Chapter 11: Cultivation
New Moon, Late Winter
The Knights’ School was destroyed by the king’s soldiers. Commander Peter Taelor sighed heavily as he read the decoded message. Slowly, the picture had become clearer and far more dire. He suspected some of the king’s soldiers were being used by the Order. Reports contained gaps. Expenses were higher than they should be. He was persuaded by intelligence from Bekh’s spies and testimony from reformed black robes that Licht Gegen had rescued.
Licht Gegen had grown in the last year and a half. They seem to be everywhere. Just average people walking by the spirit. Taelor was amazed.
Key figures and entire military units had been used by the Order of the Black Robe to carry out covert operations contrary to Freislicht’s interests. To learn more, the Commander chose to reassign trusted officers to those unfaithful regiments in feigned disgrace.
The officers selected for the long mission waited at attention.
They shall infiltrate and gain intelligence. And when the time comes, protect the king and the realm.
He stood to address them. “Enjoy your time role-playing, but not too much,” he’d warned with a smile. “Send your reports when you can safely, by making inquiry about the price of a Series T plow at Bekh’s Bold Bargains in Lexandria.” Then he scowled. “If you must do an evil deed to keep your guise, do it. Don’t be afraid to burn down a house or give a beating to get the acceptance you need. The entire kingdom is at stake. Dismissed.”
Now, all he could do was wait. And pray.
Jonathan grumbled. The cross-country portion of his journey left him time to worry and complain and pray. Although many farms appeared along the way, he felt no call to go to any. Instead, he kept to himself and slept under the stars.
Sarah is seven now.
Having forded the Freish River, he was sopping wet and cold. Spying a small glade, he made a fire, donned dry clothes, and let his horse graze. While spreading his wet things out over bushes, he spied rabbits, a whole warren of them. He retrieved his bow and shot his dinner. As it roasted, he gathered chickweed, wood sorrel, and lamb’s quarters. Then he stretched out his legs and waited, turning the spit now and again.
His mount signaled him with twitching ears. All the small birds fell silent. Leaves rustled behind him. Twigs snapped.
Finally, Jonathan gazed at a scrawny boy who stood before him carrying a crude spear. His wild brown hair falling into his eyes.
“Hallo there. Would you like some rabbit?”
“Yes, but you don’t need it as much as we do.” The boy’s voice quavered, but his eyes were determined. He was hungry, desperate.
“So, you plan to steal it rather than accept my hospitality?”
“I don’t see you’ve much to say about it. You’re surrounded.”
More twigs broke, and leaves crunched as others advanced. Scooping up his bow, he fixed an arrow, drew, and aimed at their leader.
“You have an advantage,” he said with a gentle smile, “but as I can teach you how to catch rabbits, which are plentiful here, why settle for one?”
The bold one took a step back, readying his weapon.
“Come out with your weapons undrawn, and I will not harm him,” Jonathan spoke loudly to the hidden horde.
One by one, boys walked into the clearing.
“Please don’t hurt our brother,” the first to appear pleaded. He looked a bit like David. “We’re so hungry.”
Jonathan chuckled. “Sit down; let me get more rabbits.” Ragged clothes hung off their skinny bones. He doubted they’d eaten much for weeks. It didn’t take long to return with six more.
They watched intently as he skinned, gutted, and spit the meat on greenwood stakes.
As it roasted, he drew out their story. Jonathan kept his face still as they told of the persecution of followers of J’shua within Melazera’s earldom. But his anger seethed, this outrage adding to all the others.
The eldest lad looked about twelve. The youngest, twins, in their seventh. Their parents, arrested at a circle gathering, were taken to Farr Castle six moons ago.
The boys had remained near their home for several weeks but, afraid of debt collectors, took to the woods. They didn’t catch much food. The bold one, James, had taken charge and led them to the river to fish. It was obvious from their gaunt, tattered looks that they were not catching enough.
Jonathan prayed again for guidance.
I could take them to the Knights’ School, but half are too young…or take them with me, but they would be in danger if—when—I am chased again. Or…
The last alternative was so obvious he did not even form the words. Nor did he require the still, small voice’s confirmation. He knew it was right.
Looking deep into the fire, he listened to the boys as they ate, talking amongst themselves. They were good lads whose lives had intersected with his. He gazed at them and smiled. “I will teach you how to survive solely upon the God of Truth’s abundance if you will permit me.”
James’ eyes went wide. He stood and bowed. “Thank you…sir.”
Jonathan spent the next two moons teaching the boys to live in the wilderness, what green plants to eat to stay healthy, and how to protect themselves with bow, knife, and spear. He trained them how to hide, how to be still, and how to move like ghosts. Over time, they found flint for knives, fashioned weapons, and made fires in the rain. He taught them to stalk small game and make snares and fish traps. And he brought them to fellowship with J’shua Ha Mashiach every day.
When he left, they’d grown in wisdom and understanding. He told them, “No stealing, unless a life depends on it. No armed robbery; that will get you killed. Remember, you can always go to—”
“Shining Mountain to eat!” one of the youngest boys shouted.
“And don’t become over-confiscated,” the youngest said.
“Over-confident,” Jonathan corrected. “Stay hidden.”
He promised to return when his mission allowed, but did not know when that would be.
“God speed, James of the Wood.”
Gaelib Melazera laughed, bending over the parchment.
The terror generated on the Mestel border was exceeding expectations and causing rash responses from local nobles. This time, it was a foolish baron who led a force across the border into Mestelina—ambushed and stripped of his weapons and horses, he walked back in disgrace.
It was utterly delicious. The outraged baron whipped up support for yet more troops on the border “to protect the people.”
The people! Phah!
Equally pleasing was that, in the aftermath of the Knights’ School fire, rumors of their faithlessness spread. Many people denounced their local daikons as untrustworthy and feckless.
Pouring himself another cup of wine, he began reading again. This was a wonderful day. It was yet more evidence that, with the Warrior’s assistance, nothing was impossible for…King Gaelib the First.
Waxing Crescent Moon, Early Spring
Whenever Rebekah visited Fairness Crossing, she sought Simon Hunt who repeated the latest tales. The most recent of which was the burning of the Knights’ School because of a spilled oil lamp.
She listened, lamented, and assented at all the right points, 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. She’d also seen too many Circles being persecuted wherever the Earl of Lorness had influence.
Was it retaliation?
Rebekah left to see the School.
When she arrived there, it was worse than her imaginings. Nothing stood but the blackened stone wall and the tall chimney. They’d reduced the storehouse to a few heat-cracked bricks atop each other.
She frowned, meandering through the burned landscape. Dozens of grave markers littered the area; each constructed one at a time by someone different. No two were alike. A wreathe of shriveled vines and berries covered a pile of flat rocks. Another pile surrounded a sword with only its pommel exposed. The most poignant was a raised circle of stones that held a carved wooden doll and a dried-up rose. Tears welled up.
Sarah where are you?
Green leafy vines climbed the scorched chimney. Grass obscured its foundations.
She prayed as she walked the grounds. Her only comfort came from the recently withered offerings of remembrance littering the hearth. She wasn’t the only one who’d come to say a prayer for them.
The Knights hadn’t tended to their dead. Did no one survive the fire?
She sat, wondering what might have happened. Then she thought of Jonathan’s stories about his training. She smiled as she recalled her favorite, the Tradition of the Kiss…
Knights would test their brides-to-be by hiking to a pair of rocks on the mountain that leaned together like lovers kissing. If the girl made it that far and the knight still wanted her, he’d propose. After being married to Jonathan, she’d learned it comforted a knight to know their woman was strong, especially as they might be parted for long periods.
Jonathan 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 that,” he said with a chuckle.
“So, when do we leave?” She scooted closer.
Jonathan 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,” Jonathan said. Rebekah eyed him dubiously. He 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 won’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 said. “I travel that much doing chores, often carrying quite a load.” Her hands sat firmly on her hips.
“I do not want this to be a chore.” He 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 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 said, then turned 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 wolf brought her back to the present. It was near. She crouched, pulling her dagger, scanning for movement.
Another beast howled in the distance.
Bushes rustled, revealing a scarred maw only a few feet away, sniffing the air. Again, the other called, summoning his mate. The hundin stared straight at Rebekah, its long, lean body covered in scars. Blood matted the fur, leaking from an open wound. Growling once, the wild beast slinked away, howling to her mate.
She didn’t move a muscle.
Then their love calls sounded farther and farther away. Shakily, she dropped her knife back into its sheath.
Rebekah’s thoughts returned to the burned-out ruin before her.
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 the lowest peak, Bowing Sister, year-round. Jon told me that often enough.
That prompted Rebekah to hike toward 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, anyone could see all of Easy Slope, from its base to the Kneeling Queen’s Skirt.
Am I being watched? Will they investigate?
Wearing a linen shirt, loose breeches, and a woolen tunic tied by the sleeves 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, the wide ledge that spanned the northern face of Shining Mountain. She couldn’t resist checking out 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, a long cliff made up of tall stones, and the Kiss. It was only large enough for one person. From faint impressions on the dirt floor, she could make out the curve of someone’s back. Not recent, though. Disappointed, she searched for any stored items. Above a protruding rock, she found a rolled oilcloth containing thirty arrows. She knew the fletching. Her husband always made a twist in one 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. Many long nights, they had talked as he fletched arrows in the firelight. But Freislicht was so vast, she’d no way to find him. And no way to find Sarah. She’d been searching for almost a year. Even though she had no evidence that her daughter was still alive, in her heart she was sure.
She left the small cave. Outside, the wind had changed. Rebekah considered staying there, 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 eastern view to the Lone Soldier.
Cupping her hands around her mouth, she yelled toward the peak. “Daikon Crispus, are you still about?” Only silence answered her.
Jon spoke of you often.
She sat, unwrapping a cloth package. The honey cakes were still moist and sweet.
A nearby rabbit colony hopped about carelessly.
There’s water and food aplenty for this time of year.
She prepared a fire. Then she picked up her bow, chose her target, and let fly. She didn’t miss. She set it close to the flames to sear and then moved it higher to cook more slowly. The smell of meat roasting made her mouth water.
The chickadees stopped singing. She inspected the horizon and called out, “I’d love to share a bit of rabbit with you.” With no answer, Rebekah returned to the spit, giving it another quarter turn. When well cooked, she moved it 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 smiled like the sun, but as the knight came closer, her heart sank. The man’s unruly hair was white, not blond.
Though disappointed, she set a pleasant countenance. This could still bring news.
“Welcome to our mountain, sir.” The aged knight bowed.
“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 mountain?” he cocked his head. “You don’t look like a recruit. You’re a little too old,” the knight said as he chewed.
Rebekah chuckled. “I heard about 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?”
Her whole body relaxed. Accepting the meat, she ate it. “I…I need you…and can help you too.”
He sliced off two more pieces, keeping one, returning the knife. “How can I help you…and…what are you offering…madam?”
Not a disguise that could fool this old knight. Jon said Crispus walked by the spirit and was very wise.
She grinned. “I’m Rebekah Otual. It’s safer to travel as a man…and keeps the Serpent’s pawns from finding me and using me against Jonathan. Have you seen him?”
“Oh, you are Jon’s wife. A moon before the attack, he came and left you a letter. But it is gone now,” he said, pointing toward the ruins below. Then he stared at her—or rather, through or beyond her.
Jonathan had done that sometimes too. He’d said he was following a thread in the spirit.
“I am sorry, madam. I do not know where he is.”
She sighed. Then she took the blade, 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. Yet, I’m unable to find her.” She could not hide the pain on her face.
Crispus patted her knee. “That tells me how I may help. News still reaches us from a few places. If we learn of your girl’s fate, we’ll pass it on. And if we find her, we will mount a rescue.” He ate the piece of meat she’d given him. “That doesn’t tell me how you can help me. Nor why you would 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?”
The daikon before her was a gentle old man who reminded her of her father. He was easy to talk to and more complex and astute than he appeared to be.
“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 hung forgotten in his fingers. “J’shua provides what we each need when we ask and trust him.”
“Darkness permeates the land, like water dripping from a faulty cask. The Serpent’s blight is spreading. It’s impossible to know what it will corrupt next. Some people worship the ancient gods, the fallen archons.” Rebekah took a slow breath before continuing, “I believe they were behind the destruction of your School.”
Daikon Crispus eased back, his eyes clouding over as if beset by a sudden storm. “It seems we may be of service to each other.”
He looked at her. “Some news reaches us, but very little. We need to know what is happening and have no way to disseminate messages… Would you inform daikons and Circle elders that we’re still training knights?”
“I’m happy to,” she said.
“We will pray for the return of your daughter and seek her.”
They continued talking as they ate. She told him of the child sacrifice and her group adopting orphans.
He shared passages that reinforced her words:
[Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.]
“We’ll pray for you and Licht Gegen daily.” He paused. “What of your adopted ones? Might they desire to become knights? Are any twelve?”
“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 grinned.
“Have them come to the School’s ruins, then the Kiss.” The daikon laughed and rose to leave. “We’ll keep watch for them. If they sing, we’ll find them quicker.”
When they finished, she brushed the ashes out, then scattered leaves, removing all traces of her visit.
Crispus arched his brows and nodded in approval.
Rebekah bowed. “Please tell Jonathan that I love him and long for him. But that, like him, the God of Truth has given me a mission. I know he is doing J’shua’s will and am confident in the promise that Sarah is safe. Although I pray for her swift return. The Father will bring us all together again.”
Crispus bowed and walked up the mountain.
She held fast to the passage:
[My beloved brethren, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of J’shua, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain.]
Lexandria to Caswell
After leaving the mountain, Rebekah traveled to Lexandria where she met her Licht Gegen contact and acquired two young assistants. Then they traveled to Caswell continuing her usual circuit.
Her cover for intelligence-gathering and message-passing was too successful to manage alone. She was growing wealthy. Yet, she still needed to move about as inconspicuously as possible.
Licht Gegen decided early on, regarding saving orphans, that the families would do the best they could for them. This included teaching them all to read and, wherever possible, arranging apprenticeships for them.
They also taught the brightest youngsters to write, an uncommon skill except amongst the nobility, the rich, and the Order of the Black Robe. Raising children who could be scribes was yet another way to counter that organization’s influence.
She and her two lads rode south from Caswell on a warm day, where they made an average number of sales. She picked a spot to rest and make a stew. There’d been no excitement, nothing interesting to chase down, nor any special news. As with most days, it was endlessly collecting bits of information that she passed on, as boring as breathing but just as necessary. Someone else would piece the bits together.
Her two lads were collecting kindling when another voice spoke. “Sir?”
Rebekah looked up to see countless boys of all ages stepping out of the woods. Hers were not amongst them. Their leader, a tall, beardless lad, had addressed her. He was confident and kept his weight balanced, ready for any potential action.
“Hallo.” She stood and smiled.
“Hallo, I am James of the Wood. Don’t worry; we’ve done nothing to your young traveling companions. They’re very noisy, we just skirted around them. They’ll return shortly.”
“Glad to hear it. My compliments, I didn’t hear your approach.” She glanced at her bow several steps away and resisted the urge to pull her dagger.
Oh, J’shua. They’ve done nothing threatening. But I’m severely outmatched.
James of the Wood continued nonchalantly. “We’ve seen you pass through our woods many times. We seek information.”
“How can I help?” Rebekah asked, using a smile to mask her anxiety. Despite their numbers, they seemed peaceful. Something was familiar about them that reassured her. Yet, it wouldn’t come to mind, nor was there time to ponder it. The situation could change without warning…and this James of the Wood was already responding.
“We seek news of our parents. They were arrested from Circles in Lorness and Fairness Crossing. We’re afraid to ask officials. They’re conscripting too many our age into the army. But since you come through here every few weeks, we hoped you might have news or might provide it next time.”
She furrowed her brows, moved by their situation. “Let’s do this properly. I was about to make stew. Join us for dinner.”
“It’ll be good to eat someone else’s cooking,” James said with a laugh. “We lack patience and tend to burn everything. Call your lads back. We’ve everything you need.”
“Douglas, Padraig! Come back, lads. I’ll need you to jot down some names.”
“They can write?” one boy exclaimed, eyes wide.
“It’s just a skill like any other. All it takes is nimble fingers…and much practice,” she chuckled. “Let’s eat and talk. Then tell me your families’ names. I’ll find out what I can.”
Her lads clomped back through the bush like clumsy giants. Rebekah and her new friends laughed.
A young boy of no more than eight carried a stout short bow. In his makeshift quiver were several arrows. They, too, struck Rebekah as familiar. “Son, may I see one of those?” she pointed.
“Yes, sir.” He handed it over proudly.
She squatted beside the boy. “This is fine work. Did you fletch this?” A feather had a twist, like Jon’s arrows.
“Yes, sir.” He smiled. “Our helper taught us. Then we teach all the new boys.”
“You have a helper? Where is he?”
“He only stayed with us for two moons. He’s on a mission.”
Her heart fluttered.
Bekh glanced at James of the Wood, smiling. “Could his name be Jonathan Otual?”
Eyes wide with surprise, the young man grinned. “Yes, you know of him?”
She smiled. “Everyone’s heard of Sir Jonathan.”