It was almost a two-day ride back to the Pekot school. The weather was pleasant when they set out, but turned cold and misty by the evening. Sir Gareth’s quartermaster had rewarded them with a some copper coins when they turned in the bandits’ weapons they had gathered, so they decided to spend the night in a roadhouse. The next day was cold and rainy, and the lads pushed on hard to reach the school by late afternoon.
Despite the weather, the lads’ spirits remained high. Their excursion had been a grand success. All four of them had performed admirably, without hesitation. And to be offered a situation by Sir Gareth following their imminent graduation was the absolute best result they could have hoped for.
As to the killing they had done, each young man locked away tight whatever burden he had accrued from it. The first taking of human life was no small thing, even in the violent frontiers of the United Kingdoms. But whatever introspection they may have been inclined to was driven from them by the company of their fellows as they all put on a jovial front. Even Choke, usually pensive at the best of times, smiled and joked with the others a little.
The Pekot orphanage and boarding school was located in the village of Pekot in the northeastern frontier region of the kingdom of Bitana. To travel much further would be to find oneself in the murderous Great Plains, among its terrible monsters, beasts, and the savage Scythan tribesmen (or so the good Stronian Gerant folk of the United Kingdoms believed).
The school was run by the Brothers of the Holy Stone, an order of warrior monks whose original monastery had been founded at the very stone upon which Stron himself addressed the faithful who awaited his prophesized crossing of the Great Mother River. Other monastic orders might focus their energy on prayer, agriculture, beer and wine making, or book publishing. Not so the Brothers of the Holy Stone. Their esteemed order had a two-pronged approach to one purpose: protecting the Stronian flock from all threats, both external and internal, including its own deviant tendencies.
The first prong to this end was excellent education. All members and disciples learned to read, a special skill indeed within the United Kingdoms. And read they did: not just the Holy Book, but theology, civil law, Stronian law, and philosophy both sound and heretical. For to fight sin, one must first know and understand it.
Having assured their members’ minds and souls were correctly aligned, the Brothers of the Holy Stone would further prepare them with their second focus: martial prowess. The black robed fighters and priests of the order were among the finest trained and well-practiced death dealers of all the realms. With little presence in the settled and safe interior of the United Kingdoms, the Brothers fought tirelessly in the hinterland: killing that which needed killing and rooting out heresy where it was to be found.
With all this being so, the Pekot school looked more a small military compound than a monastery. As well as the main school and church building, it had a parade ground, a large stables, and barracks. A low, stone perimeter wall surrounded it all. The school was not, however, very large, and typically graduated between zero and five pupils a year from its student body of around fifty. This year’s class of graduating juniors was large at four.
The four juniors quickly tended to their horses in the stables so that they could attend evening mass before dinner. To do so fully armed and armored was no problem: this was a warrior order, after all.
When the juniors entered the chapel, the youngsters gathered around them excitedly, eager to hear all about their adventures. These were no waifish and sickly orphans that accosted them. With no interest in charity, the Brothers did not take on any but the most robust of boys. All of the lads were strong and vigorous, having been fed well and trained hard since coming to the school.
“Boys!” shouted Brother Ned, the senior teacher and youngster wrangler at the school. “Be seated! Now!” With his long cane pointer, Brother Ned slashed the backsides and legs of all who could not do as instructed before he got to him.
The four juniors hurried to their pew near the front of the chapel, just behind those reserved for the Brothers. The warior monks soon began filing into the chapel from their duties. It being a small school, there were only six of them besides Brother Ned. All of them were older, in their forties or fifties at a minimum, having been retired from active martial duty. They all wore the black robes of the order with an iron Stronian holy symbol around their necks: a four spoked wheel.
The abbot, or senior brother, of the school was Brother Willem, a big and powerful man in his late-fifties. Brother Willem was a single-class, spellcasting cleric of Stron and a combat veteran of many campaigns. It was rumored he had once killed a fire giant singlehanded.
When all had dropped to their knees in front of their pews, Brother Willem began the liturgy of evening mass. After twenty minutes, when he had finished, his congregation took their seats and Brother Willem continued:
“This evening, we have the pleasure of welcoming four of our brethren back into our fold. They have returned to us after their first outing as a unit to help our local knight with an exercise in public order. Juniors: I trust you conducted yourselves appropriately on your mission.”
“We did, Brother,” the four juniors intoned in unison.
“That is good. I shall hear of it from each of you privately. Suffice to say we are all pleased to see you have returned to us in good health. But, as we know, the outside world is a place rife with pitfalls for young men. With this in mind, our most venerable Brother Simon,” Brother Willem closed his eyes and paused to sigh deeply before continuing, “has requested the opportunity to address you on this solemn occasion. I trust that all you lads shall listen to his sage words carefully, and respectfully.”
Brother Willem sighed again before turning to the wizened old monk in the front pew.
“Brother Simon!” he shouted. “Your flock awaits your word!”
The swordfighing instructor, Brother Brian, helped Brother Simon to his feet and to the front of the chapel behind the pulpit. Brother Simon was indeed venerable, and his eyes were clouded over and all but sightless. But the hands that gripped his stout walking stick were strong, as all who had taken the implement upside the head could attest. Brother Simon stood at the head of the chapel and smacked his gums for a moment before addressing the congregation with a surprisingly strong voice:
“Ye boys! Ye juniors! Today ye shall set out on yar first mission! Ye shall go and represent us as ye experience yar first true taste of freedom. And I’d speak to ye on it now!”
As Brother Simon began speaking, a murmur rose in his audience as they realized he had misunderstood the precise nature of the occasion he was addressing. Brother Willem stood up to glare at the pupils to silence them. He then looked like he was about to interrupt Brother Simon to correct him, before he decided against it and sat back down. Oblivious to any of this, Brother Simon carried on:
“Ye’ve been cloistered here these many long years. Trained and educated as only we Brothers of the Holy Stone can do. And now, at the cusp of manhood, yar eager to set out into the world. To see for yarselves what there is to be found. And let me tell ye what ye shall find. Sodomy! Sodomy is what ye shall find! Sodomy of every sort around every corner! Sodomitic sodomites with all their buggery and diddlings. Not an orifice left unmolested.”
Brother Simon took a break here, licking his lips as he caught his breath. The chapel was dead silent as everyone waited patiently for him to continue.
“And ye may laugh, and ye may tell yarselves that I’m nothing more than a fossil that knows nothing of this new world. But I know! Oh, yes, I know! I know what thoughts young men’s minds turn to when they are free to roam. Fornication! They look about and seek to fornicate. Oh, yes. Don’t think I don’t know what vileness is lurking in yar minds.
“Ye get out into the world and ye say to yarself: ‘but what is the harm? What is the harm in a pinch and tickle; a grope and a poke in a two-penny grunt-hut.’
“But I say to ye: look outside these walls! What do you see? Women! Women everywhere! Every one of them a snare. A devil’s harness to drag ye to the yoke of sin! Every one of them with a mess of wet sex innards hidden up in their fundament just waiting to trammel a hapless fool.”
Brother Simon raised himself up to stab his walking stick at his audience. This caused some concern, as he teetered backwards perilously for a second before regaining his balance for the next onslaught.
“And yes, ye may fornicate with one, or two, and think yarself clever to have got away with it. But ye did not get away with it, did ye? No, ye didn’t! Whether any but ye and yar slut know of yar fornications, it matters not! For ye’ve become the fornicator. Ye’ve become the sodomite! Sodomite! Sodomites!”
Brother Simon bellowed his last condemnation to the rafters as he stabbed his finger accusingly at his audience. Then, quite overcome by the strain of his performance, he collapsed. Thankfully, Brother Brian, who had been on the edge of his front pew since the walking stick incident, lunged forward and grabbed Brother Simon to save him falling over.
With Brother Brian helping Brother Simon back to the front pew, Brother Willem rose and stepped to the front of the chapel once more.
“We thank Brother Simon for his words,” Brother Willem said solemnly. “I am quite sure they become more compelling to you with every rendition.”
Brother Willem paused then to take breath, and Brother Simon seized upon the moment. All but seated, he surged to his feet with his walking stick waving in the air above him.
“And ye think!” he shouted. “Oh, ye sodomites, ye think, ‘Ah, but what harm can come of it? What harm can come of giving a poke to a hole, willing or otherwise?’ What is the harm?”
Brother Willem sighed deeply once again and gestured for Brother Brian to sit. He took hold of Brother Simon’s arm himself and led him back to the pulpit. The ancient monk’s voice rose again to a thunderous shout:
“What is the harm? Ye may well ask that question of your immortal soul when it burns in the eternal lake of fire! For all ye sodomites shall burn! Burn! Burn!”
Following this, Brother Simon needed another rest, which he took with Brother Willem still supporting him at his side. When Brother Simon continued, his voice was quiet, and he seemed almost spent:
“Ye boys shall leave this place. And I tell ye, even those few of ye that do not now harbor sodomitical thoughts and urges, ye shall be tempted. Ye may be walking down the street of a town or city, thinking nothing more than to get a sweetmeat or a pastry.”
Brother Simon was rallying now, finding some inner fire of passion that again quickened and energized his speech:
“And what should beset you, from every alley and nook and cranny, but the very whores of Marrovique themselves, in their legions. The sodomitess assails you! Her wiles are that of the devil! And ye fall into a pit of sin and depravity without thought, realizing too late that you are now her sweetmeat! You are the pastry! In hell’s own oven!”
When Brother Simon again collapsed, Brother Willem was ready. This time he waited a good measure before speaking himself:
“Thank you Brother Simon, again, for your wise words of caution. I am sure our vigilance has been quite primed now.”
“Not likely! Not with these fornicators!”
“These are good lads. You have instructed them well, Brother Simon. You can rest easy that you have done Stron’s good work in that regard.”
“So you say. But do ye know that even in the very act of procreation, as sadly necessary as it is, do not allow yourself to be drawn into anything but the hole that Altas bestowed upon wives for that purpose. Do not seek out yar sick jollies, or hers, in that terrible pudendal region. Stick to the target, man, and do the minimum that must be done and no more. For with anything more, a sodomite ye become.”
“I am sure we understand that well, Brother Simon. But now, I think it is time you rested. Rest, Brother. You have earned it,” Brother Willem finished as he handed Brother Simon off to Brother Brian, who gently led him out of the chapel.