The promontory the squad now occupied at the lookout post was the start of a forested shelf that ran up to the ridgeline in a gentle slope over about a kilometer and a half. There was a well-worn trail from the lookout cabin through the woods that Peep had informed them went to the bandits’ main hideout.
Leaving their pack mule tied up at the cabin, Thorn and Peep led the way together down the trail, leaving the rest of the squad to follow as they would. Thorn took the alarm horn from the cabin with him. After roughly a hundred meters, they stopped at a point where the trail meandered quite close to the cliff’s edge. There, Peep pointed out to them the location of the hideout.
The spot was just below where the little plateau they were on rose up to the ridgeline. The longhouse and two other buildings she had told them of were not visible, but smoke from cookfires was drifting up from the tree cover. They could also see the alternate trail that switchbacked up the terribly steep, grassy slope to the base of the cliffs under the hideout.
“How tough is that cliff route down to the trail?” Thorn asked quietly.
“Not too bad, really,” Peep answered. “It’s stepped and they’ve got some ropes and logs set in to make it easier. Anyone normal can manage it. There’s a little spring at the bottom. That’s where they get their fresh water.”
“Shit, hauling water up that bitch every day? Fuck, I thought we had it bad at the orphanage,” Knuckle chuckled.
“Yeah, well, freedom has its costs,” Thorn said.
“Freedom? The bitches doing that work don’t know shit about that,” Peep said bitterly. “Their sweat and tears are taken as due by them there that are free. The strong aint ever the ones that pay the full price of their fuckin freedom.”
“Well, they’re running outta road on that now. And they’ll be paying the full freight on it,” Thorn said.
He stared at the hideout hard for a while before speaking again: “About that. When shit kicks off, no kids. Don’t be killing any kids. And women and youths only if they raise up on ye with a weapon. Clear?”
“Of course,” Choke said.
Knuckle and Pinch nodded earnestly. Peep stayed silent.
“I’m serious,” Thorn said to Peep now. “You got any beef with a woman in there, ye best bring it up now and make yar case for action. Because I aint tolerating a murder here.”
“No, there aint nothin. It’s just yar cute, with all yar bullshit. Like them nobles and soldiers that ye’ve done yar killing for follow the fuckin rules,” Peep said.
“Ye don’t know shit about who I’ve rode with. Ye can think what ye want, but ye best keep a civil tongue in yar head about it. And ye mind what I say. No murders,” Thorn finished at Peep. Then he turned his focus to Knuckle and Pinch:
“And no rape.”
“What are ye fuckin telling us that for?” Knuckle protested.
“Cause ye both got the Father’s handprint burned into yar fuckin heads, is why. So I thought maybe I should point out the obvious in case yar slow learners.”
Thorn signaled for silence then, and led the squad a little further down the trail until he reached a spot he deemed good to set up in ambush. There was still a good couple of hours before the possible changing of the watch, so Thorn took his time setting up everyone exactly where he wanted with explicit orders on what they were to do. He even went further down the trail himself to walk back on it to make sure everyone was completely out of sight. Then they hunkered down to wait.
It turned out they were in luck. Just after midday they heard the sound of people moving down the trail towards them.
Choke, Knuckle, and Peep were stationed together at the top of a little rise behind a big deadfall tree next to the trail. This spot would afford them both cover and a good view of about thirty meters of trail when they popped up from behind the tree. They had strict orders to wait until they heard a ruckus before doing so.
The signaling ruckus was to be caused by Thorn and Pinch. They were laying prone in the bush off to the side of the trail, almost at the point where it curved out of sight of Choke and the others. As with the last time they had set up an ambush, Thorn had Pinch completely out of sight as he alone peeked out at the trail from behind the base of the tree.
Just as Peep said it would be, there were three bandits heading to the cabin to relieve the watch. These ones were fully armed. The first two were in leather armor, with the third just in buckskins. The two armored fellows were both armed with roundshields and spears, with throwing axes on their belts. Buckskin man had a bigger recurve bow with a full quiver on his back and a hand axe and big knife on his belt.
Thorn waited until the three men had passed their position and moved on another fifteen meters, putting them roughly midway between him and Choke. Then he silently pushed himself in to a deep squat, picked up his bow, and stood up.
Thorn stepped out from behind his tree as he drew back his arrow and shot Buckskin in the spine, right between his shoulder blades. The man fell with a strangled gasp.
Pinch was up by then and shot the rear roundshieldman in the back as well. However, Pinch’s bow was underpowered for getting through the hard, cured leather of the man’s armor, and the arrow did not penetrate far. The bandit instinctively reacted well, and threw himself sideways into the bushes.
The next roundshieldman was only a little slower than his mate. He whirled back and raised his shield, saving himself as Thorn’s second arrow thunked into it. Sadly for him, Choke, Knuckle, and Peep all raised up from behind their tree and shot him in the back.
All of the Pekot lads had received enough training on crossbows to assure they were at least a credible threat within fifty meters. At fifteen meters, with the deadfall tree as a stable platform, they could not miss. Their quarrels punched through his leather armor and deep into his back. With a simple shortbow, Peep did not bother shooting into the man’s armor, instead choosing to hit him in the ass.
The bandit that had jumped off the trail crashed through the trees, shouting loudly as he did. He crouched, crawled, rolled, and dashed. Thorn, Pinch, and Peep all hazarded another shot at him, but were unable to hit.
Up top, both Choke and Knuckle dropped their crossbows and ran down the trail to begin pursuing him. Choke had his appropriated roundshield and spear in hand, and Knuckle his greatsword.
While the bandit was largely out of sight by this point, he was making enough noise that it was easy to tell where he was and gauge where he was heading. Moving away from the trail, he was attempting to move laterally around Thorn and Pinch’s position. If he managed it, he might be able to get back on the trail to head back to the hideout.
“You two! Cover the trail!” Thorn barked at Peep and Pinch.
With Choke and Knuckle now smashing their way through the bush in direct pursuit, Thorn slipped off through the trees to cut the fleeing bandit off.
The terrain they were in was a spruce forest. The trees were close together, with their lower branches mostly dead with sharp twigs and patches of old man’s beard dangling from them. The ground was uneven, with rocks, dead trees, and branches competing with the thorny underbrush to trip them up.
The bandit was better at moving through the bush than either Choke or Knuckle. He was gaining on them, but still making a lot of noise to do it. Moving relatively swiftly and quietly, Thorn had no trouble cutting him off.
One of the tricks of moving through heavy forest or bush is reading the plant life. Even in thick growth, trees and plants clump together in some places and open up in others. However, as in life, following the path of least resistance can quickly lead one astray in the wrong direction.
With a good sense of his orientation, Thorn was able to occupy a small, open area that he reckoned the bandit would have to move through if he was going to get himself out of this. Sure enough, the bandit joined him shortly, crashing wild-eyed through the trees into the little clearing.
The bandit almost did not see Thorn in time as the ranger raised himself up from a crouch and shot an arrow. However, the man got his shield up just in time to catch the missile. Thorn dropped his bow and drew his sword as he closed on the man in two fast strides and dropped into a deep, lunging slash underneath the upraised shield.
Once again, the bandit cheated death as he brought his shield down to deflect Thorn’s blade as he awkwardly pulled his lead leg out of harm’s way. He then countered with a shield bash as he squared up properly and readied a lunge with his spear.
Thorn evaded the shield bash easily enough by backing up. But, in tight quarters on uneven ground facing a skilled spear and shield fighter, Thorn was in trouble with just a sword in hand, and he knew it. However, he did not have to win this fight; he only had to draw it out. With this in mind, he backed up a pace and settled into a defensive crouch as Choke and Knuckle loudly closed on the bandit from behind.
Choke was the first to reach them. He came through the gap in the trees that the bandit had forced himself through and lunged at his back with his spear. The bandit twisted into a spear lunge at Thorn so that Choke’s spear point glanced off his armor. Thorn parried the bandit’s attack and came back in a slashing riposte at his extended spear arm. The bandit dove sideways to the ground, dropping his shield as he did, and began crawling under the thick and wide-spread lower branches of one of the bigger spruce trees at the edge of the clearing.
Thorn slashed again, and this time he hit. His machete-like sword blade cut deep into the bandit’s calf right below his knee. The bandit howled, but continued crawling away. Choke stabbed at him through the tree’s branches with his spear but was unable to tell if he hit anything.
The bandit crawled on his belly underneath the tree and out its other side, dragging his wounded leg behind him. However, this was the end of it for him. Knuckle had yet to enter the clearing and was still in the thick of the stunted spruce behind the tree. In a blind panic, crawling out from under the big tree, the bandit never saw him. Just a couple of meters from the bandit, Knuckle dropped his greatsword low and used it like a spear, stabbing the bandit in the side. With all of Knuckle’s strength and weight behind it, the sword’s tip had no trouble getting through the leather armor to finish things.
“Got him!” Knuckle barked.
“Good!” Thorn replied. “You two get back to the trail and set up behind yar tree again. Get Pinch back there with ye. I’m gonna scout ahead and see if all this attracted any attention.”
“Do you think they heard us at the hideout?” Choke asked him.
Thorn shook his head. “Very unlikely. In thick bush like this, with it about a click away, almost impossible. But ye never know. Sound can bounce around in funny ways sometimes, especially in hills and mountains. And maybe someone else was out this way hunting or fucking or some shit. Right? Okay, move.”
Thorn gave Choke a friendly slap on the back with the order. The ranger then turned on his heel to pick up his bow and slip off through trees in the direction of the bandit hideout. Knuckle quickly checked the bandit for any jewelry, of which he had none, and took his small coin pouch. Then he and Choke headed back to the trail to set up again as Thorn had instructed.
Choke, Pinch, Knuckle, and Peep waited for Thorn behind the deadfall tree. Both Choke and Knuckle kept out of sight with their loaded crossbows at the ready. Behind them were the two dead bandits they had dragged up off the trail. Pinch and Peep kept the lookout at either end.
After a tense and silent half an hour, Thorn waved at them from around the bend at the trail. Peep gave him an “all-clear” whistle, and Thorn jogged straight down the trail to join them.
“All good?” Pinch asked him.
Thorn nodded as he sat down behind the tree to have a drink of water from a skin.
“Yeah. It’s all quiet. So it’s been a good day so far! Any of these pricks have a price on their heads?” Thorn asked Peep.
“No. Dugnut and Horsecock don’t keep watch. They’re too free for that,” Peep replied.
Thorn snorted at this.
“Fuck, that one guy that ran through the bush, he was slippery as a butcher’s prick!” Knuckle said.
“That he was. But we got him,” Thorn said. He stared down the trail for a while. Then he looked over the corpses they had dragged up behind the tree.
“That kill’s mine,” Thorn said, pointing out the man in buckskins.
“Yeah, I know. All his shit’s there,” Peep said, gesturing to the recurve bow they had shoved in behind the quiver on his back.
Thorn checked the man for any valuables without finding any, and then pulled the bow. He had a close look at it before giving it a pull to test its weight.
“Not bad. Good little deer bow. I’ll keep it. Hold up while I go stash it,” Thorn said. He unstrung the bow and ran back to the lookout post to stash it on the mule’s pack saddle.
When he returned he looked everyone over before addressing them:
“That was tight. I like the way ye kids move. All of ye. Good work. All except for that shit,” Thorn pointed down the trail.
“What?” Knuckle asked.
“The fuckin trail. Ye got fuckin drag marks from them two pricks leading right up here! Ye may as well put up a sign: ‘Ambush here!’”
“Oh, shit. Sorry.” Knuckle said.
“It aint on you Knuckle. No one’s expecting you to know nothin. Ye church boys are green as leprechaun shit. But I’m disappointed in you, Peep. What the fuck, girl? What kinda bandit are ye anyhow? Shoddy work.”
Peep looked for a second like she might respond angrily to this. Instead, she ate the reprimand with the slightest nod of acknowledgment.
“Ye want I should go fix it, boss?” she asked, quickly raising up her shield of sarcasm.
“I don’t know yet. Depends on what we wanna do next. We got six down. That means another six to ten fuckers to deal with up there at the main hideout, right?” Thorn looked to Peep.
She nodded, and Thorn went on:
“Right. So we got a few different ways to play this. Peep, what d’ye think they’d do up there if we were to blow on this horn?”
“When they blow the horn at the lookout it means someone’s heading up. One blow is for good, two is for unknown or bad. Then the lookouts gotta send a runner up to camp to tell them what’s what,” she answered.
“And what happens if no runner shows up?”
“Well, that never happened when I was there. I guess they’d figure things are fucked.”
“Yeah. So that’s out. They’d bug out up the ridgeline and wait to see what comes at em. Can’t do that.” Thorn was thoughtful for a while then before he continued:
“Peep, I don’t suppose ye’d be interested in us blowing the horn and then ye running up there to tell them that Orcstabber’s back with a big haul that he needs help getting up the hill. Lead whoever ye can back here into another ambush.”
Peep stared at Thorn for a long while at this, before she calmly answered: “Fuck you.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. So that’s out. Yeah, good call, actually. It’s too risky. So, what d’ye reckon they’re gonna do when the first three we jacked at the cabin don’t show up like they’re supposed to shortly?” Thorn asked.
Peep thought about this. “I dunno,” she finally said.
“Oh, well, that’s real fuckin useful,” Knuckle snarked.
“No, it’s fair enough. Ye want her to make something up?” Thorn said. “If it were me running the show up there, I probably wouldn’t be too arsed about it. Not for a few hours, at least. Crew like this is gonna be unreliable as fuck, generally.”
“That’s so,” Peep agreed.
“Good. So we got some wiggle room here. But if we’re gonna catch them with their pants down, we gotta move on now. The longer we wait, the more worried and alert they’re gonna be. Does that make sense to everyone?” Thorn asked the squad.
“Now, Peep, ye said before that they don’t keep any proper dogs in camp there. Ye sure about that?” Thorn asked.
“Yeah. Like I fuckin said. There’s a couple of muts, but no real hunting or guard dogs. And they bark at anything, so no one pays them any real mind,” Peep said.
“Okay, good. It’ll make our jobs that much easier,” Thorn said. “Right. We’ll push on and get this done. So we’ll leave yar girlfriend tied up back at the cabin, Knuckle. No sense risking her getting loose, or killed, or getting us spotted,” said Thorn.
“Really? I thought I told ye enough with the fuckin mule jokes already,” Knuckle said.
“Yeah, ye did. Which is why this shit is sure to stick to ye. Okay, let’s move out, same as before: me and Peep out in front. The rest of ye follow in back. When I signal a stop, ye take to cover as best ye can. Oh, and Knuckle, I may as well throw on Orcstabber’s wolf cloak, right? I aint the size of ye, but it might buy us a moment if someone up there spots me and Peep together.”
With this, Thorn put on the cloak that Knuckle handed over, and then set off down the trail with Peep right behind him, leading them on to the bandit hideout.