In the grandeur of Castle Lorness, Caileagh, The Countess of Lorness, moved with regal grace through the opulent Grand Hall, her elegant emerald silk gown trailing behind her. A jeweled coronet nestled in her auburn hair that framed her perfect heart-shaped face. Her dark amber eyes flashed as she scanned the room with an air of command.
Every room reinforced her prestige and status as the most powerful woman in the land. Tapestries depicting the Melazera family history warmed each room. Portraits of its rulers marched across every hall. And dozens of liveried servants bore the family’s green dragon crest.
She maneuvered through the sea of guests as hushed whispers spoke of fear, fueled by the rumors she carefully orchestrated. Nobles called in loans to pay the taxes Gaelib had imposed on behalf of the king as his steward. She’d foreseen the abductions of women and children—but such a strong response was a delightful surprise.
“Lord Macom, it is a pleasure to see you,” she greeted with honeyed words. “I adore your new jacket. It makes your eyes absolutely radiant.”
The lord, captivated, took her hand, kissing it with a bow. "You're most kind. You are as a second sun, granting us the gifts of warmth and light." She glanced at the ground, feigning shyness, then took his arm.
“I believe Gaelib has something that will enchant you beyond words. Let me tell him you’re here. Please wait in his private solarium.”
With practiced finesse, she led him away, leaving him eager to please. She traversed the room, delighted in the snippets of conversation that ardently pushed for an expanded army, all in response to the rumors she had planted. Delightful. The rumors she’d spread flourished, reinforced and amplified by these fools.
She hoped Gaelib appreciated her spies. They’d helped him expand his economic control.
Her path eventually led her to Gaelib, surrounded by admirers. A baron, who wore a flowing violet robe embroidered in gold, laughed and bobbed his head at Gaelib’s every word. Several wealthy merchants were panting like dogs, eager to get him alone. A dozen more men and their wives made a cordon around him, waiting, hoping to get closer. The famous bard, Fartuche, strummed his lute in the background, adding to the ambiance.
Like bees to the flowering foxglove.
Gaelib was fine boned, splendidly adorned in black velvet and leather. Piercing green eyes flashed from beneath wavy black hair that framed his sculpted face. Jewels studded his jacket and the dagger in his belt.
Caileagh waited, feigning casual interest, until Gaelib's eyes found her. She glided into his arms, a picture of the doting wife. His face lit up, and she savored the familiar scent of cloves and frankincense that enveloped him. Even after ten years of marriage, she relished playing the doting, obedient wife, as her mother had taught her. It was one of her favorite roles.
Then, as if conjured by her thought, her mother, Farina Melazera, Dowager Countess, made a grand entrance. The room fell silent as her hazel-eyed presence commanded attention. Her black satin gown shimmered with gold threads. Many jeweled combs held her red silk scarf in place over her braided hair twisted high upon her head. Each man bowed as she passed.
Farina settled next to a wealthy merchant who was in deep conversation with other men. Upon seeing her, they bobbed their heads toward her, entranced by whatever she’d said. She placed a hand on the merchant’s arm and he led her out. Her latest conquest.
Caileagh's thoughts momentarily flickered to the lessons her mother had imparted, the art of manipulation, and the sacrifices made to maintain control. She remembered when her mother had seduced Gaelib’s father as she watched every day from a hidden place.
A shiver of a nightmare briefly crossed Caileagh's face, but she concealed it with a cheery smile.
She kissed Gaelib on the cheek, stroked his hair, whispered into his ear, and departed.
Dressed as the high priestess, she commanded her escorts, “Ready my horse. We ride for the sanctuary.”
Caileagh's heart quickened. They approached the Bloody Rocks of Lorness that jutted up out of the ground at all angles, rising thirty yards into the air, creating cliffs and caverns. Many of them, streaked with iron, seemed to bleed. The sanctuary lay within an ancient cave where the Alte Regieren, the Ancient Ones, held sway.
Many stories of people lost there and never seen again, rumors spread by Caileagh’s birds, were working. She rarely encountered anyone on her rides to the Sanctuary of the Alte Regieren. If she did, they died, becoming part of her mythology.
Caileagh donned the ornate silver mask shaped like a nest of serpents, its edges surrounded with featherlike points. When she entered the illuminated cave, the petitioners within bowed, forming a corridor to the high stone altar.
Her soul soared. Energized by this ancient place, her guiding spirits filled her with authority. Inspiration flooded her mind and body with every step.
She looked up at the lofty dome made even darker by the hundreds of candles surrounding her, like walking amidst the stars.
She inhaled the intoxicating fragrances rising from braziers of burning incense. Her Gods had conventions to be followed. The rituals would ensure they hear her requests. And that they would accept these new acolytes.
They fell silent, leaving only a slow, melodic dripping of water somewhere deep in the cave.
She spoke the ancient words, “Ahule glòir a bhith aig ar maighstir.” All glory be to our Master, who brings Order out of Chaos. Her voice reverberated like thunder through the cavern.
“Bidh an òrdugh aige coilenta agus sìorraidh,” the acolytes responded. His order will be complete and everlasting.
Their voices thrummed through her.
She spread her arms, surveying them. “Welcome to your initiation.”
One by one, each of the new acolytes approached the stone table, spoke their oath, drew a knife across their left forearm, letting their blood drip, drip, drip into the ornate bronze bowl. The carvings of snakes and birds inside seemed to squirm with the dark, ruby contents.
She raised the vessel to the Gods and drank, sealing their devotion. The acolytes, now bound to her and the Ancient Ones, recited their solemn oath:
“I swear upon my blood to execute my office with all my soul, mind, and strength. I will bring honor to the Order of the Black Robe as long as I shall live.”
These would no longer be simple functionaries in government offices and merchant houses. They were now soul bound to the secret agenda of the Order, to further the designs of Gaelib and Caileagh, as well as the spirits they had beckoned in.
Raising her arms, she said, “From this moment onward, you are acolytes of the Order.”
Caileagh emphasized the secrecy of their duties and the consequences of betrayal. The silver mask reflected the torchlight, giving the engraved serpents an illusion of movement. “I will assign you as we have opportunity and need. You will perform every task required of you fervently, without question, without deviation. Any complaints shall be investigated most…intensively.”
Caileagh continued, “You will love your masters, enchanting them to gain their confidence. Go slowly. There is no need to rush. In this way, we will saturate the kingdom, creating the new dominion. ”
Each new acolyte left, adorned with a silver brooch marking their newfound status in the Order of the Black Robe.
In the candlelit chamber of Lorness Castle, Gaelib considered the intricately carved map carved to scale from thick blocks of walnut. High Keep was the highest point, and it accurately @@@described the borders of Mestelina, Esthlanis, Tarinland, and the Sea of Glass. Game pieces, both physical and political, traversed the landscape as Gaelib contemplated the vast expanse of Freislicht. In his mind's eye, he saw the ebb and flow of power—spiritual, political, and physical—visualizing the influence he held over the kingdom. He was a god.
While King Edal ruled Freislicht, his dukes, earls, and lesser nobles had independent control of their own domains. Royal law was the basis of all legal practice, but each noble managed its application.
The lunar celebration, hosted at Lorness Castle each full moon, provided Gaelib with the perfect stage for his machinations. As the steward to King Edal these last ten years, he wielded considerable influence, far surpassing the king's authority in the realm. Lorness Castle, though not the largest, stood as a beacon of power due to the Melazera family's political prowess. It was here that the most crucial decisions were crafted, often long before reaching the capital, High Keep.
At dawn, Black Robe acolytes, sworn to Gaelib, arrived to provide him with the latest intelligence on his constituents. With meticulous attention, he examined deposits, tributes, and the increased taxes he had cunningly recommended to the king for the growing army. Gaelib's shrewd understanding of noble finances allowed him to manipulate the system, anticipating the failure points and reaping the rewards.
The abrupt increase in taxes forced many nobles to call in loans given to peasants aspiring to become landowners, a scheme of the king’s that Gaelib had encouraged. The resulting chaos and fear among commoners led to a mass exodus, leaving abandoned lands ripe for exploitation. Gaelib reveled in the notion of acquiring both wealth and control over the frontier lands of the west in the future.
To allow just anyone to own land and become self-reliant.
He himself had generously sold off half his own lands to show his support of the king’s idea. He knew it would fail at some point and he’d gain both the money acquired in payments thus far, as well the return of the land to be resold. Earning double in many cases.
Debt collections carried out at strategic locations, spread fear and collected the greatest amount of coin. It would take many moons to resell the abandoned lands, but women and children…. Gaelib preferred to always have hard, cold baden coming in.
Having arranged his finances and welcomed each noble personally, Gaelib observed Duke Robbet Fredruck of Wooster entering Lorness Castle's halls. The duke, a friend of the king, was an occasional thorn in Gaelib's side. From an alcove above, Gaelib watched with amusement as Fredruck navigated through the festivities.
The duke looked rather valiant, dressed modestly, wearing a sword and dagger. His three personal guards dressed in leather, carried both swords and short bows.
Gaelib was amused that the duke had come here at all, even more during one of the lunar celebrations. Fredruck could have summoned Gaelib to him at any time. But then Gaelib’s entourage would roam freely over his estate.
Perhaps he thinks he can hide something from me.
Gaelib did expect to hear from his neighbor about recent events. He needed to find a way to bring the Duke to heel, gently. He preferred pleasure over coercion. But coercion could be entertaining as well.
When Fredruck was finally ushered into a private room, Gaelib couldn't contain his excitement. He animatedly entertained the sycophants around him, occasionally playing with his ornate dagger or running his fingers through his raven-black hair. Meanwhile, Fredruck, growing impatient, awaited Gaelib's entrance.
Upon Gaelib's arrival, he spread his arms wide in a gesture that discomfited the duke. "Welcome, Your Grace. I am so sorry for the long wait," Gaelib apologized with a deep bow. "As the king's steward, I've so many duties. Nobles seek me incessantly. Come, sit. Let's clear up
Duke Fredruck glowered. “Yes, Earl of Lorness, I am sure we can come to a resolution,” he said as he sat. “Forbid your soldiers to trespass onto my lands. Then they’ll not encounter my people nor try to arrest any.”
“Please, I must entertain you before we discuss such arrangements.” Gaelib raised a hand, and many scantily-clad maidens entered, surrounding the duke. The first offered him a goblet of wine, the next a plate of sliced fruit.
“This is quite unnecessary,” Fredruck said flatly, as he motioned the women away.
But they slowly removed their embroidered bodices and lifted their silky shifts. Four came closer and curtseyed low. The metallic scraping of drawn swords caused them to freeze as the duke’s three armed escorts stepped in.
“Earl Melazera,” Fredruck stood and growled, “this is beyond inappropriate. I shall take my complaint directly to the king. I’ll also require my commoners to bear arms and aid my troops in order to dissuade your soldiers from foolishness. We shall arrest any of yours that set foot on my land and impose the full penalties of the law. Good day.” He abruptly turned and left.
Gaelib shrugged. All his essential tasks done, he retired to his solarium, where he found Lord Macom enjoying the pleasures of the room.
It was brightly lit from windows high in the domed ceiling made of hundreds of tiny panes of glass. To control the temperature, dozens of curtains of the sheerest silk were hung and drawn across the light to diffuse the room with color and give a little shade.
Macom startled from his reverie. “Lord Melazera!”
“Don’t get up Macom, I shall join you.”
Several slave girls brought grapes and cheeses to Gaelib as he lay back on a black velvet couch. Another removed his clothing for the room was warm like the royal baths.
Macom waved a hand in praise as several girls rubbed more oil on his skin. “My lord, your solarium is like the southern isles complete with the hospitality.”
Gaelib smiled. “I’m so happy you approve. My dear Lord Macom, I’d like you to make a covert delivery to our neighbor, Duke Fredruck. I’ll send my man to you with the details tomorrow.”
Lord Macom nodded. He was in no position to refuse and as of yet, had no reason to want to.
Freislicht did not condone slavery, but what the king didn’t know, he could not stop. The only difference between a servant and a slave is whether they were free to leave.
The lunar celebration waned, and the castle's halls echoed with the remnants of agreements and broken promises. Finally, as the guests retired for the night and Caileagh sought solace in her sanctuary, Gaelib returned to his map table. With a calculated gaze, he studied the assets before him, plotting the expansion of his financial footholds.
In the shadows of the chamber, Gaelib envisioned the demise of King Edal and the ascension of Sagen. Caileagh’s vision, confirmed by the Warrior, foretold Gaelib's role as the closest and only friend to the new king, a position he aimed to exploit to its fullest extent. The chessboard of power lay open before him, and Gaelib Melazera played the game with an unmatched mastery.
Dressed in the guise of a lesser noble’s son, Gaelib’s spy strolled gracefully through the lavishly decorated halls of Lorness Castle, a silent observer in the midst of the lunar celebration.
The castle shimmered with opulence—vivid flowers emitting overpowering fragrances, tables adorned with rich, exotic food, and colorful silk draping every window, infusing the air with vibrant hues. Servants, wearing garlands on their heads, eagerly handed out wine goblets to those without.
On the upper floor, where the true festivities unfolded, the spy found his perch. Couples in various stages of undress occupied alcoves, and an air of indulgence hung thick. Meanwhile, on the main floor, a more subdued celebration welcomed new visitors and uninitiated guests. Only Caileagh or Gaelib held the power to invite someone upstairs, safeguarding the sanctity of the lunar celebration and the reputations of their fully initiated guests.
Leaning against a marble column, the spy smiled, reveling in the apex of his career. He basked in the knowledge that he had the ear of the priestess of the Alte Regieren, and the priestess herself had foretold the realization of his desires. Recollections of his arduous journey flooded his mind.
At the age of eleven, his mother had tearfully escorted him to a giant white tent in the market, promising a brighter future.
Black banners fluttered at each corner, each held by a curvy bronze snake. Colorful jugglers entertained the people and musicians sang merry songs while he and his mother waited in the long line. A hawker bellowed, “Come one, come all! The kingdom prospers so we need many more scribes and counting men. Join the Order of the Black Robe and learn these skills. No apprenticeship fee is required. The Order will train your sons and place them well.”
It was hours before he finally came to the front and faced the scrutiny of soldiers guarding a crude oak table. A scribe from the Order of the Black Robe, with cropped brown hair and a close-fitting black tunic, assessed him.
A thick, black, woolen robe was draped over the back of his chair. The man had pleasing, bright eyes that seemed to see into a person’s soul. His skin glowed and his powerful muscles flexed beneath the satin cloth. Surely his impressive countenance was due to the advantage of daily meals.
Something that he might receive also if he pleased his new masters.
The man added his name to the thick journal on the table. It bore witness to the many names above his.
Thus began his journey into servitude and the dark arts, culminating in his role as a roving spy for Gaelib Melazera, the Earl of Lorness.
His thoughts drifted to his mother, forced to work for the sharp-tongued tailor, Mister Compton. The spy remembered the night he discovered Compton in his mother's room and the subsequent events that led him to the Alte Regieren.
He didn’t blame his mother. She did her best to feed him, taking any job she could find. Times were hard since his father died. Finally, she was forced to do housework for the tailor, Mister Compton. It included a room for her and straw in the barn for him.
Compton was a sharp-tongued man with dark hair and tiny eyes. He used her terribly.
The spy had come home late and always told his mother goodnight. He opened the door to find Compton pulling on his fancy breeches. His mother met his eyes and turned away in shame. The next day, as she served the breakfast, Compton suggested she take him to the Order. She hesitated and he threatened to throw them both out.
Her many tears stung him as she begged and begged. “The boy will not be a burden,” she said. “Nothing would change. He’ll earn his keep.”
Compton would not be moved. He sneered and pointed to the door, not a shred of compassion.
The spy thought of the things he would teach Compton soon.
Now, amidst the lunar celebration, he blended with the guests, pretending to be enamored with the festivities. His keen senses picked up fragments of conversations as the guests indulged in drink and jests. Seeking valuable information for Lord Melazera, he remained discreet, like each of the many Eagles positioned in castles throughout Freislicht.
As the day waned, the spy catalogued snippets of information, and with the departure of the last of the noteworthy guests, he turned his attention to his own desires. Hunting for the young maid that intrigued him earlier.
He found her leaning against the stone wall outside the kitchen.
“Hello, sweet one, are you free to take a walk?” The spy smiled innocently, his hand sweeping toward the garden. He gathered from her loitering and her dress, that she was new to the castle and had no family to keep her safe against the likes of him.
The First Runic Precept of the Alte Regieren states: Please thyself. He certainly meant to do that. Anyone accepted into the Alte Regieren would bear no consequences in this castle.
He took in her gaze that measured his rank as a noble by his attire, although a lower one. One that might actually be allowed to marry a servant. He felt her deciding if he was safe. He tingled as she hesitated and blushed. This one might be a virgin.
“My name is Gaspar Neller.” Not his real name. No one here knew his real name. He gave her a courtly bow. “I recently came from River Town to squire for my kinsman, Baron Neller. Do you know of him?” Everyone knew of Neller who had many visiting relatives during the celebration.
He could read her face as she calculated the risk. She might be freed of servitude if they established a friendship that led to courtship and marriage. The spy had no intention of making that commitment, nor taking that much time to taste her goods.
“Oh, yes, I’ve served several of Lord Neller’s daughters.”
He offered her his arm and she took it.
“Is this your first time to Lorness Castle, my lord?”
He told her a fanciful story of his lordly exploits. He could feel her excitement grow as she leaned into her hope. He fed it expertly. This time he was a cloth merchant’s son.
“I’ve heard some fabrics are softer than flower petals. Do you have such?” She rubbed the simple linen of her sleeve between her fingers.
He nodded, smiling. That seemed to interest her. A good choice.
“Do you have silk and velvet, too?”
“Of course, we sell every kind,” he said as they continued walking.
They reached the end of the garden, he opened a door and said, “Come, I’d like to show you a very luxurious fabric that I bought recently for my father. I am excited to show him, it is my first purchase for the family business. Perhaps you can tell me what you think.” He led her down the dimly lit corridor.
He took a candle from the wall when they reached the storage room and tugged her inside. “Come, it’s very special…”
He almost chuckled as it registered on her face that there were no luxurious bolts of cloth. Only a pallet of wrinkled fabric on the floor. But he had already slammed the door and pushed her against the wall.
“Show me what you would do for me on our wedding night, silly girl.” He sneered, brandishing his dagger. Take off this nice shift. You wouldn’t want me to tear it, would you?”
It had been too long since he’d had a chance like this so it went far too quickly. He thought about locking the girl in there for later. But it might complicate his life if anyone missed her.
The spy stood and fastened his breeches. He dropped a handkerchief. You should dry your face and calm yourself.
He left her still sobbing, he reminded her, “Don’t tell anyone of this or you might end up in the earl’s dungeon. And I’ll be long gone. But I’ll look for you when I come back.”
He sighed as he left her and closed the door quietly. It wasn’t likely he would find one this easy before he departed so he’d have to deny himself until he went to Lord Macom’s castle. There he would also be free of consequences.
After the weeklong festivities ended, he would follow Lord Macom home. That lord was also a member of the Alte Regieren and useful to Lord Melazera.
The spy served Earl Gaelib Melazera. Melazera alone—until he found his mother. Then he would serve himself. And Compton would pay.
Blackhawk, feeling the weight of his lord's warnings, decided to steer the conversation with Rosewud in a direction that wouldn't jeopardize his own plans. As they journeyed south, leaving behind the tall forest for the rolling hills around Fairness Crossing, Blackhawk ran his hand through his curly black hair, nodding as Rosewud continued his chatter. He wasn’t joining the Order, didn’t plan on dying, and couldn’t kill the undersecretary.
It would complicate his life.
Better to keep things simple, better to always remain entertaining, helpful, and complimentary, a chameleon, as he was taught.
"Where’d you get the shillelagh?" Blackhawk inquired, diverting the topic to the intricately carved weapon Rosewud carried.
Rosewud rolled the shillelagh in his hands, recounting its history as a family heirloom. The undersecretary's father had sold him to the Order when he was thirteen, and upon completing his training, he reclaimed the shillelagh from his father's lifeless grasp. The Order had no qualms about personal vendettas, as long as the initiates fulfilled their assignments.
As soon as Rosewud paused, Blackhawk seized an opportunity, asking, “How did you find yourself in the Earl's service?”
“I did my best to be entertaining, helpful, and complimentary to my lord, as you should be. Perhaps you can rise to serve him. He’s always looking for talented men to…”
Blackhawk recognized the primary tactic of Caileagh Melazera: always remain entertaining, helpful, and complimentary.
Following her training, you were never seen as a threat, but as a useful tool. As time went on, you became more and more accepted, then indispensable, always gaining inch by inch, more and more influence. This is how the Order took control of a kingdom.
“How did you come to be his undersecretary?" Blackhawk interjected. He easily led the undersecretary’s thoughts here and there, as Caileagh had taught him. All Blackhawk had to do was drop breadcrumbs. Blackhawk had lived with the earl and his countess for seven years. He might not be part of the Order, but he’d learned all the lessons.
The sun descended and the shadows grew longer. Finally, they entered a town and stopped in front of a freshly painted white building with a blue door. Above it hung a sign: COMMANDANT.
Blackhawk looked back at the cage, meeting the gaze of Little Soldier. Despite her being just another girl, an inexplicable knot formed in his gut.
Rosewud jumped off the cart and went inside but was only gone for a few moments. “Greysun’s at his camp.” He sighed and boarded the cart, snapping the reins.
The town of Fairness Crossing comprised about forty rundown wooden buildings laid out in a square. Of the twelve they passed, three were brothels painted brightly—red, blue, yellow, violet—like the gaily decorated stalls at Faire Day. Swaying skirts beckoned from the porches as the colorful ladies blew kisses.
Blackhawk craned his neck, his attention lingering until they were out of sight.
Once far beyond the town, they reached the training camp—a brown building surrounded by tents and muddy fields filled with soldiers.
The rhythmic drills stirred nostalgia in Blackhawk for the boys he had trained with at North Fort just a moon ago.
Stopping at the building, Greysun, a towering figure in a ruby-red surcoat, emerged to inspect the cargo. His wavy brown hair touched his shoulders. Squinting against the light, he surveyed his army in the distance as he descended the steps, stroking his thick beard. The commandant asked, “Any trouble on the ride from River Town?”
Rosewud responded with familiarity, “The roads were smoother today than earlier in the week. Blackhawk here was good company. Let me introduce you. Lieutenant, meet Commandant Virgil Greysun.”
“Commandant.” Blackhawk bowed.
“Virgil, this is Steven Blackhawk. He’s the youngest ever to make lieutenant.”
“Lieutenant.” Greysun examined the boy.
“Blackhawk.” Rosewud directed his hand toward the superior officer. “Commandant Greysun trains most of the king’s soldiers. He’s a genius with the boys. They’re ferocious when he’s done with them.” Turning back to Greysun, he said, “I was telling Lieutenant Blackhawk this posting could advance his career. He would learn a lot from you, Commandant.”
“You flatter me, Rosewud. Let’s see what you’ve brought.” He swaggered from the porch. Several jeweled awards decorated his pristine uniform.
“I’ve seven boys and six girls.” George whacked the side of the cart, gesturing for the whimpering children to stand up.
Greysun reached into the cage. He pinched the boys’ muscles, inspected their teeth, and checked their ears looking for defects. “Where’d you get them?”
“My lord called the loans on four properties yesterday. The families couldn’t pay, so I appropriated their children. I’ll have more next moon. Want them?”
“If they’re as good as these,” Greysun said with a grin. “Absolutely. However, it’s expensive. The lads keep growing. Half don’t learn and end up in the mines. I barely break even.” He chuckled. “Selling girls to the new brothel may cover outfitting the boys.” He pointed at Blackhawk. “Bring them all out so I can get a better look.”
Blackhawk grabbed the shillelagh from the cart and walked to the back. He lifted the latch and tapped the cage. He pulled out two at a time, pushing them roughly by the neck into a line before the commandant. He returned for two more.
Children retreated to the back of the cage, cowering—all except Little Soldier, who held the small boy’s hand. She glared, pointing her finger at him.
He snorted. “Come, girl.” He carried them, one under each arm, and dropped them in their spot in the line. When all were in place, boys on one end, girls on the other, all were whimpering but one.
Greysun ambled past each, poking and prodding. “Quiet!”
The brood fell silent. The girl glowered, but Greysun didn’t see it.
Blackhawk almost smiled.
“I’ll take the lot,” Greysun announced, rubbing his hands together. “These’ll do well.”
Parading back and forth before the girls while he talked, Greysun stared into each one’s eyes. He stopped in front of Little Soldier and rubbed the child’s fine yellow curls in his fingers. “This little one will need time to mature, but they’ll find a use for her until then.”
Blackhawk looked down and sighed.
She should not be made a whore.
Rosewud and Greysun were discussing details when Blackhawk interrupted. “Shall I take the girls to the brothel?” He grinned.
“I see why you made rank so quickly.” Greysun pointed. “You want the one with the green door on the main street, on the right. Ask for Madam Bonaforte. Tell her the commandant sent you with trainees.”
“Don’t get distracted, Lieutenant.” Rosewud smirked, flicking dust from his tunic. “Bring back my cart first.”
Turning to Greysun, George Rosewud snorted, “He’s got coin enough in his pocket to go around several times. I did when I was his age.”
Greysun laughed and motioned for Rosewud to follow him. “Let me offer you a drink. I received a bottle of…”
Blackhawk pointed at the girls, then the cart. “Back in the cage,” he barked. They hesitated so he gestured with the shillelagh. “Hurry.”
They moved, Little Soldier still scowling.
“Don’t blame me,” he whispered as she passed, an unfamiliar twinge needling him. “I’m just following orders.” He frowned, slamming the door.
It was the new moon of late spring.
Owakar was horrified when the young soldier offered to drive the girls to the brothel. He could see the guardians share worried looks.
This is terrible! I have failed. I’ll never be a full-fledged watcher.
Who suggested we trust this heathen boy?
It would be impossible to protect her without revealing her importance if Sarah Otual entered that brothel. Gossiping demons passing through riding their victims would surely notice and report seeing guardians to the Warrior. And it would be very bad if she drew his attention. He gasped in a breath.
The Melazera’s might become interested.
Owakar paced, invisible, lost in thought. He barely notice the people and animals around him.
What could he do? He prayed and prayed, his eyes on the young soldier.
Owakar made the sign beside the door brighter so the boy would read it. He whispered and whispered about the innocent girls, especially Sarah who he seemed fascinated with.
Guardians could get her out, but that wouldn’t do. That wouldn’t do at all.
He left the guardians in charge of her. Owakar froze time and called Alocrin. Then he materialized dressed as a commoner in an alley between the stable and the Lion and Tiger Inn.
Etched into the sign above the door were the snarling heads of a lion and a tiger, their paws pressed together.
Today they were serving baked potatoes topped with fresh oregano, sage, and thyme. The aroma filled his nose as he entered. He reveled in its glorious flavor. He paid for a plate and nibbled the first half. Such amazing gifts our father bestowed on them. He would stay solid in the Density if he could, but he didn’t have time to walk everywhere. And the limitations of the flesh impeded his assignment. And he was still afraid to suffer like them.
Alocrin arrived, wearing a flashy red cloak.
Owakar waved at him. “Why do you dress so boldly? Aren’t you worried that you will be remembered?”
Smiling, Alocrin surveyed the room. The people here, will only remember the story they make up about the rich young man in the red cloak. They will not remember our faces, only our expressions and the way we make them feel.
Alocrin listened intently as Owakar told him how his tasks were proceeding. “Good, very good. Your reports are timely and your interventions well-planned. You are doing well, Owakar.”
“I feel so inadequate.” Owakar looked at his hands for a moment. “I want to fix their problems. To end their suffering.”
“It is normal to feel that way.” Alocrin put a firm hand on his shoulder. “It shall end. When the God of Truth has answered all the Serpent’s objections, the sentence will be given. However, if you change a person’s journey by your will, you take away their free-will and concede that the Serpent is right. You must walk in wisdom when you interfere.”
“What can I do? The boy is taking her to the brothel.”
Alocrin continued, “Fear not, Owakar, trust our father’s plan. The Serpent refused the governing of our father, the God of Truth. Chaos is a natural product of free-will without love. We have it in the celestial sea, therefore we see it in the Density as well. Unbridled self-interest creates evil. J’shua made a way for mankind to receive forgiveness and govern themselves with the Law of Love. Only the God of Truth sees the whole picture. Now get back there and let their time flow. Be at peace. Walk in love.”
When they finished their meal, Alocrin left first.
Owakar finished his potato and departed.
Once he turned the corner, he transformed into light again and vanished. Returning he watched in despair.
Lieutenant Blackhawk navigated the narrow, dusty streets of Fairness Crossing, preoccupied with conflicting thoughts. The main street, flanked by drab little shops, led him to his destination—the brothel with a green door.
He brought the cart to a halt, the girls whimpering in the cage behind him.
Glancing at the sign beside the door that proclaimed, "Your fantasy awaits," he grimaced. This wasn't a fantasy for the girls.
He’d used whores, but they seemed well-adjusted to their lot. He smiled. They seemed to like it. Did they? He thought of his own dissembling with his lord.
These girls had innocent souls. But what could he do?
His passage into the underside of life had been gentler. He wasn’t caged or beaten into submission. No, he’d been seduced by food and warmth and sweets and…what he’d once perceived as safety. He didn’t know any other way.
Why did he care? Everyone serves someone. He knew his place. They would adapt, just as he had.
Blackhawk’s boots scraped on the dusty street as he dismounted from the cart of whimpering girls. As he approached the brothel, the door swung open and a cheerful gentleman strutted out, exotic perfume in his wake.
At the entrance, a young girl, lips colored ruby red, welcomed him with a feathery black fan. She seemed about thirteen, her red shift low cut and covered with a tight-fitted leather bodice.
Blackhawk entered, scanning the front room. Three fellows lounged at a table beside the door playing knucklebones. Two yelled their disappointment about losing again. The winner, in a dark tunic, tight across bulky shoulders, scooped up the coins. “You’ll leave the sword with me if you want service,” he said, eyeing Blackhawk impassively. His scarred hands, raked in the bones and rolled another turn.
“I am Lieutenant Blackhawk, Commandant Greysun sent me with trainees.”
The man nodded to the girl, who curtsied, her movements accentuating every curve. Huskily, she directed him to wait and gestured towards a plush chair.
Blackhawk leaned against the wall and watched her alluring gait as she disappeared down a long hall with doors on either side.
Soon, Madam Bonaforte glided into the room, big busted, black silk robes rustling. Coils of dark hair cascaded from a ruby scarf. Cloying perfume, perhaps gardenia, patchouli, and geranium, as overbearing as the rest of her, attempted to cover the odor of some wretched disease. Brown eyes of stone, set in a much-painted face, bored into Blackhawk. She could not hide her frown lines and years of despair.
Her working days were long over. Something in her dark, hollow eyes reminded him of Caileagh, his lord’s wife.
“Thank you for delivering our new prospects,” she purred. Madam Bonaforte purred. She directed him to a pen in the back for their evaluation. Blackhawk bowed, acknowledging her instructions. “Clara will meet you.” the madame declared, motioning towards the young girl. Blackhawk returned to the cart, proceeding to navigate the narrow streets.
Barrels, rock piles, and stacks of roughhewn timber littered the street. Other wagons impeded his advance, distracting him as he maneuvered around them to the alley. There, he encountered broken crates and smelly puddles of waste. Many deliveries, not yet taken indoors, including a pile of clean straw, blocked his way.
He glanced back at Little Soldier, still watching him.
Deep in a recess formed by surrounding buildings, he spied the pen and Clara, who squinted and shaded her eyes from the sun. Blackhawk stopped the cart; the cage’s floor was blocked from Clara’s view. He watched the young harlot fan herself as she leaned against the building, her gaze now fixed on the back door. One by one, Blackhawk took each girl from the cage and tossed her into the pen. He got them all out except one.
What was he doing? It was crazy.
Watch that door, wench.
He motioned for Little Soldier to lie flat. Her eyebrows raised as she kneeled and lay on her belly, still staring at him.
The whore re-latched the pen, leering, beckoning him to follow her. His lack of response didn’t discourage her. She prowled toward him, closer and closer to the cart. She licked her lips.
“Sheisse,” Blackhawk cursed under his breath.
He smiled and sauntered toward her. Pulling her close, he twirled her around so she faced the building and kissed her hungrily. He smacked her on the rump as he said, “Later, sweetheart. The commandant will kill me if I dally.”
Clara pushed him, shrugging. With a flutter of her fan, she disappeared inside.
Blackhawk turned back to the cart to find the attentive Little Soldier up on her elbows—grinning. “Down,” he hissed.
She flopped on her belly, her smile wider.
He rolled his eyes and jumped aboard. He drove away, but soon he stopped. With a frown on his face, he dismounted to examine the horse’s leg. He whispered, “Little Soldier, see that pile of straw? Your da would want you to hide there like you did in the woods. Go. I’ll be back when it’s dark.”
He finished checking each leg and went back to close the cage. She was gone.
You are something.
He returned to the garrison and found Rosewud waiting in front of the brown building. “I think I’ll stick around for a few days. See the sights; you know what I mean?” Blackhawk flashed a grin. “And I might talk to Commandant Greysun about a future post.” He held his breath, waiting for a response to his dissimulation.
“Good idea, lad.” The undersecretary smiled enthusiastically and tossed him a pouch that clinked pleasantly. Blackhawk thanked him with a nod.
Rosewud smiled. “Since I’ve an empty cart and you’re staying, I can return directly to Lorness. When you’re ready to leave, speak with the proprietor at the Hook and Shoe. Tell him I sent you. He’ll loan you a horse to take you to High Keep. I’ll pick it up when I get there next moon.” A militet dropped a heavy chest behind the cart’s seat with an informative jingle and thud. “It looks like this’ll be a regular trip.” Rosewud cracked the reins.
Blackhawk waved as the undersecretary of Gaelib Melazera departed. He puttered around the dingy town. Buying provisions and renting the horse took up the rest of the daylight. There were no sights to see, nor was he in the mood to vent his frustrations on some girl for hire. He tightened his pack as he watched other men entering the brothel across the street. Somehow, the idea made him uneasy. It never had before. He sighed and kicked the dirt.
Owakar shook with relief. However, they were not out of trouble yet.
The boy was certainly brave enough to take the girl to safety. Would he get distracted or change his mind? One thing he knew was that humans could not be trusted.
Owakar gathered everything about this boy on the luach. The fact that not much appeared meant the God of Truth had deliberately kept his past a secret. God reveals only what is necessary for us from the Book of Life through the luach. He has many secrets. Something about this boy was special. He guessed that if anyone knew the truth, it might be revealed to the boy or an enemy of the boy. And somehow that would harm the boy’s soul or misdirect the plan of God. Now he was curious. Secrets always made him curious.
Blackhawk was taken in by Gaelib Melazera and had served him directly since he was four. The depravity that was recorded about the earl made Owakar shudder. It explained why he was strong in self-protection, keeping his thoughts and desires so tightly buried. He was beginning to understand the boy’s guarded nature.
Owakar paced while he watched. And prayed.
Perhaps they would save each other.
The luach hummed, pushing him to focus on his other celestial duties.
Just do the tasks Owakar. I’m as impatient as a human.