Chapter 7: The Proclamation
Full Moon, Early Summer
Rebekah rode into Fairness Crossing dressed in plain breeches and a rough woolen tunic. It had taken a deepened voice, and more than a moon’s practice, to make her believable enough to talk to a stranger face-to-face without giving any hint of her gender. Vincent Donitoro had given her clothes and cut her hair to shoulder length. With a piece of lace, she’d made from thread, they’d fashioned a beard from her cut hair and fastened it in place with glue, hiding her feminine jawline.
She’d taken the name Tomas Bekh for her new persona. Posing as a down-on-his-luck farmer, he scrounged a living however he could by selling candles, leather, and whatever else he could lay his hands on. This provided the Frei colony with supplies and, more importantly, information every two or three weeks. It also allowed her to inquire about the loathsome Rosewud.
Frustratingly, it had supplied no news about Sarah.
On her third trip to town, she encountered Simon Hunt. Dressed in his blue coat of office, the local herald was known to all.
“Tomas.” Simon beckoned Rebekah over. “I’ve been told you’re looking for work. There’s a stable in need of an extra hand for a few days. It includes a dry place to sleep.”
Looking down at herself, Rebekah noted how disheveled she was, worrying that she might have overdone the down-on-his-luck aspect of her disguise. “Yeah… that would be good.”
“Why so glum? Surely a few baden landing in your pockets is a good thing?”
“Yeah… yeah… it’s just,” she hesitated. “I got word that my daughter was taken in a collection. She was supposed to be safe with my sister and her husband, but…”
“Them too?” The herald shook his head. “This is happening too often. And to people I know had contracts. Documents have been misplaced or lost. Or, just ignored. When was your girl…?”
“A moon ago, but I only learned of it this week.”
“That’s rough. Look, I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but… there have been sightings of wagons of children being taken to Commandant Greysun’s camp. The boys… uh, join… his trainees.” Simon looked down at his feet. “I’ve no word about the girls.”
Rebecca’s insides knotted. “Oh…”
“Look, go to the stables, tell them I sent you. Smile at the widow who owns it. She likes to take in strays. It might get you a hot meal. Maybe more than one.”
“Thanks… thanks, I’ll do that,” she replied then departed.
She’d barely left the Herald Station when words sounded unbidden in her mind.
Find the weasel.
Her thoughts returned to George Rosewud.
Rebekah, as Tomas Bekh, went to the last place she’d seen Rosewud. It was also where she’d last seen Sarah. Her sweet girl had looked well. No fear in her eyes, nor tears on her face. She found a spot where she could watch and wait.
Keep her safe, Lord.
A man came out of the inn, walking toward four mounted riders. The torchlight shone on his wavy-blond, neatly-tied hair.
Rebekah's sweaty hand fell to her dagger. Her jaw clenched. She averted her eyes and walked slowly to her horse. She mounted, and matched their gait, lagging behind.
When Rosewud entered Lorness, she backed off.
Despite the busy streets, he was easy to spot. His clothes and colorful scarf were expensive, made even more obvious by the sea of drab and withered peasants that scrambled out of his way. His bobbing blond hair was as good as a flag.
The five riders disappeared into a small, shadowed gate at the rear of the castle.
Finding an inn to watch from, she prayed for wisdom. And waited.
Long after dark, the herald cried, “Second Watch!”
Three men dressed in black cloaks emerged. They pulled their horses slowly by the reins, only mounting once hidden in shadow far from castle torches. Odder still, the well-muscled horses had a noble gait and the saddles and bridles had ornate fasteners that glinted in the torchlight. None seemed to be Rosewud.
It’s too late to start a journey.
Rebekah felt moved to follow. She left the inn, returning to her horse. When the three were almost out of view, she pursued. Once beyond the town, she urged her beast into a gallop, matching their speed.
The trail led only to the Bloody Rocks.
Why come here after dark? Why come here at all?
When the riders slowed, she became worried. There was nothing ahead of them. Then she spied a cliff face reaching thirty feet into the air that was lit by torches and surrounded by woods.
Those she’d chased were too wealthy to be bandits. If they headed some criminal enterprise, why meet here? Surely, there was a warm room somewhere, well supplied with wine and all the privacy they’d need?
She slipped farther back, stopping as they approached the entrance to a cave. Dismounting, she walked her horse off the trail. After tying it securely, she crept closer, hiding in the brush.
The three dismounted and strode inside.
Why use a cave? Contraband? Some nefarious gathering?
Rebekah struggled to keep her eyes open as she waited in the silent darkness. Finding and following Rosewud had been taxing enough. Perhaps this had been a bad idea. Breathing deeply to wake up, movement alerted her as people trickled out. All wore black.
Not just three, or six… a dozen or so. Then more. Then many more, like ants pouring forth from a trampled hill. Worse, they walked off in all directions, in large groups and small.
A score of them walked toward her hiding place.
Rebekah inhaled sharply.
Hide me, Lord.
She crouched lower, listening to the shuffle of leather shoes passing. Once it was quiet, she let out a long sigh.
Eventually, the three she’d followed emerged, mounted their horses, and rode away, back toward Lorness. They were not the last. Another appeared, lowered his hood, and stared up at the moon, his face on show – Rosewud.
What’s your secret, weasel?
More appeared. Subordinates by the way he ordered them about, they carried a roll of cloth on a pole. Others brought wood and started a fire in a shallow pit. The pole and cloth were cast into it.
What are they burning?
The wind changed, carrying the fetid scent of burnt animal flesh. They added more wood, chanting foreign words in low mournful tones.
Rebekah prayed in the spirit, crouching in the brush.
When the fire died down, they covered the glowing embers with dirt and slinked away.
Daylight wasn’t far off. She returned to her horse, leading it further away from the cave, then laid her blanket on the ground.
Thank you, Lord, for keeping me hidden.
She slept, waking after sunup.
Rebekah hesitated at the cave’s entrance, heart pounding. Inching forward, she clung to the wall. The cavern was enormous, bigger than the great hall at High Castle. Within was a noise like breathing. There was just enough light from the entrance to see a large, raised stone table in the center. It was dark, discolored. As she approached, insects swarmed noisily around it. A knot formed in her gut as the scent of spilled blood washed over her. Flies rose from a dark red pool. She retched and wiped her mouth with her sleeve.
Looking away, her eyes fell on dark drops that trailed to a buzzing lump on the ground. Crouching, she fanned away the hovering vermin, exposing pale flesh.
The palm of a child's severed hand appeared, contracted fingers clawing the air.
Lord, what can I do?
A memory from the Writings stirred within. Her furrowed brow relaxed. She’d do as they’d done to overcome that foe. Seven times she marched around the altar singing spiritual songs of praise, claiming it for the God of Truth, purifying it of evil, banishing demons in the name of J’shua Ha Mashiach.
Infused with his spirit, she sang with all her might. The still, small voice of J’shua whispered to her the familiar passage, The joy of the Lord is your strength.
Rebekah lifted her hands to God. “Father, lead me to the root of this unholy venture.” Then she left, taking the small hand with her for burial.
Third Quarter Moon
Farr Castle to North Fort
There was a path to North Fort. Jonathan could not describe it as a road. That would be overly generous, no matter how maps recorded it.
Ancient trees towered above him. Brush scraped his legs.
He observed hastily built tents and shanties. It was hard living on the frontier. Jon marveled that any would choose this. But… this was far away from Lorness, Farr Castle, and any place where nobles might be tempted to enslave people. The king’s proclamation would free many, but it was better never to be put at risk. That thought was reinforced as he passed several children in the distance, weeding a garden.
He slowed to watch them, smiling wistfully. None had blonde hair. Overcome with thoughts of Rebekah and Sarah, his tears flowed.
They waved to him. He waved back as he continued past, wiping his eyes with his sleeve.
Freedom is everything.
At North Fort, South Fort, and Lexandria, each herald thanked him for his delivery, read the Proclamation, and sent out riders to nearby villages.
Finished with his route, Jonathan headed back toward his friends in Lorness. The path between Lexandria and Fairness Crossing astonished him. He’d never ridden a road so well maintained. A thoroughfare that was heavy with traffic.
Approaching Fairness Crossing, he felt a warning within. The hairs of his neck bristled and his heart raced. Jonathan let the horse graze, ate some dried meat, and prayed. He did not understand this mood.
He dismissed his worries as foolish, continuing to the Herald Station, which was next to the Commandant’s Office. Entering, he looked for the king’s proclamation on the wall of announcements. Not seeing it, he presented the parchment and his pass from the king.
Surely, the other rider carrying the proclamation reached this town before me. It would have taken far less time to travel due south rather than my circuitous route.
The herald’s expression caught Jon by surprise.
“This is wonderful news,” the herald exulted.
“Have you not already received this?” Jonathan asked. “The king dispatched me three weeks ago. Another should have delivered this already.”
“It didn’t arrive. I shall announce this immediately.” The herald turned away, searching for his official tabard.
Jon frowned, thinking of the other courier, and walked back to his waiting steed.
“Stop that man!” A voice bellowed.
Mounting, Jonathan turned to see the commandant pointing at him as a dozen soldiers in burgundy leather charged, scattering chickens and peasants, drawing their swords. “You! Get down!” The voice belonged to an old adversary.
Jonathan ignored the order, replying, “Commandant, if you wish to converse, I am happy to oblige. Or are you interested in another sermon?”
Greysun scowled. “You son of a hundn, I’ll give you a sermon.” He brandished his blade, trying to close.
Backing his horse away, Jonathan threw back his cloak, revealing his sword. He watched the armed men, keeping the distance open.
Soldiers shifted from foot to foot, exchanging furtive glances.
“I’ll give you the thrashing of your life, knight.”
His horse snorted. Jon remained still.
The soldiers formed a loose cordon around him, looking nervously at each other and lastly at their commandant. A breeze blew leaves across the ground.
“Pull him down! Bind him!” Greysun pointed.
Facing any man on horseback was difficult. Facing a Knight of J’shua was more than daunting. The knights were well-known to be masters of the sword. None of the men were eager to come within his reach.
The soldiers inched closer.
Jonathan placed a hand on his hilt.
“Commandant Greysun!” Another voice roared. The herald stood on the porch, buttoning his royal jacket. “This man has a pass from the king. You may not interfere with his duty. Do so, and I’ll see you arrested for treason.”
The soldiers withdrew, sheathing their swords, muttering softly about J’shua’s intervention.
Greysun glowered, but said nothing, holding his ground.
The herald read the proclamation aloud. “…Whereas, we are a Nation of Laws, these laws having been given to us over the last hundred and forty-four years by our wise ancestors, we must be slow to change them…”
The crowd grew and grew.
“Whereas, the Fruitfulness of my people and their Happiness is of my utmost concern…”
Jonathan smiled, as more plain-clothed commoners filled the road. He knew what the proclamation said.
“Whereas, great Frauds and Abuses have been committed in these debt collections…
A chorus rang out. “Hurrah!”
“Be it known that: First, every dependent that was taken in debt collection while the principal was already in a legal contract, must be returned.” The herald’s reading was punctuated by many more shouts.
“Praise the Lord!” someone yelled.
“…if this is abused after this proclamation has been posted, all parties involved in the theft will be prosecuted.”
“My children’ll be returned!”
“My family will come back!”
The whole crowd chanted, “Hail King Edal! Hail King Edal!”
Remaining mounted, Jonathan waited while the herald read the full proclamation. The people’s response and joy lifted his spirits. He bowed to the commandant, then watched the furious Greysun retreat into his office. Jon’s crooked smile grew when the door slammed. As Jon rode away, he recalled when they first met.
Jonathan and two other new knights, Jean LaVoie and Harold Grammott, had walked into town on a summery day. The dust of the road had dried their throats. They sought supplies, food, and drink.
“Why don’t we ask the man with the wagonful of supplies?” Jon pointed as his eyes fell upon the most beautiful maiden he’d ever seen. She had long honey-gold hair and eyes blue as the sky.
She was arguing with a merchant. Her broad gestures accentuated her complaint. “Do you have another buyer for it? Otherwise, we’ll buy one in Lexandria or River Town.”
The owner hesitated, then hung his head and accepted coins from her.
She turned, hands on her hips, and met Jon’s gaze.
Her smile struck him as sure as an arrow, stopping him in his tracks.
Jean nudged him, noticing the object of his attention. “Well now, not two days out of training, and already your head is turned. Tsk, tsk, Johnny-boy.”
“I suppose you’ll be too busy to teach,” Harold poked him, “or perhaps this will lead to some private instruction, eh?”
“Shut it, both of you. You make too much of a glance,” Jonathan smiled. “There is nothing wrong with admiring the flowers of the garden.”
In unison, they mimicked Jonathan and finished his oft-repeated adage, “Only do not pluck them if the garden is not yours.” Both burst out laughing.
“It is too bad you did not apply yourselves so well to your studies,” Jonathan’s eyes sparkled. A sly grin spread across his face.
“Always the fast one. There’s no keeping up with you,” Harold shook his head.
As the three friends laughed, Jonathan thought to approach the young beauty, but a disturbance on the far side of the market caught their attention. Six soldiers, clad in the vermillion of the king, were guffawing loudly. At their feet, a farmer sprawled in a pile of crushed tomatoes.
Surging to his feet, the man glared at his tormentors. “My daughter won’t be the butt of jokes, nor lewd comments by the likes of you. That’ll be five baden for the tomatoes, and an apology to my Marsha.” He nodded toward the maid. “Do that and I’ll not report you to the commandant.”
The soldiers laughed harder.
Their leader, a bearded giant bearing the green dragon sigil of Lorness, sneered. “I’ll save you the trouble. I’m the new commandant.”
The farmer’s eyes widened.
Grabbing the man’s throat, the giant raised him to eye level. Then, with a vicious smile, dumped him back into the tomatoes.
The maiden ran to help her father, but was grabbed by the commandant, who growled, “Let’s see if you’re as tender as you look.”
She struggled, only to have her face smothered by his large beard. Kicking and scratching, she pushed him away. “You pig!”
“Fire! That’s what we like in a woman,” the commandant blustered, holding her at arm’s length. “Don’t we, men?”
They all laughed again.
The farmer staggered back to his feet, breathing hard. He stepped forward unsteadily, tottered, almost collapsing again, only to kick the officer’s side.
Gasping, the commandant doubled over and released the maid, who sprinted away. Her father stood his ground as the soldiers drew their swords.
The giant straightened, snarling, “Fool! You’ve forfeited your life!” Then struck the farmer with the back of his hand, sending him reeling to land in a winded heap.
Jonathan frowned. His muscles tensed.
His companions dropped their packs and loosened their swords.
“Easy, Jon. These are the king’s soldiers,” Jean noted.
“It could be the farmer’s fault,” Harold pleaded.
“I will not stand by and watch such evil,” Jon countered as he strode forth, roaring, “You! Coward!”
The giant ignored him, drew his sword, and advanced on the still prone farmer.
Jon dropped low and spun. His sweeping kick caused the giant to land on his back with a crash.
Jonathan drew his sword and pricked the officer’s neck who dropped his sword.
“Now, Commandant, why don’t we resolve this? Let us walk away as friends. What say you?”
Rage plain on his face, the commandant scowled.
Jonathan glanced at the militet, soldiers without rank, who kept their distance.
“Do you think your vows will save you, knight? You threaten a soldier of the king. Kill me or not,” he growled, “my men will deal with you.”
“He is not alone, foul dog,” came the voice of Harold, as he and Jean drew their swords behind the five soldiers.
“Your job,” Jonathan spoke quietly, “is to serve and protect our country. Not to act as you have just done. No law protects you when you break it yourself.”
“Enough preaching. Let me up. We’ll be gone.”
“Pay for the farmer’s goods.”
“Here’s five baden.” The officer grasped at his belt.
“Ten.” Jonathan pressed the point harder into his throat.
“Ten.” The giant tossed the coins to the farmer.
Jon withdrew a step.
The commandant rolled to his knees, groaning. As he straightened up, he flung a spray of dirt at the knight.
Jonathan billowed his cloak, blocking the better part of it, then pricked the giant’s throat again. “Enough.”
The commandant, too slow, looked at his own blade, still on the ground. It was just out of reach. “You’ll live to regret this, knight. I’m Commandant Greysun. None cross a soldier of the king without penalty.”
“I wish you were wrong, Commandant,” Jonathan replied. “These are dark days when the king’s soldiers fail to uphold his laws, and nobles fail to protect the people.”
“Be careful, little one. You might be able to best me with a sword, but the Lord of Lorness doesn’t take lightly those who speak unfavorably of him.”
Jonathan’s eyes flashed. “Perhaps, you would pass on my greetings?”
“Fool!” The giant snarled. “You’d do better to pick a fight with the Serpent himself, rather than provoke Lord Melazera. His dungeons are a sorry place for any mother to pick up the bones of her son.”
Jonathan’s friends sheathed their weapons and withdrew as he bowed to the commandant. “Perhaps. But, in the name of J’shua Ha Mashiach, the son of the God of Truth, I bid you a good day.”
The soldiers mounted and rode off as townspeople and vendors jeered.
“You will pay,” Greysun yelled over his shoulder as he disappeared.
Jon was not particularly concerned because he knew Gaelib’s father, Earl Melazera, was a very strict follower of the laws and proper conduct. He might get a flogging, but the commandant would get much worse.
The knights approached the farmer, who thanked them profusely. People in the market cheered, clapped them on the back, and offered congratulations.
When the knights walked back to their packs, they were missing.
“If that doesn’t cast one down,” Harold bemoaned. “Help someone, and what happens? Our belongings stolen.”
“Calm, Harold. We will see soon enough what happened,” Jonathan glimpsed the same young woman he’d admired earlier.
Capturing his attention, she strode purposefully toward them with a big smile on her face and walked up to Jonathan. “That was some display, valiant knights. I placed your bags on our wagon. You’ll be spending the night with my family. My father insists.” She glanced toward an older man on a wagon who was securing bags of grain. He looked back, smiled, and waved.
“My name is Rebekah.” She pulled her finger across Jonathan’s cheek, leaving a light streak on his skin. “It appears you gentlemen are dusty after all this. Perhaps you’d like a bath as well.”
Jonathan stood mute, stunned by her beauty and boldness, mouth agape.
She chuckled, turned, and strode back toward her father.
Jean gave Jonathan a push and whispered, “Friend, you are doomed.”
The next morning before dawn, a bleary-eyed Blackhawk woke to a rap on the door. Seeing his scowl, the militet delivered the immediate summons and left.
Moments later, standing before the commander, Blackhawk focused on the back wall watching shadows sway.
“How’d you come to be so good in a brawl?” Taelor didn’t look up. He sat polishing a sword in the glow of a lantern.
“My master’s men often surrounded me without warning. If they beat me up, they’d be rewarded. He stated it was to toughen me up. I adapted.”
The Commander looked up and frowned. “Though I abhor such treatment, I value your skills. Would you train the men in those techniques?”
“Yes, sir,” Blackhawk replied, grinning.
“As for brawling, don’t do it again. I want my men ready to fight the enemy, not each other.”
Worry nagged at Jonathan. He had expected to be able to turn northwest, returning to High Castle. But if the king’s reaffirmation of the Contract Laws had not reached Fairness Crossing, how likely was it to have reached River Town, or Geleib’s seat of power in Lorness?
His duty to the king and J’shua required him to ensure the proclamation was delivered.
Following a river trail, the knight headed north until he found a boat that could take him to River Town. Despite his fears, the herald there was overjoyed by the proclamation, but dismayed about the missing courier, stating he’d send a message informing His Majesty.
Jonathan slept well at a small inn, The Sapphire. Waking early, he ate the hearty breakfast offered, and felt satisfied. Had he worried for nothing?
Do problems still await me in Lorness?
Before leaving The Sapphire, Jon was approached by a man dressed as a farmer, but without a farmer’s calloused hands or sun-worn face, using the name George Rosewud.
“Sir knight, I am heavily burdened. Would you talk with me a while?”
“How so, sir?” Jonathan pointed to an empty table and they sat.
The man spoke of how his wife was killed and his son taken in a debt collection.
“Where are you from, George?”
“I’m from Lorness.”
What does this imposter want with me?
“Do you have a farm there?” Jon pressed.
“My family did, long ago,” The man bluffed all too obviously. “Now we’ve a place in Lexandria, through my father’s second marriage. We lost the one in Lorness… to its lord.”
The pretender asked many questions about Jonathan’s travels.
The knight responded vaguely, extolling the beauty of Tarinland, Esthlanis and Mestelina. He praised the faithfulness of the Mestels, trying to force the pretender into a straightforward question or change of subject.
George’s eyes veered out the window. “I’m sorry, I see my father and must attend him.”
“The blessing of J’shua Ha Mashiach be upon you and your family,” Jonathan replied as George hastily departed.
Why did he question me? Who is he working for?
Slipping out the back, Jon turned his cloak brown-side out. He took a circuitous route to the stables, mounted, and rode north. If he was now hunted, as he feared, he could not delay any further. He had to deliver the proclamations.
Across the street, another farmer leaned against a building, watching George.
Rebekah had become very comfortable as Tomas Beck, the gruff but affable farmer. She had gone north following rumors of the weasel, only to spy him here, walking out of the Sapphire to sit on the back of a wagon.
Rosewud’s pretense of being a farmer, instead of his true role as the Lord Melazera’s undersecretary, was new. New to her, at least. Yet, he was too clean, stood too straight and was too pale. No one who wasn’t blind with drink could think him a real farmer. Yet, there he was.
There’s something covert going on. What could it be?
Rebekah turned away to adjust her saddle and watch Rosewood out of the corner of her eye. She had no desire to attract his attention, or anyone else’s.
Why would he pretend to be less? Could he be spying on someone? Is he lying in wait?
Two unsavory characters approached Rosewood as he sat on the back of the wagon. After a heated exchange, Rosewud handed a heavy coin purse to one rogue who was fingering the hilt of his knife. The other sat up front and took the reins and drove off.
I am sure they’re up to no good.
Avoiding the gaze of the ruffian, she mounted, then circumnavigated the town to reach its Herald Station. Before she reached it, she saw the lout and a younger man – both on horses – race out of town.
Where are they going? What did the weasel pay the other to do?
As rain began to pelt down, another rider headed out of town in the same direction, hooded against the weather. For a moment, she thought it was Jonathan.
I’m seeing things that aren’t there. Where are you?
When Rebekah spoke to the herald, she saw the king’s proclamation. Her eyes grew large. She was no longer a fugitive. Her daughter could be returned. “When did this arrive?”
“A Knight of J’shua brought it yesterday.”
“Can you describe him?”
“Straight blond hair, about average height, I’d say.”
“Do you remember anything else?”
“Yes! He tore down a poster. Let’s see if I still have it.” He pulled one out of a stack, showing her the inscription, ‘Rebekah, daughter of Roger Dowling.’ Insisted it was released by the king’s proclamation, so I took down the rest.”
She left, cursing the Serpent for keeping them apart. “Jon, you were so close!”
She pictured him confronting the king. “You’re still my champion. I miss you so much.”
A passage entered her thoughts.
Wherefore seeing we are encompassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.
She dried her tears.
I’m going to find that drecksa Greysun and get Sarah! First, I must return to the Frei, change my appearance, and tell everyone the good news. They can go home.