Chapter 13: Travelers
Waning Crescent, Early Spring, 33rd Year in the Reign of King Edal, Frei Forest
Each year, Rebekah took on one or two eleven-year-old boys who were intelligent, attentive, and desired to become Knights. They remained with her for a year or two before going to Bowing Sister. She just sent her most recent helpers.
David was now twelve, and it was time for him to start at the School. Sarah was ten and still lost.
Rebekah had written to Magistrate Gorum. She hadn’t seen him since before David was born. She told him she’d collect her son before the waning moon of the Judge.
For the first time in years, she returned to the abandoned Frei colony. The primitive huts, made from tying saplings together, had all but disappeared, reclaimed by the forest. Yet the things she had hidden there, wrapped in oilcloth, remained safe.
From the bundle of clothes, she pulled out the only shift she owned. A gift from Teress. She fussed with her woeful hair, wishing for a mirror. Then, giving up, she 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, dangling from a sash worn over their long wool tunics, tight across the hips at an angle. She arrived at the magistrate’s estate five days later.
David was with Gorum’s sons when they met her at the gate. He yelled, galloping ahead of the others with a sweeping wave. “Mother, you’re here!”
She spurred her horse, grinning.
He’s filled out, 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 followed behind, side-by-side.
“You look well. Is your apprenticeship finished? Are you a skilled horse trainer now?”
“It ended several moons ago.” David beamed. “But they asked me to stay a while longer. I earned this horse and saddle. They also presented me with this short sword. Our Circle gave me this copy of the Writings, so I might have something light for traveling. It’s like Da’s.” He lifted the flap and patted the book.
She passed her hand over the embossed leather holster he wore. “It’s beautiful. Has your father written you?”
“Da has written weekly, but his letters arrive in bundles each moon. He’s been in Tarinland but said he must go to Mestelina. He is looking for you and Sarah everywhere. Are you…?”
Rebekah sighed. “Lord J’shua 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…” David 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, Ma; I was so worried for you. I still grieve the loss of Sarah.”
“I appreciate Master Gorum’s attempt to spare your feelings, even if it’s in vain. We must trust J’shua,” she said.
Dismounting at the house, David hugged his mother again. “I’ve missed you so.”
Last time he hugged me, it was around my middle. Now he’s taller than me.
Magistrate Gorum waited for them on the porch. “Welcome, Lady Otual. Have tea with me.”
A servant brought out a tray of sliced fruit and cakes. Another followed with the tea and cups.
“Master Gorum.” Rebekah gasped. “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 David’s help. He has a talent with animals. In thanks, to you and Jonathan, and to J’shua, 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 princely gift.
“There’s another matter.” Gorum cleared his throat, straightening his jacket. “I promised Jon, and myself, that I’d keep you safe.”
She snorted, leaning forward.
“We also agreed that I was unlikely 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, perhaps weapons, and an escort?”
“I’d appreciate an escort until we reach the Tarin River Trading Post. Beyond your borders, being accompanied by Esthlani warriors would draw attention.”
“Done.” Gorum poured more tea. “And the other things?”
“Let’s discuss them.”
David yawned and excused himself with a bow.
“Be proud of him, lady,” he said. “He’s my best apprentice in thirty-five years. Had he no parents, I’d adopt him.”
“Hopefully, you’ll never be held to that,” Rebekah chuckled, slumping back in the chair, smiling at the thought of traveling with her boy during the week-long trip ahead.
Gorum spoke mostly of the sale and cost of horses, While Rebekah told him of her travels.
“Almost four years ago, I met boys whose parents had been arrested, hiding in the woods. I believe Jonathan helped them. They have a settlement of a sort near Caswell.”
She decided to not use his name, James of the Wood. Naming people can bring danger.
“Their leader is about sixteen years old now. I can see he and his boys learned Jon’s lessons well. I try to pass them tidings of their parents and family. A few have returned home. It is a joy to visit them. They have great heart. I believe good things will come from them.”
Rebekah and Gorum talked about this and that well into the night.
“Before I forget.” The magistrate reached into his pouch and brought 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. I’ve letters for you.”
“I have one for him, should you see him again or hear of a place to send it.” Rebekah sighed. “We’ve missed each other over the past five years. It’s enough to know he’s well and doing J’shua’s work.”
Gorum nodded, his face solemn.
“Thank you for delivering the dagger. It’s beautiful. David will be pleased.”
Gorum gave her Jon’s letters, and they exchanged their goodnights.
A maid showed Rebekah to a room. She read Jon’s first letter while the girl poured her a bath.
My beautiful wife,
I so admire your devotion to J’shua and the God of Truth.
I look for you everywhere. I pray for you always and for the swift return of our daughter.
J’shua protects me as I know he does you. The Writings and the spirit of J’shua will comfort you. I extinguish my fears in them continuously through meditation. Otherwise, being separated would be unbearable.
After she finished reading them, she slept soundly, knowing Jonathan was well.
She and David left in the morning.
In Frei Forest, Rebekah changed back into Tomas Bekh, beard and all.
David gasped as he watched her walk past, his mouth agape. “Mother!”
“How do I look?” she asked.
“Mother, you look like…a man.” He reached out and touched her beard. “It feels real.”
“Thank you. It’s made of my own hair.”
“Why…?” David’s eyes were as wide as saucers.
“It’s the easiest way to hide in plain sight.” She paraded by him and back. “The act must be flawless. Your father is being hunted. Those pursuing him would, should they find me, use me against him. So I disguise myself. I became so good at playing a man that I kept at it. But,” she hesitated, “there are some things you need to know before committing to the Knights. It is not the only path that lies before you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not merely hiding. There is a group, Licht Gegen, that I work with. Over the last five years, we’ve cautiously built up a network. No one knows how large it is, nor the names of everyone involved.”
“What do these people want?”
“To be free, without persecution from nobles such as the Earl of Lorness. On his orders, our farm was burned, and your grandparents killed. They would have sold Sarah and me into slavery while unlawfully demanding payment. We had a contract. What they did was wrong.”
“You’re scaring me. It’s one thing to hide, but to work against…” He frowned, his eyes scrunching almost closed as they had when he was a boy.
“Licht Gegen wants all to live without interference,” she said quietly, not wanting to alarm him more. “But that requires organization, information, and money. As Tomas Bekh…” She gestured at herself. “I can drink with a man, befriend him, and fill in gaps in our knowledge of the enemy. We have learned much. We work with people from all walks of life who seek the same thing. Farmers, traders, soldiers, lesser nobles, thieves, and less savory folks. Many help us willingly. Some help us for coin. Some out of hatred. And there are some who would betray us.”
“Mother, you can’t risk yourself like this. What would Father say?”
She smiled. “That I’m heeding J’shua’s call and doing what I can. Not every person serves the God of Truth by wielding a sword or spreading his words. You can, if that is still your wish. Or you could join Licht Gegen, like me. It has been slow going, for I have not been able to pursue my goals boldly. It requires caution and guile. The role of Tomas is not merely a cover. It has become real. As him, I own enterprises I must keep profitable. I employ more people than you’d believe.”
“You own enterprises…plural?”
“It didn’t start out that way. And there are many things you could do for me, posing in roles from clerk to rich merchant.”
“I…” He shook his head. “Why not give it up? Have someone else run them. Find Sarah. She’s still missing!”
“The contacts I’ve built up give me a greater chance of finding your sister. I cannot let them go. I will find her, no matter the cost or how long it takes. If that means being Tomas, so be it. If it means working with Licht Gegen, so be it. Yet, seeking your sister is not all that I’m doing. It’s complex beyond imagining. But, to give you an idea, I know far more about what is happening in Lorness and High Keep than anyone but a royal minister. There are one or two of them working quietly with us. I’ve been shocked to speak to them and find myself the better informed.”
“It seems I have a gift for this. But, even with the connections that we have established, we are still piecing things together, still trying to identify the key culprits. I know Earl Gaelib Melazera is one of them. But cannot prove it, yet.”
“I…I’d never have…that is…” David looked down, shaking his head.
“What else would you have me do? Others may be called to fold their hands and pray, leaving everything in J’shua’s hands. But my hands are able, my mind is clear, and my need to act is undeniable. What were my alternatives?”
“I…” David wrung his hands.
“Would you have been happier had I done this spying as a woman? Understanding that had I done so, I’d have had to act the harlot to…”
David’s face shot up, a look of horror upon it. “You wouldn’t.” His voice collapsed into a whisper. “You couldn’t.”
“No, I couldn’t. However…” Rebekah smiled, thinking of all the different people helping them, making a difference.
“As Tomas Bekh, I receive information from the good and the fallen—sometimes the unlikeliest of sources. I have encountered men and women seeking to redeem their souls, despite their misfortunes.”
He still frowned. “That is extraordinary, Mother, I—”
“David, I’m guided by J’shua’s voice—as you will be. Have faith. Now, we must resume our travels. To give you some perspective on what I do and have done, from this point on, you’ll be my new apprentice, not my son. I’ll teach you as we go. I have stops to make in Fairness Crossing and Lexandria before we go up the mountain.”
They traveled many days, finally reaching Easy Slope. As they approached the Kiss, many student knights welcomed them, leading them to Daikon Crispus.
Jonathan - West of Fairness Crossing
Jonathan scanned the crowd as he walked through another small village eighteen miles west of Fairness Crossing. It was market day. Farmers and those living on the community’s outskirts came to buy, sell, or both. Tinkers, clothiers, saddle makers, and others had their stalls open, attracting people with shouts and songs. The smell of freshly baked bread, lamb braising on a spit, and sweet delicacies laced the air.
It all made him homesick.
A blonde girl ran past. Her similarly colored mother gave chase, calling her name and threatening a paddling if she didn’t behave.
The youngster was the same age as Sarah would be, about eleven.
It had been six years since he’d lost his daughter. No, since they took her. 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…
Sarah’s grandmother was a Locke, with fine-boned frame, full lips, and high, rosy cheekbones. Sarah favored her. Yet here in the south, close to Lexandria to the west, there were many blondes. He counted six on the street and another two hanging out of windows, yelling down to friends.
A carriage drawn by four horses approached, surrounded by well-armed men. Jonathan backed into a shaded alley. As it passed, he recognized the Locke’s crest on its side, a white wolf on a purple field.
“Make way!” The carriage driver yelled, clearly angry at being delayed. “Make way for the Duchess of Lexandria and the midwife who delivered another Locke boy!”
He could see several women and a blonde girl through the window. Straining to get a better look—oof.
Something smashed into the back of Jon’s knees, dropping him to the ground.
He reached for his sword. But another drew it as hands dragged him deeper into the alley. He thrashed to free himself, pulling a hidden dagger from his boot. About to swipe at the closest neck, he glimpsed familiar red hair bending over him. “Eikhan? You couldn’t just tap me on the shoulder?”
Magistrate Gorum’s son shrugged. The men accompanying him released the knight but stood ready.
“Apologies, Sir Otual. I warned them.” Eikhan grinned sheepishly, nodding toward his men. “But they were worried you might react rashly. Your notorious legend of the wild man is well known in Esthlanis.” Eikhan offered his hand.
Jonathan took it. “There are safer ways to get my attention.”
“Father sent me to find you. A suspicious man came to the estate seeking you. He’s not the first, but this one…”
“The man was 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. He knew who David was. Some of the other estate owners wanted to move him on. Father insisted on surveillance. A good thing too.”
“When your wife came to take David to the Knights’ School, the man attempted to follow them. Our men intercepted him. Rather forcefully, I’m told. 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 made 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?”
Eikhan shook his head. “He said his contact was a man named Rosewud.”
Jonathan scowled. “I have met him.”
“You must take the most extreme care. Father offers you sanctuary should you ever need it. However, for everyone’s sake, he said not to come directly to the estate. Instead, go to the abandoned mine-works southeast of town.”
Jonathan frowned. He knew the place. It was many miles from the Gorum Estate but closer to the Freislicht border and the sea. “How would you know I was there?”
“The mine is being put to…new uses. Storing weapons and materials for when the Esthlani come to your country’s aid. A group called Licht Gegen oversees it, 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, others will.”
“Father sent me because, of all his sons, I hear J’shua’s voice most clearly. The path took more than a moon. He’s sent you provisions, some baden, as he was sure you’d lack for funds, and two horses.”
“That is far too generous—”
“Do not refuse these minor gifts. He’s given twenty-five horses to your fellowship. David brought us good fortune. And great prosperity. This is the merest token of the blessings granted to us since your son’s arrival. And…”
“And what, Eikhan?”
“I want to ride with you, but Father forbids it. He said that you do not need a bodyguard, but when you need an army, we’ll be there.”
Jonathan took Agon’s package, overwhelmed by the risks his friend and his friend’s son were willing to take for him. “Thank your father. And thank you too.”
Sarah - Full Moon, Summer, 34th Year of Edal, New Village, Outside Lexandria
Sarah emerged from the woods carrying a woven reed basket full of purple coneflowers, goldenseal roots, and birch bark. The wooden training sword rocked back and forth on her hip. Her dagger nestled on the other. She kept it sharp so she could harvest medicinal herbs without damaging the rest of the plant.
She had a dream. Such a silly dream, but it gave her a good feeling. She had a bright, glowing sword and whoever she touched with it was healed. She patted her sword. Not what they normally do.
In five moons, she would be twelve, and her da would give her a metal sword. These thoughts made her stand taller. But the large basket made her wobble as she trudged up the hill toward the ma’s workshop.
She barely remembered them, her first ma and da.
First Da smelled wild, like a long hunt or a wrestling match. His massive sword hung high on a hook by the door. That meant he was home. His hair was as blond as a pale moon.
First Ma was slim and graceful. She wore an apron that day. Whenever she tried to picture her…
The tears in Ma’s eyes as she dropped me out the window. Running, running, running through the tall grass as it slapped my face. My heart pounding as I prayed, hidden under leaves in the woods, just like Da showed me. J’shua told me I would be safe and whispered the passage.
[Let the peace of God rule in your heart.]
She’d never forget them. But she had. Details had slipped away without notice as each day lapsed. All she knew now was the empty place in her heart.
David - Shining Mountain
David shifted on the cold rock as he oversaw his three first-years. He only had a moon left before he’d be sent out as a fellow-knight. Then he could search for Sarah. She’s twelve now. He sighed. If she is alive.
“Again. Step, parry, thrust. Step, parry, thrust.”
The three boys rolled their eyes and groaned but began again.
Was I this annoying at their age? Probably so.
“Philip, take a bigger step.”
David stood. “That’s enough. Ten laps from here to Lone Soldier, the Kiss, and back. Go.”
They took off up the Easy Slope. Philip was the first, Atik next, and Barden last. They were good boys and he’d grown close to them.
He shifted on the rock again as he thought about his father’s last letter. Daikon Crispus gave it to him by the fire last night. It was three weeks old and vague as usual. Reading between the lines, he was reassured that his father was eating and sleeping well and still navigating in the free world. And his mother…. He sighed. She came to the mountain every three- or four-moons bringing supplies to the Knights’ School. She still had not ferreted out what happened to Sarah. His mother bore it with grace and focused on her work, mostly. She did remind him again that he would be out in the world soon and must use wisdom when he chose a wife. He sighed again. He really didn’t think that would happen anytime soon. He had much more important things to plan—his first mission as a Knight of J’shua and which fellow-knights would accompany him.
His boys came out from behind Lone Soldier on their final lap.
They will do well. They won’t falter.
As the sun struck Lone Soldier, casting a long shadow that pointed toward Tarinland, they ran up huffing loudly.
“Well done, boys. Let’s eat.”
David - Mestelina
David threw back the thick fur with a huff. The bear hide covering the doorway, kept in the warmth of the council hut. The Mestel Chief, Draven Bjorn, and the seven other chieftains had talked on and on, each one proclaiming their complaints and solutions for the attacks from Freislicht.
They’d been talking for hours. Some urged for war. Others offered ways to answer each offense from David’s countrymen. The young knight considered all their words as their hard eyes studied him. He must give a full report to Daikon Crispus when he returned to Shining Mountain.
My first mission. Words and more words, and so much sitting. Complete torture.
After weeks of meetings like this one along the border, David was finally back in the western hills of Freislicht. His heart ached as he approached a village of hastily built lean-tos. Underdressed children played with rocks and old women carried bundles of roots and grasses to a boiling kettle. In the midst of a crowd of gray and ragged people stood one woman in a bright green shawl, handing out thick blankets.
These were refugees, settlers of the western-most borderlands of Freislicht.
The nobles had sent soldiers to answer the rumors of Mestel raids.
The Mestels, a resilient and migratory people, merely fled into the woods and moved inland. But when some clans retaliated, it was the common folk of Freislicht that were attacked, not the high-minded nobles.
Now close enough to see her better, he stopped to watch. She brushed away hair from a woman’s face and spoke kindly to her and pointed to an older man dishing out soup into tin cups. The long raggedy line snaked all through the hovels.
A group of soldiers coming from Mestelina dismounted. Their commander pushed through the disheveled women and children.
David started walking again. He sensed this would bring trouble. Soldiers usually did.
“Feed my men, woman. We’ve had a hard ride and more than one battle.”
“Yes, sir, J’shua will provide, have your men join the queue.”
“No, they will eat now.”
With hands on her hips, this fascinating girl, for he could see now, she was young, stood face to face with the squat officer. “Some of these have had no food for weeks. Please sir, your soldiers are well-dressed and, it seems, well-fed. Perhaps they could help dispense—”
The soldier pulled his sword and pointed it at the lady. Every one of the commoners retracted from the threat, expanding the circle around her like an opening flower. She went down on her knees and touched the blade with her praying hands.
David walked briskly to them with no thought of what he’d do, or say. But he opened his mouth anyway. “Good day, Captain. Welcome back to Freislicht. We’d gladly offer this vegetable pottage, but it is very thin and not the faire you are used to.” He forced a smile to his face and continued cheerily, “I passed the Border Inn only a mile south of here. The aroma of hearty mutton and sweet potatoes made my stomach growl. If I had not been in such a hurry, I would have certainly eaten there.”
The officer retracted the sword and studied David who continued, “And I know they have an adequate staff to meet your needs quickly. I have often seen soldiers encamped near it and their officers housed in ample rooms upstairs.”
“Thank you, young man, for the recommendation. We were forced to return to resupply.”
“Oh, they also have a store. Perhaps they have what you need.”
“You are a Knight of J’shua. Are you with these missionaries? Yes, sir, I have just arrived to help.”
“Good day to you,” the soldier said as he sheathed the blade and turned, signaling his lieutenant, they should ride south.
The maid looked up, tears in her eyes. “The God of Truth bless you, sir.” She inhaled a shaky breath. “My name is Cynthia Gardonet.”