Over the next few days Herad was in an even worse mood than usual, which was truly frightening. Bandits who hadn’t left the camp for weeks began volunteering for watch or scouting duty. The base became noticeably emptier.
The bandit chieftain had really wanted to raid the crystal cave for treasures to sell. No one had managed to find it, though.
She had glared at Saeter when the last group of searchers had reported back. She was either furious at him for wasting her time or suspected that he’d somehow concealed the cave.
It didn’t help that the old scout had made plain his relief that no one had found the cave. Blacknail spent a great deal of time checking the snares out in the woods during this time. Sometimes Saeter joined him.
Her bad mood continued for days until the merchants from Riverdown finally arrived. Scouts that were posted to the road sent word of their approach. Herad immediately had the camp upended and reorganized for their arrival. She wanted to impress her guests.
Extra guards were stationed at the road barricades that had been built earlier. The camp and even the bandits themselves were cleaned up as much as possible. Not that the bandits cleaned up particularly well; but at least most of the smell of piss and vomit was removed.
During the time the bandits had occupied their current camp they hadn’t been totally unproductive. Herad’s base had been improved and built up a fair bit. It wasn’t like they had much else to do with their time, so they’d managed to put some effort into making themselves more comfortable.
The primitive lean-tos the forward party had constructed had been patched up and improved. Many had been divided into personal rooms with hanging hide or canvass doors. More of them had been built as well, so that every bandit had somewhere sheltered to sleep out of the wind and rain.
Trees had been cleared for timber and piled up for firewood as well. Several crude pavilions made from wagon tarps and long posts had been put up for storage or gatherings. All and all the camp looked much more permanent, and less like an overnight campsite.
Blacknail was there when the merchants arrived. He was doing one of the many chores Saeter had him constantly performing. Behind him, Saeter was sitting in front of his tent and idly whittling away at a piece of wood. Most of outlaws in the band were around except for those on watch. Herad wanted a show of force, so every bandit not on watch or scouting was in camp.
The convoy arrived around midday when the sun was almost straight up in the sky. Half a dozen wagons rolled down the dusty road and stopped out in front of the old farmhouse. Most the wagons were only lightly loaded, the merchants were here to buy not sell. What they lacked in goods though they made up for in bodies.
Dozens of people accompanied the wagons, and a lot of them were very shiny. Sunlight flashed off their armor as they moved. After a closer look, Blacknail realized that almost every human in the merchant’s caravan was heavily armed.
All and all, the bandits outnumbered the black market traders more than two to one but the guards had far better equipment, including chain mail and steel breastplates. They also looked more professional and disciplined. The guards stood tall and regarded the brigands before them expressionlessly, without showing a hint of concern at being so outnumbered.
A small skinny man with a goatee stepped down from the lead cart. With a gesture he summoned a dozen guards to him and made his way forward. Herad frowned when she saw him, but stepped forward to meet him. A dozen of her larger and better armed thugs followed her.
When the merchant and Herad met they exchanged a polite handshake. The guards and bandits glared at each other from behind their masters’ backs, but both Herad and the small man ignored them completely.
Blacknail had a sudden urge to run up and join the thugs in giving the guards evil looks. Maybe he could climb up onto one of the bandit’s shoulders for a better view while he was at it. It seemed like a fun idea, but he resisted the urge.
“Persus, I’m glad to see you,” Herad told the man whose hand she was shaking.
“I always enjoy laying eyes on you as well, Herad,” the man replied with a slight leer.
Herad smiled back at him but her one hand moved subtly closer to her knives.
“It’s good of you to come all this way. You won’t be disappointed with what we have for you,” she told him.
“Ah well, I’m afraid I’m usually disappointed when it comes to that. I always want more than others are willing to let me have,” he said with a theatrical sigh.
“That may be why I find myself dealing in black market goods,” he then added with a chuckle.
“Well, be that as it may, I think you will be pleasantly surprised at what we have for you here. You should be able to sell it for quite the profit,” Herad told him.
“Ah, that’s wonderful to hear but you know sometimes life is about more than just profit. Don’t you think?” he responded with another smirk. Herad’s smile froze.
“An odd thing for a merchant to say. I’m not sure your company would approve,” Herad replied. She couldn’t quite keep the hostility out of her voice.
“Tsk. Well, they’re not here are they? Anyway they don’t need to worry, since I always earn them a tidy sum,” Persus responded.
“I’m sure that’s true. Let’s get out of the sun shall we? I have a list of goods inside. We can go over it and then inspect the physical items after,” Herad suggested.
She clearly wanted to get down to business but Persus didn’t seem to be in a hurry. The usually in control and violent Herad seemed be acting very cautiously around this small man.
Blacknail couldn’t really understand why. As far as he could figure it the merchant was only the leader of a tribe they were trading with. He also seemed to have less men than Herad, even if they were much shinier. So, why was Herad acting so… un-Herad-like?
Blacknail heard Saeter mutter something and turned to see his master glowering at the small merchant. Was Persus his master’s enemy? Blacknail turned back to Persus when the man started talking again.
“I hope you have some refreshments. It’s been a terribly long and odious ride here. I would greatly enjoy a drink and some company before getting down to business,” Persus replied while feigning a haggard tone.
“Of course. We liberated a few good bottles on our last expedition. Just this way, Persus,” Herad answered with a wave in the direction of the farmhouse.
The merchant sniffed disdainfully when he saw it.
“A barbaric piece of shelter if I ever saw one but I suppose it will have to do. Some allowances must be made since we are so far from real civilization out here, after all,” he said with a sigh.
Herad led him to the door and they entered together. The thugs took up position outside. The guards however attempted to enter after their master, but Persus waved them off.
“I’ll be fine. Stay out here and wait for me,” he commanded with a snap of his fingers before disappearing inside.
Herad had commanded that all the bandits should watch the merchant’s guards while looking busy and professional. Thus, more bandits were on watch than usual. Many of them were standing or sitting around the camp in small, but not so casual groups, that just so happened to be facing the caravan most of the time.
The guards themselves seemed to sense the hostility because they didn’t even bother to pretend to relax. They all stood strategically around the caravan at attention with hands on weapons. They were ready for any trouble, and the bandits looked like they wanted to cause it.
Since everyone else seemed to be just hanging around, Blacknail took this time to relax as well. He yawned and walked over to a pile of firewood. There between the logs he cleared a patch of earth and gathered dry grass for a bed. Then he curled up and swiftly fell asleep with the pleasant earthy smell of drying wood filling his nostrils.
He was awoken from his pleasant dreams by the noise of the wagons being loaded. Looking up, Blacknail noticed that the sun had moved through the clear blue sky a fair bit, meaning two or three hours had passed. He got up, stretched, and looked around.
Hopefully, he hadn’t missed anything exciting while he napped. Blacknail saw that Herad and Persus were out inspecting the goods. They also seemed to be arguing back and forth about prices. Ugh, boring.
By this point Heard looked very tired of dealing with Persus. She was openly glaring at him as they argued and her voice seemed strained.
Blacknail was honestly surprised she hadn’t stabbed the small man. Blacknail knew that was how she usually dealt with people who annoyed her. She was very efficient for a human.
Members of Herad’s bandit troupe were loading the stolen goods onto Persus’ wagon, while his guards looked on. The bandits didn’t seem happy about doing the work alone.
This went on for awhile as Persus’s wagons got piled high with more and more cargo. Eventually, the last piece of stolen goods he wanted to purchase was loaded up and secured. Several crates and items he didn’t want, or didn’t want to pay enough for, were left lying around.
“It was a pleasure doing business with you, mistress Herad,” Persus told her as they were finishing up.
“You can be a vexing bargainer, but I look forward to dealing with you again,” Herad replied politely. Her voice contained a hint of hostility, though.
Persus extended a hand and they shook again. As Herad tried to withdraw her arm, the merchant pulled it up and kissed the back of her hand. She gave him a cold look, but he simply smirked back at her before letting go.
“Then as we agreed, 167 Gold Elorians, of which half are payable now and half will be deposited at the Riverdown bank for you upon my safe arrival,” he told her.
Persus then signaled to a pair of guards and they brought forth a large chest. He pulled a large key from a cord around his neck and unlocked it.
From inside, he took out several bags and counted out a few coins. He handed the coins to Herad and left the heavier bags there on the ground before locking the chest up again and slipping the key into his pocket. The chest was largely empty when he closed it.
Herad went through the bags and gave them a brief inspection. She appeared satisfied with the results.
“I wish you a safe journey home then, Persus,” Herad told the merchant as she finished.
Persus rolled his eyes in response.
“Of course you do, Herad. That’s the entire point,” the small neatly dressed man commented dryly before walking back to his wagon.
On his way he strode past Blacknail’s hiding spot in the wood pile.
The goblin hid himself as the man approached. He was pretty sure that his master and everyone else didn’t like the tiny outsider. In Blacknail’s mind that made him practically an enemy, and thus fair game.
As Persus passed by his hiding spot, Blacknail darted out and his hand reached out to swiftly liberate the contents of the merchant’s pockets. The man didn’t notice and continued walking on, unaware that he was suddenly ever so slightly lighter. The goblin sniggered as he retreated with his prizes.
After Persus had spent a few minutes yelling orders at his underlings, his caravan got itself organized and started back down the road they had come from. Blacknail watched the merchant carefully until they were gone, but the stupid man never checked his pockets.
The goblin then broke out into a grin. The prizes were all his! Excitedly, Blacknail opened his hand and examined his new property.
He’d gotten the shiny yellow key! He also had a bunch of mixed coins of various sizes and colors. That was a lot of shinnies! Grinning in joy, the goblin stuffed his new possessions into one of his pouches for safekeeping.
Now that the merchant was gone, Saeter walked over to Herad. She gave him an irritated look as he approached but her earlier bad mood seemed somewhat mollified by the large pile of gold in front of her. Apparently, she liked shinnies as well.
“I hate that money grabbing little rat. Why couldn’t the company have sent someone else?” Saeter remarked coldly.
“He’s a pig, but played right he pays more than some of their other representatives, and that’s what matters” Herad replied scornfully.
“Well, one day I hope to meet him out in the woods where there are no witnesses or guards. So I can shoot him,” he told her.
Herad turned away from him and began giving orders, but Blacknail could see she was smiling slightly. Or at least he thought it was a smile, he couldn’t be sure since it was the first time he had seen anything like it on her face.
Under Herad’s directions, the gold was soon packed away and the camp reorganized. Most of the men looked excited and expectant.
Saeter and Herad were then joined by another outlaw who Blacknail knew had somehow earned the name Red Dog. Of course Red Dog wasn’t red and didn’t have a dog. Humans were weird.
Red Dog was a tall man, but shorter than Saeter, with unruly brown hair. He also somehow managed to be one of the few bandits in camp that had pudgy cheeks. Living in the wild tended to strip the fat from most men, but apparently not from him.
“What’s the plan now, boss? The men are going to want their share of the gold and a chance to spend it,” Red Dog asked her cheerfully.
“And they’ll get it. When I say they can,” Herad told him sternly.
Red Dog fidgeted uncomfortably.
“What’s the problem? We’re only a day way from Riverdown, and they’re a typical frontier city. If we keep our heads low then we shouldn’t have problems with the law. We’ve been there before,” he remarked.
“We can’t all go at once. We’ll be staying out here until winter starts to set in, then we’ll head north to Daggerpoint. Until then I’ll pay and detach a few men at a time to the city for leave. If I pay them all now they’ll just start fighting over it,” she told him after a moment of reflection.
Red Dog nodded in acceptance. He clearly had been expecting something like that. Saeter however had a question or two.
“We’re staying here? That seems a bit risky. What about our next score?” he asked.
“I had a talk with Persus while I was entertaining him,” Herad explained. “On top of getting an interesting letter from him, I also managed to get quite a bit of useful info out of the worm… like the routes and times for several caravans over the next month.”
“Nice,” Red Dog remarked.
“Yes, it seems the Palinthiens are pressing the Elorians hard right now,” the bandit chieftain remarked with a fierce smile. “Most of their troops have been pulled out of the north to reinforce the border, and they already barely have enough for patrols. The local lords, such that they are, have enough problems of their own as well.”
“Leaving us free to run wild,” Red Dog added with a predatory smile of his own.
“Trade will probably dry up once the merchants realize how unsafe it is,” Saeter observed coolly.
“We’ll split the band and send out some smaller groups to hit smaller targets if it comes to that,” Herad answered with a shrug.
Saeter frowned but nodded.
“I don’t think we need to be worry about that. Merchants are all a bunch of greedy bastards who aren’t nearly as smart as they like to think they are,” Red Dog interjected cheerfully.
Blacknail got bored and wandered off after that. Several days passed with nothing exciting happening, just a lot of chores. Saeter kept the goblin busy and didn’t seem interested in going into town.
Things finally picked up when a group of scouts rode into camp with word of a potential target. Herad quickly summoned several of her lieutenants to a meeting. Saeter was among them and as usual Blacknail was his shadow. Also, Red Dog and Vorscha attended.
“Clevan’s group was set to watch the road south from Brackenmount,” Herad told everyone. “Persus said that they would soon be sending a big shipment of weapons south. Now, Brackenmount doesn’t produce nearly as many weapons as it did before Coroulis was destroyed but the haul should still be considerable.”
“We could always use more weapons. Tools of our trade they are,” Red Dog commented.
“We would be better served by blankets and boots,” Saeter pointed out dryly.
“True enough, but robbing a blanket caravan wouldn’t be nearly as profitable,” Red Dog replied with a chuckle.
Vorscha laughed with him, until Herad gave them both a dark look and they quickly quieted down.
“A shipment like this will be meant for the front line, and that means it will be heavily guarded. Maybe even an army escort, including combat mages and Sloshers,” Saeter warned the others.
Red Dog frowned in concern but Herad just nodded.
“Possibly, there are troops in town but no one seems to know how many will go with the caravan, if any.” she told them, apparently unconcerned.
“What’s the most the army boys could bring to the table,” Vorscha asked her boss thoughtfully.
“At most they could spare a full platoon, so less than 50 men. As for mages and vessels, who knows?” Herad answered with emphasis on the proper name of elixir users.
She didn’t seem to approve of the slang word for them, most likely because she thought it disrespectful to herself because she was one.
“Probably not many,” Red Dog commented.
“We could take a platoon but it would bleed us, and I’m not sure about any mages. Those guys can do a lot of bloody damage and it would already be a close thing,” Vorscha mused aloud.
“So we don’t attack if they’re too strong. We can always check them out and retreat if they’re too much trouble, or attack from ambush,” Red Dog suggested.
“I was already talking about an ambush,” Vorscha replied with a roll of her eyes.
“We could put men in a town on the way and get them to ply the guards with drink when they stop for the night,” Saeter suggested. “We then mark the mages and Slosh… Vessels and take them out first when the fight starts or before it.”
Herad scowled as the old scout talked but apparently didn’t find any fault with what he said.
“Yes, cunning and ruthless is the way to do it,” she reluctantly agreed. “Fair fights are for knights and nobles in stories. We could also use poison and if the town they stop at is small enough we could pillage it as a bonus.”
“That could get messy,” Saeter commented critically as he frowned.
“As long as we get the shipment I couldn’t care less. If you don’t have the stomach for it then you can stay here,” Herad told him with a cold unemotional look.
The others looked away from Saeter and stayed silent. No one backed him up against their boss.
“We’ll get ready to head out immediately,” Herad ordered everyone. “We need to be well ahead of them for this to work out correctly. Saeter you’ll take charge of the camp when I’m gone. Vorscha and Red you’re both with me.”
Saeter looked dissatisfied but could do nothing but agree. Behind him, Blacknail tried to keep out of Herad’s sight. She looked even meaner than usual.
At daybreak the next day, most the bandits marched out of camp. It was an overcast morning and the birds were singing loudly in the trees.
The bandit base felt empty to Blacknail. Very few people were left in the camp with Saeter and him. Hopefully, nothing would go wrong while most the tribe were away.