It took Father Nate some time to collect himself after Peep’s terrifying baptism. Peep remained unconscious on the floor under the suspended Wheel altar. Thorn, Choke, Knuckle, Pinch, Amia, and Dugger sat in the pews and waited quietly for the Father’s guidance.
“Well, then,” Father Nate finally said, “that sure was something, wasn’t it.”
“Uhhh… yeah. That aint normal, is it, Father?” Thorn hazarded.
“No. No it most certainly was not. I have baptized hundreds in my day, from infant to oldster. And I can safely say I have never seen anything like it. Stron’s fire upon the sword may burn lower or higher, from time to time, but I have never seen it burn like that. Or to that effect,” Father Nate said, still looking deeply unsettled.
“That laugh…” Pinch said. “That wasn’t her, that last laugh. That was… What was that?”
“I don’t know, son. I do not know. I did feel some sense of it through my blade, though. It was not Stron himself, I think…” Father Nate drifted off as he stared into space, caressing his iron Wheel holy symbol as he did.
“No,” Father Nate finally answered for himself. “That was not Stron. But, it was indeed a holy possession. And not of me. Whatever it was, it occupied her. Perhaps an angel of Stron. Perhaps a holy spirit. I shall have to pray and meditate on it, that is certain. It was old. Angry. Violent. With a love for spilled blood and scorched flesh.”
“Was it of our faith, Father? Or…” Choke asked.
“Oh, whatever it was, it most certainly is copasetic with Stron. For none ever enjoyed punishing the wicked with blade and fire more than Stron did himself. And here upon hallowed ground, within a ceremony of baptism, there is no way an imposter might intrude.”
Peep had begun to groan and move about while Father Nate had been speaking.
“Ah. Otilla begins to awake,” Father Nate said. “From what I know of holy possessions, she likely will have no memory of it and will be quite disorientated. There is no telling the change it may have wrought upon her. So it would be best to treat her as normally as possible. But let there be no doubt, she was sought out as special by at least one entity within the Holy Host and received a holy visitation from them. She will be altered by it. Come, though, let us get her somewhere where she can rest properly. She shall need it. Thorn?”
Father Nate and Thorn moved to Peep’s side and took hold of her arms to begin helping her up. As they did, Thorn hissed:
“Father! The brands: look!”
When they had first seen them, the Stronian Wheel brands in each of Peep’s palms had been fresh and lurid burns, as one would expect. Now, though, the wounds were well healed into supple scar tissue. The Wheels’ outlines were sharp and stood out plainly.
“I know, son. I saw. It is a miracle,” Father Nate said.
As he and Nate began to drag Peep to her feet, she groaned and squirmed like a toddler. “Ohhh… fuck. What the fuck did ye do to me, ye cocksucker,” she said, glaring at Father Nate.
Thorn flared up at this and looked set to chastise her, but Father Nate shushed him:
“It is fine, Thorn. She has good reason to forget herself.”
Father Nate and Thorn helped her out the side door. While they were gone, Choke ran outside to get his Holy Book from his saddlebags. He brought it back into the church and sat down to open it in his lap. He was thumbing through its pages when Father Nate and Thorn returned. Father Nate had a jug with him, from which he took a swig before passing it on to Thorn.
“Just potato wine, I’m afraid,” Father Nate rasped. “But it should help. Pass it on.”
Thorn took a swig and handed the jug to Pinch, who did likewise before passing it to Knuckle. Knuckle took a heavy pull and offered it to Choke, who waved it off. Knuckle shrugged, took another pull himself, and passed it back to Father Nate, ignoring Amia.
“Thank ye, Father,” Knuckle said.
“You’re welcome,” the Father said, setting the jug down on a nearby pew. “Help yarselves. It has been a heavy afternoon. But what do we have here!” Father Nate turned his attention to Choke. “Ye can read, can ye! And with a Holy Book! Oh, ye Holy Stoners do ride heavy, don’t ye!”
“We can all read, Father,” Choke said. “I was trying to recall a passage in which Stron speaks of hearing a voice within flames, a voice which could possess men with its spirit. Do you know what passage that might be, Father?”
Father Nate looked chagrined. “Well, I am ashamed to admit that I could never quite get the hang of my letters, and have no Holy Book of my own to better myself with. This is but a poor, remote parish, after all. So I must rely on my memory of scripture recited by those more worthy than me. But, if I am not mistaken, Stron does speak of such a holy spirit in the Book of Twelve Conflagrations. When they burn the Alquinian priest and his harem alive in the town hall. Might that be correct?”
“I think so, Father! Thank you!” Choke said, flipping through the pages excitedly.
“Good lad! Good lad. Now, while you run that to ground for us, we have one more bit of unfinished business here with you lot. What are we to do with you, child?” Father Nate smiled down at Amia.
“Me?” Amia whispered, her eyes downcast.
“Yes. You. What is your name?”
“Amia. A lovely name. And your boy?”
“Dugger… a… a name as well, I suppose,” Father Nate said.
“Ye don’t wanna know where she got it,” Thorn muttered. Pinch and Knuckle both chortled at this.
“I expect you are correct. Have you both been baptized, Amia?” Father Nate asked her gently.
“No. I mean, he hasn’t, Father. I don’t know about me. I guess not.”
“D’ye think we should, Father? Get baptized, I mean,” Amia said, quiet as a mouse, trembling as she did.
“Well, now, that all depends on your intentions, Amia,” Father Nate said.
“My what, sir? I mean, Father.”
“Your intentions. What you mean to do with yourself from now on. You heard what I told Otilla, or Peep, about baptism, yes? You were listening?”
“Mostly, Father. I guess.”
“Well, my child, to accept baptism means that you must be committed to doing good, in Stron’s eyes as well as Altas’, from that point on. It is a responsibility. To Altas. To Stron. To your community. And to yourself and your immortal soul. Do you understand?”
“I dunno. What would ye have me do? I can’t fight. I just want to care for Dugger, Father. He’s all I have in the world!”
“I can see that. And a fine, noble desire it is. Why, a mother caring for her child, her children, is right as rain in the eyes of our Lord. So long as she raises them right and proper within the fold of our religion, there can be nothing better. But the question is: what shall you do with yourself to achieve this end?”
“I dunno, Father. I can work! I’m strong! I can work hard! I’ll work so hard!”
“I am sure you can, my child. But, I must say, in these parts there are few indeed who have the means to bring on a servant or laborer. And those that do prefer ones raised up properly and trained up to the yoke. So you see the problem. I fear that if I leave you to travel on to Spitzer with these men, in your desperation for a situation you would only find the degradation of sexual exploitation,” Father Nate said.
“But… but… what am I to do?” Amia said, looking on the verge of tears.
“Fear not, my child. For you have been brought to my attention and I shall not let you slip free. We shall embrace you in our fold. So know, Amia, that whatever sins and evils brought you here today are of no concern to me. They shall all be washed away clean if you accept baptism with an open heart. So, will you do it?”
“I will, Father. But how am I to live, then?”
“Fret not, my child. For surely Altas, in his mercy, has a plan for you. Indeed, he has sent you to us to help us with a problem in our little parish. Surely, your arrival here his Altas’ work, for Stron has no care for the weak and their troubles. You see, a good man of our community was bereaved of his wife not six months ago. She died in childbirth, along with the baby, and left him with two other children to care for. Twin boys, no less. Now aged four. And without a mother, and with their father so busy tending his farm and responsibilities, they get the Devil in them already. So, this man, Nester, seeks a new wife. Sadly, being out here at the frontier, we have been unable to find him one.”
“A wife, Father? Me?” Amia said, looking stunned.
“Whyever not? I assure you; the match is well in your favor. Nester is a farmer, who works a reasonable plot of our lord, the Baron’s, land, and has leave to graze his pigs in the east wood on Tuesdays and Fridays, as well as collect deadfall wood there on the same days. With his boys so young and full of mischief, keeping up with this is a heavy burden. But, with a good wife at his side, all shall be well for him again,” Father Nate smiled beatifically.
“But.. but… a wife? With another man’s child? He would have us?”
“Of course! You are young. Strong. Proven fertile. And Dugger is a good, strong lad, of an age with his boys. Sure to grow into a fine worker. Who would refuse such property? With my recommendation backing your case, Nester shall not. Rest assured of that. So, what say you, Amia? Would you redeem yourself as an honorable woman by taking him as your husband?”
“It’s… ahh… It’s all so sudden, Father!”
“Bolts from the heavens always are, my child. I see you are quite overwhelmed. I understand. But know that you are worthy of this. And I will see you and your youngster set right. You have wandered in the wilderness too long. It is time to join our flock. Yes?” Father Nate said, his friendly voice finally taking on the hard edge of authority as he finished.
Amia raised her eyes to Father Nate’s to see his resolve. She then looked to Thorn, who met her eye awkwardly.
“Yeah, Amia. Ahhh… this is a good deal for ye. For the both of ye, you and Dugger. Ye need to take it. I can’t… uhhhh… I just can’t, Amia. Ye get married now and have a good life,” Thorn said.
Whatever expectation and hopes of Thorn that Amia had been harboring, there was no sign of their passing as she nodded and looked back to Father Nate.
“We’ll do it, Father. Thank ye. But… it’s just that I’m afraid of the fire. In the baptism, I mean. It won’t be like it was for her, will it? It’s scary,” Amia said softly.
Father Nate smiled benevolently at her.
“Fear not, my child. It shall be nothing like that for you, I am sure of it. And the flames shall pass over you without any pain or heat. For the flames of Stron require sin to burn. And the holy act of baptism in the light of Altas washes all sin from you. So there shall be no sin for the fire to find and it shall have no purchase to burn you with. Do you trust me?”
“Good. Then take a moment to prepare yourself,” Father Nate said, before stepping away towards the Church’s main door. “I shall now go to give the good news to Nester and fetch him to us, so that he can witness your joining of our faith. And then the two of you shall be wed. Happy day, yes? Oh yes, indeed! A holy possession to start us off and a blessing from Altas to follow. Happy day!”
The groom, Nester, was burly and quiet and seemed a good chap, all things considered. He was at least ten years older than Amia, but looked rather frightened of her at first. Nester’s twin boys were noisy and rambunctious. They immediately set about assaulting Dugger, which the assembled villagers took as a grand sign of a fine familial match. Nester and Amia exchanged only a few pleasantries before her and Dugger’s baptism.
Just as Father Nate had promised, the fiery ceremony caused them no harm. After the spectacle of Peep’s ceremony, the sight of the Father’s flaming sword burning little higher than a torch seemed almost mundane to Choke and the others. However, for the villagers that crowded the little church, the baptisms and then the wedding that followed immediately were a well-received entertainment.
During the wedding, Father Nate had Choke join him at the pulpit with his Holy Book to read from it aloud. Whatever deficiencies the Father’s education might have had, there could be no faulting his memory of the scripture as he called for chapter and verse without error. Nester and his bride made it through the ceremony with similar stunned expressions that, more than anything else, made them seem a good match.
Following the wedding, the community gathered out in the village common to celebrate. Father Nate had a calf slaughtered and a large keg of ale rolled out to get things going while the meat was cooked. It was a lively affair, with music and song from a fiddle, some simple flutes, and a battery of improvised percussion. Pinch and Knuckle joined in the dancing and merriment. Thorn settled in near the keg in a solitary quest for oblivion.
Choke set himself apart on a long bench under an awning with his Holy Book to continue his research. This was interrupted shortly by a small group of villagers that timidly supplicated him to read to them from the Scripture. Choke happily obliged them. As he read, his audience expanded and shrank as members came and went, generally sitting around him on the ground like schoolchildren. Most of their requests were from the older Books of the Holy Possession. The simple didactic proverbs were popular, as were the psalms.
After about an hour, Peep came stumbling out of the church, looking completely bewildered. The revelry immediately died as the music players stopped dead and everyone turned to stare at her. Most everyone in the village had heard the maniacal laughter of her holy possession and had been whispering to each other of it. They all stared at her with a mixture of fear and reverence.
Standing amongst the flock, Peep stood swaying with her eyes closed and mouth agape as she stuck her hand down her pants and gave her ass and crotch a nice, slow, thorough scratching. That done, she smelled her fingers before finally opening her eyes again. It only took her a little longer to notice her audience.
“What?” she asked.
“Otilla!” Father Nate boomed, striding though his parishioners towards Peep. “Welcome, child! Welcome! As you were, everyone! Leave her be! As you were!”
The villagers slowly returned to their revelry as the music started up again. Father Nate took Peep by the arm and fixed her a fine platter of veal, buttered bread, and vegetable stew. She wandered over to sit down next to Choke on his bench while Father Nate went to get her an ale.
Choke’s audience sat awkwardly trying not to look at Peep while Choke sat mute and stared at her eating. Father Nate sat down next to Peep and held her ale for her until she was ready to take it. She drained half of it in one pull and then burped loudly.
“Perhaps we could give Bartholomew a rest from his reading,” Father Nate said to the villagers sitting on the ground in front of them. “He has been most generous has he not? His throat must be parched from so much reading. Perhaps someone could get him in an ale?”
A pair of villagers rushed to comply, as the others dipped their heads respectfully and thanked Choke for the readings before leaving. Once Choke had his ale, Father Nate smiled at Peep between them. He waited for her to finish eating before he continued:
“How are you feeling, Otilla?” he asked her.
“Fine. I guess. Thanks, Father,” she burped again, this time making somewhat of an attempt to stifle it. “What’s all this?” she waved her hand at the party.
“We are celebrating Amia and Nester’s wedding,” Father Nate said proudly.
“Amia had been wed to one of my parishoners. A farmer by the name of Nester who was in sore need of a new wife.”
“No kidding. Uhh… great. How long was I out?” Peep asked.
“No more than a few hours,” Father Nate answered.
“Huh. So Amia met this guy, they hit it off, and they decided to get married in just a few hours? She does move quick, don’t she?” Peep said.
Father Nate chuckled. “I take your point, Otilla. I arranged it. It wouldn’t be proper to have her wandering the countryside, turning to sin to keep her and her little one fed.”
Peep looked thoughtful for a while before speaking again: “Yeah, I hear ye, Father. I hear ye. Ye find a cow wandering around in the bush, ye gotta get it back into a pen. Wouldn’t want her out there giving just any old bull a ride, dropping calves willy-nilly. What a waste that would be, huh?”
“Exactly. Once again, Otilla, you impress me with your clarity of vision. However, if I might offer you one suggestion: in future, when relating your observations to men of Stron, you might want to work on moderating your tone.”
“My tone, Father?”
“Indeed. A touch less sarcasm would serve you well, I think. If I were you, I would not expect my colleagues to share my fine sense of humor.”
“Okay, Father. Got it. So, if ye don’t mind me asking: wha’dye have in mind for me? Ye got someone lined up for me to marry?”
Father Nate laughed: “I think you know better than that, Otilla. I would think you would have more serious questions on your mind.”
“Yeah, like what?”
“Like what happened to you during your baptism. Have you any memory of it?”
Peep scowled into a middle distance for a while before shaking her head.
“What’s the last thing you remember, child?” Father Nate asked gently.
“I guess, we were in the church there and ye was asking me all them questions about if I would, ye know, be a good Stronian, and all that. Then… ye pulled out yar sword, and…” Peep drifted off.
“And that is the last thing you remember?”
“Yeah… I guess so.”
“It is as I expected, then. Otilla, during your baptism, when I called for the Fire of Stron to touch you with, you received a holy visitation.”
“A holy visitation of an angel of Stron or an older spirit from the Holy Host. Further, you were possessed by it. A holy possession, we call it. It was just such a holy possession or possessions that informed the writings of the Holy Book’s Books of the Holy Possession. This does happen.”
“Uhhh… okay. But, why?”
“There is no way to know. However, when we comune with Altas and Stron during holy ceremonies, particularily during baptism, that most holy of our ceremonies, we are connected with them. And in such a state, we are often connected as well to sympathetic agents of the Holy Host. Saints, angels, and spirits. This phenomenon is known to us. However, as mere mortals, we may never know why they are attracted to the people that they are, and to what purpose. This is part of the divine mystery. This is why we must have faith.”
“Yeah, Father, this all great and everything, but I don’t—” Peep started, now profoundly anxious.
“You don’t need to do anything about this, child. But do know that you have been chosen. For what purpose, we cannot know. But you have been marked. So you must simply be ready, and wait for your purpose to be made clear to you,” Father Nate said.
“Oh. Okay. Great. Thanks for that. No pressure, right? Wait a minute… whad’ye mean, marked?”
In answer to this, Father Nate reached out to gently take both of Peep’s wrists in his hands. He turns her palms upwards to show her the brands of Stron.
“Marked,” he said.
“What? These? I’ve always had—” Peep interrupted herself as she realized that she most certainly had not always borne the mark of Stron in the very flesh of her palms. Peep’s head lolled as a wave of nausia overtook her.
Father Nate drew her into a tight embrace, with his arm around her shoulder and his hand upon the crown of her head.
“Shhhh… my child. I know. I know. Rest easy, now. It is a heavy burden, I know. But not more than you can bear, child, or you would not have been chosen to bear it,” Father Nate said, rocking her as though she were a child.
Sitting next to them, Choke had the impulse to connect to Peep as well; to bridge the gap between them with the simple gesture of human touch. He reached out and took one of her slack hands in his. Holding her small hand, with her palm pressed against his, Choke felt the mark of Stron. With a pulse of energy between them, Choke knew then that whatever her burden, whatever her destiny, it was his holy duty to help her see it done. And in that moment he knew, to the very depths of his soul, that whatever the cost: he would help her see it done.