Chapter 1: Little Soldier
Full Moon, Spring, 144 AK
Near Fairness Crossing
Flapping, nearly dry linens signaled a change in the wind. Rebekah Otual was caught, a whirlwind of sheets entwining her, obscuring sight. Fighting her way out, she caught glimpses of the modest log cabin that was her home, the woods surrounding it on three sides, the meandering forest trail that led here… and three men approaching on a wagon.
But there was no sign of Sarah. Rebekah’s heart raced, her eyes flitted about, but her daughter remained unseen.
A man dismounted dressed in a gold tunic bearing the green dragon sigil of the Lord of Lorness. The two soldiers with him wore royal red brigandine and steel helmets.
The man strode towards her. “I am George Rosewud, Undersecretary to the Lord of Lorness. Fetch your father, woman,” the thin, fair-haired official commanded. His every button was polished. There wasn’t a scuff on his cordovan boots, nor did a single hair escape its ribbon. He carried a large book. An elegantly carved club hung from his belt.
Just then, her father strode from the fields holding his gloves and hoe. Sweat dripped from his greying hairline. “What do you want, clerk? We’ve made this moon’s payment.”
“That was recorded,” the undersecretary noted, then smiled. “However, the Lord of Lorness demands all outstanding loans be finalized.” His thick ledger creaked open. “The amount is… four thousand baden.”
“We have a contract.” Her father took off his wide-brimmed hat, wiping his brow with his sleeve. “He can’t demand it all at once.”
The undersecretary’s lifeless brown eyes locked onto her father.
One soldier, a tall, dark-haired youth with a face as smooth as a peach, jumped off the wagon. The older one climbed down, straightening his well-worn uniform. He scratched at an old scar trailing across his left cheek. They readied their swords, then stood at attention.
Sarah jumped out from the hanging laundry and mimicked the soldiers. Her plain muslin dress ruffled in the breeze like a flag. Five seashell buttons that her da brought home after a mission to Tarinland decorated its front. She’d inherited her mother’s blue eyes and golden blonde hair, but she was reserved and observant like her father, Jonathan. Standing straight and tall, as tall as a six-year-old could, her voice rose sweetly, singing a familiar melody she’d learned from her da.
“Like a little brave soldier, you will stand,
“Like a little brave soldier, you will fight.
“Like a little brave soldier, you will pray,
“Like a little brave soldier with J’shua’s might.”
Rebekah noticed a slight smile crack the young soldier’s stoic face. It frightened her. “Go see Grandma,” she instructed Sarah, her tone clear, obey or get a phwack.
The young soldier’s eyes tracked Sarah as she skipped to the cabin and disappeared through the door.
Undersecretary Rosewud’s expression darkened. “The Lord of Lorness demands payment. Now.”
“We have a contract.” Her father’s large arms folded across his chest.
“Circumstances have changed. Of course, you could fight one of my companions to confirm your rights. Although an old law, trial by combat is not unknown. How do you think you’d fare against my sergeant? I couldn’t possibly use the lieutenant as my champion. He’s a mere boy.’
The old soldier grinned, his eyes focusing on the farmer.
“But…” Her father stammered.
The young soldier watched Rebekah, noting her scowl.
The old sergeant grunted, eyeing her up and down. “She’s a fine body. Be pretty if she smiled.”
Undersecretary Rosewud pursed his lips and silenced the men with a glance. “If you don’t have four thousand baden, Mister Dowling, we’ll take the woman and child instead. Both look healthy. How old is the girl?”
“Take back the land,” her father countered.
Rosewud raised an eyebrow. “Your lord needs money. The females can be sold before sunset. The land would take longer. How old is the child?”
Rebekah touched her father’s shoulder.
Rosewud nodded. “Get in the wagon, woman.”
“I’ll fetch my daughter,” Rebekah muttered, head downcast. Her heart pounded as she trudged toward the house. Smoothing her muslin apron, she forced her mind to be quiet.
Please Lord, don’t let anyone follow me.
When she entered the house, all attention was still on her father.
Inside the cabin, Rebekah found her daughter and mother hiding behind the door, listening. She hugged Sarah tightly and whispered, “Don't be afraid, Little Knight. Run to the west woods, to the blackberries. Be invisible like Da showed you. Hide there until I come find you.”
Sarah nodded, tears running down her face.
Rebekah dropped her daughter to the ground through the rear window. “Go! Stay low.”
Sarah landed in a squat and scurried off.
Rebekah watched her girl disappear into the high sorghum grass. “Lord J’shua, what can we do?”
“Jonathan taught us how to respond to an attack,” her mother answered. “I’ll stall as long as I can. Run east, so they don’t find you both. May angels guide you.”
Rebekah’s countenance fell as she stared into her mother’s clear blue eyes.
“Your da and I have had a full blessed life. We will sleep. When we wake, we’ll all be together with J’shua Ha Mashiach and the Father. Take your dagger and these coins. Go!”
Lieutenant Steven Blackhawk had watched the strange little girl skip through the door. Another farmhouse was visible in the distance, half a mile beyond the Dowling’s fields. All other directions were forest. There was no movement, no threat.
Blackhawk waited for a command from this fop, Rosewud. Sergeant Johnsun had invited him to join this off-duty assignment for some extra coin. With nothing better to do before reporting to High Castle, he’d accepted. It was tolerable.
Another woman came out of the house, an older version of the man’s daughter. She carried a woven basket. “Rojer, do we have guests?” She smiled cheerfully. “I have corn cake. Would you like some, son? You’re still growing and must be hungry.”
The old woman shuffled toward the wagon but stumbled and fell, dropping her load.
Blackhawk stepped forward and offered his hand. “Let me help you, ma’am.”
“Oh, my, I’ve broken some of the cakes.” Taking his hand, she wobbled as she slowly rose. “Thank you. You’re such a dear.”
She fussed with the contents of her hamper, then offered a cake to Blackhawk. “This one didn’t break.” She smiled at him.
“No, thank you, ma’am,” Blackhawk replied with a nod. He whispered to the Sergeant, “Seems a little touched.”
“That’s well enough. Corn cake isn’t for everyone.” The woman staggered toward the undersecretary, offering him the basket.
Rosewud glared at her. “I’m here to collect monies owed to the Lord of Lorness, not nibble on cakes.”
She blinked, then headed toward her husband. “Rojer, don’t we still have silver under the loose stone in the fireplace?”
“Oh, perhaps.” The burly old man took her hand and squeezed. “How much do you think we have?”
“Well, last year it was quite a sum, but then you had to buy seed….”
“Yes, the seed cost a lot. But I harvested a good early crop. I almost opened an account with the money changer.” He chuckled weakly.
“Oh yes, you did bring several wagon loads to the market. I was able to save much of the profit. How much does the man want?”
“The undersecretary here says four thousand baden, Sweetie.”
“Here, take one, Honey. I know you love my corn cakes.” She gave him a peck on the cheek.
Rojer took a bite out of the cake. “Mm-mmm. You sure you don’t want one, sir? My wife’s cakes are the best in Lorness.”
The old woman beamed, offering the basket again.
Rosewud threw a glance over his shoulder and huffed, “Lieutenant, get the girl and her mother.” The undersecretary trailed a finger down the page until he came to the Dowling account, marking it closed.
Lieutenant Blackhawk searched the small farmhouse. It was empty. “Blast.” He scratched the fine hairs on his chin.
In the seven days of this operation, no one has fled before.
He turned, and shouted to the undersecretary. “Sir, they’ve run off!”
Scanning the fields through the window, Blackhawk observed waving sorghum, the woods beyond, and… a tiny blonde head. He hustled back to the wagon. “I saw the girl, but not the mother.”
“Take one of the horses. We won’t wait for you,” Rosewud griped. “Meet us at camp. Go, Lieutenant. The woman’s blonde hair and blue eyes will be a rarity in Lorness, increasing her price greatly. As will the girl’s. Don't wound them. It’ll lessen their value.” The undersecretary scowled at the conniving couple. “Sergeant, set an example. End these babblers.”
Blackhawk unhitched a horse from the harness as Sergeant Johnsun strode forward, drawing his sword.
“No!” Mister Dowling pulled his wife behind him.
The sergeant advanced, then sliced both cleanly across their necks, dropping them in a heap, their hands still entwined.
“Impressive, Sergeant,” Rosewud noted. Then after a side glance toward the young lieutenant, he whispered, “Check under their fireplace. If there’s anything there, we’ll split it.”
Blackhawk kicked the horse with his heels, driving it through the sorghum and into the dark woods. Ducking under wayward branches, he kept a wary eye for his prey. “Girl, your grandma is worried about you,” he called. “Come out. I’ll take you to her.”
He saw no sign. Even the birds were silent.
“Come out. I have a corn cake for ya.”
He scanned the woods for any movement as he continued slowly forward. A rabbit perked up and dashed away. A squirrel barked, scampering up a tree. The soft crunch of his horse’s hooves was the only other thing he heard until the mare stopped. He glanced down.
The girl was right below his steed’s head, all but covered in leaves, perfectly still.
Dismounting, he waited to see how long she could stay motionless.
When I was her age, I wouldn’t have lasted a wink.
She didn’t move nor make a peep. Even knowing where she hid, he couldn’t hear her breathing. He finally accepted that she wouldn’t give herself away. He had to return to camp, so crouched down and looked into the girl's eyes.
She blinked but still didn't flinch.
“Let’s go.” Blackhawk gently picked her up, staring into her blue eyes, entranced by this little porcelain doll who didn’t kick or cry. “Who taught you to hide like that?”
“My da.” She smiled, a dimple gracing her left cheek. "Did I do well?"
"You did better than any soldier I've ever met. Your da would be proud."
As he left the trees with the small girl in front of him, he saw smoke. Blackhawk turned back into the forest so she wouldn’t see the burning house.
An hour later, he arrived at the small camp. As he passed several soldiers transporting the women taken in today’s collections, they hooted and shouted about the kid lieutenant and his new gal. Blackhawk bristled as they teased him yet again because of his youth.
“Can’t snag a grown woman?”
“Na, he prefers little girls.”
They all laughed.
Blackhawk didn’t respond. He never did.
Trotting to the cage cart, he dismounted while holding the girl. Children pressed against the doors. They retreated as he poked them and opened the door, pushing her inside.
Good haul. Seven boys and six girls.
After taking his mare to the line, he entered Undersecretary Rosewud’s tent. "I found the girl, but not the mother."
“We’re short three thousand baden because that woman got away,” the undersecretary complained as he polished a boot. He leaned back in his mahogany chair. “She must be found, Lieutenant. Johnsun, I want the evidence removed in case other relatives are about.”
The sergeant sighed. “I’ll write up a warrant and send back a detachment to clean up.”
Rosewud focused on Blackhawk. “What took you so long?”
“I searched for them both. The child was well hidden. If I’d not seen where she went, I wouldn’t have found her. She’s been trained not to leave any sign of—”
Rosewud thrust out his palm. “I’m not interested in excuses or crazed notions about children being able to hide from a trained officer, even a mere boy like you.”
Blackhawk shrugged. “The woman will come for her child. I left a trail for her to follow. She may appear if we wait."
“No. This has already delayed us. If we do that, I’ll be forced to feed the whelps,” Rosewud grumbled. “If we leave at first light, I’ll be spared that expense.”
Once dismissed, Blackhawk went to the stew pot. Scooping a bite, he sniffed the evening meal before tasting it— burnt, as usual. Dropping the ladle back, he sought a comfortable tree near the cage and leaned against it. The half-dozen other soldiers were relaxing around their tents. Pulling a leather pouch from his belt, he drew out a lump of dried meat.
The girl he’d just caged stood at attention, watching him.
He marveled each time a soldier whacked the cage to silence a bawling brat. She seemed unaffected, except to scowl and wrinkle her nose. As the shadows grew longer, he retired to his tent and wondered how she could remain unflappable.
In the morning, relief warmed him to see her sleeping. The feeling surprised him.
There was still no sign of the mother when they moved out. The long rainy season had left the road bumpy, making progress slow for the caravan of wagons and confiscated animals.
Rebekah prayed for her parents, running into the tallest crop. From there, she spied Sarah entering the woods.
Several moments later, the young soldier pursued Sarah on a horse.
Rebekah bent down, hiding, and followed.
Yet, before she reached the woods, he emerged with Sarah sitting before him on his horse. The sight of her daughter caught by that drecksa cut deep. A sensation that worsened when he smiled, as if the hunt had been a game.
Rebekah grimaced. Everything inside her screamed to run after them. To rip her daughter out of his arms. To plunge her dagger into his gut. To end his life. Slowly, so he had the merest glimpse of the suffering he’d already inflicted.
He’s just a lad. Not that his youth will stay my blade.
There was no way she could reach them while remaining unseen. The boy soldier rode back into the woods with Sarah.
Crouching, she waited, twisting a strand of her golden hair, counting her breaths until they were well out of sight. Then she ran back to the house, hoping her parents were alive, but dreading the worst. The wagon was gone. Through the roaring flames, she discerned her parents’ bodies. She covered her ears, howling at the deafening blaze, railing against this evil, and praying in the spirit.
The fire grew hotter, forcing her to stumble back. With one final wail, Rebekah wiped her tears and steeled herself.
Sarah will be safe until they sell her. That weasel, Rosewud, won’t allow her to be defiled. He’d lose money.
Turning toward the woods, she ran.
The Canferd’s farm is close. They’ve a horse. No, they also have a loan from Lord Melazera.
The nearest farm in the Duke of Wooster’s domain was her best chance of finding a property that hadn’t been repossessed — and a horse — before dark. The duke was an upright man, a known follower of J’shua.
She alternated between walking and running through the woods to conserve her strength.
After two hours’ travel, she crawled through the low grass to get close to the barn without being seen. Once at the edge of the yard, she ran to it, opening its heavy door just enough to get through. Inside were six horses, each in a stall. Her hand patted their withers while speaking softly. Rebekah chose a fresh mare with a sweet temperament and saddled her. She flung the door wide, mounted, and rode out.
An old man hobbled toward her waving a club and shouting.
Barreling ahead, she dodged past him, yelling over her shoulder, “Sorry, I’ll return her.”
She rode hard for a mile in the opposite direction to confuse any pursuers. Once she came to a rocky creek, she veered back toward her farm. She returned to where she’d last seen her daughter and the young soldier.
The tracks were clear, had too many broken branches, and wove through the softest dirt. It was a trap. Yet, she followed it, watching for signs of ambush.
The sun had just set when she heard them. She didn’t need to get close. She could smell their campfire. Besides, there were too many for her to attempt a rescue. Rebekah's only choice was to wait for a better opportunity.
I’m coming, baby. Thank you, husband, for teaching me how to survive.
She hoped Jonathan was safe. He had recently taken their eight-year-old son, David, to apprentice with Magistrate Gorum in Esthlanis. David would be protected.
The waiting gnawed on her. She scrounged a few berries to assuage her hunger. Then, tethering the horse far enough away to not be heard from the camp, Rebekah gathered a blanket of leaves and hid. There was nothing else to do.
She slept lightly, but woke to silence.
Rebekah lay still for several minutes, straining to hear the chatter of soldiers. There was none. She crawled toward the camp.
The wagons were gone, leaving only muddled tracks of men, animals, and carts. Finally, returning to her horse, she followed them. Only an hour later, she found them. Their laughter carried to her on the wind, marking their position.
They’re using the old cow trail. I know where they’re going.
She turned her mare toward the more direct route to River Town.
Blackhawk rode beside the cage cart, watching the girl. She remained standing, her small hands clutching the bars.
Such an excellent little soldier.
He didn't know why she intrigued him. He had no paternal instinct, nor was his interest of the crude sort the other soldiers had teased about. She didn't belong in any world he knew. Sometimes he caught her watching him.
A boy about four started whimpering. Raggedly thin with a mop of unruly black hair, he could have been Blackhawk’s younger brother. A thought the lieutenant pushed aside.
The little soldier stroked the lad’s head, soothing him. “It’ll be well. J’shua is with me, and he can be with you too. Do you know him?”
The little boy shook his head.
“Would you like to know about him?”
The lad nodded.
The girl squatted beside him. “Well, my da says the Serpent tricked the First Man into disobeying the God of Truth. This is how the Serpent owns the world and all the people. But the God of Truth loved all the people so he sent his son, J’shua, to pay a ransom for us. Do you know what a ransom is?”
The boy shook his head again.
“I’m not sure either… but… anyone can be saved. J’shua promised to watch over us… always… not that we wouldn’t be scared… or even hurt. Can you trust me since I know he’s here with us?”
The little boy wrinkled his forehead in thought, looking left and right. “I don't see him anywhere. There’s many soldiers. Are you sure J’shua can see us?"
Little Soldier, as Blackhawk had begun to think of her, hugged the boy again as her smile deepened. "I know. You can't see J’shua. That can be hard sometimes, especially when the Serpent's army seems so strong. But with practice, you can hear him. I hear him. So, trust me, I know he’s here with us.”
The little boy smiled.
She drew him onto her lap and held him until they both fell asleep.
Blackhawk was amazed at her care for the little boy. Her words rattled around his head, annoying him. He couldn’t stop thinking about the ransom. It was so counter to the teachings of Lord and Lady Melazera, whom he served.
It can’t be that simple.
He trotted up the line and, when he reached the undersecretary’s cart, matched its speed.
Rosewud frowned, his typical greeting. “What is it, Lieutenant?”
“We’re nearly to River Town, sir. Do you need any help with delivery?”
“They’re children. Shouldn't be any trouble.” Rosewud waved a hand dismissively.
“Of course, but the mother could be following,”
Rosewud scratched at an old scar on his arm. “Yes, yes, I wouldn’t object to having you along. I won’t pay much.”
“Shall I follow you or scout ahead?"
"Scout ahead. I’ll dine at The Sapphire before heading out. Find me there.”
“Yes, sir.” Blackhawk nodded and rode ahead into River Town.
Lieutenant Blackhawk watched Rosewud enter The Sapphire Inn. Then the young officer headed to Sweet Maids, the brothel across the street, where he assuaged his ill humor on a whore.
He didn’t know how long he’d been standing outside the brothel, smiling from the warmth of a woman's company, when Little Soldier’s scowling face entered his thoughts. He kicked a stone, glowering as he crossed the street. The thought had ruined his good mood — again. Heading toward the merry sounds pouring from the inn only darkened his humor further. Yet, he instinctively altered his expression, making it open and friendly, when he saw the undersecretary emerging.
“Right on time, Blackhawk,” Rosewud called out, pointing his shillelagh at the young lieutenant.
Steven wondered about the intricately carved club.
Dismissing both militet who had been standing guard, Rosewud thrust a cup and skin into the young lieutenant’s hands. “Give the imps water. Perhaps you can even make decent conversation. We’re headed to Commandant Greysun in Fairness Crossing. He pays a bonus to make him my first stop when I’ve a batch of children."
Rosewud climbed onto the cage cart, setting his shillelagh on the seat.
Blackhawk poured water into a cup and handed it to a child. He repeated this as children pushed at each other to be the next to get a drink. Only Little Soldier waited patiently, holding the small boy’s hand. When all-but-last, Blackhawk handed her the cup, she gave it to the boy and waited. Then she handed it back.
“You are something,” he muttered to himself as he gave her the cup again.
The task completed, he stowed the water and cup. Then he took his seat as Rosewud snapped the reins.
Blackhawk looked back at the cage. Little Soldier stared at him. She smiled when she saw him look at her and lifted her fingers in the slightest wave. A barely perceptible grin rose on his face. He nodded back to her.
Turning to Rosewud, he asked. “What’s Commandant Greysun looking for today?”
“Boys, I think. He has a training camp. Likes them young.”
“If you haven’t seen his operation, you’re in for a treat. It’s impressive. The regimen and discipline are beautiful to behold. He’s been the commandant for six years or so.” Rosewud turned to Blackhawk. “I’ll introduce you. You might want to request Fairness Crossing for your next assignment. There are great rewards for a properly motivated soldier like yourself. And with you starting so young,” the undersecretary looked him over, “fifteen or so?”
“There’s no limit.”
The undersecretary continued without encouragement, Blackhawk nodding now and then.
Some people just have to talk. Can’t stop them without offending them, so you let them. George Rosewud is one of those people.
Rosewud rambled on, “…Order of Black Robe uses…”
At mention of the Order, Blackhawk thought back. His life had changed drastically. First, he’d been an orphan on the streets of Farr. At four, he’d been taken in by his patron, Gaelib Melazera, Lord of Lorness. At eleven, he’d been sent to North Fort.
Lord Melazera had explained, “Commandant Sulla will train you for leadership in my army. Be careful, someday an operative will try to recruit you into the Order. Don’t let them tell you too much. They’ll kill you to protect their secrets if you don’t join.”
“…the Order keeps…”
Blackhawk’s musing ended. “Who are they?”
“Hmmm…? Oh. The easiest explanation is they’re highly trained bureaucrats. The Order finds people without trade or worthy parentage and prepares them to support the kingdom's infrastructure. It also educates soldiers looking for advancement.”
Blackhawk’s understanding of it was incomplete. Gaelib had accused his wife, Caileagh, of pushing things too fast. Each argument provided another piece of the puzzle. His picture was built so gradually that neither was aware he knew about it. They didn’t mention Black Robes or the Order, usually talking about sparrows, or ravens, or hawks.
He decided it’d be better to take control of the conversation before Rosewud revealed too much. He wasn’t joining the Order, didn’t plan on dying, and couldn’t kill the undersecretary. It would complicate his life.