Chapter 26: Surprises - 159 AK, Summer
II Corinthians 5:20-21 Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
High Castle – Geleib’s Apartments
Geleib caressed the perfumed clothes he had brought for his ‘son’. They were beautiful, expensive, and lavish. A dark blue velvet long coat offset a light blue satin vest embroidered with silver leaves. The outfit was completed by grey trousers and an exquisite pair of embossed knee-high dark brown boots.
I did so enjoy dressing and undressing Steven.
A delicious thought crossed his mind. While he could not risk meeting Steven in private, it did not mean he could not have some fun. Taking pen and paper, he wrote swiftly, then instructed a porter to deliver the message and the casket.
Pouring another glass of wine, Geleib savored the image of Steven’s warm, welcoming reactions to his unexpected gift.
High Castle – Colonel Blackhawk’s Room
Answering the knock at his door, Steven was surprised by the delivery. Not because of the lateness of the hour but because it could only come from one person. It was extraordinarily reckless.
After having thanked the porter and closing the door, Blackhawk opened the note sent with a chest which, all but inevitably, would contain clothes.
His stomach knotted.
Bile rose into his throat.
Surely, he can’t expect me to…?
The letter read…
Colonel Steven Blackhawk,
It occurs to me that I have never appropriately thanked you for the day on which the king proclaimed me Duke of Lorness. Sadly, with you stationed at High Castle and my duties in Lorness, there has been no opportunity to do so.
Enclosed are a small token of my regard, for your support on that most auspicious of days. Please wear them in good health.
I would invite you to dine with me in private but, alas, I am buried beneath surveillance reports and all of the other information needed to brief King Sagen in the morning. After which, I shall be immediately returning home.
Geleib, Duke of Lorness.
Blackhawk’s knees gave way. Collapsing onto the bed, he cried silently. He’d repented for everything he’d done under his father’s rule. Loathing himself and wanting to scream out loud, he pounded his fist into the mattress.
His body shook. That… that… prick… was toying with him.
Buried beneath surveillance!
That phrase meant it was too dangerous for Geleib to meet with Steven, even in private.
For the first time, Blackhawk felt anger rise up inside him, overwhelming logic and his hard-learned survival instincts. For his entire life, he had suppressed any thought of retaliation against Geleib. It had been unthinkable. Now, he wanted to hurt his ‘father’ as that man had hurt so many others. Not merely destroy him, not defeat him, but hurt him.
Over the years, he’d analyzed his training by Geleib and Cailleagh, then drawn conclusions about their criminality, debauchery and perversion. He’d made decisions about his own behavior. But now, the weight of all those unholy violations descended upon him at once. Each remembered act stoked the fires within, purging him of any lingering remnant of compassion, love or kinship for Geleib and Cailleagh that might have hidden in some dark corner of his soul.
Finally, when he felt empty, the Writings flooded into his mind, their meanings soothing him.
“…if you shall confess with your mouth ‘Joshua is Lord,’ and shall believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.”
Even he could be redeemed. It was a momentous revelation.
He knelt and prayed, “You are my Lord, Joshua! Please heal my soul and make me whole. Be with me now as you were with Little Soldier when she was in bondage.”
Calm fell over him like being covered him with a warm blanket.
While he slept, he dreamed of Little Soldier. She held his hand and placed another button in it, kissing his cheek and uttering, ‘I love you, Sir Hawk.’
He woke at dawn, and felt content, considering. He felt joy as he thanked the Lord Joshua for saving him, and thanked the God of Truth for unclouding his eyes. His joy grew as the Writings he’d read flowed into his mind. There was so much he did not understand.
He prayed, “Lead me, Joshua Ha Mashiach, to one who can guide me.”
The way is clear when it is needed. Little Soldier’s words echoed in his mind.
It was a training day, so he met the men in the yard. It was a good session. He felt exuberant after the workout.
As he watched the group breaking up, he noticed Sergeant Sam Bennet make a small half circle in the dirt with his boot. Another man exchanged a few words with him, then also made a half-circle in the dirt. Once Sam had acknowledged it, he scuffed it out before they separated.
Blackhawk followed Sam from a distance.
The sergeant entered the mess, went up to someone, drew the half-circle, said a few words, and again the other drew a half-circle. Again it was erased.
Blackhawk continued to observe, watching Sam with his peripheral vision until he knew where the sergeant was headed, then followed. He was intrigued.
Could this be a circle of Joshua? Or is it something nefarious? How can I find out?
The Lion & Tiger Inn
Once well enough to ride, Jonathan continued on to Alexandria and Lucas Overhill.
Lord, what do you wish me to tell the boy? I still do not see his role in this.
He rode directly to the Herald Station. Alexandria had grown much since he delivered the proclamation in 144. In the fifteen years since then, many people had fled the domains of the Duke of Lorness for its greater safety.
People stood in doorways and peered out of windows, blinking and whispering.
He tied his horse and entered the station. The herald had just added a new wanted poster to the wall. Looking at the likenesses, Jonathan recognized a few knights. His warrant was unchanged. “Dead 500 baden. Alive 2,000 baden.”
He spoke with the herald, who paid no attention to the posters. “Good day, sir. I am looking for the Overhill family. Do they still live in Alexandria?”
“Yes, sir. If you follow this road,” the man pointing back the way Jonathan had come, “about two miles, then take the left fork and go another two miles, you will come upon the Overhill patriarch’s farm. His children are all within a few miles of the main house.”
“Thank you so much, sir.” Jon placed two baden on the counter in thanks.
He found the farm, just as the herald had described. As Jonathan approached, there was much commotion, and music playing. A party of some kind was in progress. Children were running about, laughing, and chasing a pig. It made him chuckle, bringing back childhood memories of his own.
He came to the door still smiling.
Two women appeared carrying large pans toward a buffet in the yard. The older of the two yelled back through the door, “Papa, he’s here!” Then, with a nod toward the door, she said to Jonathan, “Please go in, sir, we’ve been waiting for you.”
Puzzled, Jon did so. The house was warm from cooking, the aromas rich and savory, making him aware of his hunger. He heard whispering.
“Praise the Lord.”
A face he recognized approached through the crowded room.
“Richard, I thought you died at Dunis Glen,” Jonathan exclaimed, pulling the other knight into a firm hug. “I am delighted to find you alive, but how?”
“It was a miracle, dear boy. An absolute miracle! I will tell you all about it later. First, we must honor you. You gave my nephew a second life. He is free of service because the army thinks he’s dead. Thanks to you, he’s not.” Richard chortled. “Are you hungry?”
“I did not think so until I smelled the wonderful food,” Jon answered. “I am starving.”
Richard waved to his daughter, “Susan, please make a plate for Sir Jonathan. Luca, bring him some ale.”
“How is it you are expecting me?”
“My Elizabeth had a vision of a grand celebration and heard the Lord say, ‘He’s coming,’ so we’ve been cooking all day.”
“Oh my, I am speechless. You honor me too much.”
“Not at all. The Lord has been reaching out to all of us, saying it is time to rid our land of this evil pestilence.”
“All of you? Who is all?”
“The southern knights have been meeting in secret for many moons. More have begun returning from Mestelina and Tarinland. Somehow, they find me. We meet in the woods at the edge of Shining Mountain to pray, heading up toward Lone Soldier to train.
“When rumors of you came to our ears, we knew the time was approaching. Someone has been spreading outrageous evil gossip about you. We, who know you, knew the opposite must be true.”
A young man entered, asking, “I saw him ride up, is he really here?”
Richard turned to the door, “Albert, he’s here.” Turning aside, he exposed Jon to the new face in the room. “Jonathan, I think you’ll remember Albert. He is my son-in-law now.”
“Of course!” Jonathan took the young man’s hand. “You were a faithful apprentice. After escaping Farr Castle, you filled a void in my heart. I lost track of you at Dunis Glen. I prayed for you, hoping you had escaped. I am so happy to see you settled. Are some of these children yours?”
A pack of small boys ran through the room and burst out the front door.
“Yes, sir, three of them,” Albert answered proudly. “Richard has been teaching those of us who wish to become knights.”
The door opened again.
“Lucas!” Richard declared. “Where’ve you been? Jonathan has traveled far to see you.”
“Hallo, sir,” Lucas knelt before Jon. “I can never repay you. I have studied the Writings since my return. I know I must serve Joshua. What will you have me do with my life?”
Jonathan pulled Lucas to his feet, so he could look the young man in the eye. “If you wish to join the Knights of Joshua, you are welcome. As it is written in Ecclesiastes, ‘Fear God and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.’ But I cannot tell you your path. The Lord will reveal it to you.”
It was a wonderful meal. The fellowship was so sweet Jon did not want it to stop.
They sat on benches and chairs, some on the floor. One by one, they prayed with their understanding, or prayed in tongues and interpreted, or prophesied.
For Jon it was like the circles of old. As their honored guest, he spoke last, opening the Writings, looking intently into each man’s eyes as he shared the joy of the Lord and the sorrows that came with duty. He told of the importance of the secret.
“Had the Serpent but known, he would never have killed Joshua Ha Mashiach. Yet because he did, we have power. We wield this power when we speak the Truth. When we have brought our nature under submission to the obedience of our Lord, we are strong. We have a relationship with the God of Truth through our faith in Joshua Ha Mashiach.”
As he shared his heart with them, many nodded. He could see he was reaching theirs.
“How could the Fellowship of knights have been so easily overcome by evil men?” He continued. “We were weak. We were complacent. We spoke Joshua’s words with our lips but did not guard our hearts. The Lord told us through the Writings that, ‘God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.’ We failed to do so. We were not vigilant. We took His Truth for granted. No more!”
As he spoke, men nodded and murmured agreement to each other. “We must make promises here and now that, though we may die, we will never forsake our duty to speak the truth and break the chains of darkness.” He looked each one of them in the eyes. “Will you make this promise today?”
All thirty-four roared their assent.
Jonathan wept to hear it. Laughing through his tears, he thanked them all. Then they prayed and closed the meeting. “We begin planning tomorrow. I need seven men to lead our endeavor. Let me know then whom the Lord has chosen.”
Rebekah was starting to miss being Tomas Beck.
She regretted missing out on reconnecting with Jon. He’d been so close. Then a patrol of Royal Guards had thundered into and out of sight. Too many for her band of ambushers to deal with. Certainly not with her and seven others stuck inside that cage. And so many that even Jon might not have been able to evade them. He’d looked so worn and tired.
Hell, she even missed spending a day in that cage cart. Well, sort of.
Coordinating and organizing was no fun, none at all. Mostly.
However, that day in the cage cart had netted Licht Gegen a staggering 139,000 baden. It was by far the largest shipment they’d intercepted. Although, since then they had ‘redirected’ three more shipments that, only just, exceeded that total.
Her personal fortune was something she did not want to consider. It did not equal what they’d ‘recovered’ on the day of the cage cart. Yet. But it was growing at a rate that…
All of which meant that Rebekah had more money available to her and Licht Gegen than she’d ever imagined as a wife and mother. The outstanding part of the loan on her parent’s farm, when the Lord of Lorness’ goons had come to claim it, was barely 4,000 baden. Its initial total had only just exceeded 10,000.
Even seven years after meeting the swordsmith from Esthlanis, Licht Gegen’s primary need was weapons. Regular shipments of ‘farming equipment’ were coming in from him, hidden by her plow selling business. But they needed more than just short swords and whatever third-hand items they could scrounge up.
That was why she was in Fairness Crossing, preparing to travel to Alexandria under a new alias, Tyrone Beecham. Contacts here in the south had been creating his presence, acting as his agents, and creating a reputation for him as a shrewd, if uncouth, businessman for the last six moons.
Rebekah was not entirely comfortable with how much swearing she needed to do in the role, but it had to be a stark contrast to her Tomas Beck persona.
Because Beck’s Bold Businesses now had regional offices in every major city in Freislicht, for heaven’s sake. Plus, it had three more in Esthlanis, and one in Tarinland. That image of Tomas’ face was an all-too-common sight. And those irksome Businesses covered wagon-based freight, ship-based freight, warehousing, several general stores, two riding academies, four stockyards, a smithy, and a pair of mines… the last time she’d checked. She did not want to know their total worth, only how much flowed to her each moon.
The other reason was that despite numerous attempts to change it, that blasted sign with its depiction of Tomas’ face had proven impossible to erase. People liked the wretched thing. Worse, every alternative they’d come up with was worse.
The preparations for her new identity were complete. A few of the families who’d settled nearby after they’d lived together in Frei Forest had created ‘his’ new wardrobe of finely cut business wear, obtained and refurbished a carriage for him, hired a driver, bought horses, and were supplying a dozen well-trained bodyguards.
As she stepped onto the street for the first time as the elegantly dressed Tyrone Beecham, she noted the difference in the way passersby looked at her. They took in the silk cravat at her throat, the paired bejeweled daggers with slightly-worn handles on her belt, and her long leather coat that almost draped the ground. Others noted the four identically-dressed guards flanking her and moved out of her way. Only one or two truly observant people noted the two additional but not-similarly-dressed guards, one preceding her, and one trailing in her wake.
It was time to go make her first major arms deal.
High Castle – Gardens
Blackhawk had been sent to summon the queen to the king’s side. His majesty had not confided why he wanted Melyssa’s presence, only that he did.
The queen was in the Royal Gardens, playing with her four-year-old daughter, teaching the little girl to skip. The two were focused solely on each other. The little girl’s squeals of joy counterpointed by her mother’s ringing laughter.
It was a delightful sight that made him catch his breath. He had never thought of having children, not after what he’d experienced as a boy. Yet, in that moment, the idea of teaching a son or daughter of his own was appealing.
He did not want to intrude but had his orders, so quietly approached and bowed, “Excuse me, Your Majesty…”
Startled by the unexpected interruption, the queen mis-stepped, losing her balance.
The four-year-old screamed, bringing people running.
Blackhawk was already within reach. A single stride carried him into range as he dropped low, his arm catching her before she could injure herself. Straightening briskly, he twirled her back onto her feet. Then, realizing his proximity, he disengaged and hastily backed away. “My apologies, Your Majesty, I only meant to prevent your fall.”
As he did, there was a tinkling sound as something fell to the ground.
“I know, kind sir, and appreciate that,” she responded. Her eyes sparkled and sweet voice rejecting any possibility of impropriety. “Oh, I seem to have—”
“I have it,” Lady Ush-Wha intervened, picking up the individual pieces and handing them back to the queen.
A small crowd had gathered and was, just as quickly, dispersing. Lady Birytha had already scooped up Eliorah, soothing and distracting the little princess.
Blackhawk was intrigued, not by the speed with which the ladies-in-waiting had intervened, that was merely normal, but by the items handed back to the queen. “Your Majesty, may I ask where you got that… necklace? It is most unique.”
Melyssa smiled but it was not her usual dazzling effort. This was more private, more personal. “It’s a token of a time when I was very young, when a knight in shining armor saved me from a fire-breathing dragon. I wear them to remind me of him.”
Blackhawk could not breathe. He was astonished, his eyes wide.
How could this be? How can she be here?
The queen’s face clouded over, “Sir, are you well? Abigayle, send for the physician.”
With an effort, Blackhawk raised his hand. “There’s no need. It was merely my turn to be startled.” He felt tears rolling down his face as he began to laugh.
Melyssa frowned. “Are you sure you’re well?” She took a step closer, her ladies-in-waiting encircling them, providing privacy and preventing any suggestion of indiscretion. “And, if you are, you owe me an explanation, sir.”
He reached under his shirt, bringing forth the chain bearing the two buttons that he’d worn for fifteen years. “Your Majesty,” he said, dropping to his knee, “It was my honor to save Little Soldier.”
She said nothing, biting her lip. “This is too dangerous to speak of here.”
Taking a step back, she performed a shallow curtsy, one that was exactly correct given the differences in their stations. “Lady Ush-Wha will contact you so that we may discuss this at a more appropriate time.”
Blackhawk tried to distract himself from the momentous surprise he’d had. There was nothing he could do about it until she summoned him, if she summoned him. The only diversion that came to mind was Sam’s sign in the dirt.
I’m fairly keen. Why didn’t I see this before?
He decided to go out again, washed up, and dressed in casual garb.
After taking a circuitous path, Blackhawk paused in front of Sam’s barracks, then backed into the shadows to wait.
When the sergeant emerged, he too was plainly dressed. He looked around, his eyes alert, then walked toward the gate.
Blackhawk wondered if his quarry would leave the castle. He doubted it.
Sam turned before reaching the gate, passing behind a vendor’s stall. Then he entered a nondescript storage shed. There was no sign indicating its function. It was not guarded, nor was there a latch on the door. Yet there were pale lights inside. Not bright enough to draw attention, but sufficient that those inside could see.
What am I witnessing?
He slipped behind a stack of crates, trying to puzzle out what was going on. There were innumerable storage sheds and huts throughout the castle. They were tucked into whatever space could be found for them.
It could be a gambling den. All they need is a little space and customers foolish enough to wager their money. This doesn’t have to be anything suspicious.
Another man approached a few minutes later and entered the shed. But, as the light from inside struck his face, he saw it was Major Brian Mitchell, a man he had implicit faith in. Indeed, a man he trusted so much that he’d involved the then-Lieutenant Mitchell in documenting King Edal’s murder.
He knew both these men well, increasing the mystery.
It cannot be anything bad. Surely, I’m a better judge of character than that?
Minutes passed as he struggled with conflicting notions. Then he entered the shed.
There were more people than he’d anticipated. Their heads were bowed, softly whispered words were being spoken. Yet there were no dark robes, no signs of sacrifices, nor any of the paraphernalia he associated with the religious ceremonies he had spied upon as a boy.
Were they… praying?
Whatever they were doing, they were intent in their focus on it. None of them noticed him standing silently in shadow.
Individual voices began speaking, asking blessings for various people. Their names did not surprise him. Many wished the king, the queen, Commander Taylor, and Colonel Gunnels well. All were prominent and were doing their best for the kingdom. Then he heard his own name…
Unthinking, he stepped forwards as Sam continued, “…for watching over Colonel Blackhawk. We have seen the great struggle in him. We pray you keep him safe and bring him to us when the time is right. Give us the words, and let your love shine through us. In Joshua’s name, we pray.”
Blackhawk stood frozen, his mouth agape in surprise, as the next blessing began.
This can’t be happening…
The words, “Praise the Lord, he’s here,” shocked Blackhawk back to the present.
From the back of the room, Commander Taylor approached, “Welcome, son. We’ve longed to see you here. Please, join our circle.” Then led him into their midst.
Everyone was shaking Blackhawk’s hand and patting him on the back.
The Commander raised his hand, quieting everyone. “Let us continue. Steven, if you have any questions about anything, I will answer them when we finish.”
Blackhawk nodded, giddy about the whole thing, perplexed but happy. This was nothing like the religious rites he knew.
Someone spoke in a foreign language and then spoke in the common tongue. The words were a wonderful prayer, praise to the God of Truth. Then another spoke and another. Next, Commander Taylor opened the Writings and began to teach.
Many of Blackhawk’s questions were answered as the Commander spoke. It was not a long teaching but it addressed some of his deeper concerns.
After closing with prayer, they dispersed one by one.
Blackhawk stayed behind to talk with Commander Taylor, “I don’t know where to begin. How long have you been praying for me?”
Taylor pointed to crates they could sit on, then sat. “Since the day you arrived. I assign every person under my command to a prayer list. Each of us has part of the list. If we are burdened to pray for something special, we bring it up in the circle so everyone can agree in prayer. We have prayed for you often.”
“What were the foreign languages I heard? I’ve never heard their like.”
“That’s called speaking in tongues. It is an inspired utterance. You do not learn a language to do it. Your spirit prays.”
“I don’t understand… that… and so many other things. I need… not a teacher… I have had those, and could never trust another. But… I need a guide to find my way out of the darkness that I have dwelt in all my life.”
“You are an unusual man, Steven. We’ve watched you respond to the love of Joshua without any of us speaking with you. How did you come to know Joshua?”
Steven hesitated. He had never spoken to anyone about Little Soldier. Just as he had never, and would never, speak of Geleib and Cailleagh. Even in the calm presence of Commander Taylor with the warm glow of acceptance buoying him up, it was too personal, too private to provide anything but the most limited of details. “Years ago, I encountered the merest speck of a girl. I cannot tell you how, for her situation was grave, yet she planted a seed. Little things she said and did have stayed with me, slowly chipping away at my calloused heart.”
The Commander nodded, “She sounds like an exceptional child.”
“She was… is… or, I hope, is. I pray she’s well.”
“How can I help you, Steven?”
“As I said, I need a guide. Given all I’ve seen… and done… I’ll never trust another teacher. I’d always wonder what was in it for them. Help me find the path and I’ll decide whether or not to walk along it.”
Taylor nodded but said nothing.
“I’m confident on an earthly battlefield,” Blackhawk continued. “But I sense something greater going on around me, raging around me. I do not know if I must enter that fray, but would be ready if called to arms. I am a soldier. I fight and win. It is what I do. It is my purpose. And, I have finally come to the realization, that it is my choice who I fight for.”
The commander put his hand on Steven’s shoulder. “Each man or woman finds their own way to the Lord of Truth. I will help you as I can. I’d suggest you read the Letter to the Romans. Think on it for as long as you need and, when you are ready, come to my office to discuss it. Would that be an acceptable start?”
Blackhawk hesitated again. He wanted to say “yes”, yearned to but the tactical part of his brain took over. “Given circles are outlawed, how often do you…?” He waved his hand at the now-empty room.
Commander Taylor smiled. “Ever the military man, I see. Not that I expected anything else. We don’t meet regularly. That would be dangerous. Sam Bennet will give you a sign when we’re meeting again.” He drew a half-circle in the dirt. “Join us or don’t. It is your choice.”
Steven responded with another half-circle.
“That’s it, Steven. You can always see me in my office. It is safe. Go ahead, leave now. You have your assignment. Welcome to our family, brother.”
Blackhawk bowed, then left the shed. He made his way carefully back to his room and tried to sleep but could not.
He was conflicted.
A growing part of him wanted to join the community he’d found. He wanted the peace that had slowly blossomed inside him. The calmness that had unfurled as he’d listened to them pray and speak those odd unworldly words.
That experience contrasted racially with what he had previously witnessed. In the ceremonies Cailleagh had performed, he’d seen people abandon all reason and all sense of survival to drug-induced euphoria.
He feared that the fellowship he had just witnessed would lead to the same abandonment of self-preservation. He would not, could not, allow himself to succumb to that, no matter how tempting.
Worse, their clumsy method of drawing half-circles on the ground horrified him. It was amateurish, stupid and should – would? – must? – have been discovered by the Black Robes. No matter what might be publicly thought, he knew they still operated throughout the kingdom. The only change was they now did so from the shadows.
If he was to be involved, he would have to educate them on how not to be detected.
He read for a time, then snuffed out the candle and stared into the dark comparing what he had experienced this day with all the other religious experiences he’d had. The followers of Joshua did not sacrifice animals, men, women and children. Yet, there was an allure that was as seductive as one of Cailleagh’s potions.
Eventually, he slept.