The Children of Stron – Part 65

Table of Contents (spoilers)

read part 64

The Lady Hart received her guests in her sitting room. The space was pleasantly appointed with comfortable furniture arranged in a lounge around a wide, low table, near a large fireplace. Set away from this was a music corner, with a lute in a stand and a small harp. The walls were decorated with tapestries, mostly of religious themes. Three, large, glass-paned windows afforded a lovely view of the hills to the south. Two of the windows were presently open to allow in a pleasant spring breeze that bore with it the soothing sound of its passing through the nearby trees.

Father Percy and the squad were shown to the sitting room by Pinewhispers’ butler. When he opened the double doors from the foyer, he announced in a loud, clear voice:

“Lady Hart and Miss Rebecca, I present to you Miss Otilla of the Holy Fire and her men, Bartholomew, Theodas, and Nikolas, graduates of the Brothers of the Holy Stone school in Pekot. And our own Father Percy, come from Spitzer fort to fetch them.”

Father Percy gave the butler a deep scowl as he stumbled past him to collapse into a settee near an open window, sliding it across the floor with a loud scrape as his weight crashed down into it.

Ignoring her priest, the Lady Hart stood up to greet her guests, along with her daughter at her side. The lady was a tall, handsome woman in middle-age, dressed in a conservative black gown. Her daughter, the young lady Rebecca Hart, was about seventeen and fetchingly attired in a light-blue gown that, while perfectly chaste in its cut, was fitted in such a way as to give ample suggestion of her physical charms as she filled it out.

“Otilla. Bartholomew. Theodas. Nikolas. How very lovely it is to finally meet you!” Lady Hart beamed at them as her daughter quivered beside her in a show of frightened excitement at the sight of both Otilla of the Holy Fire and her Scythan battle monk.

Peep and the lads all bowed to them both. Behind them, the butler shut the doors and took up station nearby.

“Please have a seat,” Lady Hart said, gesturing to the table. “May I offer you something to drink? I recommend our thistleberry wine. I have it cut with pure spring water from our garden here, and infused with fresh mint and other herbs. It is quite refreshing on a hot day such as this.”

“Thank you, my lady. That would be wonderful,” Choke said as he, Knuckle, and Pinch moved to sit down.

They had, of course, given over all their shoulder-mounted weapons to be kept in the stables, such as Knuckle’s greatsword and Pinch and Peep’s bowcases and quivers, but they still had their sidearms. Choke got himself tangled up with his longsword as he tried to move between a sofa and the table to take his seat. He almost fell down getting himself free, and Knuckle had to steady him.

“I… I’m sorry, my lady,” Choke stammered.

Lady Hart smiled pleasantly and gestured for him to sit. She then noticed that Peep had yet to make a move.

Peep was standing just as she had been when she straightened up from her bow, with her hands tightly gripping her breeches at her sides. Her eyes were wide and she had a frozen expression like a person in the sudden throes of gastronomic distress heralding an imminent colon evacuation.

“Miss Otilla?” Lady Hart said, looking amused. “Are you quite alright?”

“Huh?” Peep said, blinking rapidly.

“Would you care to take a seat, Miss Otilla?” Lady Hard said patiently, gesturing to the finest easy chair with the best view out the windows.

“Thank ye,” Peep bowed her head as she scampered to sit.

Lady Hart turned to her maid, who was hovering behind them:

“The thistleberry wine for all, please, Sarah. And the cakes. Thank you.”

With the guests becoming situated, it seemed Father Percy had recovered enough to reclaim a semblance of his earlier manner and sense of self.

“Lady Hart,” he harumphed from his settee off to the side, “it is my shame to report to you that I failed in my mission today, as you can see.”

The Lady Hart smiled into a middle distance with private amusement before turning to Father Percy.

“I am sure I do not know what you mean, Father Percy. What mission might that be?”

“To make sure that these agents of Stron are brought before you in appropriate attire, of course! So as to not sully the respectability of your home, my lady!”

“Well, seeing as that was entirely an undertaking of your own initiative, I hardly think you need call it a mission. In fact, you needn’t have bothered, Father. They all seem perfectly acceptable to me,” Lady Hart said mildly, looking away from her priest to give Peep a little conspiratorial wink.

“Perfectly acceptable? Lady Hart, Otilla of the Holy Flame sits before you, in your husband’s own chair, dressed as a bandit! Pardon me, my lady, but that is in no way acceptable!”

“Oh, stop being such a fuddy-duddy, Father. How would you have her dressed? She was, after all, until very recently, a bandit, was she not? No offence intended, of course, Miss Otilla. But that is correct, is it not?”

“Huh?” Peep said, wrenching her gaze away from whatever phantasms had been occupying her.

“You were, until very recently, a bandit yourself, Miss Otilla. Were you not?” Lady Hart asked her.

“Oh. Uhhh… no?” Peep said warily, glancing Choke’s way as she did.

“Oh, come now, Miss Otilla, you needn’t play the innocent with me. I understand that you were a captive of this Stag Orcstabber and his cohort. But, previous to this, you were tied up with Tom Rackham, were you not?”

“Uhh… yeah. But that was, uhhh… ye know, not, ahhh, not a real kinda thing, ye know?” Peep said.

“No. I have no idea of what you are babbling on about, child,” Lady Hart said, amused, as she looked intently at Peep, analyzing her again; this time in terms of her mental state. It took a few seconds, but she soon figured it out.

“So, about your attire, Miss Otilla,” Lady Hart said.

“Yeah? What?”

“The wolfhead cloak. That was Orcstabber’s, was it not?”

“Yeah. I claimed that from killing him. Along with this,” Peep said, drawing the buck knife. “Oh, sorry,” she said, sheathing it quickly as she noticed how everyone except Lady Hart had become alarmed and tense.

“That’s quite alright, Otilla. Is that the knife you killed him with?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“May I see it?” Lady Hart asked, gesturing to her butler at the double-doors to get it for her.

Peep drew the knife again and handed it to the butler, who brought it over to Lady Hart across the table. The lady handled the weapon as any warrior might, as she looked it over carefully, giving it a few little swings and shakes to test its weight.

“Thank you,” she said as she handed it back to the butler, who then returned it to Peep. “A fine weapon, and a worthy trophy of your kill.”

“Yeah, thanks. And he was my first kill, actually,” Peep said.

“You don’t say? Is that the truth?”

“Yeah. He was my first human. Before that, it was all animals, with a couple of goblin scrapes.”

“Back when you were a bandit with Tom Rackham, you mean,” Lady Hart said with a sly smile.

“Yeah. I mean, no. I mean… I dunno.”

“Miss Otilla. If I might ask anything of you, may it be that you not treat me as though I am some sort of sheltered simpleton? I get quite enough of that already,” Lady Hart said, casting a sharp look Father Percy’s way. He did not notice, lounging back as he was, with his eyes closed and a miserable look on his glistening face.

“That leather armor you are wearing, Miss Otilla,” Lady Hart continued.

“Yeah? What about it?”

“Well, it is awfully small, is it not? Not for you, obviously. For a person your size, it is just right, I should think. But, in general, it is a very small suit of armor.”


“It looks well worn-in. You’ve had that armor since your Tom Rackham days, have you not?”

“Yeah. So?”

“So, where did you get it?”

“Yeah, okay, then. This was made for me by one of Rackham’s guys,” Peep said.

“Indeed. And are bandits prone to making armor for their captives or camp followers? I should think not. Otilla, you need not hide the truth from me. I am not seeking to harm you with it. I would just know your story as fully as I can,” Lady Hart said, leaning forward towards Peep warmly.

“Well, yeah, okay. I wasn’t just a nobody there. So I guess that would make me a bandit. In those days. These days, I kill them,” Peep said earnestly.

“And how glad we all are for that! But you say the first human you killed was Stag Orcstabber,” Lady Hart said.

“Yeah. That’s right. Oh. My lady,” Peep said, finally remembering her manners.

“It’s quite alright, Otilla. I think, between ourselves, we may dispense with the formalities.”


“You need not worry about calling me by any titles, is what I mean, child. I have a good sense of your heart, and I expect trying to keep track of the formalities must be taxing for you. Particularly in the state you presently find yourself in. Ah! Here are our refreshments. Thank you, Sarah.”

They waited as the first maid, and another new one, brought in two large ceramic jugs, silver goblets for all, and a platter of cakes. They set up a little table for Father Percy next to his settee. He was now snoring softly with his head lolled over.

When they had all been served, the Lady Hart raised her goblet in a toast:

“To the four of you, and your auspicious start as warriors of our faith! May Altas and Stron continue to bless you in future!”

The thistleberry wine was as lovely as Lady Hart had promised.

“Woah! It’s cold!” Peep exclaimed as she tasted hers. “It is cold, isn’t it?” she asked aside to Pinch.

“Yes, it is, Otilla,” Lady Hart answered her. “We chill it. Up here, ice in winter is something we have no lack of. We are able to maintain a fine cold cellar right through to autumn when it ceases to be necessary.”

Lady Hart then sighed and looked sharply over at Father Percy, who had failed to rouse himself during the toast.

“Father Percy!” Lady Hart said tersely.

“Yes! My lady?” Father Percy said, shaking himself awake and siting up somewhat.

“If you are quite able, I would appreciate it if you could attend to your duties now,” Lady Hart said.

“My duties, my lady?” Father Percy said, looking confused and frightened.

“As our historian, Father. Why did you think I asked you to attend this meeting? We have here Otilla of the Holy Fire, as well as her three men from the Pekot school. We shall now be hearing their stories. Indeed, this has begun already, as you lazed in your convalescence. Yes? As historian here, I would hope this would be of some interest to you. But, even if it is not, I would ask you to focus on it now, as we shall be wanting their stories set down upon parchment immediately. Do you require anything to take notes, Father?”

Rebuked, Father Percy flushed and quivered in indignation.

“No, my lady. I shall remember everything exact,” he answered quickly.

“Good. See that you do. Now, Otilla, you were saying: Stag Orcstabber was the first human you killed.”

As Otilla answered, and Lady Hart’s attention pivoted away from him, Father Percy slouched despondently. He perked up a little, though, as he noticed the sweating goblet of wine and the plate of little cakes that had been served on the small table next to him. He set to obliterating them as he lent an ear to the continuing interview.

“Very good, Otilla,” Lady Hart went on. “Now, in Tom Rackham’s bunch, what was it exactly that you did for them?”

“Well, uhhh… like I said, it wasn’t killing, or anything like that. I was hooked up with Oggy Lightfoot and his little crew.”

“Oggy Lightfoot, you say? I haven’t heard of him. Are you getting this, Father?” Lady Hart asked.

“Indeed, my lady. Oggy Lightfoot!” Father Percy said through a mouthful of cake.

“So, Otilla, now I feel we are getting somewhere!” Lady Hart said, her eyes bright and happy as she leaned forward towards Peep. “This Oggy Lightfoot: what was it that he did for Tom Rackham, then?”

“Well, we all did it in our crew,” Peep said, responding to the Lady’s warmth. “Hunting, mostly. Also trapping. Ye know, to keep everyone fed. And in furs. That, and tracking and scouting and the like. Woodcraft stuff.”

“Sounds important. Scouts are the eyes and ears of any military force, bandit or otherwise. Now, this Lightfoot, how was he to you. He wasn’t your father, now was he?”

Peep shook her head. “No. I never knew my father. Or my mother, really. Lightfoot was okay. He noticed me skulking around his camp, trying to steal what food I could. He said I had a gift for sneaking and the like. He’s the one that named me, Peep.”

“That’s right! Your bandit handle was Peep, yes?”

“Yeah. Still is. I mean, Peep is what my friends call me,” Peep said, gesturing to the lads sitting with her. “I guess it’s who I really am.”

“Right. And this Lightfoot, how was he as a mentor to you?”

Peep shrugged. “He was alright, I guess. Bit heavy with his hand, at times, but only when I deserved it. And never went too far with it, I guess. Taught me everything I know. How to fight, shoot a bow, and hunt and track. He’s the one that made me this armor.”

“So, how long were you with him, Otilla?” Lady Hart asked.

“Years. I suppose I was about eight or ten when he took me on.”

“And how old are you now?”

“I guess about twenty, or so.”

“So that’s a long time. Quite the father figure to you, he was. What became of him,” asked Lady Hart.

“He killed him,” Peep said calmly, gesturing towards Choke.

Already in a hyperalert and tense state, Choke almost started out of his seat at this revelation.

“What?” Choke asked.

“Really!” Lady Hart exclaimed. “Bartholomew here killed your mentor, Otilla? Did you know this, Bartholomew?”

“No, Lady Hart, I did not. Otilla has never spoken of any of this,” Choke answered, doing his best to hide how upset he was.

Peep shrugged. “Well, it’s not like talking about it is gonna change things, one way or another.”

“That may be, but I think we should hear all about it now, for the sake of your history, Otilla,” Lady Hart said.

“Yeah, well, like I said, we was hooked up with Rackham. Oggy and me and a few others, I mean. And Sir Gareth was hunting us down for the lord.”

“Captain Gareth, also a knight of the realm, under Count Vallent,” Lady Hart interjected for her daughter’s benefit.

“Yeah, I guess. So they had us holed up in one of the holler camps and hit us a full day faster than we thought they could. Attacked before dawn. Oggy and me and some others managed to get out of camp through a little crick through a tight ravine, just with the clothes on our back. This bunch caught us coming out of that. They had one other guy with them, though. A horseman, just like Bartholomew here.”

“Who is that?” Lady Hart asked Choke.

He coughed. “A fellow of ours at the school, my lady. His name is Dungar. He was selected to join the brotherhood and was sent to train at the Academy in Goettingen.”

“Why is this story familiar to me?” Lady Hart asked the room at large, with her eyes unfocused.

Father Percy cleared his throat.  “A… hhhrrrmmm…” he gave another pointed throat clear, “he is a relative, of sorts, to the Count Vallent, my lady.”

“Ah. Yes,” Lady Hart smiled. Then she turned to her daughter: “The young man in question is the bastard son of the Count, sired with one of the Lady’s own handmaidens.”

“Lady Hart,” harumphed Father Percy, “I hardly thing that Miss Rebecca should be exposed to such indelicate matters!”

“Oh, don’t be a fool, Father. She is to be married, next year if not this, and shall be a lady herself. She should understand the nature of things before then, don’t you think? But enough about that. Otilla, you had said that Bartholomew here killed your mentor Oggy Lightfoot. Tell us about that, if you please.”

“Yeah, well, anyways, we got out of the crick and were completely exhausted and they jacked us in a little field. Bartholomew rode up and ran Oggy through with his lance. Then he chased me back into the crick and killed Kerl there before letting me go.”

“Interesting. And what prompted you to do that, Bartholomew? Letting her go, I mean,” Lady Hart asked.

“Well, Lady Hart, I’m not so sure. At the time I thought that it was just because I noticed that she was a girl and foolishly took pity on her, even though she was armed. I was chastised by Brother Willem for it when I confessed. But, now, I’m not so sure why I spared her.”

“Indeed? Do you feel, perhaps, that you were moved by some spirit?”

“Perhaps, my lady. I can’t be sure, though.”

“I think that, with everything else that came to happen, that you most definitely were. And how blessed we all are for it! Praise Altas and Stron.”

“Amen,” everyone else intoned, with Peep and the lads tracing the Wheel over their breasts.

“So, Otilla, after this narrow escape from justice, what happened?” Lady Hart asked.

“Well, I was in the bush roughing it without even a bow. That’s when Stag Orcstabber and another one got their hooks into me,” Peep said, barely restraining an impulse to spit on the floor.

“I think we understand all too well how that went for you,” Lady Hart said gently. “I heard from Sheriff Waters of the wounds you delivered Orcstabber, so we may leave it at that, if you wish. Suffice it to say, he brought you to Goldy’s hideout outside of Splitrock. Yes?”

“Yeah. Then down to town here for supplies and getting word on some potential jobs. We was in the Busted Unicorn when these three wandered in and I recognized them. When they got kicked out, on account of Bartholomew being a jink and all, I slipped out and went to have a word.”

From this point, Peep and Choke, with a few illustrative interjections from Pinch, went on to tell the rest of their story. As they spoke, Father Percy, who had finished all of the cakes that had been provided on his private table, gestured for the maid. He quietly directed her to get him more cake from the large supply at the main table, which had only been lightly foraged by the rest of the company. As the maid moved to comply, Lady Hart waylaid her with an irritated swipe of her hand.

“Pardon me,” Lady Hart said to Choke, whom she had interrupted. “Father Percy, is it quite necessary for you to abuse yourself further with what has been set out for our guests?”

“Well! My lady, I am quite sure that—” Father Percy started, puffing himself up indignantly.

“I am quite sure that you are quite sure of yourself, Father. But that may be part of your problem. Yes? And more cake may not be the answer. I suspect, Father, that if you were not quite so fat, you would not find a simple ride to town and back so taxing. You look terrible! Entirely spent! I have to say, I am quite worried about you, Father,” Lady Hart finished.

Miss Rebecca met Peep’s eye and the two of them shared a mischievous giggle.

“I assure you, Lady Hart, that I am in no way so diminished!”

“Well, I am relieved, Father. If that’s the case, then please do indulge yourself with one more piece. Sarah,” Lady Hart said, turning back to her maid, “you may serve Father Percy one more piece of cake. Thank you. Now, Bartholomew, you were saying?”

When the story of the squad’s adventures had all been told, Lady Hart went on to quickly ask Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle of their upbringing in the Pekot school. By the time this was finished, it was late afternoon.

Looking quite satisfied, Lady Hart leaned back in her easy chair and looked out the window for a while, lost in thought.

“Well!” she finally declared. “I think that was splendid! What adventures you all have had! And that is enough for now. Otilla, I would be honored if you would spend the night here with us. We have prepared a fine dinner for you all. Now, I am sure you would like to take a rest and refresh yourselves before then. So, young brothers, Gordon shall show you to your quarters,” she gestured to the butler, who bowed smartly. “Rebecca, could you help Miss Otilla, as our most honored guest?” she asked her daughter.

Father Percy cleared his throat again.

“Yes, Father? What is it this time?”

“Well, my lady, I must report that I instructed the three young men that they would be staying in the stables when you were done with them. Miss Otilla took exception to that and said that she would not go anywhere without that one there by her side,” he gestured towards Choke as though he were an insect.

“Well! I should hope she did take exception, Father! The stables indeed! They are not animals! They may retire to the barracks for the night, of course!”

“Very well, my lady. That is suitable enough for their type, I suppose. But an invitation to dinner in the house? Are you quite sure of yourself?” Father Percy quivered.

“Yes, indeed, I very much am. What has gotten into you, Father? Honestly! These lads, all three, are graduates of a Brothers of the Holy Stone school. They are warriors of the faith! And they have conducted themselves here as perfect gentlemen. Who could be more suitable?”

“I do not know, my Lady. I suppose next we shall be hosting goat herders from the Moondark hills,” Father Percy muttered.

Lady Hart fixed her priest with a hard gaze that took him a long moment to notice. When he did, he withered under it.

“Well, then,” Lady Hart finally said. “I think, Father, that today was obviously far too taxing for you. So, as long as we’re putting everyone in their place: Father Percy, you may retire to the chapel, or your room, if you so desire. I expect that, given your ordeal, you shall find attending dinner tonight far too much for you. I shall have a plate sent to you. Please do get some rest tonight. Tomorrow you shall need to be hard at it, writing the history of Otilla of the Holy Fire and her men, precisely as it was told. I do hope that you are up to the task. I shall check on your progress tomorrow evening. Yes?”

“My Lady?”

“You may go, Father Percy. I shall see you tomorrow evening and see how your work is progressing. Thank you,” Lady Hart said, giving him a dismissive wave.

Pale and shocked, Father Percy laboriously dragged himself up from the settee. He nodded deeply to Lady Hart, and moved out the double-doors the butler, Gordon, opened for him. The priest moved painfully, as though one of his hips had seized: swinging his stiff right leg under him in an awkward, swaying gate.

“What a tiresome, pompous man he is,” Lady Hart said before the doors had quite been shut behind him. “I do apologize for whatever offense he may have given.”

“It was nothing, my Lady,” Choke said for all of them.

“Well, thank you for that, Bartholomew. I expect you have been subjected to worse, on account of your race. And there are men to hate everywhere.”

“Ye got that right, my Lady,” Peep chuckled.

“Now, I think it is past time we let you take a rest yourselves. Gordon, please show the young men to the barracks. Make sure they are comfortable. Thank you.”

As Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle rose to follow the butler out, Peep raised her hand.

“Yes, Otilla,” asked Lady Hart.

“Sorry, my Lady. But Father was right about one thing, there. I did say I can’t go nowhere without Bartholomew. Maybe I should sleep in the barracks with them tonight?”

Lady Hart laughed. “I am sorry, Otilla, but that is quite out of the question. I will not have you, our most honored guest, staying in the barracks. And, good lads these may be, but I am afraid they are not proper members of a religious order, nor men-at-arms under anyone’s orders. So any of them staying in the house with us is entirely impossible. I assure you: they shall be quite comfortable in the barracks. And you shall be quite safe with us in the house here. Pinewhispers is well guarded. So, lads, go with Gordon, please. We shall call you to dinner in just under three hours, I expect. I prefer eating a little later. Rebecca, please take care of Otilla as we discussed. Thank you.”

Lady Hart stood up to nod deeply to her guests as everyone hopped to their assignments. Thoroughly overrun by the Lady, Peep accepted her authority and followed Rebecca out of the sitting room.

read part 66

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