The Children of Stron – part 26

Table of Contents (spoilers)

read part 1

read part 25

Goldy the bandit’s hideout was just as Peep had described. It was enclosed by a tall, spruce log fence that had the look of a palisade without being substantial enough to offer the proper protection of one. There was no defensive ditch with a raised mound of earth behind, on top of which the logs would be planted, and no walkways or watchtowers atop it. Rather, the thinner logs had been planted straight into the ground and lashed roughly together in a way that anyone with an axe and a few minutes would be able to get through. Even so, it would have to be contended with.

The log longhouse inside had a spruce log roof with moss and sod laid atop it that had begun to sprout little trees of its own. The longhouse was on the cliff side of the little plateau. There was a bit of a yard in the center of the compound, with two smaller log cabins across from the longhouse. In the middle of the yard was a big firepit.

The location was a good one: just fifty meters down from a steep rise that went straight up to the treeless ridgeline. The forested shelf had narrowed into a bottleneck, and the little bandit compound occupied the whole of it. With a rocky cliff dropping about fifty meters to the one side, and a steep, bare, rocky slope up to the ridge on the other, there would be no easy way to get around the compound unseen.

When they got close to it, Thorn and Peep creeped as close as they could along the forest trail to observe things carefully before going back to where Choke, Knuckle, and Pinch were hidden further back in the bush.

Thorn quickly laid out a rudimentary map of the compound with some twigs, leaves, and rocks.

“Okay, good news is, there’s no sentry at the fence and the main gate’s open, so we’ll be able to walk right in. Bad news is that they got a big fire going in the firepit and there’s a bunch of people wandering around,” Thorn whispered.

“Yeah, it’s warm now, so they’ll do all the cooking with that and hang out in the yard until after dark,” Peep added.

“Now, the fence goes right up to the cliff’s edge over here,” Thorn prodded a twig on his map. “And just behind that must be where the way down to the water is, right?” he asked Peep.

She nodded.

“So, you were fetching the water a bunch, I’m guessing. Is there a way to clamber around the edge of the fence and get up into the compound that way?”

Peep was thoughtful for a while before answering: “Yeah, I guess I could do it. A little dodgy, but anyone who’s good at climbing should be able to. With all their mail and shit, I wouldn’t risk it, though,” she gestured at Knuckle and Choke.

“Oh, no doubt,” Thorn said. “For you and me, though, it’s worth checking out. Okay, I’m gonna do that. Ye all sit tight.”

Thorn slipped off into the bush on the cliff side of the trail. Moving slowly, he was impressively quiet, and soon disappeared from sight. Sitting in the bushes and trees to either side of the trail, the squad waited in silence. In the quiet of the forest they could now make out the sounds of the bandits: the occasional laugh or gruff shout, along with yapping dogs and the yells and shrieks of children at play.

The five minutes it took for Thorn to return felt very long indeed.

“Yeah. It’ll do. Can ye manage the climb silently?” Thorn asked Peep.

She stared at him for a few beats as though he was a very stupid person. “Yeah,” she finally said.

Thorn ignored the attitude.

“Okay, so here’s how this is going down,” he said as he took off Orcstabber’s wolfpelt cloak and handed it back to Knuckle. “Me and Peep are gonna climb around the edge of the fence and slip in behind the longhouse. I don’t wanna risk any kinda signal, bird whistle or not. These guys are at home and know exactly what they’re meant to be hearing around here. So, you three,” Thorn indicated Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle, “I want ye to wait here for ten minutes before ye walk into the compound through the gate. Knuckle, ye lead the way in that wolf pelt with yar head down. Choke and Pinch, ye back him up with cloak hoods down. Ye head straight for the fire pit like yar meant to be there and start killing as soon as soon as things start getting fucky. Right?”

All three Pekot lads nodded, although not very enthusiastically.

“Her and me will be in there already, and we’ll make a move to back ye up. Also, if ye hear a ruckus before the ten minutes is up, ye come running.”

“This is yar grand plan. Just walk in there and start killing?” Pinch asked incredulously.

“Fuckin A, man,” Thorn said with a grin. “Keep it simple, right? It’s almost even numbers now, and we’re the ones who’ll know what the fuck is happening. That should be all we need.”

“Yeah, well, the two of ye do us a favor, would ye? If ye fall, try not to scream,” Pinch muttered.

Thorn gave Pinch a backhanded cuff on the shoulder by way of encouragement and nodded to Peep for her to follow him. The two of them slipped off into the bush.

Thorn and Peep creeped through the bush to the edge of the cliff, and then along that to where the fence connected to it. The forest had been allowed to grow right up to the fence, so they were able to get there under total cover. Then they took just a minute to make sure all was clear.

While the cliff was indeed a cliff, from the side of longhouse there was a clear route down it to the steep, grassy slope below. The rock was fissured into a series of steps and small shelves. There was even some packed down soil here and there, with a few stunted trees and shrubs. The humans had enhanced this by setting log steps in where they could, with short lengths of rope dangling here and there.

Thorn slung his bow over his shoulder with its string across his chest and crawled on his belly right to the end of the fence. He checked the rock face directly below before grabbing the last log of the fence tightly and rolling to swing himself out into space. It took him just a second of dangling before his feet found purchase. Thorn dropped down one step and reached over to grab a nicely squared protrusion to his left. He swung over to hang on that and then clambered up inside the compound. With him safe inside, Peep followed. If anything, she did it more adeptly than he did.

In the forest by the trail, Choke and the others waited for what they felt was likely ten minutes before moving on. This was not quite as imprecise as it might seem. Without proper timepieces, they had been trained to reckon time intuitively, as all professional soldiers were. Pinch, in particular, was quite good at it.

Knuckle led the way with the wolf cloak pulled down low over his eyes. With his greatsword set loose in its back mount, ready to drawn, he cradled his loaded crossbow in his hands. With a roundshield and spear to contend with, Choke was in no position to handle a crossbow as well. When they reached a point in the trail that had a good view of the compound’s gate, Choke loaded his crossbow and set it down behind a tree as a possible fallback position. Pinch, as usual, had his shortbow ready to go with three arrows in his left hand.

With Knuckle out in front, they walked right into the bandit compound through the gate.

It was early afternoon and there was a good bustle in the tiny community. The longhouse’s main entrance was in the middle of its long side and had its doors wide open to the yard. Opposite that, the two smaller log cabins’ doors were also open. A pair of bandits were lounging on a low bench with their backs against the wall next to the longhouse’s doorway. In the middle of the yard was a big firepit with a large iron pot hanging to boil from an iron tripod. Next to that, two women were squatting to butcher a skinned deer carcass lain across a number of split logs. Further back from the firepit were two men and one woman, as well as a boy and a girl. They were standing around a wooden rack that one of the men and the woman were working to string the deer’s pelt on to be cured. The kids were hopping about excitedly next to their parents. As well as them, there were about half a dozen more children of varying sized running amok through the yard amongst the adults. A pair of smaller mongrel dogs were running around with the kids barking at them.

The big man standing with the family at work with the deer pelt was Goldy. There could be no questioning it. Like a lord in his keep, Goldy stood sipping liquor from a jug. He had a full mouth of gold teeth that flashed in the sunlight as he laughed with the father working on the pelt. In his forties, Goldy was armored in brigandine mail with a pair of axes on his hips: one a small throwing axe, and the other a fine-looking battleaxe. A fighting knife was also slung low across his belly.

Knuckle walked straight into the yard flanked by Choke and Pinch, all with their hoods pulled as low as they could without limiting their sight. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at them. Most of the people seemed taken in by the wolf pelt, although none that were seemed at all pleased to see who they assumed to be Orcstabber.

However, it took Goldy less than a second to identify the threat coming straight at him, and he reacted immediately. As Knuckle raised up his crossbow to shoot, Goldy grabbed the woman next to him by the back of her dress and yanked her in front of him. Knuckle shot before he could process this move, and his quarrel, having been loosed at the center of Goldy’s torso, struck the woman high in the chest.

Knuckle dropped his crossbow and charged straight for Goldy while drawing his greatsword. Goldy let the woman fall as he pulled his throwing axe and threw it at Knuckle. The axe hit Knuckle in the face, glancing off his helmet as it did. Knuckle stumbled and began falling, his momentum carrying him on towards Goldy with his greatsword still in hand. Goldy drew his battleaxe and lashed out with it as he sidestepped Knuckle, carving deep into his left elbow.

When Knuckle had shot his crossbow, Pinch wasted no time either. The man standing at the deer pelt rack was unarmored, but had a shortsword on his belt and a skinning knife in his hand. Pinch shot him in the center of his chest. Before the man had even fallen, Pinch pivoted and loosed his second and third shots; these at one of the men sitting on the bench against the longhouse. Shot in haste, the first one missed high, but the second took him in the thigh.

As Knuckle fell in a heap next to Goldy, Choke threw his spear at the bandit leader. Goldy was able knock that aside with his battleaxe as he dodged. Knuckle had rolled up into a ball as he fell, indicating that he was still alive (for the moment, at least). Desperate to keep Goldy from finishing him off, Choke drew his longsword and charged him.

The unharmed bandit at the longhouse bench armed himself with a spear and roundshield and lunged at Choke as he clashed with Goldy. Not liking his odds of targeting either Goldy or the spearman without potentially hitting Choke, Pinch instead shot the man he had wounded in the leg again, hitting him this time in the center of his ribcage. Then he dropped his bow, drew his dagger and shortsword, and moved in to help Choke.

Choke had managed to distract Goldy from Knuckle with his attack, but was having no success beyond that. Goldy had only his battleaxe, and no shield, but was powerful and quick. As the spearman attacked Choke with a lunge on his left, Goldy moved to the right to flank him. Choke blocked the spear lunge with his shield and fell back, putting the firepit behind him as he parried a low chop from Goldy with his sword.

The spearman broke off from Choke as Pinch tried to run around to get behind him. He kept Pinch at bay with a series of quick jabs with his spear. Pinch parried and skipped back out of range. With no hope of credibly threatening the properly armed spearman, the best Pinch could hope to do was distract him from flanking Choke. This he did, using good footwork to keep at the edge of the spearman’s reach as he pressured him just enough to keep him occupied.

Now one on one with Goldy, Choke bore down on him, seeking to press the advantage his shield afforded him. However, if Goldy had any idea he was meant to be at a disadvantage, he gave no indication of it. He gave up ground and parried Choke’s sword thrusts and slashes easily. He had drawn his dagger in his off hand, but made no move to attack with it. Then, suddenly, he did.

Squared behind his shield, Choke had lunged at Goldy with his sword point, seeking to use it more like a spear. This time, Goldy parried it with both his axe and dagger in tandem, using the longer weapon to guide Choke’s blade onto the crosspiece of his dagger. Goldy pushed Choke’s sword to the side with his dagger and brought his battleaxe down over top of the top lip of Choke’s shield. Then, using his axe like a hook, he yanked it towards himself to pull the shield down as he stepped into Choke and lunged at his throat with his dagger. Choke narrowly avoided this by awkwardly jerking himself backwards. Goldy kept at him and kicked him hard in the lower leg to trip him as he stumbled back.

Choke fell straight backwards onto his ass. He was just able to block Goldy’s next attack with his shield: a hard downward chop at his right knee. Goldy stomped down on the shield with all his weight, painfully driving it out of Choke’s grip.

With things dire indeed, Peep and Thorn made their appearance just in time. Peep came out of the longhouse’s big door with her bloody shortsword in hand. The spearman engaged with Pinch never even noticed her. Slipping in behind him, she stabbed him low in the kidney, sinking half her blade’s length into him. Then she rode him to the ground to stab him some more.

Thorn stepped out of the longhouse with his bow in hand and an arrow notched. He shot Goldy in the side just as he was raising his axe to finish Choke. Goldy was in good brigandine armor: a series of smaller iron plates rivetted together inside leather. Thorn, however, had a full-powered Scythan warbow which had no trouble driving a bodkin-headed war arrow through the armor deeply enough to cause Goldy a mischief. With ten centimeters of arrow inside him, Goldy reared back, gasping in pain. Underneath him, Choke rolled away and swung his sword hard, cutting off his leg just above his boot. Then it was a simple matter for Choke to get to his feet and chop of his head.

“That’s all of them!” Peep yelled above the noise as she finished looking the scene over.

There was indeed a lot of noise for her to yell over. When the attack had commenced, the two women working on the deer carcass had bolted over to one of the smaller cabins and had gathered as many of the children around them as they could. They had not managed to gather up the two children who had been with their parents and Goldy at the deer pelt. The boy and girl were crying hysterically between the corpses of their mother and father. As well, Knuckle had begun making loud, animalistic noises of extreme distress as he writhed around on the ground. The two mongrel dogs had retreated just enough to feel safe and were now barking like maniacs.

Thorn was overtop Knuckle in an instant and began working to calm him down so that he could check his wounds.

“Where’s my medical kit? Fuck! It’s back on the mule!” Thorn shouted. “Peep! Get me medical supplies! Whatever they have!”

Peep had wandered over to stand overtop Thorn and Knuckle, who was mostly quiet now.

“Who’s the best healer they got here?” Thorn barked up at her.

“That would be her,” Peep said, pointing out the woman laying splayed out with Knuckle’s crossbow quarrel sunk to its flights in her chest.

“Fuck!” Thorn yelled as he looked her over. Then he seemed to notice her two children screaming right beside her. “Altas’ cock! Get these fuckin kids outta here!” He stabbed his finger at one of the other women sitting on the ground, shushing the children around her. “You! Get them outta here!”

The woman rushed to comply, giving Peep a murderous look as she did. Peep smiled back at her, and then went into one of the cabins. She came back promptly with a shoulder satchel that she threw down next to Thorn. She and Thorn then went to work on Knuckle.

There was a lot of blood to contend with before they could see what they were dealing with. The first thing Thorn did was put a torniquet on Knuckle’s upper arm to stop the bleeding, which was serious. Then they rinsed the wound with hot water from the fire. It did not look good. The cut was deep, having carved almost halfway through the elbow joint. Thorn and Peep did the best they could with it. They stitched it up where they could, before packing it with an antiseptic herbal paste and binding it tightly in a splinted bandage. When they released the torniquet, the bandage reddened in a bloody blossom, but did so slowly enough that it was unlikely to be fatal.

The next issue was Knuckle’s face. Goldy’s throwing axe had hit him almost flush, but its leading edge had hit the lip of his iron pot helmet just inside his left temple, notching it. The axe had then sheared off across Knuckle’s face, cutting a large flap of skin as it did. Thorn and Peep cleaned this wound out with water, smeared it with the herbal paste, and commenced to stitching it up. When they were finished, he was left with a nasty crescent cut that ran under his eye, hooked around his cheekbone, and headed down his cheek towards the base of his jaw. Luckily, Knuckle’s eye was intact.

While Thorn and Peep worked on Knuckle, Choke and Pinch secured the compound. In the longhouse was a woman sitting with two more bandit corpses. One of the men had his throat slashed, and the other had one of Thorn’s arrows through his face and out the back of his head. At the back of the longhouse was a smaller door that Peep and Thorn had obviously come through from the clifftop to do their killing. The woman was sitting with the fellow with the cut throat, cradling his head in her lap as she smoothed his hair, oblivious to the blood that now covered her.

Choke and Pinch left her to it and checked the other two smaller cabins. These were empty. Choke ran back out the gate to collect his crossbow and then he and Pinch stood awkwardly by the fire pit and covered the two women and six children.

The women had largely managed to quiet the children, save for the three-year-old boy who had been standing between his mother and father when Knuckle and Pinch had killed them. He was standing, still crying hysterically. He had intensified his screaming and flailing whenever one of the women had tried to touch him, so they were now leaving him be. His sister, about five years old, was sitting quietly staring at her slain parents with a deeply stunned expression.

Staring at the newly orphaned boy, Choke was filled with the profoundly unsettling feeling that he was somehow looking at himself all those years ago. He had no memory of his parents, having been brought to the Pekot orphanage by the very men who had likely killed them. But this scene resonated with him in a way that was deeper than conscious memory. A crying little boy with his dead mother’s blood upon him; forever severed from love.

When Thorn and Peep had finished stitching up Knuckle’s face, Thorn began bandaging him and Peep could pull her attention away from their patient.

“Where’s Kelly?” she asked, looking the women and children over with a scowl.

“Who?” Pinch asked.

“There should be one more woman here! Kelly! She was in the longhouse with Horsecock and Mitch. Where is she?”

“Still in there with them, I guess,” Pinch said.

“Okay, what the fuck!” Thorn yelled without looking up from what he was doing. “Go get her! This aint secured unless we got eyes on every fuckin person alive here! Smarten up!”

Choke was still staring at the crying boy, and gave no indication that he had heard anything. So Pinch went back into the longhouse to drag the woman out. When he had her by the arm, she came with him meekly enough.

At last, Thorn was finished bandaging Knuckle and he stood up to take another look over the scene. Staring down once more at the dead woman at his feet, Thorn pinched the bridge of his nose with a grimace.

“Okay, what the fuck happened here? Who did this?” he asked.

Pinch stood silent, waiting for Choke to answer. When he did not, Pinch finally spoke up:

“Uhh… Knuckle shot at Goldy, and he pulled her in front of him.”

“Oh, so the asshole didn’t fuckin shoot her on purpose then? Well that’s a fuckin relief to everyone, I’m sure. Fuckin prick,” Thorn muttered, glaring down at Knuckle who was still laying motionless on his back in the bloody dirt.

When Thorn looked up from Knuckle with deeply weary eyes, he finally seemed to notice Choke, who was still staring stonefaced at the orphan boy.

“Hey! Wake the fuck up!” Thorn barked, striding over to Choke and giving him a hard shove.

“What? Sorry, it’s just… the kids. I wasn’t expecting there to be kids. It’s…” Choke drifted off with a haunted look.

“Yeah, well, where did ye think bandits come from, man? The big bandits make little bandits. It’s the circle of fuckin life. Get yar shit together.”

“Bandits? Bandits!” the woman who had glared at Peep screamed as she got to her feet. “Motherfucker! That’s the bandit, there!” she spat at Goldy’s corpse. “Billy? Stringer? Naomi? Bandits, ye say? Ye motherfucking killers, ye.”

The woman collapsed in tears to pull the orphaned girl to her breast.

“Yeah, real salt of the fuckin earth, the lot of them, I’m sure. Right up until they stick a spear in someone’s guts for some copper,” Thorn spat on the ground himself. Then he turned to Peep.

“Okay. So Dugnut aint here, right?”

Peep shook her head.

“But we got Horsecock in the longhouse, right?”

“I got Horsecock in the longhouse. Ye shot Mitch, who aint shit,” Peep said.

“Yeah, yeah. Well then, miss fuckin bounty hunter, why don’t ye go in there and get his head for us, so’s we can be on our fuckin way. Pinch! Run back to the lookout and grab the mule. We’re gonna hafta load this sack of shit onto it,” Thorn barked, indicating Knuckle.

Pinch nodded and ran at full tilt out the gate and down the trail. As Peep turned on her heel to go into the longhouse, the woman who had been in there with Horsecock suddenly snapped out of her fog as she realized what was about to happen to her man’s remains.

“No!” she yelled, as she stood up and began running at Peep.

Peep whirled back with her shortsword in hand, ready to finish the woman. Thorn intervened in time, though. He lunged a kick out to trip the woman. Then he bore down on her and pinned her to the ground with his knee on her throat.

“Go! Get it fuckin done! Fuck!” he yelled at Peep.

Peep smiled at the scene before she turned her back on it to go and do as she had been told.

read part 27

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