Table of Contents – (spoilers)
It was a fine late-spring morning when Peep, more widely known as, Otilla of the Holy Fire, and her three men, Choke, Pinch, and Knuckle, more widely known as, Bartholomew, Nikolas, and Theodas, rode into the village of Bristlehump.
The village was a full day’s ride from the town of Spitzer. The day before, the squad had checked in at the Spitzer church in mid-morning, having ridden into town from the Lady Hart’s residence of Pinewhispers. Father Morrenthall had still not returned from Strana, where he had gone to report to the Bishop about Otilla of the Holy Fire. The squad had said a quick hello to the church’s caretaker, Mrs Dunn, before striking out for Bristlehump to seek out Brother Barrelmender and offer him their services.
On the road, it had become clear that with their late start from Spitzer, and with a mule in tow, the squad would not reach Bristlehump by dark. They decided to camp near the road for the night so that they could arrive mid-morning; a time more likely to be received good-naturedly.
Unlike Callic, which occupied a wide, fertile, bowl valley, Bristlehump was socked in tight in a mess of forested hills, narrow ravines, and dead-end hollows. The village itself was situated at the confluence of two small creeks, and was spread out up their respective ravines. The stream they combined to become flowed down to Spitzer where it joined the Spitz river.
The Spitzer road, as it was known in Bristlehump, hugged the stream. It was deeply rutted by the heavy ox-drawn lumber wagons that hauled logs to the sawmills in Spitzer. Coming up the road the day before, the squad had passed by two such wagons together, each with a pair of drovers and a guard. The teamsters had ignored the friendly hail Pinch had given and passed them by with sullen hostility.
Riding into Bristlehump, the squad passed through a yard where logs dragged in on skids from the bush were stacked and loaded onto the big wagons. About a dozen teamsters were there, loading that day’s wagons. As the squad rode past, the teamsters all stood tall and glared. None dared spit, although they looked like they sorely wanted to.
“Shit,” Pinch muttered. “More fuckin teamsters.”
“Yup. And nothing besides but lumberjacks and bushpigs for clicks around,” Peep said.
“Also remember,” Choke said, “that Father Morrenthall and Father Nate have made it clear that Stronianism has not taken root here. We cannot expect the locals to look on us favorably. We must always assume we are in hostile company. Be on our guard.”
Past the lumberyard and its few buildings and rough cabins, was the confluence of the streams: both of which were not more than a couple of meters across. Between the two streams was a rise, upon which was set Bristlehump village proper. It was contained within a simple wooden palisade of rough-hewn logs. Within that was a quaint enough village, with a squat little church made of rough stone. The iron Stronian Wheel atop its steeple was badly rusted and looked about to fall.
The palisade gate into the village was open and unmanned. The squad rode on through and up the narrow lane to the village square. There, as was usual in these villages, was the church, a tavern, a stables, a smithy, and a general store. Beside the church was a small graveyard.
In Callic village and the hamlets around it, when the squad made their entrance the smallfolk would cluster around them to wave and gawk and follow them into town. Indeed, it had become rare that they did not enter a square or yard with anything less than a dozen youth and children excitedly nipping at their heels like happy terriers.
In Bristlehump, however, there was no such reception. In their ride through the lumberyard and up the village lane, there were only glares and hurriedly slammed doors and shutters.
Now, in the square, four younger women were gathered to talk with the row of six old women who were seated on a bench in front of the general store to sun themselves. They all stopped talking. Those of them not bold enough to glare at the squad, instead stared at the ground in front of them.
Choke and the others dismounted in front of the Church and tethered their mounts to its hitching posts. Still the women across the square glared silently.
The church double doors were shut, so Choke gave them a push and was surprised to find them barred from within. Next he took to the large, iron knocker, which he gave a good number of stout raps. After a minute of nothing, he gave another, longer sequence of more strident bangs. Again, this elicited no response.
Across the square, all the women now stared. The bold ones who had stared from the start were now looking amused.
Peep stepped away from the others and pushed her wolfhead cloak back.
“Hi ladies!” she said cheerfully as she waved.
All the amused looks withered in an instant. Four of the older women got to their feet as the younger ones helped up the last two frail oldsters. As a group, they all retreated from the square down a narrow alley between the general store and the stables. The eldest of the women paused before leaving and spent a moment smacking her lips over her toothless gums. Then she stabbed her walking stick Peep’s way.
“Ravens fuck off!” she said in a loud, clear voice. Then she hawked and spit before hobbling off after the others.
With them gone, the village square was now empty, besides the squad.
“Hostile company, indeed,” Pinch said.
Choke glowered at the church for a while as he mulled everything over.
“Something’s not right here,” he finally said.
“Ye think?” said Knuckle.
“I want to check out the church yard,” Choke said. “Pinch, you’re with me. Knuckle and Peep, stay here with the horses, and give us a whistle if anyone comes.”
Pinch nodded and moved to follow Choke. Then something occurred to him.
“Uhhh…” Pinch said, raising his hand.
“Yes?” Choke asked.
“Well, if someone comes, we’re gonna want to talk to them, right?” Pinch said.
“Well…” Pinch answered, gesturing from Knuckle to Peep, and then back to Knuckle again.
Choke blinked. “Oh. Right. Good point. Pinch, you and Knuckle stay here. Anyone coming to make trouble will think twice before starting something when they see you,” Choke gave Knuckle a friendly bump on the shoulder. “Peep, you’re with me.”
Choke and Peep went around the side of the church on a gravel and stone path to the graveyard. It was neglected with weeds overgrowing the stone and wooden grave markers. Behind the church was a little yard with a small, three-stall stable, an outhouse, a shed, and a stone well. At the back of the church was a stout wooden door with an iron lock. Choke knocked long and hard on the door before checking that it was indeed locked.
“Nobody home,” Peep said.
“It seems so. Not good,” Choke said. “‘For a church without priest is but stone and mortar.’”
“What’s that, a Holy Book passage?”
“A later Stronian philosopher. Gustov Porrovingiannus,” Choke said while staring pensively up at the church’s narrow, shuttered windows.
“Well, alrighty then. Where d’ye suppose the Father is?”
“Brother. Clerics of the Brothers of the Holy Stone are monks, not priests, so are referred to as Brother.”
“Uh-huh. So where d’ye think the brother is, then? D’ye reckon he got offed?” Peep asked.
“It is possible. But, if that were the case, then I think we would have been dealt with by now. And killing a brother, particularly one as famous as Brother Barrelmender, would be awfully bold. Even for folk in such a wild area. After all, there has to be a garrison of the Baron’s soldiers here, somewhere.”
“So I guess we go find them now, then.”
“That, or try asking at the tavern,” said Choke.
Peep frowned. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not take the chance of eating or drinking someone’s spit, thanks. Or poison. The vibe I’m getting here, I think it’d be best to steer clear of locals as much as possible.”
Choke and Peep moved back around to the front of the church and basically repeated their conversation with Pinch and Knuckle. Then the squad mounted up to find the garrison.
This turned out not to be difficult. Through the square and a little ways further up the lane was the crest of the hill between the two creeks. There, a slender and tall watchtower flying the Baron’s green and black overlooked all. When they reached the watchtower, at its base the squad found a stone building with an attached stables, occupied by three unarmored spearmen who were lounging in front of the building.
“Hail!” said Pinch with an upraised palm as they approached. “Greetings to you! Are you the Baron’s men?”
The spearmen exchanged a worried look. After a long pause, the eldest of them sighed deeply.
“Who wants to know?” he asked.
“Do you mean to tell me you haven’t figured it out?” Choke interjected. “The way we’ve been received here, this is either the most unfriendly, Stron-forsaken place in the United Kingdoms, or everyone here knows exactly who we are and want no part of us. So, soldier, if a little courtesy for warriors of the Faith is too much to ask, then allow me to introduce ourselves. She is Otilla of the Holy Fire. They are: Theodas and Nikolas. And I am Bartholomew. And now I ask you: are you the Baron’s men?”
The man glared hard at Choke, but finally answered:
“Aye. What d’ye want?”
“To speak to whomever is in command of the garrison here. Assuming it is not you, sir,” Choke said with a smirk.
“That would be Lieutenant Dixon.”
“Okay,” Choke said, waiting for the man to add something more.
The man did not. He and his two fellows remained seated in their lounging posture.
“Very well. What is your name, soldier?” Choke said as he unlimbered his lance from his stirrup and saddle loop and nudged his horse, Nike, to take a few steps towards the men.
The men all tensed and looked like they might get to their feet.
Peep, who had been riding with her shortbow cradled in her lap, took it in hand properly as she notched an arrow.
“Easy now, boys,” Pinch said. Then he and Knuckle both dismounted and moved to flanking positions.
“Name and rank, soldier,” Choke said.
“I do not answer to the likes of you,” the man replied. Still seated, he nonetheless squared himself up as he gripped both of his knees tightly. The men to either side of him looked more frightened than ever.
“That is true. And may remain so. Tell me: who is the magistrate here in Bristlehump?”
The man stared back.
“Let me be clear to the three of you now,” Choke said loudly, so that anyone hiding around might hear him as well. “We have come from Spitzer to see the lawful magistrate of Bristlehump. We have found the town’s gate unmanned and open, the church locked up and apparently deserted, and the three of you, in no colors, here under the banner of the Lord Baron Hart. Given how hostile you appear to be, I now fear there is foul play afoot. How are we to know that the three of you are indeed the Baron’s men and not some bandits?”
Choke pitched the word, “bandits,” loud in an irate shout as he finally let fly his temper. Looking murderous, he continued shouting:
“So! Now! Tell me! Who is the lawful magistrate of this town?”
As Choke leveled this question at the senior man, he did so level his lance at him as well. He was still several meters from the men, but Nike, responding to his master’s energy, broke into a spirited prance as he lashed the air in front of him with his hooves.
The man blanched.
“Barrelmender! Barrelmender, okay? Fuck! Settle down, man! We’re not bandits!” the man wailed.
Choke reined Nike backwards a couple of meters.
“Better,” he said. “If you’re not soldiers, then at least you are well-informed bandits.”
“We’re not bandits!”
“So you say! Well, then, if you are soldiers, how about acting like it? Stand up!” bellowed Choke.
All three men immediately stood up at attention.
“Better! Now, you,” Choke jabbed his lance the leader’s way. “Name and rank!”
The man glared at him, but answered smartly:
“Corporal Munge. But I say I again, I aint obliged to answer to the likes of you.”
“Corporal? Have you been working your way down to spearman from sergeant? Corporal! Now I really have seen everything! Well, corporal, I don’t care what you think you are obliged to do, or not. Cross me now and see what happens. I’m in no mood,” Choke said.
Corporal Munge closed his eyes to give this pronouncement a good think. He was a tallish, lanky fellow, in either a hard-lived, early middle-age, or a robust later middle-age. He was kitted in rough and rugged bush wear, with a big, chopping camp dagger on one hip and a long fighting dagger on the other. He looked the type that could be quite dangerous if given half the chance.
Having given Choke’s words a proper circuit of his head, Corporal Munge opened his eyes languidly and spat on the ground between them.
“Mighty big words sitting tall in the saddle with us outnumbered. But that’s how ye jinks be. A right terror on horseback with numbers. Not much worth a shit, otherwise.”
Knuckle laughed: a loud, rolling, boisterous laugh of earnest amusement.
“Dood!” he shouted. “Nice tough talk! As if ye didn’t just a minute ago shoot a squirt of shit into yar britches! ‘Ah! We’re not bandits! Come on, man! Settle down!’ Ha!” Knuckle put on a pussy’s falsetto as he mimicked Munge’s words.
Munge glared at Knuckle, but did not like what he saw there and quickly looked away.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Knuckle said. “I’m afoot, just as I like it, so if ye wanna have a go at someone one on one, I’m yar lad.”
“No one is fighting here,” Choke interjected tiredly before he again addressed Corporal Munge: “You are entitled to your opinions, sir. And in your rudeness expressing them, you shame only yourself. But now I will have an answer: where is Lieutenant Dixon?”
“He aint here,” Munge said.
Choke sat atop Nike and glared hard at Munge, who was now staring off into space with a hard-set expression. Finally, it was one of his fellows that broke:
“Lieutenant is probably down the Cowslip Holler at Tully’s. And if he aint there, then they’ll have a better notion of how to find him.”
“Okay. At long last we begin to get somewhere. Where is Cowslip Holler,” Choke asked the man.
The fellow slipped a glance sideways at Corporal Munge to see how his cooperation was going over. Munge’s expression was no different. Looking sick, the man went on, gesturing to the west:
“Well, sir, that down there is Cowslip Crick, which runs outta Cowslip Holler.”
“As it would,” Peep interjected. “And Tully’s is a tavern or a hoorhouse, I’m guessing?”
“A bit of both, I reckon, ma’am.”
“And what’s the best way to get there? If we push on over the hill here, can we get back down into the holler?” Peep asked.
“Yeah, that’ll work. But the fastest way is to head back out to the Crotch, where the cricks meet, I mean, and head on up Cowslip from there.”
“Well, alright then. Thank you for your help, soldier. What’s your name?” Choke asked.
“Everyone just calls me Biscuit, sir.”
“Well thank you, Biscuit,” Choke said. He dug a big copper coin out of his pouch and flicked it to the man, who grabbed and disappeared it smartly.
“Alright, then. Let’s go,” Choke said as he wheeled his horse away from the soldiers.
Before he mounted his horse, Knuckle slid his warhammer halfway out of its loop on his belt and grinned at Munge.
“We aint goin nowhere. So you wanna take up what we talked about, you just come and find me. I’ll give ye a couple of extra elbows so’s ye can fuck yarself all the better.” Knuckle then swallowed a couple of big gulps of air before loudly belching: “Bye-bye!”
Riding back out of Bristlehump the way they had come in, Peep gave Knuckle a swat on his ass with her arrow before putting it away.
“Man, but ye do have a way with words, Knuckle,” she laughed. “I must admit, when we first met, I was slow to appreciation, but I’m a big fan of yar recent work!”
“Thank you!” Knuckle belched at her.
“That corporal is a piece of work, aint he?” Pinch said.
“Fucker’s got some sand, though,” Knuckle conceded.
“Yeah, he does. And I’d bet a bottle of brandy against a squirrel stew that he’s shady as fuck. Those other two are scared shitless of him. He’s one to keep our eye on,” Peep said.
“Agreed,” said Pinch. “Someone that shitty who’s a corporal must have something going on.”
“Let’s just hope that young Biscuit there didn’t get himself into too much trouble by helping us,” Choke said.
“Well, that’s his journey. I’m sure he knows what he’s about,” Peep said.
“Nah!” exclaimed Knuckle. “The bitch just wasn’t clear in his own self who he was meant to be more scared of. Coward’s mistake. He’s probably the unit’s pillow-biter! Biscuit? Whose gravy is he soaking up?”
Everyone but Choke had a good laugh at this as they road on down to the Crotch to head up into Cowslip Holler.