Chapter 4: The Long View
New Moon, Late Spring
Jonathan traversed an ever-widening circuit from the ruins of his home. It was all he could think to do. Most of the houses were empty. Fields full of sorghum surrounded a cottage three miles to the west. A woman peeked out from the window but then closed the curtain.
“Hallo! Can you help me? I am looking for my family,” Jonathan bellowed twenty paces from the door. No answer.
He went closer and called again. “They are gone.”
A man appeared at the door. “Leave! We don’t want any trouble. If the lords’ll take ‘em for a debt, they’ll take ‘em for complainin’ too.”
Jonathan hung his head and walked on.
Since then, he spent most of his days in taverns, hoping to hear information and all the while surveying the streets for Rebekah and Sarah. All he had learned in his weeks of searching was that Rebekah had stolen a horse. His cloak was filthy, he hadn’t washed or trimmed his beard in weeks. He drank more than he should, eating even less.
In a daze, Jonathan’s thoughts meandered to long ago when he was six and became the companion of the prince. He did his best to do as the king commanded. Overwhelmed by his sudden elevation in station from orphan, he never did fit in. He became ever more vigilant, striving to never cause the prince embarrassment. Each time they traveled between High Keep and Farr Castle, he’d reevaluated what was expected of him, while lesser nobles and their sons vied for influence with the prince.
Much of the king’s wealth emanated from the products of his forests. It was tradition that the king’s royal steward would command Farr Castle, so that its vast forests were not overhunted nor the streams overfished. Jonathan frowned at the sour memory of the current steward. Gaelib Melazera now managed the finances of the kingdom.
Jonathan knew nobles were collecting debts to pay their taxes. But since he’d never asked his father-in-law about the loan, he didn’t know who his lender was.
Gaelib is the earl of Lorness now. But he will not help me. He hates me. And he may be the lender. Perhaps I should go to High Keep and talk to the prince.
The prince might bring him to the king, who could declare those taken free from the terms of collection. Although if the monarch believed it was a lawful seizure, he wouldn’t do that. And Prince Sagen may be quite changed over all these years.
Rulers can be well-intentioned, yet hurt people with bad laws.
He dropped his head into his hands and whispered a prayer. “Father, please make plain to me where I should go next in my search.” He heard nothing but was restless, so he went out.
Amidst the Atmosphere of Lorness
Owakar hiked up his robe, and sat legs crossed, enjoying the wonder of clover under him and the sun shining above. Tap-tapping his luach through the events, he paused. ”This one is intriguing.” Jonathan Otual was not burdened down with condemnation and recriminations for old regrets, incapacitated, reliving mistakes. Yet he had not forgotten them, but rather sought J’shua when they arose—eventually. The knight oft prayed in the spirit.
Owakar waited for the right moment. Then he prodded the soldier to notice a disturbance across the street and whispered, “Oh. That could mean trouble. Best to nip it in the bud.”
The result would ripple outward, like a stone cast into a still pond. A pond, that made him think of baked fish. Yesterday, a traveling family had invited him to share their meal. He enjoyed the fellowship, and especially the moist, flaky bass.
As Jonathan headed toward the market, two men were fighting outside a tavern. Farmers, it seemed, by their dress. The bigger man shook the smaller as they called each other names. It wasn’t serious; neither threw a punch. Still, a noisy crowd was forming, and a soldier frowned at them, ending his banter with a shopkeeper to march toward them.
Jonathan cleared his throat. “Friends, could you help me?”
They stopped and stared at him.
The bigger man dropped the other, saying, “How?” He looked Jonathan up and down, taking in his sword and short bow.
Dusting himself off, the smaller chimed in, “What do you need?”
“Can we sit?” Jonathan asked, pointing to the drinking establishment. “I’ll buy you both an ale.”
The big one shrugged. The other raised his eyebrows and smiled.
“My name is Jonathan Otual.”
“Randall Stratton,” the smaller said, “This’s Woodrow Cayton. Pleased to meet you.”
Jonathan found an empty table, ordered, and told them of his loss.
“Well,” Randall said, “I know your pain. We lost our wives and young‘uns too. We’re so frustrated; we started bashing each other for the grief of it.”
Too many had suffered this. Far too many. This was the first time he’d seen them come to blows.
“You might be onto something. I have wished to die.” Jonathan donned a half-smile. “A solid thrashing might be a fitting compromise. Are there many who have lost their families hereabouts?”
The two shared a pained look.
Randall let out a breath and his shoulders slumped. “At least a dozen.”
“What if we wrote a petition to the king and all signed it?” Jonathan said, raising his eyebrows. “I would deliver it to High Keep.”
Randall’s mouth dropped open.
Jonathan looked from one to the other. “What do you think?”
“That’d be very brave and very foolish,” Woodrow blurted. “Those who appeal to the king languish in a dungeon, or worse, are executed. So the rumors say.”
“If the king executes me, it will end this torture.”
“That be true,” Woodrow said as Randall nodded.
“Would you ask the others? Then meet me here tomorrow night?”
They agreed and slapped him on the back. He felt the most hopeful he had in weeks.
Waxing Crescent, Late Spring
Blackhawk hid his surcoat, brigandine, and helmet in the burlap sack and mounted behind Little Soldier. “Here goes. Remember to call me ‘da.’”
She looked back with a smirk.
Each breath in River Town smelled of fresh-cut wood from the mill. The main road burgeoned with men who directed wagons, frantically loading bags and bundles. Others darted back and forth, pleading and shouting demands like angry hornets.
They must be fleeing. Perhaps one of them would take the girl. How do I tell who’d be good to her?
He slid out of the saddle and placed Little Soldier on the ground. “Wait here.” He then waved to get the shopkeeper’s attention as he approached. “Hallo. What’s going on?”
“Haven’t you heard? The king taxed the nobles. They’re calling in their loans. Any who can’t pay has their wife and children taken. Everyone’s going west.”
Blackhawk’s chest constricted. The familiar frantic eyes awoke a fear in him. He didn’t understand why. It had never happened before. His only clue was a vague memory that wouldn’t take shape. He forced himself to respond lightly. “I never thought I’d be fortunate to have no land. Do you know all these people?”
The shopkeeper passed bags to grasping hands. “Yes, we’re a close community.”
Blackhawk glanced back. Little Soldier wasn’t where he’d left her. His gut clenched. Climbing the stairs, he searched the crowd.
Where’s she gone? What do I do? I can’t just leave…can I?
Then he spied her. She stood in a wagon, patting the head of an infant in its mother’s arms, chattering away, making the baby laugh. Little Soldier turned, pointing unerringly at Blackhawk. He might have lost her, but she’d not lost him.
She is something.
He sighed with relief, but his brow furrowed while walking over. “There you are. I told you to stay.”
She glowered, wrinkling her nose.
“These people are leaving.” Blackhawk held out his hand to Little Soldier.
“Not yet,” the woman laughed. “Shaun still has a dozen things to load. I’m Kennah Decker. We’re heading south, where the weather is…milder. Where’re you headed?”
The woman adjusted the babe in her arms. Her peaceful gaze quieted his doubts.
She’s so calm.
He glanced at his horse and swallowed hard.
If this doesn’t go well, we’ll flee on Whitefoot.
“Actually…” His throat was dry. “I saved her from a debt collection earlier this week. Her family’s gone. I have to go to High Keep. She won’t be safe there. I…I’m looking for a family to take her.” He held his breath.
“I see.” Kennah gazed down at the small girl. “Do you want to go with us? I see you’re a good girl. You’d be welcome.”
Little Soldier paused, “Yes, ma’am.” Turning, she jumped into Blackhawk’s arms and hugged him. Then she placed another button in his hand. “You’re my valiant knight. I love you, Sir Hawk.” She hugged him again.
“Thank you, Your Highness.” He lowered her onto the wagon, blinking suddenly wet eyes. He cleared his throat and focused on Kennah. “Thank you, ma’am. Could you make her a new shift?” He scrounged a handful of baden from his purse. “Something pretty. The buttons are falling off this one. It’s all tattered now.”
“Of course,” the woman said, laying a hand on his arm.
Blackhawk stood stunned, unmoving. Her simple touch had engendered a peace he’d not experienced before. A peace that was alive, not a numb stupor.
“It’s a charitable thing you’ve done, saving a stranger. I’ll get linen from the cloth merchant. Blessings of J’shua be upon you.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” he mumbled. He walked to his horse, glancing back as Little Soldier lifted her hand in the slightest wave.
He mounted Whitefoot, gave her a nod, and rode away.
Sarah watched Hawk and Whitefoot trot off. They disappeared amidst the clatter of arriving wagons.
J’shua, watch over my valiant knight wherever he goes. Help him on his quest.
Sarah felt J’shua’s warm arms.
She wiggled one of the remaining buttons on her shift and turned her eyes up to Kennah. “Sir Hawk must go on a quest. What is ours?”
Kennah smiled down at her, bouncing the baby on her knee. “We are going to create a new life in the west where J’shua alone is our lord.”
That is what my father does on his adventures.
She smiled back and tickled the baby.
Gaelib Melazera, the Earl of Lorness, woke when the door opened. Caileagh’s captivating scent of roses, frankincense, and cinnamon wafted over him, filling the room.
“Are you awake, my love?” she whispered.
He rolled onto an elbow, his eyes hungrily taking in her curves. Whenever she left to do the work of the Order, it gave him evenings to strategize. He reviewed his progress, identified roadblocks, and determined the most efficient manner to overcome them. Then he would retire early so that not even Caileagh knew the full scope of his ambitions.
She spun around the chamber, the light from the fireplace casting large twisting shadows that cavorted with a life of their own. Whenever she returned from the Sanctuary, she was intoxicated with power, almost floating above the ground.
“I’m here, wife. Did you wake me to take advantage of me, or is there news?”
She giggled. “Which would you like first?”
“How about both?”
She littered the chamber with clothes as she strutted to the bed. Reclining across him on her back, she looked up. “I saw a vision. It lasted but a moment. I’m terrified by it still.” She placed his hand upon her breast. “Can you feel the rapid beat of my heart?”
“I can. How may I help?” he purred, his eyes roaming over her greedily.
“I felt danger,” she whispered, now beside him. “I saw a golden woman. A bride’s veil hid her face. She carried a sword; its tip pointed to the heavens. Then she peered deep into my eyes and thrust, piercing my heart. I am afraid…I’m afraid that…I know its meaning.”
“What?” he said with amusement.
Caileagh rolled over. “That Prince Sagen mustn’t marry. Promise he won’t,” she begged, clinging to him.
Gaelib leaned back slightly, looking into her eyes. “I can’t do that, my sweet. My plan requires that the prince have a legitimate heir. Thus, he must have a wife.”
She clutched him tighter, sobbing. Tears staining the sheets.
Or she pretended to. An act Gaelib knew all too well. It meant she would be eager to please him.
He rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry,” he said softly, “your visions are often uncomfortable at first. Over time, they become clearer. This may only be part of the revelation.” He bit her neck, remembering the First Runic Precept of the Alte Regieren: Please thyself.
Gaelib woke in the morning, surprised that she was still in his bed. She usually departed for her bedchamber. He often felt forsaken when she left, ever since…
Gaelib was twelve when his mother died. Sitting in the clover, he pulled off the purple flower heads. One by one, he pelted the pregnant kitchen cat, who sunned herself royally nearby, ignoring his attacks.
Seeing Caileagh brightened his day. She was sixteen, already a woman, shapely and easy to look upon. Many nights he lay awake thinking of her—long auburn hair that caught the sun and eyes that shone like dark amber gemstones. Her skin was smooth and creamy white. She was old enough to marry. Father had wondered aloud why she hadn’t. Then by command of the king, she became his stepsister.
This was the first time she took notice of him.
“What’re you doing?” Her brow furrowed. Her hips swayed back and forth, satin shift rustling.
Gaelib pointed at the cat. “This dragon has ravaged the town. I must repel it to save the people.”
“What fun!” She dropped down next to him, part of her skirts covering his lap. She smelled like lemon cake. Her face close, she smiled at him and picked up a stick, tossing it at the beast. Then a bigger stick, followed by a rock.
Gaelib gawped, looking at his handful of clover.
She smiled at him, erasing his doubts.
He picked up a stone, garnering another grin from her. Together, they repelled the shrieking cat. After that, Caileagh played with him every day, any game he wanted.
She became his best friend.
Gaelib smiled at his sleeping wife. Their exertions and her fears over her latest so-called vision had exhausted her. The problem was, after so many years together, he knew how rarely those insights bore even the vaguest relationship to reality. Never…or close enough to it.
Yet, whenever such a daydream occurred, Caileagh fretted for weeks or moons afterward. This “golden sword” might be nothing more than the envy of some brooch she’d seen or a sunbeam that’d caught her imagination. Regardless, it would be just another irksome irrelevance.
Yet he needed her.
She knew how to appease her minor guides…and his greater one, the Warrior. He needed her until the power of that spirit was completely his.
He needed her to orchestrate the Order of the Black Robe while he created another organization within it. She spread the order’s influence with public shows of their achievements in every region of the kingdom. The spies and talebearers that she’d set in place were an important start, but they were only a start. Blackmail was helpful. Truly owning people was better.
Gaelib had created a cadre of people to do whatever he commanded whenever he spoke. The Order of the Black Robe was an ideal way to recruit, as the Royal Army’s expansion enabled him to influence upcoming officers and enlisted men. That meant he could assassinate at will, without warning or trace. With a relatively tiny number, Gaelib could choose what happened, what reports circulated, and what “truths” were made known to the king and his nobles.
Ah, yes, his nobles…my nobles. Or enough that should the king try to oppose me directly, the country would swiftly descend into civil war…and, oh, the delicious possibilities that might offer.
But a civil war would be costly. Worse, it would damage the prestige of Freislicht. All of which would be his. So, why take the shine off his inevitable prize?
All he needed was a little more time and a tad more patience. And then…
King Gaelib the First has such a pleasant ring to it.
Gaelib thought of that celebration with anticipation—pleasant food, delicious scents, and lustful sounds. Then he recalled the happiest time in his life when he’d first met the prince.
During Gaelib’s first visit to High Keep twenty years earlier, he was only six, King Edal had summoned his father, to a great council.
His father, the Eighth Earl of Lorness, had declared it time to be amongst men, not at home with women. It thrilled him to be with his father. Yet he feared the man. The earl often struck those who displeased him, especially his mother.
Upon their arrival, servants ushered them into the Great Hall. King Edal sat on an ancient throne covered in carvings and brightly colored jewels.
The prince wore a long, navy velvet surcoat. Beneath that were gray breeches and a light blue satin vest embroidered with silver leaves. His boots were dark brown embossed leather. His bright blue eyes and sweet smile beamed forth, framed by golden blond curls. His small hand rested on his father’s knee. The young royal was beautiful.
Later that day, Gaelib was in the garden watching his father talk with a group of old men. His father had pointed and told him to stay. So he had.
“Hallo,” a cheerful, small voice behind him piped up. “I’m Sagen. Who’re you?”
“Gaelib,” he said automatically, turning to face whoever had spoken. “My lord.” He gasped, his heart abuzz with fear. “Y-Y-Your Highness, I’m sorry.” He bowed low.
Sagen shrugged. “I don’t like titles. Rise. Follow me.”
Gaelib glanced toward his father, who gave him a nod with a smile he’d rarely ever seen.
The Earl’s first-ever, and very public show of approval, had him floating on clouds. Warmth flooded through him as if the sun had risen, shining just upon him.
He happily attended Sagen for the rest of the day.
They stayed at High Keep for the next three moons.
“It is very important that you please the prince.” His father gripped his shoulders as Gaelib stared up with a tight smile. “Being his closest companion will give us significant advantages.”
Gaelib played with Prince Sagen every day. Sometimes the prince’s nurse dragged him away for some royal requirement, but Sagen would soon find him again.
One day, Gaelib came to where they met each morning. A newcomer, the same age as he and the prince, sat across the chessboard from Sagen. The prince was showing the pale-haired commoner how the pieces moved.
Gaelib bristled, his eyes narrowed. Even servants dressed better.
“Who’re you?” Gaelib yelled, running up to them, scowling.
The new boy stood.
Sagen smiled. “This is Jonathan Otual, my new companion. Father said he must make sure I learn my lessons. We’re studying everything in the Royal Library with a master teacher.”
“Oh,” Gaelib said, hiding his anger. “Why’re you dressed like a peasant?”
Sagen’s eyes widened.
Jonathan bit his lip, then looked at his feet. “My Circle says we should be adorned inwardly, not outwardly. Others may. I may not.”
Gaelib didn’t understand that. “At least you aren’t hedge-born.” His laugh was loud as he slapped Jonathan’s back hard, flashing his happiest grin at the prince.
Sagen smiled back.
Gaelib cringed at the memory’s end. His father had reminded him at every turn he’d been supplanted by a filthy commoner. He’d never regained his favor.
Jonathan Otual had ruined everything.
Parynna knew she was plain. Her muddy brown hair and round, flat face confirmed her boring life. And she would never forgive Uncle Gregory for his choice. Her arranged marriage left her in despair.
Drake Caswell was a good prospect if she was honest with herself. The Caswell family was respectable. They were, by anyone other than a Locke’s standards, well off. But she was a Locke.
Parynna had expected more.
She wanted excitement.
She wanted glamor.
She wanted to be the center of attention. Always.
Her elder sister, Syrena, married a Melazera and lived in a mansion on the shores of the Sea of Glass. Her younger sisters, Veryca and Beryssa, both baronesses, floated between High Keep and Farr Castle as part of the Royal Court. Drake kept her shut up in Caswell Castle. He only thought of his Circle.
Finally, they visited Farr Castle.
There she’d laid eyes on Caileagh Melazera and fallen in love—or, perhaps, lust. Not for the woman, but for the power she wielded, for the way she drew every eye to her as she entered a room, her every whim catered to. Men and women fawned over her, lavished praise on her, and—it was whispered—would do unseemly, unspeakable things just to gain a single moment’s favor from her.
Parynna wanted to be Caileagh—yearned to be—ached to be.
On the final night of that first visit to Lorness, Parynna had been escorted into a private room where Caileagh was waiting. What occurred that night was something she never spoke of to anyone, but Parynna had taken home with her several Black Robe assistants.
In the moons that followed, Parynna’s eyes were opened to a world of intrigue, endless possibility, and limitless advancement.
River Town to the Frei Forest
Rebekah fidgeted on the hard wagon seat, aching for Sarah.
They’re getting away.
Again, the spirit of J’shua comforted her. The still, small voice reiterate, “Sarah is safe. This is crucial.” Immediately, a passage from the Writings came to mind.
[And we know that all things work together for good to them that love the God of Truth, to them who are called according to his purpose.]
As they rode through the forest, the Donitoros continued to distract her, marveling at the providence of the God of Truth.
“Why are you dressed so?” Teress asked.
Rebekah related her story but, about to cry, complained. “Alas, I’ve no skill at posing as a man. I need a better disguise when hunting for my daughter.”
“I could teach you to act more like a brute. Couldn’t I, Ma?” Vincent winked at his wife.
“That you could, dear. You’ve a deep husky voice, Madame Otual.” His wife smiled.
Rebekah’s eyebrows rose. “There’s no need for such formality. Call me Rebekah.”
“As a man, every word should be sharp, every movement abrupt, decisive.” Vincent chopped his hand into the other palm. “When you laugh, it should be loud. Make grand sweeping gestures with your arms, not merely your hands. Act like you own everything you see. Then no one will think you a woman.”
Rebekah frowned. “I’ll need much practice.”
He continued, “As for your stride, it must be bold, commanding, purposeful…even when you’re at ease. Teaching you how to be angry as a man, that’ll take longer.”
After a time, she considered what they should do next, she rambled, “Because of the first man’s sin, the Serpent rules in this age. But he doesn’t own those who have accepted J’shua’s ransom. Even so, we are still learning how to walk in his light.”
Teress and Vincent listened. The three older children, finally forgetful of their earlier terror, played finger games with the baby and sang amidst all the bundles in the wagon’s bed.
“Until we know how to proceed, remember prayer is more important than anyone knows. It grants J’shua permission to work unseen on our behalf.”
The wagon creaked and groaned over roots of trees that crossed their way into the Frei Forest.
“As man has freewill, he must ask for aid, but the power of God isn’t conjuring. The God of Truth is not to be commanded. But He is a caring father. Everything takes time. We struggle and learn as we go. If they are able, the heavenly host will assist us.”
They came to a small clearing within the southernmost tip of Frei Forest. “This is good. We can hear the river, hidden from those traveling on it.” Rebekah pointed at several rabbits. “There’s much undergrowth sheltering small animals to snare, and over there, I see blackberries.”
Thank you, Father, for your provision.
Teress and the children plucked the ripest berries and shared them.
Rebekah continued, “We’ll use small fires only at night. Our shelters will blend into the woods. During the day, when the river is full of boatmen, we’ll remain within the forest, foraging only at dusk or dawn. There can be no chaos. Even a child’s tantrum could bring about our end.”
“Yes.” Vincent nodded. As the sun set, they ate together from the army provisions and lay down on wool blankets. They all prayed it would not rain.
Her horse whinnied, the stolen horse.
I must give you a name…Justice. Justice is what I seek and what you’ll help me find.
She prayed and meditated on every word of the writings that came to mind to calm her fears for Sarah. Each time a peace settled over her. And each time she knew in her bones that her daughter was safe, just as the spirit had assured her.
Finally, she was able to sleep.