The Dark Forest did not honour its name. Dancing flecks of sunlight dappled the ground and ponds and puddles, a steady, light breeze keeping the temperature pleasant. This close to the fairies' territory, relaxing to enjoy it might be a mortal mistake, but no goblin in this patrol was likely to make it.
The sound of wind combing the treetops giving him some confidence that even if enemies were nearby, they would not hear his wings buzzing, Bog flew to keeping track of the two advance scouts. There had been no sightings of trouble, neither by the patrol today nor by the people of the warrens they visited, not even the last one, which was closest to the border.
Bog allowed himself to hope that their luck would hold. They were practically on their way back, only need to check on the Oakroot warren, which was further inside the forest and well hidden, then half of the patrol could head East and take a break from constant guard, to mere wariness.
Taking care to bring a bit of distance between the bulk of the patrol and himself first, Bog hovered in the comparatively clear space between undergrowth and canopy, looking around, alert for anything that did not quite fit.
He caught sight of movement, but it was Snarf. The advance scout, a goblin with a short trunk and red-brown skin, signalled him. Bog strained for speed, reaching Snarf as quickly as a thrown rock, and caught himself by bending his long legs.
Snarf's eyes were even more round and big as usual, his voice quiet. “I smell smoke.”
“That direction.” Snarf nodded, wrung his hands and shuffled his feet.
They put everyone on alert. The warren was too far away for smoke from cooking fires to travel that far, but there was no sound of fighting. The goblin patrol spread out again and moved as quickly as basic stealth allowed.
A thick rope of smoke rose from one of the highest doors between the roots of an old oak. Like all entrances, it should be hidden and camouflaged. Not a soul was to be seen.
Once he reached the edge of the weeds providing cover, even Bog caught a whiff of blood. Snarf's ears were quivering.
“Is it safe?”
The whisper made the smaller goblin jump, but he answered, “I think it's just smoke. I—I'll check.”
He bolted off without waiting for confirmation. Bog scanned the surroundings, focusing on up, looking for an ambush. The fairies shouldn't know their schedule, but better overly cautious than dead.
Snarf raced up the tangle of roots fast as a squirrel and jumped into the still-smoking hole. Bog bit the inside of his cheek and kept watching for danger from the periphery. In this particular warren, he could not follow inside and help; It had been started by brownies and elves who'd later been joined by goblins about their size. Bog was too tall. The tight entrances and corridors might even keep fairies out. But smoking a warren out worked.
Given that Snarf wasn't screaming in panic, he must have been right about it being just smoke. When he faintly heard a call from far inside, Bog looked around for the someone who could check inside. Everyone was hidden well, lighting a spark of pride inside him.
The potato-shaped goblin burst out of her cover and put on a surprising turn of speed. Bog followed closely, then stood guard over the entrance, back towards the trunk of the tree.
The smoke was barely warm.
Bog kept his attention outward, not reacting to the occasional noises of his two people moving around from below. He could spot Big Gus, who'd taken cover under a fully spread toadstool. The canopy was alive with rustling wind, but the only flitting he spotted was a small moth, not a fairy.
After a short time Orff reemerged, and reported quietly, “Snarf found two bodies. Kids hid in a closet, and the smoke—”
Bog nodded. “Leave them for now. Get Snarf up here.”
By the time both were above ground again, Bog was as convinced that they were not being watched by the people who'd done this. But he had to know— ”How long?”
Snarf's eyes were red, and he had to snap to focus. “What?”
“How long since they've gone?”
“Ah. Maybe an hour or a bit more. Less than two.”
After signalling Orff with a jerk of his head to get back to cover, Bog asked quietly, “Are you up for a hunt?”
It took Snarf a few watery blinks before he understood, then he drew himself up to his full height — about half of Bog's — and nodded. “They took the bodies. Maybe we can get them back.”
Bog walked down the tangle of fused roots toward the undergrowth hiding his patrol and raised a hand as a signal to gather. Still just for Snarf he said, “Us getting back alive is more important.”