The troll growled menacingly as it glared at Blacknail. The sound was full of raw rage and hunger. A shudder went down the hobgoblin’s spine, and he instantly understood what the beast was trying to communicate.
“Yep, you can have those,” Blacknail stuttered nervously with false cheer. “Consider the meat a gift!”
He carefully took a step back from the troll and the pile of bodies it had been feeding on. Overcome by terror, he kept his eyes lowered submissively. He didn’t plan on trying to assert his right to his own kills.
With all that food in front of it, the troll probably wouldn’t bother chasing down one small scraggly hobgoblin, as long as it didn’t get angry. Unfortunately, trolls were famous for getting homicidally enraged over nothing and killing people.
The hobgoblin continued to back away slowly, and the beast turned away from him. It continued eating again. Blacknail reached the edge of a patch of bushes. He took a step backwards and there was a snapping sound as his foot crushed a twig.
Blacknail winced at the unexpected sound and his breath caught in his chest. He hoped the unwelcome noise didn’t draw the beast’s attention.
He wasn’t so lucky. The troll looked up and its furious eyes locked onto the hobgoblin. It growled, and its massive green bulk shifted as it took a step towards him.
“Fuck,” Blacknail swore under his breath.
With a hiss of rage, the troll lurched forward. Its mouth opened to reveal huge razor sharp teeth as it lunged towards the hobgoblin.
In response, Blacknail yelped in terror and jumped. He twisted around in the air and was already moving when he landed. Instantly, the terrified hobgoblin sprinted madly across the ground towards the closest tree. Its huge trunk might get in the way of the terrible beast and slow it down. It wasn’t a great plan, but it was the only one he had.
The sound of claws tearing into the earth and growling quickly closed in on Blacknail’s exposed back, but his plan worked. The hobgoblin reached the tree without getting eaten, and he put a hand up against its bark as he rushed around it.
Blacknail threw a terrified glance back over his shoulder to see the troll’s charge slow. It didn’t want to collide with the tree trunk at full speed. The hobgoblin would have laughed triumphantly, but he still had nowhere to go and he was probably going to be eaten alive.
Could trolls climb trees? The hobgoblin had no idea.
Another menacing deep growl issued forth from the troll as it approached. It reached out with one hand and its claws tore into the tree bark as it came to stop. Fury radiated from the beast as it studied the hobgoblin hiding from it on the other side of the tree.
“Go away... please,” Blacknail said as he stared at the unstoppable predator with eyes wide with fear. “I’m just a little hobgoblin. You don’t want to eat me; I probably don’t taste nearly as nice as a fat juicy human.”
He was totally fucked. The hobgoblin whimpered softly to himself and his stomach felt sick. There was no way he was going to survive this.
Blacknail had seen how fast trolls could move and how hard they were to kill. It had taken a large squad of specially armed humans to take the last one down. This one was just toying with him, like he was rabbit or a mouse.
So much for all his plans; Blacknail was never going to kill Werrick. This troll was going to chew the hobgoblin up, and then it would finish eating all the humans he had killed. Werrick wouldn’t even get Blacknail’s message. It would look like a troll had killed the scouts. It had all been pointless.
The troll smelled of foul meat and rot. Its muscles flexed as it crouched low and prepared to spring towards Blacknail. The hobgoblin drew his sword. It was a pitiful weapon, but maybe he would get lucky, and piss the beast off enough that his death would be quick.
There was a rustling sound as a breeze blew through the forest and shook the branches on the trees. For a second, the scent of the troll was replaced by that of leaves and soil. Then the moment ended, and the beast leapt. Its eyes glowed with hunger as its massive jaws opened in preparation to feed.
Pure terror overwhelmed Blacknail and he froze. Time moved slowly, as his eyes widened with shock. The troll was fast and its jaws promised inescapable death. There was no way he could possibly get out of the way.
As the beast lurched through the air towards him, something hit it. The troll was knocked sideways as a long wooden spear slammed into its flank and sunk deep. There was a thunderous crash as the beast hit the ground. It roared in fury and pain from the unexpected assault.
Blacknail stood there and watched uncomprehendingly. He twitched slightly but didn’t otherwise move. He had no idea what was going on. A second ago, he had been staring at the open troll jaws that had been about to bite down on him.
With tremendous force, the huge spear was driven deeper into the troll. There was a snapping sound as it pierced right through the green predator and sunk into the ground, pinning it there. The troll began to roar and thrash around but it was held fast.
Four arms held the long spear in place. Each of them was much larger than those of a human. They were also covered in bark. Blacknail had been saved by what looked like a mimic.
A closer look revealed more details. The creature with the spear was undeniably similar to a mimic but also quite different. It had the same shell like armor that looked like bark, but its build was different. Its tall body was much bulkier and had fewer growths with leaves protruding from its back.
The biggest difference was the face. Instead of eye stalks, it had a head that looked almost like a human wearing a polished wooden mask. Its dark eyes shone with intelligence instead of the dumb blackness that filled those of a mimic.
The creature was silent as it held the troll down. No matter how much the troll thrashed and howled it couldn’t get free or reach its attacker. After a few moments, it began to slow and eventually go completely still. It was dead.
Nothing happened for a moment. Blacknail watched silently. He didn’t want to attract the attention of anything that killed trolls. That would be stupid.
There was a quiet creaking noise as the tree-like creature turned to look at Blacknail. The hobgoblin cringed and reluctantly met its gaze. The thing was very tall and it had a very big spear.
However, the creature simply looked curious as it studied Blacknail. At least, it didn’t seem hostile, but it was hard to tell since its face resembled a solid slab of wood.
There was a soft muttering noise from behind Blacknail. He cringed again and glanced over his shoulder. What was it now? Another troll? Hadn’t things gotten crazy enough?
Another creature stood behind the hobgoblin. It sort of resembled the spear-holder, but it was much smaller and only had two arms. It also had a carapace that resembled bark, but pale green flesh was visible in the joints.
Blacknail felt his jaws go slack with surprise as he studied the second creature. It sort of looked like a human! In particular, it looked like a woman wearing oddly shaped wooden armor, even if it wasn’t really human.
A mass of long vine-like tendrils grew from the back of its head, and its face was soft and fleshy. There was no mistaking the resemblance to a woman; it even had breast-like bumps under its chest armor.
The female tree monster met Blacknail’s gaze. Her face was serene and revealed nothing. The hobgoblin looked like someone had shaken him until he couldn’t stand straight.
The creature opened her mouth and incomprehensible words spilled out from between her weirdly human lips. Blacknail just stared at her blankly. Her voice was soft and melodic but he had no idea what was trying to say. It sounded nothing like the words of humans or goblins. He hoped this wasn’t a test.
When Blacknail didn’t reply, she turned to her much larger companion and said a few more strange words. He answered her in a deeper voice that echoed like sound through a hollow log.
When they were done talking, she walked over to the spear-wielder, and he shambled over to the troll and picked it up. Together, the pair then started walking off into the forest.
Blacknail let them go. He wasn’t going to question what had just happened. If trees wanted to come alive and save his life then that was fine with him. Also, he was still so shocked he had forgotten how to move.
What were those things that had killed the troll? Saeter had never mentioned anything like them, and they seemed important!
After a few moments had passed, Blacknail shook himself free of his paralysis. He was glad that he had already repacked his bag and gear before the troll had shown up. It was time to get the hells out of here and meet back up with the others. He would be safer among his human meat shields.
Without a word, the hobgoblin dashed back onto the trail. He moved as quickly as his legs would carry him, and he didn’t look back. It was starting to get very dark out now. Dusk had passed and the sun was well past the horizon. Even Blacknail’s hobgoblin eyes were having trouble seeing through the gloom of night.
The only sound that reverberated through the forest as Blacknail scrambled down the trail was the sound of his own heavy breathing and frantic footsteps. This didn’t reassure him much. He hadn’t heard the strange tree creatures approach at all, and they had been near silent when they had left. He simply had to hope that they weren’t following him or that he could outrun them.
After a few long minutes of running, and almost tripping over unseen stones or branches a few times, Blacknail saw a familiar rock up ahead. It was taller than him and its grey bulk jutted out from the ground beside the path. It was the marker he was looking for.
Off of the path, the darkness of the forest was almost impenetrable, but Blacknail turned and stepped into it. This was the way to the campsite where he had sent the others.
A lot had happened today. Blacknail had fought a battle, lost comrades, hiked through the forest, gotten into another fight, and then seen things he didn’t understand. He was too tired and sore right now to even process it all.
Even if it was too dark out now to see footprints or other signs, Blacknail could still follow his comrades’ scent through the forest. The campsite was just up ahead, and Blacknail was going to be very angry if there wasn’t a hot meal waiting for him.
They had no excuses. The hobgoblin didn’t care if half of them had fallen into a sink hole or been mangled by a giant boar. None of his human tribesmen could navigate through the forest or help all that much in a fight, so they had better at least have set up a half decent campsite. If they hadn’t, Blacknail was going to give them such a kicking in the morning.
Blacknail stepped out of the forest. Moonlight shone down on the ground in front of him and illuminated the way. Up ahead, there was a rocky hill that ended at the base of a cliff. A small fire burned atop the hill, and it cast a host of shadows against the backdrop of the cliff.
The hobgoblin had found the rest of his party. He raised a finger to his lips and whistled shrilly in a way that imitated the call of a particular bird. That was the signal he had arranged beforehand. He didn’t want to startle anyone by sneaking up on them unannounced. They might overreact and then he would have to hurt them.
There was no response, so after a few seconds Blacknail whistled again impatiently. What were they doing? Were the lazy pink fools even listening?
This time he did get a reply. It didn’t sound anything like the signal, though. It sounded more like a frog being strangled than any sort of bird call. Still, it was close enough. Blacknail grunted in annoyance as he made his way over to light.
The hobgoblin could see a pair of figures near the fire watching him as he climbed the rocky hill. Saeter had used this spot as a campsite because the open ground around the hill and the cliff behind it made it almost impossible to approach without being seen.
When he got closer, Blacknail recognized one of the humans as Geralhd. The thin young man was standing with his back to the fire. The other bandit beside him wasn’t important.
“You’re back! I was afraid something had happened to you,” Geralhd announced happily when Blacknail was close enough to see by fire light.
“Is there hot food?” Blacknail asked grumpily before yawning.
He wanted to eat and then get some sleep, not deal with idiots. He looked past Geralhd at the dark shapes that were stretched out around campfire. Most of the bandits were asleep.
One smaller outline obviously belonged to Khita, and she was very gently snoring. Blacknail was glad he didn’t have to deal with her obnoxious personality right now.
“There’s some stew. It’s barely palatable, though. We only had one pot, and none of us had time to get proper rations, so we just threw whatever we had in,” Geralhd explained as he pointed to a small iron pot that had been set on a stone beside the campfire.
“Fine,” Blacknail grumbled as he walked over to it.
The stew didn’t smell very good, like boiled dried meat and grass. That wasn’t surprising since that was probably what it actually was. Blacknail picked the pot up, sat down on the rock, and began slurping the stew down. As he ate, Geralhd continued talking.
“There was a small cache of firewood under an overhang where it would stay dry, and we gathered up a bit more from the forest before it got dark, but we will have to conserve it carefully if we want to keep the fire going all night.”
Blacknail didn’t reply and just kept eating. None of that sounded important. As soon as he was done eating he planned on finding a spot next to the cliff, where it was safest, and curling up to sleep.
“Um, when you doubled back to check for pursuit, what did you find?” Geralhd asked the hobgoblin.
This caused Blacknail to finally look up at him. The hobgoblin blinked a few times as he sorted through events in his mind. He had no idea how to answer in a way that was both truthful and which wouldn’t invite a million more annoying questions, so he lied.
“I didn’t find anything worth talking about,” he eventually replied.
“So then... what was all the screaming we heard about?” Geralhd asked in surprise.
Blacknail stared blankly at the thin bandit for a second, and then his gaze shifted to the man’s tiny pink ears. Humans had such terrible hearing that the hobgoblin had just assumed they hadn’t heard anything.
“But then I ran into some of Werrick’s men and killed them,” Blacknail explained reluctantly. “You don’t need to worry about them. We’re safe now.”
“And the bestial roars?” Geralhd asked next.
“I stepped on a pinecone. It really hurt,” Blacknail replied deadpan.
This answer clearly didn’t satisfy Geralhd, but there was no way the hobgoblin was going to admit to even seeing a troll. It would bring up too many other questions he didn’t want to answer, and the humans didn’t need more reasons to be afraid and useless.
Blacknail ignored Geralhd’s questions and told the man he was going to sleep. Reluctantly, Geralhd left the hobgoblin alone and went back to take his turn on watch.
When he was gone, Blacknail found an empty spot and unpacked his blanket. The familiar softness of the cloth comforted and relaxed him. He yawned as he spread it over the hard ground and then lay down. It smelled like home.
The stars shone brightly in the clear sky up above, but a lot of them weren’t visible. The shadowy cliff loomed to one side, and wall of trees rose on the other. It was almost like Blacknail was looking up from the bottom of a deep pit or well.
The only sound to be heard was quiet human snoring and a faint rustling off in the forest somewhere. Blacknail stared at the stars as his body relaxed. However, for some reason, one corner of his mind couldn’t let go of consciousness. It wasn’t a problem he’d ever had before.
He was... troubled. He couldn’t stop wondering about the future and thinking about the past. Blacknail was used to living in the present, so this feeling bothered him.
It was like the illusion of the pit that surrounded him was real, instead of just in his mind. He had fallen into darkness. What did he do now that he had no master? What did he do without Saeter?
The howl of wolves echoed from off in the distance. Their sound was faint, even to his amazing ears, but easily recognisable. Blacknail listened and a wave of memories washed over him.
Saeter had found the sound beautiful. He had said it was the sound of the North. Blacknail didn’t feel the same way. The howling reminded him of how vast the Green was, and of all the strange things that lived within in it.
Wolves were just dogs and they were associated with his enemy. One day, Werrick would die at his hands. The hobgoblin focused on that thought until he drifted off to sleep.