Rebekah Otual – 144 AK, Spring
Flapping, nearly dry linens signaled a change in the wind. Rebekah Otual touched them. Then a whirlwind caught the sheets, frantically entwining her, obscuring sight.
Fighting her way out, she caught glimpses of her home, a modest log cabin with woods on three sides, the meandering forest trail that led here, and three men approaching on a wagon. But no sign of her daughter, Sarah, who’d been playing amongst the hanging laundry.
Rebekah’s heart raced, her eyes flitted about, but Sarah remained unseen, even as a man dismounted dressed in the gold tunic and green dragon sigil of the Lord of Lorness. The two men with him were soldiers in royal red brigandine and steel helmets.
What does he want?
She sighed as Sarah emerged from the sheets.
“I am George Rosewud, Undersecretary to the Lord of Lorness. Fetch your father, woman,” the thin and fair-haired official commanded. His every button was polished. There wasn’t a scuff on his cordovan boots, nor did a single hair escape its ribbon. In his hands was a large book. Behind him, on the wagon, was an elegantly carved shillelagh.
Her father strode from the fields holding his gloves and hoe. His face clouded with worry, sweat dripped from his greying hair. “What do you want, clerk? We’ve made this moon’s payment.”
“That was recorded. The Lord of Lorness demands all outstanding loans be finalized.” His thick ledger creaked open. “The amount is… four thousand baden,” the official stated flatly.
“We have a contract,” her father corrected, taking off his wide-brimmed hat, wiping sweat from his brow. “He can’t demand it all at once.”
The undersecretary’s lifeless brown eyes locked onto her father.
One soldier, a tall, dark-haired youth with a face as smooth as a peach, jumped off the wagon. The other climbed down, straightening his well-worn uniform. He scratched at an old scar trailing across one cheek. They readied their swords and stood at attention.
Sarah came out from the damp linens and mimicked the soldiers. She’d inherited her mother’s blue eyes and golden blonde hair. Her plain muslin dress ruffled in the breeze like a flag. Five seashell buttons that her da brought home after a mission to Tarinland decorated its front. She stood straight and tall, as tall as a six-year-old could. Her voice rose sweetly, singing a familiar melody she’d learned from her father, Jonathan.
“Like a little brave soldier, you will stand,
“Like a little brave soldier, you will fight.
“Like a little brave soldier, you will pray,
“Like a little brave soldier with J’shua’s might.”
Rebekah noticed a slight smile crack the young soldier’s stoic face. It frightened her.
“Go see Grandma,” Rebekah instructed Sarah, her tone clear, obey or get a phwack.
The young soldier’s eyes tracked Sarah.
Undersecretary Rosewud’s expression darkened. “The Lord of Lorness demands payment. Now.”
“But…” her father pleaded.
The younger soldier focused on Rebekah, noting her scowl.
The old sergeant grunted. “She’s a fine body. Be pretty if she smiled.”
Undersecretary Rosewud pursed his lips and silenced them with a glance. “If you don’t have four thousand baden, Mister Dowling, we’ll take the woman and child instead. Both look healthy. How old is the girl?”
“Take back the land,” her father begged, his eyes tearing up.
Rosewud raised an eyebrow. “Your lord needs the money. The females can be sold before sunset. The land would take longer. How old is the child?”
“Six.” The old man grimaced.
Rebekah touched her father’s shoulder. She felt him relax.
Rosewud nodded. “Get in the wagon, woman.”
“I’ll fetch my daughter,” Rebekah muttered, head downcast. Her heart pounded as she trudged toward the house. Smoothing her muslin apron, she forced her mind to be quiet.
Please Lord, don’t let them follow me.
When she entered the house, the intruders’ attention was still on her father.
Inside the cabin, Rebekah found her daughter and mother hiding behind the door where they could hear. Rebekah hugged Sarah tightly and whispered, “Don't be afraid, Little Knight. Stay low. Run to the woods, to the blackberries. Be invisible like Da showed you. Hide there until I come find you.”
Sarah nodded, brave tears leaking down her face.
Rebekah dropped her daughter to the ground through the window at the rear of the cabin. “Go! Stay low.”
Sarah landed in a squat and scurried off to the west woods.
Rebekah and her mother watched Sarah disappear into the high sorghum grass. “Lord J’shua, what can we do?”
“Jonathan taught us how to respond to an attack,” her mother answered. “I’ll stall for as long as I can. Run east so they don’t find you both. May angels watch over you.”
Rebekah’s countenance fell as she stared into her mother’s clear blue eyes.
“Your da and I have had a full, blessed life. We will sleep. When we wake, we’ll all be together with J’shua Ha Mashiach and the Father. Take your dagger and these coins. Go!”
Rebekah – 144 AK, Spring
Rebekah prayed her parents would be safe, running into the tallest crop. From there, she spied Sarah nearing the woods.
Moments later, the young soldier appeared on a horse, pursuing Sarah.
Rebekah bent down, hiding herself, and followed.
Yet, before she reached the woods, he emerged with Sarah sitting before him on his horse. The sight of her daughter caught by that drecksa cut deep. A sensation that worsened when he laughed, as if the hunt had been a game.
Everything inside her screamed to run after them. To rip her daughter out of his arms. To plunge her dagger into his gut. To end his life slowly, so he had the merest glimpse of the suffering he’d already inflicted.
He’s just a lad. Not that his age will stay my blade.
There was no way she could overtake him while remaining unseen. The wagon had already left. The boy soldier rode back into the woods with Sarah.
Crouching, she waited, twisting a strand of her golden hair, counting her breaths until he was well out of sight. Then she ran back to the house. Through the roaring flames, she discerned her parents’ bodies. She covered her ears, howling at the deafening blaze, railing against this evil, and praying in the spirit.
The fire grew hotter, forcing her to stumble back. With one final wail, Rebekah wiped her tears and steeled herself.
Sarah will be safe until they sell her. That weasel, Rosewud, won’t allow her to be defiled. He’d lose money.
Turning toward the woods, she ran.
The Canferd’s farm is close. They’ve a horse. No, they also have a loan from Lord Melazera.
The nearest farm in the Duke of Wooster’s domain was her best chance of finding a property that hadn’t been repossessed — and a horse — before dark. The duke was an upright man, a known follower of J’shua.
She alternated between walking and running through the woods to conserve her strength.
After two hours’ travel, she crawled through the low grass to get close to a barn without being seen. Once at the edge of the yard, she ran to the barn, opening the heavy door just enough to get through. Inside were six horses, each in its own stall. Her hand patted the withers of each, while speaking quietly. Rebekah chose a mare that was fresh, with a sweet temperament and saddled her. She flung the door wide, mounted, and rode out.
An old man hobbled toward her waving a club and shouting.
Barreling ahead, she brushed him aside, yelling back over her shoulder, “Sorry, I’ll return her.”
She rode hard for a mile in the opposite direction to confuse the horse’s owners. Once the ground became rocky, she veered off the path toward her farm. She returned to where she’d last seen her daughter and the young soldier. She found a trail. There were too many broken branches. The tracks wove through the softest dirt. Yet, she followed it, watching for signs of ambush.
The sun had just set when she heard them. A noisy lot, she didn’t need to get close. She could smell their campfire. Besides, there were too many for her to attempt a rescue. Rebekah's only choice was to wait for an opportunity.
I’m coming, baby. Thank you, Jonathan, for teaching me how to survive.
She hoped he, at least, was safe. The waiting gnawed on her. She scrounged a few berries to assuage her hunger. Then, tethering the horse far enough away to not be heard from the camp or found by a patrol, Rebekah gathered a blanket of leaves and hid. There was nothing else to do.
She slept lightly but awoke to silence.
Rebekah lay still for several minutes, straining to hear the chatter of soldiers. There was none. She crawled toward the camp.
Are they hiding?
The wagons were gone, leaving only tracks of men, animals, and carts.
Where could they be headed?
Returning to her horse, she took off after them. Only an hour later, she found them lounging at a new campsite. Their laughter, voices, and clatter carried to her, marking their position.
They’re using the old cow trail. I know where they’re going.
She turned her mare toward the more direct route to River Town.
Rebekah – 144 AK, Spring
Rebekah's heart pounded as she approached the River Town market. It swarmed with people coming and going. A fresh-faced farm boy walked his dapple mare past a group of River Town citizens, who huddled together gossiping near the meeting house. Others carried baskets and burlap bags from the market. Averting her eyes, she worried someone might recognize the stolen horse or notice her trembling hands. Being arrested as a horse thief would end her rescue of Sarah before it began.
I need supplies. Jonathan should be on his way back.
She frowned. Her dagger wasn’t enough, so Rebekah found a merchant selling weapons. Recent sharpening filled the air with metal. “How much for the short bow and full quiver? And an extra string?”
If my bow hadn’t broken last week, I would’ve killed that soldier before he found Sarah.
The man tidying his swords, sheaths, and axes into neat rows turned to her. “Fifty-two baden for all.”
Rebekah examined the bow and tested the draw. Satisfied, she counted thirty-two arrows, placing them in the quiver. Setting her brow, she haggled the price down. She nodded when the man sighed his agreement, “forty-one.”
Next, she bought a wide brimmed hat that could be worn by either a man or woman. Placing it on her head, she continued through stalls that teemed with buyers, head down as she sought items needed in the wilderness.
Yard-long leather thongs caught her eye. After buying several, she continued her circuit of the market. She returned to the horse with provisions, breeches, and a tunic.
A uniformed soldier galloped into the marketplace, scattering people before him.
He’s looking right at me.
Rebekah slid behind her horse, forcing herself to continue tying her purchases in place and prepared to mount in a hurry. Her heart hammered in her chest, her fingers fumbling with the thong.
The soldier dismounted, striding toward Rebekah. She froze. But he grabbed and whirled a girl standing behind her. “Take me to your father. I got the commission. I’m going to ask for your hand.”
The maiden squealed in joy and escorted him away.
Rebekah leaned against the horse, unable to mount, her knees barely supporting her.
Seeking refuge, she kept her head down, walking the horse past an inn exploding with laughter and shops buzzing with patrons. Farther away, the streets were quiet, the taverns and brothels closed until the more lucrative night. A well-hidden alleyway caught her eye She ducked behind some barrels to change her clothes.
They’ll be looking for a woman in a bedraggled dress, not a man.
Cutting a piece off her skirt, she tied her hair back. She used another to bind her breasts. Once dressed in her new grey tunic and breeches, she hid the torn clothing. Then she rubbed her hands in the dirt and soiled her face, hoping to look less womanly. Mimicking some lads across the street, she slouched and walked stiffly. Rebekah patted the horse. Grabbing an apple from her purchases, she took a few bites, and gave the rest to the mare, whose soft lips tickled her palm. Her lips almost turned to a smile. Yet, without Sarah, the world lacked all joy.
The crowded street moved briskly around her. A farmhand bumped into her without so much as a sorry. His destination more important than some bedraggled boy walking his horse. Still, each glance in Rebekah's direction made her finger's tremble.
Her breath caught when she spied a caravan of wagons coming down the main road. She watched for children and any glimpse of her daughter or that weasel, Rosewud.
Cautiously, she walked the horse toward them.
Spying Sarah, her stomach knotted. Her baby was in a cage. She fought the urge to leap on her daughter's captors, to save her from those drecksas. She squeezed her hands tight to still them. Her fingernails digging into her palms.
If Jon can fight, doing right by J’shua, so can I. Grant me courage, Lord.
No, she couldn't reveal herself yet. Rebekah continued past the wagons and cart, careful not to look at them directly. She needed to know more. She needed to follow Sarah until she had an advantage. She needed them to split up. Then she’d strike these vermin down one by one.
Her anger was a whetstone, sharpening her senses. She watched as the wagons and the animals led behind them departed. The cart alone remained, unattended, as the weasel went into The Sapphire.
Rebekah walked forward to free Sarah, but two soldiers ambled toward the cart. She inhaled sharply at the green dragon sigil that the soldiers bore on their tunics. The Lord of Lorness was the most powerful man in Freislicht, and the most ruthless.
Veering away from the soldiers, she walked past, then tied her horse to a hitching post, and followed Rosewud inside. She calmed herself, recalling from the Writings, Be still and know that I am God.
She bought a mug of ale and took in the brightly painted tables and cabinets. The place was full of chattering diners. Slamming doors caused her to look to the narrow staircase and the ornate balustrade above, where three more soldiers watched the crowd.
When her enemy finished his meal and left, she waited for five breaths, then followed. Passing Rosewud, she saw the young soldier and overheard, “…Greysun in Fairness Crossing. He’s paid a bonus to make him my first stop….”
Greysun, you evil drecksa! It fits you’d purchase children.
She took a last look at Sarah, biting her lip to stifle a sob. Then Rebekah grabbed the pommel and mounted her horse. Turning away from her quarry, she followed the river at a gallop to gain enough distance to find a suitable ambush site.
Now I know where you’re going, weasel. I’ll be waiting for you.
Rebekah – 144 AK, Spring
Rebekah was at least an hour or two ahead of the slow-moving cage cart.
As she rode through the grove to set up her ambush, she heard men shouting. A woman screamed. Children cried out. Approaching cautiously, she wrapped her left forearm in a thong. She glimpsed a family in a wagon being attacked. A sturdy army cart pulled by a large black horse blocked their path.
The still, small voice spoke, Help them.
Rebekah hesitated. She needed to save Sarah. Yet, trusting the God of Truth, she spurred her horse into a gallop. Bursting from the tree line, she slammed her mount into a soldier, knocking him from his feet.
A second soldier had climbed aboard the wagon, striking the driver. The third had snatched an infant from its mother and was running toward the river.
He’s going to drown it!
Dismounting, Rebekah loaded four arrows into her hand parallel with the short bow as Jon had taught her. Pinching and pulling, she fired.
Her first arrow struck its target’s calf, slowing the fleeing soldier. The next toppled him, the babe still in his arms.
The soldier she’d knocked down, a tall burly lad, regained his feet and charged toward Rebekah, axe in hand. The last still bludgeoned the wagon driver.
She drew and released twice more. The big lad fell. The other arrow missed.
The mother ran toward her howling baby. Rebekah drew more arrows and nocked another. The last soldier finally pummeled the driver to the ground, giving her a clear shot. She did not miss.
Sweat poured from her brow. Her hands were clammy. She twisted seeking other threats, but there had only been three soldiers. None were moving, nor ever would again.
Rebekah's hands shook.
What have I done?
Three men were dead by her hand. Yet, there’d been no other choice. They clearly had evil intent.
Tears ran down the mother’s face, rocking her baby as she returned to the wagon. “Thank the merciful Father,” she cried out, “and thank you, sir.”
The eldest child comforted her siblings. Then she turned to her father, who rose unsteadily. “Da, are you well?”
The wagon driver, bleeding, regained his feet. “I am… well enough.” He grabbed the wagon’s side to prevent falling again.
“We’re all well,” the children’s mother reassured, a quiver in her voice. She held her son, who was shaking and mute. “The God of Truth kept us safe. What was our lesson this morning, Brin?”
The small boy peered up at her. Biting his lip, he stood and stammered, “He that dwelleth… in the secret place of the Most High… shall abide… under the shadow of the Almighty.”
“Very good, Psalm 91:1,” his oldest sister praised.
Rebekah retrieved her horse and tethered it to the wagon.
The children’s father turned to Rebekah, “Thank you, sir… you have amazing skill wi–” He froze mid-word. “You’re a… woman!”
“I hoped you couldn’t tell.” Rebekah frowned.
“Ah… that is… the dirt and the clothes say male. By your movements, I’d thought you a beardless boy. Up close, your face and mannerisms gave you away. Yet, you struck all three in the neck… I’ve never seen such…”
“My husband and I hunted often before the children came. He says the Lord blessed me with a propensity for the bow.”
“I… can see that. You saved us.” He rubbed his temple, his eyes narrowed in pain. “My name is Vincent…” he groaned, “…Donitoro. This,” he pointed to the short, thin woman with brown curls escaping a green scarf, “is my… wife, Helen.”
“I am Rebekah Otual. Why were they attacking you?”
“Lord Macom…” Vincent said, laying his head against his arm, still holding tightly onto the wagon.
“He is – was – our lender,” Helen said. “He sent these soldiers to our farm demanding payment in full. Fortunately, we were in our wagon on the way into town. They saw us and gave chase. I heard a voice say, ‘Turn.’ So, I repeated it to Vince. There wasn’t even a road, but he curved toward the river, where they overtook us. Then you appeared. We can never repay you.”
“There’s no need. I too followed the Lord's guidance. What’ll you do?” Rebekah asked, recovering the last of her arrows from a body. He moaned. She drew her knife across his throat, feeling ill.
He was a predator. Still, even an animal shouldn’t suffer.
“We must hide.” Helen turned toward her husband. “Lord Macom’s men won’t stop. Laws have been perverted and are being used to steal our children, our livelihood, and our future.”
Rebekah heard the still, small voice again, Help them. She bit her lip, fixing her eyes on the trees behind them. But Father, I must save Sarah.
She turned to a ray of light breaking through the clouds above, seeking reassurance.
Sarah is safe, the voice whispered.
Lord, I don’t see how that can be. Her shoulders relaxed. But I trust that you love my baby even more than I and will send angels to protect her.
Both comforted and afraid, Rebekah focused on the task at hand. “First, see what they’re carrying that we can use. Then help me drag them to the river. Drifting downstream will make it difficult to determine where they were killed. Then we must dilute this blood.”
From the soldiers they pilfered three canteens, two hatchets, a map, a spyglass, and an assortment of daggers and swords. They also took the food and provisions from the army cart.
While the family cleared away the signs of struggle, she rode the soldiers’ cart into the woods, hiding the bright green dragon engraved on each side. Then Rebekah rode back to the point where the wagon had left the road. Jonathan had taught her to track. The cart and wagon's wheels damaged a few bushy weeds near the road. She cut the bent stems far below the obvious breaks, and used them to brush out the wagon tracks.
Where should we go, Father?
The clouds rumbled, parting slightly to allow a single shaft of light pointing south, over Frei Forest. It was about twenty miles from River Town, a forest so thick no one could easily build there.
She returned brushing soil from her hands. “We can make our way south to just this side of the river near Fairness Crossing. In the Frei, we can remain indefinitely as long as we stay out of sight.”
Mister Donitoro nodded. “Our faith is with you.”
Rebekah – 144 AK, Late Spring
As they rode through the forest, Rebekah and the Donitoros marveled at the providence of the Lord, but still she complained, “Alas, I’ve no skill at posing as a man.” She’d need a better disguise when hunting for Sarah.
“I could teach you to act more like a brute. Couldn’t I, Ma?” He winked at his wife.
“That you could, dear. You’ve a deep husky voice, Madame Otual.” His wife smiled.
Rebekah’s eyebrows rose. “There’s no need for such formality. Call me Rebekah.”
“As a man, every word should be sharp, every movement abrupt, decisive,” Vincent instructed. “When you laugh, it should be loud. Make grand sweeping gestures with your arms, not merely your hands. Act like you own everything you see. Then, no one will think of you as a woman.”
Rebekah frowned. “I’ll need practice.”
“As for your stride, it must be bold, commanding, purposeful… when you’re at ease. Teaching you how to be angry as a man, that’ll take longer.”
They located a small clearing within the southernmost tip of Frei Forest. “This is perfect. We can hear the river, but are hidden from those traveling on it.” Rebekah pointed at several rabbits. “There’s much undergrowth sheltering small animals to snare, and over there, I see blackberries.”
Thank you, Father, for your provision.
Helen plucked a handful, sharing them.
Rebekah continued, “We’ll use very small fires, only at night, so smoke won’t be detected from the river. Our shelters will blend into the woods. During the day, when the river is full of boatmen, we’ll remain within the forest, foraging only at dusk or dawn. There can be no chaos. Even a child’s tantrum could bring about our end.”
“Yes.” Vincent and Helen nodded.
Later that night, as Rebekah lay on the bed of dried leaves looking up at the stars, a horse whinnied. I must give you a name… Justice. Justice is what I seek and what you’ll help me find. Finally, she fell asleep.
In the morning, they cut small saplings for a shelter. Rebekah instructed the older children how to make the components of a hazard. A device that would disable any that might hunt them. That night, she showed them how to fit the pieces together.
At night as everyone slept, she banked the fire, pushing the coals into a pile and covering them with ash to keep the heat in. She prayed for Sarah and Jonathan and David and all those harmed by the evil ones.
Rebekah – 144 AK, Late Spring
Rebekah crept closer, hearing talk from the riverbank. It was late at night and she was on watch. The rest of the colony was asleep. There should be no one on this side of the river, not in Frei Forest.
Yet, there were two. She could not make out their whispered words. Should she get her bow or use her dagger? Inching closer, she peered through the dense brush to see an unknown young couple on a blanket, giggling. She listened to their lovemaking and smiled when the boy made quick work of it. Then they paddled away. She hoped this wasn’t a common place for trysts.
That was weeks ago she mused. Rebekah focused on the trees shimmering with color as she stirred the melting tallow. The dark evergreens could not conceal the burnt-orange Black Gum, bright red Maple, and sunny-yellow Quaking Aspen. Yet nothing could soothe her need to find Sarah. She ached to do so, but couldn’t. There was a price on her head that made venturing out of Frei Forest too dangerous. It’d do her daughter no good if she too was captured.
Guided by the Lord, the hamlet had grown to twelve families and forty-six children. Their settlement was unlike others, for they lived in constant fear of discovery. They needed supplies to survive, but couldn’t farm. Instead, they made what they could to sell in town.
Rebekah noticed rustling in the green underbrush as a small child burst through, chirping, “Mother ‘Tual, Mother ‘Tual, We’re ready.” The sight of the girl brought no joy, only memories of Sarah. Still, she smiled. It would be wrong to steal a child’s delight, much less that of the those who followed.
“To be safe, you’ll all obey my instructions, yes?” Rebekah asked once they were all assembled.
“Yes, Mother Otual,” the children chorused.
“Put your hand on the shoulder of the one in front of you.”
Twelve hands shot out.
“Now, straighten your arm.”
The line lengthened.
“Very good. See how far you’re apart? That’s the distance you must stay while dipping the candles. Otherwise, you might drip hot wax on your friend or their clothes.”
One by one, she showed them how to lower the stick parallel to the ground to dip the twelve wicks in the hot tallow. After one dipped, they went to the end of the line, waiting to return to its front and dip again.
Mister Frink, a thin frail man with oily hair escaping from his cap, stormed up as she watched the children. "Rebekah, someone lost the hatchet."
Rebekah recognized his voice and didn’t turn. "Ask if anyone’s seen it."
Mister Bendol appeared, intruding before Frink could respond, "Rebekah, I provided the anvil, I should decide who uses it."
"Why? Would you deny another in need?” She turned and glared.
He frowned as she turned back to watch the children.
“Rebekah!” Mother Hinston ran up yelling. The screeching voice surprised a child, who turned abruptly, splashing wax everywhere and began to cry. “I’ve five children, I shouldn’t have watch duty again."
Rebekah stilled her rage as she tended the bawling girl, “There, there, nothing’s ruined.” Memories of a scar on Sarah’s hand caused by a similar incident pushed her near to breaking, yet she spoke softly, “Your dress will need washing, but that’s all. Line up children, let’s start again.”
Only once they’d recommenced, did she round on Mother Hinston, hissing, “You could have caused that girl to be scarred for life. You go explain it to her mother.”
Mother Hinston blanched. The men took a step backward.
“I didn’t ask to be your leader. I’ve problems of my own, or have you forgotten about my daughter?”
“We—” Frink began.
“Solve your own petty squabbles.” She steadied her voice. “Once Vincent has taught me to pass as a man, I’m leaving. Nothing is more important than finding Sarah.” Rebekah turned her back on them, fixing a pleasant smile onto her face. She’d not upset the children.
Rebekah – 144 AK, Early Summer
Rebekah rode into Fairness Crossing dressed in plain breeches and a rough woolen tunic. It had taken more than a moon, and a deepened voice, 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 red coat of office, the local herald was known to all and rarely introduced himself.
“Tomas,” Simon beckoned Sarah over as she walked down the street, “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, Sarah 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…”
“Blast. Them too?” The herald shook his head. “This is happening too often. And to people I know had contracts. Documents that have been misplaced or lost. Or, just ignored. Not that I can prove the last. 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. “There’s 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, for a bit. 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.
Follow the weasel.
Her thoughts returned to George Rosewud.
Rebekah – 144 AK, Early Summer
Rebekah, as Tomas Bekh, went to the last place she’d seen George Rosewud. She found a spot where she could watch and wait. 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.
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 them.
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 entered a small, shadowed gate at the rear of the castle, disappearing inside.
Finding an inn to watch from, she prayed for wisdom. And waited.
It was long after dark she heard the herald cry, “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 ornate saddles and bridles. None seemed to be Rosewud.
It’s far 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 pace.
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 but a cliff face reaching thirty feet into the air 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 ever 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 the weasel 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 so many more, like ants pouring forth from a trampled hill. Worse, they walked off in all directions, in large groups and small.
Rebekah inhaled sharply.
A score of them are heading right toward me. Hide me, Lord.
She didn’t exhale until after they’d passed.
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.
Her eyes narrowed. What’s your secret, weasel?
More appeared. Subordinates by the way he ordered them about, carrying 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 scent of burning 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, laid her blanket on the ground.
Thank you, Lord, for keeping me hidden.
She slept, waking at sunup.
Rebekah hesitated at the cave entrance, heart pounding. Inching forward, she clung to the wall. It 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 at the cavern’s center. It was dark, discolored. As she approached, insects swarmed noisily around it. The scent of spilled blood washed over her. A knot formed in her stomach. Flies rose from a dark red pool. She retched and wiped her mouth with her sleeve.
A swarm descended on her vomit.
She looked away, her eyes falling on dark drops that trailed to a buzzing lump on the ground. Crouching, she fanned away the hovering flies, exposing pale flesh.
The palm of a child's severed hand appeared, contracted fingers clawing the air.
Lord, what can I do?
A memory of a great battle recorded in the Writings stirred within. Her furrowed brow relaxed. She’d do as they’d done to win that conflict. Seven times she marched the perimeter 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 trouble.” Then she left, taking the small hand with her for burial.
Rebekah – 144 AK, Early Summer
Rebekah, now Mister Bekh all the time, had gone north following rumors of the weasel. While brushing her horse and checking its legs and belly for ticks, she prayed for wisdom.
What am I to do about this evil group sacrificing children?
She grabbed a bite to eat at The Three Hammers. She couldn’t stay in the same place all day. People would question what she was doing.
Visiting the herald, seeking news, 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. “Father, why are we kept apart?” She growled. “Jon, you were so close!”
She pictured him confronting the king. “You’re still my champion. I miss you so much. I know we’ll be together someday.”
Then 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.
Rebekah – 144 AK, Early Summer
Rebekah headed straight toward Shining Mountain. Despite the urgency, she wouldn’t risk someone following her. As she rode, an idea formed, a way to root out this corruption.
Once sure she wasn’t pursued, she disappeared into Frei Forest. Thick underbrush slapped against her as she continued toward the colony. A branch snapped. Someone moved parallel to her. She urged Justice behind taller cover and readied her short bow, loading three arrows. Pinpointing the next sound, she drew.
A young buck bounded across her path. It sported bulbous buttons where his antlers would soon sprout. Pausing for the slightest moment, it rushed away.
With a sigh she relaxed and continued on.
When she entered the clearing, children bounded toward her.
“Mother Tual,” Phebe exclaimed, reaching out small hands, palms upward. “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, her face pinched. “And more. I’ll explain later.”
A chorus of “hallos” followed as others surrounded her.
She smiled again, giving each a hug.
“You’re back. We’ve been praying for your safe return.” Sheila squeezed her tighter.
“I’ve missed you all. I’ve much to tell. You can go home! The king has proclaimed these debt collections unlawful.”
Shouts and laughter erupted. Tears of joy ran down cheeks as one hugged another.
“Praise the Lord!”
Later, as all sat around a small crackling fire, Rebekah shared details of the king’s proclamation and Jonathan’s delivery of it. Next she told of the cave, the child’s hand she’d found there, and of the Lord’s inspiration about opposing such evil.
Tears streamed down their faces. “We must do something,” one appealed, followed by sounds of agreement.
Rebekah stood, her manly clothing reminding her she was a spy. Her hood dropped, revealing her hair tied plainly in a man’s fashion. “We no longer need to hide. We can go home, reclaim our lives.
“But… if we’re to combat this pestilence, every town in Freislicht must be covered in prayer, every suspicious place anointed for the Lord. We all must pray in the spirit without ceasing, to protect one another and receive direction.”
She told them her five-fold plan: training, spying, praying, anointing, and adopting.
“We lost our freedom because we felt no need to defend ourselves. We were too safe, too happy. This has been growing for generations.”
Mister Frink brushed a stringy lock of hair behind his ear. “We’ve no knight’s training for such a task. It’s too dangerous.”
A few others nodded, worry plain on their faces.
“Yes, it’s dangerous,” Rebekah countered. “Think of the victim. That child was terrified. No one prevented their abuse, torture, and death. They were sacrificed to a demon, leaving only a hand to mark their passing. You’re afraid. I am too. But I’m sure this is a divine appointment. The God of Truth will be with us as he was with me in the cave.”
She looked into each face. A pinecone in the fire popped sending sparks into the air.
Frink glared back. “That’s fine for you. You’ve a knight for a husband. He’ll have taught you to survive. We’ve no such guidance.”
“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, letting evil grow?”
“I’d rather not end up in the Melazera’s dungeons.” Frink crossed his arms.
Rebekah nodded. “There’ll be no condemnation if you return to your old life—”
“Then count me out!” Frink walked away.
Rebekah rolled her eyes and sighed, waiting until he was out of sight. “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. Do you wish to return to your old lives and forget all this, anoint evil places, or become a spy?”
She watched them leave, one by one, as the sparks from the fire rose to the night sky like her prayers.
In the morning, they’d be departing for separate locations. For many moons, they had worked together to survive, each offering a shoulder for the another to cry on. Rebekah heard as many tears as laughter as they packed their things into bundles.
No one had much to give, but found tokens to exchange. Sheila and Eugene presented each family with wreaths of pinecones. Charles Dugan read a poem he’d written.
“In the crisp and quiet rangings of the heart upon the wood,
The singing of the sparrow to the mouse amidst the leaves,
Tend thou in the spirit so the weary traveler could,
Find rest in strong arms bending, and happy graceful eaves.”
Rebekah stood. “Father, give us wisdom, grant us insight and peace as we oppose evil in the name of J’shua Ha Mashiach.”
“So it shall be,” the others replied.
Rebekah nodded. “To combat this evil, we have all agreed on our strategy.
“We will train with weapons in secret to protect our liberty.
“We must be as crafty as these perpetrators, uncovering their dark secrets, identifying those serving the Serpent. Evil people seek dominion through violence, perversion, lies, and slander. We all sin, but those serving darkness are masters of these behaviors.
“We’ve been protected for many days by these tall pines, just as we will by J’shua’s angels.
“We shall pray in the spirit for both the good and the evil. The good shall be bolstered in their faith, strengthened in their times of trial, and aided in their most desperate hours. Our prayers for the evil will cause them to displease their masters, undermine their foul practices, and if they hear J’shua, turn them to the God of Truth.
“Before we can cleanse those places used by the Serpent, we must find them.” She unrolled a map of Freislicht.
Eugene pointed. “We’ve no one here. My family will move to Dunis Glen.”
“Rescuing children,” Rebekah continued, “will slow the spread of corruption. The orphans must be saved.
“But we few won’t be enough. We’re a beginning. We must rebuild the circles. We must reopen the people’s eyes to the God of Truth, increasing our numbers to match the tasks ahead. They’ll teach their neighbors so J’shua may work on their behalf.”
“My daughters and I will spy,” Vincent Donitoro proclaimed.
Rebekah nodded. “As will I.”
Helen Donitoro stood, tucking a wild curl back under her green scarf. She’d proven to be a skillful mediator and leader. “I’ll visit each family, posing as a kinswoman, keeping us linked together.”
“We’ll continue to pray for all,” Rebekah added, “and each bit of information, to learn our enemies’ weaknesses. Speaking in tongues will strengthen us. We fight a mighty spiritual foe. We must keep our fellowship free.”
“Agreed,” they all responded.
Rebekah – 144 AK, Early Summer
Rebekah dismounted from the wagon in front of the commandant’s office. She smoothed the flattering blue dress she’d donned 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.”
Then a gruff voice from the room behind announced, “Bring the lady back, Brett.”
As she entered his office, Greysun stood with a lecherous smile and bowed. He was tall. His royal red brigandine buckled, but missing pauldrons and bracers.. “How can I help you, ma’am?” His too-confident tone was as unpleasant as his expression. He caressed his brown beard as he looked her up and down.
“I’m Rebekah Otual, here to retrieve my daughter, sold to you three moons ago.”
“Otual…?” The commandant stiffened as he gasped. “Many… children passed through here then. We only kept boys.”
“The herald assured me that all the cage carts that came to your garrison left empty. She is six and has very blonde hair.”
His frown deepened. “Uh… there was a batch I sold 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 he looked to his papers.
Rebekah smacked the desk. “It is my understanding, sir, that you are to actively assist in the return of all children illegally seized. Have someone escort me.”
Greysun scowled and motioned for a militet to attend her.
She left as boldly as she’d entered.
Rebekah entered the brothel, the militet trailing behind. She looked with compassion at the children, perhaps as young as thirteen, being exploited, their feather-framed faces and scantily clad bodies marking them as fallen.
She glanced back at the wide-eyed militet, perhaps thirteen, whose mouth was agape. “Close it, son.”
The decorated ladies looked back 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, my daughter was brought to you with other girls.”
The old woman stiffened and sputtered. “All we received have been returned.” Her eyes narrowed as she smiled. “Why don’t you look around for her?”
Terror and hope stole through her at the same time.
She went through every room, the wide-eyed boy following. Thankfully, it was midday and most were empty. She didn’t find Sarah.
Lord, where is she?
Rebekah wanted to cry, but couldn’t.
“Are you satisfied?” The 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. “I told the truth. All I received were returned. But… there were discrepancies. At least one girl did not reach me. I know because that drecksa demanded payment for girls I didn’t receive.”
“What happened to them?”
“How should I know?”
Rebekah knew she’d get no more from the old hag. She turned and left, the boy following her out.
Where are you, Sarah?
Rebekah – 144 AK, Early Summer
Rebekah, as Tomas Bekh, decided to stalk George Rosewud, for he might lead her to another significant find. However, she couldn’t do so as a farmer. After receiving instruction from a merchant at The Sapphire, she acquired a charter to pose as a plow merchant for Franklin and Sons.
Even with her new guise, she could not pursue the weasel immediately. She had to establish her new cover, so began her first circuit.
As she passed through each town, she stayed at the inns used by traveling salesmen. Most were, at best, clean. Yet, they drew no attention, which was more important. She made friends of each establishment’s owners, promising them a small commission if they pointed toward farms that might be potential customers… and those farmers bought something, of course. She was shocked to make two sales on her first stop.
Her travels also permitted her to set up regular contact with the families that had left the Frei. She visited each in her guise as plow merchant, expecting nothing more than a brief few hours amongst friends. She told them of the inn she’d be using in the town nearest to them. They introduced her to their neighbors and, again, she was surprised to make more sales.
At the commencement of her second circuit, six letters were waiting for her at the inn, four potential sales and two sightings of the weasel. By her third, she was forced to open an account with the Lockes. Despite Melazera’s moneychangers being prominent at every Faire, she didn’t trust them.
Rebekah bought a mare with a burled coat the color of the old hickory table her ma had loved so much, naming her Marly. That was when she decided to return Justice.
She spoke to several stables to get a price for renting a horse for three moons. Then she doubled it. Filling a saddle bag with enough baden to buy Justice three times over, she tied the mare to the back of the wagon and left for Wooster.
When she pulled up to the house, smoke rose lazily from the chimney. The open door of the barn behind it reminded her of the day she’d stolen the horse. She thought she’d be jittery, but only felt a buzz of excitement.
She hopped down and approached the door. “Hallo, is anyone home?”
A dark-haired woman appeared in the doorway, wiping her hands on her apron. “Hallo, can I help you, sir?” She craned her neck to look at the wagon.
“Yes, ma’am. My name is Tomas Bekh. I sell plows. But that’s not why I’m here. I recently acquired a horse that was said to belong to you.”
The farmer’s wife walked to the horse and threw her arms around the mare’s neck. “Friska!” Then looking back, she asked, “Where’d you find him?” She walked all around him, examining, and patting him lovingly. “He looks well cared for.”
“Well, ma’am, a woman gave him to me and asked me to return him to you. She’s was very sorry she stole him, and wanted to repay you. She filled the saddle bags with what she hopes is recompence enough for your loss.”
“We’ve heard what happened that day. We’re thankful to J’shua to be on the Duke of Wooster’s lands. Melazera is a…” She paused, regaining her composure. “I hope that poor woman found her daughter.”
Rebekah wasn’t expecting sympathy and feared she’d cry, so just nodded. Taking a deep breath, she asked, “Do you have a circle?”
That day she added another stop for Helen to visit on her rounds, passing messages and interviewing new members.