Rare Things for a Rare Life

The Knights of J'shua Book 2

by Tiana Dokerty ©2023

Home | Part 3 | Part 5

Updated 6/12/24

 

Chapter 16

Sarah

The giant twisted oak marked the last turn in the road leading to their cottage. “Beat you, Benj!” she yelled as she spurred the mare.

“No you won’t!” Her nine-year-old stepbrother, Benjamin, kicked his horse but shot into the forest. He was bound to win taking the short cut. Benjamin had been here only three moons ago, because he always traveled back and forth with Ma between Locke Castle and Carington. The village was home ever since they had escaped the debt collections. But Sarah lived in Lexandria being schooled in the ways of nobles as part of the agreement Ma made with the Lockes.

An old woman, Ned’s mother, rushed beside a tree as Sarah raced past. “Hallo, Mother Garvey. It’s good to see you,” she said with a wave.

Benjamin was sitting on the stoop grinning when she rode up.

“I suppose you won.” Sarah sat next to him waiting for Ma who drove the wagon. As it clattered into the yard, she asked him, “Would you help me unload?”

Benjamin grabbed a box as soon as Ma stopped. Together they finished in an hour, everything stowed in precisely the right places. Benjamin seemed very grown up as he elbowed the door carrying the last sack of lentils over his shoulder.

After the midday meal, Ma handed her a bundle of spring tonic herbs. “Take these to Mother Garvey and say hallo to Ned.”

“Thank you Ma!” She grabbed her wooden practice sword as she ran out the door.

It had been five years since she saw Ned. Her fingers twisted the sleeve of her simple pale green dress. She hadn’t worn breeches in Lexandria—very unladylike—and none of her old clothes she’d left at home fit her. Her excitement grew as memories flooded back while she walked the familiar path.

In the distance, she spotted a tall boy chopping wood in the yard.

Who would Mother Garvey have hired to help her? Why wasn’t Ned doing it?

She sucked in a breath as her eyes took in the sight of him. Ned had changed. He was a man now. A lock of his long brown hair hid his face, having fallen out of the tail. When he brushed it behind his ear, she saw his features were sharper, but still soft. He took another swing with the axe and the split logs hit the ground. He bent to toss them in his pile.

“Ned?”

He turned, a slight nervousness and a question formed in his eyes as he saw her. Then his expression lit up with recognition, but uncertainty flickered.

“Sarah... Is it really you?”

“Yes, it’s me. I’ve returned.” She glanced at her fingers, rubbing the fabric of her sleeve.

An awkward silence grew as they stared at each other taking in all the changes.

“It’s been... five years, hasn’t it?”

“Yes, it has..” Ned cocked his head a bit. “You look... different.”

“So do you. You’re taller, taller than I and... grown-up.”

Ned lowered his head, scratching the back of his neck. “Uh, thanks. You look... beautiful.”

Sarah’s cheeks flushed at the unexpected compliment. “Th-thank you, Ned.”

Another awkward pause fell between them, sounds of village life warbled in the distance.

“So... how was Lexandria? I bet you saw amazing things.”

“I did. One time a man brought a monkey that did tricks.”

“That sounds...exciting.”

They exchanged shy glances, the tension easing slightly.

“It was. But I missed this place. Missed home.”

Ned nodded, his lips quirked.

“We missed you too. I mean, I missed you.”

Sarah’s heart skipped a beat at his admission, her eyes crinkled at the corners. “I missed you too, Ned.”

Their gazes lingered, unsure how to bridge the space between them.

“My ma sent this bundle for your mother…and I brought my sword.” Her lips upturned as she lifted the small wooden blade. “Have you been practicing while I was away?”

“Of course. Have you?”

“I did not have a good sparring partner in Locke Castle. And they kept me in dresses. You may best me yet.”

He struck the axe into the waiting log and ran into the cottage. When he returned he carried his practice sword, but also a metal sword in a leather sheath. “My da gave this too me after you left. Isn’t it fine?” He drew the blade out.

Sarah ran up to touch it. “It is wonderful. May I hold it?”

“Sure.” Ned handed her the sword.

“It’s heavy.” Sarah swung it in a figure eight. I would need a moon to gain the strength to wield this. Would you show me your practice routine?

“It is my pleasure.”

Sarah beamed with pride as Ned danced with the sword, crouching and lunging just as she had taught him years ago when they first met. Just as her real da had taught her.

When he came to the end, he bowed. She clapped her hands. “That was beautiful. I hope to have a real sword as well someday.”

“You will.” Ned laid down the sheathed sword and picked up the wooden one, tapping it against his palm. “Now, let’s see who wins this time.”

Sarah smiled, swirling her sword in the air. After a few test lunges, she rushed in, attacking like a hornet. Ned blocked every strike, returning very ably with clever blows. Though she parried each, she felt them jounce up her arms. He had grown very strong. She circled around him, squeezing the sword tighter.

He charged. His barrage was terrifying and fast. With the last strike, her sword flung to the ground.

Her chest heaved with each breath as she picked it up. Ned was barely sweating. With a bow she said, “Clearly, you are the better swordsman now. I best find a real sword soon and practice to regain my lost ground.” She sat on a log.

“Sarah, you taught me all I know.” Ned sat on another.

“Yes, well, we must find a better teacher. Have you seen Lyster, the manager of the hunting lodge, much?”

“Every so often. But we haven’t spoken more than to say hallo. He has been here for a moon.”

She nodded. “I’ve seen him often at Locke Castle when I go riding. He seems a friend. I’ll ask him, if any of his men know the sword and would enjoy sparring with us.”

Ned’s eyes lit up. “That would be great!” He moved to hug her, but hesitated, putting a hand on her shoulder instead. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Me too.” Sarah rubbed her palms together. She didn’t understand why it had grown uncomfortable again. “Well, I must get back.”

“Oh, already?” Ned glanced down. “Well, I should finish the woodpile too.”

She turned to go.

“Sarah… will you be at the community dinner at weeks end?”

Sarah grinned. “Of course. I wouldn’t miss it.”

Ned smiled back. “Good. I’ll look for you.”

***

Sarah’s eyes popped open. Horse hooves. Tonight was the night.

She had come home with Ma this trip because this was a Locke baby coming.

Bradley Locke, the duke’s brother, rode up so fast and loud that Ma was at the door before he could dismount. Everyone knew what a night visit meant.

Sarah ran to her horse, secured her Ma’s pouch of remedies with the other things they took to every birth, and mounted. She was finally tall enough. She sat relaxed in the saddle, waiting for him to lead.

Though Ma returned to Carington regularly, Sarah joined her this time only because one of the duke’s daughters, Lorena, lived in the western borderlands and was staying at the hunting lodge, at her father’s insistence, until the birth. Gregory Locke expressed worry that Kennah wouldn’t make it in time. It was a two- or three-day ride to his daughter’s home in the wilderness. So he’d begged Lorena to move into the hunting lodge, which was only a few miles from the Decker shanty. That way Ma would be close enough to assist at her birth.

Sarah attended every Locke birth. They all trusted her after many years of helping the midwives. Ma had taught her herbs and roots and explained all the maneuvers to help when a birth was impeded. Although she never called her New Ma anymore, she made herself think it to remember she had a real ma and da out there somewhere. They were on a quest and would find her someday. She trusted J’shua they would.

“Don’t worry, Bradley,” Ma said, sitting tall in the saddle, eyeing the nervous uncle beside her. “We’ll make it. First babies always take longer, and your niece is a strong girl.”

“I know, Mother Decker. But you know how Gregory gets with anything involving his daughters,” Bradley said.

“I’ve seen your brother fret.” Ma turned to Sarah. “Do we have skullcap and jasmine oil?”

“Yes, Ma. We have everything we need.” She was eager to be going to another birth. The earthy smells, the red wriggly babies, and the way each momma nursed their new little one. She could stay awake forever. Best of all, everyone admired Ma. They even showed Sarah a bit of respect since she was Ma’s assistant.

After an hour ride, the big house appeared, the biggest for miles around. She remembered seeing it for the first-time years ago. Compared to anything in her humble village, or almost anywhere else, it was a grand estate. Gregory was the Duke of Lexandria and head of the Lockes, the wealthiest family in all of Freislicht. This was his hunting lodge.

As they approached, the duke was pacing on the porch.

“All’s well, Your Grace,” Kennah said. “We’re here.”

“Yes, yes, I know.” He waved them inside. “Don’t waste time soothing me.”

Sarah gave a curtsey, and the duke chuckled as Sarah hurried to follow her ma.

The deep moans of advanced labor met them when they entered. The birth was close. Lyrena swayed in her husband’s arms from the power of the surge.

Sarah closed the door quietly, gave her ma one bag, and then set out the herbs and oils from the other.

A few hours later, Lyrena’s bellowing stopped. The cry of a newborn child pierced the air.

They sent riders to announce the joy far and wide, for it was a boy. Gregory’s other daughters had only borne girls. Sarah hurried about to stoke the fire and bring the new momma a plate of food.

Hours later, Duke Gregory gave her a nod of thanks as they were leaving.

As the horizon glowed with the rising sun, Sarah smiled sleepily all the way home.

***

The sun hung low, casting its golden glow over the rolling hills. A vibrant tapestry of wildflowers bloomed at the edge of the village commons. The ladies’ favorite dishes overflowed the familiar long table. The other villagers milled about from one group to another, enjoying the peace and fellowship. Laughter mingled with the gentle rustle of leaves in the breeze.

Sarah wore the plainest shift she had, not wanting to stand out. She wasn’t trying to hide her good fortune, but she didn’t want to feel the distance that she’d felt earlier, talking with Ned. She didn’t think she had changed, but clearly they both had. Tonight she wanted to just be home. Be normal.

Ned was standing with two other boys talking. One pointed at her and gave Ned a shove. They all laughed.

A rush of embarrassment ran through her and she glanced down, but kept walking toward him.

Ned turned, a grin spreading across his face as he strode toward her. His piercing brown eyes must see right through her. “You came.”

Her heart pounding with excitement. Sarah probed all the changes in his face looking for the old friend she was so comfortable with. Then she hugged him tightly and sighed with relief. It wasn’t awkward. “Of course.”

She spread the blanket beneath the shade of a small tree and sat gazing up at him. His eyes flitted over her until he blinked. The aroma of freshly baked bread and roasted meats filled the air as the woman took off all the lids. “I will make us plates. Wait here.” He dashed off.

He returned shortly with two plates brimming with all her favorites.

“This is wonderful, Ned. I don’t know if I can eat all this.” she said with a laugh. “Thank you.”

He handed one to her and they both set to the task of eating. They spoke of people and events during the time that passed while she was away. Their conversation flowed effortlessly, memories of their shared childhood flooding back as they reminisced together. The sun was low when Kennah approached, Benjamin trotting behind her.

“Hello Ned. It’s good to see you.”

He stood and gave a bow. “It is good to see you too, Mother Decker.”

Kennah smiled and continued walking. “We need to be getting home, Sarah. Say your goodnights.”

“I’ll be along right away, Ma.”

Ned lifted her up. When they folded the blanket, their hands touched.

“There’s something I’ve been making for you. I prayed I would see you again.

Sarah tilted her head in curiosity as Ned retrieved a small, finely crafted wooden box from his pocket and placed it in her hands, his cheeks blushed. “Open it.”

Her fingers trembled slightly as she lifted the lid of the box, revealing a delicate wooden flower, intricately carved with astonishing detail. Its petals capturing the essence of nature’s beauty. “Ned, it’s breathtaking. How did you...?”

“Do you like it? I carved it while guarding the sheep. I wanted it to be perfect, like you.”

Sarah’s heart overflowed as she gazed at the gift, a lump forming in her throat.

“Thank you, Ned. This means more to me than you’ll ever know.”

“Let me walk you home.” He took her hand in his and they slowly made their way to the Decker cottage.

 

Chapter 17

Jonathan

Jonathan scanned the crowd as he walked through another small village eighteen miles west of Fairness Crossing. It was market day. Farmers and those living on the outskirts came to buy, sell, or both. Tinkers, clothiers, saddle makers, and others had their carts of wares open, attracting people with shouts and clever melodies. The smell of freshly baked bread, lamb braising on a spit, and sweet delicacies laced the air.

It all made him homesick.

A blonde girl ran past. Her similarly colored mother gave chase, calling her name and threatening a paddling if she didn’t behave.

The youngster was the same age as Sarah would be, about eight.

It had been nine years since he’d lost his daughter. No, since they took her. She’d have grown up without him, without her mother. Would he even recognize her?

He’d know her bright eyes, her dimple, and her laugh. But…

Sarah’s grandmother was a Locke, with fine-boned frame, full lips, and high, rosy cheekbones. Sarah favored her. Yet here in the south, close to Lexandria to the west, there were many blondes. He counted six on the street and another two hanging out of windows, yelling down to friends, any of whom could be Sarah.

A carriage drawn by four horses approached, surrounded by well-armed men. Jonathan backed into a shaded alley. As it passed, he recognized the Locke’s crest on its side, a white wolf on a purple field.

“Make way!” The carriage driver yelled, clearly angry at being delayed. “Make way for the Duchess of Lexandria and the midwife who delivered a Locke boy!”

He could see several women and a blonde girl through the window. Straining to get a better look—“oof”.

Something smashed into the back of Jon’s knees, dropping him to the ground.

He reached for his sword. But another drew it as hands dragged him deeper into the alley. He thrashed to free himself, pulling a hidden dagger from his boot. About to swipe at the closest neck, he glimpsed familiar red hair bending over him. “Eikhan? You couldn’t just tap me on the shoulder?”

Magistrate Gorum’s son shrugged. The three men accompanying him released the knight but stood ready.

“Apologies, Sir Otual. I warned them.” Eikhan grinned sheepishly, nodding toward his men. “But they were worried you might react rashly. Your notorious legend of the wild man is well known in Esthlanis.” Eikhan offered his hand.

Jonathan took it and stood, shaking his head. “Wild man—another falsehood. There are safer ways to get my attention.”

Eikhan shot a glare at his men. “Father sent me to find you. A suspicious man came to the estate seeking you. He’s not the first, but this one…”

“What?”

“The man was loitering about town for some moons. An untrustworthy type who knew too much about too many, had too many baden, and spent too many hours watching people he shouldn’t know. He knew who David was.

“Is David safe?”

Eikhan gave Jonathan’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “Yes, he never got close. Some of the other estate owners wanted to run the spy off. Father insisted on surveillance. A good thing too.”

“Why?”

“When your wife came to take David to the Knights’ School, the man attempted to follow them. Our men intercepted him. Rather forcefully, I’m told. Before being allowed to—eventually—go on his way, he became most forthcoming. There’s a private bounty on your head. Not merely the false charges made against you in Freislicht—this is prize money for any who can capture you, dead or alive. Five hundred baden dead, One thousand, alive.”

Jonathan slumped. “That is disturbing. I had hoped to keep searching for Sarah. Did the man say who was behind it?”

Eikhan shook his head. “He said his contact was a man named Rosewud.”

Jonathan scowled. “I have met him. I do not know who he is working for.”

“You must take the most extreme care. Father offers you sanctuary should you ever need it. However, for everyone’s sake, he said not to come directly to the estate. Instead, go to the abandoned mine-works southeast of town.”

Jonathan frowned. He knew the place, a deep cave containing dozens of manmade tunnels. It was many miles from the Gorum Estate but closer to the Freislicht border and the sea. “How would you know I was there?”

“The mine is being put to…new uses. Storing weapons and materials for when the Esthlani come to your country’s aid. A group called Licht Gegen oversees it, although Father refuses to discuss it with me.”

“All are interesting developments, yet I do not understand how you found me. If you can do so, others might as well.”

“Father sent me because, of all his sons, I hear J’shua’s voice most clearly. The path took more than a moon.” Eikhan lifted an overstuffed saddlebag. “He’s sent you provisions, some baden, as he was sure you’d lack for funds, and two horses.” He nodded toward two horses tied to a post.

“That is far too generous—”

“Do not refuse these minor gifts. He’s given twenty-five horses to your fellowship. David brought us good fortune. And great prosperity. This is the merest token of the blessings granted to us since your son’s arrival. And…” Eikhan glanced down at his feet.

“And what?”

“I want to ride with you, but Father forbids it. He said that you do not need a bodyguard, but when you need an army, we’ll be there.”

Jonathan held Eikhan’s arm firmly. and accepted Agon’s package, “He is right. Having someone with me will just make traveling unnoticed more difficult.” He was overwhelmed by the risks his friend and his friend’s son were willing to take for him. “Thank your father. And thank you too.”

 

Chapter 18

Sarah

[Ages- Sarah 15   David 18   BH 25   J,Sg,Dr, Ga 37]

Sarah emerged from the woods carrying a woven reed basket full of purple coneflowers, goldenseal roots, and birch bark. She missed this. Gathering herbs, keeping house, preparing for the next birth. In Lexandria their were merchants that sold herbs, seeds, and roots that her ma used to make her remedies.

The wooden training sword rocked back and forth on her hip. It was a reminder of her childhood that was lost. It wasn’t her original practice sword. But it felt the same. Her dagger nestled on the other. She kept it sharp so she could harvest medicinal herbs without damaging the rest of the plant.

Last night, she had a dream. Such a silly dream, but it gave her a good feeling. She had a bright, glowing sword and whoever she touched with it was healed. Not what they normally do.

In five days, she would return to Lexandria. She did not know for how long. These thoughts made her queasy. She had learned all the things they could teach her. She’d become a lady. And men would ask the duke to court her. If she married a man of means, she might find her real parents. I could send out messengers to look for them. But she also wanted to stay in the village and see Ned every day. She had missed him whenever she left.

The large basket made her wobble as she trudged up the hill toward the ma’s workshop.

She barely remembered her first ma and da.

First Da smelled wild, like a long hunt or a wrestling match. His massive sword hung high on a hook by the door. That meant he was home. His hair was as blond as a pale moon.

First Ma was slim and graceful. She wore an apron that day. Whenever she tried to picture her…

The tears in Ma’s eyes as she dropped me out the window. Running, running, running through the tall grass as it slapped my face. My heart pounding as I prayed, hidden under leaves in the woods, just like Da showed me. J’shua told me I would be safe and whispered the passage.

[Let the peace of God rule in your heart.]

She’d never forget them. But she had. Details had slipped away without notice as each day lapsed. All she knew now was the empty place in her heart.

They never found me.

She prayed.

***

The sun dipped low casting an orange glow over the yard. Ned appeared, when she came out of the house with the last bundle of her things. Placing them on the wagon, she turned toward him. She yelled into the cottage, “Ma, I’m going for a walk with Ned. I won’t be long.”

“That’s fine dear.”

Ned’s head hung low, looking at his feet.

She took his hand and pulled. “Let’s walk to the tree.”

They walked toward the village, the tall grass brushing against their legs. The air carried a hint of smoke from distant evening fires. The path they followed led to a small hill overlooking the village where their favorite climbing tree stood. It was a place where they had shared countless hours, secrets, and dreams.

Sarah's usually bright eyes were clouded with worry as she glanced at Ned. He walked beside her, his hand warm in hers, his thumb rhythmically brushing her skin, his face set in a grim expression.

"Ned, say something," Sarah pleaded, breaking the silence that had stretched between them since they left the yard.

Ned stopped and turned to face her, his brown eyes locking onto hers. "What do you want me to say, Sarah? That I'm happy you're leaving again? That I won't miss you every single day?"

She reached out and took his hand, her grip firm but trembling. "You know I don't want to go. But this is my chance, Ned. A chance to become something more than just a girl from a small village. A chance to find my real parents."

"I know," he replied, his voice softening. "I know it's what's best for you. I want that for you. But that doesn't make it any easier."

They continued up the hill in silence. At the top, they sat down on the grass, at the foot of their tree. The sky above was a canvas of pinks and purples, the first stars beginning to shine.

"Do you remember the first time we came up here?" Sarah asked, her voice filled with nostalgia.

Ned smiled faintly. "Yeah. You insisted we climb up here to see the 'castle.' All we found was this old tree."

Sarah laughed, the sound a mix of joy and sadness. "But we had adventures, saving the kingdom and fighting off the attacking hordes."

Ned's smile faded as he turned serious. "What if the man the duke and duchess give you to isn't kind to you? What if you don't like him?"

Sarah squeezed his hand tighter. "I'll be fine, Ned. They're good people. I will have a say. I promise to only marry someone as good as you. And it's not forever. I'll come back to visit."

Ned looked away, staring at the horizon. "It's just... you're my best friend, Sarah. I don't know what I'll do without you."

Tears welled up in Sarah's eyes, but she blinked them away. "You'll be fine. You're strong and smart. And you'll always have a place in my heart, no matter where I am." She lifted the wooden flower he'd carved for her it lay on a necklace with her seashell buttons from long ago. "I'll always have this with me."

They sat in silence for a while, the weight of unspoken words hanging between them. Finally, Ned broke the silence.

"When do you leave?"

"Tomorrow morning," Sarah whispered. "At dawn."

Ned nodded, his jaw clenched. "Then we should make this night count."

They stayed on the hill until the stars filled the sky, sharing stories and memories, laughing and crying together. When the moon was high, they made their way back to the cottage, walking slowly as if trying to stretch out every moment.

At Sarah's doorstep, they paused, neither wanting to say the final goodbye.

"Ned, promise me something," Sarah said, her voice trembling.

"Anything."

"Promise me you'll follow your dreams, just like I'm following mine. Don't let anything hold you back."

Ned nodded, tears glistening in his eyes. "I promise."

She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, a gesture filled with love and sorrow. "Goodbye, Ned."

"Goodbye, Sarah," he replied, his voice barely a whisper. "Until we meet again, Sarah."

She turned and walked into her house, the door closing softly behind her.

She cried.

 

Chapter 19

Gaelib Melazera

[Ages- Sarah 15   David 18   BH 25   J,Sg,Dr, Ga 37]

Another military officer bowed and left his hall. Earl Gaelib Melazera glowered, leaning against the cushioned armrest. He signaled a boy to fill his cup. Receiving these messengers one at a time whenever they appeared was tedious. However, he couldn’t meet with them as a group. None could know the true reach of his black-robes within the military. And he did not want them to know each other. The Order of the Black Robe was pervasive now, at least one acolyte in every moneymaking enterprise and government office. Novices were even more prevalent, but they were not aware that they served him. An acolyte took an oath to him and to the Warrior, and each shed blood in order to gain that status in the Order.

Commandant Greysun entered, bowed low, and handed him a document. He stood and gave his report, like all the other officers Gaelib had suborned in the military. As he walked out, Gaelib thought of Steven Blackhawk. He owned them all, but Steven was so much more impressive. His spies at High Keep sent him detailed accounts of his doings.

He missed the boy, a captain now, a man. When Caileagh went to her chamber to sleep, she left him alone. That hadn’t always been true. There’d been others to keep him warm and entertain him. There still were. But they lacked Steven’s innocent touch. All the others he’d trained lost that quality after only a few sessions. So he gave them back to Caileagh and yearned for Steven.

He’d sent the boy to the army fourteen years ago and only seen him once when he finished his training five years later. Still his big, beautiful smile appeared in his thoughts. Steven always reverently sought to please him. But Gaelib had chosen to sacrifice the joy of keeping him close for the ultimate victory when Steven would command the army. No one knew of their relationship for he’d only called him ‘boy’ in front of others and forbad him to associate with other children. When I become king, Steven will again be by my side.

Steven Blackhawk has risen so swiftly, perhaps he will lead my army soon. Even as a captain, he will be useful to my schemes.

He ran his finger along the coarse edge of Steven’s weekly report. How he missed him. He sighed, shut his eyes, and recalled twenty-one years earlier…

Gaelib was fourteen, a man by right. His mother had died only the year before. It had been freezing last night so Gaelib came early to start the fire in the dank chamber. Then he paced, rubbing his palms together in anticipation. Caileagh, his stepsister, had found and decorated it for them to meet in secret. The little graveyard was no longer suitable for their encounters.

That morning, she entered and held the door open as six small children shuffled in. All were about four years old and jumped about as she opened a package. Gaelib covered his nose while surveying the stained rags they wore. Had she found them in a pig wallow?

She thrust her hand at them. “Be still,” she said sternly, as she extracted one sweet from her parcel, presented it to the first, and watched the imp gobble it up gleefully while the others huddled around him, licking their lips, watching the lad chew and swallow. She made them wait, watching the next child receive the treat. She took her time delivering each one.

“You may come any morning for more…but only if no one sees you. If you are seen, I will have to send you far away. Do you understand?”

Next, Caileagh stoked the fire. Soon everyone dripped sweat. She removed her clothes leisurely, dropping them on the stone floor, her eyes fixed on Gaelib. He did the same, his eyes on her. They always made the room as warm as a sweltering summer day.

Caileagh stepped into a tub of cool water in a corner and encouraged a small dark-haired boy to join her. As she removed his clothes, she told him they would all receive fresh shirts after she bathed them. The other children hesitated, looking down at their soiled, tattered clothes. But once she had coaxed the first, the others began undressing as well.

Gaelib enjoyed watching them as he tossed their pungent, discarded rags, one after the other, into the fire. He lifted each child out of the water when she’d finished washing away the smell and handed them a piece of bread. Beneath all the filth, was healthy, soft flesh.

After they were all clean, they played “pinch-or-kiss,” Gaelib watched as Caileagh chased them around, pinching their cheek, or kissing it. Everyone giggled and laughed, as naked children climbed over one another. It reminded him of the scorching summer days he, Sagen, and the other boys had retreated to the royal baths.

They let the fire abate and the chamber grew cold. Gaelib and Caileagh dressed the children in plain linen shirts and breeches. They hugged each child, telling them that there would always be a safe place here, sending them to sneak away, one by one.

Each time they appeared in the room, Caileagh gave the children food and a sweetened potion to make them happy and compliant. She and Gaelib played games with them for many weeks, with many variations, grooming the children to do anything.

Each day the Warrior encouraged him, said, “Please yourself. You need not serve anyone.”

One of those first six waifs was Steven Blackhawk. Whenever a child could not tell them their surname, they’d let them pick one. He’d piped up with, “Blackhawk.” He was a bold lad and would do anything without hesitation. They gave him many tests. He’d snuck into the Farr Castle kitchens and returned with the cook’s rolling pin. Another time he’d been sent to steal the signet ring of the local herald. He’d come in with it in under an hour. And he replaced them as well without getting caught.

When Blackhawk was seven, Gaelib made the boy his page. He jealously guarded him against Caileagh’s interest. This boy was his alone. She could do what she liked with the others, but not Steven. He taught Steven to ride and use weapons, gave him lessons in warfare and tactics. Every day, he encouraged Steven that he’d be a great warrior if he obeyed and protected his lord. Every night, they played.

Gaelib wondered what Steven Blackhawk was like now.

Would he still worship and seek to please me?

He shut his eyes and imagined their next meeting. Would Steven resist at the touch of my hand or comply as he always had before? He fretted about the eventual betrayal. Could he kill Steven as he did others that displeased him? He turned to the window pushing away that thought. Seeking a word from his patron, the Warrior. He saw vultures circling in the distance.

Everything must die.


 Chapter 20

Rebekah

[@@More to come]

The way he moved his sword. And the way he spoke, put her at ease.

Are you a Knight?

She was not ready to ask him. Given the growing rumors about the Knights’ School, it might be an uneasy topic.

[After talking to Licht Gegen, Rebekah hires a bodyguard, which does NOT work out well]

 

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