It took Thorn over an hour to return with the soldiers. Thorn was mounted and leading the Pekot boys’ horses on a long lead. Behind him was a squad of eight footsoldiers with roundshields and spears. The soldiers brought with them a narrow mule cart.
The soldiers all eyeballed Peep hard in her wolfpelt bandit scout getup, with her shortsword slung low at the front of her left hip. She returned their gaze. Two of the soldiers helped Choke load Knuckle into the cart. The cart was simple and sturdy, with its floorboards deeply stained with years of the blood of casualties and victims. Knuckle took up most of it. Looking at the spectacle this presented, Pinch declared himself capable of riding his horse back to the garrison.
The garrison medic turned out to be a lay cleric of Stron, capable of casting a couple of simple healing spells. These spells were able to give wounds the equivalent of a day or two of proper rest, as well as stave off sepsis. The medic gave one spell each to Knuckle and Pinch, focusing the healing on their broken bones, before rebandaging their wounds and putting them to bed in the barracks.
While this happened, Thorn, Choke, and Peep sat down with the garrison’s officer, a Lieutenant Mithens. In his early-thirties, with the look and bearing of a man who was too often in his cups, Mithens must have had several promotions pass him by to be languishing at this post at the rank of lieutenant.
“Alright then,” Mithens said sourly, casting his glower between Peep and Choke. “What’s the fuss?”
“Well, sir, we got a pair of bandit heads in a sack out in yar stable worth coin money, is what,” answered Thorn.
“Do ye now? Looks to me like ye might have a couple more sitting atop these two carcasses here.” Mithens gestured to Choke and Peep in turn.
“Ha. Yeah, yar probably half right there, sir,” Thorn said, casting his eyes quickly Peep’s way to indicate she was the one for Mithens to keep his eye on. “Anyways, I could haul the heads back to Spitzer for Sheriff Waters to decorate his crossroads with. But I thought ye might want the honors, since it would probably mean more to the folk around here.”
“Probably would. I can’t pay out no heavy bounties here, though. We don’t have the coin money for that.”
“I wouldn’t expect ye to. I’d just need ye to sign yar note of receipt of the two bandits, as well as confirming their identities.”
Mithens grunted with a nod. “Who’d ye get?”
“Goldy and Horsecock. Cleaned out their whole crew over there by Splitrock,” Thorn said, allowing a hint of pride into his tone.
“Did ye now? Well that’s good news. Yar sure of who ye got?”
“Goldy for sure. Ye can check the teeth in his head, to make sure yarself. Then I’ll be taking the gold ones.”
Mithens gave Thorn a sour look as he said this, but covered up his disappointment quickly. “And Horsecock. Ye sure about him?”
“Well, we didn’t bring his pecker along for ye to gander at, if that’s what yar after. But this one here,” Thorn jerked his thumb Peep’s way, “swears that’s who he was. And the womenfolk up there basically confirmed it.”
“Is that so?” Mithens asked, swiveling his sneer Peep’s way. “Yar giving us yar good word, fine upstanding lady that ye are, that the head in that sack is Horsecock?”
“Yes, sir, milord,” Peep tugged on her forelock obsequiously, without a hint of her sarcasm that usually accompanied the gesture.
Mithens stared at her for a good while.
“Well, ye have my word, Lieutenant Mithens. As a manhunter and scout for both the Knights of the Holy Sword and Baron Hart, I am duly satisfied that is Horsecock that we have there.”
“Are ye?” Mithens said, looking back to Thorn.
“That I am, sir. But if that isn’t good enough for ye, I know it will be for Sheriff Waters in Spitzer. So I’ll just take both the heads along to him, and he can have the honor of decorating his crossroads with them. I just thought, on account of ye helping us out here, I might do ye the good turn in kind of giving ye the chance to have them for yar garrison’s pride. But if ye don’t want em, that’s fine.”
“Okay, fine. I’ll take them,” Mithens snapped irritably, waving Thorn off. “Is that all?”
“Well, no sir, it isn’t, unfortunately,” Thorn went on. “We got a serious goblin problem in these parts.”
Mithens goggled at Thorn before breaking into an obnoxious laugh. “Oh, yar serious?” he finally asked.
“Yes, sir,” Thorn said in a very clipped tone.
“We haven’t seen a goblin in months. Not one. On any of our patrols,” Mithens said.
“Have ye been patrolling up to the top of the ridge Splitrock way?” Thorn asked.
“Of course! What d’ye take me for, man! I do my duty here, I’ll have ye know!” Mithens bellowed.
“I wouldn’t a thought otherwise, sir. But ye got goblins dug in up on that ridge observing ye. Hidden real good, mind ye. But they’re there. A squad of them followed us down the other side off the ridge, and we killed about a dozen of them. All male. Then they could spare yet another dozen to follow us again. We observed them heading up to the bandit camp after we left it.”
“So, sir,” Thorn went on, pouring all the disrespect he could into his words, “this all means that the gobos are breeding up an invasion, sir. They’re under orders, sir. And whatever is issuing those orders has a plan. Sir.”
“Are ye trying to tell me that I can’t find some goblins right under my very own nose?” Mithens shouted, standing right up as he slammed his palms down on his desk.
“No sir!” Thorn smiled as he met the lieutenant’s eye squarely. “I am telling ye that ye haven’t done so. And I am telling ye that ye should report what I’ve told ye to yar Captain Karden in Nelson. He’s the one in charge there, right?”
“Are you, ye lowborn bushrat, attempting to give me orders?”
“No, sir. I am attempting to give ye a friendly suggestion, sir. I do apologize if it struck ye anything to the contrary. And I see now that I was way out of line in thinking that giving you, sir, a suggestion would be in any way a good idea. I’m sorry we bothered ye, sir. I’m sure you are very busy. We’ll leave ye to yar important work, sir. Thank ye for yar time.”
Thorn stood up and gave Lieutenant Mithens a clipped salute. Then he turned on his heel and left the room. Peep tugged her forelock into a deep bow that she maintained as she slid out of her chair and turned to follow Thorn. Choke stood up smartly and gave Mithens a deep nod before leaving himself, shutting the door behind him.
Standing in the large open barracks with Peep and Choke, Thorn glowered at Knuckle and Pinch in their cots.
“Fuck,” he muttered. “They’re gonna need the full night’s rest, at the least, before they’re fit to ride.”
“No doubt,” Peep said.
“The lieutenant’s note about Goldy and Horsecock,” Choke said.
“What about it?” Thorn asked.
“We didn’t get it.”
“No we didn’t. And fuck him, the fuckin idiot. He don’t deserve them heads. I’m taking them to Waters,” Thorn said.
“I guess ye’ll be leaving right now?” Peep asked.
Thorn winced. “It’s late afternoon now, and the way it’s been raining, the road’s gonna be shit. No way I’ll make anywhere worth holing up by dark. No, we gotta sit tight here tonight and head out first thing tomorrow.”
“And what about Amia and Dugger?” asked Choke.
“Where is she, anyways?” Peep asked.
“I handed her and the squirt off to a sergeant, along with Betsy,” said Thorn.
“Who?” Choke asked.
“The mule,” Thorn answered.
“Oh, right, Knuckle’s girlfriend,” Peep said. “So I guess they’re all in the stable. These soldiers have probably been gangbanging all three of them since ye left.”
“Nah, I doubt it. I told the sarge to take good care of them. And him and some of these soldiers know of me, even if the lieutenant don’t.”
Thorn, Peep, and Choke went to the stables, where they found Betsy the mule, still with her packsaddle on. Thorn quickly checked that the sack with Goldy and Horsecock’s heads had not been tampered with. He sucked on his mustache pensively for a bit before coming to a quick decision.
“Peep: run and grab me that shoeing hammer over there,” Thorn said, gesturing to the small blacksmith station by the stable entrance.
Peep looked puzzled, but when Thorn then started getting Goldy’s head out of the sack, she nodded.
“Yeah, I don’t trust Lieutenant Fuckwit not to get any ideas now that he knows there’s a mouthful of gold out here. I’m getting them teeth out,” Thorn said.
“And what about Amia and Dugger?” Choke asked.
“No idea,” Thorn said, wedging Goldy’s stinking head face up between two haybales on the floor. Then he rolled up his sleeves and took the hammer Peep had fetched for him. “Why don’t ye go find em?”
“Okay,” Choke said, relieved for the excuse to avoid seeing what was about to happen. “Do you want to come with me, Peep?”
“Huh?” Peep replied without looking away from Thorn and his project. “No way, man! Ye think I’m gonna miss the chance to see this motherfucker get the gold smacked outta his mouth? Fuck that!”
Choke left the stable just too late to avoid hearing the first crack of Thorn’s hammer. Outside, it was still raining hard and the light was failing. The village of Burnthistle was not much to speak of: with about a dozen buildings arranged defensively around a central square. Besides the garrison, the only building of note was the tavern with its attached trading post. Choke had a quick look in the tavern’s common room, and then the trading post. There was no sign of Amia or Dugger there, so Choke wandered around for a bit, looking in various nooks and crannies with his ears open for the sounds of anything untoward.
Finally, he went in behind the stables where he found a little shed. Standing next to the shed, under the stable’s awning, was a pissed-off looking soldier. In leather armor, he was armed with a spear and a buck knife. He glared at Choke and shifted to an aggressive ready posture as he approached him.
“Good evening, sir,” Choke said, stopping a couple of meters from the soldier. “Nasty weather to be stuck on guard duty.”
“Yeah. Whad’ye want?”
“I am looking for two of our party members. A woman and her child. They wouldn’t happen to be in this shed, would they?”
“Fuck off, jink! Off limits here!”
“Quite understood, sir. I shall leave you to it shortly,” Choke said, taking a couple of steps back with his palms upraised. Then he pitched his voice loud: “Amia! Are you in there! It’s me, Bartholomew!”
“Shut up!” the soldier yelled, not quite able to drown out Amia’s response from inside the shed.
“Are you okay?” Choke shouted at the shed.
Amia responded with something that sounded affirmative.
“Shut up, I said!” the soldier yelled, now advancing on Choke with his spear in both hands.
Choke continued to back away from him with his palms up, and the soldier soon stopped his advance.
Just then, Peep and Choke came around from the side of the stable behind Choke. They had two soldiers with them, who had been attracted to the spectacle of Thorn’s post mortem dentistry.
“What’s going on?” barked Thorn.
“They have Amia in that shed. I’m assuming Dugger, too,” Choke reported.
“Uh-huh,” Thorn said tiredly. He hawked and spat on the ground as he looked from the two soldiers who had followed him to the one guarding the shed. The two with him were still relaxed and amused.
“Okay, lad, we’d best have her out of there, right?” Thorn said to the guard.
Taking a measure of Thorn’s bearing and tone, the lad wilted about halfway. He looked to his fellows, who shrugged back at him.
“I can’t, sir. Sarge gave me orders to guard this shed. I gotta do that,” the young soldier said to Thorn, quivering in his boots as he did.
“Alright, then. Good lad. Good lad. You:” Thorn said to the closest soldier next to him, “do us a favor and go get sarge, huh? Thanks.”
They waited around awkwardly in the rain for the sergeant to come. He did so with three soldiers, including the one that had gone to get him.
“Yeah?” the sergeant said to Thorn.
“Sergeant Andis, wasn’t it? I’m sorry to bug ye, but I think yar man here got a bit overzealous with yar orders.”
“What?” the sergeant snapped with more than just a hint of menace.
“He aint letting our lady friend go, is what I’m saying,” Thorn persisted.
“Ye know, the woman and brat that I asked ye to keep safe. I do appreciate that ye took my request so serious. But, I can take it from here,” Thorn went on, now locked in a full staredown with the sergeant.
“So ye can let her go now, is what I’m saying. Thank you,” Thorn finished.
The sergeant stared at him just a while longer before finally responding:
“Ye aint too bright, are ye?”
“Okay, now,” Thorn said, his psychotic gaze now switching to a look of amusement. “I’ve noticed something over the years, and it’s always been a puzzlement to me. And here it is again. So I’m wondering if ye can help me figure it out. What is it about stupid people? They cluster together in groups and all get to thinking in the same bullshit ways. And then they somehow convince themselves that they’re actually the smart ones. So when they run into people that are normal, or even smart, the fuckin gang of fools think the normal folk are the dumb ones. Why is it that ye do that?”
“What the fuck are ye talking about?” the sergeant said, his hand dropping to his sword hilt. The five soldiers with him all tensed in alarm.
“Nothing. Nothing at all. I’m just a fuckin idiot, remember,” Thorn said calmly. “But since I’m such a fuckin idiot, I’m gonna ask ye nicely once more to release our woman and her child to me.”
“No kidding, huh? This slut really means that much to ye? She must be a hell of a ride, because she’s as ugly as a bag full of assholes,” the sergeant laughed. He almost managed to make it sound unforced.
“Oh, no doubt. No doubt,” Thorn agreed. “Nah, she really aint shit to me. To be honest, I was gonna leave her and her brat to get eaten by goblins. But this Church lad shamed me into bringing her along, against my better judgment. But that was then, and this is now. And you are an asshole. So it aint about the woman anymore, man. It’s about what’s between you and me now. And what’s to become of us.”
The sergeant stared at Thorn. Thorn smiled back. Finally, the sergeant had no choice but to push on:
“Ye know, ye may have all the young bucks here shitting bricks with yar fuckin deep woods death technician routine, but I aint fuckin buying it.”
Thorn nodded sagely before he next spoke. When he did, his tone was calm and measured as he methodically looked the sergeant and each of the soldiers dead in the eye:
“Well that’s good, because I aint selling it. I mean, I aint got the muscle to press ye here in yar joint over it, now do I? So, maybe, if ye tell me to fuck off here, I’ll fuck off and leave ye to yar wickedness. Maybe I won’t. But, if I do fuck off, maybe I’ll fuck off back to Spitzer. Then maybe I piss in Sheriff Waters’ and Father Morrenthall’s ears. Get them to go piss in the Baron’s ear. Maybe then the Baron puts together a little task force to investigate the goblin trouble in these parts. Maybe I get assigned to that task force, under Captain Fairchild, who really thinks the world of me, seeing as I’m the scout that landed him the kill that earned him his captaincy. Ye’ve heard all about Captain Fairchild, I’m sure. A real rising star in yar circles. His sergeants must be so very proud of him. Then, maybe the good Captain Fairchild comes here with me and puts all ye fuckwits under his orders, on account of me telling him what competent, helpful lads ye all have been today. Then maybe we all go out on patrol together, checking every little spot I think goblins might be hiding in. Humping up and down these fuckin ridges until I get you and yar boys so fuckin exhausted that yar puking yar guts out. Then maybe, sergeant, with ye being as tired as all that, ye take a tragic misstep and fall into a fuckin gorge to yar death. Happens all the time on the march in rough country. So, yeah, maybe that’s how this plays out. Or, maybe, this was just a misunderstanding over ye doing such a nice job keeping my lady friend safe like I asked ye to.”
As Thorn delivered his speech, the sergeant stared at him with increasing horror, as his soldiers began to shuffle about nervously. When Thorn finished with a sadistic smile, the sergeant licked his lips.
“Well, ye don’t have to be that way about it,” he said quietly.
“Oh. I don’t? Good to know, man. Good to know. So why don’t ye open up that fuckin shed, and we’ll be on our way. And maybe, in future, sergeant, ye might want to reflect that what passes for a good fuckin idea in this joint, maybe aint one. On account of everyone here being what they are, and all. Yeah?”
The sergeant nodded curtly and gestured for the guard to open up the shed. Then he turned on his heel and stomped away.
Amia and Dugger emerged from the tool shed looking no worse for wear. Thorn gave them a quick look over. Then he led them, Choke, and Peep across the courtyard and into the tavern.