The Children of Stron – part 54

Table of Contents (spoilers)

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The Chisel’s men were still standing around out front when Peep left Arlen’s tavern. The men in the stable had finished saddling the horses. The thirteen mounts were ready to go, tied up on hitching posts out in front. Nine of the Chisel’s men were ready to go as well, standing around aggressively in front of the tavern.

Father Nate’s eight men, along with the lad Chris, had finished filling the big trough from the well, along with all the buckets they could lay their hands on. They were standing by and looking nervous, obviously outmatched in number and caliber by the Chisel’s men across the square.

Father Nate was up on the church roof, on its little observation deck around the small steeple. He had put on his chainmail under his cassock, and had his longsword strapped on.

Peep wove her way through the Chisel’s goons, who did their best to crowd her aggressively without actually blocking her way.

“Ye seem tense, boys,” Peep said with a smile as she cleared them, turning around to walk backwards away from them. “Ye oughta head back to Spitzer to unwind a bit. I said something to yar palls inside to that effect. Ask them about it. Anyways, if ye don’t wind up heading that way, take care tonight. There’s no telling what kinda evil might be lurking around these parts still. Pretty wild country, right? I mean, ye see,” Peep gestured towards the main gate flanked by the two dead monsters, facing outwards, but still visible enough over the top of the wall they were tied to.

Peep walked to the well and flicked a copper Chris’ way.

“Chris, lad, could ye unsaddle my horse and give her a good brushing? Then feed her a bit and let her have a drink. But not too much, mind, I probably have some riding to do. After lunch, though. So there’s no rush. Thanks, boy.”

Peep went into the church and sat down on one of the pews to wait for Father Nate. He came out of the back shortly.

“Say, Father, I’m famished! I was gonna have a bite to eat at Arlen’s, but I don’t care for the company in there just now.”

“Understandable. I ate lunch about an hour ago, but if ye want, I could fix ye something.”

“That would be great, Father. Thank ye!”

Father Nate invited her back into his chambers where he threw together a simple lunch of bread, cheese, and cured meat. He offered her some potato wine or weed, but she declined both.

“Best be keeping my wits about me, don’t ye think, Father?”

“Indeed. So what’s the plan here, Otilla?”

“Plan, Father?” Peep asked with her mouth full. “Well, I kicked the hornet’s nest, and now I’m gonna see what happens.”

“I can see that. I meant, what’s the plan with the lads? Bartholomew and the others.”

“Ah. That plan. I don’t reckon there is one. I left them at the Mill getting it ready for company. Told Janice to tell them to sit tight there until I get back.”

Father Nate goggled at her.

“What?”

“You told Janice to tell them. That means they were not aware that ye were coming here?”

“Well, yeah. I mean, I told Pinch that I was gonna head out for a solo scout. Then I told Janice what I said. If I had brought up coming here, Choke woulda pitched a big fit about it and said no. So I just went ahead and did it. So what?”

“So what? Well, for starters, Bartholomew is yar squad’s leader, is he not?” Father Nate said sharply.

“Hold up on that, Father. I aint in an army; kingdom, Church, or otherwise. I aint under no one’s orders. So Choke aint my leader. We ride together and we’re friends. So I suppose that makes him my partner. But just because he thinks he can bark orders at me, it does not fuckin mean I have to follow them. Clear?”

“I suppose so. To me, now. Is Bartholomew aware of it?”

“I guess so. Unless he’s a slow learner,” Peep laughed.

“So what’s stopping them from following you here and getting caught up by Mason?”

“Just their good sense and the fact that I told them to sit tight.”

“And how long d’ye suppose they’ll do that with ye stuck here? Mason and his men are gonna be looking to follow ye when ye head back. You know this,” Father Nate said.

“Yeah, I do. I’m fuckin counting on it. And don’t you go sending Chris, or anybody else out there running no errands. Not now. They’ll be looking for that, too.”

“Give me some credit, please.”

“Sorry. But I can’t be too sure about how much creep ye Church boys have to ye.”

“So, I ask again: what’s the plan, Otilla?”

“Well, they’ve come here and declared their intention on finding the lads, right? That means we know they’re up to no good. That’s been decided, right? So, when I light outta here, and they start trailing me, they’re fair game. Yes?” Peep said, her eyes all a twinkle.

“Yes, I suppose that is all true. But, as clergyman and magistrate here, I cannot intervene unless they attempt something more overtly criminal than just following ye.”

“I’m not asking ye to intervene, Father. I’ll handle my business my own self. Just having this place to stage from is huge. So thank you for that.”

“Well, you are welcome,” Father Nate sighed. “But, just so ye know, if you attack them first, they will be claiming self-defense on whatever follows. As dubious as that claim shall be, all I’ll be able to do then to protect ye is arrest the lot of ye. And I don’t have the manpower to do that if anyone kicks up a fuss.”

“Understood, Father. Don’t ye worry. I got this. Now, how many hours d’ye reckon until dark?” Peep asked.

“About six, I’d say. The moon is full tonight, though. So that’s worth considering.”

“That’s right! Perfect! Okay, then. I’m gonna take a quick kip in the pews there. Can ye wake me up in half an hour? And then, once ye do, let Chris know to saddle up my horse. Also, tell him to fill up my waterskins and if he could pack some oats for the horse and iron rations for me, that would be great. Thanks!”

“No problem, Otilla. We are all at yar service, I suppose.”

***

After her nap, Peep took her time walking out into the square to the well. She drew up a bucket of cold water and rinsed out her mouth and had a drink before washing her hands, face, and neck. Father Nate’s men had gone back to whatever tasks normally occupied them, taking the buckets with them.

As for the Chisel’s men, there was no sign of them. There were now four horses, including the Chisel’s beautiful black light-warhorse, hitched to the post outside Arlen’s tavern.

Peep grunted in satisfaction and waited at the well for the lad Chris to bring her mount. When he did, the mare looked well-groomed and fresh.

“I filled up the saddlebags just like Father Nate told me to, Miss Otilla!”

“Thank ye, boy,” Peep said, flicking him another copper.

“My pleasure, Miss Otilla!”

“Good lad.” Peep then leaned in close and spoke to him in a low voice: “Now, about what’s gonna maybe be happening here soon. I want ye to promise to stay clear of any trouble. Ye here?”

Chris obviously did not like this, but he nodded glumly.

“But, that don’t mean ye still can’t be of use to me. Ye remember those bird calls I taught ye?”

“I sure do, Miss Otilla!”

“Right. So if ye hear the alarm one, ye run and raise the alarm with Father Nate. Right? And if ye hear the ‘come here’ one, ye come to it. Right?”

“Of course!”

“And if ye ever see my horse around here, tied up wherever, I want ye to take her back to the church stable and do just what ye did for me today. Get her watered and fed, groomed and rested, and fill up them saddlebags again. Ye got that?”

“Sure do, Miss Otilla!”

“Good lad. Okay, then. Ye stay close to Father Nate now. And ye wait for when yar needed. Be vigilant! Right?”

“Got it, Miss Otilla! Good hunting!”

Peep laughed and clapped Chris on the shoulder. Then she vaulted up into the saddle and rode on out the main gate.

The Spitzer-Splitrock road ran basically north-south through the Callic valley, meandering just a little through the bucolic farmland. Most of the land was cultivated or used for pasture, but there were plenty of little forests and thickets scattered about. As well, the creek that came down by the Unger farmstead soon joined with others to become a pleasant brook that wound its way all through the valley. On her roundabout approach to the village that morning, Peep had scouted much of it and had a very good notion of what she wanted to do. She just hoped that the Chisel’s men would be amenable.

With the Unger farmstead being to the southeast, Peep had decided it would be best to conduct her business towards that way. The men following would naturally assume that she would be taking false routes and looping this way and that to throw them off. This meant there was no real danger of revealing too much, since they would probably not take her first course seriously. As well, it could not hurt to be closer to her home base and backup.

Peep struck out on the main road, heading south at an easy jog. The Chisel’s men being the seasoned professionals that they were, she did not spot the squad that was stationed as lookout on the south road. However, after riding a good straight stretch that then took her around a bend with some tree and bush cover, Peep immediately dismounted. Throwing her reins over a bush beside the road, she quickly sculked back through the bushes to peek back down the road the way she came. Sure enough, a pair of riders were following her, moving at the same easy jog she had been.

Having cut her teeth as a bandit herself, Peep knew that the original lookout squad must have been three men. The third would have galloped back to town to rally all the others in pursuit.

As quickly as she could without disturbing her cover and alerting her followers, Peep got back to her horse. She then cantered for a ways to gain back the ground she had lost, before falling back into the jog. Confident that the men behind her would do their best to hang back and avoid being spotted, Peep carried on as she was for the next thirty minutes. Then, when she reached the spot she had scouted for this earlier, she changed it up.

Just a little ways past a quaint stone bridge over the brook, at a little stand of trees, there was an empty gallows’ pole at an intersection with a narrow cart track. The track ran along a hedgerow, heading northwest, roughly back towards Callic village, but on the other side of the brook. Back on the other side of the river from where Peep had come, there was a good stretch of road leading up to the bridge from which the hedgerow was visible, although there was no way to know there was a track behind it. For Peep’s plan to go perfectly two things were critical. One: that the two men following her spot her heading back towards town on the track. And, two: that they spot her without realizing that she wanted to be spotted.

With a sense of how much distance the men had been trying to keep from her, Peep paused under the gallows’ pole. She waited until the knot in her stomach had tightened enough to signal the time. Then, crouching low in the saddle, but not too low, she took off in a canter down the track. When she reached the stretch where she would be visible from the road, Peep kept her head straight but attention hard on her peripheral vision that way. Sure enough, she briefly spotted the two men riding up the road. Unless they were complete fools, which they certainly were not, one of them would have spotted her.

Peep allowed herself a thump of triumph on her thigh as she rode out of sight down the trail. She knew from scouting it that morning that the trail would separate from the brook to skirt around a rough and swampy area. The brook was deeply oxbowed in this stretch, and the areas between its meanders were choked with stands of willows and other nasty flora. In a couple of kilometers, the trail would reach a pleasant little hamlet where the brook resolved its quagmire and devoted itself to a more amenable course.

Riding along at a fast canter, Peep toyed with the idea of lying in wait and killing the two men pursuing her. It would be a simple matter to take them: kick up into a gallop, thus leaving a clear trail on the track indicating she had noticed them spotting her; then, pull off and ambush them from cover when they were riding hard in full pursuit. Peep soon dismissed this. The two directly behind her would have left a marker at the gallows intersection for the whole gang that would now be hot on their heels. Their mission would not be to waylay her, though. Their orders would be to follow. However, as soon as Peep killed any of them, their tactics would change to a capture or kill scenario. This was not something she wanted when the whole lot of them were bearing right down on her. Satisfied that her original plan was still the best one, Peep rode on.

With the rough bush to her right and pastureland to her left, Peep rode on down the track. It was quite open here, so she could keep an eye out behind her; usually about several hundred meters. Once or twice she thought she was just able to catch sight of the two men following her. They were pros, though, and immediately eased off every time.

When Peep was just over halfway to the hamlet from the gallows intersection, she reached her target. At a stand of bigger willow trees, a good-sized trail branched off the track into them and the rough. There was no missing it; it was obviously a well-used access for the locals to access the swampy area around the brook.

Peep rode on past the trail and kicked her horse into a gallop as she did. This left divots in the dirt track. Then, she reined up gently and wheeled back. Knowing she had only a minute or two before the men caught up with her, she nonetheless dismounted and took her time getting her horse back to the trail, taking care to lead her over turf that would not show too much in the way of tracks. She led the horse down the trail and out of sight into the willows.

The spot in the willow trees was a bit of a campsite, with a small fire pit and even a little stack of firewood. Multiple smaller trails branched off in different directions. This was as far as Peep had scouted. However, she was confident that the folk who used the place knew what they were about, so she took her horse down the biggest of these trails. It was just wide enough for the mare.

After just a few meters, Peep tied the reins to a bush and doubled back. With her bow in hand and an arrow notched, she hunkered down at the base of a willow just in front of her trail and waited for the men. It did not take long. The two men rode right on by. As they did, they kicked up their horses into a gallop for a stretch, obviously assuming from the tracks that Peep had done so as well. Then they were gone, moving on towards the hamlet.

Peep skipped back to her horse and led her on foot further down the trail into the bush. She was glad that the liveryman in Spitzer had sold her the little mare: she would not be winning any races on open ground, but was perfect for bush like this. The trail zigged and zagged as it dipped and rose through the rough terrain, avoiding the many little ponds and boggy areas. The mosquitos were heinous.

It did not take long for the trail to get to where Peep had hoped it would: the brook itself. The trail opened up into a little clearing on a rise with a cut bank. With another little fire ring, this was obviously a favored fishing and hunting spot. A little blind was set up overlooking a nice little fishing hole. The spot looked as though it must be fruitful for trout as well as waterfowl. Peep led her horse down into the water and mounted up. Then she rode at a slow walk downstream in the middle of the brook.

The brook was just about two or three meters wide, with a slow current. It was mostly mud-bottomed, but had little clay or gravel bars here or there. Willows and other tangled bushes grew out from the banks, their branches hanging out over the water.

The brook was not deep, but at times its mud bottom was. Peep’s horse sank up to her belly a few times, and their passage kicked up plumes of mud and silt. The water had been clear when they entered the brook, but it was now brown downstream of them. There was no helping that, though. Peep just had to hope that the mud would settle by the time the brook reached a point where its water could be observed.

After about ten minutes of this slow progress down the center of the brook, Peep could hear the rest of the Chisel’s gang galloping down the cart track towards the hamlet. They did not slow down as they rode on past. Peep gave her leg another happy thump.

Twenty more minutes took Peep to what she had been looking for: another hunting blind overlooking a fishing hole. It was on the west bank, to the left for Peep, the same side she had entered the brook on. Peep dismounted at the bank and led her horse up into the fine little hunting camp behind the blind.

Over a kilometer closer to the hamlet than the last camp, this one was much more developed. It had a bigger firepit, along with several log chairs. Back in the trees, there was a little lean-to made from branches lashed to longer sticks. There were even some fishing poles tucked away in the lean-to.

Peep sat in the camp listening to the nature around for a few minutes before doing anything. When she was satisfied that she was the only interloper anywhere close, she gave her mare a good drink from the brook. Then Peep uncoiled some rope to put the horse on a longer tether so that she could graze a little, and left her at the camp.

With her wolfhead cloak up and bow and arrow in hand, Peep skulked through the bush, heading towards the hamlet. The bigger trail she left the camp on took her there without too many twists and turns. This was definitely not to her liking. When she reached where the trail rose up out of the bush to the track, just a hundred meters away from the hamlet, she crouched down in a shrub to have a look at the settlement.

As farming hamlets always were, this one was a number of farming buildings clustered together in a defensive perimeter around a yard. This one had good, two-meter, stone walls plugging up the gaps between the buildings. Having ridden by it that morning, Peep knew it was right next to the brook at a little wooden bridge. Over the bridge, another cart track continued on north, heading in a roundabout way back to Callic village. The track she was on kept on with the brook as it meandered on to the west through the basin valley.

The Chisel’s gang coming by had definitely upset the peasants in the hamlet. There were two bowmen up on top of the tallest building’s peaked roof. As well, they had shut their gates and folk were hurrying in from the fields where they had been at work. Trusting that the Chisel and his men would not find the people helpful when they inevitably doubled back to have a word with them, Peep ran back into the bush.

Jogging back down the trail towards the camp where she had left her horse, Peep took the time to quickly check the numerous little game trails that branched off it. She soon found one suitable for her purposes, so she ran to get her horse. She took it back to the trail she had found and went down that. It soon terminated at a bog. Peep mounted up and rode her horse through the bog to a little rise that had some boulders and smaller trees. There was just room enough for the two of them up there, so Peep and her mare hunkered down to suffer the mosquitoes and biting flies. Peep gave the mare some oats and had a drink of water and a bite to eat herself.

Peep knew it would not take the Chisel long to figure out she had slipped them. Then, his men would double back. Their first stop would be the hamlet to try and get information. Inevitably failing there, they would backtrack and find where Peep had gone off the cart track. Peep was hoping that they would assume she had briefly holed up in the bush to head back up the track to the gallows intersection to be on her way. If that was so, then the Chisel would take the bulk of his men up that way to try and pick up her trail. It was whatever men he might leave hanging back as lookouts that she was interested in meeting. Even if they assumed she was still hiding out in the bush as she was, that was still all to the good. She was not their target. They would probably spread out into a wider lookout pattern, as they had around the village of Callic. There surely would be opportunities for her in this scenario as well. And even if she came up empty, an afternoon of frustration for the Chisel’s bunch at her expense was only to her side’s benefit.

Peep sat in the swamp and waited. The spot was just a few hundred meters from the hamlet, and she could just hear the shouts of the peasants as they finished securing their people and livestock. It was not long before the Chisel’s gang returned and there was more shouting. While she could not make out any words, there was no doubt about the tone: the Chisel and his gang were being told where they could go, and what they could do with their money on the way there.

Then things were quiet. This was no surprise. In backtracking to find where Peep had slipped her followers, the Chisel and his trackers would be moving slowly. There was no way for her to know what they did then. She just had to wait and see if she heard anyone creeping into the bush after her. After another hour, it was getting on towards evening and there had been nothing. So Peep left her horse where it was and slogged through the swamp, heading back towards the track and the hamlet to go on the hunt.

read part 55

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