Shane had been truthful when he said his place was not much. However, as trapper’s cabins in the bush went, it was superb. Situated in a clearing near a small spring, Shane had a one room log cabin with a low lean-to on one wall for his dogs. There was an outhouse in the woods, and a number of spruce logs were lashed between trees at varying heights to serve as racks for equipment or dressing game. A little back in the woods there was a big firepit with a circle of rough wooden chairs around it, and a tent even further back in the woods.
The clearing was at a little rise and at its north opening had a view of the Tanglefoot Trail as it finally left the woods and turned into a dirt track leading out into the valley. To one side of that, the trees had been cleared out a little, with more logs lashed to the remaining trees to form a small pen for horses.
“There’s a trough at the spring. Ye can water yar horses and then graze them out that way and then close them up in there,” Shane said, indicating the clearing and then the pen. “I’ll let Earl know to throw a feed on. Grub might be a bit late, though. We wasn’t expecting company, after all.”
The squad did as Shane suggested and then joined him and his brother, Earl, at the firepit in the woods. Earl was at least ten years older than Shane, with a wild mop of greasy white hair and a shaggy beard. He grinned happily with the aspect of a cretin at the squad as they approached, giving them a nice look at his three remaining teeth.
Earl had set up an iron cauldron on a tripod over the fire and was roughly filling it with the fixings of a bush stew with his filthy hands. Wild root vegetables and plants went in, along with a number of whole squirrels and a meaty hare that he expertly cleaned and dressed on the spot with a big, razor-sharp buck knife.
“Have a seat,” Shane gestured to the ring of chairs around the fire pit. “We aint got no booze at the present, but if ye want a puff, I could fire up a pipe for ye.”
Pinch, Knuckle, and Peep indicated they would be obliged if he did so. Shane went back to his cabin and came back with a fine pipe made of a goat horn and carved bone that he packed with marijuana from a leather pouch. He lit that up with a burning twig from the fire and they passed it around. Having indulged in the hashish in Strana, Choke decided to relax his prudence and partake as well. The local weed was good, if not particularly potent.
“Help yarselves to the spring water whenever ye like,” Shane said when they were done smoking. “We aint got much in the way of cups, but there’s a scoop there ye can use.”
With the ingredients all added to the stewpot, everyone settled into watching Earl stir it with a stick. It was night now, with the campfire the only light. Pleasantly stoned, everyone was happy to sit quiet and bubble along with the stew. The three big dogs lounged around the fire like puppies.
“So, what brings ye back to Callic?” Shane finally asked to distract attention from Earl, who had commenced to scratching his ass through his buckskin pants by backing up into a spruce tree in a wide squat to run his crack up and down it in a backwards humping motion.
“Well, Shane, it’s like this—” Pinch began, but was interrupted by Earl who ceased his grinding on the tree to proclaim:
“They got the killing to do up at the Old Mill, Shane. I told ye that already!”
“Hey!” Shane snapped. “No one wants to hear what ye think some tree told ye in the bush last night! Don’t ye start on that!”
“It weren’t no tree!” Earl shouted back, throwing his stir stick hard at his brother’s face across the fire. Shane just managed to raise his hand to knock it away.
“I keep telling ye, the trees in these parts don’t say shit to no one!” Earl continued. “It were the mists! The mists come and tell me all about it. Otilla of the Holy Fire’s gotta come back and do the killing at the Old Mill! And that’s the truth!”
“Shut it!” bellowed Shane back. “Ye think these good Stronian folk wanna come and hear their own minds told to them by the likes of you with yar pink and purple mist bullshit?” Shane then turned to address the squad:
“Don’t listen to him! He aint got no good thoughts and nowheres to put them even if he had. He goes up into the bush for weeks at a go, and instead of doing some trapping or hunting like he oughta, he gets all high on shit fungus and listens to stories from trees and shit.”
“Not trees!” Earl yelled, leaping up and down windmilling his arms above his head. “The colored mists! And it weren’t pink or purple. This time it were black and red! The worst of them! And they told me!”
“Oh, they told ye of Otilla of the Holy Fire, did they? When ye come back home yesterday without a notion in yar head about her, and only heard of her because I told ye of the goings on in town with her baptism. Ye listened to me tell ye all about her like some kinda puppy, but now ye wanna act like ye know something.”
“Well, I didn’t know her name or nothing. But now I know where they’re heading. And what they gotta do there. It’s all coming together now,” Earl said to everyone with a sly grin, tapping his temple as he did.
“Bullshit. Cook the damned stew and leave the talking to folk who can think. And lay of the damned mushrooms,” Shane said, finally calming down a little.
Earl picked up another stick from the woodpile and squatted down next to his stewpot to give it a stir. Far from chastised, though, he look his audience over with a pleased arrogance.
“Shane just thinks he’s special because he’s the one that gets all the big news from town. The Widow Perkins, down the way, she tells him,” Earl said with a conspiratorial gleam in his eye.
Shane sighed deeply as his brother mentioned the Widow Perkins, but did not make any attempt to disrupt Earl as he continued:
“Yeah, that Widow Perkins. She got all the news. He finds it out from her when he goes to her and brings her meat or hides so that she’ll raise up her skirts to let him put his willy into her hairy poke hole. She does her hairy poke hole real good, don’t she Shane!”
Choke and the others all looked to Shane to see how he would handle this exposure of his business. Far from the anger or embarrassment that might be expected, he was now staring deep into the fire with a pleased look. Earl continued with a deepening leer on is oafish face:
“Yeah, Widow Perkins. She’s so pretty. She never lets me put my willy in, though. Says she don’t wanna catch the stupid from me. And I says to her that ye can’t catch no stupid from someone putting their willy in yar poke hole. That’s how ye get a baby put into ye. But she says that aint her worry at all, but that I’m so touched just getting my baby batter up into her would make her the stupider by half! Aint that something?” Earl laughed.
Pinch, Knuckle, and Peep all joined him in his mirth. The degree to which their laughter was with or at him was not something that concerned Earl.
“Yeah…” he went on dreamily. “She won’t ever give me a poke in that hairy poke hole of hers, but from time to time she’ll raise up her skirts and give me a look at it, on account of me bringing her some of my special mushrooms. That’s pretty nice. Like a pink baby rabbit nestled all snug in the thatch!”
“Okay, that’s enough now,” Choke declared. “Earl, what was it that you said the mists told you? That we have to go to some old mill to do some killing, was it?”
“Don’t encourage him,” Shane growled.
“I hardly think he needs license from anyone to be who he is,” Choke replied calmly. “And there is no doubt that portents and omens concerning Otilla have appeared to those who come to encounter her. One other, at least. And it is a fact that those in the wilderness, or in other extremes of life, are open to metaphysical influence. For good or for evil.”
“Ye see!” Shane shouted at his brother, stabbing his finger at him. “Ye see? I told ye, all that getting stoned in the woods for weeks on end was gonna lead ye to the Devil! And now these good Stronians are gonna burn ye up for it! Just like ye deserve!”
This time, Shane’s admonishment got to Earl, who cowered and blubbered in terror.
“Don’t worry, Earl,” Choke said. “I’m sure that in this case you haven’t been taken in by any evil. At least, not anything external. So what was it that the mists told you about Otilla?”
Earl cheered up immediately. “Well, I dunno. It’s not like they was really talking to me. I don’t hear no voices or nothing. I’m not crazy! I can think!” Earl shouted at his brother with a deep scowl.
“I know you can, Earl. So what is it that you know about us, then?” Choke asked, doing his best to be patient.
“Well, I dunno. It’s just that when I saw ye’s I knew that ye was gonna go up to the Old Mill and do some killing there. The vision of it come to me outta the black and red mists before. I just forgot about it until I seen ye, that’s all.”
“Alright then, thank you, Earl,” Choke said.
By this time, the stew was ready. Earl hauled the pot off the fire and everyone served themselves, with the squad using tin bowls and utensils they had bought at Spitzer’s general store the day before. Not particularly good, with a lot of grit to it that could only be dirt, the stew was filling, at least. When they had all eaten their fill, Shane lit his pipe again and they passed it around.
“Shane, what’s this old mill that Earl is talking about,” Choke asked once they had finished with the pipe.
“Oh, don’t pay him any mind about that!” Shane snapped. “It’s just some bad trip he had in the bush that he hooked up to ye when he saw ye. He does it all the time. Connects his stoned nonsense to any old thing that’s going on around him.”
“I’m sure that’s so. But I would still like to hear about the mill,” Choke pressed.
“Well, for starters, it’s not just a mill. It’s the Old Mill. And it’s an evil place. It’s just an old tower in the bush now, but hundreds of years ago it was a mill run by the Dwarves. They’d do folks’ milling for a cut, along with other trading, for weapons and such. Also, word is, they was digging and mining underneath it. But they dug too deep and woke up something evil and it took them out. Now nobody goes near the place.”
“That’s what people always say about old Dwarven sites,” Pinch interjected. “It’s the same old yarn. I heard that the Dwarves put out those stories themselves to keep humans clear of their places when they’re not around.”
“Yeah? And who’d ye hear that from? Some Dwarf?” Shane asked.
“No. Brother Willem of the Brothers of the Holy Stone. If ye’ve campaigned back in the day, ye may have heard of him.”
“That I have,” Shane conceded. “I heard he once killed a fire giant all by himself up near Didsburry way.”
“That he did,” Pinch said.
Shane shrugged. “Well, then, I suppose he’d know something about it. Maybe. Anyways, ye aint gonna catch me going up there no how. So, if ye don’t mind me asking, why are ye so interested in this nonsense of Earl’s? Is there something to this killing he says ye need to be doing?”
“Well, didn’t your Widow Perkins tell ye about it when she was giving ye the news?” Pinch asked.
Shane nodded. “She might have mentioned something about some bad city slickers wanting to make some trouble for ye. We don’t put much stock in their sort out here. See them coming a long ways off, if ye catch my meaning.”
“I do. And that’s why we’re here,” Pinch said. He paused then to look to Choke. With a glance he checked whether they were going to trust Shane and Earl with more information. When Choke gave him a nod, he turned back to Shane:
“Let me ask, then: do you put much stock in Alan ‘the Chisel’ Mason?”
This gave Shane pause. “That’s who they stuck on ye?”
“Yeah, well, that’s something ye’d do well to spare some bother handling, I’d say.”
“That’s what we thought,” Pinch said. “To that end, Shane, I wonder if you might be able to tell us: If we were to, say, spend some time here in the Callic valley, you know, moving around and getting to know the good folk here; talking to them about Otilla’s miracle. How do you think they would take to Mason following us up here to do us harm?”
“Well, I don’t reckon that they’d take at all kindly to it, all things considered. We’re all law-abiding, Stron-fearing folk in these parts. So it’s not like anyone has any reason to fear or hate a man like the Chisel. He does most of his killing on the right side of the law, ye see. But that don’t mean we like his sort, neither. Specially not when he’s doing killing for moneyed men in the city, who don’t have the sand to come on out from behind their walls and handle their own business. So there’s that.”
“I understand,” Pinch said.
“Then, there’s Otilla here,” Shane said, hazarding a glance her way. “If the tales we’ve been hearing about her are true, and she has been touched by the flaming hand of one of Stron’s angels, well… there’s no telling how people are likely to take to someone seeking to do her harm. That is, if things with her are as we’ve heard.”
Choke looked to Peep and gave her a nod. Peep stared blankly back at him, until Choke irritably gestured towards Shane.
“Show him, Otilla,” Choke said sharply.
“Okay, yeah. Fine,” Peep muttered.
She got out of her chair and crouched down to extend her palms to Shane who leaned in close to have a look. Earl crawled on his hands and knees in the dirt to do likewise.
The thick, four spoked Wheels of Stron each stood out plain in the firelight. There was no doubt that the scars in her flesh could have been inflicted on her by ordinary means. Any blacksmith worth his salt would be able to fashion such a brand. However, as had always been the case when people saw the marks, there was no questioning their miraculous nature. They had an indefinable divine power to them that stirred something deep and terrible within all who viewed them.
Upon seeing the Marks of Stron upon the palms of Otilla of the Holy Fire, Earl ran gibbering off into the night. Shane handled himself with a good deal more dignity. He eased back into his chair and stared long into the fire.
“Well, then,” he finally said. “Thank ye for showing us, Otilla. I reckon that’s a miracle after all. Praise Stron.”
“Amen,” intoned Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle as they all traced the four-spoked Wheel over their hearts.
Somewhere out in the dark, Earl let fly with a hysterical, shrieking cackle. The dogs sleeping around the fire roused a little at it, but soon settled back down, clearly used to such goings on in the night. Then, all was calm once more.
The next morning, the squad packed up early and were ready to leave at dawn.
“So, whatever ye need, I’ll be happy to oblige,” Shane said to them as he stood with his dogs at the horse pen and watched them tie down the last of their gear.
“Thank you, sir,” Choke said. “I suppose all we can ask is that you keep your eyes open for Mason and his men coming through. Then send word of it on through the grapevine. We’re going to move about in the valley and spread the word of Otilla’s miracle until we hear of them coming for us. Then we’ll pick our moment.”
“Sound thinking. Well, I suppose ye should be on yar way, then,” Shane said.
“Indeed. Before we go, though, you should have a look at this,” Choke pulled the goblin sign from the mule and handed it to Shane. “Otilla found it up on the Tanglefoot Trail, at the intersection where the trail north from the Spitzer-Bristlehump road intersects with it.”
“Did ye now?” Shane said to Peep as he took the sign. Then he peered at it closely as Peep replied:
“Aye. Signs of plenty of gobos moving around in the bush there, too. But nothing very recent.”
“I’m guessing you’ve heard about Thorn’s warnings of impending goblin trouble out past Burnthistle way,” Pinch interjected.
“Aye, that I have. Thorn’s one to be heeded on such matters.”
“So you know of him,” Pinch said.
“Aye. Our paths have crossed on occasion. An ornery, disagreeable prick as ever there was one, but knows what he’s about, no doubt about that.”
“Ye got that right,” Peep chuckled. “So, d’ye have any idea of what this sign might be saying?”
“Just a little. It says there’s a big meeting, a calling of all the tribes, to meet a big boss with lots of food. Northwards, it says,” Shane said.
“That mess of twigs and bullshit says all that?” Knuckle said incredulously.
“Yeah, no doubt. It’s a pretty basic message, as these things go. See, each of these little clusters means each thing: ‘big meeting,’ ‘big boss,’ ‘big food,’ and ‘north.’ That’s all there is to it.”
“Shit. That’s not good,” Pinch said.
“With what Thorn’s been saying? Not good at all,” Shane agreed. “This proves it. Big gobo flood coming.”
“Doesn’t say when, or where they’re assembling, does it?” Choke asked.
“Nope. The when’ll be whenever the big boss runs outta food. The longer they put it off, the bigger it’s gonna be. The question is, how long they’ve already been at it. As to the where of it: there’s no way to know. They’ll be leaving other signs on their trails to direct the gobos as they come.”
“So, Shane, what do you recommend we do about this?” Choke asked.
“Well, if yar dead set on taking yar spiritual around the villages, ye can go ahead and do that. I’ll take the sign on down to Callic and let Father Nate know what’s what. But, with all of ye’s being mounted up as ye are, ye could get it to him a lot faster. And, checking in with the Father about this little plan of yars couldn’t hurt neither, huh?”
“I suppose not. We had thought to avoid bothering him with it,” Pinch said.
Shane shrugged. “With ye wandering around his parish spreading the word, he’s gonna be bothered with it, one way or another. How involved he’s gonna bother himself to get with it, or not, is his own business. Father Nate knows his own mind, after all. And it can’t hurt ye to get him on board, can it? Why, even Stron himself didn’t fight alone, did he?”
“No, I suppose he did not,” Choke nodded seriously. “Well, thank you for your wise council, Shane. I think you are right. We’ll take the goblin sign to Father Nate in Callic and pass on your interpretation of it.”
“Sounds mighty good to me. For my part, I reckon I’ll take an amble on down to the Widow Perkins and start spreading the word that the agents of the Devil are heading our way to put harm onto the righteously blessed Otilla of the Holy Fire and her company.”
“Well, I’m sure we would be most obliged for that,” Pinch said.
“Not a problem. It’ll be my pleasure,” Shane said with a little smile.
“Yeah, no doubt!” Knuckle laughed. “Ye got any hides or meat to take to her while yar at it?”
“Reckon I won’t need to today, to tell the truth. There’s nothing the Widow Perkins likes more than to spread a fine new story around. Me giving her the first crack at this one will please her mightily, let me tell ye.”
“Well, I’m glad we could help ye out with that,” Pinch said.
The squad said their farewells to Shane and rode out, heading straight down the open field to get around a stand of trees and meet up with the trail where it left the forest. They had not made it more than ten meters, however, when a creature came stumbling out of the trees ahead of them, waving its arms, squawking and yiping and cackling like some kind of crazed bird.
Riding point, Pinch jolted in alarm and raised up on the creature with his bow, as did Peep in the rear, before they realized it was Earl. In his present condition, taking Earl for some kind of small troll or other monster was an honest mistake. The man was covered head to toe with thick, black mud, with it caked into his wild hair to shape it into a number of protrusions like horns.
“Ahhhh! Otilla! Stop! I have it for ye, Otilla! I got it from him! Stop!” Earl yelled, his incomprehensible noises finally turning into language. He tripped over himself and collapsed in front of Pinch’s horse. Then Earl flopped onto his back, his chest heaving as he gasped for air.
The squad rode up into a semi-circle around Earl and stopped, staring down at him with amusement. Then the smell of him hit them. As ripe as Earl had been the night before, which was very pungent indeed, his personal stink was now eclipsed by that of the bog mud he was coated in.
“Earl!” yelled Shane as he ran to the scene. “Ye’ve gone into that swamp again! After I told ye and told ye and told ye!”
Shane came at his brother from between the squad’s horses and kicked Earl hard in the upper thigh, just below the hip. Earl squawked again and rolled up into a defensive ball as Shane continued to kick and pummel him. The beating Shane laid on his older brother was not terrible, however, with the blows falling mostly on his thighs and upper arms. Shane’s three big dogs surrounded them and barked excitedly.
“I told ye!” Shane finished with a hard palm slap to Earl’s ear.
Earl howled. With Shane backing away from Earl, the biggest of the dogs jumped on Earl and started humping him.
“Ah! No! Stop! Pleeeeease! Stop him!” Earl whimpered as he rolled around, pinned under the big dog that was grinding away on him with its big, pink boner unsheathed.
Shane gave a whistle and all his dogs a sharp order to, “piss off!” The two supporters did so immediately, but Shane had to give the alpha a kick in the haunch to get him to stop fucking his brother.
“I’m sorry, Shane! I’m sorry,” Earl blubbered.
“I told ye! Again and again, I told ye!”
“I know, Shane. I’m sorry. I had to go! He was calling me! To bring a gift for Otilla!”
For a second it looked like Shane was about to start beating his brother again as he cocked his fist up in the air.
“Again with this? Don’t ye be talking this! Not to these good folk! No!” Shane yelled.
“It’s true! It’s true!” Earl said as he struggled to his knees. He pulled something on a rawhide string out from under his jerkin and held it up towards Peep with both hands like an offering.
“See? It’s for you, Otilla! From the Desolate One,” Earl said.
This time Shane did strike. He unloaded his cocked fist and punched Earl hard in the face. Earl fell to the grass without a sound.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Choke said. “Knuckle? Get them away from each other.”
Knuckle dismounted and moved to lay a restraining hand on Shane’s shoulder. Shane gave him an evil look, and looked for a second like he might take further exception. His three dogs had not gone far, and reacted instantly to their master’s energy. As one, they all took a step towards Knuckle and snarled.
“Shane,” Knuckle said in as calm a tone as he could manage. “Let’s just all settle down, please. Okay?”
Shane took a step back from Knuckle and held his palms up.
“Yeah. Right. Okay. I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ve told him again and again not to go into that swamp with this evil, and he never listens.”
“I understand. What is this he’s talking about, though? The Desolate One? What is this? Is it real?” Choke asked
“It’s evil, is what it is. Ye’ll be wanting no part of it. And, yeah it’s real.”
“So what is this thing? Some kind of undead?”
“Ye really wanna know?” Shane asked quietly with his eyes closed.
“With everything else that’s been going on, I think we have to know,” Choke said emphatically.
Shane sighed deeply. Then he reached down and dragged Earl up by his elbow.
“Up. Up, ye heap of trouble. The man wants to hear about the Desolate One on account of yar dumb ass.”
Once Earl was upright, he stood swaying woozily with Shane still supporting him. Whatever he had pulled out from under his jerkin was still clutched in his right hand, with its muddy rawhide string dangling down.
“So ye wanna hear about the Desolate One, do ye?” Shane asked Choke. “Well, then, let’s go have a sit up at camp, because there’s no way I’m getting into that without having a puff first.”
With this, Shane and Earl walked back to the cabin, leaving Choke and the others to follow.