As they waited, a group of five returning riders came to Dornal to report.
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Speaking apologetically, as he knew that Pran was listening nearby, the soldier said, ‘All of the buildings on that property owned by Pran are burned out, but there are no bodies, nor any sign of livestock. We found nothing of any note, save this- its contents scattered about-’
‘Doc’s medical bag!’ Ralph blurted. The doctor overheard and came forward to collect his bag, his mien a mixture of apprehension and hope. After a moment’s inspection, he said incredulously, ‘It’s all here! Nothing is damaged or stolen!’
‘No doubt they feared to defile or handle its contents,’ Pran told him. ‘It does, after all, have a rather arcane look . . . and they would not have understood its contents. Though there is no magic in them, as you have told me, still they would believe these things imbued with properties beyond their primitive Lore, and would therefore leave them be.’
‘We came across various trails made by both Elves and Goblins,’ the soldier continued. ‘I do not know whether the Elves’ were those led by Loriman, but the Goblins seem to comprise a number of roving bands, some of which were given battle, others of which seemed to be intermixed with those of Elves. Excluding those, some of my scouts are attempting to retrace Loriman’s direction of travel; a difficult task in the dead of night.’
Dornal nodded, then instructed his troops to fan out in a wide arc, leaving a few to tend to those who remained, and sending four more to locate a wain.
As the riders left that place, and began making their way east, Pran, Doc, and Ralph rode together, somewhat behind. It didn’t take Dornal’s scouts long to find both Loriman’s and the Goblin’s trail. They began moving at a greater pace, but Dornal suddenly called them to a halt.
‘One moment! Another trail crosses here.’ A scout dismounted, as did Dornal, and they began searching the ground for clues. They exchanged a long look.
‘Evidently, this trail leading towards Narvi is the fresher. But we do not know if it was made later by the same Goblins, or whether there is more than one war party.’
Dornal began walking to and fro across the Goblin’s trail. ‘It is the same war party. See, I would estimate their numbers at some twenty or thirty. They would not divide so small a force. But there are two sets of tracks, comprising three individuals; probably women. They leave in either direction.’
Reaching a decision, they began following the trail towards Narvi, which was fairly fresh, riding as though the night itself was beset with demons.
As soon as their prey stopped, the Goblins fanned out to prevent any from escaping. The largest Goblin brandished his black, serrated iron scimitar angrily. ‘What? No warriors? Only a few women?’ he laughed, brandishing his weapon at Malina who cowered, trying to cover Theuli with her body.
‘Ah-h, they are young!’ he hissed. ‘Tonight, we eat lads.’
Theuli tried to say something, a stream of blood coming from her mouth, her breathing a horrible, bloody, gurgling sound. The large Goblin caught her by the hair, baring her throat. As he raised his sword, Malina screamed. The Goblin kicked Malina in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her. Raising his sword over Theuli again, he yanked her head back viciously.
Ralph had decided to follow Pran’s advice, and stay out of the fighting this time. The Elf had been right; Ralph had been lucky that he’d not actually been involved in any sword-play. He tried not to think of the consequences . . . saw himself, in his own imagination, being cut down . . .
But these images seemed to mean little to him. Thinking of what he’d seen, of Nevana with a knife held to her throat, touched deep feelings within him; feelings that went deeper than self-preservation.
The sight of her, the feel of her, what had been done to her . . . the way she had come running to him . . .
Such things drove all else from his mind, the way a few months of summer will reduce the realities of winter to a vague memory of a bad dream.
But the dream was confused . . . something about it didn’t ring true, as though Nevana were part of a waking dream that so closely resembled reality, the two, to the untrained eye, were indistinguishable . . .
And the dream . . . or nightmare . . . was not yet over. He seemed to hear a scream, and almost stopped as he tried to decide; was it in his mind? or in the air? or-
Without realizing how it had happened, everything began moving forward in a mad rush. Without realizing how it had happened, he found that he had drawn his sword . . . vaguely he heard Pran’s warning . . . which was swiftly falling behind-
There was some commotion that caught the Goblins’ attention, causing the big one’s sword-arm to falter in mid-stroke. The sound of the Elf-riders’ hooves was like thunder as they broke into a gallop. That pause was enough for Malina to yank up a turve, grab a double handful of dirt, and throw it into the Goblin’s eyes.
The moments its eyes were cleared of the stinging debris, the Goblin found itself staring into the battle-mad eyes of Ralph who swept down on the Goblin like an avalanche. With a savage yell, Ralph brought his own broadsword down on the Goblin’s, swinging it with both hands like a club. Their swords met in a shower of sparks, Ralph’s striking with such force that the Goblin was forced to retreat, holding its sword over its head to ward off Ralph’s blows, while trying to retain control over its companions. Seeing this, enraged, Ralph dismounted and attacked like a man possessed.
The Goblin soon began to realize that this Human, though utterly lacking in finesse, was not about to be defeated through brute force alone, and that, though possessed of far greater skill, all of its skill, indeed all of its attention, was needed merely to deflect the Human’s heavy broadsword.
Suddenly, Ralph levelled a blow which the Goblin parried badly; he could tell by the creature’s sudden grimace of pain that the shock of the blow had transferred itself fully to the Goblin’s arm, leaving it momentarily handicapped.
In desperation, the Goblin held up its serrated iron scimitar, but only managed hold enough to bring it up crossways. Seeing his chance, realizing that he might not get another, Ralph summoned every last reserve of strength, slamming his broadsword downwards with everything he could muster. With a sickening snap, the Goblin’s wrist was broken, its blade shattered to slivers.
Ralph could easily have killed the creature then, but even as it fell to its knees, crying out in agony and clutching its wrist, Ralph kicked it in the face, knocking it senseless.
‘Malina!’ Oblivious to everything else, he didn’t take stock of his surroundings until he was at her side.
She was bruised and sore, gaping as though she barely recognised him, but he could tell that she was otherwise unhurt. Theuli! Pran was holding her, calling her name. Deborah lay unconscious or dead.
‘Oh my God! Deborah!’
Checking Theuli first, Doc found that she had taken an arrow. From the way she was coughing up blood he knew at once that a lung had been pierced. ‘Pran!’ he shouted to get the Elf’s attention, ‘Pran! I need fire for sterilization, as much light as possible, and hot water. I have to get the arrow out and suture the wound.’
Deborah was not in any better shape. Though wounded only in the leg, and bleeding little, she lay deathly still and pale. As Doc began ministering to her, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
‘The arrow the young woman has taken is poisoned,’ an Elf soldier told him, in a tone of resigned compassion.
‘What sort of poison?’ Doc asked him brusquely.
The Elf looked at Deborah grimly. ‘I am no Healer. I know only that such inflictions of the enemy are always fatal. The young woman will be dead soon.’