Otherwise, read on!
Bishop charged ahead up the snowy hillock, trying to keep pace with Keothakan, the goliath warrior.
“Helm … grant me … strength.”
The cleric’s simple prayer came in gasps of breath as he labored up the slope, but as he reached the summit Bishop felt a reassuring presence settle about him like a warm stole. The Watcher was with him. Secure in that knowledge, Bishop could endure whatever was to come.
From the gully below came the sound of goblin voices. Bishop did not speak the foul creatures’ language, but he didn’t need to–the urgent calls and hissed responses spoke of a raiding party making haste to depart. Crude but clever, the goblins had obviously realized that others would be searching for the load of supplies they had found abandoned in the snow. Unfortunately for them, the goblins had already tarried too long.
For a moment, Bishop paused on the precipice of battle. He was still unsure of the wisdom of seeking out this conflict. Though the goblins were obviously a nuisance to the people of Ten Towns, they were hardly a threat. Bishop had come north to find a way to vanquish the evil that kept Icewind Dale locked in an endless winter, not to crack down on petty theft. And there was a murderer on the loose, too, lest anybody forget.
Still, Boko had a point. It was the bard who had first heard about the missing shipment of dwarven iron, and who had convinced the rest of the party they should go in search of it. If Bishop’s expedition was to be a success, he would need the trust and good will of the people of Ten Towns, and the best way to earn that was by dispensing justice where it was due, however prosaic the offense.
Bishop looked to his right to see Keothakan squinting in the darkness, trying to make out the source of the voices below. Bishop whispered the words of the twilight creed, and saw the goliath’s eyes go wide in amazement. Now gifted with the divine sight, Keo would be able to see the dozen figures dragging their ill-gotten gains across the snow to the wagon waiting at the gully’s end.
The goliath’s mouth pulled into a rueful grin, and he signaled to the rest of their companions as they came struggling up behind. Then, with a roar like an avalanche, Keothakan charged down the far slope with his glaive held high.
Bishop didn’t need divine sight to see that the goblins would never reach their wagon.1
The last of the goblin corpses was already stiffening with cold by the time Bishop finished his mumbled prayer, rising from where he knelt by the creature’s side. The cleric doubted that goblins had any redeeming qualities, but his prayers would speed their souls to Helm regardless. The creatures could answer to the Watcher for their deeds in life–His judgment knew neither prejudice nor pity.
Nearby, Kip stood over the pile of iron ingots the goblins had been trying to abscond with. The elven warrior was obviously puzzling out how best to get the reclaimed cargo back to Bryn Shander.
“I suppose we could load it up on the goblins’ wagon,” mused the elf, looking doubtfully at the ramshackle vehicle standing at the foot of the gulch. Two polar bears, hitched to the wagon with chains, bellowed angrily in the party’s direction, and Kip flinched despite the distance between them.
“The goblins were controlling them with this.” Bit the sorcerer held aloft a small clay phial he had retrieved from the lead goblin’s corpse. “We could do the same.”
“How did they get the beasts to drink it?” asked Kip, still eyeing the bears nervously.
Bit shook his head. “The goblins drank it. The elixir allows one to command beasts, forces them to do the user’s bidding.”
Bishop appraised the sorcerer warily. The goliath seemed to have no compunction about the prospect of magically enslaving another creature–he spoke of the idea with a lilt of curiosity. Controlling a beast of burden was one thing, but what if the elixir’s magic worked on people as well? Would the sorcerer hesitate to put it to such use?
Bishop decided he would have to watch Bit more carefully going forward, at least until he was sure of the goliath’s intentions.
Suddenly, Bishop saw Keothakan tense. He followed the warrior’s gaze to see the human lad, Raoul, walking slowly toward the two bears. The creatures snarled menacingly, and Bishop noticed the hollow scoop of the beasts’ flanks. These bears were hungry.
“Raoul!” barked the goliath, but the young man continued forward, unheeding. Slowing his pace as he approached the great beasts, Raoul stretched out his hand.
The nearest bear stretched its jaws with a soft growl, its bruise-colored tongue flicking out to moisten the taut, black lips. The creature’s maw was easily large enough to crush the lad’s skull with a single bite. Raoul’s fingers were inches from carnage.
“Helm preserve us.” The prayer came unbidden to Bishop’s lips.
The bear’s tongue reached out, searching, and found Raoul’s hand. The young man stood utterly still, his face betraying no hint of fear. The purple tongue worked its way up Raoul’s wrist, and then the bear twisted its head, pushing his hand up against its gums. Slowly, Raoul brushed his fingers back and forth along the row of deadly teeth, then slid his hand up over the bear’s lip and onto its coal-black nose. The bear dropped its head and let out a soft moan.
Raoul turned to face his companions, his hand still stroking the creature’s snout. “We should let them go.”
Keothakan let his breath out in a low, steady hiss. Bishop closed his eyes and whispered fervent thanks for his answered prayer. When he opened them again, it was to see Kip staring vexedly back at the pile of iron ingots.
“Well, I guess we’re carrying these to Bryn Shander.” The elf grabbed an ingot and pitched it into the snow at Boko’s feet. The bard looked at the iron with distaste, making no move to pick it up.
Kip grabbed another ingot and tossed it to the ground in front of Bishop. The cleric smiled as he bent to retrieve it. The iron was heavy in his hand, its edges smooth and sure.
Like the task Helm has laid before me, thought Bishop as he stowed the bar away. The cleric wasn’t sure he was yet equal to what lay ahead, but he trusted the Watcher would give him trials enough before the end.
After all, that is why a smith hammers his steel. To forge its strength.
To make it ready.
1 Standing in stark contrast to their first, harrowing encounter with the snowy owlbear, the party’s skirmish with the goblins saw the heroes firmly in command of the battle. Here, the characters were the hunters, not the hunted, and they were facing a group of far weaker opponents, not a powerful monster. In truth, the fight was not challenging in the slightest … and yet, it was an important, satisfying, and dramatic encounter. Why?
Because the idea of “balance” is larger than a single battle. Stories have a rhythm to them, the ebb and flow of rising stakes and tension. To strike the right balance, an adventure needs both high-stakes fights and bombastic brawls. We tend to think of the former as “dramatic” and the latter as a fun romp, but in truth the drama comes from the contrast between the two and the overall shape of the narrative arc.
The goblin fight was dramatic not because its conclusion was ever in doubt, but because it showed the characters doing what they do best, and in doing so planted the seed of the idea that these scrappy adventurers–who today were vanquishing a ragtag band of goblins–might eventually be capable of triumphing over the much more powerful adversaries that still lay before them.
Challenging encounters are well and good, but some days, heroes just need to feel like heroes.