Chapter 13: Travelers
Waning Crescent Moon, Early Spring
West of Fairness Crossing
As Jonathan walked through another small village eighteen miles west of Fairness Crossing, his eyes scanned the crowd. It was market day. Farmers and those living on the community’s outskirts had come to buy, sell, or both. Tinkers, clothiers, saddle-makers, and others had their stalls open, attracting business with shouts and songs. Food and drink were on sale. Fresh cooked bread, lamb, and other delicacies laced the air.
It all made him homesick.
A blonde girl ran past. Her similarly colored mother gave chase, calling her name, and threatening a paddling if she didn’t behave.
The youngster was the same age as Sarah would be, about eleven.
It had been years since he’d lost his daughter. No, since she’d been taken. She’d have grown up without him, without her mother. Would he even recognize her?
He’d know her eyes, her smile, and her laugh. But…
Here in the south, not far from Lexandria to the west, there were many blondes. He counted six on the street, another two hanging out of windows yelling down to friends.
A carriage drawn by four horses approached surrounded by well-armed men. Jonathan backed into a shaded alley. As it past, he recognized the Locke’s crest on its side, a white wolf on a purple field. Three travelers looked out the windows, blonde girls of marriageable age.
“Make way!” the carriage’s driver yelled, clearly angry at being delayed. “Make way for the Duchess of Lexandria and the midwife who delivered another Locke boy!”
He strained to get a better look. Something smashed into the back of Jon’s knees, dropping him to the ground as he reached for his sword. But another drew it as hands dragged him deeper into the alley. He thrashed to free himself, pulling a hidden dagger, then… “Jathan…? You couldn’t just tap me on the shoulder?”
Jathan shrugged. The men accompanying Magistrate Gorum’s son released the knight, but stood ready.
“Apologies, Sir Otual. They were worried you might react rashly.” Jathan grinned sheepishly, nodding toward his men. “Your notorious legend is well-known in Esthlanis.” Jathan offered his hand.
Jonathan took it. “There are safer ways to get my attention.”
“A suspicious man came to the estate seeking you. He’s not the first, but this one… In any case, I was sent to find you.”
“Why is that?”
“The man had been loitering about town for some moons. An untrustworthy type who knew too much about too many, had too many baden, and spent too many hours watching people he shouldn’t know. Some of the other estate owners wanted to move him on. Father insisted he be watched. A good thing, too.”
“When your wife came to take David for training as a knight, the man attempted to follow them. He was intercepted. Rather forcefully, I’m told. Sadly, I did not participate. But, before being allowed to – eventually – go on his way, he became most forthcoming. There’s a private bounty on your head. Not merely the false charges that have been laid against you in Freislicht. This is prize money for any who can capture you, dead or alive.”
“That is disturbing. Did the man say who was behind it?”
“Not that I’ve been informed. He did say his contact was a man named Rosewud.”
“I have met him.”
“You must take the most extreme care. Father offers you sanctuary should you ever need it. However, for everyone’s sake, I was sent to tell you not to come directly to the estate. Instead, go to the abandoned mine-works southeast of town.”
Jon frowned. He knew the place. It was many miles from the Gorum Estate, but closer to the Freislicht border. “How would you know I was there? I do not understand.”
“Father said you’d say that, and that I was to reply ‘the way is clear when it is needed’. The mine is being put to… new uses. Storing weapons and materials for when the Esthlani come to your country’s aid. Rumors say there are other such places… and something called Licht Gegen, although Father refuses to discuss it with me.”
“All are interesting developments, yet I do not understand how you found me. If you can do so, what does your father suggest?”
“Father sent me because, of all his sons, I hear J’shua’s voice most clearly. The path to finding you has taken more than a moon. He also sent you provisions, some baden as he was sure you’d lack for funds, and two horses.”
“That is far too generous—”
“He’ll be insulted if you refuse these minor gifts. He’s giving twenty-five horses to your Fellowship. David brought us good fortune. And great prosperity. This is the merest token of the blessings that have been granted us since your son’s arrival. And…”
“And what, Jathan?” Jon sensed something troubled the young man.
“I want to ride with you, but I’ve been forbidden. He said that you do not need a bodyguard, but when you need an army, we’ll be there. This,” he offered a rolled parchment, “is the name of a business you can safely use to send messages to us. They sell plows and other things. Use the name and special-order code therein.”
Jon took the missive, overwhelmed by the risks his friend and his friend’s son were willing to take for him. “Thank your father. And thank you too.”
Rebekah had written to Magistrate Gorum regularly, but she hadn’t seen him since before David was born. He’d replied recently that Jonathan would not be able to come until Winter, so she’d collect her son before the waning moon of the Judge.
David was in his thirteenth year and it was time for him to start at the School.
For the first time in years, she returned to the abandoned Frei colony. The primitive huts made from tying saplings together, had all but disappeared, reclaimed by the forest. Yet the things she had hidden there, wrapped in oil cloth, remained safe.
From the bundle of clothes, she pulled out the only dress she still owned. The same one she’d worn on the day she lost Sarah. She fussed with hair that had been woefully ignored, wishing for a mirror. Then, giving up, she packed her things and the sword David would need.
Having crossed the river into Esthlanis, she donned the sword, wearing it in the same fashion as Esthlani women did, dangling from a sash worn over their long wool tunics, tight and low across the hips. She arrived at the magistrate’s estate four days later.
David was with Gorum’s sons when they met her at the gate. “Mother, you’re here,” he yelled, galloping ahead of the others with a sweeping wave.
She spurred her horse, smiling broadly.
He’s filled out, almost a man.
Without dismounting, they hugged as her heart swelled, and tears stung her eyes.
The four brothers led the way to the house, mother and son following behind, talking quietly to each other.
“You look well. Is your apprenticeship finished? Are you a skilled horse trainer now?”
“It ended several moons ago.” David beamed. “But they asked me to stay a while longer. I earned this horse, and its saddle and tack too. I was also presented with this short sword and the Complete Book of Writings, just as Esthlani boys are. Our circle gave me this copy of the Writings so I might have something light for traveling as a knight. It’s like Da’s.” He lifted the flap and patted the book.
She passed her hand over the embossed leather holster he wore. “It’s beautiful. Has your father written you?”
“Da has written weekly but his letters arrive in bundles almost every moon. He’s been in Tarinland but said he must go to Mestelina. He is looking for you and Sarah everywhere. Are you…?”
Rebekah sighed. “The Lord has missions for us both that, so far, have kept us apart. His still, small voice tells me your sister’s alive and well. Yet, despite help from many, I haven’t heard a whisper of her. Has anything reached you…?”
“No…” David shook his head. “Very little news of Freislicht reaches here. Less reaches my ears. They think they’re being kind, but… Thank you for writing me, Ma, I was so worried for you. I still grieve Sarah’s loss.”
“I appreciate Master Gorum’s attempt to spare your feelings, even if it's in vain. We must trust J’shua,” she encouraged.
Dismounting at the house, David hugged his mother again, “I’ve missed you so.”
Last time he hugged me it was around my middle. Now he’s taller than me.
Magistrate Gorum waited for them on the porch. “Welcome, Lady Otual. Have tea with me.”
A servant brought out a tray of sliced fruit and cakes. Another followed with the tea and cups.
“Master Gorum,” Rebekah objected, “you are treating me like royalty. And here I am taking away your help.” She sighed, looking down at her hands.
“That was the agreement from the beginning. Your son’s prepared to teach all he knows of horses. Having the knights become horsemen, as well as swordsmen, will be good for all. It’s been a prosperous five years, with David’s help. He has a talent with animals. In thanks, to you and Jonathan, and to J’shua, I am giving the knights twenty-five horses. Please tell them to pick them up whenever they can.”
Rebekah sat back, astonished by the magistrate’s generosity. It was a princely gift. “I’ll recommend the knights come individually, spread out over a few moons, collecting one horse at a time.”
“There’s another matter,” Gorum continued. “I promised Jon, and myself, that I’d keep you safe.”
She snorted, leaning forward.
“We also agreed that I was unlikely to be able to force such ‘safety’ upon you. That doesn’t mean I won’t try. Therefore, will you permit me to provide you with horses, provisions, weapons, and an escort?”
“Beyond your borders, being accompanied by Esthlani warriors would draw attention, but I’d appreciate an escort until we approach the Tarin River Trading Post.”
“Done. And the other things?”
“Let’s discuss them.”
David bowed to the magistrate and his mother, then left for his room in the stable.
They talked well into the night.
“Be proud of him, Lady,” Gorum noted. “He’s my best apprentice in thirty-five years. Had he no parents, I’d adopt him.”
“I pray that you never have to be holden to that.” Rebekah chuckled, slumping back in the chair, smiling at the thought of traveling with her boy during the week-long trip.
“Before I forget,” the magistrate reached into his pouch and brought out an elegant dagger in an embossed leather sheath, “Jonathan sent this. Said David needed a dagger, and it was customary for the father to provide it. He also wrote that he’s well, is in the Lord’s hand, and knows you are also. I’ve several letters for you, from him.”
“I have one for him also, should you see him again or hear of a place to send it.” Rebekah sighed. “We’ve missed each other over the past five years. It’s enough to know he’s well and doing the Lord’s work.”
Gorum nodded, his face solemn.
“Thank you for delivering the dagger. It’s beautiful. David will be pleased.”
They conversed a while longer. Gorum gave her Jon’s letters and they exchanged their goodnights. A maid showed Rebekah to a room. She read Jon’s first letter while the girl poured her a bath.
My beautiful wife,
I so admire your devotion to J’shua and the God of Truth.
I look for you everywhere. I pray for you always and for the swift return of our daughter.
The Lord protects me as I know he does you. The writings and the spirit of J’shua will comfort you. I extinguish my fears in them continuously through meditation. Otherwise, being separated would be unbearable.
After she finished reading, she slept soundly knowing Jonathan was well.
She and David left in the morning.
In Frei Forest, Rebekah changed back into Tomas Bekh, beard and all.
David gasped as he watched her walk past, his mouth agape.
“How do I look?” She asked, using her feminine voice.
“Mother, you look like… a man.”
“Thank you. That is my intention”
“How…? Why…?” David’s eyes were as wide as saucers.
She deepened her voice. “It’s the easiest way to hide in plain sight.”
“The act must be complete. Your father is being hunted. Those pursuing him would, should they find me, use me against him. So, I disguise myself. I became so good at playing a man that I kept at it. But,” she hesitated, “there are some things you need to know before committing yourself to the Knights. It is not the only possible path that lies before you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not merely hiding. There is a group, Licht Gegen, that I work with. Over the last five years, they’ve cautiously built up a network. None knows how large it is, nor the names of everyone involved.”
“What do these people want?”
“To be free, without persecution from nobles such as the Lord of Lorness. At his orders, our farm was burned and your grandparents killed. They would have sold Sarah and me into slavery while illegally demanding payment. We had a contract. What they did was wrong.”
“You’re scaring me. It’s one thing to hide, but to work against…” He frowned, his eyes scrunching almost closed as they had whenever he worked through something.
“All Licht Gegen wants is to live without fear,” she whispered, not wanting to alarm him more. “But that requires organization, information, and money. As Tomas Bekh,” she gestured at herself, “I can drink with a man, befriend him, and fill in gaps in our knowledge of the enemy. We have learned much. We work with people from all walks of life who seek the same thing. Farmers, traders, soldiers, lesser nobles, thieves, and less savory folks. Many help us willingly. Some help us for coin. Some out of hatred. And, there are some who would betray us.”
“Mother, you can’t risk yourself like this. What would Father say?”
She smiled. “That I’m heeding J’shua’s call and doing what I can. Not every person serves the God of Truth by wielding a sword or spreading his words. You can, if that is still your wish. Or, you could join Licht Gegen, like me. It has been slow going, for I could not pursue my goals boldly. It required caution and guile. The role of Tomas is not merely a cover. It has become real. As him, I own businesses that I run and must keep profitable. I employ more people than you’d believe.”
“You own businesses… plural?”
“It didn’t start out that way. And there are many things you could do for me, posing in roles from clerk to rich merchant.”
“I…” He shook his head. “Why not give it up? Have someone else run them. Find Sarah. She’s still missing, isn’t she?”
“The contacts I’ve built up give me a greater chance of finding your sister. I cannot let them go. I will find her, no matter the cost or how long it takes. If that means being Tomas, so be it. If it means working with Licht Gegen, so be it. Yet, seeking your sister is not all that I’m doing. It’s complex beyond imagining. But, to give you an idea, I know far more about what is happening in Lorness and High Castle than anyone but a Royal Minister. There are one or two of them working quietly with us. I’ve been shocked to speak to them and find myself the better informed.”
“It seems I have a gift for this. But, even with the networks that have been established, we are still piecing things together, still trying to identify the key culprits. I think Gaelib Melazera is one of them. But cannot prove it, yet.”
“I… I’d never have… that is…” David looked down, shaking his head.
“What else would you have me do? Other’s may be called to wring their hands and pray, leaving everything in J’shua’s hands. But my hands are able, my mind is clear, and my need to act is undeniable. What were my alternatives?”
“I…” David wrung his hands.
“Would you have been happier had I acted as a woman? Understanding that, had I done so, I’d have had to do things…”
David’s face shot up, a look of horror on his face. “You wouldn’t,” his voice collapsed into a whisper. “You couldn’t.”
“No, I couldn’t. However,” Rebekah smiled thinking of all the different people helping them, making a difference.
“As Tomas Bekh, I receive information from the unlikeliest of sources. The good, the vile, and the fallen. I have encountered women of the night seeking to redeem their souls, despite their misfortune.”
“That is extraordinary, Mother, I—”
“Don’t let your imagination run away with you, David. I’m guided by the Lord’s still, small voice. As you will be. Have faith. Now, we must resume our travels. To give you some perspective on what I do and have done, from this point on you’ll pose as my new apprentice, not my son. I’ll teach you as we go.”
They traveled five days to reach Easy Mountain. As they approached the Kiss, many student knights welcomed them, taking them to Daikon Crispus.
New Moon, Autumn
Farr Castle to Caswell
Rhaylth smiled to himself as the coach rumbled around the bend.
“Whoa!” the driver on top roared at the six horses, pulling back on the reins. Leaning back, his legs stretched, putting everything he had into it. The liveried lad beside him grabbed the reins as well.
The women inside were screaming.
It was glorious!
The horses sensed the danger, only to fight against each other, ignoring the driver in their terror, trying to break out of their rigging… but their pace did slacken.
The coach began to slow.
Quorin had picked the spot with care. It was on the final stretch of the southward track from Farr Castle to Caswell. It wouldn’t be fair to call it a road. It was barely that. But it was increasingly used by the Earl of Caswell’s people.
Rhaylth and Quorin had been watching it for weeks, seeking the perfect target. They knew they might only capture one or two prizes before the area became too dangerous for highwaymen such as themselves.
As the coach lurched to a stop the old man and the boy turned their heads side to side, eyes wide, seeking the threat.
With the carriage coming to a stop only feet from the downed tree, Rhaylth swung onto the top of the carriage to prick the back of the driver’s neck with his sword. Neither the driver nor the lad riding up top would be any trouble. He watched his cousin work.
“Owt! Geyt owt!” Quorin roared in one of his false voices, stepping from the bushes with a cocked military crossbow in his hands. The weapon was pointed into the carriage where its noble passengers cowered. “Owt! Ay’ll neyt ask ag’in!”
Three trembling women, young and beautiful, dressed in colorful silk, exited the carriage. “Please don’t hurt us,” Then the noblewoman followed, bright jewels around her throat and her fingers, scowling at her ladies-in-waiting, silencing them. She looked up at Rhaylth and then turned her dark amber eyes on Quorin. She was confident. She was trouble.
But Rhaylth’s attention strayed to the prettiest of the girls. Dark hair, fair skin, a trim waist and intoxicating curves. She was sobbing, “Please don’t hurt us,” when her mistress snarled, “Do you fools know who I am? I am Lady Caswell. You’ll die for this. Surrender and I’ll make your deaths quick. Or I could tell Lady Melazera if you fail to understand how badly you’ve miscalculated…”
The next words were lost as the driver’s lad launched himself at young Rhaylth.
“Blast!” Quorin glared at Rhaylth.
The driver tried to back up his young companion.
Quorin shoved his crossbow in the noblewoman’s belly. “Don’t!”
In the same moment, Rhaylth’s blade slit the young lad’s throat. Blood gushed everywhere, threatening Rhaylth’s footing.
The driver reached for Rhaylth’s legs, just a moment too slow, as his neck sliced open.
“Loydy,” Quorin growled, “ya ken giv’meh ya baubles, or ay ken tayke ‘em frem ya deed boydy.” He used the butt of the crossbow to club her to the ground, knocking her unconscious. Then kicked her belly.
He stepped clear, pointing at the girls. “Strip ‘er. Jew’ls, cloythes, they lot!”
The three girls quailed, then screamed as a blood-spattered Rhaylth leapt to the ground. Yet, they did as instructed.
“Geyt they ‘orses,” Quorin instructed Rhaylth.
He did so, but was annoyed he didn’t get to watch the noblewoman peeled from her clothes. By the time he had freed all six beasts and had them under control, the three naked girls had run off. Although, the naked noblewoman was a sight to see.
Quorin pulled tight the string of the sack, as the older woman let out a groan, still motionless in the dirt.
He tossed the burlap bag of clothes to Rhaylth, scowling as they walked away.
The Circuit to Lexandria
With David training on Little Sister, Rebekah had returned to the business of spying. She was on her circuit, traveling from Caswell to Lexandria.
Maddeningly, the business that was her cover for moving about collecting intelligence and passing on messages was so successful it could no longer be managed alone. Indeed, it hadn’t been possible since the first year. She was growing wealthy. Yet, she still needed to move about as inconspicuously as possible.
It had been decided early on, regarding saving orphans, that the families would do the best they could for them. This included teaching them all to read and, wherever possible, arranging apprenticeships for them. A large part of Bekh’s growing wealth was invested in such endeavors.
The brightest youngsters were also taught to write, a rare skill except amongst the nobility, some of the very rich, and the Order of the Black Robe. Raising children who could aspire to be professional scribes was yet another way to counter that organization’s influence. It also, inadvertently, provided Rebecca with potential assistants.
Each year, she’d take on one or two eleven-year-old boys who were intelligent, attentive, and desired to become a knight. They’d remain with her for two years, until she sent them to the Kiss
On a warm day, she and her two lads had ridden south from Caswell, where they’d made an average number of sales. She’d picked a spot to rest and make a stew. There’d been no excitement, nothing interesting to chase down, nor any special news. As with most days, it was endlessly collecting bits of information that she passed on, as boring as breathing but just as necessary.
Her two lads were collecting kindling when another voice said, “Sir?”
Rebekah looked up to see countless boys of all ages stepping out of the woods. Hers were not amongst them. Their leader, a tall beardless lad, had addressed her. He was confident and kept his weight perfectly balanced ready for any potential action.
“Hallo.” She stood and smiled.
“Hallo, I am James of the Wood. Don’t worry, we’ve done nothing to your young traveling companions. They’re very noisy, so we just skirted around them. They’ll return shortly.”
“Glad to hear it. My compliments, I didn’t hear your approach.”
He nodded. “We’ve seen you pass through our woods many times. We seek information.”
“How can I help?” Rebekah asked. Despite their numbers, they seemed unthreatening. There was something familiar about them. Almost. Yet, it wouldn’t come to mind, nor was there time to ponder it. The situation could change without warning… and James was already responding.
“We seek news of our parents. Most were arrested from circles in Lorness and Fairness Crossing. We’re afraid to go asking officials. They’re conscripting too many into the army. But since you come through here every few weeks, we hoped you might have news, or might provide it next time.”
She nodded, moved by their situation. “Let’s do this properly. I was about to make stew. Join us for dinner.”
“It’ll be good to eat someone else’s cooking,” James joked. “Call your lads back, we’ve everything you need.”
“Douglas, Padraig! Come back, lads. I’ll need you to jot down some names.”
“They can write?” one of the boys exclaimed, his eyes wide.
“It’s just a skill like any other. All it takes is time, nimble fingers… and much practice.” She chuckled. “Let’s eat and talk. Then tell me your families’ names. I’ll find out what I can.”
Her lads’ clomping back through the bush like clumsy giants made Rebekah and her new friends laugh.
A young boy of no more than eight carried a stout short bow. In his makeshift quiver were several arrows. They too struck Rebekah as familiar. “Son, may I see one of those?” She pointed.
“Yes, sir.” He handed it over proudly.
She squatted beside the boy. “This is fine work. Did you fletch this?” A feather had a twist, like Jon’s arrows.
“Yes, sir.” He smiled. “Our helper taught us. Then we teach all the new boys.”
“You have a helper? Where is he?”
“He only stayed with us for two moons. He’s on a mission.”
Her heart fluttered.
Bekh glanced at James, smiling. “Could his name be Jonathan Otual?”
Eyes wide with surprise, the young man grinned. “Yes, you know of him?”
She smiled. “Everyone’s heard of Sir Jonathan Otual.”
Outside River Town
Quorin glanced back at Rhaylth who was trailing behind, trying to get one more glimpse of the naked noblewoman, despite the six horses he was leading.
Or, should I be cursing myself? That was the Countess of Caswell. Perhaps I should have killed her. Killed all of them. At least that way, there’d be no witnesses. But… if I did that, Rhaylth would’ve wanted his way with at least one of the girls. And who knows who could have stumbled upon us?
Damn fool and his lust.
“Rhaylth, catch up! Someone could come across that carriage at any minute. They’ll not treat us kindly if we’re caught. They could even…”
…send us to the Melazera’s dungeons. It was said that Lady Melazera and Parynna Caswell were… close. Oh, the rumors I’ve heard about that.
Quorin stopped, turned and looked at his young cousin. It was said everyone had a role to play. He’d just decided Rhaylth’s.
As they neared the city of Caswell, Quorin surprised his cousin, knocked him out cold and left him leaning against a tree. If the gods wished the lad to live, he’d do so.
Then he mounted the only horse trained for riding and turned east. There was a merchant who’d buy the horses on the edge of River Town, another who’d buy the jewels within it, and a Black Robe lair that he had been on his way to, even if he was running a moon late.
I’m not yet done with The Order. They still have riches I can loot. And when things get too risky, there’s a group who oppose the Melazeras. Given all I know, I’m sure they’ll take me in.