The Children of Stron – part 40

Table of Contents (spoilers)

read part 1

read part 39

Having decided to adopt Thorn’s suggested course of action without amendment, the squad struck out for Bristlehump just before dusk after a big feed put on for them by Mrs Dunn. Back up Main Street, four of Mason’s men were posted at the sheriff office’s intersection. They were standing around near their tethered horses and made no attempt to hide that they were watching the squad.

When Choke and the others turned west on Main Street to head towards the Bistlehump road, one of Mason’s men vaulted up onto his horse and galloped off towards the lumber yards.

“What if them three start following us close?” Knuckle asked as they set off in a trot.

“Well, then we double back on them quick and chalk up three more for our side,” Peep answered.

However, the three killers did not stay with the squad for long. They mounted up and followed them the few hundred meters to the start of the Bristlehump road. There, Mason’s men hung back and watched the squad ride off into the gloomy forest.

The road wound its way through the wilderness next to a small creek, just as Thorn said it would. In the woods darkness fell quickly, but the road was a good one and they were able to maintain a trot without any peril. The light from a half moon was just enough. After about an hour, they reached the point where the road and the creek parted ways. The road continued on up in a steeper grade as it went up into the hills.

The squad dismounted. Choke and Knuckle loaded their crossbows and then held the horses and the mule in the middle of the road while Peep and Pinch scouted the creek trail on foot. They quickly returned to declare it fine.

The squad had decided to spare the time to get off the road as carefully as possible. Pinch led their mounts and mule off the road and a ways down the trail one at a time, while Peep carefully tidied up any signs of their passing as best she could in the dark. They left Betsy the mule for last. When Pinch had finally taken her into the bush, Choke and Knuckle followed. Peep came last as she checked the trail carefully, paying particular attention that the leaves of the bushes and the low branches of the evergreens had not been disturbed.

Choke and Knuckle were barely five meters down the trail, with Peep still right next to the road, when they heard riders coming up the road from Spitzer.

“Down,” hissed Choke at Knuckle. They both dropped low into the bushes beside the trail and froze.

There was no way to know where Peep was.

Then the night was filled with the terrifying sound of almost a dozen horses passing them on the road. They too were riding without torches or lanterns, and were keeping as quiet as possible. In the dark, pressed into Knuckle’s side, with the both of them holding their breath, Choke realized that the very next human voice he heard might herald their ugly demise.

Then, Mason and his men were gone, their hoofbeats drifting off into silence, leaving just the babble of the creek to accompany Choke’s frantically beating heart.

“Fuck,” Knuckle whispered, going limp against Choke, “I think I near shit myself.”

Peep joined them then. Crouched low with her hood up, she was almost invisible in the dark.

“That was close,” she said cheerfully. “Mason was way tighter on our ass than I thought he’d be.”

“Too close,” Choke said. “We almost died here tonight.”

“No doubt. But almost don’t count for shit. We made it!” Peep returned happily.

Now in thick bush, in the dark, on a narrow, rough trail that had them literally in the creek almost as much as alongside it, the squad could not manage anything more than a walk leading their mounts by hand. Even so, they pushed on for about two hours. The fear of their near miss pressed on them to put as much distance between themselves and the road as possible.

Finally, utterly exhausted from the stress and strain of everything, they reached an area that was open enough to call a halt for the night.

The next morning they grazed the horses a little before watering them in the creek. Not daring to risk a fire, their own breakfast was a few handfuls of trail mix and beef jerky that Mrs Dunn had given them.

“So, d’ye think they’ve figured out that we slipped them?” Pinch asked everyone as they saddled their horses.

“Nah. No way,” Peep answered. “They’d have kept on through the night, assuming we were doing the same. It’s just dawn now, so they’ll pick up the pace to catch up.”

“And when they don’t?” Choke asked.

“I guess they’ll think that we’re going fast. So they’ll push it hard until they get to one of them shit villages Thorn told us about. Or Bristlehump. They could make that in a couple hours.”

“Either way, they’ll figure out we slipped them and double back pretty quick,” Pinch said.

“Sure,” Peep said with a shrug. “But who cares? That’s gonna be in another hour or two, at least. Then they gotta double back and look out for every little trail and hollow. That’s a lotta road to cover. We just gotta haul ass now, that’s all.”

That was precisely what the squad did. Able to ride now, albeit at a walk, they made good time on what Thorn had been generous to call a mule trail. After an hour, they reached the spot where the creek emerged from a tight, rocky ravine that looked like a mountain canyon in miniature. The creek burbled out of that into a clear pool in which trout were rising on a morning hatch.

The trail branched east here and took them up into hilly country. At the end of a steep rise, it joined another, better trail that was running east to west along something of a ridgeline. Up here, the forest was slightly less dense and there was a pleasant breeze.

“So, this must be the Tanglefoot Trail,” Peep said with a happy sigh. “Well, Thorn might be an ornery prick, but I gotta hand it to him: he saved our asses with this one.”

“Yet again,” Choke said. “So to the west is Bristlehump, and the east is Callic. He didn’t say how far Callic is from here, did he?”

“No, he didn’t,” Pinch replied. “But I would guess just a little further than it is from Spitzer. So if this trail is all as good as this, we should be able to make the valley before dark.”

“Piece of piss!” Peep proclaimed. “Speaking of which. I gotta rip a shit. I’ll be right back.”

Peep dismounted and tossed her reins to Pinch. Then she had a quick look at the surrounding bush before ducking to head into a narrow and low gap in some spruce on the uphill side of the trail. She was gone a couple of minutes before she came back to stick her head out of the bush as she jerked her thumb back over her shoulder.

“There’s something up here ye guys should have a look at,” she said.

“Ha ha! Very funny,” Knuckle said sarcastically. “Like I’m gonna crawl up through that to go and have a look at yar shit. Good one, though.”

“Yeah, it would be, but that aint it. We got a gobo sign up here. Looks recent, too. Ye need to see this,” Peep said, switching her focus from Knuckle to Choke as she finished.

“I don’t think I can fit,” Choke said, looking at the narrow gap in the dead and brittle lower spruce branches with all their pointy little twigs. “Pinch?”

“Yeah, I’ll check it out,” Pinch sighed, handing both his and Peep’s reins to Choke.

Crawling into the scrubby brush on his hands and knees, it immediately was apparent to Pinch that he was now inside a goblin ambush blind. To the left and right was a worn-in path, basically a tunnel, through the spruce trees and thickets. Along that there would be ample room for goblins to remain hidden right alongside the trail.

“Shit,” Pinch said quietly.

“Yeah. It gets worse. Up here,” Peep said.

Walking on her hands and feet like a dog, Peep led Pinch up through another gap in the trees. To get through himself, Pinch had to crawl on his knees. On the other side, it opened up a fair bit, with just a few trees and bushes up to the top of the hill. A game, or, Pinch now realized, goblin trail went on up to the top of the hill. Peep stood up and turned around, pointing over Pinch’s shoulder as he emerged from the thicket.

“There,” she said.

On the tree Pinch had just crawled out from underneath was hung a goblin sign. At the Pekot orphanage, Pinch and the lads had been trained about them, and even shown some examples. Goblin signs were generally rudimentary and small collections of sticks, bones, teeth, and pebbles bound together by vines or sinew. The configuration of their elements were used by goblins to communicate, and could convey quite complicated messages.

The goblin sign tied to the tree in front of Peep and Pinch was more complicated than anything Pinch had ever been shown. It incorporated four thicker sticks as a foundation, with multiple smaller twigs, eight pebbles of varying sizes, and three pinecones.

Ignoring the lingering smell of Peep’s nearby dump, Pinch looked the sign over quickly before dropping into a defensive crouch with his bow at the ready, scanning the bush all around.

“I don’t think there’s any here now,” Peep said quietly. “If there was, they woulda sorted me out while I was shitting, I’m guessing.”

“Do you have any idea of what that gobo sign might mean?” Pinch asked her.

“Not a clue. I never heard of anybody that could make sense of them. Have you?”

Pinch nodded. “Yeah. The Brothers told us that there are some trackers and scouts that can understand them a little. I guess we should take it along with us, right?”

Peep thought for just a second before nodding sagely. “Yeah. I mean, even if no one can figure it out, the gobos obviously want it here, right? So fucking that up can’t be bad for us.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” Pinch agreed.

The two of them took their time taking the goblin sign off the tree, being careful to preserve its shape by cutting the tree branches is was attached to. Then they brought it out to the main trail to show Choke and Knuckle.

***

The squad were on edge for the rest of that day as they rode the Tanglefoot Trail down into the Callic valley. Every little sound and movement in the bush was a hoard of goblins to them. This turned out to be entirely a waste of energy, as they encountered nothing on the trail.

As the warm afternoon gave way to a lovely evening, the forest opened up at the crest of a hill and they were treated to a view of the Callic valley spread out beneath them. The walled village of Callic, with Father Nate’s church, was still about fifteen kilometers off, roughly at the center of the valley. Dotted here and there were little farming hamlets.

“So, what’s the plan?” Peep asked.

“I suppose we should avoid Callic village itself, so as not to trouble Father Nate with our problems,” Choke said.

“Right. And we don’t want him telling us to push off, or trying to boss us around about it,” Pinch said. “So why don’t we get down off this hill and find someplace to camp tonight? Then we can start working them hamlets.”

“Whad’ye mean by work?” Peep asked.

“We go, and you and Choke start preaching the word,” Pinch replied. “The Devil’s legions come from the south to invade the land of the righteous. Come to do their evil against Stron’s chosen. All that.”

“Fuck,” Peep muttered.

“Laying it on a bit thick with that, aren’t ye?” Knuckle asked.

“No. Not at all,” Pinch answered earnestly. “However we got mixed up with them, Murray and Lenny are evil men, not doing the world a bit of good. Parasites. And they’ve sent killers here after us over a beef that was entirely a result of their own corruption. Evil men, come to do evil. And Peep was chosen. We all saw it.”

“Yeah, but… It’s just…” Peep said with a disgusted grimace. “Fuck.”

“Listen, Peep, ye don’t have to do shit. Just show them the marks on yar hands and tell them they need to help ye keep to the shadows until it’s time to for ye to kill. That’s all. Choke’s the one that’s gonna be doing all the talking.”

“That’s right,” Choke said. “We are spreading the Word. And to that end, we shall not be taking anything more than is absolutely necessary from these people. Shelter and simple food; no more than that. Understood?”

Both Pinch and Knuckle nodded. Peep gave Choke a sour look before replying:

“What, yar not gonna make us pay them for it while we’re at it?”

“No. As with priests and monks, those who pray and those who fight for the Church and the Faith are due shelter and food from those that work. That is just and right. Anything beyond that is not. We cannot take anything more from them, and we cannot ask them to fight for us. But we do need their help.”

“And if ye could stop telling them to ‘fuck off,’ Peep, that would be great,” Pinch laughed.

“Yeah, you fuck off. I’ll do my bit. But I aint letting none of them blubber their snot on me,” Peep said.

“Fair enough.”

They rode down the hill into the valley, single file on the trail as they had been doing. Pinch rode first, with his bow at the ready. Knuckle was next, followed by Choke, who led the mule. Peep stayed in back to keep an eye out behind them.

The trail flattened out and began to leave the dense woods of the hills for the scrubby brush of the valley floor. At dusk, the squad slowed down to look out for a good place to camp.

Coming around a bend, they were started by a furious burst of barking from three large dogs that came charging up the trail at them. The dogs were big, shaggy and wild, close to wolves in size as well as energy. They came bounding up the trail, snarling and barking the whole way, and stopped a few meters short of Pinch’s horse. There, they settled into a good bark with their hackles up and teeth bared.

Relieved to see that the dogs did have collars, Pinch shouted above their din:

“Hello there! Friendly humans here! Come from Spitzer! Call off yar dogs! Hello!”

The squad sat mounted watching the dogs bark at them, while they waited to see if someone would come to handle them. Finally there was a trace of movement in the bushes to the side of the trail behind the dogs.

“Who goes there!” shouted a rough voice.

“Travelers come from Spitzer!” Pinch shouted back. “We mean no harm. Just to pass the public way. Call off yar dogs, sir!”

There was a long hesitation before a shrill whistle and barked guttural command summoned the three dogs back to the man in the bush. Once the animals had joined him and were quiet, the man stepped out onto the trail. He was dressed in loose buckskins and looked about as shaggy as his dogs. He had a mid-power hunting bow in hand with an arrow notched. On one hip was a shortsword, with a handaxe on the other.

“Step forward and be recognized, travelers,” the man called out.

Pinch raised his empty right hand and rode half the distance towards the man. Knuckle and the others followed him.

“Greetings, sir,” Pinch said as he reined up. “I am Nikolas. This is Theodas. And Bartholomew,” Pinch indicated Knuckle and Choke in turn. Then he gestured towards Peep: “And this is—”

“Otilla,” the man interrupted. “That could only be Otilla.”

“Indeed,” Pinch said. “You have heard of us, then.”

“Yeah. I aint no hermit, I’d have ye know. I do hear of some of the goings on in the world. From time to time.”

“I understood, sir.” Pinch said. “I meant no disrespect. It is just that we are not yet used to the idea of our doings being regarded as news. May I ask yar name, sir?”

The man’s bearing and tone had changed from threatening to guarded friendliness as Pinch spoke, with most of his attention being focused on Peep.

“I am Shane. I patrol the trailhead here for the Baron, with leave to hunt and trap the woods in return for the service.”

“Well met, Shane,” Pinch said. “Do you do this alone? This is a wild area, rife with goblins it seems.”

“I have a brother, such use as he is. But goblins are of no concern to me. I’ve yet to meet one to give me any trouble. I served the Baron’s father in his campaigns, ye see. As a scout and hunter. The goblins in these parts know of me, and stay clear.”

“Well, our compliments on that, sir. No small feat, I expect,” Pinch said.

Shane grunted and shook off the compliment with a scowl.

“I suppose ye’ll be wanting to rest for the night. Ye can come along and camp at my place. It aint much, but it’s safe.”

“Thank you, sir. We would be obliged,” Choke said.

Shane waved this off. “Follow me, then. And just so’s ye know, my brother is fresh back from the bush and in one of his states. But if ye can tolerate that, then yar welcome.”

With this, Shane gave his dogs a short command to follow him and led the squad to his cabin in the woods.

read part 41

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