Blacknail woke up the next morning to the feeling of someone beating him savagely. He twitched and gasped as waves of pain exploded through his head and stomach.
The stabbing agony in his skull hurt so much he could barely think and his stomach felt like it was trying to explode messily out of both ends of his body at the same time. He had no idea what he’d done to deserve this torture.
The goblin tried to remember if he had done anything wrong, but he couldn’t recall anything bad. In fact, he couldn’t remember much of anything. He fought through the pain and slowly opened his eyes.
At first the light blinded his eyes and it took awhile for them to adjust. Why was it so bright out? Was he outside the sewer? He never left the sewer during the day!
He hoped he hadn’t been attacked by a goblin, or group of goblins, looking to take his position in the tribe again. He was one of the older goblins and had managed to fight his way up to a fairly high rank, although he had been too lazy to go all the way to the top and become the tribe chief.
Blacknail knew he was much tougher than the big nasty goblin that was the current chieftain. He just didn’t want to fight him…
Some of the younger goblins had been getting uppity lately though, and food had been running a bit low. The sewer could only support so many goblins. Through the fingers shielding his face Blacknail took a quick look around for his assailants.
He was outside and there was nobody around! Had his attackers left? Just then he had to double over and gag as his guts writhed like they were full of snakes.
Oh, there they were! His assailants were apparently inside of him and beating him from the inside out. The goblin groaned and tried desperately to fade back into unconsciousness, where the pain couldn’t follow.
His futile attempt at slumber was interrupted as he felt a hand grab his neck and pull him into the air. He was too weak to try and fight it. All he could do was moan and flail weakly before giving up and going limp. What the heck was going on? He couldn’t remember where he was. He hoped his death would at least be quick.
The hand suddenly let go of him and Blacknail landed painfully on something flat and solid made of rough wood. The impact shook him and cleared his head for a second. His name was Blacknail; he had a name. He remembered where he was.
Surely, the forest had to have been a bad dream. The part with the spiders was just too horrible to have been real!
Blacknail sat up unsteadily and looked around. He was sitting on the edge of one of the wagons the bandits had taken from the caravan. His master Saeter towered over him, casting his shadow over the goblin.
“Good morning Blacknail!” Saeter smugly greeted him as the goblin looked up.
“Ow,” Blacknail then moaned as he tried to curl up into a ball again.
Saeter chuckled and pulled him back into a sitting position. Once he knew he had the goblin’s attention he started talking.
“That should teach you that alcohol isn’t for goblins,” Saeter told the goblin.
“Ow,” Blacknail grunted.
“Stay here in the wagon, Blacknail. I left some food and water out for you. I’ll be back in a while to see if you’re feeling better,” Saeter told the disoriented goblin.
His master then went through his bags before leaving the goblin and walking away.
With a groan Blacknail collapsed back onto the wagon’s deck. After a few minutes of suffering he heard the whinny of horses and the cart shook and started moving. So, Blacknail once again found himself riding on a bumpy wagon along the forest road. At least this time he wasn’t stuck in a cage.
It was still the worst day in his entire life, though. He felt sicker and more uncomfortable than he had ever been before, which was saying something considering he used to live in a sewer and eat garbage.
He lay beside Saeter’s possessions feeling like his stomach was full of live rats and someone was pounding on his head with a club. The wagon creaked and bumped beneath him and every once and awhile he would groan in pain. Actually, he had much preferred it when he’d been in the cage.
Why did humans drink something that was so obviously poisonous? He had eaten rotten fish heads that agreed with him more, and they had tasted better as well! Maybe it was some sort of weird human test of toughness? He guessed that meant he would have passed? Well if it was a test of intelligence he’d definitely failed.
At least his master had left him plenty of water and food. Not that he felt like eating. All he could do was lay there moaning and hoping he would recover before he died, or before death started to look good compared to this endless suffering.
The humans had taken most the boxes and goods they had stolen from the caravan and put them back on the wagons. The outlaws had then broken camp and packed up their own stuff. Before the sun had truly risen into the sky they were on their way, headed down the road the way the caravan had been going.
Most of the humans walked beside the wagons piled high with boxes. All the wagons had drivers and several humans rode in the back like Blacknail.
Most of the passengers seemed to have been wounded because they wore bandages or were missing some of their less important human bits. Humans probably didn’t need all their fingers and it wasn’t like their tiny ears did much anyway.
It took several hours of rough traveling for Blacknail to finally start feeling better. He managed to sit up and eat some of the gruel his master had left him. It felt good to put something in his stomach and he soon regained some energy.
The goblin actually started to enjoy sitting on the back of the wagon with his feet dangling off the edge as he watched all the trees go by.
Being on the road was certainly a lot better than being in the forest. Now that his head was clear he definitely remembered that the harpies and timber spiders were very real. He hoped he was leaving them behind forever but he kind of doubted it. Life didn’t work that way in his experience.
Blacknail managed to find another way to spend his time. He enjoyed standing at the side of the wagon and looking down, barely, on all the foolish humans who were walking behind the wagons. He bet they all wished they could ride the wagon like him!
He giggled to himself in amusement. Look there was Geralhd! He already looked exhausted, sweaty, and miserable. He waved to the man cheerfully but Geralhd didn’t see him.
Blacknail’s fun was interrupted when Saeter returned. The goblin didn’t hear his master approach. He was too preoccupied hanging off the side of the wagon and snickering at people when he heard a loud cough behind him.
The goblin turned around to see an amused Saeter looking back. Blacknail froze in surprise. He tried to remember if he had done anything wrong lately. Nope, he was pretty sure he had always done exactly as his master commanded. He was a good goblin after all.
“Well, you’re looking much better, right full of energy too. That’s good, you’re gonna need it,” Saeter told the goblin.
Uh oh, Blacknail didn’t like the sound of that.
“Since you’re feeling better now you can continue practicing your rope making. You’ll find the stuff in that bag there,” Saeter explained as he pointed out a canvas bag.
Blacknail gave the bag a wary look. That sounded very boring but at least he didn’t have to go out into the forest.
“I expect to see some results when I get back,” Saeter told him.
He then jumped onto the wagon beside the goblin and rummaged through the bags for some things before jumping down and wandering off again.
Blacknail watched him go with a sigh of resignation. Ughhh, rope making! He didn’t even want to hear about something so boring, let alone actually do it. After pulling the necessary materials from the bag his master had pointed out the goblin got to work.
Blacknail cast a gloomy gaze over to the humans walking behind the wagon. He wished he was free to just walk around like them and not have to work!
The goblin started at it but after an hour or so he started to grow weary of the incredibly repetitive task. With a snort of disgust Blacknail dropped the cord he was working on onto the deck of the wagon.
He was so bored! It was time to take a break. There had to be something around that would amuse him, at least for a little bit.
He got to his feet and looked around, while being careful that the shaking of the wagon under him didn’t trip him up. Blacknail was surrounded by bags and crates.
With a quick glance to make sure no one was looking the goblin scooted over and began to examine them. He opened one canvas bag and riffled through it but found nothing but human sized clothes inside. Why did humans need so many clothes? What possible use could they have for more than one or two sets each?
He closed that bag and hurriedly moved on to the next. He found nothing but some sweet smelling ground up plant leaves in it. Blacknail was beginning to think that the bandits had to be a little off in the head to have attacked a caravan for this crap. None of it was even shiny!
With a sigh, Blacknail got back to work on making cord until the wagons stopped and the bandits made camp for the night.
It was then that he finally managed to weave a thin cord together! The goblin then amused himself by tying it to various things and pulling on it. It didn’t even break! He felt so proud to have made it.
Saeter then reappeared and Blacknail excitedly helped him set up his tent. The goblin just had to untangle himself from all the rope he’d tied to the wagon first. Not his best idea… but at least the cord worked!
After they had a fire going and supper was cooking Saeter presented Blacknail with several rabbits he had caught earlier. Disappointingly, Blacknail didn’t get to eat them.
His master had him learn to skin and prepare them. He was taught how to drain the blood by cutting their throats, peel the skin off, cut out the groin area, and slice open the bellies of rabbits to remove the organs.
The cheerful goblin picked up this skill quickly and he soon ran out of carcasses to work on. He enjoyed the work but it seemed like a lot of effort when you could just eat the rabbit raw.
As the evening gave way to night he slept beside his master’s tent again with his dirty blanket wrapped around himself and the stars shining in the dark sky overhead. Owls and other creatures he couldn’t identify called throughout the night but eventually Blacknail managed to slip asleep despite his nervousness.
The next morning Saeter took Blacknail with him when he was sent out to prepare a forward base well ahead of the main group. Saeter, Blacknail, and several other bandits who were familiar with the forest spent numerous days quickly getting ahead of the rest of the band.
They walked almost constantly during the day with only a few stops to collect water or eat. They didn’t have time to hunt so they had to make do with the rations they carried.
At night they set up camp in the middle of the road and took turns keeping watch. Blacknail was not given a shift.
The sound of howling woke Blacknail on the second day. It echoed loudly through the trees around him and down the road.
The eerie howling reverberated through the forest. It would suddenly come from one direction only for the noise to die down and then pick up from another direction. Blacknail was just glad that the howlers sounded too far away to be a real threat.
Soon the noise drew Saeter out from his tent. After a second of listening the old scout turned to the goblin.
“Wolves, I showed you their tracks earlier. Don’t worry they’re just gossiping,” Saeter told Blacknail with an uncharacteristic peaceful smile.
He then stretched, closed his eyes, and took a few more seconds to listen.
“Beautiful, the sound of the North,” he whispered to himself.
The goblin didn’t understand. Wolves were the dog things right? He closed his eyes and listened as well, focusing on the sound of wolves over the forest.
All the noise did however was fill him with wariness. Soon the noise begun to fade away, and Blacknail felt an unexpected twinge of regret. For a quick second the howling had seemed oddly familiar. It made no sense but for some reason it had reminded him of home…
After a quick tasty breakfast the bandits hit the road again. They turned off the main road and moved on to what could charitably be called a forest route.
It was really a dirt path barely wide enough for a single wagon and it was very bumpy. Blacknail didn’t like this new path much; the trees loomed much closer along its narrower confines.
As usual, that night they set up camp and posted a watch. Feeling somewhat excluded since he wasn’t given a turn Blacknail decided to stay up and help his master during his turn.
After a brief supper and conversation around the fire everyone turned in for bed. This time however Blacknail forced himself to stay awake and wait.
It was a dark moonless night. Clouds covered most of the sky. Outside the light of the fire everything was pitch black. Only the dark outlines of trees could be seen shifting at the furthest reaches of the firelight.
By the time it was Saeter’s watch the fire was dying down and Blacknail amused himself for a few minutes by throwing some more wood on it and watching the sparks fly up into the dark sky.
The heat from the fire soon made him drowsy though, so he curled up beside it. The last thing he saw before nodding off was Saeter’s back as his master stood at the edge of the light and gazed calmly out into the darkness.
He tried again each night but Blacknail never managed to stay awake for any of Saeter’s watches. The closest the goblin ever came was when he awoke suddenly one night several days later with an uneasy feeling eating at his guts.
One second he was asleep and the next he was awake and on guard. He didn’t know why but he knew something had disturbed him, something dangerous.
The goblin’s ears twitched as he listened and he automatically sniffed the air quietly. He sensed nothing. Slowly, he opened his eyes and looked around. Somehow he knew something was there even if he couldn’t see or smell it.
The fire was very low, only a few slow burning coals were left smoldering. Most the humans were asleep around it with their bags and equipment beside them.
Only one of the bandits was on watch and he was seated on a rock beside the fire drinking a cup of tea. He was obviously only barely paying attention to the area around himself.
There was only a small sliver of moon in the sky but no clouds concealed it. Thus, there was enough light for Blacknail to see his surroundings fairly well. His amazing goblin night vision was much better than that of a mere human.
The pale moonlit road stretched off into the shadowy trees to one side of him. Their group was camped on a hill beside it where the wind helped keep the mosquitoes away.
To Blacknail’s eyes, the hill floated like an island atop a dark pool of trees that shook and creaked in the wind like waves on black water. He knew something lurked down there in the depths of the forest, watching him.
Other than the wind and the rustling of leaves it was a quiet night though, too quiet. Alarmed, Blacknail realized he didn’t hear the usual sounds of night birds and prowling animals.
That was a bad sign, very bad. The goblin peered out into the darkness drenched forest for the danger he could somehow sense but not identify.
He heard leaves crunch off to one side and he quickly whirled around. However, the noise stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Blacknail froze and eyed the trees and bushes in that direction carefully but the forest concealed what lay within it too well for him to see anything.
The sound of the goblin’s heartbeat grew louder in his ears. He knew something terrible was about to happen, but all he could do was stare into the impenetrable shadows before him. His anxiety began to wear him down as he grew twitchier and he started to get a pounding headache.
The nearby leaves shook as something large moved within them. The shadows convulsed around it and Blacknail hissed loudly in alarm.
Out from the darkness an answering low predatory growl erupted. Its force sent leaves and other debris fluttering forth into the camp from the forest.
Blacknail’s hackles rose and his body tensed as the smell of the creature’s breath washed over him. He had never smelled anything like it.
With an alarmed look, the man by the fire shot to his feet and drew his sword. He hurried over to Blacknail’s side.
“Do you see anything, goblin?” the swordsman asked Blacknail as he scanned the edge of the firelight.
The man’s voice quivered with unease and his face looked white in moonlight.
Clearly, he had been spooked by the noise, and Blacknail didn’t blame him. The goblin shook his head in answer to the man’s question.
The commotion woke some of the other men including Saeter who sat up and automatically reached for his bow and quiver. Slowly, Blacknail’s master got to his feet and drew his bow.
Nothing happened for a few stagnant seconds. Blacknail heard more of the men get to their feet and arm themselves. He really wished they would hurry up.
Blacknail twitched again as the sound of leaves and twigs being crunched by something heavy out in the darkness reached his ears. Whatever the thing in the woods was it had started moving again.
Blacknail’s skin crawled and he felt a spike of terror tear through his heart. He heard the sounds of blades being drawn and deep steady breaths as the men behind him readied themselves for combat with whatever horror was about to burst from the darkness upon them. The goblin got ready to run and hide behind them.
Then, he realized the sound wasn’t moving closer. It was moving further away. Slowly, the rhythmic noise got quieter until it was completely muffled by the forest. Only then did Blacknail relax and let out a deep breath.
No one spoke for a few seconds. Most of the bandits had been awakened by the commotion. They threw each other nervous looks and held their weapons close. Then, Saeter broke the silence as he relaxed his bow.
“It’s gone. Make sure the man on watch stays alert and keeps the fire high. Scream loudly if something attacks you,” Saeter said with a yawn as he settled back down to sleep.
The man on watch gave Saeter an annoyed look and Blacknail gave his master a disbelieving one. How could he just go back to sleep?
“What was it?” one of the bandits asked Saeter.
Blacknail’s master turned to them from where he lay on his blanket.
“Dunno. Could have been an ogre taking a night stroll or a hungry drake that decided we weren’t worth the trouble. Let’s hope we never find out,” Saeter replied crankily before then turning away and going back to sleep.
Several of the other bandits whispered fearfully to each other for a few minutes before settling back down themselves. Blacknail lay back down by the remains of the fire but was too nervous to sleep.
He couldn’t shake the feeling that the creature was still out there and just waiting for them all to relax their guard. If it attacked them while they were asleep they wouldn’t stand a chance. The terrible hungry beast would rip them apart and chew on their bones…