Riding back into Spitzer in the late afternoon, Peep reined up on the road outside a large roadhouse and tavern called the Elk and Quiver. It was the first building in town coming in from the north on the Callic road. Just a little further down were the sawmills on the Spitz river, whose waterwheels drove the big saws with their shrieking screams. Across the road from them was the big open lot outside the freight depot where Alan, “the Chisel” Mason had been staying with his men the last time they had been in town.
“Man, I hate that fuckin sound,” Knuckle complained with a grimace as the noise from the nearest sawmill pierced their ears.
“Yeah, it’s sharp,” Peep agreed. “Anyways, I think that before we go and see about visiting the nobles here, we should make sure the local shit-heels understand how things are.”
“What do you mean?” Choke asked earnestly.
“Well, the Captain sorted out Alan and his boys yesterday, right? But no one here knows that yet. Now, they woulda heard that was the plan, of course. But they don’t know exactly what went down, yet. Right?”
“Makes sense,” Pinch said. “So I’m guessing you want to head into this joint here and make sure our version of events is the first to hit their ears.”
Peep snapped her fingers and pointed at Pinch with a grin. “Exactly!” she said. “And even if ours aint the first, on account of Alan being through here already, we’ll still get a sense of the lay of the land. Remember, just because the Captain and the Baron and all them quality people have decided things are one way, it don’t mean that the common folk agree. We gotta make sure the assholes around here know better than to try anything stupid. Right?”
Pinch and Knuckle both nodded.
“That seems a good idea,” Choke agreed. “You want to do the talking, I take it?” he asked Peep.
She nodded with a big grin.
“Okay then, we’ll follow your lead,” Choke said. “But let’s try to avoid any unnecessary bloodshed, if at all possible. Okay?”
“Yeah, sure thing, boss.”
“Before we go in, what’s the story with this joint?” Pinch asked Peep.
“Well, it’s the Elk and Quiver. Sure as shit, it’s where Alan was sending that guy for reinforcements. It’s a place for bushpigs more than any townies, right? Trappers, hunters, scouts, bandits; that kinda scum,” Peep said.
“So people like you,” Knuckle said with a laugh.
“Exactly!” Peep laughed as she gave him the finger. “Okay, let’s get into character. Remember: we kill their kind for fun.”
“Well, yeah, that’s just true. It aint no kinda character,” Knuckle said.
The squad rode the last little way to the Elk and Quiver and hitched their mounts to some of the many posts outside. The place was a big, two-story building of round-log construction. The main floor had a fair number of bigger windows without any glass; just solid shutters that were open. The people inside all looked out at the squad, but quickly feigned disinterest as they realized the kind of trouble they represented (if not yet their actual identities).
Peep unlaced her Scythan warbow case and one of its quivers from her saddle to bring inside along with her saddlebags. The lads brought in their saddlebags and crossbows.
Peep came in first, with her wolfhead cloak up. She had recently begun fastening the cloak at the front with the silver clasp she had taken from the bounty hunter ranger. Knuckle followed her, stooping to step through the doorway, with his crossbow in his left hand held like a club, and his right hand on the picked warhammer at his hip. Choke followed, and Pinch took up the rear.
Besides the tavernkeeper, his serving wench, and a pair of worn-out whores, there were about a dozen people inside the big establishment. There was a murmur as they realized who the squad were. There was some further hissed communication from one table as its occupants recognized whose horse and warbow Peep had.
“Well, howdy there, Dan!” Peep exclaimed at the tavernkeeper, as she pushed the wolfhead off of hers. “Ye remember me? I was in here not a month ago, with that cocksucker Orcstabber!”
Everyone in the joint was frozen in place, as Knuckle and Choke took up position to either side of Peep. Pinch moved laterally behind them with his bow held lose in his hand until he had an angle on everyone.
“Ahhhhh. Yeah. I remember ye. But I’m sorry, ma’am: slipped my mind what it was they called ye,” Dan, the tavernkeeper, said.
“They called me Peep. But I’ve since been christened up all good and proper into the fold of the Stronian faith. So now I’m Otilla.”
“Okay. Otilla. Well, we’ve heard of ye since, that’s for sure. I suppose what we’ve been hearing is true, then. That the slip of a girl we seen with Orcstabber was the same one that did him in, and then went on to become Otilla of the Holy Fire.”
“That is true. Ye forgot that I killed Horsecock and helped them that did Goldy in the same fray. And then that we cleaned out the Callic Old Mill. That was a nasty piece of work, that. Bigass spider monsters sucking people dry. Bit touch and go for a minute there, that job, I don’t mind saying,” Peep said with a grin.
“Yar right. I did forget all that. Well, what can we do for ye today, Otilla?” Dan asked, his voice neutral.
“Oh, just a drink I’d say, Dan. We’ve come all the way from Callic and sure could use one. And a bit of a chat, I suppose.”
“Well, then, yar all welcome. Have a seat.”
Peep went to the bar, set down her Scythan bowcase and quiver and saddlebags, and perched lightly on a barstool, leaving her shortbow case and quiver in place on her back. As she sat, she pulled her cloak away from her shortsword on her left hip and adjusted the weapon so that its hilt was set ideally for a quickdraw.
“And one for the bar, too. Whatever they’ve been having,” Peep said.
This gesture of goodwill brought no cheer from its recipients, but a number of them did nod Peep’s way in thanks.
“And ye all can settle down, boys,” Peep addressed the room, her voice loud. “We aint here looking for anyone. Unless ye got that cocksucker Alan Mason hiding in yar stables!”
Knuckle and Choke sat down to either side of Peep, their faces set like stone as they eyeballed every man in the room. Pinch took a seat a little further down the bar, where he had a better angle on the table of three woodsmen that had taken particular notice of Peep’s horse and bow.
Once all the drinks had been served, Peep raised hers to the room and took a big pull. She unleashed a wicked belch as she set the stein down.
“So!” Peep said loud. “Alan ‘the Cocksucker’ Mason! Did he come through here today? Or yesterday?”
No one in the bar would meet her eye, so she turned to smile brightly at Dan the tavernkeeper.
“No, we haven’t seen him and his lot since they lit outta here chasing ye lot on the road to Bristlehump. That were, what? Over a week ago now, weren’t it?”
“Yeah, that would be about right, Dan. Maybe ten days, or so. Now, I suppose that means that none a ye have heard what happened up Callic way yesterday, then,” Peep said.
“No, we haven’t heard. But I reckon we could guess,” said Dan.
“Well, ye don’t have to guess. Cause I’m here to tell ye. Captain Fairchild came up and put Alan and all his boys under arrest. Hanged three of them. Who was it he hanged, Pinch?”
“Well, one of them was just an example to the others and we didn’t catch his name. The other two were, Bobby Biggs and Sticky Pete.”
“Right ye are, Pinch. Thank ye. Bobby Biggs and Sticky Pete,” Peep said loudly. “They’re up there in Callic, still dangling from that tree. But I will say: they were right tough cunts about it. Real brave. Made me proud to have once been their type myself!”
Peep took a long moment to look over everyone and see who might be inclined to meet her eye. No one was, so she continued:
“Anyways, once them three swung, the Captain released Alan ‘the Cocksucker’ Mason to go and give a message to the Outfit, both here and in Strana. Then he pressed the rest of the boys into service as mounted skirmishers.”
“Okay, sounds tidy,” Dan said tiredly, making a good show of being unimpressed. “What’s that to do with any of us here? None of us have much to do with the Outfit. Ye oughta be down at the depot with this, shouldn’t ye.”
“That is true, Dan. And that’s our very next stop. But yar customers do tend to be the sort that the Outfit tap when they’re in need of some extra muscle. So I thought they could benefit from hearing the tale.”
“So, anyways, Alan fucked off by himself, and his five remaining men joined up with the army. Like ye said: nice and tidy. But… if there were five left to him after three got hanged, and he lit outta here with eleven after his one guy went and cut his throat in that unfortunate midnight gardening accident… then whad’ye suppose happened to the other three?”
“I suppose ye mean to tell me,” Dan said.
“That I do, Dan. That I do! That horse outside. This bow here. This silver clasp. What was the name of the feller that had it all? Ye never caught his name, did ye?”
Peep paused to look at Dan for a good, long moment. When he failed to provide her a name, she continued, now addressing the room at large:
“I mean, all the time the fucker spent in this joint, ye’d figure that someone here would remember his name. Anyone recall the fucker’s name?”
No one answered.
“No? No one here knows? Wow! Coldblooded. All that time spent with a fucker, and no one can even call to mind his name. Makes ye wonder what the point of this life is then, if no one will even speak up for ye after yar passing. But, don’t worry, I got it. See, cause Thorn, that ornery prick,” Peep paused here to spit on the floor. “Thorn, cunt that he is, knew who the guy was, so he let me know. Sleekdown was his handle. Right?”
“Sleekdown!” Knuckle guffawed. “Sleekdown? What the fuck kinda queer handle is that to have?”
“That I couldn’t tell ye, Knuckle,” Peep said, laughing along with him. “And if there’s anyone that knows, is there anyone that cares?”
Peep drained the rest of her stein and set it down with another stellar burp.
“Anyways, I just thought ye all should know that I was the one that got Sleekdown. I had him and his two boys following me, trying to track me back to these three here. Then I slipped them, doubled back, and killed all three. By myself. Cut Sleekdown’s fucking throat. Face to face we were, and I breathed in his last breath. Fancy that, huh? Beautiful horse like that. This gorgeous jink stick. Musta been a real fuckin serious motherfucker in yar crowd, huh? Ye figure him and his two boys would be able to handle one little slip of a girl coming at them all by her lonesome.”
Peep paused to let that thought sink in. Then she burped again and dug into her pocket.
“Well, I guess it’s time for me to settle up, Dan. Whad’ye reckon: this should cover it, right?”
Peep set down on the bar one of the silver rings she had taken off Sleekdown’s men. Dan picked it up and looked at it closely.
“This’ll cover it,” he confirmed.
“Any change coming back on that?” Peep asked mildly.
“Yeah, there will be. Just let me put it on the scales.”
“Don’t trouble yarself over it, Dan. Ye keep that change. And spread the word. Anybody that wants part of whatever money the Outfit sees fit to throw around had best think long and hard about Sleekdown, Bobby Biggs, and Sticky Pete. And them other small fry, too. And if anyone wants a word with us about that, or anything else, they can always leave us a message at the church. I’m sure we’ll get it. And then we’ll get right back to them. Is that clear to everybody?” Peep called out to the bar entire.
Once again, no one said a word or met her eye. Peep grinned at her boys, tapped her Stronian ring on the counter three times, and dipped her head in farewell to Dan. Then the squad left the Elk and Quiver and mounted up to head on into town.
“We aint gonna go to the depot like ye said?” Knuckle asked Peep as they rode on by the big freight lot in front of the depot warehouse and offices.
“Nah, fuck that. What’s the point? They’re all just a bunch of mule fuckers, them guys in there. They aint any threat to us now. The Outfit’s gonna do what it’s gonna do. Scaring a bunch of their nobodies aint gonna change things one way or the other,” Peep said.
“D’ye think the Outfit’s gonna lay off now that the Captain told them what’s what?” Pinch asked the group at large.
“I have no idea,” Choke said. “I would assume not, though.”
“Yeah, I dunno,” Peep seconded. “I don’t know shit about them or the big city game. I guess it depends on how full of shit the Baron is. Like, will he actually go to Strana and string people up over it?”
“Doubtful,” Choke said. “Captain Fairchild thought he was only involving himself on behalf of his wife. And, as a Baron, which is the most minor of nobles, by the way, he has no authority, and probably very little influence, in Strana. So we have to assume that the Outfit will still be looking to do us harm.”
“Sounds right to me,” Pinch said. Peep and Knuckle both nodded.
“So, how are we gonna go see the Lady Hart?” Knuckle asked. “We’re not going tonight, are we?”
“That’s actually a good question,” Pinch said. “We have been invited, but I have no idea what that actually means. Where do we present ourselves?”
“Well, we’re not going tonight, that’s certain, at least” Choke said. “We’ll go to the church to spend the night. If Father Morrenthall is back from Strana, he’ll set us right. Otherwise, tomorrow morning, we’ll go and have a word with Sheriff Waters and see what he says about it. We also should talk to him anyway about the Chisel and the Outfit.”
“The sheriff? That fuckin tool? Cause he was such a fuckin help last time, right?” Peep griped.
“Well, I expect we’ll find him more helpful this time around, don’t you?” Choke said.
“No doubt!” Pinch laughed.
At the church, they found that Father Morrenthall had not yet returned. Mrs Dunn, the widow who served as the church’s quartermaster as well as custodian and cook, intercepted them with her usual brusqueness:
“Get them horses put away and get into the kitchen before too many people see yar here! I don’t need every dazed wanderer in the barony showing up to pray to ye again! Last time it took me a week to clear all of them out of here!” she snapped at Peep, glowering at her with deep suspicion.
“Thank you, Mrs Dunn. We’ll do that,” Choke said.
Once Mrs Dunn had fed them, Peep presented her the two suits of chainmail, the leather armor, and the two crossbows. Mrs Dunn handled all the items expertly as she checked them.
“There’s an arrow hole in the chest here. It’ll have to be mended,” she scowled, poking her finger out the hole in the leather armor.
“I know,” Peep said. “The guy wearing it didn’t wanna just hand it over, so I had to persuade him.”
“The crossbows I’ll give ye three silver apiece for,” Mrs Dunn said, ignoring Peep.
“Wait a minute,” Knuckle said. “Mrs Dunn, ye sold me one just like this for six silver!”
“Yeah, what of it? That price was a gift!”
“I know it, ma’am. So what d’ye call paying us half that on these?”
“That, boy, is fair. Call the difference a donation to the Church. I’m sure it’ll go some way to paying down whatever sin ye accrued laying yar hands on this gear.”
“Okay, but that’s pretty rough, aint it, ma’am?” Knuckle pushed. “We could do better taking all this down to Main Street to sell.”
“Theodas…” Choke said wearily.
“We’ll be keeping our business within the Church,” Choke said.
“Even if we get chiseled for it? Come on! I wouldn’t sell it to her, Peep. This is a rip off!” Knuckle said, glaring back at Mrs Dunn.
“I’m thinking he’s right, Choke,” Peep said. “That aint a good price.”
“Okay, fine,” Mrs Dunn snapped. “I’ll go four silver on each of the crossbows. The leather armor is good quality, but it has that hole in it. So I’ll go two silver on that. The mail and doublets are good. I’ll give ye ten silver each for them. So, total, for all of it, that’s thirty silver.”
“Thirty’s still way light,” Peep said. “Mail like that at a smith is gonna sell for as much as thirty silver per set. Maybe even forty.”
“New, it might. Some dead man’s armor sure won’t,” Mrs Dunn came back.
“So if we come in tomorrow and wanna buy this armor back from ye. As warriors of the faith, what’s the good price ye’ll make us for one of these suits,” Peep asked.
“I’d give it to ye for twenty.”
“That would be a good price. So ten each is light. Fifteen each I want. So forty silver for the lot,” Peep said.
Mrs Dunn glowered at her. Peep smiled back.
“Look, Mrs Dunn, I know I can walk my goods down to the smithy and he’s probably gonna give me fifty.”
“Not on yar life we won’t! Ye’d be lucky to get forty!”
“And yet yar standing here offering me thirty. Doesn’t seem right to me,” Peep smiled.
“Ye take care of the Church, and the Church takes care of you,” Mrs Dunn said.
“Oh, is that how that works? Okay, then, Mrs Dunn, how about thirty-five?”
“That I can do. Done,” Mrs Dunn said. She immediately set to gathering up the goods, waving off the lads’ attempts to help her. She moved the three suits of armor and two crossbows into the armory in two trips.
“I’m going to bed now,” Mrs Dunn proclaimed when she returned to the kitchen. “I’ll have yar money for ye in the morning. Silver coin is fine?”
“Perfect, Mrs Dunn. A pleasure doing business with ye,” Peep said.
Mrs Dunn turned on her heel and left them without a word.
“That she is the one taking care of the battleaxes here is poetic,” Pinch said quietly after she had left.
They all had a quiet giggle at this.
“Okay, boys. So I’m getting thirty-five silver from that tight-fisted troll. Shared four ways that’s eight silver and a mess of copper. I’ll give ye eight silver each and take eleven for myself. Anyone have a problem with that? Seeing as it’s all fruit from my kills, and all.”
“No, that’s quite reasonable. Thank you, Peep,” Pinch said. Choke and Knuckle each nodded.
“Then we’ll sell back yar little horse, right? So, that’ll be something too,” Knuckle said.
“Right. Then, there’s this,” Peep said. She reached down to open up one of her saddlebags and extracted Sleekdown’s fine steel shortsword in its sheath. She drew it and set it down on the table. It was a beautiful little weapon; double-edged and wickedly sharp.
“Now, this, I don’t have a use for, seeing as I have Sleed’s magic shortsword. I thought maybe about selling it to ol’ tight-fist here, but the way she squeezes coin we’d probably be better off putting it to use ourselves.”
“Ooo! That is nice!” Pinch said as he reached out to grab it.
“Yeah, I figured you for it, Pinch. Since ye use a shortsword, and it’s gotta be better than the one the ravens gave ye.”
“Oh, yeah, it surely is. You don’t mind if I take it, do you?” Pinch asked Knuckle and Choke.
Choke nodded earnestly. Knuckle looked sour, but grunted his assent.
“And with that, I think we should go to bed, too,” Choke said. “Big day tomorrow. And remember, we’re most likely meeting nobility. So we all need to bathe tomorrow morning and wash our clothes and gear. Parade inspection clean. Yes?”
“Wow, ye mean tomorrow we aint gonna hafta be smelling Knuckle’s ass no more? We oughta visit the quality more often!” Peep laughed.
“Yeah, like you’ve ever been clean a day in yar life, ye fuckin bush monkey!” Knuckle laughed right back at her.