Herad’s group was out and moving early the next morning. They continued their march North, but nothing more interesting than the occasional passing traveler happened. Herad mostly ignored them, she had places to be and better things to do than rob peddlers and peasants. No one who had anything worth stealing traveled alone in the North.
When night came Blacknail usually slept up in a tree just out of reach of the light of the humans’ fire. The next day they passed a few more abandoned villages, but no occupied ones. This confused the hobgoblin. Who had created all these villages and why had they been destroyed? Had some monster from the forest leveled them?
They did pass the occasional large walled human settlement, but Herad avoided them. Blacknail considered scaling one of the walls in the night but thought better of it. He would have plenty of time for that when they got to Daggerpoint.
The scenery began to change as they continued their journey. The grey and white mountains that rose on the horizon started to grow ever larger. The terrain also became much rougher, and the road began winding up hills and along tall rocky cliffs. The steeper terrain was harder to traverse, so the bandits grew tired and their progress slowed.
At one point they had to cross a rickety wooden bridge over a river. The river was extremely wide, and its frothy white waters roared as they swept down from the distant mountains. There was no way anyone could possibly swim across the raging river.
After everyone else had carefully crossed the bridge, Blacknail eyed it suspiciously. It was quite possible that Saeter would have left a lookout on the bridge, just in case someone was following them. The hobgoblin was so paranoid about it that he waited a quarter of the day before crossing. Luckily he had a large advantage over humans in that he could follow their scent. There was little chance of him losing them.
He did however have to run quite a bit that day to catch up. When he finally found them again it had grown dark, and his human tribesman were setting up for the night. Idly Blacknail wondered how long it would take to actually reach Daggerpoint. He probably should have figured that out before he followed Herad North, but there was no going back now. He hoped it wasn’t too much longer, his feet were getting more than a little sore.
Blacknail lazily circled the humans’ camp as he once again searched for somewhere safe to sleep for the night. As he was creeping through the woods he heard a noise out on the road. At first he thought one of the bandits had slipped past him, but then he dismissed that as unlikely.
Cautiously, he slipped through the dark woods to check it out. He was fairly sure it wasn’t anything too dangerous, but you could never be too sure out in the wilderness.
What he saw surprised him. There were two humans walking along the road, and headed for the light of the bandit’s campfire. Feeling curious, and rather bored after several days by himself, the hobgoblin decided to investigate.
The two humans didn’t appear to have any obvious weapons so Blacknail flipped his hood up and walked out of the bushes. He heard a gasp of shock and saw the two darkened forms flinch as he emerged onto the road. He didn’t want to scare them right away so he raised his hand in a human gesture of greeting.
“Hello, I won’t harm you,” he announced in his best imitation of a human voice.
“Who are you? Are you from the fire?” the larger one, who smelled male, asked him.
“I’m a friend. No, I’m not from the fire. They’re bandits, and bad. They’ll take your stuff and kill you,” Blacknail replied.
The two humans glanced at each other. They seemed very unsure, and suspicious of Blacknail. The hobgoblin didn’t know why, he thought he was doing a very good impression of a human.
“How do we know you’re not the bandit and trying to lure us away from safety,” the man replied.
Blacknail hesitated and scowled. The stupid humans didn’t even know when someone was trying to help them. How could they not trust him? He was very honest.
“I could take you to get a look at them?” he offered.
If these humans were going to be so annoying than Blacknail was just going to leave them, or kill and rob them himself. Maybe they had interesting shiny things he could take?
The pair leaned close and whispered to each other for a few seconds. Then, the shorter one who smelled female spoke up.
“No, that’s fine. We hoped to find safety at the fire, but deep down we knew finding refuge there would be too convenient. It was unlikely at best that anyone friendly would be out here. Thank you for the warning,” she told him with a heavy sigh.
The woman, and that’s definitely what she sounded like, looked tired and miserable. The man reached around her shoulders and pulled her closer into a reassuring hug.
“We shouldn’t complain since we’re lucky you were here to warn us. I don’t suppose you have somewhere safe to rest for the night?” he asked.
Blacknail thought it over. He had been scouting the forest for awhile looking for somewhere to rest. In that time he had discovered a small cave. He had initially disregarded it because it was too big and open for one person, but with three people they could set a guard.
“I found a cave earlier. You could rest there,” he offered.
“That sounds better than staying out here in the dark. If you don’t mind me asking what are you doing out here, and what’s your name?” the man asked him.
Blacknail hesitated as he tried to figure out what the right answer was. He knew his name was odd for a human so he said the first name that popped into his head.
“I’m… Saeter, the man. I was out hunting when I saw the fire, so I snuck up and spied on them. I’m very sneaky,” he told them.
Blacknail was rather proud of his lies. How could the humans not believe him? They were perfect. This was turning out to be rather fun break from all the walking.
“Right… well, let’s see this cave of yours,” the man told him.
With a nod of agreement Blacknail led them through the woods away from the bandits and down an incline. There, the cave mouth was visible in the exposed rocky side of the hill they had just come down. It was however too dark to see inside now, at least for a human.
“Is it safe to light a lantern, do you think?” the man asked Blacknail.
“Yes, there’s no one to see it here,” the hobgoblin replied.
The man then reached into his bag and withdrew a small metal hand lantern. It smelled of ash and oil to Blacknail. The man got out a flint and steel and began trying to set the lantern wick alight. It took a few seconds to catch properly, but then the surroundings were lit by the small flickering flame.
The man held the light up in front of him and the inside if the cave was revealed. The cave only extended a little more than two dozen feet past the narrow gash in the rock that served as its entrance. There was however plenty of room for three people inside, and it served as shelter from both the wind and observers.
“It’s going to be awfully dark inside there when we snuff the lantern,” the woman remarked.
“You set up. I’ll get some wood for a fire,” Blacknail told the pair.
“That’ll be very dangerous in the dark,” the man said in concern.
The hobgoblin just shrugged and started walking back to the road.
“I’m very sneaky,” he replied as he disappeared into the dark.
Blacknail wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t going to wander the woods looking for dry wood. That did indeed sound like a good way to get killed, and it was totally unnecessary. He just had to borrow some wood from Herad’s group. They were all the same tribe so it was kind of his wood anyway.
By this point most the bandits had drifted off to sleep, except for the two men on watch. It was thus a simple feat for Blacknail to creep up through the blind spot created by some of the tents, and make off with some of their wood and tinder.
They had a fairly large pile of wood piled up against one tent. It was now substantially smaller though, and it amused Blacknail greatly to wonder what they would think when they noticed it was missing. He almost considered waiting around to see their faces, but that could take forever and would be dangerous.
When Blacknail got back to the cave the pair of humans he had saved from the bandits had finished settling down for the night. The woman was lying down on a low rock ledge. Her rough traveler’s clothes were set placed beside her, and she was between a pair of thick blankets.
The man had set his own gear down, and unpacked his blankets on the ground close to her. He was standing guard inside the entrance of the cave instead of resting though.
He seemed tense and stiff as gazed out into the darkness, but he relaxed a little when he saw Blacknail approach carrying a heavy load of wood. The lantern was behind him on the ground in the center of the cave floor. The light it cast was very weak and barely illuminated the cave.
“I’m glad you’re back, Saeter. I was getting worried about you. Where did you get that wood? It looks like it was split with an axe,” he asked.
“I knew a place to get it,” the hobgoblin explained as he walked inside.
“Ah, a huntsman’s cache. You must travel through here a lot. We were truly fortunate to run into a good man like you,” the man told him.
Blacknail just gave another shrug and begun setting up the fire. He was pretty great, but he wasn’t a man. He smelled much better for one thing.
He built the small fire near the cave’s mouth so smoke could escape, and so it would serve as a barrier against wild animals. He was careful to face away from the man so that the shadows concealed his face as he worked.
Once he had succeeded in using his flint and steel to light the tinder and wood Blacknail withdrew into the far corner of the cave where the shadows were deepest. He didn’t want his new friends to get a glimpse of his green skin.
In the dark corner he started setting up his own sleeping place. As he was working the man started talking again.
“I’m sorry for not introducing myself earlier, Saeter. I’m Rickas, and that’s my wife Selstia. We’re travelling north… for our own reasons. Thanks again for helping us. I wish we had some way to repay you, but we don’t have much,” he said.
“Got any cheese?” Blacknail asked hopefully. He really liked cheese.
“Er, yes. I have a small piece left. You’re more than welcome to it,” Rickas replied uncertainly before digging through his pack and tossing Blacknail a small package.
The hobgoblin caught the cheese. He could already smell its poignant scent through the cloth it was wrapped in. Cheerfully he unwrapped it and then slowly savored its sharp taste. He had eaten all his cheese days ago.
“Well, Saeter um… I can tell Elorian isn’t your first language. What is your native tongue?” the man asked the hobgoblin.
Blacknail froze in the middle of eating. There was more than one human language? Why? He didn’t know of any other languages, what was he supposed to say?
Luckily, Rickas noticed his hesitation, and interpreted it in his own way.
“I’m sorry if it sounded like I was prying. I was simply trying to make conversation, but I see now that you are a private person,” he said apologetically.
“No problem. Do you want first watch?” Blacknail responded in relief.
“That’s fine with me. I’ll wake you when my watch is over,” Rickus said.
“Good, but just call out Blacknail to wake me. Don’t get too close. I’m a private person,” Blacknail replied as he placed his sheathed sword against the wall in a very obvious gesture.
Rickus looked confused for a second, but then nodded in understanding.
“Ah I see, that’s a codeword of some sort? Anyway, I assure you that we’re no threat to you, but I’ll do as you ask,” he told the hobgoblin.
Blacknail then sat down and leaned his back against the wall. He had placed his blanket beneath and behind himself to serve as a cushion. His form was still completely concealed by his clothes, hood, and the shadows. He wasn’t too concerned about the humans sneaking up on him as he slept. He was a very light sleeper when he wanted to be.
The next morning Blacknail woke early and went out scouting. When the rest of his tribe had gone down the road he headed back to the cave. After a brief talk with Rickus and Selstia they parted ways. The pair once again thanked him profusely for all his help.
The hobgoblin rather liked all the praise they were giving him. He was glad he hadn’t let them wander into Herad, and that he hadn’t killed them either.
As he sauntered off in pursuit of Saeter and the others, he heard the pair talking to each other.
“I know he saved us, but he’s still creepy. Neither of us got a look at his face the entire time we were with him. He was always completely covered by his clothes, and never got too close to us. That’s more than a little odd,” Selstia murmured to her husband.
“True, but he probably has his reasons. Maybe he’s a wanted man or is scarred. Why else would he hide his face, and live out here?” Rickas replied.
“What about his voice?” she countered.
“He probably has a damaged throat, or was hiding his voice as well,” her husband guessed.
‘Maybe, but there’s still something off about him. Something different…” she replied doubtfully.
“What, you think he was secretly one of the forest people? Like in the myths where travelers stumble upon a mysterious stranger who helps them out or tricks them. You didn’t accidently promise him our firstborn did you?” her husband asked teasingly.
“I know you’re joking, but I can’t help but think that you just might be right. It would certainly explain a lot,” Blacknail heard Selstia say before they were out of his hearing range.
Blacknail would have liked to stalk his new friends for awhile and hear more of their conversation, but he was in a rush. Herad and his master had gotten quite a head start on him now.
He broke into a light jog when he got back onto the road so that he could catch up. Herad must have been pushing her minions hard because even after an hour passed Blacknail had yet to catch a glimpse of them. He would have worried but the scent of their passing assured him that he was still on their trail.
As he jogged down the forest road he came across a break in the trees. On one side of him the forest was replaced with thick heavy bush. There were only a few scattered young trees growing there. Without the heavy tree cover to stifle it the hobgoblin felt the wind around him pick up. Its caress cooled him off and felt refreshing as it blew under his clothes.
Blacknail thought he saw what looked like a collapsed building deep within the clearing. It reminded him of what Herad’s base had looked like when he had first seen it, but with more bushes. The whole area must have once been a human farm that was now slowly being swallowed by the forest.
He continued jogging along, but when Blacknail was about halfway through the clearing a rustling noise caught his attention. It was probably just a rabbit or something, but just to be sure he slowed his gait and focused on listening for a second.
The sound of several more things moving alongside him in the bushes reached his ears. That wasn’t good. Rabbits didn’t move in packs and stalk hobgoblins.
Feeling a surge of acidic panic work its way up from his gut Blacknail picked up his pace, and gripped his sword hilt. If anything decided to jump him he was going to give it a face full of steel. That would discourage most of the things that lived out in the wilds… but unfortunately not all of them.
The sounds moved closer and Blacknail noticed the bushes began to tremble as something ran through them. Whatever these things were they were clearly not afraid of him. He sniffed the air for a hint of what was approaching, but the wind was blowing in the wrong direction. All he could smell was trees and earth.
Suddenly up ahead of him the shrubs shook as something launched itself out of them. A shocked Blacknail had to throw himself to the side to avoid the stone projectile that whirled past his head. He landed on all fours and hissed in alarm as a creature stepped out of the bushes and cut off the road in front of him. He had never seen one before, but he knew without a doubt what it was.
His opponent answered his hiss with a screech of challenge. The figure wore a dirty hide loincloth and brandished two crude stone axes high above its head. Its skin was green and two horns rose up from its unruly grey hair.
It was a hobgoblin… and it had brought friends. Shrieking goblins began to emerge from hiding all around Blacknail until he was completely surrounded and couldn't escape. The goblins waved rocks and crude stone tipped spears in his direction. Their eyes were filled with hate and cruel excitement.
"Human shit," Blacknail swore nervously from where he was crouched on the ground.
He had accidently stumbled into the territory of another hobgoblin.