The paladin, Sir Masnin, cautiously followed Herad as she led him deeper into her camp. He got a few hostile glares but most of the bandits seemed more concerned about the squad of angry looking riders parked in front of the entrance to their base than the single man following their leader on foot.
Few, if any, of them thought of him as a threat to their chief. She had a certain reputation after all.
Like most the other bandits, Red Dog and the other lieutenants seemed focused on watching the knights at their gate. They were arguing about how best to fight the riders but Blacknail didn’t care about that.
The knights were just sitting there on their horses and glowering at everything and everyone nearby. That was really boring to watch and Blacknail didn’t want to look at their ugly and smelly horses anyway.
Somehow, these horses looked even more arrogant and mean than most. The hobgoblin had to resist the urge to throw a rock at the one in the lead to show it who was boss. He held back though, because that would probably lead to a misunderstanding and get him in trouble.
No, it was the paladin that interested Blacknail. The riders were just standing still but he was moving around and stuff. He was sure Herad and her guest would soon do something exciting and he planned to be there when it happened.
Blacknail could hear snippets of their conversations as he stalked them through the camp. The hobgoblin kept his distance; he wanted to keep out of sight. If Herad noticed him then she might send him away, and that would be no fun.
The paladin threw a quick look over his shoulder, and Blacknail ducked out of sight behind a tent. After a few seconds of looking around, sir Masnin apparently didn’t see anything suspicious because he just frowned in confusion and then turned back to Herad.
The bandit chieftain led the paladin around the camp for a few more minutes. The only place Herad didn’t take him was inside Mahedium’s workshop. After the tour was complete, she showed him the scarred circle of earth where the burnt remains of the ghouls and everything they had touched were buried.
Just as Blacknail had predicted, they didn’t find anything of interest. If any ghoul bits or infection was still around the hobgoblin would have smelled it long ago. He was the best, and only, ghoul sniffer around.
Blacknail slipped up beside a small group of nearby bandits where he wouldn’t stand out. From there he could get a good view of what was going on.
Masnin was standing on the filled in pit. The dirt below his feet was dry and grey and nothing had started to grow there yet.
“Hmmm, I’m quite surprised your... group handled this as well as you did,” the paladin mused as examined the large circle of broken earth. “You don’t seem very well equipped to deal with an outbreak like this. Much smaller packs of the accursed things have been the bane of cities.”
“Those cities didn’t have my leadership. I kept order here and we have a few old hands around who have dealt with the dark plague before. They knew a few useful tricks,” Herad explained as she drew a dagger and started nimbly twirling it through her fingers.
Hey, what was this now? Blacknail scowled at his chieftain’s words. Why hadn’t she mentioned him? He had done more than anyone else to get rid of all the ghoul gunk and find the stupid humans who had gotten it all over themselves!
“Still, it is very impressive,” sir Masnin replied as he looked up and glanced around the camp.
“Then you’re easily impressed, because this is nothing compared to what I’m really capable of,” Herad remarked smugly.
“Yes, I think I’ve heard quite a bit about you, Herad the Black Snake. Unfortunately, most of it was far from complimentary,” the paladin said as he frowned in disapproval.
“Nobody’s perfect, and you know how inaccurate the rumor mill gets,” Herad replied with an amused smile.
“Perhaps. Anyway, it certainly seems like everyone here is healthy. I’m a little concerned about that man over there, though. He has had his hood up and a scarf across face the entire time I’ve been here,” sir Masnin told her as he pointed Blacknail's way.
The hobgoblin went stiff as a board as the paladin singled him out. How had the man seen him? He’d been at his sneakiest! Maybe he needed to dirty up his clothes some more so they didn’t stand out. Most of the nearby humans’ clothes were grimier than his.
Herad didn’t bother to turn and look over towards who the paladin was pointing towards; she knew who it was.
“Oh him, he’s just butt ugly,” she replied nonchalantly. “He hates showing people his face and trust me you don’t want to see it, anyway. You don’t have to worry about him being sick.”
Blacknail scowled at her words. That was totally not the reason he wore his hood up most the time! There was nothing wrong with his handsome green face. Surely, she could have come up with a better excuse...
“I see. I guess I’ll take your word for it,” the man remarked doubtfully.
“Indeed, you’re going to have to,” Herad warned him. There was a cold edge to her voice underlying her pleasant tone as she spoke this time.
Judging by the doubtful look on his face, sir Masnin was clearly unconvinced by her explanation and still more than a little suspicious of the cloaked figure. He didn’t appear ready to press the issue, though. Either Herad’s behaviour or the fact that he was completely surrounded by violent armed bandits had him worried.
“Everything appears to be in order, then. Thank you for permitting me entry and destroying the ghouls I was tracking. Your efforts have helped spread the light of Helio-Lustria.” Sir Masnin told Herad as he gave her a slight polite bow.
This caused the bandit chieftain to smile in amusement.
“That’s me, I’m a bloody saint,” she replied sarcastically as she brushed a few strands of dark hair out from in front of her eyes.
“One does not need to be perfect to walk in the god of light’s illumination, and it’s never too late to devote your life to him,” sir Masnin explained reverently.
“Trying to tempt me away from a life of crime, eh? I think I’d rather just stay here and rob people for a living. It pays better and it seems like a lot more fun,” Herad countered.
“As you wish. I have seen everything I need to see and with your permission I shall take my leave,” the paladin told her.
“Maybe I don’t want you to leave. I think I like having a handsome young knight such as you in my power. What do you think about that?” Herad asked sir Masnin as she leaned in closer to him and smiled.
“Um...” the red faced paladin stuttered as her words threw him off balance.
“I could definitely find a use for you and that sword of yours. Perhaps you’d like to stay a little longer,” Herad continued as she licked her lips.
The paladin’s eyes widened. Blacknail could hear the rapid pounding of the man’s heartbeat from several paces away.
“Pardon me, but I should really go. I have to report back to my order” sir Masnin answered after a brief pause and with obvious reluctance.
“That will be difficult since your escort just rode off without you,” Red Dog interjected as he walked over to his boss.
Saeter was right beside the other man and both them looked annoyed. Vorscha appeared to have stayed behind, though. Herad instantly turned to look at her lieutenant. The paladin remained perfectly still except for his brow, which tightened in concern.
“Explain,” Herad commanded Red Dog.
“This guy’s escort started arguing amongst themselves a few minutes back. It got kind of heated and then they just turned around and rode off down the road and out of sight. From the looks they were giving the men I’m sure they don’t plan on coming back any time soon unless it’s to attack us,” her lieutenant replied.
One of Herad’s eyebrows rose as she turned and gave the paladin a suspicious stare.
“Can you explain this?” she asked him.
The holy warrior sighed deeply before replying.
“This was due to no action on my part. Sir Devus must have decided that I wasn’t coming back and decided to leave. He must have thought you’d acted against me and that he would be next. I obviously underestimated that man’s paranoia and impatience,” he explained to Herad.
“I don’t suppose they left me my horse?” Sir Masnin then asked Red Dog hopefully.
‘No,” Red Dog replied simply which caused the paladin to sigh again.
“It seems you’ll be staying here a little longer after all, while we figure out what to do with you. I’m going to have to ask for that weapon of yours now, though.” Herad told the paladin.
“As you wish,” the troubled looking paladin said as he drew his sword and handed it over.
“Hmm, I’m going to have to put you somewhere now,” Herad mused playfully, like a cat with a mouse. “My house would be the most secure place. Of course, since it’s full of my valuables I’d have to watch over you if I put you there. It’s out of sun though, and nice and private.”
“Alas, I’d hate to intrude upon you. Anywhere out here is fine,” sir Masnin replied quickly.
Blacknail scratched his head as he listened. Why would anyone take up Herad’s offer? Sure, her house was nice and cool but if Herad was there no one would be able to relax. Humans were weird.
“That’s too bad. I do like to please my guests,” Herad told the now nervous looking paladin with a smirk.
“Red Dog, make our guest here comfortable and assign him a pair of guards,” Herad told him. “I need to go check on our defenses in case those knights show up again. I have a feeling they will.”
“Yes, boss,” the bandit replied as his chieftain turned and began walking away.
Blacknail’s master stepped forward as Herad left and glared suspiciously at the paladin.
“I don’t like him,” Saeter then remarked.
“You don’t like anyone,” Red Dog replied dryly.
“I like plenty of people,” the old scout countered in an offended tone.
“Such as?” the other man asked doubtfully.
Now that Herad was gone, Blacknail also decided to stop sulking around. He began walking over to Saeter and the others and his master noticed the hobgoblin’s approach.
“Blacknail, for one,” Saeter answered triumphantly.
“Right, is there anyone human on that no doubt gigantic list?” Red Dog asked derisively.
Saeter froze for a second and a look of concentration came over his face.
“Bah, I don’t have to answer your stupid questions,” he muttered a second later before stomping off.
“I rest my case,” the other bandit snorted dismissively.
As Blackanil watched, Red Dog then led the frustrated looking paladin over to an empty tent. Well, if his master didn’t like the man then Blacknail decided he was going to keep an eye on him. The hobgoblin didn’t know why Herad hadn’t just had the man killed but he was clearly suspicious. Who knew what he could be up to?
“I don’t suppose you have any black tea?” the holy warrior asked as he sat down out in front of the tent and pulled his helmet off.
“Nothing you want to drink,” Red Dog replied.
The bandit then looked around and called two nearby men over and told them to keep an eye on sir Masnin.
“Stay here and keep out of trouble. You’re lucky the boss likes you and that most the men have nothing against the holy orders or you’d already be dead,” Red Dog grunted at the paladin before leaving.
The other man didn’t bother to reply. Instead, he knelt down in front of the tent, closed his eyes, and started praying. The two men Red Dog had selected took up position on either side of sir Masnin. Neither of them seemed too worried about the enemy in their midst. In fact, they looked more bored than anything.
Really, they were so bad at being guards that they should never have been chosen in the first place. Blacknail was going to do everyone involved a favor and take their place. Even the guards probably had better places to be.
A few minutes later sir, Masnin got up and crawled into the tent. One of the guards stepped around the tent to make sure nothing suspicious was going on behind it, and Blacknail made his move.
The hobgoblin calmly and silently walked up behind the man, while he was out of sight of his partner, and smacked him across the back of his head with a small club. There was a muffled grunt of pain as the man collapsed but Blacknail caught him before he hit the ground.
With that done, Blacknail slipped around the tent and into the other guard’s blindspot. The man was still staring off in the same direction with a slack look on his stupid face, so Blacknail knocked him unconscious with smack form his club as well.
Wow, these two bandits had been really bad at their jobs. What had they even been on guard against, working too hard?
Blacknail sighed exasperation as he dragged the unconscious idiots out of sight behind a pile of wood, where it was nice and shady. He was considerate like that.
Then, he riffled through the men’s pockets for anything interesting. He wasn’t planning on keeping the stuff he found, though. If he left them there a thief might come along and take their stuff while they were sleeping. As their loyal tribesmate Blacknail wasn’t about to let that happen. He would hold on to their stuff for them until later...
“What are you doing?” a youthful and curious voice asked from behind the hobgoblin as he was looking through a small coin purse.
As Blacknail turned towards the source of the voice, a shiver of frustration and annoyance worked its way up his spine and caused him to twitch. Shit, there was only one person in camp who sounded like that.
Behind him stood Khita, and she was giving him a curious yet smug look. Blacknail looked down at the knocked out men strewn at his feet and grimaced.
“Umm, they-ss looked like they could use a nap-ss, so I helped them. I’m going-ss to take their-ss place and guard the prisoner,” he hesitantly told the grinning girl.
“Sharp, let me join you,” Khita told him.
Desperately, Blacknail tried to think up a reason for her to leave. He didn’t want the annoying girl around but if he told her to leave now it might bring him unwanted attention. Oh well, if something went wrong he could always blame it on Khita.
“Fine-ss, let’s go,” Blacknail grunted quietly as he turned to walk back towards the entrance to the tent sir Masnin was using.
“Just a second,” Khita replied as she pulled her own hood up.
Together, the pair took up position in front of the paladin’s tent. A few seconds later there was a rustling from within and sir Masnin re-emerged.
“It’s not the cleanest tent I’ve ever had but I’ve seen worse. Hopefully I won’t be here all that long anyway,” the paladin said as he exited the tent.
He then froze and blinked a few times after looking up and seeing Blacknail and Khita standing there.
“You’re not the same guards from before,” sir Masnin remarked in confusion.
“Maybe we are...” Khita replied vaguely in as deep as a voice as she could.
“They-ss fell,” Blacknail explained truthfully at the same time.
“Right...” the befuddled paladin replied as he stared at his new guards.
Blacknail stared intently right back. His loose fitting clothes, scarf, and cloak concealed his inhuman form. Now that he was on guard there was no way this man was going to get away with anything bad.
Sir Masnin kept glancing back between his two new guards, as if he couldn’t decide which one was weirder. Both Blacknail and Khita were noticeably shorter than the men they’d replaced, and Khita had a clearly feminine voice.
“You’re the... man from earlier, and I’m fairly sure you’re not a man at all,” the paladin remarked hesitantly as he looked at Khita.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Khita replied angrily while Blacknail remained silent.
“Nothing, I just meant it’s unusual to see someone your age in such a place,” he explained politely.
“I’m unusually dangerous,” the young woman huffed angrily as she pulled off her hood and stared at the paladin.
“I believe you,” the confused paladin muttered as he sat down and shook his head.
Sir Masnin then closed his eyes and started to pray again. It only took a few minutes for Khita to grow bored and wander off but Blacknail kept up his watch. He was sure the paladin was up to something and just waiting for him to lose focus.
After a few more minutes of intense staring, Blacknail decided that the man wasn’t going to do anything as long as it looked like he was paying attention. Thus, the hobgoblin turned around and pretended to sit back against a log and relax.
Almost immediately, the hobgoblin saw sir Masnin open his eyes and turn to look his way. He clearly found Blacknail both unsettling and interesting. The man studied the hobgoblin for several minutes but appeared to simply grow more confused as time went on.
"I have to admit I haven't visited many bandit camps but this one seems very odd to me," sir Masnin commented. "You're all very different from what I expected and I have absolutely no idea what to make of you, personally. I don't suppose you want to tell me who you are?"
"I'm watching-ss you," a slightly insulted Blacknail hissed as he sat back up and glared at the paladin.
He was going to say more but stopped when he heard the sound of footsteps approaching. A few seconds later his master appeared and gave the hobgoblin a surprised look. He clearly didn’t expect to see him there guarding the prisoner, but it was the paladin he turned towards.
“Your friends are back and they’ve brought reinforcements. It’s looking like there is going to be a fight, so we have to decide what to do with you,” the old scout explained coldly.
Sir Masnin rose from where he was sitting and stared back at Saeter. As they glared at each other the paladin’s left hand inched towards his empty scabbard but then stopped and disappeared into a pocket at his waist.