The Children of Stron – part 14

Table of Contents (spoilers)

read part 1

read part 13

Walking to the stable to pick up their horses and gear, the three Pekot lads took the time to polish their story and plan some basic moves for when things kicked off. They decided that since Pinch was the most socially gifted of them, he should be their spokesman, with Knuckle and Choke backing him up as goons.

They picked up their horses and gear at the stables and rode back to the docks. With his horse under him and spear in hand, Choke felt quite a bit better. However things went now, at least they had the option to ride out of town.

Riding down the busy thoroughfare with a purpose, people hurried to get out of their way. On foot, they had been largely ignored. Now they were noticed.

At Double Horseshoes Freight, Choke and the others dismounted and tethered their mounts to the hitching post outside. The building had a front office next to two raised loading bays. The bay doors were open and a heavy cart was backed up to one of them with a number of burly men unloading its cargo.

Choke left his shield slung on his saddle and propped his spear up on the hitching post. He then grabbed his saddle bags and slung them over his shoulder. Pinch made a show of stretching and groaning as he dismounted, as though they had been in the saddle for a while. Then he threw his saddle quiver and bow case over his shoulder. With nothing on his horse of particular value, and his greatsword still on his back, Knuckle left everything on his horse.

The warehouse’s front office was fairly small, with a couple of simple wooden desks and some wooden chairs in front of them. There was a large blackboard on the wall with cryptic timetables and manifests scrawled in chalk all over it. A door into the warehouse was at the back of the room. Above that was a loft space with windows looking down at the office, and a narrow wooden staircase down one wall. The loft was positioned to have a similar view into the warehouse behind.

There was just one person in the office: a thin man in simple clothes, busy with a pencil and ledger at one of the desks. He looked up at Pinch as he entered. His eyes flared a little as Choke, and then Knuckle, followed him, but did not seem too put out by them.

“Can I help you?” the man asked.

“I hope so!” Pinch said with a grunt as he set his bow and quiver down on the floor next to a chair. “D’ye mind?” he gestured to the chair.

The man nodded for them to sit. Pinch and Choke did so. Knuckle hung back at the door where he could keep an eye on the horses outside. The clerk frowned at him, and then glanced at Choke. Realizing then that he was a Scythan, the clerk’s eyes flared wide and he began to sweat.

“Yes?” he said too loudly.

“I wanted to have a word with Murray, if I could,” Pinch said.

“Murray?” the clerk practically shouted. “What for?”

In the loft above there was the sound of a chair scraping. A man’s face soon appeared briefly at a window.

“I have some business to discuss,” Pinch said casually.

From up in the loft there was a short, shrill whistle directed down into the warehouse behind.

“Just a moment, sir, I’ll go and check if he’s here,” the clerk said as he stood up and beat a hasty retreat up the stairs into the loft.

“Okay then,” said Pinch.

They could just make out the clerk talking to someone up in the loft. Before anything could transpire from that, though, two men from the warehouse joined them in the office. They stepped in through the back door and took up a position like doormen. They were both big and dressed as laborers. One had a large knife on his belt, and his larger mate carried a nasty-looking tool: a stout, eighty-centimeter stick with an iron hook on the business end. As big as they were, the larger of them was not the size of Knuckle.

Everyone took a moment to size each other up. The warehouse men had entered the room confidently enough, but now looked like they very much wanted to be somewhere else.

“Hello!” Pinch said to the men, giving them a friendly wave.

Choke blinked as Knuckle, still standing behind them at the front door, audibly began to swallow air.

From a young age, Knuckle had developed the ability to burp loudly on command, and over the years had honed this skill into burp-talking. By the age of ten, he was able to burp-talk an entire Our Father or Vengeful Stron prayer. Among his fellow pupils, this had been regarded as a marvelous life skill and something that would surely be important for his future.

The two warehouse goons were doing their best to hold up their end in their requisite staredown with Knuckle (their obvious counterpart in the interloping crew), and looking increasingly disturbed by his apparent gastronomic distress. Then, with his fuel aboard, Knuckle squared up on them and released a full-throated, full-volume burp of magnificent power and resonance that morphed into a single, well-articulated word:

“Rape,” Knuckle burp-shouted at the two goons, with the long ‘A’ drawn out to exquisite length.

The two goons almost bolted.

Another whistle brought their attention up to a loft window, where the man they had seen glancing at them previously was back.

“Hey,” he said down at them.

“Hello, sir,” Pinch said.

“What’s up?” the man asked Pinch.

“I’ve been sent to have a word with Murray. Are you him?”

“Who wants to know?”

“I am Denver. I’ve been sent from Dunlop county to arrange some business,” Pinch said.

“Sent by who?”

“That’s something I would be more than happy to tell Murray,” said Pinch, his tone now with the slightest edge.

“I’m Lenny. What he knows, I know. What sort of business are ye after?”

“Selling wool. And I was told that Murray is just the sort of man to talk to about it.”

“Why? If ye have wool for sale, go sell the fuckin wool. Why would Murray be the guy to talk to about it?” the man asked.

“There are complications. More than that, I’m not going to shout up at you like some kind of town crier. Now, I think I’ve been quite accommodating to this hostile environment you’re putting on. So, sir, is Murray here and is he willing to speak to me about my business? If not, we will be on our way!”

Pinch stood up and made a move to pick up his bow and quiver from the floor next to him. Choke stood up as well.

“Hold on,” the man in the loft window said. He held his palm out the window at them as he pulled his head back to talk to someone. After a few seconds he looked back down at them:

“Okay. Ye can come up. Leave yar gear there.”

“Thank you,” Pinch said. He left his bow and quiver on the floor and he and Choke started heading for the staircase.

“No, hold up, pal!” Lenny said. “Just you. That one stays downstairs,” he pointed at Choke.

“No, I think not. No way,” Pinch said. “I am not going up there alone. Not with the way ye’ve been acting. If this is how ye want to do business, then ye can come downstairs.”

“How we wanna do business? Yar walking in here ready for fuckin battle with a jink in tow! How the fuck d’ye think ye should be received?” Lenny laughed.

“We’re in from Dunlop. It is rough country. We had to kill a dozen goblins just to get here. So pardon me. If yar so easily frightened, I suppose we should take our trade elsewhere. We clearly were misinformed about Murray. Our mistake.”

With this, Pinch once again made a move as though he was about to leave. Once again, Lenny held his hand up to stop him as he had a quick word with someone inside.

“Yeah, alright. Both of ye can come up. Just be cool.”

“Have we not been? Likewise, I am sure,” Pinch said sharply.

The loft was another office space that had a good view down into the warehouse as well as the front office. At the warehouse side there was another doorway with a staircase down to the warehouse floor.

In the loft there was the clerk, standing near the doorway they entered, and another big laborer standing at the top of another set of stairs down to the warehouse. The laborer was holding a large iron prybar. The man who had identified himself as Lenny was standing to one side of the office’s big desk. He had a loaded crossbow in hand. Another well-dressed man was seated behind the desk. There was a loaded crossbow on the desk in front of him. Both the crossbows were light, meaning they could be drawn by hand by pulling on the string with one’s foot through a front stirrup. They would probably not penetrate chainmail too deeply even at close range, but Pinch’s leather armor would be very little help against them. And getting shot in the face would be a bad day regardless of what kind of armor someone was wearing on their trunk.

“Okay, I’m Murray,” the man behind the desk said. “So what’s all this about? Who in Dunlop told ye to see me? About wool, was it?”

“May we sit?” Pinch asked.

“Not just yet,” Murray said.

“If it is all the same to you, I would rather not talk about this with so many people here. It’s a sensitive topic,” Pinch said, glancing at the clerk and laborer.

Murray thought about this for a long moment, spending most of this time staring at Choke. Finally he nodded.

“Okay, ye two get back to work. Tell Cliff and Pete to keep watching that other one downstairs,” he said to the clerk and laborer.

When they had both gone, shutting their respective doors behind them, Murray nodded to Lenny, who gestured with his crossbow to a pair of wooden chairs against the wall furthest from the desk.

“Have a seat,” Lenny said.

“So let’s hear it,” Murray said once Pinch and Choke had.

“Okay, sir, it’s like this. We’re from up Dunlop way, like I said. An associate of ours up there has sent us to town to arrange for the sale of some wool. Now, our associate does not know you, nor you him, but he heard from another person that you were someone to talk to about moving merchandise that is complicated.”

Murray stared deadpan at Pinch.

“I don’t even know where to start with this. Who is yar guy? What’s his name?”

“Stan Barker.”

“Never heard of him.”

“That’s just as I said, sir,” Pinch said.

“And who’s this third party that referred me?” Murray asked.

“This is what worried me. He was Tom Rakham,” Pinch said quietly, using the name of the bandit leader they had helped Sir Gareth bring down.

“Tom Rakham,” Murray said after another long pause. “The highwayman and bandit. He’s dead, I hear.”

“The very same. And yes he is. And I am in no way suggesting that you, or anyone associated with you,” Pinch glanced at Lenny, “had any dealings with the rogue whatsoever. It is just Stan, who did ride with Rakham for a time, heard that you are a man skilled at dealing with complicated merchandise.”

“Uh-huh. And how is wool complicated?”

“It is complicated when it is not, strictly speaking, yours. And it is bulky and of no real use to the likes of us. We don’t want to have to take up knitting, after all,” Pinch said, hazarding a smile at Murray as he finished.

Doing his best to appear calm, Choke tensed himself, preparing to make his move at the slightest shift of Murray or Lenny’s bearing that might telegraph the failure of their yarn.

Murray laughed. “Yar a slick talker, I’ll give ye that. What’s yar name again?” he asked Pinch.

“Denver.”

“And this one?” Murray gestured to Choke.

“He’s Slaad. He don’t talk much,” Pinch answered.

“Yeah, I guess not. So, let me get this straight: The infamous Tom Rakham told yar man, Stan Barker, that I’m a man to talk to about moving troublesome merchandise. Is this right?”

“Yes it is, sir. Exactly so.”

“Okay, so let’s say, for the sake of argument, that yar man is right. What, precisely d’ye got?” Murray asked.

“We got a hundred bales of high-quality wool. Washed and carded. Ready for the loom,” Pinch said.

Murray raised an eyebrow at this and looked at Lenny.

“I think it’s worth discussing,” Lenny said to him.

Murray nodded slowly. “Yeah. Maybe so.”

“Okay, then, if we’ve passed inspection, d’ye mind not waving a loaded crossbow at us?” Pinch said to Lenny. “It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in yar business practices being treated like we’re some kind of robbers here. Why are ye guys so edgy?”

“Never you mind why,” Lenny said.

However, Murray’s bearing softened. “Nah, he’s right. Relax, Lenny. Have a seat.”

Lenny nodded and set his crossbow down in the corner behind him before taking a seat in a chair within arm’s reach of it.

“Yeah, I know we’ve been pricks here,” Murray said to Pinch. “Ye caught us at a tricky time, is all. And we have been on edge about it. But I hear what yar saying. This is no way to treat a potential business partner. Bring yar chairs up closer and we can talk like civilized men.”

Murray gave Choke a hard look as he stepped on the word “civilized” with particular emphasis.

Pinch and Choke moved their chairs closer to the front of Murray’s desk and sat back down.

“Can I get ye a stugroot? The boys got a pot on the boil down in the warehouse,” Murray asked them.

“No, it’s quite alright, sir,” Pinch answered for both of them.

“So, if ye have what ye say ye do, I could be interested,” Murray said. “But ye need to understand that selling wool aint my game. I move freight. That’s what I do. So ye aint gonna be getting no fair market rate. Understood?”

“Of course,” Pinch said.

“And before we move forward here, I need to know: Are there any bodies behind this? Wool merchants are a tight community. I show up with a hundred bales right after some of their own got got, they aint gonna take kindly to it. And if ye put me in that position, I will do everything I can to help them bring ye in.”

“Of course, sir. There were no bodies. A few ruffled feathers, is all.”

“Well, that I can deal with. But do know that I will be looking into it. I will find out exactly where these hundred bales of yars came from, rest assured of that. So, before I go and put my time and energy into this, there isn’t anything more ye wanna tell me about it?” Murray asked.

Pinch shook his head. He then glanced at Choke to check whether they were going to be making their move anytime soon.

The lads had decided that Pinch would represent them as their spokesman, but Choke had been very clear that there was to be no violence unless he instigated it. Sitting in front of Murray’s desk with Lenny right to the side, and the both of them fairly relaxed, Choke knew that the time to make a move could not be any better. Yet he hesitated. If possible, he wanted to avoid violence, and that meant picking his moment to reveal their true purpose to the best effect.

Murray noticed Pinch’s glance to Choke, as well as the tension behind it. He chuckled.

“Yeah. That’s what I thought. You boys are in over yar heads on this one. And there’s something that yar not telling me. And you,” Murray pointed right at Choke, “aint just a goon in this. Are ye? Yar the one I should be talking to, aren’t ye?”

“Yes. I suppose that is so,” Choke said.

Murray’s eyebrows raised in genuine surprise as he heard Choke speak.

“Oh, well now, you do talk good after all, don’t ye? Wherever did ye pick that up, I wonder?”

Choke simply stared at Murray in reply.

“Uh-huh. A man of mystery. I get it. Okay, then, I’m just gonna take a stab at what I think is going on here. So, for starters: yar story is fucked. I never in my life fucked with Rakham or anybody that he rode with. He’d have no reason to have my name in his mouth. So, what I think is, yar little crew stumbled on this wool, however ye did, and yar thinking that ye can drop Rakham’s name to me because he’s dead now and he can’t take exception to it, and there’s no way for me to check with him. It also wasn’t a bad guess that someone like him might have dealings with someone like me. But ye missed yar mark,” Murray smiled at Choke.

“But, don’t get me wrong. I aint pissed,” Murray went on. “Yar young. Green. Ye don’t know any fuckin better. And, to tell ye the truth, I appreciate the balls. And the bottom line is, whatever yar fuckin story, I’m interested in what yar selling. But. Now. I need to know: Who gave ye my name?”

Choke paused and licked his lips. “Well, sir, it’s like this,” he finally said in a low, measured voice. “You are right. We are in over our heads. And I will tell you who gave us your name and then it all should be clear to you.”

“Oh, I just can’t wait,” Murray chuckled.

“Terrence. It was Terrence that asked us to come here and talk to you today. He wants you to give us his package,” Choke said looking Murray dead in the eye, putting as much menace into his words as he could while keeping his tone level.

As Choke spoke, Murray’s expressions went through an evolution that might have been comical if the stakes were not so high. At the first mention of Terrence’s name, Murray blinked in confusion as his mind struggled to feature the gangster’s involvement with Pinch’s lies. By the second mention of Terrence, Murray was transfixed in alarm, as though caught in an ambush but yet unsure precisely where the worst danger lay. With mention of the package, it all became clear to him. In that raw moment, there was no confusion in his eyes; he knew exactly what Choke was talking about.

“Package? I have no idea what yar talking about,” Murray said.

With this lie, Choke felt something shift inside himself. Until this moment, he had not been fully committed to this thing they were doing. He had hoped to navigate some middle course; to avoid any violence. But as Murray lied to him, Choke became as a wolf with its nostrils full of rabbit scent. This man had just volunteered to let Choke vent the frustrations of the last few days upon him. Choke smiled.

All four men in the room were stock still now, poised to make a move. It was very quiet.

“You are being foolish, Murray,” Choke said calmly. “Give us Terrence’s package and we’ll leave you in peace. I’ll not ask you again.”

“Yeah, and what if I say no, ye jink pissant!” Murray said, starting to stand up from his desk. “What if I say ‘fuck you’ and—”

It would never be precisely clear to Pinch or Choke who exactly made the first move. As Murray began to stand, Pinch leaned forward in his chair and began to reach for the hammer he had stuck up under his armor at the small of his back. Lenny and Choke moved simultaneously on each other.

Choke was seated in front of Murray’s desk at the side closer to where Lenny was seated, making Lenny his responsibility. Choke expected Lenny to go for his crossbow in the corner behind him, so he stood up moving laterally to pick up his chair by its backrest and throw it. Lenny, however, came straight at Choke with a longdagger he had pulled from somewhere. Choke swung the chair, but Lenny got inside it to drop low and stab Choke in the side.

Lenny’s move was a good one, done spontaneously without thought. He was used to fighting unarmored opponents, though, and his experience did him no favors as Choke’s mail turned the blade. Choke pivoted back and raised his chair up as Lenny stabbed upwards at his face or neck, missing by just centimeters. Choke brought the chair down awkwardly on Lenny’s knife arm and was able to knock him back a bit. Then Choke got a good grip with both hands on the chair’s backrest and rammed its legs forward into Lenny. He was able to pin Lenny’s knife arm to his side as he shoved him hard into the wall.

When things kicked off, Pinch was seated almost exactly across from Murray. As Murray stood, so did Pinch, pulling the ball-peen hammer from behind his back. Murray went for the loaded crossbow on his desk. Pinch lunged and gave him a hard crack on the right hand as he gripped the crossbow’s stock. Murray barked a curse and dropped the crossbow, which went off as it hit the desk, sending its quarrel into the wall. Pinch jumped up onto Murray’s desk and drove a stomping kick into his stomach as he dropped down on the other side. Murray fell with Pinch landing almost astride him.

Over with Lenny, Choke had little trouble controlling the much lighter man. Having shoved him hard into the wall with the chair’s legs, Choke was able to keep strong pressure on him with one hand and his hips on the backrest. With his right arm pinned to his side, Lenny was basically defenseless as Choke began punching him hard in the face with his left.

Underneath Pinch, Murray moved to draw a dagger, so Pinch stomped on his arm to stop that. Then Pinch gave Murray a bunch of raps about the head and shoulders with the hammer until he decided it was best to turtle and curl up into a ball.

When Choke thought Lenny did not have any fight left in him, he punched him a half a dozen more times in the face just to be sure and then released the chair to let him fall.

Down on the main floor in the office, Knuckle had been thoroughly intimidating the clerk and the two warehouse goons the entire time Pinch and Choke were talking to Murray and Lenny upstairs. The clerk had returned to his desk to get back to work as ordered, having told the goons, Cliff and Pete, to stay as they were and keep an eye on things. Knuckle took just a few seconds to work out that by “things” the clerk had meant him. This made him angry. He was not really sure why this made him angry, but he was quite sure that he did not at all care to think it through. Instead, knowing that action was likely imminent, he rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet with his hand on his warpick as he plotted his angles at his adversaries.

When the melee finally erupted upstairs, no one in the front office hesitated for even a second. The clerk dropped to his knees behind his desk with his hands in the air. Knuckle ignored him and drew his warpick as he moved straight at Cliff and Pete at the warehouse door. Cliff and Pete both turned and fled into the warehouse. As Knuckle followed them, the clerk ran out the front door and into the street.

Cliff and Pete ran straight through the warehouse and out the open bay door. In the warehouse, the big guy with the prybar who had been up in the loft office was heading to the stairs to go back up. There was one more laborer standing with the wagon driver at the bay door.

The guy with the prybar valiantly stepped to Knuckle and swung hard at his head. Knuckle parried easily and smashed his face with an almost flippant swat of the flat of his warpick. The last laborer and the driver followed Cliff and Pete out the door. Knuckle picked up the prybar the laborer had dropped and gave him a few heavy swats across the lower legs with it. Then he took the tool upstairs into the loft.

In Murray’s office, Choke and Pinch had dragged Murray out from behind his desk and were getting set to have another word with him about Terrence’s package. Lenny was still lying on the floor where he had fallen, convulsing with his legs and arms stiff like boards.

“How’d it go?” Pinch asked Knuckle as he joined them.

“They almost all ran off. We gotta get this done before they fetch the guard, or whoever,” Knuckle said, setting the prybar on Murray’s desk.

“Oh, no shit?” Pinch snapped.

“What about the horses? Did they run away on foot, or did they steal our horses?” Choke yelled at Knuckle.

“Oh shit! I dunno,” Knuckle said with a stricken look.

“Fuck!” Choke shouted. “Both of you grab the crossbows and the quivers there and get the fuck downstairs! Guard the horses, if they’re still there. Hold off whoever comes! I’ll be right down! Wait, give me the hammer.”

Pinch handed Choke the hammer and he and Knuckle ran downstairs. In just a few seconds, Knuckle shouted up:

“Horses are still here! We’re going out!”

Whispering a prayer of thanks to Stron for his mercy, Choke grabbed Murray by the collar and yanked him up to brandish the hammer under his nose. He was bleeding a fair bit from the forehead and scalp where Pinch had beaten him with the same implement, but was sensible enough.

“Terrence’s package! Now! Or I’ll break both yar fucking ankles before I ask again!” Choke yelled.

“In the lockbox. Bottom shelf,” Murray said, gesturing at the storage rack along one wall. Sure enough, there was a big lockbox with a padlock on the bottom shelf.

“Where’s the fuckin key!”

“Middle drawer of my desk.”

“Okay. Do not fuckin move,” Choke told Murray before hurrying to the desk.

The middle drawer was filled with junk, so Choke yanked it right out of the desk and dumped its entire contents out on the floor in front of Murray. Then he dropped the hammer and drew his longsword.

“Open it!”

Murray started sifting through all his junk, looking for the padlock key. With blood dripping down his face and into his eyes, he was ponderously slow.

“Hurry up!”

“Fuck, guy! Wad’ye want? I can’t see shit! Fuck off!” Murray yelled back at him.

With a roar of frustration, Choke stabbed his longsword into the floor next to the lockbox. He picked up the prybar Knuckle had left, smacked Murray over the head with it, and then savagely started wrenching the padlock brackets off the box. He managed it in just under a minute.

Inside the lockbox were a dozen packages, of varying sizes, all wrapped up neatly in burlap and twine.

“Fuck!” Choke screamed as he tipped over the lockbox to dump all the packages out on the floor. “Which one is it?”

“Ye fuckin got what ye wanted, ye cocksucker! Just go! Please! Leave me alone!” Murray wailed back at him.

“I’m not here to rob you! I’m here for Terrence’s package! Terrence’s! Which one is it?”

Curled up in a ball on the floor with his arms clutching his head protectively as he was, Murray was clearly beyond understanding this distinction.

“Okay, fine then! This is on you! Honor your fuckin agreements!” Choke hollered at Murray.

Choke yanked his longsword out of the floor and grabbed the biggest of the packages. Then he hurried downstairs with it to get outside and see what might be facing them there.

read part 15

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