Chapter 2: Anger & Artifice – 144 AK, Early Autumn
Isaiah 40:31 But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
R’bekah walked the horse through town, hoping no one saw her trembling hands. She rode past a sign offering: Bed, Bath, and Meal – ten bits. The sight of a clothier wrapping a pretty dress for a woman and her small daughter heightened her painful longing for Sar’h.
When she reached the open market, she tied her horse to a post and approached the first market stall.
I need supplies. Jon’than should be on his way back.
All will be well, the still small voice responded.
Her dagger wasn’t enough. “How much for the bow and full quiver? And an extra string?” Hers had broken last week. She frowned.
I would’ve killed that soldier before he found Sar’h if I’d had it.
The man tidying his wares into neat rows turned to her. “Fifty-two baden for all.”
R’bekah examined it, counted thirty arrows, and tested the draw. “I’ll take it.”
She continued through the stalls buying items she’d need in the wilderness.
Yard-long leather thongs caught her eye. She bought several, then continued her circuit of the market. She returned to the horse with provisions, trousers, a shirt, and a wide-brim hat.
This will do for now.
A soldier rode by at a gallop, causing her a moment’s panic.
She reassured herself there could be any number of reasons for his quick pace. Reasons that had nothing to do with her.
Be not afraid, she reminded herself.
Seeking temporary refuge, she found the seedier part of town where gambling and whoring went on all night. It was mostly deserted during the day. She ducked behind some barrels and boxes piled high in an alleyway to change her clothes.
They’ll be looking for a woman in a bedraggled dress, not a man.
Cutting a piece off her skirt, she tied her hair back. She used another to bind her breasts. Once dressed, she hid the torn clothing, then rubbed her hands in the dirt and soiled her face, hoping to look less womanly.
R’bekah patted the horse. Grabbing an apple from her purchases, she took a few bites then gave the rest to the stallion. He gobbled it from her hand, his soft lips tickling her palm, but she couldn’t smile. Without S'rah, the whole world lacked color.
She’d stopped to let him graze once on the way here, but didn’t know when either would eat again.
Most of the people she saw were walking briskly and paying no attention to her. Still, she couldn’t relax.
After a while, she spied a caravan of wagons coming down the main road, including the cage cart. She sought a glimpse of Sar’h or that weasel, Rosewud.
Cautiously, she walked the horse toward them.
Spying Sar’h, she felt ill, quelling the urge to kill all the soldiers. Seeing her caged, she bit her lip stifling a groan.
If Jon can venture forth, doing right by J’shua, so can I. Give me courage, Lord.
She continued past the wagons and cart, careful not to look at them directly. She needed to know more. She needed them to split up. She needed to follow Sar’h until she had an advantage. Then she’d strike these vermin down one by one.
Her anger was a whetstone, working to sharpen her senses and refine the needed information. It wasn’t rash. It was one with her breathing – rhythmic, calm, focused, a wave of righteous anger at the stealing of children.
She watched as the wagons, and the animals led behind them, departed.
The cart alone remained, unattended, as the weasel went into The Sapphire.
R’bekah was tempted to free Sar’h, but too many people were about, too many who might interfere. Instead, she followed Rosewud inside and bought a mug of ale.
Her heart recalled from the Writings, Be still and know that I am God.
When her enemy finished his meal and left, she waited for three breaths, then followed, overhearing, “…Greysun in Fairness Crossing. He’s paid a bonus to make him my first stop next time I had a batch of children….”
“Greysun,” she hissed, “that evil drecksa! It fits you’d purchase children.”
She took a last look at Sar’h, who was patting a little boy and talking to him, then mounted her horse. Turning away from her quarry, she headed toward the river. Following it for several miles at a gallop, she’d gain enough distance to find a suitable ambush site.
Now I know where you’re going, weasel. I’ll be waiting for you.
One-Day East of Home
Jon’than crossed the East River at a point he knew well. Just north of the Frei Forest, warm earthy scents exuded with every breeze. The sweetness of pine and sassafras, nurtured by centuries of composted leaves that carpeted the floor of that ancient timberland, reminded him of home. He’d be there before nightfall.
He already had the opening moves of his first game of chess with Sar’h. His mouth watered at the thought of a home-cooked meal. Most of all, his heart longed for R’bekah. His pace quickened as he approached their valley. But, upon cresting the last hill his stomach tightened at the acrid smell.
Dropping his pack, he sprinted.
Wispy tendrils of smoke rose into the sky from the charred remains of his home. All that was left were the chimney and a few upright posts.
Please, Father, let them be well.
He ran, yelling their names, praying they were safe, hoping they were nearby. There was no answer, only the lonely whining of a breeze through still-smoldering ruins.
He fell to his knees. They should be here making a temporary shelter, or… But the barn had burned. It was no accident.
Father, I have served you faithfully. How could this happen?
He stared up at the sky, numb, when a hawk dove. It banked on the wind, swooped to the ground, then soared aloft again, a rat twisting in its sharp talons.
He heard the still, small voice of J’shua Ha Mashiach. Get up.
Outrage filled the void, energizing him. “I will have answers. I will find out who did this. I will hunt them down. And, I will gut them,” he roared, drawing his blade.
His soul settled as he practiced the familiar drills. His sword moved, tracing the ancient forms he’d learned, gliding through every technique. He moved from his loins, low to high, in leaps and arcs, the blade flashing upward, then lunging low, piercing through his imagined foes.
He was present again, his mind clear. Sheathing his sword, he bowed his head and prayed. “Send me to fight this evil, Father. I beg this boon. I offer myself and my service until the end of my days.”
He scanned the yard again. The ground was darker in one spot near the door. Rubbing the soil between his fingers, he discovered it was wet.
Why? A spill would dry quickly. Was this drenched to expunge blood?
A path had been swept to the door. Inside the house’s shell, the ash was ruffled as if sifted with a branch.
To conceal evidence? Did someone return after the fire cooled? What did they remove? A body… two… more?
He stepped over the threshold. Parts of the floor remained. Also visible were the outlines of the table and the big rocking chair. He placed his hand over a blackened oak post. It still radiated heat.
Continuing his inspection, he looked for clues, but found none.
The barn gave no information. Both the horse and ox were missing.
There were no bodies, no bones. He thanked the Lord for that.
They must be alive. I must find them.
Jon’than gathered his pack and sought out his neighbors. All were gone, their homes empty but not burnt.
Did my family anger those who did this?
He pictured his wife bravely fighting the attackers, defending her parents and Sar’h. He could divine no other reason for such destruction, such waste as he headed to the next neighbor.
The angel, Owakar, sighed. He could not act without a request to do so, only watch and chronicle what he saw.
As Lorness’ guardian for the God of Truth, he rarely heard prayers in the spirit, which would call him into action. That region had fallen to the god of this age. A contagion that was spreading across the land.
The four castles of the Freislicht stood tall, overseeing it. Most prominent of these was Lorness. Not by size, for no citadel came close to matching High Castle’s vastness. But due to its power, influence, and – Owakar lamented – the Melazera family’s vile scheming.
Prominent people filled the halls of Lorness Castle. They waited long hours to meet with its lord. Even the good had to make the choice: attain his approval or face his ire. Nobles maneuvered for advantage, fighting petty skirmishes. Throughout the day and night, agreements were made and broken. Power and prestige soared to new heights or plummeted into the depths. Every important decision was made there, not in the capitol, High Castle.
“My dear Duke Fredruck, I am so sorry for the long wait,” Gaelib crooned as he entered the private audience chamber. “As the King’s Steward, I’ve so many duties. Lesser nobles seek me incessantly. Come, sit. Let’s clear up the trouble on our boundary.
Owakar watched expectantly. How would the good duke navigate the steward’s traps?
“Yes, Earl of Lorness, I am sure we can come to a resolution. Forbid your soldiers from trespassing onto my lands. Then they’ll not encounter my people, nor try to arrest any.”
“Please, I must entertain you before we talk business.” Gaelib raised a hand and twelve maidens entered, surrounding the duke. The first offered him wine, the next a plate of sliced fruit.
“Don’t drink it,” the angel whispered, unheard by those he watched.
“Quite unnecessary,” the duke demurred, his tone becoming icy as he motioned the women away.
Four came closer and curtseyed low. When the women tried to stroke his hair, the sound of the duke’s escort drawing their swords caused them to freeze.
The other women had been removing their outer skirts, revealing their corsets.
“Lord Melazera,” the duke growled, “this is inappropriate. I shall take my complaint to the King. I’ll also require my commoners to bear arms and aid my troops… in order to dissuade your soldiers from foolishness. Good day.”
Gaelib sighed as Duke Fredruck left, then waved the girls out. Except for the one who carried the goblet of wine. He pulled her close and forced her to drink. Soon, she was overcome.
The angel silently applauded, regretting only that such successes were so rare.
Caileagh the Elegant, wife of Gaelib Melazera, ninth Earl of Lorness, sashayed toward the hall in her burgundy silk gown. A jeweled coronet adorned the auburn hair that framed her dark amber eyes and perfect heart-shaped face.
She enjoyed working each social event in the castle’s public rooms and its more sumptuous private ones below.
The Lady of Lorness smiled and nodded to the many pretty and important guests. “Lord Macom, it is a pleasure to see you. I love your new jacket. It makes your eyes absolutely radiant.”
“Thank you, my Lady.” Macom took her offered hand and bowed as he kissed it. “You’re most kind. You are as a second sun, granting us the gifts of warmth and light.”
She feigned a blush, grabbing his arm. “I believe Gaelib has something to show you. I think you’ll be enchanted. Let me tell him you’re here. Please wait in the lower solar.”
Smiling as she watched him go, she exulted in the control she had over him. For the merest ‘treat’, he’d do whatever she suggested. Yet, she was distracted. Later tonight, she’d accept her latest cohort of acolytes.
Continuing through the room, she was amused by the snippets of conversation she overheard, including snatches of gossip she’d started. Better yet were those ardently persuading others that the king must expand the army, just in case.
Delightful. The rumors I spread flourish, reinforced and amplified by these fools.
She hoped Gaelib appreciated that her spies had helped expand his economic control. Her ‘birds’ were everywhere.
Caileagh had developed four independent organizations. No group was aware of the others. The lower levels knew nothing of the mysteries of the higher. There were circles within circles.
Sparrows surveilled the commoners, Ravens the nobles, Hawks the military, and Eagles the castles. They were helpful and trusted. Their eyes and ears sought advantages and weaknesses. When they spoke, gossipers listened. And each was obedient to the Order.
It’s pleasing to see people accept the world we’ve ever so gradually painted for them. Unwittingly, they perpetuate it. It doesn’t matter whether they request our recommendations, some coveted placement, or seek power, fame, or wealth. All advance the Guild of the Black Robe. And so, it grows.
When most of the nobles and dignitaries had left, she sought out Gaelib, fawning over him and those in conversation with him. Even though ten years married, she loved to pretend to be the doting, obedient wife, as her mother had taught her. It was one of her favorite roles.
She kissed him on the cheek and departed. Once out of earshot, she commanded her escorts, “Ready my horse. We ride for the sanctuary.”
Fear grows in the kingdom, fueled by rumor and gossip I control. With a word here and whisper there, my birds change everything. Now that Gaelib demands more taxes to build an army, the nobles are calling in loans with delightful consequences. I hadn’t foreseen the abductions of women and children. It was such an intriguing, pleasant surprise.
One-hundred-and-twenty miles away, Drake Caswell arrived in his hall. He admired the chamber, brightly lit with candles all around. The Weavers Guild had adorned it with the most expensive tapestries crafted from the brightest yarns, depicting the best-known stories from the Writings.
The largest, and his personal favorite, depicted J’shua sharing his final meal, tearing bread, then offering it to his disciples. The colors radiated with his love and grace.
On the dais was a simple table covered with a perfectly pressed, white linen cloth. On it, an intricately carved book stand made of mahogany held the Complete Writings of J’shua, open to the Psalms.
Two large chandeliers, donated by the local glassmakers’ guild, were lit and raised. The scent of lilacs and roses emanated from stands at the ends of the oak benches.
Drake closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, savoring the fragrance. He hoped it pleased the Lord as much as it pleased him.
It had been his calling to become a Knight of J’shua. Part scholar, part cleric, and – in his case – a very small part warrior. The last being a skill only required when the Faith was in peril.
It wasn’t within his Circle.
As people arrived for the service, he greeted each as they approached with a holy kiss and gave them a personal blessing.
He was elated that his wife, Taryssa, had begun to take an active interest in his Circle. She was so entertaining, helpful, and complimentary now. The congregation spoke well of her. She was the perfect exemplar of a good woman. In the early years of their marriage, she’d not been happy. Drake had thought it homesickness. But lately, she’d become more engaged, more alive, and more cheerful.
Perhaps our time at Farr Castle had been the turning point. She’s so much brighter since making friends with Gaelib’s wife.
Taryssa sat in the front row.
Drake could feel her love as she proudly beamed at him. He began the service with the prayer that Mashiach taught the disciples. The people recited it with him. Then he read the passages he’d prepared.
“He is like a man that built a house, and dug deep laying the foundation on a rock. When the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, but could not shake it.”
Lord Caswell smiled upon his favorites in the front row, and they smiled back. Their love filled him. Then he gazed over the congregation. “But he that hears and does not act is like a man whose house was built without a foundation. When the stream did beat it vehemently, it fell into ruin.”
Drake knew the guilty. They shuffled in their seats and looked at their feet.
After his teaching, he asked for prayers and nodded to those he thought should speak. Three members would stand and pray as was expected.
My Circle is the perfect example of the Faith.
River Town to Fairness Crossing
R’bekah was at least an hour or two ahead of the slow-moving caravan. As she rode through the grove to set up her ambush, she heard men shouting. A woman screamed. Children cried out. Approaching cautiously, she wrapped her left forearm in a thong. Through the leaves, she glimpsed a family being attacked by soldiers.
The still small voice spoke. Help them.
R’bekah spurred her horse into a gallop. Bursting from the tree line, she slammed her mount into a soldier, knocking him from his feet.
A second soldier was climbing aboard the wagon, striking the driver. The third snatched an infant from its mother and ran toward the river.
He’s going to drown it!
Dismounting, R’bekah loaded four arrows into her bow hand as Jon had taught her. Pinching and pulling the first, she fired.
Her first arrow struck its target’s calf, stopping him short of the river. The next toppled him backward, the babe still in his arms.
The soldier she’d knocked down, a tall burly lad, regained his feet and charged toward R’bekah. The last still grappled with the wagon’s driver.
She drew and released twice more. It took only a breath. With the first, the big lad fell. The other arrow missed.
The mother ran toward her howling baby.
R’bekah drew more arrows and nocked another.
The last soldier pummeled the driver to the ground, giving her a clear shot.
She did not miss again.
Sweat poured from her brow. Her hands were clammy. She twisted seeking other threats, but there had only been three soldiers. None were moving, nor ever would again.
R’bekah's hands shook.
What have I done?
Three men were dead by her hand. Yet, there’d been no other choice. They clearly had evil intent.
Tears running down the mother’s face, she rocked her baby as she returned to the wagon. “Thank the merciful Father,” she cried out, “and thank you, sir.”
The eldest child comforted her siblings. Then she turned to her father who was rising. “Da, are you well?”
The wagon driver, bleeding, regained his feet. “I am… well… enough.” He grabbed the wagon’s side to prevent falling again.
“We’re all well,” the children’s mother reassured, a quiver in her voice. She rubbed the back of her son who was shaking and mute. “The God of Truth kept us safe. What was our lesson this morning, Brin?”
The small boy, no more than four, looked up at her. Biting his lip, he stood, then stammered, “He that dwelleth… in the secret place of the Most High… shall abide… under the shadow of the Almighty.”
“Very good, Psalm 91:1,” his oldest sister praised.
R’bekah retrieved her horse and tethered it to the wagon.
The children’s father turned to R’bekah, “Thank you, sir… you have amazing skill wi–” He froze mid-word. “You’re a… woman!”
“I was hoping you couldn’t tell.” R’bekah frowned.
“Ah… that is… the dirt and the clothes… but your movements… Yet, you struck all three in the neck… I’ve never seen such…”
“My husband and I hunted often before the children came. He says the Lord blessed me with a propensity for the bow.”
“I… can see that. You saved us.” He rubbed his temple, his eyes narrowed in pain. “My name is Vincent…” he groaned, “…Donofrio. This,” he pointed to the short, thin woman with brown curls escaping a colorful scarf, “is my… wife, Helen.”
“I am R’bekah Otual. Why were they attacking you?”
“Lord Macom…” Vincent began, then lay his head against his arm, still holding tightly onto the wagon.
“He is – was – our lender,” Helen said. “He sent three soldiers in a military cart to our farm demanding payment in full. Fortunately, we were in our wagon on the way into town. They saw us and gave chase. I heard a voice say, ‘Turn’. So, I repeated it to Vince. There wasn’t even a road, but he curved toward the river, where they overtook us. Then you appeared. We can never repay you.”
“There’s no need. I too was following the Lord's guidance. What’ll you do?” R’bekah asked, recovering the last of her arrows from a body. He moaned. She drew her knife across his throat, feeling ill.
He was a predator. Still, even an animal shouldn’t suffer.
“We must hide.” Helen turned toward her husband. “Lord Macom’s men won’t stop. Laws have been perverted and are being used to steal our children, our livelihood, and our future.”
R’bekah heard the still small voice again, Help them.
But Father, I must save Sar’h.
She turned to ray of light breaking through the clouds above, seeking reassurance.
Sar’h is safe, the voice whispered.
Lord, I don’t see how that can be. But I trust that you love my baby even more than I and will send angels to protect her.
Both comforted and afraid, R’bekah focused on the task at hand. “First, see what they’re carrying that we can use. Then help me drag them to the river. Drifting downstream will make it difficult to determine where they were killed. Then, we must dilute this blood.”
From the soldiers they pilfered three canteens, two hatchets, a map, a spyglass, and an assortment of daggers and swords. They also took the food and provisions from the military cart.
While the family cleared away the signs of struggle and hid the soldiers’ cart in the woods, R’bekah rode back to the point where the wagon had left the road. Jon’than had taught her to track. The cart and wagon's wheels damaged a few bushy weeds near the road. She cut the bent stems at the base, far below the obvious breaks, then brushed out the wagon tracks.
Where should we go, Father?
The clouds let loose a soft rumble, parting only slightly to allow a single shaft of light pointing south, over Frei Forest. It was about twenty miles from River Town, a forest so thick no one could easily build there.
“We can make our way south,” she suggested to the Donofrios on her return, “to just this side of the river near Fairness Crossing. As long as we stay out of sight, we can remain in the Frei indefinitely.”
Mister Donofrio nodded. “Our faith is with you.”