Chapter 11: Escalation – 144 AK, Late Autumn to Winter
I John 3:13 Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you.
Late Autumn – High Castle
It was the third stop on Rebekah’s second circuit as a plow salesman. High Castle, again. Yet, it was different this time. She knew where she would be staying, had an arrangement with a local stable, and knew which taverns to frequent and which to avoid.
Or, she hoped she did.
To her amazement, she’d already made a small profit. The original plan was to use her disguise as Tomas Beck to learn and pass on information but, as things had turned out, people were far more talkative than she’d expected. What’s more, listening to those people gossip was a great way to sell… while also learning about recent happenings.
The manager of the Poplar Inn greeted her with more than the usual pleasantries. Smartly dressed and clearly hoping to attract higher-class residents, he presented Tomas Beck with eleven messages.
She’d been hoping for one or two. The missive from P. Gunnels read:
Looking forward to seeing the new catalog at midday on the quarter moon of the Goat at our location.
That meant the Commander’s office. The quarter moon was tomorrow.
The following morning, she walked down the bustling street. A young man was helping a maid out of a wagon twirling her around, both happy as could be.
Rebecca smiled as she thought of her lover.
Where are you, Jon?
She stopped at the butcher shop for some dried meat, then the bakery for bread and a journey cake. As she nibbled on the treat, savoring its sweet corn, she analyzed the passersby. The soldiers were hurrying about, but were all very serious.
Ahead, she saw Major Patrick Gunnels enter the Commander’s office. When Beck felt the peace of the holy spirit, she entered too.
“How may I help you?” the corporal behind the desk greeted her.
“I’m Tomas Beck,” she responded, “a kinsman of Commander Peter Taylor from the south. My mother asked me to pay her respects. Is the Commander available?”
“Let me see. Please have a seat, sir.” The corporal gestured toward a chair, left through a door, and returned a minute later. “He’ll see you now. This way, sir.”
“Tomas, how good to see you.” The commander grinned. “Don’t get stuck on formalities. Call me Peter, as you did when we were young.”
The corporal left, shutting the door behind him.
“Thank you for meeting me… Commander.” Rebekah shook his hand, then Patrick’s. “Thank you also for so informal a greeting. For a moment, I was sure we’d met before.”
“No matter how this goes…” Peter motioned to the empty chair. “I have no intention of raising suspicions. The Major is willing to stand surety for you. That is reason enough to meet you.”
“Major Gunnels also assures me that you can be trusted,” Beck replied, “and that you serve the king, not Melazera. You must not discuss what I’m about to tell you with anyone, not even your wife.”
The commander’s eyebrow rose, then he nodded. He kept nodding while rubbing his chin, as she told him of their observations, conclusions, and Licht Gegen’s strategy.
“Will you help us, Commander?” She concluded.
Taylor paused. “Mister Beck, I serve the God of Truth, Joshua, and the king… so, yes, I will help you. We will expel this evil, but it will take time to root out.”
Tomas handed him a parchment.
Commander Taylor looked at the letter, then back at Beck. It was nothing special, consisting of no more than someone addressing their grandfather, some pleasantries, and that they were studying Ephesians 4. At the bottom was some unintelligible text, and the writer asking if his grandfather could translate it.
“A code,” Taylor noted.
“A letter replacement cipher based on the passage quoted,” Beck confirmed. “If things become more dangerous, we’ll alter the order or use multiple verses. Patrick can teach you the substitutions. This…” She handed over a second parchment that could have been a shopping list. “…is an encoded list of locations near here where Licht Gegen is active.”
“I appreciate your prudence.” The Commander nodded. “Had you given me a list covering the entire country, I would have had nothing to do with you, no matter how noble or righteous your cause. If you cannot maintain secrecy, you’ll fail.”
“I agree and, had you asked for the full list, I would have thought you a deceiver,” Beck countered. “If you need our aid or to pass information, let Patrick know. I’ll leave now. It’s best if I’m not seen with people of influence… unless you want to buy a plow.” She grinned. “God speed, gentlemen.”
“God bless you, Mister Beck,” Commander Taylor responded with a bow.
“Godspeed,” Patrick added.
“Thank you both,” Beck replied, then left.
There were still ten sales calls she had to make before moving on to Farr Castle. “If business keeps growing like this,” she muttered to no one in particular, “I’m going to need an assistant.”
Otherwise, my cover’s going to get in the way of my mission.
The Knights’ School
It took Jonathan nine days to travel to the Knights’ School, going south from Esthlanis into Tarinland, then entering Freislicht near the School.
Even in Tarinland, most wore a blade.
How could our land have lost this wisdom?
Upon entering the School, memories flooded back. It was quiet because it was afternoon. The boys would be on the mountain. His eyes roamed up the wide oak staircase, imagining youngsters rushing down it then out into the fresh air for whatever rigorous practice was next.
It was a demanding five-year training program, but he’d thrived in it. Every day had begun with prayer and study of the Writings, followed by communication classes where the boys taught what they had learned to others. The afternoons were all outdoors. The boys ran to the kitchen, picked up food sacks, and headed for the mountain. No matter the weather, they lived up there for some part of every day and, occasionally, many days straight.
Being on the road by yourself was different, but a still small voice reminded him, you are never alone.
It was a simple matter to leave a letter for Rebekah, which unencrypted read…
Know that my love for you and Sarah is never-ending and that nothing except Joshua’s guidance could keep me from searching for you, finding you, and bringing you both to safety. Yet, his still small voice commands me, so I must continue on my mission.
If the Lord permits, I will be at the School on the first day of each season. If not, I shall do my best to leave letters here for you, but you know how bad I am at writing. Even to you.
If you cannot be here on those days, leave a letter for me so I know you are safe and what has befallen you since our parting.
You and Sarah are always in my thoughts and prayers,
It had been many moons, yet Greyson kept reliving the knight’s actions. He seethed thinking of the more than one hundred thousand baden he’d lost. On top of which, he’d personally had to cover the costs of returning every conscript to their home.
His rage boiled over because O’Toole was out of reach.
Greyson thought of all the ways he could make the knight pay, dwelled on them continually, sweating out new ideas until he knew what to do.
I’ll not be revenged on merely one knight. I’ll make them all suffer.
But, for his plan to be successful, he required assistance. So, he traveled north to Farr Castle, where he was escorted into the South Reception Hall.
Melazera was reclining on a couch eating grapes. “Commandant Greyson, welcome.”
Whistles and twittering erupted as the commandant approached, staring wrathfully at one birdcage after another, while exotic beady eyes returned his gaze.
“How are my military assets in Fairness Crossing?” The Lord of Lorness inquired in a lazy, almost bored tone.
“Well, my Lord. The trainees I have left will be ready when you call.”
“That you have left…” Melazera’s tone and demeanor had become icy.
“The king’s proclamation recently delivered by Jonathan O’Toole—”
“I am aware of it. Yet a much more pertinent question is: why did you not prevent its delivery? You… waylaid… the other courier.”
“I was going to arrest him—”
“After he’d delivered it!” Geleib surged to his feet, advancing on Greyson. “What use was that? And how are you going to make up for not stopping him from going further? After Fairness Crossing, he traveled to River Town, Lorness, and Dunis Glen. Do you have any idea what your failure to stop one man has cost me?”
The commandant tried to back away, tripped, and fell on his backside, only to see the Lord of Lorness standing above him toying with a knife.
“We can get revenge, Lord!” Greyson babbled. “The Knights of Joshua are zealots. They interfere with your noble designs. Let me chastise them. What if, by some happy accident, their only school in Freislicht burned down? Due to their own negligence, of course.”
Melazera smiled. It was not a pleasant sight. “We did not have this conversation. However, if such an accident did occur, I’d wish to hear of it promptly. We would not…” his smile became a sneer. “…want unfounded rumors to spread.”
The Knights’ School
It was shortly before sunset when Commandant Greyson had his soldiers surround the Knights’ School. “Come out, by order of the king!” His anticipation warmed him against the cold.
Trickling out of the front door, the knights came. Some wore their familiar navy cloaks, others in plain clothes, their cook folding his apron then securing it in his belt. All were armed, but they were outnumbered four to one.
“Is this all of you?” Greyson scowled at a mere twelve knights.
“All that are here,” Daikon Vale replied, signaling his knights to keep their swords sheathed. “Why have you come, Commander?”
“You are training rebels against the crown.” Greyson snarled. “Unfortunately, for you, a fire broke out while you were sleeping… and everyone present died. It was a sign from your god that you’ve failed him. Or, that’s how the tale will be told.”
Greyson’s hand clenched into a fist, ordering the bowmen concealed within the trees to fire. He’d been expecting many more knights and trainees, so each of the dozen targets was struck many times. Even so, four knights had the strength of will to close with his soldiers before dying.
Then it was over.
“Lieutenant!” Greyson already felt the warmth of the soon-to-be-burning building lift his spirits. “Have the men carry the bodies inside, recover the arrows and spread the oil.”
That night, Greyson sent a report to Melazera, detailing the tragedy.
On the Mountain
Daikon Baxter, his knights, and their students remained in hiding until after the soldiers left. Having concealed them where they could spot anyone approaching, he made his way down the mountain. The most senior apprentice would warn him with a bird call.
At a point where he could look down on the burning School, yet had cover so he was invisible from below, he encountered Crispus. The other daikon was only slightly younger, but both of them were old men.
“I came as soon as I saw smoke.” Baxter panted. “What happened?”
Daikon Crispus paused before answering, his face taut with emotion. “Soldiers killed all twelve left below. Even the cook. I didn’t see any faces. Only uniforms. I dared not get too close. I should have joined them, I—”
“How’d they die?” Baxter interrupted.
“Hidden bowmen cut them down. There was no warning—”
“Then all you could’ve done is die with them. How would that serve Joshua?” Baxter’s voice was cold, calculating, remorseless. “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.”
“Then…” Crispus’ voice steadied.
Baxter was reassured by the lack of emotion in his friend’s tone. This was not a moment for ire, but for calm, clear thought. What was decided in the next few hours would shape the Fellowship’s future.
“…we shall continue our work on the mountain,” Crispus concluded.
“I agree. All they have taken from us is a building. As for our dead, though we mourn their loss today, they sleep. We’ll see them at the Gathering for the Lord’s Battle. Revenge will not serve us. Nor will foolish acts. Perhaps…”
Crispus nodded encouragingly. “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 come. While the two of them waited, they debated their options.
Once all of the surviving knights had arrived, Crispus addressed them. “The evil one used the king’s soldiers to attack us. We do not know what prompted this, nor does it matter. Our situation is grave. We cannot disperse, it would leave the people defenseless. Yet, we can become invisible. We can remain and fight. Our mission has not changed. Indeed, our mission is more important than ever. We must oppose the creeping evil corrupting the land.”
Daikon Crispus looked at them. “Each of you must decide if you’ll stay and train, or return to your homes. We will fast until we know how to proceed.”
None chose to leave.
“Tonight,” he continued, “we’ll shelter in the caves under Long Ridge. Be there by nightfall. 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, who’ll go to Fairness Crossing to purchase supplies.”
In the days that followed, the caves became home, fallback and rendezvous positions were established, 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.
Thus, the School continued its mission.
In hindsight, Daikon Baxter wondered if their new invisible existence was what was needed to overcome the evil permeating the land.
As the season turned, new students arrived, accompanied by either a veteran knight or led there by the spirit. The cohorts were smaller but, as always, all each new apprentice needed to bring with them 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 had learned. Morning meals were no longer eaten indoors but atop Little Sister, the lowest peak of the Shining Mountains. Practice with the blade, tactics, and challenging physical conditioning followed.
Daikon Baxter and Daikon Crispus talked often, usually in private. Each acting as a confidant for the other. Between them, they came to the realization that their war with evil had changed. That the burning of the School was a mistake. A mistake made by the Serpent. A mistake that had brought evil’s covert war into the light.
Whenever Beck visited Fairness Crossing, she sought out its herald, Simon Hunter, who always had many tales to tell. The most recent account spoke of the Knights’ School burning down due to a spilled oil lamp.
Beck listened, lamented, and nodded at all the right points in the story, yet didn’t believe it. Nor could she accept Simon’s statement that it was a sign the knights were no longer faithful to their god. She’d heard too many lies started by Black Robes.
Was it retaliation? By Commandant Greyson? He must’ve lost thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of baden on the overturned debt collections. He’d blame the knights since Jonathan was involved. Yet he’s not mentioned in the story, so why does his name leap to mind?
Beck felt moved to see the School.
When she arrived there, what confronted her was worse than her imaginings. There was nothing left. Not a single building had survived. Even the heavy-walled storehouse was no more than a few heat-cracked bricks atop each other.
Dozens of grave markers littered the landscape as if they’d been constructed one at a time, each by a different group. No two were alike. It was a depressing sight.
Had no one survived the fire? The knights had not tended to their own dead.
Leafy vines were already overgrowing the remaining chimney. Its foundations were obscured by grass. But glinting in the sunlight was a length of bone large enough to have come from a man.
She collected the clean-picked bones, found a clear spot, and piled stones 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 was not the only one who’d come to say a prayer for the dead.
She sat, envisioning what might have happened, then thought of Jonathan’s stories about his training as a knight. It was a comfort to recall her favorite, the Tradition of the Kiss.
It was customary amongst the knights to test their prospective brides by hiking together to the pair of leaning rocks that looked like lovers kissing. If the girl made it that far and the knight still wanted her, he would propose. It wasn’t very romantic. Yet, after being married to Jonathan, she’d learned it was comforting for a knight to know their woman was strong, especially as the couple might be parted for long periods.
Jonathan had already proposed to her, but she’d wanted to do it. They sat on the bank of the stream, near the Dowling home, skipping stones across the water.
“I’ll be as tough as I need to be,” she’d told him. “When do we leave?”
“Do you want to spend the night on the mountain, or return that day?”
“Which means I’m tougher?”
“Both are tough,” Jon had replied, only for Rebekah to eye 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 had sat firmly on her hips.
“I do not want it to be a chore.” He’d smiled. “I would enjoy spending the night on the mountain with you. That way, we can take our time. My furlough is almost over. It would also allow me to show you some survival tricks along the way. You never know when you may find yourself on the mountain. I already know you are tough.”
“So… you’re not entirely unobservant,” she’d teased, causing him to look off into the distance, trying to hide his flushed skin.
“Let me speak to your father about it,” he’d uttered without turning back to face her. “Do you think he will trust me to be alone with you?”
“He’s happier about our upcoming marriage than we are,” she’d replied with a laugh, then slapped him on the back, sending him on his way with, “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 did the daikons and students go? Surely, they’d not have just given up. Are they on the mountain? Jonathan had told her it was possible to live on Little Sister year-round.
That thought prompted Beck to hike onward to the Kiss. Checking her pack, there was enough food and water. As for shelter, 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? If so, will they investigate my presence?
She was glad to be dressed in a man’s clothes. Hiking in a dress had been impractical. Wearing a linen shirt 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 Jonathan 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. Someone had slept there, but not recently. Disappointed, she searched to see if items had been stored there. Above a protruding rock, she found a rolled oil cloth containing thirty arrows.
She knew the fletching.
Jon’s been here. When? From the pika scat, the nests of several litters, and a thick layer of dust, it was several years ago.
She put them back, sighing. She had plenty of arrows in her quiver. Farther back in the cave were stakes of varying lengths with very sharp points and a coil of rope.
Seeing evidence of him was bittersweet.
She left the small cave. Outside, the wind had changed. Beck considered staying for the night, just to be somewhere Jon had been, but it was too early in the day. Hugging herself against the cold, pulled on her wool tunic and followed the Skirt to the Kiss.
She stopped and scanned the southern view of the Lone Soldier, feeling empty.
I must find the knights.
Upon reaching the Kiss, she yelled out, “Daikon Crispus, are you still here?”
Jon spoke of you often.
She sat, unwrapping a cloth package to eat. The corncakes were still moist and sweet.
A nearby rabbit colony hopped about carelessly.
There is water and food aplenty for this time of year.
A hare jumped away after sensing her presence. She picked up her bow, slid an arrow from its quiver, nocked it, chose her target, and let fly. She did not miss.
After dressing it, she gathered kindling and pine needles, then started a fire. Placing the spit over the coals, she set the rabbit 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.
Feeling that she was being observed, she looked out into the gathering gloom. “I’d love to share a bit of rabbit with you.” When there was no answer, Beck returned to the roasting rabbit, giving it another quarter turn.
With the rabbit 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 all too familiar.
“Jon?” She was filled with joy and smiling like the sun but, as the knight came closer, her heart sank. It wasn’t him. The man’s build and attire were right, but this knight’s hair was white, not blond.
She set her countenance. This meeting could still bring good news.
“Welcome to our mountain, sir,” the aged knight greeted cheerfully.
“Thank you for joining me. The God of Truth bless you in the name of Joshua Ha Mashiach,” she returned and offered the daikon her knife.
He accepted it with a nod. “What brings you to the Kiss? You don’t look like a recruit. Forgive my being blunt, but you’re a little too old.”
“I heard of the fire at the Knights’ School. Terrible, false tales are being told about it. I wanted to see your good works continue. We need the knights more than ever.”
He took a bite of the moist rabbit, sliced off another, and offered it back to her. He retained the knife. “I am Daikon Crispus. How can I help you?”
She accepted the slice of meat, eating it as she sought the right words. “I… that is a long tale. 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 is it that you offer… madam?”
Beck grinned, realizing he had discerned her gender through a Word from the Lord. Then she took the proffered items, ate the rabbit and cut two more strips, offering one to her guest. “My story descends into woe beginning with an unsuccessful debt collection. I escaped. My daughter did not… or, so I thought at the time. I have lost her, seek her, and am unable to find her.”
“That tells me how I can help.” He ate the piece of meat she’d presented to him. “It does not tell me how you can help me. Nor does it tell me why you’d need to. The Fellowship would assist you simply to end your suffering. We require no recompense. We 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 was not unfolding as she’d anticipated. The daikon before her was a gentle old man who reminded her of her father. He was easy to talk to, but… he was far more complex and astute than he appeared to be. “Uh…”
“I have not been idle since losing my daughter. I, and others, have quietly made contact with many circles,” she paused, considering how much to say and how to say it. “I will not inform you how many or where, because…”
“Please continue,” he urged. His gaze locked onto her face. A sliver of rabbit hanging forgotten in his fingers.
“There is a dark cult seeping throughout the land like water dripping from a faulty cask. It is impossible to know where it will touch or what it will corrupt next. It worships ancient gods from faraway lands. I believe…” Beck took a slow breath, before continuing. ‘…that, at least in part, it was 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 to himself.
She did not catch his words.
He looked back at her. “It seems we may be of service to each other. Could you inform daikons and circle elders that we are still training knights? It would 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? Would any of them desire to become knights? Are any twelve yet?”
“That’s an intriguing idea. I don’t know their ages. My only interest was that the children were safe, and being raised by believers. How should I send them, so they don’t have to yell for you?” She asked with a grin.
The daikon smiled back. “Have them come to the Kiss. We’ll keep watch for them. If they sing, we’ll find them quicker.”
Beck nodded her understanding. “Please tell Jonathan 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 Sarah is safe… although I pray for her swift return.”