The hobgoblins rode unchallenged through the main gate of Torvecken, followed by the infantry, the wolf-handlers and -riders and then the straggling column of hob who had been uprooted from the city to make their home here. Rudickar was riding near the front, with a hand-picked guard of four in front of him, and his steward, Ekka, immediately behind them. He'd forced Ekka to wear a bright-red tunic so that he stood out from the main column of drab hob soldiers, a clearly visible target for any hidden human archers who might be lying in ambush.
As they rode in though, Rudickar realised that his scouts had been correct: the city, at least near this gate, had been abandoned. The gate-house stood, supporting gates that screamed on their hinges as a century's worth of rust flaked away as they opened, but inside the floor was thick with dust, undisturbed and somnolent. The furniture was ruined, and when Ekka had been ordered to sit on one of the chairs it had collapsed in a shower of worm-eaten splinters dumping him, and the remnants of his pride, on the floor. The buildings away from the gate-house had been less well built and doors hung from single hinges or had fallen altogether, shutters for windows were long gone, and walls sagged or had holes in. As they rode through what was sung in the histories as the North Market, all that remained was a dry, dusty square of cracked paving stones on which the wheels of the supply wagons creaked hollowly, raising echoes that a living city should never hear.
After the North Market they came to the Fountain of Slaves's Tears, a huge circular basin filled with stagnant rainwater and clumps of green algae. In the centre of the basin was the base of a shattered statue on which was carven hob runes, still visible despite the destruction and neglect. They spelled out the name Batrakkar, King of Hob, the second King of Torvecken who was supposed to have tamed the wolves and put them to service. Something twisted in Rudickar's stomach when he saw this, wondering if time or the humans were responsible for the destruction. Then he realised that in either case the humans were responsible, for they had taken no care over the city, abandoning it like a girl-hob: unwanted, unneeded and unloved.
Leading due East from the Fountain of Slaves's Tears was the Royal Strait, a wide avenue that ran for a quarter-of-a-mile and terminated at Torvecken Palace, the ancient seat of Hobgoblin Kings. Wishing that he felt more victorious, Rudickar turned the hobgoblin column that way and tried to ignore the dereliction all around.
When they reached the palace he was quite relieved to see that it was still standing and that there was no obvious damage to it. A deep moat surrounded it but the drawbridge was down and the portcullis up. He snarled then, unable to stop his face twisting and his voice giving vent to his rage. The palace had been left open for anyone to loot and plunder; even the mangiest hob cur could have crept in and sat upon the throne and tried to claim the city for themselves.
Ekka looked round, his face drawn and worried, and Rudickar gestured abruptly that he should ride forward, across the drawbridge. Reluctantly he did so, turning round every few seconds to watch the hob horde behind him; foolish in Rudickar's opinion since all the potential danger lay ahead.
The drawbridge held, no traps triggered, no sudden plummeting of the portcullis to impale would-be entrants to the castle, and when Ekka reached the courtyard beyond, he dismounted and dropped to his knees, trembling as though he couldn't believe he'd survived. And just for a moment, the briefest flash, Rudickar saw something flitter across the courtyard, like a piece of string snapped and recoiling. He blinked, and the vision was gone, though a sensation like ants crawling across his skin persisted for a few seconds longer.
"Onwards!" he cried, lifting his sword to catch the afternoon sun. "Torvecken is ours!"