Down the sorcerous bond that tied my soul to his, the surging bloodlust and adrenaline racing through Ashirk cut my heart as I was dragged into the darkness at the edges of the cave. I had no doubt that he could not sense my fear or desperation in the heat of combat. I could feel every blow and dodge of their confrontation. This must have been what he had experienced as I dangled above the lava pool in the Menagerie - overwhelmed, powerless, subject to a confrontation you cannot see yet know could end you. I did not know whether his assault on the larger hobgoblin was accident or design, but I could feel that it was by no means as easy a fight as against his first assailant.
I was dragged down a gentle slope. Guttural noise passed between two greenskins, but with Ashirk so far away, I could not make sense of it. Enmerkar’s enchantment only allowed me to speak Black Khazalid; my ability to comprehend the lesser tongues of the hobgoblins depended on Ashirk actually hearing the words so that I could seize their meaning across the magical thread that tied us together.
I was dragged into a corner and propped up so that I could at least see a little in the dim light. Unlike the main chamber of the cave, this one was lit by the glow of hideous fungi. I could pick out reddish eyes in the dark, sharp and tight. There was some degree of tension between what I now saw were the two hobgoblins who had brought me here. They were ill at ease in what seemed to be an effort to gain credit for my capture, bartering me to another thin, tall hobgoblin who was seated on a strangely shaped mushroom that had the appearance of a modest throne, such as one might find in a rathaus court or a minor nobleman’s hearth-hall. Like Ashirk’s opponent, this hobgoblin had a taller, thinner cap than most, though not as tall as the other I had seen - and like him, horns sprouted from it, although in this case there was only one pair.
He eyed me with a sinister suspicion. What was I, to him? I tried my best to look dead ahead at the earthy mosses covering the cave wall. I could read the scene without risking eye contact.
By his side, a smaller figure appeared, a wiry goblin with what passed for a strong build among his kind. Taking the two together, I surmised them to be lieutenants of a sort. The goblin wore a steely skull-cap lined with the tied tail of a white mountain fox, and in his hand held a wicked-looking sabre. I had seen woodcuts of such goblins throughout my readings as an apprentice; they fought as cavalrymen, atop great wolves. This one seemed to be of some influence, and regarded me casually. It seemed my arrival had interrupted his conversation with his counterpart on the fungal throne. The goblin shrugged, shook his head at my two enterprising captors, and left.
One of them broke the looming silence with a quiet, hissing offer of some kind, and the other was furious, immediately barging him. The one on the throne acted quickly, pulling out a small pouch and rubbing it between finger and thumb, making what sounded like small stones inside clack together. Like the most faithful hounds, my captors stood entranced by the pouch, their eyes following it hungrily as their superior threw it casually from hand to hand. With a sudden swipe of the hand, he threw it at their feet. One lunged, but the other stayed upright, kicking his compatriot in the face; twisting backwards to the ground, the stricken greenskin scrambled but it was too late - his supposed ally, and the bag, were gone. The one on the throne seemed not to find this as entertaining as I did, and as the second one barreled out after his prize, was entirely impassive.
This was what passed for bargaining among their misbegotten kind, I supposed.
At last alone, my new owner slid from his fungal seat and hobbled toward me. His suspicion had not dimmed. What misfortune would I bring upon him? What opportunity? I felt appraised, not as I had by the Prophet - like livestock - but by a Schmutzplatz fence. Where had I come from?
The beast took another small pouch from his belt, poured a little dirty powder on to his hand, leaned down low to my eye-level and blew it in my face. I was knocked out cold.
I was jolted into consciousness as my ragged body was thrown to the ground. I kept my eyes tight shut, feeling fresh bruises on my wrists and legs where I had clearly been dragged. I was back in the body of the main cave, surrounded by the scents and sounds of the greenskins, their wolves, their fires, their filth.
I lay on my side on the cave-floor. The fire was somewhere in front of me, hot enough that I could feel it on my face. I was amid a dense crowd of hobgoblins, but they were strangely quiet. I twitched a single eye open, and saw Ashirk, silhouetted on the other side of the pit by the flaming carcass of his first victim.
In one hand was one of his wicked, blood-stained daggers. In the other, the severed head of his opponent, many-horned peaked hat still on it. The axe with the curved blade now hung at his waist.
Ashirk drew it from his belt, and threw it on the ground in front of me. My new captor - standing behind me - kicked me in the back.
“He is worth more than that, I think,” he said. His voice was much lower than Ashirk’s, slower, a growl.
Ashirk stared, motionless, and spoke in an equally hush tone.
“I know what you want,” the assassin hissed. “But I don’t want a shrivelled manling for a prize like this,” he said, hefting the decapitated head. “Bone coin. You have it. Throw it.”
The other hobgoblin nudged me with a foot.
“More than enough. Living. Whole. Precious. Master’s prize. Take it. Leave tonight,” he said casually, “leave alive.”
“Bone coin,” repeated Ashirk, snarling a little. “Like for like. Power,” he said, waggling the severed head, “for power.”
“No trade,” the horn-hatted hobgoblin hissed quietly. Ashirk’s face was impassive, and the crowd of hobgoblins around the fire shifted but remained silent, sure that they were about to witness more sport. I assumed there would be another knife-fight, another burning corpse, but I could not know then just how wrong I was. “No fight. Wager.”
A susurration of whispers, hisses, clanks and taps from the greenskins - a murmur of approval, assent, excitement.
The hobgoblin pulled a small, ornate, carved bone token from some deep fold in the hanging rough cloth tunic that covered his chest. He nodded to Ashirk, and cast it on to the ground in front of me.
In response, the assassin took a step forward, and threw the severed head. It landed with a wet slap, the neck-stump flat against the ground, lifeless eyes staring into mine.
“Wager, then. All or nothing. The Royal Game.”