The cloaked hobgoblin tiptoed silently down the shadowy hallway. The dull noonday sun shone in through the nearby windows, but he kept out of the light and in the dark. Since this passage was rarely used for anything but storage, it didn’t get a lot of traffic and the windows were the only source of light.
Blacknail could hear the creak and thud of people’s footsteps moving around him, but none of them seemed to be moving in his direction, and that was good. He wanted to avoid detection at all costs. He’d come fairly close to being caught earlier when a guard had walked by, but Blacknail had managed to duck aside and hide behind a shelf at the last second.
His heart still hadn’t slowed to its normal speed and was thudding in his chest. It would be very bad if he was discovered, and Blacknail didn’t even want to think about the consequences. He had to stay hidden from the humans no matter what!
Of course that was never going to happen. He’d proven over and over again that mere humans couldn’t detect a hobgoblin like him. He was the dreaded Faceless Assassin, and Herad’s undefeated sneaky killer!
“What in all the hells are you doing, Blacknail?” Saeter asked from right behind him.
The unexpected voice slipped into the hobgoblin’s ears, and his heart exploded in panic. He jumped several feet into the air. He hadn’t heard anyone approaching! Oh no, it was master Saeter.
When Blacknail hit the ground, he was already dashing away down the hallway as fast as his feet would carry him. He’d been found; he had to escape, and quickly!
“Stop right there, you little green idot! Come back here, or I swear I’ll go get my bow and hunt you down through Daggerpoint and all the land beyond it,” Saeter barked loudly.
Blacknail believed him; he could hear the stubborn certainty in his master’s voice. When he used that tone there was no arguing with him, and he always did what he said he would, no matter how stupid or dangerous it was.
The hobgoblin stopped running, went completely still, and let out a pitiful whimper. This was the worst possible outcome; why did it have to be his master that had found him?
The urge to flee and hide was overwhelming, but he knew that wouldn’t work. Saeter would find him soon enough. He was incredibly annoying like that.
“Right, now come back here,” Saeter ordered impatiently.
The hobgoblin sighed and obeyed. With his head down he walked sullenly back to his master. He didn’t dare meet his eyes.
“Lose the hood, and look at me,” his master ordered next.
He sounded very annoyed, so Blacknail reluctantly pulled his hood down and met the old scout’s gaze. Saeter looked him over inquisitively for a few seconds, and his expression changed from an angry look to a concerned one.
The hobgoblin cringed and had to turn away a few seconds later. What if his master could smell something? What if it showed? His master spoke up.
“What bloody nonsense has gotten into you, Blacknail? You’ve been acting weird, and avoiding everyone since you returned from chasing those assassins. You told Herad that they got away after a brief fight, and she didn’t question it. She doesn’t know you like I do though, and I’ll eat my boots if that’s what really happened,” he asked the hobgoblin quietly, so that no one would overhear.
“Yes, it is. That totally happened,” Blacknail replied nervously, as his anxious eyes wandered around the room.
Saeter just glared at the hobgoblin stubbornly; he obviously wasn’t convinced. Blacknail withered under his master’s gaze for several seconds. The hobgoblin knew that Saeter wasn’t going to let up until he got an answer, so obviously he had to lie through his teeth.
Blacknail looked up and met his master’s eyes. He licked his lips with his long tongue nervously as his brain worked feverishly to come up with the greatest lie ever told.
“I got lost…” he muttered a second later.
His master crossed his arms and gave the hobgoblin an unamused stare.
Blacknail winced and groaned regretfully. Why had he said that? That was a stupid lie, and totally unconvincing! Why hadn’t he thought of anything better?
Overcome with shame, the hobgoblin flipped his hood back up to hide his face. He then crouched down in order to make himself as small as possible. Maybe if he just stayed like this his master would eventually get bored and leave…
Saeter groaned in annoyance at Blacknail’s behavior.
“Seriously?” he remarked in disbelief.
The old scout then reached down and pulled Blacknail’s hood off. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but then froze.
“Are you… blushing?” he asked in surprise, as he took in the hobgoblins face.
There was a startled look on Saeter’s face. Blacknail’s usual green features had a faint reddish purple cast to them, especially around the cheeks. It certainly seemed like he was doing the hobgoblin equivalent of blushing.
Blacknail opened his mouth to respond and deny everything, but then he stopped. He did sort of want to talk to someone.
Last night, his experience with Luphera had been very… different. The memory caused Blacknail to flinch, and he felt his face burn hotter. Luphera didn’t act or look anything like a female goblin, so why had he let her drag him around by his handsome nose?
He felt used, and he had no idea what he’d been thinking. That terrifying scent and her hungry smile had just done something weird to his head, and other parts of his body.
Luphera had invited him back, but there was no way he was ever going to do that! He felt dizzy just thinking about it. At first his instincts had taken over, but once they’d died down he’d had no idea what he was doing there.
What if he’d done something wrong…? No, there was no way he was ever going to go back! How was he supposed to be around humans now? What if they could smell her on him? Their noses couldn’t be that bad, could they? He didn’t want anyone to know.
Saeter coughed impatiently as he stood over the red faced hobgoblin. Blacknail’s mouth hung open, but he had yet to say anything.
“There’s this woman…” he muttered a second later, as the truth burst out of him unexpectedly.
Saeter’s face went through several stages. First his eyes narrowed in confusion, then he frowned doubtfully, then his eyes widened with shock and worry, until finally his expression settled into a look that portrayed deep but sad wisdom. The old grey haired scout reached out and put a hand on Blacknail’s shoulder.
“There always is,” he sagely told the confused hobgoblin.
There was a weird twist to Saeter’s smile, and his eyes also seemed a little odd. Blacknail didn’t care though, he was just relieved his master wasn’t… overreacting. He grinned happily as he began unburdening himself. There was no way his wonderful and ever so wise master would make fun of him.
“You see…,” a relieved Blacknail began explaining.
“Nope, keep it to yourself,” Saeter interjected quickly, as his one eye twitched.
“But…,” the hobgoblin exclaimed in confusion.
“Some things you need to solve for yourself,” his master explained simply with a blank face. “Now come with me, Herad wants us.”
Blacknail then watched in confusion as his master turned around and headed for the door.
“Ugh, I don’t even want to think about it,” Saeter muttered quietly to himself a few seconds later, as he shivered slightly.
What had just happened? The hobgoblin was glad his master didn’t seem to care, that was obviously the best outcome, but he also felt more than a little slighted.
Saeter should have at least listened a little bit. Not that Blacknail wanted to tell him anything, of course. Yet surely, the whole situation was interesting and worth talking about, right?
The confused hobgoblin was left there crouching on the floor of the hallway all by himself. He stared after his master for a second before his thoughts untangled themselves. Then with a start, he remembered that Saeter had told him that he’d been summoned by Herad.
Quickly, he got up and hurried after his master. No matter how embarrassed he was it would still be a terrible idea to anger the chieftain. He was fairly certain he couldn’t actually die of embarrassment, but he couldn’t say the same thing about being stabbed.
Blacknail quickly caught up with Saeter, and then followed him to the other side of the building. Their destination soon became apparent; it was the sitting room where they’d met with their mistress after Galive’s death.
Saeter walked right in, but Blacknail took a second to peek around the doorway before entering. He was still feeling more than a little shy, and didn’t want to run into any unpleasant surprises.
Herad was lounging back on a sofa in the middle of the room, and was scowling darkly at everyone she saw. The bandit chieftain definitely seemed to be in a bad mood. She was wearing pair of long black trousers, and a dark brown leather vest over a black shirt. She held a silver goblet up in one hand while her other hand massaged the pommel of a dagger sheathed at her hip.
Blacknail hesitated to walk into the room when she was so angry. However, Herad quickly noticed him standing in the doorway and glared at him, so the hobgoblin immediately straightened up and walked nonchalantly in as if he hadn’t just been hiding out of sight.
There were only a few other people in the room, and all of them were members of Herad’s tribe. Blacknail headed towards where his master stood in a deserted corner of the room. Once there, he kept to his master’s shadow and as out of sight as possible. He was still feeling a bit awkward about being around humans, and with Herad in such a bad mood it was best not to attract attention.
It took a few moments for everyone invited to arrive in the sitting room, but no one said anything as they waited. Their boss’ dark mood hung in the air, and no one dared break the silence. There were an awful lot of anxious glances being exchanged between the bandits, though.
When the last person arrived, Herad’s personal guards sealed the room. Blacknail jumped a little as the doors were slammed shut; not having anywhere to run made him fidgety and nervous. It was only then that Herad finally spoke up.
“I just got an interesting message from an information broker. It said they owed me a favor for services rendered by a subordinate of mine, and it was sealed with a lipstick mark,” she announced coldly.
No one said anything as Herad slowly gazed around the room and at everyone there one by one. Her eyes lingered on some people more than others, and thankfully they completely overlooked Blacknail. He was still hiding behind his master.
“I don’t know who exactly it was referring to, but I have my suspicions. Some people lack discipline, and have a bad habit of sticking their nose in things that don’t concern them,” Herad said as she glared coldly at Saeter.
The old scout was stone faced and kept his expression carefully blank, but when Herad looked away he gave Blacknail a dark suspicious look out of the corner of his eye. The hobgoblin quickly turned away and tried to look innocent. He thought he managed to pull it off.
“That’s not of immediate concern, though. What’s important is that the message contains a lot of details on Zelena’s movements and plans. Some of it is easily verifiable, but most of it isn’t. The sender also expressed concern about Zelena’s schemes to control Daggerpoint, and wished us luck in defeating her,” the bandit chieftain explained.
“We get tips and word from all kinds of information dealers almost every day, so what makes this one stand out?” someone brave asked.
Herad nodded and smiled darkly at no one in particular. Blacknail thought she was trying not to look at Saeter, although he wasn’t sure why.
“I’ve heard of this broker before, and the letter also contains information on my own movements. It lists things I’d thought I’d kept secret. Thus, I’m willing to believe most the information on Zelena is also reliable,” Herad explained.
“I’m guessing it’s not good news,” an older female bandit commented reluctantly.
“No, it’s not. As most of you know, I’ve managed to cripple or thwart practically all of Zelena’s schemes. She hasn’t been able to turn most the other chieftains against me, or at least she hasn’t been able to get their direct support for any sort of attack. They’re too afraid of me to risk that,” Herad remarked arrogantly.
“They should be afraid of you. You’re the deadliest fighter in the city, and from what I’ve heard you’ve been dispatching Zelen’s pet captains left and right,” another man replied proudly.
This time Herad’s dark eyes were hard and cold as she responded.
“All very true, but I can’t do everything myself. According to the information I’ve received, Zelena has abandoned her plan to turn most the other chieftains against me, and since her assassination attempt also failed, she’s now planning to simply purchase enough men to launch a frontal attack on us,” she explained.
Some of the bandits gasped in shock, others blinked in confusion, but most didn’t seem too concerned by the news. Blacknail himself understood what Herad had said, but he didn’t really know what to think about it. He had no idea how many people there were in the city, or how many warriors each tribe had. He just knew there were a lot.
“Even if she buys up all the loose scum and hired muscle in the city, and lures a fair number of hands away from other chieftains as well, she’d still have a very hard time defeating us in any direct attack. She didn’t bring all that many of Werrick’s men with her East,” Saeter remarked thoughtfully.
“Without Werrick’s veterans to stiffen their spines anyone they hire is unlikely to be of much use anyway,” another man added dismissively.
Several of the other people in the room apparently agreed with him, because they nodded and made approving noises. Herad wasn’t one of them.
“That’s true, and Zelena realizes this as well. Only an idiot wouldn’t, and while Zelena is many other things, she isn’t an idiot. That’s why she has purchased the services of a small group of mercenaries. According to the letter I received they’re due to arrive sometime next week,” she explained grimly.
The reaction to this news was more dramatic. Dark muttering and swearing filled the room.
“Where in all the hells is she getting all that bloody coin?” someone asked in surprise.
“Fuck,” someone else cursed.
“It can’t all be from Werrick’s spoils out west. Even he couldn’t be making that much from robbing and pillaging. Zelena’s throwing gold around like It’s well water,” another bandit remarked in frustration.
“Are the other chiefs going to allow that? No one’s ever brought a force like that into Daggerpoint. It’s going to make a lot of people nervous, especially the Governor,” someone else added.
“She seems to think she can get away with it,” Herad told them.
“It’s not that much different from hiring the normal thugs and rift raft. Half of them are deserters anyway. There are certainly no rules against it and the rules around here are pretty fluid anyway,” Saeter commented.
“And if anyone complains about it then she has a nice force of mercs at hand to silence them,” a scarred bandit added with dry humor.
“What are you planning to do about it?” Saeter asked Herad calmly over the din.
The old scout didn’t seem too concerned, and so neither was Blacknail. He trusted his master to know what to do.
“There aren’t that many options. Ideally, I’d just have Zelena assassinated, but word is the assassins have her squirreled away somewhere secret. That also means we can’t attack her before the mercenaries get here,” the bandit leader replied.
“And we can’t exactly start a fight with every chief whose minions might join her, or all the free agents in Daggerpoint,” Saeter pointed out.
“So we’re doomed?” another bandit asked nervously.
Herad snorted disdainfully in response, and threw the man a disapproving glare. He wilted under her attention.
“Having a group of mercenaries at her side hardly makes Zelena invincible. Bringing them into town will make her enemies, and we can use that,” she told all her minions in a voice full of steady authority.
Instantly, the room quieted and everyone calmed down. The panic hadn’t subsided completely though, a hint of it lingered in the room.
“How?” someone asked expectantly.
“Simple, we build up alliances of our own, and then crush Zelena’s coin bought soldiers. They’re mercs, so they won’t be sticking around. That means Zelena has to attack us, and that gives us the advantage. Now that we know they’re coming we can fortify the base, and prepare our forces. When Zelena attacks she’ll be walking into a trap,” Herad answered.
“Sounds like it could work. This is a nice defensive location,” Saeter added in support of his boss.
“What do we know about the sell swords?” someone asked.
“They’re an infantry company called the Leather Heels. The broker didn’t know much about them, except that they’re from down south and that they’ve seen a few battles,” Herad explained.
“Too bad Vorscha isn’t around, she’d know more about this company,” Saeter mused.
“It would also be nice to have her here for the fight. There’s no one I would rather have at my back,” another man added.
“She’s needed where she is, and couldn’t get here in time anyway. We have more than enough men for this plan, though,” Herad remarked confidently.
“I’m guessing you want us all to keep this to ourselves?” Saeter asked her.
“Obviously, a trap only works if the victims don’t know it’s a trap. None of you are to share this information with anyone, including your subordinates. I wouldn’t even be telling all of you this if it wasn’t necessary. Just remember, if you open your mouth I’ll find out about it, and then I’ll seal your lips permanently. No second chances; I don’t care if you’re drunk or even being tortured,” Herad told them threateningly, as she gazed around the room.
There were grim nods of acknowledgement from most the bandits present. No one seemed to think she was exaggerating. Blacknail made a mental note to remember to forget that this entire conversation had ever happened. He was taking no chances.
A few minutes later after Herad started explaining the details of her plan, Blacknail began to grow bored of all the talking. He sighed quietly to himself and stifled a yawn. That was when Herad spoke up in an excited tone that immediately caught the hobgoblin’s attention.
“Some of you might be questioning me, and thinking that I’m a poor bet, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s Zelena that’s desperate here, not me. I’ve knocked that bitch on her ass every time she has tried something, and this latest stupid ploy of hers will be no different. When her last desperate gamble falls apart, and we flood the streets with the blood of every petty thug stupid enough to accept her coin, then there will be no one left to challenge me. I will be the undisputed ruler of my territory, and the top dog in Daggerpoint and beyond. Then, a new age will dawn in the North, my age, and all of you here will reap the benefits!” she announced eagerly.
Loud cheering broke out in the room, as the bandits’ greed and pride got the better of them. All trace of their earlier fear and uncertainty had disappeared. Herad saw their reaction and grinned hungrily. Her ambition and blood lust was plain as day.
Blacknail giggled and licked his lips, as he pictured all the fun things that were about to happen. It seemed like his tribe was about to go to war. It was about bloody time!
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!