“You’ll be staying here for a while. It’s nice and safe, so you should thank me, a lot,” Blacknail told the bandits he’d rescued as he led them into the abandoned village his minions were in the process of repairing.
“It’s a dump,” one of the men replied with a sneer.
Blacknail turned to give the ungrateful bandit a cold look. “It will be fixed up soon, and who are you to complain? You were about to die horribly and living in a dirty cave full of bugs. Here, I will be giving you food, water, shelter, and safety. So, bite your tongue or I will rip it out, human.”
Immediately, the man blanched and pressed his mouth firmly shut. His companions carefully moved away from him so that they were out of the hobgoblin’s direct gaze. Blacknail’s cold reptilian stare was more than unnerving.
“Ya, stop your complaining, you ungrateful slob. It’s not like all of you are even capable of travelling,” Khita observed as she looked toward the two men being carried on stretchers.
The rescued bandits had more than a few injuries, and two of them were unable to walk. Luckily, Blacknail had plenty of hobgoblin minions who were more than happy to help out and carry heavy things for their chief. They knew better than to complain.
Once the new arrivals were settled in, Blacknail got the uninjured working on repairing some huts for them to sleep in. This also kept them busy, out of trouble, and helped distract them from the reality of being surrounded by hobgoblins. That usually made humans uncomfortable, and these ones were no exception.
By the time Blakcnail got everything organized, there wasn’t much time left until the rendezvous with Geralhd’s group. Leaving Khita behind to take care of human stuff, Blacknail took a few hobgoblins with him when he went to meet them. He got there without any problems and didn’t have to wait long. Geralhd and the others arrived early. After a brief conversation where he filled them in on what they’d missed, Blacknail led the humans over to his secret base.
“They’re about what I expected, a sorry bunch of scum,” Beardy remarked as he studied the newly recruited bandits. “Still, you could do worse, I guess.”
Several of the bandits had stopped working - or pretending to work - and were staring back at Geralhd and the others. The two groups watched each other warily. Blacknail had told them to expect more humans, but they were still nervous about all the things that were happening to them that were beyond their control.
“If you want to keep these ruffians out of trouble, consider getting them some grog. Man cannot live on bread and water alone. Although, you also don’t want them getting drunk,” Beardy said before walking over to talk with the newcomers.
Blacknail watched the two groups of humans mingle. The newcomers seemed to accept Beardy as an authority figure almost immediately. He only had to punch out one guy. Hmmm, Blacknail could use that. Once Beardy was done staring haughtily down at the newcomers and putting them in their place, Blacknail approached him.
“I’d like you stay here and be in charge until I get back. I need to visit Ironbreak and someone halfway competent has to be in charge here,” Blacknail told him.
Beardy gave the hobgoblin a skeptical look. “What’s in it for me?”
“A promotion, lots of gold, and you can actually spend it nearby,” Blacknail huffed in reply.
Beardy nodded. “That’s a fair offer. I must admit that I don’t feel any pressing need to get back to Shelter. So sure, for the proper compensation, I’ll watch these grunts for you.”
“I’ll be leaving quite a few hobgoblins and goblins as well. Keep them busy repairing this place, and you’re going to want a wall up as quickly as they can manage it,” Blacknail informed him.
“Anything else? Maybe I should build a cathedral while I’m here? Beardy asked sarcastically.
Ignoring his tone, Blacknail scratched his nose and took a second to think before answering. “Werrick’s new plan is making him a lot of enemies. They may be weak, but try to gather up any more lost humans you hear about.”
“I’ll take care of that!” Khita replied as she joined in the conversation. “I’ve already learned about a few leads while I was in town. To get the juiciest gossip, you have to know who to ask. There’s always someone who can’t keep their mouth shut for even a second.”
Blacknail hesitated but eventually agreed to let Khita work on finding more men to recruit. Sure, her incompetence meant she was unlikely to accomplish much, but it also meant that he could leave her behind and not deal with her stupidity for a while. Blacknail shuddered as he realized that Khita had been following him around almost constantly for months now. He couldn’t even remember what it was like not having to worry about her popping out of nowhere. The things he did for vengeance…
Since there was no point in hanging around, and still plenty of light left in the day, Blacknail quickly organized everyone who was returning to Shelter and got them moving. He took three hobgoblins along and left the others behind at the forward base, but most of the humans that had come with him decided to return. Only half a dozen people from Shelter stayed with Beardy and Khita.
Blacknail guided the returning party back over to the overgrown road which led to Shelter. It took them two days to reach their destination, but they managed to do it without any casualties, despite an attack by two harpies on an idiot who wandered off to piss. Geralhd and the other humans left the group when they reached the village of Shelter, while the hobgoblins continued on to Ironbreak.
The goblin settlement was still a buzzing hive of activity, so Blacknail quickly found himself forced to take charge. More and more hobgoblins were transforming and undergoing basic training and indoctrination. There were so many that the tribe had run out of swords. Thus, Blacknail was forced to start training the new hobgoblins with spears instead and keep the swords for marked warriors. Also, since he wasn’t much of a spearman, Blacknail had to bring in some human experts to teach.
The sudden surge in demand for spears meant that Ferrar’s forges had to work overtime to produce them. Carts full of charcoal constantly rolled into Ironbreak to feed the fires, and the hammering never stopped as hobgoblin smiths worked wrought iron into spear blades. Other craftsman carefully produced the weapon’s shafts by shaping long pieces of wood and blackening it in fire to harden it. The results were crude weapons, but deadly and easy to use.
The road crews were still working on cutting their way through the forest, but they’d slowed down as they got further from Ironbreak. Blacknail had to go out to motivate and reorganize them himself. It would still be a while before the road to Herstcrest was done, and the repairs to the road South had barely gotten started.
Even after a week had passed, Blacknail was too busy to get back to the forward base. On top of everything else, Herah kept taking up a lot of his time. She was insatiable and completely without shame. So, Blacknail had to send a supply caravan south instead of going himself. Two dozen hobgoblins accompanied four huge pigs loaded with supplies. Four days later, ten hobgoblins returned with the pigs. They’d successfully completed their mission and delivered the supplies and reinforcements.
When two weeks had passed, Blacknail finally managed to get everything back under control, and he was ready to lead another force South. This time, he didn’t worry about humans. He assembled thirty hobgoblins, a similar number of goblins, and four pigs packed with supplies that the forward base couldn’t make for itself. The goblins would be easier to feed at the forward base, where there was more forage.
Unsurprisingly, the small army of heavily-armed goblinoids were not attacked by any beasts, and they made good time down the overgrown road.
Blacknail was pleasantly surprised when he reached their destination. A few weeks had made quite the difference. It looked like the hobgoblins and goblins that he’d left behind had been working hard. The forest and all the bushes had been completely pushed out of the village. The roofs on all the stone homes that were still standing had also been thatched, and the holes in their walls had been patched. There was even some new construction. The beginnings of a crude wall similar to the one around Inronbreak could be seen, and off to the side, there was a long log cabin under construction. Blacknail had ordered his minions to start building a barracks as soon as possible, so that was probably it. To fufill its purpose, the forward base was going to have to be able to hold a lot of troops and supplies.
Upon Blacknail’s arrival, Beardy leisurely strolled out of one of the huts and approached. “So, you’re back now. I see you brought a lot more hobgoblins.”
“There’s lots of work to be done here,” Blacknail replied.
Beardy snorted rudely. “Right, I suppose they’re all here to help build huts.”
Blacknail grinned and shook his head. “No, the wall. We need to get that done before something nasty with teeth tries to come and eat my workers or you. Did anything important happen here while I was gone? Like attacks by things with lots of teeth?”
“Well, if any goblins got picked off, I didn’t notice it. Khita has been busy, though,” Beardy admitted with a frown. “She has actually managed to find a few more recruits.”
“Really?” Blacknail asked. He was surprised. Where had she found them, under a rock? Were they human?
“Ya, she’s been travelling around the area, and on one of her trips she stumbled upon a dozen starving highwaymen. She apparently beat a few of them up and then the others joined her for the food. Things are getting pretty rough out there. Werrick is really cracking down on everything.”
Blacknail frowned. “Where is Khita now?”
“Out on the road, scouting and looking for more recruits. She should be back soon, though,” Beardy replied. “She only took half a dozen men with her. That lass is way too overconfident in her own skills, even if she is a Vessel.”
“She’s dumb,” Blacknail agreed. “But enough about her. I’ve another job for you. All the hobgoblins here need trained to use their spears. I know you can do that.”
“Sure, as long as I get paid for my effort,” Beardy replied.
After talking to Beardy for a bit more and giving him a few more yellow rocks, Blacknail inspected the base and then went to find some people to boss around. It didn’t take him long to discover some minions that weren’t working fast enough in his opinion. Obviously, they needed to be motivated by some proper angry yelling and threats.
Khita got back a few hours later, and she immediately sought Blacknail out when she learned he was there. She found him supervising the construction of the wall at the far end of the village.
“Hey Blacknail, guess what! I found some new minions,” she said as she ran over to him. There was very smug look on her face, which annoyed Blacknail.
“So Beardy told me,” he replied neutrally. “Good job, why don’t you come help build this wall? Another pair of hands would help.”
“Um, I have some more important stuff to do. See you later!” Khita replied before hurrying away. Blacknail smirked after her. He’d been fairly certain that would work.
Blacknail hung around the base for a few days, while supervising the work on the wall. It went quickly with him around to keep goblins and hobgoblins in line. There were dozens of them and they had access to iron axes and shovels, so on the fourth day, they completed the barrier. While the construction had been ongoing, Beardy had been drilling the hobgoblins on spear fighting tactics, and the work had finished on the first barracks. A second big building was already being planned.
There was a smile on Blacknail’s lips as he as he walked away from the completed wall. Everything was going according to plan. Now, he just needed to talk to Beardy.
“What is it?” Beardy asked the hobgoblin stepped into his house.
Blacknail smirked at the man. He was in for shock. It was time to stop concealing his real intentions. “Now that I have a secure base, I plan on taking control of the nearby roads. I want to start charging the merchants a toll, like Herad used to.”
“I knew you were up to no good. Just scouting, my ass,” Beardy swore. “You must know that Werrick will respond, right? Even if things are still settling into place, he is the unchallenged lord of the North, right now.”
Blacknail couldn’t help himself. He started laughing, and it took him a few moments to stop. If only the humans knew. They still underestimated him so much.
“That’s the plan,” Blacknail explained to Beardy as he grinned savagely. The man seemed taken aback, but Blacknail couldn’t help himself. He had been keeping this to himself for too long. He had to unburden himself and reveal to someone how amazing he truly was.
“It has taken so long to get here. So many dark nights and long days spent stewing in hatred and loss. Countless hours fighting my own hunger for revenge,” Blacknail continued. “Now, I will feast. The Wolf took my master. Did you think I would forgive or forget? No, he will die. I will rip his bleeding carcass apart with my bare hands and put his head on a spike.”
“Oh, and how are you going to accomplish that feat?” Beardy asked carefully. “In case you haven’t noticed, he’s an undefeated Vessel, and he’s got a massive army.”
Blacknail just kept grinning. “I will lay a trap for him. The right trap can catch any prey, and the Wolf has no idea that I am hunting him. He thinks himself invincible, and that I am one hobgoblin alone. He is deliciously wrong. When my minions show themselves on the road, the hobgoblins will disguise themselves and stay behind the humans. Everyone will think they are more dumb human bandits and nothing more. That’s the only reason I need you and the other humans.”
A flash of understanding appeared in Beardy’s eyes. “If it looks like an organized band has seized this territory from him, he just might lead a small force of his own to destroy them. He wouldn’t be able to trust the job to anyone else.”
“But I am not some simple human thief,” Blacknail agreed. “I am so much more. When he comes, I will meet him with hundreds of hobgoblins. We will hunt them in the dark and through the Green. My minions will blast them with magic fire, and I am not without Vessels and allies. Like me, the vympirs are predators. The bloody scent of a weakened rival will draw them in.”
Beardy stared at Blacknail for several long seconds without saying anything. His face was frozen by shock and his mouth hung open. However, eventually, his jaw swung shut.
“It just might work. No, it will probably work,” he admitted with obvious disbelief. He then turned to Blacknail and studied him. It was obvious he was re-evaluating everything he’d thought he knew about the hobgoblin.
“Wait, you planned everything… didn’t you?” Beardy said. He stuttered as a realization hit him. “Everything that has happened since Herad’s fall, you’ve been manipulating everyone. Us bandits, the people of Shelter, everyone. It’s the only way you could have done this. It has fallen together too perfectly.”
Blacknail smirked in amusement. “Yes, it wasn’t that hard. You’re all just human, and it is easy to get into your heads. Your fear makes you prey. But you shouldn’t worry about that. Think about what will happen when we defeat Werrick. The North will be ours. You could set yourself up as a king.”
Beardy hesitated, but then nodded in agreement. “Fine, but my bloody name is Ralphi, not Beardy. You’d better start using it from now on, you moon-crazy hobgoblin. Enough with that cursed nickname or yours. Even if I’m a king, if I have to reign as King Beardy, it’s not worth it.”
“Sure, whatever,” Blacknail replied. Beardy was his nickname? It wasn’t a very good one. Why had he never brought up his real name before if he hated it so much? What a weirdo.