The Guardians crouched low behind a dense heath at the edge of the forest, looking west towards the Red Mountains. Though the trees extended some miles further west of where they stood, the foothills also began to rise from this area, marking the end of the forest proper according to their maps, and the beginning of the mountain range. The goblins often used this narrow north-south line, where the trees grew thinner and the Elefdar rarely ventured, to make their forays south. The ground here was smoother and easier to travel than higher up in the foothills, and the tree cover thin enough that the Elefdar had fewer places to hide in ambush. The shallow valley where they now waited was one exception.
They were on the fifteenth day of a one-month circle, Balfrith’s first venture outside Fanyamar since his arrival four years previously. It had been a busy time of training and study, and those years went by very quickly, so much so that he’d hardly had a chance to get home-sick except on a very few occasions such as his sister’s birthday. And in all that time, he’d never been outside Fanyamar and its outlying regions. There was plenty to see and explore around the city of course, and up the mountain and out in the fields and nearby forests - all areas which were still considered part of Fanyamar. And he and Eldamir had explored many of those places, but he was allowed to go no further than the outer borders of the Elefdar city.
Now, he was happy to glad be able to leave those confines, even if only to walk around in the surrounding forest of Illithëon. He was also happy to be with Guardians, still only as a student of course, but trusted enough to have been given his own weapons and other gear: he carried a lighter version of the Guardian longbow, suited to his strength and stature, as well as an Elefdar longsword and the light leather armor of the Guardians.
Their task was to roam a specific stretch of the outer forest, following its edge as it paralleled the Red Mountains. Goblins were known to travel there, and occasionally make raids deeper into the forest. It was the Guardians’ duty to remind them that trespassing into Elefdar territory was a death sentence if they were discovered - and they often were. The Guardians took a grim joy in fulfilling this mandate.
Balfrith crouched now, following the example of their leader. Eldamir glanced in his direction, nodded, and then back to their leader, who turned from facing northward, back toward the group to address them.
“The goblins come this way, moving at speed. This will be the place where we surprise them, and destroy them. Balfrith, Sambir, and Lofdar, cross the valley here and take up positions on the opposite side. Wait for my signal to loose your arrows, and remember: the first few scouts must be allowed to pass through - we want to strike the main body first, then we can track down stragglers later. Eldamir, Belanor, and I will remain on this side. The company is not large, though we are still outnumbered three to one. Make every arrow count, and close with swords only if absolutely necessary. Go now, we have less than an hour before they arrive.”
The four Guardians, and Balfrith, all nodded at their captain’s instructions and moved to take their positions. Balfrith struggled to quell the flutter-bys in his stomach. He knew this was a typical ambush, one of several types which he had studied under the Elefdar war-master. And these Guardians, even Eldamir, were all veterans of many such attacks, so the likelihood of any mistakes being made, on their part, was quite low. Mistakes on his part, on the other hand, were quite possible: he knew that he was the weakest member of their party, being merely a student and not yet blooded in combat.
Balfrith glanced at Eldamir as they separated to cross the valley, and his friend grinned and winked. Though the display of confidence was probably meant to be reassuring, it only reminded Balfrith that the Elefdar were practically immortal, while he himself had no such gift.
He walked between Sambir and Lofdar, as they moved quietly down and across the shallow valley, passing over the smooth game trail at its base and then climbing the far slope again. The tall grasses hid their movement, except when they crossed the path, but no goblins were to be seen yet and so they had little concern for being seen. Up on the far ridge, they positioned themselves about ten yards apart, crouched in the scraggly undergrowth.
Balfrith looked north whence the goblins would approach, but still could see nothing. He saw Sambir, in the northern position, look back at him and nod. The flutter-bys in his stomach continued their chaotic dance. Birds in the trees to the north took flight en masse, their first hint that the goblins approached. Balfrith grasped his bow firmly, drawing out his first arrow and nocking it to the string. He wouldn’t draw until the main body came within sight, to minimize the fatigue of holding the heavy bow.
The chattering of small animals ceased a few minutes later, more evidence that something approached, something which they saw as a threat. Balfrith glanced back at Lofdar, but the Elefdar had his own eyes locked on the valley toward the north. He can probably see them approaching, thought Balfrith. Oh, to have their eyes!
Just then, the crack of a small branch behind him caught Balfrith’s attention, and he turned his head back to the north. Where had it come from? Not the valley, he thought. He kept his head and body still, using only his eyes to scan back and forth, looking for any sign of movement, and finally he saw it: a goblin - no, three goblins! - moving quietly through the trees on the very ridge where he and his companions waited.
Oh no - do they know we’re here? Or is their commander just experienced enough to know that this is a prime place for an ambush? Balfrith shivered, keeping his head down and getting breathing under control, waiting to see what his companions, and his leader, would do.
He could barely see Sambir now, crouched down in his own area of minimal cover. They had placed themselves to be hidden from eyes below in the valley, not taking any thought to someone approaching from within the trees. Though the undergrowth provided some cover, Balfrith was afraid that he would be seen any second. He waited, a drop of sweat running down the back of his neck and tickling him as it went. It was all he could do to not move, to not reach back and scratch the maddening itch, as three foes approached them from less than a hundred paces away.
He heard noises from down in the valley, and moved only his eyes to look down: there was the main body of goblins, moving without a care, talking to one another in their guttural tongue, laughing, sharing some joke. These goblins up here must be their flanking scouts, thought Balfrith. At least there were only three: one for each of them, he realized.
Balfrith drew and aimed at the middle goblin, hoping against hope that Sambir and Lofdar would have the same thought, and take targets based on their own positions in the line. He held his draw, waiting for the signal that would indicate their attack. Though the risk was now higher for all of them, he was confident they would attack rather than retreat, and he wanted to be ready.
Finally, the scream of a diving hawk signaled their attack. Balfrith exhaled slowly and loosed his arrow, smoothly drawing another one out and nocking it by feel, keeping his eyes on his target to ensure the arrow struck true. And strike it did, thought not perfectly. The goblin suddenly lurched, grabbing at his abdomen, and Balfrith loosed his next arrow at the same target, then turned back to the valley to begin loosing arrows as quickly as he could. He had already forgotten about the other two goblins up on the ridge - the main body needed to be wiped out, and quickly, or the shock of their ambush would be wasted.
In the valley, a dozen goblins had already formed into lines facing each direction, loosing their own arrows up at the valley ridge where he and his companions remained hidden from view. One arrow sped past Balfrith, only a pace away. He didn’t spare any thought about whether it was luck or skill - he quickly aimed at the nearest goblin and released. But the arrow arced too high, and he cursed himself, realizing that shooting down into a valley required him to aim lower than normal. He drew, nocked, and aimed, but now his target had moved, and was lost to immediate sight. Balfrith saw what appeared to be a goblin giving commands, and he took careful aim, then released his missile. This time it struck true, but glanced off the goblin’s reinforcing black iron spaulder.
Balfrith drew another arrow and nocked it by feel, keeping his head down and looking for a chink in the leader’s armor. But by the time he was ready to aim, the goblin leader was charging up the opposite slope with some under his command, while the remaining goblins charged up the shallow slope on his side of the valley. He had just enough time to quickly aim and release his last arrow into an approaching goblin, taking it square in the chest. The goblin fell face-forward, and Balfrith dropped his bow and drew his Elefdar sword, waiting for the foes to approach.
Just then, across the valley, he saw Eldamir charge down and into the fray! The Elefdar crashed into the nearest goblin, knocking aside its shield with a reckless swing of his sword, then quickly recovering and thrusting his blade into the creature’s throat, just above its mail armor. It fell, choking on blood as Eldamir withdrew his sword and ran toward the next goblin. Balfrith drew back his attention to the attackers on his side of the valley, noting that Lofdar and Sambir held their positions and each loosed one last arrow before dropping their bows.
There were four goblins left standing, and the one nearest him was clearly the biggest. It approached warily, and held its shield up well, its weapon hidden from view - but presumably ready to attack. Balfrith still felt naked with a sword and no shield, just as he had during his many practices with the Elefdar long blade. The light leather that they wore would protect from glancing blows, but wouldn’t stop a solid slashing or thrusting attack, which made it all the more imperative that he use his blade to block or parry any incoming attack.
He waited a second longer, sizing up his opponent, who appeared to be doing the same. The noise of others fighting faded into the background, and all he heard was the sound of his own breathing, and his pulse pounding in his ears. His vision retreated to the narrow view of his opponent - all else was forgotten. The goblin advanced, and dropped his shield just enough so that his right arm could swing a great black mace out and over, attacking at Balfrith’s head. Balfrith ducked, not bothering to parry the heavy-headed weapon, and as the goblin recovered from the over-swing, Balfrith kicked forward against his opponent’s shield, knocking him off-balance. As the goblin flailed his arms back to regain his balance, he opened himself to attack, and Balfrith struck, thrusting forward with both hands. The sharp tip of his blade pierced his foe’s mail, striking deeply just under the ribs and into its gut. The goblin fell to his knees, stunned. Balfrith withdrew his blade violently, and struck downward at his opponent’s head, crunching through its leather and iron-strapped helmet, delivering the killing blow.
Balfrith staggered backwards as he recovered his blade, looking about for the next target, and saw that Lofdar was just finishing off his own foe. Sambir, too, had defeated his second opponent, but Balfrith saw that he swayed where he stood, and ran over to his companion to see if he was injured. Sambir,” he called as he approached, “Are you hurt?”
“’Tis merely a scratch, Balfrith,” he said, bravely. But Balfrith could see blood spreading down his arm, from a rent in his sleeve just below the shoulder. Sambir breathed shallowly, catching it in little gasps, as he struggled to stand, and Balfrith shook his head.
“That looks like much more than a scratch, my friend. Come, sit here. I think the battle is almost over, and Lofdar can go help the others if needed.”
Sambir shook his head, pushing Balfrith away as he sat himself down on the ground. “Nay Balfrith, worry not over me. Go and join the fight - if we lose, it won’t matter what happens to me anyway. See to our victory, and I shall tend to myself.”
Balfrith spared him a last glance, but he knew Sambir was right. Nodding, he rose and turned back to the fight, and saw that their captain, Glendir, was the only Elefdar standing across the valley. Two goblins assailed him, and Balfrith saw that he was likely to fall soon. Taking no more thought, Balfrith charged down the valley, across the path where several goblins lay dead, and back up the far slope, running full out. One of Glendir’s foes fell to Lofdar’s arrow from across the valley, but the other fought on, and Balfrith could see that his captain faltered. Charging ahead, he cried out to draw the goblin’s attention. It worked: the foe turned his head, distracted, and both Glendir and Balfrith struck at the same time, Balfrith low at his legs and Glendir high, over his shield. The goblin fell, overwhelmed at the last. And that was the end of the battle.
Glendir slumped down, breathing hard. Balfrith looked back and saw that Lofdar already attended to Sambir. Taking a cue from that, he asked their captain, “Are you injured, Glendir?”
“Aye, though not mortally, Balfrith. I took an arrow in my leg when the flanking scouts surprised us. See to Eldamir and Belanor, first.”
Balfrith nodded, and scanned the eastern ridge where they stood, trying to see if his companions had fallen, but he could not see them anywhere. He called back, “Captain, do you know where they went? I cannot see them anywhere nearby.”
Glendir said, “Belanor was between Eldamir and I, and I saw him holding his position when Eldamir charged down the slope. I think Eldamir meant to delay their assault and let Belanor and I finish them with arrows - which we might have done, if I hadn’t been surprised by one last scout and his arrow. Look to the slopes for Eldamir. As for Belanor, I know not what might have happened.”
Balfrith nodded and began scanning along the valley ridge, jogging ahead to where he thought Belanor might have been positioned. He saw some trampled undergrowth, and turned in that direction, thinking that if fighting had occurred there, he might also find evidence of Belanor’s whereabouts. Unfortunately, he found more than just evidence: the Elefdar Guardian lay face up on the ground, eyes open, pierced with several goblin arrows. A goblin attacker lay nearby, slain, with Belanor’s sword thrust through its chest.
Calling out, “I found Belanor - he is fallen!” Balfrith continued the search for Eldamir, moving down the slope and southward toward where he thought the Elefdar had met the goblin attackers.
It didn’t take long to locate his friend, for a line of fallen enemies led straight to him. Eldamir sat with his back against a thin sapling, and four goblins, arrows pierced through their armor at the heart, or throat, and in one case an eye, pointed to his resting place. The last goblin was run through with Eldamir’s broken blade - Eldamir still held the hilt in his grasp.
The Guardian’s head nodded, eyes closed, breathing shallowly - but he breathed. Balfrith called out, elated, “I have found Eldamir, and he lives!”
Eldamir roused himself, and muttered, “Not so loud, my friend, I’m trying to sleep,” and he smiled weakly.
Balfrith knelt at his side, and asked, “Are you hurt, or just playing? Glendir and Sambir are both injured.”
Eldamir nodded, “I am hurt, though I think I will live to fight again.” He winced, and groaned. “Then again… Balfrith, look at my side and tell me what you see.”
Balfrith looked down, and saw a tear in his friend’s leather armor. Blood dripped freely from it, and spread across his garment as well. “That doesn’t look good,” he said, frowning. “Let me lift your arm and get a better look.”
He raised Eldamir’s left arm, and his friend gasped in pain. “Not too high, my friend - that hurts.”
Balfrith saw the wound now, and it was even worse that he’d feared. “Looks like that last goblin got you with his own sword. Don’t you know you’re supposed to parry or block those attacks?”
“So I’ve been told,” Eldamir said, grinning weakly.
Balfrith tried to get his friend’s mind off the wound, and the pain, as he probed the edges of the deep gash. “Those goblins didn’t play fair, with their flanking scouts walking out along the top of the valley.”
Eldamir laughed, smiling. “Aye, my friend, not fair at all - Ahh! Careful down there, Balfrith - Someone should tell them they’re supposed to line up and walk all together down in the valley, like most other goblin companies. If they want to send out some forward scouts, that would be acceptable. But the flanking scouts must… stop…” Eldamir’s head slumped forward and his eyes closed again.
Balfrith froze, waiting to see if he still breathed, but there was no motion, no rise and fall of the chest. He heard Eldamir slowly exhale, but that was all.
“Somebody help!” Balfrith cried out. “Eldamir is fallen, and I think he’s still alive but he’s hurt badly!” Lofdar came running down the slope from Glendir’s position. Their captain stood now, looking down on them from above. Sambir climbed slowly across the valley to where Glendir stood.
Lofdar approached, and said, “Where is he injured? Did you see the wound?”
“Yes, it’s in his side here, by me. Looks pretty bad. But Eldamir was talking up until a moment ago, then he fell asleep. Is he alive?”
Lofdar exchanged positions with Balfrith, who got out of the way. Kneeling and leaning forward toward Eldamir’s face, he nodded. “Aye, he yet breathes, though it is shallow and I hear a rattle. I’m sorry Balfrith, but I must concentrate now.”
And he got to work, inspecting Eldamir’s deep wound in his side, then quickly searching for evidence of other injury. Thankfully he found nothing else, and was able to focus on the one gash.
Balfrith watched as Lofdar first poured what looked and smelled like a strong, clear liquor into the wound, then took a steel needle and thread, and began sewing up his friend.
Lofdar said, “This will prevent the wound from suppurating, and slow the bleeding. But he will need more attention and aid than I can give him here. Go, Balfrith, and inform Glendir that we must return to Fanyamar if he is to survive.”
Balfrith nodded, and ran off to where Glendir and Sambir stood, watching from above. “Captain Glendir,” he said as he approached, “Eldamir’s wound is bad. Lofdar says we must return to Fanyamar if he is to be saved.”
Glendir paused, looked at Balfrith, then at Sambir, considering their options. Finally he said, “Aye, you shall return immediately. Balfrith, you will accompany Lofdar and carry Eldamir back to the city. But, our borders will be unprotected. Sambir, you and I will bury Belanor, and leave a cairn in his memory. Then, we will separate - I will head north, and you go south. Find the nearest Guardian company, and inform their captain of what has transpired. They will need to close and protect the gap. After you and I deliver our messages, we will return to the city as well.”
Balfrith nodded, and returned to where Lofdar tended his patient. “Glendir says we should return immediately to Fanyamar. He and Sambir will remain here, bury Belanor, and then warn the nearest Guardian companies that we are leaving an open gap, before returning to the city.”
Lofdar looked up at him and said, “Very well, then I need you to begin making a litter to carry Eldamir. We can use his own cloak, we just need something to tie it to. Two staves, each about two yards long, should do.”
“Aye,” Balfrith said, and got to work.