When the bandit camp woman, Amia, reached the squad at the lookout cabin, she immediately fell back on her knees in front of Choke.
“Oh, thank ye, sir! Sire! Thank ye! I’ll do whatever ye want of me, sir! Just don’t leave us behind!” Amia begged as she crawled towards Choke with her face almost pressed into the dirt.
She kept coming at him and seemed like she might try to kiss his boots, so he stepped back and gave the crown of her head a push to keep her at bay. Utterly compliant, Amia stopped dead and stayed as she was in a deep bow on her knees. The skinny boy clinging to her back was predictably filthy, but seemed healthy and calm. He looked to be about four years old.
“Well there ye go, Choke! Ye got yarself a warm mouth to feed!” Peep said with a wide grin. Pinch laughed.
“Shut up,” Choke snapped at the both of them.
“Oh, yes, sire! But of course, sire!” Peep said, her grin widening. “But, sire, if a lowly peasant like meself may trouble yar worship with petty details like our survival: if we’re gonna take these two along, we gotta get them sorted out. Look at them: they aint got shit with them! They’re fuckin barefoot!”
Looking Amia and her son over, they realized Peep was right. Amia had on a simple, wool, homespun dress that had seen better days, drawn in at the waist by a rawhide chord. And that was all she had. Her son was wearing a deerskin jerkin.
Choke stared at the pathetic spectacle of the mother and son, at a complete loss as to what to do about them. Seeing his distress, Peep smiled and gave him a condescending pat on the shoulder.
“Don’t ye worry yarself about it, though. Ye just leave them to me. I’ll set them right. Okay?” she asked Choke and Pinch. When they did not answer her, she repeated herself with more force and intention: “Okay?”
“What?” Choke said, blinking like he was coming out of a trance.
“Fuck sakes, man! What the fuck? I said: I will take care of them. Right?”
“Oh. Yes. Good,” Choke said. Pinch nodded.
“Right. So that means they’re my responsibility. That means, I’m in charge of them. Right?”
Choke wandered off in a fog without saying a word. Staring after him with a look of deep concern, Pinch muttered: “yeah, for sure. For sure.”
“Okay, then,” Peep said. She then gave Amia a not-so-gentle kick in the haunch. “Okay! Stand up, bitch! I said, up! That’s enough of this pathetic fuckin performance.”
Amia pulled her son off her back before standing up. She gave Pinch a tentative, shy look before Peep interrupted their moment.
“Hey! Don’t look at him. He can’t help ye. Ye look at me,” Peep said.
“Yes, ma’am,” Amia replied, almost managing to hide her resigned sigh as she did so.
“Don’t call me that. Ye can call me Peep like everyone else. Now, this is not gonna fuckin work for us, what ye got going on here. Ye need to head back to the camp and get some stuff for yarselves.”
“What? …back?” Amia goggled at her.
“Yeah, dummy. Back to camp. Ye can’t come along as ye are. Don’t worry, we aint going nowhere. We’re gonna stay right here tonight. So ye need to go back and get what ye need. Boots or moccasins for you at least. A couple blankets. Cloaks. At least two waterskins. Oh, yeah, and grab the sewing kit and some rawhide chord.”
“No. I… I can’t go back. Giara was so mad when I left! She needed me to clean up the bodies and everything. When I ran after ye, she was so mad! I can’t go back! I can’t go back and take her stuff!” Amia said in genuine distress.
“Well, first off: it aint her stuff. Yar the one there that was putting in most of the grunt work. On yar back, knees, or otherwise. She rode you, and me, like a stolen mule. So ye need to go back there and collect up yar fare share, so that you and yar boy can make a go of it here. And if Giara has a fuckin problem with that, tell her I’ll come back and make sure she does right by ye,” said Peep.
Amia trembled as she contemplated this course for a while. It soon proved too much for her. “I can’t, Peep. I’m sorry, Peep! I just can’t. She’ll kill me if I come back there like that. For real! Ye know it.”
“Well, ye have a fuckin problem, then. Because ye can’t come along with us as ye are.”
Peep stared at Amia with cold eyes. Amia stared at the ground and trembled before her like a lamb on the slaughterhouse floor. After a torturous eternity, Pinch looked about to intervene, but Peep shut that down with a hard glare. Finally, Peep relented:
“Okay, then. Ye caught me in a good mood, Amia. It’s a good thing ye were nice to me. So I’ll come along and make sure Giara is correct with ye.”
“Oh, thank ye, Peep! Thank ye! Thank Lavastia! Yar a good woman, Peep. Lavastia bless ye!”
Amia looked as though she might hug Peep then, but Peep put that off with a scowl and an upraised hand like she was about to give her a swat.
“None of that!” Peep said. “And ye owe me, Amia. Don’t ye forget it.”
“Oh, I won’t! I won’t! Thank ye, Peep. Thank ye!”
Peep nodded at her and then looked to Pinch before pitching her voice so that the whole camp could hear her:
“I’m gonna take her back to camp to get her what they’ll need. Shouldn’t take long!”
This elicited a largely incomprehensible barrage of cursing from Thorn over at the blind, but for all of that he did not seem inclined to interfere. Choke was now sitting amongst the trees at the cliff’s edge with his back to them and did not budge. Pinch sighed.
“I guess I’ll come along with ye,” Pinch said. “Ye should have some backup, just in case.”
“Suit yarself,” Peep said. “Okay, then. Let’s go.”
Peep, Amia, and Pinch came back from the camp within an hour. Amia was wearing a pair of good moccasins (if slightly oversized) and had a sturdy rucksack that was packed up with a fine assortment of goods.
“Giara was spitting mad!” Peep laughed as they got into camp. “Literally! The fuckin bitch spat on me!”
“Was it really necessary to cut her over it?” Pinch snapped.
“Well, she fuckin spit on me, so yeah, it was! And I barely fuckin grazed her. It’ll be a good lesson for her to mind her manners with her betters in future,” Peep said with a grin. She then turned to Amia: “Okay. There’s a little fireplace in the cabin. Get a fire going and make us some gruel. I’m tired of fuckin trail rations.”
Amia got right to work doing as she was told, using ingredients and a pot taken from the bandit camp. The squad took turns eating their dinner right out of the pot. Once Amia had cleaned the pot, Peep took some time explaining to her the modifications she wanted done on her Orcstabber wolfpelt cloak. Compliant as ever, Amia set to work on this with a sewing kit and rawhide as the night fell. Amia worked on by the light of a candle in the cabin while the squad cycled the watch and got what sleep they could.
Dawn broke on another clear, warm day. Thorn and Peep worked together to change Knuckle’s dressings. They cleaned the wounds with water boiled by Amia before smearing them with more herbal antiseptic. Knuckle was quite vocal about the pain this was causing him, which everyone took as a good sign.
“Yar lucky, ye fuckwit,” Thorn said to him as he bandaged him up again. “None of yar wounds are going off. It’s better than ye deserve after what ye done.”
While they worked on Knuckle, Choke and Pinch stayed outside keeping watch. Amia’s child was with them. The lad seemed relaxed and played about with some sticks and pinecones near Pinch, who was keeping watch over the forest trail. Pinch was dividing his attention between his watch and talking to the child, who had not yet spoken. Choke was taking his watch at the cliffside blind, ignoring everyone.
With Knuckle tended to, they were packed up and ready to go just after dawn. Knuckle was able to stand up and walk unsteadily out of the cabin by himself. The squad all gathered around the mule and waited for Thorn to coordinate them. Peep had on her newly altered wolfpelt cloak and was looking very badass in it. Amia had cinched it in at the neck and shoulders and cut a good forty centimeters of the hem so that it would not drag behind her. It would have to be properly hemmed later, so that the hemp lining would not fray, but it was just fine for the time being.
“Okay, now listen up, people!” Thorn said to everyone. “We are in it here, and everyone has to keep their shit wired tight if we’re gonna make it out. We got a two-day hump to get back over the ridge and to Burnthistle. And at the top of that ridge, we know there’s a gobo lookout post. We got this sack of shit,” he indicated Knuckle with a rude gesture, “who’s so fuckin big he’ll probably kill the mule if he rides it armored even half the way. Then there’s this one and her kid. Woman: what’s yar name?”
“And the kid’s?”
“He’s Dugger,” she said looking at him proudly.
“Woah, hold up,” Peep interrupted. “Ye name Billy the Bugger’s kid, Dugger? Yar serious?”
“Well, Billy wouldn’t let me name him after him properly, like. Said I shouldn’t a had him. But, praise Lavastia, I did. And he’s such a good a healthy lad! He’s all I have in the world!
“Yeah, no shit. And to think, if his daddy had just lived up to his name properly, ye wouldn’t even have him!” Peep said with a smirk.
“Okay, enough,” Thorn said. “And Amia, that’s well more than enough of that heretical shit. If yar coming with us, yar days of praying to the bitch whore moon are done. Ye keep her name out of yar mouth. Ye hear me? Because if Father M catches ye praying to the sky hoor to eat yar unborn babies, he will light ye the fuck up and burn ye down. That is no joke. We are Stronians here. We pray to Stron, or Altas, his father. That’s it. Understood?”
Amia nodded meekly, keeping her eyes on the ground.
“Good. Now, Amia, yar gonna have to keep up here. Dugger too. Why don’t ye tie yar blankets into a sling and carry him out front. Then ye gotta carry him. Can ye manage it?” Thorn asked, his tone as gentle as it ever was.
“Yes, sir. We’ll keep up.”
“Okay, so what I propose is, we’ll all walk down the slope from here. It’s too steep to have anyone ride down and risk the mule falling. Knucklehead, ye take Choke’s spear and use it as a walking stick. Then, once we’re down on the even trails, Knucklehead and Amia will switch off riding the mule. That’ll give them a rest and keep the mule from getting too tired. Ye hear that, Knucklehead? Yar gonna be walking at least half the way back. So dig deep, mother-killer, because ye’d better not fall behind.”
“Understood,” Knuckle muttered grimly.
“Okay, then, we’re all set,” Thorn said. “We’re gonna keep a tight group. Marching order is: I’m out on point. Then Choke. Then Knuckle, or Amia, and the mule. Pinch behind that. Then Peep, ye watch our back. Everyone clear? Any questions?”
It was quiet for a few seconds before Amia raised her hand tentatively.
“Pardon me, sir,” she whispered.
“But, it’s just, ye said before that we’re heading up to the ridge yonder to go to Burnthistle. Two days walk ye said.”
“Yeah. That’s the plan,” Thorn said, clearly barely holding on to his patience.
“Well, it’s just that’s the long way, right? Why don’t ye head up this way and hook around on the Littlefoot Trail?” Amia gestured out over the cliff and up the valley below, away from Splitrock, the opposite way that they had come in.
“What’s that now?” Thorn said, suddenly focusing properly on Amia.
“The Littlefoot Trail, sir. It’ll get us to Burnthistle in a day and a bit, give or take. And we don’t gotta go up on the yonder ridge where, pardon me saying sir, ye said there’s goblins.”
Thorn stared at Amia for a long moment before glaring over at Peep. “What the fuck is she talking about? Ye never mentioned this trail.”
“Yeah, well, why the fuck would I, asshole! I aint from here, am I? Orcstabber drug me here through Splitrock and we were just here for ten days, or so, before we struck out for Spitzer, through Splitrock again. If yar the great tracker and scout why the fuck aint you heard of it?” Peep snapped.
“I never campaigned much in this country, is why. Okay, then,” Thorn turned back to Amia. “How d’ye know about this trail?”
“Billy brought me here on it, sir. We come in from the north country, ye see, sir.”
“And what’s the trail like?”
“It’s narrow, sir. A bit rough. Up and down in a gorge a bunch, so scary sometimes. But it aint too bad, sir.”
Thorn turned away from Amia to glower out over the vista towards his proposed route back. Then he turned back to her:
“And ye can find this trail again? Are ye sure?”
“Sure as strife, sir. I’m good at my directions like that, sir. If I’ve walked someplace, so long as I don’t got a bag on my head, I can always find my way back!” Amia proclaimed proudly.
Thorn went back to glowering at the horizon again as he sucked on his mustache pensively.
“We know there’s goblins up on the ridge,” said Pinch.
“Uh-huh,” Thorn muttered.
“And if she’s right, that’s one less night out in the bush,” Pinch went on.
“I know it. If she’s right. Assuming she aint trying to bushwhack us.”
“Sir! No, I wouldn’t!” Amia exclaimed in genuine alarm.
“Shut up!” Thorn stabbed his finger at her.
“Oh, come on, Thorn. D’ye really think—” Pinch started.
“Yeah, I fuckin do!” Thorn interrupted. “Or, at least, I gotta fuckin worry about it. It’s the oldest trick in the fuckin book for a reason, ye horny little prick! Lead ye by yar pecker right into a nest of throat cutters. Ye ask Peep if I’m being paranoid.”
Pinch and Choke both looked over at Peep. She had been watching the scene deadpan. Now she shrugged.
“Yeah. It’s a legit move for a bitch. No doubt. But I don’t think this one has it in her. And I never heard any talk of another hideout or squad up that way.”
“Yeah, but ye were only here for ten days and ye didn’t hear any talk of this fuckin trail neither,” Thorn said.
“True,” Peep conceded.
Thorn looked pained for a while more. Then he drew his buck knife and grabbed Amia by the front of her dress. Both Pinch and Choke shifted like they might try to interfere with him.
“Stand the fuck down!” Thorn barked at the both of them with a drill sergeant’s voice. Then he held his knife’s blade under Amia’s face.
“Okay, Amia, we’re gonna try this trail of yars,” Thorn said. “But know this: if we get out there and this turns out to be some kind of fuckery, I will cut yar fuckin throat and leave yar boy Dugger out here for the goblins. If it’s the last thing I fuckin do, I will see it done. D’ye believe me?”
“Good. If ye come clean now, I won’t hurt ye. So, before we proceed, is there anything ye want to tell me?”
“No, sir. It’s as I said, sir. Ye’ll see.”
“Okay then. Let’s move out,” Thorn said as he released Amia and sheathed his knife.