That evening, following Spearman Donny’s flogging, Captain Fairchild, his officers, Thorn, and Otilla and her squad dined at Arlen’s tavern as Father Nate’s guests. It was a fine, wholesome feast, well lubricated by Arlen’s stronger ales.
The majority of the conversation was, of course, focused on the coming mission. When the meal was done, Captain Fairchild dismissed his officers to see to their duties.
When the lieutenants had excused themselves, Captain Fairchild had Arlen open a bottle of brandy he had brought. He looked pensive as he sipped his brandy in the comfortable lull of conversation in the candle-lit tavern.
“Something on your mind, Captain?” Father Nate asked.
“Oh, nothing of importance, thank you, Father. I just do so hate to see a good man flogged, is all. I find it always brings on a spleen.”
“Well, there was really nothing for it, Captain. He had to be punished,” Father Nate said.
“Oh, indeed. Indeed. And he bore up quite well. A stout-hearted man all around,” Captain Fairchild said proudly.
“No doubt,” Father Nate answered. “I’m sure he’ll be a corporal again before too long.”
“Oh, indeed. But, enough about that melancholy topic. Tomorrow we march for Burnthistle before first light. I want to reach it by nightfall.”
“And then yar out into the bush looking for goblins,” Father Nate said.
“Just as soon as we put some of the garrison’s lads under our orders, to help guide us with their local knowledge. Thorn, you said there was one sergeant who was particularly helpful to you there, yes?”
“Yeah, there was, sir. Sergeant Andis,” Thorn said, his face deadpan as he named the sergeant he had confronted trying to abduct Amia and Dugger. “He was real knowledgeable and helpful. We need him along for sure.”
As he finished, Thorn glared at Peep and Pinch, who were giggling away to each other.
“And the Lieutenant? Mithens, wasn’t it? Not good for much, you say?”
“Yeah, Captain, the lieutenant there’s total garbage. A drunken asshole.”
Captain Fairchild laughed. “Well, no one would accuse you of mincing your words, Thorn. I like it. Unfortunate about the lieutenant, though. Still, we can’t have everything. We’ll get you your Sergeant Andis, though.”
“Thank you, sir,” Thorn said, allowing just a hint of his evil intentions to reach his smile. “Now, sir, I think I should go and see how Munn’s archers are doing. Make sure everything’s squared away right.”
“Very good, Thorn. As you will. Thank you!” Captain Fairchild gave Thorn a deep nod as he left the table. Once he had gone, Fairchild addressed Father Nate and the squad:
“Now, I think I should turn in soon. Early start and all. But, before I do, I have one more duty to discharge here in Callic. Miss Otilla,” Captain Fairchild said, his bearing and posture becoming quite formal as he addressed Peep.
“I have been instructed by our Baron’s wife, the Lady Hart, to invite you to Pinewhispers, her residence in Spitzer. You and your men,” Captain Fairchild nodded towards Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle.
“Huh?” Peep said.
“The Lady Hart. The Baron’s wife.”
“She wants to meet you. She has invited you and your men to her home,” Captain Fairchild said, looking quite amused.
“Indeed she has. Why the surprise? You are Miss Otilla of the Holy Fire! And the Lady Hart is very devout. She has taken quite the interest in you. She was insistent that you come to speak with her. In fact, if I may speak candidly for a moment within the realm of speculation, I think it was her influence upon her husband that tipped the scales so decisively in your favor in your little scuffle with Mr Mason and his men,” Captain Fairchild touched the side of his nose with a raised eyebrow in a gesture indicating a private confidence.
“What? The Baron’s wife told him to have you sort them out?”
“That is merely my guess. And I do beg you not to turn my observation to gossip. It would not do for the Baron to hear that I had suggested he was anything other than a man possessed entirely of his own agency. But, privately, to you, Miss Otilla, I think that is precisely what happened. Like I said: the Lady Hart is quite devout. It seems that you are beginning to have friends in high places, Miss Otilla.”
“Uhhhh… okay, then,” Peep said, actually looking frightened. Choke privately observed that it was the first time he had ever seen such an expression on her face.
Father Nate reached out to give Peep’s hand a pat. “Yeah,” he said, “and let’s not forget that Father Morrenthall is off seeing the Bishop about you Otilla, so I think ye should expect more of this kinda thing coming yar way.”
“Well, I don’t know who the bishop is. Is he important?” Peep asked.
Everyone goggled at her.
“What?” Peep asked.
Captain Fairchild and Father Nate exchanged a look to see who would take this on. Father Nate dipped his head and yielded to the captain.
“He is the Bishop of the Kingdom of Bitana. In charge of the spiritual wellbeing of all its people. In the Kingdom of Heaven, Altas, our Holy Father, sits upon his throne, attended by his son, Stron. In this world, the Archbishop sits upon his throne in the holy city of Ban Altas as the sole divinely informed human agent of Altas and Stron’s will. Under him are the bishops of the United Kingdoms, one for each kingdom, who answer only to the Archbishop.”
Captain Fairchild held his hand in the air above his head to illustrate his point: “Altas.” He dropped his hand a little lower: “Stron.” He dropped his hand much lower to the level of his face: “Archbishop.” Then his hand dropped just a little lower: “Bishop.”
“Us,” Father Nate interjected, raising his foot up to point to the bottom of his sandal.
“Do you understand, Miss Otilla?” Captain Fairchild asked. “And the Kingdom of Bitana is the largest, richest, and most powerful kingdom in the United Kingdoms. So, yes, the Bishop of Bitana is important.”
“Well, okay then,” Peep said, her usual composure quite restored.
“And if I may presume to counsel you, Miss Otilla,” Captain Fairchild went on. “I am a soldier. So I have quite enjoyed your, shall we say, rough and ready approach to life and communication. However, the Lady Hart is a genteel woman. For her, manners and decorum are of utmost importance. She will, of course, understand that you cannot help where you rose up from. But she will expect you to make your best effort. As will the other genteel people of higher society that you are sure to meet.”
“Yeah, I got it, Captain. I gotta be polite.”
“Just so. I see we understand each other perfectly. Now, if I may bring up one last matter that has been concerning me. This Stronian ring of yours, Miss Otilla.”
“It was gifted to you by a powerful undead in this area, was it not?” Captain Fairchild asked with a look of genuine unease.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Peep said. “It aint cursed, though. Father Nate checked it out for us.”
“That I did,” Father Nate interjected. “And counselled her to put it to good use. The undead in question is a dread knight occupying a swamp near the Tanglefoot Trail. He’s known as the Desolate One.”
“I should think that was good advice, Father. No doubt the ring saved you all in your fight with the spider horrors, Miss Otilla. However, I would just like to clarify for myself precisely how it was that the ring came into your possession.”
“How did this dread knight get you the ring, Miss Otilla? That part of things has remained unclear to me.”
Choke, Pinch, and Father Nate all exchanged a worried look.
“Yeah, well, Earl brought it to me from him,” Peep said, oblivious.
Father Nate sighed and shifted uncomfortably.
“Earl? Brought you the ring for the Desolate One? Who is this man?” Captain Fairchild asked sharply.
“Just a pervy idiot that lives in the bush with his brother near the Tanglefoot Trail. He’s harmless,” Peep said.
“Harmless is he? Living beyond the reach of civilization and running errands for a powerful undead. That does not sound harmless to me.”
Peep shrugged and sipped her brandy.
“So, this minion brought you the ring, Miss Otilla. Is that all?”
“Well, no. He also told me that the Desolate One wanted to talk to me.”
“I think how he put it, sir, was that the Desolate One requested an audience with Otilla and her retainers,” Pinch interjected.
“Well, that sounds formal. Was this invitation in writing?” Captain Fairchild asked.
“No. Earl told us, sir,” Pinch said.
“The idiot said this. That the Desolate one requests an audience with Otilla and her retainers. He is an idiot living in the bush, yes?”
“Oh, most definitely,” Father Nate said. “Don’t worry, Captain, I will be looking into this. But this was the first time I had any clue that Earl was trifling with the undead. Just with everything else that’s going on, I haven’t been able to get around to it.”
“Well, I am sure you know best, Father. But with this minion running around doing errands for a powerful undead, I should think he is doing more than ‘trifling.’ Yes?”
“As far as I know, Captain, it is not multiple errands. From what I have been told, Earl was drawn to the Desolate One in a mushroom drug haze of what he thought was prophesy.”
Choke sighed and shifted uncomfortably as Knuckle started giggling to himself like a schoolboy.
“I am sorry, Father,” Choke said miserably. “But when we told you of Earl, we were not entirely forthcoming. He did tell us that had done an errand once before for the Desolate One.”
At this, Knuckle’s giggles crested into a loud guffaw. Everyone looked at him sharply.
“Sorry! Sorry…” Knuckle said, doing his best to get control over himself.
“You did not mention this to me before,” Father Nate said to Choke crossly.
“I know I didn’t, Father. And I know that was wrong. I am sorry for it. But, the story, as it was told to us by Earl, was perverse and difficult to believe. In talking it over, we thought it was likely that Earl had made it up, or else was relating something he had done as though it was the Desolate One doing it.”
“And you liked Earl and did not want him to get into trouble. Let’s not forget that part!” Father Nate glared at each of the squad members in turn.
“Yes, that it true. I am sorry, Father.”
“Whether this story of Earl’s was credible or not is not your determination to make! I should have been told of it!”
“I know, Father. I am sorry,” Choke said with his headed bowed.
Pinch and Knuckle each bowed their head in contrition as well. Peep, still sitting in a lounging posture with a brandy in hand, was immobile with her eyes darting from one person to another.
“Not good, lads. Not good. You should know better,” Father Nate said, calming down slightly. “Well, we had better hear the story, then.”
“Yes, Father,” Choke said, steeling himself for the tale. “Apparently, the Desolate One is heartbroken over the loss of his lady love.”
“This is known,” Father Nate said, mostly as an aside to Captain Fairchild. “He recites poetry about it in the full moon.”
“Oh, really?” Captain Fairchild said, perking right up. “Is it any good?”
“I have gone to listen to it. It’s something of a rite of passage around here. His voice is soul piercing. Wonderful and awful all at once. So the performance is life altering. The poetry, however, seems awfully, I don’t know… turgid.”
“And no one has thought to go and destroy the wretch?” Fairchild asked.
“Many, back in the day. They all died. Whatever else it might be, the Desolate One is powerful. But it does not leave the confines of its swamp. So the Church has officially categorized it a static menace to be avoided.”
“I see. So let’s hear the idiot’s story, then,” Fairchild said.
“Indeed. Let’s,” Father Nate agreed, turning his attention back to Choke.
“Okay, so, Earl told us he goes and listens to the Desolate One’s poetry when he is high on his fungi. When I asked him if he had ever done any other errands for the Desolate One, besides bringing Otilla the ring, he said just once. He said it was private because the Desolate One would be embarrassed about it.”
At this, Knuckle could no longer contain himself. He collapsed, putting his head down into his folded arms on the table as his great shoulders heaved with laughter. This set off Pinch and Peep both, who began laughing hysterically themselves.
“Oh dear,” Father Nate said.
“Well, this must be good,” said Captain Fairchild.
When his fellows had calmed down enough for him to be heard, Choke continued:
“Okay, well… and this is exactly what Earl told us… the Desolate One had found a log in its swamp. A log with… oh…” Choke closed his eyes in deep despair as contemplated how to continue.
“It had a cunt!” Peep exploded. “It was from a tree with two big branches like legs, and in the crotch there was a knothole like a cunt!”
This set Knuckle and Pinch of again. Knuckle rolled up into a ball and collapsed on the floor. Pinch kept himself in check at the table by chewing on his arm.
Father Nate and Captain Fairchild both maintained their composure, but looked like they were on the verge of breaking down into laughter themselves.
“Yes, like Otilla said,” Choke said loudly over the din, now determined to press on and get this over with. “So the undead made a woman out of it, with wicker and mud and grass. Then he had Earl go and get a dress to put on it. That’s it.”
“No! No! That’s aint all of it!” cackled Knuckle from the floor.
“That’s right,” Peep said, now composed enough to step into the breach. “The Desolate One tried to fuck it. But, with him being a skeleton, and all, that didn’t work out for him.”
“No!” hollered Knuckle again. “Ye can’t leave out what the sad fuck said! That’s the best part! Pinch! Ye had the best handle on it! What was it he said?”
Quite swept up in the moment, and unable to contain himself, Pinch took a second to think and squared himself for the finale:
“So, the Desolate One tries to, you know, mount his log lady there, and gets the codpiece off of his platemail, and discovers, or remembers, that he’s just a skeleton now. So he wails into the night: ‘My Love! The years have robbed me of my manhood! I have no lance to pierce your fundament! It has rotted away to filth, like you have!’”
At this, everyone completely lost it. Father Nate and Captain Fairchild both collapsed into hilarity along with everyone else. Seeing this, even Choke could no longer contain himself and released his tension in great shudders that were as much crying as laughter. From the kitchen, where Arlen had retreated to give the important affair its space, howls of laughter could be heard.
When they had all finally settled down, Fairchild topped off everyone’s brandy. Then, wiping tears from his eyes with a linen handkerchief, he said:
“Ahhhh! Altas preserve us! I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t have wanted to share that story. It seems destined to become a classic!”
“Yeah, it’s a gooder,” Father Nate agreed, gingerly checking to see if he had pulled a rib. “I see now why ye thought that this was just something Earl did by himself. Trying to have sex with a log is definitely something I can see him doing.”
“That’s exactly what I said!” Knuckle laughed as he crawled back into his chair.
“Yes, but how is he going to come up with that poetic speech about his lost manhood?” Pinch asked.
“He isn’t,” Father Nate said, getting serious. “The Desolate One’s words have a way of burning their way into yar mind. It can be hard to shake them.”
“So, as humorous as this whole sordid tale is, we cannot escape the fact that this fool of yours has done more than one errand for the dread knight,” Captain Fairchild said.
“And this is just what we know of. That’s all Earl told you of? That’s it?” Father Nate asked the squad.
Choke sighed as the other three giggled.
“As far as what relates to Earl and the Desolate One, yes, it is,” Choke said.
“What does that mean?” Father Nate asked.
“Well, it’s not just this skeleton knight that’s been trying to stratch his itches. Earl’s horny, too, ye know,” Peep said with a wide smirk.
“Did he make innapropriate advances to you, Miss Otilla?” Captain Fairchild asked, flaring up angrilly.
“No, Captain. Not to me. We wouldn’t need to be talking about him right now if he had,” Peep said.
“Well, then…” Fairchild drifted off, looking confused, until finally it dawned on him what Peep was getting at. “Ah. Which of you was it then?” he asked the three men.
“Yeah, it was me,” Knuckle admited. “He offered me, uhhh…”
“Anal sodomy!” Pinch exclaimed with a suggestively upthrust finger, recalling Brother Simon’s exhaustive lessons on the topic.
“Ah. And how was it?” Fairchild asked Knuckle with just the faintest suggestion of a smile. He then waved the question off with a laugh as Knuckle began to swell up. “Just a joke, my dear lad. I do apologize.”
“Why does everyone ask me that?” Knuckle exclaimed, looking wounded.
“Well, low-hanging fruit is that most often plucked, I suppose. Just a joke. Just a joke. We mean nothing by it, I am sure.”
“And it’s neither here nor there, as far as the topic at hand,” Father Nate said tiredly.
“This is true. Just another amusing aside,” Fairchild said. He then adopted a serious tone: “But, all humor aside, it seems we do have a situation with this Desolate One and its minion, Earl. The undead knight has reached out through him in an attempt to lure Miss Otilla into its clutches.”
“Is it really as serious as all that, Father?” Pinch asked, finally getting serious himself.
“Yes. It is. This evil has made a habit of killing Stronian heroes. The ring it sent to you, Otilla, is a prize from one of these kills. Without a doubt,” Father Nate said.
“But what about the all the prophesy stuff?” Pinch asked. “Father Morrenthall saw Otilla’s baptism in a holy dream. He foresaw her coming. So, maybe Earl did, too?”
“So what if he did?” Captain Fairchild interjected. “He, or more likely, the dread knight, read the same portents as Father Morrenthall. That may be. But what are its intentions to do with that information? Nothing good, I am quite sure.”
“I understand, sir. But Earl also said he saw something about us going to the Old Mill to do ‘the killing,’ there. What was that, then?”
“Hardly a prophesy,” said Father Nate. “He steered you to the Old Mill, which is known to be an evil place, with talk of a fight there. You killed what you found. That is hardly a mystical sequence of events.”
“In fact,” Captain Fairchild said, “it rather suggests he was bent on killing you, or worse, one way or the other. That fight almost ended you, did it not? I hardly think that sending you into it was the act of a friend.”
“Well, to be fair, they did tell me about it, and I didn’t think it was such a bad idea for them to check it out,” Father Nate said reasonably.
“Fair enough then,” Fairchild said. “But it hardly tips the scales in favor of this undead and its minion being on the side of good in this.”
“No it does not,” Father Nate agreed.
“Perhaps, Father, you should put this wretch, Earl, under a proper Church inquisition. Supress any evil compulsions from the dread knight and put him to the question hammer and tongs. See what he really knows,” said Captain Fairchild.
“It may come to that. I think that, tomorrow, I should attend to it. This has been put off for too long. That is clear,” said Father Nate.
“I am quite sure that you shall do what is best, Father,” Captain Fairchild said happily. Then he clapped his hands mildly. “And, with that, I think it is time for me to go to bed. Like I said: a long day tomorrow.”
Captain Fairchild stood up from the table, as did everyone else. Fairchild bowed to Father Nate and Otilla in turn, and then shook Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle’s hands.
“I do hope we shall be able to say farewell tomorrow morning before I go,” Captain Fairchild said.
“Likewise! We’ll be there, Captain,” Father Nate answered as the squad all nodded.
“Excellent. Well met, all, I’d say! Well met! Callic is in good hands! Of that there is no doubt in my mind! Goodnight to you all! Goodnight!” cheered Fairchild as he strode out the tavern door into the night.