Two long arms that ended in long jagged nails reached out and carefully retrieved something from under one of the sheets. There was then a sinister chuckle, as Blacknail the hobgoblin brought the wheel of cheese up to his mouth and took a luxurious bite out of it. It was so tasty and yummy!
He’d hidden his cheese wheel here several days ago, and now he was enjoying a quick snack. No one would ever think to look for his tasty treat here. As he happily chewed the strong tangy cheese, his revelry was suddenly broken by the sound of raised voices.
Last night he’d followed Saeter out into the city, but nothing interesting had happened. Herad had ordered Blacknail to look out for his master, so he had carefully shadowed Saeter through the streets. The old scout had just wandered to the nearest tavern though, and spent the afternoon drinking.
Blacknail had slipped into the tavern as well, and sat down at a table. He’d chosen a spot across the floor from Saeter that was tucked away in a dark corner. When anyone had tried to approach him he’d simply hissed at them until they had gone away. If they hadn’t got the message then he’d drawn his dagger.
Other than the fun he’d had scaring the occasional drunk or waitress, it had been a very boring night. Eventually, his master had stumbled drunkenly home, and Blacknail had followed him back. The hobgoblin had only needed to kill one mugger to keep his master safe.
It was now the next morning, and Blacknail’s ears perked up as he detected unusual activity. Not only were a group of people discussing something rather loudly, but the sound of hurried footsteps now filled Herad’s base. Something was happening…
The hobgoblin carefully placed his cheese back in its hiding spot, and then stealthily crept out of the closet. He was curious about what was going on, but also cautious. It was entirely possible Herad was just in a mood, and had decided to put everyone to work. It was also possible she’d simply started to kill everyone she saw. In either of those cases, Blacknail wasn’t planning on going anywhere near her.
He silently made his way down the hallway and towards the speakers, until their voices got clearer. One of them was definitely Herad, but she didn’t sound angry. Rather, she sounded excited and cheerful.
Blacknail flinched as he was suddenly overwhelmed by an urge to run back to the closet and crawl under something. If Herad was happy then bad things were about to happen to somebody, and Blacknail didn’t want it to be him.
“…just a few hours away. They weren’t all that easy to count, but there are about a hundred and a dozen of them. They’re definitely a foot company; only a few of the officers were mounted,” a familiar sounding bandit was saying.
“They’re a little early, but we’re ready for them,” Herad replied.
“They were moving pretty quickly, and seemed organized. Whoever these guys are they know how to march,” the other bandit explained.
“Did you get a good look at their equipment?” Herad asked him.
“Not really; they’re transporting it in covered wagons. I don’t think there was enough room in them for all too many pikes or crossbows, though. They had shields on their backs so most of them are most likely planning on fighting with sword and shield,” he replied.
“I would prefer it if they didn’t have shields, but crossbows would have been a bigger threat. You didn’t ambush or raid them at all?” the chieftain inquired.
“No, as per your orders we held back and remained out of sight. The mercenaries didn’t give us an opening to go after. Their officers and supplies were always well protected,” he answered quickly.
“Good, the element of surprise is worth more than the loss of a few grunts to arrows from the forest. It’s important that they don’t realize that we’re expecting them,” Herad announced to everyone there. “I want every single member of the band accounted for, and equipped within the hour. The men already here are to start rolling out the heavy defenses, right away. It’s time to dig in.”
“Right away, boss,” another bandit responded, before Blacknail heard him run off.
As Herad continued to talk, Blacknail slipped into the room. He wanted to be part of the action, as well. Hopefully, Herad would give him a real job this time.
The chamber was packed full of people, most of whom Blacknail couldn’t be bothered to remember by name. He did see both Saeter and Khita, though. No one looked his way as he walked over towards his master.
“Have you been able to round up a few more horses?” Herad asked a tall lanky woman.
“No, there have been some complications there, boss,” the woman replied nervously.
“What kind of complications?” Herad asked with more than a hint of anger.
The female bandit winced and paled slightly. Blacknail was glad he wasn’t the one who’d annoyed the chieftain.
“A lot of the dealers are having problems with their stock. A lot of the animals in the city are sick. They think there’s either a flu going around, or that someone has been poisoning them. I don’t know why anyone would do that, though,” she explained quickly.
Herad grunted in acknowledgment and some of the anger left her face. It was quickly replaced by confusion. She didn’t seem to know why anyone would do that either.
Blacknail went very still, and tried to look as innocent as possible by forcing himself to smile. He wasn’t sure it was working very well. Luckily, Herad didn’t look his way. Saeter turned and gave the hobgoblin an irritated look, though.
“They started it!” Blacknail whispered to him.
His master didn’t seem convinced. The old scout sighed and shook his head, until he turned back towards Herad a second later.
“Smelly stupid horses,” the hobgoblin muttered to himself. How dare they get him in trouble! Next time he was going to use stronger poison.
“What about Zelena; is she moving?” Herad asked.
“Well, we still don’t know where she actually is, but none of her men seem to be doing anything yet,” another bandit replied. He was one of the men Blacknail couldn’t be bothered to remember.
“Good, then we probably have some time. I want you to tell the guards to lock and block every door but the main entrance, girl,” Herad said as she looked at Khita.
The young redhead pointed to herself uncertainly.
“Yes, you,” Herad replied irritably as she pointed to the door.
“I have a bloody name,” Khita muttered darkly to herself.
The young woman knew better then to disobey though, and she hurriedly headed for the exit. Blacknail watched her go, and when Khita noticed him he stuck his tongue out at her mockingly. She scowled at the hobgoblin in return, but that only made him smile smugly.
Herad then turned towards the band’s only mage. Blacknail hadn’t noticed him at first because he’d been standing at the back of a group of people and out of sight. Also, while most humans looked the same, Mahedium was even more generic looking than most.
“Mahedium, I want you to visit your friend Avorlus and deliver a message for me,” she told the mage.
He frowned in displeasure as he considered Herad’s words.
“Is he going to like this message?” he asked dryly.
“Probably not,” Herad chuckled, as she threw Saeter a smug smirk.
The old scout’s face muscles tightened and he clenched his fists, but he didn’t say anything. Mahedium sighed in resignation, and Herad handed him an envelope. The mage then nodded and left the room.
“Blacknail and Saeter, I have a job for you two as well. Saeter, I want you to take some of the other scouts out and stop anyone who tries to approach the base. I don’t want Zelena to know what she’s getting into before it’s too late,” Herad told them.
“You’re the boss, how could I refuse?” Saeter replied coldly.
“What do we do if too many enemies show up?” Blacknail asked quickly.
The hobgoblin didn’t want to give Saeter the chance to annoy Herad. He also wanted to know exactly when it was alright to run away. That was an important thing to know if there were going to be lots and lots of angry humans around.
“Fall back to the first line of defense and help defend it. I want you to keep an eye out for assassins or scouts that try to sneak past, though. That’s your main concern, Blacknail. I expect Zelena to send them in when she realizes how hard a nut we’ll be to crack, and I want you ready. It’ll be your job to deal with them,” the bandit chieftain explained.
Blacknail scowled doubtfully. If Malthus showed up he didn’t want to get in another fight with him. The annoying man was a much better sword fighter than him. Herad was giving him a very dangerous job. His expression didn’t go unnoticed.
“If you manage to handle Zelena’s Knifemen then I’ll buy you all the food you can eat,” Herad told him as she grinned sardonically.
The hobgoblin fidgeted as he considered the offer. It sounded interesting, but Blacknail wasn’t an idiot. The job was going to be very risky, so he wanted something more than just a lot of food. He wanted quality food.
“You’ll give-ss me all the expensive blue cheese and apple pies I want-ss?” the hobgoblin asked, as he licked his lips.
Herad rolled her eyes, and several bandits chuckled.
“Anything you want,” she answered dryly.
“Then I’ll do-ss it!” Blacknail replied eagerly.
The hobgoblin grinned smugly to himself. He was obviously a master negotiator! Blue cheese was worth a little danger. It smelled so good, but was very hard to find or buy.
The merchants wanted crazy amounts of coins for it, and never left it lying around, which was very rude of them. Even the thought of eating as much of it as he could swallow sent shivers of joy down his spine.
“Do you think you can handle it?” Saeter asked him with concern.
The hobgoblin looked down at the ground and began to think furiously. A few seconds later he looked up and met his master’s gaze.
“Yes, I can do it. They might be sneaky and dangerous, but they’re just humans. I also don’t have to fight them fair,” Blacknail replied with a vicious grin.
“Sounds like you have a plan,” Saeter remarked.
“It’s the best plan ever! This job will be easy,” the hobgoblin bragged as he grinned smugly.
Saeter grunted dubiously and frowned at Blacknail, but he didn’t say anything further. The hobgoblin knew his master was skeptical, but was sure his plan would work.
The meeting continued on for almost another hour, before Herad sent everyone away. Saeter immediately went off to gather men for their mission.
“Get ready to do some running and fighting. You’ll want all your gear for this, including your bow. I have to wrangle up the other members of our little party, so I’ll probably be a while. Some of them just got back, so I’ll meet you out front at the eleventh hour,” his master told him.
The hobgoblin nodded and then dashed over to his room to get his stuff. He would need all the time he could get if he wanted to prepare his surprise for Malthus and the other assassins.
He quickly wound the bandages around his arms and legs, donned his cloak, and pulled on his mask. He grabbed his backpack and filled it full of some extra rope and stakes. Then, as his master had suggested, he strapped his bow to his back and pulled on his sword belt.
When that was done, Blacknail quickly rummaged through one of his other bags. A second later, he pulled out a pair of sausages and scoffed them down. He didn’t want to run on an empty stomach.
The hobgoblin dashed out of the building. When he returned around two hours later his backpack was missing, and he was out of breath from running so hard.
Saeter was right where he’d said he would be, just outside the front entrance to Herad’s base, and he wasn’t alone. Two dozen other men were with him. Blacknail recognized them all as scouts that had been with the band since before he’d joined.
The rangers were dressed somewhat similarly to the rest of the band. If anything, their leathers and cloaks were more worn down looking than usual. Unlike most the men in Herad’s employ though, they had an aura of stillness about them. It wasn’t that they didn’t seem dangerous; it was just that that danger was tempered by patience, which was good because Blacknail was late.
“So, the hobgoblin’s finally here,” one of them commented, as Blacknail arrived.
“Good, I was beginning to think old Saeter was going to make us leave without him, and he’s probably worth two or three men for something like this,” another replied with a smile.
Blacknail gave the second man a friendly nod of acknowledgement. He had spent more time around the scouts and foresters than any of the other bandits, and was thus comfortable being around them. He also respected their skill.
“More than that, at least ten,” Blacknail bragged, which drew a round of chuckles.
A scattering of wispy white clouds filled the sky overhead, but the noon sun was still visible most of the time. A cold heavy wind was blowing from the north though, and it was pulling the dark clouds that lay thick on the skyline ever closer. Blacknail thought there was a good chance the day would soon grow dimmer.
“Alright, we’re all here, so let’s get moving,” Saeter told everyone. “Our job is to intercept anyone trying to get a good look at the compound. Gavius, I want you and seven others to watch the gap in the buildings to the West. I’ll take these eleven and watch the main road.
There were nods of agreement from everyone present. The rangers started to form their parties, but just as the groups had started to split up Saeter spoke up again.
“And remember, nobody here should try and play hero. If you see anything you can’t deal with then don’t try, go for reinforcements. It’s not our job to stop a serious advance,” he said.
“You remember it!” Blacknail muttered, as he gave his master a dark look.
If anyone here was going to end up putting themselves in danger it was almost certainly going to be Saeter, and that meant Blacknail would have to put himself in danger to help him. This time, if the old scout tried anything stupid Blacknail was going drag him away, even if he had to knock him unconscious first.
Saeter led the hobgoblin and the other rangers over to the main road, and they started walking to their destination. As they moved Blacknail observed their surroundings carefully for any signs of danger.
This part of the city was mostly deserted. The fact that it had been claimed by Herad was common knowledge, and so was her violent nature. Not that a lot of people had lived here even before the bandit chieftain had moved in.
Most buildings here were old warehouses, and two large ones rose up on either side of this part of the road. Their foundations were rough stone and mortar, but the rest of them were made of thick wooden planks. Saeter stopped and pointed to a window high up on the second floor of the building to the right.
“That spot has a good overview of the entire area. I want someone with a bow up there. If you see anyone that doesn’t belong then use standard birdcalls to tell everyone else which side of the street they’re on,” Saeter said.
“I’ll do that,” one of the scouts replied.
The man exchanged a nod with Saeter, and then headed for the entrance to the warehouse.
“Alright, you two are with me and Blacknail. The five of us will take the west side of the road. The rest of you will take the eastern side. Carvus, you’re in charge,” Saeter then explained.
There were nods of agreement all around, and then the group split into two. Scouts weren’t the most talkative of people.
“Keep those big green ears of yours open, Blacknail,” Saeter told the hobgoblin, as they walked off the street and into an alley.
“I will-ss, no one will get past me!” Blacknail replied happily.
The hobgoblin was already scanning his surroundings with all his senses. Hunting like this always made him excited, and this time was no different. The act of sneaking around while looking for prey made him feel all tingly inside. There was nothing he would rather be doing, and he couldn’t wait for some unexpecting enemy to stumble onto his path. Dealing with them would be so fun!
It had rained slightly that morning, so the loose cobblestones under Blacknail’s boots were still damp and muddy. The sun hadn’t quite risen high enough in the sky to illuminate the spaces between the buildings, so the alleyway was gloomy and full of shadows.
Blacknail heard a slight noise from up ahead, and he instantly whipped his head around to stare intently in that direction. Was it an enemy? No, a rat had just scuttled out of hiding. The hobgoblin sighed and continued following his master, as the vermin disappeared through a hole in a wall.
They continued trudging through the alleys for what seemed like forever to Blacknail, and it was boring! Why hadn’t an enemy shown up yet? The hobgoblin was beginning to think he should be going on ahead by himself. There were supposed to be lots of enemies in the city right now, so he could just go grab one of them. The sucker would never know what hit him!
Suddenly, Blacknail heard a thumping sound from down a side street up ahead. There had been a few more false alarms since the rat, so at first he didn’t think too much of it, but then the sound repeated itself several times.
It sounded suspiciously like footsteps; a large group of unknown people were approaching. Since the hobgoblin's group was out here looking for enemies it seemed likely that they'd just found some. Hooray?