It was a cool overcast day and it had rained lightly on and off that morning. Blacknail was glad he had his cape. He didn't mind being cold or wet, but he hated being cold and wet at the same time. He shivered and snuggled into the thick fur on the inside of his clothes for warmth.
“Finally! They sure are late,” one of the men who had stayed at the camp with Saeter and Blacknail said.
Several of the camp's occupants had come out to see the wagons arrive, including Saeter.
“I'm not surprised they’re behind schedule. It's still too early in the year for the road to be completely dry. Getting those wagons along must have been tough. We're lucky it just started raining this morning,” another replied.
“Maybe we will get paid before winter now,” the first one joked, which caused a few of the other men to chuckle humorously.
After a few minutes, when nothing more exciting than a bunch of wet and dirty men trudging across a muddy road with some rickety wagons appeared the watchers started wandering off.
Saeter however headed over to the wagons and as usual Blacknail followed him.
They passed dozens of miserable looking outlaws in soaked leather and furs as they trudged down the muddy road. A few of them gave Saeter and his goblin hostile or curious glances but most of them seemed far too tired to care about what was going on around them.
Saeter headed for the back of the train of wagons. There, Herad was supervising the removal of goods from a broken wagon.
The wooden wagon lay on an angle at the side of the road. One of the front wheels had popped completely off leaving a broken wooden axle exposed.
Under their leader’s watchful eyes several men were removing goods from the damaged wagon and either tying them to the horse that had been untied from the wagon or carrying them down the road by hand.
Herad looked furious and only a few moments away from violence, but then again she almost always did. Saeter stopped several feet from Herad but within her sight and waited patiently. Blacknail hid behind him, trying not to attract Herad's attention.
After a few moments Herad turned her scowl their way. She was dressed in her usual dark leather armor which was decorated with an assortment of blades. Her cloak's hood was pulled up to protect her from the rain and water dripped down it.
“You’d better have a nice bonfire going and my shelter ready when I get to camp. I didn't send you ahead so you could slack off,” she told Saeter as she turned to face him.
“I do, as well as some hot deer stew,” Saeter replied seemingly unconcerned.
“You'll make someone a wonderful wife someday,” Herad remarked bitingly.
“I fear I'm well past the marriageable age,” he answered deadpan.
Herad smiled darkly at him in response. She was clearly amused.
“That's what I like about you Saeter. You walk the fine line between never arguing with me and not always agreeing with me either,” she told him.
“How's our status?” she continued seriously after a brief pause.
“Camp is set up. We have food, fire, and some lean-to set up for the men. The old farmhouse has been patched up for you,” Saeter reported.
“The roads?” she asked.
“Scouts haven't seen anything on the road ahead. I've had riders down onto the main road to Riverdown and they haven't seen anything unusual either. No sign of any patrols or traps. Not that the patrols ever leave the main roads anyway. I'm more worried about some other band of brigands getting wind of our haul. I haven't seen any sign of that though. The messengers you sent to the city to meet your contacts are away and have probably gotten there by now,” he reported.
“Good,” Herad grunted simply in response.
“We haven't even lost anyone in the forest yet. Bad luck that,” Saeter added after a second of thought. Herad gave him a skeptical look.
“It’s bad luck that we haven't lost anyone to the woods?” she asked him dryly.
“The forest always gets someone eventually. That it hasn't yet only means it could still be me this time,” he replied.
“Bushman superstition,” she huffed in annoyance. “If you're that worried about it then you could always throw your little pet goblin there to the wolves.”
The goblin shied away from her. He wasn't sure how serious to take any of her comments. She didn’t seem to like him much.
“He's still pretty scrawny. They'd probably just come back for seconds,” Saeter told her with a brief glance at the goblin and the barest hint of humor in his voice.
“Well, since you've lasted this long without being eaten by something I think you'll be fine for a while yet Saeter. That said, I want you and the other scouts out there making sure nothing dangerous from the deep woods surprises us. If you see signs of something, I want to know right away. Also, the more food you can scrounge up the less we have to buy,” she told him before pausing for a second to think.
“We're going to be here a while as we wait for the buyers from Riverdown to get here, and take this stuff off our hands. I don't want any nasty surprises while we wait,” she finished.
“You know that neither I nor anyone else can make any promises when it comes to the forest Herad, but I will do my job,” he told her gravely.
“How professional, your best had just better be good enough. I'll talk with you later when I get things in order here. Find something useful to do with yourself in the mean time,” she replied dismissively.
Saeter nodded and she turned away. Then Blacknail and his master headed back down the road to camp. The goblin threw one last nervous look backwards at Herad. Saeter noticed his nervous demeanor.
“You don’t need to be so scared of her, Blacknail,” he told the goblin.
“She's mean and scary, master,” he whimpered in response.
“Dangerous too, or she wouldn't still be the boss. There isn't any such thing as a nice bandit but Herad has her own twisted sense of fairness and she sticks to it. Which is more than most the scum out here have,” Saeter explained as they walked down the muddy forest road.
Blacknail nodded when his master stopped talking. Not in agreement though, but because he should always be seen to agree with his master. He was still going to avoid Herad as much as possible. She looked at him like he was a bug and she was still deciding whether or not to squish him.
As they approached the encampment someone called out to them.
“Well if it isn't old man Saeter and his ever faithful companion, Blacknail the goblin. I haven't had the pleasure of your company in awhile. I guess it's because you've been here living it up, sleeping in one place, resting all day, and eating all the good food while I've been out on the road walking endlessly and staring at the back of a bloody wagon,” Geralhd yelled with decidedly fake cheer.
The skinny man was seated on the ground underneath a canvas that had been set up to block the rain and was massaging one of his feet with both hands. He had unstrapped and taken off his socks and boots and they were sitting on the ground beside him.
“Yes, that’s exactly how we spent our time,” Saeter responded sarcastically.
“Ah Saeter, never lose that sunny disposition and glib tongue of yours. The world would be a darker place without it, and then I would have no one to engage in philosophical discourse with.” Garalhd responded back with his own sarcasm.
A second later he winced as he touched a sore spot on his foot.
“What are you doing here?” Saeter asked him pointedly.
“Well, if you mean why am I here on this lovely earth and for what purpose do I exist then I guess we will be having that philosophical debate after all,” Geralhd responded as he smiled. “However, if you are asking how it is I found myself wanted by the crown and squatting in a mud pit among such illustrious company then I shall have to respond that it is because I killed the right person.”
“Why are you bothering me?” Saeter clarified as Geralhd shrugged.
“A man must amuse himself somehow if he is to stay sane and, just between us, I have to admit that somehow against all odds you're actually one of the more pleasant people to be around in our little pack of villains,” he answered with a theatrical sigh.
“Go bug Vorscha,” Saeter suggested.
“Alas, the lady is busy with a task from our inexorable commander...” Geralhd began but Saeter cut him off with a loud snort.
“Ah, yes well since we're being so discerning here I must admit that while she is a wonderful woman, Vorscha is alas not very ladylike. I have certainly never seen a lady eat a meat pie quite like Vorscha does,” Geralhd admitted with wide eyes and a fake shudder.
Blacknail thought he saw the faint traces of a smile appear on Saeter's lips as Geralhd spoke. The younger man then turned to the goblin and gave him an appraising look.
“Hello, Blacknail. I must apologize for ignoring you while Saeter and I engaged in our usual longwinded banter. You seem taller. Oh, and I must compliment you on your new clothes! Your own work I presume?” Geralhd asked.
“Yes, I made,” Blacknail answered proudly as he looked down at his rabbit skin pants and cape. Their ragged patchwork surfaces were soaked by the rain.
“So I had guessed. They are certainly... unique looking,” Geralhd remarked. Before he could say any more Saeter cut him off again.
“If you're done insulting Blacknail's clothes I'll be leaving. Also, I notice you're not wearing those fancy clothes you first showed up in. Perhaps, unlike the goblin you're incapable of making or even repairing your own clothes,” he huffed.
Geralhd had been insulting his clothes? Blacknail felt his pride wilt. He thought his cape was nice and cozy. Geralhd saw the goblin's face fall.
“Tsk, your master is being dramatic Blacknail. I was just having fun; I like your clothes. They're very… practical,” he added.
Geralhd then got up and patted Blacknail on the head. Saeter scowled at them and rolled his eyes.
“Come on Blacknail. We have work to do,” Saeter commanded. He then stomped off to his campsite. Blacknail turned to follow but Geralhd called out to him.
“Come see me at supper time tonight Blacknail and I'll have a treat for you,” Geralhd told him with a friendly goodbye wave.
The man then sat back down and started massaging his now dirty feet again.
After Blacknail caught up to his master they grabbed their gear and headed out into the woods. The result was a rather unproductive slog through the rain drenched forest. The only animals they ran into were spine toads, and you couldn’t eat those.
The large green frogs came out in the rain and camouflaged in with the grass and leafy plants that littered the ground. Their backs were covered in poisonous spines so the goblin and his master had to watch where they stepped.
Eventually, Saeter was forced to admit defeat and return to the encampment empty handed and very wet. It had stopped raining but everything was still covered in water and muddy.
If he had been miserable before, then Saeter was truly and deeply unhappy now. Blacknail heard him muttering to himself as they headed over to their campfire to dry.
After a few minutes of work they got the campfire going and its crackling flames started to warm them up. Saeter hung his clothes up to dry and Blacknail cheerfully added his cape to the drying rack as well. The old scout then turned to the goblin.
“I'm going to take a break. You can practice something or other,” he muttered to Blacknail irritably.
The old scout then ducked into his tent and closed the flap. Blacknail heard him lay down and his breathing deepen as he fell asleep.
As his master had instructed, Blacknail started practicing. The first thing he practiced was how to curl up next to the fire and take a nap. You could never be good enough at that.
Blacknail awoke with a tired yawn. As he sleepily opened his eye he noticed it was quite a bit darker out. The sun had begun to set and the shadows had lengthened. Most the campfires around him had been lit and they had people sitting around them.
Saeters's fire was running low so the goblin threw some more wood on it. He liked watching things burn; it was pretty. As he was working a cool breeze blew through the trees and into the camp. The hungry flames flared up and Blacknail jumped nervously backwards for a moment.
The scent of various cooking foods also reached Blacknail’s nose. Most the bandits seemed to be settling down to eat.
Blacknail’s own stomach grumbled. He hadn't eaten supper yet. He threw a glance at Saeter's tent and listened. He heard the deep breathing of sleep from within the tent and sighed. He wouldn’t be getting any food from there.
Then with a flash of excitement the goblin remembered Geralhd's promise. It was supper time! If he found Geralhd then the man would have a treat for him. Where was he, though?
Blacknail wandered around until he found himself at the southern edge of the camp. Several men were seated at a campfire off to his right, one of whom was glaring at him angrily.
Blacknail ignored him and looked around for Geralhd or Vorscha. They would probably be together. The skinny man was obviously the woman’s subordinate.
After a quick scan, he saw Geralhd up ahead at another camp fire. Blacknail smiled in glee and sprang excitedly towards him. It was time for a snack! He hoped it would be a tasty one.
Suddenly, he heard a loud twang followed by the sound of something impacting the ground behind him hard. The startled goblin yelped in surprise and jumped off to the side, landing on all fours. His heart was beating loudly in his chest and there was an arrow quivering in the ground right beside where he had just been standing.
What was this? Blacknail nervously looked up to see that the glaring man was now standing up and had an empty bow in his hands. The man's thick face was contorted by an expression of anger and sadistic glee.
He was a large human with broad shoulder, short greasy black hair, and a grin that revealed a few missing teeth. His chin was covered in dark stubble and as he looked at the goblin he burst out laughing.
“Look at that ugly critter jump! You go back to your senile keeper now and don't wander around stinking up the place, or next time I'm gonna put an arrow through your eye,” the man viciously told the goblin.
The other two men at the campfire grinned and started laughing as well. Blacknail felt a wave of panic and got ready to flee at the first opportunity.
He hissed in alarm and started to back away. Apparently, this offended the big man because he scowled and took a step towards the goblin. As he moved he drew a large knife and an angry grimace appeared on his face.
“I'm gonna cut your little green ears off and make myself a necklace,” the man said with eyes narrowed in anger as he advanced upon the small figure of the goblin.
There was no way Blacknail could fight such a huge human so he was going to have to run away. The trick would be to make it back to Saeter’s camp alive…
“What in all the hells are you doing?” an angry voice interjected all of a sudden.
Everyone glanced over towards the voice and saw Geralhd approaching with a furious looking scowl on his face. Seeing him approach the other two men got up and stood behind their big friend. Clearly, they were his lackeys.
“None of your damn business, pansy,” the big man growled back at Geralhd.
“I think it is, Dafur,” Geralhd responded. “See, I was the one that invited that goblin over and here you are getting in his way. I have a problem with that. Not to mention Saeter is going to be furious when he hears about your latest bit of stupidity here.”
The big man named Dafur narrowed his eyes. He looked to be almost twice Geralhd's size.
“I ain't afraid of that old fool Saeter and I ain't afraid of your bitch Vorscha. She's not here to protect you anyways, pansy. So you scuttle along because for damn sure I ain't afraid of a skinny wimp like you,” Dafur bragged.
“I can take care of myself,” Geralhd responded heatedly as his hand moved to the dagger at his hip.
Dafur must have sensed fear though, because he smiled down at the smaller man and stalked towards him. However, Geralhd held his ground and drew his dagger.
Dafur suddenly lunged, moving faster than his large size suggested. His dagger arced around and slashed at Geralhd's face. The smaller man's eyes widened in surprise but he managed to tuck his chin in and dodge below the attack. However, the dagger grazed his shoulder and bit deep enough to draw blood.
Instead of retreating though, Geralhd leaned under Dafur's extended arm and stabbed towards his chest. Dafur twisted out of the way but received a shallow cut of his own.
However, Geralhd attack left him overextended. He stumbled and Dafur's big meaty fist swung around and impacted his face.
With a loud smacking sound Geralhd was sent spinning onto the ground. He quickly tried to stand up but couldn’t quite manage it. The blow had left him stunned.
All he could do was hold his nose as blood leaked from it and groan as Dafur moved closer. The larger man towered over him with a cruel smile on his lips. He held the cut on his chest with one hand and his dagger in the other.
“I'm going to kill you now, you damned pansy,” Dafur growled.
Blacknail froze in panic. His mind raced as he tried to think of a way to save Gerahld but he couldn’t think of anything. Fighting wouldn’t work. A goblin would be killed if he hurt a human, and death was even worse than losing a good source of treats. Besides, how could a little goblin like him fight such a giant man?
Suddenly, a new voice spoke up.
“How about me Dafur, are you afraid of me?” Herad asked as she detached herself from the shadows and strode over.
Dafur's lackeys jumped in surprise but the man himself just scowled. He threw Geralhd an angry look and fingered the knife in his hand before turning back to Herad.
“This goblin attacked me, and when I tried to catch it Geralhd here tried to stab me while I was distracted. I was just defending myself. These two saw it,” he told her as he indicated his lackeys.
Herad simply tilted her head slightly to show her skepticism. Her eyes grew colder and her smile tighter as she looked the big man over.
“I have only a few simple rules, as you should all know well. First, you do as I say. Second, you don't lie to me. The third and last is you don't fight or run without permission. You have now broken two of those rules,” she explained.
Dafur hesitated again but then a defiant look appeared on his face. He gazed down at Herad as if comparing their sizes. The large man was many times Herad's weight. He raised his knife.
“Now look here b...” he started to say.
However, his speech stopped as Herad pushed the tip of one of her daggers up through the bottom of his jaw and into his brain.
He hadn't even seen the blade coming. He just blinked in pained confusion as she pulled it back out of his skull.
Herad had moved almost too quickly for Blacknail to see. Her hand and the dagger seemed to just instantly move from one point to another without going through the space between.
Dafur's eyes rolled up into his head and he made several brief choking noises as he collapsed into a pile of rapidly spreading blood on the ground. Herad calmly wiped her blade clean with a rag and re-sheathed it.
“So very stupid,” she said to no one in particular as she turned to the lackeys.
“Dispose of the body, now,” she told them.
With terrified expressions they nodded and jumped to obey.
After throwing Dafur's corpse one last disgusted look, Herad started walking alone towards the center of the camp. The dark aura she exuded discouraged anyone from following her, not that anyone wanted to.
Geralhd got unsteadily to his feet while still holding his bloody noise. He looked worse for wear. His clothes were dirty and ruffled.
“I think I could have won that fight myself but a gentleman never turns down timely aid,” he asserted proudly while staring off into the direction Herad had gone.
Blacknail gave him a dubious look. He had a very different opinion on the man’s chances of victory. The small man had been seconds away from death.
“I really need another drink. You still want that treat?” Geralhd asked the goblin as he wiped some of the blood from his face.