Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle rode west from the city of Strana in good cheer. They each had seven silver in their money pouches, a tidy sum for country boys, and a communal purse of about two hundred and fifty coppers, worth two and a half silver. As well, Choke and Knuckle each had the light crossbows they had taken from Murray and Lenny, the shady teamsters that Bridgetown’s gang boss Terrence had dispatched them to sort out.
Spaggot, where they were now heading, was in the far north of the kingdom, in the hilly forests near the border with the Kingdom of Verdoon. The fastest way to get there, by far, would be to head directly north from Strana on the road they had first come in on. In order to do that, though, they would have to cross the Olga river. They understood that downstream there was a ferry, but were concerned about all the teamsters that would be there. Terrence had assured them that teamsters should not be a problem for them, but they were operating under the assumption that he had been talking out of his ass.
These worries aside, the weather was lovely, and the fine open road through the bucolic countryside was a relief after the paranoid constriction of the city.
“So, about these teamsters that might be looking to mess us up,” Pinch started.
“Yeah. ‘Might,’” Knuckle interjected. “I don’t fuckin buy it, man.”
“Yeah, well, what ye believe or not won’t change reality, whatever that is. Just because ye got a rosy outlook on life right now because ye got yar dick sucked last night, doesn’t mean the rest of the world is gonna stop sucking. In a bad way, I mean,” Pinch said.
“Ha! Good one!” Knuckle laughed.
“Anyways, I’ve been thinking. We have to assume the teamsters have put the word out on us. So, if that’s the case: what are they looking for?” Pinch asked.
“Three men-at-arms. One big, one small, and one a Scythan,” Choke said.
“Right. And it aint like men-at-arms are all that rare, right? Yesterday we passed a number on this very road, and there was a whole bunch in town. So, what they’re really going to be on the lookout for is you,” Pinch finished, pointing at Choke.
“This has occurred to me. But what do you want to do about it? You want me to wear a mask?” Choke asked.
“Well, maybe something like that,” Pinch said with a smile. “I’ve been noticing something with you, both on the road to Strana and in town. See, up in Pekot, we all were used to you being a Scythan. Same with the folk around. So it wasn’t a problem. But I was expecting it to be more of an issue everywhere else. I thought we’d be dealing with it over and over. But that didn’t happen, generally.”
“This is true. I noticed that myself,” said Choke.
“Yeah. So what’s that all about? People look us over and they always focus on Knuckle first. Because he’s a giant psycho, I guess.”
“Don’t forget what a sexy bitch I am too!” Knuckle laughed.
“Right. That too. Anyways, usually they don’t even notice that yar a Scythan until they start talking to ye, Choke. On the road, or in the street, or wherever, they just glance us over and see three men-at-arms. They don’t bother looking twice.”
“Yeah? So?” Knuckle asked.
“Well, that’s been working to our advantage. But now the teamsters are gonna be on the lookout for three soldiers, right? And when they see three soldiers, they’re gonna look carefully to see if one of them’s a Scythan. Right? So, we just gotta present ourselves to the world as something different than three men-at-arms. But also something normal.”
“Okay, I see what you’re saying. What do you have in mind?” Choke asked.
“Ye still have yar robes from the school, right?”
“Yes, they’re in my saddlebags,” Choke said, reigning up, realizing suddenly exactly where Pinch was going with this. “Yes. This is good! Why didn’t I think of it?”
“Because ye aint as smart as me, that’s why!” Pinch laughed.
Choke dismounted and opened up his saddlebag to get his black monk’s robes out. They were spun of good wool with a deep hood: a rugged, quality, all-purpose garment. They were also very loose. When on campaign or in battle, it was usual for the Brothers of the Holy Stone to wear their robes overtop of their armor as a symbol of the order. And, as a graduate of the Pekot school, Choke had every right to do so as well, so long as he did not represent himself as an active member of any religious sect or order.
Choke took off his weaponbelt and put the robes on. Then he strapped on the weaponbelt again overtop and girded his loins. This involved tying the lower half of the robes up into a sort of diaper arrangement that allowed freedom of movement. The last touch was simply to pull his iron Wheel of Stron out over the robes and to raise his hood to hide his features.
“See now? Three men-at-arms, and one a Scythan?” Pinch said proudly. “No way! One battle-monk and his two loyal men-at-arms. Heading to join the Brothers in Spaggot. Right as rain!”
“Why don’t we put ours on too?” Knuckle asked. “Then we’d be three monks.”
“Because Choke just carries it better than us. He’s a natural. You and me would look like we’re dressing up. Plus, that’s shit’s hot!” Pinch said.
“Yeah, good call.”
They rode on at an easy jog for the rest of that day, stopping briefly only once to water the horses in the river. With dusk falling, they asked a peasant boy with a herd of goats how far it was to the ferry and were able to push on, reaching its village just a little after dark. At the big roadhouse there they decided not to push their luck, so paid for a private room as well as stabling their horses.
The next day they rose early, ate a simple, hearty breakfast, and pushed on. Just as they had feared, the village and ferry crossing were swarming with teamsters. However, no one paid them any attention, beyond the occasional polite greetings that good Stronian folk normally give the clergy and their agents. Choke kept his robe’s hood up and pulled low to hide his features, but if this seemed strange to anyone, they did not kick up a fuss about it.
The ferry was a fairly complicated affair, run by a series of ropes and pulleys. The main rope was thick and pulled taught across the river between two stout poles on either bank. It was tied about three meters high so that the river barges could pass underneath it. The ferry, basically a wide, low barge itself, was tethered to this rope by two ropes running up from its upstream side at the prow and stern. These ropes had pulleys at their ends which could smoothly run over the main guide rope under stress.
The clever trick of the ferry was that the guide rope was not run perpendicular to the river. From the south side, where the lads were, it angled slightly downstream in its crossing. That meant that the ferrymen only needed to push the ferry into the current with their long poles to get it going. Then the current took it across, with the two tethering ropes rolling down the main guide rope as they went. At the rear of the ferry, another slack rope would be pulled behind. On the return leg, this rope was pulled by an ox team on the bank to drag the ferry back upstream.
The fee was five copper per horse and three per man: twenty-one in total. The lads were more than happy to pay, and were safely on the other side of the river and on their way within one hour of eating breakfast.
Their journey now was easy and uneventful. The weather remained good and no one on the road gave them any trouble. However, Pinch had been right about the robes: they were hot. When they got into the countryside, Choke stopped bothering to wear them.
After they crossed the Olga, they struck out north on a much smaller and rougher road than the ones along the river. This soon degenerated further into cart tracks and goat trails through the farmlands. However, this was not too difficult to manage. They were in the kingdom’s breadbasket and nowhere near the frontiers. The peasants and yeomen they met were simply curious about them and happy to give directions. When they needed to eat and rest, they simply sought out these smallfolk and paid them in copper for what they needed. That night they slept in a barn.
The next day they were able to connect with the North Road that they had first come to Strana on. They began to see horse and ox teams again, but the teamsters driving them did not look twice at the lads. It seemed as though Terrence was right: the troubles of a pair of shady city teamsters did not amount to much in the world, even among their fellows.
Pekot, the county in which they had been raised, was at the far northeast of the kingdom of Bitana. This was also the eastern frontier of the Holy Stronian United Kingdoms, the alliance against the Alquinian Empire to the south. Beyond this border was the start of the Great Plains: a vast expanse of grassland that stretched to the northwest for thousands of kilometers. This was the domain of the Scythan horselords: the great tribes of savage horse archers that spoliated all they could.
Spaggot, the barony to which they were headed, was somewhere in the densely forested hills to the west of Pekot. If Pekot was regarded as a hazardous frontier plagued with frequent Scythan raids, Spaggot was thought of as a hopelessly backwards wilderness, complete with hostile, incestious hillbillies engaged in all manner of witchcraft and heretical druidic practices.
With the troubles of Strana behind them, Choke was excited to find Brother Julius Barrelmender and learn how they could be of service to him in what must be a difficult mandate of enforcing Stronian orthodoxy in the region.
After one more day’s ride they left the North Road, striking out to the northwest. In just a few more hours they reached Spitzer, the only major town in the Spaggot barony, located right at its southernmost reaches.
For the last day the terrain had been getting more and more rugged. By the time they reached Spitzer, it was wild. Steep hills with dense evergreen forests, often topped with craggy cliffs, rose high up above them. The valley they travelled up to Spitzer was largely forested as well, but broken up with stretches of marshy bogs. Only occasionally there was a pleasant meadow with wildflowers in deep grass to enjoy. The scenery was pretty enough, but a horseman to his core, Choke immediately despised this land for the many perils that would be lurking within it. Bogs and thickets are no horse’s friend.
At least the road was good. It was wide and obviously well used by many heavy wagons, with its hard-packed clay and gravel surface deeply rutted in places. They had passed several heavy wagons heading the opposite way that day, all loaded with stacks of freshly cut boards and beams.
Spitzer was a good-sized town, located in a fairly wide valley. The baron’s large wooden fortification loomed up on the hill above it. The town was made almost entirely of wood, save for its large Church, pointedly topped with a Stronian Wheel, as opposed to the sun of Altas they had been generally seeing of late. The sight of the Wheel cheered Choke greatly.
The Spitz river which ran through town was a lively whitewater river that powered the lumbermills on the northside. Besides the fort, the church, and the lumberyards, there really did not seem to be much else of note. Of course, being an industry town, the lively red-light district with its saloons and brothels was easily spotted just off main street. Knuckle and Pinch were as pleased by this as Choke had been at the church.
With no idea of where Brother Julius Barrelmender might be located in the barony, Choke and his boys went to the church to pray and have a word with the priest.
The church was a simple, stark affair. It had a high, vaulted ceiling with narrow, glass paned windows to allow in some light, but its decorations were minimal. Having been in a number of churches like it, Choke knew that its transverse would contain storage and administrative rooms, as well as living cells. Its construction made the church as much a fortification as it was a house of worship.
Above the altar was a single round window stylized into the shape of a sun. Suspended from the ceiling about a meter in front of that, and just below, was a large wagon wheel with a steel greatsword affixed to its center line. This declared the church to be of the Knights of the Holy Sword, a militant Stronian order much more widespread and mainstream than the more intense and exclusive Brothers of the Holy Stone. The two orders were on amicable terms, and worked together whenever possible.
There were a few men and women in the church, sitting or kneeling in quiet prayer or contemplation. A drunk man was passed out on a pew in the back. Choke, Knuckle, and Pinch all strode to the altar to face side by side the heavy wheel above them. As one, they traced the circle and X of Stron’s wheel over their hearts, drew their swords, and knelt with them to bow their heads in prayer. They stayed in this posture for a good while.
When they opened their eyes, a priest stood before them at the altar. He was older man, but looked fit and powerful, as was typical for Stronian clergy. He was in finely spun, black wool robes, handsomely layered in a cut typical of the Knights of the Holy Sword. His Stronian wheel was of gleaming steel, a notable extravagance comparted to the simple black iron normally born by the Brothers of the Holy Stone.
“Greetings, my sons. Shall you take Stron’s blessing?” the priest asked.
The three nodded in unison.
The priest smiled and held his right hand high.
“Almighty Stron, son of Altas, look upon these three warriors of the faith. Measure their deeds and weaknesses, and bless them with your strength if they be worthy. Remind them of their sin if they are not. Thank you for your judgment, our Lord. Amen.”
As the priest prayed, his raised hand burst into flame, bright and hot like a forge under the bellows. Beginning on his left with Pinch, and then proceeding with Choke and Knuckle in turn, he pressed his flaming palm upon their foreheads.
Pinch grunted in pain as the smell of burning skin and hair rose into the air. When the priest’s palm was laid upon his brow, Choke was ready for the same. In his case, though, it was only a mild discomfort. Knuckle bore his trial well, but the scorched smell around them was much thickened by it.
“Well now, my sons,” the priest said, smiling down at the smoke rising from Pinch and Knuckle’s heads. “It seems you have need to unburden yourselves. You first, I think,” he gestured to Knuckle.
The priest took Knuckle to a confessional booth. After about ten minutes Knuckle returned to the altar. Giving him a glance, Choke had to suppress the sudden impulse to laugh. The hair above his forehead was completely gone, giving him something of a tonsured look, and the priest’s large handprint stood out plainly, inflamed and blistered.
“He said yar next,” Knuckle growled, giving Pinch a kick in the rear before taking to his knees to begin his allotment of Our Father and Vengeful Stron prayers.
A similarly tonsured Pinch was in confessional for about as long as Knuckle had been. He came out and informed Choke that it was his turn.
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been about a week since my last confession,” Choke began as he took to his knees in the dark booth.
“An eventful week, it would seem. Tell me of it, my son,” the priest said on his side of the lattice that separated them.
As Choke began to speak, he clearly felt the compulsive effects of a zone of truth spell fall upon him. He could, of course, attempt to resist the spell with concentrated force of will. If he managed it, he would be able to lie, but the priest would know he had resisted the spell. Choke had no intention of resisting or lying, so he submitted to the priest’s spell as he should.
Choke spoke plainly of all that had happened in Strana. When he reached his lustful feelings towards Olivia, the woman who had conned him into following her into the seating charge scam, the priest interrupted him:
“As I understand from the other two, you did not copulate with this woman. I am no parish priest, and you are no schoolboy. I have no interest in sins of thought not expressed in deed. Skip it and continue.”
Choke did so. When he had finished, the priest sat silently for a while.
“How is your forehead, my son?” he finally asked.
“Not so bad, Father. Only a very mild burn.”
“Indeed. You see, then, that Stron does not concern himself with sinful thoughts either. Deeds, my son, are what count. For good or for bad. Of course, we must mind our thoughts, for they can often develop to inform our deeds. But that is the burden all must carry. There is no sin in the evil that the Devil plants in our hearts. The sin comes from failure in resisting it.”
“I understand, Father.”
“Good. Now, why do you think you were burned as you were. In what deeds were you sinful?”
Choke though about this.
“I suppose, Father, that it was in allowing my brothers to fall to sin. And to take violent action for the benefit of an evil man, and receive payment for it.”
“Good. I think, though, that it would be better to focus your repentance on the second thing. Your brothers are not men of god. They might come to serve Stron, but we cannot expect too much of them. And we should let our sheep make their own choices in life, whenever possible.”
“But, Father, if that is so, why then did Stron burn them so when you laid your hand upon them? I’m sorry if this is an impertinent question.”
“Not at all. Stron burned them so because that is what Stron does. He burns the sin from people’s flesh. My role is to bring them to his attention and interpret the likely reasons why he does so. And if the lads want a less painful absolution of their sin, you may suggest that they take themselves to a house of Altas. We worship Stron here.”
“As do I, Father,” Choke said with conviction.
“I can see that. So, as to your sin. You helped an evil man with deeds of violence. And were paid for your service to him. Why do you think you were not harshly burned for it?” the priest asked, his voice quiet and reasonable.
“I don’t know, Father.”
“Don’t you? I think you sensed the reason of it even as you acted. Or else you would not have done as you did, I expect. This Terrence you spoke to me of. He is an evil man. Clearly. A usurer. A peddler of flesh. A violent man, no doubt a terrible despoiler of those innocents he collects to sell to lustful men. But…” the priest paused here before speaking again, seemingly even quieter than before:
“A necessary man. An evil man who brings order to a chaotic and unavoidable situation. The weak-willed and minded folk of the world will happily corrupt themselves, and others, without any external compulsion or suggestion. This is the world we live in. This is how people are. Whatever we do, underworlds will develop out of our sight. There is no helping that.
“But, with violent men such as this Terrence, at least we are able to manage, if not control, what goes on in that particular underworld. To a degree.”
“How so, Father?”
“Well, you know who he is, do you not? And where to find him. Do you think others are not similarly aware of his existence and what he does? You have spoken to me of him. So, now armed with the knowledge of this man’s evil existence, I can put him in my pocket like a coin to spend. If, for some reason, I needed a man found and I knew he was very likely in Bridgetown, would I need to search high and low there for him? No. Of course not. I need only go and remind this Terrence fellow that his very life depends on my continued forbearance of his existence. Now do you understand, my son?”
“Yes, Father. I think I do.”
“Good. This evil man you served is a force of order, if not law, in our society. He had a legitimate grievance with other evil men. You helped him deal with this, under clear duress, and were suitably rewarded for your efforts. A sin, yes. But I would agree with our lord Stron in declaring that it is not a serious one.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“But, something to think about as you go forward: You were lucky. Very lucky. I should think the only reason you did not fornicate with that woman was that such a thing was not on her agenda. And you were lucky to fall under the sway of an evil man who had the good sense to use you appropriately. Let me tell you, my son: foolish people seldom continue to be so blessed with such good luck. I trust you understand me.”
“Yes, Father. I do. I shall strive to do better.”
“Good. So, to that end, go out there and give Stron ten Our Fathers and ten Vengeful Strons. Then, when you are finished, you may come and join me in my study. Your two brothers should be at their penance for some time yet, I think. So you and I shall have plenty of time to discuss what brought you here. Yes?”
“Yes, Father. Thank you, Father. I will do that,” Choke said earnestly.
“Very good. Dismissed.”