Bounder Ch. 06byStultus©
*********************** CHAPTER SIX
It was not quite yet midday when we arrived, as we had hurried our traveling pace on the good road to complete the four leagues of distance in rather less than the usual four hours. I was huffing a bit, being a little out of my best physical conditioning, but Koch and Flerrie appeared to show little if any fatigue and they made no particular complaints. I left them for the moment at one of the roadside vendor tents, an ale house of sorts, and let them quench their thirsts. The air had been brisk and quite dry, but the eastern storm clouds were getting obvious nearer. I hoped that we could be safely home again before the storm struck but this would be unlikely.
I wanted to locate watchman Auguste and a brief inquiry with the army major in command of the combined camp informed me that this guardsman was indeed present, but posted for duty at the southern most watchtower this week. The six watchtowers were each situated about two miles apart from each other, some perhaps a bit more, and more or less situated in a direct north-south line. The northern most tower was positioned so that it could both watch the northern tracking bend of the great river and also the hills and plains to the west. The river north of here was shallow and filled with rapids and considered largely impassible by anything other than small boats. The southernmost tower actually tended to incur the most danger, having to guard the western and southern hills, and also the edge of the great swamp just to its east. This area was where bandits tended to congregate, but rarely in any significant strength, and the camp commander had heard no recent rumors of brigands or other troublemakers in the area.
From this camp, this meant another short trip of about another two leagues south, taking a poorly marked dirt trail that lead to and past each of the guard towers. The route was hilly, rock strewn and the blowing wind made even southern travel uncomfortable. It was past noon when we reached the final tower and found our guardsman Auguste, bored but hale.
While the lad was eager to be helpful, unfortunately he had indeed given a rather complete and full account already in his record and he could add very little of pertinence to that prior report. Still I questioned and requestioned him again, until I became at something of a loss to find a query that hadn't already been adequately covered.
Auguste had been stationed at the Ormsford Bridge watch station for nearly a full year and he along with two other guardsmen alternated patrols east and west along the river road and also made short scouting trips north of the town upon several small dirt trade roads. The river route was considered 'safe', but the northern trails were much less so, prone to bandit attack or even raids by non-human tribes from further north, such as the Hobs. Yes, people did disappear with regularity from the region, both men and women, but invariably from the north, and not travelers along the river roads, the north or south banks! The dangers had increased over the last few years, enough so to add an additional watchman of the vigiles to this post, and now even another additional patroller was being requested for future duty there, in response to the ever rising risks.
As for the Weir's, the lad agreed that the family was not popular in the area, and few travelers stayed at their inn, mostly staying instead at several smaller rooming houses in the nearby small town. The father was renowned for his ill-temper and his two older sons shared that defect, and were considered both ill-mannered and rather free with their hands with the young ladies of the region. Despite rumors that several young women of the district might have been raped or otherwise ill-used by the brothers, no charges had ever been made to the vigiles that Auguste knew of.
"No one will talk about the Weir's, especially to strangers or the vigiles!" He insisted. "Everyone in the town was sore afraid of them, and the local farmers would do no business with them either. Word is that bad things happen to those who get involved in Weir family business and no one ever lets their womenfolk go anywhere alone anywhere near town."
"It's definitely the two elder brothers responsible then?"
"Aye. If there's trouble, they'd be the root cause of it! There's a third youngest brother, but he's said to be simple and stays mostly in their stables, causing little or no trouble that I've ever heard of. I'm sure Edwin, Edward and also Edwina their sister all lied, claiming they'd never seen that girl's torn clothing before, the undergarments that were found in their copse, near the road. They belonged to the missing girl, Rochelle all right. I could see it in their eyes when I showed them the torn cloth! I'd stake my oath that they were the ones responsible, but there was no proof to be found. Their sister even tried to claim that the torn clothing was all hers, but this was clearly a lie as the garments were all sized for a much more slender woman. They knew we couldn't prove anything against them and they laughed at us too, smug that we had no cause to take them for questioning... and never would either! It's said that their father was once a Blackguard officer, given an early pension for an incident involving excessive cruelty, and for one of the Blackguards that sort of offense must have been monstrous indeed to be so punished! He still has friends among them though, as I used to see black-cloaks coming and going from the inn all the time, both day and night... and sometimes with heavily loaded wagons, their cargo well covered up by a tarp. If they share a business interest, I'm sure it not an honorable one!"
Indeed, in fact I could hardly imagine an offense brutal enough to give even those hardened killers misgivings. As for other rumors about the family, there were many, but nothing that could be proven. One remote farmer had warned the vigiles once a few years before that the former Blackguard and his family were bandits, preying upon travelers and merchants along the dangerous northern roads. Another goodwife of the town claimed that the old grandmother living with them at the inn was a witch of the darkest sort, who cavorted with imps and other creatures of darkness and used her magical powers for wickedness, cursing everyone that spoke against her family.
Again, Auguste could claim no proof of evidence for any of these alleged crimes, but it was his personal opinion that the unfortunate woman Rochelle had crossed the bridge during the worst of the storm so that she might take temporary shelter in the town, and perhaps the inn on the northern side. Then as now, there was no suitable nearby shelter along the marshier southern road, until much closer to the eastern gate.
He was certain that then that the brothers had espied her, seized her by force and made sport with her in the copse of trees near the inn, which was indeed their usual trysting spot. It wasn't their habit to physically harm their victims, so premeditated murder would have been an unlikely fate for their victim unless she had been especially threatening to her attackers. It was alternatively more likely that just after her physical rape that she might have temporarily overpowered one or both of her sated attackers and then attempted to flee toward the road and safety. Perhaps then, to recapture her, the carriage was used (or perhaps already nearby with the horses harnessed for some reason), so that she was quickly pursued along the road and perhaps even run over by the carriage by accident, due to very poor visibility during the violent and extremely heavy downpour at the height of the storm.
All local witnesses agree that during the mid afternoon of the day Rochelle vanished, the storm had been heavy enough at several times so that visibility, even on the roadway, was nearly nil. A hack driven by a nervous driver galloping in haste could have possibly have struck the victim unintentionally by happenstance, not seeing her before it was too late to stop. Or maybe even the murderous deed had been done intentionally, to silence their victim, who was not a local resident. In any case, now finding their victim dead, and perhaps nearly sliced into half by the narrow wheels of the carriage, the nearby river barely a stone's throw away was quickly used to discard the body, with the heavy rain sufficing to wash away any blood spilled upon the road stonework. Auguste had searched the stone roadway with great care but had been unable to find any bloodstains to prove this notion, and the torrents of rain had prevented any of the blood from staining the stones and would have quickly washed away all of the evidence.
While not perfect, this version of events seems to adequately cover all of the known facts of the case. Auguste had little other additional advice for us, save that all of the Weir family was likely to be highly skilled with arms and of a highly disagreeable nature. They would likely resist with violence any attempt to apprehend them, even for temporary questioning before their Blackguards friends could gain their release.
"If I could be certain of their guilt," he sadly added, "I wouldn't even attempt to bring them into the station, even to see them put to the question with hot irons! Their hearts are rotten to the core, filled with evil the entire lot of them. I'd not give them the chance for a fair fight, but bar their doors and windows up tight with stout iron, boards and nails and then burn the inn down fast upon their evil heads! The old mother might or might not be a witch, but their souls are all black enough that perhaps naught but clean fire could ever rid us of them!"
I didn't entirely disagree. I'm opposed by nature to giving my opponents anything resembling a fair fight and if the family indeed did have plenty of old friends up at the castle, they'd never be put before a trial. The charges (not to mention the witnesses) would vanish and quietly the lot of them would be released from whatever extremely temporary inconvenience they might have suffered. I'd remain their prime enemy, with the entirety of the Blackguards arrayed against me, and those would be insufferable odds!
No, if the Weir brothers were guilty, which now seemed highly probable, there could be no arrests, no prisoners, no trial and most importantly no witnesses... living ones anyway. Sir Adrian had suggested as much in his note. Strike hard and fast and get your head under a large rock before the shit starts flying again until it all blows over.
I could do that!
It was about mid afternoon now and the skies were getting darker with the promise of heavy rain with much of the daylight now gone. In annoyance I resisted the very sensible notion of following the hill trail back north to the camp. The idea of more walking up and down the innumerable small hills once more until we reach the main stone road before we could then return east to the city thrilled no one. That was the smart decision, but we were all tired and annoyed at our lack of progress and when Koch suggested that we just shave off part of the trip by cutting northeast 'a little bit' around the edge of the swamp to intersect with the road a league or two closer to home, I didn't argue. Flerrie, who usually had more sense than to do obviously idiotic things was just tired and annoyed enough herself to just shrug at the suggestion of a potentially time saving 'shortcut'. Anything that would get us back home, safe and hopefully drier even a half hour or more sooner was music to our ears.
Sure I could claim that it was his stupid idea in the first place, but I was the boss and ultimately the shit starts and stops with me. So a half hour later when a twelve foot long swamp lizard dashed out of the marshy tall reeds less than a dozen paces away from us, there was really no one at all to blame except for myself!
Swamp lizards can usually be avoided. Most successfully by not going anywhere near the great swamp in the first place! They're not all that fast, unless they've been basking in the sun for several hours beforehand and then they're capable of a short, but rather rapid lunging charge upon their two hind feet towards their prey. This one had been basking in the reeds barely a stone's throw away from the 'shortcut' we'd taken that passed a bit too close to the edge of the swamp for my comfort. Anything within bow or gunshot range was too close, in my opinion, but I'd been a bit too lost in thought to really notice how closely we'd encroached toward the marshy edges of some bog land between us, on nominally dry land and the swamp proper.
Running away wasn't a good option. We could run further, but in a short distance sprint of fifteen or twenty yards, the critters were faster.
Koch did what he did best and stepped up to block the lizard's charge, placing himself in front to protect me. Well, that was a big part of his primary job description and what I paid him for! With his sword and long stabbing dagger out, he was attempting to drive the creature off, but not with any particular success. Lizards are dumb and extremely single-minded, especially when they're hungry. People, especially bodyguards dressed as simple merchants tend to be tender and juicy, and the bones would make for good crunching later, after another long bask in the sun. Flerrie had her pistol out and at the ready, waiting to take a clear shot at the creature and not risk her bullet striking Koch instead.
The big problem was that while Koch's blades were of good metal and plenty sharp, swamp lizard scale is harder. Stabbing doesn't really work and just annoys them, and you almost have to peel off a layer or two of scales before you can find something softer you can sink a sword into. A normal long sword wasn't quite the tool for the job and his long stabbing dagger was almost worthless. There are idiots who hunt these beasts professionally, and while they are crazy and often have short life expectancies, smart (and lucky) well-prepared hunters can earn big money. Lizard scale is the best possible material for making really good military quality scale armor, and the lizard hunters use either very long and extremely sharp spears to stab in-between layers of the scale (particularly near the softer underbelly) or else they hire very big northern barbarians with huge axes or spiked hammers that can chop their way through most trouble and are usually too stupid to care about the risks.
I had no weapons of this sort.
Koch was put immediately upon the defensive now and he soon needed to throw himself to the marshy ground to avoid a devastating chomp of the creature's jaws that came near to taking his entire head off. The beast had two excellent choices now, to either chew up my bodyguard's entrails rather easily and quickly, or else to leap upon its only other two vertical opponents, Flerrie or myself. I read somewhere that lizards tend to have poor visual senses and rely upon scent and movement to locate their prey. Since I was back pedaling as fast as my boots could shuffle, I must have seemed the more appetizing entrée and it forgot about the tender meal right at its feet and came waddling after me, soon dropping to all four legs to chase after me.
With a clear shot now, Flerrie took it. And her bullet struck the beast in its chest but it did not penetrate the scales. She then drew out her vigiles issue broad sword and charged forward hoping to distract the great lizard just before it could rip its claws and long sharp teeth into me.
I'd left my sword cane back at our brothel room in the city, with much of my other traveling possessions, not that the slender blade would have been useful here either. It didn't fit my cover as a common merchant and it was too big for hiding my pack anyway, not that I would have time to rummage for it now in any case. I did have my pistols, but I'd heard mixed reports of their usefulness, even before I watched Flerrie's larger and more powerful pistol shot fail to penetrate the creature's natural armor. Allegedly, bullets from matchlock muskets, having a much heavier powder charge and more resultant striking force than any pistol, only had about a 50% estimated penetration rate, which overall gave me far poorer odds of nailing the bugger with my two smaller pistols, even at point blank range. Not that any single one shot, or even two would likely kill the powerful beast.
The first shot, already at a range closer than I would have preferred, certainly didn't penetrate. I don't think the lead bullet even dented its scales! I'd fired from as close of a range as I could dare, with both Flerrie and Koch scampering to remain safely out of mauling range of the lizard. That left me with just one loaded pistol and one last single chance for survival.
This shot had to count, and I resisted the urge to entirely empty my bladder into my leather traveling trousers as the creature shambled up to devour me now instead. My last shot must have annoyed it. It faced me eye to eye and opened its great tooth filled jaws to bite my head off, but had my aim ready. I discharged my weapon from an inch away into its left eye and then I dove and rolled to my right, into what I hoped would be its blind spot where it couldn't immediately see me... especially if I remained utterly still while pissing myself! That might buy a moment or two for Koch or Flerrie to backstab the beast, shove a sword up its scaly ass, or at least divert its attention away from me long enough for me to retreat far enough away to safely have the chance to try and reload my pistols.
The alternative was to run like hell. That was actually the smart move, to write off Koch and the young patrol woman as a lost investment and move on, but they were both definitely useful. Koch didn't chatter away blathering non-stop when we worked together. Men (not to mention women) like that are a rare find. As for Flerrie, I used to have no use at all for the vigiles and hated the very uniform they wore while back in Mirabelle, but I was already in her (and their) debt even before this minor little problem of dealing with the local wildlife we shouldn't have been annoying in the first place.
I'm not a coward, but I do value my self-preservation... but in the long term that needed to include keeping Koch and Flerrie both alive. I wasn't sure how I could manage this, but I'd think of something, I usually did.
Actually, having a heavy lead bullet fired into one's brain (admitted not a very large brain) tends to be extremely distracting for a good many reasons, and while the creature didn't quite drop dead instantly in its tracks, it did begin thrashing about now rather violently, and with rather little coordination of its flailing limbs and teeth. This gave me time to crawl away a few more feet and then get up and scamper off much further out of range, and both Koch and Flerrie decided to make a strategic retreat as well.
Safely back now at a distance (or more so anyway), the guardswoman and I reloaded our weapons hastily, but the creature declined to chase after us any further.
After a few moments, the monstrous lizard staggered off back into the marsh, loudly howling out its pain and frustration like a banshee the entire time. I'd like to think that the big lizard sunk right into the swamp and promptly died, but that was probably just wishful thinking. It was in all probability far too stupid for any single bullet to the brain to kill it, perhaps even if I'd fired an entire pouch full of lead into its dimwitted skull!
Just as well, actually. Even if it had dropped dead right at our feet, skinning the hide would have been an issue, and I would have hated to have just left all of that potential gold to just sit and rot by the marsh!