Blacknail ignored Khita and everyone else as he went to work on things that were actually important. The early morning sunshine shone down on him as he got breakfast going. Sleeping, like everything else, made him hungry.
More meat was brought over by goblins and roasted over the fire. There was enough that all the humans got to eat their fill, and there were still lots for the goblins. During Blacknail’s absence, the goblins had gotten skilled at hunting small game. Blacknail had shown them how to make slings and snares before he had left. The tribe had certainly grown larger, and none of them looked hungry.
“I never thought I’d be so happy to eat a squirrel, or that they’d taste so good,” Geralhd said after chewing and swallowing a bit of meat.
“They’re pretty nice eating, really. Much better than rats,” Khita replied from where she was sitting on the ground by the fire.
Geralhd blinked in surprise and he gave her a disbelieving frown. Khita noticed his reaction and shrugged indifferently. “It’s not like I’ve eaten a lot rats, but when you’re living on the streets and you’re hungry you eat whatever you can get.”
Her explanation just made Geralhd look more uncomfortable. He fidgeted and looked away.
“I used to live off rats and bugs, but now I prefer human food. It tastes less like dirt and it doesn’t fight back,” Blacknail added cheerfully.
Khita threw Blacknail a friendly grin, which Blacknail returned, but there was silence as Geralhd and the other nearby humans considered this piece of hobgoblin wisdom.
“Er, that stew from yesterday… What was in it?” Elyias asked as put down the rabbit on stick he had been eating. A few of the others grimaced and looked queasy as well.
“Lots of stuff. Saeter taught me how to cook it,” Blacknail replied. The last part of his explanation seemed to reassure the humans a little. Most of them resumed eating.
Blacknail smiled proudly to himself. He was a great cook, and he was glad they had enjoyed his cooking, even if it hadn’t been his best recipe. There had barely been any bugs in it at all! The next time he cooked he was going to make sure he had the ingredients necessary to give the stew a proper crunch. That was the best part.
“This foray into goblin culinary habits has been fascinating, but we have some more important matters to discuss, like our next move,” Geralhd said after he had finished eating.
There was agreement from the other bandits and they began talking about their plans. A few humans had grown tired of hiking through the forest, but it was quickly decided that nothing had really changed. They still had no option but to try and find a trail that led North. After the confrontation with Werrick’s men, there was no way there weren’t enemies watching the main road.
“So we still have to walk through those gods deserted woods for what will probably be weeks,” one of the women said. “We’re lucky we made it this far without being eaten by something. Getting to Daggerpoint is going to be like trying to trek through one of the hells.”
“At least we got to rest under a roof last night and eat our fill for once,” said the bearded bandit who Blacknail kept forgetting the name of. Maybe he should just call the man Beardy. As the leader, he was allowed to change his minions’ names, right?
It was still early in the morning when Blacknail led his troupe of humans, and two goblins, off into the woods. Several of the bandits visibly relaxed when the goblin camp was out of sight, which was stupid. Things were at their most dangerous when you couldn’t see them.
The going was tough for the first few hours. The ground was uneven and there were plenty of obstacles, such a rock and trees, which had to be avoided. Most of the trees themselves were tall with long slender needles instead of leaves, and sap oozed from breaks in their scaly bark.
After a while though, the ground evened out, and smaller leafier trees began to appear. That was when Blacknail noticed something strange; their group had somehow picked up an extra human.
“Hmmm, how many people are we supposed to have?” he asked Geralhd, who was standing right behind him.
“What? Did we lose someone?” the young bandit asked as he spun around to look.
“No, the opposite,” Blacknail replied as he studied the bandits.
They had all stopped walking and were gazing at the hobgoblin with confused expressions. None of them looked unfamiliar… but it was hard to say for sure. Blacknail couldn’t always tell all his humans apart. Of course, the hooded man at the back of the line was deeply suspicious. Blacknail walked past everyone until he got to the individual in question. He had a nagging suspicion about the hooded figure, which quickly proved correct.
Blacknail glared angrily at the intruder as he spoke. “What are you doing, Gob? That’s my cloak trick. I did it first! Don’t copy me!”
The feral hobgoblin froze for a second and then made a shrug-like motion, before pulling down his hood. The cloak had been doing a terrible job of concealing his horns anyway; the tips had been pushing up the fabric. Underneath the cloak, he was still dressed in a loincloth but he was also wearing a brown shirt he had stolen from somewhere.
“By all that is holy!” Elyias cursed as he jerked back away from the hobgoblin that had been revealed. This reaction annoyed Blacknail. The hobgoblin wasn’t much of a danger now that he had been exposed, and his disguise had been terrible anyway. Only an idiot like Elyias would have been fooled by it. He wasn’t even wearing pants!
“Did he kill and replace one of us?” someone asked in horror.
“Everyone is still here. He just stole some clothes,” Geralhd quickly explained to keep everyone calm.
The two hobgoblins stared at each for a few minutes. Gob hissed and barked for moment and then Blacknail growled back. The humans watched the interplay nervously.
“Why is he following us?” Geralhd asked when they had both fallen silent.
“I don’t know. He just keeps making weird noises,” Blacknail explained.
“Please make an educated guess then.”
“He wants to stay with me because I’m such a great leader. I’m so handsome, strong, and wise that he will follow me anywhere,” Blacknail observed with a fair bit of self-satisfaction. Now that he had said the words aloud he realized that they had to be true. What other explanation could there be?
“Well, he can’t stay!” Beardy the bearded bandit sputtered. He sounded angry and more than a little fearful.
“Oh? Are you the leader now?” Blacknail hissed menacingly as he rounded upon the man and leveled a cold stare his way.
He hadn’t actually wanted another hobgoblin around – they couldn’t be trusted – but there was no way he was letting anyone else decide that! He was the leader, and now that Beardy was against it, Blacknail wanted Gob to stay.
“He’s a wild hobgoblin!” another bandit protested.
“Which means he’s way more useful than you, or anyone else here but me,” Blacknail countered.
A few more bandits tried to argue with Blacknail’s decision but he didn’t back down. Eventually, they had no choice but to accept Gob’s presence. Blacknail was the leader and more than willing to stab a few people to make a point.
“Are the goblins going to be alright without their leader?” Geralhd asked with a level of concern that confused Blacknail. Why did he care?
“Yes,” Blacknail replied simply. The goblins would probably be better off without the hobgoblin lazing about and stealing their food.
By this time it was clear no one was going to try and chase him away, so Gob turned around and yelled something incomprehensible. Immediately, four goblins with spears and one carrying a large sac ambled out of the bushes and joined the hobgoblin.
“Bloody lovely,” Beardy remarked sarcastically.
“If they can bring in food then I’d much rather have their company than yours,” a woman remarked.
The addition of a few more goblins certainly didn’t bother Blacknail. He just shrugged and walked back up to the front of the line. He then picked a direction at random and started hiking again. After a few suspicious glares, the human bandits followed him, and behind them came the feral goblins. Scamp and Imp stuck with the bandits. If anything they seemed more distrustful of the newcomers than the humans were. Scamp in particular gave them a few nasty looks and hugged his collection of pouches close.
The group walked for most of the day, with only a few breaks. The most interesting thing to happen was when they walked around a clump of bushes and spooked a herd of deer. The meeting was a surprise to both sides, but the animals were long gone before anyone could string a bow or try and bring one down. With fleet grace, the deer sprung away and vanished off into the trees.
When it began to grow dark and they stumbled upon a half way decent campsite atop a rocky outcrop, Blacknail signalled for a stop. As they were setting up camp, the humans objected to sharing their space with the feral goblins, but Blacknail pointed out that he was the leader and they didn’t get to decide anything. He also mentioned that it was better to keep the goblins close where they could be watched.
“They did share their camp with us earlier,” Geralhd told the other bandits. This bit of unasked for truth earned him some angry mutters and glares, but it did seem to placate some of the dissenters.
However, it was the goblins’ ability to gather firewood, even when it got dark, which finally convinced the last of the objectors. When Gob built a fire for himself and the goblins the bandits shut up and took a seat around it.
Geralhd even sat next to Gob and tried to communicate with him for a few moments. It didn’t take long for the feral hobgoblin to grow annoyed by the human. Gob threw Blacknail a suffering look that was clearly an attempt to ask for permission to gut the noisy human that wouldn’t shut up, but Blacknail shook his head, so the feral hobgoblin was forced to try and ignore the man instead.
In the morning, the ferals further impressed the humans by catching several rabbits and squirrels. As was proper, they offered them to their great chieftain Blacknail, and he in turn shared the spoils with everyone else, after he had finished eating his fill. It wasn’t enough to fill everyone’s bellies, except Blacknail’s, but it was more than they would have had otherwise.
The early morning birds were out in full force as they set out. The sound of their singing filled the air. However, Blacknail soon began to grow tired of walking through the forest. It was nothing but the same mix of trees they had seen over the last few days. He was careful to avoid the older and darker areas where giant spiders might dwell as well as the overgrown clearings that Mimics preferred. That was the safe thing to do but it was also boring. Some excitement would almost be worth the risk of losing a few goblins or humans.
A sudden loud cracking noise jerked Blacknail to attention. Everyone else heard it as well, but the sound echoed through the forest in a way that made it hard to guess where it had come from. The group stopped in their tracks and they looked off in different directions.
There was another loud sound like wood shattering. This time Blacknail zoned in on the origin. He saw only trees in that direction, but then he noticed a place where the ground suddenly dropped away. He couldn’t see what lay at the bottom of the hill, but if there was something dangerous there he needed to know about it, plus it might be interesting.
Blacknail signalled for his followers to be quiet and then he stalked over to the top of the hill. The incline was steep and muddy. At the bottom, there was a clearing full of long grass, and it was bristling with activity. Blacknail stared at the commotion below. The clearing was occupied by ogres. The herd was trampling through the grass along the edge of the clearing where the trees were, and they were using the huge claws on their front limbs to pull branches off of the trees. The huge brown beasts then brought the foliage to their mouths and chowed down on the leaves before throwing most of the harder wood aside. This was the source of all the noise.
Several of the bandits including Geralhd joined Blacknail atop the hill. They let out quiet exclamations of surprise when they saw the ogres. Many of them had never seen the beasts before, so the group took a quick break to watch them.
“Wow, those are some huge hulking things,” Khita’s eyes were wide with surprise and awe as she watched the creatures amble about below.
“I’ve heard of ogres but I didn’t think anything got so large,” Elyias remarked. “You don’t see anything like them down south. They must be twice as tall as a man when they stand up on their hind legs.”
“Do you think they’re dangerous? Are we safe up here?” Geralhd asked.
Before answering, Blacknail took a moment to think the question over. He had only seen a herd of ogres before once, but because he was the leader he wanted to sound like he knew what he was talking about.
“We’re safe up here. Ogres don’t chase people. They will crush you if something scares them into stampeding, but they don’t actually chase people,” he explained.
“What could scare those giants?” Elyias asked with amused disbelief. He sounded like he thought Blacknail was joking.
“Lots of stuff,” Blacknail answered. “Trolls and drakes will hunt and eat ogres.”
“Drakes are real? I thought they were just stories meant to frighten people…”
“Of course they’re real. I mean, I’ve never seen one but I’ve read about them,” Geralhd said.
“I saw one chase some ogres. It was way bigger than a house and its teeth were longer than a man!” Blacknail told them as he held his arms out as far apart as possible to show everyone what he meant. “Its roar shook the trees and even Herad ran away from it.”
Khita grinned excitedly as she listened and her eyes shone with glee. “If we wait here do you think a drake will show up? They sound amazing!” she asked.
“I admit to a certain scholarly curiosity about the creatures as well, but that’s not going to happen,” Geralhd told her. “Our journey is dangerous enough without purposely trying to encounter a drake, and we don’t have time to waste.”
Blacknail had to agree with Geralhd. Waiting around would be stupid. He shooed a newly terrified Elyias back into line and quickly got everyone moving again. A long march still lay ahead of them, and they spent the rest of the day trying to shorten it as much as possible.
After another night in the forest, and an early morning start to the day’s hiking, Blacknail was forced to admit that he had no idea where he was or how to get to Daggerpoint. Somehow, one of his minions had gotten them lost. Why were his minions all so useless?
“Your plan isn’t working,” Blacknail accused Geralhd as he pulled him aside. A confused expression appeared on the man’s face.
“Yep, the one where we walk North until we find a trail to a human city. I haven’t found any trails,” Blacknail pointed out. Geralhd winced as if in pain and sighed. He apparently didn’t like being told the obvious.
“Well, we can’t turn back now. We’ll just have to keep going and hope that we find a road, although I think we should head more towards the East now. That’s the way Daggerpoint should be,” he told the hobgoblin.
“Fine, whatever,” Blacknail replied. He wasn’t sure that was the greatest idea, but it didn’t matter to him. He was fine with wandering the woods. It was as good a place to be as any, and he still wasn’t certain what he would do when they got to Daggerpoint.
They resumed their march and quickly stumbled into a swampy area. Soon over half the standing green trees were replaced by white skeletal husks, and the firm ground gave way to mud. Pools of standing water blocked the way forward, and no one wanted to go for a swim. However, the real problem was the bugs. Swarms of buzzing insects descended on the bandits and goblins. The humans threw their hoods up and the goblins quickly rolled in the mud, and then they made a run for it. Blacknail led the charge away from the swamp and up to drier ground.
“Now you’ve really gotten us lost,” Blacknail accused Geralhd as he swatted a mosquito that had landed on his nose. They finally stopped running when they had reached a hill where there was enough wind to blow all the insects chasing them away.
“I have? What did I do?” Geralhd replied indignantly.
“It’s your plan so everything is your fault,” the hobgoblin explained.
“It hasn’t failed us yet. Let’s keep moving.”
“Yes, let’s keep walking off into the woods until we all fall over dead. That way the goblins get a free meal and don’t even have to raise a hand against us,” Beardy the bandit interjected. He didn’t actually sound as if he actually liked Geralhd’s plan.
“No, they just have to walk half a hundred miles. That’s stupid. The goblins are the only ones here that aren’t having any problems finding food,” Geralhd replied dismissively.
“Ya, you’re stupid,” Blacknail added. He felt it was his duty as the leader to point that out.
A few more of the bandits grumbled but they quickly shut up when Blacknail glared their way. It wasn’t like they had better ideas, or anywhere they could escape to, so the long hike through the seemingly never ending forest continued.
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!