The first thing Claudia saw when she woke up was Famratyr's smoldering green eyes, the only spots of color in the blackness. As her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, she was able to pick out Azfelyndoran slumped against the far wall, Jason lying at his feet. And then she smelled the blood.
"Famratyr," she murmured. "Famratyr, you're hurt."
The werewolf turned to the side and spat. "You're awake, Lady Claudia? How do you feel?"
"I'm fine; you're the one who's bleeding!"
Famratyr shook his head. "Keep your voice low, m'lady. Best they don't know you're up yet. Might be they just knock you out again."
"Famratyr, stop dodging the point. You're hurt."
"This? Please, m'lady, it's nothing."
"Half your face is covered in blood. How is that nothing?"
"Head wounds bleed more. It's not a bad cut, really."
"How did you get it?"
Famratyr grunted. "They tried to take your Crown after they knocked you out. No way in hell I was going to let them do that."
Claudia realized the tiara was still on her head, and resolved to make sure the werewolf knew how grateful she was later. "It looks rather painful. Does it hurt?"
Famratyr smiled, his teeth glimmering. "M'lady, I've had hangovers that were worse than this."
"Famratyr, are these creatures really goblins? Shouldn't they be loyal to me? What do you know about them?"
The werewolf shrugged. "I think once they figure out you're the Dark Lady, they'll be tripping over themselves to beg your forgiveness. But goblins have always been the type to beat something with a stick before thinking to question it. I've never spent much time with the gray bastards myself, m'lady. Too smart for my tastes."
"Smart?" Claudia asked, genuinely shocked. All her life, she had been told that goblins were a savage and brutish race, no better than starving beasts. But then again, many things she had been told all her life had turned out to be wrong lately.
Famratyr nodded gravely. "Oh aye, goblins are about as clever as they come. You wouldn't know by looking at them, but they've got brains behind those pointy noses of theirs. All of Kalaryndor's siege engines were designed and built by goblins. They make good steel, too. Had a goblin-made knife once, but I lost it on a stupid wager."
"But if they're so smart, why don't they have cities like humans and elves do? Why do they walk around in rags?"
"They do have cities, m'lady, deep underground. Goblins aren't very big fans of sunlight. It burns their skin much faster than you and me, which is probably why they like it up north. And the cities don't have buildings or tree houses or whatever you humans and elves are into. No, the goblins like to keep things pretty basic. They hollow out a few caves and make sure there's enough room for them to work on whatever project they've got going. Kind of like a rabbit warren, I guess."
"But the clothing?"
"They aren't as exposed to the elements as we are. And their skin is tougher than ours. If they're wearing clothes, it's so they can carry tools."
"Not to them, m'lady."
Azfelyndoran groaned and roused himself, shaking his head to clear the throbbing pain. "Famratyr? Is Lady Claudia safe?"
"As safe as can be," the werewolf grunted back. "What about you? How you feeling, Azfel?"
"I shall admit, I have had better mornings." He took in the dank cave they were trapped in. "Do we have a plan of action?"
Famratyr shrugged. "Wait for the kid to wake up. And then think on our feet."
Azfelyndoran shook his head. "Not good enough. We may not have time." He tested the ropes that bound his legs and then drew them up to his chest. Quick as a striking snake, he shoved them out and kicked Jason in the chest. They young man rolled across the floor for several feet and awoke in a hissing rage. "Easy," the dark elf snapped. "Before you bring them all down on us. We just had to make sure you were conscious."
A hissing sounded on the other side of the heavy metal door that was the only exit to their cold cell. Famratyr replied with a growl that sprang from deep in his throat. A second source of the sound, this one with a slightly different timbre, answered the hissing. "What's going on?" Jason asked.
"The goblins are speaking to each other," Azfelyndoran whispered.
"That's a language?" Claudia asked.
"Indeed. However, outside of basic greetings, I know none of it."
Famratyr had not moved from the wall. "Here's the thing about goblins. Their language is a lot like what werewolves use when we're turned. They make sounds, but just as important as what they say is their body language. How they stand, the look in their eyes, the set of their brow. Even if you don't know a word of their language, you can still talk with them if you know how to broadcast signals."
"How?" Claudia asked.
The door to the cell creaked open, and one of the pale goblins shuffled in. "Like this!" Famratyr roared, jumping up from the ground. His bonds had been cut, sawn through by a jagged stone he had found on the wall. Evidently, he had been conscious for far longer than his comrades to be able to get through the thick rope. He wrapped his broad, strong hands around the goblin's throat and hurled the creature against the wall of the cell.
"Get up, you little wretch," the werewolf snapped. "See what happens when you try to hurt my friends. I've barely given you a taste."
The goblin held up its hand and chattered something very softly. Famratyr's hand shot out again, lifting the goblin from the ground. By now, even Claudia could hear the pleading note in the gray creature's tone. "What's that?" Famratyr growled. "You'll have to speak up, old boy." His hand clenched as he tightened his grip around the goblin's throat.
"Genzho says he surrenders. Now put him down, you great, stupid brute."
Famratyr unceremoniously dropped the goblin and turned to the door of the cell. "Oh, you speak the Galletian tongue, do you?"
Another goblin stood there, his eyes narrowed in distaste. "I do. What were you doing in our lands?"
"We're going to see Lord Mandrake," Claudia explained. "We wanted no quarrel with you or your people."
"You did not even offer us tribute." The goblin's speech was colored with a thick accent, but Claudia could make out most of the words.
"We did not know you had claimed those lands."
"The marks were plain to see."
"To goblins, perhaps," Azfelyndoran said with a sigh. "To outsiders like us, we saw nothing to mark this as a goblin domain."
The goblin rolled his eyes. "Whatever else you may hear about us, dark elf, we're a fair people. You pay us tribute now, and we'll let you on through."
"We have precious little to give."
"Then we'll just have to keep you here."
Jason heaved himself into a sitting position. "By the Mother, man! Don't you have any idea who this is?"
The goblin scowled. "Speak plainly, boy."
"That there is Claudia Rosemont! The Dark Lady herself!"
"You lie!" the goblin hissed. He leaned forward and caught the glimmer of Claudia's tiara. "Darkness cloak me, so it is." He fell to his knees. "M'lady, please, forgive me!"
"Untie me, and maybe we'll talk about it."
The goblin quickly cut her ties, and Claudia rubbed at her chaffed wrists. "Now free my companions." When the goblin hesitated, she drew herself up to try and appear as imposing as possible. "I said, cut them free."
The goblin nodded slowly and slashed through Jason's bonds first, and then Azfelyndoran's, backing slowly away from the elf. Azfelyndoran gave a contemptuous grunt and turned away. Claudia stepped between the two dark creatures and extended her hand. "If we are to be civil with each other, I suppose we must know each other's names. I am Lady Claudia Rosemont, once of Sybalia. And now I suppose my proper title the Dark Lady."
The goblin gave a brief, terse bow that seemed more like a nod of acknowledgement than anything else. "I am Zhaggo, chieftain of this tribe." He paused for another moment and then took Claudia's hand in his for a brief shake. His skin was rough, toughened to the consistency of stone with many callouses around his palm, testament to holding many different tools.
When he broke off the contact, Claudia turned her head slightly to the side. "How many goblins are in this tribe of yours?"
Zhaggo shrugged. "If your werewolf friend did not kill Genzho, then there are six of us, although Meagra is just a babe in arms. And living with us, there are two trolls."
"Trolls?" Claudia turned to her companions. "Goblins consort with trolls?" The young woman just could not picture the rather diminutive and reputedly clever goblins having any common standing with the large, hulking trolls she had seen in the war, and she knew for absolute fact that trolls were decidedly unintelligent.
"They are related, m'lady," Famratyr explained. "In much the same way the lapdogs human noblewomen favor are related to wolves."
"Not nearly so far removed as that!" Zhaggo snapped. "Yes, we are indeed related, countless centuries ago we share common ancestry."
Azfelyndoran smirked. "Trolls are something of the odd uncle in the attic of the goblin genus."
"Be careful, elf," Zhaggo growled. "I promised to speak to the Dark Lady, I never guaranteed any hospitality. Watch your tongue, or you may come to harm."
"I should like to see you try, gray one."
"Oh, would you?"
Jason stepped in front of Azfelyndoran. "Hey, let's take it easy. We're just here to talk."
Famratyr nodded, stepping behind Claudia. "Just keep your tempers down and maybe we all get out of this without a few new bruises."
"I'll give him more than bruises if he speaks to me like that again!"
"Zhaggo!" The goblin fell still at Claudia's sharp tone. "Take me to the rest of your tribe. I should like to look upon my people."
Zhaggo shrugged. "All right. Have the werewolf carry Genzho. He's strong enough to handle it. And come along." He led them from the cell and deeper into the stone passageway. Though the corridor appeared to be level, when she glanced back, the incline was plainly visible. The air grew more stagnant, and Claudia and Azfelyndoran began to find it harder to breathe.
"I don't much like caves, my lady," the dark elf murmured. "There is no fresh air to be had."
Famratyr shrugged. "Sometimes, caves are the only place to get out of a storm. You get used to it."
Jason nodded. "The hills around Mounteblank were full of them. I spent hours exploring them when I was a child."
The tunnel opened up onto a chamber with several auxiliary caves hewn into the wall. Zhaggo stomped his foot on the packed dirt floor and made a sound partway between the chatter of a rat and the hiss of a snake.
Three goblins crept from their caverns and peered at the travelers. One of them, a female, held a small bundle of rags in her arms. The bundle let out a piteous whine, and the goblin rocked it back and forth, making a cooing noise. The infant goblin quieted, snuggling back into its blankets.
Zhaggo made another series of clicks, gesturing at Claudia as he did so. The goblins stared at the young woman openmouthed. When Zhaggo finished speaking, the goblins all dropped to one knee and murmured something in their own language. The tone of reverence was plain to hear, even though Claudia could not understand a word.
A low, reverberating sound came from deeper in the cave. The sound of dragging feet echoed up from the depths. "Oh dear," Azfelyndoran muttered, and held the front of his tunic up over his nose. A moment later, the stench reached Claudia and made her gag.
"What is that terrible smell?"
"Trolls," Famratyr replied, his voice nasally. He had pinched his index and middle fingers over the bridge of his nose, closing the airway. "Apparently, you get used to it."
The trolls trudged out of the lower caves, their bare feet thudding dully against the hard ground. Whereas the goblins were wiry and lithe, with gaunt features, the trolls were far more rounded. The shape of their heads was more stout, their noses rather bulbous especially when compared to the long, thin goblin profile. Both trolls had squinting eyes, and their large hands just four sausage-like fingers. One of them leaned down and moaned something to Zhaggo. The goblin hissed back and pointed at Claudia. The troll turned to its comrade and they appeared to have a brief conversation.
"Zhaggo," Claudia murmured, placing a hand on the goblin's shoulder.
Zhaggo bristled at the touch, unsure of how to respond. "M'lady?"
"You're starving, aren't you? You can't stay in these caves much longer."
The goblin chief muttered something in his own tongue and shook his head. He sighed and turned back to Claudia. "You're right. We have almost no food left. Meagra does not even cry anymore, she is too weak." One of the trolls moaned at the mention of food and placed a massive hand on its chest. Zhaggo turned and spat. "But what does it matter? There is nothing for us anymore. We have nowhere else to go. Better we die somewhere dark and cool than under an unforgiving sun."
"But you do have somewhere to go!" Claudia insisted.
"Wait, don't tell me," Zhaggo scoffed. "Now that you've returned, there's hope again. And if we just have hope, everything will turn out all right. I believed in hope once, m'lady. But then Kalaryndor, the Dark Lord who was by all accounts invincible, was cast down, completely destroyed. What was there to hope for now? Hope doesn't put food in your belly, m'lady. So you'll have to forgive me if I don't believe you. I'd rather not catch my death following a weak, pathetic Dark Lord."
Jason swept forward. "How dare you talk to Claudia like that!"
"Lady Claudia," Azfelyndoran corrected.
Zhaggo glared at Jason. "What right have you to raise your voice at me, boy?"
Jason's hand clenched. "Claudia is offering you a chance to get out of here, to live! And all you can say is you don't feel like it? Think of… think of Meagra! Doesn't she deserve a chance at life?"
"If her life is at all like ours, we're doing her a favor."
Jason's fist snapped out, and Zhaggo fell to the ground with a gasp. The other goblins stepped back, panic etched on their faces. The young swordsman stood over Zhaggo. "You apologize to Claudia. Now."
"You don't give me orders."
Jason reached down and wrapped his hand around Zhaggo's neck, holding him aloft. The goblin struggled and clawed at Jason's hand, but even though Zhaggo's nails left long rents on Jason's wrist, the young Valentine did not yield. "I said… apologize."
Claudia raced forward, but Famratyr placed a firm hand on her shoulder. "Let's see how this plays out."
"But Jason will kill him! We've got to stop him!"
"No, I don't think so."
"What do you mean?"
"Jason is learning to speak goblin."
"You won't like what happens if I have to ask you again," Jason growled, his veins rippling as he clenched his fingers.
Zhaggo fought for a breath. "I'm sorry… m'lady."
Jason released his hold and Zhaggo fell in a heap. The young man let out a breath and stepped back. "Do you still think Claudia weak and powerless?"
"I cannot speak for the Dark Lady," Zhaggo said slowly, "but you have certainly shown your strength. What is a man such as you doing following a woman like her? Is that not against your human custom?"
Famratyr's lips curled back from his teeth. "Don't say she's family, don't say she's family," he whispered.
"Because she is my rightful sovereign, and I am in awe of her power."
"That's the way, boy!" Famratyr murmured.
Azfelyndoran chuckled under his breath. "I do not think it is her power Jason is in awe of."
Claudia whirled on the dark elf. "Speak plainly."
"He admires you. It's clear in his eyes."
"I… I don't understand."
"My lady, there is no way for me to speak plainer. Jason Valentine is infatuated with you." Azfelyndoran smirked. "I advise you make the best possible use of this as you can. Young, unrequited love is a powerful force, no matter your alignment. It has driven young men to great, foolish deeds."
"I won't toy with Jason's heart!" Claudia hissed.
"You may have no other choice, my lady."
"That's enough of that," Famratyr growled. "Pay attention."
Zhaggo took a deep breath and turned to his kin. He chattered to them for a moment, and there was a brief exchange of increasing volume. The infant goblin, Meagra, whined again. One of the trolls made a lowing sound. Zhaggo barked at her, and the hulking creature fell quiet.
He turned back to Jason and sank to one knee. The other goblins and trolls followed suit a heartbeat after. Zhaggo stared straight into Jason's eyes, both of their gazes as hard as stone. "You have proven your worth," Zhaggo murmured. "And if you truly believe that our lives will markedly improve if we follow your Dark Lady, then we shall. But we shall follow you first, and her only by extension. You are chieftan of our tribe now."
Jason's gaze shifted to Claudia. The implication was clear. He did not know whether or not to accept this offer. Claudia nodded almost imperceptibly. The young man let out a breath. "Bring me my sword."
One of the goblins hurried into a hut and came out bearing Jason's sheathed blade. The swordsman took it with a grunt of thanks, and the goblin hastily took his place back in line. Jason drew the sword from its scabbard with a hiss of metal on metal. He held it before Zhaggo. "Swear on my blade that you will do me loyal service, and vow to serve Claudia in my absence." Zhaggo opened his mouth, but Jason cut him off. "You deserve to know the implications of your act. You are swearing upon a blade. If you break your vow…" He quickly brought the edge to rest against Zhaggo's collarbone. "You will pay a price in blood. Do I make myself clear?"
"You do indeed," the goblin murmured. "I swear upon your blade, Jason the warrior."
"Duke Jason of the House Valentine."
"As you say. I swear upon your blade, Duke Jason of House Valentine."
"Then up on your feet. We've got to get going."
Zhaggo snapped at the rest of the goblins, and they fell in line behind Jason. "And where might we be going?"
Jason looked over at Claudia. "Lord Mandrake's fortress on the Shieldwall."
The goblins began to murmur anxiously amongst themselves. Claudia glanced at her retainers. "What's going on?"
Azfelyndoran shrugged. "Goblins have never liked the Shieldwall."
"It's built with ancient magic," Zhaggo snapped. "Evil magic."
"It was erected by the forces of Light!" Claudia protested.
"Does that make it any less evil?
Claudia shook her head silently. She had seen plenty of evidence in the past weeks that Light could be just as cruel as Darkness, and just because she was told one was right did not make it so. The Dark Lady folded her arms. "We've got to go there. Past the Wall, there are likely still many loyal to the Darkness."
Zhaggo growled low in his throat. "And where you have supporters, we have food. All right, let's get going."
The ragged processions tramped up from the depths of the cavern, defiantly going into the light.