The campfire crackled and made harsh shadows against the night. Bartholemew closed his eyes and absorbed the warmth from the fire. Three days had past since he had spoken with Priest Donnair, and still no word.
A rabbit hung on a spit over the dying flames where he’d eaten a good portion of it. A loud crack behind him made him jump. In an instant, his sword was drawn facing the direction of the sound; “Who’s there?”
“Mr. Bartholemew?” A weak voice called out of the darkness. “I was sent from Veluna by request of Priest Donnair.”
Bartholemew put his sword away and pulled his hood over his head far enough to cover his face. “Come closer.”
A skinny man no taller than five-foot slipped from behind a tree, nervously inching closer. “Y-you… you are a Tiefling.”
“No. I was scarred as a child. But you did not come to discuss my malformities. What do you have to report?”
“I saw your face. You are a Tiefling. I’ve always wanted to meet a Tiefling. Are you as kind as Priest Donnair has said?”
Bartholemew slowly lowered his hood, letting the flickering light of the campfire dance on the side of his face. “I hope so. He has placed alot of trust in me.”
“Indeed,” the man held out a coin purse in a trembling hand. “He said that I should give you these.”
Slowly taking the coin purse from the little man, Bartholemew smiled. “Thank you. I assume this means that I have been officially commissioned.”
“Yes. I have much to tell you.”
Bartholemew stepped back, inviting the man to sit at his campfire. “Tell me more. I have a rabbit cooking. There’s not much, but you are welcome to what is left.”
The man sat and eagerly devoured the remains of the rabbit, sucking the bones dry, sure to get every ounce of meat from the sparse carcass. His name, as Bartholemew discovered, was Herman, but preferred to be called Shorty. He detailed the region of the forest that seemed to be having issues. There was a great evil boiling somewhere in the wood, and the epicenter seemed to be somewhere to the east.
After the man finished speaking and eating Bartholemew began to collect the bones to be buried to prevent wild animals from approaching his camp. “Thank you, Shorty. The hour is late. You are welcome to camp here and return in the morning.”
“If I may,” Shorty slowly stood, “I would like to go with you.”
“Hah! This wilderness is no place for city dwellers. Especially if there is such a great evil as you have said.”
“Please. I’m a cartographer by trade. I know the area outside the wood quite well. Let me go with you. I have nothing back in Veluna, and to spend time with a Tiefling would be my honor.”
The last sentence made Bartholemew pause. “Tell me, Shorty. Are you afraid of me? Afraid of my kind?”
“Not at all,” Shorty chuckled. He stood and stepped closer, “I’ve been interested in your kind since I met one as a child. It was a simple action, really. I had fallen in the dirt and began to cry, and a woman came over and picked me up. She dusted me off and sat me down next to my parents. I don’t think they ever saw her face, but I did. She was a Tiefling. I remember the shape of her face under her hood. I know she was. And if she were evil, I would have been dead already.”
“This commission may get dangerous. How do I know you can take care of yourself?”
Shorty drew two daggers from sheathes at his side. “This is Margaret, and this is Betty. They’ll do the talking for me.”
Bartholemew nodded with contemplation. He was happy to see a human so interested in his heritage for a change, but something still nagged at him. With a single movement, Bartholemew drew his sword, and thrust it just over Shorty’s left shoulder.
Shorty screamed and rolled to his side. Bartholemew tried to contain a laugh as Shorty tripped over a small log and nearly landed face-first in the fire, missing it by only a few inches.
“The woods are too dangerous for someone who is not ready at all times.” Bartholemew slowly replaced his sword. “I mean you no harm, but
if I needed someone to go with me, I would need someone whose nerves are a bit more steady. As I said before, you are welcome to stay until sunrise, but then you must return. Tell Donnair that I accept his offer, and tell no one of my heritage. It is important that I remain hidden for now. Agreed?”
Shorty nodded. “Sure. I understand.”
With that, the two made preparations for bed. Bartholemew buried the leftover bones, and Shorty placed another bit of driftwood on the fire and unrolled his bedroll. Little else of adventuring was mentioned between them.
Sometime past the third hour, deep into the darkness of night, Bartholemew woke to the sounds of shuffling nearby. He got onto his knees and wielded his sword. Keeping the light of the fire out of his eyes to prevent night blindness. Glancing around the camp, he noticed that Shorty was no longer in his bedroll.
“Shorty? Is that you?” Bartholemew peered toward the rustling sounds as they seemed to draw closer. He saw a brief flash of white darting from tree to tree.
Bartholemew gripped the handle to his blade tightly. The rustling sounds faded, and soon there was nothing but errie silence. Not even the insects made their usual forest noises. Something had startled even them.
In an instant, Bartholemew felt something heavy land on his back, tossing him off-balance as he tumbled face-first into the dirt. He spun onto his back where a wide-eyed Shorty stood over him, daggers drawn and pressed against his throat. “Now… I think you see that my nerves are a bit better than before. Perhaps you would reconsider taking me along.”
With that, shorty smiled, withdrew his weapons and sheathed them. He extended a hand to help Bartholemew off the ground.
With little else than his pride injured, Bartholemew stood and dusted his clothing. “Perhaps you are right. I was a bit hasty. In the morning, we will head out. But if something happens to you, I owe you no allegiance. You are going on your own merit, and whatever happens is on your own head.”
Shorty smiled and extended his hand. “Agreed. It will be my honor to fight at your side, come what may.”
- * * * *
The two strode through the trees as the early morning sunlight danced like golden glitter through the tops of the trees. Bartholemew kept a hand on the hilt of his sword as he looked around.
“So, what did Donnair tell you about these woods?” Bartholemew asked, breaking the silence between them.
“That they were full of wonder, and that you would know what to do when you found it.”
Bartholemew stopped. “Found what?”
“That’s just it. I have no idea. He said you would know. That your training would come into it’s own and you would know it when you see it.”
Bartholemew sighed heavily. “The man was always full of vagueness. But he is rarely wrong on such things. Come on. Let’s find whatever it is I am to find, and get back to him.”
“You don’t suppose we’ll find orcs, do you?” Shorty asked with a gleam in his eyes. “I’ve read much about them, but haven’t ever seen one.”
“I doubt it. The elves have them cornered down in the southeast, except for a few roaving raiding parties.”
“But if we do,” Shorty smiled, “What would you do? Would you draw your sword and charge them? Or would you announce your presence and try to negotiate?”
“Negotiate what? They only seek to kill, ravage and destroy.” Bartholemew spit on the ground at the thought of Orcs. “To announce my presence would be to give away tactical advantage. If I felt I could win, I would draw my sword and charge with all that was within me. If I did not, I would skirt by.”
“Hmmm. And the same could be said about Tieflings from a human’s perspective.”
Bartholemew nodded. “Touche. But I have witnessed my fair share of orc attacks. Have you ever come upon the scene of a Tiefling attack?”
Shorty laughed. “Touche, indeed. And no… I have not. Then again, how would one such as myself know the difference?”
“Well, first of all, we do not revel in the spilling of blood. Only if our own lives are threated would we risk spilling blood onto the soil. We believe there is an inherent life that flows through the blood of all living things. If the scene is a bloody mess, then it is most likely not the work of a Tiefling.”
“I will keep that in mind for when we come upon our next scene of an attack.” Shorty grinned from ear to ear. “I appreciate you letting me spend time with you. There is so much I can learn from you.”
Movement to their left made Bartholemew stop. He held out his hand for Shorty to remain silent.
“What is it?” Shorty asked.
“Shh.” Bartholemew scanned the horizon. Darting between the trees in the distance was a tall humaniod. It’s skin darker than usual, and bare-chested.
“Get behind me.” Bartholemew whispered. When he looked back, Shorty was nowhere to be seen. “Shorty?!” Bartholemew tried to yell and whisper at the same time. “Oh well…” he whispered to himself. “At least if he ran home, he won’t get hurt.”
Bartholemew slipped behind a tree and peered around, watching the humanoid as he ran in the distance. Soon, it changed direction and began running directly at Bartholemew’s position. That’s when Bartholemew noticed the tiny goblin leading the way.
“Nooooo!! Be freee!” the Goblin squealed. “Let me be free!”
As the large humanoid stepped from behind a tree, Bartholemew could make out its origin. It was a Hobgoblin.
It stepped forward and drew its bow. In one swift move it notched an arrow, pulled back and released. The arrow sped forward, piercing the goblin’s chest.
Bartholemew stepped out from his hiding place and rushed to the fallen Goblin. As he touched its body he knew that the creature was dead. There was no life emminating from his body.
An arrow flew by Bartholemew’s head. Looking up, he saw the hobgoblin bearing down at full speed on him, notching another arrow.
Bartholemew jumped up and ducked behind a tree, followed by the ‘thunk’ sound of the arrow embedding itself deep into the bark. Knowing that the hobgoblin would take a second or two to notch another arrow, he spun out and charged the creature with a mighty roar. The hobgoblin was not phased by the display of force. He stood fast, notched the arrow and drew back his arm.
A ball of white fell from the branches above, knocking the bow and arrow off target just before the arrow was released. “You’ll not defeat us!” Shorty screamed as he drove his dagger deep into the hobgoblin’s chest. As the creature fell forward, another arrow came from nowhere, catching shorty just under the ribcage.
Bartholemew dashed forward, leaping over logs and underbrush. Another hobgoblin turned and ran in front of him. Without a thought, Bartholemew pressed harder to chase. If the creature reached any other hobgoblins, Bartholemew would be dead. Soon, they approached a clearing where a dry riverbed lay. By this point, Bartholemew was only inches from the hobgoblin. He raies his sword and brought it down with full force, plunging it deep into the creature’s back.
As it came to a halt, Bartholemew plowed full-force into it, sending them both into a tumble down the steep hill until they were both sprawled at the bottom of the dry riverbed, his sword and only weapon still firmly lodged in the hobgoblin’s back.
He lept to his feet, poised to defend himself, but the creature did not stir. He stepped slowly forward, and yanked the sword out of the creature’s back. As he did, he could feel the life-force fade from it. It, too, was dead.
Dashing back through the woods, he finally made it back to Shorty, who was panting heavily, trying to press on his bleeding wound.
“I’ll … be okay.” He growled and grimaced as he pulled the arrow cleanly through, then let out a scream that startled the birds in the distance.
Bartholemew placed his hands on the human’s wound. He could feel the life quickly fading as the blood poured out. “No.. No no no… hang on, Shorty.”
He closed his eyes and tried to summon all that he could. He could feel the warmth flow through his fingertips, and he heard Shorty sigh. When he opened his eyes again, Shorty lay on the groud. His shirt covered in blood, but the wound was sealed.
After a long pause, shorty looked up. “Yeah?”
“You scared me to pieces.” Bartholemew collapsed on the ground beside him.
you?? What about me?” The two laughed until they could laugh no more.
“So, you still want to go with me?” Bartholemew asked, breaking their revelry.
“That depends… was that an orc?”
“No. A hobgoblin. Meaner, uglier and deadlier. Probably more of them, too. They don’t travel alone.”
Shorty stood, slowly checking himself over. “What did you do to me? I thought I was going to die.”
“It was a blessing of Truesilver. You will not die. Not right now anyway. But things just got worse than I could have expected. I need you to return to Donnair. With the discovery of hobgoblins in the wood, we have a huge problem. Go back to Veluna and tell Donnair that we ran into Hobgoblins near a dry river.”
“What dry river? There’s only one river that flows through Dapplewood. That’s Stone River. I charted it years ago, but rumors say that it has been poisoned, not dried up.”
Bartholemew glanced back in the direction of the second fallen creature. “Go. Tell Donnair that Stone River has been dammed up someplace up river. I will go see what I can discover and return to him as quickly as I can.”
Shorty nodded as a smile spread across his face. “A hobgoblin, eh? I killed a hobgoblin?”
“Don’t let it go to your head. You were almost killed by one too.”
Bartholemew shook the small man’s hand. Despite how humans had treated him in the past, in the past day, he’d begun to hope. Perhaps he could discover acceptance after all. Maybe with enough time, Tieflings could once again be trusted. “Go with Truesilver.”
Shorty nodded, and jogged back up the small trail toward the former campsite.
Bartholemew dashed back down the hill to the fallen Hobgoblin. As he stood in the middle of the dry riverbed, he placed his palm on the ground and a sense of foreboding and evil swept over him.
“This isn’t good.”