With the scout and manhunter, Thorn, now firmly in control, Choke and the others left the tower to do as they had been told. Choke got himself cleaned up outside in a water trough by a well before the gaoler, Billy, stitched up the back of his head in the stables by dim lantern light. Given these conditions, Billy managed the task with alarming swiftness. Choke took the treatment stoically and inwardly prayed he would not be too badly scarred by it.
Meanwhile, Pinch and Knuckle did what they could to clean up Orcstabber and his men’s gear in the same trough Choke had used. Billy had already piled that up by the tower entrance, so at least they did not have to strip the bodies. By the time this was all done, Sheriff Winters and Thorn had finished their conversation with Peep in the basement.
Orcstabber’s crew had only come to town with one mule, so Thorn and the Pekot lads took Peep to collect it from a nearby livery. As they walked there, Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle dawdled behind so that they could have a quiet word with each other.
“Fuck, d’ye think this rustler Dugnut is the same one ye strangled, Choke?” Knuckle asked.
“There’s no way to know,” Choke said levelly.
“But how many Dugnuts can there be around? Of the same age? And this one a rapist, the sheriff said. I mean, our Dugnut got thrown out for diddling the youngsters, right?”
“Fuck, Choke, ye shoulda finished the job when ye had that rope around his neck!” Knuckle said.
“Well, it aint like Brother Horace gave him the chance, right? It’s not like he stopped of his own accord,” Pinch said.
“True, that. Well, yar gonna get another go at him now!” Knuckle said cheerfully.
“There. Is. No. Way. To. Know,” Choke said again, this time with a great deal of controlled anger.
“Well, either way, the guy’s a fuckin dead man walking now,” Pinch said, giving Choke a friendly pat on the back.
Once they had Orctabber’s mule, Thorn led it and everyone else to the Church’s stables where he quickly loaded it down with gear and supplies. While he did that, the lads saddled their horses.
Doing his best to get the thought of Dugnut, his first and still most significant nemesis, out of his head, Choke lingered with his horse as he fussed with his tack. It was there that Peep snuck up on him in his horse’s stall.
“I can’t believe ye spilled yar guts to the sheriff. Now we gotta have that freak along with us,” Peep hissed directly in his ear, standing right behind him.
“Excuse me?” Choke said as he jumped, startled that she had snuck up on him so adeptly. He pushed Peep out of his personal space before continuing: “Do you think we have some kind of bond, or something? Do I owe you anything? No. If it wasn’t for us, they’d be torturing you right now for what you know about Goldy. So get your head right, do good on this job, and you’ll have your freedom. Be grateful for that.”
“And what about my share?” Peep said loudly.
“What is she bitching about?” Knuckle called from his horse’s stall.
“Her share of the bounties,” Choke answered.
“Her share? What the fuck!” Knuckle said, moving over to Choke’s stall. Pinch joined him shortly.
“Yeah, that’s right! My share!” Peep said, glowering up at Knuckle. “I took down Orcstabber. And I’m leading ye to Goldy’s hideout. That means I get a fuckin share!”
“Yar lucky they aint cornholing ye with a poker in the tower basement right now, bitch. And yar asking for a fuckin share? Some balls!” Knuckle said.
“This is what I was just saying to her,” Choke said.
“Well they aint doing that to me. Because ye told them that I was a captive and had no choice and so they released me as yar prisoner,” Peep said.
“Okay, so you accept that you are our prisoner. And this entitles you to a share how?” Pinch interjected.
“Because me being a prisoner is the sheriff’s move. It aint got shit to do with what’s right. As far as me and ye three go, I’m either a bandit or I aint. And if I aint, then I’m the one that killed Orcstabber, and I’m the one that’ll get ye the bounties on Goldy and his bunch, and I deserve a fuckin cut of what yar gonna fuckin get for it!” Peep said fiercely.
“Just to be clear: we haven’t gotten any bounty on Orcstabber yet. The sheriff said that if he determines the man you killed was Orcstabber, then he’ll pay us the two-gold bounty when we get back to town.”
“Yeah… okay… and so what’s my end of that then? And whatever else we bring back?” Peep asked.
“Well, for starters, whatever bounties we bring back, Thorn is going to take half as his cut,” Choke said.
“Half? Some fuckin negotiators ye lot are, huh?” Peep said.
“D’ye believe the balls on this cunt?” Knuckle said to Pinch before he turned back on Peep and barked: “Yeah, half! The asshole wouldn’t come along for less and the fuckin sheriff wouldn’t let ye go unless he came along! So we’re splitting the other half between the three of us, and yar gonna be glad to fuckin get whatever we give ye on account of not getting fucked to death by Billy in his cellar tonight!”
This finally shut Peep up, who still continued to glare at Knuckle with an intensity that seemed like it could immolate him.
“Let’s just calm down,” Choke said. “Peep. First of all, is that your name? Is that what you’d like us to call you.”
“Well fine then, Peep it is. So, Peep, we aren’t sure of you or your intentions. Your move killing Orcstabber as you did almost got me killed, after all. And we have no reason to trust you. But, if it turns out you are earnest and you do a good job, I am open to negotiating a share for you of what we make. What do you think about that?” Choke asked Knuckle and Pinch.
“Yeah, if she pulls her weight we can give her something. But it aint gonna be no even share unless she does her share of the killing,” Knuckle said.
Pinch nodded his agreement to this.
“I can kill just fuckin fine,” Peep said. “So, if I pull my own weight and do right by everything ye say, what’s my share gonna be?”
“Man ye are a fuckin terrier, aren’t ye?” Knuckle laughed.
“Fuck you! What’s my share?”
“We’ll discuss it,” Choke said. “If you prove to be valuable enough, I’m open to giving you an even share. But that’s not something we’re going to agree to now and you’re just going to have to be okay with that. Am I clear?”
“Yeah. Sure. Whatever ye say, boss. And just so I’m clear: I aint fuckin none of ye. Not tonight. Not ever. And if any of ye try it with me, I’ll do worse to ye than I did to Orcstabber!”
“Understood. No one here has any such intentions towards you. You have our word on that,” Choke said.
Peep scoffed but chose not to respond any further. It was then that Thorn’s acerbic voice cut through them from the stable entrance:
“Okay, kids! If yar all done with whatever the fuck it is that ye’ve been doing, let’s hit the mess for some grub so’s we can plan this fuckin shitshow before we head out. Come on!”
They all gathered in the big kitchen in the east wing of the church’s transverse. The church’s domestic, a burly woman who did not speak, served them a hearty gruel with cured meat and dried berries at a huge, rough-hewn wooden table that had been worn smooth and polished over decades of use. Everyone got down to the serious business of eating as much as they could. While they ate, the cook set clay mugs down in front of each of them before bringing over a big jug of milk and a kettle of boiled stugroot for them to serve themselves.
When the eating had slowed down, Thorn took a sip of stugroot and cleared his throat:
“Okay, listen up, people: so according to this one here,” he gestured towards Peep with his mug, “Goldy and his crew are holed up in some trapper’s cabins in the hills up by a two-whore trading post and village called Splitrock.”
“Never heard of it,” Knuckle said.
“I don’t give a fuck what ye’ve heard of. I’m telling ye. And I said listen up, didn’t I?” Thorn returned.
“It’s a three-whore trading post now. They’ve upgraded,” Peep interjected.
“Yeah, but with you here now, it’s back down to two till ye get back to work!” Knuckle laughed at her.
“Fuck you!” Peep spat at him.
“Shut up!” yelled Thorn, slamming his hand down on the table. “Altas’ balls! I will start cutting fucking throats! Listen up, I said!”
Thorn waited a good while to make sure they would be quiet before continuing:
“Now I’m gonna tell all of ye what I told her already. We’re going out on this job to kill those men and bring their heads back for bounty. We aint taking any fuckin prisoners. And I am the leader of this outfit. When I tell ye to do something, ye fuckin do it. Anyone gets salty with me, and I’ll fuckin cut ye.”
Thorn paused to give them all an evil look in turn.
“Then, if at any point I start feeling hinky about things, like this one aint been playing us straight,” he again gestured at Peep. “I’m killing her right then and there and we’re bugging the fuck out. And you,” he now directed his gaze straight at Peep: “If ye fuck off and ditch us, I will track ye the fuck down and throw a goblin party for ye. Understood? Now, if anybody has any problems with any of this: now’s the fuckin time.”
No one had anything to say, so Thorn relaxed and took another sip of stugroot.
“Okay, Peep, tell them what ye told me. About the hideout and Splitrock,” Thorn said.
“Sure thing, boss. So, Goldy and his crew, they’re up in the hills, like ye said. It’s fuckin rough country up there, all goat trails and shit. They got their hooks into everyone at Splitrock. So if anybody comes through there looking for trouble, they’ll throw up a smoke signal.”
“Who?” Knuckle asked.
“The fuckin villagers. How the fuck should I know? Anyways, Goldy keeps a lookout camp that overlooks Splitrock and the approaches to the camp. And they’re set to send a signal too. That one’s a horn. Then the main camp is way the fuck up into the rocks. There’s only a couple of approaches from the south, which is the way we’ll have to come, unless we want to spend a week bushwhacking to hook around on it from the north.”
“How come?” asked Knuckle.
“Splitrock gorge runs right through there. With the Wildhay River,” Thorn interjected. “Cuts it right off. And the bush up in north of that is full-on goblin country. Which they can retreat back into if they have to. It’s a great fuckin hideout.”
“Okay, so how the hell are we gonna crack this nut, then?” Pinch asked.
“Easy,” Thorn said. “We ride straight to Burnthistle, where there’s an outpost of the Baron’s soldiers. That’s just in the next valley over from Splitrock. It’s not that far between them as the crow flies, but it’s a steep ridge and rough country, like Peep said. There aint gonna be no traffic between them to tip them off that we’re coming.
“So, what we do is: leave our horses at the outpost and hump up over the ridge on foot with the mule. Then we avoid Splitrock and head up to the lookout camp disguised as Orcstabber and his crew. That should be a piece of piss, since we got her and our numbers are right. Orcstabber was a big fuck and had that black wolf pelt cloak. We throw that on you,” Thorn gestured to Knuckle, “and together with her and their mule in tow, whoever’s there will buy it. We take them out and then take our time to figure out the main camp from there.”
“Sounds tight,” Pinch said. Everyone else agreed. Then Peep cleared her throat.
“Yeah?” Thorn asked her.
“About that cloak. And the rest of Orcstabber’s gear.”
“What about it?”
“Well, since I’m the one that killed him, that all should come to me, right? Ye keep what ye kill, right?” Peep said.
“I don’t give a shit. That’s between you kids. But whoever the fuck ye decide owns it, Knuckle’s the one wearing it for our approach.”
“So?” Peep asked Choke. “Ye gonna do right by me and give me Orcstabber’s kit, or are ye gonna be a prick about it?”
“What, like those are his only two options: do what ye want, or be a prick?” Pinch laughed.
“Yeah. That’s right. So?” Peep asked again.
“Yes, that’s fine. You killed him; you can have his stuff. You’re going to need weapons after all,” Choke said.
“Thank ye, boss!” Peep said, tugging on her forelock sarcastically. “And about the weapons. I’ll want his buck knife, of course, but his other shit’s too big for me. So I’ll trade his axe and sword for Sleed’s weapons, if that’s okay. He’s got a shortsword and shortbow. That’ll do me great.”
“Sure. No problem,” Choke said.
“Okay, we sorted?” Thorn asked. “So let’s get going. Peep, all of the Orcstabber gear’s just inside the stable door there. Grab what ye need. And we’re gonna want that shield and spear and their cloaks. That should be all we need. Then let’s get a fuckin move on. If we push it, we can reach Burnthistle by evening. That should get us up and after them before word of Orcstabber reaches Splitrock. Let’s move!”
It was decided that without a horse of her own, Peep would double up with Pinch, who was the smallest of the men. They rode without conversation, and forcing the mule to keep up with their horses was the only trouble they had reaching the village of Burnthistle by evening. Thorn instructed them not to tell anyone, soldiers or not, what they were doing there.
The country around Burnthistle was just the same as it had been everywhere else in Spaggot Barony: heavily forested hills with marshes and bogs in the low places. They rode into the village on a fairly crappy road that ended there. In the village was a trading post attached to a good-sized tavern, and about a dozen rough peasant houses clustered together defensively. A few fields had been hacked out of the wilderness nearby.
The Baron’s outpost was little more than a big barn housing two dozen soldiers under a lieutenant. Thorn was known to them and was obviously respected and feared by the men. The party ate dinner with the soldiers and went right to bed in the barracks, completely exhausted from their sleepless night.
It was still dark when Thorn awoke them the next morning. Leaving their horses in the care of the garrison, the party struck out on foot in the half light of pre-dawn and headed up the rough trails towards the ridgeline to the northeast. Thorn led the way.
The surly ranger now seemed perfectly in his element. He carried with him a Scythan warbow with a large quiver of arrows on his back. On his weaponbelt was a wide-bladed, single edged sword just a little longer than a cutlas. It’s heavy blade could serve as both a weapon or as a machete for clearing brush or felling and limbing smaller trees. He also had a large buck knife.
They had decided it could not hurt to adopt their rudimentary disguises right away, since there was no telling precisely when they may be observed by the bandits or people friendly to them. So as soon as they were out of sight of Burnthistle, Knuckle put on Orcstabber’s wolfpelt cloak. Since as a horseman Choke was used to fighting with a shield and spear, he took up the roundshield and spear of the man Pinch had killed, along with his wool cloak. Pinch and Thorn simply put on the cloaks of the last two bandits. Up close, it would not fool anyone. But with Peep leading the mule and Knuckle following her in the wolf pelt, it ought to work well enough at a distance.
As they humped up the steep hill on the rough trail, Choke began to suffer almost immediately. As a horseman, he had not walked any significant distance on foot since his early teens. On patrol around Pekot, he and Baron had always been on horseback, whereas Knuckle, Pinch, and the other lads with them had been on foot. While the constant training at the orphanage had conditioned all of their cardio well, Choke had never marched any distance in armor. He soon discovered whole new muscle groups to deliver him pain, while his feet began to blister within just a few hours. Nonetheless, he suffered in silence.
When they reached the top of the ridge, they took a rest for some water and trail mix. There were some clearings up there where the rocky ground could support no more than a few scrubby trees. The wildflowers in the clearings framed the lovely view of the next valley perfectly.
“Okay, youngsters, just so’s ye know for now and in future,” Thorn said as they rested just inside the tree line by a clearing. “When yar up at the top of a hill or a ridge like this, stick to the trees, or else yar gonna silhouette yarself. And even then, check behind ye to see if ye can see any sky through the trees. Because if ye can, then ye can be seen moving. That kind of movement stands out real well from a good distance. And we’re in small unit tactics now, so cover is our friend.”
The lads had, of course, heard this many times before, but took no offense at being told it again by the seasoned veteran. Quite the opposite, they were gratified to be spoken to by him with any degree of respect, professional or otherwise.
“Also, don’t get freaked out. Stay calm and don’t act weird,” Thorn went on, his voice in the same low and neutral tone as before. “We got goblins up here.”
“Goblins? Really? Where?” Knuckle asked.
“Can’t say, really. But there’s signs all over. See that turf over there? That’s been dug up and then covered up again. Gobo took a shit there. They bury their shit like cats. And see that big spruce over there? Under its roots, that’s a goblin burrow.”
“And ye saw that and ye sat us down right next to it?” Peep said.
“Didn’t notice it until just now, after I noticed the shit dig. We probably passed a good number of burrows on our way up the hill. Gobos be sneaky. It’s easy to miss them, even for me.”
“So what are they doing?” Pinch asked.
“They’re set up and watching the outpost down in Burnthistle, is what. They’re lookouts. There aint enough human traffic over this trail to warrant an ambush setup. But they know we’re here, that’s for sure,” Thorn said calmly.
“So what’re we gonna do about it?” Knuckle said.
“There’s nothing to fuckin do about it. They’re dug in and underground. You got a bag of holding with a few barrels of oil in it? If so, we can pour that down the holes and light em up. Otherwise, unless Peep here volunteers to wriggle down a hole to get eaten alive, there aint shit to do. When we head down into the valley, we just gotta stay sharp. Because, if they got the numbers, which gobos usually do, they’re gonna follow us and then swarm us in the dark when we’re asleep.”
“Marvelous. So what do we do about that?” asked Pinch.
“We’ll head down the slope a ways and then set up an ambush of our own. If they’re following us, we’ll get em,” Thorn said with an evil grin.
“Do you think we should be talking about our plan like this?” Choke said.
“Well, ye are right. Goblins have real sharp hearing. But it’s a rare one that’ll speak any sort of human language, and especially not out in the bush like this. The ones that ye gotta watch out for in that regard are the city sewer gobos, and the like.”
“Well, okay. Fuck,” Pinch said. “I guess we should get going, since we have a fire under our ass already on account of having to get to them bandits before they hear about Orcstabber.”
“I couldn’t a said it any better myself,” Thorn said. “Let’s move. Get yar bows and crossbows ready. Pinch, yar on point. Then Choke Then Peep leading the mule, followed by Knuckle. I’ll take up the rear since that’s where the trouble’s likely to come from. Probably.”
“Yeah, that’s just fuckin great,” muttered Pinch as he dragged himself to his feet and got his shortbow set with three arrows in the same hand he was holding it with.
Then, with Pinch leading the way, the party began working their way down the steep slope of the ridge into the Splitrock valley.