No one got a lot of sleep that night, and not just because the watch was doubled. Everyone was too on edge to relax.
The only exception to this was Blacknail. He was reasonably certain that with all the big pink humans running around nothing would bother going after a skinny little goblin. Also, if anything really dangerous attacked the camp then all the human screams would wake him up.
When dawn finally brightened the camp, Saeter led a search party out to look for traces of the missing men. After an extensive search they found nothing, not even the smallest signs of a struggle.
“I really don’t like this,” one of the scouts told Saeter.
As was usual when Saeter was talking to people, Blacknail followed his master quietly and listened in. Everyone ignored him unless he spoke up.
“Who would?” Saeter replied with a grunt.
“True, but what I meant is that it’s one thing for something to kill two men, but it’s another thing entirely for something to do it while leaving absolutely no tracks! Your goblin couldn’t even smell anything, Saeter!” the scout continued excitedly.
“Maybe they walked off together. Could’ve been bedmates or something,” someone else guessed.
“That’s bloody disgusting. Jon was my friend and he was no bugger. He also sure as all hells wouldn’t have gone walking out into the forest in the middle of the night without telling anyone!” another bandit answered angrily.
“There ain’t anything wrong with two men sharing a bed out here. The god Slyph-Usra himself smiles upon it. It’s just like sailors when they’re out at sea…,” the first man began arguing defensively.
“You’re like the only follower of that god in the entire camp,” the other bandit countered angrily. “Most of us are soldiers. We follow the Azur-Waj, the war god, and he doesn’t look so kindly upon such things. It’s undisciplined and plain unhealthy.”
“Ha, we’re thieves now, even if we used to be soldiers. Most the band worships Cor-Dius, and he doesn’t care what people do in darkness,” a third bandit added dismissively.
“This isn’t relevant,” Saeter remarked sternly as he cut off any further argument.
A few hostile looks were exchanged but all the other bandits stopped arguing. Saeter was in charge and they had a job to do.
“I hate to be the one to say it, but this is looking more and more like the work of someone in the band,” a mustached man remarked, which caused several others to give him annoyed looks.
“So, someone just decided to murder two men who barely knew each other and were on opposite ends of the camp?” a short bandit countered.
“It does seem unlikely, but they must have been in on something together. Murder would explain the lack of anything but human tracks, and nothing else will,” the mustached bandit responded with a suspicious glance at the man arguing with him.
“Not necessarily,” Saeter mused aloud.
Everyone else grew quiet. Most of the bandits looked confused, but a few of the more experienced scouts looked grim or upset instead.
“Well, feel free to enlighten us Saeter,” someone eventually said to break the silence.
“I can think of a few things it could have been. Firstly, it could’ve been some sort of crystal host with a weird power,” Saeter explained.
The outlaws threw each other questioning looks and spoke among themselves for a few seconds. They didn’t seem convinced.
“That’s only one thing. What are the others?” someone asked.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come upon it,” Saeter replied grimly.
“A crystal mutant can’t be our best option,” someone muttered skeptically.
“Leave it alone, you don’t want to know,” an older voice responded.
Just then the sound of hooves echoed down the road to the camp. Everyone looked up in time to see a horsewoman ride into the clearing. Several of the outlaws reached for weapons but they relaxed a bit when they recognized her as one of the women who had gone with Herad.
After spotting Saeter and the group around him, the rider headed their way. She smiled at Saeter as she approached. Blacknail scowled at the horse. He didn’t want the stinky thing to come any closer.
“Saeter, Herad sent me ahead. She’s on her way back with the goods. The raid was a success,” the rider told them.
“How long?” Saeter asked her.
“They’ll be a few hours if they keep up the pace they were holding when I left,” the woman replied.
Saeter didn’t look any happier to know the rest of the band would be back soon. He scowled as he looked down the empty road.
“We should get ready for them then,” Saeter told the other bandits.
He waved them off after reminding them to never go anywhere alone and to always have a weapon on hand. Saeter then headed back to his campsite, and sent Blacknail out to check some meat he was smoking.
The goblin headed over to where a thick pillar of grey smoke was rising from a small heap of evergreen branches. Excitedly, he pushed the branches away to reveal the pit and flame beneath them, but the meat hanging inside didn’t look quite done. It also didn’t taste fully cooked. With a disappointed grunt, the goblin returned the now nibbled meat and headed back to his master.
He made it back to Saeter’s campsite right before the return of the raid party. The first of the victorious bandits came down the road and immediately began finding places to collapse and rest. Most of them looked exhausted, and were dripping with sweat. Many of them also had some sort of injury bandaged up.
The smell of sweat, blood, and pus was everywhere and filled the goblin’s nose. He hadn’t though the humans could smell any worse. Blacknail pinched his long green nose shut. Eew, had he ever been wrong.
Saeter scowled as he took the scene in. He seemed to disapprove of the ragged state of the men and women. The last few bandits came down the road with a pair of wagons covered in tarps.
“Quite a few of them are missing,” the old scout muttered with a hint of concern.
Herad was at the very back of the returning bandits. The first thing the black haired woman did when she came into sight was head Saeter’s way. Vorscha and Red Dog followed closely behind her.
Blacknail was shocked by Herad’s bloodthirsty grin. For a second, he was afraid she was going to take a bite out of his master’s face, but then he realized she was just in a good mood. He had never seen her smile before, and he didn’t like it.
“The raid was a success, Saeter! The weapons are all mine,” she gloated triumphantly as she marched towards the old scout and Blacknail.
“Good, we need them. I see you lost more than a few men,” Saeter observed noncommittally.
Herad just shrugged as she uncharacteristically ignored any criticism that could have been implied by the words.
“With two recent and profitable raids under our belts recruiting to fill the holes in our ranks won’t be a problem. It’s not like there is a shortage of scum and thugs around here,” she replied with a hint of condescension.
Saeter frowned and Blacknail noticed Vorscha react with a scowl as well. Red Dog seemed to agree with Herad, though.
“All we need to do is recruit some more in Riverdown and the surrounding countryside. It’s one of the main reasons we built this camp in the first place, so that we would have a place to lay low close to a city,” he told the rest of them.
“True, but it’s always better to keep the men we’ve got than to have to replace them with unknown…,” Vorscha started to add before Herad cut her off.
“Enough. Don’t question my decisions. I promised every man and woman who joined my band a chance at plunder. The gods know I sure didn’t offer them safety,” Herad interjected, as she gave everyone a cold stare.
The other men and woman around her lowered their eyes in submission, and even Saeter nodded his grudging acceptance.
“So, what now then?” Saeter asked her.
Herad smiled fiercely again in response. Behind her, Red Dog and Vorscha gave each other uneasy glances. It was clear they were both apprehensive about something.
“Like Red Dog said, now we will start recruiting heavily. I want to do more than just replace our losses. It’s time to build the band up into a real force to be reckoned with,” she explained eagerly.
Red Dog lips twisted into a concerned frown as he listened to Herad. He seemed hesitant to speak up but his concern overcame his reluctance to question Herad.
“Begging your pardon boss… but that doesn’t seem like it’s going to put more silver in our pockets. Having more men isn’t really going to help us pull off more raids, but it will mean less loot for the rest of us,” Red Dog commented carefully.
“The times are changing, and so it’s time to change with them,” Herad replied cryptically.
“Werick,” Saeter guessed grimly as his eyes narrowed with hostility.
Herad nodded in confirmation at of his response.
“Yes, Werick. The man may be an idiot but he’s right about at least one thing. More and more deserters and criminals are headed north, but there’s not enough room for them. All the bands are beginning to turn on each other as they fight for plunder. Even worse, all the good targets are disappearing. It’s like what Saeter keeps bitching about, too much bloody banditry will just cause everyone to stop trading and leave. It’s already happening, that’s why we had to come so far south,” she explained.
“So you want to buildup our ranks so you can strike even further south?” Saeter asked uncertainly.
“No, it’s no longer about raiding caravans and quick gold, it’s about territory. Out East Werick is setting himself up like some sort of lord. Either we do the same or someone else will, and then we’ll end up working for them or more likely dead,” she explained.
“So what does that mean exactly? If we’re not going to keep raiding caravans and villages then what are we supposed to do?” Red Dog asked as Herad gave him a patronizing look.
“Like I said, we hold territory and we make people pay for safe passage through it. That way we make a profit without driving all the merchants away. We’ll make less from each caravan but there will be more of them. I’ve already got a message from one merchant asking to pay protection fees,” she told him.
Vorscha looked skeptical. Saeter had gone totally quiet. Blacknail gave him a closer look and was surprised to see that the old scout seemed shocked about something. His weathered face had gone pale and slack.
“If we’re promising safe passage then we will have to enforce it. That means recruiting, driving away, or killing every other bandit group for leagues,” Vorscha mused aloud.
“So, that’s exactly what we’ll do. We recruit more men and kill everyone who challenges us,” Herad replied matter of factly.
“Well, the weapons we just stole and the gold we will get for selling them will sure come in handy now. You do realize this will eventually bring us into conflict with every other band of outlaws trying to the same thing, including Werick, until there is only one bandit left on top,” Vorscha said with an amused snort.
“Oh I know that, Vorscha. If someone is going to be bandit lord of the North then it’s going to be me,” Herad purred wickedly. She practically oozed bloodlust as she smiled.
“You’re the boss. I’ll follow where you lead,” Red Dog told Herad quickly and nervously.
Herad turned to look at Saeter. He was still deep in thought, and was looking down at the ground with one hand on his forehead. She frowned at him.
“You usually have something to say Saeter, so say it,” she told him.
Blacknail’s master looked up.
“You’re the boss…,” he told her with a distracted manner.
He seemed troubled by something and his eyes looked unfocused. Herad was a little taken aback by his response, and gave him an odd look.
“You finally going senile, Saeter?” she asked him.
His only reply was a grunt as he kept staring at the ground. An irritated look appeared on Herad’s face, and a concerned one appeared on Vorcha’s.
“Go take a nap, Saeter, if you’re so tired. Would you mind updating me on how things went while I was gone, first though,” she asked him impatiently.
Saeter finally looked up and seemed to think her words over for second.
“It was pretty quiet. Not much important happened. Last night though, two men went missing. I had a look around with some of the other scouts, but we couldn’t find any traces of whatever grabbed them. It’s probably still out there,” he told her.
“That seems bloody important to me,” Red Dog exclaimed anxiously.
He then cast a look around the clearing as if he was expecting something to attack them then and there. Vorscha also looked taken aback and she frowned in concern. Herad cast any annoyed look at both Red Dog and Saeter. She drew one of her knives and casually flipped it through the air a few times.
“What do you think it is?” she asked the old scout calmly. Blacknail thought he detected more than a little repressed hostility in her stance and voice. Saeter hesitated before answering.
“I don’t want to guess, but since you’re the one asking I don’t have much choice,” he replied with a grimace. “It’s bloody unlikely but it could be a mutant of some sort. It could also be one of the Flore Kurava, although again it’s unlikely…”
“Wait, are you serious?” a startled Vorscha exclaimed.
“What’s a Florakevera?” asked Red Dog in confusion as his tongue tripped over the word.
“One of the forest people,” Herad answered for Saeter. She had started to look thoughtful.
“Those are real?” Red Dog asked in surprise.
“Real as diamonds and death, just because people don’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. One of them could have walked into camp and killed those men without leaving a trace,” Saeter explained.
“But you don’t think one did, do you?” Herad asked Saeter suspiciously.
The old scout shook his head.
“No, they haven’t come this far south in over a century, and it doesn’t seem like something they would do. It’s too petty. They would have killed more people and wouldn’t have taken the bodies away. Unfortunately, the most likely option by far is that it’s…” Saeter reluctantly told them before he was cut off.
“…Ghouls,” Herad hissed angrily.
Red Dog went pale and took a step back. Vorscha started swearing and cursing nonstop, but Saeter just nodded grimly. The humans’ reactions intrigued Blacknail. What were ghouls? Maybe something exciting was about to happen!
“I take it you didn’t share these concerns with anyone,” Herad asked him sharply as Saeter shook his head in answer.
“Well, at least you did that right. How sure are you?” she asked.
“If it’s ghouls then they’ll strike again tonight,” he replied emotionlessly.
Herad nodded thoughtfully. Her short black hair fell in front of her eyes and she brushed it aside.
“Then we have a lot to do before nightfall,” the bandit chieftain told her lieutenants.
Herad took charge and began to lay out a plan. Before she let them go, Herad swore them all to secrecy.
She forgot about Blacknail, but he had no idea what they had been talking about so it didn’t matter. Also, he wasn’t going to talk about something that would make Herad mad anyway. He liked living too much.
The goblin followed Saeter back to their campsite. His master didn’t go back to their normal routine of chores, though. He didn’t even start doing something exciting for Herad. He just collapsed down onto one of the cut up logs beside the fire pit they used as chairs, with his head in his hands again. That was no fun.
Blacknail just stood there for a few minutes as he waited for his master to do something, but Saeter didn’t move. The goblin didn’t know what was going on. He tilted his head to the side as he examined his master and tried to figure it out.
Maybe his master was afraid of the ghouls? Blacknail gave his master a closer look. No, that didn’t seem right. Saeter looked almost sad…
Had someone stolen his food? That was what made Blacknail sad, but that didn’t seem right either. Saeter had plenty of food stored away.
Well, Blacknail had no intention of just standing around forever. The goblin walked over and sat beside his master. Blacknail leaned against his master’s leg as he relaxed and got comfortable.
Several seconds later, the goblin felt a hand lightly pat him on the head. It felt nice. He glanced up to see master looking down at him with a resigned expression.
Blacknail’s master had never patted him on the head before. That was more Geralhd’s thing. Blacknail really wished he knew what was going on. He was starting to grow concerned.
“She might just do it,” Saeter remarked unhappily as he stared off into space.
Blacknail gave him a blank look. He wasn’t sure who they were even talking about. Was Saeter talking to him? He was definitely looking right at him, and there was no one else here…
“Wouldn’t that be a great joke,” his master added bitterly. “After all I’ve been through and everything that’s been lost, Herad might just succeed where I’ve failed.”
Blacknail thought Herad was probably better than Saeter at a lot of things. His master was obviously better at stuff like hunting though, so it wasn’t a big deal. Why was his master so upset?
Saeter sighed deeply as he petted Blacknail again.
“You have no idea what I’m talking about do you, goblin?” Saeter asked him.
“No ideas,” Blacknail replied as he shook his head with a confused expression on his face.
Saeter smiled sadly down at the goblin. There seemed to be more wrinkles around his eyes than normal.
“My entire life I had one dream. It was the thing I really wanted in life. It’s why I became a rebel and an outlaw. Everything I did was to unite the north and free it from the stranglehold of the south. Now here I am an old washed up failure, and Herad tells us that she plans to set herself up as bandit queen of what’s left of the North! After all these years and so many lives lost its Herad that might do it. Herad the Black Snake, a murderous bitch with no allegiance to anyone but herself,” Saeter explained as he began to laugh wildly.
Blacknail grew alarmed and his eyes widened as he heard Saeter’s uncontrolled laughter. His master was acting very weird!
The goblin looked around for someone or something that would calm Saeter down, but he didn’t see anything. Desperately, the goblin started to think.
His master was upset because he had failed to get something, and Herad might get it instead. It was a dream, but not like what you saw when you slept. Saeter had said it was something he’d really wanted to do his entire life, and failed. Blacknail didn’t have a dream like that. The closest he had to a dream was the stuff in his…
The goblin got up and searched through his pouches. He found the one where he stored the things other people had forgotten about, or left lying around for other people who wanted them more. He reached into it and pulled out the shiniest bits.
Blacknail then extended his hands and offered them to Saeter. His master stopped laughing and looked down at him. The old scout slowly reached down and picked the items up to examine them.
“Some coins, glass beads, paper, and a golden key. Are you trying to cheer me up Blacknail?” he asked the goblin with a surprised tone.
Blacknail nodded. Saeter smiled down at him.
“Where did you get the key from, though? I hope you didn’t take it from Herad,” he asked.
“No, master’s enemy with the wagons,” Blacknail answered with a sly smile.
Saeter looked confused for a minute as he tried to figure out what Blacknail meant, but then he smiled broadly.
“You mean Persus don’t you. You actually stole Persus’ chest key. Good boy, serves that bastard right,” Saeter cheerfully laughed as he patted the goblin on the head again.
“Thank you, Blacknail. I’ll take the key but you can keep the rest. Now that I’m done feeling sorry for myself we’d better deal with this ghoul problem,” Saeter told him.
Blacknail smiled back at his master. He had no idea what his master was trying to say but he was happy Saeter was no longer upset.
Saeter then got to his feet and began to get ready. Blacknail saw him go into his tent and come out carrying a sheathed sword he had never seen before. His master usually used a bow or long knife, not a sword.
Saeter drew the sword and held it before himself. Sunlight glinted off the blade as Saeter looked at it with a peaceful but resolved expression on his face.
“Come, Blacknail. Herad might not be anyone’s choice for queen of the North, but that’s fine, because I doubt she cares. So, let’s deal with this ghoul infestation and then everyone else who gets in our way,” he announced with determination.
The old scout sheathed the blade at his waist and walked forward. His steps were heavy with newfound purpose as he once again went forth to fight for his dream. Blacknail sauntered after him; he hoped there would be treats.
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