Chapter 28: 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 – Gaelib’s Apartments
Gaelib caressed the perfumed clothes he’d brought for his ‘son’. They were beautiful, expensive, and lavish. A navy velvet long coat offset a light blue satin vest embroidered with silver leaves, completed by gray trousers and an exquisite pair of embossed knee-high dark brown boots.
I did so enjoy dressing and undressing Stev’n.
A delicious thought crossed his mind. While he could not risk meeting Stev’n in private, it didn’t mean he couldn’t 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, Gaelib savored the image of Stev’n’s warm, welcoming reactions to his unexpected gift.
High Castle – Colonel Blackhawk’s Room
Answering the knock at his door, Stev’n 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 Stev’n 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 at home, 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 departing.
Gaelib, Duke of Lorness.
Blackhawk kicked the chest across the room. He considered burning it in the fireplace, but might need it later. 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 meant meeting was too dangerous for Gaelib.
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 Gaelib. 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 Gaelib and Caileagh, 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 Gaelib and Caileagh 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 ‘J’shua 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 prayed, “You are my Lord, J’shua! Please heal my soul and make me whole.”
Calm fell over him like 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. Joyful, he thanked the Lord J’shua for saving him, and thanked the God of Truth for unclouding his eyes. His elation grew as the Writings he’d read flowed into his mind. Yet, there was so much he didn’t understand.
He prayed, “Lead me, J’shua 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 workout. His clothes were drenched in sweat. He was exuberant.
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.
Blackhawk followed from a distance.
The sergeant entered the mess, went up to someone, drew the half-circle on its dusty floor, and said a few words. Again, the other drew a half-circle, immediately erasing it.
Blackhawk continued to observe, watching Sam with his peripheral vision until he knew where the sergeant was headed. He was intrigued.
Could this be a circle of J’shua? Or is it something nefarious?
The Lion & Tiger Inn
Once well enough to ride, Jon’than continued on to Alexandria and Luca Ov’rhill.
Lord, what do you wish me to tell the boy? I do not see his role in this.
He rode directly to the Herald Station. Alexandria had grown much since delivering the proclamation in 144. In the fifteen years since, many had fled the domains of the Duke of Lorness for its 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, Jon’than 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 Ov’rhill family. Do they still live in Alexandria?”
“Yes, sir. If you follow this road,” the man pointing the way Jon’than had come, “about two miles, take the left fork and go another two miles, you’ll come upon the Ov’rhill patriarch’s farm. His children are all within a few miles of the main house.”
“Thank you.” Jon placed two baden on the counter.
The farm was just as the herald had described. As Jon’than approached, there was much commotion. A party of some kind was in progress. Children were running about, laughing, and chasing a pig. It brought back childhood memories.
Two women appeared carrying large pans toward a buffet in the yard. The older of the two yelled back into the house, “Papa, he’s here!” Then, with a nod toward the door, addressed Jon’than, “Please go in. We’ve been waiting for you.”
Puzzled, Jon did so. Cooking aromas, rich and savory, made him aware of his hunger. He heard whispering.
“Praise the Lord.”
A known face emerged from the crowd.
“Rich’rd? But, you died at Dunis Glen.” Jon’than pulled the other knight into a firm hug. “How are you alive?”
“An absolute miracle. I’ll tell you later. First, this is to honor you for giving my nephew a second life. He’s free because the army thinks him dead.” Rich’rd chortled. “Are you hungry?”
“Not until I smelled the wonderful food.”
Rich’rd waved to his daughter, “Susan, make a plate for Sir Jon’than. Luca, bring some ale.”
“How are you expecting me?”
“My Elizabeth had a vision of a grand celebration and heard the Lord’s voice, so we’ve been cooking all day.”
“You honor me too much.”
“Not at all. The Lord has been reaching out, saying it’s time to rid our land of evil.”
“To how many?”
“The southern knights have been meeting in secret for many moons,” Rich’rd noted. “More have returned from Mestelina and Tarinland, then found me. We meet in the woods, heading up to Lone Soldier to train. There’s outrageous evil gossip about you. We knew the opposite must be true, and that the time was fast approaching for action.”
A young man entered, asking, “I saw him ride up, is he…?”
Rich’rd gestured to the lad, “Over here,” introducing him to Jon. “I think you’ll remember Alb’rt. He’s now my son-in-law.”
Jon’than shook the young man’s hand. “You were a faithful apprentice. I lost track of you at Dunis Glen and prayed you had escaped. It is good 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.
“Three of them,” Alb’rt answered proudly. “Rich’rd has taught some of us to be knights.”
The door opened again.
“Luca!” Rich’rd declared. “Where’ve you been? Jon’s traveled far to see you.”
“Hallo, sir,” Luca knelt before Jon. “I can never repay you. I’ve studied the Writings since my return and know I must serve J’shua. What will you have me do with my life?”
Jon’than pulled Luca to his feet. “I cannot tell you your path. The Lord will reveal it.”
Richard called the houseful to eat, many of whom Jon recognized.
It was a tasty 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 in tongues, 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. “Had the Serpent but known, he would never have killed J’shua Ha Mashiach. Yet because he did, we have power. 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 J’shua Ha Mashiach.”
As he shared his heart with them, many nodded.
“How could the Fellowship of knights have been so easily overcome by evil men? Because we were weak, were complacent. We spoke J’shua’s words with our lips, not our hearts. We were not vigilant. We took His Truth for granted. No more!”
As he spoke, men murmured agreement.
“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.
Jon’than wept to hear it. Laughing through his tears, he thanked them all. “We begin planning tomorrow. I need seven to lead our endeavor.”
R’bekah thought back to the day in the cart. Jon had 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.
She was starting to miss being T’mas Bekh. Well, sort of. Coordinating and organizing was no fun. None at all. Mostly.
However, that day had netted Licht Gegen a staggering 439,000 baden. Between what was in the shipment and what had poured forth from the wall, it was the largest amount they’d ever intercepted. Although, since then they’d ‘redirected’ three more shipments that, slightly, exceeded that total.
Her personal fortune was something she didn’t want to consider. It did not equal what they’d ‘recovered’ on that day. Yet.
As for Beck’s Bold Businesses, it was growing at a rate that…
All of which meant R’bekah had more money available to her and Licht Gegen than she’d ever imagined. 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. 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.
R’bekah wasn’t entirely comfortable with how much swearing she needed to do in the role, but it had to be a stark contrast to her T’mas Bekh persona.
Her companies had regional offices in every major city in Freislicht, three more in Esthlanis, and one in Tarinland. That image of T’mas’ face was an all-too-common sight. Despite numerous attempts to change it, people liked the wretched thing.
Thus, Tyrone Beecham was ‘born’. Families who’d settled nearby, after leaving Frei Forest, had created his new wardrobe, obtained and refurbished a carriage, hired a driver, bought horses, and were supplying a dozen well-trained bodyguards.
Stroking a braided sideburn, she stepped onto the street for the first time as the elegantly dressed Tyrone. 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 worn handles on her belt, and the long leather coat that dragged 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, and one trailing in their wake.
It was time to make her first arms deal.
High Castle – Gardens
Blackhawk had been sent to summon the queen to the king’s side.
Her Majesty 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 were counterpointed by her mother’s ringing laughter.
It was an adorable sight. He’d 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 didn’t want to intrude but had his orders, so quietly approached and bowed, “Excuse me, Your Majesty…”
Startled by the 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.”
There was a tinkling sound as something fell.
“I know, kind sir, and appreciate that,” she responded, her sparkling eyes 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?”
Melyssa smiled, but it wasn’t her usual dazzling effort. It 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 couldn’t breathe. His eyes wide.
How… how can she be here?
The queen’s face clouded over, “Sir, are you well? Abigayle, send for a physician.”
With an effort, Blackhawk raised his hand. “There’s no need. It was my turn to be startled.” Tears rolled down his face as he laughed.
Melyssa took a step closer, her ladies-in-waiting encircling them, providing privacy and preventing any suggestion of indiscretion. “You owe me an explanation, sir.”
He reached under his shirt, bringing forth the chain bearing the buttons that he’d worn for fifteen years. “Your Majesty,” he said, dropping to one knee, “It was my honor to save Little Soldier.”
She bit 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.”
“Your Majesty,” he forced out, “the king requires your presence.”
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.
Why didn’t I see this before?
He decided to investigate, then dressed in casual garb.
Taking a circuitous path, Blackhawk paused in front of Sam’s barracks, then backed into a dark alcove 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, but he didn’t.
Instead, Sam passed behind a vendor’s stall, then 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 was a pale light 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’s grounds, 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 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 trusted so much he’d involved the then-Lieutenant Mitchell in documenting King Edal’s murder.
He knew both well, increasing the mystery.
It can’t 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 inside than he’d anticipated. Their heads were bowed. Softly whispered words were spoken. Yet there were no dark robes, no sacrifices, nor any of the paraphernalia he associated with the religious ceremonies he’d spied upon as a boy.
Were they… praying?
Whatever it was, they were intent upon it. None noticed him stand silently in shadow.
Individual voices began speaking, asking blessings for various people: the king, the queen, Commander Ta’ler, and Colonel Gonn’ls. All were prominent and were doing their best for the kingdom. Then he heard his own name…
Unthinking, he stepped forward as Sam continued, “…for watching over Colonel Blackhawk. We’ve seen the struggle within, keep him safe, and inspire him when the time’s right. Give us the words, and let your love shine through us. In J’shua’s name, we pray.”
Blackhawk stood frozen, 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 Ta’ler approached, “Welcome, son. We’ve longed to have you join our circle.” Then led him into their midst.
Everyone was shaking Blackhawk’s hand or patting him on the back.
The Commander quieted everyone. “Let us continue. Stev’n, if you have any questions, I will answer them when we finish.”
Blackhawk nodded, bemused. This was nothing like the religious rites he knew. Someone spoke in a foreign language and then the common tongue. The words praised the God of Truth. Then another spoke and another. Next, Commander Ta’ler opened the Writings and began to teach.
Many of Blackhawk’s questions were answered as the Commander spoke. It wasn’t a long talk but it addressed some of his deeper concerns.
After closing with prayer, they dispersed one by one.
Blackhawk stayed to talk with Commander Ta’ler, “I don’t know where to begin. How long have you been praying for me?”
Ta’ler pointed to crates against the wall, then sat on one. “Since you arrived. I assign every person in my circle a prayer list. If we are burdened to pray for something special, we bring it up so everyone can agree on it. We’ve prayed for you often.”
“What were the foreign languages? I’ve never heard their like.”
“That’s called speaking in tongues. It’s an inspired utterance. You don’t 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’ve had those, and could never trust another. But… a guide. To find my way out of the darkness I’ve dwelt in all my life.”
“You are an unusual man. We’ve watched you respond to the love of J’shua without any of us speaking with you. How did you come to know him?”
Stev’n hesitated. He’d never spoken to anyone about Little Soldier. Just as he’d never, and would never, speak of Gaelib and Caileagh. Even with Commander Ta’ler’s acceptance buoying him up, it was too personal. Too private to provide anything but the most limited details. “Years ago, I encountered a girl. I can’t 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, Stev’n?”
“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 it.”
“I’m confident on an earthly battlefield,” Blackhawk continued, “but I sense something greater raging around me. I don’t know if I must enter that fray, but would be ready if called to arms. I’m a soldier. I fight and win. It’s what I do. It’s my purpose. And, I’ve finally come to the realization, it’s my choice who I fight for.”
The commander put his hand on Stev’n’s shoulder. “Each man or woman finds their way to the God of Truth. I’ll help as I can. Do you have the Writings?”
“Read the Letter to the Romans. Think on it and, when you are ready, come to my office to discuss it. Is that 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 Ta’ler smiled. “Ever the military man, I see. Not that I expected anything less. We don’t meet regularly. That’d 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’s your choice.”
Stev’n responded with another half-circle.
“That’s it, Stev’n, but always erase it. You can always see me in my office. It’s safe. Go ahead, leave now. Welcome to our family, brother.”
Blackhawk bowed, then left, making his way back to his room to sleep.
He couldn’t. He was conflicted.
A growing part of him wanted to join the community he’d found, wanted the peace that’d blossomed inside him. The calmness that had unfurled as he’d listened to their prayers and odd unworldly words.
The experience contrasted radically with what he’d previously witnessed. In the ceremonies Caileagh had performed, he’d seen people abandon reason and all sense of survival to drug-induced euphoria.
He feared the fellowship he’d witnessed would lead to the same end. He wouldn’t, couldn’t, allow himself to succumb to such self-destruction, no matter how tempting.
He read for a time, then snuffed out the candle and stared into the dark comparing what he’d experienced this day with the other religious practices he’d seen. The followers of J’shua didn’t sacrifice animals, men, women and children. Yet, there was an allure that was as seductive as one of Caileagh’s potions.
Eventually, he slept.