Choke found Knuckle at the archery range outside the Unger farmstead. He was working with the ex-sergeant of archers, Munn. Choke put his armor and crossbow away in the farm compound and came back out with his new longbow and quiver to join in.
The training was productive, and both Knuckle and Choke made good progress. They spoke little, with Munn talking only to offer quick tips or correct little faults of form. The afternoon was sunny and warm, and it was a relaxing time that went a long way to settling Choke down after his unsettling and terrifying morning. As to how Knuckle was feeling about his (perhaps more serious) ordeals, there was no way to tell. At least he seemed calm.
“Okay, lads, I think ye’ve got the basics now,” Munn said after about an hour. “Just keep sending lumber downrange and ye’ll get there. I’m gonna go and get to work on Otilla’s bow, now. Alright?”
“Thank you, sir. This has been excellent,” Choke said.
Knuckle grunted and nodded.
“I’ll come in with you, sir. I could use a drink of water,” Choke said. He turned back to Knuckle: “Do you want anything?”
“Yeah. I guess some water. Thanks. I’m gonna keep at it out here.”
“Good man!” Munn gave Knuckle a stout thump on the shoulder.
Instead of heading to the well, however, Choke followed Munn to his outdoor workshop.
“Pardon me, sir. But I wondered if I could talk to you about a matter of some discretion,” Choke said.
Munn gave him a bemused look. “Well, I don’t reckon I could stop ye. I’m gonna work on Otilla’s bow while ye do, though.”
“That’s fine. Thank you.”
Munn sat down and got to work on the stout shortbow he was making for Peep. He had roughed out a basic shape for it from a thicker log. This meant the central part of the bow was made from the tree’s denser core wood, while the ends were of the lighter, and thus springier, external wood. This would give the bow a more fluid draw: its real power coming from its core, with the ends giving the release a good snap.
Choke leaned against the workbench and took his time trying to breach his topic. Finally, he gave up on any kind of introduction or subtlety:
“About the Widow Perkins,” he blurted out.
“Ah. That gash, huh?” Munn said. The old campaigner stopped his work and stared off into space for a spell. A spectrum of expressions crossed his features in quick succession.
“Umm… what’s her story?” Choke asked.
“Well, she’s a widow. Obviously. Her man, Sandy Perkins was a yeoman archer like us here. I served with him, here or there, but he was more tied up with Sir Cunty McCunterson.”
“Oh. That was just our name for Sir Cunnik. On account of his name, and him being a real cunt and all. I was with the Baron more. But, Sandy was solid. No doubt about that.”
“And his widow” Choke pressed.
“Well, barren, as I’m guessing she told ye. But Sandy stood by her. He got killed, fighting orcs, I believe. About twenty years ago, I reckon. Left her with a nice little situation, though. She owns her little cottage up by the Twin Forks. Also a bit of land. Got a few peasants working it for her.”
“And she never thought to remarry?”
Munn winced. “Well, it weren’t for lack of offers, that’s for sure. I made one myself. After Aaron’s mom passed giving birth to his sister, who Altas also took, bless his mercy. I guess it was no secret that I was one of the fellers around that Mrs Perkins gave some relief to, on occasion. Both before and after her husband’s passing, by the way. Not that I’m proud of that, but just so’s ye know. So, anyways, I thought I had a decent shot at landing her when Sandy was killed. But, she’s turned all away.”
“Why do you suppose that is?” Choke asked.
“Well, why would she take someone on? She’s got a nice setup, don’t she? She gets married and all that property becomes her husband’s, right? And maybe he don’t take kindly to her wanting to be the valley pump. She aint dumb. She knows what she’s got. Man, but it’s been a while since I had me some of her. Shit. Does she still do that thing with her… No. Sorry. I know she must still be pretty fresh on ye. Ye don’t wanna hear me go on about my times with her,” Munn said, giving his head a shake to clear it.
“No. It’s alright. I’m just… I don’t know. So, I guess she’s…” Choke drifted off.
“A horny old slut, is what she is. And bless her for it. She blessed you with it, didn’t she? Fuck it, lad, take it and run with it. Just don’t get to thinking that yar gonna be the one to tame her. Cause, ye aint.”
“No, it’s not that. It’s just I’m not sure how it happened and what I should do about it.”
“She went ahead and took ye when yar guard was down, is how it happened, boy. Like a hunter from a blind. It weren’t ever up to you. And there aint nothing to do about it, unless ye wanna go sniffing around to try to get another session off her. And I would totally do that, if I were you. She might be getting a little long in the tooth, but man, can she ever fuck. Trust me on that, boy. Ye might not be experienced enough yet to know just what a treat ye’ve been given. But take it from me: she is one hell of a ride. Skilled pussy like that don’t come around but once or twice in a man’s life, let me tell ye.”
“Okay, then. That’s enough. Thank you, sir,” Choke said, rubbing both his cheeks with a stunned expression.
“Yeah, no problem, lad. Man,” Munn laughed with a wistful grin. “Aiya Perkins. What a fuckin piece of ass. Shit!”
Choke left Munn to his work and horny recollections and went to get the water from the well.
The rest of that day was wasted as everyone recovered in their own way from the whoop-up. Then, the next morning it was time to get back to work.
It was assumed on the Unger farmstead that Father Nate would be sending word to the Baron of the Old Mill’s cleansing. Over breakfast, Unger and his wife, Nimara, Aaron and his wife, Janice, and Munn had an in-depth conversation over what the implications of that would be. It was decided, by Nimara, mostly, that the Baron would surely send someone to assess the viability of the tower. With this being so, they ought to begin working to improve the site, in order to increase whatever chances they had of taking it on long term themselves. The most obvious thing to do, then, was to properly clear the original Didsbury trailhead, which ran from their property right through the Old Mill clearing.
“Okay, that all sounds great,” Peep interjected. “But there’s still the rooms underneath it to check out. And once they’re clear, we’re gonna wanna set up in there for when the Chisel comes a calling.”
“Well, that’s fine,” Nimara said. “I don’t mind if ye do. And ye clearing out the downstairs would be well appreciated, I’m sure. Can’t have our little ones running around there with Stron only know what lurking in the depths.”
Choke held up his palm. “I’m quite sure there isn’t any terrible horror lurking down there from the Dwarves’ time. But we need to clear it to make sure, all the same. With all caution. Do we all think that’s something we can manage today?” he asked his squad.
Peep gave him a cheerful thumbs up. Knuckle closed his eyes and took a deep breath before nodding steadily. Pinch looked like he might throw up and did not say anything. Choke chose to take his silence as agreement.
After breakfast, the squad kitted themselves up, this time for a subterranean adventure. They had the oil lantern and torches from the Spitzer general store. Along with these, they brought two big coils of rope, and some longer sticks for poking the floor and whatnot, as well as digging through detritus.
The Unger farmstead men decided they would begin their tree clearing exercise at the tower, so that they would be around to lend a hand if anything happened. Once they had their weapons and forestry tools ready to go, the expedition set out.
Of course, it had been over a century since the Didsbury Trail from the Dwarven Old Mill monolith marker had been used. In that time, the forest had almost completely claimed it. Dwarves being Dwarves, they had actually cobbled the trail to their tower as a sort of welcoming lane to encourage the trade of humans bringing their grain to be milled. The cobbles had been churned up by tree roots over the years, but still served to indicate the way through the tight underbrush.
“This is gonna be a fuckin nightmare to clear. And not a stick of decent wood to be had either. All trash!” Munn griped. “That wife of yars, Unger, sure doesn’t hesitate to plot a course when it’s our sweat and toil that’ll see it done.”
“No, she surely doesn’t at that,” Unger chuckled. “But, if we get this trail open, might be the Baron gives us the trailhead to mind, and use of the tower to do it. Maybe even the means to garrison it. Ye never know.”
“Bullshit he will! There aint no credible threat up in here to warrant that. If he’s gonna beef things up anywhere, it’ll be over at the Tanglefoot,” Munn said.
“That may be. But maybe if we get this trail set up nice, he’ll levy a toll on it. Taking care of that would be a nice little extra. It’s worth a try, anyways,” Unger finished.
They pushed on through the bush to the tower. It was only about half a kilometer, but it took them a while with the bush being so tight. The tower clearing had all been cleaned up from the party, with the trampled down grass and the cookfire ring being the only sign of it.
The fire had done a marvelous job of cleaning out the tower. It was still uncomfortably warm inside, but not so bad that they were unable to stand around in the ankle-deep ash and gape at it. The fire had been so hot it had completely consumed everything in the tower. All the remnants of flooring that had been clinging to the walls were gone, along with the ettercap’s web at the top. Indeed, there was not even soot marks on the wall until about halfway up.
“Well, that did the trick!” Peep said cheerfully.
“That it did. Praise Stron!” Unger said.
“Praise Stron!” everyone else seconded.
With the ettercap’s garbage tip being incinerated, it was now easy to find the previously secret door to the underground complex. It seemed that originally, a large slab of the stone flooring had been engineered to tip up like a trapdoor. The slab had been shattered long ago, leaving an open portal to a steeply descending staircase.
As well, in the center of the chamber they could now see the original millstone, tipped over out of its groove. However, there was nothing else there to give any indication of how it had been operated.
“Huh,” Pinch said, finally pulling himself out of the horrors of his mind. “How d’ye think they worked that?” he asked, gesturing with his stick at the big millstone.
“Who gives a fuck?” Peep asked cheerfully.
“Well, this weren’t a windmill,” Unger said, ignoring Peep with a pained look. “And they didn’t have a watermill, neither. Probably had an ox team going in here. It’s big enough,”
“That’s quite possible,” Choke agreed. “Or, they might have used a golem. Like they do in the river barges. Remember in Strana on the Olga river?” he asked Pinch and Knuckle.
“What’s that?” Unger said.
Choke and Pinch went on to explain how the Dwarven barges used iron golems, two- and three-meter-tall humanoid automatons, inside big paddlewheels to power their river barges. This created quite a bit of interest among the yokels. Even Peep could not feign disinterest.
“Well, wouldn’t that be a wonder to see!” Unger said, shaking his head.
With that, the work of the day could not be put off any longer. Unger, Aaron, and Munn went outside to start clearing the trail. The squad stepped back outside to light their lamp and torches before descending into the Dwarven underground.
The underground staircase descended in a comfortable spiral. It being made by and for Dwarves, it was slightly more cramped than the humans would have preferred, keeping squared dimensions of a meter-and-a-half tall and wide.
With Pinch having suffered getting caught in the monstrous spiders’ web, and Peep having the only reliable means of detecting the webs with her forceshield, there was no question of who would be working point. Peep started down the stairs with her forceshield held high and the lantern in the same hand. Pinch followed with his bow. Choke was next with his shield and spear at the ready. Knuckle took up the rear with a lit torch in one hand and a loaded crossbow in the other.
When he entered the staircase, Knuckle cracked his head on the ceiling. He was, of course, wearing his helmet, but the blow still hurt.
“Fuckin Dwarves,” he muttered as Peep stifled a giggle out in front.
At the bottom of the stairs, it opened up into a larger chamber about ten meters a side. Thankfully, the ceiling here was two-and-a-half meters high; a bit claustrophobic by human standards, but not punishing. The chamber was empty and had two exits precisely where Father Nate’s map had indicated they would be.
Moving cautiously and slowly and tapping with their sticks before they went anywhere, the squad went through the complex. There was nothing to be found. Whatever purpose it had served the Dwarves, they had thoroughly cleaned it out before leaving.
At the base of the complex was a mine shaft: just an open pit in the floor of a smaller room. There were three bigger steel rings bolted into the ceiling above the pit which must have served to moor whatever elevator contraption the Dwarven miners had contrived. Peep dropped a stone down the pit. It fell just a couple of seconds before it clattered a bit. Then all was silent again.
“Not too deep, I guess,” Peep said, sounding disappointed.
“I suppose it’s as Father Nate said. The stumps couldn’t find enough metal to make a go of this place and so they just shut it down,” said Pinch.
“Well, that’s a relief, anyway,” Choke said.
“So, d’ye wanna rig up the ropes and head down there to check it out properly?” Peep asked. “It’s got them rings right up there, so it shouldn’t be too hard.”
Choke looked pained as he thought it over. “I don’t know,” he finally said.
“Joint aint clear until we’ve peeked in every corner,” Peep reminded him.
“I suppose that’s so. But I don’t have the sense that there’s going to be anything down there,” Choke said.
“And what if there is?” Pinch interjected. “We can only go down one at a time. Whoever goes first is gonna be all by themselves down there.”
They all stared down into the black pit as they contemplated it. Peep was the only one who did not seem frightened at the prospect.
“What does the map say?” Pinch asked.
Choke unrolled it and held the map under the lantern light.
“Nothing, really. It’s just this little square with a black circle in the middle. So the square’s the room, and the circle’s the pit. They didn’t map what’s down there,” Choke said.
“So let’s go explore it then!” Peep said excitedly. “I’ll go first, if ye big strong men are too scared.”
“It’s not about that, Peep,” Choke said irritably. “Our goal here is not exploration. It’s clearing the place of threats.”
“What’s the difference?” asked Peep.
“Look. Father Nate said the adventurers that took out the druid cleared the place, right?” Pinch said.
“So, they cleared it, and mapped it, and didn’t bother to map whatever mine is down there. So it stands to reason that whatever is down there wasn’t worth the bother of mapping. Which means it can’t be a threat, and is not gonna be worth exploring. Right?” Pinch said reasonably.
“Yeah, that all makes sense, Pinch. Unless them guys were also scared little bitches and just decided to say, ‘fuck it,’” Peep said, staring Pinch hard in the eye as she did.
“Are ye calling me a scared bitch?” Pinch flared.
“I dunno. Am I?” Peep returned.
“Fuck ye both!” Knuckle shouted. “If it’ll shut ye the fuck up, I’ll go down first!”
“Shut up! All of ye!” Choke bellowed. “Enough! No one is going down that fucking hole unless I tell them to! Clear? And it has nothing to do with courage. Understood?”
“Yeah, sure thing, boss,” Peep said, snapping off a shitty salute at Choke.
“Enough, I said!” Choke barked, taking a step towards Peep as he glared down at her.
She met his eye squarely, but chose not to add any more fuel to the fire.
After long moment of silence, Choke was calm enough to continue:
“Okay. What do you think? Do we push on, or agree with the previous adventurers and leave it as is? Knuckle? What do you think?”
“I dunno. I’ll do whatever ye say, Choke.”
“Thank you. Peep?”
“What, is this a vote?” Peep asked.
“No. But I want everyone to have a say before I make my decision. Is that alright with you?”
“Sure. I think we should head down there and do the job properly,” Peep said calmly.
“Thank you. Pinch?” Choke asked.
Pinch took a long moment to glare at Peep before he answered:
“We should head down and see what’s there.”
“Okay. Thank you,” Choke said. He rolled up the map and put it away. “We’re not going down. Let’s check out the escape tunnel.”
“Really,” Peep said.
“Yes, Peep. Really. Pinch was right: with the previous adventurers coming through here, the mine is probably nothing. But if they skipped it and there is something bad down there, think about it for a second. That thing has been sitting down there for at least a century without bothering anybody. Remember what Unger said about this place? He wasn’t about to kick up trouble with anything that wasn’t making itself a problem. That seems sound reasoning to me. We’ll let him know that we didn’t clear the mine, and if that’s a problem for him, he can do it, or they can put a lid on the hole and pile a bunch of rocks on it. It’s their call. As it is, this place will serve us just fine. Remember, we have more pressing matters at hand. Right? We can’t afford to risk losing or injuring someone with the Chisel bearing down on us. So that’s that.”
“Alrighty, then. Yar the boss,” Peep said.
The squad proceeded to the escape tunnel. They had located it earlier, but had decided to save exploring that for last. As with the entrance to the complex up top, the escape tunnel had been hidden behind a secret door. Like the one above, the stone of the door had been shattered.
“How do we know there aint other secret doors that no one ever found?” Peep asked as they looked over the heap of rubble that had once been the door.
“I suppose we don’t. But it’s not like we’re going to find them when everyone else failed to,” Choke answered.
“Damn. So there could be a room down here just filled up with gold,” Peep said, her voice distant.
“Right. Because that’s what the Dwarves are gonna do. Abandon a bunch of gold for no reason for humans to find. Brilliant,” Pinch snarked.
“Yeah, fuck you,” Peep returned, without much heat.
Like the staircase down, the escape tunnel was tight. It was square at a meter and a half a side. It ran a couple of hundred meters at a comfortable upwards grade. As they neared the surface, they caught a fresh breeze, and soon afterwards could make out daylight. The tunnel ended with another shattered secret door which opened up into a natural-looking little cave. During the Holy Fire Cleansing whoop-up this had been found by Father Nate when they were tracking down the source of the howling noise which turned out to be the fire drawing air through the tunnel.
“Well, that’s that, then,” Peep said, looking disappointed.
“Yeah,” Pinch said, looking relieved. Then he turned his attention to the smashed stone that had once been the secret door. “Man! Whoever cracked this place sure didn’t fuck around, did they?”
Choke bent down to pick up a piece of the broken stone. “I suppose they wanted to make sure anyone who took it over couldn’t secure it too well.”
“Well, it’ll work just fine for us, right?” Peep said, getting excited again. “All we need to do is hire the Ungers, or whoever, to stick a good door in the tower, and we got a fort! When the Chisel starts sniffing around in the valley, we clip a couple of his guys, get them chasing us, and lead them up here. When they run us down to the tower and think they got us holed up, we can slip out from here and fuckin hit em from behind. Beauty!”
“Yeah. That’ll work,” Pinch conceded. Choke and Knuckle nodded.
“D’ye think we should set up a place for the horses here?” Choke asked.
Peep thought about that and then winced.
“Not a bad idea, I suppose. But if we wanna use this to jack them, we gotta be careful about creating tracks around it. They’re gonna have trackers. And good ones,” she said.
“It bears thinking about anyway. But that’s a good point about the tracks. I think Knuckle and I should avoid going in and out of here. Peep, you and Pinch should take some time this afternoon to check the terrain out around here. Figure out our angles on a sally attack. Also, find another good fallback position. I think that’s where we’ll want the horses.”
“Sounds tight,” Peep said. Pinch nodded again.
“What time do you think it is?” Choke asked.
Pinch stuck his head out of the cave to eyeball the sunshine on the overhead trees.
“Not much after noon,” he said.
“Speaking of which, I’m fuckin hungry,” Knuckle said.
“Good call!” Peep seconded.
“Indeed,” Choke said. “Okay, let’s head back through the underground and go get lunch at the farm. Then, Peep and Pinch, you start scouting up top here. I’ll talk to Unger about getting a door put into the tower. Then, Knuckle, you and me should lend the men a hand clearing the trail. If we want to be found here, having the trail freshly opened will help. Plus, it’s the neighborly thing to do.”
“Sounds good,” Knuckle said.
With that, the squad went back down the tunnel.