Chapter 1: Little Soldier – 144 AK, Early Autumn
Matthew 18:5 And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.
Between Fairness Crossing & River Town
R’bekah was checking the linens drying on the line when there was a change in the wind. They flapped frantically, entwining her, obscuring sight.
As she fought her way out, she saw her surroundings in flashes — the modest log cabin with woods on three sides — the meandering forest trail that led here — three men approaching on a wagon. But no sign of her daughter, Sar’h, who’d been playing amongst the hanging laundry.
She looked everywhere, heart racing, but her girl remained unseen, even as a man dressed in the crimson cloak and gold tunic of the Lord of Lorness dismounted.
What does he want, flitted through her mind as Sar’h finally emerged from the fluttering sheets.
“I’m Ge’rge Rosewud, Undersecretary to the Lord of Lorness,” the thin and fair-haired official announced, looking across at R’bekah like a reproving elder. 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 toward them from the fields, holding his gloves and hoe.
“I am here to settle the loan of Roj’r and Myra Dowling,” the fop continued. His thick ledger creaked as it opened. “The amount is… four thousand baden.”
“What?!” R’bekah wrested windblown hair out of her eyes, turning to face him. “We just made this moon’s payment.”
“That was recorded. The Lord of Lorness demands all outstanding loans be finalized.” He stated flatly, his face expressionless.
“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 turned lifeless brown eyes on her father.
Two soldiers, adorned in the burgundy leather jackets of the Royal Army, stepped off the wagon. One was a tall, dark headed youth with a face as smooth as a peach. The other was all well-worn leather with a scar trailing across one cheek.
Sar’h, came out from the damp linens and mimicked the soldiers. She stood straight and tall, as tall as a six-year-old could. Her plain muslin dress, decorated with five colored buttons, ruffled with the winds. Her boots, not the usual delicate shoes for girls, were brown leather, a hand-me-down from her brother, Dav’d, who’d just begun his apprenticeship in far off Esthlanis.
The girl’s voice rose sweetly, singing a familiar melody she’d learned from her father, Jon’than.
“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.”
R’bekah’s blue eyes flashed. Already on alert, she was annoyed and frightened when the young soldier smiled at her daughter’s antics.
“Go see Grandma,” R’bekah instructed Sar’h. Her tone clear, obey or get a phwack.
Rosewud’s expression darkened. “If you’re quite finished, young woman, I’m still awaiting your father’s compliance. The Lord of Lorness demands payment. Now.”
“But…” her father pleaded.
The younger soldier watched the girl head indoors. He waved.
The sergeant grunted. “Going soft, Lieutenant Blackhawk?”
Undersecretary Rosewud pursed his lips and glanced toward the soldiers, silencing them. “You are Roj’r Dowling?” He demanded of her father.
“The Lord of Lorness can demand payment whenever he sees fit. If you don’t have 4,000 baden, 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 mumbled.
R’bekah touched her father's shoulder.
Rosewud nodded approvingly. “Get in the wagon, woman.”
“I’ll fetch my daughter,” R’bekah muttered, head downcast. Her heart pounded as she trudged toward the house. Smoothing the muslin apron over her plain blue dress, she forced her mind to be quiet.
Please Lord, don’t let them follow me.
When she entered the house, the visitors’ attention was still on her father.
Inside the cabin, R’bekah found her daughter and mother hiding behind the door where they could hear.
They look so alike.
Sar’h had the same blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair as R’bekah’s mother, who was a Stewart. Her complexion and the shape of her face favored her great-grandmother, a Locke.
R’bekah hugged her daughter tightly and whispered, “Don't be afraid, Little Knight. Run to the woods, to the blackberries. Be invisible like Da showed you. Hide there until dark. I’ll come find you.”
Sar’h nodded, brave tears leaking down her face. Her father had taught her to be attentive, be still, and think things through.
Carrying her to the window at the rear of the cabin, R’bekah dropped her daughter to the ground outside. “Go! Stay low.”
Sar’h landed in a squat, then scurried off westward.
R’bekah asked J’shua Ha Mashiach, Son of the God of Truth, for wisdom.
Instead, the wisdom came from her ma. “Your husband taught us how to survive an attack. I’ll stall for as long as I can. Run east to the woods, so they don’t find both of you.”
“Oh, Ma…” R’bekah looked 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 we’ve saved. Go!”
After a final kiss on her daughter’s forehead, R’bekah let go of her mother’s thin, strong hand. She glimpsed her Ma hobble through the door while jumping out the window.
Lieutenant Blackhawk surveyed the area. There was no movement, no threat.
Sergeant Johnsun had invited him to join this off-duty assignment for the extra coin. With nothing better to do before reporting to High Castle, he’d accepted.
An old woman came out of the house, holding a basket. “Roj’r, 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.”
“No, thank you, ma’am,” Blackhawk replied, then whispered to the Sergeant, “Seems a little touched.”
The grandma shuffled over to her husband and squeezed his hand. “That’s well enough. Corn cake isn’t for everyone.” She offered the basket to the undersecretary.
Rosewud glared at the woman. “I’m here to collect monies owed to the Lord of Lorness, not nibble on cakes, woman.”
She blinked, then turned to her husband. “Roj’r, 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….”
Rosewud threw a glance over his shoulder at the soldiers and huffed, “Lieutenant, get the girl and her mother.” Then he adjusted the ledger, marking the account closed.
Lieutenant Blackhawk entered the house. It was empty. “Blast.” He scratched the sparse whiskers on his chin. Turning toward the undersecretary, he raised his voice, “Sir, they’ve run off!” Then, scanning through the window, he observed waving sorghum and a tiny blonde head.
Blackhawk returned to the wagon. “I saw the girl, but not the mother. I’ll need one of the horses.” He tilted his head, seeking approval.
“Go, Lieutenant,” Rosewud drawled. “Meet us at camp. Don't wound the mother too much. It’ll lessen her value.” The undersecretary scowled at the conniving couple. “Sergeant, an example must be set. End these babblers. The Lord of Lorness won’t want to be bothered by their whining later.”
Blackhawk unhitched a horse from the rigging, watching Sergeant Johnsun stride forward, drawing his sword.
Mister Dowling distracted his wife, brushing a strand of hair behind her ear. The couple looked into each other’s eyes as the old soldier sliced both cleanly across their throats, dropping them in a heap, still holding hands.
“Impressive, Sergeant,” Rosewud noted.
With no saddle available, Blackhawk rode the horse bareback into the woods where he’d seen the child run. “Girl, your grandma is worried about you,” he called soothingly. “Come out. I’ll take you to her.”
He saw no sign.
“Come out. I have a corn cake for ya.”
There was no sound. Even the birds were silent.
Perhaps she went farther in?
Continuing slowly, there was only the soft crunch of the horse’s hooves until the mare stopped. He looked around, then down. He nearly missed the girl. She was right below his steed’s head, almost completely covered in leaves, perfectly still.
Dismounting, he watched 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 was, he couldn’t hear her breathe. He finally accepted that she’d not give herself away. He had to return to camp, so crouched down and looked into the girl's eyes.
She blinked, but still didn't flinch.
“Come on, girl, 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."
An hour later, he arrived at camp with the girl sitting tall in front of him. 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. Being the youngest lieutenant they knew, they teased him incessantly.
“Can’t snag a grown woman?”
“Na… he used the mother up.”
“He prefers little girls.”
They all laughed at him.
Blackhawk didn’t respond. He never did.
Trotting over to the cage cart, he dismounted, still holding the girl. He poked at a few children pressed against its doors. They retreated. He opened the cage and pushed her inside.
Good haul. Seven boys and six girls.
Taking the mare to the line, he fed her then sought out Undersecretary Rosewud and the sergeant. "I found the girl, but not the mother."
The undersecretary complained matter-of-factly, “We’re short 2,000 baden because that woman got away. She must be found. Johnsun, I want the remains 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.”
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–”
“I’m not interested in excuses,” Rosewud cut him off, “or crazed notions about children able to hide from an officer.”
Blackhawk nodded. “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 walked to the fire. The remaining stew was burnt. He ate a bite, then sat against a tree near the cage. Pulling a leather pouch from his belt, he drew out some dried meat.
The girl he’d just caged was standing 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.
In the morning, he was relieved 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.
R’bekah prayed her parents would be safe as she ran into the field of tall grass. Once there, she squatted and watched Sar’h enter the woods.
A few moments later, the young soldier appeared, pursuing Sar’h on a horse.
R’bekah bent to hide herself and followed.
Yet, before she reached the woods, he emerged with Sar’h sitting before him on his horse. The sight felt like a sword through her heart. A sensation that worsened when he laughed, as if the hunt had been a game.
They rode back toward 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 chest… or lower. To end his life slowly and painfully, so he had the merest glimpse of the suffering he’d already inflicted.
He’s just a boy. Not that his age will stay my blade.
There was no way R’bekah could overtake him while remaining unseen. The wagon had already left.
Crouching, she waited, twisting a strand of her golden hair, counting her breaths until he moved out of sight, then ran back to the house. Through the roaring flames, she saw her parents’ bodies. She covered her ears, howling at the deafening blaze, railing against the Evil One, and praying in the spirit.
R’bekah wiped her tears and steeled herself. Turning toward the woods, she ran. 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.
Sar’h will be safe until they sell her. That weasel, Rosewud, won’t allow her to be defiled. He’d lose money.
She alternately walked and ran to conserve her strength.
After two hours’ travel, she crawled through the low grass to get close to the barn without being seen. Inside were six horses, each in its own stall. Her hand patted the withers of each, while speaking quietly. R’bekah chose a stallion that was fresh, with a sweet temperament, then saddled him. She flung the door wide, mounted, and rode out.
A heavy, dark-haired man ran toward her waving a club and shouting.
Barreling ahead, she brushed him aside, yelling back over her shoulder, “Sorry, I’ll return him.”
She returned to where she’d last seen her daughter and the young soldier. The trail was an obvious trap. 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. She didn’t need to get close. They were a noisy lot. There were too many for her to attempt a rescue. R’bekah's only choice was to wait for an opportunity.
I’m coming, baby. Thank you, Jon’than, for teaching me how to survive.
She hoped he 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, R’bekah gathered a blanket of leaves and hid. There was nothing else to do.
She slept lightly, but awoke to silence.
R’bekah lay still for several minutes, straining to hear the chatter of soldiers. There was none. She crawled towards the camp.
Are they hiding?
The wagons were gone, leaving only tracks from men, animals, and carts.
She returned for her horse, following without difficulty, finding them only an hour later. 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 stallion toward the more direct route to River Town.
Blackhawk rode beside the cage cart, watching the girl. She was still standing.
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 in it. But the God of Truth loved all the people so much 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 my Da says it’s very expensive. So, it’s a really loving thing to do for people you don’t know. He taught me that because of that ransom, any person in this world can be saved instead of belonging to the Serpent. J’shua promised to be with us and to watch over us always. He did not promise we wouldn’t be scared sometimes or even hurt. But, if we trust him, even though the Serpent's servants do evil, J’shua will use those mean deeds for good. 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 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 just children. There shouldn't be any trouble.” Rosewud waved a hand dismissively.
"But… the mother could be following,” Blackhawk suggested.
Rosewud scratched his chin as he considered. "Yes, yes, I wouldn’t mind having you along for company. I won’t pay much.
“Shall I follow you or scout ahead?"
Rosewud pondered. "Ummm… scout ahead. I’ll eat at The Sapphire, then head out again. Find me there.”
“Yes, sir.” Blackhawk nodded and rode ahead to River Town.
The Sapphire, River Town
Lieutenant Blackhawk watched Rosewud enter The Sapphire Inn.
Blackhawk’s patron, the Lord of Lorness who he knew as Gaelib Melazera, had sent him to North Fort for military training four years ago. He’d had no choice. His lord had explained it…
“You’re going to Commandant Sulla. He’ll train you for leadership in my army. If you stay here, my wife will make you enter her Order. Not merely as a bureaucrat, but as one of the acolytes who surrender themselves wholly to achieve her goals. She’s spoken of how she could use you many times. That isn’t what I want.
“Be careful,” Gaelib had warned, “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.
Blackhawk sighed. 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 again. 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.
“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 Greyson 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.”
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, then 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 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 Greyson 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,” Rosewud praised. “He’s been the commandant for 6 years or so. 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… 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. Ge’rge Rosewud, just one of Geleib’s many undersecretaries, is one of those people.
The undersecretary continued without encouragement, Blackhawk nodding when looked at until “…and the Order of Black Robes uses his men for operations. They–”
Curious about Rosewud’s connection to Caileagh’s Order, Blackhawk interrupted. “Who?”
“The easiest explanation is they’re highly trained and educated bureaucrats. The Order of the Black Robe finds people without trade or worthy parentage, then prepares them to support the kingdom's infrastructure. But they also assist soldiers looking for advancement.”
Blackhawk’s understanding of the Order was incomplete, but he had a basic grasp after hearing many arguments. Gaelib thought Caileagh pushed things too fast. Each fight or conversation about the Order provided another piece of the puzzle. His picture was built so gradually neither was aware he knew anything about it. They didn’t mention the Guild, Black Robes, or the Order, usually talking about ‘birds’.
Blackhawk decided it would be better to take control of the conversation before Rosewud said too much. He wasn’t joining the Order, didn’t plan on dying, and didn’t want to kill Rosewud. It would complicate his life.