The long bellowing sound of the warning horn rang out over the village of Shelter. Its unusual cadence seemed to vibrate in people’s bones and put them on edge. Geralhd, Beardy, and Blacknail followed Tannin and the other villagers over to the town gate. Everyone was talking to each other as they strode purposely forward. The air was thick with tension and everyone looked fearful and nervous. Blacknail was at the very back and there was a cheerful spring in his step as he skipped along after the humans. This was going to be great fun!
“I’ve already called up the town militia,” Tannin was explaining to Geralhd. “I’d like you to arm your own men and join us. The stronger and steadier we look the less likely this situation is to fall to bloodshed.”
“What? We can’t trust them!” another villager protested. He was a middle-aged man with a balding head. “They’re probably the reason these outsiders are here. It can’t be a coincidence that we get one group of intruders right after the other.”
“Could they be after you? When you first came here, you did mention that you were looking to escape from some enemies that you had made,” Tannin asked as he turned to face Geralhd.
“It’s highly bloody unlikely,” Geralhd quickly responded in an offended tone. “We had rivals we were avoiding but the timing for this makes no sense. They have no reason to search the Green for a full month in the slim hope of catching us! They would gain absolutely nothing from that, and our trail is beyond cold and dead. How could they possibly know where we are?”
As he frowned thoughtfully, Tannin considered this answer. After a moment, he nodded and turned back to the man who had spoken. “I have to agree with Geralhd. They’ve been here too long for this to be someone looking for their tracks. That means that this isn’t directly related to them, so we need to trust our guests for now. We’re all in this mess together.”
“We’ll know who the newcomers are soon enough, I guess. I have a feeling we're not going to like it, though,” the balding man replied as he stared off toward the gate.
“I fear you’re right,” Tannin agreed. He sounded apprehensive. While they were talking, Gerahld sent Beardy off to gather up the remaining members of their band.
Nothing more of much importance was said until they reached the gates. When they got there, Tannin climbed up the ladder that led to the watch platform, as the others peered through the gaps in the log walls. Blacknail jumped up and pulled his head over the wall so he could see. His display of agility got him a few looks but everyone had more important things to worry about than him.
“Damnation, there are a lot of the bastards,” Tannin cursed as he studied the approaching group. Blacknail agreed with him.
Across the field, the hobgoblin could see a large mob of humans. They definitely looked like bandits to Blacknail, and he was an expert. They were wearing dirty, rough clothing and they were armed to the teeth. Blacknail could see a plethora of weapons such as swords and axes. However, most telling of all, they were walking with an arrogant swagger that promised violence at the drop of a hat. Blacknail knew it well.
“Ya, these ruffians look like trouble,” Geralhd commented to no one in particular.
Blacknail began counting, but then got frustrated and stopped. They kept moving around, but he figured there were just over a hundred intruders. That was more than Blacknail had been planning on dealing with. Stupid Elyias couldn’t do anything right. Hmmm, this was a bit of a problem. He would have to make sure the village didn’t get damaged too much. It was full of resources he wanted under his control. Still, the enemy were just humans. They had no idea what was waiting for them out here in the Green. This was Blacknail’s territory.
As the people at the gate were talking among themselves and trying to come up with a plan, more villagers began to arrive. Those that weren’t already armed were quickly handed weapons such as axes or improvised spears. Soon, there were dozens of them, and they were joined by Beardy and the other bandits. Even Khita was there. All of them were armed and Beardy led them right over to Geralhd. Their swords, leather armor, and confident posture made them easily distinguishable from the villagers.
“Huh, it’s been a while since we were all together like this,” Beardy commented as he looked Blacknail’s way.
“Let’s hope it’s not the last,” another bandit replied.
“Don’t be such a downer,” Khita said as she punched the man in the shoulder. “After all we’ve been through this will be easy, like picking the pocket of a drunken housewife.”
“Stealing is bad. Don’t be a thief!” Blacknail interjected as he threw Khita a disgusted scowl.
“Is Blacknail aware of what bandits do? We were all bandits,” Beardy asked Geralhd as he leaned his way.
“Now is not the time,” Geralhd answered. “Let’s focus on the situation at hand, please. We need to figure out what we should be doing.”
“I thought that would be obvious. I have no problem with helping these folk negotiate from a position of strength, but the second things get dicey we should leave. I’m not dying to defend this hole in the mud.”
“And where would we go, exactly? The last time I checked, we were still out here in the middle of nowhere.”
“Blacknail’s with us now. We can leave at any time,” Beardy replied matter-of-factly.
“Shelter has been good to us. I don’t want to leave these people to die,” an uncertain sounding bandit added.
This immediately caused all the bandits to start arguing among themselves. Khita was uncharacteristically silent. She seemed unsure of herself and torn. Blacknail just snorted and looked away. It didn’t matter what any of the humans said. Everything was going as he had planned. He hadn’t left them any choice but to do what he wanted.
“Quiet, all of you. This isn’t useful,” Geralhd eventually told them all. “We obviously don’t know enough right now. We will see what these people want before we make any plans.”
There was some grumbling in response, but no one spoke up against Geralhd directly, so he nodded to himself and then walked over to talk to Tannin. Blacknail followed him. They joined the village chief just in time. Most of the new arrivals came to a stop before they got to close to the gate of the village, but one man detached himself from the crowd and approached alone. Blacknail peered through a gap in the wall to get a good look at him.
“Hail, the settlement! I’ve come to parley!” the man yelled. He was a tall man with black hair and a grizzled appearance that screamed bandit.
“We hear you. Who are you, stranger?” Tannin yelled back.
“Greetings, goodmen. My name is Orvit. I’m the leader of the scavenger crew you see before you.”
“Scavengers? I know thieves and marauders when I see them. What does someone like you want out here? You’re a long way from anything worth scavenging.”
“I’ll be blunt. We’ve come for the gold. Tell us where it is and then no one will get hurt.”
“We don’t have any bloody gold here, stranger. You’re confused.”
“Don’t lie to me, old man. I’ve seen the nuggets myself, and this is right where it is supposed to be.”
There was silence from Tannin for a few moments. He looked confused and he took a while to think before replying. “Give me a minute. I need to discuss this with some others.”
“Fine, but we’re not going anywhere until we get the location of that gold mine. We will storm your pathetic little village if we have to. Don’t think we won’t!”
Tannin immediately called over a pair of villagers and Geralhd. “Does anyone here have any idea what these idiots are talking about? They mentioned a gold mine.”
“If any of my band knew where a gold mine was we would have left ages ago and be living it up in a city somewhere,” Geralhd told him.
“Wait, maybe that’s why the others left…” Beardy guessed.
“You think they found gold and decided they didn’t want to share it?”
“Maybe, and then they ran into these bastards.”
“I told you these outsiders were the cause of all this trouble!” the angry villager from before interjected.
“That doesn’t matter right now,” Tannin told the man in calm soothing voice. “Even if there is gold around these parts, none of us know where it is, so we can’t exactly give it to anyone.”
“These scavengers aren’t going to like that,” Geralhd pointed out.
“Which means this is most likely going to end in violence,” Beardy remarked dryly.
“Not necessarily. If we present a strong front we could still scare them away. All men are afraid of dying,” Tannin told them.
“You’re underestimating the siren call of gold to people like them. If they don’t dare attack us directly then they will simply try something else. They won’t just leave,” Geralhd replied.
“It would be bothersome if they just sit outside our walls and look for a way in. We can’t stay in here forever, and if they manage to slip inside during the night they could do a lot of damage,” Tannin mused aloud.
“Can we take them in straight up fight? That might be our best option,” one of the village militiamen asked.
“Charging them would be a rather large tactical mistake,” Geralhd said. “It looks like your militia and the men with me are about equal in numbers to Orvit’s force, but they are better armed and trained than your militia. We’d take heavy casualties if we managed to win the day at all. Defending the wall greatly increases our odds.”
This topic was actually something Blacknail cared about, so he spoke up. “You’d be slaughtered. Don’t go out there.”
“But we can’t make them attack us when we want them to. I can’t have the militia on duty forever,” Tannin countered.
“So what do you want to do?” the militia man asked.
“I’m going to have to try and talk to them again. Maybe I can convince them that we don’t have any gold.”
“That’s a terrible idea,” Beardy told him as he rolled his eyes disdainfully.
“It’s also stupid. They might kill you,” Blacknail added. He didn’t want Tannin talking to the scavengers too much, he might learn more than he was supposed to. That would be awkward.
“Nonetheless, I have to at least try to resolve this peacefully. The cost of violence would be too high for Shelter to survive,” Tannin replied. “We need every man and woman alive.”
Several villagers tried to talk him out of it, but they were unsuccessful. Blacknail scowled, as Tannin ordered the gates opened a crack and stepped out to talk to Orvit again. Geralhd also volunteered to go with him and represent the former bandits.
“You need someone who can actually fight,” Blacknail remarked as he stepped out after them. He wanted to be close in case he had to intervene or steer the conversation.
Orvit and two of his lieutenants met them halfway. They were about fifty feet from both the gate and the rest of the scavengers. They were on a path of hardened dirt and sparse grass that ran through the village’s fields.
“Have you decided to stop holding out on me?” Orvit asked them.
“I wasn’t holding out on you. No one in my village knows anything about any gold,” Tannin tried to explain calmly.
“That’s not what I heard,” Orvit replied as he reached into a pouch and pulled out a small golden nugget. “My source says that the village chief knows about the mine, and he’s been right about everything else so far.”
Blacknail smiled to himself. He remembered telling Elyias to say that. It had been a smart idea, not that he had any other kind.
“Attacking us won’t gain you anything,” Tannin told Orvit.
“Maybe I don’t need to attack your precious village,” Orvit replied as he suddenly drew his blade. “You’re the one who supposedly has the answers I need. Why don’t I just get them out of you?”
Geralhd and Tannin were both caught by surprise. They flinched back away from the naked blade. However, Blacknail responded differently. The moment Orvit had touched his weapon Blacknail had started drawing his own, and he was faster. There was a faint whistling sound as the blade sliced through the air.
“Try anything stupid and I’ll cut you deep,” Blacknail hissed as he pressed the tip of his sword into Orvit’s exposed side. Orvit’s two guards cursed but couldn’t do anything. Blacknail had reacted too quickly for them.
“Blacknail, we need…” Geralhd began to say.
“No, enough talk. We’re leaving. Run back to the gate, now,” the hobgoblin told him.
As Orvit stared at them malevolently, Tannin and Geralhd turned to flee back to the village. Blacknail didn’t immediately join them.
“I have a question for you, thief,” he told Orvit as he poked him in the side.
“Agh, what is it, you creepy fiend?” the man replied as he glared hatefully at Blacknail. He had his sword out but there was no way he could use it before Blacknail could disembowel him, and he knew it.
“Do you work for Werrick?”
“I do. You’re more informed than an ignorant hick would be, not to mention surprisingly fast with that blade. That means you should know what happens to people who cross the Wolf. Let me go now and maybe I’ll show you mercy.”
Blacknail didn’t bother replying. He just smiled and kicked Orvit so that the man smashed into one of his guard’s and they both fell. Then Blacknail immediately dashed away. The remaining guard took a step after him but the hobgoblin was already halfway back to gate. He was a very fast runner.
“I’ll get my hands on that gold! Those shoddy walls of your won’t stop me,” Orvit yelled as Blacknail pushed Tannin and Geralhd through the gate and then followed them.
The gate thudded to a close behind them, and there was an uproar as all the villagers tried to talk at the same time. They sounded distressed and excited. Half of them seemed to want to run away or hide in their homes and the other half wanted to charge Orvit’s band. They were all stupid.
“I haven’t run like that in years,” Tannin remarked in between deep breaths. He was red in the face and looked exhausted. “Thanks for having my back, Blacknail.”
“No problem. I couldn’t let you die,” the hobgoblin replied. It was a simple statement of fact.
“What do we do now?” one of the village militia leaders asked Tannin. He sounded more than a little fearful.
“Whatever we do, I don’t think we can reason with this Orvit fellow, so let’s keep these gates closed,” Geralhd said. There was more yelling from all the humans, until Tannin silenced them all.
“Quiet down, all of you. This is important. What are the scavengers doing now?” he asked the sentries atop the wall.”
“They aren’t advancing. Their leader rejoined the rest of his men and they seem to be organizing something,” the lookout answered him.
“Damnation, I almost wish they were attacking. We could get this over with,” Tannin cursed.
“What do we do now?” a villager asked.
“I don’t know,” Geralhd commented.
“There has to be some way to prevent Shelter from being destroyed,” Tannin exclaimed angrily. “We’ve spent too many years struggling to keep this place alive, through plague and famine. I’m not going to let some asshole who can’t accept the fact that we have no hidden caches of gold destroy it.”
“You’re the village elder, just tell us what you need,” a member of the militia replied.
“The militia needs to stay on guard in case of an attack,” Tannin told him. “We can probably repel a frontal assault with ease, but the wall around this village wasn’t meant to keep a determined human enemy out. Come nightfall, they will try to slip through it. I wish I had an answer for that, but I don’t. I’d do anything for a solution.”
Blacknail was really liking the aura of desperation most the humans had. It was so strong he could smell it. Yes, this would work wonderfully. Now was the time for him to propose his solution and take control of the situation. The hobgoblin coughed loudly enough to get everyone attention.
“Would you really do anything for a solution?” he asked Tannin as everyone turned to look his way.
“Yes…” the village elder replied hesitantly as he met Blacknail’s gaze. He seemed to have detected something off about the question because he looked slightly suspicious.
“Good, because I could kill Orvit and his men for you.”
“You could? There are a lot of them and only one of you,” Tannin replied as he tried to see past the hobgoblin’s disguise.
“I’m quite sneaky and I have some… minions I could ask for help. Don’t worry about that.”
“Blacknail, we really should discuss this…” Geralhd interjected nervously before Blacknail quieted him with a glare. He stuttered for a second and then shut up.
“If you pay my price I will save your people. Would you really do anything?” Blacknail asked as he turned back to Tannin.
“I would, but I still don’t see how you could possibly do what you say you can.”
“I can do it because of what I am,” the hobgoblin replied as he pulled his hood down and removed his scarf so that his face was visible.