Coins and Whispers 0.2

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Zeckus Hurale was working late. He was at the small office off the side of his warehouse in Anstabul. It had gotten dark outside but he continued to work by the light of a steady oil lamp on his desk. The merchant was a pudgy blonde man. He was dressed in high quality clothes that he knew were quite out of fashion. He had much more important things to worry about.

One of his ships had just come into port with a cargo of fine wine from the Homelands. That was normally a lucrative trade but this time his agents had not been able to acquire nearly as much as usual, and what they had gotten had been far too expensive. Apparently, some sort of pest from the eastern continent had made it across the ocean to the Homelands, and was ravaging the grape fields there.

Zeckus sighed in exasperation. It was a small thing really, but lately there had been a lot of small things.

Everyone knew the best wine came from the Homelands. Human civilization had developed there for over two thousand years before they had expanded across the ocean in Imperial times after all. The wildlife here outside the Homelands was almost as hostile to grapes as it was to humans, and now some of it had invaded humanity’s ancestral home.

There was nothing he could do about that, but perhaps he could turn this setback into an opportunity. With advanced warning of the wine shortage he might be able to buy up some of the local vineyards while they were still cheap.

They might be of poor quality but the shortage would still drive their prices up. He might even be able to figure out a way to improve the quality of the local wine! That would earn him a pleasant profit indeed.

With a smile, he went to work writing up a series of new orders for his agents. He had almost finished when he was interrupted.

“Your sister Kleia is here to see you, sir,” his secretary announced from the doorway.

Zeckus frowned. He hadn’t heard the door open. What was his sister doing here so late? It must be important, and that meant bad news.

“Thank you Gregory. See her in please,” Zeckus told his clerk as he finished writing a line on the parchment in front of him.

He then put his quill down neatly next to his ink pot and looked up just in time to see his sister enter.

Kleia was a short woman who, like Zeckus, had their family’s blonde hair . However, she wore it long all the way down to her back. Her somewhat pudgy figure and plain face gave her a matronly quality, but that had not always been the case. When she had been younger she had been considered quite pretty, but ever since her husband’s death she had started to put on a little weight and had changed the way she dressed.

Zeckus supposed that with two kids and her husband’s businesses to run she simply didn’t have the time, or need, to care about her appearance.

He hadn’t ever bothered with such things, which is why he was more than a little overweight himself. If either of them wanted the intimate sort of company then he knew they could both afford to just pay for it.

“Greetings Zeck, how is my little brother?” Kleia asked with a smile as she entered the room.

Zeckus gave her a polite smile back.

“I’m fine, thank you for asking, sister. What brings you to my office at this time of night?” he asked her back.

“Oh Zeck, must you always be so to the point. It is a rather unattractive quality in a man you know. No wonder you haven’t been able to find yourself a good wife,” she replied as she sat down across the desk from him.

“I’m thirsty, why don’t you have your man there bring me a cup of tea,” she added after she had made herself comfortable.

“As you wish,” Zeckus answered.

He picked up and rang a small bell with a wooden handle that had been sitting on the corner of his desk next to a stack of papers. His secretary immediately stepped into the room in answer to his summons.

“My sister would like a cup of tea, Gregory. Why don’t you bring both of us one,” Zeckus told the man.

Gregory nodded in acknowledgement and left to fulfill his master’s command.

“Now what is this about dear Kleia,” he asked his sister again.

She pouted at being rushed but answered all the same.

“I have just received reliable word that Alfesso and almost his entire caravan were robbed and put to the sword on the road from Eastpoint last week,” she told him.

Zeckus blinked in surprise. That was not what he had been expecting to hear.

“That’s horrible news. I will have to remember to get Gregory to send his poor widow some flowers,” Zeckus remarked.

Kleia rolled her eyes.

“Of course brother, but I’m not here to talk to you about such trivialities. This tragedy will have a huge impact on our businesses. I thought you deserved a heads up. It’s not as if we both didn’t have enough problems already. What are we paying such high taxes for if bandits are being allowed to roam the countryside and slaughter honest merchants freely,” she said with indignation.

Zeckus snorted.

“It’s for the wars, sister. That’s where all the coin is going. The wars are a bottomless money pit, and they’re slowly strangling this country to death. You’re right about the effect of this on our businesses though,” he said with a sigh.

“Of course I’m right. I have more experience in these matters than you. You learned book keeping from me after all. Father was always terrible at that sort of thing, even though he was a great negotiator,” she reminded him.

Zeckus didn’t need the reminder. He knew the cheery and somewhat empty headed act his sister put on was just that, an act. Having people underestimate her had served her well over the years.

He decided to ignore her attempt to sidetrack the conversation. He didn’t want to get drawn into another conversation about their deceased father. It was too late in the evening for that.

“I wouldn’t have thought that bandits would strike so far south. To overcome Alfesso’s guards it must have been one of the larger northern bands down from the Iron Teeth. They’ve been a problem since the fall of Coroulis, and the accursed conscription just keeps making it worse. After over a decade with next to no troops returning home even the most backwards peasants will realize something is up,” he complained.

“King Namirius can’t afford to let any veterans go home. He needs every soldier he can get to keep the borders secure,” Kleia remarked. “His father may have won the war against Deveshur but that whole country has descended into bloody chaos. Every month it seems a new noble joins the fight to claim the throne and take back the land we annexed from them. Not to mention we still have to worry about Hulgaron to the south.”

“Yes, but that means he just keeps throwing men into battle after battle until they’re all dead. No wonder there are so many deserters heading north to join these bands. They know if they stay in the army it’s practically a death sentence. As a policy that one leaves something to be desired, especially since we’re the ones being raided,” Zeckus replied sarcastically.

“So what are we going to do about it? I think influencing military policy is a little beyond us,” she remarked.

“If they’ve set up in the area we may have to completely stop sending goods north. With the high taxes the king demands and what it would cost to pay for the amount of guards needed to protect a caravan I don’t think we could squeeze out a profit,” he reluctantly explained.

“There must be something we can do? Maybe we could pay the bandits off. If they simply rob every caravan that crosses their path they will soon run out of targets. Merchants will just start avoiding the entire area and that won’t profit them. ” she mused aloud.

“Do you know whose band it was? You mentioned that almost everyone had been killed. That means there were at least some survivors,” he asked with interest.

“No sorry, all I have are statements from the survivors. They were woman and children the bandits released. The bandits didn’t apparently announce who they were and the survivors don’t remember anything I could use to identify them beyond how large the band was,” she replied.

“Werick the Wolf supposedly has the largest band, but he usually operates in northeast Deveshur. From the rumors I hear he’s busy setting himself up as some sort of warlord there. He’s also supposed to have the morals of a hobgoblin, so I doubt he would let any prisoners go. They’re worth more than a few coins to the right, or wrong, sort of people,” he guessed.

“True, outlaws with any sense of morality are in short supply these days. None of them are anything at all like the White Raven. Now there was a dashing outlaw. They still tell stories about him you know. They’re especially popular with the young ladies,” Kleia reminisced wistfully.

Zeckus smiled at his sister’s tone. He remembered hearing more than a few tales about the White Raven himself when he had been younger.

He imagined the stories the young men had recounted were quite different from those that had been shared amongst the women. Both were undoubtedly equally fictional though. Zeckus forced himself back to the matter at hand.

“There are a few bands that might let non-combatants go though. The question is how many of these are large enough and could be that far down below Riverbend. My guess would be the Black Snake. She’s always been a hard one to figure out. Something unpredictable and daring like this suits her, and she has a fairly large band,” Zeckus speculated.

“I hope you’re right. From what I know of her she is the type that would keep to her end of a bargain if we fill her pockets with enough gold,” his sister replied.

“Maybe, but in order to strike a deal with her we would probably have to work through the Broken Wheel Company. Those scum are basically nothing but bandits themselves and would charge us a painful fee just to connect us with her, if they would help us at all,” he told her.

Kleia tilted her head to the side and she appeared to fall deep into thought. However, Zeckus only had to wait a few seconds before she smiled and turned back to him.

“Leave that to me. I might have some contacts there I could use. It’s not a sure thing but some people owe me a few favors,” she replied.

Zeckus frowned at his sister’s response. He didn’t like the idea of her having anything at all to do with the Broken Wheel Company. They pretended to be just another merchant consortium but they were rumored to be involved in every sort of unsavory practice. Everything from forced prostitution to the buying of stolen goods and assassination was attributed to them.

Zeckus had a lifetime of experience as a successful merchant to draw on, and he had good reasons to believe that most of those rumors were true. No one knew who ran the company, but the most credible rumor Zeckus had heard was that it was secretly owned by a conglomerate of the oldest merchant families on the continent. Whoever they were, they had connections, resources, and ruthlessness that put his to shame.

“What are you thinking about little brother? You’ve gone silent on me. It’s rather rude you know,” Kleia asked him with a chuckle. Her question interrupted his thinking.

“I’m thinking I would rather not deal with the Broken Wheel. I want no part of the things they do. They’re killers and much worse,” he replied gravely.

“So you’re fine with dealing with the Black Snake but not the Broken Wheel?” she asked him with amusement plain in her voice.

The question surprised Zeckus. He thought it over for a second or two and realized it was true, but before he could answer her there was a polite knock on his door.

“Come in Gregory,” Zeckus yelled in the direction of the doorway.

His secretary then stepped into the room with two large steaming cups of tea in his hands. He swiftly walked over and placed them before Zeckus and his sister.

Kleia gave the man a smile and thanked him while Zeckus simply gave him a nod of approval. His job done the man left the room and closed the door quietly behind him.

“Now where were we?” his sister asked before she took a sip of tea.

“I was just about to tell you that yes I do find the Broken Wheel more repugnant than run of the mill bandits. I understand outlaws such as those that serve the Black Snake and the Wolf. I wish the army would go in and hang the lot of them, but I must admit that to some degree life has forced them down their path. Not so the Broken Wheel. The bandits that plague our roads are a symptom of the times. I suspect the Broken Wheel is part of the disease,” Zeckus told his sister seriously.

“Little brother, have you been reading those dreadful pre-Imperial philosophers again. That was unusually deep for you,” his sister joked.

“As a wise man said so many years ago, ‘Only when a man has turned his gaze inwards can he truly begin to see the world’. However, I don’t need the wisdom of ancient philosophers to know that I want nothing to do with the Broken Wheel Company,” he told her.

“You make it sound like I was talking about buying into it, or forming a partnership with them. I was just suggesting I might know someone who could broker a deal between us and Herad the Black Snake. It would simply be a favor paid for a favor owed,” she replied with a roll of her eyes.

Zeckus scowled and drank a few more sips of tea while he thought it through. He couldn’t stop his sister from doing whatever she wanted. After her husband’s death she had acquired control of his family’s rather extensive business holdings. If he was being honest with himself those holdings were probably larger than the one’s he had inherited from their father.

If they did manage to strike a deal with Herad that allowed them safe passage then that would give them a near monopoly on the trade from Anstabul all the way north to Riverbend. That was not an inconsiderable market. Riverbend may not be what it once was but it was still a medium sized city that supplied the south of Eloria with a fair amount of timber, fur, and ore.

Zeckus mumbled quietly as he quickly ran some rough numbers through his head. Even after having to pay the king’s taxes and Herad’s bribe he should still be able to earn a profit. Riverbend and the smaller cities and towns on the way there would badly need the supplies they shipped as well.

“Fine Kleia, I can’t stop you so I might as well join you and keep an eye out. Let’s see if you can get in contact with our new local bandit captain, if indeed it is the Black Snake,” he told her with a sigh of displeasure.

Zeckus and his sister spoke for a few more minutes as they finished their tea. Soon though, Kleia excused herself and returned home, leaving Zeckus alone in his office.

The merchant got up from his desk and walked over to his window. He felt a feeling of weariness come over him as he gazed outside.

Outside the darkness of night had settled over the city. A few lights shone out from homes across the city but Zeckus remembered a time when the lights had been far more numerous. Every year it seemed like the city grew darker.

His sister’s visit had distracted him from his business but he still had things to finish tonight. He had many responsibilities and it was getting harder and harder to fulfill them.

Zeckus was a good merchant. He knew this to be true. He was able to make deals and put ventures together that earned him substantial profits, or they would have if the times had been different. He didn’t know how much his sister knew but the truth was that Zeckus had to fight hard to keep his company afloat. He managed to stay out of debt only by selling assets.

At the current rate it would take many years for his business to go under but inevitably it would. Taxes were just too high and the war was causing all non-essential markets to shrink. People just weren’t buying, and he didn’t blame them.

Farms everywhere were being abandoned and the desperate were turning to banditry, which just made everything worse. Several of his less canny peers had already gone bankrupt. He suspected poor Alfesso’s lost caravan had been a dangerous gambit meant to keep his business financially afloat. That gamble had obviously failed and cost the merchant more than simple gold.

The truth was Zeckus badly needed something like the deal his sister had just proposed. He had interest payments on debts that needed to be paid soon and he didn’t have the gold on hand to pay them.

The real question though was whether his sister had known all this, and whether her visit had been a carefully staged act, whose sole purpose was to manipulate him into accepting her offer. He wouldn’t put past her. She was both remarkably loyal and upsettingly ruthless.

After one last long look out into the night Zeckus turned away from the window and his idle thoughts. He sat back down at his desk and picked up his quill.

After dipping the tip into the inkwell he went back to writing out his agent’s new orders. It wasn’t like he had any real choice but to accept his sister’s deal anyway. He could only hope that somewhere out there something was happening that would halt the world’s slow slide into ruin.

The Road North 1.7

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What had just happened? Had he been attacked by something? Ow, it hurt to think.

Instinctively, Blacknail tried to get to his feet but he was far too unsteady and quickly fell over again. That’s when he heard the laughter.

“Ha, that’s what green shits like you get! That’ll teach you to walk around like a man,” he heard a deep male voice say.

Blacknail had been attacked by a human. Apparently, the camp wasn’t so safe after all.

Blacknail felt his insides twist with regret but he didn’t quite know why. Things like this hadn’t been uncommon in the sewers; Blacknail just hadn’t thought it would happen here for some reason. How stupid of him.

Blacknail painfully turned his head to get a look at his assailant. It was an average sized man with brown hair and ugly red spots all over his face where they weren’t hidden by a ratty beard.

His clothes were even dirtier and rougher looking than most of the other bandits, and that was saying something. Blacknail could practically smell rotten food and vomit from where he lay.

With a vicious smile on his face the man walked over towards the goblin and raised a foot as if to stomp on him. Blacknail feebly curled up in an attempt to shield himself as the man leered down on him. This was going to hurt.

The man stopped suddenly as someone spoke up. The voice’s freezing cold tone seethed with anger and startled Blacknail’s assailant.

“You, what do you think you’re doing? No matter how fucking stupid you are you must know who that goblin belongs to,” Saeter said as he stepped out of the bushes and dropped the sled’s rope.

His eyes were narrowed with barely contained rage. The other man backed away a bit and paled.

“I ah… was just foolin round. No harm done now,” the man stuttered fearfully.

“You must know what happens to people who touch what’s mine,”  the old scout growled angrily.

“Er no, I’m a new man. I just joined up, see?” the other man explained fearfully as he continued to back away.

“Then let me tell you. They go out into the forest and never come out. The deep green is always looking to claim a few more souls. No one questions it and no one cares about human refuse like you. Look around, where are you right now?” Saeter explained coldly as he stared the other man down.

Blacknail’s attacker paled even more until he was ghost white. He seemed to try and speak but he choked and the words wouldn’t come out. Then with a whimper he turned and fled towards the camp.

He didn’t make it. With a practiced motion Saeter drew his bow and shot the other man in the back. With nothing but a gurgle and a few quick twitches the man collapsed onto the exposed roots of a tree and lay still.

Blacknail found the strength to slowly get to his feet. He pushed himself up and hesitantly felt his head. His probing fingers found a small bleeding gash but he seemed otherwise fine. Goblins had very thick skulls. They got hit in the head all the time.

“Good, you seem all right. Take a seat while I dispose of this trash,” Saeter told him with a motion towards the corpse of the man he had just killed.

Blacknail stared at Saeter uncomprehendingly for a second before collapsing into a sitting position. As the goblin watched, Saeter dragged the corpse off into the trees.

By the time his master got back Blacknail had began to feel better. His headache had faded and the bleeding had stopped. As they broke out of the borders of the forest and into the sun they were met by a multitude of stares.

This was, of course, because Blacknail was dragging a sled with a deer larger than himself on it. When they had reached the very edge of the forest Saeter had given him the sled back for some reason.

Some of the people looking seemed impressed at the goblin’s strength. Most of them just looked hungry. They looked at the deer carcass with obvious anticipation and barely noticed the goblin pulling it. Only a very few gave him hostile looks.

Blacknail was in no mood for cowering; it hadn’t done him any good earlier. He returned the dirty looks he got. He stuck out his tongue or gave them the evil eye. Stupid humans, what did they have against him? He was a strong and cunning goblin!

He hated the fact that they would probably get to eat the deer he’d helped catch. He wasn’t even sure if he would be getting any, even after he had dragged it through the dangerous woods and was almost eaten by spiders. Scary dreadful spiders with long poisonous fangs that dropped down on you from places you couldn’t see!

Blacknail shivered at the memory then sighed. He knew he had the lowest position in the entire tribe. As the newcomer it was only natural he got the least and worst food. That was just the way tribes worked.

How though was he supposed to work his way up to a higher position when everyone else was human, and thus huge? He didn’t want to be the weakest in the tribe and be picked on anymore.

He knew hurting humans was a very bad idea but fights were how goblins usually rose in rank. Maybe he could use some sort of large snare tied to an even larger tree, or maybe he could dig a big hole and…

Wait, if no one knew he was the one who made the trap then he wouldn’t get in trouble but he wouldn’t rise higher in the tribe either. Blacknail sighed and kept walking. He wished he was back home in the sewers. Things were so much simpler there.

By the time they returned to camp the sun had started to set behind the trees. Its red light shone out from gaps in the foliage and dyed the clouds above crimson. The camp was now full of dozens of bandits. They lounged about in various sized groups and around newly lit campfires.

At the edge of the clearing all the horses from the caravan had been brought over and tied up. Blacknail gave them a dirty look when he saw them. The smelly things should have just been killed.

“Stupid horses,” he muttered.

One of the horses returned his gaze and gave an aggressive snort. Blacknail stuck his tongue out at it. The stupid thing was tied up and couldn’t do anything to him. At least his position in this tribe was higher than that of the horses. It hadn’t been in the caravan.

After they had walked away from the edge of the clearing Saeter turned to Blacknail.

“Leave the deer carcass here,” he told the goblin as he sighed in fatigue and stretched.

Blacknail had dropped the sled almost before his master had finished speaking. He then immediately plopped down onto the ground and begun to massage his aching feet. Ouch they hurt. He had surprised even himself by dragging that deer.

Back in his old life he had never had many chances to test out his strength but obviously he was an even stronger and smarter goblin than he had thought! Truly, his master was lucky to have him as a servant.

“Must really be getting old, I never used to get this tired after just being out in the bush for a few hours,” Saeter mused to himself as he sighed and did a few more stretches.

Blacknail gave him an unamused look out of the corner of his eye. He was the one who had been doing the hard work! He couldn’t complain though as Saeter had saved his life several times today. Of course, he was also the person who had put him into danger in the first place.

“You’re finally back, Saeter; about time,” Blacknail heard a familiar harsh voice say.

It was the dangerous looking chieftain named Herad. She detached herself from a group of her rough looking minions and leisurely strolled over to them. She gave their catch an appraising glace but didn’t seem impressed with it at all.

“A deer, eh? It looks a bit skinny but I suppose it will have to do. I’ll have some the lazy bastards behind me skin it up since you went and fetched it for me. You and your pet there seem a little roughed up. I wouldn’t want to overwork an old man,” she remarked with her usual crooked smile.

“Then I am no longer needed here,” Saeter replied with a nod.

“I guess not,” she agreed before calling several other bandits over to take the deer.

Saeter began to walk away over to his camp, and after a quick nervous glance back at Herad the goblin followed him.

“Oh and Saeter, I’m glad you’re getting some use out of that goblin. You know the rules. Everyone pulls their own weight or they’re gone,” Herad said coldly to their backs as they walked away.

Blacknail shivered from a chill that hadn’t been caused by the cooling afternoon air. He was fairly certain he knew what gone meant, and it wasn’t to be let loose in the forest. Praise his master for giving him so much hard work, and making him useful. To think that he had thought his master was mean and unfair because he was working him too hard!

Once they reached Saeter’s campsite his master took a few minutes to unpack and put his stuff away. Blacknail watched him for awhile but then curled up and lay down to rest.

After only a few minutes though he was nudged awake by a familiar light kick and he opened his eyes to see his master standing over him. Maybe his master would give him some food now, he thought as he yawned.

Instead, Saeter had a cup of hot water and a rag in his hand. He motioned for Blacknail to stand and then cleaned the goblin’s head wound. He finished up by tying the long rag around Blacknail’s forehead and telling him to leave it there.

“Stay here and practice,” Saeter told him and dropped the cord he had been making earlier at his feet. Blacknail eyed it wearily but got up.

“Food time?” Blacknail asked his master hopefully.

“Not yet. Time to practice,” Saeter responded. Blacknail sighed in irritation.

He really didn’t want to try making rope again. It was hard and tricky and he just couldn’t get it right. He frowned in displeasure. He remembered Herad’s threat though and sighed.

He picked up the cord and walked over to a large rock and sat down. He then got back to work. Seater gave him an approving look and then turned and walked off. Blacknail was thus left all alone to work. Well alone, if you didn’t count all the other humans wandering around.

Blacknail waited there and worked for awhile but his heart wasn’t in it. Wrapping and twisting the plant fibres soon grew unbearably dull. As he worked it began to get dark and the goblin nodded off.

The sound of a large group of humans yelling in unison roared through the clearing and echoed off the surrounding trees. It was followed by the sound of birds taking flight and horses’ startled whinnying.

Blacknail shot to his feet and was instantly awake. Was the tribe under attack?

The goblin quickly scanned his surroundings. In the center of the clearing a giant pile of wood burned. Waves of red flame rose up from it and crackled as they leapt high into the cloudy evening sky. Dozens of human figures cast a multitude of long shifting shadows over the grass and onto the trees as they moved around the fire.

The sound voices was now very loud. They laughed, yelled, and hooted as they celebrated. It was very goblin like. Blacknail almost felt like joining in, but suspected he wouldn’t be completely welcome.

The smell of roast deer blanketed the clearing. There was next to no wind to clear the air so the smell simply built up and filled the area. The meat’s delicious and smoky smell caused Blacknail to begun to drool. He licked his lips clean.

“To victory and plunder. Are we not the greatest thieves and cutthroats in all the world? Drink to that,” Herad yelled in a voice that was unusually cheerful for her, and which sounded a little forced to the goblin.

Her speech easily drowned out all the other voices and a ragged cheer followed her words as most of the bandits raised their cups high into the air. Blacknail thought he saw the chieftain’s figure posing right beside the fire where the gathered bandits were thickest.

The goblin looked away from the spectacle and saw that he was alone. Not even Saeter was around. He knew that there was some food tucked away in his master’s bags. For a second he was tempted but he knew it would be a bad idea. Saeter would know if something went missing and he didn’t want to steal from his master anyway.

There were other options though, options that were more suited to a goblin as cunning as Blacknail. Saeter had shown him how to find various edible plants such as wild carrot but what he really wanted was meat. He deserved delicious deer meat.

The goblin smirked gleefully as he watched the bandits and their actions. A plan soon formed in his head. He turned and closed his eyes, letting his night vision come back.

With that done he examined the edges of the clearing. He quickly spotted the locations of the guards that were posted for the celebration. He smiled and giggled to himself. It was time for him to be a sneaky cunning goblin.

Blacknail moved away from his campfire and slipped into the shadows. He crouched down and began prowling about on his hands and feet. As a goblin, this type of movement was natural to him.

Low to the ground, he moved slowly over and around the trampled grass towards the bonfire. On the way he crawled over to a pile of wooden crates and disappeared out of sight behind them.

After a few seconds he peeked around the crates and glanced at his target. None of the bandits were looking his way. He quickly broke from his cover and scurried forward until he stopped behind a patch of grass and weeds that was still standing tall.

He was close enough now that the shadows the bandits cast shifted around him.

After another hurried look to make sure no one could see him lurking in the dark, he crept slowly over to a tent and hid behind it. A quick sniff and a rummage through an open sack revealed a small bit of cheese. He took a second to scoff it down before continuing on. He wanted more than a bit of cheese.

Most of the humans were milling about as they talked to each other, ate, and did some weird ritual that involved hitting their cups together. Blacknail didn’t see his master Saeter anywhere but he saw Vorscha and Herad. They were standing next to the fire and talking to each other.

Then an opportunity presented itself; a nearby man at the edge of the group placed his plate of food and cup on a crate and then walked off into the dark. He was probably going to mark his territory.

Blacknail waited patiently until no one was looking in that direction and then dashed forward. By exploiting the nearby humans’ blind spots he reached the target unseen.

He quickly grabbed the meat on the plate and the cup beside it. Then as fast as his little legs would take him he dashed away from the fire and back into the safety of the concealing darkness.

Blacknail hurried back to the pile of crates he had passed earlier, and glanced back to make sure no one had noticed him. To his relief no one had. He was such a sneaky cunning goblin, so much more cunning than all the ugly giant humans!

The goblin giggled in delight. He was breathing heavy and nervous but also feeling exhilarated.

Safely hidden among the crates, Blacknail licked his prize meat. It was so good and tasty! He begun to chew and gnaw it as the delicious fat melted in his mouth. However, much to his disappointment he was soon finished.

Thus, he turned and examined the cup of liquid he had stolen. He had assumed it would be water but it wasn’t. He didn’t know what it was.

He hadn’t had time to smell it before he grabbed it and Blacknail had never really had anything but water to drink. He wondered what this would taste like. Well it wasn’t urine. He knew what that smelled like.

He took a sip and then stifled a choking gasp. Ugh, it burned all the way down! Why did humans drink this? He was about to throw it away when a nice complex aftertaste developed.

He took another sip and then another. He smiled to himself happily. It wasn’t so bad once you got used to it. Nice really, he felt nice. He felt really nice. He drank the rest of the liquid down. Actually, this stuff was amazing. He wanted some more.

He was such an amazing goblin, and he had such a great master. “Hiccup”. Why even Herad wasn’t that bad. She was just very fond of knives and dressed all dark and stared at you like she wanted to kill you and all your littermates… ok, Herad was pretty bad.

“Hiccup”. Everyone else was great though… except everyone who wasn’t! Also, this drink was great. What was it? He tried to get to his feet to find someone to ask but stumbled and couldn’t quite get up for some reason.

Never mind then, he would just stay here for now. “Hiccup”.

He licked his fingers to get another taste of deer meat. Then he started giggling uncontrollably. All those stupid humans prancing around that fire hadn’t seen him steal their meat and drink.

They were so blind and stupid. It was funny. It was hilarious. He was the sneakiest goblin ever!

His laughter apparently attracted someone’s attention because through a break in his sniggering he heard the sound of footsteps approaching. Uh oh! He tried to stop giggling but he found his situation too hilarious.

“Blacknail?” a deep voice asked.

The crate he was behind was suddenly moved, revealing a concerned Saeter looking down at him. Blacknail smiled up at his great master.

“Master, hello,” he giggled.

Saeter examined him for a second before taking in the empty cup in his hand. He sniffed the air.

Saeter sighed and roughly messaged his temples with his fingers. Intense exasperation was plainly written in his body language. Blacknail thought it was hilarious.

“This is just what I need, a drunk goblin. I didn’t even know goblins could get drunk,” Saeter remarked with another sigh.

“Me drink stuff every day,” Blacknail responded groggily as he raised his cup unsteadily into the air.

Why was he doing that? Things were getting kind of blurry.

“How in all the hells did you even get that?” Saeter remarked with disbelief.

“You great!” Blacknail replied cheerfully.

“Well, at least you’re a happy drunk,” Saeter sighed.

He then grabbed the goblin by the scruff of his neck and dragged him over to his campsite, which didn’t hurt much for some reason.

Once they reached Saeter’s fire the man sat Blacknail down. He then pulled out a flask of water and refilled the cup Blacknail was still holding.

“Drink,” he commanded.

Blacknail did, and managed to only spill a little over himself. He was disappointed it was just water but he was still thirsty so it was fine. Saeter gave Blacknail a troubled expression.

“I was going feed you but you were gone. I was afraid you had run off, but I see you decided to get your own supper somehow,” Saeter explained.

“I hungry. So I sneak, no one see,” Blacknail whispered confidentially to Saeter as he wiggled his fingers in front of his face. Saeter gave him an amused look.

“I guess that’s a type of foraging and I did tell you to find your own food. Maybe I should watch my tongue.” Saeter said with a chuckle.

“Yes, master,” Blacknail responded enthusiastically and totally without any sort of understanding. He tried to raise his hands above his head but he wobbled and had to stop.

“I should knock some sense into that skull of yours but you’re drunk and already have a head wound,” Saeter told the goblin.

“Come morning though, you’ll have a serious hangover coming down on you, goblin. That ought to be punishment enough,” Saeter remarked as he gave Blacknail a deeper less sympathetic smile.

“Nap time,” mumbled a suddenly tired goblin as he let out a deep yawn.

Saeter threw a ragged piece of cloth over the drowsy goblin and entered his tent for the night. The goblin curled up around his makeshift blanket and fell asleep under the open sky, while feeling the most comfortable he had ever been. Maybe, it wasn’t so bad here after all…

The Road North 1.6

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Soon, they were walking through the trees again. It wasn’t Blacknail’s favorite place to be. It also quickly became obvious to him that Saeter had headed in a different direction than they had gone during their last trip. The type of trees and bushes were the same but none of them looked or smelled familiar.

This probably meant less chance of running into harpies, but on the other hand probably increased their chances of running into something worse.

Saeter trampled a path through the tall plants that grew under the trees and Blacknail followed in his wake. The sun shone practically all around them through the sparse canopy.

After a few minutes, Saeter found an animal trail where the dirt and plants had been beaten down and began to follow it.

Every once in a while Blacknail would hear rustling noises off in the bush. Most of the time he saw nothing but sometimes it would turn out to be birds taking flight or a small furry tailed rat like animal that would scurry up a tree.

As they progressed through the woods the brown and grey trunks of the trees grew closer together and the overhead canopy grew thicker. The grass and tall plants gave way to shorter broad leaved plants and more bare ground became visible.

Every once and awhile Saeter would stop and examine tracks or droppings on the ground. Sometimes he would have Blacknail examine them as he explained what they were. At one such time he called Blacknail over.

“Blacknail, these are bear tracks. They’re large and dangerous but not usually aggressive unless they smell a free meal or are surprised. Avoid them,” he explained to the goblin as he pointed to the animal signs.

Blacknail’s eyes widened in surprise as he examined the tracks, they were huge! Absently Blacknail wondered what his master thought was truly dangerous if these bear creatures were still considered only a minor threat.

They began to head deeper into the woods then they had before. The atmosphere slowly changed, becoming darker as the air became moister. The scent of earth that had filled the forest gained an undertone of rot.

Blacknail noticed that the trees that grew here were different from the ones he had seen earlier. Most of them had smooth bark that was pale grey and sickly looking. They also had wider leaves that blocked out more of the sun and cast the forest into deep shadow. The trees here had no lower branches and the ones that did were dead and leafless. It gave everything a dark stagnant feeling.

Even the broad leaved plants started to grow sparse and disappear until most of the ground became dark naked soil with a scattering of old decayed leaves and the occasional fern. The lack of obstacles meant Blacknail could see rows and rows of tall leafless trunks stretch out before him.

As they moved forward Saeter took a second to pull his hood up. He then pulled a torch from his backpack and lit it with some flint and steel.

The flame lit the dark woods and scattered tall shifting shadows all around them as Saeter lifted the torch high. It also momentarily hurt Blacknail’s eyes, and he covered them with his hands as they adjusted.

He didn’t know why his master needed the torch. True, it was dark here but he had seen humans walk through darker places without light.

“Come take the torch, Blacknail,” Saeter commanded.

Obediently, the goblin moved over and took the torch from his master. With his hands now free Saeter pulled out his bow and nocked an arrow.

“Now walk ahead of me,” he told Blacknail.

The goblin gave his master a wary look but tentatively started walking forward as he had been commanded. Saeter trailed him from a dozen feet back. Why did Saeter need his bow? Blacknail didn’t like where this was going.

Blacknail shuddered and brushed his face as he walked through a spider web. He spat in disgust. He hadn’t seen the web because of the darkness.

Looking around he noticed that there were quite a few webs around, even high up in the trees. In fact, some of the threads were weirdly thick and stretched from tree to tree. As they walked the webs became thicker and thicker.

Blacknail glanced backwards towards his master and saw Saeter scanning the branches above them as he moved carefully forward. He seemed to Blacknail to be moving cautiously and looking for something, or looking out for something.

In this part of the woods there were no bushes or leaves near the ground to hide behind though, so surely nothing here could be large enough to challenge his mighty master. He was a stupid goblin for being so afraid.

Blacknail noticed a large lump a ways off to his right. He eyed it suspiciously but it seemed to be nothing more than a pile of pale bones, dirty webs, and brown dried up leaves.

“There,” Saeter suddenly mumbled to himself.

The old scout then drew his bow and nocked an arrow. He swiftly loosed the arrow up at the trunk of a tree ahead of them. However, instead of embedding itself into the trunk there was a shrill hiss as the arrow fell back to the ground with something stuck to the end of it.

To Blacknail’s surprise whatever the arrow had hit squirmed and hissed as it lay on the ground. To his horror he realized that it was a spider, a huge brown spider with a body larger than a rat’s. It was cat sized almost, and had long legs that thrashed and clawed the air as it died. Its eight bright red eyes seemed to stare at Blacknail hungrily even as it stiffened in death.

Saeter turned and gave Blacknail a serious look.

“We’re lucky I saw the light in the timber spider’s eyes before it jumped. Otherwise, I would have had to shoot it out of the air,” he told the stunned goblin.

“Or shot it off of you once it had bitten you,” Saeter added as an afterthought.

Blacknail’s eyes widened as he realized that he had been bait for the spider. Saeter saw the goblin’s look and chuckled grimly.

“You would have been fine. Their venom just paralyses. Then they wrap you up for later. I would have killed it before anything lasting happened,” he explained.

“Thank you master for saving me,” Blacknail whimpered. Saeter looked off into the distance before replying.

“Don’t thank me yet goblin. This is the wild North; no one here is safe, not you and certainly not me,” he explained.

“Let’s leave this dark place master. Blacknail no want to die!” the goblin whined to his master.

Surely, his master could see that it was too dangerous to stay here. He would rather be chased by a whole pack of hungry dogs than go near a spider like that. Blacknail was never entering these dark woods ever again! No giant spider thing was going to bite him.

Master had a thick hooded cloak to protect him but what did Blacknail have? Nothing! The goblin realized that the pile of bones he had seen were the remains of some large animal that had been paralysed and wrapped up by a spider. He shuddered again and squeaked in alarm.

He could almost feel the touch of spider legs against his back and the ghost of its fangs against his neck. One bite and then he would be wrapped up in silk to join the bones here forever.

“Only fools are done in by timber spiders. There are much more dangerous places to be but we’ll be gone soon, so no worries,” Saeter told Blacknail.

Saeter retrieved his arrow and cleaned it, first with dirt and then a rag. Then he took out a knife and cut the spider open. He reached in and carefully removed a small sac from the incision. He then placed the sac on the ground and pierced it with three of his arrows. Blacknail saw something stain the arrows as Saeter removed them from the gland. That done Saeter wrapped the arrows in the rag and tucked them away

“We’re done here. Let’s get out of here,” Saeter grunted as he stood up.

Blacknail thought that was a great idea.

“Okay we go,” Blacknail agreed as he nodded enthusiastically.

This caused the torch he was still carrying to bob about and cast a swarm of shadows around them. He stood there and waited for his master to start moving. Saeter just gave him an annoyed look.

“You’re still going first. Head back the way we came. It should be safe,” Saeter told him as he nocked another arrow.

Blacknail gave his master a pitiful look but Saeter ignored it and pointed out the way with an outstretched hand.

With a bitter sigh Blacknail started nervously walking back the way they had come. He hugged the torch tight as he scanned the dark torch lit trees around him for glimpses of long legs or red eyes. He saw nothing though. Giant spiders were now Blacknail’s least favourite animal, even worse than horses, or harpies.

Blacknail trudged on through the dark woods. Several times he circled around areas with lots of cobwebs or where he thought he saw something above. He really didn’t want to be bitten by a spider, fatal or not.

At one point Blacknail saw what he was fairly sure was a goblin skull resting against a tree. Its empty eye sockets stared out at him. Now he knew where goblins sat in the local food chain. He could hear Saeter’s footsteps behind him but he glanced backwards to make sure he was there anyway. Surely he was safe so close to his master.

While it was true Saeter was much nicer and beat him much less than his old masters Blacknail was very disturbed at the seemingly endless amount of things that ate goblins in the forest. It wasn’t like goblins had never been killed in sewers but there at least he knew the dangers. In the forest he had no idea what would come after him next. Anything could happen and that terrified him.

Much to Blacknail’s relief the spider webs soon grew thinner and disappeared. The woods began to grow brighter and the underbrush thicker as well. Blacknail felt relief wash over him when they were obviously out of spider territory. He hoped his master would never make him go back to that dark terrible place ever again.

“Stop, Blacknail,” Saeter called out as soon as they were completely out of the darkest part of the woods. Blacknail stopped walking and turned back to his master. Saeter walked up and took the torch from the goblin and then snuffed it out. After letting it cool for awhile he placed it back in his sack.

“Follow,” he commanded as he once again took the lead. Blacknail thought they might be headed back to camp but Saeter then veered off in a new direction.

Soon their way was blocked by a wide creek that meandered through the woods. Tall reeds and other aquatic plants grew alongside it. Birds called out to each other joyfully from the nearby tree tops. Blacknail had never seen or smelled such clean water. He wanted to run over and get himself a drink.

He approached the creek to get a better look but was stopped by a sudden painful tug on one of his ears. The goblin jumped back and yelped in surprise. Saeter had grabbed the point of his ear and was scowling down at him.

“Stop,” Saeter commanded quietly but sternly. Blacknail instantly froze. “Bad Goblin. I told you to follow, not lead. Don’t wander off and get yourself killed,” Saeter hissed.

He turned away from the goblin and eyed the creek suspiciously. He then picked a stone off the ground and threw it at the water. It bounced off of a rock larger than Blacknail in the water near the bank. Much to Blacknail’s surprise the rock then sunk below the water with a splash and disappeared.

“Tyrant snapping turtle,” Saeter whispered menacingly into his ear. “Go near that thing little goblin and it will drag you under water and chew you up”.

The goblin’s eyes widened in horror. He hated deep water and he definitely hated being chewed on.

“Blacknail is sorry master. He stupid goblin but he thanks you for saving him,” Blacknail moaned.

Saeter gave him an irritated look and pulled the goblin by the ear again. Blacknail stumbled and stifled another yelp as he was pulled behind Saeter. His poor ear hurt so much! Why did his master keep pulling on it?

“Follow,” Saeter commanded sternly before heading downstream. He stayed a fair distance from the water. Blacknail followed him while rubbing his sore ear.

Soon they came across a part of the creek where the water became very shallow and bubbled over a rocky bed. Saeter jumped down to the water and crossed the creek without a problem. The water barely submerged the toe of his boots.

Blacknail also jumped down to the water, and grabbed a quick drink as well. He cupped the water in his hands and brought it to his mouth. The water was cool and tasted refreshing. It also felt nice and relaxing as it flowed between his bare toes.

After crossing the stream and moving through the brush for a while Saeter stopped and examined the ground. Blacknail smelled some type of scat. He didn’t know the animal but it seemed fresh. Saeter got up and inspected some small branches on a bush. He then began to move forward slower and more cautiously.

As soon as they moved through the brush a green wall of branches and bushes rose up in front of them. They approached the bushes and then broke through them into the edge of the clearing.

Short grass and sun loving flowers filled the meadow. The occasional small tree or bush grew up from the ground creating small blind spots. Most of the area was open grass and plainly visible though.

A large pond also sat in the middle of it. Reeds and lily pads grew around the pond. The sound of frogs croaking could be heard. Blacknail licked his lips. Frogs were a tasty treat. He had caught a few back in his old home. You simply had to sit next to the water and wait long enough for one to come close enough to grab. They were slimy, soft, and sweet. The best part was the legs, he loved to chew them.

Without a word Saeter scanned the clearing and then cautiously moved over to a cluster of green bushes surrounding a large stone on a hill at the edge of the woods.

Once there Saeter set his bag down and began to prepare. He crouched down and unwrapped the arrows he had covered in the rag and placed them on ground. Then, he sat down and made himself comfortable with his bow in his lap. Blacknail sat down beside him.

Saeter didn’t move for several minutes and nothing happened. The frogs continued to croak unmolested and the occasional bird swooped down to grab an insect.

They waited for several more minutes. Saeter barely moved beyond the rising and falling of his chest as he breathed. He silently watched the clearing from his concealed spot. The wind blew through the long grass causing it to wave and rustle.

Then they waited for what seemed like an hour. Blacknail began to lose patience. His instincts wanted to find a scent trail and follow it back to a burrow. He didn’t want to sit around all day and wait for nothing to happen! What kind of hunting was this?

Then he saw movement in the grass. After a moment the brown head of a rabbit peaked through the grass as it stood up on its hind legs. Surely they hadn’t come here for a rabbit, had they?

Blacknail threw a look Saeter’s way but his master hadn’t reacted. The rabbit soon disappeared back into the grass. Blacknail sighed with disappointment and shifted into a more comfortable position. He then grew dozy as the afternoon sun warmed his skin.

After several more minutes of staring at the grass sway in the wind Blacknail soon wondered if there was a way to get back asleep without his master catching on. He wasn’t doing anything but sitting there anyway, and it was very boring.

Then the bushes across the clearing shook. Instantly, they became the focus of Blacknail’s undivided attention. Was it just the wind? The bushes moved again and a tall animal moved out slowly into the clearing.

It was shaped like a horse but smaller and much thinner with white spots on its brown fur. It trotted over to the pond and after a brief look around it began to drink. Blacknail half expected one of the massive turtles he had seen earlier to burst from the water and drag the beast under, but that didn’t happen.

Suddenly in one fluid motion Saeter rose to his feet, nocked an arrow to his bow, pulled the bow back, and let the arrow loose. It flashed towards the animal and struck it in the side of its chest under its neck.

The beast cried out in surprise and pain and turned to flee, but it lost its footing in the wet mud around the pond and stumbled. Blood dribbled from its wound as it staggered away. It only managed to go several dozen feet before it collapsed limply onto the grass. It twitched feebly a few times and lay still.

After another quick look around the clearing Saeter ran over to the deer and pulled out a knife, which he used to slash the deer’s throat. Dark red blood pooled onto the ground beneath the deer and the light faded from its frightened eyes, leaving only emptiness.

The blood smelled delicious to Blacknail. The goblin licked his lips as he looked down at the beast.

Saeter got up and walked to the edge of the forest. Once there he selected four long sturdy sticks and tied them together with rope to create a crude sled. He lifted the deer up and tied it to the sled.

Next he took out his long knife and cut a hole through the deer’s muzzle right behind the nose. He then took one of the short sticks he had collected, shoved it through the hole and tied the rope to it.

“Time to head back,” he told Blacknail as he loaded the rope over his shoulder and began to drag the sled and deer back towards the camp.

Around halfway back they heard a rustling in some bushes a few dozen feet from them. Saeter dropped his bow and readied an arrow. With his eyes locked on the source of the sound he handed the sled’s rope to Blacknail.

“Pull it, go,” he commanded the goblin.

Blacknail eyed the sled doubtfully. His master did realize how large the beast was right? Blacknail was only a normal sized goblin, not a giant human. Saeter threw Blacknail an impatient look and the goblin hurriedly began to pull.

With a grunt of effort Blacknail copied his master and tugged the rope. At first he couldn’t manage it and the sled refused to move, then he felt something give way in his chest. A cool energy rushed through his body and the sled started to slide forward.

It was tiring but he managed to drag the sled. Luckily for him goblins were stronger than their small size made them appear. Every time he thought he had reached his limit he felt another rush and managed to keep going.

After awhile when he didn’t hear any more noises Saeter relaxed. Much to Blacknail’s disappointment Saeter didn’t ask for the sled’s rope back. His master seemed content to let the goblin continue to drag the sled. Blacknail wanted to ask Saeter to take the rope back but didn’t dare.

So instead he threw his master a pitiful begging expression. Saeter ignored him and Blacknail had to keep pulling. Alright then how about this? Blacknail began to shake and slow down as he pretended to be more tired than he was

Something hard impacted his behind and Blacknail surged forward again with a small yelp. Saeter had kicked him in the butt! Ow, that had hurt.

Blacknail reluctantly kept pulling but now he was annoyed. It was unfair of the large human to make him do all the work, not to mention he had been used as spider bait earlier!

“Ugly Saeter. Stupid Saeter. Smelly Saeter,” Blacknail muttered under his breath quietly enough that he knew his master couldn’t possibly hear it.

“You’re kind of strong for something your size,” Saeter remarked a few minutes later.

The unexpected compliment caught the goblin off guard and he felt a flush of pride at his master’s words. This newfound pride warred with the annoyance within him and won.

He had started to slow again but with a surge of energy he put a little more effort into pulling and sped back up. He would show his master how strong a goblin he really was!

As they walked through the forest it grew darker as the sun began to set. Blacknail had grown very tired and his legs burned painfully. He huffed and puffed as he strained to drag the sled. His face started to turn purple from the effort. He really hoped master would give him a treat for this.

Thankfully, they saw no spiders or other creatures, except a startled rabbit and the occasional bird, before they arrived back at the camp.

As they got close to base Saeter finally stopped and took the sled back. Blacknail suspected he was trying to hog all the credit for the work. That seemed unfair but the goblin didn’t really care; he was just excited to be so close to safety.

In his eagerness, Blacknail ran up ahead of his master. A big grin was plastered across his face as the camp came into sight beyond the last stretch of trees.

The joy was lost however when something hard and heavy smashed into his skull and sent him sprawling limply across the ground and into the dirt. As he blinked in hazy confusion and lay on the ground with a painful headache a large shadow fell over him.

The Road North 1.5

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“Up Blacknail, come on,” Saeter called to the goblin as he made his way back to his tent.

Blacknail climbed to his feet with a sigh and followed his master. He had wanted to enjoy lying on the soft grass under the sun some more.

As they crossed the bandit camp Blacknail felt his earlier fear and joy start to fade as he calmed down. The sky above was clear and blue so there was no place for those dreadful harpies or the worse things that filled his imagination to perch.

However, he soon noticed that the camp had changed since he left. While the camp had been almost empty when he had left earlier it now contained over two dozen loitering bandits.

Several of them looked over as Saeter and Blacknail approached. Some of them immediately lost interest and looked away but others threw Blacknail disbelieving or even out right hostile looks.

This made Blacknail feel uncomfortable. He remembered the things some of the meaner men had said about how they had wanted to kill him. Did a lot of these humans feel the same way?

He was almost sure that his master would protect him until he figured out how to get home, but just to be sure he would have to try extra hard to be a good helper. He just hoped he could work in the camp instead of out in the woods. He would rather deal with the glares and rope weaving than the ravening beasts.

“Is that a goblin?” Blacknail heard one disbelieving voice say.

“I think it is. Look at it. It must be some sort of pet,” another human replied.

Other voices murmured and debated amongst themselves, but Saeter completely ignored the voices and walked over to his tent.

Off to the side of his fire pit there was a simple three or four foot high rack made of sticks that was tied together with twine. After Saeter had put down his bag he pulled out a knife and slit the rabbits’ throats. He then looped a piece of cord around their feet so he could hang them up on the rack.

Blood dripped from the rabbits’ open wounds onto the trampled grass below. It smelled so delicious to Blacknail that he licked his lips. However, he knew better than to eat something without his master’s permission, especially while he was still looking.

He couldn’t prevent his stomach from growling though. It had been awhile since he had last been fed. His last full meal had been early that morning when he had still been caged on the wagon. That seemed like so long ago to Blacknail, much longer than a day. Saeter noticed the rumbling sounds and turned to the goblin.

“I suppose you’ve earned a bite to eat,” he said as he rummaged through his bag.

He pulled out a small piece of dried meat and tossed it to Blacknail. He also fetched a small wooden bowl and filled it with water from his water pouch.

The goblin hurriedly ate the meat. It tasted salty but very good, much better than what he had been fed on the wagon, but not as nice as a freshly caught rat. He washed it down with water from the bowl.

After he had finished eating Blacknail turned to his master and assumed a sad begging expression. He wanted more food, like one of the juicy rabbits. Surely, his master didn’t need all of them!

“No begging. If you’re still hungry you’re gonna need to find your own food. There’s plenty of wild carrot and other stuff around,” Saeter told him with a scowl.

Saeter then looked around and pointed out a tall white flower. Blacknail sighed and reluctantly trudged over to the plants. He sniffed them carefully and looked them over. How was he supposed to eat these?

Before he could figure out what to do he was interrupted by unexpected voices. The goblin looked up to see a human female with short black hair approach his master.

“Saeter, what in all the hells are you up to now?” someone said with a feminine but hard commanding voice.

This new woman was athletic looking without being muscled like a man or Vorscha. Various dangerous looking blades were strapped to her dark leather armor. The armor itself seemed to be more complete and better maintained than that of most the other humans around.

Yet, it was her glacial blue eyes that stood out the most. They were as hard and cold as ice and seemed to pierce through whoever she was looking at.

Blacknail involuntarily ducked into the grass as her eyes passed him over but Seater just casually looked up from what he was doing and met her stare.

“Ah, what can I do for you, Herad?” the old scout replied nonchalantly as the woman narrowed her eyes slightly in annoyance at his response.

“Vorscha told me you had found yourself a goblin pet. I don’t want vermin like that wandering the camp,” she told him as she threw Blacknail a hostile look.

“Really? I think he’ll be very useful,” Saeter replied.

“I don’t care what you think. Get rid of it or I will,” Herad told him coldly.

Blacknail froze and felt goose bumps rise on his skin. The woman seemed to be the chief of this tribe and she didn’t appear to like him much! He didn’t think any simple tricks would win her over either.

However, Seater seemed to be calmly thinking something over.

“If that’s what you want then that’s what I’ll do, but I was just thinking about how useful he would be in helping me hunt. Not to mention if we have a tame goblin around it will drive the wild ones away; they’re quite territorial,” Saeter told her.

It was subtle but Blacknail thought he saw Herad’s eyes narrow. She scowled and glanced at Saeter suspiciously.

“How exactly will that thing be of any use?” she asked him.

Blacknail could see that she had begun to think things over though. He felt a speck of hope that he would survive this.

“Many ways, it can track like a hound but it’s stealthier and smarter. With him I’ll be able sniff out the trails of both animals and men. Also, like I said before his scent will scare away all the wild goblins and end our theft problems,” Saeter explained.

Herad thought about it for a few seconds before answering.

“Fine, since you seem to believe it will be useful you can keep it, but it had better not cause any trouble or inconvenience me,” Herad told him.

“Don’t worry, he’s well trained and I’m planning on keeping him too busy to get into any trouble,” Saeter replied.

“See that you do, old man,” she responded as she threw another look towards Blacknail.

The goblin instantly crouched down again and tried to disappear into the grass as she looked his way. He knew she could still see him and that all he was doing was making himself look silly, but he couldn’t help himself. That woman’s eyes were really scary. She looked like she would kill him as soon as look at him.

Blacknail was very glad that the chieftain Herad had decided not to kill him and allowed him to join her tribe. He just really wished he hadn’t been volunteered into hunting in the forest. That sounded dangerous!

When he had lived in the sewer he had never had to deal with things like this. He needed to find a way back there soon.

Much to the goblin’s relief Herad soon turned back to Saeter. She scowled at the rabbits hanging on the rack beside him in disapproval. This upset Backnail. He had almost died getting those rabbits!

“I do hope you’re planning on bringing more than a few scrawny rabbits to tonight’s celebration, Saeter. We need to celebrate today’s victory. It’s not every day that a fat caravan of goods falls into our laps. Those pathetic excuses for rabbits in front of you will hardly make up for skipping out on helping reload the wagons,” Herad told him coldly.

“I plan on going back out in a minute,” Saeter replied simply without any apparent concern.

“Good, but don’t stay out too late. The band will be heading out early tomorrow morning after the men have had a chance to rest and patch their wounds. I want you out scouting a path first thing tomorrow. We will be heading north to escape any unwanted attention we have brought down on ourselves, just in case one of what passes for the local lords around here decides to actually care…. for once. We’ll use the roads for the first few days but head off track when it turns eastward. I don’t want to run into any surprises,” Herad explained.

“A good plan,” Saeter replied with a nod. For some reason his response annoyed Herad.

“I wasn’t asking your opinion Saeter. Just do your job with your usual competence and we won’t have a problem,” she reprimanded him.

She then threw Blacknail a disgusted look before turning around and walking off. Saeter turned to the cowering goblin when she was gone.

“She has that effect on a lot of people,” he remarked.

Sighing, he got up and stretched out before picking up his pack and bow again. Then he turned back to Blacknail.

“Well, it seems like I’m going to have to get you trained quickly now,” Saeter told him. “So, there’s no point in waiting around. Come here.”

Blacknail shoved a still dirty wild carrot he had managed to dig up into his mouth and headed back over to his master. He was glad the scary lady had left.

Saeter got up and started walking across the camp towards to another group of bandits, and Blacknail followed him. As the goblin moved he glanced past his master at the humans they were heading towards.

They were a group of five who were talking and sitting in the shade cast by a tall pile of crates. Blacknail recognized two of them, the muscular woman Vorscha and the thin weak looking man named Geralhd.

“Geralhd, I have a job for you!” Saeter yelled out as he approached. With an annoyed grimace Geralhd turned to look at Saeter.

“Since I don’t actually work for you Saeter, I think I will have to pass on whatever it is you’re talking about,” the thin man replied.

Saeter ignored his response and kept talking.

“I got some rabbits I don’t have time to skin and cut up since Herad wants me out hunting. Seems like a job for you, unless you don’t know how?” Saeter explained with a hint of taunting in his voice as he spoke the last part.

“I know how to skin a rabbit Saeter, and no I’m not going to try and prove it to you. It’s going to take quite a bit more than a simple taunt from you to get me to do your work for you,” Geralhd replied with an annoyed tone.

The other three bandits that were sitting in the shade shuffled away and began to talk amongst themselves.

“I’m thinking my idea of skinning a rabbit right is different than yours. Besides didn’t you say you wanted to learn how to survive out here? Well here’s an opportunity to learn, boy. I’m sure Vorscha can help you figure out the hard parts,” Saeter told him.

As he talked Geralhd seemed to grow angrier, until it looked like he was either going to start yelling at the other man or punch him. However, before he could do anything Vorscha extended a hand and cut him off. She gave both the men disapproving looks and shook her head.

“Calm down both of you. That’s no way to ask a favour Saeter, and you know it. We’ll help you out old man but only if you ask nicely,” Vorscha interjected as Saeter gave her an annoyed glare and Garalhd to smiled in triumph.

“Fine, please help with the work…” Saeter asked grumpily. “…for once.”

Geralhd gave Saeter a smug smile. Blacknail was sure Geralhd hadn’t heard his master grumble the last part, which didn’t surprise the goblin since the man had tiny pink human ears.

“I graciously accept your request for help, Saeter. Think nothing of it,” Geralhd replied smugly.

“Oh, I do. Don’t worry,” Saeter grumbled in reply.

There was no way the other man hadn’t heard that; however, he apparently chose to ignore it since his only reaction was to keep smiling smugly at Saeter.

“Good, then that’s settled. Honestly, I don’t know how two men can act so childish sometimes. To think you’re both supposed to be bloodthirsty northern bandits,” Vorscha said with a chuckle.

Blacknail also found himself smiling at the funny faces both men were making.

Geralhd noticed Blacknail smiling at him and turned towards the goblin. He returned the goblin’s grin and gave a friendly wave. Blacknail thought he was an idiot and planned on avoiding him as much as possible in the future.

“Hey there Blacknail, it’s nice to see you again little fellow. I hope Saeter’s not treating you too badly,” he cheerfully told the goblin.

The goblin gave Geralhd a suspicious glance. No one had ever talked to Blacknail like that before, ever. What was with the super friendly voice? It was weird and unnerving.

“Master good. He feed me and he scare bad harpies away,” Blacknail replied. He knew which human he needed to stay on the good side of and it wasn’t the skinny weak one. He looked out of the corner of his eye and saw Saeter smile approvingly at him.

“Harpies eh? That sounds like a tale,” Vorscha commented after the goblin finished speaking. Saeter turned to her.

“We ran into two of them on our way back from the snares. They thought they could steal some of our rabbits. One of them dove at Blacknail but I scared them off,” Saeter replied with a shrug.

Blacknail remembered it slightly different than that. There were a lot more screams, cowering, and near death experiences in his version. Surprisingly, Gerald’s eyes widened in excitement as Saeter spoke.

“Oh harpies! I’ve always wanted to see a harpy. I’ve heard they’re quite exotic and beautiful creatures. I wish I could have been there,” Geralhd said with a regretful sigh.

Saeter looked at Geralhd like he was an idiot. Well, more of an idiot than usual any way. Blacknail agreed wholeheartedly. He copied his master’s facial expression exactly.

Anyone who wanted to run into harpies deserved their fate. He still remembered their terrible claws and horrible voices. Vorscha saw him mimic his master and chuckled at them.

“Next time I think I’m going to run into harpies I’ll be sure to bring you,” Saeter told Geralhd sarcastically.

Blacknail thought that was a great idea. The fool would make a great human shield, the goblin thought with a smile.

“Harpies are dangerous, Geralhd. They’re likely to attack you if they think they can get away with it. You don’t want to run into them without someone at your back. I’m surprised Saeter and his goblin got away as easily as they did,” Vorscha explained.

“I know what I’m doing,” Saeter said with a shrug. Vorscha gave him a sceptical look.

“I don’t doubt you know the forest better than anyone but there’s a good reason most scouts travel in pairs and not alone, Saeter. It’s important to have someone at your back, and before you say anything that goblin of yours doesn’t count,” the tall woman told him with a hint of concern.

“I don’t have time to retrain one of the other scouts to get rid of their bad habits, and if I don’t they’re more likely to draw a Drake down on me than be any real help,” Saeter huffed as Vorscha eyed him critically.

“You could always take Geralhd with you,” Vorscha joked.

Both Saeter and Geralhd blanched at that idea.

“I’ll have to humbly decline that suggestion,” Geralhd interjected hurriedly. “When I said I wanted to learn to survive I didn’t mean to suggest I wanted to become a scout and go out into the forest. I like it fine here in camp, thank you.”

Blacknail thought that was the first smart thing Geralhd had ever said. Blacknail frowned and wished he had that option. Geralhd saw the goblin’s frown and misinterpreted it.

“You’re such a good goblin sitting there so patiently. You must be getting bored. I think you deserve a treat for putting up with your master,” Geralhd said as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a bit of dried meat and threw it to Blacknail.

The goblin quickly snatched it from the air and scoffed it down. His opinion of Geralhd changed completely. He was no longer just an idiot. He was an idiotic food source.

“Blacknail thanks Geralhd,” Blacknail said as he chewed and smacked. Vorscha gave him a disgusted look, but Blacknail ignored her as he was deep in thought. Geralhd seemed pleased at the goblin’s response.

The man Geralhd had revealed himself to not only have tasty treats but also to be willing to give them to Blacknail. If he sucked up to Geralhd he should be able to get even more treats, and the weak man seemed to be the type of human that could be easily impressed. The trick would be not angering Saeter while doing it.

“Don’t spoil him, Geralhd. He needs to learn to fend for himself,” Saeter told the other man with a scowl.

Geralhd just rolled his eyes.

“How about you train him not to eat and speak at the same time, or at least chew quieter?” Vorscha interjected dryly.

“Maybe when I have time,” Saeter replied in the same dry tone.

“Speaking of time, don’t let us keep you from your hunting, Saeter. Since you’re so busy and all,” Geralhd said with a wave of his hands in the direction of the forest.

“Indeed,” Saeter replied with a farewell nod to Vorscha.

He then abruptly started walking off with Blacknail in tow. Geralhd gave Blacknail a wave goodbye and the goblin happily waved back. He was already planning how to get another treat out of the thin man.

Without stopping Saeter headed straight out into the forest again. Blacknail followed him reluctantly. They left the rest of the bandit camp behind them as they exited the sunny clearing and stepped out under the shadowy forest canopy again.

Blacknail sighed in resignation. He really didn’t want to go back out there, he wanted to go home! He hoped they didn’t see any more harpies…

The Road North 1.4

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After a few minutes of walking through the woods Saeter turned to Blacknail and gave him an appraising look. The goblin was nervously scanning the woods around him for threats. He couldn’t see any, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there…

“Well it’s obvious you’re no forest creature; you’re shaking like a leaf. I’ll have to start your training out slow then. Just follow me and be quiet unless you want a smack. You’ll get used to being out in the deep green, you’re a goblin after all,” Saeter explained to Blacknail.

“I follow master quiet like,” whispered the goblin in response. He could do that; he snuck around places all the time. Saeter grunted in affirmation before moving out. His long strides carried him quickly over the ground as he headed deeper into the emerald forest.

Blacknail hurried after him. He made his best effort to keep up and make as little noise as possible. He stepped gently, avoided twigs and leaves, crept over logs, and kept low to the ground. Just as he was about to congratulate himself on being so quiet he realized he had a problem.

His legs were too small and short! His master with his long strides was quickly leaving him behind. While Saeter could walk casually Blacknail had to jog. Where Saeter stepped over logs and mud he had to jump. He couldn’t do that and be sneaky at the same time! There was no way he was going to be left behind though so he pushed his pace.

Blacknail managed to keep up, but as they moved deeper into the woods a cloud of insects begun to gather. Soon a black buzzing swarm had formed around them. Well mostly around Blacknail. His master was protected by his thick long clothes. Meanwhile Blacknail’s loincloth did pretty much nothing. The flies and mosquitoes seemed to prefer the goblin for some reason as well. Probably because Saeter was kind of old and skinny so he probably didn’t taste very good.

Blacknail tried to swat the flying pests but there were far too many of them. As a goblin he had thick skin but the bites were still painful and annoying. His frantic motions failed to deter the swarm but they slowed him down and caused him to start to fall behind again. He had never seen, or felt, so many mosquitoes. He hissed angrily at the swarm but it apparently wasn’t very impressed because it just continued biting him.

“My blood, go away!” Blacknail barked angrily at them. Luckily he knew a way to protect himself. Looking around he spotted a muddy puddle.

The goblin then gleefully jumped in and started to roll around. The wet sludge was so cool and soothing as it enveloped his skin that he squealed in happiness. The stupid bugs wouldn’t be able to bite him through all the mud! After coating himself fully he got to his feet… and found his master staring down at him.

“By all the hells, what are you doing?” Saeter asked him sounding dumbfounded. A look of surprise and disgust was plastered on his face. Blacknail was pretty sure he was in trouble. He gave his master a begging look and his best puppy eyes.

“There were biting bugs…” he told his master in his most pitiful sounding voice. Saeter gave him a light smack on his head and pulled him out of the mud by his ear.

Blacknail had to lean into his master and hop rapidly to lessen the pain in his ear as Saeter pulled him. When he had been dragged well out of the mud Saeter looked him over angrily, but then sighed in resignation and let him go a second later.

The goblin winced at the pain in his ear and began to rub it carefully. It hadn’t really hurt him that much though and he expected further punishment. However his master didn’t seem that angry with him anymore. Instead of hitting him again Saeter reached into a pouch at his side and withdrew some plant leaves.

“This is Flybane,” he told Blacknail as he handed several leaves to the goblin. Blacknail sniffed them and sneezed as their strong bitter smell invaded his nostrils.

Luckily he managed to turn away before he had covered his master in green goblin snot, and it shot out onto the ground instead. He had once seen a goblin be beaten to death for doing that to a master. He wasn’t going to make that mistake!

“The smell chases bugs away. Get some of that mud off and then rub this on yourself instead.” Seter continued to explain.

Immediately Blacknail dropped to the ground and begun rolling on a patch of grass to remove the mud. As Saeter watched him the edges of his mouth twitched again. Why did his new master keep doing that?

When the goblin had removed most of the mud he sat up and begun to wipe the leaves against his skin. Soon he begun to smell like the plant and the swarm of bugs around him thinned out. The scent almost made him sneeze again but he stifled it and gave Saeter a big toothy smile.

“Thank you master,” he said gratefully in his high voice. Saeter shook his head in vexation as he regarded the grinning but still very dirty goblin.

“I’d throw you in a bath but I expect you’d just get dirty again right after,” he told the goblin as he started to walk away. Blacknail didn’t know what a bath was but he hoped it was a treat for being so smart. Maybe he could earn one later.

As they trudged on the unfamiliar environment continued to make Blacknail anxious that something would sneak up or drop down on him from an overhead branch. He could just picture some monstrosity like a giant cat sitting up there hidden among the leaves ready to pounce. He didn’t think such a thing would be repelled by Flybane no matter how bad he smelled.

Peering up above he almost ran into Saeter before he realized his master had stopped moving. Saeter had crouched low to the ground and was examining something.

“Come here Blacknail and look,” Saeter called quietly. The goblin scampered over a fallen log and moved up beside his master to see what he was looking at. Several animal tracks decorated the patch of bare ground in front of them. They looked somewhat familiar to Blacknail, and smelled familiar as well.

“Wolves, avoid them they’re dangerous. These tracks are old though,” Saeter told Blacknail.

“Smells like doggies, master,” Blacknail replied.

“Yes, good goblin. Almost the same. Good nose,” Saeter told him with a pleased tone. He smiled at Blacknail before getting back up and continuing on. Blacknail felt a flash happiness at the praise. He had been called good again! He followed Saeter and felt a little less afraid of the forest.

If dog like things lived here than it couldn’t be so different from the sewers and alleys. Blacknail could deal with doggies. They couldn’t climb or squeeze into tight places like goblins could. His tribe had many good times luring doggies next to high places and then throwing stuff at them. Vicious biting doggies didn’t like bricks to their faces much.

They walked on for awhile when suddenly a whiff of scent drew Blacknail’s attention. It was a very familiar smell, the scent of a goblin. He took a deeper breath and realized it was a young male, a strange young male.

Blacknail felt the urge to track it down and show it who was dominant. This was his territory now! Then just like that the scent vanished. Saeter must have noticed something because he turned and regarded the goblin.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Smell goblin. Young,” Blacknail responded with a growl.

“Just one youngling? Then it’s nothing to worry about. Come on,” Saeter said as he started walking again. Blacknail waited a second and took another deep breath but he could smell only leaves, dirt, and his master. With a touch of regret he took off after Seater.

After awhile Saetar stopped moving and moved over into the bushes. There he reached over and pulled a dead rabbit from where it was hanging from a sapling by something wrapped around its neck.

Blacknail eyed the small tree suspiciously. He didn’t know the forest very well but he was pretty sure rabbits didn’t grow on trees.

“After you learn rope making I will teach you how to set and check these snares. It’s a lot easier to catch rabbits this way than by hand like feral goblins do,” Saeter explained as he hung the rabbit over his shoulder. Oh, it was a trap set by Saeter. He felt a little dumb.

Saeter then disassembled the trap and packed it into his bag. After he finished he turned and headed off in a new direction. After a brief walk he stopped to check another trap, but it was empty. He dissembled it as well before moving on to the next. This one did have a rabbit caught in it. Saeter handed it to Blacknail to carry.

“No eating,” he warned the goblin. Blacknail felt disappointment. For a second he had thought his master was giving him a treat. Maybe if he was very good he could taste the rabbit later, or maybe he could take some when Saeter was done with it.

All in all they checked over a dozen traps, and got seven rabbits, before heading back to camp. Blacknail ended up carrying four. Being given so many meant that his master thought he was strong! He hoped he could earn a treat this way, he was getting kind of hungry.

As they were on their way Saeter suddenly froze and drew his bow. Blacknail froze as well and scanned the woods for what his master had sensed. He had a sinking feeling that it would be dangerous. Pretty much everything was to a goblin.

The trees around them were a little thicker and let less light through than in the area they had just left. There were also fewer bushes and instead of grass short leafy plants grew.

Blacknail nervously looked up into the dense overhead tree branches, since there was little cover on the ground to hide anything approaching. Suddenly a flash of movement drew his attention up to a spot in the canopy.

His eyes widened in fright as he saw the creature. Perched on a branch up ahead of them was a… something. Blacknail had never seen anything like it.

It was hard to tell at this distance but it seemed to be slightly larger than a goblin but smaller than a human. It was however more than big enough to be dangerous to both goblins and humans though as it had knife sized talons jutting from the ends of its feet.

Large brown and tan feathers covered its body and the long wings that jutted from its shoulders. Unlike a bird though another set of dangerous looking claws grew from the tips of its wings. Its head was crowned by a black feathery crest that stretched down its back and almost looked like a woman’s long hair.

The creatures chilling visage was completed by intense intelligent eyes that stared down at them from a disturbingly human-like face instead of a bird-like beak. It noticed Blacknail’s attention and smiled down at him to reveal a mouth stuffed full of long sharp teeth obviously designed for tearing through flesh.

Blacknail shivered violently as fear momentarily overcame him. Startled he instinctively looked around for a nice big bush or deep hole to hide in nearby. Much to his dismay the area around him was mostly full of tree trunks, roots, and tiny plants that only came up to his knees. There was no nearby shelter, so the goblin glanced back at the grinning creature.

The thing had obviously seen them and knew that they could see it. That was way more intelligence than the goblin was comfortable seeing in something that clearly wanted to eat him.

Their eyes met and the creature locked gazes with him. It tilted its head to the side with an almost delicate motion and begun to make soft cooing noises, as if it was inviting him closer. Blacknail felt a horrible urge to run screaming, whether he wanted to run towards or away from the thing he didn’t know. Before his fear overwhelmed him completely though Saeter interrupted and drew his attention.

“Come Blacknail. Come close to me,” Saeter commanded steadily and calmly as he took a step forward and interposed himself between the goblin and the creature.

Blacknail thought that was a great idea! With a flash of panic the goblin ducked down and scrambled up to his master’s feet, barely remembering to pull the rabbits he had been carrying behind him. They were dragged through the leaf litter as he moved.

Once he reached safety behind his master the goblin’s heartbeat begun to settle down a bit. True the terrible winged creature was terrifying but his master’s calm voice reassured him somewhat. After all Saeter was a giant and mighty warrior even among humans!

Blacknail peeked out from behind his master’s rough dark brown cloak. The winged thing’s eyes narrowed in annoyance as it regarded the now sheltered goblin. Blacknail stuck his tongue out at it and made a face. Ha, it was obviously too weak and afraid to come anywhere near Saeter!

Suddenly the thing tilted its head up and whistled sharply. The sound echoed around them as it bounced through the forest. Saeter went still.

“Look around Blacknail. Do you see any more?” Saeter suddenly asked.

The goblin’s heart beat sped up again. There was more than one of these freaks? He turned and furtively scanned the branches behind them for signs of another beast. He couldn’t see any more of the creatures anywhere though.

“You see any more? See any more?” cried the creature in shrill mocking version of Saeter’s voice. Blacknail shuddered again at the creepy mimicry. Could the thing actually talk?

“Nothing master,” he whispered to Saeter. Fear made his voice unsteady. Saeter nodded calmly in response.

“Off you go harpy. You’ll get no meat here, only arrows,” Saeter yelled in a roar like tone that echoed through the forest.

The creature tilted his head to the side as if in contemplation and regarded him for a few moments. Then it hissed angrily as it puffed itself up by fluffing its feathers and spreading its wings wide. It looked much bigger than a goblin now.

Saeter responded to the challenge quickly. He drew his bow back and let loose an arrow. The creature however was ready for it and hopped sideways along the branch to dodge the arrow and landed on all four limbs. The harpy was too far away for a good shot. The arrow flew off into the woods after it missed its target.

Suddenly a fluttering noise and the cracking of twigs was heard behind them and Blacknail twisted around just in time to see another harpy land on a branch on the opposite side of them. Saeter swore colourfully. The goblin gulped in fear and his stomach twisted. He definitely wasn’t feeling safe now.

“Only Arrows. Only Arrows,” the first harpy laughed in apparent amusement as it watched them with new anger in its eyes. It seemed quite happy to have reinforcements.

“Another harpy,” Blacknail whispered to his master. Saeter just grunted in response. He had already cast a quick glance over his shoulder and seen it.

The second harpy’s long claws dug into the branch it had landed on and shredded the bark. It eyed them then hissed hatefully at them as its feathers puffed up.

Both harpies begun to move with coordinated predatory grace. The first hopped along its branch then with a quick flap of its wings it flew to another tree.

The second dove down to a lower branch on a tree in the opposite direction. Its flight brought it slightly closer to Saeter and Blacknail. Like this they begun to circle the goblin and his master by hopping and gliding from branch to branch. Both of the harpies’ eyes never left Saeter’s bow.

Blacknail knew what they were doing and he really didn’t like it. No matter how he turned his head or shifted his body he couldn’t keep an eye on both harpies at the same time. One of them was always lurking out of sight behind him. He shook uncontrollably; not knowing what the beast behind him was doing caused him to fill with a suffocating cold dread. The harpies slowly circled closer.

“Fuck this,” Saeter suddenly exclaimed loudly in anger. He spun around and shot an arrow towards the harpy behind him just as it rose into the air to move again.

The harpy twisted in the air but shrieked in pain as the arrow grazed it anyway. Wounded it careened off into the woods.

The first harpy instantly took flight and dove down at Blacknail, who was now cowering at his master’s feet. Saeter however was ready for it and spun around again even as he drew another arrow.

Seeing this the harpy quickly aborted its attack, shifted its flight, and swiftly glided down behind a tree out of sight

From its cover behind the tree the harpy let loose another shrill bird like cry that echoed through the woods. The wounded harpy quickly joined in from wherever it was hiding off in the bush.

Both Blacknail and his master winced at the loud grating sound. The goblin’s large ears began to twitch as the sound wore on them.

“Damn,” Saeter swore as he nocked another arrow and got ready to shoot again.

Suddenly an answering harpy call echoed from off to the side. It sounded fairly far away but it was hard to tell through the thick bush.

Upon hearing the reply the first harpy peeked out from behind the tree and gave them a hateful look. It looked like it was preparing to attack them again. Saeter grimaced and began to line up another shot with his bow.

With an angry sounding cry the winged beast suddenly hopped onto the tree trunk, using both sets of claws to climb, and scrambled up the tree and out of sight.

Blacknail gazed up into the dark green foliage above them but couldn’t see anything. Saeter sighed in frustrated relief and let his bow go loose.

“If it was going to attack again it would have called more of its ilk. It was just looking to snatch a rabbit or two from us when its friend showed up and they decided to mess with our heads. Bloody harpies,” Saeter explained half to himself and half to Blacknail.

Blacknail just stared at his master. He was still more than a little stunned but he was glad his master had prevented the harpies from ‘messing with his head’. That sounded bad. He needed his head. Saeter met Blacknail’s trembling gaze.

“Harpies rarely attack men or even goblins but sometimes they will if a flock gets hungry enough. They can be dangerous though. The clever ones use their voices to lure prey into traps or falls. Don’t believe everything you hear out in the forest” Saeter explained to a still shaking Blacknail. He then gave the goblin an appraising look.

“Calm down Blacknail. Fear will only get you killed out here,” Saeter told the goblin. Blacknail blinked in confusion and concern. His master obviously wasn’t very good at calming people down.

Saeter then shrugged and resumed walking while keeping an eye on the trees above them. Blacknail shadowed him very closely.

The green maze of the forest around him suddenly seemed far more sinister after their encounter with the harpies. Even the joyful birdsong sounded hollow and sinister to the goblin. Maybe what he thought was birdsong was actually harpies calling to each other as they gathered. Blacknail could imagine their vicious toothy smiles as they took dark joy in fooling his master and him with such a simple trick.

“We need to get going before something actually dangerous decides to investigate all the noise,” Saeter remarked casually to Blacknail as they moved.

Blacknail’s eyes widened in alarm at his master’s comment; there were things more dangerous than harpies and wolf dogs? Blacknail didn’t even want to think about it. Why did the humans live out here if the forest was stuffed full of murder beasts? More importantly why did he have to serve humans who lived in a forest stuffed full of murder beasts? Blacknail really wanted to go home.

As they made the journey back to camp through the forest Blacknail’s imagination begun to run wild and fill his head with an endless stream of images of menacing creatures. Every shadow cast by a bush or tree they passed contained a worse monster than the last.

What was worse than giant clawed birds and dogs? Was he right about the giant tree cats? No that was stupid; cats wouldn’t be more dangerous than dogs.

“Doggies chase cats who eat birdies,” mumbled Blacknail as he gave a nervous giggle.

Saeter turned around for a second and gave him an odd look before raising his finger to his mouth and hushing him. Blacknail shut up. He wasn’t sure what the finger gesture meant but it seemed like a painful threat.

They soon arrived in an area that Blacknail remembered passing through before on their way out. That meant they were close to the camp, and Blacknail had come to the conclusion that he was far less likely to die in the camp than in the forest.

A few minute later Blacknail followed Saeter as they passed through the bushes at the forest’s edge and stepped out into the clearing which they had started from.

With a squeal of joy Blacknail dashed out into the camp and ecstatically ran a few circles around an amused looking Saeter before collapsing happily onto the grass.

Safety at last! He had never been so happy to see so many hostile looking heavily armed human giants! He almost felt like hugging some of them but he was sure they wouldn’t like it, and might even kill him for it.

With a content sigh the goblin relaxed among the tall trampled grass and let the warm sun shine down on him. He was happy to be back.