Chapter 20: Plans
King Sagen sat upon his throne in the Great Hall. He glanced toward the scribe, who stood, quill in hand, beside an oak writing desk covered with parchments and ink bottles. The din of courtiers, petitioners, and clerks milling about the large room ached in his head. He sighed, rubbing his forehead. He ran a hand through his hair.
The two merchants, plaintiff and defendant, cast sneers at each other.
Sagen wondered how many more cases there were left. “I will consider this. Return tomorrow,” he said flatly for the fourth time today.
The royal chamberlain approached and whispered, “That was the last case, Sire.”
“You may all retire. I wish to be alone.”
“The Royal Court is dismissed.” His chamberlain’s voice echoed through the hall.
“Bring me the record of Jonathan Otual’s statement.”
When the man returned, Sagen accepted the parchment and then dismissed him. He read his friend’s words. They warmed his heart again.
I’ve many times used Jon’s exact words. Lord J’shua has heard my prayers. He knows what burdens my soul. He’s telling me the time is near. No longer to pray for safety but for strength and wisdom. And Jon is with me in this, praying for guardians, open ears, and eyes.
Sagen rolled up the parchment, tapping it on his open palm, pondering his options.
Gaelib tried to turn me against Jonathan with false witnesses. He’d even pushed for a penalty of death. But he failed to convince me. I know Jonathan Otual. But if I’d fought too hard for Jon…no, it is too soon.
Placing the scroll on the table, he walked to the window.
Since the death of his father was confirmed as murder, Sagen had moved cautiously, quietly determining loyalties and building alliances. He was convinced that Gaelib wasn’t yet ready to move against him openly. However, that conclusion was based upon Sagan playing the role of easily guided king. If he did something too out of character—such as pardoning Jon—it might scare Gaelib into doing something rash.
The betrayal on Jon’s face. It stabs my heart.
Yet I must draw this game out until my pieces are all in place.
He looked down at the inner courtyard. All the colorful nobles, and their flamboyant wives, were milling about, each plotting and maneuvering to gain advantage.
You are my pawns.
No chess master thinks poorly of his pawns. He may surrender any piece in order to win. Pawns are as important as every other piece. Though they move square by square, they can block and capture. A wily pawn can even become a queen. I will sing in the spirit a war song and a love song. There is nothing more potent than the love of God. I repent, Lord J’shua. I will trust in your sacrifice, your death, and your resurrection for my people’s sake.
Sagen raised his voice. “Dwain, are you there?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” A short, dark-haired man stepped into the hall, strumming pleasant chords on his lute. His tooled, knee-high boots tapped a pleasant beat. A green cap constrained his wispy brown hair.
“Thank you for alerting me when Jonathan arrived.”
“I am sorry he eluded me at the herald station. He is quite good. I had hoped to catch him in the shadows to warn him away. For the same reason, I did not let on when he followed me back to the castle. I thought discovering he’d been followed by someone from the court would dissuade him from coming to speak with you.”
Sagen shook his head. “You are too clever, and Jonathan too determined.”
The minstrel strummed another chord. “Will he survive?”
“You gave him a way out?”
“I believe he will.” Sagen smiled. “Play me something uplifting.”
When Sagen left the hall, his face was a mixture of stern duty and sorrow. Only once in his bedchamber could he relax his façade. Sagen silently prayed for Jonathan.
[…consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works.]
Please, Lord J’shua, protect my friend. Give him strength and let him know I aided him as much as I could. I still assist your adversary, but please hear my prayer. Save Jon. And help me if you can.
It had become clearer that the extent of Melazera’s corruption was even greater than he’d imagined. Worse, it was spreading.
I raised Gaelib up. Twenty years ago, I advocated for him to be Rothbard’s apprentice. It’s my fault that Father is dead. Gaelib’s power has grown so he can do almost anything…in secret. Once I have an heir, he’ll kill me.
Sagen pulled the dark blue brocade curtains partially around his bed and slipped a leather-bound book from its hiding place.
[Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto the God of Truth.]
He prayed and read until it was time for his supper. Before the attendants arrived to dress him, he returned the Book of J’shua to its hiding place.
After supper, he dressed for the Procession of Eligible Ladies. They had traveled great distances. He’d rejected the first twenty.
Gaelib sent another notice to all the noble houses seeking young women of marriageable age. A council of noble dowagers screened the applicants. Each of these elder ladies genuinely wanted to find him a wholesome bride. But those given to them for evaluation must first pass through Gaelib’s servants.
From each procession, the king could pick one. Then he would court the young lady, with chaperones in attendance. If he proposed, she would remain in the castle in a private chamber.
Melazera won’t be patient much longer. If I don’t choose soon, he’ll pick someone for me. Or his wife will. Then I’ll be doubly snared.
Jonathan could not lift his foot, so the groom kneeled and motioned for him to step on his thigh. “Thank you.” It was painful and awkward, but he mounted.
Two militet bound his hands to the saddle and his feet to the stirrups.
Captain Greysun took the horse’s reins.
“Whetcom, you’re coming with me,” Greysun bellowed.
The young militet winced, stepped forward, and mounted.
We aren’t going far. They’ve packed no provisions. Clearly, Greysun plans to kill me. I have until we enter the woods.
Jonathan’s head cleared, his strength returning. His hands were numb. He studied the knots. Finding no weakness, he braced one hand on the saddle horn and pulled with the other, hoping to stretch it. As he switched hands, he felt a gap in the stitching below the pommel. The edge of a shaft of steel protruded. He eased it out…a short blade.
Jonathan cut at the rope binding his hands. It was thick, and the angle awkward, making it slow work.
They were approaching the woods. His eyes remained fixed on Greysun’s back.
He could see the dark path ahead, overshadowed by trees.
His fingers were sweaty. If it slipped from his hands, his life was lost.
He continued sawing against the rope, panting.
As the forest shadow covered him, he felt the rope give way.
Kneeing the horse, it reared in surprise because, until now, its burden had made no movement. Jonathan yelled, “Snake! There’s a snake!”
Captain Greysun distanced his mount, jumped down, and then checked Jon’s horse. “You drecksa, there’s no serpent!” With one hand, he grabbed Jonathan’s shirt. He brandished his dagger in the other. “I’ll make this slow.”
Jonathan grimaced in pain as his captor pulled him downward. Only his tied feet kept him in the saddle.
Greysun’s eyes widened. He crumpled to his knees, clutching his throat. Blood poured through his fingers until his head smacked the ground with a hollow thud.
Jonathan sliced through the ropes trapping his ankles. Then he jumped to retrieve Greysun’s sword, his eyes never leaving the shocked militet. “I have no quarrel with you. You may leave. Or fight. Or join me. Which do you choose?”
“Sir, if I return without Captain Greysun, I’m dead. If I fight, I’m also dead. If you’ll have me, I am your servant.” the youth bowed.
“What is your name, boy?”
“Albirt Whetcom, sir.”
“We wait here until dark. I must return to Farr for my gear and the Writings.”
Amidst the Atmosphere of Farr
Owakar hesitated. Away far too long. He wanted to stay and help Alocrin. Jonathan seemed out of danger. But Cynthia was inconsolable. So much evil thrived within Farr Castle. But Lorness was an even deeper pit of darkness and despair. Owakar’s duty was there.
Owakar embraced his brother.
“We shall persevere, until the Last Battle.” Alocrin replied, squeezing Owakar’s shoulders.
Owakar returned to Lorness and sent comfort to the saints as his luach informed him of past, present, and possible futures for each that prayed.
The soldiers let go, Cynthia fell to the floor, tearing the poorly fitting iridescent green dress. Just days ago, she would have thought it beautiful.
The soldiers laughed as they left. “Blackhawk gets all the entertainin’ jobs.” The dim torchlight vanished as they shut the door.
She shuddered, hugging herself against the darkness.
What more will they do to me?
Her breaths came in quick gasps as she felt her way around the chamber. It was darker than night on a new moon. She tugged and kicked the door. Then she sat on the floor in a corner, numbly awaiting the next horror.
That beast asked to do it again. But why had he not… finished it?
Time stretched out. Imaginary shapes moved in the black void. Before long, strange sounds haunted her. She covered her ears and prayed for it to stop.
She must have fallen asleep, exhausted, for the creaking door startled her awake, and light from outside illuminated two plain men. Their footsteps echoed on the cold stone.
She swallowed a scream, cowering. “Please, don’t hurt me.”
“We won’t, ma’am,” the taller one said, his voice low. “We’re followers of J’shua that work in the kitchen. We saw you brought here. We want to help.”
“Can you stand?” the other asked.
She blinked, clenching her hands to her chest. Cynthia stifled a sob as the dim surroundings of the dank room became visible. Willing her legs to move, she stood shakily. Dazed, she let them guide her to a wagon.
They threw back a burlap cover and then moved potatoes to create a space. The tall one pointed. “Hide here, lady.” He covered her with the cloth. The short one peeked in. “Be still until we’re safely away.”
She nodded, her heartbeat pounding in her ears.
Hours and hours later, the dark, creaking, bumpy wagon pulled off the road and stopped.
Her heart raced faster.
The cover came away and she gasped. She held her breath, squinting, shielding her eyes against the light.
“I’m Baldwin,” the short one said. “That’s Cain, my brother.”
He offered his hand and helped her down.
“Got anywhere to go?” Cain asked.
“My husband is in Mestelina?” she wondered aloud. “I can’t go to my parents. It’s the first place they’ll look for me. It’s better they know nothing.”
“Where do we find him?”
“Don’t know where, but how,” she said. “Across the West River, there’s an inn. If we stay there, a knight will find us.” She covered her face with her hands, shaking and crying.
When she could talk again, she continued. “I’ve no money. My husband will reward you once he comes.”
“Don’t worry about that, ma’am,” Baldwin said. “The kitchen servants like to play stones. We won a lot recently.” He looked at his brother and grinned.
They made camp after passing Fort Road, hiding the wagon as far into the woods as they could. They had food and bedrolls for each of them.
The two men slept on the ground while she slept in the wagon behind the potatoes. Or tried to.
He smelled of sweat and leather. “I’d like to do that again later. If you are of a mind to let me.”
Each time she dozed off, a noise woke her, and she felt herself jerked up by the dark-haired soldier. Eventually, exhaustion overcame her.
In the morning, she rode up front with them, relieved to see scenery and sky. She promised them her husband would help get them settled somewhere.
They talked about where they were from and what they might do in Mestelina. They’d become wanted men for helping her escape.
Lady Melazera barged into her husband’s bedchamber. “Gaelib!” But he wasn’t there. Exasperated, she paced back and forth across the thick sanguine carpet, shrieking out his name repeatedly.
When he finally entered, she turned on him like a snake, ready to strike. Her eyes narrowed. “Banished?” she snarled. “I had plans for the knight. You know that.”
She had not revealed the real reason that she must have the knight. She petitioned her spirit guides to grant her power over Gaelib again. They had provided.
She had found a passage in an ancient scroll. It was a ritual and charm that would make Gaelib love her as his own flesh. Now her opportunity was lost.
Ignoring her, the Earl of Lorness closed the door. “I hadn’t expected you back so soon.” His arms encircled her as he kissed her neck. “Caileagh, dear, the knight is dead. It was rash, but Sagen spoiled my planned recreation. It seemed prudent to throw Greysun a bone. His was a magnificent performance yesterday. You’d have enjoyed it greatly.” He kissed her again.
She broke free of his embrace. “I need him dead by my hand, my hand!” Then her demeanor softened, and she whispered in conciliatory tones, “My dear, we could have shared him. His blood and suffering would have been a laudable sacrifice, worthy of the Warrior.”
He wobbled his head, conceding the point. “Perhaps, but exiled, Otual’s influence still threatened me. It had to be burned away, his very memory blackened. While he lived, he’d inspire the king to independent thought. I need Sagen weak, and pliable, swayed by my ideas. Mine alone. Jon had to die…and is now dead.”
Caileagh pressed her body against Gaelib’s. “But dear, I’ve just seen a vision. He survived.” She circled him leisurely, her fingers tracing his collar. “You should’ve let me keep him.” She brushed her hair away, looking into his eyes again. “He’ll be your undoing.”
“Ha!” Gaelib stepped away. “How could he escape? He was weak. His hands and feet tied to a horse.”
He embraced her again. “If he survives, Otual’s devotions and petty godling are no match for the God of this Age, the God over all other Gods. The reputation we’ve constructed for him and the reward we’re offering will lead to his recapture.” He kneaded her shoulders. “You know I would prefer that we use him as a sacrifice. And if Greysun failed me, I’ll let you have him too.”
She pursed her lips. “Then, I shall forgive you, eventually. But you must take more care. Others are watching. They see you act ever more boldly, without the approval of the king. Worse, I’m hearing all-too-accurate rumors about our ‘private’ gatherings. So many that my birds cannot suppress them all.”
“You are overreacting,” he said, his eyes hard.
“I care for you, my love.” She leaned against him, letting him feel the warmth of her body. “Your recklessness is creating enemies. Worse, they’re organizing. I’ve just had the most tedious experience ripping secrets from some fool named Frink. He babbled endlessly about some hidden cabal of peasants. And that they spent time living in the Frei Forest. He even tried to tell me the group was led by Otual’s wife and that she disguised herself as a man.”
“His wife? That’s absurd. She’s nothing.”
“I agree. The babbling fool spouted nonsense at the end. Anything to prolong his wretched life. I indulged him as his screams were beautiful. But I tired of it, so left him to others to practice upon.”
“Did he provide any more intelligence?”
“Nothing worthwhile. He knew of the defilement of my sanctuary in the Bloody Rocks, though. Again, he tried to blame Mistress Otual. I doubt it’s true. How could she possibly know how to do it? If the knights had this knowledge, they would have used it before now.”
Gaelib smiled, clasping her face. “Soon, the king will have an heir, and we’ll finish him as well.” He threw her on the chaise, and they played.
The Woods of Farr
Surrounded by forest, Albirt sat leaning against a tall chestnut oak, as the knight slept uneasily, moaning with each movement. He admired the knight but knew very little of the way of J’shua. Yet he prayed for Sir Otual’s recovery.
Stories of Otual were rampant among the militet. Here was a man unlike Greysun in every way. He was honorable, persistent, and brave. Even in the most infamous tales told of him, he bested his foes, risked his own skin, and stood for a consistent—if outlawed—set of values.
In contrast, Greysun was capricious, self-serving, and mean. He blamed his failures on others, kept all glory for himself, and delighted in inflicting pain.
Albirt kept watch throughout the day. The knight had asked to be woken at the darkest stage of twilight. “Sir Otual, it’s time.”
Jonathan rolled onto his back, brushing the leaves from his chest. “Thank you. I feel…better.” Yet, he panted as he rose to his feet.
“I wish you’d ride a horse, sir. It’s a long way to town.”
“I can make it. It would be hard to miss an army horse ridden by a commoner. I can be inconspicuous at this hour as a stumbling drunk. And stumbling will come easily.”
Albirt frowned in worry but said nothing. Words wouldn’t dissuade him anyway. The knight had bested the venomous Greysun while still tied to a horse.
“I will return well before dawn. If I do not, leave before daylight. Go to the Lion and Tiger Inn, midway on the High-Fairness Road. Repeat it.”
“The Lion and Tiger Inn, midway on the High-Fairness Road. Yes, sir.”
“Tell the owner what happened.”
Albirt handed the knight a waterskin, who took a long drink and handed it back. “You should take it.”
Otual shook his head. “No, you keep it. It is a cool night. I will be fine.”
“I insist.” Albirt looped the waterskin over the knight’s shoulder. “Pretend it’s wine. Safe travels, sir.”
The knight nodded and limped toward town.
The City of Farr
Jonathan trudged toward the daikon’s inn. Greysun had fallen for his ruse. Otherwise, he would be dead.
He stifled a groan as he struggled up the stairs. He knocked, but no one answered.
I can’t wait. I can barely stand.
Pushing open the door, he entered and gathered his things.
One of Lafferty’s tunics hung on a line to dry. He felt guilty but took it. He scribbled a brief apology and left six baden in its place.
“Lord J’shua, watch over them.”
He shuffled back through the gate with a wave to the guards, slurring the words of a well-known ballad.
He tossed the oversized gray tunic to Albirt. “We need to hide your uniform.”
“Wear that? I’ll swim in it.”
“Cinch your belt. What could be less like a soldier than clothes that do not fit?”
Albirt’s mouth opened, but no sounds emerged. When he donned the garment, he looked even younger than the boy-man he was.
“I need to rest and recover, but that will have to wait until we reach my friend’s inn.”
Jonathan forced himself to sit straight and keep a normal gait. But after only a mile, he was dozing off. He led them deep into the woods and slept again.
When he finally woke in the morning, Albirt sat, watching him, stripping seed heads off grasses.
“Albirt, how did you become a militet?”
“My parents had trouble feeding my six siblings. I was ten when I asked my older brother to take me to the Fairness Crossing Garrison. There, Yacob accepted the enlistment bounty so my family could buy seed. Many of the crops had failed that year.”
“I have heard such stories before. As they curtail freedom, the common welfare weakens, and the people become poorer. Evil men benefit from this.”
It took two weeks to ride to the Lion and Tiger Inn, even with the extra horse. As they rode, Jonathan learned more about his young accomplice. The pair avoided roads and other travelers, finally arriving at the inn. Daryl Andrews, the proprietor, grinned broadly as he came out and greeted them. Daryl was an alias. He, too, was hunted by the Earl of Lorness.
George Rosewud wore a tight smile as two black robes divested him of his shillelagh and guided him through the dark servant’s passage in Farr Castle. He’d come to the castle to witness Gaelib’s triumph over Otual, but yesterday in the Main Hall, King Sagen had exiled the knight. So George had made himself scarce but hadn’t done so well enough.
The Earl of Lorness had to be furious. Therefore, this was most definitely not the moment to be brought before him.
The dimly lit corridor reminded George of the ways to some of Gaelib’s playrooms. In particular, a…
As the door to the small torture chamber opened, Rosewud’s bowels almost let go.
Not like this!
Yet it was Caileagh, not her husband, waiting there, leaning back in the only chair before an almost spent fire, gazing at the chains that hung from beams above. A fragrant smoke billowed from a brazier. As she nodded, George’s escorts seized him. Then she produced a small vial of blue liquid, forcing its contents down his throat. Setting the empty container down, a small brush appeared in her hand. She opened another vial containing a brown liquid, dipped its tip inside, and then swiped across his cheek with it.
“You may wait outside,” she told the black robes. “Re-enter only if I call for you. Otherwise, ignore the sounds you hear.”
George’s legs could not hold him upright. His body was too heavy. He slumped to his knees. “What…?” Then his hands shot to his cheek, which burned as it swelled to the size of a ripe peach.
“Just a little incentive toward honesty,” Caileagh said, leaning in close. “You’ve been a naughty boy, Georgie. I’ve just been told that Otual married a Dowling. And that you were the one who foreclosed on their farm.”
“I…” Words were hard to form. His throat felt tight. His vision faded. He swayed.
Caileagh produced the vial again and then painted his other cheek.
The pain cleared his thoughts. It burned like the sting of a dozen hornets.
“That’s better. Can’t let you have respite too soon,” she said. “It wasn’t obvious, as no one had thought about Otual’s long-dead in-laws. Yet, there it was. Your mark and the date on which you finalized that loan. What happened?”
“What do you mean, Lady Melaz—”
Her slap set his poisoned cheek on fire again.
He could not muster the strength to even raise his hands. He sank down on his haunches, and his frozen muscles locked him in place. Only his eyes and his mouth operated as they should.
With a wicked smile, she leaning forward.
“Things can become unpleasant if you don’t tell me the whole truth, Georgie. While killing you would, I suspect, put Gaelib out of sorts under normal conditions. Today you’ll be a treat he’ll want to share.”
“I…” He took a slow breath to clear his head. Should he mention Blackhawk? There was no telling how Gaelib would react, knowing how much he cared for the boy. No, he’d hold that in reserve. “I was there. When we arrived, the knight was away, as expected. Only his wife, his daughter, and his wife’s parents were home.”
“That’s a good boy.”
“The knight’s son had already gone to some horse trainer in Esthlanis. We couldn’t snatch him legally or without creating an incident.”
“I demanded payment. They couldn’t pay, so I ordered the soldiers to seize the girl and her mother. But—”
“Soldiers?” Caileagh demanded. “The official report lists only a sergeant who’s gone missing. Who was the other?”
“Someone I picked up and paid a few coins. I’ve done so many of these I’d have to check—”
“Perhaps later.” She leaned even closer, so her face was only inches from his. Her perfume wafted over him.
Rosewud’s head spun ever so slowly. His cheeks felt as if hot pokers had been placed there.
“Don’t hold out on me.” She rolled the vial in her fingers. “Do you want to drag this out? None of this will inconvenience me as I…but let’s leave such delightful prospects to later.”
“Otual’s wife sent her daughter into the house. The sergeant, lazy bastard, let Otual’s wife fetch her. But they ran. He…”
“He…” Caileagh leaned in again and slapped him. Again, the fire licked across his face. He spoke more words, but couldn’t understand them.
George awoke in his own room. He did not know how much time had passed and couldn’t remember what he’d said after blaming the sergeant for the mother and daughter’s escape.
Trembling, he raised his hands to his cheeks. He felt no burns or scars. Nor any pain. He jumped up and found his reflecting glass. There were no marks. His shillelagh lay on the bed.
What did she do to me?
Gaelib had used his influence and cleverness to extend his economic control over the kingdom. Every state office was now infiltrated by the Order of the Black Robe. All except the Heralds. The king alone chose those assignments.
Caileagh used his money to build the Order of the Black Robe. It had grown from a handful of silly girls and a few scribes into a behemoth. But despite her ongoing need for his funding, 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. Her charms enthrall me, but…
Gaelib smiled, thinking of her, of the warmth of her body, and the ways she could make him feel. He love her.
But those things were no longer enough. He was no longer a boy to be toyed with as her plaything. He was a man. He served the Warrior.
No. The Warrior served him.
No matter what Caileagh’s dreams, signs, and portents foretold, he was wholly in charge. Her refusal to understand that was the problem.
Gaelib’s smile broadened as Steven Blackhawk entered exactly on time. “Before our feast and other pleasures, there’s a matter to dispose of. Jonathan Otual has escaped. You must recapture him.” he sighed, “Caileagh won’t be happy until she has him.”
“Yes, my lord. Is there intelligence on him?”
“He has been wanted for years for seditious activities. His sect is outlawed. Here are the sightings for the last year before his capture.” Gaelib handed over a rolled parchment. “It will help you predict where he might go.”
“He’ll not get away.”
“Alive. Wound him if you must, but I require him alive. There’ll also be a reward: five thousand alive, fifteen hundred dead.”
“Dead?” Steven’s eyebrow rose quizzically, as it had done when he was a boy.
Gaelib smiled at the pleasantly endearing sight.
“I must offer both; it’s the law. It’s of no concern. The cowards that’ll settle for fifteen hundred…let’s just say their failures are another way to track him. Jon’s been studying the sword since he was a boy. Read the reports. Don’t underestimate him. Bring him to me in secret, and I’ll triple the reward. But no one must know he’s here. I’ll not have Caileagh disappointed again. That means I don’t want the king or others interfering.”
“As you wish.” Steven bowed.
Gaelib led him by the hand to the table of decadent food and wine.