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Linan ran and her city burned behind her. It wasn’t the first time she’d tasted the char and ash of a life going up in smoke. She prayed the night before her wouldn’t be like the one she remembered from childhood.
Briarturn had been a good place to grow up. Kind people, rich crops, and gentle weather. As a girl, Linan couldn’t have imagined living anywhere else. Then came the night the dead shambled into town.
The necromance who raised a small army from Briarturn’s graveyard was a human. As much a person as she was, and as much a monster as any demon locked in the Abyss. Linan had discovered that years later. From his trial, she’s learned that he’d seen the small village as an excellent resource, full of life waiting to be plucked and planted in his garden of death. His plans were ultimately thwarted, but help arrived too late for the tiny village of Briarturn.
Linan was an adult by the time New Briarturn was resettled, but where she’d never imagined leaving its predecessor, she found that she couldn’t imagine ever visiting its newer pale reflection.
Greenest was where her life had taken root instead. A proper town, with a strong keep, instead of an isolated village without even a sentry to warn of danger.
Looking back at the smoke that was rising over Greenest’s roofs opened Linan’s eyes to a truth she’d been denying since she turned away from the horror that engulfed Briarturn.
Nowhere was truly safe.
In her arms, Kalini, her youngest, clutched tight to her and shivered. Kalini had buried her head in Linan’s shoulder to shut out the chaos and terror, but as the family moved towards the treeline the young girl peeked up to take in the chaos that was engulfing their home.
“It’ll be alright,” Linan whispered, not believing a word she said.
“I see people up there!” her husband said, pointing at a small copse of trees where Linan caught sight of Brell and Kant Silverun waving to catch her attention.
Her family scurried to the sheltering cover of the trees to find more than a half dozen equally frightened people waiting for them.
“What’s happening?” Brell asked, speaking for the group solely by virtue of being closest to the Swift family.
“Raiders,” Linan said. “They attacked just before sundown. And they brought that thing!”
She gestured to the sky where the enormous shape of a dragon was shrouded in the low clouds against the darkening sky.
“Is everybody ok? Did they make it to the keep?” Kant asked.
“No,” Linan said. “It’s chaos in town. We couldn’t make it anywhere but out. In fact we wouldn’t have escaped at all except the gods finally smiled on us.”
“We saw a big, strong man with a shield, and a elf lady, and a little lady who had a really scary voice,” Kalini said. The fear that should have gripped her had been shattered by the arrival of four people the little girl barely knew. The thought gave Linan pause. How many other people like her family were in desperate need of someone showing up at the right time? And were there enough heroes like that to go around?
“Aiemethia, Amber, Perri, and Dale found us,” Linan said. “And thank the gods they did. It was amazing. I’ve never seen a spellcaster fight before, and Aiemethia, I don’t even know how to explain it. He’s been one of the town’s best blacksmith’s for years, but we all know how the years weigh on him. Or I thought I did. When he charged forward and stepped in between us and those kobolds? I’ve never imagined he could stand so tall or meet foe that vicious without giving an inch. We owe them everything.”
“I know what you mean,” Brell said. “Same thing happened on the road I think. We were attacked last night, and those four woke from a dead sleep to defend us. I’d never seen anything like it.”
“They are strong.”
Linan glanced over to see who the speaker was. The cadence of the words was off and the voice sounded more horse and inhuman than anyone she’d expect her neighbors to be traveling with.
A moment later she had her spear raised and ready to throw.
“I do no harm,” Jo’drek the hobgoblin said, raising his bound arms to show he was no threat.
“What, in the Nine Hells, is he doing here?” Linan didn’t take her eyes off the hobgoblin.
“I prisoner,” Jo’drek said.
“He and his rabble tried to attack last night, but Perri spotted them and the others took care of most of the rest except this guy,” Brell said. “I wouldn’t have believed they could do it, just the four of them like that. Now it’s making me wonder if I shouldn’t be in there fighting with them.
“Do you have any weapons?” Linan asked, looking at the wagons that were turned to make a ready retreat from Greenest if the need arose.
“There’s some armor in the second cart there,” Brant said. “Stuff Aiemethia made for the Castellan’s wife I think, but we don’t have any weapons beyond the knives we’re carrying. The caravan had guards till just a few days ago and Greenest is supposed to be safe, so we didn’t think we needed any.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered if we’d had them,” Kant said. “I can’t move like they did, and I know you can’t either.”
“Takes practice, steady hand,” Jo’drek said. “Before band set off on hunt, we train. Without train, make mistakes, hands not steady.”
“So you admit that you were part of this?” Linan asked, amazed at the hobgoblin’s candor.
“No. My band small. We know town strong. Don’t challenge,” Jo’drek said. “Thought to challenge carts because Bossy Priest offer magic protection. Make us stronger. Make us able to take like big bands take.”
“We were going to hand him over to Governor Nighthill. Thought she’d have an idea what to do with him,” Brell said. “That’s not looking like an option though.”
Linan’s heart sank with fresh appreciation of the calamity unfolding in the town. Governor Nighthill was the most successful leader the town had chosen yet. She had a keen mind and a keener sense of fairness in settling disputes. Under her management the town had enjoyed years of growth.
Images of Briarturn flashed through Linan’s mind. It had grown well for years too, prospering right up until the day when all prosperity ended.
“You’re right that someone has to go back and fight,” she said. “But you need to stay here.”
“You’re going?” her husband asked. He’d settled the children down on a wagon and was using one of the bolt of cloth to fashion a bandage for the gash on his chest.
“There are people still trapped, and no one’s going to be able to reach them all.”
“I know,” her husband said. “When will you be back?”
He knew her story. He wasn’t telling her not to go, because he could see how much she had to. The children wouldn’t understand, but as long as he didn’t show the concern he felt, they were far more likely to accept it as just something their mother did.
“By morning,” Linan said. “However this turns out, it should be decided by then.”
“You need help,” Jo’drek said. “I help.”
“Did they bash you too hard in the head?” Brell asked. “Why would we let you go?”
“I no harm you. I help,” Jo’drek said. “Those not my band. My band no more. Those lie to me, use my band, make my band, my mate, dead because they think we less than weak.”
The next words out of Jo’drek’s mouth weren’t in the common of the Realms. They were harsh, cutting sounds of consonants sheering against other consonants. Words meant for war, spoken from a pit of rage.
“What did you say?” Brell asked.
“That was a blood vengeance oath,” Linan said. “Let him loose.”
“How can we trust him?” Kant asked.
“I trust the oath,” Linan said. “And Greenest needs all the help it can get.”
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