Callindra awoke with a jerk, having slept so deeply she forgot where she was for a moment. Her eyes adjusted to the morning light that streamed into the room from an open window and she remembered. Tryst and Cronos were still asleep; they hadn’t had the benefit of drinking the spring water. To her pleasure, she found that the dirt, sweat and blood of the prior day had somehow been cleaned from her skin during the night. She knew she should find it strange, but it was such a relief to be clean that she didn’t think about it too much.
She unwrapped and re-wrapped her breast band before pulling on her loose cotton breeches and making her way outside with Brightfang’s baldric slung over one shoulder. While she practiced, clouds of butterflies swirled and dipped around her, even landing on her hair and arms. Their probing feet tickled unmercifully and after losing her concentration several times, Callindra gave up. She ran and laughed amid the thousands of brightly colored creatures, feeling like a little girl.
There were trees with apples and pears growing on them, vines thick with grapes and edible mushrooms growing on fallen logs. She picked enough for her friends to break their fast and nearly skipped back inside, singing a bawdy tune about what kinds of mischief the wives of sailors got up to while their men were out at sea.
Her companions were all sitting around a low table. Even Vilhylm was there, looking no worse for the wear other than some dark circles under his eyes. Callindra set the fruits she had harvested down with a smile.
“I already ate as much as I could hold. Dig in boys, we have a long day ahead of us!”
“You’re unaccountably cheerful this morning.” Tryst remarked, although he couldn’t keep the smile from his face. Even Cronos looked almost happy, or as close to happy as Callindra could remember seeing him.
“How are you feeling?” Callindra asked, looking at Vilhylm and pouring herself a glass of spring water. “Looks like our trip to Vonlar wasn’t wasted.”
“I owe Tyreen my life.” He said in glowing tones, “It sounds like I owe this Jasmine as well.”
“We can pay Jasmine back by routing those Kobolds from whatever hole they are hiding in.” Tryst said stoutly.
The horses trotted like colts, their good humor restored after a full night’s rest and good meals of grass. The water from Tyreen’s spring probably helped too, Callindra reflected, remembering how it had made her feel. They made good time back to Vonlar and arrived just before the midday meal.
Tryst almost had to fight off a crowd of anxious people before they would allow him to go and search for their belongings and loved ones. Callindra was grinding her teeth audibly before the crowd took the big man’s assurances that he would do what he could at face value and let them get on their way. He handled it with an aplomb that would have done a king proud, promising any aid that could be given and explaining that the first priority was to find the monsters and deal with them.
“I know all of you are anxious about your families. I can promise you that we will do everything in our power to restore to you what has been taken. For now please remain in your homes and care for your wounded and grief-stricken.”
It was child’s play to follow the trail of the Kobolds back to their lair. During the day, the creatures would likely stay inside their caves and hadn’t even bothered to post guard. After all there had been so little resistance in this area that it didn’t make sense to waste the effort.
They snuck inside, even Tryst managing to be quiet in spite of his heavy armor. Initially the tunnel slanted downward, but eventually it widened and branched into two. On the left, a wide ramp sloped slightly up and on the right the tunnel grew even wider. Down the right hand side, they could see rude mud huts built against the side of the cave dimly lit by torches.
Small kobolds, likely children, played between pens of filthy human slaves and others carried out menial tasks of daily life. It was almost surreal to see that the monsters had young. Beyond the village, more tunnels gaped like empty eye sockets, absent gods only knew how deep they ran.
“I will not be party to the slaying of children.” Tryst whispered, his jaw set. “They have done no wrong and I will not see innocent blood spilled.”
“I agree, but how will we frighten them off?” Vilhylm asked. Callindra exchanged glances with Cronos and she could tell he had been thinking the same thing she had. They might be children but innocent was in the eye of the beholder. Those slaves didn’t look too tenderly cared for.
“I have an idea.” Callindra said after a moment. She knew a whisper carried further than a simple low tone of voice and kept the sibilant sounds that carried to a minimum. “If we all go up that ramp back there I think I can make a distraction that will get most of them out of the way. Then we can rescue the captured humans and see them safely away.”
“Are you sure it’ll work?” Cronos asked, eyeing her dubiously.
“Well… no, but if it doesn’t we can always run away. The cave entrance is right over there and there’s nothing between it and us right?” At the other’s nods, she followed Tryst up the ramp. When they reached the top she worked Brightfang in an intricate pattern and pulled the runes of power from his flat, one spell swiftly followed by another.
A low moan echoed through the Kobold village and a fog began creeping from the dark tunnel openings on the far side. Flickering shapes showed amid the fog as it rolled toward the huts, indistinct but suggesting something horrible with powerful arms and hook-like hands. She wasn’t sure what it was, but the idea had been pulled from the imaginations of the creatures she was trying to frighten and the effect was nearly instantaneous. Mothers grabbed children and fled shrieking past them, out toward the mouth of the cave.
It only took moments to free the prisoners, but to Callindra’s dismay they refused to listen when Tryst told them they had to run.
“Please, my wife.” One man choked, “They took her… I need to rescue her.” He pointed a trembling finger toward a tunnel that sloped down on the far side of the cavern. A girl who must be his daughter clung to his leg and stared at Callindra with wide, fearful eyes.
“I aint leavin till I get some back.” One man said, folding his arms over his chest. “Them critters got somethin comin and I’m gonna give ‘em. Jest gimme a knife and-“
His tirade was cut off by a deafening shout. A line of Kobold warriors wearing good chainmaile and carrying well-made short swords stood at the mouths of the caves. At the sight of so many well-armed foes, the villagers finally took to their heels and ran.
Callindra and her companions were too busy preparing for the charge of their enemies to give them more thought. With defiant screams the small green monsters ran towards them, waving a motley assortment of weapons. With a smile, she ran to meet their charge and was lost in the ring of steel on steel.
She slid under a precise slash and disemboweled the creature on her way past. These were much better fighters than the group she had faced either in Vonlar or on the road to Gomreed, not to mention better equipped. It didn’t matter though, Brightfang parted the chainmaile the monster wore as though it was made of paper. Spinning on her knee, Callindra brought her blade in a smooth arc that took another of the creature’s legs from its body.
Pain erupted down her back as a sword’s edge was deflected by her armor, but she knew the bruising would take days to subside. Snarling, she reversed her blade and stabbed blindly backward, feeling the tip dig in and smiling in satisfaction at the squeal of pain. Wrenching Brightfang free, she used the momentum to slash the throat of another kobold and then there were no more opponents left to face.
“It is disturbing how well armed and armored these are.” Tryst said with a frown creasing his face into a pretty study of consternation.
“They weren’t much better trained.” Cronos remarked, wiping his sword on one of the corpses.
“Judging by how clean their equipment is, I’d wager they haven’t had it for long. Kobolds are notoriously filthy.” Said Vilhylm, gesturing at the general state of decay of the huts and the muck of excrement on the street.
“Something feels wrong about this.” Callindra said, “Who would be funding them, for what reason and why would the little monsters agree? Regardless, from the size of this settlement I’d say there will be a lot more of them.”
Even as those words left her mouth, the sounds of armor-shod feet and the guttural barks of the Kobold tongue began echoing from the other side of the cavern. Tryst and Cronos each grabbed a torch and, they all moved down one of the passages that led deeper into the ground. Perhaps they could avoid being ambushed and perhaps not, but staying here was asking to be overwhelmed.