Chapter 19: Betrayals – 153 AK, Late Autumn to Winter
Psalm 31:13-14 For I have heard the slander of many, terror is on every side; while they took counsel together against me, they schemed to take away my life. But I trusted in thee, O LORD: I said, Thou art my God.
Farr Castle – The King’s Drawing Room
When Sagen entered the King’s Drawing Room, the sight of Melyssa took his breath away. The azure sky through the window framed her golden curls. A ruby-red gown accentuated her youthful curves. She controlled her countenance well but he suspected she wouldn’t have chosen so provocative a color nor such a low-cut neckline.
I should’ve thought of this. The Chamberlain of the Women’s Hall is clearly a talented man, but I won’t grant him such control over my fiancé. In future, he’ll let her make her own choices. With suitable guidance, if needed, which I doubt.
He took a deep breath to quiet himself, his expression still neutral.
The maiden is beautiful. If I was a rake... but that’s why we have four chaperones.
The dowagers sat in the back of the room. Far enough away not to overhear the couple’s conversation but close enough to stop any untoward behavior. It was a custom instituted by Sagen’s great-great-grandfather after a lady claimed he’d seduced her. Since then, no king had ever been alone with a woman before marrying her. Well, no woman of good breeding.
After crossing the room, he took her hand and kissed it again. “Shall we sit?” He motioned toward the couch at the room’s center.
They talked about many things.
Eventually, after they were both comfortable, he explained his plan and precautions. “There’ll only be three times a day when we can be our true selves. We shall have to make the best of it.”
“We’ll come up with code words if either of us needs to talk to the other immediately.”
She smiled. “That will be exciting.”
Sagen furrowed his brows.
“We’ll never be able to be a happy couple in public. You must act timid and worried, even depressed once in a while. Act like a child, be petulant. I will act callous and overbearing at times. Please, forgive me in advance, but we must do this. If Gaelib ever discovers we’re plotting to heal the land, he’ll kill you.”
The door opened.
Flushed with victory, Gaelib paraded into the King’s Drawing Room. Everything had fallen into place. It was time to glory in what his schemes had wrought.
He bowed. “Good evening Your Majesty, my lady…” his proper and perfumed words catching in his throat. The woman seated with the king wasn’t Melyssa Locke. “Forgive me, Your Majesty, but I’m confused. Who’s this?”
Sagen rose easily to his feet, confidence pouring from him. “This is Lady Melyssa Locke. I believe you met her some years back on your last visit to Alexandria. Is something wrong?”
“She’s…” Gaelib began, only to be interrupted by Evelyne, Dowager Duchess of Alexandria.
“She’s what, young Melazera? Like your father, have you finally lost your wits? This is my granddaughter, Melyssa.”
“B-bu-but… she’s…” wide-eyed, the Lord of Lorness stuttered, embarrassing himself. He was sure this wasn’t the girl who’d been vetted. She was close in appearance. He recalled her hair being darker, not so blonde.
The other three dowagers were rising to their feet, their attentions focused on him. Crossing one of them would be bad. Crossing all four was suicide. They’d compete to see who disemboweled him first, the spiteful old harridans.
“I think,” the king retook control of the conversation, “you’ve overstepped, Gaelib. How dare you question my betrothed?” Sagen’s eyes narrowed, his face set like stone. “Perhaps you’d like a few days in the dungeon to reconsider your actions?”
Gaelib looked around. There were only the dowagers, the king, his future bride, and servants. No one he could call on. Even trying to explain could spell his doom. There were enough courtiers, servants, and flunkies outside that the guards wouldn’t obey his commands, not over the king’s.
And if, may the God of this Age prevent it, the king carried out his threat, Gaelib’s plans would all be undone. His allies would see him as weak. They’d desert him, possibly even pledging themselves to Sagen.
The Lord of Lorness bowed low. “My most humble apologies, Your Majesty, Lady Melyssa. It’s so many years since I met your bride-to-be that I couldn’t believe she’d grown into such a magnificent beauty, Sire.”
“If your faculties are that diminished,” Evelyne of Alexandria injected, “perhaps I should have a word with Gregory about your loans, personal and for Lorness. It wouldn’t be good business to risk such large sums on someone who can’t recognize a Locke when one is standing before them.”
“Don’t be too hard on my steward,” Sagen responded. “He’s clearly overworked, aren’t you, Gaelib?”
“Yes, yes, Your Majesty. Thank you for your understanding.”
“Not at all. Indeed, it was so unlike you not to be present during the discussions held in the hall that I’m concerned for your health. Our wedding,” Sagen smiled at Melyssa and took her hand, “will be held thirty-nine days hence. You must be here for that. However, until then, let your deputies take over. They’re well-trained by your own hand. Go home to Lorness and rest. I command it.”
Gaelib bowed. “As you wish, Your Majesty. Thank you.”
“In fact,” the king continued.
Melazera loathed the confident expression that had appeared on the king’s face.
“…let’s make it official. Step outside with me, Gaelib. We’ll announce your sabbatical to the Court right now. I’ll be back in just a minute, Lady Melyssa.”
When Sagen returned, he sat beside his fiancé and spoke softly to her. “I’m so sorry, Melyssa. I may have pushed things too far. You embolden me. However, that man will never again disrespect you in public. In private? I’m afraid he may be very unpleasant from time to time. Were you very frightened?”
Melyssa checked to see if the chaperones were paying attention. They weren’t. They were involved in a quiet but intense discussion, alternating between hissing at each other and casting glances at the young couple.
“Not at all,” she whispered. “With everything you, the steward, and my grandmother said, I thought I should act scared.”
Sagen chuckled. “You’re brilliant. We’ll do well.”
They talked for another hour before the chaperones walked Lady Melyssa to her chambers.
Farr Castle – Steward’s Offices
Gaelib retreated to his offices and slammed the door behind him.
He’d been caught off-guard by the unexpected blonde girl. As well as the emboldened response from Sagen.
Where’d she come from?
Had the king followed through… but Sagen was weak, unready, and unwilling to finish off a foe. That was why Gaelib would win.
I miscalculated what the presence of a lady would do to his resolve. This is going to be harder to manage than I expected. Still, the girl looked appropriately terrified the whole time.
That satisfied him, even if things hadn’t gone as he wished, even though he’d have to depart for Lorness in the morning.
Caileagh won’t be pleased. Should I tell her? No, let’s enjoy the peace and quiet as long as possible.
He’d planned for a shorter period, wanting to snub the Lockes or force them to travel at an uncivilized pace to attend the wedding. Either would have pleased him. Yet, it had been necessary to miss the Procession to attend to the Warrior’s new tactic.
Still, the day wasn’t a total loss. He had requested Stev’n Blackhawk’s presence. With the king at Farr Castle, this was the perfect opportunity.
Gaelib was worried Blackhawk may have been turned while at High Castle. He hoped not. He loved Stev’n more than he loved anything else. It would be painful to kill one he cared for so much.
Dav’d, Baldwin, and Cain followed the path to the Freisch River.
I hope Drake is home. He could be in service at the capitol. What will I do then?
Cain, the dark-haired, short one, continually lagged behind, slowing them, stoking Dav’d’s frustration and anger. At the river, he balked, followed by a hissed argument between the half-brothers. Then, Cain mumbled some apologies, saying he’d wait for Baldwin at the Inn.
They pressed on southward, reaching their destination in eight days.
Earl Drake of Caswell was in the courtyard, waiting to meet them with a warm smile. They’d been spotted riding in.
Dav’d was relieved. It had been almost a year since the wedding, and he was terrible at writing, rarely responding to letters, even his father’s.
“My boy, what a surprise.” Drake approached briskly. “How have you come to be here?”
“Can we talk privately? All three of us.” Dav’d glanced at Baldwin and back to Drake.
“Follow me,” Drake responded, then instructed a servant. “Jonas, see to their horses.” He took them to a drawing room filled with ornately carved chairs around a plain trestle table. Its walls were lined with oak cabinets filled with many books, carvings, and family heirlooms.
As they were ushered into chairs, a girl brought in a tray with colorful fruits and fragrant cheeses, followed by a boy with a pitcher of wine and three cups.
Drake poured for his guests. “Tell me what’s happened.”
Dav’d took a long drink, emptying his cup. “Cynthia was abducted, assaulted and violated by–”
“What?” Drake blurted out angrily, rising from his chair.
“…by a Major Blackhawk,” Dav’d continued, as Drake began pacing back and forth. “It gets worse. This was apparently done at the orders of the Lord of Lorness, who personally witnessed my wife’s… degradation.” He lurched to his feet, unable to sit any longer. “I want to meet with the elders at Dunis Glen. There’s some nonsense about rebel knights and a plot against the king but, the more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems. If there’s any truth to it, surely the elders will know.”
“I see,” Drake acknowledged slowly, rooted to the spot. “I won’t ask how Cynthia is. She must be devastated.”
Dav’d didn’t respond.
“Who’s your traveling companion, Dav’d?”
“This is Baldwin. He and his half-brother saved my wife. They believe in J’shua, heard of her dire situation, and took great risks to get her out.”
The former-kitchenhand nodded, remaining seated.
“Then both Dav’d and I are greatly indebted to you,” Drake noted smoothly. “Who is reporting these attacks? Subjects or soldiers?”
“Both, sir.” Baldwin scrambled to his feet, bowing awkwardly. “According to the rumors, that is. I’ve even heard the knights are now banned and circles forbidden.”
“There was such a proclamation,” Drake confirmed dismissively. “It’s being appealed. Yet, until that edict is overturned, many have stopped attending the circle. I doubt Melazera would send anyone to Caswell to enforce it.”
Dav’d frowned. He’d heard nothing of this, having been in Mestelina for many moons.
“I need to think,” Drake resumed. “Baldwin, I need to speak to Dav’d further. By now, my servants will have a room, a bath, and a meal ready for you. You have my thanks, and will be well rewarded.” He waited until the man departed and a servant had closed the door, then focused on Dav’d. “Do you trust him?”
Dav’d blinked. He’d not stopped to ask himself that question. He’d barely stopped at all since finding out about… “Yes, yes… he saved Cynthia.”
“I see. Was it these men who implicated the Lord of Lorness?”
“Then we’ve only their word for his involvement. The Earl is a powerful man. We must be careful with any such suggestion. If not true, it could ensnare us.” Drake paused again. “Regardless, there are things your companion doesn’t need to know. For example, what are your plans for your wife? She can’t travel with you. If Melazera is involved, few places will be safe for her.”
“I’d thought Daikon Terrance could–”
“No,” Drake corrected. “She will be safer here. No one would attack my congregation. Even diminished, it is too large, too visible. I’ll send my wife and several women from the circle, plus a suitable escort, to fetch her. Write something for me, so Cynthia knows it’s safe to come here.”
Dav’d sat. As he wrote, some of his fears lifted.
“We’ll meet the elders in Dunis Glen on the full moon. We leave tomorrow.” Drake decided.
By early morning, Drake’s staff had their horses, provisions, and gear ready. He’d intended to take a coach. However, Dav’d had convinced him that they needed to travel as fast as possible.
Reluctantly, Drake had agreed, even though it had been several years since he’d spent nine days in the saddle. This wasn’t going to be the comfortable trip he’d planned, nor would there be time to stop at inns along the way. The meeting of elders was scheduled to last over a week. He’d not intended to arrive on the first day prior to Dav’d’s need.
It had also been decided Baldwin would accompany them as a witness to what had happened.
Mestelina – The Border Inn
Daikon Terrance was outside, seeing a guest off when he noted Cain’s return. The man sat much more easily in the saddle than he had when departing the Border Inn two days earlier. Indeed, he rode as if he’d done so for many years.
That was unlikely for someone who’d claimed to be a mere kitchen hand.
It screamed ‘imposters’ when both kitchen hands were such good riders. It didn’t matter who Baldwin and Cain were in the service of. They were a threat to Cynthia and, all too probably, to Dav’d. Not that there was anything Terrance could do about the young knight’s safety.
However, he could deal with this threat, but wouldn’t do so hastily. Putting a smile on his face, he greeted Cain. “You’re back. Is something wrong?”
“Sir, Dav’d said he didn’t need us both. I was slowing them down. So, I decided to wait here until my brother’s return.”
“Come inside. Donna,” Terrance called to his youngest daughter, “see to this man’s horse. Take special care of the animal.” His emphasis on that word warned her to stay clear of Cain. “This is one of the men who saved Lady Cynthia.”
The girl nodded, her eyes wide, then took the horse and disappeared into the stables.
“Are you hungry?” Terrance guided him inside, then saw to his needs. His mug of ale never dried, and his plate was never empty.
It took two days to be sure. Cain and a drunkard who always had too many baden in his pockets – the same drunk Cain had winked at – fell to drinking together.
Licht Gegen had warned Terrance about the drunk. He informed them to watch Cain.
That evening, the two heavily inebriated men departed from the Border Inn.
As far as Terrance’s books told, Cain had paid for his room and left.
Wherever they were going, they most likely wouldn’t get there. Licht Gegen was thorough.
Caileagh had her coach readied early. Within it was Owen, her favorite minstrel. He was pleasant to look upon and willing to help pass the time. Later, he’d play while the servants and nobles prepared for the grand event, one of many over the next few days.
She’d never seen a royal wedding and felt a pang of jealousy.
It will be weeks of traditional events like this. I should be the one fawned over.
She watched the King’s Guard march out to clear the way.
Once the betrothal cortege began, it would take several hours to make its slow circuit through the surrounding countryside. The royal carriage was covered in red and white roses.
She could just barely see the king as he walked toward it.
“Blasted Alexandrians! I should be much closer.” She pouted as she lifted the spyglass to get a closer look.
Owen continued to strum.
"The king wears a simple blue velvet cloak over brown leather pants. He doesn't even look like a royal." She put down the glass with a smile. "Gaelib will look so majestic..." She sighed and looked again. "His bride wears…"
Caileagh gasped at the golden-haired girl on the king’s arm, who wore a pale-yellow dress, a daisy among the orchids.
The fool failed me! I instructed Kiepert no blonde girls were to be selected.
A week after the wedding, acolyte Kiepert’s docent arrived.
Caileagh took him aside. “Instruct Kiepert to arrange for the new queen to have a fatal accident. Once successful, lay the blame on him and eliminate him. The two deaths must not be linked together. There must be nothing that implicates the Order. Report only to me.”
“Yes, my Lady.” The docent bowed low.
“You may leave.” She waved him away, then sighed. She’d thought Kiepert special, attractive, and had bedded him on several occasions. His failure disillusioned her.
She stared from her tower apartment down at the ant-like people in the outer court, dwelling on the prophecy of the king’s golden wife.
Kiepert will handle it. He’ll want to redeem himself.
Dav’d looked around, taking in everything. He’d been growing more agitated ever since Drake’s suggestion that Cain and Baldwin might not be telling the whole truth. Just as the long ride weighed on him. Cynthia suffered. He wanted answers. He wanted justice. He wanted revenge.
Now, on foot, his turmoil grew.
“It’s strangely quiet,” Dav’d remarked, glancing from Drake to Baldwin and back.
Drake shrugged. “Don’t let your imagination run away. It’s understandable. You seek answers.”
Dav’d considered it, yet Drake had him hide their horses outside town.
Dav’d pushed aside his anxiety as Drake led them to the Common House.
Within a back hall were about eighty knights being addressed by Jon’than. He was speaking of his capture, torture, and attempted murder by Melazera. “…stories of my leading Mestel raiding parties are lies. Every knight who knows me can attest to their falsehood. These are rumors spread by Melazera’s serpents to divide us.”
Roars of support affirmed Jon’s statements.
Knights stepped forward, extolling Otual’s character and confirming that he couldn’t have done the things he was accused of. They’d encountered him elsewhere on one or more of the dates when the maraudings had occurred.
Dav’d had stepped forward to add his own testimony, when a whistle blew and every door into the room burst open, revealing black-robed men armed with swords and knives.
The snap of a staff breaking bone caused Dav’d to turn. Behind him, Baldwin was on the floor clutching his smashed wrist. Beside him a knife lay discarded on the floor.
Drake struck again, breaking the would-be-assassin’s knee, preventing Baldwin from rising, or ever walking again. It would be the last sound Dav’d heard clearly for some time. Everything after was drowned by the din of men fighting.
There was no time for thought, only action.
The pommel of Dav’d’s sword smashed an attacker’s wrist as he drew the blade. He didn’t finish the man off as three others were closing in. Thrust. Slash. Parry. Slash again. They went down, but there were more behind them.
He fell back, as did the other knights.
Drake appeared beside him. His staff as deadly as any sword, despite his uncle having oft boasted that it was decades since he’d engaged in mortal combat. Then he was gone, lost in the melee.
For what seemed like an eternity, but must have been a scant minute or two, Dav’d fought back-to-back with another knight whose face he never saw. Then, there was an opening and both darted for cover.
Bodies littered the floor, dressed in black robes. The attackers were all but untrained. It didn’t take an experienced eye to see they merely dabbled with sword, knife, or staff.
More and more men dressed in black kept pouring into the room, clumsily rushing experienced fighters who wounded, incapacitated, or killed them by the score.
As the black tidal wave swept forward, knights began to die.
Dav’d saw his father working his blade skillfully, driving forward into his opponents to rescue another knight who’d fallen. He saw Daikon Baxter, one of their oldest and wisest, be overwhelmed. He spotted Drake saving another knight.
Although many had minor injuries, less than a dozen knights had succumbed when another whistle blew. The surviving attackers retreated like water receding at ebb tide. Darkly-clad wounded, dead and dying bodies carpeted the room. One hundred? Two hundred? More? It was impossible to say.
From outside came the distinctive sounds of officers giving orders to their soldiers. The Common House was surrounded… or being surrounded.
“To the roof,” Dav’d heard his father command.
The knights did as ordered. They jumped, scrambled, and helped each other as needed.
Once up above, Dav’d almost laughed. Whoever was commanding the soldiers was an incompetent, a fool… or, perhaps, sympathized with the knights. The building had doors on three of its four sides. Those sides were where the soldiers were still finalizing their formations. There were no soldiers on the fourth, the one without doors.
Taking advantage of that lapse of judgment, Jon’than and several other knights dropped to the ground from the unprotected edge. Each was equipped with a bow and arrows. Once they’d reached the woods, they took up covering positions.
Precious minutes passed in which the officers continued their noisy preparations and sergeants roared at their men. It gave the knights enough time to sprinkle down off the building, then slip away. Each traveled alone to prevent all from being apprehended as a group.
There were only a handful of knights still on the roof when the soldiers advanced into the building. Not because there hadn’t been time enough to depart. There had. At Dav’d’s suggestion, they’d remained to delay any pursuit by giving the soldiers other things to worry about. Their preparations had been subtle.
When the soldiers rushed the room, they found it empty except for the dead and dying. Tables had been kicked over, broken, and smashed. There were no chairs left. Only bits of them, scattered about, busted up, and bloodied. The debris made it difficult to move about. Even the barrels of wine and spirits had been shattered. Their contents had leaked, making puddles or mixing with spilt blood.
Officers and sergeants began yelling about where the outlaws had gone. Demanding answers from each other, or from the few survivors.
Dav’d smiled. It wasn’t the revenge he needed, but it would do for now. He nodded at his fellow knights. Each threw a burning torch into the room below them.
The woosh of flame soothed his soul. Yet he didn’t remain to witness its effectiveness, nor listen to the screams. He and the other knights darted from the roof. Arrows fired from the woods protecting them as they ran.
Then Dav’d was alone, sprinting through the woods. Hoping that his father and Drake had survived. And that the three horses were still where he’d stashed them.
Gaelib had used his influence and cleverness to extend his economic control over the kingdom. He’d allowed Caileagh to use his money to build the Order of the Black Robe. After only ten years, it had grown from a handful of silly girls and a few scribes into a behemoth. But despite her past and present need for his wealth, she belittled his economic machinations as unimportant.
Her fanciful visions make no sense. Yet she expects me to follow her wishes in matters of state. I am enthralled by her charms and defenseless against her desires, but…
Gaelib smiled, thinking of her, of the warmth of her body, and the ways she could make him feel.
But those things were no longer enough. He was no longer a boy to be toyed with as a woman’s plaything. He was a man. He served the Warrior.
No. The Warrior served him.
No matter what Caileagh said, what her dreams, signs and portents foretold, he was in control. That she refused to understand that caused tensions between them now.
Farr Castle – The Garden
Kiepert had watched Queen Melyssa for many weeks to determine her daily patterns. She and her maids went to the garden most mornings at dawn, so she could sit by a pond in meditation or briskly walked between the flower beds for exercise. Often, she’d pick a rose and put it in her hair.
He’d acquired three poisonous snakes from his docent. Disguised as a gardener, Kiepert placed the bag of snakes in the rose bush, loosened the string so they could escape, and walked to another flower bed to continue his pretense.
Melyssa bent to pick a rose that was low to the ground, then snatched her hand back, clutching it. She muttered something too soft to be heard. Taking three brisk steps forward, she stamped down on something, then pointed at her shoe.
One of her maids screamed.
A guard stepped forward, drew his sword and slashed down.
The queen took a step backward.
The guard held up the decapitated body of a snake.
Still clutching her wrist, Melyssa walked, stumbling, toward the inner castle.
Slipping away, Kiepert left the grounds and sought out his docent behind a tavern. He never saw the knife in his mentor’s hand, only felt the pain and the coldness of death.
King Sagen heard screams and went to investigate.
“A viper bit her, Your Majesty,” a maid announced displaying the queen’s wrist.
“Guards, search the gardens!” He commanded, then sent for his physicians.
They treated her with herbs and leaches on the bite, but then shook their heads saying that was all that could be done for her.
Sagen was fraught with worry. As they worked, he held her hand and prayed silently.
Rising, he sent all the servants out and summoned Major Blackhawk. “Permit no one but those you trust into this room. This was an attempt on the queen’s life… an attempt that’s all too likely to succeed. There is little hope, yet I won’t take any risk. No one that you don’t trust, not even a physician.” He strode out.