Jun 18, 2023

The next morning, after my mother threatened to shackle my father to the bar if he ever tried leaving town without permission again, Fynnis took him to the temporary military headquarters. Bertrand stood stoically listening to the whole story, which I suppose back then was still not as well-developed as the version I just told you, before he nodded and clapped his hands together.

Hobgoblin,” he declared.

“What goblin? There’s more than one kind?” My father frowned balefully.

“A hobgoblin. The evolved form of a goblin.”

“Like… Like a Horned Boar, whatsit?” My father scrambled about in his mind for the word.

“Yes, exactly like that,” Bertrand nodded approvingly. “It doesn’t happen dreadfully often, but now and then you’ll have one goblin who manages to accrue enough of the Dark One’s blessings that they’re granted a more powerful physical form. The gift of intelligence. Sometimes other blessings. Poisonous blood. It’s been known to happen.”

“Sounds awful.”

“Quite. Yes. And now it appears we have one living not too far off. At least.”

“At least?”

“At least one. Yes.”

Fynnis, who had been glowering by the entrance to the large tent, stepped in and slammed her hand down on the table. “Surely now the army can get involved?”

“A hobgoblin is a rank D monster, so it’s fair game, but it’s still just a hobgoblin. I can’t send more than a small squad.”

“But it killed those men!” My father protested.

“True enough, but they weren’t villagers. They were adventurers, so technically a problem for the guild, not the Count.” He held his hands out to pacify my father. “Now now, look, I’m not saying we won’t deal with it. I’ll even go myself. But any more than a handful of men to hunt a hobgoblin and I’d be laughed out of the army. And I don’t fancy doing that again.”

“Then I’ll go too,” Fynnis demanded. “I have a score to settle with those things.”

“Surely not. You exploded the head of the one that took the boy with your bare hands. I fail to see how you could settle the score any more that.”

Fynnis bared her pointed teeth the older man. “I won’t be happy until I’ve done the same to every single one of them.”

Bertrand sighed and shook his head. “Elves really do hold a grudge, don’t they. Very well. Far be it from me to stand between you and your insane vendetta against goblin kind. But do try not to get carried away. Oh, and I suppose you should come with us as well,” Bertrand raised his sleepy eyes at my father.

“Not a chance,” My father shook his head. “After we get back to my pub I’m never going outside again.”

“Oh don’t be that way. You’ll be completely safe.”

“That’s exactly the same thing those adventurers said!”

“Yes, well I suppose they did, but I also suppose not one of them had ever single-handedly slain a swarm of brass drakes, either.”

“Not single-handedly,” Fynnis quietly corrected.

“Mostly single-handedly.”

My father had no idea what a brass drake was but, as we already established, Bertrand had cut the head of a giant pig. Which inclined him towards believing the old soldier more readily than he had the three random adventurers.

“We’ll need somebody to lead us there,” Fynnis said.

“Couldn’t I just…” My father groped about for words. “Couldn’t I just tell you where they were?”

“Oh come on, it won’t take long. We’ll set out in the morning, confirm the hobgoblin, give it a bit of a kill, then be back in time for a late supper.”

My father had an uncharacteristically sensible urge to decline Bertrand and run back home, but it was hard to say no to the person who was responsible for saving your town.

“Very well.”

Bertrand clapped his hands together. “Tomorrow morning then.”

And so my father went home with Fynnis, and my mother yelled at him, and Fynnis did her best to explain why it was perfectly safe, and eventually everybody got tired of yelling and soon after it was time to go to sleep anyway.

Yet again, my father woke up early and headed to what people called the ‘city gate’. In reality it was just a gap in part of the wooden scaffold that would eventually become the stone wall encircling Allunis, but it worked fine as a landmark.

True to his word, Bertrand had rounded up a few of his soldiers, six in total if you included Fynnis. For the most part they were traveling light, though my father did not fail to notice that they had also brought a few camping provisions. When he pointed this out to Betrand, the old soldier laughed it off and started herding everybody out towards the forest before my father could make a bigger deal out of it.

As expected, the trip to the woods themselves went without incident. More than a few of the farmers still tending the fields looked up at them curiously, but nothing more than that. They reached the outskirts of the forest well before lunch, and after a quick review of their objectives, the squad began to venture in past the first row of trees, with my father and Fynnis in the lead, headed toward the entrance to The Labyrinth.

“It’s a bit quiet, isn’t it?” The question had come from one of the soldiers Betrand had brought with him.

“Don’t say things like that. You’re absolutely going to turn our luck rotten.” Another replied.

“He’s not wrong though,” Bertrand chimed in.

Of course, my father had noticed this a few times already, though he hadn’t paid it much heed until just now. Truth be told, he’d figured it was jus this mind playing tricks on him. But asides from the sound of the soldiers making their way through the undergrowth, there really were hardly any sounds in the forest at all.

“It’s to be expected,” Bertrand went on. “The Labyrinth opening up probably spooked off a lot of what was living here. Things that can migrate easily already would have. Small birds, little things like rabbits if there were any. Things like that. What’s left is being more careful than usual. Staying out of sight.”

“Or busy watching us,” Fynnis added.

“Or that, yes.” Bertrand agreed. “Give it some time. Animals will start coming back, though probably not the same ones that left.”

“Wh-what does that mean?” My father looked over his shoulder.

“It means more monsters,” Fynnis explained curtly, then pulled his attention back to the path ahead. “Small birds, like finches or wrens, they’ll all be gone, and in their place you’ll see by bright eyes or maybe howlers. Bigger birds like crows might come back but more likely bog ravens or lessor wyverns.”

“Isn’t that going to be a problem? Having so many monsters so nearby?”

Fynnis shrugged. It’s not as terrible as all that. Those kinds of monsters usually keep themselves in check. You’d not want Etwin playing here on his own, but asides the rare case you probably won’t see them near town.”

“Unless they get hungry,” Bertrand noted.

“Unless they get hungry,” Fynnis confirmed.

“Unless they get hungry? What happens then?” My father looked between Fynnis and Bertrand.

“That’s why we’re building that giant wall,” Bertrand answered. “Anyway, it’s not the vermin you need to worry about anyway, it’s the-“

“Shh!” Fynnis cut him off and motioned for the group to stop moving. Everybody froze, holding their breath, listening.

From somewhere far off, they could hear a sound like trees being felled. A wrenching wooden sound and the clattering rustle of leaves. Guttural voices. My father could hear words, he was certain, but they were not in the human tongue. It was a language he had heard before, though.

Bertrand drew his saber, and held it steadily before his eyes. He muttered a few words under his breath, and the blade was taken by a whisper of green flame.

“Everybody is behind me. Fynnis, if things get complicated, your job is to take him back out of the forest,” he motioned at my father. “The rest of you, remember we’re out here for a hobgoblin. Maybe a few goblins, whatever’s about. Probably nothing to write home about, but if it is, I’m not interested in starting a war. Not today, anyway. When I give the word we’re all going home, understood?”

A small, whispered chorus of “Yes sir”, and the other soldiers readied their weapons.

Fynnis, who was the party’s sorcerer, took a long thin knife from her side, and pulled my father towards the back of the group. She uttered a few words in a far-off sounding tongue, and my father felt a small buzz behind his ears.

“A minor warding spell,” Fynnis said quietly to him, “it’ll make things slightly less inclined to head in your direction.”

“Slightly less inclined?”

“Don’t get in the way of any arrows.”

“What happens if I get hit by an arrow?”

Fynnis thought for a second. “It’ll be slightly less inclined to enter your body.”

Betrand motioned them forward, and the small troupe crept slowly through the woods, the wrenching sound getting ever closer, until the drew upon a small, recently made clearing, filled with the stumps of downed trees, rough piles of timber stacked along the edges. Sure enough, this was a felling operation. That in itself might not be so outstanding, as much as it was goblins doing the felling.

The party crept up to a large woodpile on the outskirt of the clearing, farthest from the operation, to get a closer look.

My father watched in awe as a few of the creatures gathered about the base of a standing tree, gnawing at the base where a human would have used an axe. The goblins chewed through enough of one trunk that gravity began to pull it down with that same wrenching sound they had heard before. As the tree fell, they would scurry out of the way, and once the dust had settled, scamper back over and start chewing off the large branches, quickly limbing the timber into a stackable shape. This was happening all over the clearing. Dozens of goblins. Chewing through trunks, piling up the logs.

“What on earth are they doing?” Bertrand looked over the operation with clearly visible worry.

“It looks like they’re getting ready to build something?” One of the soldiers muttered.

“Surely not… Goblins?” Another soldier hissed.

My father didn’t voice his thoughts, but he felt ill at ease. He had of course seen trees cut down before. Living in a small village like Allunis you wound up doing all sorts of things, including felling timber. But seeing the goblins go about it made his stomach turn. It was unnatural, like walking in on your dogs having a conversation.

And then, from behind one of the log piles, there strode a giant. My father felt his body stiffen. “Th-that’s… That’s not him,” he breathed out, pointing.

Bertrand looked about the operation. He wrinkled his nose, obviously weighing up his next course of action, then shook his head. “Alright, let’s go home. We’ve confirmed there’s more than one hobgoblin. But this… Whatever this thing the goblins are doing, I don’t like it. We can always-“

He was interrupted by a guttural snort from behind them. And then a few words of that same harsh, throaty language. A grating bark that wanted to be laughter. When my father looked back up at the logging operation, all the goblins had stopped working, and were staring at the log-pile they’d hidden behind. The giant hobgoblin out there stood with his arms folded over, grinning. Every single member of the party knew what had happened without anybody being crass enough to say it aloud. They’d walked into a trap.

My father craned his neck, slowly. Not too far behind them were two more hobgoblins. They each looked far too similar, with the same sickly grey-green skin and uncannily proportioned bodies. Immediately he realized that one of these monsters was the one he’d encountered before. He could tell from the giant cleaver slung over its shoulder.

The second hobgoblin carried a giant war hammer whose head was a stone block easily larger than a bale of hay, and whose handle was twice as long as my father was tall.

The with the cleaver pointed at the group and uttered a command in that growling language. My father had no idea what he’d said, but the meaning was clear. At the command, the hobgobline with the hammer leapt forward with a speed that seemed entirely at odds with its size and shape.

Much later on, when he told me this story, my father said that it was as though he were seeing it happen in slow motion. The hammer swung all the way around in a giant arc, aimed directly at one of the soldiers who had the rotten luck of sitting closest to the ambush. Unable to move, he watched in horror as the soldier stared up with a confused, terrified expression at the slab of stone rushing towards him.

Just what exactly would happen if something so large were to collide with so weak and fragile a creature as a human? Would it crumple like a sheet of tin? Or shatter? Would it explode? Would they be showered in blood? In a spray of gore and brain and bone? These were the thoughts my father told me raced through his mind as he watched that hammer fall down.

Was there anything he could do? He was too far to the push the man out of the way, and besides, what if that giant hammer hit him instead? And anyway, he could barely feel his legs. He wasn’t sure he could take two steps without falling over himself. Could he yell out then? His throat was clamped up, nothing would come out. And what would that accomplish anyway? Rather than do any of these things, as people wont to do when reality becomes too oppressively horrible for them to handle, my father did nothing. And that should have been the end of that poor sod.

The hammer, though, never connected with its target.

Bertrand stood between the hobgoblin and the soldier, holding his saber up over his head, the edge pressing into the surface of the hammer, perfectly motionless. An immovable force. He did not look as though he were putting any effort into keeping the giant stone block from moving, though it must surely have been unimaginably heavy. At the same time, the hobgoblin looked entirely lost as to why the blow hadn’t landed. How fast had Bertrand moved just now? Very fast. Faster than should have been possible.

“I wasn’t done,” Bertrand said in a soft voice. “I was going to say, we can always come back and kill the lot of them tomorrow.

The old man took a step, pushing his sword forward, and the hammer was hefted back towards the hobgoblin. Two more steps, each time his saber moving in a sharp line. Up. Down. And the hobgoblin fell apart into three pieces.

Then, chaos.