The image of a dashingly handsome hobgoblin with a perfectly pointy nose looked back at Blacknail as he stared into the puddle of water. Wow, he was good looking. Grinning at his own magnificence, Blacknail raised a hand and rubbed the top of his forehead where his horns were growing. It had been a while since he’d last trimmed them, and now they were as long as one of his fingers. That was longer than they’d ever been.
Having horns was awkward. Blacknail was still getting used to their weight, and they kept getting heavier as they grew. They also made it much harder to wear hats and hoods, and it was basically impossible for him to disguise himself as a human anymore. That was fine, though. The time for hiding his identity was over. Now was the moment for seizing power, and among goblins long horns were a symbol of authority.
Blacknail nodded in approval at his reflection. His horns definitely had a nice white color that contrasted nicely with his green skin. Blacknail couldn’t wait until they got longer. He hoped his would keep growing until they were as impressive as the antlers of the hobgoblin chief he’d killed. Those had been very striking. It wasn’t like he really cared, but he wondered if Herah would find that attractive. What about humans?
“Bah, whatever,” Blacknail grumbled as he stood up and began walking back to the road. At this point he doubted he could keep Herah away with a long pointy stick, no matter what his horns looked like.
Blacknail had just finished going for a quick early morning walk out in the bush. He enjoyed his privacy, which was hard to find in Ironbreak these days. The settlement was buzzing of activity, and Blacknail’s minions were always looking to get his approval or advice for something that should have been obvious. It never stopped.
Several weeks had passed since the first warrior initiation ceremony had been held. Except for a few difficult areas, the road to Shelter was complete. Most of the work crews were now working on the road to Herstcrest, but Blacknail had also sent some of them South to scout and map the old roads that led back to civilization.
The workers cutting their way to Herscrest were actually making good time. Unsurprisingly, it was much easier to repair an old road than create an entirely new one. Most of their work was just clearing brush and younger trees, and in some places that already done that for them by the fire Blacknail had set.
Blacknail wandered out of the bushes and jumped up onto the road. Broken vegetation and torn earth still surrounded it, clear signs of all the effort that had gone into cutting a path through the forest. Here and there, a few fallen logs were still laying next to the road. Many of the logs had been dragged back to Ironbreak, but there was still plenty left that had yet to be moved.
As Blacknail approached the settlement, he saw dozens of logs piled up outside the walls. Further out, the crops that the goblins had planted were beginning to grow. The small fields looked haphazard and chaotic but most the plants were healthy. Under he watchful eyes of overseers, teams of goblins kept the fields free of weeds and bugs.
Two weeks ago, Blacknail had sent a bunch of his minions over toward Herstcrest. Some of them were replacements for Scamp’s group at the goblin camp, and others were to help Ilisti hunt for food. Avorlus had also gone with them. He’d been determined to study the crystal cave there, and Blacknail had decided to let him. He wasn’t sure it was safe, but he’d already gotten the information he needed from the mage, so that wasn’t really his problem.
The morning air was wet and chilly, so as he fought off a shiver, Blacknail headed to Ferrar’s workshop. There was always at least one warm fire burning there, and he found their work interesting as well. He usually had no idea what they were trying to do but watching them run around playing with fire was amusing.
Ferrar’s workshop hadn’t stopped growing. It now contained a large storehouse and a small smithy. There was a hobgoblin working at the smithy as Blacknail approached. Using a large hammer, the hobgoblin was pounding a small piece of heated wrought iron into the shape of an arrowhead. He was using a pair tongs to hold the metal in place on top of a small anvil as he worked. The anvil had been loaned to them by the smith from Shelter.
Blacknail walked over to the heat of a furnace, and watched sparks fly as metal crashed loudly against metal. This hobgoblin was one of Ferrrar’s assistant and he had the maker’s mark on his face. It was largely the same as the warrior mark, but the lines around the eye were a bit different. The rhythmic clanging of the blacksmith’s work kept Blacknail’s attention as the warmth radiating from the smoking furnace next to him warmed his bones. Ah, that felt better.
Ferrar and his assistants were now capable of creating a bunch of simple tools out of wrought iron. Mostly, they made nails and arrowheads, but they were also trying their hand at spear tips and shovels.
Blacknail’s presence at the smithy didn’t go unnoticed. Ferrar emerged from one of the nearby buildings and quickly hurried over to his chief’s side.
“Have you found a swordsmith to kidnap yet?” Ferrar immediately asked. There was a hopeful look on his face.
“Still no,” Blacknail told him. He was unamused. Ferrar had been asking him the same question every day for the past week.
Blacknail had made the mistake of asking Ferrar if he could make swords. The answer had been a definite no, but the question had intrigued Ferrar. Apparently, swords were much harder to make than arrowheads. Wrought iron was too soft, so they had to be made from steel, which Ferrar couldn’t make yet. Actually making a sword also required special blacksmithing techniques that Ferrar, the expert from Herstcrest, and the blacksmith from Shelter all didn’t know. That was why he’d asked Blacknail to find and kidnap a human who did know how to make swords.
“I haven’t even left Ironbreak. Where would I find a rare type of human like that?” Blacknail asked. He’d come to the conclusion that Ferrar was spoiled rotten, and far too used to getting what he wanted.
Ferrar shrugged “Maybe he got lost in the woods?”
“No, that’s dumb. I’ll tell you if I find a swordsmith. Stop asking,” Blacknail replied before huffing and walking away.
Looking over to his left, Blacknail saw a construction site. The surplus of lumber and access to iron axes had allowed the hobgoblins to began building log cabins. Some of the flimsier longhouses were already being torn down to make room for them. The log cabins would be much warmer in the winter, and the area inside the settlement’s walls was starting to get crowded, so room had to be made for them. It had become impossible to count all the goblins that now lived inside Ironbreak. The little runts had swarmed out of the Green to get access to the plentiful food and shelter that Ironbreak offered. More and more of them were also transforming into hobgoblins. It was a good thing that the Green was so bountiful. If you could survive to harvest it, the forest was full of food, and goblins would eat almost anything anyway.
The availability of timber and iron tools had also allowed Blacknail to began construction on his mansion. Several workmen from Shelter were helping his minions create a proper house of his own using the best human construction techniques. It was far from done, but once complete it would be the biggest and fanciest home around! Blacknail couldn’t wait to fill it with loot.
As headed to Gob’s longhouse, Blacknail passed by the training field. It was the only large empty area left inside the walls. The space was needed both for training, which several hobgoblins were using it for right now, and for the public tests. Blacknail had been holding new initiation ceremonies for warriors every few days. However, there was quite a backlog of hobgoblins with the skills to pass the test, so it was a good thing that Gob and a few of his more skilled helpers could act as test administrators.
Really, it was the tattoos that were slowing everything down. The art of tattooing was simple in theory. Dye was pushed under the skin using needles. However, in practice it was quite difficult. Beardy had done the first few tattoos and tried to teach others, but only one hobgoblin had really picked the skill up. Blacknail was just glad that the warrior mark design was easy to make and didn’t have to be exact.
After Blacknail reached his destination, he yelled out Gob’s name, and the hobgoblin immediately stepped out of his longhouse and gave his boss a salute. “Command me, mightiest of chiefs!”
“Is the expedition force ready?” Blacknail replied.
“Yes, boss. They’re at the gate. I picked out only the best scouts and warriors for your escorts and made sure they had the best food packed for the journey. The runner I sent also said that the humans from Shelter will be waiting for you. Everything is ready.”
“Good job,” Blacknail replied with a nod of approval.
Blacknail had grown tired of sitting around Ironbreak and doing nothing. It was time to push his plan forward, and to do that he needed to make a move South. That was why he’d sent scouts out to map the best route. There was an old road that had used to connect Shelter to the rest of the human lands, but it had been consumed by the Green years ago. Still, it was the easiest way South. The original path Blacknail and the others had used to get to Shelter had been far less than straight and involved passing over a lot of rough terrain that the old road would avoid.
After listening to Gob praise him for several more minutes, Blacknail dismissed his subordinate and went back to his cave to grab his gear. Once had his backpack, he headed over to Ironbreak’s main gate. There, just as Gob had promised, Blacknail found the force he’d requested waiting for him. Two dozen hobgoblins were surrounded by twice that many goblins, and behind them were two hogs that had been loaded up with supplies. Half of the hobgoblins bore the warrior mark and had proper swords. The others carried iron-tipped spears and daggers.
Blacknail grunted when he saw Herah among them. He wasn’t surprised by her presence. The female hobgoblin had been bothering him even more now that he’d mated with her, and she was rarely far away. Oh, well. At least he was getting plenty of sex. That was nice.
“Alright, let’s get going,” Blacknail yelled as he motioned for everyone to head through the gate.
His minions jumped to obey his command, and soon they were all marching down the newly constructed road that lead to Shelter. They made much faster progress than they could have if they’d been forced to hike through the woods, and Blacknail set a brisk pace, so they promptly reached their destination.
Lounging outside of Shelter’s walls were a bunch of familiar faces. Blacknail saw Geralhd, Beardy, and at the back, Khita. There were also half a dozen other old members of Herad’s band and one young man from Shelter.
“Ah, good. You’re here, hobgoblin. We can finally get going,” Beardy remarked as Blacknail approached.
Geralhd was politer. “It’s wonderful to see you, Blacknail. Are you feeling up to an adventure! Myself, I can’t wait to get going. Shelter has become a sort of home, but it’s missing quite a few luxuries, I’m afraid. I really need to go shopping.”
Blacknail gave them both a quick nod. “Yes, I’m ready. Let’s move.”
Several of the hobgoblins that Blacknail had sent South to scout the way were with him now, so they wee able to lead everyone through the forest and over to the old road without a problem. The overgrown road was in similar shape to the one Blacknail had taken to Herstcrest. It had obviously been a while since it had seen regular use. Grass and thick clumps of bushes had grown up through what had once been hard packed earth. The trees had also pressed in on both sides and debris like fallen branches and logs littered its surface. However, it did supply Blacknail’s group with firm level ground to travel on.
“Hmm, yes. This is much easier than the route we took the first time. Less swamp and cliffs,” Geralhd remarked after they had been hiking for about an hour. There were murmurs of agreement from most the other humans and Blacknail nodded along.
Despite Geralhd’s earlier excitement, the rest of the day was uneventful, and after walking until it began to get dark, they had to come to stop and set up camp for the night. Before everyone went to sleep, a scowling and exasperated Khita visited Blacknail. She had apparently been selected by the other humans to tell him and Herah to stop mating so loudly. That was fine with Blacknail. Herah was rather exhausting.
It wasn’t until two more days of hard travel had passed that they escaped the untamed Green. The stretch of ruined and overrun road they were following led up a hill and then down to another road. This new road was in much better repair and obviously saw plenty of use. They had reached the border of civilization.
“At last, we’re here!” Geralhd exclaimed happily as he looked down at the road.
“But where exactly is here?” Blacknail asked Beardy. This was why he’d brought him along.
“We’ll have to do some exploring to find out. I’m not familiar with every nook and cranny in the North, but we should be somewhere Northeast of Herad’s old camp,” the man replied gruffly.
Geralhd nodded. “There are a few walled towns left in this area, and probably some travellers nearby, so we should be able to find someone who knows the lay of the land.”
That sounded fine to Blacknail. “Go then, and make sure you find out everything you can about Werrick. I will stay here with my minions and wait for two days.”
Geralhd grinned in excitement, but Beardy gave Blacknail a thoughtful look. “And what are you up to? You didn’t bring us here just for information and shopping, did you?”
“Getting supplies is important, but you’re right. I want to keep a watch on this area, just in case,” Blacknail replied with a shrug. “We should keep our eyes open. Werrick might try something. He knows we’re out in the Green and he doesn’t like us much.”
Beardy accepted that argument reluctantly, and then he led the other humans down the road. Khita waved goodbye to Blacknail as they walked out of sight.
“What now, boss?” one of Blacknail’s minions asked.
“We scout,” Blacknail replied. He wanted the entire area explored and everything of interest found before he humans got back.
At his orders, the hobgoblins split into two even groups and went in separate directions. They were to avoid contact with strangers and stay out of sight. He didn’t want any of his minions getting into trouble and creating a mess he had to clean up.
Blacknail led the group going in the opposite direction of the humans, and they took the pack beasts, because he was the leader. They walked for over an hour without seeing anything but a lot of trees and rocks, until some noise from up ahead alerted them that someone was coming their way. Blacknail quickly commanded his minions to hide in the forest at the edge of the road, and then followed them.
Hiding behind a bush, Blacknail watched the road and waited for the source of the noise to appear. It didn’t take long. Three minutes later, a small merchant caravan came into sight. It was compromised of two covered wagons being pulled by horses. Around the wagons, quite a few humans were walking or riding. The clothes the people were wearing were bright and colorful, which was common among humans that constantly travelled.
Briefly, Blacknail considered ordering an attack so they could steal all their stuff, but quickly decide against it. Now wasn’t the time for that, and he doubted they had anything he really wanted. No, he had different plans in mind for the merchants using this road. Soon…
When the caravan was safely gone, Blacknail and his minions got back on the road and resumed their exploration of the area. As they marched, Blacknail kept on eye out for any signs of abandoned side roads and sent hobgoblins to examine animal trails. After about an hour, one of those scout’s found what Blacknail was looking for, an abandoned village hidden away in the forest.
It was a small cluster of two dozen huts that the wild had long ago reclaimed. The North was dotted by hundreds of similar ruins caused by humanity’s decline, but it would serve Blacknail’s purpose just fine. The thatch roofs that had rotted away long ago could be replaced and most the walls were easily repairable. It wouldn’t take all that long to clear out all the vegetation that had taken over the village and its fields, and the well in the center of the houses smelled like it would be fine after a thorough cleaning. Blacknail nodded in satisfaction as he walked around and looked over the ruins. Yes, this place would function excellently as a hidden forward base.
“We still have lots of time until we need to meet back up with the humans. Get cleaning this place up, you lazy runts,” Blacknail ordered his minions.
This was why he’d brought so many minions, and all the goblins. He planned on setting up another outpost like the one near Herstcrest here. Experience had taught him that it wouldn’t take long for the settlement to began to grow and attract feral goblins. Depending on what the humans found out, Blacknail planned on moving South soon, and when he did, he wanted a fully functional base available to help him seize control of the nearby territory. That would certainly draw Werrick out, and then their game of prey and predator could began in earnest. The Wolf had no idea what lay waiting within the Green.