Chapter 7: The Proclamation
Jonathan – 144 AK, Late Autumn
The king’s proclamation lifted a weight from Jon’s shoulders, only for it to crash back down with more force as he remembered the faces of his wife and daughter. He stared up to heaven, his eyes wet. Rebekah was still missing. Had she rescued Sarah? He had no way to know. It gnawed at him.
At least they will no longer be hunted.
From High Castle’s Herald Station he rode toward the setting sun on a stallion, well-tacked and provisioned.
It took Jonathan only two days to reach Farr Castle. As he rode through the town, he scanned for blonde heads, always hoping to see Rebekah or Sarah.
A girl ran across the street in front of him, golden curls bouncing. His breath caught.
Then she turned. Her eyes, her cheeks, her mouth, were wrong.
He sighed and set his countenance for his first delivery as he approached the old stone building. The nickers and neighs of fresh horses tied, tacked, and ready to ride, demonstrated the discipline of these royal messengers.
Inside, he found the herald was an ancient man with a long gray beard and wise eyes, perhaps as old as the structure itself. He sat at a long oak desk, his nose only inches from the parchment he scribbled on.
Jonathan looked at the wall of announcements and warrants. Requests for help and wanted posters dotted the soft wooden boards, held with small nails. He bristled seeing his wife’s, tearing it from the pockmarked surface.
The herald lifted a hand, opening his mouth to protest.
“I am Jonathan Otual, Knight of J’shua. The king sent me with this proclamation.” He passed it to the herald. Then pointed to the wall of warrants, shaking his wife’s, “these are no longer to be hunted.”
The old man read it, eyebrows rising. “This’ll cause an uproar. You should leave before I announce it. Many of the wealthy hereabouts have bought these conscriptions.”
“I go only because I have more stops. Do you officially acknowledge receipt of the decree?”
“Yes, Sir. I’ll proclaim it immediately.”
“The God of Truth bless you in J’shua’s name.”
Owakar – 144 AK, Late Autumn
The sun had set over Lorness. Owakar closed the Book and watched as Rebekah rode into town, praying in the spirit. He clapped his hands with glee when he saw her follow George Rosewud, but glanced around for any signs of the Warrior or his henchmen.
She's a good listener. Let's see what we can do today.
He whispered words of peace to her, reminding her that she was not alone. For the Book spoke to him, Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.
Rebekah – 144 AK, Late Autumn
Rebekah, as Tomas Bekh, went to the last place she’d seen George Rosewud. She found a spot where she could watch and wait. It was also where she’d last seen Sarah. Her sweet girl had looked well. No fear in her eyes, nor tears on her face.
Keep her safe, Lord.
A man came out of the inn, walking toward four mounted riders. The torchlight shone on his wavy-blond, neatly tied hair.
Rebekah's sweaty hand fell to her dagger. Her jaw clenched. She averted her eyes and walked slowly to her horse. She mounted, and matched their gait, lagging behind them.
When Rosewud entered Lorness, she backed off.
Despite the busy streets, he was easy to spot. His clothes and colorful scarf were expensive, made even more obvious by the sea of drab and withered peasants that scrambled out of his way.. His bobbing blond hair was as good as a flag.
The five riders entered a small, shadowed gate at the rear of the castle, disappearing inside.
Finding an inn to watch from, she prayed for wisdom. And waited.
It was long after dark she heard the herald cry, “Second Watch!”
Three men dressed in black cloaks emerged. They pulled their horses slowly by the reins, only mounting once hidden in shadow far from castle torches. Odder still, the well-muscled horses had a noble gait and ornate saddles and bridles. None seemed to be Rosewud.
It’s far too late to start a journey.
Rebekah felt moved to follow. She left the inn, returning to her horse. When the three were almost out of view, she pursued. Once beyond the town, she urged her beast into a gallop, matching their pace.
The trail led only to the Bloody Rocks.
Why come here after dark? Why come here at all?
When the riders slowed, she became worried. There was nothing ahead of them but a cliff face reaching thirty feet into the air surrounded by woods.
Those she’d chased were too wealthy to be bandits. If they headed some criminal enterprise, why meet here? Surely, there was a warm room somewhere, well supplied with wine and all the privacy they’d ever need?
She slipped farther back, stopping as they approached the entrance to a cave. Dismounting, she walked her horse off the trail. After tying it securely, she crept closer, hiding in the brush.
The three dismounted and strode inside.
Why use a cave? Contraband? Some nefarious gathering?
Rebekah struggled to keep her eyes open as she waited in the silent darkness. Finding and following the weasel had been taxing enough. Perhaps this had been a bad idea. Breathing deeply to wake up, movement alerted her as people trickled out. All wore black.
Not just three, or six… a dozen or so. Then more. Then so many more, like ants pouring forth from a trampled hill. Worse, they walked off in all directions, in large groups and small.
Rebekah inhaled sharply.
A score of them are heading right toward me. Hide me, Lord.
She didn’t exhale until after they’d passed.
Eventually, the three she’d followed emerged, mounted their horses, and rode away, back toward Lorness. They were not the last. Another appeared, lowered his hood, and stared up at the moon, his face on show – Rosewud.
Her eyes narrowed. What’s your secret, weasel?
More appeared. Subordinates by the way he ordered them about, carrying a roll of cloth on a pole. Others brought wood and started a fire in a shallow pit. The pole and cloth were cast into it.
What are they burning?
The wind changed, carrying the scent of burning animal flesh. They added more wood, chanting foreign words in low mournful tones.
Rebekah prayed in the spirit, crouching in the brush.
When the fire died down, they covered the glowing embers with dirt and slinked away.
Daylight wasn’t far off. She returned to her horse, leading it further away from the cave, laid her blanket on the ground.
Thank you, Lord, for keeping me hidden.
She slept, waking at sunup.
Rebekah hesitated at the cave entrance, heart pounding. Inching forward, she clung to the wall. It was enormous, bigger than the great hall at High Castle. Within was a noise like breathing. There was just enough light from the entrance to see a large, raised stone table at the cavern’s center. It was dark, discolored. As she approached, insects swarmed noisily around it. The scent of spilled blood washed over her. A knot formed in her stomach. Flies rose from a dark red pool. She retched and wiped her mouth with her sleeve.
A swarm descended on her vomit.
She looked away, her eyes falling on dark drops that trailed to a buzzing lump on the ground. Crouching, she fanned away the hovering flies, exposing pale flesh.
The palm of a child's severed hand appeared, contracted fingers clawing the air.
Lord, what can I do?
A memory of a great battle recorded in the Writings stirred within. Her furrowed brow relaxed. She’d do as they’d done to win that conflict. Seven times she marched the perimeter singing spiritual songs of praise, claiming it for the God of Truth, purifying it of evil, banishing demons in the name of J’shua Ha Mashiach.
Infused with his spirit, she sang with all her might.
The still, small voice of J’shua whispered to her the familiar passage, The joy of the Lord is your strength.
Rebekah lifted her hands to God. “Father, lead me to the root of this unholy trouble.” Then she left, taking the small hand with her for burial.
Owakar – 144 AK, Late Autumn
Despite the ghastly discovery, Owakar smiled. Rebekah masquerading as a man was a humorous sight to an angel who saw through disguises.
Her pursuit of Rosewud had led her here, which would work against these evil ones, and against the God of this Age. Could they bring about their own downfall?
It was too soon to tell.
Jonathan – 144 AK, Late Autumn
There was a path from Farr Castle to North Fort. Jonathan wouldn’t describe it as a road. That would be overly generous, no matter how maps recorded it.
Ancient trees towered above him. Brush scraped his legs.
He observed hastily built tents and shanties. It was hard living on the frontier. Jon marveled that any would choose this.
But… this was far away from Lorness, Farr Castle, and any place where nobles might be tempted to enslave people. The king’s proclamation would free many, but it was better never to be put at risk. That thought was reinforced when he passed several children in the distance, weeding a garden.
He slowed to watch them, smiling wistfully. None had blonde hair. Overcome with thoughts of Rebekah and Sarah, his tears flowed.
They waved to him. He waved back as he continued past, wiping his eyes with his sleeve.
He sighed. Freedom is everything.
At North Fort, South Fort, and Lexandria, each herald thanked him for its delivery, read the Proclamation, and sent out riders.
Finished with his route, Jonathan rode back to his friends in Lorness. It had only taken two days to travel from Lexandria to Fairness Crossing, a fact that astonished him. He’d never ridden a road so well maintained. A road that was heavy with traffic.
As farms appeared outside Fairness Crossing, he felt a warning within, the hairs of his neck bristled and his heart raced. Jonathan let the horse graze, ate some dried meat, and prayed. Yet he did not understand this heaviness. Surely, the other rider carrying the proclamation had reached the town before him? It would have taken far less time to travel due south rather than his circuitous route.
He dismissed those worries as foolish, continuing on to the Herald Station, which was next to the Commandant’s Office. Entering, he looked for the king’s proclamation on the wall of announcements. Not seeing it, he presented the parchment and his pass from the king. The herald’s expression caught Jon by surprise.
“This is wonderful news,” the herald exulted.
“Have you not already received this?” Jonathan asked, perplexed. “The king dispatched me three weeks ago. Another should have delivered this already.”
“It didn’t arrive. I shall announce this immediately.” The herald turned away, searching for his official tabard.
Jon walked back down the stairs to his waiting steed.
“Stop that man!” A voice roared.
Jonathan mounted, turning to see the commandant pointing at him.
A dozen soldiers in burgundy leather charged toward him, scattering chickens and peasants, drawing their swords aimed.
“You! Get down!” The voice belonged to an old adversary.
The knight ignored the order, replying, “Commandant, if you wish to converse, I am happy to oblige. Or, are you interested in another sermon?”
Greysun approached briskly. “You son of a hundn, I’ll give you a sermon.” He brandished his blade, trying to close.
Jon backed his horse away as he threw back his cloak, revealing his sword. He watched the soldiers, keeping the distance open.
Soldiers shifted from foot to foot, making furtive glances.
“I’ll give you the thrashing of your life, knight.”
The horse snorted. Jon remained still.
The soldiers formed a loose cordon around him, looking nervously at each other and lastly at their commandant. A breeze blew leaves across the ground.
“Pull him down! Bind him!” Greysun pointed.
Facing a man on horseback was difficult. Facing a Knight of J’shua was more than daunting. The knights were well-known to be masters of the sword. None of the men were eager to come within his reach.
The soldiers inched closer.
Jon placed a hand on his hilt.
“Commandant Greysun!” Another voice intervened. The herald stood on the porch, buttoning his royal jacket. “This man has a pass from the king. You may not interfere with his duty. Do so, and I’ll see you arrested for treason.”
The soldiers withdrew, sheathing their swords, muttering softly about J’shua’s intervention. Their lieutenant smirked.
The herald read the proclamation aloud. “…Whereas, we are a Nation of Laws, these laws having been given to us over the last hundred and forty-four years by our wise ancestors, we must be slow to change them…”
The crowd grew and grew.
“Whereas, the Fruitfulness of my people and their Happiness is of my utmost concern…”
Jonathan backed up his horse, smiling, as more plain-clothed commoners filled the road. He knew what the proclamation said.
“Whereas, great Frauds and Abuses have been committed in these debt collections…
A chorus rang out. “Hurrah!”
“Be it known that: First, every dependent that was taken in debt collection while the principal was already in a legal contract, must be returned.” The herald’s reading was punctuated by many more shouts.
“Praise the Lord!” someone shouted.
“…if this is abused after this proclamation has been posted, all parties involved in the theft will be prosecuted.”
“My children'll be returned!”
“My family will come back!”
The whole crowd chanted, “Hail King Edal! Hail King Edal!”
Jonathan waited while the herald read the full proclamation, remaining mounted. The people’s response and joy lifted his spirits. With a bow to the commandant, a furious Greysun retreated into his office. Jon smiled when he heard the door slam. As Jon rode away, he recalled meeting Greysun for the first time.
Jonathan and two other new knights, Jean LaVoie and Harold Grammott, had walked into town on a summery day. The dust of the road had dried their throats.
“They’ll have everything we need.” Jean pointed to an old shop with broken shutters and a pile of worn barrels blocking the doorway.
Harold frowned. “No, there. Look at the colorful cloaks and swords.” He pointed to the other side of the street. A shop sat beside a brothel.
Jon smiled, elbowing, Harold. “Why don’t we ask the man with the wagonful of supplies where he shopped?” As he pointed his eyes fell upon the most beautiful maiden he’d ever seen. She had long honey-gold hair, eyes blue like the sky.
She argued with a merchant. Her broad gestures accentuated her complaint. She slapped the table. “Do you have another buyer for it? Otherwise, we’ll buy one in Lexandria or River Town.”
The owner hung his head and nodded, accepting coins from her.
As she turned, hands on her hips, their eyes met.
Her smile struck him as sure as an arrow, stopping him in his tracks.
Jean and Harold both nudged him, 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 said.
“I suppose you’ll be too busy to teach,” Harold poked him again, “or perhaps this will lead to some private instruction, eh?”
“Shut it, both of you. You make much of a glance,” Jonathan smiled. “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.” Both burst out laughing.
“It is too bad you did not apply yourselves so well to your studies,” Jonathan’s eyes sparkled, and a sly grin spread across his face.
“Always the fast one. There’s no keeping up with you,” Harold shook his head.
As the three friends laughed, Jonathan thought to approach the 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 splattered by ruined produce.
Surging to his feet, the man glared at his tormentors. “My daughter won’t 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 you to the commandant.”
The soldiers laughed.
“Why not?” Their leader, a bearded giant bearing the green dragon sigil of Lorness, sneered. “I’ll save you the trouble. I’m the new commandant.”
The farmer’s eyes widened.
Grabbing the man’s throat, the giant raised him to eye level. Then, with a vicious smile, dumped him back into the tomatoes.
A maiden ran to help her father, but was grabbed by the commandant, who growled, “Let’s see if you’re as tender as you look.”
She struggled, only to have her face smothered by his large beard. Kicking and scratching, she pushed him away. “You pig!”
“Fire! That’s what we like in a woman,” the commandant blustered, holding her at arm’s length. “Don’t we, men?”
They all laughed again.
The farmer staggered back to his feet, breathing hard. He stepped forward unsteadily, tottered, almost collapsing again, only to kick the officer’s side.
Gasping, the commandant doubled over and released the maid, who sprinted away. Her farmer stood his ground as the soldiers drew their swords.
The giant straightened, snarling, “Fool! You’ve forfeited your life!” Then struck the farmer, sending him reeling.
Jonathan frowned. His muscles tensed. His companions dropped their packs and loosened their swords.
“Easy, Jon. These are the king’s soldiers,” Jean grabbed his shoulder.
“It could be the farmer’s fault,” Harold’s eyes pleaded..
“I will not stand by and watch such evil,” Jon countered. “Do not be diminished by fear for this life.” He strode toward battle, roaring, “You! Coward!” As the soldier drew his sword and turned. Jon dropped to the ground. Spinning, a sweeping kick struck through the soldier's ankle.
The giant landed on his back with a crash.
Jonathan drew his sword and pricked the officer’s neck.
The officer dropped his sword.
“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.
Jonathan glanced at the militet, soldiers without rank, who kept their distance.
“Do you think your vows will save you, knight? You threaten a soldier of the king. Kill me or not,” he growled, “my men will deal with you.”
“He is not alone, foul dog,” came the voice of Harold, as he and Jean drew their swords behind the five soldiers.
“Your job,” Jonathan spoke quietly, “is to serve and protect our country. Not to act as you’ve just done. No law protects you when you break it yourself.”
“Enough preaching. Let me up. We’ll be gone.”
“Pay for the farmer’s goods.”
“Here’s five baden.” The officer grasped at his belt.
“Ten.” Jonathan pressed harder into the officer’s throat.
“Ten.” The giant tossed the coins onto the ground.
His friends stepped back.
The commandant rolled over. Groaning as he straightened, he threw a spray of dirt at the knight.
Jonathan billowed his cloak, spinning to block the better part of it. Then he rolled away. He came to his feet, out of the giant’s reach. Advancing, his sword sliced up, deflecting the commandant’s weapon. Their blades rang loudly, flashing in the sun.
Soldiers and knights sprang at one another.
Broad Harold sliced a soldier’s sword arm, forcing the weapon from a now-useless hand. His kick dropped the man to the dirt.
Jean held three at bay, laughing. He spun behind one, and cut through an achilles tendon. The militet fell like a rag doll.
Jean and Harold engaged the remaining three soldiers. Taunting them, the knights used the carts and bins to pin all three in place and disarmed them.
Townspeople and vendors pelted the hapless soldiers with spoiled eggs and rotten squash.
The officer trapped Jonathan against a wagon. As his blade crashed down, Jon dodged.
The sword met only wood, wedging itself deep into the wagon. The commandant pulled his sword free.
Jonathan sliced his forearm to the bone.
The giant screamed. Dropping his sword, he fell to his knees.
As their eyes met, the knight’s sword was, again, pressed into his neck.
“Enough,” 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 nodded, grudgingly.
The militet were coated with refuse. One ran to the officer, pulling a leather thong from a pouch, he tied off the bleeding arm. Another attended the crippled soldier.
Jonathan took a step back.
The giant stood, wincing. “You’ll live to regret this, knight. I’m Commandant Greysun. None harms a soldier of the king without penalty.”
“I wish you were wrong, Commandant,” Jonathan replied. “These are dark days when the king’s soldiers fail to uphold his laws, and nobles fail to protect the people.”
“Be careful, little one. Perhaps you can best me with a sword. The Lord of Lorness doesn’t take lightly those who speak unfavorably of him.”
Jonathan’s eyes flashed. “Perhaps, you would pass on my greetings?”
“Fool!” The giant shot back. “You’d do better to pick a fight with the Serpent himself, rather than provoke Lord Melazera. His dungeons are a sorry place for any mother to pick up the bones of her son.”
Jonathan’s friends flanked him. He bowed to the commandant. “May you heal quickly, in the name of J’shua Ha Mashiach, the son of the God of Truth.”
Collecting their weapons and wounded, the soldiers mounted and rode off.
The knights approached the farmer, who thanked them profusely. People in the market cheered, clapped them on the back, and offered congratulations.
When the knights walked back to their packs, they were missing.
“If that doesn’t cast one down,” Harold bemoaned. “Help someone, and what happens? Our belongings stolen.”
“Calm, Harold. We will see soon enough what happened,” Jonathan 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 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 who was securing bags of grain.
He looked back, smiled, and waved.
“My name is Rebekah.” She pulled her finger across Jonathan’s 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.”
Jonathan stood mute, stunned by her beauty and boldness, mouth agape.
She chuckled, turned, and strode back toward her father.
Jean gave Jonathan a push and whispered, “Friend, you are doomed.”
Blackhawk – 144 AK, Late Autumn
Blackhawk suppressed his frown, standing before the commandant.
Taelor had heard of the fight in the mess hall.
“How’d you come to be so good in a brawl?”
“My master’s men oft surrounded me without warning. If they beat me up, they’d be well rewarded. He stated it was to toughen me up. I adapted quickly.”
The Commander frowned. “Though I abhor such treatment, I value your skills. Would you train the men in those techniques?”
“Yes, sir,” Blackhawk replied, happy to be appreciated.
“As for brawling with other officers, don’t do it again.”
Jonathan – 144 AK, Late Autumn
Worry nagged at Jonathan. If the king’s decree hadn’t reached Fairness Crossing, how likely was it to have reached River Town or Gaelib’s seat of power in Lorness?
His duty to the king and J’shua required him to make sure the proclamation was delivered, so he headed for River Town, arriving at dusk.
The herald was overjoyed by the proclamation, but dismayed by the non-arrival of the other courier, asking the knight to remain until morning. Together with the local commandant, all three would send a message informing His Majesty of this outrage.
Jon wanted to press on immediately. Yet, he could not refuse the request, knowing the local commandant was a godly man. Sadly, that captain was pursuing a highwayman and would, hopefully, return on the morrow.
So, Jonathan slept at a small inn, The Sapphire.
River Town was a busy place. People came from far and wide to trade here. Many goods followed the river, downstream from Fairness Crossing to Lorness and Dunis Glen.
Before leaving The Sapphire, a man approached Jon, dressed as a farmer. “Sir knight, I’m George Rosewud. Would you talk with me a while?”
“I’m from Lorness.”
He’s no farmer. No calloused hands or a sun-worn face. What does he want?
“Do you have a farm there?” Jon responded.
“My family did long ago,” The man bluffed all too obviously. “Now we’ve a place in Lexandria, through my father’s second marriage. We lost the one in Lorness… to its lord.”
The pretender asked many questions, dragging the conversation out.
Just when Jon thought he’d get a straight answer, the pretender’s eyes veered toward the window. “I’m sorry, I see my father and must attend him.”
“The blessing of J’shua Ha Mashiach be upon you and your family,” Jonathan replied as George hastily departed.
Slipping out the back, Jon took a circuitous route to the stables, mounted, and rode north. If he was now hunted, as he feared, he could not delay any further. The herald and commandant would have to write the message to the king without him.
Rebekah – 144 AK, Late Autumn
Rebekah, now Mister Bekh all the time, had gone north following rumors of the weasel. While brushing her horse and checking its legs and belly for ticks, she prayed for wisdom.
What am I to do about this evil group sacrificing children?
She grabbed a bite to eat at The Three Hammers. She couldn’t stay in the same place all day. People would question what she was doing.
Visiting the herald, seeking news, she saw the king’s proclamation. Her eyes grew large. She was no longer a fugitive. Her daughter could be returned. “When did this arrive?”
“A Knight of J’shua brought it yesterday.”
“Can you describe him?”
“Straight blond hair, about average height, I’d say.”
“Do you remember anything else?”
“Yes! He tore down a poster. Let’s see if I still have it.” He pulled one out of a stack, showing her the inscription, ‘Rebekah, daughter of Roger Dowling.’ Insisted it was released by the king’s proclamation, so I took down the rest.”
She left. “Father, why are we kept apart?” She growled. “Jon, you were so close!”
She pictured him confronting the king. “You’re still my champion. I miss you so much. I know we’ll be together someday.”
Then she dried her tears.
I’m going to find that drecksa Greysun and get Sarah! First, I must return to the Frei, change my appearance, and tell everyone the good news. They can go home.