While Herad and Saeter were exchanging particularly deep scowls and arguing about something unimportant, Blacknail tiptoed silently away. There was a nearby berry bush he wanted to pluck clean and all the pointless talking the humans were doing was annoying.
It didn’t take him long to slip away to the edge of the forest. Everyone in camp had grown used to him by now, and he had quickly learned how to move without drawing attention anyway. As a rule, humans weren’t very observant unless you gave them a good reason to get excited.
Once there, the hobgoblin began trekking through the woods towards his destination. Blacknail hopped excitedly over a fallen tree as the green canopy grew thicker overhead.
He was really going to enjoy munching down on those berries. Just thinking about their sweet tangy taste was causing his mouth to water. He had to lick his lips clean to prevent drool from getting all over his shirt.
Soon, Blacknail reached a spot in the woods where the trees grew thinner and eventually gave way to a small clearing. There, where the sunlight mixed with the shade cast at the edge of the trees was where the juiciest of berries grew.
Happily, the hobgoblin bounced over and carefully reached into the thorny plants there to pluck his favorite fruits. As the succulent flavour hit his tongue, he groaned blissfully and then started to pick the berries as fast as he could and shove them into his mouth. They were so good!
Eventually, when he’d filled himself up and his lips had turned purple, Blacknail belched and began swaggering back to camp. He figured the humans were done with all the useless talking by now and if not they were easier to ignore on a full stomach.
As he swaggered on back to the camp, a whiff of something unexpected filled his nostrils. He stiffened and quickly cast a nervous glance at his surroundings, but all he saw was the normal mix of trees and bushes.
The scent was strange and he couldn’t quite identify it, although it did smell somewhat familiar. Maybe, it smelled sort of like that huge monstrous slime he’d defeated? It was more like an animal though, and to be giving off so much scent it had to be a large one.
Curiously but with a fair bit of caution, this was the forest after all, Blacknail sniffed around to find the source of the smell. It didn’t take him long to discover a trail that something had torn through the underbrush. He bent over to examine it as he reached down and ran his fingernails through the dirt.
This was interesting. Whatever had made the scent had come this way and then retreated back in the same direction. Judging by the lack of footprints and the drag marks on the ground it was probably another slime.
Now that Blacknail was a hobgoblin he wasn’t afraid of running into a slime. He had defeated a huge one even when he’d been a mere little goblin. Now no slime could possibly be a match for his deadly warrior skills!
His memory of things so long ago was kind of fuzzy but he was pretty sure Herad had really wanted to find out where the slime had come from. If Blacknail traced the thing back to its lair then his chieftain was sure to reward him!
The forest might be a dangerous place to explore but the thing that had made this trail had sort of a pleasant floral scent to it, so how dangerous could it be?
The hobgoblin gave one last look around at the trees and bushes before heading deeper into the forest in pursuit of his reward. He was headed in a direction that the bandits in Herad’s band usually avoided. The ground here was muddy and practically swamp-like.
As he walked, a fair number of the nearby trees were replaced by bleached white husks that were leaning at odd angles. The constant floods here brought on by the rain had obviously killed a lot of trees. The healthier ones here were thick and lush looking though, if kind of short.
As he scampered across a tree trunk that had fallen over a small stream, something caught Blacknail’s eye. There was a dried up pond over to his left with only a bit of water left in the very center of it. The wet season was over now and there had been very little rain lately.
Along the muddy banks of the pool there was a large rocky crevice, and the trail Blacknail was following led right to it. The hobgoblin cautiously made his way closer and examined the entrance to the cave.
The water that was left in the pond lapped up against the bottom of the crevice, and it looked like the entire thing would most likely be underwater during the wet season. That would definitely explain why no one had found it before. Most of his tribe bathed only slightly more than he did, which was almost never.
The cave was easily large enough for the hobgoblin to enter but it looked muddy and very dark inside. He leaned into it but he couldn’t really get a good glimpse of what lay within. Well, the trail of the creature led directly here so this was probably the place Herad was looking for.
Blacknail decided that entering the cave to check it out would be icky and too much work so he decided to head back. After making sure he remembered how to come back here, the hobgoblin hopped up, re-crossed the stream, and started back towards camp.
As he walked something started to bother him. What was it?
The answer came to him as he ducked under a low tree branch. It was too quiet. The birds were still singing up in the top of the trees but the forest seemed muted and on edge. It was probably nothing, though.
Once or twice, he also thought he heard a subtle rustling noise from behind him. When that happened he quickly turned his head to look back but he never saw anything. He was probably imagining the noise, but just in case he started walking a bit faster. Better safe than lunch.
Soon, he was out of the swampy area and back into the forest proper where the trees grew tall and straight. Not long after that, he made it back to camp.
The hobgoblin easily slipped past the sentries set to watch the forest border and strolled leisurely into the bandits’ base. It wasn’t like the guards would have stopped him or anything, but there was no point in letting them see him. They probably had better things to do than watch him.
Unsurprisingly, Herad and the others were still talking when he got back. Blacknail sighed and crept back up behind Saeter to listen in. He was already kind of hungry again. All that walking had been hard work.
“...to enforce my claim I have to get the other bands to accept it,” Herad was explaining. “To offer safe passage I have to make sure no one else dares poach my targets. The only way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to make sure the other bands know exactly how bad of an idea it would be to mess around here...”
Boring! This was the same stuff they had been talking about when he left. He really wanted to tell Herad about how amazing of a tracker he was and about how he’d found the cave she’d been looking for. That would be a much more interesting conversation and he would probably even get a treat out of it.
He didn’t want to interrupt her, though. She wouldn’t like that and when she didn’t like things people tended to get stabbed.
“Boss, there’s a bunch of riders approaching!” a familiar sounding bandit suddenly yelled urgently. “They’re coming down the road fast, and they look like knights.”
The conversation instantly stopped as everyone present whirled around to look towards the speaker. Blacknail perked up and glanced that way as well. This sounded much more interesting!
“Shit,” Red Dog swore as he flinched in surprise.
Herad didn’t waste any time; within seconds she had spun around and dashed towards both the shouter and the road that bordered the camp. Everyone else, including Blacknail, hurriedly followed her. The hobgoblin wanted to see what all the excitement was about.
The chieftain had reached the bandit who had yelled and was now jogging alongside her. As they moved the camp was quickly coming alive around them. The bandits weren’t always the most motivated people but a possible enemy attack got their attention.
Blacknail scampered up behind Herad. The dark eyed bandit chieftain was now standing along the road and staring down it. The hobgoblin quickly spotted what she was looking at. There was a large group of mounted human warriors headed their way.
He counted around three dozen of the knights, and they looked familiar. It took the hobgoblin a few seconds of head scratching before he remembered where he’d seen them before. They were the riders he’d seen out on the road when he and Saeter had been sent out to find the deserters. Red Dog had been there too.
The knights weren’t flying a flag this time but they were still armed and armored better than any humans Blacknail had ever seen before. They held long spears, had swords at their waists, and wore a mix of chainmail and steel plate. If it came to a fight Blacknail planned on staying as far away from them as possible and attacking from a distance.
As the bandits watched, the riders trotted warily up the road and approached the camp. Under the vigilant eyes of the lead knight, the quickest of the bandits had already formed a loose line and were getting ready to meet them.
There was a crude wooden tower set up beside the road and the men inside it already had their bows drawn and ready. A simple barricade of sharpened stakes tied also blocked the road. That was good because Blacknail was pretty sure that without it the bandits on the ground would last just long enough to be trampled to death if the knights charged.
That would be amusing to see but probably wouldn’t be in Blacknail’s best interest. The horses the knights were riding looked like vicious bastards. He didn’t really want to see them from closer up.
“Those are definitely Lord Strachan’s men,” Red Dog observed in a hostile tone.
“The question is what in all the hells they’re doing out here,” Vorscha replied. “I’ve heard the old lord keeps mostly to himself these days since his son died and his lands are South of here. I doubt he has the manpower to throw knights around.”
“Well, whatever his reasons they’re here now and I would bet against them being friendly to a group of bandits like us. I’m fairly sure knights are supposed to stomp out bands like ours with extreme prejudice by royal decree,” Saeter grunted.
“Damn right,” Red Dog swore in agreement.
Herad’s bodyguards were never too far away, and with all the sudden commotion it didn’t take long for several of them to appear and make their way to her side. The large menacing looking thugs gathered up behind their mistress and glared at the approaching riders.
“We outnumber them almost ten to one,” Vorscha observed.
“That will hardly matter if they simply hit us like the Hammer of Azur-Wa. You know better than most what happens when heavy cavalry hits irregulars like us. I left the army to avoid ending up like that,” Red Dog countered.
“They don’t seem properly equipped to function as heavy stompers,” Vorscha replied. “They look more like they’ve been doing a lot of riding lately and just stumbled upon us, and they definitely don’t look eager to charge.”
“Good,” Saeter grunted as he made his way up to Herad.
As the riders got closer their horses slowed down to a steady trot. Dozens of armed bandits watched nervously as two of them broke away from the rest and approached the barricade.
“Hail the camp!” the first rider yelled as he came to stop several dozen feet from the entrance to the base.
“Identify yourselves!” Herad shouted back in a commanding tone.
There was what looked to be a brief argument between the two riders before they responded. After a few moments the same man as before answered.
“I am sir Masnin, a paladin in service to the Order of Helio-Lustria. The man behind me is sir Devus, the leader of a detachment of knights Lord Strachan sent to aid me in my quest,” the rider explained politely but with a steely edge to his voice.
Herad wasn’t impressed. Her scowl only deepened as she regarded the holy knight.
“A paladin, eh? What brings such illustrious company such as yourself to my edge of my woods, pray tell?” she asked condescendingly.
As Blacknail listened, he tilted his head to the side. What was a paladin? It sounded sort of like a type of dessert, but not a particularly tasty one. Maybe like one of those really fancy looking ones that you got all excited about having but then ended up tasting worse than the cheap stuff.
“I’m here fulfilling the holy work of my order; I’m tracking an infection,” Sir Masnin told the bandit chieftain. “There was an outbreak of the dark plague in a village to the South a while back. The plague was stopped and burnt out before it could spread but several infected escaped out into the woods. I’ve tracked them North to here, and by now they are without doubt fully fledged ghouls.”
“We encountered those ghouls of yours and dealt with them ourselves. They were purged with holy silver and cleansing fire, so there’s no need for you to worry yourself about them any longer,” Herad replied as she stared the mounted paladin down.
“Then you have done the Sun God’s will and I thank you. I will of course need to enter your camp, question your men, and see that all is right for myself,” sir Masnin explained in a polite tone.
Herad eyed the paladin and the knights behind him doubtfully before bursting out into dark laughter. Most the riders flinched and reached for their weapons but sir Masnin remained calm and his gaze never wavered from Herad’s.
"You’re going to have to take my word for it because that’s not going to happen, pretty boy. Why don’t you ride off before you get yourself hurt?” she told him.
The paladin opened his mouth to respond but was interrupted when the rider next to him spoke up.
“We can’t trust these villains, sir Masnin; they’re fucking bandits and honorless deserters! If we go in there they’ll fall on us from every side while we’re distracted. There’s no reason to talk to the likes of them. Let’s just charge in there and put these mad dogs down, or turn around and come back with reinforcements. We’ll be doing the country a great boon by eliminating these scum,” sir Devus told the paladin.
“As long as you are seconded to my service I expect you to follow my lead,” Sir Masnin replied coolly before turning back to Herad.
The knight captain looked insulted but didn’t speak back up. Instead, he just glowered unhappily at the bandit chieftain.
“If you do not let me in then I promise you will have far more to worry about than a few dozen knights and a provincial noble,” the paladin told Herad in a steely tone.
“I’ve heard much better threats than that,” she replied dismissively.
Neither she nor the paladin looked away. Instead, they just stared at each other severely for what seemed like hours to Blacknail, but was probably more like a minute. Eventually, it was Sir Masnin that broke the silence.
“Worldly affairs are not my concern. I am concerned only with the struggle of light against darkness and civilization versus ruination," he explained respectfully.
“Those men behind you seem to think otherwise,” Herad pointed out.
“They have their responsibilities and I have mine. Though we all struggle to perform our duties they do not always lead us in the same direction. I beg permission to enter your camp alone as an honored guest,” the paladin responded.
“You can’t be serious!” sir Davus hissed in alarm but everyone ignored him.
Herad laughed again and smiled with obvious amusement.
“Why not? I’ve never had an honored guest before,” she answered with a chuckle.
She then waved to the archers up in the tower and they lowered their weapons. Sir Masnin took the opportunity to dismount and pass his reins to his companion.
A few seconds later, he was walking past the barricade and the bandits behind it without apparent fear. He might as well have been taking a stroll through a garden for all the concern that showed on his face. Blacknail kind of wanted to poke him and see what happened.
As the paladin approached Herad, he drew his blade. Her bodyguards tensed, but then sir Masnin flipped it around and carefully presented the hilt to her.
“Keep it,” Herad told him as she motioned him forward into the camp and smiled viciously. “Everyone else here is armed to the teeth, anyway.”