The winding path before Blacknail ran through the tall trees, past the bushes at their edge, and out into the midday sunlight. The hobgoblin followed the trail and stepped out onto the top of a hill. Immediately, he was confronted by the sight of a valley surrounded by forested hills. Within the valley lay a crude looking village. It had been a long journey, but Blacknail had finally gotten back from Daggerpoint.
From atop the hill, Blacknail could see over the settlement’s walls. He frowned thoughtfully. What he saw within them surprised him a little. The large clearing was still full of rocky hills, but the amount of buildings around them had more than doubled. Black smoke rose up into the sky from several chimneys. The older longhouses made from woven branches and bark were still standing, but now there were plenty of buildings made from mud bricks and large felled logs. There were only a few areas within the walls left clear of construction, but an odd sight caught Blacknail’s eye. There was a crater where a longhouse had used to be. Had there been an accident? One lost building wouldn’t be so bad. Blacknail had actually been expecting to find half of the place on fire when he got back.
Looking over a bit, Blacknail saw that the forest outside the settlement had also been pushed back almost a hundred feet. A lot of that ground was still filled with tree stumps but some of the soil looked like it had been torn up and cleared of rocks and plants. Blacknail knew the trees had probably been cut down for firewood, but he wasn’t sure why the ground had been cleared. Maybe Gob was just trying to keep the goblins busy?
“How many goblins live here now?” Blacknail muttered to himself. Feeding them all might be difficult come winter, and he knew a lot of the little green pests were free riding of all his hard work, even if it was hard to find out which goblins those were. They all claimed to be hard workers…
Scamp interrupted Blacknail’s thoughts. “Dunno. Lots.”
The other hobgoblin walked up beside Blacknail and peered over at the settlement. There were several other hobgoblins behind him.
“I wasn’t asking you,” Blacknail replied dismissively as he began walking down the hill.
After dropping off Geralhd and the others at Shelter, Blacknail had met up with the hobgoblins that had been following them in secret and headed here. Most of the hobgoblins were carrying piles of tools such as axes or shovels. A lot of gear had been dropped off at Shelter but Blacknail had kept some for his own use. In particular the steel-headed axes would be useful for chopping down trees in order to build and provide firewood. Stone axes just weren’t anywhere near as good.
“And now I’m back here in this dirty death trap,” Elyias moaned from the back of the group. He was carrying a particularly large heap of tools.
Since Elyias was known as a thief and a traitor, he had stayed with the hobgoblins instead of travelling with the humans, although Blacknail hadn’t actually given him any other option.
“You’re safer here than practically anywhere else,” Blacknail told him.
“There is a difference between living and surviving. One of them has ale and women.”
Blacknail smirked at Elyias. “You can’t have either if you’re dead, but don’t worry, soon we will be having lots of fun!”
Elyias sighed despondently, but Avorlus spoke up. “This is where your mage is? The young fool is right, it doesn’t look like much. Although I don’t know what I was expecting.”
Blacknail scowled at the mage’s words. He was rather proud of the goblin settlement. It had taken a lot of hard work to create it out in the forest. Avorlus was just being miserable. He had journeyed with Geralhd and the others to Shelter, but he had demanded to go with Blacknail and meet his mage at the goblin settlement right away, even though the long journey from Daggerpoint had tired his old body out. On the way here Avorlus had found out that the mage he was looking for was a hobgoblin, but he still wanted the knowledge Blacknail said he had.
There was activity at the gate they were walking toward so Blacknail turned to observe it. Several goblins ran off as two hobgoblins stepped forward with raised spears. Blacknail didn’t recognize either of them.
“Stop! Who are you?” one of them yelled towards the approaching hobgoblins.
“I’m Blacknail, your leader,” Blacknail shouted back in an annoyed tone. They should really know this already. He was important.
“Really?” one of the guards replied uncertainly.
Blacknail glared t him. “Yes.”
“He’s Blacknail all right,” Scamp added helpfully. There was a moment of silence from the guards as they turned to regard each other.
“I thought Gob made him up,” one of them remarked to the other quietly.
“Don’t be an idiot. I always knew he was real,” his companion replied before turning toward Blacknail.
“You may come in!” he announced.
Blacknail huffed as he walked past the guards. “I know I can come in. I’m the leader and we outnumber you.”
The targets of his ire didn’t respond. They wisely kept silent and got out of the way. The wall in front of Blacknail was made from a row of long wooden stakes that rose up from the earth. They were tied together for extra strength and their tips had been sharpened to make them hard to climb or jump over. The gate through them was just a gap for people to walk through, which Blacknail’s group promptly did.
“Let’s go see Gob,” Blacknail informed his minions as he looked around the settlement. He wanted backup in case something unexpected happened.
After a few seconds, Blacknail spotted Gob’s old home and began walking over to it. It was one of the earliest branch longhouses, and a quick inspection revealed no sign of Gob, just half a dozen goblins that quickly ran off. Blacknail was just about to check the next longhouse when Gob appeared with two other hobgoblins behind him. Gob was the first hobgoblin that had joined Blacknail and he had been left in charge of the settlement while Blacknail was gone. Gob was very loyal but Blacknail was still a little nervous. He had been gone for a long time, and hobgoblins weren’t known for their patience or subservience.
“Welcome back, great one!” Gob exclaimed joyfully as he bowed his head.
Blacknail’s posture relaxed a little. Gob sounded very sincere. It was hard for a hobgoblin to fake happiness like that. “You seem to have done an alright job here in my absence,”
“You commanded me to keep the food stores full and make sure everyone behaved, so I have done so, lord.”
“Are you feeding all these goblins?” Blacknail asked. On the way in they had passed what must have been a hundred goblins.
“Yes, many of them work in the human fields for food, and I have started a few plantings of my own outside the walls.”
“I brought some tools that will help you with that,” Blacknail replied. “Did you run into any problems while I was gone?”
Gob shook his head. “There were a few young hobgoblins that refused to listen to your teachings, so I killed them.”
“You seem to have left plenty alive,” Blacknail observed. He had seen quite a few new faces as he’d strolled through the settlement. Blacknail wasn’t sure he really wanted so many hobgoblin minions. They were hard to control.
“You are a great leader, the more minions you have the higher your own stature!”
“True…” Blacknail mused aloud. He hadn’t really considered it that way before. Gob was making a fair amount of sense, but Blacknail was curious about one thing. “What happened to the longhouse over there?”
“Great one. I lack your power and good looks, so several hobgoblins began planning against you while you were gone. They thought themselves better than you, so I had Imp blow their house up while they were sleeping.”
“Don’t worry. I probably would have done the same thing. That sounds like it was fun,” Blacknail admitted with a smile.
“Thank you, master. May I ask who this new person is?” Gob asked as he looked toward Avorlus.
“A mage that can make some important stuff for me.”
Gob frowned. “He still has his clothes.”
Avorlus sputtered loudly and gave Blacknail an irritated look. The hobgoblin sighed.
“He’s not a prisoner,” Blacknail quickly said before leaning in close to Gob and whispering. “But make sure he doesn’t leave the camp without permission.”
Blacknail then coughed and stepped back. “I also have a bunch of tools I brought from the human city, find somewhere safe to put them. I don’t want any stupid goblins stealing them.”
“Rolly will take care of that. He has done a good job being in charge of the food storage,” Gob replied as he motioned toward a fat hobgoblin standing beside him.
“Make sure they are kept clean and ready for use. I don’t want them getting dull or rusty,” Blacknail added.
Rolly was one of the first local hobgoblins that had transformed. He had looked a little chubby even then, and he’d only grown thicker since. He wasn’t quite human fat, but he had a noticeable pot belly and was the widest looking hobgoblin Blacknail had ever seen. Still, Rolly had always struck Blacknail as clever enough to stay out of trouble, so he probably wasn’t a bad choice to look after the supplies, even if he did eat more than his share of them.
“Yes, boss. I will keep them safe and ready for use,” Rolly replied with a sloppy salute. When Blacknail nodded back, he then led the hobgoblins that were carrying gear off deeper into the camp.
“Since that seems like everything important, I’m going to go take a nap,” Blacknail said as he turned to look off towards where his cave lay. It had been a while since he had slept in his bed here and he wanted to get reacquainted with it.
Gob frowned. “I wouldn’t dare tell you what to do, but I was planning on holding a meeting for all the hobgoblins. Too many of them have never seen their glorious leader, and that is unacceptable.”
“Alright, I’m going to nap for a bit. Get me when you’re ready.”
Gob winced. “Sorry, boss. I got excited and already sent out minions to gather everyone. They should be ready in just a few minutes.”
“Fine, let’s get it over with then,” Blacknail groaned. It was probably a good idea to make sure everyone knew he was in charge, especially if it only took a few minutes.
“I think I’d like to skip this little event and meet with your mage already. I want to see if this hobgoblin really can make mana stones. If he does then this little jaunt won’t have been a complete waste of my time.”
Since there was no reason to keep Avorlus around, Blacknail led him and the hobgoblins on a detour toward Imp’s hut. Once there, Imp began a demonstration of his knowledge that involved several glass beakers and a lot of incomprehensible muttering. Avorlus frowned at the primitive surroundings and scavenged tools, but he quickly became enraptured by what Imp was saying and doing. Everyone else found staring at boiling liquids mind numbingly boring, so they stepped outside.
Blacknail was just about to suggest going to the meeting, when an unfamiliar hobgoblin walked over to him and waved in greeting. He was tall and thin with an unhealthy grey cast to his skin. His dark hair was very short and fuzzy, like it had been cut or burned off and only recently regrown.
“Who are you?” Blacknail asked in confusion. Most hobgoblins didn’t wave. That was a human thing.
“I’m Ferrar,” the hobgoblin replied in an equally perplexed tone as he quickly dropped his hand and stopped waving.
“Oh, right.” Blacknail saw the resemblance now, although it was hard to recognize him since he wasn’t standing next to a fire. “Have you come to pay respects to your great leader?”
Ferrar looked uncertain. “Er, yes. Congratulations on doing all the wonderful things that you did while you were gone to the place you went…”
“Thank you, congratulations on becoming a hobgoblin!”
Ferrar tapped the side of his head. “The better thoughts make it easier to figure out how to burn things.”
“Probably,” Blacknail replied. “Is that everything you wanted? I’m a little busy right now.”
“Hmmm, I wanted to ask you for something, boss.”
“What?” Blacknail asked. He was willing to bet it had something to do with fire.
“There are secrets that the humans have that I want.”
“Ask the villagers. They are supposed to share that sort of stuff with us now.”
“They don’t know! I need to learn from other humans that live somewhere else.”
“What are we talking about?”Blacknail asked as he frowned in puzzlement.
“Making the shiny metals. My fire doesn’t burn them enough! The humans here only know how to repair metal things. None of them can take iron from the ground and make new tools out of them!”
“Why do you want to do that? It’s easy enough to take metal things from humans,” Blacknail replied. The world was full of easily hunted humans with useful items.
Ferrar’s eyes seemed to glow with fervor. “I don’t want to take. I want to make a furnace that will melt iron and cleanse it. It will be bigger and hotter than any of the fires I have made yet, but I will tame its flames and create so many wonderful new things with its power!”
“I’ll keep an eye out for such a human,” Blacknail replied carefully, before taking a step back.
Ferrar was a very useful minion, if a little intense at times. Even as a goblin he’d been one of the most productive of Blacknail’s subordinates. Almost all the pottery was made under his direction and he was the best at crafting it, so keeping him happy would be worth a little effort. Building a new furnace to smelt iron would also keep him busy and hopefully out of trouble.
Now that Ferrar was done talking, Gob walked up and addressed Blacknail. “Most your minions should have gathered by now.”
“Let’s go then. I’m getting tired,” Blacknail replied with yawn.
With a respectful nod, Gob led Blacknail over to the largest open space inside the settlement. It was usually used for training, but someone had built a raised platform over on one side of it. To get to it the group had to pass by a crowd. Quite a few hobgoblins and goblins had gathered for the meeting. There looked to be almost a hundred hobgoblins and countless goblins. Once he reached the top of the podium, Blacknail took a second to look down at them. It was a little intimidating. There were so many eyes on him, and the idea of there being a hundred hobgoblins in one place was unreal. The idea that he would want to be anywhere near them was even weirder. Why weren’t they killing each other?
“They seem well behaved,” Blacknail remarked uncertainly to Gob.
Gob beamed proudly back. “I’ve been training them the way you taught me, and only those that learn are allowed to live. They practice with swords and to control their rage and hunger almost every day. Your ideas did this, wise one. Your genius knows no bounds! We are a mighty tribe now.”
Blacknail frowned as he looked over the hobgoblins. “Where do they all live?”
“Every longhouse has a small group of hobs that control it,” Gob explained. “The strongest rules the home and all the goblins that live there. Each longhouse is like a small tribe within a tribe, except they all serve their glorious leader, you.”
Blacknail still had a hard time seeing them all getting along. Even disciplined hobgoblins would find reasons to brawl. “Do they fight or steal from each other much?”
“Stealing from other longhouses is not allowed, by your orders. You have told me many times that stealing is bad, so I killed the thieves for you. Now they only steal small things and are very sneaky about it.”
“Yes, I am very smart for thinking of that. What about fighting?”
“Sometimes they fight, but they know what is allowed and what isn’t, only small murders not big ones.”
Blaknail nodded along thoughtfully. “Ah, that makes sense.”
Since Blacknail had no more questions, Gob stepped up to the edge of the platform and raised his arms. From somewhere off to the side someone blew a horn. The deep echoing sound rolled over the green crowd, and they all fell silent and looked towards the stage. Blacknail stared back. What was this now?
“Listen, brothers and sisters! Our magnificent chieftain has returned from his battle with our enemies. He has brought many spoils and bathed in the blood of the fallen. We are victorious! All praise to Blacknail the undefeated!”
The gathered goblins and hobgoblins immediately roared their approval by screaming at the top of their lungs. Their raised voices seemed to tear the air and explode out into the forest. Blacknail had to catch his balance and shake off the effect of the screaming. It felt like his skull was vibrating. When Gob had mentioned a meeting Blacknail had been picturing something smaller and a lot less noisy.
Gob then lowered his arms and stepped out of the way. The eyes of the crowd instantly all focused on Blacknail. He gulped and froze for second. He didn’t know what to say, and then he remembered that his audience were hobgoblins. He was a hobgoblin, so he knew them, even if he didn’t like them. You just had to tell them what they wanted to hear.
Blacknail stepped forward and yelled at the crowd. “Once we were weak and small. Once we feared the jaws of trolls and the claws of harpies, but no longer! I have slain these beasts. Follow me and you will never fear anything in the forest ever again. Serve me and food will be plentiful and your nights warm. You who stand before me are the strongest and the smartest. Serve me and we shall take the world as our own. Blood will flow and the hunt will last forever. I cannot be beaten!”
There was another frenzy of excited screaming from the mob. Hobgoblins were jumping up into the air and waving their arms. Even the goblins were getting into it, although Blacknail didn’t think most of them had any idea what was going on. They just liked shouting. The massed energy infected Blacknail and he found himself grinning crazily at the ranks of minions before him as they cheered for their glorious leader. He felt invincible and fulfilled, like a king. Maybe hobgoblins weren’t so bad.