Chapter 11: Cultivation
The Shining Mountain
High upon the Mountain, above the burning School, Daikon Sylvanus Baxter, his knights, and their students remained in hiding until after the soldiers left. Only then did he make his way down the mountain.
At a point where he could look down on the blazing buildings clearly, he encountered headmaster Daikon Theodomo Crispus sitting on a rock, wet eyes staring at the destruction.
Baxter used to think running downhill was easier than this. But now, his battle scars spoke to him on cold days. “I saw smoke and soldiers leaving.” He panted. “What happened?”
Crispus paused before answering, his face taut, his wiry hands trembling. “Soldiers killed all twelve knights left below. I don’t yet know about the three boys. I couldn’t see faces, only uniforms. I dared not get too close. I should have joined them. I feel like the coward Sisera that hid in the woman’s bedchamber–”
“How’d they die?” Baxter interrupted.
“A troop of soldiers arrived about an hour ago, led by ten horsemen. And a senior officer, by the way they deferred to him. He set up a cordon around the School, made it blatant. Then he put two dozen around the courtyard’s low wall, and sent two dozen more inside. He and his horsemen followed.”
“We knew the Serpent’s forces might move against us.”
Crispus sighed, leaning his elbows heavily on his knees, his body slumped forward. “I could see soldiers moving through the woods. But… there was no way to get word to Daikon Vale. There wasn’t time.”
“The officer rose up on his stirrups, looking down at our brother daikon. His words did not carry to me. Vale signaled the others who attacked before the hidden bowmen cut most of them down. There was no other warning—”
“Then all you’d have done is die with them. How would that serve J’shua?” Baxter’s strong hands steadied his old friend.
“But… they died alone. And the three boys…”
“Did you see any get out?”
Crispus shook his head. “If they’d gone out the back… maybe. There was some movement there. I think soldiers intercepted one lad. And…”
“Cadet Knight Aldrik must have made the shot that set the gates afire.”
“I see. He served bravely. And, no doubt, died the same way. He was not one to run.”
“No, he wasn’t.”
“Our job is to train knights. We don’t know why this occurred. The first questions are how, or if, we respond. The Serpent may think he’s destroyed us. It would be foolish to show him otherwise. So…”
“Yes?” Crispus prompted.
“We cannot put out the fire and rebuild.”
Crispus nodded as Baxter sat with him in silence.
Bushes nearby rustled as a bedraggled cadet knight burst from them.
“Tedrik,” Crispus drew the boy into a hug, “it’s good to see you survived.”
“I…” The lad stepped clear and nodded to Daikon Baxter. “I am the only one. I—”
“There’s no need to explain now,” Crispus consoled. “Would you do something for me?”
“Head up the mountain. You’ll find the rest of us hidden there. Tell them they may come down, carefully. There may still be enemies watching. Go.”
As the cadet dashed off, Baxter looked at his friend. “That was a kind thing to do. He needed purpose. We all do. This isn’t a time for ire, but calm clear thought. We must protect those we have left. As for our dead, though we’ll mourn their loss, they sleep. We’ll see them at the Gathering for the Lord’s Battle.”
Crispus put an arm around his friend. “We must have a plan before the others join us. What are you thinking?”
New Moon, late Winter
Commander Peter Taelor sighed heavily as he read the report. He had begun to suspect some of the king’s soldiers were being used by the Order. Reports contained gaps. Expenses were higher than they should be. And intelligence from Bekh’s spies and captured black-robed acolytes slowly made the picture clearer and far more dire. Not just key figures but, potentially, entire units were being used by the Order to carry out covert operations counter to Freislicht’s interests.
To learn more, the Commander chose trusted officers to send to those suspected regiments in feigned disgrace.
They shall return with evidence.
“Enjoy your time role-playing, but not too much,” he’d warned with a smile. “If you must do an evil deed to protect your cover, do it. Don’t be afraid to burn down a house or blacken a man’s face to get the acceptance you need. The whole kingdom is at stake.”
Jonathan spent the next two moons teaching the boys to live in the wilderness, how to stay healthy, and how to protect themselves with bow, knife, and spear. He trained them how to hide, how to be still, and how to move silently. He instructed them in finding flint for knives, fashioning weapons, and fire-making. He taught them to hunt and had them practice stalking small game. He showed them how to make snares and fish traps. And he brought them to fellowship with the Lord every day.
When he left, they’d grown in wisdom and understanding. He told them, “No stealing, unless a life depends on it. No armed robbery, that will get you killed. Remember, you can always go to Shining Mountain to hide.”
He promised to return when his mission allowed, but had no idea when that would be.
Geleib Melazera reread the latest report.
The terror being generated on the Mestel border was growing better than anticipated. It had caused more than one rash response by local nobles. His favorite, so far, being the detailed account he’d just received of a foolish baron personally taking a force across the border into Mestelina to ‘hunt down the savages’… and being ambushed, stripped of his weapons and horses. Then he was forced to walk back to his lands in disgrace.
It was utterly delicious.
Not to mention it had the ridiculous man whipping up support for yet more troops on the border ‘to protect the people’.
The people! Phah!
Equally pleasing was that, in the aftermath of the Knights’ School burning down, the rumors of their faithlessness were spreading swiftly. An unexpected benefit of which was that many were abandoning their local circles, denouncing them for being as feckless and untrustworthy as the knights.
Pouring himself another cup of wine, he began reading again. This was a wonderful day. It was evidence that, with the Warrior’s assistance, nothing was impossible for… King Geleib the First.
Waxing Crescent Moon, Early Spring
Whenever Rebekah visited Fairness Crossing, she sought out the herald, Simon Hunt, who repeated the latest tales. The most recent of which was the burning of the Knights’ School due to a spilled oil lamp.
She listened, lamented, and nodded at all the right points, yet didn’t believe it. Nor could she accept Simon’s statement that it was a sign the knights were no longer faithful to their god. She’d heard too many lies. She’d also seen too many circles being persecuted wherever the Lord of Lorness had influence.
Was it retaliation? By Commandant Greysun? He must’ve lost thousands, perhaps tens of thousands on the overturned debt collections. He’d blame the knights since Jonathan was involved. Yet he’s not mentioned in the story. So, why does his name leap to mind?
Rebekah felt moved to see the School.
When she arrived there, it was worse than her imaginings. Nothing was left. Even the heavy-walled storehouse was reduced to a few heat-cracked bricks atop each other.
She frowned, slowly walking through the burnt landscape. Dozens of grave markers littered the area, as if they’d been constructed one at a time, each by a different group. No two were alike. A pile of flat stones was covered in dried vines and berries. Another surrounded a sword, only its pommel was exposed. The most poignant was a raised circle of stones that surrounded a carved wooden doll and a dried-up rose.
Did no one survive the fire? The knights hadn’t tended to their dead.
Leafy vines covered the remaining chimney. Grass obscured its foundations.
Praying as she walked the grounds, her only comfort came from the withered wreaths and offerings of remembrance littering the hearth. She wasn’t the only one who’d come to say a prayer for the dead.
She sat, wondering what might have happened. Then she thought of Jonathan’s stories about his training. It was a comfort to recall her favorite, the Tradition of the Kiss…
It was customary amongst knights to test their prospective brides by hiking together to a pair of rocks, leaning like lovers kissing. If the girl made it that far and the knight still wanted her, he’d propose. It wasn’t very romantic. Yet, after being married to Jonathan, she’d learned it comforted a knight to know their woman was strong, especially as they might be parted for long periods.
Jonathan had already proposed, but she’d wanted to do it. They sat on the bank of the stream near her home, skipping stones across the water.
“I’ll be as tough as I need to be,” she’d told him as she threw another.
"I already know that," he replied with a chuckle.
“So, when do we leave?” She scooted closer.
Jonathan put his arm around her. “Do you want to spend the night on the mountain, or return that day?”
“Which means I’m tougher?”
“Both are difficult,” Jon had replied, Rebekah eyeing him dubiously. He’d smiled and continued. “Starting from the School, if we spend the night, we’ll have to carry more gear but only walk ten miles each day. We can take a leisurely pace because we won’t have to worry about it getting dark. With packs, it will take about six hours to get there. If we come back on the same day, we’ll be able to get there in four hours, take a break for lunch and return before dark. But that is a twenty-mile hike.”
“I can do that,” she’d assured him. “I travel that much, doing chores every day, often carrying quite a load.” Her hands sat firmly on her hips.
“I do not want this to be a chore.” He’d grinned. “I would enjoy spending the night on the mountain with you. That way, we can take our time. It would also allow me to show you some survival craft along the way. You never know when you may find yourself on the mountain. I already know your strength.”
“So… you’re not entirely unobservant,” she’d teased, causing him to look off into the distance, trying to hide his flushed skin.
“My furlough is almost over. Let me speak to your father about it,” he’d uttered without turning back to her. “Will he trust me to be alone with you?”
“He’s happier about our upcoming marriage than we are.” She’d laughed, pushing him, sending him on his way. “He didn’t like any of my previous suitors. You can do no wrong.”
The lonesome cry of a wolf brought her back to the present. It was near. She crouched, pulling her pack close, scanning for movement.
Another beast howled in the distance.
Bushes rustled, revealing a scarred maw only a few feet away, sniffing the air. Again, the other called, summoning its mate. The bitch stared straight at Rebekah. Its long lean body was covered in scars. Blood matted its fur, leaking from an open wound. Growling once, it slinked away.
Shaken, her hand dropped from her still-sheathed knife.
Rebekah’s mind returned to the burned-out ruin before her.
If there were survivors, where’d the daikons and students go? They’ll not have given up. Are they on the mountain? It’s possible to live on Little Sister year-round. Jon told me that often enough.
That prompted Rebekah to hike toward the Kiss. Checking her pack, she had enough food and water, plus she knew there were suitable caves if she had to spend the night.
After an hour, the trees thinned. She glimpsed the Lone Soldier, towering in the distance. From it, she could be seen hiking anywhere on Easy Mountain, from its base to the Kneeling Queen’s Skirt.
Am I being watched? Will they investigate?
Wearing a linen shirt, loose breeches, and a woolen tunic tied by the sleeves around her waist, she kept a good warming pace. Her dagger was in her belt, her bow and quiver over her shoulder.
Two hours later, she arrived at the Kneeling Queen’s Skirt, the wide ledge that spanned the northern face of Shining Mountain. She couldn’t resist checking out some of the caves Jonathan had told her about.
He might be here, or there could be recent signs.
Her pace quickened.
The first cave she found was between the Watchers and the Kiss. It was only large enough for one person. From faint impressions in the dirt floor, she could make out the curve of someone’s back. Not recent, though. Disappointed, she searched for any stored items. Above a protruding rock, she found a rolled oil cloth containing thirty arrows. She knew the fletching. Her husband always made a twist in one feather.
Jon’s been here. When? From the pika scat, the nests of several litters, and a thick layer of dust, it was a year or more.
She put them back, sighing. She had plenty of arrows. Seeing evidence of him was bittersweet. Long nights had they talked as he fletched arrows in the firelight. But Freislicht was so vast, she’d no way to find him. And no way to find Sarah.
She left the small cave. Outside, the wind had changed. Rebekah considered staying there, just to be somewhere Jon had been, but it was too early. Hugging herself against the cold, she pulled on her wool tunic and followed the Skirt to the Kiss, where she scanned the eastern view to the Lone Soldier.
She cupped her hands around her mouth, yelling toward the peak. “Daikon Crispus, are you still about?” Only silence answered her.
Jon spoke of you often.
She sat, unwrapping a cloth package. The corncakes were still moist and sweet.
A nearby rabbit colony hopped about carelessly.
There’s water and food aplenty for this time of year.
She picked up her short bow, slid an arrow from its quiver, nocked it, chose her target, and let fly. She didn’t miss. After dressing the rabbit, she started a fire. Placing the spit over the coals, she set it close to the flames to sear, then moved it higher to cook more slowly. The smell of meat roasting made her mouth water.
Sensing she was being observed, she inspected the horizon and called out, “I’d love to share a bit of rabbit with you.” With no answer, Rebekah returned to the spit, giving it another quarter turn. When well cooked, she moved it from the heat, sliced off a piece, and speared it. “Are you going to have some, or just keep watching me?”
A knight stepped out from between the rocks, his silhouette familiar.
“Jon?” She was filled with joy and smiling like the sun but, as the knight came closer, her heart sank. The man’s hair was white, not blond.
Though disappointed, she set a pleasant countenance. This could still bring news.
“Welcome to our mountain, sir,” the aged knight greeted.
“Thank you for joining me. The God of Truth bless you in the name of J’shua Ha Mashiach.” She offered the daikon her knife.
He accepted it with a nod. “What brings you to the Kiss?” He cocked his head. “You don’t look like a recruit, you’re a little too old.”
Rebekah chuckled. “I heard about the fire. Terrible, false tales are being told. I wanted to see that your good work continues. We need the knights more than ever.”
He took a bite of the moist rabbit, sliced off another, and offered it back to her. “I’m Daikon Crispus. How can I help you?”
She accepted the slice of meat, eating it as she sought the right words. “I… I need you… and can help you, too.”
He sliced off two more cuts, keeping one. Then he offered the other, and the knife, to her. “How can I help you… and… what are you offering… madam?”
She nodded with a grin. “It’s safer to travel as a man… and keeps the Serpent’s pawns from finding me and using me against Jonathan. I’m Rebekah Otual. Have you seen him?”
“A moon before the attack, he came and left you a letter. But it is gone now.”
Then she took the blade, ate the rabbit, and cut two more strips, offering one to her guest. “My story begins with an unsuccessful debt collection. I escaped. My daughter did not, or so I thought at the time. Yet, I’m unable to find her.”
“That tells me how I may help. News still reaches us from a few places. If we learn of your girl’s fate, we’ll pass it on. And if we find her, we will attempt a rescue.” He ate the piece of meat she’d given him. “That doesn’t tell me how you can help me. Nor does it tell me why you’d need to. The Fellowship would assist you simply to ease your suffering. We require no recompense, never have.” He paused, unsheathing his knife. “Do you mind if we cut our own slices?”
She nodded. The daikon before her was a gentle old man who reminded her of her father. He was easy to talk to, and more complex and astute than he appeared to be.
“I haven’t been idle since losing my daughter. I, and others, have contacted many circles.” She paused, considering how much to say and how to say it. “Together, we’re working against the evil ones. I won’t say how many or where because…”
“What are you comfortable sharing?” His gaze locked onto her face. A sliver of rabbit hung forgotten in his fingers. “J’shua provides what we each need when we ask and trust him.”
“Darkness permeates the land, like water dripping from a faulty cask. It’s impossible to know what it’ll corrupt next. They worship ancient gods. I believe,” Rebekah took a slow breath before continuing, “they were involved in the destruction of your School.”
Daikon Crispus eased back, his eyes clouding over as if beset by a sudden storm. Then he looked down at the rabbit juices dripping on his clothes, replying, “It seems we may be of service to each other."
He looked back at her. “As I said, we still receive some news, but very little. We need to know what is happening. More importantly, we have no way to disseminate messages. Would you inform daikons and circle elders that we’re still training knights?”
She nodded. “How can candidates reach you safely?”
“It’d be best to state only that recruits must journey to the School’s ruins, as their first step in their instruction.”
“I’m happy to,” she said, her hands firmly on her hips.
“We will pray for the return of your daughter, and seek her.”
They continued talking as they ate. She told him of the child sacrifice and her group adopting orphans. When they finished, she brushed the ashes out, then scattered leaves, removing all traces of her visit.
Crispus nodded in approval. “We’ll pray for you and your group daily.” He paused. “What of your adopted ones? Do they desire to become knights? Are any twelve yet?”
“I don’t know their ages. My only interest was that they were safe and being raised by believers. How should I send them, so they don’t have to yell for you?” She grinned.
“Have them come to the School’s ruins, then the Kiss.” The daikon laughed. “We’ll keep watch for them. If they sing, we’ll find them quicker.”
Rebekah nodded. “Please tell Jonathan that I love him and long for him. But that, like him, the God of Truth has given me a mission. The Father will bring us together again. I know Jon is doing God’s will, and am confident in the Lord’s promise that Sarah is safe. Although I pray for her swift return.”