Riding into Strana again, this time from the west, the Mage Tower once more graced them with its grand beauty. This time, however, it seemed to Choke that it loomed more than before. The unknown that it represented now seemed more promising of peril than it did excitement and adventure.
At least the road was good. Like the one on the other bank, it was wide with a fine surface. With the north bank being used for the ox teams to pull the river barges, the south bank road did not stick to the river so closely. It took a more direct line through the farmland and hamlets.
After twenty minutes of riding, the lads met a large stagecoach coming their way from Strana. Along with the driver, there were crossbow toting guards seated up top both front and back. Choke and the others tensed as they passed the coach, looking over the teamsters to see how they would react to them. There was only the vigilant gaze of professionals on the job.
“Well, that’s a relief. So far so good,” Pinch said as they rode along
“Yeah. So far. Stay sharp,” Choke said.
“Okay. But what do we do if someone gets hard on us?” Knuckle asked.
“Nothing violent, is what. We threaten them to leave us alone, if need be. But stay quiet and follow my lead,” Choke said.
“And if we get detained, or arrested?” Pinch asked.
Choke paused at this, giving it a long thought before speaking:
“If it’s proper city guardsmen or the law, then we surrender. If it’s a gang of teamsters, or otherwise, we demand they get the law, or we’ll fight. Then, if we do get arrested, our story is this: We were on an errand for Terrence, who we assume to be a local business owner. At the Double Horseshoes we were greeted with hostility and threats, which is basically true. Then, up in the office, when I pressed them on the package, Murray and Lenny moved to attack us. We acted in self-defense. That’s basically the truth, anyways. Basically,” Choke said darkly. Then he continued:
“The important thing is, once in custody, we need to ask to see Terrence. To make it clear that we were acting on his behalf and that the package is his property. He seems to have the guard in his pocket, so that’ll probably work to our benefit.”
“At least in Bridgetown he does. I imagine that’s a pretty local arrangement,” Pinch said. “But, yeah, I guess that’s the best way to play it.”
“Whatever we do, though,” Choke said sharply, speaking directly to Knuckle now, “it is critical that we not injure or kill any more people. No matter what. We might be able to explain away what happened at the warehouse. But anything more will be crime, pure and simple. Understood?”
“Huh? What?” Knuckle said.
“No more violence! Am I clear?”
“Yeah, sure. What the fuck, man? Why ye looking at me like that?”
“Because, Knucklehead, you’re the one who’s most likely to escalate things and get us hanged,” Choke snapped.
“Uh-huh? Ye know what? Ye’ve been giving me the stink-eye since we rode outta Strana. Ye got something else ye wanna say to me?” Knuckle said, reining up to glare at Choke properly.
Choke wheeled his horse around to face Knuckle:
“Well, now that you mention it, it does bother me that you let all the warehouse workers escape and run right by our horses. It’s no thanks to you that we have them right now!”
“What the fuck? There was like, what, eight of them or some shit. What the fuck was I supposed to do?”
“Stay at yar fuckin post, is what!” Choke yelled with his first ever use of a drill sergeant voice. “You were assigned to stay at the fuckin door and watch the horses! If you had, you’d of also had a clear view of the bay doors, and you might have been able to scare the workers into staying in the warehouse! That’s no guarantee, sure, but it was a better shot than burping ‘rape’ at them and then chasing them out into the street like a fuckin city dog loose among the chickens! Smarten up!”
Choke and Knuckle glared at each other for a long time. Having grown up with this man, Choke could see his struggle to contain his temper. It would boil up in him, rising to what might become a killing rage, only to be reined in at the last moment. Then it would boil up again. In a moment of clarity, Choke realized what it was holding Knuckle back: his years of conditioned obedience, drilled into him by the Brothers at the orphanage. He realized that if he was to be this man’s leader, this was his moment to fully take that role, or to lose it forever.
“Knuckle. Theodas,” Choke said, using Knuckle’s Stronian name with great emphasis. “I have no hold over you. You can go your separate way. Now, or after we give the package to Terrence. That is your right. But. If you decide to ride on with me, understand this: When I give you an assignment or an order, you will follow it. I will not have this conversation with you again. The next time you fail in this regard, we will part ways. Is that clear?”
Knuckle glared murderously at Choke for a while more, before his obedient self won over, just as Brother Willem had predicted it would.
“Bartholomew, sir. Yes, sir,” Knuckle said, his crisp enunciation of Choke’s Stronian name giving clear notice that their friendship was over.
“Good. Carry on,” Choke said.
It was only as they rode on that Choke released his tension in a deep sigh, for a moment overwhelmed with a wave of profound sadness.
They reached Strana in midafternoon having passed or met many more carriages, coaches, wagons, and riders. None of them gave any sign of alarm or hostility, besides the normal caution of meeting three men-at-arms on the open road, and one of them a Scythan.
The southwest side of Strana was at least as big as the northside, and much more tightly packed. The northside had been quite sprawling, with wide roads and many yards to allow for its industry and commerce. The southwest side was much more classically mediaeval in nature, with tightly packed stone buildings and narrow, cobbled streets and lanes. It was all contained within a tall, defensive stone wall much more formidable than its northside counterpart.
Choke and his two men rode up to the large gatehouse as though they had every right to be there. It was open and teeming will well-armed guardsmen. None of them paid Choke and the others any mind, though, and they rode straight through into Strana once again.
The street that their road turned into was wide and pleasant. It led them directly to the southwest side’s main square. Straight through that, the thoroughfare continued on to Bridgetown. Within ten minutes of riding through the gates, they were tethering their horses outside Terrence’s bistro next to the Mage Tower’s market square. No one had looked at them twice.
Choke left his spear and shield on his horse, but brought his saddlebags, crossbow, and quiver into the bistro along with the package. Knuckle and Pinch brought along their bow and crossbow as well.
In the bistro, there were a number of patrons, some of whom looked to be mages, quietly enjoying drinks or a late lunch. The patrons seemed more amused than bothered by them, but the waiter gave them a very exasperated look.
“With the horses outside too? Really? Go through the kitchen and wait out back. Now,” the waiter ordered them.
The three of them did as they were told and went out into the tiny back alley behind the kitchen. It was here that Eli had first introduced them to Penn, their vulgar and abusive guide to the warehouse. Penn was there again, actually, standing around with a pair of other young rogues, just inside where the alley opened up to the market square.
“Oh, if it isn’t the deadbeat hicks!” Penn exclaimed with a grin. However as rude as his words were, his tone was friendly, and his body language was cautious, if not respectful.
“Don’t ye fuckin start! I’m not in the fuckin mood!” Knuckle stabbed his finger at the youth.
Penn held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Woah, big guy! No worries! Ye can pay me in yar own time. Just take it easy!” he laughed.
It was clear to Choke that Penn’s bravado was a show put on for his mates, because whatever he had heard about what had happened at the Double Horseshoes had definitely amended his attitude towards them. However, Knuckle had missed this nuance as he continued to glare at him. Just then, Pinch nudged Choke with his elbow and alerted him with a significant look towards a dark nook in the wall near Penn and his two mates. Looking there, Choke could make out the handles of what looked to be a number of clubs or wooden-hafted weapons.
“Knuckle. Be cool. They’re on the job,” Pinch said, giving his big friend a slap on the shoulder. Then he addressed Penn and his mates: “Carry on, lads. We’ll set ye right shortly, Penn.”
“I have no doubt. Much obliged to ye, governor!” Penn said, tugging on his forelock.
They had to wait in the alley for almost half an hour for Eli to get to them. He joined them not from the bistro’s kitchen, but from further back in the alley. He now had on a weaponbelt with a basket-hilted broadsword and an iron buckler shield, but was unarmored. There were two other goons with him, each with a crossbow.
“Well, ye kicked the fuckin hornet’s nest didn’t ye!” Eli said by way of greeting. However, his tone was cheerful, and he gave them a respectful nod.
“What’s up? Did someone attack?” Knuckle asked.
Eli shook his head. “Nah. Just being careful, is all.”
“‘Those who want peace prepare for war,’” Choke said.
“Yeah. No shit! I like that!” said Eli.
“It’s a quotation. We need to speak to Terrence,” Choke said.
“Ye got what he sent ye for?”
“Perhaps. That’s something I shall discuss with him.”
“Well, Terrence told me to check the shit first, so I’ll take it from here,” Eli said, eyeballing the package at Choke’s feet with a greedy gleam in his eye.
“No. I hand this over to Terrence and Terrence only. That’s that,” Choke said.
Eli stared at him.
“Look, Eli, you do what you need to do. But I’ve told you how it is on our end,” Choke said.
Neither Eli or Choke moved, but both Knuckle and Pinch shifted their weight and dropped their hands to their weapons.
“Okay, then. I’ll go fuckin tell him. He aint gonna like it, though,” Eli said.
“Well, I think I can live with that. As can he,” Choke finished.
“Wait here,” Eli said, as he turned to leave the way he had come.
“Like we’ve been doing. Sure. One thing, though,” Choke said, bringing Eli up short.
“Our horses out front.”
“What about them? They’re safe. Nobody’s gonna fuck with them. We got eyes on the street.”
“Okay. That’s good. But who else does too? Anyone who does is going to know that we’re here now. If that’s not a problem for you, okay then,” said Choke.
“That might’ve been something ye coulda fuckin thought about before ye tied them up out front, huh?” Eli snapped.
“Perhaps. But I wasn’t expecting to be kept waiting here all afternoon like some kind of lackey. And I had no way of knowing where it might be safe to leave them. The guys we spoke to for Terrence are teamsters, are they not?”
Eli glared at Choke for a long moment before saying:
“I’ll ask Terrence what he wants done about it.”
“Thank you,” said Choke.
Eli looked to the two crossbowmen with him. “You two stay here and make sure that fuckin package don’t go nowhere.” Then he left the way he had come.
Once he had gone, Penn started laughing.
“Oh, man! Ye got some balls on ye!” he said to Choke. “Talking to Eli like that? He don’t take kindly to that. Some balls!”
“Oh, ye wanna talk about balls, do ye?” Pinch returned. “Yar one to talk!”
“Hey, I just call it like I see it. And the three of ye have yet to prove me wrong. But I know where to draw the line, and I would not be getting up in Eli’s ass if I were you.”
“Thank you for your concern. We will settle with you just as soon as Terrence has with us,” Choke said.
“Yeah, yeah. So ye keep saying. I’m looking forward to it!”
Eli returned within minutes and snapped his finger into a gesture for Choke and the others to follow him. Choke nodded for Pinch to go ahead, and then followed right behind him, leaving Knuckle to take up their rear with the two crossbowmen following him. They all went single file down the alley and around a corner to a narrow wooden door that was almost rotted off its hinges. Through that, they went down a few stone steps and into a large room with a very low ceiling. There was no luxury to the space whatsoever, with its old wood and stone dimly lit by flickering lanterns. There were a number of long tables with bench seating and about a dozen cots along one side. There were three other narrow stairways out of it: two up and one down. The gurgling of running water could be heard from the stairway down. The whole place smelled mildewed and funky.
Terrence was sitting at a table playing cards with three tough-looking men. He had on a weaponbelt sporting the rapier and longdagger that had been displayed on the wall behind his desk. His Dwarven heavy crossbow was loaded on the bench next to him. The men he was playing cards with had similar arsenals at hand.
“Boys!” Terrence grinned widely at Choke and the others. “What kept ye! I was beginning to think we weren’t gonna see ye again.”
He set his cards down on the table and turned around on the bench to face them.
“Have a seat,” he said, pointing to one of the empty tables near them. Choke and the others took a seat, all side by side with their back to the wall to face Terrence and his men with the table between them. They leaned their bows against the wall behind them and Choke set the package down on the table.
“Is that my shit?” Terrence asked, across the room, pointing at it.
“I don’t know. When I asked Murray for your package, he told me it was in a lockbox. When I got into that, there was a whole bunch of packages, and Murray was too… distracted to be of any more help. So I grabbed this one, which was the biggest.”
“No shit? Well, that was good thinking. Probably. Let’s see what ye got, huh?” Terrence said.
He stood up and grabbed his crossbow off the bench before moving over to their table. On his way, he handed the crossbow to Eli, who was still standing near the entrance they had come in with his two men flanking him. Eli gripped the weapon comfortably and leveled it at a spot just over Choke’s head.
Of course, the crossbows Choke and Knuckle had been carrying, as well as the two Eli’s goons sported, were not drawn and loaded. A drawn crossbow is fully stressed. This is a strain on the locking mechanism and all its other parts. As well, with large unguarded triggers, they are easily set off, and the quarrels tend not to stay in place without care and attention.
However, with Terrence’s weapon being a high-end Dwarven crossbow, he did not have to worry over such petty concerns. With all of its load-bearing parts machined from the highest-grade spring steel, his crossbow could bear the stress of its draw weight at length. With a small, guarded trigger and a thumb safety, there was no danger of it discharging accidentally. Finally, it had a clever spring clip over the locking mechanism to hold the quarrel in place at its rear, as well as a magnetic trough at its front to secure the iron head. With an on-board fold-away hand crank it could be loaded in under twenty seconds by a skilled operator. This was slightly slower than the hand drawn light crossbows everyone else in the room had, but the Dwarven bow was many times stronger; able to punch through even plate armor.
In Eli’s hands, it was a fearsome weapon just then. Guaranteed death for one of them, cradled in his palms.
Terrence sat down opposite Choke and drew his sleeve stiletto with a smile. Then he pulled the package his way and cut through its string. Under the burlap wrapping was more twine holding six wooden slats into the form of a box. Terrence sliced through that and released eight more smaller, rectangular packages, which tumbled out onto the table as the slats fell. Terrence gathered up all the string, burlap, and slats and handed it to one of the crossbow goons who hopped to receive it.
With a well-pleased attitude, and his stiletto still in hand, Terrence stacked up the smaller packages neatly into a line in front of him.
“Eight,” Terrence said to Eli over his shoulder, who grunted.
Terrence picked up one of the packages, held it under his nose and smelled it deeply. He sighed happily.
The packages were all identically wrapped in dark, finely-woven fabric. The wrapping was sealed in the center of the packages’ widest face with a big blob of red sealing wax with some manner of crest in it. Terrence looked at the seal carefully before smiling, first at Eli and then Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle. He slid his stiletto back into his left sleeve.
“Fuckin Alquinians, huh? They do a nice job of anything, don’t they? I mean, look at how they wrapped this up, man. Beautiful!”
“You are satisfied, I take it?” said Choke.
“Oh, yeah. I am satisfied, my man. This is what I ordered, alright. But, I am happy to inform ye that ye did not grab my package. I paid for four kilos. Ye brought me eight. I’m not complaining, though.”
Terrence smiled at them again. Then he turned on the bench and held the package in his hand out to Eli.
“Eli. This one is yars, as agreed.”
Eli took his right hand off the crossbow’s stock and trigger to take the package. “Thank you Terrence.”
“No problem. Ye done good.”
Terrence stood up. “Go get me a sack from upstairs!” he said to the goons he had been playing cards with. Then he smiled down at Choke and the others again. “So, what are ye guys doing this evening?”
“Well, sir,” Choke said. “I think we’ll want to get paid and then push off. Before the guys on the northside get too wound up, I mean.”
“Nah, don’t worry about them. Yar fine here in Bridgetown. Westend too. Let’s go have a drink. We’ll settle up. And then ye can tell me all about it. I wanna hear all the fuckin details. And call me Terrence.”
“Well, I appreciate that, Terrence. There is a small matter of our horses out front, though.”
“Yeah, Eli mentioned ye were worried about that. Don’t worry about it. They’re safe, and I want them fuckin northenders knowing that ye guys got back here and brought me what I was owed. That chalks this up in the win column for me, right?”
“Well that’s good to know, Terrence,” Choke said. “But our horses have been ridden fairly hard today and really should be stabled properly if we’re going to be hanging out here. I suppose your people know where that can be done safely. For the night, I guess.”
“Oh, right, sure. Sorry. Horses aint my thing, right?” Terrence said. His man was back with the sack from upstairs, so Terrence gave him further orders as he took it from him:
“Bobby, grab somebody and get their horses from in front of Terry’s and put them in a good stable on the westend. Tell them that it’s for me and I want them treated extra special. Right?”
The man nodded and he and another of the card goons went upstairs.
“There ye go!” Terrence said. He then put the seven remaining packages into the sack. “Okay, then. Shall we?” he asked the lads, nodding towards the exit.