Chapter 4: 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?
River Town to Fairness Crossing
As Rebekah rode through the grove to set up her ambush, she heard men shouting. A woman screamed. Children cried out. She slowed, approaching cautiously, wrapping her left forearm in a thong. Through the leaves, she glimpsed a family being attacked by soldiers.
The still small voice spoke. Help them.
Rebekah 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. A third snatched an infant from its mother and ran toward the river.
He’s going to drown it!
Dismounting, Rebekah nocked an arrow, measured her draw, and released.
Her target fell to his knees and toppled backward, the babe still in his arms.
The first soldier, a tall burly lad, regained his feet and charged toward Rebekah. The second was still grappling with the wagon’s driver.
She drew two more arrows from her quiver. Without thought, she nocked, drew, and released twice more. It took only a breath. Both targets fell.
The mother was already running toward her howling baby.
Rebekah looked about for other threats, but there had only been three soldiers. None were moving or ever would again.
What have I done?
Three men were dead at her hands. Yet… yet there had been no other choice.
Tears running down the mother’s face, she hugged and rocked her baby as she returned to the wagon. “Thank the merciful Father,” she cried out, “and thank you, Sir.”
Her children sobbed. The eldest comforted her siblings. “Da, are you well?”
The wagon driver, bleeding heavily from a head wound, slowly regained his feet. “I am… well… enough.” He grabbed the cart to prevent falling again.
“We’re all well,” the children’s mother reassured. “The God of Truth kept us safe. What was our lesson this morning?”
A small boy, no more than four, stood. “He that dwelleth…” biting his lip, “in the secret place of the Most High…” shutting his eyes tight, “…shall abide…” then opening them, blurted, “…under the shadow of the Almighty! Psalm 91:1”
“Very good,” the woman praised.
Rebekah retrieved her horse and tethered it to the wagon.
Raising his head to look at her, the children’s father acknowledged, “Thank you, Sir… you have amazing… skill wi—” he froze mid-word, bewildered, then exclaimed, “You’re a… woman!”
“I was hoping you could not tell.” Rebekah frowned.
“Ah… that is… the dirt and the clothes… but your movements… graceful and light… Yet, you struck all three in the neck… I’ve never seen such…”
“My father taught me. He said the Lord blessed me with a propensity for the bow.”
“I… can see that. You saved us.” He rubbed his temple, his eyes narrowed, pain evident on his face. “My name is Vincent… Donofrio. This,” he pointed to the short, thin woman with brown curls escaping a colorful scarf, “is my… wife, Helen.” He turned and smiled at her.
“I am Rebekah O’Toole. Why were they attacking you?”
“Lord Macom,” Vincent began but lay his head against his arm still holding onto the wagon unable to continue.
“He is, was, our lender,” Helen took up the tale. “He sent soldiers to our farm demanding payment in full. Fortunately, we were already in the wagon, on our way into town. They saw us and gave chase. I heard a voice say, ‘turn.’ I told 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 is no need. What will you do?” Rebekah asked while recovering the last of her arrows. The man moaned. She drew her knife across his throat, feeling ill.
He was a predator. Yet even an animal shouldn’t suffer.
“We must hide.” Helen turned toward her husband. “Lord Macom’s men won’t stop searching for us. Laws have been perverted and are being used to steal our children, our livelihood, and our future.”
Rebekah heard the still small voice again. Help them.
But Father, I must save Sarah.
She is safe, came the reply.
Lord, I do not see how that can be. But I trust that you love my baby even more than I and that you will send angels to protect her.
Both comforted and afraid, Rebekah focused on the task at hand. “First, see what they were carrying that can be of use. Then help me drag the men to the river. Sending them downstream will make it difficult to determine where they were killed. Then we must dilute this blood.”
They gathered up three canteens, two hatchets, a map, a spyglass, and an assortment of daggers and swords. Rebekah was glad for their provision.
While the family cleared away the signs of struggle, Rebekah rode back to the point where the wagon had left the road. Jonathan had taught her to track. Some of her most enjoyable memories were of hunting with him. The 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 from where they veered off the road.
Where should we go, Father?
An image of Frei Forest came to mind. It was about twenty miles south of River Town, a forest so thick no one could easily build there.
“We can gradually 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 forest indefinitely.”
Mister Donofrio nodded. “How can we doubt you now?”
During the eight hours it took to get to Fairness Crossing, Blackhawk continued to converse with Rosewood. They stopped the cart in front of a white building with a blue door. Above the door was a sign, COMMANDANT.
“Wait in the cart. I’ll make sure Virgil’s here,” Rosewood said. “Watch for the mother. I don’t want to be surprised.” He walked inside but was only gone a few minutes. “Greyson wants to do the transaction at his camp on the east side of town near the river.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Blackhawk replied flashing a youthful grin.
They headed east.
The town was made up of about forty buildings 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 buildings of the town, they could see the training camp. It had one brown building and dozens of tents. Soldiers were drilling everywhere he looked. Each squadron was working on a different skill. Blackhawk recognized its rhythm, making him nostalgic for the boys he had trained with just weeks ago.
They pulled up to the building and stopped.
Greyson came out. “I am glad to see you, Rosewood. How was the ride? You came from River Town, right?”
“It was fine, not too long. 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 Greyson.”
“Pleased to meet you, Sir.” Blackhawk bowed.
“Commandant, this is Steven Blackhawk, the youngest soldier ever awarded the rank of lieutenant.”
“Pleased to meet you, Lieutenant. It is good to see a soldier rise in rank. It shows initiative.”
“You have really whipped this camp into shape, Virgil,” Rosewood praised. “Lieutenant, Commandant Greyson trains most of the king’s soldiers right here. He is a genius with the boys. They are real fighters when he is done with them.” Turning back to Greyson, “I was telling Lieutenant Blackhawk that this would be a great posting for him. He could learn a lot from you, Commandant.”
“You flatter me, Rosewood. Let me see what you’ve brought me.”
The commandant swaggered down from the porch, several jeweled awards adorning his pristine uniform. Blackhawk hadn’t seen any like them before.
“Sir, I have seven boys and six girls.”
Greyson reached in the cage, pinched, shook each of the boys, opened their lips to see their teeth, and turned their heads from side to side. “These aren’t orphans. This is good stock. Where did you get them?”
“My Lord called the loans on four properties yesterday. The families could not pay with coin, so they paid with their children. I’ll probably have more next moon. Do you want them?”
“That’s wonderful,” Greyson crowed. “Orphans make good warriors, but these will have spirit. I’ll enjoy the challenge. As you suggested, selling the girls to the new brothel in town will cover outfitting the boys. 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 of them don’t learn and are sent to the mines. I only break even then. Bring them all out so I can get a good look.”
Rosewood turned to Blackhawk. “Line them up in front of the building.” Then he continued conversing with Greyson.
Blackhawk grabbed the shillelagh from the cart and walked to the back. He lifted the latch and wacked the cage. “Stand up!”
He pulled out two at a time, lining them up in front of the porch. Then he went back for two more. Wanting them to come out faster, he hit the cage and opened the latch. The girl was standing with the little boy holding his hand. She looked him in the eye and scowled, wrinkling her nose, one finger pointed at him.
He stifled a laugh. “Come, Little Soldier.”
He put each under an arm and dropped them in their spot in the line. Repeating the process until he had them all in place, boys on one end and girls on the other. There was whimpering again because they were separated and afraid. All except one.
“Quiet!” Greyson yelled.
Sarah scrunched up her nose. Greyson didn’t see it. Blackhawk did… and did not want Little Soldier to go to the brothel.
But what can I do about it?
“I’ll take the whole lot,” Greyson announced, raising his hands. “They’ll be the first trained companions for the noble houses, who are easily bored with the average whore. I’ll distribute them through the Ravens where they’ll be taught the art of information gathering. Oh yes, these will be well received.”
Walking back and forth before the girls while he talked, Greyson looked into each one’s eyes to measure their dread. He stopped in front of Little Soldier. She wrinkled her nose and scowled at him. He took no notice. “This little one will need time to mature. She can learn much while we wait.”
Rosewood and Greyson were discussing the details of the transaction when Blackhawk interrupted them. “Sir, would you like me to take the girls to the brothel? I wouldn’t mind getting a closer look.” He grinned.
“Yes, good idea,” Greyson responded. “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.” Rosewood smirked. “Come back for me first.”
“Yes, Sir. I’ll just make an arrangement for later.”
Turning to Greyson. “He’s got coin enough in his pocket to go around several times. I know I’d if I was a boy his age again.”
Then Blackhawk pointed to the girls. “Back in the cage.” They hesitated, so he gestured with the shillelagh. “Hurry up.”
The girls trudged to the open cage door. First in line was Little Soldier with her scowl and scrunched-up nose staring up at him.
“Don’t blame me. I’m just following orders,” he whispered as he placed her inside.
Sanctuary of the Alte Regieren
The rocks jutted up out of the flat ground at all angles, some thirty yards into the air. Many of them were streaked with iron that, from a distance, looked like blood. It was said that the Rocks of Lorness were cursed, for there were many stories of people lost thereabouts and never seen again. The rumors, spread by Cailleagh’s birds, were working. She rarely encountered anyone on her rides there. And, if she did, they did not live to talk, becoming part of her expanding mythology.
Leaving her escort and horse behind, Cailleagh entered the cave. The acolytes all bowed, forming a corridor to the high stone in the center. She felt energized by this ancient place, felt her guiding spirits fill her with authority, inspiration flooding her mind and body with every step.
Her followers fell silent, and she began to speak the ancient words that translated as, “All glory be to our Master, who brings Order out of Chaos.” Her voice reverberated in the cavern, like distant thunder.
“His order will be complete and everlasting,” the initiates responded.
The vibration of their voices thrummed through Cailleagh. “Welcome to your initiation, your practicum.”
One by one, each approached the stone table, spoke their oath, drew a knife across their left wrist, and let the blood drip into the bowl as an offering.
When the last had returned to their original position, she offered the vessel to the Gods. Then drank it. “From this moment onwards, you are members of our order, the Black Robe.” Then she was overcome by a vision from her spirits.
Beware the piercing blade wielded by a veiled maiden in shining gold.
Cailleagh gasped as it penetrated her chest, the shining sword cutting through her, the pain both exquisite and horrible. Then it was over. The vision had only lasted a second, yet the visceral nature of its message could not be ignored.
She knew what it meant immediately but could not let herself be distracted. Not while surrounded by initiates, so she forced herself to continue. “You must memorize the words of the first rune, 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 burnt by the Gods,” they responded in unison.
Cailleagh nodded. “You will be assigned 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 is one of excellence. Any complaints about you shall be investigated most… intensively.
“At this early phase, you will love your masters, seduce 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, he entered the brothel.
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 already had the manner of an experienced woman. Upon being told why he was there, she curtsied – blatantly showing off her assets – then responded in a husky tone, “please, wait here, sir,” gestured to a chair, then left.
Madam Bonaforte was aged, yet she glided across the floor. Her much-painted face hid frown lines and years of despair.
Her working days are long over.
“Lieutenant Blackhawk, thank you so much for delivering our new prospects,” she purred. Yet her eyes were as hard as stones, any feeling long since crushed out of them. “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 young whore, who curtsied again.
Blackhawk still did not have a way to free Little Soldier. “And what could I do with her after that?”
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 timbers. Wagons were stopped, blocking his path, distracting him as he maneuvered the cage cart around them. It was not until he reached the street’s end that he realized he’d missed the turn.
Reversing his course, he found the alley. There, he encountered even more refuse. It made the main street look tidy in comparison. Amongst the things that blocked his way were deliveries that had not yet been taken indoors and a pile of clean straw. He was amazed they had not been stolen. Then again, he did not know who protected these enterprises.
Glancing backward, sure enough, Little Soldier was staring at him, still scowling… perhaps a little less so.
Behind the fourth building, he spied the pen and Clara, who squinted and shaded her eyes from the bright sun.
Stopping so that the cage’s floor was blocked from Clara’s view, Blackhawk dismounted.
The young harlot paid no attention, nor did she offer to help. Fanning 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 for Little Soldier. He motioned for her to lie down flat.
The whore latched the pen, returning inside without another look.
Blackhawk started to drive away; the cage 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 Rosewood waiting in front of the commander’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 Greyson about a future post.”
“Good idea, my boy.” The undersecretary smiled enthusiastically. “Here is fifteen baden for helping me today. Since I have an empty cart and you are staying, I can return to Lorness. This is wonderful. When you’re ready to leave, speak with a fellow named Conroy at the Hook and Shoe two blocks into town. Tell him I sent you. He’ll loan you a horse for two baden. I bring him a lot of work, so he’ll take care of you.
“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 for me.” George Rosewood beamed. A Militet dropped a jingling chest heavy with coin behind the cart seat.
Blackhawk grinned back, waving as Rosewood 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, cajoling clients to enter. He looked over several as if deciding what he was in the mood for, shaking his head and moving on.
No one paid him any mind. He was not the only rider about. The whores only cared if they could get him down. Other patrons were either too intent on sating their appetites, or didn’t want to be seen in this part of town. The bouncers dismissed him once they’d decided he wasn’t trouble. So, none noticed him turn down the alley.
“Little Soldier,” he whispered as he dismounted. “Are you still here?”
With the slightest rustle of straw, 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 site, 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 she had a new expression.
I guess she fell asleep on the ride.
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 Joshua would say, right?”
“Yes.” She smiled brightly. “The way is clear when it is needed.”
He stared at her. “What was that?”
“Ma says it after praying. She says that Joshua has perfect timing. We think we need something right now, but we do not. We need it when we need it.” She smiled back at him.
“Hmm, that does seem to be the way of it… so far,” he returned. “Ready to ride up front, Little Soldier?”
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 would 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 did not 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 are outside at night, and the sky is clear.” She went quiet for a bit, and he heard her sniffle. But then, when they passed the rapids, she asked him, “Hawk, doesn’t the rushing water sound like a fierce battle?”
“I suppose it does.”
Blackhawk had never been so well entertained.
It was beginning to get light, and she had fallen asleep. He’d been holding Little Soldier in the saddle for an hour.
Now what? She has no home, her mother is a fugitive, her father is away or dead, her grandparents are dead. Usually, I plan better before I do something stupid.
When he saw another dark thicket ahead, he headed into it. Without waking her, he slid down off the horse, carried her to a soft grassy spot, and lay her down.
“What am I going to do with you?” he wondered, then remembered what she 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, her face appearing 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 horse?”
“I do not 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 is 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.
“This is good,” she mumbled, her mouth full.
“We do not have much, so enjoy it.”
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 would 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,” she said with a flourish, presenting her open palm which held a button that had fallen from her dress. “Now you have a jewel, too, like the fire-breathing dragon you saved me from.”
“You mean Commandant Greyson?” He laughed. “I see how he could breathe fire. It was my pleasure to serve you, Your Highness. I am honored,” he responded with a low bow and put the button in his pocket.