The Children of Stron – part 56

Table of Contents (spoilers)

read part 1

read part 55

Peep rode most of the way to Callic village before deciding to hole up for the rest of the night. She stopped at a cowshed she had found that morning tucked away in a little hollow by a duck pond. There were no cows in residence, so she was able to unsaddle her horse and spread out. Peep stripped down to hang up her armor, breeches, and boots which were all muddy and wet from her bogtrotting. She hung everything up to dry and went straight to sleep.

The next morning, Peep awoke at dawn and kitted up immediately. Everything was still damp. Then she ate as much trail rations as she could bear as she fed her horse oats. Peep crept out of the shed and did a quick perimeter check before saddling her horse and giving it a drink from the pond.

While the horse was drinking, Peep contemplated the Scythan warbow and its rig on her saddle. There was no doubt she would be keeping it. It was a beautiful weapon.

Made of laminated layers or wood, antler, and other materials, the bow had the swooping lines of a swallow in flight. It was just a bit longer than a standard shortbow, but had almost eighty percent the power of a full-powered longbow. Scythan warbows were universally admired as status symbols among bandits, hunters, scouts, and skirmishers. This was now her bow.

Peep had, of course, tested the bow’s draw, and was just strong enough to use it. The only problem was she needed some time to train with it before she would be confident using it in combat. So, for the time being, she would be sticking with the shortbow Munn had loaned her. As well, there was no doubt that if any of the Chisel’s men saw her with the weapon, they would immediately become hostile. She could not afford this. Peep removed the bow in its case and its quivers from her saddle and stashed it all up in the roof of the cowshed.

Reckoning that the Chisel would keep his now diminished squad closer together, Peep left her horse in the cowshed and struck out on foot. She was no more than a fifteen-minute walk from Callic and was able to observe it well enough from cover. Everything seemed normal. The gates were open and the folk were getting on with their day.

This close to the village, there were a number of lone farmhouses dotted around. It was just such a place that Peep was skulking around. She had avoided its peasants, who were out tilling their fields or herding their cows to pasture. Now she felt it would be prudent to have a word with someone.

Peep slipped out of cover and badly startled a couple who were hooking an ox up to a plow. However, they recognized her immediately and were quite good about it.

“Did ye hear anything about the Chisel and his men today? Anything going on in town?” she asked them.

“No. But we haven’t been up that way, Miss Otilla,” the man said.

“There was a bit of hopping about on the Spitzer road last night, though. It woke me up!” his wife reported.

“So there was. Yeah,” the man remembered.

“Well, here’s my situation,” Peep said. “I wanna have a word with Father Nate, and I wanna do it without the Chisel or his boys knowing. I got my horse stashed in the cowshed down in the holler there.”

“Yeah, that’s ours. Yar welcome to it, Miss Otilla!” the farmer said.

“Thanks. But I’m wondering if I could move her up into yar main building here.”

“Surely! Yar welcome, Miss Otilla!”

“Thanks. Also, could ye spare a kid, or somebody, to run to town and see if Father Nate could come out to have a word with me? On the sly, like, though,” Peep said.

“Yeah. I guess we could,” the man looked thoughtful. Then he snapped his fingers. “Oh! Clarabelle!”

“Who?” Peep asked.

The man’s wife responded immediately to this, hopping up and down happily. “Yeah! Great idea, hon! It’s our cow, Clarabelle. She’s been poorly this week and doesn’t want to get up. So we was thinking we might want Father to have a look at her, just in case there’s something to be done. Instead of just going ahead and slaughtering her. But with everything that’s been going on, we forgot to get around to it. We could send Keitha to ask Father to come to do that.”

“Okay,” Peep said, hesitant. “But is that something he’ll hurry up to do? Healing a cow? Or will he take his time getting around to it? I mean, he is awfully busy these days, what with smoking weed and watching his cat lick its asshole, and all.”

The couple both blinked in horror at Peep.

“I suppose he’ll come soon enough. It’s not far, after all,” the man finally said.

“Okay, yeah, good enough,” Peep consented. “Anyways, it’s better if yar kid, Keitha, ye say? That a girl? For real with that name? Whatever, doesn’t matter. It’s better if she doesn’t know I’m here, right? So, sick cow it is. Oh! And d’ye have a big sack or sheet of burlap I can borrow for a bit?”

The woman left her husband to get the plowing started by himself and ran to the farmhouse to dispatch her child and fetch the sack. Peep went back down to the cowshed, wrapped the Scythan bow and quivers in the burlap sack, and took her horse to the couple’s big farmhouse. The woman helped get the mare situated in a stall on the main floor, but Peep decided to keep her saddled.

“Can I stash this here for a bit?” Peep asked of the burlap wrapped bow.

“Surely, Miss Otilla! Just on the shelf there is fine.”

“Thanks. D’ye got a view of town from upstairs? I’d like to keep an eye on things,” Peep said.

“We surely do, Miss Otilla. Yar welcome. Can I fix ye something?”

“Maybe some stugroot. And some gruel and eggs, if it’s not a bother. Man, I fuckin hate trail rations.”

The woman blinked at the profanity, but managed to recover soon enough. She took Peep upstairs. Like downstairs, it was all one big room. This one had a bunch of simple beds clustered at one end and a kitchen with a big table. Above, there was a storage loft with a ladder up to a trap door onto the peaked thatched roof.

“I’m Sarah, by the way, Miss Otilla,” the woman said as she moved the best chair over to the open window with a view of Callic village.

“Great. I’m guessing yar husband is named Keith, huh?”

“He is! How’d ye know?”

“That would make yar daughter yar eldest child, right? Nice for her. Is there a Keith Junior in the family?”

“There is. We lost our first boy just before we could name him Keith like we wanted,” Sarah said, referencing the peasant habit of not naming children until they were one or two years old, due to high infant mortality. “So, his sister got to be called Keitha. Then the next boy was Keith.”

“Well, there ye go. Thanks,” Peep said as she took the steaming cup of stugroot that Sarah brought her.

They were quiet for a bit while Sarah warmed up some gruel and cooked two eggs.

“Miss Otilla?” Sarah eventually started.

“Yeah?” Peep said without looking away from Callic.

“I just wanted to tell ye, to thank ye, I guess, for saving Amia and her boy Dugger from them bandits like ye did. That’s been such a blessing for poor Nester and his boys. And for Amia, too! She’s been real good for them. And she thinks the world of ye for what ye did to get her free. I just thought ye should know, Miss Otilla.”

“Well, I guess the bitch is good at pleasing. She never set a foot wrong in that regard. But it’s not like I went up there with intention of rescuing her, or something. I was there to take heads. And it was Choke, or Bartholomew to you, that stuck his neck out and insisted that we get them outta there. So I guess it’s him ye should be thankful to.”

“The jink battle monk? That one?”

“Yeah, him. Fancy that, huh?”

Sarah took some time to ponder this turn of events. “Well, I have to say that’s a surprise to me. But if ye say it’s so, then it’s so, Miss Otilla. I just remember seeing him at Amia’s wedding and he scared me so. To think of what those jinks do to the good Stronians that they attack, it just makes me tremble.”

“Yeah, well, they are a terror aren’t they, them jinks. Ye got that food done?” Peep asked.

“Oh! Yar right, I almost burned it! Silly goose! Talking away like a girl with food on the fire. Here ye go, Miss Otilla.”

Peep grunted her thanks and then tucked in. When she had taken a few bites, she noticed that Sarah was still hovering nearby.

“That’s all,” Peep said, raising her spoon in a small gesture of thanks. “Ye can get back to whatever farming shit ye gotta do today. I’ll chill here and see myself out if need be.”

“Oh. Okay, Miss Otilla. Thank ye for coming to our home”

“Yeah. Sure.”

Sarah went to go back downstairs. As she did, Peep flinched and looked away from the window to Sarah for the first time since she had sat down.

“Hey.”

“Yes, Miss Otilla?” Sarah halted immediately and turned back towards Peep attentively.

“Next time ye see Amia, tell her I’m happy things worked out okay for her and the kid. She was nice to me when she didn’t have to be. So tell her thanks for that.”

“I will, Miss Otilla!” Sarah hesitated for a moment to see if there was more before turning to head downstairs.

“And, Sarah.”

“Yes, Miss Otilla?”

“Thanks. For everything today. Yar good folk.”

“Oh, think nothing of it, Miss Otilla! Yar most welcome! It’s our honor!”

“Okay. Yeah, that’s enough. Thanks,” Peep flicked her fingers at Sarah to dismiss her and looked back out the window.

Sarah waited for another moment to make sure there was nothing else. Then she went out to get back to work plowing the field with her husband.

***

Peep sat with her boots off for almost an hour watching Callic village, getting increasingly impatient and annoyed with Father Nate. She was muttering by the time something happened. It was not what she was waiting for.

On the south road to Spitzer, which Peep could see clearly enough, a lone rider came galloping from the south and rode into the village. He was one of the Chisel’s men. Not five minutes later, the Chisel and six men rode out of the same gate. They took off heading south towards the gallows intersection where Peep’s fun had started the day before.

Peep immediately ran downstairs and got her horse. She rode out around the field that Sarah and Keith were plowing, giving them a wave. Then she rode hard, straight for the south road. When she was about halfway there, she spotted Father Nate and four of his men riding towards Keith and Sarah’s farm. She stood up tall in the saddle and waved them down.

“Otilla! Thank Stron! What a night you’ve had, eh?” Father Nate said with a grin as they joined up and struck out for the road together on Peep’s original course. Father Nate was fully armed and armored.

“Yeah. Whad’ye know about it?”

“Swanson over at Cattail Bridge sent a lad to me before dawn to tell me the whole bloody tale. Ye put in some good work and saved a damsel in distress while ye were at it! They’ll be making ye a knight before long!” Father Nate laughed.

“Yeah, I’m sure. Cattail Bridge? That the little hamlet up by the fuckin swamp there?”

“The very same. Now, about today: Keitha made it to me just fine, and I figured out it was you sending for me, since she saw her folks talking to someone small out in their field. But I was sure the Chisel’s men spotted her coming into town, so there was no way I could risk coming out to ye. They’ve all just lit out heading south.”

“I saw that.”

“As well, just before dawn, the Chisel sent a rider south,” Father Nate reported. “Arlen’s stableboy overheard them saying that he was being sent back to Spitzer to get more men.”

“Great. How many?” Peep asked.

“Didn’t say. Tommy said that the man told his mate he was going to Spitzer to get Tully’s boys.”

“So, there’s no telling how many that is,” Peep said darkly.

“Indeed,” Father Nate agreed.

“And how many men did the Chisel come back with last night?” Peep asked.

“Him, plus six.”

“He had twelve with him when he first came to town. I clipped three last night. So that means he has nine men total. If he came back into town last night with six, it means he left three out there on watch,” Peep said.

“Aye.”

“And then he sent one to Spitzer. So he’s down to eight,” Peep said.

“Aye.”

“So, his best move would be to sit tight at Arlen’s until his reinforcements get here. Wouldn’t it? So, if they all lit out with a fire under their ass just now, it can only mean that they think they found Choke and the boys.”

“That is precisely what I was thinking,” Father Nate said. “The good news for yar lads, though, is that after the Chisel’s men assault of the two folk in Cattail Bridge, as magistrate in these parts, I now have sufficient cause to intercede in this matter. Should ye need me to.”

“Great! And ye only brought four men?”

“This, Otilla, is the number of horses I have that are worth a damn. And Callic still requires a garrison, such as it is.”

“Okay then, Father. But, just out of curiosity: what stopped ye arresting the lot of them this morning?” Peep asked.

“Well, several reasons, Otilla. Firstly, you seem to have everything well in hand. Is me putting a damper on things what you want right now? I thought not. As well, if arrested, the Chisel will simply claim that his men were acting on their own beyond his orders. It is nothing that will stick. Particularly against someone with his connections. Finally, I don’t have the manpower to arrest him and all his men if they don’t want to let me do so.”

“So, Father, and pardon me for my impudence, but what use are ye gonna be if we need ye to step in now?”

“Well, Otilla, as the magistrate and priest in these parts, if I start shouting for everyone to desist, to ignore me and engage in unlawful violence would incur legal ramifications for anyone. Whether I am able to physically intercede or not. Of course, I am quite willing to step in and cool things down, if that is what ye want. Otherwise, if things seem to be working out in yar favor, I am more than happy to attend to my other duties. I understand that the Keiths have a sick cow that needs some attention.”

“They sure do, Father. It looked real sick. But let’s see what’s happening up the road here before ye go ahead and attend to that important matter,” Peep said with a smirk.

It did not take them long to reach the scene. About halfway to the gallows intersection, a small group of agitated peasants were milling about near the road. They informed Father Nate and Peep that the Chisel and his men had just ridden through their freshly plowed field, heading southeast. This was precisely the direction to the Old Mill.

There was no problem tracking them, at least. As Peep and the Church men rode on, they crested a little rise from which a wider vista opened up. About half a kilometer further up, they could see the Chisel’s squad. They had reined up and were spreading out, looking as though they were working to flank a little copse of trees.

“Fuck,” Peep said. “The fuckin dumbasses are in them trees. Sure as shit.”

In riding over the crest of the rise as they did, there was no doubt that Peep and the Church men had skylighted themselves to the Chisel down below. Indeed, the four riders that were working their way around the copse to flank stopped and looped back to rejoin the other group.

Coming down off the rise, Peep looked over to her right and realized she could see the trees of the gallows intersection just behind the stone bridge over the brook. Then she saw movement there. She gave a quick whistle of alarm and reined up.

“What is it?” Father Nate asked.

“Down there,” Peep pointed at the bridge. “Someone’s there in the trees at the bridge.”

“I can’t see that far,” Father Nate admitted.

“Yup! She’s right!” one of the men-at-arms proclaimed. “A few in there. Riders.”

“No doubt. And, shit, here they come!” Peep exclaimed as a score of riders came out of the trees and rode over the bridge.

“Chisel’s reinforcements?” Peep asked.

“That don’t track,” the man-at-arms said. “His man would only be reaching Spitzer about now. And that’s if he busted his horse doing it.”

“Did they spot us?” Father Nate asked.

They waited for a second watching the riders. Shortly after coming over the bridge, they cut off the road and began heading cross county directly towards the rise.

“Fuck. Yup!” Peep exclaimed. “Okay, Father, I’d say it’s about time for ye to try to cool this out.”

“I suppose so. Let us hope everyone behaves themselves,” said Father Nate grimly.

They kicked up their horses into a gallop and rode straight down towards the Chisel and his men. When they reached them, the mounted bounty hunters were spread out in a pasture about fifty meters from the copse, all with their bows and crossbows at the ready. The bowyer Munn from the Unger compound was standing up at the edge of the copse with his longbow in hand yelling at them to fuck off. Behind Munn, Peep could make out Choke and Knuckle hiding behind trees with their crossbows.

“Everyone!” Father Nate bellowed as he rode up to the scene behind the Chisel and his men. “Stand down! Stand down I say!”

The Chisel, astride his fast warhorse, with his big warbow in hand, wheeled on Father Nate and Peep.

“Priest!” he shouted. “Call off yar peasant there! I have business with those men that cower behind him!”

“I’m no peasant, ye cocksucker!” Munn answered. “I’m a free yeoman, veteran sergeant of archers, and answer to no man but the Baron! And I will put fuckin lumber through the lot of ye!”

“Munn! Stand down, I say!” Father Nate shouted over the Chisel’s head. Then he continued: “Mr Mason! Ye say ye have business with those men. What business would that be?”

“They ambushed and killed three of my men last night. With the help of that little bandit slut!” the Chisel pointed to Peep.

“She, sir, is Miss Otilla of the Holy Fire! Blessed in her baptism with a Holy Possession! And I would thank ye not to forget it!” raged Father Nate.

“Whatever you think she might be, she helped kill my men!”

“If that is so, sir, then I think the thing for ye to do is to come with me in the church and lodge a formal complaint about it. This may be the frontier, but it is not the wild. We do things the legal way here! As you have claimed you do!”

While this had been going on, the peasants from the road had come running up over the rise behind them. Their number seemed to have swelled, and they had armed themselves with spears and flails. It would take them a few minutes to reach the scene, but the Chisel and his men all spotted them. A number of the Chisel’s men shifted uncomfortably, but the Chisel himself, along with his core men, gave no sign of relenting their position.

“I say again! I have business with those men!” the Chisel shouted.

“I heard ye the first time!” Father Nate shouted back. “Ye think repeating yar bullshit is gonna make it any more credible? So I tell you again: if ye think ye have business with them, then yar first business is with me. That’s the end of it!”

The Chisel wheeled his horse aggressively and moved a few meters towards Father Nate.

“So that’s how ye want to play this, is it?” the Chisel said.

“I don’t play. And I’m telling ye how it is. What? Are ye gonna kill a priest of Stron now? Go ahead and try it. I think I’ll be able to convince Stron to weigh in on the matter. And however that goes for ye, a priest killer doesn’t have much of a future in these parts, now does he?”

The Chisel glared at Father Nate, but he was outmaneuvered, and he knew it. His attempt to intimidate the priest had been a bluff, and it had been called.

“This isn’t over!” the Chisel shouted back at the Pekot boys in the trees.

“Ye’ve been saying that kinda thing a lot lately, haven’t ye!” Peep yelled with a big grin.

The Chisel looked set to respond, but everyone’s attention was pulled away as the twenty, or so, riders from the bridge came galloping up over the rise behind. In seeing them, the Chisel’s eyes flashed in pleasure, as he clearly assumed they were the reinforcements he had sent for. Then his bearing changed to confusion, as he realized it was way too soon for them to have arrived. Finally, he hid his rising alarm behind his usual mask of menace.

The cavalry came riding up behind Father Nate and Peep, with the out of breath peasants running close on their heels. The horsemen were all tough-looking men-at-arms on fine light-warhorses and well outfitted as scouts and skirmishers. Peep’s face cracked into a big grin as she spotted Thorn riding amongst them.

“Everyone!” bellowed the lead rider as he rode directly up to Father Nate. “Stand down in the name of the Baron!”

“And who would you be, sir?” Father Nate asked.

“Lieutenant Batter, Father. With Captain Fairchild, under special orders from the Baron.”

As their lieutenant spoke, the squad of riders parted as they reached the scene, with each half of them riding wide out to either side of their leader. This flanked the Chisel’s tightly packed squad on two sides and left no question as to their disposition towards them. All but one of the soldiers had shortbows; the last had a Scythan warbow.

Thorn hung back a ways and dismounted with his Scythan warbow in hand. He took a few steps to his right to improve his angle on the Chisel and then stood tall, ready to shoot.

Alan the Chisel Mason kicked his horse up and began to ride the hell out of there.

“Halt! Halt I say!” shouted Lieutenant Batter. “Men! Drop the horse of any man that flees! Kill any man that resists!”

This brought the Chisel and his men to a halt sharply.

“Under what authority do you order me!” the Chisel yelled at Batter.

“I have told ye, sir! Captain Fairchild has ordered you and yar men detained for questioning! Will you resist?”

“How do I know ye are who ye say? Ye look a bunch of bandits to me! Where are we to be taken?”

“To the Callic church. As to my proof, here ye are!” Lieutenant Batter produced a shoulder belt and epaulets from a saddlebag. The belt bore silver broaches and medals clearly indicating the rank of lieutenant in the army of the Kingdom of Bitina.

“As scouts in rough country, we ride rough. I am sure a man such as yourself can understand why. Now, sir, will you agree to come to the church peacefully with us? Or must I arrest you?” Lieutenant Batter said as he put the trappings of his rank away.

“I’ll come with ye to the church to await the Captain Fairchild. But I will not submit to me or my men being disarmed. Not unless ye bear a legal warrant for our arrest,” the Chisel answered.

“I do not. Your terms are acceptable. I have your parole, then, Mr Mason, that you shall come with us directly to Callic church to await Captain Fairchild for questioning.”

“You do.”

“Then so swear it.”

“I swear to come with ye to the church to wait for the Captain,” the Chisel said.

“Very good, sir. Then may we proceed?” Lieutenant Batter turned his horse and gestured for the Chisel to join him.

The chisel and his men fell into line to ride behind the Lieutenant and Father Nate. The soldiers rode along to either side of them.

“May I ask, Lieutenant, what matter are we being detained to be questioned over?” the Chisel asked the lieutenant as he reached him.

“You may ask, sir. But I am not at liberty to answer. I am quite sure you can guess, though.”

Father Nate, Lieutenant Batter, the Chisel, and all their men, rode through the little crowd of peasants who had run there from the road. The peasants milled around a bit and then followed.

Peep sat on her horse and gave Thorn a friendly wave as he mounted up and rode over to her.

“Well don’t you just have a knack for getting up into people’s asses at the perfect time,” Peep said with a laugh.

“What, yar complaining?” Thorn said. He then noticed Munn standing over in the bush with his longbow. “Munn! That you? What the fuck, man? Ye let all those motherfuckers live? I am fuckin ashamed to call ye a kingdom’s archer!”

“Fuck you, Thorn!” Munn shouted back cheerfully.

“And there are the dumbasses themselves!” Peep exclaimed as Choke, Knuckle, and Pinch emerged from the copse of trees, leading their horses behind them.

read part 57

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