At this eruption of apparent joy among the hobgoblins, my present captor turned to his guards and said a few unimpressed words. It seemed the goblins felt no similar joy at this display of precision back-stabbing. When they had let their heroes down, the group turned towards the spoils, myself among them. The leading goblin - whom I had mentally christened the White Fox for the shimmering, silvery foxtail that ringed his skull-cap - stood aside, and Ashirk’s opponent stepped toward me.
He kicked me out of his way and fell upon the real prize: the severed head of what I assumed was now officially his predecessor, from which he snatched the ornate, many-horned hat. Removing his own lesser one, he quickly pulled it tight up on his brow, before snatching up the head itself and holding it aloft with another scream of triumph. That he had not actually played a role in the killing seemed utterly irrelevant, and he threw the head violently into the fire, which roared unnaturally to greater life in response.
The warriors began chanting something - I realised it was simply the words “Big Boss” over and over, as if that were a sufficient honorific for their paramount leader. Soaking it up for a little while longer, the wounded leader called to his new minions.
“Tonight, we feast! You want my hood - claim it yourself!”
With more shouts and chants, the mob stared hungrily at the lesser horned hat in his hand, clearly a sign of promotion that would have to be won with violence and subterfuge likely to drag on for hours.
Ashirk appeared from the shadows before the White Fox, who let him pass. He slapped me on the shoulder bitterly, all faux jubilation drained from his features. Gaunt and sallow from loss of the filthy blood that leaked from his bound wound, I could see now why he had said this was a place he wished me never to tread.
The assassin scooped the tiny bone disc from the filthy ground, and turned. The White Fox stood in his way, and spat something.
“An hour. Maybe - two. Let them get drunk. Stay away from the kennels. When the time is right, I come for you.”
Ashirk shrugged sourly at this, but did not argue. He pulled me up, and walked me slowly to a darkened corner with an excellent vantage point on the wider cavern. He sat, scowling darkly, wreathed in shadow - and I sat gingerly beside him. I watched the mob as they hacked into several barrels of a thin, dark liquid, passing out cups. One hobgoblin began to play crude drums, while another drew a long thin horn and began to play a strangely elaborate, reedy tune upon it that had some of the warriors dancing.
For what they were, it seemed clear to me that these creatures were enjoying themselves. I looked from them to Ashirk, who drew his knees up under his chin and sat glumly, face like thunder. He turned a cautious eye to me. I tried to gesture with my head toward the celebration, and turned it on one side to indicate my curiosity.
He looked back at me for a moment, scratched his cheek, and then removed the leather strap gagging me. I spat, trying to get the rancid taste of dirty bonds off a tongue long since dry. Ashirk even uncorked a small gourd and brought it to my lips. I gulped at it gratefully.
A moment passed.
“It seems like everything went according to plan? And yet you are… perturbed.”
He did not grunt.
“I merely wonder why-”
“I know,” he hissed sullenly. “They are - fools. I do not care for this.”
I blinked. I supposed he was not a bundle of joy at the best of times. If I had a view of Ashirk - if hobgoblins could have personalities, which I further supposed they must - it was one dominated by Enmerkar. The Sorcerer-Prophet was like a great weight on all those around him, a burning sun casting fearful light on everything, leaving little private shadow for individuals to be any measure of themselves. What was this creature, to whom I was tied by the soul? A murderer, but at the expense of what? A man of influence, perhaps - but perhaps at once an outcast, isolated from his kin, tormented by his mission. And, in a very real way, I had ruined his life. He had given everything to find me and bring me here, and now suddenly he had to keep me forever and guard me with his life. Would we ever escape our bond? How would such a thing be possible? Could Ashirk buy his freedom - would the Prophet sever him from me as a reward, or as a punishment, or on some whim? I knew nothing about his life, his history. What had brought him to this point. But I knew that if there were a way out, he would conceal it deep in his soul, as he had hidden Enmerkar’s die in the folds of his sagging tunic. And, though I was mastering much about our sorcerous bond, I could not take from him something of that significance.
“When we have the trollflesh,” I said quietly. “When we have the herbs. Once we have awakened the Sleeper. Then we can - we can… reassess matters.”
The hobgoblin chuckled darkly, a troubling sound.
“Oh, manling. If you survive next trip to the Menagerie - it will not be by long.”
I rolled my eyes, but perhaps he had a point. The haunted forge had left me in the depths of despair, but it had also confirmed that I was of the Fortress now. Escape was a distant fantasy, akin to dreaming of finding a chest of treasure or being seduced by a bored noblewoman. This was my reality. Gambling on outdoing the sorcery of the Prophet without his consent was a fool’s wager.
I would need to make peace with this beast.
“Why not celebrate your triumph? I know not the rules of your game but even I could tell you outplayed your opponent. Not to mention outfighting that… boss. Yet you are more miserable than ever.”
Ashirk leaned his head back against the rock of the cavern wall.
“I won the right to lead. Killed Turshu. But cannot lead. Only bargain.”
I felt a little understanding come through. By right of bloodshed, Ashirk had won a crown of sorts, and had to gamble it away, because of our bond - my mission. Or perhaps, not only this. I could feel undeniable humiliation running beneath his sparse words. I considered his thin, inadequate backplate. Ashirk would not have lasted long as the boss of bosses in this place. He could sever the head that wore the crown, but not wear it.
An assassin’s curse, to be sure.
In his own way, Ashirk knew what he was, but did not enjoy that it was so. He had had a glimpse of the power and respect now enjoyed by his opponent, and though he had masterfully navigated it by guile alone, strength enough to truly lead greenskins would never be his. He was like a bookish apprentice pushed aside in a tavern by a muscled soldier. His was the path of treachery - a respectable trade among their kind - yet they called him hound, not wolf, for his treachery was not in his own service.
“I… knew Turshu. Whelps together. Always strong. Strongest.”
I let another moment pass, and watched the hobgoblin warriors lifting their new leader again and again, chanting his name, too distant for me to make out.
“Two paths. Cunning. Brutal. Brute needs cunning. Cunning needs brute. Him -” he said, pointing down at the new boss. “Both. Me - one, just one. Only ever one.”
It appeared the Royal Game had more than one meaning. I thought about how fast everything had happened down here. Ashirk had stood before the firepit and gotten two words out before the first attempt on his life, and turned on an apparently lifelong… compatriot? In the blink of an eye. By the same reckoning, I had been stolen away, sold for coin, and sold back to him in the time it took to end a single knife-fight. In the span of ten minutes, Turshu had gone from wearing the crown to decapitated corpse, with a brief foray as a crude, desecrated gambling chit. That was how fast things seemed to work in their world. One single event like the arrival of an outsider would set the wheels in motion. Did they ever stop turning? I thought with a shudder about the speed with which Ashirk fell upon Turshu. Surely not.
I could not guess at how much time passed in silence, but many songs and chants had ended. The fire ebbed low, until the new boss screamed into the night, a warrior’s cry. A bowl of filthy water was slung on to the fire, which smouldered, roils of thick smoke slowly spreading from the base. There were still torches and braziers hanging from the edges of the cavern, but the light was much dimmed. The horn-blower sounded a war-call, and warriors began to pile in from the mouth. There would be sport again, it seemed. At this, Ashirk rose. He turned to me, put a finger to his lips, and began to stalk with an elaborate stealth the like of which I rarely saw.
Down in the heart of the cave, a circle was forming. I could guess easily enough what would come next. The hood of the lesser boss was the prize; single combat, I had little doubt, would be the game.
I could not make out Ashirk’s form, but I could feel him in the dark, and sense his movements through our magical connection. He was moving in ever decreasing circles towards the fire-pit, though I knew not why. Once there, I felt him searching, and then grasping his prize - and then, almost an afterthought, another.
He returned to me soon enough, bearing two charred skulls, covered in tatters of carbonised flesh. These must have been the heads of his two victims. Turshu, and the unknown assailant.
“Come, manling. Up. Offerings must be made.”