Thursday, February 4, 2021

Tavros: Procrustes' Challenge

Picking up, belatedly, from here...

Tavros fell in with the others as the hobgoblins marched them out of the prison-hut and into the large, empty circle at the center of the village. On the far side was another large hut, but this one had a single large doorway, with two doors that had been slid aside; it looked more like a barn than a dwelling, except that visible inside was a single, massive bier that seemed to serve as a bed. A figure lay atop it, stirring as the human priest Moro and another figure, an armored hobgoblin at his side; most likely that was Procrustes, the chieftain of this tribe. The sun was just dropping below the horizon, and the goblins and hobgoblins had gathered in clumps around the edges of the circle. There were torches lit, and off to one side there were several firepits with empty metal spits set over them, waiting.

Defeat their champion, and everyone goes free. Tavros looked around again. Truly, we should not count on that, nor depend upon their honor in the face of hunger. Their weapons were nowhere in evidence, but Tavros had turned his head just far enough to see Olvern drop down from where he'd been clinging to the ceiling above the door, and slide out of the prison behind the guards and prisoners to go in search of their equipment or anything else they could use. 

He looked at Tarric, then at Anica. Each them nodded back to him, keeping their gestures small. They knew their duties. Tavros, since he had evidently been mistaken for one of the lizardfolk, would step forward to face the tribe's champion; he was the distraction. When the tribe's attention was most closely on the battle, Tarric and Anica would assault their guards, while everyone else made a break for the edge of the village. There didn't seem to be any mounts here; perhaps the tribe had eaten them already. 

The priest Moro emerged from the champion's hut and mounted wooden stairs to a small, square platform that seemed to server as a sort of crude pulpit. He made his voice loud enough to carry across the field, and called: "Tonight, he comes forth!" 

The crowd answered in chorus: "Tonight!

Moro continued: "Tonight, he fights for our tribe!" 

"Tonight!

"Tonight, he faces the lizard-man paladin!"

"Tonight!"

"Tonight he breaks this paladin! He throws him across the place of the trial!  Tonight, he feasts on his bones!"

"TONIGHT!" They were screaming, now, and Tavros stepped away from his friends and the other prisoners, out of the circle of guards, and into the center of the village. 

The village fell silent as their champion rose from his bed and stepped out into the dying of the sun's light. For he was huge, taller than any of them, wider and heavier and stronger, and his steps shook the earth. 

Behind him, Tavros heard Anica say softly: "They have a Hill Giant."

And into that silence, Tavros called: "Tonight, he falls." He stepped out into the jeers of the crowd, ignoring them, clenching and unclenching his fingers, rolling his shoulders, stretching his neck. On the far side of the circle, the giant stepped out of its hut and clapped in childish delight. Then it ran forward. 

Tavros moved to meet it, calculating distance, timing... 

It was almost close enough to reach for him when he exhaled a spray of frost, an inheritance-gift from his long-absent father. The giant stumbled in sheer surprise, then tried to grab for him; but Tavros ducked under its arms and scored it with his claws: once across the belly, again across the small of its back. The giant spun, swinging out a fist, and Tavros barely got his arms up in time; the blow knocked him back fifteen feet, but he rolled out of it and came up ready. 

The giant charged him, and this time Tavros hit it. It stopped, startled, then grabbed for him. He caught its hands and they stood there, straining, each matching the other's strength. 

Far off in his peripheral vision, Tavros saw Anica reach out and yank the sword out of a hobgoblin's sheath, then stab him with it. She turned immediately, cutting another one down. Tarric struggled with a second hobgoblin, who had caught his arm, but Mother Mia threw an arm around its throat, and Tarric took advantage of the moment to stab it. 

The hill giant shuddered, and Tavros went down on one knee. He curled his fingers, digging his claws into the back of its massive hands, and felt a certain satisfaction when the giant cried out in pain. Then it shuddered again, and hurled him away. 

The change of directions was unexpected, and he was helpless against it. He felt himself spin through the air, then hit the ground with stunning force; he only barely made it to his feet in time to dodge aside as the giant blundered past, screaming in rage and pain and fear. It smashed through a group of goblins who were too shocked to the get out of the way, then flattened a hut and came to a stop in the wreckage, still screaming. Something in the hut set fire to the thatch of the roof, and now the giant was burning as well. 

Tavros shook his head, got his bearings, and sprinted away from the giant and towards the crude wooden pulpit that the priest Moro occupied. The man was already chanting, but whatever he was attempting to invoke brushed past Tavros like a sudden wind. Tavros sprinted past the edge of the stand, and the chieftain Procrustes was between him and the wooden stairs but Tavros didn't slow. He barely felt the bite of the sword into his side as he smashed into the hobgoblin and trampled him. Then he was coming up the stairs, brushing past another spell as he charged. 

He tackled Moro off the pulpit and landed atop him on the bare dirt. Off to his right, the Hill Giant was burning and screaming and smashing another hut, apparently blind from the flames; a handful of villagers were trying to drive it back, but dying. Abruptly it stopped, shuddered again, and collapsed into the flaming wreckage. He raised the priest above his head, then brought him down across his knee, and heard the breaking-branches sound of his spine snapping. 

Rising, he kicked the corpse in the direction of Procrustes. "How many?" he demanded, and the armored hobgoblin, who had just come to his feet and lifted one arm, stopped. 

"How many can you afford to lose?" asked Tavros. "How many warriors, before your families starve?" 

Procrustes lowered his arm. 

"We're going to leave now," Tavros said quietly. "You have enough warriors here that you could end me, perhaps even recapture my friends and the other prisoners. But you would lose much in the attempt, and even if you managed it nothing would remain of your before long."

The hobgoblin looked down at his blade, then back up at Tavros. He tilted his head. 

"You heard me predict the fall of your champion," Tavros said icily. "Do you doubt my prediction now?"

Procrustes lowered his sword and stepped forward, slowly. "What are you?" he asked, at last. 

Tavros shrugged. "A paladin. My mother is a wizard, my father a dragon." 

"Then someone might come to avenge you," the hobgoblin observed. 

"Possible," Tavros admitted. "But I think you'd be ruined well before then. Choose the path of wisdom."

Procrustes nodded, then turned and walked up to the crude wooden pulpit. "Hold! My people, hold! We have been misled by the evil priest Moro! Even I have been taken in. Let these people leave in peace! Let us return to the hills, to live by the old ways. Let the name and the teachings of the priest Moro be forgotten. Come!" 

And he turned, and stepped back down. At the bottom of the stairs, he nodded to Tavros, and then turned to the goblins and hobgoblins who were gathering around him. 

Tavros made slow, obvious bow, then turned and walked away.

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