With Knuckle and Pinch laid up and resting in the Burnthistle garrison barracks, Thorn, Peep, Choke, Amia, and Dugger spent a fun and lively night in the tavern with the local smallfolk.
The tavernkeeper built up a good fire in the huge hearth so that they could get out of their armor and dry off properly. Then he filled them up on good brisket and potatoes. Goldy and Horsecock were notorious in those parts, and some of the folk there that night had personally suffered their cruelties or lost family members to them. Getting deeper into the tavern’s strong ale, Thorn and Peep entertained the happy villagers with exaggerated tales of their takedown of the bandits. As the evening progressed, with Dugger fast asleep on a bench, Amia insinuated herself closer and closer to Thorn. By the end of things she was all but sitting in his lap.
When the night wound down and the villagers had left, the tavernkeeper let Thorn and the others sleep in the common room. They wrapped themselves in their now dry cloaks to sleep on the tables or the benches. With Thorn still on the happy side of a good drunk, it was only a short time before Amia was able to take him to a darker corner where he consented for her to blow him. Choke did his best not to listen to them as he drifted off to sleep, but given their enthusiasm managed only limited success.
The next morning, the tavernkeeper sent them off with a large, if simple, feed and promises that their names would ring out in honor within his establishment for the rest of his days. At the barracks, Lieutenant Mithens had issued strict orders that his medic was not to waste any more healing spells on the interlopers. Even so, Knuckle and Pinch were both looking much better than the night before. Knuckle was able to walk, and Pinch declared himself fit to ride, at a slow pace, if only they could get him mounted. The full squad gathered with their mounts in the stables to discuss what to do, with Amia and Dugger now nipping at Thorn’s heels like a pair of loyal terriers.
“Some motley fuckin crew we have here, huh,” Thorn laughed.
“Yeah, I was gonna bring that up,” Peep said. “I know yar in a big hurry to get word to whoever in Spitzer about the goblin invasion and all. But, if ye ride on ahead and leave us alone, we could have trouble. We got me, looking as I do, then a jink leading us, no offense, Choke. Then Knuckle and Pinch all fucked up. And then Amia and the squirt to really round out the picture. If we run into any law and order on the road, they’re gonna be fitting us up for nooses before we can say shit. And if we try to stay here, I don’t like our odds of keeping them soldiers off of Amia.”
“I hear ye,” Thorn answered. “We’ll all go to Spitzer together, don’t ye worry about that. There’s a squad posted at the church in the village of Callic. We’ll reach that by noon, I reckon, and I’ll get them to send a fast rider to Spitzer with word.”
With this settled, they headed out. It was cloudy and cool, and the rain had stopped, so the weather was perfect for travel. A number of cheerful villagers, including the tavern keeper, gathered to see them off. Looking back to give them one last wave, the squad saw Lieutenant Mithens at his quarter’s window glaring at them intensely. Thorn gave him a thumbs up and a cheerful wave.
With Pinch riding stirrupless with his broken leg, Peep doubled up behind Choke this time. Amia and Dugger rode the mule. They kept at a fast walk and were able to make Callic just before lunchtime.
The village of Callic was about double the size of Burnthistle, and even had a low, stone wall around it. The church was a solid little ugly thing, built of chunky stone. The Stronian priest there, Father Nate, was a good match for it: a burly, vital man in a plain black cassock, with an iron wheel of Stron on rawhide around his neck and a steel longsword on his hip. He greeted Thorn with clear respect, listened carefully to his concise report of their mission, and immediately dispatched one of his men to Spitzer with orders to report Thorn’s findings to the Baron personally.
Then, Father Nate took receipt of Goldy and Horsecock’s heads, which were fully ripened by that point and completely unrecognizable. He had another of his soldiers go and gather what villagers he could. They all assembled outside the village’s main gate where they stuck the heads on pikes as Father Nate declared them to be the righteously slain bandits Goldy and Horsecock. Then Father Nate took the squad back into the church, where he had them kneel to hear a short sermon before he healed up Pinch and Knuckle completely with a few higher-level cure spells.
“I suppose you’ll be wanting the bounty on those two rogues,” Father Nate said to Thorn when they had all finished thanking him and praising Stron.
“That’s alright, Father. If ye just give me yar note for them, I can get Winters to pay it out,” Thorn answered.
“No, it’s quite alright. I serve as magistrate here. I shall pay it out. Ye’ll be wanting it all in silver, yes?”
“Yes, Father,” Thorn answered.
Father Nate nodded and left out a narrow door to the side of his pulpit. He returned shortly with a large leather purse.
“Goldy was ten gold. A very naughty boy indeed. Horsecock was a fair bit less naughty, it seems. His bounty was only two. I suppose that, given his handle, so to speak, that when he got aroused to get up to mischief, he did not have enough blood left in his system to be too energetic about it. Eh? Ha!” Father Nate laughed as he began to count out silver coins onto one of the pews.
Thorn and Pinch laughed along with him, while Choke stared at the Father with a look of disappointment. It took Knuckle a moment to figure the joke out, but once he did he made up for the delay with enthusiasm and volume.
Father Nate counted out the silver into twelve stacks of ten, which Thorn put away in the money purse that Peep had liberated from the bandit camp.
“We’ll settle all this up shortly,” Thorn assured the squad as he held the purse up to them.
“So!” Father Nate boomed. “Let’s have a look at these youngsters of yours, Thorn.”
“Well, they aint my youngsters, Father. Not for much longer, anyways. But they all done good. Mostly,” Thorn said, shooting Knuckle a very dirty look.
“You,” Father Nate said, stepping in front of Choke. “So you are the Scythan Holy Stoner I have been hearing so much about. What have you to say for yourself, man?”
“Father? I’m sorry, I don’t… People are talking of me?” Choke stammered.
“This is a surprise to you, is it? Yes, lad, people are talking! A Holy Stoner trained Scythan leading two other lads, one of them a giant, comes to town and kills Stag Orcstabber and his men in the street. Right outside of the Busted Unicorn, no less. And ye think people are not going to be talking of it? Then, to add fuel to that fire, word comes up that the three of ye have a contract out on you from one of the Strana outfits. So, yes, young man, tongues have been a wagging,” Father Nate laughed again.
“What? A contract?” Thorn asked sharply, glaring over at Choke.
“Yes. It seems these lads kicked up something of a rumpus in Strana. Word’s been spread through the teamsters: one gold piece bounty on each of them killed,” said Father Nate.
“Well, we have been busy boys, haven’t we?” Thorn said, looking the three over again. “I expect that’s a story worth hearing.”
“Father Morrenthall in Spitzer already heard our true confession over the matter,” Choke said levelly. “So it’s not something we need to get into now, is it?”
“No. I don’t think so,” Father Nate said. “But it is good to know you have been cleansed of it. I just thought you boys should be made aware. The word is out, and three gold is a lot of money in these parts. So do be careful, yes?”
“Thank you, Father,” the three Pekot lads all intoned as one.
“Now, as to the two women that grace us with their presence. What is yar name, child?” Father Nate asked Peep.
“I am no knight. Call me, Father, if ye please.”
“Quite alright, miss. So, what is your story, then?”
“She—” Thorn started.
Without looking away from Peep, Father Nate interrupted Thorn with an upraised hand: “I was speaking to her, Thorn. But shall I take your interference to mean that this woman is someone of value to us?”
“Uhhhh… Yeah. Sure, Father. She’s been solid.”
“Thank you. So, miss, ye were saying?” Father Nate asked Peep pleasantly.
“Well, it aint much, really, sir.”
“Father,” Father Nate interjected.
“Father. Right. Well it aint much…” Peep went on to quickly and truthfully relate her history with Choke and Orcstabber, as well as her new partnership with the Pekot squad.
Upon hearing this, Knuckle did a rather comedic double take before settling in to have a good grumbly glare at Choke and Pinch.
Father Nate listened to Peep intently without interrupting. By the time she had finished, he had clearly already made up his mind about her.
“It is clear to me, woman, that these men have found you useful in their mission of justice. What is your name, child?”
Father Nate looked pained and sighed. “As I keep telling you, if you must refer to me with an honorific, please call me, father.”
“Right. Sorry, Father. It’s just this is weird to me. All ye’all boss men here in civilization have all yar special names ye gotta be called. It’s hard to keep track,” Peep said.
Father Nate smiled at this. “I understand. So it goes with hierarchical societies. Wherever one finds themselves in the pecking order, he feels entitled to the appropriate respect, while simultaneously needing to avoid angering his superiors by being seen to put on airs. T’is a convoluted mess, I know, but so it goes. Suffice to say that priests, generally, should all be addressed by, Father. As with the father of a family, we priests must take responsibility for, as well as guide and discipline, our flock as though they are our children.”
“So, you are called, Peep. Do you have a Stronian name?”
“I been called a lot of things. Peep’s the one that stuck.”
“I see. So, you have not been baptized?” Father Nate asked.
“I dunno what that is.”
“I see. A baptism is a naming ceremony in which one is brought into the light of our Lord, Altas, the sun, under the eternal vigilance of his son, Stron. It washes away all of your sin and makes you clean in their eyes. It is the one way to avoid the eternal damnation of a fiery hell upon your death. It is, of course, your choice, my child, but I highly recommend that you allow me to baptize you now. If you seek to work with these men of Stron, you shall need a good Stronian name, I think.”
Peep nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, sure. Whatever ye want, Daddy. I wanna be a good girl now, so I’ll do as ye say.”
“For the last time: call me Father, I said,” Father Nate said, his tone finally getting a dangerous edge to it. “I grow tired of this cheeky little game of yours. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Father. Sorry, Father. I’ll be good now, I promise,” Peep said, managing to look completely earnest while somehow still conveying that she in no way was.
“I understand, child, that you have come up in the wild, beyond the reach of the light of our faith. So your ignorance is no sin. But do not misunderstand us: we are not to be trifled with. Do not seek to be clever by attempting to slip in amongst our flock like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You will be sniffed out.”
“I understand that real good, Father. I seen yar kind burn up a few women in my day,” Peep said.
“So you understand us, then. And still you persisted in baiting me for your own petty amusement. You have courage. Or perhaps you are mad. Either way, I think I would rather have you working for us than against. So I ask you now, in all seriousness, Peep, would you take baptism? I offer this to you earnestly, in good faith. Join us in our righteous fight, in spirit and soul, as you have in body this last mission. Whatever your answer, I shall not punish you for it. But you must be honest. Do not seek to accept this with deceit in your heart. For Stron shall see it and burn it out of you. So think carefully before you answer.”
“I’ll do it, Father,” Peep answered immediately. “Yeah. For sure. Like I told Choke, or Bartholomew: I been getting kicked around by everyone my whole life. And it’s pretty obvious to me that yar lot are the ones that do the hardest kicking. This is my chance. So, whatever it takes, I’ll do it.”
Father Nate smiled, obviously pleased by her words.
“Good,” he said. “That is good. I see ye understand us well. I like yar honesty and clarity of purpose, child. It is this, not your snide sneerings, that shall elevate you. Remember it.”
“Okay. Sure thing, boss,” Peep said with a hint of a smirk.
Father Nate laughed. “You just couldn’t resist, could you?”
“No, Father, I couldn’t. Sorry.”
“It’s quite alright. It was funny. Very well. Peep! Do you freely and honestly now seek baptism? To wipe your burden of sin clean and join us in our faith?”
“No. The words you must say now are, ‘I do, Father.’”
“Oh. Sorry. I do, Father.”
“Better. And do you accept that Altas is the one, true god?”
“I do, Father.”
“And that his son, Stron, was sent to this wicked earth to cleanse it with his holy fire. And so was martyred upon the Wheel of pain for it?”
“I do, Father.”
“And do you now swear to renounce all other so-called gods as the demons and devils that they are?”
“I do, Father.”
“And to only give praise and prayer to Altas the Father, and Stron the son?”
“I do, Father.”
“And to fight to protect our faith and flock from all threats?”
“I do, Father. Ye just tell me whose throats to cut and I’ll put the work in,” Pinch said without a trace of sarcasm.
“Good. Then, so swear it, here and now in this holy sanctum, before the eyes of our god, Altas, and his son, Stron.”
“Uhhh… okay. I do swear to do all that stuff ye just said,” Peep said.
“Good enough. Very well, child. Now come kneel before me at the altar and accept Stron’s cleansing fire as you receive your proper name.”
Peep did as she was told and knelt down at the pulpit in front of Father Nate. As with the church in Spitzer, the altar here was a large wagon wheel, hung from the ceiling by a pair of chains. With this being a simple Stronian church without affiliation to the Knights of the Holy Sword religious order, the Wheel did not include a sword.
Father Nate held his hand above Peep as he cast his eyes upwards and spoke with heavy reverence:
“Lord Altas, our one true God, the sun that brings all light and good into our world, I, your humble servant, have heard the earnest desire of this unworthy woman to join our flock. Look upon her now, and give your holy blessing unto her as I baptize her with a good name within our faith.”
Father Nate dropped his hand to lay his palm upon Peep’s brow.
“Know the blessing of Altas now as you join our faith, woman. And your name shall now be: Otilla. In the old Gerant tongue this means, fortunate heroine. I cannot think of one more suitable for you. Now, Otilla, look upon the Wheel above. And know, that on just such a wheel was our Lord God Altas’ son, Stron, martyred. Broken upon it by iron bar and hammer as a common criminal, by evil men who would protect their worship of false gods against the righteous Word that Stron brought to them. And know, child, that Otilla was one of the warriors that fought with Stron to do his work. She fought on after Stron’s martyrdom, and was so martyred herself at the Battle Of Cunnock Bridge, some years after.”
Father Nate now looked upwards to the Wheel himself. Then he drew his longsword and raised it upwards to touch its point to the wheel’s hub.
“Lord Stron!” bellowed Father Nate. “Imbue this blade with your righteous, cleansing fire. So that Otilla may feel its heat and know your judgment! Let your fire be a beacon for her, and all the righteous, as we strive to bring your word into this evil world!”
With this, the Father’s sword burst into bright flame. Father Nate turned back and held the sword aloft over Peep. The flames roared from the blade like a foundry’s furnace, and the heat of it bathed everyone there. This was no illusion. This flame would kill.
Peep knelt before Father Nate, her eyes huge in fear as she stared up at the inferno above her. However, whether by instinct or terrified paralyses, Peep did not move.
Father Nate, himself looking surprised at the intensity of the flames, dropped his fiery sword to lay it upon Peep’s head. The flames, which had been blooming as high as two meters above the sword, now surged down to engulf her. Peep screamed as they did. Her voice was not one of agony or fear, though. It was a cry of profound exhilaration and joy.
Deep within the roiling flames Peep was suffering no harm. For those that watched, though, the heat was almost intolerable. Indeed, it was so intense that Choke and the others had to back up and turn their faces away.
Apparently as immune to the heat as Peep was, Father Nate laughed then: a booming, joyous laughter that rolled out of him as it filled the church to its rafters.
“Yes! Yes!” he shouted. “Yes! Feel Stron’s flames upon you, child! Breathe him in, Otilla! Stron likes you! Oh… he really likes you!”
Now cackling maniacally herself, Peep reached up to grasp the flaming blade above her with both hands. Only then did those around begin to smell the stink of burning flesh. Paying no heed of this, Peep continued to laugh. The voice she laughed with now was no longer her own. This was the holy flames’ voice that emerged from within her: deep, old, and terrible in its mirth.
Then, the flames were gone. Peep collapsed upon the stone floor, utterly spent. As she sprawled out insensible, everyone looked to her smoking palms. The skin of her calloused fingers and most of her palms was unharmed. But, in the center of each palm, about the size of a large coin, was branded into her flesh two, identical, four-spoked Wheels of Stron.
Father Nate stumbled to a nearby pew and collapsed in it. The blade he held slack in his hand was a fine one: double-edged and fullered down its center. Otherwise, though, it was smooth and cool. There were no Wheels of Stron upon it. The weapon was no brand.
Slowly gathering his wits about him, Father Nate looked from his longsword to the paired brands of Stron on Peep’s palms.
“Whoaaaaah…” Father Nate said.