Rare Things for a Rare Life

The Knights of J'shua Book 2

by Tiana Dokerty ©2023

Home | Part 2

Updated 6/9/24

 

Chapter 1

Rebekah

Rebekah poked a fingernail under the edge of her false beard and peeled a bit away from her cheek. She winced as the skin tore, blowing out a quick breath. She held it again, immersing her face into the bowl of warm vinegar. Her skin tingled as the mild acid broke down the hardened glue. She took another breath and went under again. The raw skin burned. Each sabbath, the discomfort increased.

Over the many moons, she’d found the best spots to attach its lace backing so that she could smile and make other expressions without pain. When she visited the hidden circle at Fairness Crossing so the ladies there could create a new one from her hair cuttings. Sometimes it lasted two moons, but once it wore out quicker. She clenched her teeth when she remembered sneaking out of town in the middle of the night. Now she carried a spare and extra boiled hide glue.

Soon she would have to hide somewhere safe and leave it off for at least a week to heal her skin entirely. Otherwise, there might be permanent scarring.

Each sabbath, at one of her regular inns, the beard came off. From sunset to sunset, the fragrant elm bark salve, that she used to heal her skin, had to be reapplied every hour. This day of rest was the only break, a brief therapy, from the irritating glue. A new sabbath ritual.

During this seclusion, she read the Writings and prayed, keeping her mind engaged so she wouldn’t wallow in despair. She never expected an easy life, but it was difficult to find any joy without her family. It had been a year and eight moons since Sarah had been taken. Whenever the painful separation overwhelmed her, she forced herself to think of all that was good and possible for her missing husband and daughter.

That horrific day still haunted her dreams—the destruction of their home, the blackened bodies of her parents in the thunderous fire, and witnessing Sarah stolen away. She feared going back to sleep on those nights and longed for Jonathan’s arms around her.

Her alter ego, Tommas Bekh, was not a follower of J’shua, so she could not attend any circle openly, needing to seem as worldly as anyone else, in order to ferret out what the enemy was doing in the land.

Her confidence was fostered by passages in the writings about the spies sent into the promised land.

[Moses sent men to search the land…]

Finally, with her beard back in place, Rebekah tromped downstairs to look for entertainment as any merchant would in the evening, another piece of her disguise. As she entered the tavern behind the inn, one man nodded as she passed. “Gooday, Tommas.”

 “Gooday to you, too, Barnus.”

Another man lifted his mug. “Tommas, hallo!” She raised a freindly hand, continuing toward the back. Rebekah found it unnerving that so many knew that name now. But it couldn’t be helped.

She would have preferred to stay at the former Flea And Flagon. The owners renamed it the Kings Inn, capitalizing on an overnight stay by King Edal, and that was where the best information could be found. However, Commandant Greysun frequented that establishment and Rebekah couldn’t risk running into him for fear of ruining her cover. She expected that beast to be behind every vile evil in Fairness Crossing. He was likely to poke and prod and dig like a dog if he became curious about Tommas Bekh.

Instead, she used the Golden Canary. A popular place at the far end of town. The regular bard, Bingdad, was singing a lively tune as she entered. The large fireplace warmed everyone with dancing yellow and orange flames, and the proprietor’s special blend of ale laced the air with a pungent, sweet aroma. She headed toward her usual table, happy to see it unoccupied.

Teress, her closest friend, arrived soon after her. She always stood out when she made an entrance and, this time was no different dressed as a wealthy merchant’s wife wearing a bright blue linen shift, a navy silk over tunic, and a bright green scarf wrapped around her head, unruly brown curls framed her face. Rebekah, Teress, and her husband, Vincent, had started Licht Gegen, an underground movement working against the dark machinations of the Order, when they hid from debt collectors in Frei Forest.

After ordering two ales, Rebekah shared all the reports from her latest circuit. Hoping to find the rumors about the Knights’ School to be untrue, she had traveled to the base of Shining Mountain. Finding its buildings burned to the ground, she hiked up the foothills, where she found the remnants of the knights who survived. Her husband, Jonathan, had trained there. Now the school continued in secret, hidden on the mountain.

Rebekah spoke in a low tone. “I have news from the school.”

Teress nodded, then let out a tinkling laugh. She leaned closer and whispered, “Two men near the door have been watching us.”

“And what did he do then?” Rebekah asked loudly. Then lowered her voice. “Come to my room in an hour.”

“My dear sir, you honor me.” Teress stood, blew a kiss, and sashayed out.

Rebekah leered as she left, waiting to see if either man followed Teress. Unconsciously, she touched her dagger.

They did not move. One of them cocked his head, acknowledging Bekh’s supposed good fortune, to which she returned a smile and a nod. Proceeding to the manager’s desk, she retrieved her messages for the day. Neither man followed, so it seemed safe. But she must continue to be careful. If any of their group ended up in the earl’s dungeon, his torturer would surely learn of all of them.

The knock was barely audible. Rebekah leaped to the door. As soon as she opened it, Teress entered, dressed as before, smiling. “Several men watched me walk up the stairs, so your reputation with the ladies will continue.”

Rebekah rolled her eyes and sat. “Tell me.”

Teress did a turn around the room. “The council sent word through Major Gonnels’ mother that the information we sent to Commander Taelor was accurate and most helpful in placing men into the renegade garrisons. He confirmed that they are being given orders by black-robes as we suspected and relayed the intelligence to the king, but has not revealed the existence of Licht Gegen to protect our secrecy.”

Rebekah nodded at the reassurance.

Her gut told her Earl Gaelib Melazera was behind this evil. In his province and surrounding towns, circles were raided and it was his undersecretary that destroyed her home. But all the intelligence that she and others had gathered had not brought tangible proof. None of it made sense.

Rebekah smiled at Teress, whose eyes took in the simple room, as shesauntered to the table and sat. “The Knights’ School needs us to transmit messages to the circles. Their daikon asked if any orphans might wish to become knights. I hadn’t thought of that before.”

Teress sat on a plain spindle back chair, smoothing her skirt. “That’s a good idea. We will need their discipline and wisdom for our strategy to stand the test of time.”

“Crispus said they will pray for us and help us when they can. I think we should include them in the regular schedule. I’ll be taking David to the school soon. It will be a comfort to see him regularly.” Rebekah continued recounting her days since their last meeting. The stop she made in Caswell revealed the presence of many black-robes with duties in the castle and town. These mysterious functionaries were connected to the rash of debt collections that claimed her daughter. They were present at the sacrifice of the child she’d discovered. And she’d seen George Rosewud, the earl’s undersecretary, dressed as one also.

Then Rebekah detailed her recent travels with the two orphans assisting her for the last year. Her cover for intelligence-gathering and message-passing was too successful to manage alone. Surprised as she was to make a profit as a plow salesman, she was growing quite wealthy. Yet, she still needed to move about as inconspicuously as possible, so she lived frugally, investing the money quietly. This enabled her to start a new business in Lexandria, Bekh’s Bold Bargains. She purchased a warehouse on the south-side and began collecting trade goods, as well as items Licht Gegen would need in the coming years.

Lastly, she shared with Teress her encounter with the boys living in the woods. She and her two lads had ridden south from Caswell, picking a spot to rest and eat. As with most days, she had collected countless bits of information.

Her lads were gathering kindling when about thirty boys of all ages stepped out of the woods. Their leader, James a tall beardless lad, had addressed her. He was confident and ready for any action. She’d been startled, not having heard his approach, but his affable grin reassured her.

Her lips quirked thinking of James of the Wood leaning against the tree. He’d seen her pass through multiple times. They sought information about their parents who’d been arrested from circles in Lorness and Fairness Crossing.

“I’d like to provide something next time I see them. What of the names I sent? Were any of the boys’ parents located?”

“Yes, the freedom of some was purchased with bribes. Their guards reported they died. Others are still imprisoned in Lorness or Farr Castle. And some we have no word of. But the council fears it is a trick. Can you prove these boys are genuine?”

“Proof…?” Rebekah rubbed her beard. She had no proof. Only her gut feeling. Her husband had helped those boys. “What if they provided statements that only their parents would recognize? Specific events and such. Then their parents could be sure.”

“That would work. Send several such statements for each.”

Another hour passed in their conversation before Teress bid her goodnight. “I will deliver this and bring you any information Licht Gegen can provide when we meet next.”

 

Chapter 2 - 31st year -

Blackhawk

Steven Blackhawk had settled into his new life at High Keep. For two years, he trained soldiers in the hand-to-hand fighting techniques that had impressed Commander Taelor when he first arrived. When he turned eighteen and his body had filled out, finally looking like a grown man, the commander had added him to the rotation of officers patrolling the main roads from High Keep.

He heard a commotion around the announcement board before he rounded the corner. Approaching the list of assignments, he prayed that it hadn’t changed. The other soldiers dwindled away finally as he pushed his way to the front. He huffed out a breath, relieved to see that he was not assigned to the High-Lorness Road. If he ever was, Earl Gaelib Melazera, his patron, would expect a visit each moon. Melazera could ask the commander to make that happen.

The thought brought a shiver down his spine. Somehow the strange blonde girl, Little Soldier, had awakened an ache in his heart, a distant memory that reminded him of strange dreams he had in years past. He had felt compelled to save her. He still could not fathom why. But he thanked the girl’s God every day for keeping him away from Lorness.

Instead, he would patrol the road from High Keep to Fairness Crossing. The patrols kept law and order. His instructions were to maintain a relaxed pace and avoid alarming travelers as they passed, then meet with the local officer in charge for reports and return the same way. He expected it to take two or three weeks at the most, then the last week of the moon, he’d train soldiers.

The only soldier that avoided his training sessions was Lieutenant Fortuch, who had not forgotten their clash in the dining hall. He’d been unconscious for fourteen hours and his nose had healed even more off-center. Although he maintained military decorum in public, his private revenges were ongoing: clothes missing from the washer woman, things shuffled in his shanty, and other minor inconveniences. Despite this harassment, Blackhawk remained unaffected and affable.

When he entered after the days training, his bed had been moved. He gasped, his heart skipping a beat.

Did they find it?

He rushed to the head of the bed and knelt. Feeling the floor, it seemed smooth and undisturbed. Looking toward the door, he listened. Any visitor’s boots would alert him, crunching on the rocks he’d spread around his door. No one approached.

As he pushed down on one end of the board, the other lifted up. He pried it out. It was still there. The pattern of stones he’d placed on top of the book had not been disturbed. He huffed out a breath. He ran his fingers over the leather cover. A year ago, he’d found the thick, satisfying book. He had no time to read now though.

Blackhawk continued to search his room for any other evidence of Fortuch’s latest intrusion. Could the brute know of his relationship to Melazera? A sense of doom washed over him. He pushed down the fear, praying again to Little Soldier’s God of Truth.

A scuff in the dust proved his trunk had been moved. Opening it, he found a silver goblet tucked under his formal uniform. He had to act. Clearly, it was no longer enough for Fortuch to aggravate. He wanted Blackhawk whipped, thrown out of the Royal Guard in disgrace, or hanged. Stashing it in the only safe place, the space under the loose floorboard where the Writings lay hidden.

Later that day, as he sat at the table reviewing maps for his patrol assignment, someone knocked. A scowling captain entered without invitation, a sergeant trailed behind him. “Lieutenant, there have been reports of pilferage. Your name has come up. Therefore, I need you to stand over there,” he pointed to the farthest corner, “while we perform a search.”

“Yes, sir.” Blackhawk did as ordered, looking perplexed. The captain crossed his arms, watching Blackhawk for any hint of guilt as the sergeant ransacked the room, tossing everything he owned on the floor. Every drawer was flung open, the trunk emptied, even his bedding overturned.

The captain’s puzzled expression quickly changed to a glare. “Lieutenant, clean this mess up,” he ordered as he walked out. Blackhawk huffed a sigh after the sergeant marched away.

 

***

It took almost a week for Blackhawk to complete his arrangements. A week during which Fortuch stayed clear of him. As did the captain who had searched the room. Nor were there any more incidents—it made him wary. His nerves pricked despite the apparent ease.

Today, Blackhawk was ready. It would prove to be a very memorable evening. “Another hand to you,” Blackhawk lamented as he threw down his cards, taking a long pull of ale, his frown deepening. It was an appalling string of bad fortune.

Brean Mitchett scooped the baden toward him, wagging his head at Samuel and Donert. “I told you his luck couldn’t hold.” His gleeful smile lit up the room.

“Seems everyone’s winning but you tonight, Steven,” Samuel Benutt crowed.

“Finally evening the score,” Donert Maitlan chuckled, looking down at the largest pile of baden he’d ever amassed at one of their games.

“Fire!” came a yell from outside.

Blackhawk and his friends grabbed their gear and baden, dashing outside to see what was going on. Officers barked orders to the militet who passed buckets of water. Shouldering loitering soldiers out of the way, the four tried to get closer, but the heat prevented them. Flames engulfed the nearest row of shanties.

Karl Fortuch ran into view, then turned on Blackhawk. “You did this! I’ll get you for this. You’ll rue the day that—”

“He’ll rue the day he did what, Lieutenant?” Commander Taelor demanded, striding into view as he cinched tight his sword belt. “I’m waiting, Lieutenant! I won’t ask again.”

“He burned down my quarters!”

Taelor’s eyebrow rose as he turned to face Blackhawk. “Is this true…Lieutenant Maitlan? Did Blackhawk set the fire?” Blackhawk remained unflinching before Taelor’s stony glare.

“I don’t see how he could, sir. He’s been playing cards with us for the last two hours, maybe longer. He hasn’t even left to take a piss.”

Taelor fixed his gaze on Sergeant Samuel Benutt. “Can you shed any light on this?”

“No, sir. Blackhawk’s had a lousy run of cards. But that’s the only thing he’s done since we came off duty.”

“I…see…” Taelor’s jaw worked back and forth as if chewing a tough piece of meat. He turned back toward Fortuch. A crash from within the burning officers’ quarters pulled all their eyes as a wall collapsed and a silver goblet rolled into sight. “Does that belong to you, Lieutenant Fortuch?”

“No, sir. Never seen it before.”

Taelor walked forward, kneeled, and examined the piece. “Someone stole this from me about a week ago. Which of these quarters,” he pointed to the burning rooms, “is yours?”

Fortuch smirked, pointing to the one next to where the goblet had appeared from.

“And who stays in this one?” Taelor pointed to the goblet’s former hiding place.

“It’s…” Fortuch’s face fell. “It’s empty.”

“How long has it been empty?”

“Four…”

“Days, Lieutenant? Weeks?” Taelor demanded, his tone hardening, eyes narrowing.

“Moons, Commander.”

“Really? How did that come about, Lieutenant? Were other quarters empty?”

“Yes, sir…”

“How many of them, Fortuch?”

“All of them, sir.”

“I think that you have explaining to do, Lieutenant. Starting off with why you would accuse a brother officer. Next, there is the matter of your…unique…living arrangements in a camp that has little or no space to waste. And, finally, how this goblet appeared from an empty set of quarters next to your own.”

“Sir, I…” Fortuch glared at Blackhawk with murder in his eyes.

“Enough!” Taelor snapped. “If I could prove that you’d stolen this goblet, I’d see you got the maximum number of lashes and dismissal. As it is, you are demoted. Report to the quartermaster for your new accommodations and to replace your lost gear. Then come to my office, within the hour.”

Blackhawk remained with his friends, stone-faced, saying nothing. The quartermaster had never fulfilled such a request this late in the evening in less than two hours. That’s assuming the former lieutenant knew which bar to find him in.

Fortuch threw one more glare at Blackhawk before he trudged away. His new quarters as a sergeant would be on the far side of the section with the militet.

And now the worst quarters at High Keep would be rebuilt.

Blackhawk had made sure there were plenty of witnesses to corroborate his alibi. It was worth every baden he’d spent on the multiple intermediaries for planting the goblet and setting the fire. It was even worth all his losses at the gaming table. However, he could not work out how the goblet rolled into sight as if on cue. He’d expected a lump of silver to be found when the Militet cleared the debris away. For a moment, he thought back to Little Soldier. We need it when we need it. Perhaps, every once in a while, things just fall into place.

[No weapon that is formed against you shall prosper...]

 

Owakar

It was the waning crescent moon of late summer in the thirty-first year of King Edal’s reign. Owakar was off duty since his wards were all asleep. He headed toward a tavern on the outskirts of High Keep. Several roughly dressed men sat at a table, talking in low tones. The chair’s leg squeaked across the floor as he pulled it out and joined them.

The one with shaggy brown hair looked up. “Owakar, what brings you here?” Dressed like a peasant, the guardian’s cloak was dusty and he hadn’t shaved for days.

Owakar looked him over, smiling. “Guendal, I heard about the fire. Was anyone hurt? I read that someone accused Steven Blackhawk of setting it.”

“No, no. No one was hurt. Blackhawk was behind it,” he said with a chuckle. “Fortuch’s out to ruin him and those shacks were about to fall down. What’s Blackhawk to you?”

Owakar snorted. “He’s someone connected to Lorness that I have been following for some time.”

“Fortuch’s aunt continues to pray for him. But the man won’t listen. So when we realized what was really happening and saw the opportunity to teach Karl a lesson…Reaven here,” the guardian pointed to his friend, “tossed the stolen silver goblet into the open so that the commander and everyone else saw it.”

 “Did J’shua approve that?” Owakar scanned the luach. “He didn’t, but when he heard of it, he laughed and said it was well done.”

The two guardians bumped their cups together. Owakar shook his head.

Reaven smiled. “It was risky, but right now it seems to me, Fortuch’s best hope is to be demoted enough times to change his ways. Otherwise, he could face something much worse.”

Guendal pointed all his fingers toward himself. “How do you like our disguise?”

“You fit in perfectly. I on the other hand should leave. I can’t be seen talking to the likes of you.” Owakar gave them a nod. As he turned to the door, he said, “Keep an eye on Blackhawk for me, would you?”

“Our pleasure.” Reaven raised his cup.

Owakar continued walking down the empty road, not a soul in sight. Only a few rare candles burned inside buildings across the road. When he passed into the shadow of a tree, he disappeared.

Over the next several years, Owakar observed Steven Blackhawk from the Celestial Sea and read of his doings in the luach. He’d had no compassion for the boy when he first encountered him, a loyal pawn of Gaelib Melazera. He should have remembered that great upheavals often occurred due to simple changes of heart. Owakar knew he should have been less cynical. But in his defense, he’d a limited view of things as a messenger, with no access to a luach,  the Words of the God of Truth.

Now knowing this boy had tragically lost his family, only to be rescued by the despicable earl and everything he’d gone through there… It wrenched his heart to think of it. He was a man now, a seeking man. His Little Soldier, Sarah Otual, had set him on a path of questions. He had fortuitously found a book of the Writings hidden in his quarters. And ever since then he read it and prayed to Little Soldier’s God every day. Because of the intention of his heart, the God of Truth knew who he meant.

 

Chapter 3

Jonathan

He had been in Esthlanis for over a year, far longer than he’d intended. Even though the daikon of the Esthlanis Knights’ School was resistant to his suggestions, he knew he was meant to stay. However, today the weather was kind and travel easy. It was time to return.

After days of travel, he stopped at the Tarin Inn for the night, the half-way point. The hearty stew over the fireplace coals bubbled and steamed with a tempting aroma. The murmur of a dozen conversations, that continued after he entered, set him at ease. At one inn recently, all conversation stopped when he entered and he thought he might lose his stomach right there. But it was just his blasted light hair. Once they looked him over, the talking ramped back up. Why was it still so light? He tried not washing it, which did make it darker, but he really preferred it clean. At thirty years old, he guessed it would more likely turn white before it ever darkened.

He took a seat at a table near the back. Giving him a good vantage of the front door, with a back door only strides away. He took stock of his belongings. He unstrung his bow, and pushed it into his pack behind his chair.

“Hallo, traveler, ya wish to eat somethin? Or drink?” A cute girl, perhaps ten years old, pushed a lock of brown hair behind her ear, smiling.

“Yes, please, that stew smells wonderful. An ale too.”

“Yes sir, two baden for the stew and one baden for a pitcher of ale. It only another two baden for a pigeon,” she said, eyebrows raised. Jonathan rummaged in a pouch. “I’ll have the pigeon as well if this will do?” He pulled out an Esthlani duhrn. It was worth five baden.

Her eyes went wide. “Yes, sir, my da, prefers them.”

He had lived at the Freislicht school for five years when he trained there. These last twelve years he had served as a Knight of J’shua. As their custom was, he should have returned home for good by now, started a circle with his family, and established a community. But his wife and daughter were still missing.

As he relaxed, enjoying the warm fire that crackled pleasantly, a quiet argument caught his ear.

“I tell you the Knights are finished. Their school in the south burned to the ground.” An old man drew on his pipe, puffing out each word.

Another that waved the smoke away said, “I heard they all died in their sleep.”

“I thought they were wiser than everyone,” a third said.

Jonathan, immediately alert, approached them. “Sirs, please tell me all you know about the fire. My son might be there.”

They reassured him it was just a rumor, surely his son was safe. But he could not be reassured.

He’s already paid for the room so he lay on the bed, but slept only a few hours, anxious to arrive at the school.

The second day, as the sun sank to the horizon, his heart lifted, knowing he’d be there soon, but still anxious about the rumor. Spurring his horse, he broke out of the woods—and stopped.

No!

He covered his face with cold, clammy hands. His head swam. Grabbing his gut, the horror of the burnt ruins of his home and losing his family surged over him again. If there was any sound left in the world, he could not hear it. The School’s chimney and a few teetering upright timbers were all that remained.

He plodded past grave markers and tributes left by loved ones. Did any still live? He dismounted and fell to his knees. Pressing his face into his fists, his thoughts raced to comprehend the dreadful scene. He hung his head, praying, “Forgive me Father. Tell me David is alive. Show me what to do.”

He looked up as a blue jay screeched and amidst his tumultuous thoughts he heard, Bowing Sister.

Despite the failing light, he galloped through the moon-dappled trail toward the mountain, clutching the reins. His forehead creased in worry as he thought of the boys and their teachers and his own destroyed home. It was hopeless. “Why do others attack us? What could I do to end such evil?”

He stopped only when the trees were too thick to see the ground. It was unsafe to proceed further. The terrain of Easy Slope changed each rainy season because of rockslides and newly uncovered crevasses. After the rains, fifth years and knights remapped the area.

After tending to his horse, he tried to eat but had no appetite. He attempted to sleep but managed only snatches. His thoughts denied him rest, so he prayed.

With the first light, he left his horse to graze while he ran toward the Kneeling Queen’s Skirt. Sprinting across Easy Slope west of God’s Thumb, he headed for the top of Bowing Sister. His pace barely slowed as the terrain grew steeper. Still, he ran. He had to know if someone survived.

At midday, he crested the last ridge to find Daikon Crispus waiting at the end of the path, as well as dozens of students.

“Jonathan!” The old man threw his arms wide.

Seeing his teacher before him, Jonathan breathed a sigh. He bowed, out of breath. “What happened? How many were harmed?”

The daikon’s brows furrowed as he told the story.

Am I the cause of this? Did my taunting Greysun bring what followed?

[@@@Expand]They talked into the night, exchanging tales of woe and accounts of the growing movement of J’shua.

“I met your wife.”

Jonathan’s head jerked up.

“She looked well.”

“What of Sarah?” he asked, leaning in.

“She’s not found Sarah, but learned your daughter had escaped her captors. Rebekah believes she’s safe. Until J’shua reveals it, trust she’s in his care.”

Jonathan nodded, groaning. He gritted his teeth at the pain in his chest.

I have to do something. I have to find them. “Where is Rebekah? I will go to her.”

Crispus gripped Jon’s shoulder. “Her quest is no less important than yours. She left a message for you.”

He rummaged in his leather bag.

The parchment read…

Dearest Jonathan,

I miss you terribly. I look for you constantly. In the meantime, our Lord J’shua has given me a mission, while I continue to search for Sarah. My role is pivotal. Many others will be in danger, if I’m found out, so I cannot risk meeting you, though I wish to with all my heart. I fear I would refuse to be parted again.

The way is clear when it is needed. I know you are holding fast to the Faith and doing as J’shua directs. We will be together again. I look for that day to come soon.I miss you terribly. I look for you constantly. In the meantime, our Lord J’shua has given me a mission, while I continue to search for Sarah. My role is pivotal. Many others will be in danger, if I’m found out, so I cannot risk meeting you, though I wish to with all my heart. I fear I would refuse to be parted again.

Yours Forever,

Rebekah

 

Pressing her letter to his chest, he prayed. The God of Truth alone knew how to end the evil that kept them apart. Although relieved to know she was well, at least recently, he feared he’d never find her. All he knew was to follow J’shua. Jonathan wiped tears from his eyes and placed the scroll in his sack.

[@@expand] A long night of fellowship soothed his battered soul. He pulled his cloak tighter around him against the cool breeze. The group of students and old teachers listened in silence as he told his tale and confessed his encounter with Commandant Greysun.

Later, the acceptance and comfortable familiarity of the men and boys around the fire warmed him. But he slept alone with his troubled thoughts in a small cave.

The following morning he left, riding down into the foothills, the small still voice guiding him westward toward Mestelina. The sun warmed him, and he felt peace. Yes, buildings had been destroyed, and good men had died. It had been a grave error for the Serpent, which the God of Truth had turned into a beacon.

And he had news of Rebekah.

 

Chapter 4 - 31st year

David

David Otual was almost twelve. It was past time for him to start at the Knights’ School. Sarah was eight and still lost. His mother had written him and Magistrate Gorum regularly. In her last letter, she told him she’d collect him before the waning moon of autumn. He wondered if his father would visit Gorum’s farm, perhaps his parents would finally reunite.

David was with Gorum’s sons, Eikhan, Rhoran, and Khant, when they met her at the gate. She rode a mare the color of hickory and wore a sword in the same fashion as Esthlani women, dangling from a sash worn over a long wool tunic, tight across the hips.

Galloping ahead of the others with a sweeping wave, the short sword clapping against his hip, he yelled, “Mother, you’re here!”

She spurred her horse, her face shining with joy. The tears that filled her eyes stabbed him, as he blinked his own. All the nights of homesickness flooded back. He came beside her throwing his arms around her neck.

As the four brothers led the way to the house, she looked him over. “You look well. Is your apprenticeship finished?”

“It ended several moons ago. I’m a journeyman now.” David beamed. “Since you were delayed, Master Gorum asked me to stay on. I earned this horse and the saddle. And our circle gave me this.” He lifted the flap of the baldric that lay across his chest and patted the book inside. “It’s like Da’s.”

She passed her hand over the embossed leather holster. “It’s beautiful. Has your father written you?”

“Da has written weekly, but his letters arrived in bundles each moon. I think he’s in Tarinland, but his letters are cryptic. He looks for you and Sarah everywhere. Are you…?”

Ma placed her hand on his shoulder. “Lord J’shua has missions for us both that, so far, have kept us apart. His small still voice tells me your sister’s alive and well. Yet, despite help from many, I haven’t heard a whisper of where she might be. 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, Ma… I was so worried for you. I grieve the loss of Sarah.”

His mother nodded. “As do I, son.”

There was a moment of silence, filled only with the rhythm of horses hooves on the well-trodden pathway. Then, she added, “I appreciate Master Gorum’s attempt to spare your feelings, even if it’s in vain. We must trust J’shua,”

Dismounting at the house, David hugged his mother again. “I’ve missed you so.

Last time I hugged you, I could only reach your waist.”

“Yes, you’ve grown quite a bit, my son.” she said ruefully.

Magistrate Gorum waited on the porch. “Welcome, Lady Otual. Come, have tea with me.”

A servant brought out sliced fruit and cakes. Another followed with the tea and cups.

“Master Gorum.” His mother gasped. “You are treating me like royalty. And here I am, taking away your help.” She looked down at her hands.

“Please, call me Agon, Jon does. That was the agreement from the beginning. Your son’s now 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 three years with David’s help.” Gorum clasped David’s shoulder. “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.”

His mother sat back, astonished by the magistrate’s generosity. It was a princely gift.

“There’s another matter.” Gorum cleared his throat, straightening his jacket. “I promised Jon, and myself, that I’d keep you safe.”

She chuckled, leaning forward for another cake.

“We also agreed that I was unlikely to force such ‘safety’ upon you. That doesn’t mean I won’t try. Therefore, will you permit me to provide you with extra horses, provisions, perhaps weapons, and an escort?”

“I’d appreciate an escort to the Tarin River Trading Post. But beyond your borders, being accompanied by Esthlani warriors would draw attention.”

“Done.” Gorum poured more tea. “And the other things?”

“Let’s discuss them.”

David remained quiet, listening to them get reacquainted, smiling at the thought of traveling with his mother during the week-long trip ahead. He had been dreaming of going to the Knights’ School as long as he could remember. And he had longed for his mother ever since he left home with his father to come here three years ago. He was embarrassed when he remembered all the silent tears he’d shed those first weeks. But grown up now, he was ready for the days of training ahead.

“Be proud of him, lady,” he said. “He’s my best apprentice in thirty-five years. Had he no parents, I’d adopt him.”

“Hopefully, you’ll never be held to that.” His mother laughed, relaxing back in the chair. She took another sip of the fragrant tea.

Gorum spoke of the business of horse breeding, and she told of her travels.

“I met boys whose parents had been arrested, hiding in the woods. They have a settlement of a sort near Caswell.” She didn’t use his name, James of the Wood. Naming people could bring danger. “Their leader is fourteen years old. Jonathan helped them.”

David’s eyes widened. “He is only a boy!”

“Yes, he and his brothers met your father and he taught them how to survive. They’ve learned his lessons well, and taught them to other boys they find hiding in the forest. I try to pass tidings of their parents. A few have returned home.” She squeezed David’s hand. “They have great heart, like you. I believe good things will come from them, just as I do from you.”

They talked about this and that well into the night.

David yawned.

“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 knife, and it was customary for the father to provide it.”

His mother took the sheathed blade and drew it out, urning it over and testing the edge. “It’s a fine dagger.” She passed it to David.

“It is a fine piece.” David stood and threaded the sheath on his belt and buckled it again. He drew his shoulders straight. “I will cherish it. I hope I can travel with father after I finish my training.”

His mother took his hand. “Son, you could remain in Esthlanis, continue to help Master Gorum.”

David looked at her with surprise. “No, mother.” He turned to Agon Gorum. “Master Gorum offered a position to me. You know I’m thankful for your training and guidance, sir.” He turned back to his mother. “I will be a Knight of J’shua like my father. I will find Sarah.”

“Good, my son, that is good.” Ma still smiled but her jaw tensed.

Master Gorum pulled out a bundle tied with hemp twine. “I’ve letters for you, too, Rebekah.”

She took the package. “Here is one for him, should you see him again or hear of a place to send it.” His mother sighed. “We’ve missed seeing each other over the past two years. It’s enough to know he’s well and doing J’shua’s work. I have heard that those who hunt him are relentless. I pray he stays away.”

Gorum nodded, his face solemn.

“Thank you for taking such good care of our boy.” She touched the magistrate’s hand. David yawned again, prompting a grin from his mother. “I think it is time for everyone to go to bed.”

David smiled in return. “Don’t stop on my account. I’m too excited to sleep.”

Gorum laughed and shook David’s shoulder. “You’ve a long journey ahead and I know how badly you want to begin it. We’ll talk more in the morning.”

They exchanged goodnights and went to find their beds for the night.

Morning came quickly, the breakfast table exploded with all David’s favorites in his honor. Surely he would miss this food. Gorum and his sons waved from the porch as he rode away with his mother.

 

***

“Where are we going, Ma?” They had been pushing through the thick forest all day. “I must go the place I hid after the attack. You’ll see. ”Just before dark, his mother dismounted and took a pack from her horse. “Start a fire, David. There’s firewood between those oaks.” He set to the task as she disappeared into the trees.

David was feeding a small blaze when he heard her again. He gasped as she walked past, his mouth agape. “Mother!”

“How do I look?” she asked.

“Mother, you look like…a man.” He reached out and touched her beard. “It feels real.”

“Thank you. It’s made of my own hair.”

“Why…?” He frowned, heart racing, eyes wide.

“It’s the easiest way to hide in plain sight.” She paraded by him and back. “The act must be flawless. Your father is being hunted, a price on his head. Those pursuing him would, should they find me, use me against him. So I disguise myself. I’ve become so good at playing a man that I kept at it. But,” she hesitated, “there are some things you need to know before committing to the Knights. It is not the only 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 few years, we’ve cautiously built up a network. No one 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 Earl of Lorness. On his orders, our farm was burned, and your grandparents killed. They would have sold Sarah and me into slavery while unlawfully demanding payment. Your grandparents 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.

“Licht Gegen wants all to live without interference,” she said quietly, not wanting to alarm him more. “But that requires organization, information, and money. As Tommas 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 took his hand. “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 have not been able to pursue my goals boldly. It requires caution and guile. The role of Tommas is not merely a cover. It has become real. As him, I own enterprises I must keep profitable. I employ more people than you’d believe.”

“You own…enterprises?”

“It didn’t start out that way. 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!”

“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 Tommas, 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 Keep 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.”

“That’s…astonishing.”

“It seems I have a gift for this. But, even with the connections we’ve established, we are still piecing things together, still trying to identify the key culprits. I know Earl Gaelib Melazera is one of them. But cannot prove it, yet.”

“I…I’d never have thought…that is…” David looked down, shaking his head.

“What else would you have me do? Others may be called to fold 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 done this spying as a woman? Understanding that had I done so, I’d have had to act the harlot to…”

David’s face shot up, a look of horror upon it. “You wouldn’t.” His voice collapsed into a whisper. “You couldn’t.”

“No, I couldn’t. However…” Ma’s mouth quirked.

“However, what?”

“As Tommas Bekh, I receive information from the good and the fallen—sometimes the unlikeliest of sources. I have encountered men and women seeking to help our cause, despite their misfortunes.”

He still frowned. “That is extraordinary, Mother, I—”

“David, I’m guided by J’shua’s voice—as you will be. Have faith. Now, we must resume our travels. To give you some perspective on what I do, from this point on you’ll be my new apprentice. I’ll teach you as we go. I have stops to make in Fairness Crossing and Lexandria before we go up the mountain.”

***

They traveled many days, finally reaching Easy Slope. As they approached the Kiss in the early afternoon, a dozen student knights trotted up, each wearing a sword on their hip. One lad announced, “We saw you approaching and came to meet you. Come. Daikon Crispus is about to teach.”

Ma waved them off and sat down to watch and eat as she usually did when she, as Mister Bekh, brought orphans to the school. The boys dragged him away.

The air was crisp with the scent of pine and sounds of wildlife. Surrounded by nature’s embrace, he sat with the others on fallen logs pulled into a rough semi-circle. All their faces shown with rapt attention.

Crispus stroked his flowing beard, speaking in a measured tone. “Today, my young scholars, we begin delving into the secrets of the Writings.” His voice carried the weight of experience, gained from years spent studying ancient texts.

Beside him, Daikon Baxter, an even older man, nodded in agreement. “Indeed, we shall uncover the wisdom of the prophets,” he added, his eyes twinkling with enthusiasm.

The boys, clad in simple tunics and rough trousers, listened intently. This place, far from bustling towns and castles, was where he belonged now. Here, in the wilderness, he’d learn the deeper truths of their faith, leading to reliance upon the God of Truth.

After speaking of Paul’s understanding of the sacred secret, Crispus expounded on the life of David. King David was his namesake, so David was intrigued to learn all he could. All Boys leaned forward, hanging on every word.

“David, young and brave, faced the giant Goliath with nothing but a sling and unwavering faith in the God of Truth,” Crispus recounted, whirling his hand in the air.

Baxter chimed in, “And it was through God’s grace that he became a great king. His meekness earned him the epithet, ‘a man after God’s own heart’.” The day stretched on, filled with lessons on history, theology, and virtue.

After the midday meal, his mother observed their practice exercises. The first was about stances and strength. A fifth year was assigned three first year students to instruct in the basics. David followed their leader, Jimmen, to a different area of the foothills. From where he stood, he could see six groups.

“Step, parry, thrust. Step, parry, thrust, again,” the red-haired young man called to David and his other charges. Each boy, forehead creased with determination, held their sword tightly as their master counted the rhythm. “Rest,” the young man shouted.

Their next exercise was sprinting to the Lone Soldier and back several times. Jimmen took them over many obstacles. David could imagine his father with his long pale blond hair running along the ledges and leaping over crevasses.

When the sun began its descent toward the horizon, signaling the end of their schooling for the day, the other boys departed for their quarters in the caves, chattering about their newfound knowledge and skills.

David ran to Ma, out of breath, but smiling. “Did you see me? My teacher said I did well.”

“I saw. I’m very proud of you. Your father will be proud too.” Then she squeezed his shoulders and said quietly, “I know you will do well here. But it is time. I must go. I love you, my brave boy. I will return next moon.”

“I love you too, Ma.” David whispered in her ear. “Thank you, Mister Bekh. Be safe.” He stepped back and gave her a bow. She returned a nod and retreated down the hill as his new companions called to him, then he ran off.

 

Chapter 5

Owakar

Owakar sat in the barber’s chair as a red-haired angel snipped at his brown locks. Waving the scissors this way and that, the stylist pouted as he trimmed an errant strand. “Sir Owakar, what do you have planned for the day?”

“Just the usual, Cranik, watching and writing, and more writing.” He wouldn’t say anything that might get back to the Warrior or some other disobedient brother.

As the Watcher over the Province of Lorness, he needed to look more respectable. He wasn’t just a messenger any longer, scurrying about informing angels of orders, or providing humans with words of inspiration from J’shua ha Mashiach. Now he had a more important position, managing guardians and reporting directly to J’shua ha Mashiach, so he kept his hair shoulder length as was common both here in the Celestial Sea and in the earthly realm of Lorness.

The people in the Density changed, and the angels above changed with them. Even though most angels thought humans were an annoying reminder of the secret the God of Truth had kept, they were infatuated with everything human and imitated many of their ways. He supposed it was like a moth to the flame—that which they hated or feared drew them. He trusted his creator, the God of Truth, so he neither hated nor feared them. But he too was besotted with those in his charge.

Breaking glass and a crash caused Owakar to turn. A crowd of guardians dragged a struggling messenger from the game room next door as a basket flew through the air, impaled by a sword. It had been unusually quiet recently.

“Hey, let me go! I was just saying what I think,” the messenger cried.

One guardian, a burly angel, his muscles rippling as he gripped the messenger by the hair. “You were spreading discordant rumors about the God of Truth and J’shua Ha Mashiach.”

“We’re free to state our opinions. Who are you to interfere?”

“I’ll tell you who I am. I’m the one that’s going to teach you to be more respectful,” the guardian spat.

One didn’t become a guardian if you were small and petite. And messengers tended to be trim and fast. The God of Truth loved individuality as much as he loved free will, which was the cause of all this.

In the Celestial Sea, every angel was a law unto themselves. All were free to state their thoughts. Arguments abounded and often fights broke out. Angels were quick to self-heal so there was no reason not to fight.

Owakar watched as the guardian gave the vocal messenger a kick. After stumbling, the bruised angel ran off. The guardians went back inside and other patrons along the street went back to enjoying themselves.

Everyone had an opinion about the trial of the Serpent. No one knew how much longer the pretrial motions would take. It could take yet another millennium. Everyday more angels were deposed by one side or the other. Even those loyal to the God of Truth and his son J’shua were unsettled by the upcoming addition of humans into their society. It was bad enough when there were only two of them. Now there were a four hundred fifty million, two hundred twenty-eight thousand, three hundred and one. He looked at the luach again, make that, and three. Would all of them be allowed in the renewed heaven and earth?  We’ll be overrun and become the minority.

It seemed everyone’s anger was easily pricked by the Serpent’s followers. Though locked away until the trial, he still sowed chaos in the Celestial Sea and in the earth, the Density.

Chaos abounded in both places. That’s why the second heaven was called the Celestial Sea. Just as in the realm of humanity, free will and selfish tendencies made the angelic society structured around individual autonomy rather than collective harmony. Each angel often prioritized their own desires and goals over communal well-being. The hierarchy was based on power, influence, and accomplishment. Angels competed for status, resources, and dominance. Without a shared mission or goal, many pursued personal pleasure. Even the best of them could be tempted.

This minor brawl was not his affair. Sighing, Owakar looked in the mirror and nodded his approval to the barber.

He was a Watcher now and had responsibilities in the Density, in the Province of Lorness. When J’shua spoke to him today, he gave him leave to appoint assistants so that he could provide better overwatch for the Otuals. He wondered at the way adversity had sent the four family members in different directions, only one of which he had predicted. Yes, these humans were very surprising. He never knew what they would do next.

It was easier to keep events straight if he used the calendar of Freislicht rather than the heavenly reckoning of time. Today was the last half-moon of early autumn in the thirty-first year of the Reign of King Edal. The youngest, Sarah, now eight years old had sparked an ember of seeking in a boy that was so repressed he rarely had a thought of his own.

Owakar prayed for the boy every day after learning of his suffering at the hands of his lord, Earl Gaelib Melazera. She was the perfect emissary to him. Only the wise God of Truth could have orchestrated it. He had to giggle whenever he thought of how the natural expression of her character had affected the young soldier.. And now she was learning to be a lady at Locke Castle. He wondered whose heart she might touch there with her simple faith. The faith of a child.

The luach warmed in his pocket and he took it out. He smiled as he read it, ever so happy to have input from the Book of Life always nearby.

[But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but the God of Truth meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.]

 

***

Owakar finished writing in the luach and reread it. The device glowed and chirped to get his attention again. More passages of the Book of Life appeared.

By the thirty-third year in the reign of King Edal, Rebekah Otual had woven her way into communities all over Freislicht. If they responded positively to her statements of concern for orphans and the darkness spreading across the land, she proposed that they join Licht Gegen. However, some claimed orphans were the problem of the local lord and hadn’t noticed any growing blight. These she blessed with silence.

When she was outside his jurisdiction of Lorness Province, Owakar relied on entries in the luach from other watchers. In response to her visits, many circles were taking up weapons, training, if they had someone to teach them. Others formed teams to walk the village at night, keeping watch. Most agreed that orphans should be saved from the streets. It grieved them when soldiers pushed children into a cage. These circles actively took orphans in.

Owakar had originally scoffed at her secret group, Licht Gegen… He shook his head. The name still made him laugh. It meant ‘light against.’ That wasn’t even a complete thought. He had to admit they did clever work. They’d decided early on that the families that took in orphans would do the best they could for them. This included teaching them all to read, the brightest to write, and placing as many as possible in apprenticeships. If an orphan wished it, they delivered them to the Knights’ School hidden in the Shining Mountains. A sheltered plateau between the two greatest peaks that protected it from the harsh weather and fostered the growth of lower elevation edible plants. That is where the teachers and students dwelled since their school was burned down.

Each of Licht Gegen’s leaders knew which inn Rebekah stayed in nearest them, but not her schedule. Only that they expected her to ride down the main road with a wagon full of plows some time each moon.

Her last visit with her “kinsman,” Commander Taelor, revealed that all the heralds were loyal to the king, who had only approved each after a thorough investigation. They could not be in a noble family line. They could not be in debt to any lord. They had to own land, which they had purchased from the king. This insulated them against pressures from their local lords.

She gradually met with each herald as she traveled from town to town, and bringing them into Licht Gegen. Thus, the various leaders could take a letter to their local herald and send it to another herald. Each letter from a founding member bore a wax seal imprinted with an aspen tree inside a circle. This was created by the wooden coins that Charles had given each when they left the Frei Forest community years ago. Since then, Charles made one as each new leader was chosen by Licht Gegen. This gave the group an alternative communication system, allowing Rebekah to spend more of her time gathering information.

She still rode her circuit, but she stayed longer in each town, getting to know people better. She was now very comfortable as Tommas Bekh, the plow salesman. And she often asked about debt collections or survivors who had returned home. Because she prayed about everything, he could add all this evidence into the luach, to hold against the Serpent at his trial.

Her actions in Lorness had caused far reaching effects when she prayed and sang spiritual songs in the cave in the Bloody Rocks. She was spontaneous. He would not underestimate her again. If the Warrior knew she had done it, he would attack her, so Owakar followed her movements closely, trying to keep her hidden from demons.

As Licht Gegen grew, this would become more difficult.

Her cover as a traveling plow merchant was remarkably successful. She was growing wealthy. Yet, in order to gather intelligence and pass secret messages, she needed to move about inconspicuously, so she changed nothing. Instead, she diverted all her profits into the organization.

She again had two young assistants, orphans raised by members of Licht Gegen. After two years with her, these boys desired to become knights so she would take them to the school soon. Owakar chuckled when she babied them, serving them their meals and making sure they were well rested. She had difficulty treating them like an unrelated man would. She was still a mother at heart.

 

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