Grinning, Blacknail walked out from behind a tree at the edge of the woods. He watched with barely contained excitement as his minions emerged from the forest at a run and suddenly surrounded the unexpecting caravan that was passing by. They moved in two groups. Blacknail and one party of bandits blocked the caravan’s way forward, while the other cut off their retreat. It was a fair-sized merchant convoy, containing five large wagons and over thirty people, but Blacknail’s minions had them outnumbered by a bit. This was going to be fun.
There were cries of alarm from both humans and pack beasts as the caravan came to a sudden stop. Weapons quickly appeared in the hands of many of the merchants and their guards. However, Blacknail’s bandits didn’t attack, and the people in the caravan began to talk nervously amongst themselves as they waited for the bandits to make their move.
Blacknail had organized his forces carefully to give off the right impression. Most of the minions he’d brought were human, and the hobgoblins that were present were wearing hoods and keeping to the back. They’d been ordered to keep out of sight, and were only really there to pad Blacknail’s numbers. Thus, the merchants undoubtedly thought all the bandits were human.
When Blacknail thought the merchants had stewed long enough, he gave Beardy – who was standing right beside him – the go ahead. Er… right, he was supposed to call the man Ralphi now. That was hard to remember.
“Hail the caravan!” Ralphi yelled, which caused a brief stir among the merchants.
“I see you, and I know robbers when I see them. What do you want?” one of their number yelled back a moment later. He was a portly man with a moustache, and judging by his fancy red coat, he seemed to be in charge of the caravan. “If you’re expecting an easy target, you’re going to be disappointed. We will protect our cargo and our families with both our lives and cold steel.”
“Well, you’re in luck then,” Ralphi replied. “All we want is a little toll.”
The merchant scowled. “And why would we give you criminals any of our hard-earned coin? We would starve if we let every ragged band of scavengers in the North walk over us, and we’re more than ready to defend what’s ours.”
“How about because we have you outnumbered and we’re far nastier fighters than a bunch of peddlers. Testing our resolve would be a mistake,” Ralphi replied dryly.
“Maybe, but you’re all deserters and cowards, or you wouldn’t be out here. Attempt to harm our livelihoods or families and you’ll find out that we have stiffer spines than that.”
“Hey, are you calling me a coward? I’ve killed men for far less,” Khita shouted as she stepped forward. The redhead was obviously trying to look angry, but it didn’t work, and she immediately got several confused glances.
Ralphi sighed loudly and glared at the merchant. “I think you’ll find our toll to be more than reasonable, and if you pay it, there will be no reason for your families to be involved at all.”
The lead merchant didn’t seem convinced by Raplhi’s logic or scared enough to back down, so Blacknail decided it was time for him to step in. Scaring humans was his specialty, and as the leader, he was also the best arguer in the tribe.
Still grinning, Blacknail sauntered out from among the other bandits. Immediately, most the merchants’ eyes were drawn to him, causing a new chorus of nervous chatter as they took in his unconcealed visage. He was a handsome hobgoblin.
“I think you should be smart and just pay the toll,” Blacknail announced as he came to stop in front of his minions.
There was silence for a moment, before the head merchant spoke up again. “You’re him, aren’t you? The hobgoblin they call the Blacknail. I thought you were dead”
Blacknail nodded. “That’s me, and I’m not dead. I’m the leader here. That means you need to do as I say.”
“Er, how much is this toll of yours exactly?” the head merchant asked. Blacknail’s arrival had clearly surprised him and forced him to reevaluate his position.
Sighing, Blacknail scratched the side of his and put on a fake confused expression of his own. “I’m not good with counting. How about twenty silver coins? I like that number.”
The merchant hesitated. Twenty silvers wasn’t a lot for a caravan the size of his, in fact it was rather low. That was fine with Blacknail, though. Only his human minions really needed coins anyway, and he wanted word of his low rates to spread.
“And you’ll let us pass unmolested if we give you the silver?”
“Sure, I like shiny silvers,” Blacknail replied with a happy nod.
“Just pay the money and I maybe I won’t have to hurt you,” Khita added.
“Hmm, alright,” the merchant replied as he gave Blacknail and Khita a skeptical look. He seemed to have decided to ignore the redhead, which was a smart move.
The hobgoblin ignored the man’s expression and sent Ralphi forward to get the money. Soon after that, the caravan was once again headed down the road while the bandits watched from the edge of the forest.
“Do you think he bought the act?” Ralphi asked.
Blacknail nodded. “Probably, you humans always think hobgoblins are dumber than you. That’s one of the many reasons you’re so easy to kill. Plus, we had Khita with us, so he probably thinks we’re stupider than a hat made of rocks.”
Khita smiled smugly. “Ya, I’m an amazing actor. If I wasn’t even better at robbing people, I might have become a temple player.”
Ralphi ignored the redhead. “Well, this is definitely a tale he’ll be telling everyone he meets, so we don’t have to worry about that.”
Grinning, Blacknail agreed. “Even if he doesn’t talk, there will be plenty of other merchants who will. Werrick will hear of this soon, and he will know that I’m the one in charge. I’m a loose end. He had me defeated, but I escaped from right under his pink nose. He will be worried about me feeling back into the Green and want to finish me himself.”
“The Wolf is who we really have to fool,” Ralphi remarked. “We don’t want him to think this is a trap. If he brings all the troops and resources he has to bear, we won’t be able to touch him.”
“He is undefeated, and no one dares challenge him directly. He will be not suspect danger, and besides, he is trying to control a vast territory. He can’t empty it to come after a hobgoblin,” Blacknail replied as he gazed off toward the horizon above the trees. There, several tall white-peaked mountains rose above the forest.
Blacknail took a moment to take in the scenery and think. The caravan was now out of sight, and on its way. It was inevitable now. Word of what he’d just done would reach Werrick. Suppressing a sudden nervous twinge, the hobgoblin went back to work.
Since the territory Blacknail had taken was quite large and included three separate roads, he had to split up his minions and have groups patrol the other roads that didn’t run near his base. Thankfully, he had trusted human minions he could put in charge of these patrols. They were knowledgeable enough to react properly to unexpected situations. On top of the patrols, Blacknail also sent out hobgoblin scout teams to watch for threats.
The initial part of Blacknail’s scheme worked perfectly. More merchants passed through his territory and paid his toll. Despite some hostility, he wasn’t forced to attack any of them. Thus, word soon spread of his low rates and honesty. This in turn attracted more merchants and travelers. When Blacknail himself wasn’t present, a specially trained hobgoblin pretended to be him. It wasn’t like the humans could tell the difference.
There were a few unexpected wrinkles, though. Merchants weren’t the only people to pass through his territory. Soon, a group of refugees from the South entered his territory. They had been travelling with some peddlers for safety, but the peddlers didn’t want to pay their toll.
“And they don’t have the money?” Blacknail asked Ralphi skeptically as he glared at the refugees. His fee was next to nothing. How could they not have it? Sigh. They were making this rather complicated for him. It was inconsiderate of them.
Blacknail and Ralphi were both standing in the middle of the road. There were several more bandits behind them, and fifteen cowering refugees in front of them. The impoverished travelers were all on foot and wearing ragged clothing, although they did have one small cart and three donkeys. Off to the side were the peddlers. They’d paid their part of the toll and were now obviously trying to stay out of sight and mind.
“They say they don’t, and I believe them,” Ralphi replied with an unsympathetic shrug.
Blacknail groaned. “So, do we drop the price or kill them as a lesson for the others?”
“Er, I don’t think they have any money left, and killing them wouldn’t really convince other refugees to carry more money. That’s not how that works. Their homes were destroyed by an enemy army. If they had some way of getting their hands on coin they wouldn’t be here.”
“What would Herad do in this situation?” Blacknail asked him.
Ralphi shrugged. “Kill some of them, take the young women prisoner as entertainment for the men, and chase away the rest. Of course, that was before her doomed territory grabbing scheme. I’m not sure what she would have done after that.”
“I don’t suppose any of them are swordsmiths?” Blacknail asked. Ferrar was still looking for one of those.
Ralphi snorted. “As if, anyone with a skill like that would be scooped up by the closest army faster than a solider spends his pay.”
Blacknail walked forward and addressed the crowd of refugees, as they fearfully fell back away from him. “Are you useful for anything? Or, should I just kill you all?”
A tall woman in a dirty dress with a determined look on her face stepped forward. “We are far from useless. We’re upright and hardworking people. You won’t find hardier folk than us. Times have simply been tough and made us desperate.”
“And what was it you used to work so hard at?” Blacknail asked her.
“Well, mostly we’re farmers. Admittedly, that’s not exactly a sought-after skill up here in the North, Mr. Blacknail, but we’re good people just looking for safety. Our village was destroyed by King Namirius’ armies and we had no choice but to flee up here, lest all our menfolk get conscripted by the Baron and us women forced into becoming camp followers. We’re just looking for a second chance. By the gods’ graces, please find it within yourself to let us pass.”
Blacknail gave her a blank stare. “No.”
Shock and despair displaced the determined look on the woman’s face. She looked like she was about to cry. “So, this the end. After all we’ve been through, we’re to be killed by a monster and his gang of Northern brutes.”
Blacknail rolled his eyes. “We could do that too, but actually I’ve got a whole bunch of land I need farmed, and I know some human villages to the North where you could live. They are looking for people.”
The woman blinked in surprise. “Really?”
“Yes, they used to be cut off by the forest, but I saved them. I do that a lot,” Blacknail told her.
A lean man that was holding the hand of a child found the courage to speak up. “And you’re not taking us as slaves or anything?”
“That would be more work than its worth. I’ll just drop you off at a village and you can settle there and help them grow food. None of them keep slaves and I’ve got plenty of stuff to trade for food anyway,” Blacknail replied. There might also be some charges for road use and protection later, but he didn’t need to bring those up right now.
As the peddlers were sent further up the road, the refugees were gathered up by Ralphi and taken to the forward base. Blacknail expected the supply caravan to get back soon, and then he could send the refuges with them back to Shelter.
Days passed. After the first group of refugees was sent North, more of them began to arrive. It seemed that word of a safe haven fore refuges had been spread by the peddlers. It said a lot about how desperate people were that they even considered throwing themselves at the mercy of a hobgoblin, although apparently many people considered Blacknail to be Ralphi’s figurehead. Some people even thought Khita was the real chieftain, which was really dumb.
However, refugees and merchants weren’t the only people who were attracted by rumors of Blacknail’s operation. Thugs and ruffians began to show up looking for work as bandits. Blacknail was always looking for new minions, but he wasn’t sure how useful or trustworthy these new people would be. Most of them seemed to be out to earn a quick profit, and probably couldn’t be trusted to stand firm in a fight with Werrick’s troops. There was also the matter of possible spies. Now that Blacknail’s activities were common knowledge, it would be surprising if various people didn’t try to send spies to infiltrate his tribe and learn more about him and his goals. After talking the situation over with Ralphi, Blacknail decided to accept the new recruits, but he had each of them shadowed by a hobgoblin. If they tried to leave or meet up with any outsiders, they wouldn’t get far.
News from the South also began to reach Blacknail’s minions. It seemed like the human wars had grown more intense. The king of Eloria had invaded Hulgaron again, and the nobility there had allied to repulse him. That meant that a new round of conscription had been started, and that was why so many refugees were headed north.
After things had been going smoothly for a few weeks, Blacknail left the forward base in the hands of Ralphi and went back to Ironbreak to check on things there. He’d been away for a while, and there were things he needed to do. It was early yet, but it was possible that Werrick might react soon. Blacknail had to be ready, just in case. He left behind a further expanded forward base. Alongside the repaired homes, it had four large barracks. The walled complex housed almost a hundred troops.
Once back at Ironbreak, Blacknail met up with Gob and his other supervisors. None of them had too much to report. He’d left them all with lots of work that they were still struggling to accomplish. Ferrar was running the forges, while Imp busied himself making mana stones, and Rolly managed the food supply.
When he was sure no one was slacking off or doing something wrong, Blacknail began rounding up hobgoblins and organizing an army. It was time to make all the slackers earn their meals. Although some hobgoblins already had important permanent jobs, such as craftsmen or supervisors, a lot of them floated around and did temporary work. It was these that Blacknail formed into the bulk of his force. Unfortunately, this meant that work on side projects, like clearing the roads, ground to halt. However, Blacknail soon had over a hundred hobgoblins training to fight in formation with spears. Among them, there were two dozen warriors with swords. Blacknail trusted them to fight better and harder than the others. They were probably even a match for an average human bandit one-on-one.
When combined with the forces already at the forward base, Blacknail would have well over two hundred troops. Honestly, the hobgoblin chief was surprised about how well things were going and how obedient his minions were being. Everything seemed to be running on momentum. He had the hobgoblins working so hard that they didn’t have time to question it. Everyone else was obeying, so they did too. Every hobgoblin could feel the energy in the air and knew that significant events were underway. Even if none of them understood what was happening, they didn’t want to be left behind.
The other thing Blacknail needed to do was send a message to Herstcrest. He didn’t have time to go himself, so he had Geralhd write a letter for him, and planned to send some hobgoblins to deliver it. He didn’t trust a hobgoblin to remember his exact words, and the details were important.
In the letter, Blacknail informed Ilisiti that Werrick might be showing himself soon, and that he would probably be brining a small army with him. This would obviously prevent the vympir from bringing in more of his people from his old lands in the West. The letter also politely informed the vympir that this meant Blacknail would be forced to recall the hunters he’d lent him and stop work on the roads until the Wolf problem was solved. Perhaps, Ilisti might want to prepare his own men to come help kill the Wolf, especially if he was vulnerable? That would certainly eliminate the biggest threat to Herstcrest.
“Yes, I think this is the proper phrasing and tone for such a message,” Geralhd remarked as he finished writing down Blacknail’s words.
“I didn’t threaten him at all. I was all subtle, and just told him what his own interests are. He’d be stupid not to send troops to fight Werrick, and now he can’t ignore that truth. A lot of humans avoid the obvious until it starts biting their face,” Blacknail said. He was speaking from experience. Sometimes he was the obvious.
When the letter was placed in a secure pouch, Blacknail gave it to a pair of scouts, and they hurried off to deliver it. After that, Blacknail no longer had any pressing business that needed his attention, so he took some time off to relax. He set aside an entire day for napping and eating, and assigned a bodyguard with a club to chase away anyone but Gob that tried to approach him. Sometimes it was nice to just sleep on a full stomach and not have to worry about other people’s stupid problems.
Unfortunately, when his break day was over, Blacknail had to get back to work. In particular, he needed to help train the army. They had to get used to obeying orders from him, and he had to know what orders to give. It turned out that leading an army involved more than just pointing out the enemy and giving the attack order. Thankfully, some of his human minions who had been in a real army were able to give him some pointers.
However, Blacknail didn’t have unlimited time. After a few days, a pair of runners reached Ironbreak. They’d come from the forward base with news from Ralphi. Werrick was moving. Rumors were already swirling. They said the Wolf was moving to crush the upstarts that had dared to steal territory from him. Some peddlers had also reported seeing troops on the move.
It was time. Blacknail sent Ilisti another message and then ordered his army out onto the road. He took Gob with him and left Rolly in charge. Blacknail didn’t really care too much about Ironbreak right now, and he wanted his best minion with him. Killing Werrick and avenging Saeter was all that mattered.