Table of Contents – (spoilers)
Cowslip Holler was a pleasant, forested hollow with the Cowslip Creek running through it. The village of Bristlehump had spilled beyond its palisade walls and up the hollow. There were a good number of mature chestnut trees, with quaint-looking cottages and cabins spread out beneath them.
Riding through the hollow, it was obvious that the few locals they saw had already been made well-aware of who the squad were. It was mostly women and children, and they all ran for cover.
A few hundred meters up the creek was what only could be Tully’s tavern and brothel. It was a large, single-floor, sprawling building with a wide veranda under a mossy, wood-shingled roof.
A number of women were on the veranda accompanying some patrons at a late breakfast. The smell of stugroot, bacon, and fried potatoes filled the air as the squad reined up at the hitching posts in front of the joint.
As they did, a big man that had been standing inside the building stepped out through its open door. He had a loaded crossbow in hand with a quiver slung over his shoulder. His weapon belt sported a thick cudgel and a hunting knife.
“Greetings!” Pinch said, still mounted, as he raised his right palm towards the man.
Behind Pinch, Peep slowly pulled an arrow from her quiver and notched it. She kept the bow pointed down, but was ready to shoot in an instant.
“Listen, guy, we know who ye all are, and we don’t want any trouble here,” the man said.
“Well, that’s good!” Pinch answered. “That should make everything so much easier for all of us.”
“Interesting, though, that knowing who we are, and what we represent, you would assume that we are bound to make trouble for you here,” Choke said.
“Well, aren’t ye? Ravens and their ways aint welcome here. Yar ways aint ours!”
“And yet you are all meant to be under the legal jurisdiction of a black robe,” Choke said calmly. “At least, that was what we were told in Spitzer. Is Brother Cornelius Barrelmender of the Brothers of the Holy Stone not magistrate of the Baron’s law here in Bristlehump?”
“Well, whatever he is, or aint, he don’t get up in our shit about Church things. And that’s how we like it! So, if ye know what’s good for ye, ye’d best turn around and go back the way ye came. Don’t be riling things up around here with that damned iron wheel of yars!”
“Damned iron Wheel, you say?” Choke said as a rage thrummed up through him.
It was then that one of the patrons seated on the veranda to the side of the entrance chose to intervene with an upraised hand:
“Now, now, Tully. Let’s not get off on the wrong foot with these folks and give them the wrong impression of ourselves.”
The man was in his thirties, of normal build, and was handsome, with a charming smile. He was dressed in good-quality, rustic gear, with a sheathed longsword, a longbow, and a quiver leaning on the wall behind him. Seated with him was a big thug with a battleaxe, and a pair of Tully’s women.
“You must be Bartholomew, sir,” the main hailed Choke. “Come from Spitzer with Otilla. We have heard much of you!”
“So it would seem,” Choke answered. “And may I ask your name, sir?”
“Indeed! I am Lieutenant Neil Dixon. I command the garrison here at Bristlehump.”
“Just the man we came to see. May we have a word with you, Lieutenant?” Choke asked.
“By all means! Please, join us! Have a seat!” Lieutenant Dixon gestured to the vacant table next to his. “Tully! Be nice! Get our guests something to drink.”
As the squad dismounted and hitched their horses, Tully glowered at them. When they came up the steps, though, he relented. “Alright then, what’ll ye have?” he asked.
“Nah, we’re good,” Peep said before anyone could respond, tapping the side of her nose at Choke.
Tully spat over the veranda railing into the dirt and went back inside his joint. Lieutenant Dixon and his man made no move to stand up or offer their hands as the squad filed past them.
“So, how may I be of service,” Lieutenant Dixon asked when the squad had all taken a seat.
“Well, Lieutenant, I suppose you know why we are here,” Choke said.
“Not really,” Dixon answered. “What we know, we heard from the Chisel when he came here looking for you about, what was it?” Dixon looked to his man, “about two or three weeks ago, wasn’t it?”
The man grunted his assent as he idly mopped up some bacon grease from his plate with a hunk of bread.
“Yes” Dixon continued, “the Chisel said that you had declared your intention of coming here to offer your service to Barrelmender. But the word of someone like that, engaged in what he was, is surely not to be trusted.”
“No doubt,” Peep interjected. “And just look at what became of him in Callic.”
“Indeed. We have heard that he ran afoul of Captain Fairchild, acting directly under the Baron’s orders. On your behalf, Miss Otilla. Do we have that right?”
“Yeah. That’s right,” Peep answered. “But they let him go. You haven’t heard where he wound up, have ye?”
Lieutenant Dixon shook his head mildly.
“So, about Brother Barrelmender, I was hoping you could help us locate him, Lieutenant,” Choke cut in.
Dixon winced. “Well, I certainly can, but I am sorry to say that I don’t think he’s going to be as you hope.”
“What do you mean?” Choke asked.
“Listen,” Dixon leaned towards Choke with a confiding air, “I am more than happy to take you to him myself. This morning. However, before I do, may I bend your ear a little?”
“Thank you. Now, as you have probably noticed, the folk in these parts are quite a bit different than folks elsewhere in Spaggot. Now, I will admit, I never took very strongly to religion, myself. Don’t get me wrong, I am a Stron-fearing man. But I have never felt compelled to take it to a level where I seek to influence others on the subject. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Choke said again, deadpan.
Dixon’s friendly veneer was now beginning to crack, as the resolve in Choke’s eyes began to penetrate him.
“Yes, well,” Dixon went on, glancing away briefly before rallying himself to push on, “my job here is to keep the peace. It is not to push the holy stoners’ particular view of Stronian orthodoxy.”
“Your job being the commander of the garrison, you mean, Lieutenant,” Choke said.
“Out of curiosity, how many men do you command?”
“An even thirty,” Lieutenant Dixon answered with a strained smile.
“Thirty. If you don’t mind, Lieutenant, if you have thirty men at your disposal, why is it, then, that the village’s gate goes unmanned? And why only three idle, insolent men at the watchtower, which I assume to be your headquarters? Is that right? The watchtower in the village is your headquarters, is it not?” Choke asked with a steady, calm voice.
“Now look here,” Dixon came back, his irritation finally breaking through, “how I choose to manage things here is none of your damned business! Bristlehump is a peaceful place! Everyone gets along, and such threats as there are in the area are out in the bush, where I keep most of my men posted, if you must know.”
“Oh, is that the situation? Very good, sir. Now, if I may, though: you said that your job here is to keep the peace. Is that correct?”
“Yes. It is,” Dixon snapped.
“Well, if I may, sir, I think you overstate your mandate in this,” Choke said.
“Indeed you do. Legally speaking, it is the lawful magistrate of the lord whose duty it is to keep the peace. That would be Brother Cornelius Barrelmender, would it not? As the commander of the garrison of the King’s army, in times of peace, it is your duty to support the magistrate in any such way that you can.”
“Is that so?”
“Indeed it is, sir.”
“And how would someone like you know that?” Dixon asked with a contemptuous sneer.
“Because I am a graduate of a Brothers of the Holy Stone school, sir. And I attended to my lessons. As well as religion, we study law: both Stronian and secular. So, seeing as these are times of peace here, as indeed they are, since you have just stated it to be such, Brother Barrelmender is the one charged to keep the peace. You and your men are the ones charged to help him do so. In this the law is unequivocal,” Choke returned with a smug smile of his own.
“Barrelmender, huh? Well, let’s just say he hasn’t been up to the task,” Dixon said.
“I couldn’t agree with you more, sir. The degree to which becomes more clear to me with every passing minute in this place. And I am quite sure that he and everyone else around are quite grateful to you for stepping into the breach. All I ask is that you not confuse your understandable response to an unfortunate situation to be a legally correct posture.”
“Oh, you ask that, do you? Of me. Here. That is rich, I must say. So what is it exactly that you want?” Lieutenant Dixon snapped.
“I told you that already, sir. We are seeking Brother Barrelmender. You are the one who wanted to delay us in that in order to speak to me. So, I might quite appropriately ask you the same question, Lieutenant,” Choke said.
“Listen, I will take you to him if that’s what ye want. But you need to understand that if you rile him up into pushing a bunch of holy stoner religion around here, then things are not going to be peaceful for long. That’s all I’m trying to tell you,” Lieutenant Dixon said.
“Understood, sir. Now, in response, I would ask you to look at the four of us closely. Do we seem like people who value peace?” Choke said with a cold smile. “The folk here are subjects of the King of Bitina, as are you. Stronians all. If being reminded of such is going to bring conflict, then I welcome that. For it means that Stron has put us precisely where we need to be. Do you understand me, sir?”
“Yes, I think I do,” Lieutenant Dixon said with a horror rising up in him.
“Good. Now, sir, if that is all, and if you would be so kind, please show us to Brother Barrelmender.”
The ride to Brother Cornelius Barrelmender with Lieutenant Neil Dixon and his man was an awkward one. The place was just a ten-minute ride over the hump between the creeks, located in the hollow opposite the Cowslip Holler. They took a good, wide trail that skirted the northern edge of the village’s palisade before dropping back down to into the next hollow.
“So that crick we left, the one by Tully’s, that’s the Cowslip, right?” Peep asked Dixon.
After a long, sullen pause, he finally answered: “Yes.”
“So this one we’re heading down to here, what’s it called?” she pushed on, undeterred.
“It’s the Bristle Creek.”
“So we’d be heading down into the Bristle Holler, then,” Peep said.
“And when the two cricks join at the Crotch, what’s the name of the crick that goes down to the Spitz River?” asked Peep cheerfully, clearly enjoying the level of annoyance the Lieutenant was exhibiting.
“That’s the Bristle, too.”
“Ah. So the Bristle swallows up the Cowslip. I always wondered how they decided which would win when they named cricks and rivers back in the day. So, that’s the Bristle Crick in the Bristle Holler, which makes the village Bristlehump on account of it being up there on that hump, or hill, I suppose,” Peep went on.
“Yes. Brilliant observation, Miss Otilla,” Lieutenant Dixon griped.
“Thank ye. It’s nice to be recognized by someone as smart and competent as yarself,” Peep grinned.
Barrelmender’s spot was a pleasant little, two-story cottage on an inside elbow of one of the Bristle Creek’s oxbows. It had a good-sized garden and some nice trees inside a low stone wall. Lieutenant Dixon rode up to the gate and gave a piercing whistle.
“Brother Barrelmender! It’s Dixon! Your Pekot strays have finally turned up!”
A woman came out from the side of the cottage, with two smaller children hiding behind her skirts.
“Oh, hello Lieutenant,” she said, not looking particularly pleased. Her humor faded even further as she beheld the squad.
“Hello, Shasta. Is Brother Barrelmender free?” Dixon asked.
“Well, he’s up and about, if that’s what ye mean. He’s off fishing this morning. I expect him back after lunch.”
“Thank you, Shasta,” Dixon nodded to the woman before turning to Choke. “This is Barrelmender’s place. I’m assuming you can figure out things from here.”
“Yes, I expect we can,” Choke said, glowering at the woman.
Dixon nodded. Then he turned back to her:
“Shasta. This is Otilla of the Holy Fire and her Pekot men. They come here seeking yar man. On very legal and official magisterial matters, it would seem. Is it alright if I leave them with you? Despite what they look like, they are not bandits. At least, not anymore.”
The woman, Shasta, brushed her hands off on her apron before waving Dixon off.
“Yes, yes, Lieutenant. You can leave them with me. I’ll take it from here,” she said.
“Wait a minute,” Knuckle said, looking deeply confused. “This is Barrelmender’s place? So, who’s she? His housekeeper?”
At this, Lieutenant Dixon barked a laugh. “Housekeeper! Ha! Is that how ye ravens tart things up for confessional? Sure, let’s go with that. Housekeeper! That’s rich!”
Dixon and his man laughed their way back over the ford of the creek to the main trail. When they were gone, Shasta broke the awkward silence.
“Well, seeing as yar with the Church, and all, I suppose I should have ye in and show ye what hospitality I can. Ye can let yar horses loose in the paddock over there, just mind not to let the cow out. I’ll set up the patio table round the side of the house there. Just come on when yar set.”
Shasta nodded to them all and then hurried into the cottage with the two children.
“Okay, what the hell is going on?” Knuckle asked, still looking profoundly flummoxed.
“Knuckle, come on, man. Barrelmender’s shacked up with her,” Pinch said.
“What?” Knuckle looked stunned. “But he’s a Brother!”
“Okay, what’s the fuss?” Peep asked. “He’s got a woman. So what?”
“So, Peep, Brothers of the Holy Stone must take a strict vow of celibacy. As must priests of most Stronian orders,” Choke said.
“What does that mean?”
“It means no fucking,” Pinch answered.
“Okay, what?” Peep said, giving her head a stunned shake. “I don’t even know where to start with that. But what about this situation, here? Is this shit safe? Is this a setup? It seems like it’s legit. So, if she’s Barrelmender’s woman, she oughta be friendly enough to our type that she can be trusted.”
“She doesn’t seem explicitly hostile to us, at least. Just mildly bothered, which is better than we’ve had anywhere else around here,” Pinch agreed, at last getting his head around the situation enough to proceed.
“Right, and if Dixon was trying to set us up, this aint how he’d do it,” Peep said. “He was with us the whole time. There’d be no way to set this up as a trap.”
“This is not a trap!” Choke snapped. “It is precisely what it seems to be, which is bad enough. The traps and snares are going to come later, when those with cause to harm us have had time to prepare themselves properly. What we have found today has all been nothing more than corruption and human frailty playing itself out naturally on all fronts.”
“So normal, everyday life, ye mean,” Peep said.
“I suppose,” Choke conceded. “Even so, I’m inclined to think that your worry about a setup isn’t completely unfounded. Peep and Pinch: why don’t the two of you take a quick look around? Full perimeter check. Stick together.”
Peep and Pinch nodded and both slipped off on foot with their bows at the ready. Choke and Knuckle took their time getting their horses and mule into the little paddock with Shasta’s milk cow. It took just a few minutes for Pinch and Peep to rejoin them.
“All clear,” Pinch said.
“Okay, good. So, now, I suppose we have no other choice but to wait here for Barrelmender. But be on our guard. If the Outfit still has a bounty out on us, then surely the folk around here would know of it, and they have made their feelings about us perfectly clear,” said Choke.
“And that Lieutenant is bent. Sure as shit,” Peep interjected.
“Agreed. And even if he isn’t, that whoremonger Tully knew exactly where we were heading. So anyone around who means us harm now knows exactly where we are. Stay alert,” Choke said.
“Sure. But do you think they’d try to kill us here at Barrelmender’s place? A bit bold, don’t you think?” Pinch said.
“Surely. But we can’t be entirely sure this is Barrelmender’s place. Be that as it may, we have no other choice. Sooner or later, someone around here is going to make an attempt on us,” Choke said.
“And when they do, everyone around is gonna learn why that is a really fuckin bad idea,” Knuckle said with a big grin.
“Fuckin A!” Peep said, holding her first out for Knuckle to bump. Choke and Pinch both followed suit.
With the horses secured, the squad left the paddock and moved around the side of the cottage to the patio, where Shasta had finished setting up a table with enough simple wooden chairs. It was a lovely spot. The Bristle Creek gurgled along just a few meters away in an oxbow that enclosed that side of the property. There were a few crabapple trees here, with some hedges at the creek side. The patio was cobbled with smooth creek stones.
What the spot did not have, however, was a view of the paddock. All four of them noticed this immediately, but Peep was the first to react by shaking her head with a slashing hand gesture across her neck.
“Nope,” she said. “We need to be out front.”
“Excuse me?” Shasta said as she came out the cottage’s back door with a basket of wooden cups in hand.
“I am sorry, ma’am, it is very lovely here, but I am afraid we must stay out front where we can see our horses,” Pinch said.
Shasta stared at him for a long moment before she snapped: “What?”
“I am sorry. I understand how this seems, but we really must keep watch on our horses. And we need to stick together,” Pinch said.
“Just what d’ye think of us here? Ye think I’m some kind a bandit, set to trap ye? Whad’ye take us for!” Shasta exclaimed, ire spilling out of her unimpeded.
“I am sorry, ma’am,” Pinch said with genuine contrition. “It is nothing about you. It is our own private matter. I apologize for any offense taken. None was meant. And we do thank you for your hospitality. With your permission, we will go out front and wait for Brother Barrelmender there.”
Shasta scowled long and hard at Pinch and the others. While she did this, Peep sighed impatiently and cuffed Knuckle on the hip and gestured for him to follow her. She went back around to the front of the cottage. Knuckle shrugged and left too.
“Well, alright then,” Shasta said. “Suit yarselves. But I’ll not have ye sitting out there in the dirt like we’re some kind of heathens that don’t know the first thing about hospitality. Ye move the table and chairs wherever ye will, and I’ll serve ye there,” Shasta barked. Then she continued talking to herself as she went back into the cottage: “keeping watch! A bunch of bandits, are we? Oh, don’t let yar guard down around here! For savages as they are, they’ll…”
Choke and Pinch exchanged a look before each picking up an end of the table and bringing it out front. They set it in a nice, shady spot with a good view of the front gate and their horses in the paddock. Then they went back and brought the five chairs so that they could have a seat. Shasta brought her basket of cups out to the table and then went back into the cottage. While she was inside, Peep leaned in over the table and whispered:
“Are we gonna drink what she serves?”
Choke sighed. “I think we must. She will not take kindly to us refusing, and I do not have the feeling that she means us harm.”
Shasta brought out a big clay jug and served them all a cool ale. Then she went and got a platter of bread and cheese with a bowl of nuts and dried berries.
“Alright, then. That’s the best I can manage. Give a call when ye need more. Cornelius will be back in within a few hours. He packed a lunch today, so he’ll be a spell.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” Pinch said, standing up to give her a bow. “But won’t you join us? At least for a little?”
Shasta glowered at him. “Yeah, well, it’s not like I have all the time in the world to idle away, like some folk. If yar gonna be staying on for dinner, I’ll have to get working on that. But, I suppose I can take a load off for a minute.”
She went back inside to refill the ale jug and get herself a cup. When she sat down, her two children came to the cottage door to peek out at her and the visitors. There was a boy and a girl, about three and four years old. They both looked well-fed and healthy.
Shasta poured herself an ale and drank without toasting, so the others did as well. The ale was hoppy and good. Shasta then leaned back in her chair and ran an appraising eye over the squad. She flinched just a little when she finally had a good look at Knuckle’s terrible spider bite scars.
“So…” she finally said, “the Pekot Bunch finally show up. And with Otilla of the Holy Fire. So, tell me: are ye witch burners?”
“We have no intention of being so. We are warriors of the Faith,” Choke said.
“Oh, is that what ye are, is it? And why are ye here?”
“I suppose you know that already. We are here to offer our services to Brother Barrelmender. He is here representing the Brothers of the Holy Stone as the legal magistrate for Baron Hart, is he not?” Choke asked.
Shasta chuckled darkly. “Oh, is that what he’s meant to be doing? Sounds important! My oh my! I should be so lucky!”
“We should all be so lucky, I expect,” Choke said.
“Ha! Ye got that right!” Shasta laughed. Then she settled down, giving Choke, Pinch, and then Knuckle each a conspiratorial look in turn. “Ye, know… when he first come here to the church about five years ago, and me with my Alan killed just a couple months before that, and knowing that it was high time to choose which of the knuckle-dragging bushpigs sniffing around was gonna be riding me so’s I could make a go of this place, and Cornelius came to the church, and I seen how he was, and I realized that I could have him, and that being a priest’s molly would be a far sight better than someone born low like me had any right to expect, and I thought, ‘yeah, this is gonna be alright!’”
Shasta finished this by taking another sip of ale as she stared off into space.
“So, how was he, exactly?” Pinch finally asked.
“Ye said that when he came here, ye saw how he was and you realized you could have him. So, how was he?” Pinch asked again.
“Broken. He was broken. And I know what them fire priests are usually like. How they’re not the sort to take on a woman. At least not in a way that’s gonna do her any good. But I thought, ye know, that with him being in that state, that I could get in past the guard, and then build him up into something worth having. That’s what I thought.”
“And how’d that work out?” Pinch asked.
Shasta looked thoughtful for a moment. “Not too bad, at first. Yeah… I’d have to say, not too bad. For a while. But then that rot inside him ate up everything I tried to build. Like he’s got termites inside. Like a log in the woods that looks like a log until ye try to lean on it and it just crumbles. Full of stale air and rot and nothing of any use to anyone.
“And, ye know, he did okay for us those first few years. He did his sermons regular enough that folk knew there was someone up there reliable enough to bring their injuries and illnesses to. And we did good by that. But then the Solluna Union priest came around, and no one needs Cornelius for healing no more. And now… well, what’s the point of him?”
“I am sure I have no idea,” Choke said crossly. “And your private matters are really none of our business.”
“Ah, so yar the one that’s gonna be the boss of us now, are ye?” Shasta looked at Choke without ill will, speaking plainly, as a matter of fact. “Ye got yar iron wheel on and yar gonna do what’s right. Gonna fight what needs fighting. Yar gonna take this mess in hand and get everything set back right. I see ye.”
“I am glad that you do.”
“But ye’d better see me, right? Cornelius always said that one day Church men would come and all this would end. He would be taken away and replaced with someone new. Someone fresh, who hadn’t been broken by the Wheel. But ye haven’t come to take him away, have ye? At least, not in the way that he meant. Ye’ve been sent to fix him, by one of them bloody ravens that broke him in the first place. But even if ye do it, and ye wind up with a Barrelmender that’s worth a damn, then he’s still gonna be lost to us. He’ll turn his back on us. So, either way I lose. I’m either stuck with the hollow termite man, or he leaves just when he’s worth having.”
“And whose fault is that?” Peep asked.
“Yeah, I hear ye. My lot in life is my own doing. I shoulda settled down as a lumberjack’s wife when I had the chance. I know it. But I sure aint gonna take the blame for his condition. If ye wanna light me up as the witch seductress that corrupted a good man of the black robes, well I aint gonna play along with that. Ye’ll have to torture that story outta me, as yar types do. Because he was broken when I found him. And he aint no worse now than he was back then. He’s been the blight on me, on us. Not the other way around.”
“Well, okay then,” Pinch said.
Shasta grunted. “So, ye’ll be staying on for dinner, then.” It was not a question.
“Yes, I suppose we will. Thank you, ma’am,” Pinch said.
“And then I suppose ye’ll be staying on for a spell, up at the church, like. Ye know, to help out with the churching and the lawing and to try to fix Cornelius for the ravens and what have ye,” Shasta said.
“Yes, I suppose that is the plan,” Pinch conceded.
“Well, then, I guess ye’d best be dropping that, ‘ma’am,’ nonsense. Call me Shasta. If yar gonna be taking up that burdensome man, as I have, then we’re gonna be getting right familiar with each other. Shared sorrows make comrades of the unlikeliest, after all.”
Choke blinked at this, as he recognized the Holy Book passage Shasta had just referenced. She noted his surprise.
“That’s right, Mr Boss Man, we aren’t all heathens up here. And Cornelius spews that Holy Book talk plenty when he’s having his fits of self-improvement and berates me for the corrupting whore that I am. So, seeing as yar gonna be staying on, I suppose I should be catching yar names, huh?”
Choke and Pinch goggled at each other as they realized they had failed to introduce themselves.
“Yeah, Dixon just said you was Otilla’s Pekot men. I never caught no handles,” Shasta said.
“Ah. Pardon us again for our rudeness. This is Bartholomew and Theodas. I am Nikolas. Of course, she is Otilla.”
“Yeah, okay. Them’s yar church names. But they aint the handles ye use with each other. Mr Boss Man,” Shasta said to Choke, “you were calling them something else when ye sent them to skulk around my bushes in search of bushwhackers.”
Choke flushed as he realized Shasta must have overheard everything he had said at her front gate. Then he sighed and gave Pinch the go-ahead to tell Shasta their handles.
“Well, I’m Pinch. He’s Choke. That’s Knuckle. And she’s Peep.”
“And there we have it. Comrades with a shared sorrow of managing Brother Cornelius Barrelmender of the most holy Brothers of the Holy Stone,” Shasta said. She then leaned forward in her chair, subtly adjusting the front of her frock as she did so as to give them all a nice view of her ample cleavage.
“My handle around here, when our honorable magistrate can bother himself to notice me, tends to be, harpy, or whore.” Shasta sensually wet her lips with her tongue as she slowly contemplated each of the lads in turn. “He’s not wrong, though. I do know my way around the dark and shameful parts of men and their wants.”
Shasta let this sit as Peep giggled quietly at the boys’ awkward discomfort. Then their hostess drained her beer and stood up from the table with a burp.
“Ye all relax and make yarselves right at home. I’ll gonna get on with dinner. Don’t ye worry, I’m gonna be taking good care of ye. Yar safe and sound with Shasta, boys, ye can trust in that.”