Rare Things for a Rare Life

The Knights of Joshua

by Tiana Dokerty © 1984-2021

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Chapter 2: Little Soldier – 144 AK, Early Autumn

Matthew 18:5 And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receives me.

Fifteen Years before Shining Mountain


Between Fairness Crossing & River Town

Flapping, nearly dry linens signaled a change in the wind.

The modest log cabin lay in a clearing surrounded by woods on three sides. Out back were ten acres of barley, oats, sorghum, and more. A meandering drive led out of the forest to the home.

Rebekah, her husband Jon, and their two children lived there with her parents. With Jonathan away for months at a time, her father had insisted the new couple live with them. When their grandchildren arrived, they added extra rooms.

She’d just brought the shirts in off the line and was folding them. Her daughter, Sarah, waved to three men approaching on a wagon. One had a ledger. The others were in military uniforms. Her muscles tensed.

What do they want?

Rebekah put down the clothes and walked out to greet them. She was relieved to see her father striding up.

When the wagon stopped, the official spoke dryly, “I am George Rosewood, Undersecretary to the Lord of Lorness.” Thin and fair-haired, he looked down his nose at Rebekah like a reproving elder. His every button was polished. There was not a scuff on his cordovan boots, nor did a single hair escape its ribbon. “I am here to settle the loan of Roger and Myra Dowling. The amount due is four thousand baden. Can you pay it?”

“What?” Rebekah exclaimed as she wrested windblown hair out of her eyes. “We just made this moon’s payment in town. Don’t you have a record of it?”

“Yes, ma’am, the payment was recorded. But the Lord of Lorness demands all outstanding debts be brought in for the needs of the king.” His voice flat, his face expressionless.. “Will you be able to close the debt today?”

“What’s this?” Her father interrupted gruffly from behind her, as he wiped sweat from his furrowed brow. “Absolutely not! We have a contract. He cannot demand it all at once.”

Glowering, the undersecretary turned his lifeless brown eyes on her father.

The two soldiers stepped off the wagon. One was but a youth, the other middle-aged. They stood at attention and readied their swords.

Sarah, who had been flitting amongst the sheets, mimicked the soldiers by standing at attention. Her plain muslin dress, decorated with five colored buttons down the front, ruffled in the breeze like a flag. Her boots, not the usual delicate shoes for girls, were brown leather and well-worn, a hand-me-down from her brother. She stood straight and tall, as tall as a six-year-old could. Her father had taught her to be attentive, be still, and pay heed to her thoughts.

Whenever Rebekah’s husband, Jonathan, left on a trip, Sarah and David and their da would sing a reminder to always be brave. The girl’s voice rose sweetly, the familiar melody carrying to all:

“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 Joshua’s might.”

Rebekah, already on alert, noticed the boy smile and wave, apparently amused by her daughter’s antics. He kept watching Sarah as she went back to playing, her golden curls bouncing.

“Go inside, see Grandma,” Rebekah instructed in a tone that meant obey or get a phwack.

The younger soldier watched the girl head indoors and waved again.

His sergeant grunted. “You’re going soft, Lieutenant Blackhawk.”

Undersecretary Rosewood pursed his lips and glanced toward the soldiers, clearly displeased by the interruption. “You are Roger Dowling I presume? The Lord of Lorness can demand payment whenever he sees fit. If you do not have four thousand baden, we can settle the debt with this woman and the child. Both look healthy. How old is the child?”

“You can’t do that,” Rebekah’s father yelled. “Take back the land!”

Rosewood didn't look up from his ledger nor acknowledge the man in anyway. “Lord Melazera does not want the land. He needs the money. The woman and the girl can be sold before sunset. The land would take longer. How old is the child?” He spoke as calmly as if they were neighbors discussing the harvest.

“Six,” the old man growled.

Rebekah reached out and held her father's shoulder.

Rosewood nodded approvingly. “Yes, that will do. Get in the wagon, ma’am.”

“I’ll fetch my daughter,” Rebekah muttered, her head downcast. She sighed. She forced her mind to quiet and prayed, Please Lord, don’t let them follow me.

When she passed through the door, their attention was still on her father.

Inside the cabin, Rebekah found her daughter and mother hiding behind the door. Out of sight, but where they could hear.

They look so alike.

Sarah had her grandmother’s high cheekbones and the strawberry blonde hair of the Stewarts. Yet, her complexion and the shape of her face favored her great-grandmother who was a Locke.

Rebekah hugged her daughter tight and whispered into her ear, “Don't be afraid, little knight. Run to the woods, to the blackberries we found yesterday. Be invisible just like Da showed you. Hide there until dark. I’ll come find you.” Rebekah looked sternly into her eyes.

Sarah nodded back, brave tears leaking down her face.

Carrying her to the window at the rear of the cabin, Rebekah reached out and dropped her daughter to the ground. “Go!”

Sarah landed in a squat, then scurried off westward.

Rebekah turned to her mother, praying for that still small voice to give her wisdom. Instead, it came from her ma.

“I’ll go speak to them and stall for as long as I can. You run to the woods. To the east, so they won’t find both of you. It’s the only way.”

“Oh, Ma…” Rebekah cried, looking into her mother’s clear blue eyes, noticing the wrinkles and laugh lines on her brave face.

“It is well, honey. Your Da and I have had a full and blessed life. We will sleep. When we wake, we will all be together again with Joshua Ha Mashiach and the Father. Now, go. Take your dagger and these hundred baden. Go!”

Rebekah let go of her mother’s thin, strong hand, the one with the scar she got from saving David from the wolf last year.

After a final kiss on her daughter’s forehead, her ma turned and hobbled out the front door.

Lieutenant Blackhawk surveyed the area again.

An old woman came out of the house holding a basket. “Oh my, Roger, do we have guests?” She smiled cheerfully. “I have some corn cake. Would you like some, son?” She asked the young soldier. “You’re still growing and must be hungry.”

“No, thank you, ma’am,” Blackhawk replied, then whispered to the Sergeant, “She seems a little touched.”

The grandma hobbled 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.

Rosewood glared at the woman. “I am here to collect the monies owed to the Lord of Lorness, not nibble on cakes, madam.”

The old woman blinked, then turned to her husband. “Roger, don’t we still have some silver under the loose stone in the fireplace?”

“I don’t know, honey.” 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….”

Rosewood 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 obeyed and entered the house. It was empty. “Blast,” he exclaimed under his breath, scratching the sparse whiskers on his chin. Turning toward the door, he raised his voice, “Sergeant, they’ve run off!” Scanning through the window, he could only barely make out the wavering sorghum and a tiny blonde head bobbing in the distance.

Blackhawk returned to the wagon. “I saw the girl about to enter the woods, but not the mother. I’ll need one of the horses.” He tilted his head, seeking approval.

“Go, Lieutenant,” Rosewood drawled. “Meet us at camp. Wound the mother if you must but don’t harm her looks. She’s Lord Melazera’s property.”

Blackhawk nodded and freed a horse from the rigging.

The undersecretary scowled at the old couple. “Sergeant, end these babblers. Lord Melazera won’t want to be bothered by their whining later. An example must be set.”

Sergeant Johnson strode forward, drawing his sword.

The couple looked into each other’s eyes as the old soldier sliced both cleanly across the throat. They dropped in a heap, still holding hands.

“Impressive, Sergeant Johnson,” Rosewood noted.

With no saddle available, Blackhawk rode the horse bareback into the woods where he’d seen the blonde head disturbing the sorghum. “Girl, your grandma is worried about you.” His voice was deep for his age. His tone was as soothing as he could make it. “Come out, and I’ll take you to her.”

He saw no sign.

“Come out. I have a corn cake for ya.”

There was no sound.

Perhaps she went farther in?

Continuing slowly, the only sound was the soft crunch of the horse’s hooves until the mare stopped herself. He looked around again, then down. He nearly missed her though she was right below his steed’s head, almost completely covered in leaves and twigs, perfectly still.

Dismounting, he watched in admiration to see how long she would stay motionless.

When I was her age, I wouldn’t have lasted a blink. She is something.

For an hour, she did not move nor make a peep. Even knowing where she was, he could not spot her nor hear her breath. He finally admitted to himself that she’d never surrender. He had to return to camp, so the young lieutenant crouched down and looked into the girl's eyes.

She blinked but didn't flinch.

“Come on, girl, let’s go. We’re way behind.” 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 how 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. "

When he arrived at camp with the girl sitting tall in front of him, soldiers on the other teams hooted and shouted about the kid soldier and his new gal.

“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 wasn’t sure why.

Trotting over to the cage cart, he dismounted still holding the girl. He poked at a few children that were pressed against the cage doors with his still sheathed sword. They retreated. He opened the latched door and pushed her inside.

Good haul. Seven boys and six girls.

Taking the mare to the line, he fed her. “Good job today.”

After he cared for the mare, he sought out Rosewood and the sergeant. "I found the girl, but not the mother."

The undersecretary complained matter-of-factly “…short 2,000 baden because that woman got away. She must be found. Sergeant, you were rash to burn the house and barn. 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 for cleanup.”

Rosewood focused on Blackhawk. “What took you so long?”

“I searched for them both. The child was incredibly well hidden. If I’d not seen where she went, I wouldn’t have found her either. They’ve been trained not to leave any sign of—”

“I’m not interested in your excuses,” Rosewood cut him off, “or your fantasies about children trained well enough to hide from an officer.”

“The woman will return for her child. I left a trail for her to follow. She may come to us if we wait here awhile."

“No. If we do that I’ll be forced to feed the imps,” Rosewood grumbled. “If we leave at first light, I’ll be spared that expense.”

Once dismissed, Blackhawk walked to the fire. What little stew left was burning. He ate some, then sat down facing the cage. Pulling a leather pouch out of his pocket, he drew out some dried meat.

She was standing at attention, watching him.

He paused, pushed the morsel back in. He marveled each time a soldier wacked the cage to silence a bawling brat. She seemed unaffected, except to scowl and wrinkle her nose.

In the morning, he felt relieved to see her sleeping. The feeling surprised him.

There was still no sign of the girl’s mother, so they moved out. The road was bumpy after a long rainy season, making for slow progress. Four wagons were followed by the cage cart and many confiscated animals.

Rebekah prayed her parents would be safe as she ran into the field of tall grass. Once there, she squatted and watched Sarah enter the woods.

Good girl.

A few moments later, the young soldier appeared, pursuing Sarah on a horse.

Rebekah bent over to hide herself and pursued the soldier.

Yet, before she reached the woods, he emerged with Sarah 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 only a game.

They rode back towards 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 on her.

He’s just a boy himself. Not that his age will stay my blade.

There was no way Rebekah could overtake him without a horse of her own.

Rebekah broke down and wept. Everything she loved had been taken from her. Her parents were dead. She’d heard their execution. Her home was engulfed in fire. Her daughter had been kidnapped by the vile Lord of Lorness.

Sarah will be safe enough until they sell her. That weasel, Rosewood, will not allow her to be defiled or damaged in any way that could reduce her value.

Rebekah wiped her tears and steeled herself for what she must do. She turned toward the woods and ran. The nearest farm in the Duke of Wooster’s domain was her best chance of finding a property that had not been repossessed – and a horse – before dark.

She alternately walked and ran as she prayed.

If our farm was a mile westward, it’d be in Wooster. This evil wouldn’t have befallen us.

She crawled through the low grass to get as close to their barn as she could before being seen. When twenty yards away, she still had not spotted anyone. Rising to a crouch, she continued bent over, ready to run.

Inside the barn were six horses, each in its own stall. Checking their withers and legs, Rebekah chose a stallion that was fresh and hale, then saddled him. She flung the door wide, mounted, and rode away.

A heavy, dark-haired man ran out of the house shouting.

She found the trail quickly. It was obviously a trap. There were too many broken branches, and its tracks wove through the softest dirt.

The sun had just set when she found them. She didn’t need to get close. They were a noisy lot. Yet, there were too many of them for her to dare to attempt a rescue. Rebekah's only choice was to follow at a distance, waiting for an opportunity.

“Thank you, my love, for teaching me how to survive,” she whispered, hoping her husband, Jonathan was safe. She scrounged a few berries to assuage her hunger, but there was nothing else to do. The waiting gnawed on her soul.

I’m coming, baby. Please watch over her, Mashiach.

Tethering the horse far enough away to not be heard from the camp, Rebekah gathered a blanket of leaves and hid so no patrol would find her. She slept lightly, but well enough considering the situation. She woke when the sounds of their camp died away.

She approached slowly, careful to pause in the shadows often, watching for movement.

This might be a trap.

The camp was empty.

 She returned to her horse and found the collection squad’s tracks without difficulty. There were many of them - wagons, horses, and soldiers on foot. They led a sizeable train of animals. She only needed to travel for a short while before hearing them again, as they laughed and carried on.

They’re using the old cow trail. I know where they’re going.

She turned her stallion towards the river and the fastest route to River Town.

Blackhawk rode beside the cage cart, watching the girl still standing.

Such an excellent little soldier.

He didn't know why she intrigued him so. 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 three started whimpering, she stroked his head, soothing him. “It’ll be well. Joshua is with me, and he can be with you, too. Do you know him?”

The little boy shook his head.

“Would you like me to tell you 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, Joshua, 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 the ransom Joshua paid, any person in this world can be saved by Joshua instead of belonging to the False One. And Joshua promised to be with us and to watch over us always. He did not promise we would not be scared sometimes or even a little hurt. But, if we trust him, even though the Serpent's servants do evil, Joshua 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. "But I don't see him anywhere? And there’s a lot of bad soldiers. Are you sure Joshua can see us?"

Little Soldier hugged the boy again and her smile deepened. "I know, you can't see Joshua. 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. When he reached the undersecretary’s cart, he matched its speed.

Rosewood, frowned. It was his typical greeting. "What is it, Lieutenant?"

“We’re nearly to River Town, sir. Do you need any help with the delivery?”

“They’re just children. There shouldn't be any trouble.” Rosewood waved a hand dismissively. "But… the mother could still be following us.” He 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?"

Rosewood pondered. "Ummm… scout ahead. I’m having a meal at The Sapphire, then heading out again. Find me there.”

“Yes, sir.” Blackhawk nodded, then trotted forward.

 

Lorness Estate

The four castles of the Kingdom of Freislicht stood high, overseeing its greatness. The 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 the Melazera family’s political scheming.

The halls of Lorness Castle were filled with people maneuvering for advantage and fighting petty skirmishes. Throughout the day and night, deals were done, agreements were made, and alliances forged. They were also broken, as the power, prestige and status of those involved soared to new heights or plummeted into the depths. Always in flux, almost every important decision was made there… not in the capital, High Castle.

Historically, the Lords of Lorness had maintained their pre-eminence due to their skills in political maneuvering, the blackmail materials they had on others and, more recently, the unique ‘delights’ that were available nowhere else. Indeed, Lorness Castle, for those in the know, was a feast for the senses and every appetite. A banquet that could be indulged in without fear of it becoming known to others. That the price for such indulgences was fealty to Melazera was paid willingly, as their patronage was a path to wealth, fame, and fortune.

Cailleagh was the elegant wife of Geleib Melazera, the ninth Earl of Lorness. Her auburn hair was bright against her porcelain complexion. Her dark amber eyes stood out in a perfect heart-shaped face.

She equally enjoyed working social events in the castle’s extravagant upper public rooms and its exclusive luxurious lower private ones. Always on the hunt for someone new to develop, tonight she was distracted. She would accept her latest cohort of acolytes in only a few hours.

The Lady of Lorness smiled and nodded to the many pretty and important guests. She was delighted by the snippets of conversation she overheard. She reveled in the snatches of gossip that she’d started. Better yet, were those ardently persuading others that the king must expand the army. Just in case.

Wonderful. The rumors I spread flourish, reinforced and amplified by these fools. The bigger the army, the bigger the debt.

She hoped Geleib appreciated how her ‘birds’ had helped expand his economic control. Her spies were everywhere.

Cailleagh had developed four independent organizations, each with its own hierarchy. 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 surveilled the nobles. Hawks surveilled the military commands. Eagles surveilled the castles. They were helpful and trusted. Their eyes and ears sought advantages, weaknesses, and information. When they spoke, gossipers listened. And each was totally obedient to the Order.

It’s delightful to see people accept the world we have 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 Geleib, fawning over him and those in conversation with him. Even though ten years married, she loved to pretend to be the doting, obedient wife. 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 that I control. With a word here and another there, my birds change everything. I am a genius. Now that Geleib is demanding more taxes from the highborn to build an army, the nobles are calling in loans, causing delightful consequences. I had not foreseen the abductions of women and children. It was an intriguing surprise.

 

The Sapphire, River Town

Lieutenant Blackhawk watched Rosewood enter The Sapphire. He dismounted, then headed to Sweet Maids, the brothel across the street. Not knowing when he would have free time again, he had assuaged his ill humor on a whore. It had done the trick for the time. But, blast it if Little Soldier didn’t appear in his mind whenever he let it wander. So, he thought about how he’d ended up here.

He’d been eleven when sent to North Fort for military training. That was four years ago.

“I find it hard to focus on your military instruction,” Geleib had explained, “so you’re going to Commandant Sulla. He’ll train you for leadership in my army. You know I love you like a son, Steven.

“But if you stay here, Cailleagh will make you enter the depths of her Order. Not merely as a bureaucrat, but as one of her powerful tools within it. Those are dedicated to it, and it alone. They surrender themselves wholly to achieve the Order’s goals. That means losing the freedom to speak, which is the same as losing the freedom to think. If no one can hear what you think, you are a slave. That is not what I want for you, so I must send you away. No one is to know of our relationship. You must excel on your own.”

Blackhawk had mixed emotions about leaving Geleib. Yet, he obeyed. If there was a lesson he’d learned thoroughly, it was obedience. So, he went to North Fort.

“Be careful,” Geleib had warned, “someday Cailleagh will send an operative to recruit you. Mark my words, do not let them tell you too much. If they begin to tell you their secrets because you have shown interest, they are bound by sacred oaths to kill you if you don’t join.”

Little Soldier’s scowling face entered his thoughts again. He kicked a stone in frustration, glowering as he crossed the street, heading toward the merry sounds he heard pouring from the inn. He instinctively altered his expression when he saw the undersecretary, making it open and friendly.

“Right on time, Blackhawk,” Rosewood yelled out as he exited The Sapphire. Then, without pausing, thrust a cup and waterskin into the young lieutenant’s hands. “Give them each a drink. The first stop is Commandant Greyson in Fairness Crossing. He’s paid a bonus to make him my first stop next time I had a batch of children.”

Rosewood 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 while 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 Rosewood 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 to her slightly.

Turning to Rosewood, he asked. “What is Commandant Greyson looking for today?”

“Boys, I think. He has a training camp and likes them young. I’ll try to talk him into some girls to sell to a brothel for a handsome profit.”

“Hmmm…”

“If you haven’t seen his operation, you’re in for a treat. It’s impressive. The regimen and discipline are beautiful to behold,” Rosewood praised. “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 looking so young… about fourteen or fifteen… there’s no limit…”

Some people just have to talk. You can’t stop them without offending them, so you let them talk. George Rosewood is one of those people.

Rosewood continued without encouragement, Blackhawk nodding when looked at until “…and the Order of Black Robes use his men for operations. They—”

Curious about Rosewood’s connection to Cailleagh’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.”

Blackhawk’s understanding of the Order was incomplete, but he had a basic grasp after hearing many arguments. Geleib thought Cailleagh pushed things too fast. Each fight or conversation about the Order provided another piece of the puzzle. His mental picture of it was built so gradually neither was aware he knew anything about it. They didn’t mention either the Guild of the Black Robe or the Order, usually talking about birds.

Blackhawk decided it would be better to take control of the conversation before Rosewood said too much about the Order. He wasn’t joining it, didn’t plan on dying, and didn’t want to kill Rosewood. It would complicate his life.

 

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