Chapter 1: Little Soldier
Rebekah Otual – 144 AK, Early Autumn
Flapping, nearly dry linens signaled a change in the wind. Rebekah Otual noticed and touched them. Then a whirlwind caught the sheets, frantically entwining her, obscuring sight.
Fighting her way out, she caught glimpses of her home, a modest log cabin with woods on three sides, the meandering forest trail that led here, and three men approaching on a wagon. But no sign of her daughter, Sarah, who’d been playing amongst the hanging laundry.
Rebekah’s heart raced, but Sarah remained unseen, even as a man dismounted dressed in the gold tunic and green dragon sigil of the Lord of Lorness. The two men with him were soldiers in royal red brigandine and steel helmets.
What does he want?
She sighed as Sarah emerged from the sheets.
“I’m George Rosewud, Undersecretary to the Lord of Lorness. Fetch your father, woman,” the thin and fair-haired official commanded. His every button was polished. There wasn’t a scuff on his cordovan boots, nor did a single hair escape its ribbon. In his hands was a large book. Behind him, on the wagon, was an elegantly carved shillelagh.
Her father strode from the fields holding his gloves and hoe. His face clouded with worry, sweat dripped from his graying hair. “What do you want, clerk? We’ve made this moon’s payment.”
“That was recorded. The Lord of Lorness demands all outstanding loans be finalized.” His thick ledger creaked as it opened. “The amount is… four thousand baden,” the official stated flatly.
“We have a contract,” her father corrected, taking off his wide-brimmed hat, wiping sweat from his brow. “He can’t demand it all at once.”
The undersecretary’s lifeless brown eyes locked onto her father.
One soldier, a tall, dark-haired youth with a face as smooth as a peach, jumped off the wagon. The other climbed down, straightening his well-worn uniform. He scratched at an old scar trailing across one cheek. They readied their swords and stood at attention.
Sarah came out from the damp linens and mimicked the soldiers. She’d inherited her mother’s blue eyes and golden blonde hair. Her plain muslin dress ruffled in the breeze like a flag. Five seashell buttons that her da brought home after a mission to Tarinland decorated its front. She stood straight and tall, as tall as a six-year-old could. Her voice rose sweetly, singing a familiar melody she’d learned from her father, Jonathan.
“Like a little brave soldier, you will stand,
“Like a little brave soldier, you will fight.
“Like a little brave soldier, you will pray,
“Like a little brave soldier with J’shua’s might.”
The young soldier smiled at her daughter’s antics making Rebekah’s blue eyes flash. It annoyed and frightened her.
“Go see Grandma,” Rebekah instructed Sarah, her tone clear, obey or get a phwack.
Rosewud’s expression darkened. “The Lord of Lorness demands payment. Now.”
“But…” her father pleaded.
The younger soldier focused on Rebekah, noting her scowl.
The sergeant grunted. “She’s a fine body. Be pretty if she smiled.”
Undersecretary Rosewud pursed his lips and glanced toward the soldiers, silencing them, “If you don’t have four thousand baden, Mister Dowling, we’ll take the woman and child instead. Both look healthy. How old is the girl?”
“Take back the land,” her father begged, his eyes tearing up.
Rosewud raised an eyebrow. “Your lord needs the money. The females can be sold before sunset. The land would take longer. How old is the child?”
“Six.” The old man grimaced.
Rebekah touched her father’s shoulder. She felt him relax.
Rosewud nodded. “Get in the wagon, woman.”
“I’ll fetch my daughter,” Rebekah muttered, head downcast. Her heart pounded as she trudged toward the house. Smoothing her muslin apron, she forced her mind to be quiet.
Please Lord, don’t let them follow me.
When she entered the house, the intruders’ attention was still on her father.
Inside the cabin, Rebekah found her daughter and mother hiding behind the door where they could hear. Rebekah hugged Sarah tightly and whispered, “Don't be afraid, Little Knight. Stay low. Run to the woods, to the blackberries. Be invisible like Da showed you. Hide there until I come find you.”
Sarah nodded, brave tears leaking down her face.
Rebekah dropped her daughter to the ground through the window at the rear of the cabin. “Go! Stay low.”
Sarah landed in a squat and scurried off to the west woods.
Rebekah and her mother watched Sarah disappear into the high sorghum grass. “Lord J’shua, what can we do?”
“Jonathan taught us how to respond to an attack,” her mother answered. “I’ll stall for as long as I can. Run east so they don’t find you both. May angels watch over you.”
Rebekah’s countenance fell as she stared into her mother’s clear blue eyes.
“Your da and I have had a full, blessed life. We will sleep. When we wake, we’ll all be together with J’shua Ha Mashiach and the Father. Take your dagger and these coins. Go!”
Lieutenant Steven Blackhawk – 144 AK, Early Autumn
Lieutenant Steven Blackhawk had watched the strange little girl skip through the door, while surveying the area around the Dowling’s cabin. Another farmhouse was visible in the distance, half a mile beyond the Dowling’s fields. All other directions were thick forest. There was no movement, no threat.
Sergeant Johnsun had invited him to join this off-duty assignment for some extra coin. With nothing better to do before reporting to High Castle, he’d accepted.
Another woman came out of the house, an older version of the man's daughter. She carried a woven basket. “Rojer, do we have guests?” She smiled cheerfully at the visitors. “I have corn cake. Would you like some, son? You’re still growing and must be hungry.”
The old woman shuffled toward the wagon, but stumbled and fell, dropping her load.
Blackhawk stepped forward and offered his hand. “Let me help you, ma’am.”
“Oh, my, I’ve spilled some of the cakes..” Taking his hand, she wobbled as she slowly rose. “Thank you. You’re such a dear.”
She fussed with the contents of her hamper, then offered a cake to Blackhawk. “This one didn’t break.” She smiled at him.
“No, thank you, ma’am,” Blackhawk replied with a nod. He whispered to the Sergeant, “Seems a little touched.”
“That’s well enough. Corn cake isn’t for everyone.” The woman staggered toward the undersecretary, offering him the basket.
Rosewud glared at her. “I’m here to collect monies owed to the Lord of Lorness, not nibble on cakes.”
She blinked in response, then headed toward her husband. “Rojer, don’t we still have silver under the loose stone in the fireplace?”
“Oh, perhaps.” The tall old man took her hand and squeezed. “How much do you think we have?”
“Well, last year it was quite a sum, but then we had to buy seed….”
“Yes, the seed cost a lot. But I harvested a good early crop. I almost opened an account with the money changer.” He chuckled weakly.
“Oh, yes, you did bring several wagon loads to the market. I was able to save much of the profit. How much does the man want?”
“The undersecretary here says four thousand baden, sweetie".”
“Here, take one, honey. I know you love my corn cakes.” She gave him a peck on the cheek.
Rojer took a bite out of the cake. “You sure you don’t want one, Mister Rosewud? My wife’s cakes are the best in Lorness.”
Rosewud threw a glance over his shoulder at the soldiers and huffed, “Lieutenant, get the girl and her mother.” The undersecretary trailed a finger down the page until he came to the Dowling account, marking it closed.
Lieutenant Blackhawk searched the house. “Blast.” He scratched the sparse hairs on his chin, turned, and shouted to the undersecretary. “Sir, they’ve run off!” Scanning through the window, he observed waving sorghum, the woods beyond, and a tiny blonde head.
Blackhawk hustled to the wagon. “I saw the girl, but not the mother.”
“Take one of the horses. We won’t wait for you,” Rosewud snapped. “Meet us at camp. Go, Lieutenant. The woman’s blonde hair and blue eyes will be a rarity in Lorness, increasing her price greatly. As will the girl’s. Don't wound them. It’ll lessen their value.” The undersecretary scowled at the conniving couple. “Sergeant, set an example. End these babblers.”
Blackhawk unhitched a horse from the harness, watching Sergeant Johnsun stride forward, drawing his sword.
“No!” Mister Dowling pulled his wife behind him.
The sergeant took another step forward, then sliced both cleanly across their necks, dropping them in a heap, their hands still entwined.
“Impressive, Sergeant,” Rosewud noted.
Blackhawk kicked the horse with his heels, driving it forward through the sorghum and into the dark woods. Ducking under wayward branches, he kept a wary eye for his prey. “Girl, your grandma is worried about you,” he called soothingly. “Come out. I’ll take you to her.”
He saw no sign. Even the birds were silent.
“Come out. I have a corn cake for ya.”
Perhaps she went farther in?
He scanned the woods for any movement, as he continued slowly forward. A rabbit perked up and dashed away. A squirrel barked and scampered up a tree. The only other thing he heard was the soft crunch of his horse’s hooves until the mare stopped. He glanced down. She was right below his steed’s head, almost completely covered in leaves, perfectly still.
Dismounting, he waited in admiration to see how long she could stay motionless.
When I was her age, I wouldn’t have lasted a blink.
She didn’t move, nor make a peep. Even knowing where she hid, he couldn’t hear her breathing. He finally accepted that she wouldn’t give herself away. He needed to return to camp, so he crouched down and looked into the girl's eyes.
She blinked, but still didn't flinch.
“Come on, let’s go.” Blackhawk gently picked her up. He stared into her blue eyes, entranced by this little porcelain doll who didn’t kick or cry. “Who taught you to hide like that?”
“My da.” She smiled. "Did I do well?"
"You did better than any soldier I've ever met. Your da would be proud."
As he left the trees with the small girl in front of him on the horse’s back, he saw smoke. Blackhawk rode back into the forest so she wouldn’t see the burning house.
An hour later, he arrived at the small camp. As he passed several soldiers transporting the women taken in today’s collections to Lorness, they hooted and shouted about the kid soldier and his new gal. Blackhawk bristled as they teased him yet again because of his youth.
“Can’t snag a grown woman?”
“Na, he prefers little girls.”
They all laughed.
Blackhawk didn’t respond. He never did.
Trotting to the cage cart, he dismounted while holding the girl. Children pressed against the doors. They retreated as he poked them and opened the door, pushing her inside.
Good haul. Seven boys and six girls.
After taking the mare to the line, he entered Undersecretary Rosewud’s tent. "I found the girl, but not the mother."
“We’re short three thousand baden because that woman got away,” the undersecretary complained as he polished a boot. He leaned back in his mahogany chair. “She must be found, lieutenant. Johnsun, I want the evidence removed in case other relatives are about.”
The sergeant sighed. “I’ll write up a warrant for her and send a detachment to clean up the bones.”
Rosewud focused on Blackhawk. “What took you so long?”
“I searched for them both. The child was well hidden. If I’d not seen where she went, I wouldn’t have found her. She’s been trained not to leave any sign of—”
Rosewud thrust out his palm. “I’m not interested in excuses or crazed notions about children being able to hide from a trained officer, even one as young as you.”
Blackhawk slumped. “The woman will come for her child. I left a trail for her to follow. She may appear if we wait."
“No. If we do that, I’ll be forced to feed the imps,” Rosewud grumbled. “If we leave at first light, I’ll be spared that expense.”
Once dismissed, Blackhawk went to the stew pot. Scooping a bite, he sniffed the evening meal before taking a taste. Burnt, as usual. Dropping the ladle back, he sought a comfortable tree near the cage and leaned against it. The half-dozen other soldiers were relaxing around their tents. Pulling a leather pouch from his belt, he drew out some dried meat.
The girl he’d just caged stood at attention, watching him.
He marveled each time a soldier whacked the cage to silence a bawling brat. She seemed unaffected, except to scowl and wrinkle her nose. As the shadows grew longer, he retired to his tent, and wondered how she could remain unflappable.
In the morning, relief warmed him to see her sleeping. The feeling surprised him.
There was still no sign of the girl’s mother when they moved out. The long rainy season had left the road bumpy, making progress slow for the caravan of wagons and confiscated animals.
Rebekah – 144 AK, Early Autumn
Rebekah prayed her parents would be safe, running into the tallest crop. From there, she spied Sarah nearing the woods.
Moments later, the young soldier appeared on a horse, pursuing Sarah.
Rebekah bent down, hiding herself, and followed.
Yet, before she reached the woods, he emerged with Sarah sitting before him on his horse. The sight of her daughter caught by that drecksa cut deep. A sensation that worsened when he laughed, as if the hunt had been a game.
They rode back into the woods, perhaps to avoid the cabin, which was now aflame.
Everything inside her screamed with the need to run after them. To rip her daughter out of his arms. To plunge her dagger into his gut. To end his life slowly, so he had the merest glimpse of the suffering he’d already inflicted.
He’s just a lad. Not that his age will stay my blade.
There was no way she could overtake him while remaining unseen. The wagon had already left. The boy soldier rode back into the woods with Sarah.
Crouching, she waited, twisting a strand of her golden hair, counting her breaths until he was well out of sight. Then she ran back to the house. Through the roaring flames, she discerned her parents’ bodies. She covered her ears, howling at the deafening blaze, railing against this evil, and praying in the spirit.
The blaze grew hotter, forcing her to stumble back. With one final wail, Rebekah wiped her tears and steeled herself.
Sarah will be safe until they sell her. That weasel, Rosewud, won’t allow her to be defiled. He’d lose money.
Turning toward the woods, she ran.
The Canferd’s farm is close. They’ve a horse. No, they also have a loan from Lord Melazera.
The nearest farm in the Duke of Wooster’s domain was her best chance of finding a property that hadn’t been repossessed — and a horse — before dark. The duke was an upright man, a known follower of J’shua.
She alternated between walking and running through the woods to conserve her strength.
After two hours’ travel, she crawled through the low grass to get close to a barn without being seen. Once at the edge of the yard, she ran to the barn, opening the heavy door just enough to get through. Inside were six horses, each in its own stall. Her hand patted the withers of each, while speaking quietly. Rebekah chose a mare that was fresh, with a sweet temperament and saddled her. She flung the door wide, mounted, and rode out.
An old man hobbled toward her waving a club and shouting.
Barreling ahead, she brushed him aside, yelling back over her shoulder, “Sorry, I’ll return her.”
She rode hard for a mile in the opposite direction to confuse the horse’s owners. Once the ground became rocky, she veered off the path toward her farm. She returned to where she’d last seen her daughter and the young soldier. She found a trail. There were too many broken branches. The tracks wove through the softest dirt. Yet, she followed it, watching for signs of ambush.
The sun had just set when she heard them. A noisy lot, she didn’t need to get close. She could smell their campfire. Besides, there were too many for her to attempt a rescue. Rebekah's only choice was to wait for an opportunity.
I’m coming, baby. Thank you, Jonathan, for teaching me how to survive.
She hoped he, at least, was safe. The waiting gnawed on her. She scrounged a few berries to assuage her hunger. Then, tethering the horse far enough away to not be heard from the camp or found by a patrol, Rebekah gathered a blanket of leaves and hid. There was nothing else to do.
She slept lightly but awoke to silence.
Rebekah lay still for several minutes, straining to hear the chatter of soldiers. There was none. She crawled toward the camp.
Are they hiding?
The wagons were gone, leaving only tracks from men, animals, and carts.
Where could they be headed?
Returning to her horse, she took off after them. Only an hour later, she found them lounging at a new campsite. Their laughter, voices, and clatter carried to her, marking their position.
They’re using the old cow trail. I know where they’re going.
She turned her mare toward the more direct route to River Town.
Owakar – 144 AK, Early Autumn
Owakar read from the Book of Life, And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.
He began to see what J’shua desired in this dire situation.
Blackhawk – 144 AK, Early Autumn
Blackhawk rode beside the cage cart, watching the girl. She remained standing, her small hands clutching the bars.
Such an excellent little soldier.
He didn't know why she intrigued him. He had no paternal instinct, nor was his interest of the crude sort the other soldiers had teased about. She didn't belong in any world he knew.
Sometimes he caught her pensively watching him.
When a boy about four started whimpering, she stroked his head, soothing him. “It’ll be well. J’shua is with me, and he can be with you, too. Do you know him?”
The little boy shook his head.
“Would you like to know about him?”
The lad nodded.
The girl squatted beside him. “Well, my da says the Serpent tricked the First Man into disobeying the God of Truth. This is how the Serpent owns the world and all the people. But the God of Truth loved all the people so he sent his son, J’shua, to pay a ransom for us. Do you know what a ransom is?”
The boy shook his head again.
“I’m not sure either… but… anyone can be saved. J’shua promised to watch over us… always… not that we wouldn’t be scared… or even hurt. Can you trust me since I know he’s here with us?”
The little boy wrinkled his forehead in thought, looking left and right. “I don't see him anywhere. There’s many bad soldiers. Are you sure J’shua can see us?"
Little Soldier, as Blackhawk had begun to think of her, hugged the boy again as her smile deepened. "I know. You can't see J’shua. That can be hard sometimes, especially when the Serpent's army seems so strong. But with practice, you can hear him. I hear him. So, trust me, I know he’s here with us.”
The little boy smiled.
She drew him onto her lap and held him until they both fell asleep.
Her words rattled around Blackhawk’s head, annoying him. He couldn’t stop thinking about the ransom. It was so counter to the teaching of Lord and Lady Melazera, who he served.
It can’t be that simple. But Little Soldier seems sure.
He trotted up the line and, when he reached the undersecretary’s cart, matched its speed.
Rosewud frowned, his typical greeting. “What is it, Lieutenant?”
“We’re nearly to River Town, sir. Do you need any help with delivery?”
“They’re children. Shouldn't be any trouble.” Rosewud waved a hand dismissively.
“Of course, but the mother could be following,”
Rosewud scratched at an old scar on his arm. "Yes, yes, I wouldn’t object to having you along. I won’t pay much.”
“Shall I follow you or scout ahead?"
"Scout ahead. I’ll dine at The Sapphire before heading out. Find me there.”
“Yes, sir.” Blackhawk nodded and rode ahead into River Town.
Lieutenant Steven Blackhawk watched Rosewud enter The Sapphire Inn. Then he headed to Sweet Maids, the brothel across the street, where he assuaged his ill humor on a whore.
He didn’t know how long he’d been standing outside the brothel, smiling from the warmth of a woman's company, when Little Soldier’s scowling face entered his thoughts. He kicked a stone, glowering as he crossed the street. The thought had ruined his good mood, again. Heading toward the merry sounds pouring from the inn only darkened his humor further. Yet, he instinctively altered his expression, making it open and friendly when he saw the undersecretary coming out of the inn.
“Right on time, Blackhawk,” Rosewud yelled out. Dismissing the militet who had been standing on guard, he thrust a cup and skin into the young lieutenant’s hands. “Give the imps water. We’re headed to Commandant Greysun in Fairness Crossing. He’s paid a bonus to make him my first stop next time I had a batch of children. It’s so much better to be accompanied by an officer. Perhaps you can make decent conversation.” He waved the two militet guarding the cart away.
Rosewud climbed onto the cage cart, setting his shillelagh on the seat.
Blackhawk poured water into a cup and handed it to a child. He repeated this as children pushed at each other to be the next to get a drink. Only Little Soldier waited patiently, holding the small boy’s hand. When, all-but-last, Blackhawk handed her the cup, she gave it to the boy and waited. Then she handed it back.
“You are something,” he muttered to himself as he gave her the cup again.
The task completed, he stowed the water and cup. Then he took his seat as Rosewud snapped the reins.
Blackhawk looked back at the cage. Little Soldier stared at him. She smiled when she saw him look at her and lifted her fingers in the slightest wave. A barely perceptible grin rose on his face. He nodded back to her.
Turning to Rosewud, he asked. “What’s Commandant Greysun looking for today?”
“Boys, I think. He has a training camp. Likes them young.”
“If you haven’t seen his operation, you’re in for a treat. It’s impressive. The regimen and discipline are beautiful to behold. He’s been the commandant for six years or so.” Rosewud turned to Blackhawk. “I’ll introduce you if you like. You might want to request Fairness Crossing for your next assignment. There are great rewards there for a properly motivated soldier like yourself. And with you being so young…” The undersecretary looked him over. “fifteen or so?”
“There’s no limit…”
Some people just have to talk. You can’t stop them without offending them, so you let them talk. George Rosewud, just one of Geleib’s many undersecretaries, is one of those people.
The undersecretary continued without encouragement, Blackhawk nodding now and then as he let his mind wander. His life had changed drastically. First, he’d been an orphan on the streets of Farr. At four, he was taken in by his patron, Gaelib Melazera, Earl of Lorness and the Royal Steward. Then at eleven, he’d been sent to North Fort.
Lord Melazera had explained, “Commandant Sulla will train you for leadership in my army. If you remain, you’ll be forced into the Order. Be careful, someday an operative will try to recruit you. Don’t let them tell you too much. They’ll kill you to protect their secrets if you don’t join.”
Rosewud broke Blackhawk’s musing with, “…Order of Black Robes uses his men—”
“The easiest explanation is they’re highly trained bureaucrats. The Order finds people without trade or worthy parentage and prepares them to support the kingdom's infrastructure. It also educates soldiers looking for advancement.”
Blackhawk’s understanding of it was incomplete. He’d heard many arguments where Gaelib accused his wife, Caileagh, of pushing things too fast. Each fight about the Order provided another piece of the puzzle. His picture was built so gradually, neither was aware he knew about it. They didn’t mention Black Robes or the Order, usually talking about sparrows or ravens or hawks.
He decided it’d be better to take control of the conversation before Rosewud revealed too much. He wasn’t joining the Order, didn’t plan on dying, and didn’t want to kill the undersecretary. It would complicate his life.