ONE MORE VOICE TO HEAR
The next whispers came on like the faint sound of a distant wind. As though the building offered some respite from a gale outside, he could hear them, but they were ethereal, misplaced.
Declan looked to his companions then. Ilayeth and Tornig stared wide-eyed, as though the instructions the whispers gave him were gospel. They soon realized, though, that the recruit withdrew into himself, his eyes losing focus on them.
As though the wind had found its way into the stable then, he could hear the strongest whispers swirling around his ears.
“You’ve already been harsh,” the powerful undertone spoke into his mind. “They will expect as much when you meet with them again. Throw them off their guard—show a mercy they might not anticipate. Even an undeserved kindness can be a weapon of its own, and one not easily countered. But neither can you be weak. Prepare to make an example if you must.”
Almost as soon as the breeze had entered the building, it left. Declan looked over his shoulder, shaking his head when he dismissed the thought of seeing one of the stall doors swaying in the wind.
“Ye heard them again, didn’t ye?” Tornig asked then.
“What did the whispers say?” Ilayeth pressed as well.
Declan let a calm wash over him and nodded as he considered what the whispers conveyed to him. “Perhaps we’ve been thinking about this the wrong way.” When they sent quizzical looks his way, he waved them off. “You both talked about wrenching the truth from the goblin or the gnoll. You spoke about torturing them,” he said, pointing toward Tornig. “But that’s what they came here for—they were prepared for whatever nasty end would befall them if things went wrong. And of course, we’ve already played our hand. We didn’t have to save the goblin when he was bleeding out. Now he knows we put a value on life.”
Tornig crossed his arms over his chest. “So, what are ye getting at lad? Ye plan on waltzing up ta one of them and asking them pretty please until they feel sorry for us?”
“Not exactly. But maybe it’ll be easier to pry their lips open if there isn’t a piece of metal fusing it shut. Perhaps we can make a trade and make their arrangement a little less awful.”
“Declan…” Ilayeth began.
“Ye mean to make nice with the bastards, and we’ve got a few of our own in the guild house that may never wake again,” Tornig growled, every word rising in volume.
“Settle yourself,” the half-elf maiden warned. “You’ll give away our plan.” She sighed and leaned against the wooden barrier separating the next stall. “I can’t say I like this either, but we’re putting our faith in the voices he hears. Perhaps it is time to let them help us decide on our next course of action. After all, I’ve not earned so much as a complete sentence from either of our two…guests.”
“Bah,” Tornig said after alternating glances between his two companions. “Lad, ye told me that the little birdies chirping in yer ear didn’t always give you the best advice. Are ye sure it’s the best time to be listening to them? It doesn’t get more dangerous than this.”
Declan shrugged. “I feel like trusting them is what kept me alive. The whispers were the ones who told me to pick up the staff,” he said, raising the magical weapon into the air. “If I didn’t have this, I don’t know that I would have been able to fend off the goblin while he was putting the rest of the guild house to sleep.”
Tornig grumbled but bowed his head before finally shifting into a nod. “Alright. If it wasn’t for the birdies, maybe I wouldn’ta woked up from me little surprise rest in there. We’re lettin’ ye take the lead here, boy. What’s the plan?”
Taking a deep breath, Declan turned about, looking past the raised walls of the pens along the southern side of the stable. “Ilayeth and I will head down and meet with the goblin. We spent a considerable amount of time with him compared to the gnoll. And in a lot of ways, we’ve already negotiated with him. He still has his life, thanks to us. Perhaps that gives us a way in to begin our discussions.”
Ilayeth snickered then, despite her fatigue and the dire straits that the guild was in. “While I have the utmost respect for you and your whispers, it seems they don’t always know everything. The goblin is down this way,” she gestured toward the other side of the building.
Staring at her as though a great secret had just been discovered, Declan waved his hands then. “What they offer is more like advice anyway,” he said.
“And what will I be doing while the two of ye are off making friends?” Tornig wondered.
“You came here looking to flex your muscles or show off your axe a little bit,” Declan said. “Perhaps you can go and visit the gnoll and see if he responds to someone with a little more grit—and what he might assume is the willingness to use it. You could also let him know that whichever one of the two of them gives us information first might still be of use to us. The other would just prove there’s no hope for cooperation in the future.”
Tornig tilted his head to the side, observing the lad a little closer. “He’s a smart one. Ye sure he isn’t an old half-elf like you?” he asked Ilayeth. “Maybe they just rounded his ears down a little bit to hide the truth about him.”
Declan smiled, taking the strange statement as a compliment, as Declan intended it. Before he could bask in the praise of his new friends, though, Ilayeth nudged him toward the gate of the pen.
All their merriment seemed to wash away as they stepped into the long corridor before the stalls. The guards on either end of the building nodded their acknowledgments as a more seasoned member of the guild neared their side of the stable.
When Ilayeth and Declan arrived there, the guard, a man taller than either of them with striking blond hair that fell past his shoulders, leaned over and opened the way for the maiden.
She stopped short of entering the pen, or the visible part of the corridor before the swinging gate. “Perhaps I should have a moment with him to let him know what’s to come,” Ilayeth whispered as she turned toward Declan. “If we’re trying to ease his anxiety, surprising him with you may not be in our best intentions.”
“Agreed,” the recruit said. “I’ll wait to hear my name.”
Ilayeth, blowing out a silent sigh, proceeded onward, tapping the guard on the shoulder as an expression of her gratitude.
The tall, blond guard shifted and sidled away from his post until he sat halfway out of the prisoner’s line of sight.
“You’re Declan, right?” he asked. He had a softer voice than Declan expected. Likewise, he didn’t expect the man to lean over and extend his hand. “I’m Jace. As I understand it, thanks to you all I had was a quick nap instead of something far worse.”
“I’m glad that I could do all I did,” Declan replied, returning the kindness and shaking the fellow’s hand. “Truth be told, it was all practically by reflex. If it wasn’t for the staff I picked up in the basement, I don’t know that we’d all be standing here.”
Jace shrugged. “All I know is that when I went down, I thought it was for good. My brother is at the Grey Arches with the guild leader, and without him here…”
“Your brother is another member of the guild?” Declan asked.
“That he is. He’s one of the more popular clerics, and he paved the way for my arriving here several years ago. When my eyes fluttered open, I thought he had returned, but I was told that it was our newest recruit that saved my life, and for that, you have my appreciation.
“That’s not to say that everything is fine without Nico,” Jace went on. “Some of us weren’t just faced with a forced slumber. I’m afraid if my brother doesn’t return from the expedition soon, we may lose more than we’re prepared for.” He waved his hands then. “You’ve still done us a great service, and on your first day here no less. It appears they were right to send for you, whether or not you had some help from an ancient treasure.”
“Declan,” they both heard then.
Jace moved back to his spot against the northern wall of the corridor, nodding to his new guildmate when he arrived there.
Declan hesitated for only a moment before he joined Ilayeth in the last stall of the stable, allowing his gaze to arrive upon the prisoner when he passed the swinging gate. The goblin, already worn down it seemed, kept his focus on the straw-covered ground.
Free from his watchful gaze, Declan spent a moment being observant instead.
The goblin stood against the wall, his arms held up by a chain that wrapped over one of the building’s broad crossbeams. Not content that his bonds would restrict him from using his magic it seemed, thick, fingerless gloves were affixed to his hands as well. And as though that wasn’t enough, a band of similar material was clasped over his mouth, only a small strip of flesh separating it from his nostrils. It took some effort to remain standing, Declan surmised, for a sheen of perspiration marred the goblin’s brow then. He seemed to rely more on the chain holding him up than his feet.
Seeing enough, Declan blew out a quick sigh and tapped his new staff against the ground of the pen, casting out a burst of dry topsoil in every direction.
The action caught the goblin’s attention, and he looked up. His eyes grew wide at the sight of the staff, and wider still at the sight of the man who resisted his magic in the guild house. He stood taller than, easing up the tension of the chains. Whether it was deliberate or not, his visage of hopelessness changed to one of determination.
Or perhaps it was curiosity or respect, the recent arrival surmised.
“You remember Declan, don’t you?” Ilayeth asked. The goblin sent a sideways glance her way for but a moment before he returned his focus to Declan. “He turned the tide inside the guild house, in more ways than one,” the maiden went on. “You were defeated because of him. But it’s also thanks to him that you’re still alive.”
“I don’t envy you for the pain or discomfort you’re in,” Declan said. “But then, we were attacked, so you can’t quite blame us. The thing is, you’re doing us little good hanging here from the ceiling.” He looked to Ilayeth then, who urged him on with a subtle nod. “There are two ways that we can fix that though. I think each one of us here in this pen would regret if we had to end your life, but if we feel that’s the only way to protect ourselves, we will.”
The goblin shifted uneasily at that statement. The guild members studied him to see if he believed that sentiment.
“We also can’t just let you go,” Declan continued, “not without some token of cooperation or assistance.” He sighed then and looked to Ilayeth once more. “Remove that magic gag we’ve placed on him. This one-sided conversation is beginning to trouble me.”
“But his magic,” the maiden returned. “We know that he intones to focus his spells.”
“And he knows that we outnumber him,” Declan pressed. “We’re three to one, just here. And if he should manage to step outside the stable, another dozen of our friends would be eager to cut him down if any harm came to us.”
Ilayeth sent a fierce stare at the recruit, considering whether to invoke her rank and deny him his plan. After a moment, she shifted her focus to the goblin, and raised her hand. The metal band across his mouth glowed red for a split second and then fell from his mouth. Freedom from that gag had him wincing from the unexpected pain.
Declan watched as the magical metal slab fell from the prisoner’s face. Before it hit the ground, however, it burned even brighter than before, until it fizzled away like parchment in a fire.
“There,” Declan said when the goblin looked up at him once more. “Now you can speak, and we can listen.”
Even being liberated from the gag, the goblin sealed his lips and locked his jaw. His gaze alternated between the two casters before him, only sometimes shifting to the warrior who stood sentinel in the corridor.
“Let’s start with something simple,” Declan said. “What is your name?” When he was met with only silence, he laughed and took a step back, so that he could lean against the taller back wall of the pen. “You already know my name, but I’ll give it to you again. I’m Declan. And in case you didn’t know, this is Ilayeth.
“We already know your associate’s name: Ignark. One of our other companions is talking to him now, trying to glean some idea of why we were attacked as well. He’s been a little bit more cooperative, but I suppose that’s just because he’s a fellow who doesn’t mind hearing himself speak.”
The goblin’s brow furrowed, and he looked to his side, where no one stood, as though he could try to hear what he could of his friend on the other side of the building.
Ilayeth stepped forward and caught his focus then. “We only need one of you to—”
“Gorik,” the goblin interrupted her.
In that moment, neither Ilayeth or Declan could determine whether the word was said with disdain, indifference or a touch of vulnerability.
“Gorik?” Declan wondered.
“It is my name,” the weary goblin said. “Now we all know one another.”
Declan nodded. “That’s a great start.”
“Maybe now you can give me a little more slack on these chains,” Gorik said. The statement wasn’t said with any signs of resentment, and he sighed for good measure, as though he already knew his chances were lacking. “Just enough for me to sit.”
“Depending on how our conversation goes, that might not be important,” Declan replied.
Their conversational dance had the goblin on his toes more than the chain did. Unfortunately for Gorik, he had not mastered the art of concealing his concerns.
Declan waved away any notion of harm. “It would be more comfortable inside the guildhall, I assure you. There’s no sense in you being bound out here. If you give us the information we need, you’d be in our company—not our prisoner.” When he saw Ilayeth’s heated scowl, he raised his hands to placate her. “That’s not to say that you would have free reign of the building. We’d still have guards watching over you. You attacked us and we need to make sure such a thing doesn’t happen again.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be like that,” Gorik muttered.
“What was that?” Ilayeth asked. “What did you say?”
Gorik shook his head then, realizing he had already said much more than he would have wanted to. When he looked up at Declan again, he saw the face of someone who offered empathy, as though he could see him as more than just a monster or a ruthless killer.
“You say we attacked you, but it was not meant to be like this,” Gorik said, looking straight at the man before him, and not at the maiden who asked him to clarify. “It’s true, we were planning on coming here and causing problems for you, but we never sought to hurt anyone.”
“It was you that was putting people to sleep,” Declan reasoned.
“But the explosions that went off in the guildhall?” Declan wondered aloud.
“Ignark and I didn’t even know they were coming.”
“What were they?” Ilayeth asked.
With a shrug, Gorik looked at the ground. “They were some…some kind of concoction. She didn’t even tell us she’d made them. And when we neared the door to the building, she…” His words trailed off as he remembered the events that occurred earlier that day.
“Who is ‘she’?” Declan pressed.
Gorik looked up and swallowed away the tension that built in his throat. “I’ve already said far too much. It’s not my—”
“That’s fine,” Declan went on. “Let’s focus on what you do want to tell us. Are you saying it was a mistake that the guildhall was attacked?”
“In the way that it was,” the goblin insisted. “It was only meant to be a distraction—something to buy us time. But now I wonder if…”
Before he could reflect further into his worries about the attack on the guildhall, everyone in the stable could hear the frantic footfalls of someone approaching the building.
“What is it?” they heard from outside.
“Ilayeth!” a frantic voice called out.
“You can’t just go in—and there you go,” Orn conceded.
Declan watched as Ilayeth hurried from her spot in the pen and stepped past the swinging gate. Even Jace wore a worried appearance then, wondering what foul news was brought their way.
“Emilie?” Ilayeth said. “What’s wrong?”
His curiosity wrenching him away from the high wall of the enclosure, Declan spun about and leaned over the wooden post that led to the corridor. There, just a few feet farther down, he saw the harried woman who rushed into the stable without any concern for tact or discretion.
The woman was only about Declan’s age—perhaps even younger. He wondered if perhaps she too could have been an elf, but with her auburn hair pulled into a long braid that fell over her shoulder, it left her ears uncovered, and he could see their rounded tops. Her cheeks were flush, and she had tears in her eyes, and it seemed that it was all Ilayeth could do not to pull her into an embrace.
“Yaro isn’t doing well,” she whimpered. “Without any help, Robert says he won’t last into the night.”
Jace heaved a heavy sigh and leaned against the wall beside him. “If only Nico was here.”
Declan could feel the whispers then before he could hear them in the farthest parts of his mind. The hairs on his arm rose up, and he couldn’t dismiss the chill that seemed to swirl around him. He closed his eyes, hoping to hear what guidance he could muster from the disembodied voices.
“If a cleric is what you need, there is one not far from you,” a mischievous whisper crept into the pen.
“You know you cannot put your trust in hopes.”
“The guild was attacked. That cannot be forgotten.”
“Someone needs aid,” another stern whisper pressed. “You’ve begun to hold some sway here in the guild, even after so short a time. Will you dare to ask for help that you cannot give?”
Declan let the murmurs roll over each other one after another in his mind. After a moment of lingering there, he looked over his shoulder.
Just as Gorik had seen it in him, Declan wondered if he could detect a hint of empathy on the goblin’s face.