The next day, Choke was standing at attention in front of Brother Willem. They were in the school library, the institution’s most impressive room with its large collection of several dozen books. As abbot of the school, Brother Willem also served as librarian and book-keeper, so his desk was here in the library, where he could better oversee his responsibilities.
“Report on your mission, Bartholomew,” Brother Willem said, addressing Choke with his proper Stronian name.
Choke did as he was told, recounting the details of his mission with Sir Gareth without embellishment. When he reached the celebrations after the combat, he told Brother Willem of his suspicions of the soldiers’ crimes, as well as Knuckle’s attempt to join in them.
“Very well. Before we proceed, Bartholomew, have you left anything out of this report that you think I would regard as sinful?”
“No, Brother,” Choke answered truthfully.
This line of questioning was no mere formality. As a priest, Brother Willem was capable of casting a spell allowing him to detect lies. Interviews of pupils and Brothers at the school utilizing this were routine. Sin, by anyone, was not tolerated. This assured that such abuse that occurred at the Pekot school was purely violent in nature, and quite institutionalized.
“Is there any part of your mission that you regret or feel shame over, Bartholomew?”
“Yes, Brother. I regret lying to my brothers about the girl I let go. I told them she was a male who fled. This lie was further reported to Sir Gareth.”
“Indeed. Why did you lie?” Brother Willem asked calmly.
“Because I allowed her to escape because she was a girl.”
“She was armed, was she not?”
“So she was a combatant. You lied because you knew it was wrong to have let her go. She was a threat, to your brothers, to those you served, and to those smallfolk we are sworn to protect. She needed to die. Your weakness in regards to her sex was your failure, and you sought to cover it with a lie. This is not good.”
“Yes, Brother. I would repent of it,” Choke said earnestly.
“Then do so in the chapel tonight after dinner. The usual prayers will suffice. Continue them until you feel your burden lifted. Now, about this matter of the gang rape of the bandit women and your brother Theodas’ attempt to partake in it. This upset you, did it?”
“As it should. It is an upsetting thing. Particularly in that it is not upsetting for so many. Such is the world we live in. But we all must make our way in this world. I have spoken before of the greater good; of how we must, at times, plot a course between sin and virtue to achieve it. Do you recall this lesson?”
“Good. Stron was inflexible, and so was martyred, broken on the wheel of pain. We who follow Stron must always consider how much like Stron to be. For to cleave too strongly to his word and way, we may too be martyred by a society prone to accommodating sin to nurture venality. And our martyrdom may be good and necessary, if it is timely and serves a purpose. But to throw ourselves, or others, away when we may still be of use to Stron would be a sin too, yes?”
“I think I understand, Brother,” Choke said.
“I hope you do. This man you served on you mission, Sir Gareth. What is he?”
“He is a knight, Brother.”
“And what is a knight?”
“A defender of the King and kingdom and its folk, Brother.”
“Yes. And this means, Bartholomew, that he is a killer. And, more importantly, it means he kills whom he is told to kill. And, in turn, he commands men-at-arms, soldiers, who kill as he directs them. All for the King. And what is a king, Bartholomew?”
“Brother?” Choke stammered, now at a loss and becoming deeply uncomfortable.
“A king, young brother, is just a man. Without his killers, he is nothing. And without his soldiers, Sir Gareth would be nothing. And what of those soldiers? What are they?”
“I suppose they are as you say, Brother. Killers.”
“Indeed. And what is the difference between the knight’s killers and the bandits they kill? Practically speaking, in a man-to-man comparison. Is there a difference?”
“Those who would say there is a difference between the soldiers and the bandits they kill have never experienced a human war waged upon humans. They have never seen what good, Stronian soldiers do to the good, Stronian folk that they conquer when their lords go to war. Let me ask you now of your brother, Theodas, or Knuckle, as you call him. You call out his sin. His sin for trying to join the soldiers in their gang rape of their war captives,” Brother Willem said.
“I did, Brother. And I do.”
“As is right. Yet, is his sin as grave as that of the men who committed those rapes? Or their leaders who permitted them to do it? Whose sin is the gravest here? And what, Bartholomew, is our culpability in lending our aid to these men who commit these sins and crimes? For we do lend our aid to them and turn a blind eye to what we know is wrong. Just as you did.”
Choke thought for a long moment on this before replying: “I don’t know about that, Brother. But Knuckle, I mean, Theodas, is a junior Brother of the Holy Stone, and one of us, and we must hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
“You believe this, do you?”
“Yes, Brother, I do,” Choke said, meeting Brother Willem’s eye squarely as he said it.
“Good. I believe this too. So let me tell you, brother, why we tolerate sin in others that we do not in ourselves. We do so because our mandate is to protect the Stronian faith and all those humans baptized within it. And yet our flock, the sheep, are weak. And foolish. And greedy. And fornicators. This is their nature. Yet protect them we must. And to do that, we require these killers too. We require the kings, and their lords, and their knights, and their soldiers. So the best we might hope for, in dealing with these necessary killers, is to mitigate their worst faults. Think of your brother, Knuckle. What is he?”
“He is a junior Brother of the Holy Stone, Brother,” Choke answered automatically, realizing he had missed the point of the lesson even as he spoke.
Brother Willem shook his head kindly.
“You are loyal. But, no, Knucklehead is not a junior brother. I suppose in name alone he shall be for a few more weeks. But that is not his nature. He is a killer. Like all the rest. And having trained and outfitted him as such, we will soon release him out into the world to do as he will; to follow whatever path he chooses. And why do you suppose we do this, brother Choke?”
“Because the Stronian faith needs its killers, Brother.”
“Exactly,” Brother Willem said with a smile. “And Knucklehead is a fearsome killer. He will carve a swath through this tired world. And while he is no true junior brother to us in heart or spirit, he will retain some of our lessons. He will look upon the Wheel of Pain, that symbol of Stron’s martyrdom, and know to respect it. He knows to fear those who wield it. On this last mission of yours, he has learned firsthand what happens to those who kill outside the law. And he has learned that there are allowances made for those who kill within the law. And having learned all this, he will, more likely than not, fall in on the right side of things when we have real need of him.”
Brother Willem fell silent then, gazing upon his pupil until he saw that his words had been properly absorbed. Only then did he continue:
“Now you understand, Bartholomew, why we tolerate the sin we do. Certain allowances must be made for those who do our work. There is no other way. And there is a greater war that we wage, on multiple fronts, in which the souls of all our flock and the very existence of our faith entire hang in the balance. And in this war we must be as stone and iron. We choose our moments carefully and we make our mark when we strike. Have no doubt of that.”
“I understand, Brother,” Choke said.
“I think that you do. So, then, what is your plan for yourself when we release you from this place?” Brother Willem asked gently.
The change in his teacher’s tone as he asked the personal question rattled Choke deeply.
“I… uh… I don’t know, Brother. I thought I would wait to see…” Choke’s voice drifted off as he looked down to the floor.
“You thought you would wait to see which junior we select as an entrant to the Academy.”
Not able to bring himself to voice this dream aloud, Choke simply nodded meekly at the floor.
“And do you think you deserve this honor, Bartholomew?” Brother Willem asked coldly.
Choke shook his head. “No Brother. I do not,” he whispered.
“And why don’t you?”
“Because… I don’t know Brother,” Choke managed.
“Is it because you are a Scythan? A jink? A horsefucker? Is that why you do not deserve the Academy?”
Choke had no answer to this. He simply stared at his shoes and quivered.
“Look at me when I am talking to you, man!” Brother Willem barked with his parade ground voice.
Quite beyond his own control, Choke snapped to attention and met Brother Willem’s eye.
“Better! Now answer me! You say you do not deserve the Academy. Is this because you are a jink?” Brother Willem shouted.
“Yes, Brother!” Choke shouted back at him.
“And yet you dared hope otherwise,” Brother Willem’s voice returned to his measured teaching tone. “Your head is full of shit, brother. And it is not your hope that is symptom of it. You listen to me well now.”
Brother Willem stepped right up to Choke and leaned down to bring their eyes within centimeters of each other. When he spoke it was quietly, but with all his significant force of will and character:
“You, Bartholomew,” Brother Willem poked Choke in the chest, “are no jink. And you are no Scythan. You are Bartholomew, junior Brother of the Holy Stone and graduate of the Pekot school. Baptized and named for Saint Bartholomew, lieutenant to Stron himself. Of whom Stron said as he dispatched him into battle:
“‘Guide my righteous brother’s arm, Father, against your enemies. Let him bring your cleansing fire to the sins they have wrought.’
“‘And so did Bartholomew go into the land of the Othoq, where he carved much righteous pain into their sinful lands and flesh,’” Brother Willem finished, quoting the Holy Book scripture exact.
“That, Bartholomew, is your heritage. That is your culture. You are no Scythan. You came to this school at the age of two, and have lived here since. Of your age mates, you were the first to read. And of all your classmates, I suspect you are the only one who understands what you read. You have the faith of Stron and the fire of Saint Bartholomew in you. Let there be no doubt in your mind, young Bartholomew: you deserve to go to the Academy.”
“Thank you, Brother.”
Brother Willem gestured for Choke to sit in one of the chairs in front of his desk. As Choke did, Brother Willem moved around his desk to get a bottle and a pair of wooden cups from inside it. Then he poured them each a brandy and took a seat next to Choke.
“Drink. It is no sin to partake of it,” Brother Willem said as Choke hesitated with his cup.
“I know. It’s just that, Brother, I don’t care for alcohol.”
Brother Willem laughed. “Well, suit yourself, then. If that’s the case, though, might I suggest that in future you let your host know of it before he pours you a drink from his private stock.”
“Oh, no. I’m sorry. Of course, I’m honored,” Choke said as he dutifully sipped the strong drink.
“No, that’s fine. But get it in you. It will help,” Brother Willem sighed.
They sat quietly until Choke had partaken of at least some of his brandy.
“You know that we can only send one graduate to the Academy as an entrant. If we wish to send any at all.” Brother Willem said.
“And let there be no doubt in your mind: you deserve to go. I would have you at the Academy, if I could. But, sadly, in this world of ours, to deserve something does not mean it shall be received; be it blessing or punishment. Your brother, Dungar, who you call Baron. He deserves to go to the Academy as well.”
“I agree, Brother,” Choke said quietly.
“But we can send only one. The Academy is firm on that. So, with two worthy candidates, we must take a measure of all factors.
“You, Bartholomew, are one of the finest pupils we have every produced. You know and understand the scripture. And, more importantly, you have the spirit of Stron within you. Further, you are a marvelous warrior, and your horsemanship is second-to-none. Brother Fellis tells me he has never seen a pupil so gifted with horses. And that the horses you train are the finest he has seen. From him, horsemaster that he is, this is high praise indeed.”
“Thank you, Brother,” Choke rasped as he finished his brandy to quench his embarrassment at the compliments.
“Then we look to Dungar. He, too, is a fine candidate. In every measure we can find no fault. However, he does not truly carry the spirit of Stron within him. He is glib and prone to mockery, and recites our lessons like some kind of parrot for its own amusement. I do not care for this.”
Brother Willem stayed silent for some time after this, to let his words properly breathe between him and his pupil. Then he continued in a steady, measured voice:
“But. He is a lord’s bastard. Brought here and installed at the Count’s request. The Count is an extremely virile man, and tends to care for his bastards well. However, Dungar’s mother was one of the Countess’ personal maidservants, and the lady took grave exception to his existence. The lady is not without her means, so Dungar was sent here for his safety. His mother disappeared. To what end and by whose agency I cannot say.
“Be that as it may, what this means is that Dungar has many brothers, both right-born and not. And within the noble class, half-siblings of a fruitful father tend to be regarded as a kind of fraternity, practically as well as literally. And while the Brothers of the Holy Stone are not a political entity, per se, we must still give a thought to politics, from time to time. To have a Brother with family connections to the ruling class is never a bad thing. And Dungar is, after all, a worthy candidate. I trust you understand me.”
“I do, Brother,” Choke said.
“Now, with all this being duly considered, and if this were all that there is to be considered, I have to tell you that I think I would choose you for the Academy over Dungar. I think the spirit of Stron within you outweighs the political benefit of having a powerful lord’s bastard. But. There is another matter to be considered. The question of leadership.”
Brother Willem stared at Choke until he felt compelled to respond.
“Yes. Leadership. You four juniors form a squad. Two horsemen, one heavy infantry, and one scout. Within our training, we leave our pupils to establish their own hierarchy and leadership. This is purposeful. We need to see how our pupils naturally fall in with each other.
“So, within your quartette, it is natural and right that a horseman would take on the mantle of leader. But why was it Dungar? Why not you?” Brother Willem asked seriously.
“Why not me, Brother?”
“Yes, fool. Did I stutter? Why don’t you lead your squad?”
“I… I don’t know, Brother. Baron, I mean, Dungar always has,” Choke said.
“Indeed he has. Leadership. Leadership. It was there for you to take. Natural. Right. And you stepped aside and allowed another, less worthy, boy to take it. And, in doing so, a fine leader he has become. This cannot be ignored. It it this that tips the scales. Dungar shall go to the Academy. And it is not because he is the Count’s bastard. And it is not because you are a Scythan. It is because you let him.”
Choke sat with this in silence for a long moment before he responded:
“I understand, Brother.”
“Do you? I know you understand that Dungar is going to the Academy and you are not. This is just as you expected. But do you understand why? That he goes in your place because you let him take it from you? Do you understand that?”
“I don’t think I do, Brother. How could I have led them? Who would follow me? I’m just…”
“A jink. Here we are again,” Brother Willem said with disgust.
“It’s true, Brother. They all call me that. They always have.”
“Yes, all the other whore-spawn, orphans, and bastards call you that. And what a slander it must be coming from the likes of them. On the face of it, you are all worthless. You may as well worry about what a squirrel chatters at you in the forest. It is meaningless unless you give it meaning. Others can only define you with something if you do so to yourself first.
“They call you something else, don’t they? Choke, is your earned name among them. Is this a slur? Is this a measure of their disrespect?”
“I don’t know, Brother.”
“Rubbish! You know otherwise! This name of yours is a measure of their respect and fear of you. Earned fear. On your own merit. Oh, yes, I know what you did. Do you really think I wouldn’t have gotten to the bottom of it? You were having trouble with that wretched Dugnut lad, so you wove a chord out of string from your bunk and strangled him nearly to death with it. And the others named you Choke out of admiration for the act.”
“You knew of it? Then why didn’t you punish me?” Choke asked.
“Do you forget it was Brother Horrace that stopped you from killing the boy? Of course I was made aware of it.”
“I don’t remember that. Everything about that night is unclear. Like a dream,” Choke said, looking haunted. “But, Brother, if I was caught in the act, why was I not punished? Surely I would remember that.”
“What did I say to you earlier about leadership, Bartholomew? We leave our pupils free to organize themselves. Within reason. So your peers named you Choke, and what became of Dugnut?”
“He was expelled the next year, Brother.”
“Yes he was. For attempting unatural acts with a younger boy. I think with you he was working up to what he later attempted with that one. We do keep watch. It is just important that you pupils don’t realize the extent to which we do.”
“Yes, but do you? They feared and respected you enough to give you that name. A good, strong name. You, more than any other, carry the fire of Stron within you. You can recite the scripture to a purpose. You are strong; capably violent. There is no reason you should not have led them. You were a natural. But you stepped aside and let another take it.”
They sat together in silence for a while then. Brother Willem poured them each another brandy. When they had eached sipped a little, he continued:
“So, that was then, this is now. With all this being so, what are we to do with you?”
“What do you mean, Brother? I’m out. I’ll have to go out and find a situation, right?” Choke asked.
“Yes, that it the way of it. But I am not about to let you go to waste. Have you heard of Brother Julius Barrelmender? He has the church up in the town of Bristlehump in Spaggot Barony.”
“Brother Barrelmender? Of course! He uprooted the Theodranus heresy in Mulloon county. And helped exterminate the Forsaken Blight.”
“Yes, that’s him. Quite a force in his day. He suffered rather terribly, though, in the Forsaken Blight campaign. His squad got stuck in a crypt with a pack of undead: wights and a dread wraith boss. They rode him and his men around like a ponies until he could take care of it. And take care of it he did. He came out of that crypt alone, having put some of his own men down so they wouldn’t turn. He’s never been quite the same since. But he is a good man. And a sound Brother.
“So, in consideration of his valiant service, the order has put him in charge of things in Spaggot. It’s a frontier post, up in the hills. Mostly lumberjacking and trapping around there. Goblins are the biggest nuisance. But the hill folk up there have never been properly settled into Stronianism and have a tendency to revert to heretical ways and thinking. So it is important to have a steady hand at the tiller, just in case.”
Brother Willem took a break from speaking to swirl his brandy for a while, lost in thoughs of his compatriot. When next he spoke, his attention was once again entirely focused on his pupil:
“I understand you and the other juniors were offered a situation by Sir Gareth. That is a good offer, and one worth taking. But I would not have you out there a mere soldier. And there is always more than one path to any destination.
“I will write to Brother Barrelmender of you. As well as keeping the parish in Bristlehump, he oversees the law, such as it is. He will find a use for you. I warn you now, though, it will not be heroic. But goblins and bandits need killing as much as any other blight. And Barrelmender keeps a good library and can guide you in your further studies. It is not the Academy, but you might do far worse in terms of education. How does that sound to you?”
“It would be an honor to server Brother Barrelmender and the order, Brother. It would be my honor!”
“Well, it is settled then. He shall be expecting you. Now, as to your other two fellows: Knuckle and Pinch, you call them. What do you suppose they will do with themselves?” Brother Willem asked with a twinkle in his eye.
“I don’t know, Brother. We haven’t discussed it.”
“Well, I shall tell you what they are going to do, Bartholomew. They are going to follow you to Spaggot.”
“Really? I don’t—” Choke began.
“Yes, they will,” Brother Willem interupted. “They will follow you there because you will be sure of your purpose when they are not of theirs. All of you pupils have been conditioned to function as a unit and obey without question. And with your squad’s leader moving on to the Academy, there shall be a vacancy. Leadership, Bartholomew. Leadership. Don’t fuck it up this time.”
“I will not, Brother. Thank you, Brother.”
“See that you don’t. Brother Barrelmender shall be expecting the three of you. That is all. Dismissed.”