The next morning, the squad walked to the Sheriff’s office on Main Street, looking as smart as they ever had. They had washed up and polished everything they could. Peep, Knuckle, and Pinch were armored and kitted out as usual, but Choke had decided to wear his Brothers of the Holy Stone robes overtop of his armor. Mrs Dunn had helped him clean and press his robes. They were still damp, but this only made them look blacker.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t the heroes of Callic, returned to grace us with their presence!” Sheriff Waters said as they entered his office. The Sheriff’s smile in no way reached his eyes.
“Thank you, Sheriff,” Choke said. “May we have a moment of your time?”
The Sheriff was sitting behind his desk drinking a steaming mug of stugroot. One of his deputies was lounging near the little woodstove with a mug of his own. The deputy was tense as he looked between the squad and his boss.
“Oh, nothing but time here, Brother Bartholomew. Why we have nothing better to do than service your every need! Please have a seat. Oh, my word! We lack enough chairs! Bob! Get another chair for our very important guests, so that they all may have a seat, as warrants their station.”
Deputy Bob stood up and moved his own chair to join the three in front of the Sheriff’s desk. Sheriff Waters stood up and gestured to the four chairs with a flourished bow.
“Please do have a seat, my most honored guests!” he said.
“Thank you, sir,” Choke said as he, and then the others, sat down.
“May we offer you anything to drink? Stugroot?” the Sheriff asked as he sat back down. “Miss Otilla of the Holy Fire? Brother Bartholomew? Brothers Theodas and Nikolas?”
“No thank you, Sheriff. We just had breakfast at the church,” Choke said.
“Actually, Sheriff,” Peep interjected, with an upraised finger. “I’ll have a brandy, if ye have it.”
“Brandy,” Sheriff Waters said the word as though a curse.
“Yeah. Brandy. Captain Fairchild served us a bunch of it. It’s great. I find it really suits my filthy mouth, me being the backstabbing little slut that I am, and all.”
Both Deputy Bob and Pinch coughed at this. Knuckle stifled a laugh. Choke and Sheriff Waters held their composure.
“I’m sure, Otilla, that we don’t need to trouble the sheriff for brandy at this—” Choke started.
“No,” Peep interrupted. “Sorry, Brother Bartholomew. The man offered us a drink. So, I’d like a fuckin brandy, if he has it. But, if he’s too low-rent to have it on hand, or didn’t really mean it, that’s fine.”
Sheriff Waters was now staring at Peep with undisguised venom.
“Sorry, Sheriff. What’s the matter?” Peep asked him calmly. “Am I not meant to be opening my slut mouth, or something?”
“I am sure, Miss Otilla, that I have no idea of what you mean,” the Sheriff answered, his hard eyes never leaving hers.
“Oh, ye don’t? Yar gonna pretend that not even two weeks ago ye sat right where ye are now and called me a cocksucker?”
“I called you no such thing.”
“No? Okay, right, here in the office, ye just said I was a slut with a filthy mouth. So what else could that mean? And I guess it was when ye had me all alone in yar fuckin diddle dungeon with yar pervert torturer that ye actually called me the cocksucker.”
“Again, Miss Otilla, I have no idea what you are referring to,” the Sheriff said, his voice now laced with real menace.
“That knuckle dragger in the tower there. What was his name? The one that felt me up before he put me in the cellar. Billy, right? Yeah, that was it. He’s the one that holds down the ones ye fuck, right? Or, maybe ye just let him at them a little and then threaten them with him, so’s they warm up to you more. Is that how ye play it Sheriff?”
“You said you wanted a brandy, Miss Otilla,” Sheriff Waters said.
“Yeah. That would be great, Sheriff. If it’s not a bother,” Peep said, her smile wide.
“Not at all,” Waters said with a grimace. He stood up stiffly and moved to open a cabinet behind his desk. From it he extracted a silver cup and a green, glass bottle. “Anyone else?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’ll go one, too,” Knuckle said happily, raising his hand.
The Sheriff glared at him, but got out another silver cup. He poured a good measure of brandy into each of them and moved around his desk to hand them to Peep and Knuckle.
“So, what can I do for you now? How may I, the sheriff of this barony, be of service to you… fine people,” Waters said, uttering the word, “people,” as though his mouth was full of dog shit.
“I understand, sir,” Choke said, “that it must be upsetting to someone like you to see scum like us rise above our station. So if steering us in the right direction with a little information is that upsetting to you, we will be on our way.”
“Oh no! By all means! I am overjoyed to serve Miss Otilla of the Holy Fire and her most holy and noble cohort. So do ask, so that I may fulfil my purpose in life.”
“You speak, sir, as though you have been greatly inconvenienced by us. So, pardon my ignorance, but how is it that we have bothered you?” Choke asked.
“Really? After the week you have put me through, the four of you walk in here proud as prize cocks and you don’t even know?” Sheriff Waters broke into a deeply sarcastic laugh. “They don’t even know!” he shouted at Deputy Bob, who was still standing frozen next to the boiling pot of stugroot on the stove.
“Okay, so pardon me!” Sheriff Waters shouted, finally losing his composure completely as he slammed his fist down on his desk. “Pardon me! Forgive me for mistakenly thinking that you four were scum! Just a tiny bandit slut and three orphan thugs; one of them a jink, no less! But no! What a mistake that was! For the girl is the blessed Otilla of the Holy Fire! Didn’t you know? How could you not have known that, Sheriff? And the three lads are her blessed Brothers of the Holy Stone men-at-arms! And they are destined to save us all from whatever portends of doom our most holy priest, Father Morrenthall, has been seeing in his dreams! So go, you fool, and amend your ways by finding out every last bit of information that can be had on every last fuckin mercenary that the Chisel hired to hunt them down! Immediately! Yesterday! How could you have failed our very faith in this hour of greatest peril! And then! After all of that! After a week of her ladyship whipping me to task like one of her ponies, you four walk in here, accuse me of rape, and ask me how it is that you have bothered me?”
Finally spent, Sheriff Waters all but collapsed in his chair. After a long minute of heavy breathing and staring into space, he leaned way over to get his brandy bottle out of the cabinet and take a long pull straight from it. Everyone was silent for a while more, until Choke finally cleared his throat:
“Well, I am sorry that you have been put out, Sheriff. But, I have to say, if being made to actually do your job is that odious to you, then, perhaps, you are in the wrong line of work.”
Sheriff Waters raised his gaze at the squad looking like he might actually murder them all right there. Instead he stood up and stabbed his finger at the door.
“Out!” he bellowed. “Get! Out!”
Pinch made it out the door before any of the others were out of their chairs. Choke gave the sheriff a deep nod and left after Pinch. Knuckle and Peep stood up and each set their cups down on the sheriff’s desk. Knuckle then stood, squared up and ready for whatever might come, with his hand on his warhammer, and waited for Peep to leave before him.
“Thanks for the brandy, Sheriff!” Peep said, before heading out the door.
Knuckle nodded to the sheriff and his deputy in turn and left. Walking back towards the church, Peep and Knuckle burst out laughing together.
“See?” Peep said, leaning in to give Choke a friendly elbow in the side. “I told ye that dipshit wasn’t good for shit!”
“That was a mistake,” Choke said, mostly to himself. “We just made an enemy of him in there.”
“Ah, fuck him,” Knuckle said. “He was that already. He’s just pissed because whatever scam he had going with the Outfit got fucked up.”
“That may be. But baiting him as we did could not have helped. We should have been more politic,” Choke said.
“Yeah, man!” Peep laughed, giving Choke another elbow. “What got into you? We do have a mouth on us these days, don’t we, Brother Bartholomew!”
“Yes. I suppose we do.”
They walked on another short ways in silence. Then Choke stopped in his tracks and raised his hand as something occurred to him. The other three stopped to stare at him.
“What is it, Choke?” Pinch asked.
“Peep,” Choke said, focusing on her intently.
“Billy the jailer.”
“Who?” Peep asked, her face the picture of innocent ignorance.
Choke sighed sharply through his nose and nodded curtly to himself as his suspicion was confirmed.
“Don’t give me that! The jailer! Billy!”
“Ye mean the bald fuckin creep in the leather apron that felt me up and that the sheriff threatened to rape me with? That Billy the jailer?”
“What about him?”
“You are not going to kill him!” Choke said forcefully, pointing his finger at her.
Pinch and Knuckle exchanged a look. Then Pinch groaned as he also realized that killing the jailer was precisely what Peep was intending to do.
Peep stared back at Choke.
“I’m serious, Peep. I understand why you want to do it. Believe me, I do. He’d even deserve it. But he is an agent of law for the Baron. If you are looking to fuck up all of this,” Choke waved his hand over top of them, “then the surest way to do it is to kill one of the Baron’s men. Do you understand?”
“Peep. Please. We just shook hands on this. You agreed to follow my lead when it comes to civilization. And I am telling you, that in civilization there are some things you just have to let go. This is one of them. You need to let this go,” Choke said, his voice now reasonable and quiet.
“Really. Let it go. The fuck put his hands on me. He grabbed my cunt.”
Choke winced. “Okay. I understand that he did that. But at that time, he and the sheriff had every reason to detain and search us. We were being held on suspicion of murder. I had told the sheriff that you were a bandit, essentially. So I understand that the jailer went too far, as did the sheriff with his threats. But you can’t kill either of them over it.”
Peep stared at Choke for a while more. Then she shrugged.
“Yeah, okay,” she said.
“Okay, I won’t kill him.”
“Do you promise?” Choke asked her.
“Do you promise me that you won’t kill the jailer?”
“Okay, yeah, I promise. Alright?”
“Don’t promise me that if you don’t mean it, Peep. I’m serious. If you break this promise to me, then I’m afraid I can’t be your friend anymore. That’s it,” Choke said.
“Oh, for real?”
“Yes. For real. Perhaps my friendship means nothing to you. Maybe I’m just a jink orphan pretending to be a monk, whose friendship is worthless. So you do what you feel. But I am telling you: if you break this promise to me, we are done.”
“Okay, then, Choke. I hear ye. I promise. I won’t kill him.”
“Thank you. Okay, so… now what are we going to do?” Choke asked the group.
“I dunno. Let’s just get our horses and ride up to the fort. Tell them the Lady invited Peep and us to visit,” Knuckle said.
“You know what, Knuckle, I like it. That’s probably what we should have done in the first place. Let’s do it,” Choke said.
The Baron Hart’s Spitzer fort was barely that. At the top of the hill overlooking the town, it was large and formidable-looking, with walls and towers and everything one would expect. But, unlike a proper fort, it was made entirely of wood intead of stone. In the Kingdom of Bitana, this was a sure sign that the Barony of Spaggot did not matter. However, at the very least, the wood had been nicely finished and joined with expert carpentry, so it did not make too bad an impression (at least for bumpkins).
Now mounted, the squad rode up the road through the proper town, such as it was. The fort had no moat, but they had to go over two deep ditches on plank bridges designed to be pulled over to the fort’s side. The fort’s big double gates were open with a pair of spearmen guarding them. Up on top of the gatehouse (of sorts), a crossbowman had appeared when the squad had ridden over the first plank bridge.
The pair of spearmen smartened up their posture as the squad came over the second bridge, obviously well aware of who they were. One of them raised his palm in greeting.
“Hello! Halt and be recognized, in the name of the Baron,” the man said.
The squad reined up. As he usually did, Pinch stepped up as the party spokesman:
“Greetings, sir. I am Nikolas. This is Otilla of the Holy Fire. And this is Bartholomew, and Theodas. Miss Otilla has been invited for an audience with the Lady Hart, by Captain Fairchild in Callic. We are unsure how to go about accepting the invitation, and so hope someone here could help us with the matter.”
Both the spearmen now looked on the verge of panic. As Peep was introduced, they both bowed to her.
“Ahh… please wait a moment. Sirs. Ma’am!” the older spearman stammered before hurrying back into the fort, abandoning his fellow.
The lone spearman stood at attention in the gateway.
“Pleasant weather we’ve been having,” Pinch said awkwardly to the man after a long, torturous silence.
“Yes, sir. It is, sir!” the man agreed.
After just another minute, or so, an officer and his sergeant came out with the spearman who had gone to fetch them. The officer was in a smart tabard, with a silver clasp and chain of rank from his lapel to his breast. He was unarmored, but had on a fine longsword. He stopped in front of his men and nodded deeply to the squad.
“Miss Otilla of the Holy Fire. And young brothers. You honor us. I am Lieutenant Cooper. How may we be of service to you?”
Pinch glanced at Peep. She smiled back at him and waved for him to continue speaking for them.
“Well, Lieutenant,” Pinch began, “Miss Otilla has been invited by Captain Fairchild in Callic to attend the Lady Hart. And I am embarrassed to say that we really have no idea how to respond. With Father Morrenthall away in Strana, we had hoped someone here might be able to help us.”
“Ah, of course. No problem at all. We shall send word to our lady’s residence immediately. If you are so inclined, you would do us honor by waiting inside the fort with me. Otherwise, we can send word to wherever you would prefer to wait until we hear back from her ladyship.”
“I think we would be more than happy to wait inside the fort with you, Lieutenant,” Pinch said.
“Thank you, sir. Please follow me.”
After he had sent a fast rider with a message for the Lady’s staff, the lieutenant had their horses put away properly in the fort’s stables. Then he invited them all into the central keep. He took them up a tight staircase all the way to the keep’s top floor, the fifth, where there was was a pleasant and breezy chamber. The chamber occupied the entire floor and had multiple windows with thick shutters that were mostly open. This afforded a marvelous view of the entire valley. There were a number of weapon racks along the walls, mostly housing crossbows and longbows. As for furniture, there were a good number of simple beds, with an office, of sorts, set up in one corner, with three tables and many comfortable wooden chairs. There was no one else in the chamber when Lieutenant Cooper brought the squad up.
“What’s on the roof?” Peep asked, pointing up the stairs to where the open sky was visible.
“Shooting positions for crossbowmen and archers. And a small catapult,” Lieutenant Cooper answered, indicating for the squad to follow him to the office area.
“Please, have a seat,” Cooper said, gesturing to the tables and chairs before he pulled the best one out for Peep. “May I offer you something to drink? Stugroot, ale, or water we can have brought up. Or wine, I have here.”
“I think wine would be fine. Thank you, Lieutenant,” Pinch said.
“Excellent! Please, have a seat.”
Cooper served them the wine and sat down with them. He seemed a little tense, but masked it well. He was a younger man, burly, with a thick beard.
“Her ladyship is presently at her residence at Pinewhispers,” the lieutenant informed them. “My man should reach there within twenty minutes. Then, the Lady is sure to send some men to escort you to her. We can expect them within the hour.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Pinch said. “It’s a wonderful view you have up here!”
“Thank you. It’s why I prefer to attend my affairs up here whenever possible.”
“Yeah, it’s almost worth the hump up all them steps,” Knuckle griped before draining his whole cup of wine in one gulp.
The lieutenant blinked at this rudeness, but held his composure as he refilled Knuckle’s cup.
“Sir, if you don’t mind me asking, is the Baron at Pinewhispers with the Lady?” Choke asked.
“No, he is not. Baron Hart is presently to the south, in Chestbrook, to confer with Colonel Smithers of Earl Stratten’s command. About the present goblin situation, you see. He left yesterday.
“Ah, thank you, sir,” Choke said.
“Not at all. Now, if I may, I must say, you four have made quite the mark around here since your arrival! It has been a good bit of work you have put in!”
“Thank you, sir,” Choke said.
“If you don’t mind, could you tell me of the happenings in Callic? We’ve only been hearing snippets of rumor, and those have seemed, well, fantastic.”
“No problem, lieutenant. Thank you for your interest,” Choke said, before nodding deferentially to Pinch to take up the storytelling.
Unlike the last times these yarns were spun, Peep was satisfied to stay silent. In his telling, Pinch was entertaining without too much embellishment, and Lieutenant Cooper was obviously well-satisfied. When the tale was all told, the escort from Lady Hart had still not arrived. To occupy them, Cooper began asking questions about their mission with Thorn to kill Goldy and Horsecock. As Pinch got into that, Peep leaned forward and raised her hand to interrupt.
“Yes, Miss Otilla?” Lieutenant Cooper asked attentively.
“Sorry, is there a can around here? I gotta rip a wicked shit!”
Cooper blinked at Peep in shock for a long moment before he rallied sufficiently to answer:
“Uhm, well, Miss Otilla, there are chamber pots on all levels in the keep. But I am sure you would prefer more privacy, so there is a proper latrine by the stables. Come, I shall show you,” he said, moving to stand up.
Peep waved that off. “No, that’s okay, man. I can find it. Just so long as no soldiers in here are gonna fuck with me, right?”
“Surely not! Every man here knows you are our most honored guest. Of that I am quite certain, Miss Otilla.”
“Okay, then. So, just chill out and hear the story. It’s a gooder! I’ll be fine. I insist,” Peep said, standing up.
Standing up with her, the Lieutenant gave Peep a bow.
Knuckle stood up as well. “I’ll come with ye, Peep. I gotta piss like a warhorse!”
“Being a bit over-generous with that image, aren’t ye, Knuckle?” Pinch laughed. Then he remembered himself with a wince. “Sorry,” he said to Cooper.
“Not at all. I am a soldier after all. And it was funny,” Cooper responded.
With Knuckle and Peep gone, Pinch continued the story. He was just finishing up when Knuckle returned alone.
“Where’s Peep?” Choke asked him.
“I dunno. She used the shitter before me, and when I was done, she was gone. She didn’t come up here?”
“No. She didn’t,” Choke said, exchanging a look with Pinch.
“That’s odd,” said Lieutenant Cooper.
“No. It’s not,” Choke said. “I’m sorry, sir. She is very likely snooping around the fort.”
“Well, I think, Brother Bartholomew, that if Miss Otilla of the Holy Fire has chosen to familiarize herself with the defenses of this fortification, then I, for one, would not presume to call it snooping,” Cooper said with a sly grin.
“Well, we thank you for that, then, sir,” Choke responded.
Just then, there was the sharp report of a horn outside. Choke and Pinch both startled, assuming that it was an alarm over something that Peep had been caught doing. Cooper, however, was relaxed as he moved to a window.
“Ah. That explains the delay. The men from Pinewhispers have arrived, and they have Father Percy with them. Not much of a rider, him.”
“Father Percy, sir?” Pinch asked.
“Oh. My apologies. Lady Hart’s personal priest. Of Altas. He also serves as historian to the Baron. We should go down to meet him. He is not going to want to tackle all the stairs, of that I am sure. And, with any luck, we will locate Miss Otilla on the way down. Shall we?” Lieutanant Cooper asked as he gestured to the stairs down.