Table of Contents – (spoilers)
“So, Otilla, what do you want?” Lady Hart asked Peep as they sat down together for a private breakfast.
Peep was quite lucky that the Baroness preferred to rise late. The head maid, Sarah, had awoken Peep and Rebecca about an hour earlier, at about half-past nine. Peep was summoned to breakfast. Rebecca was pointedly told she could stay abed to convalesce that morning. This suited the young lady just fine. She and Peep had only managed to get to sleep a couple of hours earlier, as their mushroom trip had waned.
“I guess I’ll take whatever’s to be had,” Peep answered. “I’m not particular.”
“Would you care for some stugroot tea? I cannot abide it, myself. Besides that, we can manage mint or rosehip tea, as well as spring water.”
“Stugroot and water on the side would be great, my Lady,” Peep said.
“Very well. As she said, Sarah. And just water for me. Thank you,” Lady Hart said, dismissing her maid.
They were seated at a small table in the Lady Hart’s own private chamber. On the second floor, just beneath the house’s tower levels, it had a fine view of the surrounding hills and valleys. The smell of pine trees filled the air from a pleasant breeze through the open windows.
“You needn’t have dressed so formally,” Lady Hart said teasingly, gesturing to the doublet that Peep had put back on from last night.
“Oh, right. Well, my Lady, I wasn’t sure what I should wear.”
“It is fine, Otilla. Do you remember what we spoke of last night?”
“No, my Lady. Not really. This or that, but it’s all a blur, really. Listen, my Lady, I’m really sorry if I did anything—” Peep began.
“It is quite alright, Otilla,” Lady Hart interrupted warmly. “I assure you; it was quite amusing. And I rather appreciated the chance to speak to you while your guard was down. However, one thing that does bear repeating: you need not bother yourself calling me, ‘my lady.’ I have no need of that from you. When we are alone, or speaking intimately, as we did last night, you may address me as, Elizabeth. And, in more formal settings, Baroness, shall suffice.”
“Well, okay, then. Thank ye, Elizabeth.”
“It is my pleasure, Otilla. Ah, here is breakfast!” Lady Hart said happily as Sarah entered with two other maids following.
Breakfast was a bowl of sweet oatmeal and cream, with a plate of eggs on toast and a healthy serving of bacon. Once it and the drinks had been served, Lady Hart dismissed her maids.
Having gotten used to Choke saying a prayer before every meal, Peep automatically bowed her head and waited for Lady Hart to handle that.
“Why don’t you say grace, Otilla? After all, of the two of us, you are the one more qualified to do so.”
“Huh? Oh, right. Okay. Uhhh… Yeah. Stron, bless this meal we are about to eat. May it give us the strength to vanquish your enemies. Amen,” Peep said, finishing by tracing the Wheel over her breast.
“Amen,” Lady Hart said, while refraining from making the Stronian symbol herself. “A passable job, Otilla. You seem to be a fast learner. Of course, the prayer is rather more Stronian than I am used to, but that is to be expected.”
“Hold up, Elizabeth,” Peep said through a mouthful, with a hunk of yolk-saturated toast in hand above her plate. “Ye say the word, Stronian, like ye aint one yarself. Pardon me for bringing it up, but I’ve been getting rode about that of late, so it’s on my mind. I’m just curious why you say it that way, is all.”
“A fast learner, indeed! Yes, well, between you and me, Otilla, I will admit that I am not overly fond of the Stronian faction within our Faith. For my taste, they seem entirely too fixated on turning women into bonfires.”
Peep blinked at the Lady Hart for a spell before replying:
“Well, now, Elizabeth, from what everyone’s been telling me, it seems like that sort of talk is exactly the type that’ll get a person lit up.”
Lady Hart nodded sagely. “Yes, indeed. Where we are, and in the circles you are now running, that is a safe assumption. But, if nothing else, I would hate to have you leave our time together without having been made aware that there are different schools of thought within the Faith.”
“Now, before I proceed, Otilla, I hope you understand that I may speak freely, if cautiously, about these matters because of my position. What I am about to say is not anything that would bear repeating. But I think you should hear it, nonetheless. Do you understand?”
“Yeah. I guess so. Two ears, one mouth, right?”
“Indeed,” Lady Heart chuckled. “But, in this case, I think you would do well to forget that you have a mouth.”
“Well, Elizabeth, that’s sound advice, I’d say. It’s not like many people got themselves into trouble by keeping their trap shut, now is it?”
“It does happen. But I take your point, and agree. Now, if I may say, for logically minded people such as ourselves, there are certain things within our faith that do not make much sense. However, to point them out is the surest way to get oneself into trouble. So I think it would be prudent for me to enlighten you of them, so that you do not wander into danger at a later time. What is your understanding of the word, polytheist, Otilla?”
“Well, I guess I heard it being thrown around. That’s what people call the Alquinians. I thought it just meant really bad and evil,” Peep answered.
“Well, that is the essence of how it is used. But what it actually means is to believe in more than one god. Not just to worship more than one god, mind you, but to believe that there is more than one god. For to be a monotheist, as we are, we must believe that there is only one god: the one true God, Altas.”
“Wait,” Peep said, with an expression like her brain was breaking. “You mean that to be this poly-whatever is evil just because they believe that more than one god exists? Like, just saying that there are lots of gods, even if we don’t worship them, is the evil thing?”
“Exactly so,” Lady Hart said with a weary smile.
“Uhhh… but… wait. Okay, in the bush there were people praying to all sorts of gods. The sun, of course. The moon. The trees and rocks and rivers and shit. Giant warriors with huge cocks. And some of them could cast spells because of it, just like the priests of Stron, here.”
“No. Not just like the priests of Stron here. Because those entities they worship are not gods. They are demons and devils, and the people receiving their boons as spells are witches and warlocks that must be cleansed with Holy Fire.”
“Okay. Right. That’s what they’ve all been saying about the moon. What about the ones praying to the sun?”
“Well, according to the Church, they are not quite so bad as the others, but are worshiping Altas incorrectly, outside of the Word of our Holy Scripture, the Holy Book. But, Otilla, I think you are missing a more basic curiosity of our faith. You said that the priests of Stron cast spells. As do our priests of Altas, such as our Father Percy. And we are not polytheists, who believe in many, or even two gods. We are monotheists, who believe in only one, true God…” Lady Hart’s drifted off as she looked at Peep expectantly.
“Wait, ye mean that the priests of Stron and the priests of Altas are getting spells from Stron and Altas. I mean, Father Nate kept asking Stron for his spells. And Father Percy was praying to Altas. So… that means they’re not only one god, right? So there’s gotta be two of them, right? Father and son,” Peep said.
“Indeed. Father and son. And yet we are told we worship only one, true God.”
“But, how…” Peep’s face contorted further as her brain fractured into even smaller pieces.
“How can we run around saying that poly-what?” Peep asked.
“Polytheists,” Lady Hart answered patiently.
“Yeah, that polytheists are evil because they believe in more than one god, when we’re running around worshiping two? How does that work?”
“Well, you see, Otilla, as the Church teaches us: it only appears that Altas and Stron are separate beings. In fact, they are as one. Like in the way a coin has two sides, each unique, but is one object, made from the same material. We are told to believe this. Indeed, to suggest that Altas and Stron are anything but one God, even while our priests worship one or the other exclusively, is to speak heresy.”
“Indeed. A word you would do well to keep track of moving forward. For it is sure to feature prominently in your coming duties. Heresy is any interpretation of our religion that is outside the orthodoxy set down by the Church. Specifically, the Arch Bishop, in Ban Altas, proclaims what is true. To say or worship otherwise is to be a heretic; that is, someone doing or speaking heresy.”
“Okay, okay. But, back up, here. There are priests of Stron and priests of Altas. They are different, right? Father Nate prays to Stron, and Father Percy prays to Altas.”
“Yes. And Fathers Nate and Percy do not like each other one little bit. For all sorts of reasons, as you can imagine,” Lady Hart giggled.
“So, if Father Nate prays to Altas for a spell, is he gonna get it?” Peep asked.
“Most certainly not. He is a cleric of Stron. He must pray to Stron to receive the boon of spells.”
“But the Church is telling us that Stron and Altas are one God.”
“But how can that be? If Stron and Altas were one God, then it wouldn’t make a difference which one of them a priest prays to for spells. That makes no sense!” Peep exploded.
“I agree. Welcome to our faith! And know that to ask for sense from the Church is the surest way to be punished by it. We must not ask why. Only faith in the Word is required, and that Word we must obey.”
“Yeah. I’m starting to see that. It’s just like Tom Rakham’s camp, just with more layers and less sense.”
“I am sure I have no idea what you mean, Otilla. For, surely, the patriarchs of the Church know better than you or I, mere lowly women. However, as long as we are entertaining thoughts that must not be expressed aloud in front of those men, let us think of the Altarians.”
“Altarians? What are they?”
“Why, Otilla, we who worship Altas the sun in appropriate ways are Altarians. And, more specifically, those people that did so before Stron’s coming called themselves thusly. I do not want to get too lost in the weeds in this, so I shall attempt to keep it brief. Basically, before Stron came, our faith could not have been Stronian, yes?”
“As well, as you noted, the world is full of people worshiping the sun who are not members of our faith. What defines our faith is adherence to the dogma set down in the Holy Book’s Books of the Holy Possession. Within those, the tenets of our faith are set down. It is not enough to simply worship Altas, we must do so properly. In the days before Stron, those that did such were known as Altarians.”
“So they worshiped Altas in a specific way. And they believed he was the one true God?”
“Indeed. Although the degree to which they denied the existence of the other so-called gods is open to question. Or, I should say, ought to be. Do understand though, Otilla, that it is quite forbidden to suggest that our ancestors practiced anything other than a strict adherence to our current notions of orthodoxy. By this I mean, we are told we must believe those early Altarians believed precisely what we do: that Altas is the one true God.
“Now, do not mistake me, Otilla. Those early Altarians certainly were quite invested in their notions of monotheism. It was not all sweetness and light with them. The hardline Altarians burned non-believers and heretics alive, just as our modern Stronians do. And, by the way, just as the Altarians’ ancestors, the druids, had. However, we must not confuse ourselves that this practice is a human sacrifice to our God, as it was in the druids’ case. No, when we Stronians do so, we are doing the subject the valuable service of cleansing their soul of sin before their final judgement under the eyes of Altas. Quite altruistic of us, don’t you think?”
“Yeah. I’ve heard all about how that goes. Never had the pleasure of seeing it in person, though,” Peep said darkly.
“Well, I have. Fortunately, it is not that common an occurrence. Father Morrenthall doesn’t burn alive more than two or three sinners per year. And here you sit, Otilla, with Stron’s Holy Fire in your very hands. Now, what are you to do about it?”
“I guess that’s a good question, Elizabeth. What do you reckon I oughta be doing about it?”
“Otilla, when I asked you before breakfast what you wanted, I was curious if you would remember my asking it last night. Do you remember me asking you that last night?”
“Yeah. I do.”
“And have you done any thinking on it?” Lady Hart asked.
“Yeah. I guess my answer this morning works both ways,” Peep said with a grin.
“Ah,” Lady Hart chuckled. “If I am not mistaken, this morning you said you wanted whatever there was to be had. So am I safe to assume that this is your current approach to your life?”
“Yeah. I mean, I never grew up in this religion of yars. But these last few weeks have been a lot more comfortable, and fun, than my whole life before. So, to be honest, I’m just looking to do what I need to do to keep on this gravy train,” Peep said, watching Lady Hart carefully to gauge her reaction.
Lady Hart laughed. “Well, I like your honesty, Otilla. It is refreshing. So it goes for most of those who do our God’s work, I suspect. Well, then, if you don’t mind, may I indulge myself in bending your ear about something, Otilla?”
“Yeah, sure thing, Elizabeth,” Peep said, leaning back to get more comfortable in her chair.
“Thank you. Let me tell you a story, Otilla. It is a story told to me by my mother and grandmother both. As they were told it by their mothers and grandmothers. And, to be clear, this is nothing more than a silly little story told by silly women to silly little girls. It most certainly is not a violently suppressed heresy. I trust you understand what I am saying, Otilla.”
“Now, think back to those early Altarians I spoke of earlier. Now, most certainly, many of them were running around burning up everyone that disagreed with them. However, were all of our ancestors thus? Or, was their society more complicated than that? Like our own, was their society comprised of many different philosophies and schools of thought that must negotiate some sort of normality between themselves?
“So, Otilla, what if many of those early Altarians did not believe in this notion of monotheism? What if some of them, or even many, or even most, believed something different? What if this seemingly nonsensical notion of the singular duality of Altas and his son had its roots in something older?
“Well, let me tell you, Otilla, that in this silly old story of mine, there were such people who held such beliefs. They believed that the sacred duality of the One God was a pairing of two celestial beings: one masculine and one feminine. The Sun and the Moon, together as one. Indeed, is not the light of the moon actually that of Altas, reflected off her divine face?”
“Is it?” Peep asked.
“It is. This is known by any who study the magical sciences. But to speak of it in our lands is to commit heresy most foul. On this, our Church is very clear.”
“Well that sucks,” Peep said.
Lady Hart laughed.
“Indeed it does,” she went on. “Now imagine, if you will, a more religiously balanced time with those early Altarians. A time of inclusion of the feminine with that of the masculine. As it must be in any healthy relationship. Two beings. Two hearts. Two voices. One partnership.
“So it was. But what was the hard reality of the world that those Altarians faced? Brutal invasion by the Alquinian Empire. Devastation. Those not killed outright enslaved for nothing more than the sadistic whims of the Alquinians’ entertainment. And then, as the years passed, to be oppressed in the Alquinian client kingdoms. Those slave kings did provide their Alquinian masters with their taxes of metal and flesh. And so did we live, as animals more than humans. That is, until Stron came across the river and addressed those few faithful that awaited him. And he lit a fire in the hearts of the Altarians. A fire that burned away the shackles that bound them. And they did free themselves, with much toil and death and killing. And so, we became Stronians.
“But, something else happened to those people. Those most fervent believers and followers of Stron did appoint themselves protectors of the faith entire. And they did declare as their new enemy any deviation from their interpretations of the Scripture. And those they could not convince with their arguments, they sought to silence through intimidation. And those they could not silence, they killed. And so it went, and so we now live. Stronians all. The ways of the early Altarians forgotten. The sacred duality of Sun and Moon now a heresy most foul. The moon, Goddess Lavastia no longer, now a bitch whore demon whose name may not be spoken.
“And what of the boon that Lavastia does give all women? The boon that all women can receive without intercedence of a priest or priestess? To simply pray to her and be given control over our own fertility, as we would have it. But, no. For such is the worst of sins, we are told by these Stronian men. This is to feed our unborn children to the bitch whore demon. An abomination. And so we are silenced and controlled by the tyranny of the seed planted within us whether we want it or not. Our voice silenced, our partnerships with the masculine shattered, as we are reduced to the state of breeding animals. Women now nothing more than mothers of the next Stronian soldiers. That, or whores.”
Lady Hart finished her speech quite emotional. She and Peep sat in silence for a while then. Finally, Peep spoke:
“Yar right, Elizabeth. That is a silly story.”
“Indeed it is. One to make you weep. And very silly of me to tell it to you, of all people, Otilla of the Holy Fire. So, now, I am curious. You have said that you have Stron’s Holy Fire within you. It rises up as a spirit that drives you to kill when you ought to; to burn that which it desires. Is that correct?”
“I guess. To get that fire out, or to heal, I gotta ask Stron. And my palms start getting itchy when it’s time to kill.”
“Well, Otilla, I have spoken to you just now of heresy. Heresy most foul, according to all the proclamations of our Church. In hearing my words, at any point, did the spirit of fire and killing inside you rise up? Did your palms itch?” Lady Hart asked, leaning in towards Peep intently.
Peep was thoughtful. “No,” she finally said. “No, I didn’t feel nothing. It don’t care about what ye were saying.”
Lady Hart sighed deeply, releasing a great deal of tension. Indeed, her entire bearing changed as she leaned back in her chair: from a tense, serious posture, to that of someone in a bath.
“Thank you for that, Otilla. It is as I thought. As I have always suspected. The fire that spurred Stron to his deeds is not that which informs these Stronian inquisitors. His cause is not theirs. They have taken up his banner to indulge their love of power, violence, and pain.”
“Listen, Elizabeth,” Peep said. “I don’t know what Stron was all about. And I don’t know if the fire in me is the same one that pushed him to do what he did. But I will tell ye: what is in me, it don’t care about the moon and what we call it. What it wants is to kill and burn. That’s it. Dead simple. So if that’s what Stron’s priests get up to, then I don’t think they’re displeasing him one little bit.”
“Exactly! That’s it!” Lady Hart started up excitedly. “That’s what I had missed! You see, that is what Stron loved; what he loves. He is a god of war and fire. These burnings, the punishments that his priests meet out, they are not as they claim to be. They are not anything more than a human sacrifice to their god. Of this I am now sure!”
“Okay, then, Elizabeth. I’m glad I could be a help to ye on that. But what does all this have to do with me?” Peep asked, showing her trademark cheeky grin to the Baroness for the first time.
In the first instant, Lady Hart was taken aback, and looked set to get angry. Then she deflated and laughed.
“Right you are, Otilla. I have indulged myself too long with these, my private thoughts. Thank you for listening. I hope they have given you something to think about, as well.”
“Yeah. For sure!” Peep said, perhaps actually meaning it.
“So, about what you should now do with yourself. You say you want whatever can be had. That is natural, if not admirable. Do you remember that I spoke to you of leadership last night?”
“I suppose so.”
“Well, Otilla, basically the point was that you are at the beginning of your life as a Stronian leader. And you are set to connect yourself to the Brothers of the Holy Stone. Do you understand what that means?”
“Not really sure that I do. Does it mean that we’re gonna go out lighting witches on fire?” Peep asked.
“Hopefully not. The Brothers of the Holy Stone have many mandates. Their order answers to the Arch Bishop alone. That means that their members and holdings are not subject to the King or the Kingdom’s Bishop. They operate independently, outside the normal hierarchy. For the most part, they concern themselves with fighting at the frontiers. They kill whatever it is that threatens us. And for that we are grateful. But they serve another purpose. They are the soldiers of Stronian orthodoxy. And in this they are terrible. There is no outmaneuvering them legally or philosophically, for none are more adept at Stronian law and scriptural understanding than their inquisitors. You see how well they have educated your three fellows, and those lads have been groomed to be nothing more than fighters for the order.”
“So, what should I do about that, Elizabeth?” Peep asked earnestly.
“I think it is no accident you were chosen by the Holy Fire after you had connected yourself to the Brothers of the Holy Stone. As you know, your purpose is to kill for the Fire. And if you mean to kill for the Faith, then going with the Brothers is the surest path to find those things that most need killing. For there is no shortage of those. As I said last night: there are men to hate everywhere. And plenty of proper monsters as well.”
“Sounds great,” Peep said.
“Indeed. But mark what I have said well. The actions you choose to engage in will attract to you the people that will become your company. And that company will constrain your future actions with their expectations of you. The Brothers of the Holy Stone kill. But whom they kill, and for what; those are distinctions you would do well to be mindful of. If I were you, I would take great care not to fall in with those whose job it is to root out and burn heretics. There are plenty of real monsters that need killing. Do not lend your hand to the torture and killing of those humans that threaten nothing but the authority of Stronian men that fasten the yoke to all us women.”
“That seems like solid advice. Thank you, Elizabeth.”
“You are welcome, Otilla.”
“If ye don’t mind me asking, Elizabeth. What d’ye think about Bartholomew?”
“Well, he is a Scythan, reared and trained by the Brothers to be a killer. In this he will not disappoint them, of that I am sure. As well, he is intelligent. He reads and recites Scripture from memory and can quote Stronian philosophers in debate. And he had the courage to do it to me, in my own home. He is sure to become formidable. But, for all of that, he has a heart as well. He was genuinely upset when he learned that he had killed your mentor, Oggy Lightfoot. Why do you ask?”
“Well, you know what I am. I’m bandit scum from the wilds. And I’ve always had a knack for survival, so I can figure things out usually. But this Stronian world we’re getting into; it’s got layers and layers that I can’t even begin to get my head around. And at every one there’s a different way to get yarself killed just by saying the wrong thing. So how am I gonna be a leader when that’s the world we’re heading into?”
“How indeed? Do leaders not often tread unknown paths? How do they do it? What was it that you and Oggy did for Rakham?”
Peep took just a second to understand what Lady Hart meant with this question. She smiled.
“We were scouts.”
“Indeed. Nothing is more valuable to a leader than good scouting. Whether that be literal or metaphorical. To have a scout that can think independently, whose judgement can be trusted, and who can be relied upon to be honest in their advice: this is how good leaders navigate paths they do not know themselves. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, I do. Actually, it’s kinda the arrangement we’ve settled into, of late, anyway,” Peep said. “When it comes to our unit, he and I are partners. And we both agreed to trust each other when we say we gotta do something. But as far as all the people we run into out in the world, I’ve been thinking about that since ye talked to me about it last night.”
“I am glad you are,” Lady Hart said.
“Yeah, well, here in town a couple of weeks ago, a bunch of rubes started following me around, trying to worship me. I hated it! I wanted to… do something bad to them. Let’s just leave it at that.”
“But, when we got out into Callic, the people there treated me special, there’s no doubt about that. But it wasn’t so… ass-kissy, if ye know what I mean.”
“Obsequious is the world I think you are looking for, Otilla,” Lady Hart said.
“Yeah. Okay. What ye said. So, I think the difference is that the people there in Callic, they’re busy with their own lives. They got all kinds a stuff to take care of, and they aren’t used to kissing people’s asses on the daily. But in town here, there’s a whole bunch of dipshits that don’t have any real clue of what to do with themselves. And they’re looking for something to fill up what they’re missing in their own life. You see what I’m saying?”
“So, with all due respect, Elizabeth, I don’t think I want to be a leader. I’m content to lay in the cut and let Bartholomew take that on.”
“Well, I think that is a marvelous idea, Otilla. And I don’t think doing so necessarily precludes you from becoming a leader, of sorts. Indeed, whether you think you are behaving as a leader or not, you will be treated as such. Actions speak louder than words. And you are a person of action. If you stand by Bartholomew, clearly in support of him, then people will take his words as your intention. He may be your mouthpiece, but it is you that folk will affix the meaning to. And having Bartholomew to rely upon, in whatever situations you find yourself in, surely will not hurt. And when you do finally speak, your words shall fall as a smith’s hammer and you shall mold the iron upon the anvil of Bartholomew.”
“Well, okay then. That seems… I dunno. Anyways, thanks for letting me talk it out,” Peep said earnestly.
“You are most welcome, Otilla.”
“So, I guess we should probably be pushing off for Bristlehump today, right? So I should probably find the boys and see what’s what.”
“Well, let’s not be too hasty about that,” Lady Hart said. “From what I understand, you are not in any great rush to move onto your next phase of things. I am sure you could use a bit of a rest after such a busy, stressful time. And I am quite sure that we would be most happy to have you stay with us a little longer. Why don’t you stay here a few more days? Perhaps we can go pheasant hunting this afternoon. And I think that it would be useful to Father Percy to have you around to consult with in his history.”
“Father Percy?” Peep said with a sour look.
Lady Hart laughed. “I understand. He is a pompous ass. But he is a good historian. It is not as though we can be very selective about the help we are able to attract to our barony, such as it is. We have to make do with what we can get.”
“Well… okay. If ye think so.”
“I do. And you should not have to spend more than an hour, or two, with him per day. I am quite sure he will not be seeking to extend his time with you,” Lady Hart said archly.
“Yeah, well, ye have that right,” Peep laughed.
“Good! It is settled, then. And we shall make sure that you and the lads have good fun with us otherwise!”