Table of Contents – (spoilers)
After breakfast, Peep went to the barracks near the compound’s main gate to talk things over with Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle. They were happy enough to hear that she had accepted the Lady’s invitation on their behalf.
With the pheasant hunt decided for the early afternoon, Lady Hart and her daughter, Rebecca Hart came out to the training yard with bows to do some target practice to warm up. They were both dressed as gentlemen hunters, in linen blouses, leather vests, and wool breeches. With their light fowling bows, they were quite good shots.
Peep decided to stick with her overpowered shortbow of Munn’s, in order to get a better feel for it. The three lads all borrowed light fowling bows from the manor.
By this time, Peep had changed back into her normal clothes and leather armor. Rebecca did not seem at all pleased with this.
“Mother!” she said after she could take it no longer. “Surely we must do something about the way Peep is dressed!”
“Peep is it now? And surely I do not understand what you might mean about her attire.”
“Well, she looked so wonderful in Rob’s outfit yesterday! I miss it!”
“I am sorry, are we meant to adopt her now? That doublet has our family crest on it! Amusing enough for a private lark, but quite impossible for anything more public. Besides which, good doublet and hose for hunting? No.”
“Well, Mother, Sally and I found a whole trunk of Rob’s old things from that age. There is plenty of hunting kit there, and none with any crests. Just the thing for her. And that leather armor she has on; surely we can find something that affords her better protection than that before sending her off into the world!”
Lady Hart looked thoughtful. “Yes, I can see your point there. Fine, she may take her pick of Rob’s old clothes. And you are quite right about the armor. Something shall have to be done about that.”
“Woah. Hold up, uhh, Baroness,” Peep said. “I can’t be hauling myself around in no mail. That shit is heavy and loud. Not my style.”
“Understood,” Lady Hart said. “But I think a good vest of brigandine might be a happy compromise between the two. There must be something in the fort that can be resized. That, or we can have the smiths put something together. You there, sergeant!” Lady Hart called to the sergeant standing by with a number of soldiers.
“Yes, my Lady!”
“Send a rider to the fort, and have them summon Brunkhart here to size Otilla of the Holy Fire for a vest of brigandine.”
“Very good, my Lady!” the sergeant said, bowing smartly before doing just that.
“Thank you, sergeant. Now, if the two of you could hurry up in coordinating your outfits, I would appreciate getting this hunt started as soon as possible,” Lady Hart said to Rebecca and Peep.
The pheasant hunt was a marvelous time. The forest around Pinewhispers was full of well-patrolled riding and walking trails. The hunters spread out in small groups on foot to work them, then would rendezvous at set intersections before switching off members to carry on.
Lady Hart was a passable hunter, but the day was won by Peep, followed closely by Pinch. The light hunting arrows they were shooting had wide, crescent-forked heads on them. With these, a perfect shot would decapitate a bird, and a body-shot would down one without penetrating too deeply. As well, when a shot was missed, the arrows would stick into trees without going too deep, could be stopped by bushes with their flights still visible, and, if they hit the ground, would often pitch themselves upright as one fork dug in before the other. This all made arrow retrieval much easier.
The shot of the day was taken by Peep when she was able to decapitate a plump male pheasant on the wing at a range of about ten meters. Pinch managed to take two down on the wing, but both were with body shots. The other hunters had to content themselves with missed first shots and second shots aimed carefully at the birds after they had landed.
In returning to Pinewhispers in the late afternoon, Lady Hart left Rebecca and Peep to amuse themselves with the lads so that she could go and check on Father Percy’s progress on his history of Otilla of the Holy Fire. That day, Rebecca had quietly fallen in with Peep like a shadow and seemed inclined to continue with that dynamic. She, Peep, Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle all wound up refreshing themselves with some chilled thistleberry wine in the shade next to the training yard.
With the young lady there, the lads were a little quiet and awkward. Of course, they had all hunted with her at some point or another that afternoon, but without an involved activity to distract themselves, they were not at ease. Peep, however, seemed to be quite enjoying their discomfort.
“So, whad’ye wanna do now?” Peep asked the boys when she was all done with her wine.
“I could use a nap!” Rebecca said stretching her arms above her head with a deeply arched back as she yawned. All three lads did their best to ignore what this did to showcase her figure.
“I wanna train a bit with the shield ring,” Peep said, ignoring Rebecca. “Choke: you up? They got wooden swords here.”
The training yard did indeed have a good array of training weapons: for footmen, cavalry, and archers.
“That would be okay,” Choke said. “So long as you agree to find some time to study the Holy Book during our visit.”
Peep hopped to her feet and went into the barracks with Choke to choose their weapons. They had not gone hunting armored, so each just had a sword and shield. In Peep’s case, this was her force shield from her Stronian Wheel ring and a wooden shortsword. Choke chose a big roundshield and a wooden longsword from the armory.
“Ye should make it interesting! Fifty copper a hit!” Knuckle said happily as he refilled his wine goblet.
“Nah. I wanna train, not have this matter. Okay, let’s go!” Peep barked at Choke. She closed on him in a lunge as she did, and almost managed to poke him in the side in a sneak attack.
“Skullduggery!” Choke exclaimed good naturedly as he lurched out of the way.
Peep kept at Choke, and with him off-balance, was able to score a hit on the back of his knee that would have hamstrung him in a real fight.
“Bravo!” Rebecca applauded happily as Knuckle and Pinch jeered.
“All right. You got me,” Choke said as he and Peep reset. “All is fair in love and war, as they say. This time you won’t find it so easy.”
Choke and Peep closed to clash again. This time Peep focused on keeping her distance as she defended with her shield. Choke obliged her in what became a training exercise as she continued to learn how her force shield behaved in combat. He stayed at the outside of his longer reach and struck at Peep with wide, looping slashes and the occasional lunge to keep her on her toes.
This uneventful play soon displeased Knuckle.
“Booo!” he yelled. “Get after her, Choke! She aint got nothing toe-to-toe and she knows it! Press her, man!”
Choke glanced Peep’s way to see if she was okay with stepping it up a notch. She nodded back.
Choke was no footsoldier, but he had been properly trained with sword and shield on foot. With his longer weapon, bigger shield, and a clear advantage of size and strength, it soon became obvious that Knuckle was right. Peep was in trouble.
With clean, efficient footwork, Choke closed on Peep and sent hard slashes at her with every step. These were not aimed to get around her defense; they were aimed to smash it. More often than not, Peep’s only choice was to block squarely with her shield. Each of these blows she blocked crashed into her shield, some with enough force to potentially break her arm behind it.
Finally, Peep made her move. She blocked a blow and whirled into a low lunge of her own. Against an opponent that had not managed their space well, this might have worked. However, Choke was not such an opponent. He had the space to pivot and drive his shield into her, blocking the sword lunge as he hit her with a shield bash. His next sword slash took her behind the knee, just where hers had on him.
“That’s it! That’s what I’m talking about!” Knuckle bellowed. Then he stood up and stabbed his finger Peep’s way: “I’m next! I want a piece!”
Choke wearily looked Knuckle’s way:
“Knuckle. Come on,” he started.
“No! She’s been talking all kinds of trash to me for weeks! It’s time for her to step up and see where she really stands. Yeah, that’s right, Peep!” Knuckle laughed as he turned his attention to her. “I know ye can sneak up on whoever ye want to cut a throat. But now yar gonna find out what I’m all about!”
“Okay then, big boy!” Peep laughed. “Just don’t scare me too bad or I might forget what we’re all about and burn ye to the fuckin ground!” she flashed him the Wheel brand in her left palm.
“Yeah, yeah,” Knuckle said as he went to get himself a wooden greatsword.
So armed, Knuckle walked slowly towards Peep out in the yard. He twirled the greatsword as he closed, moving his grip as he got a feel for the weapon. Peep waited for him in a low defensive crouch. When Knuckle got to the outside of his reach, he started swinging. These first few attacks were not too hard for Peep to bat aside with her shield as she gave up ground. Knuckle laughed.
“Oh, ye just gonna run this whole fight, or are ye gonna come and get me? Ye aint so slick in a fair fight, are ye?” he taunted her.
“Oh, is that what this is? If this weren’t play time, I’d a run off and hid somewhere already. This aint how I work.”
“Yeah, no shit!” Knuckle laughed as he lunged into a hard slash at Peep’s body, forcing her to block it square with her shield. She grimaced in pain as she did.
However, as she had attempted with Choke, Peep replied with a lunge of her own. This fell way short. The distance was too great and Knuckle was too fast. He stepped back easily and almost took her head off with his own counter that she was just able to duck.
“Yeah, running and hiding might be the best move for ye!” Knuckle boomed.
“Hey, man, all I’m looking to prove here is that I can take a beating better than any of ye. So let’s get the fuck on with it, huh?” Peep said as she spat between them.
In the open field with good footing there was no way for Peep to deal with Knuckle’s onslaught. It was not just his power, which was indeed mighty; it was his footwork and use of space that did her in. He would dip in to worry her with some long-distance slashes and feints, and then a sudden lunge or sidestep to change the angles or get in close for a brutally hard chop. Peep did her best, but was soon laid out with a good swipe across the back that was just a bit harder than it needed to be.
“Yeah. That’s it,” Knuckle said as he stepped away from her.
“Okay, you made your point, Knuckle. That’s enough,” Choke said.
“I guess he did make his point, if that’s what he calls a beating,” Peep said as she got up. “Ye just wait till I get mine back at ye, Knuckle. And it’ll be at a time of my choosing. Ye sleep tight thinking on that.”
Knuckle laughed with a brave front as he moved back into the barracks to put away his weapon. As he slid it home in its rack, his mind finally caught up with his ego and he did indeed begin thinking on Peep’s words. Then he had to take a moment.
Outside, Choke was waiting for him.
“Okay, Knucklehead,” Choke said with cold menace. “Since you have decided to play the bully today under the pretext of educating each other about what we’re all really about, it’s my turn with you. Now.”
“Oh, what? Ye want a piece? That suits me just fine!”
“That’s good. But I’m not doing this on foot. That is not what I am all about. I am mounted. You fight as you see fit. I suggest you armor up. I will,” Choke said.
“Ooo! Goody! A proper tilt!” Rebecca clapped her hands. “I shall have them get your horse, Bartholomew! Will you be fighting mounted, Theodas?”
“No, my lady,” Knuckle said grimly, his hard gaze never leaving Choke’s. “I’ll stay on foot to get this done.”
With Peep helping Choke into his mail, and Pinch doing likewise for Knuckle, they were soon ready to go. Choke armed himself with his own shield, the wooden longsword he had used against Peep, and a light training lance. The lance was little more than a long spear, with a fist-sized padded leather knob on its tip instead of a steel point. Knuckle stuck with the same greatsword as before.
Choke carefully checked his horse’s saddle and bridle before mounting up. His was a fine, fast stallion that he had raised and trained himself it the Pekot school, under the tutelage of their horse and cavalry master, Brother Fellis. Young Bartholomew had named his steed, Nike. For many years at the orphanage, Nike had been his only friend.
The previous fights had attracted some attention from the manor’s soldiers and staff. Now, with Choke and Knuckle fully geared up, it became an event. All the soldiers, groundskeepers, and stable hands gathered around the yard to watch. As well, the butler, house maids, footmen, and kitchen staff all assembled on Pinewhispers’ front steps.
Once he was mounted, Peep handed Choke his lance.
“My hero!” she said with her grin.
“Are you ready, Knuckle?” Choke called out across the field.
“Yeah! Bring it!” Knuckle called back. He was standing in a relaxed ready position with his wooden greatsword held angled up above his head.
Choke nodded and rode straight for him at a gallop, his lance squared up properly in his armpit. Knuckle held his ground and waited, his eyes intent on the horse to give him a clue as to the angle of Choke’s pass.
There were different angles that Choke could take. To attack directly, straight on, would give him the advantage of reach and a full-powered attack. If he hit Knuckle, there would be no counterattack. However, in such an attack, Knuckle would attempt to slip away on his lance side to dodge, or possibly parry, and counter across Choke’s back. There was no danger of Knuckle attacking his mount, Nike, since, in anything but full warfare, attacking a fighter’s mount was universally regarded as one of the most dishonorable things that could be done in a fight.
Choke’s other choice would be to veer away from the target at the last moment. This would lessen the force of the strike, but put more distance between Choke and Knuckle as he passed, thus reducing the possibility of a counter.
Choke decided on the latter course. He did not want to hit Knuckle full power, which, even armored and with a practice lance, could easily kill him. As well, lessening the chances of being hit in return was all to the good.
Having trained this type of fight together many times before (albeit at a friendlier intensity), both Knuckle and Choke knew each other well. As he galloped straight for Knuckle, Choke did his best to appear committed to that course, only veering off at the last possible instant. Knuckle read him all the way.
As Choke closed and veered to the left, Knuckle practically leapt sideways to put himself as close as possible to his passing. As he moved, Knuckle raised his weapon sideways across his body in an attempt to parry whatever blow came.
When Knuckle made his move, Choke leaned more to the left, turning his horse as hard as he could at a gallop. Choke was able to hit Knuckle with his lance just under his rising greatsword, almost dead center in the chest. Knuckle was smashed to the ground like he had been hit by an ogre with a sledgehammer.
Choke slowed his horse and wheeled back towards Knuckle, who was lying motionless in a crumpled heap. By the time he reached him, Peep, Pinch, Rebecca, and a number of other onlookers had recovered from their initial shock at the spectacle of violence and were hurrying their way.
His mind clearing from the fog of anger that had been clouding it, Choke thought for a horrible moment that he had indeed killed Knuckle. The big man had yet to move.
Then, as Pinch and the sergeant reached him, Knuckle finally began to stir. He gave a guttural, shuddering groan as his legs began to twist and kick slowly.
“He’s alive!” the sergeant proclaimed. “Surely with broken ribs, though.”
Knuckle made a horrible gurgling noise and coughed some blood up onto his face.
“Yeah, he’s punctured a lung! We need to get him to Father Percy in the chapel immediately! Men! On the double!” the sergeant barked to the soldiers.
Four of them, each to a limb, got hold of Knuckle and heaved him up between them. Then they carried him off towards the manor, where the assembled servants were bustling around, getting organized to deal with the emergency.
Rebecca hurried after the soldiers. Pinch gave Choke a dirty look and followed her.
Choke was still seated tall in the saddle where he had stopped Nike to survey his victory. Choke’s face remained hard as he watched Knuckle being carried off. Once everyone was inside the house, the soldiers, stable hands, and groundskeepers that remained drifted awkwardly back to their duties. This left Choke and Peep alone together on the training field.
“Dood. What the fuck?” Peep eventually said.
“What,” Choke said.
“I mean, I get wanting to hit him. But did you have to lean all the way into it?”
Choke finally sighed as he released some of the tension that had been keeping his posture like iron.
“I don’t know,” he said. “When I saw him hit you like that, it brought to mind all the other times he bullied me, or others who were too weak to stand up to him. He pissed me off.”
“Yeah. He does that. I get it,” Peep said. She spent a long moment staring up at Choke in the saddle, contemplating him in a new light. “Well, I’ll say something about ye, Choke: ye do hold yar cards close to the vest. Store it up, and let it out all at once. Choke is right.”
“I went too far,” Choke said, mostly to himself. “I am going to regret doing that to him.”
“Yeah, yar type always does. But fuck it. You’ve been fuckin dreaming of doing that to the asshole for years. I know it. Watching you smash him was like seeing a baby bird take to the wing for the first time. Let your spirit soar, man!”
This finally snapped Choke out of his introspection. He looked down at Peep and chuckled.
“You, Peep, are a lunatic.”
“Fuckin rights. And don’t ye forget it, man! Okay, enough of this. Hand me that stick and I’ll help ye outta that armor. Then we can smoke a bowl,” Peep said as she held her hand up to take Choke’s lance from him.
With Father Percy not being a sufficient spellcaster to heal up Knuckle’s significant internal injuries all at once, the squad’s stay at Pinewhispers was extended to just over a week. The time was well spent for all except Knuckle, who was mostly laid up in the small infirmary off the chapel.
Pinch, Peep, and Rebecca spent much of their time hunting together in the woods. Peep was now using her Scythan warbow. While it was ludicrously overpowered for the game they hunted, it was a good chance for Peep to train with it in the bush.
While they were doing this, Choke availed himself of the cavalry training equipment in the yard. As well as charging a swinging jousting target with lance, he would put Nike through his paces and have him attack straw-filled dummies of soldiers and goblins. In the evenings, when Peep was finished with Father Percy’s interviews, she and Choke would spend time together with his Holy Book. After just the third day of this, he had begun to teach her to read.
It was a full four days before Choke could bring himself to visit Knuckle in the infirmary. The big fighter was feeling much better and was now able to sit upright and walk just a little with help.
“Ye took yar fuckin time getting here! Help me outta here, I’m fuckin sick of being cooped up!” Knuckle said, reaching up to Choke from his cot.
Choke gently helped Knuckle to his feet and put his arm around him with his shoulder in his armpit to support his walking. Their size disparity made this a perfect fit.
Knuckle had Choke walk him out to a bench overlooking the finely cultivated garden with its flowers and carefully sculpted shrubberies.
“Listen, Knuckle. I am sorry. I shouldn’t have hit you so hard,” Choke finally managed.
Knuckle made a rude noise.
“Whatever man! Fuck it. Fuck it. Ye think I can’t take a hit? Ye got me. Fuck it. I sure as shit was gonna hit ye with everything I had. Forget about it,” Knuckle said, giving Choke’s thigh a friendly slap.
“That might be, but we both know that if you had hit me, armored as I was, it would not be anything more than a bruise, at worst. I could have killed you.”
“Yeah. But ye didn’t. Because I am a tough-ass motherfucker. I told ye: I can take a fuckin hit. And it serves me right for fuckin with a horseman. Fuck. I thought I had ye there! If I hadn’t a missed the parry, I woulda had ye!” Knuckle said effusively. He thumped Choke’s thigh with his fist and then grunted in pain as the exertion cost him.
“Are you alright?” Choke asked.
“Yeah. Another couple of days, I’ll be fine, Father says.”
“Okay, good. And thank you for being understanding. It’s more than I deserve,” Choke said.
“Fuck man, what did I say? Drop it already! Or else yar gonna get me thinking that ye regard me a pussy. So, what’s been going on, anyways?”
Choke went on to tell Knuckle all about what they had been up to for the last few days. Then they just sat together and watched the gardeners work. After some time of that, Knuckle grunted.
“Fuck man,” he said, gesturing towards the nearest gardener. “I’ll take getting hit like that now and again if it means I don’t gotta work in shit like that every fuckin day of my life.”
“I understand your feeling,” Choke said. “But his life’s likely going to be a lot longer than either of ours.”
“Fuckin rights! That’s exactly what I’m saying! And every fuckin day of it breaking his back in dirt and shit. We’re gonna live right and go to Stron with a blade in our hand when it’s our time. That’s the way to fuckin do it!”
Knuckle held his fist out in front of Choke, who gave it a solid bump with his own.
“Okay, maybe I am a fuckin pussy. Get me back into bed. I need a fuckin rest again. Watching them bitches is tiring work. Shit!” Knuckle said.
With this, Choke once again helped Knuckle to his feet and supported him in the long walk back to his bed.
After just over a week at Pinewhispers, it was finally time for the squad to go. Knuckle had been fully healed and was his old self again, making it clear to all that he indeed could take a fuckin hit.
The Baron’s armorer had finished Peep a custom-fit vest of brigandine armor: an overlapping series of small steel plates riveted together inside layers of treated leather. While heavier than her leather armor, which she insisted on keeping, it was quiet and offered much superior protection. The armorer had also fixed her a black steel helmet with a drop-down visor, and a stout pair of bracers. Peep put on the bracers and stored the helmet on the pack mule along with her leather armor.
Finally, Rebecca had provided Peep with a modest wardrobe fit for a young gentleman hunter. As well, she had removed the Hart family crest from the fine doublet, and put in its place a Stronian Wheel crest she had stitched herself: the four-spoked Wheel in white on a black circle backing. The clothes were all packed away in a reasonably-sized travel trunk.
The night before they left, Lady Hart again had the entire squad to dinner in the manor. It was just the Lady, her daughter, Rebecca, Peep, and the lads. The meal was relaxed and there were no gaffs worth remembering. As it was winding down, Peep, who had been looking pensive for a while, straightened herself up and addressed Lady Hart:
“Baroness, I wonder if I could lay something on ye that’s been bothering me a bit.”
“By all means, Otilla.”
“Thank you. Before, when ye said that there are men to hate everywhere. I suppose it’s about a couple of them in particular. And, well, I do understand that before I hooked up with the boys here, I was just a bandit, basically. So, when I got arrested after killing Orcstabber, the Sheriff and his lot had no reason to go easy on me…” Peep drifted off into silence as she stared at Lady Hart, as though seeking her permission to continue.
“Ah. I think I understand. Would you prefer we spoke of this alone, after dinner?” Lady Hart asked.
“No. That’s alright. Well, this is mostly about the jailer, Billy. Now, I get that his type do all the dirty jobs for law and order. The torturing and executing and whatnot. So we’re not gonna expect someone like that to be, you know, alright in the head.”
“I understand. But…” Lady Hart said significantly.
“Well, it seemed to me, being in his custody for the short amount of time that I was, that Billy there is pretty used to taking liberties with women in his custody,” Peep said.
“Really. How so?” Lady Hart asked, her voice hard.
“Well, I don’t wanna be rude about it, but when he searched me, he grabbed my private parts. Like, all of them. Then when he got me in the cells in the cellar, he did it again, only more. Then, when the Sheriff came down there with Thorn, he said if I wasn’t telling the truth about Goldy’s hideout, and if I didn’t do good leading Thorn and the others to it, then he was gonna let Billy have his fun with me. And he, the Sheriff, I mean, kept calling me a slut and another bad word that made it clear he’s the type that likes treating women that way when he has the chance.”
“What bad word would that be?” Lady Hart asked.
“Ye want me to say it? Really?” Peep asked.
“Yes. Tell me.”
“He called me a cocksucker. A few times. Down in the cellar, I mean. And the first time he did, he grabbed my face and stuck his thumb in my mouth. So there’s that,” Peep said plainly.
“And you didn’t bite it?” Lady Hart asked.
Peep shrugged. “Well, I wanted to. But, at that time I was just bandit scum, as ye know. And he’s the Sheriff. And the way he was carrying on, it seemed to me like he was gonna let me go, and was just trying to put me in my place before he did. So I figured that biting him would tip the scales of justice towards being kept down there for him and Billy to play with. So I figured I’d just take it.”
“So, yeah. Think on that, huh? If I’d a bit that Sheriff, I’d a never had the chance to do good with these lads here and go and kill them bandits. And then that spirit of the Holy Host woulda never had the chance to pop in during my baptism. No Otilla of the Holy Fire, then. Anyways, it aint a big deal, or anything. I just thought that you might wanna know who’s working for ye.”
“Well, Otilla, thank you for bringing this to my attention. I shall be looking into it, I assure you,” Lady Hart said with a clear fury rising up in her.
“Okay. No problem,” Peep said casually. Then she looked aside to Choke and gave him a wink and a grin as she drew her thumb across her throat.
The next morning, the squad left Pinewhispers early. Lady Hart and Rebecca said farewell to them on the manor’s steps, with the house staff assembled around them. Rebecca wept when she hugged Peep goodbye. She had wanted to ride with the squad to Spitzer, but Lady Hart had forbid it without giving reason.
Peep was in her new armor, with her wolfpelt cloak overtop. The lads were armored up as usual. All of them, mounts included, looked fit and hale: well-rested and relaxed, ready to take on whatever they were to find in Bristlehump.
So, with their farewells said, the squad mounted up and rode out, heading for the Spitzer church as their only planned stop in town.