This probably meant less chance of running into harpies, but on the other hand probably increased their chances of running into something worse.
Saeter trampled a path through the tall plants that grew under the trees and Blacknail followed in his wake. The sun shone practically all around them through the sparse canopy.
After a few minutes, Saeter found an animal trail where the dirt and plants had been beaten down and began to follow it.
Every once in a while Blacknail would hear rustling noises off in the bush. Most of the time he saw nothing but sometimes it would turn out to be birds taking flight or a small furry tailed rat like animal that would scurry up a tree.
As they progressed through the woods the brown and grey trunks of the trees grew closer together and the overhead canopy grew thicker. The grass and tall plants gave way to shorter broad leaved plants and more bare ground became visible.
Every once and awhile Saeter would stop and examine tracks or droppings on the ground. Sometimes he would have Blacknail examine them as he explained what they were. At one such time he called Blacknail over.
Blacknail, these are bear tracks. They’re large and dangerous but not usually aggressive unless they smell a free meal or are surprised. Avoid them,” he explained to the goblin as he pointed to the animal signs.
Blacknail's eyes widened in surprise as he examined the tracks, they were huge! Absently Blacknail wondered what his master thought was truly dangerous if these bear creatures were still considered only a minor threat.
They began to head deeper into the woods then they had before. The atmosphere slowly changed becoming darker and the air became moister. The scent of earth that had filled the forest gained an undertone of rot.
Blacknail noticed that the trees that grew here were different from the ones he had seen earlier. Most of them had smooth bark that was pale grey and sickly looking. They also had wider leaves that blocked out more of the sun and cast the forest into deep shadow. The trees here had no lower branches and the ones that did were dead and leafless. It gave everything a dark stagnant feeling.
Even the broad leaved plants started to grow sparse and disappear until most of the ground became dark naked soil with a scattering of old decayed leaves and the occasional fern. The lack of obstacles meant Blacknail could see rows and rows of tall leafless trunks stretch out before him.
As they moved forward Saeter took a second to pull his hood up. He then pulled a torch from his backpack and lit it with some flint and steel.
The flame lit the dark woods and scattered tall shifting shadows all around them as Saeter lifted the torch high. It also momentarily hurt Blacknail's eyes, and he covered them with his hands as they adjusted.
He didn't know why his master needed the torch. True, it was dark here but he had seen humans walk through darker places without light.
“Come take the torch, Blacknail,” Saeter commanded.
Obediently, the goblin moved over and took the torch from his master. With his hands now free Saeter pulled out his bow and nocked an arrow.
“Now walk ahead of me,” he told Blacknail.
The goblin gave his master a wary look but tentatively started walking forward as he had been commanded. Saeter trailed him from a dozen feet back. Why did Saeter need his bow? Blacknail didn't like where this was going.
Blacknail shuddered and brushed his face as he walked through a spider web. He spat in disgust. He hadn't seen the web because of the darkness.
Looking around he noticed that there were quite a few webs around, even high up in the trees. In fact, some of the threads were weirdly thick and stretched from tree to tree. As they walked the webs became thicker and thicker.
Blacknail glanced backwards towards his master and saw Saeter scanning the branches above them as he moved carefully forward. He seemed to Blacknail to be moving cautiously and looking for something, or looking out for something.
In this part of the woods there were no bushes or leaves near the ground to hide behind though, so surely nothing here could be large enough to challenge his mighty master. He was a stupid goblin for being so afraid.
Blacknail noticed a large lump a ways off to his right. He eyed it suspiciously but it seemed to be nothing more than a pile of pale bones, dirty webs, and brown dried up leaves.
“There,” Saeter suddenly mumbled to himself.
The old scout then drew his bow and nocked an arrow. He swiftly loosed the arrow up at the trunk of a tree ahead of them. However, instead of embedding itself into the trunk there was a shrill hiss as the arrow fell back to the ground with something stuck to the end of it.
To Blacknail's surprise whatever the arrow had hit squirmed and hissed as it lay on the ground. To his horror he realized that it was a spider, a huge brown spider with a body larger than a rat's. It was cat sized almost, and had long legs that thrashed and clawed the air as it died. Its eight bright red eyes seemed to stare at Blacknail hungrily even as it stiffened in death.
Saeter turned and gave Blacknail a serious look.
“We're lucky I saw the light in the timber spider's eyes before it jumped. Otherwise, I would have had to shoot it out of the air,” he told the stunned goblin.
“Or shot it off of you once it had bitten you,” Saeter added as an afterthought.
Blacknail's eyes widened as he realized that he had been bait for the spider. Saeter saw the goblin's look and chuckled grimly.
“You would have been fine. Their venom just paralyses. Then they wrap you up for later. I would have killed it before anything lasting happened,” he explained.
“Thank you master for saving me,” Blacknail whimpered. Saeter looked off into the distance before replying.
“Don't thank me yet goblin. This is the wild North; no one here is safe, not you and certainly not me,” he explained.
“Let's leave this dark place master. Blacknail no want to die!” the goblin whined to his master.
Surely, his master could see that it was too dangerous to stay here. He would rather be chased by a whole pack of hungry dogs than go near a spider like that. Blacknail was never entering these dark woods ever again! No giant spider thing was going to bite him.
Master had a thick hooded cloak to protect him but what did Blacknail have? Nothing! The goblin realized that the pile of bones he had seen were the remains of some large animal that had been paralysed and wrapped up by a spider. He shuddered again and squeaked in alarm.
He could almost feel the touch of spider legs against his back and the ghost of its fangs against his neck. One bite and then he would be wrapped up in silk to join the bones here forever.
“Only fools are done in by timber spiders. There are much more dangerous places to be but we’ll be gone soon, so no worries,” Saeter told Blacknail.
Saeter retrieved his arrow and cleaned it, first with dirt and then a rag. Then he took out a knife and cut the spider open. He reached in and carefully removed a small sac from the incision. He then placed the sac on the ground and pierced it with three of his arrows. Blacknail saw something stain the arrows as Saeter removed them from the gland. That done Saeter wrapped the arrows in the rag and tucked them away
“We're done here. Let's get out of here,” Saeter grunted as he stood up.
Blacknail thought that was a great idea.
“Okay we go,” Blacknail agreed as he nodded enthusiastically.
This caused the torch he was still carrying to bob about and cast a swarm of shadows around them. He stood there and waited for his master to start moving. Saeter just gave him an annoyed look.
“You're still going first. Head back the way we came. It should be safe,” Saeter told him as he nocked another arrow.
Blacknail gave his master a pitiful look but Saeter ignored it and pointed out the way with an outstretched hand.
With a bitter sigh Blacknail started nervously walking back the way they had come. He hugged the torch tight as he scanned the dark torch lit trees around him for glimpses of long legs or red eyes. He saw nothing though. Giant spiders were now Blacknail's least favourite animal, even worse than horses, or harpies.
Blacknail trudged on through the dark woods. Several times he circled around areas with lots of cobwebs or where he thought he saw something above. He really didn't want to be bitten by a spider, fatal or not.
At one point Blacknail saw what he was fairly sure was a goblin skull resting against a tree. Its empty eye sockets stared out at him. Now he knew where goblins sat in the local food chain. He could hear Saeter's footsteps behind him but he glanced backwards to make sure he was there anyway. Surely he was safe so close to his master.
While it was true Saeter was much nicer and beat him much less than his old masters Blacknail was very disturbed at the seemingly endless amount of things that ate goblins in the forest. It wasn’t like goblins had never been killed in sewers but there at least he knew the dangers. In the forest he had no idea what would come after him next. Anything could happen and that terrified him.
Much to Blacknail's relief the spider webs soon grew thinner and disappeared. The woods began to grow brighter and the underbrush thicker as well. Blacknail felt relief wash over him when they were obviously out of spider territory. He hoped his master would never make him go back to that dark terrible place ever again.
“Stop, Blacknail,” Saeter called out as soon as they were completely out of the darkest part of the woods. Blacknail stopped walking and turned back to his master. Saeter walked up and took the torch from the goblin and then snuffed it out. After letting it cool for awhile he placed it back in his sack.
“Follow,” he commanded as he once again took the lead. Blacknail thought they might be headed back to camp but Saeter then veered off in a new direction.
Soon their way was blocked by a wide creek that meandered through the woods. Tall reeds and other aquatic plants grew alongside it. Birds called out to each other joyfully from the nearby tree tops. Blacknail had never seen or smelled such clean water. He wanted to run over and get himself a drink.
He approached the creek to get a better look but was stopped by a sudden painful tug on one of his ears. The goblin jumped back and yelped in surprise. Saeter had grabbed the point of his ear and was scowling down at him.
“Stop,” Saeter commanded quietly but sternly. Blacknail instantly froze. “Bad Goblin. I told you to follow, not lead. Don't wander off and get yourself killed,” Saeter hissed.
He turned away from the goblin and eyed the creek suspiciously. He then picked a stone off the ground and threw it at the water. It bounced off of a rock larger than Blacknail in the water near the bank. Much to Blacknail's surprise the rock then sunk below the water with a splash and disappeared.
“Tyrant snapping turtle,” Saeter whispered menacingly into his ear. “Go near that thing little goblin and it will drag you under water and chew you up”.
The goblin's eyes widened in horror. He hated deep water and he definitely hated being chewed on.
“Blacknail is sorry master. He stupid goblin but he thanks you for saving him,” Blacknail moaned.
Saeter gave him an irritated look and pulled the goblin by the ear again. Blacknail stumbled and stifled another yelp as he was pulled behind Saeter. His poor ear hurt so much! Why did his master keep pulling on it?
“Follow,” Saeter commanded sternly before heading downstream. He stayed a fair distance from the water. Blacknail followed him while rubbing his sore ear.
Soon they came across a part of the creek where the water became very shallow and bubbled over a rocky bed. Saeter jumped down to the water and crossed the creek without a problem. The water barely submerged the toe of his boots.
Blacknail also jumped down to the water, and grabbed a quick drink as well. He cupped the water in his hands and brought it to his mouth. The water was cool and tasted refreshing. It also felt nice and relaxing as it flowed between his bare toes.
After crossing the stream and moving through the brush for a while Saeter stopped and examined the ground. Blacknail smelled some type of scat. He didn't know the animal but it seemed fresh. Saeter got up and inspected some small branches on a bush. He then began to move forward slower and more cautiously.
As soon as they moved through the brush a green wall of branches and bushes rose up in front of them. They approached the bushes and then broke through them into the edge of the clearing.
Short grass and sun loving flowers filled the meadow. The occasional small tree or bush grew up from the ground creating small blind spots. Most of the area was open grass and plainly visible though.
A large pond also sat in the middle of it. Reeds and lily pads grew around the pond. The sound of frogs croaking could be heard. Blacknail licked his lips. Frogs were a tasty treat. He had caught a few back in his old home. You simply had to sit next to the water and wait long enough for one to come close enough to grab. They were slimy, soft, and sweet. The best part was the legs, he loved to chew them.
Without a word Saeter scanned the clearing and then cautiously moved over to a cluster of green bushes surrounding a large stone on a hill at the edge of the woods.
Once there Saeter set his bag down and began to prepare. He crouched down and unwrapped the arrows he had covered in the rag and placed them on ground. Then, he sat down and made himself comfortable with his bow in his lap. Blacknail sat down beside him.
Saeter didn’t move for several minutes and nothing happened. The frogs continued to croak unmolested and the occasional bird swooped down to grab an insect.
They waited for several more minutes. Saeter barely moved beyond the rising and falling of his chest as he breathed. He silently watched the clearing from his concealed spot. The wind blew through the long grass causing it to wave and rustle.
Then they waited for what seemed like an hour. Blacknail began to lose patience. His instincts wanted to find a scent trail and follow it back to a burrow. He didn't want to sit around all day and wait for nothing to happen! What kind of hunting was this?
Then he saw movement in the grass. After a moment the brown head of a rabbit peaked through the grass as it stood up on its hind legs. Surely they hadn't come here for a rabbit, had they?
Blacknail threw a look Saeter's way but his master hadn't reacted. The rabbit soon disappeared back into the grass. Blacknail sighed with disappointment and shifted into a more comfortable position. He then grew dozy as the afternoon sun warmed his skin.
After several more minutes of staring at the grass sway in the wind Blacknail soon wondered if there was a way to get back asleep without his master catching on. He wasn't doing anything but sitting there anyway, and it was very boring.
Then the bushes across the clearing shook. Instantly, they became the focus of Blacknail's undivided attention. Was it just the wind? The bushes moved again and a tall animal moved out slowly into the clearing.
It was shaped like a horse but smaller and much thinner with white spots on its brown fur. It trotted over to the pond and after a brief look around it began to drink. Blacknail half expected one of the massive turtles he had seen earlier to burst from the water and drag the beast under, but that didn't happen.
Suddenly in one fluid motion Saeter rose to his feet, nocked an arrow to his bow, pulled the bow back, and let the arrow loose. It flashed towards the animal and struck it in the side of its chest under its neck.
The beast cried out in surprise and pain and turned to flee, but it lost its footing in the wet mud around the pond and stumbled. Blood dribbled from its wound as it staggered away. It only managed to go several dozen feet before it collapsed limply onto the grass. It twitched feebly a few times and lay still.
After another quick look around the clearing Saeter ran over to the deer and pulled out a knife, which he used to slash the deer's throat. Dark red blood pooled onto the ground beneath the deer and the light faded from its frightened eyes, leaving only emptiness.
The blood smelled delicious to Blacknail. The goblin licked his lips as he looked down at the beast.
Saeter got up and walked to the edge of the forest. Once there he selected four long sturdy sticks and tied them together with rope to create a crude sled. He lifted the deer up and tied it to the sled.
Next he took out his long knife and cut a hole through the deer's muzzle right behind the nose. He then took one of the short sticks he had collected, shoved it through the hole and tied the rope to it.
“Time to head back,” he told Blacknail as he loaded the rope over his shoulder and began to drag the sled and deer back towards the camp.
Around halfway back they heard a rustling in some bushes a few dozen feet from them. Saeter dropped his bow and readied an arrow. With his eyes locked on the source of the sound he handed the sled's rope to Blacknail.
“Pull it, go,” he commanded the goblin.
Blacknail eyed the sled doubtfully. His master did realize how large the beast was right? Blacknail was only a normal sized goblin, not a giant human. Saeter threw Blacknail an impatient look and the goblin hurriedly began to pull.
With a grunt of effort Blacknail copied his master and tugged the rope. At first he couldn't manage it and the sled refused to move, then he felt something give way in his chest. A cool energy rushed through his body and the sled started to slide forward.
It was tiring but he managed to drag the sled. Luckily for him goblins were stronger than their small size made them appear. Every time he thought he had reached his limit he felt another rush and managed to keep going.
After awhile when he didn't hear any more noises Saeter relaxed. Much to Blacknail's disappointment Saeter didn't ask for the sled's rope back. His master seemed content to let the goblin continue to drag the sled. Blacknail wanted to ask Saeter to take the rope back but didn't dare.
So instead he threw his master a pitiful begging expression. Saeter ignored him and Blacknail had to keep pulling. Alright then how about this? Blacknail began to shake and slow down as he pretended to be more tired than he was
Something hard impacted his behind and Blacknail surged forward again with a small yelp. Saeter had kicked him in the butt! Ow, that had hurt.
Blacknail reluctantly kept pulling but now he was annoyed. It was unfair of the large human to make him do all the work, not to mention he had been used as spider bait earlier!
“Ugly Saeter. Stupid Saeter. Smelly Saeter,” Blacknail muttered under his breath quietly enough that he knew his master couldn’t possibly hear it.
“You're kind of strong for something your size,” Saeter remarked a few minutes later later.
The unexpected compliment caught the goblin off guard and he felt a flush of pride at his master's words. This newfound pride warred with the annoyance within him and won.
He had started to slow again but with a surge of energy he put a little more effort into pulling and sped back up. He would show his master how strong a goblin he really was!
As they walked through the forest it grew darker as the sun began to set. Blacknail had grown very tired and his legs burned painfully. He huffed and puffed as he strained to drag the sled. His face started to turn purple from the effort. He really hoped master would give him a treat for this.
Thankfully, they saw no spiders or other creatures, except a startled rabbit and the occasional bird, before they arrived back at the camp.
As they got close to base Saeter finally stopped and took the sled back. Blacknail suspected he was trying to hog all the credit for the work. That seemed unfair but the goblin didn’t really care; he was just excited to be so close to safety.
In his eagerness, Blacknail ran up ahead of his master. A big grin was plastered across his face as the camp came into sight beyond the last stretch of trees.
The joy was lost however when something hard and heavy smashed into his skull and sent him sprawling limply across the ground and into the dirt. As he blinked in hazy confusion and lay on the ground with a painful headache a large shadow fell over him.