The Children of Stron – part 27

Table of Contents (spoilers)

read part 1

read part 26

Peep was in the longhouse for just a minute before returning with Horsecock’s head. She held it by the hair in her left hand, with her shortsword still in her right. The severed head dribbled a trail of blood behind her, but she was surprisingly free of it herself.

“Ye just had to do that right in the middle of our home? Ye couldn’t a drug him out back to do it? Ye vile, murdering cunt,” said the lead woman who had been berating Thorn earlier.

“What goes around comes around, Giara,” Peep returned with a cold smile.

Still holding Horsecock’s woman down on the ground, Thorn had eased almost all the pressure off her neck. He watched her carefully to gauge her reaction to her man’s decapitation. There was none. Broken, she lay as she was as he stood up off her.

“Peep,” Thorn said. “Get a sack or basket or whatever, and put Horsecock and Goldy’s heads into it. We’ll throw it on the mule.”

Peep nodded and sheathed her sword to pick up Goldy’s head from where it had fallen when Choke had chopped it off to end their combat. She took the prizes back into the longhouse.

“Okay, listen up!” Thorn barked at everyone. “We’re gonna go now. We aint taking anything else with us. We aint gonna loot this place. We got what we came for. We’ll leave ye with what ye have.”

“Ye expect us to thank ye? Ye’ve murdered us all, ye bastards,” Giara spat at him.

Thorn ignored this and continued:

“Now, I’m guessing ye’ve been noticing some unusual goblin activity around here lately. They might be hopping about more than usual. Or, even worse, suddenly not at all. I don’t expect ye to tell me anything about it. Ye got no reason to say shit to us. But I’m telling you: with what we ran into coming here, and where ye all are, yar gonna have a real big goblin problem before too long.”

“Oh, no shit?” Giara said.

“Ye need to listen to what I’m saying. If I’m right, whether yar men were here or not wouldn’t help ye when this kicks off. The gobos got a lookout post up on the opposite ridge, watching the garrison at Burnthistle. That aint normal behavior for gobos running wild. They’re under orders. And whatever’s pulling their strings has a plan. Ye need to get the fuck outta here.”

“And just where d’ye think we’re gonna go?”

“Up yar mother’s ass, for all I care. I’m about done with ye,” Thorn answered.

Pinch returned with their mule then, jogging it right into the compound. He stopped it by Thorn and Knuckle. Choke got his wits about him enough to help them get Knuckle standing. Thorn had bandaged Knuckle’s elbow into a right angle and tied it down to his side in a sling. Half of Knuckle’s head was swathed in bandages as well. Knuckle groaned loudly and swayed as they hauled him to his feet, but managed to stay upright without too much help.

“Okay, fuckwit,” Thorn said, giving Knuckle a sharp poke in the side. “Hear me well: we’re heading out now, and if this mule can’t bear ye, then yar gonna have to walk. And then yar gonna have to keep up. Because I will leave the whole lot of ye behind. Ye hear? I aint slowing down on account of yar mother-killing ass.”

Knuckle gave no indication of hearing this, but both Choke and Pinch met Thorn’s eye and nodded grimly.

The three of them got Knuckle up atop the mule’s pack saddle. The animal grunted irritably but bore the weight.

“Peep! Get the fuck on with it!” Thorn yelled into the longhouse.

Peep soon appeared with a large, bloodstained burlap sack that she tied down on the mule in front of Knuckle. Pinch picked up Knuckle’s greatsword and crossbow and secured them behind him.

Seeing they were within seconds of leaving, Choke finally acted on the feelings that had been roiling within him. He leaned in close to Thorn and spoke in a quiet but insistent voice.

“Thorn. We can’t just leave them like this,” he said, casting his gaze significantly at the two newly orphaned children.

“The fuck?”

“These two kids. They’re orphaned now.”

“Yeah, they are. Thanks to yar buddy here. What the fuck d’ye think we can do about it?” Thorn asked, his tone neutral as he sensed something of the depth of Choke’s emotion.

Choke stared silently at the little boy. He had settled down a little and allowed himself to be grabbed by Giara. She was hugging him and his sister tight as she wept silently herself.

“Bartholomew. Think. What can we do?” Thorn asked calmly. “Ye want to take a pair of toddlers away from their people and haul them up over a goblin infested ridge. To what end? Ye gonna raise them yarself? Take em to yar ravens in Pekot? They aint gonna take the girl. So yer gonna split them up? There’s no fixing this. Anything ye try will only make it worse. Get yar shit together. We’re leaving.”

The squad did just that. Thorn signaled for Peep to take point. He waited until Pinch and Choke had led the mule out of the compound, with Knuckle swaying atop it. Then Thorn looked over the women and children one last time.

“Ye remember what I told ye. Ye need to leave this place and get someplace with higher walls with more blades within them. And if yar looking for someone to curse over this mess, and yar too damned blind to curse yarselves for the company ye keep, then ye can lay it on me. My name’s Thorn. And when ye set to cursing it, ye might spare a thought about what would be happening to ye right now, and to the little ones, if it was a different sort of men that came here today.”

With this, Thorn turned his back on the scene and left the compound.

***

They stopped at the lookout cabin at the cliff. It was late afternoon and Thorn saw no benefit in pushing on to stop in a less secure location. He had them unload the mule completely and distribute its load between them. Then they settled into camp with a double watch: one looking down from the cliff blind at the valley below, and the other watching the trail back to the bandit compound.

Thorn put Choke and Pinch on the first watch. Knuckle was passed out moaning in the cabin. Peep was sitting on the ground in front of it, fussing over Orcstabber’s wolfpelt cloak that she had pulled off Knuckle. She had washed the blood off of it with water from the rain barrel and was now figuring out how she would alter it to fit her slight form.

With his bow in hand, Thorn came to stand over top of her.

“What?” she asked him, her voice as sharp on the blade on her hip.

“That was good work back there. I can see earning that cloak off Orcstabber wasn’t a fluke,” Thorn said.

“Yeah, well, don’t ye forget it.”

“I won’t. But don’t you forget what I told ye before we set out on this shitshow.”

“Yeah, well maybe I did forget. You and the sheriff talked all kinds a shit. Help me narrow it down,” Peep said.

Thorn snorted. “I told ye the same thing I told these three. Ye keep what ye kill, sure, but all loot and bounties get divided according to the agreed upon split. And that split is, I get my half before the four of you divvy up however ye want.”

“So?”

“So, whatever it is that ye rifled from the longhouse counts as shared loot,” Thorn raised his voice now, so that everyone could hear. “I saw the way ye eyeballed that footlocker, and ye were in there way too long just to get a sack. So, given that I like ye and we’ve all been getting along so good, I’m gonna assume that ye aint trying to chisel me. That whatever ye stuck down yar front, or up into yar box, is being kept for my safekeeping, as well as yars.”

(stare)

“Don’t give me that look, ye weasel. I see ye. I know ye. The question is: do you see me? Because ye fuckin well better, or else yar gonna get to know me properly. So are ye gonna smarten up and do right by yar squad like a proper human being? Or are ye just another bandit?”

Thorn dropped the word, “bandit,” with the full weight of all that it meant to him.

“Oh, I’m the bandit, am I?” Peep snarled.

“Don’t know yet. But we’ll find out right away, one way or the other.”

“I’m the bandit! When yar the one that tasked me to go and find a sack when ye fuckin well knew that I’m the one that would know exactly where Goldy kept his stash. And that I’d fuckin lift it. And then ye can make a big fuckin show for the womenfolk about how yar too noble to rob them of anything but their men’s heads. And then ye go ahead and lean on me to line yar pockets from my dirty deeds.”

“Yeah, that’s the way of it. Welcome to civilization!” Thorn laughed. “Now cough it up.”

Peep glared long and hard at Thorn, but finally did as she was told. She quickly loosened a strap on her leather armor so she could reach down her front to produce a money pouch. She tossed it to Thorn.

“Sir. Ye want I should bend over so’s ye can check if I’m being a good girl?” she asked, giving him a look of deep loathing.

“Nah. Like I said: we’ve been getting along, and I wanna keep things friendly. So I’m gonna go ahead and trust that ye aint holding out on me. As ye were, soldier.”

Thorn tossed up the money pouch and caught it with a laugh as he turned away from Peep. The second he did, she gave him the finger and spat on the ground.

Over at the cliffside blind, Choke heard the entire exchange, but barely registered it. Looking out over the vista he was meant to be keeping watch on, he was filled with thoughts of the orphan boy and girl. An orphan himself, he had been raised by the Brothers of the Holy Stone to regard bandits and Scythans as subhuman menaces only slightly better than goblins or orcs. But now there were human faces to be reckoned with amongst this enemy. In another time and place, these faces could easily have been his own. And these little human faces had not fared well by his hand. Having come full circle, Choke was in no way equipped to deal with this.

A low, soft whistle of warning from Pinch over at his post snapped Choke out of his dark reverie. This was followed by a feminine voice from down the trail raised in a lilting call: “Yoo-hoo!”

Another few seconds brought: “Peep! Are ye there! Don’t shoot! It’s us! Amia!”

The squad all took up position behind cover with their bows to stare down the trail towards the bandit compound. A woman was jogging awkwardly towards them. They soon saw it was the third woman from the compound that had kept quiet and out of the way the whole time. She had a small child clinging to her back.

When the woman got within thirty meters, Thorn shouted at her:

“You there! Halt! Come no further!”

The woman did as she was told and dropped to her knees, raising her hands up in supplication.

“Oh, thank Lavastia! Yar still here! Peep! Please! I just wanna come with ye! I’ll keep up! Please don’t leave us!”

Thorn exhaled a deep, growling sigh. He looked sideways at Peep.

“What’s her story? Is she gonna cut our throats in the night? Is she fit? Can she keep up?” he asked her.

Peep looked thoughtful as she worked up a good mouthful of spit to hawk on the ground. Then she smiled to herself. It was not a friendly expression.

“That’s Amia. She aint nothin. The only thing she’ll try at night is to get with whatever man she thinks’ll keep her fed. She’s the camp pump. I guess before she had something with Billy the Bugger and had that kid with him. But he traded her to Goldy for a jug of potato wine and fucked off. Goldy loved telling everyone that. ‘Just one jug, and look at all she does!’ But she’s fit enough. Her and me did most of the water hauling when I was here.”

“How old is that kid?” asked Thorn.

“How the fuck should I know? Big enough to walk but not big enough to talk right. So, two? Eight? What the fuck do I care for kids? She’s carrying him, aint she?” Peep said.

“But can she keep that up over the ridge?” Thorn asked.

“I dunno. Listen, ye wanna get yar dick sucked for porridge, bring her on. If ye don’t, don’t.”

“We are not leaving them,” Choke interjected, with a great deal of force.

“Bartholomew—” Thorn started.

“No! You can go ahead and leave us behind if you want. But I am not leaving that woman and child out here,” Choke said.

“Agreed,” Pinch seconded.

Thorn sighed deeply and waved his hand dismissively. “Okay, fine then. Have it yar way. We’ll have a whole fuckin nursery in tow! Put out a nice toddler buffet for the gobos. Fuck me, but if the lot of ye aint the biggest fuckin pain in my balls that I ever…” Thorn went on muttering to himself as he turned his back on them and stomped over to the cliffside blind.

Choke stood up tall and waved to Amia.

“Alright! You can come on! We won’t hurt you!” he called to the woman, who immediately got up off her knees and ran his way.

read part 28

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