Blacknail was quite happy with himself. Not only had he tricked the stupid human but he had managed to get some free food out of it as well. After hiding the evidence, Blacknail walked back and picked up all the food that had been dropped onto the ground in the earlier scuffle.
The hobgoblin spent the next few minutes watching the forest below from the top of the hill and eating the red meat and hard bread that he had picked up earlier. From his vantage point at the sentry’s post, he saw Saeter and the other bandits arrive and begin to climb the hill below him.
“Er, you changed your clothes?” Saeter asked Blacknail curiously when he reached the top and saw him.
The other bandits were right behind the scout. One of them gave Blacknail a horrified glance.
“Forget about that. What in all the hells is he eating?” the other bandit asked in alarm when he saw Blacknail.
The hobgoblin sniggered at the man’s concern. He was sitting on the piled bodies of the unconscious men he’d knocked out, while casually chewing a piece of meat. He’d tried looking for something else, like a log, to sit on but hadn’t ended up finding anything. Besides, the pile of humans was actually very comfy.
“It smells, and looks, like boiled beef,” someone else answered condescendingly to the other man.
The first speaker flushed slightly in response. Blacknail ignored the other bandits and focused on Saeter. As amusing as they were, only his master was important.
“I had to be sneaky,” Blacknail explained to Saeter as he pointed to the third unconscious man.
“Huh, well I guess it worked,” Saeter replied.
He looked like he wanted to ask some more questions, but instead he turned to Red Dog.
“We should get going. They’ll soon notice these men are missing,” Saeter told him.
Red Dog nodded and then turned to Blacknail and gave him a disapproving look.
“Are those men still alive?” he asked the hobgoblin.
“Probably,” Blacknail replied with an indifferent shrug.
Red Dog appeared unsatisfied by Blacknail’s answer, but he only scowled and turned back to Saeter.
“Fine, let’s go. The hobgoblin stays here and guards these men, though,” he said.
“I have no problem with that,” Saeter replied levelly without concern.
Red Dog began giving orders to the other bandits. He got them organized and told them the plan of attack. Blacknail listened and was disappointed when he realized he wouldn’t be joining in the rest of the fun.
Red Dog’s plan did seem like it might involve a lot of face to face fighting though, and Blacknail was fine with missing out on that. He much preferred attacking people from behind. It was safer.
Besides, Blacknail knew he wasn’t a very good swordsman yet. He much preferred the sneaky type of fighting, so he had no problem with staying there while continuing to eat his food and sit on his trophies. Maybe one of them would even wake up and then Blacknail could have some more fun.
As the hobgoblin watched, the bandits finished their planning and drew their weapons. Most of them had swords but others had bows or more exotic things like hand axes. Red Dog led the way and the group headed towards the deserters’ camp.
With their dirty unshaven faces and their worn down and mismatched leather armor the bandits looked savage and dangerous. They didn’t however display the discipline and competence of the horsemen from earlier or even Persus’ guards.
Blacknail watched them go, and he decided he wasn’t going to listen to Red Dog after all. When the other bandits were out of sight, the hobgoblin got up and followed them. He wanted to see what happened next.
Saeter led Red Dog and the rest of their group of outlaws through the woods towards their target. They moved slowly in order to sneak up on the group of deserters who had set up camp ahead. The thick trees and hilly terrain concealed their approach.
It didn’t take long for Saeter’s group to get within sight of the deserters’ camp. The old scout stopped at the edge of the forest where it ended in a cliff. He crouched low to the ground to help conceal himself and looked down. Below them and down a rocky incline lay a small recessed valley.
The sound of rushing water could be heard from a small waterfall that rushed down the steep rocky cliff that lay across the valley. The creek it fed then wandered along one side of the valley and marked its boundary. The thick forest and sharp hills continued on the other side of the stream.
A bunch of uniform blue tents had been set up within the gorge. Under an overhang on one section of the cliff the deserters had also constructed a large crude wooden structure. Seater and Red Dog could see a number of men moving about or lounging around the area. In the center of the tents someone was cooking on a large fire.
“Well, those are definitely standard Elorian infantry tents. That means these are our deserters,” Red Dog whispered.
“It could be an entirely different group of deserters who just happen to be highwaymen as well,” one of the new recruits whispered back.
Red Dog was not amused by the comment and it showed on his face. One of the other bandits took this as permission to cuff the speaker. The man took the blow and shut up.
“Look at the tents and that shelter over there. There are more of them than we thought,” Saeter told Red Dog.
“How many do you think there are, exactly?” Red Dog asked him.
“At least as many as us, even without counting the scouts we took out on the way in,” Saeter answered.
“Then, I guess we’ll just have to go back and ask Herad for some reinforcements,” Red Dog muttered sarcastically as he scowled down at the camp below them.
No one laughed.
“You’re in charge,” Saeter remarked indifferently.
Red Dog gave him a dirty look. The bandit lieutenant clearly didn’t like any of the options available to him.
“We have the advantage of surprise,” he mused.
“Until we lose it,” Saeter added.
“If you have nothing constructive to add, then shut up.” Red Dog hissed back.
Saeter didn’t bother to respond or even turn around. He kept looking over the cliff and at the deserters’ camp.
“Fine, here’s what we’ll do. We’ll go down the hill that way, and then we’ll sneak around to those tents over there,” Red Dog explained as he gestured to various spots down below. “They’re close to the edge of the woods and there are quite a few men lounging about around them. We’ll rush out and capture them before they know what is happening. That’ll give us the advantage in numbers, and some prisoners to bargain with.”
“With odds this close I’ve always preferred less direct attacks. We could scout around a bit more,” Saeter recommended.
“That could take hours. They could stumble onto our trail or notice their missing sentries at any time. No, we have to go in now,” Red Dog replied.
“Fine, I’ll stay here as a lookout. That way I can guard the rear and cover you with my bow,” Saeter suggested.
Red Dog appeared to think it over for a few seconds. The other bandits all around him waited for his response.
“No, you can cover us better from further down the hill and closer to the action. Besides, you just unpacked that sword of yours so let’s give you an opportunity to use it,” Red Dog told him with a smirk.
Saeter didn’t look happy with the other bandit’s decision, but when Red Dog led the rest of the outlaws down the slope he followed them.
Red Dog slowly and carefully led his group of twenty-four bandits down the slope and through the woods around the camp. The slope was rocky and cover was limited to the occasional large rock or bush so they had to move carefully, but they made it safely to the bottom and back into the forest without being seen.
As they moved through the trees, there were several times when a new recruit messed up or slipped and accidently made a loud noise. When that happened everyone froze and listened nervously for any reaction from the men ahead of them. When they were sure that no one had noticed them they continued warily on.
Once they were only a few dozen feet from the tents, and the deserters around them, they stopped to observe their targets for a minute. There were eight enemies seated or standing around their target. Only a few of them had any visible weapons on them. An about equal number of other men were visible in more distant areas of the camp.
Silently, Red Dog signaled his men forward. Ever so slowly, they crawled through the last stretch of thick brush and towards the back of the tents that sat at edge of the woods. Saeter was with them but was lagging behind and holding up the rear. When Red Dog reached the edge of the forest he burst out and into a run.
The large man raced around the tents and announced himself by punching out the closest deserter. There was a loud crack as his fist impacted the other man’s chin. As the now unconscious deserter fell to the ground his startled companions sprung to their feet.
“What the hells, an attack?” someone shouted in surprise.
The rest of Red Dog’s rugged outlaws were right behind him. They crashed into the unsuspecting opponents ahead of them with a series of vicious yells. There were sounds of shock and alarm as they swept out of the woods and tried to encircle the nearby deserters. Saeter remained at the edge of the woods and drew his bow.
In front of the tents a melee had started, even if it was a very one sided one. Red Dog’s men not only outnumbered their opponents but the enemy was also mostly unarmed. Red Dog himself managed to lay another deserter low with a second solid punch before even having to draw his blade.
However, it didn’t take long for the rest of the deserters to realize something was happening. Their camp came alive like an anthill that had just been kicked. Shouts of panic and alarm filled the air as they tried to figure out what was going on.
The closest group of deserters began falling one after another. Some of the bandits used clubs, or were just strong enough, to disable their opponents with painful blunt strikes. Others simply surrendered when swords and daggers were shoved in their faces, and they were then forced to the ground.
Those that tried to run or draw their own blades were put down hard, usually in a bloody and fatal manner. As they were cut down brief screams of pain joined the panicked yelling that filled the camp. Only one man managed to flee across the camp to regroup with his fellows.
By this time, the deserters in the rest of the camp were beginning to get organized. One man emerged from a tent across the camp with a bow and promptly shot an arrow at Red Dog.
The bandit lieutenant didn’t see the projectile coming; he was busy watching over his men. Fortunately for him the shot missed and ripped through the tent behind him.
The noise alerted Red Dog to the threat and he spun around to find the shooter. Before the archer could try for another shot one of Saeter’s arrows took him in the chest. Red Dog gave Saeter a brief nod of thanks as the old scout drew another arrow.
An organized group of defenders began to appear across the camp. A large group of the deserters had banded together and armed themselves, but they were holding back for now.
Saeter sent a few arrows their way to distract them. The deserters scattered and took cover among the nearby tents, rocks, and equipment. Shouting could be heard as someone attempted to get the former soldiers organized and come up with a plan.
Their strategy became obvious when reinforcements arrived carrying round wooden shields. Saeter took a few more shots at the men but the shield carriers intercepted every one. With an annoyed grunt, Saeter stopped shooting to preserve arrows, and the fighting ground to a halt.
On one side of the camp were Red Dog and the rough looking bandits. They numbered two dozen but were busy regrouping and securing their captives. Almost a dozen men lay on the ground at their feet.
On the other side, a dozen armed and organized deserters were glaring at their attackers but weren’t moving to engage them. Most of them still wore their blue military uniforms. Every once and awhile they would be reinforced by a straggler or two.
“Well, that’s inconvenient. Who would have thought they would have carried those heavy things all the way here? No one in the band bothers with shields,” Red Dog remarked as he examined their next group of opponents.
“Bah, who cares? A few shields isn’t going to help them,” one of the bandits said.
“True, we have them outnumbered now. So, let’s see if they want to negotiate,” Red Dog announced.
However, before he could do anything the situation changed.
“What the fuck is all this now?” a deep booming voice suddenly yelled.
The group of deserters grew agitated and then split apart, to let a large man walk to the front of them. He towered over the nearby men and was heavily muscled. Even from a distance it was obvious he was far bigger and more muscled than anyone else there.
The new arrival had a huge two handed sword over his shoulder, and he wore a chainmail shirt on his chest. As the bandits watched, he pulled a metal helmet over his head. A few more deserters arrived alongside him, which meant the bandits only had a slight advantage in numbers now.
“Well, balls,” Red Dog swore as he eyed this new opponent. He didn’t seem happy.
“Our superior numbers won’t mean much if we have to worry about prisoners,” Saeter remarked.
“I don’t suppose you could just shoot him?” Red Dog asked. They both knew who he meant.
“With that armor and those nearby shields? It’s not bloody likely!” Saeter replied.
“Damn, that would have made this a lot easier,” Red Dog muttered half heartedly.
Their discussion was interrupted by a loud yell from the deserter leader. Instantly, both sides went still. The air was thick with tension.
“Who in all the hells are you lot?” he roared.
Saeter gave Red Dog a look that clearly indicated that it was up to him to answer, and that he had better make it good.
“We’re bandits in service to Herad the Black Snake. You’ve been poaching in her territory so she sent us to put a stop to it,” Red Dog yelled back.
“What, she was too afraid to come herself?” the giant asked arrogantly.
“More like you aren’t worth her time. Why would she bother herself with a few deserters? She runs this entire territory, and she has hundreds of men under her command,” Red Dog replied.
Saeter gave a quiet snort of amusement at the exaggeration. Red Dog ignored him.
“So then why did she send so few of her men to kill us?” was the unconvinced reply.
“We’re not here just to kill you. We’re also here to offer you a chance to join us. You’d be stupid not to take it,” Red Dog told them.
“Why in all the hells would we want to join up with a bitch like the Black Snake?” the man laughed.
“So, that you don’t all die. You may think you’re tough ex-army shit but so are half the outlaws in the North. We saw what was left of one of your men when that troll got through with him. You’ve no idea how to survive out here. Even if we don’t kill you something else will soon enough,” Red Dog argued.
“Ha, if that troll comes back I’ll kill it myself. We don’t need you or your bitch. I’ll kill her soon enough anyway, and then this territory will be mine. I’ll give you one chance to save yourselves. Join me,” the man bragged as he pulled a vial from a pouch and held it up for them to see.
“Fuck me, he’s a Slosher,” Red Dog moaned.
As a ripple of fear spread through Herad’s minions, another figure stepped forward from among the deserters. He was a plain looking man whose chin was covered in stubble and whose brown hair was un-kept. The only reason he stood out was that he was holding a long staff that ended in a clawed orb.
“A combat mage too? They have a thrice damned combat mage! I strongly suggest we run now,” Saeter urged Red Dog.
“We don’t know what crystals he has or what magic he can do,” Red Dog replied.
“Does it matter? I doubt he would be lugging that staff around if all it could do was light his way to the privy,” Saeter responded harshly.
“If we run that Slosher will chase us down quickly enough,” Red Dog reasoned.
“If he hasn’t taken any Elixir yet then he won’t unless he has to. He must know how hard that stuff is to get out here,” Saeter guessed.
“I suppose you can’t just shoot the mage either?” Red Dog asked darkly.
“Even if I could, who’s going to fight that huge armored Slosher, you?” was Saeter’s sarcastic reply.
Red Dog sighed. He seemed to deflate as he slouched in despair.
“You know what really bothers me about all this? That the bloody goblin of yours is the only one who’s going to survive this,” he muttered darkly.
“Give me your answer or I’ll cut you to pieces!” the giant roared impatiently before Saeter could reply.
“We’re discussing your offer. Give us a second,” Red Dog yelled back with an annoyed tone.
“Don’t piss him off!” Saeter hissed.
“Or what, he’ll kill us?” Red Dog hissed back.
Blacknail watched Saeter and Red Dog continue to argue from atop the hill that looked down on the camp. It definitely seemed like his master was in a trouble.
Things had been going well until that big male human had arrived. For some reason everyone was afraid of him. Well, he did have a very impressive sword and a shiny hat.
The men behind Red Dog seemed on the edge of panic. Even his master looked out of sorts. Blacknail blamed the fat faced man, Red Dog. His plan had obviously been stupid and had put Blacknail’s master in danger.
The hobgoblin really didn’t want his master to get hurt or die and it was looking increasingly likely that he would. He owed the man too much to let that happen.
He also really didn’t want to have to walk back to camp alone and then try and explain everything that had happened to Herad. He doubted she would be very understanding or that he would survive.
What could he do though? The problem was the big man so Blacknail had to do something about him, but what? He was definitely very big, and Blacknail was rather small. It would however be very satisfying to defeat such a man… to kill him.
Blacknail shivered as the cruel hunger from before surged through him again. Feeling giddy and lightheaded, the hobgoblin smiled viciously in anticipation as he quickly considered various schemes. Yes, he would show these enemy humans why they should have never entered his territory!
Having made up his mind, Blacknail launched himself down the hill and scrambled through the woods. On all four limbs he navigated through the tangle of bushes and avoided the rocks at high speed. His light agile body allowed the hobgoblin to move in ways humans couldn’t.
Once he reached the edge of the woods that lay below the hill the hobgoblin forced himself to a stop. That done, he quickly brushed himself off and threw his hood up. Then, with false calm he strolled out of the woods and into the deserters’ camp.
Immediately, several of the deserters looked his way. Blacknail felt their gazes on him as he approached, and he nervously noted that they were all armed and rather angry looking. He doubted he could fight a single one of the large humans off, let alone the whole group.
Blacknail really hoped his plan was going to work. He probably should have spent a little more time thinking it through. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time though, when he had been far away and safe. If this plan failed not only was he going to die painfully but most likely so would his master.
Up ahead the large human leader raised his huge sword into the air and roared.
“You cowardly dogs have had all the time I’m willing to give you! No more stalling. It’s time to fight. When I cut you fuckers down I’m going to make sure your deaths are slow and bloody, as a warning to others,” he yelled with a voice full of rage and bloodlust.
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