Mannis and Dungar, bastards of Count Vallent, and the three other Pekot lads reached the roadhouse with their two damsels just before dusk. The roadhouse, called the Raven’s Roost, was deep in the hills at the intersection of two roads and multiple smaller trails. It was run by a big family of large and friendly hill folk. Mannis knew the proprietors and several of the patrons by name, and was well-received by all of them. He first bought a round for the bar before ordering a private room and hot bath for the ladies and a full dinner spread for them all to be served when the girls had finished bathing.
With the girls settled, Pinch presented their collection of goblin ears, wrapped in a burlap rag, to the barkeeper for bounty. There were thirty-four ears.
“So ye had a spot of bother with some gobos on the road from Branick, did ye? We’ll have to send word of it to the sheriff come morning. They’ve been hopping about a bit lately,” said Earnz, the roadhouse’s patriarch and bartender as he counted out the boys’ coins to Pinch. Several of Earnz’ older sons who were drinking with them nodded seriously in agreement with their father.
“And the Maythorn girls in the middle of it! On their way to school, the poor lasses. What a world we live in. Mr Maythorn will be well grateful that ye were there to save his girls, I have no doubt. And praise Altas that ye were. Which of his men was chaperoning them, did ye say?” Earnz asked Mannis.
“I didn’t. And only because I couldn’t tell ye. A skinny, middle-aged, well-dressed fellow. Quite devout and conscientious to his duty. We all but had to force him to leave the girls and return to Branick for treatment.”
“That would be Cellik,” Earnz said. “A solid man for Mr Maythorn, without a doubt. And yar right, he never fails to praise Altas for all of his blessings, no matter how small. And speaking of such, there ye lads of the Holy Stone were, right where ye were most needed. Praise Altas for his mercy! What a fine sight for the faithful the lot of ye make! Well done, lads! Well done!”
“Thank ye, sir. It was really nothing,” Dungar said, speaking for all of the Pekot lads.
“No, no, no. It was a blessing that ye were there to protect those good people. It’s just a shame about Nick, Altas rest his soul. A shame, indeed. But there was nothing to be done about that, I am sure.”
“Who?” Knuckle asked.
“The driver, I guess,” Pinch answered quietly.
“So, all ye lads, I would just like to give ye our thanks for protecting our road like ye did and saving our friend, Mr Maythorn’s young girls. Ye shall eat and drink here tonight for free, as our guests. I’ll not hear a word otherwise!” Earnz said.
The boys thanked him with a cheer of raised ale steins. When that hubbub died down, Mannis spoke up:
“Thank you indeed, Earnz, but I really must insist you let us pay for the girls’ accommodations. Cellik provided us the funds, so I really should.”
“Oh, no, no, no! There is no way I would charge the Maythorn girls a thin copper on this, the night of their terrible trauma. Absolutely not! Ye just put that which ye save here towards improving their fare at the next stop and I am sure all involved will be well-satisfied.”
The friendly talk continued for almost an hour, with Earnz peppering the lads with questions about Pekot school life and the Brothers of the Holy Stone. His wife, Ally, another good-natured, charming soul, joined in the banter as well. When she discovered that Choke had a Holy Book with him, Ally insisted he produce it to read some of her favorite passages for them. Those in attendance listened attentively while Choke happily did so. Then, with their encouragement, he read some of his own favorites.
“Oh, what a blessing ye are to us, Bartholomew. Thank ye,” Ally said. “What a godsend. Such a blessing that the good Brothers saw the light of Altas in ye and took ye in to receive his word. And to teach ye to read the Holy Book as ye do, and send ye out into this evil world with one, to shine the light of Altas into some of the dark corners. It warms the heart to think of it. And what a man they made of ye, whatever yar people might have been. Such a blessing.”
They all sat in silence while Ally stared happily into space for a good measure. Then, she shook her head sharply to snap herself out of her reverie and clapped her hands.
“Well, that’s enough lollygagging for me, I should see if the young ladies need any attending to. I’m sure yar all well ready to get eating!” Ally said, before heading off upstairs.
Choke put his Holy Book away and he and the others moved to the table that was being set by a pair of Ally and Earnz’ daughters. When the girls went to get them more ale, Mannis gestured for Dungar, Knuckle, and Pinch to lean in close. He then spoke quickly to them in a low tone:
“Okay, all of ye, listen up good now. None of ye,” he looked at Knuckle pointedly, “are to go anywhere near any women here tonight. Particularly not Anise and Clara. This is not the place for that. Got it?”
The lads all nodded.
“But what about what ye said earlier. About…” Dungar drifted off.
“We’ll get to it. But not here. When he hears about this whole scene, Mr Maythorn will check in at every roadhouse we stay at on this trip. Be assured of that. And Ally will be keeping a good eye on them tonight. But the poor, sensitive girls cannot be expected to ride such long distances without sufficient rests, yes? So tomorrow we shall stop somewhere lovely for a pretty picnic. And it shall be lovely. Right?”
Dungar, Knuckle, and Pinch all nodded eagerly at this.
“When we do stop for our picnic, Dungar and I shall do what we can. He and I alone. Clear? These are nice girls from a good family and they are going to have a nice time. So you two,” he pointed at Knuckle and Pinch, “will behave yarselves and stay out of our way. Right?”
Knuckle scowled, but soon conceded with a nod. Pinch shrugged and nodded without hesitation. Then he cracked a grin and pointed his thumb over at Choke, who was scowling at all of them.
“Yar not gonna tell Choke to behave himself, too? I’m insulted!”
The lads all had a good laugh at this. Then, it was just a few more minutes until Ally brought Anise and Clara down to the table, lovely and fresh from their bath. They all ate well together and relaxed into the night with everyone in the common room. It was a fine, wholesome night.
The next morning, Earnz loaned the Maythorn girls two riding horses with sidesaddles. Mannis assured him that he would hire someone to return the horses when they reached the school in Strana. Ally sent them off with her warmest blessings and plenty of food for a lovely picnic lunch.
They found the perfect spot to partake of it in late morning. Mannis, claiming to only be following his instincts for finding the beauty in the world, led them off the main road, down a cart track into the woods, and then on a trail up a hill. This, miraculously, led to the most delightful spot.
The forest opened up into a meadow of wildflowers with a wonderful view of the whole valley down below. Just inside the tree-line there was a small log cabin next to a burbling spring.
“Oh, how perfectly lovely!” Anise exclaimed happily.
“I wonder who lives in the cabin?” asked her younger sister, Clara.
“I don’t know! Perhaps some manner of wood troll or forest gnome! But don’t worry, my dears, we shall protect you!” said Mannis, with comically affected gravity.
“Oh, you!” Anise giggled, giving him a swat. “It is obviously a hunter or trapper’s cabin. And obviously nobody lives there. Look at the woodpile, there’s grass growing up all around it!”
“Clever girl! But, we never know, it might be some kind of gnome trick! I shall scout ahead to be sure it is safe.”
Mannis dismounted and handed his spear and reins to Pinch. Then he drew his sword and advanced on the cabin with it and his shield raised, as though approaching a sleeping ogre. He crept up and listened at the door for a while before wrenching it open and lunging inside with a fearsome warcry. Anise was quite amused by the performance, but her younger sister Clara was taking it seriously and actually startled at Mannis’ shout.
“All clear!” Mannis said, poking his wide grin out from the cabin. “Perfectly in order, just as you thought, Anise!”
It turned out the cabin was indeed perfectly in order. It was furnished with a cot, a wooden chest with the bedding, a small table and wooden chairs, and basic oil lamps and tin cookware. Everything was simple, but well made. There was even a proper outhouse up in the woods, with a door and everything. Once Mannis had checked that for bugbears, Anise and Clara went up together to make use of it while the men tended to the horses.
“Our string of luck continues, eh lads?” Mannis said. “Imagine that! Just a zig and a zag into the bush and here we find a perfect fuck hut with the prettiest view a young lass could ever want!”
“Yes. Imagine that,” Choke muttered.
Manis laughed. “Indeed, Bartholomew. Indeed. And I assure you, it was only my good instincts that led us here. Nothing more. I have never, ever, been here with any other women, and I certainly have not been boar hunting here every year since I was six with Father.”
The lads other than Choke all a good laugh at this.
“Now. As to what will happen next. We will all have a lovely picnic lunch here in the meadow together, just as Ally planned. Then, I think the girls need a bit of a rest after such a long morning’s ride. As the eldest, Anise shall make use of the cabin. I shall stay right outside to make sure nothing happens to her. Dungar, I think I overheard Clara telling her sister that she isn’t quite so tired and might like to take a little stroll in the meadow. Why don’t you accompany her? Take a cloak or two and it should be perfectly lovely. Yes?
“Now, you three,” Mannis turned his most serious gaze on Knuckle, Pinch, and Choke. “You are all going to go with yar horses and guard the trail we came in on. And ye shall wait for us there. And no sniggering or jokes when we rejoin you. Be cool, and I’ll treat ye to something yarselves when we get to Strana. Right?”
When Mannis had met everyone’s eye again in turn, he clapped his hands happily.
“Right then! We have our assignments, men. Let us do our best!”
After the picnic lunch and the girls’ ninety-minute rest, they all continued on their journey to Strana together. Deeply ill-at-ease about the situation, Choke was somewhat relieved that both the Maythorn girls seemed quite pleased with whatever had happened.
They spent that night in another roadhouse, where Mannis made a show of hiring a good room for the girls while he and the lads slept in the common room. As with the Raven’s Roost, the proprietors knew Mannis personally, and knew of the girls’ father, Mr Maythorn. This time, however, Mannis did have to pay for the accommodations.
The next day they stopped for another picnic lunch and rest in a pleasant enough hayfield that Mannis found for them on the fly. That night was spent in a village inn where no one had any idea who any of them were. Even so, Mannis kept their accommodations and behavior completely respectable and made sure innkeeper and staff heard their full story.
By evening of the next day, they had reached the outskirts of Strana. Now well out of the hills and forests, they rode the whole day through the rolling farmland of the kingdom’s breadbasket. Even in early morning, they were able to make out the silhouette of the tower of the Mage Guild of Strana. It greatly impressed everyone.
When they reached the outskirts of the city, the tower dominated all with its elegant lines reaching hundreds of meters into the sky. It was formed of an even mix of black and white polished stone that reflected the sunlight like a crystal. The sun setting behind it was the most beautiful sight they had ever seen.
“Right,” Mannis said when the sun was gone. “It shall be dark soon and Strana is nowhere that ye want to be wandering the streets at night. So, girls, we shall find yar school in the morning, yes? So, tonight, we shall say at an inn. And I think, girls, if tomorrow it could slip yar minds which inn it was precisely, that would be marvelous. Yes? There are, after all, so very many of them here in this city, which is so very big. How could ye possibly be expected to remember which, after such a hard trip.”
This time, Mannis took them to an inn that was clearly of a much seedier sort, and rented each of the girls their own room. After dinner, he and Dungar waited just a little before leaving the others in the common room to follow the girls up.
The next morning, Mannis asked around to find out the location of the Lilydale Finishing School for Young Ladies. It was a good hour’s ride outside of town, but they got there without trouble or the opportunity for any more restful picnics. Under the watchful gaze of the school’s headmistress, Mannis and Dungar accepted the very polite and appropriate thanks of Anise and Clara Maythorn for rescuing them from goblins and seeing them safely to their new situation. Then the girls were whisked away to be locked up tight and polished like gemstones as hidden treasures for their future husbands.
With the girls settled, it was a simple matter for Mannis to arrange with the headmistress for their horses to be returned to the Raven’s Roost. The question of funds did not come up.
Back on the road, Mannis pulled out his full money pouch and jingled it happily at the lads.
“All right, boys!” he exclaimed. “Now we do Strana. Properly! My treat. Ye’ve all earned it. To Bridgetown!”
Dungar, Knuckle, and Pinch all gave a cheer as the five young men spurred their mounts on towards the glittering spire of the Mage Guild of Strana.