After the feast was over, Blacknail planned on going to bed. First, he had to deal with Khita though. The young redhead had fallen unconscious after eating several large bowls of stew. The fool had stuffed herself until she’d passed out. That, or some of the mushrooms in the stew had reacted differently when eaten by a humans They’d never actually been tested on humans.
Anyway, Khita was still breathing and didn’t seem sick, so Blacknail picked her up off the ground and carried her to a spare room in his home, before throwing her on the bed. If he left her outside, someone useful might trip over her and hurt themselves, which would inconvenience him.
That done, Blacknail took Herah back to his own room and had some fun before falling asleep next to her. By this point, he was fairly sure she wasn’t going to kill him in his sleep, even if he slept with a hidden dagger under his pillow just in case. He’d also faked sleep a few times, but he’d quickly stopped because it was to much work. Sex made him sleepy and there were worse ways to die.
The next morning, Blacknail woke up and briefly noted that no one had killed him in his sleep. Good, that meant it was time to march. The spring offensive couldn’t wait any longer. Before the sun had completely risen, Blacknail got out of bed and began screaming for everyone to get up and get ready to move. He had a loud voice, so soon hobgoblins were streaming out of their longhouses and forming up into their squads at the training ground. Anyone moving too slowly got yelled at particularly loudly until they picked up their pace.
Gob arrived quickly, so Blacknail put him in charge of making sure every squad was ready to move. The fat hobgoblin Rolly, who was usually in charge of the larder and supplies, checked on the wagons and made sure the army’ supplies were in order. Imp also eventually showed up. Blacknail wanted him along on the expedition because he was best at using the mage staff and could do things other mages couldn’t. The mage didn’t want to leave his workshop and experiments, but Blacknail didn’t give him a choice.
Soon, everything was ready, and the army began to march out of Ironbreak and toward Shelter. Blacknail took the lead while Gob had command of the back. Ferrar and Rolly both stayed behind to run things while Blacknail was gone. Neither of them were warriors, but they shouldn’t be doing too much fighting. There was no sign of the boggarts in Blacknail’s territory, and all the hostile humans lived far away.
After some discussion, it was decided that Grey would remain behind. The lurker’s sensitive eyes made it difficult for him to travel above ground during the day, and he was needed to supervise the trogs in the mine. Also, he specialized at scouting and fighting underground, which Blacknail wasn’t expecting to do. His target was Werrick, not the boggarts.
Unfortunately, Khita came along, if only so that Blacknail could keep an eye on her. He shuddered to think about all the trouble she’d cause if she was left alone in Ironbreak. Herah pulled the redhead out of bed and they both took up position behind Blacknail as the army moved. Blacknail also made sure Crow came along for similar reasons. The treacherous hobgoblin had survived his food poisoning, so Blacknail didn’t want to leave him unsupervised among the new hobgoblins in Ironbreak, lest he spread his own disloyalty. Plus, he was amusing, and it was going to be a long march.
The force of hobgoblins moved quickly over the road they’d built as they approached Shelter. The forest was still around them. Although the Green was full of terrors, few of them wanted anything to do with a hobgoblin army. The heavy thump of footsteps drowned out all the natural sounds of the forest.
There was plenty to see though. The forest was coming alive as the last touch of winter faded. There were clusters of bright evergreens, but most the trees were covered in small green leaves that had just budded. This gave the scenery a fresh and vibrant look that put a spring in Blacknail’s step.
Geralhd and about two dozen other men met Blacknail outside of Shelter. Most of them were former members of Herad’s band, but others were villagers or refugees that had decided to join Blacknail’s fight. Some of them wanted to defend their new homes, while others simply wanted to win some loot, and a few had been sent along to observe what Blacknail was doing by interested parties.
“So, once again we’re heading South, where war awaits us, with all its glory and all its terrors,” Geralhd observed stoically as the humans joined the procession.
“I’ll be doing most the fighting,” Blacknail reassured him. “You just need to talk to other humans for me. You’re good at that.”
Geralhd grinned proudly. “I do have a certain way with words. People have frequently remarked on the eloquence of my tongue.”
Blacknail nodded politely and moved on.
Once everyone was in place, the army quickly began marching to their next destination, the forward base. This journey took a little longer. Not only was it further away, but the road wasn’t complete yet. This meant the troops had to march over tight muddy paths in some places and push the wagons along. Thus, it took four days for Blacknail to reach the forward base, and even then, he was forced to leave some of the wagons behind with guards. It would be another few days until they caught up.
As Blacknail was ordering his troops to line up at the entrance to the forward base, which was surrounded by a wooden stake wall, Beardy came out to meet him. No wait. He’d changed his name to Ralphi. Blacknail sometimes forgot that, since it was such a stupid name. Beardy was far superior. He should have kept that name.
“So, you’re finally here,” Ralphi huffed. “Took you long enough. Watching over this place for you was a chore and a half, let me tell you.”
“You did a good job,” Blacknail replied with a happy nod. He’d been away for several months and the place hadn’t burned down. That was impressive.
“Damn right I did. Keeping all these hobgoblins and bandits from dying or killing each other over the winter wasn’t easy. There were several near riots caused by feuding hobs, and one green bastard tried to declare himself chief. I had to put him down personally.”
That much trouble wasn’t unexpected. Not only had Blacknail kept two hundred hobgoblins in the forward base over the winter, but it was also where most the human bandits he’d collected had stayed as well. There were about two hundred of them, and they were mostly the remains of bandit bands who’d gone against Werrick and lost.
Grinning, Khita walked over to join the conversation. “Don’t worry. I’ll take some of that work out of your hands. I’ll be leading my own men now that I’m here.”
This earned her a pair of scowls. The young redhead had spent some time last year recruiting and assembling her own group of bandits. She hadn’t wintered in at the forward base with them though. Instead, she’d followed Blacknail north, because it was far less boring there and she had a short attention span.
“Knock yourself out,” Ralphi replied with a shake of his head. “Don’t expect any help from me though. Anyone dumb enough to follow you deserves what’s coming to them.”
The large bearded man then turned to Blacknail. “Your messages were a little lacking in details, but from the look of your troops, I’m guessing you want to go on the attack.”
“Yes, have you gotten any new information since the last message you sent me?” Blacknail asked him. They were both ignoring Khita now, who was pouting.
Ralpi shrugged. “Some. I’ve been patrolling the roads to collect tolls, and even this early in the season, we’ve had a few groups of refugees and merchants. People are saying it’s a dark time and blaming some attacks and disappearances on demons. Nothing too unusual though. These days villages are always getting ransacked by one band or another.”
“What about Werrick?”
“No new word of him. He’s out there, but he seems to be keeping his distance. What are you planning?”
“I’m going to kill him,” Blacknail replied deadpan.
Ralphi snorted rudely. “Even you plan more thoroughly than that. Give me details.”
“I’m going to attack him before he is ready for me. My troops will rampage across the North and kill every one of his men we find.”
“And when he counterattacks? You’ll be spread out and weak when his hammer comes down.”
“Then I’ll retreat. I don’t need to hold anything but this base, and while he is reconquering everything, I’ll be harassing him and building up my forces. The more I take, the longer it will take for him to get here.”
Ralphi looked thoughtful as he scratched his nose. “Huh, it’s not a bad plan. I wouldn’t want to try it with regular troops. Your hobgoblins on the other hand, they’ll be hard to pin down. They can flee into the woods and survive to regroup.”
“And unlike some dumb humans, they will always run from hard fights unless I’m there to command them,” Blacknail added.
“Hmm, we should probably head east quickly then, although I’m not sure if we should use hobgoblins or humans to hold villages. Neither of them are well behaved.”
“I will solve that problem later,” Blacknail replied as he walked past Ralphi into the forward base.
The base had been built over the ruins of an old village that had been swallowed by the forest years ago. Thus, a few of the buildings were repaired village huts, but most of them were newly constructed log buildings that served as barracks for the troops stationed there.
Now that he’d arrived, Blacknail went to get something to eat. The occupants of the base collected dues from caravans, so there was undoubtedly some good human food hidden away somewhere, and as the leader, it was rightfully his.
After sniffing around and finding some cheese and pickles, Blacknail allowed Gob to bring some leadership matters to his attention. Most importantly, his minions needed to set up camp. There wasn’t room for everyone inside, and they weren’t going to move out right away. His minions deserved a rest, outside, while he slept in a proper hut. There was one reserved for him, since he was the leader.
The next morning, while all the troops were getting ready to head out, Blacknail called all his lieutenants to a meeting. Gob, Khita, Ralphi, and Geralhd were quick to arrive.
“We will hit our first target, the village in the east, and then I will decide on our next move. What I choose depends on what Werrick’s men are doing, but I’ll probably split the army up.”
“Are you talking about the village of Aldhara?” Ralphi asked.
“Sure, that one,” Blacknail replied. What did that name even mean? Humans were terrible at naming things.
“I’m ready to go,” Khita added happily. “My men look forward to wetting their blades on Werrick’s scum!”
Ralphi rolled his eyes. “I seriously doubt that. More likely they plan on hanging back until they see a chance to do some looting.”
“Well, I’ll drive them forward into the teeth of the enemy. Cowards have no place in my elite.”
Blacknail couldn’t stop himself from letting out a groan. “Elite?”
“Of course! I’m a Vessel after all, and I only accept the best.”
“You accept anyone who will put up with your stupidity,” Blacknail told her. He knew exactly the sort of people Khita had recruited.
“Anyone who works under me is an elite. You’ll see how successful my forces are after we split up and I get my own command.”
“That’s not going to happen!”
After a bit more arguing, the meeting was called to an end. Khita refused to give up the idea of her own command, so Blacknail let it go. It didn’t matter what she thought. He wasn’t going to put her in charge of anything. That wasn’t going to happen.
With the meeting over, the lieutenants went back to their troops and begin relaying orders. Soon, the now reinforced army was marching away from the forward base. It didn’t take them long to get out of the forest and reach the old human-built road. Once on there, their speed picked up considerably. Blacknail took up position at the very front with Herah and his bodyguards. There he could promptly deal with any problems or situations that came up. He also sent patrols ahead to screen their way and divert any caravans travelling toward them. He didn’t want anyone getting a good look at his army or seeing where it was going. Word of what they saw would eventually get back to Werrick.
There were several nearby small villages that lay on the road. However, these settlements had already been subjugated by Ralphi and Blacknail last year, so Blacknail led his army right past them. His target was the walled town of Aldhara, which was the closest place controlled by Werrick. The word passed on by merchants was that Werrick had left a small garrison of his own troops there. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that close and would take a few days to reach.
When the day began to darken, and Blacknail called for his army to come to a halt, he didn’t bother trying to order them off the road. His chosen spot had a small clearing around some hills off to one side, but he had most his troops set up camp right on the road. Blacknail wasn’t too worried about moving undetected and his force was a little too big to easily hide in the forest anyway.
The night was uneventful and restful. After setting up the cooking fires, they had a late supper under the quickly darkening sky while the spring wind blew through the trees. Overhead, the night sky was dotted by clouds, but the light of the moon and stars shone through without a problem most the time. As the leader, Blacknail had a blanket and tent, although many of the hobgoblins and even some of the humans were forced to share or go completely without a tent and sleep out under the stars. Blacknail was glad he was better than them.
It took three more days of travelling before they closed in on their destination. By then they were far away from any of the roads that Blacknail’s minions patrolled or even kept watch over. That was when one of the scouts Blacknail had sent up ahead came back with news that they’d found the town of Aldhara.
Blacknail listened to the scout’s report and description of the town and then began giving out orders. As his strung-out army began reforming into tighter lines, he sent squads of hobgoblins to range ahead and surround the town. He didn’t want anyone escaping form the town and getting word to Werrick. When you were hunting prey, it was important to make sure they didn’t know you were coming.
When his army was ready to move again, Blacknail had them march toward the town at a brisk pace, so that they’d get as little warning as possible. The humans and hobgoblins were tired, but also eager to finally reach their destination.
The ranks of marching warriors filled the breadth of the road. Within minutes, they went around a bend and the walls of the town appeared before them. They were simple wooden walls like most remote northern villages had, but in Aldhara’s case they actually had a strong looking stone gatehouse with an arch above the wooden doors.
“Move faster. I want a quick march. Keep up with me!” Blacknail yelled as he raised his weapon and picked up his speed.
Immediately, his forces lurched forward as they headed straight for the open gate. There was a bloodthirsty yell from the hobgoblins. It was unlikely they’d make it before the gates were closed, but Blacknail might get lucky. The enemy had no reason to expect an attack.
Unfortunately, as Blacknail’s forces quickly moved to within a hundred feet of the gate, it swung shut with a muted boom and creak of wood. Grunting in displeasure, Blacknail yelled for his minions to slow their advance. There was no point in tiring themselves out now.
From the other side of the gate, Blacknail could hear lots of men shouting. It seemed like there really was a garrison in this town and that they were ready for action.
“Well, I’m going to have to do this the hard way,” Blacknail remarked as he studied the sturdy structure his minions were advancing toward. At least he was finally going to get a proper fight. It had been quite a while since Blacknail had enjoyed a chance to let his blade tear into human flesh, and he hated everyone who worked for Werrick ever so much for what they’d taken from him. The hobgoblin shivered in anticipation of the fight.