After several rounds of rolling around with Herah, which were interrupted only for snacks and meals, the pair eventually drifted off to sleep together in Blacknail’s bed. By that point, both of them were exhausted.
Early, the next morning, Blacknail felt quite satisfied when he awoke next to Herah’s sleeping form. Yesterday had been a good day, and he was happy that no one had assassinated him while he’d been unconscious. He’d been a little worried about that, because he’d let his guard down. Not only had he let Herah sleep over, but he’d exhausted himself into an unusually deep sleep. That could have ended badly for him, but thankfully it hadn’t.
Shoving Herah aside, Blacknail got dressed and went out to supervise the work going on in Ironbreak. As the leader, it was his duty to make sure that there was as little slacking off as possible going on. However, since the settlement was populated mostly by goblins, he knew he had his work cut out for him. Stupid minions. They were too lazy to even try to assassinate him properly.
Blacknail spent the next hour wandering around and screaming at everyone in sight who was slacking off, which was basically everyone. When he was done with that, he headed over to check on his house. He wanted it done before winter set in for obvious reasons. For one thing, he had no idea how warm his cave was going to be when it started to really get cold.
Not a lot had been accomplished on the house since yesterday, so Blacknail decided that he had to intervene personally and provide everyone involved with motivation and leadership. Thus, after harassing the workers for a while to figure out what was slowing them down, he went to find Ferrar and Gob. Together, the three hobgoblins were able to round up some work crews and get the project moving faster. Parties of hobs and goblins were sent into the mine to fetch stone and shore it up. Construction was swiftly started on the improvements and defenses Blacknail and Ferrar had decided on yesterday. The caves were full of dangers, so the miners had to be kept safe or they couldn’t concentrate on their work.
Once the mine was running smoothly and production was up, Blacknail focused on the house itself. In Ironbreak, there were always some goblins lazing about somewhere, so Blacknail had some more rounded up and added to the construction crew. If nothing else, they could help carry tools and heavy objects around. The mansion required a lot of stone and lumber and there was a shortage of wagons. However, since the actual construction was being planned and supervised by humans from Shelter, there was only so much Blacknail could do. He had to wait for them to show up, which wasn’t until the next day. Then, Blacknail managed to negotiate for them to pick up the pace and bring in some more humans, mostly by making veiled threats and throwing small yellow rocks at them.
It took a few days for Blacknail to get everything moving along at a pace he approved of. During that time, he visited Herah quite a few times to vent his frustration. This left her quite satisfied but also left her too tired to do much else. The female hobgoblin spent a lot of time napping and recovering her energy. As a bonus, this prevented her from talking much.
Unfortunately, even with the construction of his mansion coming along nicely, Blacknail knew there was a lot more that needed done. He still hadn’t come up with a real plan for dealing with Werrick. The only thing he could do was try to increase his own powerbase before the Wolf attacked, and Blacknail disliked being on the defensive. Still, if Werrick planned on marching an army into the Green and all the way to Ironbreak, there were a lot of tricks Blacknail could play on him. The real danger was if the Wolf simply took back control over the roads to the south and forced Blacknail into hiding. There was little Blacknail could do to stop that, and it would make him look weak and deprive him of access to human goods and recruits. He needed those if he was ever going to try and match Werrick’s forces.
The coming change of seasons made even recruitment much more complicated. Instead of growing his army, Blacknail knew he had to worry about keeping the minions he already had alive through the winter. Northern winters were cold and terrible. They claimed the weak and the vulnerable without mercy. Preparation was needed to keep as many useful people alive as possible, and to figure out which people were useful. The most crucial concern was about food. When the snow came, it would kill off most the vegetation and severely hamper the tribe’s ability to forage. There were some fields of root vegetables growing outside the settlement walls, but Blacknail honestly had no idea if they were going to be even close to enough. It was a good thing that they’d still be able to hunt, but even there preparation was going to be key. Food needed to be preserved and stored properly.
In Ironbreak there was a large cave set in the side of a hill that served as the official larder. The chill air within it helped preserve food, and its only entrance was guarded night and day by a pair of hobgoblins. In a goblin settlement, thieves were always a problem. Bloody degenerates; Blacknail hated thieves with a passion. They were always trying to take his stuff. Anyway, the larder already contained a fair amount of food. Blacknail had taught his minions how to smoke meat and dry roots, and everything that wasn’t eaten was thrown in there. It wouldn’t be enough to last the entire winter, though. Hopefully, the harvest of the fields would help with that. Blacknail also had a few other, larger ideas that would cut down on the settlement’s food consumption, but he was going to wait awhile to implement them. Most of his minions were still worth keeping around.
Blacknail was complaining to Geralhd about how lazy and stupid his ever-hungry minions were when the other man made a suggestion. “You know, Blacknail. You could always trade for necessities with some of those merchants caravans that pass through your territory. Your troops are already stopping them so that you can extract your toll. Why not just use some of that money to buy food or whatever else you find yourself requiring?”
Taken by surprise, Blacknail frowned thoughtfully. Huh, that was good idea. He’d forgotten that human merchants carried useful things. He’d sort of fallen into thinking that all they transported were stupid human things; like alcohol, perfume, or a hundred different colors of cloth.
“I will send some messengers south right away,” Blacknail mused aloud before walking away to do just that. Geralhd didn’t seem too annoyed by his abrupt departure.
Food wasn’t the only thing they would need to survive the winter, though. There was also the matter of shelter. Gob had supervised the construction of quite a few longhouses that would be able to keep a few hundred hobgoblins and goblins warm, but there was a problem. No one had any idea how many goblins there actually were in the settlement. The little nuisances were impossible to count. They were always running around everywhere and most of them didn’t even have names. All Blacknail could do about the problem was to try and get as much shelter built as possible. Any goblins without homes would just have to tough it out. Ferals survived the winter just fine, somehow.
The other hobgoblin leaders also had their own duties and kept themselves busy. Ferrar was charge of producing all sorts of materials. His furnaces created everything from pottery to workable iron. He was also in charge of the operation of the mine and the crafting of weapons and tools. The iron tools were particularly important. Not only was Ironbreak in constant need of new axes and shovels, but the tools could be traded to Shelter in return for human expertise and advice.
After their excursion into the crystal cave, Imp had withdrawn into his workshop with some new crystal samples and had yet to leave. A constant loud bubbling sound was heard from within, and it was occasionally punctuated by the sound of mad laughter, breaking glass, and explosions. Blacknail had avoided going in there himself, but he’d questioned a few of Imp’s assistants who’d managed to escape, and apparently this was all fairly normal for Imp.
As usual, Gob kept things running smoothly wherever Blacknail himself couldn’t be. He supervised the construction of log longhouses and the day-to-day running of Ironbreak. Everything that was too repetitive and boring for Blacknail was his job. There were a few duties that Blacknail had to help with though. As the leader, he was more important than everyone else. One of these duties was leading the warrior ceremony.
During the ceremony, every hobgoblin could show off his fighting skills in an attempt to earn the warrior tattoo. It was just a small mark above their left eye, but it gave them bragging rights and more authority in battles. There was also a crafter and mage mark, but Imp and Ferrar handled those.
The date of the next warrior ceremony swiftly arrived. Blacknail had been looking forward to taking part. It was perfect opportunity to show off his new body and its strength to the entire tribe. No one would dare challenge his authority when they saw how amazingly powerful he was!
The ceremony itself took place after a dinner feast where most the tribe was gathered around the training field. The sound of drums filled the air as goblins ate and mingled around several large bonfires. Blacknail was seated in the very middle of the feast, at the head of a table next to the largest fire. From there, he surveyed his gathered minions as he finished eating a leg of venison. Many of them glanced his way when they thought he wasn’t looking, and a mixture of fear and awe showed on their faces. Blacknail ignored them and smiled confidently to himself. He knew his large body and tall horns drew eyes. That was just natural. Without a doubt, his minions had never seen a hobgoblin as awesome as him. He was greatest hobgoblin ever, and they hadn’t seen anything yet. He was going to show off his swordsmanship soon. That would really impress the green idiots.
After letting his food settle in his stomach for a few more minutes, Blacknail got up and called for the beginning of the warrior ceremony. Immediately, the pace of the drumming picked up and the gathered green-skinned throng rose to its feet and began moving. This wasn’t their first ceremony. They all knew what to do, and they wanted to get to it. All the hobs and goblins enjoyed the spectacle.
To one side of the fires, the massed tribe formed a rough circle. They all stood facing inward as Blacknail walked out into the center of the group. He smiled as he studied the tightly packed ring of his minions.
“You all know why we’re here!” Blacknail yelled once he reached the very center. There was a roar of excited approval from all the watchers.
Blacknail stopped to listen for a second and then continued yelling. “We’re here to see who among you is worthy to be a true warrior of the tribe and serve me as a skilled sword. However, before we begin the testing, I’m going to show you what true swordsman are like. I will duel the strongest warrior in the tribe, Slashi!”
At this news, there was another bout of mad yelling from the gathered hobgoblins and goblins. They were more than happy to watch any sort of fight, and one involving their chief sounded great. Blacknail just grinned and waved at them before turning to watch Slashi emerge from a group of hobgoblins to his left. He gave Blacknail a quick respectful bow before taking up position across from him.
Slashi was tall for hobgoblin and his eyes shone with a focus that was very unusual. He had been named by Blacknail because he was the best swordsman among all the hobgoblins Blacknail had trained or fought. He was obsessed with sword fighting and spent all his free time practicing or finding new sparring partners among the humans. Thus, although he’d only been a hobgoblin for a short while, he was already more skilled than Blacknail. That was just a pure skill comparison, though. Blacknail was much smarter, and his supernatural strength meant he could easily defeat the other hobgoblin. This was just going to be a show and chance for him to show off.
Blacknail drew his blade and nodded at Slashi, who then drew his own weapon and stepped forward. Grinning, Blacknail rolled his shoulders to loosen them and then moved to engage. The drums picked up the pace again and the crowd screamed as Blacknail raised his blade and slashed down at his opponent. His blade cleaved through the air, but Slashi easily side-stepped the attack and countered with a swift cut aimed at Blacknail’s arm.
Leaning back slightly, Blacknail shifted his sword and blocked the blow. The two blades collided and slid against each other, until Blacknail grunted and pushed Slashi away. The other hobgoblin couldn’t hope to win a contest of strength, so he was forced back. He recovered quickly though and threw himself back into the fight with obvious excitement. There was a tight grin on his face as he launched a flurry of quick strikes designed to put Blacknail on the defensive. Slashi was happiest when he got to face a good opponent and test his skill.
Blacknail easily blocked or dodged the incoming blows. To his mutant eyes, Slashi’s moved weren’t particularly fast. It was also simple for him to react thanks to the power and speed of his new mutant body. Then there was his reach. Blacknail’s long arms gave him another advantage, and it was one that was obviously frustrating Slashi. Since he was so tall, he wasn’t used to fighting a hobgoblin with longer limbs.
Picking up the pace, Blacknail went on the attack. He stepped forward and pushed Slashi back with two lightning-quick blows. Slashi was forced to duck under one and then jump back. Filled with confidence, Blacknail attacked a few more times, but held back just enough so that Slashi could dodge. This was a demonstration after all. He didn’t want it to end too quickly.
After a few more seconds of desperate dodging and weaving, Slashi went on the attack again. He suddenly ducked in under a horizontal slash aimed at his head and charged forward. At the same time, he stabbed his blade toward Blacknail’s chest. Caught off guard by the swift and smooth movement, Blacknail was forced to burn a bit of magic as he sidestepped the blow. He almost didn’t make it, and he could swear his shirt was nudged by the blade as it slid past.
Scowling, Blacknail decided to end the fight. He drew power from the core in the center of his chest and felt the magic fill him. A moment later, his blade lashed out at Slashi. Startled by the unexpected speed of the blow, Slashi could only manage a clumsy block and was knocked backwards by the strength behind it. As he stumbled backwards, Blacknail pressed his advantage. All in one motion, he knocked the other hobgoblin’s blade aside, stepped forward, and kicked him in the chest. There was a loud thud from the impact and the breath was knocked out of Slashi’s chest as he flew several feet backward and then landed on his back. He groaned and didn’t try to get up.
“I win!” Blacknail bragged loudly as he raised his arms victoriously. That drew another round of cheering from the spectators, probably because they knew better than to not agree with their chief as loudly as possible.
Grinning, Blacknail motioned for Gob to send some minions over to carry Slashi away, and then he turned back to the crowd. “Now the ceremony begins! Let the first challenger step forward.”
In response to Blacknail’s words, another hobgoblin emerged from the crowd. He gave his chieftain a deep respectful bow and then the duel began. He wasn’t nearly as good as Slashi, so Blacknail was able to deal with him easily. He then left it to Gob to decide whether the applicant had passed, since he honestly wasn’t sure what the standard was anymore. His new body made measuring his opponent’s skill accurately hard. Everyone seemed equally weak.
After that, the sky overhead began to darken as Blacknail fought several more bouts. None of the contestants stood out, and the cheers from the crowd slowly grew quieter as even the audience tired out. That was when the last contestant stepped forward. Instantly, Blacknail realized that something was different about him. He was average-sized for a hobgoblin but dressed almost like a human. He wore dark leather jacket over a tan shirt and leather pants. The outfit was not only clean but even seemed to match. On his head, he had two small black horns. They had a twisted shape and were surrounded by short black hair. Blacknail eyes the new hobgoblin curiously. There was something going on here. The applicant’s dark eyes shone with emotion and there was tight grin on his face. He seemed almost smug about something.
Well, whatever. Blacknail raised his weapon and signaled for the challenge to start. His opponent hurriedly drew his own blade and eagerly stepped forward. The light from the fire reflected off the steel of his weapon in an odd way that drew Blacknail’s attention. Was there something smeared on the blade? Wait, was that poison! Was this… an assassination attempt?