Herad scowled at the three minions in front of her. Red Dog and Blacknail were alternating between staring hatefully at each other and looking nervously towards her. Mahedium was trying to stand back and pretend he hadn’t been responsible for the fiery explosion at all.
“Sorry, boss. It won’t happen again,” Red Dog apologized fervently.
“I believe we were all under the serpent’s influence and its mental attack was impairing our judgement,” Mahedium added respectfully but with a poorly concealed hint of worry.
“It was messing with everyone’s heads, yet they didn’t all go around throwing exploding goblins in my direction,” Herad replied coldly.
The mage’s face was carefully blank and his posture stiff, but the rapid movement of his eyes betrayed his worry. He was obviously trying not to let his fear show. Blacknail could respect that but he had a different plan.
“Oh-ss merciful chief, spare me please!” Blacknail groveled as he dropped to his knees and pressed his forehead against the ground. “I will-ss kill a hundred of your enemies in thanks and lay their corpses at your feet,”
Herad blinked in surprise. The three humans looked down at the hobgoblin for several silent seconds. No one seemed to know how to respond.
Blacknail kept groveling. He didn’t think he’d said too much. The hobgoblin was pretty much planning to do all that stuff anyway. It was what he did for fun.
“…also, it was all Red Dog’s fault, not mine,” he added.
“Hey, you little green liar!” exclaimed the bandit lieutenant in question.
The corner of Herad’s scowl twitched. A second later, an actual smile broke across her face and she let out a snort like chuckle. Red Dog shut up. Blacknail peeked up at her. He was fairly sure that meant she wasn’t going to kill him.
“You’re amazingly lucky your stupid plan worked so well, and that I can’t afford to be rid all three of you,” Herad announced. “I’ve killed people I liked much more than you for far less.”
‘Thank you, boss, I’ll make it up to you,” Red Dog interjected quickly before anyone else could say anything.
“You’re right about that,” Herad replied. “You owe me one for this, so how are you going to pay me back?”
“Um, whatever you want…” he replied uncertainly until Herad laughed in his face.
“What, you’re not going to promise the same as Blacknail?” she asked with a vicious grin.
Red Dog tried to stutter out an answer but Herad cut him off again. Mahedium was still standing off to one side and looked satisfied with his decision not to speak up.
“How about you and Mahedium just get this mess cleaned up. I need to deal with more pressing matters,” she told them.
Blacknail took advantage of the momentary shift in her attention to scuttle backwards out of sight. He then got up and slowly backed away. When the boss was mad begging and sucking up worked but it was even better if they simply forgot you existed.
Behind the hobgoblin, Red Dog started yelling out orders and trying to get everything organized. The camp was in shambles. Flattened tents and wounded bandits littered the ground. Blacknail’s hearing had fully recovered now so he could hear them moaning and groaning, but that wasn’t all he heard.
The hobgoblin’s ears twitched as he recognized sir Masnin’s voice. Huh, he hadn’t been sure the man had survived the explosion. Oh, maybe he was wounded and bleeding out somewhere!
The hobgoblin quickly crept over to the remains of the once tall lumber pile. He crouched behind it and peeked carefully over the top.
Sir Masnin was over on the other side. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to be dying or anything, which was a shame. The man had a lot of very shiny equipment Blacknail would have loved to rescue from neglect.
The paladin was in fact kneeling over the burnt and horribly mangled remains of the knights Mahedium had killed with his magical fire. The corpses smelled a lot like barbeque pork and that made Blacknail kind of hungry.
“In life we all make mistakes, for the gods made us flawed,” sir Masnin whispered solemnly. “They will forgive you your pride and wrath, young warrior. When I was young I threw myself foolishly into danger as well. The only difference between us is I didn’t drag others in my wake. May you find solace and belonging in the gods’ embrace, sir Devos.”
With his prayers complete the kneeling paladin gave a grunt of effort and stood up. As he moved, his chainmail shirt shifted over his dirty torn leathers and he snatched up his helmet from the ground at his side. The still young but weathered looking man then threw a piercing glance towards Blacknail’s hiding spot.
“I see you there, creature. You can come out of hiding; I won’t attack you. Your mistress wouldn’t like it. Besides, my vows don’t mention hobgoblins, anymore than they mention rats. They’re more of a job for exterminators than paladins,” sir Masnin suddenly announced.
Blacknail glowered at the paladin from behind the log. Their gazes met and the hobgoblin felt anger tighten his muscles. The man’s gaze and words were clearly a challenge, one Blacknail intended to meet.
The hobgoblin got up and started walking over to the paladin. This was his territory and he hadn’t just defended it from a whole bunch of shiny people, horses, and a giant snake to back down now.
He wasn’t afraid of the man just because he was a Vessel with a sword sharp enough to cut through flesh like mud… because the paladin was right, Herad wouldn’t like it if the man hurt him. Besides, Blacknail was confident in his ability to run away and yell for help, he was tricky like that.
“I knew there was something wrong about you when I saw you earlier. Did Herad send you to keep a watch on me again?” sir Masin asked warily as he studied the creature in front of him.
“No, I was just checking to see if-ss you were dying,” Blacknail replied as he came to stop in front of the paladin.
The hobgoblin’s green face, long nose, and pointy ears were plainly visible. His hood had come off earlier and he hadn’t bothered to put it back up.
“So that you could offer your aid?” sir Masnin asked doubtfully.
“Maybe” the hobgoblin replied as he gave the man a blank look.
The paladin stared cautiously at the hobgoblin for a few seconds. He seemed at a loss for words.
“I’ve never actually talked to a hobgoblin before, or even seen one. You’re not much of a conversationalist, although I suppose that’s to be expected” sir Masnin remarked.
“I talk to human idiots all the time, so I don’t-ss have much to say to you,” Blacknail shot back.
“I take it back; you’re a mouthy creature after all,” the paladin replied. “I’m curious why you hang around with these men and women. I’ve never heard of such a thing before; your kind is supposed to be violently solitary.”
“The food is good,” Blacknail replied with a shrug.
He wasn’t lying. The grub in Herad’s camp was much better than what he’d eaten in the sewer, and he had to fight less for it. The goblins in the sewer had been mean little scrappers and the rats had been huge.
The paladin grinned at the hobgoblin’s words and chuckled quietly.
“You seem like an interesting… fellow so I’ll give you a warning,” sir Masnin explained as he stared coldly into Blacknail’s eyes with sudden intensity. “If you start killing people then I will hunt you down.”
The hobgoblin didn’t blink as he stared back. The man’s stare was now definitely a challenge. A savage grin broke out across Blacknail’s face that revealed the full length of his sharp jagged teeth. He enjoyed a good game of threats.
“You hunt me? How silly. I’ll be right here-ss waiting for you with my tribe at my back. Attacking-ss them didn’t work so well for you today, so save your little threats. I am not-ss afraid. I will kill as I wish and as I am told. Why shouldn’t I slay men when everyone else here-ss does the same, including you? You have to kill to live, it is the only way here,” Blacknail explained with a gleeful chuckle.
“You’re smarter than you look, but while Herad and these thieves might seem strong to you in the grand scheme of things they are nothing. Their time on this earth is limited and they can’t protect you. Soon enough, someone will bring them down,” sir Masnin countered coldly.
Blacknail’s hackles rose at the other man’s harsh tone but he didn’t back down. The man’s threats against his tribe angered him.
“If-ss you come back here and try to slay my tribe again I will hunt you and yours through-ss the Green and your dirty cities. For every death-ss or injury you deal I shall kill three people close to you hang their corpses for all to see,” Blacknail growled at the man.
“That is a threat you have no chance of ever fulfilling. You are nothing but a weak little green runt,” the paladin replied with his eyes narrowed angrily.
Blacknail’s smile widened. Oh good, now he’d gotten the man really angry.
“Do you ever-ss grow tired and sleep, human? I have seen that all men do. I would follow your putrid human stench to your home. Your pathetic human eyes would-ss never see me as I watched and waited,” Blacknail hissed back.
The paladin and the hobgoblin stared at each other for several moments, with neither of them yielding. Blacknail was uncomfortably aware of the warrior’s greater strength and skill, but he was also confident the man wouldn’t start a fight here where he was so outnumbered.
“Hmm, I can see you’re not going to back down. Just try not to stick out too much or you’ll be hammered down,” the paladin warned the hobgoblin as he turned and started walking away.
The hobgoblin grinned to himself as the man left. He had totally won the game of threats. The man hadn’t been terrible at it either, so it had been a lot of fun.
When the paladin was out of sight the hobgoblin went back to his original activity, trying to find stuff to loot. Blacknail wandered around the camp searching bodies and rubble for anything that caught his interest. He didn’t manage to find much though, because he was soon rudely interrupted.
The sound of familiar voices approaching reached his ears and he looked up to see Vorscha and Geralhd walking his way. Both of them seemed more than a little roughed up, especially Vorscha. They were both covered in dirt and sweat but her left arm was completely bandaged up and pinned to her chest.
“You really shouldn’t be moving around so much,” Geralhd pointed out as he leaned in close to examine her bandages. “Your arm is broken and needs to be kept still. You’re lucky you were only hit by the edge of a shield.”
“It’s fine, you had my back anyway. Now, I have stuff to do now. Officers have responsibilities so I can’t afford to slack off right now,” Vorscha replied as she kept walking.
The pair stopped behind the hobgoblin as he was rummaging through a sac that had been dropped on the ground. Vorscha coughed to get Blacknail’s attention, so with a heavy sigh the hobgoblin turned and met her gaze.
“I need you to find Khita. No one has seen her since the fight ended and I’m worried she got injured,” the woman told him.
“I don’t wanna; I’m busy,” Blacknail replied surlily.
“You’re the only one who can track her through this mess. Now go find her scent or I’ll beat you black and blue… er green during your next sword lesson,” she countered.
“Ugh, fine but you owe-ss me,” Blacknail grunted in reply as he reluctantly rose to his feet.
“I’ll double the treats I normally give you,” Geralhd offered.
Blacknail grudgingly nodded his head in acceptance.
“I need to get back to Herad, by the front entrance. When you find Khita meet me over there,” Vorscha added.
“Whatever,” the hobgoblin replied as he sniffed the air for signs of his new quarry.
It was best to just get this over with as quickly as possible. He would find Khita and then get back to the important things he had been doing before he was interrupted.
Thankfully, it didn’t take him long to track her down. The young woman was seated on a crate in the shadowy space between two buildings. It was an out of the way corner of the base, but she wasn’t all that hard to find since she was making so much noise. The sound of her sniffling was easy to track down.
With extreme reluctance, Blacknail made his way over to the sobbing girl’s side. He stared down at her for several long seconds before speaking up.
“Vorscha wants-ss you. You’re not dying or anything are you?” he asked. “I’m supposed to check.”
“I almost wish I was dying!” Khita wailed without looking up.
Blacknail eyed the young redhead. That seemed like a stupid thing to wish for.
“So you’re perfectly fine-ss and I can leave?” he asked her hopefully.
“I froze, twice,” Khita cried. “When the knights charged I just stood there, and I almost let that bloody beast eat me! I’m useless.”
Blacknail wasn’t going to argue that; she was totally useless. However, her crying was disturbing him and making it impossible to get the answers he needed out of her.
“There, there,” the hobgoblin told her as he awkwardly patted her shoulder.
That was what humans did, right? He’s seen at least one of them do it before…
“This isn’t even the first time. I got my brother killed. I just stood there as he died!” Khita sobbed.
The hobgoblin winced in irritation. This sounded like it was going to be a long and complicated story. Judging by the tears forming in her eyes it might also get wet.
“Back in Riverbend my big brother was the one who looked after me,” she told the frustrated hobgoblin. “He was the one that brought me into the gang. He taught me how to steal, fight, and look after myself. I was afraid of nothing when he was around. He just had this strong reassuring presence that attracted people.”
Blacknail looked around for someone who would care, but they were alone. Maybe he could just pick her up and carry her to Vorscha? The big woman seemed to be the one that took care of this sort of thing. Beside him, Khita resumed talking.
“One day I messed up a job… I froze and he was cut down by some fat stupid guardsman while covering me,” she explained. “The worst thing about it was how all his supposed friends laughed about it. That was the real reason I left. I couldn’t stand to be in that city with those people anymore, so I joined up with Herad when Red Dog came around recruiting. I thought that maybe with a fresh start I could put it all behind me, but I’m just a coward. I froze again.”
The young redhead was hunched over now with her head down towards the ground. The hobgoblin grimaced in frustration. There was no one around but him. What was he supposed to do? Slowly creeping away sounded like a good idea, but Vorscha had given him a job…
Wait, she was just being weird and human-like. He could probably just explain to her why she was being stupid and then she would shut up, right? The hobgoblin coughed to get Khita’s attention.
“Freezing doesn’t make you a coward. Sitting here whining makes you-ss stupid, though,” he told her.
The hobgoblin placed his hand on her shoulder and forced himself to smile reassuringly. Khita looked up at him and frowned in confusion. Her eyes were red and wet with tears. Blacknail put a little more pressure on her shoulder so she couldn’t get up and hug him or something.
“I freeze all-ss the time, and then run away. What matters is that you’re still alive so you sneak back later and stab-ss them when they’re not paying attention,” Blacknail explained. “They can’t laugh at you or gang up on you later if you hunt them down and kill them in their sleep. When all your enemies are dead-ss you win!”
“I’m not sure that would really help me at all,” Khita replied sulkily.
“Sure it will; you’ll feel better and then you can take all-ss their stuff,” he countered.
“I don’t think I could kill them all myself, anyway,” the young woman replied but she was now smiling slightly.
Blacknail sighed. Of course Khita couldn’t, she was useless.
“I’ll do it then,” he told her.
“Really, you’d do that for me?” she asked in surprise.
“Sure,” Blacknail replied as he shrugged.
If it shut her up then he had no problem killing some people. Hmm, would Khita’s enemies count as Herad’s? He owed the chief a hundred corpses after all. Oh well, he was sure he could slip them in without anyone noticing anything.
Suddenly, the young woman hopped up and reached over to hug Blacknail. The hobgoblin tried to push her away but somehow she slipped past his guard. How did she keep doing that?
“Thanks Blacknail, but I think I need to solve my own problems. You’re right; I shouldn’t waste the life my brother gave me. After a few more lessons from Vorscha and the others I’ll be able to stand on my own. I’m a ruthless bandit now after all!” Khita explained gratefully as Blacknail slipped away from her.
The hobgoblin grimaced and eyed Khita skeptically. That didn’t really sound like what he’d just said, but whatever. As long as she stopped being annoying it was fine. It also certainly looked like Khita wasn’t wounded, and that meant he could leave, finally.
“You do-ss that. I think I hear someone calling me, so bye,” Blacknail said as he stepped backwards and made his escape.
Blacknail quickly reported back to Vorscha. The woman was right where she said she would be, by the entrance to the camp the knight’s had attacked. The hobgoblin sauntered over and informed her that Khita was perfectly fine, if still annoying and useless.
“Good, it’s hard to keep track of people during a battle and that one was fairly chaotic. I couldn’t afford to worry about her then,” the ex-mercenary explained.
Vorscha was leaning against a post and watching a group of bandits work to repair the barricade the knights had crushed.
“You owe-ss me. Now, all the good stuff is taken,” Blacknail grunted in reply as he watched a bandit with a dented but new steel breastplate walk by.
“I’m sure Geralhd will give you something nice,” Vorscha replied distractedly.
By now all the enemies had disappeared, except for one. The knights had ridden out of camp like a horde of monsters had been on their tails and their footmen had followed swiftly behind them, which left only sir Masnin behind. The paladin had retrieved his mount and was saddling it up in preparation to leave.
Just as he finished, Herad detached herself from her bodyguards and walked over to him. Somehow, she’d found the time to switch into cleaner armor and her short dark hair had been combed.
“Headed away so soon, are you?” she asked the paladin. “Now that things have calmed down a little around here, are you sure you don’t want to stick around for a little bit and rest? There’s no point in rushing away.”
Sir Masnin eyed the bandit chieftain warily. Complex emotions stormed behind his eyes.
“Earlier, I may have underestimated how dangerous you were and the exact nature of that threat. You caught me off guard. I won’t be making that mistake again. I intend to make for my order’s closest chapter house and submit a full report. After that I will go where they will me,” he explained.
“Flattery will get you everywhere. Just make sure you tell your superiors who controls this territory. It’s not the merchants, the nobles, or even the king, it’s me.” Herad replied with a predatory smile.
“I’ll make sure they’re aware of your strength,” the paladin remarked as he surveyed the surrounding bandits and his eyes stopped on Blacknail. “Goodbye, Herad. I can’t say it has been a pleasure but it has certainly been interesting, anyway,”
The hobgoblin noticed the attention and gave the man a friendly wave.
“Maybe you can stop by again,” Herad replied. “Just come alone next time so there are fewer distractions.”
With only a vague nod for a reply the paladin jumped up into his saddle and started riding away. When he was gone Herad turned toward Vorscha.
“You stay here. I’m calling a meeting,” she told the other woman.
The bandit chieftain sent one of her bodyguards to round up her lieutenants. Saeter was the first to arrive. The old scout simply strolled up behind Blacknail without making a noise, much to the hobgoblin’s surprise.
Red Dog was the last to show up.
“It was blasted unlucky of us to get attacked by those knights and that mutant at the same time. The camp’s a bloody damned mess. I imagine that this is going to slow down your plan” he grumbled as he walked over.
“Ha, unlucky? Things couldn’t have worked out better! We just smashed the only mobile force the nobles in this area could send against us with minimal losses! Nothing short of a royal expedition will be able to force us away now!” Herad announced.
“We lost more than a few good men and a lot of bad ones. I wouldn’t call that a minimal loss,” Vorscha countered.
“So what? We we’re in the middle of a recruiting drive anyway. All that means is that it will last a little longer and we will have one more victory to brag about,” the bandit chieftain pointed out.
“So, you won’t be delaying your trip to Daggerpoint this winter?” Saeter asked.
“No, in fact I’ll be speeding my plans up. It’s time to go for our enemies’ throats,” Herad answered confidently. “Now that this base is secured it’s even more important that I announce my claim to the other large outlaw bands. They need to know that if they move into my territory it will mean war.”
“Can’t you just send a messenger?” Red Dog asked.
“No, some of those bastards would challenge me right away. I can’t give them time to plan and work to undermine me. I need to be in Daggerpoint where I can confront the other bandit captains directly and put them in their place,” Herad replied.
“You won’t be able to bring too many men with you if you want to hold this base. What happens if one of the other large bands takes up your challenge?” Red Dog asked in concern.
The bandit chieftain almost seemed to shiver in excitement. Her dark eyes suddenly gleamed madly, and her smile widened to show teeth as she regarded her underlings.
“In Daggerpoint I’ll be able to recruit real hardened bandits. Then, if anyone tries to stand in my way I’ll paint the streets with their blood, and take their skulls as trophies,” Herad replied gleefully.
Blacknail smiled along with her. Herad was such a great chief! Defending the camp was important but it was always better to be the attacker. There were more things to take and it was easier to catch the enemy by surprise. He couldn’t wait to feel the blood of his tribe’s enemies run through his hands. Glorious days were coming and he was going to have such fun.
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!