Table of Contents – (spoilers)
It was late afternoon by the time Brother Cornelius Barrelmender of the Brothers of the Holy Stone returned to his cottage from fishing. He approached from the lane, walking with a resigned plod with a fishing rod in one hand and a basket in the other.
Pinch was the first to spot him, and gave a low bird whistle to alert his fellows. The squad were still seated at the table in front of the cottage. As Barrelmender neared his gate, they stood up so as to greet him properly.
In middle-age, Barrelmender was a striking man. Tall and thin, under the black robes of his order he seemed a geometric creature of triangles, squares, and rhombuses competing with each other; sharp edges of his form poked out here and there from the loose wool as he moved. His face, too, was a thing of stark angles. Deep-set eyes under square brow, hawk-like nose between sharp cheekbones, and sunken cheeks hollowed over a chiseled jaw all provided canvas for life’s work of deep-etched lines of worry, frown, and grimace.
Even with the squad standing directly in his path in front of his cottage, Barrelmender did not notice them until he was through his gate and almost upon them. Then he stopped dead and stared at them, expressionless.
Finally, after a long moment, Pinch raised his hand in greeting.
“Hello, Brother. Our apologies for surprising you. Please allow me to intro—” Pinch managed to start.
“You would be Bartholomew,” Brother Barrelmender interrupted Pinch, with all of his attention on Choke.
“Yes, Brother,” Choke answered, straightening up as though on parade inspection. In Holy Stone robes overtop of his chainmail, with Brother Willem’s iron Wheel around his neck, Choke had no doubt that he cut an appropriate figure.
In meeting Barrelmender’s eye, Choke had no clear notion of what to expect from this fallen man. Instead of shame or defiance, as might be expected, there was dead-eyed calm. Then, as Barrelmender finished his own evaluation of Choke, his eyes shifted and showed deep and profound sorrow and weariness.
“So you have found me out at last,” Barrelmender said. “Very well, then. Sit. All of you. Sit,” Barrelmender gestured for the four to return to the table. Once they had, he sat down in the chair that had previously been occupied by Shasta. He spent a moment staring at her empty beer cup with loathing.
Before anyone could speak, Shasta and the two children came out of the cabin. Shasta moved to where Barrelmender had dropped his fishing rod and basket.
“So, did ye catch anything?” she asked.
Barrelmender gave no answer, but the empty basket Shasta picked up told the sorry tale. She then grabbed the fishing rod and felt the line wrapped around the little pegs at its base.
“Dry. Ye know, Cornelius, if yar gonna go and waste a whole day pretending to fish, ye might at least wet the line before coming back empty handed!” she said.
“I might do that, if placating you was of the slightest importance to me, you dismal, wretched harpy.” Despite the nature of his words, Barrelmender’s voice betrayed no emotion.
“And what a useful, delightful man ye are, come back to us just in time to eat good food ye had no hand in providing.”
Sitting straight as a statue, Barrelmender closed his eyes and waited for Shasta to disappear. As soon as she had, by going around the side of the cottage to put away the fishing gear, he opened his eyes again. The children, however, stayed out front this time. The boy, who was about five, scampered up a nearby tree and took up a perch like a monkey overlooking the table. The girl, who seemed almost four, came to stand right next to Barrelmender. She leaned into his side and stared at the squad with calm eyes. Looking at the children next to Barrelmender, there could be no doubt that he was their father.
Barrelmender looked to his daughter and sighed deeply. For a moment it seemed as though he might fall apart. However, he was able to wrap his arm around her in something akin to a hug and pull her up into his lap, where she curled up.
“And so you find me, Brother Bartholomew,” Barrelmender said quietly to Choke.
Choke stared awkwardly back, unable to speak to this man he had been conditioned his whole life to venerate and obey.
“You must understand, that I did not come here seeking to fail. I harbored some hope that Altas, if not Stron, who despises the weak such as myself, might find it in his heart to heal me. If even just enough to carry out some semblance of my duties.”
Even devoid of emotion as it was, Barrelmender’s voice was strong and pleasing. It matched his face and frame well, and left no doubt that, sufficiently motivated, the man would be a compelling and charismatic speaker.
However, as he spoke it became obvious that Shasta’s harsh words about the man had likely been correct. There was something wrong inside him, as though there was not a complete man within to fill out his form. His face, chiseled as it was, seemed as though it ought to be alive with expression, but was somehow lifeless as a statue, even as it moved.
As Barrelmender spoke, Choke found his eye drawn to a patch of small scars on his left jaw and cheek. They were a series of little dents arranged in crescents: one on his lower left cheek, with another mirroring it just under the jaw. With horror, Choke realized the scar could only be that of a human’s bite. Or, he thought, remembering Barrelmender’s history as an undead-fighter, what had once been human.
If Barrelmender noticed Choke’s attention, he gave no indication of it as he continued:
“Yes, I came here if not with strong intention to do good, then, at least, without intention to do sin. But I could not resist her…” Barrelmender paused here for a long moment as he contemplated Shasta’s beer cup in front of him with even greater disgust and loathing.
“…her advances,” he finished.
Barrelmender paused in thought for a long spell again, before picking up the offending cup and throwing it through the cottage’s open door. The clatter of it landing elicited an irate squawk from Shasta somewhere inside.
“You see,” Barrelmender continued, his eyes now piercing Choke intensely, “the distinction is important. Resisting her was not the issue. For what is she? What in her nature could be attractive? Set a collection of cakes and pastries upon a table and they will tempt all who see them. For in their very nature, they are desirable. They need not act in order to be desired; they must simply exist. That is their nature.
“But what of that swine?” Barrelmender flicked his hand dismissively the cabin’s way. “Nothing in her nature makes her desirable. Would I have noticed her if she had not taken action to make me do so? No. And this is the critical distinction. Resisting her was something that I would not have even noticed, for such is the natural equilibrium of things. Her advances, however, were another matter.”
“This amuses you, does it?” Barrelmender asked her coldly.
“Well, yeah. Sorry, but this all sounds to me like ye were sitting in a room by yarself and so ye ripped a heinous fart. Ye know, stunk the place right up. Fierce,” Peep said with her grin.
Knuckle and Pinch both started giggling at her. Barrelmender sighed tiredly, but waved his hand for her to continue.
“So then we walk in and there’s no avoiding it. We’re all huffing yar stink. And instead of just saying, ‘oops,’ or having a good laugh at our expense, yar sitting here trying to explain to us which parts of what we’re breathing is actually fresh air, and which parts are fart. I mean, what difference does it make?”
“I take your point. But, as a woman, I would not expect you to understand the distinction I am attempting to make. The young men here, however, might be well served by learning from my bad example,” Barrelmender said.
“No, I get it. Don’t let no sluts get ahold of yar dangly pleasure bits, because if they do, yar not gonna be able to stop them. That’s it, right?” Peep asked.
“I suppose so. You would be Otilla of the Holy Fire. The woman touched by an agent of the Holy Host to serve Stron. Have you come to judge me?”
“Why do ye priests all think it’s about you?” Peep asked earnestly. “I aint here to kill ye, Brother. I’m here because my partner here wants to come to help ye out, and this place seems as good a place as any to go to work. And I couldn’t care less if ye have a woman. The both of ye! Since we been here, going on and on about each other like any of it matters! Who cares, man? Get over yarselves!”
Barrelmender blinked at Peep for a long moment as he processed her words. When he next spoke, he finally did so with emotion:
“I have betrayed my holy oath to my order by taking up with that woman. That is why it matters!”
As his spirit rose up in him, Barrelmender’s skin flushed. As it did, the shape of a white handprint in a choking grip stood out upon his neck; previously invisible due to his skin’s uniform pallor.
Peep blinked at the ghastly sight, but held her composure as Barrelmender continued:
“You are Otilla of the Holy Fire! A Holy Vessel of Stron’s Fire! Are you not?”
“So you people keep telling me.”
“So your duty is to punish those who fail in Stron’s eyes!”
“No, it aint. I kill when the fire tells me to. That’s it. I aint here to sit in judgment of you. And I aint gonna punish ye for any that do.”
Barrelmender goggled at Peep.
“Listen, Brother,” she went on, reasonably. “So ye’ve been shacked up here with this woman. Banging away, popping kids out for a few years. Ye both seem totally miserable with each other, but that’s yar business. If ye both could manage to shut up about the other, then I wouldn’t care a bit. But yar Church bosses, they don’t like that sort of thing, I suppose?”
“It is a mortal sin to forsake your oath. When I am found out, I shall be punished.”
“Well okay, then. But in the meantime, ye’ve been praying to Stron, right? He’s been giving ye spells to cast hasn’t he?”
“I don’t see your point,” Barrelmender said coldly.
“Sure ye do. If yar boy there fell from that tree right now and broke his leg, ye’d go over there and ask Stron to heal it up, and Stron would do it. Obviously. Yar woman said that ye were doing spells for the folk around here after the two of ye shacked up,” Peep said.
“What is your point?”
“That Stron don’t give a shit about it. Well, he might a bit, but not enough to cut ye off. He wants ye to kill for him. And to heal up those that do. He wants ye to fight. And like all the men in charge of the fighters, he’s gonna look the other way when ye get into yar grunty pleasures. And I sure as shit don’t care neither. As far as I can see, these kids trust ye enough to be relaxed with ye. That’s good enough for me. Just shut up and get busy doing what yar supposed to be doing. That’s it, Brother. Because we aint here to punish ye for yar sins.”
Barrelmender and Peep stared into each other’s eyes across the table for a long time. Whatever it was that passed between them left them with a good understanding of each other.
“Do ye wanna see the brands now, Brother?” Peep asked.
Barrelmender shook his head as he blinked away the sudden tears that sprang to his eyes.
“No. I am not worthy. Please do not show them to me. I could not take it.”
Peep nodded. Then she grabbed a handful of nuts and dried berries from the wooden bowl on the table and eased back in her chair to enjoy them as she gazed out at their horses.
Barrelmender took a moment to compose himself before turning back to Choke.
“What is it that you want, Brother Bartholomew?”
“Brother Willem, my teacher and mentor, asked me to serve the Brotherhood by coming here to serve you, Brother Barrelmender. So here I am.”
“I am not the man he thinks I am.”
“I do not presume to suppose what Brother Willem thinks, or doesn’t. What I have been told is that you are the parish priest here in Bristlehump as representative of the Brothers of the Holy Stone. Further, that you are the lawful magistrate here for Baron Hart. Have I been misinformed?” Choke asked.
“No, you have not. But I am not fit for these duties. You can see. It is all… dross,” Barrelmender waved his hand around in despair.
“That may be, Brother. But yet the church stands. And the people here go about their lives. And the Baron’s logs go south upon the road,” Choke said.
“Your point being?”
“That all these things go on without you. Just as the four of us can begin to take matters in hand without your involvement, if only you give us the legal authority to do it.”
“What exactly are you proposing?” Barrelmender asked.
“As magistrate and priest here, you have the authority to appoint an apparitor and his deputies,” Choke said.
“Ah. And you would like that to be you. You would seek to wield the authority that I have failed to,” Barrelmender said bitterly.
“I seek to follow your orders. In their absence, however, I shall do what I think best,” Choke said, levelly.
“Will you? Or, like others I am now entangled with, do you see an opportunity to advance yourself through my dereliction?”
Choke stared at Barrelmender for a long moment before answering:
“Brother. I say again: I am here because Brother Willem asked me to serve the Brotherhood by serving you. Do you doubt his judgement of my character?”
“No. No. The letter he wrote to me of you makes it clear he thinks very highly of you,” Barrelmender conceded.
“And what do you think of him?” Choke asked.
Barrelmender looked at him sharply. He seemed about to chide him for his impertinence, but deflated suddenly and waved his hand dismissively.
“It is of no matter,” he said.
“I would beg to differ, Brother,” Choke said.
“This is tiresome. I have had enough,” Barrelmender said, setting his daughter down gently as he stood up from the table. “I am done with this. I shall not be here, but you may stay for dinner, of course. The slattern would be irate if I were to send guests away unsatiated. Do enjoy her offerings.”
Barrelmender turned his back on them and wandered off around the side of the cottage. The children both followed him.
“Is this guy for fuckin real?” Peep laughed.
“I have no idea what to tell you,” Choke said, looking dazed.
“What’s an apparitor?” Knuckle asked.
They all ignored him.
“To tell you the truth, this guy is pretty awesome,” Peep said. “It’s like whatever monster got him by the throat and bit his face sucked out every part of him that gives a shit. But, useless as he is, he’s still just as pompous and full of himself as all the other priests.”
“You joke, Peep, but I fear that is exactly what happened to him,” Choke said. “He was a hero in the Forsaken Blight, a horrific undead uprising about a dozen years ago. He was badly wounded by a powerful undead. They do that.”
“Suck the life and will to live out of people. We see here the result,” Choke said, his voice cracking with emotion.
“Yar talking about the undead, right? Not Shasta?” Pinch interjected.
Peep and Knuckle both had a good laugh with Pinch about this while Choke glowered into a middle distance.
“He is a hero of the faith and deserves our respect! Smarten up!” Choke snapped at them.
“Was,” Knuckle said.
“Was what, Knuckle?” Choke glared at him.
“Was a hero of the faith. Now he’s just a wreck who lost himself in shitty peasant pussy. And this is the guy ye wanna follow. In this cousinfuck country? For real?” Knuckle came back at him.
“Hey, ease up, Knuckle,” Pinch said. “They’re all right here in the cabin. They can probably both hear ye.”
“So? I don’t give a fuck! He aint a Brother! Not a proper one, at least! And the hoor that drug him down aint shit to me!”
“That’s rich, coming from you, Knuckle. The way you’ve behaved since leaving Pekot!” Choke snapped
“Yeah. But I aint a Brother of the Order, man. And me and Pinch got our hair burned off by Father Morrenthall for it. But this guy, he just lets it all drop and he gets to do whatever he wants for ten fuckin years and they just let him? They have to know what he’s been up to here, right?” Knuckle exclaimed.
“They know. Without getting into the specifics, both Father Morrenthall and Brother Willem alluded to his troubles to me privately. They have been hoping he would turn it around. He has earned their forbearance,” Choke said stubbornly.
“No. They put him out here because the place don’t fuckin matter. They put him out here to forget about him. And Brother Willem sent you out here because he had nothing better for ye and didn’t have the heart just to tell ye to lump it. This guy and this place aint worth shit! We need to do better!”
Choke sighed. “Knuckle, I understand how it seems.”
“It’s exactly how it seems,” Peep said. “And Knuckle’s right.”
“Thank you!” Knuckle said, giving Peep a deep bow of his head as Choke deflated further.
“But!” Peep raised her hand high. “That don’t mean we’re going someplace else. This is where we need to be!” She dropped her hand to stab her index finger on the table.
Knuckle laughed at this until he realized that she was serious.
“What? Oh, come on! Why?” he bellowed.
“Because this is where we need to be,” Peep repeated herself calmly.
“Did you feel the Spirit move you in this, Peep?” Choke asked her.
“Yeah. Maybe. Not in the killing way. But I’m sure of it,” Peep said.
“Yar sure?” Knuckle exploded. “What the fuck is there to do in this place? There aint nothing even worth killing here!”
“Give that time,” Pinch said darkly. “The number of teamsters around, targets are gonna start popping up in no time.”
“Besides which,” Peep said, “it aint about this place. It’s about him.”
“Barrelmender? What about him?” Choke asked.
“He’s our priest. I knew it when I looked at him, sure as I’ve ever known anything. And he knows it, too. I could see it in his eyes. He’s just being ornery about it and is gonna drag his heels, on account of being a whiny bitch that’s full of himself at the moment. But he’ll come along,” Peep said.
“The Spirit of the Holy Fire told you this, Peep?” Choke asked her intently.
Peep thought for a moment and then nodded. “Yeah. I suppose it did. I mean, I just know it. He’s our priest.”
Choke nodded definitively and sat back in his chair to have a good private think about the developments.
“Well, okay, that’s all well and good,” Pinch said, after a while. “I mean, Knuckle, think for a second: this place is as good as any for making our next stand against the Outfit. They knew this is where we were coming, and there’s lots of their people and their type of muscle around. So we let them take their best shot and put that down and that might be enough to finish this bullshit. Right?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Knuckle said sullenly.
“But…” Pinch went on, “what are we gonna do in the short term? In case you didn’t notice, he did not take us on. He’s the one with the authority in this matter.”
“Listen,” Peep said, dropping her voice low as she leaned in over the table conspiratorially, “we don’t need him to take us on official. Everyone around heard we were coming here to serve him, right? And in we ride, Choke in his black robes, and go right to him. So as far as everyone around knows, we’re now his death technicians. Alls we gotta do is set up shop and start playing the part.”
“And what about Barrelmender? He’s just going to accept that?” Pinch complained.
“You think this sloppy bitch has the energy and the will to kick up a fuss about it? He can’t even rise to the occasion of wetting a fishing line in a crick. He aint gonna do shit. Least of all when he knows this is exactly how it’s supposed to be. He aint gonna send us away.”
“And how do you know that?” Choke asked her.
“Because he aint seen my Wheels yet,” Peep said with a grin, flashing her palms to them all. “And he wants to see them more than anything else he’s ever wanted. But he aint gonna let himself see them until he feels like he’s worthy of it. So he’s gonna go along with this because getting back on the Stron road with us is how he’s gonna fix himself.”
Choke contemplated this for a while before saying: “I think you are entirely correct in this. It is exactly what Brother Willem said he hoped would happen by sending me to him.”
“Well, okay. Sounds great,” Pinch said. “But we need a place to set up. We can’t just camp out in his front yard.”
“We go to the church. We set up in the church,” Peep said with conviction.
“Woah, wait,” Choke said. “The church was locked. I’m not breaking into his church.”
“Why not?” Peep asked. “Ye said yarself that a church without a priest is just stone and mortar. He aint in it, and he aint been in it. That place it up for grabs. You might not be a priest, Choke, but ye look the part. Ye got yar robes, yar iron Wheel, and yar Holy Book. So we go up there tonight and we set up.”
“I don’t know,” Choke said, looking worried again.
“Well I do. But let’s settle down about it for now. We’ll have dinner and then we’ll see what Shasta has to say. We could just ask her for the key. Don’t ye worry, Choke. This is all gonna work out just fine. We got ourselves a priest now. This is gonna be sweet!” Peep laughed as she grabbed another handful of nuts from the bowl with a big, happy grin.