Chapter 24: Respite – 159 AK, Late Spring
Acts 17:27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:
Lorness Castle – Gaelib’s Rooms
Five moons. Five moons!
It had been that long since he’d been elevated to the rank of duke. In the moment it had occurred, he was sure it was a sign that the Warrior was with him, that everything was about to fall into place. Ending a non-existent rebellion had seemed like a gift from the king. A gift that would allow Gaelib to do as he pleased. Yet, it hadn’t turned out so.
For one thing, that blasted knight had proven impossible to capture. Time and time again, he’d eluded arrest. Without the instigator in custody – in his custody – he couldn’t ‘end’ the rebellion. After a long interlude to play with him, of course. Then he’d send the king his head. Until then, Gaelib was stuck in Lorness.
For another, the loss of the Black Robes had been far more devastating than he’d initially calculated. Yes, it had provided enormous opportunities for debt collections as, due to their incarceration or disappearance, loan agreements had been invalidated, were in dispute, or simply couldn’t be found. But it had also denied Gaelib ongoing intelligence about who was in debt, who could be pressured, and who was vulnerable outside his domain. Restoring that flow of information had proven all but impossible. Even five years later, barely one tenth of what he’d previously known about Freislicht’s economy and its crux points was clear to him.
Lastly, his isolation in Lorness continually made every step toward completing his plans glacially, painfully slow. Indeed, in his more analytical moments, Gaelib wondered if he’d recovered what his elevation to duke had cost him. Was he even one step closer to attaining the throne? Or, was that goal further from his reach than it had been five years earlier? Surely, with the Warrior’s assistance, that was impossible.
He had only visited Farr Castle twice in each of the intervening years, and even those stays were fleeting. He only traveled to High Castle to report to the king.
It had been with great sorrow, King Sagen had announced before the assembled Royal Court on a visit there four years earlier, that it was necessary to appoint a new Royal Steward. So be it, Gaelib had thought. Having one of his deputies fill the role wouldn’t be as good as doing so himself, but would make no real difference.
However, that wasn’t what the king announced.
Danyth Locke, eldest son of the Duke of Alexandria, had been appointed. Then he had uncovered, reversed, and recovered many of the funds diverted for Gaelib’s use. Fortunately, George Rosewud’s name was all over those accounts and Georgie was proving delightfully hard for the young Locke to track down… still.
Nor was Locke’s son the only problem.
Queen Melyssa had proven fruitful, but born two daughters. Would she ever have a son?
Then there was the problem of Gaelib’s own heir. He didn’t have one. He was forty-two years old. Caileagh was older, too old to bear a child. There were increasing pressures from kinsman to either remarry or appoint an heir. Neither of which he would do… yet. In part, because he still cared for her. In part, because she dealt with all the religious ceremonies, sacrifices and other folderol required to sustain the Warrior’s gifts.
But he needed an heir, a legitimate heir.
His situation wasn’t like the king’s. The queen was barely twenty, had proven herself fertile and had years before anyone would seek to have her replaced…
…anyone other than Caileagh, who still harbored ill feelings, insisting Mellissa spelt her doom.
Even odder, his wife had formed a strange ‘friendship’ with the queen, or so his spies told him. Perhaps it was just a matter of getting close to one’s enemy. Perhaps it was something else. Regardless, Caileagh’s behavior had become increasingly worrying and dangerous to him. It was just as well she spent more and more time at High Castle.
The Lion & Tiger Inn
Ruby had approached as soon as Jonathan had descended to Easy Mountain, nuzzling the pocket that often held an apple.
He’d ridden through the woods as much as possible, but was now in a part of the country that offered no cover.
Word will spread. Knowing I am wounded will bring more wolves to hunt me.
He’d wrapped his shirt around his torso and tied it tight to constrain the gash. It helped at first. But days of riding had him hunched over and barely awake. It rained hard.
Lord, I am getting too old for this, he groaned, spurring his horse into a canter again.
Several miles down the trail, Jonathan breathed a sigh of relief. He saw the inn, The Lion & Tiger, a fine place for a wanted man to hide. He left the horse in the expert care of Joseph, the stable boy, and started to carry his gear inside.
I am safe. He collapsed.
He awoke on a cot in the back of the kitchen, his eyes blurry, a man tending his wounds. “Ow-w-w.”
“Shh. I’ve a full house, including the Commander of the Royal Guard,” the burly black man whispered. “I’ll have to hide you in the upper storage room. Jon, you look like a giant drowned rat, cold and soaked to the skin. Where’d you get the wound? You’re not even trying any more. Let me guess. You decided to make new friends?”
Missy and Charmaine were looking down at him with worried expressions.
“We need more bandages and dry clothes,” Will instructed.
Missy, the young red-haired girl who was as cute as a pixie, left for Jon’s room with his weapons. She was an orphan Will had adopted almost ten years ago and would be attracting beaus soon.
Jonathan winced, as he sat up pulling at his soaked clothing. He tried to remove his tunic, reopening the deep cut on his chest. Then gave up. His friend peeled it off, then boots and wet breeches.
Charmaine returned with bandages so Will could clean and dress the wound.
Jon blew on the steaming drink Will handed to him. Wrapping a blanket around his chest, he tucked the corners in securely.
Will threw another log on the fire and his face turned serious. “What happened?”
“I met some trouble on my way here from Tarinland. That’s why I am late. Debt collectors were harassing a family near the border, just below the Mountain. Three soldiers were threatening to take their children.
“I knew being recognized would bring trouble, which it did.
“I encountered a company of soldiers escorting militet somewhere. I scattered the conscripts, forcing many of the soldiers to track them down. For a moment, I feared they would ignore me, so I taunted the remaining horsemen into chasing me to give the family time to get away.”
"Jon,” Miles teased, “will you never learn?”
Jonathan shrugged, wincing as he did so. “Once I had their commander’s attention, I led them up the Mountain. It reminded me of the drills Daikon Baxter made us do whenever we displeased him.”
They both chuckled.
“I kept the soldiers busy for a day, but they were led by Colonel Blackhawk. He seems determined to capture me. I do not know what’s driving him. He is the one who violated David’s wife, Cynthia. And, I recently discovered, took Sarah. I have every reason to hunt him.
“We… clashed. If you like my injuries, you would be in love with his. He will not walk or sit a horse for weeks. If he lives.”
Missy set dry clothes beside Jonathan on the cot, then ran off with his wet things. As she left, he recalled when he’d found her, nine years earlier…
On the first bitterly cold day each fall, the militet rounded up the orphans in every town and village.
Because of the cold, the children were less cautious, easier to spot, needing more food to survive the weather.
No one missed them. Indeed, many were happy to be rid of them. Their consciences soothed by imagining the children fed, warm, and happy. That was not reality. The militet got a bonus for each one they brought in to be sold to brothels or mines.
Jonathan had found the girl in River Town. She was only four and had bumped into him. He picked her up and said with conviction, “Why Missy, what are you doing here? Your mother has been beside herself with worry.”
The militet who had pursued her stopped, growled something to himself, and stalked off.
Jon took her to the Lion & Tiger Inn.
Daryl Andrews, alias Will’am Miles, looked at his friend in wonder. “Why bring her to me?”
“You have often said you wished you had more help.”
With a sigh, Daryl squatted down and looked into the little girl’s blue eyes. “What do you think about washing dishes?”
She blinked back at him, malnourished and hesitant to speak.
Turning toward the kitchen, he yelled, “Charmaine, come here. Bring stew and bread. You’ve a new little sister.”
In an upper storage room, Jonathan struggled to be quiet, but he couldn’t lay around all day. Maybe he should have, at least until he could walk straight. He lost his balance, bumping a barrel, scraping the floor.
Holding his breath, he listened. He heard men talking and a flurry of boots downstairs. Soldiers shouted orders, followed by Miles yelling, “You children get out of my storerooms.”
Outside the building, on the roof, Jon heard scurrying tiny feet. Then the shutters quietly opened, and two young boys came through the window. “Hide, sir,” the taller one said, pointing to barrels against the wall.
Jon slid behind them.
The children knocked over more loose objects, then sat, giggling and playing with sticks.
The knight cursed his failure to be quiet as the door to the room burst open.
Miles, with soldiers trailing him, roared, “How many times do I have to tell you? No playing in my storage room! Bohen, you know better. Don’t move my stores about. Now, get out of here. And stay out.”
Glaring equally at the children and soldiers, Miles slammed the door shut.
Town of Alexandria
I have to tell Uncle first. He’s the wisest of the Knights. He’ll know what to do.
Luca was almost home. It was just beyond his Uncle’s.
As he neared Uncle Rich’rd’s house, he remembered playing with his cousins just days before his abduction. His uncle wrestled with the boys. All were competing to fell him.
He’d push or trip us as we tried to knock him down. If he got one of us, he’d toss his captive high in the air.
Luca smiled at the thought. Uncle was strong. None ever got him on the ground.
I was innocent back then, happily playing. In my twelfth year, I wanted so badly to be grown up. Now I wish I was a child again. That was only four years ago.
Luca ran into the house. “Uncle, are you home?”
Rich’rd put down the dagger he was sharpening and turned. “Luca? Thank God!”
The boy bounded toward him, arms outstretched.
“Where’ve you been?” the older man asked, encircling his nephew in a bear hug.
Luca inhaled his uncle’s familiar stink. The faint hint of pine spoke of Rich’rd having risen early and cut wood for the day. His musky sweat told of lengthy sword practice.
Uncle was in his fifties, still strong as ever. There was much gray in his thick, brown hair, which was pulled back and tied as usual with a leather thong. When he let it free, it surrounded him like a lion’s mane, making him wild and scary. He wore his favorite blue-gray shirt, the last of his knight’s garb. It was well-worn with some torn seams. Perhaps it reminded him of his glory days when his life had purpose.
His uncle held him, repeating, “Thank you, Lord.”. Finally, he released him.
“Where’s Aunt Elizabeth, Luca, and Susan?” Luca asked.
“They went into town to buy provisions. They won’t be back for hours. Let me look at you.” Rich’rd studied him, his eyes stopping on the spattering of blood on Luca’ tunic. He turned Luca around. “You've got color in your cheeks, I see, and bulk in your muscles."
Luca felt like a rag doll as his uncle pushed and prodded him, looking for injuries.
“Are you well?" His uncle's eyes bore through him.
“Yes, sir. I am well… though tired from walking.”
“Your mother,” Rich’rd took a step back, “does she know you've returned?”
Luca shook his head. “Not yet. I had to see you first.”
Uncle tousled his hair. “What’s this fuzz on your lip and chin?”
Luca blushed. It reminded him of the many changes that had happened to his body.
“It’s nothing. I’m still a boy.” He looked down. “Will I ever be as strong as you, Uncle?”
“You’re well on your way, Luca.” Rich’rd squeezed Luca' muscular shoulder. “You may never have my build, but you’ll be formidable, and soon.” He started laughing. “I’m so happy to have you back.” His eyes widened. “You must be exhausted. Sit. Are you hungry?”
Luca perched on one of the chairs. “Yes, a little. I've been walking for days, mostly through the forest on Shining Mountain to avoid soldiers.”
“Let me get you some stew and bread.” Rich’rd went to the pantry, tore off a chunk of bread, and ladled leftover stew into a bowl. “You were on the Mountain?” He asked as he set the food on the table.
“Yes.” Luca picked up the spoon.
“Sorry it's not hot, but the bread’s fresh.” Uncle poured two mugs of ale, gave one to his nephew, and sat. “Now, tell me what happened.”
Luca quickly ate several spoons of stew and a bite of bread. “I was walking down Fort-Fairness Road, headed home from Jaxen's when soldiers on horseback raced toward me. I had no idea that I should be alarmed. I just stood there watching, expecting them to pass by."
Rich’rd's eyes were fixed.
Luca shifted, knowing his uncle was already praying for discernment.
That’s why I came here first.
He took another bite of the bread. “Four of them jumped down and surrounded me. One stated the Lord of Lorness had conscripted me. They made me mount one of their horses. Its rider got on behind me. He—”
“The soldier told you it was by order of the Lord of Lorness?” His uncle interrupted.
“Yes, sir. He wore their green dragon. A major. I’m sorry. I have no names. The stew’s good." He shoveled in six more spoonfuls. “They warned me to give them no trouble. I didn't until I saw they were racing toward another boy. I yelled out to him, only to be knocked out. I woke draped over the back of a horse as we approached the Fairness Crossing garrison.” He took two bites of the bread. “They had four other boys.”
“It was good of you to try to warn the other," Rich’rd praised.
“It was no help.” Luca frowned and shook his head. “I couldn't escape. They watched us all day and locked us in the barracks at night. I decided to submit and desert once they trusted me. They never did.” He ate the last of the stew and wiped the bowl with his bread.
Rich’rd dropped his head into his hands. He ran his fingers through his hair. Looking up, tears wet his eyes. “I’m so relieved you survived.”
Luca' eyes teared up. He blinked them away and looked out the window. A bird perched on the sill, pecking. It was easier to tell the bird. “We trained all day, every day with knives, axes, and swords. From sunrise until dark, they marched us around the garrison and exercised us with weapon forms, eventually integrating each of us into a different group. They brought me to a line of soldiers and told them all that if I ever escaped, one of them would lose their head. Then I knew I'd never find a way out, so I accepted my lot. Even made corporal.”
The bird flew away.
Luca looked at his uncle’s sad face. “I'm thankful for the training. I believe it’ll help in the future, and we were well fed,” he added with a slight smile.
“Praise the Lord for that,” Rich’rd said with a sniffle and quick laugh.
“It wasn't as good as this,” Luca noted, raising the last bite of bread toward his uncle, smiling broadly, and devouring it.
Rich’rd smiled back. “How did you escape?”
“They sent me to the Tarinland border, to join Colonel Blackhawk’s company. To many, he’s a legend. He's not even thirty years old.”
“I've heard of Blackhawk.” Uncle nodded.
“We were all on horseback, escorting militet on foot. We encountered soldiers on a wagon, who were screaming about being attacked by Jonathan Otual.”
“Jonathan?” Rich’rd sat bolt upright.
“I remembered the name from your stories. Blackhawk ordered us to capture the knight. I was left behind to safeguard the militet. Well, keep them from deserting. Otual attacked us. He came out of nowhere, straight at the conscripts, scattering them, wounding many.
“My lieutenant ordered us to give chase. The knight rose in the saddle, twisted, then fired five arrows. My officer fell dead from his horse. I’ve never seen such a shot. I’d never thought it possible.”
“It’s not,” Rich’rd stated, dumbfounded.
“Yet, it happened. Without a leader, we broke off and returned to the colonel for new orders. It was chaos. The militet were everywhere. Many were claiming to be wounded. Too many for what I saw happen. I said nothing.
“The colonel was furious. Once back in formation, the militet were left behind with a minimal guard. I’d hoped to be assigned that duty. I wasn’t that lucky.”
Rich’rd took a long swig of ale. “I take it the militet all wanted to desert?”
“To a man. I’d have done so too. But, after having my officer killed…”
“You were on Blackhawk’s shit list.”
Luca tried the ale. It was weaker than he remembered. “The colonel took the rest of us hunting the knight. Two others and I, plus another lieutenant, were tasked with looking after the horses. It saved my life. There was an avalanche. It missed us, just. The men further up the mountain weren’t as lucky.
“Before we could go to their rescue, Jonathan appeared on foot, clubbed the first guard, cut down the second, then our lieutenant engaged him. The fight was fierce but brief, ending in the officer’s death. Then…”
“Then… what…?” Rich’rd prompted.
“The knight’s sword swung toward my face. It stopped just before he’d have killed me. He asked my name and…”
“And he let me go. More than that. He told me how to make it seem I was dead. No one’ll come looking for me. I’m… free.”
“Jonathan Otual. Praise the Lord for his providence and protection.” He shook his head in amazement. “Luca, the God of Truth has a plan for you.”
"Yes, sir, I know it.” Luca stood. “I saw my death. I can still feel my acceptance of it. Yet, now I'm free and alive.”
"Let's take you home. Your mother’s been worried sick. "
Luca cocked his head at his uncle and sighed. "Mother’ll never let me out of her sight again."
"Not for many a moon," Rich’rd responded with a laugh.