He found the 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. His horse was tense, each step tentative as they followed a trail reclaimed by the forest.
He observed hastily built tents and shanties. Jonathan marveled that any would choose this. It was hard living on the frontier. But…this was far away from Lorness, Farr Castle, or any place where nobles attempted to enslave people. The king’s proclamation would free many, but it was better never to be put at risk. Passing several children in the distance weeding a garden reinforced that thought.
He slowed to watch them, smiling wistfully. None had blonde hair.
They waved to him.
He waved back as he continued past, wiping his eyes with his sleeve.
It had been over two moons since his family vanished. Overcome with thoughts of Rebekah. Sarah. He squeezed his eyes shut trying to stop the flow of tears. He could not. He cried so hard he felt sick.
When the sun set, he prayed for Sarah and Rebekah and David. He prayed for all the rulers and the people. Then he slept in the woods.
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. He let the horse graze, ate some dried meat, and prayed. 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 tightness in his gut. The hairs on his neck stood up, and his heart raced. He slowed. Seeing no threat, 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.
“This is wonderful news!” The herald’s face rose and blossomed like a sunflower seeking the sun.
His expression caught Jonathan by surprise. “Have you not already received this? 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.
Surely, the other rider carrying the proclamation had reached this town before Jonathan. It would have taken far less time to travel due south rather than his circuitous route.
Jonathan frowned, thinking of the other courier as he walked back to his waiting steed.
“Stop that man!” a voice bellowed.
As Jonathan mounted, he turned to see the commandant pointing at him. A dozen soldiers in burgundy leather charged, scattering chickens and peasants, drawing their swords. “You! Get down!” The voice belonged to an old adversary, the giant commandant at Fairness Crossing.
Greysun. He was still here after all these years.
Jonathan ignored the order, replying, “Commandant, if you wish to converse, I am happy to oblige. Or are you interested in another sermon?”
Greysun glowered, unsheathing his sword. “You son of a hundin, I’ll give you a sermon.” His blade thrust out. “I told you that day, you would pay.”
Backing his horse away, Jonathan threw back his cloak, revealing the sword. He watched the armed men, keeping the distance open.
Soldiers wearing only gambesons, shifted from foot to foot, exchanging furtive glances.
“I’ll give you the thrashing of your life, knight.”
Jonathan’s horse snorted, remaining still.
The soldiers formed a loose cordon around him, looking nervously at each other and, their commandant. Subduing any man on horseback was difficult. The Knights were well known to be masters of the sword. None of the men seemed eager to come within his reach.
A breeze blew leaves across the ground.
“Pull him down! Bind him!” Greysun gestured at the knight.
The soldiers inched closer.
Jonathan placed a hand on his hilt and reached into his shirt for the pass.
“Commandant Greysun!” another voice roared. The herald stood on the porch, straightening his royal tabard. “This knight 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 well 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 God of Truth!” 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 entire crowd chanted, “Hail King Edal! Hail King Edal!”
Remaining mounted, Jonathan waited while the herald finished. The people’s joy lifted his spirits. He bowed to the commandant and then watched the furious Greysun retreat into his office.
Jonathan’s crooked smile grew when the door slammed. As he 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. They sought provisions for their first mission.
“Why don’t we ask the man with the full wagon?” Jonathan pointed as his eyes fell upon the most beautiful maiden he’d ever seen. She was shapely and had long, wavy, golden hair.
She was arguing with a merchant. Her gestures punctuated her complaint. “Do you have another buyer for it? Otherwise, we’ll buy one in Lexandria or River Town.”
The owner hesitated and 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 a day out of training, and already your head is turned. Tsk, tsk, Jonny-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.” A sly grin spread across Jonathan’s 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. 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, sneered. “I’ll save you the trouble. I’m the new commandant.”
The farmer’s eyes widened.
Clutching 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 the commandant grabbed her by the shoulders and growled, “Let’s see if you’re as tender as you look.”
She struggled as her face was smothered by his large beard. Kicking and scratching, she pushed him away.
“You pig!” she spat, her defiance echoing through the tension-filled air, a brave flame flickering in her eyes.
“Fire! That’s what we like in a woman,” the commandant said, holding her at arm’s length. “Don’t we, men?”
They all laughed again.
Her father, the farmer staggered back to his feet, breathing hard. He stepped forward unsteadily, tottered, almost collapsing again, but gave a determined kick to the officer’s side.
Groaning, the commandant recoiled in pain. Momentarily distracted from his perverse intentions, he released the maid, who sprinted away. Her father stood his ground as the other soldiers drew their swords.
The giant straightened, snarling, “Fool! You’ve forfeited your life!” Fueled by a dark rage, the commandant struck the farmer, sending him sprawling to the ground in a gasping heap.
Jonathan tensed and dropped his pack.
Jean placed his hand on Jonathan’s shoulder. “Easy, Jon. These are the king’s soldiers.”
Harold leaned in. “It could be the farmer’s fault.”
“I will not stand by and watch such evil,” Jonathan strode forth with a primal roar, “You! Coward!”
The giant ignored him and unsheathed his sword, advancing on the still-prone farmer.
With swift, practiced movements, Jonathan dropped low and spun, sweeping the commandant’s legs. The giant landed on his back with a crash, his sword skittering away, while Jonathan drew his blade and pricked the officer’s neck.
“Now, Commandant, why don’t we resolve this? Let us walk away unscathed. What say you?”
The commandant scowled, fury plain on his face.
Jonathan glanced at the five militet, who kept their distance.
“Your vows won't shield you, knight,” the commandant growled defiantly, his wrath palpable. “You threaten a soldier of the king. My men will deal with you,” he growled, “Kill me or not.”
“He is not alone, foul dog,” came the voice of Harold as he and Jean stood behind the soldiers, swords drawn, reinforcing Jonathan's stand.
Jonathan’s voice resonated, piercing through the chaos, “Your job is to serve and protect our country. Not to act as you have here. 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 a pouch at his belt.
“Ten.” Jonathan pressed the point harder into his throat.
“Ten.” The commandant, cornered and defeated, begrudgingly tossed the coins to the farmer.
Jonathan withdrew a step.
The commandant rolled to his knees, moaning. As he pushed up, he hurled a handful of dirt at Jonathan, momentarily blinding him. Seizing the opportunity, the officer lunged for his sword.
Jonathan twirled to retreat, pulling up his cloak to block the dust.
The officer stood, thrusting his sword deep.
The clash of steel reverberating like a thunderous echo. As Jonathan slid his blade down the other’s edge.
With the blade poised at the giant's throat once more, Jonathan spoke with quiet authority, “Enough.”
The commandant dropped his sword. “You’ll regret this, knight. I’m Commandant Greysun. None cross a soldier of the king without penalty.”
“I wish you were wrong, Commandant,” Jonathan said as he and his friends backed away. “These are dark days when the king’s soldiers fail to uphold his laws, and nobles abuse the people.”
“Careful, boy. You can best me with a sword, but the Earl of Lorness doesn’t take lightly those who speak unfavorably of him.”
Jonathan’s eyes flashed. “Would you pass on my greetings?”
“Fool!” the giant snarled as he picked up his sword. “You’d do better to pick a fight with the Serpent himself rather than provoke a Melazera. His dungeons are a sorry place for any mother to pick up the bones of her son.” He motioned for his militet to follow him. “We’ll meet there one day.”
Jonathan’s friends withdrew. “Perhaps. But, in the name of J’shua Ha Mashiach, the son of the God of Truth, I bid you a good day.” He bowed to the commandant.
The soldiers mounted and rode off as townspeople jeered.
“You will pay,” Greysun yelled over his shoulder as he disappeared.
The farmer thanked them profusely. People in the market cheered and clapped them on their backs. Then the three young men walked back to their packs, but they were missing.
“If that doesn’t cast one down,” Harold said, clenching his fists. “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.
She marched toward them, smiling. Her eyes were as blue as the sky. “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 peered at them 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, mouth agape, stunned.
She chuckled, turned, and strode back toward her father.
Jean gave Jonathan a push and whispered, “Friend, you are doomed.”
That memory of his wife stabbed his chest as a new worry nagged. He had expected to finish and return to Lorness. But if the king’s affirmation of the contract laws had not reached Fairness Crossing, how likely was it to have reached River Town or Gaelib’s seat of power in Lorness?
Duty required he deliver the proclamation. He prayed for Rebekah and Sarah and the missing courier as he continued on. His next stop would be River Town.
Caileagh surveyed the list of novices. She marked which ones could be placed immediately and which to school for later use.
More and more people came to the tent of the Order of the Black Robe. The recruiters traveled to each town once a moon. The sons of many farmers would rather work in town than walk behind a plow all day in the heat and cold and rain. And men that lost their farms needed baden as well. They were loyal for the coin that was paid them. The greater their usefulness, the greater the pay.
Some the Order placed into positions of menial servitude until they could be trained for higher levels of service. The Order of the Black Robe guaranteed their quality. If they failed, they would be replaced with someone better suited to the task. If a refund was demanded, the Order paid it. Hence all prosperous merchants and crowded government offices trusted the Order of the Black Robe for competent help.
To the outside world, the Order was run by a council of seven master docents. These were ruled by the high docent, a man that Caileagh chose carefully. She participated only within the Sanctuary of the Alte Regieren. Caileagh was always disguised as the high priestess. Only after many tests were novices invited to join the Alte Regieren. These measures kept the organization’s purpose outwardly secular and free of any visible connection to the Melazeras.
But if an initiate showed particular promise, and they could be broken from family communication, she would evaluate them for training in the mysteries of the Alt Regieren. Those that passed her tests, became acolytes and made their oaths in blood. Their loyalty was unquestioned, their obedience absolute.
An Alte Regieren acolyte’s first assignment was to report gossip in whatever office they were placed. Before this point of commitment, the docent had the task of teasing useful information from their novices when each was evaluated. This took place at the local tavern each week. The novices thought it to be merely a customary social gathering.
This intelligence allowed Gaelib to evaluate the environment of a given village or castle and the intentions of many key figures. These nobles and merchants might be suborned for his uses. Some may even be invited to lunar festivals at Lorness Castle.
Later, the acolytes would also spread rumors that Caileagh designed. These would facilitate unrest throughout the inhabitants or put pressure on specific individuals. These acolytes would continue reporting rumors and any manifestations caused by hers.
As they committed the required sacrifices, they rose in status and were given more difficult tasks.
It was most important to know what motivated each acolyte. Her spirits were adept at this and led her to apply the right words and nurture the right feelings for each of them. She had learned this from her mother. The process might be tedious if she didn’t love it so much.
One boy in particular, a very motivated young man. He was eleven when his mother brought him to the white tent.
Once a novice could write well enough, each was asked to write their personal history. The docents were very kind old men that had served their time as spies and assassins and now trained the young ones. They encouraged them to purge their souls by expressing everything they felt in the story.
These were given to Caileagh. She found them most enjoyable and actionable. This boy’s story was filled with heartache, outrage, and a great desire for revenge.
He had lost his mother. That was by design of course. She’d been assured that her son was sent to work in some far away border town and encouraged with enough baden to move there. Once she was gone, he received time to visit her. But he found no sign of her and the tailor that she had lived with wouldn’t speak to him.
Learning of the painful event, the high priestess invited him to her rooms in Lorness Castle. Always draped in a silk veil, she listened to his woes and spoke the wisest sayings. All the while she subtly encouraged his revenge fantasies. Her door was open to him. During their frequent short meetings, she plied him with herbs and wine, and gradually groomed him to trust her.
When he was fifteen and his time of desire was aroused, she took him to her bed. This soul tie is nearly impossible to break. Even now, he was their most trusted assassin.
Today, he carries gifts from the Order to Duke Fredruck of Wooster. Gifts that have been blessed by her spirits to open doors for them.
Rebekah had gone many days north chasing rumors of George Rosewud, only to spy him back here, walking out of the Sapphire dressed in the plain hemp clothing of a farmer. She watched him study the dark clouds sweeping in from the east as she leaned against a building.
Then he sat on the back of a wagon. His pretense of being a farmer, instead of his true role as Melazera’s undersecretary, was new. New to her, at least. Yet, he was too clean, too pale, and stood too straight. No one who wasn’t blind with drink could think him a proper farmer. Yet, there he was.
Why would he pretend to be less? What did he really do for Gaelib Melazera? Something covert was happening. Could he be spying on someone? Was he lying in wait? Maybe he needed a quick disguise and a farmer’s clothes were convenient.
She scowled. She had important tasks for the community, so she couldn’t follow him that day.
Rebekah almost turned away when an unsavory character approached Rosewud as he sat. When their speaking grew louder, she edged into a shaded alley. But she still could not hear. After the heated exchange, Rosewud handed a heavy coin purse to the rogue who was fingering the hilt of his knife. Then Melazera sat in the front of the wagon and drove off.
Avoiding the gaze of the ruffian, she mounted and plodded reluctantly toward her first errand. Before she reached it, the ruffian and a younger man—both on horses—raced out of town.
They were up to no good. What had the weasel pay them to do?
Then as rain began to pelt down, she noticed another rider headed out of town at an easy pace in the same direction, hooded against the weather.
She continued on.
Jonathan had lodged at a small inn, the Sapphire. The inn offered a hearty breakfast, porridge, meat strips, and berries. He woke early and packed his things.
He’d come north following a path beside the East River. Despite his fears, the proclamation had overjoyed the River Town herald.
Heralds were appointed by the king, not the local authority. Perhaps Melazera had been unable to suborn them.
Even as a child, Gaelib had easily enticed other children to do his bidding. They tormented Jonathan in seemingly innocent ways. Name calling, small pranks, and thrown acorns or stones, all their assaults done when the prince was away. Gaelib, watching from the sidelines, smiling. Whenever the prince was there, Gaelib played the jester and made Sagen laugh. He never showed his true colors then. Fortunately, Gaelib lived in Lorness Castle most of the time.
He was always surprised by how angry it made him to think about Gaelib Melazera, even now. He sighed, blowing away the sudden attack of temper.
As Jonathan was leaving the Sapphire, a man dressed as a farmer approached Jonathan, using the name George Rosewud. He lacked calloused hands and a sun-worn face, so Jonathan doubted he’d ever picked up a hoe.
“Sir knight, I am heavily burdened. Would you talk with me for a while?”
Jonathan pointed to an empty table, and they sat. “How so? Tell me, sir.”
The man spoke of his dead wife and his son taken in a debt collection.
“I am sorry to hear of your loss. Where are you from, George?”
“I’m from Lorness.”
“I am heading there today. Did you lose your farm there?” Jonathan pressed.
“Yes,” 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.”
“Do you have brothers that help with your farm?”
“Oh, yes, They work very hard,” the man said.
What did this imposter want with him?
Jonathan let the silence draw out.
“Tell me of your travels, Sir Otual. What countries have you seen?”
Jonathan described the beautiful sights of Tarinland, Esthlanis, and Mestelina. The man never said anything that explained why he dressed the way he did.
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 said as George hastily departed.
What does he want? Why did he question me?
Slipping out the back, Jonathan turned his cloak brown-side out. Taking a circuitous route to the stables, he mounted and rode north. It was a day’s ride to Lorness. If he was hunted, as he feared, he could not delay any further. He must deliver the proclamation.
Did problems await him in Lorness?
The rain poured down hard and cold. Jonathan and his horse were long since soaked to the bone. He had not stopped moving since departing from River Town and his encounter with George Rosewud. Uncertainty gnawed at his gut.
He prayed for Rebekah and Sarah and David, picturing them all together again in comfort and safety. And he meditated on the Writings to still his fears, thanking Lord J’shua for leading him.
In the distance, two gray figures on horseback appeared, coming nearer at a walk.
Jonathan loosed his sword in its scabbard and checked his dagger.
The two men separated to pass him on either side. Both had hats that shrouded their faces. But one had the lanky look of a youth about him.
He let them come close and then abruptly reined his stallion to the left, blocking the larger man. Jonathan’s horse snorted.
“What’cha think you’re doin’, old man?” its rider snapped. “If ya can’t control ya horse, ya should’na be ridin.’”
“I am in control.” Jonathan kept his hand on the sword hidden beneath his cloak. “That is why I did not let you pass me. Perhaps that is why I am still alive.”
“If ya wanna stay that way, get off’a ya horse. We’ll tell Rosie y’ar dead. He don’t need know…if ya give us ya baden too,” the brute chuckled.
His young companion smiled menacingly, a narrow-bladed dagger perched expertly in his hand.
Jonathan spurred his horse, ramming the older man, whose squealing mount reared. The startled rider was vulnerable. With one slash of Jonathan’s blade, the highwayman fell from his horse, blood running down his arm.
Jonathan kneed his horse and galloped away.
His heart pounded in his ears. Did Greysun send them?
Were they following?
He glanced over his shoulder.
Jonathan slowed to listen.
After a few miles with no sign of pursuit, he breathed a sigh as he reined in the horse to rest.
Rosie? Did his attacker refer to the pretender posing as a farmer at the inn? Rosewud? Could those brigands have killed the other courier?
Now, Jonathan rode hard. In part to share the king’s joyous proclamation with his friends, in part to assuage the fears he could not shake.
He entered Lorness at a gallop; the horse lathered in sweat.
Lord J’shua, protect me from evil men.
The streets were full of people when he reached the herald station, slid from his horse, and marched inside.
The herald, grinning, held out a hand to take the offered parchment. “You were successful?”
Jonathan smiled back, and gave the parchment a shake.
Calling his men in from the barn, the herald told them, “We have an important proclamation from the king. Look lively.” He ushered Jonathan outside to the waiting crowd. “Hear ye, hear ye, a proclamation by King Edal, Ruler of the Kingdom of Freislicht. Whereas: We have taken into Our Royal Consideration recent grievances…”
Jonathan’s heart lifted as he watched the people while the herald read the proclamation. It was better than they’d hoped. Whoever had their loved ones must return them.
Afterward, the men who’d signed the petition slapped Jonathan’s back and thanked him.
He was happy for them, but he could only worry about his daughter. And where was Rebekah? The only reason his wife would have stolen a horse would be to give chase. And what delayed the other courier? Joy was short-lived for him.
Who would be so bold as to intercept a rider from the king?
Jonathan pushed aside his suspicion of Gaelib. The proclamation would also trouble other nobles and rich men. Any of them could have sent men to bribe or kill the courier. Jonathan had to deliver the proclamation to the last and most northern town, Dunis Glen. He carried on.
It was the full moon of summer.
Owakar arrived in time to see the knight spook the highwaymen’s horses and wound the older one. Ah. Guardians follow him already. They gave the older highwayman a touch of dizziness to make sure he had no thought to follow the knight. The watcher waited to make sure.
The wounded man grimaced. As he watched the knight race away, he said, “Rosey didn’a tell me ‘e was armed.” He raised his bloody arm, dropping the accent. “Don’t follow him, Rhay-Rhay.”
“But it’s so much money, Quorin.” The fuzzy bearded one said, turning to see the knight disappear in the pouring rain.
“Living is more important. Especially since I’ve been reduced to…this.” He grabbed a leather thong and tied it above the gash. “Well, don’t just gawp, Rhaylth. Help me. I’d rather not lose any more blood.”
Nodding, Rhaylth dismounted and pulled the tourniquet tight. “It’s more money than I’ve ever seen. Couldn’t we—”
“No. That was a Knight of J’shua. Had I known that beforehand, I’d have charged triple. But as it is, Rosewud thinks he hired a fool named Caydin.” He grinned, “A bit uv a no-hop’r, ya know?”
“That’s why I spoke to Rosewud without you. You’ve no talent for doing voices. It’s also why…” he slapped a saddlebag that jingled pleasantly, “I insisted on half up front. And it seems Rosewud didn’t care if we survived or not so I doubt he’ll come looking for us. Since we failed, I suppose we’ll have to keep working for the Order.”
“Stop saying that and bandage my arm. I can’t keep this tourniquet tight for long.”
The beating rain became a drizzle.
Owakar added everything to the luach.
Jonathan Otual may not have needed any help, but Owakar was determined to do everything he could to get him and his family through these dark times.
Done with her appointments and with many baden in her pouch, Rebekah entered the herald’s station to read the newest announcements. Then she would head home to the Frei.
Her eyes grew large reading the king’s proclamation. She was no longer a fugitive. They would return her daughter. “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.”
She stifled a gasp, and her body tingled with bittersweet joy.
“Do you remember anything else?”
“Yes, he tore down a poster. I still have it.” He pulled one out of a stack, showing her the inscription. “He insisted it was released by the king’s proclamation. Then I took down the rest.”
She left, cursing the Serpent for keeping them apart. “Jon, you were so close!”
She pictured Jonathan 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 confront that drecksa Greysun and get Sarah!
Rebekah headed straight toward Shining Mountain.
First, she must return to the Frei, change her appearance, and tell everyone they could go home. Soon she would recover Sarah.
She’d always told people she met in town that she had a cabin in the foothills of the mountain, so they wouldn’t think anything of her heading that way. But she wouldn’t risk someone following her. So despite the urgency, she rode beyond their camp. Seeing no sign, she disappeared into Frei Forest and doubled back.
Thick underbrush slapped against her as she continued toward the community. A branch snapped.
Someone moved parallel to her.
She urged the horse behind taller cover and readied her bow, holding three arrows in her bow hand. Pinpointing the next sound, she drew.
Just then, a young buck bounded across her path, sporting bulbous buttons where his antlers would soon sprout. He paused for the slightest moment, then leaped away.
With a sigh, she continued on.
When she finally entered the small clearing, children bounded toward her as she dismounted.
“Mother Otual,” one girl exclaimed, reaching out small hands. “Did you bring us a sweet?”
“How’d you know?” she smiled broadly and pulled a bag of oranges from her horse. “Remember to share,” she yelled as the girl ran off.
“Rebekah, did you find him?” Vincent asked.
She nodded. “And much more. I’ll explain later.”
A chorus of “hallos” followed as others surrounded her.
She smiled again, giving each a hug. It surprised her how draining it was to pose as a man. Here she could relax.
“You’re back. We’ve been praying for your safe return.” Teress squeezed her tighter. “Let’s meet at the fire.”
As all gathered to eat around the cook pot, Rebekah gazed at the group and announced, “The king has proclaimed the debt collections unlawful. You can go home!”
Shouts and laughter erupted. Tears of joy ran down their cheeks as one hugged another.
“Praise the God of Truth!”
Tears streamed down many faces. Anger showed on others.
Rebekah shared what she’d heard from the herald.
“We must do something so this doesn’t happen again,” Vincent said, followed by sounds of agreement.
“What can we do?” Frink said. “We are powerless.”
Rebekah stood. “We can pray. Prayer is the one thing we can do anywhere and anytime. And we can listen for J’shua’s still, small voice. Let’s discuss this again tomorrow.”
Vincent spoke again, “We should remain here until Rebekah confirms that the proclamation is being obeyed in our home provinces.”
Everyone nodded and spoke their goodnights.
She watched them leave, one by one, as the sparks from the fire rose into the night sky with her prayers.
The next day, Rebekah dismounted from the wagon in front of the commandant’s office and the herald station. She smoothed the flattering blue shift she’d borrowed and ran her fingers through her hair. She entered with her head high, her quiet rage dampening her fear.
“I am here to see Commandant Greysun.” She forced herself to speak quietly and politely to the militet on duty.
“He is out, ma’am.”
“Bring the lady back, Brett,” a gruff voice said from a room behind.
As she entered his office, Greysun stood and buckled his royal red brigandine. With a lecherous smile, he bowed. He was tall. “How can I help you, ma’am?” His arrogant tone was as unpleasant as his expression. He stroked his brown beard as he ogled her up and down.
“I’m Rebekah Otual, here to retrieve my daughter, sold to you three moons ago.”
“Otual…?” The commandant stiffened. “Many children…passed through here. We only kept boys.”
“I was assured that all the cage carts that came to your garrison left empty. She is six and has very blonde hair.”
His frown deepened. “The girls were taken to Madam Bonaforte’s brothel. She may know what became of her.” The officer pointed west. “Go to the one with the green door on the main street. It’s on the right.” Then his eyes dropped to his papers.
Rebekah placed her hands on his desk. “Sir. It is my understanding that you must actively assist in the return of all children unlawfully seized. Have someone escort me.”
Greysun scowled and motioned for a boy to attend her. He was no more than ten, a conscript probably sold by his parents.
The young militet stepped forward and bowed, his small hand resting on the head of an axe in his belt.
Rebekah let out a disgruntled huff.
The boy led the way and opened the green door.
Rebekah entered the brothel, the militet trailing behind. She looked with compassion at the feather-framed faces and scantily clad bodies of exploited children.
She glanced back at the wide-eyed militet, also a child, whose mouth was agape. Touching his shoulder, she said, “Close your mouth, son.”
The decorated ladies glowered at her with calculating eyes. Some snickered, only to be silenced as their matron stepped forward.
Rebekah’s hard gaze locked onto the madame. “According to Commandant Greysun,” she growled, “three moons ago, someone brought my daughter to you with other girls.”
The old woman stiffened and sputtered. “Why don’t you look around for her?” Her eyes narrowed as she smiled.
Terror and hope stole through Rebekah. She went from room to room, the wide-eyed boy following. Thankfully, it was midday, and most were empty. She didn’t find Sarah.
J’shua, where is she?
She wanted to cry but couldn’t.
“Are you satisfied?” The madame’s words were cold, flat.
“No…nor is your obligation to assist me complete. Either Greysun or you are lying. Which is it?”
The madame glared back. “You’ve seen for yourself. But…there were discrepancies. That drecksa Greysun demanded payment for one girl I didn’t receive.”
“What happened to her?”
“How would I know?”
Rebekah knew she’d get no more from the old hag. She turned and left, the boy reluctantly following her out.
Where are you, Sarah?
She looked frantically up and down the street. She didn’t know what to do. She expected to find her and save her—to hold her tight. Someone must have helped her escape.
She must find that young soldier. He had her last.
As she rode, she thought of all the people that were affected by this one evil act. All over Freislicht people had been suffering, with nowhere to turn. But Jonathan’s act, one man’s act, had changed it. What if many acted together?
Thread by thread, a plan formed—a way to root out this evil corruption.
When Rebekah stood by their fire again, she told of J’shua’s inspiration about opposing such evil. “We no longer need to hide here. You can go home, reclaim your lives. But…if we’re to combat this pestilence, we must cover every town in Freislicht in prayer, every suspicious place anointed for J’shua.”
She told them the plan that J’shua gave her: training, spying, praying, and anointing.
“We lost our freedom because we felt no need to defend ourselves. We were too safe, too happy. This has been growing for generations. We all must pray in the spirit without ceasing to guard our hearts and receive direction.”
Mister Frink brushed a stringy lock of hair behind his ear. “We’ve no training. It’s too dangerous.”
Others bobbed their heads in agreement, worry plain on their faces.
A pinecone in the fire popped, sending embers into the heavens.
“Yes, it’s dangerous,” Rebekah said. “You’re afraid. I am too. But I’m sure it is an assignment. The God of Truth will be with us.”
She gazed at each face.
Frink glared back. “That’s fine for you. You’ve a knight for a husband. He’ll have taught you skills to survive. We’ve no such training.”
“J’shua will guide us. Anything we need, we can learn. If the skills are not amongst us, we can seek them out. Would you rather stand by and do nothing?”
“I’d rather not end up in Melazera’s dungeons.” Frink crossed his arms.
Rebekah continued, “There’ll be no condemnation if you return to your old life—”
“Count me out!” Frink stalked off.
When he was out of sight, Rebekah warned, “You all have children to consider. This is a grave commitment not all can accept. Yet, I ask you to pray. Give me your answers tomorrow. Will you return to your old lives and forget all this? Or will you anoint evil places? Or become a spy? All we need do is walk by the spirit.”
After days of traveling and sleeping under the heavens, Jonathan passed through Dunis Glen’s tall stone gatehouse with a sigh. His final stop. A cool sea breeze blew.
The sun barely peeking over the red clay rooftops made them glow like fire. He watched as men brought carts of bass and flounder from the East River and dumped them into piles. The merchants picked over the flopping fish. He smelled the first bread of the day. A carriage rushed by. Hawkers shouted their deals. Well-dressed maids and kitchen boys walked down from the exclusive estates up the hill.
Jonathan hurried to the herald station. He offered the scroll.
The old herald stood, eyes twinkling while he read the parchment, eyebrows rising ever higher. “Astonishing! I’ll announce it immediately. What’s your name, sir?”
“Jonathan Otual. I took a petition about these vile acts to the king.”
“Thank you for bringing this. It’s been a very long time since the king last countermanded a plot of Lord Melazera.”
“A plot of Lord Melazera? Is it widely known that he is behind this?”
“No, not many realize what the steward’s goals are. I was a herald in Lorness Castle when I was younger. His father was a cruel man, but he had no desire for more power. But after his first wife died, his new wife was always pushing him for more. Then as soon as he died, her daughter married Gaelib. He was only fifteen and totally captivated by the daughter. She was much older than him. After Gaelib became the king’s steward, I was moved outside the castle. Soon all the king’s heralds were removed from within the castles and replaced with clerks from the Order of the Black Robe.”
“That would not benefit the king. Why did he allow it?”
“It was said to be a cost saving measure.” The herald laughed. “Everything seems to be about money these days. No thought to the consequences.”
“I don’t trust these black-robed fools. They’re meddlesome. And they have no loyalty to the king.” The old man sighed as he slowly stood.
“I’m too old to fight their intrigues. Mark my words, Gaelib Melazera wants to control the world.”
The herald donned his blue tabard, bearing the king’s sigil. “I only tell you, because this petition is proof you are on the right side. I took this post when the last herald passed so I could die near the sea.”
“I will remember your words, sir.” Jonathan bowed.
Outside, the herald rang a large bell. People poured out of shops and taverns like wine from a press. “Hear ye, hear ye,” his voice boomed like a much younger man’s. “A proclamation by King Edal, the ruler of Freislicht…”
As happened everywhere he had delivered it, people cried, laughed, and hugged each other. Their joy overcame Jonathan. His heart soared like a hawk gliding on the wind.
The herald pointed toward him. “This Knight of J’shua appealed to King Edal for our relief. His Majesty responded. Thank the God of Truth for his faithfulness. He hasn’t left us powerless. Sir Jonathan, please give a word to the people.”
Jonathan stepped forward, trusting the spirit to guide his words. “People of Dunis Glen, we owe thanks to King Edal for his mercy in granting us relief from the excessive acts of some of his nobles. We praise the God of Truth and our king for their blessings.
“Keep the fellowship of your Circles. You have strength in numbers. Spread the love and comfort that comes from J’shua. With the spirit of J’shua, you are a conqueror. But we must all stand against the darkness. Together, we will be victorious. Pray without ceasing!”
The crowd cheered.
Jonathan bowed and mounted his horse. But there was no hurry. He’d still found no rumors of his missing wife or daughter.
With the king’s task finished, he headed toward Lorness through a copse of trees that shrouded the road ahead in uncertainty. “Father, where would you have me go? Will you show me where to find Rebekah and Sarah? I miss them so.” He prayed until he was empty of words.
Jonathan thought of his son, David. His son was the apprentice of Agon Gorum in the Republic of Esthlanis. The Gorum horse farm was a good place for a young boy to grow and learn a trade.
Magistrate Gorum might know something. Perhaps Rebekah and Sarah have gone there.
It was the last half-moon of summer.
Owakar shook with joy in Jonathan’s triumph. Unlike the knight, he could see its effect throughout Lorness. Could actually see the waves of benefits that would follow, the suffering it would end, and the families it would reunite.
That it would also impede the wicked plans of the Warrior was an added victory.
He sighed in satisfaction.
Did he have time for a bite before the next appointment? The baker was a few doors down. He peeked at the luach.
Owakar frowned as Rebekah Otual approached the Sapphire Inn. She was early.
Although she was very entertaining, Rebekah Otual was too spontaneous. She was becoming a fulltime employment. Today, she traveled to River Town. But she prayed fervently so he had to watch her.