Chapter 13: Savage Beasts – 151 AK, Spring to 152 AK, Late Summer
Jude 1:10 But these speak evil of those things which they know not: but what they know naturally, as brute beasts, in those things they corrupt themselves.
R’bekah was on her circuit, traveling from Caswell to Alexandria.
Maddeningly, the business that was her cover for moving about collecting intelligence and passing on messages was so successful it couldn’t be managed alone. Indeed, it hadn’t been possible since the first year. She was growing… wealthy. Yet, she still needed to move about as inconspicuously as possible.
It had been decided early on, in regard to saving orphans, that the families would do the best they could for them. This included teaching them all to read and, wherever possible, arranging apprenticeships for them. A large part of Bekh’s growing wealth was invested in such endeavors.
The brightest youngsters were also taught to write, a rare skill except amongst the nobility, some of the very rich, and the Order of the Black Robe. Raising children who could aspire to be professional scribes was yet another way to counter that organization’s influence. It also, inadvertently, provided Rebecca with potential assistants.
Each year, she’d take on one or two eleven-year-old boys who were intelligent, attentive, and desired to become a knight. They’d remain with her for two years, then be sent to Little Sister.
She and her two lads had ridden south from Caswell on a warm day, where they’d made a less than average number of sales. She’d picked a spot to rest and make a stew. There’d been no special excitement, nothing interesting to chase down, nor any special news. As with most days, it was endlessly collecting bits of information that she passed on, as boring as breathing but just as necessary.
Her two lads were collecting kindling when another voice asked, “Sir?”
R’bekah looked up to see countless boys of all ages stepping out of the woods. Hers were not amongst them.
“Hallo.” She stood and smiled.
Their leader, a boy of sixteen, had addressed her. He was confident and kept his weight perfectly balanced ready for any potential action. “Hallo, sir, I am James of the Wood. Don’t worry, we’ve done nothing to your young traveling companions. They’re very noisy, so we just skirted around them. They’ll return shortly.”
“Glad to hear it. My compliments, I didn’t hear your approach.”
“We’ve seen you pass through our woods many times. We seek information.”
“How can I help?” R’bekah asked. Despite their numbers, they were unthreatening. There was something almost familiar about them. Almost. Yet, it wouldn’t come to mind, nor was there time to ponder it. The situation could change without warning… and James was already responding.
“We seek news of our parents. Most were arrested from circles in Caswell, Lorness, and Fairness Crossing. We’re afraid to go asking officials. They’re conscripting too many our age into the army. But since you come through here every few weeks, we hoped you might have news, or could provide it next time.”
She nodded, moved by their situation. “Let’s do this properly. I was about to make stew. Join us for dinner.”
“It’ll be good to eat someone else’s cooking,” James joked. “Call your lads back, we’ve everything you’ll need.”
“Douglas, Padraig! Come back, lads. I’ll need you to jot down some names.”
“They can both write?” One of the boys exclaimed, his eyes wide.
“It’s just a skill like any other. All it takes is time, nimble fingers… and much practice.” She chuckled. “Let’s eat, talk, then tell me your families’ names. I’ll find out what I can.”
Her lads’ clomping back through the bush like clumsy giants caused them all to laugh.
A young boy of no more than eight carried a stout bow, taller than he was. In his makeshift quiver were several arrows. They too struck R’bekah as familiar. “Son, may I see one of those?” She pointed.
“Yes, sir.” He handed it over proudly.
She squatted beside the boy. “This is fine work. Did you fletch this?” A feather had a twist, like Jon’s arrows.
“Yes, sir.” He smiled. “Our helper taught us. Then we teach all the new boys.”
“You have a helper? Where is he?”
“He only stayed with us for two moons. He’s on a mission.”
Her heart fluttered.
Bekh glanced at James, smiling. “Could his name be Jon’than Otual?”
High Castle – The Ram’s Head
Stev’n Blackhawk was surrounded by friends of every rank. The dingy little tavern was just on the other side of the stables. It stank and was probably only swept out once a week. But after a few rounds, no one noticed. The drinks were cheap, so he could afford to be generous.
“…did you hear what happened to that hundn, Ca’rl Fortsun?” Lieutenant Samu’l Benutt asked with a sly grin, drawing everyone’s attention. “Some lieutenant lost Ca’rl’s boots and got a major dressing down for it.”
“A major dressing down from a major?” Blackhawk teased. “Your jokes are getting worse. Maybe it’s the ale.”
Samu’l grinned. “Fortsun’s voice could be heard for miles. If you were in camp, you couldn’t have missed it.”
“Sounds like the dolt,” R’bert Maitlan chimed in.
“It gets better,” Sam continued, grinning. “He made the lieutenant strip and run exercises buck naked,”
“Blast, I missed it.” Bri'n M'tchell chortled.
“And…?” Blackhawk prompted. “There’s always more to your stories.”
“Turns out the lieutenant’s uncle is Commander Ta'ler.”
“What a prat!” R’bert shook his head sighing.
St’ven’s eyes widened. Fortsun had stepped in it again.
“You haven’t heard the best bit. The lieutenant had nothing to do with the missing boots. It was the whore Ca’rl bedded the night before who sold them…” Benutt could barely get the words out, “…as a tax for being lousy in bed.”
Everyone roared knowing how inept Fortsun was.
“And… he’s a lieutenant again.”
“Here’s to Lieutenant Ca'rl Fortsun!” Blackhawk praised.
They all lifted their mugs.
Major Blackhawk had continued to gain friends and influence, having attained his new rank in less than ten years. He was happy. He’d decided to do good and be just.
Tonight, he left them well before closing, kicking up dust as he ambled back to his shanty. He had duty early in the morning. Warmed by drink, but still able to walk straight, he was in a pensive mood.
He no longer believed Melazera was all-powerful. He had as a boy. However, he’d been right to fear the nobleman. The Lord of Lorness was malevolent, violent, and fickle. Stev’n had seen Gaelib turn on too many of his ‘friends’ without warning. Things that he’d only realized looking back on memories from childhood.
Although Blackhawk saw no open worship of J’shua at High Castle, those he’d met here carried the same spirit as Little Soldier. Most of them. Most of the time. He wondered if their parents had taught them about J’shua.
Could that be the difference? Following J’shua was banned at Farr Castle and Lorness, but not here. Or, could it simply be that these people’s parents had trained them to behave better?
I’m not convinced it has anything to do with this J’shua person.
The next morning, Blackhawk checked his uniform was still perfect, his boots still shined, and his hair and beard still neatly groomed.
Even though he’d little warning of the summons, his nerves had already left him exhausted. His mind teetered between not feeling worthy of the king's attention, to wondering if he’d violated some regulation or rule of etiquette. He felt as if he’d been in a battle, fought a hundred men, and somehow survived.
Having the king assign him to the Royal Guards was beyond surprising.
But being commanded to remain behind and speak privately with the king… He had no words for that. It was beyond any honor he could have expected. Certainly, beyond any he deserved. All he’d done was serve loyally.
Their conversation, if it could be called that, provided Blackhawk insights he was still coming to grips with. He’d always thought in terms of Melazera as the sole power behind the scenes. It hadn’t occurred to him that there were more: the Lockes in the south, diplomats from foreign countries, the guilds, the Merchants’ Alliance, and so on.
For nearly half an hour, the king had spoken and Blackhawk had responded with little more than, “Yes, Your Majesty”. Yet the king had encouraged him to ask questions… and had answered them. Honestly. Neither Gaelib nor Caileagh had ever done that. Neither of them had ever engendered the desire to serve that the king had… without ever asking for it.
All the king wanted was that Blackhawk do his best and follow his conscience.
Not the king’s conscience.
It was unnerving and freeing. An experience he didn’t know how to handle. It left him weak and unsettled. Yet, he’d never felt more alive.
Village of Grace near Freisch River
“Don’t worry, Bradley.” Kennah Beecher sat tall in the saddle, eyeing the nervous soon-to-be-uncle. “We’ll make it. First babies always take a longer time and Lyrena’s a strong girl.”
“I know Mother Beecher. But you know how Gregory gets with anything involving his daughters.”
“I’ve seen your brother fret,” she responded with a grin.
A blonde-haired girl ran to her horse, secured her mother’s herbal bag, then mounted.
“Sar’h, do we have skullcap and jasmine oil?”
“Yes, mother. We have everything we need.”
It was a three-hour ride to a house that was modest by Alexandrian standards. It was a mansion compared to anything in the midwife’s humble village, or almost anywhere else. Then again, Gregory was the Duke of Alexandria and head of the Lockes, the wealthiest family in the south, and possibly, all of Freislicht. This was his hunting lodge. His home was a castle.
As they approached, the duke was pacing on the porch.
“All’s well, Your Grace,” Kennah reassured. “We’re here.”
“Yes, yes, I know.” He waved the midwife and her daughter inside. “Don’t waste time soothing me.”
She heard the recognizable deep moans. Lyrena's time was close, but not yet. Kennah waited outside until there was quiet.
When she entered, she saw a familiar scene. A husband holding his wife’s shoulders from behind. Lyrena still swaying from the power of the last surge.
She took her bag from Sar’h, then closed the door quietly.
Hours later, Lyrena’s bellowing stopped, and the piercing cry of a newborn was heard. There was great rejoicing. It was a boy. Gregory’s other daughters had only borne girls.
High Castle – Blackhawk’s Lodging
Blackhawk sat in his room, reading an encoded letter from Gaelib. It had been less than a week since his last report to the Lord of Lorness. That he’d received any reply at all was unusual. For Melazera to be exhilarated by recent developments was unheard of.
Despite being written in code, the tone of Gaelib’s missive was joyous, including the phrases ‘a magnificent achievement’, ‘an outstanding coup’, and ‘beyond all my high expectations’. Such was the praise heaped upon Stev’n for being assigned to the Royal Guard.
Then Steven read something that made the hair on his neck stand up. Gaelib promised rewards and a special treat for his 'favorite agent'. The other times he'd heard Gaelib use that term, the recipient met an untimely death soon after. Yet, Blackhawk’s concern wasn’t solely for himself. Or, he didn’t think it was.
He had no idea what the ‘next phase of the plan’ entailed but was sure something terrible was about to happen. To him. To someone else. Or, to both. He knew better than to ask questions. That could be fatal. Yet, if Gaelib didn’t offer more details…
Blackhawk pulled the buttons from beneath his shirt, holding them tightly in his hands.
What am I to do? I can’t break away from my secret ties to Gaelib. He’d kill me if I even tried. Nor can I oppose him. It’d be suicide.
Yet King Edal is a good man. A man I’m honored to serve. A man who deserves my loyalty. But he isn’t, I fear, able to overcome the Lord of Lorness. If I can’t find out what father’s plans are, I’ll be powerless to stop them.
Stev’n forced the irrelevant thoughts aside. Especially, the momentary notion of thwarting Gaelib’s plan. That was madness.
Annual Hunt in the Farrling Wood
The Royal Court was in residence at Farr Castle. The Great Hunt in the King’s Forest had been arranged. Everyone was invited to this annual event. Every noble that could attend did, no matter how far they had to travel. Merchants, businessmen, and traders congregated too. Even the commoners came to cheer on the hunters from afar.
The people loved King Edal.
The first hunt was on the new moon of the Ram. Farrling Wood was full of riders.
The beaters drove the swine toward him and the other hunters.
The king spurred his horse. “You lot are too noisy. Remain here. No boar would come this way.” His attendant and cousin followed as he found the perfect spot, a clearing with thick forest behind them providing a yard of shade. “It will likely be some time before we see any movement.”
“Shall I bring more wine, Sire?” His attendant asked.
“I’ve had enough,” King Edal replied.
“Of this swill?” His cousin added. “I couldn’t agree more. It’s ghastly. How could your man serve this? I’ll be back shortly with something drinkable. You,” he snapped at his own servant, “with me. I can hardly trust you to select a wine suitable for the king.”
“You’re going to ride off without my leave, cousin?” Edal teased.
“I apologize, Your Majesty. I forgot myself. I–”
“Go! You aren’t good company without a good vintage within,” the king continued. “My servant and I will be fine. Left alone in this wilderness,” he took a dramatic pose, “surrounded by only half my guard and every noble huntsman in the kingdom. Hurry back. It will be a pleasure to have a few minutes of peace and quiet in the meantime.”
Minutes passed, ending with a telltale rustling in the bushes.
The king smiled. Luck was with him. He’d chosen his spot well. Close enough to others that assistance was nearby should he need it, far enough away for good hunting and a respite from the drama of his subjects. He might even have the first kill of the day. Lowering his lance, he seated it betwixt elbow and hip, waited until the boar saw him, and spurred his horse forward.
The lance struck true, mortally wounding the beast. Yet, it wasn’t done. A fine specimen, it tore free and turned to face the horse that was now behind it.
The king looked for his attendant, who should have been making his own pass at the boar, while it was focused on its first attacker. There was no sign of the man, blast him. Not that it was an issue. The creature would bleed out in minutes.
With a smile on his lips, King Edal drew his two-handed sword and waited.
The boar charged.
The king had his horse dart backward out of the way, as he brought the blade down. Its tip effortlessly cut through the animal’s spine, killing it instantly.
Edal circled slowly, inspecting his prize. It was indeed magnificent.
His only warnings were a soft footfall and a glint of light. Then there was only pain and darkness.
The assassin twisted his boar spear within the gap in the king’s brigandine cuirass to maximize the damage. Not that there was any need, but for the joy of it. Hunting animals was so much less gratifying than hunting men. And to hunt a king? It was a good day indeed.
Bracing himself, he withdrew his spear from its entry point under his target’s armpit. Blood gushed forth, soaking the horse, saddle, and ground as the king’s lifeless body toppled from the saddle.
Snuffles from the bushes indicated the presence of more wild boars. Scooping up the king’s sword, he slid his pike deep into the underbrush. His spear had been perfect against the monarch, but was too unwieldy against multiple beasts. The broad sword would serve better. The killer-for-hire slipped away before they could reach him.
Yet, the sows had an unanticipated effect. The king’s horse spooked and galloped off.
While running back to his mount, he relished the thought of what the boars would do to the dead king’s body. There’d be no signs he’d ever been there. It was a very good day indeed.
He even had a trophy to remember it by, at least until he returned to Lorness.
Gaelib and others were quickly on the scene, but not quick enough.
It was grizzly indeed. Clearly, the king had killed one boar, but it hadn’t been alone. Two sows had mauled him, one ripping at King Edal’s face, the second at an arm. Both were dead before Melazera arrived, yet he was mesmerized by the ferocity of the damage they’d done.
No one will doubt what had happened. The nobles will blame themselves for leaving the king alone, so they could be the first to kill a boar. People are so predictable.
Blackhawk was angry as he looked at the ruin of the king’s body.
Colonel Braxton commanded the nearly one hundred others at the scene to depart immediately. He left Blackhawk in charge of eleven members of the King’s Guard, with orders to keep watch over the monarch. He also sent a rider in search of Commander Lucius Lafarge, the officer who’d ordered the soldiers to surround the hunting area rather than be within it.
Blackhawk remained silent until the Colonel was long out of earshot. It gave him time to think. Lucius was loyal to the Lord of Lorness. So too were many in the Royal Guard at Farr Castle, be they ally or minion. He’d learned to identify Melazera’s pawns in self-defense but decided there were others he must protect.
So, this was the next phase of Gaelib’s plan.
The king had been a good man who lacked all hubris. Unlike Gaelib.
Eventually, a replacement detail arrived and Blackhawk dismissed his men. There wasn’t anything to do now.
Had we been closer, we might have caught those responsible.
Yet he was curious. Had any clues been left behind? Could he find the king’s horse? It shouldn’t have gone far.
Analyzing the terrain and the deployment of the soldiers, there were two likely escape routes for the perpetrator. He chose one and followed it. Soon after, he found the tracks of a horse. The impressions were shallow, so it was probably riderless.
In the ninth hour of the day, he spied the king’s stallion eating tender shoots by a stream.
The horse is many miles from Farrling Wood. Why’d it run so far?
He dismounted and secured his stallion, then walked a circuit around the beast. Then he approached it, speaking soothing words.
There was blood spray on the animal’s legs, belly, and neck from the king’s encounter with the first boar. Its saddle and stirrups were intact, as were its reins. But there was also thick blood down the beast’s left side.
The boar’s blood couldn’t have showered the horse so.
The king’s two-handed sword was missing. Nor had it been found at the scene. That was beyond odd. If it had been stolen after the fact, why hadn’t the thief taken the horse?
No boar killed King Edal. He was murdered. I must document this evidence.
He rode hard for High Castle, leading the royal mount. Entering by the back gate with it covered by a blanket, he sought out the recently promoted R’bert Maitlan. “Corporal, I need a stall for this horse and a guard to post on it.”
“Yes, sir. Right this way.” Maitlan responded, guiding them to a secluded bay at the rear of the stables.
“The king’s been murdered,” Blackhawk stated quietly so his voice wouldn’t carry. “It’ll be called a hunting accident. I must have the evidence documented before the horse is returned to Farr Castle. Wake Commander Ta’ler and ask him to come to the stables.”
Maitlan strode quickly away and returned promptly with Commander Ta’ler, just as Lieutenant Mitchell approached.
“What in the world…?” Commander Ta’ler’s eyes grew large at the sight of the blood-soaked horse.
“King Edal’s been murdered,” Blackhawk informed Ta’ler and Mitchell. “I found his horse far from the hunting grounds. If it bolted, it should’ve stopped quickly. I can’t explain it.”
“I can,” Ta’ler interjected, frowning. “Stupid beast always was flighty.” He patted the horse affectionately. “I told King Edal to replace it, but he liked its spirited nature. Where was the king’s wound?”
“The left side of his torso… I think. Boars got to his body. His face and arm–”
“Arm or hand?” Ta’ler demanded. “The king’s armor would have protected his arm. No boar’s teeth could have penetrated it.”
“The base of his arm, near the shoulde–”
“Murder indeed. Melazera’s thugs were the first to discover the body?”
“Yes, Commander,” Blackhawk acknowledged.
“If you agree, Commander,” Blackhawk suggested. “We need to independently write what we see in regard to the king’s horse. I’ll also write an account of my observations of the hunting grounds. Each of us should make four signed copies. I’ll keep one, the Commander will keep the second, Lieutenant Mitchell the third, and I’ll take the last copy to the prince. Be swift. I must return the horse to–”
“No, Major,” Commander Ta’ler interrupted. “We will document as you recommend but can’t tell the prince. Not now. He’s untried as a ruler. We must watch and wait until the prince carries that weight for a while. He might react rashly, getting us all killed. Worse, it would imperil the kingdom. Besides, we haven’t identified the perpetrator. This is a war between good and evil. We don’t know all the players.”
“Yes, commander,” Blackhawk acknowledged as the others nodded. “Please be quick, gentlemen. I must return the horse by morning. If I’m gone longer, I’ll be missed, and they’ll silence us all. I couldn’t withstand Melazera’s torture. I’ve seen his work.”
It was midnight before they’d finished. Blackhawk washed the horse and the saddle. The Commander explained how to clean the pad and royal trappings in a trough with water, ash, and urine until the blood was dissolved away. Then Blackhawk re-tacked the horse and, by the first watch, was headed back to Farr. All evidence of the murder washed away.
Blackhawk circled around the castle at a distance so that it looked as if he were coming from Farrling Forest.
As long as they’re unafraid of exposure, we’re safe.
He noted who was concerned and who avoided his eyes, adding them to his suspect list.
At the stables, Blackhawk reported to Commander Lafarge, stating he’d found the king’s horse wading in a stream far to the south of the hunt area.
Lafarge praised his initiative.