The priest’s office was simple, as befitted a serious man of Stron, but still managed to be nicer than Brother Willem’s in the Pekot orphanage. There was no luxury, but the chairs were quite a bit more comfortable and the walls had simple, homespun tapestries with blocky representations of Stron and his saints done in the muted browns and beiges of raw wool and simple plant dyes. Standing in the corner of the office was a fine suit of platemail with a shield and longsword. The shield bore the standard of the Knights of the Holy Sword: a large bold, four-spoked wheel in red on a white background, with a black sword overlaid down its center.
Seeing these tools of war was no surprise to Choke: within the militant Stronian orders, all priests are battle-clerics.
“Have a seat, my son. Would you care for some wine?” the Priest gestured to the chairs in front of his desk.
“Thank you, Father.”
The priest poured them each a wooden cup of simple red wine from a decanter and took a seat near Choke.
“I am, Spencer Morrenthall, cleric of the Knights of the Holy Sword. And what is your name, my son?”
“Good to meet you, Bartholomew,” Father Morrenthall said, leaning forward to offer Choke his hand to shake.
“Likewise, Father,” Choke said, shaking his hand with some surprise that it had been offered.
“You three are recent graduates of the Pekot orphanage school of the Brothers of the Holy Stone.”
“Yes, Father. How did you—”
“Your brother, Nikolas, told me,” Father Morrenthall said, using Pinch’s given Stronian name. “How is Brother Willem? Still well, I hope.”
“Yes, Father. He is quite well.”
“Good. Good. We campaigned together, back in the day, you know. We probably weren’t much older than you are now. How time does fly. But you don’t need to hear me going on about that like some tired old man whose days of usefulness are behind him. If you ever see him again, do send him my warmest regards.”
“I will, Father.”
“Thank you. Now, as to why you are here in Spaggot. I suppose Brother Willem has sent you to Brother Barrelmender.”
“That is so, Father.”
Father Morrenthall sighed at this. “That may be helpful,” he finally said.
“This is a sensitive issue. And, to be honest, I am unsure as to how to handle it. On one hand, you deserve to be properly apprised of the situation. On the other, there is the matter of the discretion due to a fellow man of the cloth.”
“I see I have worried you. Perhaps that is for the best. Very well, before you proceed you should know: Brother Julius Barrelmender is a hero of the faith. Several times over, in fact. He deserves respect and honor for his deeds in battle, and all the sacrifices he has made. Let none say otherwise, lest they run afoul of me.”
“I understand, Father.”
“However, in the campaign against the Unholy Blight, Brother Barrelmender suffered grievously at the hand of some powerful undead. He emerged from the encounter victorious, but deeply wounded in spirit and faith. Anything more than that I should not say, for it is his private matter and burden to bear.
“Suffice to say: the man you shall find and seek to serve is not the man he used to be before the incident. But he has earned our forbearance. Perhaps some young blood with fiery faith is just what he needs to snap himself out of it. Having heard what I have told you, do you intend to seek out Brother Barrelmender in order to serve the Brothers of the Holy Stone?”
“Yes, Father, I do.”
“Good. Good lad! Do you have a Holy Book?”
“Yes, Father, I do. The same one I penned in learning my letters.”
“Excellent. Well, then, do not shirk in your study of that. Whatever you encounter, remember your education and remember the words of Stron himself. Keep the faith strong in you and it shall be your guiding light.”
“So, what do you know of Spaggot?” Father Morrenthall asked.
“It is wild. Largely unsettled. A natural haven for bandits and heretical thinking.”
“Indeed it is. Indeed it is. But it is more than that. Officially, the northern border of Spaggot Barony is that with the Kingdom of Verdoon, as you are no doubt aware. However, practically speaking, the whole northern area of Spaggot and the southern border of Verdoon along it are a blighted region that no good Stronian, or indeed sensible human, should enter. Tis an evil place.”
“I believe I have heard of this. It is known as the Moondark Hills, isn’t it, Father?”
“That is one of our names for it. Within it are more local names. Older ones. Ravenfang Forest. The Desolate Oak. Bloody Bramble Hollow. Meat Log Woods.”
“Meat Log Woods, Father?” Choke asked incredulously.
“Indeed. And I have no idea why the smallfolk may have hung that handle on the place. One shudders to imagine. Suffice to say, I have no interest in finding out.”
“But, Father, if I may ask a question?”
“You may, my son.”
“Well, in Pekot, Count Vallent is a count because of the strategic importance of the county, being located at the edge of the Great Plains.”
“And its Scythan hoards. The very border of Stroniandom. Indeed.”
“And the Brothers of the Holy Stone, and your Knights of the Holy Sword, both keep strong garrisons in Dunlop for precisely the same reason, do they not?” Choke asked.
“They do,” Father Morrenthall smiled.
“So, then, if these Moondark Hills are so perilous, why is Spaggot just a barony? And, no offense to you, why are you the only priest of your order here? And why is Barrelmender the only one of ours?”
“Whoever said we are the only ones? Our brotherhoods are prone to secrecy, when it suits our purposes. But, your question is well noted. And it is a good one. The situation in Spaggot is so because over the years the Moondark Hills have proved to be a static peril. This means that the ill in them does not seek to spread its tentacles outwards. Those who enter them are seldom seen again, and never in their right minds if they are, but nothing pernicious ever has emerged from them to harass our flock, to our knowledge. So we must simply keep a steady watch and see to it that the evil places are left alone.”
“I see. Thank you, Father. But what of the heresy in these hills that I’ve heard spoken of?”
“That is another matter,” Father Morrenthall said with a sigh. “With things as they are, in terms of the faith as a whole, I mean, effective agents of Stron and orthodoxy are thin on the ground in places. There is only so much that can be done. His Grace, the Bishop of Bitina, worships Altas as he believes is right. But he tolerates much in his hierarchy and flock that I would not. But in these parts there are no deep, influential thinkers. There is not a grave danger of their ways spreading. And lines must be drawn somewhere.
“So, Bartholomew, you find yourself at one such blurry line. And one where old dogs like myself and Barrelmender are sent to live out our days in relatively uneventful usefulness. Don’t look so disappointed, though. We certainly have need of you. So if Barrelmender doesn’t, or if you find him too cantankerous, come and speak to me. I can certainly put three stout-hearted lads from the Holy Stoners to good use, have no doubt of that.”
“Well, thank you, Father. I appreciate that.”
“Think nothing of it. As to where you might find Barrelmender: he is up in the village of Bristlehump. There is a fine little church there which he occupies. If you leave at dawn, one day’s good ride will get you there before dark. I shall assign my scout, Thorn, to guide you there.”
“Thank you, Father, but I don’t think that’s necessary. We can find the way ourselves, I’m sure.”
“No. I quite insist,” Father Morrenthall said, just a little forcefully. “We don’t want you three losing your way. Again. You may put your horses in the stable behind the church and have your fun in town tonight. Do you wish to spend the night here?”
“I think that would be best, Father. Thank you.”
“Think nothing of it. I’ll show you to the cells you may use. You can show Theodas and Nikolas. Feel free to use the side door in the east wing to come and go. It shall remained unlocked.”
“Thank you, Father,” Choke said, bowing his head deeply.
“My pleasure. Shall we?” Father Morrenthall said pleasantly as he stood up and gestured for Choke to follow him.
Spitzer was just as it had first seemed: a rustic backwater populated by rough and tumble folk. Unlike many of the smallfolk the lads had interacted with on their ride to and from Strana, these people had an aggressive and unpleasant edge to them. As Choke, Knuckle, and Pinch walked from the church down main street there was no doubt they were regarded as unwelcome outsiders.
In order to avoid looking ridiculous with their scorched tonsures and blistered foreheads, both Pinch and Knuckle chose to wear their helmets. The three lads walked down the whole length of Main Street, which took about ten minutes. Then they looped back to stop outside a big tavern, named the Busted Unicorn, on the intersection of the lane where the rougher saloons and brothels began. It was early evening and the lane and tavern were crowded with lumberjacks, sawmill workers, teamsters, woodsmen, and sundry nefarious characters. There were a number of the baron’s soldiers in the mix as well, but they seemed more intent on enjoying themselves than keeping an eye on things.
“So are you two going to go and have your fun with some prostitutes again?” Choke asked Pinch and Knuckle with an uncharacteristic hint of humor in his tone.
“Okay, yeah, laugh it up, Choke! Real fuckin funny! Ye aint the one with a fuckin handprint burned into yar head!” Knuckle snapped.
“Yes, that’s exactly the point I’m making, Knuckle,” Choke laughed. “So can I take it that you are not going to make me wait around while you go and take another load of sin on?”
“I think I’ll pass for now,” Pinch said. “At least until my hair grows back.”
“Yeah, well why the fuck couldn’t we get tied up with an Altas crew, huh? Alls we had to do at the cathedral was a few prayers and we were clear. We get into the bush here and we gotta get our heads half burned off just because we got laid a bit? It’s fucked!” Knuckle griped.
“Listen, Knuckle. No one is telling you what to do. You are free to make your own choices in this. Just understand that we shall be serving men of Stron in future. Whatever you do today is bound to burn you in the future.”
“Yeah. Fuck,” Knuckle muttered with a deep scowl. “Let’s just go eat and get a drink, then. Fuck.”
The Busted Unicorn tavern sported a painted sign of a unicorn in profile with a black eye and its broken horn dangling comically. The tavern was large and dimly lit by oil lanterns and candles with a low ceiling. It was crowded, but the lads were able to find seats on benches at a longtable near the back exit where the patrons would slip out to relieve themselves in a ditch in the alley. Predictably, their area of the tavern smelled like a sewer.
“Oh, now, what is this!” the serving wench exclaimed when Knuckle was finally able to flag her down. “We got us a jink here!”
The tavern grew quiet as almost everyone turned their attention to the scene.
“What’s that ye say?” the large barkeep bellowed from the bar.
“A jink! Sitting right here as bold as brass! Like he aint got a care in the world!” the wench shouted back.
“Like hell he don’t!” the barkeep shouted, coming around the bar.
As the barkeep closed on their table, a number of patrons stood up to fall in behind him. When he neared them, Choke saw the barkeep had a small-headed throwing axe in his hand. Knuckle and Pinch stood up to face him and his entourage. Choke remained seated.
Knuckle standing at his full height, armored, with a greatsword on his back and his hand resting on his warpick seemed to quench some of the barkeep’s fire (as well as the almost dozen drunks that followed him). The barkeep stopped a couple of meters behind the serving wench, who did not seem the slightest bit intimidated as she glared up at Knuckle aggressively.
“What’s yar business here, jink!” the barkeep jabbed his axe towards Choke from a distance.
“Just to eat a meal and have a drink in peace, sir,” Choke answered as calmly as he could.
“Oh, is that all, is it? I’ve served at the frontier, ye know. I’ve seen what ye jinks do for sport! So I ask again: what is yar intention here?”
“Just as I said, sir.”
“Sir! He is a Stronian. We are church men!” Pinch interjected, pointing to Choke’s iron wheel and then his own wooden one.
“Probably robbed off a dead priest! Don’t talk to me like I don’t know what yar kind do!”
“We just came from the church! We took confession with the priest! Look!” Pinch said, lifting helmet to show the burned handprint on his forehead and scalp. “Knuckle, show him.”
Knuckle did likewise.
There was an amused murmur in the crowd that seemed to signal a turning of the mood.
“Oh, he got ye good. I hope she was worth it,” someone chuckled.
The barkeep was not giving up so easily, though.
“So where’s his burn?” he demanded, again swinging his axe Choke’s way.
“He wasn’t burned. He didn’t sin as we did. You have him all wrong. We are church boys, raised by the Brothers of the Holy Stone in their Pekot orphanage. Go and ask the priest if ye don’t believe us!” Pinch exhorted them.
At mention of the Brothers, the mood in the tavern took another turn, this time to nervous tension and outright fear. There was no doubt that those here knew of the order and were well aware of what they were all about.
“Holy Stoners,” the barkeep said, now blinking rapidly.
“We are not members, sir,” Choke said. “We were raised and trained by them, and now come to this barony seeking to serve them, or the Church, in whatever way we can.”
“I seen what a squad of Holy Stoners did to a whole pack of jink horse archers. And I seen one of yar men burn a whole coven of witches at the stake just up the river. One by one. Lit up like fuckin candles, screaming the whole time,” the barkeep said, now lost in his own remembrances.
“So you know, then,” Pinch said, his placating tone replaced now with one of subtle menace.
“Anyone who don’t wanna find out what they taught me should sit the fuck down. Now,” Knuckle said as he half pulled the warpick from its belt loop.
The barkeep’s entire entourage melted back to their seats.
“Well, okay then. Ye can stay. But I aint serving the jink. I didn’t spend two years fighting his kind to have to serve one now in my own joint. Church or no, ye can’t make me!” the barkeep said loud, for all his patrons to hear.
“The fuck I can’t,” Knuckle growled, leaning forward into a ready fighting stance. “Ye say one more thing I don’t like, ye fat cocksucker, and I’ll spill yar fuckin brains.”
“Theodas!” Choke barked with his drill sergeant voice as he finally stood up. “Enough. We shall leave. The man has made himself clear, as is his right. We shall not eat where we are not welcome.”
Knuckle relaxed his posture and stood down, reacting with immediate obedience to Choke’s order. This caused as much of a stir in the crowd as anything else had, as they realized that Choke, a Scythan, was the leader of this terrifying soldier of Stron.
“Yeah, good call, Bartholomew,” Knuckle said. “Smells like piss here.” Then he hawked loudly and spat on the floor at the barkeep’s feet.
“I wouldn’t worry about that, man,” Pinch said loudly. “That’s just the beer!”
This quip generated a good amount of laughter that served to relieve much of the dangerous tension in the room.
Choke led Pinch and Knuckle back through the tavern to the front door. The patrons cleared a path for them. Their expressions showed an even mix of anger, fear, and embarrassed chagrin. When Choke was almost at the door, another serving wench stepped in front of him and laid her hand on his arm.
“Sir, if yar looking for a meal and a drink, I suggest the Elk and Quiver, up by the sawmills. They’re a more openminded lot,” she said quietly.
“Thank you, miss. Stron bless you,” Choke said.
“Thank you, sir,” the girl said, looking quite pleased.
It was night now, and the three paused outside the tavern to mull things over.
“Fuck that guy!” Pinch exclaimed. “What an asshole!”
“It is to be expected. We are, after all, near the frontier again. These people do not know of me, as the locals in Pekot did. And my folk do have much to answer for,” Choke said.
“They aint yar folk, Choke. Not even a little,” Pinch said.
“Sorry if I pushed that guy too hard, Choke,” Knuckle said. “He just really pissed me off, is all.”
“No, it was fine. You played your part perfectly, Knuckle. And I do appreciate it,” Choke said, giving Knuckle a friendly pat on the shoulder. “He was the one that brought the threat of violence to the situation. I think you taught everyone there an important lesson about how that can go.”
“No doubt. I think he near shit his pants!” Pinch laughed. “So I guess we head to the Elk and Quiver?”
“Yeah. Sounds good,” Knuckle said.
Just as they turned to head back up main street, a low hiss caught their attention from the alley at the side of the Busted Unicorn. Looking over into the shadows there, they saw a slight figure in a dark cloak gesturing for them to approach. They did so cautiously. When they were within about three meters, the figure stepped out from the alley a little and raised the hood of their cloak.
“Bartholomew, right? D’ye remember me?” the figure asked.
It took Choke a few seconds of blinking stupidly to do so. The person was a young woman with a boyish frame and short-cropped shaggy hair. Under her cloak she had on leather armor, so she easily could be mistaken for a boy. It was the same woman he had spared in the creek those weeks ago when he and his squad had killed the escaping bandits at the end of Sir Gareth’s campaign against the bandit leader Tom Rakham.
“I remember,” Choke managed, still stunned to be faced with this person.
“I need a word. Alone. Quickly!” the woman hissed.
“Oh, ye dog! What the fuck have ye been up to? How?” Knuckle laughed.
“I don’t know…” Choke said to the woman, ignoring Knuckle.
“Ye fool! Hurry! Please!” the woman said, the strain of anxiety and fear cracking her voice.
Knowing this person to be a bandit naturally gave Choke pause, but there was something about her just then that led him to trust her. At least a little. He looked to Pinch and Knuckle.
“I’m going to go with her into the alley, just a short ways. Stay sharp. If you hear anything, come in quick to help me.”
Pinch nodded seriously while Knuckle chortled away to himself about what he assumed they would soon be hearing.
Choke followed the young woman into the alley just a few meters before he stopped, squared up and ready for a fight with his hand on his dagger. The racket from the Busted Unicorn’s back door could be heard from further back in the alley, but it was dark and quiet right where they were.
“How did you know my name?” he demanded as she turned back to face him.
“Your man inside called you by it. Don’t be stupid! There isn’t time!”
“Okay. What is it, then?” Choke asked.
“You remember me, yes?”
“Yes. You’re one of Rakham’s bandits. I let you go in the stream when I killed your mate.”
“No! I weren’t one of Rakham’s— just… fine, never mind. I need yar help. We can share two gold, if ye just help me now!”
“Help you? With some kind of banditry. No thank you,” Choke said as he started backing away from her and stabbed his finger down the alley to indicate the way she should go.
“No! Listen, you fool!” the woman said, her desperation again cresting. “Yar a man of Stron, right? Ye said so inside. I need yar help! After I got free of Rakham’s bunch, I ran into one of his men who’d slipped the noose. He and his crew caught me up and drug me along to the hideout of a friend of theirs up in the bush. We come down yesterday for some supplies and are heading back up tomorrow.”
“Okay. So what does this have to do with me?”
“The man that got me. He’s wanted. Two gold piece bounty, dead or alive. Stag Orcstabber he’s called.”
Choke paused to think this over. The name did ring a bell from his time riding with the Count after Rakham and his men. It seemed likely that if he had escaped, there would be a bounty on his head.
“Okay. But why not just run away now? Why try to have me kill him for you?”
“Run away to do what? With what? Like he’s not gonna come looking for me? And I hate his fuckin guts for what he’s done to me. And why the fuck d’ye care about my whys? There’s two gold sitting in the Busted Unicorn. And after that, there’s ten more gold in bounties up at that hideout. Goldy and his crew is up there waiting on our supplies. I can help ye get them too. For a proper share.”
“So you say. Come with me to the church and we’ll figure this out. That’s the best I can do.”
“The church? No! They’re gonna—” the young woman started, her voice rising again, before she was interrupted by a man’s rough voice from further back in the alley.
“Peep! That you, girl? Where the fuck ye run off to this time? We oughta put a fuckin leash on ye. Yeah, I found her! She’s back here in the alley talking to someone!”
Before the woman, now identified as Peep, and Choke could react to this turn of events, the loud man came down the alley at them; a lumbering shape in the darkness. He was soon followed by three more men.
“Okay guy! Yar barking up the wrong fuckin tree, so ye’d best fuck off pronto,” the man said as he closed and grabbed Peep from behind; one of his big hands completely encircling her neck as he yanked her to his side. “Ye should know fuckin better than this by now, bitch. What did I say about running off like that? Now I’m gonna have to punish ye.”
The bandit was very large, almost the size of Knuckle, and had on a black wolf-pelt cloak. His thick beard had been braided and decorated with little beads. The smell of gin and body odor rolled off of him, almost overpowering the sewage they were standing in. Quite drunk, he finally noticed that Choke had not fucked off as he had told him to. Without releasing his grip on Peep’s throat, he turned his attention back to Choke.
“Kay, what the fuck, guy? What did I just say? Wait… the fuck?” the bandit muttered as he finally recognized him as the Scythan from in the tavern.
Before that could lead to anything, though, Peep struck.
The bandit had pulled her right in tight to his side, with the top of her head no higher than his solar plexus. She made some kind of move and the bandit holding her twisted spasmodically as he gasped in agony. Peep got free of his grip as he doubled up and plunged a buck knife deep into the side of his throat before ripping it out through his windpipe. As the wolf-pelted bandit fell, Peep scooted in behind Choke, leaving him to face the next three men. Thankfully for him, the alley was narrow, so the fight would have to be single file.
With normal folk in extreme situations, there is often a hesitancy to resort to violence. When faced with a crisis, they have to build themselves up to make a conscious decision to be violent. No one in that alley was normal in this way.
Peep’s attack of the bandit took everyone by surprise, but they reacted before he had even hit the ground. Both Choke and the next bandit drew their daggers and went for each other. Choke was just a little faster. He stabbed the man straight through the front of his throat and out the back of his neck, severing his spine clean.
The next two bandits were respectively armed with a battleaxe and a two-meter spear. The battleaxeman came straight down at Choke’s bare head with an overhand chop. Choke was barely able to avoid that by ducking and stepping into it, so that the haft of the weapon hit him hard on the shoulder. The bandit twisted the battleaxe as he yanked it towards himself, grazing Choke’s scalp and ear with the blade from behind. Then the battleaxeman stepped in to drive his knee into Choke’s face. That hit him square.
As Choke reeled back, the spearman behind was able to reach around his mate with his longer weapon and give him a hard poke in the side. Choke’s chainmail turned that. With his head spinning, Choke reeled out of the alley with the two bandits right on his heels.
Choke stumbled into the street and fell as the battleaxeman came out of the alley and closed on him. The bandit never knew what ended him. Standing off to the side of the alleyway, Knuckle cut off his head from behind with a smooth sweep of his greatsword. The man’s body fell on top of Choke as his head rolled merrily on into the street.
The spearman was too late to stop his dash out of the alley, but at least he was ready for Knuckle’s next attack. He was able to parry Knuckle’s slash as he moved laterally away from him. However, he did not notice Pinch up against the wall of the Busted Unicorn on the opposite side of the alley that Knuckle had set up on. From behind, Pinch grabbed the man by his hair and cut his throat with his shortsword.
Thoroughly covered in gore, Choke struggled out from underneath the bandit’s body. The street was, of course, filled with people, some of them soldiers, who had backed away to form an audience as the melee had erupted.
Peep, the woman who had instigated all this, was crouched out the street with the bloody buck knife in her hand, looking wildly around for someplace to run.
“Don’t do it!” Knuckle barked at her, raising his greatsword high as he took a long stride towards her, putting her well within range of a killing lunge.
It was then that the Busted Unicorn’s barkeep entered the scene: springing out of his establishment’s front door and waving his arms wildly at the soldiers as he shouted:
“Help! To arms! It’s the jink! Scythan raiders! To arms! To arms!”