The reverberating sound of the heavy doors slamming open drew everyone’s attention as Nambu strode into the long hall, a piece of parchment clasped in his hand. The other members of Guild #237 looked up from their places at the table, Heath among them.
“Good morning everyone,” Nambu said as he approached the table.
“You find us a job?” Mars called, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
Nambu nodded. “I know we’ve all been focused on this Magebreaker business, but we can’t afford to devote all our resources in that direction. We need other work. We’ve reached a standstill, and we have other responsibilities.” He raised a hand as a few moved to protest. “We aren’t abandoning our interest in Adrian or any of it, but we have to look to other interests. The Magebreaker will just have to be a lower priority, at least until we have anything more conclusive.”
Heath said nothing, but the others all nodded, some more reluctantly than others.
“So what’s the job?” Svrcina asked, inclining her head towards Nambu.
The tall bugbear chuckled. “It’s actually a pretty good one. You all remember Lord Draeli and our last job with him?” The others all nodded, but Nambu caught Heath’s blank expression.
“He’s an elven noble within the upper houses of Aleria,” he explained. “He hired us a while back to serve as bodyguards for him during a party while he was under threat of assassination.”
“Aye,” Orsic said dryly. “And made a right mess of it too, we did.”
“He survived,” Nambu cut in. “It got a little messy, but we did our job. Regardless, one of the guests at the party was a hobgoblin named Blahgrut Redmane. He is a close associate of Lord Draeli, and commands a legion of hobgoblin mercenaries. Evidently he was impressed with our handling of the situation, and with Draeli’s recommendation, has extended us the professional courtesy of contracting with his forces.”
Heath suppressed the desire to grimace at the mention of hobgoblins. Large, brutal, militaristic creatures of violence and immense discipline. He had crossed paths with a few before, but an entire legion was enough to make him more than uneasy.
Nambu continued addressing the group. “The warlord is preparing a massive offensive in the Grandual Plains to the east. There is an entrenched force of giants within the hills there, and considering their relative close proximity, they constitute a considerable threat to both Aleria itself and the smaller settlements across the Grandual Plains. They’ve become increasingly aggressive, and Redmane is preparing to quell the threat with all haste. His messenger brought an offer for the Guild to provide additional support to his legion during their offensive.”
“Does it say what sort of support?” Heath asked.
Nambu shook his head. “No, it says the details of both the offensive and of the contract are to be negotiated and discussed in person. But it says he is prepared to compensate well, and if he has worked with Draeli, we can assume that we will be well paid.”
Heath frowned, taking a deep breath. Many of the others looked similarly uncertain.
Nambu set the contract on the table and began slowly walking around the table. “I know this is unusual for an Alerian guild,” he said as he walked, “but contracting with other mercenary forces isn’t explicitly prohibited. For any of you who weren’t as involved during the War for Vengeance, Warlord Redmane and his Bound Legion earned much of their current standing and renown during the conflict as they fought against the southern kingdoms. They often were deployed in operations far more dangerous than they were equipped for, and still found massive success. Traditional troops found it… undesirable to fight alongside goblinoid mercenaries, so they were nearly entirely sent out alone and without support.”
Mars leaned forward and interjected. “Their numbers only grew during the war. Back before they gathered in force, Redmane’s followers were little more than a roving warband. Since then, they’ve become a highly sought-after legion, and now rival several private armies and even the militaries of some of the coastal realms.”
Nambu nodded. “Exactly. They have faced immense challenges, but have become a significant force within this region of the continent. Lord Draeli has kept Redmane close, and as the old man has been a servant of Aleria for decades or longer, I believe it is worth hearing his proposal. We always reserve the right to refuse a contract.”
The others at the table all exchanged looks before Svrcina spoke up.
“I’ll agree with that, at least once we know the details and speak with Blahgrut in person, then we can decide.”
“Agreed,” Mars said as a smile broke across his face. “Besides, who doesn’t want to go fight some giants?”
The others laughed, all nodding their heads in agreement.
Nambu grunted contentedly. “It’s settled then. Now to the business of who we’re sending. The contract requests a small force, particularly those skilled in the field and atypical warfare. I suggest we give Mars and Svrcina the leadership this time. We’ve been anticipating extending more opportunities to both of you, and this seems like as good a time as any.”
Mars’ smile widened as Svrcina looked to her brother apprehensively.
“Cassian,” she said hesitantly, “shouldn’t you be leading something like this?”
The handsome soldier shook his head. “No, I won’t be accompanying you this time. There is work here to be done.”
“I need his help here,” Nambu said. “There are things drawing my attention here in the city, and someone has to take care of things around here along with Orsic.”
Adrie leaned back in her chair. “What about Kriv, isn’t that the job of a senior member?”
“Eh?” The dragonborn shifted, blinking back his focus. Heath realized the blackscaled dragonborn had been silent the whole time.
“No, no,” he muttered distractedly. “I have some things I need to look into, strange occurrences in the city. I am unable to accompany you all, my apologies.”
Heath narrowed his eyes, watching the shifty creature stare off into space again. He caught Cassian also watching, the tall man distinctly concerned with Kriv’s demeanor.
Nambu spoke again, drawing everyone’s attention. “So Mars and Svrcina will be heading this group. I have also spoken with Grynlock, our new friend recovered from the cage of the Magebreaker. He is looking for a place within Aleria, and has offered to assist us in the short term as a token of his thanks. He has assured me he is capable, but don’t rely on him until you see his capabilities.”
“I’ll go as well,” Adrie said, flashing a white smile from across the table. “The Grandual Plains are wide open spaces, it’ll be good to have someone with a keen eye to watch the horizon.”
“Good,” Nambu said. “And keep an eye on our new friend, in case he decides he wishes to formally join our ranks.”
“And what about our other new friend?” Adrie asked with her keen smile, looking over to Heath.
Everyone’s heads turned in Heath’s direction. “I haven’t much experience fighting giants,” he said evenly. “Though I’d imagine dealing with them with a longbow would be preferable to going toe to toe with them. If no one has any concern, I’ll accompany you on this expedition.”
Iden raised his hand, rounding out the group with another heavy hitter to support Mars. The group in agreement, they each dispersed to gather their effects before reconvening at the North Gate at midday with Grynlock to ride for the war camp of the Bound Legion.
The journey took several hours, even on horseback. Svrcina and Mars took the lead as they traveled east from Aleria. They reached the war camp after midday, the summer sun still high in the sky. Riding up the rolling hills of the Grandual Plains, the group pulled to a stop at the sight of the war camp below them.
Sprawled out a half mile away from them was a massive expanse surrounded by timber fortifications and watchtowers. Large red banners flapped in the wind above neat rows of dozens of dark hide tents dyed a similar shade of blood red. From their vantage point, Heath watched as small, dark shapes in the low brush around the camp indicated a uniformed perimeter of scouts lying in wait, as well as the slowly roving forms of outriders on mounts.
Heath let out a soft whistle. “There must be hundreds of them.”
Mars grunted. “Which means this isn’t the entire legion.”
Heath started. “Come again?”
“The Bound Legion is massive,” the big man said. “Numbering a few thousand troops, last I heard. This is likely one of their larger detachments, but this isn’t the full force. Come on.” He clicked his tongue, and his horse started down the hill towards the camp.
Thousands of hardened hobgoblin troops, Heath thought with a sinking feeling in his stomach. What have you gotten yourself into? He tapped his horse’s flanks with his heels, urging it after the others.
Riding towards the war camp, more details became clear. Heath saw each watchtower was manned by archers scanning the nearby plains, longbows at the ready. The standards of the legion, which had previously looked to be unadorned, had the image of a bundle of spears wrapped in black chains. A group of outriders rode towards the group as they drew closer, but when Mars relayed they had business with the warlord, they let them pass without question. The riders were not astride horses, rather they rode massive, dark-furred wolves and thick, muscular worgs with gnashing teeths and dark, fury-filled eyes. Within the barricades that surrounded the camp, Heath spotted several enclosures where more of the massive beasts were held.
As they rode towards the center of the camp, every face they passed turned to regard the group. Hundreds of hobgoblins filled the camp, tall, muscular warriors adorned in thick leathers and plate armor carrying broad shields, long spears, and thick, curved swords. Each figure was slightly different, with skin of varying shades from reddish-brown to rusty grey, their black hair tied back into braids or topknots, with pointed ears and pressed noses. They regarded the riders without malice or contempt, neither impressed or disappointed.
They reached a large red tent near the center of the encampment, twin standards of the legion posted out front with a pair of tall, heavily armored guards. The walls were pinned open, and inside a long table was visible with several figures clustered around it. Mars looked back at the rest of the group with a smile on his face.
“Here we are.”
They all dismounted as three hobgoblins stepped forward, taking the horses without a word. The group exchanged looks before stepping towards the tent.
Inside the pavilion, three hobgoblins were leaning over the wide table and speaking in low voices. Heath recognized the language as Goblin, but it was huskier and rough compared to the shrieks of the smaller goblinkin. As the group approached, their conversation cut off.
“These are the mercenaries,” Heath heard one say to the larger figure in the middle, their back to the group. The large individual nodded, and the other two took a step back, bowed, and walked away.
Turning around, the massive form of a hoblin pulled himself up to his full height. Towering well over six feet tall, he had a rusty-grey colored skin, his fiery red hair twisted into tight braids that gathered into a single bundle at the back of his head and red sideburns that covered his cheeks. Thick scars cut across his features of carrying widths and colorations, indicating their varied ages. A black breastplate covered his chest, and Heath noted the handle of scimitar handing at his side as he clasped his hands behind his back before addressing them.
“Welcome, guests,” his rough voice moving across the words in a way that betrayed his accent. “I am Blahgrut Redmane, warlord and commander of the Bound Legion. I do not see any faces here that I recognize, but I know your friends. And as such, you are welcome in this camp and at my table.”
Svrcina took a step forward, bowing her head slightly. “Thank you, Lord Redmane. We received your proposition, and have come to engage in negotiation.”
The tall hobgoblin smiled. “Of course, I am certain you will not leave disappointed.” He gestured to the table. “Please.”
They stepped under the cover of the tent and into the shade, though Heath didn’t feel any less at ease. Mars and Svrcina walked to the edge of the long table, standing opposite Blahgrut. Iden strode forward, staying close to Svrcina’s shoulder. Grynlock followed Iden like a shadow, his hooded and diminutive form effectively vanishing beside the bulk of the tall knight. Adrie exchanged a look with Heath and gracefully walked to the left, keeping her distance from the table. Taking the cue, Heath mirrored her movement and took a few steps to the right, leaning against one of the tall posts holding up the tent. From his position, he could see everything on the table, as well as keep an eye on the two guards stationed outside the tent.
If Blahgrut noticed Heath and Adrie’s flanking positioning, he made no indication of being concerned by it. He placed his hands on the table on either side of a large, worn map.
“I assume you read the entirety of my missive before riding here, so I will keep this brief. The giant tribe we are facing poses a serious threat. They are close enough to Aleria to reach it within a day’s forced march. They are just as easily able to reach the crossing at Riverford and effectively blockage all travel and trade along the Silverfrost River. That, along with the numerous communities responsible for farming the plains, means the longer they are unchecked, the more costly it is for everyone in Aleria. Our goal is a preemptive strike, to remove the threat for good before it becomes too great to manage.”
“Your goal,” Mars mused perceptively. “Or is this the directive of the lords of Aleria?”
Blahgrut narrowed his eyes. “I am loyal to Aleria and to the king. This realm is my home, and I shall defend it whether in war against other kingdoms or in peace against brigand threats. I have been charged with this task, but make no mistake that this is an offensive of personal intent.” Mars nodded, offering no further argument. Blahgrut turned back to the table.
“Their fort is here, a location called Hillhold,” he pointed to a point on the map, a single large hill around low, rolling plains. “Their numbers are not insignificant, and their fort is no stronghold, but it is defensible.”
“Are you planning to strike at the fort itself?” Mars asked, studying the map.
“No,” Blahgrut replied, pointing to a section of the plains a few miles east of Hillhold. “We will meet them in the field, here. These giants are not the most cunning of their kind, and if we present them with a large show of force and challenge, their pride will move them enough to vacate their fortress to meet us on the field of battle.”
Svrcina furrowed her brow. “And you expect to face them in the open? Giants are no small feat to face in pitched battle.”
The warlord smiled cruelly. “Neither is my legion. What the giants have in size, they lack in coordination and discipline. My phalanxes will be far more regimented in pitched battle. We will be able to control the field.”
“If you are so confident in your chances,” Mars said, “why have you requested our assistance?”
Blahgrut moved his hand back towards the marker of Hillhold. “While we can defeat them in the field, we need to break their spirits. To ensure they are defeated and never return, your company will infiltrate the fort while the main force is engaged with my legion. Their confidence will likely cause them to commit their full numbers, leaving only a skeleton crew behind to guard the fort. Their chieftain is proud and lazy, and he will likely send his sons to fight in his stead while he stays behind to feast.”
“You all will steal in, remove any remaining giants before they raise an alarm, kill the chieftan, and disable any defenses remaining before sending up a signal of your success. With their fort indefensible and after being harried on the field, they will have no choice but to retreat and leave these plains.”
Svrcina looked over the map, one finger tapping the table absentmindedly. “When you present it like that, it seems so simple.” She looked up and met his gaze with dread seriousness. “You have legions at your command, surely you have a number of soldiers who are trained in infiltration and sabotage. Why have you brought us here, especially as outsiders?”
The edges of the hobgoblin’s mouth pulled upwards slightly as he met the tiefling’s gaze. “You are correct, I have troops who might be successful in an endeavor such as this. Yet, I remember the actions of your companions at the estate of our mutual friend, Lord Draeli. I was impressed, and that alone convinced me to give you the chance to earn both coin and favor with me, should you agree. I spent the years of my youth as a mercenary and sellsword, and I know the hardships of that life. The choices I made afforded me the opportunities I then seized to bring me to my current position of renown and power. I see the same promise in what your outfit might be seeking to achieve.”
Svrcina studied him carefully, then nodded before looking back to Mars. Heath watched Blahgrut intently, looking for any sign of deceit or manipulation, but found none. He was steady and imposing, fully confident without needing to bend to intimidation or convincing words, despite being positioned to make use of either.
Mars crossed his arms as he looked back to the warlord. “I suppose the only remaining thing to discuss is whether you can make this worth our while.”
Blahgrut pulled out a piece of parchment from a ledger at his side, sliding it towards Mars and Svrcina. “Upon the completion of the operation, once the forces within Hillhold are destroyed and the gates being rendered useless, each of you will be paid one share of 1,000 gold pieces each, plus a good faith share to be paid in the name of your guild. And you will receive the goodwill of Blahgrut Redmane and the Bound Legion.”
Mars and Svrcina shared a look. The tiefling gave a small nod. Mars turned back and held out a hand to the tall hobgoblin. With a smile, they clasped arms. Heath kept his face stoic, but clenched his jaw as he watched Adrie regarding the exchange with a cool intent. Iden remained unmoving behind Svrcina’s shoulder, but Heath was reassured that his hands never left the top of his axe in his belt.
Blahgrut bared his teeth in a grin. “Then tomorrow we ride for war.”