Chapter 18: Captured
Gregory Locke – Late Spring, 154 AK – Lexandria
Gregory Locke paced around the bedchamber, holding the invitation, wearing only his breeches. He confronted his wife, Ellyth. “I don’t care what this letter says. I’m not sending a daughter of mine to the king. Certainly not to become a tool of Melazera. I had no idea he was scouting for a royal bride. I should’ve hid the girls away when the so-called Lord of Lorness visited. We did so when the king was here. No! No, I simply refuse.”
His wife drew close. “Dear, we’ll find a way to prevent this. The local daikon visited yesterday. He says there’s a suitable girl who’s willing to go in Melyssa’s place.”
Gregory rounded on her. His fists clenched, crumpling the letter. “Did you seek the daikon’s help? I’ll not have one of those navy cloaks meddling in my business. Caswell has been pressuring me to follow him for years.”
“No,” she placed her hand on his chest, soothing him. “He sought me out, saying the Lord had heard our prayers and provided a substitute. He quite surprised me as I’ve told no one. He’s bringing her today.”
“How’s that going to help?” Gregory sat down hard on a couch. “The girl would need to know our family’s history, our ways, and all the little things that make a Locke a Locke.”
“She’s my midwife’s daughter, knows our family, and has been in and out of our houses all her life. She even has the right complexion. She looks very much like Melyssa.”
“Sounds far-fetched,” he grumbled.
The Warrior – Early Summer, 154 AK – Farr Castle
The Warrior stroked his subject’s thoughts, steering him away from his preoccupation with petty dissatisfactions. Gaelib must be focused on the future, not the past. The familiar spirit reminded Gaelib of the Third Runic Precept of the Alte Regieren:
There are no failed schemes, every tactic moves you closer to success.
Yes, my pet. That is the proper way to use your talents. The Warrior continued whispering what Gaelib wanted to hear.
Jonathan – Early Summer, 154 AK – Farr Castle
As the sun approached its zenith, beads of sweat formed on Jonathan’s brow. He wore his cloak brown-side out and hid the Writings in his baldrick under his tunic. He’d heard in the previous town that the Way of J’shua was banned at Farr Castle, leaving him wondering how he would find his daikon.
The noise of hawkers singing their offers filled the outer courtyard. Occasionally, a pair of soldiers walked briskly past. Boys brandished flags picturing their master’s wares. Some were the children of merchants, others hired boys or servants. Their waving enticed questions. They’d point, giving directions to stalls deeper in the market.
A short dark-haired man wearing a blue beret, dressed in a beige silk shirt and wearing tooled knee-high boots, trailed about five yards behind Jon.
Is he following me for the bounty? I thought it only a concern in the south. He’s no commoner, not dressed like that.
Jonathan changed direction, heading for the Herald Station.
The man followed, pausing with a farmer hawking potatoes.
Who could he be?
After entering the station, Jonathan commiserated with the herald for a few minutes while monitoring his shadow. When the man turned his head, the knight slipped out the side door and concealed himself in an alleyway.
What will you do now?
The fellow looked in all directions. “Blast.” Then he turned on his heel, and strode briskly toward the inner castle.
He didn’t look back so Jonathan followed, weaving amongst the crowd. When the man reached the gatehouse, he walked right in without being stopped or questioned.
He must be known in the inner court. Who is he? What is his interest in me?
After pondering the situation for some time, without arriving at any useful answers, Jonathan headed back to the hawkers. There, he conversed with vendors and people he met.
People do love to talk, and such talk contains threads of truth.
He walked deeper into the market. There, he saw a sign shaped like a broad-bladed dagger. Blackened, carved letters spelled: Rohn Custom Blades. After entering, Jonathan tested the weight and sharpness of a few. “Did you forge these?”
The artisan remained focused on his whittling. “No, sir, my father does. I craft the handles. If I shape one for you, it will fit in your hand like a young maid’s breas…” he glanced up, his expression changing upon seeing the leather baldric, “…er… hand.”
Jonathan chuckled. “Glad to hear Master Rohn is still producing treasures. He made this one.” Jon slapped a hand on his hilt. “Are you Jaspor, the lad who used to follow the prince and I around the castle years ago?”
“Master Jon? Master Jon!” The young man stood and shook the knight’s offered hand.
“I have just returned from afar. It took many moons to get here safely. What do you think of our new king?”
“Time will tell. It’s been almost a year. The king hasn’t really done much, good or bad. That’s all we can hope for. But the Lord of Lorness took up residence here after the coronation. He’s a different matter. He’s as vile as his green dragon is in all the old tales.”
The young man lowered his voice. “Lorness has instituted many pagan ceremonies.” He looked from side to side. “There are rumors of… people disappearing.” He dropped to a whisper. “And… human sacrifices.”
“Really?” Jonathan gasped.
“No one goes out at night anymore, but,” the artisan hesitated, “the folk I know travel from town to town, like me. Mother Garvey is a local seamstress. She told some women about losing her granddaughter. The girl went to the tailor for needles. Never came back.”
Jon’s brows furrowed as he leaned in. “I would speak with her.”
I should learn more of this.
“She has a stall three rows south. Let her bring it up. No one wants the Lord’s ire.”
“I will be careful, Jaspor. Give your father my good wishes. I will seek you out again.”
The knight meandered through the busy market. Several stalls were baking bread and meat pies. The pleasant, sweet and savory smells carried his thoughts home until he saw the sign: Apparel and Repairs. He found a woman busily hanging out cream-colored shirts, grey tunics and thick woolen cloaks on her stall. In pride of place, a manikin wore an olive-green smock and corset embroidered with red and yellow flowers.
“Hallo, I am Jonathan. Are you Mother Garvey?
The old woman turned to him. Her eyes were red and the corners of her mouth down-turned, yet her sad wrinkles pulled up into a smile. “Yes, sir, how can I serve you?”
“Jaspor Rohn recommended you. Do you make repairs?”
“I mend on the full moon and have them back first of the following week. But, if it’s easy, I can do it while you wait.”
“I think it is.” He drew a set of breeches from his pack. “These have a torn seam.” He pointed out the damage.
Mother Garvey took the garment and retreated to within the booth, beckoning for Jon to follow. Within were two stools and a small, cluttered workbench. “The cloth is sound,” she noted as she sat and reached for her sewing box.
“Have you had this place for long?”
“Sit,” she instructed, waiting until he’d done so. Then she tested the material, drew out a needle and thread and began sewing. “Not too long. My husband passed last fall. I needed to make coin, so I rented it from the Lord of Lorness.”
“Is he fair?” he asked gently, not wanting to spook her.
The seamstress paused and looked up. “I don’t have much to compare him to, but ‘fair’ doesn’t come to mind.”
“Oh?” His eyebrows rose.
The woman furtively glanced outside, through the stall’s canvas door. She lowered her voice. “There are things that should not be overheard by others. It’s not… safe. Yet, I perceive in the spirit you’re a Knight of J’shua.”
Jonathan nodded, becoming more aware of his surroundings and how easily the tiny tent could become a trap.
She gestured that he should lean closer, then whispered, “Lord Melazera has the evil eye. He worships the ancient gods. They demand sacrifices.”
Jonathan’s eyebrows rose. He had suspected things had deteriorated, but this?
“There’re rumors,” she continued softly. “My grandmother knew the old ways. She taught me about…” She paused as people passed the stall’s opening. “They say Die Abwanderung was performed for King Edal. A gruesome thing. Runes were drawn on his dead body. There were incantations, cuttings, and the body burned. All to placate their foul gods. Only after did Prince Sagen take the throne.”
Again, Jon nodded, encouraging her to say more.
She frowned, looking at the blank canvas wall as she resumed. Her face was hard, angry. “The annual hunt has been the high point of the year for generations. Yet, the king was alone when boars attacked and gored him fatally. There was no investigation.”
Her expression softened as she checked her work, then showed him the mended seam.
“This is well done. How much do I owe you?”
“Not a thing, sir.” The woman clasped his hand. “All I ask in return are your prayers and vigilance. These are wicked times,” she hissed, then gestured for him to leave the tent. Finishing with, “Only the knights can overcome the evil blowing across the land.”
“I had hoped to speak of your missing granddaughter—”
“There’s nothing to say. If you do not leave now, people will take note of how long we talked, then gossip. That could be bad for us both. Whatever you’ve heard, the truth is worse.”
With a nod and his thanks, he left then continued through the market, stopping at a tavern, where others told of the trouble at the border, of conscripted boys, and debt collections.
He found a less-than-reputable place, the Farr Away Inn, still within sight of the gate while seeking more people who’d enjoy gossiping.
Hopefully, Daikon Paul will come out at dusk. I have not received a letter from him in several moons. What if he no longer has the patronage of the king?
Inside were the blacksmiths, coopers, and stablemen who lived near their sheds as they might be called upon at any hour.
Jonathan took a chair at the back, near an open window. From there, he could watch the castle’s gate, the path and the door, or jump through if necessary.
Someone laughed, talking boisterously about a noble who’d fallen from his horse. The storyteller was hefty with huge arms, waving them about imitating the fall.
“Lord Melazera was dressing down a terrified page for bringing the wrong parchments for his meeting with the Magistrate,” the man regaled his fellows and aped each character. “The Lord stepped away from the boy, toward his coach, as a man fell from a horse… placing the noble perfectly for the splash. There he stood covered head to toe in mud!”
The whole room erupted in laughter. A few slapped the table and raised their cups. Their amusement spread, making Jonathan chuckle too. He called out, “That was a great story. You made my day. Can I buy you a drink as a reward?” The knight nodded to a server. “Bring us two of whatever he is drinking.”
The storyteller approached Jonathan, raising his cup. “My name is Lewis Rafferty. My friends call me ‘Lafferty’. Get it?” He winked. “Always happy to meet someone that appreciates my stories. What brings you to Farr Castle? Do you have a story for me?”
“I am Jon, and just returned from Mestelina.”
“Did you have any trouble? Those Mestel dogs have been attacking farms on the edge of the frontier and burning crops.”
“Why are they doing so?” Jon asked.
“Don’t know, but I’m sure it’s why there aren’t many boys around. Those that want riches, enlisted in the army. Some country lads joined to protect their families. Regardless, whenever I see soldiers, they’re boasting about something or other. They come to my smithy when they need help with a tool or a blade.”
“Who is this Melazera person? I may have known him as a youth.”
“Can’t picture him as a boy. He’s very stern. There’ve been many executions since he came to Farr,” Lafferty shook his head. His light brown hair flew in all directions from under his brown cap. “Old Steward Rothbard was a fair man. He’d work with people, brokering compromises between lenders and debtors. Melazera’s ruthless. Before, if you owed another man, you worked it out with him. The Steward just facilitated it.”
“Go to Melazera’s court and he claims the debt for the crown, buys it for a fraction of its value, while forcing the debtor to pay in full. Even uses soldiers to collect. Pay up or your children go to work on the royal farms or into the mines. Sometimes, he’ll even take wives. We shudder to think what happens to them. They don’t oft return. If not bound, I’d leave this place. It’s tough to keep a sense of humor.”
“How did you…?” Jon prompted.
“My father was a kind man, but not too bright. He liked to gamble, lost a wager, so owed five hundred baden. My da offered a horse and a fine sword instead, but the winner sold the debt to Melazera who, in turn, sent me to the mines. Fortunately, I was more valuable as a blacksmith, so I’ve some freedom and can see my family. Both are great blessings.”
“When will your servitude end?”
“My father lost money several times after that, extending my sentence. Now he’s passed, Melazera said when the war with Mestelina ends, I’ll be freed. He only needs me to make weapons for the conflict,” Lafferty explained. “Every day, new soldiers come with requisitions for swords, daggers, and other gear. It keeps me busy.”
Jon noticed the light dimming, “I must find Daikon Paul. Do you know him?”
“Know him?” Lafferty smiled. “Sure do. He shares a room with me in this inn. Neither can afford a room to ourselves.”
“What happened? He always had a room in the castle before.”
“The way of J’shua’s been outlawed. His remaining circle’s tiny and must meet in secret. He’d prosper if he went back south, but refuses to leave. I’ll tell him you’re here.” Lafferty bounded up the stairs.
Jonathan silently praised the Lord for directing his footsteps. To find the daikon so quickly was amazing. While waiting, Jonathan gazed out the window, watching the people. No children ran about. People trudged by, looking at their feet. They were oppressed.
Lafferty reappeared. “He told me to bring you up.”
Jonathan ascended the stairs.
“Hallo, hallo, my dear boy! I am so happy to see you whole and hearty.” Daikon Paul encircled him in a warm hug.
Lafferty left with a smile and nod, shutting the door.
“I’m sorry I haven’t written these last few moons,” the daikon continued, “but after the proclamation declaring Circles of J’shua unlawful, I feared my letters would be intercepted and you’d be in danger.”
“How did it come to this?”
The daikon offered Jonathan a chair, then paced with hands folded behind his back, as he always did while sharing. “Sagen became… difficult… after you and Drake went to the School. Only weeks later, Gaelib was summoned home to be with his ailing mother. Left alone, Sagen’s studies suffered. His father demanded the prince stay at High Castle until his teachers gave him a good report. I prayed for him often.
“After Gaelib’s mother passed, his father brought him to Farr Castle. At the same time a lady appeared, a widow of one of the king’s retainers in a distant land. She was wicked, always devising mischief and sowing discord.”
The daikon clenched his fists. “She pursued Gaelib’s father. Then the king recommended they wed since both were recently bereaved.” He frowned. “Edal was very compassionate. There’ll never be a more benevolent king.
“Meanwhile, her daughter set her eyes upon young Gaelib, despite being four years older. I saw them sneaking around. It was a strange relationship, but I couldn’t get his father to acknowledge it.” Paul paused, shaking his head. “He kept saying ‘Gaelib can’t stand the girl’ and ‘she’s a woman, he but a boy’. Not that his father ever paid any attention to his son.”
Jon shifted in his seat. “Did they marry?”
“Yes. After his father died of colic. According to his wife, he’d suffered in silence for a long time. But I suspect poison. Gaelib was eighteen when he became Earl of Lorness. Not long after, he married his stepmother’s daughter, Caileagh.”
Daikon Paul buried his face in his palms. “This made me painfully aware that my suspicions had been correct. I knew things would get worse.
“Gaelib styled himself the Lord of Lorness, eschewing his formal title. In charge of his father’s fortune and enthralled by his new wife, they began having feasts, where lewd things occurred. Soldiers of rank, nobles, and people of influence attended. You had to be invited or pay for the privilege to benefit from his corrupt business dealings and unseemly entertainments.” The old man paused, looking tired, his eyes tearing up.
His profound sadness moved Jonathan. “Please, sit, sir.”
Daikon Paul did so. “About that time, Sagen was allowed to go to Farr Castle again, and was reacquainted with his old friend. It was the happiest I’d seen him. But I knew renewed friendship with Gaelib would be corrupting.”
“Poor Sagen,” Jonathan focused on the floor.
“Then the king made Gaelib apprentice to the Royal Steward, Rothbard, so the young Lord of Lorness traveled with them.
“Gaelib continued to have his private revelries wherever he and Caileagh went, spreading depravity and his influence throughout the kingdom. Once he knew where all the king’s accounts were, the old Steward died in his sleep.” Daikon Paul sighed heavily. “I tried to reveal what I understood to King Edal one last time, but was sent away, never to be called back.”
I had no idea Daikon Paul carried such a burden. Jonathan squeezed his shoulder.
“Then I began hearing of their religion, Alte Regieren, which translates as ‘Ancient Ones Rule’.”
“I heard of this in the market,” Jon confirmed.
“This is what you feel here, the oppression of the old hedonistic ways and its superstitions. They call evil good, and good evil. Pray for us, Jon.”
Jon looked up to heaven. “Holy Father, lead us unto the right path, help us know what to do, and how to help our neighbors in this dark time. Shower us with your peace. Show us the way, in J’shua’s name.” Jonathan hugged the daikon, then stood. “I must talk to Sagen. Perhaps he will listen to me.”
“I think that unwise,” Daikon Paul remonstrated. “Things have changed. There’s evil growing. You can’t expect King Sagen to listen to you because of childhood friendship.”
“I must try,”
The daikon nodded. “I’ll pray for you.”
Leaving his sword, gear, and the Writings behind, he headed down the stairs.
Jonathan prayed in the spirit silently as he approached the castle’s keep.
Guards stood rigidly in full dress on both sides of the gate. A soldier demanded, “What’s your business?”
“I am Jonathan Otual, a friend of King Sagen from childhood. I request an audience with the king.”
The soldier signaled to a militet, who had written down Jonathan’s words, to take the message to the King’s Secretary. The response came quicker than expected.
The soldier read the reply, then issued orders for Mister Otual to be escorted to the South Reception Hall.
A large stone archway loomed. Stiff and stern doormen sprang to open doors as the militet approached. Jonathan followed.
“That will be all,” a voice commanded, and the militet left.
A chill ran down Jon's spine.
I still recognize him. The quiet boy peering out of those hard eyes.
“Jon, I heard that you were here. I’ve wondered when we’d cross paths again. It’s been too long,” Gaelib stated brightly, then turned away. “I miss those raucous days when we ran through fields and lazed about. What have you been up to?”
“Travel mostly. I didn’t expect to see you. You look well. Will the king be joining us?” Jonathan approached the well-groomed Royal Steward, hoping to seem relaxed.
Gaelib turned, flashing the tight smile Jonathan remembered. “He’s still deciding what to do with you, having heard much about you inciting the Mestels. They even yell your name when they burn crops, vandalize property, and murder his people. Surely you didn’t expect a warm welcome,” Melazera oozed as he poured wine into a glass.
“You cannot believe such lies.” Jonathan took a step closer.
The soldiers tensed.
Gaelib’s smile broadened as he offered Jon the cup. “Of course I do.”
“No, thank you.” Jonathan replied, taking in every detail of the chamber. It was small for a hall, only ten yards deep by eight yards wide. Birdcages, a different exotic species in each, were its only decoration. Each captive quietly warbled a distinctive song. Under each high window, a soldier stood armed and ready, and at each door.
Melazera smiled. “Jon, I insist.”
“No. If the king is not coming, I shall leave.”
“I think not.” Gaelib nodded.
“You are behind these fictions. Why?”
The soldiers advanced. One kicked him behind the knees. Holding him down, arms behind his back, Jonathan felt the chamber spin as red liquid filled his throat. All faded to blackness.
Cynthia Otual – Early Summer, 154 AK – Farr Castle
Cynthia beat against the bars of the cage cart, screaming, “There must be some mistake. That farm has been in my family for generations. If you—”
“Quiet!” a guard snapped. “There are no witnesses, If I say you were taken in a collection, you were. It’s not going to matter. Not when you’ve already been sold. Why else do you think the cart’s empty but for you?”
The butt of the guard’s spear neatly knocked her unconscious.
Jonathan – Early Summer, 154 AK – Farr Castle
When Jonathan awoke, he was tied, hands overhead, in a small, windowless chamber wearing only his breeches. Cold pavers sent a chill through his bare feet.
He controlled his breathing, exhaling slowly to stay at peace.
The daikon warned me. I should have listened.
He prayed as he waited.
Have I misunderstood your guidance, Lord?
The door creaked open. Several soldiers entered as red blurs carrying a crate. The same spicy, sweet scent from earlier filled his nose, the fragrance his former friend had been bathed in as a youth. Some healer had told his father it would prevent his heir’s death.
Gaelib is here.
Melazera pointed to the chains hanging from above. “I was only thirteen when I was introduced to this secluded chamber, Jon.’ He stood, yanking one of the chains so that it tinkled high above. “Caileagh found it covered in many years of dust. Unlike the dungeons below, there were benches along one wall, so guests could attend, to witness methods of… persuasion.”
He slowly pulled Jonathan around as he circled him. “It fell into disuse decades ago under King Edal, who wanted to demonstrate what a fair and noble king he was.” Gaelib smirked.
“So, the chamber lay empty, until Caileagh discovered it. When she brought me here flickering torches created frightening shadows around the room. A fire roared. The room was like an oven. Undressing me felt a relief. And hanging as you are, sent a shiver through me. The chains jingled overhead as she instructed me in the most exquisite revelations. Her rewards were so tantalizing…”
The door opened again.
“Remember me, little knight,” a hoarse masculine voice growled.
Jonathan cringed. “Who...?”
“Fairness Crossing?” the soldier hinted again, louder.
Everything echoes. The drugs have not worn off yet.
Jonathan prayed for help to escape.
After you see the king, the still, small voice soothed within his mind.
He focused on staying in the peace of J’shua.
“Jon, this is Captain Greysun,” Gaelib purred, coming closer, where he looked less fuzzy. “He was Commandant at Fairness Crossing fifteen years ago. Don’t you remember? You and your friends interfered in his command, dishonoring him. My father would not let him retaliate at the time, the fool.”
“…tried… end it differently… told me I would regret it.” Jon kept his words slow, reserving his strength for later.
The spirit led me here.
He could see a little more clearly. The walls were limestone. There were crude wooden benches, chains hung from beams above, and a single chair. Before him, there was a hearth, where a fire crackled. His cloak, tunic, shirt, and boots were on a table by the only exit.
There was a crack as the lid of the crate broke free.
“Later, you lost him a great sum,” Gaelib continued, “well over one hundred thousand baden when you had King Edal reverse the debt collections ten years ago. He’s asked me for the opportunity to repay you. I told him he mustn’t leave any marks, since the king will see you in the morning. Greysun promised he’d obey my orders… today.”
I will be allowed to see the king.
Melazera smiled as he lowered himself into the chair. “Begin. I love to watch a man who takes pride in his work. Don’t kill him, Captain.” He leaned back, resting his cordovan boots on the warm hearth. He gestured for an orange. Breaking it apart, he peeled away one slice with his teeth.
Greysun smiled. “My Lord, I learned this technique from the madame that runs my brothels. She’d never do as much damage as I intend to. She needs her girls to keep working. But a mere half dozen blows will be felt for weeks without any sign of bruising.”
A militet placed several oranges in a burlap sack, then handed it to the captain.
The first blow knocked the wind out of Jonathan.
After several impacts, the whole chamber smelled of citrus.
Gaelib inhaled deeply. “I just love the smell of oranges. Don’t you, Jon?”
“Not… anymore,” Jonathan grunted.
This is meant to hurt worse afterward.
Greysun continued striking. When a sack became ineffective, the captain signaled for a new one.
“You’re an artist, Greysun,” Gaelib praised, leaning against stone wall. “Your strikes so precise, delivered with such verve and panache. I can’t recall seeing such a virtuoso at work.”
The captain paused, bowed to Gaelib. “Thank you, My Lord.”
“Don’t you agree, Jon?”
Nearly unconscious, Jonathan was startled awake by a cold splash.
“We wouldn’t want you to miss out on even a moment of this evening’s entertainment, Jon.” Melazera patted Jon’s cheek. “Be a good lad, stay with us.”
Time and time again, pain overwhelmed the knight and he slipped into a daze, only to be revived so the process could continue.
At some point, Jon distantly heard Gaelib’s bored voice. “That’s enough, Captain. Have your men rinse him off, then take him to a cell. Ensure he’s dressed in clean clothes for his morning interview with His Majesty. He must make a good impression.”
Gaelib – Early Summer, 154 AK – Farr Castle
Gaelib gloated. Things were going well. His influence grew ever stronger. His allies obeyed with ever greater fervor. And the new king was doing as instructed. Best of all, he had not one but two Otuals. Jonathan awaiting below in the interrogation chamber, had been led by the Warrior right into the castle. Otual’s daughter-in-Law, Cynthia, was in a dungeon.
Oh, the revelry he’d have degrading one in front of the other once King Sagen sentenced the knight. The prospect was… exquisite.
Even better, he had them all to himself. Caileagh was off doing whatever she did to control her spies, informers, and seductresses, plus those things necessary to placate her endless gods. All he cared about was the Warrior. Otual and his daughter-in-law could, and would, amply satisfy that deity’s demands.
Picking up a length of silk, Gaelib ran it through his hands thinking about how it could be used.
“Oh yes, this is going to be utterly delicious!”