More than thirteen years had passed since the Duskar assault on lady Kari. Much had changed in that time. Prince Karl Adler had succeeded his father and was now jarl Karl Adler of Vestfjor. He had proved to be a strong ruler, showing mercy when it was possible, but being absolutely ruthless if need be. In the first year of his reign, he had destroyed an undead threat that lurked within his own borders. In the process he had not hesitated to raze an entire barony to cleanse the land of the stain of necromancy. Three years later, he had defeated an attempt of the jarl of Caledonia to seize several baronies along the border. He had even captured the jarl's brother, but, in a clear show of mercy, he had allowed the young noble to return home without even asking for a ransom. However, the year after that, he had shown his ruthlessness once again by not only defeating another invasion attempt of the Viku, but by killing every prisoner he had made, safe one. That one was allowed to return home to tell the tale. No further invasions had been attempted since that day. Under his rule, trade had flourished and Griffnar, his capital, had become one of the biggest and richest trade cities of Midgard.
Karl had never remarried after his wife's passing, but he had done his best to be a loving, yet somewhat distant and strict father to his two sons. Leading the life of a high ranking member of a noble House was difficult and dangerous and he wanted to make sure they were ready. So he had ordered Frederik Falkhorst and Calvin Rotis to train and educate them rigorously. In addition to that, he had hired the best teachers he could find. It was typical of his statesmanship, that he allowed a limited number of the children of his nobles to attend these classes as well, for a certain fee. After all, his oldest son and heir, Agrim would have need of capable lords once he became jarl.
Training and experience were the reasons why he had decided that the seventeen year old would accompany his uncle, duke Otar, on a diplomatic mission to jarl Rudolf Larsson of Hendeby. It was high time he was introduced to the other jarls. More importantly, he wanted duke Otar to investigate the possibility of a marriage between Agrim and Rudolf's daughter. He had received certain indications that Rudolf wouldn't be opposed to it. If Agrim made a good impression, that would only make a union easier.
That his youngest son would join the diplomatic mission as well, was not part of his original plan. The boy would be thirteen in a couple of months, which was a bit young to start his introduction in Midgard's high society. In fact, it could even be dangerous. Bad first impressions had a tendency to linger in Midgard. And a young prince who made a fool of himself, would be a story that was repeated over and over again in all of the land. But Falco had been nagging and pestering him, until he finally gave in. Karl would never have admitted it, but his youngest boy was his favorite. And there were times he just couldn't refuse him anything. Besides, Falco was rather shy towards people of high standing he hadn't met before. Normally, that was a source of irritation for Karl. After all, a prince of Vestfjor was supposed to be impressed by no one. But in this case, it would probably be a good thing. If anything, it would stop him from shooting off his mouth to the wrong people.
Duke Otar was quite pleased. The negotiations had been very promising so far. He had been able to report to his brother that the trade agreement would be renewed with only minor changes. He was also very optimistic about a possible defensive alliance and more importantly, a union between Agrim and princess Irena was a very distinct possibility. In fact, the diplomatic talks were going so well, that jarl Rudolf, knowing that Otar was an enthusiastic hunter, had proposed that the ambassadors, accompanied by several of his own nobles, would go on a hunting trip to south Hendeby. It was a bit of a journey, but for hunters like Otar, it was truly a paradise. Otar, who secretly had been hoping for such an invitation, gratefully accepted the invitation.
An impressive company, consisting of many dozens of nobles from both realms, together with their sons and accompanied by their retinues had set off for the south. Rudolf himself did not join them. Officially his reason was that he was too busy with urgent matters of state. But Otar knew his health wasn't that good and he had been bothered by a painful knee for years know. Not exactly conditions that would make a hunt very pleasant for him.
"Give it back, Agrim! I found it! It's mine!"
"Then why don't you take it from me, scrawny carboy!"
"Don't call me that. You know I hate it! Just give it back to me!"
"O, come on, little brother. You can do better than that. Jump a little higher. No? What are you going to do now? Cry? Run to uncle Otar for help?"
Otar sighed and rolled his eyes. He put the bowl with his breakfast on the ground and got up. His nephews were quarreling. What a surprise! They were good boys, but by the gods, they could be tiresome! He walked passed his fellow nobles following the sound of the fight. Agrim was teasing his little brother again. He was holding up some kind of rusty old helmet, which Falco was desperately trying to grab. But he couldn't reach high enough. The younger boy was clearly getting angry, which only caused Agrim to tease him even more. Several of the younger nobles were standing around.
"You're being a jerk, Agrim!" Falco said angrily.
"And you're not very effective, for a scrawny cat boy. Shouldn't you just jump up and snatch it from me?"
"I told you to stop calling me that!"
The boy swiped at his brother, but Agrim easily blocked him.
"Come on, Agrim," Erwin Horst, the fourteen year old nephew of Frederik Falkhorst said. "You've had your fun. Give him back that helmet."
"Really? Should I?"
"Yes," Heinz, the fifteen year old son of a baron of Vestfjor said. "He can't take it from you anyway. You're too big. And he did find it. Let the kid have his toy."
"Well, okay then. Here it is, little brother."
He offered Falco the helmet. When the boy started reaching for it, he pulled it away, but not fast enough. Falco snatched it away with almost supernatural speed.
"I knew you would try to do that, you stupid ass!" he said triumphantly.
He turned to walk away, his prize clutched in his arms.
"O yeah? Did you expect me to do this as well?"
Agrim grabbed his little brother by the waist and threw him over his shoulder.
"Hey! Stop! Put me down!"
"I don't think you've taken your bath yet this morning. Let's go to that little brook we got our water from."
"No! You're not going to throw me in there! Put me down, you jerk! Put me down!"
"Agrim! Put Falco down! You're embarrassing him in front of the other nobles!"
"I wasn't really going to throw him in the brook, uncle. We were just fooling around a bit."
"You're getting too old for this kind of behavior, Agrim! Remember, you're the heir of Vestfjor. Everything you do also reflects on your father. Put your little brother down!"
Otar studied the boys as they were struggling. It never ceased to amaze him how different they were. It was almost hard to believe they were both sons of the same father. Apparently, the oldest had taken to his father and the youngest to his mother. But both no doubt had a striking presence. Agrim had brown hair and the modest beginnings of a teenage beard, which he trimmed very meticulously every morning, in the firm believe it would hasten the process of growing a full and impressive one. Being strong, tall, broadly shouldered and rather heavily built, he showed all the hallmarks of the Adler family. And much like his father and Otar himself, he was already a great warrior and not afraid to speak his mind. Unfortunately, not always to his credit. But the young man did his best.
Falco was very different. His hair was as black as raven's feathers and he was only a bit taller than most boys of his age. Contrary to his brother and most of his family members however, he was slender and slightly built. One would have thought that his warrior father, who valued strength and sheer force above all other qualities, would have disliked his youngest son's looks and perhaps even his son altogether. But to Otar's surprise, nothing could be further from the truth. He genuinely loved the kid and the boy had returned that love by giving his father plenty to be proud of. Although he disliked being called cat boy, the nickname wasn't badly chosen. He was very agile and the way he moved sometimes did remind even Otar of a cat. And that agility more than made up for his lesser strength in swordfights. Among the boys of his sword fighting classes, he was the best, compensating lack of brute force with skill, speed and dexterity. He was also an excellent horseman and a decent enough archer. Karl's main irritation with Falco was not his looks, but his inclination to wander the streets of Griffnar on his own, eluding the men of the Varangian Guard who served as his bodyguards.
Otar focused a bit more on the youngest boy. Falco was very handsome indeed, almost elflike, but without the pointed ears, long hair or looking girly in any way. Otar had noticed that recently the girls in Griffnar, didn't just check out Agrim, but his younger brother as well. Falco, so far, seemed somewhat oblivious of the girls' interest in him, but Otar was certain that would change soon enough (which would no doubt complicate Karl's life).
Agrim put his brother back on his feet. Falco immediately kicked his brother to the shin. Agrim cursed and grabbed him by his shirt.
"Stop that, Falco! You too, Agrim. What have you got there anyway? Show it to me!"
Falco held up the old helmet.
"I found it, half buried under the ground. I thought it was cool! I was just showing it to my friends, when that big log over there..."
"Yes," Otar interrupted him. "I know what happened next! You both behaved like children. I can understand that from Falco as he is still just a kid, but you Agrim, should know better!"
"I was just teasing him a bit! Gods! Don't make such a case out of it!"
"Alright, alright. Let's just forget about it. Do you know what this thing is, Falco?"
"Yeah, genius. Did you figure that out all by yourself?"
"Agrim! That's enough! It's a very old helmet. Must date back from the days Asharan the Conqueror, the most terrible warlord the orcs ever produced, was laying waste to this region. That's over a thousand years ago! But that is also the reason why these are such good hunting grounds. The region never really recovered from Asharan's visit. There are some settlements, but they are few and scattered. So the animals have free reign. You were right, Falco. It is a very cool thing."
"Yes, I know, uncle.
"Anyway, now that you young ones are all here, I've got something to tell you. The scouts have found some very interesting tracks. Boar tracks. Very big ones too."
"Great!" Agrim said. "This hunt is getting better and better!"
"Not so fast. Boars are very dangerous animals to hunt. I spoke with lord Sverig of Hendeby and he agrees with me. The young nobles are not joining in on this boar hunt."
Several of the boys began to protest, but Agrim cut them off.
"Be quiet, all of you. My uncle is right. This is something for experienced hunters, like me and the other adult nobles."
"You're not coming either, Agrim."
Agrim stared at his uncle, for a moment lost for words, as his little brother burst into laughter.
"Stop laughing, you twerp! Uncle, you can't be serious!"
"Yes, I am."
"I'm seventeen! I'm not a kid anymore! You have to let me come!"
"A few moments ago, you were behaving like a little kid! It's too dangerous. I don't want you getting hurt or even worse. Your father would never forgive me!"
"And I insist to join the boar hunt! You can't embarrass me like that! I won't accept it!"
"What would princess Irena say if she heard I was left behind with the children while you went on a boar hunt? Some impression the heir of Vestfjor would make! I won't do it! I'm telling you, as crown prince of Vestfjor, I will not accept being humiliated in that fashion!"
"I didn't want to humiliate you, Agrim. I wanted to put you in charge of the young nobles."
"Well, tempting though that may be, I still can't accept it. I owe it to my position as heir of Vestfjor to join in that hunt."
"Fine! You can come! I'll give our Varangian Guard officer command of the second group."
"And where will we be going?" Erwin asked.
"I’ll ask Moro. He's the best guide we have. Moro!"
A muscular man in his late forties leisurely walked to them.
"Yes, my lord?"
"We will be splitting up today. We are going to the northeast. The young nobles and their retinue will be continuing on their own. I'm assigning you to them. How will you proceed?"
"There's a very old hunting trail in the south. That's our best option."
"Good, come with me. We have to agree where and when we are going to reunite the two groups."
"Okay. Cool old helmet, young lord. I wouldn't put it on though. If you cut yourself, you could get an ugly infection."
"I know. I won't."
As Otar was making the final arrangements with the guide and Uther, the Varangian officer, the rest of the group was saddling their horses and getting ready to leave. Falco was checking his bow when he saw Agrim approaching. He looked at him, still rather angry, and said:
"What do you want, Agrim?"
"Just checking if you needed any help with your horse."
"I don't as you very well know."
"Yeah, I guess I do. So, I suppose this is goodbye, for a couple of days at least."
"Yes. And I'm glad too."
"Still angry with me? It was just a little joke."
"You always do those little jokes! You always embarrass me in front of my friends! It's not funny, Agrim! It would have served you right if uncle Otar had forced you to come with us. On the other hand, now that you are going, I won't be bothered by you for a couple of days. At least, that's a good thing."
"Don't be like that! I know you don't mean it. I just wanted to say bye. And...say I was sorry for embarrassing you."
"You always are, afterwards. And you always do it again."
"Alright, grumpy catb... Falco! I mean Falco! I see I'll have to make a peace offering. Here!"
He held up a nicely crafted dagger, in a simple but beautiful sheath.
"I know you like it. You've been eyeing it often enough. And I have plenty of that stuff. So ... what do you say?"
"I can have it? Really?"
"Yes, really. Just take it already!"
Falco took the dagger and smiled.
"So, no longer angry with me?"
"I guess not. I just wish you would stop teasing me all the time."
"You make it irresistible, little brother."
He ruffled through his younger brother's hair.
"See you in a couple of days."
He winked at Falco and left with Otar and his group, leaving his brother together with the other aristocratic boys, six Varangian guards and a number of pageboys, servants and slave boys, behind.
"Yes!!! Got it!!!" Falco cheered.
"Excellent shot, my lord," Joral, his pageboy said.
"We're alone, Joral. You can call me just Falco."
"I'd like to, my lord, but if anybody heard...Your father would not approve and...I don't like him punishing me."
"My father isn't around now, is he?"
The young prince ran to the deer he had felled with a single shot of his bow and checked it. "It's dead. Great! This must be the catch of the day!"
"I'm sure it is, my lord. Shall I carry it back to the horse?"
"Yep. Can you handle it? It seems rather heavy."
"Ofcourse, my lord. I'm used to a little hard labor."
"And I'm not. Is that what you're saying? You think I'm a scrawny twerp too, don't you? Just like my brother!"
"No, my lord, I didn't mean that at all!"
"I know. I was just teasing you, because you kept calling me 'my lord'. I thought I'd 'lord' over you a bit."
"That was not funny!"
"Yes, it was."
"You have a wise servant, young lord. It's always best to know your place."
Falco and Joral both startled and looked up. The guide was standing at a few meters distance.
"Ehm...Moro, right?" Falco asked. "I didn't hear you there."
"You shouldn't wander off too far, young Lord. Sergeant at arms Uther got worried and sent me to look for you."
"Uther is always worried. When I was having a look of Jarl Rudolf's palace on my own, he was worried. When I got a little hungry, and I went out to the market to buy me a sandwich, he was worried. When I climbed the giant oak tree in front of the palace, because lord Sverig's son told me it offered a fantastic view over the city, he was worried. I think that's what he likes doing the most; worrying."
"That's his duty. He is responsible for your safety. And you are giving him a hard time. So please, young lord, just follow me back to the group."
"Fine! We're done here anyway. Come, Joral. And don't forget the deer."
With the heavy animal on his shoulders, Joral followed his lord and the guide. When they reached Falco's horse, they put the animal over its back and returned to the rest of the party. They couldn't go very fast, as Joral didn't have a horse.
"It's not like it's dangerous out here, is it Moro? I mean, there are no other people living here and the days of Asharan are far behind us."
"But not the days of other would be conquerors, young lord. Bjorgolf the Disembowler invaded this region some twenty years ago, through Bifrost Pass. But High King Olaf Garadson II, who still rules our nation from his capital Mikligard, destroyed his horde before it could do any real damage. That's when the king decided to reinforce the garrison city of Heimdal."
"And since those days, there have been no more Jotunheimers here? No giants or goblins?"
"Giants?" Moro said with a smile. "Almost nobody calls them that anymore! But no, there have been no more invasions by the orcs, or giants as you call them, since those days."
"But there still could be some survivors left, that have formed wandering war bands! That often happens after they attack!" Joral said, a little worried.
"Excellent!" Falco boasted. 'Then we can hunt some giants as well!"
"Don't be silly, little prince. If you saw an orc, you would do best to run away as fast as you can. Or your head would end up on his trophy rack and the rest of you in his belly. They are often over two meters tall, have muscles three times the size of mine and they love hunting little human boys," he added with a wink of his eye. "They would snap you two in half, without even breaking a sweat. They could be watching and hunting you, right now."
Joral looked around with a scared look in his eyes. But Falco just looked at the guide and smiled. Moro started laughing.
"Yes, I'm just messing with you. There are no orcs or goblins left around here. Not a single sighting has been reported in two decades. So don't worry, pageboy. Follow your master's example and show no fear! Ah! There are the others. I'm leaving you now. I have to scout ahead for a good place to camp for the night. We'll see each other again in a couple of hours."
He spurred his horse, as sergeant at arms Uther came riding towards them. Falco already knew what that meant. As a precaution, he tried to look as remorseful as possible.
"So, taking off on your own again, prince Falco?"
"Not on my own. Joral was with me."
"Don't drag Joral into this. You know very well you're not supposed to do this! Your father hates it when you take off like that! And you get me and the Varangians that are supposed to keep you safe, in trouble! But I suppose you don't give a damn about that!"
"Sure I do! You know I do. I'm sorry. But there really was no danger. Moro said so too. And I killed this deer. It's a big catch."
"It is," Uther said, mellowing a little. "The biggest of the day, I'd say. The others only caught small game." He rolled his eyes. "Alright, I'll let you off the hook, for the thousandth time! I won't spoil your big moment with the deer by chewing you out. But for the rest of the day, you stay close behind me, understood?"
Falco gave him a broad smile.
"Thank you, Uther!"
"Yeah, I'll remember that next time your father yells at me for loosing sight of you again."
"I promise I'll do better in the future."
"Don't make promises you can't keep, prince Falco. Joral, Take that animal to the packhorses. Prince Falco, you're with me."
Falco rode right behind Uther at the head of the caravan. It was getting late. The sun was hanging low over the horizon. Heinz and Erwin joined him after a while.
"So," Falco said, with a rather mischievous look on his face. "I hear you guys had a very successful day."
The boys responded by giving him the stink eye.
"You shot no less than a hare, Heinz! That's impressive!"
"Alright, you skinny showoff. We know you killed a dear. Don't get any ideas. It was just dumb beginners luck." Heinz, who was fifteen years old, was clearly annoyed that the much younger Falco had shot the largest game that day. Falco ignored him and went on.
"And you, Erwin, you went for a kill in a mud pool, I heard."
"I was on foot and running after a partridge! At least I thought it was a partridge. I didn't see that muddy brook. I slipped and fell in."
"Yeah Falco. No need to rub it in," Heinz said. They both looked at Erwin's muddied clothes and then at each other. Suddenly, they burst into laughter. Erwin couldn't help but join in their merriment, even though he was the victim. His father wasn't very rich and he wouldn't like him damaging his clothes. He had only been able to come along on this mission because Frederik Falkhorst, his cousin, had paid for it. Still, he could see the humor of the situation.
Uther turned in his saddle and said:
"What's so funny, young lords?"
"Erwin," Heinz said, still laughing. "He..."
Uther and the Varangian Guard that was riding next to him, suddenly disappeared as the ground collapsed under their horse's hooves. There screams and the scared whinnying of the horses were cut short by a horrifying thudding sound. The boys stared at the pit, completely perplexed by what had just happened. Falco was closest by and could see the terrible scene at the bottom of the pit. The men and horses were skewered on a wood of sharpened logs and spears. Uther would never chew him out again.
A loud howling erupted from both sides of the path. Black and brown feathered arrows flew through the air. Heinz' horse reared in panic, and in doing so, formed a living shield for Falco. Three arrows hit the animal in its flank. It fell down, mortally wounded, crushing its young rider under its weight. Falco caught a glimpse of his friend's broken body, while he was desperately trying to keep his own horse under control. From the wood, small greyish green creatures were appearing. Most of them were not much bigger than 1,40 meter.
"Goblins!" he yelled at Erwin in a rising panic. "Where are the other Varangians?"
A goblin jumped on Erwin and threw him off his horse. Dozens of other goblins attacked the small hunting party, screaming their lungs out. The soldiers who hadn't been killed by the arrows, were surrounded by at least ten Jotunheimers each, who drove their spears into the bellies of the horses and then quickly butchered the rider. Most of the servants, beaters and dog handlers were killed on the spot, although some tried to break through to the surrounding woods. The hounds attacked and killed a goblin by ripping out his throat, but they themselves were wiped out by the spears, arrows and blades of their enemies. Nobody was trying to lead or organize a proper defense. Everybody was just trying to save himself. Some abandoned their horses and tried to escape through the dense wood. Others tried to ride back down the path but they were soon killed by the arrows of the goblins. Erwin managed to kick the goblin that had attacked him, in the face and got back on his feet. Three others came at him.
"Take my hand!" Falco yelled, but Erwin didn't hear him. In a blind panic he ran off and disappeared into the chaotic mass of fighting and running people.
Suddenly, a cold green claw like hand grabbed Falco's foot. The boy screamed and hit the goblin on the head with the old helmet he had kept hanging on his saddle. Almost in a panic, he looked at the path in front of him. The pit had been dug over its entire width and was at least three meters long. If his horse could take a run, he would probably be able to jump it. But he knew he would never be able to make that run. The goblins were already closing in on him. Moreover, several of them were standing next to the pit, armed with spears and bows, making sure nobody would get away in that direction.
Terrified he looked around him. The undergrowth near the path was very dense, bur the didn't want to flee on foot. He couldn't imagine he would get very far without a horse. Desperately he searched for a way out. Suddenly, he noticed a spot where the brushes didn't seem quite as thick. He would get stuck if it grew any thicker further on, but the only alternative was to stay here... He kicked his horse in its sides and sent it towards the bushes. Two goblin archers, who were hiding in there to shoot anyone in sight, were totally surprised by the horse that suddenly appeared before them. They were crushed under its hooves.
Branches swept into his face and tore at his cloths as he rode on, but the passage remained wide enough for his horse to pass through. 10, 20 meters. He was already 30 meters away from the path. His heart was pounding wildly in his chest.
"I'm going to make it," he thought excited. "I have escaped. I have surprised them and I have escaped. They will never catch me anymore if I can get to..."
A net, made heavier with stones, was thrown out of a tree and wrapped itself around his upper body. He fell screaming off his horse and crashed painfully on the forest floor. A well aimed spear killed his horse almost at the same time. He gasped for air, when one of the stones smashed against his ribs. Stunned and gasping for air, he remained motionless for a few seconds. When he finally tried to get up again, it was already too late.
Two goblins in grey cloaks jumped out of the trees and threw themselves at him, their knives ready to strike. Three others came out of the bushes. One of them put his knee on Falco's chest, grabbed him by his hair and pushed his head backwards against the ground. A dark knife glistened in his hand. Completely entangled in the net, the boy, scared to death, could do no more than stare at the shining blade that was about to end his life.
The largest goblin of the group quickly grabbed his henchman's stretched arm by the wrist.
"Stop it, you fool," he growled. "You don't waste good loot. This pup is worth more alive than dead. He's too young to make much fuss and old enough to work hard for a few months, perhaps even a few years if he's broken properly."
"He is no good, chief, look!"
A small goblin, dressed in clothes that were way to big for him, rubbed the cloth of Falco's trousers between his fingers and pointed at his finely cut leather boots.
"He is a pup of a human chief! Moorgash wants all those pups for himself. We can't keep or loot him. Moorgash will finish him off, like the other noble pups. At best, he will be dinner. No loot, just food," he concluded regretfully.
The goblin leader put his weapon, a warhammer, under the chin of the trembling boy and pushed his head backwards. He looked at him for a moment and stared with increasing greed at the boots and the excellent equipment the boy was carrying. But most of his attention
went to Falco himself, as if he was seeing something there that was very special. It couldn't be his good looks, because by Jotunheim standards, Falco was very ugly. The goblin seemed almost in a trance for a full minute, before he began to speak.
"What the orc doesn't know, won't hurt him," he growled. "We caught this pup, so he's ours."
"So, we take his stuff and crush his skull?"
"No! I already told you. He's more worth alive than dead."
"But what if this pup talks? The orc will be furious if he finds out. He will lob our heads off, or worse..."
"Stupid fool! Why would the pup talk? If he tells the truth, he will die! By the orc's hand or by mine! His only chance to stretch his life a bit longer is to shut his mouth! Got that, pup?" he suddenly yelled at Falco, who cowered in fear. The goblin laughed manically and slapped the boy hard in the face. "He will not talk! Now, take his stuff. Pillage him. Quick! Remove the net! The boots and his gold purse are mine. Get your filthy paws of them. Bog, easy with that shirt! You'll rip it, you idiot! Rogna, Vorg, hold him down! Stop squirming, you little bastard!" He kicked the young prince in the side. "Now keep still, or we'll have a kicking contest with you as the target. That's a nice dagger he has on his belt! That's mine too! Come on, Bog, stop wasting time! Take his pants, strip him naked. Nothing can remain that could identify him as a high born pup."
"No! Please, no! Stop it! Leave me alone! Please! Don't do this! Get your hands of me! You can't do this to me!"
Despite the goblin's orders, Falco continued struggling and tried to hold on to the edge of his last remaining piece of clothing, but they grabbed his wrists and pulled his arms out of the way and continued their work.
"Don't forget to check the saddlebacks on his horse. And bring me the reins. I'll need them."
The goblins released their victim for a moment to inspect the dead horse. Falco curled up in a ball to cover up his naked body, pressing his arms to his chest. His amulet was still there! How could they have missed it? They had taken everything else! He closed his fist around it, in a desperate attempt to keep it hidden.
"You don't listen too well, do you pup? If I tell you not to struggle, you don't struggle! And you certainly don't speak without getting permission! Slaves are animals and animals don't speak! You will need some breaking in, won't you? Better make it clear to you what happens to disobedient little slave pups."
Zarko pulled a whip from his belt and mercilessly struck at the cowering boy. Falco, who had never been hit by a whip before, had never felt pain like this. He screamed.
"I said! No! Talking!"
Twice more the whip came down.
"Chief Zarko, look at this!" Bog yelled. "Rogna is trying to hide some loot he found in the saddlebag!"
"You lying peace of shit! I'm not hiding anything!"
"He is, chief! He just tried to put it under his shirt. I saw it! I think it's another purse."
"What! You thieving git! Trying to hide the good stuff for your chief, are you! Show me what you're hiding, you bastard!"
Zarko stepped over Falco, ending his disciplining of the boy, and ran to his squabbling underlings. Falco looked up cautiously. The goblin's argument was getting physical. Nobody seemed to pay attention to him anymore. If they were distracted long enough by the impending fight, he might still have a chance. How he was going to survive in the wild without clothes, food or any other supplies, he did not know. Maybe he could scavenge some supplies later among the remains of the hunting party, when the goblins had left. It wasn't really important right now. Getting away was all he could think of. As stealthy as possible, he began to crawl away between the trees. Quietly, he began to rise to run away, but a hard kick in his side threw him back to the ground.
"Where do you think you're going, pup?" Zarko hissed. He dropped his warhammer on the ground right next to Falco's face, turned the boy on his stomach and bound his arms roughly and tightly together on his back with the reins he had salvaged from the horse. The pain brought tears to Falco's eyes. Through a blur, he saw the hammer. It was a beautifully crafted weapon, decorated with ancient, intricate runes. No goblin could manufacture such a thing. It was clearly stolen from another, more civilized race. Just like he himself was being stolen right now. The goblin put his foot in the boy's neck and yelled furiously at his men.
"Stop it, right now! We wasted enough time already! Take all the loot and bring it back to the meeting place. We'll report to the orc chief!"
He pulled his slave back on his feet by his black hair and pushed him towards of the path.
"Walk, pup, and no more funny business." He pushed the whip in the boy's back. "Or you'll feel this again. And if you thought it hurt before, think again. I'll make you crawl like a dog, if you don't behave!"
Falco stumbled on towards the road. His body ached because of the beatings and kicks and whiplashes. He was scared to death. But still he tried to keep a stiff upper lip.
"Whatever may still happen, they won't see me cry," he thought. "I am the son of the jarl of Vestfjor, prince of Griffnar. Those green barbarians won't see me cry." He kept repeating this to himself. But at that moment, being dragged through the woods by goblins, bound, naked, tripping over brunches and hurting his bare feet, he felt far from princely or brave.
"Wait! Stop for a moment! Look!"
"That's just another dead pup, chief. Already pillaged. Except for food, there's nothing interesting there anymore."
Falco stared at the dead body of the boy. He didn't know him. He had been a slave of Rudolf's palace. Probably a stable boy. Being a slave, he had only worn the bare necessities as clothing. The goblins had not found it necessary to steal his undergarments as well. It was just a simple piece of long cloth he had worn between his legs and had been held in place with a string of rope tied around his waist.
"Take that loincloth and put it on our slave here," the chief said. "If he's all naked, Moorgash might get suspicious. And that's a slave's loincloth! Even Rogna wouldn't bother to steal that filthy piece of cloth."
The goblins burst into laughter at their chief's joke. They did as they were told and moved on. Finally, they arrived back at the path, where all fighting had ceased. The goblins were pillaging the corpses and the packhorses. Falco saw that all of the horses had been killed. They were probably too big for the goblins to ride anyway.
While the goblins were pushing him onward, he looked around him, hoping to see other survivors. There were very few. The soldiers and all other adult handlers and servants had been killed. The goblins had robbed their bodies of everything they could use. From what he could see, he guessed there were about fifty plains goblins and ten mountain goblins, like the ones that had caught him.
They walked by a wounded soldier, who was trying to drag himself to the edge of the forest. He looked up at the boy with glassy eyes. Zarko nonchalantly raised his warhammer and crashed the soldier's skull. Small fragments of bone, blood and brain tissue spattered against Falco's legs. Screaming, the boy jumped away in horror. A goblin immediately grabbed his arm and pushed him with a growl back in the right direction.
"Put him with the other slave pups," Zarko said.
The goblins kicked him against his butt and threw him among a small group of kneeling and tied up boys. Only six of them were still alive. Five pageboys, Joral was one of them, and Erwin. He was the only other noble in the group. Maybe the goblins has mistaken him for a servant. Impoverished as his family was, and having fallen in the mud and having soiled and ripped his clothes, he probably hadn't looked very different from the servants. The survivors were almost all stripped down to their undergarments, consisting of linen underpants or loincloths. Erwin at least was still wearing his trousers. The other aristocratic boys had mercilessly mocked him because of those pants, because they looked so worn and frayed. Apparently, the goblins had shared their opinion and hadn't bothered to steal them.
"Are we the only ones left?" he whispered to Erwin.
"No," Erwin replied, trembling in fear. "Look over there. That's were they have gathered the surviving nobles, like us."
Falco followed the direction Erwin was looking at.
A rather large number of noble boys seemed to have survived. They had been herded a little further down the path. Strangely enough, they seemed to be relatively unharmed. They hadn't been pillaged and were still wearing their exquisite hunting outfits.
An enormous humanoid creature, A little over two meters tall, with protruding boar-like tusks and massive muscles under his greenish skin, was walking among them. He wore an iron breastplate and golden earrings. He was inspecting his prisoners, taking their gold and
jewelry, like necklaces, rings and belt buckles. But although he treated them roughly, he didn't hurt or wound them and he didn't steal their precious clothes. All the while he kept an eye on the battlefield and what the goblins were doing there.
"They seem to be treated a lot better. Maybe they will hold them for ransom! Shouldn't we tell them who we are? And why didn't they take you to them? Why are you only wearing that loincloth?"
"I think that goblin wanted to keep all my stuff for himself. I'm not sure we should tell who we are. Those goblins made some strange remarks about the nobles and what would happen to them."
Suddenly, Zarko grabbed him by his hair, pulled his head back and placed a dagger at his throat.
"You seem to be very interested in those noble pups. What is going on in that little noggin of yours, you filthy brat? Thinking of telling Moorgash who you are? I wouldn't try that if I were you. Moorgash doesn't take kindly to human slaves daring to speak to him. He will probably rip your tongue out if you do. Besides, you really think they are better off than you are? Think again, slave! They will soon be begging to become slaves, like you are. Trust old Zarko on that one. But maybe you don't believe me. Maybe I shouldn't take the risk and ... cut out your tongue myself ....Yes...Open your mouth, pup!"
"No," Falco mumbled between his clenched teeth. He struggled to get away, but Zarko wrapped one arm around his neck and brought Falco's own knife, the one he had gotten from his brother, towards the boy's mouth.
"Open up, pup, or I'll cut away your lips."
"No!!" He violently shook his head
"So, are you going to talk?"
"Good. I hope you've learned your lesson, for your own sake. I will teach you many more in the Lair, so you can become a good, obedient little slave. And remember, if you disobey and try to talk anyway, I'll start cutting. Maybe I'll even start with your balls, instead of your tongue."
He let go of Falco, slapped him once more hard in the face and walked away laughing.
"You heard!" Erwin whispered to the other boys. "Not a word of who we are. Otherwise, Falco will have to suffer for it. Keep quiet!"
The others nodded, too scared to speak.
"What do you think that big guy is, over there. Shit, he's coming closer! You think he's a..."
"He's a giant. No doubt about it."
Falco yelled out in pain as a whip drew a red stripe across his back.
"Shut up, all of you! Filthy slaves! Human animals don't talk!" a cross-eyed goblin with a lisp screamed. He looked menacingly down at the boy for a while, but when Falco remained cowered down, he nodded, pleased with himself. Suddenly, he noticed the orc standing nearby. He immediately cracked his whip over the heads of his prisoners and shouted at them with a shrieky voice:
"Down, slave spawn. Push those ridiculously small human noses in the dirt for your new master, the great and marvelous warlord Moorgash."
The boys bowed down, but neither fast nor deep enough to the goblin's liking. He grabbed Erwin by the scruff of his neck and pushed his face all the way down to the forest floor. His whip cracked again and the other captives bowed as deep as they could. Almost drooling with submissiveness, he looked at the approaching warlord. The orc looked at the goblin with a mix of contempt and amusement.
"Goblins," he thought. "A bunch of backstabbing cowardly lickspittles, every single one of them. But in big enough numbers, they have their uses."
He stopped right in front of Falco, who was sitting with his nose only a few centimeters above the ground. The boy stared at the enormous, ironclad boots the giant was wearing. He feverishly prayed to Odin that the green brute wouldn't notice him. He was pretty sure the giant wouldn't be able to recognize him as a noble, but that didn't worry him. He just didn't want to be noticed at all.
The orc stared down upon the kneeling and bowing figures as if he was assessing them.
"You little human pups are ours now. You are slaves. You will not talk. You will only listen and do as you're told. If you do otherwise, you will be severely punished until you wish you were dead. One thing is certain. Whatever life you had before, is over and you will never get it back.
You will have to be strong and fast, if you wanna survive even the next few days. If you can't keep up, you'll end up like this," he concluded, while he casually kicked away the decapitated head of one of the soldiers. He remained silent for a moment, staring at Falco at his feet. Suddenly, he grabbed the boy by his neck and pulled him up. Falco squealed in fear and pain.
"What did you just say to that other worm?"
Viciously he grabbed Falco by his upper arms and lifted him a meter into the air.
"Answer my question!" he roared. "That worm asked you something, about who I was and you replied! You think I'm deaf? I can hear a mouse walking at 30 paces! What did you say?!"
"A giant," Falco whimpered. "I said you were a giant."
"That's what I thought you said," Moorgash murmured. Suddenly he screamed in Falco's face: "I am NOT a giant, you little vermin! Giant is the name those weakling gods of yours gave to our race! And we don't like anything Odin and his spawn gave us! We are orcs, got that?!" By now, he was shaking the boy violently. "That is the name of our race in our own language! It means god slayers. Remember that! If I ever hear you use that other name again, I'll cut out your guts, understood?!"
He threw the terrified and crying boy, who had totally given up on his firm intention not to weep, back on the ground. Falco immediately crawled away, hiding behind Erwin's back. He would have buried himself in the dirt, if only he could get away from the massive muscular brute.
The orc abruptly turned back to the noble prisoners. A swarm of goblins had descended upon them, while Moorgash' back was turned and they were now trying to steal whatever the orc had not taken.
"Stop that immediately, you filthy rats! Those are not for you!"
He only had to take two steps in their direction for the cowardly goblins to back away from the nobles as fast as they could. The chief of the plains goblins wandered over to his warlord.
"There's plenty of good meat available now, warlord Moorgash. Both mature and young." He licked his lips, looking hungrily at the young prisoners kneeling at his feet. "Shall we get a fire going?"
The slaves trembled in fear and several made pleading, terrified noises.
"Narga, you dimwitted idiot. Ofcourse we will not," the orc growled.
Erwin and Falco almost simultaneously breathed a sigh of relief.
"We don't have time for any games, any gorging or anything else. We have wasted enough time already. The wolves are coming. We will leave at once."
As if summoned by magic, five goblins appeared with a whole pack of wolves. They were a lot bigger than normal wolves, about the size of ponies, but one of them was truly gigantic. He was as big as an adult stallion.
"Fenrir wolf!" Erwin whispered with a mix of awe and fear in his voice. Falco's curiosity got the better of his fear and, trembling, he glanced at the wolf from behind Erwin's back. Narga seemed disappointed with Moorgash' decision, but was wise enough not to object.
"The soldiers of the humans will pursue us. That's unavoidable. We have to get away from this place as fast and as far as possible. Tie the slaves together and prepare to get underway."
The goblins pulled the slaves to their feet and tied them together with nooses around their necks. They were positioned in a single file in the middle of the path, with wolf cavalry all around them. Moorgash and four goblins took charge of the aristocratic prisoners, who were still kept separate.
"I will see you all back in a few hours," Moorgash roared, while disappearing into the woods. "Follow the agreed route. And you goblins better don't get any smart ideas, like trying to take off with all the loot. That would be extremely bad for your health!"