Choke came out of the Double Horseshoes Freight office with his sword in one hand and what he hoped was a package that would satisfy Terrence in the other. The burlap and twine wrapped package was about the size of a cake box and seemed dense; weighing just under ten kilos.
Choke was relieved to see Pinch and Knuckle standing in front of their horses, and that Pinch had put Choke’s saddlebags back on his saddle. Pinch had his bow out with an arrow notched. Knuckle had both Lenny and Murray’s crossbows, one in each hand, with the quivers slung over his shoulder. The street immediately in front of the freight office was empty, but a big crowd had gathered a little ways down the street towards the docks.
The crowd seemed mostly to be normal townsfolk with a good number of dockworkers in the mix. Choke’s asshole clenched when he saw a small squad of city guardsmen standing outside of the dockyards’ entrance with a bunch of dockyard guards, clerks, and bosses. However, none of them seemed in any hurry to do anything.
“Why aren’t they coming to arrest us?” Choke asked as he tied the package down behind his saddle and then grabbed his spear.
“I dunno. I guess they figure this is someone else’s problem,” Pinch said.
“Well let’s get outta here before we have to meet whoever that is,” Choke said.
He mounted up and held his hand out for one of the crossbows that Knuckle was holding. Knuckle handed him one along with a quiver and then mounted his own horse. Choke slid his spear through his shield’s handle where it was slung on the back of his saddle and stuck its butt down into his stirrup where he could hold it in place with his boot. This was a standard way to ride with the weapon that secured the spear pointed up just behind him. Now, it also afforded him the ability to hold the loaded crossbow as he rode.
Choke rode out into the middle of the street and wheeled his mount to have a look all around. The street they were on was a main one that ran east-west all through the northside along the Olga River. With the dockyards between them and the Olga Bridge and the street crowded with people staring right at them, there was no way they were going to be going that way. Choke, Knuckle, and Pinch kicked their horses into a canter heading west away from the bridge.
As they left Double Horseshoes Freight, the crowd moved in to find out what had happened there, but no one followed them beyond that.
With the riverfront buildings directly to their left, the next proper intersection had just one street going off to their right. Their street continued west into the ironworking quarter, so Choke reined up to have a good look down the intersecting street to the right. Hurrying down it, coming straight at them on foot, was a small gang of burly men. There was about eight of them, which included the Double Horseshoes’ clerk, as well as Cliff and Pete, the two goons that had first come into the front office.
“That’s them!” the clerk stabbed his finger at the Pekot boys.
The two squads faced off with about twenty-meters between them. The five goons with the Double Horseshoes’ men looked tough and dangerous, for city muscle. Three of them were in leather armor. Two of them had crossbows, and they all bore axes, clubs, or shortswords. But they were no match for three fully armed and armored men-at-arms on horseback, and they knew it. The gang stopped in their tracks and glared at the Pekot boys, but did nothing to provoke them.
“Go!” Choke barked to Pinch and Knuckle as he gestured west to the ironworking quarter. He wheeled his horse, keeping his crossbow pointed generally towards the gang and then he spurred his mount to catch up.
“Okay, now what?” Knuckle asked as the three cantered through the ironworking quarter towards the city wall.
“I think we get the fuck outta town!” Pinch said.
“Agreed,” said Choke.
“But what about Terrence and his package? All that and we’re just gonna fuck off?” Knuckle said.
“Well, whad’ye wanna do? Ride all the way back through the northside and cross over the only fuckin bridge right in plain view of the docks?” Pinch snapped.
“No. But there’s gotta be something else we can do!” Knuckle said.
“Let’s get out of town and ride west along the river. Then we can cross at some point and come back on the south side. Then we can get to Bridgetown without going anywhere near the northside,” Choke said.
“Yeah, okay. Good idea!” Knuckle grinned.
Pinch nodded his assent.
“So, what the fuck happened up there?” Knuckle asked.
“Not now,” Choke ordered. “Let’s focus on getting out of town and then we can compare notes. Alright?”
It turned out leaving Strana was not the slightest bit difficult. Their street went right through the ironworking quarter and to a big gatehouse in the northside’s defensive stone wall. The gate was open and the guardsmen there all indolently relaxed. Not one of them gave them more than a second glance as they rode on through.
Riding west on the road out of town, the lads eyeballed the river next to them.
“Whad’ye think? Can we just swim the horses across?” Knuckle thought out loud.
The Olga River there was wide, muddy, and slow. But it was deep enough to allow barge traffic.
“Fully armored? With all our kit? We could probably make it if we really had to. But if one of us goes into the drink in armor or with weapons on, he’s finished. And we could easily lose anything we tie down on the horses,” he said.
The lads decided to push on downstream and see what they could find. In a further piece of luck, the road west was excellent and hugged the Olga River’s bank tightly. Riding along it, the lads soon saw why that was. Coming towards them was a large team of oxen pulling a river barge upstream on a long towrope. Looking for some information, they reined up to turn around and fall in with the team’s driver, who walked out in front of the oxen with the morose plod of a lifer.
“Good-day to ye, sir,” Pinch said. “I wonder if we might trouble ye to ask about the road ahead for us.”
“Yeah, I suppose ye will. It’s not like I could stop ye, is it?”
“No, I suppose not. Anyway, how far downstream is it until there’s a bridge or a ferry capable of taking a horse across?”
“Downstream? What?” the man glared at them irritably. “The city’s right there! The bridge is free! Just go back to town. Ohh! I get it. Bridgetown got its hooks into ye, did it? That way’s closed to ye now,” the man finished, giving them a sly look.
“Something like that,” Pinch answered. “So, about getting across downstream.”
“Well, there aint no bridge. And the next proper ferry is way down at Kirby, which I guess ye could reach by nightfall. But there’s a guy with a little boat up at the next roadhouse, a couple hours’ ride along, I suppose. I don’t think ye’d be getting yar horses into that, though.”
“Alright, then, Thank you, sir,” Pinch said.
The driver nodded and then coughed expectantly at them.
“What? Oh, right. Shit,” Pinch said, looking over at Choke.
“Yes, of course,” Choke said. He took the time to raise up his mail and extract their coin purse. Then he flicked the driver a big, twenty-copper coin.
“Obliged, sir,” the man said happily, tugging on his forelock.
The lads wheeled their horses around and carried on down the road heading west.
“Ye tipped him pretty heavy, didn’t ye? That’s like a whole night’s drinking out in the country,” Knuckle griped as they rode.
“Yes, and do we want that fellow feeling hard done by us when he’s heading right to the docks having figured out that we’re on the run from some trouble?” Choke said.
“Shit,” Pinch said with a tone suggesting he had just thought of another problem.
“What now?” Knuckle said.
“Well, that outfit we jacked. Murray and Lenny, they’re teamsters, right?” Pinch said.
“Well, that guy was a teamster too. The word’s gonna be out, right? So as soon as he talks to anyone, they’re gonna know that our plan is to cross the river and head back to Strana on the southwest side.”
“How are they gonna know that?” Knuckle asked, a picture of confusion.
“Fuck sakes, Knuckle! We told Murray that we wanted Terrence’s package. Then we fucked them up and took it. Now we just told a fuckin teamster that we’re in trouble in town and wanna cross the river. How long d’ye think its gonna take them to figure out our plan?” said Pinch.
“Yeah, so what if they do?”
“We jacked up some shady teamsters, ye fucking moron! Ye think all the other teamsters are gonna let that shit slide? They’re gonna be out looking to fuck us up!” Pinch yelled.
“Okay! Fine! Got it. So, whad’ye wanna do about it? Should we go back and take out that mule driver?” Knuckle asked.
“What? No!” Choke yelled. “Murder now? Of a working man! In full sight of the barge he’s towing! Have you lost your mind? Do you really think further escalation is the answer here? Altas save us! I cannot believe how bad we are at this! We have lost our way and are being punished for it!”
“Okay, okay. I wouldn’t go that far. That shit at the warehouse was tight, man. We sorted that shit out,” Knuckle said.
“No! We did not!” Choke screamed. “We let all the workers escape immediately! To run and tell anyone they wanted what was going on! The only reason we aren’t in shackles right now is that the city guard, for some reason, didn’t care about what was happening. We are really bad at this! Really, really bad! We just identified ourselves to a teamster and told him what our plan is! Fuck!”
“Okay. Yes. That’s true. But what are we gonna do about it now?” Pinch said calmly.
“We gotta get that fuckin package to Terrence, man. Or else he’s gonna be thinking we stole his shit, on top of everything else,” Knuckle said.
“Convenient, Knuckle, that your preferred course of action is one that ingratiates us to a gangster that has the biggest den of whores in the kingdom under his thumb,” Choke said.
“Well am I fuckin wrong? What do you wanna do?” Knuckle said.
“I think we should throw this package in the river and ride for Spaggot. Go to work for Barrelmender and the Brothers of the Holy Stone,” Choke said.
“And just forget about coming to Strana ever again?”
“Forgetting about Strana sounds just fine to me,” Choke said.
“No. That does not work for me,” Knuckle answered.
“Me neither,” Pinch said. “In for a copper, in for a gold, man. We have the package. If we don’t finish the job, we’ll have done everything for nothing.”
“Yeah,” Knuckle agreed. “Choke, ye said before that we could swim the horses across the river if we really needed to. Well, I think that we really need to now. Let’s just get across and back into town before that teamster gets there. The rate he was going, it’ll take him another couple of hours, at least.”
“This is true,” Pinch said.
“And I don’t fuckin think that they’re gonna send a bunch of riders out to fuck us up over us roughing up a couple of assholes. They had it coming!” Knuckle said.
“Says Terrence,” Pinch said. “We have to assume they’ll do something. We should risk the swim.”
Choke shook his head. “No. It’s too risky. We are fully armored and geared up. And Knuckle, I am sorry to say, but with you being the size you are, you are not a good enough rider to pull it off. Any little mistake and someone drowns. There’s no margin for error.”
“Well, so what then? Ride a fuckin day outta town to the ferry and then a day back on a road that’s gonna be swarming with teamsters? Not good, man!” Knuckle barked.
“No! What did that guy say? There’s a roadhouse with a guy with a little boat just a ways along, right?” Choke said.
“Yeah, and the horses won’t fit in it, he said.”
“So what? We hire him to take you and all our armor and heavy gear across,” Choke said to Knuckle. “Then me and Pinch can manage swimming all three of our horses across. And that should get us back in town before things get too hairy. Maybe.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s a better shot than anything else. Yeah. Let’s do it,” Pinch said.
They kicked their horses up into a canter from the easy jog they had been riding at. They reached the roadhouse in just over an hour, where they wolfed down a quick lunch and located the boatman. He agreed to take Knuckle and their gear across for twenty copper pieces. It seemed quite likely that this was double the going rate, but they were in no position to argue.
The boat was about five meters long and two wide, with a small mast. Choke and Pinch stripped off their weapon belts and armor and loaded them into the boat along with all their gear and saddles. To make it as easy as possible on the horses, and to keep their saddles dry, Pinch and Choke would swim the horses across bareback. They decided that as the best rider, Choke would go first, leading Knuckle’s mount. Pinch would follow. Finally, the boatman would do his best to follow behind them to provide help if anything went wrong.
When they were all set, the boatman pushed off and let his boat drift about twenty meters out into the current. He did not bother to unfurl the sail, and piloted the boat by working a single, long, tilling oar straight out the back. He had given Knuckle a long paddle, just in case, but Knuckle had declared that with what they were paying, he would not be using it.
The boatman pointed the prow upstream and worked his oar easily to keep pace with the current and wait for Choke and Pinch. Just downstream of the boat launch, the bank was beaten down to a smooth grade where the barge oxen and other livestock were brought into the river to bathe and drink. It was a simple matter to ride out into the water and then just keep going. Being properly trained mounts, the horses did not balk.
When the water got deep and the horses began swimming, Choke and Pinch slid off their backs and held onto their necks by the mane and bridle. This way, the horses needed only pull the floating men along beside them. Choke held on to Knuckle’s mount with a long lead. As the horses swam out into the current, the boatman let his vessel drop in behind them at a safe distance.
The slow, muddy water of the Olga gave them no surprises and they were able to make the crossing without any trouble, but even so, they came out quite a bit downstream of where they had put in. This was no problem, as the bank was agreeable and they could easily clamber up into a farmer’s field. Then they unloaded Knuckle and their gear from the boat. They were on their way again just as soon as they resaddled the horses.
Not wanting to put their armor on over wet underclothes, Choke and Pinch rode with their armor draped on their saddles in front of them. However, in the warm afternoon sun with a pleasant breeze, they were dry in no time. Once they were, they stopped to armor themselves. With simple leather armor, Pinch managed this by himself. Knuckle dismounted to help Choke get into his quilted wool doublet and then the chainmail that went on over it. Now they made sure their Stronian Wheels were outside their armor and plainly visible.
Then, properly kitted out once more, the lads rode on for Strana.