The Children of Stron – part 73

Table of Contents – (spoilers)

read part 72

The squad were sitting around a table in front of the cottage Brother Cornelius Barrelmender shared with his illicit family. Choke was worrying as he stared off into space. Knuckle was similarly lost in thought, while Peep and Pinch were bantering quietly together, swapping jokes about hillbillies and their sisters.

“Okay. So what the fuck is an apparitor?” Knuckle eventually asked again.

“If you had paid attention to your lessons at the school, Knuckle, you would know,” Choke said to him irritably.

“Well, I don’t know about it, either,” Pinch interjected. “I paid attention okay, and I don’t have a clue. We never got much law study, Choke. I think you picked all that up in your extra library time with Brother Willem.”

“Yeah, teacher’s pet! Chapter and verse every time!” Knuckle chortled, giving Pinch a friendly elbow.

“And aren’t you all benefiting from it now,” Choke said, giving his head a shake to banish whatever thoughts had been preoccupying him. “Okay then, an apparitor is a lawfully appointed agent of a magistrate or an ecclesiastic court. They execute the magistrate or court’s orders.”

“Execute?” Peep asked.

“Yes. Whatever they might be. Arresting fugitives on a warrant is a common duty.”

“So, are they executioners?”

“In a small town, yes. To put it in terms you might better understand, an apparitor is the Law’s death technician. And the court or magistrate can appoint deputies to them. What I was attempting to propose to Brother Barrelmender is my being his apparitor, with the three of you being my deputies.”

“Sounds sweet!” Peep said. “Especially since the Brother aint gonna be up to giving any orders. It means we’ll be writing our own warrants on whoever needs to get got.”

Choke raised his hand to put this notion down with a frown. “I have no intention of exploiting the situation. We will be following Brother Barrelmender’s lawful orders. With us in place as his agents, he shall rise to the occasion of leading us, I am sure.”

“Yeah. I can’t wait to see it,” Peep said sarcastically.

“Wait a minute,” Knuckle interjected with a deep frown, “all this apparitor business… aint that a sheriff we’re talking about?”

“No, Knuckle. It is not a sheriff we are discussing. In a lord’s domain, there is only one sheriff, and he is responsible for collecting the lord’s rent. Secondary to this, he and his deputies are also usually charged with keeping the peace, but only practically do this in the main town of their feudal territory. And this is usually only in smaller baronies where such additional duties are manageable. In large counties or earldoms, there are usually magistrates to handle everything law related,” Choke said.

“Wait a minute,” Peep said, her good humor vanishing in an instant, “does that mean we’re gonna answer to the sheriff?”

“No. Not at all. We answer to our local magistrate, within his jurisdiction, or territory, if you will. That is Brother Barrelmender. He, in turn, answers legally to the Baron Hart. All the lord’s magistrates do. Indeed, if he so desires, the Baron may serve as magistrate himself in any case within his domains.”

“His word is law,” Pinch said.

“Yes and no,” Choke pedantized. “He is to uphold the King’s law. He still has a responsibility to adhere to that. But, practically speaking, yes: within their domains, a lord’s word is law.”

“As long as we’re digging into this,” Pinch said. “Why is it that out here all the magistrates seem to be priests? I mean, Father Nate is the magistrate for Callic, and Brother Barrelmender for here. In Bitina, a proper kingdom, isn’t this usually handled by secular authorities?”?”

“Ideally, yes,” Choke answered. “But we are at the frontier, and things are stretched thin. This is not a big or rich barony. I would think half of the military force the Baron has fielded is down south at the Alquinian front under the command of his son, Robert. The militant orders of the Church, the proper Stronians, step in to fill the breach where necessary. As well, their priests are meant to guard our faith from corrosion by heresies that tend to flourish in these places. There is much to do here.”

“Yeah, no doubt,” Peep said happily.

It was under an hour before Shasta began to serve them an early dinner. She brought out a big platter heaped with potatoes, wild onions, and pork brisket swimming in gravy.

“Woah! Hello!” Knuckle exclaimed happily as he beheld the feast.

“Yeah, I can cook! And I know what young men like ye need!” Shasta said with a leer. She came around Knuckle’s side of the table to put the platter down. She pressed her ample hip into his side as she did, and then pivoted as she moved back to bump the side of his face with her breast.

“Kids!” Shasta hollered into the cottage’s open door. “Bring the plates!”

The children brought out enough wooden plates for all while Shasta went to refill the beer jug. Then she got a bench for the kids to sit down on and they all took their seats. Shasta looked expectantly at Choke.

“Ye wanna say grace, I’d expect,” she said.

“Yes. But shall we check if Brother Barrelmender would care to join us before I do?”

“No,” Shasta said bluntly. “He went headfirst into a jug of potato wine out back and had been out for the last hour. Ye don’t want him up and about in that state. Trust me. So, ye can go ahead with grace, Brother Bartholomew.”

Choke nodded and stood to trace the Wheel overtop of the table. Then he bowed his head and prayed:

“Lord Stron, thank you for this good food we are about to eat. Bless it so that it might nourish us to do what is right and vanquish your enemies. Give us the strength not to fall into temptation, so that we may live righteously in your Father’s Word. Amen.”

“Amen,” everyone intoned as they traced the Wheel over their breasts. Shasta even managed to do it without seeming disingenuous.

Grace said, they got down to eating. Of course, having been provided only plates by their host, they ate in a country manner, using fingers and their personal knives as utensils.

As with animals at the trough, it was quiet at the table as they ate. Eventually the satisfied grunts slowed down and the company began to interact again.

“So, Shasta,” Peep said, licking her fingers clean. “This was a hell of a fine spread ye threw together.”

“Thank you, Otilla,” Shasta said, her manner guarded.

“Yeah. It’s impressive. Especially since ye’ve been telling us, and the Brother, that he aint any help to ye at all. I mean, if he aint working to bring in any money or fare, how is it that ye can swing it? I mean, four mouths to feed, right? Someone’s gotta be putting some work in,” Peep finished with a smirk as she poured herself another beer from the jug.

Shasta glared at Peep for a long moment before answering:

“Well, if ye must know, we get by with the rents of the few tenants the parish has,” Shasta said.

“Ah,” Peep said, as Choke sighed deeply.

“Wait,” Knuckle interjected with a rising smirk. “All this talk from ye about how the Brother aint good for nothing, when you and yar kids are living real comfortable on what the Church has provided for him to run the parish? Ye got some balls, woman!” he laughed.

“Hey! I’ll have ye know it aint as comfortable as all that! The way the folk around here treat us, ye’d think we were the enemy! And who d’ye think it is that has to run around collecting what we’re owed? It sure aint him! And just because we have means to live, doesn’t mean that I couldn’t use a proper partner in life! Least of all when I’m raising his kids!”

Choke had been pinching the bridge of his nose with a pained expression during Shasta’s tirade. As she finished, he could hold his tongue no longer.

“Woman!” he snapped. “You are not owed a thing by the parish tenants. Further, he is not supposed to be a partner to you at all. He is supposed to be a leader and a mentor to the community!”

“Hey!” Shasta came back, thrusting a greasy finger at Choke across the table. “Don’t ye start with that kinda talk! I see what yar up to here, the lot of ye! Trying to sneak in to grab what ye think is there for the taking! And all outta the goodness of yar heart, I am sure!”

It was quiet then for a spell as Choke and Shasta glared at each other. Neither folded, but Shasta was the first to speak:

“So, ye Pekot raven boy, if ye wanna come on and play this hard at me and mine, then yar gonna be out here without a friend in the world. But it don’t have to be like that. Ye do right by me and mine, and I’ll return the favor. If ye wanna go up and move into that church and start cracking some hillbilly heads, well then, I’m all for that! I’ll see to it that he don’t kick up a fuss, and I’ll take care of ye to boot.”

Shasta softened now as she looked away from Choke and smiled at Knuckle and Pinch. Knuckle shifted in his seat and grunted as she slid her bare foot up his leg and along his inner thigh under the table. She withdrew this gambit before anyone else noticed it, and turned her attention back to Choke.

“So, Brother Bartholomew, ye just think about what’s gonna be an easier path for ye. Stick hard to yar Holy Book and make an enemy outta the one person here that can help ye along in every regard. Or, let the little thing go that aint hurting a soul in the world, and is actually helping a few, so that ye can get out there and fight the real fights that need fighting; with all the authority that Cornelius can hand over to ye, and all the help that I, the widowed custodian of the parish and housekeeper of the Brother, can give ye.”

“Widowed housekeeper and custodian,” Choke said sourly.

“Surely,” Shasta came back with a sly grin. “I told ye earlier, didn’t I? My Alan died and left me with these two little ones. And Brother Barrelmender was kindhearted enough to take me on as housekeeper. And with him being so poorly, I’ve had to take up the responsibilities of custodian of the parish, too. The collection of rents, and what have ye. And that is the state of things here, aint it?”

Choke looked away from Shasta and did some good, enraged nose-breathing into his lap. Knowing when to leave well enough alone, and having said her piece, Shasta stood up from the table.

“Now,” she said to everyone, “I threw this dinner early, because I knew ye’d wanna be getting up to the church before dark. So, ye’d best get moving if ye wanna do just that. The key to the back door is stashed in the second gravestone to the right, when yar looking out from the back door. It’s a stone Wheel, with the spokes cut out of it. The key’s in the right cutout of the Wheel. Ye let yarselves in and make yarself at home. And I’ll come on up tomorrow to see what yar gonna be needing to make the place more livable. Alright?”

Choke said nothing, as he continued to glare at the remains of their feast on the table, realizing as he did that it had not given them the strength to resist temptation.

“Yeah, Shasta, I think that’ll work just fine for us,” Peep said.


The key was right where Shasta said it would be. Pinch retrieved it and unlocked the back door of the church. This opened to the Church’s kitchen.

As with almost all Stronian churches, regardless of their size, this one was shaped like a letter “t,” with the main doors at the base and the altar at the top. The transverse contained the utility areas and was accessed by side doors to either side of the altar. To the right was the kitchen. To the left was the priest’s personal quarters. With this being a small church, each was just a single room. In the kitchen was a steep staircase down to a crypt that contained a number of stone tombs and some open recesses filled with bones. In the priest’s quarters was a perilous staircase that went up to the steeple. In that was the church bell, and access to narrow walkways across the roof to four moderately defensive shooting positions at the corners.

The squad left their horses in the graveyard and checked the whole church together. They were well pleased with it.

“Well, good solid doors, and tight as a drum. It’s sound,” Choke said.

The others nodded. It was Peep that brought up the first negative:

“Only real problem is the stables. Only three stalls. We need to figure that out tonight,” she said.

“No doubt. Should we keep them all in the pews? That would be the most secure,” Pinch asked.

Choke frowned. “Acceptable only in an emergency when under attack, which we presently are not.”

“Three in our stable and two at the stables across the square?” Pinch asked.

Peep scowled at this. “Fuck that. The way everyone around here have been treating us, ye wanna trust one of them with two of our mounts?”

“Good point,” Pinch said. “But what, then?”

Choke came to his decision:

“We put three horses in the stable here: Nike, Peep’s, and Knuckle’s. The mule and Pinch’s we put on a line in the yard until we can figure out something better tomorrow.”

“How come Knuckle’s horse gets to be in the stable and mine has to stay outside with Betsy?” Pinch whined.

“Because both of your horses are just riding horses, but Knuckle’s is big enough to carry him and yours isn’t. Replacing his would be more difficult. I know this solution isn’t perfect, but it’ll have to do for now,” Choke said.

“Okay, but do you really think taking them to the stables is a bigger risk than leaving them outside all night?” Pinch pressed. “I mean, whoever runs the stables is gonna know we’ll hold him responsible if they’re stollen. And if they are, we actually can hold him responsible.”

Choke thought about this. “Okay, good point, actually. Let’s do that. But don’t risk anything more than we have to. Take everything off them and go and get them stabled. All three of you. I’ll take care of the three here. It’ll be better if I’m not along. They might be less hostile. About that: Pinch, you do the talking, and be nice. Peep and Knuckle, you keep your mouths shut, but look scary. They should get the message.”

The three nodded and hopped right to it. They unsaddled Betsy the mule and Pinch’s horse, putting the saddles in the church kitchen, before taking the animals across the square to the stables between the tavern and the blacksmith. While they did this, Choke unsaddled the other three horses, putting everything in the kitchen as well. Then he fed and watered them in the little church stable. After that he took his time brushing Nike and tending to his hooves. The bonding ritual with the warhorse he had trained from a foal calmed him a great deal.

As Choke finished with Nike, he saw Peep was leaning on the stable’s doorjamb watching him. The way she skulked around, she used to routinely startle him, but now he was used to her ways and did not react.

“This stable door don’t lock,” Peep said.

“I know. Do you think we need to set a watch?”

Peep looked pained. “Well, I like my sleep. But I like the thought of these fuckers stealing our horses even less. So I guess we should.”

“Agreed,” Choke said as he came out of the stable. He looked around the little church yard, with the shed, stable, and well. At the back edge of the yard was a low, stone wall around the small graveyard. The front gate of the graveyard faced out on the village courtyard, and its other two sides were hemmed in tight with smooth, windowless walls of the neighboring buildings.

“Where do you think the best place to keep watch is?” he asked Peep quietly.

“Well anybody coming is gonna come through the graveyard or around the path from the front of the church,” Peep said.

Just then, Knuckle and Pinch came out of the church.

“The bedrolls are set up. We’re just sleeping in the pews, right?” Pinch asked.

Choke nodded. “Whether he’s using it or not, the priest’s chamber is Brother Barrelmender’s.”

“That’s what I figured. So, what now?” Pinch asked.

Choke signaled for quiet before he said: “we’re just thinking about where to set up the watch.”

“A watch? Oh, come on!” Knuckle exploded with his head rolling back in despair.

“Be quiet!” Choke hissed at him. “We don’t know who might be listening.”

“Okay, sorry. But a fuckin watch? Come on. It aint like we’re out in gobo country,” Knuckle said in a too-loud whisper.

“No, this is worse, Knucklehead,” Peep said, jumping up to give him a swat on the back of the head.

“Okay. Fuck. Let’s run our asses ragged, then. Whatever,” Knuckle muttered.

“We gotta watch the horses, man,” Peep said. “Fucking with people’s horses is bandit basics. And in case ye haven’t noticed, the only difference between most of the folk around here and bandits is that these fuckers are smart enough to keep in the lighter shades of grey when it comes to the law.”

“Well, fine then, but I want the first watch,” Knuckle said.

“That’s probably a good idea, actually,” Peep said. “If they come, they aint likely to hit until later.”

“Hey! Whad’ye mean by that!” Knuckle exclaimed, looking wounded. “I aint never slept on a watch in my life!”

“That may or may not be,” Pinch said. “But ye aint exactly the best at not being seen, and yar generally the last of us to notice anything.”

“Okay, fuck you then! I’ll take the second watch.”

“Quiet, I said!” Choke barked. “And you’re on first watch. You called it, it’s yours.”

Knuckle spat on the ground in the middle of the group and stomped off into the church.

“Okay, then, where should we set up?” Pinch asked.

“There,” Peep said, nodding to a spot between the stables and shed, with the smooth cobb wall of the neighboring building behind. It was overgrown with weeds. “Good view of the graveyard and the path, which is where they’ll be coming from. And it’ll be totally dark.”

“Okay, looks good. But how to alert the rest of us inside?” Choke asked.

“Actually, there’s a pretty big handbell in the kitchen. If we open up the kitchen and cell shutters, and keep the inner doors open, it’ll be plenty loud enough,” Pinch said, indicating the narrow, shuttered windows.

With the church being on a raised foundation, the windows were too high to look into from outside, and narrow enough that only someone Peep’s size would be able to squeeze through them The three went into the kitchen to get the bell: a big, clunky brass thing with a wooden handle.

“Excellent,” Choke said, hefting it. “You could even beat someone to death with this in a pinch.”

“Do ye think we should check to see if it’s loud enough in the pews? Will ringing it now tip our hand?” Pinch asked.

All three considered this for a moment.

“I mean, we probably should test it, right?” Peep said. “If it aint loud enough, this whole plan is fucked. And who’s to say what the dipshits around here will make of it. We may as well announce ourselves bold. Like, here we are! If ye want some, come and get it.”

“Right. You two go lie down on your bedrolls. I’ll ring the bell in a minute,” Choke said.

Peep and Pinch went into the church, and Choke gave the bell a good, sustained ring from between the shed and the stable. It was terribly loud.

Peep and Pinch came back out and confirmed that the alarm would have no problem rousing them. The three then brought out a wooden chair from the kitchen and a stool for the bell, which they set against the wall amongst the weeds of the lookout nook.

“We’ll keep a lantern lit in the kitchen, with the door shut, but unlocked. Good?” Choke asked Pinch and Peep, who both nodded.

“Then,” Choke went on, “if anyone does come, whoever’s on watch rings the bell. That should scare them off. If they run, don’t shoot at them. Lethal force only if they threaten it themselves. Right?” Choke said pointedly to Peep at the finish.

She shrugged.

“Good. Pinch, why don’t you go and get Knuckle up to speed so that he can take the first watch. Mood that he’s in, you’re probably the best one to be dealing with him,” Choke said.

With everything prepared, the squad settled in for their first night in residence at the Bristlehump church.

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