When Thorn had finished treating Pinch’s broken leg, he and Amia dragged him over to Choke, Knuckle, Dugger, and the mule. Then they took stock of their situation.
The Rollingrock Creek had done a real number on both Knuckle and Pinch. Knuckle had smashed face-first into the rock that had stopped him. That this had probably saved his life was of little consolation to him just then. The bandages on his face were gone and almost all the stitches in his face wound had popped. It was bleeding freely again and looked even worse than it had before. At least, the elbow splint and bandage had held, and did not seem to be bleeding again.
As for Pinch, besides his grievously broken leg, he was in fine form for a fellow who had just been half drowned.
Then there was their gear. In this, the angry waters had levied an expensive toll for their crossing. Knuckle had been carrying his own weapons and gear when he had gone into the water. He had lost his crossbow and his greatsword, both being stripped right off his back in the current. Pinch had lost his shortbow, which he had been holding when he jumped in, as well as his quiver and backpack with his cloak and bedroll. Of course, Choke’s roundshield was gone, but that was no great loss to him, and most of the quarrels were gone from his quiver.
Thorn quickly bandaged Knuckle’s face again after smearing its wound with more of his medicinal ointment. It was clear to everyone that Knuckle would be incapable of moving far.
“Alright,” Thorn said, once they had all their gear set and everyone was as ready to move as they were going to be. “This aint as bad as it might seem, actually.”
“Really?” Peep said.
“Yeah. Really. Now I’m almost sure of where we are here. If we keep down the trail on this side for another click or two, there’s gonna be a little bridge. With a small homestead nearby. Right?” Thorn asked Amia.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. I been there before. We were up here a couple years back, so Father M could root out some moon whore heresy that was getting a little bit much. That homestead aint very far from Burnthistle. Maybe… two or three clicks.”
“That’s great,” Peep said, gesturing to Knuckle and Pinch: “But these two dumbasses aint walking more than two or three hundred meters. And the mule can’t carry them both.”
“No doubt. So this is what we’re doing,” Thorn said. “Amia and Dugger are riding the mule and I’m gonna jog it to Burnthistle. Probably make that in half an hour. Tops. The rest of ye hole up here. I’ll leave Amia at the garrison and come back with soldiers and the horses. Right?”
“And what if there’s goblins here?” Peep asked.
“There aint, or they woulda attacked us when we were all fucked up getting outta the crick. Peep: let’s check out that little stand of trees up there on the rise,” Thorn said.
The spot turned out to be a good one, with fine cover and a good view of most of the surrounding terrain. They got both Knuckle and Pinch settled in under the trees, with Choke as a lookout with his crossbow.
“Ye want me with you, or with them?” Peep asked Thorn, gesturing to Choke and the others. “We still could run into more goblins, or bandits, or maybe them bushpigs at the homestead might remember ye and try to get some payback.”
Thorn thought about this for a long moment. Then he shrugged. “I dunno,” he said. “It’s up to you, Peep. Either group could get jacked. This close to the garrison, though, I highly doubt I’ll run into trouble. It’s your call.”
Peep took her time looking between Thorn and Choke. Then she jerked her thumb Choke’s way.
“I’ll sit tight with these idiots here. Keep them from getting themselves in any more trouble. And I don’t really feel like no six-click run, no how.”
“Alright, then. Sit tight. I’ll be back shortly,” Thorn said.
With that, he helped Amia and Dugger mount up on the mule, and led it off at a brisk jog with his warbow in hand.
In the trees, being rained on, with Pinch and Knuckle groaning and murmuring in their agony, time moved very slowly indeed.
Peep was hunkered down under a big spruce tree, wrapped up in her black wolfpelt cloak. With the hood up and its intact ears and snout, she looked very much like a little wolf herself. She produced a round, flat, smooth, river stone about the size of her palm that she had picked up along the way. With it she began honing her beautiful, double-edged shortsword. She took her time with it, pausing every few strokes to test its edge with her thumb. When she was satisfied, she went to work on the buck knife she had lifted from Orcstabber to kill him with. It had a fine blade and antler handle.
Wrapped up in his sopping wool cloak, with his loaded crossbow in hand, Choke stared out at the rain, his face a morose statue.
“So… Choke. Bartholomew? What’s yar name anyways?” Peep asked him a long while after she was done with the buck knife.
“Both. But not together. So, either would be a more correct way to put it.”
“Well, aren’t we fuckin clever. So, which one d’ye want me to call ye?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Choke said levelly.
“No? I guess Bartholomew’s yar church name, right? So, I’ll call ye Choke.”
“So, ye’ve been pretty fuckin quiet since we hit the camp. Or, I guess, a different sort of quiet. Before ye was just a scary kind a quiet. Now, yar all twisted up, like a fuckin knotty pine on a cliff. What’s up?” Peep asked, her tone very neutral.
“I would rather not discuss it.”
“Fair enough. D’ye mind if I do?”
Choke sighed deeply. “If you must.”
“Good. Because I’m bored as fuck. Is it them kids we left up there to get et by goblins? Is that what’s bugging ye? Because that don’t make no sense to me. Ye fuckin Stronians lord around, telling womenfolk that they’re forbidden to do the one thing they can have any control of to stop from having the babies men pump into them. Fuckin men do what ye do, and ye Stronians don’t do shit to stop that. But if a woman offers her blood to the moon once a month to keep their fuckin spunk from taking root, then ye come round and light them on fire as witches. But when they have the fuckin kids, they’re on their own. And I get that. That’s the way of it. It’s a hard fuckin life, especially for the ones taking the dick. But with all this being exactly the way that yar kind chose to make it, yar gonna get all weird that some kids get fucked up behind the moves we make? That makes no sense to me. It aint like yar fuckin soft, Choke. In head or otherwise. So, what the fuck?”
“I don’t know about all that. But the Church is clear: the moon is a devil and must not be worshiped. And you had best not forget that,” Choke said, finally looking directly at Peep.
“Oh, there ye be, Bartholomew. Good to see ye again. Don’t worry on that front, boss. It aint like I’m planning on doing any fucking, so I have no need of yar sky demon. And I know, the big swinging dicks make the rules for all us little fucks. Whether them rules make any sense or not. I know it. I know my place, milord,” Peep tugged on her forelock sarcastically.
Choke returned his gaze out to the trail and creek. Peep let the moment sit for a while before she continued:
“Or, is it Dugnut that’s got all up into yar guts here?
Choke snapped his eyes back to Peep’s. “Dugnut?”
“Yeah, Dugnut. Now that I can imagine giving ye the vapors. Having some old beef with a twisted cocksucker like that. Get yarself all set and ready to get yar blade into them, and then it just don’t happen. I was lucky, in a way, that I got to put Orcstabber down nice and directly. It’s too bad that ye couldn’t settle yar thing with him. That I get.”
“What do you know of Dugnut?” Choke asked Peep intensly.
“Well, I never had the pleasure myself, but I heard plenty of him. Cocksucker’s a sick fuck. And from what I heard he is a cocksucker about it for real. He gets his boys, sucks them off, then assfucks them while he stabs them up. Kills them as he cums.”
“That’s terrible. But what I meant was: what do you know of Dugnut as he relates to me?”
“Oh, right. Well, I got ears, don’t I? I heard ye boys talking about him after ye sprung me from the tower in Spitzer. And he went to that raven school of yars,” Peep said, matter-of-factly.
“Pardon me?” Choke said with intense focus.
Lying nearby under a tree, Pinch actually laid off his moaning and propped himself up on an elbow to stare at Peep.
“What did ye say?” Pinch asked.
“I said: that Dugnut went to that orphan school of yars in Pekot run by the ravens. He did, didn’t he?”
“Perhaps. If it’s the same Dugnut. How do you know that?” Choke asked.
“Everybody knows that. It’s a big part of his rep. Orcstabber and Goldy was laughing about it, right? Said that Dugnut was all proud that he got kicked outta the raven school for getting too much boy poon,” Peep said.
“So you knew that the Dugnut we were looking for out here is definitely the Dugnut we went to school with and you didn’t say anything to us about it?” Choke asked sharply.
“Fuckin rights I didn’t! Ye never asked! And ye three in yar little club with yar whispered fuckin secrets about it, telling me I should happy to help ye for nothin because by rights I shoulda been getting fucked to death in a cellar as the bandit hoor I am. Fuckin rights I didn’t tell ye!”
“Well, to be fair, that was Knuckle saying those things to you,” Choke said.
“Oh, right. Pardon me. Yar more than happy to be of a kind with him as brothers when he’s standing up for ye and killing who ye want killed. But as soon as he says or does some shit ye don’t like, suddenly ye got nothing to do with him. I see how ye do, Mr Bartholomew. Or is it Choke? I suppose who yar gonna be minute to minute depends on how the wind is blowing, huh?”
“Okay. Okay. You’re right. We were of a mind concerning you at that time. And my silence when Knuckle was saying what he said to you does represent support of him, given the circumstances. I apologize for that. He is… difficult to manage. But I shall try to do better in future. I am sorry,” Choke said earnestly, looking Peep dead in the eye as he did.
Peep stared at Choke for a long time before her face cracked into a grin. “Fuck, but you are a trip, Choke!” she laughed. “Forget about it, man. I’m just breaking yar balls! I’m a big girl. I can handle him. He’s just a big, horny dumbass. It’s fine.”
“Well, I am sorry all the same.”
“Okay. That’s swell. But, so long as we’re having it out here, we may as well get everything sorted, right?” Peep said seriously.
“Such as?” Choke asked, his brow furrowing.
“Are ye for real? Our arrangement, is what! The fuckin deal! We never settled what my share of this job is. Hello! Is anybody home? Fuck, Choke!” Peep exclaimed, more amused than anything.
“Oh, yes. Right. Go on. What is it you think would be fair?” Choke asked, giving his head a sharp shake in an attempt to marshal his scattered faculties.
“Okay. Well, for starters: Orcstabber is my kill. That’s clear. When ye gave me his gear, ye conceded that. Right? Now I did offer to split his bounty with ye right before that all kicked off. But we never shook on it, did we. So, by rights, that two gold bounty is all mine. By rights,” Peep said, deadpan.
“Are ye for fuckin real!” Pinch yelled.
“Fuckin rights I am. Right is right. And I’m right. Right? But… I am a reasonable woman. So, because ye all done so well on this job, and as a thank you for springing me from Sheriff Fuckknuckle’s bugger dungeon, I tell what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna extend to Orcstabber whatever deal we hash out now on this whole caper. Retter… Ritt… Ratter active? What’s the word?” Peep asked Choke.
“That’s it! Retro-action. Ye get the retro-action on Orcstabber’s two gold bounty. So, alls we need to settle is what my share on this whole deal is. Now, ye said ye were open to giving me an even share of yar piddly half of the take if I done good. And I done good, right? I was the bait on the goblin ambush and killed two. I led us all up to the lookouts, and killed Smitty. Then I shot Jeor in the anus on our trail ambush. That was a sweet shot! Heinous in the anus! Then I got me and Thorn into the wall, killed Horsecock himself in the longhouse, and me and Thorn saved ye three while ye were pissing about with Goldy and Stringer. Plus, I went and lifted Goldy’s stash, so if Thorn aint even more a thieving fuck than we already know him to be with his half share of the take, that oughta be a nice bump. So, ye try and tell me I aint worth an even share after all that.”
“No, you’re right. You certainly were effective and useful. There’s no doubt about it,” Choke said.
Pinch nodded and made some gutteral noises of affirmation as he flopped back down under his tree.
“So. An even share it is!” Peep said happily. “On the whole fuckin caper. We all split Orcstabber’s two gold four ways, and then whatever the half is that we get from Goldy and Horsecock and all that too. Right?”
“Yes. Agreed,” Choke said, spitting into his palm and presenting it to Peep.
“Now, just hold yar horses for a second, Choke. Because I mean to sweeten this deal for ye! Since ye all did a pretty good job for a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears, church school, wank artists, I’ll throw in the added bonus of me partnering with ye three going forward. With the same share that Pinch and Knuckle get. So, a quarter each, I’m guessing,” Peep said.
“You want to partner with us longer term?” Choke asked.
“No. You wanna partner with me. Because I’m awesome,” Peep spat into her palm and presented it to Choke.
“Just wait a second,” Choke said. “To be clear: we are going up to Bristlehump to go to work for Brother Barrelmender of the Brothers of the Holy Stone. And I am the leader of the squad. You understand what that all means?”
“Sure. I kinda wonder if you do, though. Anyways, I’m down. I’ve spent my whole fuckin life on team anvil. You think I’m gonna miss my chance to get on with team hammer? Seriously, Choke. I’ll do right by ye. Ye won’t regret it,” Peep said, now appearing to be completely earnest.
“Pinch? Knuckle? What do you think?” Choke asked.
“Sounds good to me,” Pinch said. “Knuckle’s passed out. But fuck him if he disagrees. It’s yar call, Choke.”
“Knuckle will agree,” Peep said with a wide grin. “He loves me! I can tell by the special twinkle in his eye every time he calls me cunt.”
Choke still hesitated. Once again, Peep dropped her façade of sarcasm and looked Choke in the eye.
“Come on, man. Ye need me. I know this fuckin world. And if yar fixing to be doing wet work for the ravens out here, yar gonna need somebody who does. Thorn aint gonna be mother hen on yar next job. Think on that.”
Choke finally nodded. He and Peep pressed their still spitty palms together and shook on their partnership.