Blacknail’s army moved through the forest with more confidence than the largest of drakes. They trampled the undergrowth and made no attempt to hide their presence as they travelled south along the abandoned road. They were at home in the Green and there was safety in numbers. Even a drake would hesitate when confronted by over a hundred hobgoblins marching in formation with spears over their shoulders, if only out of surprise. This was a degree of cooperation that was completely alien to the nature of hobgoblins. Any watcher would have doubted their eyes. This wasn’t something that could have happened in the world they knew, but that world was gone, and a new one was being born.
Under Blacknail’s watchful eye, the Blackmark war party moved at a quick pace until they reached their forward base. Any laggards or slouchers quickly learned to fear Blacknail’s attention. Gob and him were both quick to punish anyone that stepped out of line.
Once they got to their destination, Blacknail marched his troops inside and began settling them into place. A fourth barracks was almost completed, but they were still short of shelter for everyone. It was a good thing that all the hobgoblins were rugged and used to conditions that would have dismayed a human. They thought nothing of sleeping outside and could quickly scavenge up some shelter.
Thanks to word sent ahead by scouts, Ralphi immediately came out to greet Blacknail and help organize everything. “Werrick’s forces have set up near the border of our territory. They’re sending out scouts - which I have hobgoblins watching – but I’m not exactly sure what they’re up to. I was expecting them to be more aggressive. Right now, all they seem to be doing is diverting any caravans headed in our direction.”
Blacknail’s eyes narrowed as he listened intently. “How many humans are there, and is Werrick with them? This is pointless unless we trap the Wolf.”
“Your scouts have reported around three hundred enemy troops, although most of them can’t count very well, so that may be not be the most accurate count. They all seem to be the usual bandit rabble, with no cavalry or heavy infantry support. As for Werrick, his personal flag is flying and some of the scouts have claimed to have seen someone matching his description. I believe them too. Werrick is hard to miss.”
“Good. Good, Blacknail replied with an excited smirk. That was more troops than he’d been hoping to face, but the plan was still workable. As long as Werrick didn’t know what he was up against, he would let his guard drop, and Blacknail had several surprises ready that could even the odds.
Once the new troops were billeted, Blacknail began organizing another supply caravan. Even with hunting and foraging, it was going to be difficult to keep the army and the forward base supplied. When that was done, Ralphi had some requests.
“I’d like to start training the new troops with the ones you left here with me. The hobs you brought with you seem to know one end of a spear from the other, but there is a lot more to being a soldier than that. They need to drill and learn to move and fight in formation. To fight Werrick’s men, they’re going to need every advantage they can get, but a proper wedge of spears should help even things up considerably.”
“Spears are better than swords?” Blacknail asked. He didn’t have much experience with them.
Ralphi snorted. “When used right, they are. They’re just not the easiest weapon to haul across the North, and most bandits are lazy bums. They prefer a weapon they can strap to their hip or back and forget about, and I’ve yet to meet a chief that ran formation drills.”
Since Blacknail had no plans to attack Werrick in strength for a while yet, he gave Ralphi permission to run some exercises for the troops and had Gob help him. Even though Werrick was tantalizingly close – Blacknail could almost smell him on the wind – patience was required. The trap had not yet closed completely. The prey had to be drawn in further.
After talking to Ralphi a bit more, Blacknail came up with his next move. He was going to irritate Werrick with a hundred small cuts. That would hopefully anger the Wolf and lure him in, while also giving his troops a chance to train. There was also the matter of reinforcements. Blacknail was still hoping to get some. Attacking three hundred human thugs with his current forces would end badly for him. His hobgoblins were not equal to human bandits in a one on one fight. Not only were they slightly smaller, but they were also far less experienced.
Thus, to begin his plan to even the odds, Blacknail rounded up his best scouts and sent them out in small groups to harass Werrick and blind him by taking out his rangers and sentries. They also had orders to attack and kill the men Werrick was using to divert caravans if possible. Blacknail was confident that his hobgoblins would make quick work of Werrick’s rangers. Blacknail was also extremely tempted to go with them. He wanted to hunt and cut his way closer to his prey, however slowly, but he resisted the urge. Herad hadn’t led scouting missions. As the leader, she had needed to be at the center of things where she could be found by everyone and quickly take command.
However, once his hobgoblin stalkers left to complete their mission, Blacknail began to feel anxious. There was nothing more he could do personally. He wasn’t even able to help much with the troops’ training, although he did take part a few times so that he could learn all the commands Ralphi was using. Days passed uneventfully, and Blacknail grew sullen. He spent his free time watching the road for any signs of movement. That wasn’t the best use of his time, but he was tired of waiting around and wanted something to happen. Both Khita and Herah tried to talk to Blacknail – in Herah’s case she wanted more than talk – but he sent them away with a snarl. He was in no mood to talk. Instead, he kept waiting and watching.
As time passed, the scouts kept reporting no movement from Werrick’s troops, even though he was slowly losing men. Blacknail had expected the Wolf to react at least a little to that. What was he doing? Argh! Was there something here that he’d missed?
It wasn’t until a few days had gone by that Blacknail’s questions were answered. When he was eating lunch back at the base, a pair of anxious looking scouts ran over to deliver him news. Another large mob of human troops was approaching from the other direction. They numbered over a hundred. Blacknail scowled and grunted in frustration. These humans were obviously reinforcements for Werrick, and if they met up with him he would have well over four hundred soldiers. That was far too many for Blacknail to risk attacking with his two hundred hobgoblins.
“We could ambush them before they met up with their boss,” Ralphi suggested.
Blacknail grimaced and shook his head. “We would still lose troops and Werrick would learn of our strength and hidden weapons. We will wait and see what happens. The Wolf is our true target.”
That was all they could do. That was all Blacknail could do. Despair and anger welled up within the hobgoblin, but he kept it under control by enforcing the disciplined thinking Saeter had taught him during sword training. He’d had a lot of practice when it came to suppressing his emotions, and it wasn’t over yet. There might be still be a way to get to Werrick. He had to be patient.
As more reports form the scouts filtered in, a clearer picture of what was happening began to emerge. Much to both Blacknail and Ralphi’s surprise, the new division of troops didn’t move to join Werrick. Instead, they took up position on the main road at the edge of Blacknail’s territory, and Werrick sent a hundred of his own troops to join them.
“He’s boxing us in,” Ralphi observed as the latest scout finished his report. “He didn’t bring so many troops because he was expecting heavy resistance. He brought them so that he could encircle us. He thinks we’re a normal robber band hiding in the woods, so he’s trying to isolate us and starve us out.
“It’s a mistake,” Blacknail observed as his anxiety began to drain away and be replaced by excitement.
Ralphi nodded and grinned. “Yep, it seems like he is underestimating us after all. We have more than enough men to bring either of his divisions to battle. And although he has no way of knowing it, we could also just slip away through the Green or keep getting supplied almost indefinitely by Ironbreak.”
“He knows I’m here, but he doesn’t know that I’m no longer just a ranger,” Blacknail mused aloud as he tried to get inside his prey’s head. “He isn’t sure that he can get me, since I can slip away into the Green, and I’m the real threat to him. But, if he slaughters all my human allies then that will scare away any others who I might recruit later. I would be defanged if no one dared work with me.”
Ralphi laughed. “Shows what he knows. Men aren’t even a quarter of your forces anyway.”
“He has no eyes in the Green, thus he cannot see my strength,” Blacknail agreed. “So, let the Wolf think his plan is working, while we prepare to strike.”
“You are the most cunning and mightiest leader in the North, chief! The Wolf will soon be dead at your awesome feet.” Gob added with an enthusiastic nod. Blacknail just rolled his eyes.
Both divisions of Werrick’s forces began sending out large armed patrols of around fifty men to probe into Blacknail’s territory. By this time, all merchant traffic had been stopped already, so the patrols were undoubtedly meant to scout the roadways for signs of Blacknail’s camp. They were also probably bait, meant to draw Blacknail out, so instead of attacking them directly, Blacknail simply harassed them. He had his minions fire at them from concealment and then fade away, while he watched and waited for the right opportunity.
That opportunity arrived at noon the next day with his reinforcements. Guided by hobgoblins, a force from Herstcrest arrived. They numbered only around thirty heavy infantry, but Ilisti was leading them. They were escorting a supply caravan from Ironbreak, which was led by Imp, and Geralhd was with them. Blacknail hadn’t invited him, but he’d wanted to see what was going on.
Blacknail hurried over to talk to Imp first. The hobgoblin mage had brought a dozen hobgoblin and goblin helpers, and they were carrying the equipment Blacknail had asked for. Blacknail grinned as he studied it, and then greeted Ilisti and called for a war conference, which Khita wasn’t invited to. Now that Blacknail had magical support, the next priority was bringing Ilisti up to speed and making sure he was committed to helping. The noble vympir had his own concerns and motivations. He wasn’t Blacknail’s servant and had to be handled carefully.
“Hmm, this might be workable after all,” Ilisti remarked thoughtfully after he’d learned of the situation from Ralphi. “I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got here.”
“We will never have a better chance to kill the Wolf. He has walked into our trap unaware, and with him gone, no one in all the North will be able to threaten us,” Blacknail agreed.
“Quite a few people here also owe him for killing our poor companions and chasing us survivors into Green,” Geralhd remarked sourly as Ralphi grunted in vague agreement. Now that all the hard work had been done they didn’t mind getting some vengeance.
“So, do you have a plan of attack, then?” Ilisti asked the hobgoblin. “What’s our first target? There are several options. Do you want to start taking out the patrols? They are the obvious first step.”
Blacknail shook his head. “My target hasn’t changed. It’s Werrick. The other humans are nothing. We strike him when he is weakest, after sending out a patrol. Then, we surround his camp and attack with everything we have before he realizes the danger he is in. That is how we catch him. He must not have a chance to escape.”
Ilisti grinned and nodded. “I like it. It’s a bold and aggressive strategy. Worthy of a warrior. We go for his throat before he has a chance to raise his defenses.”
Ralphi wasn’t so sure, though. He grimaced. “That plan will pit our hobgoblin forces directly against Werrick’s human troops. The entire battle plan will depend on them, and they are untested. If they can stay in a tight formation and remember the drills they should be able to push Werrick’s men back, but if not…”
“They will hold. I will make sure they all know the price of failure,” Blacknail replied darkly. If he had to beat the training into every single hobgoblin personally, he would. That probably wouldn’t be necessary, though. This was why he’d brought Gob.
When they were done planning, Blacknail’s minions and allies took a day off to rest and make some final reparations. Supplies were packed up and Blacknail oversaw the last training regimen.
When the day of the attack came, Blacknail’s forces and allies got up just as the sun was beginning to peek above the horizon. It was still dark out as the hobgoblins and bandits grabbed their gear and formed up into lines. As the morning chorus of birdsong began, they were marching down the road.
Scouts ranged far ahead to detect patrols and silence sentries as they marched toward Werrick’s camp. They used a back road that slowed their pace but allowed them to circle around and hopefully avoid any early morning patrols. Blacknail led the main party. Behind him marched almost three hundred troops, both human and hobgoblin. Beside him were Ilisti and Ralphi, while Imp and Blacknail’s human minions were mixed in with the troops. Geralhd had remained behind to oversee the base, and Khita was leading her own followers.
Pride and excitement filled Blacknail. He had done it! He’d built his army. The idea had seemed impossible all those months ago when he’d first had the idea, but here he was, marching an army toward his nemesis. Sure, he’d originally planned on having more humans and far less hobgoblins, but that didn’t matter. Soon, his forces would engage the Wolf’s, and he would have his chance at vengeance. Blood would pay for blood, and Saeter would be avenged. The Wolf would finally realize the error he’d made in taking from Blacknail. After Werrick’s decapitated head was decorating a spike in Ironbreak, no one would dare do that again.
As they approached their target, scouts returned and reported that a patrol of fifty men had just left Werrick’s camp and was heading away down the main road. From experience, Blacknail knew that they wouldn’t be returning before noon, and that was more than enough time. With a savage grin, Blacknail ordered his forces to come to halt and called his commanders and allies to a meeting.
“We will split into two groups and attack with fury and speed,” Blacknail explained. “First my rangers will go in and clear out their sentries. Then, my spearbearers and Ilisti’s men will charge through the front, while I take the rangers and skirmishers and go attack their back through the Green. Gob and Ralphi will command my spearbearers and Imp will support them.”
“Very well, that sounds workable,” Ilisti agreed. “My troops and I will aid in the frontal assault. I look forward to clashing with this Wolf, and any false-blood champions he may have in his service. I doubt they’ve ever seen a true noble’s might.”
Since the vympir was the only one who didn’t have to obey Blacknail, that meant the plan was a go. After ending the meeting, Blacknail needed time to get into position, so he quickly went and ordered his irregulars to follow him as he headed off into the trees. There, several hobgoblin rangers that had scouted ahead led him toward his target. They looped around the enemy and approached them from the back. Khita and Herah both tried to accompany Blacknail, but he sent Khita back to the main force. She had her own troops to look after.
Once away from the bushes that grew in the sun along the road, the hobgoblins passed into the shadowy depths beyond. Here, the thick canopy overhead that blocked out the rising sun was supported by countless tall trees. Some of the thinner trunks had white bark that peeled away like paper and others had dark brown bark that was thick and scaly. The ground was clear of anything but small plants, but it was uneven, and tangles of roots jutted up from the dark earth. However, the hobgoblin irregulars moved through the forest with silent stealth and swift ease. Every one of them had been born into the Green and knew it well.
Soon, they passed a pair of fallen human sentries with slit throats that had been left to bleed out at the base of a tree. A few minutes later, the edge of the forest appeared in front of them. The trees thinned and then became a hedge of thorny bushes. Here, there was another dead human sprawled out on the ground, and two hobgoblins scouts with long cloaks waiting. Blacknail gave them an approving nod as he slowed and walked over to the bushes. Peering through them, he saw Werrick’s camp.
The Wolf has set up in a clearing next to the road. It wasn’t a very defensible spot, as it could be approached from every direction. However, there was a fair stretch of open ground to cross until the first rows of tents and the camp proper started. That would have made it difficult for a small group to sneak in unseen, but that wasn’t Blacknail’s plan this time. When he moved, he would have a distraction and he would be doing it in force.
The camp was made up of a several large clusters of blue triangular tents. Blacknail recognized them from Werrick’s attack on Herad’s base. Around the tents, countless humans walked and worked. There were also a few wagons and horses. Blacknail’s eyes were drawn to one large round tent in the center of the camp. A wolf’s head flag flew above it, marking it as Werrick’s own.
Behind Blacknail, his troops formed a loose battle line. All the hobgoblins wore mismatched outfits made up of looted human gear and tanned hides. They also carried a mix of weapons such as swords, axes, and spears. However, they were all wearing bloodthirsty smiles. The looming prospect of violence excited them, and an unsuspecting enemy lay before them.
“We’re ready, boss. Just give the word,” Herah told Blacknail.
“Soon,” the hobgoblin chief replied as he turned to stare at Werrick’s tent. “Soon, my long hunt will be over. Soon, my thirst for the Wolf’s blood will finally be sated.”