Chapter 16:

A Snake in the Dingo’s Den

The Bushranger's Bayonet

The walk was always a gruelling one. Uncle Peter had set The Farm up far into the bush for a very good reason though, he didn’t want the police to know about their little sanctuary, lest they come to harass them. God forbid, if the Royal Army found this place they’d be screwed. Persecution and understated hatred were the norm for our kind for over a thousand years, so The Farm was built far away from that. The dingoes could do whatever they pleased out here and nobody would ever know. To them, this humble residence was their own slice of heaven. Plenty of space, lots of monsters to train on, a decent sized lake not too far away to swim in, and plenty of time to get up to all sorts of shenanigans.Mara intended to make full use of this summer. Jack would have his arm on her shoulder before they left in February. His broken leg didn't count, he'd do that with Cat just as easily with no question.Jack was looking forward to a relaxing summer away from the stresses of work, as well as seeing the rest of the family. They might be a bushranger school in name and branding, but were more along the lines of a dingo clan. Members were often relatives or became relatives over time. Uncle Peter mentioned about the joy there used to be when a new dingo was born.Connie didn’t seem to have any strong opinions on it, but a break would be nice. Cat was not particularly happy about the developments. The way Jack and Mara talked about The Farm made it seem like one giant family household. The Snakes tended to be emotionally distant from one another. Their school was more of an academy and safehouse, not a holiday house. They didn’t hug each other and reminisce, they didn’t party, they didn’t take partners within their own. A Snake stopped when they died and that was that. How she would last two whole months was currently up in the air. It’d be one hell of an adjustment. Just the five of them on the road is fine, she could fuck off whenever she needed space, but here Cat was boxed in. 
Lagging behind the group, she began to observe Mara more closely. Maybe that could keep her occupied for a while. Nothing beats sewing chaos in entertainment value. Messing with targets in the field is a valuable strategy that had served her well in the past. Poisons, Paralytics, strategically-placed beehives, gunpowder barrels. All fodder for mayhem. And Mara? She was all of those fun toys rolled into one. A bundle of unbridled chaos that could be compelled in all sorts of interesting directions, given the right push.And Cat was ready to play.
Mara on the other hand, she was coming home. The Farm was the little slice of homely paradise that brimmed with nostalgia and washed a year’s fatigue off like loose dirt in a fast-flowing stream. Simply walking through the rusted wooden gate onto the rough dirt track to the house was like dipping a first toe into a hot bath. 
Cat hung back and smirked as she watched the others cross the threshold, two words dominating her mind.‘Game on.’
Jack was visibly annoyed by her insistence. “I keep telling you, ya don’t have to carry me. I can limp along just fine," he moaned as Mara tried to hold Jack up from the right-hand side.“You broke your leg in at least four fucking places, Jack. By all rights, I should’ve stolen a cart and hauled you back here with it!”“I can walk by myself!”Mara simply huffed. “Fine, if you really wanna hobble all the way from here to the house then that’s fine. Don’t come crying to me when your bullet wounds start hurting again.”“If my memory serves me right, you took more shots than I did.” Jack replied with characteristic snark.“Grazes don’t count, we’re only counting embedded shots.” Her tone was defensive, almost offended at his words but it seemed over exaggerated, almost as if acting her emotions up.“Graze my fuckin arse, it was an inch-deep groove!”‘And a nice arse it is,’ Mara thought to herself, barely holding the thought from blurting out. “Doesn’t change the fact that it could be stitched up and fixed with some ointments” She replied in a defensively flustered manner. "You on the other hand have been beaten within an inch of your life and almost burnt to a crisp! By all rights, I should make you crawl just to teach you a bloody lesson."
The five of them followed the dusty road up to a cluster of familiar wood and brick buildings. Battered, bruised, and burned, they had finally made it home.As they crossed into the main courtyard, encircled by the house expansion and mostly empty stables, Jack could see Uncle Peter sitting on a rickety chair with his pipe between his thin lips. The verandah provided good shade all day, he loved to sit there when his chores were done, usually with his pipe or a glass of whiskey and a good book that had been bought home at some point. 
Peering over his book, Uncle Peter looked over and a smile instantly sat itself on his face, until he noticed Jack’s condition. Hopping up extremely fast, especially for his age, he slammed his book down on his chair and rushed over to Mara"Give him here darling, I'll take him inside."
She nodded, carefully peeling Jack from her shoulder and handing him to Peter."It's okay uncle, I can walk on my own." Jack protested weakly."By all rights, she should have stolen a cart to get you here, boy. Your leg is completely fucked. You're lucky we are what we are, or else that could be a death sentence. In a hard fight, it very well might be. If you end up with a crook leg, it might just be the death of you."Jack resigned himself to the lecture as Uncle Peter carried him to his room, leaving the four of them on the verandah. Mara walked in with a slight hesitance, Cat padding in cautiously behind.
It felt strangely silent in the house. Though comfortable in it's strange charms, it felt as if something very important was missing.It always reminded Mara of the old stories uncle Peter always told. Of how the old guild once resided in a magnificent castle that could comfortably house hundreds, and of how it was laid low by fear mongers and blind hatred, the corpses left to rot outside the walls so that none forgot what they faced. In its dying days, the stories said that no more than six of the old monster hunters, if one counted the child of fate, the first girl to ever be raised as one of them. 'How many she wondered 'how many of our kind does it hold now, if it still stands at all?' She dismissed this thought. Those stories were just myths, though there had to be a grain of truth to them, for they felt too real to be mere fairy tales. Her story always fascinated Mara. Why it had taken so long for the old ones to take girls as well was beyond her, but the story of a princess being handed the reins over her own destiny was an empowering one. Their castle would not fall to ruin, at least not on her watch...
In all fairness, the farmhouse well surpassed its name, being closer to the size of a large inn with loads of dormitory space for a lot of people. Even in the old days, there were enough rooms for not needing more than three in a room. Siblings or children of similar ages were often put together so they would adjust better. Adult couples also had a similar arrangement, almost always sharing a room and bed without even so much as a second thought. Most of the rooms were now without residents, their occupants dog tags hanging on the wall at the entrance. 
From the dorms, they lead out into a common area with a big fireplace and several large couches covered in patches and accidental cut marks. They were somewhat crudely built by Uncle Peter some years ago for the previous generation of bushrangers to lounge on. From some of the cut marks, it was clear that they were from wayward blades that slid from idle hands or accidental cuts from the flailing of the drunk. Pictures of those that have come and gone, as well as those that still remain dotted the walls, interspersed with small paintings  and hunting trophies. Above the fireplace and across from the couch, the image on their tags of the snarling dingo with a rifle and sword behind it hung, an eternal vigil that would watch over them and remind them of who they are.
The kitchen and dining table were both placed in the singular large room, allowing a lot of people to gather inside at once without overcrowding hallways or putting up unnecessary walls. A large wooden pillar in the middle held the roof up, covered in cut marks from flailing blades and mementos hanging from iron nails.
Down the original hallway, before arriving at the steps up to the extension, what was originally built as a dining room had been converted into a library over time, its large space tightly packed with bookshelves that seemed to have almost no order whatsoever. There were a few general topic sections and that was it. No system of numbering nor alphabetical order existed. This wasn't intentional, but merely a combination of factors that couldn’t be changed. Most of them were gone for a lot of the year, out earning a living to pay for upkeep and bringing home whatever interesting items they happened across. When the opportunity arose, accepting interesting or rare books as payment wasn't too unusual. These were brought home and placed into their general areas, but never sorted. Other chores needed doing and sorting books wasn't the most fun one could have here.In the grand scheme of the world-circling empire their lands were but one colony of, it wasn’t much…But it was home.
Cat padded around the main area cautiously, still not sure how to react to it all. It was warm and cozy with the small touches of a family home occupied by several generations for many years. Not like the sterile military camp deep in the forest that she knew. 
It was unsettling.
Comfortable for her was a place that was well hidden and out of reach of her targets. This place was only well hidden from the outside world, but hiding spots inside were clearly sparse. The thump of footsteps came from the back hallway and Uncle Peter appeared once again. "Terribly sorry about that. Anyway, welcome to the farm. I'm sure these two rascals have told you all about me." He held out to Connie for a handshake. Connie nodded, taking Peter's hand in one of his colossal paws and giving it a vigorous but short shake."Grip like a vice, good lad. Been a while since I've run into an Emu lad. Tell me, is there any word on what happened to old Duncan?"Connie lowered his head, a sorrowful shadow crossing his face. "Grandmaster Duncan Hayes of the Emu guild. Killed in action in 1847. He died a hero and saved my life."
Connie took a step back and slowly drew his blade. Peter tensed for a second until Connie began to kneel, holding the blade up on the flat of his palms. "All he left me was his blade. You can examine it if you wish."Uncle Peter looked at the blade, taking it from Connie's hands in reverence, the flat of the blade resting in his palms. "There's no doubt about it. This was his blade." He placed it back down in Connie’s hands, not having moved an inch. "He was a good friend of mine back in the day, we used to run further north along the coast in the early days. Working for pay in rum and food at the start. Had some tough work, but he was a good friend. Hang onto that blade, lad, I'm sure Duncan wouldn't want it to fall into the wrong hands."Who the actual fuck could use that thing in a fight without getting shot first? It's bloody massive!" Mara butted in with her usual snark.Cat glared angrily, the sun streaking in through the window making her acid-green eyes shine even brighter. "Not the time or place".Mara scoffed at Cat's remark. "We're home, this is the place to say and do these things.Uncle Peter looked down at Mara and smiled. "It's okay dear, Duncan would've wanted us to remember him with a smile. He was a good bloke, and a good mate."A silence settled over them as a faint smile found its way onto Uncle Peter’s face. He jerked his head up suddenly and seemed to force his warm smile back onto his face, his eyes glowing with warmth as well as reflecting the sunlight from the window. Bookmark here

"But today isn't a day to be sad, today is  a day to be happy! The season is coming to an end and all the family are coming home."Bookmark here

Mara strides over and wrapped her arms around Uncle Peter, her face stuck into his chest. "It's good to be home, Uncle."Bookmark here

Uncle Peter gently stoked her hair as he held her in one of his massive arms. "It's good to have you home, my dear."
Breaking off the hug, Mara turned to the small figure huddled behind Connie, gesturing for him to come forward. 
Uncle Peter's face lit up as he looked around the little boy. "And you've brought home a child! It's been years since we've had a foundling in this house. Tell me son, what's your name?"

He said nothing.
"Go on, it's okay. Uncle Peter took good care of us." Mara cooed reassuringly. He nodded and took a deep breath. "A-arthur."
Uncle Peter reached down and stroked his hair gently. "Welcome to family Arthur, you're one of us now." 
The glint of metal against Arthur’s skin caught Peter's attention. With one swift motion he yanked off the tags before Arthur even squeaked out a protest. He ran a thumb over the tags, dirty and covered in dried blood. Turning them over, he saw the name on them.
"And so begins the body count. Danny was a good bloke too." His eyes became vacant as he drifted into a daydream, before instantly snapping himself back. "What condition did you find him in?"
Mara’s head shot up in response to his question  as she began to rattle down her findings. "We found him in a ditch, two shots to the chest from close range. Irregular holes in the upper central chest surrounded by powder burns in the skin. His gear was left nearly untouched, but we didn't find any money on his person. But before we found him, we saw Arthur here in an alley in town holding his rifle. He led us back to him."
Peter's face became cold, almost a dead ringer for Jack's business face. "And the body was disposed of properly?"
Mara groaned, remembering what they has done that day. "No, we left him in the ditch. There were larger issues we had to deal with at the time, such as how we would work towing a child abound."
Uncle Peter nodded solemnly. "Very well then, let's hope he was consumed and forgotten quickly. Who knows what they might’ve done to him…"

Another silence settled onto them.
"But enough of death and ill tidings, let's hear what's happened this season."

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