The early morning twitter of cheerful birds filled the air. Blacknail was repacking his bag and preparing to start hiking again. All around him, the other remnants of Herad’s band were getting ready to move as well. When you were being hunted down by an army it was important to rise early and keep moving.
Over a quick breakfast, the bandits had decided to keep following the trail they were on as it paralleled the road north. They didn’t have a lot of options. Heading back would be suicide and there was nothing for them to the South. Most of them were wanted men and the others didn’t have the papers necessary to avoid being press ganged into the army.
The plan was to use the trails for a few more days and then slip back onto the main road. The forest path kept them hidden but it was also less direct and slower going.
The road would take them to Daggerpoint or another bandit friendly outpost. Once safely there they would disband, disappear, and hopefully join up with other bands. Most bandit chieftains didn’t ask their new recruits too many questions, and Werrick had no reason to put much effort into chasing down a few ragged and powerless survivors.
This plan didn’t sit well with Blacknail, but he couldn’t argue against it. It was frustrating, but he had no idea what he should do now. Would another tribe of humans take him in? Did he even want to join up with anyone?
Well, if he didn’t find a new tribe to join, he could always just do what he had done the last time he had gone to Daggerpoint. Living on the streets, stealing food, and killing people for fun and profit hadn’t been so bad. A hobgoblin could do much worse.
Blacknail’s idly thoughts were interrupted by Geralhd walking over to him. The man seemed to be muttering to himself. All that morning, the thin bandit had been looking sickly and depressed.
“Ah, Blacknail. How are you doing?” he asked the hobgoblin. “We face a cruel new dawn today.”
“I’ve been better,” Blacknail replied as he eyed the young man critically. Did he want something?
“Those are my general feelings as well... I woke up expecting Vorscha to be lying next to me, and then I realized that her presence would be ever denied me now,” Geralhd mused sorrowfully.
This wasn’t something that Blacknail wanted to hear, or think about. It brought to mind his own recent losses. There was nothing he could do about that right now, so he was trying to avoid thinking about it.
“You should be getting ready to move,” the hobgoblin pointed out sourly.
“You’re right, but I just felt like talking to someone, and no one else here seemed like much of a listener,” Geralhd admitted.
Blacknail wasn’t sure why the quality of his hearing mattered. He was confused for a second and his hesitation allowed Geralhd to keep talking uninterrupted.
“We had a complex relationship based on mutual self interest, but I’m going to miss her deeply. She deserved better...”
Blacknail didn’t care. The man could talk but that didn’t mean the hobgoblin had to listen. Hopefully, when they started moving Geralhd would grow too tired to keep talking.
Having conversations about your feelings was dumb. If you were happy you should continue doing the things that made you happy, and if you were mad then you should stab the person that had made you upset. That was the system that had always worked for Blacknail.
Admittedly, sadness was proving a little more complicated, but stabbing someone still seemed like a promising solution. It probably just had to be the right person, and if Geralhd didn’t shut up it might be him.
“Even Scamp looks melancholy,” Geralhd added as he pointed towards where the goblin was sitting. “He is probably missing Varhs. It’s all rather quite distressing.”
The motion drew Blacknail’s attention. He stared at where the goblin was sitting on a rock. The little menace was wearing his usual shorts and had a large knapsack on his back. Blacknail immediately noticed one huge problem, though.
“That’s not Scamp,” the hobgoblin observed warily.
“What?” Geralhd replied in surprise as Blacknail stalked over to the goblin.
It only took Blacknail a few moments to recognize the pale skinned little creature with black hair. It was definitely Mahedium’s pet, but what was it doing here?
The goblin calmly met Blacknail’s suspicious gaze, as the hobgoblin stomped his way. There was a relaxed look on its face which annoyed Blacknail. How dare the little creep come into the hobgoblin’s camp without asking permission or offering tribute!
“What are you doing here?” Blacknail asked the goblin as he snarled down at it.
“Following you, great one,” the creature replied politely.
This response startled Blacknail and threw him off track. He hadn’t even known the goblin could talk! Still, it was being properly respectful, at least.
“Where did you learn human speak?” he enquired in shock.
“I listen to people and talk to Scamp,” the goblin answered simply.
That made sense, but it was also deeply suspicious! Blacknail didn’t like the idea of the little goblin sitting in a dark corner while secretly listening to everything everyone said. Worse, he had probably been learning things, on purpose. What kind of goblin did that? Learning was something you should only do when you had no other choice!
“Where is Scamp?” Geralhd asked as he walked up beside Blacknail. “Nothing happened to him, right?”
“Over there,” the goblin replied neutrally as he pointed towards the forest.
Sure enough, a small green figure could be seen walking along the tree line. The goblin appeared to be rooting through the underbrush for bugs or other sources of food.
That was normal behaviour for Scamp, but there was something very odd about Mahedium’s goblin, and Blacknail intended to put him in his place. He was the hobgoblin here and this goblin was too arrogant.
“Fine, but what’s in the sack?” Blacknail asked as he smiled smugly and nodded towards the bag on the goblin’s back.
Something flickered behind the goblin’s eyes for a second before he responded. He had thought something over with alarming speed.
“I take shinnies from Mahedium,” he told the hobgoblin humbly. “You can have if you want, very tall stabber of humans, but it heavy.”
Blacknail scowled in disappointment as he flipped the sack open and peered inside. He hadn’t expected the goblin to offer him the bag. That took the fun out of taking it from the goblin. However, he did like the titles the goblin was giving him. Blacknail knew his height was just perfect for a hobgoblin.
“That certainly looks like stuff from Mahedium’s lab,” Geralhd added as he leaned over Blacknail’s shoulder. “The little goblin must have grabbed whatever caught his eye before fleeing the fire and following your scent. He must have thought it would be safer to follow a hobgoblin.”
The inside of the bag was indeed stuffed full of items that looked like they had come from the mage’s cabin. None of the junk at the top was all that interesting or useful during a long hike, and Blacknail didn’t want to dig deeper in case something exploded.
“You can keep it,” the hobgoblin announced as his scowl deepened.
Geralhd’s explanation didn’t satisfy Blacknail. There was something off about this goblin and the way it acted. However, if the goblin wanted to drag heavy junk through the forest for who knows how long then Blacknail wasn’t going to stop him.
“Thanks, wise master,” the goblin responded as he nodded respectfully.
“He needs a name. What should we call him?” Geralhd interjected happily.
What was this now? For some reason, the bandit’s mood had picked up. Blacknail and the goblin both turned towards Geralhd.
“Our new compatriot needs a name, like yours and Scamp’s,” the young man explained. “He doesn’t have one yet, right?”
“Nope,” the goblin confirmed as he sat there with an indecipherable expression on his face.
After thinking it over for a few seconds, Blacknail realized that Geralhd was right. Naming the goblin would be useful. Unfortunately, the hobgoblin didn’t really care all that much and no good names sprung to mind.
“I’ll just call him Gob,” Blacknail announced.
This name didn’t appear to please anyone else. Geralhd winced as if in pain and the goblin vigorously shook his head in denial.
“How about Imp, after the demon that punishes the arrogant who turn away from the gods?” Geralhd suggested.
As if a goblin needed fancy name like that! Well, it didn’t matter. Blacknail didn’t feel like arguing about something so stupid.
“Whatever,” he said before snorting disdainfully and turning away.
After a few minutes passed, everyone had finally gathered up, and they were ready to get going. With Blacknail leading the way, the surviving bandits entered the forest and made their way back to the path.
Hiking quickly grew monotonous. The trail was rough, uneven, and thin so the going was difficult and tiring. Several of the humans started talking quietly amongst themselves to pass the time, and their conversation drew Blacknail’s interest.
“So, the hobgoblin is our scout, but who is our leader? We should really have one in case we need someone to take charge in an emergency,” a bandit pointed out.
Blacknail’s ears perked up as he focused on the man’s words. That was a very good question! He had been too busy fighting and working to consider the fact that their group was currently leaderless. They obviously needed a chieftain, and it should obviously be him!
“I should be the new leader,” Blacknail politely suggested as he came to a sudden stop and turned around.
There was silence for a few seconds as everyone else stopped and considered this. For some reason, almost no one but him seemed to think it was good idea.
“Er, how do you figure?” a male bandit asked with surprise and doubt plain in his voice.
“I’m the strongest and smartest person here,” Blacknail replied. “I could kill you all or just leave you all to die in the forest. How could it be anyone else?”
“The person part is arguable,” a blonde bandit muttered quietly.
“I heard that,” Blacknail replied crossly as he glared at the man.
“...but he’s still got my vote!” the man quickly added as he flinched and smiled apologetically at Blacknail.
“Blacknail should totally be the new boss!” Khita exclaimed, but everyone ignored her.
“I’m not following a hobgoblin!” another man interjected heatedly.
“Just leave it. What are you going to do? Fight him? That’s not going to make anyone here think you’re smart,” a woman replied. “We do need him more than he needs us.”
“Plus I’ll kill you,” Blacknail added helpfully.
The humans took several seconds to talk among themselves. Surprisingly, it was Geralhd who took charge.
“It’s not like we have any other plan but to follow him, anyway. Why shouldn’t he be in charge?” he told the others.
“Well, I’m not going to be the one to tell the murderous hobgoblin Slosher that he can’t be the leader,” a bearded bandit added.
“Er, can he even do the job? He’s undoubtedly a great fighter, but it takes more than that to lead,” someone else replied skeptically as he threw Blacknail a nervous look.
“I have a plan there,” Geralhd countered before turning back to the hobgoblin.
“We’ve agreed that you’re the best choice for leader, Blacknail,” he announced.
“Good,” Blacknail replied proudly as he straightened up and smiled.
He was the leader! That meant he was better than everyone else, and that they all knew it.
“We also want to elect a sub-leader, in case you are too busy... doing important things... to take charge. You know, just in case,” Geralhd added diplomatically.
That made sense to Blacknail. He nodded in acceptance and the humans began talking among themselves. Having a sub-leader would just mean less work for him, and the leader already did next to no work. This was going to be great!
“You seem to be the hobgoblin whisperer here, so it may as well be you,” the woman from earlier suggested to Geralhd.
After a brief but intense conversation everyone else agreed. Some people looked angry and disappointed but they didn’t argue. They were probably just jealous of Blacknail’s undeniable leadership skills.
“All right, that’s all settled then,” Geralhd concluded.
Blacknail took this time to plan his first move as the leader. He scanned the people behind him for a familiar face. Ah, there was Elyias! The young bandit was way at the back and Blacknail had almost forgotten he existed. How silly of him.
“Since I’m the leader, I shouldn’t carry my own bag,” Blacknail announced before pointing at Elyias. “You should take them.”
“What? That’s not fair!” the young man said in shock.
Elyias had been keeping to himself at the back of the party, but now he spoke up and looked to the others for support. No one cared. They shrugged or even glared at him for trying to drag them into his problem.
“Just do it,” the man next to him said mercilessly.
“Also, if you drop anything or steal from me I’ll kill you,” Blacknail added as he passed the young man his bags.
“Fuck me,” Elyias swore as he took them. “How did I end up here?”
Free of the weight of his knapsack, Blacknail’s shoulders felt much looser. He hummed happily to himself, as he rolled his shoulders and started leading his loyal tribe of followers through the forest. He was the leader!
Nothing much happened for the next few days. They hiked through the day and took shelter during the night. Their movement through the forest was slow, and since they had little in the way of supplies they also had to forage a fair bit as they moved.
Luckily, Blacknail knew where to find edible plants. Saeter had taught him quite a lot and he had a very good nose. It was spring so quite a few young plant shoots could be eaten raw.
Scamp and Imp were also skilled at gathering plenty of delicious bugs. They easily found more than they could eat and shared the rest with the humans. However, for some reason, the humans started to complain about the food. They were very spoiled.
“Would it be possible to find some real meat?” Geralhd eventually asked Blacknail.
He had just come from a brief huddle with most the other humans. They had begun to thin out a little and their eyes shone with hunger. Blacknail thought it was a good look on them. It made them more hobgoblin-like and the loss of fat would allow them to run faster.
“Sure, it’s out there,” Blacknail replied as he pointed toward the forest.
“Er, I meant could you go get it? You’re the best hunter here. The only hunter, really,” Geralhd clarified.
“You wanted to move quickly,” Blacknail countered.
“We also need real food. Most of us are out of rations.”
Blacknail considered this for a few moments. He didn’t want to do it, however since he was such a great leader, he would.
“Fine, we’ll stop early at night and I’ll set up some traps, which I’ll empty in the morning,” he explained.
This was good enough for Geralhd and the others. They continued hiking for the rest of the day until it began to grow dark, and then they set up camp. While the others foraged for plants, Blacknail sniffed out some rabbit trails and set up snares.
That next morning he checked them and found three rabbits. The excited humans quickly turned them into a breakfast stew. Over the next few days of travelling they kept this pattern up, even if it did slow them down.
Eventually, the trail they were on ended at the top of a cliff. Below them, they could see an expanse of trees and a wide roaring river. The river stretched down from a far off mountain range and cut across the landscape. There was only one way to cross it.
They had to make their way back to the main road. Herad had destroyed the original bridge across the river there, but it looked like Werrick had repaired it. From atop the cliff, they could see it.
Some of the bandits thought it would be too risky to head back to the road. This was an obvious spot for an ambush. Unfortunately, Blacknail explained that they had no choice. He knew of no other crossing and it would be incredibly risky to try and find one.
So, the group of survivors carefully crept through the forest and back towards the main road. Blacknail led the way down the slope and through the trees. He moved carefully and kept his eyes open, just in case there were enemies nearby.
However, when Blacknail stepped out of the forest and under the sun, nothing happened. There was no ambush waiting for them on this side of the river.
“Maybe they don’t care about us?” Geralhd remarked in relief. “I mean, why would they? With Herad dead, we’re no threat to Werrick.”
There was a chorus of agreements from the others, but Blacknail wasn’t so sure. Why send rangers after them at all then? He intended to keep his eyes open.
The hobgoblin made his way over to the bridge that lay across the river. It was a slim rickety looking thing, but it was still much better than trying to swim across the water. This early in the spring, the river was wide and its current was moving rapidly. Splashes of white water were constantly hitting the rocky banks.
After glancing across the river at the winding road and distant tree line for any sign of ambushers, and not seeing any, Blacknail started crossing the bridge. The wooden planks beneath his feet creaked as he moved, and he was soon joined by the rest of his group.
They made it to the other side without anything dramatic or unexpected happening. Blacknail glanced back over his shoulder in the direction they had come, before leading his party down the road.
The mood of the party quickly started to pick up. Unlike on the forest trail, it was easy going on the road and the trees weren’t so oppressively close. Without branches hanging overhead and greenery blocking their sight, everyone felt much safer.
“We will get to Daggerpoint within a few days at this rate!” someone cheered.
“If Werrick was chasing us he would have guarded the bridge. That means we’re in the clear!” another woman added happily.
“I’m just glad we don’t have to walk through anymore mud. I think my one boot has sprung a leak,” Khita announced.
Several other bandits joined in the celebration. Most of them seemed to believe that they had escaped their pursuers. However, Blacknail just frowned thoughtfully, and Geralhd noticed his expression.
“What are you thinking about, Blacknail?” he asked.
“I think they might think that we have a secret sneaky way across the river; this is our territory. That means they would ambush us anywhere but at the bridge,” the hobgoblin explained.
“That’s a little paranoid,” one bandit suggested.
“Did that even make sense?” another asked.
There were murmurs of agreement from most the other humans, and that annoyed the hobgoblin more than a little. He turned to glare at them. He was the boss! How dare they question him!
“Shut up. You’re all being too noisy. I’m the leader and I say be quiet,” Blacknail ordered them haughtily.
“Ya, he’s the leader,” Khita added.
The hobgoblin ignored the annoying redhead and his hand inched towards his sword hilt. If anyone challenged him then he might have to make an example of one or two of them. It was important to keep minions in line.
“We should do as he says,” Geralhd interjected. “There’s no reason to attract unwanted attention.”
There were nods of reluctant acknowledgment to the man’s words, and Blacknail let his hand fall away from his sword hilt. He snorted disdainfully before turning back around and continuing to walk.
There was still a long journey ahead of them before they reached Daggerpoint, and anything could happen in the wilds. Blacknail was going to have to muster all of his considerable intelligence and natural leadership skills to get them there safely.