Saeter woke from sleep feeling tired and sore, which he supposed just meant he hadn’t grown any younger overnight. The ground was hard beneath him even with a blanket between him and it, but he had become used to the feeling over the years. He had spent so many nights sleeping on the earth that softness now seemed alien and uncomfortable to him.
He opened his eyes to see the morning light slipping through the cloth walls of his small cozy tent. With a grunt and a not inconsiderable act of will, he tossed his blankets off and quickly got dressed. With that done, he took a small sip of water from the canteen beside his bed. His mouth was always dry in the morning.
“Well, another day dawns. It’s time to go out and see what Tera-Nan plans for me today,” he said with an air of practiced ritual.
Saeter then flipped open the flap of his tent and stepped outside into the crisp morning air. As was usual lately, the sight of the outlaw camp greeted him as he looked around.
Once he was sure no one was close, he let out a small sigh of fatigue before forcing himself to get his gear together for this morning’s hunt. He just didn’t have the energy he used to have. A lot of people called Saeter an old man, but he knew he wasn’t really one. He was just barely the oldest person in the camp.
It was simply that his lifestyle had aged him, and kept demanding more from him when he had little left to give. He had seen somewhere around 40 winters, but had forgotten the exact amount. In his youth he had known many men and women over that age and well beyond it, but they were rare out in the wilds.
He refused to let himself give in to misery though. Out here in the green was exactly where he wanted to be. He looked up and past the nearby tents and people to the forest beyond them. A slight wind caught the trees and their branches began to shift like the waters of a calm sea.
In his youth he had loved the forest and that feeling had never left him. He could not think of a better place to live and die than the wilds of the North.
Saeter’s heart fluttered slightly and his soul stirred as he remembered recent events. The dream he had thought long dead had shown the tiniest bit of life again after all these years. Hope it seemed, could do what all else couldn’t, make him feel young again.
As Saeter looked around he spotted Blacknail sleeping in his usual spot, and a small smile crept onto his face. The goblin had dug himself a shallow dirt bed and was hidden under his blanket.
Blacknail had sure been a great find. When he had first seen the little beast he had just thought the goblin might be useful for carrying things and such.
Saeter was past the point in his life where he wanted to be dragging carcasses through the woods for half a day. He wasn’t about to ask one of the other scouts for aid though, he could still keep up just fine by himself. He didn’t need other people’s help just because he was getting older.
After Saeter had taken him in, Blacknail had quickly proven to be so much more than just a porter. His ability to learn so swiftly was impressive. He had shown he could do almost any simple task that Saeter took the time to teach him.
The goblin had also shown far more loyalty and discipline than Saeter had thought his kind were capable of. He had thought the goblin would try to run before a few days were up. That hadn’t happened; instead the goblin had clearly become attached to him.
Sure, Blacknail might be kind of ugly and cowardly, but he had also shown his loyalty beyond a doubt. Saeter didn’t know what he would do if the little guy wasn’t around anymore.
The old man walked over and gave Blacknail a kick to wake him up. The goblin didn’t stir. Saeter frowned. This was unusual, Blacknail always at least turned to look at Saeter when his master woke him each morning.
Saeter gave him a harder kick. The goblin still didn’t move.
With newfound concern, Saeter reached down and pulled the blanket free from the goblin’s form. It snagged on something and wouldn’t come free though. Saeter gave it a little twist and it came off. The blanket had gotten stuck on Blacknail’s little horns, that was all. It was nothing to worry about. His horns…
“Misery and bloody damnation. Corodus drown you in vile darkness you miserable bastards!” Saeter swore vehemently as he punched the air and shook with rage.
Swearing was hardly unusual in the bandit camp but Saeter’s tirade drew the attention of everyone within earshot. He got quite a few concerned looks and several laughs.
Saeter didn’t give damn what the people around him thought but he forced himself to calm down, and he chided himself for using a god’s name in a curse. That was terribly bad luck, and would only make things worse.
Suppressing his rage, and his unacknowledged fear, Saeter threw the blanket back down over the goblin and stomped off to find Herad. He really didn’t want to speak to her. She had always… no this wasn’t the time for that. Saeter focused and pressed onwards.
He made his way to Herad’s commandeered farmhouse and marched up to the door. The usual two guards were there, in front of it. Saeter didn’t have the patience to deal with them.
“Move or I’ll shoot you,” he growled as he stomped towards them.
The two men’s eyes went wide in surprise and they hurriedly stepped out of his way. Saeter wondered why Herad even bothered with them. They were obviously useless as guards. Knowing Herad she probably just wanted to keep them away from anything important. One of them spoke up as he moved out of the scout’s way.
“She’s not actually in there, Saeter. She went to find Red Dog,” the startled man told him.
Saeter glowered at him from where he was standing in front of the door with one hand ready to knock. He huffed and then turned back the way he had come. The stupid ruffians should have immediately mentioned that Herad was out, instead of wasting his time.
Saeter turned around and started walking again. He thought Red Dog’s lean-to was over by the south end of the camp, so he headed that way.
“He didn’t even have a bow,” one of the bandits remarked as Saeter stomped off.
The old scout realized they were right, he could have sworn he had strapped it to his back earlier. Well, it wasn’t like he needed a bow to show those brutes who was boss anyway.
He passed several groups of early risers cooking or just sitting around their campfires as he headed across the camp. When he got close to his destination, he looked ahead and saw Herad talking to Red Dog and Vorscha.
Geralhd was standing in the background being a useless lump and following Vorscha around as usual. That stupid young man didn’t realize what it took to survive out in the North.
Red Dog saw him coming and said something to Herad. She turned to look at Saeter as he approached. She mustn’t have liked the look on his face because she grimaced at him. Vorchsa also gave Saeter a confused look. Bah, what did he care what they thought!
Saeter walked over to them without saying anything. Now that he was here he was a little lost for words. He wasn’t quite sure what would be the best way to say what he wanted. As he thought it over Herad gave him an exasperated look.
“What’s got up your backend, Saeter,” she asked him rudely.
Saeter glowered at her. He was having trouble controlling his emotions.
“It’s about Blacknail,” he hesitantly answered before Herad waved him off.
“Yes yes, he’s made himself quite useful. You can keep the goblin,” she replied dismissively.
“No, that’s not what I was saying. I can’t keep the goblin because…” he started to reply but Herad interrupted him with an annoyed look.
“You can’t seriously be telling me that now you want to get rid of him?” she asked in disbelief.
Everyone around them also looked confused or surprised. Geralhd in particular seemed startled.
“No! I can’t keep the goblin because I no longer have one,” Saeter explained.
This just earned him more confused looks.
“He ran off?” Vorscha asked at the same time Gerlahd yelled, “You killed him?”
Saeter scowled at them. These people were idiots.
“Listen Saeter, just come out and say it. Oh, and if you’re playing some sort stupid game here where you’re trying to make me ask you to keep the goblin then I will stab you. Are we clear?” Herad told him with an annoyed tone.
Saeter took a second to gather his thoughts before responding. He decided to be thorough in his answer so there would be no more stupid questions, or stabbings. He knew he was too useful for Herad to kill but that didn’t mean she couldn’t hurt him. She would undoubtedly enjoy it too.
“Blacknail wouldn’t wake up this morning, plus he’s growing horns. That means he’s gone into a sort of hibernation that goblins go into when they’re transforming into hobgoblins,” he explained carefully.
Everyone’s reaction to this news was different. Herad’s face instantly went blank so Saeter had no idea what she was thinking. Vorscha looked confused, while Geralhd looked excited, and Red Dog had a horrified expression on his face. Saeter scowled and waited for them to start asking him dumb questions.
“I thought goblins and hobgoblins were two different things,” Vorscha said first.
It was Geralhd that answered her.
“No, hobgoblins are a rare and usually latent adult form of goblins. No one is quite sure what causes the transformation to occur when it’s obviously not needed for breeding, but it’s a fascinating question. Some salamanders do something similar,” he explained enthusiastically as Vorscha threw him an amused look.
“He’s transforming because you kept sneaking him treats! I had him on a diet for this very reason, you idiot,” Saeter told the now guiltily flushing young man.
Saeter knew he was partly to blame because he had stopped enforcing that rule lately, but he would never admit it. He had even noticed Blacknail was putting on weight and hadn’t done anything about it because he had gotten too attached to the goblin. That had been stupid of him. He was too nice for his own good.
“Huh, I guess that means little Blacknail is growing up,” Vorscha commented.
“What it means is that we need to kill him,” Red Dog interjected angrily.
Geralhd looked shocked at his words but Saeter had known this was coming. If Red Dog didn’t say it than over half the camp was still sure to. Hobgoblins were very far from popular.
“I need? Watch your language,” Herad told Red Dog with a raised eyebrow.
The bandit lieutenant paused and then hastily rephrased himself.
“We should kill him. Hobgoblins are bloody dangerous. They’re killers that would rather slit a man’s throat than look at them. There’s a reason most countries have a bounty on their ugly green heads. Evil and ruin follow them. Taking one for a pet would be like taking a sea serpent for a mount. It can only end one way,” he exclaimed angrily.
Herad’s face was still blank and unrevealing. She seemed content to let the others speak, and Saeter wanted to wait and see what the others thought before saying anything himself. Geralhd huffed condescendingly at Red Dog.
“That’s nothing but myth and superstition. It’s left over nonsense from the Goblin Wars, which weren’t even real wars. They just involved the early colonists killing a whole lot of goblin tribes as they cleared the land. As for the bounty, well there’s a bigger bounty on your head Red Dog. Also, you kill people all the time and you don’t see me being all terrified of you,” Geralhd argued.
“I can take a hobgoblin easy,” Vorscha added as she stood tall and crossed her arms in front of her.
Red Dog ignored her and turned to Geralhd.
“Don’t give me that scholar crap, city boy. I’ve actually fought a hobgoblin before and it killed a good friend of mine. If you had actually ever been anywhere near one before then you would be dead! No one here should even be considering letting one into camp. They’re accursed savage fiends. That’s even what hob means, it means demon!” Red Dog replied as his face grew red with anger.
“That shows the worth of your so called knowledge, Red Dog. Hob comes from an old Imperial word for home,” Geralhd explained to Red Dog. “The original settlers called them hobgoblins because they were more tribal than normal goblins, and would occasionally build their own shelter. It was only after the Goblin Wars that ignorant people, like you, begun to associate them with demons.”
This didn’t seem to reassure Red Dog. He looked like he was about to explode and take Geralhd out with him, but Herad intervened.
“What do you want to do, Saeter?” she asked him plainly.
Saeter wished he had some idea of what she was thinking, but she had always been a mystery to him in every situation that didn’t immediately lead to violence.
He sighed. The easiest thing to do would be to get rid of Blacknail, maybe they could leave him out in the woods somewhere instead of killing him. There were a bunch of problems with that though, like what would stop him from just coming right back. Saeter knew he couldn’t bring himself to kill Blacknail either. The ugly little runt had grown on him…
“I can control him. It won’t be a problem,” he heard himself say, much to his own surprise.
Red Dog scowled at him but Saeter just scowled back, and he had far more experience at it.
“This is a terrible idea. They eat people!” Red Dog yelled.
“It’s just one hobgoblin, Red. Do you really think something even smaller than you is so scary,” Vorscha asked him teasingly.
“…and as if Blacknail would hurt us!” Gerlahd added.
Saeter tried not to wince at the young man’s naivety. Hobgoblins were dangerous, but then again everyone in this camp was. When Geralhd finally got himself killed it was much more likely to be another bandit that did it rather than anything else.
“Why is he even involved in this conversation? He’s a rookie, and a stupid one,” Red Dog asked as he pointed to Geralhd.
Saeter thought he actually had a good point there but kept his mouth shut. Geralhd was being a useful idiot this time around.
“Fine, I’ve decided,” Herad announced before anyone else could say something.
“Saeter can keep Blacknail, as long as he manages to keep him under control. That nose of his is useful enough to be worth a little risk, but one incident and he’s gone.”
Saeter felt a wave of relief wash over him, and let out a deep relaxed breath. He had been unsure of what Herad would decide; she had never been predictable. When he had seen Blacknail’s horns that morning he had known right away that he had a very good chance of losing his pet.
With the discussion over Red Dog and Geralhd started arguing, as Herad stepped away and spoke with Vorscha. Having accomplished his goal Saeter headed back to his campsite to check on Blacknail. He really didn’t feel like more conversation and he had lots to do, especially now that Blacknail wouldn’t be around to help out for a while.
Of course now that he had gotten Herad’s permission to keep Blacknail he had to actually come up with some way to do what no one had ever accomplished before, tame a hobgoblin.
Saeter sighed. He had a feeling it was going to be a long and dangerous job. No matter what Geralhd naively believed, hobgoblins had a bad reputation for good reasons. They were cunning and they were blood thirsty, and that combination of traits had been the end of many men.
A hobgoblin might not be quite as strong as a man and far weaker than a troll or ogre but neither of those would track a man unseen through the woods for miles and cut his throat when his guard was down. They also wouldn’t lure someone into a well prepared ambush by a pack of goblins. Cunning could be far more dangerous than brute strength sometimes.
Taming one would not be easy, even if it was Blacknail. When he woke up the former goblin would have a lot of new instincts clamoring around in his head that would make him hard to keep under control. Hobgoblins were aggressive and territorial, so getting one to obey orders would be tricky.
It would definitely be a challenge, but Saeter intended to meet it. The price of failure wasn’t acceptable, and besides he had never accomplished anything like it before. No one had, and that was what made it interesting.
Saeter reached his campsite and looked down at Blacknail. The little green goblin was still lying there without moving, but his chest was definitely rising and falling as he breathed. The wind had blown his blanket off so Saeter got a good look at him.
As he had noticed before, two tiny horns were starting to grow from Blacknail’s skull, and the recent weight he had put on was disappearing as the goblin consumed it to feed his growth. He already seemed noticeably taller to the old scout’s eyes, and Saeter knew he would be growing quite a bit more over the next few days.
Saeter sighed in exasperation. Blacknail was certainly causing him a lot of trouble. Having a hobgoblin around was going to piss quite a few people off. The goblin was supposed to make his life easier, not harder. He was definitely going to have to work Blacknail even more than normal, once he woke up, to make up for it.
“Alright then, Blacknail you stupid little beast, if you’re going to be of any use to me at all later I can’t just leave you here outside in the weather,” Saeter mumbled as he reached down and gently picked the goblin up.
The goblin curled up and snuggled into his master’s chest for warmth. The air outside was cold and crisp. Saeter smiled and then carried Blacknail into his tent where it would be warmer and he could sleep undisturbed. It would do for now until he could arrange for the goblin to have his own shelter.
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!