Chapter 4: Humanity
New Moon, Late Spring
Jonathan traversed an ever-widening circuit from the ruins of his home. Most of the houses were empty. A cottage three miles to the west was surrounded by fields full of the first sprouts of sorghum. 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 fifty paces from the door. There was 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.”
Jon walked on.
Since then, he had been spending most of his days in taverns, hoping to hear information, and constantly surveying the streets for Rebekah and Sarah. He looked ragged, drinking more than he should, eating less.
He knew there were debt collections initiated by nobles to pay their taxes. But he’d never asked his father-in-law about his loan, so he didn’t know who the lender was.
Gaelib will not help me. Perhaps, I should go to High Castle and talk to Prince Sagen.
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 a lawful seizure, he wouldn’t do that.
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 no response but was restless, so he went out.
Heading toward the market, two men were fighting. Farmers 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 crowd was forming. A soldier ended his banter with a shopkeep and turned toward them.
Jonathan cleared his throat. “Friends, could you help me?”
They stopped and looked at him.
The bigger man dropped the other, saying, “How?”
Dusting himself off, the smaller chimed in, “What do you need?”
“Can we sit?” The knight asked, pointing to another 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.”
Jon found an empty table, ordered, and told them of his loss. It was not the first time he’d done so. He didn’t expect it to be the last. Too many fathers had suffered as he had. Far too many. This was the first time he’d seen them come to blows.
“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.”
“You might be onto something.” Jonathan donned a half-smile. “I have wished to die. A good thrashing might be a fitting compromise. Are there many who have lost their families hereabouts?”
The two looked at each other.
“At least a dozen,” Randall replied.
“What if we wrote a petition to the king, and all signed it?” Jonathan said raising his eyebrows. “I would deliver it to High Castle.”
Randall’s mouth dropped open.
The knight looked from one to the other. “What do you think?”
“That’d be very brave or very foolish,” Woodrow blurted. “Those who travel to appeal to the king are never seen again. So the rumors say.”
“If the king executes me, it will end this torture.”
“That be true,” Woodrow agreed, as Randall nodded.
“Would you ask the others? Then meet me here tomorrow night?”
They agreed and slapped him on the back. It was the happiest he’d been in weeks.
Blackhawk turned his tunic inside out and hid his surcoat and helmet in the burlap sack. “Here goes. Remember to call me ‘da’.”
Little Soldier nodded, smiling brightly.
Each breath in River Town smelled of fresh-cut wood from the mill. Men directed wagons to shops, frantically loading bags and bundles. Others darted back and forth, pleading and shouting demands like angry hornets.
They must be fleeing debt collections. 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 shopkeep’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 fleeing west.”
Blackhawk’s chest constricted as he examined each wagon. The crowd’s frantic eyes were familiar after enforcing collections for a week. Yet now they awoke a primal 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 nodded, passing 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 sighed. “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 to 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 Castle. She won’t be safe there. I… I’m looking for a family to protect her.” He held his breath.
“I see.” Kennah gazed down at the small girl, examining her closely. “Do you want to go with us? I see you’re a good girl. You’d be welcome.”
Little Soldier paused and nodded, “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 gently 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 dress?” He scrounged a handful of baden from his purse. “Something nice. The buttons are falling off this one. It’s all tattered now.”
“Of course,” the woman replied, laying a hand on his arm.
Blackhawk stood stunned, unmoving. Her simple touch engendered a peace he’d no experience of.
“It’s a good thing you’ve done, saving a stranger,” Kennah continued. “I’ll get fabric from the cloth merchant. Blessings of J’shua be upon you.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” he mumbled. He walked to his horse as Little Soldier watched him then lifted her hand to give the slightest wave.
He mounted Whitefoot, nodded, and rode away.
Gaelib Melazera, the Lord of Lorness, woke when the door opened. Caileach's captivating fragrance 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. He knew not to wait up when she was on the Order’s business. More importantly, it gave him evenings when he could plan future actions and study the succession laws; time to review his progress, identify roadblocks, and determine 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 like this, intoxicated with power.
“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 at once?”
She littered the chamber with clothes as she strutted to the bed. She reclined across him, looking up. “I had a vision. It lasted but a second. I’m terrified by it still.” She placed his hand upon her breast. “Can’t 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. “I saw a woman dressed in gold. A bride’s veil hid her face. She carried a sword, its tip pointed to the heavens. Then she thrust, piercing my heart. I’m afraid… I am afraid that… I know its meaning.”
“That Prince Sagen mustn’t marry. Promise he won’t,” she begged, clinging to him.
Gaelib leaned back slightly. “I can’t do that, my sweet. My plan requires the prince has a legitimate heir. Thus, he must have a wife.”
She clutched him tighter, sobbing. Her tears drenching the sheets.
Or she pretended to. An act Gaelib knew all too well. He delighted every time she resorted to that strategy. It meant she’d be particularly eager to pleasure him.
He rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry,” he soothed, “these visions are often uncomfortable at first. Over time, they become clearer. This may be only part of the revelation.” He bit her neck, as they began to play, remembering the First Runic Precept of the Alte Regieren:
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…
It was Gaelib’s thirteenth year. He was still mourning his mother’s death. Sitting in the grass, he pulled the ripe heads off purple clover. One by one, he pelted the pregnant kitchen cat, who sunned herself royally nearby, ignoring his attacks.
Seeing Caileagh always brightened his day. She was seventeen, 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 stones. Her skin was smooth and creamy white. She was old enough to marry. Father had wondered aloud why she hadn’t.
This was the first time she ever took notice of him.
“What’re you doing?” Her brow furrowed. Her hips swayed back and forth, satin dress rustling.
Gaelib pointed at the cat. “This monster has ravished the town. I must repel it to save the people.”
“What fun!” She dropped down beside him, part of her skirts covering his lap. She smelled like lemon cake. Her face was 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, now or in the future. Never… or close enough to it.
Yet, whenever such a daydream occurred, Caileagh was distracted for weeks or moons afterward. This ‘golden sword’ might be nothing more than envy of some brooch she’d seen or a sunbeam that’d caught her imagination. Regardless, it would turn out to be just another irksome irrelevance.
Yet, he needed her.
She knew how to appease her minor guides… and his greater one, the Warrior. At least, he needed her until that spirit’s power was completely his.
He needed her to orchestrate the Order of the Black Robe, while he created another organization within it. The spies, information gatherers, and rumormongers that she’d set in place were an important start, but they were only a start. Being able to blackmail people was nice. Truly owning them was better.
Gaelib had created a cadre of people to do whatever he commanded, whenever he spoke. The Order of the Black Robe was the perfect recruiting ground, just as the expansion of the Royal Army had allowed him to suborn upcoming officers and enlisted men. That meant he could assassinate at will, without warning, without trace. With a relatively tiny number, Melazera could choose what happened, what reports were 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 glorious possibilities that offers.
But civil war would be costly. Worse, it would damage the power, prestige, and wealth 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 nice ring to it.
Idle thoughts skipped through Gaelib’s mind – delicious food, luscious scents, and lustful sounds. Then he recalled the prince speaking about Jonathan, again, souring his mood.
To regain it, he thought back to the happiest time in his life.
It was his first visit to High Castle. Twenty years earlier during Gaelib’s seventh year, his father, the Earl of Lorness, was summoned by King Edal to a great council.
His father had declared it was time to be amongst men, not at home with women.
Gaelib was excited to be with his father and desperate not to disappoint. The earl often yelled at those who displeased him, especially his mother. He feared the man.
Upon arrival, they were ushered into the Great Hall where King Edal sat on an ancient stone throne. The prince stood beside him, his small hand on his father’s knee. The young royal was beautiful. He wore a long navy velvet surcoat. Beneath that were grey 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.
Later that day, Gaelib was in the garden watching his father talk with a group of old men. The Earl of Lorness 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 responded automatically, turning to face whomever had spoken. “My lord — He gasped, his heart abuzz with fear. “Y-Y-Your Highness, I’m sorry.” He bowed.
Sagen shrugged. “I don’t like titles. Rise. Follow me.”
Gaelib glanced toward his father, who nodded back, smiling.
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 on him.
He happily attended Sagen for the rest of the day.
They stayed at High Castle for the next three moons.
“It is very important that you please the prince,” his father had instructed, “being his closest companion will give us great advantages.”
Gaelib had played with Prince Sagen every day. There were times when the prince’s nurse dragged him away for some royal requirement, but Sagen would find him as soon as it was finished.
One day, Gaelib had come 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.
Even servants dressed better.
“Who’re you?” Gaelib yelled, running up to them, scowling.
“This is Jonathan Otual,” Sagen responded with a big smile, “my new companion. Father said he’s to make sure I learn my lessons. We’re studying everything in the Royal Library with a master teacher.”
“Oh,” Gaelib responded, pausing to hide his anger. “Why’re you dressed like a peasant?” He forced a smile.
Sagen was wide-eyed. The prince’s reaction pained Gaelib.
Jonathan bit his lip then looked at his feet. “My circle says we should be adorned inwardly, not outwardly. Others may. I may not.”
“At least you aren’t hedge-born.” Gaelib’s 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. From that day on his father, the Earl of Lorness, reminded him constantly, he’d been supplanted by a filthy commoner. He’d never regained the earl's favor.
Jonathan Otual had ruined everything.
River Town to The Frei Forest
As they rode through the forest, Rebekah and the Donitoros marveled at the providence of the Lord, but still she complained, “Alas, I’ve no skill at posing as a man.” She’d need a better disguise when hunting for Sarah.
“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 instructed. “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 of you as a woman.”
Rebekah frowned. “I’ll need much practice.”
“As for your stride, it must be bold, commanding, purposeful… when you’re at ease. Teaching you how to be angry as a man, that’ll take longer.”
They came to a small clearing within the southernmost tip of Frei Forest. “This is perfect. We can hear the river, but are 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.
Teresa plucked a handful, sharing them.
Rebekah continued, “We’ll use very small fires, only at night, so smoke won’t be detected from the river. 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 and Teresa nodded.
Later that night, as Rebekah lay on a bed of dried leaves looking up at the stars, her horse whinnied.
I must give you a name… Justice. Justice is what I seek and what you’ll help me find.
In the morning, they cut small saplings for a shelter. Rebekah instructed the older children how to make the components of a hazard. A device that would disable any that might hunt them, such as boars, or wild dogs, or men. That evening, she showed them how to fit the pieces together.
That night, when everyone else slept, she banked the fire, pushing the coals into a pile and covering them with ash to keep the heat in. She prayed for Sarah and Jonathan and David and all those harmed by the evil ones.