The Children of Stron – part 38

Table of Contents (spoilers)

read part 1

read part 37

Mrs Dunn returned to the kitchen before very long with word that a sheriff’s deputy had been to investigate the murder scene and oversee the removal of the body. The victim had no money or purse on him, so robbery was declared the motive of the killing. With the victim being unknown to everyone, and there being no witnesses to the crime, the deputy had decided it was to remain unsolved. Mrs Dunn had left the scene to report all this to the squad when Billy the gaoler came with his mule cart to dispose of the corpse.

Billy dumped the body in an open pit at the edge of the graveyard behind the church. Then Mrs Dunn paid a couple of local lads a few copper to shovel enough dirt on top of it to keep the crows away.

By the time this was done, Choke had returned to the kitchen, so Mrs Dunn unlocked the armory next to Father Morrenthall’s chambers and supervised them looking over her wares.

“Oh, that’s a beauty piece!” Knuckle said, reaching out for a greatsword in its rack.

Mrs Dunn gave his hand a swat. “That is an enchanted weapon of patterned Dwarven steel, is what that is, and I doubt ye can foot the bill! No touching what ye can’t afford to buy.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Knuckle said with a sulky tone. “Well, what about that one?”

“That one I can let ye have for six silver. And that’s the price reserved for fighters of the Faith, so I’ll not be chiseled over it!”

“Of course not. That’s a great price. May I?” Knuckle said, gesturing to the sword.

Mrs Dunn nodded begrudgingly. Knuckle took the weapon off the rack and everyone stepped well away from him as he gave it a few practice swirls.

“It’ll do,” he said. “So we’ll take it, right?” he asked the squad. They all nodded.

“Now a crossbow,” Knuckle said, heading towards the rack housing a number of the weapons.

“Ahh…” Choke began, bringing Knuckle up short.

“What?”

“I don’t know if getting you another crossbow is something we want to be doing,” Choke said, exchanging a look with Pinch and Peep.

“What? Look, I know I’m no great marksman, but I’m a decent shot!” Knuckle protested.

“Yeah, that’s the problem, man,” Pinch interjected. “It’s not yar aim we’re worried about. It’s yar judgment.”

“Huh? Oh, what? Is this about that woman again?”

“Yes. How could it not be?” Choke said.

“Oh, come on! That wasn’t my fault! Goldy used her as a shield, and if he hadn’t, I woulda put him down. This is bullshit!”

“Language, Theodas!” Choke cautioned as Mrs Dunn stiffened in indignation between them.

“Okay. I’m sorry, ma’am. But this aint right. That was an accident, and not my fault anyways. And I promise I’ll be more careful from now on. But we’re heading out into the bush with a kill squad after us that we’re gonna try to ambush, right? And ye want me without a crossbow? That’s just dumb!”

Choke and the others thought this over and all came to the same conclusion.

“Yes, okay,” Choke sighed. “Mrs Dunn, how much for a basic, hand-drawn light crossbow?”

The crossbow was another six silver. They also bought several dozen crossbow quarrels, and arrows for Pinch and Peep, along with several quivers to keep them in. Mrs Dunn let them have all of it for the very fair price of fourteen silver pieces, which the squad paid out collectively as a group expense.

With this settled, the squad sat down together in the men’s cell to discuss what to do next.

“So the deputy says that guy outside got killed by a robber, huh?” Knuckle said.

“Yeah. What did I tell ye? The law here wants no part of us,” Peep said happily.

“Well, let’s not push our luck,” Pinch said. Then he looked at Peep expectantly, “So, if the guy was robbed…”

“Yeah. He was,” Peep said. “And we keep what we kill, right? So that’s all mine. Don’t worry, though, ye didn’t miss much. Guy was pretty broke. He did have this, though. Pretty nice pig sticker!”

Peep pulled a slim dagger from her boot and twirled it with a flourish to show it off before putting it away.

“Yeah. Very nice. Anyways, I suppose we go get geared up at the general store and then head out of town,” Pinch said.

“We should get Peep a horse,” Choke said, prompting her to grimace.

“We talked about that. That’s expensive! Once we take care of those pricks after us we’re gonna have plenty of horses!” she said.

“Indeed. And then we can sell them and recoup our money. But if we’re heading out into a dangerous situation, everyone should be mounted,” Choke said.

“Whatever,” Peep snorted. “We’ll be dragging the mule along, so we can’t go any faster than it anyways. What’s the difference if I ride it?”

“Well, if you’re on a horse and we get in trouble, we can always leave it behind,” Pinch said.

“What? Abandon Betsy? Come one, we can’t do that to Knuckle!” Peep laughed.

“Betsy? Oh, come on! Fuck off!” Knuckle barked.

“And if it comes to that, I can just double up with you, Pinch,” said Peep.

“In a chase? No. No way,” Pinch said.

“Peep,” Choke interjected. “What is the problem here? Why are you so dead set against buying a horse?”

Peep looked pained and was about to start speaking several times, but kept cutting herself off as she reconsidered her words. Finally, she sighed:

“Okay, I dunno, man. It’s just that I figure there are two kinds of people in this world: people that buy fuckin horses, and people that take them. I aint comfortable being the kind of person that buys them.”

The three men frowned.

“That is, without a doubt, the stupidest thing I have ever heard ye say, Peep,” Pinch finally said.

“Agreed,” Choke said.

“Well fuck you then,” Peep said.

“Okay. I’ll get right on that,” said Choke. “But we are buying you a riding horse, and you are going to pay your fair share of it. That’s final.”

Peep glowered at all of them but finally seemed to accept it. “Fine. But once we buy this horse like a bunch of diddled merchants, what’s the plan?”

“Well, we ride up Bristlehump way and look out for a good spot to set up an ambush,” Pinch said.

“That’s simple. I like it,” Peep said. “But who’s to say that Mason hasn’t already gone ahead and done that?”

“Well, how would he know where we’re heading?” Pinch asked in return.

“I dunno. Who did ye tell yar plan to?” Peep asked.

“No one, really. Just Father Morrenthall, Thorn, and the Sheriff,” Pinch answered.

Peep goggled at him.

“What?” Pinch asked defensively.

“Ye told the fuckin Sheriff?”

“What are you talking about, Peep?” Choke interjected. “We specifically talked about it with him just yesterday!”

“Ye did?”

“Yes. Weren’t you listening?”

“No. I guess not. To be honest, after he called me a slut, I was thinking real hard about cutting his throat. Anyways, what did we tell him?”

“The plan! That we’re heading to Bristlehump to go to work for Brother Barrelmender. Why wouldn’t we tell him that?” Choke asked, getting flustered.

“Because ye got a bunch of shady hard cases from Strana looking to kill ye?”

“And you think the Sheriff will tell them? Why would he do that?”

“I dunno. For money? And maybe he’s not bent. But two of his men was there with us, right? I mean, everyone’s been talking about you three. Ye’ve been the big thing to gossip about in town, yeah? So for sure those lawmen have been talking about ye to everyone they wanna stick their dicks into, at the very least. So how many deputies and soldiers d’ye think Mason would have to slip some coin to find out everything he wants? Fuck, guys, give yar helmets a spin! Think!”

“You’re right,” Choke said. “We have to assume that Mason knows our plan. So, the question is, what is his plan?”

“I suppose he’ll want to keep it simple too,” Pinch said. “He’ll ambush us on the road to Bristlehump.”

“Do you think he’s set up on it?” Choke asked Peep.

“I dunno. Probably not. I mean he wouldn’t wanna split up his forces, right? So he’ll probably just let us go on ahead a bit and then ride hard and catch up. But maybe he has lots of guys and has some set up on the road. How should I know?”

“We have to assume it,” Pinch said grimly.

“Agreed. So what do we do?” Choke asked the group.

Knuckle and Pinch both immediately looked to Peep. She smiled before answering:

“Well, usually what my sort does in this situation is to hole up in the bush someplace. Keep a lookout for them coming, maybe with some friendly folk around to keep their ear to the ground. Then ye wait it out and look for a chance to jack them. Or for them to give up and fuck off. Whichever comes first.”

“The problem with this is that we don’t know the country or any people here,” Pinch said.

“Yeah, well, don’t look at me,” Peep said. “I’m from out Pekot way, like ye lot, remember?”

“Well, we do know someone who knows the country around here very well,” Choke said. “I know it’s too much to expect his active help, but we should seek Thorn’s council on this. Today.”

“Good idea,” Pinch said as Knuckle nodded emphatically.

Peep looked like she was about to spit on the floor but she restrained herself with a simple, “fuck.”

“How do we find him?” Knuckle asked.

“Never mind that. Will he be any use to us if we do?” Peep said. “He’s probably fully liquored up and balls deep in a Betsy of his own right now.”

“We don’t need to find him,” Choke said, ignoring Peep. “He’s Father Morrenthall’s man, remember? We can ask Mrs Dunn to send for him.”

“Oh, great. He’s really gonna love that. Being summoned by a housekeeper to help us out with yar bullshit,” Peep said.

“I will take some verbal abuse from him if it means we don’t get tortured to death by Alan ‘The Chisel’ Mason out in the bush somewhere. Fair trade, I think,” Choke said.

“Yeah, sure. Whatever,” said Peep.

Choke went to impinge upon Mrs Dunn’s tolerance once more and ask her to send for Thorn. Then the squad kitted up in preparation for going out. They decided that the best way to handle town and its dangers was to head out the main doors of the church fully armed and bold as brass, as though they had nothing to fear in the world. As they were going to do that, Mrs Dunn waylaid them in the transverse corridor on the way to the church.

“I sent a boy to get Thorn. You all are going to do your shopping?”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you,” Choke said.

“Well don’t take too long. When he’s fresh off a job, he usually takes a couple of hours to come, but he always does. And he won’t abide being made to wait.”

“Understood, ma’am. We shall not be long. Just the general store and the livery.”

Mrs Dunn nodded. Then she cast a suspicious look down the corridor towards the church. “Something’s off today. There are a bunch of them in the pews praying up a storm. Way more than usual, and they’ve all got the spirit in them. Something is off.”

The squad exchanged a look.

“Mrs Dunn,” Pinch said, “in his note, Father Morrenthall didn’t say anything about why he was going to Callic, did he?”

“No. Just that it was of the utmost urgency. Why?”

“Because— Ah!” Pinch exclaimed as Peep jabbed her knuckles up into his ass.

“Time to go,” Peep said as she pulled up the wolf’s head of her cloak and tugged it down over her face.

They moved out into the church, which had almost twenty people kneeling fervently in prayer. There was an even mix of men and women, mostly peasants on the older side. The squad put their backs to them to kneel down in front of the altar as Choke led them in a quick prayer:

“Lord Stron, grant us the strength to do what we must do. Altas forgive us for the same. Amen.”

Choke rose and walked down the church through the pews towards the main doors, followed in turn by Knuckle, Pinch, and then Peep, still with her wolf head pulled low. A murmur rose from the worshipers as the squad moved through them, with some hushed but intense voices rising from the babble:

“It’s her. It’s her!”

“Otilla of the Holy Fire.”

“The Wolf Maiden of Callic. Killer of Goldy!”

Walking out of the church into the bright morning sun, the squad were rattled.

“Okay, what the fuck is happening?” Knuckle muttered.

“I suppose word of the miracle in Callic is spreading,” Choke answered lamely.

“Ye think?” Pinch said sharply.

“It’s just a bunch of dumbass hicks,” Peep said. “Forget about it. Focus up! We got shit to do.”

Peep was not wrong. Looking down Main Street, it was obvious that things were off here too, and in a much more worldly way. There was a palpable tension as the few townsfolk they could see hurried about their business with their heads down. There were about twenty fully-armed soldiers spread out all down the street, and a group of figures were standing around outside the Sheriff’s office.

Choke and the others fanned out a little as they walked down towards central Main Street. Choke had his helmet and mail on, with his shield slung on his back. His longsword was on his left hip and a full quiver of crossbow quarrels on his right. He held his unloaded crossbow loose in his hands.

To Choke’s left, closer to the center of the road, Knuckle cut an even more imposing figure. In helmet and mail, with his new greatsword on his back, Knuckle carried his crossbow as though he was as likely to club someone to death with it as shoot them.

On Choke’s right, Pinch hugged the buildings with his new hunting bow in hand and a quiverful of arrows on his right shoulder. Peep skulked behind then, turning round as she walked to keep as much of her focus behind them as in front. She had her black wolf pelt’s hood up and her shortbow in hand.

As they walked down Main Street, they saw that it was Sheriff Waters and his two deputies standing outside his office with half a dozen soldiers. The Sheriff tipped his hat their way as they approached.

“Morning,” the Sheriff said.

“It is indeed, Sheriff,” Choke answered as he and the others continued walking by.

“Looks like we’ll have lovely weather today. Perfect day for a long ride, I’d say,” Sheriff Waters went on.

“It is indeed, Sheriff,” Choke said.

The Sheriff smiled and tipped his hat at them again.

As the squad passed the Sheriff’s office and looked down its side street, they saw about a dozen fully saddled horses tethered to the hitching posts beside the building.

Just then, Peep gave a short whistle of warning and indicated with her bow back towards the Church. As she did, one of the deputies looking back that way said, “the fuck?”

The worshipers from inside the church had spilled out into Main Street and were now heading towards them. They were walking slowly, many with their hands clasped and their eyes skyward, with some stopping occasionally to drop to their knees for a quick prayer before moving on.

“Now what are these hooples up to?” the Sheriff mused aloud; his tone not unamused.

“The livery first, yes?” Peep said to Choke sharply.

“Yes. Right away. Before… I don’t know. Just, before whatever.”

The squad hurried on down Main Street. The livery Father Morrenthall had told them to go to was down at the other end, almost opposite the tower gaol. Peep’s followers did not seem in a hurry to keep up to her, so the squad gained ground on them. Even so, they were able to hear one woman as she stopped at the Sheriff’s office and, with her arms upraised, loudly asked the men there:

“Have ye heard the good news?”

They could not hear what Sheriff Waters or his men had to say about that, but it seemed sure that the woman would be enlightening them whether they wanted her to or not.

“This is getting too weird,” Pinch said as the squad hurried along.

“Yeah, well, it’s about to get weirder,” Peep said, gesturing ahead of them.

Way down at the east end of Main Street, past the tower, about a dozen riders had appeared. With the morning sun in their eyes, the squad could not make out many details, but the horses and men were big, and a number of them were armed with shields and spears. The horsemen spread out right out across Main Street as they rode at a walk towards the squad.

“Okay. Now what?” Pinch asked nervously.

“We go to the livery and conduct our business, is what,” Choke answered. “Those men are on no lawful mission, as you pointed out earlier, Pinch. They cannot murder us in cold blood here in town in full view of the Sheriff. Their goal is intimidation. A clear response to Peep’s message to them this morning, I would guess.”

“Yeah, well, it’s working,” Pinch said.

“Don’t worry, they’re way more scared of us than we are of them,” Peep said brightly.

The squad reached the livery just before the horsemen. As Choke and the others stopped outside, the horsemen rode slowly on by them, so they were all able to have a good look at each other. No one made any sudden moves and everything was very quiet as they eyeballed each other.

The horsemen were all mounted on fine steeds, and were clearly comfortable on them. They were all armored, in chainmail and brigandine, for the most part. Four of them bore horsemen’s kite shields and light lances, basically spears. Another six were outfitted as light horsemen skirmishers, with small roundshields and lighter weapons. Two of them had Scythan warbows with quivers of war arrows slung on their saddles. All of the men without warbows had light crossbows on their saddles.

The last rider was mounted on a gorgeous, black light-warhorse. He was a big man, with aggressively sculpted, iron grey, muttonchop whiskers. He was in chainmail and a fine looking, black steel pot helmet, with a black tabard and cloak. There was a longsword on one of his hips and a shortsword on the other. Slung on the back of his saddle was a full-sized warbow in an open-topped case. The man, who could only be Alan ‘The Chisel’ Mason, locked eyes with Choke and never broke off his stare until he had ridden on by.

The other horsemen all stared hard at the squad as they rode past and headed on down towards the Sheriff’s office. The squad held fast, facing them squarely as they met their gaze. Peep hawked loudly and spat into the street as the last of the horsemen broke eye contact with her.

“Ye still think they’re more afraid of us than we are of them, Peep?” asked Pinch.

“For sure. They aint shit and they know it. I counted eleven. I’ll bet Mason did his hiring to be an even dozen on this job. Ye think that aint weighing on their minds?”

“I like your confidence, Peep, but we clearly have a serious problem here,” Choke said. “There’s no way we can take all of them, even in an ambush. With those warbows they’ll outrange and outshoot us.”

“Well, obviously we’re gonna have to take more than one crack at them. Don’t ye worry, boss, we’ll figure something out!” Peep said confidently. She gave Choke a backhanded cuff on the arm. “Okay, let’s go get that horse.”

read part 39

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