Chapter 3: 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.
One-Day East of Home
Jonathan crossed the East River at a point he knew well. Just north of the Frei Forest, warm, earthy scents exuded with every breeze; pine and sassafras, nurtured by centuries of composted leaves that carpeted the floor of that ancient timberland. He would be home before the same time on the morrow. His pace quickened. It would be good to see Rebekah and Sarah, to hold them both in his arms.
Sarah is growing up fast.
As he approached their valley, he broke into a run. He already had the opening moves of his first game of chess with Sarah. His mouth watered at the thought of a home-cooked meal. And his heart longed for Rebekah. But, when he crested the last hill, he trembled. 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. But there was no answer except the lonely whining of the breeze through the still-smoldering ruins.
He fell to his knees. They should be here making a temporary shelter, or…
Father, I have served you freely. I gave you my heart. How could this happen?
When there was no response, he roared aloud, demanding answers from the God of Truth. He cared not who heard, be they men or all the spirits of this world. It felt better to scream so all creation could share his pain.
After a long while, he stopped, no longer able to holler or even speak.
Jonathan had never felt emptiness before. He thought he had. He thought many things as he knelt, sitting back on his heels. He wondered how he had failed. Had he sinned? How could God have deserted him so?
The resolve that had filled him with purpose was gone.
I am empty.
I cannot move.
I do not exist.
He was staring up at the sky, without a thought, invisible, when he saw a hawk dive. 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. Get up.
He rose, weak and confused.
Outrage filled the void, energizing him as he drew his sword. “I will have answers. I will find out who did this. I will hunt them down. And I will gut them.”
The sword almost moved of its own volition, tracing the forms he had 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.
His soul settled as he practiced the familiar sword form. He was present again, aware of his surroundings, and 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 noted 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… or more?
He stepped over the threshold. Only the floor, frame, and fireplace 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 and smoked slightly.
This happened recently.
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.
Could they be alive? They must be. I must find them.
Jonathan sought out his neighbors. All of them were gone, their homes empty, not burnt.
Did my family anger those who did this?
He pictured his wife bravely fighting the attackers, defending her parents and Sarah. Or, it could have been Roger or Myra.He could divine no other reason for such destruction, such a waste of property.
Weeks passed as he traversed an ever-widening circle from the ruins of his home. Many houses were empty. Few still had inhabitants, all of whom were too afraid to speak.
Exhausted, he sat beneath a tree. His stony face broke, crying until sleep overtook him. He dreamed of when he’d first met his wife…
Jonathan, in his eighteenth year, was excited for the journey ahead. He and two other new knights, Jean LaVoie and Harold Grammott, walked into town at mid-morning on a summery day. The sun was warm upon them, and the dust of the road had dried their throats. They were there to purchase the last items for their first mission.
Not a half-minute into town, Jonathan’s eyes alighted upon the most beautiful maiden he’d ever seen. She was perhaps younger than himself, with long honey-gold hair and eyes, blue like the sky. Her confident manner immediately attracted him. As Jonathan watched her negotiating with the merchant, she turned and saw him staring at her, for he had stopped and stood not six yards away. She smiled a smile that beamed.
Seeing he had stopped, Jean and Harold came back and grabbed him, both noticing the object of his attention.
“Well now, not two days out of training, and already your head is turned. Tsk, tsk, Johnny-boy,” Jean teased.
“I suppose you’ll be too busy to teach,” chimed Harold,” or perhaps this will lead to some private instruction, eh?”
“Oh, shut it, both of you, you make much of a glance,” returned Jonathan. “There is nothing wrong with admiring the flowers of the garden.”
In unison, they mimicked Jonathan and finished his oft-repeated adage, “Only do not pluck them if the garden is not yours,” and they both burst out laughing.
“It is too bad you did not apply yourselves so well to your studies,” Jonathan noted sarcastically. His eyes sparkled, and a sly grin spread across his face.
“Ooh, always the fast one, O’Toole. There’s no keeping up with you,” Harold quipped.
As the three friends laughed, Jonathan thought to approach this young beauty, but a disturbance on the far side of the market square caught their attention.
Six soldiers, clad in the vermillion of the king, were guffawing loudly. At their feet, a farmer sprawled in a pile of tomatoes. His face was red. His clothes were splattered by ruined produce.
Surging to his feet, the man stomped toward his tormentors, only to whirl upon a young boy and order, “Patrick, get back in the wagon now!”
“Yes, Patrick, get back in the wagon,” the giant soldier mimicked. He bore silver rank bars. “Listen to your father. We don’t want you to get hurt now, do we?”
All of the soldiers looked at each other and chuckled.
A young maid lifted Patrick into the wagon, holding him there.
The farmer glared at the soldiers and strode toward them. “My daughter will not be the butt of jokes, nor lewd comments by the likes of you. That’ll be five baden for the tomatoes and an apology to my Marsha.” He nodded toward the maid. “Do that and I’ll not report your escapades to the commandant.”
The soldiers just laughed.
“Why not report it now?” The bearded giant sneered. “In fact, I’ll save you the trouble. I’m the new commandant.”
The farmer’s eyes widened.
The giant grabbed the man’s throat, lifted him off the ground, and raised him to eye level. With a vicious smile, he dumped his victim back into the tomatoes.
The boy and his sister ran to help their father.
As she bent, the commandant seized her arm, lifting her upward to leer at her form. “Let’s see if you’re as tender as you look, young lady.”
She struggled, only to have her face smothered by his large beard. Kicking and scratching, she pushed the giant away. “You gross pig!”
“Fire! That’s what I like in a woman,” the commandant said, holding her at arm’s length. “Don’t we, men?”
They all laughed again.
“Let her go!” Young Patrick yelled, kicking the assailant in the shin before strong arms caught and bound him with a leather strap, then tossed him back into the wagon.
The farmer staggered back to his feet, eyes downcast and breathing hard, only to be ignored. He took a tentative step forward, then tottered to his left, almost collapsing again, drawing yet more laughter. Then he lashed out, striking the officer’s kidney, taking his target’s breath away.
Doubling over, the commandant released the maid, who sprinted away.
His soldiers drew their swords, awaiting an order.
The giant straightened, snarling at her father. “Fool! You’ve forfeited your life! Grab the girl.”
One of his men lunged for her, and missed.
The commandant struck the farmer, sending him reeling.
The three knights dropped their packs and loosened their swords.
“Easy, Jon, these are the king’s soldiers,” Jean warned.
“It could be the farmer’s fault,” Harold chimed in.
“I did not train to watch evil overrun the people,” Jon countered. “Do not be diminished by fear for this life.” He concluded, striding toward battle.
“You, coward!” He roared at the commandant, who turned too slowly to face the new threat. Jon swept the officer’s feet from under him.
The giant landed on his back with a crash.
Jonathan drew his sword and pricked the officer’s neck. A drop of blood traced its way down to the dirt. “Now, Commandant, why don’t we resolve this? Let’s all walk away as friends. What say you?”
Rage plain on his face, the commandant scowled but lay motionless.
Jonathan glanced at the soldiers, who kept their distance.
“Do you think your vows will save you, knight? You, alone, threaten a soldier of the king. Kill me or not,” he growled. “My men will deal with you.”
“Alone he is not, foul dog,” came the voice of Harold, as he and Jean stood, swords drawn, behind the five soldiers.
“Listen, soldier,” Jonathan spoke quietly, “your job is to serve and protect our country, not to act as you’ve just done. No law protects you when you break the law yourself.”
“Enough preaching, child. Let me up. We’ll be gone.”
“Pay for this farmer’s goods,” replied the knight.
“Here’s five baden,” the officer retorted, grasping for his belt.
“Ten,” demanded Jonathan, pressing the point a tad harder, making the officer look foolish, like an infant on his back.
“Ten.” The giant glared, tossing the coins on the ground.
Jon withdrew, his sword ready. Harold and Jean stepped back, but he shook his head. They kept their swords out, remaining alert.
The commandant rolled over, groaning. As he began to straighten, he threw a spray of dirt at the young knight.
Jonathan instinctively billowed his cloak, spun to block the better part of it, then rolled. He came to his feet again, out of the giant’s reach. Advancing, his sword sliced up to deflect the commandant’s rapidly descending weapon. Their blades rang loudly, flashing in the sun as soldiers and knights sprang at one another.
Broad Harold sliced a soldier’s sword arm, forcing the weapon from the now useless hand. A kick dropped the man to the dirt, as he turned and faced another.
Laughing, Jean held three men at bay. He spun behind one soldier and cut low through his Achilles tendon. The Militet fell like an axe.
Then Jean and Harold engaged the remaining three. They jumped about carts and bins.
Townspeople and vendors pelted the hapless soldiers with the most disgusting objects at hand.
The commandant towered over young Jonathan by a head and had the longer reach. Yet the knight yielded not an inch. It was as if he knew where and how the giant would strike each time.
The officer’s luck changed, permitting him to trap Jonathan against a wagon. As his blade crashed down to relieve the knight of his life, Jonathan dodged. The sword met only wood, wedging itself deep in the side of the wagon where two boards met. He pulled to no avail as Jonathan cut across both his forearms. Falling to his knees, he screamed like a wounded boar. As their eyes met, the knight’s sword was, again, pressed into his neck.
“Call them off, now,” Jonathan urged. Sweat ran down his neck. His muscles trembled as he crushed the urge to finish the job. Killing this animal would only create more problems.
The commandant bellowed, “Militet, stop! That’s enough. Stop fighting. Blast it, stop fighting!”
The din of battle stopped.
Lowering their swords, the remaining soldiers eyed the knights warily. The militet were coated with tomatoes, eggs, and other unidentifiable spatter.
“Drop your swords.” Jonathan kept his eyes on the giant. “Drop them!”
“Do it now,” the commandant conceded.
Their swords fell to the ground as soldiers backed away, not wishing to be within range of any more cuts.
Jonathan took a step back.
A militet shouted, “Commandant Greyson, let me help you,” going to Greyson’s aid and pulling him up.
The giant took a step toward Jonathan and stopped. “You’ll live to regret this, knight. No man harms a soldier of the king without penalty.”
“I wish I could say you are wrong, Commandant Greyson,” Jonathan responded. “These are dark days when the king’s soldiers do not uphold his laws, and men like Melazera enrich themselves at the expense of the people.”
Greyson trembled. “You’d best be careful, little one. Perhaps you can best me with a sword, but the Lord of Lorness does not take lightly unfavorable words spoken openly of him.”
Jonathan’s eyes flashed. “Perhaps you would be willing to pass my greetings to him?”
“Fool,” the giant shot back. “You’d do better to pick a fight with the Serpent himself rather than raise the ire of Lord Melazera. His dungeons are a sorry place for any mother to pick up the bones of her son.”
By now, Jonathan’s friends flanked him, and he waved to the commandant. “May you heal quickly, in the name of Joshua Ha Mashiach, the son of the God of Truth.”
Collecting their swords, the soldiers mounted and rode off.
The knights approached the farmer and his son, as his daughter returned. All thanked them profusely.
People in the market cheered the heroes, clapped them on the back and offered congratulations.
“We are thankful you stood and helped us,” Jonathan responded.”
They walked back to their packs, only to find them missing.
“If that doesn’t cast one down,” Harold bemoaned. “Help someone, and what happens to us? Our belongings are stolen.”
“Calm, Harold. We will see soon enough what happened,” Jonathan soothed, watching the farmer, his daughter, and young Patrick drive off. He glimpsed the same young woman he’d admired earlier.
Capturing his attention, she strode purposefully toward them with a big smile on her face and walked right up to Jonathan. “That was some display of swordsmanship, valiant knights. I placed your bags on our wagon. You’ll be spending the night with my family. My father insists.” She glanced toward an older man on a wagon that was securing bags of grain.
He looked back, smiling and waving.
“My name is Rebekah.” She pulled her finger across Jonathan’s left cheek, leaving a light streak on his skin. “It appears you gentlemen are dusty after all of this work. Perhaps you’d like a bath as well.” She chuckled, turned, and strode back toward her father.
Jonathan stood mute, stunned by her beauty and boldness, mouth agape.
Jean gave Jonathan a push and whispered, “Friend, you are doomed.”
Jonathan awoke, more hopeful. Rebekah and Sarah must be alive.
Gathering his things, he headed for Lorness. He’d follow Joshua’s guidance and hunt these bandits down.
Forty miles away, Drake arrived in his hall. It was well lit with candles all around. Expensive tapestries using the brightest of yarns depicted the best-known stories from the Writings.
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 Joshua, open to the Psalms.
Two large chandeliers, donated by the local glassmakers’ guild, were lit and raised. The hall was full of the scent of lilacs and roses emanating from stands at the ends of each row of seats. 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 Joshua. 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 was not 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 lively, and more cheerful.
Perhaps our time at Farr Castle had been the turning point. She’s so much brighter since making friends with Geleib’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 for their edification. His messages were crafted to uplift and only rarely to chastise. As he spoke, he looked directly at the members he wished to praise or scold. They were so elated when he looked on them with a blessing.
After his teaching, he asked for prayers and nodded to those he thought should speak. Three members would stand and pray as was expected.
Daikon Drake and his doting wife graciously accepted praise and alms on Mashiach’s behalf, distributing to the less fortunate in the town after every Circle gathering. All sought his favor relentlessly with gifts for the needy and other services.
My Circle is the perfect example of the Faith.
Rebekah walked the horse through town, hoping no one would see her fear. She rode past a sign over a door offering: Bed, Bath and Meal – ten bits. The sight of a clothier wrapping a pretty dress for a woman and her small daughter increased her painful longing for Sarah.
When she reached the open market, she tied her horse to a post.
I will need supplies for our exile. Jonathan said he would be in Tarinland for three moons, so he should be on his way back. I need you.
All will be well, the still small voice responded.
Her dagger was not enough. “How much for the bow and full quiver? And an extra string?” Hers had broken last week, she groaned inwardly. She would’ve killed that soldier before he found Sarah if she’d had it.
The man tidying his wares into neat rows turned to her. “Fifty-two baden for all.”
Rebekah examined it, counted thirty arrows, and tested the string. “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 and trousers, a shirt, and a wide-brim hat.
This will do for now.
A soldier rode by in 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 of sudden fear, 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.
Rebekah patted the horse. Grabbing an apple from her purchases, she took a few big bites then gave the rest to the stallion. He gobbled it out of her hand immediately, his soft lips tickling her palm, inducing a wistful smile.
She’d stopped to let him graze once on the way here but did not know when either of them would eat again.
Still, she could not relax, even though most of the people she saw were walking briskly and paying no attention to her. Then again, few respectable people would want to be seen in this part of town, even in daylight.
After a while, she spied a caravan of wagons coming down the main road… including the cage cart. She tried to catch a glimpse of Sarah or that weasel, Rosewood.
Cautiously, she walked the horse toward them.
Spying Sarah, her emotions surged. Happiness at seeing her daughter alive warred with the anguish of seeing her caged. She bit her lip to stifle a groan.
If Jon can venture forth and do right by Joshua using his wits, 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 Sarah until she had an advantage.
Then she would strike these vermin down one by one.
Her anger was a whetstone, working to sharpen her senses and refine the needed information. It was not rash. It was one with her breathing now; rhythmic, calm, focused, a wave of holy 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.
Rebekah was tempted to free Sarah, but too many people were about, too many who might interfere with their escape. So, she followed Rosewood inside and bought a mug of ale.
Her heart recalled from the Writings, Be still and know that I am God.
When her enemy went outside, she waited for three breaths, then followed him, overhearing, “…Greyson in Fairness Crossing. He’s paid a bonus to make him my first stop next time I had a batch of children….”
“Greyson,” she hissed, “that evil drecksa! It fits that you would purchase children.”
She took one last look at Sarah, who was patting a little boy and talking to him, then mounted her horse. Turning away from her quarry, she headed toward the river. By following it for several miles at a gallop, she would gain enough distance to find a suitable ambush site.
Now I know where you’re going, weasel. I’ll be waiting for you.