Training with Vorscha was much more enjoyable than with Saeter. It was actually kind of fun and he learned quite a bit faster from her. This was most likely because he took fewer blows to the head.
“Good, keep your weight mostly on your back foot,” Vorscha told him as he blocked one of her thrusts.
The tall chesty brunette was obviously not putting all of her considerable strength behind the blow. Blacknail appreciated the consideration since she probably weighed twice as much as him.
“Now attack,” she told him.
The hobgoblin eagerly did as she asked. He stepped forwards and launched a horizontal slash, which Vorscha easily blocked. Not that he had been expecting to land the blow.
“No, that was all wrong. You were off balance. Stop,” Vorscha said with a frown.
“I’m sorry,” Blacknail replied submissively as he lowered his blade.
The large woman was clearly a much more skilled fighter than him. Blacknail mentally added her to the list of people he didn’t want to challenge to a real fight.
“See, do it like this,” Vorscha explained.
The large brunette’s blade sliced through the air as she demonstrated the proper technique. Blacknail watched her carefully. She was startlingly graceful looking when she had a sword in hand, as she flowed between different stances and attacks her brown curls barely moved.
Blacknail tried to copy her movements but his weren’t nearly as smooth. He certainly had a long way to go in order to become any good at swordsmanship. He would just have to cheat in the meantime.
“Good, now practice that by yourself for a while, while I go check on Khita,” Vorscha told him as she watched him practice.
Blacknail continued repeatedly slicing the air as he practiced the move over and over again. Vorscha gave an approving nod and then headed over to Khita.
She then walked over to where the young woman was practicing, or where she was supposed to be practicing anyway. Khita had stopped practicing quite a while ago and was now just standing around.
The young woman was red faced with exhaustion, and the sword she was supposed to be swinging hung loosely from her hand with its tip resting on the ground. She scowled at Vorscha as the older woman approached.
“Why have you stopped?” Vorscha asked her in disapproval.
“Ugh, I can barely move my arms anymore. Can’t I take a break?” Khita whined in response.
“Ha, and you thought you didn’t need anyone’s help. It hasn’t even been half an hour yet. Real fighting takes a little more muscle than that back alley scuffling you’re used to, doesn’t it now?” Vorscha asked her.
“Maybe…” Khita muttered resentfully back.
“Well, don’t worry about it. I’ll have you in fighting form before too long. It will just take a few hours of practice every day,” Vorscha explained with a gleeful smile.
Khita winced as is if someone had just slapped her across the face. She didn’t seem to like Vorscha’s plan very much.
“I don’t suppose I have a choice?” she asked the other woman.
“Nope, I already got permission from Herad to make you my subordinate. You have to do what I say, or its back to the city with you,” Vorscha replied with a smile as Khita groaned.
While they were talking Blacknail had grown bored of repeating the same technique so he started throwing in a few other ones. He was so engrossed in the feel and sound of the blade as it sliced through the air that he didn’t notice Saeter and Red Dog arrive until one of them actually spoke.
“Blacknail, come here,” Saeter called out to him.
The hobgoblin flinched in surprise at the unexpected voice. He recovered quickly though, and then walked over to his master. He dropped his blunt practice blade on the way over.
“Hello-ss, master and Red Dog,” Blacknail said as walked over to them.
Red Dog’s expression was unusually neutral. He didn’t scowl at the hobgoblin. Instead, he just regarded him without judgment.
“We have a job for you, hobgoblin,” Red Dog told him.
“Oh, what-ss is it?” Blacknail asked with obvious interest.
Red Dog wouldn’t be here talking to him unless it was something out of the ordinary.
“There’s a small group of army deserters who have set up camp to the south. They’re robbing, and usually killing, travelers. Herad wants them dealt with and made an example of,” Red Dog explained.
“Men hunt in our territory, so we-ss kill them,” Blacknail summarized.
“Basically, yes. Herad does want some of them alive though, they’ll make better recruits than most the riffraff we’ve been getting from Riverbend,” the bandit replied as he threw a disdainful look at Khita.
Blacknail agreed with Red Dog about the uselessness of the one named Khita, but had to suppress the urge to remind Red Dog that he was the idiot who had recruited her.
“They’re hiding in the forest somewhere so you’ll be helping me track them down, plus it will be a good experience for you,” Saeter added.
“I understand-ss, master,” Blacknail replied as he nodded.
“How many men are you taking?” Vorscha asked. She had dismissed Khita and joined them as well.
“Only a little more than a dozen, and I see you’ve joined Saeter in this insanity,” Red Dog replied with a nod in Blacknail’s direction. “I mean fine, so he’s useful to have around. That doesn’t mean you should be training the hobgoblin to kill people better. Can no one else seriously see why that’s obviously such a bad idea?”
“He’s actually a very well behaved student, and learns fairly quickly,” Vorscha replied with a shrug.
“That doesn’t really make me feel any better,” Red Dog told her dryly.
“You can whine all you want on the way there. Let’s get going,” Saeter interjected impatiently.
Red Dog’s lips curled up in displeasure as he responded.
“Fine, whatever. We’ve got the goblin, so let’s head out,” Red Dog replied in exasperation. He seemed eager to get the job over with.
After a brief stop to grab some stuff from his shelter, Blacknail and the bandits were on their way down the road. Just like Red Dog had told Vorscha earlier, their group was comprised of about two dozen people, with an about even mix of new and experienced bandits.
“Couldn’t we have used some of the horses?” one of the recruits complained as she walked beside Red Dog.
They had been walking down the old dirt road that cut through the forest for several hours now.
“There are too many of us for that. Besides, we aren’t going all that far, and we’ll be moving through a lot of bush. You’ll just have to get used to walking distances further than down the street,” Red Dog told her disdainfully.
“…and riding can be even more painful and exhausting than walking if you’re not used to it,” Saeter added.
Suddenly, Blacknail heard something from up ahead. He froze, pulled his hood down, and listened. Everyone else noticed his actions and stopped as well. Most of them had curious looks on their faces. A few had apparently managed to somehow forget he was a hobgoblin and looked shocked at his appearance.
“Horses, many of them, from up ahead,” Blacknail announced as he stared of into the trees that concealed the twist in the road ahead.
“Shit, could be a patrol or something. Everyone off the road and out of sight, now,” Red Dog commanded as he moved towards the forest that ran along the road.
The rest of the bandits rushed after him, and they were soon all concealed along the tree line.
“I don’t hear anything. How do we know the hobgoblin isn’t making this up?” someone asked from where he was crouched behind a bush.
To Blacknail’s surprise it was Red Dog who answered.
“Because I’m smarter than you. Now shut up,” Red Dog hissed at the first speaker.
Almost immediately, the sound of hooves reached the humans’ ears. The bandits were all crouched in bushes or leaning against trees, but as soon as they heard the noise they all turned to look out at the road.
They didn’t have to wait very long for the horsemen to appear. They rode into view at a quick canter. There were slightly fewer of them than there were bandits, but every one of them was mounted and heavily armored.
The soldiers, and that’s what they had to be, were even more heavily armed and shinier than Persus’ guards had been. On top of their padded clothing they wore long chain-mail shirts. Their legs were covered by steel greaves, and their lower arms by banded bracers. Their heads were protected by steel helmets that hid everything but their eyes and mouths, which could be seen though a large y-shaped hole in the front of the helmets.
Blacknail was glad he was no longer out on the road. He could imagine the horsemen simply riding right over him and the other bandits. Most of them would have been trampled to death without much of a fight. It was just another reason why Blacknail really hated horses.
Most of the riders not only had swords at their waists but held long spears as well. One of the riders out front had a large blue piece of cloth tied to the end of his spear. It waved and snapped loudly in the wind behind him as he rode, showing flashes of a golden stag’s head insignia.
As Blacknail watched the soldiers pass, he had to admit that they looked dangerous. The humans in his tribe never looked quite so impressive. When the riders were out of sight down the road Red Dog spoke up.
“That’s Lord Strachan’s banner. What are that many of his armsmen doing out here? His land is further south, and he can’t have a lot of men to throw around these days” he mused aloud.
“Could be anything. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been out of touch with noble politics lately,” Saeter answered.
Red Dog grunted in agreement, before ordering everyone back onto the road. Then they were on their way again.
As the hours went by many of the bandits began to tire out, including Blacknail. The hobgoblin had never walked so far before. The bottom of his feet ached and his boots were rubbing his skin raw. He had tried removing the boots, but Saeter had stopped him, and told him that it would only make things worse. Blacknail wasn’t sure if he believed his master, but he did as he was told.
Eventually, Red Dog stopped the party with an upraised hand. Blacknail looked around and listened carefully, but he didn’t detect anything out of the ordinary. It just seemed like any other spot on the forest enclosed road to him.
“There’s nothing here,” Blacknail muttered crankily to himself.
“We’ll stop here for the night, and start tracking our targets in the morning. We’re too close to them to be using the road anymore. If they have the sense the gods gave goblins than they’ll have someone watching the road,” Red Dog explained.
Blacknail gave Red Dog an annoyed glare at the obviously intentional insult, but most the other members of the group just seemed glad to be able to finally stop walking. Blacknail empathized with them, he couldn’t wait to get off his feet either.
The bandits split up for a few minutes to find a good place to set up for the night. Soon, a spot was chosen. It was a small cluster of gray boulders large enough to shield them from sight and to be somewhat defensible.
There were nine stones and each of them was taller than a human. Together, they were arranged in a loose circle. No trees grew within a few dozen feet of the stones, and the ground around them was hard with only a sparse covering of plants. Blacknail thought it was beautiful.
The hobgoblin walked up and ran his hand along the surface of the closest stone. It was smooth to the touch and warmer than he thought it would be. The sun must have heated it.
From this close, Blacknail could almost make out faded patterns on the rocks, like someone had carved pictures into them once upon a time. However, if the stones had once born images or words of some sort the wind and rain had long since worn them away.
Saeter noticed Blacknail examining the stones, and walked up behind him.
“These stone were put here. They’re too old for men and they’re not the Flore Kurava’s style. The forest people don’t work stone. That means this circle was put here by goblins. Maybe, even ancestors of yours,” Saeter told the hobgoblin.
Blacknail removed his hand from the stone. The idea that this… special place had been made by goblins felt right. The stones, and the way they were arranged, spoke to him. It had meaning, even if Blacknail couldn’t tell what the meaning was supposed to be.
He looked up into the clear blue sky above him. The thought that goblins had created something that had lasted so very long resonated with the hobgoblin. The idea of making things such as this had never even occurred to him before now. He turned to his master.
“Thank you, master,” he told him. Saeter eyed him curiously and a corner of his mouth rose to form a smirk.
“For what?” he asked.
“Everything,” Blacknail replied. He turned back to the stone and touched it again.
Red Dog stomped over and interrupted them. He looked annoyed and there was a frustrated scowl on his face.
“Great, so not only do we have to sleep beside a bloody hobgoblin but we’re also setting up camp in some sort of creepy goblin shrine thing,” he remarked with obvious distaste. “It’s probably where they buried all the people they killed.”
“We could try to find a different spot if you want, you’re the boss, but this one seems better than most. That is of course, unless on top of your fear of hobgoblins you’re also afraid of ghosts?” Saeter joked.
“It sure doesn’t sound like I’m the boss,” Red Dog grumbled as he walked past them and began helping set up.
It didn’t take them a lot of time to set up for the night. They had been traveling light. Beyond the basic gear and weapons, all they had brought was blankets and a large tarp in case it rained.
Red Dog didn’t allow anyone to light a fire until it got dark. He wanted there to be no chance of them being detected, and a fire during the day would be too much of a risk. The smoke would be visible for miles.
As night began to fall, Blacknail could smell some of the new recruits grow nervous. It wasn’t a great smell.
For many of them, it was their first time out in the woods at night in such a small group. The fact that they didn’t have a fire, but did have bad human night vision, probably didn’t help either.
“Sometimes, I wonder if I made the right choice coming North, especially after days like today. Sure, it was the easiest place to escape the draft to, but maybe I should have tried to go West,” a bandit mused. “They don’t give a fuck about what the King of Eloria says out there.”
“I’d say you’re lucky you didn’t. The western border is well watched, because the people out that way are insane. The forest is just as dangerous there, but the peasants are superstitious and worship demons. They say that some villages eat strangers and that their nobles bathe in human blood,” another bandit replied with a shiver.
“What do you expect from inbreed bastards that isolate themselves from the rest of civilization?” a third man added.
“You’re getting too loud! Keep it down,” Red Dog suddenly ordered everyone, and that ended the conversation.
When the night sky had blackened enough to completely mask any smoke, Red Dog finally lit a fire in the center of the boulders. He kept it small enough that it was unlikely anyone would see it through the trees.
The fire helped a little but a lot of the men still seemed nervous. Blacknail didn’t blame them. He didn’t like camping out in the forest much either. The shadowy forest and reaching tree branches might be concealing any number of threats, and unlike most of the men here he knew exactly what to be afraid of.
As a hobgoblin, he might be larger than before but most of the hungry beasts that lived in the woods would barely notice the difference. He would simply be a slightly more filling snack.
Between the aura of fear and the heavy watch Red Dog insisted on, very few people got much rest that night. Many of the bandits slept fretfully and were awake much of the night.
Blacknail himself slept more than he had planned to. He found the presence of the ancient stones that encircled their camp soothing for some reason. They loomed over him reassuringly when he settled down to rest. As he closed his eyes, he could still sense them standing guard.
Eventually, the long night ended and dusk broke across the sky. Those few people who were still sleeping were awakened, and the group packed up and headed out to complete their mission.
They followed the road but stuck to the edges of the bush, so that anyone watching would have a hard time seeing them. The party was split in two, with one group on each side of the road, so that they wouldn’t miss anything. Saeter led one group, and Red Dog the other.
“What’s that?” one of the new recruits suddenly asked as he pointed to a spot beside the road.
Everyone immediately looked in the direction he indicated, including Blacknail.
“Looks like a trashed wagon. Let’s check it out,” another bandit replied.
“Wait a second. First we’ll search the area to see if anyone is watching,” Saeter told them.
At the old scout’s command the bandits continued on past the wagon, through the woods. When they didn’t find anyone or anything, Saeter stepped out onto the road and looked around.
“I don’t see any good vantage points nearby, so we should be unobserved,” he told everyone.
He ordered several men to cross the road and fetch Red Dog, while he and the others headed back to check out the wagon. They walked down the road until they got to the wooden wreck. Its remains were partly concealed from the road by a small overgrown hill, which they had to go around.
When they got to the wagon Blacknail immediately smelled blood, human blood. The wagon itself was badly damaged, and nothing but a pile of broken wood that had been stripped of everything useful.
Red Dog and his group arrived and joined them around the wreck.
“Well, this was sure a waste of time,” one of the bandits commented.
“No, it wasn’t. I’m willing to bet this is the work of our highwaymen. This looks like a farmer or small merchant’s wagon. That would be an inviting target for them,” Saeter replied.
“How does that help us?” someone asked.
“We know they were here not too long ago, so now we just need to track them back to their lair,” Saeter explained as he examined the wagon and the ground around it.
After a minute the old scout straightened up and turned to Blacknail.
“Do you have a scent?” he asked the hobgoblin.
“Yes, one of them bleeds,” Blacknail replied.
He smiled eagerly as the scent of blood and his master’s attention excited him. It was time for him to be useful and hunt!
“That makes this almost too easy,” Saeter said as he smiled back.
“Bloody creepy, is what it is,” another bandit muttered to himself.
“Just be glad he’s on our side,” someone else whispered softly, but not so softly that Blacknail couldn’t hear them.
The hobgoblin’s smile widened in response. That was what he wanted the humans to think, that they were better off with him on their side. Soon, he would have them all well trained.
“So you can track them?” Red Dog asked. Saeter huffed indignantly before responding.
“I can track practically anyone or anything. They left plenty of signs and with Blacknail’s nose this will be as easy as falling off a log,” he answered.
“Good, then you and your pet can lead the way,” Red Dog told him.
Blacknail hissed softly in anger at the disrespect he heard in the man’s voice, but he suppressed the sudden flare of rage and didn’t act on it further. This didn’t stop the two men closest to him from backing away a few steps, though.
Red Dog was apparently unconcerned by the hobgoblin, but Saeter gave Blacknail a disapproving look. The hobgoblin looked to side and felt his cheeks burn slightly with shame. He had let his emotions get the better of him for a second. Why was controlling them so hard?
“Let’s get going,” Red Dog told everyone.
Saeter led them across the road and into the forest, once again. The rest of the bandits followed him and Blacknail. As they moved, the old scout pointed out signs to the hobgoblin, like broken twigs and a partial boot prints.
Blacknail found it interesting but almost unnecessary since he could simply follow their prey’s scent. Saeter had to stop and look around for tracks every once and a while but Blacknail never lost the trail. His master seemed to want to track the highwaymen himself though, because he only asked for Blacknail’s help once.
The iron like scent of blood began to grow stronger as they walked deeper into the woods, until Blacknail felt a twinge of concern grow in his gut.
“More blood,” he whispered to Saeter.
His master frowned in concern as well, but they continued moving forward. The forest here was mostly clear of bushes and tall plants, but it was hilly and large twisted roots jutted out from the bottom of the nearby tree trunks. There were plenty of places for something to lurk outside Blacknail’s vision.
They soon found the source of the smell. Up ahead, lying on the forest floor was a shredded human corpse. It took a few seconds to identify it as the remains of a man. It was little more than a pile of bloody flesh and broken bones.
“Shit. This wasn’t done by no man,” One of the bandits gasped as he went white and began to panic.
Behind Blacknail, Red Dog calmly drew his sword and leveled it at the panicked speaker’s throat.
“If you can’t keep your shit together then just shut up and stay fucking still, or you’ll regret it,” he told the startled man. Then, he turned to Saeter who had crouched down to examine the body.
“What are we dealing with?” he asked the old scout grimly.
“Hopefully nothing because it filled its stomach and left. This mess is definitely the work of a troll, though,” Saeter answered.
“Damnation,” Red Dog swore. “I fucking hate trolls. Every time I run into one someone dies.”
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