The corpse of the man Blacknail had just killed lay on the ground. Blood leaked from his torn open throat. The other two men the hobgoblin had poisoned had also stopped choking and gone still. A mere minute ago, they had been talking in a friendly manner with Blacknail, and then the hobgoblin had killed them without mercy or warning.
There was a look of complete horrified shock on Elyias’ face. His eyes were wide with terror as he took a fumbling step back away from Blacknail. “Oh gods! What the hells? Have you gone crazy? Are you going to kill me now? I knew this was going to happen, but no one listened to me. Oh gods, why didn’t they listen?”
“You’re fine,” Blacknail reassured his minion. “Didn’t I tell you about this part of the plan? I thought I had told you…”
“Plan? You can’t just kill people!”
“They betrayed the rest of the band, so it’s fine. That’s the kind of people you’re supposed to kill. Herad did it all the time.”
“You were the one that convinced them to do that! You led them out here, so you’re just as responsible as them.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m the leader; I can’t be a traitor. It was a test and they failed,” Blacknail replied as he rolled his eyes in a condescending manner. Humans sure could convince themselves of some crazy things.
Elyias stared slack-jawed at Blacknail. He didn’t seem to know what to say at first but then he opened his mouth. “Why did you bring us out here if you were just planning on killing them? It makes no sense. You’re insane!”
“It makes lots of sense, too much sense for a minion like you,” Blacknail answered. “You’re here to help me carry things, and I brought them out here because they were in the way of my plan.”
“What plan? Is it to see how many humans you can lure out into the woods and murder?” Elyias yelled. His voice echoed through the trees.
“No, that’s dumb. That plan is for later. I don’t want to kill you humans. You’re part of my tribe and I’m trying to help you.”
“By lying to us and poisoning our food?”
“Phh, I’m trying to help most of you, the ones that deserve it. Like you, you’re a good minion. Aren’t you?” Blacknail asked as he stared meaningfully at Elyias. The human minion got the message.
“Er, yes?” he responded carefully in much lower voice.
“Good. Going to Daggerpoint through the forest was just a stupid idea. We all would have died,” Blacknail replied. Elyias was always fun to have around. His reactions were so amusing and he was easy to control with threats.
“You still haven’t explained your plan at all.”
“And I’m not going to right now. There’s a lot to do and you need to get to work.”
Despite the man’s obvious reluctance and residual fear, Blacknail ordered Elyias to help him move the bodies somewhere out of sight and to gather up their valuables, including all the coins they had stolen from the other bandits.
“What do you even want all this money for?” Elyias asked as he picked up the last coin purse.
“Nothing. I just don’t want other people to have it,” Blacknail replied.
When they were done, the hobgoblin led the way back. Elyias had no option but to follow him. They were in the middle of the forest and Elyias wasn’t anything remotely like a woodsman.
“Shouldn’t we have gotten back by now?” Elyias asked after a few hours of hiking at a steady pace. He had a large pack on his back and the effort of carrying it had tired him out. His brow was sweaty and he was breathing heavily.
“We would have reached the village if that was where we were going,” Blacknail answered without slowing or turning around.
“Where are we going?” Elyias asked in surprise. He didn’t sound happy.
“You’ll see soon,” Blacknail replied.
After only a few more minutes of walking, the pair arrived at the caves where the goblins lived. Gob was standing at the base of one of the hills and supervising a group of goblins. He noticed Blacknail right away and hurried over to meet him.
“Where did all these goblins come from?” Elyias asked Blacknail as he looked around. “There are a lot more of them here than before. Even goblins don’t breed this quickly.”
“I conquered them. It was a great battle! I had to fight a ten foot tall hobgoblin with a poison spear,” Blacknail replied proudly.
“Do hobgoblins get that large?”
“Of course. I think I know more about hobgoblins than you,” Blacknail replied.
“Alright, but what are we doing here? Why didn’t we go back to the village?”
“I’m not doing anything here. I’m leaving. You’re going to stay here, though,” the hobgoblin explained.
“What? I’m not staying out here with a bunch of goblins!”
“I’m the leader so you don’t have much of a choice.”
“You can’t just imprison me!”
“Yes, I can. I’m the leader and you betrayed the tribe. If you try and run I’ll hunt you down and skin you alive.”
Elyias was overwhelmed by indignant horror. He could only gape as Gob arrived and Blacknail turned towards the other hobgoblin.
“Guard this human. Make sure he doesn’t go anywhere and keep this gear safe. I don’t want any goblins stealing anything,” Blacknail told Gob as he shoved Elyias his way.
Nothing appeared about to explode or catch fire so Blacknail saw no reason to stick around. It was already late in the afternoon. He dropped all the stuff he had taken from the bandits he’d killed and got ready to leave.
“Yes, chief,” Gob replied as he nodded and grabbed Elyias’ shoulder. The smaller grayish hobgoblin was being his usual obedient self, but Elyias still seemed to find him threatening.
“Hey, where are you going? Gods damn it all. You can’t leave me here! What if they eat me?” Elyias wailed.
“Don’t let anyone eat him,” Blacknail yelled at Gob as he began to jog away. There was a wordless scream of frustration from behind him but he ignored it.
The next stage of plan was to talk to Geralhd again. Blacknail ran back over to the village. He was really doing this way too much lately. All the running back and forth was getting very tiresome. When the hobgoblin reached the clearing that contained the village, he pushed aside the bushes and saw something unexpected. There was a figure sitting on a chair over by the gate. After peering at the man for a few seconds Blacknail realized it was Geralhd. He didn’t appear to be injured or in distress, so why was he sitting there?
What was going on? This wasn’t something Blacknail had predicted would happen, and it certainly wasn’t part of his plan. Blacknail had been planning to wait until dark and then sneak back in, but somehow a stupid human had already managed to mess things up. The hobgoblin stared at Geralhd for a few seconds before shrugging, pulling up his hood, and stepping out of the forest. He didn’t really have any other option but to go and talk to the man.
Tentatively, Blacknail walked over the barren fields and into sight of the walls. Before he got halfway there was a sudden jerk of movement from Geralhd as the man noticed Blacknail. He jumped to his feet and stared at the hooded hobgoblin.
“There you are! Thank the gods. I was afraid you had disappeared as well. I’ve been out here for hours. I didn’t know what else to do. I’m sorry I missed the meeting this morning but some unfortunate events occurred,” Geralhd exclaimed as Blacknail walked closer.
Geralhd had missed the meeting this morning as well? That was convenient. Blacknail had originally been planning on claiming he had been distracted by a crisis. He had spent a fair amount of time coming up with the best excuse possible - like getting into a fight with another hobgoblin - but apparently that had been a complete waste of time.
“You answer my questions first. What are you doing out here?” the hobgoblin asked as he threw a suspicious glance towards the village walls. There was probably someone watching from there.
“I had to get your attention somehow. There are things you need to know and I didn’t want you trying to sneak into the village.”
Blacknail stared at Geralhd’s face. The man didn’t seem suspicious at all, and he actually even sounded apologetic.
“What’s going on?” the hobgoblin asked coyly. There was no point incriminating himself.
“Four of our compatriots disappeared this morning. We think they stole some things and then ran off. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the whole mess has made Tannin unduly suspicious of our group. He has the entire village on lock-down, which is why sneaking in would be a terrible idea.”
Blacknail tried to look surprised and outraged. “They took stuff and headed off into the forest, by themselves? Who? Why?”
“Rhgalt, Helf, Elyias, and Abjar are gone. The sons of whores must be headed back to civilization by themselves. I don’t know what they could possibly be thinking but they couldn’t have gone anywhere else.”
“Elyias? That traitor! I thought he was loyal. I have been betrayed,” Blacknail hissed dramatically.
“I thought they all were. Have you seen any sign of them?”Geralhd asked.
“No, but I can check for their trail. If they left towards Daggerpoint there will be signs. Do you want me to hunt them down or will we all go after them together when we leave?”
Geralhd grimaced before replying. “We won’t be leaving anytime soon.”
“What?” Blacknail asked with fake outrage. This actually sounded exactly like what he had been aiming for.
“On top of the stealing, the deserters also destroyed quite a few pairs of boots and other gear. Following after them would be very hard, if not impossible,” Geralhd replied. Blacknail had to hide his smirk. He had enjoyed cutting that stuff up.
“How long of a wait?” Blacknail asked as he pretended to glower angrily.
Geralhd grimaced and looked uncomfortable before replying. “That’s the thing… some of the men want to stay for a while now. The men who left were some of the most vocal advocates of leaving, and without any coin even if we get to a city we will basically be on the streets. Laying low here for a while sounds pretty tempting to some of the men and women, especially since Tannin has made it clear that we are welcome.”
“So we aren’t leaving?”
“Probably not anytime soon, no.”
“You don’t get to decide that! I’m the leader, and I don’t want to stay here,” Blacknail hissed furiously, if ingenuously.
“I uh... don’t think we have much choice. I certainly don’t enjoy the thought of dwelling out here in these boonies for a second longer than we have to. They don’t even have an inn! It’s nothing but a collection of shacks, but what’s the other option? We have no money.”
The first solution that popped into Blacknail’s head was that they could rob someone. That was an activity they had some experience with. However, bringing that up wouldn’t serve Blacknail’s purposes, so instead he took a step forward until his face was only a few inches from Geralhd’s and growled. “Fine, but you all owe me. This is a debt that must be paid.”
Geralhd flinched as the hobgoblin’s hot breath hit his face. There was a hint of fear in his eyes as he responded. “Um, what do you want?”
“Cheese,” Blacknail whispered fervently as he stared into Geralhd’s eyes. “The village has cheese and as long as we are here you and the others will bring it to me.”
“Not a problem. I’m sure I can get that for you,” Geralhd replied nervously as he took a step back.
A smile appeared on the hobgoblin’s lips. His plan was coming along perfectly, and his cheese supply had been acquired. “You’d better. Now explain why you met up with me in sight of the village. That’s not very sneaky.”
“Like I said, Tannin is paranoid. I had to negotiate to leave the village at all. He thinks we might have allies hiding out in the forest and that we’re planning to attack the village from within and without at the same time. I had to reassure him that there was only one person out in the forest and that I needed to talk to him.”
“You told him about me?” Blacknail asked. Geralhd had been the one telling the hobgoblin to keep his presence a secret.
“I told him you’re a ranger that hates being around people and didn’t want to stay in the village. The story is that your face was mutilated by a run in with a bear and that’s why your voice is so… unique. You can keep your hood up and rap a scarf around your jaw when you meet him.”
“Meet him? Why would I do that?”
“Um yes… I had to promise him a quick conversation with you, so that he would know I was telling the truth. It shouldn’t be big deal. We’ll just head to the gate and you can say a word or two.”
This wasn’t part of Blacknail’s plan. He didn’t think it was going to be too big of a problem though.
“Fine,” the hobgoblin agreed as he pulled on a pair of gloves. Geralhd handed him a scarf which he then wrapped around his face.
That done, the pair got up and headed over to the gate, which began to open as they approached. Someone had indeed been watching. When the gate swung open, Tannin stepped out. The bearded older man had a smoke pipe in his mouth, and there was a hard expressionless look on his face as he studied Blacknail’s hooded form.
“See, there’s no reason to be concerned. It’s just as I explained. There is no one out here but our scout, and he is no threat to you or yours,” Geralhd said with false cheer as they came to a stop in front of Tannin.
“That remains to be seen,” the older man replied before turning back to Blacknail. “So you’re this mysterious scout of theirs. I thought I noticed one of you slipping away yesterday, and the young ones mentioned a creepy cloaked fellow.”
“Yes,” Blacknail replied in his best imitation of a human voice. Its high hiss-like tone still left something to be desired.
“You’re not exactly talkative, are you?”
Tannin grunted in dissatisfaction. “I hear you’re a sodomite.”
Geralhd let out a startled cough. Blacknail didn’t react. He wasn’t familiar with that word, but it sounded like an insult. Normally he would have responded violently to such a display of disrespect, but he was trying to lay low and killing or injuring Tannin would probably ruin his plans. Cheese was worth a few unkind words.
“What? Preposterous. Why do think that?” Geralhd asked with obvious surprise.
“The young lassie you kidnapped before, Joan, mentioned some of the things your bunch said around her. Like how this one here wasn’t interested in women.”
“That’s a misunderstanding, and a large one. Like I said, Blacknail just isn’t social at all. His injuries were rather extensive…”
“Blacknail, that’s an interesting name. I don’t believe you’ve mentioned it before.” Tannin said as a sly smile appeared on his lips.
“Yes,” the hobgoblin responded dead-pan. Tannin was clearly trying to annoy him so that he would talk, but that wasn’t going to work because Blacknail was too smart. Also, he still had no idea what they were talking about. Every time Blacknail thought he had learned every human word they came up with a new one.
“Blacknail is but a silly nickname. We all have them,” Geralhd said as he shrugged. He had obviously intended for the gesture to look nonchalant but he couldn’t disguise his nervousness.
“Oh, it sounds like there is an interesting story there. Care to share it?”
“I have a black toenail,” Blacknail explained slowly.
“I see…” Tannin responded cautiously as he puffed on his pipe. He seemed to be at a loss for words.
There was a few seconds of silence as both Tannin and Blacknail stared at each other. Neither one of them spoke up and a hostile atmosphere began to build up. Their staring competition was interrupted by an unexpected yell from someone within the village.
“Blacknail, there you are!” Khita shouted as she ran over.
The young redhead was smiling joyfully. Blacknail felt a shiver of dread work its way up his spine, and Tannin frowned at the intrusion. He clearly didn’t know how to handle the young woman.
“I was beginning to think you were avoiding me,” Khita said as she came to stop in front of the hobgoblin. Blacknail’s answering grimace was hidden by his scarf. He had been avoiding her.
“So you and this man are friendly, are you?” Tannin asked with obvious interest.
“Of course, we go way back,” Khita replied cheerfully. “We’ve fought together a dozen times, and his master used to train me as well.”
“No,” Blacknail said.
“His master?” Tannin enquired before blowing some smoke from his pipe. He looked thoughtful.
“She means Saeter, the ranger that trained him,” Geralhd quickly interjected.
“Was this before or after he was maimed by the bear?”
“Before,” Geralhd responded just as Khita said, “after”.
There was an awkward moment of silence and Tannin grinned smugly. He obviously wasn’t convinced by Geralhd’s cover story.
“This is all beside the point. Khita shouldn’t be here,” Geralhd argued.
“She’s half the reason I’m inclined to trust your group. If you truly meant me and mine harm then I doubt she could keep it a secret from me,” Tannin replied.
“Well, then you should extend that same trust to Blacknail. He really is just a ranger that likes to keep to himself. You’ve met him and had a nice little chat so he probably wants to leave now,” Geralhd argued.
“Yes,” Blacknail agreed succinctly.
“Ya, let’s go,” Khita added.
“We?” the hobgoblin asked as he experienced a growing sense of horror. He needed to get out of here.
“Well, I’m not staying here while you have adventures. That stupid kid Hassiol keeps bugging me, and these dirty bumpkins want me to do chores.”
“We are giving you a house. How do you expect to earn a living without working?” Tannin pointed out in exasperation.
“It’s not my fault this stupid mud heap isn’t large enough to support a proper gang.”
“Why would we want a street gang?” Tannin replied as he glowered at Khita.
“It doesn’t matter, because I’m joining Blacknail. I can be a forest ranger with him and scout out all the secret trails while we find hidden treasure.”
This idea didn’t seem to impress any of the other people listening to her. The young redhead had managed to annoy and drive everyone else to exasperation in under a minute. There was no way Blacknail was going to let her accompany him.