Rare Things for a Rare Life

The Knights of J'shua Book 2

by Tiana Dokerty ©2023

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Updated 6/12/24

 

Chapter 6 - 32nd year

Sarah

The morning sun winked at her from behind the blanket of pink clouds, as she, Ma, and four-year-old Benjamin completed the final day of travel home to Carington. They’d been in Lexandria for three moons attending to four Locke women. The last had given birth a moon ago. Sarah was planning to visit all her friends and learn all she had missed. As soon as the wagon stopped Sarah ran inside the cottage to get her practice sword.

“Take Benjamin with you. I have many visits to make. With so much to do, it will help me if he is not underfoot.”

Sarah scowled, but said, “Yes, Ma.” Then turning to the four-year-old, she said happily, “Come on Benjamin. You can be the horse!”

Ma handed her a bundle, the aroma of warm honey cakes tickled her nose.

“Ney. Ney.” the boy continued to say as he ran to her.

Her ma waved. “Be back by mid-day. There are many things to prepare before you move to the castle.”

“I will Ma.” Sarah said as she took Benjamin’s hand and skipped away, brandishing her wooden sword.

She was ten years old when the duke had decided, after a trial period, that Sarah would be raised amongst the Lockes. Her adoptive mother, Kennah would also stay in Lexandria attending to the Locke women when they were nearing their expected confinement. Otherwise, she returned to the village to care for the mothers of Carington.

They had repeatedly been away for a moon at a time, returning to the village to help ma with births. Sarah often missed events that she was expected to participate in, so the duchess told her ma in frustration, “Sarah must eventually stay in Lexandria to keep her mind on learning to become a lady. I will speak with Gregory. He has not yet made her his ward, but I think he will if I force a decision.”

Sarah’s absence would also force ma’s apprentices to feel the weight of their calling. Sarah bit her lip. What would it be like when her ma left and she remained? Would they still treat her well? Some people change when they are in charge.

This visit she would say a long goodbye to Ned and all her other friends. Kennah would continue to travel back and forth to Carington relying on the help of two apprentice midwives. Sarah would remain in Lexandria to care for the common complaints of the Locke women, such as nausea, headaches, and back pain with herbs and therapies. This would be the last time Sarah would go to Carington for a long while.

Ned dashed out the door. He must have been watching for her. “The tree?”

Sarah nodded eagerly. “Yes, the castle needs our protection, King Ned!”

From the treetop castle, the Knight of J’shua, Sir Sarahad, scanned the horizon from the tower, seeking signs of the approaching horde.

“I’ll protect the people!” the knight yelled, raising the sword to the heavens.

The door sprang open, and three ugly hordes-men stormed in. Their toothless sneers stretched across pock-marked faces that were half-hidden by stringy hair.

“Alas, evildoers. You’ll not harm anyone here. I shall cut you down. Prepare to sleep until you meet the God of Truth.”

The horde growled and lunged. Sir Sarahad danced amongst them with precise strikes and parries. The horde retreated in fear. Dealing them each a last thrust, they fell from the tower with blood-curdling screams. Having vanquished them, the knight lifted the sword again. “Long live the king!”

A squeaky voice called to the knight from the garden below. “Sarah, you said I could be the knight this time. You should be the queen, because Benjamin wants to be the baby, not a horse.”

“Not a horse!” Benjamin declared, “I’m the baby!”

“I’m coming, Ned. Benj, you wanted to be the horse.” Sarah deftly climbed down the tall oak, hopping from the lowest branch. Her belted tunic flapped as she landed in a squat. She picked up Benjamin and cradled him in her arms, rocking him back and forth.

“Wah!” Benjamin smiled. “I wanna cake.”

“You are one heavy baby.” She set him down and untied the package of honey cakes.

Ned huffed and sat in the grass against the tree, stretching out. “Sarah, let’s go fish in the river.”

She handed him a cake. Then, grabbing Benjamin, who was about to run off, she gave him a cake too.

“I can’t. I have to watch Benjamin until Ma returns. But I should go home. I still have chores to finish.”

“Yeah, me too,” Ned said with a frown.

Benjamin turned to them with a toothy grin, face covered in crumbs.

 

***

It was time, four weeks before the next Locke baby was expected, so they returned to Lexandria. After two moons in Carington, Sarah cried as they rode away. She waved goodbye to Ned who stood frowning with his practice sword raised in the air. She loved the village and all her friends, especially Ned. This afternoon he had parried her blows valiantly and she his, as they danced around the yard in a fierce battle, even jumping from log to log on the woodpile. He was her best friend.

Ma patted her back, but she barely noticed. “You will see him again. The time will pass quickly. I will bring him letters and return with what he sends.”

“Oh, would you, ma?” Sarah swiped her eyes with the back of her hand, already thinking of what she could write. He always asked questions about Locke Castle and the town of Lexandria. She would give him a full report of all that she experienced. “I will need paper and ink. Do you suppose the duchess would give me some?”

“We will ask as soon as we see her.”

Sarah sighed with relief, turning her thoughts to her future in Lexandria. In Lexandria she had Melyssa. Charged with Sarah’s education in the ways of the noble class, Melyssa was a constant companion. They were two peas in a pod, doing everything Melyssa had to do. Usually she didn’t mind, for it was great fun. Melyssa did what her mother or the governess told her, so her days were filled with reading books and scrolls about historical events or letters written by famous Lockes. Both she and Melyssa would be tested on every book in their library. There was a different tutor for each subject.

Now that she was settled, she was learning to play the flute, which made her happy because it fit in the pocket of her cloak or her apron so she could take it anywhere. It was smaller than her sword. It was a great comfort when she traveled with the Lockes throughout Lexandria.

The ladies all taught her to dance. It was wonderful to follow along with Melyssa as her partner. She noticed as she learned the Locke family tree, that every noble line contained Locke daughters so Lockes were everywhere. However, the Lockes had trouble producing boys so during celebrations she would pair up with a servant boy.

Melyssa was the youngest at ten years old, like Sarah. Her older siblings were each two years apart, Saryssa, Deryca, Rodyn, Neryssa, Lyrena, and Danyth. Rodyn was sixteen. Danyth was twenty-two, the oldest boy and the heir.

On Meeting Day, the duchess taught her to manage a large household. It happened on the first day of every week; the new moon, the first half-moon, the full moon, and the last half-moon. These mornings, every department head in the castle reported. It was very boring. If she could let her imagination run, insects would be brownies or selkies come to seek a boon. Or the cook might be a making potions written in ancient runes.

After breakfast, the duchess took Sarah’s hand. “Good morning, my dear. Ready for our meeting?”

Sarah curtseyed. “Yes, Your Grace.” Sarah followed her a few steps behind, walk, skip, wait, trying to match her gait. All the department heads waited by the door to her office. The cook was first in line.

“Come in, Betess. How goes the kitchen?”

Sarah listened closely so that she could answer all the duchess’ questions afterward. The kitchen was the best run of all, because the cook had a system. She was strict. Mistakes in the kitchen could cause illness, a fire, or any number of other problems for the whole castle. The cook was always gregarious. Today she complained cheerfully, “The grain I received last week was not dried properly so it had sprouted, but not to worry, I made crackers with all of it to not waste it.”

The duchess sighed. “Very well, Betess. That was good thinking. Procure grain from a few new sources, so we’ll have bread while we investigate the problem. Thank you. If that is all, you are dismissed.”

The gardener approached with his floppy wool hat in his hands. His leathery, tanned face held deep furrows over bright blue eyes.

Ellyth smiled warmly. “How are you, Joff? Is your leg mended? I don’t see a limp anymore.”

Sarah wanted so badly to ask how he had hurt his leg, but she stopped herself.

“I am whole again, Your Grace. Thank you for asking. I already warned the cook that the beans are flowering now so to expect an early harvest.” The man glanced at the door to make sure Betess was gone. “She doesn’t like it when she has to change her plans. I told her, I would very much like to control the growing things, but I haven’t managed it yet.” He chuckled nervously. “I’ve been seeing loopers, you know, inchworms on the cabbage so I was hoping you’d ask the children to help with a green caterpillar picking in the morning.”

He had the hardest job, because so many things affected his chores—storms, heat, drought, and bugs.

The duchess laughed, “Oh, they will enjoy that.” Ellyth winked at Sarah. “We will invite all the cousins, too. Sunrise, Joff? In the North Field?”

“Yes, Your Grace, that will be a good time to start. Thank you.” Joff bowed. When he left, all the lines in his face had relaxed.

Turning to Sarah, the duchess said, “Have you ever picked caterpillars off leaves in the garden?”

“Oh, yes, Your grace, more times than I can remember. Can Melyssa and I help?”

“Of course. We’ll make it a competition. The children will have a reward. And those that gather the most, a prize.”

Sarah wondered what the prize might be.

Next to enter was the housekeeper, Gretchin. “Good morning, Your grace.” She curtseyed, but didn’t hesitate. “A few blankets were found to be moth eaten. I sent them to the stable. Lyster thought he could use them. We are washing all the others in the cabinet.”

Ellyth nodded. “Good.”

“One of the maids reported that Rodyn didn’t sleep in his bed two nights ago. You’ll have to watch that one. She thinks he might have a miss he’s seeing in town. I’m just saying what I heard. And I knew you would want to know.”

“Thank you, Gretchin, I do. Whether he’s up to no good or not, I will speak to him.”

“There’s also talk of a romance blooming between Lyster’s stable boy and the new kitchen maid.”

“I will look into that as well.” Ellyth chuckled. “Ah, young love. Let them have their secret for now. But keep an eye on them. Anything else?”

“No, Your Grace.”

“Very well, my dear. Thank you for your diligence. Until next week then.”

Once the others were interviewed, the duchess asked Sarah what she understood.

First, the cook whined about the quality of the food, one day the fruit, another the greens, or the rabbits. It was always something. Then the gardener talked mostly about weather and bugs. However, the housekeeper was a relief for she told all the gossip. Which was very entertaining and informative. The duchess never scolded her, for it was important to know the undercurrents in her home.

It is much harder to be a noble lady than pretending.

 

***

The sun cast its golden rays through the eastern windows of Locke Castle, bathing its ancient walls in a warm glow. Sarah ran down the corridor, her wooden practice sword raised over her head. Melyssa ran two steps behind with a candlestick thrust out before her. Squealing servants careened out of their way as the two girls burst into the great hall with a roar, brandishing their fearsome weapons.

They had fought battles every day to retake the castle from barbarians.

Duke Gregory Locke and his officials looked up in surprise. The duke turned toward the doorway and said with a twinkle in his eye. “Brave warriors of Lexandria, you have saved us! Please go to the kitchen for your reward. Come here tomorrow morning at dawn so that I can give you your next mission.”

Sarah thrust her sword in the sash tied around her waist and bowed low. As she rose, she said, “Thank you my lord. You are most gracious. We live to serve.”

Melyssa bounced on her toes. Then she gave a curtsy “Thank you, Father.”

To a servant, the duke said, “Follow them and give them anything they want.” The duke returned to his discussions.

The two girls looked at each other and took off, the servant rushing to keep up.

Ever since the duchess had chosen her ma as the family’s midwife, Sarah and her adoptive mother, Kennah Decker, had been at Locke Castle. Matylda, the old midwife, recommended Ma to the duchess and they had come to an agreement. Kennah would stay for the two moons surrounding the time of confinement of any of the duchess’ sisters, daughters, or nieces. But Ma would return to their village, Carington, at other times, while Sarah stayed and learned to be a lady, to increase her possibilities for a good marriage.

The room was warm and dark, lit only with candles. Matylda toddled about with a dark, knobby cane. She wore a dark mahogany-colored shift and muslin apron as all the midwives did. She could no longer kneel and lift as a midwife must. Ma explained that the duchess had been content with apprentices that Matylda supervised, but they lacked confidence and that made the duchess nervous. That’s why she chose Kennah to succeed her at Locke Castle.

Now, the duke’s youngest sister was finally delivered of a baby girl, the birth was very overdue. The baby girl came out all red and wrinkled, the size of a three-month-old. The placenta was white, like cooked fish. Sarah poked it and whispered to her ma, it feels like leather.

Her ma nodded, examining it. “That is a good observation, Sarah. It is a miracle of God that the child was born alive. You are a reliable assistant.” Kennah gave her shoulder a squeeze.

Matylda hobbled over, smiling. She patted Sarah’s head and said, “You did fine work tonight. Both of you. I can rest easy. All my girls will be in capable hands when I am gone.”

Ma gave Matylda a sad smile.

A few weeks later, there was a party to celebrate the new Locke daughter. Many relatives from near and far were visiting. Within the castle’s grand halls, laughter echoed as the duchess welcomed guests to a lavish reception.

Sarah, wide eyed, her heart full of wonder, stood by her mother’s side, awestruck by the splendor and pageantry. Ladies approached and curtseyed, some dressed in exotic, bright colored silks and others in simple linen shifts. The latter were commoners, like her friends back home, made her feel more comfortable.

She had barely learned the names of all the usual family and staff, so this great influx caused her to give up the mental exercise and enjoy the pageant before her. Many ladies flocked about her mother babbling about the difficult birth.

Sarah looked down at her fingernails. Oh, no! She forgot to scrub them. She held her hands clasped so that the dirt was hidden. As soon as the receiving line finished, she would find water and a brush.

Sarah’s gaze fell upon Melyssa, the duchess’ young daughter, who ambled toward her with a warm smile. Her new friend was kind and a vision of grace that made her less homesick.

“Hallo, Sarah!” Melyssa greeted, her voice musical like the tinkling of bells. “Would you like to join me for some tea?”

Sarah’s heart soared at the invitation. She nodded eagerly, her cheeks flushing with excitement as she followed Melyssa to a cozy alcove adorned with plush cushions and delicate lace curtains.

“Melyssa, I need water,” she said as she showed her the dirt under her nails.

“This is easily mended.” Melyssa turned to a servant boy that had followed her. “Bring us water and a nail brush.” Melyssa pointed to a chair beside a table full of rich cakes and colorful fruit. Sarah sat.

When the boy returned, he bowed and motioned for Sarah to place her hands into the bowl of warm water. He proceeded to take each finger in turn and gently brush away the dirt.

To have someone else do this task felt pleasing, but strangely wrong. Self-conscious, she looked at Melyssa, “May I do it myself?”

Melyssa nodded and waved the boy away. He backed up several paces to wait for another command.

Seated at the small table, Melyssa served Sarah a sweet cake and the boy poured fragrant tea into a cup. Sarah marveled at the exquisite porcelain cups and silver platters, feeling as though she had stepped into a fairy tale.

As they sipped their tea and nibbled on the sweet treats, Sarah and Melyssa told stories and giggled. Their friendship had blossomed over the last year. Tomorrow, Sarah would return to Carington for the last time to pack up all her things and live permanently at Locke Castle.

“Sarah, what is it like in the village?” Melyssa asked, her eyes alight with curiosity.

“Everything is simple and plain but full of warmth and love,” Sarah replied, her voice soft. “We may not have grand feasts or fancy gowns, but we have each other, and that is all that matters. We all have many chores to do that fill the time. But we often eat meals together when the weather is warm.”

Melyssa listened intently. Despite their different upbringings, Sarah felt drawn to her gentle spirit and genuine kindness. She told Melyssa of the chickens each of whom she had named, and Ned, her best friend. He was the one she missed most of all.

The afternoon sun dipped below the horizon, casting a warm glow over the castle grounds. Sarah and Melyssa exchanged promises of friendship that would endure beyond the walls of Locke Castle and forever.

 

Chapter 7 - 37th year

Owakar

Owakar entered his thoughts into the luach as he recalled the past four years.

Jonathan Otual continued to evade Earl Melazera’s soldiers who pursued him every time he entered Freislicht. Even now he followed the call of the spirit into the surrounding countryside to spread the word of the God of Truth. He had visited the Knights’ School and learned that his wife was still alive and on a mission of her own. The man had no idea what that might be, her letter gave him no details, but he trusted she was led by the spirit of God. He left a letter with Crispus for her, before setting out for Tarinland.

Owakar wondered what the God of Truth might be working on there.

And Rebekah, that remarkable lady, continued masquerading as a man in order to unearth the hidden plans of evil men and spirits in Freislicht. Initially, she intended to find her daughter, but upon realizing that there was a greater evil gaining control in the country, she accepted the call to spy out the evil ones and recruit others who wished to end the growing blight upon the good people of Freislicht. Today she set out to retrieve David from Agon Gorum’s horse farm in the republic of Esthlanis and deliver him to the Knights’ School.

David, the Otual’s son had finished his apprenticeship as a horse breeder and was in his last year of training to become a Knight of J’shua as his father had. So far the group in the Shining Mountains had been untainted by a lust for superiority and control. It was inevitable that all organizations fell to such, in the end. Some groups merely held to their good intentions for a year. Others for decades. But this group had maintained their simplicity and humbleness for one hundred and fifty years. Their oldest and wisest daikons had managed to avoid usurping God as overseers of the younger knights they taught. By submitting to God and each other in daily study of the Writings, manifestation of the gift, abundant sharing of their temporal things, bearing witness of truth, and in fellowship. It was truly remarkable. But it wouldn’t last. Not unless future leaders were as humble and wise as the two oldest knights, Daikon Theodomo Crispus and Daikon Sylvanus Baxter. Only time will tell.

 

David

[Ages- Sarah 14   David 17   BH 24   J,Sg,Dr, Ga 36]

David shifted on the cold rock, observing his students, three first-years. They had been his primary focus for almost a year now. He had first put them through their paces on the Easy Slope, pointing out all the crevasses and slippery ledges. Next he taught them how to read the Writings, which were written in an uncommon hand when they were translated hundreds of years ago. He copied the way his father had taught him. It made him homesick, even though he’d overcome that years before.

He was proud of these boys. They would become second-years tomorrow and he would graduate. Finally, he’d be sent out as a knight. Then he could search for Sarah. His father hadn’t found her, neither had mother. He sighed. He was seventeen so Sarah had to be fourteen now. If she is alive. He vacillated between imagining her happily playing with children in some village and peacefully sleeping, awaiting J’shua Ha Mashiach’s call. He refused to think of any alternatives.

“Again,” he called to his charges.

The three boys rolled their eyes and groaned, but began again.

“Step, parry, thrust. Step, parry, thrust,”

Was I this annoying at their age? Probably so.

“Philip, take a bigger step. It does no good to take a step if you don’t gain ground.”

After a time, David stood. “That’s enough. Ten laps from here to Lone Soldier, the Kiss, and back. Go.”

They took off up the Easy Slope. On the seventh lap, as they came from behind the last rock formation, Philip was the first, Atik next, and Barden last. They were good boys and he’d grown close to them.

He shifted on the rock again as he thought about his father’s last letter. Daikon Crispus gave it to him by the fire last night. It was three weeks old and vague as usual. Reading between the lines, he was reassured that his father was eating and sleeping well and still navigating in the free world.

Dear son,

God bless you in the name of J’shua Ha Mashiach. By God’s grace and his son’s sacrifice, I am whole. He has given me a plenteous bounty and warm nights of sleep. I have seen vultures, but no biting insects have taken hold of me. I am surrounded by goodness and walk the path he sets before me.

I am proud of you and long to walk north with you soon. The clans greet you. Many towns and villages will welcome you. Stand in the Writings, as I know you will.

In the light of J’shua,

Father

Focusing on the words and phrases, he decoded his father’s message. I am whole—He was healthy and unharmed. plenteous bounty and warm nights of sleep—He hasn’t gone hungry and has shelter. Vultures—bounty hunters or soldiers have tracked him, but they’ve not taken hold—he’s evaded them. The ‘clans’ represent Mestelina, ‘greet you’ means he’s already been there, and ‘towns and villages’ mean Tarinland, while ‘welcome’ means he going there. Walk north with you means he’s going to Esthlanis after that.

He might be below me in the forest right now on his way east from Mestelina. He sighed.

Tommas Bekh came to the mountain every three- or four-moons bringing supplies to the Knights’ School. She still dressed as a man. She still had not ferreted out what happened to Sarah. His mother bore it with grace and focused on her work, mostly. She reminded him again that he would be out in the world soon and must use wisdom when he chose a wife. He chuckled. He really didn’t think that would happen anytime soon. He had much more important things to plan—his first mission as a Knight of J’shua and which fellow-knights would accompany him.

His boys came out from behind Lone Soldier on their final lap. They no longer laughed, but they were still keeping a good pace and they had stayed together as they were taught.

They will do well. They won’t falter.

As the sun struck Lone Soldier, casting a long shadow that pointed toward Tarinland, they ran up huffing loudly.

“Are you excited about graduation tomorrow?” Philip asked, as he hunched over more to catch his breath.

David smiled as the other two collapsed to the moss-covered ledge. “Yes. I am looking forward to traveling as my father does. I grew up on stories of his exploits. He was the first to trade with the Mestels, when there were no roads in the west.”

“So he’s still free?” Atik said as he readjusted his sword on his belt.

David frowned. “Who told you he was being sought?”

“Everyone knows that. We get the gossip from a third year that works in the kitchen. Whenever someone visits, he listens.”

“Hmph. You may be better informed than me. Last I heard he was still free. Though he’s had some close calls. I pray every day that J’shua does not send him to stand before those who hunt him.”

No one said anything for a moment, then, Barden, who was the quiet one said, “Do you know where you’ll be sent?”

David beamed, stood, brushing off his breeches. “Mestelina. I’m going to stop a war.”

 


Chapter 8  38th year

Parynna Caswell

Parynna was plain. Her muddy brown hair and gray eyes sat poorly in a round, flat face. One by one, as her sisters married, she began to fear that she’d be an old maid. She knew she would be last, if she ever married. Locke daughters were as numerous as pigeons so it took a while for her turn.

Uncle Gregory, the Duke of Lexandria, finally arranged the marriage which took place a year ago when she was nineteen. Drake Caswell was a good prospect. The Caswell family was respectable. They were, by anyone other than a Locke’s standards, well off. Parynna had looked forward to the excitement and glamor that her sisters carried on about.

The oldest, Syrena, married a Melazera and lived in an extravagant mansion on the shores of the Sea of Glass. Her sisters, Veryca and Beryssa—both baronesses now—floated between High Keep and Farr Castle as part of the Royal Court.

Drake was now thirty-seven, seventeen years older than she, but he was still handsome and kind. Her sisters married barons, but she’d marry the son of an earl. She was elated when she heard that.

She wanted to be a lady in her own noble court, like her sisters. But after the wedding, which was wondrous, life in Caswell was uneventful, decidedly uneventful. There were no banquets, festivals, or tournaments. With none of her friends and nothing to do, she had been terribly homesick. Drake tried to cheer her, but she had discouraged him.

Realizing how childish she had been, she was determined to make the most of her life. Drake was the daikon of his circle and she was his wife. It was time she acted like it.

On the first half-moon of spring, in the thirty-eighth year of the reign of King Edal, Parynna and Drake arrived early to the meeting house nestled within the low outer walls of Caswell Castle. They walked arm in arm through fruit trees that lined the path. She glowed with satisfaction, as her husband gasped with admiration when they entered the chamber, brightly lit with candles all around.

Before she had taken charge, the meeting place was a dull room marked only by rows of rough pine benches. When she asked Drake if she could decorate the meeting hall, he happily agreed and gave her a large budget. She’d let her imagination soar.

After careful negotiations, the weavers guild had decorated it with luxurious tapestries featuring stories from the Writings. The largest, and Drake’s favorite, depicted J’shua sharing his last meal, tearing bread, and offering it to his disciples. J’shua’s face radiated light, from pure gold threads woven in for that effect.

At the front was a simple table covered with a pressed white linen cloth. On it, an intricately carved bookstand made of mahogany held the Complete Writings of J’shua. Two large chandeliers designed by her and donated by the local glassmakers’ guild, illuminated the simple space.

Parynna looked up with delight at the one small window, unreachable without scaffolding, that now glowed with a rainbow of stained glass.

Drake closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, the fragrance of lilacs and roses emanating from vases at the ends of the carved oak benches. He pulled her close. “Parynna, this is lovely. I’m sure this pleases J’shua as much as it pleases me. I should have thought to let you do this long ago.”

Drake had told her it was his calling to become a Knight of J’shua. Part scholar, part cleric, and—in his case—a very small part warrior. The last being a skill only required if the Faith was ever in peril.

As people arrived for the service, he greeted each man as a brother and gave them his personal blessing. On the other side of the foyer, she winked at him as she hugged each of the women as they entered. She was determined to please her husband.

I will be the perfect exemplar of a virtuous woman.

When she finished greeting the last of the women, Parynna sat in the front row. Her long brown hair flowed over a perfectly pressed tunic and simple shift. Drake glowed with pride as their eyes met.

He started the service with the prayer of Mashiach, the people’s voices echoing in the lofty hall as they recited it with him. Then he gave the message he’d prepared. “He is like a man that built a house and dug deep, laying the foundation on a rock. When the flood arose, the water beat vehemently upon that house, but could not shake it.”

Drake smiled upon his favorites in the front row, and she could see them smile back. He gazed out over the congregation. “But he that hears and does not act, is like a man who built his house with no foundation, on shifting sand. When the storms raged, it fell into ruin.”

She heard the guilty shuffle in their seats under his astute gaze. After his teaching, he asked for prayers and signaled those he thought should speak. Three members stood and prayed, as Drake requested of them.

She prayed for all the members of their circle.

They adore him. My husband is the perfect daikon of the Faith.

At the correct time, Drake beckoned and the children ran to him as he sat on the steps of the dais. Smiling over their heads, he gathered them close. Then he pointed to puppeteers unveiling a wooden stage. A storm of flutes and drumming set the scene.

“Long ago, a stranger washed up on the shores of the Sea of Glass,” Drake narrated as the marionette of a bedraggled man tottered into view and collapsed.

The children all squirmed and giggled, knowing the story that was coming.

“A child found him. Others came running.” More colorful puppets appeared on stage to enact the story of the First Knight and how the kingdom came to accept the words of J’shua and his Father.

“Many balked at the knight’s teachings.”

Then Drake’s voice boomed, “But Olde King Weisheit summoned him…”

Trumpets sounded.

“…and the king believed the beautiful words the First Knight conveyed from the God of Truth. King Weisheit confessed J’shua was his lord and that the God of Truth had raised him from the dead.

“So great did that monarch’s faith become that he gifted the knight land in the shadow of Shining Mountain and established a school to train Knights of J’shua. Later, King Weisheit prophesied: when darkness comes, and the people falter, they shall be renewed in the Word of J’shua by a knight.”

With joyous music, the puppets bowed and The curtain closed for the last time.

The children clapped. They always enjoyed hearing the story of the First Knight. She enjoyed it as well. It was the first thing she had paid attention to once she began attending to please her husband. There were circles in Lexandria, but she had never attended one. It was popular amongst the commoners.

At a nod from Drake, they ran back to their parents.

At the end of the service, he extended a hand to his wife, Parynna, indicating she should join him on the dais. “As many of you know, three ladies from our newly formed Orphans and Widows Charity are going to Farr Castle. They’ll bring back aid and a plan to help the least fortunate members of this circle and the town.”

***

That afternoon, Parynna and two ladies of the circle boarded a carriage and enjoyed the countryside on the road to Farr. They were accompanied by servants and a wagon full of provisions. She’d planned stops along the way so they could take rest and refreshment during the five-day journey. A young orphan boy, who would be placed with a family in Farr, rode above with the coachman and his son. She’d sent servants to fetch one from the market. He was fed, bathed, and dressed plainly as per Lady Melazera’s instructions.

“The Countess of Lorness has begun a child placement effort to deal with the orphan problem throughout Freislicht. She has found homes for many children. The boy will be raised by worthy parents and then trained in a skill or craft. He’ll be a token of our resolve to better the lives of the poor. We shall extend her virtuous efforts to as many as we can find. In the future, we’ll place many more unwanted children. We’ll see that they find apprenticeships and have godly, productive lives. We have a duty to help them.”

The ladies traveling with her uttered words of support.

One of them leaned forward, saying, “You seem to have passed your morning sickness.”

Parynna nodded and forced a smile. While thrilled to be carrying their first child, she feared how things would change. Her relationship with Drake had only recently improved. She berated herself for all the time she sulked like a spoiled child. They had been working together lately, and a babe would change that. Her sisters all looked haggard and sad when they visited after the children came.

There were also expectations amongst the circle’s women folk. She’d heard them talk about remaining in the back of the room with their infants. Would Drake treat her differently?

***

Arriving in Farr, their carriages approached the castle. Immediately inside the gate was a large white tent, black banners fluttered from the top of each pole. A long line of people inched into it. The letter said to go to the back of the tent to bypass the queue.

There, she, her companions and the boy, found a majestic elderly man wearing all black, his silk tunic decorated only with gold edging on his collar and cuffs. The man smiled broadly, accepted her letter, and threw wide his hand, gesturing to the opening he held with the other.

Murmurings from the people on the other side of the partition filtered through the rough canvas. The confined space was warm and she felt at ease when the man motioned for her to sit in the chair before the table. Her ladies and the boy remained standing. He sat after her.

“Tell me your name boy.”

“Timmus, milord,” he said in a whisper, staring at his feet.

The man in black wrote this down. “Do you have a surname?”

“What is a surname, milord?” The boy peeked up at him.

After many more questions, the man seemed convinced that he was in fact an orphan, not merely a castoff from a large brood. He thanked Parynna for bringing the boy and indicated they should leave.

As they walked back to the carriages, Parynna glanced back to see the man walking the boy into the castle’s inner gate. She had done a good deed today. Just before she stepped into the carriage, a page, wearing a tunic bearing the green and gold Melazera dragon, handed her a folded paper.

“Oh, my,” she exclaimed, beaming as she read it. “Caileagh Melazera, the Countess of Lorness, wishes to meet with me. I am sure it will be brief, would you two wait in the coach?”

Before they could respond, the page was moving. “Follow me, my lady.”

The page brought her to an intimate parlor, where the countess, already seated, motioned for Parynna to sit.

“I wanted to thank you personally for showing an interest in my endeavors to improve the conditions of the poor and fatherless in our land.”

“It is my pleasure, my lady. I can bring you more if you would like.”

“That would be delightful, may I call you Parynna?”

“Certainly my lady.”

“Please call me Caileagh. For we shall be working together now, yes?”

A thrill washed over, Parynna.

Caileagh wishes to work with me?

Caileagh told her all her hopes for the new program.

“Do you think you could bring me four next moon?”

“Oh, yes, my—” She caught herself, and not wanting to be corrected, said, “Caileagh. I could bring many more. Whatever you ask, I will do. I am happy to help you.”

“Delightful! I am so happy to meet you, Parynna. Do not hesitate to let me know all your questions and concerns. We will be sisters in this endeavor.”

When Parynna approached the carriages, she floated above the ground. Caileagh was the most important woman in the land.

I am her partner.

Parynna addressed the coach driver. “Do hurry home, I have so much to do.”

The three ladies talked excitedly, of their new important endeavor. “Our success will put Caswell on the map.”

 

Chapter 9

Jonathan

Jonathan strode on the well-trodden dirt surrounded by travelers, endless shops and carts of wares constraining them on either side. He wove through the colorful river of people, all chattering in Tarin, which he barely understood. His skill with the language was only passable, receiving many sour looks when he spoke. He was relieved whenever someone offered to translate. J’shua, bring me a teacher for this language. So many words sound the same, but mean vastly different things.

The smell of pungent spices wafted over him as oxen grunted and lowed, pulling heavy carts toward the center of the capital city, Hampi. He skirted around the city center, remaining in the farmlands to avoid its crime. He merged onto a wider road, swelling with more noise and jabbering.

The people of Tarinland had a strict caste system. Everywhere he turned, peasants bowed to their betters. Arriving at the Delami Inn, he marveled at the colorful merchants, revered only moments before, who now lowered their heads to a magistrate who came out of the wide doorway.

The farming villages welcomed him, but opportunities to spread the Writings had been few because he was still learning their language. But some, curious of his fair hair and piercing blue eyes, invited him into their homes. Once they’d fed him as hospitality demanded in Tarin culture, they listened intently as he introduced them to J’shua Ha Mashiach. For many moons, he had stayed in homes when invited and under the stars when not.

Jonathan discovered that no law prevented anyone from accepting the words of J’shua. However, circles could not include people from different castes. Therefore, to spread the Writings to the upper ranks of Tarin society, he would have to meet individuals of higher status. He prayed for that.

Jonathan noticed a few Tarin soldiers eyeing him. They separated and began walking toward him on either side of the street. Has word of the bounty on me spread here? He blew out a breath and prayed. J’shua had called him to Tarin.

Relax. They are just drawn to my strange blonde hair and blue eyes.

The bounty on his head still concerned him greatly. He wished he knew who set it.

Commandant Greysun could have, but how would he afford a personal vendetta on a soldier’s pay? The strange man in River Town that pretended to be a farmer might be in service to a rich man.

If he had offended anyone with the means, he was not aware of it. He would probably never know—a shiver ran down his spine—unless they caught him. He battled the worrisome thoughts for a long while and prayed in the spirit. No matter what lay ahead, he was not alone.

[Be not afraid of sudden fear, neither of the desolation of the wicked when it cometh.]

Despite recalling those words from the writings, Jonathan decided to get off the street. He entered the Delami Inn, seeking its dining hall. A woman draped in bright saffron-colored silk wound loosely about her, greeted him—the proprietor’s wife perhaps. After he handed her a damar, the smallest of their gold coins, she gave him a glazed ceramic bowl and pointed to the table of deep tureens and colorful dishes.

The crowded hall smelled of cinnamon and roasted spicy meats. Several tables had a dozen patrons already. He smiled at the laughing and hooting men to his right and the old man that announced his daughter’s engagement on his left.

Jonathan ladled a thick savory stew into the bowl, found a seat, and struck up a conversation with a Tarin merchant. As they spoke, he learned his new friend had traveled north through Esthlanis and south into the wildlands of the mountains selling silver wares. The man’s wiry frame and limbs moved with every word like a marionette while explaining all he knew of this region.

The two soldiers entered, then spoke to the woman wearing the saffron dress. She bowed and waved them in. One stayed by the door while the other strolled to the back of the room.

Jonathan continued to pray, slowing his breathing.

[Pray without ceasing.]

“It would be too difficult for a Priest to accept J’shua,” the silver merchant drew swirls in the air with his fork as he spoke, “as they are trained from infancy to teach spiritual things. The man’s family would murder him.” His dark, bushy eyebrows rose. “Reaching the warrior and ruling castes might be possible. Even so, there would be great pressure on the family to kill them. The elite castes do not trust foreigners.” The man shook his head and took another forkful of pigeon.

“Tell me more,” Jonathan said, reclining slightly to keep an eye on both soldiers. The merchant didn’t seem to notice them.

“My caste, traders and merchants, is most open. To expand our routes and bring in goods from afar, we must deal with foreigners and their strange ideas. This makes us curious.” He took another bite. “I acquired a Book of J’shua with silver fasteners traveling through Esthlanis. I’ve shown it to customers as merely another product. I’ve not had an offer for it yet. What can I tell them about the book that might entice them? Perhaps an exotic story from it?”

“Ah, yes.” Jonathan’s mouth quirked and then turned serious. “Once, long ago, Daniel, a slave since his youth, had been elevated for his virtue. Now an old man, his enemies tricked the king who had become his ally and now he was entrapped by the king’s law which could not be changed. He did not despair but prayed. Even as they lowered him into a pit with a rope tied to his wrists, Daniel prayed. The—”

The merchant’s eyes narrowed. “This story will not sell well.”

Jonathan motioned to him. “A little patience. A dozen starving lions, whose shoulders were taller than your hips, snarled. Not fed for many days, they slowly circled the pit eyes fixed on his warm flesh, their saliva dripping from the panting tongues that lay between their sharp teeth.”

“Oh, my! This is in your holy book?” the man asked with wide eyes.

Jonathan’s lips quirked. “As Daniel’s feet came to rest upon the muddy floor, he watched the circling beasts growling and baring their teeth. His captors rolled a large stone over the opening so no one could save him. Daniel thought this was the end, but still, he refused to beg his captors, and continued to pray.”

“This could have promise,” the merchant said.

Jonathan winked. “In the morning, they rolled away the stone. Instead of finding a bloody, broken corpse, Daniel stood in the center looking up at them, saying, ‘My God sent his angel and shut the mouths of the lions.’ All around him, the creatures were fast asleep on the floor, soothed by the God of Truth.”

“I did not see that coming. Yes, that has merit. Are there other such stories of your god’s power?”

Jonathan spent the next two hours sharing more stories about the God of Truth and his son, J’shua Ha Mashiach. The soldiers never moved. He pushed down his growing anxiety.

The silver merchant emptied his mug. “Thank you, Jonathan. I have enjoyed this immensely.”

“I have likewise. I am glad to have met you. Can you tell me of other merchants that might wish to learn of J’shua?”

The Tarin smiled. “In the inner-city marketplace, there’s a bookseller. He’ll be interested in speaking with you and, perhaps, acquiring copies of the Book of J’shua. His family name, Padhyay, is above the shop’s entrance on the main road.”

“Thank you, sir. I will visit him. The Lord J’shua be with you. I will look for you this time next year.”

Jonathan forced himself to remain calm, following the merchant out. Hoping no one could hear his pounding heart or see him sweat, he did not look back. Nor did he run, even though every fiber in him wished to. He passed the soldier without making eye contact and headed deeper into Hampi.

 

***

Jonathan found Omari Padhyay, exactly where he had been instructed. He conversed with the man and perused his well-stocked bookshop. It was a relief that so many of the merchants in Tarin spoke Freis. They quickly became friends.

The bell above the door tinkled as an older man entered dressed in traditional attire befitting a high status. Omari rushed to him and bowed low, his palms placed together. “The peace within me recognizes the peace within you, Thapa Raju. How can I help this fine day?”

Jonathan noticed a palanquin and men to carry it, out the window. He understood the gist of the conversation. He looked back to the book he held not wanting to intrude.

“Thapa Raju, you are most learned and a wise truth seeker. You must meet my new friend, Sir Jonathan Otual from Freislicht. He is a Knight of J’shua.” Omari pointed his upturned hand toward Jonathan.

Thapa raised his eyebrows, bowing the appropriate amount to an unknown foreigner of a religious sect. “The peace within me recognizes the peace within you, Sir Otual. I have heard of the Knights of J’shua. It is an honor to meet a visitor of such esteemed reputation. Welcome to our humble city. What brings you here?”

Jonathan smiled warmly as he approached, a bit worried his dusty cloak and broken Tarin might offend the old man. He prayed silently before he spoke in Tarin as best he could, “I see the peace, worthy Thapa Raju. Thank you for kind welcome. Please, sorry, bad talking. I travel from far want understand teachings and wisdom of this place. Want learn of Tarinland.

Thapa eyes raised, bemused. “I understand. Very good. Speaking well. What would you know?”

Jonathan bowed and pointed to himself. “I am truth seeker. Spiritual fulfilment all humans seek. I want catch ideas. Deep water share understanding of the Creator, the God of Truth.” Jonathan mimed pouring from one hand to his other.

Thapa nodded happily. “Good, very good, you speak Tarin well. Indeed, the pursuit of truth is a noble endeavor. Our writings speak of the eternal soul, the cycle of fate, and the path to liberation. Perhaps you have insights from your own traditions to share?”

Jonathan thought he understood the man, though some words confused him. “Yes, esteemed one, people of my sect cherish message of J’shua Ha Mashiach. He give words of love, compassion, and redemption. My quest similar. Want talk more with you. Is possible? Perhaps have translator?”

Omari and Thapa exchanged rapid words Jonathan could not understand, but hoped it was about arranging another meeting. The bookseller handed Thapa Raju a package and bowed deeply. Thapa responded with a lesser bow to Omari and Jonathan, then left.

Omari spoke in Freis, “You did well Sir Jonathan. He invites you to his home. He bids me to bring you tomorrow and translate. Can you be here at noon?”

“Yes, this is wonderful, Omari. God bless you, friend.”

“I will take you to the baths and bring you suitable clothes.”

Omari handed him an illustrated alphabet book.

Jonathan accepted the gift and bowed low. “You are very kind, Omari.”

Omari bowed. “I am curious how this will go tomorrow.”

The next day, Omari took Jonathan to the bath house. Soldiers milled about every few blocks. This might be normal. He couldn’t tell if they were watching him.

They approached a low building, surrounded by cisterns. Women came to draw water from one and bathed their children in another. Long lines of peasants waited their turn.

A servant standing by the entrance bowed as Omari showed him a wooden card engraved with Tarin letters. Jonathan recognized them from the alphabet book, but could not tell what they spelled. Inside the room, steps led down into a pool of steaming water. A light mist rose up from it. Servants stood all around the pool, ready to offer a brush or soap. Omari handed another servant the basket he brought and began removing his clothes, which the servant held.

Jonathan did the same, copying Omari. He glanced toward the entrance as a soldier entered the bath house and scanned the pool. Jonathan looked down at his fair skin, even more of a flag than his white-blond hair. Should he ask about the soldiers and tell Omari about the bounty? No, he wanted to allay his fear, but that was just his yearning for comfort. He would trust J’shua and let this play out. He may need to be arrested to encounter whoever J’shua intended him to meet.

The soldier had not moved, so Jonathan stepped in. Soothing warmth and the fragrance of roses comforted him as he slowly sank into the water. He accepted a loofah and scrubbed his body. Then Omari motioned to his back and Jon scrubbed the man’s back, Then Omari did his. It felt glorious. He was glad the fountain in the center of the pool kept the water moving or there might have been a cloud of dirt surrounding his pink body.

After they finished drying, the servant held out the basket and Omari helped Jonathan dress. Their dirty clothes went into the basket and Omari gave a boy a coin to run them home.

Thapa Raju sent his palanquin and they arrived at his sprawling estate swiftly. The soft, blue silk tunic and pants Omari had lent him flowed with every breeze.

Strange fragrances from flowering trees greeted them in his courtyard. Jonathan marveled at the three-story structure, a palace, not a stone fortress like the castles of Freislicht, but a sculpted citadel, covered in intricately placed ceramic tiles forming beautiful mosaics of strange animals and lush plants. He wondered what the inside would contain. As the grand entrance came into view, servant swung the door wide, bowing and beckoning them inside.

Jonathan froze. On either side of the door stood two more soldiers. Even though they kept their heads pointed forward, he was sure their eyes saw everything. He forced himself to maintain his calm exterior, though his skin prickled and his heart skipped several beats.

The servant led them to a room more opulent than any in High Keep with plush furniture, pedestals holding creatures carved of ivory, and lined with shelves holding books and scrolls. A large table in the center of the library contained ink and quills and fresh parchment. Servants brought in trays of exotic foods and flagons of wine.

Jonathan scanned the colorful leather book covers inscribed with gold titles in flowing lettering.

Thapa Raju entered from another doorway, smiling, motioning for Omari and Jonathan to sit.  He noticed Jonathan glance toward the soldiers. “Fear not Sir Jonathan. Our spies have informed us of the bounty on your head. We have decided that since the man who wants you is our enemy, you are a friend. Our soldiers are here to protect you in case you were followed by evildoers from your country.”

Bowing his head Jonathan replied. “Thank you kind sir.” His knees were weak. He sat, relief flooding through him. Their surveillance was remarkable. “Who is the man that hunts me?”

Thapa’s eyes grew large, then compressed into slits. “You don’t know?”

Jonathan shook his head. “There is a soldier that I embarrassed that would love to kill me, but he can’t afford this bounty.”

“It is the steward of your king, the Earl of Lorness.”

“Gaelib Melazera?” Jonathan pondered that, remaining silent, having no desire to complicate things with a dozen questions. Gaelib had certainly seen him as a rival when they were children.

Why seek my death now?

“Yes, we do not know why, but you will be safe as long as you are in Tarinland.” Let us begin our research,” Thapa said as he opened the scroll before him.

The spirited discussion that followed ranged over the impermanence of the material world, ideas of love, compassion, forgiveness, and the pursuit of spiritual understanding. Thapa smiled, frowned, and laughed periodically. Jonathan’s heart burned as he shared about the Creator of heaven and earth, that his heavenly host were referred to as sons of God, stars, and lesser gods in the Writings. He explained that they did not always obey their father, the Creator. Finally, he shared J’shua Ha Mashiach’s ultimate sacrifice that ransomed all who accepted him.

Omari interpreted as they exchanged ideas.

Jonathan had many pages of notes that he rolled up and slid in his tunic when Thapa bid them farewell. He bowed low, thanking his host for the gift of his time.

Looking toward the setting sun Jonathan asked Omari, “Do you think that went well?”

“I think you gave him much to ponder. And I also.” Omari patted his shoulder reassuringly. “He seemed to enjoy your company.”

“Thank you for being my interpreter. That would have been impossible without you.”

“I am happy to have heard such a thorough explanation of the spiritual world. I would know more.”

“I will introduce you to others who study the words of J’shua and the God of Truth.”

After guiding Omari to the small circle in Hampi, Jonathan ...

[@@@insert new destination]


Chapter 10

Rebekah

Rebekah, dressed as Tommas Bekh, was riding north on the next leg of her circuit. The early thaw caused an unexpected demand for plows. She had taken deposits for six as she left Fairness Crossing for High Keep. A substantial amount of money, it was tucked away in the hidden compartment built into the base of her small wagon.

The sun was low in the sky and the clouds above were darkening. It might soon rain. Perhaps she should have stopped at the inn. Yet that would have delayed her trip northward by an entire day.

No, it was best to push on and trust in J’shua that all would be well.

A sentiment that was dampened by a sudden downpour not even half an hour later.

Water streamed off the brim of her hat like a waterfall. Her cloak kept her dry, but the temperature was dropping fast. Stopping at the inn increasingly looked like the better choice. But she could not turn around and go back. The trail was too narrow.

Then, the wagon lurched, stuck.

Rebekah urged the two horses forward, only to hear the straining of wood. Although, she could not be sure if it was the rear axle or the wheel. “Whoa!” she roared. The horses snorted.

She clucked at them to reverse, only to hear the same telltale groan.

With no way to light a torch, she got down to see what the problem was. In the shadows under the cart, it was next to impossible to make out anything. She was groping around, trying to identify the problem by touch, when a voice interrupted.

“Need some help?”

Ducking back out from under the wagon, she looked up to see a massive man looming over her. Her eyes darted to the casket on view in the cart’s rear. Her breath caught, trying to keep her voice steady as she replied. “It’s stuck.”

The stranger was dark skinned, very tall, and had a chest and torso like that of a blacksmith. His oiled leather cape had a deep hood and hung to his elbows. That, and thick leggings kept him mostly dry. Hopping down from his horse, he tied it to the cart. Two more horses, laden with provisions were connected to the man’s mare.

Rebekah looked up at him, rain drenched her face. She touched her beard, worried it might come adrift. “Thank you for stopping, I’m sure it’s just…” Her hand located a tree root that had somehow lodged between the wheel’s spokes. “Blast! I wish I had more light.”

The man looked at the sky and smiled. “The rain will end soon. It was so sudden that it cannot last long. Then, the moon shall come out. For the moment, it is too dark to travel further safely. Mind if I wait with you?’

“Tommas Bekh,’ Rebekah stood, holding out her muddy hand.

“Daryl Andrews,” the other man shook without hesitation. ‘A little dirt and water never hurt anyone,” he added with a grin as he wiped his hand on his cape. “Have you found the problem?”

“It’s stuck on a tree root. Don’t know how I managed that.”

“Luck, good or bad. Or perhaps it was providence that we met. Someone might be guiding your steps.”

Rebekah took note of that comment and smiled, wiping the back of her hand across her dripping forehead, uselessly. The torrent continued to fall.

“Luck wuz surely guidin’ us,” a gruff voice announced as its owner appeared out of the rain. Dressed shabbily, it was probably the first water to touch his skin, or clothes, in weeks. Or, such was the tale the foul odors drifting off him told. His drawn sword suggested a less-than friendly individual.

Another man appeared beside him, barely more than a lad, but pointing a loaded crossbow at Rebekah and Daryl.

“Thiz dinna ’ave ta be un-plez-int,’ the first thief continued. “Jest ’and ova yooz baden. All uv et.”

“In the small casket,” Rebekah lied. There was a hundred of so baden there, plus something nasty for any thief. “I’ll get it for you.”

“Stoy rite ther,” the first commanded. “Rhaylth, ga geyt et.”

“You said my name again,” the second thief glared, his voice cracking, as if barely transitioned to adulthood.

“Shet et, Rhay. Gimme tha’ crossbow.”

Rhaylth dismounted, sloshed over to his partner, and held it up.

The first robber sneered at Rebekah and Daryl. ‘Doan tray anythin’, fuls.”

Reaching for the weapon, the leader’s eyes shifted away from his targets.

Rebekah dashed to the casket in the back of the cart and lifted a pair of loaded hand crossbows.

Daryl turned a shoulder towards Rebekah, his farthest hand thrust…

The leader’s horse shied, throwing him. His sword disappeared into the darkness.

Rhaylth jumped clear, but slipped and fell, the crossbow dropping into the mud with a splash.

Full-sized versions required more strength than she had. Before Rebekah could shoot, the leader’s horse was galloping past her, riderless.

And Daryl, sword in hand, had its point at the leader’s throat. “For the inconvenience, I shall keep the other horse and the crossbow. As I am a peaceful man at heart, I shall not kill you. Despite you surely intending to kill us. But I am also a practical man.’ His blade flicked twice, drawing blood from both men’s calves. “Those wounds will not kill unless you let them fester. But they will prevent you from following us. Go!” He pointed out into the night, in the direction the leader’s horse had run off.

The two men rose to their feet, hissed in pain, and snarled. But they said nothing as they supported each other and limped off into the darkness.

The rain weakened and the moon shared some light as Daryl walked to the trapped wheel and bent. After standing, he slashed once with his sword. “Your wheel is free. For both our safety, we should leave. Where are you headed?”

“High Keep,” Rebekah replied.

“Too far in this weather, and you’re way off the most travelled path north. We are only a mile or two from the Lion and Tiger Inn. There’s lodging there, plus hot food and a warming fire. The path widens just up ahead so you can turn around.”

“I…” Rebekah paused. It stopped raining, the clouds dispersed  and the moonlight shone down. Accepting it as a sign from J’shua, she changed her mind. She had been going to reject the offer. “Will we be welcome this late at night? Won’t they think us fools to be travelling in such weather?”

“I cannot say what they’ll think of you, but they already know I’m a fool. Then again, they have to put up with me, since it’s my inn.”

The way he spoke and his handy sword put her at ease, but something familiar niggled her mind.

***

Rebekah shouldered her pack and followed Daryl inside. Behind them, several boys appeared from nowhere and took charge of the horses and wagon. A sweet, savory aroma filled her first breath. Cinnamon. Nutmeg. She gasped. Ginger. She hadn’t had spice cookies since… The thought of making them with Sarah came to mind and she fought back tears. “Smells good in here.”

“You hungry? Missy, get my new friend here a bowl.”

A flash of green and gold flew out of the room, a girl with pale skin and red hair wearing an emerald dress. Could not be more than ten.

“This is my daughter, Missy…”

“Your daughter?”

“You don’t see the resemblance?” His straight face broke into a laugh. “She was an orphan brought to me six years ago. A friend saved her from apprehension by collectors in Lorness.” Daryl laughed. “He’d heard me complain I needed more help. Gave her to me. She was only four then and a great blessing. My own daughter is a quiet, thoughtful soul. But Missy…she’s a whirlwind and a sprite.”

Now that she could get a good look at him, Daryl was a presence. Outside, shaded by the poncho she guessed he was dark skinned, but in the light with his cloak off, he was ebony black. His hair was black as well, like sheep’s wool, twisted into dreadlocks. Her own was slicked against her scalp and dripping wet.

“May I set some of my things to drying by the fire?”

“Yes, yes. Charmaine bring the drying rack!”

A demure, young lady, lighter skinned than her father, walked in carrying a bundle of sticks. She dropped them on the floor in front of the roaring fire. Her hands flew this way and that with sticks until a rack appeared with ten dowels on which to hang things.

“My, this will help immensely.” Rebekah smiled, dropping her pack to the floor. She rummaged about testing the dampness of each item. Pulling out all the wet things, she spread them over the dowels.

Rebekah took in the whole room. There were square tables scattered around the perimeter and two long ones in the back half of the room. It was the quietest inn she’d ever seen. There were at least twenty customers but the conversations were soft. No one looked at her. She’d expected everyone inside would want to know about the wet rat Daryl had dragged in.

Tension ebbed from her body. She felt safely anonymous. She sighed. How long had it been since she felt that?

Missy set a bowl of stew on the table by the fire, flashed a broad grin, eyes twinkling, then gave a cockeyed curtsey and ran out.

All the while, Daryl’s older daughter handed Rebekah a warm blanket and motioned to the chair by the fire. The girl waited at ease for another command.

Rebekah sat, melting into the soft leather and yawned.

Charmaine crossed her arms and looked Rebekah up and down. “I think you should stay the night, sir. Sleep is the best way to avoid the sickness after a drenching. Nothing heals better than sleep.” The girl’s hands rested on her hips like an army general.

“Perhaps, I could stay one night.” The place had a warm peaceful presence about it. Surely, J’shua had angels lead her here. She turned to Daryl, who had been greeting other customers and had just turned to face her. “Are you sure you have room?”

“Oh my, yes. Most of these here folks work for me and live in their own homes nearby. I’ve plenty of rooms.” He turned to Charmaine. “Freshen up the King’s Room for our guest.”

“The king’s room?” Rebekah tilted her head.

Daryl chuckled. Every room is a noble room. We have the king’s, the queen’s, the dukes, the earl’s, and so on. Makes folks feel special.”

Rebekah laughed.

“Yes, Da.” Charmaine curtseyed proficiently and walked down a hall to stairs Rebekah hadn’t noticed before.

Unusual to have stairs in the front and in the back. “Your inn is bigger than it appears from the outside.”

“It’s a blessing from J’shua. No one bothers us. Robbers think we aren’t worth the trouble. And troops think we can’t handle very many.”

“So how do you get enough business?”

“Oh. J’shua provides.”

Rebekah’s clothes, though still wet, were warm now and she was feeling sleepy.

Daryl disappeared down the hallway. Next time she opened her eyes, he’d changed his clothes and was giving instructions to men on the other side of the room. She could not perceive their words, but they each gave him a nod and dispersed to their tasks.

As soon as she finished the stew, Missy brought her two spice cookies on a lacy napkin and a mug of warm goat’s milk. Missy felt each of the damp things on the rack. “This shirt is dry. Would you like me to show you to your room. You could change.”

“I think I’ll stay here until my night clothes are dry. I can barely keep my eyes open.”

She dozed, watching Daryl with his girls, their laughter tinkling in her drowsy thoughts.

Daryl bumped her shoulder, whispering, “Your things are dry. To bed with ya.” He handed her a pile of clothes and led the way up the stairs to the King’s Room.

She woke with a start. Light streamed in the window. A piercing laugh brought her to her senses. Missy.

Now she remembered what had been bothering her since yesterday. Jonathan had told her a story about a black knight.

You were very adept with a sword last night. Are you a knight, Daryl?

She bolted upright and threw the bed covers aside. She hadn’t noticed the thick comforter, embroidered with wreaths of red roses and yellow daisies last night. Firewood and tinder was stacked neatly beside the fireplace. Water filled a pitcher. The matching bowl was painted with blue flowers.

Should I ask him?

Given the growing rumors about the knights, it might be an uneasy topic, even dangerous.

If she remembered the story correctly, Jonathan had camped in a glen by the Freis River. He had planned to fish some. It was a lazy river because it curved several times and was wide at that point.

He caught sight of a bobbing black head in the middle of the river. Jon halloed to the man and the black head threw up an arm in an energetic wave and started swimming toward the bank. All of a sudden he stood up in the shallows, naked as a trout. The man waddled out of the river. The pack tied around his waist was thrown down. His dripping skin, shimmered in the sun’s glorious light, he threw out his hand, Jon grasped it with one hand and tossed him a blanket with the other. They had become fast friends.

What was his name?

Rebekah begged the memory to return to her. “Miles. William Miles.”

She threw on her clothes and felt her beard. “Blast.” Definitely battered by the storm. She needed to reglue it. But she couldn’t wait. She had to know. If it was him, this was a divine appointment.

She scanned the room as she descended the stairs. Empty except for Daryl reading something at a table.

“Daryl,” she whispered. She wasn’t sure how to broach the topic subtly. He could be hiding if he was William Miles, and living so near the Province of Lorness. “Are you a knight of J’shua?”

Daryl turned his head abruptly, eyes wide. She startled. “Sorry, I was just remembering a story I heard.” She wasn’t sure what to say. She didn’t want to reveal her identity. But if it was Miles, she could trust him. This could be an answer to prayer.

“Are you William Miles?”

“Shh, no one knows that name here.” His eyes darted all around.

“I’m sorry. I know Jonathan Otual.”

She leaned closer, whispering, “He told me about giving an orphan to Willam Miles.”

“Yes.” Daryl nodded.

She wanted to know everything. He was Jon’s best friend for years. Until he disappeared. Why was that. Jon worried that he’d died. They had prayed for him. But to ask would reveal too much of her own story. But if he was Willam Miles, she could trust him.

He turned back to his work. “I haven’t used that name in many years.”

She stood up and checked the dryness of the clothes. She took a deep breath.

“My name is Rebekah Otual. I’m Jonathan’s wife. I need your help.”

 

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