Blacknail walked away from the village that stood in the clearing behind him and headed over toward Gob and the feral goblins. They were lounging about among some bushes and tree stumps at the edge of the forest. Geralhd trailed after Blacknail.
“I’m surprised you didn’t talk to Gob more on the way here. You’ve barely said two words to him since your reunion,” Geralhd said as they moved.
Blacknail sniffed in annoyance before replying. “Why would I want to speak to him? He’s a hobgoblin so he has nothing interesting to say.”
“Well, if he learns a few more words...” Geralhd argued before Blacknail snorted rudely and cut him off.
“No, wrong. I mean Gob has nothing to say because he lives out in a forest with a bunch of goblins. I’ve seen the forest and I know all about goblins. Talking about those things would be dumb.”
Geralhd wasn’t able to come up with a reply to that before they reached Gob’s side. The hobgoblin looked their way and then bowed his head submissively towards Blacknail. This just caused Blacknail to snort again, however Geralhd greeted Gob with a cheerful wave and a smile. The two then began communicating through hand gestures and a few human words as Blacknail watched. Most of it was confusing nonsense but it certainly seemed like Geralhd was asking Gob to send out goblins to help scout the forest.
“Yes. Yes,” Gob replied in a scratchy voice after Geralhd had finished speaking. The hobgoblin’s head bobbed up and down enthusiastically as he spoke, and then he looked toward Blacknail. There was a questioning look in his eyes, and he was obviously seeking Blacknail’s approval to do whatever Geralhd had just asked of him.
He didn’t get it right away. Blacknail stared at Gob suspiciously for a second before reluctantly nodding. He had no reason to go against the plan now, but he couldn’t resist ending the nod with a haughty growl. Blacknail wanted to remind Gob who the boss was. It was him. He was the boss.
Gob immediately turned around and made a barking sound. The goblins who were loitering all around him perked up and looked his way. When he had their attention, Gob hissed and grunted at them a few times before motioning towards the forest.
Blacknail watched intently. He had no idea what any of those stupid sounds were supposed to mean. When he tried to command the goblins it usually took him much longer. Gob was certainly very useful to have around, which unfortunately meant Blacknail couldn’t kill him yet. The goblins muttered amongst themselves for a few moments before running off into the woods. One of them tried to stay behind, but Blacknail gave the lazy critter a swift kick that sent him scampering off into the bushes. The little pest was probably going to sit down somewhere out of sight, but there was nothing Blacknail could do about it.
Soon all the goblins had left except for Scamp and Imp. Both of them were still sitting over by the bandits. Blacknail briefly considered giving them both a kick and forcing them out into the forest as well, but Scamp was useless and Imp was still wearing his backpack. Blacknail was afraid an impact might cause something in the sack to explode.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Beardy remarked as he walked up next to Geralhd.
Blacknail shrugged. “It’s Geralhd’s idea, so everything that goes badly is his fault.”
The bandits then fell into quiet conversation as they watched the village from afar and waited for the goblins to return. It took a little over half an hour for the first of the green critters to come back. The goblin scampered out of the bushes and ran over to Gob with an excited gleam in his eyes. The hobgoblin and the goblin grunted at each other a few times, and then Gob turned towards Blacknail and pointed out into the forest.
“It looks like they’ve found someone,” Geralhd remarked.
“Let’s see who it is,” Blacknail replied eagerly as he motioned for the rest of the humans to join him.
The hobgoblin had gotten sick of waiting around. Recently, when he stayed still he couldn’t help but think back and reflect on his memories. This wasn’t something he enjoyed. Whenever Saeter’s face came to mind cold rage flared to life in his chest. It was only by keeping busy that he had managed to stay calm.
When they were ready to move, Blacknail signalled Gob. The feral hobgoblin hissed at the goblin that had come back, and the pair began walking off into the forest. Blacknail and his human minions followed behind them silently.
They circled through the thick greenery around the edge of the clearing for a few minutes. The goblin then sniffed an exposed tree root and veered off deeper into the woods. Blacknail eyed the surroundings carefully as they moved. It was faint but the dirt here had been beaten down and hardened by footsteps into a trail that led from the village off into the woods. People were obviously using this path frequently.
The goblin and the bandits followed the trail for a few minutes, until the sound of voices reached Blacknail’s ears. Gob noticed them at the same time, and both the hobgoblins immediately stared ahead towards the noises’ source. As he listened, Blacknail raised a hand to signal for silence and slowed his pace. He took extra effort to move quietly as he continued to walk forward. It sounded like only two people were talking, a man and a woman. Blacknail smiled. That was a perfect size group for the bandits to target, so he kept creeping closer through the underbrush, and soon he spotted his quarry.
There were three humans, not two. One of them had simply been staying quiet. The first two were standing right next to each other. One of them was a blonde girl and the other was a brunette boy. They were a few feet from the path and looking at something on the ground. There were several branches and bushes in the way, so the details were hard to make out but that much was visible. Blacknail crept up beside a tree and peered around the trunk to get a better look, but he didn’t have any luck, so he switched to studying the third person. There was a second young man leaning up against a tree a few feet from his companions. He was blonde and he had a look on his face that betrayed a mix of annoyance and disgust as he watched the other two.
Apparently Blacknail wasn’t the only one that noticed the boy’s expression. The other young man with brown hair did as well, and he spoke up. “Why did you come with us if you are just going to glare and make stupid faces at my back?”
“You know the reason. Anyone going out into the woods needs to be in groups of at least three,” the blonde young man replied.
“But we’re only a few minutes away from home. This is practically our yard!”
“The rules still stand. You never know what’s out here. The forest is a dangerous place and I wasn’t going to let my sister come out here without any real protection, especially with you.”
“What the hells is that supposed to mean?” the brunette boy replied indignantly. There was a rustling as he rose to his feet, but the other boy just smiled.
“It means I don’t think you can take care of yourself let alone others, and if you trip over a root and crack your skull then I don’t want her to have to carry you back herself.”
There was a second of angry silence before the girl spoke up. “Come on boys, stop arguing, it’s just silly. Let’s have a good time.”
After that their voices grew quieter so Blacknail carefully retreated back to the rest of his party. He had heard and seen enough anyway. These people would make great hostages and would be easy to capture. They were clearly idiots with little in the way of survival skills.
“What did you see?” Geralhd asked Blacknail when he got back. His voice was quiet and nervous. Behind him stood the other bandits and Gob.
“Three scrawny and weak-looking humans. Two males and a female,” Blacknail replied.
“Great, let’s grab them!” Beardy said as he stepped forward. He didn’t get very far though, because Blacknail sniffed disdainfully and got in his way.
“No, that’s stupid. You can’t just rush in there or they will escape, stupid.”
“Then what should we do?”
“It’s obvious. You need to cut them off and encircle them,” Blacknail explained as he raised a finger and drew a circle in the air. As everyone listened the hobgoblin laid out his plan. If there was one thing that Blacknail was an expert at it was hunting down prey, especially human prey. They were very predictable.
When they were done planning all the humans split into two groups and headed off in different directions. Blacknail told Gob and the goblins to stay put, and then he followed after Geralhd’s group. A second later, he spun back around and hissed at the goblins that were shadowing him until they ran back to Gob. The stupid creatures really needed to take some initiative and learn a proper language so he could yell at them properly.
Geralhd led his half of the group through the forest for a minute until they were well away from their quarry, and then they stepped onto the path and leisurely began following it back. Blacknail pulled his hood up and kept to the behind his human minions. He was supposed to stay out of sight so that his fearsome greatness didn’t scare the humans too much, or something. He had forgotten the exact reason but it wasn’t important.
Before closing the last stretch and approaching the three youths, Blacknail raised two fingers to his lips and whistled to signal their approach. The sound was almost indistinguishable from that of a real bird, and from off in the forest there was a quick reply from the other party, so they kept moving. It hadn’t been a very good reply, unless the signaller had been trying to imitate a bird that had died halfway through its song, but it served its purpose. Both groups were in position, and the three youths came into sight.
“I’m telling you that last birdcall was weird. We should head back. What if it was a harpy or something?” the shorter brown haired boy told the other. The blonde woman was pressed up against him, and all three of them were standing on the path together and talking.
“There would have to be more than one harpy to threaten us, and they know better than to come near here. Every time one of those things shows their ugly face a hunting party is sent out to exterminate them. Our father still has a skull he got from the last hunt,” the blonde young man replied. He didn’t sound too concerned.
“What about goblins?”
“Those stunted wretches, what about them? I know the old folks like to tell horror stories about them but that’s all they are, stories. We’re in no danger from goblins. You’re just being jumpy.”
Suddenly, the girl looked past her companions and spotted the bandits walking their way. She froze as she studied them, and then she flinched and her mouth fell open slightly in shock. The two boys noticed her behaviour and turned to see what she was looking at.
“Oh, hello there!” Geralhd greeted them. His voice was pleasant and he waved a hand in their direction. The men behind him also smiled, but in a far less friendly way. They were about thirty feet away now.
The taller blonde boy was the one that replied. His voice stuttered nervously as he spoke and he had gone pale. He was clearly terrified but trying not to show it. “Who… are you?”
“I’m just a harmless traveller who has gotten lost and is looking to get some directions, and maybe some shelter for the night,” Geralhd replied with a broad reassuring smile.
The girl stepped closer to the other boy and hugged his arm tightly to her chest. She didn’t seem convinced.
“And what about all the men behind you with the weapons?” the blonde boy asked as he stuck out an arm and pushed the other two back behind him. All three of the youths then took a few nervous steps away from the bandits.
“They are my associates. The forest is a dangerous place for a lone traveller. You don’t need to be afraid of them,” Geralhd replied in the same calm voice.
It looked like the young humans were going to bolt off into the forest, but they didn’t get a chance. There was a rustling sound as the other group of bandits stepped out of the bushes and onto the path behind the youths. The youngsters paled even more when they saw the newcomers. They were surrounded now, and they knew it.
“Those are also some of my associates,” Geralhd said as the young woman began trembling.
“What do you want?” the shorter boy asked as he held the girl and glared defiantly Gerlahd’s way.
“I already told you. I just want to ask you some questions, that’s all. We can all be friends, so why don’t you sit down so we can talk,” Geralhd answered. This time there was a cold tone to his voice that made it clear that he wasn’t making a suggestion.
All three of the youths stepped closer together. There was a desperate look in their eyes as they searched for an escape route.
“Sit,” Geralhd ordered them as both groups of bandits closed in. All three of the youths immediately sat down on the ground. The rough looking and dirty bandits quickly took the opportunity to encircle them.
“If you harm us our parents and the others will hunt you down,” the blonde haired boy explained. There were amused chuckles from a lot of the bandits. Khita’s laugh was one of the loudest, and her voice drew the tall blonde boy’s attention, and he clearly had no idea what to make of her because he frowned in confusion.
“I don’t want to harm you,” Geralhd reassured them as he crouched down so that their faces were almost level. “I just want to ask you some questions and then maybe you can do us a quick favour and introduce us to your village.”
The three youths exchanged glances before the girl replied. “What do you want to know, sir?”
The question took Geralhd by surprise. He hesitated for a moment as he tried to come up with an answer. They hadn’t actually planned this part.
“Um… we just want to know about your village,” he eventually explained.
There was no immediate reply so Elyias took the opportunity to lean down and ask his own question. “Do you worship any strange gods that command you to murder outsiders or eat human flesh?”
“No... um... we have a small shrine to Ter-vur,” the blonde boy answered slowly. He had obviously been taken aback by the question, and now everyone was looking at Elyias weirdly.
“What kind of stupid question was that?” Beardy asked the other bandit.
“An important one,” Elyias replied defensively. “Do you want to be eaten by cannibals?”
Before anyone else could speak up Blacknail stepped forward and asked his own question. “Do you have cheese?” The bandits had run out days ago and Blacknail dearly missed the taste.
This time it was the girl that replied. “A little? We have a few goats although the last cow died a couple years back.”
There was an exasperated sigh from Beardy, and before the hobgoblin could respond to the girl Geralhd glared at him. Oh right, he wasn’t supposed to be talking. Why had he agreed to that, again?
Without anymore interruptions, Geralhd interrogated the captives about their village. They were reluctant to talk about certain things, but soon a clear picture of the fortified community began to appear.
“It seems like a half decent place to get some supplies and maybe spend a night,” Geralhd observed. “They have empty homes and they don’t sound like a bunch of paranoid bastards we can’t trust.”
Most the other bandits agreed and they soon came to a decision. They would risk trying to contact the village and seeing if they could spend the night there. Blacknail went along with it mostly because it sounded much more exciting than staying out in the forest, plus they had cheese.
“Let’s grab these younglings and get moving then,” Beardy remarked impatiently.
“I volunteer to guard the girl on the way over,” Elyias said as he leered her way.
“As if, greenhorn. I’ll do that,” an older bandit remarked.
“I’ll watch her,” Blacknail said as he stepped closer to the blonde girl.
“Er, why? I thought you weren’t into that…”
“Into what?” Blacknail asked as he blinked in confusion. Why couldn’t the humans just make sense?
“You know…” the older bandit replied as he made several crude finger gestures. Blacknail stared blankly at him. He had no idea what the bandit was trying to get at, so he just clarified his own thoughts.
“I’m much faster and a better guard than any of you, and the other two little people smell horrible.”
“Ah, that makes sense,” the bandit said as the two boys gave Blacknail hostile looks. Humans could be weirdly sensitive about their smell even though their noses were barely functional.
The girl looked frightened by all the sudden attention. The captives had calmed down somewhat once it became apparent they weren’t about to be assaulted and murdered but they were still on edge.
“You should probably stay back and keep watch. You’re our best scout after all,” Geralhd quickly interjected before lowering his voice to a whisper and continuing. “And you promised to stay away from the captives! They can’t learn that you’re a hobgoblin.”
This caused Blacknail to snort in annoyance, but he didn’t argue the point. Without a word, he moved to the back of the group as they got moving. The captives were in the middle of the party as they made their way back up the trail and towards the village.
The three youths weren’t the only nervous ones, though. Most the bandit’s looked uncertain and moved stiffly. Approaching the village was something they had to do but it was also dangerous. They didn’t know exactly what they would find there. Soon enough, they reached the edge of the woods and began crossing the clearing and the worked earth within it. Ahead of them, the settlement wall made up of wooden stakes loomed. It’s hostile presence informing everyone that the village was prepared to defend itself from outsiders.