Spring came to Ironbreak on warm winds that swiftly began melting away at all the ice and snow. Soon, the green of growing plants once again appeared, and the air became full of the sound of chirping birds that had suddenly returned after their long absence. Their singing made everything seem fresh and full of new energy.
Blacknail wasted no time. There was still a lot of melting mounds of snow left on the wet ground, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t work for his minions to do. At last, winter was coming to an end, and the next phase of his bloody plan for vengeance could begin.
The hobgoblin chieftain had been waiting a long time for the coming of spring. Months. Once the boggarts were dealt with, there wasn’t much that had needed his direct supervision, and even he could only sleep and whine about the weather so much.
Despite Blacknail’s fears that the harsh cold of winter would wear his tribe down, Ironbreak had prospered instead. The food stores and hunters had provided enough food for everyone important, and despite the snow, the goblins had been able to scrounge up their own food most the time. They could eat almost anything, including tree bark and the bugs that hibernated in it. There was never a shortage of bark, thanks to the ongoing logging operation. The trogs had also managed to figure out how to build underground mushroom farms, which were producing some food, although not a lot. Mushroom farming was tricky and they only seemed to like a few caves that had just the right level of heat and humidity.
While the living conditions in Ironbreak were well below that of most human villages, none of the goblins or hobgoblins complained. One, they knew Blacknail wouldn’t care about their petty problems, and two, they were used to much worse. A solid roof over their heads and a warm fire were unheard of luxuries to most of them. As Blacknail feasted and napped in his mansion, the thought of how much he’d improved the life of his minions filled him with smug satisfaction. He was the greatest leader ever. His ungrateful minions really should thank him more for everything he’d done for them.
After the snow melt, the first order Blacknail gave was for all his hobgoblins to emerge from their lodges, huts, and holes to be counted. He needed to know how many of them there were now. It had been impossible to count them all during winter. He’d tried to send some minions around to do it, but they’d all lost count after the first few homes. Apparently, everyone needed to be gathered in one spot for it to be done right. Counting and goblins didn’t go together well.
However, once everyone was assembled in the training yard, a rough estimate of Ironbreak’s hobgoblin population was quickly reached. It seemed there were now over seven hundred of them in the settlement. This number took Blacknail by surprise. It was much higher than he’d thought it would be, since he’s sent so many hobgoblins to other camps before winter had set in and others had died in the battle with the boggarts. Had some of the hobs from outside snuck back in?
No, after talking to his lieutenants, that didn’t seem to be the case. All the new hobgoblins were simply local goblins that had transformed over the winter. Despite the harsh conditions, many of them had apparently been snug and fat enough to feel comfortable. Obviously, Blacknail needed to work the little pests harder.
Still, he couldn’t complain about having more hobgoblin minions. He’d been expecting to have to build up his forces over the spring once everything in Ironbreak was repaired and restocked. The mud from all the melting snow was a real problem. Luckily, Ironbreak had been built on high ground with a lot of firm stone, but there were still areas where water was pooling and needed to be drained. Some of the huts were also looking a bit saggy and had to be repaired before they fell over.
There was also more good news. The workshops had been very productive over the winter. Load after load of ore and charcoal had gone in, and the workers had used those materials to make thousands of tools and weapons. Blacknail had enough spears and arrows to equip all his troops in Ironbreak, although there was still plenty of need for more, especially since he had other minions in other camps that would need to be equipped.
Thus, after the inventory was complete, Blacknail began sending out orders and messengers to his other camps. All through the winter, the only place he’d regularly gotten word from had been Shelter. Everywhere else could have been wiped off the face of the earth for all he knew. He needed status reports, and soon it would be time to withdraw all unnecessary minions back to Ironbreak so that Blacknail could muster his army and strike at his enemies. Hitting hard and fast while his foes were unprepared had always worked well for Blacknail before, so he intended to move quickly.
As the ground dried up over the next few days, and repairs proceeded on Ironbreak, messengers began returning from the closer places Blacknail sent them. The hobgoblin from Herscrest was among the first to return, although he didn’t have all that much to report. Ilisti was still in charge, and nothing too dramatic had happened in his city. They’d had a difficult winter, although there had been little starvation thanks to the hobgoblin hunters that Blacknail had lent them. Ilisti had sent his thanks but had no plans to move anytime soon. He was preoccupied with ruling over his new people. That was fine with Blacknail. He wouldn’t need Ilisti’s help until later.
News from all the small settlements Blacknail had ordered set up out in the forest soon followed. Although one or two of them had meet some unexpected disaster – such as an attack by a troll or starvation – most of them had prospered. The settlements had expanded as new huts went up, and dozens of new hobgoblins had transformed over the winter. The fishing village next to the river had actually managed to somehow double in size since the first snow fall. Blacknail was pleasantly surprised, even though he had no real plan for the settlements from here on. Well, he was going to have to do something with them. He couldn’t just leave them unsupervised. So much work…
It took a few more days for the messenger from the forward base in the south to return. The reports from there were much the same as from everywhere else. There had had been no real developments over the last few months, although quite a few goblins had transformed there too. It seemed like Blacknail’s winter had been by far the most eventful. Everyone else had been slacking off while he’d been fighting an underground war and building up an army. Stupid minions. They seriously needed to show some initiative. Obviously, they weren’t being yelled at enough.
Once he was done receiving all the reports, Blacknail sent out some new orders. All the new hobgoblins from the settlements were to come to Ironbreak for training, and Beardy was ordered to send out rangers to scout the nearby roads and villages for any sign of Werrick. Blacknail needed a target. The warm winds that blew through Ironbreak had awoken his long-buried passions. His bones ached for action and vengeance, pushing him to hurry his preparations.
A few more days of work by Blacknail’s minions got most of Ironbreak repaired, dried out, and cleaned up. That meant it was time for them to get ready to move. Blacknail’s strategy depended on him moving before his human foe was ready, so the hobgoblin chieftain quickly began mustering his forces and assembling his army.
Not all of the hobgoblins were soldiers and many of the new ones weren’t trained properly, but that still left Blacknail with a sizeable force. He could afford to bring over six hundred hobgoblins South, where he would get further reinforcements from the forward base and the hobgoblins stationed there. He also had over a hundred human minions he could call up, mostly former bandits he’d recruited and kept at the forward base.
There was a lot of work that needed done before Blacknail’s army was ready to move though. The hobgoblins needed to be organized into squads and given a refresher on marching. There was also the problem of equipping them all and gathering up enough supplies for a march. Blacknail’s army was too big to depend on hunting and scavenging for food, and they needed to move quickly. Thankfully, this was something Blacknail had planned for. After the defeat of the boggarts, he’d put Ferrar in charge of gathering up wagons and making some new ones as well. With help from some craftsman from Shelter, Ferrar had gotten the job done. It had required the making of some new large saws to cut the lumber, and the results weren’t pretty, but he’d eventually gotten the carpentry figured out. It wasn’t like they’d been short on time, labor, or wood.
Thus, Blacknail now had two dozen wagons that could carry supplies and enough bristleback boars to pull them. The road to the forward base wasn’t quite complete, but they could carry the wagons over the rough patches. That was what minions were for. Some of them weren’t good for much else.
Ferrar had some plans to build a proper sawmill now that Ironbreak had a demand for cut lumber, but it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. He wasn’t sure what he was going to use to power the mill since the nearby creek wasn’t large enough and coming up with a design was proving difficult. Ferrar had mentioned possibly using some sort of furnace to power the saw, which made Blacknail glad he was leaving soon and wouldn’t have to go anywhere near a contraption like that. Strapping some moving blades to one of Imp’s furnaces sounded like a terrible idea, they still occasionally exploded for one thing.
Before leaving for the South, Blacknail paid a visit to Shelter. There were people there he had to talk to.
“Aye, sure. We will help your fellows out with your spring planting,” Tannin reassured Blacknail after coming to meet him at the town’s gate. “It’s the least we could do, and probably in our best interest. If we’re going to be living beside a tribe of hobgoblins, better they be well fed.”
“Yep, that’s true. Hobgoblins are easier to deal with when they’re not hungry,” Blacknail replied. Tannin could be very practical for a human. Blacknail’s ability to keep the good food coming was one of the most important reasons so many hobgoblins listened to him.
Blacknail’s minions had planted some crops last year, but this year he wanted a lot more sown. There was plenty of room around Ironbreak, since they’d cut down so much of the forest for fuel and construction materials. He also wanted it done right this time. Last year the seeds had been scattered around somewhat haphazardly, instead of in neat rows like the humans used. If Blacknail’s army spent a lot of time fighting down south, they wouldn’t be able to stock up food for the winter, so Ironbreak would have to prepare food for them.
As he was walking back to Ironbreak, Blacknail sighed. Ugh, there was so much that needed done, and so much had changed since Herad’s death. He was just a simple hobgoblin, sort of. Why had he taken responsibility for so many hobgoblins, a small city, and a not so small portion of the North? Really, his wants were simple: a full stomach, to be the boss of everyone as he so rightly deserved, and to kill Werrick and make a necklace from his teeth. Hmmm, perhaps he’d also make a pair of pants out of the man’s skin. Blacknail smiled as several interesting ideas flashed through his thoughts, but he eventually discarded them. Humans, you make a lot of useful things out of their corpses, but that tended to upset them even when you used complete strangers. Blacknail and most hobgoblins didn’t care about such things. As long as it didn’t inconvenience him, he didn’t what you did with dead hobgoblins or their skin.
It was fast approaching supper time when Blacknail got back to Ironbreak, so he decided to throw a feast. Tomorrow, he’d be leading an army south, so having a celebration before the long march made sense. Besides, he was hungry and felt like rewarding himself for all his hard work. Leadership was a heavy burden. Thus, Blacknail went to find Gob and get his minions working. The feast wasn’t going to make itself.
Thankfully, there was enough food in the larder. Hunters had begun bringing in a lot recently, and the high water level was making the caves below humid. This was in turn helping the underground mushroom farms grow. Rabbit and mushroom stew was both filling and delicious, as long as you used the non-poisonous mushrooms, so Blacknail got his minions cooking. He also had some deer brought out to be roasted slowly over the fire on a spit, because it wasn’t a real feast with only one dish, and they were very low on vegetables and roots.
Soon, the goblin settlement was a flurry of activity as everyone prepared for the feast. A hearty aroma filled the air as ingredients were dumped into boiling cauldrons and the prepared deer carcasses were roasted above blazing firepits. Guards had to be posted to keep all the hungry goblins from snatching bits of food before it was done.
Blacknail wandered from fire to fire as he checked on all the food and made sure the cooks were doing their jobs properly. This required a lot taste testing, but that was fine with him.
When the food was done, instead of withdrawing to his mansion, Blacknail decided to eat outside with everyone else. It was good for him to mingle with his minions occasionally. That way they knew who the boss was, and he could keep an eye on all the suspicious ones. There were a lot of suspicious hobgoblins. Many of them were new and Blacknail hadn’t had a chance to beat them up in a sparring match yet. Finding the time was difficult because there was so many of them, so he couldn’t be sure how loyal they really were. Probably not very. They were hobgoblins after all.
As Blacknail was serving himself the first bowl of stew, as was his right as leader, Herah wandered over to his side and grabbed his arm.
“Get me a bowl too,” she asked him.
Blacknail eyed her skeptically. “Why don’t you get your own?” He was the boss here. It wasn’t his job to get other people food.
Herah let out an annoyed huff but then filled her own bowl. Together, the pair of hobgoblins then wandered over to a table that was well lit by a nearby firepit. All the other hobgoblins quickly got out of their way.
As they ate, Herah scooted up next to Blacknail and pressed her body up against his. This pleased Blacknail. Herah had a nice body. It was soft in all the right places, and her nose wasn’t bad looking either. It did have the same sharp majestic shape of Blacknail’s own, but it was cute.
The two hobgolbins weren’t left alone for very long. After Blacknail had taken a few bites of food, Khita appeared out of nowhere and walked over. The hobgoblin chieftain almost choked on his food when he saw her. Why was she here?
Meanwhile, Herah got up and gave Khita a quick hug. Blacknail frowned. Since when were hobgoblins hugging people? That shouldn’t be a thing. It was unnatural, and one of the least hobgoblin-like things imaginable.
“Hey! Wow, that stew smells great,” the redhead announced as she leaned over Blacknail’s bowl.
“What are you doing here?” Blacknail asked the annoying girl. He hadn’t told anyone in Shelter about the feast.
Khita just grinned. “I got bored in Shelter, and I was thinking that you’d be doing something fun like this. Really you’re very predictable. You’ll take any excuse to celebrate and stuff your face.”
Blacknail sighed. Well, at least she wasn’t trying to hug him. Then he’d have to stab her on general principles. “I have guards and stuff, just so people can’t sneak in without me knowing about it.”
“Those guys? They all know me. I’m like your best friend, so they just let me come and go whenever I want.”
That didn’t sound right to Blacknail. He wasn’t exactly sure what a best friend was, but he was fairly sure Khita wasn’t his.
Unsurprisingly, Khita continued talking. “Well, most of them know me. I did have to punch out one stupid hobgoblin on my way in.”
“Whatever,” Blacknail replied as he concentrated on eating his food and tried to ignore Khita and Herah as they started gossiping.
It didn’t take him long to finish up his first bowl, and before he could get up to fetch another, a hobgoblin brought him over a new one. Unfortunately, the hobgoblin had been passed the bowl by Crow – who was now watching from the shadow’s over to Blacknail’s left – so this was probably another assassination attempt. That was too bad, the stew smelled great. It had a tangier smell than Blacknail’s first bowl, which was probably caused by the poison.
Putting the bowl down, Blacknail dismissed the hobgoblin that had given it to him and called for Crow to come over. Crow flinched in surprise, before reluctantly coming out of hiding and walking over to Blacknail.
“Oh, hello. Did you want something, boss?”
Blacknail pushed the bowl towards the nervous hobgoblin. “Eat this.”
“Er, why?” Crow asked as he stared at the bowl like it was a venomous snake.
Blacknail grinned in a way that didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m the boss. I don’t need a reason. Eat it.”
Ever so slowly, the hobgoblin did as he was told. As Blacknail watched intently, he scooped up a spoonful of stew and put it in his mouth. He then swallowed.
“Yum. So good,” Crow said he put the bowl down. His act wasn’t very convincing. He was clearly very worried about something.
“Eat more,” Blacknail told him.
Crow grimaced as he raised his spoon again, but then his stomach grumbled. It was a loud bubbling sound, that almost made Blacknail wince in sympathy. Crow then stumbled as his face went pale.
“I need to shit,” Crow suddenly squeaked as he trembled in pain.
“Fine, don’t do it here. People are eating,” Blacknail replied with a scowl of disgust and a dismissive wave.
Immediately, Crow dashed away in an unsteady manner. Blacknail snickered in amusement as he watched. He hoped his treacherous minion didn’t die. That would be a tragic waste of a very amusing hobgoblin.