As his minions took the mayor’s family away to be questioned by Geralhd, Blacknail lounged on their couch, which was quite comfy and soft. By the time he had finished eating and gotten up, his forces had seized complete control of the streets of Aldhara. He received reports as the remaining enemies were cornered and cut down, fled into Green, or took shelter inside homes. There was no more serious resistance, so Blacknail had plenty of time to decide what to do next.
First, he had the houses that the enemy were hiding in surrounded so that he could deal with them later. If he let his hobs storm inside and start dragging people out, it could get messy quick. None of the villagers were resisting his takeover anymore, and he wanted to keep it that way.
Second, he sent a few hunting parties off to track down and finish off the enemies that had fled into the forest. That wouldn’t be particularly hard for his hobgoblin scouts. Few humans would even see them coming in the Green, and even the most aware ones had to sleep sometime. Really, very few of them would have gotten far without being eaten by wildlife even without hobgoblins chasing them.
Once those two things were done, Blacknail had his lieutenants join him in the mayor’s home, which was his now. He liked it, although there was too much lace on the furniture. That could be torn or chewed off easily enough though.
The half-dozen hobgoblins and humans all easily fit in the house’s sitting room. To Gob and Ralphi, he gave orders to handle the last scattered groups of Werrick’s men. Geralhd already had a job, finding someone for Blacknail to blame for the villagers’ resistance. That left Khita and Imp. Imp didn’t have any interest in anything that wasn’t magical and could be ignored, but Khita was another story. Blacknail only wished he could ignore her.
“You’ll stay here with me and Herah, in case something important happens,” Blacknail told the redhead. He actually just wanted to keep her out of the way. She wasn’t useful enough to help him with anything important that came up, but she had a knack for getting into trouble when left alone.
Surprisingly, Khita shook her head. “You’ll have to do without me. I need to go recruit some more followers before anyone beats me to it. There are several fools that think they could do a better job than me and become one of your lieutenants, and I can’t just kill them all. I got to stay ahead of them.”
Blacknail grunted sourly. “That’s nice, but you have to do what I say, since I’m the leader.”
“You don’t even want me for anything, and this is important. How am I supposed to become a great bandit if I don’t recruit followers? I’m going,” Khita said as she stuck out her tongue and then turned to leave.
Blacknail scowled at her back. He could order some of his hobs to stop her, but then she’d get all whiny and annoying for days. It was better to let her do what she wanted.
“Fine, you can go,” he told her as she walked out the door. She didn’t look back, which made Blacknail’s scowl deepen. Stupid Khita. Everyone else was afraid of him, as was proper. She was just too stupid to know better. How had she survived this long?
After waiting with Herah for a while, Blacknail grew bored with scratching the furniture. Thankfully, that was when Geralhd returned. He’d found the people responsible for inciting some of the townsfolk to fight Blacknail and his minions. Apparently, the ring leader was an innkeeper who’d accepted coin from the leader of Werrick’s men in return for promising to whip up a mob to help them fight. Geralhd now had the man under guard, which pleased Blacknail, and finally motivated him to leave the sitting room.
Heading outside, Blacknail went to check on Gob and Ralphi. Before he could move on to the fun stuff, he needed to make sure he had complete control of the town, so all of Werrick’s men needed cleaned up. Thankfully, that job was almost done. After Blacknail had sent them out, Gob and Ralphi had quickly moved to order squads into homes where enemies were hiding. If they resisted or attempted to take hostages, they were cut down, but those that surrendered peacefully were taken captive. Human minions were used, since sending hobgoblins into peoples’ homes tended to provoke negative reactions.
When Blacknail met up with Gob and Ralphi they only had two more houses to deal with, so Blacknail watched them finish up. It was quick and bloody work. When they were done, Blacknail gave them a nod of approval and then ordered them to marshal the local population so that he could talk to them in the town square.
It took a while for this to happen. The people of Aldhara were reluctant to come out of their homes and gather outside now that Blacknail’s forces were in control of the town. Blacknail had to go get the mayor and have him tell people it was safe, and even then it took a few hours.
However, a decent size crowd eventually gathered in the town square. They looked nervous and whispered fearfully amongst themselves, but they didn’t try to run or riot. Instead, they fell silent and listened as Blacknail began speaking. Many of them seemed surprised that he could talk, which was amusing. Humans could be so stupid. There was no way they hadn’t heard about him by now. He was kind of a big deal.
After a brief introduction, Blacknail informed the townsfolk that he was now in charge of the village but that he wouldn’t be killing any of them, except for the innkeeper, who he promptly beheaded for inciting violence against his troops and as a warning to the others. That done, he told the townsfolk to go about their business as usual, except large gatherings were prohibited and he’d be taking all their cheese. There was a price to pay for losing a battle. If they didn’t want to lose all their cheese, they shouldn’t have let Werrick conquer them.
Still, now that he’d gotten rid of the humans who were too stupid to live, Blacknail planned on generally leaving the others alone. This was mostly because he didn’t really need the townsfolk for anything. He was only here because the town had strategic value in his fight against Werrick. He’d burn the place down, but that would disturb his human allies, who were always looking for reasons to distrust him.
Things settled down after the crowd dispersed, leaving Blacknail with the task of finding places for his troops to set up for the night. There were too many of them for them to all sleep inside, so most had to set up their tents outside, like they had when they’d been marching. Blacknail slept in the mayor’s house with Herah of course. He was the leader.
The next morning, Blacknail got up early to receive reports from his scouts before calling his lieutenants to another meeting. There were so many meetings involved in war… Seizing Aldhara and eliminating the troops there was simply the first step in Blacknail’s plan. Now that he had a base of operations and knew more about the local situation, it was time to continue the attack. His plan depended on a series of lighting fast strikes, so that was what he was going to do.
According to his scouts and the locals his minions had interrogated, Werrick only had small forces in the nearby villages and towns. That meant Blacknail could split his forces and take them out quickly before Werrick even knew what was going on. Of course, each force he sent out would need a competent and dependable leader, which was a problem. Blacknail had three targets in mind and planned on staying in Aldhara. He also only had two lieutenants he really trusted to lead anything more important than a work crew, Gob and Ralphi. Blacknail had been planning on sending Geralhd and one of his more trusted hobgoblin warriors to the third town, but Geralhd had apparently managed to trip and hurt his ankle last night, so he wanted to stay here.
“I’ll go in his place!” Khita suggested eagerly. “I’ve got more than enough men to take a town or two.”
“But do you have the brains…” Blacknail mumbled sourly.
The redhead gave him a look. “What?”
“It’s just one town. I only want the one town taken. Don’t go looking for more towns to attack,” Blacknail said with a sigh. “Can’t you just… stay out of trouble and not be so annoying?”
“I’m a deadly bandit mistress, I’m supposed to get into trouble!”
Blacknail sighed again. He didn’t have anyone more competent to send, and how badly could she really screw up such a simple job? Really, Blacknail didn’t care much if she ended up destroying the village completely, as long as it clearly her fault and not his.
“Fine, you can lead the third team,” Blacknail told her.
“Yes! My first conquest! Soon, there will be many more,” Khita laughed as she ran off to gather her followers.
“She worries me sometimes,” Geralhd remarked.
Ralphi chuckled. “She has always worried me. Something isn’t right in that girl’s head.”
Blacknail nodded in agreement before giving his other lieutenants some more details about their mission. Khita should have been here too, but she’d ran off before anyone could say anything. What a fool.
Soon, over half of the troops in Aldhara were marching back out onto the road. The sudden reduction in power made Blacknail slightly nervous, but he had scouts out watching the roads and there had been no sign of any movements from Werrick. He was probably safe.
When Blacknail’s lieutenants were all gone, there wasn’t much for him to do in Aldhara, beyond lounge around in the mayor’s house and eat the townsfolk’s food. The locals were terrified if him, and after the execution of the innkeeper, they all obeyed his edicts. When an entire day went by without anything interesting happening, Blacknail seriously considered making up some new, more difficult rules for the townsfolk to follow. It would be amusing to watch them run around and fail, just so he could punish them. Unfortunately, Geralhd managed to convince him that would be a bad idea.
Thus, the only real productive thing Blacknail could do was go over reports that his scouts brought in. They didn’t tell him much. The roads were clear and there were no signs of enemy troop movements or reconnaissance. There was actually less traffic on them then was usual for this part of the year, just a few merchants and woodsmen.
This left Blacknail with a lot of time to worry about things beyond his control. Khita’s mission in particular worried him. Who knew what crazy nonsense she’d end up doing? The complete lack of movement from Werrick was also starting to concern him. He’d expected to hear something from the bandit lord by now, but there was simply nothing. Blacknail began to suspect a vast conspiracy of stupidity was misleading him. Maybe Werrick was nearby, and all his minions were too incompetent to notice. Should he go do some scouting himself?
Thankfully, word began to arrive from his lieutenants. This distracted Blacknail enough to prevent him from running out into the Green to search for hidden armies.
The first message reported that Gob had easily conquered his target and taken out the few bandits Werrick had tasked with guarding it. He was on his way back now. The message from Ralphi was a little more worrying. Apparently, Werrick’s men had abandoned the village he’d gone to attack. They’d pulled out right after the snow had melted and gone back east. Apparently, the village itself had suffered over the winter and was barely worth taking anymore. Ralphi’s report was a little lacking in details, but he promised to bring more information with him when he got back.
Khita didn’t send a message at all. This worried Blacknail at first, but then she showed up in person with all her troops.
“Didn’t I give you a mission?” Blacknail said as he met her at the town gates.
“And I tried to do it. I simply ran into a small problem along the way,” Khita replied with a scowl. “When I got to the village you wanted me to conquer, there was no one there. The whole soggy village was unoccupied.”
Blakcnail sighed. He’d been worried about this. “You can’t just kill everyone and pretend it didn’t happen.”
“That’s not what happened! It really was completely empty when I got there! The entire place had been ransacked weeks ago, but there were no bodies in sight. Everyone was just gone. It was emptier than a drunk’s bottle.”
“Humans don’t just disappear. They always leave a mess,” Blacknail told her. He was an expert on this.
“Some of your hobs found traces of old boggart tracks,” Khita told him.
Huh, that made more sense. Blacknail supposed that boggarts could have taken out the village. Apparently, they were far away enough from Ironbreak that the creatures thought they didn’t have to worry about him. He’d have to find some way of teaching them otherwise. This was his territory now, not theirs. He’d conquered it properly. They didn’t get to come in and steal his food and humans without a fight.
Still, ignoring the boggarts, this was a third village where there had been no sign of Werrick. The Wolf was supposed to have fortified this area, but only Aldhara had contained a proper garrison. There was no way Werrick would think that was enough to hold the entire area and support an attack. Blacknail was really starting to worry now. It was swiftly becoming obvious that there was something going on that he wasn’t aware of.
Ralphi and Gob returned the next day. Ralphi came in first and a disgruntled Blacknail met him at the gates. The hobgoblin chieftain wanted an immediate report.
“There’s not much to say about Werrick’s troops,” Ralphi explained with a shrug. “There were only about thirty of them, and they fled the village as soon as the roads were clear enough of snow for them to march.”
“A man on horseback arrived with orders. No one knew exactly what he said to them though.”
Frustrated, Blacknail scowled. “Strange. That doesn’t make sense.”
“Maybe he guessed you were coming and decided not to leave men around for you to pick off.”
“Then why not fortify Aldhara more? That would be the smart thing to do, and Werrick isn’t dumb,” Blacknail hissed angrily. There was a plan! It had taken him a long time to come up with, and it was supposed to be the best way to deal with Werrick. Had he been tricked?
“Did you see or hear anything strange?” Blacknail asked Ralphi.
“The villagers did mention some disappearances. Mostly of animals, but two people did go missing. They also said they saw large shapes moving around in the shadows at night, but it was probably nothing, or a hungry bear. These villages in the middle of nowhere get quite superstitious.”
“More boggarts,” Blacknail grumbled thoughtfully. Was that the answer?
“Those things? They aren’t that dangerous. Just pests really.”
Blacknail gave Ralphi an annoyed look. “They can be very dangerous. I chased all the ones around Ironbreak away after I defeated their swarm. That was a tough fight. Here, they’ve been free to hunt people though. They must have a nest nearby.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Ralphi remarked reluctantly. “Even wolves will pick off people if they get hungry during the winter.”
Instead of replying, Blacknail ignored the man and started thinking. From experience, he knew that humans wouldn’t believe him if he told them all about his war with the boggarts. For some reason, they always thought he was exaggerating about the size of the boggart swarm and all the weapons it had wielded. They couldn’t accept the idea of boggarts using tools or magic. They seemed to think both those things were hard to figure out. They weren’t. Even goblins could do them if they had someone to copy. Really, humans weren’t nearly as unique or smart as they liked to think they were.
Could the boggarts be responsible for Werrick’s withdrawal from the area next to Blacknail’s territory? Had the creatures attacked Werrick’s men, causing them to retreat somewhere safer? No, that probably wouldn’t be enough. Blacknail hadn’t seen any indication that the boggarts here had been a threat to a large group of armed bandits. Hmm, except for the village that had been wiped out.
Blacknail scratched his nose. He needed more information.
Over the next few days, Blacknail sent men out to interrogate everyone that passed by nearby and had scouts head east to look for signs of Werrick’s troops. It took a while for him to begin getting information back, but then a picture quickly began to emerge. Werrick had pulled back and was fortifying his own territory. He seemed to no plan to attack Blacknail at all. There were also countless rumors swirling about boggarts and demons. People were worried.
“Huh, what do we do now?” Khita asked. Blacknail had called a meeting and all his lieutenants had just gone over the scouts’ reports.
“I have no idea,” Blacknail admitted as he scowled sourly. He’d been sure that Werrick would attack him.
“Isn’t this good news?” Geralhd asked. “It means we have more time to establish ourselves. That’s what we wanted.”
“But Werrick knows that too, so why is letting us have time? The Wolf is ruthless, and never just sits around like a pig in the mud. It makes no sense. It’s a stupid ass thing to do, and he isn’t stupid.”
Geralhd shrugged. “Any yet that is exactly what he’s doing. We have confirmation from multiple merchants that have dealt with him directly and some refuges that passed through villages he controls out east. There is no sign that he is planning to move.”
“Then he knows something that we don’t, which I don’t like much.”
Blacknail growled in agreement and clenched a fist. This wasn’t fair. Sure, this wasn’t bad for him strategically, but he wanted action and blood! Now he was going to end up sitting around for months, worrying about what Werrick was up to. He was supposed to be slowly closing the trap on Werrick using a series of clever attacks and daring escapes. Instead, he had no idea what was going on and felt stupid. Not fair.
Khita perked up. “I know! I could infiltrate his forces as a spy and find out all his secrets. That way we’d know exactly what to do.”
“No,” Blacknail replied as Ralphi rolled his eyes. Blacknail didn’t care if Khita got herself killed in such an insane scheme, but she knew too much to be put at risk of being captured.
“What do we do? Just sit here and build up?” Geralhd suggested. “It wouldn’t be a bad plan.”
Blacknail shook his head. “No, we can’t do what Werrick thinks we will, or we will lose. He is too smart. We must attack the prey in a way it doesn’t expects.”
“So what? Attacking Werrick in his own territory is a terrible idea. He has strong fortifications, knows the area better than us, and outnumbers us by quite a lot.”
An idea occurred to Blacknail. He hadn’t thought it through yet, but it sure sounded fun. “We will attack Daggerpoint!”
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