The female hobgoblin didn’t appear to be afraid of Blacknail and his minions. That was a little surprising since they had just finished slaughtering a large part of her community. She regarded each hobgoblin calmly before orienting on Blacknail and walking over to him. With sword still in hand, Blacknail watched her warily. It was interesting, if unsurprising, that she had instantly figured out that he was the leader. She must have been affected by his inspiring aura of command.
After pulling his eyes away from the female’s chest, Blacknail studied the rest of her. She was of average height for a hobgoblin, but her body was noticeably curvier, especially around the hips. Her long black hair had been tied back in a ponytail, and Blacknail noticed some subtle lines around her eyes. Huh, he’d assumed that she was young, but that didn’t appear to be the case. In fact, she was probably the oldest hobgoblin he’d ever met. Although, that wasn’t hard. Feral hobgoblins rarely lived more than a few years as far as Blacknail could tell, and this female was still more than young enough to be attractive looking. It was simply a mature beauty, not unlike a certain woman that Blacknail wasn’t going to think about.
As Blacknail was purging his mind of awkward thoughts, the female hobgoblin stopped in front of him and made a series of undecipherable squeaks. It was rather cute sounding, but meant nothing to Blacknail at all.
“Right, there is no way you speak human,” Blacknail observed before sighing in frustration.
He turned to his minions. “Did any of you understand that?”
A young hobgoblin that Blacknail had never bothered to learn the name of raised his hand. “I got a little of it. It’s not so different from the old tribe speak.”
“What did she say?”
The hobgoblin glanced between Blacknail and the feral female. “She is surrendering to you, and she thinks you are handsome.”
“Well, she isn’t blind,” Blacknail huffed in reply. “Ask her who was in charge of this place.”
Blacknail’s minion nodded and said a few guttural words to the feral female. She nodded and spoke a few quick sentences back. The hobgoblin minion frowned and then turned to Blacknail.
“She says there was no real leader. The males fought, and she tried to keep everyone from killing each other.”
Blacknail considered this. He could sort of see this goblin settlement working that way, although he was suspicious that this female was leaving something out. This was the first time he had encountered multiple feral hobgoblins living together, and there had to be a reason for that.
“Hmmm, I don’t think she is being completely honest,” Blacknail mused aloud.
“Yes, she is lying. She has a no good liar’s face,” Herah remarked angrily as she walked up beside Blacknail and glared at the newcomer.
The feral female had been maintaining a pleasant smile, but as she noticed Herah, a displeased scowl appeared on her face. The expression vanished a moment later, but Blacknail noted it with interest, and it unleashed a chain of thoughts in his mind. That was the look of someone who was used to getting their own way. It seemed likely that this female had been the settlement’s true ruler, and that she had played all the male hobgoblins against each other, while simultaneously enticing them so that they didn’t wander off. Blacknail had some personal experience with that sort of female behavior. She was definitely smarter than her male compatriots anyway, since she wasn’t dead or fleeing for her life.
“But what should we do with her?” Blacknail mused aloud.
“Kill her like the males,” Herah immediately responded. “She will just cause problems.”
“She might know something important,” Scamp suggested with a shrug.
“Like what? She’s a feral,” Blacknail countered. His tribe was better than hers in every way.
Herah grimaced before reluctantly speaking up “Ask her why there are so few female hobgoblins.”
“Why that?” Blacknail asked Herah. He’d wondered about the same thing before, but the question had sort of come out of nowhere.
“I’m just curious if she knows. Khita asked me about it, but no one knew the answer.”
Shrugging, Blacknail told his minion to pass the question on, which he promptly did. The feral female seemed to consider the query for a few moments before replying. However, her words seemed to confuse the translator, because he scratched his head in a puzzled way.
“Something about small goblins… Oh, I get it. She says babies get in the way,” the translator explained. “She also said that after her first litter she couldn’t have any more babies, so when she got bigger she focused on protecting her babies and their babies.”
Blacknail nodded in understanding. “Ah, makes sense.”
“Ya, I’ve never had any, but all the other female goblins were mating all the time, like everywhere,” Herah agreed. “So, now that she has answered the question, let’s kill her.”
“Not quite yet,” Blacknail told her.
He found the feral female interesting. She was obviously very unique for a hobgoblin, and this entire hobgoblin settlement had obviously sprung into existence because of her. Most goblin mothers didn’t care much for the lives of their adult children. The little things quickly learned to take care of themselves, but this female was different. Since she couldn’t have new ones, she had become attached to them, and had thus created a tribe. Also, if she truly cared about the goblins here, that meant she could be predicted and controlled. Most hobgoblins didn’t come with such a useful weakness.
“What are we doing with all of this?” Scamp asked as he looked around the entire settlement. “We should burn it and then loot it.”
There were nods and mumbles of agreement from most the other hobgoblins, which earned them an annoyed glare from their chieftain.
“You have to loot it first. Loot, then burn,” Blacknail told them sourly. This was basic stuff.
There probably wasn’t much of value here, though. Blacknail wandered away from his minions and began to look around. He walked over to the huts and inspected them. They were cramped and dirty, but inside he saw several crude clay bowls and some stone tools. None of it was worth looting. Muttering to himself, Blacknail then turned to look around the rest of the clearing. To his surprise, he noticed that there was an unusual amount of berry bushes scattered around. They had obviously been cultivated. Looking around some more, Blacknail saw two other patches of plants that looked like they had been planted on purpose. They were unusually healthy and the ground around them had been torn up to give them room to grow. The first was a tall plant with a thin stalk and arrow-shaped leaves, while the other was a small bushy plant with tiny reddish leaves.
“What are these?” Blacknail asked the translator.
When the feral female was finished listening, she hurried inside one of the huts and came back out with two fist-sized clay pots that had lids. She then opened them, and made some noises as she showed Blacknail their contents. They were full of dried leaves.
“She says you put one on meat to make it tastier, and that you drink the other,” the translator explained. “How do you drink leaves?”
“It’s tea,” Blacknail explained to his minion as he studied the leaves. Was there a way to find smarter minions? This bunch weren’t impressing him.
The feral hobgoblin let out a series of grunts, which were promptly translated. “She offers them to you if you spare her, and she will mate with you too.”
“I’m not going to mate with her right here,” Blacknail replied as he rolled his eyes and thought about sword drills.
The offer was tempting, but he wasn’t that stupid. While he was distracted, one of his minions might stab him in the back. Most likely it would be Herah, because she was glaring at him quite intently. He could feel her eye burning into the back of his head.
Blacknail decided that he wanted to try the herbs himself, so he ordered it done. He then sat down and waited as the female feral went about preparing it. As she was working, some of the feral goblins within the huts began to peak out as curiosity started to overcome their fear. A few minutes later, the female hobgoblin handed Blacknail a cup of tea and a piece of cooked meat that had been rubbed with the second herb.
“What if it’s poison?” Herah asked.
“Then she dies,” Blacknail replied as he took his first sip of the tea.
It wasn’t bad. Blacknail smiled. It was bitter, but almost in a good way. His mouth tasted cleaner after tasting the drink. The meat was also much better tasting with the herb. It had a spicy flavor, that Blacknail had only ever encountered in human food before. He wanted this for his own settlement. Nothing was more important to a hobgoblin than getting five proper meals a day.
The feral female noticed Blacknail’s happy grin. She straightened up and smiled proudly to herself, as if taking credit for the taste of the herbs. The action reminded Blacknail of Khita, which was a buzzkill. Wait, Herah also acted a lot like Khita. Blacknail had assumed that was because they were close, but what if all hobgoblin females acted like Khita? A cold feeling washed over Blacknail and he shivered. The world was suddenly a much darker place.
Gathering his strength, Blacknail put his empty cup down. He was probably wrong about the Khita thing, and he needed to focus. How was he going to bring these herbs to his base? They were unlikely to grow if he uprooted them. It took over a day to reach the base from here, and they weren’t seeding right now. It was still spring. He had been planning on destroying this settlement, but that didn’t seem like a good option now. He didn’t want a rival tribe near his own territory, but he wanted to make sure these herbs didn’t get lost.
It looked like he would have to keep the place intact, at least until he got the herbs growing in the fields over by his own settlement. The female feral would have to be spared as well. Of course, there were some other advantages to not burning the whole feral village down. It would prevent all the goblins in this area from migrating to Blacknail’s settlement, which is what they would undoubtedly do if the village was destroyed. The bloody pests would move in en mass and steal his food! There were already too many goblins there. Blacknail didn’t want more.
“I need to leave some minions here to watch the herbs,” Blacknail mused as he turned to study his minions.
Obviously, he couldn’t leave these ferals here alone. The problem was that if he left some of his minions here to rule over the place they might betray him. Hobgoblins couldn’t be trusted to stay loyal without daily reminders of who was the boss. Also, any minions that went rogue would be far more dangerous than ferals.
Blacknail looked at Scamp, who looked back uncomprehendingly. Was that the answer?
“We’re not looting the place,” Blacknail announced as he stood up. There were disappointed looks from many of his minions.
“What are we doing?” Scamp asked.
“You’re staying here, with three others. I’m putting you in charge of this place,” Blacknail explained as he pointed at the other three hobgoblins one by one.
Yes, this would work. Scamp was too stupid to betray him, and even if he did, he wouldn’t be much of a threat. He also knew enough about hunting, building, and training to serve as the leader here. He didn’t need to do much thinking because Blacknail and Gob had already taught him everything he needed to know.
Scamp blinked in surprise. “Why? What do you want me to do here?”
Blacknail shrugged. “Rule in my name. The most important thing is that you kill everyone who defies me. After that, you need to grow a lot more of these herbs and protect this place. Start by getting all the goblins to build some real walls.”
“Alright,” Scamp replied. He sounded unsure of himself. His new orders had obviously caught him by surprise.
“I’ll be back in a few days. Feel free to mate with the feral female!” Blacknail said as he began to walk back toward the forest.
“Wait, you’re leaving right now?” Scamp asked as his eyes widened in panic.
“Ya, I need to catch up with the humans. Good luck!” Blacknail replied as the other hobgoblins started following him away, including Herah, who was now smiling gleefully.
The feral female watched them leave, and then walked over to Scamp and leaned up against him. This startled Scamp, who had been staring at Blacknail. However, that was when Blacknail looked away and stepped into the shadow of the trees. Scamp would have to take care of himself. He would probably live until Blacknail sent someone to check on him.
Without wasting any more time, Blacknail led the way back over to the trail they had left the humans at. He broke out into a fast jog, since they needed to make up a lot of lost time. However, even at that speed, it was over two hours before they caught up. Blacknail jogged up past Aris and the others and over to Ilsiti, who was near the front of the column.
“Oh, you’re back. Did you take care of your problem?” Ilisti asked Blacknail.
“Probably. I killed just the right number of hobgoblins, I think,” he replied.
“Ha, you don’t sound too sure of yourself.”
Blacknail sighed. “How do you humans keep your minions loyal, even when they are far away from you?”
“Ah, that is something nobility has always worried about, particularly my own people, since we rely so much on personal charisma and strength to justify our rule. The problem might be central to the advance of human civilization itself. Certainly, empires have risen and fallen because the loyalty of men has ebbed like water on the shore.”
“Right. So, do you have an answer?” Blacknail asked, Humans seemed to rule over very large territories, even if they said a lot of nonsense. They must know something.
“For hobgoblins? I don’t know,” Ilisti mused. “What exactly is your problem?”
“I need to keep a watch on some hobgoblins that live far away from me at an outpost in the Green.”
“Hmm, proximity might not be your real problem out here in the Green. This is almost the opposite of what my own people do, but expanding kingdoms and empires used good roads and cavalry to speed up the movements of their troops. That in turn allowed them to keep distant vassal states under control more easily. If you make it easier and faster for people to travel to this outpost then they will feel you presence there much more acutely. Once travel is easy, you can also send out frequent messengers and shuffle administrators around, so they don’t get too comfortable in one location.”
“Yes, that makes sense to me, so why don’t you westerners do it?” Blacknail asked suspiciously.
Ilsiti grimaced sourly. “Because most Vympir are focused on protecting what we have, instead of empire building. In my opinion, that is one of our few weaknesses, and why we don’t rule all of humanity. Most of the old lords are paranoid and isolationist. They care only about securing their next meal.”
“Well, even if you’re too scared to use it yourself, it’s still a good idea,” Blacknail replied. There was a groan from Garen, who was standing on the other side of his master.
Ilisti just smiled. “That’s not an exact summary of what I said, although I understand your confusion.”
Blacknail shrugged. “People are confusing.”
“That we are,” Ilsiti admitted.
Since he suddenly had a lot to think about, Blacknail picked up the pace and pulled ahead of the humans so that he could join the scouts at the vanguard. As he followed the old abandoned road, Blacknail considered the Vympir’s words. He could reduce the time it took to reach the feral village by clearing this old road of vegetation, and it might even be possible to do something about the spiders…
The travelers continued on their way for several hours. Blacknail and two other hobgoblins led the way past a shallow creek and a large pond. The only real barrier they faced was one section of the road that had been occupied by a mimic. Thankfully, one of the scouts detected it and they knocked it off balance from a safe distance using spears and then finished it off with axes. Soon after that, another hobgoblin returned from scouting up ahead with news.
“I found the humans you were looking for,” the scout told Blacknail. “They are just past the next two hills.”
“Oh, they are still alive?” Blacknail asked him.
“They are moving around and stuff, so I think so. They are also doing a lot of that thing where you take care of plants.”
“Do they have any sentries out?”
“No, not in the forest. It looks like they watch the fields, though.”
Blacknail nodded. Since they were finally approaching their destination, he walked back to get Gerlahd and Ilisti. Once the three of them were together, they quickly completed the last stretch of their journey. From atop a hill that rose up above the treetops, they surveyed the town of Herstcrest.
“Judging by those cleared fields and those smoking chimneys, I’d say this town is definitely still populated,” Gerlahd remarked as they all studied the landscape before them. “I would have bet against it surviving even this long. Civilization, it seems, is hardier than I believed possible.”
Nestled between a river and a line of rocky hills was a long valley that had been cleared of trees. Crops had been planted all throughout it, except for where the town itself stood. Herstcrest was nestled up at the base of cliff and every other side of it was protected by a rough stone wall. It looked to be about twice the size of Shelter, judging by the number of houses.
Ilsiti scowled as he pointed to a structure in the middle of the fields. “That’s a watch tower, and it is poorly placed to survey the forest or anyone approaching the fields from outside.”
“What does that mean?” Geralhd asked.
“It means it was put there to keep on eye on the workers, lest they slack off or run. I do not believe outsiders such as us will receive a warm welcome here,” Ilisti explained as his eyes narrowed dangerously.
Blacknail chuckled. “Almost no one is ever happy to see me, but that has never stopped me before. Let’s go introduce ourselves!”