In the moonlight Tazahk sat on his haunches, investigating the frayed ends of rope. Clearly the prisoner had been wearing away at these over a prolonged period of time. Perhaps all night? Perhaps since capture? Had he a hidden tool or weapon upon his person? This showed a lack of prudence on his behalf and unless rectified, it would mean punishment. He dropped the broken rope back onto the grass and exhaled softly. There was little evidence that might suggest where he had gone after slipping his bonds and fleeing the makeshift camp. Still. He was on the open plains; he couldn’t have gone far.
“You’re for it now,” said Khu, flatly, chewing on a handful of the wriggling worms they had confiscated from the captive, “the Khan will have your head on a spike for this.”
Tazahk didn’t answer although his concentration had been been broken by Khu which irked him enough that he slowly rose up to meet him.
“If I’m for the spike, I’ll make sure you’re for the spike next to me, brother.”
Tazahk was smaller than Khu by almost a full head, yet the larger hobgoblin stepped back as he approached. In any other greenskin society the largest dominated all those around him but in their culture, cunning was prized above all else. And Khu knew all too well that Tazahk was a vicious knife master with cunning in abundance. He’d learnt not to underestimate his ability to inflict pain.
“Wake Boz,” Tazahk spat and returned to squatting where the prisoner had been lain down that night.
“Wake up,” the large hobgoblin grumbled as he softly kicked the horse-skin sleeping bag by the smouldering embers of the previous night’s fire.
“Leave off,” moaned Boz, “the green moon’s still up, and I need me sleep.”
“Taz ain’t happy Boz,” Khu explained, nudging him again with his foot, a little more forcibly this time, “the silkman got away. And he’s only just found out.”
“Oh. He’s for it now,” smiled Boz, finally emerging from his sack.
“Yeah,” chuckled Khu, “that’s what I told him.”
Tazahk sifted through a leather satchel. This wasn’t made by goblin claws. It didn’t possess the crude yet functional aesthetic of the clothes and armour of the three hobgoblins encamped out on the steppe. No, this was a delicate and fine looking thing, clearly eastern in design.
He brought out a hair comb, turning it in the greenish moonlight before stashing it away. Next he drew a few coins from the bag with dragons pressed upon them, turning them in his talons before returning them once more. Finally, he pulled a handkerchief with characters undecipherable to his beady red eyes embroidered across it. He knew the feel of it in his hands though. Cathayan silk. The man who possessed this was a sorcerer of silk according to the Khan and very valuable to westerners who wished to learn his secrets. He sniffed the hankerchief and then snorted suddenly. Clearly it had been perfumed and the sensation stung his large and flaring nostrils.
Boz, a gangly and thin hobgoblin, wicked looking even by their standards, was now up and putting on his horse-mane plumed helmet and a pair of fur boots. Khu, the largest among them was leading three large wolves using ropes around their necks towards where Tazahk now stood in full battle dress. An iron helmet was upon his head, trimmed in fur and decorated with a single spike pointing towards the endless sky.
Morning was breaking. The twin moons were fading from sight, still just visible, and the the great disk that illuminated the plains was beginning to rise.
The diminutive warrior walked past Khu and grabbed the largest wolf by the scruff of its neck. The beast was many times his size and snarled reflexively. For a moment it looked like it would maul him. A single bite from its salivating jaws could rip an arm from a socket but conditioning and breeding had taught it to comply. He then thrust the silk handkerchief into its nose where it snuffled, paused and then sneezed.
Boz was adjusting the quiver of arrows on his back and walking over to the wolves when Tazahk had finished repeating the process on the third and final wolf.
“They have the scent now,” explained Tazahk looking at the floor and speaking as if to no one in particular, “we will find the silkman. And if we do not. I will have company on the spike. Yes.”
Khu, already atop a wolf that possessed only a single eye, his great curved sword upon his back, finished the last of the wriggling maggots he had been snacking upon and stole a glance at Boz as the lithe greenskin climbed upon his own mount. Tazahk now mounted the largest of the beasts in a single slow and deliberate movement.
The sun disk was almost fully visible now. The morning air was cold and crisp.
“Yah!” Shouted Tazahk pounding his heels into the beasts flanks. With a snarl, it leapt forward bounding with unnatural speed.
“Yah!” Boomed Khu and his one eyed wolf followed suit.
Boz took his bow from his back and, without nocking an arrow, closed one eye aiming an imaginary shot at Tazahk’s rapidly retreating form. He twanged the bowstring playfully and gave a wicked smile.
His wolf was off, sprinting to make up the distance.
The three rode in silence, the hounds leading the way. Tazahk was at the front, flanked by Boz and Khu. The only sound was the panting of wolves and the jangle of armour as each paw struck the steppe.
Surely they must soon be approaching the location of the Silkman. The sun disk was now rising, almost above them in the cloudless sky and they moved at many times the speed of a running man, especially one who has endured the hardships of their former captive.
Tazahk’s wolf suddenly skidded to a halt and then turned and retraced his steps, nose snuffling the grass. The other two wolves paused too. Khu’s wolf took a snap at Boz’s beast and both reigned them away from one another. Khu chuckled at the interaction but Boz was watching Tazahk closely.
“Well?” Enquired Boz.
“Close your mouth pup,” sneered Tazahk, “he sees more with his nose than you do with your eyes.”
As if by reply the wolf stopped and crouched down, growling at a small dry shrub.
Tazahk, dismounted, knelt down and retrieved a button or pin from within it. It had a similar stylised dragon symbol to the coins the silkman had carried upon him when he was captured.
Tazahk was now inspecting the scene further. Khu dismounted also, standing behind and watching him work. Boz never left his wolf.
“Hooves,” said Tazahk after a time, pointing to the ground with a long and yellow fingernail, “…the beasts of the northmen.”
Khu scratched his green chin, a little stubble now showing, and nodded.
“Then he’s dead,” he concluded stoically. Behind them, unseen, Boz smiled slyly.
Tazahk was upon Khu in a moment, a razor edged knife pressed into his neck.
“If the silkman is dead, I am dead. If I am dead, you are dead, brother,” he spat. Khu’s eyes widened as he realised he was now upon the floor with the smaller goblin upon his chest. Desperately he looked for a way to extend his miserable life. His sword, fastened to his back, was unreachable in this position.
“I, I, I see smoke, brother!” He suddenly cried out.
Tazahk rose looking to the side where Khu’s eyes lead and saw a faint tendril of smoke rising behind a hill.
“Good,” said the leader rising from Khu who reflexively clutched his throat, making sure it was still whole, “we will go to the man-camp and take the silkman back.”
Behind him, Boz relaxed his draw upon the bow aimed at his master’s back and sheathed his arrow.
From behind a crag of rock, the wolf riders observed the human camp. How many were there? It was hard to tell. Perhaps five or six warriors all told, if the number of horses was anything to go by. There were two medium sized tents, one larger and between them a small campfire raged with roasted meat upon it. A single nomad in traditional Hung dress attended the fire and the horses were reigned nearby. Aside from that, there was no sign of life.
“The leader will stay in the largest of tents, his warriors another and the prisoner a third I’d wager,” said Boz and rose to mount his wolf and attack.
“Watch,” said Tazahk, pulling him back down behind the rock. There was movement from the largest tent.
A man, naked but for a daubing of warpaint and an elaborate mask made from the carcass of an animal stepped from the tent and called out something in their barbarous tongue.
The other tents shifted with movement as two Hung warriors emerged from one tent and another from the last, dragging a sorry looking prisoner behind him with a rope around his neck.
The man, tending the food, left what he was doing and joined the others where it seemed a strange ritual was beginning.
The shaman was chanting in a deep throaty way into the sky. In one hand he held a knife and in the other he held various fetishes made of bird feathers and bone, strung together with animal sinew.
Upon the crag, the three hobgoblins and their vicious beasts had gone.
The trembling Cathayan silk merchant, his face marred from busies and cuts, stood helpless before the wild eyed shaman, as a blindfold was placed over his eyes.
The sound of the throaty singing rose in pitch and intensity as the knife was raised high into the air. Abruptly, the chanting ceased.
In its place a kind of wet gurgling sound began to play. The Hung, confused, turned to look upon the magician who had a single black feathered arrow protruding from his throat.
They had just time to unsheathe their weapons before Khu, on his one eyed wolf charged through them cutting one down with his enormous curved sword in an explosion of blood and screams.
A quick thinking Hung, armed with a sword and buckler stepped forward, parrying a blow which would have decapitated his mortally injured friend.
The shaman had ceased gurgling now and fell to the floor as Tazahk rode in on an enormous beast. The remaining two warriors, one armed with a spear and another a two handed sword engaged him.
Tazahk had drawn twin daggers from his back and began fighting the swordsman, deftly deflecting his blows. The wolf snarled at the spearman who attempted to thrust the sharpened end into the wolf’s flank but instead was grasped in its jaws and shaken like a rag doll.
There was a howl and Khu fell backwards as the warrior stabbed his wolf in the neck, black arterial blood staying sideways. The foul beast whimpered like a frightened pup and spasmed on the floor before coming to a rest on top of Khu’s body. Khu struggled to lift his mounts corpse and didn’t get the chance as the Hung warrior climbed upon it and swung his sword across his face, bisecting his skull diagonally.
The warrior looked up to see Tazahk fighting his comrade and his wolf consuming another. Looking over his shoulder he saw the horses bolting, apparently freed by some unseen agent of the enemy.
Tazahk parried another blow with one blade and then plunged the other into his assailants chest ending him.
The Hung warrior, covered with the blood of Khu and of Khu’s mount issued a challenge across the camp at Tazahk. Tazahk didn’t understand the words but the meaning was clear.
He dismounted his wolf, leaving it to feast upon the fallen warriors around him and walked towards the Hung, blades drawn. The warrior screamed and charged at him swinging his sword down with a mighty blow. Tazahk stepped aside and thrust a dagger at his enemy which was knocked aside with his hide buckler, sending one of this weapon skidding across the camp. Tazahk was now on the backfoot as the beserker swung wildly again. He put out his much smaller blade to block the attack but it was fruitless. The blow shattered his blade and split his hand through the middle, between two fingers and deep into his palm.
Tazahk fell to his knees and screeched in defiance as the Hung approached and lined up his sword for a single, decapitating, killing blow.
However, he paused. From behind a tent walked Boz, his arrow nocked and aimed at the warrior. The man’s eyes widened. Sweat mixed with the blood trickled down his cheek.
Tazahk began to laugh on his knees, despite his hand being a bloody ruin. Boz began to laugh too. The Hung-man’s eyes darted from the fallen leader and this new assassin. Finally we made to swing and with a sudden “thunk” an arrow struck him between the eyes and fell to the ground.
Tazahk turned to speak but was cut off when a second “Thunk” slammed into his gut. He looked down at the black arrow poking from his stomach. With his one good hand he felt the pooling blood.
Boz now silently walked up to Tazahk, a mere step away, and readied another arrow, this time aimed at his face. He drew the string back and smiled.
Tazahk propelled himself forward with a disgusting screech, blood spilling from his mouth. He leapt upon Boz, his arrow shooting skyward, and sank his teeth into his neck.
The taller, thinner goblin screamed in panic, but Tazahk’s fangs had wedged into his windpipe and he refused to let go. They struggled for some time until, with a wet sounding tear, Tazahk’s head snapped back and he spat a large chunk of green flesh to one side. Boz shook for a while, blood pouring from his gaping chasm of a neck, eyes bloodshot and locked in an expression of eternal surprise.
Tazahk rolled over and coughed some blood out of his mouth. The sun disc was starting to descend upon the steppe. Soon it would be evening. He made to move but the pain in his gut prevented him.
Two wolves, Boz’s beast and Tazahk’s own plodded , sniffing towards the corpse of Boz and Tazahk’s own broken form sniffing and salivating. Tazahk’s eyes widened as he saw the mouth of his mount widen before his face.
The Cathayan silk merchant shuddered at the horrible screaming sounds that filled the air. Once they were finished he dared to lift his blindfold a little and saw the destruction that surrounded him. Dead men and greenskins were scattered around the camp , some reduced to dismembered body parts, and amongst them sat two fat and sleeping wolves.
He crept from this place and began running once more, as fast as his legs would take him and as far as the endless steppe would allow.