Chapter 11: Escalation – 144 AK, Winter
II Corinthians 5:17 - Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
On the Mountain
Daikon Sylvanus Baxter, his knights, and their students remained in hiding until after the soldiers left. He made his way slowly down the mountain. They’d warn him of anyone approaching.
At a point where he could look down on the burning School, he encountered headmaster Daikon Crispus sitting on a rock, staring.
Baxter used to think running downhill was easier than this. But now old, he was more aware of limitations. “I came as soon as I saw smoke.” He panted. “What happened?”
Crispus paused before answering, his face taut, his wiry hands trembled. “Soldiers killed all twelve left below. I couldn’t see faces, only uniforms. I dared not get too close. I should have joined them, I feel like the coward Sisera that hid in the woman’s bedchamber–”
“How’d they die?” Baxter interrupted.
“Hidden bowmen cut them down. There was no warning–”
“Then all you’d have done is die with them. How would that serve J’shua?” Baxter’s strong hands steadied his old friend. “Our job is to train knights. We don’t know why this occurred, but it’d be folly to put out the fire and rebuild.”
This wasn’t a time for ire, but for calm, clear thought. What was decided next would shape the Fellowship’s future.
“Then…” Crispus’ voice steadied. His brows furrowed. “We shall continue our work on the mountain.”
Baxter nodded. “I agree. All they’ve taken from us is a building. As for our dead, though we mourn their loss, they sleep. We’ll see them at the Gathering for the Lord’s Battle. Rash acts won’t serve us. Perhaps…”
Crispus put an arm around his friend. “We must have a plan before the others join us. What are you thinking?”
Baxter motioned for the seventy-two students and eleven other knights to join them. They debated their options while waiting.
Once all had arrived, Daikon Theodomo Crispus addressed them all. “The vile one used the king’s soldiers to attack us. We don’t know what prompted this, nor does it matter. We can’t disperse, it’d leave the people defenseless. Yet, we can become invisible. Our mission hasn’t changed. Indeed, our mission is more important than ever. We must oppose the evil corrupting the land.”
He looked at each of them. “Decide if you’ll stay and train, or return home. We’ll pray until we know how to proceed. Tonight, we’ll shelter in the caves under Long Ridge. Be there by sunset. Divide into three groups. One to cut wood for fires. The second to forage for food. The third to hunt for game. I also require two riders. They’ll go to Fairness Crossing in common clothes to purchase supplies.” He paused. “Once we’re settled in the caves, we’ll mourn our dead.”
In the days that followed, Little Sister became home and every sign of their presence was eradicated. From the newest student to the most experienced daikon, all came to learn, live, and move without leaving a trace of their passing. They became one with nature, as well camouflaged as a mountain lion waiting to strike.
None chose to leave.
Daikon Baxter wondered if their new undetectable existence was needed to overcome the taint permeating the land.
As the season turned, fresh recruits arrived, accompanied by either a veteran knight or led there by the spirit. The new arrivals were less in number but, as always, all they needed was a sword, a dagger, and a sharp mind.
The structure of each day did not alter. Each morning, an hour of teaching was followed by an hour of discussion on what they’d learned. Morning meals were no longer eaten indoors but atop Little Sister, the lowest peak of the Shining Mountains. Challenging physical conditioning, practice with the blade, and tactics followed.
Daikon Baxter talked with Daikon Crispus often, each acted as confidant for the other. Between them, they came to realize that their war with corruption had changed. The burning of the School was a mistake. A mistake made by the Serpent. A mistake that had brought this covert war into the light.
The Mestel Border
Commander Pet’r Ta’ler began to suspect some of the king’s soldiers were being used by the Black Robes. There were too many reports with gaps and excessive expenses. Intelligence from Bekh’s spies and converted Black Robes slowly made the picture clearer and far more dire. Not just key figures but, potentially, entire units were being used by the Order to carry out covert operations counter to Freislicht’s interests. The Commander sent trusted officers to those suspected regiments in feigned disgrace.
They shall return with information and evidence.
“Enjoy your time role-playing, but not too much,” he’d warned with a smile. “If you must do an evil deed to protect your cover, do it. Don’t be afraid to burn down a house or two or blacken a man’s face to get the acceptance you need. The whole kingdom is at stake.”
In one such operation, a Black Robe led a unit of soldiers disguised as Mestels. They attacked settlers sporadically, screaming, “Hail Otual.” They burned crops and sometimes homes. They terrorized the people. That frightened the nobles, making them willingly pay for an ever-larger army.
Such actions also made it easier to isolate and capture Jon’than Otual.
The Commander pondered the knight’s role. He’d heard the Fellowship had disbanded after their school burned down. Perhaps that wasn’t the case. If not, their intentions need to be ascertained. At best, the knights could be an ally. At worst, Otual was a distraction for Melazera. Only last week he’d heard that the Lord of Lorness had sent a squad to arrest the knight. They’d failed. He smiled at that thought.
Perhaps Mister Bekh knows how to reach them.
Geleib Melazera reread the latest report.
The terror being generated on the Mestel border was growing better than anticipated. It had caused more than one rash response by local nobles. His favorite, so far, being the detailed account he’d just received of a foolish baron personally taking a force across the border into Mestelina to ‘hunt down the savages’… and being ambushed, stripped of his weapons and horses, then forced to walk back to his lands in disgrace.
It was utterly… delicious.
Not to mention that it had that ridiculous baron whipping up support for yet more troops on the border ‘to protect the people’.
The people! As if!
Equally pleasing was that, in the immediate aftermath of the Knights’ School burning down, the rumors of their faithlessness were spreading swiftly. An unexpected benefit of which was that many were turning against their local circles, denouncing them as being as feckless and untrustworthy as the knights.
Pouring himself another cup of wine, he began reading again. This was a wonderful day. It was evidence that, with the Warrior’s assistance, nothing was impossible for… King Geleib the First.
The Warrior sought out the all-but-helpless Owakar, delighted that the Children of Men had behaved just as expected. “Kinsman, you seem disappointed by events. But they are exactly as I told you they’d be. The pox that is humanity gives itself to the Lord of this Age with only the merest temptation.”
“Not all of them,” the angel replied weakly.
“Enough. Enough so that the end of this battle between our lords is inevitable. As the God of this Age has won before, so he shall again. And again. And again. It is time for you and your petty lordling to acknowledge that.”
“Not yet. Not ever.”
“Then, I shall enjoy what follows even more as your pitiful altruistic illusions are shattered one by one, until nothing is left. Until you, Owakar, give yourself to my lord and to victory.”
Whenever R’bekah visited Fairness Crossing, she sought out its herald, S’mon Hunt’r, who repeated the latest tales. The most recent spoke of the Knights’ School burning down due to a spilled oil lamp.
She listened, lamented, and nodded at all the right points, yet didn’t believe it. Nor could she accept S’mon’s statement that it was a sign the knights were no longer faithful to their god. She’d heard too many lies. She’d also seen too many circles being persecuted wherever the Lord of Lorness had influence.
Was it retaliation? By Commandant Greysun? He must’ve lost thousands, perhaps tens of thousands on the overturned debt collections. He’d blame the knights since Jon’than was involved. Yet he’s not mentioned in the story. So, why does his name leap to mind?
R’bekah felt moved to see the School.
When she arrived there, it was worse than her imaginings. Nothing was left. Even the heavy-walled storehouse was reduced to a few heat-cracked bricks atop each other.
She frowned, slowly walking through the burnt landscape. Dozens of grave markers littered the area, as if they’d been constructed one at a time, each by a different group. No two were alike. A pile of flat stones was covered in dried vines and berries. Another surrounded a sword, only it pommel showing. The most poignant was a built around a carved wooden doll and a dried up rose.
Did no one survive the fire? The knights hadn’t tended to their dead.
Leafy vines covered the remaining chimney. Its foundations were obscured by grass. But glinting in the sunlight was a length of bone large enough to be from a man.
She collected bones, found a clear spot, and piled rocks atop them, creating yet another small mound. Praying as she worked, her only comfort came from the withered wreaths and offerings of remembrance littering the hearth. She wasn’t the only one who’d come to say a prayer for the dead.
She sat, envisioning what might have happened, then thought of Jon’than’s stories about his training. It was a comfort to recall her favorite, the Tradition of the Kiss…
It was customary amongst knights to test their prospective brides by hiking together to a pair of rocks, leaning like lovers kissing. If the girl made it that far and the knight still wanted her, he’d propose. It wasn’t very romantic. Yet, after being married to Jon’than, she’d learned it was comforting for a knight to know their woman was strong, especially as they might be parted for long periods.
Jon’than had already proposed, but she’d wanted to do it. They sat on the bank of the stream near her home, skipping stones across the water.
“I’ll be as tough as I need to be,” she’d told him as she threw another.
"I already know you are tough," he replied with a chuckle.
“So, when do we leave?” She scooted closer.
Jon’than put his arm around her. “Do you want to spend the night on the mountain, or return that day?”
“Which means I’m tougher?”
“Both are difficult,” Jon had replied, R’bekah eyeing him dubiously. He’d smiled and continued. “Starting from the School, if we spend the night, we’ll have to carry more gear but only walk ten miles each day. We can take a leisurely pace because we don’t have to worry about it getting dark. With packs, it will take about six hours to get there. If we come back on the same day, we’ll be able to get there in four hours, take a break for lunch and return before dark. But that is a twenty-mile hike.”
“I can do that,” she’d assured him. “I travel that much, doing chores every day, often carrying quite a load.” Her hands sat firmly on her hips.
“I do not want this to be a chore.” He’d grinned. “I would enjoy spending the night on the mountain with you. That way, we can take our time. It would also allow me to show you some survival craft along the way. You never know when you may find yourself on the mountain. I already know your strength.”
“So… you’re not entirely unobservant,” she’d teased, causing him to look off into the distance, trying to hide his flushed skin.
“My furlough is almost over. Let me speak to your father about it,” he’d uttered without turning back to her. “Will he trust me to be alone with you?”
“He’s happier about our upcoming marriage than we are.” She’d laughed, pushing him, sending him on his way. “He didn’t like any of my previous suitors. You can do no wrong.”
The lonesome cry of a wild hound brought her back to the present.
If there were survivors, where’d the daikons and students go? They’ll not have given up. Are they on the mountain? It’s possible to live on Little Sister year-round. Jon told me that often enough.
That prompted R’bekah to hike toward to the Kiss. Checking her pack, she had enough food and water, plus she knew there were suitable caves if she had to spend the night.
After an hour, the trees thinned. She glimpsed the Lone Soldier, towering in the distance. From it, she could be seen hiking anywhere on Easy Mountain, from its base to the Kneeling Queen’s Skirt.
Am I being watched? Will they investigate?
Wearing a linen shirt, loose trousers, and a woolen tunic tied around her waist, she kept a good warming pace. Her dagger was in her belt, her bow and quiver over her shoulder.
Two hours later, she arrived at the Kneeling Queen’s Skirt and couldn’t resist checking out some of the caves Jon’than had told her about.
He might be here, or there could be recent signs.
Her pace quickened.
The first cave she found was between the Watchers and the Kiss. It was only large enough for one person. Someone had slept here, but not recently. Disappointed, she searched for any stored items. Above a protruding rock, she found a rolled oil cloth containing thirty arrows. She knew the fletching. Her husband always made a twist in a feather.
Jon’s been here. When? From the pika scat, the nests of several litters, and a thick layer of dust, it was a year or more.
She put them back, sighing. She had plenty of arrows.
Seeing evidence of him was bittersweet.
She left the small cave. Outside, the wind had changed. R’bekah considered staying the night, just to be somewhere Jon had been, but it was too early. Hugging herself against the cold, she pulled on her wool tunic and followed the Skirt to the Kiss, where she scanned the southern view of the Lone Soldier.
I must find the knights.
“Daikon Crispus, are you still here?”
Jon spoke of you often.
She sat, unwrapping a cloth package. The corncakes were still moist and sweet.
A nearby rabbit colony hopped about carelessly.
There’s water and food aplenty for this time of year.
She picked up her bow, slid an arrow from its quiver, nocked it, chose her target, and let fly. She didn’t miss.
After dressing it, she started a fire. Placing the spit over the coals, she set the hare close to the flames to sear it, then moved it higher to cook it more slowly.
The smell of meat roasting made her mouth water.
Sensing she was being observed, she inspected the gathering gloom. “I’d love to share a bit of rabbit with you.” With no answer, R’bekah returned to the roasting rabbit, giving it another quarter turn.
When well cooked, she moved the spit from the heat, sliced off a piece, and speared it. “Are you going to have some, or just keep watching me?”
A knight stepped out from between the rocks, his silhouette familiar.
“Jon?” She was filled with joy and smiling like the sun but, as the knight came closer, her heart sank. The man’s hair was white, not blond.
She set her countenance. This could still bring good news.
“Welcome to our mountain, sir,” the aged knight greeted.
“Thank you for joining me. The God of Truth bless you in the name of J’shua Ha Mashiach.” She offered the daikon her knife.
He accepted it with a nod. “What brings you to the Kiss? You don’t look like a recruit, you’re a little too old.”
R’bekah chuckled. “I heard of the fire. Terrible, false tales are being told. I wanted to see that your good work continues. We need the knights more than ever.”
He took a bite of the moist rabbit, sliced off another, and offered it back to her. “I’m Daikon Crispus. How can I help you?”
She accepted the slice of meat, eating it as she sought the right words. “I… I need you… and can help you, too.”
He sliced off two more cuts, keeping one. Then he offered the other, and the knife, to her. “How can I help you… and… what are you offering… madam?”
R’bekah nodded. “It’s safer to travel as a man… and keeps the vile one’s pawns from finding, then using me against Jon.” Then she took the proffered items, ate the rabbit, and cut two more strips, offering one to her guest. “My story begins with an unsuccessful debt collection. I escaped. My daughter did not… or, so I thought at the time. Yet, I’m unable to find her.”
“That tells me how I can help.” He ate the piece of meat she’d presented to him. “It doesn’t tell me how you can help me. Nor does it tell me why you’d need to. The Fellowship would assist you simply to ease your suffering. We require no recompense, never have.” He paused, unsheathing his knife. “Do you mind if we cut our own slices?”
She shook her head, trying to work out where this conversation was going. It wasn’t unfolding as anticipated. The daikon before her was a gentle old man who reminded her of her father. He was easy to talk to, but… more complex and astute than he appeared to be. “Uh…”
“I haven’t been idle since losing my daughter. I, and others, have contacted many circles,” she paused, considering how much to say and how to say it. “Together, we’re working against the evil ones. I won’t say how many or where, because…”
“What are you comfortable sharing?” His gaze locked onto her face. A sliver of rabbit hanging forgotten in his fingers. “J’shua provides what we need.”
“Darkness permeates the land, like water dripping from a faulty cask. It’s impossible to know what it’ll corrupt next. They worship ancient gods. I believe…” R’bekah took a slow breath, before continuing, “…that, in part, they were involved in the destruction of your School.”
Daikon Crispus eased back, his eyes clouding over as if beset by a sudden storm. Then he looked down at the rabbit juices he’d dripped upon his clothes and muttered.
He looked back at her. “It seems we may be of service to each other. Could you inform daikons and circle elders that we’re still training knights? It’d be best to state only that recruits must journey to the School’s ruins, as their first step in their instruction.”
“I’m happy to,” she replied.
They continued talking as they ate. She told him of the child sacrifices and her group adopting orphans. When they finished, she began cleaning up the area, removing all traces of her visit.
Crispus nodded in approval. “We’ll pray for you and your group daily.” Then he paused. “What of your adopted ones? Do they desire to become knights? Are any twelve yet?”
“That’s an intriguing idea. I don’t know their ages. My only interest was that they were safe and being raised by believers. How should I send them, so they don’t have to yell for you?” She asked, grinning.
“Have them come to the Kiss.” The daikon laughed. “We’ll keep watch for them. If they sing, we’ll find them quicker.”
R’bekah nodded. “Please tell Jon’than that I love him and long for him. But that, like him, the God of Truth has given me a mission. The Father will bring us together again. I know Jon is doing God’s will, and am confident in the Lord’s promise that Sar’h is safe… although I pray for her swift return.”