The village of Shelter didn’t end up burning down, although Blacknail had been sort of been expecting it to. Khita and the goblins returned with a large iron pot and without causing a commotion. The goblins kept to the woods and never went near the settlement, or anything flammable.
“I just walked up to the gate and asked for it,” Khita told Blacknail. “Geralhd found one for me as soon as I told him that you sent me. He also gave me this.”
The young redheaded woman passed Blacknail a small wrapped up parcel, which he quickly unwrapped. There was a small wheel of yellow cheese inside. It had been far too long, almost a week. Blacknail felt his eyes began to water as joy overwhelmed him, although it might have been caused by the poignant smell wafting off the cheese. It was a very strong blend.
“It looks like you’re trying to inhale that,” Khita remarked as she took a step back and pinched her nose.
Blacknail’s nose was pressed against the wedge of cheese. He took a deep breath and just enjoyed the blissful aroma for a second. Even several of the nearby goblins gave him strange looks but he didn’t care. After licking his prize a few times the hobgoblin wrapped it back up and shoved it into his coat for later.
“You brought the pot so now I’m going to cook up some stew!” Blacknail told Khita. “It’s an important part of my plan!”
“Oh, well, I need to borrow a bowl or something because I didn’t bring any,” Khita replied. Blacknail stared at her for an awkward few seconds.
“Bowls… right,” he mused to himself as he scratched the side of his nose. He had completely forgotten about those. He had one for himself but that was it.
In order to eat stew his goblin minions were going to need bowls as well. You couldn’t eat soup or stew without something to put it in. This was a pain because Blacknail was fairly certain none of them had any. How could his minions forget something as simple as bowls? It was annoying how dumb they all were.
“Do you think anyone would get suspicious if we asked the village for a hundred bowls?” Blacknail asked Khita.
“Ya, I think that would get some of them thinking. Can you make your own?”
“People usually make them out of wood or clay. You could try that.”
“You mean I could get goblins to make them out of wood or clay,” Blacknail clarified. He wasn’t going to be making bowls for stupid little goblins. If goblins couldn’t be forced to do physical labor then what was the point of them?
“None of the goblins here use clay or whittle?” Khita asked.
“Nope,” Blacknail answered after a second or two of thought. He hadn’t seen any evidence of that.
The hobgoblin knew what clay was. Saeter had once pointed it out to him at the bank of a stream. The grey material had definitely been one of the better tasting types of dirt, but that wasn’t saying much. Blacknail vaguely knew that humans made stuff out of clay but he had no idea how. Khita didn’t know much about it either and it sounded too complicated to figure out quickly. He also had no clay to work with.
“It’s too late to work. I’m going to eat,” Blacknail announced as he headed over to the fire pit Imp and Ferrar had made. Both goblins were once again sitting and watching the fire.
Blacknail couldn’t cook any stew but that wasn’t the only thing he knew how to make, it was simply the best. The goblins Gob had been training had been stockpiling food. There was a rack covered in rabbits and squirrels from the traps that had been skinned and drained of blood, and there was a pile of edible roots and leaves. Blacknail looked over the ingredients for a while before deciding on a recipe.
“I need Wakev leaves,” Blacknail mused to himself.
The plants had large fan-shaped leaves. They themselves weren’t edible but you could cook things in them for flavor. The short stubby plants were also very common and grew on the ground. Blacknail rounded up several goblins and sent them out to harvest the leaves. He also sent a goblin to bring over Scamp and Elyias.
“You two can help me cook,” the hobgoblin told Ferrar and Imp. He didn’t plan on doing all the cooking himself and the sooner he taught others how to do the sooner he could make them do it for him. As disturbing as these two goblins were they also were among the smartest of his minions.
“Yes, chief,” Imp replied as he stood up and walked over to Blacknail’s side. Ferrar continued to stare at the fire for a few more seconds before smiling at Blacknail and getting up. Scamp and Elyias then appeared.
“Watch and copy what I do, if you can,” Blacknail told everyone there.
“Yeah, grunt work! At least it beats sitting around or following Scamp,” Elyias huffed indignantly.
As his minions watched, Blacknail began cutting up the meat and the veggies on a nearby flat rock. He didn’t plan on putting too much effort into this, so large chunks were good enough. He chose a pale round root and some small spicy leaves to add to the mix, and left the other veggies for another time. When the goblins started dropping off the leaves, he mixed the ingredients together and wrapped them in the leaves to make small packages.
After he was finished with the first serving, all the others began chopping and sorting. They quickly got quite a few wraps down so Blacknail hung them above the fire using a rack made of sticks and twine.
“That smells pretty damn good,” Khita remarked.
“Of course, I’m amazing at everything,” Blacknail replied confidently as he took a seat on a nearby rock and relaxed. “Now get back to work.”
Soon, the rest of the goblin tribe began to gather as the smell of the food drew them in. By the time the first bit of food was done cooking there were dozens of them. Blacknail handed out cooked parcels to all of Gob's overseers and everyone who had helped cook.
“Yummy!” Scamp declared as he started eating. The goblin only stopped eating in order to smugly look down on the goblins that hadn’t gotten food yet.
“Why are you putting so much effort into cooking for these goblins?” Elyias asked. He sounded like he had accepted his situation for now.
“It’s motivation so they learn and stay loyal. Now they know why they are hunting,” Blacknail explained as he chewed.
A small riot broke out behind him. A mob of goblins that hadn’t gotten food yet banded together to raid a smaller group that had. Screeching goblins wrestled and bit each other as they fought for the food. Blacknail didn’t interfere. He just smiled contentedly and nodded proudly to himself. It seemed like the goblins enjoyed his cooking. As the humans got clear Gob intervened with a squad of overseers. They started indiscriminately beating all the fighters with the butts of their spears.
“No fighting here! The great chief has blessed you with yummies! Rejoice!” Gob yelled as he kicked a goblin out of sight.
The fighting soon stopped and order was restored. Night began to fall and the rocky clearing grew dark as everyone finished eating. The fire was still burning brightly in the middle of the goblin mob but no one was still cooking. Blacknail decided that there was little point in staying up so he decided to go to sleep for the night. He had a cozy new cave to try out.
“Where am I supposed to sleep?” Khita asked when Blacknail got up and started to walk away. Elyias and Scamp had already claimed another small cave as their own earlier.
“I don’t care,” Blacknail replied before yawning. He was definitely starting to feel tired.
“Don’t be like that. There’s plenty of room here in this cave,” Khita remarked as they arrived at the entrance to the cavern.
Blacknail briefly considered chasing the annoying redhead away but he didn’t feel like going through the effort. His cave was also more than big enough for the two of them.
“Fine, but you’re sleeping over there,” Blacknail replied as he pointed to the other side of the cave. Khita yawned and nodded in agreement. They both unrolled the blankets from their pack and went to bed.
Early the next morning, Blacknail got Khita up and went back to work. There was a lot of things that needed done in order to fix up this camp. Khita had been right when she had called it just a pile of rocks. Herad and Saeter had built their old base camp from nothing into a small village and Blacknail planned to do the same. He had sort of been paying attention to most the things they had done.
“What are we doing now?” Khita asked after she had gotten dressed and they had both eaten.
“We still need bowls. Let’s try making wood ones. Maybe it will be easy!” Blacknail announced as he went to find a suitable piece of wood.
It wasn’t easy. It only took a few minutes to find a large enough branch and to cut it down, but trying to whittle it into shape proved very frustrating. Blacknail used the axe he had taken from the slain hobgoblin and his own knives. As he had been taught, the hobgoblin had cleaned and sharpened the axe as soon as he claimed it. It had known it would be useful later.
“This is stupid,” Blacknail huffed as he tossed the piece of wood he had been working on away. It was shaped nothing like a bowl and still had some bark attached to it. There was no way goblins were going to be able to make bowls using stone tools anytime soon and Blacknail wasn’t going to waste any of his knives by giving them away.
“There must be another way,” he growled as he turned to stare at Khita. Humans made civilization seem so easy. Blacknail refused to fail at bowl making. He was pretty sure that was one of the simpler things humans made, but he had never been taught how. All the humans he knew had just carried the things around with them, or they had killed another human and taken them.
“Um, I’ve heard some people in the West drink from skulls,” Khita suggested hesitantly.
That was an idea. Blacknail liked it. The top of people’s heads were just the right shape to hold liquids. Why hadn’t this idea occurred to him right away? It was so obvious.
“Great, but where can I get so many large skulls…” Blacknail mused.
There were a few lying around but not nearly enough. The only creatures around in sufficient numbers and with big enough heads were goblins. Killing a few dozen of them to make dishes seemed wasteful though, and might cause problems with recruitment later. Maybe he could find another tribe and start a war? Still, cleaning those skulls seemed like a lot of messy work.
“We will collect skulls but they won’t be enough,” Blacknail admitted in defeat.
Since he hadn’t come up with a solution to his dishware problem the hobgoblin decided to focus on making food that could be eaten by hand for now. Preserving meat was first on that list.
While Gob continued to train the goblins how to hunt and make rope, Blacknail picked out a few of the smarter looking ones and began to teach them how to smoke meat. It wasn’t all that hard, so even goblins could do it. The first step was to dig a hole a few feet deep. Firewood was placed at the bottom and then sticks were inserted into the sides of the hole up above that to make a grill for the meat. Green branches from pine trees were placed over the top to keep most the smoke in. The important part was having an overseer around to poke goblins that tried to eat the meat, and making sure the overseers themselves weren’t hungry.
Two goblins actually volunteered to help with the smoking, Ferrar and Imp. Both of them walked over and began to copy the goblins Blacknail was instructing. At first the hobgoblin was tempted to chase them away since they were so creepy, but they both quickly mastered the skills. They were too useful to chase away, even if they were super suspicious. Ferrar probably just wanted to play with fire, but Blacknail had no idea why Imp ever did anything.
Soon, the pair of goblins began teaching the others and Blacknail took the opportunity to step away. He was a leader now so he never worked at anything unless he couldn’t find someone else to do it, besides there were other important things he needed to do.
Blacknail looked around the goblin lair. The center of the rocky hills he had conquered through strength had already changed a fair bit. It had been completely bare before but now there was a large fire pit and several racks where meat was hanging. Signs of habitation were everywhere.
Another thing that Blacknail noticed was that a lot of the food left over from last night had disappeared. Even some of the uncooked roots were gone. That was annoying but hardly surprising. They had been left unattended in the middle of a goblin settlement after all. Blacknail decided to do something about it. He found the coldest cave and kicked all the goblins out of it, although there were only a few there since it was so cold. Next, he had all the food that wasn’t being used moved into the cave, and then told Gob to post a guard at the cave and another at the drying racks at all times. Exercising his amazing leadership skills left Blacknail feeling very proud of himself.
“I’m bored. Let’s do something interesting now. I followed you out here because I wanted excitement!” Khita told Blacknail as she walked over to him. She had wandered off somewhere earlier.
“Alright, I feel like hunting. You can come. Just be quiet and try to learn,” Blacknail told her.
“Great! Let’s go. I hope we run into something dangerous, like an ogre.”
That was the exact opposite of what Blacknail wanted and he said so. “I hope we run into something useful, like a poor lost cheese merchant.”
After walking back over to his cave, Blacknail grabbed his gear. He took a water flask, some jerky for a snack, and his bow. The sky overhead contained a scattering of white puffy clouds but there was still a lot of blue to see, and there was next to no wind.
“I need a bow. I lost mine way back,” Khita observed.
“Then you need to find or make a new one later,” Blacknail hissed dismissively. She didn’t really need one anyway since she was mostly there to carry stuff for him. Khita tried to argue but Blacknail shushed her.
“No talking in the forest. You have to be quiet while hunting,” he told her. It was even sort of true.
There was a small stream that ran along the western edge of the clearing. The hobgoblin decided to follow it North, away from the human village. He hadn’t actually been out that way yet. This part of the forest was completely unknown to him, so he wanted to explore it. There might be interesting or useful things there.
Like on the other side of the camp, the terrain was rough. The same tall tree-studded hills rose off in the distance and hid the horizon. The morning chatter of birds echoed through the forest as Blacknail and Khita walked along the edge of the stream. The trees here weren’t very tall, and they only formed a patchy canopy overhead that let a lot of light through. Most of them were evergreens with brown trunks. They didn’t have much in the way of branches near the ground to block Blacknail’s sight, so he could see clearly in most directions.
The stream cut its way through the earth as it rushed down a series of hills. Its winding banks had long ago exposed the occasional large grey rock, but the water was surrounded mostly by hard packed dirt and the roots of trees.
After a few minutes of hiking, a flash of movement up ahead caught Blacknail’s attention. He raised a hand to signal for Khita to stop, and began to creep silently forward. Blacknail climbed up the steep bank of the creek and up to the trees. He hid behind the closest tree trunk and then peered out from behind it. Up ahead and around the bend, there was a deer drinking from the stream. The beast looked like a fully grown doe with brown fur and white spots on its flanks. Blacknail grinned as he drew an arrow and readied his bow. He had found some worthy prey.
Without wasting another second, the hobgoblin stepped out from his hiding spot and lined up his shot. He let the string go and his arrow zoomed straight towards his target. It slammed into the deer’s neck. The beast screeched and took off like a shot. It scrambled down the slippery bank of the creek and out of sight. It was wounded but far from dead yet.
“Did you get it?” Khita asked breathlessly as she ran up beside Blacknail.
“Yes, let’s go,” he replied.
Blacknail jumped down to the creek and ran over to where the deer had been standing. He scanned the muddy soil there and then sniffed it. There were clear hoof prints visible and drops of blood were scattered around. He had the creature’s scent and he knew it was bleeding. The wound he had given the deer was fatal. It wouldn’t get far before it lost strength and faltered.
“What now?” Khita asked.
“Now you be quiet again and follow me,” Blacknail hissed as he began to jog after the deer.
He had no doubt in his ability to track down his wounded quarry. Even without his amazing sense of smell he could clearly see the trail of broken branches and hoof prints it had left. The only question was whether something unexpected would happen. Another predator might appear or they could stumble into something else deadly. The forest was a dangerous place, and the hunter could quickly become the hunted if they weren’t wary.