Chapter 12: Not Again… – 144 AK, Winter to 150 AK, Autumn
II Corinthians 5:17 - Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
The Knights’ School
Jonathan crossed the Tarin River twenty-five miles east of the School.
By nightfall tomorrow, I will be there.
The weather was kind and the 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.
He felt as if he had been gut-punched. His head swam. His balance deserted him. He gripped the saddle’s pommel to prevent toppling from his horse. If there was any sound left in the world, he could not hear it. His entire being was paralyzed by the sight before him.
Not again. It cannot be happening again!
The parallels to his destroyed home were too great. The horror of losing his family a year earlier surged forth within his mind.
He dismounted. Despair brought him to his knees. In the dust, he sought to wrap his mind around the images before him. He could not. It was too much.
He hung his head and prayed. Tearing his gaze away from the awful sight, the spirit guided his eyes upwards to the mountain peak.
Little Sister, stated the still small voice.
Despite the failing light, he galloped toward the mountain, alternately worried and angry and hopeful. Only when the trees were too thick to see the ground by moonlight did he slow the horse to a walk.
When he reached Easy Mountain, he stopped. It was unsafe to proceed further. After tending to his horse, he tried to eat. He 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 tethered his horse where it could graze, then ran. Sprinting across Easy Mountain, he reached God’s Thumb. Crossing it, he headed for the top of Little Sister. And still, he ran. Only the terrain growing steeper slowed his pace.
At midday, he crested the last ridge.
Daikon Crispus, Daikon Baxter, Daikon Franks, and Daikon Mattis were waiting for him at the end of the path, as well as dozens of students.
“Jonathan!” Crispus welcomed. “What brings you here today?”
Jon bowed. “Sir, I have much to tell. What happened? Was anyone harmed?”
The daikon’s brows furrowed.
They talked until dinner, exchanging tales of woe.
Crispus spoke of the School’s burning, its aftermath, and the new training protocols. He also spoke of meeting Rebecca and that she too had a mission. Then he passed on her message.
Jon disclosed details of his travels, more about his lost family, and the discoveries he’d made along the way.
Am I the cause of this? Did my humiliating Greyson cause all that followed?
The spirit responded, Evil needs no incitement.
It was pleasing to be on the mountain again. Jonathan met the students, sharing what he had learned. He chastised them for believing the tall tales they’d heard about him, while acknowledging a few scant details were true.
On the following morning, he left, the still small voice guiding him westwards. Yet Jonathan’s 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 Rebekah.
The Mestel Border
Commander Peter Taylor realized some of the king’s soldiers were being used by the Black Robes to carry out covert operations. Intelligence from Beck’s spies and converted Black Robes slowly made the picture clearer. The Commander sent trusted officers to those suspected regiments in feigned disgrace.
They shall return with information and evidence.
“Enjoy your time role-playing, but not too much,” he’d warned with a smile. “If you must do an evil deed to protect your cover, do it. The whole kingdom is at stake.”
In one such operation, a Black Robe led a unit of soldiers disguised as Mestels. They attacked settlers sporadically, screaming, “Hail O’Toole.” They burned crops and sometimes homes. Their aim was to terrorize the people and frighten the nobles, facilitating greater willingness to pay for an ever-larger army. It also made it easier to isolate and capture Jonathan O’Toole.
The Commander pondered what role the knight might have. He’d heard the Fellowship had disbanded after their school burned down. Perhaps that is not the case. If not, he should evaluate their intentions. At best, the knights could be an ally. At worst, O’Toole was a distraction for Melazera. He smiled at that thought.
Perhaps Mister Beck knows how to reach them.
The cross-country portion of Jonathan’s journey had been uneventful, giving him time to pray and plan. Although he saw many farms along the way in the distance, he felt no call to go to any. Instead, he kept to himself and slept under the stars at night.
Despite his misfortunes, he was content and wanted it to last forever.
Having forded the Freish River, he was sopping wet. Spying a small glade, he stopped to make a fire, don dry clothes, and let his horse graze. While spreading his wet things out over bushes, he spied some rabbits and shot his dinner. He gathered chickweed and lamb’s quarters, found wood sorrel to add a lemony accent to his salad, then spit the rabbit and relaxed, waiting for it to roast.
The smell of cooking meat attracted a group of boys. They weren’t stealthy. The boldest stepped into the clearing. The others flanked Jon, while still hiding in the trees.
Jonathan had heard them long before seeing them. His mount had signaled him with twitching ears. The knight raised his gaze to the boy. “Hallo there. Would you like some of my rabbit?”
“Yes, but there isn’t much. You don’t need it as much as we do.”
“Do you plan to steal it, rather than accept my hospitality?”
“I don’t see as you have much to say about it. We have you surrounded.”
Jonathan heard the other boys advance. Scooping up his bow, he fixed an arrow and aimed at their leader. “You have an advantage,” he acknowledged 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 crude spear.
Jon told the others, “Come out with your weapons undrawn, and I will not harm him.”
One by one, the boys walked into the clearing. “Please don’t hurt our brother,” the first to appear pleaded. “We’re so hungry. Begging hasn’t worked out well for us.”
“Sit down, let me get a few more rabbits,” Jon chuckled. He doubted they’d eaten much for weeks. It did not take him long to return with six more.
They watched him intently as he skinned, gutted, and spit the hares on greenwood stakes.
While they were roasting, he drew out their story.
The eldest was in his fifteenth year. The youngest, twins, were in their seventh. Their parents had been arrested at a circle gathering and taken to Farr Castle six moons ago. They stayed home for several weeks but, afraid of debt collectors, took to wandering the woods. With only makeshift weapons, they did not catch much food. The bold one, James, took charge and led them to the river to fish.
They did not know how to survive in the wilderness. It showed.
Jonathan felt moved to help them. He prayed 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 in his mind. Nor did he require the still small voice’s confirmation. He knew it was the right choice.
Looking deep into the fire, he listened to the boys as they ate and talked amongst themselves. They were good lads whose lives had intersected with his at this time and at this place. Unconcerned as to what Joshua’s plan was for them – and for him – all he needed to know was what to do next. He looked around at them and smiled. “I will teach you how to survive upon the Lord’s abundance, if you will permit me to?”
James’ eyes went wide, then he bowed. “Thank you… sir.”
Jonathan spent the next two moons teaching them to live well in the wilderness, how 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 silently. He instructed them in finding flint for knives, fashioning weapons, and fire-making. He taught them to hunt and had them practice stalking small game. He showed them how to make snares and fish traps. And he brought them to fellowship with the Lord every day.
When he left, they had grown in wisdom and understanding. He told them, “No stealing unless a life depends on it. And no armed robbery, that will get you killed. Remember, you can always go to Shining Mountain to hide.”
He promised to return when his mission allowed but had no idea when that would be.
The Knights’ School on Little Sister
It had been three years since Beck had exchanged messages with Daikon Crispus and then informed the circles of the true fate of the Knights’ School.
Four orphans who wished to become knights had reached the age where they could begin their training. They were brought to the Inn at Fairness Crossing by their adoptive parents. There, they were given their first test, for they had to demonstrate they were intelligent and resilient enough to become knights. They had to travel to the Kiss on Shining Mountain alone, relying only on each other and the Lord.
Beck 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 four of us,” the tallest replied.
The daikon smiled again and called to Beck, “Please join us, sir. They should see their guardian angel was never far behind them.”
“Hallo boys,” she shouted, stepping into view. “I’m so 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 Joshua.”
Crispus pointed to the Kiss, where another knight stepped into view. “Follow Daikon Franks.”
Once the boys had left, Crispus focused on Beck. “Jonathan has been here. I passed on your message. He understood, told me of his love for you and your children, and wished you well with your mission. I also did as you required. He’s heard nothing of Tomas Beck from us. He did leave some letters for you. Let me fetch them.”
Traveling to the Knights’ School
It was another thirty moons before Beck met Daikon Crispus again. David was in his thirteenth year. It was time for him to start at the School.
Rebekah had written to Magistrate Gorum, stating she would collect her son before the waning moon of the Judge.
She had dressed as herself for the first time in five years, after carefully sorting through clothes she’d stored at the former Frei Forest colony. She fussed with hair that had been woefully ignored, then packed her things and the sword David 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.
David 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.” David 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. Plus I received a copy of the Knight’s Book of Writings so that I might have something light enough for traveling.”
“That’s wonderful. Has your father written you?”
“Da writes weekly but his letters arrive in bundles almost every moon. Are you…?”
Rebekah sighed. “The Lord has missions for us both that, so far, have kept us apart. His still small voice tells me that your sister is alive and well. Yet, despite help from many, I have not heard even a whisper of her. Has anything reached you…?”
“No…” David shook his head. “Very little news of Freislicht reaches here… and less reaches my ears. They think they are being kind, but…”
“Yes, I know that ‘but’ all too well,” she agreed.
Dismounting at the house, David hugged his mother again, “I’ve missed you so.”
Magistrate Gorum was already waiting for them. “Welcome, Lady O’Toole. Have tea with me on the porch.”
A servant brought out a tray with fruit and cakes. Another followed with tea.
“Master Gorum,” Rebekah 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 return as horsemen, as well as swordsmen, will be good for all. It’s been a prosperous five years, with David’s help. He has a talent with animals. In thanks, to you and to Jonathan and to Joshua, I am giving the knights twenty-five horses. Please tell them to pick them up whenever they can.”
Rebekah sat back, astonished by the magistrate’s generosity. It was a truly princely gift, easily worth more than the property her parents had owned. She pushed the thought aside. “I’ll recommend the knights come individually, spread out over a moon, collecting one horse at a time.”
“There is another matter,” Gorum continued. “I promised Jon, and myself, that I would keep you safe.”
“We also agreed that I was as likely to be able to force such ‘safety’ upon you as to cage a southerly wind. That does not mean I will not 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.
David bowed to the magistrate and his mother, then left for his room in the stable.
“You can 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 has treated David like a son. She smiled.
“Before I forget,” the magistrate said, reaching into his pouch and bringing out an elegant dagger in an embossed leather sheath. “Jonathan sent this. Said David needed a dagger, and it was customary for the father to provide it. He also wrote that he is well, is in the Lord’s hand, and knows you are also. I’ve several letters for you, from him.”
Rebekah sighed. “We have missed each other over these past five years. It is enough to know he is well and doing the Lord’s work.”
Gorum nodded, his face solemn.
“Thank you for delivering the dagger. It’s beautiful. David will be pleased.”
They conversed a while longer, then said their goodnights after Gorum gave her Jon’s letters. A maid showed Rebekah to a room and poured her a bath, after which she slept well.
She and David 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 for her. Then they proceeded to Frei Forest, where she changed back into Tomas Beck.
David 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…?” David fell over his words, his eyes as wide as saucers.
“It’s the easiest way to hide in plain sight. I thought of spying as a woman but 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,” David’s voice collapsed into a whisper. “You couldn’t.”
“No, I could not and would not befoul myself by employing such behavior. However,” she let the word dangle, teasing her son.
“However, we receive information from the unlikeliest of sources. As Tomas Beck, I have encountered… women of the night… seeking to redeem their souls, despite their… profession. 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 have learned how to filter out such dross, for the most part.”
“That is… extraordinary, mother. I could never have imagined that you were…”
“Don’t let your imagination run away with you, David. I am 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.