With a general plan of action decided, if even just in the broadest of strokes, the squad prepared to head out from the village of Callic. Father Nate located the map the adventurers had made of the Old Mill. It was drawn on a roll of doeskin in simple and blocky shapes, and showed five chambers on two levels, with a long escape tunnel to the surface from one of the lower chambers.
As the squad packed up, Father Nate rang the church bell to summon the folk within earshot to the church. With about fifty in attendance, Father Nate had Peep stand with him at the pulpit, with Choke just to the side with his Holy Book.
The mass was as much an announcement as it was a sermon. Father Nate delivered the joyous news that Otilla of the Holy Fire would be staying on in the Callic valley for a time, moving through the community to spread the good word and deliver them from evil. He then began his sermon and called out chapter and verse for Choke to read from the Holy Book.
Father Nate would take time after each passage to explain its significance. The flock heard that of all the perils in the world for good Stronian folk, none could be more dangerous and terrible than the evil of worldly men come from the south to despoil. Nor should the flock be too literal in their identification of such evil. It might have been Aliquinians that Stron and his company fought and burned, and the Alquinians may have been long banished from the free lands of the Holy Stronian United Kingdoms, but their type of men exist everywhere. The very cities of the Stronian enclave are infected with their sort: corrupted men of wealth and violence who use all their means to debase and degrade everything that is good under the eyes of Altas.
However, this sermon was no call to action. Father Nate reminded his wards that within the social order there are those that work, and those that pray, and those that fight. While there certainly may come times when all must fight, it is most often enough that those that work keep to their affairs and do what they can to support those that defend them.
Father Nate made no mention of the Strana Outfit or their agent of death, Alan ‘the Chisel’ Mason. He had no need to. Arlen’s tavern would be the epicenter of all worldly news on that front. From there, word would spread as naturally as pollen on the winds. With the fertile minds of the flock prepared by the Holy Word, right action would germinate by itself.
The sermon done, Father Nate assigned the squad a youngster to go with them to serve as guide and messenger. The lad’s name was Chris. He was fifteen and attached to the Callic garrison, such as it was, under Father Nate. He came along outfitted in oversized leather armor, with a small roundshield and spear. Father Nate gave him use of one of the church’s horses.
“When ye settle into a place for a night, or two, send Chris back here to let us know,” Father Nate said to Choke as the squad mounted up to leave. “If ye stay in the valley, ye’ll not be more than a few hours ride away, wherever ye might be. So don’t hesitate to use the lad; that’s what he’s for. We’ll send him back to ye with word of what we know. When yar ready for the hornets to find ye, give us the word.”
“We will, Father. Thank you for everything,” Choke said.
“Think nothing of it, my son. It is my pleasure. Happy hunting!”
The squad rode out of Callic village with the assembled villagers cheering them on. Amia was there with her new family and leapt up and down with little Dugger in her arms as she waved excitedly to Peep.
The Old Mill was located just over an hour’s ride to the southeast, where the flat farmland of the valley gave way to the region’s typical wilderness of rocky, forested hills. Halfway there, the squad stopped at a small hamlet of half a dozen bigger farmhouses clustered together in a defensive perimeter around a central courtyard. It was late afternoon and the peasants there were hard at the toil of tilling their fields, but it seemed as good a place as any to spread the word and spend the night.
Not wanting to disturb the smallfolk at the labor, the squad dismounted in a pleasant little copse of trees nearby and killed some time by sparring. The men took turns fighting Peep to get her used to fighting with her new shield-ring. Then Choke and Pinch took turns training the lad Chris while Knuckle and Peep had a snooze.
By early evening, the worried peasants had figured out who the squad were and invited them into the hamlet for the night, proud to serve host to Otilla of the Holy Fire and her men. Everyone in the hamlet gathered together in the courtyard to hear Choke read the very same passages that Father Nate had chosen for his sermon earlier that day. Then they all had a hearty feed and turned in. The farm buildings were all essentially barns on the first floor for livestock, with living quarters above. There was plenty of room for the squad and their mounts.
The next morning, over a good breakfast laid out in the courtyard, the hamlet’s headman dared to inquire as to the squad’s plans.
“Well, sir,” Choke answered. “We thought that we might explore the Old Mill. We have heard that there might be some evil there worthy of being killed. What do you know of it?”
The headman and the other peasants in attendance all quaked in fear at mention of the place.
“Oh, it’s an evil place indeed! And I’d beg ye to reconsider!” the headman said to Otilla.
“It’ll be okay. We’re just gonna check it out,” Peep said. “So, whad’ye know about it?”
“Just that no one who goes up there ever comes back! And, Unger says that there’s never any game to be had from the bush around it, no matter how big or small. It’s just as though the place swallows up all living things!”
“Okay, now,” Pinch said. “You say, sir, that no one ever comes back from the Old Mill. When was the last time anyone went up there?”
“Well, I don’t know. I can’t remember a time anyone ever did.”
“Okay, so that’s fuck-all, then. Just peasant bullshit,” Knuckle said.
The headman gave him a dirty look, but held his peace.
“Pardon my friend, sir,” Pinch said “He can’t help it, on account of being an asshole. Please tell us, who’s this Unger?”
“He’s a yeoman who has a spread up that way. He and his work their plot and have leave to hunt the woods,” the headman said.
“Where’s his place, sir?” Choke asked
“Up that way, like I said. Ye just follow the track southeast and ye’ll find it.”
The squad thanked the headman and other peasants for the information and their hospitality. Then they struck out down the track he had indicated, which kept alongside a pleasant little brook for much of their ride. They reached the Unger farmstead in under twenty minutes.
The main farmhouse presented itself almost like a small fort. Its first story had no windows and was stone: formed of large, smooth-quarried stones set perfectly together without mortar. The tall second story was made of stout wood planks and had shuttered windows with cross slits for shooting a bow from. Enclosing the farm compound in a big oval, a two-meter stone wall connected to the outer face of the farmhouse. The stonework of the wall was almost as fine as that of the house. There were two sturdy wooden gates in the wall, one of which was open. As the squad approached, a pack of big hunting dogs came out of the open gate to bark ferociously at them.
Choke and the others reined up ten meters back from the gate and waited for someone to come and greet them. Within a few seconds a robust lad of about ten scrambled up to the top of the wall near the gate. He squatted up there with a big grin and a loaded sling in hand.
“Daaa!” he yelled. “It’s warriors, Da!”
“Greetings, lad! We mean ye no harm. We come as friends!” Pinch raised his right palm and pitched his voice loud so that anyone in the compound might hear him as well.
“Daaaaaa! They mean no harm! They come as friends! Daaaa! Hurry up!” the boy screamed above the racket of the baying hounds.
It took just a minute for a man to come to the gate to call off the dogs and greet the visitors. He was a big, hardy man with a handsome beard and the look of a wilderness scout. He had a full-powered longbow in hand with an armor-piercing, needle-bodkin war arrow notched and held in place. A quiver was slung over his shoulder, and a big buck knife rode the small of his back.
The first man was soon joined by another who was also armed with a longbow. They both took a position next to the gate beams, ready to step back and use them for cover.
“Greetings,” the first man said, once the dogs had been summoned back within the compound. “I am Unger. Owner of this land and steward to the woods here for the Baron. Who are ye?”
“We come up from Spitzer, by way of Callic village yesterday,” Pinch began.
“That’s Benny’s lad, Chris, with them there, Unger,” the other man interjected, nodding to Father Nate’s boy who rode with the squad.
“Oh. So it is!” Unger said, his bearing and stance relaxing immediately.
“Indeed,” Pinch said. “We have a mind to see what we might be able to do about the evil afoot at the Old Mill, and Father Nate was good enough to lend us Chris as a messenger. I, sir, am Nikolas. This is Theodas. And this is our leader, Bartholomew. The three of us are recent graduates of the Brothers of the Holy Stone’s Pekot school. And this is Otilla, who ye may have heard of,” Pinch stepped his horse to the side as he introduced Peep with a slight suggestion of a bow her way.
“Oh! Really? This is so?” Unger asked Chris, who nodded vigorously.
“Well, then, ye’d best all come in. Come in! Come in!” Unger and his man stepped clear of the gate and gestured for the squad to enter. Then Unger turned to bellow back into the farm compound:
“Hey everyone! It’s okay! It’s Otilla of the Holy Fire and her men! They’ve come to clean out the Old Mill! Come on!”
Now inside the compound, the squad saw it was a fine one indeed. At spots around the inside of the wall about every ten meters, there were wooden steps up to small platforms that would allow an archer a shooting spot from cover. Besides the farmhouse with its first-floor barn space, there was a long, low building with wide doors across the yard. This had an awning overtop an outside workbench with an excellent collection of tools. There was even a small forge there. In the workspace were many bows and arrows in various stages of completion.
The Unger farmstead consisted of two extended families. The yeoman Unger and his wife, Nimara, had three children. The wall clambering lad, Jagg, was their eldest. Unger’s man, Aaron, was a landless yeoman himself, and he and his wife, Janice, worked for the Ungers along with their two young children. Aaron’s father, Munn, was a bowyer and fletcher, and lived with them as well.
The farmstead had a few smaller fields around it, which had already been planted. However, it was immediately apparent that the primary source of the tiny community’s livelihood came from their livestock and the forest. They had pigs and goats, which they would forage in the woods, as well as geese, that also served as source for the fletching feathers Munn used to craft his arrows.
Munn’s trade of bow and arrow making would send him and Aaron into the woods for trees for his materials. They would trade the wood scraps and extras as building materials or fuel in the village. Since it took one full-grown yew tree to make a single full-powered longbow, there was always plenty of extra wood. As well, Unger, Aaron, and the lad Jagg would hunt in the woods for extra meat during the regular patrols for the Baron that earned them this right to exploit his forest.
This information was all communicated to the squad in a disorganized babble as the excited folk threw together a fine lunch spread for their honored guests. Choke and the others let them talk as they relaxed in comfortable wooden chairs in the shade and enjoyed the cool ale that Nimara served them from her cellar.
Eventually, the topic of conversation turned to the squad’s stated reason for coming to the area.
“So the Old Mill, then. What’s the story there? Is it truly the evil place that everyone claims it to be?” Pinch asked Unger.
“Oh, indeed it is,” Unger said fearfully as he traced the Wheel over his breast as a ward. “We don’t go anywhere near that place!”
“Where is it, exactly?”
“Just up yonder where the crick comes outta the bush, there’s the old Dwarf trailhead marker. Then the Mill’s up into the bush about four hundred meters, about halfways up that hill.”
“I guess that dip in the hill is where the trail passes,” Pinch said, pointing up at it.
“Aye. That used to be a good trail up and over to the Didsbury valley. But it’s all too much bushwhacking on this side now, so not too many folks come on through this way. We keep something of a trail open around the Mill, such as we can. Mostly just for our own use,” Unger said.
“I see. How far away is Didsbury from here?” Choke asked.
“Oh, a good ten-hour hike on foot through hilly bush the whole way. Trail’s so rough these days, I don’t suppose riding it would be that much faster,” answered Unger.
“And we heard you can’t even see any game around the tower. Is that true?” Pinch asked.
“Aye, that it is. No use even trying to hunt near there. Once ye get around it, up to the top of the hill it shapes up again. But on this side? Nothing comes through. And let me tell ye: any of our animals that wander in there don’t come back. The bush just swallows them up.”
“Well, sir, it sounds to me that whatever has set itself up in there has made itself a right inconvenience for you all!” Pinch said with spirit.
“Aye, ye have that right. But I wouldn’t ask ye to go in there and sort it out for us. I wouldn’t feel right doing that. I think ye should just leave it be, if ye want my honest opinion,” Unger said earnestly. His folk around him all agreed in animated fashion.
“Well, I understand your caution. Clearly it is well founded,” Choke said. “But I think it is our Stronian duty to at least check it out. Don’t worry, we shall take care.”
“Well, ye all clearly know yar own minds, so I won’t try to stop ye,” Unger said. “But, and I am very sorry to say it, for it shames me to show myself to be such a coward: but I can’t came along with ye on that. My people here need me, and I can’t go kicking at trouble that hasn’t reared up on us first.”
“Of course, sir. We quite understand,” Choke said. “All we ask is a safe place to spend the night. Then tomorrow we shall go up the old trail to see what we can see. With all due caution, of course.”
When lunch was all finished, Choke dispatched their lad Chris to ride back to Callic village (which the Ungers referred to as “town”). He was to report their plan to Father Nate and return the next day with whatever news might be had. The squad then got out of their armor and spent the afternoon checking their equipment carefully, oiling this and honing that.
While they were at it, the bowyer Munn wandered over from his workstation to look at their bows.
“Crossbows!” he said with heavy disdain as he beheld Choke and Knuckle’s weapons. “It’s a crying shame to see fine warriors of the faith such as yarselves making use of this trash!”
“Trash?” Knuckle laughed back. “Hey, old man, these’ll get the job done!”
“Them weak-ass one-shooters? Ha! Maybe at point blank range against anybody that aint mailed. And maybe ye hit him. And maybe ye don’t. Either way, then what? By the time yar reloaded, a man with a proper bow at three times the range will send five arrows yar way that’ll punch right through that mail of yars. Nah! Ye need proper bows, laddos!”
“That may be true, sir,” Choke said cheerfully. “But we are not trained archers, remember. We have not been raised to it. Crossbows, as inferior to your bows as they might be, at least allow us to be something of a threat at range.”
“So, what? Ye can’t learn? Yar heads are just blocks of wood up on yar shoulders to serve as a target? Ye should get yarselves a real bow and start learning it! Smarten up!” Munn hollered.
“And I’ll bet ye know just the man to sell it to them, don’t ye?” Pinch laughed.
“Aye, that I do! That I do. Let’s see what yar slinging there, lad,” Munn said as he moved over to Pinch’s kit and picked up his bow.
The weapon was the mid-powered hunting bow that Thorn had sold to him after killing its previous owner with an arrow through the back.
“Not bad. Not bad. It’ll do,” Munn muttered to himself as he pulled it taut a few times. “Good enough for hunting the thickets or creep jobs, but ye aint gonna be getting through no mail with that, no how.”
“I know it, sir,” Pinch said. “But stealth and movement are more my thing. And I don’t think I have the strength for anything real heavy.”
“Oh, balls ye don’t! Some of the strongest cats I know are littler than you! Ye just gotta train up to it on something the right size for ye.”
“That may be. But, for the time being, I think I’ll stick with what I have,” Pinch said, taking his bow back from Munn.
“Suit yarself,” Munn said. He then turned to Peep and his overbearing posture changed immediately. If he had been wearing a cap, there’s no doubt he would have pulled if off to speak to her with it in both hands.
“Miss Otilla. May I see yar bow?” he asked.
“Yeah, fill yar boots, man,” Peep said with a grin as she handed her bow over. “And don’t go calling me Miss nothing. My friends call me, Peep.”
Munn goggled at her as though he were about to die of stroke. When he finally noticed Peep’s bow in his hands, he was able to distract himself with it. Beholding the weapon she had been using, Munn regained much of his previous vigor.
“What the hell kinda squirrel shooter is this? This aint right! We can’t have ye heading out into peril with the likes of this!”
“What, ye got something better?” Peep asked with her cheeky grin.
“Do I got something better?” Munn stammered, almost stricken breathless by the deep cut. “I will tell ye this, Miss Otilla: Ye aint leaving here without one of my best! Come on!”
Munn gestured for Peep to follow him to the long building. She, Choke, Knuckle, and Pinch all did so. Inside was another workspace with benches and a stone area with a hole in the wall for the forge. There were no tools here, though, and the forge had been moved outside, so the space was obviously where Munn worked in the winter. Bales of arrows were stacked under the benches. One half of the building was given over to the storage and curing of wood logs and limbs of all sizes to be turned into bows and arrows. Finally, down one wall was a rack with bows of all different lengths and girths, all carved from single pieces of wood and tipped with antler. They were beautiful.
Munn dismissively threw Peep’s shortbow down on a workbench and went to the bow rack. He took down a thick longbow and strung the weapon easily.
“Here, give me a pull on this,” Munn said to Peep as he handed her the weapon.
“I don’t want a longbow, man.”
“I know it. I wanna see what kinda pull ye can give her, is all.”
The bow was quite a bit taller than she was, but Peep set her stance with an upward aim to keep its lower tip almost touching the floor. She pulled the bow string back as far as she could a few times.
“Good! Now ye boys,” Munn directed
The lads all pulled the bow in turn.
“Yeah! See!” Munn laughed as Pinch took his turn. “She’s near half yar size and she did a better job of it than ye did. And she’s got better form than all of ye put together! Strong ye are, Otilla. Strong. Touched by the hand of Stron, indeed.”
“Woah, wait a minute here, Munn,” Pinch said. “What’s wrong with my form? I’m a good shot!”
“Being able to hit what yar aiming at with that light bow ye’ve been using don’t mean yar a good shot. Yar form is sloppy. Let me show ye. Here,” Munn said, picking up Peep’s shortbow off the bench and handing it to Pinch. Then he gestured out the big open door to the farmyard outside where a number of chickens and geese were going about their business:
“Give us a few empty shots at them chickens and geese out there. Pull and shoot as if ye had arrows, as quick as ye can.”
Pinch sighed, but did as directed. He squared up in his normal shooting crouch with the bow angled off the vertical and thrummed the string quickly four times at each of the geese he could see.
“Yeah. It’s like I thought,” Munn said with a smug look. “Fast and sloppy. Yar probably used to holding yar extra arrows in yar left, along with the bow, right?”
“Yeah, so? What’s wrong with that? It’s fast!”
“Yeah. Like I said, fast and sloppy. There’s no way ye can do that with a full-powered bow.”
“So what? I’m not using a full-powered bow,” Pinch said.
“Yeah, okay. And what’ve ye been fighting since ye left that school of yars? Ye been in any real shit yet?”
“Just some goblins and then the bandits up at Splitrock, but what does that have to do with anything?” Pinch asked defensively.
“Everything, is what. Ye can get away with that sorta sloppy shit when yar fighting gobos. They’re unarmored and yar almost always fighting them right in close. But when ye run into some real trouble, properly armored men-at-arms, that weak shit aint gonna be of any use to ye. And worse yet, thinking it might will put ye in a position to get ye killed.”
“Uh-huh,” Pinch said, rolling his eyes.
“Oh, ye think ye know, do ye?” Munn barked, giving Pinch a hard poke on the arm. “That bow yar using aint gonna get through mail, is it? So to drop a mailed man, ye gotta hit him in the face or neck. Right? And it don’t matter how many arrows ye can shoot if ye can’t hit the target. With yar sloppy technique, yar gonna need to be up fucking close to do anything. And then someone with a crossbow or bow of their own is gonna put ye down. That’s it.”
This shut Pinch up. After a moment, he sucked up his pride and asked:
“So what’s wrong with my technique then, sir?”
“Here, give me that bow and I’ll show ye. See, what yar doing to aim is all arm and shoulder, right? Yar moving yar arm at the shoulder to aim, and even a little in the wrist and elbow. That’s only something ye can get away with with a weak-ass bow. Even that hunting bow ye got now aint gonna tolerate it. Ye try that shit, yar gonna get a wobble in yar draw. And then ye miss. Ye haven’t been using that hunting bow long, have ye?” Munn asked shrewdly.
“No, sir. I haven’t,” Pinch admitted.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Because ye wouldn’t be hitting much with it with that weak technique. What ye need to be doing is keeping yar arms and shoulders in the same alignment every single time. Every pull is the same. Always lined up the same. That consistency is what gives ye accuracy. Then ye aim from yar hips. Ye keep yar upper body set and pivot from the hips to aim the shot, right?” Munn said, demonstrating, squaring up with the bow with his arms, head, and shoulders set like a statue as he moved his aim from his core.
“Okay, I see. That’s something I’m going to need to practice, I guess.”
“No shit. Them Holy Stoners aint into archery, obviously, if they let ye graduate with yar weak shit.”
“Well, you have that right, sir,” Choke chuckled. “I don’t suppose you’ve spent any time in the military yourself, have you?”
“Yeah. I’ve served. In my last run I was a sergeant of archers for the Baron. Our present Baron’s father, that is,” Munn said proudly.
“Yes, that is obvious, sir. Well I’m sure we would all be grateful for whatever you could teach us today,” Choke said.
“Right. Well, let’s see about you two big lugs, now,” Munn said to Choke and Knuckle.
With everyone’s strength having already been gauged on the big longbow, Munn pulled down different bows for them and had them try them out.
“Now then, ye big lug,” he said as he handed Knuckle a bow quite a bit lighter than the first. “Yar massive, sure, and I’ve no doubt yar an able hand when it comes to smashing folks and lifting heavy shit. But pulling a bow is a whole different kinda thing, right. Ye gotta be lined up perfect the whole way through the pull, like I been saying, and release it all straight and true. And yar form is terrible.”
“Yeah, yeah. Listen guy, I aint looking to get a longbow. So ye can just—” Knuckle started.
“Balls ye aint!” Munn barked. “Yar one of Otilla’s men, ye are! And I will not see ye heading out from here improperly outfitted. Is that clear, man?”
“Is this guy for real?” Knuckle laughed, looking over at Choke.
“I think so. It seems like we are shopping for bows now, whether we wanted to or not,” Choke said to Knuckle. Then he turned to Munn: “To be clear, sir. We will be paying you for whatever we take.”
“What? Well of course ye are! Ye think I’m some kinda simp? Gonna let my hard work go outta here unpaid for when ye lot have coin money from bounties burning holes in yar pouches? Come on!”
With Choke and Knuckle sorted out with proper longbows, Munn set about finding something for Peep.
“Now, I’m sorry to say, Miss Otilla, that I don’t have the perfect weapon for ye right now. Yar gonna want something small, right?”
“Yeah, for sure. I like to get in close,” Peep said.
Munn nodded. “The trouble is, yar small but really strong and have good technique. So with yar size and style of fighting, yar gonna want a small but powerful shortbow. But anything I’ve got is gonna be underpowered for ye. So what I’m gonna do is lend ye something to use for now. It’ll be better than what ye’ve been using. Then, I’m gonna get onto making ye something bespoke right away.”
“I’m sure we appreciate that, sir, but—” Choke began.
“Thank you. That’s awesome!” Peep interrupted.
Munn found Peep the strongest shortbow that he had. Then he took them all out of the compound to the archery range. This was set up along a track between two of the farmstead’s fields. With their backs up against the compound’s stone wall, they had a straight shot downrange to multiple targets. There were targets set up at twenty, fifty, and one hundred meters. At each station there were two bound straw targets set up on wooden stands: one roughly the size of a man’s torso, and another smaller one at goblin height.
“This bow seems a little light for me,” whined Knuckle as he did a few practice pulls.
“No, it aint. Yar gonna be pulling this again and again and again and again. And ye don’t want it to be any kinda strain for ye when yar doing it. Once ye got yar form down, then ye can power up.”
Munn spent most of the afternoon working with everyone while the other folk of the Unger farmstead went about their regular chores. By evening, everyone in the squad besides Peep were all tired with very sore fingers, but their archery had improved. Knuckle was certainly not complaining about his bow’s light pull any more.
That evening before dinner, Choke and Peep gave the Ungers their reading of the Holy Books, along with a viewing of Stron’s marks upon Peep’s flesh. It made as strong an impression as it did everywhere else. Then they all turned in early to get a good night’s rest before the dangerous day ahead.