The next morning, the school awoke as usual before dawn. The four graduates packed up their belongings and got properly armored before going to morning mass and then breakfast. Mannis did not put in an appearance.
After Brother Brian had healed his nose the day before, Mannis had dragged himself to his cell without a word and had not been seen since. He finally appeared as the four graduates were packing up their horses out in the yard with all the school’s youngsters and most of the Brothers gathered solemnly around. As Mannis stumbled through the crowd to get his horse from the stable there was some restrained amusement at his expense.
Brother Brian had healed his nose with a spell, but it was definitely somewhat crooked now. As well, the spell had done little to alleviate the two black eyes he now sported. When they were all ready to go, Brother Willem stepped forward to give them one last prayer and blessing:
“Stron, look upon these young men as they go forth into this world to do your work. Keep them true and right within your word, and protect them if they merit it. Amen.”
And, with that, the lads said their last goodbyes and rode out of the Pekot school for the last time. When they had ridden through the fields just a little, Mannis pulled up and dismounted, groaning and moving stiffly like an old man. Then he pissed in the ditch.
“Yeah! I’m fuckin pissing blood from that swat yar raven laid across my kidney,” Mannis complained. None of the four graduates made any comment on this, so he continued griping as he mounted up: “And as to hospitality, that fuckin place has a lot to learn. Sending a guest off in the morning without so much as a bite to eat last night or this morning!”
“Guests or not, those who miss pre-meal mass or prayers do not eat. That is the way of it,” Choke said neutrally.
Mannis gave him a sour look, but chose not to rise to his words. “Well, I need something to eat. And drink. Is there anywhere nearby where we could manage that?”
Within twenty minutes, they were seated in the comfortable tavern in the village proper of Pekot. Once he had filled up on breakfast gruel and had a couple of ales in him, Mannis’ spirits began to rally.
“Oh, man!” he groaned as he stretched himself painfully. “That was probably one of the finest beatings I’ve ever taken. I’m guessing that raven must have overheard me complaining about their witch burnings and what have you. I see now why people say the Holy Stoners are not to be trifled with. Stron’s cock, he messed me up! How’s my nose look?”
The four lads all stared at Mannis awkwardly until Pinch finally hazarded a reply:
“It’s not so bad…”
“Oh fuck. Did that asshole fuck it up?”
Mannis bolted to the tavern keeper to demand a mirror. He took the hand mirror outside into the daylight to check the damage.
“Asshole!” Mannis bellowed as he came back inside and handed the mirror back to the wench. “Asshole! He fucked up resetting it! This was purposeful!”
“It’s not that bad,” Baron said. “And ye did keep moving around when he was trying to set it. Brother Brian did the best he could.”
“Bullshit he did! Ye think I haven’t seen a nose set before? He was poking and wiggling it around to fuckin hurt me all the more. Then he goes and heals it crooked. Just so he can tattoo me!”
“Perhaps that’s so. He probably thought it was a teachable moment. The lesson being: mind your manners with the Church,” Choke said, looking Mannis dead in the eye.
Mannis glared back and seemed inclined to start something over it. Then his scowl cracked into a grin and he laughed.
“Ye have some balls on ye, jink, I’ll give ye that. And I guess yar right: that raven’s lesson was a good one, and not as costly as it might have been, all in all. What’s yar name again?”
“Right. But what do these other ones call ye?”
“I’m guessing that it aint because ye choke yar chicken more than anyone. Ye seem like a man that’ll finish what gets started, one way or the other. So, Dungar, what’s yar name with this lot?” Mannis asked, turning to his brother.
Mannis scoffed. “Yeah. No way. That one stays back there with the ravens. There’s but one lord in our family. The right and proper one, got it?”
“Of course, brother,” Dungar said.
“So, speaking of the Count, what are ye doing here anyways?” Knuckle asked Mannis.
“Good question. Knucklehead, right?”
“Ah, right. Knuckle it is. Well I aint here because I was dying to see this stretch of frontier, that’s for fuckin sure. With this one here doing good and getting into the Holy Stoner Academy, Father wanted to make sure he arrives there. So I’m gonna take him right to the fuckin gate and hand him over to the ravens myself.”
“Are ye riding the whole way to Goettingen?” Pinch asked.
Mannis looked at him shrewdly. “No. We’re gonna ride to Strana and then catch a riverboat there.”
“Strana? Oh man! The way Brother Simon’s gone on about the place, I’m fuckin sure it’s worth going to!” Knuckle exclaimed.
“Yes, it is a fine place to have a time. This is true,” Mannis laughed. “Okay then, lads, I’ll tell ye what. I’ve been given a decent purse to see this job done, and I like the lot of ye. And it aint like the road’s all that settled, neither. So, ye can tag along with us as far as Strana. Two things, though. One: no more of that Holy Book talk. And two: wherever we lay our heads on the way, ye boys are getting the cheapest fare. Deal?”
Overjoyed, Knuckle and Pinch assured Mannis this was more than they could have dreamed of. Choke sighed and nodded curtly.
The five young men rode at a good jog straight through until late afternoon. Calling what they were on a road would have been generous. The dirt cart track was rough and rutted as it passed through the farmland, and when it went up into the forested hills it got even worse. Even so, their horses were solid and every one of them was a good rider, so they made good time.
Finally, Mannis reined up in a branch in the track. The better-travelled way headed down into the next valley, and the other headed further up the hill. The hill course had a simple signpost next to it: a rectangle carved into a plank of wood, symbolizing an ale stein.
“We could head down into the valley, but I thought ye boys might like to head up to Mary’s here. Yar probably all eager to get yar dicks wet, eh?” Mannis said.
“Oh, ye fuckin know it! But we don’t got more than a couple of copper between us,” Knuckle said glumly.
“I know. Don’t ye worry, it’s on me. And before ye get too grateful, this aint quality, city pussy they’re slinging up here. It’s a rough life in these hills. But what these gals lack in looks, class, or teeth, they make up in experience!”
Mannis led them up to the whorehouse in the woods. True to his word, it was all rough. In a clearing next to a fast brook, the main building was a longhouse made from rough-hewn logs. A number of even shittier looking little cabins could be seen out in the bush. There were a pair of mules tied up at the hitching post in front.
When Mannis led the four lads into the dim interior of Mary’s, the boisterous, drunken scene inside quietened immediately. There were three men and four women in the joint, and they all stared at Mannis and his crew with undisguised fear.
“We’ve come for the heretic!” barked Mannis. With everyone staring at him, Mannis held his posture for several beats before cracking into laughter. “Oh! Ye should see yar faces! Oh, that’s good!”
Dungar, Knuckle, and Pinch joined in Mannis’ hilarity. The people in the whorehouse, however, looked deeply unsettled.
“Oh, come on! It’s just a joke, Mary. Don’t ye remember me?” Mannis asked the older woman behind the bar as he strode on into the room.
“Oh, right. Yar the Count’s boy. It’s been a couple years, aint it? Well, that wasn’t funny, ye with a bunch a wheel-toting goons. I near shit myself!” Mary said, glaring at Mannis.
“Oh, dear, I am sorry. Didn’t mean to upset anyone. Next round’s on me. Whatever they’ve been having! And I’ll be paying in coin, not pelts or goblin ears,” Mannis exclaimed, taking a seat at the bar.
Their eyes now adjusted to the joint’s dim interior, the Pekot lads had a look over its occupants. None of the men would meet their eye. There were two trapper woodsman fellows, shaggy in stinking pelts and buckskins, and Mary’s security: a big dumpy drunk with a buck knife and a cut-down axe handle cudgel stuck in his wide leather belt. The women seemed less intimidated than the men, and looked the young men over with some interest.
Having taken a good look at the women on offer, Dungar, Knuckle, and Pinch exchanged distraught looks. Knuckle rallied quickly, though, and shrugged before moving to the bar with Mannis.
“So, what d’ye want this evening?” Mary asked as she poured ales for everyone.
“Well, these four have just earned their freedom from the ravens down in Pekot, so I thought I’d treat them. We’ll want dinner, whatever ye have, and then to spend the night. With as much access to the girls as they want. However often, any holes, and in whatever combination they want. All night. Full access,” Mannis said.
“And yar paying coin money?”
“That I am.” Mannis grinned and produced a coin purse from which he extracted a few bigger copper coins. “That ought to get us started.”
“That it will. Just give me a sec to figure out the supply,” Mary said as she moved down the bar to the two woodsmen. “Hey, guys, we got a big order here. Ye two okay with taking turns on Amy tonight? I’ll let ye both ride for the price of one.”
The woodsmen assented, so Mary dispatched her other two girls to the longtable where Choke, Pinch, and Dungar had seated themselves. It was only then that she noticed Choke.
“Woah!” she held her hand up and shook her head. “Not that one! No way! That jink aint sticking his horse-stinking pecker in one of my girls! What kinda joint d’ye think I’m running here?”
“Hey!” Knuckle barked as he lunged to his feet to stab his finger right in Mary’s face. “Ye watch yar fuckin mouth when yar talking about my friend, ye hoor!”
The lads had left their shields and spears outside with the horses, but they were all armored and bearing their swords and smaller arms (Knuckle’s greatsword was leaning against the bar where he had put it). With Knuckle up in Mary’s face, the others tensed and looked to see how her goon and the two patrons would react. All three were staring into their ales.
“Now, now, let’s all be civil,” Mannis said, standing to pat Knuckle on the shoulder and draw him away from Mary. “Ye would think, Mary, that ye would want to be friendly to the young man. Regardless of whatever else he might be, he is a graduate of the Holy Stoner Pekot school. D’ye really want him to get it in his head to go and report to the ravens down there about what’s been going on up here?”
“Oh, don’t ye start with that! Just what d’ye think’s been going on up here?”
“A lot of fucking is what. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but there seems to be a lack of kids here. I mean, fucking usually leads to kids, right? With that being so, I suppose the ravens might get to thinking that ye girls have been feeding yar unborn babies to the moon. What’s the word they have for that, Bartholomew?” Mannis asked pleasantly.
“An abomination and witchcraft,” Choke answered.
“Well, that’s two words. But either one will do,” Mannis smiled at Mary.
“Oh, ye motherfucker. Don’t ye dare…” Mary’s voice cracked as she began to quiver in terror.
“I wouldn’t think to. But our young friend, Bartholomew, over there might. That’s why I am simply advising you that it may be in your best interests to be polite to him.”
“No. It’s fine,” Choke said. “I would not partake of any of this harlotry if they would have me. I’d just have something to eat and then I’ll spend the night wherever we put the horses. I shall make sure nothing happens to them.”
At Choke’s mention of sleeping with the horses, Mary looked like she wanted to say something, but she thought better of it.
“Well, okay, then. He can eat and drink. Then ye can put yar horses in the shed out back,” she said.
“And there we have it! Civility reigns. So, which two of ye are going up to the cabins first?” Mannis asked as he took his ale to the longtable and sat down.
“Oh, I’m up first!” Knuckle said. He picked up his ale and greatsword and had a look over the two women sitting with his friends. He soon made his decision and pointed to the younger one. “You! Yar with me. Let’s go!”
The woman led Knuckle out of the joint. With them gone, Mannis looked between Dungar and Pinch and their woman.
“So, who’s to be first then?” Mannis asked cheerfully. “Of course, if ye want, ye can both go together and make a nice pig roast of it.”
“Pig roast?” Dungar asked.
“Yes. Like a pig on a spit, each end filled with pole.”
Dungar and Pinch both flinched as the image landed. Then they laughed in a forced manner. Looking from the woman they were meant to have, to each other, and back again to the woman again, they realized that whatever they had thought they wanted from the experience, this was not it.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Choke said to everyone there.
“Bartholomew is quite right. Quite right. You do not need to do this,” Mannis laughed.
Pinch finally squared himself to step into the breach. “No sharing. If ye don’t wanna, I’ll take her first,” he said to Dungar.
“That’s fine. Go ahead,” Dungar said.
When Pinch and his lady had left to the cabins, Mannis drained his ale and winced at Dungar.
“Bad move there, brother. Sloppy seconds for ye now. Some aren’t particular, I know, but it is not a good look for a leader.”
“I know it. And I won’t be having anything. I appreciate the offer, brother, but this is just not what I wanted.”
“I quite understand. To be honest, I wouldn’t fuck these women with yar dick. And with Bartholomew here backing yar play, ye can afford to stand on principle. I respect yar discrimination,” Mannis said.
Mannis, Dungar, and Choke ate dinner while Pinch and Knuckle were gone. The meal was not bad: roasted venison with mountain plants (fiddleheads and wild potatoes) and simple bread. Some time later, Pinch and Choke came back with their women, had dinner themselves, topped off their drinks, and then switched partners to go back to the cabins for the night. By that time the woodsmen had finished with Amy, so Mannis took her into a dark corner of the longhouse for an under-the-table blowjob.
Choke and Dungar left him to it and got all their horses settled in the shed with their other gear. Once they had, Choke laid his bedroll and cloak out on a pile of straw and began getting himself out of his chainmail and quilted under-doublet. Dungar gave him a hand.
“Thank you. Ye can sleep here with me tonight if ye want. There’s room,” Choke said.
“No, I think I’ll just crash on a bench in the bar. I’ll want to have a few more drinks with Mannis. Get to know him a bit better, you know?”
“That’s probably a good idea. Well, goodnight then.”
“Yeah.” Dungar moved to the shed door, but hesitated before leaving. “Listen, I’m sorry that bitch was shitty with ye back there. Ye can sleep in the bar with us, ye know.”
“I know. I told you, I’m minding the horses. We have no idea what kind of bushwhackers might be lurking around here. So don’t get too drunk. And I meant what I said: I wouldn’t be with those women even if they’d have me. So it’s fine. And I’m happy you didn’t do it, whatever your reasons. Don’t let Knucklehead give you a hard time about it either. You did the right thing. He’s the one with the problem.”
“Yeah, I guess. Okay. Thanks, Choke. Goodnight.”
“Yeah. Let’s hope so.”
The next morning was a slow start for them. Choke, of course, was ready to go at the break of dawn, but with no one upright in the longhouse or cabins he had to wait. He did some exercises and sword practice for a while and then sat down in the sun with his back against the longhouse to read his Holy Book.
Eventually, everyone roused themselves, had breakfast, and set out again. Heading down into the valley below, Knuckle was as wearisome as could be expected about his experiences. Pinch was quieter than usual, and Dungar kept to himself, riding on ahead, so there was little conversation beyond Knuckle’s obscene monologue. By the time they reached the valley, Mannis had finally had enough.
“You know, Knuckle, I’m glad that ye appreciated last night, so don’t get me wrong. But it is considered bad form to talk about sex once it’s been had,” Mannis said.
“Really? Huh. Why?”
Mannis laughed. “Well, suppose it’s like any other crime, really. Once the act is completed, there’s no good reason to talk about it. At best, it is a boring topic. You also never know who may overhear or be offended by it. And that can only hurt yar chances of securing more of it.”
“Some that might be inclined to give you sex might reconsider if they think you will talk about it afterwards. And if you get something on the sly from someone, having it discovered by their people is never good. D’ye understand?”
“Yeah. I do! Okay. But last night was just with hoors, and there aint no one around, so what’s the harm here?” Knuckle asked earnestly.
“It’s just tiresome. For me, I mean. I don’t want to hear about it anymore, and I’m sure yar mates feel the same way,” Mannis said reasonably.
“Oh, okay. I got it. My bad!”
“It’s quite alright.”
“But, as long as we’re talking about it. I get that them hoors last night were on the low end of things. So, for next time, where’s the best hoors? And where’s a good place for, ye know, more better ones that aint too expensive?” asked Knuckle.
Mannis laughed again. “Oh ye are a bulldog, aren’t ye, Knuckle! Well, okay then. I do prefer not to pay for it these days, if I can help it. But, if ye were to twist my arm…”
With Mannis and Knuckle carrying on, they rode on into the next valley of farms and hamlets.