The Children of Stron – part 55

Table of Contents (spoilers)

read part 1

read part 54

Prowling through the trails like a little black wolf, Peep came right up behind one of the Chisel’s three-man lookout squads.

When she was about fifty meters from the spot where she had observed the hamlet earlier, she ran into three horses all in line on the trail. The instant Peep sensed the horses ahead of her, she dropped low and froze. Then, after waiting about a minute without anything happening, she crept ahead in a deep crouch, holding her bow sideways low to the ground with an arrow notched.

The horses were all tethered to bushes and facing away from her up the trail. When she had moved on just another meter, Peep spotted their minder.

The bounty hunter was crouched down in the bush behind the horses, facing towards Peep. He had a loaded crossbow in hand. There was only about five meters between them. Peep had been moving as tight to the bush next to the trail as she could, basically in a crawl. Even so, the man saw her just a second after she saw him. He shifted posture and began to raise his light crossbow up.

Peep shot him in the throat. Her arrow transfixed his neck and the man fell back with a gurgle, loosing his quarrel over Peep’s head. The man began to thrash as he fell, startling the horses just a couple of meters further up the trail. Peep bounded over to him, drawing her buck knife as she did. She leapt on top of the man and plunged her knife deep into the side of his neck. Face to face, Peep noted he had small ears and a boyish aspect to him. She kept a tight hold on him with her weight bearing down as he died in her arms.

With the horses tethered to the bushes beside the trail, they were unable to go anywhere. The one in the rear, closest to the fight, took a minute of whinnying and prancing to calm down, but it did. Meanwhile, Peep stayed low on the dying man and focused on the trail ahead as best she could. It was good that the bush was so tight to the trail that anyone ahead of the horses would not have an easy time getting around the horses to her. When no one bothered trying, and without any raise of alarm, it became clear that the man had been by himself with the horses. Having a good sense that she was close to where the trail rose up to the track by the hamlet, Peep assumed that the other two horse’s men were at their intersection on lookout.

Peep took a minute to drag the dead bounty hunter off the trail into the bush. With him being almost twice her weight in mail, it was not easy, but she was strong and yanked him by his shoulders centimeter by centimeter. When she had him about a meter off the trail and under a bush, she went back to get his crossbow and smooth out the worst of the drag marks. Of course, anyone remotely alert would spot him easily if they were right there on the trail, but from further up it would suffice. Peep left the crossbow on the corpse and took to the bush.

Peep crawled on her elbows and knees through the underbrush, keeping her shortbow cradled in the crooks of her arms in front of her. She moved away from the trail a little before angling back, heading towards the point where the trail intersected the track. As she neared the location she slowed down more and more, choosing the ground she moved over carefully in order to stay silent. Finally, when she was about five meters out, she saw the other two bounty hunters. They were set up in the bush themselves to either side of the trail near the track to the hamlet, where their attention was focused. One was in chainmail and had a crossbow in hand with a longsword on his hip. The other was in leather armor with a buckler shield and shortsword on his hip and a Scythan warbow in hand.

Peep took some time moving laterally until she was at a nice spot behind a bigger tree from which she could see them, the trail, and just a little bit of the track up top. Further, it would only take a couple of steps for her to get a clear shot on them both at a range of about five meters. Peep pulled two arrows. One she notched on the bowstring, keeping it in place with just enough string tension by gripping it with the index finger of her left hand that held the bow. The extra arrow she tucked up under her weapon belt on the back of her right hip. Then she lay still and waited.

It was beginning to get rather dark, and still the two men waited patiently. Then, from the hamlet came some voices:

“Don’t stay out too long now!” called out a man’s gruff voice from the hamlet.

A feminine reply unintelligible to Peep was sent back.

Shortly, a young couple came off the track from the hamlet. Walking cheerfully hand in hand they came down the rise from the track onto the trail. The woman had a basket in her spare hand, and the man two fishing poles.

The two bounty hunters were positioned perfectly to either side of the trail. Coming from the evening light in the open into the dark of the bush, the couple never saw them.

The crossbowman left his crossbow leaning against his tree and drew a knife as he stepped up behind the woman. He hooked her throat from behind and pulled her into a choking headlock with his left arm as he held his knife blade up in front of her face.

The other bounty hunter did not even put down his Scythan warbow to deal with the man. As his mate moved on the woman, he drew a shorter throwing axe from the small of his back and lunged out with it. He cracked the man behind the ear with the axe’s butt end. The man fell with a grunt and did not move.

“Don’t scream,” Scythan Warbow said to the woman as he stepped in front of her. “Ye scream, and we kill ye both. Understood?”

The woman, who Peep could hear wheezing for air through the choke, nodded as best she could. Crossbowman holding her released some pressure.

“Where’s the slut and her boys at?” Scythan Warbow asked. His voice was quiet but laced with a great deal of menace.

“Who?” the woman asked.

Scythan Warbow put his throwing axe away and pulled a small skinning knife.

“Answer me properly like yar not a fuckin cretin or I’ll slit yar nostrils. Where are they?”

“I don’t know. Isn’t it yar job to know that?” the woman said, her tone impressively defiant.

“Yup. So that’s why this is happening now,” Scythan Warbow said just before he punched the woman hard in the stomach.

Crossbowman let her fall and the woman doubled up on her way to the ground. Scythan Warbow put away his knife and pulled out two lengths of rope from his belt. He handed one to Crossbowman. Then Scythan Warbow rolled the woman over onto her face with his boot and knelt down hard on her back. He tied her arms behind her at the elbows, brutally yanking them back together as he did.

“Tie up the man,” Scythan Warbow ordered Crossbowman. “We’ll throw them on the horses and find a place in the bush here. Then we can take our time with them all night.”

Crossbowman chortled gleefully and got to work. As he crouched down over the unconscious man, Peep made her move.

In one fluid motion, Peep rose to her feet as she stepped out from behind her willow tree. With Crossbowman being in chainmail, he had to be her first target. She shot him in the eye as he looked up at her in surprise.

Scythan Warbow had put his bow down so that he could cut a big strip off the hem of the woman’s dress to fashion into a knotted gag. He reacted fast, picking up his bow as he pulled an arrow from his shoulder quiver. Peep’s second shot hit him dead in the chest. At the short range, the more powerful shortbow that Munn had loaned her had just enough force to punch through the leather armor. The man gasped and rolled off the woman to the side. Peep was on him in a second and cut his throat with her Orcstabber buck knife.

Peep cut the rope tying the woman’s elbows together. Then she untied the woman’s husband, who was starting to groan and writhe around. Peep made sure he was facedown with an open airway before she left him to return to the woman.

“What’s yar name,” Peep asked her.

“Gladis, Miss Otilla. Thank ye for saving us! If ye hadn’t a come along when ye did, I don’t wanna think about what woulda happened.”

“No problem. But I didn’t come along just now. I was set up on them.”

“So… so ye watched them do it? But why?”

“Well, the way they were set up wasn’t gonna make it easy to take them, right? One there, and one there,” Peep pointed out the spots. “And me back there. I step out and pop one, then I gotta sweep my aim all the way across to get the other. They were on alert. So how that plays is: I get one and the other gets me. Nine times outta ten.”

“So, what was yar plan? Wait there until they distract themselves with us like they did?” the woman said, her indignation rising.

“Yeah. That. Or, if two idiots don’t come out for a fishing hole fuck, then I tail them when they’ve given up waiting and are heading back to their horses. Take them out from behind when they’re on the move, when they’re lined up real nice.”

“Horses?”

Peep went on to explain to Gladis what was to be found a little further down the trail.

“So, listen up,” Peep said. “The Chisel had twelve men with him, right? These three and nine more. How they’re operating is: they send squads of three out to watch. When a squad sees me, or whoever, two of them tail while the third lights out to gather the rest. Probably, the Chisel is somewhere more central with his three best men. I’m guessing right now he’s back at the main road crossroads with the gallows.”

“Okay… and what am I meant to be doing with all this information?” Gladis asked.

“To know that it aint gonna be safe around here. Get yar man back inside where it is. Then let yar headman know about the horses and dead men in the bush here. Ye lot can leave them where they are, and the Chisel’s men will find them. Ye’d better be locked up tight and ready to defend when they do. Or, if the headman wants, he can come out here with somebody and clean this up. Tell him if he disappears the horses and bodies, I’ll split the kills with him. He can keep two of the horses, their tack, and the longswords. The last horse, of my choosing, and all the other gear is mine. But, if he does decide to do that, he needs to move quick. And with some creep. When the other squads come up empty, they’re gonna wanna head back to town. For sure, they’re gonna swing by here when these three don’t rendezvous. Ye got all that?”

“Yes, Otilla. Two horses and the longswords for cleaning up the three horses and three bodies. Right?”

“Good. Move,” Peep ordered.

Gladis gave her husband some slaps about the face to get him a little more awake, and she and Peep got him to his feet. Peep helped Gladis support him up to the track. Then Peep left them to it and headed down to the trail. She quickly searched both the bodies. She took their purses and some jewelry. There were three rings, two silver and one gold, a fine amber pendant, and a silver cloak clasp. The crossbowman’s kit was of no interest to her. However, the ranger leader was another story. Of course, he had the full-powered Scythan warbow, which was the real prize. His shortsword was fine steel, as was the little skinning knife he had menaced Gladis with. Peep scooped it all, along with the shoulder quiver and its war arrows.

Now a little loaded down, Peep went down the trail to the horses, where she only took the ranger’s saddle quiver and open-topped bow case. She checked the other dead crossbowman in the bush. None of his gear was worth bothering with just then, so she just took his purse.

It was now fully dark as Peep slowly worked her way back through the bog to where she had left her horse. She put all the loot, as well as the shortsword, into her saddlebags. Then she rigged her saddle with the Scythan warbow’s case and quivers. This all took just five minutes.

With everything squared away, Peep led her horse on deeper into the bush. It was dark, but the full moon was out, only occasionally obscured by clouds. With the little moonlight that made it through the canopy, and a lifetime of moving around in the bush in the dark, Peep had no trouble navigating her way back to the brook. Then she mounted up and slowly rode down the brook’s center downstream towards the hamlet, just as she had done earlier.

Now in the open, there was plenty of moonlight, but the bush growing tight to the brook meant no one would be spotting her. Just about an hour after she had left Gladis, Peep came around one more bend in the creek and there was the hamlet.

Just there, the brook’s mud bottom was not too deep, putting the water level just at her horse’s belly. Peep backed her horse up just a little and then waited. From her vantage she could clearly see the little hamlet with the wooden bridge just a bit further down. The brook opened up into a bigger pond above the bridge, which was nothing Peep wanted to try to get through.

Peep sat for a minute on her horse in the middle of the brook and watched and listened. There was definitely something of a ruckus going on in the hamlet. It was not very loud, but the sound carried well across the water. It seemed very much like a bunch of nervous peasants trying to find room for three horses. This pleased Peep greatly.

There was no sense in staying out in the open, as she was. Peep backed her horse up further until she could find a path out of the brook on its east side. This put her on the opposite side from the hamlet. Here, the bush soon opened up into the rich pastureland that made up most of Callic valley.

Peep tied her horse up in the bush where it would be out of sight and moved on foot through the edge of the bush with her shortbow at the ready, heading to the little bridge. South, from where she came, the cart track from the gallows intersection at the main road split just after the hamlet, with one branch heading over the little bridge and on to Callic village. It was precisely this route she had taken there that morning. Peep thought about heading straight for Callic on the track, but dismissed that. She could not be sure there was not another spotting squad set up somewhere along it. Better to sit tight and see what happened.

Hunkered down in the bush watching the little bridge, Peep waited. After about a half hour, she could hear a good number of horses moving north up the track towards the hamlet from the gallows intersection. She guessed that it was the full remaining gang (not that they were yet aware of it). It was probable that the other two spotting squads of three men would have reported back to the Chisel at his central post. With the one squad failing to do so, they were coming to check on their last known location.

Peep could not directly observe the stretch of track she had killed the two men near, what with the hamlet and the bush in the way, but she could hear what was going on clearly enough. The horses stopped just short of the hamlet. Then it was quiet. Peep had no doubt they would find her kill spot. Unless the peasants had done a marvelous job cleaning up, the signs would be obvious even in lantern light.

Sure enough, there shortly was an angry babble of bounty hunter voices outside the hamlet.

“Hey!” boomed the Chisel. “Peasant boss! Get the fuck out here!”

“Fuck off!” came the immediate shouted reply from one of the hamlet’s rooftops. All around the hamlet’s perimeter walls, lanterns and torches began to be lit.

“Fuck me? Fuck you! Where’s my fuckin men? Ye killed them! Or yar harboring them that did! Ye’ll answer for it!” shouted the Chisel.

“Fuck off, I said! That’s twice I told ye! I won’t waste my words a third time!”

The Chisel began shouting curses and threats, but this was cut short as two men raised up on the tallest thatched roof with longbows and shot arrows down at the bounty hunters. Peep could just make the archers out, silhouetted against the sky, before they dropped back down to lie flat on the roof. The shots must have been into the ground as a final warning, because there were no return shots, and the bounty hunters were quiet.

It was silent for a few seconds. Then Peep could hear the horses moving off to the south, heading back towards the gallows intersection.

“Ye’ll pay for this, ye shit-kicking cattle-fuckers! Yar gonna pay!” the Chisel shouted as they retreated south towards the gallows intersection.

Peep sat chuckling to herself until she was sure the Chisel and his men were not looping back around. Then she crept back to get her horse and rode north towards Callic village through the moonlit night.

read part 56

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