As they approached the wall in front of them, none of the bandits had their weapons out. They had taken pains to make themselves as presentable as possible after spending so long hiking through the forest. It hadn’t really worked. They still looked exactly like what they were, a pack of desperate bandits that sane people should avoid.
The captured youths that were now being herded by the bandits had said that there wasn’t usually a lookout on duty at the gate, just a guard, and that seemed to be true. Blacknail’s group got right to the entrance before they were noticed. Geralhd opened his mouth to shout for attention when he was interrupted by a spiel of swearing from the other side. That was quickly followed by the hidden man there yelling for backup and crying for the village to take up arms.
“This already could have gone better,” Beardy commented.
“Let’s run while we still have the chance,” Elyias muttered fearfully.
“Just let me do all the talking and we’ll be fine,” Geralhd said as they waited for someone in the village to take charge. He didn’t sound too convincing.
It took a few minutes for that to happen, but eventually a gruff voice addressed them from the other side of the gate. “Who are you and what are doing with those children?”
“We are just some lost travellers who happened to stumble upon your humble abode here and thought to introduce ourselves,” Geralhd replied politely. “We mean you no harm, and we certainly wouldn’t harm any children. We encountered them in the woods and thought maybe we could ask them some questions about your village. We were just curious and they’re here with us now because I thought you’d want them to come home after all this commotion.”
There was a disbelieving huff from the hidden man. “So you’ll let them go at any time?”
“Of course, although they can’t exactly go inside as long as this gate is closed.”
“Then how about you back up and leave them here.”
“That would hardly be very gracious on your part, and speaking of manners, you haven’t introduced yourself.”
“I’m Tannin, the headsman of this village. Other than a silver tongued liar, who are you supposed to be?”
“My name is Geralhd Rhodeius, and it’s a pleasure to meet you, Tannin. Why don’t you open this gate so that we can talk properly? I assure you that we mean you no harm.”
There was no reply for a few seconds but then Geralhd had to step back as the wooden gate in front of him swung open. On the other side there were about two dozen burly men armed with various improvised weapons, including wood axes and pitchforks. All of them were wearing the rough homespun clothing that most peasants wore. Standing out front was an older man with thick arms and a long grey beard. His head was balding and thin of hair but his eyes were full of fierce energy.
“Now, Geralhd, how about you let the children come over and you tell us what is it that you really want?” the man asked in Tannin’s voice. The bandits glanced at each other nervously but didn’t draw their weapons.
“We weren’t really holding them so of course they can leave,” Geralhd replied as he signalled to the men behind him, who stepped aside.
The three youths promptly ran away from the bandits and joined the villagers. The headsman relaxed slightly when they reached him but he quickly shushed them and pushed them back behind his men where they were out of the way.
“See, we aren’t here to hurt anyone. We only want to have a friendly conversation,” Geralhd said as he smiled politely.
“We don’t get many visitors here and I have a low tolerance for bullshit, so why don’t you get right to the point and tell me exactly what you want,” Tannin replied.
“Fair enough. My companions and I are travelling East but we need to avoid the main road. We want to buy supplies, get directions, and rest here for the night.”
Tannin’s eyes narrowed as he studied Geralhd. “And why should we let you in or deal with your kind at all? We could just close this gate and you’d be forced to leave.”
“It’s a nice wall but it’s hardly a real guarantee of protection. Besides, if you’re going to be that inhospitable to everyone that passes by then eventually you are going to anger someone. Such a person or group might stick around to cause problems for you and I really doubt you would want them spreading news of your community around when they do leave. You’d be better off staying on their good side and getting something out of dealing with them.”
“Ha, how do you propose to pay us for our goods?”
“We have coin and a few extra small blades we could trade. Isolated as you are, I doubt you have much in the way of spare iron here.”
“I might be able to arrange the things you want, but if we did let you inside what guarantee do I have that you’ll behave. You all seem to be armed to the teeth and that concerns me more than a little.”
“There aren’t enough of us to attack this settlement, and making enemies out of you would only come back to bite us. We have every reason to stay friendly.”
As the armed villagers watched the bandits, Geralhd and the village headsman continued their talk for several long minutes. A dozen more armed villagers arrived to join their fellows, but Tannin’s expression grew less hostile and angry over time and he eventually decided to let the bandits in, and they began to bargain about the price. Things grew slightly heated when Tannin ordered the bandits to hand over their weapons but Geralhd didn’t back down.
“Even armed we are still too outnumbered to take this village, but without our blades we stand no chance at all of defending ourselves if you decide to just rob us instead of sticking to your word,” he argued. Tannin was unhappy with that line of reasoning but eventually conceded the point.
“Fine I’ll show where you can bunk up and I’ll arrange to see what we can sell you. You’ll be under guard though, so don’t wander around or cause trouble,” the village headsman said. Blacknail thought he detected a sly slant to his smile but didn’t know what to make of it.
Geralhd nodded in acceptance and grinned triumphantly to himself. There were sighs of relief as the bandits began following the villagers deeper into the settlement. It seemed like a fight had been avoided, but as Blacknail fell in behind the bandits Geralhd turned and whispered his way.
“You should sneak away now, Blacknail. The goblins shouldn’t be left alone and you can meet up with us after dark. I’m sure you can make it into the village and find us without being detected.”
His words sounded a bit too much like orders to Blacknail, so the hobgoblin scowled. “I’m the leader and think I should stay here and instead you should go meet up with the goblins.”
“Yes, you’re the leader... but they’re still suspicious of us and with your hood up you stand out. You can’t hide your skin color from them, and if the villagers do turn against us then you’re the only one who could sneak in and free us.”
That argument didn’t sit well with Blacknail. He wanted to stay closer to the cheese, but he had to admit Geralhd had several good points. He grunted in aggravation and then quickly spun around. Blacknail was only a few steps from the gate, and it took him but a moment to slip back outside the wall. Several bandits were between him and the villagers so none of them noticed him leave. The cloaked hobgoblin crept around the outside of the wall for a bit - to avoid any watchers - before sprinting across the fields and towards the forest. He would be back when it got darker.
The sound of singing birds could be heard from up in the treetops overhead, as Blacknail trudged through the bush. It was a fair walk back to where he had left the goblins, but after a few minutes some of the bushes up ahead shook and a familiar pair of goblins scampered out. It was Scamp and Imp, and Imp was still hauling his heavy backpack around. They must have been waiting for Blacknail to leave the village and decided to meet up with him.
“Where are the others?” Blacknail asked them. None of the feral goblins had appeared.
Scamp immediately threw a look back over his shoulder and a confused frown appeared on his ugly green face. It seemed like he hadn’t even noticed that the ferals weren’t around until just then. On the other hand, Imp just gave the hobgoblin a calm knowing look that irritated Blacknail.
“They left to follow a smell. Gob looked angry,” Imp explained. He didn’t seem too concerned, but then again he never did.
“They’re not very nice so we stayed to wait for you, boss. You’re much better than them,” Scamp added helpfully.
This news didn’t please Blacknail. Not only was he supposed to keep a watch on the goblins but Gob had acted without permission. This is what Blacknail had been afraid of and why hobgoblins couldn’t be trusted! He could only hope Gob wasn’t leading a raid on the human settlement at this very moment. He should have dealt with the other hobgoblin days ago.
“What way did they go?” the hobgoblin asked.
Both the goblins immediately pointed in completely different directions. Blacknail groaned and rubbed his eyes. This was dumb. Was he going to have to go all the way back to the place he’d last seen Gob and track him from there? That would be a waste of his time and he probably didn’t have much left.
“They went off into the forest away from the humans,” Imp added, which caused Scamp to nod along. Both the goblins dropped their arms.
That was an important bit of news. Imp was undoubtedly the smarter of the pair...
“Which way did they go again?” Blacknail asked as he got ready to move.
Unsurprisingly, the goblins pointed in different directions again, but this time Scamp was clearly pointing far to the left of his last choice, while Imp’s orientation hadn’t changed.
“That way it is,” Blacknail grumbled as he broke out into a quick jog in the direction Imp had indicated. The goblins followed him as he cut through the forest and headed deeper into the woods.
It took the hobgoblin a few minutes to stumble upon the feral goblins’ trail. Imp had apparently been right. They had made a lot of tracks and disturbed the forest. Blacknail picked up speed as he followed the signs and started running, but even then it took him over half an hour before he found anything.
As the hobgoblin jumped over a fallen log he spotted the missing goblins. They were all crouched behind a clump of bushes and peering through the branches. Blacknail snarled as he saw Gob in the center of the group. He drew his sword and stalked toward the other hobgoblin. How dare he disobey an order! The noise drew Gob’s attention. He looked over his shoulder and then flinched in terror at the sight of Blacknail closing in on him.
“What are you doing?” Blacknail hissed angrily. He didn’t appreciate having to run so much.
“Enemy goblin,” Gob quickly replied as he lurched to his feet. There was an uncertain look on his face as he met Blacknail’s gaze but then he turned away to look through the bush again. Blacknail took a second to follow his stare. Whatever was there must be important, or this was some sort of trick.
Up ahead the forest ended and gave way to a series of low rocky hills. Only a few scraggly trees spotted their desolate surface. The terrain on the way here had been uneven and steep, so the area they were in now was hidden away within a low valley that was surrounded by tall peaks covered in greenery.
At first, Blacknail didn’t notice anything special about the place, other than all the rocks, but then something caught his eye. He ignored Gob and came to a stop. There was a post at the bottom of one of the rocky hills, and a human skull had been placed atop of it. Its empty eye sockets stared out into the forest. Colored feathers had been jammed into gaps in the wood and weird symbols had been carved into the post below the bleached bones. Half the symbols looked like crudely drawn genitalia, so this was probably the work of feral goblins.
“Goblins attack goblin. Follow here,” Gob explained.
“I see,” Blacknail mumbled to himself before glancing back at his hobgoblin minion. He understood what had happened now. One of the goblins he had sent out to scout must have stumbled upon a goblin from another pack. The two had fought and then things had naturally escalated until Gob had decided to raid the enemy himself and slaughter them all.
That left Blacknail with only one real option: total war. These goblins were his minions – even if he didn’t really want them – so an attack on them was an attack on him, as well as a good excuse to have some fun. Besides, it was only a bit past noon now. It wouldn’t be dark for hours, and Blacknail didn’t want to sit around and wait. Geralhd had wanted Blacknail to keep the goblins out of trouble but he probably wouldn’t care about something like a small tribal war, or ever even know about it. Who would tell him? Most of the goblins couldn’t talk and Scamp was an idiot who rarely remembered anything that wasn’t beaten into him repeatedly over a long period of time.
The problem was that post. It wasn’t something you would expect a small tribe to make, and Gob only had half a dozen goblins with him. The post was also too tall for a goblin to have placed that skull there alone, and teamwork was unlikely. Thus, it was most likely the work of a hobgoblin, and that would also explain Gob’s aggressive behaviour. The scent of the other hobgoblin must have enraged him.
“You’re lucky I showed up,” Blacknail told Gob as he sheathed his sword. “You’re kind of runty for a hobgoblin, and it’s stupid to attack an enemy in their own territory without a plan.”
Blacknail grinned to himself as he stepped through the bushes and began walking over to the post. He was still feeling angry, but now he had a new target to focus on, one he didn’t have to hold back against. His hood was down and his hobgoblin features were plainly visible as he strode out into the clearing. The rule about walking into enemy territory didn’t apply to him. He was special.
Almost immediately there was a reaction. Two dozen goblins rose from hiding places atop the nearby hills and out from behind rocks. They growled menacingly and their ugly green faces were scrunched up into vicious snarls as they grabbed stones and raised them in preparation to throw. Blacknail calmly watched a single stony projectile zoom his way but it fell short and rolled harmlessly to a stop at his feet. With an amused grin, he then scooped the rock up and pulled out his sling. A twirl of the weapon sent the projectile straight back at its original thrower. It hit the surprised goblin right between eyes with a loud thud and knocked it unconscious. The other goblins fell silent as they watched their companion roll down the side of the hill.
“Now what will you do?” Blacknail mused as he looked around for the enemy leader. He still hadn’t shown himself. Gob and his goblins stepped out of the bushes and took up position behind Blacknail. The enemy goblins were starting to look afraid now.
Nothing happened for several long moments as the two groups stared at each other, and Blacknail began to grow impatient. If the enemy wasn’t going to show himself then Blacknail would force his hand. The hobgoblin drew in a deep breath and then bellowed as loudly as he could. The unexpected blast of sound startled everyone, but as soon as Blacknail fell silent an answering roar rose into the air as the enemy hobgoblin finally stepped out from behind a large jagged boulder and into sight.
Striking yellow eyes filled with hate glared at Blacknail from atop a long crooked nose. The hobgoblin was bulky and taller than any other hobgoblin Blacknail had seen before, but his two horns were short and straight. Several long pale scars decorated his skin, he was dressed in dirty rags that could only have once been human clothing, and he was holding a rusty axe. It was clearly a woodsman’s axe and its edge had dulled from neglect but it still looked dangerous.
The hobgoblin’s appearance caused Blacknail to smile hungrily to himself. Blacknail was still outnumbered and in hostile territory, but it had been a while since he’d had an opportunity to let loose. This looked like it was going to be fun, and deliciously bloody.