The Children of Stron – part 5

Table of Contents (spoilers)

read part 1

read part 4

A week after Choke’s interview with Brother Willem, the Pekot school juniors were leading a squad of a dozen younger pupils on an overnight patrol of the surrounding countryside. All in their mid-teens, the younger lads were armored in leather armor and armed with roundshields and spears. The patrol was little more than a training exercise, but there was always a chance they might run into something.

As horsemen, Baron and Choke were mounted. Baron was now formally in charge, with the official status of entrant to the Academy of the Holy Stone in Goettingen. Choke had been assigned a role equivalent to sergeant, with Knuckle and Pinch operating as corporals on foot, marching alongside the younger students.

The day was pleasant as they moved through the bucolic countryside on its meandering cart tracks. Every kilometer or two there were small farming hamlets of a dozen or so farmhouses with their attached barns and animal sheds. The buildings were always clustered tightly together, with stone and wood walls connecting them to each other, offering a fort-like presentation to the world. Surrounding the hamlets were the fields and pastures they worked.

With strict orders not to impinge upon the local populace, the Pekot lads skirted around the hamlets when they reached them. Nevertheless, the peasants they encountered were friendly and the lads were given eggs, cheese, and a sack of potatoes and carrots over the course of the day. With the rabbits and squirrels that Pinch and some of the younger lads had managed to take down on the march with their hunting bows and slings, the squad would be eating well than night.

They camped in a copse of trees next to a barley field with a pleasant little brook running alongside it. Of course, the right to forage for firewood, or anything else, in the lord’s trees was strictly allotted and controlled. But, being essentially men-at-arms engaged in patrol, the Pekot lads had the negotiated right to hunt small game and gather a reasonable amount of deadfall for a small campfire.

“So, what’s yar plan for yarselves once they let us all go next week?” Baron asked the other juniors as they sat around the fire that night, nibbling gristle off the fiddly little squirrel and rabbit bones.

“I dunno, man. Haven’t really thought about it,” Knuckle said. “Suppose I’ll go get hired on as a guard. I mean, getting enough coin to get laid is the first order of business, right?”

“Yeah, I guess that it would be for ye!” laughed Pinch. “But what about just meeting a nice lass that’ll let ye have a ride for free? Ye ever thought of that?”

“What the fuck kinda world ye think we’re living in? Nice young lasses don’t give the likes of us nothin for free. It’s his type that get handed all the fruit,” Knuckle said, gesturing Baron’s way.

“Oh, yes, Knucklehead, I am quite sure I shall be crushing all that pussy in the Academy,” Baron said morosely.

“Well, ye aint a stuttering monk yet,” Pinch said. “And it’s a long ride to Goettingen. Clear across the kingdom aint it? So I’m sure ye’ll be able to sort something out for yarself before ye have to go and take any vows of celibacy.”

“One can hope. I’m surprised ye aren’t going to take Sir Gareth up on his offer. Ye all could do far worse.”

Knuckle grimaced. “Fuck that! With all that fetch and carry bullshit he had us doing? No thanks.”

“What is it ye think caravan guards do all day, anyways? I’m sure it aint any fuckin better,” Pinch said.

“So you’ll be going to see Sir Gareth then, Pinch?” Baron asked.

Pinch shrugged. “I don’t think he’d want me if I’m coming in by myself. I’m but the runt of the litter here. What’re ye gonna do, Choke?”

“Yes, good question!” Baron exclaimed. “Well, whatever it is, when I am finished at the Academy and no doubt assigned somewhere as a proper horseman, I shall have need of a squire. I’d be more than happy to take ye on.”

Choke simply nodded with a low grunt in acknowledgment of Baron’s offer. With Pinch and Knuckle staring at him, he finally had to deliver something on Pinch’s question.

“We’ll see,” he said. Then he rolled himself into his cloak and lay down to go to sleep.

***

After another four days of normal study and training, the four juniors graduated the Pekot school. The ceremony was simple enough. At the end of Sunday mass, Brother Willem called them one by one to the pulpit where they knelt before him to receive his special blessing. Then, as representative of the order, he gifted them their horses, armor, weapons, and basic equipment as a reward for their good service. They were then informed that they would have to push off the next day.

When Brother Willem had dismissed the congregation, he gently tapped Choke on the arm and gestured for him to stay.

“Come with me to the library, would you, Bartholomew?”

They were soon seated together at his desk with cups of his brandy in hand.

“So, this is it. The big day. Tomorrow you’ll go on your way into the big wide word. Do you still intend to seek out Brother Barrelmender?” Brother Willem asked.

“Yes, Brother, I do.”

“And have you discussed this with the others?”

“Not yet, Brother. There hasn’t seemed a good time.”

“Well, you know them best. Inscrutability giving way to decisive finality can be a sound technique. Keep them on the back foot. At any rate, I expect you all shall ride together a ways when you head out. About that: do not feel too much in a rush to seek out Brother Barrelmender. That shall keep. Take the time to enjoy yourself a little. As well, if you are unable to convince the others to follow you, do not let that keep you from going to Barrelmender by yourself. Yes?”

“Thank you, Brother.”

“Now. Seeing as this is basically goodbye, I have a couple of things for you.”

Brother Willem stood up and moved to the bookcase behind his desk. He returned with a book, which he handed to Choke as he sat back down. The book had a good-quality, black leather binding that extended out beyond its pages with ties to seal it up and protect it during travel.

“Your Holy Book,” Brother Willem said with a smile.

Choke opened the book and realized it was precisely his Holy Book: the copy he had penned himself over two years in his early teens, painstakingly printed by hand as a special project. It was a full copy, containing the original Books of the Holy Possessions, as well as the later Book of Stron detailing his appearance at the bank of the Great Mother River, the subsequent holy war he waged against the polytheistic regimes of his time, and his martyrdom as a rebel on the Wheel of Pain.

“It’s my book! I thought it was to be given away! You kept it?”

“Of course we kept it. When a pupil cares enough to stick with his work and finish a Holy Book, we give it to him when he graduates. If he remains worthy of receiving it, of course. You did a good job with it: that is an accurate, legible copy. It should serve you well. As well, I have taken the liberty of writing a suggested reading list on one of the blank back pages. This should provide something of a guide in your further studies.”

“Thank you, Brother!” Choke said, hugging the book to his chest. The paper it was printed on alone was valuable in the United Kingdoms; a full copy of the Holy Book was a treasure.

“And, finally, I would like you to have this,” Brother Willem said, taking his holy symbol from around his neck and handing it to Choke.

The four-spoke wheel was made of simple, black wrought iron, but was well-made. It was four centimeters across with crisp edges and good welds. It was strung on a simple rawhide loop to be worn around the neck.

“Your holy symbol? I… I can’t, Brother!”

“Yes, you can,” Brother Willem said, leaning forward to lay it on Choke’s Holy Book.

“But it’s your holy symbol. You need it!”

“I’ll make another for myself. I’ve only had this one a few years. But if you give me yours, that shall suffice until I can get around to firing up the forge. Yes, give me yours now. I am naked and vulnerable without one.”

Brother Willem reached out for the wheel that Choke hastily pulled from around his neck. This one was made of simple wood. Choke had made it for himself when he was about ten years old.

“Yes, this shall do nicely,” Brother Willem said happily, patting the little wheel down on the front of his black robes. Once I have made another for myself of iron, I shall give this one to a boy that I deem worthy. Remember this, Bartholomew: the wheel we wear is just a symbol. What is important is what we carry in our hearts. But, as a symbol, it holds meaning and shows the world what we value.

“Stron was a simple man of action. Not a merchant, grubbing for wealth. And not a nobleman, lusting after power for its own sake. He led a simple life. Iron, wood, stone: these are good materials for simple folk. Remember it as you go out into this venal world. Someday you may be asked to kiss the gold and jewel encrusted hand of one of our Church leaders. And kiss it you must. But as you do, don’t forget that Stron’s hand was only ever encased in steel.”

“I understand, Brother. Thank you.”

“I know you understand, Bartholomew. And, you are welcome.”

It being a warm spring day, the library windows were mostly open to the pleasant air. Unlike all the windows in the rest of the compound, the library’s had glass panes as well as shutters. This great expense allowed natural light in, regardless of the weather, and saved on candles and lamp oil. It was the only display of wealth that the order had allowed in the school’s construction.

While Brother Willem and Choke had been talking, they could hear the sound of the younger pupils at play in the parade ground outside. It being Sunday, the boys were free to do as they wished between morning mass and lunch. Now the nature of their noise changed as they yelled excitedly about the arrival of a guest. Brother Willem moved to the window to look outside.

“Ah! Right on time. Dungar’s half-brother has arrived to collect him. The Count’s steward wrote for me to expect him. Mannis is his name. Another of the Count’s bastards, and a useful one for him, I gather. You should go and make his acquaintance, Bartholomew. A lord’s useful bastard is always a good friend to have.”

***

Mannis was a tall, strong, handsome man in his early twenties with an easy charm. He was tending to his horse in the stables when Choke found him and the other juniors. His horse and tack were passable, and he was equipped as a scout: armored in brigandine (smaller pieces of iron rivetted together within a leather backing), and armed with a small roundshield, spear, battleaxe, and a Scythan warbow.

Choke’s eye was immediately drawn to the warbow. It was a thing of beauty. With elegant, swooping lines like a sparrow in flight, Scythan warbows were made of laminated layers of wood, bone, and antler. Just over a meter in length when strung, they could be fired from horseback and had the power to pierce chainmail at distance. The proper longbowmen of United Kingdom militaries might disdain the Scythan bows as inferior to their yew longbows, but the weapons were universally coveted among hunters, scouts, guides, bandits, and military skirmishers.

When Mannis noticed Choke, a Scythan, eyeballing his bow in its open saddle case, his eyes flared and his hand dropped to the fighting knife on his belt. Then he noticed the black robes, iron wheel, and the Holy Book that Choke still had clasped in his hands.

“What have we here, eh? A jink monk! What is this?” Mannis asked Baron.

“Huh?” Baron blinked, his attention pulled away from Brother Willem’s holy symbol he and the other Pekot lads had all been staring at. “Oh, right. Mannis, this is Choke, or Bartholomew, our fellow graduate.”

“Is it now. A jink in monk’s robes. What is this world coming to? Oh well, I suppose if they’ve civilized ye enough to give ye that whole getup, then I can take it. Well met, Choke. I’m Mannis, Dungar’s brother in bastardom,” Mannis gave Choke a not-so-friendly heavy thump on the upper arm as a manner of greeting.

Choke met his eye calmly and nodded in return. Mannis watched him, measuring him carefully. Whatever Mannis saw in him seemed to win some respect, if not friendliness, because he gave Choke a curt nod before breaking eye contact with him.

“Well, then, brother!” Mannis thumped Baron even harder on the shoulder. “Where to next?”

“Brother Brian said to put you in one of the guest cells in the barracks for the night,” Baron said, suppressing a wince at the pain.

“A cell, huh? Marvelous. Well, lead the way, little brother. And bring my gear,” Mannis said.

Baron nodded and hurried to gather Mannis’ spear, shield, saddlebags, bow case and quiver. Then the four juniors led Mannis to his cell with a couple of dozen younger boys following them excitedly.

“So! What is it you lot do for fun around here?” Mannis asked as they walked. “It seems rather grim. I did not see a single bawdyhouse in the last several hours of riding!”

“That’s just because there aint one,” Knuckle said, clearly enjoying Mannis immensely. “And fun? I don’t think the Brothers know a thing about it!”

“Yes, I’ve heard that of them. Just the sort of dour bungplugs that’ll burn a witch at the stake without even giving her a good fucking first!”

This observation produced an uproarious reaction in his audience (with a few exceptions).

“I don’t know what yar all laughing about,” Mannis went on. “It’s not funny! It’s a terrible tragedy, is what it is! These black robes run around out there, burning up all of the very best sluts, and they don’t even fuck them!”

Mannis paused to stare at the ground in apparent dismay, really leaning into his performance. The boys surrounding him continued to laugh and laugh. Finally, their hilarity prompted Mannis to rail at them further:

“I’m serious! What a waste! Ye lads don’t know, what with being locked up here with nothing better to do than knock on each other with wooden swords and read scripture until yar eyes fall out, but I am talking about a real tragedy! We have these marvelous women out there in the bush. Sluts that ye can’t even begin to imagine! Worshiping the great cunt in the sky and giving theirs away for free; fucking like wild animals when they do. Treasures for the poor to find, those girls. And these sexless priests come smashing in and destroy it for everyone. It is a tragedy.”

By this point, the procession was nearing the barracks. Hearing the racket coming, Brother Ned came out to get some measure of control over his flock.

“Ah. Here’s one of the ravens now. Be cool,” Mannis said, putting on a mockingly grave posture.

Brother Ned got his wards away from the interloper without a word. Baron took his brother inside to get him settled in his cell. Choke stood awkwardly outside with Knuckle and Pinch as they continued to laugh about Mannis’ performance.

“This guy is the fuckin best!” Knuckle exclaimed. “I’m telling ye, this is who we need to be!”

“That might be a stretch for us, seeing as we’re not noble bastards,” Pinch said.

“This man is no mentor,” Choke interjected. “He speaks of blasphemy and heresy. Here, within the compound.”

“Oh, would ye give it a fuckin rest already, Choke!” Knuckle shouted. “We’re done! We’re out! We made it! And yar standing there like one of the Brothers with a Holy Book and a face like a puckered asshole, trying to fuck this up for us!”

“Just what is it you think I am trying to fuck up for you here?” Choke asked.

“What d’ye think? Riding outta here with Mannis! It’s obvious, right? We go with him wherever he goes and try to get on with him,” Knuckle said.

“Or, at least, have him steer us in the right direction. Yeah, no doubt,” Pinch said.

Choke sighed. “Listen, you two. I’ve been wanting to talk to you about our plans for when we leave here.”

“Oh, no shit? Our plans, huh? Just what d’ye think those might be?” Knuckle asked.

“Well, Brother Willem told me—” Choke started.

“You know what, Choke? Fuck that!” Knuckle interrupted. “None of that today. I’ve had my fill of all of it. Ye can come along with us if ye want, but ye gotta shut the fuck up with that Holy Book sermon shit right now. Like the man said: be cool, right?”

“Yeah, no doubt. Just let it go, Choke. Alright? Don’t fuck this up for us,” said Pinch.

“Why don’t ye go and put that Holy Book away? It’s weird, ye holding it like that. Ye look like one of the Brothers,” Knuckle said.

Deciding that a tactical retreat was probably the best course at that time, Choke went into the barracks and put his Holy Book into his footlocker. With no better ideas of what to do next, he went back outside where Mannis and the others seemed to be waiting for him.

“Let’s go to yar training yard,” Mannis said. “I wanna see what these monks taught ye about fighting.”

The training yard was between the stables and the main school building, with a gabled roof sticking out from the stable wall to shelter the equipment. The roof’s posts all had straw-filled practice dummies tied to them. There were a number of boys practicing with wooden swords and spears under the watchful eye of Brother Brian.

“Good day to ye, sir,” Mannis addressed Brother Brian with a polite nod. “I am Mannis, Dungar’s half-brother.”

“Good to meet ye, Mannis. I am Brian.”

The two shook hands.

“I was hoping, sir, that we could do a little sparring with practice swords here. With yar permission, of course.”

“Of course! You are most welcome. Help yarselves to whatever ye need.”

“Thank you very much, sir,” Mannis nodded deeply again. Then he went to look over the equipment racks. “Well, I have to say, this gear is excellent! Nothing but the best for you lot, eh?”

“When it comes to war and reading, this is so,” Brother Brian conceded.

Mannis selected a small roundshield and a standard wooden practice sword for himself. The sword’s blade was thick with rounded edges, so that the weight and balance would be the same as a real sword without causing too much damage when it struck.

“Prepare to defend yarself, brother!” Mannis grinned at Baron.

Baron nodded curtly and got himself a horseman’s kite shield and a practice sword. With the ensuing contest, the youngsters eagerly cleared the yard and got set to watch.

Of course, the monk’s robes that Brother Brian and the four graduates were wearing were less than ideal for fighting in. However, this was easily remedied. His weapons selected, Baron took just a moment to gird his loins by drawing his robes up between his legs to tie them into a kind of diaper arrangement. While it might look foolish to some at first, it was a simple solution that worked well.

Mannis and Baron squared off with about three meters between them and raised their swords in salute. Then they closed quickly and clashed. Swinging full power, the brothers exchanged blows with a clear intent to injure. It took less than twenty seconds for Mannis to finish it. He parried an overly aggressive swing by Baron and moved laterally with some nice footwork to punch him in the face with his shield’s edge. As Baron reeled back, Mannis hit him hard in the back of the knee with his sword and then again on the wrist to disarm him as he fell. Finally, he poked his brother in the side with the coup de grace.

“Ye broke my fuckin wrist, ye asshole!” Baron said when he had finished yowling incoherently.

“Language, Dungar!” Brother Brian chided as he stepped between the brothers and clapped Mannis on the back with a chuckle. “And I expect he did. What did ye think was going to happen, going after a man like that? Here, let me see yar boo-boo.”

Brother Brian knelt down next to Baron and took hold of his injured wrist to gently probe it.

“Yes. It’s broken. Well, we can’t have that. We’ll soon have ye put right.” Brother Brian then closed his eyes as he touched his holy symbol and prayed: “Almighty Stron, please grant our brother your healing for his well-deserved wound. We thank you for your blessing.”

Then, with the fingers that had caressed the Wheel of Pain at his breast, Brother Brian touched Baron’s broken wrist and it was healed.

“My, it is nice to have friends, isn’t it?” Mannis observed.

Brother Brian dragged Baron to his feet. While his wrist was fine, the shield bash had opened a cut on his cheek which was starting to swell rather badly.

“Ye prick,” Baron scowled at his brother as he limped off the yard.

Mannis smiled widely at this as he spun his sword in a flourish.

“Okay then, who’s next!” Mannis barked as he pointed his sword tip at the other juniors.

“That would be me!” bellowed Knuckle gleefully.

Knuckle had already tied up his robes and gotten his favorite wooden greatsword, so he and Mannis had only to pause to salute before they could engage. In the open yard, with his longer reach, Knuckle was immediately a bigger problem for Mannis. Knuckle moved well, keeping Mannis at the outside of his powerful swings. Seeing that he was outmatched in the open ground, Mannis retreated to the line of roof posts with their practice dummies. Much of the audience was standing under the roof, so they scattered as the fight approached them, shrieking in excitement.

With a practice dummy between him and Knuckle, Mannis finally stood his ground. With Knuckle holding his swing, Mannis feinted: first making like he was going to come at Knuckle to the left of the dummy, and then the right. Knuckle bit on the second feint and came down with an overhand chop. Mannis wheeled around the other side and lunged. Unable to bring his sword across to defend himself, Knuckle took a hard sword poke low in the belly.

“That’s it!” Brother Brian shouted before Knuckle could attempt to keep fighting (as he was prone to do). “Well played! Good use of terrain.”

“It wasn’t nothin!” Knuckle shouted. “If I was mailed, that poke wouldn’t a done nothin!”

“Well, if ye were mailed, I woulda gone up into yar groin, or just straight into yar throat,” Mannis answered.

“Easier said than done!”

“Well, ye aren’t mailed, and I did get ye, so I don’t need to prove anything beyond that,” Mannis said.

“The man is right, Theodas! Accept the result or shame yarself,” Brother Brian said to Knuckle.

Knuckle scowled, but finally acknowledged his loss with a dip of his head and a curt sword salute. Mannis risked closing to give him a friendly pat on the shoulder.

“Ye fought well! I thought ye had me a couple of times.”

Still angry, Knuckle stomped back to the racks and put away his sword. Mannis smiled wide again and pointed his sword at Choke.

“Yar next.”

Like Baron, Choke selected a kite shield and standard sword for himself. He and Mannis saluted and closed. They fought hard, but less aggressively than Baron and Mannis had. Choke acquitted himself well, but Mannis soon proved too much for him as well. Like Baron before him, Choke’s finish was set up with a hard shield bash, this time followed by a solid sword slash to the ribs.

Finally, once Choke had gotten to his feet to clear the way, Mannis made short work of Pinch. He did not bust him up very badly.

“Well, now, that was a fine piece of work, young Mannis,” Brother Brian said when it was all over.

“Thank you, sir,” Mannis said proudly.

“Call me, Brother, please.”

“My apologies. Brother.”

“Now, ye see boys what good footwork can do. Movement!” Brother Brian lectured his younger pupils “No one survives long in combat without good movement! And mind the shield. A shield is as much a weapon as any blade. Never disregard it!”

Brother Brian then turned back to Mannis.

“Now, young man, yar not quite done yet. Ye have one more fight today, don’t ye?”

“Pardon me?” Mannis blinked, his smug expression draining away in an instant.

“What, ye didn’t think ye’d come to fight in my yard without letting me have a go at ye, did ye?” Brother Brian said with a big grin that mirrored Mannis’ previous one.

“Well, Brother, if it’s all the same to ye, I’d just as soon not.”

“It’s not all the same to me, though. Ye don’t come into my yard to bust up my pupils without facing a reckoning with me. That is just not how it is done,” Brother Brian’s manner and tone grew deadly serious. He plucked a big practice sword from a rack and drew his robes up to gird his loins.

As Brother Brian stepped into the yard, ready for battle, everyone saw him then for what he really was. The jovial demeanor of a friendly teacher was gone. This was a fearsome killer that stood before them now: a big, fit, powerful man moving with the confidence of a seasoned veteran.

“I’d not fight a priest,” Mannis managed.

“Oh, yes ye will. It’s that or catch a savage beating from one right now. So it’s yar choice, son. Every man must someday eat that which he serves others. And it is always better to square accounts immediately. Now defend yarself.”

Brother Brian gave Mannis a perfunctory salute as he closed on him. With just a longsword in hand and no shield, Brother Brian ought to have been at a disadvantage. It did not matter, though, as he came hard at Mannis straight down the center line and hacked down his defenses like a lumberjack going through young poplar. His first struck blow hit Mannis on the inside of his shin on the main nerve. Then, as Mannis stumbled, Brother Brian cracked him on his sword arm’s elbow, causing him to drop his sword. Looking like a dancer, Brother Brian stepped around Mannis and pivoted at full extention into a hard, wide swing across the lower back. Then, as his already demolished opponent fell, Brother Brian stepped in close to smash the bridge of his nose with his sword’s pommel.

Brother Brian stood over top of Mannis as he writhed around and bled all over himself. Then, the killer receded, and once again a friendly monk stood before his pupils. He smiled down at Mannis.

“Oh dear! I seem to have broken yar nose a little. No matter, lad, let’s see what Stron can do about mending it.”

read part 6

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