The squad spent most of the next day working their way through the dense forest of the Splitrock valley, mostly on game trails. As they did, Thorn increasingly relied on Peep for guidance. In the late afternoon they reached the crest of a rise from which Peep said they would be able to see the bandits’ lookout post. She and Thorn climbed a big spruce tree to have a better look.
“Yeah, see them rocky cliffs there? With the scree slope under it. Up at the top of that, in the stand of trees, they got a cabin and a blind. From up there they got a clear view of the village down over there, and the whole approach. The main hideout is up on the ridge behind. From this side ye either gotta go straight up to the scree slope on a trail that switches up to the top of the cliff. Or, ye gotta carry on up that way and hump straight up to the ridge. But they’ll see ye coming either way,” Peep said.
“And they keep two or three men at the lookout, ye said,” Thorn checked.
“Always. I dunno how alert they are, but Goldy don’t let them keep any booze up there. He’s careful like that.”
“Which is exactly how he was able to become a middle-aged bandit with a ten-gold price on his head. Good. I like it. Piece a piss.”
When Peep and Thorn had rejoined the others back on the ground, Thorn told them what he had observed and went over their plan again. Then they pushed on until dark, and slept rough just off the trail.
The next morning they were all up before dawn without Thorn having to wake them. After breakfast, Choke stepped away from the group to have a quiet prayer. He knelt with his head bowed and his sword clasped point down in front of him. When he opened his eyes, everyone else was likewise praying, and facing him as they did. Only Peep seem disingenuous about it, as she stared wearily at Choke with scornful eyes.
“Ye wanna lead us in a prayer before we head out, Bartholomew?” Thorn asked Choke.
“Thank you. I will,” Choke said. He took a long moment to compose himself before he spoke: “Lord Stron, we thank you for your many blessings. Thank you for delivering the goblins to us yesterday and for granting us an easy victory over them. Thank you for the opportunity to bring your righteous judgment to these wicked men today. If we are worthy, bless us with your strength. May our blades be strong as we render them to you for your Father’s judgement. Amen.”
“Amen,” the rest said.
There was less than an hour of walking to do before they would clear the trees on the approach to the lookout cliff. With this in mind, they got themselves set up properly. The plan was simple: they would dress themselves in the cloaks of the bandits they had killed and just walk up to the lookout post. With Peep in front leading the mule, and Knuckle following her in Orcstabber’s wolf pelt cloak, Thorn did not expect anyone would look too closely at the three following.
“Ye know, Knuckle, that cloak suits ye!” Pinch said as they set out.
He was not wrong. The cloak was well made, with a number of properly tanned black furs and a finely woven, soft hemp liner sewn into it. It was topped with the large, black wolf’s pelt, with its snout and ears serving as the hood that gave Knuckle a wild look that suited him well.
“Fuck you! That cloak’s mine!” Peep snapped. “As soon as this job’s done, I’m taking it back!”
“Yeah, yeah. We’ll see how ye do, then we’ll talk,” Knuckle said.
Peep was set to respond, but Thorn shut them down with an irritated hiss and a cutting hand gesture across his neck.
They cleared the trees and humped up the steep, narrow trail directly under the observation of the lookout blind a few hundred meters up on top of the rocky cliffs. They moved single file. Peep was out in front, leading the mule. Knuckle was next, followed by Thorn, then Choke, and finally Pinch taking up the rear. They all had their cloak hoods up.
The trail worked its way up the valley and then along the bottom of the scree slope at the base of the cliffs. Then it switchbacked to take them up to the top of the cliff. The last hundred meters were steep and tough, but log steps had been set into it at the worst places to make it passable.
“We wouldn’t be getting our horses up here, that’s for sure,” Choke muttered.
“Not yar warhorses, no. Ye’d be needing mountain ponies and mules,” Thorn agreed.
When they were within a stone’s throw of the top of the trail, they still had not been challenged or hailed from anyone up at the top. Thorn quietly signaled a halt so that they could catch their breath before finishing the ascent. They were all breathing hard and could use the rest if they were going to fight when they got up there. They all readied their bows and crossbows and crouched down low. They were still in single file on the very narrow trail, with a terribly steep slope seemingly all the way to the valley bottom immediately to their left.
Looking up, it was still impossible to tell where the lookouts might be. The top of the cliffs were flat with a stand of spruce trees providing cover. While Peep had assured them there was an observation blind there, there was still no sign of it.
Thorn only gave them a minute to catch their breath before he signaled for them to advance with a hand gesture.
Peep led the mule on. With it clambering up the steep trail on the loose rocks and dirt, it was making so much noise that it would surely alert whoever might be up there. Knowing this full well, Peep signaled the lookouts up top with a shrill, distinctive whistle.
As she and her mule crested the trail, followed soon by Knuckle, three men were stirring up top to face them. It was still hardly past dawn, and the lookouts were only just rousing themselves. There was a small, squat log cabin set back in the woods about five meters from the cliff’s edge. Two men were stumbling out of that in alarm. A third man was stepping out of the bushes further back in the trees and was doing his pants up. Besides a knife on his belt, he was unarmed.
The first man out of the cabin had armed himself with a roundshield and spear as he had exited it, but he relaxed as he saw Peep clearly, with Knuckle just behind her with the wolf pelt cloak hiding his features as he kept his head down to finish clambering up the trail. The other guy from the cabin stood in the doorway yawning and scratching his belly.
“Stag! What the fuck, man! We didn’t expect ye for another few days! What’s up?” the bandit coming out the bush said as he finally finished doing up his breeches.
“I got fuckin killed, is what!” Knuckle said happily, as he raised himself up, shouldered his crossbow, and shot the spearman in the face.
Peep did not hesitate either. Before any of the bandits could do more than blink, she drew back her shortbow and shot the bandit who had addressed them low in the belly.
Knuckle threw his empty crossbow at the third bandit standing in the cabin doorway. It hit him sideways in the face. Before he could even properly react to that, Knuckle was on him. He drove the blunt head of his warpick into the man’s gut with a stabbing lunge and punched him in the head with a hard left to drop him.
“Clear!” Knuckle yelled as he checked the interior of the cabin.
Meanwhile, Peep had closed on the bandit she had shot to finish him off. She stabbed him through the neck with her shortsword before he could even manage to start screaming from the arrow in his guts.
The rest of the squad finished climbing up the trail and spread out, on the alert for any sign of more bandits. There were none.
Knuckle dragged the bandit he had stunned away from the cabin by his limp arm. The man then rolled over into a ball and groaned.
“I got him alive!” Knuckle said proudly.
“I can see that. Good for you!” Thorn said with expressionless eyes. “How come, though? Ye gonna fuck him?”
“What? No! I thought we could ask him questions. About Goldy and the hideout, and all that.”
“What for? We got her,” Thorn said as he gave Knuckle a scornful look and then jabbed his thumb at Peep. “What’s he gonna tell us that she can’t? Alls we’re gonna get from him is a bunch a bullshit he thinks we wanna hear. And what do we got to offer him? We aint letting him go. And we aint taking him back with us. So all we got for him is a choice of a fast death or a slow one. And I don’t wanna be fuckin around for the next few hours making good on that threat.”
“Okay, fine. Whatever. Pardon me for fuckin taking the initiative here,” Knuckle griped.
“Oh, right. Yar a good boy, Knuckle. Ye done good. I’m very impressed,” Thorn said in a sarcastic tone.
Peep giggled at this. Knuckle flushed in anger but kept silent.
“So, are ye gonna finish him off now, or d’ye want me to do it for ye?” Thorn asked Knuckle.
By manner of reply, Knuckle stepped on the bandit’s upper arm to pin him down and struck him a short, hard blow to the base of his skull with the pick side of his warpick. There was a sickening crack as the weapon punched a hole into the man’s brain stem. The bandit convulsed a little and died without a sound.
“Okay, good. Ye kill good, Knuckle. That I like. For real. Good work. You too,” Thorn said to Peep.
“Yeah, that seems so, but what the fuck is that?” Pinch said, pointing to the shortsword that Peep was wiping off on her kill’s jerkin.
“What?” Peep answered with almost as much edge as the weapon.
“Look at that blade! It’s fuckin gorgeous!” Pinch said.
Everyone turned their attention to Peep’s shortsword. Pinch was right: it was gorgeous. It’s blade was almost fifty centimeters long: double-edged with a fullered center, with an elegant leaf shape, about five centimeters across at its widest. Unlike any of the weapons born by the Pekot lads, it was made of proper Dwarven steel, with fine patterned lines in the metal. This meant it was quite a bit thinner than their blades as well, and would no doubt be much lighter and sharper for it.
“Fuckin sneaky bitch!” Knuckle said.
“Hey!” Peep barked at them. “I called the deal fair and square. I killed Orcstabber and traded ye his weapons for Sleed’s. Orcstabber’s axe and sword for Sleed’s bow and shortsword. That was the deal. It aint my fuckin fault that ye all are too fuckin dim to check Sleed’s weapons before ye struck it.”
Thorn laughed at this. It was a chuckle that rolled up from his belly, and the first expression of true mirth they had heard from him.
“Well, she’s got ye there!” Thorn said.
“Fuckin cunt,” Knuckle muttered.
Peep gave him the finger as she sheathed her blade.
The squad dragged the three bandit corpses back into the woods a ways and had a quick look around. As Peep had told them, the spot was ideal as a lookout location.
The cabin was small and marginally habitable, with a fireplace and three rudimentary bunks. There was a rain barrel under the peak of the roof with water that seemed fresh enough to refill their skins from. Hanging from a nail next to the door was a simple horn fashioned from a mountain goat horn.
At the edge of the trees, which grew almost right up to the cliff’s ledge, was the blind. This was made of simple lattices constructed of sticks and thin spruce saplings lashed together with twine between the trees. Bushes, grass, or tree branches had been tied to the lattices. A number of log seats were set up behind the blind, which offered a fine view the path they had come up, as well as a small village way down in the valley.
“So they weren’t even on watch, I guess,” Pinch said happily.
“That’s right,” Thorn said. “It’s still early. And ye can put a motherfucker on watch alls ye want, but if they’re lazy and not good for shit, ye can’t make them be good at it.”
“So now what?” asked Knuckle.
“Well, now we wait and see what’s what. They swap the watch out every other day, right?” Thorn asked Peep.
“That’s right. Usually just before lunch,” she answered.
“Right. So, we set up, and if we’re real lucky, today’s a change of the watch and we can take down the three that are sent to replace these ones here. If not, we can wait until tomorrow, or move on the main camp today,” Thorn said.
Peep had already explained the setup of the main camp to them, so they knew what they were facing there: perhaps a dozen hardened bandits with about as many woman and children in a log longhouse with a pair of smaller cabins. This was situated just under a kilometer away, up near the rocky crest of the ridgeline.
“So, what do you think about that?” Choke asked Thorn. “It would be better to wait and ambush the next three, whether it’s today or tomorrow, yes?”
“All things being equal, yeah. It would be better to wait. Anyone trying to send word to them about Orcstabber’s gotta come up this way, so we got that sorted. And taking down another three of them would make things a lot easier. But…”
“There’s the goblins to consider,” Choke finished Thorn’s thought for him.
“Exactly right. The thought of waiting around another full fuckin day with them out there doing Stron knows what is giving me the willies. Anyways, let’s wait and see what’s what today before we piss around too much worrying about tomorrow,” Thorn said.
The squad quickly unloaded the mule to give her a rest and let her drink her fill out of a bucket from the rain barrel. Then they left her on a long line to graze on whatever she could snarfle out of the scrubby underbrush.
“There ye are. That’s a good mule. Nice to have a rest, huh?” Knuckle said with a smile as he stroked her neck and muzzle and patted her haunch. “Don’t ye worry, we’re gonna take care of these bad boys up here. I wonder how many of them fucked ye, from time to time. Don’t ye worry, there’ll be no more of that.”
“Dude!” Pinch said to Knuckle, giving him a horrified look.
“Just… what the fuck, man? What the fuck?”
“What’s yar fuckin problem? I told her we aint gonna fuck her like these other pricks up here. Because ye know for fuckin sure they were. No doubt about it.”
“For fuck sakes, Knuckle, there’s so many layers of wrong here that I don’t even know where to start! Just shut the fuck up already! Think about what yar saying for a second,” Pinch said, flashing Peep a quick look.
Peep was staring at the both of them with a disbelieving expression.
“What? Her? What the fuck does she care? She knows what they’ve been up to here. Ohhhhhh…” Knuckle said as it finally dawned on him what Pinch was getting at. “Right! Because they were also doing it to—”
“Shut up!” Pinch yelled.
“Smooth. Real smooth. Real gift for the gab ye got there, Knuckle,” Thorn said, clearly very amused by the whole scene. “So if we’re all done seducing the mule, why don’t we go and set up on the trail to the hideout?”
“What? I’m not trying to fuck the mule! I was just saying—”
“That other guys fucking her has really been on yar mind. Yeah. Not creepy at all, that. Ye give her a name yet? How’s about Betsy. I’m partial to the name Betsy for the animals I’m gonna fuck,” Thorn laughed.
“Fuck off! Enough!” Knuckle shouted as he looked just about ready to go for Thorn.
His sudden volume, along with his threatening posture, smartened everyone up.
“Okay. Yar right. I’m sorry.” Thorn said, giving Knuckle a shushing hand gesture. “Take it easy, man. We’ll lay off the mule talk. Okay? Let’s get set up on the trail now, huh? Ye’ve made enough racket someone might head up here to check on it.”
“Yeah! Fuck! Let’s!” Knuckle said as he stomped over to his crossbow and picked it up.
Choke and Peep exchanged a look then, with Choke earnestly concerned how she might be taking the scene. She gave him a long, inscrutable look, without the usual anger and scorn in her eyes.
Then the moment passed and they followed Thorn up the trail through the trees towards the bandits’ hideout.