No one had said it directly, but from listening to people talking Blacknail swiftly came to the conclusion he wasn’t invited to join Herad’s expedition. That wasn’t going to stop him though. He was looking forward to visiting a human city again too much to let a simple lack of permission get in his way.
So as night fell and everyone went to sleep he started scheming, and he quickly came up with a fool proof plan. The best way to make sure he was included in the party sent to Daggerpoint was simple; he wasn’t going to ask. If no one knew he was there they couldn’t tell him to go back.
The next morning when Saeter was getting up to get ready to go Blacknail was nowhere to be found. The hobgoblin had woken up even earlier than usual, and had quickly made his way out into the woods as if he was checking the snares or hunting.
However, he had no intention of doing his usual routine. As soon as he was out of sight and safely hidden in the forest he stopped to make sure no one else was around. Blacknail then stealthily crept through the bushes around the edge of the camp.
When he got to the road he selected a nearby tall tree that overlooked the area, and then he scrambled up it. The bark of the tree was grey and rough, but once he got up into the branches it was easy climbing. Climbing trees took a lot less effort since he had become a hobgoblin because his limbs were so much longer.
Once he was a couple dozen feet up he stopped and hid on a particular leafy branch that gave him a good view of the surroundings. Then the hobgoblin simply waited for the expedition to leave.
It only took a few minutes for something to happen. Unseen, up in the tree Blacknail watched Herad, Saeter, and the rest of their group pour out of the camp and head down the road.
As he watched he caught a brief glance of red hair. Wait, was that Khita? They were taking that useless human whelp and not him! Why? The hobgoblin glowered down at them from his leafy perch.
When they were out of sight Blacknail smiled gleefully again though. He’d show them how sneaky he could be. It was time for him to put his plan in action. He hastily climbed down to the ground, and then hurried back through the woods to the far end of the camp.
Once back in the clearing he calmly walked over to his campsite and packed up some of his things. If he had done it before hand it would have alerted Saeter. There was no way his master would have missed something so obvious.
That done he picked up his pack and once again strolled over to the back of the camp. He got a few odd looks but no one said anything. Not that a lot of people usually struck up casual conversations with him anyway.
Once back in the woods he once again circled through the forest towards the road. He stayed hidden and out of sight among the trees for a few minutes as he moved parallel to the road. He didn’t want anyone in the camp to see him leave, but moving through the brush was slow so he soon had to move onto the road.
By this time Herad’s group had quite a lead on him, but the hobgoblin could keep track of them by their scent. Even if they left the road he wouldn’t have any trouble finding them.
As Blacknail jogged down the road in pursuit the scent grew stronger until he knew he was almost upon them. The hobgoblin then slowed his pace and grew careful. It would be very bad for him if he was spotted now.
When he finally caught up he risked only a quick glance at the humans, before falling back out of sight and continuing to track them by scent. Herad was leading the way and dressed in her usual attire. Saeter was walking directly behind her, and the rest of the bandits followed him. They all had long hooded traveler’s cloaks meant for keeping people warm and dry.
Only when they slowed or stopped did Blacknail slip into the woods and observe the humans while concealed among the trees. He kept careful watch on Saeter in particular. If anyone was going to spot him it would be his master.
As they walked Blacknail had a lot of fun trailing Herad’s group. Some part of him just loved the act of stalking. It filled him with eager energy and just felt right, like he was doing what he was meant to. He didn’t mean his tribe any harm, but it was still exciting to fool them.
After a few hours though the humans stopped walking and came to a stop. The reason for this was both very obvious, and very alarming. The forest was full of the sound of cracking tree branches and the thud of heavy footsteps. The source of the noise was easy to spot. Several massive brown creatures were moving through the edge of the forest along the path ahead of them.
They were easily the largest creatures Blacknail had ever seen, much bigger than even the troll had been. Like trolls they had two thick legs and two long arms, but that’s where the resemblance ended. They were easily three times as tall as any man, many more times as heavy, and covered in thick brown hair.
Most of them moved ponderously on all four limbs, but every once and awhile one would rear up onto its back legs and walk around that way for short distances. It would then reach up into nearby trees and rip branches down. The end of their arms ended in truly impressive claws that shredded the wood effortlessly. There were five claws on each hand, and they were as long as swords.
Blacknail was too far away to get a good look at their blunt faces, but two large curled horns rose from their heads. The beasts brought the leafy branches they tore down from the trees to their mouths and chewed them. That meant they were either eating some very slow and stupid tree rats, or they were plant eaters. The hobgoblin vaguely remembered his master mentioning something like them, but he had forgotten their name.
Feeling extremely curious, Blacknail used the distraction the creatures were creating in order to move closer to Herad and the others. He wanted to hear what they were saying. Carefully, Blacknail slipped into the bushes at the edge of the road. He then stealthily made his way right up behind the position the bandits had taken.
They had stopped on the road a fair distance from the giants, and were talking amongst themselves as they watched the beasts. Blacknail managed to get within two dozen feet of the humans. That was more than close enough for him to hear everything they said, even with all the noise the beasts were making.
“…ogres will move on in a bit. We just have to be patient. There’s no reason to leave the safety of the road. Right now they’re watching us. If we all stumble into the forest we might spook them, and that could end badly,” Saeter was telling Herad.
The bandit chieftain was looking impatient, and not completely convinced by Blacknail’s master’s words. She was scowling at the ogres, and her hands were on her hips. She looked like she wanted to single handily kill the beasts that had dared slow her down, but then she sighed.
“Fine, tell the men we’ll be resting for a bit. We’ll be doubling the pace when the way is clear though, to make up for lost time,” she said.
Saeter nodded and then moved to fulfill her orders. He moved slower than usual and didn’t make any loud noises, probably as not to spook the ogres.
As Blacknail’s master had suggested the bandits simply held their position and waited for the ogres to move away from the road. As the minutes passed the giants continued to move ponderously from tree to tree so they could eat the leaves and fruit.
Every once and a while an ogre would turn towards the bandits and give them a curious or wary look, but they didn’t seem too concerned by the presence of humans. That was definitely a good thing because Blacknail didn’t think even Herad could take on several of the gigantic beasts. It would be like a goblin trying to wrestle a large man; the goblin would without a doubt end up stomped flat.
Just as Blacknail was beginning to relax, a deep roar suddenly pierced through the ogre’s racket. Instantly, the giants all stood up on their hind legs and looked alarmed. They scanned the forest, as it grew eerily quiet in every direction. Even the birds went silent, and deep sense of unease started to grow in Blacknail’s gut.
“Hells, a drake,” whispered Saeter, as all the bandits around him grew stiff with fear.
“It’s not close, right?” one of the other bandits asked him fearfully.
“Shh, shut your trap,” Saeter hissed back at him in reply.
Another louder roar filled the air. The sound seemed to ricochet through the trees, and caused Blacknail a shiver to crawl up his back. His instincts were suddenly screaming at him to find a nearby hole and disappear down into it. If he hadn’t been worried about losing sight of his master he might have listened.
Saeter seemed to be listening intently. When the drake had roared a second time his head had whipped around, and he was now staring at the forest behind the ogres.
“Shit, we need to move. Now!” Saeter warned Herad urgently.
Before he could get a response the sound of splintering wood and the unmistakable boom of a falling tree echoed through the forest. Several of the ogres flinched, and Saeter immediately started running back down the road the way they had come.
“Fall in and follow or you’re dead meat!” Herad commanded everyone before taking off after the scout.
With a scared snort one of the ogres dropped down on all fours and started to flee. After a second of hesitation another ogre quickly joined it. Then with a chorus of alarmed huffs and snorts all the giants took off in pursuit of the first two, and almost directly towards where the bandits were standing.
Several of the bandits froze for a second as the ogres barreled towards them. Most of them though immediately joined Herad in retreating out of the stampeding beasts’ path, and the rest were quick to follow.
Several of them looked like they were screaming and shouting in fear but Blacknail couldn’t hear them over the thunderous noise of the running giants. The ground was shaking beneath him and he could see the leaves of nearby trees shaking.
The vibrations made running more difficult than usual, which was bad because the ogres were headed in Blacknail’s direction. The hobgoblin had wasted no time; he had started running as soon Herad had.
On all fours he scrambled through the trees at the side of the road after his master. He whipped through bushes and tore up dirt and leaves as he ran. He could hear the ogres growing closer, and didn’t want to find out what they thought of hobgoblins.
A bright red fox red suddenly burst out of a nearby thicket and began racing alongside the hobgoblin. They both gave each other surprised looks, but neither stopped running or even changed directions.
Blacknail heard the sound of splintering wood behind him, and redoubled his pace. His heart was beating frantically in his chest. Being near the stampeding ogres reminded him too much of when he had been a little goblin, and beneath the notice of larger creatures.
Then the thud of heavy footsteps started to die down. Blacknail gave a relieved sigh and let himself slow down. The fox that had been running beside him sped off into the trees. Now the noise of the stampeding ogres had almost completely faded, and the forest no longer seemed to be shaking.
Blacknail leaned against a nearby tree trunk and sucked down a quick breath. Gradually his heartbeat returned to normal. He was tired after such a hard sprint, but glad to still be alive.
Once he had recovered he went to check out the road for signs of his tribe. He glanced around a tree at the forest’s edge and saw that Herad and her minions seemed fine. They were just recovering from their own mad sprint.
Saeter was motioning everyone off the road and into the ditch beside it. Blacknail smiled after he saw that everyone was alright. He would have hated it if they had decided to turn back around and go back to camp.
Just then there was another loud boom. Blacknail whipped around to look a fair distance up the road towards its source. He was just in time to see a massive shape bound out of the trees and across the road, before disappearing into the forest on the other side. It hadn’t been an ogre; it had been much larger and faster.
Blacknail gulped as his stomach twisted in fear again. The hobgoblin had only got a quick look at the creature, but unlike an ogre it had obviously had a long neck and tail. It could only have been a drake; one of the rulers of the forest that Saeter was always telling him about. The most dangerous creatures you could run into, and likely the last.
Both Herad’s group and Blacknail stayed still and hidden for the next while. Only after several long minutes had passed did the bandit’s get up and resume their trek to Daggerpoint. Blacknail followed them as closely as he could without being seen. He really didn’t want to be left behind right now.
Much to everyone’s relief no more drake screams were heard, and the rest of the day was fairly uneventful. It began to get dark, but Herad kept pushing them to keep going. Blacknail was starting to wonder if they were even going to stop for the night when they came upon an abandoned stone building at the side of the road.
Even in the dark it was easy to see it was in poor repair. It bore signs of once being an impressive building, but there was an obvious hole in the roof and one of the walls had collapsed. It would still be a much safer and dryer place to sleep than outside though, so the bandits all headed inside.
As Blacknail moved to follow them he noticed signs of other long decayed wooden buildings among the grass and bushes. A sizable human settlement must have once stood there, but now only the one large building remained to remind travelers that a flourishing village had once stood there.
The hobgoblin could see and hear much better than the humans in the darkness, so he had no problem creeping up to the building in the dark. The bandits were just setting up camp and building a fire for the night. The light from the flames served only to hinder the humans’ night vision and make his approach easier.
The hobgoblin slipped up beside one of the outside walls. He watched and listened for awhile through small hole that gave him a clear view of the inside. It was pretty boring stuff though. The only thing even remotely of interest that he learned was that the building was called a temple, and supposed to be good luck or something. Soon the bandits started going to sleep, and that was really tedious to watch so Blacknail moved away.
He had to figure out where he was going to rest for the night as well. He hadn’t brought his tent, but he had brought a pair of blankets. Carefully, Blacknail explored the area around the temple.
Crumbled stone bricks and thick bushes surrounded the old building. A few dozen feet away through the darkness the thick growth of the forest loomed.
The hobgoblin didn’t want to move too close to the dark woods. He had no idea what might be lurking out there. He could hear crickets chirping and leaves rustling, but it was what he couldn’t hear that worried him. He had been reminded earlier that no matter how experienced you became the forest always contained new unseen dangers.
He felt much safer closer to Saeter and the bandits than out there. He couldn’t get too close to them though, or he would be seen.
After a few frustrating minute spent circling the temple Blacknail noticed fire light flickering through a window near the roof of the building. With a surge of excitement the hobgoblin began to climb his way up to it. The old weathered stone walls were easy to grip; he just had to watch out for loose bricks.
Once up there he found a shadowy ledge that was concealed from both below and outside. It was the perfect place to sleep, so Blacknail laid out his blankets.
He then briefly glanced down at the bandits and Saeter. They were gathered around their fire and most of them were asleep. Saeter appeared to be on watch though because he was one of the few still up and about.
Blacknail’s master was drinking something from a cup while seated on a piece of rubble. He was looking outside into the darkness through one of the doors, but then he leisurely turned and looked up towards the hobgoblin’s hiding spot.
Blacknail leaned into the shadows and held his breath, but Saeter soon turned back to the door. He didn’t appear to have seen anything because the old scout was still relaxed and casually took another sip from his drink.
Blacknail turned away and lay down on his spread out blankets. As the light of the flames below flickered over the roof above him the hobgoblin gave a silent yawn, and closed his eyes. It didn’t take long for sleep to overcome him.
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!