Chapter Three: Pratt
Virgil Pratt was a satisfied man. Well… except for the hangover. The view from where he stood would probably make one of those sensitive, foppish types spout some of that poetry crap and tear up. The small valley he had set his operation up in was nice. Green trees, tall grass and bushes, two nice little cottages with gardens and animal pens, a small brook running through the middle. Right out of a bard’s song. He saw something entirely different as he squinted in the painful mid-day sun and finished relieving himself over the rock ledge.
The trees were great for lookout posts. The tall grass and bushes at either end of the hollow hid several bear traps and trip wires. One cottage was his headquarters, and the other was for storage. The brook… well, they used that the way most would, but they sure were not writing any songs or painting any pictures of it. That was just what you could see from the outside. Well hidden by an overgrowth of trees and bushes, the cave entrance below him was only discovered by pure accident. He was pretty certain that the people that were living in this valley before he took it over had been unaware of the collection of rooms and tunnels that the opening revealed. The rocky outcrop was only about three stories high, too big for a hill, but not big enough to call a mountain.
The other side of the valley was even less impressive; more a brush covered knoll that stood just tall enough to make this dip in the land an actual valley. It did have one feature that made it ideal. The tunnels below spread out under a good portion of this valley, and one of those led to a cleverly disguised exit. Whoever made these tunnels, was pretty handy with a chisel. The exit looked like any other part of the rock formation on the hillock. The rest of the tunnels were also well made, and as far as he could tell, laid out in a big square pattern with a lot of interconnecting passages and rooms in the center.
The place looked like it had been abandoned a long time ago. There was no furniture to speak of, and it appeared that it had been well cleaned before the owners left; the only things marring the neatness were the thick layer of dust, numerous spider webs, and signs of wild animals having used the place for a den.
Virgil had stumbled upon the caves when he was passing through the valley almost five months ago and heard some people shouting back and forth.
He caught a glimpse of one man in dirty, rough-spun tunic and trousers, wiping a sweat rag across his brow and shouting to someone out of sight about a pig. Virgil ducked back into the nearby bushes so he could hide until he knew how many men were out there. A couple of farmers he could handle, even with the busted up leg and bruised ribs he had due to his hasty retreat from Haley, but he wanted to make sure it was only two. As he burrowed farther into his hiding spot, he glanced around and that was when he saw the crease of darkness in the rocks. As he had entered the valley he stayed close to the high, rocky hill on the southeast side and that was where his current hiding spot was; in some dense foliage growing at the foot of the hill.
The voices gradually became more distant, but instead of going out to check on them he decided to see what the dark mystery crease was. Always too curious, he did not stop to think that the opening might not a simple cave he could crawl into and hideout for the night. The growth around the hole was a tight squeeze, and he had to back up twice to unhook his shirt when it got snagged. While he cursed his slight beer gut as he wriggled between two bushes, he was also feeling pretty good about his potential hideout. The fact that it was so overgrown meant that the voices probably did not know it was there. When he finally reached the spot, he discovered a cave entrance big enough for him to walk through upright once he moved some branches out of the way. His smug smile was gone in the same instant that he realized the solid ground for his next step was as well. He was fortunate that his tumble was only for a short distance, and that he landed without breaking any bones. His ribs sure did not like the treatment, though.
He chuckled at the memory, even though it caused his head to ache a bit more, and turned away from surveying his Kingdom. Pratt’s Refuge, he called it. A nice little haven for himself and some of his closest friends. Admittedly, he only had one person that really fit that title, but the other men and a few women that had joined him here were kindred spirits. Tired of others trying to run their lives, treating them like trash, or bringing them low just because they did not want to live their lives as not much better than slaves.
Virgil knew first hand what kind of life that could be, and he wanted none of it. His father had been a farmer, the money he earned with his own sweat taken by the tax collector. He had to grow enough to sell at market just to get by, only so he could pay someone else to be able to live on his own land. Oh, they said all of the land belonged to the King, but did the King clear the land? Did he till it and farm it?
The more money they demanded, the more his father drank himself into oblivion. Eventually they lost the farm, though how someone could take land that rightfully belonged to his father for no reason and say it was the law, he had no idea. Then to top it all off, they throw his father in jail for correcting his own wife. She had almost died, but even Virgil agreed that she had it coming, with her constant nagging and back talk. When a man is punished for providing firm discipline to what is rightfully his property… well, that sounded like a slave to Virgil. Sure, his father had taken a strap and his fists to Virgil too, but it was usually deserved.
Virgil scrubbed a hand down his face and mentally scrubbed those thoughts away at the same time. His mood was black enough, especially after the rude wake up.
There was still some of the rowdy shouting that had roused him from sleep, going on just outside the storage building. Burt’s group was making the racket, and he was about to yell at them to shut up when the man himself noticed they were being watched.
“Hey, Boss! You missed out on this one. Wooo! It were some kinda fun.”
Burt was still drunk, but that was not uncommon. It sounded like they had a decent haul this time.
“What’d you get?” His head hurt too much for small talk.
“Not too bad a haul. Leather goods…” the pause was for Burt to quench his thirst. “Ahhh. Nice stuff, too. Prob’ly get a good price for it, but that weren’t the best part.”
If his head was not so close to breaking open, he would have yelled at the man for spilling a good bit of the wine he tried to drink. Burt seemed oblivious, lost in thought about his recent outing, he just wiped an arm across his mouth and grinned up at Virgil.
“Great. Finish putting it away, and then keep it quiet. I’m tryin’ to rest.”
“Wait, wait. You gotta hear this. So we stop this family, right? The boys pull the father and kid off the wagon and drag ‘em out of the way.”
“Burt.” The drunken fool just talked right over him.
“Well, what do I do? Still in the wagon, screaming her head off, is the prettiest little piece of tail you ever did see. So I drag her off to the grass where it’s soft, right?”
“Burt.” A little more forceful this time.
“Had to get a couple of the boys to help hold her down. She was a fighter. Ha! Anyway, you should have seen her. She had the softest, bigges-”
“Burt!” He had to practically scream to get the man’s attention, and the resulting spike of pain almost made him puke. He squeezed his eyes shut, and his put his head in his hands for a second. When he was able to open his eyes and look up Burt was eyeing him nervously.
“Shut the hell up. You can tell me about it later. I’m going back to bed.”
He did not even wait for a response, he just turned to go back inside. The rock shelf he stood had two more of those ingenious hidden exits, made so that you could not tell they were there from the ground. One for him, one for his men. He left his open for light after he passed through. A glance at the bed had him tempted to crawl back in for a few more hours, but one of the lumps on the bed was squirming a little, and he was not sure he wanted to hear another person’s voice right this second. As enjoyable as last night had been, and he was pretty sure Burt’s fun could not match the enthusiasm of the two girls now sleeping off the drunk in his bed, he just wanted quiet. His bare feet were nearly silent as he crossed the room and entered the one adjoining.
The basin sitting atop the small round table in the center of the room was filled with cool water from the well, and judging by how cool it was, had been put there not long ago. The cool water felt very soothing as he splashed it across his face, and the skin of water that had been laying next to the large bowl was even more needed. Just as cool as the basin water, it tasted like a little bit of heaven to his parched throat, and he drained the skin in a matter of seconds. The towel on the other side of the table was used next, and he allowed himself a small smile of pride as he thought of what a good maid he had.
The two families that once lived in this valley had been easy to get rid of. Both of the men were cowards, pleading for the lives of their families and crying like little girls right up to the point that he cut their throats. Next came one of the wives, her screaming in a long continuous shriek only broken when she had to take a breath. His aching head pulsed at the memory of the noise. The other wife had been a bit more interesting and one of the only two in the group to put up a fight. It was actually a disappointment to have to kill her, but she just would not quit fighting. That left two teenage boys that were easier to handle than the men, and one older teenage girl. He knew she would he a handful, and was the only other one to put up any kind of fight.
The fight had mostly left her when he killed her mother. The daughter was a rare beauty with long brown hair, and very nice curves for a girl that could not be more than seventeen. Luckily, he had found a room in his new home that could be bolted from the outside. The week he spent exploring the caves while he recuperated, helped by the supplies he had stolen from his new, unaware neighbors, had revealed a few surprises. An artisan well with cool, sweet water, the lockable room that might have been a prison cell, and hidden room that must have been overlooked when the previous owners left. It had a rack with a two short swords, a spear and an axe in one corner. There was a desk that had parchments with some kind of foreign chicken scratch written on them (they were good for starting a fire, though), a chest he had not been able to open at the time, and some other vases and bits of useless junk.
He had put the weapons to use on the families and after having some fun with the girl, locked her in the room until he could figure things out. She had been a fighter, biting and scratching, but by the time he was done, he was sure she knew how things were going to be from now on. He had eventually tired of that game, and now used her as a maid, with one of the others watching her as long as she was out of her cell. She had fought that too, and he had to promise that he would keep the other men away from her as long as she did her job well. The threat that she would be given to his men if she messed up had been used a few times, but he found that she worked better if he left her alone. Since they had caught two women in their raids over the last few weeks, and had some others join the Refuge that were more agreeable company, he had let her be. Threats were given out to the boys, and he had actually needed to back those up once, but that had been it.
Feeling a bit more alive now, he slipped his boots on and headed out to find some food and then check on Burt’s haul. If it was good enough, they could lay low for a while and start sending people out with the stuff they had taken over the last month to sell in Yost. This was how a man should make a living; take from those too weak to protect it. And if anyone did not like it… well, just let them try and stop him.