Making camp

Wet wolf, thought Rudickar as he waited for his steward to return.  The smell I always remember is wet wolf.  He was sat in a small command tent wearing a heavy leather underjacket that protected his scrawny frame from the chainmail he'd just taken off and dropped in a heap on the floor.  His legs were similarly protected by leather breeches, and he knew that soon enough the smell of wet wolf would be surpassed by that of sweaty leather; another unpleasant reality of leading a small army.

The tent flap swished aside and his steward, Ekka, bustled in.  Before the flap fell back into place Rudickar saw the bustle of the camp outside; tents being erected and hobgoblins running hither and thither; on errands and just in general excitement.  A soft sigh escaped his lips, and Ekka looked up.

"My King?" he said, his voice just the right side of impertinent.  "Are you falling ill with the sighing sickness again?"

Rudickar looked around and spied an apple barrel set at the back of the tent.  He got up, moving as lithe and fast as a rat and reached into the barrel to grab an apple to throw at his steward.  Instead of an apple his hand closed on the head of a dead hobgoblin.  He hissed through gritted teeth and glared at Ekka.

"My King, that is Duke Litkin.  You ordered us to keep his body so that we could spike it outside Torvecken."

Rudickar nodded, and prodded the corpse.  His finger sank into it up to the first knuckle with a liquid ripping sound, and a vile stench wafted up from the barrel.  Duke Litkin had staged the third attempted coup against Rudickar and had been as unsuccessful as his two predecessors.  Tiring of having to kill leaders and their sub-commanders Rudickar had had him dragged out in front the of main body of the army and then had personally nailed Litkin's head to his feet.  The Hob had survived that, so Rudickar then ordered him to the van of the army where he'd shuffled along for half a day before falling over a ridge and bouncing two hundred feet down a cliff face.  Rudickar sent three hobgoblins to retrieve him, and when they brought him back with his feet still nailed to head, had pointed out the prowess of good hobgoblin craft.  The rank and file had cheered for several minutes, and the coups had stopped, at least for the rest of the march.

Now they were half a day outside Torvecken, once the oldest and greatest hobgoblin city and home to over twenty-thousand Hob.  Rudickar had expected to be challenged by now but the approach had remained clear; not even an ambush had been attempted.  He grew more nervous as they drew closer and there was still no sign of the occupying humans.  The city had fallen five hundred years ago, but surely the humans were still there, denying the hob a potent symbol of their civilisation.

"My King, I have ordered the wolf-masters to kennel their animals further from your tent.  They were unwilling until I reminded them of the fate of Duke Litkin."

"And doubtless I will now have to watch for a wolf-attack when we reach the gates of Torvecken," said Rudickar, his naturally deep voice almost a growl.  He scrunched his bearded face into a snarl, and Ekka stepped away from him.  "When will you learn tact, Ekka?"

"Human notions ill befit a King," replied Ekka returning the sneer.

"If you would defeat your enemy soundly, you must know your enemy roundly," said Rudickar.  "Think like a man to fight like a man."

"But you are not a man," said Ekka.  "You are Hob, and I grow less impressed every da--"

"There'll be room on the spikes of Torvecken for more than just Duke Litkin, Ekka.  I lead this army, and I have sworn that we will retake Torvecken and make it great again."

"Who were you trying to impress?" said Ekka and scurried out of the tent, realising that he'd overstepped a line.  Rudickar sat back down and sighed again.  He wasn't trying to impress anybody, he was doing what was necessary for the Hob.  Their cities were full to bursting; this battle would either win them space to expand further and access once more to the mines of Torvecken or would reduce the population pressure for a few years.  The mines were the key issue; with the minerals and metals available from the mines they could forge new hearthstones at last, and then they'd be able to build new cities instead of squeezing more and more hob into the existing ones.  They already lived as tightly packed as rats; they needed room to breath.

He stood up and drew the tent flap aside; Ekka had vanished from sight, though the steward would be bright enough to return with food when he thought Rudickar had calmed down.  He turned away again; he needed to rest.  Tomorrow they would arrive at the gates of Torvecken.

The End

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