Tarja crouched, bow in hand, behind the makeshift barricade of furniture and overturned carts, the scent of offal and iron – the last loads of the carts that sheltered her – blending harshly with the acrid smoke of the bonfires in the street behind her. There were bodies in the fire, child-sized and twisted: goblins, afflicted with some horrendous taint that rotted their bodies and their souls. The bonfires were huge, greasy black smoke billowing from them into the sky.
There weren’t enough of them left to feed the disease-bloated corpses into the fires, and if any of them survived the next wave of the fanatical monsters, they were sure to catch whatever sickness festered in the creatures’ tainted blood.
Tarja had tried to warn them.
She’d been tracking the horde’s movements for several days across the open veldt, horrified at the bizarre carnage left in its wake: twisted altars to an entity she could not name, decorated with the disemboweled and charred remnants of sacrificial victims whose agonized visages could only barely be made out.
She’d divined the creature’s general direction and realized with a mounting horror that the little frontier village of Tackleford lay in their path, several days out. In the frontier wilds of the Silver Marches, there was no army to come to their defense, and no time to raise a militia. She had cut across field and marsh, pushing herself hard for several days to make Tackleford before the onslaught of the encroaching horde, and she had beaten them by barely a day.
The mayor had refused to listen to her, choosing not to “put the livelihood of these fine folks – who rely on me to see them through the month-to-month – at the whim and wild fancy of a wild-runner”. Tarja thought her elven heritage might have played its part – almost certainly, in fact, judging by the distance and outright rudeness with which the hostler and balding innkeeper had treated her – but she had seen the fear in the man’s eyes. He didn’t want to believe her warning, and so he would not.
So be it. She had almost left them all to burn and die; the natural order would have been enhanced by the deaths of such bigoted, idiot, oblivious people.
But she couldn’t.
And so she had stayed, and when the smoke of the horde’s sacrificial fires had crested the rise outside Tackleford, she had helped the idiot cattle build barricades. She had helped them dig makeshift trenches and line them with stakes. And when the first wave of the screaming mob of goblinoids crested the hill outside of town, she had put an arrow through the boss-man’s skull helm into his weeping eye and rallied the breaking line of peasants, tradesmen and laborers as they screamed and moved to abandon the barricades.
They had held out for two weeks.
There were only half a dozen defenders left on the barricade, three on the lord mayor’s manor house protecting the children inside. They wouldn’t hold through the night.
She could leave now – slip away and make her way across the plains, undetected, and abandon a town that was already dead and rotting.
But she wouldn’t. She would see this through.
To the end.