The next morning, the folk of Callic assembled to see off Captain Fairchild and his battalion, as well as their own men that marched out with him. Nimara and Janice had come with their children from the Unger farmstead to say farewell to their men, Unger and Aaron, who had joined the battalion as longbowmen.
Captain Fairchild was as charming as ever as he said farewell to Peep, Father Nate, and the Pekot lads. He rode out of town in his gleaming platemail at the head of the vanguard, with his five hundred footmen marching behind him. It was a marvelous sight.
When things had settled down, Father Nate invited the squad for breakfast at Arlen’s.
“Well, now,” he said, “I suppose you three should be off to Spitzer to see the Lady Hart. Mustn’t keep her waiting.”
“I suppose. But what about the Desolate One?” Peep asked with her mouth full of bacon.
“What about it?” Father Nate asked sharply.
“Well, are we going to visit him and see what he has to say?” she asked.
Father Nate blinked at her. “Did ye hear nothing of what I said? No. You are not going to visit him. It is surely a trap. And even if it isn’t, I told ye already that the Church has designated it a menace to be avoided. You are not to go there.”
“Okay, Father. I hear ye. But I’m not saying we should go right into his swamp. I mean, all ye people have gone to listen to him spout his poetry right? From just outside the swamp, I’m guessing. So why not go there and shout at him? See what he has to say?”
“Otilla, just because he has not yet left his swamp, it does not mean he is incapable of it. As well, powerful undead usually have powers of magical compulsion. Charm effects, and the like. This creature has expressed a specific interest in you. That should be enough to send you screaming into the hills,” said Father Nate.
Peep shrugged. “Okay, then. We’ll stay away.”
“Good! I am glad to hear it. See that you do,” Father Nate glowered at Peep suspiciously.
“And what about Earl?” Choke asked.
Father Nate sighed. “I am sorry to say that Captain Fairchild was absolutely right: he needs to be properly investigated. There is no other way. I shall take some men and go and fetch him back to the church. Put him under a Protection From Evil spell. That will suppress any compulsion effects the Desolate One may have put on him. Then I shall interview him formally to see what is what.”
“Hammer and tongs?” Pinch asked quietly.
“No. I haven’t the heart for that. But if he proves resistant, then I am afraid he shall have to be arrested and sent along to Spitzer for Father Morrenthall to interrogate. And then things will go very badly indeed for the poor wretch.”
“But what if it’s just like he said? That he just did the two things for the Desolate One and that’s it?” Pinch asked.
“Well, he still broke the injunction against going into that swamp. He shall have to be punished. But a bit of a flogging and a day in the stocks will set that right. And, hopefully, impress upon him not to go back there again,” Father Nate finished.
“Well, for his sake, then, I hope he’s just the pervy fool he seems to be,” Peep said.
After breakfast, when the squad was getting their horses and gear ready to go, Munn found them in the Church stables. He nodded to the lads and went straight for Peep.
“Hey, Munn, what’s up!” Peep asked.
“Miss Otilla, I hope ye didn’t forget that I was making ye a custom shortbow,” he growled.
“No, I did not! But we gotta hit the fuckin road, yeah? So I’m glad ye came this morning, because it saves me riding all the way back to return yar loaner to ye before we do,” Peep lied.
“Uh-huh. So ye got yarself a jink stick and now ye think ye don’t need one of mine huh?” Munn said, glowering at the Scythan warbow in its saddle case.
“What, this? Well, I aint gonna be turning it down, now am I?”
“I’ll have ye know that a good man on a proper longbow will outshoot a fucker on a jink stick every day of the week.”
“Yeah, on open ground, sure,” Peep answered with a big grin. “But how about on the run through the bush, or shooting from tight cover, or horseback? How are yar longbowmen gonna fare then?”
Munn simply glared back at her.
“Well can ye use the thing? It’s not too much bow for ye?” he finally asked, his tone softening just a little.
“No problem, man!” Peep said, pulling the bow and showing off a few practice draws at various angles. “I just gotta run some lumber through it to get used to it.”
Munn stared at her sourly. It was only then that Peep noticed that he had a bulky, wrapped-up roll of burlap under his arm.
“But,” Peep said, putting the Scythan bow away. “The thing is big for me. All the problems of the longbow I said, I’m gonna be having with this. So this is just gonna be my distance bow for open ground. I’m still gonna need a proper shortbow for most of my work. No doubt about that, man. See?”
Peep turned her shoulder to show Munn his loaner shortbow in her back-case next to her quiver.
“Yeah, well, ye don’t need that one no more,” Munn said, reaching out to pull his bow from her case. Then he held out the burlap package to her. “Here. This is for you, Miss Otilla.”
Peep happily took the package over to a hay bale to unroll it, with Munn, Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle hovering over her to watch. Inside was a thick shortbow just a couple of centimeters longer than the one Munn had loaned her. It was beautiful: of blonde wood with a lovely grain and finely carved antler tips. Peep strung it proudly and drew it a few times.
Inside the burlap was also a bundle of arrows, tied together with a couple of extra bowstrings. Peep looked up from them inquisitively at Munn.
“Those are special, custom arrows for this bow,” he said. “See, normal hunting and shortbow arrows are pretty light, right? Not so thick. But war arrows gotta pack a punch. So thick shafts on them.”
“Yeah, I know that, Munn. I aint some townie dink here, right?” Peep laughed at him.
“Right. Sorry. Anyways, a normal shortbow can’t chuck anything thicker. But this one can. But, ye also can’t be shooting a full-length longbow arrow, neither. So, I made ye just a few special, short, war arrows. I put needle bodkin heads on all of them, cause I figured yar not gonna be fighting many guys in full-plate, right?”
“Oh, that is fuckin excellent, Munn!” Peep said happily as she pulled an arrow from the bundle to look it over. Then she squared up and shot it into a hay bale across the stable. It struck with a deep thud. “Fuckin heavy hitter for a little bow! Nice!”
Munn beamed proudly. Then he remembered something more he had forgotten and startled.
“Now, one thing. That wood was cured right, so there aint no problem there. But I haven’t had time to properly treat it yet. It’s gonna need to be oiled good and proper, every day, for a while, right?” He handed her a little wooden bottle with a cork stopper. “That’s good tung oil right there. It’ll cure it, protect the wood from moisture and keep it from drying out and getting brittle. And…” Munn glowered at Peep’s Scythan bow, “I suppose it couldn’t hurt to throw some on yar jink stick now and again. Ye don’t want that thing drying out, neither. So long as yar bound and determined to be using it, that is.”
“Well, thank you, Munn! This is really great!” Peep said happily.
“So, when ye get settled wherever, ye can get a fletcher to make ye custom arrows for my bow there. It’ll chuck normal shortbow arrows just fine, but if yar putting men down, yar gonna wanna be doing it proper.”
“Oh, no doubt, man!”
Peep took a moment to look proudly at the weapon in her hands. Then she took off her quiver and bowcase and swapped the arrows for Munn’s. While she did this, Pinch ran and got the one she had shot into the bale.
“That was in there deep!” he said as he handed it over.
“Well, Munn, this is truly a special gift. I thank ye for it,” Peep said, giving him a deep nod.
Munn bowed proudly in return. “My pleasure, Miss Otilla!”
“How did ye get it done so quick?” she asked.
“By working my ass off is how! A couple of all-nighters went into this, let me tell ye.”
“Well, I truly appreciate it, Munn. It is a beautiful, special thing. And I know it’s a gift, so I won’t insult ye by offering ye money,” Peep said.
Munn looked horrified and began to respond indignantly.
“So I’m not gonna do that,” Peep interrupted him. “But, I can’t just take it from ye without offering ye something special in return. So… here.”
Peep reached up into the small of her back and drew the little skinning knife that the Scythan warbow armed bounty hunter had menaced the peasant woman with. It was razor-sharp, good steel with a fine antler handle; no question a high-status item.
“This,” Peep said, waggling it out in front of her, “I got from the same fuck I took the bow off. He told Gladis from Cattail Bridge there that he would slit her nostrils with it if she didn’t answer his questions. She showed some real sand and still stood up to him. So he did what he did and I killed him and his man and took their shit. So, as a thank you for this bow, I’d like ye to have it.”
Peep twirled the blade to present it handle-first to Munn. Wide-eyed, and obviously taken with the special item, Munn still protested:
“Oh no! Miss Otilla, I really couldn’t.”
“Yeah, ye can. I insist. Take it,” Peep said, putting the knife in his hand. “Take it, man. I want ye to have it.”
“Well, okay, then. Thank you so much, Miss Otilla! I’ll cherish it.”
“No doubt. Okay, then. I think it’s time for us to fuck off. We have some royal ass to kiss in Spitzer!”
Riding for Spitzer on the main road, Peep was now on the bounty hunter scout’s horse. She had put her collection of armor and other claimed gear on her little riding horse, which they led along with their mule.
“So, what’re ye gonna do with all that armor, Peep?” Knuckle asked her as they rode.
“I dunno. We don’t need it. So I guess I’ll sell it to that old bitch at the church in Spitzer.”
“And what about the money ye get? What’re ye gonna do with that?” Knuckle asked.
Peep rode on silently for a while without looking at Knuckle. Finally, she said:
“I dunno. Whatever I want. It’s my money, right?”
“We know it’s yar money, Peep,” Pinch cut in before Knuckle could get his mouth around whatever response his brain was taking its time coming up with. “No one is disputing that. But…”
“But what?” Peep asked with a smirk.
“Well, we’re supposed to be partners, right?” Pinch said. “Ye ditched us. Did that work on yar own. And got that beautiful horse, saddle, and the warbow. Plus whatever coin the three guys had. So, according to our deal, ye don’t have to share the proceeds on the armor. But… come on! That’s pretty rough, isn’t it?”
Peep rode on for a while more before she finally cracked. “Yeah, yeah! I know!” she laughed. “I’m just fuckin with ye guys. I’ll split what we get from the armor with ye. And we’ll be selling back this little horse, right? So, we’ll all be getting something from that, too. Don’t ye worry, boys! I’ll take care of ye!”
“Oh, you’ll take care of us, will you, Otilla?” Choke snapped. “How very gracious of you!”
Peep blinked at him for a while before she responded:
“What, ye still got a sandy vagina, Choke? What’s up yar ass now?”
Choke reined up. Peep did too. Pinch and Knuckle rode on a little to exchange a weary look before looping back to join them.
Choke had his eyes closed and was breathing hard through his nose. Everyone waited for him to speak. He did not. Finally, after about a minute, Peep broke the silence:
“What’s the problem, Choke? All that shit I took off those three fucks I killed is mine. That’s our deal. Ye have a problem with that now?”
“Our deal! Our deal! Now you are going to bring up our deal?” Choke yelled, finally opening his eyes to glare hard at Peep.
“Fuckin rights I am! That shit is mine! If I choose to share it with ye, that’s my call!”
“And what else was part of our deal?” Choke bellowed, stabbing his finger Peep’s way.
“Oh, what? That yar the boss of me?”
“Yes! I am the leader of this squad! You agreed to that!”
“No I didn’t,” Peep said, deadpan.
“Yes! You did!”
“Well, okay, maybe I did. But I didn’t mean it.”
With this, Choke had no response, as his mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water.
“Look, Choke. Settle down! Fuck. Don’t be so fuckin serious,” Peep said. “It aint like I’m trying to be the boss of you. We’re partners. It’s a good thing.”
“Is it? Are we? It doesn’t feel that way to me! Otilla and her retainers! Otilla and her men! That’s all we’re hearing now!”
“Yeah, so what? That’s just a bunch of bullshit. It don’t mean anything,” Peep said.
“Yes, it does! And don’t try to deny that you’ve been taking full advantage of it,” Choke said, finally calming down enough to stop shouting.
“Yeah? Okay. And why shouldn’t I? What, we’re gonna act like these wheels in my hands don’t change things now? They change everything! And right after they just helped get ye outta yar mess with Alan and the fuckin Outfit, ye’d think that ye might be a little more grateful about it. That wasn’t my fuckin beef! But I stood with ye and did more than any of ye getting a handle on it! And I didn’t hear ye fuckin complaining when the Captain come along to pull them in and string em up. Ye think he does that if it’s just the three of you out here fucking around by yarselves? Smarten up!” Peep barked.
Choke closed his eyes again. He deflated as he opened them up.
“You’re right, Peep. I’m sorry. You’ve helped us a lot when you had no obligation to. I am being ungrateful. I apologize,” Choke said, extending his hand to Peep.
“That’s alright, Choke,” she said as she shook it. “Just stop being such a jealous little bitch about everything and we’ll be fine.”
Choke’s face contorted as he looked set to fly into another rage. He held on to it this time, however.
“Okay, fine. I deserved that, Peep. But we need to figure out how we proceed as a group here. Because things as they are are not working out.”
“Well, you talk about being partners. That could work. But lying to Pinch about what you’re planning to do and ditching us without any plan or coordination is not treating us as partners. It is disrespectful and dangerous. We almost got killed trying to back you up. And that’s only because we had no idea of what you were doing. That’s not alright,” Choke said.
“Yeah! No doubt!” Knuckle said.
“He does have a good point, Peep,” Pinch agreed.
Not particularly bothered by any of this, Peep looked thoughtful for a while. Then she shrugged.
“Yeah, okay. I can see where yar coming from with that. But I only did it because ye were barking orders at me like some kinda boss down there under the tower. And I knew that if I told ye what I was heading out to do, ye were just gonna say no. So I went ahead and did it.”
“It’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, huh?” Pinch said.
“I aint begging for shit here, man. Listen, Choke: you aint the boss of me. I aint in no army and you aint my officer. Whatever we agreed to before doesn’t matter no more. This Otilla of the Holy Fire thing changes all that. That thing inside me; that we talked about earlier. That thing with the fire. It wants what it wants. And when I get that fuckin itchy-palm feeling, I’m gonna move. It’s go time then. And yar either gonna trust me and come with me, or ye aint. And I’m not gonna fuckin debate it with ye. And if we’re gonna continue riding together, ye gotta get yar head around that.”
Choke said nothing, but nodded thoughtfully as Peep finished. Then she went on:
“But, that don’t mean that I wanna be the boss of you. I don’t. I see us as partners. I like ye guys. We work well together. And where we’re heading now, I have no fucking clue. I need yar help. And I think I also need yar help telling me these Holy Book stories about Stron and all them old psychos. I need to learn more about all that. So, I will fuckin follow yar lead there. But when we’re out in the bush, where it’s my world, or when I get that itchy-palm feeling where I gotta feed the fire, you gotta trust me and have my back. That’s it. That’s the deal. Right?”
Choke became profoundly moved when Peep spoke of learning from him about the Holy Book. As she finished speaking, he took a moment to compose himself. Then he took his Holy Book from his saddlebag.
“Are you serious about this, Peep? Do you really want me to teach you of our faith from the Holy Book?” he asked, holding the leatherbound book out in front of him.
“Yeah, fuckin rights I do! I mean, in for a copper, in for a silver, right? I mean, all ye Stronians take that stuff really serious. So, I should start getting a handle on it, I reckon,” Peep said.
“‘You Stronians?’” Pinch interjected.
“Oh, right. My bad. Yeah. Us Stronians,” Peep corrected herself.
“It would be my honor to teach you of the Scripture, Peep,” Choke said.
“Okay then. So fresh start, right? Partners. And ye trust me when I say we gotta do something,” Peep said.
“Likewise,” Choke said.
Peep nodded and spit into her palm to extend it to Choke. He blinked in shock at the sight of her expectorating upon that most holy of symbols, but he soon managed to get his head around it and recover.
“We did this once before, with the old deal,” Choke said.
“Yeah, we did,” Peep said with her trademark cheeky grin.
“And you agreed to follow my orders. Which you now said you didn’t mean.”
“So, just out of curiosity, Peep: why should I believe you now?” Choke asked.
“Because, this time I mean it.”
“Okay, good enough for me,” Choke spit into his own palm and they shook on it.