When Captain Cooper and the lads came out of the keep into the fort’s courtyard, they found Peep immediately. She was standing off to the side with a small group of soldiers that included two sergeants. The men were laughing as Peep bantered with them.
A small squad of horsemen were attending their horses over by the stable. In the center of the square, an obese priest was being attended by Lieutenant Cooper’s sergeant. The priest was standing awkwardly as he massaged the rolls of fat around his lower back. His porcine face was flushed and sweaty, with a deeply pained expression as though he had suffered a grievous wound.
Peep said her goodbyes to the soldiers, who seemed quite taken with her, and joined Choke and the others at the threshold.
“Well, that is one fat… ff-father, huh?” Peep said just loudly enough for the lads and Lieutenant Cooper to hear.
Knuckle barked a loud guffaw as Cooper stifled his with his fist.
“Indeed. Come, I shall introduce you,” the lieutenant said.
The squad followed Cooper over to the priest and the sergeant. Coming out of his spasm of agony, the priest fixed Lieutenant Cooper with an angry glare. Besides looking like he had never once missed a meal (or a snack) in his life, the Lady Hart’s priest, Father Percy, was splendidly attired. His light-brown robes were of very finely spun wool, and were beautifully embroidered in yellow, red, and greens with decorative borders around scenes of Holy Book stories. Around his neck he had a gold chain with a pure gold holy symbol of the sun, Altas. At his side was a beautiful rosary made of larger amber beads separated with little gold ones. His sausage fingers glittered with rings.
“Lieutenant!” Father Percy barked. “I hope for your sake I have not been sent here for nothing!”
“My apologies for all that you have suffered, Father. I had no idea you would be sent,” Cooper said with an amused smirk.
“How could I not be! Sending word that Otilla of the Holy Fire is here, in the fort of all places, seeking an audience with our Lady, and you think I would not come? We should just take your word for it, should we? How dare you!”
“I had not realized I had dared at all, Father. But I do apologize for whatever missteps I may have taken.”
“This supposed Otilla of the Holy Fire of yours! Where is she?” Father Percy glared around the extremities of the fort without once glancing at Peep and the lads standing right in front of him.
“Right here, Father. May I present to you Miss Otilla of the Holy Fire, and her men—” Lieutenant Cooper began, stepping aside to gesture towards Peep.
“What!” interrupted Father Percy, shaking his head side to side in shock and consternation, sending waves of turbulence through his jowls. “What foul jest is this, man?”
“It is no jest, Father. This is Miss Otilla of the Holy Fire and her men,” Lieutenant Cooper said, all humor now gone from him.
“Impossible! These are brigands, you fool! Clearly!”
“I understand how they must appear to you, Father. But I assure you: they are who I say.”
“You cretin!” bellowed Father Percy, stepping right up to get into Cooper’s face and spew it with spittle. “You summon me here to meet these brigands? You invite wolves into the flock, man! Into our ladyship’s own home! Look, that tiny little murderer is even dressed up as a wolf! That one there is a jink! A jink! Here in the fort, presented to me to be a guest of the Lady Hart. Brigands! It could not be more clear! What is wrong with you?”
Lieutenant Cooper was beginning to look unsure of himself. He had, after all, no concrete proof or reason for having accepted Peep and the squad’s identities so readily. As Father Percy continued to yell at him, the captain closed his eyes to have a quick think. Finally he shook his head, reset himself, and waited for a break in the tirade. It did eventually come, since Father Percy was not built for any sort of endurance activity, even one so natural to him as yelling.
“Father Percy, calm yourself, please,” Cooper said, as the priest wheezed and mopped sweat from his jowls and neck folds with his sleeves. “I beg you to think about what is known to us. Father Morrenthall himself confirmed their identities. Three young men: a giant, a small scout, and a Scythan horseman equipped in our fighting way. And Otilla of the Holy Fire, a tiny woman who killed her bandit captor, Stag Orcstabber, and claimed his black wolfpelt cloak as trophy, along with the price on his head. Who else could it be?”
This seemed to stump Father Percy, who gaped at the squad with wild eyes.
“But a jink…” he murmured.
“Yes, well, that’s what seals it, wouldn’t you say, Father? You heard Father Morrenthall’s report, did you not? It could not be more clear: the Scythan is young Brother Bartholomew, graduate of a Brothers of the Holy Stone school, and a warrior of the faith in good standing with the Church. If it is as you say, and these other three are brigands with an impeccable flair for disguise and timing, then where do you suppose they could find a Scythan familiar with Stronian ways?”
“It cannot be. This is… impossible. We must summon the sheriff. He shall confirm matters.”
“That is a good idea, Father!” Peep interjected with a snap of her fingers. “Let’s get that sheriff up here. He’s gonna love that!”
“Uhhh… are ye sure ye want him and this one talking right now, Peep?” Pinch whispered in her ear. “Ye think he’ll do right by us?”
“Oh, shit,” Peep whispered back. “Didn’t think of that.”
“Otilla, I think we could settle this immediately, if you would show the Father the marks of Stron,” Choke said in a strong voice.
“The marks of Stron! Yes! Show them to me!” Father Percy ordered, stepping around Lieutenant Cooper to loom over Peep.
Meeting his eye squarely, Peep shrugged and extended both her hands out between them, palms up.
As was always the case when the faithful beheld the four-spoked Wheel brands, there was an immediate visceral reaction as the divine power within them was felt. Lieutenant Cooper murmured, “praise Stron,” as he quickly took to a knee and traced the sign of the Wheel over his breast.
Father Percy, however, was no worshiper of Stron. As a priest of Altas, Stron’s father and the one true God, Father Percy had a very different reaction. His eyes flew wide and he jerked backwards in profound fear as he not only sensed the power within the marks, but also properly beheld Otilla of the Holy Fire: the agent chosen to wield it.
Around the courtyard, the fort’s current garrison of twenty, or so, soldiers had gathered. They had been standing back, enjoying the scene. Now they moved in closer, drawn to see the holy marks. As Father Percy stumbled away to find somewhere to collapse, Peep sighed and moved this way and that to show all of the soldiers her brands. As each beheld them, he dropped to his knees.
In that moment, Choke saw a clear opportunity to spread the Word, as well as to seize the initiative from Father Percy. Choke ran to the stable to get his Holy Book from his saddlebags. When he returned with it, the soldiers had begun to mill about a little, unsure as to what to do.
Choke stepped to Peep’s side and opened his Holy Book. A Scythan he may have been, but standing next to Otilla of the Holy Fire, dressed in the robes of a Brother of the Holy Stone, with an iron Wheel about his neck, and a Holy Book in hand, Choke’s authority over the soldiers was immediate. Without a pause that might give him time to second-guess himself, Choke launched into the sermonic reading of passages he had been polishing with the peasants of Callic valley.
When Choke was done, the assembled men all intoned, “amen,” along with him and wandered off as though leaving a church sermon. Looking quite moved, Lieutenant Cooper stood staring into space for a long while. Then, he shook himself out of whatever mood had seized him, and smiled at Choke and Peep both.
“That was well done,” Cooper said.
“Thank you, sir,” Choke said with a deep nod as he tucked his Holy Book under his arm.
“Lieutenant Cooper!” bellowed Father Percy from where he was sitting on a bench under the stable’s awning. “To me, man!”
Cooper smiled wearily. “If I may, Miss Otilla and Brother Bartholomew,” he said quietly, leaning into them conspiratorially. “Do be careful with these priests of Altas. They only get… more so, the higher they climb. You understand?”
“Thank you, sir. I do,” Choke said.
“Cooper!” screamed Father Percy. “To me, I said!”
“Yes, Father! Sorry, Father!” Lieutenant Cooper said smartly before hurrying over to him.
Father Percy had Cooper help him up from the bench. Then the priest moved ponderously back to the squad.
“What have you there?” he snapped at Choke, gesturing to his Holy Book. “Pretending we can read, are we?”
“I can read, Father,” Choke said, now meeting the priest’s eye squarely. “Brother Willem of the Brothers of the Holy Stone in Pekot school taught me personally. And I penned this Holy Book myself. Would you like to see, Father?”
“I know my scripture! I have no need of yours. So you fancy yourself a Brother, do you?”
“Not at all, Father. But, as a graduate of the school, I have every right to wear the robes. And we are bound to Bristlehump to serve Brother Barrelmender there.”
“That one? Ha! Perfect match! Well, that’s enough of you, I’d say. Miss Otilla, it seems you are as you have claimed to be. But this…” Father Percy waved his hand over top her with a disgusted look. “This… bandit costume. This shall not do. It is far worse than I had feared!”
Father Percy turned to face the half-dozen horsemen he had come with, who were now clustered near the stables.
“Men! The trunk!” He then turned to Lieutenant Cooper: “Lieutenant! Lunch! A proper one!”
“Yes, Father. Right away. As proper as we can manage, Father. We shall set the table in the main chamber of the keep. You may go there at your leisure, Father.”
“Yes, yes,” Father Percy brushed Lieutenant Cooper off irritably as the officer took his leave to attend the order.
“Now, you three!” Father Percy snapped at Choke, Knuckle, and Pinch. “I will only say this once. Upon Lady Hart’s orders, I am obliged to bring all three of you to Pinewhispers,” he shuddered in horror. “But you will keep to your place! Is that clear? You speak when you are spoken to, and not otherwise! And once her ladyship has dismissed you, you shall go to the stables where you shall remain for the duration of Miss Otilla’s visit. And that is far better than you deserve, let me tell you! And if any of you do anything to upset our Lady and her household, I shall see to it that you are disemboweled before you are strung up for the crows. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Father,” all three lads said smartly in unison.
“You may go, then. Now, Miss Otilla, I had feared that living rough as you have been, you would not have appropriate attire to attend our Lady. Now I see my fears were a gross underestimation.”
“Huh? Wait, hold up, Choke!” Peep said as Choke began to leave with Knuckle and Pinch.
Choke stopped but gestured for Knuckle and Pinch to keep moving on.
“No! You go now!” Father Percy snapped, waving Choke away as though he was some kind of gnat.
“No, Father. He stay now,” Peep said with her wide, cheeky grin.
“Pardon me?” Father Percy quivered, his outrage bubbling up out of him like a great frothing cauldron on the boil.
“No way he leaves me, Father. Sorry. I don’t go nowheres without Bartholomew by my side. No way, no how,” Peep said more forcefully.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Otilla!” Father Percy shouted.
Now earnestly and profoundly confused by this man, Peep stared up at him with her head tilted sideways like a dog.
“I don’t know how I can say this more simple for ye, Father. He stays with me. That’s how it is. Got it? And ye don’t want me going nowheres without him, neither. Cause, ye know, bush monkey scum that I am, and all, I don’t got a fuckin clue about the right way to act without him beaming me his signals with all his glowers and groans. There! Ye see that now? He just told me off for fuckin saying fuck just now. Without actually saying anything, right? Me and him, see, we share that, ye know, mental connection. So ye don’t want me going anywhere nice without him right by my side. Otherwise, I’m libel to forget my fuckin manners, right?”
Father Percy simply gaped at Peep. He stood stock still with his mouth hanging wide open, and gaped. Then, finally, he murmured:
“Oh, Altas preserve us.”
Father Percy then turned his back on Peep and Choke both and shuffled away slowly, as though an ill man, following one of his men who was carrying a travel trunk into the keep.
“Fuck. I think I broke him,” Peep said brightly to Choke once the priest was gone.
“I think he was broken long before he ever met you,” Choke answered.
“So, now what?” Peep asked.
“I suppose we go in and have lunch with him.”
“Fuck. I was afraid ye were gonna say that. Okay, hold up, though. I can’t do this shit sober. Let’s head into the stable first,” Peep said.
In the stable, Peep dug a little doeskin pouch out of her saddlebags.
“What’s that?” Choke asked her.
“Earl’s shrooms, man! What, ye forgot about them already?” Peep laughed.
“You mean we didn’t take them all at the tower burning?”
“Of course not. He gave me a shit-tonne of them! I got enough for a good while. So, whad’ye want?” Peep asked happily as she poked around in the bag, plucking out this and that to pop in her mouth.
“I can’t get high now! There’s no way! And you shouldn’t either, Peep. We need our wits about us!” Choke said.
“Okay, maybe you do. I’ll give ye that. But me? No. I need to be tripping balls to handle that guy in there. And if he’s any indication of what we’re heading into at this fuckin Pinewhispers place, whatever the fuck that means, then this is gonna be fuckin hilarious.”
“Well, okay. But please remember to be polite. That whole performance with Father Percy just now was too much.”
“No it wasn’t, Choke. Ye loved it!”
“Well, okay, it was funny. And he deserved it. But you have to rein that in now. I mean it,” Choke said earnestly.
“Yeah. I know that. That’s why I’m fuckin getting high now, man.”
“Well, okay. Just so long as you can manage it.”
“Manage it? Shit, son, I was high as fuck when we killed those spider beasts! I can fuckin carry it with these dipshits, don’t ye worry,” Peep said as she stuck one last little, bright violet mushroom into her mouth.
“You were high when we went into the tower? That was a scouting mission!” Choke said, his anger rising.
Peep stared back at him deadpan for a long measure before she could no longer hold it. She broke out laughing and punched Choke in the shoulder.
“Oh, fuck me, Choke! Ye should see yar face! Classic! Of course I didn’t get high then. I aint a fuckin dumbass! I’m just fuckin with ye.”
“Good! I swear to Stron, Peep, you are set to kill me with stress. Do you know that?”
Peep collapsed into Choke’s side and laughed and laughed. Finally, he could take it no more. Choke threw his arm over her shoulder and laughed with her.
The main hall of the fort’s keep was a suitable enough place for Father Percy’s lunch, but just barely. Father Percy was sitting at the head of the great table drinking wine while his soldier unpacked the travel trunk. The man had laid a clean linen down on the table and was carefully putting out a number of small gowns.
“There you are!” Father Percy bellowed at Peep as she and Choke entered. “Come! You must choose a gown to wear!”
Peep and Choke came over to the table to stand behind the soldier who was finishing laying out a selection of four little gowns. It was more lace and ruffles than Choke had ever seen in one place. Peep began giggling.
“We have heard you were small, Miss Otilla,” Father Percy said, ignoring her amusement. “So I brought along a suitable selection of Lady Hart’s daughters’ old gowns for you to choose from. One of them should fit. Make your selection and go somewhere private to change. Then we can have whatever passes for lunch here before going to Pinewhispers.”
“Yeah… no thanks, Father. I’m good,” Peep said.
“I said, no thank you to the gown, Father. I’m good with what I have on. Thanks, though.”
“Miss Otilla! You most certainly are not good with what you have on!” Father Percy shouted.
Peep giggled some more. “Well, okay then, Father. I’ll take yar word for that. But I still aint putting any of that on. It aint me. I weren’t tapped by an agent of the Holy Host to be Otilla of the Holy Fire because I been living a life where I’m wearing shit like this. If that means I aint good by yar reckoning, then I suppose I can live with that.”
“Miss Otilla! If you think you are going to visit Lady Hart dressed as you are, you are sorely mistaken! I shall not allow it!” Father Percy looked as though he might stand up in his fury, but abandoned the exertion and instead pounded the table with his fist.
“Father Percy,” Peep responded. “If Lady Hart wants to meet me, then I think she should see me as I am. In the state that got me where I am. Not tarted up like some kind of townie hoor. I aint putting any of that on, or anything like it. If that means I aint proper enough to go and see the lady, then so be it.”
“Miss Otilla! How dare you! These are garments that have been worn by the Lord and Lady Hart’s own daughters!”
“Huh? Oh, sorry. I didn’t know that. The only place I ever seen these kinds of outfits was on, you know, professional ladies. Hoors, I mean. But only the real expensive ones in the bigger towns, of course. I didn’t know that noblewomen also dress like that. Sorry.”
It looked for a while like they might lose Father Percy so some form of apoplexy. But he was eventually able to calm down enough to form words:
“I assure you, Miss Otilla, that contrary to your tragically low upbringing and life experience, these garments are perfectly acceptable for young, chaste, genteel women of proper upbringing.”
“Oh. See, I didn’t know that. Live and learn, huh?”
“One hopes. So you will choose a gown to wear,” Father Percy said, stepping on the word, “will,” forcefully.
Peep shook her head. “Nah, sorry. I told ye: I aint putting none of that on. I aint no noblewoman neither, right?”
Father Percy closed his eyes and massaged his temples as he wheezed and gurgled like a kettle.
“Miss Otilla,” he finally managed. “I have told you already that you may not come to Pinewhispers to attend Lady Hart without being properly attired. I have told you this.”
“Yeah, I heard ye, Father. So I guess that’s that, then. Tell the Lady Hart that I’m sorry I can’t visit her like she asked. It was nice meeting ye, Father,” Peep said, giving the priest a deep nod that approximated a bow as she began turning away to leave.
“What?” shouted Father Percy.
“Sorry, is there some magic goodbye words that I’m supposed to say to priests like you? Farewell, yar worship? Something like that?” Peep said, again looking genuinely bewildered by Father Percy. “Sorry, I don’t know. I’ll say what ye need me to say.”
“How dare you! Just where do you think you are going?”
“Well, I guess since this Lady Hart meeting fell through, we’re gonna head to Bristlehump to hook up with Brother Barrelmender now. Right?” Peep glanced over to Choke, who was standing frozen like a statue.
“You will do no such thing! You are to come with me to attend the Lady Hart!”
“Well, okay then, Father. But ye just said I can’t do that, so make up yar mind. And, pardon me, Father, but I don’t think ye have the authority to stop me leaving. But I guess we’ll find out now. So, farewell, yar worship. Please tell the Lady Hart that I’d love to see her if she can manage it without me in a gown. Thanks.”
This time, Peep did turn away after her deep nod. Choke bowed stiffly to Father Percy and followed her towards the exit.
“Halt!” bellowed Father Percy.
Peep kept on walking. Choke glanced back to see how the soldier who had unpacked the case was taking this. He looked disinclined to interfere.
“Halt, I said!” Father Percy shouted again.
Choke winced as he realized he was incapable of disobeying the command.
“Peep,” he said quietly, giving her a bump on the shoulder.
Peep stopped walking and slouched back in a deep sigh with her head lolling.
“Oh, fuck, but this guy is killing me,” she muttered just loudly enough for Choke to hear. “And the shrooms haven’t even fuckin kicked in yet.”
“Well, thank Stron for that, at least. We have to deal with this, Peep,” Choke said.
“Miss Otilla! Come back here this instant!” Father Percy shouted.
Peep turned around and raised her hand to acknowledge the order.
“Who the fuck does this guy think he is?” she whispered aside to Choke.
“The Lady Hart’s personal priest and the Baron Hart’s official historian. I imagine he has also been tutor to their children, if he has been in service to them long enough,” Choke whispered back in her ear. “He has the ear of the Lady. And she has that of the Baron. And we saw what happens to those that displease them.”
“Yeah, well, we’re in a different canoe than Alan and his boys,” Peep whispered back.
“And let’s try to keep it that way,” Choke returned.
“Enough of this conspiring!” Father Percy shouted. “Come here at once.”
Peep and Choke obeyed and came back to stand in front of Father Percy. Choke did so smartly at attention. Peep restlessly shifted her weight from one foot to the other as she rubbed her palms together.
“Miss Otilla! What are we to do with you? This attitude of yours is completely unacceptable! It is incomprehensible to me that a jink dressed up as a Brother of the Holy Stone is the voice of reason for a holy vessel of one of Stron’s agents.”
“And yet, that’s how it is, Father,” Peep said with a smirk.
“You will not wear a gown. In this you remain obdurate,” Father Percy said.
“Yeah, that’s right, Father.”
“So you would have me compel you to do so,” said Father Percy, his tone becoming menacing (or, at least, what he considered to be such).
Peep stared thoughtfully at Father Percy, meeting his eye squarely as she continued to rub her hands together. Then she put her thumb tips together and held her open palms towards the priest of Altas with her fingers splayed wide. The Wheels of Stron vibrated the air in front of them as though they were emitting a great deal of heat. Standing off to the side of them, Choke very much suspected that they were.
Whether or not Father Percy was aware of what Peep was capable of doing with those brands, there was no doubting the menace she intended by the gesture.
“So, yar gonna compel me to wear a dress, are ye? I’m not sure what ye think that means, Father,” Peep said calmly as Father Percy trembled in front of her like a pudding in a carriage. “But let’s say I force ye to make good on that threat. Let’s say ye call in yar men and ye have them try to lay their hands on me. And let’s say that they’re able to kill Bartholomew here. And that they’re able to pin me. And then that they strip me naked and force me into one of yar dresses here. Let’s say all that all goes yar way, Father.”
Peep dropped her hands to hitch her thumbs into her weaponbelt as she continued to stare at the priest. After a long pause, she continued:
“So, let’s say ye manage all of that, and yar able to drag me in front of the Lady Hart in one of those pretty frocks. Now ye need to think about what comes next. Whad’ye think she’s gonna do about it, once I have my say? Whad’ye think Father Morrenthall will do, once he hears about it? How are the good Stronian folk in these parts gonna feel about Otilla of the Holy Fire being so abused by a priest of Altas? Now, I don’t know how that all plays out. After all, I’m just bandit scum from Pekot. So if ye think that’s all gonna go yar way, then make yar move, Father.”
Peep continued to stare coldly at Father Percy, who continued to quiver in a mortified blend of fear, rage, and embarrassment. He no longer made any effort to meet her eye.
“Okay then. I’m glad we understand each other, Father. You have yar lunch. Me and Bartholomew are gonna go and find Nikolas and Theodas and we’ll eat with them. Scum like us should stick with our own kind, after all. Once yar all set, we’ll come along with ye to Pinewhispers, if that’s what ye want. And if that doesn’t work for ye, we’ll be off to Bristlehump to report to Brother Barrelmender. It’s yar call, Father. But do know that however ye decide to play this, it aint gonna be quiet. Whatever happens, everybody’s gonna hear of it. That’s just how things play these days with me. Everybody talks. Alright, thank ye, Father. We’ll see ye soon, I guess.”
With this, Peep bowed smartly and properly to Father Percy and left the keep’s hall. Choke hesitated just a second before doing the same.
The ride to the Lady Hart’s residence of Pinewhispers with Father Percy and his six horsemen was an awkward one for everyone except Peep. Father Percy’s mount was a huge, placid thing that should have been pulling a farm cart. His saddle was more a reinforced easy chair strapped to the draft horse’s back. Even so, it was immediately obvious that the contrivance was in no way comfortable for the priest. His legs dangled uselessly to either side of his mount, supporting none of his great weight, and every step jarred him as he swayed around up top, holding on for dear life.
Pinewhispers turned out to be a lovely, rustic mansion inside a large fortified compound. As with the Spitzer fort, the outer wall and its towers were all made of wood. Like the fort, the lumber had all been sawn properly into squared beams and boards. The whole effect looked smart, if not as impressive and sturdy as a stone fortification.
Through the main gate in the external wall, they rode into a nicely kept garden to the large stables. The mansion was two stories, with a wide, four-story tower. It’s first floor was made of rounded river stones stacked up and mortared together, and its front presented itself with an attractive face of glass windows.
In rough, forested, hilly country, Pinewhispers was situated at the top of one of the bigger hills. This afforded it a lovely view of the surrounding hills and valleys. As the squad took this all in from the stables, a wind rose to them up the valley, rushing through the stands of mature pines surrounding the outer walls.
Two of the soldiers helped Father Percy off his mount as stablehands jumped to take the squad’s horses from them. Having almost crushed one of the soldiers in his uncontrolled descent from his horse, Father Percy launched a performance of agony even more effusive than his first at the fort. By the time he had finished, the horses had all been taken to the stables, and only one soldier remained, standing smartly nearby with the travel trunk in hand.
Father Percy looked over Peep and her men in profound despair.
“Oh, Altas, heavenly father, why do you flog me so? Have I not been your humble servant? Have I not been a good priest to you? Why have you sent such agents of your son to punish me? The physical torment of straddling that wretched horse does only prick the senses for the deeper indignity and torture of being forced to present these specimens to our Lady. How could you have allowed your son to select such as these? Oh, Altas, how you do test me this day.”
Slumping like some great, spent candle guttering in its pools of excess wax, Father Percy looked set to weep.
Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle all shuffled awkwardly in front of him, staring at the ground. Now profoundly high, Peep was standing like a child, gazing up at Father Percy with her eyes wide and full of wonder, a beatific grin upon her face.
“You mock me, Otilla,” Father Percy finally said, as he noticed her expression towards him. “You would rub salt into the wounds you have struck my soul. You Stronian killers, with your fire and blood and iron. Are none to be spared your cruelties?”
“I dunno, Father,” Peep answered. “That’s a toughie! I suppose for someone like you, Father, having to spend time with people like us must be a torture. Definitely just as bad as being burned alive for praying to the hoor moon demon.”
“Now to the vinegar, Otilla? Yes, I suppose to you I must seem pathetically weak in my sensibilities.”
Peep shrugged. “I don’t know what that means, Father. I guess if yar saying that ye must seem weak to me because having to ride to town and back and talk to some scum people is torture for ye on the same level as moon witches getting burned alive; well, then, I guess that you said it, not me. Father.”
Father Percy gaped at Peep.
“What are you?” he finally asked.
“I dunno, Father. You tell me. This is yar show here, aint it? We’re waiting on you to take us in to see the Lady Hart. Yar the boss of us here, right?”
“And yet, Otilla, you keep speaking to me as though you are my equal. You bait me, woman! With your smug inferences and sharp glances you mock and bait me at every turn!” Father Percy said, finally getting a hold of himself sufficiently to puff himself up.
“I’m sorry if that’s how it seems to ye, Father,” Peep said, her smile never fading.
“How it seems?” Father Percy yelled. “How it seems! Your every nuance seethes contempt!”
Peep seemed thoughtful at this. Then she shrugged. “Yeah, Father. Okay.”
“Okay? Okay, what?”
“Okay, yar right, Father. If contempt means that I don’t got any respect for ye, then, that’s right. Sorry. Father,” Peep said matter-of-factly, adding the honorific quite late as an afterthought.
“How dare you! You think that because Father Morrenthall has gone to the Bishop about you, that you can treat me with this disrespect? I am a priest of Altas! I shall write to the Bishop myself and inform him of you!”
“That’s okay,” Peep said, her smile even wider now.
“How dare you!”
“I dunno, Father. I just do. Look, ye tell us to speak when we’re spoken to, and to sit in the stables like animals when the Lady is done with us. And then—”
“I told you no such thing, Otilla!” Father Percy interrupted.
“Ye didn’t? Well, okay, Father. Ye said that to them three,” she gestured to the lads, who were staring at her completely horrorstruck. “But, ye may as well have said it to me, Father. I mean, all three of them are better than me, right? They grew up with the ravens, learning to read, and all the Stron stuff, and they know how to behave, mostly, and they’re good. And me, well, it’s obvious what I am. So anything that ye said to them applies to me double.”
“You are Otilla of the Holy Fire,” Father Percy said, as much reminding himself of the fact as he was Peep.
“Yeah, that’s right. So, anyways, Father, ye tell us to speak when we’re spoken to and then ye get mad at me when I answer ye. So make up yar mind. Tell me to shut up and I’ll shut up. Ye tell me to answer ye, then that’s what I’ll do. But ye can’t make me take ye seriously. Father.”
“You are a Holy Vessel! I am a priest of Altas, of the household of Lord and Lady Hart!”
“Yeah. And the sky is blue, and water is wet. What’s that got to do about anything? Listen, Father, I’m a holy vessel, like ye say, because something got into me through the Holy Fire of the sword in my baptism. Right? Whad’ye think that was?”
“I do not know. But, Altas preserve us, seeing you, whom it chose to be its agent, I fear it heralds the days of Stron come again,” Father Percy said quietly, clutching at his Sun holy symbol.
“Yeah, I guess that would scare ye, wouldn’t it? Father,” Peep said, pausing now to contemplate the Wheel brands in her hands, her eyes wide with pupils fully dilated. “Wooooah… yeah. It chose me. And it told Father Morrenthall about what’s coming, and what he had to do about it. And it rises up in me, in moments, and tells me things. Tells me about people and what to do about them. And it helps me get that done.”
Trembling now, seeing the spirit Peep was speaking of bubbling beneath her surface, Father Percy realized that his fear was but in its infancy.
“What does the spirit tell you of me, Otilla?” he asked, his voice now that of a frightened child.
Peep looked at him squarely and took a long moment to drink him in again, from top to bottom. Then she shrugged.
“Nothing,” she said without feeling. “It’s telling me nothing about ye, Father. Why would ye matter to it? Ye aint a threat to nothing that matters. And ye aint gonna be any help against what’s coming.”
In the moment when Peep’s words landed, something did break deep down inside Father Percy. It was plain for all to see.
“So, Father, are ye gonna take us to see the Lady Hart now? Or… what?” Peep asked with cold finality.