Sitting in the middle of the street, disarmed and surrounded by soldiers, Choke, Knuckle, Pinch, and Peep waited for the sheriff to come and decide their fate. The barkeep and owner of the Busted Unicorn had made an emphatic, if disorganized, case to the soldiers that they were scouts and spies for a Scythan invasion and ought to be summarily executed by disembowelment.
Of course, Choke and the others had surrendered immediately to the soldiers and had waited patiently for a chance to make their counterargument. Choke was not too worried about the situation. The soldiers had all acted decisively and correctly. Their sergeant, who had arrived on the scene within minutes, had things under firm control and did not seem hostile towards them. The normal folk that had packed the street were relaxed and curious. It seemed that the Busted Unicorn’s barkeep was not someone to be taken very seriously in the community.
While they waited for the sheriff, the soldiers dragged the two corpses out of the alley and laid them in the street next to the other two. One of them collected the severed head that had rolled out into the street and put it between its corpse’s legs.
In looking over the big man in the wolf-pelt cloak, the soldiers determined that he had been stabbed in the groin with his own knife before having his throat cut. The bloody buck knife Peep had surrendered to them fit the empty sheath on his belt.
“Alright, what do we have here?” the sheriff said loudly when he arrived. He was a big, middle-aged man wearing a tabard of the baron’s colors.
“It’s the Scythans! Look! This jink and his men killed four of my patrons!” the barkeep shouted.
“Did they now? Well, look at this!” the sheriff said peering down at Choke with a wide smile. “Ye finally caught yarself one, Callib! After all these years of going on about them, ye finally caught the phantom jink!”
This generated a good amount of laughter from the crowd. The barkeep, Callib, flushed.
“Well tell me I’m wrong now! Look! What else could it mean!” he yelled.
“I have no idea, but I mean to get to the bottom of it.”
“Yeah, you had better!”
The sheriff gave Callib an irritated look. “Okay now. Go back inside and take care of your surviving patrons. I’ll call for ye if I need ye.” Then the sheriff turned to the crowd and shouted loud:
“Alright! That’s it! Clear the street! Go about yar business!”
It seemed the sheriff was a person taken seriously, because everyone did as they were told. As the crowd began dispersing, the sheriff spoke quietly to the sergeant for a few minutes. Then he raised his voice to give the sergeant orders that everyone could hear:
“Okay, Geret. Good work. Can you have yar men take these four to the tower and tell Billy to lock them up in the main cell? Then, have someone bring the bodies and all their weapons and gear to the tower too. They can use the cart and donkey at the tower. I’m gonna talk to some people around here and then come and have a word with them.”
“Sure thing, sheriff,” the sergeant said, moving to assign his men.
“Oh, and tell Billy to put a pot of stugroot on,” the sheriff said to the sergeant, who nodded.
“Pardon me, sir. Are we under arrest?” Choke asked the sheriff.
“I don’t know yet. Are ye gonna come along to the tower peacefully so we can have a word about this mess and straighten things out?”
“Yes, sir, we will. But, I would like to note for the record that I can only speak for these two,” Choke gestured to Pinch and Knuckle. “This woman is not a member of our party, and I will not vouch for her intentions or conduct.”
“Oh! It’s a girl. Very well. Duly noted. You heard the man,” the sheriff said to the soldiers who were closing on Choke and the others. “Keep an eye on that one. And tell Billy to lock her up downstairs,” he pointed out Peep, who was sitting miserably, rocking gently as she stared at the dirt right in front of her.
The five soldiers walked Choke, Knuckle, Pinch, and Peep through town to a squat, round, stone tower at the base of the fort’s hill. It had a good-sized stable adjacent to it, with a large kennel to the other side. There were a lot of big dog voices barking and snarling as the soldiers took Choke and the others into the tower.
The whole first floor of the tower was a single room, cut roughly in half by an iron-barred cage. Inside that were some plain wooden benches and a big bucket. In the free part of the room was a large table with a number of wooden chairs and a cot next to a small iron cookstove. Along one wall there was a wide, curving staircase up to the level above. There was a wide assortment of ropes, manacles, and chains hanging from the walls or simply coiled up on the floor.
Billy the gaoler turned out to be a smaller, surly man wearing way more leather clothes than ought to have been necessary. He barely said a word to anyone. One of the soldiers relayed the sheriff’s orders to him:
“Waters wants this one locked up below. Said to put these three in the main cell. And put a pot of stugroot on. I guess he’ll wanna come have a word with them all shortly.”
Billy grunted and pulled a big key from his vest to unlock the main cage. Once Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle were locked up in it, he grabbed Peep by the hair and roughly shoved her face first down on the table. He searched her carefully without seeming to take too many liberties. Then he dragged Peep by the hem of her cloak over to open a heavy trapdoor in the floor. He pulled it up easily with its iron ring and took her into the basement. He shortly came up alone and dropped the trapdoor with a heavy bang.
With their orders discharged, the soldiers left Billy the gaoler alone with his charges. Billy set to work getting the fire in the cookstove stoked to put on a new pot of stugroot, a nasty-tasting black drink brewed from the dried and ground up root of the stug bush. A fairly strong stimulant, the root could be drunk as tea or chewed.
When Billy had the pot on the boil, he took a seat at the able and stared at Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle with deeply indifferent eyes. They chose to remain silent.
It took Sheriff Waters just under an hour to come and join them. He had another man with him. The man was of normal height and a lanky build, with a scraggly beard and slightly wan and stressed look about him. He was dressed as a woodsman in rugged hemp and wool clothing. His green and brown wool cloak was cut in a style vaguely reminiscent of Father Morrenthall’s cassock.
“The woman give ye any trouble?” Sheriff Waters asked Billy.
Billy grunted in the negative.
“Good. You may let these three out,” the sheriff gestured to Choke and his men. “Then we have four bandit corpses to deal with in the cart outside. One has already had his head off. Do the same for the other three and put the heads up at the crossroads. Then dispose of the bodies. Bring their belongings here. After that, I may have need of you downstairs.”
Billy grunted again and unlocked the cage door before leaving the tower.
“You can have a seat,” the sheriff said to the three, gesturing to the table. “You too, Thorn. Please have a seat. Stugroot, anyone?”
Everyone indicated that they would like a cup as they took a seat, with Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle sitting in a row opposite the woodsman, Thorn. Sheriff Waters poured five clay mugs of the astringent drink and set them down in front of everyone before sitting down himself.
“So. Holy Stoners, are ye?” the sheriff said to Choke.
Choke shood his head. “No, sir, we are not members of the order. Merely graduates of their Pekot orphanage on our way to enter the service of Brother Barrelmender. At the behest of the Pekot school’s headmaster, Brother Willem.”
“Yes, so Thorn tells me. Although he says you haven’t met. This is him. He’s Father Morrenthall’s scout and tracker. He’s vouched for ye, on behalf of the Father.”
“Well, thank you for that, sir,” Choke said.
“Yeah, sure. This is exactly the sorta bullshit I wanted to be doing in the middle of the night. No fuckin problem,” Thorn whined, his voice proving to be a perfect match for his sour countenance.
“We are sorry for the inconvenience. We do appreciate it,” Choke said.
“So, lads, what are your names?” the sheriff asked.
Bartholomew, Theodas, and Nikolas sounded off in turn, each delivering his Stronian name with a crisp, “sir” at the end. Sheriff Waters laughed.
“Oh, we are fresh from the academy, aren’t we?”
“No. We couldn’t go. That’s why we got sent up here to Barrelmender,” Knuckle said earnestly.
“Oh, really? Okay then. Why don’t ye tell me what happened, Bartholomew,” Watters said.
“Of course, sir. Several weeks ago we were assigned to help Count Vallent’s man, Sir Gareth, hunt down Tom Rakham. At the final engagement, we were assigned to cover a possible escape route from Rakham’s hideout. We wound up killing about ten bandits that had managed to escape. However, one of them was the woman you have in the basement. I spared her life and let her go.”
At this admission, both Knuckle and Pinch looked sharply at Choke.
“Did you now?” Waters said in a neutral tone. “So what happened tonight?”
“We had an altercation with the proprietor of the Busted Unicorn over what I am, as you no doubt heard. I suppose that the woman, Peep, her mates called her, was in the tavern and recognized me. She would have heard us identify ourselves as Church men. She slipped out the back and approached us from the alley after we had left the tavern. She convinced me to follow her into the alley to talk.”
“Really. You have a thing for this bandit it seems. Her and her lot ambushed you there?”
“No. She asked for my help. She said she had been captured by one of Rakham’s men, a Stag Orcstabber. She said there is a two-gold piece bounty on his head and she wanted our help claiming it so she could get free of him. She also said that they had been staying at the hideout of another bandit named, Goldy, out in the bush. She said there was another ten gold pieces in bounties up there, and that she could help us go and claim it. It was then that a big man I assume to be Orcstabber followed her out of the tavern and accosted her. It seems she was able to kill him with his own knife and flee. I engaged with the three men that followed him. I got the worse of it with the second man and retreated out into the street where these two dealt with them.”
“Yes, they did indeed. Ye can always trust a Holy Stoner to get the job done. How are ye, Bartholomew? It’s hard to tell under all that blood,” Waters asked.
Choke did indeed look a frightful state. He had been unable to clean up after being drenched in blood by the bandit Knuckle had decapitated. As well, not all the blood was the bandit’s. Choke’s nose had been broken, and he had a cut at the back of his scalp and left ear where the battleaxe had grazed him.
“I should be okay, sir. I may need some stitches, though,” said Choke.
“Well, once we’ve figured out what to do next, ye can go and wash up outside at the well. Then we’ll have Billy take a look at ye. He’s a deft hand with a needle and thread.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“So… Stag Orcstabber laid low by a tiny little thing he was riding. What a way to go. She stabbed him in the balls,” Sheriff Winters said.
“I couldn’t see. He just doubled up and she got him in the neck,” Choke said.
“Oh no, she did. I looked his body over myself. She made a right mess of his downstairs business. Paid him back in spades for whatever he did to her that she didn’t like. Just goes to show, you should always take the time to invest in some foreplay!” Winters laughed.
“Or, you know, just not rape,” Choke said.
“I suppose,” Winters said dismissively. “Okay, so what to do about this, then? What is clear to me, at any rate, is that the kills are clean. I’ll have a look at the heads in the morning and if I think one of them’s Orcstabber, I’ll pay out the bounty. Their gear and mounts also go to you. I’ll make ye a fair offer on whatever ye don’t want to keep. About any coins and jewelry, though. I wouldn’t count on there being any left, not after the soldiers and Billy have been at them. And I’ll thank ye not to kick up a stink over it.”
“I understand, sir. It’s quite alright,” said Choke.
“Then there’s just the question of what to do about this girl downstairs. I can play this in several different ways. How would you prefer I handle it?” Winters asked all three lads.
“What are the different ways you might handle it, sir?” asked Choke.
“Well, she’s a bandit. And I’m not inclined to trust bandits. But I am interested in what she has to say about Goldy and his crew. They have been bad boys. So, I could have Billy extract the information I want and then stick her head on a stake next to her fellows before riding out after Goldy.”
The sheriff paused for effect here before continuing:
“But that play has a low percentage chance for success. If she talks, and if she tells the truth, I have to throw a patrol together by dawn to have any chance of catching Goldy unawares. Because by first light, word of Orcstabber’s death will be spreading. And Goldy keeps his ear to the ground.”
“But, sir. Is this girl a bandit? Can we be sure of that? She very well could have been a captive, of Rakham’s crew as well as Orcstabber. And she did help bring Orcstabber to justice,” Choke said.
“Perhaps that’s so. I can’t say I really care one way or another. If we believed every bandit that said they were captives or under duress, these hills wouldn’t have more than half a dozen bandits in them. I take it from what you’re saying, though, is that you want to give this particular boyish piece of ass the benefit of the doubt.”
“Well, it doesn’t have anything to do with—” Choke started before Winters interrupted him with a raised palm.
“I don’t need to hear it. What I do want to know is: if I let her go, and to be clear, it will be into your custody; so if I do that, do you intend to pursue Goldy and his crew with her?”
Choke paused to look at Knuckle and Pinch in turn.
“Ten gold?” Knuckle said. “Yeah, sure. Fuck it. We can swing it. And maybe we can get ye laid while we’re at it!”
“Okay, then,” Choke sighed deeply. “Yes, that is what we intend to do,”
“Good. I admire your spirit,” Winters said. “The only problem is, I don’t think the four of you will be able to pull it off by yourselves. There are at least a dozen men with Goldy. Assuming this girl isn’t planning to lead ye into a bushwhacking, I’m guessing that she plans to have you three impersonate Orcstabber and his men to get in close with Goldy and even the odds. But still, it’s a longshot. Particularly since you are short one person. What do you think, Thorn?”
Thorn looked deeply pained for a long moment. “I don’t know…” he finally moaned.
“You saw what these lads did to Orcstabber’s crew. They’re obviously solid,” Winters said.
“Well, then, if yar so keen, why the fuck don’t you traipse off into the woods with them, sheriff?”
“Because a man in my position can’t slip off in the night on some clandestine mission following the word of half a bandit.”
“But I can?”
“Well, Thorn, last time I checked you are a scout and tracker. Not a sheriff. You aren’t a sheriff, are ye Thorn?” Winters asked with a smirk.
“Ha ha. I don’t know. Ten gold ye say?” Thorn groused.
“At very least. I’ll go and check the books in my office if ye decide to go, but it could very well be more. If he has Dugnut and Horsecock with him, it probably could be as high as fifteen.”
“Wait… Dugnut, ye say?” Pinch asked.
“Yeah. Bob Dugnut. Sheep rustler and otherwise murderous, rapist scum. Why?” Winters asked.
Pinch threw a look at Choke who was staring at Sheriff Winters intently.
“How old is he?” Pinch asked.
“I’m not sure. About twenty, I suppose. Why? D’ye know him?”
“Well, there was an older boy named Dugnut at our school. He was a creep and got kicked out for it. He was the one that Bartholomew—” Pinch cut himself off as Choke raised his hand up to stop him talking.
“Well that would probably fit. Maybe ye’ll get to settles scores then,” said Winters, looking shrewdly Choke’s way.
“Be that as it may, sir, and no offence to you, sir,” Choke said aside to Thorn, “but what is being discussed between the two of you here?” Choke asked.
“Whether Thorn here goes on this job with ye or not. Because if he doesn’t, I’m not inclined to allow it. Letting three Church boys get lured off into Altas only knows what isn’t something I want on my accounts. If Thorn goes along with ye, at least I know yar likely to come back. He’ll smell a rat if there’s something wrong,” Sheriff Winters said.
“And don’t think I’m coming on for no even share. If we bring in ten gold, I’m gonna want seven. One each for you three is good enough,” Thorn said.
“Seven?” Knuckle exclaimed angrily. “Fuck that!”
Winters looked incredulously at Thorn. “Come on now, seventy percent is a bit steep.”
“Yeah, well, I know that I’m worth it. These three aint proved shit except that they’re good at robbing me of sleep!”
“They took down Orcstabber’s crew.”
Thorn snorted. “Blind drunk, no doubt. Aint shit. Okay then, my take is half. And that goes for whatever loot we get on the job. With personal equipment we keep what we kill,” Thorn said, fixing his shrewd, beady eyes on Choke.
“Half still? No, fuck that!” Knuckle said.
Choke laid a hand on his arm to settle him.
Winters nodded. “Half is reasonable, given the situation. And I must say, if Thorn does not go on this mission, I will not allow it. In that case, I will have to use the woman as a prisoner to go after Goldy myself. He is much too serious a threat not to take action on what she says she knows. Of course, you lads are free to come along on that. I can pay a day rate of fifty copper each.”
“What do you think?” Choke asked Knuckle and Pinch.
“Is this guy as good as all that?” Pinch asked the sheriff as he gestured to Thorn.
“Oh yes. He scouted for the baron during in the Darkmoon Uprising. Was decorated. And is well-known as a manhunter in these parts,” Winters answered.
“And I cut my teeth in the Forsaken Blight with the Holy Swords. So if I ride out with ye, we’ll sort this shit out. Whether this little bitch of yars works out or not. I’ll see to that!”
The lads thought about this for a while. It was Pinch that spoke up first:
“Splitting half of ten or more gold is a lot better than half a silver a day. I say yes.”
“Yeah. Okay,” Knuckle said, giving Thorn a very dirty look.
“Agreed,” Choke said.
Thorn stood up and spat into his palm to present it to Choke. Choke spat into his palm to shake hands. Pinch and then Knuckle did likewise.
“Okay boys,” Thorn said, his tone all business now. “We gotta get moving right away if this is gonna work. You,” he pointed to Choke, “get yarself cleaned up and then get yar boo-boo stitched up. You two,” at Pinch and Knuckle, “go and check on the Orcstabber bodies. We’re gonna want any gear of theirs that’s distinctive. Cloaks and the like. Me and the sheriff are gonna talk to that bitch downstairs and see the lay of the land. Then I’ll go gear up while you three take her to collect whatever horses and pack animals they was using. I wanna head out within two hours at the outside.”
“By all means, Thorn. I am at your disposal,” Sheriff Winters said.
“Well, ye want this fuckin thing to work or not? If not, fine. I’ll go lean on her myself. But I think it’ll mean a lot more to her if it’s coming from you.”
“Yes, yes. By all means.”
“We’re gonna ride into the bush in the middle of the night?” Knuckle asked incredulously.
“Fuckin rights we are. Don’t worry on that, boy. I’ll get us where we’re fuckin going. Wherever that turns out to be. Right? Okay, then. Let’s move!” Thorn barked.
Thoroughly brought to heel by the experienced campaigner’s bearing and tone, Choke and his men hopped to their assignments.