Saeter didn’t say anything for several long moments. He just stared at Herad. She was still stooped over in the dirt. Her breathing was laboured and she didn't seem aware of what was going on.
“No, I won’t do it. She was my leader and she had my loyalty,” he eventually told Werrick. “I’m too old and tired to throw everything away again. I’ve done that too many times already.”
The enemy bandit chieftain stood in front of Saeter. The old scout was still sitting on the ground and Werrick’s huge presence loomed over him.
“Are you sure about that? If you don’t join me then I will kill every last member of this band. Surely there are some among them that you wish to see saved?” Werrick asked. “You may choose a few to keep as your subordinates.”
Saeter frowned in concern and wrinkles formed under his eyes. He looked unsure of himself as the Wolf continued his speech.
“There is the goblin you took in for instance. I saw your loyal pet at your side but a few moments ago. Mahedium may have swatted him aside but he still lives,” Werrick said as he pointed towards where Blacknail lay. “If you refuse me then I will have no choice but to kill him as well.”
There was another moment of silence as Saeter glanced in Blacknail’s direction. His face was blank and it was impossible to guess what he was thinking.
“If self interest isn’t enough then perhaps you need a cause to call your own?” Werrick inquired. “Join me and I shall create a new kingdom, greater than all the others! Together we will usher in a new age where men’s actions count for more than their blood!”
“You’re nothing but the puppet of a gaggle of corrupt Southern merchants. I know you work for the Broken Wheel Company,” Saeter accused the bandit chieftain.
“I don’t work for anyone. The Broken Wheel’s backing is simply convenient, for now. When they try to undermine me I will be ready,” Werrick replied. “I am the one using them.”
“That’s what every pawn and tool ever born believes,” Saeter replied. He wasn’t convinced.
“Join me and see for yourself.” Werrick countered. “The White Raven fought for Northern independence and was the first bandit chief in the North. I intend to be the last. I shall raise a new kingdom up in these untamed lands, one greater than all the others. We dream of the same thing, old man. I fight for what you fought for.”
“You expect me to believe that when you revel in torture and misery?” Saeter accused Werrick. “You obviously don’t fight for anyone but yourself and your own sick enjoyment.”
“I am never cruel without a reason,” Werrick replied evenly. “We both know Herad did far worse than this to others. Her minions killed, raped, and robbed their way across the North. Countless lives were destroyed by her actions and you supported her. Don’t pretend you’re better than this.”
“Oh, then why did you set up this sick show?” Saeter asked. His voice seethed with anger.
“Firstly, to show you that she wasn’t worth your loyalty,” Werrick explained. “Here in the North, it is natural for the strong to rule the weak, and I am far stronger than her. I’m simply making this clear to you.”
“That doesn’t explain why you are making us finish her off,” Saeter countered.
“That’s simply so I know if you can be trusted,” Werrick replied. “If you refuse to strike down your old leader I know you remain loyal to her and will work against me. If you do finish her off then you will be just as responsible for her death as I am. I find it this is an effective test of character.”
Saeter had been slouching but after hearing Werrick’s words he straightened up and met the man’s eyes.
“No, I refuse. You’re going to have to kill me. I’ve done enough evil for one lifetime and this is a line I refuse to cross,” the old scout announced with determination.
Werrick frowned and turned to Red Dog.
“Well, what about you then?” he asked the other captive.
“I’ll do it,” the other man answered with a voice full of reluctance and guilt.
Slowly, the bandit lieutenant got up and reached out for the fallen sword. He picked it up and then froze. For several seconds he stared down at Herad and bit his lip.
Werrick waited patiently. Even though he was unarmed and within Red Dog’s striking distance he didn’t seem concerned. There was an aura of self-confidence around the bandit lord that weighed on his surroundings. It was hard to imagine things not going his way.
“I’ll be doing her a favour at this point,” Red Dog muttered to himself.
“You’ll be saving your own skin by betraying her,” Saeter rebuked him.
“He promised to spare some of my men as well. They’re more important than one woman who is already dead, even if she used to be the boss,” Red Dog shot back. “It’s not like she would risk herself for us anyway. She’s always been a selfish bitch.”
The bandit lieutenant took a step towards Herad and raised the sword up above his head. His old boss didn’t respond. She appeared to have lost consciousness.
“Stop!” Saeter suddenly ordered Red Dog.
As his captures watched, the old scout rose to his feet. Red Dog froze as Saeter reached out and took the sword from his hands.
“What are you doing?” Werrick asked.
“Let me do it. I’ll be the one to take her life,” Saeter answered him. “I just need to tell her something first.”
One of Werrick’s eyebrows rose as a surprised look appeared on his face, but he didn’t say anything.
“Goodbye, Herad. You’ve always been an arrogant snake without a shred of decency and look at where it has led you,” Saeter told his fallen chief. “You should have taken your ill-gotten riches and retired.”
The old scout then stuck the blade he had taken from Red Dog into the earth and knelt at her side. He placed a hand on her shoulder and shook her slightly. She turned to look in his direction. Her face was clouded by pain and hate but she was conscious.
Saeter leaned in close and whispered something to her. It was too quiet for anyone to overhear, but as he spoke a weight seemed to disappear from his shoulders.
“Fuck you, old man,” Herad coughed in reply as she glared at him.
A few seconds later she coughed again and rolled onto her back. Her eyes were clenched shut and her face was tight with suffering. Stony faced, the old scout drew a dagger from his side. A moment later, he stabbed Herad up under her rips and then pulled the blade back out.
As everyone watched, the defeated bandit chieftain let out a deep breath and went still. All the fatigue and anxiety disappeared from her bearing as she died. Saeter placed a hand on her face and muttered a quick prayer.
“There, she’s dead,” the old scout said as he turned back towards his captures and pulled the sword he had sheathed in the ground out.
There was a frown on Werrick’s face as he examined the old scout and Herad’s corpse. He then turned towards Red Dog.
“You still need to do your part. The bitch is already dead or dying so you’d better get your blow in quickly,” he told the other man.
“Right,” Red Dog acknowledged nervously.
The bandit lieutenant reached out and gestured for Saeter to hand him the sword. The old scout nodded, stepped forward, and ran Red Dog through with the blade.
“What?” he croaked in disbelief as he looked Saeter in the eyes.
“I never really liked you, coward,” Saeter explained as he quickly pulled the blade out and spun towards Werrick.
The ranger brought his sword around and viciously stabbed at the bandit chief’s chest. Werrick was caught off guard and a look of shock appeared on his face. He was able to jerk his body to the side and dodge the blow, though.
Instantly, his guards drew their own weapons and readied themselves to take Saeter down. They had the old scout completely surrounded. However, before they could act, Werick raised a hand and stopped them.
“No, I’ll do this myself,” he told his guards.
Saeter slashed at him again, but Werrick easily stepped back out of the way. There was a disappointed look on Werrick’s face as he glared at the old scout. The Vessel dashed to the side and one of his men passed him a sword. He started to say something but another attack by Saeter forced him to stop and concentrate on blocking the blow.
Before Saeter could strike again, Werrick took the offensive. There was a slick metallic noise as Werrick pushed Saeter back and their swords slid against each other. The Vessel’s inhuman strength knocked the scout back and he stumbled. Immediately, Werrick followed up with a slash that slammed into Saeter’s side.
“Damnation,” Saeter cursed as he fell.
Blood poured from a great gash in his side as he collapsed onto his back. However, a smug grimace appeared on his lips as he lay there. It was clearly a fatal wound but the old scout didn’t seem afraid or angry.
“What was the point of that? Why were you loyal to her?” Werrick asked. “She didn’t deserve it and I had hoped for more from you.”
If Saeter was capable of mustering a reply he didn’t have time. There was a distant bang and a thick column of black smoke rose into the air. Everyone turned to look at this new distraction.
“That came from my lab!” Mahedium shouted in alarm.
“I left specific orders that no one was to enter that building,” Werrick replied with obvious frustration at being interrupted.
“I need to go see what has happened. The materials and papers there are irreplaceable!” the mage whined.
“Then go see what happened,” Werrick told him coldly. “You’re not needed here.”
The bandit chieftain then ordered several of his men to accompany the mage. With his escort in tow, Mahedium hurried over towards the explosion and whatever remained of his lab.
A rustling sound from nearby woke Blacknail from his stunned stupor and reminded him that he had his own problems. Was one of his enemies finally coming to finish him off?
Shock and confusion had overwhelmed the hobgoblin. His head was numb and hazy, and thinking about the events he had just seen unfold caused pain to stab through his mind.
Nonetheless, his self preservation instinct was strong. He wasn’t about to lie down and die. He could figure things out later. Right now, he just had to live. There was no way his master was really dead. He could still be saved somehow...
Blacknail quietly began to struggle to rise to his feet. As he moved he glanced towards the direction of the noise and saw a familiar face.
Khita was leaning around the corner of nearest building. Her eyes narrowed as she spotted Blacknail and she raised a finger to her lips to signal silence. Blacknail stared at her blankly as she skulked over to his side. What did she want? He didn’t have time for her.
“I’m here to help,” the young redhead explained as she pulled out a knife and began cutting him free from the tarp he was tangled up in.
When that was done, Khita grabbed his shoulder and pulled him up. With Blacknail leaning on her shoulder, she started walking back over to the building. She was leading him away from his master but Blacknail couldn’t muster up the will to resist. His everything still ached.
No one noticed their escape; none of Werrick’s minions glanced in their direction. Half of them had gone with Mahedium so that only half a dozen remained, and they were all looking at the pillar of smoke that was winding its way up into the sky in the opposite direction.
Khita hurriedly led Blacknail around the corner of the building she had come from. When they got there, Blacknail was surprised to see several members of his tribe hiding out of sight among a scattering of barrels and other equipment.
Vorscha stood out in front of the others. Behind her was Geralhd and around a half dozen other bandits. Oddly enough, Scamp was cowering behind Geralhd’s legs but there was no sign of Varhs.
“Here he is. I told you I could do it!” Khita exclaimed happily as Vorscha reached out to take Blacknail from her.
“And I told you not to try! You could have been killed!” the large woman hissed in reply.
“But she succeeded, and we need to worry about our next move now,” Geralhd interjected. “You can drum her down later. The explosion won’t keep them distracted forever and the Wolf’s men are everywhere.”
“There’s no chance of getting Saeter?” Vorscha asked Khita with obvious concern.
“No, Werrick’s right on top of him and he’s been badly wounded,” Khita explained.
“Then we need to leave. We’ve already overstayed our welcome. I was hoping to grab Saeter or another scout but we will have to make do.”
“Finally, I don’t know why I followed you idiots. We should have run off into the woods at the first chance we got!” a man behind Geralhd exclaimed nervously.
Several other bandits nodded in agreement. They all looked terrified and more than a few of them kept scanning their surroundings. Blacknail was instantly reminded of rabbits that sensed a predator nearby.
“Have any of you morons ever traversed the Deep Green?” Vorscha rebuked them. “Without supplies and proper scouts we won’t last a day, and Werrick will have people watching the roads for us. To escape him we will have to hike through the forest for who knows how long.”
“Fine, we’ve got the hobgoblin and the gear so let’s go. Blacknail is supposed to a holy terror out in the forest,” the man replied.
“I have to agree with that. I know we are still short on scouts but I don’t think we are going to find any still around,” Geralhd added.
“Ugh, it’s amazing how fast those bloody bastards disappeared,” Vorscha admitted darkly.
“That’s rangers for you. Half of them probably had their gear ready to go, just in case, and I don’t blame them,” someone else muttered.
While still supporting Blacknail, Vorscha started leading the squad of bandits off towards the forest. However, the hobgoblin tried to pull away from her.
“My master!” he hissed angrily. “I need to go back.”
He was too weak to break free and Vorscha kept moving. She only threw him a pitying look. There was deep sadness reflected in her eyes.
“You can’t save him, little one. You would only be throwing your life away,” she told him. “A good soldier knows when the cause is lost and when to fight another day.”
“No! I will sneak up on the man named Werrick and stab him the back. I can kill them all!” Blacknail argued defiantly.
“You can barely walk,” the woman replied frankly.
The group of fleeing bandits were slipping through the more built area of Herad’s camp. They used the buildings and tents for cover as they slipped towards the back of the base and the forest that lay beyond it.
Chaos reigned all around them. Most of Werrick’s forces seemed to have chased other parts of Herad’s forces back onto the road. Another large group had been roped into helping fight the fire at Mahedium’s cabin. The roof of the building was covered in flames and black smoke continued to pour out of it.
There were still a few small groups of Werrick’s men around but they seemed busy looting. None of them wanted to get a close look at Vorscha’s party, lest they turn out to be unfriendly.
“I will save my master! Let me go!” the hobgoblin protested.
“I’m not going to let you go. The people here need you, and I won’t let you throw their lives away along with your own,” Vorscha told him.
Shouting interrupted any reply Blacknail could have made. It rang out from near Werrick’s location.
“The hobgoblin, it’s missing!” someone yelled in surprise.
“Search the area. He can’t have gone far!” Werrick shouted in reply.
The bandit chieftain’s voice was immediately followed by pained laughter. Blacknail had never heard such a sound before, but he knew without a doubt who was making it. It was Saeter. The noise died a few seconds later and there was silence.
Dread overpowered Blacknail and his gut twisted up. His heart skipped a beat as he tore himself away from Vorcsha. He only made it three steps before collapsing.
No, this couldn’t be happening. He could make it in time! There was no way his master was dead. All he had to do was pick himself up and run to his rescue! For the first time ever, tears welled up in Blacknail’s eyes. His claws sank into the ground and as he clenched them they tore up the earth. He whimpered in pain. Why did it hurt so much! He didn’t understand!
“Get up!” Vorscha hissed as she grabbed Blacknail and wrapped an arm around his shoulder.
“Come on Blacknail! Keep moving,” Khita begged him.
They started walking again. Feeling was beginning to return to Blacknail’s limbs and his stride strengthened. However, a new type of weakness plagued him. He felt hollow inside and he couldn’t think straight.
“There they are!” someone shouted from of in the distance.
“Damnation, run for the trees!” Vorscha yelled as she passed Blacknail to Khita.
The warrior woman spun around to see a small horde of enemy soldiers bearing down on her party. Instantly, most of her companions made a break for the safety of the trees ahead of them. Only Geralhd and Khita hesitated.
“Take the hobgoblin and go! I’ll hold up the rear,” Vorscha ordered them.
Geralhd nodded and began helping Khita drag Blacknail. Together they managed to get him moving at a fair pace.
The sight of the enemy awoke something in Blacknail. Now that he had a focus, despair gave way to rage. Someone was going to pay for making him feel bad.
“I can run now,” he hissed as he pushed his two human helpers aside.
The hobgoblin broke out into a jog. He was still unsteady but he could keep up with Khita and Gerhald easily enough. Anger burned within him but he kept it contained by mentally running through sword drills his master had taught him. His master...
As his gait strengthened, Blacknail saw his tent off to one side. He and Saeter had set their campsite up near the forest, and Blacknail veered off towards it.
“What are you doing?” Geralhd asked between exhausted breaths.
The hobgoblin didn’t reply. He dashed towards his tent, quickly grabbed his backpack, snatched up one other item, and then hurried back over to the others.
They hadn’t slowed down for him but it didn’t matter. It took him mere seconds to catch back up. The diversion had been more than worth the time. Saeter had always made sure that Blacknail kept a bag ready in case they needed to go out on a mission. Its contents would be very useful.
The thick bushes that grew at the edge of the forest where the wall ended was only a short dash away now. Blacknail headed straight towards them.
There were too many enemies to fight. All he could do was run and try to figure out his next move. He wasn’t going to throw his life away in a fight he couldn’t win, not when there were so many people that he needed to kill.
There was a whistling sound and a loud meaty thud. Blacknail’s ears perked up and he ducked low as he recognized the sound of arrows in flight.
“Gods damn it!” Vorscha suddenly roared.
Someone had shot an arrow at her and it had grazed her leg. The warrior woman tensed up and stopped running. A deep graze bleed profusely a few inches below her knee.
“I’ll help you. Come on,” Geralhd quickly offered as he came to a stop as well.
“No, keep running. I’ll hold them off. I’ll never make it with a wound like this slowing me down,” his lover replied sadly.
“But...” he started to reply until Vorscha cut him off.
“Go!” she growled angrily as she drew her sword and turned to face the enemies bearing down on her. “We both knew this was a just a short term thing, lover. It was never going to work out.”
“Goodbye, and thank you for everything, love,” Geralhd replied sorrowfully.
After a moment of hesitation, he started running again. Anguish was plain on his face but he had no choice but to flee.
The sounds of fighting rang out in the air as Blacknail slipped into the bushes at the edge of the forest. Khita had already gone ahead and Geralhd was right behind him.
The hobgoblin took a moment to peer out through the greenery at everything he was leaving behind. Smoke rose above Herad’s camp. Somewhere out of sight lay Saeter and Herad’s bodies.
Nearby, Vorscha held off the first few enemies with a swing of her long sword. She wouldn’t last long. She was already being encircled by vicious looking bandits.
There was nothing Blacknail could do. He was helpless. The hobgoblin choked and his eyes watered as he clung to the item he had taken from his tent. It was the first gift his master had ever given him, his raggedy blanket.
Then, without a word, Blacknail turned and slipped away into the Green. He would be back one day...