The forest was just beginning to darken as dusk fell when Blacknail’s band of misfits found themselves making their way up an unremarkable hill. A canopy of broad leaves towered above them and was supported by scattered broad tree trunks that rose out of the earth. Dark soil was visible underneath the thin covering of plants that covered the ground.
They had been walking through the trees without stopping since they had decided to head Northeast in search of some sign of human civilization. Blacknail was just about to admit defeat and start looking for somewhere to set up camp for the night when he stumbled across a nearly invisible game trail, where the earth had been flattened and no plants grew. It went almost straight North, so at first Blacknail didn’t give it more than a brief glance. However, it was an unusually wide path and that drew his interest because a lot of animals were obviously using it. It would be useful to know what sort of creatures were nearby, in case any of them liked eating people. Blacknail only had so many spares.
A brief sniff around revealed nothing more dangerous than some old wolf piss, but his eyes spotted something interesting. Saeter had taught the hobgoblin not to rely too much on smell and how to track by following physical signs. It wasn’t usually that useful but sometimes rain or time would wash a weak scent away.
Blacknail came to a stop and looked down at his find. “Your great leader has found something, because he is the best scout ever,” he announced to his followers.
“It’s not another weird mushroom you want one of us to eat, is it? Elyias still looks a little out of it, but at least he’s stopped mumbling to himself now,” Beardy replied. He was third in line and he didn’t sound too enthusiastic about Blacknail’s discovery.
Elyias was holding up the rear of the bandits and he looked more than a little green. Every once in a while one of the feral goblins would poke him and giggle before running away but the young man barely reacted. He just plodded forward and stared ahead with unfocused eyes.
“No, it’s a foot print, and Elyias will be fine. My minion’s just feeling... relaxed now that his stomach is full and he’s not so hungry. His skin color has never looked so good!”
“A footprint? Is it a human one?” Geralhd asked hopefully from behind Blacknail as everyone stopped walking and looked toward the hobgoblin scout.
“Yes, from a boot,” Blacknail explained as he crouched down and pointed to where the heel of a boot had left an imprint in the dirt. The smooth curved edge was clearly visible, and a quick inspection of the surroundings revealed a few more signs of passing humans.
“It’s about bloody time! Gods, I hope this means we’re near a town or something. I thought the Green would be more exciting than this. All we’ve done is walk and then walk some more,” Khita remarked. She sounded oddly bitter and disappointed that the worst thing they had run into was goblins.
“I’m fine with it being boring. It couldn’t be Werrick’s men who made those tracks, could it?” A woman asked nervously from where she was standing near the back of the bandits.
“I can’t think of any reason they’d be way the hells out here. They can’t know where we’re headed and it’s a long walk,” Geralhd replied.
“This trail looks like it goes back to the road, and it runs North the other way,” Blacknail observed as he pointed one way and then the other.
“Why would anyone travel up that way? There’s nothing there but trees and then the mountains,” Beardy asked. “Nobody has ever crossed the Iron Teeth and nobody lives there.”
No one had an answer for him, so after discussing their options for a bit they decided on a course of action, which Geralhd then convinced Blacknail to take. Blacknail was the leader so he got to decide everything important, even when he had no idea what was going on. Luckily, Geralhd was there to explain things to him and remind him of important stuff, like that humans needed to eat a certain amount or they would die.
Thus, Blacknail agreed that they should follow the trail North. His bandit minions hoped the path would eventually turn East towards civilization or at least lead somewhere where they could rest and resupply.
As they followed the trail, Blacknail noticed plenty of other signs of human passage. It seemed like several different people were using the trail regularly. Even though they made good time, they didn’t reach the end of the trail before night started to fall. Everyone was subdued as they set up camp under a rocky ledge.
“Damnation, I want to keep going. The source of those tracks might be just out of sight, and that’s going to bug me all night,” a bandit said as he unrolled his blanket next to the fire.
“Go ahead, stupid, but I’m not going to track you down when you get lost in the dark,” Blacknail replied as he supervised everyone else’s’ work. He was the leader.
The only other person that did much talking was Geralhd. As had become routine over the past few days, he spent a while trying to communicate with Gob and teach him the human language. The goblins and the humans had gotten used to each other, but the bandits’ long journey had worn them down. Most of them stared out into the forest with fearful eyes, and even though they had been eating better they had continued to lose weight. In the light cast by the campfire, their faces were thin and eyes sunken. Blacknail wasn’t sure that some of them would last much longer. He didn’t want to lose any minions, but if one of them did die he hoped it would be the man with the nice red coat or Khita.
The goblins were a little spooked to be out in unfamiliar territory but otherwise fine. If anything the presence of so many large humans had come to reassure them. They had their own sentries but most of them curled up to sleep.
When the sun had risen early the next morning and everyone had gotten up, they started hiking again. The tantalizing prospect of stumbling onto the source of the tracks they were following energized the bandits. They moved more quickly than they had earlier, and soon the forest changed around them. The thicker leafy trees gave way to tall trees pine trees that were clustered tightly together. Their fallen needles covered the ground and smothered a lot of the underbrush, so there was little to block vision.
“Oh, benevolent goddess! I pray we reach succour soon. My feet are bloody killing me,” Elyias whined overdramatically. He was at the back of the group again, while Blacknail was leading the way up a shallow slope. He seemed to have recovered completely from the mushroom poisoning.
“Gods, you’re a whiny brat. How the hells did you end up here and how have you survived this long?” Beardy responded. The large man then spat contemptuously to the side.
A haunted look appeared on Elyias’ face and it took him a few moments to reply. “I don’t know... but by all that is divine, I wish I did. I joined up with Herad in Daggerpoint because it seemed like a sure way to make some easy money.” A miserable chuckle escaped his lips as he finished speaking.
“Ha, how’s that going for you?” Beardy asked as he grinned cruelly. The large bearded man seemed to find Elyias' suffering amusing. That annoyed Blacknail a little because Elyias was his minion, so Elyias was supposed to amuse him! It was almost disloyal...
“It was going fine until that big street fight with those mercenaries in Daggerpoint,” Elyias explained before sighing deeply. “I hadn’t signed up for that sort of shit. I’m a thief, not a soldier. However, when the fighting had all finished and I had relaxed, Blacknail showed up.”
“And then things became great! Because I made you my minion,” Blacknail interjected happily. He had been listening in.
“Something sort of like that,” Elyias remarked bitterly.
The young man turned to stare off into the forest. He seemed depressed. Maybe he needed another mushroom to cheer him up? There had been some funny looking purple ones a while back. Before Blacknail could speak up, Khita suddenly called out in an unusually loud voice meant to get attention. It worked.
“Hey, look over there!” she announced.
The group had just reached the top of the incline they had been climbing and could see beyond the top of it now. The forest abruptly ended about a hundred feet up ahead. The tree line just stopped and gave way to a large clearing. The open area wasn’t natural. Stumps littered the edge where the forest had been cut back not too long ago, and all the grass in the area had been trampled down. There was thus nothing to block their view of the settlement that stood in the middle of the clearing. Large wooden buildings could be seen behind a tall fence, and a pillar of smoke was rising up from a chimney.
“It’s a village or something,” a female bandit remarked as she stared past her companions. This pronouncement of the obvious earned her a few annoyed looks, including one from Blacknail.
“Everyone be quiet. Let’s not give yourself away until we’ve figure out who they are,” Geralhd said as he looked around at the forest to make sure they weren’t being observed.
“Ya, let’s do that,” Blacknail agreed. He took a second to listen carefully, but all he heard was the usual forest noises like the rustling of leaves. It didn’t sound like there were any strange people around. He would have heard them or smelled them unless they were waiting in ambush, and that was unlikely. After a signal from their glorious leader, the bandits cautiously made their way over to the edge of the forest and stared out into the clearing. The goblins followed them.
“Hmm, it’s too big to be an outpost or a trapper’s hut. You could fit a hundred people in there. It must be village after all,” Geralhd observed.
“Look at the ground here in front of us. Most of it has been worked in the past and those areas closer to the wall there look like they’ve already been planted,” Elyias pointed out as he crouched down and stared at the dirt in front of him. “You would only do that if you were living here.”
Beardy scratched his head and scowled as he looked around. “They’re farming out here? I thought all these little villages got raided and wiped out a long time ago.”
“The bandits would have to find them first. This village is more than a little out of the way and even bandits stick close to the main roads. I’m guessing they try to keep their location secret as well,” Geralhd remarked.
“So they’re probably not too fond of visitors, and some small communities can get very intense about that sort of thing,” Elyias remarked warily.
“Well, not matter who they are, they probably won’t welcome a group of armed strangers in their hearth, and they definitely won’t appreciate us bringing a pack of goblins with us,” Beardy added.
“So what do we do now?” Khita asked. “I’m not staying out here when there’s a nice comfy house right over there. I want to sleep on a bed. No, I need to sleep on a bed, and I have no problem with stabbing a few people to get it either. ”
“We should wait out of sight until nightfall and then find a way inside. They won’t be expecting an attack. Those walls are for keeping beasts out, not people, and I’ll eat my boots if they get travellers out here.”
Everyone considered this plan for a few moments. Several people including Geralhd started to raise objections, but Khita cut them off. “What if we just grabbed some hostages? Then we could force them to let us in, and we wouldn’t have to wait so long. Nightfall is a bloody long time from now!”
“Huh, you might be right; waiting could be risky. They know the area and someone might stumble into our trail and alert the village. So instead, we could have Blackail climb over the wall and let us inside. He could probably manage that undetected in the day, and then we could grab the first few people we find as bargaining chips.”
“Why is every option you present so violent?" Geralhd asked as he glared at Beardy. “We have other alternatives, and not everything needs to end with drawn steel and bloodshed.”
Beardy delivered his reply in a cold and dispassionate voice. “Because I’m a starving murderous bandit who steals from people for a living, and because seeing my friends die bloodily and then taking a week long trek through the damned Green has put me in a shitty mood.”
“Fair enough, but let’s not jump into anything,” Geralhd replied in a carefully neutral voice. The other man’s reply had clearly unsettled him. “Antagonizing these people could cost us a lot more than it would gain us. We should try and parley with them first.”
“That would cost us the element of surprise, and we can’t trust them. They live out in the deep Green! No one normal does that. They’re probably all a bunch of cannibals or something worse,” Elyias said as he stared nervously at the buildings that sat in the middle of the clearing in front of them.
“What in all the hells do you have against rural villages? Did one murder your parents?” a woman asked Elyias.
“What do you think we should do, Blacknail?” Khita interjected as she threw the hobgoblin an excited grin.
It took a few moments for Blacknail to come up with a reply. He wasn’t against sneaking into the village and killing some people – that was kind of what he did – but he wasn’t sure what the point would be. In fact, what were they even after in the first place? The humans had very different priorities than him, because they were so stupid.
“What do you want from the village?” Blacknail asked the group as he shrugged. There was once again a quiet lull as the bandits considered the unexpected question.
“Food and rest?” Beardy replied uncertainly.
“Then we would need to kill them all or make nice,” Blacknail remarked as he stared at the villages fortifications.
“He’s right,” Geralhd said. “Infuriating the natives won’t get us anything. If we attack them they will fight back and we won’t be able to trust them or drop our guards. We can’t hope to kill them all either. Our only real way of securing a place to rest and recuperate is to talk to them and work out some sort of deal.”
“But what if they’re all a bunch of crazed inbred cultists that worship some twisted forest god?” Elyias asked. “Maybe that’s why they live way out here, and if we just walk up to their front door and announce ourselves the bastards may run out and slaughter us for supper.”
“Seriously, what is it with you?” the woman from before asked him.
“I’ve just had a few bad experiences with small towns, alright? They can be very unfriendly places, where the king’s law isn’t always upheld like it should be, and I’ve heard some things.”
“Ha, let me guess. You tried to steal or cheat at gambling and the villagers ran you out of town because you were an outsider,” Beardy suggested.
“They didn’t have a lick of evidence that I did anything wrong!” Elyias hissed angrily in reply. “I had to spend the night in an abandoned shed.”
“We need to get back on topic,” Geralhd told the others.
Blacknail nodded his agreement and spoke up. “How about I take a person and ask them some questions before we talk to the village?”
“You mean kidnap,” Geralhd corrected him. “You don’t take or steal people, you kidnap them.”
“I mean what I said.”
“Fine, that plan could work, but where how would you find this person?”
Blacknail grinned confidently to himself as he stared at the human settlement. “All prey must leave their lair to find food and water. We just need to watch and wait for an unsuspecting human to come to us.”
“Creepy, but it’s not a bad plan,” Beardy replied. “However, if we don’t want them dead set against us you’d better not let them know you’re a hobgoblin. That means one of us should do most the talking and the actual grabbing.”
“Fine,” Blacknail answered. He was never against doing less work.
“Someone leaving the village might not come out in this direction. There might even be villagers over in the forest on the other side,” Geralhd said.
“I’ll go look over there then,” Blacknail replied as he stood up.
“It’s a big forest maybe you should get help. I’m sure the goblins could track down a villager for us.”
Blacknail turned to observe the pack of goblins. They were all clustered off to the side at the edge of the forest where they could hide among some stumps and bushes. Like the humans, they were mostly staring at the village that sat in the middle of the clearing. As Blacknail watched, two of the goblins started hissing at each other and then began fighting. They wrestled for a second before Gob sprang into action and pulled them apart. The growling hobgoblin grabbed both of the goblins’ necks and pressed them down into the dirt until they shut up. He then let them go and they quickly scampered away.
“I don’t think they’re smart enough for that,” Blacknail said as he scowled at the scene before him.
“You had them doing more complex tasks than this before,” Geralhd pointed out.
“Yes, but not important things, just stuff that didn’t affect me if they messed up. Also, I can’t explain the details to them because they don’t talk well.”
“I think they understand more than you think, and I’ve been teaching Gob. He can give them the details.”
This idea didn’t sit well with Blacknail for some reason, but if it worked then he would have less work to do, so it was worth a shot. He sighed before responding.
“Fine, but if this goes badly it’s all your fault.”