The Children of Stron – part 13

Table of Contents (spoilers)

read part 1

read part 12

Terrence was waiting for the lads in the street when they came out from the bar. He was talking with a small squad of city guardsmen. Like Leren the bartender and the girls in the bar, the guardsmen were making a show of being relaxed, but it was clear that they were also frightened of the gangster. There were a pair of big goons hovering nearby that eyeballed the lads as they stepped into the street. The bigger of them flinched when both Knuckle and Choke returned his hard stare.

“Well, thank ye, boys,” Terrence said to the guardsmen. “Yar doing a fine job. I’ll send someone round real soon to express my gratitude to yar sergeant for all yar hard work. Make sure ye talk to him about it. Wouldn’t want ye feeling underappreciated on account of him forgetting to pass our thanks along.”

The guardsmen all nodded obsequiously and went on their way. Terrence led Choke and the others to the east side of Bridgetown and into an unmarked doorway next to a fine-looking bistro just off the Mage Tower’s market square. This led to a narrow hallway that went back to the bistro’s kitchen. From that they went up a narrow spiral staircase to a private club upstairs.

It being Bridgetown, the space was not big, but it was luxurious. All mahogany, brass, and leather. It was unoccupied when they entered it. At the one side there was a short bar with many beautiful bottles on the shelves behind it. Near that were two gaming tables: one a card table in fine green felt, and another with a beautiful gambling wheel with very expensive inlay. The other side of the room housed a comfortable lounge and a fine desk in the corner. Both the walls behind the desk were exterior ones with glass paned windows looking down at Bridgetown’s main lane and the Tower market square respectively.

In the corner behind the desk was a narrow weapon rack housing an expensive Dwarven-made crossbow with a steel crosspiece and an onboard, fold-away crank for cocking it. A beautiful paired rapier and longdagger were displayed on one side of the crossbow. On its other was a fine collection of steel fighting knives and daggers.

“Have a seat, boys,” Terrence said, gesturing to the lounge as he moved behind the desk. “Can we get ye a proper drink? Eli, get these boys whatever they want,” Terrene said to the smaller of the two street goons who had followed them up into the lounge.

The big guy was now sitting in the back corner behind the gambling wheel next to a wall cabinet, keeping a close eye on all the guests.

“Uhhh, yeah, that would be great, sir,” Knuckle said. “Whad’ye have here?”

“Everything worth having, is what,” Terrence answered.

“Uhhh, okay. Then, whad’ye recommend?” Knuckle asked.

Terrence laughed. “See now? I like that. I like a man that knows when he’s outta his depth. Not afraid to admit it and seek guidance. Maybe yar not as dumb as I first thought, Knuckle.”

“No, he’s that dumb,” Pinch said. “We’ve just been well trained, is all.”

Terrence laughed even harder at this. “I can see that. Well, if ye like beer or wine, we’ll bring ye some up from the bistro. But that would be a waste, since I’m buying.”

“Good. And there’s no seating fee, or nothing? We aint falling for that shit twice,” Knuckle said.

“Of course, not. We’re well past all that. It’s all on me. So, if ye like spirits, I would recommend the Galish single malt. Have ye ever had it?”

“No. What it is?” Pinch asked.

“Whiskey.”

“What is that?”

“Like gin, I suppose, just aged in wooden barrels like brandy or wine. For years, though. It’s great.”

“Okay, so three of them, I guess. Thank you, sir,” Pinch said.

“Well, there we go. Eli, fix them up, would ye? And one for me,” Terrence said, giving his man a subtle hand signal to make sure he served the drinks from the bottom shelf.

“Now, if ye’ll just excuse me a minute,” Terrence went on, walking down the wall on the Bridgetown side to its last window. “That piss that Leren serves goes right fuckin through me.”

Terrence opened the window and turned his back on everyone to urinate out onto the street below. When he finished, he shut the window and joined the lads in the lounge, just in time to take his drink from the tray that Eli brought over to them.

“So. Cheers, lads! To new beginnings!” Terrence said.

“Yeah. Whatever that means,” Choke said, with a cough and a rasp as the whiskey scorched his throat.

“So, Choke,” Terrence said with a cold smile. “Yar the leader of this little crew, right?”

“What makes you say that?”

“These two don’t say shit to me unless they’ve glanced at you first to see how yar feeling. And ye seem the type. Plus, they’re both in infantry boots, and yar in cavalry. Cavalry leads foot; even I know that. So, yar the leader. Right?”

Choke glanced at Knuckle and Pinch to see how they were taking this pronouncement. While Terrence was certainly right, the three lads had not yet explicitly discussed or acknowledged this reality. Both Knuckle and Pinch looked back at Choke with resigned little nods.

“Okay. Yes. I’m the leader.”

“And what are yar plans? Yar all just out of that school of yars. Yar free now, right? So, what’s next for ye?”

“With all due respect, sir, that is none of your business,” Choke said. “But we can suffice it to say that we’re looking to leave Strana as soon as possible.”

“Really? That’s too bad. Boys like you, with the right guidance, could really do well here. Ye’d make quite a splash,” Terrence said.

“Well, sir, seeing as you’ve got a river for a cellar, I don’t think that particular turn of phrase makes me feel very comfortable.”

Terrence laughed. It was not friendly.

“We’ll be leaving Strana as soon as possible,” Choke finished.

“Just as soon as ye’ve cleared yar debt with me, of course,” Terrence said.

“Yes. Of course.”

“Well, I wouldn’t worry about that. Five silver aint shit. You can clear that up with just a bit of work for me tomorrow.”

“Listen, sir, we are not mercenaries. And we aren’t killers. So, whatever it is, it had better not be—” Choke started.

“Yeah, I hear ye,” Terrence interrupted, holding his palm up. “Yar all good Stronian boys. Butter wouldn’t melt in yar mouth. Real fuckin choirboys. I’ll tell ye what: if ye really wanna play it straight like that, I’ll set ye up with something. Yar all big lads, I’ll get ye loading and unloading barges. I believe it pays two silver a day. Eight in the morning until eight at night. And I’ll be holding onto yar armor and swords as fuckin collateral until I’m paid in full. And just so ye know, if ye don’t pay me in full by this time next week, the juice starts.”

“Juice?”

“Interest. Five percent weekly. Tacked onto the principle.”

“So usury is your game, is it?”

“Ye say that like it’s a bad thing. Without credit, how are the smallfolk of the world supposed to make a go of anything? It’s a service,” said Terrence.

“Yeah. I’m starting to feel real serviced, alright,” Pinch said.

Terrence laughed. “You don’t know the half of it, Pinch! Check yar pockets, man.”

The three lads all took pause to do just that.

“Fuckin bitches! Cunts! They pickpocketed us!” Knuckled yelled.

“Yes, that seems the most likely scenario. Probably out on the street, with the coins then passed to an accomplice before they took ye to Leren’s. That way, when ye discover the theft there later, when arguing over the bill, a search of them won’t turn up anything.”

“Cunts!”

“Well, in their defense, that is what they do, Knuckle. Why go in with half measures in such matters? If yar taking the risk of ripping off the likes of you, then ye may as well grab everything ye can. I for one, am quite impressed at their balls, so to speak. Someone the size of them sidling up with warriors like you and staying right there with ye after lifting yar coin. That’s some balls. But, I guess, having tits helps with that play.”

“Yeah,” Knuckle said bitterly.

Choke quickly patted down the front of his chainmail to check that their main purse was still there. It was. With a sigh of relief for that small favor, at least, Choke turned his attention back to Terrence.

“So, if we’re getting two silver each for working twelve hours at the docks, it’s going to take us two days to pay you back, what with paying for a place to stay and food and all that,” Choke said, deliberately not mentioning the horses they would have to pay to keep stabled another night.

“Yeah. No doubt.”

“And then what’s stopping you from, I don’t know, charging us rent for our swords and armor? Or some other bullshit. I mean, I’m sure there’s all kinds of ways for you to drag this out endlessly, aren’t there?”

Terrence smiled. “Yes. There probably are. But, I think there’s a limit to how far I’d want to be pushing the likes of you three. And I bring up the docks mainly just so that you can’t claim you have no other options when I make you a proper offer.”

“Okay, then. So let’s hear it,” Knuckle said.

“You say you are not mercenaries or killers. That may or may not be. But I will tell you this: You don’t use warhorses to plow a field, now do ye? Not unless ye have to. And sending the three of you to work the docks would be just like using a warhorse to pull a plow.”

“Yeah, I guess so. So let’s hear it,” Knuckle repeated.

“There are some fellows on the northside that I’m having a little business disagreement with,” Terrence said.

“Uh-huh… and I suppose you want us to go and sort them out,” Choke said.

“I have no idea what you might mean by that turn of phrase. No, I want you to go to their joint and pick something up for me. Something that is mine, by right.”

“And why us? Why not one of your men here? Or the city guard?”

“Why not you? The guard is costly and my people are known to them. The second any of my boys are seen crossing the Olga bridge, the people that matter in that joint will melt away like snow in spring. The only people who’ll be there are the guys that are paid to stand there and know nothing if someone serious comes around with beef.”

“So what are we supposed to get?” Choke asked.

“A package. I paid for a delivery. Now they’re giving me the runaround, saying that the boat hasn’t come in. Bullshit. Three boats have come in. They just found buyers who’re offering more than what I prepaid for their goods.”

“What goods would these be?”

“Something special from Marrovique. Hard to come by. And I paid a premium to be the first in line and now they’re giving me the runaround,” Terrence said.

“And they’re just going to hand the package over to us when we ask for it?” asked Choke.

“No. Probably fuckin not. Yar probably gonna have to convince them. And that’s why I wanna send you and not some fuckin farmers that got in over their head with pussy or dice. And that’s why this job pays well more than what ye owe me.”

“So what’s it pay?” Knuckle asked.

“You bring me my consignment, intact, without killing anyone there, and I’ll pay ye two gold. Fuck it, I’ll pay ye two gold, forty copper, just to make it easy with what ye owe me,” Terrence said.

“So no killing?” Choke asked.

“Absolutely. If I wanted to go to war, they’d be dead already and my boys would be fighting their backers in the streets. That’s not what I want. What I want is for you to go over there and convince them, by trashing whatever it takes and breaking however many bones as necessary, that when they take my fucking money, they’d better deliver what I paid for. And I want ye to do that without killing anyone. I’m guessing that’s something that the three of ye can handle.”

“Probably. But won’t their backers get angry at that?” Choke said.

“Maybe. But they aint gonna go to war over it. And I can just tell them that ye boys got carried away. And ye’ll be long gone by then, won’t you?” Terrence smiled at them.

“Okay, just so we’re clear. If we do this, you’ll wipe our debt and pay us fifteen silver in coin,” Choke said.

“Yeah. That’s right. And don’t ye try and go haggling with me now. That’s a fair deal for a tough job. Especially since I got my hooks into ye. So you aint in a position to argue.”

“I suppose that is correct, sir,” Choke said.

“But just because I’m such a nice guy, I’ll sweeten the pot for ye. If ye agree to do this thing for me tomorrow, I’ll let ye crash downstairs in the bistro tonight. Then I’ll have them put on a real nice breakfast feed for ye tomorrow morning. The works. All on the house.

“But…” Terrence gave them a hard look. “If ye say no, then yar gonna go and work the docks tomorrow. And for as many more days as it takes ye to settle with me. And yar gonna get the fuck outta here immediately. And you two will be leaving yar chainmail and swords here before ye go.”

Terrence glared at them murderously for a long moment before he continued:

“And, let me tell ye, you do not want to push me for the third option.”

At the back of the room, there was a soft click. The big goon in the corner had stood up from his chair and opened the cabinet door next to him. His hand was inside the cabinet, with its door blocking any view inside it. Eli, the slightly smaller of the goons, was standing behind the bar with his hands out of sight, looking very much like he too was ready for immediate violence.

Terrence set his empty whiskey glass down and stood up to move behind his desk where the arsenal on display was right at hand.

“So, boys, what’ll it be?” Terrence asked them quietly.

Choke and the others exchanged looks.

“Dood,” Knuckle said to Choke. “It’s a good deal. Sounds like fun.”

“Yeah. And I could really use a good breakfast,” Pinch said.

“No shit,” Knuckle finished.

Choke sighed and nodded before turning to Terrence:

“Okay, sir. We’ll go get your package tomorrow.”

“Excellent! I knew ye looked like smart lads. Okay, then, Eli will take ye downstairs and show ye where ye can crash tonight. Then, tomorrow, after breakfast, he’ll fill ye in on all the details. I won’t be part of this from here on, so you deal with Eli now. Understood?”

When all three Pekot lads had nodded to Terrence, he continued:

“Good. No need to shake on it. We have an agreement. You hold up your end and I’ll pay ye just like I said. You decide to get cute and run out on me, then ye’d best not show yar faces in Strana ever again.”

Terrence looked significantly at the crossbow on the rack behind him and then glanced out the window immediately to his right looking down at the Tower’s market square. He smiled.

“Go get some sleep now, lads. Big day for ye tomorrow, and ye need yar rest.”

***

Choke, Knuckle, and Pinch were able to sleep for about four hours in the cushioned booths of the bistro. It was quite a bit more comfortable than the common room benches of the inns and taverns they have been sleeping in for the last few nights.

They were awoken by a middle-aged man setting heaping plates down on the table of the booth Choke and Pinch were sleeping in. When Knuckle had joined them, they eagerly tucked into their breakfast of hashed potatoes, fried eggs, sausages, bacon, and ham. When they were just getting going into that, the server brought them a tray with a big coffee urn, three mugs, and a creamer with a bowl of white sugar.

“What’s this?” Pinch asked, sniffing the steam from his mug as he filled it.

“Coffee,” the server answered as he left.

“What’s that?”

“Like stugroot. Only good. Apparently,” Choke said, remembering what Mannis had said of it the previous day.

“Smells good! Give me some,” Knuckle said.

“It’s from Alquinia,” Choke went on.

“Oh yeah?” Pinch said, taking his first hesitant sip. He smiled broadly. “This is good!”

“It’s from Alquinia,” Choke repeated, this time with heavy emphasis on the last word.

“Yeah? So? What, ye think a fuckin drink is gonna turn us into polytheists, or something?” Pinch said.

“Church doctrine is clear: trade in Alquinian goods is proscribed. You know this,” Choke said.

“Yes, I do. And we aint buying or selling the shit. We’re drinking it. So get the stick outta yar ass and try some. It’s great,” Pinch said.

“No shit,” Knuckle agreed. “Like stugroot, only good. Exactly! Let’s try some with the milk. Pass me it, would ye?”

“The man serves us an Alquinian drink, and later today we’re going to go and rough up some people to get a package that he says they owe him. This doesn’t give you pause?” Choke continued.

“Okay, whoa. Whoa!” Knuckle said, finally pulling his attention away from his coffee mug. “Choke, don’t ye even start with this shit. We don’t know fuck-all about what we’re picking up. So don’t get all fuckin weird about it.”

“He’s right, Choke,” Pinch interjected. “We don’t know. And if we refuse to do this job today, how much d’ye think they’re gonna charge us for this breakfast? And staying here last night? And whatever the fuck else they wanna think up? You want us to become dockworkers for the next three months?”

“Yeah, with Terrence’s hand up our ass the whole time. Fuck that,” Knuckle said.

“Indeed,” Pinch said. “Seriously, Choke. We’re in over our heads here, and if we have any hope of getting clear of this, we need you committed to what we have to do. Get your head right, man.”

When they had finished their breakfast, with Choke steadfastly refusing to drink any coffee, Terrence’s man, Eli, joined them.

“Good feed, huh?” he said.

“Oh yeah! Thank ye for it,” Knuckle said,

“Yes, indeed. Thank you,” Pinch seconded.

Choke simply glowered at Eli, who chose to ignore him.

“Right. So the joint yar hitting today is on the northside, just by the docks. Double Horseshoes Freight. It’s a warehouse with a shipping receiving office. We’ll set ye up with a lad to point it out to ye. Right? The man yar gonna wanna ask for is Murray. His number two is Lenny. They both should be there this time of day, in the upstairs office. Ye tell them that yar there for Terrence’s package, and ye don’t take no for answer. If they give it up immediately, then it’s all good. Anything else, and they need to be punished. Bust them up. Do some damage. But do not fuckin kill nobody.”

“That is understood,” Choke said.

“Good. And don’t rob the joint neither. Yar there to pick up what Terrence paid for. That’s it,” Eli said.

“Understood,” answered Choke.

“Right. Okay, big guy, I see ye got that hammer-pick thing, that’ll do nicely,” Eli said to Knuckle. Then he glanced at Choke and Pinch. “Can you two use them swords without killing somebody? D’ye want a hammer, or a cudgel? Prybar, or something?”

“I can hit them with the flat of my blade, if need be,” Choke said.

Pinch paused. “I should probably get a hammer,” he said.

Eli nodded. “Right. So, no time like the present, right boys? I’ll grab ye a tool and then ye can go and get’er done!”

With their complimentary breakfast finished at Terrence’s bistro, the lads were ready to get on with their mission. Eli got Pinch a ballpeen hammer from a cabinet in the kitchen and then introduced them to their guide, Penn, a scrappy looking lad of about fourteen. Penn led them across the Olga Bridge and just past the dockyards to the warehouse district.

“Yeah, that’s the fuckin place there, with the double horseshoes on the sign,” Penn said casually without pointing or even looking its way when they were a good fifty meters from the building. He then led them down the next side street a ways before stopping and turning back to them.

“Okay, then,” Penn said, with his hand out.

“What?” Knuckle said.

Penn cleared his throat and looked significantly down at his empty palm.

Realizing that they had no coins other than the ones stashed in their main purse under his chainmail, Choke sighed.

“I’m sorry, Penn. We don’t have any money to give you right now,” Choke said.

Penn blinked at him slowly.

“Pardon?” Penn asked.

“Ye heard him. We got fuckin ripped off! If we had any coin we wouldn’t be doing this fuckin job! Didn’t Eli sort ye out?” Knuckle snapped.

“What the fuck does he got to do with this? This is between you and me. Ye think I’m fuckin showing ye the northside outta the kindness of my fuckin heart? I don’t deserve to get my beak wet here?”

“Listen, Penn, we understand your situation. As soon as we finish the job, we’ll sort you out. Okay?” said Pinch.

“Fuckin deadbeat, cheap-ass, hick cocksuckers,” Penn said, shaking his head as though in utter amazement.

“What?” Knuckle said.

“Ye heard me, ye fuckin cretin. And before ye get any bright fuckin ideas about doing something about it, just remember who the fuck introduced us, and where we fuckin are right now. Would be a right tragedy if someone were to wander into the wrong joint here on the northside and say the wrong fuckin thing to the wrong fuckin person about what the fuck you three goatfuckers are up to here.”

“I’m sure it would, Penn. So why don’t you wait for us at the bistro and we’ll catch up with you after the job. Okay?” Choke said.

“Yeah, you fuckin better, ye horsefucking jink cockgobbler.”

With this Penn spat on the ground between them and strode off muttering to himself. The three Pekot lads took a long moment to digest what they had just been subjected to.

“I think,” Pinch said slowly, “that lad is the rudest person I have ever met. And I’ve lived with you for eighteen years, Knuckle!”

“Yeah, no doubt,” Knuckle replied. “But some fuckin balls on him, huh? I gotta say, I think he’s pretty fuckin awesome.”

“Yeah, you would,” Choke said. “Let’s take a walk. We need to think about how we want to handle this.”

The three of them walked upstream along the Olga River until they found an open area by a lumber mill’s yard where they had a nice view of the eastside and the mage tower. They all stared at the view in silence for a while. From here, the cathedral with its elegant towers stood out with a particularly striking angle.

“What a fuckin place this is, huh?” Pinch said, mostly to himself.

“Indeed. From the most sublime human achievements to the greatest degradation, all right there,” Choke said.

“I don’t think ye gotta be getting all queer about it, Choke. Let’s figure out what the fuck we’re doing here, huh?” Knuckle said.

“Good point,” Choke answered, shaking himself out of his introspection.

“First of all,” Knuckle went on, “why do you really think he wants to use us for this job? I mean, nobody was on the fuckin lookout, so it’s not like he couldn’t get his guys into the joint if he wanted to.”

“It’s true. Terrence could no doubt use his own people. But he probably doesn’t want to risk them, for one thing,” Choke said.

“And, he mentioned the backers, right?” Pinch said. “So if he sends his boys in to rough up some people that are protected by another, I dunno, gang, or whatever, then his guys are at risk for retaliation later. With us he doesn’t need to worry about that.”

“That’s right. He has no responsibility to protect us afterwards. Good point. We’ll need to remember that,” said Choke.

“D’ye think the package is even real?” Knuckle asked.

“What do you mean? Why wouldn’t it be? Why would he send us to get something that doesn’t even exist?” Choke asked irritably.

“Because, dumbass, then we go in and mess up these guys for sure. And then we gotta go back to him and say: ‘shit, Terrence, we’re sorry, they said they don’t know what we’re talking about.’ Then he can say we fucked up the job and still have to pay him,” Knuckle said.

“Shit,” Pinch said.

“This is a good point,” Choke said. “How do we know this package is real?”

They were all thoughtful for a while. Pinch finally spoke up:

“There’s no way we can know. I think we just have to see how it goes. And if we get going in there and it really seems like they have no idea what we’re talking about, then what?”

“I think we fuckin cut and run, is what,” Knuckle said.

Choke nodded. “Indeed. But if that’s the case, why not just cut and run now?”

“Fifteen fuckin silver man,” Knuckle said. “That’s like…”

“Five each,” Pinch finished for him. “And being able to come back to town again.”

“But if we do the job, these guys on the northside, and their backers, whoever they are, will be after us. What’s the difference?” Choke asked.

“Yeah, that’s true,” Knuckle said. “But who gives a shit? Who d’ye think is worse to piss off here? The guys on the hick side of town running some freight, or the guy fuckin running Bridgetown?”

“We don’t know that Terrence runs Bridgetown,” Choke said.

“Well, we know that if he doesn’t, he’s got a good stretch of it under his thumb. Look at where his office is, man! He was telling the city guard where to go. Ye wanna split hairs here?” Pinch said.

“No. Good point,” Choke conceded with a sigh. “Okay, so, I guess we do this. But when we get in there, we need to do our best to make sure this isn’t some kind of setup. And if we think there’s no package, we abort and ride straight out of town and don’t look back.”

“Agreed,” Pinch said. Knuckle nodded.

“So how do we play this?” Knuckle asked.

“Well, obviously, we go get our horses first, right?” Pinch said. “Then I think we should just ride up like we just got into town and walk in like we’re gonna do some business. Get in to see this Murray guy like that and then jack him when we’re right up close.”

“Yeah, that’s tight. So what’s the story?” Knuckle asked.

“Well, if these guys are dealing with Terrence, then they must be on the shady side of things, right?” Pinch went on. “Since they’re in the freight moving business and are shady, they probably aren’t above dealing in stollen goods. So I think we should play it like we’re bandits who are looking to offload some contraband. Something bulky that needs real shifting.”

“Wool,” Choke interjected. “The monastery in Gurdie has all those sheep and is always shipping the wool through Strana to Goettingen for the order’s robes. We go in and say we have access to, I don’t know, a hundred bales of wool that we need to offload quick.”

“How d’ye know all this?” Knuckle said.

“Because when you were busy masturbating in the bushes or beating everyone up in sword practice, I was helping Brother Willem with the accounts and records. I heard all kinds of things,” said Choke.

“Yeah, wool’s good. It’s something bulky that has a lot of value that is moved in their circles that three greenhorns like us wouldn’t be able to shift by ourselves. We should lose our holy symbols, though,” Pinch said.

“Yeah, good call,” said Knuckle.

All three of them were, of course, still wearing their Wheel of Stron around their necks. Pinch and Knuckle’s were of simple wood. Choke’s was the iron one he had been given by Brother Willem before leaving the Pekot orphanage. It was a simple matter to tuck the symbols under their armor.

Then the three of them set out for the stable to pick up their horses and gear.

read part 14

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