It only took them a few hours to get back to camp. There had been no real reason for Saeter to travel further than that. He had simply wanted some space and isolation while he trained Blacknail, so that no one got accidently murdered.
“Well, I’m glad this little adventure is over with,” Varhs told Saeter as they approached the camp.
“Consider your debt paid,” Saeter replied as he walked.
“Oh, I do. I’m just glad this crazy hobgoblin idea of yours hasn’t gotten us killed, yet,” Varhs said.
“You volunteered,” Saeter reminded the other man.
“I wasn’t going to let you wander off into the deep green alone for days on end, with no company but a hobgoblin. Besides, I was curious to see if you could pull it off,” Varhs told him.
“I did,” Saeter answered gruffly.
“…probably,” Varhs added with a backward glance at Blacknail.
The hobgoblin was walking along behind them with his hood still up. He liked how the hood concealed him, even if it was a little hot. The way it hid his form was an advantage he could use. He had been thinking a lot about how to act and what to do when he got back to the rest of the tribe.
Blacknail had been following the conversation between Saeter and Varhs with great interest. Over the past few days he had noticed that it was much easier for him to understand the human language. He had learned quite a bit simply from listening to Varhs and Saeter speak, but he wanted to learn even more. He looked up and returned Varhs’ gaze.
“I thank-ss you for the training. I owe you-ss a debt,” Blacknail told him in his hiss like voice.
“Um sure, no problem,” Varhs replied as he blinked in surprise.
Blacknail smiled at Varh’s response. He planned on trying to fit in, so he could eventually take on a higher position within the tribe. Blacknail had absolutely no intention of staying at the bottom of the hierarchy anymore.
Just because he couldn’t climb it by challenging the other members of the tribe didn’t mean he couldn’t do it at all. First, he would try making alliances, and if that didn’t work he would find another way. Obstacles could be removed.
As they walked they came across a sentry, who looked up but made no comment as they passed. He apparently saw nothing odd about the two scouts returning to camp with another cloaked person in tow.
Varhs looked like he really wanted to say something to the man, but stopped himself. Blacknail just smirked to himself in amusement. He could have walked right up to that sentry and bitten him before the man even realized anything was odd.
As they entered the camp proper Varhs said a brief goodbye, and they split up to go to their respective camp sites. The camp itself had changed a fair bit since Blacknail had seen it last. The timbers that had been lying around before had now been put to use. Lean-tos were steadily being replaced by crude log buildings.
Saeter and Blacknail passed quite a few people on their way through the camp. Few of camp’s residents gave the pair a second glance. In fact, a lot of them were unfamiliar to Blacknail.
“Herad must have really been pushing the recruitment while we we’re away,” Saeter commented as he observed the people around them.
“Yes, I see and smell-ss many strangers,” Blacknail said in response. He had decided to work on his human by talking as much as possible.
“What in all the hells? Someone is camping in our spot!” Saeter suddenly exclaimed angrily.
Blacknail looked up to see that his master was right. Where Saeter’s tent used to stand, and some of their gear still did, another group of humans had set up their own stuff. Blacknail’s eyes narrowed as he eyed the humans that had entered his territory. That was a challenge.
There were three of them, one woman and two men. They were lounging around and seemed to be relaxing. Blacknail thought they looked rather young for humans. They didn’t have a tent but they had some sleeping rolls set up under a crude shelter made of branches and a tarp. Saeter stomped over to them, and Blacknail followed.
“This is my spot, and that’s my stuff,” he barked at them.
The two men got up and turned towards Saeter as he spoke, but the woman remained where she was lying against some bags. She just looked up and frowned at Saeter and Blacknail before apparently disregarding them and turning away.
“We’ve been here for days,” one of the men told Saeter dismissively.
“I’ve been away on a mission for Herad, boy,” Saeter replied with hostility plain in his voice and manner.
Blacknail felt his own anger rise and his heartbeat pick up in response to his master’s tone.
“She didn’t say nothing when we set up here” the young man replied with a shrug.
Saeter frowned and his hand moved closer to his dagger. The one young man noticed and his expression became more belligerent. The other man smelled nervous to Blacknail though, like stale sweat.
“Come on, Danivh, we just got here. We don’t need to turn this into a fight. Remember Herad’s rules!” he whispered to his companion.
Blacknail’s large ears heard him though, and he remembered Herad’s rules. One of them was not fighting without her permission. That would make this tricky.
“It’s not our problem if he starts something. Besides we need to show everyone here that they can’t boss us around just because we’re new. Especially, when it’s just an old man and some cloaked pipsqueak,” the first man replied without taking his eyes from Saeter.
“I’m trying to nap here boys, can’t you just get these guys to leave?” the girl asked as she sat up.
“Just a second,” Danivh replied as he tried to stare down Saeter.
The younger man’s gaze shifted to Blacknail as the hobgoblin moved forward and out from behind Saeter. Their eyes met for a single moment, and something stirred in Blacknail. He wanted to put this man in his place.
Without warning Blacknail growled, and pounced forward as instinct took over. His target froze in shock at what he saw under the hobgoblin’s hood, and before he could recover Blacknail had closed the distance between them. The hobgoblin reached out and grabbed his opponent’s knife hand, with enough force that his claws pierced the man’s skin and drew blood.
A quick kick to the back of his leg sent the man to his knees, and before he could regain his balance Blacknail was behind him with a firm grasp on his neck.
As the man struggled, Blacknail leaned down and smiled at him. Then, he opened his mouth wide and growled menacingly. Everyone froze.
Danivh’s visage was white as snow and his eyes were wide with terror as the hobgoblin’s toothy maw opened mere inches from his face. Blacknail smelled the scent of human urine fill the air.
“Our spot, leave,” he growled slowly as he pushed Danivh away.
His rage burned like fire within him, but Blacknail held it in check. Mentally, he worked through a sword form.
“What the fuck!?” the woman screeched as Blacknail’s inhuman visage was revealed.
As the man called Danivh scrambled across the ground away from him Blacknail turned towards her and leered.
With a scream of terror the woman fled, and Danivh was right behind her. The third member of their group was long gone by this point. He had run and abandoned his friends the second Blacknail had attacked.
Blacknail chuckled to himself as he watched the humans flee. Their cowardice reminded him of goblins. His smile grew even wider as the humans reached the edge of the clearing, and kept going into the forest. That was really funny. They had to be very stupid to think they were safer out in woods.
Surprise really was a powerful weapon. It hadn’t even been a fight really; he had barely touched even one of them. No one had gotten hurt, much, so no one could complain to Herad.
The dozens of bandits and ruffians who were nearby had all stopped, and were staring at either the fleeing humans or Blacknail. Most of them were too far away to get a good look at Blacknail, and simply looked confused by what had happened.
Even Saeter was looking at Blacknail with a startled expression, but he quickly recovered.
“Uh, good job Blacknail,” he told the hobgoblin hesitantly. “Just remember to keep yourself under control, and don’t eat anyone,”
“Yes, master,” the hobgoblin replied happily.
Saeter then noticed all the people staring at them, dismissed them, and walked over to where his stuff was stored. Once there he began to grumble and go through it to make sure everything was still there.
Blacknail could hear everyone around him muttering, but when all he did was stand there and wait for his master most the people went back to their own business. As he was waiting his ears twitched as he picked up the sound of someone approaching.
“Ah Saeter, I knew you must have come back. The screams and people madly dashing about everywhere where rather conclusive signs,” announced a voice Blacknail recognized as Geralhd’s.
“I saw those fresh faced recruits fleeing into the woods and I thought to myself, what could be so horrible that someone would run towards the forest? And that’s when it hit me, Saeter must be back!” Geralhd explained as he approached.
Saeter looked up and scowled at him. Blacknail watched Geralhd approach from where he was standing of to the side.
“What do you want?” Saeter asked the other man. Geralhd smiled before replying.
“Why wouldn’t I come over and make sure one of my closest friends in the entire band made it back all right after such a long absence. So, where is Blacknail anyway?” Gerlahd asked as he looked around.
Saeter rolled his eyes disdainfully and pointed towards the hobgoblin before turning back to sorting out all his stuff. Blacknail flipped his hood down to reveal his thin green face and the two small horns that rose from his skull.
“Yes-ss I’m here. Hello, Geralhd,” Blacknail told a now thoroughly shocked looking Geralhd. The man’s smile was crooked as he stared dumbly at Blacknail.
“About time something shut that boy up,” Saeter mumbled from where he was working.
“By the gods it is you!” Geralhd blurted out.
“Yes, I’m Blacknail,” Blacknail told him again.
Geralhd had never been the smartest human around, but Blacknail doubted even he could mistake the hobgoblin for anyone else in camp.
“You’re um, so much taller!” Geralhd remarked.
“Yes,” Blacknail replied dryly. How long was Geralhd going to keep stating the obvious? He was beginning to question the man’s value as a possible ally.
“It’s just amazing how much you’ve changed in such a short time,” Geralhd exclaimed as he approached the hobgoblin curiously.
Blacknail didn’t know how to respond to that, so he just shrugged casually. Looking back it was obvious the man was right. Blacknail felt like an entirely different person than he had been mere weeks ago. It was very strange, and somewhat uncomfortable to think about. So he didn’t.
Geralhd walked up and began peering closely at the hobgoblin. Blacknail had to resist the urge to growl and push him away. The human was uncomfortably close. Only Blacknail’s familiarity with the thin man prevented him from at least backing away. Was there something he should say now?
“Huh, I’ll have to start bringing you bigger treats. I hope you still like jerky,” Gerlahd told the hobgoblin as he handed him a piece of meat. There was a somewhat embarrassed look on his face.
This time Blacknail’s answering smile wasn’t forced.
“Yes, I-ss do,” he answered before taking the meat and stuffing it in his mouth.
His almost inexhaustible hunger was one of the few things that hadn’t changed since his metamorphosis. He had been eating quite a bit since he’d awoken as a hobgoblin, but he still was never quite satisfied.
“Thank you my friend Geralhd,” he told the man after he’d chewed the morsel down to nothing.
“I’m glad to see that you’re still mostly the same on the inside. Your impressive new grasp of Elorian excluded of course. I knew Red Dog was being an idiot when he told everyone you would turn into some sort of ravenous beast when you changed. I’m glad you’re back, my not so little friend,” Geralhd remarked happily.
Blacknail heard a groan full of disbelief and annoyance from where Saeter was working as Geralhd finished speaking. The hobgoblin pretended he hadn’t heard anything though and nodded happily at Geralhd. That’s when he noticed the sword at Gerahld’s hip.
He had seen the sword there before, of course, but never really noticed it before now. An idea then popped into the hobgoblin’s head. He raised a green clawed hand and pointed to the blade.
“Want to practice?” he asked the man.
At first Geralhd seemed confused by what Blacknail had said but then he followed Blacknail’s gaze and then noticed the sword at the hobgoblin’s own hip.
“Saeter’s been teaching you swordsmanship?” he asked in surprise.
Blacknail was fairly sure that Geralhd had meant it as a statement, and not a question. Sometimes he had trouble figuring that out.
“Yes, for discipline,” Blacknail replied.
“Um, I’d like to but…” Geralhd hesitantly answered.
“Let me stop you there,” Saeter interjected, as he got up and walked over. “We should go report to Herad, but don’t worry, Blacknail. I’ll get Vorscha to practice with you later. She loves that kind of thing.”
Blacknail felt his heart sink as Saeter spoke. He had come to like practicing with swords, and he suspected sparring with Geralhd wouldn’t be as one sided as he was used to. However, Geralhd threw Saeter a grateful smile. He apparently hadn’t been looking forward to sparring with a hobgoblin.
“I’ll see you two around,” he told them before he walked off.
“Let’s go,” Saeter said when Geralhd was gone.
He immediately started walking over to the farmhouse where Herad had set up camp. Blacknail pulled his hood back up and followed him, but he had to drag himself as reluctance made his feet feel heavy. Sparring with Geralhd, or even Vorscha, sounded like a lot more fun than going to see Herad.
Blacknail wasn’t looking forward to seeing Herad again at all. He half believed she would kill him on the spot, for being a threat to her. Given a choice he would have avoided the bloodthirsty chieftain for as long as possible.
Before they reached the old home Saeter unexpectedly veered off track. Blacknail looked over towards where his master was heading and saw Herad taking a walk through the camp. He froze in fright for a second, but then forced himself to head her way.
At first it didn’t seem like Herad saw them, but then she turned their way. Blacknail felt himself grow a little sweatier under his cloak. He wanted to pull the hood down even more but didn’t want to draw attention to himself that way either.
As they got closer Blacknail was struck by how much shorter Herad seemed now that he was a hobgoblin. In fact she wasn’t really larger than him. That seemed very weird to him, but he wasn’t stupid enough to think that made her weak though. He’d seen one very large human make that mistake.
“Ah Saeter, I had heard you were b…” Herad started to say, before stopping and staring at the cloaked Blacknail. At first she looked suspicious, but then she began to snarl in anger.
“Please tell me a hobgoblin, in a hood, didn’t walk right by my sentries. Heads are going to roll if it’s been strolling freely through my camp for the last few hours, in a hood, and no one thought to inform me or even knew,” she hissed at them.
Both Saeter and Blacknail went completely still. Very slowly and carefully Blacknail slouched to make himself a smaller target and less threatening. Maybe if he was lucky enough to survive her first blow he could play dead and then find a hole to hide in.
“I’m informing you right now,” Saeter responded quickly but calmly. “We briefly stopped to unpack and then we were going to go straight to look for you,”
Blacknail could smell his nervousness though. He was simply very good at hiding it.
Herad eyed them both hostilely but seemed to calm down a little, but only a little. She raised a finger on her gloved hand at Blacknail, and he had to fight the urge to join the bandits he had chased off earlier and make a break for the woods.
“Lose the hood,” she told him, with an edge to her voice sharp enough to draw blood.
The hobgoblin pulled his hood down as quickly as he could. He lowered his eyes submissively and stared at her boots. Herad simply observed him silently for a few seconds.
“Are you a hobgoblin or an oversized lizard? Look at me,” she ordered him.
Reluctantly, Blacknail raised his head and met her eyes. They were dark and hostile. Did she want to fight him? Hopefully she just wanted to make him submit. Submitting would be fine with him. In fact, he would do it right now.
“Your servant Blacknail greets you, chieftain,” he told her. He then gave her his best impression of a friendly human smile. It wasn’t a very good impression, but it did give her a nice view of his teeth.
Herad looked at him blankly for a second, and then chuckled. Both Saeter and Blacknail were taken aback.
“This is what Red Dog was so afraid of? It’s just a slightly bigger goblin, still small and cowardly,” she laughed coldly.
Saeter turned and frowned at Blacknail, and then looked back at Herad. Blacknail’s pride was somewhat hurt by Herad’s remark.
“He’s only been a hob for a few days. He’ll grow some more, and he’s not cowardly. He’s just perceptive, and has a beast’s instincts. Hobgoblins are clever and Blacknail knows an opponent he can’t beat when he sees one, so he’s acting accordingly,” Saeter explained defensively.
Herad threw him a doubtful look. Blacknail usually liked being complimented, but now he really wished Saeter would stop talking.
“Just ask around if you don’t believe me. He took down one of your new recruits before the fool and his two friends even knew what was happening. They were so scared they hightailed it off into the woods, screaming all the way. You’re going to have to send scouts out to find them if you want them back,” he added.
“So that was your pet was it? I was just about to investigate that disturbance,” she mused.
“He seems weak to you because that’s what he wants you to think. He’s being submissive towards a strong pack leader. Don’t underestimate hobgoblins. Hood or no hood, a few sentries wouldn’t stop Blacknail from slipping into camp and slitting some throats come nightfall,” Saeter continued to explain.
“But I’m-ss your servant and friend and won’t ever cut-ss your band,” Blacknail interjected nervously as he gave Herad another smile. What was his master trying to do?
“If it’s so clever why are you so sure you have it under control?” Herad asked Saeter, while ignoring Blacknail.
“He’s too smart to pick fights he can’t win. I just had to train him to control himself and make sure he knew who the boss was,” Saeter replied with a shrug.
“That would be me, but now I’m curious. How exactly did the great ranger Saeter manage to be the first to train a hobgoblin?” she asked him with a smirk.
“Sword drills and sparring are the best thing for teaching discipline,” Saeter replied deadpan.
Herad gave Saeter a look. It clearly indicated he was either an idiot or insane, possibly both. Then she burst out laughing. Blacknail actually flinched away from her at the unexpected outburst but Saeter took it in stride.
“By the gods, you amuse me sometimes, Saeter! No wonder no one has done it before. Who would be stupid or mad enough to teach a hobgoblin how to use a sword? It’s brilliant in its pure bloody insanity!” she cackled.
Her laughter faded after awhile, and she actually wiped a tear from her eye. Saeter looked a little spooked at her reaction.
“I can’t wait to see the look on Red Dog’s face when he learns about this. You just keep teaching your hobgoblin how to kill people, Saeter. I think I’m going to enjoy having him around. Oh, and when he’s gotten proficient enough I want you to send him my way for a few rounds. That ought to be interesting,” Herad told Saeter, as amusement oozed from her voice.
Without waiting for an answer the bandit leader started walking away from them, still chuckling to herself. Her black cloak trailed behind her as she went.
When she was gone Blacknail turned to his master, and couldn’t help but give him a dirty look. Why had he told Herad all that? Blacknail could think of nothing he would like to do less than fight Herad.
“Don’t give me that look you jumped up goblin,” Saeter told him. “Bah, you were acting all pathetic back there. It was shameful. You should be thanking me; now she likes you!”
That didn’t make Blacknail feel any better. He had much preferred his own plan. Blacknail felt it would have involved a much smaller chance of dying. He had a feeling that when he fought Herad that they wouldn’t be using wooden blades.
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