Chapter 2: Anger and Artifice
Caileagh, the elegant wife of Gaelib Melazera, ninth Earl of Lorness, sashayed through the Grand Hall in her emerald silk gown. A jeweled coronet adorned the auburn hair that framed her perfect heart-shaped face and dark amber eyes.
Around her, the exquisite furnishings of Castle Lorness reinforced her prestige and status as the most powerful woman in the land. Tapestries tracing the Melazera’s family history adorned the walls. Portraits of its rulers were on prominent display. And dozens of liveried servants, bearing the family’s green dragon crest, reminded everyone whose guests they were.
The fear of the people rises, fueled by my rumors. Nobles call in loans to pay the taxes Gaelib has imposed as the king's steward. With a word and a whisper, my birds shape everything.
Caileagh, The Countess of Lorness, smiled at the many pretty and important guests. I hadn’t foreseen the abductions of women and children—such a delightful surprise.
“Lord Macom, it is a pleasure to see you. I adore your new jacket. It makes your eyes absolutely radiant.”
“Thank you, my lady.” Macom took her offered hand and bowed as he kissed it. “You’re most kind. You are as a second sun, granting us the gifts of warmth and light.”
She feigned shyness, then took his arm.
“I believe Gaelib has something that will enchant you beyond words. Let me tell him you’re here. Please wait in his private solarium.”
Smiling, she watched him go. For the smallest pleasure, this lord would do whatever she and Gaelib suggested.
She continued through the room, amused by snatches of conversation. Better still were those ardently persuading others that the king must expand the army, just in case.
Delightful. The rumors I spread flourish, reinforced and amplified by these fools.
She hoped Gaelib appreciated her spies. They’d helped him expand his economic control.
Caileagh had developed four independent organizations, none of which was aware of the others. The lower levels knew nothing of the mysteries of the higher. Sparrows surveilled the commoners, Ravens the nobles, Hawks the army, and Eagles the castles. Trusted, their eyes and ears sought opportunities and weaknesses. When they spoke, gossipers listened. And each was obedient to the Order. Her birds were everywhere.
It’s pleasing to see people accept the world I’ve ever so gradually painted for them. Unwittingly, they perpetuate it. It doesn’t matter what they request; be it recommendations, coveted placements, power, fame, or wealth. All extend the influence of the Order of the Black Robe.
Caileagh found Gaelib surrounded by admirers. The Earl of Dunbrach, who wore a flowing violet robe embroidered in gold, laughed and bobbed his head at Gaelib’s every word. Several wealthy merchants were panting like dogs, eager to get him alone. A dozen more men and their wives made a cordon around him, waiting, hoping to get closer. All the while, the famous bard, Fartuche, lightly strummed his lute.
Like bees to the pink bells of foxglove.
Gaelib was average height, splendidly adorned in black velvet and leather. Piercing green eyes flashed from beneath wavy black hair. Jewels studded his surcoat and his dagger.
She stopped and pretended to scan the room, waiting for Gaelib to notice her. When he did, she floated into his arms, causing his face to light up. She smiled at his spicy, sweet fragrance of cloves and frankincense. It matched well with her own. Even though ten years married, she loved to play the doting, obedient wife, as her mother had taught her. It was one of her favorite roles.
She kissed him on the cheek, stroked his hair, whispered into his ear, and departed. Once in the courtyard, she commanded her escorts, “Ready my horse. We ride for the sanctuary.”
Gaelib watched from the loft above as Robbet Fredruck, the Duke of Wooster, wrinkled his nose, striding purposefully through the overdressed, mostly drunk, guests.
Fredruck’s personal guards followed closely.
Gaelib was amused that the duke had come here, much less during one of his celebrations. But he did expect to hear from his neighbor about recent events.
The four castles of Freislicht stood tall, overseeing it. The most prominent of these was Lorness—not by size, for no citadel came close to matching High Keep’s vastness--but because of its power, influence, and the Melazera family’s political finesse.
While King Edal ruled Freislicht, his dukes, earls, and lesser nobles had independent control of their own domains. Royal law was the basis of all legal practice, but each noble managed its application. In the southern region ruled by the Lockes, the only virtue was wealth. Within Lorness, it was politics and raw power. Most knew the Earl of Lorness, who was also the king’s steward, was more powerful than his majesty.
Prominent people filled the castle’s halls, waiting to meet with its lord, maneuvering for advantage, or fighting petty skirmishes. Throughout the day and night, agreements were made—others—broken.
Too many important decisions were crafted here at Lorness, not in the capital—High Keep. Gaelib entertained the sycophants surrounding him, gesticulating as he spoke, alternately, playing with his dagger, and running his fingers through his raven black hair.
A servant approached Fredruck and guided him into a small room warmed by a fire. Candles in sconces bedecked every wall beside vibrantly colored tapestries. In the center of the room were two chairs with a small table beside each, set on a thick violet rug.
Fredruck was still standing, tapping his foot slowly in irritation when Gaelib entered.
“Your Grace, I am so sorry for the long wait.” Gaelib spread his arms wide as if to embrace the duke. Instead, he pointed toward the ornate upholstered chairs. “As the king’s steward, I’ve so many duties. Nobles seek me out incessantly. Come, sit. Let’s clear up the trouble on our boundary.”
Duke Fredruck glowered. “Yes, Earl of Lorness, I am sure we can come to a resolution,” he said as he sat. “Forbid your soldiers to trespass onto my lands. Then they’ll not encounter my people nor try to arrest any.”
“Please, I must entertain you before we discuss such arrangements.” Gaelib raised a hand, and twelve maidens entered, surrounding the duke. The first offered him wine, the next a plate of sliced fruit.
“That is quite unnecessary,” Fredruck said flatly, as he motioned the women away.
But they removed their embroidered bodices and lifted their silken shifts to show bare legs. Four came closer and curtseyed low. The metallic scraping of drawn swords caused them to freeze as the duke’s three armed escorts surrounded them.
“Lord Gaelib,” Fredruck growled, “this is beyond inappropriate. I shall take my complaint directly to the king. I’ll also require my commoners to bear arms and aid my troops in order to dissuade your soldiers from foolishness. We shall arrest any of yours that set foot on my land and impose the full penalties of the law. Good day.” He abruptly turned and left.
Near Frei Forest
Jonathan Otual shivered as he crossed the East River at a low point he knew well. As he stepped onto the dry bank, he retied his pale blond hair and wrung out the edges of his knight’s cloak. He ran a sleeve across his tanned, weather-worn face.
He’d been a Knight of J’shua for eight years and completed thirty missions into Mestelina and Esthlanis. After each, he’d come home to his in-laws’ farm to spend several weeks working the fields and enjoying the company of his wife and children.
Knights fought with weapons and words. Taught both, they learned to communicate with anyone, noble or lowborn. They could live off the land or dine with the king—all to further J’shua Ha Mashiach’s message.
Just north of Frei Forest, warm, earthy scents rose with every step. The sweetness of pine and sassafras, nurtured by centuries of composted leaves carpeting the floor of that ancient timberland, reminded him of home. He’d be there before nightfall.
His mouth watered at the thought of a home-cooked meal. He couldn’t contain his excitement, anticipating a game of chess with Sarah. He’d already planned his opening. The little stinker wouldn’t see it coming. Most of all, his heart longed for Rebekah, his beautiful wife. He could visualize her welcoming smile and bright blue eyes. He could feel her fine golden hair and silken skin against his face. His pace quickened as he approached their valley. But his gut tightened at an acrid smell. Readjusting his bow, he sprinted.
Upon cresting the last hill, wispy tendrils of smoke rose into the darkening sky from the charred remains of his home. Only the chimney stood standing amongst blackened posts.
He ran through the flowering sorghum, yelling their names, praying they were safe. No one answered, only the lonely whining of a breeze through the still-smoldering ruins. The house was gone. Its walls had collapsed.
Oh, please, Father, let them be well!
If this were an accident, they should be here making a temporary shelter. They’d need protection from the elements. There were no bodies. Nor had anyone answered his calls. Even the weakest cry would have carried to him. But the barn had burned as well.
This was deliberate.
Jonathan’s gut clenched. He dropped his gear and fell to his hands and knees.
Father, I have served you faithfully. How could this happen? Is everyone dead?
First his parents and now this. Loss stabbed him.
He’d come home to death twice before. When he was six, he ran home as a wagonful of men from the village were leaving. His mother was crying as she washed the body of his father, who lay on the table, limp. She embraced Jonathan and held him for a long time. Lavender, rosemary, and rue for his burial filled baskets that cluttered the floor.
Life was hard after that. They struggled for food. His mother died during the long winter. Then Daikon Paul took him to High Keep.
Staring at the sky, numb, Jonathan prayed in the spirit. In his sorrow he could form no words of his own. A hawk swooped into view. It banked on the wind, diving to the ground, talons outstretched. When it soared aloft, a rat twisted in its grip.
The still, small voice of J’shua Ha Mashiach said, Get up.
Outrage filled the void, energizing him. “I will have answers,” he roared, drawing his blade.
He practiced the familiar drills to quiet his soul. His sword glided through every technique, tracing the ancient forms. Moving from his loins, low to high, in leaps and arcs, the blade flashed upward. Lunging low, he ran through his imagined foes.
With his thoughts now clear, Jonathan sheathed his sword, then prayed. “Father, God of Truth, give me skill to use your word, your sword, for my attempts are feeble. And send me to fight this evil. I beg this boon. I offer myself and my service until the end of my days. My pain is but a shimmer of the suffering of your son.”
Walking toward the remains, he scanned the yard more closely. The ground was darker in one spot near the door. Bending a knee, he rubbed the soil between his fingers. It was wet.
Why? A spill would dry quickly. Was this drenched to expunge blood?
There were no bodies, no bones. He thanked Lord J’shua for that.
They must be alive.
He examined the dirt path from the door. Someone had swept it, obscuring tracks. Inside the house’s shell, they’d ruffled the ash with a branch.
Someone returned after the fire died. To conceal evidence? What did they remove? A body…two?
He stepped over the threshold. Mounds of ash traced the outline of the table and the big rocking chair. There were no footprints. Carefully, he placed his hand over a scorched oak post. It radiated heat.
He sighed, rubbing his hand across his face.
If only I’d been here. If I had not lingered.
He continued his inspection. Both the horse and ox were missing from the barn.
Did my family anger those who did this?
He could divine no other reason for such destruction, such waste.
As he surveyed the haunting remains, a faint rattle caught his attention. He spun around, and there, in the distance, he saw his neighbor’s wagon driving off, loaded with their family. They were too far away to hear him.
Jonathan gathered his pack and sought his neighbors. All were gone, their homes empty but not burned.
J’shua, what has happened?
Rebekah’s heart pounded as she approached the River Town market, which swarmed with people. A farm boy loped by, leading a dappled mare. Huddled together, a group gossiped near the meeting house. Others carried baskets and burlap bags from the market. Averting her eyes, she worried someone might recognize the stolen horse or notice her trembling hands. Being arrested as a horse thief would end the rescue of her daughter.
I need supplies. If my bow hadn’t broken last week, I’d have killed that brigand before he found Sarah.
She frowned. Her dagger wasn’t enough, so Rebekah sought a weapon merchant. “How much for the short bow, a full quiver, and an extra string?”
The man tidying swords, sheaths, and axes into neat rows turned to her. “Fifty-two baden for all.”
Rebekah examined the bow and tested the draw. Satisfied, she counted thirty-two arrows, placing them in the quiver. Setting her brow, she haggled the price down. Finally, the man sighed his agreement, “Forty-one then.”
She thanked him and moved to the next stall, where she bought a wide-brimmed hat that either a man or woman might wear. Putting it on and pulling down its brim, she shielded her eyes and hid her face. Then she sought other items she’d need in the wilderness.
Yard-long leather thongs caught her eye. After buying several, she continued her circuit of the market. She returned to the horse with provisions, breeches, and a tunic.
A uniformed soldier galloped into the marketplace. People scattered out of the way.
He’s looking at me!
Rebekah slid behind her horse, fumbling with a thong as she tied her purchases in place. Her heart hammered as the soldier dismounted and approached, intensity written on his face. She froze, inhaling sharply as he reached out.
Behind her, a woman exclaimed, “Hadran!”
At the same moment, his smile bloomed as he grabbed and twirled the woman.
“Take me to your father! I got the commission. I’m going to ask for your hand.”
The maiden squealed with joy.
Rebekah leaned against the horse, unable to mount. Her knees wobbled, and her eyes darted side to side.
Seeking refuge, head down, she walked the horse past shops buzzing with patrons and an inn exploding with laughter. The streets became quieter as she approached taverns and brothels, closed until a more lucrative hour. A dark alleyway caught her eye. She ducked behind some barrels to change her clothes.
They’ll be looking for a woman in a soiled shift, not a man.
Removing her bodice and long tunic, she cut and tore a piece off her sleeve to tie her hair back. She used a wider swath from her hem to bind her breasts. Once dressed in a gray tunic and breeches, she hid the torn clothing. Still bent down, she sawed at handfuls of hair until it was shoulder length. Then she rubbed her hands in the dirt and soiled the cloth and her face, hoping to look more rugged. She slouched, mimicking some lads she saw farther down the lane. Rebekah patted the horse and whispered a prayer. Grabbing an apple from her purchases, she took a few bites, giving the rest to the mare, whose soft lips tickled her palm.
Her mouth almost turned up into a smile. Yet, without Sarah, the world lacked all joy.
Heading toward the busier part of town, she moved into the crowd that briskly passed around her. Each glance in Rebekah’s direction made her fingers tremble.
Her breath caught as a caravan of wagons came down the main road. She leaned forward, watching for any glimpse of her daughter or that weasel, Rosewud.
Cautiously, she walked the horse forward. She squeezed her hands tight to still them. Her fingernails dug into her palms. Within a cage packed with bone-weary children, she eyed one with blonde hair. It was Sarah—her little knight.
Jonathan should be on his way back from Mestelina. If Jon can fight, doing right, so can I. Grant me courage, J’shua.
Her anger was a whetstone, sharpening her senses. She watched as the wagons departed, confiscated livestock trailing behind. The cage cart remained unattended as the weasel went into the Sapphire.
Rebekah walked the horse toward Sarah. She inhaled sharply as two soldiers ambled toward the cart bearing the green dragon sigil on their tabards. The poorly trained militet were as captive as the children in the cart. Nobles often rented them.
They’d run if I pointed a weapon at them. No, they’d scream loud enough to wake the dead.
She skulked past the cart, careful not to look at them directly. Rebekah couldn’t reveal herself. She needed to know more. Then she could follow Sarah until she had an advantage. She’d strike these vermin down, one by one.
Tying her horse to a hitching post, Rebekah followed Rosewud inside. She calmed herself, recalling from the Writings:
[Be still and know that I am the God of Truth.]
Inside the dimly lit tavern, she bought a mug of ale. Then, taking in the carved tables and cabinets, she sat only an arm’s length from the weasel, with her back to him. The place was full of chattering diners. The bang of a door caused her to look to the narrow staircase and the ornate balustrade above, where three soldiers scrutinized the crowd.
When her enemy finished his meal and left, she waited for eight breaths, then followed. Passing Rosewud, she saw the young soldier who’d captured Sarah and averted her eyes as she overheard, “…Greysun in Fairness Crossing. He pays a bonus to make him my first stop….”
Greysun, you evil drecksa! It fits that you’d purchase children.
She took a last look at Sarah, biting her lip to stifle a sob.
Then Rebekah grabbed the pommel and mounted her horse. She rode out of town, then followed the river at a gallop to gain enough time to find a suitable site.
I’ll be waiting for you, weasel.
Sarah stood holding onto the bars as the cart lurched over deep ridges in the clay. She wanted this adventure to be over. Blinking back tears, she examined the drooping soldiers that followed behind. Turning, she craned her neck to see the soldiers ahead. No one looked at her. No one cared.
You are safe little one.
Then the dark-haired soldier met her eyes. He returned a tiny smile.
She scowled back at him.
Rebekah was at least an hour or two ahead of the slow-moving cage cart now.
As she rode through the grove to set up her ambush, men shouted. A woman screamed. Children cried out.
Rebekah approached cautiously, wrapping her left forearm in a thong. An army cart blocked a wagon. Soldiers pulled children to the ground.
Rebekah hesitated, evaluating the height of the sun. She had to save Sarah. Yet, she spurred her horse into a gallop. Bursting from the tree line, she slammed her mount into a soldier, knocking him off his feet.
A second soldier had climbed aboard the wagon, striking the driver. The third had snatched an infant from its mother and was running toward the river.
Dismounting, Rebekah loaded four arrows into her hand, parallel with the bow, as Jon had taught her. Pinching and pulling, she fired.
Her first arrow struck the fleeing soldier in the back. These only wore gambeson, perhaps only woolen cloth. The next toppled him, the babe still in his arms.
A burly lad, the soldier she’d knocked down, regained his feet and charged toward Rebekah, axe in hand. The last still bludgeoned the wagon driver.
She drew and released twice more. Though one arrow missed, the big lad fell.
The mother ran toward her howling baby.
Rebekah drew three more arrows and nocked another. The last soldier finally pummeled the driver to the ground, giving her a clear shot. She did not miss.
She twisted, seeking other threats, but there had only been three soldiers. None were moving, nor ever would again.
Rebekah’s hands shook. Sweat poured from her brow. Her hands were clammy.
What have I done?
Three men were dead by her hand. Yet, she’d seen no other choice. They’d clearly had evil intent.
Tears ran down the mother’s face, cooing to her baby as she returned to the wagon. “Thank the merciful Father,” she cried out, “and thank you, sir.”
The eldest child comforted her siblings. Then she turned to her father, who rose unsteadily.
“Da, are you well?”
The wagon driver, blood flowing down his face, returned to his feet.
“I am…well enough.” He grabbed the wagon’s side to prevent falling again.
“We’re all well,” the children’s mother reassured, a tremble in her voice. She held her son, who was shaking and mute.
“The God of Truth kept us safe. What was our lesson this morning, Brin?”
The small boy peered up at her. Biting his lip, he stood up and stammered, “He that dwells…in the secret place of the Most High…shall abide…under the shadow of the Almighty.”
“Very good,” his oldest sister praised.
Rebekah retrieved her horse and tethered it to the wagon.
The children’s father turned to Rebekah, “Thank you, sir…you have amazing skill wi—” He froze mid-word. “You’re a…woman.”
“I hoped you couldn’t tell.” Rebekah frowned and hung her bow over her shoulder.
“I’ve never seen such…”
“My husband and I hunted often before the children came. He says the God of Truth blessed me with a propensity for the bow.”
“I…can see that. You saved us.” He touched his temple, his eyes narrowing in pain. “My name is Vincent…” he groaned, “…Donitoro. This,” he pointed to the short, thin woman with brown curls escaping a green scarf, “is my…wife, Teress.”
“I am Rebekah Otual. Why were they attacking you?”
“Lord Macom…” Vincent lay his head down against his arm, still clinging to the wagon.
“He is—was—our lender,” Teress took over. “He sent a man demanding payment in full. Fortunately, we were in our wagon on the way into town. He sent these soldiers to catch us.” She paused. “A voice said, ‘Turn,’ so I repeated it to Vince. Without even a road, he curved toward the river, where they overtook us. Then you appeared. We can never repay you.”
“There’s no need. I, too, follow J’shua. What’ll you do?” Rebekah asked, as she yanked the last of her arrows from a body. She grimaced.
The body moaned. She drew her knife across his throat. The act made her ill.
He was a predator.
“We must hide.” Teress turned toward her husband. “Lord Macom won’t stop. He’s twisted the king’s laws and used them to steal our children.”
With a furrowed brow, Rebekah turned to them. “First, see what they’re carrying that you can use. Then help me drag them to the river. Drifting downstream will make it difficult to determine where they died. Then we must dilute this blood or it will attract a swarm of flies.”
Rebekah stared up at the station of the sun. Her heart sank. She’d lost her lead on the cart. Then she heard the still, small voice, Help them. She bit her lip, fixing her eyes on the trees behind them.
But Father, I must save Sarah.
She turned to a ray of light breaking through the clouds above, seeking reassurance.
Sarah will be safe, the voice whispered.
How can that be? But I trust you love my baby even more than I and will send angels to protect her.
From the soldiers, they pilfered three canteens, two hatchets, a map, a spyglass, and an assortment of daggers and swords. They also took the food and provisions from the army cart.
While the family cleared away the signs of struggle, she rode the soldiers’ cart into the woods, hiding the bright green dragon engraved on each side. After unhitching the horse that pulled it, Rebekah rode back to where the wagon and cart had left the road. Jonathan had taught her to track. The cart’s and wagon’s wheels damaged a few bushy weeds near the road. She cut the bent stems far below the obvious breaks and used them to brush out the wagon tracks.
Where should we go, Father?
The clouds rumbled, parting slightly. Another shaft of light pointed toward Frei Forest. It was twenty miles from River Town, a woodland so thick no one could build there easily.
She returned to the Donitoros, brushing soil from her hands.
“We can make our way south to just this side of the river near Fairness Crossing. In the Frei, we can remain indefinitely, as long as we stay out of sight.”
“Our faith is with you.” Mister Donitoro smiled.
Suddenly, the faint sound of horses grew from the road beyond the trees.
The bank of the river was clear as far as she could see ahead. “We must move slowly, but we must move now.”