The Children of Stron – part 35

Table of Contents (spoilers)

read part 1

read part 34

The town of Spitzer in Spaggot Barony was situated in a valley nestled in the heavily forested hills of Bitina Kingdom’s wild north country. To venture much further north would put one in the Moondark Hills: a no-go zone for good Stronian folk, said to be blighted with heretical cults and ancient evil. Indeed, the very trees themselves, it was whispered, would come alive in the light of the full moon and feast upon the flesh and souls of any humans to be found.

Spitzer was not a large town. Nor was it an interesting one. But it did have a proper Stronian church, as well as the Baron’s fortress. A few farms had been hacked from the wilderness surrounding the town, but its main industry was wood. Felled timber would be floated down the Spitz River, or dragged out of the bush by mule teams, to be cut into lumber in the town’s sawmills. This was then hauled south on large wagons to the shipyards of Strana.

Choke’s squad, now an equal partnership under his command, consisted of Knuckle and Pinch, with the new addition of Peep, freshly baptized as Otilla. They spent one lazy morning in the village of Callic, north of Spitzer, where they had stayed the night after the priest there, Father Nate, had healed Knuckle and Pinch, and done the baptism. There, Thorn and the squad settled the accounts of their bandit killing mission.

The bounties had been worth twelve gold altogether, which Father Nate had paid out with one-hundred and twenty silver pieces. Sixty went to Thorn, according to their agreement. Then they split the bandit leader Goldy’s purse, which had an assortment of silver and copper coins, as well as a handful of semi-precious stones. This all had a total value of roughly one-hundred and forty silver pieces, and half of it was claimed by Thorn as well. This made the squad’s share, one-hundred and thirty silver pieces, in various coinage, to be divided between them. Their shares of thirty-two and a half silver was a great deal of money for all of them, and a big bump to the seven silvers the Pekot lads had each been holding when they set out from Strana almost two weeks before. For Peep, a child of the wilds, it was a life altering fortune.

Of course, there were also Goldy’s six golden teeth to be considered. The squad’s share of that was three teeth. They agreed to hold onto them in common until they could be weighed and liquidated into coin by a reputable merchant.

It had not all been gravy on the mission, though. Crossing the Rollingrock Creek, Knuckle had lost his greatsword and crossbow, and Pinch had lost his shortbow. Thankfully, Thorn decided he had no real use for the mid-sized, recurve hunting bow he had claimed off his killing of one of the bandits on the trail ambush between the lookout post and hideout. He gave Pinch a good deal on it: two silver. The squad consented to pay for that as a group expense, with Knuckle only agreeing after they swore they would do likewise to replace his weapons.

The hunting bow was slightly longer and heavier than the shortbow Pinch had been using. While not a warbow, the extra range and power was worth the trade-off of it being more difficult to skulk around in the bush with.

As for mounts, Choke had his warhorse, and Knuckle and Pinch each their riding horses. Peep was now riding the mule, which was all theirs, free and clear of Thorn, on account of it being part of her Orcstabber kill.

They rode into Spitzer in the early evening, with Thorn leading the way. The road brought them along the Spitz river and through the town’s sawmills and lumberyards. Many of the workers and teamsters were finishing their work day, and were loitering near the road in the big, muddy field the freight wagons used as a staging area. They all stopped what they were doing and stared silently at the squad as they rode by.

“That can’t be good,” Pinch muttered as they rode on.

“Depends on how ye play it,” Thorn answered. “Word’s out through the teamsters that the three of ye have a one gold contract on yar heads, right? And Father Nate’s man came through yesterday. So the news about Goldy and Horsecock would’ve spread too.”

“What, and working stiffs like that are friends to bandits?” Knuckle asked.

“Not as such. But the folk in these hills are rebellious and free-spirited by nature. They’re more inclined to sympathize with bandits than the men bringing them to justice. That’s just the way of it. I wouldn’t be expecting any hero’s welcome, that’s for sure. With that contract out on ye, keep yar heads on a swivel,” Thorn finished.

The Baron’s fort overlooked the town on a good size hill just to the south of the river. At the base of that was the round, stone tower jail they had been taken to after killing Orcstabber and his crew. Near the tower was the intersection where their road became Main Street, with another good road heading up to the fort. Planted at the crossroads were the pitch-coated heads of Orcstabber and his three men, looking very much the worse for wear. Peep paused to spit at the base of Orcstabber’s pike before they rode on.

Thorn rode with them down Main Street until they reached the Sheriff’s office. Then he reined up.

“I expect ye’ll be wanting to claim yar bounty on Orcstabber. I’m going to fuckin bed,” Thorn said.

“Okay, then, Thorn. Thank you for all your…” Choke drifted off as Thorn wheeled his horse to turn his back on them and rode away without a word.

Peep hawked and spat his way. “Fuckin piece of work, that one,” she said.

“True. But I think none of us would have survived, if not for him,” Choke said.

“Yeah. Kinda makes me wonder what yar plan was to crack that nut without him along,” Knuckle glowered at Peep.

“Who said I had one? I was planning on ditching ye guys as soon as I could! It wouldn’t a been hard!” Peep laughed.

They tethered their horses and went into the Sheriff’s office, with Knuckle and Peep squabbling the whole time. Inside, Sheriff Waters was lounging with a pair of his deputies. He pulled his boots off his desk and sat up straight with a wide grin as he beheld them.

“Aha! If it isn’t our Scythan horde! Fresh from a successful raid ridding our lands of some bandit scum, I hear. What can we do for you?” Sheriff Waters asked.

“Well, it is as you say, sir. With Thorn’s help, we took care of the bandits,” Choke said standing at attention in front of the Sheriff’s desk. Pinch, Knuckle, and Peep stood awkwardly behind him.

Looking them over, Sheriff Waters took a long moment to drink Peep in, then he fixed a big grin on Knuckle:

“Well, look at you, big boy! Someone tagged you up but good!”

The Sheriff was not wrong. Father Nate had healed Knuckle of the deep axe wound in his elbow, as well as the throwing axe cut to his face, but he still carried the scars. Being a god of war, Stron typically left scars when his clerics healed battle earned wounds. Knuckle now sported a large, horseshoe shaped scar running under his left eye and down across his cheek to his jawline. Having been further traumatized by the stitches being ripped out when Knuckle went into the flooded creek, the scar tissue was thick and ugly.

Knuckle glowered at the Sheriff, who stared back at him pleasantly.

“Was it Goldy at least?” the Sheriff finally asked.

“Yeah,” Knuckle grunted.

“Well, that’s something. A proper trophy for you, then. Who was it that killed him?”

Pinch answered this: “Thorn hit him in the side with an arrow and Choke, I mean, Bartholomew, finished him.”

“Good… good. So, I suppose you are here for the bounties, then. Ye have their heads?” Waters asked Choke.

“No, sir. Father Nate in Callic took care of that. We are here for the bounty on Orcstabber, sir. You said that once you had ascertained that it was indeed him that was killed, you would pay us the two-gold bounty,” Choke said.

“Did I? Is that what I said?” Sheriff Waters said, drawing the moment out as long as he could before his face cracked once more into a grin. “Okay, yes. I did say that. And I am glad you did not try to double-dip on me with Goldy and Horsecock. That wouldn’t of gone well for ye.”

“Well, sir, of course you would know already that Father Nate had paid us the bounty. Do you take me for a fool as well as a thief?” Choke asked.

“I have no desire to take ye in any manner. The four of ye struck me as a basketfull of trouble from the moment I first set eyes on you, and time has only shown that to be an underestimation. But I did not know that Father Nate had paid you the bounty. His man came through yesterday and reported to the Baron, and myself, that you lot had killed Goldy and Horsecock, and uncovered some queer goblin behavior out past the Burnthistle garrison. From that I made no further assumptions. But, it is good to know that you are honest enough not to take advantage. Or, at least, devious enough to want to make it seem that way,” the Sheriff finished with a cold smile.

“Very good, sir. So about Orcstabber’s bounty,” Choke said.

“Yes. You are due that. It seems clear from everyone in town that it was indeed Orcstabber that ye bagged.”

“Of course it was!” Peep interjected. “I told ye that!”

“And why would I believe a word out of your filthy little mouth, ye backstabbing slut?” Sheriff Waters answered her. He then looked back to Choke: “Before we settle the bounty, however, I would know: what are your intentions now?”

“Sir?”

“Your intentions. What do you intend to do now?” Sheriff Waters asked sharply.

“Well, sir, it is as we told you. We intend to seek out Brother Barrelmender in Bristlehump,” Choke said.

“I understand that. I also understand that you are coming out of the bush with a lot of coin money burning a hole in your pouches. I understand that there is also a contract out on your lives from the Outfit in Strana. So, what I meant was: what are your intentions today? Tomorrow?”

“Well, sir, we haven’t really discussed it. I suppose we’ll want to rest up at the church. We also need to reequip.”

“That sounds like a good plan,” Waters said. “If I could give ye a word of advice: stay in the church, get your business done in broad daylight out here on Main Street, and push off for Bristlehump as soon as possible. And stay the hell out of the pleasure quarter.”

At this, Knuckle let out a long groan. “Oh, come on!” he griped.

Sheriff Waters laughed. “Yes, lad, I know. You were looking forward to getting balls deep into some well-seasoned pussy. I understand. But you need to understand: this town is full of teamsters. Not to mention all the lumberjacks and bushpigs that are half bandits at the best of times. There is no shortage of goons that will be lining up to cut your throats, is what I am saying. And I understand that you are most likely going to be able to deal with that. But I don’t want you doing it in my town. I do not like bodies in my streets. And if you lot head into that quagmire of booze and dice and pussy, there are going to be bodies. So, if you could fuck off Bristlehump way as soon as possible, and draw some of our problematic citizens out there into the bush after you, that would be great. And if those assholes following you should happen to disappear out there, I am sure no one that matters in town here would mind that a bit. Quite the opposite. Do we understand each other?” Sheriff Waters asked, looking everyone in the eye in turn.

“Understood, sir,” Choke answered for all of them.

“Good. I appreciate it. So, I’ll just pay you your bounty and you can be on your good way, citizens.”

“Pardon me, sir, but before you do, may I ask you something?” Choke said.

“Sure.”

“You mentioned, ‘the Outfit,’ as having put out the contracts on us. What is that, exactly?”

“What? Really?” Sheriff Waters laughed. “Ye pissed them off enough to get a contract put out on you, and you don’t know who they are? That’s great!”

“Thank you, sir. But if you could enlighten us, I would appreciate it,” Choke said.

“Sure. The Outfit is what we call the Strana gang that muscles the Teamsters’ Guild. Any place they’re hauling cargo, the Outfit is going to have its hooks into it to some degree. They’re like termites. They eat their way into everything just out of sight,” Waters said with a look of genuine distaste.

“So, is this Outfit run by a man called, “the Dwarf,’ sir?” Pinch asked.

“Aha! So we haven’t been sleepwalking this whole time! Exactly so,” Waters exclaimed.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” Choke said, his irritation finally breaking through his stoic front. “But if you have this organization of parasitic criminals, and you know exactly who it is running it, then why is it that you don’t just go and put his head on a pike?”

“Well now, Bartholomew, that is a very good question. I suppose, though, to get a proper answer you would need to go and have a word with the King and his people in Strana. I can only speculate that the Dwarf and his termites must make themselves useful. After all, having one’s docks and freight running smoothly must be of some value to the kingdom. Yes?”

“So… what about Terrence?” Knuckle asked, looking confused.

“Fuck! What the hell, Knuckle,” Pinch said, shaking his head in disgust as he pinched the bridge of his nose.

“What? The Sheriff just said that the Dwarf and the teamsters and that are the big crime outfit, right? Well, how about Terrence and his crew? How do they rate?” Knuckle asked.

“I have no idea who that is. What are you talking about?” Sheriff Waters asked.

“The gang boss Terrence in Strana. His gang runs Bridgetown,” Knuckle elucidated.

“Ah,” Waters said with a smile. “The muddy waters settle and we begin to have clarity. I suppose it was at this Terrence’s behest that you went and got yourselves in trouble with the Outfit.”

“Yes,” Pinch said tersely.

“Well, whoever this Terrence is, he sounds little more than a pimp. I don’t expect he rates very highly anywhere but his immediate locale,” the Sheriff said.

“See?” Pinch said to Knuckle pointedly.

“But… He was… ye know. It’s Bridgetown,” Knuckle babbled.

“Yes. I’ve been. It is fun,” the Sheriff said. “I’m sure muscling it is a very lucrative and erotic venture for him. But compared to running the dockyards in the kingdom’s capital, and most of the river barge traffic down to the Great Mother? Fart in a windstorm, man.”

“Wank in a river would be more like it, wouldn’t it?” one of the deputies interjected.

“Ha! Yes, indeed,” the Sheriff Waters laughed.

“So, what you are saying, sir, is that we pissed off the most powerful crime gang in the kingdom for the sake of a pimp,” Pinch said.

“I suppose so. But, on the bright side, I’m sure his people give better blowjobs than teamsters do,” Waters laughed.

“I don’t know, Sheriff,” the comedian deputy said. “I’ve known some teamsters with a real gentle touch. It’s all about attention to detail and having an earnest desire to please.”

“Well, I bow to your greater experience, Bob,” Sheriff Waters said with a tip of his hat.

“Sir, I am sure this is all very amusing to you,” Choke snapped, “but if you don’t mind, could we focus for a moment on this Outfit that is intent on killing us?”

“By all means.”

“Thank you, sir. I would just like to know: how serious is this? For us, I mean,” Choke asked.

“I don’t know,” Sheriff Waters admitted. “You are all clearly capable lads, so I like your odds of handling whatever local shitheels try to take a poke at you. Three gold is a fair bit of money, but it is not that much money.”

“Well, that’s something, at least,” Pinch said.

“But, on the other hand,” the Sheriff went on, his tone thoughtful as he leaned back and mulled things. “Thorn just went out for a week into the bush over a potential six gold, right? And the Outfit is the Outfit. So doing them a solid never does a shady goon any harm, regardless of the coin. So it is always possible you might attract someone more serious. Then there’s the question of how pissed off they really are. Like, is this contract just for show, or is it step one on a project?”

“What do you mean, sir?” Pinch asked.

“Well, I don’t know how serious this actually is. What did you do? Who did you kill?”

“We didn’t kill anyone, sir. We beat the shit outta some teamster bosses and took something from them that Terrence said he was owed,” Pinch answered.

“Ah. What teamster bosses? I may know of them,” Sheriff Waters asked.

Pinch hesitated and looked to Choke for guidance. Choke nodded for him to proceed.

“The place was called Double Horseshoes Freight. The boss was Murray and his man was called Lenny,” Pinch said.

“Uh-huh,” Waters said levelly, giving both his deputies a significant look. “And what exactly, pray tell, did you do to Murray? Like, did ye just rough him up a little? Or…”

“I smacked him up with a hammer pretty good. He was bleeding from the head. I guess I must’ve broke his hand too,” Pinch said.

“Yeah, and afterwards Terrence said that Lenny’s head looked like a fuckin pumpkin after what Choke did to him!” Knuckle interjected proudly. “I just beat up some goon with a prybar.”

“You don’t say! Well, it sounds as though you fucked them up real good. To be honest, it probably would have been better to kill them,” Sheriff Waters said.

“How so, sir?” Choke asked.

“Well, here’s the thing, lads. I have heard of these guys. They are muscle for the Outfit. Shady as the winter night is long. So, if ye had killed them, that would be bad, for sure. But it wouldn’t be personal for the Outfit. With the Church backing you up, that kind of beef can get squashed. But you have to know that for Murray, this is personal now. He’s going to take this very seriously. Because, for muscle, reputation is important. He needs to make an example of you.”

“Pardon me, milord, for talking outta turn with my slut mouth and everything,” Peep said, raising her hand like a school student. “But, if that’s so, why just the one gold contract on each of them. Like ye said, that aint much.”

Sheriff Waters gave Peep a long look in which he seemed to be reevaluating her. “That’s a good point,” he finally said, speaking directly to Peep. “But that one gold isn’t to get them killed. It’s to find out where they are. Murray will do his best to keep what they did as quiet as possible. Reputation, right? But as soon as he finds out where they are, Murray’s gonna send someone. Probably Lenny, if he’s upright. And ye best be sure that cat is gonna be making a lot more than three gold.”

“How long a ride is it to Strana?” Peep asked.

“Dawn to dusk on a good horse? Two days, tops,” Sheriff Waters said.

“And when did ye’all get word on the contract?”

“About… four days ago, wasn’t it?” Sheriff Waters asked his boys. They both nodded. “Four days,” Waters confirmed to Peep.

“And, round trip, we were outta town here for what… six nights?” Peep asked her squad.

Pinch nodded grimly.

“Okay, then,” Peep said with her eyes unfocused, thinking aloud. “Word gets up here that the Outfit has a contract out on three doods: one a giant and one a Scythan. Right about then, you three put on a big show in the Busted Unicorn, and we kill Orcstabber in the street. So, then, it takes two days for word of that to reach this Murray fuck in Strana. Right? They’re gonna take that serious. And even if they aren’t sure, they’re gonna send someone serious here to check it out. So…”

“Whoever that is is here already,” Sheriff Waters said. “And has had two days to settle in. And whatever word they first sent back to Strana has reached Murray.”

“No doubt,” Peep said. “So now, Murray, or whoever his number one trouble-ender is, is heading up here. Assuming they aren’t here already.”

“Exactly. What is your name, woman?” the Sheriff asked.

“Peep, milord.”

“She was just baptized in Callic as Otilla,” Choke interjected.

“And I am quite sure that is a name she takes very seriously. Well, Peep, I think we shall want to be keeping tabs on you. I look forward to hearing of your exploits as you help these lads stay on the straight and narrow course of righteousness under the eyes of Stron,” Sheriff Waters said with a good deal of humor to temper his more serious underlying warning to her.

“Thank ye, milord. I just want to make everyone proud. Praise Stron!”

“You do that,” the Sheriff said, the humor draining from his eyes at Peep’s impudent tone. Then he turned to Choke. “So, with all of our newfound clarity on this issue, I think it best that I pay you your twenty silver so that you can get on with getting the fuck outta my town. By tomorrow noon. I urge you: do not let tomorrow’s sun set on you here.”

“What?” Knuckle exploded.

“Listen, I understand you are Church lads and bound for important service. But I tell you now: do not make trouble here in Spitzer. My job is to keep the peace here. And I shall do it. Look up the road there. What is this place all about? Bringing our lord, Baron Hart’s, timber into town to cut up to order and send on down to Strana where it is made useful by good, hard-working, Stronian men in our King’s shipyards. And what do we have here to see this done? Teamsters. Coming and going, day and night. Teamsters, teamsters, teamsters. Do you understand? I sympathize with your situation. But it is of your own making, after all. And I need you gone. Understood?”

“Yes, sir. Tomorrow by noon. Thank you, sir,” Choke said crisply.

“Very good. Run along to your raven in Bristlehump. It is the wisest course for you. Go and make yourselves useful to him, and out there you shall be able to see your enemies coming,” Sheriff Waters said, not unpleasantly.

“Thank you, sir. I agree. So, I suppose we should be on our way. I am sure we have already taken up too much of your time,” Choke said.

“Not at all. It has been quite enlightening. So! Twenty silver on Orcstabber, was it? Paid with pleasure, lads! Paid with pleasure!”

read part 36

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