Asta was up way past her bedtime, and she didn’t like it one single bit.
If she was going to be awake at this ungodsly time of night, she’d prefer it to be in her home, near her hearth, where she could sit in her rocking chair and smoke her pipe and think about a whole lot of nothing. But no. Instead she was bouncing up and down on a bumpy road (what good were the levies the Lord High and Mighty of Shard had collected from her all her life if they didn’t even maintain the roads?) on a rickety old wagon being pulled by two particularly stubborn donkey. The night was dark, a new moon night, and the canopy of stars did not provide enough light to see much further than the team of asses that pulled her along. At least it wasn’t freezing – the chill of autumn had not quite yet reached its way into the Brandywine Plains. Asta pulled out her pipe, struck her flint and lit her pipeweed. She enjoyed the smell of the newly burning leaf as the first smoke began to swirl around her. If she was going to be away, she was going to at least have a smoke, gods damn it!
The light of her pipe wasn’t much, but on a dark night it may as well have been a lighthouse beacon. The roads had grown dangerous over the last few months. The entire western plains had gotten dangerous. The whole business with the rats was a minor nuisance compared to what came after. It started with an occasional lamb or goat missing in the night. Soon, lone travelers to or from Clearwyn would be attacked. The lucky managed to get away by dropping their valuables and running. Those less fortunate would be found in a broken, mangled heap by the side of the road. The least fortunate would simply disappear, taken by the goblins for purposes Asta would rather not consider in great detail. At first the raiders wouldn’t attack those traveling in groups, but they had gotten bolder with each success, of which they had plenty. Soon the regular merchant traders no longer came to Clearwyn. The excess produce went to waste and the supplies the town had come to rely upon from Shard were no longer available. And so Asta found herself in a wagon pulled by a couple of stubborn asses on the way to Shard in the middle of the night.
The donkeys started braying, and Asta gripped her pipe. The light had drawn them right to her. Sure enough, a trio of goblins appeared in front of the team of asses, and in their mangled common tongue commanded her to stop. Asta pulled the reins of the donkeys, who were very unnerved in the presence of the goblins. They all had short swords – maybe they would have been long daggers to a full-sized man, but no matter the size they were obviously both quite sharp and very often used. The biggest of the three goblins called out to Asta. “What is it carrying? If it gives it to us, we may let it live.” The other two goblins tittered arrogantly. Asta was not fooled, and the goblins put little effort into fooling her. They meant to kill her no matter what, probably for the sport of it. She was, after all, little use as a slave.
“What’s in the cart? Just straw. Enough to feed the donkeys on the trip to Shard. I am an old woman and wished to live the rest of my days in safety behind the impenetrable walls of Shard.”
The lead goblin scoffed. “No walls can stop us. Our great emperor will find a way past the walls of the fat and soft humans that rule Shard. If we cannot go through them, we will go above them or below them. One way or another the city will fall. There is no safety for the civilized peoples.” Asta could feel the sneer in his voice at the mere mention of “civilized people”.
“it may be lying, boss. It may have gold and gems and other treasures hidden under the straw,” opined one of the other goblins, more out of hope than any actual suspicion of hidden valuables.
The big goblin grunted his agreement. “Look in the cart. If you lied to us, ancient human, it will suffer as she never has before she dies.”
The two small goblins came to either side of the cart and started roughly pulling the straw out of the cart, throwing it to the ground. Soon one exclaimed, “It did lie to us, boss! I see a fine dwarven helmet!”
Asta emptied her pipe on the side of the cart, with three laconic knocks. “All right, boys, you can come out.” The straw exploded as a one-handed dwarf and a pot-bellied half-elf erupted from the cart. The goblins were too stunned to react as the dwarf crushed the skull of one goblin with a heavy mace and the half-elf slashed through the neck of the other goblin with an unexpected celerity and grace. The big goblin, now outnumbered three-to-one himself, turned to run into the darkness. A third figure rose from the cart, a young man with a plain tin medallion around his neck and a crossbow. He pulled the trigger and his bolt flew true, lodging deep into the back of the skull of the big goblin with a crack that sounded like all the world like that of an egg against a bowl.
“Nice shot, Culwich,” said Asta. She refilled her pipe and struck her flint again.
“That actually worked,” said the half-elf, reveling in his amazement.
“We’re lucky that there wasn’t any more of them,” replied the dwarf in gruff dismissal.
“Gosta’s right, we were lucky,” said Asta. She sucked deeply on her pipe, and slowly exhaled her smoke. For all the world, she looked like an elderly dragon. “And we won’t keep being lucky. I don’t think that these three were alone in raiding the village. There’s probably a whole bunch of them. And when they realize that these three are gone, they’ll send more on each raid. If this keeps up, they’ll come in large enough numbers to take the entire village.”
“So what do we do to stop them?” asked Culwich.
Asta stared ahead. “Nothing. There’s nothing we can do. We’ve already sent calls for help to the Lord’s Guard, but they’re ‘needed elsewhere’. We can’t afford sell-swords to stay with us all the time. Unless something changes, you’ll have to abandon the village.”
Gosta cocked an eyebrow. “We’ll have to? What about you?”
Asta drew deep on her pipe again. “I was born in Clearwyn, and I’ll die in Clearwyn. I had hoped it would be peacefully, in bed as I slept. But if that is not to be, that is not to be.” And when the matriarch spoke, there was no point in arguing with her. The four headed back to the village, not feeling much triumph in their victory.