Chapter 5: New Beginnings
Rebekah – 144 AK, Early Autumn
Rebekah crept closer, hearing talk from the riverbank. It was late at night and she was on watch. The rest of the colony was asleep. There should be no one on this side of the river, not in Frei Forest.
Yet, there were two. She could not make out their whispered words. Should she get her bow or use her dagger? Inching closer, she peered through the dense brush to see an unknown young couple on a blanket, giggling. She listened to their lovemaking and smiled when the boy made quick work of it. Then they paddled away. She hoped this wasn’t a common place for trysts.
That was weeks ago she mused. Rebekah focused on the trees shimmering with color as she stirred the melting tallow. The dark evergreens could not conceal the burnt-orange Black Gum, bright red Maple, and sunny-yellow Quaking Aspen. Yet nothing could soothe her need to find Sarah. She ached to do so, but couldn’t. There was a price on her head that made venturing out of Frei Forest too dangerous. It’d do her daughter no good if she too was captured.
Guided by the Lord, the hamlet had grown to twelve families and forty-six children. Their settlement was unlike others, for they lived in constant fear of discovery. They needed supplies to survive, but couldn’t farm. Instead, they made what they could to sell in town.
Rebekah noticed rustling in the green underbrush as a small child burst through, chirping, “Mother ‘Tual, Mother ‘Tual, We’re ready.” The sight of the girl brought no joy, only memories of Sarah. Still, she smiled. It would be wrong to steal a child’s delight, much less that of the those who followed.
“To be safe, you’ll all obey my instructions, yes?” Rebekah asked once they were all assembled.
“Yes, Mother Otual,” the children chorused.
“Put your hand on the shoulder of the one in front of you.”
Twelve hands shot out.
“Now, straighten your arm.”
The line lengthened.
“Very good. See how far you’re 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 twelve 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, a thin frail man with oily hair escaping from his cap, stormed up as she watched the children. "Rebekah, someone lost the hatchet."
Rebekah recognized his voice and didn’t turn. "Ask if anyone’s seen it."
Mister Bendol appeared, intruding before Frink could respond, "Rebekah, I provided the anvil, I should decide who uses it."
"Why? Would you deny another in need?” She turned and glared.
He frowned as she turned back to watch the children.
“Rebekah!” Mother Hinston ran up yelling. The screeching voice surprised a child, who turned abruptly, splashing wax everywhere and began to cry. “I’ve five children, I shouldn’t have watch duty again."
Rebekah stilled her rage as she tended the bawling girl, “There, there, nothing’s ruined.” Memories of a scar on Sarah’s hand caused by a similar incident pushed her near to breaking, yet she spoke softly, “Your dress will need washing, but that’s all. Line up children, let’s start again.”
Only once they’d recommenced, did she round on Mother Hinston, hissing, “You could have caused that girl to be scarred for life. You go explain it to her mother.”
Mother Hinston blanched. The men took a step backward.
“I didn’t ask to be your leader. I’ve problems of my own, or have you forgotten about my daughter?”
“We—” Frink began.
“Solve your own petty squabbles.” She steadied her voice. “Once Vincent has taught me to pass as a man, I’m leaving. Nothing is more important than finding Sarah.” Rebekah turned her back on them, fixing a pleasant smile onto her face. She’d not upset the children.
Blackhawk – 144 AK, Early Autumn
Blackhawk approached High Castle with awe… and relief.
Shaking his head, he sighed. He’d never acted so foolishly. Nor could he explain the effect Little Soldier had on him. The days since they’d parted ways had provided no clarity. 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, was 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 entered the gate, the city buzzed with activity. People wearing linen and silk filled the air with happy voices. Even the hawking farmers wore clean clothes and smiled. A stark contrast to Lorness which was devoid of joy.
He strolled about with mouth agape, admiring the seemingly limitless colorful shops. He didn’t see a single brothel. The lanes and courtyards were made of white crushed limestone. Everywhere he turned their were plantings of fragrant flowering bushes. The delicious smells from carts of meat pies and sweet pastries dazzled him, making his stomach growl. He’d never seen such plenty. In Lorness, such things didn’t exist – unless you were its Lord.
Gaelib Melazera, Ninth Earl of Lorness was the wealthiest man in Freislicht. Almost. Gregory Locke, Duke of Lexandria, was richer. Blackhawk remembered when he’d first heard the name and saw Gaelib’s reaction to the mere mention of that southern duke.
It had been in Blackhawk’s seventh year when Gaelib promoted him to page.
Five master tailors were escorted into the Steward’s Hall one at a time, declaring their expertise and accomplishments. The last mentioned the wondrous apparel he’d designed for Gregory of Lexandria.
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 spent the next two weeks in the dungeons.
Blackhawk doubted 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. All too often Gaelib had commented, “When at my side, you will be appropriately attired. You will be a jewel on my hand, like the son I’ve never had.”
Yet I’d prospered due to his patronage. It had allowed me to eat, sleep safely, and survive harsh winters that surely would have ended my life. That I’d paid for it with obedience and my body was merely the way it was.
Yet more colorful displays reminded him 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. A fine silver chain caught his eye. He paid the jeweler ten.
Next, he sought out the herald.
The old man smiled, looking up from his stool. His blue tabard accentuated his rosy cheeks. “You’re a tall one. How may I help you son?”
“I’m looking for the senior officer. Can you direct me?”
“Absolutely. That would be Commander Peter Taelor, If you head east,” the herald chuckled and pointed, “you’ll see a pavilion. Just beyond that is the army section. You can’t miss it. Almost everyone is in uniform. And once there, you’ll hear the barracks. The commander’s office is there.”
“Thank you, sir.” Blackhawk bowed.
This man’s cheerfulness is 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.
As he approached the barracks, the cacophony of hoots, cackles, and shouts grew louder. The men were busy, but its atmosphere was light, without the drudgery common at Lorness or North Fort. Some laughed. Others gave orders. And some were… singing?
Soldiers chatted with shop owners, told jokes, and played bones. A little girl squealed, “Da, oh Da,” as a militet scooped her up and twirled her around. 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 tall, stating, “Lieutenant Steven Blackhawk reporting.”
A corporal leaning on his elbows, looked up from his papers, snapping to attention. “Yes, lieutenant. Please have a seat, sir. I’ll let Commander Taelor know you’re here.” Yet, before he’d taken a step, another voice bellowed.
“Send him in, corporal.”
The corporal pointed toward the voice and slumped back to his paperwork.
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?” Taelor laughed.
“No, sir, just determined to do my best. Still am.”
“Then I’m glad to have you.” When the commander offered his hand, Blackhawk matched his firm grip. “Let me know if you’ve any trouble about your rank.”
“Where were you posted?”
“At North Fort, under Commandant Sulla.”
Taelor scowled. “Oh… him. Blasted fop would call himself that. He’s only a mere captain. Won’t get any higher. Makes sense he’d use ‘Commandant’, which can be used by any officer commanding an outpost. 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 Sulla’d so infuriated Taelor.
“The corporal will show you to your quarters and give you the layout. Be back here at first light for your assignment, lieutenant. Dismissed.”
“Yes, sir.” Blackhawk turned on his heel and exited.
His was a clean room. Its only furnishings: a cot, a table, a mirror, 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 Brean Mitchett 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.
He sat at a table with his back to the wall, near a door, where he could see everyone. He’d barely started eating when the murmurs increased.
Four men 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 bulging forearms. The scowl on his face was ruined by his weak chin and too-oft-broken nose.
Blackhawk continued his meal.
The four went on with their grumbling, becoming ever louder before their officer stood and strode toward him. He was perhaps a decade older, around twenty-five. His chest puffed out as he glanced from side to side at his comrades. “Who’d you steal the rank bands from, boy?”
“Are you addressing me?” He rose to his feet slowly and offered his hand. “Lieutenant Steven Blackhawk. And you?”
“Lieutenant Karl Fortuch,” the other barked. “How’d you get the lightning strike?”
“By hard work and obedience,” Blackhawk kept his tone light, despite Fortuch’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.
Soldiers 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.
As one of Fortuch’s boys lunged, Blackhawk grabbed his wrist and twisted, locking the arm. “Couldn’t we talk about this?”
The man growled back. Blackhawk dislocated the joint and 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.
The other three, rushed him. Spinning, Blackhawk threw a plate at the middle soldier’s face. It missed as that man ducked. He caught the punch of the next, pulling the militet off-balance, breaking his wrist.
The man shrieked and backed away, cradling his arm. Their leader’s punch struck Blackhawk’s midsection, but left Fortuch wide open. Winded, Steven backed up.
Sensing weakness, Fortuch lunged again. Blackhawk evaded, just. A smile of triumph spread across Fortuch’s face as his fist lashed out.
Steven caught the arm, pivoting. Then he entwined his fingers in the other lieutenant’s hair, bringing Fortuch’s head down on his knee. Blood flowed freely.
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 Fortuch and sat.
Blackhawk tossed him a chunk.
The man with the broken collarbone cradled his arm as he regained his feet. Taking his leather belt, he pulled it tight around his shoulders to brace it. . Glowering at the defeated Fortuch, he winced as he too took an empty seat.
Blackhawk offered him bread with a smile.
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. Fortuch remained motionless on the floor.
With the fight over, the mess hall filled up again. Someone removed Lieutenant Fortuch.
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.
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 army section.
Drawing out the silver chain, he took the buttons from his breast pocket, slid the chain through each and fastened it behind his neck.
The way is clear when it is needed.
Sarah Otual – 144 AK, Early Autumn
Sarah loved playing with Benjamin. The chubby baby wasn’t crawling yet, so she had no trouble keeping him entertained whenever Ma handed him over.
They traveled day and night to put a great distance behind them, not knowing how motivated their pursuers might be. 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 had 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.
Shaun touched her knee and pointed. “We’re passing Caswell.”
Sarah saw the gray castle turrets in the distance poking up above the trees. She hummed, imagining silk skirts swirling to lively music and colorful nobles sitting at the tables of a great feast.
The food would be glorious. Never would the bread be stale.
Days later, mountains appeared 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 as her da would.
The bumpy road made it hard to sleep. The wagon wasn’t rhythmic like Whitefoot had been. She squirmed, shoving bags of oats and peas around to get more comfortable.
One day, she heard Mister Beecher in her dream, calling, “Sarah, we’re crossing the river, hold on.” Yet, she didn’t open her eyes until shocked awake by water seeping up through the wagon. She scowled as she rose to her knees, cold and dripping wet.
Mother Beecher held Benjamin tightly, praying the water wouldn’t get deeper.
Sarah closed her eyes and forced her body to relax like da had taught her. She counted to ten as she exhaled and prayed to the God of Truth to save them.
Eventually, the tired horse pulled them onto the dry river bank.
After a few more days of jostling, Shaun pointed. “See our new village.”
Sarah rubbed her eyes, mouth agape. A cacophony of hammering, sawing, and the distant crack of axes filled the air. 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, frowning 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 of rabbit stew and fresh bread.
“Always call me Ma,” Mother Beecher reminded as the wagon slowed. “It will keep us safe.”
“Yes, Ma, I will.”
Ma smiled, and Sarah was glad of it.
“Sister Kennah,” a young woman announced, “we didn’t know you were coming now.”
“Sister Brenda,” Ma replied, “we had to. Things are much worse in Lorness. I want you to meet Sarah, a sweet girl who lost her parents. We adopted her. She’s been a great help with Benjamin.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mother Brenda.” Sarah stood with a bow.
“Aren’t you a bold child?” The new woman lightly touched Sarah’s chin. “I am sure the Lord has amazing things ahead for you.”
“Thank you, ma’am. I hope so.”
Shaun and several men were unloading the wagon while talking about debt collections and war.
Sarah jumped to the ground. Then she looked up at Ma, who nodded toward the children playing on the other side of the clearing.
As Sarah ran off, Ma yelled, “Stay with them. Don’t wander off.”
Gaelib – 144 AK, Early Autumn
“Stop your incessant nagging. I’m coming,” Gaelib grumbled as he slammed the door to his dressing room. He calmed himself, stroking the wonderful silk of his most comfortable undergarments.
Caileagh had cajoled him all week.
He knew she believed the rituals were necessary to acquire the crown. They meant far less to him. Not nothing, merely less. They had their place, but were only a tiny part of the elaborate, and ever more complex, schemes that’d make his destiny a reality.
He recalled Caileagh telling him on many, many occasions, “You will be the most powerful man in the world.”
Yes… I will… soon.
His guiding spirit, the Warrior, urged him to please his wife. You still need her… for now.
He put on his most pleasant smile and walked out to Caileagh waiting in the carriage.
The ride jostled him. The new ceremonial robes chafed at his neck like a noose.
Why couldn’t they be made of finer materials? Is my discomfort necessary?
Caileagh had not been forthcoming, as usual. Yet tonight’s ceremony would enhance his access to the Warrior’s knowledge. It would grant him awareness of what is happening at great distances, as those things occurred. Information he’d have far sooner than even the fastest horse could run.
When the carriage halted, a groom opened the door, and he stepped out.
Entering the Sanctuary of the Alte Regieren, the vast cavern was lit by hundreds of candles. He heard the familiar melodic tones of Black Robes chanting strange words.
He permitted Caileagh to lead him to a seat engraved with ancient runes. As he sat, his heartbeat matched the rhythmic crooning that pulsed through him. Breathing deeply and slowly, his muscles warmed with the hum of each syllable. He gave himself to them, floating upon them, savoring them.
A black-robed docent led a naked woman toward the altar, her hands bound before her. A blissful smile indicated she was drugged and unaware of what was happening, making her incapable of resisting as she was tied in place.
Gaelib accepted the knife Caileagh offered. He felt its weight, enjoying the fire coursing through him. His lusts rose as he played the dagger across the skin of his sacrifice, carving runes and sigils, dedicating the life he was about to take to the Warrior.
His pleasure was an integral part of the ritual. An exultation to harmonize with the sweetness of her death. He was filled with ecstasy from the carnal act and the warm blood that flowed onto the cold stone.
Splattered with her blood, Geleib rose and spoke the ancient words he’d uttered many times before. As in the past, he felt power pour through his loins like molten silver. A narcotic peace flooded his mind. He knew his compact with the Warrior was another step closer to completion.
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 jabbered 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.”
Owakar – 144 AK, Early Autumn
Owakar paced, praying for a man to rise and stop these ever more frequent abominations.
The Warrior approached, humming. “Did you see? My pawn grows stronger. He’ll make a proper king, ruling with a rod of iron.”
Owakar frowned as J’shua Ha Mashiach instructed, Let the aberrant being talk. Do not engage him. It was difficult.
“Nothing to say? No witty retort?” The Warrior smiled and walked on.
“That woman will be resurrected,” slipped from Owakar’s lips.
The Warrior laughed.
Owakar constrained his thoughts with the scripture from the Book of Life, Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.