Chapter 19: Judged
Rebekah – Early Summer, 154 AK – Lexandria
Rebekah was back in Lexandria. She didn’t want to be. She wanted to be looking for Sarah, or searching for Jonathan. She wanted to learn more about Melazera’s plans and thwart them, for she was ever more convinced that the so-called Lord of Lorness was at the heart of everything foul.
No, I want him to be. I still can’t prove it. But I will. Then, in J’shua’s name, I shall wreak holy vengeance upon the man who outlawed my husband, stole away my daughter, and tried to sell me into slavery. This I vow. He and those who willingly worked with him shall atone for their vile sins.
However, the practicalities of life kept getting in the way. Plus, too many of Licht Gegen’s operations were directly or indirectly funded by her growing wealth.
Riches. Be honest. I’m not merely wealthy. As Tomas Bekh, I am already rich beyond imagining. It’s embarrassing, vulgar and in conflict with J’shua’s example of living a simple life. I could buy my parent’s farm dozens of times over and have money to spare. I am surrounded by… excess.
The extent of her holdings still puzzled her. As did their value increasing leaps and bounds with every new venture she started. Ventures initiated because they might provide information, contacts, or leverage. Or, to provide ways to clandestinely get money to those who needed it. Or, to obtain things that could not be openly bought and sold in Freislicht, such as weapons, armor, and other equipment.
Almost all of which, seemingly of their own volition, kept making yet more money.
The trip south was merely the latest imposition that her successes thrust upon her. She had tried to distance herself from controlling this mercantile monster she’d created by hiring a manager in the north and another in the south.
Kellick Dunston, the northern manager, was steady, stodgy, and matter-of-fact. He loved numbers more than people. He fulfilled her instructions without question. His only failing, in her eyes, was that he was making her ever richer. That was despite her insisting he buy up as many of the debts that the loathsome Melazera might otherwise foreclose on.
She was in Lexandria to see her southern manager and still trying to decide whether to fire Bywold Parsons. Maybe, she’d just strangle him. It’d be far more satisfying.
Parsons had initially proven a commendable addition to her enterprises. For the first four moons, he could do no wrong. However, in the last six weeks he’d been late with three major shipments and had infuriated a long-standing customer almost to the point of losing them. Admittedly, he had taken responsibility for the mistakes, but she simply didn’t need the additional headaches.
For her, business was a way to move around unnoticed. Or had been. She was starting to be recognized as an affluent trader.
The messages left at her usual inn had directed her to an address she wasn’t familiar with. The building turned out to be a large warehouse with an office on its upper floor. The sign over the main doors read: Bekh’s Bold Businesses. The image below it was a stylized depiction of her face. Her thickly bearded face.
Her heart sank.
What’s Parsons done now?
As she stormed up the stairs, she was wondering how to fix this mess without wrecking everything she’d built, only to find a seated Bywold Parsons speaking to… Charles Dugan, whom she hadn’t seen in almost a decade. Not since they’d both left Frei Forest. “What the…? What’s going on?”
“Mr. Bekh,’ Parsons said, rising to his feet and bowing, “I apologize for the recent inconveniences. I—”
“He did as I insisted,” Charles cut in. “I’ve ended up running Licht Gegen here in the south. It turns out that by creating a few hiccups with your deliveries, we were able to spot–”
“Should you be mentioning Licht Gegen?” Parsons fretted, his face becoming ashen. “Mr. Bekh knows nothing of them. I’ve kept my involvement absolutely quiet. I–”
“Bywold,” Charles soothed. “Tomas is one of us. I vouch for him.”
“Oh… oh… in that case,” Parsons meekly sat down.
“However,” Charles sprouted a slight grin, “I wasn’t going to take any chances until I confirmed that your employer, Mr. Bekh, was still the… man… I knew long ago. How about I buy you a drink and we talk about recent developments? Parsons, join us.”
How much odder can this get?
It turned out that Bywold had discerned opportunities that allowed Charles to introduce followers into important places and use her company’s funds for Licht Gegen matters. And somehow, they’d made yet more profit.
Jonathan – Early Summer, 154 AK – Farr Castle
Jonathan became aware of scraping, shuffling, and voices outside. Everything echoed within his head. He couldn’t make out the words, but they were getting closer.
“I want to see him, now!” A woman’s voice demanded.
“Yes, Lady Melazera,” a militet answered as the cell door creaked open.
The light from a torch flickered across the floor and walls. Her perfume drifted into the cell, powerful and exotic. Barely floral but spicy and musky, it was most pleasant.
Jonathan lay where he’d been dropped the night before, his swollen muscles still unresponsive. “…morning, M’lady… excuse my rudeness… lost my clothes and cannot stand…,” Jonathan croaked, rolling to his side. The world spun. “How may I be… of service?”
With a foot, she pushed him onto his back. “The sketch of you on your wanted posters does you no credit. It doesn’t do justice to your… eyes. I thought, to commemorate this long-delayed meeting, I should correct that. Enter!”
A black-robed-and-hooded servant came in carrying parchment and a small board, followed by two soldiers carrying torches.
“Be still,” Cailleagh crooned.
Through blurry eyes, Jonathan took in Lady Melazera standing over him. She gloated as her eyes traced the lines of his body. Her tongue played over her lips in a vile mockery of lust. She was repugnant, foul… Fallen.
That was the best word to describe her.
For a moment, despite his pain and the situation, he felt sorry for her, wondering what had led her to this.
Then, she knelt close and whispered to him, “I intend this to be perfect to mark my beloved husband's revenge. He can destroy copy after copy as he exults in your death. Seeing His Majesty is only a formality. Your fate is sealed.”
The hooded man held up his drawing for inspection.
“Delightful, make a dozen copies and bring them to me by nightfall,” she commanded then left without saying another word. Only her intoxicating fragrance remained.
Jonathan forced his body to straighten. He hurt everywhere.
After a time, he dozed. His only hope was some healing during sleep.
Owakar – Early Summer, 154 AK – Above Lorness
Owakar came closer to the boys, resting on a branch of an old oak disguised as a lynx. He wanted to learn more of them. Their frequent prayers, especially those of the eldest, drew his attention.
Such fearlessness in these pups, born from their great love for one another.
He wondered what would become of them.
Owakar, as a lynx, sprang away when his brother angel, Alocrin, called to him from Farr Castle. Jonathan was to be brought before the king.
Immediately, Owakar sent the knight memories of scriptures to strengthen his faith.
But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak. The Spirit of your Father shall speaketh through you.
James of the Wood – Early Summer, 154 AK – The Woods Outside Lexandria
James of the Wood had traveled south. While hunting with several of the boys, they heard a hiss and a growl. One boy took aim at a lynx, but James rested his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “No, Tam, this is his forest too. We only kill to eat or defend ourselves. If we were to be his lunch, he’d not have made a sound.
Later that day, he was surprised to encounter Fyrna Locke. The woman might be a lesser member of that clan, but was well-known in horse training circles. To find her and less than a handful of men herding two dozen mounts, far from anywhere, was either a blessing or a curse.
He wasn’t sure yet.
“Who’re you, boy?” She’d begun, only for her tone to harden upon realizing she was surrounded. “Or, should I ask, who are you and your ruffians?”
“These are my woods, lady. I’ll not rob you, but there’s a toll to be paid… if you’d prefer to pass peacefully.”
“My apologies, Lord of the Woods, I didn’t recognize you without your usual finery.” She semi-bowed, still in the saddle. “How many of my horses do you require?”
“Since,” James grinned, “your manners are so fine, only three.”
Fyrna scowled, looking around as yet more armed lads appeared. “Given the circumstances, a small price to pay.”
“How good of you to agree. I’ll take your horse and that of the two riders with you. Leave their saddles and tack. A woman so noted for her skill in training such beasts will have no trouble riding bareback.”
Fyrna’s expression darkened. “Less of a bargain. A suggestion, youngster, abandon this part of your territory for a time. The weather to the north looks far more… pleasant. And I’d enjoy hearing stories of you taxing the Melazeras.”
“A wonderful notion, lady. It shall be as you say. I’d hate to wear out my welcome with such hospitable neighbors.”
Jonathan – Early Summer, 154 AK – Farr Castle
Jonathan had been dressed and escorted to the Main Hall by four militet, their swords ready. It was almost amusing. Bruised, battered, and still bent over, he could walk. Albeit, it was more of a shuffle.
The militet stayed close.
The Main Hall, three times larger than the Steward’s Hall, was filled with colorful, well-dressed people behind an ornate balustrade: dukes, earls, lesser lords, and their ladies. As they bobbed their heads and blinked their eyes to get a glimpse of the infamous knight, Jonathan smiled.
Looks like a crate full of peacocks.
He had hoped to speak with Sagen alone. Clearly, that was not to be.
Father, give me wisdom, give me the right words. Please don’t let me die today.
Soldiers in bright red uniforms, standing at attention along the aisle, watched as he was brought to the correct spot before the king.
Jon grimaced as he bent, pressing his knees into the stone floor. He bowed his head and waited.
After a long pause, Sagen commanded, “Rise, sir knight.”
Jonathan wobbled, but stood under his own power.
“Why have you come before your king?”
“I came because we were friends once, Your Majesty.” Jonathan felt the vibration and warmth of the Lord’s inspiration. “Lord J’shua wants to heal your land. There is great oppression over your people.” A boldness grew within. His pain faded away. “We awake early filled with thoughts and dreads, moved to sing in the spirit a mournful song in prayer and praise to the Lord. He alone knows what burdens our souls. Send us your angels, open enchanted ears, clear the vision of the fools. No longer will we pray for safety. We pray for strength. We are moved to sing in the spirit a war song and a love song, for there is nothing stronger than the Love of the God of Truth. Your Majesty, trust in the sacrifice of His son, J’shua. You are already ransomed by him. He will never leave you.”
The king looked down at him for a long while. “Jonathan, I hear your words and take them in the light of friendship in which they are spoken. But this land no longer serves J’shua or his Father. All his followers have left, and the God of this Age has filled the land with prosperity. The Lord of Lorness has shown me the truth. He has brought order to our legal system. My dungeons are empty.
“However, you must be punished for your crimes. I choose not to render the death penalty for the sake of our childhood friendship. Instead, I banish you from my kingdom. Do what you can to end the fighting. If you succeed, I may permit you to return home.”
“Your Majesty,” Jonathan pleaded, “may I not see the evidence against me?”
“No,” the king decreed. “Leave. You will be escorted to Mestelina immediately.”
Jon’s heart breaking, he bowed, then hobbled out with the militet.
Lord, why didn’t he hear me?
Gaelib – Early Summer, 154 AK – Farr Castle
Melazera stifled his reactions as he walked away. His face was fixed in an artful cross between sorrow for the fate of his boyhood friend and the need to do what was right for the kingdom. Inside, he seethed so badly he couldn’t remain in the king’s presence without doing something foolish.
People moved out of his way with even greater alacrity than usual. It pleased him.
Sadly, that was the only good thing to have occurred in the Main Hall.
It had all been arranged!
It was perfect. Jon would have been returned to the dungeons to await his execution, only to take his life with poison. The guard, who had ‘missed’ it, would then have been slain, removing the only ‘witness’. The king would have been permitted to view his friend’s body. After that, Caileagh would have administered the antidote and restored the knight to consciousness.
The fascinating, deliciously wicked things that Gaelib had planned would be enacted over and over, for however long a period Jon continued to amuse him. Add the bonus of being able to torture father-in-law and daughter-in-law together…
The frisson of pleasure almost offset his anger. But only almost.
Curse Sagan! Banishment! Worse, banishment with the possibility of a reprieve!
Gaelib slipped into a back passage and down into the interrogation chamber. Only there did he allow his mask to fall away, revealing his black mood.
His prize had been taken from him.
Then, there was Caileagh. She had her own plans for the knight, plans she’d kept secret. But she’d whispered hints. Hints that tantalized him, aroused him, and had him salivating to see how creative she could be.
She would be… displeased. No, she’d be far worse than that.
Still, the daughter-in-law, Cynthia, would be some consolation. Except, everything he did to her would pale against what would have been. Sagen had spoiled that pleasure too.
As he fumed, the Warrior’s inspiration stirred within him. There were other ways he could use the girl, while still enjoying a diversion. Enough so that…
“Yes. Yes. Yes! Oh, yes. Thank you, my Warrior,” Gaelib roared joyously. If she alone couldn’t provide him the pleasure he was due, then…
I’ve never before been able to learn when the elder knights are meeting. This is delicious.
Having stirred the ember-covered logs in the fireplace to summon new flames, Gaelib flopped into the only chair. He hated waiting for his plans to come into fruition. He breathed in. The room still smelled of citrus and stale sweat. The memory of Jon’s suffering soothed him.
Greysun is an artist. With only a bag of oranges he beat the knight thoroughly, without killing him… but Jon will be dead soon.
Stretching, he luxuriated in the fire’s warmth, thinking of what he’d already put into motion. Under the guise of meticulous note taking while the king held court, a habit he was well known for, he’d sent off messages that… oh, the things those notes had made happen over the years.
He was the Steward to the King, although he preferred ‘Steward of the King’. He controlled the soldiers. He controlled the treasury. He controlled the lords in all their castles, either directly or indirectly through the Black Robes.
He was the true master of Freislicht. One day very soon, he wouldn’t have to rule this land – his land – from the shadows. He’d sit on the throne.
Again, he inhaled the chamber’s aroma. It sent his mind back to when he’d learned the Game of the World from Caileagh. He continued sitting by the fire, his feet propped up on the table, and relived a memory.
Twelve years earlier, the moon had been high as Gaelib and Caileagh lay on a blanket. She fed him slices of orange as she told him of the different gods and their blessings. They were innumerable: the god of harvest, the god of the sea, the god of war, and the god of fertility. All needed to be pleased.
“Pay attention,” she coaxed, presenting another slice, “I’ve a new surprise for you”.
“Which god must I satisfy to have you completely?”
“I wish it were so simple.” She laughed and licked the juice off her fingers. “I long for you, but we must wait until we marry. Should your father discover I am not chaste, it would doom our plan.” She nuzzled his neck. “We must honor the gods we need. Each requires sacrifices on their special days.”
She smelled of citrus. He twirled her hair in his fingers, grabbed her and rolled on top. He didn’t want to listen anymore. He wanted her.
After a few minutes, she reminded him, “Don’t you want your present?”
He stopped kissing her. “I always want your gifts.”
She pushed him off, reaching for a wineskin and two glasses. Pouring a thick pink liquid into each, she offered one to him. “Drink it.”
Sweet and salty and rich like cream, it tasted amazing. Energy warmed him from his center outward. He savored it, growled, then leapt on her again. “Is there more?”
“There can be. It’s difficult to make, but if you want, I’ll make more.”
“Soon,” she responded, touching him.
Gaelib sighed. There was no more time to think about the past. It was time to implement and enjoy the Warrior’s – no, his – new plan.
Blackhawk – Early Summer, 154 AK – Farr Castle
When Blackhawk entered the hall, a young brown-haired woman sat slumped on the floor, her eyes were wide with terror. Guards flanked her.
He hadn’t seen Gaelib or Caileagh for two years. He had sent reports, but not been summoned by either until today.
Has my loyalty been challenged? If so, I’ll have to make a good show to survive.
“Steven, come here.” Gaelib’s mood was effusive but, as always, mercurial. “It’s been too long. Let me look at you.” The Lord of Lorness was seated on an ornate chair, placed upon a dais. It wasn’t a throne, exactly. However, the tapestry of a giant green dragon behind it, reinforced the regal impression.
Blackhawk approached and bowed low. As he rose, Gaelib stroked his son’s beard.
“You’re quite a man now, Steven.”
Blackhawk bowed again. “I am pleased you think so, My Lord.”
“I hear such great things from Commander Taelor.
“My success is only due to your interest in me, My Lord.”
“He made you a major.” Gaelib touched the silver armbands, then the back of his hand stroked Steven’s uniform and traced its way slowly back to his waist. “He hasn’t seduced you away from me, has he?”
“No, my lord. You taught me to be entertaining, helpful, and complimentary. That and obedience has earned me my rank.”
“Yes, yes, I did. I was worried. Now, I need you to be useful to me. You should enjoy this, too.” He pointed to the woman. “This is the wife of a Knight of J’shua. It’s illegal to practice that religion. I’ve pronounced her guilty. You shall execute my sentence.”
Blackhawk’s gut tightened, but he maintained his icy calm. He didn’t let his emotions show with Gaelib or Caileagh. He’d learned very early that displaying your feelings gave them more power over you.
“What punishment shall I administer, My Lord?”
“Chain her to the center post facing us.”
Blackhawk crossed the room, yanking her up by her bound wrists.
“Stop!” She pleaded, futilely struggling to pull away.
Steven fastened the rope through the ring at the top of the post. He quashed his feelings as she thrashed, then turned back to the Lord of Lorness.
“Now, despoil her,” Gaelib commanded, leaning forward in anticipation.
“As you wish, and thank you, My Lord.” Flashing his most lecherous smile toward Gaelib, Blackhawk pulled out his dagger. She begged and cried as he cut her laces and dress at the shoulders, then fondled her. He knew what Gaelib liked, so imitated his lord.
She bellowed louder.
Slowly, he tasted every inch of her body, peeling the dress off, until she was completely naked. He shut his eyes. He couldn’t look at her. Lifting her legs, lunging, he pretended to enter her, hoping his movements and noises would satisfy Melazera. Despite himself, his body responded, leaving telltale liquids behind. Guilt curdled his stomach.
She sobbed convulsively when he let her legs drop and fastened his breeches. Turning, he bowed to Melazera, saying, “Thank you, My Lord. I’d like to do that again later. If you are of a mind to let me.”
Blackhawk relaxed, a little. It was the laugh of his adoring father rather than his suspicious lord.
“Oh my, Steven. You always were eager to please. I’ll think about it, but I have other pleasures in store for her. Don’t be greedy,” Gaelib smirked, then commanded a guard, “Take her away. Dress her. Put her in the interrogation chamber, in the dark.”
Melazera smiled as she was dragged away. “Steven, you remember that place.”
Blackhawk did. As a child, he’d learned obedience and to please Gaelib and Caileagh there.
“You may go,” Melazera dismissed him with a wave of his hand.
Relief washed over Blackhawk. But just as the porters opened the doors for him, Melazera added, “I expect you for dinner tonight… in my chamber.”
“Yes, My Lord.”
Clearly, the tests aren’t over.