Captain Medwin set down his spoon and looked at Faolan. “Plan for what?”
Faolan smiled. “A plan to destroy the orcs shooting arrows into the vents.”
“Sit down and let me hear it. Would you like some food?”
“No, thank you.” Faolan pulled out one of the too-small chairs and sat down far enough from the table so his knees did not hit it. “Yesterday Gutter followed us when we went out to set
up our ambush.”
“Yes, I heard about that.” Captain Medwin nodded. “I sometimes think there’s more elf than dwarf blood in that boy.”
Faolan said, “I thought he was Borka’s son.”
“The steward?” Medwin shook his head. “No. His grandson. Borka raised him after his parents died.” The captain’s mouth went tight for a moment. ‘I’ll make sure
he doesn’t do that again.”
“No.” Faolan gripped the captain’s arm. “That’s part of my plan.”
Faolan leaned back. “Gutter knows ways in and out of the mountain that nobody else does.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Medwin shook his head. “He’s always climbing around in places he shouldn’t, like drains and gutters. That’s how he got his name.”
Faolan took a deep breath and held it for a moment. “The orcs are watching us.”
Medwin looked around quickly. “How?”
“Not now. They have someone watching the gate. That’s how they knew we had a response force outside in case of an attack on the vent guards. That’s possibly why they didn’t attack
“So, your plan is to keep sending out the second force?”
“Yes, but that’s not all. I plan to go out with Gutter.” Badger looked up suddenly. “And Badger.” He nodded at his friend. “We’ll sneak out through Gutter’s secret
exit, find the watcher, and follow him back to their camp.”
Medwin nodded several times. “Then what?”
“Once we know where their camp is, we can sneak out during the day and attack.” He could almost see the wheels going around in Captain Medwin’s head. When he thought the captain finally
understood, he added, “We’ll send other men out in place of the vent and response force, so our best archers and ax men can be in the attack party.”
“What about the goblins?”
“Goblins don’t go out in daylight. We’ll have to search the caves, but they’ll be in one of them.” He licked his lips as he waited for Medwin to agree.
The captain’s thick eyebrows were joined in his concentration for several seconds, The he said, “What bothers me is what brought these creatures here in the first place. I think you
must be right when you told the king there’s dark magic in this. But what’s going to keep a dark wizard from cursing you the moment you show up?”
“Badger and I have faced dark wizards before and we’re still alive. Besides, if he doesn’t see me, he won’t know we’re there.”
Captain Medwin tilted his head to one side. “Just what kind of blacksmith fights in battles and has run-ins with orcs, goblins, and dark wizards?”
“I was once a warrior.” Faolan centered his gaze on the captain. “But I came to the Freeholds to be a blacksmith, and fate made me a member of this clan. You have my loyalty, if
not my history.”
“That’s good enough, Faolan Blacksmith. Every man is entitled to his privacy.” Medwin stood. “We must go to the king. We need his approval for your plan.”
Half an hour before dawn Faolan followed Gutter up the fissure in the cavern wall, using his back on one side and the leverage of his hands and feet on the other. He wasn’t afraid of heights,
but after a few minutes Faolan’s muscles began to tire. Gutter, on the other hand, scrambled up the cleft like a squirrel, using the unevenness of the rock for handholds. There was no
way Badger could climb the fissure, and after one attempt he had snorted and trotted away to find his own way out.
Faolan looked up to see Gutter vanish into the face of the wall. A moment later the dwarf’s face reappeared wearing a broad smile. Faolan smiled back. He grunted as he slid
himself up another foot and then shifted his hands to hold himself in place while he pulled his feet up and pressed them against the opposite side of the cleft. He repeated the process,
lifting with his feet, then bracing with his hands until he drew near where Gutter had disappeared.
When he reached for the ledge a hand gripped his wrist like a vise and pulled him up like he weighted no more than a doll. He scrabbled onto the narrow ledge. “Thanks.”
Gutter smiled, then disappeared into a small, dark opening in the wall. Faolan had to crouch to follow the lad, who had disappeared again. A short distance ahead Gutter put flint to a
greased torch and the tunnel was filled with dancing light.
Gutter immediately scurried off while Faolan hurried after him as best he could in a crouch. After what seemed like an hour to Faolan, but couldn’t have been nearly that long, Gutter stopped,
set the torch on the floor of the passage, and stomped it out. Immediately, daylight was visible in the distance.
Faolan exited the cave and straightened up as best he could. He sighed as the cramps in his back eased, then looked around. They were on a steep hillside covered with brush and trees
bathed in morning light. He whispered to Gutter, “Where’s the entrance to the cavern?”
“Not far.” Gutter pointed to the right and down the hill fifty or sixty strides. “Down there.”
“We need to circle to the left in the forest, then move back and forth until we find the watcher. He’s probably somewhere in front of the gate. Do you understand?”
When Gutter nodded, Faolan started through the brush. The rustling behind him sounded like a herd of deer rushing to a water hole. He turned and held up his hand. “You need to
move quietly.” Faolan waved at the nearby foliage. “Go around the brush, not through it. And watch where you step. Dry twigs make a lot of noise when you step on them.”
When Gutter nodded, Faolan continued downhill, slower this time. The noise behind him dropped to that of a small, nearsighted creature hunting for food, which Faolan knew was as good as
Gutter could do for now. He’ll learn, if he lives long enough. Faolan kept moving in an arc designed to bring him back to due west of the gate.
Eventually he reached the return point and stopped. “Wait here. I’ll come back for you after I’ve located the watcher.”
“I want to go with you,” Gutter replied.
“I know you do. And you’ll go with me when I follow the watcher back to their camp. But I need to sneak up on him. You can’t do that. You’ll learn, with practice, but you
just can’t do it yet.”
The look of disappointment on Gutter’s face prompted Faolan to add, “It won’t take me long to find him. Orcs aren’t very good at keeping quiet, even if they do have good hearing.” He
pointed at an evergreen tree he knew he could find easily. “Wait under cover by that tree. Don’t move unless you have to run for it. I’ll be back.” Then Faolan slipped into
the brush. He listened as he moved, both forward and behind him. Gutter hadn’t followed.
Faolan cast first to his left and then his right as he moved back and forth toward the gate into the dwarf stronghold.
The man watching the gate sat with his back against a log looking at the mountain through a break in the underbrush. Faolan had more than half expected the lookout would be a man, so he was
not surprised. An orc put in a position where he couldn’t move would soon fall asleep. But what kind of a man?Faolan studied the watcher’s clothing. The
man’s pants and jerkin were made of wool fabric woven on an industrial loom, like the clothing he had seen in Anglia. But that simply indicated he was from the south. His color and size
also fit the people of the south.
Faolan didn’t see a horse. Apparently, the watcher was on foot. Faolan moved slowly to the man’s left side, until he saw the broadsword he was carrying with a leather grip and a steel
pommel, similar to thousands turned out by the armories in the cities. Satisfied he had learned everything he was going to by observation, Faolan began moving back slowly, looking for the
trail the man had followed while moving to his watch post every day.
He suspected the man was a mercenary hired for this job, so he was surprised when he found a well-beaten trail leading from the lookout’s position to the east. Apparently, he
concluded, the man is either a poorly trained soldier or he doesn’t consider the dwarves capable of finding his trail in the woods.
A sudden rustling in the brush brought him around, sword in hand. Badger was sitting in the middle of the trail licking one paw. Faolan smiled and whispered, “Been waiting long?”
Badger yawned and trotted up the back trail. Faolan followed, checking the footprints in the dirt. Almost immediately the trail joined a game trail. No wonder I didn’t cut the
trail as I approached, Faolan thought as they backtracked the watcher through the thick underbrush. He came from the northwest, not from the southwest, and Mercia. When he was sure
the marks left by the watcher’s boots were not disguised on the trail, Faolan and Badger headed back for Gutter.
The young dwarf was watching the sky and the birds moving through the treetops when they approached. Faolan said, “I could have put an arrow in you if I’d been an orc.”
Gutter jumped up and spun around. “I—I’m—I’m sorry. It’s just that it’s so beautiful here.” He waved his arms around. “And so full of life.” He pointed at Badger
sitting a little way back scratching one ear with his paw. “You found him?”
“No. He found the watcher and waited for me.” He waved toward the northwest and added, “Come on, we’re going to set up on the watcher’s trail and follow him back to his camp. Our
vent guards and their protection detail will be leaving the mountain soon, and the watcher will head for his camp to report.”
The three of them headed back to the game trail the watcher was using, Badger in the lead and Gutter in the rear. Faolan said, “The watcher’s not an orc. He’s a man. I may have
been wrong when I said this was the work of goblins and orcs working together. The wizard may be using men with the goblins.”
“Why would men attack us?”
“For pay.” Faolan moved through the brush silently. “Now, try to step where I step, and don’t disturb the brush any more than you have to.”
Badger sniffed at each of the first two game trails for signs of human traffic, but he did not find any. At least one man clearly used the third trail. Faolan glanced around for a place
to wait. “Over here.” He moved into the brush on one side of the trail. “We’ll wait for the watcher to go by and follow him.”
Gutter looked up and down the trail. “Why not follow the trail?”
Faolan sat against a tree with Badger at his side far enough off the trail to be well hidden. “Because they’ll have a guard on this side of their camp far enough away to keep from being
surprised.” He leaned back and smiled. “They might also have goblin traps set on the trail just in case someone gets by the lookout.”
“Oh.” Gutter looked around nervously. “Are there goblins around us?” He sat down next to Faolan.
“No.” Faolan relaxed and let his eyes go nearly closed while the dwarf looked around. “They only come out after dark.” He watched Gutter’s face through his nearly closed eyelids.
“Hopefully, we won’t be here then.” The youth’s startled jerk forced a smile to slip quickly over Faolan’s lips. “Relax. Badger will tell us if they come anywhere near us.”
A few minutes later Badger sat up. Faolan turned his ear toward the trail and heard footfalls on the path. He tapped Gutter on the shoulder. When the dwarf jerked upwards, Faolan
held the lad’s jerkin tightly to hold him in place. “The watcher comes,” he said softly. “Stay quiet.” When Gutter had relaxed again, Faolan put his hand on his bow and waited.
The thud of running feet came stronger and stronger until the man ran past on the game trail. When the sound of his passing faded, Faolan came to his feet quickly. “Let’s go. But
quietly, and keep some distance from me just in case.” He waved at the trail. “Badger.”
The big badger ran ahead with his nose near the ground. When he was some ways ahead Faolan and Gutter began to jog down the trail after him. Faolan watched the ground and the brush on
both sides of the trail for traps. About five minutes later Faolan saw Badger avoid a spot. He stopped to examine it. The watcher had jumped over it. As he looked around, he
saw two cutmarks on a tree trunk just off the trail.
Faolan waved Gutter up and pointed at the ground. “Look, the man jumped over this spot.” When Gutter looked back up, Faolan pointed at the mark on the tree. “Do you see the mark
on the tree? There’s a mantrap here.” When Gutter nodded, Faolan added, “Let’s go, but stay alert. The trap and the markings are very hard to see.” Badger, who had stopped a
few rods ahead, started down the game trail again.
They followed Badger and twice more Badger avoided places where the watcher had jumped over a spot on the path Badger. Faolan pointed both the spots on the game trail and the marks on the
trees just ahead of the traps to Gutter as they passed.
The challenge by the lookout and the watcher’s response came drifting in on the morning breeze, but Faolan didn’t understand the language. He stopped immediately and, when Gutter came up
beside him, whispered, “We must go around the lookout. “Be very careful. There’ll be goblin traps in the woods and other lookouts, so stay with me and step where I do.”
Badger came back down the trail and waved his nose to the north. That was where the camp would be. Faolan moved into the woods in a slow half-circle, intending on coming back to the
path well beyond the lookout, but shortly after turning north again he saw the smoke of a campfire rising behind the hill in front of him and stopped. He moved next to Gutter and whispered,
“Their camp is in the next valley, which means there should be guards at the top of the hill. Stay here while we scout around.”
He turned to Badger and waved west. “You check that way. I’ll take the other.” He moved off east. Watching the skyline and the woods on the downside of the slop, Faolan
moved silently toward the top of the hill, dropping to his stomach as he approached the crest. He wormed his way through a bush at the top until he could see below.
A circle of round, animal-skin tents with high pointed tops sat at the center of a small valley. A handful of men dressed in homespun wool trousers and shirts covered by waist-length
sheepskin jerkins and sheepskin boots were moving around the camp. Another half dozen men dressed like the watcher in tightly woven pantaloons and jerkins lounged about. A corral of cut
and cleaned branches at the back of the camp contained over a dozen horses, none of them as large as a war horse.
Faolan moved through the bush along the top of the slope looking for sentries. After spotting two, he slipped back down the hill to where Gutter waited. Badger was sitting to one
side, watching their back trail. Faolan asked, “Watchers?” and Badger nodded his head twice. Faolan waved east. “The same.” Then he whispered to Gutter, “There’s about a
score of men in the camp. Our archers and axmen will make quick work of them.”
Badger continued to look at their back trail, but also right and left. The sound of rustling bushes came from both sides. Faolan breathed slowly and deeply through his nose. The
breeze carried a new scent—the strong, rancid smell of goblins. “Uh oh,” he whispered. “We’ve got a problem.”
© Copyright 2020 R. M. Keegan. All rights reserved.