Paying the Toll
By Bodukal the Reporter, published on the Nordholz Longhouse Walls
Days passed as the company headed further north, bypassing a castle town. “There’s hardly any work for common sellswords there,” spit Lindol, “You gotta have some kind of in with the local nobheads to get a job.” I got to know the new recruits a little better. Skinup, the ex-caravanner, knew some good stories and played a mean game of Pegboard, a card game both me and Nidonar enjoyed. Talking to Rannika is an interesting experience. If you assumed half of what he said was nonsense and half were lies, you would not be far off, but to discount him entirely would be a mistake. While I doubt he taught at the Univ. of Gelenbracht, he definitely picked up an education somewhere and he seems to have a good sense of what a person is like quickly. Had he been the one doing the guessing about the founding Fletchlings, he would have been quite accurate as to their true nature.
We arrived in a small lumber town called Nordholz where Lindol sold his cloth for a small, but not inconsiderable profit. Shortly we were met by Len the Burgomaster of the town who took us to his house. There he told his tale of woe.
“I was robbed on the road and left with only my life. The bandits jeered at my helplessness and claimed the were only taking the tolls they were owed for travelling on THEIR road. I still hear their words at night when I try to sleep. If tolls I must pay, I will pay them to you, sellswords-”
“Still no swords,” mumbled Pulraka.
“Take this money and when you have killed them all,” continued the burgomaster,” I will further reward you.” There was no opposition to taking the job. The only question was whether a 6th member should be added before their first fight. As they strolled back to the town square, they discussed it. The conversation was interrupted by a large man, nearly naked in the spring air and sporting a number of unusual blue tattoos. “You need fighting man, you people? I, Kalpubo, will fight for you,” he exclaimed, brandishing a well-used club. This I learned later was a wild man, unused to civilized life, but knowledgeable of the forest. Rannika said he looked untrustworthy, but was outvoted.
“Hah, the men who steal from people? Kalpubo knows where they lair. I pay you 10 crowns a day to go and fight them.” While Nidonar explained how the mercenary business actually works, Lindol found some better gear for the new recruit, an ill-fitting tunic but a fine used hand axe to replace the club. After holding it in his large hands, Kalpubo somehow looked even bigger than before.
The bandits lair turned out to be a dilapidated hermit’s hut. They had no sentries and by the time they realized they were being hunted, the Fletchlings had already taken the high ground. I was able to see the fight from cover atop a nearby hill. The first shot from Lindol hit the man Len had identified as the leader from the spear and shield he carried. The second shot followed and down he went. The bandits were not dispirited from their leader’s fall, but only because all of them were fighting for their own lives and losing. Skinup and Pulraka double teamed one bandit, clubbing him unconscious. Nidonar faced another foe while an enemy wielding a pitchfork stabbed at him from a distance. This did not hinder him from decapitating his man in a quick sweep of his axe. They then made short work of the pitchforker (note to self: is that a real thing?). Counting heads, they realized Kalpubo was missing and went in search. They quickly found him walking back through the bushes cleaning his axe on his tunic. Apparently, there was another pitchforkman (is that any better?) trying to flank them. The one prisoner begged for his life, but Nidonar just said coldly, “You haven’t paid the toll yet,” and they swiftly beheaded him. It was a moment of brutality, understandable brutality, but shocking from a man I had been friends with for years and yet had never seen that side of.
By Bodukal the Reporter, published in the Albstadt News
As the band of battle brothers approached their next stop, the city of Albstadt, I looked at Pulraka, the spearman. By now, I knew him well enough that this normally unflappable warrior looked uncomfortable. When questioned, he said, “This is where I am from, where my family still lives.” I have found mercenaries rarely talk about their families. Many who find their way into this life had bad or even tragic experiences as youths. Others found their otherwise loving families unable to accept that their little boy was going off to kill people for money. Thus my questioning got even more gentle at this time. “My parents are both merchants. Mom has a shop in town and Dad travels the road buying and selling. I used to travel with Dad until a close call with some bandits worried him enough to leave me home. They refused my requests for weapons training, but even Mom could see I was miserable counting inventory at the shop. When the Ashen Band came through town recruiting, she bought me some armor and a keen dagger and told me to chase my dreams. This is the first time I’ve been back since I left,” he counted on his fingers, “15 years ago.” I asked about siblings. “Oh, 3 living ones, my oldest brother still works with Dad, the next does something here in town, and news reached me about 5 years ago that I have a younger sister now, at least I haven’t heard anything otherwise.” He trailed off and I could see the talking was done. Nidonar wandered over, gave his friend a pat on the shoulder and said, “Well, we have a meeting with one of the town elders about a job. Both of you come with me for the preliminaries.” Arriving at the town hall, we were ushered into a small antechamber with fruit and poor quality wine. A curtained doorway was flung open. “Hoy mercenary, how long has it been since you’ve slaked your sword with the blood of evil, cruel men?”
“We don’t have any swords, you. . . brother?” said Pulraka.
“I knew that was you, Pul,” the man said, dropping the sarcastic voice and embracing his brother. He was dressed in a green tunic with the head-dress marking his status in town, “you are still the spitting image of Mom with a beard.”
“Nidonar, Bokudal, allow me to introduce my brother, Dulsk.” The town elder got back to business. “Your timing is great, a local group of brigands is growing too big for their britches and need a good spanking. I can’t get the town militia to stir out of town, so I think the answer to this issue is to hire some finely armed men like you, so are the Fletchlings interested?” Nidonar said they would have to take it back to the group, but that the 400 crown payment made it likely. “Fine, fine, I heard you mercenary types were slow thinkers,” Dulsk snarked, then said quietly, “would you join me and Mom at dinner, brother?”
Contract in hand, we left the next day. Kalpubo rejoined us on the road. “People of so many make Kalpubo shaky. In the forest I stay.” Lindol handed him a light cap to protect his head. The wild man looked dubious at it but put it lightly on his shaven head. Nidonar was marching off to the side, swinging one of the pitchforks they seized in the last fight. “I like the feel of this. I think I’ll try it out.” I worried a bit how casual everyone seemed to be acting about the upcoming fight. The last fight was, by all appearances, an easy one. Perhaps they were overconfident? And Pulraka seemed lost in thought, likely due to the reunion with his family. I saw him talking with Lindol and Nidonar but I was not invited to join that conversation.
These outlaws were more organized than the last group, if not more numerous. Their sentries spotted Kalpubo in the woods and raised the alarm. Rushing into battle, he found himself beset by two bandits. Meanwhile, Pulraka drew first blood with a wicked spear thrust and Lindol’s opening bolt found its mark in a bandit’s leg. But then a strike to the head knocked Kalpubo’s unfastened hat askew and he was left momentarily blinded. In that moment, a spear struck him in the chest and he went down. Pulraka finished off his man and left the line to face the men who took the wild man. A gasp and Skinup staggered back. Nidonar called for Rannika to support his fellow recruit as he moved forward. From behind my tree, I saw Skinup fall and abruptly the situation looked dicey. Even Lindol had to abandon his bow to defend himself with his back-up knife. Pulraka pushed one man off Lindol, then hit the other man hard. Nidonar managed to brain his opponent with the blunt end of the pitchfork and they converged on the final bandit who surrendered.
In the post battle check, we confirmed the wild man, Kalpubo, was no more, but that Skinup was badly hurt, though alive! As for Rannika, he said he had circled around behind the bandits and killed a hidden bowman. “Lies,” croaked Skinup, “he was fighting next to me until he pulled back. That let the swing that hit my face through. He was running like the Devil last I saw. I spoke up and confirmed I had seen him heading northwest, not east like he said. He blustered and claimed Skinup was against him covering his own incompetence and besides, Pulraka left the line also. Nidonar listened then motioned to Lindol who was standing behind Rannika. Head grabbed, a knife in the throat, and the coward went down, choking in his own blood. “Now then,” said Nidonar turning to their captive. The bandit could not have been more than 14 and I was tempted to call out to my friend to stop the slaughter. But he just said, “You have received a second chance today, boy. Make it a good one.” They stripped him of his weapons and sent him scurrying away through the forest.
Now back in town, we stopped at the Temple of Joy to get Skinup treated. “He has an obviously broken nose which we have set,” the temple doctor explained. “His elbow is also broken and while we have put it in a cast, I suspect he will never have the same range of motion or strength in that arm again.” Functionally, this left the Fletchlings back where they started, except with only 1,964 crowns. What will they do now?
"Oh no, why did I do that? Stupid, stupid, stupid" - Napoleon Bonaparte