Chapter 18: The Lady – 153 AK, Late Autumn
Proverbs 31:10 Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.
Mestelina – The Border Inn
The Border Inn’s sign swung gently in the cool evening breeze. It had taken Cynthia and her companions sixteen dusty, sweaty days to reach it. The hour was late. No one was about.
As soon as the wagon stopped, she jumped down and ran inside, leaving her two startled saviors lagging behind.
The Inn’s proprietor, Terrance, was wiping the last table when a sobbing, distraught Cynthia rushed into the bar. She was wild-eyed and frantic. Upon spotting him, she darted into his arms, clasping him so tightly that he doubted he could pry her off without hurting her.
Not that he wanted to try.
As she clung to him, words poured out of her. They were impossible to follow. She made no sense. What she uttered was no more than sobs and mumbles.
“They tricked… I tried… Then he… cut my… in… the dark…”
The two men who entered the bar drew Terrance’s immediate dislike. Gently but forcefully, he separated himself from Cynthia as he prepared to defend her. Only to be caught off guard when she turned, saw them, and a momentary brightness appeared on her face.
“This is… Baldwin and… his half-brother, Cain,” she said almost clearly, her breath catching. The not-quite-smile on her face was painful to witness. “I wouldn’t have… escaped… without them.”
Still distrustful, but concealing his doubts for Cynthia’s benefit, he replied, “Thank you, sirs.” Then he shook both men’s hands. “I’d give you the best room in the inn but I’ve only one available—”
“We understand,” Baldwin cut in. “It must go to the lady. We insist.”
Terrance nodded, then smiled at the still near panic-stricken woman. “I’m sorry, Cynthia, gentlemen, but that only leaves fresh straw in the barn.”
“That’ll be fine for us,” Baldwin replied too readily.
Cain nodded, adding his acceptance.
Hmm. They do not look anything alike.
Their response was wrong somehow. It did not sit with Terrance. There was no explanation of how they helped Cynthia, no questions about what should happen next, no boasting of their deeds… as if they were hiding something. Yet they were not his immediate concern. He beckoned Donna over. “Cynthia, I don’t know if you recall my youngest daughter.”
“Y-y-yes, of course. You’ve grown so.”
Witnessing Cynthia struggle with such common civilities sent equal flashes of anger and compassion through him. “Donna, take our guest up to Room 5. See that she’s settled and address all her immediate needs. All of them. Then, once she’s comfortable, fetch your mother. Cynthia will need someone to talk to, or just have someone more familiar caring for her.”
“Yes, father.” The girl curtsied, took Cynthia’s forearm, and led her up the stairs.
The brothers frowned, their gazes trailing after the woman they’d rescued.
“Everything’ll be fine,” Terrance soothed. “Have you eaten? Would you have something to drink? It’s on the house.”
“We could eat and drink,” Baldwin acknowledged.
Cynthia had stayed composed by sheer anger. It was the only thing keeping her going. But seeing Terrance undid her. Emotions flooded her, enraging her.
I want to kill the soldiers… slowly.
I want the lord that watched to suffer everything I did… and more.
I want the beast that befouled me… I don’t know how I want him to die, but it must take forever so that he endures a hundredfold what he did to me.
Shaking with wrath, Cynthia ripped off the dress, gleefully tearing seams and shredding cloth. It was a reminder of… of…
“Shall I wash and mend your clothes?” Donna asked as she brought hot water for a bath.
“Burn it!” Cynthia snarled.
The serving girl backed away, her eyes wide. “I… have I offended, lady?”
“Wait… I’m sorry. I can’t… won’t… explain… but… destroy that so nothing of it remains. Not a single scrap. Not a single thread.”
“As you wish, ma’am.” Donna scooped up the offending pile and departed. She returned a few minutes later with clean clothes, including a muslin shift. “Call me if you need anything.”
Cynthia lay in the tub a long time, scrubbing her skin hard, trying to remove the touch of the monster that had…
As she washed, she thanked God that he’d not entered her. It was the only indignity she’d been spared. At least, she’d no fear of a child from her ordeal.
Forcing her mind away from the most immediate memories, she wondered about the perverted nobleman who’d directed things. It was in Farr Castle. It wasn’t the king. Many nobles were at Farr Castle. Yet that putrid depraved creature had called her rapist ‘Blackhawk’. She had one name.
Please Lord, grant me vengeance. I know who I want dead first, but he won’t be the last.
She thought back to how she’d been duped.
Cynthia was on her way home, laden with purchases and provisions, when she heard the voice of a young child.
“Please!” A girl begged. “Someone, anyone, help me. My brother fell. He’s hurt.”
It was late in the day. There was no one else about. As a woman of faith, there was no choice but to respond. She left the trail and strode into the light scrub that surrounded it.
With the girl’s pitiful cries getting ever louder, Cynthia stepped into a small clearing to see, not a child but an almost naked young woman making those pleas, while a man in dirty clothes groped her. Both wore disreputable smiles.
She gasped as a dirty sour rag had covered her nose and mouth.
She bent her knees and submerged herself entirely in the warm water, pushing away the memory that came next: waking, bound and shivering on the cold stone floor, the eyes of that lord leering at her.
The water’s pleasant, soothing quiet almost drowned out the frivolity from the tavern below. It also drowned her screams…
…and, nearly, her.
She shot upright, desperate to breathe, inhaling deeply. Realizing she’d almost let her grief end her life, she exclaimed, “In the name of Joshua Ha Mashiach, demons leave!”
She forced herself to remember the Lord and her rage.
I will not die. I will be avenged.
She stepped out of the tub.
Farr Castle – Main Hall
The king watched his five potential wives approach, sitting still as a statue on the ancient throne. One by one, each curtsied, said their name and a sentence or two about their family, and then complimented the king, his clothes, hair, jewelry, and so on. It was painful, both to watch and, Sagen suspected, to be presented so.
If I do not find someone tonight, I’ll declare a series of balls and outings, like my father had. I’ll even praise Geleib, saying that I’d thought over his private suggestion and consider it a masterful return to tradition. Then I’ll have him spend several fortunes on it, diverting the funds from the army. What’s more, I might meet someone naturally so, perhaps, mutual admiration could grow as it had with father and mother.
He listened intently to each of the girls, for they were girls, most of them petrified to approach. Even more terrified as all came from families who understood the true nature of power and the conflict brewing between the king and his steward. A conflict many expected the king to lose. Being queen was one thing. Being queen to a dead king, even if she survived, was quite another.
The last girl was different. She was relaxed, displayed no fear, and had a quiet boldness. “Your majesty, the academy you established to educate the people is a most wonderful thing. It is a true boon to the kingdom. I hope to see it one day.”
Sagen leaned forward and smiled. It was the first movement he’d made. “Thank you, Miss Locke. Regardless of tonight’s outcome, I shall ensure you see it.”
“You are too kind, Your Majesty. I was very sorry to hear of the late king’s passing. It grieved me very much. It must have been excruciating for you. Please forgive my impudence, but you have been in my prayers.”
He suppressed a gasp. It would not do for his courtiers to see his reaction. Yet, he felt a tiny flicker of hope.
After he had thanked all five ladies for presenting themselves, the girls were escorted to an antechamber to wait for their chaperones… or the dread of his company. When only Miss Locke remained, he entered.
The young woman’s chaperone was waylaid, providing precious moments of privacy.
Her name was Melyssa. She had golden hair and blue eyes. She was composed and smiled only slightly when she curtseyed as he entered.
“My dear,” Sagen began, “we do not have much time. Are you willing to be my wife?”
She lowered her eyes and bit her upper lip.
He raised his hand, forestalling her response. “Life as my queen will be distressing, even hazardous. Politics within the Royal Court are even more vile than your kinsmen will have warned you. Intrigue and danger will surround us. Nor can I promise you a child, as that could be fatal for us both.”
“Your majesty, I am a Locke… and, I hope… you are the Key the Lord has guided me to.” Her lips curled up whimsically, as her eyelashes lowered. “I apologize, Your Majesty, it is an old jest amongst my family. I should not have burdened you with such a pitiful attempt at humor.”
Despite the seriousness of the moment, Sagen laughed. Her authentic, humble and almost-funny words were the signs he’d needed.
She knows Joshua.
“It is not fitting that you should remain bowed before me. Rise,” he commanded and she did so. “Apart from which…” He went down on one knee, took her hand in his, and kissed it. “…how can I propose when you are bent over so? Be my wife.”
Melyssa smiled. “It shall be as you wish, Your Majesty. I swear by Joshua Ha Mashiach that I will be faithful and do whatever is needed to help you free our land.” Then she curtseyed again.
Mestelina – The Border Inn
Shocked and horrified, David had ridden all day to reach the Border Inn. “Where is she?” he demanded as he entered.
Terrance stopped him, gripping David by the shoulders. “Calm down. My wife has been with her half the night. Cynthia is… well, not fine… but whole… physically, at least. Be strong and supportive for her. I don’t know what happened. She wouldn’t tell my wife much, but it was bad.”
“I should’ve been there. I should’ve had her with me. But I thought it safer—”
“This, whatever it is, was not of your doing. When you know, tell me how I can help. Anything that I have, can supply or arrange – lawful or not – is yours.”
Moved by the depth and strength of his friend’s offer, David took a step back and, outwardly, calmed himself. “Is she awake?”
“Donna,” Terrance called to his daughter, “see if Lady Cynthia is awake. If she is, inform her that her husband’s arrived. Then, ask if she’ll see him in private or will join us down here.”
The girl nodded and darted upstairs, taking them two at a time.
“Two men brought her here,” Terrance began.
David did not hear the words. His only focus was his wife. He watched the landing above. It seemed like centuries until Cynthia burst from a room a, descended the stairs so fast he feared she’d fall… and was then in his arms, sobbing, crying, and babbling unintelligible words.
He waited until the worst had passed, then led her upstairs. They stayed in her room for an hour or so.
She cried endlessly.
David tried to console her, helpless, not knowing what to do. With each tear, he became angrier. He wanted to ask questions but wouldn’t upset her more. His heart was breaking for her. Eventually, when she was just silent and clinging to him, he asked, “How can I help? Where do I take you?”
“Not to my parents. They mustn’t know… and… the lord,” she spat the word, “might seek me there.”
“Who…?” His imagination filled in all too many vile possibilities. Whoever it was, regardless of rank or position, would die.
“I don’t know.” Her voice caught. “The only name I heard was ‘Blackhawk’.”
It meant nothing to David. “I fear, love, traveling with me would be equally as dangerous, especially if some nobleman is to blame. Worse—”
“I don’t care. I want to be with you.”
“I want that, too, but…” David forced himself to admit, “but I alone can’t protect you.”
“Where then?” Cynthia sobbed.
“The safest thing will be to hide you… just for the time being… just until this matter is settled. Then, we’ll be together.”
“I…” His wife’s mouth was moving, silently praying. She nodded.
“My love, stay here. Daikon Terrance will watch over you. I will return soon.”
She hugged him tighter, burying her face in his chest.
“I must talk to the men that brought you.”
He forced himself not to ask for details. He waited, stroking her cheek. “I’ll not leave without saying goodbye.”
She released him and nodded.
They had not been married a year yet. To be apart had been hard, but this…? David would do something about this. With a last kiss, he stood, left the room, quietly closing the door behind him, then strode down the stairs. “Where…?”
“Still in the barn,” Terrance responded, tried to say more but was ignored.
David hadn’t paused, his purposeful strides carried him to his wife’s rescuers.
Upon seeing him, they bowed.
“Sirs, it’s I who should bow to you for your actions,” he said, doing so.
“It was our duty, Sir,” Baldwin responded.
“Tell me everything that happened.”
Baldwin could not meet David’s eyes, instead stared over the knight’s shoulder. “There were rumors that… the wife of a Knight of Joshua had been arrested and…” he gulped, “…had spent time with Lord Melazera in his Judgment Hall.”
Another name, one all too well known, David noted. My list grows.
“Major Blackhawk… uh… discharged the sentence. There were guards boasting about how he’d… I’m sorry, Sir… he’d raped your wife. They said he requested to do it again later…”
David’s fists were clenched so tight blood was dripping from them, his fingernails having penetrated his palms. Yet, he felt nothing.
“…so, being believers, we decided to help her. We got lucky. We stole a wagon… and used it to get her out.”
Cain added, “The rumors also say, forgive me sir, rebel knights are terrorizing the countryside. Knights that…” he looked at his feet. “…want to overthrow the king.”
“Rubbish,” David snapped back.
“The… your… wife’s defilement was, according to rumor, a message to those rebels…”
“I’m no rebel. Why attack Cynthia?” David took two strides toward them.
“I don’t know, Sir,” Baldwin pleaded, backing away, his hands raised defensively. “All we heard was gossip in the kitchen.”
David turned, pacing away from them, then turned back. “I know of no such rebellious knights but know who will. Thank you, again.” He turned to leave, stopped, and turned back. “I am in your debt. How can I help you?”
“We have nowhere to go, nowhere to be, nor can we go home,” Cain responded. “Perhaps, we can be of help?”
David smiled. “Do you ride? There’ll be no time for wagons.” They both nodded. “Get ready to leave. I need a few moments to say goodbye to my wife.”
Cynthia’s smile grew broader with every piece she gave to the fire. Donna had not yet destroyed the dress, so returned it after her mother suggested this. Each flame was a colorful banner, her signal fire, and her call to arms.
It smelled like burnt hair. Within her fantasy, each flame burned a man in the hall. Mostly, Blackhawk but also his lord, and the others who’d watched.
She forced herself to pray for their souls, for she knew Joshua died to rescue them also. She prayed for her own soul as well, fearing it would never be restored, fearing how it would be blackened by her revenge.
She recognized the sound of David’s boots and the rhythm of his gait. Still, she flinched at his gentle touch. Only sinking into his arms when she saw his face, his kind eyes, his compassion… and his none-too-well-hidden pain. Even so, she could not muster a smile.
“May I help?” He pointed to the dress she’d dropped.
“May I borrow your knife? It’s difficult to rip.”
He reached down and pulled a small blade from the top of his boot. It had been a gift from her. It was also better suited to her tiny hands than the dagger sheathed at his waist. “Keep it with you, always.”
She was touched. It was fitting that he returned it now. It was a comfort. A knife to be carried out of sight, with which she could surprise an enemy. A blade balanced for fighting and throwing, both of which he’d taught her how to do.
It was well sharpened, easily ripping the skirt into long ribbons of silk, which she fed to the flames as he watched.
Silently, he supported her by just being there.
Once finished, she turned to him. “When will you return?”
“I don’t know. I must report this to the elders and hear their remedy.”
Her lip began to tremble as her eyes filled with tears. His arms enveloping her were all she needed… and everything she would all-too-soon be parted from. Yet… “You must go. They’ll do this to others if…” She couldn’t complete the sentence.
He stepped back, his hands still on her shoulders, looking into her eyes. “I… know…”
It was if he’d had to force the words out.
Perhaps he had, Cynthia thought.
“I’ll be back in no longer than a moon.” His voice steadied. “Sooner, if I can.”
She wiped her eyes and nodded. “Go.”
Leaving Cynthia was the hardest thing David had ever done, or could imagine ever doing. Just walking out of the Inn had required all his willpower.
Yet, he couldn’t stay. Others were in danger. Others would be hurt. Others would be…
On top of the rage surging through him, the idea of rebel knights appalled him, adding to his ire. He had to know more before reporting to the elders at Dunis Glenn. His only thought was Drake Caswell, a good friend of his father’s, who’d kept an eye on David since his commencement, and even hosted their wedding.
Drake was the youngest son of William, Earl of Caswell, the latest in an unbroken noble lineage that stretched all the way back to the reign of King Weisheit. His four older sons had joined the Royal Guard. Drake had sought the way of Joshua. As fifth in line of succession for the family title, the Earl had seen no reason to prohibit it and, so, Drake became a knight at the same time as David’s father, Jonathan.
Drake always described himself as a fair-weather knight. He had no desire to run around fighting evil, instead wanting to grow a circle into a safe haven and provide an environment in which peace could grow. This he had done in Caswell. Often over a thousand people traveled great distances to attend.
The Circle of Caswell was held up as the highest example of how such a society should be run. Many emulated it, their words of peace drawing more and more people. And, like Drake, these daikons also grew in wealth.
Terrance had agreed to provide rations, horses, and tack for Baldwin and Cain, in exchange for the wagon they’d stolen, its horses, and load of potatoes. All of which would need major alterations before they could be used.
When David emerged from the Inn, Baldwin was already in the saddle. Cain was struggling to mount as he smiled at Terrance, nodded to his brother, and even winked at a drunk, probably to hide his embarrassment.
It was a funny sight.
Eventually the ‘experienced’ rider sat unsteadily in the saddle.
“Where to, Sir?” Baldwin enquired.
David announced, “We ride for Caswell.” Without looking at the brothers, he spurred his horse into motion. They would keep up or not. He had no time to worry about them.
Farr Castle – The King’s Drawing Room
Sagen paced back and forth in his chamber, wondering how Geleib would react. Would his steward be pleased or displeased? More importantly, why?
Melazera had not been in the hall to oversee the Procession or the Royal Court’s dismissal. Nor had he been in attendance when there had been a lively argument amongst various courtiers and advisors as to how quickly the wedding should occur. Some had pushed for as little as five days. Others wanted the customary forty days. However, as the bride was a Locke and her family could not reasonably be informed of the upcoming nuptials and arrive in less than twenty-five days, a compromise had been agreed: thirty-nine days.
With Geleib absent, no one had been willing to cross the Lockes.
There had been some murmurings and grumblings about the king’s choice of bride, mostly from families that had been unsuccessful. But none of the noble dowagers spoke out against his selection. He had already assured them that Melyssa Locke had the qualities he was looking for.
No one had even asked if she’d agreed to become his wife. Everyone assumed it.
When the porter informed him that Lady Melyssa was awaiting him in the drawing-room, he had butterflies. Sagen walked briskly. He was excited. He had not felt this way in years, like a child expecting gifts.
Farr Castle – Cailleagh’s Chambers
Cailleagh fumed. The king had found a bride. At least, Geleib had promised, she would not be blonde so the vision that still haunted Lady Melazera could not come to pass.
Shooing the servants from the room, she extracted herbs from a hidden chamber and added them to the wine she’d selected for tonight. A light mixture, it would only enhance his libido and senses, rendering him easier to manipulate.
This had become so complex.
It had been simple at the start when she’d drugged old Rothbard’s first apprentice. Of course, that had been a much heavier dosage. It had caused the poor boy to lust for anything beautiful he gazed upon. She laughed. The young man that the apprentice had attempted to rape had defended himself… most effectively. Then the whole matter had been hushed up, leaving an opening for Geleib.
As for Rothbard himself, that old fool had eventually become too inquisitive and noticed too many ‘coincidences’, which had required further action. A very-slow-acting poison, it had taken over a year for the old man to succumb. A year in which Geleib had made himself invaluable, aiding his failing master in every aspect of the role of Royal Steward.
The memory brought a brief smile to her face. Her Geleib had done exactly as she’d taught him. He’d been entertaining, helpful and complimentary. He’d even undertaken menial tasks that he’d never have performed otherwise. Yet, it had been that very willingness to do whatever was required that had endeared him to his boyhood friend, Sagen, who doted on old Rothbard.
Both Sagen’s recommendation and being noticed by King Edal had cemented Geleib’s future. So much so, the king and the council had not even considered an alternative to Geleib becoming Rothbard’s successor.
If only things could go back to such simplicity.
Ah well, the queen only has to live long enough to produce an heir.
It was a comforting thought.
Farr Castle – Steward’s Hall
Melazera couldn’t believe his ears. He’d only just returned to his rooms to find a sweating, bowing messenger waiting for him. The news was…
He lashed out with a laugh, kicking over a small table holding a tray, splattering red wine over the cushions and rugs like blood, just for the sheer pleasure of it. “Tell me, I want to hear it again,” he commanded the frightened servant.
“The king chose the Locke girl, my Lord. They were briefly alone in private, minutes no longer, then King Sagen emerged and announced to all those waiting that he had found his bride.”
“Wonderful!” Geleib crowed, then registered the page was still present. “Out!”
The servant fled.
He pulled the jeweled dagger from his side, pleased by the weight and feel of it. He turned it over and felt its sharp edge.
You’ve been with me since the start of this venture. As has the Warrior.
“Not only do the Lockes provide me with a sacrificial lamb, her dowery will dwarf any other suitable maiden’s. I could not have asked for a better outcome. But…” he hesitated.
Have I overlooked anything? He heard no response.
The Locke girl was healthy and wide-hipped for childbearing. That was a mystery but he was told any girl with a shapely build could bear a child… a son. It had to be a son.
She has so many sisters.
He fretted over the possibility that she could have ten girls before she had a son.
Then the Warrior spoke to him, Girls are useful, also. Be patient.