Blacknail and his new subordinates made good time on the road before they had to stop for the night. The last time the hobgoblin had come this way, he’d stumbled upon a hidden cave the size of a small room. It served as shelter from the elements and a hideaway, so he led the bandits to it.
As his minions were setting up camp, and doing all the unimportant not-leader things, Blacknail went out to put up his snares. It had become a nightly ritual, and his human followers depended on the food he caught. They were completely useless without him.
Once finished, the hobgoblin took a few minutes to forage for edible shoots and leaves. Several of his followers had already been through this area in their own search for food, but Blacknail had neglected to tell them that Red Cress leaves were edible. In fact, they were the tastiest treat around, which was why he hadn’t told anyone about them. More for him!
When he got back to the cave, Geralhd was there to welcome him. Most the other bandits were seated around the cave and resting. Days of hiking had worn them down and given them more than a few aches.
“It’s a good thing you led us here. It looks like it might rain over night, and we didn’t find much in the way of firewood,” Geralhd told the hobgoblin. “We’re going to have to go most the night without any light, so I’m glad we’re not out in the forest.”
Blacknail nodded sagely in response. He didn’t really care, but this sounded like something that important people talked about, and he was definitely important.
“Of course, I’m the leader. I know of many secret hiding places, because I’m amazing.” the hobgoblin replied as he grinned haughtily.
After a brief conversation, Geralhd went to see if there was anything else that needed doing, and Blacknail let him. The humans could take care of themselves, probably. In any case, most of them were expendable, so it didn’t matter.
It quickly grew too dark to see outside. Even the inside of the cave was barely lit by a small flickering fire. As the leader, Blacknail didn’t need to take a turn on watch, so he found somewhere comfortable to curl up and quickly fell asleep.
When he rose early the next morning, the hobgoblin yawned sluggishly and started waking everyone else up. Several of the lazy humans tried to sleep in, but Blacknail didn’t let them. They had things to do, and a horde of murderous bandits to evade!
“Ah, let me sleep just a little more!” Khita whined as she rolled over on her sleeping roll.
Most the bandits had bedrolls or blankets of some sort, even if they didn’t have much more than that. Before fleeing the battle they had grabbed what they could.
“No, I’m the leader. Get up!” Blacknail told her as he kicked her in the back.
“Ow, stop that!” the redhead hissed angrily.
“No, I’m the leader. Get up!” Blacknail repeated happily as he kicked her again.
He was enjoying this aspect of leadership quite a bit. Not only was physical discipline fun, but it was for their own good as well.
“Argh, fine! I’m getting you back for this later, though,” Khita growled grumpily as she sat up and turned to glare at him.
“You can’t get back at me, I’m the leader,” the hobgoblin explained condescendingly. Didn’t she know anything?
“We’ll see about that,” Khita responded as she got up and started rolling her blanket up.
Blacknail left her alone and went to get the next lazy human moving. It only took one blow to wake Elyias up. However, the still drowsy young man took one look at the hobgoblin’s face and yelped in terror. A second kick to the stomach shut him up. Minions were so funny.
After a quick breakfast they were back on the road. Once the sun rose up past the horizon, it became a bright day with little in the way of clouds.
The bandits continued on their trek North for several hours. They saw no sign of pursuers, although a small flock of screeching harpies flew overhead at one point.
They were long gone before Blacknail could string his bow and try to shoot one down. His minions were always complaining about being hungry, and a harpy had a fair bit of meat on it.
As he was walking, Blacknail’s mind was focused on his latest leadership problem. The top of his head was itchy because his horns were growing. They were still only a pair of small bony nubs, but they were definitely getting bigger. It was annoying.
All hobgoblins had horns – or at least Blacknail thought they did – but he kept his filed down so that they didn’t get in the way of wearing hats and stuff. Unfortunately, Blacknail had forgotten his file so he couldn’t get rid of them.
Even worse, none of his human minions had a file either. Blacknail had asked them, and then gone through their bags while they were sleeping, just to be sure they weren’t holding out on him, but he still hadn’t found one.
While Blacknail was scratching his scalp, an uneasy feeling came over him. It started with an itchy sensation like someone was watching him from out of sight, and then his gut twisted slightly to the left. Since he hadn’t recently eaten any strange mushrooms, that meant something was wrong.
The hobgoblin stopped what he was doing and scanned the tree lines on both sides of the road. He didn’t see anything, but the feeling didn’t disappear, so he raised a hand up and signalled for everyone to stop.
Immediately, a surprised man walked right into Blacknail’s back. The man swiftly apologized and backed off, but Blacknail was still annoyed. Most of the humans had completely ignored his signal and were still walking!
“When I have my hand up like this it means you’re supposed to stop!” an infuriated Blacknail explained as he tried to stare everyone down.
“Oh, sorry,” the bandit right behind the hobgoblin replied nervously.
Everyone then slowly came to an uneasy standstill as Blacknail glared at them. Who had trained these humans? They were terrible at everything! They must have been raised by awful masters.
Grumbling to himself, the hobgoblin turned back to the road up ahead and listened carefully. A branch snapped and birds sang, but he didn’t hear anything too out of place or which explained his uneasy feeling.
“What is it?” Geralhd asked nervously.
“Your great leader is not sure,” Blacknail replied contemplatively.
“We have a great leader?” someone muttered.
“It’s probably nothing. The hobgoblin is just being paranoid again,” a bearded bandit then remarked.
“Really, you’re going to question his instincts? Do you think your senses are better than his?” Geralhd countered sarcastically with a voice full of ire.
The bearded man shut up and didn’t reply. Everyone else was quiet, as they waited for their hobgoblin leader to do or say something. After a few seconds of silence, Blacknail tilted his head back and sniffed the air. He smelled nothing unusual, so he began walking forward.
Once he had moved a few dozen feet up ahead, the distracting scent of his stinky human followers disappeared. Blacknail sniffed the air again and then crouched down to press his nose against the dirt. He inhaled the scent of the road for a few seconds as he crawled around in a small circle.
“What is he doing?” someone enquired.
“Er, did you catch a scent?” Geralhd asked as the hobgoblin came to stop and stood up.
“Your glorious leader has found something important!” Blacknail replied as he brushed himself off.
“What?” Khita asked.
The young redhead sounded tired and irritable. It was probably because she wasted so much energy being annoying. She should try and sleep a little more instead of talking so much.
“I found humans!” Blacknail announced gravely.
All the bandits glanced at each other uncertainly. They frowned in confusion and more than a few of them rolled their eyes.
“Er, we know we are humans…” Geralhd remarked.
“No, stupid minions, I mean different humans,” Blacknail countered. “There was a large group of people here less than an hour ago.”
It took the bandits several seconds to consider this, and then they all tried to speak up at the same time.
“Damnation, that could mean anything!” someone cursed.
“What do we do?” a woman asked her fellows. “It’s probably Werrick’s men!”
“We need to know more before we do anything,” the first person replied.
Before the humans could get too loud and waste his time, Blacknail shushed them. They all fell silent immediately at the tone of his voice, and at the sound of his sword leaving its sheath.
“I’m the leader, so I decide what we do!” he told them as he brandished the blade dramatically.
“And what’s that?” the woman asked guardedly.
The other bandits also seemed nervous and unsure of themselves. Luckily, they had a leader to tell them what to do! Blacknail considered his options for a few moments before replying. Completely on his own, he quickly came to the conclusion that he needed to know more before he could decide.
“You all stay here, and try not to die. I’m going to look around,” he ordered his minions.
There were murmurs of disagreement, but Blacknail ignored them. As the leader, his was the only opinion that mattered.
“I’ll come with you!” Khita offered with sudden interest.
“No. If she tries to follow me then stab her,” Blacknail ordered Geralhd as he turned away from his followers.
“Er, sure,” the thin man replied uncertainly.
“I’ll do it for you, if you want,” a bearded bandit offered him.
Blacknail ignored them and headed for the edge of the forest. No one followed him as he slipped into the shadows cast by the branches overhead.
Stealthily, the hobgoblin slipped around trees and bushes. All his senses were alert as he searched the area for signs of any watchers. When he didn’t see anyone, he began paralleling the road.
It was only after several minutes of walking that he detected someone. As Blacknail was climbing over an old rotting log, a rustling sound drew his eyes towards a tree next to the road.
There was a black haired man crouching in the shadows there, where he couldn’t be seen from the road, but where he could still observe anyone approaching from that way. Blacknail instantly recognized him as a sentry. His gear was also too similar to what Werrick’s men wore for it to be a coincidence.
Blacknail crept closer to get a better look. He circled around a thick green bush and hid behind the base of a particularly wide tree. Once there, he spotted a dozen other concealed humans near the road, and there were undoubtedly more that he couldn’t see.
This was an ambush. Werrick’s men were laying in wait, and they were ready to pounce on Blacknail’s party if they went down the road. They obviously already knew that the survivors from Herad’s band were nearby, or they wouldn’t be waiting like this. That meant Blacknail didn’t have much time.
It didn’t look like the first sentry Blacknail had seen was visible to any of the other ambushers. The hobgoblin weighed his options. It was best to retreat as quickly as possible, and killing the sentry might alert someone. However, on the other hand, he really enjoyed murdering people.
He was going to do it. He couldn’t help himself.
Quickly, Blacknail slipped out from behind the tree and closed in on the man. He was absolutely silent as he glided up behind the bandit and drew a dagger. Once close enough, Blacknail lunged forward, cut the man’s throat, and then stabbed him under his ribs. The man barely had time to shiver and gasp before he bled to death in Blacknail’s arms.
To avoid suspicion, Blacknail leaned the corpse up against a tree in an as natural a position as he could, and then hurried back the way he had come. Soon, the enemy would realize that Blacknail’s party wasn’t going to walk into their ambush and they would give chase. The hobgoblin planned on not being around when that happened.
There was a small commotion when Blacknail stepped out of the bushes at the edge of the road. All his companions looked his way and started talking all at once. Blacknail noticed that Khita was seated on the ground and sulking. The bearded bandit from before was standing behind her with a hand on his sword hilt.
The hobgoblin huffed in annoyance and signalled for Geralhd to speak. He was the sub leader after all.
“You’re back, Blacknail. What did you find?” the thin bandit asked nervously.
Blacknail quickly filled everyone in. If they had been nervous before, they quickly grew terrified as the hobgoblin told them what he had seen. By this point, their reaction didn’t surprise the hobgoblin. Had every coward in Herad’s band somehow made their way into this group? The only person who didn’t look afraid was Khita, and that was because she was too dumb to feel proper emotions.
Before anyone could ask Blacknail the predictable and stupid questions that he was always asked at time like this, the hobgoblin growled and stared everyone down. Then, when he had their undivided attention, he explained his plan. It was a good plan.
“We’re going to run away,” he told them all.
“I think we should just take their ambush from behind!” Khita suggested enthusiastically. “They’re scum, and we’ll easily cut them to pieces!”
“Shut up, nobody asked you,” Blacknail replied dismissively.
“Where can we go?” the blonde woman asked fearfully. “We can’t go forwards into the ambush, and there is nothing behind us but enemies!”
“We’re already almost out of food! We can’t afford a detour,” another bandit added.
Their reactions annoyed Blacknail. It wasn’t a minion’s place to question the boss.
“Shut up!” Blacknail hissed. “I’m the leader, and I say we’re running, so let’s go.”
The hobgoblin’s angry tone caused several people to step away from him. They eyed each other nervously but none of them started moving.
“Let’s go!” Blacknai repeated furiously. Why weren’t they moving?
‘Um, where are we running to? You haven’t told us yet,” Geralhd politely pointed out.
“Oh, right. We’re going into the forest,” the hobgoblin explained. “I’ll lead us around the ambush.”
“Can you do that?” someone asked doubtfully.
“Yes, easily,” Blacknail replied with complete sincerity.
He wouldn’t have any problem going around the ambush. It was everyone else that would have difficulty. They weren’t nearly as sneaky as he was, and they were dumb. Half of them would probably fall into a hole or something; the same hole, all at once.
“I guess we don’t have much of a choice,” Geralhd admitted. “Every other option is worse.”
“You really don’t; I’m the leader,” Blacknail agreed.
The hobgoblin then quickly got everyone moving. They didn’t have much time so he herded them towards the forest. Once they were all off the road, Blacknail took the lead again.
No one spoke as they hiked through the woods. With all the overhanging branches and bushes nearby, everyone was afraid of being overheard by someone out of sight. Only Blacknail had any idea in which direction the enemy lay.
They had just walked down into a small muddy gully when they heard shouting from back on the road. Everyone stopped and looked in that direction.
“They’re on to us! We need to move before they find our tracks or get our scent,” Blacknail ordered his followers.
“They won’t be able to track us by scent,” Geralhd replied. “People can’t do that.”
“Not even if they put their noses really close to the ground and take really deep breaths?” the hobgoblin asked uncertainly.
“Humans are so useless,” Blacknail remarked disdainfully as he shook his head. “Why do you even have noses?”
No one replied, so the hobgoblin picked up his speed. Everyone else struggled to follow him up the other side of the gully, but it didn’t take them very long to reach the top.
Blacknail wanted to move at a faster pace but some of the humans were frustratingly slow. He considered leaving them behind, but decided against it for now. He could always abandon them later.
After fleeing through the forest for a bit less than half an hour, Blacknail began to hear sounds of pursuit. Someone had found their trail and was following it.
The hobgoblin eyed his minions and considered his options. As he watched, one person near the back tripped over an exposed root and fell. Blacknail sighed as they quickly got back up. He was going to have to do something.
Why was it always him that had to take action? Chieftains weren’t supposed to be the ones doing all the work. That was contrary to the entire point! He was obviously spoiling his minions rotten.
“We’re being followed. Keep going forward and I’ll deal with it,” Blacknail explained as he turned and started heading back.
“I’ll go with you!” Khita suggested.
“No, you’re slow,” Blacknail quickly replied.
“You’re not letting me do anything!” she whined in response. “I want to fight.”
Instead of replying, Blacknail turned to look meaningfully at the person behind her. It was the bearded bandit from before.
“Stab her if she tries to follow you?” the man guessed.
Blacknail nodded happily before walking away. It was possible to teach grown humans new tricks!
The rest of the survivors from Herad’s band headed deeper into the forest, and they soon were out of sight. Blacknail backtracked for a few moments before spotting a hiding spot at the base of a large rock surrounded by bushes.
As he moved towards it, he pulled his bow off his back and strung it. He then crouched down and started waiting. The enemy would be arriving soon and the hobgoblin planned to be ready for them.
Book 3 is Out!
The third novel in The Iron Teeth series is now out on Amazon. Please support the author and help promote the book by purchasing and reviewing A Bloody Road. Every review and purchase helps a lot!