Chapter 5: New Beginnings – 144 AK, Early Autumn
Psalm 51:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Blackhawk approached High Castle with awe… and relief.
He shook his head and sighed. He’d never acted so foolishly. He couldn’t explain the effect Little Soldier had on him. The days since they’d parted ways provided no clarity. Annoyed, he pushed the matter from his mind. Again.
As he crested the hill, the rose granite towers came into view, each exhibiting a rippling blue banner. The king's sigil, three silver lightning strikes, were visible from a mile away without a glass. The castle dominated the highest hill in Freislicht. So high, the Sea of Glass could be seen from its battlements. So tall, any approaching enemy would be visible for many, many miles in every direction.
He’d not been to High Castle since he was Gaelib’s page.
When he finally entered the gate, the city was buzzing with activity, most wore fine fabrics and chatted brightly with their companions. Even the hawking farmers wore clean clothes and a smile. A stark contrast to Lorness which was devoid of joy.
He strolled about with mouth agape, admiring the seemingly limitless clothing and housewares in countless shops. The bright colors and delicious smells dazzled him. Such plenty he’d never seen. In Lorness, variety didn’t exist – unless you were its Lord, who could afford anything he wanted. Almost anything. More accurately, anything that Gregory Locke, Duke of Alexandria, didn’t covet. That southern lord was much, much richer.
He remembered when he’d first heard the name and saw Gaelib’s reaction to the mere mention of that southern duke.
It was Blackhawk’s seventh year. Five master tailors had been escorted in one at a time, declaring their expertise and accomplishments. The last mentioned the wondrous apparel he’d designed for Gregory of Alexandria.
Gaelib’s eyes turned dark as he scowled at the hapless clothier. With a wave of his hand, the guards surrounded him.
“What have I done, my lord, to anger you?” The man begged. He’d spent the next two weeks in the dungeons.
Gaelib was capricious.
Eventually, the tailor selected from those remaining summoned an army of subordinates carrying bolts of fabric in every hue.
“When at my side,” Gaelib placed both hands on Blackhawk’s shoulders, turned him to the mirror, and crowed, “you will be appropriately attired.”
Long hours of standing at attention had followed.
I wished he’d beaten me.
Gaelib had commented on this or that, ending with, “You will be a jewel on my hand.” Words that, in many ways, summed up their relationship.
Blackhawk had begun to doubt he’d ever been seen as a person. Instead, the Lord of Lorness treated him as a treasured possession, a bauble to be worn to demonstrate its owner’s wealth and status.
Yet, Blackhawk had prospered due to his lord’s patronage. It had allowed him to eat, sleep safely, and survive harsh winters that could – no, would – have ended his life. That he’d paid for it with obedience and… other things… was merely the way it was.
He pushed thoughts of the past aside upon sighting yet more colorful displays.
This was a new beginning.
A beginning that needed to be marked, remembered.
Blackhawk entered a shop selling gold and silver jewelry. He perused every beautiful item, but almost everything cost a fortune. He had only twenty-one baden left. Then a fine silver chain caught his eye. He paid the jeweler ten.
Next, he sought out the herald, seeking news and asking where to find the town’s senior officer.
He’s a cheerful fellow, Blackhawk noted upon receiving directions.
It was a different kind of cheerfulness, not like Gaelib’s or Caileagh’s. Theirs always had a trick behind it. If Caileagh was cheerful, you might be tied up or worse. This was different. It felt good.
Approaching the noisy barracks, the cacophony grew louder. The men were busy, but its atmosphere was light, without the drudgery common at Lorness or North Fort.
Just before entering the military section, he saw soldiers talking with shop owners and laughing. A little girl squealed, “Da, oh Da,” as a militet scooped her up and twirled her around.
Distracted, he bumped into a cobbler in a leather apron who was bent over creating a display of all manner of slippers and boots around his cart. “Apologies sir. I wasn’t watching where I was walking.” Blackhawk bowed.
Is it the people? They look like people anywhere. Is there something in the wind? Perhaps a plant that grows here makes everyone happy, like some of Caileagh’s potions.
Entering the commander’s office, he stood at attention, stating, “Lieutenant Stev’n Blackhawk reporting.”
A bored corporal looked up from his papers, then snapped to attention. “Yes, lieutenant. Please have a seat, sir. I’ll let Commander Ta’ler know you’re here.” Yet, before he’d taken a step, another voice bellowed.
“Send him in, corporal.”
Blackhawk was waved through.
A middle-aged man sat at the desk. Though a touch of gray dashed his temples, he was still as robust as a horse. Rising to his feet, he scrutinized his guest. “You are the youngest lieutenant I’ve ever met. How’d you manage that?”
“Manage what, sir?” Blackhawk responded, taking the other’s measure.
“Attain rank so quickly. You didn’t start in napkins, did you?” Ta’ler laughed.
“No, sir, just determined to do my best. Still am.”
“Then I’m glad to have you.” The commander offered his hand, Blackhawk matched his firm grip. “Let me know if you’ve any trouble about your rank.”
“A question. Given you’re still new to the Royal Army, have you encountered anyone calling themselves ‘Commandant’? If so, do you know where it fits into the rank structure?”
“I encountered a Commandant Greysun,” Blackhawk offered cautiously.
Ta’ler scowled. “Oh… him. Jumped up popinjay would call himself that. He’s only a mere captain by rank. Won’t get any higher. The title ‘Commandant’ merely indicates the senior officer at a posting. It isn’t a rank. Blast, it can be used by a lieutenant, if there’s not another officer around. Anyone from a lieutenant to a captain to a major to a colonel… or a commander, like myself, who outranks them all.”
“Thank you for clarifying that, sir,” Blackhawk responded, wondering how Greysun’d so infuriated the much-higher-ranked Ta’ler.
“The corporal will show you to your quarters and give you the layout. Be back here at first light for your first assignment, lieutenant. Dismissed.”
“Yes, sir.” Blackhawk turned on his heel and smartly exited.
The hours that followed were as expected. He learned where to stable his mount and the other mundanities that went with any military posting.
His was a clean room. Its only furnishings: a cot, a table, and a piss pot. It took only minutes to change out of his clothes, heavy with trail dust, into a clean uniform bearing the single lightning strike proclaiming his rank.
I look rather smart.
At the stables, Sergeant Brian Mitchell pointed him to the mess for a hot meal.
Inside, Blackhawk joined the inevitable line of men waiting to be served. It was the usual army pottage, but with a piece of fruit and bread. The quality of the ingredients was better too.
So far, High Castle is shaping up well.
Finding a table, he sat with his back to the wall where he couldn’t be hemmed in. He’d barely started eating when he heard murmurs begin.
Four troublemakers glared at him. Their eyes flitted from their mousy-haired lieutenant to Blackhawk as they huddled over their bowls. Their officer was short, even when seated, but had broad shoulders and huge forearms. The scowl on his face was ruined by his weak chin and too-oft-broken nose. Probably a younger son from a noble family.
Blackhawk continued his meal.
The four went on with their grumbling, becoming ever louder before the largest stood, then strode toward him. “Who’d you steal the rank bands from, boy?”
The speaker was perhaps a decade older, around twenty-five. His chest puffed out as he glanced from side to side at his comrades.
“Are you addressing me?” He rose to his feet slowly and offered his hand. “Lieutenant Stev’n Blackhawk. And you?”
The other man ignored the gesture. “Lieutenant Ca’rl Fortsun. How’d you get the lightning strike?”
“By hard work and obedience,” Blackhawk replied. He kept his tone light, despite Fortsun’s companions fanning out to surround him… and half the diners leaving. He stepped clear of the table, waiting for one of them to make a move.
The soldiers who’d remained lined the walls, whispering. They pointed from him to the other four. One went from table to table. Pouches of coin came out. He wished he’d had time to place a wager on himself. The odds would’ve been great.
One of Fortsun’s boys lunged.
Blackhawk grabbed his wrist and twisted, locking the arm. “Couldn’t we talk about this?”
The man growled back.
Blackhawk increased pressure, dislocating the joint, then dropped him to the floor. “Stay down.” As the attacker began to rise, the young lieutenant's heel struck. The man’s collarbone cracked like a roasted chestnut.
That left three.
The others rushed in.
Spinning, Blackhawk threw a plate at the middle soldier’s face. It missed as that man ducked. He caught the next punch, pulling the militet off-balance, breaking his wrist. The man shrieked and backed away, cradling his arm.
Their leader’s punch skimmed Blackhawk’s midsection, but left Fortsun wide open.
Entwining his fingers in the other lieutenant’s hair, Blackhawk brought Fortsun’s head to his knee. Blood flowed freely. Using a chokehold, he squeezed.
Blackhawk dropped the unconscious lieutenant and faced his remaining opponent. “Wouldn’t you rather talk about this?”
“Yes… uh… sir,” the last man answered.
“Have a seat. What’s your name?”
“R’bert Maitlan, sir.”
“Would you like some bread?”
Maitlan nodded, glanced down at the bloody Lieutenant Fortsun, then sat meekly.
Blackhawk tossed him a chunk.
When the man with the broken collar bone regained his feet, he too sat with Blackhawk, glowering at the defeated Fortsun.
Still clutching his broken wrist, the third man cast a sullen glance at his former comrades, but couldn’t meet Blackhawk’s gaze. The craven slunk out of the mess.
Fortsun remained motionless on the floor.
With the fight over, the mess hall filled up again.
Someone removed Lieutenant Fortsun.
Charming his growing group of listeners, as he had been taught to, he was open about everything… except his relationship with Gaelib, Caileagh, and Little Soldier.
When Blackhawk left the mess, he’d made quite a few friends, including two of his assailants and many onlookers. He was pleased with the way things had turned out, especially as it made it less likely he’d be charged with brawling.
He walked to his shanty, looking forward to his cot, while reviewing the map, memorizing the layout of the military section.
Drawing out the silver chain, he took the buttons from his breast pocket, slid the chain through each, then fastened it behind his neck.
The way is clear when it is needed.
Lorness – Sanctuary of the Alte Regieren
“Stop your incessant nagging. I’m coming,” Gaelib grumbled.
Caileagh had cajoled him all week.
He knew she believed the rituals were necessary to acquire the crown. They meant less to him. Not nothing, merely less. They had their place, but were only one part of the elaborate plan that’d make his destiny a reality.
You will be the most powerful man in the world. He recalled Caileagh telling him on many, many occasions. Only to complete that thought with, Yes… I will… soon. His guiding spirit, the Warrior, urged him to please his wife. You still need her… for now.
The ceremonial robes chafed, rubbing at his neck like a noose. He refused to show his discomfort. Tonight’s ceremony would enhance his access to the Warrior’s power. It was yet another step along the way to having all its abilities at his command.
The vast cavern was lit by hundreds of candles. It was filled with chanting Black Robes whose melodic tones gave way to strange words.
He permitted Caileagh to lead him to a seat engraved with ancient runes. As he sat, his heartbeat matched the rhythmic chanting pulsing through him. Breathing deeply and slowly, his muscles warmed with the hum of each syllable. He gave himself to the spreading pleasurable feelings, floating upon them, savoring them.
A naked woman walked toward the altar, guided by the leash about her throat, her hands tied. She didn’t struggle, nor was she outwardly afraid. The woman looked at him and smiled, then climbed the steps.
Caileagh prompted him. “Go to her.”
The Warrior stirred within Gaelib, who was enraptured, having given himself wholly over to sensation. Together, man and spirit stood then moved to the stone table where their victim had been tied in place. Together, they were overcome with desire, mounted her, and satisfied their lusts.
Gaelib accepted the knife Caileagh offered. He felt its weight, enjoying the fire coursing through him. His lust satiated, he sacrificed the life still beneath him to the Warrior. He was filled with ecstasy as the warm blood flowed onto the cold stone and the peasant’s eyes greyed.
Gaelib didn’t remember walking to the coach. Exhilarated and euphoric, his memories were disjointed, as if his eyes had been closed part of the time.
Caileagh was jabbering excitedly. “When I’m queen, no one will be able to hurt me. You’ll always protect me.”
“Did you drug me also?”
“No, silly. My spirit guides work with the Warrior to grow his power in you. Each step you take is of your own choosing. Now, the Warrior can open new doors for us. Soon, my love, you’ll be the most powerful man in the world. You’ll be king.”
Gaelib tried to focus, but his eyes were blurred, overloaded, and rendered irrelevant by his elated bliss. He closed them. “That will be some time in the future, my dear.”
Idle thoughts flashed through his mind. Only last week, the prince had spoken about Jon’than. Again. He displaced that thought with the happiest time in his life.
It was his first visit to High Castle, twenty-five years earlier. Gaelib was in his seventh year. His father, the Earl of Lorness, was called by King Edal to a council of his nobles to discuss the state of the kingdom. His father had said it was time to be amongst men, not at home with women.
Gaelib was excited to be with his father and desperate not to disappoint. When the earl yelled at those who displeased him, especially his mother, he feared the man.
When they arrived at High Castle, they were ushered into the Great Hall, where King Edal sat upon his throne. The prince stood beside him, his small hand on his father’s knee.
The young royal looked beautiful. He wore a dark blue velvet long-coat. Beneath that were grey trousers and a light blue satin vest embroidered with silver leaves. His boots were dark brown embossed leather. His bright blue eyes and sweet smile beamed, framed by blond curls.
Later that day, Gaelib was in the garden watching his father talk with a group of old men. The Earl of Lorness had pointed and told him to stay, so he did.
This castle is dull.
“Hallo,” a cheerful small voice said from behind him, “I’m Sagen. Who’re you?”
“Gaelib, my Lord,” he responded automatically, turning to face whomever had spoken. Then gasped, his heart abuzz with fear. “Er… oh… Y-y-your Highness, I’m sorry.” He bowed.
Sagen shrugged. “I don’t like titles. Rise. Follow me.”
Gaelib glanced toward his father, who smiled back, nodding. Warmth flooded through him as if the sun had risen, shining just on him. The Earl’s first ever public show of approval had him floating on clouds.
He happily attended Sagen for the rest of the day.
They stayed at High Castle for the next three moons.
“It is very important that you please the prince,” his father had instructed, “being his closest companion will give us great advantages.”
Gaelib had played with Prince Sagen every day. There were times when the prince’s nurse dragged him away for some royal requirement, but Sagen would find him as soon as it was finished.
One day, Gaelib had come to where they met each morning. A newcomer, the same age as he and the prince, stood next to Sagen, wearing inappropriately plain clothes. The commoner was taller than both and blonder than the prince. Even servants dressed better.
“Who’re you?” Gaelib yelled, running up to them, scowling.
“This is Jon’than Otual,” Sagen responded with a big smile, “my new companion. Father said he’s to make sure I learn my lessons. We’re studying everything in the Royal Library with a master teacher.”
“Oh,” Gaelib responded, pausing to hide his anger. “Why’re you dressed like a peasant?” He forced a smile.
Sagen looked at him wide-eyed.
The prince’s reaction pained Gaelib.
Jon’than looked down, steadied, then spoke by rote. “My circle says we should be adorned inwardly, not outwardly. Others may. I may not.”
“At least you aren’t hedge-born.” Gaelib’s laugh was loud as he slapped Jon’than’s back hard, flashing his happiest grin at the prince.
Sagen smiled back.
After that day, the earl constantly reminded Gaelib that he wasn’t trying hard enough, that he’d been supplanted by a filthy commoner.
Yes, Jon’than Otual ruined everything.
By the beginning of Autumn, the community R’bekah had unwittingly founded consisted of seven families.
Father, you must be leading people to this place.
Their settlement was unlike others, for they lived in constant fear of discovery. They used very small fires, only at night, so smoke couldn’t be detected from the river or seen in the distance. Their shelters were constructed to blend into the woods. They remained within the forest during the day when the river was full of boatmen. They foraged at dusk or dawn. Guided by the Lord, the adults agreed everyone must obey the rules. There could be no chaos. Even a child’s tantrum could bring about their end.
By Autumn’s end, the hamlet had grown to twelve families and forty-two children.
A small child ran up to R’bekah, giggling, “Mother Tual, Mother Tual, We’re ready.”
The group needed supplies to survive, but couldn’t farm. It’d be too easy to discover them. Instead, they made what they could to sell in town.
R’bekah’s contribution was making candles. It was also a method for including the children, as each family had at least one boy or girl tall enough to do so safely.
The containers of rendered fat had been left to solidify, separating into layers overnight. Then the tallow layer was rendered again to prevent it from stinking as it aged and to produce the most lovely, creamy, white wax.
Many children had been looking forward to the candle-making. They’d carefully cut their strings and tied them twelve to a stick.
“To be safe, you’ll all obey my instructions, yes?” R’bekah asked again.
“Yes, Mother Tual.”
“Everyone put your hand on the shoulder of the one in front of you.”
Twelve hands shot out.
“Now, straighten your arm out.”
The line immediately lengthened.
“Very good. See how far you are apart? That’s the distance you must stay while dipping the candles. Otherwise, you might drip hot wax on your friend or their clothes.”
One by one, she showed them how to lower the stick parallel to the ground to dip the wicks in the hot tallow. After one dipped, they went to the end of the line, waiting to return to its front and dip again.
Mister Frink stormed up as she watched them. "R'bekah, someone misplaced the axe."
"Ask if anyone’s seen it tonight at the fire."
Mister Bendol intruded before Frink could respond, "R'bekah, I provided the anvil, I should decide who uses it."
"Why? Would you deny another in need?
He frowned, but she turned to watch children dipping, dismissing them.
“R’bekah!” Mother Hinston yelled, disturbing a child, who spilled wax everywhere and began to cry. “I’ve five children, I shouldn’t have watch duty."
R’bekah ignored her to tend the bawling girl, “There, there, nothing’s ruined.” She brushed wax from the child’s dress. “It’ll need washing, but that’s all. Line up children, let’s start again.” Only once they’d recommenced, did she acknowledge Mother Hinston. “You could have caused that girl to be scarred for life. Blast your petty squabbles. You go explain what happened to her mother.”
The other woman blanched, then scurried off. The men also departed.
R'bekah whispered to herself, “I never meant to stay here for all of summer and autumn. I want to go find my daughter.”
She prayed in the spirit but heard no response.
Finally, the tallow was no longer deep enough. They hung the resulting candles to harden. She’d sell them tomorrow in Fairness Crossing.
New Village Near Mestelina & Shining Mountain
Sar’h held the chubby baby for most of the journey. She loved playing with him. He wasn’t crawling yet, so she had no trouble keeping him entertained whenever Ma handed him to her.
She said I must call her Ma so everyone thinks I’m her daughter.
“It will keep us safe,” Mother Beecher had said.
Sar’h replied resolutely, “Yes, Ma, I will. I will keep you safe.” That made Ma smile, and Sar’h was glad of it.
They traveled day and night to put a great distance behind them, not knowing how motivated their pursuers might be.
Riding in the wagon was bumpy, and Sar’h had trouble sleeping. It wasn’t rhythmic like Whitefoot had been.
As she lay in the wagon, she set her mind to pretending she was a princess being taken to safety by innocent thieves. Her knight left to save the king and queen, who were in danger from an evil wizard. She prayed for them often as her daydream hero proceeded through many challenges and quests.
When they passed Caswell, she could see the lonely castle in the distance. She imagined a great feast with dancing and singing in the great hall. Sar’h hummed as the silk skirts swirled to the lively music. But they dare not venture therein.
The food would be glorious. Never would the bread be stale.
Sar’h was shocked awake by water splashing, seeping up through the wagon’s bottom. They were crossing a river. It was cold. Everything was wet. She scowled and wrinkled her nose as she rose to her knees, grabbing the wagon box as it began to sway.
Ma was holding Benjamin tightly, praying the water wouldn’t get deeper.
Sar’h closed her eyes and forced her body to relax, like Da taught her. She counted to ten as she exhaled and thanked the God of Truth for saving all of them from the river and the hunters.
Eventually, they reached the dry bank.
Sar’h knew they were headed south when she saw mountains in the distance. Her Da had taught her that the Shining Mountains protected the southern border of Freislicht, and it was always a safe place to go when in danger. She was happy they were doing what her Da would want.
“Wake up,” Shaun encouraged with a light touch on her shoulder. “See our new village.”
Sar’h rubbed her eyes, mouth agape . The noise was a cacophony of hammering, sawing, and the distant crack of axes. Not a single person was still. Men toted rocks and logs. Women carried food to a long table. As they passed, the smell of cooking made her mouth water. She licked her lips and prayed she could have some, then frowned as they continued onward.
She watched it disappear into the distance until the sound of halloos and children’s laughter brought her from her tasty thoughts.
“Sister Kennah,” an unknown voice announced, “we didn’t know you were coming.”
“Sister Brenda,” Ma replied to a woman nursing a babe, “we had to. Things are worsening in Lorness. I want you to meet Sar’h, a sweet girl who lost her parents. We adopted her. She’s been a great help with Benjamin.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mother Brenda,” Sar’h said with a bow.
“Aren’t you a bold child?” The new woman lightly touched Sar’h’s chin. “I am sure the Lord has an amazing plan for you.”
“Thank you, ma’am. I hope so.”
Shaun and several men were unloading the wagon while talking about debt collections and rumors of war.
Sar’h jumped to the ground, then looked up at Kennah, Ma.
She nodded toward the children playing on the other side of the yard. “Go on.”
As Sar’h ran off, Ma yelled, “Stay with them, Sar’h. Don’t wander off.”