Several of the bandits looked more than a little afraid. Several of them were throwing nervous glances at the woods around them.
“What’s a troll? I mean I’ve heard of them but I never actually expected to see one, or have one see me,” one of the new recruits asked.
Saeter gave the man a disdainful look, but answered him.
“Trolls have twin fangs the size of long knives and thick skin that doesn’t bleed unless you pretty much decapitate them. Except for that, they’re basically what you would get if you took a goblin and made it twice the size of a man and a hundred times as angry,” he explained.
“Bloody lovely…” one of the other bandits muttered sarcastically.
Saeter then got up and examined the ground all around the corpse. He called Blacknail over and showed the hobgoblin various signs within the disturbed area. The hobgoblin found this much more interesting than his earlier tracking lessons. His sense of smell didn’t help him nearly as much.
“It looks like there were three men here. The troll came down on them fast. It killed the wounded one and his friends made a run for it. It doesn’t look like the troll followed them, instead it ate its fill and then headed off back into the woods,” Saeter told Red Dog.
The man looked thoughtful as he considered their options.
“We should be good to just follow them back to their camp then. Will they still be on alert?” Red Dog asked Saeter.
“Hard to say. I’m guessing the troll attack happened last night, which is enough time that I would feel safe. I doubt these guys are used to the forest though, so I’d bet they didn’t get much sleep last night,” Saeter answered.
“And we did?” Blacknail heard someone mutter behind him.
“We’ll go carefully then, and when we find the camp we’ll circle around. They’ll undoubtedly be watching the direct way, for trolls if nothing else,” Red Dog told them.
Saeter nodded in agreement.
“I’ll take Blacknail and scout the path ahead then. We’ll take out or mark any sentries so then you and the others can approach unseen,” Saeter suggested.
“Sounds good,” Red Dog replied.
“Come Blacknail. It’s time for me to teach you the more violent parts of the ranger’s trade. I have a feeling you’ll pick it up quick,” Saeter told the hobgoblin, as he shrugged off his backpack and handed it to another bandit.
Blacknail chuckled and licked his lips. This sounded like it would be so much fun. He could think of nothing he would rather do than stalk unsuspecting prey through the woods with the scent of blood in the air. His heart pounded in excitement just thinking about it.
“Thank you-ss so much, master,” he replied excitedly as a wicked grin stretched across his face.
Saeter slipped through the trees so quietly that even Blacknail had difficulty hearing him. He followed in his master’s wake and tried to be just as silent. To his own ears he wasn’t quite successful, but with his boots removed he moved quietly enough that Saeter didn’t complain.
The hobgoblin instinctively knew how to balance himself, and where to place his bare feet to avoid breaking twigs and other obstacles. After so long walking in boots the cool earth and wet grass felt soothing beneath his feet as he walked. The thrill of the hunt he was feeling was more than worth the long walk it had taken to get here.
The canopy overhead was thin enough that lots of light got through. The abundance of sunshine meant the forest around him was thick with green leaved bushes. This gave them plenty of cover and helped them conceal themselves.
The area was also rockier than where Herad had made her camp. Every once and awhile they would stumble upon a large exposed boulder that rose from the earth, like the ones they had sheltered among last night.
Ahead of him Saeter moved out from behind a tree to peer at a trampled plant. Having confirmed that he was still on the right track, the scout got up and started moving again. He stalked through the bush while moving from cover to cover and checking for signs of their targets.
Blacknail observed and tried to copy his master’s movements. He was very impressed by how quietly Saeter could move and how he could track without using his nose.
The hobgoblin watched his master examine the surrounding forest while crouched behind a bush. After a minute Saeter raised a hand and signaled Blacknail.
Before they had headed out to track down the deserters Saeter had made him memorize several different hand signals. Blacknail had instantly realized how useful they would be for communicating without making any noise. His master was a genius for coming up with such a great idea. Blacknail was sure nothing like it would ever have occurred to him.
The signal his master was currently sending meant that he should get to cover because someone might be around. Blacknail felt a flash of excitement at the thought of finally cornering their quarry. He felt his mouth moisten with saliva in anticipation, but he obeyed his master and remained where he was. Slowly and carefully as not to attract attention the hobgoblin bent down and took cover at the base of the tree beside him.
However, he couldn’t resist the urge to peek out and look for whatever Saeter had seen. Blacknail eagerly scanned the forest for signs, but was disappointed when he didn’t see anything or anyone among the leafy branches or rough barked tree trunks around him.
He wanted to hunt! His teeth ached, and his tongue flicked out and over his teeth to clean them in preparation. He shivered as he felt a seductive feeling similar to rage start to burn within him. It filled him with a hunger for action and blood.
Blacknail had to close his eyes and focus on mentally picturing sword exercises to suppress the urges. He knew discipline would make him stronger than rage or hunger ever could.
A few seconds later after Blacknail had managed to get his urges under control he opened his eyes to see Saeter flashing more signals his way. The first signal told Blacknail to look over to his left, and the next meant he wanted Blacknail to wait and watch. With a regretful sigh the hobgoblin resigned himself to spending the next little while waiting, and not hunting.
As Saeter stealthy got up and began moving Blacknail looked over in the direction his master had indicated. He still didn’t see anything. Saeter stopped beside a large smooth tree trunk and signaled Blacknail again. He wanted the hobgoblin to carefully circle the target from the opposite direction.
Blacknail smiled as he got up and obeyed. Finally, a chance to act! Excitedly he crept forward while looking for his prey. Then as he was moving over to a large jagged rock he saw movement out of the corner of his eye up on a nearby hill.
Instantly the cloaked hobgoblin went totally still, and his eyes focused on that spot.
As he watched Blacknail noticed something brown and human sized move ever so slightly. It was mostly hidden behind a tree, so he couldn’t get a good look at it. He slipped around the boulder to get a better view.
It was a man! He was scanning the forest from his high viewpoint while leaning against a tree. He had a large brown cloak on but under that was wearing a bright blue shirt and black pants.
The clothes confused Blacknail. He couldn’t think of a good reason for wearing the blue shirt that would be anything but a stupid idea. Did the man want to be seen? Was it some sort of trap?
Blacknail threw a look back at his master. Saeter noticed the glance and quickly raised two fingers in another sign. Two fingers meant… that there was another man nearby. Blacknail hastily flashed the ‘where?’ sign back.
His master pointed up to another spot on the hill, and then gestured to himself to show ownership. He then pointed to the man Blacknail could see and then back to the hobgoblin. Blacknail grinned happily and licked his lips. His master was going to take one of the men, and he wanted Blacknail to take the other. What a wonderful present his master had just given him.
The hobgoblin watched the sentry on the hill until the man looked away. Then unseen, Blacknail slipped out from behind the rock, and crept forward along a path up the hill that was mostly concealed from the man’s view. He was practically purring with joy.
Soon the hobgoblin got close enough that he could smell the human, and he shivered in anticipation. He circled around the hill and began to climb it from the side. This was going to be so much fun!
As he climbed Blacknail’s ears detected sounds that were out of place in the forest. He paused in his advance to listen. It sounded like several humans talking and moving, which meant the human camp wasn’t too far away.
He examined the forest in that direction but didn’t see anything that would mean anyone in the camp was close enough to see him. Reassured, the hobgoblin began to creep across the final stretch of bush between him and the human scout.
His target was an average sized man with black hair. He was still leaning against the tree while lazily scanning the forest below him for threats. However, Blacknail had already snuck right under the man nose and was now safely behind him out of sight. The sentry would never see the hobgoblin coming, which was just how Blacknail liked it.
“See anything yet, Kratz,” the man suddenly yelled. Blacknail dropped to the ground in alarm.
“Ha, I would have said something if I did,” come an answering shout from out of sight.
“Ya, but the boss wanted us to check in with each other every once and awhile. I guess you’re still alive since you’re still talking and all,” the first man replied in jest.
The only answer the other man gave was a brief chuckle. Blacknail rose a bit and tried to find the second speaker, but much to his frustration couldn’t see him.
Then there was the sound of a scuffle and a brief gasp. Blacknail’s target looked over and frowned with concern.
“You okay, Kratz? I thought I heard something,” the man shouted.
The only sound from where the other man had been was a distinct cheery birdcall. The sentry’s frown deepened as his concern turned to suspicion. He took a step towards the camp and opened his mouth as if to shout.
Blacknail had already launched himself forward at the man. The birdcall had been a signal. Blacknail was sure it meant Saeter had just taken out the second sentry, and that meant Blacknail needed to act.
The hobgoblin covered the ground lightning fast. His long muscular body carried his light frame forward with startling speed. The wind whipped his cloak behind him as he shot forward from the bushes. Before the man could even turn or start yelling, Blacknail was upon him.
The hobgoblin hit the unprepared man with a flying tackle that ended with his arms wrapped around his opponent’s waist. Surprise and momentum allowed the lighter hobgoblin to knock the man off balance. It also knocked the air from his opponent’s lung, and prevented him from yelling out a warning.
They careened off to the side together. As they fell the sentry flailed uselessly. Meanwhile, Blacknail used his hold on the man’s waist to pull himself up, and then twist one of his legs so he could hook it under the man’s knee. Using the leverage this gave him Blacknail flipped himself around so that he was now clinging to the man’s back.
They hit the ground with a loud thud. The man landed face first with the weight of the hobgoblin on his back. The breath was knocked out of the sentry for a second time by the impact, and all he could do was wheeze in pain.
The prone sentry tried to draw in a breath to yell, or maybe to scream, but Blacknail grabbed his hair and yanked the man’s head up. This caused the man to croak in pain, and allowed Blacknail to wrap his other claw around the man’s neck.
The sentry went very still as he felt the hobgoblin’s sharp nails dig into the flesh around his throat. He whimpered in fright, and Blacknail smiled in satisfaction. He then adjusted his weight so he could lean forward into the man’s line of sight.
The man must have suspected something was strange about his assailant, but when he got a close look at Blacknail’s face his eyes widened and he went white as snow.
“Be very quiet,” Blacknail half whispered and half growled to him.
The man’s head bobbed up and down. At first Blacknail thought the sentry was trying to nod, but then his eyes rolled up into his head until only the whites were visible and he went as limp as a dead fish.
Blacknail released his grip on the man’s throat and slapped him across the face. The blow made a loud smacking noise and left a red handprint on the man’s face, but otherwise the sentry didn’t react.
Blacknail hissed in disappointment. He had wanted to have more fun. He got to his feet and stared with dissatisfaction down at the unconscious sentry.
Blacknail heard someone approach and turned to see Saeter push his way out from the bushes. Saeter frowned as he saw the corpse white and unmoving man at Blacknail’s feet.
“I thought I told you to try and capture them alive,” Saeter told him with obvious disappointment.
“He’s not dead, just stupid. Stupid-ss man went to sleep, so he’s no fun,” Blacknail hissed in annoyance.
“I see,” Saeter replied in a confused tone that meant he didn’t really understand at all. He walked over to the unconscious man and kicked him a few times, but seemed satisfied when the man flinched and moaned ever so slightly.
“Prey’s camp is that way,” Blacknail impatiently told his master as he raised a finger to point towards the source of the noise he had heard earlier.
The hobgoblin wanted to continue the hunt. There were still more humans to catch, and he had never had so much fun before. He was lightheaded with giddiness and anticipation; even if he was also a little disappointed he couldn’t eat any of the prey he caught.
After throwing a look in the direction Blacknail had indicated Saeter addressed the hobgoblin.
“Good to know, but that’s not our job right now. Grab that fellow and hide him in the bushes along with the one I knocked out. Then sit on them until I get back with Red Dog… er you don’t actually have to sit on them, just guard them,” Saeter told Blacknail.
“Yes, master,” Blacknail acknowledged with a disappointed sigh. Why couldn’t his master just ever let him have fun? The humans were so close. He wanted to at least stalk them a little. No one would ever even know.
Saeter turned away, and walked back through the trees towards where Red Dog was waiting for them. When he was gone the hobgoblin grabbed the man at his feet and started dragging him into the bushes. He easily found the man Saeter had knocked out by smell, and dumped the other sentry on top of him.
He was almost disappointed that Saeter didn’t actually want him to sit on them. Piled up as they were the unconscious men actually looked sort of comfy, and Blacknail liked the idea of resting atop the bodies of his defeated prey.
Blacknail’s mind began to wander as he waited for Saeter to return. He was getting kind of hungry. He wasn’t allowed to eat the humans but maybe he could lick them. Or maybe he could maim a few and eat the bits that came loose. They would survive that… probably.
After thinking it over for awhile Blacknail decided to simply take some jerky out of his pouch and eat that instead. He was in the middle of chewing it when he heard someone yell in his direction.
“Kratz! Teriol! I’ve got your supper,” the voice shouted in Blacknail’s direction.
Blacknail calmly swallowed the last of the jerky and tried to come up with a plan. Obviously this human was calling for the other two who had been knocked out. If he didn’t get an answer then he would probably raise the alarm, which would be bad.
Should he try and mimic a human and reply himself? No, that wouldn’t work. He didn’t have a very human sounding voice. Human voices were all deep and dumb sounding.
Blacknail started licking his fingers clean. Should he wake a human up and force them to answer? No, not enough time.
Blacknail’s eyes swept over the unconscious men he was supposed to be guarding, and lingered on the smaller man’s cloak and gloves. He grinned gleefully as an idea occurred to him.
“Guys, you there?” the voice called again.
The speaker sounded a little nervous now. He stopped walking and glanced warily at the bush in front of him for signs of his friends. He was balancing two plates of steaming hot food in his hands.
The human’s nervousness disappeared however when a small man he recognized stepped out from behind a tree. His hood was up for some reason but the man recognized the sentry’s cloak.
He smiled as he realized his friend was in the middle of a fit of coughing, which was probably why he hadn’t answered him earlier. The sentry did however wave cheerfully as he strode forward, before then extending a gloved hand to take a plate of food.
“Behind you,” the sentry said between coughs, as he raised his other hand to point behind the man. His voice was unusually raspy, probably from the coughing.
“What is it?” the deserter asked as he turned to look.
That was when Blacknail, who was dressed in the sentry’s clothes, jumped up and smashed him in the back of the head with the wooden plate.
“Wha” the man groaned as he staggered.
Blacknail hit him again, and kept hitting him until he went down. Then the hobgoblin flipped his hood back to reveal his green grinning face, and began to drag the third man into the bushes to join the others. This was just too much fun!