It took a few hours for the humans from Shelter to arrive at the goblin settlement. However, all the people Blacknail had been hoping to see were there. Escorted by his minions, the large group of people walked through the front gate and into the settlement. The mix of villagers and former bandits numbered over forty. Tannin was there, alongside Geralhd, Khita, Avorlus, and Beardy.
With a friendly grin on his face, Blacknail walked over to them and gestured at his surroundings with wide open arms. “Welcome to my camp! It’s not much, but the walls keep the wind and animals away.”
It was Tannin that stepped forward. The older man with a thick grey beard gave the hobgoblin an appraising look for a second before nodding politely. “Thank you for having us. I hear you’ve got a proper mess of interesting things that you want to show off.”
“Yep. You’ll be very impressed. I’m pretty amazing,” Blacknail responded cheerfully.
The crowd of humans promptly followed Blacknail over to Ferrar’s workshop. The hobgoblin had just finished opening up the furnace and extracting the refined iron a few hours ago. Still excited, Ferrar directed their gazes toward where two chunks of ore were cooling on a rock off to one side. Blacknail didn’t find them all that interesting, but the blacksmith Tannin had brought along seemed impressed.
“These nuggets of pig iron look like they’ve been made properly,” he observed. “I can see that the slag has been melted out of them. Yes, I can work ore of this quality into proper wrought iron that we can use.”
Blacknail sighed. Even after going through the furnace and cooling down the metal Ferrar had refined was next to useless. Apparently, it needed to be heated up again in a different furnace and hammered. It was a good thing Ferrar was so obsessed with this stuff. It was far too complex and tedious for Blacknail to figure out.
As Ferrar beamed at the blacksmith’s words, Tannin nodded and turned to Blacknail. “And you’re willing to trade pig iron like this to us regularly?”
“Of course, we’re neighbours. We should get along and help each other!” Blacknail replied cheerfully.
“Right, what do you want in return for this generosity?” Tannin huffed.
Blacknail smiled and made a dismissive gesture with one hand. “Just more of what you’re already doing. You can trade me food like cheese. Also, I will pay you to help my minions plant crops and to teach them to make stuff. There are lots of things my minions can’t do, such as blacksmithing.”
“You could also help me make wrought iron,” Ferrar suggested.
Tannin frowned skeptically. “Oh, why would we want to teach you any sort of forging? Giving away our monopoly on that skill wouldn’t seem to be in our interest. Your iron is useless without it.”
Blacknail just smiled. He knew that the iron was valuable to the humans since they couldn’t produce the metal themselves, and they had a lot of tools that had degraded over the years, but they had no idea how valuable their knowledge and expertise was. With it, Blacknail could change the world and become a the most powerful chieftain in the North.
“My minions are going to need a lot of simple little iron tools, like nails and arrowheads. Your one blacksmith would need to work nonstop to make them all, or he could take a few hobgoblin assistants to help him with the small simple things while he concentrates on your own needs.”
“And what happens when you no longer need our skills? Why would you continue to supply us with iron?”
Blacknail shrugged. “We can learn anything we need from Herstcrest, even if the craftsman they lent us doesn’t know. It’s better to be friendly with us now so we will give you better trades later. It will take a long, long time for us to learn even part of your skills.”
Tannin exchanged looks with the blacksmith and then sighed. “I suppose that’s an acceptable offer.”
Blacknail snorted. He was more than willing to barter, since it cost him so little, but there was no ignoring the force disparity between the two groups. While Shelter had a large population, there was no way it could survive in a long-term struggle against Blacknail’s minions. In fact, they’d already been falling into ruin before Blacknail’s arrival. They needed his good will.
After the bargaining with Tannin had completed, Geralhd walked over to Blacknail. He’d been studying the workshop with obvious enthusiasm and interest, which was a little odd since he’d never been one for hands-on work.
“This is all rather amazing!” Geralhd remarked excitedly. “There is no archeological evidence to suggest that goblins and hobgoblins ever worked iron before. They only used stone tools. I’m seeing history in the making here. I wonder if in the future anyone will ever dig up this site and study its artifacts.”
Blacknail blinked. Just wait until Geralhd saw what he was going to do with the iron.
“I do amazing things all the time, since I’m the greatest hobgoblin who has ever lived,” Blacknail remarked before leading the group away from the smelting furnace. While he was showing off, there were some other places he wanted to show them.
The next stop on their tour was the clay ovens. There several goblins were feeding the fires and loading up an oven full of newly-made pots. The process had been improved a lot since the goblins had first tried it. The specially made kilns damaged or destroyed far fewer pots. The pots themselves were also much more complex and artistic. The goblins that were making them liked carving little figures and patterns into the clay. Hunting and war were common scenes, although most of them just looked like squiggly lines.
After moving away from the kilns, Blacknail took them to the tanning racks where the animal hides gathered from hunting were hanging up and drying. He knew humans wouldn’t find it all that impressive, but the hides were worth something in trade. Several of the humans were rather impressed by some of the wolf skins had acquired.
“And this is where my giant mansion is going to be built,” Blacknail said as he pointed to a large area of stony ground that had been cleared and levelled. Everyone stopped to look.
“Huh, but right now, it's just an empty patch of dirt,” Geralhd observed carefully.
“Maybe, but when it’s done it will be bigger than everyone else’s homes, including yours,” Blacknail replied crossly before moving on.
“How many goblins and hobgoblins are here in this village now? I can’t seem to figure it out by looking since all these goblins haven’t stopped running around, and they seem to pack themselves into houses like berries in a bear’s mouth,” Tannin asked as they walked back to the main gate.
Blacknail shrugged. “No idea. More are always popping out of nowhere. Gob might know.”
Tannin frowned and glanced over toward one of the longhouses for a moment. They’d finished visiting most the interesting places within the camp, with the notable exceptions of the gold cave and Imp’s hut. The people of Shelter didn’t need to know about the gold or Blacknail’s access to magic. Having magic around made some people twitchy and unreasonably paranoid. Blacknail was one of those people, but for now, the benefits of Imp’s magic outweighed the risks.
“Why are we headed back to the entrance?” Tannin asked as his group followed Blacknail. “You aren’t kicking us out already, are you?”
“No, I just want to show you something and suggest an idea,” Blacknail replied as they reached the gate and looked out at the forest.
“Hmm, what is it?”
“Moving through the Green is hard and dangerous, yes? Even coming here isn’t easy for you.”
“That’s true enough.”
Blacknail raised a hand and pointed at the path that led back to the humans’ village. “But you humans built roads to make it faster and safer to travel from place to place. We could do that. My minions could cut a road from here to Shelter and then from Shelter to Herstcrest. That would make it easier to trade.”
Tannin perked up. “Huh, that’s an interesting idea. We’ve been disconnected from the larger world for too long. What would you need from us?”
“Mostly just advice,” Blacknail replied.
“We’d be more than happy to help you out with such a project. Of course, even with a proper road, the Green is dangerous to travel through.”
“My minions could patrol it and build shelters beside it for people to rest at. They wouldn’t be fancy, but they would keep animals out,” Blacknail replied. He had something like the feral goblins’ half-buried huts in mind. They would be able to hold back anything up to an enraged troll, which they would still at least slow down.
After a bit more conversation, Tannin agreed to send over some people to help with Blacknail’s latest project. The group then headed back inside the settlement to get some lunch. As Tannin stepped back to speak to some of his people, Avorlus emerged from the crowd and headed over to Blacknail’s side.
“It has been a while since our last conversation,” the mage remarked.
“Still doing dangerous magic stuff?” Blacknail asked him.
Avorlus rolled his eyes. “Yes, which is what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Oh?” Blacknail mused. Should he take a step back?
“I’ve learned almost everything of value I can from Imperious and taught him what he needs know to make your Elixir in return, as per our deal. Thus, I find myself with a surplus of free time and yet a severe deficit of proper facilities to work with.”
“You can’t go back to Daggerpoint. The other mages still want to kill you,” Blacknail pointed out.
“True, but since I’m stuck out here in these savage lands, I might as well take advantage of any opportunities that fall into my lap. Imperious has been telling me about your visit to Herstcrest. I was hoping to make a visit there to examine the crystal cavern you found. I’ve never actually ventured to see such a source before.”
Blacknail absently scratched the side of his head. “I’m planning to send some minions that way in a few days, but I don’t think the vympirs like mages much. They call them wise-men, but they seem to think they’re too dangerous to have around.”
“Yes, they are fascinating creatures. I’d seen them referenced in scholarly works, but never heard of anyone seeing any in real life. I would love to be able to examine them.”
“Don’t try it,” Blacknail advised the mage.
Avorlus grunted sourly. “I’m not suicidal. I understand their enmity toward mages, and it’s not completely unreasonable. If I do go to Herstcrest, I will endeavor to stay out of sight and be as unobtrusive as possible.”
“Until you begin playing with the magic exploding crystals in their basement?”
Blacknail sighed. “I’ll think about it.”
By now they’d reached the cooking area, so everyone began to sit down. There were a bunch of crude stools and chairs scattered around the fire pit. Blacknail had gotten the stew started a few hours ago so it was done now. After serving Blacknail first, the hobgoblin in charge of the cooking began handing out bowls to everyone else, which were delivered by goblins.
Soon, everyone was eating and talking amongst themselves. Blacknail nodded happily as he observed what was happening. All the humans looked relaxed, despite being surrounded by hobgoblins. The people of Shelter were growing used to the hobgoblins. Not too long ago they would have been terrified by the presence of even one.
While Blacknail was eating, Geralhd and Beardy walked over and sat down next to him.
“You seem to be keeping yourself pleasantly busy with all this work,” Geralhd observed.
“Ya, it’s suspicious. You’re a lazy beast at heart,” Beardy added. Blacknail couldn’t deny that.
Geralhd sighed. “I think, we’re both simply curious as to why you’ve suddenly become so interested in building a series of roads. That seems like an incredibly difficult and thankless task for someone with your priorities and inclinations.”
Blacknail weighed his options for a moment before answering. He wasn’t sure how honest he wanted to be, but a moment later, he decided that there was no point holding anything back. “I keep having to send minions away to do missions, but I’m worried about how loyal they will be. You can’t trust hobgoblins. However, Ilisti said that better roads will help me keep a better eye on what is happening in other places.”
“That’s the sanest thing you’ve ever said, the bit about hobgoblins, anyway,” Beardy remarked.
Geralhd looked doubtful. “Aren’t you being a little paranoid? It’s not like the other hobgoblins are all trying to kill you.”
“Quite a few of them are trying to kill me,” Blacknail replied with an amused grin. “But I’m very hard to poison and after I executed the last few idiots that tried to ambush me, they’re all too afraid to try again.”
Beardy seemed to find this funny. He let out a loud belly laugh. Geralhd winced in surprise.
“Well, maybe, what you’re missing is a cause or mission. Roads don’t seem like a terrible idea, but a united sense of purpose and identity seem like a better idea to me if you want to inspire loyalty in your followers.”
“What’s that?” Blacknail asked.
“Like human countries have flags and symbols, so that no matter where they go they know who and what they serve. A country gives people a shared identity so that they can work together and remember that what serves the whole group also serves them individuals. It’s like a story they live, I suppose. It makes them part of something greater than themselves.”
Blacknail frowned thoughtfully. “Hmmm, I don’t think that would work for hobgoblins. We’re a little different.”
Hobgoblins were not the same as humans. Despite what Geralhd seemed to think, their minds worked very differently. Humans were herd animals in a way that hobgoblins weren’t. Hobgoblins formed tribes, but those tribes were always a tool for the hobgoblin to use, not something they would sacrifice themselves for. It was even difficult for hobgoblins to see a tribe as something more than a collection of individuals.
“In a lot of gangs or the navy, they just get tattoos,” Beardy remarked.
Blacknail perked up. “Skin art? That could work!”
Yes, at the very least it would allow the tribe to recognize its own. Having the symbol of Blacknail’s authority etched in their skin might also make a lot of hobgoblins hesitate about betraying him, especially if that symbol gave them status. Hobgoblins liked being better than others, and wouldn’t want to lose that.
Grinning excitedly, Blacknail turned to Beardy. “Can you make tattoos?”
“Um, I guess I can. I mean I’ve got one and seen it done a few times. It didn’t look that hard, as long as you don’t want anything too fancy.”
“Good, I want to give all my hobgoblins marks.”
“What exactly do I get out of this? That sounds like a lot of work,” Beardy remarked coldly.
Blacknail reached into his coat and pulled out a small lump of gold, which he tossed to Beardy. After catching it, the man blinked in stunned disbelief at the object in his hands.
“You’re just going to give this to me?” Beardy asked in surprise.
Blacknail chuckled. “Yes, where would you go?”
Beardy scowled but tucked the nugget of gold away into his own coat. “I suppose you have a deal. I can teach you how to create tattoos.”
With the deal complete, Blacknail began to turn away from the humans, but Geralhd coughed politely to get his attention. “You should at least try to come up with a name for both this settlement and your tribe. If for no other reason than so people know what to call you.”
“That’s a good idea. I will have to think of some names. I’m great at naming things, just ask Gob!” Blacknail exclaimed happily. For some reason, Geralhd grimaced sourly.
By this time, everyone had finished eating and all the conversations were starting to die down, so Blacknail ended the lunch break. He talked to Tannin briefly before saying goodbye to everyone and sending them back to Shelter with some hobgoblin scouts as guides. Only Beardy remained behind to do some experiments on giving goblins tattoos. Several were knocked over the head and volunteered for his use.
Once the visitors were gone, Blacknail began organizing things for the next day. There was no point waiting around. Tomorrow was going to be a big day. For the first time ever, he was going to muster the full power of the settlement he’d built - an organized horde of goblins - and put it to work. The Green would be pushed back and Blacknail’s route South would open up before him. First, he would build the road, and then he would march an army down it to strike at his master’s unsuspecting enemies.