Chapter 45: End Game – 160 AK, Early Spring
Galatians 6:8 For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.
On the Plains Below High Castle
Little Bear took half a step back, slashing downward with his tomahawk. The man who’d been lunging at him missed. The Mestel Chieftain didn’t. His hand-axe struck the base of his target’s skull with a meaty thunk.
Others were emerging from the tunnel exit the Mestels had found with the Lichtschreiber’s aid. And that of Daikon Crispus. The ill-prepared fools were trying to flee southward. The agreement that Freislicht’s king had reached with the tribal elders made any moving away from High Castle fair game. Other tribes were hunting to the east and northeast.
It’s a pity most of them are such poor sport.
A thought Little Bear immediately regretted as he found himself defending against a worthy opponent wielding a large knife.
Block. Parry. Twist.
Blast he’s good.
Little Bear feinted. His opponent didn’t fall for it.
On they fought, oblivious to others.
Arrows struck those fleeing from the tunnels allowing only a portion to run into the fray. Most of the chieftain’s warriors preferred the visceral exertion of hand-to-hand combat, as he did. Behind him, the Lichtschreiber lad and the elderly-and-less-than-spry Daikon Crispus were archers. The boy’s bow was underpowered, but accurate enough. The knight’s bow…
Little Bear felt the passage of the arrow. His tomahawk had caught his attacker’s knife as they grappled together. The missile’s fletching touched his temple as the arrow penetrated his opponent’s eye.
The man’s body crumbled bonelessly to the ground.
Little Bear glanced back to thank Crispus, and saw the boy grin.
On the Plains Below High Castle
Sunak spurred his horse back into a gallop as he rode down three fleeing men. Three times his sword flashed. Three times a man fell.
The horn sounded the recall.
He and his fellow knights broke off. They had just wounded or killed half a hundred, enraging the evil men who were incapable of matching their horses’ speed or assembling in sufficient numbers to be a threat to fast-moving cavalry attacks. All within sight of a mob that grew ever larger. A throng that must number many, many hundreds, if not thousands. There was no time to count.
Each attack taunted, reinforcing the powerlessness of the gathered multitude.
Each attack drove home their helplessness.
Each attack robbed the headless host of everything other than the need for revenge, causing them to surge forth ever faster, lash out ever more carelessly, scream their defiance ever more futilely.
All the while being led further and further toward High Castle.
Lorness Castle – Secret Passages
Gaelib swore, and kept swearing.
Jon’s son had appeared before him… again… but with too many companions.
If there’d been time to renew the poisons on his blades, he might have risked taking on three or four.
Over a dozen? Never!
Nor was there anywhere nearby where he could ambush them, gather troops or…
This is unfair! Why do you taunt me so, Warrior? I’ve done all you’ve demanded. Is the son of my enemy too much to ask for?
With the clumsy predictability of knights, Jon’s boy and his companions were breaking into the secret passages.
Thank you, Warrior. I shouldn’t have doubted you.
Opening a panel, Gaelib reset the passages in this section so that the clueless knights would think they were following a single corridor with only one or two exits. He then stepped into one of the concealed bays and waited.
On the Plains Below High Castle
Former Docent Ostman tried not to get swept up in the insanity around him. He had no intention of being part of a mindless mob. Yet the accursed Knights of J’shua were playing the masses surrounding him as if they were a lute.
Dash in, kill a few, dash off before the rest can retaliate.
Dart around the other side of the formation, find a spot where there were stragglers, dart in and kill a few dozen more, then withdraw.
Find another weak spot, repeat again.
And what did the mindless cretins around Ostman do? They fell for this obvious ploy every time. They allowed their anger and fears to drive them after the knights.
Even women and wounded men in wagons had periodically appeared, fired crossbows into the human swarm that reacted with no more sense than bees defending a hive.
Ostman wanted to get to High Castle, but not as part of a horde that would smash against that fortress’ defenses with all the effect of a wave crashing onto rocks. If he wasn’t killed outright, he’d be caught.
Worse, if the king had learned that Ostman and others like him sought to enter, High Castle would already be sealed. It wasn’t like Lorness. It took its security seriously. As did the soldiers stationed there.
No, it was time to call his assassination instructions exactly what they were: a way to get him killed.
Ostman tried to move against the flood of humanity around him, and couldn’t.
He tried to move toward its edges, but made little progress.
There was a sudden gap. Ostman darted into it without looking. He had to get away.
The driver must have been a madman. He’d raced his four horses and the wagon they towed into the edge of the crowd, trampling people under hooves. Others dove out of the way, anywhere to avoid being run down. He’d punched a hole into and through the masses.
A hole that opened before his team and his wagon.
A hole Ostman had dashed into… in front of the wagon.
Daikon Rich’rd Overhill mock-scowled at the newly-minted Roving Knight who’d just ridden in trailing a dust cloud. It was his nephew, Luca. “You’re late. Our southern kin have been arriving for days and, a still, small voice tells me, the feast’s already begun.”
“I bring you the gift, uncle, of…” Luca fished a bell-shaped metallic object from his saddlebags, “…knowledge. My wayward forest-dwelling brothers have been sending me messages about what forces are where… and…”
Rich’rd tried to suppress his smile and couldn’t. “And…?”
“And one of these,” he waggled the strange object, “has reached the king, who has orders. For you, specifically. Haven’t several of the knights with you worked in Alexandrian mines? His Majesty wants tunnel entrances collapsed. He wants however many are still traveling through them to be forced out near High Castle, not further south.”
“What of the men inside?”
“They are either Melazera’s agents or pawns. They must be captured or killed. The king commands you to preserve your force.”
“So, directly or indirectly, I’m to kill those in the tunnels?” Rich’rd frowned. “I don’t like it, but we’re outnumbered. Victory requires sacrifice. Let it be their lives, not ours. Show me the map, Luca. Where’s our first target?”
Lorness Castle, Secret Passages
David had fallen back to being last in line. It was impossible to pursue Melazera through the accursed dimly lit passage that led who-knew-where except in single file. While he wanted to be first, that honor, and the risks that went with it, had to be shared.
Watching in horror, the floor of the passage gave way. Nine knights fell. Impaled below on rusty iron spikes, some died immediately. The writhing screams of the others sent shivers through him. There was no way to help them.
David nodded to the four knights isolated on the far side of the pit. Without an alternative, the two groups went in opposite directions. Unable to proceed forward, David turned around, becoming first again. The two others with him followed.
Less than a minute later, he heard a sound behind him. Something fell. The sound came again. David turned just in time to block a sword thrust with his dagger.
Gaelib Melazera smashed into him.
The passage’s wall, which had appeared solid, gave way under their combined weight as they rolled and grappled
David felt a pain in his side as Gaelib’s sword snapped. He punched the face before him. Melazera mistakenly lifted his arm to block. David’s dagger slid into flesh. Warm blood made it slippery, hard to hold.
The floor gave way.
Gaelib snatched at a lever that sent them thumping into a stony corridor.
The dim light of the passages was replaced by dozens of flickering candles.
Gaelib kneed David in the groin, broke free and ran.
The blossoming red stain on the Lord of Lorness’ side brought a smile to David’s lips. But, when he tried to rise, he couldn’t. Bile erupted from his throat.
Then a face was above his. How did he get here?
The man spoke, issuing orders, but they made no sense as they came from further and further away.
On the High-Castle-to-Fairness-Crossing Road
For Daikon Will’am Miles it felt good to be dressed as a Knight of J’shua again. He’d hidden in plain sight for too long as Daryl Andrews, proprietor of the Lion & Tiger Inn.
It had felt even better to share a week’s fellowship with Rich’rd Overhill at his farm.
His only regret was that he couldn’t ride with Rich’rd.
Instead, through Commander Taelor, Will’am had been charged with acting as guide to the Tarins who were coming to King Sagen’s aid.
The captain commanding the Tarins’ vanguard of a hundred-and-twenty horsemen arrived yesterday. A prickly status-conscious fellow, as all Tarins tended to be, he’d camped his people away from the farmhouse and the tents of the other assembled knights. “Don’t address my men,” he’d instructed. “You will only confuse them. Speak only to me. The main body will arrive at the point where I turned off the main road. We must be there to meet them.”
And so, as the sun climbed into the sky, Daryl Andrews had met the Tarins’ host of an additional two-hundred-and-forty horsemen and nearly fifteen-hundred soldiers. All moved in meticulous formation.
That had been hours earlier, the sun neared its zenith and the Tarins were killing all those trying to escape south. They were precise, efficient, methodic.
If anyone from the tunnels managed to get into the south, it would have been through the woods. J’shua help them against the wild lads who live there. If the rumors about those delinquents are true, I’d rather face the Tarins. At least, that way my end would be quick.
The Tarin captain summed up the operation all too bluntly, “Our orders are simple, Daikon Will’am: don’t let this evil spread into our lands.”
Daikons Sunak, Norin and James rode together into High Castle.
The sun was low in the sky.
Based on messages passed by Daikon James’ Roving Knights and Lichtschreibers, those who’d exited the tunnels and headed south had run into the Tarins and were fertilizing the fields along that road. If they’d gone southeast or east, they’d been hunted down by the Mestels. Any attempting to flee back westward had run into the king’s men… or knights… or Licht Gegen. The last of whom had proven far more capable than any expected.
Then there were those who’d exited the tunnels and been taunted, tormented, and teased by a vastly inferior number of knights, and an even smaller number from Licht Gegen, into heading north to within High Castle’s reach. The death toll amongst Melazera’s followers was a thing of nightmares. It was as if a child playing with an infinite number of dolls had had a tantrum. The dead and dying were strewn carelessly to the horizon.
Yet, there’d been a development late in the day as more and more of those emerging from the tunnels had dropped their weapons and surrendered. Families who had been swept up in Gaelib’s wicked plot. People who were doing nothing more than trying to survive. They were being escorted north of High Castle toward the Sea of Glass. Wagonloads of provisions were being dispatched to support them.
Still, Sunak didn’t want an eyeglass. He was afraid the awful view of the battlefield would stretch on endlessly.
The only good news was Lorness Castle had been taken with almost no loss of life.
As yet, there was no word of Jonathan Otual or Colonel Blackhawk.
Lorness Castle – Living Areas
Blackhawk had led them to a convergence of passages Gaelib might use to flee.
Melazera darted furtively across a doorway to Steven’s right. There was blood on his shirt, and down his left side. But Blackhawk hadn’t been the only one to see him. Three knights were faster and already in pursuit.
Intuition caused Steven to glance back at where Melazera had come from. Part of a sword protruded from a body’s torso. He wanted, needed, to pursue his father. Yet, he couldn’t. The man was still breathing, though surely near death. Gaelib left no witnesses. In any case, others would catch Melazera before him.
Striding to the body, he turned the man’s head. David Otual’s face was flushed, breathing shallowly and…
Blast you, father!
The poison used was obvious. David’s labored breathing meant he’d received only a partial dose.
Scrabbling within the pouches at his belt, Steven pulled out a vial, moss, and herbs.
The vial he emptied into David’s mouth. He checked the injury. It might be survivable. He extracted the tip of a sword’s blade, packing the wound with moss. The poison grooves on the shaft proved it was Gaelib’s. Although from its blood encrusted state, David hadn’t been the first stabbed with it. That alone might save the young knight’s life.
Voices yelled at Steven. “Later,” he snapped and kept working. When someone reached for the fragment of blade, he warned, “Don’t! It’s poisoned.”
“You!” He commanded whoever had knelt opposite him, not registering it was Jonathan. “Put pressure on the moss. Hold it in place. It’ll slow his bleeding and lessen the poison’s effect. Someone cut material for bandages. And I need this,” he held out the herbs, “mixed into half a cup of water.”
Steven prayed, please, Lord, help me save this life.
High Castle – Atop the Barbican
King Sagen examined the devastation below the castle. The dead and dying stretched as far as he could see, even with an eyeglass. He didn’t want to know the numbers, although they would inevitably come in the following days.
They had won, so each report said.
But the cost…
“What troubles you, my king?” Melyssa asked as she approached and wrapped her arm around his waist.
“Could I have done anything else?”
“Despite your promises to tell me the whole truth, at all times,” she teased with an impish grin, “you’ve never disclosed your strategy, so I don’t know how to reply.”
“You may despise me if–”
“Hush,” she commanded, “I’ll hear no such nonsense. You are a good man. You are a better king. It hurts when you have to do difficult things for the good of our people. What more should I know? And why, after all our years together, would you doubt me?”
Sagen took her in his arms. “Because I doubt myself.”
“Then, my love, my husband, and my king, why don’t you tell me and let me decide your fate? Come away.”
Jonathan stood as two of his knights dragged a bound but struggling, screaming but gagged, Gaelib into the room where David was, just, clinging to life. “Where’s the third knight?”
“It’s just a flesh wound. He’ll be along soon,” Sir Renhope noted.
“You two,” Jonathan selected another pair of knights, “bring the third quickly. Melazera poisons his blades. As for you,” he focused on Gaelib after they’d departed, “part of me thinks I should take you to High Castle, trussed like a stuffed fowl to stand trial, be found guilty, and then sentenced to death before the multitude. But I fear how far your influence extends, even now. You chose to serve a dark god and evil spirits. By that decision alone, you have condemned yourself.
“I am not fool enough to offer you trial by combat.
“I am not fool enough to trust that you could not purchase a favorable verdict.
“I am not fool enough to risk keeping you alive a single moment more.
“Therefore, by the authority granted to me by King Sagen as his Over-Commander, I sentence you to death. Sentence to be carried out here and now.”
Gaelib’s eyes had grown larger and larger with each statement. Then they focused on Blackhawk.
“If I may,” the commander looked up from his patient, “I would ask a boon of you, Sir Jonathan.”
“Speak. You have saved my son’s life–”
“Not yet, I haven’t,” Blackhawk corrected. “His chances are good. They will be even better if we can find one of their… workshops. But we can’t do that, guard this prisoner, and avoid the fires I fear are spreading.”
“What is your favor?”
“Let me kill him. No matter what happens, for the rest of my life there will be those who think I was secretly in league with this… monster. Despite the fact that throughout King Sagen’s reign, and even during King Edal’s, I was working for Freislicht.”
Gaelib’s eyes wavered. Tears rolled down his face. Jonathan assumed it was because he’d been fooled so completely.
“From the very first moment that I met the self-styled Lord of Lorness, my life was cast into darkness as sure as if its dragon sigil had come to life and swooped down on me. I shall never atone for the things I did to bring this… this…” His voice waivered. “To bring this person to justice. I doubt your own son will ever forgive me. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to forgive myself. But, if it’s known he died at my hands, at your lawful order, it will make my future less bleak.”
Jonathan hesitated. Even when the still, small voice encouraged him to agree, he delayed.
Gaelib shook his head, struggling, failing to break free.
“I understand,” the words were heavy on Jonathan’s tongue. He unsheathed King Edal’s sword, looking at the length of the blade with longing. He wanted to be the one to end this matter. It was what he had asked for when his first life ended, after he’d found his house burned, and his wife and daughter missing. Within him, his need for revenge warred with his desire for justice and the need of another. “This man killed a king. A king you served. A king that deserves his right and just retribution. If you would kill him, do so with this blade.”
Blackhawk took a long slow breath, then stood and accepted the king’s sword.
The two knights holding Melazera forced him to his knees.
Jonathan walked behind the prisoner, placed a foot in the middle of Lorness’ back, then put his weight on it, pushing Gaelib’s torso down, parallel with the ground. “When you are ready.”
Melazera’s head turned toward Blackhawk. Some later suggested it was to curse the colonel. Others said it was a plea for mercy.
Steven Blackhawk raised the two-handed sword over his head and ended the life of Gaelib Melazera.