The Children of Stron – part 18

Table of Contents (spoilers)

read part 1

read part 17

The hotel Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle spent the night in was in one of the bigger buildings in Bridgetown, which still made it fairly small. The lobby and rooms were cramped, but otherwise rather luxurious. It was by far the nicest place the lads had ever stayed in. They each had their own room, which was quite a luxury in of itself. Pinch and Knuckle each decided to have a woman join them for one hour at a rate of two silver per hour.

The lads were completely exhausted when they turned in, so it was past noon when they all finally gathered in the lobby. Choke, of course, was up first. He read his Holy Book while he waited. Eventually he was joined by Pinch and Knuckle, who came downstairs together happily comparing notes on their bedroom adventures.

“Okay, so what’s the plan? I’m starving!” Knuckle said when they were all out in the street.

“So, Murrow said last night that we can pick up the horses anytime. That’s covered. So we’re in no rush. I am famished, too,” said Pinch.

“Indeed. Well, we can afford to treat ourselves. Why don’t we go back to the Scorched Apprentice? I keep thinking about those sandwiches,” Choke said.

“Good call!” Knuckle exclaimed, clapping Choke on the back.

“Yeah, and that fish head stout, too. Let’s do it!” Pinch agreed.

It was only a five-minute walk to the restaurant, but they once again had to wait about half an hour to be seated. The same waitress as last time greeted them with the same winning smile.

“Couldn’t keep away, could ye, boys?”

“Oh, ye know it!” Knuckle said.

“So what’ll it be? The same as last time? How did the wings treat ye?”

Pinch fielded this one with a wide grin:

“Oh, now that was mean of ye not to warn us properly about round two with those. But I want ye to know, that I did indeed think of ye when it was happening to me.”

“Oh did ye now? How sweet of ye. How about you two?” she grinned and Knuckle and Choke.

Choke blushed and looked away out the window to hide his sudden embarrassment.

“Fuck no,” Knuckle slapped his stomach. “Didn’t dent me! They haven’t made a chicken yet that can bring me down!”

“Oh, really! Is that a challenge to the chef?”

“No!” Pinch interjected. “But I think we can do the same as last time. D’ye remember the order?”

“Large reubens, pan-fried potatoes, and spicy wings all around. With the fish head stout.”

“That’s it exactly! You are a pro!” Pinch said.

“Well, ye lads made an impression. And it was just the day before yesterday. How about yar other two palls? They aren’t joining ye?”

“No, they’re off.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Oh ye liked Mannis, did ye? Ye don’t need him. We should be more than enough for ye, honey,” said Pinch.

“Oh, I’m quite sure of that, ye naughty boy. I’ll be right back with yar drinks.”

They relaxed with their stouts and the spicy wings until their sandwiches came. Pinch continuing to flirt with the waitress whenever he could. She was busy, but he was able to discover her name was Ella, she was single, and she had no interest in going on a tour of the countryside with them. During these exchanges, she seemed to enjoy herself as much as Pinch and Knuckle.

When they had slowed down and were picking over the chicken bones for any bits of gristle they had missed, Pinch struck a serious tone:

“So, this was Strana. Coulda gone a lot worse. A lot worse.”

“No doubt. So, what’s next?” Knuckle asked.

“Well, I don’t know about the two of you. I am riding straight for Spaggot where I will present myself to Brother Barrelmender for his consideration,” Choke said.

“So it’s back to the Brothers for ye, then,” Knuckle said.

“Of course.”

“And us?” Knuckle gestured between himself and Pinch.

“You are both welcome to join me. But, if you do, you need to accept that I am the leader of our squad. If you can accept this, then I would be happy to continue on with you. This is just as Brother Willem wanted it. And Mannis was right: we make a good team. It would be a shame to split us up,” Choke finished.

“What’re ye thinking, Knuckle?” Pinch asked.

“Well, I hear what yar saying, Choke. I do. All their bullshit aside, the Brothers have been good to us. But don’t ye think we should think about Terrence’s offer, too?”

“No. I don’t,” Choke said calmly as Pinch started laughing.

“Oh, here we go!” Pinch exclaimed happily as he continued to laugh.

“No! Really! Think about it! Barrelmender’ll still be there in a month. Why not chill out here and do a couple more jobs with Terrence? Best of both worlds!” Knuckle said earnestly.

Ella, their waitress, was clearing a nearby table just then. At Knuckle’s mention of Terrence, she visibly tensed and shot them an alarmed look. Then she hurried her work to get away from them as quickly as she could. Knuckle missed this completely, but both Choke and Pinch took note of her reaction and exchanged a significant glance.

“Knuckle,” Pinch said, giving him a cease-and-desist hand gesture. “Watch what yar saying. That name isn’t one ye wanna be shouting around here, huh?”

“What? Oh, right. But ye get what I’m saying, right?”

“I understand why you are saying what you are, but I disagree completely,” said Choke.

“But why? Terr— the guy, I mean, he’s been really great, hasn’t he?”

“You mean after he implicitly threatened to kill us over a fraudulent two silver piece debt?”

“And forty coppers,” Pinch amended, still quite amused by the whole conversation.

“Okay, yeah. But since then he’s been great,” Knuckle pushed.

“I will give you that, Knuckle. He can appear a very reasonable and nice man. Until he has a reason not to be. We saw how quickly he can make that turn. He was being nice to us yesterday because we did what he wanted. He was buttering us up. I understand that he wants to recruit us. He made that obvious. And I understand why that would be appealing to you, Knuckle. But it would be a terrible idea. Pinch what do you think? Should we go and work a little for that man before moving on? Stop giggling. This is serious!” Choke said.

Pinch pulled himself together. “Sorry. Yes it is. I agree with Choke, Knuckle. We should not be working for that outfit.”

“But why?”

“Well, for one thing,” Pinch went on, finally looking serious. “For one thing the guy is a whoremonger.”

“What? No. Why would ye say that?” Knuckle said.

“What the fuck else is going on there in Bridgetown, man? Harlotry. That’s it. So the man is above having to actually wrangle the hoors himself. But the people who do pay him a cut. And then he pays us in silver that we give right back to him by way of some girls he sends our way. If we start working for him, with whatever room and board we’d have to pay for, the guy’ll pretty much just be paying us with pussy.”

“So what’s the matter with that? I’m not talking forever here. Just a few weeks.”

“I wasn’t complaining last night, sure. So, yeah, it would be fun. No doubt. But ye get used to that life, Knuckle, there’ll be no going back for ye. It’ll be, ‘oh just one more job, guys!’ And then they got ye. Me too, probably. And is that a life ye want? Seriously. Doing muscle work, killing, for a man running whores. Where does that lead?” Pinch said earnestly.

“The man told us where. It leads to wondering when your right-hand-man is gonna cut your throat to steal what you have. And that’s the best-case scenario,” Choke said.

“Exactly,” Pinch agreed. “Then there’s the fact that we aint cut out for that kinda work. We don’t understand this world. Choke is right, man, we are really bad at it. There’s no way we’d last long.”

“No, fuck that, man. The man himself told us, ‘good work.’ We got the job done and made it back. We didn’t even need to worry about it. We coulda just rode back to his joint straight across the bridge, he said! So what the fuck? How is it we’re bad at it? How?” Knuckle said, his voice rising in anger.

“The guy said, ‘good work,’ because we brought him what he wanted,” said Pinch. “Beyond that he wouldn’t care less if we’d died or gotten clapped in irons to be sent to the gallows. He’d be, ‘oh well. Easy come, easy go. Whad’ye want for lunch, Eli?’ And the fact that we coulda just rode back over the bridge proves my point. We didn’t know that. We don’t think like these killers. And ye wanna get into bed with them?”

“What, we can’t learn? He was teaching us about it. He’ll teach us!” Knuckle said.

“He will tell us what he wants us to know to get us to do what he wants,” Choke said. “And we are disposable to him. And Pinch is right: we don’t understand these people. Think about it. We were all worried that the package didn’t exist. And you bring it up to him, and he treats it like a joke. Because he’s so shady that he’s thinking five moves beyond that.”

“Okay. So we’re disposable to him. What, ye think we aint gonna be to the Brothers? They never send the likes of us into battle to die? What’s the difference?”

“The difference is, Theodas, is that they won’t do it lightly and will do so for a just cause. For a higher purpose. For the faith and the faithful. Go work for that evil man and you will be murdering just to line his pockets.”

Knuckle finally gave up arguing, and now sat pondering this with a deep scowl. Choke decided he had indulged Knuckle’s horny foolishness enough.

“Listen, Knuckle, you do what you want. You can come with us to Spaggot or go to work in Bridgetown. But you cannot do both. And you need to decide, because we are leaving this place today.”

“Yeah, okay. Fine! It was just a thought.”

“Yeah, ye do come up with some doozies when ye put yar mind to it, I’ll give ye that,” Pinch laughed. Then he spotted Ella hurrying by with another table’s food. “Ella! We’re ready to go, can we settle up when ye have a moment? Thanks!”

Ella nodded curtly and hurried back into the kitchen after delivering the order. She came back with a middle-aged man in a sauce-splattered apron. He approached their table cautiously.

“Hello. I’m Otto. This is my restaurant. I just want to thank ye for eating here today. It’s a real pleasure to serve ye!”

“Huh? Okay. You’re welcome. The food’s great! Loved it! And the stout!” Knuckle said.

Pinch looked puzzled as to why this was happening. Choke sighed.

“So, I just wanna welcome ye guys to the neighborhood, and let ye know that if there’s anything we can do to help ye out, just let us know. And that today’s meal is on the house. Just consider it a welcome to the neighborhood,” Otto said nervously.

“Huh? What?” Knuckle said.

“Ohhhh, shit,” said Pinch.

“No, it’s fine. My pleasure,” Otto said hurriedly. “I just wish I knew ye guys were with Terrence when ye came. We wouldn’t of let ye stand in line outside like we did. I’m sorry, we didn’t know.”

“Listen, sir, we aren’t with Terrence. I’m sorry if we gave anyone that impression,” Choke said.

“Oh, okay. Well that’s fine! It’s fine. But today’s on the house. With our compliments!” Otto went on.

“No. Thank you, sir. But I really must insist we pay for our meal.”

“No, I really couldn’t. It’s on the house. Please. Just give Terrence our regards if ye see him.”

Choke sighed deeply as he tried to remember what Mannis had paid for their meal before. He was fairly sure it had been about two and a half silver.

“Okay, sir, I understand the position you’re in. So we’ll call this a gratuity then, shall we?” Choke pulled out two silver pieces and set them on the table. “Thank you very much. The food was excellent.”

“Oh, no. I really couldn’t accept that. It’s fine, sir.”

“No, you take it. That’s final. Thank you, sir,” Choke said, standing up and heading for the door without looking back. Knuckle and Pinch followed him out.

“Well, shit,” Pinch said as they stood out in the street. “I think that just scared me more than anything else. Let’s get the fuck outta this city before anything else fucked up happens.”

“Agreed. Let’s get the horses and ride for Spaggot. The sooner we can connect with Barrelmender, the better,” Choke said.

The stable Terrence’s men had taken their horses to was not difficult to find. Their horses and gear were all in good order, and the groom insisted there was no charge. Choke tipped him nonetheless.

Out in the street, Knuckle grinned widely as he secured his new crossbow and quiver on his saddle. Then he patted his stomach.

“Ye two can piss and moan alls ye want about how we fucked things up and how Strana’s a pit of vipers and all the rest. I aint buying it. Two days in town and I been laid twice and had four epic meals I didn’t pay a thin fuckin copper for. And we’re riding outta here with pouches full of silver and a pair of fuckin crossbows. And the next time we come to town we got a connect for the best deal for the best pussy for hire in the city that’s famous for pussy! If that aint an epic fuckin win, then I don’t know what is!” Knuckle finished happily.

“Well, I can’t argue with ye there, Knuckle,” Pinch said. “But all good things must come to an end.”

“I guess so. So alright, Choke. Lead on to Barrelmender and the Brothers of the Holy Stone. Ye done alright for us so far, so I suppose I’ll follow ye into whatever bullshit that turns out to be. So lead on,” Knuckle gave Choke a cheeky salute.

“Spaggot here we come!” Pinch said. “The only question, I suppose, is how the hell do we get started? We’re on the wrong side of the river, and I don’t like the thought of riding through the northside in broad daylight. Whatever Terrence said about it.”

“Indeed. The Dwarf may not be out for us, but we have to assume teamsters are. And with the amount of freight and barge traffic coming and going on the northside, there are going to be a lot of teamsters around. We can’t risk it,” Choke said.

“So I guess we have to head back out to the west the way we came into the city and cross the river again. That ox guy said there’s a big ferry about a day’s ride downstream,” said Pinch.

“I suppose that’s our best bet,” Choke winced. “But we have to assume that will be crawling with teamsters as well. Maybe we should try to find someone with a boat and cross the same as last time.”

“That’s a thought. Anyways, west it is. Let’s get a move on and see what we see,” Pinch said.

“Fuckin A! Here we go!” Knuckle said as he held his fist out between his two mates.

Pinch and Choke each bumped Knuckle’s fist in turn. Then they mounted up and rode out the westend’s west gate. After a few minutes, they reined up to have a look back at the city, with the Mage Tower gleaming in the afternoon sun.

Reflecting on the city and their time in it, Choke could not help but think that Knuckle might be right. They had come and drunk deep of the city, each in his own way, and were leaving in a better position for it. There would be time later to repent of the sin they had accrued.

With this thought, Choke turned his back on the city and struck out west. His two men fell in behind him as though it were the most natural thing in the world to do so.

read part 19

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