The sound of rushing water grew louder, as Blacknail tracked the deer he had shot through the vibrant green forest. Khita was right behind him as he ran along the edge of the stream. Blacknail knew he was going the right way. The beast’s muddy hoof prints were plain to see, and the scent of its blood was thick in the air. The smell excited Blacknail. Hunting down wounded prey was always a red hot rush. He wanted to drop down to all fours so he could sniff the earth as he moved. He suppressed that urge but he couldn’t stop himself from salivating in anticipation of running down his bleeding prey. There was no escape from him now. Soon, the deer’s sweet flesh would be his to feast upon.
The creek he was following lay at the bottom of a shallow gully, and it continued to wind its way past rows of short evergreen trees until it suddenly ended up ahead. Blacknail approached the spot where the water disappeared into thin air and looked down. There was a cliff below him and the stream at his feet rushed over its edge and became a roaring waterfall. The white water fell for thirty feet or so before slamming into a wide pool below. Mist spread out from the base of the waterfall and washed over the pool’s rocky shores. The air here was cool, humid, and full of energy.
Khita walked over to Blacknail’s side and started to say something, but the hobgoblin elbowed her in the stomach and she shut up. He was scanning the scene below carefully and he didn’t have time for the redhead’s stupidity. A moment later, he looked away from the pool and to each side. The forest continued on his left but he saw no sign the deer had gone that way. To his right, the ground sloped downwards and there was a path down towards the bottom of the cliff. Almost immediately, he spotted a splatter of dark red blood on a rock there.
"This way,” he hissed quietly to Khita as he headed after the deer.
The roaring of the waterfall drowned out almost all the other noises. Even Blacknail’s long sensitive ears were a little deafened, so the hobgoblin was wary. He carefully observed his surroundings for movement as he stalked forward into the rocks. It wasn’t until he reached the bottom of the incline that he spotted something. Something brown was poking out from behind a large triangular rock. Blacknail crept silently over to get a better look and got ready to draw his sword, just in case. However, the identity of the object soon became obvious. It was the deer. It had collapsed at the base of the rock, and its still chest indicated that it was no longer breathing. Blacknail’s arrow was still sticking out of its now blood-stained neck.
“We got it!” Khita exclaimed happily when she walked up behind Blacknail.
“We?” the hobgoblin grunted in reply. It seemed like the hunt was over. He was almost disappointed that it hadn’t been more exciting. Some real struggle from the prey would have been nice.
“Let’s get out of here before something comes to try and steal our prey,” Blacknail told Khita as he scanned the nearby trees suspiciously. The deer was his prize now, and he didn’t want some big fat lazy beast stealing it.
It took a fair bit of time and effort to get the deer carcass back to camp, but most the effort was Khita’s, so Blacknail didn’t care. This was the reason he had allowed her to come, to carry things. On the way, the pair spotted a few deposits of grey clay along the stream bank. It seemed like procuring clay wouldn’t be hard. Now they just needed to figure out what to do with it.
That wasn’t Blacknail’s first concern, though. The priority was skinning and butchering the deer he had just brought down before it went bad. He also wanted to use this opportunity to teach his minions, so he rounded up his larger followers. Khita was already with him so he went and found Gob and Elyias.
They watched as Blacknail dragged the carcass over to an empty spot near the drying rack and got to work. First, he slit the dead animal’s throat and hung it up so that the blood would drain out. Blood went bad quickly and would taint the meat. Next, he took out a knife and began to cut the skin away from the flesh. He had plans for the pelt so he tried to keep most of it in one piece. The bloody work quickly drew a small crowd of curious goblins. Blacknail ignored them, and when the hide came free he put it aside and started to butcher the animal. His knife split open the animal’s guts and he reached in to pull out all the organs.
Gob diligently watched everything Blacknail did. Goblins usually just ripped their prey apart and nibbled them down to the bone so this was all new to him. Khita had done similar things a few times before when she had been learning from Saeter but Elyias was a city boy. He scowled in disgust as Blacknail worked, especially when the intestines were pulled out and dumped into a steaming pile on the ground.
The final step of the butchering was to cut the carcass up into smaller pieces. Blacknail used his long knife to cut off the deer’s hunches and strip the flesh from the bone. When he was done there wasn’t much left of the deer but its detached head, squishy organs, and bloody bones.
“See, even idiots like you can do it!” Blacknail told his minions as he plucked the eyes from the animal’s skull and slurped them down. They were the nice and chewy reward for his hard work.
“I will remember everything you have done, great chief. A hundred deer will be laid at your feet,” Gob replied as Blacknail nodded happily. That was the kind of enthusiasm and drive he liked in his minions.
“Ha, Blacknail’s right, you two are dumb as bricks,” Khita laughed. For some reason she thought she had been excluded from his comment.
“I hate you all,” Elyias cursed.
However, Blacknail had already turned away and was busy planning his next job. Having all this fresh meat in front of him just reminded him that he still needed to figure out how to make bowls. The deer’s bones would have added flavor to a stew.
“Do any of you know how to use clay?” he asked the others.
“You mean baking it to make pottery?” Elyias replied uncertainly.
The young man didn’t much know more than Khita, and Gob just stared uncomprehendingly at Blacknail and shrugged. Blacknail groaned. Of course, none of them were useful. As usual, he was going to have to do everything himself.
“You need to go back to the humans and find one that can make bowls from clay,” the hobgoblin told Khita.
“And what do I do when I find such a person?” Khita asked.
“Learn from them, or if it’s too hard bring someone who knows back with you. I can meet them.”
“What if they don’t want to come?”
Blacknail frowned thoughtfully before replying. “I can talk to them at the village, but if they try to keep clay making secret from me then I will sneak in and grab them when it gets dark. They will talk.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Khita answered as she smiled and rubbed her hands together gleefully.
“Why does that excite you, and whose side are you on?” Elyias asked in disbelief.
“My own. I don’t owe anyone anything,” Khita snorted. This caused Blacknail to glance her way.
“Except maybe Blacknail. We’ve saved each other’s lives more time than I can count,” she quickly corrected herself. Blacknail was sure she couldn’t count very high, but he let the comment go.
The young redhead didn’t waste any time in heading back to Shelter. Blacknail sent Scamp and a couple goblins with her to keep her out of trouble and so that she could send him a message if they needed to meet up later. When she was gone, Blacknail let Gob get back to his own projects and started tanning the hide of the deer he had caught.
With Elyias’ help Blacknail scraped the remaining flesh from the underside of the hide. When all the flesh and fat had been removed they took it to the creek and washed it thoroughly. The hide was then stretched out the drying rack and tied in place so that it wouldn’t shrink. That was all they could do for now since it would take a few days to dry.
Since Khita wasn’t back yet, Blacknail decided to wander around and see if there was anyone that needed bossing around. After yelling at a few goblins that were lazing around he stumbled over to where Gob was working. The other hobgoblin had finished training the overseers and teaching goblins basic skills, so now he was building a structure of some sort.
Gob had been sending out goblins to collect materials for a while now. He had built up a stockpile of twine, bark, and poles made from slender trees, and now he was using them to create a longhouse. Blacknail had seen the small one Gob had created at his old tribe’s lair, and this new one looked like it was going to be a fair bit bigger. He already had the frame of the building up. Poles had been stuck into the ground, bent to form an arch for the roof, and tied into place. They weren’t all up yet, but when they were the large strips of bark would be tied to them to form walls. The finished building would be a comfier place to sleep than in a cave.
While Gob was working Blacknail decided to procure some of his materials in order to build himself a bed. A few pieces of lumber would make the frame and he could pile some dry plants on top to soften the surface. Gob looked up but didn’t say anything as Blacknail begin to drag several poles away. He put them down near the entrance to his cave and then used the axe to cut them up. He had just about finished when Scamp ran over.
“Khita found some people who know the thing you want to know,” the little goblin exclaimed excitedly as he ran in a circle around Blacknail. “They want to meet at the village.”
Scamp’s blabbering wasn’t very clear but he probably meant that Khita’s mission had been successful. It was good that they apparently didn’t need to kidnap anyone, but Blacknail still had some concerns.
“How many people?” Blacknail asked.
“Um, she didn’t say,” Scamp replied as he stopped running in circles.
The hobgoblin nodded and went into his cave to grab his backpack. He opened it, put on gloves, wrapped a red scarf around his face, and pulled his hood up. If he was going back to the village then he needed to disguise himself. When he had finished dressing, Blacknail hid a few extra daggers around his person. He didn’t trust the humans of the village and wanted to be ready to fight his way out.
With that done, Blacknail headed out into the forest. He jogged through the trees at a steady pace until he spotted something out of place. Several sets of paw prints crossed the trail he was running along. Blacknail took a second to crouch down and study the tracks. They definitely belonged to a pack of wolves. Normally that wouldn’t have bothered Blacknail too much, but one set of prints was much larger than any he had seen before. Blacknail looked up and scanned the forest around himself nervously. Only when he was sure there was nothing nearby did he lean over and sniff the ground. There was something off about the smell of the prints as well. An out of place mineral scent similar to that of Mahedium’s workshop lingered where the animal had been. Disturbed, Blacknail got up and studied his surroundings again. He didn’t like this development, but the forest seemed normal, so he got up and began running again. Just to be safe, it would be a good idea to start sending his minions out in groups now, especially Khita, at least until he wouldn’t be blamed for her death.
The rest of the trip to the village was uneventful. Blacknail reached the area of clear ground that surrounded the village. He eyed the front gate suspiciously for a few moments before sauntering out of the woods and crossing the fields. There was no point in being sneaky.
“Open up,” Blacknail shouted as he pounded on the door.
“Gods above, man. You don’t need to raise such a ruckus,” the guard replied as the entrance swung open.
“I’m here to meet some people, and not to do anything unfriendly or suspicious,” Blacknail said as he stepped inside. He was out of practice when it came to talking to humans.
“So I’ve been told,” the man replied as he gestured for the hobgoblin to go on.
Blacknail didn’t need any further invitation. He quickly walked past the man and into the village. There were a bunch of small houses lining the main street and an older woman bustled by, but he didn’t see Khita anywhere. The young redhead was supposed to be waiting for him. Where was she?
Feeling very annoyed, Blacknail concentrated on listening for her voice. At first he didn’t hear anything, but then he heard a laugh that sounded like it had come from Khita off in the distance. The hobgoblin scowled and stalked towards the source of the noise. He slipped into an alley between two homes so that he could stay out of sight. Another closer burst of laughter allowed Blacknail to pinpoint Khita’s location, so he lengthened his stride. A few seconds later, he turned a corner and saw her standing in front of a shed that lay behind a house, and she wasn’t alone. Blacknail recognized the faces of the three young humans the bandits had used as hostages when they had first arrived at the village.
“Ya, I’ve been in around a dozen battles and killed at least twenty men,” Khita bragged. She was facing the three smaller humans and there was a proud look on her face.
“Really, that sounds so terrible,” the blonde girl gasped in surprise.
“Nah, I’m not afraid of anything,” Khita replied dismissively. “It was all the other bandits that were terrified of me and my sword skills!”
Blacknail remembered Khita’s sword skills quite clearly. He had trained alongside Khita under Vorscha, so he knew that when she had a sword in hand Khita was most dangerous to herself.
“Did you ever see any real magic?” the taller blonde boy asked. He sounded excited and curious, but he was looking to the side as if trying to prove that he didn’t care all that much.
“Sure, I saw tons of magic!” Khita answered. “Our band had a mage and a few Vessels. The mage was always throwing flaming balls of fire around.”
“Vessels are real? I thought they were just exaggerated stories,” the younger lad with short brown hair remarked.
“Of course they are real. You’ve even met one,” Khita replied as she rolled her eyes.
With sudden haste, Blacknail’s hooded form stepped out of the shadows and headed for Khita. She had said more than enough already, and it was time to shut her up before she revealed something important. He was almost directly behind her so she didn’t see him coming, but her companions did and they froze in surprise.
“Eeep,” Khita squealed as Blacknail placed a hand on her shoulder.
She spun around to see who it was and only relaxed when she recognized Blacknail’s distinctive clothes. An awkward smile forced its way onto her face.
“So you’re not afraid of anything?” Blacknail chuckled as he stepped up beside her.
“I wasn’t afraid; I was just on guard,” Khita countered.
“Blacknail’s the only person who can sneak up on me like that. We both trained under the same master ranger,” she quickly explained to the others.
“Greetings, Mister Blacknail. Khita has told us a bit about you. You probably remember me. I’m Joan,” the blonde hesitantly interjected in order to introduce herself. She gave him a friendly nod.
“She’s been more than a little vague about you, though. Why do you hide your face all the time? It’s bloody suspicious,” the older male asked as he glared at Blacknail.
“Don’t be rude, Hassiol,” Joan told the blonde male.
“Why shouldn’t I be rude? It’s weird how welcoming everyone is being to these newcomers. Some of them seem dangerous to me. I mean look at him!” he replied.
“You’re one to talk. You’ve been trailing after Khita like a hound,” the younger lad countered. Blacknail remembered that his name was Avis.
“I have not! Anyway, Khita isn’t the problem here,” Hassiol protested.
The youth’s bickering didn’t seem like it was going to end any time soon, and Blacknail didn’t have all day. If they had been goblins he would have just smacked them around a bit, but they weren’t, so he delegated.
“I came here for a reason. Shut these younglings up and take me to the person who knows how to shape clay,” he hissed quietly at Khita.
“Ah, that’s Joan. Don’t worry I have these young fools eating out of my hand. I’ll shut them up and get her to show you the trick,” she replied.
To Blacknail, Khita didn’t seem all that different from them. Hassiol was the same height as her and probably weighed more. Blacknail held his tongue though, and Khita quickly got the two boys to quiet down.
“Why do you want to learn this stuff, anyway?” Joan asked as she led the way over to the shed.
“Um… just normal human reasons,” Blacknail quickly replied.
“Right…” Hassiol commented suspiciously. He was now glaring at Blacknail again so the hobgoblin must have said something wrong.
“He broke his favorite bowl and wants to replace it himself. Blacknail is all about self sufficiency and he has a lot of free time out there in the forest,” Khita interjected.
“Ah, that makes sense,” Joan observed cheerfully as they all stepped inside.
There was easily enough room in the shed for the four humans and the hobgoblin, even though there was a small table in the center of the room and a large shelf stood against one wall. Joan went over to the shelf and picked up a large chunk of dry clay. She carried it over to the table and began to explain how to use the material and shape it.
“I used to make a lot of little pots and cups from clay when I was a little kid, because it was a lot of fun. My parents would bring me the stuff and help me fire it,” she told everyone as she smiled brightly.
Blacknail watched and listened carefully. Joan rolled up her sleeves and then crushed the clump of clay into dry powder. She then added a bit of water to rewet it and began rubbing it between her hands to make a ball and several long cylinders. The bowl began to take shape when she had flattened the ball to make the bowl’s base and placed several rings of clay on top of it. After that, she smoothed the clay out with her fingers until it looked like a real bowl.
“Now you just need to fire the clay. Here in the village we use a kiln but you don’t need one. You can use a fire pit if you know what you’re doing,” she explained as she held up her little grey bowl.
“That seems easy enough,” Khita observed. She sounded confident but Blacknail was sure she hadn’t been paying attention during half the lecture. He would have to make sure he remembered everything.
“It’s just dirt. Why are you all staring at it?” Scamp asked from where he was standing next to Blacknail.
The little goblin was peering up over the table at the unfinished bowl in Joan’s hands. Everyone turned to look at him when he spoke up. No one had noticed him approach, but he was the center of attention now. Blacknail groaned. Things had been going so well…