out of range.
Grimlor leapt off the horse before it could come to a complete stop and onto the stairs of the outer wall. He sprinted up to the battlements, the troupe of king’s guard following close behind, their armor clanking as they jostled up the steps. They guided Grimlor to the commander he was due to replace; a younger man than the king who looked like he had just witnessed his own requiem. He acted like he had just been promoted, because of course, he had. With the former commander Resht in prison, this poor bloke was thrust into the role of champion of the city well before his time. The kings guard advised of the change in leadership and the young commander looked relieved and went to join his brethren below.
“Hold, commander.” Grimlor stopped him. “I don’t know the signals. I’ll tell you and you give them to the men.”
The former commander gave a hesitant nod and remained atop, looking queasy.
Grimlor swept a glance across his former kin’s legion below, not stopping long enough to recognize any of the faces. There was one he recognized, far behind the last soldier, astride a white warg and accompanied by seven others. General. Grimlor felt the panic of a squire forced to contest the legitimacy of his master, while still in his prime. He tried to shake it but it clung to him like a leech, sucking the fiery confidence he held not just five minutes prior. It would not go away, so he did the only thing he could—he lead in the face of fear.
“Listen to me.” He called to all his soldiers on the battlements and the courtyard below—some five thousand he surmised. “You look out on that field and see what figures to be a new enemy, ready to take everything that you hold close in this life.” The vacant expressions of soldiers before the plunge into war mirrored back at him. “Yet they are an old enemy. One we drove down into the chasms to be forgotten by time itself. We will defeat them again. Follow my lead and few will die, and those that do perish will take their fair share of goblin hearts before they meet their gods.”
The contingent called out in a final salute. Grimlor situated himself next to the banners with the former commander by his side, a perfect vantage point of his men and the field. He focused in on the front lines of the enemy, every soldier hunched forward, their hands jittering in anticipation, weapons ready to fly. It was as he thought.
“Captain!” he barked into the air not knowing who or where the man was.
A middle-aged man with a peppered chin and neckbeard rushed to him and saluted. “Yes, sir.”
“Go down below and be ready as soon as the gates are opened.”
The man looked stunned. “Sir, shouldn’t we keep the gates closed. We have the advantage. Hell, we could even wait them out, pick em off one by one as they try to scale the walls.”
“No, captain. If we wait for them, they will eventually find a way in and gut us from the inside out, killing thousands of innocents in the process. We must draw them into our strength and then take the fight to them. Believe me, they’ve waited generations for this and won’t hesitate when they see an opening.”
The captain was a loyal soldier so he buried whatever doubt he had about the plan and simply saluted and went down to the men below.
Grimlor turned back to their enemy out in the plains, they held, the general had undoubtedly ordered them to wait for the first move. A feeling, something close to pity, rose in him as he looked at his former kin. It was not out of anger or hate that he must smite them, yet life would mean nothing without his wife, without the embrace of love—he couldn’t go back to the forcefulness and grime of everyday goblinkind.
The men below had settled into their formal ranks, matching those above on the battlements, both awaiting his orders. He gave a command to the former commander who gave the order to the captain. The officer called it out, adding a few more colorful words and the march began.
“Open the gate!” Grimlor called, a procession of others echoed it down the platform.
The heavy iron posterns, over thirty yards in height, echoed like a dragon’s moan on the mountain behind, cascading onto the plains ahead.
Starting with the first rank, the goblins shook with anticipation, rolling back to the final soldier like a retreating tide.
Grimlor inhaled deep. May the gods favor us.
“Archer’s fire!” He hollered.
With their bows tilted down, they unleashed a cavalcade of arrows on the first rank alone. The screeches and death gargles of Grimlor’s former kin made him flinch. Stay strong, Grimlor. The gates creaked to a third of the way open as he commanded to fire another wave. Nearly all the second rank of goblin fodder fell into the blood of their kin. The gate inched its way to half open. Damn!
“Archer’s reload!” He hollered as loud as he could, so that everything within a hundred yards could hear.
The unmistakable shrieking call of the goblins responded to him, their eyes as fierce as their talons. The first thirty ranks broke into a rabid sprint toward the posterns. It’s time!
“Halt the men! Halt the gates!” Grimlor called, stopping the great doors a smidge over half open. “Barricade!” He yelled down to the men below.
The soldiers below stacked shields and logs between the half-opened doors and braced themselves for the mob of goblins attempting to push through. Grimlor could feel the crash through the stone.
“Release the pitch!” the former commander followed Grimlor’s and gave the signal, the banner for pitch raised immediately after.
The catapults propelled bucket after bucket of the black death, some searing goblin flesh as soon as it landed, but most missed and soaked into the ground. More and more of the enemy soldiers stormed the half ajar gate, but could not get passed the barricade to graze Grimlor’s men. His soldiers held steady as the full weight of their push stymied the bottlenecked enemy.
“Archer’s, ignite the pitch!”
The hundreds of soldiers dipped their arrowheads into the lanterns hanging next to them and fired at will as fast as they could. The collective hiss of burning hide and yelps of excruciating pain deafened all other noise as the flame spread like a plague through the tightly packed enemy horde. Several goblin ranks, toward the rear, retreated to their original posts to escape the fire, while the bulk of their force broiled.
Grimlor looked to the diminishing force beneath him and then to the general far out of harm’s way. The old goblin didn’t make any visible signs of distress that could be seen from that distance, but Grimlor was sure he raged within.
The flames started to wane with bodies still moving, how many would remain alive was unclear.
“Archer’s fire!” Grimlor commanded again.
The barbs penetrated both live and dead flesh, most of which didn’t flinch as their sense of feeling had been burnt away.
“Open the gate!” The former commander spread an open hand and the gate operators cranked the wheels again.
“Clear the field!” Grimlor barked as the posterns wound completely open.
The charred goblin carcasses were trampled underfoot and hoof as the bulk of his army advanced on the remaining enemy.
The general himself stormed forward with the rest of his band and met fifty yards from the rampart. They outnumbered the enemy at least four to one now and showed their advantage within minutes. Grimlor watched with a conflicted heart, his new brethren dismantling his old. He wished another option existed, but he’d been through it in his head a hundred times and nothing came of it. He’d done the only thing he could to prevent a battle and that was to fail in his duty in sending the final letter. However, his kind stayed true to their nature, and that was fight for the sake of fighting.
Grimlor looked down and saw that the end was near. He went to turn to one of the king’s guard to ride to the king and have him send their monks when someone caught his eye—the general staring up at him. Before he could get his sword scabbard, a black arrow from the old goblin’s bow found the gap in Grimlor’s chest plate and shoulder guards. He felt the barb rip through all defenses to his heart. He staggered as the crux of his body stalled. The last thing he saw before he collapsed was the pack of his soldiers engulf the general and the few remaining enemy soldiers. The king’s guard rushed to his sides and propped him up into a slouching seated position. He retched a goblet full of blood onto his chest, his eyes searched the sky wildly, and his fingers scratched at the stone as life drained from him.
“He needs a monk!” One of the guards yelled.
Another guard latched onto the fletching of the black arrow and went to break it.
“No,” said Grimlor, raising a weak hand to stop him. “Taking it out will only the finish the job more quickly.”
The young guard shrugged helplessly and turned toward the castle. “The king and your wife are heading here now, my lord.”
A fit of pain forced a groan out of Grimlor as he tried to protest their coming, he did not want them to see what he really was—for in death all his secrets would be revealed. It was pointless though. Soon they would see for themselves his deception. The question was: would they see him for his actions and not his kin? Even though he would be gone, he wanted to know that they would celebrate him, praise his leadership in the face of devastating odds, even betraying his own kind to serve what was right. He needed his wife to understand, for if there were an afterlife, one where he could watch her, he hoped she would smile at his memory, Grimlor the goblin’s, not the Ephe’s who chose to betray the king. Too many years, too many generations had passed for his goblin kin to change. If anything, their malice had compounded and would now spew forth onto Prima Earth with the fury and destruction of a renegade volcano. If any peace were possible, it would have to come from man.
“Ephes!” He heard his wife call from behind. She dropped to his side, eyes already full of tears, and face crimpled into grief. “You must live, my love. Do not stray from this world so soon, I need your kiss.” She touched him gently as to not cause any further pain.
It took all his remaining strength to lift a hand to her face—the warm tears soothed his frigid skin. “I’m afraid nothing can be done, my wife.” The truth crippled her last filament of resolve as she buried her face in his neck and wept.
The king and the others surrounding shared her grief, but held as stoic as one could in such a moment. Grimlor went to tell the king to look after her after he passed, but the young monarch nodded before he could speak, showing full well that he knew what he would say and would honor the request.
“My love.” His voice barely audible. “Think on me kindly after I pass. For in death you will learn much. Know that Ephes was a traitor … yet I was not.”
His wife lifted a blubbering face next to his. “I don’t understand.”
Grimlor strained a smile, for even in this circumstance, she remained the most beautiful creature in this world to him. “In time you will know everything and know … I did it all for you.” As the final word left his mouth, Grimlor felt the remaining life he held slip away and a single tear dripped from his eye and a smile remained on his face as he died … a happy man.