Chapter 1: Little Soldier
144 AK (After the Knight)
Full Moon, Spring
Near Fairness Crossing
Flapping linens signaled a change in the wind. Rebekah Otual was trapped in the flurry of sheets, which obscured her sight. Fighting her way out, she caught only glimpses of the modest thatched cottage that was her home, the dark green woods surrounding it on three sides, the meandering forest trail…and three men approaching on a wagon.
Freeing herself, Rebekah’s heart raced as she watched them warily and prayed.
Where is Sarah?
The wagon stopped only twenty paces away. A thin, fair-haired official dismounted dressed in a gold tunic bearing the green dragon sigil of the Earl of Lorness. The two soldiers remaining on the wagon wore royal red brigandine and steel helmets.
The man walked toward her. His every button was polished. Not a scuff on his cordovan boots, nor did a single hair escape its ribbon. He carried a thick book, while an elegantly carved club hung from his belt. “I am George Rosewud, Undersecretary to the Earl of Lorness,” he announced. “Call your father, woman,”
She stiffened and glanced about for Sarah. Where are you?
Just then, her aging father hiked from the fields holding his gloves and hoe. Sweat dripped from his graying hairline. “What do you want, clerk? We’ve made this moon’s payment.”
“That was recorded,” the undersecretary said. Then, with a mirthless smile, “However, the Earl of Lorness demands all outstanding loans be finalized.” His thick ledger creaked open. “The amount is…four thousand baden.”
“We have a contract.” Her father removed his wide-brimmed hat, wiping his brow with his sleeve. “He can’t demand it all at once.”
The undersecretary’s lifeless brown eyes locked onto him.
One soldier, a tall, dark-haired youth with a face as smooth as a peach, jumped off the wagon. The older one climbed down, straightening his well-worn uniform. He scratched at an old scar trailing across his left cheek. They stood at attention. Each wore a sword.
Sarah jumped out from the hanging laundry. Then she stomped her brother’s hand-me-down boots and mimicked the soldiers’ stances. Her plain muslin shift ruffled in the breeze like a flag. Five seashell buttons her da brought home after a mission to Tarinland decorated its front. She’d inherited Rebekah’s blue eyes and golden blonde hair. Although usually quiet and observant, like her father, Jonathan, sometimes her daydreams spurred surprising animation. Standing straight and tall, as tall as a six-year-old could, her voice rose sweetly, singing a familiar melody she’d learned from him.
“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.”
Rebekah noticed a slight smile crack on the young soldier’s stoic face. “Go help Oma with the folding,” she instructed Sarah, her tone clear—obey or get a phwack.
The young soldier’s eyes tracked Sarah as she skipped to the cottage and disappeared through the door.
Undersecretary Rosewud’s expression darkened. “The Earl of Lorness demands payment. Now.”
“We have a contract.” Her father folded his muscular arms across his chest.
“Circumstances have changed.” The clerk replied brusquely. Then with a menacing smile, he continued, “Of course, you could fight to confirm your rights. Although an old law, trial by combat is not unknown. How do you think you’d fare against my sergeant?”
The old soldier grinned, laying a hand on his hilt, his eyes focused on the farmer.
“But…” her father stammered.
The old sergeant leaned toward the boy soldier while eyeing her up and down. “Be pretty if she smiled.”
Undersecretary Rosewud pursed his lips and silenced his men with a glance. “If you don’t have four thousand baden, Mister Dowling, we’ll take your daughter and granddaughter instead. Both look healthy. How old is the girl?”
“Take back the land,” her father countered.
Rosewud raised an eyebrow. “Your lord has taxes to pay. I can sell the females in days. The land would take moons. How old is the child?”
Rebekah touched her father’s shoulder as it sank. She knew it would be impossible to reason with this clerk. The sergeant would not hesitate to cut down an old man.
“We’ll fight another day, Da,” she whispered.
He nodded but continued to beg the undersecretary for more time.
Rosewud pointed. “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 quieted her racing thoughts.
Please J’shua, don’t let anyone follow me.
When she entered the house, all attention was still on her father.
Inside the cottage, Rebekah found her daughter and mother crouched beside the open door, listening.
She hugged Sarah tightly and whispered, “Don’t be afraid, Little Knight. Run to the woods, to the blackberries. Be invisible, like your da showed you. Hide there until I come find you. It is an assignment.”
Sarah wiped away a tear, then furrowed her brows in determination.
Rebekah dropped her daughter to the ground through the rear window. “Go! Stay low.”
Sarah landed in a squat and scurried off.
Rebekah watched her girl disappear into the high sorghum grass. “Lord J’shua, what should I do?”
“Jonathan taught us how to respond to an attack,” her mother answered. “I’ll stall as long as I can. Run in the opposite direction through the east fields so they don’t find you both. Then you can reach Sarah through the woods. May angels guide you.”
“Mama.” Rebekah’s countenance fell as she stared into her mother’s clear blue eyes. She hesitated. I can’t leave you.
“Your father 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!”
Sprawled on the ground, she looked behind at the rock. She thrust herself up on her feet and continued running. Thick sorghum fronds slapped her face. When she emerged, she looked about, panting, as she ran into the shade of the woods.
The forest floor was padded with dead leaves. She stepped carefully to avoid disturbing any. The blackberries smelled ripe. She yearned to pick them, but Ma said to hide. So, she did.
Lieutenant Steven Blackhawk had watched the strange little girl skip through the door. Another farmhouse was visible in the distance, half a mile beyond the Dowling’s fields. All other directions were forest. No movement, no threat.
Sergeant Jonsun, whom he’d met at a tavern in Lorness, had invited him to join this off-duty assignment for extra coin. With nothing better to do before reporting to High Keep, he’d accepted. It was tolerable. And it was an opportunity to wear his newly won brigandine. Before, he could only afford gambeson, which could only blunt a blow. Lined with small steel plates, the brigandine provided much better protection.
As Blackhawk waited for a command from this Rosewud fop, another woman came out of the house—an older version of the old man’s daughter. She carried a woven basket. “Rojer, do we have guests?” She beamed a cheery smile. “I have honey cakes. Would you like some, son? You’re still growing and must be hungry.”
She shuffled toward the wagon but stumbled and fell, dropping her load.
Blackhawk stepped forward and offered his hand. “Let me help you, ma’am.”
Taking it, she wobbled as she carefully found her balance and rose. “Thank you. You’re such a dear. Oh, my, I’ve broken some cakes.”
She fussed with the contents of her hamper, then offered a cake to Blackhawk, who’d returned to his place. “This one didn’t break.” She pointed at it and smiled.
“No, thank you, ma’am,” Blackhawk replied with a nod. He whispered to the sergeant, “Seems a little touched.”
“That’s well enough. Honey cake isn’t for everyone. Uncle Fitz hated honey cake. Wouldn’t eat it.” The woman staggered toward the undersecretary, offering him the basket.
Rosewud glared at her. “I’m here to collect monies owed to the Earl of Lorness, not nibble on cakes.”
She blinked, then headed toward her husband. “Rojer, don’t we still have silver under the loose stone in the fireplace?”
“Oh, perhaps,” the burly old man took her hand and squeezed. “How much do we have?”
“Well, last year it was quite a sum, but then you had to buy seed….”
“Yes, the seed was expensive. But I harvested a good early crop. I almost opened an account with the money changer,” he chuckled weakly.
“Oh yes, you brought several wagon loads to the market. I saved much of the profit. How much does the man want?”
“The undersecretary here says four thousand baden, sweetie.”
“Here, take one, dear husband. I know you love my honey cakes.” She gave him a peck on the cheek.
Rojer took a bite out of the cake. “Mmm. You sure you don’t want one, sir? My wife’s cakes are the best in all Lorness.”
The old woman beamed, offering the basket again.
Rosewud threw a glance over his shoulder and huffed. “Lieutenant, fetch the girl and her mother.” The undersecretary trailed a finger down the page until he came to the Dowling account, making a mark.
Lieutenant Blackhawk searched the small farmhouse. It was empty. “Blast!” He scratched the fine hairs on his chin and sighed.
In the seven days of this operation, no one has fled before.
He turned. He could see the undersecretary through the open doorway and shouted. “Sir, they’ve run off!”
Blackhawk turned back to the window. He relaxed his eyes to take in the widest view. Scanning the fields slowly, he observed waving sorghum, the woods beyond, and…a tiny blonde head. He hustled back to the wagon. “I saw the girl but not the mother.”
“Take a horse. We won’t wait,” Rosewud griped. “Meet us at camp. 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 leave any marks. It’ll lessen their value. Go, Lieutenant.” The undersecretary scowled at the conniving couple. “Sergeant, set an example.”
As Blackhawk unhitched a horse from the harness, Sergeant Jonsun dashed forward, drawing his sword.
“No!” Mister Dowling pulled his wife behind him.
As the sergeant advanced, he sliced both cleanly across their necks, dropping them in a heap, their hands still entwined.
Blackhawk didn’t flinch. He felt nothing.
“Impressive, Sergeant,” Rosewud noted. Then, after a side glance toward the young lieutenant, he whispered, “Check the fireplace. If there’s anything there, we’ll split it.”
As Gaelib Melazera’s page, Blackhawk had seen Rosewud stand before their lord. But there the fop’s manner was very different—submissive. Perhaps everyone was. Best to remain a stone. But he now knew what Rosewud was capable of. He kicked the horse, driving through the sorghum and into the dark woods. “Girl, your grandma is worried about you,” he called. “Come out. I’ll take you to her.”
Blackhawk edged the horse forward, ducking under wayward branches, keeping an eye out for his prey. He saw no sign. Even the birds were silent.
“Come out. She has a honey cake for ya.”
He scanned the woods. A rabbit perked up and dashed away. A barking squirrel scampered up a tree. The soft crunch of his horse’s hooves was the only other thing he heard. Then the mare stopped. He glanced down.
The girl was right below his steed’s head, covered by leaves, lying still on the ground.
Dismounting, he waited to see how long she could stay motionless.
When I was her age, I wouldn’t have lasted a wink.
Even knowing where she hid, he couldn’t hear her. She didn’t move or make a peep. He finally accepted that she wouldn’t give herself away. He needed to return to camp, so he crouched down and peered into the girl’s eyes.
She blinked but didn’t flinch.
“Let’s go.” Blackhawk gently picked her up, staring into her blue eyes, entranced by this little fair-haired doll who didn’t kick or cry. “Who taught you to hide like that?”
“My da.” She smiled, a dimple gracing her cheek. “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, he saw smoke. Blackhawk turned back into the forest so she wouldn’t see the burning house. He didn’t want to deal with a bawling child.
Rebekah felt ill. The young soldier, bent low over his horse, pursued Sarah.
She followed, but before she reached the woods, he emerged with Sarah sitting before him on his mount. The sight of her daughter caught by that drecksa cut deep. A sensation that worsened when he smiled, as if the hunt was a game.
Rebekah grimaced. Everything inside her screamed to run after them. To rip her daughter out of his arms and plunge her dagger into his gut. To end his life—slowly—so he knew the suffering he’d inflicted.
He’s just a lad. Not that his youth will stay my blade.
There was no way she could reach them while remaining unseen.
Sarah seems calm, perhaps she’s imagining a great adventure.
Crouching, she waited, twisting a strand of her golden hair, counting her breaths until they were well out of sight. Then she ran back to the house, hoping her parents were alive but dreading the worst. The wagon was gone. Through the roaring flames, she discerned her parents’ crumpled bodies. Tears poured down her face, and sobs suffocated her. She covered her ears, howling at the deafening blaze, railing against this evil, and praying in the spirit.
The grasping fire grew hotter, forcing her to stumble back. With one final wail, Rebekah wiped her tears. Turning toward the woods, she ran.
The Canferd’s farm is close. They’ve a horse. No, they also have a loan from Gaelib Melazera, the Earl of Lorness.
The nearest farm in the Duke of Wooster’s domain was her best chance of finding a property that wasn’t 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 the barn without being seen. Once at the edge of the yard, she ran to it, opening its heavy door just enough to get through. Inside were six horses, each in a stall. She patted their withers, whispering. Rebekah chose a fresh mare and saddled her. She flung the door wide, mounted, and rode out.
An old man hobbled toward her, waving a big stick. “Stop, thief!”
Barreling ahead, she dodged past him, yelling over her shoulder, “Sorry, I’ll return her.”
She rode hard for a mile in the opposite direction and walked a while in a rocky creek to confuse pursuers. Then she veered back toward her farm. She returned to where she’d last seen her daughter and the young soldier.
Sarah will be safe until they sell her. That weasel, Rosewud, won’t allow her to be defiled. He’d lose money.
Sarah rode in front of the dark-haired soldier. He smelled sweaty. So did the horse. She wove her fingers into its mane as they rode through the forest. When the trees became a meadow, the horse ran. She held on tight.
J’shua are you with me?
Yes, Little One. I am. Breathe deep. Can you feel me?
Yes. You are warm like Da’s arms around me.
The sun was setting when Blackhawk arrived at the small camp. He passed several soldiers transporting three women taken in today’s collections. They hooted and shouted about the kid lieutenant 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 tying the mare to the picket line, he entered Rosewud’s tent. “I found the girl, but not the mother.”
“I’ll be short much baden because that woman got away,” Rosewud complained as he polished a boot.” He leaned back in his mahogany chair. “Jonsun, I want all evidence removed.”
The sergeant sighed. “I’ll write up a warrant for the mother and send back 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 to—”
Rosewud thrust out his palm. “I’m not interested in excuses or crazed notions about children being able to hide from an officer, even a mere boy like you.”
Blackhawk shrugged. “The woman will come for her child. I left a trail for her to follow. She may appear if we wait.”
“No. This has already delayed us. 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 tasting it—burned, as usual. Dropping the ladle back, he sought a comfortable tree near the cage and leaned against it, ignoring the crying children trapped inside. The half dozen other soldiers moved about the camp with hoots and rowdy conversation. Pulling a leather pouch from his belt, he drew out a lump of dried meat.
The girl he’d just caged stood at attention, watching him.
Each time a soldier whacked the cage to silence a bawling brat, she seemed unaffected, except to scowl and wrinkle her nose. As darkness fell, he retired to his tent and wondered how she could remain unflappable.
Rebekah found the tracks leading away from the blackberry patch. They wove through the softest dirt. It was a trap. Yet she followed. She’d never traveled more than a day’s ride from home until she met Jon.
The sun had just set when she smelled their campfire. Then she saw a large tent and several small ones. There were too many men for her to attempt a rescue. She could not see Sarah.
Rebekah’s only choice was to wait for a better opportunity. She prayed J’shua would comfort her daughter. She prayed for Jonathan and their eight-year-old son, David as well.
What will you do, Jon, when you find us gone and everything destroyed? How will you find us?
She hoped her husband was well. He had recently taken their son to apprentice with Magistrate Gorum in far-off Esthlanis. David would be safe there.
The waiting gnawed on her.
Daylight faded into night. She scrounged a few berries to assuage her hunger. Then, tethering the horse farther away, Rebekah hid in a blanket of leaves and waited.
She dozed fitfully but woke to silence.
Rebekah lay still for several moments, straining to hear the palaver of soldiers. Nothing. She crawled toward the camp.
The wagons were gone, leaving only muddled tracks of men, animals, and carts. After returning to her horse, she followed them. Only an hour later, she heard their laughter and saw them take the old cow trail.
I know where you’re going. Thank you, husband, for teaching me how to survive.
She turned her mare toward the most direct route to River Town.
I’m coming, baby.
It smelled bad. Someone had peed themselves. Sarah found a place to stand amongst the huddling children. The others were older and hugged each other tightly in twos and threes. They murmured head-to-head and never looked up. Sarah noticed a little boy, curled in a ball like a kitten, who was alone like her. She was filled with the need to care for him.
In the morning, relief warmed Blackhawk to see her sleeping. The feeling surprised him.
He saw no sign of the mother as they moved out. The long rainy season had left the road bumpy, making progress slow for the caravan of wagons and confiscated animals.
Blackhawk rode beside the cage cart, watching the girl. She remained standing, her small hands clutching the bars.
Such a disciplined 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 watching him, and never once did she seem scared, just curious. As he was.
A boy of about four started whimpering. He was scrawny with a mop of unruly black curls. He could have been Blackhawk’s younger brother. Little Soldier, as Blackhawk had dubbed her, stroked the lad’s 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.
“Want me to tell you about him?”
The lad smiled.
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 everyone, 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…it means you don’t have to pay to be saved. J’shua promised to watch over us…always. I know he’s here with me.”
The little boy wrinkled his forehead in thought, looking left and right. “I don’t see him anywhere. There are many soldiers.”
Little Soldier hugged the boy again. “I know. You can’t see J’shua. But with practice, you can hear him. I do. It’s just a whisper, but he says I am safe.”
The little boy smiled.
She drew him onto her lap and held him until they both fell asleep.
Blackhawk stared. Her care for the little boy had pricked a memory just out of reach. His face tightened as he rubbed the back of his neck.
He tugged at his armor and spurred the horse forward. Her words rattled around his head, annoying him. The idea of a ransom was so counter to the teachings of Lord and Lady Melazera, whom he served.
It can’t be that simple. Gods must be appeased.
He trotted up the line and, when he reached the undersecretary’s cart, matched its pace.
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 his chin. “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 break my fast at the Sapphire before heading out. Find me there.”
“Yes, sir.” Blackhawk rode ahead into River Town.
Lieutenant Blackhawk watched Rosewud enter the Sapphire Inn. Then the young officer 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. Then Little Soldier’s scowling face entered his thoughts. He kicked a stone, glowering as he crossed the street. The image had ruined his mood—again.
Two militet stood by the cart. Little more than untrained recruits, they were misfits who refused to learn. Perhaps unjust, Blackhawk mused, but it was the way officers regarded them. Especially since all it took to attain rank and rise from the militet was to distinguish themselves in some way. Taking down a wolf single-handedly, saving a sergeant’s life, or some other act of bravery would do it. Until they did that, they were only conscripts, receiving only room in a tent and board.
Heading toward the merry sounds pouring from the inn only darkened his humor further. When he saw the undersecretary emerging, he instinctively altered his expression, making it open and friendly.
“Right on time, Blackhawk,” Rosewud called out, pointing his shillelagh at the young lieutenant. Blackhawk wondered about the intricately carved club.
Dismissing both militet who were standing guard, Rosewud scolded, “You two must exert more effort if you wish to earn rank.” Then 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 pays a bonus to make him my first stop when I’ve got a batch of children.”
Rosewud climbed onto the cage cart, setting his shillelagh on the seat.
Blackhawk poured water into a cup and handed it to a waif. The 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 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 glanced back at the cage. Little Soldier stared at him. She smiled and lifted her fingers in the slightest wave. He felt a barely perceptible grin rise 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 eight years.” Rosewud turned to Blackhawk. “I’ll introduce you. You should request Fairness Crossing for your next assignment. There are glorious rewards for a properly motivated soldier like yourself. And with you so young,” the undersecretary looked him over, “fifteen or so?”
“Fifteen,” Blackhawk responded.
“There’s no limit.”
The undersecretary continued without encouragement, Blackhawk nodding now and then.
Some people just have to talk. Can’t stop them without offending them, so you let them. George Rosewud is one of those people.
Rosewud rambled on, “…Order of the Black Robe uses…”
At the mention of the Order, Blackhawk’s interest was piqued. He’d been an orphan on the streets of Farr. At four, his patron, Gaelib Melazera, Earl of Lorness, took him in. At eleven, his lord sent him to North Fort. But Lord Melazera had explained, “Commandant Sulla will train you for leadership in my army. Be careful; someday, an operative will try to recruit you into the Order. That is not what I want for you. Don’t let them reveal too much. They’ll kill you to protect their secrets if you don’t join.”
“…the Order keeps…”
“Who are they?”
“What…? Oh. The easiest explanation is they’re highly trained scribes and court officers. The Order finds people without a trade or worthy parentage and prepares them to support the kingdom’s infrastructure. It is difficult to manage a kingdom without loyal aides. It also educates soldiers looking for advancement.”
Blackhawk’s understanding of it was incomplete. Gaelib had accused his wife, Caileagh, of pushing things too fast. Each argument provided another piece of the puzzle. Neither was aware of his knowing about it. They didn’t mention black robes, usually talking about sparrows, ravens, or hawks.
He decided he’d better take control of the conversation before Rosewud revealed too much, as his lord had warned. He wasn’t joining the Order, didn’t plan on dying, and couldn’t kill the undersecretary. It would complicate his life. Better to keep things simple, better to remain entertaining, helpful, and complimentary as he was taught.
“Sir, you handle all your responsibilities so well. How did you meet Commandant Greysun?”