The well-dressed hobgoblin with black hair smirked as he approached Blacknail. His poison-stained blade was up in an aggressive position, but Blacknail wasn’t too worried. There was no way some random hobgoblin he’d never seen before was going to be a good enough fighter to cut him, especially now that he was aware of the poison. As a mutant, there was a good chance he was immune to the poison as well, although that would be a stupid thing to put to the test.
Confidently, Blacknail stepped forward and unleashed a swift slash at his opponent’s side. Startled, the warrior applicant was forced back as Blacknail kept him off balance with a series of heavy blows that he struggled to block. Blacknail used this time to think. What did he want to do here? The simplest thing to do would be to cut this conniving hobgoblin down. It would be easy, and no one would care, but was it the right move? Blacknail had to admit that this hobgoblins behavior made him curious. He stood out from the crowd, and technically Blacknail had never said applicants couldn’t poison their weapons during the warrior challenge. He was honestly surprised that no one had tried it before.
Pivoting to the side, the dark-haired hobgoblin managed to dodge a blow from Blacknail and earn himself a second of respite. He used that moment to quickly slash at Blacknail’s outstretched arm. The attack was fast but light, and wouldn’t have done more than scratch Blacknail, but he dodged it anyway. Even a tiny cut would spread the poison on the blade.
After stepping back and raising his guard, Blacknail gave his opponent a smug grin. This caused the well-dressed hobgoblin to lose his own grin and begin to look nervous. He paled slightly and glanced sideways to avoid his chieftain’s knowing gaze. He was obviously afraid that his scheme had been discovered.
“You’re going to have to do better than this,” Blacknail said. The applicant just grunted sourly in response.
Holding back his true strength, Blacknail chuckled and launched a new series of controlled attacks. His opponent managed to block or dodge all the strikes and even counter with a few quick cuts of his own, but Blacknail taunted his opponent by easily avoiding each of them at the very last moment. This quickly led the well-dressed hobgoblin to grow even more nervous and fearful looking. He’d begin to suspect that Blacknail was playing with him.
Grumbling something, the hobgoblin dodged a slow slash and stepped closer to Blacknail. Then, he raised a upturned wrist to his mouth and exhaled strongly at Blacknail’s face. Almost invisible in the dark, a cloud of dust flew through the air between them and right at Blacknail’s eyes. Flinching in surprise, Blacknail barely managed to jump back out of the way of the dust. However, even though he wasn’t hit directly, his eyes begin to sting. Growling, Blacknail begin blinking rapidly and using his blade to fan the air to ward off the lingering dust. What was this crap? It was burning his eyes and making it very hard to see.
Blacknail’s lowered guard and blindness almost cost him dearly. Right as he blinked, his opponent surged forward and slashed at his exposed arm. The coward didn’t even try to go for a proper blow. He focused on applying his dastardly poison.
However, Blacknail sensed him coming, and now he was angry. Growling, he forced his burning eyes open and tapped into the power in his core. Time seemed to slow as his body was filled with unnatural power and speed. Almost effortlessly, he batted his opponent’s weapon aside with brutal ease. As the loud clang of metal hitting metal rang out, Blacknail then let his opponent’s own charge carry him forward. Off-balance from Blacknail’s strike, the well-dressed hobgoblin’s stance was wide open. For a moment there was a horrified look on the hobgoblin’s face as momentum pulled him forward, and then Blacknail’s boot came up and smashed into his groin.
Suddenly, there was silence from the watching horde of hobgoblins as Blacknail’s opponent rose a foot up into air and let out a tormented squeak. In the sudden quiet, that pathetic noise reached every nearby ear, and more than a few hobgoblins winced. Eyes crossed, Blacknail’s opponent then fell to the ground with a thud and curled up into a ball after squeaking pitifully again.
Blacknail kicked the shuddering hobgoblin’s poisoned sword away and looked down at him. “I’ve decided to let you live. Rejoice or else.”
The hobgoblin just groaned, but Blacknail decided that was good enough. This hobgoblin was a treacherous snake, but he also reminded Blacknail of Elyias. Just a smarter and more ambitious, which was natural since he was a hobgoblin. Thus, teasing him was just too much fun, and killing him would be a waste. Besides, Blacknail knew he couldn’t trust any hobgoblins, except maybe Gob. Having one obvious backstabber around wouldn’t make much of a difference. It would just help motivate Blacknail to stay on guard and help him figure out who was plotting against him. This hobgoblin would naturally draw other disloyal minions to him, exposing them. All Blacknail had to do was watch him carefully.
“You also pass the warrior ceremony, so see Gob about getting your tattoo, after you’ve thanked me,” Blacknail explained.
“Thank you, boss,” the hobgoblin mumbled painfully as he climbed to his feet. He looked unsteady and more than a little nauseous, but he’d live. Blacknail was fairly sure you didn’t need both balls anyway, so no real harm done.
“Do you have name?” Blacknail asked. It would be awkward to have him followed if he didn’t. Black hair wasn’t that rare.
The well-dressed – but now very dirty and ruffled looking – hobgoblin shook his head. “No, boss.”
Blacknail smiled as be begin thinking. He enjoyed naming things, and he was great at it! This stupid hobgoblin had no idea how lucky he was to receive a name from his awesome chieftain. “You shall now be called… Crow.”
The newly named hobgoblin was still in too much pain to do more than grunt ungratefully in reply and throw his boss a poorly disguised glare, so Blacknail sighed. His genius was going unappreciated. He’d chosen the name Crow because of the hobgoblin’s black hair and horns. The fancy way he dressed and took care of his appearance also reminded Blacknail of the stuck-up birds. Lastly, Blacknail knew crows to be completely untrustworthy birds that would murder everyone if they could. They were like horses that way.
With the last bout was finished, Blacknail announced the end of the ceremony and dismissed the gathered hobs and goblins. At his command, there was one last cheer from the mob before they begun to wander off. Satisfaction filled Blacknail as he watched them go. The ceremony had fulfilled its purposes. Now Blacknail had a few more warriors and the entire tribe had seen his new might and cunning. Hobgoblins were natural schemers, but now even the most ambitious of them would tread carefully around their chieftain. Blacknail grinned proudly. Those that did try to move against him would probably try to gather allies such as Crow, which would play right into Blacknail’s hands. He was so smart. Handsome too. No other hobgoblin stood a chance against him, and when Werrick was dead, he could say the same thing about humans.
All the nearby hobs and goblins scattered out of Blacknail’s way as he walked over to Gob. They spoke for a few minutes and Blacknail ordered Crow watched. Gob wanted to kill the treacherous hobgoblin, but Blacknail talked him out of it. It was getting boring around here. There had been almost no attempts on Blacknail’s life over the past while, which meant the would-be-assassins were getting smarter and sneakier. Hopefully, Crow would lure some of them out. After his talk with Gob was over, a tired-out Blacknail yawned and went to bed.
The next morning, a cold wind was blowing down from the North when Blacknail pushed aside the tanned hide that covered his cave’s entrance and stepped outside. He shivered as he studied the distant northern mountains and their snowy peaks. The trees at the edge of the forest were now covered in red and brown leaves that were beginning to come loose and drift down to the ground. Winter was almost upon him. Blacknail considered the scene for a few moments, and then he turned around and went back inside. A moment later, he reemerged wearing a fur cloak that had been made from the hide of a wolf he’d slain. Its thick fur kept the cold at bay and allowed Blacknail to build up some body heat as he started walking around outside.
Many of the other hobgoblins and goblins outside were also wearing heavier clothing than normal. Usually, most goblins still went around in nothing more than a loincloth, but most of the ones in sight now had on various types of shirts. Some were rough-looking and had obviously been stitched together by someone in the tribe, but others were plundered human items that had been cut down to size. On a goblin, a human shirt was a loose robe that hung down below their knees. That only made them warmer though.
The cold filled Blacknail with new urgency. It was a chill reminder that his plans would all come to nothing if he didn’t prepare for the coming turn of the seasons properly. Thus, he quickly walked over to the nearest cooking fire and grabbed some food from the hobgoblins there. Then, he gathered up a small escort of guards and headed for Shelter.
It was an easy journey now that the road between the human village and Ironbreak was complete. There were no obstacles in the way and the surface of the road had been raised in most places to keep it flat and dry, although it was now covered in more than a few fallen leaves. The forest had also been pushed back at least fifteen feet from the road, so it was easier to move without having to worry about being ambushed by predators. Moving too quickly in the Green was normally a great way to run head first into a disgruntled bear or a hungry mimic.
Soon, Blacknail left the forest behind and the road led him out into the fields around Shelter. He trudged past the scattered remains of the harvest as he approached the village’s gate. When he got there, he yelled to get someone’s attention and he was swiftly allowed inside. Many of the villagers still didn’t like the idea of letting hobgoblins inside their home, but most of them were smart enough to realize they couldn’t keep his tribe out and they benefitted from staying on his good side.
However, instead of wandering around just to prove he could, Blacknail and his guards waited on the other side of the gate for Tannin to show up, which didn’t take very long. The bearded village elder gave Blacknail a polite nod as he walked over. He had come alone, although the gate guard was still watching from a distance.
“Welcome, Blacknail. It’s good to see you back on your feet. I’d heard you gotten yourself knocked around and was worried for a while that you wouldn’t make it. Things around these parts would have gotten even more chaotic without you, and that’s the last thing we need. These are already disturbingly turbulent times,” Tannin said. He seemed unsurprised by Blacknail’s physical changes.
“Hello, mister Tannin. I’m fine, better than ever really,” Blacknail said as he smiled and flexed his muscles. “I just came to check in on things and see how everything was going here. Leaves are falling, and the season is changing.”
“Aye, the first frost won’t be long now,” Tannin agreed. “But we’re as ready as can be hoped. Even with all those new faces you’ve been dumping on us, we should have enough food to last the winter.”
“Good, I was worried about all the human refugees that my minions have been sending north. I haven’t had time to personally deal with them, so I was expecting to find them all wandering around in circles in the middle of the forest. Nothing ever gets done right unless I take charge,” Blacknail whined.
Tannin grinned. “I can’t say that they haven’t been causing their fair share of problems, but all the empty homes are full of people again, and that’s a nice feeling. I never thought I’d see the day. Before you showed up, Shelter had been shrinking for a long time.”
“Are you going to need more food? I can probably spare some hunters or bring some food up from the south if you’re short.” Blacknail didn’t want to worry about helping the humans feed themselves in the middle of winter. It was better to deal with it now.
“Every little bit helps, but I think we’ll be fine. Thanks to your goblins, we managed to plant more crops and reap a bigger harvest than usual, and the little critters mostly scavenge up their own meals. On top of that, they’re also keeping other pests away. That was how we lost most of our harvest before, rats. The vermin got in everything over the winter, and what they didn’t eat they despoiled with their shit. Some of them were so big they turned the tables on our cats.”
Blacknail nodded. “Rats are nasty beasts. Goblins are always getting into fights or starting wars with them, but we’re superior so we almost always win.”
“Wars?” Tannin asked with a smirk.
“Yes, rats don’t fight fair. They try to mob goblins using their huge numbers, so goblins have to build up a swarm of their own. It gets quite bloody.”
“Well, the goblins certainly are enthusiastic about keeping the rats away, even if I haven’t seen signs of anything like a battle.” Tannin laughed. “Some of the critters are even building snares to trap any rats that get too close to the supplies. It’s rather amusing to watch them build the contraptions. Most of them don’t work, but they’re always trying new designs. We’ve had to crack down on trophy-taking though. Having piles of rat skulls everywhere isn’t clean or appealing.”
Blacknail talked to Tannin for a few more minutes and then went off to find Geralhd and the others. The former bandits stayed in Shelter most the time. No one had anything all that important or interesting to say though, so Blacknail soon found himself headed back to the gate. On the way he passed by villagers going about their business. On top of the usual chores, many of the homes were being repaired to make room for new arrivals. Blacknail got more than a few glances, but both the refugees and original inhabitants of Shelter were used to hobgoblins by now, even if they still weren’t comfortable around them. That didn’t bother Blacknail. Even he thought getting comfortable around hobgoblins was a stupid idea.
Over the next few days, the temperature stayed chilly and the north wind blew regularly. After a week, Blacknail decided that he couldn’t put the next phase of his plans off any longer, even if it meant slowing down all the work going on at Ironbreak. It was time to spread the tribe out so that it would be easier to feed them over the winter. Blacknail sent a runner to find Gob and called a meeting of all his lieutenants. Khita wasn’t invited.
There were already three major goblin settlements under Blacknail’s control. There was Ironbreak, the settlement on the way to Herstcrest, and the forward base to the south. Blacknail had been building up all three so that they could shelter as many goblins and hobgoblin as possible.
“We’re going to move a lot of goblins out of Ironbreak and to the other bases,” Blacknail explained to Gob and Ferrar. “We also need to build a bunch of hunting lodges where hobgoblins can live. We don’t have much time, but we can use the branch huts that ferals build. They can be put up quickly to make warm and safe shelters.”
Gob threw Blacknail a salute. “Right away, boss!”
“Why are we doing this?” Imp asked as he frowned in confusion. Since magic wasn’t involved, he was little out of his element.
“Food,” Ferrar replied with a snort.
Blacknail nodded. “We will need to hunt more when the snow comes and all the plants die, but there are too many of us here to find enough food that way. We need to spread out. We can plant larger fields next year, but that won’t help us now.”
“Will they be alright off by themselves, boss? The Green is very dangerous,” Ferrar remarked.
“You’re just spoiled,” Blacknail huffed in reply. “Ferals live through a lot worse. These minions will have shelter, weapons, knowledge, and supplies. Hunting is easy with bows and snares. They’ll be fine.”
“Very true, great one!” Gob added in support.
Since he was the boss, and everyone had to do what he said, Blacknail had his lieutenants begin organizing everything for the coming winter. Gob handled the troops, and Ferrar made sure every group had the proper training and craftsman to build and maintain a lodge. Imp didn’t have much to do. All his mages were going to stay in Ironbreak since there was no point in spreading them out, but Blacknail made him take part in the meeting anyway. You never knew when you’d want something exploded.