Chapter 12: Moving Forward
First Half-Moon, Spring
The Knights’ School
Daikon Baxter wondered, would living secretly on the mountain enable them to overcome the taint permeating the land? He could not see how, but the leading of the spirit was clear. After the burning of the School, the lowest peak of the Shining Mountains, Bowing Sister, had become home. A small plateau not visible from below, the area grew many wild foods amidst the woods, like berries, vetches, and tender roots. Deep caves provided shelter, and springs formed small ponds. The higher mountains to the south protected it from cold winter winds.
The Knights eradicated every sign of their presence to foster the illusion that they had disbanded. From the newest student to the most experienced daikon, all came to learn, live, and move without leaving a trace of their movements. They became one with nature, as well-camouflaged as a mountain lion waiting to strike.
None had chosen to leave.
As summer came, young recruits arrived, accompanied by either a veteran knight or led there by the spirit. 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 from the Writings was followed by an hour of discussion on what they’d learned. Challenging physical conditioning, practice with dagger or sword, and tactics followed. But now they took meals atop Bowing Sister and slept in caves.
Daikon Baxter talked with Daikon Crispus often; each acted as confidant to 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.
Full Moon, Spring, 31st Year in the Reign of King Edal
Yet more reports from Commander Taelor’s spies began arriving as the weather warmed. They spoke of actions and plots by those who were using Freislicht’s army for their own ends. As yet, they could not identify the mastermind behind the secret organization within the Order of the Black Robe.
In one such operation, a black robe led a unit of soldiers disguised as Mestels. They attacked settlers screaming, “Hail Otual!” Burning crops and sometimes homes, they terrorized the people. Frightened nobles emptied their coffers to pay for an ever-larger army.
Why frame Otual as their leader?
Such actions would make it easier to isolate and capture Jonathan Otual.
Commander Taelor pondered the report. He tossed it on the table and studied the lieutenant before him.
“Sir, the Fellowship of the Knights of J’shua disbanded after their School burned down,” he reported.
What if that isn’t the case?
“Lieutenant, that’s what I just read. What isn’t in the report?”
“The captain had us follow every trail from the ruins, searching for any recent sign. Three teams followed the routes up the mountain as well. We found no trace of them.”
“The Fellowship of Knights is shrewd.”
If they are still active, as my gut tells me, their intentions must be identified. They could be allies. At worst, Otual remains a distraction for Melazera.
Only last week, the Earl of Lorness had sent a squad to arrest the knight for treason. They’d failed.
He smiled at that thought.
Perhaps Mister Bekh knows how to reach them.
Full Moon, Late Summer
Jonathan strode down the well-trodden path. He wove through the colorful river of travelers, chattering in Tarin. Their wailing beasts pulled heavy carts. Most were heading to the capital city of Hampi. He’d come from that direction but had skirted around the city, remaining in the farmlands to avoid its crime. He only understood a few words of Tarin.
The smell of pungent spices wafted over him from passersby. It made him crave ladahl, the bean dish he’d tried last time he came to Tarinland.
Poor villages welcomed him, but opportunities to spread the Writings were few because he was still learning their language. In the last town he had shared many passages that burned within him.
[Therefore, my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; I will rest in hope, because you will not abandon me.]
He spread the Writings for a moon, staying in homes when invited and under the stars when not.
The people of Tarinland were not as free as those of Esthlanis, as they had a strict caste system. Everywhere, peasants bowed to their betters. When he arrived at the Delami Inn, the colorful merchants, revered only moments before, now lowered their heads to a magistrate who came out of the wide doorway.
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.
Jonathan entered the dining hall of the modest inn. A woman draped in bright saffron-colored silk wound loosely about her, greeted him—the proprietor’s wife perhaps. After he handed her a gold damar, she gave him a glazed ceramic bowl and pointed to the table of deep tureens and colorful dishes.
The crowded hall smelled of sour ales and roasted spicy meats. Several tables had a dozen patrons already. He smiled at the laughing and hooting men to his right and the old man that announced his daughter’s engagement on the left.
Jonathan chose a savory stew, found a seat, and struck up a conversation.
Ital Zariwala, a Tarin merchant, traveled through Esthlanis and the wildlands south of the mountains selling silver wares. His wiry frame and limbs moved with every word like a marionette as he explained all he knew of this region.
“It would be too difficult for a Priest to accept J’shua.” Ital drew a circle in the air with his fork. “Trained from infancy to teach the unknowable things to us. The man’s family would murder him.” Ital’s dark, bushy eyebrows rose. “Reaching the warrior and ruling castes might be possible. Even so, there would be great pressure on the family to kill them. The elite castes do not trust foreigners.” He shook his head and took another forkful of pigeon.
“Tell me more,” Jonathan said.
“My caste is that of skilled traders and merchants. We’re the most open. To expand our routes and bring in goods from afar, we must deal with foreigners and their strange ideas. This makes us curious.”
Ital took another bite. “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?”
“Ah, yes,” Jonathan said. “Once, long ago, Daniel became entrapped by his enemies. A godly man, he did not despair but prayed. Even as they lowered him into a pit, Daniel prayed. The—”
“This story will not sell well.”
“A little patience. The pit was occupied by starving lions whose shoulders were taller than the man’s hips. They snarled and drooled, not fed for many days.”
“As Daniel’s feet came to rest upon the dusty floor, he watched the circling beasts growling and baring their teeth. His captors rolled a large stone over the opening so no one could save him. Daniel thought this was the end, but still, he refused to beg.”
“This could have promise,” Ital said.
“In the morning, they rolled away the stone. Instead of a bloody, broken body, Daniel stood in the center looking up at them, saying, ‘My God sent his angel and shut the mouths of the lions.’ All around him, the creatures were fast asleep on the floor, soothed by the God of Truth.”
“I did not see that coming. Yes, that might have merit. Are there other such stories of your god’s power?”
Jonathan spent the next two hours sharing more stories about J’shua Ha Mashiach and his father, the God of Truth.
The silver merchant emptied his mug of chai. “Thank you, Jonathan. I have enjoyed this immensely.”
“I have likewise, Ital. I am glad to have met you. Can you tell me of other merchants that might wish to learn of J’shua?”
Ital smiled. “In the city of Hampi, three days east, there’s a bookseller. 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.”
“Thank you, sir. I will visit him. The Lord J’shua be with you. I will look for you this time next year.”
Jonathan found Omari Padhyay, exactly as Ital Zariwala had instructed. The two men exchanged stories and perused the well-stocked bookshop. Many of the Tarin merchants spoke Freis just as Ital had. As Jonathan was leaving, he told Omari of the Esthlani bookseller who sold the Writings.
Then he headed to the School. He was in Tarinland for almost a year, far longer than he’d intended. Yet, his travels and spreading of the Word had been eventful. He’d spoken easily to men he’d met along the way. Curious of the fair-haired man with piercing blue eyes, they invited him into their homes. Once they’d fed him as hospitality demanded in Tarin culture, they listened intently as he introduced them to J’shua Ha Mashiach.
He gained a greater understanding of that land’s people and their stratified culture. He also had his eyes opened to new perspectives. And now he headed to Freislicht, to the Knights’ School.
By nightfall tomorrow, I will be there. I pray there is a letter from Rebekah. Sarah is already eight.
The weather was kind, which made travel easy. The next day, as the sun sank to the horizon, he spurred his horse and broke out of the woods…and stopped.
His head swam, gut clenching. His cold, clammy hands covered his face. The horror of losing his family surged over him. If there was any sound left in the world, he could not hear it.
The School’s chimney and a few teetering upright timbers were all that remained.
He dismounted and fell to his knees. Pressing his face into his fists, his thoughts raced to comprehend the dreadful scene.
He hung his head, praying until a blue jay screeched. Looking up, he heard the faint thought, Bowing Sister.
Despite the failing light, he galloped through the moon dappled trails toward the mountain, clutching the reins tightly. His forehead creased in worry as he thought of the boys and their teachers and his own destroyed home.
Yet, he was still hopeful he might find Daikon Crispus.
He stopped only when the trees were too thick to see the ground by moonlight. It was unsafe to proceed further, as the terrain changed each rainy season because of rockslides and newly uncovered crevasses.
After tending to his horse, he tried to eat but had no appetite. He attempted to sleep but managed only snatches. His thoughts denied him rest, so he prayed.
With the first light, he left his horse to graze while he ran toward the Kneeling Queen’s Skirt. Sprinting across Easy Slope west of God’s Thumb, he headed for the top of Bowing Sister. Only the terrain growing steeper slowed his pace. Still, he ran.
At midday, he crested the last ridge to find Daikon Crispus waiting at the end of the path, as well as dozens of students.
“Jonathan!” The old man threw his arms wide.
Seeing his teacher before him, Jonathan breathed a sigh. He bowed, feeling out of breath. “What happened? Was anyone harmed?”
The daikon’s brows furrowed as he told the story.
Am I the cause of this? Did my taunting Greysun bring 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 Sarah?” he asked, leaning in.
“She’s not found Sarah but learned your daughter had escaped her captors. Rebekah believes she’s safe. Until J’shua reveals it, trust she’s in his care.”
Jonathan nodded, groaning. He gritted his teeth at the pain in his chest.
I have to do something. I have to find them.
“Where is Rebekah? 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 J’shua keeps me engaged. My role is dangerous, so I cannot risk meeting you, though I wish to with all my heart. I fear I would refuse to be parted again.
The way is clear when it is needed.
I know you are holding fast to the Faith and doing as J’shua directs. We will be together again. I look for that day to come soon.
Although relieved to know she was well, at least recently, he feared he’d never find her. All he knew was to follow J’shua. Pressing her letter to his chest, he prayed. The God of Truth alone knew how to end the evil that kept them apart.
Jonathan wiped his eyes and placed the scroll in his sack.
A long night of fellowship warmed his battered soul. He pulled his cloak tighter around him against the cool breeze. The group of new students and old teachers listened in silence as he told his tale and confessed his encounter with Commandant Greysun.
Later, he beheld the comfortable familiarity of the men and boys around the warm fire and felt welcome. But he slept alone with his troubled thoughts in a small cave.
On the following morning, he left. The still, small voice guided him westward into Mestelina. The sun warmed him, and he felt peace. 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 Rebekah.
It was the 32nd year in the reign of King Edal.
Waning Gibbous, Spring, 32nd Year in the Reign of King Edal
New Village, Outside Lexandria
Sarah was eight years old.
She ran to her horse, secured her Ma’s pouch of herbs with the other things they took to every birth, and mounted. She smiled at Bradley Locke, the duke’s brother, and waited for him to lead the way.
“Don’t worry, Bradley,” Ma said, sitting tall in the saddle, eyeing the nervous uncle beside her. “We’ll make it. First babies always take longer, and your niece is a strong girl.”
“I know, Mother Decker. But you know how Gregory gets with anything involving his daughters,” Bradley said.
“I’ve seen your brother fret.” Ma grinned.
“Sarah, do we have skullcap and jasmine oil?”
“Yes, Ma. We have everything we need.” She smiled, eager to be going to another birth. The earthy smells, the red wriggly babies, and the way each momma nursed the new little one. She could stay awake forever. Best of all, everyone admired Ma. Even her, since she was Ma’s only assistant now. The others had finished their apprenticeships with her.
After a three-hour ride, a big house appeared, the biggest she’d ever seen. Compared to anything in her humble village, or almost anywhere else, it was a grand estate. Then again, Gregory was the Duke of Lexandria and head of the Lockes, the wealthiest family in all of Freislicht. This was his hunting lodge. His home was a castle.
As they approached, the duke was pacing on the porch.
“All’s well, Your Grace,” Kennah said. “We’re here.”
“Yes, yes, I know.” He waved them inside. “Don’t waste time soothing me.”
Sarah gave a bow, and the duke chuckled as Sarah hurried to follow her ma.
The deep moans of advanced labor met them when they entered. The birth was close. Lyrena swayed in her husband’s arms from the power of the last surge.
Sarah closed the door quietly, gave her ma one bag, and then set out the herbs and oils from the other.
Hours later, Lyrena’s bellowing stopped. The cry of a newborn child pierced the air.
They sent riders to announce the joy far and wide, for it was a boy. Gregory’s other daughters had only borne girls. Sarah hurried about to stoke the fire and bring the new momma a plate of food.
Hours later, Duke Gregory gave her a nod of thanks as they were leaving.
Sarah smiled sleepily all the way home.
Waxing Crescent, Early Summer, 33rd Year in the Reign of King Edal
Gaelib would think of Steven Blackhawk when he received reports from Commandant Greysun or any of the others that he had suborned in the military. He owned them, but Steven was so much more impressive.
He missed the boy, well, a man now, a captain. 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 they lacked his innocent touch. All the others he’d trained lost that quality after only a few sessions. So he gave them back to Caileagh.
Gaelib yearned for Steven. He’d been gone for seven long years. But his big, beautiful smile appeared in his thoughts. Steven always reverently sought to please him. He was a captain now.
How he missed him. He sighed, shut his eyes, and recalled fourteen years earlier…
It had been a very cold Spring morning. Gaelib started the fire in the dank chamber. Then he paced, rubbing his palms together in anticipation. Caileagh had found and decorated it for them to meet in secret. The little graveyard was no longer suitable for their encounters.
That morning, she entered and held the door open as six little children shuffled in. All were about four years old and jumped about as she opened a package. Gaelib covered his nose while surveying the stained rags they wore.
“Be still,” she said sternly as she extracted a sweet from her parcel, presented it to the first, and watched the imp gobble it up gleefully while the others huddled around him, watching. As she took her time delivering the next, she told them they could come any morning for another…but only if no one saw them.
Next, Caileagh stoked the fire. Everyone dripped sweat. She removed her clothes leisurely, her eyes on Gaelib.
He did the same, his eyes on her.
Caileagh stepped into a tub of warm water in a corner and encouraged a small dark-haired boy to join her. As she removed his clothes, she told him they would all receive fresh shirts after she bathed them. The other children hesitated, looking down at their tattered, soiled clothes. Once she had coaxed the first, the others began undressing as well.
Gaelib enjoyed watching them as he tossed their pungent, discarded rags, one after the other, into the fire. He lifted each child out of the water when she’d finished with them and handed them a piece of bread.
After they were all clean, they played “pinch or kiss,” Caileagh chasing them around, pinching their cheek, or kissing it. Everyone giggled and laughed.
It reminded him of the sweltering summer days he, Sagen, and the other boys had played in the royal baths.
When they let the fire abate, the chamber grew cold. Gaelib and Caileagh dressed the children in plain linen shirts and breeches. 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. She and Gaelib repeated these games for many weeks, with many variations. The groomed children would do anything.
Every day the Warrior encouraged him, saying, “Please yourself. You need not serve anyone.”
One of those first six waifs was Steven Blackhawk. 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’d snuck into the Farr Castle kitchens and returned with the cook’s rolling pin. Another time he’d been sent to steal the signet ring of the local herald. He’d come in with it in under an hour. And he replaced them as well without getting caught.
When he was seven, Gaelib made the boy his page. Then he taught Steven to ride and use weapons, followed by lessons in warfare and tactics. Every day, he encouraged Steven that he’d be a great warrior if he obeyed and protected his lord. Every night, they played.
First Half-Moon, Autumn, 34th Year in the Reign of King Edal
Drake called the children to the front of the Great Hall. He sat on the steps with them. Smiling over their heads, he nodded to their parents and the rest of the Circle. Then he refocused on the youngsters as his puppeteers unveiled their stage.
“Long ago, a stranger washed up on the shores of the Sea of Glass,” he said as the marionette of a bedraggled man tottered into view and collapsed. “A child found him. Others came running.” More colorful puppets appeared on stage to enact the story of the First Knight and how the kingdom came to accept the words of J’shua and his Father.
“Many balked at the knight’s teachings,” Drake resumed. “But Olde King Weisheit summoned him, and he believed the beautiful words of the God of Truth.
“So great did that monarch’s faith become that he gifted the knight land in the shadow of the Shining mountain and established a school to train knights of J’shua. Later he prophesied: when darkness comes, and the people falter, they shall be renewed in the Word of J’shua by a knight.”
The curtain closed for the last time.
The children smiled. They knew the story well but always enjoyed hearing it. At a nod from Drake, they ran back to their parents.
At the end of the service, he extended a hand to his wife, Parynna, indicating she should join him on the dais. He would miss her once she left that afternoon. “As many of you know, three ladies from our newly formed Orphans and Widows Charity are going to Farr Castle. There, they’ll study with Lady Melazera, bringing back skills to aid the least fortunate members of this Circle.”
Road to Farr Castle
Parynna and her ladies enjoyed the countryside on the road to Farr, accompanied by servants and carts full of provisions.
She’d planned stops so they could take rest and refreshment during the five-day journey. A young orphan boy rode above with the coachman. She hoped he wouldn’t disrupt her schedule.
“This time, Lady Melazera will receive a single boy. She will place him with a good family. He’ll be a token of our resolve to follow in her footsteps and extend her virtuous efforts. In the future, we’ll place many more unwanted children. She’ll see that they find apprenticeships and have godly, productive lives. We have a duty to them.” Parynna smiled at her gullible companions.
Perhaps Caileagh will show me more uses for the unworthy.
A shiver of anticipation ran over her.
The Woods Outside New Village
The Knight of J’shua, Sir Sarahad, scanned the horizon from the tower, seeking signs of the approaching horde.
“I’ll protect the people!” the knight yelled, raising his sword to the heavens.
The door sprang open, and three ugly hordes-men stormed in. Their toothless sneers stretched across pock-marked faces that were half-hidden by stringy hair.
“Alas, evildoers. You’ll not harm anyone here. I shall cut you down. Prepare to sleep until you meet the God of Truth.”
The horde growled and lunged. Sir Sarahad danced amongst them with precise strikes and parries. The horde retreated. They fell from the tower with blood-curdling screams as she dealt them each a last thrust. Having vanquished them, the knight lifted the sword again. “Long live the king!”
A squeaky voice called to the knight from the castle garden below. “Sarah, you said I could be the knight this time. You should be the queen, because Benjamin wants to be the baby, not a horse.”
“Not a horse!” Benjamin declared, “I’m the baby!”
“I’m coming, Ned. Benj, I thought you wanted to be the horse.” Sarah deftly climbed down the tall oak, hopping from the lowest branch. Her belted tunic flapped as she landed in a squat. She picked up Benjamin and cradled him like a baby.
“Wah!” Benj smiled. “I wanna cake.”
She set Benjamin down and untied the package of honey cakes.
Ned huffed and sat in the grass against the tree, stretching out. “Sarah, let’s catch fish in the river.”
She handed him a cake. Then, grabbing Benjamin, who was about to run off, she gave him a cake too.
“I can’t; I have to watch Benjamin until Ma comes home. But I should go. I still have chores to finish.” She’d be ten next moon.
“Yeah, me too,” Ned said with a frown.
Benjamin smiled, face covered in crumbs.