The squad made it all the way down the steep slope from the lookout post without incident. At the bottom, Amia looked fresh and in no way upset at having just been menaced by Thorn with a knife. Knuckle, on the other hand, was not looking good. He had been leaning heavily on Choke’s spear as a walking stick, but now had begun to stagger and looked about ready to collapse. So they put Knuckle on the mule and set off up the trail that Amia indicated.
Her way immediately split from the course they had come in on. It was a small trail that snaked up the base of the valley under the bandit hideout. Within ten minutes they reached a branch that was the alternate way up to the camp that Peep had told them about. That trail went straight up the slope to the cliff face under the compound. Moving on, they soon hopped over the tiny stream from the spring at the base of the camp’s cliff. Then their trail headed up the opposite slope at a gentle grade.
It was just couple of minutes later that Peep in the rear gave them a short, shrill whistle of alarm. She pointed back at the tree line near to where their original trail came out.
“Something’s moving down there,” Peep said, pointing with her bow.
They all stopped and stared at where she indicated. It was a good kilometer away, so at first they could not see a thing. Then, little by little, they began to make out the movement Peep had spotted. Small figures began breaking from the cover of the trees, heading down the trail. They moved in starts and stops, as the goblins following them off the ridge had before. A figure would dash a ways before taking to cover as another one behind would break cover to scamper on ahead of it.
“Yeah. Goblins. Good eye, Peep,” Thorn said. He waited a moment, watching them intently, before speaking again: “About a dozen. They have javelins. Small war party.”
“What should we do?” Pinch asked. “Should we set up an ambush?”
“What for?” Thorn said with a sigh. “They aint coming after us. There aint enough of them to take us, so if they were fixing to follow us, they wouldn’t a broke cover yet. They’d hang back.”
“So what are they doing, then? …oh,” Pinch said with a stricken look, looking up towards the bandit camp as his brain caught up to his mouth and he figured out the answer to his own question.
“Yeah,” Thorn said grimly. “My guess is, they followed us down off the ridge and hung back in the cut to keep an eye on things. They probably even heard us killing the lookouts yesterday morning. So now they’re heading up there to see what’s what.”
“And they’re gonna find a bunch of corpses, two women, and five kids! What do we do?” Pinch asked.
“We get the fuck gone is what we do,” Thorn said.
“And leave all of those people up there to be eaten? We can’t!” Pinch exclaimed.
Choke finally snapped out of it and spoke up himself: “Pinch is right. He have to—”
“Enough!” Thorn yelled, his normal choleric bearing now ascending to murderous. “Enough of yar fuckin bleeding-heart bullshit! Where the fuck d’ye think we are? What the fuck did ye think ye set out here to do? We came out here to collect fuckin heads, ye stupid cocksuckers! How did ye think that was gonna impact their kinfolk? Those fuckin women up there, the heretical moon-worshiping cunts, chose to set up house with wanted fuckin men in fuckin goblin country! So now that we, the head collectors, came up here and did the lawful, they are gonna get what’s coming to them! And if they’re lucky they’ll have the chance to cut their kids’ throats before the gobos get their hands on them. But that aint on us. That’s on them. And if ye don’t wanna listen their screams echoing up this valley, we’d better get a fuckin move on.”
“It’s not right. We should not leave them to that fate,” Choke persisted.
“Ye need to listen to me good now. Because I am done accommodating yar bullshit. We are behind enemy lines. D’ye understand that? With a woman and a kid and a wounded man and just one fuckin mule. Those goblins are in war mode. They are under orders. Ye think they’re the only squad hopping around out here? Think. And if ye don’t care to, I’ll do it for all of us. When we set out, ye all agreed I’m the leader of this shitshow. Ye spit in yar palms and shook on it. So I am giving ye a direct order now, soldier. Fall in and follow me. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Choke said through clenched teeth.
Thorn turned his back on them and started back up the trail. The rest of the squad waited only a few seconds before wordlessly following him.
The trail Amia had them on took them up the valley into higher and higher country for a few hours. There was no sign of any goblins anywhere, but Thorn cautioned them that this meant very little if the creatures were laying low. After about an hour, Thorn told Knuckle to get off the mule and walk. Knuckle did so without word. Amia declined riding on the mule herself, assuring them that she was fit to carry on on foot. This meant the mule could have a proper rest as Knuckle did his best not to slow them down too badly.
They trudged on, with Amia leading the mule and Knuckle alternating walking and riding it in about thirty-minute spells. Amia was having Dugger run along beside her for stretches, carrying him only when he began to falter. For a four-year-old in these circumstances, Dugger was admirably tough and quiet, and carried on barefoot without complaint. Pinch and Peep settled back in the rear, walking close together and keeping most of their attention behind them. After a while, Pinch spoke to Peep in a low voice:
“Hey, Peep. D’ye mind if I ask ye something?”
“If I did, would that stop ye?”
“It aint about you. It’s about Amia. It’s just, she’s weird. She keeps looking back at me, and she’s always smiling at me. Why is she doing that?”
Peep stared at Pinch in bemusement before answering with a laugh: “Are ye for real? Oh, fuck me! And I thought ye were the smart one of this bunch. She’ll be smiling at anyone with a swinging dick that looks at her. I guarantee she’s doing the same to Thorn. For sure Knuckle if he’s able to notice. Maybe even Choke, if she’s desperate enough. So don’t flatter yarself.”
“So, what? She’s trying to get with us? How could she? We just killed her man!”
“Well, men is more like it,” Peep said. “But, yeah, we did. And here she is lining up some more already. That’s how it goes when yar property. We who kill to make our way in the world keep what we kill, right? In her head, she belongs to someone here now. She aint stupid. So she may as well make whatever moves she can. Try to set herself up so’s it’s just one of ye riding her. Makes ye think, huh? But ye all talk to me like I’m the murdering bandit for standing on my own two feet and handling my own business, right?”
“Sure thing, Peep. Because obviously this is all about you,” Pinch said.
“Well, for me it is. And fuck you if yar trying to tell me that yar soft spot for her aint all about you. And that fuckin prick of yars.”
As they walked on, the hills above them became sharper and craggier, until they began to look like mountains in everything but scale. Finally, there was another branch in the trail. Amia indicated the course that went straight up the steep incline to an aggressive, rocky peak.
“What, up there? We can’t climb that shit!” Thorn snapped.
“We won’t have to, sir. There’s a way through it. See that big crack up there?”
“That’s real deep, right? And it goes right through the mountain, and ye can walk right through it,” Amia said.
“That aint a mountain. But whatever. Where does it lead?”
“That’s the Littlefoot, sir. The crack opens up to a canyon that runs down the other side. That ends out to the east of Burnthistle. But not too far, sir.”
“Oh, shit. I get it,” Thorn said, more to himself. “The crick that comes outta that is the Rollingrock. Right?”
“I don’t know its name, sir.”
“No, that’s it. I’m sure of it now. The fuckin Littlefoot Trail, huh? Well, ye may have saved all our bacon bringing that up. Many a gal in yar position wouldn’t have the balls to speak up like ye did. Good work, lass!” Thorn said, giving Amia a friendly bump on the shoulder.
“Thank ye, sir.”
The Littlefoot Trail was just as she had described it. Once they were through the fissure in the rocky hilltop, the trail worked its way along the canyon top and sides over the humble beginnings of Rollingrock Creek. Occasionally it would wind down to the water where they would have to cross to head up the other side. The trail was narrow and rugged, often with perilous drops to the rocky creek bed below. Even so, their mule was as surefooted as the rest of them and they managed it without incident. They camped that night in a good, defensible spot a little off the trail. Thorn allowed them no fire, so they quickly ate dry trail rations and went to sleep.
The next day, they woke before dawn and set out as soon as it was light enough. It was cloudy and cool that morning, and soon began to rain. It was a light patter at first, but the rumblings of thunder heralded a hard rain that began to fall when they were still in the canyon.
“Not good! Fuck you! Ye fuckin cocksucker!” Thorn berated the sky. He then turned on Amia: “How much fuckin longer do we gotta be in this fuckin canyon? Does this trail stay up top? Or do we gotta get down there and cross that cocksucker again?” he stabbed his finger down at the creek.
“I’m not sure, sir. I only come through here the once and that was about a year ago. But I think we gotta cross it at least one more time,” Amia said calmly, not in the slightest bothered by Thorn’s tone.
“Not fuckin good! Get moving people! Move! Hurry the fuck up! A fuckin box canyon in a rain storm! Fuck!”
The squad set out again in all haste. It was immediately apparent why Thorn was so agitated. Until then, the Rollingrock Creek had been little more than a trickle. There were deeper pools here and there, but the crystal-clear stream itself had never been any deeper than twenty centimeters and wider than a meter across. That had changed. The rushing water below them was already almost a meter deep, and had turned silty brown in color.
The trail was working its way down the canyon side towards the angry water below. Where the trail would have been rugged before, it was now treacherous. Rivulets of muddy water were running down the canyon sides, making the rocks slippery, and what soil there was underfoot was soft and slick. Finally they worked down to the creek, stopping at a small gravel bar under a sheer stone cliff. There was nowhere to go but across.
An hour ago they would probably have been able to cross the creek without getting their boots wet. But the creek’s level had been rising by the minute as the hard rain pounded down. It was now almost a meter deep and five meters across, and was roiling in a surge of angry brown water. Looking downstream, it seemed as though the canyon began to open up on the other side. On their side, the creek flowed along the base of a sheer cliff for several hundred meters at least.
“Fuck! Not good!” Thorn bellowed again. “What’s over there?” he shouted at Amia, stabbing his finger downstream at the opposite east bank.
“I… ahhhh…” Amia hesitated peering downstream intently. “No! That’s it! Yeah! That’s it!” she hopped up and down excitedly.
“What!” Thorn screamed.
“That big, dead spruce there! With the funny fork up top. Up on the ridge. We passed that coming in! That’s the start of the canyon! Or, the end, I guess, for us going this way.”
“Thank Stron!” Pinch exclaimed. “But can we cross this now?”
“Well, we cross right now, or we have to head back up that cocksucker to higher ground to wait it out,” Thorn said, gesturing back up the trail they had just come down.
They all looked up that and then looked at the creek in front of them. Both were ugly choices.
“If we’re gonna cross, it’s gotta be right now,” Thorn said. “Amia! Can ye get across that if I’m upstream holding onto ye?”
“I guess so.”
“Okay, then. Let’s go!” Thorn picked up Dugger and set him on the back of the mule. Then he took a coil of rope from the mule’s saddle and threw it over his shoulder. “Okay! Me and Amia first! Amia, ye lead the mule with one hand and hold onto me with the other! Choke and Knuckle follow the mule. Choke, ye stay upstream of Knuckle and break the water for him. Choke, ye should use the spear as a stick. Finally, Pinch and Peep, ye take up the rear and hold onto each other as best ye can. Right?”
Knowing that every second’s delay would make their crossing more difficult, the squad plunged right into it.
Thorn and Amia stepped into the rapid current first, going in side by side holding hands. With Thorn upstream of Amia, he was able to take the brunt of the current and make Amia’s crossing possible. Even so, this was no easy thing. By the time they were halfway across, the water was almost waist-high on Thorn, and crashing into him with great pressure. As well, the pebbles and round river stones of the creek bed were rolling down with the current; a stable bed no longer, as the rushing water turned them into a kind of slurry.
However, having only a couple of scary slips and wobbles, Thorn and Amia were managing it, with Amia leading the mule on a long line. Their mule was crossing with admirable stability, with its legs splayed out and not a stumble. The mule was right in the middle of the creek, with Thorn and Amia almost across to the east bank, when disaster struck.
When the full force of the current hit Choke, his leg slipped out from under him and he slid down into Knuckle, knocking him off balance in turn. Knuckle lurched forward and fell hard into the back legs of the mule, tripping it up. The mule basically sat down on Knuckle, and the current swept them downstream with Dugger still clinging to the mule’s pack saddle.
“Dugger!” Amia screamed from the east bank.
Without any hesitation, Pinch lunged into the water from where he was standing at the gravel bar on the west bank. Riding high, Pinch plunged down through its current in leaping bounds, almost closing half the distance to the mule before falling fully into the water himself.
Fully armored in chainmail, with a roundshield and crossbow slung over his back and his longsword on his hip, Choke had no hope of keeping himself afloat. However, with the water being no deeper than his belly, this proved something of a benefit to him. Keeping his back to the current, Choke was able to sit right down with his heels digging into the creek bed downstream of him. With the current pushing at his back, he planted the spear butt and muscled himself into a squat to get upright. The roundshield was ripped away from him as he did this, but he was able to pivot to stand up just a meter or so downstream of where he had fallen.
Meanwhile, there was no sign of Knuckle. About fifty meters downstream, the mule was clambering out of the creek on the east bank, with Dugger still clinging tenaciously to the pack saddle. Thorn and Amia were running downstream towards them.
Bobbing down the current like a cork, half floating and half running, Pinch was most of the way across the creek and right behind the mule. Then he disappeared as he was suddenly yanked underwater.
Knuckle popped up, about five meters upstream of where Pinch had gone under. Knuckle was hung up on a bigger submerged boulder, pressed hard against it by the current. He sputtered and gasped as he worked to keep his face above the surging water. Clearly alive, he was not going anywhere at the moment.
Thorn left Amia to deal with Dugger and the mule. He dropped his bow and quiver, took off his weaponbelt, and tied off a big loop on the end of the rope over his shoulder. This took just a few seconds. Then Thorn ran to the creek bank and jumped in just about a meter upstream of where Pinch had gone under. Fighting the current, which was up to his belly here, Thorn found Pinch and muscled him to the surface. Pinch’s leg was caught by something, and the current was pushing him under. Unable to free Pinch, and almost being swept away several times, Thorn slipped the rope loop over Pinch’s shoulders and yanked it tight under his armpits. Thorn then struggled to the bank, ran to Amia and the mule, and tied off the rope to the pack saddle. He and Amia led the mule upstream to drag Pinch off the bottom of the creek and up onto the bank.
While Thorn was doing all this, Choke gestured for Peep to come to him. She was still standing on the west bank of the creek. She made it over to Choke to take his hand without too much trouble. With Choke leaning heavily on the spear upstream of her, and her holding his hand tightly, the two made the crossing without incident.
By the time they did, Thorn and Amia had finished dragging Pinch onto the shore. Thorn undid the rope from him and plunged back into the creek, heading for Knuckle. This time, standing downstream of Knuckle and the boulder he was hung up on, Thorn was in relative calm as he worked to get the rope around Knuckle. With that done, Thorn half waded and half swam back to the shore. Peep led the mule to drag Knuckle out of the Creek while Choke stayed at the bank with his hand on the taught rope until he could grab his friend.
A little downstream of where they pulled Knuckle out, Amia was with Pinch. She had him flipped onto his stomach and was sitting on his back, bouncing up and down on him. Stumbling out of the creek, Thorn pushed her off Pinch and rolled him over. Pinch was nonresponsive. Thorn began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation immediately and soon had him coughing up muddy water.
However, as that crisis was alleviated, they immediately noticed the next one. Pinch’s right leg was badly broken: with a compound fracture of his shin in the middle of his lower leg.
“Peep!” Thorn hollered. “Get the med kit! Choke! Check our situation! Keep lookout! Amia: hold him down.”
Amia lay down across Pinch as Thorn got to work cutting his boot off with his buck knife. By the time this was done, Peep was there with the medical kit, and Pinch had gathered just enough of his sensibilities to start screaming and struggling. Thorn paused what he was doing long enough to hiss in Pinch’s ear:
“Shut the fuck up! Shut up! We’re still in goblin country, motherfucker. Take the pain!”
With Amia laying across Pinch’s trunk, and Peep holding his upper leg securely, Thorn set the broken bones and splinted the leg with a tight bandage. Pinch took the pain.
While they were doing this, Choke sat hunkered down with Knuckle and Dugger by the mule. Dugger was stoic as always, sitting on the grass watching Choke with wide eyes. Knuckle was largely insensible, sputtering and wretching up river water. As to their surroundings: they were on the grassy bank, which seemed secure enough. The steeper ridge of the canyon above them widened out on this side as it eased down to a forested bluff. There were a few evergreen trees and a lot of bushes along the bank, but no sign of any other life, goblin or otherwise.
They waited. The rain pounded down, but the roaring of the muddy waters right next to them was all that Choke could hear.