The squad bought Peep a fine little horse that the livery’s proprietor, Elliot, assured them would be as surefooted as a mule on the hilly forest trails they would likely be doing much of their riding on. With saddle and bridle, he charged them twenty silver pieces, just as Peep had anticipated. That this was, in fact, an excellent price was not something that she appreciated.
Leaving the livery, with Peep leading her mount on foot, the squad took a moment to have a good look down Main Street. Mason and his riders were gathered in the street in front of the Sheriff’s office. Mason was still mounted, but seemed to be having a word with Sheriff Waters. Peep’s followers had made it almost to the livery. They stopped and parted ways for Peep and the others as they walked back towards the general store located opposite the Sheriff’s office.
“Otilla! Oh, praise Stron! Show us His marks upon ye, Otilla of the Holy Fire! Show us!” said the same woman who had sought to bring the Sheriff and his men the good news of Peep’s miraculous baptism.
“No. Fuck off,” Peep responded.
The woman and the other worshipers who were within earshot startled at her dismissal, looking confused and wounded.
“Woah, Peep, maybe you should—” Choke said as they walked on through the worshipers.
“No. Fuck that. Having the priest drool snot all over me yesterday was plenty. I aint gonna be their plaything,” Peep said forcefully. She walked on a little before turning back towards her followers: “Go home! I got nothing for ye here!” she commanded.
“But… but… you are Otilla of the Holy Fire!” the lead woman stammered.
“Maybe I am. I don’t know. But whatever that means, this kinda shit,” Peep waved her hand dismissively over the worshipers, “aint part of it. So piss off and stop pestering me, or I’ll show ye what the Holy Flame is all about. And yar not gonna like it. Go home! Shoo!”
Peep turned her back on the worshipers and stomped up the street towards the General Store. The worshipers all remained standing as they were, looking stunned and heartbroken.
Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle followed her in silence for a while. When they were halfway towards the general store, Choke jogged a little to come alongside her.
“Peep,” he said reasonably, “I understand your feelings, but I think you need to—”
“No. Don’t start with that, man,” Peep interrupted, holding her palm up his way, giving him a clear view of her holy brand as he was dismissed. “I’m the one that got this Holy Fire up into me. Me. Not you. And I’m telling ye: that shit, those weaklings crawling along after me in the fuckin mud like stray dogs looking for scraps. Those people… that kinda… ass-licking. That aint what I’m about. And it aint what the Holy Fire is about. And we all know it. So let’s focus up, because we got real shit to deal with here.”
Peep gestured down the street towards the intersection with the Sheriff’s office and general store. The intersection was now crowded, and not in a friendly way. The bounty hunter, Mason, and his ten killers were still mounted and spread out in the intersection in front of the Sheriff’s office. They were all facing the Pekot squad with their hands on various weapons. Behind them, the Sheriff and his men were in position out in front of his office. They were obviously tense as they monitored the scene. As well, the score of soldiers that had been spread out down Main Street had tightened up and were now standing alert all around the edges of the intersection. There was a squad of eight soldiers stationed outside the general store.
“Sergeant,” Choke said levelly to the squad’s sergeant as they reached the general store. “Good day to you men.”
“Aye. And a good day to you, sir,” the sergeant replied. “We hear yar fixing to do some shopping here today. That’s fine with us, but we don’t want any trouble now.”
“You won’t be getting any from us, sir,” Choke said.
“That’s good. Just as I expected. Don’t worry, we’ll make sure that other parties behave themselves as well. And, I’d just like to say on a personal note, that a few years back I saw what Goldy and his did to some folk on one of their raids. Terrible things we shudder to think of goblins doing. That men would do it to fellow humans, well, let’s just say I’m glad they’ve been dealt with at last. So ye have our thanks for that good work.”
A couple of the sergeant’s men nodded emphatically at this, while others looked on unmoved with hostile eyes.
“Well, thank you, sir. We appreciate that,” Choke said. “But, as you probably know, it was Thorn that really took that on. We were just his support in it.”
“Aye. That’s probably so. But, either way, it was good work. Ye carry on now with yar business. And take care.”
“Thank you, sergeant. You too,” Choke said.
The general store was of a fair size and had all the sundry items that one would expect in a rugged place such as Spitzer. Bushcraft and lumberjacking equipment made up the bulk of the stock, but there were plenty of household and construction tools and goods as well. There were no other customers in the store. The proprietor and his wife were terribly frightened, but managed to rise to the occasion of serving the Pekot squad.
The squad quickly outfitted themselves with the gear they would need for camping rough, as well as a two-week’s supply of oats and salt for making a basic gruel. While they were bickering over how much oil they would need for their lantern, the sound of heavy footsteps snapped their attention to the door.
Alan “the Chisel” Mason walked into the store, followed by two of his men. Mason was big: almost as tall as Knuckle, and while lacking Knuckle’s girth, his lanky frame was strong. He stopped with his men flanking him as he sized up each of the squad members in turn.
“So this is the famous Pekot bunch,” Mason said. “Setting up for a bit of a camp, I see.”
“Indeed, sir,” Choke replied, turning to face Mason square. “And who would you be?”
“Alan Mason. And you would be Bartholomew. Also known as Choke,” Mason said as he stepped up to Choke and offered him his hand. The ensuing handshake was quite the struggle as each man sought to maintain his grip and composure in the face of the other’s strength and resolve.
“I’ve heard a lot about ye four,” Mason said as he and Choke finally released each other, abandoning their contest as a stalemate. “Seems like yar setting yarselves up in my business, so I thought I should pop in and check out the competition.”
“Oh, is that what yar up to here?” Peep interjected. “Are ye sure ye brought enough men?” She looked over the two men flanking Mason and thrust her jaw upwards to scratch her neck with her forefinger, from left to right.
Mason spared Peep another look. He blinked as she met his eye and communicated to him just how close she was to instigating the end of the game right then and there.
“Oh, we are a salty little cutthroat artist, aren’t we?” Mason said to Peep, his hand dropping to his shortsword. “Ye wanna throw down now, do ye? Be my guest. But I have no quarrel with you good folk, as all witnesses to the scene will be able to attest I’ve declared. So what’s there to fight about? The first that draws is a bandit. Pure and simple. The others get to claim self-defense, and ride on to their just rewards, free and clear.
“If they’re able,” Peep said.
“Well since I don’t got my back turned to ye with my guard down, I aint too worried, now am I?”
“That’s just the problem with shadows in the night, aint it?” Peep said, smiling maliciously. “There’s no telling which of them might come alive. Ye think on that when yar stepping aside for yar last piss tonight.”
Mason looked set to respond, but Choke put his hand up between him and Peep.
“I think, sir, that you must have more pressing business to attend to than conversing with the likes of us,” Choke said. “And we certainly should be on our way.”
“No doubt. Thank you, boy. You are correct, I do have some other business to attend to here today. Shopkeeper!” Mason barked at the proprietor who was standing frozen behind the counter. “I have a job out in the bush that I am not fully equipped for. I shall need some good rope. Something that can take the full strain of a horse team, I think.”
“Oh. Rope? For a horse team? So, pulling logs out of the bush? Or… Oh. Yes, sir. Two-centimeter hemp, I think. How much shall you be needing, sir?” the shopkeeper asked, reflexively retreating to professionalism in his panic.
Mason looked the four members of the Pekot squad over with a studied eye. “Two coils of twenty meters should do, I expect.”
“Before you get onto that, sir,” Choke said to the shopkeeper. “I think we would like to settle up and be on our way. You don’t mind, do you, sir?” Choke asked Mason. “We were, after all, here first.”
“No, no, you go right ahead, boy. I’ll just go over here and check out the axes and saws while I wait. Our job might entail some limbing, so I should probably think on that while I’m at,” Mason said, moving off to that section of the store as he did.
“Thank you,” Choke said to Mason before turning his attention to the shopkeeper: “Now, sir, would you accept a measure of gold for payment, and provide change in silver coinage?”
Assured this would be perfectly acceptable, Choke extracted one of Goldy’s gold teeth from their communal pouch for payment. The shopkeeper was quite unsettled as he realized whose mouth the gold had come from, but he set up his scales and processed the payment with admirable alacrity. The single tooth netted the squad their entire purchase, with three silver and a handful of copper pieces as change.
With their morning business attended to, the squad left Mason and his men to their business and took their gear and Peep’s horse to the church’s stables. None of Mason’s men, the soldiers, or the lawmen gave them any trouble. Some of Peep’s followers were still hanging about, but they kept their distance as well.
Just as Mrs Dunn had warned them he would, Thorn came to the church after just another hour. Contrary to their expectations, however, he was not in a foul mood. He was alert and energetic, and as good natured as he ever was.
“So, what the fuck d’ye want?” he snapped at Choke and the others as they all took seats on stools and hay bales in the stables where the squad had almost finished packing up their mounts to leave.
“First of all, Thorn, thank you for coming. We are very sorry to bother you,” Choke said.
“Yeah, yeah. What-the-fuck-ever. Spare me the whole fuckin routine, would ye? I got shit to do, today, so let’s just get on with it.”
“Very well. Thank you,” Choke said. He then went on to explain, as briefly as possible, the trouble they were now facing with the Strana Outfit’s contracts and the man that had been sent to collect them.
Thorn listened intently and then thought silently for a while once Choke had finished.
“Huh. Yeah, that’s the shits,” he finally said. “So they sent the Chisel after ye. Yikes,” Thorn grimaced. “Who’d ye beat up, again?”
“Murray, of Double Horseshoes Freight. And his man, Lenny.”
“Never heard of them. But that don’t mean much, since I don’t fuck with the teamsters. I guess ye shoulda killed them, huh?”
“That’s what the Sheriff said,” Pinch said.
“So, whad’ye want me to do about it? I’m not taking on Mason for ye, if that’s what yar after. I got shit to do.”
“Like what?” Knuckle asked.
“That’s none of our business, Knuckle,” Choke chided. Then he turned to Thorn: “We are just seeking some advice as to how to handle this, that’s all. We need guidance.”
“Yeah, no shit ye do. So, what would I do if I was in yar boots…” Thorn said, drifting off into thought for a spell. “How tight are ye with Barrelmender?” he finally asked.
“Not at all,” Choke replied. “We were advised to go to him and present ourselves for service. He has been written to expect us. That’s all.”
“Okay, then, going to Bristlehump is out. He might intervene on yar behalf, but he aint gonna like it. And, anyways, running to hide behind a priest’s skirts aint gonna be a good look for ye.”
“That’s what we were thinking,” Pinch said, with a nod towards Peep.
“But,” Thorn went on, “Mason is assuming that’s exactly what yar gonna do, right? So ye can use that. What I would do is, wait until just before dusk and strike out up the road to Bristlehump. It’s a half-decent road, so it aint a stretch that ye could ride it at night. Bristlehump’s about a day’s ride, and there’s just a couple of tiny shit villages in hollows on the way.”
“Do you think Mason has a squad set up on the road?” Choke asked.
Thorn shook his head emphatically. “No. No way. First rule of combat is: never divide yar forces unless it guarantees ye victory. If he has some guys sitting out there in the bush with their thumbs up each other’s asses, and ye don’t head to Bristlehump, then what? He’s gotta send yet another guy to go and bring them in while he strikes out after ye with less than full strength. Dumb move. And Mason aint dumb.”
The squad all nodded and waited intently for Thorn to continue their enlightenment.
“Nah. Ye said he has ten guys with him? With one man down last night, thanks to Peep here. An even dozen hunting four is exactly how cats like Mason like to play it. Four to one is good odds. Bringing on more warm bodies just cuts into the purse. For sure, what ye saw this morning is what he’s got. Now, that’s not to say that he won’t go and hire more if ye thin out his crew some more. So for this to end, ye gotta put him down.”
“And how do you suggest we do that?” Choke asked.
“I was just getting to it,” Thorn smiled. “Like I said, ye head up Bristlehump way tonight. But then ye duck off the road and hook back northeast and head back up towards Callic.”
“Callic?” Pinch asked.
“For sure. There’s a trail I know that’ll take ye right there. Ride up the Bristlehump road just about an hour. There’s gonna be a crick alongside the road. At the point where the crick and the road separate, follow the crick. It’s just a little mule trail that goes up and through the crick, but it’s passable. Ye can’t miss it if ye just follow the crick. Stay on that for a few hours, until ye get to a rocky ravine that the crick is coming outta. Then, ye strike out east where ye’ll hook up with the Tanglefoot Trail. Name notwithstanding, that’s a good, solid trail that runs east-west between Bristlehump and Callic. Can’t miss it.”
“And what if Mason and his bunch tracks us up it?” Peep asked.
“Well, then yar fucked. But there’s no chance of that, really. Look, when ye light out tonight, they’re gonna start following ye. You with a mule and all, they know they’re faster than ye. But they still need speed over a long ride, so they can’t bring any dogs along. Their plan is gonna be timing things so that they ride up yar ass right about dawn. Mason’s gonna be sure that he scared ye bad today, and that yar running for yar bolthole to get yar raven priest to protect ye,” Thorn said.
“And what if we’d set up in ambush on the road?” Pinch asked.
“So what if ye do? That’s what he’s hoping. Four of ye against eleven of them, you with yar low-power bows and one-shooters. The guys he’s gonna have riding out in front will be the cheap, young bucks with no rep, getting paid to do exactly that: stay out in front and take their chances with the first shots. Then Mason and his badasses are gonna open up with their warbows from the rear to keep yar heads down while his hard muscle flanks. Piece a piss.”
“Shit,” Knuckle said.
“No doubt. Which is why ye aint gonna do that,” Thorn laughed. “Ye split off, head up to the Tanglefoot Trail, which is goblin country, by the way, so keep yar eyes peeled. Anyways, just make sure that when ye leave the road to follow the crick, ye dismount and do it nice and slow. Take yar time to clean up any sign that ye went that way. They aint gonna be keeping too close to ye then. Lead yar horses a hundred meters into the bush before mounting up again. They’re gonna be in the fuckin dark, focused on the road ahead, and sure that yar heading for the safety of yar priest. They won’t follow ye. Ye’ll lose them, sure as shit.”
“Okay, that’s great advice. But why Callic?” asked Choke.
“Well, ye aint gonna get this crew in a straight-up fight or even a normal ambush, right? So, ye gotta lead them into a mess of hostile locals that’ll fink them out to ye. Then, once ye get word of where they’re hanging their hats at night, ye creep up on Mason and get the job done while he’s asleep. Or balls deep in hoor. Or whatever else ye can manage. Play it by ear; ye’ll figure something out.”
“So we murder him like cutthroats in the night,” Choke said darkly.
“Fuck, man, dead is dead,” Thorn chuckled. “Who gives a shit how ye get him there? Save the dueling and the fair fights for the fuckin bards to write up in ballads.”
“Fuckin A,” Knuckle said.
“Okay, but I still don’t understand. Why Callic? Why not Bristlehump? Do the locals in Callic hate Mason, or something?” Pinch asked.
“Not yet they don’t. But once he starts sniffing around, looking to string up yar girl here, Otilla of the Holy Fire, they’re gonna get hostile,” Thorn said.
“Oh, fuck off with that. Come on!” Peep scowled.
“Don’t ye dismiss that, girl. Them brands are yar ticket outta this mess. That’s it. Up in Bristlehump, they aint gonna give a shit about it. They aint taken to Stron up there and don’t like those of us that have. That’s why the Holy Stoners sent Barrelmender up there. And I didn’t get where I am today by talking shit about Holy Stoners, so I’ll just say that the place is still rife with heresy. But Father Nate, and others like him, have been working Callic and the surrounding area real good for a long time. We got some real devout folk up in there. Ye saw. And from what Mrs Dunn told me about the congregation this morning, the Stronian smallfolk in these parts have taken a real shine to the miracle of Otilla’s baptism.”
“Fuck you,” Peep muttered at Thorn.
“Ye can cuss me out all ye want, girl. It aint gonna change what’s what. We all know that them brands and what they represent is real. As real as it gets. And the Stron-fearing small folk know it too. Don’t dismiss that, Peep. Ye shoulder it as best ye can. And ye use it to do what needs doing. That’s it,” Thorn finished sharply, with the tone of an order.
Thorn paused for this to sink in before he continued:
“So that’s what ye do: Ye get yar asses up Callic way. In the countryside, though. Avoid the church and Father Nate. Ye wanna handle this yarselves. Ye get up there, and show them rubes yar brands, and have Choke here read them some selected passages from the Holy Books about the evil, devil-worshiping invaders from the south. And then ye tell them that ye need their help to deliver ye the evil men coming to do ye harm. And ye keep moving around doing that, getting the lay of the land as ye do. And Mason is gonna hear that yar up there, sure as shit. And he’s gonna head in to root ye out. And then ye just pick yar fuckin moment.”
Thorn was now speaking to Peep directly. He paused again and then addressed Choke and the other men:
“And once it’s time to finish it, ye follow Peep’s lead. Ye do as she says. Because she’s the one who’s gonna have the best sense of how to get it done. Ye hear?”
Choke sat glaring at the floor.
“No doubt,” Knuckle said, giving Peep a solid thump on the shoulder.
“Listen. Ye might not like it, but ye asked for my advice. So that’s it. It’s up to you what ye do now. Suit yarselves,” Thorn said as he stood up and stretched.
“So what is it yar planning on doing while we’re off having this fun in Callic?” Peep asked him.
“Me? Well, I’m gonna head up to the fort and have a word with the Baron and his men about the goblin situation up in Burnthistle. See about them putting together a task force to head up there to check things out. Then I’ll be going along with them to make sure it’s done right.”
Pinch, Knuckle, and Peep all broke into big grins at this.
“For real?” Peep laughed. “That sergeant is gonna shit a brick when he sees ye riding into town with a fuckin captain on the hook! Yar actually gonna do that?”
“Yeah, that was always the plan,” Thorn said with an evil smirk. “Fuck all those guys and their lazy, good-for-nothing bullshit. From the lieutenant on down. It’s time all of them learned what real soldiering is all about.”
“Well, watch yar back, Thorn,” Peep said.
“I always do, girl. I always do.”