Blacknail watched the enemy march down the road towards him. There were hundreds of them. The impact from their boots hitting the hard earth of the road filled the air with a thudding sound and caused dust to billow up into the sky.
The savage looking fighters formed a long serpentine line of moving bodies. More and more of them came into sight as they marched past a bend in the road and out from behind a mass of greenery.
The lead elements drew to a close out of bowshot. They were plainly visible under the noonday sun because a gentle wind carried all the dust away and over the forest. Werrick’s main force had arrived.
Blacknail watched from the forest nearby as their commanders started ordering them to stop and rest their feet. Herad had sent the hobgoblin and Saeter out to keep an eye on the invaders.
“So many pathetic cowards,” the hobgoblin hissed angrily.
He was perched atop an old dead tree trunk that had fallen over in the forest. It lay on a angle so that the end Blacknail was seated on was several feet above the ground. Saeter was standing beside him. Together, the pair peered out past the edge of the woods at the enemy on the road before them.
“They’re not doing anything. How can they be cowards?” Saeter remarked with irritated uncertainty.
“It’s because they aren’t doing anything!” Blacknail answered him. “They should-ss attack already. There are so many of them already, but they are just sitting there. It’s boring!”
“It would be nice if they were that stupid,” his master mused aloud in reply.
“Ah, I have so many things to do!” Blacknail whined as he glared at the humans that had entered his territory uninvited. “But I need to stay here and watch them! They might try something tricky-ss if I leave.”
Saeter was dressed in his forest greens. The wrinkles on his weathered face were plainly visible as he eyed the hobgoblin critically. As usual he was clean-shaven and his grey hair was kept practically short.
“You don’t need to watch them, and besides, what is it that you need to do so badly? If I didn’t get you moving in the morning you’d sit around all day like a pig in the mud,” he replied dryly.
“Stuff. Important stuff, that is what I need to do,” Blacknail responded carefully as he fidgeted uncomfortably.
Usually, he did a daily round of the camp to make sure nothing had changed but he hadn’t had time today. There were also a few items that he had hidden away and he liked to check in on them every once and a while. Not being able to do that was making his brain itch. What if a thief found them and hid them somewhere?
“Stupid humans,” Blacknail hissed to himself as he continued to stare out at the enemy troops.
“What was that?” His master asked.
“Nothing-ss,” the hobgoblin quickly responded.
His master would probably misunderstand the comment. Sometimes Blacknail forgot that Saeter was technically a human. He was a lot smarter and sneakier than most other men.
“I think I’ve seen enough. Let’s head back,” Saeter told the hobgoblin. “I don’t see any signs that they are planning on leaving the road or circling the camp.”
“Sure, sure,” Blacknail murmured distractedly back.
The hobgoblin didn’t budge. He remained perched on a log at the edge of the forest where he had a good view of the road. He knew that any second now the enemy humans were going to do something important and he didn’t want to miss it.
“Come on, Blacknail. If that army starts to move then you’ll bloody know, trust me. You don’t have to watch it yourself,” Saeter said as started walking into the forest.
The hobgoblin wasn’t so sure. His personal experience was that all human sentries were completely useless. He snuck by them all the time, it wasn’t even that hard. He didn’t think it unlikely that they could miss an army or two.
“It’s about time for lunch, anyway,” Saeter remarked loudly as he ducked under a low tree branch.
With a sigh, the hobgoblin got up and followed his master. Watching the enemy was important but there was no way he was going to skip a meal.
Together, the pair slipped through the forest back towards their camp. Saeter whistled a signal before stepping out onto the road in front of the gate. The entrance to their bands’ camp was heavily guarded.
Herad had received plenty of warning of the enemy’s arrival. She had used that time to build up her defenses. The barrier of long wooden spikes that had run along the side of the camp facing the road had been expanded to encircle the entire base and raised platforms had been set up for archers. Trenches had also been dug to slow invaders down.
Saeter and Blacknail carefully made their way up to the entrance. A dozen bandits were guarding the narrow gap in the wall. The closest one gave the pair a brief nod when he recognized them and signalled them forward.
On the other side of the wall, several more squads of bandits were waiting and ready to reinforce the gate in case of an attack. They were armed and armored more heavily than usual. The sunlight from above occasionally glinted off shields, helmets, and bits of armor.
Off to one side, Herad stood at the base of a watchtower. She was issuing orders to several other bandits around her. Tension and the acrid smell of human sweat was thick in the air as Saeter headed over to talk to her. Everyone was waiting for the attack they knew was coming.
“I just came back from taking a look around,” Saeter told the bandit chieftain when she noticed his approach.
“Oh, did you see anything important?” Herad asked him derisively. “You must have if you’re bothering me about it. I’m very busy right now.”
“It’s what I didn’t see that matters,” Saeter replied. “I see no sign of Werrick being here yet. The enemy appears to be waiting for him.”
“You’re probably right about that,” Herad huffed darkly. “If he was here we would know about it. Werrick is an arrogant braggart. He would announce himself with the subtlety of a charging ogre.”
“I also haven’t seen any sign of mercenaries or anything unexpected,” Saeter told her. “It seems like they are planning on treating this like a straight up brawl.”
“And that bothers you? Why? They could be with Werrick or on their way,” Herad replied.
“Maybe, but something isn’t sitting right in my gut,” the old scout explained as he grimiced. “This whole campaign feels slapdash. We took out that exposed first group too easily and this next attack is too straightforward. It’s like Werrick isn’t even trying.”
“I think you’re overestimating Werrick,” Herad countered.
“He could do better than this,” the old scout responded darkly.
“I can’t afford to be jumping at shadows now, old man,” the bandit chieftain said as she rolled her eyes. “If you do find something then feel free to inform me. If not, then keep out of my way and stop wasting my time with useless conjecture.”
“Very well. As you wish,” Saeter grumbled in reply as he turned and started walking off.
“Are we going to have lunch now?” Blacknail asked his master as he followed behind him.
“Yes, because we bloody well earned it,” Saeter replied crossly.
“Are you going to cook something?” the hobgoblin asked hopefully.
When he cooked or ate rations it was never nearly as good as the fare Saeter made. For instance, the worm stew Blacknail had made yesterday should have tasted a lot better than it had…
“No,” the old scout answered as he looked around the camp.
A few seconds later, he started stomping over towards Vorscha’s cabin. Geralhd and her were seated out in front of it.
“It’s someone else’s turn to whip up some grub,” Saeter grumbled.
The hobgoblin and his master circled around a large group of bandits resting next to a pile of crates. When they got to the other side, Vorscha noticed them.
“Oh, Saeter! Geralhd and I were just sitting down to eat. Care to join us?” she asked him cheerily.
“Is Khita going to appear out of nowhere?” Saeter asked her suspiciously.
“Not likely. She’s apparently fooling around with Varhs right now. The little vixen has that man wrapped around her little finger,” the muscular woman replied with a knowing wink. “I taught her how to do that.”
Saeter blinked and mentally digested that remark for a second before replying.
“I’ll accept your invitation and join you then,” the old scout replied neutrally as he walked over. “I hope you aren’t having rations or such shit.”
Vorscha smiled at both him and Blacknail. There was a delicious meaty aroma coming from their fire-pit. They had something roasting the flames on a spit. It obviously wasn’t any kind of trail ration.
“All we have is a bit of venison and some fairly fresh bread but you’re welcome to it. You may have even brought the meat in yourself,” Geralhd explained as he gestured towards the fire.
“It smells great,” Blacknail told him as he sniffed the air and licked his lips.
“What do you think of this mess we’re in?” Saeter asked Vorscha as he sat down across from her.
“The fight with Werrick you mean?” she asked.
“Of course, what else could I mean?” Saeter grunted back.
“I think I’m tired and want to rest for a bit. It’s important to keep rested up before a battle,” Vorscha replied.
“This is important. Things have been too easy. Herad doesn’t see any problems but my instincts are telling me something is wrong,” Saeter told her.
“It might be because there is a large army a few hundred feet that way intent on killing us all. That bothers me!” Geralhd commented dryly.
“Then you should go do something about it,” Saeter told him sarcastically.
That caused Blacknail to giggle. The image of Geralhd trying to fight off an army, or even more than one person, was hilarious.
“It’s not like we’ve been winning every battle,” Vorscha pointed out. “Werrick has pushed us back all the way here. I’m still sore from the fight at the river.”
“That’s just weight of numbers,” Saeter told her. “Herad wasn’t seriously planning on stopping him before he got here. Those fights went exactly the way Herad wanted them to.”
“We could have held the river for quite a while if that mage hadn’t frozen it. It would have nice to have done a bit more damage there,” Vorscha countered as she grimaced in distaste.
Blacknail remembered the fight at the river. It had just been a few days ago. Mostly, he had just stood back and shot a few arrows at the enemy. Not that he had been counting, but he had managed to hit two enemies. He had even been aiming for one of them!
Vorscha had led a large group and tried to stop the enemy from crossing the river. At first it had been easy to pick off anyone trying to make the crossing. However, when the river had started to freeze over they had immediately retreated.
“Even that was a victory for Herad. She drew that mage out into the open and now she has a better idea of the tricks he has at his disposal,” the old scout countered.
“I think you’re logic is a little flawed there, Saeter,” Geralhd interjected. “It sounds to me like you’re trying to twist things to fit your argument.”
“It’s a good thing that I don’t care then,” Saeter commented before turning back to Vorscha.
“The thing is, we both know things are going too smoothly,” the old scout told her. “It doesn’t seem like Werrick is really even trying! Hells, he hasn’t even bothered to show up yet!”
“Maybe he just likes to sleep in. If I was the boss I’d sleep in all the time,” Blacknail contributed.
How great would it be to sleep in to noon every day? He could stay curled up in his blankets and minions would bring him breakfast…
Vorscha took a few seconds to think. The tall woman frowned and poked at the fire with a stick. There was a crack as a hot coal shifted and a small shower of sparks rose into the air.
“It does seem like he is doing exactly what we expect him to,” she admitted. “That’s not something I would anticipate from a man of his reputation. He hasn’t become the most powerful bandit chief in the North by being an idiot.”
“Exactly, he’s basically just throwing bodies at us!” Saeter announced. “We’ve bled him quite a bit so far by making him fight for every choke point on the way here, but what if he doesn’t care? What if it’s not only Herad’s plan that is going perfectly but his as well?”
“I don’t like that idea, but it makes a lot of sense. It would explain why we haven’t seen much from the man himself. There has been no need for him to change his plans or get involved,” Vorscha mused sourly.
“But that would mean he wants to fight us here?” Geralhd remarked with a voice full of doubt. “I can’t see the logic in that. We have all the advantages here! He doesn’t outnumber us all that much and we have a solid defensive position. How does he expect to get through our walls?”
“I don’t know what he is planning. My gut is just telling me he has a plan, and that we won’t like it,” Saeter told him.
“You sure know how to ruin someone’s appetite, Saeter,” Vorscha remarked. “No wonder you don’t get invited over to eat by many people.”
Blacknail nodded in agreement. Even he got invited over more than his master and he wasn’t the most popular member of Herad’s band. It was probably because Saeter was so grumpy and because hobgoblins were so handsome.
“Werrick doesn’t need to have some sort of complex machinations in the works,” Geralhd added. “Maybe he simply thinks he has the blades and mages to swamp us under. He is known to be quite the arrogant ruffian.”
“Just right, we have a few tricks up our own sleeves as well,” Vorscha commented as she raised a fist and grinned confidently. “The enemy isn’t going to be getting inside our walls without a hell of a fight.”
“I should just stab this Werrick man,” the hobgoblin mused. “All this waiting for battle is getting annoying.”
A leader as powerful as Werrick probably also had a lot of great stuff to loot. There was no way he would be able to get his hands on it during a battle but if he was the one that killed Werrick it would be very different.
“It’s probably best if you don’t try that,” Geralhd told Blacknail. “Werrick is a skilled Vessel. They say he has killed hundreds of men.”
“I’ve killed Vessels before,” Blacknail said without concern as he shrugged.
It hadn’t even been that hard. Everyone needed to sleep and human guards were usually lazy. The trick was to stab them in the back a few times before the fight started.
“Not like the Wolf, you haven’t,” Saeter interjected. “If skilled assassins could get anywhere near him then he would already be dead. He will have heard of you and won’t be taking any chances. You weren’t exactly subtle back in Daggerpoint.”
“I was the sneakiest! No one saw me coming,” Blacknail bragged as his master rolled his eyes.
“Maybe, but they sure noticed the bloody carnage you left in your wake. You went through Daggerpoint like a troll through a barn,” the old scout replied.
Suddenly, the sound of trumpets blared from the other side of the walls. Geralhd and Blacknail both jumped in surprise.
The hobgoblin dropped the bit of bread he had been holding, but he quickly picked it off the ground and shoved it into his mouth. The dirt didn’t even make it taste any worse. It was almost a seasoning, really.
Shouting immediately followed the sound of instruments, from both outside the camp and within it. Bandits all round the camp began to move.
“Vorscha get over here! I need you at the wall,” Herad called out of the din.
The tall woman was instantly on her feet. She grabbed the long sword that had been lying at her side and started running towards Herad’s voice.
The others were quick to follow. Men and women were rushing around everywhere but they managed to find a way through the crowds. Together, they ran over to the closest stretch of wall and peeked through the gaps in the posts. The lookout platforms were already crowded.
It was immediately obvious what had raised the alarm. Werrick’s army had started to move. As the trumpets blared, banners rose above the enemy host. A white wolf’s head flew on a black field.
There was a chorus of shouting as the lead elements of the enemy army began to march forward towards Herad’s base. The sound of the footsteps echoed off the trees. Before they got into bow range, shields were hoisted up to form a protective barrier. The attack had begun.
There could be no doubt, the Wolf himself had finally arrived.
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