Chapter 30: Captured Again - 159 AK, Early Winter
Sixth Runic Precept of the Alte Regieren: Sacrifice thine enemies to enhance thy prominence in the spirit realm.
Farr Castle – Three Hammers Inn
In the weeks since Jonathan and Will’am had reached the Sea of Glass, they'd found that their fellows hiding in the north were far more scattered than they’d imagined. The knights parted ways to cover more ground. Jon turned westward, following the shoreline. Will turned east, intending to do the same. They’d meet at Dunis Glen.
Having traveled almost to North Fort, Jon was pleased. Many of the knights he’d encountered were still holding circles, albeit quietly. They, in turn, often knew of others, or had suggestions as to where Jonathan might try next. It was such a tip that led him south toward Farr Castle, where knights were said to be running an inn.
Farr was one of the largest and busiest cities in Freislicht.
Jon had been pursued by more than fifty men in the relative wilderness surrounding Shining Mountain. The number of soldiers that could be deployed against him in Farr made venturing there akin to suicide.
Despite his faith, it frightened him. Yet, he went. Every knight must have the opportunity to join them at Dunis Glen. Not merely to aid in retaking Freislicht, but for the sake of their honor and everything they’d lost.
When Farr Castle became visible in the distance, Jonathan wrapped the book in his cloak, tied it with a strap, and slung it over his shoulder.
He entered The Three Hammers and recognized its innkeeper, Harold Grammott, whose hair had gone totally gray except for the bald spot atop his head.
The color faded from Harold’s face when he saw Jon, sweat appearing on his brow.
He is afraid.
Jon ordered an ale, placing five bits on the bar.
It gave Harold an opportunity to speak, but he didn’t. Not even to acknowledge the order. He merely filled a mug and handed it over.
Jonathan slowly scanned the room. Two men by the window glanced back, then returned to drinking and laughing. Three more were in a lively argument over the latest fashions at High Castle, one lamenting skirts were getting longer.
“I’d like a room for the night.”
Harold hesitated. “We’re near full up. All that’s left is a small room. It’s clean and swept daily.”
Jon nodded as if considering it, while trying not to react. It was an old code that meant: don't stay. “Is there somewhere with a larger room nearby?”
“Try the Blue Parrot. End of the street and two doors down.” Harold pointed east. “They’ve a tasty stew today.”
“Thank you, I will.” Jon wondered what trouble they were in. It must be serious. He left and walked, as instructed, to the east and entered a betting establishment two doors beyond the Blue Parrot. There he waited for Harold or another to show up. He stood near a door watching the street, and perused the fights listed. A dog fight was starting soon. The cockfights were at sunset. Bare knuckle fights began after first watch.
Jean LaVoie entered, then walked to the notice boards showing the latest odds as a young boy rubbed off a number and repainted it. That put he and Jon close to each other. Jean looked strong and hale, no gray in his thick brown hair, only a long scar on his cheek. “Lousy stinking odds,” he said, gesturing at the announcements. “You’d think everything was rigged against an honest betting man.”
“Some days,” Jon muttered.
“What did you say?” Jean rounded on him and stepped closer. “You look’n for trouble?” He puffed out his chest and exhaled beery breath. Leaning in, he snarled, “Leave Farr.” He lowered his voice. “The Lord of Lorness holds members of our families hostage. We must report we’ve seen you. We can wait perhaps an hour. No more. Leave. Now.”
Jon leaned in. “Your families would find succor by the Sea of Glass,” he whispered, then backed away raising his hands. “I am not looking for trouble. Sorry if I offended you.” Then he strode toward the door, shaking his head. “Drunks,” he murmured to no one in particular.
Once outside, he started out of town, but only made it three blocks before a voice yelled out, “You, there! Stop in the name of King Sagen!”
Slipping into a dark alley, he fretted. The odds were against him. If he didn’t get out of the city quickly, it was unlikely he’d evade his pursuers.
The still, small voice whispered, Surrender.
Surrender? After all I have done and endured to avoid capture, you want me to surrender, Lord? I do not understand.
Fear seized upon him. Turning away, he walked down an alley and around the first corner he encountered. Then he sprinted.
Darting around corners, he sought somewhere to hide and found a moderately noisy tavern. He slowed to a walk, entered it, then ordered an ale. It was very crowded.
He took a seat near one of the doors. Outside was worse. People dashed about seeking refuge. Horses galloped past. The streets were emptying with alarming speed.
The whistles and shouts of his hunters were getting closer.
Within the tavern, almost everyone kept their heads down, not wanting to be involved in whatever was going on. A handful of patrons looked around furtively. Whether they too were hiding or sought something, Jonathan could not tell. He stared into his cup.
Again, the still, small voice whispered, Surrender.
Yet, Jonathan could not. Memories of his capture and torture by Melazera only five years earlier screamed within. He could not go through that again. He would not.
Guardsmen strode into the tavern through both entrances. The expressions on their faces haughty and arrogant, knowing they could do as they pleased. No one would oppose them, not without dire consequences.
A man who was too-well-dressed to be a patron of the place stepped forward. “Let me by. You’ve no interest in me. I’m–”
The fist that had ended his sentence by breaking his nose, struck again. A pitiful sound emanated from the man as he collapsed to the ground at the guard’s feet.
While an underling rifled the man’s pockets, the lead guard took a step forward, raised his hand to quiet the crowd and pointed at the knight. “That is Otual.”
Jonathan looked to retreat. There was no space to swing a sword, not without harming patrons. A point that became moot as many around him attacked.
He defended himself as best he could.
Surrender, the still, small voice instructed him again.
He barely heard it as a fist caught him on the temple.
Colonel Blackhawk had just arrived in Farr because the annual Royal Hunt would be held soon. He’d been sent to prepare for the royals’ arrival.
Men rushed by him, yelling, “Otual! They’ve spotted Otual!”
He used his horse’s bulk to push through the growing throng, many of whom were eager to claim the reward. The rest sought shelter. Shouts came from all directions, but their intensity guided him to a tavern where the bleeding, unconscious knight was dragged out and thrown onto the street.
A man stepped forward to kick Otual.
“Halt!” Blackhawk commanded, “The next to touch him dies.”
The man kicked anyway, staring up at Steven, daring the colonel to take action.
Blackhawk dismounted and strode forward. In one smooth move, he drew his sword and decapitated the assailant. “Anyone else want to defy me?”
They all backed away.
The knight was a bloody mess. “Blast you”, Blackhawk swore under his breath, “You thwart me for years and then walk into Farr. Idiot!”
This is vexing. But if you die, there’ll be trouble. You must live.
“Who’s the most senior officer here?” He demanded.
A flustered young man stepped forward, “Lieutenant Crandyll, sir!”
“Have your sergeant and a dozen men gather a stretcher and–”
“They could carry…” the youngster’s eyes widened as Blackhawk advanced on him.
“Is it your habit, Lieutenant, to tell your superiors how to do their jobs?” The color left the youth’s face. “You will do as I say. No more. No less. If you are very, very lucky, you might be mentioned positively in my report and be included in the reward… if… this turns out to be Jonathan Otual. Have your serg–”
“Apologies, Colonel Blackhawk,” a veteran sergeant interrupted, “I’ve sent men to commandeer a wagon of hay. I’ve also… uh… obtained a framework and tarpaulins to cover it, so the – your – prize won’t be on show.”
“Good man. Well done,” Steven acknowledged, “you’ll accompany me to the castle. Are you saddled with… this?” He pointed to the lieutenant.
The sergeant’s non-response was answer enough. “Lieutenant, while your sergeant assists me, you’ll gather statements from everyone present. Everyone, is that clear?”
The junior officer nodded.
“Present them to me at the castle this evening.” Steven didn’t bother listening to the response. It was irrelevant. The sergeant’s wagon had arrived, making the only matter of import getting Otual to the castle alive.
Farr Castle – The Steward’s Hall
Gaelib wanted to swear and crow simultaneously, but could do neither.
He had been summoned to Farr Castle by Danyth, who had replaced him as Royal Steward. The man wanted to ‘discuss’ how George Rosewud had been able to sequester royal funds without Melazera detecting that malfeasance. His only choices were to be complicit or incompetent, terms Danyth skillfully skirted around, implying them without ever using those words.
Gaelib wanted to swear for many reasons, starting with Danyth’s impertinence for questioning him. He was the Duke of Lorness. The Warrior was at his beck and call. How dare this Alexandrian interrogate him?
He’d delayed answering his upstart successor’s questions for over two years. He couldn’t walk out of the informal ‘conversation’ without potentially severe results. It was so tedious to be inconvenienced by such small people.
Yet, he wanted to crow due to the note that had just been delivered. Blackhawk had captured Otual. He yearned to shriek his delight, but could not. Not in front of Danyth. Not until this travesty of an interview was finally over.
He also wanted to scream about the timing. Melazera would depart for Lorness in only two days. Worse, he no longer had control over Farr Castle. Even if Steven could smuggle the knight into Gaelib’s favorite interrogation chamber, it wasn’t safe to use. Who knew who else might have discovered it?
Further, to protect his cover, Steven would have to report the knight’s capture to the king. But only after his identity had been confirmed. That gave Melazera the tiniest of windows to snatch Otual in such a way that Blackhawk wouldn’t be implicated.
Farr Castle – Colonel Blackhawk’s Room
Steven paced back and forth, deeply conflicted.
What should I tell the king?
Sagen and Jonathan Otual, according to various sources, had once been friends.
Gaelib hated the knight passionately.
Caileagh had expressed her need for the knight in such blatant terms that merely thinking about them was enough to make Steven shiver. Fortunately, Lady Melazera was at High Castle, removing her as an immediate concern.
Having thought it through, the answer was as clear as it was brutal. Blackhawk couldn’t risk disappointing Gaelib over this. He’d already sent a note advising his ‘father’ of the knight’s capture. Any delay in doing so would have been fatal. For Steven.
As for what Gaelib would do to the knight, he put it out of his mind.
Blackhawk had already posted the incompetent Lieutenant Crandyll in charge of the prisoner, transferring the officer’s former sergeant to his own command. He doubted his father would be the slightest bit subtle in obtaining his prize.
Farr Castle – Jonathan’s Cell
Gaelib smiled to himself.
The king’s destruction of the Black Robes had only forced them into the shadows, where they still watched, blackmailed, manipulated, and enticed. Admittedly, it had thinned their ranks, but only the dross had been discarded. The best of them still remained. And, they had amassed access to the most wondrous range of things, such as uniforms of the Royal Guard.
It was well after the night’s middle hour. The castle was quiet.
Under other circumstances, Gaelib would have spent time admiring himself. The colonel’s uniform he wore – he simply couldn’t have impersonated a rank lower than Steven’s – did delicious things for his physique. He decided to add it to his collection of trinkets, keepsakes and mementos that marked special occasions, like King Edal’s sword.
The lieutenant guarding Otual snapped sleepily to attention, saw the insignia of a colonel and began to sweat.
Gaelib liked him immediately. “I’ve come to transfer the so-called knight.”
The sting as Melazera’s hand snapped across the junior officer’s face had a delicious ring to it. That the youngster fell was even more enticing. The breaking of bone, and other things, as his boot ground into the floored lieutenant’s groin briefly elicited the most wondrous sounds. Then the tip of Gaelib’s sword sliced through exposed flesh, leaving a growing red puddle.
Black Robes disguised as militet gave a potion to the semi-conscious knight and were bundling the prisoner into passages that would allow their escape.
Gaelib forced himself to be quiet. He wanted to gloat, but there would be time for that later. What was the point of reveling in Otual’s coming misery if his victim couldn’t hear him?
High Castle – The King’s Private Chambers
King Sagen paced and read the note again. His anger grew. His fists clenched. He had the uncharacteristic impulse to break something… no, someone’s face. He just couldn’t decide if it should be Blackhawk’s or Melazera’s. Probably both.
Blackhawk’s because he should have informed Sagen immediately.
Melazera’s because… blast it. There were too many reasons.
“What troubles you, my king?” Melyssa asked as she rose from the couch, her fluttering eyelashes and impish expression disguising the seriousness of her question.
All of which Sagen appreciated. “You can drop the pretense when we’re alone.”
“And forgo an opportunity to tease you?” She pouted as she strolled to him. “You ask too much. But…” Her mask dropped away. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ve spoken to you of Jon, a friend of my youth. A knight who, for political–”
“I remember. What’s happened?”
“He was captured.”
“And…?” She frowned and took his hand.
He squeezed hers. “And someone – ‘officially' other rebel knights – broke him out of Farr Castle’s dungeons and killed a young officer and several guards.”
“That’s awful.” She pressed her other hand against his cheek.
He looked into her eyes. “It’s worse than that. I suspect Jon’s been abducted by Gaelib, who hates him passionately. If that’s true, Jon may die – or wish to die – once Gaelib and Caileagh start on him. There are rumors…”
“Then do something before it’s too late. Or, let my Alexandrians do it.”
“It may come to that.”
The message Rebekah received was blunt: Urgent. Taelor’s specially-made plow must be replaced.
The message’s translation was: come now!
That worried her and the local leaders of Licht Gegen. Their activities, while becoming ever more extensive and daring, had all been covert. Even the robberies of Melazera’s baden shipments had been done so they wouldn’t look coordinated to someone analyzing them. A choice that meant hitting less than a fifth of the shipments they knew of.
And, while there’d been exchanges with Taelor almost since their movement’s beginning, news that she’d come to the attention of the King’s Information Gatherer had made many nervous.
By chance – inspiration from a still, small voice – Rebekah had arrived in High Castle on the same morning the message was received. However, in case this was a trap, several escape routes were put in place, which delayed the meeting by two days.
The marketplace on the outskirts of High Castle, where they’d meet at dusk, was infamous for the less savory goods and services it provided. It only began doing business late in the evening.
Rebekah, dressed as T’mas, but in more workmanlike clothes that blended in with the others in the marketplace, rested her elbows on a makeshift bar and drank ale until Peter Taelor arrived.
He was dressed casually in clean, well-maintained clothes, making him stand out. His outfit wasn’t expensive enough for a rich man roughing it, nor flamboyant enough for the more notable villains and criminals who were the market’s more common customers. “It’s been a while, T’mas.”
“Could we do this quickly? Since Major Gonnels’ message about the king’s spymaster, I don’t feel safe in public. Not even here.”
“I…” A tankard was placed in front of Taelor.
“The barman’s one of mine,’ T’mas noted. She was tense. She couldn’t look in enough directions at once. There were too many places an ambush could be waiting. While she knew there were guards hiding in plain sight, she didn’t know their names or identities.
The only exception was the young man serving drinks.
Taelor took a swig, looked at the mug in disgust, then continued, “I need assistance with…” He shook his head. “I’m sorry you came to his attention. The Information Gatherer is extraordinary and you’d be right to be nervous about him. That is, you would if all of our goals didn’t align. Melazera and his followers must be stopped. Together–”
“And afterward?” T’mas cut in. “What happens afterward? I was one of Licht Gegen’s founders, to protect my family, my community, and my kingdom. In that order. I don’t want to become the king’s next target if he doesn’t like what I’ve done… or still have to do.”
“I can guarantee–”
“At some point, I’m going to want more than words. I’ll require assurances from King Sagen. Not because I lead Licht Gegen. I don’t. I travel too much. But I can and do provide a discrete way of communicating quickly. A way. Not the only way. I know no more than I need to.”
Taelor nodded. “The king anticipated your concern.” He pulled a scroll out of his surcoat. “A Royal Writ protecting you. He also asked that I pass on his compliments. It’s said not even the King’s Information Gatherer knows the full extent of your organization. High praise indeed.”
T’mas drank the rest of her ale. Taelor’s disgust was misplaced. She’d drunk much worse. This, at least, had some flavor. “What do you need?”
The officer leaned in. “We’re freeing a prisoner in the next few days. I need someone unaffiliated with the king, me, or any of my men. The Duke’s people will be desperate to get this person back. So, I need–”
“…someone to hand this ex-prisoner off to. Then to hide that person until… when?”
“I don’t know. It could be just a few days, but it’s more likely to be weeks, maybe a moon or even longer.”
“You clearly can’t, or won’t, say who it is,” T’mas mused. “Can you tell me if they’re male or female? It’ll make a difference to our preparations.”
“Can’t even tell you that.”
“From how little you’re willing to disclose, Melazera’ll want this person back badly.”
“Very, very badly. His people will be less than squeamish and do anything necessary.”
T’mas sighed. “You aren’t going to tell me when or where this will happen. How much warning can you provide?”
“You need to be ready as soon as possible. Reply to my ‘special order’ with a delivery date. I’ll send back a demand that it has to occur within hours once everything else is in place on my end.”
“You don’t ask much, Peter.”
“I know, but it’s important.”
“I’ll make it happen. Assume I need at least two days. What else do you need?”
“A handover location. Something within, say, three hours’ ride from Lorness Castle.”
T’mas nodded. This would be a nightmare. But if the king went go to such lengths, it must be someone very, very special. Perhaps even crucial to His Majesty’s plans.
Lorness Castle – Caileagh’s Workshop
Melazera walked languidly into the room, then spent long moments examining his prisoner. “I’m so excited to see you again, Jonathan. You’re our most prized possession… for the time being.”
Jon said nothing.
Annoyed by that lack of response, Gaelib gestured and the chains holding up the knight were tightened, almost raising him off the floor. “Better… a much better view. Caileagh will be so delighted to find you here on her return. I’ve already sent for her as…” He laughed. “You don’t have any friends here, do you, Jon?”
“I have the God of Tru–”
Melazera grabbed him by the throat and squeezed. “I don’t want to hear that. I’m not interested in your petty, irrelevant godling. Say it again and I’ll cut out your tongue. I… we… only need you alive, not talking.”
We… that is the Warrior and I… Caileagh’s no longer anything but a tool.
He released his grip.
I don't want to kill him yet. I don’t want to kill him quickly.
Gaelib had felt powerful choking the knight. He wanted to do more than that, much more. “I’ll leave you for now, Jon. Caileagh has such delicious things planned for you. Please, please enjoy the wait.”
High Castle – The King’s Drawing Room
Blackhawk was ushered into the King’s Drawing Room to find His Majesty already waiting, surrounded by his current minimal contingent of guards, including two brutishly tall blond-haired Alexandrians and a man with skin darker than Lady Ush-Wha’s.
“Colonel Blackhawk,” Sagen stated briskly, “I require you to do something unpleasant. Actually, several things.” He grabbed up a goblet and drank it in a single long swig.
“The first,” the king continued, “is to ride to Lorness Castle as fast as physically possible and stop the duke from attending the annual Royal Hunt. Inform him,” the king scooped up a wax-sealed message and thrust it toward Blackhawk, “that I am immensely displeased with his progress in resolving Otual’s Rebellion, as he insists on calling it. I am equally disappointed that he’s taken two years to answer my Royal Steward’s questions. Indeed, I’m so infuriated that, until these matters are finalized, he’s to remain in Lorness. If I hear, find, or can prove that he’s deserted the duties I set for him, I’ll strip him of his lands and titles, then have him tried for treason!”
Blackhawk nodded, wondering what had gotten into the king. The only time he’d seen such fervor was when the queen had been threatened.
“Second, to ensure he gets atop things, I’m appointing you as Commander of all forces stationed in and around Lorness. Your predecessor, his deputy and senior officers are all re-assigned to High Castle immediately.” The king handed over another set of papers. “Your replacement officers will set out behind you, arriving a day later. However, unlike you who’ll be traveling with only a single companion, they will be bringing two companies of loyal troops, their officers and so on. Your rank and my orders permit you to replace anyone under your new command. Do so with everyone you have doubts about. Be ruthless. This will be our only opportunity to destabilize Lorness Castle. Do so.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Third, and potentially the most awful and disgusting of my orders. You are to find out if Jonathan Otual is Gaelib’s prisoner. But, you are not to free him. If it’s within your abilities, without starting an all-out war with the Duke of Lorness and those backing him, keep Jonathan alive. I don’t care what you have to do. Immoral acts. Breaking laws. Pretending to betray me. Do whatever it takes to keep him alive. If you can. If the choice becomes your life or his, I order you to preserve your own life. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“This,” Sagen pointed to one of the blond brutes, “is Captain Lendyld. He goes where you go. If you have to, order him to remain outside the room. That’s as far as he gets from you. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“He has only one order. He’s to keep you alive. Go!”
Southwest of High Castle
Half a day’s hard riding had brought Rebekah-as-T’mas, Luca Overhill and six other heavily armed men into the northernmost forests occupied by James of the Wood and his lads.
No, she reminded herself yet again, it was Sir James of the Wood, Knight of J’shua… and had been for almost three years.
Years in which they’d barely encountered each other half a dozen times. His group of boys living rough had become a substantial and very disciplined force with a few remarkable tricks up their sleeves. The one she wished she understood was how they sent messages between themselves faster than any horse could run.
Thus, she was only mildly surprised to find four horsemen, led by James, appear. She slowed her mount to a stop and waited for them to approach.
“There’s no need to tire your horses so,” the knight joked, “but it was kind of you to give us an excuse to exercise ours.”
“I needed to get a message to you or one of your lieutenants fast,” she chuckled. “I’d like your help with a couple of jobs. The first is to provide security while my people take possession of someone who’ll be looked for with… ah… excessive vigor by Melazera’s men. I need a recently abandoned farm that’s in reasonable condition for the handover. I’ll supply the people playing the farmer, his wife and son. Ideally, it needs to be within two, maybe three, hours ride from Lorness.”
“The farm’s no problem. How long do you need security?”
“Three days and nights maximum. I don’t know how fit the person I’ll be receiving will be. If they’ve received the Melazeras’ oh-so-kind hospitality, they may not be fit to travel.”
James scowled, “That’s a gross understatement. How about I set up a couple of fallback locations in case they’ve been one of the gory Gaelib’s or cruel Caileagh’s favorites? Where do you intend hiding this person when they can travel?”
“It’s best if you don’t know. This could get very–”
“My people will escort you until you’re safely out of the lovely Lorness’ clutches. No arguments. From there head anywhere that you need to. But, while in the woods – any of my woods – we’ll protect you. What’s the second job?”
“I need you to create as much confusion as you can, forcing Lorness to split his attention and his forces.”
“How about snatching all four baden shipments going out in the next few days? I’m assuming this prisoner liberation is going to occur very soon.”
“As soon as we can make it happen. Whoever we’re springing is–”
“…at Gaelib’s and Caileagh’s lack of mercy. I’ve seen some of the bodies they’ve disposed of. Whoever this is, won’t be in good shape.”
“That’s my fear also,” T’mas acknowledged.
High Castle – The Gardens
Caileagh dismissed the servant, ignoring the note that had just been delivered.
Watching the queen play with her daughters was like torture, an example of everything that she didn’t, could not, have. Whispers within her mind teased and tormented. Her guiding spirits were particularly angry and vindictive today, feeding on her fears and amplifying them.
It hadn’t always been like this. When she was younger, her spirits had supported her, guided her, and granted her pleasures that were beyond understanding.
Now, they were agitated, goading her, riding her as if she was some beast of burden.
She tore open the note. The voices sang to her!
Otual had been captured.