Chapter 3: Unseen Hand
Drake Caswell arrived in his meeting house, nestled within the low outer walls of Caswell Castle. He was the youngest son of Mardom, the Sixth Earl of Caswell, the latest in an unbroken noble lineage that stretched back to the reign of King Weisheit.
When his great-great-great-great-grandfather founded the town, he was not a nobleman, but a rich merchant. He was made an earl after aiding King Weisheit in battle. Caswell Castle was built by his son.
Mardom Caswell’s four older sons had joined the Royal Guard. Drake had sought the way of J’shua. As fifth in line of succession for the family title, the Earl had seen no reason to prohibit it. So, he became a knight at the same time as Jonathan.
Drake admired the chamber, brightly lit with candles all around. The Weavers Guild had adorned it with the most expensive tapestries crafted from the brightest yarns, depicting the best-known stories from the Writings. The largest, and his personal favorite, depicted J’shua sharing his final meal, tearing bread, and offering it to his disciples. The colors radiated with his love and grace.
On the dais was a simple table covered with a pressed, white linen cloth. On it, an intricately carved book stand made of mahogany held the Complete Writings of J’shua.
Two large chandeliers, donated by the local glassmakers’ guild, were lit and raised. The scent of lilacs and roses emanated from stands at the ends of the oak benches.
Drake closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, savoring the fragrance. He hoped it pleased the Lord as much as it pleased him.
It had been his calling to become a Knight of J’shua. Part scholar, part cleric, and – in his case – a very small part warrior. The last being a skill only required when the Faith was in peril. It wasn’t within his flock. His Circle of devout followers could never be compromised.
As people arrived for the service, he greeted each with a holy kiss and gave them a personal blessing.
He was elated that his wife, Parynna, had begun to take an active interest in his Circle. She was so entertaining, helpful, and complimentary now. The congregation spoke well of her, for she was the perfect exemplar of a good woman. In the early years of their marriage, she’d not been happy. Drake had thought it homesickness. But lately, she’d become more engaged and more cheerful.
Perhaps our time at Farr Castle had been the turning point. She’s so much brighter since making friends with Gaelib’s wife.
Parynna sat in the front row. Her long brown hair flowed over a perfectly pressed tunic and simple skirt.
Drake could feel her love as she proudly beamed up at him. He began the service with the prayer that Mashiach taught the disciples, enjoying the reverberation of their voices through the lofty hall as the people recited it with him. Then he read the passages he’d prepared. “He is like a man that built a house, and dug deep laying the foundation on a rock. When the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, but could not shake it.”
Lord Caswell smiled upon his favorites in the front row, and they smiled back. Their admiration filled him. Then he gazed over the congregation. “But he that hears and does not act is like a man whose house was built without a foundation. When the stream did beat it vehemently, it fell into ruin.”
Drake knew the guilty. They shuffled in their seats and looked at their feet.
After his teaching, he asked for prayers and nodded to those he thought should speak. Three members would stand and pray as was expected.
My Circle is the perfect example of the Faith.
Rocks 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 Bloody Rocks of Lorness were said to be cursed. They’d spawned many stories of people lost there and never seen again. The 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.
Leaving her escort and horse behind, Caileagh donned the ornate silver mask that hid her identity, then entered the illuminated cave. The acolytes 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.
Her followers fell silent, leaving only the drip, drip, drip of water 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 in the cavern, like distant thunder.
“Bidh an òrdugh aige coilenta agus sìorraidh,” the acolytes responded. His order will be complete and everlasting.
The vibration of their voices thrummed through Caileagh.
“Welcome to your initiation, your practicum.” She spread her arms, surveying them.
One by one, each approached the stone table, spoke their oath, drew a knife across their left forearm, and let blood drip, drip, drip into the ornate bronze bowl. The carvings of snakes and birds on the inside seemed to move with its dark ruby contents.
When the last had returned to their original position, she raised the vessel to the Gods. Then she drank from it, enjoying its rich saltiness. “From this moment onward, you belong to the Inner Circle of our Order.”
Caileagh gasped, overwhelmed by a vision. A shining sword appeared. The pain was exquisite as its blade impaled her. When it withdrew, all feeling melted away. She fell to her knees.
Beware the maiden veiled and adorned in shining gold.
The revelation had only lasted a second, yet its message couldn’t be ignored.
Imitating her, the congregation had fallen to its knees.
She forced herself to rise, motioning for her followers to remain kneeling. “You must memorize the words of the runes, for they may never be written down and never spoken to anyone outside the Inner Circle. Any breach is punishable by death.”
“If we break this covenant, let us be devoured by the Gods,” they responded in unison.
Caileagh nodded. “I will assign you to an office in the structure of the kingdom, as we have opportunity and need. You will perform every task required of you fervently, without question, without deviation. The reputation of The Order of The Black Robe that you hide amongst is one of excellence. Any complaints shall be investigated most… intensively.
“You will love your masters, enchanting them to gain their confidence. Go very slowly. There is no need to rush. In this way, we will saturate the kingdom, creating the new order. Our next high day is at the dawn of the Goat. Your docent will teach you the preparations. You may go.”
River Town to Fairness Crossing
Steven Blackhawk ran a hand through his hair, nodding as Rosewud droned on. They’d turned south. The tall forest had given way to the rolling hills that surrounded Fairness Crossing. “Where’d you get the shillelagh? I’ve never seen one so intricately carved.”
Rosewud prattled about the family heirloom, recounting every beating his father gave him with it. And how he later clubbed his father to death with it. But that brought him to the topic of the Order again.
As soon as Rosewud paused, Steven asked, “How did you come to be Undersecretary to the Lord of Lorness?”
“I did my best to be entertaining and helpful to my lord, as you should be. Then perhaps you can rise to serve him. He’s always looking for talented men to…”
It was easy to lead the undersecretary’s train of thought as he’d learned from Caileagh. All Steven had to do was drop breadcrumbs.
As the sun descended and the shadows became longer, they stopped in front of a freshly painted white building with a blue door. Above it hung a sign, COMMANDANT.
Blackhawk glanced back at the cage to find Little Soldier’s eyes boring into him. He shouldn’t feel anything. She was just another girl. Yet, there was a knot in his gut. A small one. Perhaps he was hungry.
Rosewud jumped off the cart and went inside, but was only gone a few minutes. “Greysun’s at his camp.” He sighed, boarding the cart, then jerked the reins.
The town of Fairness Crossing consisted of about forty buildings, laid out in a square. Of the twelve they passed, three were brothels painted in bold hues – red, blue, yellow, violet, like the vendor stalls at Faire Day. Swaying skirts beckoned from the porches as the colorful ladies blew kisses. They made the young lieutenant want to go again.
Once beyond the town, they could see the training camp. One brown building amidst dozens of tents. The grassy fields teamed with training soldiers. Each squadron worked on a different technique, drilling with sword, axe or bow. Blackhawk recognized its rhythm, making him nostalgic for the boys he’d trained with only moons ago.
They pulled up to the building and stopped. Rosewud stepped off the wagon.
Blackhawk did likewise.
Greysun squinted as he sauntered out, his nose pointing high as he surveyed his soldiers in the distance. His wavy brown hair touched his shoulder. Tugging once on his ruby-red surcoat, he descended the steps, stroking his thick beard. He towered over Rosewud. He was even taller than Blackhawk. “Any trouble on the ride from River Town?”
“The roads were smoother today than earlier in the week, so we made good time. Blackhawk here was good company. Let me introduce you. Lieutenant, meet Commandant Virgil Greysun.”
“Pleased to meet you, sir.” Blackhawk bowed.
“Virgil, this is Steven Blackhawk. He’s the youngest to ever make lieutenant.”
“Pleased to meet you, Lieutenant.”
“Blackhawk,” Rosewud instructed, “Commandant Greysun trains most of the king’s soldiers. He’s a genius with the boys. They’re real fighters when he’s done with them.” Then, turning back to Greysun, “I was telling Lieutenant Blackhawk, this posting could advance his career. He’d learn a lot from you, Commandant.”
“You flatter me, Rosewud.” Greysun smirked. “Let’s see what you’ve brought.” He swaggered from the porch, several jeweled awards adorning 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 straight.
Greysun reached into the cage. Then he pinched the boys’ muscles, checked their teeth, and looked at their ears. “Where’d you get them?”
“My lord called the loans on four properties yesterday. The families couldn’t pay, so we appropriated their children. I’ll have more next moon. Want them?”
“If they’re as good as these,” Greysun conceded. “It’s expensive to keep growing lads in food and uniforms. Half don’t learn and are sent to the mines. Selling girls to the new brothel may cover outfitting the boys. Bring them 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 whacked the cage. “Stand up!” He pulled out two, leading them by the back of the neck, lining them up in front of the porch. Then he went back for two more.
The children retreated to the back of the cage, cowering. All except Little Soldier, who held the small boy’s hand. She looked him in the eye and scowled, one finger pointed up at him.
He snorted. “Come, girl.” Then carried them, one under each arm and dropped them in their spot in the line. He repeated the process until all were in place, boys on one end, girls on the other. All were whimpering but one.
Greysun strode down the line, poking and prodding. “Quiet!”
The brood fell silent. The girl glowered, but Greysun didn’t see it.
Blackhawk did. He didn’t want Little Soldier to go to a brothel.
But what can I do?
“I’ll take the lot,” Greysun announced, raising his hands. “These’ll do well.”
Parading back and forth before the girls while he talked, Greysun looked into each one’s eyes. He stopped in front of Little Soldier, who wrinkled her nose. “This little one will need time to mature, but they’ll find a use for her until then.”
Rosewud and Greysun were discussing the details of the transaction when Blackhawk interrupted. “Would you like me to take the girls to the brothel? I wouldn’t mind getting a closer look.” He grinned.
“I see why you were promoted.” Greysun nodded. “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. “Come back for me first.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll make arrangements for later.”
Turning to Greysun, the undersecretary joked, “He’s got coin enough in his pocket to go around several times. I would if I were his age.”
Blackhawk pointed at the girls. “Back in the cage.” When they hesitated, he gestured with the shillelagh. “Hurry up.”
They moved, Little Soldier still scowling.
“Don’t blame me. I’m just following orders,” he whispered, an unfamiliar twinge needling him. He frowned, slamming the door.
Lieutenant Blackhawk was lost in thought as he drove past the drab little shops that lined the main street.
What can I do about Little Soldier?
Stopping the cart in front of the green door, the sign beside it read: Your fantasy awaits.
It isn’t a fantasy for the girls.
He’d used whores, but they were well adjusted to their lot.
These girls have innocent souls.
His passage into the dark side 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.
Why should I care? Why do I care? We all serve someone.
Dismounting from the cart of whimpering girls, his boots scraped the rocky earth. As he approached the brothel, a happy gentleman swung open the door, exotic perfume in his wake.
The brightly dressed girl attending the entrance was young, had lips colored ruby red, and waved a feathery black fan. She was maybe thirteen, but moved to accentuate every curve and crevice.
“I am Lieutenant Blackhawk with trainees from Commandant Greysun.”
The girl curtsied, showing more of her assets. Responding huskily, “Please, wait here, sir,” she gestured to a chair, then left.
Madam Bonaforte glided across the floor. Her much-painted face hid frown lines and years of despair. Her eyes were as hard as stones, any feeling long since crushed out of them. Her cloying perfume, as overbearing as the rest of her, attempted to cover the odor of some wretched disease.
Her working days are long over.
“Lieutenant Blackhawk, thank you for delivering our new prospects,” she purred. “We have a pen in the back for their… evaluation. Would you drive them there?”
“Of course, ma’am.”
“Clara will meet you.” The madame nodded at the same young whore, who curtsied again.
She’d said turn down the next alley. Make another right behind it.
Barrels, rock piles, and stacks of discarded timber littered the street. Other wagons impeded his advance, distracting him as he maneuvered the cage cart around them to the alley. There, he encountered smelly old barrels and puddles of piss. Amongst the things that blocked his way were deliveries that hadn’t been taken indoors yet, including a pile of clean straw.
Glancing back, a defiant Little Soldier studied him.
Deep in a recess formed by surrounding buildings, he spied the pen and Clara, who squinted and shaded her eyes from the sun.
Stopping the cart so the cage’s floor was blocked from Clara’s view, Blackhawk dismounted. He watched the young harlot fan herself as she leaned against the building, her eyes 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 Little Soldier.
Why am I doing this? It’s crazy. Keep watching that door, wench.
He motioned for her to lie flat.
Her eyebrows raised as she knelt and lay on her belly, still watching him.
The whore latched the pen. But she beckoned for him to follow her. His lack of response didn’t discourage her. She prowled toward him, getting too close to the cart. She licked her lips.
“Sheisse,” he cursed under his breath.
He smiled and sauntered toward her. Pulling her close, he kissed her hungrily. “Later, sweet heart. The commandant will kill me if I dally.”
Clara pushed away, shrugging. Then, 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 whispered. Then he drove away.
After only half a block, he stopped. With a frown on his face, he dismounted to examine the horse’s leg. Then 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 found Rosewud waiting in front of the commandant’s office. “I think I’ll stick around for a few days. See the sights, you know what I mean? And I might talk to Commandant Greysun about a future post.”
“Good idea, lad.” The undersecretary smiled enthusiastically and tossed him a pouch that clinked pleasantly. “Since I’ve an empty cart and you’re staying, I can return 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 for two baden. When I get to High Castle next moon, I’ll pick it up. It looks like this’ll be a regular trip.” He beamed as a militet dropped a heavy chest behind the cart’s seat.
Blackhawk waved as Rosewud departed. Then he puttered around the dingy town. Renting a horse, buying a sack, some dried meat and other provisions took up the rest of the day. There were no sights to see, nor was he in the mood to vent his frustrations on some girl for hire. Somehow, the idea made him uneasy. It never had before. He sighed and kicked the dirt.
As the sun set, he wandered back toward the brothels. Some houses had ladies out front. One called out with a slow circle of her hips, “Hallo, dark and handsome, I’ve something sweet for you.” Looking over several, he shook his head and moved on.
No one paid him any mind. He wasn’t the only rider about. Other men leered at the whores, or rushed past. The bouncers only glanced at him. None noticed him turn down the alley.
“Little Soldier,” he whispered as he dismounted, “are you still here?”
The straw rustled. There she stood, hands on her hips, evaluating him.
He dropped the burlap sack on the ground, behind a barrel. “You have to hide while we ride out of town. Climb in while I examine this beast.” He walked all around the animal, patting it, checking its form, wondering if she’d do it. When he reached his starting point, the sack was full and lumpy. “Good girl.” He hoisted and secured it behind his saddle, then mounted. “We need to get far away from here.”
Drawing his cloak tighter against the chilly night air, he rode slowly north. After the town was out of sight, he turned off the road toward the river. An hour or so later, he stopped in a thicket. He took down the sack and opened it. He was happy to see her groggy smile.
She yawned and rubbed her eyes.
“Well, Little Soldier, now what do we do? If we’re caught, they’ll make you a whore, and I’ll be dead. So, we can’t get caught. That’s what J’shua would say, right?”
“Yes.” She smiled brightly. “The way is clear when it is needed.”
He stared at her. “What?”
“Ma says it after praying. She says that J’shua has perfect timing. We think we need something right now, but we don’t. We need it when we need it.” She smiled back at him.
“Hmm, that seems to be the way of it. So far,” he returned. “Ready to ride up front?”
He mounted, then leaned down, offering his hand. When he pulled, Little Soldier jumped, causing him to laugh. “Is there anything your parents haven’t taught you?”
She smiled, only to frown. “Hawk, how do you know what you haven’t been taught?”
He chortled, shaking his head.
As they rode, Little Soldier chattered on about an unending variety of topics. “Hawk, have you heard that the crickets gossip to each other until we get too close?”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“Hawk, did you know the stars in the sky speak if you learn their stories?”
“No, I didn’t know that. Can you hear the stars?”
“I only know a few,” she replied, shaking her head. “My da teaches them to me when we’re outside at night and the sky’s clear.” She went quiet, then sniffled for a bit. When they passed the rapids, she asked, “Hawk, doesn’t that rushing water sound like a fierce battle?”
“I suppose it does.”
Blackhawk had never been so entertained.
As night surrendered to the first light of day trickling through the leaves, she was slumped against him, asleep in the saddle.
Now what? She has no home. Her mother is a fugitive. Her father is away or dead. Her grandparents are dead. He sighed. Usually, I plan better before doing something stupid.
When he saw another dark thicket ahead, he headed into it. Without waking her, he slid off the horse, carried her to a soft grassy spot, and laid her down gently.
What am I going to do with you? Then he remembered what she’d said earlier. The way is clear when it is needed.
He smiled, covering her with the blanket, tucking it under her. He tied the horse’s reins to a branch and lay beside her.
We need it when we need it.
He made sure she was completely covered and went to sleep.
Waking in the late afternoon, he turned to find an empty rumpled blanket. “Little Soldier?”
A moment of relief pricked him as her expectant face appeared below the horse’s neck, while patting its shoulder. It was as high as she could reach. She looked so tiny beside the great creature.
“What is the name of this noble steed?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“Everyone needs a good name.” She rubbed her chin and tapped her foot. “Whitefoot, I shall call her Whitefoot.”
The horse whinnied its approval.
“It’s a good name.” Blackhawk rolled up the blanket, repacked the gear, and saddled the horse. He mounted, gave her his hand, and she jumped as he pulled. Then he handed her some dried meat.
She closed her eyes and nodded. “Thank you, J’shua.” Then pushed the whole lump in her mouth. “S’good,” she nodded, mumbling as she chewed. “S’ank you, H’k.”
“We have to make it last.”
They continued along the river for several days following the same routine, riding at night and sleeping in the day. When he spotted a shallow section of the river, they crossed, landmarks confirming they were close to River Town.
He hadn’t decided what he’d do with her when he reported to High Castle.
The next evening as they rode, he asked her, “When in town, could you call me ‘da’?”
“I’m good at pretending. I’m a princess, and you’re my knight. I wish to bestow upon you my blessing for your service.” She turned and with a flourish presented her open palm holding a button that had fallen from her dress. “Now you have a jewel, too, like the fire-breathing dragon you saved me from.”
“Commandant Greysun?” He laughed. “He surely can breathe fire.” He picked up the small token and bowed low. “It is my pleasure to serve you, Your Highness. I am honored.” He placed the button in his pocket.