A strong wind was blowing in from the North. The thick greenery of the forest kept most of its force away from the earth but the wind that did reach the ground was cold and dry, and it made a lot of noise as it blew through the treetops overhead. The loud rustling of leaves filled the forest. It almost sounded like the whispers of the seashore. Beneath the sound of the wind, the next loudest noise was the slap of footsteps on the forest floor. A hunting party was heading home.
The hunters numbered eight. They moved through the greenery with both confident ease and respectful caution. The savage dangers of the Green didn’t scare them, since most of them had been born and raised in the forest. They were all hobgoblins. Their green skin, sharp features, and long pointy ears made this obvious even if they were wearing a mix of savage looking fur and scavenged human garments. Two of the hunters were carrying a deer between them.
A human observer would have been startled by the sight and probably terrified as well. Hobgoblins simply didn’t form up into groups this large. They were notoriously violent and anti-social. It had been hundreds of years since any human had encountered anything like this hunting party. A single lone hobgoblin was dangerous enough, and it would take a fearsome and powerful leader to bind so many of them together. Even the forest seemed unsure of what to make of them. The calls of animals seemed unusually subdued and wary. There was an expectant feel to the air.
As the hobgoblins stalked forward, the leader glanced over his shoulder at his followers. His eyes quickly glanced over each individual as if he was judging them. Unexpectedly, he suddenly came to halt as he saw something that disturbed him.
“Wait, where did Bones go?” Blacknail asked his minions. In response, all the other hobgoblins threw each other surprised and befuddled looks for a few moments before one of them eventually spoke up.
“Oh, there was a cliff back there. I pushed him off it,” Twig explained helpfully. He was standing at the back of the pack.
“Again? Stop doing that! It’s annoying and we’re supposed to working together,” Blacknail hissed angrily as he glared at the other hobgoblin.
“I had to get him back. He did it to me earlier today,” Twig whined. He was looking down at the ground as if he knew he had done something wrong.
“Just stop! If you hurt a tribemate during a mission again I will throw you off a cliff, headfirst onto jagged rocks while you are tied up. You will not survive!”
“Right. Sorry, boss” Twig muttered sullenly.
“Do you want to go back for him?” another hobgoblin asked.
“No, he can catch up. I’m sure he is fine,” Blacknail replied as he started walking again.
Twig and Bones were constantly fighting and playing tricks on each other. As unlikely as it seemed, neither of them had been seriously harmed yet. Even the incident with the pot full of poisonous snakes had failed to do any lasting harm.
However, it had been made very clear to both the hobgoblins that if one of them actually did manage to kill or maim the other then he would be severely punished. Blacknail didn’t want to condone violence between hobgoblins. He was the only one allowed to kill anyone. Everyone else had to ask permission first.
By the time the party reached the camp, Bones had caught up with them. He seemed no worse for wear except for some dirt on his clothes and some twigs stuck in his hair. All together, the hunting party exited the forest with their prize. The goblins that were guarding the break in the wall quickly got out of their way. Beyond the wall was the goblin encampment. There were now six completed longhouses and various other smaller huts and tents. A plethora of tanned animal hides served as roofs, doors, and decorations. Now that there were several trained hobgoblin hunters in the camp lots of larger animals were being brought in.
The expedition that Blacknail had just led had mostly been to help train several of the new hobgoblins that had only recently transformed. The extra food was nice but it was just a bonus. Blacknail had plans, plans that required hobgoblin minions that could hold their own in a fight, so he could murder people.
Blacknail looked over the hobgoblins behind him. Most of them looked vicious and savage in their scavenged clothes. As they scanned the forest and each other , their eyes were focused in a way that humans’ weren’t. Their gazes glimmered with hunger and focused cunning. They seemed to be living in the moment in a way most human’s couldn’t.
There was no doubt that hobgoblins were dangerous, but they also had serious weaknesses. Their main problem was their size. Hobgoblins were usually shorter and thinner than humans. This meant they were at a disadvantage in a head to head fight. Then there was their age. All the hobgoblins under Blacknail’s command couldn’t hope to match the experience and skill of human fighters. They had only begun to learn how to use a sword. Blacknail’s hobgoblins would be destroyed in anything like a fair fight.
However, this fact didn’t stop a vicious grin from appearing on Blacknail’s lips. Hobgoblins didn’t fight fair, and for every weakness they had they possessed two strengths. Hunting and stalking came naturally to them. They were also fast, agile, and completely without mercy. That was why Blacknail was focusing on teaching them how to fight in the forest and use bows. Proper use of instinct and cunning would allow his hobgoblins to defeat any clumsy humans they encountered, and they were learning fast. Blacknail would soon have his two dozen skirmishers. If only dozens of other problems weren’t constantly popping up to distract him.
As they reached the drying racks one of the new hobgoblins turned towards Blacknail and asked a question. “Do humans really taste that bad?”
“Yes, they do,” Blacknail answered as he motioned for the hobgoblins carrying the deer to put it down by the racks. “So you can’t eat them, even if they are enemies, unless it’s an emergency.”
This was a question he got quite frequently from the new hobgoblins.
“Hmm, but what exactly do they taste like?” the hobgoblin enquired.
“Humans sort of taste like squirrel meat that has been out in the sun for a few days,” Blacknail told him.
The young hobgoblin made a disgusted face and Blacknail nodded in agreement. Humans did taste pretty bad, but Blacknail wanted to make sure none of the new hobgoblins did any experimenting on their own. That might ruin his plans.
“Hey, boss,” Rolly announced as he stepped out of the cave that served as the camp’s larder. “I will take that deer and make sure it gets chopped up properly.”
“Alright,” Blacknail replied.
Rolly had somehow ended up in charge of the larder and the drying rack. Blacknail wasn’t entirely sure how that had happened, but he was too busy to question it. The chubby hobgoblin seemed to be doing an alright job anyway. He had put on a few more pounds, but the amount of food being stolen had actually gone down.
There were a lot of things that needed Blacknail’s attention so he turned and started to walk away, but Rolly stopped him.
“Ah, boss, I need to talk to you about something,” The pot bellied hobgoblin said.
“What?” Blacknail asked sourly. This already sounded like it was going to be more work for him. He hated working.
“We’re getting short on food. The goblins are bringing in less and more of them keep showing up. We need more food.”
“Just round up some goblins and send them out to forage,” Blacknail replied as he gestured vaguely in the direction of the trees.
“I’m doing that. It’s not enough. We have too many goblins and the forest around the camp is being stripped clean,” Rolly explained.
Blacknail sighed. He hadn’t planned on gathering so many goblins. They had begun showing up on their own after the wall had been completed. He didn’t want so many of the pesky runts but if he chased them away they would just come back. Maybe he could round a whole bunch of them up and slaughter them? No, that would ruin morale…
“Fine, leave it to me. I’ll solve it somehow,” Blacknail muttered as he turned to leave again. Sometimes being the leader was a pain. It was his minions’ fault. They weren’t smart enough to solve their own problems so Blacknail had to do it for them. He really needed to find some smarter minions.
After grabbing something to eat, Blacknail still hadn’t found an answer to the food shortage, so he decided to ask a human for advice. They usually had a solution to most problems, if only because they caused so many. Since Khita was the only human nearby he went to find her.
The young redhead was over at the field that was used as a training ground. Several hobgoblins were watching as Khita showed them a sword technique. Khita wasn’t a great swordsman but she had solid basics and that was more than the hobgoblins knew. There was also no one else more skilled available.
“Have any of them tried to kill you yet?” Blacknail asked as he walked up to Khita. It was only a matter of time until someone got fed up with her.
“No, but I’ve been keeping my eyes open,” Khita replied cheerfully. “A few of them have been glancing at me out of the corner of their eye when they think I’m not paying attention.”
“You should probably beat one up as an example.”
“I’ve been considering it. These hobgoblin aren’t so different from the street scum that used to run in my old gang. Once they know who the boss is they will behave.”
“That’s me; I’m the boss,” Blacknail reminded her sternly. No one must ever be allowed to forget that.
“But I’m one of your most trusted lieutenants!” Khita told him.
“No, you’re not,” Blacknail replied as he stuck out his tongue at her.
However, Khita had already turned away and gave no sign of having heard him. She was watching her students with her chest puffed up proudly. Blacknail sighed and decided to get to the point. It was annoying just being around Khita.
“I have a question. What did you use to do when you ran out of food?” he asked her after making sure she was paying attention.
“Steal something and then sell it,” Khita automatically replied.
That wasn’t a terrible idea in general, but it didn’t really help him right now. There weren’t many people he could steal from. Even Shelter was low on food, and there was no one to sell to either.
“That’s a dumb idea. You humans have thousands of people in your cities; how do you feed them all?”
“Farming, I guess?”
“That’s that thing were you dig in the ground a lot?” Blacknail asked skeptically. He liked mud as much as the next hobgoblin but he didn’t see how all that digging would be useful.
“Pretty much. You plant seeds and harvest the plants later,” Khita explained.
“Ah, I see. Goblins could do that… but it would take a while and it is probably more complicated than it sounds,” Blacknail mused. Everything humans did was unnecessarily complicated.
“Probably, I don’t know anything. Mucking about in the dirt is for country bumpkins like the villagers at Shelter.”
“That’s it. They have fields outside Shelter! I’ll convince them to take in some more goblins and use them for farming. Goblins can dig and plant things!”
“They still won’t produce food anytime soon,” Khita remarked doubtfully.
“Yes, but while they are there I won’t have to feed them,” Blacknail replied smugly.
“Well, if you’re going back there I want to go with you. I’m done here and I’ve got some things to do at the village.”
“Whatever,” Blacknail replied.
“I need to grab some gear. Give me a minute,” Khita said. She then dismissed the hobgoblins that she had been teaching and started walking toward the cave she shared with Blacknail.
Most of her hobgoblin students immediately began leaving, but one of them stayed behind. It was Herah, and as Khita turned her back she threw Blacknail a meaningful look and gestured toward one of the other hobgoblins that was leaving. It was one of the latest batch, who Blacknail had named Lumpy. He was a very average looking hobgoblin, except for the bump on his nose that gave him his name.
After studying Lumpy for a moment, Blacknail turned back to Herah and gave her an affirmative nod. He then headed over to his cave via a circuitous route that led him around the other side of a lodge and away from everyone else. Once out of sight, Blacknail stopped walking and began to jog. He dropped his head down and surveyed his surroundings as he stalked forward at a quicker pace. There were a few goblins by the side of the lodge but they ignored him.
Soon Blacknail had circled around and gotten ahead of Khita. From the shadows at the base of a rocky outcropping he studied the nearby hills and buildings. There was practically no one around this part of the camp. Everyone tended to avoid it since it was so close to Blacknail’s cave and he was sometimes cranky in the mornings, so when Blacknail detected movement atop one of the hills he zeroed in on it.
It was Lumpy. The hobgoblin was peering over the edge of the hill as if he was waiting for someone, and there was a large rock in his hands. Blacknail found that to be highly suspicious.
In a few short moments Khita would be directly beside the hill. She was very predictable and almost always followed the same paths when she moved to different parts of the base. Lumpy had undoubtedly noticed this and taken advantage of it. He was planning on throwing the rock from out of sight and then running away. His scent would be hard to distinguish among all the other goblins and there were ways to hide it. If it hit, a stone that size would cave in Khita’s skull.
Ever so slowly, Lumpy raised the rock he was holding up above his head. He was preparing to strike. Blacknail dashed forward. He zoomed across the open ground and a series of quick leaps carried him up the hill. The noise drew Lumpy’s attention. He began to turn. Before he realized what was happening, Blacknail had grabbed the back of his shirt and stabbed him. His knife slid up under the other hobgoblin’s ribs and into his soft internal organs.
“You’re too stupid and ugly to live,” Blacknail told the dying hobgoblin. Lumpy’s plan had not only been treacherous but also ill-conceived. There was no way Blacknail wouldn’t have been able to trace it back to him. There was no room in the tribe for a stupid hobgoblin with poor self-control. Also, Blacknail had never liked the hobgoblin’s face. He was better off dead.
Lumpy gasped but Blacknail just sneered and threw him off of the hill. His body bounced as it hit all the rocks on the way down, and it left a trail of blood on the rocks before coming to a stop in front of a very surprised Khita.
“What? What in all the hells did he do?” Khita asked when she looked up and saw Blacknail perched above her.
“He was going to kill you, you idiot,” Blacknail hissed. Killing always made him angry and excited.
“Oh,” Khita exclaimed in surprise. She looked stunned for a moment.
“Well, you didn’t need to kill him! I could have handled it myself,” she added defensively a second later. It seemed like she had recovered her wits, even if they weren’t very good wits.
“Just go get your stuff,” Blacknail told her dismissively. “I’m leaving without you if you take too long.”
After a moment of hesitation, Khita did as she had been asked. The young redhead pulled her gaze away from the dead hobgoblin and began jogging over to the cave. Blacknail watched her go until he heard a soft whish of movement from behind himself. Unsurprised, he turned to see Herah standing there.
“See, I told you earlier that stupid Lumpy was going to try and hurt the human,” she announced as she leaned in close to Blacknail. The female hobgoblin was grinning in her usual overexcited way, and Blacknail had to fight the urge to take a step back from her.
“You did,” Blacknail replied neutrally. He had been very suspicious when she had first approached him.
Herah was hard to read and even harder to predict. Blacknail had no idea what was going on behind her creepy smile. If anyone was going to try and kill someone he had thought it would be her.
“I’m surprised you’re so concerned about Khita,” he told Herah as he studied her face. He had noticed the female hobgoblin staring at Khita with a sour expression on her face more than once. It was little wonder that she had noticed that Lumpy was going to try something.
“If she dies who else would I learn all about you from? We talk a lot. Also, she is one of my glorious boss’ possessions. Of course I would protect her,” Herah explained as she continued to grin.
“She’s um… not really mine…” Blacknail muttered in reply. “She just kind of hangs around, like a swarm of mosquitoes.”
“But I did good, yes?”
“You did. No one is allowed to kill anyone else without my permission,” Blacknail replied as he met her eyes and stared into them.
After a few more minutes of awkward conversation Blacknail dismissed Herah. He still had no idea what he was going to do with her, but she didn’t seem like an immediate threat. He was tempted to give in to her advances, it had been a while and she wasn’t bad looking, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that she was dangerous. Letting another hobgoblin get so close might end badly for him. Her teeth were rather sharp…
Also, Blacknail was fairly certain that she had goaded Lumpy into making the attempt on Khita’s life, and that she had set him up to fail. She was definitely dangerous.
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!