There were two guards standing outside the gates of the castle. Both of them were wearing bright chainmail with purple tabards over it. They also wore steel caps that reflected the light from the setting sun off in this distance. This made them some the cleanest and fanciest soldiers Blacknail had ever seen. Looking clean seemed to be as important to them as actually guarding the gate, maybe more, considering how bored they looked and how unobservant they were being.
Neither guard noticed Blacknail’s approach until he was right on top of them. One second, the road leading to the castle was empty, and they were having an uneventful day, the next, there was inhuman creature looming over them.
“I have been invited,” Blacknail announced. He was dressed in his best armor and wearing his best cloak, which had been made from a mutant wolf he’d slain. The setting sun was behind him, so his face was dark and his antlers caught the light and cast a mess of creepy shadows.
“Holy gods!” one of the guardsman yelped as he jumped back. The other simply froze and stared at the dark figure before him with wide eyes full of terror.
“I am Blacknail, and I have been invited by your leaders,” the hobgoblin told them. He was used to this. Most humans needed to be told everything repeatedly. It took several long seconds for the guardsman to process this, which was another annoying human trait.
One guard fumbled with his sword, but Blacknail simply stepped forward and put a hand on the man’s arm so that he couldn’t draw his weapon. “Bad idea.”
The other guard hesitated but then recognition appeared in his eyes and he relaxed a little. “Right, we were told about you.”
“So, are you going to let me in?” Blacknail asked.
The guards looked at each other uncertainly. Letting a huge hobgoblin in through the front gate seemed like the exact opposite of their usual duty.
“I suppose that’s what we we’re ordered to do if you showed up,” one of them remarked a few seconds later.
“Good, then open the gates,” Blacknail replied with forced patience. He wasn’t here to talk to these idiots but smacking them around wouldn’t help. If anything, it would make them stupider.
One of the guards hesitantly walked over to the gate. Once he was there, a head-high slot opened and he began talking to someone on the other side. This went on for a while, so Blacknail sighed and studied his surroundings.
The castle that loomed behind the two guards was quite impressive, and like nothing Blacknail had ever seen before. Its outer walls were not only taller than any other he’d seen, but they were made from thick stone that fit together remarkably smoothly. They looked like they would resist even the most powerful of magical blasts or even a charge by a horde of ogres.
All the pointy towers that had been built on the wall were also imposing. Anyone within them would have a commanding view of the area around the castle, which had been built next to the only trail that went through a series of very rugged hills.
The keep rose up from inside the outer walls. Made up of more stone, it was squarish in shape except for its triangular roof and five towers. There was a tower on each corner of the square, and one taller one in the center. All in all, it had a very simple and functional design. This building was a defensive structure meant to repel invaders, not look pretty.
It would have been very difficult for Blacknail to take this castle with his troops. Sure, he might be able to sneak over the outer wall and open the gate after fighting the guards, but even if his minions took the outer walls, the keep in the center could easily be sealed up tight. Against a determined force of human defenders, it would be next to impossible to conquer.
Yes, this castle was very different from the crude fortifications that most settlements in the North used. That was to be expected though. This castle had been designed to stop real armies, not just forest beasts and bandits. Also, everything humans made in the South was supposed to be bigger and better, and this castle was located on the northern border of Eloria. Technically, once he was inside the castle, Blacknail would no longer be in the North.
The guards were still debating someone on the other side of the door, so Blacknail sighed and let his thoughts wander. The march here from Daggerpoint hadn’t taken that long, but they’d had to move quickly to get here in time for the meeting. Not that he’d minded leaving Daggerpoint as quickly as possible. The friction between Herah and Luphera had grown worse until it was quite uncomfortable for him. Blacknail wasn’t even sure why they were fighting. He wasn’t interested in Luphera anymore, and even if he had been, there was more than enough of him to go around.
Anyway, Blacknail had ended up leaving quite a few troops in Daggerpoint, and had decided against leaving anyone important in charge of them. Whoever he left, they’d just end up doing what Luphera wanted anyway. Thankfully, her interests seemed to align with Blacknail’s, so he didn’t need to kill her. He had more important things to deal with than her games, like boggarts and Werrick. That was why he was standing in front of this impressive heap of stone.
Finally, the guards finished their conversation and the gates began to creak open. Blacknail waited until they were completely open, and then he turned and motioned toward a nearby hill. Immediately, over a dozen figures detached themselves from the shadows and followed him in through the gates. The guards jumped in surprise again, but a glare from Blacknail – backed by a little fear magic – made them both instantly shut their mouths and go rigid with fear. They said nothing as a dozen hobgoblins and three humans made their way into the castle. There were more guards on the inside, but they either decided that the hobgoblins had all been invited in or that this wasn’t their problem.
“Please wait here, someone will be along meet you soon,” one the guards told the newly arrived party, and Blacknail gave him a nod in reply.
Khita stepped forward peered around the gatehouse. “I’ve never been in a castle before. Slums and city markets were more my thing.”
“I defended a castle out on the eastern border during a siege once, back when I was in the army, but we conscripts were never let in the keep itself,” Ralphi said.
“I visited one or two for family business when I was young,” Geralhd added. “There usually isn’t much to them. Just a lot of stone corridors and drafty halls.”
Blacknail nodded. “Lots and lots of stones. I’m actually impressed that someone got a bunch of humans to do this much work.”
“The nobles definitely know how to motivate the common folk,” Ralphi remarked sourly.
Blacknail looked over at him and gave him an interested look. “Oh, how do they do that?” He could always use more efficient humans.
Ralphi just sighed. “Never you mind. It’s not important.”
Before Blacknail could press the point further, he was distracted by the arrival of someone new, a man in neat purple clothing.
“Blacknail the hobgoblin, I presume?” the man asked. He had a very emotionless manner and rigid posture.
“Yep, that’s me. I can show you my black toenail if you want,” Blacknail answered with a smile. He was rather proud of his black toenail. It was why Saeter had given him his name.
A hint of grimace briefly flashed across the man’s face. “No, that won’t be necessary.”
“Your loss,” the hobgoblin remarked with a shrug. The man had just lost his only chance to see the toe that terrified the North.
“Perhaps. I’m to escort you to see the royal councilor. He wishes to speak with you. Please leave your weapons here.”
Geralhd coughed politely as he stepped forward and gave a little bow. “We would be very grateful for your service. Please lead the way.”
Blacknail just nodded along. As a mutant, he wasn’t too worried about being disarmed, and Geralhd probably knew what he was doing since he was the fancy human ceremony expert. Blacknail had just been making everything up as he went along, which only worked because he was so amazing at everything.
After everyone had handed over most of their weapons to the gate guards – Blacknail knew several of his party still had daggers hidden away – the herald began leading the group of hobgoblins toward the keep. They exited the gatehouse and went through the courtyard before reaching the main entrance to the central keep. There were a lot of human troops around, more than Blacknail had expected to see. The soldiers manned the walls and could be seen moving through the dusty courtyard on various tasks. It seemed like there was a small army stationed here right now.
Passing some more guards, the herald led Blacknail’s group into the keep. It was made from the same cut grey stone, but now there were tapestries and glimmering mage lights on the walls. They also passed the occasional servant, who all fled once they noticed Blacknail.
After a little walking, they arrived at a small sitting room with a closed door on the far wall. Fancy tapestries featuring roaring lions and human knights decorated the walls. Blacknail also saw one featuring a harpy with wings outstretched and a very human face, but there was a conspicuous lack of hobgoblins. Well, it wasn’t like humans were known for their good taste. At least, there were plenty of soft-looking chairs and couches present.
“Please be seated here, the lord will call for you soon,” the herald announced as he made a slight bow and then disappeared back the way they’d come.
With nothing better to do, the group of hobgoblins and former bandits sat down on the available chairs. There was enough for all of them as long as they squeezed as many hobgoblins as possible onto the two couches. Blacknail and his lieutenants all got their own comfy chairs, of course. The hobgoblin settled down to wait as his minions began to mutter among themselves, and twenty minutes went by without any word from their host.
“Why did that purple man bring us here just to sit around and do nothing?” Blacknail asked his humans after his patience wore out.
Geralhd sighed. “I believe he’s asserting his authority over us by showing us that he can keep us waiting. It’s a very common tactic for humans, especially among the nobility, who get off on these sort of petty power games.”
There was a grunt of agreement from Ralphi, and Blacknail frowned thoughtfully.
“That seems rather rude,” Blacknail announced as he got up and walked over to the closed door. A quick jiggle of the handle revealed that it was locked.
“What are you doing?” Geralhd asked in concern.
“I’m being as petty as possible to win the game,” Blacknail replied as he began knocking on the door.
“That’s not how it works…”
Blacknail kept knocking for several long moments, until there was a click as someone unlocked the door from the other side. A moment later, it opened slightly and a young man in the same purple outfit as the herald peeked out. He flinched visibly when Blacknail leaned sideways to meet his gaze – they were only about a foot apart – but he didn’t withdraw.
“Yes, can I help you?” the servant inquired with a stutter. It looked like he was trying to be angry but was way too scared to pull it off properly.
Sensing weakness, Blacknail leered at him. “Is the noble guy I’m supposed to meet in there?”
“Er, yes, but he’s busy. Please, wait until he’s ready.”
“No, I’m busy too,” Blacknail replied as he reached out and pushed the man out of the way, so that he could peer into the next room.
It was a small chamber with a large wooden table in the center. There were four people around the table. An older man, two guards, and one other that Blacknail recognized instantly. It was Sir Masnin. All of the occupants of the room were staring at the intruding hobgoblin, so Blacknail gave the paladin a friendly wave.
There was a deep sigh from the elderly man standing next to Sir Masnin who was wearing a long purple robe with silver trim. “Very well, just let the hobgoblin in. We’re just about ready for him anyway.”
The servant Blacknail had pushed out of the way nodded at the elderly man. He then composed himself and turned to the hobgoblin. “You may enter and attend the lord. Your retinue must wait outside though.”
Blacknail eyed the servant. He found it highly amusing that the man little thought he could tell him anything. “I need one of my men to come in and be a translator.”
The servant scowled. “Your command of the Elorian tongue seems more than adequate to me.”
“I don’t need him to translate words,” Blacknail explained with a sigh. “I need him to tell me what humans mean. Your thoughts are all squishy and hard to understand.”
“Yes, like mushrooms or pie.”
The servant considered this for a moment, but only appeared to grow more confused the more he thought about it, until it looked like his eyes were trying to go off in different directions. He glanced toward the noble, who rolled his eyes and nodded.
“Er, very well,” the servant conceded as his neutral expression reappeared. He was obviously far more comfortable with taking orders than thinking for himself. Humans, they accepted authority too easily and weren’t properly ambitious like hobgoblins.
“Geralhd, get in here,” Blacknail told his human minion before he stepped into the room
Smiling in what he hoped was a friendly manner, and not hungry-looking, the hobgoblin approached the table. “Hello, nice to meet you.”
The man in the robe gave the hobgoblin a tight smile. “So, you’re the infamous Blacknail. I must admit that I’d been looking forward to meeting you in person. It’s not every day that I encounter such a unique individual.”
“Well, now you have,” Blacknail replied. He felt like he should say more, but human small talk wasn’t one of his strengths. “Why did you invite me here? It’s a nice castle, but you probably want something, right?”
Gerahd suddenly stepped up beside Blacknail – and slightly in front of him – and bowed. “Greetings, lord. My I have the honor of knowing who I am addressing?”
The noble nodded. “I am Lord Lavista of the King’s Council. You may rise.”
Geralhd stood up straight as commanded. “Excuse my companion. He is not schooled in the proper etiquette.”
“Ya, that’s true,” Blacknail agreed. He wasn’t even entirely sure what etiquette was. Something about not eating with your hands?
“I was not expecting you to be,” the noble told the hobgoblin. “Honestly, your own station is not entirely clear because of the novel nature of your existence. Thus, for now, you operate outside of normal social interactions anyway.”
Blacknail was fairly certain that was a good thing, but just in case, he replied only with a vague nod.
“Regardless, more pressing matters seek our attention, and I can thus put up with some ignorance of protocols in the name of expediency,” the noble continued. “You are the last of the invitees to arrive for this summit, and there is no reason to delay it any longer, so I summoned everyone to the council chamber a while ago. Sir Masnin – whose opinion I trust – tells me that you can be worked with and trusted to adhere to simple bargains. However, I did want to converse with you before we met up with the others so that I could take your measure for myself. Due to the unprecedented crises facing my nation, I have been given the complete authority of the crown. Still, the upcoming negotiations will be difficult, even disregarding complete unknowns like you and your faction.”
As the noble finished talking, Sir Masnin spoke to Blacknail. “I’ve informed the lord about all our interactions and what I know of the situation here in the North. It is far more complex than he had suspected. Down south, they tend to ignore everything that happens up here.”
Lord Lavista nodded. “That ignorance might have cost us dearly, especially since some say the black demons originated from these parts, but Sir Masnin has informed me of most of what I need to know about local conditions and actors. However, despite his good descriptions of certain aspects of your character, you still remain the most unpredictable and mysterious of the locals. I am told you control significant territory and have access to far more resources than most would suspect. What is it that you want?”
Blacknail really wanted to kill Werrick, who was probably in this castle right now. Even now, the fervent desire ate away at the hobgoblin’s insides like black boiling acid. He wanted nothing nearly so much as to see the man die horribly and then to chop the man’s body up for trophies. The hobgoblin wasn’t sure if he should admit this though. He hesitated. Would they accept shiny things as an answer?
Thankfully, Geralhd once again proved his use and covered for Blacknail’s hesitation. “Allow me to give some small answer here. I have spent quite some time among Blacknail and his kin, and let me assure you, they’re not so different from the human denizens of the North. Although primitive, they simply seek to better their lives and learn from humans so that they may live as well as we do. Blacknail himself is merely following in the footsteps of his now deceased mistress Herad.”
Blacknail smiled. That wasn’t entirely true. Living easier and better was nice, they’d occupied him completely as a goblin, but turning into a hobgoblin had changed that. Now he thirsted for the hunt and conquest far more than comforts. Blacknail had built his tribe and was copying humans in order to forge soldiers and weapons that would help him kill Werrick. Still, it was a better answer than he could have come up with. It seemed like Geralhd thought that they should pretend to be simple bandits. Blacknail would play along. They weren’t sure what this noble wanted yet after all, so it would be best to give him what he expected.
“Yes, I simply want to keep the territory I’ve taken and trade with you humans. I can’t do that if boggarts kill everyone,” he told the noble.
The noble frowned subtly and studied Blacknail. He didn’t seem entirely convinced, but Blacknail just kept smiling as disarmingly as possible. He knew it was difficult for most humans to read him, or even stare at his face for too long.
“How very wise of you,” the man finally remarked as he grimaced and looked away. “Very well, thank you for humoring my enquiries. Head back to the sitting room. A servant will take you to the council chamber now, where I will address everyone.”
“As you wish, lord,” Geralhd immediately replied with another bow.
Blacknail stayed standing straight, but he let Geralhd pull him back toward the sitting room. Once there, Geralhd turned to the hobgoblin, rubbed his forehead, and groaned. “You only got away with that discourtesy because they need you, and Lord Lavista considers you little better than a violent savage that couldn’t know better.”
“I am a violent savage, so they better not leave me to wait in any more empty rooms,” Blacknail huffed in reply.
“That’s not how it works.”
However, before Geralhd could argue any more, a servant appeared and began leading them down another corridor. They didn’t have to go far, and soon they walked through a doorway and entered a large antechamber. The room was full of colorful hangings and impressive furniture. There were also lots of humans present, but Blacknail’s gaze was drawn to one man in particular. Werrick. Blacknail growled as he laid eyes on his mortal enemy and rage surged up within him.
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