Previous: Episode 1
Rough hands roused Mags from a restless sleep. It was pitch black all around her and she was nestled deep into something delightfully scratchy-soft. She inhaled to get her bearings, letting her keen nose tell her where she was. It smelled of damp straw and mold here, and cold, ancient stone.
Ah, yes. She was in a dungeon cell. And the hands belonged to Ma Snaggl’s guards, come back to . . . do what exactly?
Unsure of what they had in store for her, Mags kept her limbs relaxed, her muscles slack, feigning unconsciousness.
The first rule of survival: when in doubt, flee. Or if you can’t flee, play dead.
“You there. Get up,” a rough voice said, punctuating the command with a vicious poke in the side. “We haven’t got all day.”
She lay still, keeping her breathing slow and even.
“What’s wrong wiv her? Why won’t she wake?” the rough voice asked.
A second voice piped up. “She’s still breaving, ain’t she?”
There came a noncommittal grunt of assent. Then—
“Just pick her up, Grazt, and bring her along. She don’t weigh hardly nuffin’.”
There was another grunt, and then strong hands scooped her up as the first guard lodged her under his arm and carried her like sack of dried beetles. She let her arms and legs flop, swinging slightly as he walked. But she peeked one eye open, searching the gloomy dungeons for Surzl or her other cagemates. There was no sign of them. The other cells here were empty, just as they had been last night.
This was worrying. Surzl at least should be here. Where had they put her?
Mags had been carried down and tossed into a cell after her little outburst. That she’d had the temerity to defy Ma Snaggl, even a little, could shock no one more than herself. Already the smallest and least significant goblin in the entire clan, Mags had perfected the art of making herself smaller still—unseen, unnoticed, and unremarked upon.
Hells, even old Knazg had forgotten her long enough to forgo giving her a secondary clan name when she and her cagemates had come of age. She was still just plain old Mags. And that suited her fine.
So what in the nine hells had possessed her to fly up the high dais wielding her daggers? Really. What had she been thinking, rushing up like that to attack guards acting on Ma Snaggl’s orders?
That she was about to watch Surzl die, that’s what. Marvelous, mad, stupidly brave Surzl with her fire magic and her god-touched surety about everything, all the time. Last night, standing there watching that mess unfold, the thought of the world without Surzl in it had been introduced, and it had left an unfamiliar and unwelcome hollowness in the pit of Mags’ stomach. The next thing she knew, she was already moving, reaching for her blades.
Well, now she’d have to face the goblinsong.
In short order, the guards emerged up into the tunnels and Mags was carried back into the great cavern and tossed on the floor of the dais. As she fell, she instinctively went into a roll and landed in a crouch.
“Awake after all, little pig?” The large guard who’d carried her took a menacing step towards her, his foot raised to give her a kick.
“Grazt,” Ma Snaggl’s growl stopped him in his tracks.
At the cold steel in the old matriarch’s tone, Mags went prostrate, full-grovel. She raised her eyes only enough to see that Ma Snaggl was warming herself by the hearth fire, perched on a pile of poorly tanned animal skins. Their reek was pungent and welcome in Mags’ nostrils as she breathed it in, savoring the feeling of still being alive.
The matriarch nodded to the guards and they stepped back.
“Hey!” Tulip’s voice was nearing. “No need for that. I’m coming willingly. And I wouldn’t do that if I were—”
There was a bark of pain and then Isabog’s vicious laughter rang out.
“She stung me! Why you little—ow! She did it again!”
Mags’ heart beat faster. Tulip and Isabog were alright. But where was Surzl? She cast a wary look up at Ma Snaggl.
That’s when Mags saw her. Her beady eyes bulging, green face practically purple with rage, Surzl hung suspended upside down a few feet off the ground near Ma Snaggl’s seat of power. A gag had been shoved in her mouth and tied in place so she couldn’t speak—or more likely, so she couldn’t cast. Fresh welts marked the acolyte’s face, arms, and legs, covering nearly every visible inch of skin.
Hiding her face against the stone floor, Mags grinned. Surzl was alive. They were all still alive.
The guards shoved Tulip and Isabog forward onto their knees next to Mags. Tulip shot Mags a quick, questioning glance and the little rogue shook her head all but imperceptibly, keeping her eyes on the ground in front of her. This would be bad. But if they were smart, maybe they could keep it from being worse.
That was a big maybe, Mags grimaced.
“You four,” Ma Snaggl finally began, after letting the silence stretch on for many more agonizing moments, “continue to disappoint me. The cagetenders spoke of your brood almost glowingly. Tulip, so strong. Isabog, so winsome. Little Mags, so clever. And Surzl,” here Ma paused to toss a small rock up in the air and catch it. Then, without even looking, she flung it at Surzl so hard and so fast that Mags could hardly follow the motion of her hand. Surzl yelped around the gag as the rock struck her squarely between the eyes. Mags could see a new welt forming there as a stream of muffled curses rained down from the acolyte. Ma Snaggl ignored her. “Yes. Dear Surzl. Rumored to be favored by the goddess, Herself.”
“And yet,” the matriarch continued, ticking off their many offenses on the fingers of one hand. “You all fail in the simplest of tasks. Disobey my direct orders. Attack our guests. Give them leave to attack us, in our own home.” She clucked her wizened tongue against the roof of her mouth. “You four shame us. Like no cagebrood ever has before.”
“I don’t know why I’m being grouped in with them,” Isabog protested. “I didn’t do anything—”
“Silence,” Ma Snaggl’s voice was a low hiss, promising untold misery.
Mags trembled. She heard a dismayed intake of breath from Isabog.
“Interrupt me again, you little beast, and you’ll regret it.” The matriarch turned back to the guards, nodding. “Alright. Bring them in.”
The sound of footsteps led down the dais steps and soon returned, followed by countless other footfalls as the great cavern began to fill with newcomers. It sounded like the whole clan—or what remained of it, after last night—was filing in to witness Ma Snaggl pronounce judgement on the four of them. But with the clan’s numbers so dangerously reduced, could she afford to have them executed?
Mags gulped. She was not overeager to die.
Again, Ma Snaggl let a prolonged hush fall over the crowd for effect. Mags heard the sound of bodies shifting uncomfortably, of dire whispers and muffled coughs. She felt dozens of eyes boring a hole in her back, and the unfamiliar sensation made her skin crawl. Still, she kept her head meekly bowed.
“Horntooths,” Ma Snaggl said, her gravelly voice ringing out over those assembled. “Our clan has suffered the greatest insult in our history at the hands of our most hated enemies—the stinking, rotten Bouldermaws.”
Angry shouts and growls rose from the crowd behind them. “Death to the Bouldermaws!” “Grind their bones and spear out their eyes!”
Ma Snaggl nodded approvingly. “Yes. You are right to be angry, right to call out for the blood of our enemies. And yet there are those among us who have allowed our enemies to shame us. These four,” the matriarch swept her arm out to encompass Mags and her cagemates, “stand accused of failing the clan in a time of great need. They have endangered us all, and so the punishment for their crime shall be terrible and swift, awful to behold. Will you hear it, Horntooths?”
“Kill them!” “Rip them limb from limb!” “Tear their fingers off!” The fervor of the crowd shook Mags to her bones.
Ma Snaggl chuckled darkly, then called out again. “What is the Law?”
As one, the Horntooth clan answered, Mags muttering the words under her breath by rote, the training drilled into her from birth. Next to her, Tulip also recited the words, her voice choked with fear.
“Goblins together, strong,” they all said. “Goblins alone, dead.”
That same hollow feeling from last night had returned, churning Mags’ guts and threatening to make her hurl them up right there on the stone floor in front of everyone.
“Goblins alone, dead,” Ma Snaggl repeated. The cold stare she fixed Mags with made the little trapsmith hang her head again. “The insult that was given cannot—will not—go unanswered.” Below, the crowd cheered. “These four who are to blame will see to this.”
What?! Mags’ head jerked back up, hope and dismay warring in her chest.
Ma Snaggle nodded to the guards, who shouldered forward again. One of them smiled cruelly at Mags as he advanced on her, producing a small iron band studded with discarded hornteeth on the outside, and lined with wicked-looking iron spikes along the inside.
All Mags’ attention became bent on that iron circlet. Her guts roiled and her blood seemed to turn to an icy sludge in her veins.
“No!” There came a cry from Tulip next to her as another guard moved towards the warrior, shoving an identical band over Tulip’s hand and sliding it up her wrist. “Not like this!”
Mags tried to back away, but a third guard moved forward and seized her, holding her still as the first guard shoved the band onto her forearm.
Mags looked frantically from Tulip, Isabog, and Surzl—her cagemates now each receiving their own band—and then back to the clan matriarch again, naked pleading in her eyes. Ma Snaggl wouldn’t. She couldn’t.
The wizened matriarch gathered herself from her couch, her old bones audibly creaking as she rose. She took a bright red stone from her pocket and, approaching Mags, tapped it to the iron bracelet around the little rogue’s forearm. The band glowed briefly, and then with a ratcheting click, it tightened to fit, its sharp spikes biting into Mags’ pale green flesh.
Mags winced, biting back a cry of pain. Ma Snaggl moved down the line, securing the bands on each of Mags’ cagemates.
When she was done, the matriarch stepped back from them, once more addressing the crowd. “Our numbers have fallen too low, putting the entire clan in danger. If we are to survive, we must attract new Horntooths. And the only way to do this is to win much glory at the expense of our hated enemies.”
Dismayed murmurs rose up from those assembled.
The old matriarch continued, turning back to Mags and her cagemates. “You four will restore the honor of our clan. You will make the journey to the lands held by the Bouldermaws, alone. You will infiltrate their stronghold and steal their most precious treasure, the Great Shiny. You will do this. And if you survive and return, bearing this treasure, only then will you be welcomed back into the Horntooth clan. Only then will the mark of clanlessness be removed. Until then? You are banished, exiled.”
Mags eyed the cruel iron biting into her flesh. It hurt, but what it symbolized was worse. A clanless goblin would receive no aid, no shelter from any of the other tribes. The four of them were truly on their own. And the law didn’t lie: Goblins alone, dead.
How could four goblins stand against a clan as large and fearsome as the Bouldermaws? The answer was simple: they couldn’t. This was still a death sentence—just a slightly delayed one. There were a thousand horrible ways to die between here and the mountainous lands of the Bouldermaws, never mind what could happen if they were caught by a rival clan, uninvited and clanless, no less, in their territory. Mags shuddered.
Already the guards were moving again, dropping satchels, piecemeal bits of armor, and scabbards at the group’s feet. Mags recognized the familiar shape of her daggers, and judging by the crash and clank of one of the sacks that had been dropped next to them, that was her trapsmithing kit. Well, she thought, if they were headed off to their deaths, at least they weren’t going empty-handed.
Another guard swung an axe at the rope holding Surzl and the flame acolyte went crashing to the stone floor. Rising, she ripped the gag from her mouth but held her tongue, fear warring with fury on her ravaged face as she rubbed the spot where her own iron band had been placed and painfully sealed into her flesh. But Mags saw a clear threat in Surzl’s eyes—if she survived this journey, Ma Snaggl had better beware.
Mags shuddered, but Ma Snaggl only chuckled drily. “Rise, you clanless wretches,” the matriarch said. “And meet your fate.”
Mags was still wearing her armor, so she scrambled for her daggers and strapped them on as quick as she could. Next to her, Tulip buckled on her own armor with clumsy fingers, the big warrior’s face paler than Mags had ever seen it before. Isabog had to be helped to her feet ungently by a guard, her arms and all five tentacles wrapped around herself consolingly.
After a few silent, tense moments, Mags and Tulip finished armoring and arming themselves. Then Mags nodded up at Tulip, who sighed and turned, leading the way down through the crowd. But as Mags passed Ma Snaggl’s platform of furs a whisper came, so low it surely could be meant only for her ears.
“Give ‘em hell, young one,” Ma Snaggl wheezed. “Make that flat-faced fool Smung pay.”
Still terrified, Mags did her best to steel herself. If the ancient matriarch thought they had a shot at pulling this off, who knew? Maybe they actually did.
Just then, Isabog tripped on the stairs up ahead and slammed into Tulip, the two of them falling and rolling the rest of the way down to ground-level end over end, like a many-legged insect flailing for purchase, until they slammed into the unyielding stone and lay there groaning.
Nope, Mags amended. They were all going to die.
Next Episode: March 25