Chapter 12: Not Again – 144 AK, Winter to 148 AK, Autumn
Psalm 90:12 So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
Jon’than was back in Tarinland. The people there were not as free as those of Esthlanis as they had a strict caste system. No law prevented anyone from accepting the Words of J’shua. However, circles could not include people from different castes. Thus, to spread the Writings to the upper ranks of Tarin society, he would have to meet individuals of higher status.
The proprietor’s wife, adorned in bright saffron silk, handed him a glazed ceramic bowl, pointing to the buffet. The hall was more crowded than it had been when he’d first arrived. Every table had a dozen diners already.
Jon’than chose a savory stew, found a seat, and struck up a conversation.
Ital Zariwala was a silver merchant who traveled throughout Tarinland once a year selling his wares. “It would be too difficult for a Priest to accept J’shua. The man’s family would murder him. Reaching the Warrior and Ruling castes might be possible. But still, there would be pressure on the family to kill them. The elite castes do not trust foreigners.”
“Oh…” Jon’than pondered.
“My caste is that of the Skilled Traders, Merchants, and Bureaucrats. We’re the most open. We deal with foreigners and their strange ideas. We must, to expand our routes and bring in goods from afar. This makes us question. For example, I acquired a Book of J’shua with silver fasteners in Esthlanis. I’ve shown it to customers in higher castes as merely another product. I’ve not had an offer for it yet. What can I tell them about the book that might entice them? Perhaps an exotic story from it?”
“Of course,” Jon’than replied. “Once, long ago, Dan’l was captured by his enemies. A godly man, he did not despair, but prayed. Even as he was lowered into a pit, he prayed. The—”
“This story will not sell well.”
“A little patience. The pit was occupied by starving felines whose shoulders were taller than a man’s hips.”
“As Dan’l’s feet came to rest upon the pit’s floor, the beasts circled him, sniffing, growling, and baring their teeth.”
“This could have promise,” Ital noted.
“But… instead of attacking, the creatures sank to the floor and fell asleep.”
“I did not see that coming. Yes, that might have merit. Are there other such stories of your god’s power?”
Jon’than spent the next two hours sharing more stories about knights, J’shua Ha Mashiach, and the God of Truth. As the meal finished, he asked, “Can you tell me of other merchants that might wish to learn of J’shua?”
Zariwala smiled. “In the city of Hampi, three days east, there’s a bookseller that might be a good prospect. He’ll be interested in speaking with you and, perhaps, acquiring copies of the Book of J’shua. His family name, Padhyay, is above the shop’s entrance on the main road.”
The Knights’ School
Jon’than had found Omari Padhyay, exactly as Mister Zariwala had instructed. After an afternoon exchanging stories and perusing the variety of his well-stocked bookshop, Jonathan told him how to order the Writings from the Esthlani bookseller he knew.
Then it was time to exchange letters with R’bekah at the School.
By nightfall tomorrow, I will be there.
The weather was kind and traveling easy. As the sun sank, still barely above the horizon, he broke out of the woods… and stopped.
All that was left of the School was its chimney and a few teetering uprights.
His head swam. His entire being was paralyzed by the sight before him. The horror of losing his family surged forth within his mind. If there was any sound left in the world, he could not hear it.
He dismounted and fell to his knees. Pressing his face into his fists, he sought to comprehend the dreadful scene before him.
He hung his head and prayed.
A blue jay screeched. Looking up at the mountain, he heard, Little Sister.
Despite the failing light, he galloped toward the mountain, alternately worried, angry, and hopeful. Only when the trees were too thick to see the ground by moonlight did he slow the horse to a walk.
He stopped at Easy Mountain. It was unsafe to proceed further. After tending to his horse, he tried to eat but had no appetite. He tried to sleep, but managed only snatches. His thoughts denied him rest. So, he prayed.
When there was enough light, he left his horse to graze, then ran. Sprinting across Easy Mountain to God’s Thumb. He headed for the top of Little Sister. Still, he ran. Only the terrain growing steeper slowed his pace.
At midday, he crested the last ridge.
Daikon Crispus waited at the end of the path, as well as dozens of students. “Jon’than! What brings you here today?”
Jon bowed. “What happened? Was anyone harmed?”
The daikon’s brows furrowed as he told the story.
Am I the cause of this? Did humiliating Greysun cause what followed?
They talked until dinner, exchanging tales of woe and accounts of the growing movement of J’shua.
“I met your wife.”
Jon’s head jerked up in surprise.
“She looked well.”
“What of Sar’h?”
“She’s not found her, but learned your daughter escaped her captors. R’bekah believes she’s safe. Until the Lord reveals it, trust she’s in his care.”
Jon nodded, groaning. “Where is R’bekah? I will go to her.”
Crispus gripped Jon’s shoulder, rummaging in his leather bag. “Her quest is no less important than yours. She left a message for you.”
The parchment read…
I miss you terribly. I look for you constantly. But the Lord keeps me engaged. My role is dangerous, so cannot risk meeting you. Though I wish to with all my heart.
The way is clear when it is needed.
I know you are holding fast to the Faith and doing as the Lord directs. We will be together again. I look for that day to come soon.
Jon sniffed and wiped his eyes. He placed the scroll in his sack.
On the following morning, he left. The still, small voice guided him westward into Mestelina. Yet his mood was uplifted. Yes, buildings had been destroyed and good men had died. But what had been a grave error for the Serpent, the God of Truth had turned into a beacon.
And, he had news of R’bekah.
Laughing Thunder had been tracking Jon’than for days, watching him meet with other Mestels. The clothing the outlander wore was familiar, but ragged and worn. As were the tales the man told. Tales Laughing Thunder had heard as a boy from a strange friend of his father’s.
Crispy, Crisp, Cris-something…
The name would not come. It could not be important. Yet, letting his chieftain know of this foreigner’s activities was essential. There were already problems with raiding parties coming from the East. This man could be gathering information for them, his storytelling merely a disguise.
A day later, Laughing Thunder approached Chief Little Bear. “There’s a man—”
“Yes,” the chieftain cut him off. “Tall, pale hair, dressed in a navy cloak, with a sword on his hip, and a bandolier across his chest.”
“That’s correct. How did news of him reach you so quickly?”
“I have a guest. A friend of your father’s, who is seeking him.”
Laughing Thunder grunted.
“You may remember Daikon Crispus,” Little Bear pointed to an old man, dressed as the outlander, playing with children in the distance.
Laughing Thunder grunted. Again.
“Take him to meet this newcomer. Make no bets with him.”
The Knights’ School on Little Sister
It had been many moons since R’bekah had exchanged messages with Daikon Crispus, then informed the circles of the true fate of the Knights’ School.
Five orphans, adopted by Licht Gegen, were entering their thirteenth year and wished to become knights. They were brought to the Inn at Fairness Crossing by their adoptive parents. There, they were given their first test to demonstrate they were intelligent and resilient enough to become knights. They would travel to the Kiss on Shining Mountain, relying on each other and J’shua.
R’bekah gave the boys instructions and bid them Godspeed.
After they left, she followed at a distance to make sure they reached their destination unmolested. It was a five-day journey on foot. She was pleased to see them work together to gather herbs to eat, decide which way to go, and keep watch as they took turns sleeping.
Following the East River until it became shallow, the boys used a rope to keep together while crossing. As they climbed, they helped each other when the terrain became steeper. And when they saw the Kiss above them, they began singing.
Daikon Crispus met them with a big smile. “Is there anyone else with you?”
“No, sir. It’s only the five of us,” the tallest replied.
The daikon smiled again and called to Bekh, “Please join us, sir. They should see their guardian angel was never far behind them.”
“Hallo boys,” she shouted, stepping into view. “I’m proud of you. You did well.” She told them to learn the Writings and listen to their teachers. “When I see you again, you’ll be Knights of J’shua.”
Crispus pointed to the Kiss, where another knight stepped into view. “Follow Daikon Franks.”
Once the boys had left, Crispus focused on Bekh. “Jon’than has been here. I passed on your message. He understood, and wished you well with your mission. As you required, he’s heard nothing of T’mas Bekh from us. He did leave letters for you. I’ll fetch them.”
Whenever Commandant Greysun or one of the other retainers that had been inserted into the military reported, Gaelib reminisced of Blackhawk.
His ‘son’ was so much more impressive.
He missed the boy. Especially when Caileagh went to her chamber to sleep, leaving him alone. That hadn’t always been true. There’d been others to warm and entertain him. There still were. But it was Stev’n that Gaelib yearned for. Stev’n with his big, beautiful smile. Stev’n who reverently sought to please him. Stev’n, who had been gone for five long years.
How he missed him.
He sighed, shut his eyes, and recalled twelve years earlier…
It was moons after finding the interrogation chamber that Caileagh had added a new tradition.
She waltzed in, followed by six little children dressed in rags, all about four years old.
Whenever she found a young waif, she talked to them kindly, testing them, asking where they slept and ate and about family.
Once convinced they were orphaned, she gave them a sweet and watched them gobble it up gleefully. When she offered another, the child would follow her into the castle through a secret passageway to this cozy chamber. She told them they could come any morning for another… but only if no one saw them.
The first four little children shuffled in.
Caileagh stoked the fire. Everyone started to sweat. She removed her clothes slowly, her eyes on him.
He did the same, his eyes on her.
It was a cold spring. They both wore many layers.
It was so warm and sweaty, so natural. Primitives living on tropical islands wore no clothes at all. If warm enough and safe enough, they did not need any.
There had been a tub of warm water in one corner.
Caileagh entered the bath, encouraging each child to join her. She told them they would receive new clothes after she bathed them.
Gaelib enjoyed watching as he tossed their pungent, discarded rags into the fire.
After they were all clean, they played ‘pinch or kiss’, Caileagh chasing them around, pinching their cheek or kissing it. Everyone was giggling and laughing.
It reminded him of the sweaty summer days he, Sagen, and the other boys played in the royal baths. He lifted each child out of the water when she’d finished with them, then handed them a piece of bread.
When they let the fire abate, and the chamber grew cold, Gaelib and Caileagh dressed the children in clean shirts and shifts, but nothing that would draw attention. They hugged each child, telling them that there would always be a safe place here, sending them out one by one.
Each time they appeared, Caileagh gave the children a sweetened potion to make them happy and compliant. These games were repeated for many weeks, with many variations, until they had been groomed to do anything.
Every day the Warrior encouraged him. Please yourself. You need not serve anyone.
Stev’n Blackhawk had been one of those first six children. Whenever a child could not tell them their surname, they’d let them pick one. He’d piped up with, “Blackhawk.” He was a bold lad and would do anything without hesitation. They gave him many tests. He failed none. When he was seven, Gaelib made him a page and kept him.
Gaelib taught Blackhawk how to ride and use weapons. There were lessons on warfare and tactics. Every day, he assured Stev’n he’d be a great warrior if he obeyed and protected his lord. Every night, they played.
Traveling to the Knights’ School
When R’bekah met Daikon Crispus again, four years later, Dav’d was in his thirteenth year. It was time for him to start at the School.
She’d written to Magistrate Gorum, stating she’d collect her son before the waning moon of the Judge.
For the first time in years, using clothes she’d stored at the former Frei colony, she dressed as herself. She fussed with hair that had been woefully ignored, then packed her things and the sword Dav’d would need.
Having crossed the river into Esthlanis, she donned the sword, wearing it in the same fashion as Esthlani women did. She borrowed a horse at the Tarin Bend Trading Post, where the river turned sharply north, arriving at the magistrate’s estate four days later.
Dav’d was with Gorum’s sons when they met her at the gate. “Mother, you’re here,” he yelled, galloping ahead of the others with a sweeping wave.
She spurred her horse forward.
He’s so tall. He’s almost a man.
Without dismounting, they hugged as her heart swelled, and tears stung her eyes.
The four brothers led the way to the house, mother and son following behind, talking quietly to each other.
“You look well. Is your schooling finished? Are you a skilled horse trainer now?”
“My apprenticeship ended several moons ago.” Dav’d beamed with pride. “But they asked me to stay a while longer. I earned this horse, and its saddle and tack too. I was also presented with this short sword and the Complete Book of Writings, just as all boys are in Esthlanis on their twelfth nameday. Our circle gave me this copy of the Writings so that I might have something light for traveling as a knight. It’s almost like Da’s.”
She passed her hand over the book and the embossed leather holster he wore. “This’s beautiful. Has your father written you?”
“Da writes weekly but his letters arrive in bundles almost every moon. Are you…?”
R’bekah sighed. “The Lord has missions for us both that, so far, have kept us apart. His still, small voice tells me your sister’s alive and well. Yet, despite help from many, I haven’t heard a whisper of her. Has anything reached you…?”
“No…” Dav’d shook his head. “Very little news of Freislicht reaches here. Less reaches my ears. They think they’re being kind, but… Thank you for writing me, Ma, I was so worried for you. I still grieve Sar’h’s loss.”
“We must trust J’shua,” she encouraged.
Dismounting at the house, Dav’d hugged his mother again, “I’ve missed you so.”
Magistrate Gorum was waiting for them on the porch. “Welcome, Lady Otual. Have tea with me.”
A servant brought out a tray with fruit and cakes. Another followed with tea.
“Master Gorum,” R’bekah objected, “you are treating me like royalty. And here I am taking away your help.” She sighed, looking down at her hands.
“That was the agreement from the beginning. Your son’s prepared to teach all he knows of horses. Having the knights become horsemen, as well as swordsmen, will be good for all. It’s been a prosperous five years, with Dav’d’s help. He has a talent with animals. In thanks, to you and to Jon’than and to J’shua, I am giving the knights twenty-five horses. Please tell them to pick them up whenever they can.”
R’bekah sat back, astonished by the magistrate’s generosity. It was a truly princely gift. “I’ll recommend the knights come individually, spread out over a moon, collecting one horse at a time.”
“There’s another matter,” Gorum continued. “I promised Jon, and myself, that I’d keep you safe.”
“We also agreed that I was unlikely to be able to force such ‘safety’ upon you. That doesn’t mean I won’t try. Therefore, will you permit me to provide you with horses, provisions, weapons, and an escort?”
“Beyond your borders, being accompanied by Esthlani warriors would draw unwanted attention, but I’d appreciate an escort until we approach the Tarin River Trading Post.”
“Done. And the other things?”
“Let’s discuss them.”
They talked well into the night.
Dav’d bowed to the magistrate and his mother, then left for his room in the stable.
“Be proud of him, Lady,” Gorum noted. “He’s my best apprentice in thirty-five years. Had he no parents, I’d adopt him.”
He’s treated Dav’d like a son.
“Before I forget,” the magistrate reached into his pouch and brought out an elegant dagger in an embossed leather sheath, “Jon’than sent this. Said Dav’d needed a dagger, and it was customary for the father to provide it. He also wrote that he’s well, is in the Lord’s hand, and knows you are also. I’ve several letters for you, from him.”
“I have one for him, also, should you see him again or hear of a place to send it.” R’bekah sighed. “We have missed each other over these past five years. It’s enough to know he’s well and doing the Lord’s work.”
Gorum nodded, his face solemn.
“Thank you for delivering the dagger. It’s beautiful. Dav’d will be pleased.”
They conversed a while longer. Gorum gave her Jon’s letters, then they exchanged their goodnights. A maid showed R’bekah to a room and poured her a bath, after which she slept well.
She and Dav’d left in the morning. When they approached the border, Magistrate Gorum’s escorts left them.
She returned her horse to the trading post stable and mounted the mare Gorum had provided. Then they proceeded to Frei Forest, where she changed back into T’mas Bekh.
Dav’d heard her come out of the birch-branch shelter and gasped. He watched her walk past him with a long stride and swinging arms, his mouth agape.
“How do I look?” She asked using her own feminine voice.
“Mother, you look… like a man.”
“Thank you,” her voice deepened, became gruffer.
“How…? Why…?” Dav’d fell over his words, his eyes as wide as saucers.
“It’s the easiest way to hide in plain sight. I became so good at playing a man, I kept at it. This way, I can drink with a target, befriend them, and learn enough to fill in gaps in our knowledge of the enemy. Apart from which, as a woman, I’d have to do things that I’m unwilling to do to get critical information.”
“You wouldn’t,” Dav’d’s voice collapsed into a whisper. “You couldn’t.”
“No, I couldn’t. However…”
“However, we receive information from the unlikeliest of sources. As T’mas Bekh, I have encountered… women of the night… seeking to redeem their souls, despite their… misfortune. Some of the information they pass on is gold, some tin, and some stone. Or, to put it another way, some is remarkably reliable, some is questionable, and some is intended to deceive us and disrupt our operations. We’ve learned how to filter out such dross, for the most part.”
“That is extraordinary, mother. I could never have imagined—”
“Don’t let your imagination run away with you, Dav’d. I’m guided by the Lord’s still, small voice. As you will be. Have faith. Now, we must resume our travels. From this point on, you are my new apprentice, not my son. I’ll teach you what you need to know as we go.”
They traveled five days to reach Easy Mountain. As they approached the Kiss, many student knights welcomed them, taking them to Daikon Crispus.
Village of T’heryn
As Jon’than walked through the small village eighteen miles west of Fairness Crossing, his eyes scanned the crowd. It was market day. Farmers and those living on the community’s outskirts had come to buy, sell, or both. Tinkers, clothiers, saddle makers, and others had their stalls set up, trying to attract business. Food and drink were on sale. The smell of fresh cooked bread, lamb, and other delicacies laced the air.
It all made him homesick.
A blonde girl ran past. Her similarly colored mother giving chase, calling her name, and threatening a paddling if the child didn’t behave.
The youngster was the same age as Sar’h would be, about ten.
It had been five years since he’d lost his daughter. No, since she’d been taken from him. She’d have grown up without him, without her mother. Would he even recognize her?
He’d know her eyes, her smile, and her laugh. But…
He looked around. Here in the south, not far from Alexandria to the west, were many blondes. He counted six on the street, another two hanging out of windows yelling down to friends. There were four more in a carriage with the Locke’s crest on its side, three who were of marriageable age and another…
“Make way!” The carriage’s driver yelled, clearly angry at being delayed. “The Duchess is being taken to Lord Gregory’s Court. Make way for a new heir and the midwife who delivered another Locke boy!”
Something smashed into the back of Jon’s knee, dropping him to the ground as hands dragged him backward into an alley.
While struggling to free himself, he registered a familiar face. “Jathan…? You couldn’t just tap me on the shoulder?”
The men accompanying Magistrate Gorum’s son released the knight, but stood ready.
“Apologies, Sir Otual. They were worried how you might react.” Jathan grinned sheepishly, then continued. “A suspicious man came to the estate seeking you. He’s not the first, but this one… In any case, I was sent to find you.”
“Why is that?”
“The man had been loitering about town for some moons. An untrustworthy type who knew too much about too many, had too many baden, and spent too many hours watching people he shouldn’t know. Some of the other estate owners wanted to move him on. Father insisted he be watched. A good thing, too.”
“When your wife came to take Dav’d for training as a knight, the man attempted to follow them. He was intercepted. Rather forcefully, I’m told. Sadly, I was not permitted to… participate. But, before being allowed to – eventually – go on his way, he became most forthcoming. There’s a private bounty on your head. Not merely the false charges that have been laid against you in Freislicht. This is prize money for any who can capture you, dead or alive.”
“That is disturbing. Did the man say who was behind it?”
“Not that I’ve been informed, sir. Only that you must take the most extreme care. Father offers you sanctuary should you ever need it. However, for everyone’s sake, should things descend to such a desperate state, I was sent to tell you not to come directly to the estate. Instead, go to the abandoned mine-works south-east of town.”
Jon frowned. He knew the place, but it was many miles from the Gorum Estate. How would they know he’d gone there? How could he inform them of his arrival? “I do not understand.”
“Father said you’d say that, and that I was to reply ‘the way is clear when it is needed’. The mine is being put to… new uses… storing weapons and materials for when the Esthlani come to your country’s aid. I’ve heard rumors that there are other such places… and something called Licht Gegen, although father refuses to discuss it with me.”
“All are interesting developments, yet I do not understand how you found me. If you can do so, if I am so predictable, what does your father suggest?”
“Not predictable at all. Father sent me because, of all his sons, I hear J’shua’s voice most clearly. The path to finding you has taken more than a moon, almost two. He also sent you provisions, some baden as he was sure you’d lack for funds, and two horses.”
“That is far too generous—”
“He’ll be insulted if you refuse these minor gifts. He’s giving twenty-five horses to your Fellowship. Dav’d brought us good luck… and great prosperity. This is the merest token of the blessings that have been granted us since your son’s arrival. And…”
“And what, Jathan?” Jon sensed something was troubling the young man.
“I am, lastly, to tell you that I’ve been forbidden by my father to ride with you. I’ve asked it of him many times. I do not have the calling to be a knight, but as your son supported my father, so I should support you for Dav’d.”
“That is beyond generous, but it is unnecessary.”
“My father says so too. Therefore, as I cannot be with you, I can provide support. This,” he offered a rolled parchment, “is the name of a business that you can safely send messages to us – to me – through. They sell plows and other things. Use the name and special-order code therein. Most importantly, when you specify where you want the delivery, know that it will be sent to the next town, village or city to the west so adjust the delivery location accordingly.”
Jon took the missive, overwhelmed by the risks his friend and his friend’s son were willing to take for him. “Tell your father, ‘Thank you’. And thank you too.”