Chapter 3: Unseen Hand – 144 AK, Early Autumn
Romans 2:4 Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?
Blackhawk continued conversing with Rosewud until the sun had descended low and they stopped in front of a white building with a blue door. Above it was a sign, COMMANDANT.
Rosewud went inside, but was only gone a few minutes. “Greysun’s at his camp.”
The town was made up of about forty buildings, laid out in a square. Of the twelve they passed, three were brothels painted in bright colors. The swaying ladies on the porch were colorful, too.
They made him want to go again. He put the thought aside.
Once beyond the town, they could see the training camp. It had one brown building and dozens of tents. Everywhere he looked, soldiers were drilling, each squadron working on a different skill. Blackhawk recognized its rhythm, making him nostalgic for the boys he’d finished training with only a few moons ago.
They pulled up to the building and stopped.
Greysun sauntered out, his nose pointing high as he surveyed his soldiers in the distance. “I’m glad to see you, Rosewud. How was the ride? You came from River Town?”
“The roads were smoother today than yesterday, so we made good time. Blackhawk here was good company. Let me introduce you. Lieutenant, meet Commandant Virgil Greysun.”
“Pleased to meet you, sir.” Blackhawk bowed.
“Virgil, this is Stev’n Blackhawk. He’s the youngest man to ever make lieutenant.”
“Pleased to meet you, lieutenant.”
“Blackhawk,” Rosewud instructed, “Commandant Greysun trains most of the king’s soldiers here. He’s a genius with the boys. They’re real fighters when he’s done with them.” Then, turning back to Greysun, “I was telling Lieutenant Blackhawk this’d be a great posting. He could learn a lot from you, Commandant.”
“You flatter me, Rosewud. Let’s see what you’ve brought.”
The commandant swaggered down from the porch, several jeweled awards adorning his pristine uniform. Blackhawk hadn’t seen their like before.
“I’ve seven boys and six girls.”
Greysun reached in the cage, pinched, shook each of the boys, splayed their lips to see their teeth, and turned their heads from side to side. “These aren’t orphans. They’re good stock. Where’d you get them?”
“My Lord called the loans on four properties yesterday. The families couldn’t pay with coin, so they paid with their children. I’ll have more next moon. Do you want them?”
“That’s wondrous,” Greysun crowed. “These’ll have spirit. I’ll enjoy the challenge. It’s expensive to keep growing lads in food and uniforms. Of course, I make it back when I send them to the frontier, but that can take thirty-six moons. Half don’t learn and are sent to the mines, so I only break even on them. Selling the girls to the new brothel will cover outfitting the boys. Bring them all out so I can get a good look.” Blackhawk grabbed the shillelagh from the cart and walked to the back. He lifted the latch and whacked the cage. “Stand up!”
He pulled out two, leading them by the back of the neck, lining them up in front of the porch. Then he went back for two more. The children retreated to the back of the cage, cowering. All except Little Soldier, who held a boy’s hand. She looked him in the eye and scowled, wrinkling her nose, one finger pointed up at him.
He stifled a laugh. “Come, girl.” Then put one of them under each arm and dropped them in their spot in the line. He repeated the process until all were in place, boys on one end, girls on the other. All were whimpering… but one.
Greysun strode down the line poking and prodding. “Quiet!” Greysun roared.
There was silence.
Sar’h scrunched up her nose.
Greysun didn’t see it.
Blackhawk did… and didn’t want Little Soldier to go to a brothel. But what can I do about it?
“I’ll take the whole lot,” Greysun announced, raising his hands. “They’ll become trained companions for the noble houses. Such men are easily bored with the average whore. These will be taught the art of information gathering. Those that excel, I’ll distribute through the Ravens. Oh yes, these will be well received.”
Parading back and forth before the girls while he talked, Greysun looked into each one’s eyes. He stopped in front of Little Soldier, who wrinkled her nose. “This little one will need time to mature, but they’ll find a use for her until then.”
Rosewud and Greysun were discussing the details of the transaction when Blackhawk interrupted. “Would you like me to take the girls to the brothel? I wouldn’t mind getting a closer look.” He grinned.
“I see why you were promoted.” Greysun nodded. “You want the one with the green door on the main street, on the right. Ask for Madam Bonaforte. Tell her the commandant sent you with trainees.”
“Don’t get distracted, lieutenant.” Rosewud smirked. “Come back for me first.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll make an arrangement for later.”
Turning to Greysun. “He’s got coin enough in his pocket to go around several times. I know I would if I were his age again.”
Blackhawk pointed to the girls. “Back in the cage.” When they hesitated, he gestured with the shillelagh. “Hurry up.”
The girls trudged to the open cage door. First in line was Little Soldier. Her scowl bore into him.
“Don’t blame me. I’m just following orders,” he whispered, placing her inside.
Sanctuary of the Alte Regieren
The rocks jutted up out of the flat ground at all angles, rising thirty yards into the air, creating cliffs and caverns. Many of them were streaked with iron that, from a distance, looked like blood. The Rocks of Lorness were cursed, for many people were lost thereabouts and never seen again. The rumors, spread by Caileagh’s birds, were working. She rarely encountered anyone on her rides there. If she did, they died, becoming part of her mythology.
Leaving her escort and horse behind, Caileagh entered the cave. The acolytes bowed, forming a corridor to the high stone altar. She felt energized by this ancient place, felt her guiding spirits fill her with authority, inspiration flooding her mind and body with every step. She’d do anything to make her husband king.
Her followers fell silent, leaving only the drip, drip, drip of water deep in the cave.
She began to speak the ancient words “A h-uile glòir a bhith aig ar maighstir.” All glory be to our Master, who brings Order out of Chaos. Her voice reverberated in the cavern, like distant thunder.
“Bidh an òrdugh aige coileanta agus sìorraidh,” the initiates responded. His order will be complete and everlasting.
The vibration of their voices thrummed through Caileagh.
“Welcome to your initiation, your practicum.”
One by one, each approached the stone table, spoke their oath, drew a knife across their left forearm, and let blood drip into the bowl.
When the last had returned to their original position, she offered the vessel to the Gods. Then drank it, enjoying the rich saltiness and the coppery smell. “From this moment onward, you are members of the Inner Circle of our Order.”
She fell to her knees, overcome by a vision from her spirits.
Beware the piercing blade wielded by a veiled maiden in shining gold.
Caileagh gasped. The shining sword penetrated her chest, cutting through her. The pain both exquisite and horrific. When it withdrew, the pain melted away.
The revelation had only lasted a second, yet its message couldn’t be ignored.
Imitating her, the congregation had fallen to its knees.
She knew what it meant. She forced herself to rise, motioning for her followers to remain kneeling. “You must memorize the words of the runes, for they may never be written down and never spoken to anyone outside the Order. Any breach is punishable by death.”
“If we break this covenant, let us be devoured by the Gods,” they responded in unison.
Caileagh nodded. “I will assign you to an office in the structure of the kingdom, as we have opportunity and need. You will perform every task required of you fervently, without question, without deviation. The reputation of the Black Robes that you hide amongst is one of excellence. Any complaints shall be investigated most… intensively.
“You will love your masters, enchanting them to gain their confidence. Go very slowly. There is no need to rush. In this way, we will saturate the kingdom, creating the new order.
“Our next high day is at the dawn of the Goat. Your docent will teach you the preparations. You may go.”
Green Door at Fairness Crossing
Lieutenant Blackhawk was lost in thought as he drove past the drab little shops that lined the main street. What could he do about Little Soldier? Nothing came to mind.
Stopping the cart in front of the green door, the sign beside it read: Your fantasy awaits.
It isn’t a fantasy for the girls.
He’d used whores, but they were well adjusted to their lot.
These girls still have fresh souls.
His passage into the dark side of life had been gentler. He wasn’t caged or beaten into submission. No, he’d been seduced by food and warmth and sweets and… what he had once, as a very small boy, perceived as safety.
Why should I care? Why do I care? We all serve someone.
Dismounting from the cart, his boots scraped the rocky earth. As he approached the brothel, a happy gentleman swung open the door, exotic perfume in his wake.
The brightly dressed girl attending the entrance was young, had lips painted ruby red, and waved a feathery black fan. She was maybe thirteen, but moved to accentuate every curve and crevice.
“I am Lieutenant Blackhawk with trainees from Commandant Greysun.”
The girl curtsied – showing more of her assets – then responded huskily, “please, wait here, sir,” gestured to a chair, then left.
Madam Bonaforte glided across the floor. Her much-painted face hid frown lines and years of despair. Her eyes were as hard as stones, any feeling long since crushed out of them.
Her working days are long over.
“Lieutenant Blackhawk, thank you for delivering our new prospects,” she purred. “We have a pen in the back for their… evaluation. Would you drive them there?”
“Of course, ma’am.”
“Clara will meet you.” The madame nodded at the same young whore, who curtsied again.
She said to turn down the alley after the brothel with the red door, then make another right turn behind it.
The street was littered with boxes, rock piles, and stacks of discarded timber. Other wagons impeded his advance, distracting him as he maneuvered the cage cart around them to the alley. There, he encountered smelly old barrels and puddles of piss. It made the main street look tidy. Amongst the things that blocked his way were deliveries that hadn’t been taken indoors yet and a pile of clean straw. He was amazed they had not been stolen. Then again, he didn’t know who protected these enterprises.
Glancing back, a defiant Little Soldier was studying him.
Deep in a recess formed by surrounding buildings, he spied the pen and Clara, who squinted and shaded her eyes from the sun.
Stopping the cart at the entrance so the cage’s floor was blocked from Clara’s view, Blackhawk dismounted.
The young harlot fanned herself as she leaned against the building, her eyes watching the back door.
One by one, Blackhawk took each girl from the cage and tossed her into the pen. He got them all out, except Little Soldier. He motioned for her to lie flat.
As he was about to turn away, the whore latched the pen and beckoned for him to follow her. She ran her tongue over her lips.
He smiled, but shook his head. “Maybe later.”
She shrugged, then returned inside without another look.
Blackhawk started to drive away. The cage was still unlatched. He stopped almost immediately, a frown on his face. Dismounting to examine the horse’s leg, he whispered, “Little Soldier, see that pile of straw? Your da would want you to hide there like you did in the woods. Go, I’ll be back when it’s dark.”
He finished checking each leg, then went back to close the cage. She was gone.
You are something.
He found Rosewud waiting in front of the commandant’s office. “I think I’ll stick around for a few days. See the sights, you know what I mean? And I might talk to Commandant Greysun about a future post.”
“Good idea, my boy.” The undersecretary smiled enthusiastically and tossed him a pouch that clinked pleasantly. “Since I’ve an empty cart and you’re staying, I can return to Lorness. When you’re ready to leave, speak with a fellow named Conroy at the Hook and Shoe. Tell him I sent you. He’ll loan you a horse for two baden.
“When I get to High Castle next moon, I’ll find you and return the horse to Conroy. It looks like this’ll be a regular trip.” Ge’rge beamed as a Militet dropped a heavy chest behind the cart’s seat.
Blackhawk waved as Rosewud departed. Then he puttered around town. Renting the horse, buying a sack and some dried meat, and eating a good meal took up most of the afternoon. There were no sights to see, nor was he in the mood to vent his frustrations on some girl for hire. Somehow, the idea made him uneasy. It never had before.
As the sun set, he wandered back toward the brothels. Some houses had ladies out front. One called out with a slow circle of her hips, “Hallo, dark and handsome, I’ve something sweet for you.” Looking over several, he shook his head and moved on.
No one paid him any mind. He wasn’t the only rider about. Other men leered at the whores, or rushed past looking away. The bouncers only glanced at him. None noticed him turn down the alley.
“Little Soldier,” he whispered as he dismounted, “are you still here?”
The straw rustled. There she was.
He dropped the burlap sack on the ground, behind a barrel. “Climb in while I examine this beast.” He walked all around the animal, patting it, checking its form. When he reached his starting point, the sack was full and lumpy. “Good girl.” He hoisted it onto the horse, securing it next to his gear, then mounted. “We need to get far away from here.”
After the town was out of sight, he turned off the road toward the river. An hour or so later, he stopped in a thicket. He took down the sack and opened it. He was happy to see her groggy smile.
She yawned and rubbed her eyes.
“Well, Little Soldier, now what do we do? If we’re caught, they’ll make you a whore, and I’ll be dead. So, we can’t get caught. That’s what J’shua would say, right?”
“Yes.” She smiled brightly. “The way is clear when it is needed.”
He stared at her. “What?”
“Ma says it after praying. She says that J’shua has perfect timing. We think we need something right now, but we don’t. We need it when we need it.” She smiled back at him.
“Hmm, that seems to be the way of it… so far,” he returned. “Ready to ride up front?”
He mounted then leaned down, offering his hand. When he pulled, Little Soldier jumped, causing him to laugh. “Is there anything your parents haven’t taught you?”
She smiled, then frowned. “Hawk, how do you know what you haven’t been taught?”
He chortled, shaking his head, walking the horse so they’d be quiet.
As they rode, Little Soldier chattered on about an unending variety of topics. “Hawk, have you noticed that the crickets gossip to each other until we get too close?” she asked.
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“Hawk, did you know the stars in the sky speak if you learn their stories?”
“No, I didn’t know that. Can you hear the stars?”
“I only know a few stories”, she replied, shaking her head. “My Da teaches them to me when we’re outside at night and the sky’s clear.” She went quiet for a bit, and he heard her sniffle. But, when they passed the rapids, she asked, “Hawk, doesn’t the rushing water sound like a fierce battle?”
“I suppose it does.”
Blackhawk had never been so well entertained.
Much later Little Soldier slumped against him, asleep. It was beginning to get light.
Now what? She has no home, her mother is a fugitive, her father is away or dead, her grandparents are dead. He sighed. Usually, I plan better before doing something so stupid.
When he saw another dark thicket ahead, he headed into it. Without waking her, he slid off the horse, carried her to a soft grassy spot, and laid her down gently.
What am I going to do with you? he wondered, then remembered what she’d said earlier, The way is clear when it is needed.
He smiled, covered her with the blanket, and tucked it under her. He tied the horse’s reins to a branch and lay beside her. We need it when we need it. He made sure she was totally covered and went to sleep.
He woke in the late afternoon to find her gone. “Little Soldier?”
“Hawk,” she shouted happily.
A moment of joy pricked him as her expectant face appeared below the horse’s neck, while patting its shoulder. It was as high as she could reach. She looked so tiny beside the great creature.
“What is the name of this noble steed?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
“Everyone needs a good name.” She rubbed her chin and tapped her foot. “Whitefoot, I shall call her Whitefoot.”
The horse whinnied its approval.
“It’s a good name.” Blackhawk rolled up the blanket, repacked the gear, and saddled the horse. He mounted, gave her his hand, and she jumped as he pulled. Then he handed her some dried meat.
She closed her eyes and nodded. “Thank you, J’shua.” Then gobbled it in one bite. “S’good,” she mumbled. “S’ank you, H’k.”
“We have to make it last.”
They continued along the river for several days following the same routine, riding at night and sleeping in the day. When he spotted a shallow section of the river, they crossed, landmarks confirming they were close to River Town.
He hadn’t decided what he’d do with her when he reported to High Castle.
The next evening, he asked her, “When in town, do you think you could call me ‘da’?”
“I’m good at pretending. I’m a princess, and you’re my knight. I wish to bestow upon you my blessing for your service.” With a flourish, she presented her open palm holding a button that had fallen from her dress. “Now you have a jewel, too, like the fire-breathing dragon you saved me from.”
“Commandant Greysun?” He laughed. “I see how he could breathe fire.” He picked up the small token and bowed low. “It was my pleasure to serve you, Your Highness. I am honored,” he responded, placing the button in his pocket.