The Children of Stron – part 67

Table of Contents – (spoilers)

read part 66

Dinner was a surreal affair. True to her word, Rebecca was able to manage herself perfectly well, and if her mother noticed her altered state, she chose not to acknowledge it. Peep, however, was even more scattered than she had been before.

Lady Hart and her entire household (minus Father Percy) were delighted by Peep’s costume. Indeed, the cook came out of her kitchen and got all misty about it, declaring that it looked as though the twelve-year-old Master Hart had been returned to them through a portal of time.

Of course, Peep had strapped her weaponbelt on overtop the doublet, which was a perfect match. She spent much of her time at dinner stroking its hilt as she warily kept her eye on whatever hallucinations were floating around overtop the table. Fortunately, she seemed incapable of speech, and the Lady Hart was content to leave her be.

Dinner itself was splendid. While its essentially rustic fair would not have impressed any noble visitors, it was well beyond anything the Lady’s guests had ever experienced. Peep ate almost nothing, with her one attempt being a meat pastry that she chewed on for over ten minutes with an expression as though it were a hunk of shoe. Rebecca picked at this or that, and managed to make her performance appear natural as a young woman minding her figure.

However, Knuckle, Pinch, and even Choke (once he settled down enough) ate enough for everyone. Knuckle eagerly raised his hand for seconds, and even thirds, at every pass. Good wine flowed, and Knuckle and Pinch both drank deep. A comfortable silence descended over the table as everyone there enjoyed whatever it was they were up to.

Finally, Peep spat the hunk of pastry she had been chewing onto her plate. Oblivious to everyone watching her, she worked her tongue around in her mouth like a cow as she smacked her lips. Eventually Peep recalled what drinking was, and rinsed her mouth out with some wine, which she spat back out into the goblet. Then she eased back in her chair, where she spent the next few minutes staring at the brands in her palms.

After dessert had been served, Lady Hart finally spoke:

“So, Bartholomew, having returned from your adventures in Callic, what are your plans?”

“My Lady. I think our plan is to go to Bristlehump and offer our services to Brother Barrelmender there. Brother Willem, of the Pekot school, wrote him—” Choke stopped dead as Peep suddenly sat bolt upright in her chair like a startled rabbit.

“What am I doing here?” Peep asked.

Lady Hart laughed. “I am sure none of us have the foggiest notion, child. Do you mean at this very moment, or more generally?”

“I mean here, at this Pinewhispers place. Why am I here?” Peep said, looking to Lady Hart with eyes as earnest as a child’s.

“Well, Otilla, I suppose that the simple answer is that you chose to come here. Specifically, that you and your lads chose to respond to my invitation. And I must say, we are so happy that you did.”

“Right. Ye invited us. And that’s because…” Peep drifted off.

“You are Otilla of the Holy Fire. And you brought several notorious bandits to justice, and slew the evil of the Old Mill in Callic,” Lady Hart answered patiently, as a mother would her child.

“Right. Yeah. So why am I going to Bristlehump?”

“I do not know that. I suppose it is because it is the plan of your fellows: Bartholomew, Theodas, and Nikolas. But, just to stir the pot a little, if I may,” Lady Hart said to everyone, before turning her full attention back to Peep: “Is that what you want, Otilla?”


“Is going to serve the Brothers of the Holy Stone under Brother Barrelmender in Bristlehump what you want?” asked Lady Hart.

“I don’t know,” Peep answered ponderously.

“I understand. That is a question that is quite terrifying when fully considered. The birds of the forest go where they will and do what they want. They have the freedom to. The rest of us confine our choices within the limits of whatever freedom is allowed to us by the circumstances of our birth and situation. A Baroness I may be, but I am not free to do whatever I please. My every action must be weighed against duty and obligation. However, I will grant that this is a great deal more agreeable for me than for, say, one of my maids. I have a great deal more freedom than her, is what I mean. Do you understand, Otilla?” Lady Hart asked.

“Yeah. I guess so. We all gotta do what we gotta do. And yar maid has a lot more that she gotta do than you do. Right?”

“Exactly! And this is so because our Father in the heavens, Altas, praise him, has seen fit to place my soul in its place and my maid’s soul in hers. Just as the warhorse has its place, and the chickens in the coop have theirs. Now, most of us, almost everyone, in fact, have no need to find our place. It is made clear to us before we are even old enough to question where we might find ourselves. We are born into it. A person having the freedom to go where they will and do whatever they want is a horrible fate. For it means that they have no people, no community, to provide the role for them to serve in. It is this freedom that leads to the wickedness of men such as Tom Rakham, and Goldy, and your Stag Orcstabber.”

“Okay, yeah. I get that. But, when I was running with them, I never had no choice in the big decisions, right? It was always some big man doing the deciding,” Peep said.

“Precisely, Otilla! You had your place within that community. You did your duty as you were trained to do by your mentor, Oggy Lightfoot. You had a place. And it was chosen for you. That is only natural and right. It is why Altas, and Stron, praise them, so readily welcomed you into our fold.”

“But we kill them bandits, right? They’re evil, aren’t they?”

“I should say so. And, having suffered under their yoke, I am quite sure you understand that better than most. And, so, it was quite right for Bartholomew to kill your mentor, Oggy. And it was quite right for Brother Willem to chastise him for sparing you. For in your roles then, you were functioning as agents of evil. And why was that, Otilla?”

Peep thought long and hard about this, her brow furrowed deeply. Lady Hart waited patiently.

“Because the big men we were following were evil,” Peep finally said.

“Precisely. The warhorse ridden by the righteous is an agent of good and righteousness. The horse ridden by a man of evil, through no fault of its own, must still be slain to bring that man down. So, Otilla, what is at the heart of all this? What is the lesson that I am leading you to?”

“I guess… don’t be evil.”

“Indeed. And why is it that you now must take this to heart?”

“Because I have the freedom to choose now,” Peep said, her face and bearing opening up as the bright light of deep understand spread through her like a sunrise.

“Exactly!” Lady Hart said, thumping the table excitedly as she leaned in close to Peep. “Exactly! You have the freedom to choose! These marks of Stron…”

Lady Hart reached out to grasp both of Peep’s hands to touch the brands. She gasped as she did, and straightened as a pulse of energy surged up her arms and into her core. Lady Hart let Peep’s hands drop and took a long moment with her eyes closed.

“Oh my,” she finally managed. “Oh, I am so sorry, Otilla.”

“Yeah. Heavy, aint it?” Peep said quietly.

“Indeed it is, child. Indeed it is. I understand now why you were chosen by this thing inside you.”

Lady Hart went silent again for a while. When she again spoke it was more contemplative than before, with her voice drifting as she thought out loud more for her own sake than anyone else’s:

“I have long pondered the nature of Stron within our faith. Altas, the sun: a being of such benevolence and love. His light provides all. And yet he sends his son, Stron, to do his bidding upon Aern. And what violence and horror did he wreak. I know, for it is written in the Holy Scripture, that this is as it must be. That Stron’s works upon this mortal plane were just and right under the eyes of his Father. But, to be honest, and Altas forgive me for it, I always had trouble reconciling the two sides of the coin. Until now. Having felt this spirit of the Holy Host, I think I begin to understand Stron. Altas have mercy on us all,” Lady Hart said, with a deep sadness rising in her.

“If I may, my Lady,” Choke interjected, “may I quote of the scripture to you now? It speaks of a such a spirit, if not the very one that possessed Otilla.”

“Yes, please do, Bartholomew.”

“It is from the Book of Twelve Conflagrations. Chapter four, verse eighteen, to be precise.”

Choke licked his lips and proceeded to recite the passage exact from memory:

“‘And lo, did Stron hold his sword aloft and call forth Altas’ holy fire to be set upon it. And so it was. And Stron did plunge his flaming sword deep into the pyre of furnishings and filigree and the papers and books of that unholy office. And the pasha, that unholy priest of the demonic Alquinian pantheon, did call to his unholy host to be saved. But his fate was sealed under the eyes of Altas and no demon or devil could undo His holy will. And so, the pasha priest and his harem whores were burned upon the trappings of his profane station. And the holy fire did cleanse that place of their evil. And as the screams of the righteously burned did begin to wane, the very fire itself took to laughter at their anguish. The flames laughed and all who heard did quake in fear at the voice. And Stron did say unto his people: “Hark! It is the laughter of Zenetash, holy spirit of flame and death, as old as the stones; and it does bless us with its voice!” And Stron and his people did praise Zenetash for the blessing of having heard. And they knew in their hearts that Aern was a cleaner place for their having fed the evildoers to the holy flames.’”

“Thank you, Bartholomew. Yes, always with the fire, the Stronians. Indeed, it is precisely this sort of passage that I always had such trouble reconciling with the light of Altas,” Lady Hart said.

“Pardon me, my Lady, but the holy light of our Father, Altas, does burn as well, does it not?” Choke said quietly. “Look upon the worm upon the cobbles of a hot summer’s day and ask of it if the light of Altas is that of love alone.”

Lady Hart chuckled softly at this. “I have heard this quote before, Bartholomew. They are the words of Samthonus, Patriarch of Marrovique, are they not?”

“That they are, my Lady.”

“I see Brother Willem has not neglected your education over in Pekot.”

“He has not. Proper education is the loadstone of our order. It is the foundation upon which all righteous action rests.”

“Indeed. Well… where was I?” Lady Hart asked the room at large. “Ah, yes. Otilla, this spirit inside you: does it give you guidance?”

“Whad’ye mean?”

“Are you guided by it? Does it tell you what to do?”

“Oh. Right. Just sometimes. Like this feeling rises up in my gut and my palms get itchy, and I have to go get to work.”

“Killing, you mean,” Lady Hart said.

“Yeah. Killing. That’s our job, aint it?”

“Yes it is. But the spirit does not move you in any wider sense? For example, it does not give you any indication of where you and your lads should go next.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Peep said.

“Very well, so you are your own master in that regard. And so we return to my earlier thoughts. About freedom, and the need to be good when one has it. Do you remember this, Otilla?”

“Yeah, I do. I gotta be good because now I have the freedom to be good or evil.”

“Exactly. But there is more to it than that. When you worked for Oggy Lightfoot, in aid of Tom Rakham, you were agents of evil without actually being evil yourselves, yes?”

“Yeah. I understand that now,” Peep said.

“Good. And you recall why you were agents of evil, yes?”

“Because Tom Rakham was evil because he chose to use his freedom the way that he did.”

“Precisely! I could not have put it any better myself, Otilla. So, consider now these marks of Stron upon your flesh, and what they mean to our community. You have experienced their effect. You understand that you have power over the faithful. All this you know.”

“Yes. I do,” Peep said, meeting Lady Hart’s eye squarely with hard intention.

“Yes, you do. It is this power that gives you freedom. It is this freedom that gives you choice. And you must be mindful of your actions, for soon you shall become a leader. And those followers that you attract to you shall become your community, and their expectations shall become a limit upon your freedom. Go down the wrong path now, and you shall not be able to change course,” Lady Hart said, first to Peep, but then to each of the men as she met their eyes in turn.

“Whad’ye mean by that?” Peep asked.

“Well, this is getting deeper. And they are thoughts that need not ever be considered by those who must only serve. But, consider Tom Rakham. He was an evil man, yes?”

“Yes,” Peep said earnestly.

“And, to oversimplify it, he rose to his position among his fellows by being the best of them at their evil. Now what do you suppose would have happened to him if he had suffered an epiphany and decided to be good. What would happen if he gathered his men around him and said: ‘we must be good now, lads. We shall use our freedom here only to protect and help our fellow man. No more rape. No more murder. No more robbery.’ Now, Otilla, what do you suppose would have happened to the fearsome Tom Rakham if he had done that?”

“They’d a killed him. Obviously.”

“Yes. Because his power over them only extended so far as he was able to meet their expectations of him and indulge their wickedness. So you see: as you head out into this world to exercise your freedom, with the power you have thanks to Stron’s blessing upon you, you shall attract the people that shall define your future course. Do evil, and evil men shall come to you. And you shall be trapped by them, as Tom Rakham was. But do good, and encourage the good you see in others to flourish under your protection, and you may become a beacon of light in this world. Do you understand?”

“I think I do.”

“Probably so. But we shall talk again of this when your mind is in a more settled state,” Lady Hart said.

Things were quiet for a while, then, as everyone lapsed into thought. Finally, it was Peep that broke the silence:

“So, Lady Hart, whad’ye think I should do next?”

“Well, to me it is clear why Stron chose you. You are a wilderness scout, a child of these wild frontiers, with intimate knowledge of the evil men that prey upon the weak they find. You are meant to kill. This you know. So I cannot think of a better place for you than Bristlehump. I think you should go with Bartholomew and seek out Brother Barrelmender.”

“Yeah… Choke,” Peep said, as though suddenly remembering he existed. She stared at him for a while before speaking again:

“You. Ye killed Oggy.”

Choke met her eye squarely and nodded.

“Ye killed Oggy and then I found ye and just went along with ye. I been watching ye sleep for weeks. I shoulda cut yar throat a good spell ago.”

At this, both Pinch and Knuckle shifted uncomfortably. Peep went on:

“Ye killed Oggy, and I just joined right up with ye. Why did I do that?”

“Maybe because it wasn’t personal. Maybe because it could have been anyone to do it,” Choke said.

“Yeah, that’s part of it. But it aint the whole of it.”

Peep lapsed into silence for a while. Then she smiled as she solved the puzzle within herself:

“Where I’m from, we keep what we kill. Ye killed Oggy, so I guess it was natural for me to give myself over to ye. For me to follow ye.”

It was silent for a while more. During this, Pinch’s brow became deeply furrowed as he tilted his head this way and that in deep confusion. Finally, he spoke up:

“Wait a minute, Peep. You are saying that ye started following Choke because he killed your mentor and he somehow got possession over you because of it? So, yar trying to tell us is that this whole time, the way ye’ve been behaving, that was you being submissive to him? Is that what ye think? How stoned are you?”

At this, Knuckle started laughing. Lady Hart and Pinch soon joined him. In the midst of the comfortable laughter, Lady Hart glance over at her daughter, Rebecca, to see how she had taken the joke. The young woman was sitting perfectly still in the same demure posture she had been holding for some time, with a pleasant look of vacant contentment on her features. Lady Hart looked at Rebecca more sharply for another beat or two, then glanced over at Peep, who was once again staring off into space with a stunned look.

The Lady Hart gave a little miffed exhalation and had quick think while Knuckle and Pinch settled down. By the time they had, she was again in full command of herself.

“I think Otilla,” Lady Hart began loudly to bring Peep’s attention back around to her, “I understand what you mean. You speak in broader strokes, and I suspect that what these lads conceive of as following is rather more disciplined than what you are used to. Be that as it may, though, I do not think that it was any accident that you fell in with these stout-hearted Stronian boys. And it was only once you had begun to follow them that you became fully capable and worthy of receiving Stron’s blessing of a Holy Possession.”

Things were silent for a while more as everyone contemplated this truth.

“What do you understand of our faith, Otilla?” Lady Hart finally asked.

“Well… There’s Altas, the sun, and he had a human son, Stron, who he sent to the world of Aern to punish the wicked. And he was some kind of general in a big fight against the Alquinians, who was some kinda devil worshipers. But he got caught and executed on the Wheel of Pain. And the priests of Stron run around burning up women for worshiping the moon, which I learned isn’t a god, but actually a hoor demon. Yeah… I think that’s about it.”

“Well, that’s a start, I should think,” Lady Hart said dryly. “You have a good handle on what Stron is all about, which I should think is not too surprising, given your company and that we are at the frontier. But I do hope you take your time to learn more. The duality of our faith: the warm benevolence and love of our heavenly Father, the Sun, in such stark contrast with the harsh violence of his son, Stron. There is much to be explored here. Indeed, even I myself have not managed to reach a place of firm understanding,” Lady Hart smiled as she nodded to Choke.

“Yeah. I hear ye. Yar right, I don’t know much about it,” Peep said. “But Choke here, I mean Bartholomew, he’s gonna teach me about the Holy Book. So I guess I’ll be learning.

“Most excellent! And, with that, I think it is time for us to say goodnight. I am sure you are all quite tired. And it seems the exertion of hosting has caused my darling daughter to lapse into another one of her spells. Indeed, I had thought she was quite over those, having not had a single one since her brother Robert was dispatched to the frontier. How curious that she should fall into another just now.”

“Hm? Yes, mother?” Rebecca said, startling herself out of her stupor. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening just now. What is it?”

“It was just in this very moment that you were not listening? It is no matter, whatever internal journey you have been on is no doubt much more edifying than what was discussed at table. So!” Lady Hart clapped her hands, “Gordon, you may have someone show the lads to the barracks,” she said to the butler. “Rebecca, I trust that you and Otilla can find your way to your rooms without injuring yourselves. So, a good night to you all, then!”

read part 68

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s