Blacknail, the hobgoblin, snarled as the unidentified humans in front of him drew closer. They had weapons in hand and looked ready for a fight. Well, if it was a fight they wanted then that was what they were going to get. No stupid humans would be getting their dirty hands on his tasty cheese without a fight!
“We must defend the loot!” Blacknail growled loudly to his companions.
Behind the hobgoblin, those of his fellow bandits that hadn’t already taken out their weapons did so. The ranger Wyre pulled out a bow and hurriedly strung it. It wasn’t a particular long bow but next to his short stature it looked large.
“Why are we listening to the bloody hobgoblin?” one of the bandits whined with an edge of panic in his voice. “When did that start to make sense? They’re murderous savages! Maybe the horse has some tactics it would like to share as well?”
“We’re not listening to the hobgoblin. We’re doing what Herad ordered us to, bring this wagon back to base,” Wyre responded in a harsh commanding voice.
“We should leave the wagon and head into the forest. This must be a trap! There are probably more of them coming up behind us,” the scared bandit said as he threw a nervous look backwards down the road.
Blacknail growled. If the coward was allowed to run then the others would follow, and that was no good. The humans had to stay here and fight to protect his cheese!
“I don’t hear anyone behind us and they haven’t surprised us. How could it be a trap, stupid human?” the hobgoblin pointed out scornfully.
“What does a beast like you know? We need to run!” the man shot back.
Blacknail growled again in annoyance, and stepped up beside the man.
“If you run-ss you’ll never make it. Something terrifying out in the woods will kill-ss you slowly and painfully, me!” he whispered to the cowardly man.
The bandit paled and took a step back from the hobgoblin. He then threw a nervous look towards Wyre. The scout was too far away to have heard Blacknail, but he noticed the other man’s reaction.
“Stand your ground, both of you,” Wyre ordered. “There’s no need to run yet. Blacknail’s right. I see no sign of us being encircled and they seem just as surprised as us to have run into company here.
Blacknail did as he was told. Not because Wyre was his boss, he wasn’t, but because it was what he wanted to do anyway.
Up ahead, one of the unidentified people detached from the rest and walked forward. His hand was raised up to shield the sun from his eyes. He appeared to be trying to get a good look at Blacknail and the bandits.
“Hey, I think that’s Boots!” the female bandit standing next to Wyre exclaimed. “They’re not enemies at all; they’re from Herad’s camp. We’ve got reinforcements!”
Blacknail turned and looked. He squinted at the approaching man but could only make out the blurry outline of a face. Well, most humans looked alike anyway.
“It seems we hit a spot of good luck after all. Come on, get the wagon moving. Let’s see what brings our fellows out this way. Not that I’m complaining,” Wyre announced as he started to walk forward.
There was a loud neigh and the creaking of straining wood as the horse hitched to the wagon was signalled into motion again. Blacknail and several other bandits put away their blades and followed after Wyre.
Most the tension from earlier had already faded away. Now everyone seemed relieved and excited.
Soon, the other group came into focus, and it became obvious they were from Herad’s camp. Blacknail recognized several of them, even if he had never bothered to learn most their names. Most bandits with less status than him weren’t that important.
Blacknail quickly recognized the man leading the other group, though. It was his master, Saeter. The hobgoblin perked up and smiled happily. Now he could brag about all the amazing things he had done on this mission! His master was sure to proud of him!
“You’re early. Did you forget to pack enough food or something? ” Saeter yelled their way.
“And you’re not supposed to be out here at all. We almost ended up charging you!” Wyre shot back. “Did Herad finally kick you out, or did you just miss us?”
“Bah, more likely you were about to piss yourselves and run, and who would miss your faces? Blacknail’s the best looking out of all of you,” Saeter replied. “No, one of the patrols ran across some signs of movement so we’re checking it out.”
Blacknail grinned smugly to himself after hearing his master’s words. He was an amazingly handsome hobgoblin after all. Obviously, none of the humans could match the beauty of his long pointy nose. It was just the perfect length and shape.
“We...” Wyre started to say before Blacknail cut him off.
“I’m right here, master,” the hobgoblin shouted as he waved enthusiastically in his master’s direction. “I saved everyone’s lives like twice! I also killed some enemies, snuck around a lot, and found some cheese!”
“I’m glad you had fun,” the old scout replied as he rolled his eyes and signalled for Wyre to speak up.
Blacknail’s feelings were a bit hurt, but he would have plenty of time to talk to his master later.
“As I was saying, on our way back we ran into some unexpected company, which would explain the signs of activity you found. It seems Werrick is on his way here,” the other scout explained.
Saeter frowned as he and Wyre met in the middle of the road. The pair began talking and comparing notes. Neither of them looked happy.
Blacknail found their talk boring. He already knew all that stuff. As he idled away the time, the hobgoblin saw a hint of something that might be a berry bush off to one side of the forest. All the walking had made him hungry, so he decided to investigate.
“Stay here,” Saeter commanded the hobgoblin, after only a brief glance his way.
Blacknail sighed in annoyance but did as he was told. He spun around and made his way back over to the wagon. He had some snacks tucked away on it. No one could complain if he ate those now.
A few minutes later, after Blacknail had finished shoving half a loaf of bread down his throat, Saeter and Wyre decided on a course of action. The pair of scouts called all the other bandits over, and they gathered around.
“There’s no point sticking around,” Saeter told everyone. “We have no idea how many men Werrick has here. That camp may not be the only one, and we need to get the wagon back to base.”
“Later, I’m sure Herad will want to send a few squads out to watch and harass the enemy, but that’s not our job right now,” Wyre added.
No one argued with them. All the other bandits simply nodded or said nothing. Most of them were deserters, and they hadn’t left the army because it didn’t fight enough.
After a bit more instruction, everyone got moving again. The two groups of bandits melded seamlessly into one and started back down the road towards camp.
Saeter had a rearguard put together to protect the wagon but no one attacked them. The only sign of the enemy was a single horseman off in the distance that observed them for awhile before disappearing. It was rather disappointing to Blacknail, really.
The walls of thick bushes and trees that flanked the road eventually widened to reveal a barricade of tall, lashed together stakes. Blacknail gave the men guarding it a friendly wave, they were also part of Herad’s tribe.
Behind the crude wall lay Blacknail’s home, the camp of the bandit chieftain Herad. The barrier was pulled to the side and the captured wagon rolled in, along with all the men and women accompanying it.
Saeter and Blacknail took a minute to unpack their gear and settle down after the trip. The hobgoblin had to make sure all his prizes and tasty treats were hidden away where he’d left them.
“You’re all back early,” Red Dog commented as he walked over to them. “Should I be concerned?”
Blacknail looked over from where he was prying open one of the sacks on the wagon.
Red Dog was the lieutenant whom Herad had left in charge of the camp when she had gone to Daggerpoint last fall. Red Dog had been very disappointed to see Blacknail return with her. He had hoped that the hobgoblin had run off into the wild, never to be heard of again except in unsettling campfire stories.
“We need to talk to Herad. Things are moving quickly and not in a good way. It looks like some of Werrick’s men are moving into our territory,” Saeter told him.
“So I should be concerned,” Red Dog replied with a sigh. “Damnation, I was hoping for another easy spring of robbery. Shit like you’re talking about is how honest bandits like myself get themselves killed.”
“Honest bandits?” Wyre asked in amusement.
“I don’t pretend to be anything else,” Red Dog replied with a shrug.
“And here I thought you were without virtue,” Saeter commented. “But enough chitchat, we need to report to Herad.
“I’ll let you talk to her,” Wyre added. “She seems to like you best.”
The older scout gave the younger one an annoyed glare but didn’t say anything. Instead, he turned back to RedDog.
“Where is she?” he asked the other man.
“The boss is at Vorscha’s cabin, right now. They’re talking about supplies and stuff,” Red Dog answered. “I might as well go with you. It sounds like this is going to throw all our plans up in the air.”
“Come along then,” Saeter grunted as he started off towards Vorscha’s cabin.
Blacknail followed his master as they marched though the camp. Crudely constructed wooden cabins of various sizes littered the clearing. They had all been built last year as shelter from the winter that had just passed. Many of them were large barracks-like structures that housed groups of bandits.
The grass that had once dominated the clearing had long since been trampled down into dirt that was dusty in dry weather and muddy after the rain. In the center of the camp stood the old farmhouse Herad had taken as her own. Along the edges of the camp the tall trees of the northern forest loomed, reminding everyone that they were far from true civilization here.
Herad was indeed talking to Vorscha. The pair of them were standing out front of her cabin as they conversed. Of the two women, Herad was very much the smaller. She was only of average size.
When Saeter and the others came around the corner of another building, Vorscha saw them and pointed their way.
“What brings all you lazy bastards back so quickly? I hope for your own sake that you actually followed my orders,” Herad asked as she turned towards the new arrivals.
“I certainly did, as always. The men you sent with Blacknail ran into some trouble after taking their spoils and hurried back here with news,” Saeter explained in a carefully neutral tone.
By the time he had finished a cold look had appeared on Herad’s face. Well, colder than usual. Herad always looked like she was one step away from violence. Blacknail tried to attract her attention as little as possible, unless he had something to brag about.
The Bandit chieftain ran her fingers through her short black hair as she considered Saeter’s words. Her dark eyes stood out from her pale skin and were narrowed in thought.
“Well, this isn’t completely unexpected. We thought it likely that Werrick, and the fucking bloody bastards that he has backing him, would move against us,” the bandit chieftain replied as she scowled.
“They’re moving very quickly, though. Faster than we thought they would,” Vorscha pointed out.
The large brunette women spoke with a hint of concern in her voice. She was wearing a loose cloth shirt, and crossed her arms in front of her in a way that highlighted both her lean muscles and her ample chest.
“Doesn’t matter,” Herad responded. “The longer he waits the more men and equipment Werrick can rally. Having him move this early is to our benefit, not his. The impatient fool is underestimating me.”
“You’re right, and that has me worried. Why is Werrick moving so quickly? He knows you won’t be easy to beat in your own territory. He must be very confident for some reason,” Saeter pointed out.
“I’d be confident to if I had the kind of backing he did,” Vorscha countered. “With those crooked merchants behind him he can probably afford to lose his entire army and then just buy a new one. Manpower isn’t hard to come by out here, with all the deserters feeling the southern wars.”
“True, in Daggerpoint his lieutenant Zelena used mercenaries. I would be very surprised if Werrick hasn’t hired a few more,” Saeter added.
“If he relies on outside forces too much the other bands will never accept him,” Herad replied with a disdainful sneer. “He can’t just buy himself an army and use it to control the North. That would make him too much like a conquering outsider out to crush all banditry.”
“That won’t do us much good if we’re dead,” Red Dog muttered.
“If Werrick does come against me with a mercenary host then I’ll retreat and wait," Herad replied as she drew one of the many daggers she had tucked around her person. Idly, the bandit chieftain toyed with it as she spoke.
“He’ll have to leave eventually to deal with other bands and then we’ll raid the forces he leaves behind. He won’t be able to conquer the North with strength of arms alone. He needs to convince the other bands to follow him, and to do that he has to convince them he’s one of them,” she told her subordinates.
Saeter nodded in agreement. A flash of annoyance gleamed in Herad’s eyes for a second in response. The old scout’s approval always seemed to anger her for some reason.
“Most the outlaws I’ve worked with came North to escape the rule of Kings,” Saeter explained. “They wouldn’t fall to their knees and accept Werrick as their master if he looked like a southern puppet out to destroy their livelihood and freedom.”
“Which means we just have to worry about Werrick’s band and maybe a little outside support. He must have left some men behind but he undoubtedly still has more than us,” Vorscha pointed out skeptically.
“I’m not too worried if that’s all he brings to the table,” Herad said. “We have the defensive advantage. We know the terrain, have fortifications up, and are building more. I’ve outmaneuvered him before and this time will be no different.”
“We need to be prepared. We should speed up construction, double our patrols, and cancel all leave. Every man in camp should be assigned to a job until Werrick is defeated,” Vorscha suggested.
“Practical as always, Vorscha.” Herad responded approvingly. “I’ll leave organizing that up to you."
Off to one side, Red Dog sighed regretfully and grimaced to himself. Blacknail took a not so casual step behind Saeter, where he was harder to notice. He wanted avoid being given a job.
The talk lasted for a few more minutes before Herad dismissed everyone. Saeter and Blacknail were given the rest of the day off, and they headed back towards their camp site.
They lived in a pair of tents off to one side of the encampment, near the forest, instead of one of the larger buildings. Both of them had spent the winter in Daggerpoint and liked to live simply. Everything Saeter owned could be packed up in a few minutes.
As soon as they arrived, Blacknail happily ran over to his tent and began to unpack all his stuff. All the yummy snacks, shiny trinkets, and hard won loot he had acquired from his last mission had to be put away. If he just left it out then a despicable thief would probably steal it! Some people were just savages.
The hobgoblin took off his cloak and outer garments, flipped open the door to his tent, and crawled inside. The interior was small, but once inside Blacknail’s body heat immediately started to heat the place up. Beneath him a small collection of blankets carpeted the floor, and his own familiar scent filled the air.
The hobgoblin gave out an unexpected yawn and collapsed onto the ground. He leisurely shifted the blankets beneath himself as he closed his eyes and smiled. It was so comfy and warm here. If it wasn’t for the need to eat and drink he would never leave.
Blacknail gathered up a clump of blankets and rested his head on them like a pillow. One of the sheets was little more than a beat up rag but the hobgoblin didn’t care. In fact, that rag was his favourite by far. It had been given to him by his master when Blacknail had been nothing more than a little goblin.
His memories from way back then were blurry and confused but when he held the blanket close and smelled it he was overcome by a sense of security and... something else. Was it comfort and appreciation? It was a nice feeling anyway. It made him feel warm inside.
A few seconds later, Blacknail let out a deep breath and opened his eyes. He wanted to rest some more but knew he had things to do. Reluctantly, he reached into his pockets and started removing the best of his new acquisitions.
A small metal figurine was taken out and placed off to one side. The tiny warrior’s bronze surface was dull but it still had a slight shine to it. Next, a glass eye was put down beside it. Blacknail snickered to himself as he remembered how he’d gotten that. Fun times!
Oh, there was also a little bit of biscuit in there. Blacknail pulled the chunk out of his pocket and shoved it into his mouth. He chewed on it as he slipped out of his tent and back outside.
Up in the sky, the sun was a fair bit past midday peak. Small fluffy clouds were scattered around it but they didn’t block its light.
The hobgoblin looked down and at the human dwellings around him. He had a thoughtful expression on his face.
The first thing that had to be done was chores, so Blacknail went to find the person he’d told to do them all.