Holding the Line
ovice Librarian Dockett Butterblender cowered in the shredded shadows left to the night. He had not managed to escape the vicious trap that had sprung in the Vault of All Known Knowledge as had many of the Librarians. All around him, goblinkin battled the dwarves who had sworn to shed their life’s blood to protect the Great Library.
Firelight gleamed across the scaly green hides of the goblinkin. They shouted and snarled, their black hair in disarray. Some of them had smoking heads from the embers that burned in their hair. They waved their weapons and set ladders to scale the walls of the Vault of All Known Knowledge.
Not far from where Dockett hid and shivered in fear, a knot of archers with horned helms took up positions along a jutting shelf where the Library’s wall had been breached. The archers resembled lizards, and the little dweller knew that they had to be beings summoned from some other place by the treacherous spell that had stricken the Library and filled the great halls with enemies for the first time in its long history.
As Dockett watched, goblinkin grabbed Librarians
and heaved them from the walls. Then dwarves rushed in—too late!—and cut down their vicious foes. Humans up from Greydawn Moors, the town at the foothills of the Knucklebones Mountains, arrived now, accompanied by elven warders and their animal companions.
But no dwellers accompanied them.
The fact hurt Dockett.
We’re not warriors,
the Novice Librarian told himself.
The Old Ones didn’t create the dwellers to be warriors. We were made to hide and to preserve ourselves.
He wanted desperately to hide even now.
However, he was training as a Librarian as well. Under one arm, he carried a bundle of books wrapped in a wall mural he’d rescued from one of the burning rooms. If he had truly wished to save his own hide, he would have abandoned his efforts at rescuing anything from the Library. He knew his da would reprimand him for ever taking the chance that he did if he found out. His da ran a tavern down in Greydawn Moors and was loath to give up a son as a Librarian to the Vault of All Known Knowledge. Most dwellers resented losing their children (their free labor!) to the Great Library as had been the arrangement since the beginning.
So many other Librarians fled. Dockett saw them running hither and thither, screaming for help, for someone to rescue them. None of them would blame him for dumping the load he carried and seeing to his own escape.
Ah, but you would be going back on your word that you gave to the Grandmagister, wouldn’t you?
a voice chided Dockett at the back of his mind.
You swore that you would cherish and defend the Library.
In the hallways, Dockett had seen Grandmagister Edgewick Lamplighter doing all that he could do to save the Library’s inventory. And, as ever, First Librarian Juhg had been at the Grandmagister’s heels.
Dockett pressed himself against the stone wall and wished for a path that he might follow to safety. And he wished that the wizard Craugh would appear. The wizard was powerful, a force even the army that lay siege to the Vault of All Known Knowledge would fear.
Except that someone had told Dockett that Craugh was down in the basement levels of the mountain where the lowest rooms were. Some said that he was dead, slain by the spell that had broken the Library and released the raiders that now slew everyone they found in their path.
Elven warders set themselves at the walls across from the lizard
archers. In the space of a heartbeat, the elves bent their bows and loosed arrows at their enemies. Several of the shafts pierced the lizards and sent them tumbling from the walls.
Despite his fear, Dockett saw the courage and the skill of the elven warders. Their race produced legendary bowmen the way oak trees produced acorns. He had read accounts of the elven bowmen in books among the Library’s holdings, but he had never before seen them in action. It was savage and beautiful at the same time.
Without warning, an explosion ripped into the rooftop behind the elves, filling the night with roiling yellow flames. Rocks shot high into the air, bowling over the dwarven warriors guarding a few of the surviving Librarians. The blast temporarily deafened Dockett.
He took advantage of the distraction to creep farther along the narrow stone shelf that he’d climbed out onto when he’d had to abandon the room where he’d been hiding. Goblinkin had very nearly gotten him then. Thankfully, the shelf was generous with space even though it didn’t allow him to reach the ground nearly fifty feet below.
As he watched the bloody battle, Dockett remembered several accounts he’d read of wars and skirmishes. He’d always wondered how the historians and writers had managed to detail the events while standing in the middle of those things. Then he realized that if they had not, battles such as the one waged by the elven archers against the lizard archers might not ever be recorded.
Were they this scared?
Could they possibly have been as frightened as I am and still manage to write accounts of all the terrible and brave things they had seen?
He knew it had to be true.
Having nowhere to go, mesmerized by the battle before him, Dockett placed his bundle of books on the ledge beside him. He took out his personal journal, the one the Grandmagister encouraged all Librarians to carry everywhere (because the Grandmagister had learned firsthand the value of keeping a journal with him after being kidnapped by dwarven pirates from the Blood-Soaked Sea), and sat down. He took a stick of charcoal from his bag of inks, quills, and charcoal.
With dexterity and confidence, Dockett attacked the page. The Grandmagister had impressed upon him the value of Librarians, and of the
Vault of All Known Knowledge. He couldn’t sit by and do nothing. He had a calling. The Grandmagister had seen it in him, and had told him that one day Dockett would know what that calling was.
Now, with the charcoal in hand, with the page clean and blank before him, along with the vision of the battle and the warriors, Dockett knew what that calling was. The fear vanished as he was consumed by his work.
And the battle raged on around him.
Weeks Later …
Death sculled silently across the coastal waters of the Blood-Soaked Sea. It came in small longboats equipped with black sails and was divided among dozens of goblinkin armed with swords, axes, and bows. Some of them pulled at oars and the oarlocks creaked with the strain. The northerly wind brought in great rolling heaps of gray fog as well as the invaders.
Varrowyn Forgeborn ran through the forest along the coastline to meet them. His heart sang with the anticipation of the coming battle. He carried naked steel in his hands, and his intent was to ambush the goblinkin and kill them all. The act would be a warning to others, but it would also be vengeance for the attack the goblinkin and their allies had made on the place and the city that he had sworn his life and blood to protect.
Occasionally, the cold tide still brought in the bodies of the dead—elves, dwarves, humans, dwellers, goblins, and sometimes things that could not be so easily identified—that had not been eaten outright and only munched on by the (only lately) overfed monsters that lived in the wine-dark sea. Those bodies that had belonged to Greydawn Moors—the elves, dwarves, humans, and the dwellers—were seen to and buried as they arrived. At least, as much of them as could be recovered was buried.
Goblinkin and other
were thrown back into the sea with the outgoing tide for the monsters to have another go at. Of late, there had been less killing so the numbers of the dead had decreased. The defenders of Greydawn Moors had proven the taking of the island costly, and goblinkin were never known for bravery. Their savagery, however, was phenomenal. The goblin ships out in the Blood-Soaked Sea awaited reinforcements from the mainland, but evidently some of the commanders grew impatient.
Or mayhap they only intended to test the strength of the chosen victims.
Varrowyn intended to fill the outgoing tide with the bloodied bodies of his enemies.
Tonight, with the absence of true moonslight, with Jhurjan the Swift and Bold only a pale crimson thumbnail in the cloudy sky and Gesa the Fair and Lovely only a dim silver twinkle, the goblinkin thought to send a raiding party from the ships they used to blockade the island.
Those blasted beasties are gonna have themselves a surprise or two, though.
Varrowyn’s thoughts were grim and determined as he paused to listen. He put out a hand and brought the warriors behind him to a halt. They obeyed in the space of a heartbeat. He was a captain of the surviving dwarves who had pledged their lives to defend the Vault of All Known Knowledge.
Generations of his family had served before him, but none of them had ever been called upon to shed blood as he had. Several of the warriors he’d trained, battle-ready though not battle-hardened, had died during the vicious attack that had left the Great Library in ruins less than a month before. He had seen to their burials and mourned them. He still missed them.
Ears straining, Varrowyn heard the sound of cautious oars moving in oarlocks. The goblinkin weren’t far out now. He pulled at his beard and smiled in anticipation, then once more trotted through the darkness along the shelf of thickly forested land that butted out into the sea.
Clad in full armor, Varrowyn carried his battle-axe in both mailed hands. The rest of his gear was padded so it would not make a sound, colored with lampblack so it would not reflect even the wan moonslight. The goblinkin would not know he or the island’s other defenders were among them until the first of them had been shorn of their lives.
Halting again, Varrowyn looked through the darkness and spied Farady, one of the elven warders who had sworn to watch over the islands.
“Do ye see them?” Varrowyn asked quietly. The elf’s vision was, at times, keener than his.
Farady Shellon was slender and bronzed by the sun. He wore a hooded cloak that hid his pointed ears and his alabaster hair but not his faintly luminous amethyst eyes. As a warder, he cared for the ecology of the island, keeping the wild things—animal and vegetation—balanced and in good health. He held a longbow in his hand and carried a longsword in a scabbard between his shoulders.
In the combined darkness of the hood and the moonsless night, the elven warder’s eyes glowed a little brighter. “Yes. They cannot hide from Whisperwing.” He stretched his gloved left hand up into the sky.
Soundlessly, a great horned owl dropped out of the darkness, furled its wings, and clasped its black claws around Farady’s gloved hand. Varrowyn knew even the leather glove wouldn’t have protected the elf’s hand if the owl wished him harm. The bird was huge, with a wingspread nearly eight feet across. The elven warder looked too slender to support the large creature, though he did so with apparent ease.
“There are four boatloads.” Farady took a morsel from a pouch on a leather strap looped around his neck. “Twenty to a boat. Eighty warriors.”
Varrowyn knew his elven friend had peered at their enemies through his animal companion’s eyes. Whisperwing could do many things, but the great horned owl could not count. Varrowyn spat in disgust.
“Call them eighty in number,” Varrowyn admonished. “Don’t dignify them goblinkin by callin’ ’em warriors.” He hefted his axe. “We got warriors here that are standin’ tall against them toad-faces.”
A faint smile touched Farady’s lips. “Still. Eighty of them. And only thirty of us.”
“I know, I know. Ain’t hardly worth the time nor the trouble of gettin’ up outta bed.” Varrowyn turned and scented the air. He thought he scented a faint, acrid goblin stench. “There’s others gonna be upset we didn’t wake ’em to share.” He spoke bravely, but he knew that Farady was aware they’d been pressed for time when they’d assembled the group he led. “Take me to ’em.”
Throwing the owl once more into the night, the elven warder took the lead.
Varrowyn followed, knowing Farady moved in the direction he’d seen through his animal companion’s eyes. They were thirty strong from Greydawn Moors. That thirty was a mixed bag, though, of elves, dwarves, and humans. All of them warriors who had volunteered to stay on the island even though they knew a goblinkin army would come for them.
Since the destruction last month of the Great Library, Greydawn Moors—the city that lay at the bottom of the Knucklebones Mountains under the brutal twists of the ridges called the Ogre’s Fingers—had remained in a state of panic. (Of course, that was primarily because
dwellers—the race of small people given the custodial responsibility of the Library by the Builders—were in the greatest numbers in the city.) Only a month ago, an army of Dread Riders and Blazebulls, accompanied by other creatures and enemies, had arrived at the Library through a spell of trickery.
During the battle that ensued, the Vault of All Known Knowledge had been all but destroyed, all but razed to the ground. Most of the collections of books were eradicated as they had been by the Goblin Horde under the command of Lord Kharrion so many years ago. The Unity, the armies made up of dwarves, elves, and humans, had sought to protect the libraries that they could. The rich farmland of Teldane’s Bounty was no more there, and monsters roamed the wreckage of the coastline.