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.
Beck 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 could not be managed alone. Indeed, it hadn’t been possible since the first year. She was now regularly accompanied by at least two boys.
The still small voice guiding her had provided a single solution to many problems.
Franklin and Sons company was so happy with her that she’d won Runner-up Salesman of the Year in 151, providing far more notoriety than she wanted. They were more than delighted to deliver all her sales, and had insisted on having the owner’s son join her to see what additional items her clients might be interested in.
She’d had to turn down clients asking if she’d take on one of their sons as an apprentice.
She was growing… wealthy.
Yet, she still needed to move about as inconspicuously as possible, and guide orphans to Little Sister each year.
The solution to all of these problems was her own frugal habits.
The Franklin and Sons heir had assumed someone making such large orders would stay at nice hotels and deal with wealthy farmers. She still stayed at the same inns she’d been using since starting out. He had lasted a single night, then departed.
As for the many financial arrangements to be made relating to each sale, maintaining an ever more complex diary of appointments, and keeping clients informed, those ‘problems’ had turned out to be a ‘solution’.
It had been decided very 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 Beck’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 even a small number of 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 would take on one or two eleven-year-old boys. To be selected, they required certain traits. Key amongst them were intelligence, attentiveness, and the desire to become a knight. They would remain with her for two years, then she would deliver them to Little Sister.
It had been a warm day. She and her two lads had ridden south from Caswell, where they had made a less than average number of sales. She had picked a spot to rest a bit and make a stew.
There had 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 during her daily interactions, as boring as breathing but just as necessary.
Her two lads were collecting kindling when another voice asked, “Sir?”
Tomas Beck looked up to see countless boys of all ages stepping out of the woods. Hers were not amongst them.
“Hallo,” Beck stood and smiled.
There was something familiar about them. Their leader, a boy of sixteen, stood front and center, and 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?” Beck asked. Despite their numbers, they were unthreatening. There was something almost familiar about them. Almost. Yet, it would not 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 some 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 a lot of practice.” She chuckled. “Let’s eat, talk and then tell me your families’ names. I’ll find out what I can.”
The silence that followed saddened her. It was broken by her lads’ clomping back through the bush like clumsy giants, causing them all to laugh.
A young boy of no more than eight years carried a stout bow, taller than he was. In his makeshift quiver were several arrows. They too struck Beck as familiar. “Son, may I see one of your arrows?”
“Yes, sir.” He handed it to her proudly.
“This is fine work. Did you fletch this?”
“Yes, sir,” he said with a smile and bowed. “Our helper taught us how. Then we teach all the new boys.”
“You have a helper? Where is he?”
“He was only able to stay with us for two moons. He is on a mission.”
Her heart fluttered.
An odd expression crossed James’ face as if he was trying to decide something.
Beck smiled, “Could his name be Jonathan O’Toole?”
High Castle – The Ram’s Head
Steven 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.
One of the more buxom, friendly, and popular serving wenches was telling of an encounter with a young and all-too-obviously naïve young man who’d been eyeing her all the previous evening. Toward closing, he had finally made his move, addressing her as ‘M’lady’ and clumsily seeking to bed her. Her portrayal of his awkwardness drew laughter as others brought yet more drinks. Then, she fixated on the youngest of the soldiers in the group, batting her eyes at him as she plopped into his lap, saying “I’m no lady!” She kissed the bedazzled recruit deeply, her hands roaming across his chest, then stood, twirled, and beckoned.
Sam Bennet slapped Blackhawk on the back as the enthralled boy-man departed in her wake. “Just like last night!” He guffawed and everyone laughed.
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. Steven had seen Geleib turn on too many of his ‘friends’ without warning. Things that he’d only realized looking back on his memories from childhood.
Although Blackhawk saw no open worship of Joshua 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 Joshua.
Could that be the difference he felt and observed? Following Joshua 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 am not convinced the change has anything to do with this Joshua person.
High Castle – Outside the King’s Audience Chamber
Blackhawk checked his uniform was still perfect, his boots still shined, and his hair and beard still neatly groomed.
Even though he had little warning of the summons, his nerves had already left him feeling exhausted. His mind teetered between not feeling worthy of the king's attention, to wondering if he had somehow violated a 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 had done was serve loyally. For some reason, it made him feel afraid.
Their conversation, if it could be called that, provided Blackhawk insights he was still coming to grips with. He had always thought in terms of Melazera as the sole power behind the scenes. It had not 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 Geleib nor Cailleagh 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, shattering, and freeing. An experience he didn’t know how to handle. It left him weak, sweating, and strung out. Yet he had never felt more alive.
High Castle – Blackhawk’s Lodging
Blackhawk sat in his room, reading an encoded letter from Geleib. It had been less than a week since his last report to the Lord of Lorness. That he had received any reply at all was unusual. For Melazera to be exhilarated by recent developments was unheard of.
Yet, despite it being written in code, the tone of Geleib’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 Steven for being assigned to the Royal Guards.
The letter continued promising great rewards and a very special treat the next time they met. It also informed Geleib’s “favorite agent” that the next phase of the plan would begin soon.
The hairs on the back of Blackhawk’s neck were standing on end. He had seen such praise before, too often just prior to that “favorite agent” meeting an untimely death.
Yet, Blackhawk’s concern was not 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 Geleib did not offer more details…
Blackhawk pulled the buttons from beneath his shirt, holding them tightly in his hands.
What am I to do? I cannot break away from my secret ties to Geleib. He would kill me if I did… or even tried to. Nor can I oppose him. It would be suicide.
Yet King Edal… is a good man. A man that I am honored to serve. A man that deserves my loyalty. But he is not, I fear, able to overcome the Lord of Lorness.
Steven forced the irrelevant thoughts aside. Especially, the momentary notion of thwarting Geleib’s plan. That was madness.
Still, a thought nagged at him, If I cannot find out what my father’s plans are, I’ll be powerless to stop them.
Annual Hunt in the Farrling Wood
The Royal Court was in residence at Farr Castle. The Great Hunt 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 king heard the beaters driving beasts toward him and the other hunters. He faced a clearing, the thick forest behind him 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 dramatically brought his hand to his forehead, “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 had 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 was not 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 less than another minute.
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 pain and darkness.
The assassin twisted his boar spear within the gap in the king’s armor to maximize the damage. Not that there was any need but for the joy of it. Hunting animals was so much less satisfying than hunting men. And to hunt a king? It had been 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.
A snuffle 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 target him.
Yet, they had an unanticipated effect. The king’s horse spooked and galloped off. It was one less thing to deal with.
While running back to his horse, he relished the thought of what the boars would do to the dead king’s body. There would 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.
Geleib and others were quickly to the scene but not quick enough.
It was grizzly indeed. Clearly, the king had killed one boar, but it had not 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 had 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.
When Blackhawk arrived, Colonel Braxton was in charge.
Braxton ordered 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’s body. He also sent a rider in search of Commander Lucius Lafarge, the officer who had ordered the soldiers to surround the hunting area rather than be within the circle of the hunt.
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 Geleib’s plan.
He was angry. The king had been a good man who lacked all hubris. Unlike Geleib.
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.
He was curious. Had any clues been left behind? Could he find the king’s horse? It should not have gone far.
Analyzing the terrain and the deployment of the soldiers, there were two possible escape routes for the perpetrator. He chose the most likely one and followed it. Soon after, he found the tracks of a horse without a rider, then followed them. 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 had it run so far?
He dismounted and secured his stallion, then walked a circuit around the king’s horse to see if anyone remained in the area. Once satisfied there was no one, 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 blood spray down the beast’s left side.
The boar’s blood could not 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 had the thief not taken the horse?
No boar killed King Edal. He was murdered. I must document this evidence.
He rode hard for High Castle, leading the king’s mount. Entering by the back gate with the royal beast covered by a blanket. He sought out the recently promoted Robert Maitland. “Corporal, I need a stall for this horse and a guard to post on it.”
“Yes, sir. Right this way.” Maitland responded, guiding them to a secluded stall at the rear of the stables.
“The king’s been murdered,” Blackhawk stated quietly, so his voice would not carry. “It’ll be called a hunting accident. I must have the evidence documented before the horse is returned to Farr Castle. Wake Commander Taylor and ask him to come to the stables.”
Maitland strode quickly away and returned promptly with Commander Taylor, just as Lieutenant Mitchell approached.
“What in the world…?” Commander Taylor asked.
“King Edal has been murdered,” Blackhawk informed Taylor and Mitchell. “This is his horse, which I found far from the king. If the horse bolted, it should have stopped quickly. It did not. I cannot explain it.”
“I can,” Taylor interjected. “Stupid beast always was flighty.” He patted the horse affectionately on the rump. “I told King Edal to replace it, but he liked its spirited nature. Where was the king wounded?”
“The left side of his torso… I think. Boars had got to his body. His face and arm—”
“Do you mean his arm or his hand? The king’s armor would have protected his arm. I was assigned to the Royal Armory. No boar’s teeth could have penetrated it.”
“The base of his arm, near the shoulde—”
“Murder indeed then. Melazera’s thugs were the first to discover the body, of course?”
“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 Taylor interrupted. “We will document as you recommend but we cannot tell the prince. Not now. He is untried as a ruler. We must watch and wait until the prince carries the weight of it for a while. He may react rashly, getting us all killed. Worse, it would imperil the kingdom. Besides, we have not identified the perpetrator yet. This is a political war between good and evil, and we do not know all the players.”
“You are wise, commander,” Blackhawk acknowledged as the others nodded. “Please be quick, gentlemen. I must return the horse by morning. If I am gone longer, I’ll be missed, and they’ll silence us all. I could not 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 are 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.
Commander Lafarge praised the Major for his initiative.
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.”
“I know Mother Beecher. But you know how Gregory gets with anything involving his daughters.”
“I have 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.
“Sarah, 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 is well, Gregory,” 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 familiar low moans of love. Her time was close, but not yet. She waited outside until the moaning stopped. When she entered, she saw the familiar scene, the girl’s husband was holding her shoulders from behind. She was still swaying from the power of the last wave. She took her bag from Sarah and asked her to bring water and closed the door quietly.
Hours later, the laboring girl’s bellowing stopped, and the piercing cry of a newborn was heard by all. There was great rejoicing as it was a boy. Gregory’s other daughters had only borne girls.