Chapter 21: Consequences – 153 AK, Winter to 154 AK, Late Winter
Romans 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
North of Caswell
R’bekah breathed in the crisp winter air as her horse’s hooves crunched through the shallow snow. She was going to miss this. She’d enjoyed traveling the countryside and selling plows, while gathering and disseminating information. Others could – and would – do that from now on.
The fretful Bywold Parsons had proven his ability to ferret useful information from mountains of gossip. Having found one such person, Licht Gegen had gone looking for more. So far, they had only found two: a gossipy widow with a nose for nastiness; and a former Black Robe who was willing to work for anyone who would pay him, while keeping him safe from retaliation.
With those three sifting through things, Licht Gegen gained a far more complete view of Gaelib Melazera’s operations. It also required someone trusted enough by all of the independent regional groups to manage their organization. That someone turned out to be R’bekah, which left her ever less time to be T’mas Bekh.
This would be her last circuit for many, many moons, so she was trying to enjoy it and let her replacement do the work. The rest of their group consisted of two apprentices, four trusted mercenaries for their protection, and a few extra horses carrying provisions.
As they rode, they came across deep wagon tracks. That any ruts were to be found at this time of year was a surprise. Winters were rainy and the weather was getting colder. Such transports were too likely to get bogged, risking the lives of the horses and waggoneers. Something so heavily laden was asking for trouble.
“We’ll follow the tracks for a bit,” T’mas commanded. “Wayde, scout on ahead to see what’s going on. Don’t be seen.”
“Yes, sir!” The lad spurred his horse into a gentle gallop and was quickly lost to view. He returned only twenty minutes later. “I got flagged down by one of James of the Wood’s boys. Says he’s got something for us, if we’d be so kind as to play highwaymen and… uh… run off the wagon drivers.”
R’bekah shook her head. James’ people had good instincts. But robbing someone on a hunch? “I’ve got a better idea. We’re going to go ‘help’ those poor wagon drivers, whether they want us to or not.” She kicked her horse into a gallop. The rest fell in behind her.
In the silent, near frozen landscape, they made an almighty racket. Less than a quarter of an hour later, they caught up with two heavily laden wagons being drawn by oxen. Both of which were slogging forward at a steady pace.
R’bekah slowed her horse so she rode beside the leading wagon master. “Late in the year to be hauling something so heavy. Need a hand… or an escort?”
“Nah, we’ll be a’right,” the wagon driver responded, trying not to look at her.
Insist, a still small voice instructed.
“The sun’s almost gone. Why don’t we all stop for the night and share a camp. It’d be good to hear someone else’s stories for a change. I think I know all of my people’s tales by heart.”
“Nah, nah… we’ll just plod on–”
“And get maybe another mile today? Not worth it. Hell, my people will even cook for you. I insist.”
With a loud crack, the rear axle on the second wagon gave way, followed by splintering sounds. The uneven pressure on the two back wheels caused their spokes to disintegrate. The rear of the wagon’s tray dropped to the ground. Several barrels of wine came loose, rolling clear and spooking a mercenary’s horse.
“Looks like a good thing we were here,” R’bekah commented.
The driver of the second wagon looked back at the wreckage behind him.
The driver of the first wagon tried to get his oxen to run, without success. Bekh’s mercenaries caught him easily.
The other driver was begging, “Please, they forced me. They threatened my family. I told them it was too late, but–”
“Bekh,” Wayde yelled out, “there’s something wrong with this barrel.” He and two others were trying to stand it up, but it kept toppling over.
“Break it open!”
“No!” The second wagon driver begged, then shut up.
The sound of the cask’s sides being stoven in were not followed by a gush of wine but a trickle. Inside was a second wooden shell. Without having to be asked, they broke that open…
…and hundreds of baden spilled out into the waning afternoon light.
Farr Castle – The King’s Drawing Room
Blackhawk blinked. He hadn’t thought he could be surprised, yet…
After the king’s announcement and almost two hours of Gaelib accepting the best wishes and congratulations of almost every member of the Royal Court, Stev’n and Gaelib had been invited into the King’s Chambers.
Why he’d been included, Blackhawk had no idea. Yet, he had. Perhaps, simply because he was a member of the Royal Guard. Perhaps because the king trusted him. Stev’n was almost too exhausted to care.
“My good duke.” The king beamed. “I am sorry to have sprung that on you, but I hope you found it a pleasant surprise.”
“I was shocked beyond words, Sire.” Gaelib bowed, still overwhelmed by what had happened. Or, such was Stev’n’s appraisal of his father’s state of mind.
“Things have been moving exceedingly quickly in the last few days and, although I have already asked so much of you, I must ask more.”
“I am yours to command, Sire.”
“Then, Duke Gaelib of Lorness, I require you to investigate and clean up whatever is happening within your extended provinces. You need to do this personally. There isn’t another I can entrust with such an important matter. You’ve been telling me for years of the problems with the Mestels on our western border. There may be problems to the east as well. Find out. Take however long as is needed, but your report must be absolute in its precision.”
Blackhawk bit the inside of his lip. He should have seen it coming. He’d played chess with Sagen often enough. In one move, the king had vastly decreased the trustworthiness of the Black Robes and dispatched Gaelib on a task that couldn’t be ignored, delegated, or brushed aside.
But what traps, my king, have you already laid for the duke?
“Major Blackhawk,” the king’s words snapped Stev’n’s attention back to the present, “my thanks for assisting me today with my little surprise. I appreciate that you’ve kept guard over the queen for the last two days. However, with Commander Ta’ler here, it is time for you to get some well-deserved rest. I return to High Castle tomorrow. I want you with me. While I would like to remain with the queen, the physicians’ prognostications are clear, and I have a kingdom to run. Dismissed.”
It had taken Drake two weeks to return to Caswell.
At Dunis Glen, he’d returned to the three hidden horses, but neither Dav’d nor Jon’than was there. He couldn’t risk waiting for them, but left one horse behind. Mounting another and leading the third, he’d set out for Caswell.
Once home, he immediately burned all clothes and every artifact that would prove he’d been a knight. He also instructed those knights living within the borders of Caswell to do the same, or leave immediately and never return.
No one looking for a circle meeting was admitted to the castle from that day forth. He blamed himself for not seeing through the spy. Jon’than would have perceived it.
I was too much a fair-weather knight.
The story was everywhere of how Dav’d and Drake had heroically led the soldiers that had put down Jon’than Otual’s rebellion. How the knights had savagely slaughtered unarmed men and women in what was already becoming known as the Dunis Glen Massacre.
Yet, that notoriety frightened him. He spoke with his wife, Taryssa, then consulted with a few others. Their consensus was that, if whoever was behind the massacre decided to remove certain loose ends – such as Dav’d and himself – both would have to die. Therefore, Dav’d had to go into hiding. If both inconvenient individuals couldn’t be found, removing only one served no purpose.
Cynthia had arrived at Caswell before Drake. She wasn’t well, her soul tormented by the indignities she’d endured. Yet, she still had faith and was willing to be guided, which Taryssa had done.
When Dav’d eventually appeared on foot, everything had been arranged. A remote disused fishing lodge had been selected, servants dispatched to make it habitable, and provisions packed into wagons to make it self-sufficient for many moons to come.
Taryssa had handpicked the servants, all of whom were loyal to her. They would ensure the young couple’s comfort and that no problems arose, for her or Drake.
Two years later Drake had become a magistrate. He had also become the Earl of Caswell after the tragic deaths of his father and his last surviving brother. He was well aware of his rise in social status and the benefits, perks, and wealth that came with it. Yet he rationalized them as merely keeping his family safe.
Secure in his new position, supported by Melazera, and confident that he’d proven his worth to all those that truly mattered, he brought Dav’d and his family out of hiding.
The king chafed at having to return to High Castle by carriage. It was too slow. He would rather have ridden, not that any member of his escort would have permitted him to do so. Their job was to keep him safe, and the protection of a carriage wasn’t something they were going to concede merely because he wanted to feel the wind in his hair.
Yet, with eight horses pulling, the carriage was almost as fast as horse and rider.
Even with the comforting words of the daikon that Commander Ta’ler had concealed within his troupe of soldiers, Sagen had doubts. He’d been told Melyssa would survive. That what he had seen with his own eyes wasn’t what had happened. He wanted to believe. He did. But she was so precious, so special. She made him capable of… well… more.
He wondered how much time his latest gambits had bought. Three years? Maybe. Six years? It was unlikely. Ten? That was wishful thinking.
Yet, even with the need to study and rearrange the pieces on the board, his mind kept returning to Melyssa. He not only respected her. He had feelings for her. He might even be falling in love with her. That was a luxury he’d never thought he’d have. His life was dedicated to Freislicht before all else, before love, before wife, before children.
When the carriage rolled to a stop within High Castle, he exited it with dignity, strode purposefully to the Royal Chambers, divested himself of his traveling clothes and, only once dressed perfectly, did he venture into the Queen’s Rooms.
When the door closed behind him, his knees wobbled.
Melyssa was sitting in a chair smiling impishly at him. “You took your time.”
“H-h-how…?” He spluttered.
“You really must have more faith,” she teased.
“That isn’t an answer.”
“Perhaps I should expand upon it? I hadn’t realized you were so slow.”
The twinkle in her eyes and the pert set of her lips made Sagen want to kiss her, so he did. “Slow? Is that the best insult you can come up with? Gaelib would be disappointed. Although, he’d give you points for petulance.”
“Do you want to spend more time kissing me or do you want answers? What’s happened that you’re being so careless?”
Sagen laughed. “We have a great deal to talk about, but… you first. You’ve had me scared out of my wits for the best part of a week.”
She blinked. “Was it that long? I hadn’t realized. I’m sorry.”
“You’re… sorry…? The rumors about your deaths – the Royal Court decided you’d passed no less than six times in the first two days alone – have had people, including me, frantic. On the other hand, they…” He grinned at her.
“They allowed me to bring forward some of my countermoves against Gaelib. We’ll have a little time to ourselves, hours maybe days, before we have to commence being careful again. So, your story…?”
“When I was bitten, I was reminded by the spirit about Paul. He was bitten by a viper when feeding a fire. Yet, he was unharmed. My experience was… not dissimilar.”
Sagen sat beside her and pulled her close. “Details.”
“I thought it best to feign weakness and pretend to be near death, for I perceived this was a deliberate attack. However, as I got within the castle, I actually began to feel weak, then very weak, and a still small voice said, ‘sleep’, so I did. I really don’t think I had any choice at that point.”
“I had dreams, of you, of us, of the spirit. I saw you make Gaelib a duke, saw him crow like a cockerel, and then walk into traps you’d set before him. I saw Major Blackhawk standing by your side, supporting you, admiring you. And I saw my family, but their features were blurred as if trying to look through tears. Then the same voice I’d heard before said, ‘wake’, and I was here at High Castle.”
High Castle – Queen’s Drawing Room
It was the new year, 154. Commander Ta’ler bowed as he was announced to the queen. It had been ten days since she’d been smuggled out of Farr and, as far as most people were concerned, there’d been no change in Her Majesty’s near-death state. Even within High Castle, there were very few who knew the truth. He was honored to be included in that tiny number.
He was happy to find her unharmed, having feared the worst. Ta’ler went down on one knee, his eyes looking straight forward seeing things far beyond the room they were in.
The queen gestured to a chair.
After he sat and they’d exchanged pleasantries, the queen excused most of her ladies-in-waiting so they could talk privately.
“Before we continue, Commander,” Melyssa apologized, “it is remiss of me not to have introduced my companions. These are Ladies Abigayle, Birytha and Ush-Wha. All of whom recently arrived from my father’s, that is Duke Gregory of Alexandria’s, court. Father and mother were concerned that I might adopt northern ways, like my lamentable cousin, Taryssa. She’s married to the current Earl of Caswell. I’m told she’s even lost the southern lilt to her voice.” She winked at him.
“It would seem, Your Majesty…” Commander Ta’ler tried not to frown, “…that I am missing something.”
“Shall I help you?”
“What do you notice about the three ladies that I just introduced?” Melyssa pointed to the only other people in the room. All of whom were dressed appropriately, although there were certain southern stylistic touches.
“I… all three are lovely and, I am sure, marvelous companions. But…” he hesitated to point out the obvious, “Lady Ush-Wha’s name is exotic and her complexion…”
Melyssa’s face lit up. “Commander Ta’ler, I’m surprised at you. Are you trying to suggest that her complexion is darker than you’d expect of a southerner?”
“You should meet her brothers. Their skin tones would shock you. I should stop teasing you. But I probably won’t. I need to keep in practice as the somewhat flighty, petulant, and immature queen that Gaelib Melazera has come to expect.”
“Your Majesty!” The Commander was shocked to hear her speak so directly.
“Ush-Wha comes from south of the Shining Mountains. Her people are… what was that word you like so much, Lady Ush-Wha?”
“Predatory, Your Majesty,” Ush-Wha purred.
“She is an extremely dangerous person, only one of those sent by my father, to ensure no new attempt on my life gets even close to succeeding. And, before you ask, no, I am not going to identify all of them to you… or anyone else. I won’t take that risk. I would dearly love to station some Alexandrians around King Sagen. Sadly, the political downsides of that make it impossible.”
Ta’ler took a deep breath. “It seems, Your Majesty that what I had intended to propose is unnecessary.”
“What was that, Commander?”
“I was going to suggest, Your Majesty, that I have two spies brought in as your maidservants. They are proficient at discernment and have been trained by the Knights of J’shua to make quick work of any attacker.”
“You have a way to communicate with the knights?”
“An indirect and somewhat circuitous way, Your Majesty. Like you, I won’t disclose the details as I’ll not put them at risk. However, they have asked me to convey the following. My contact, and his associates, have been active since the Knights’ School burned down nine years ago. They serve J’shua and see the kingdom’s current strife as far more than a power play by an ambitious Royal Steward.”
“I would like to meet your spies and evaluate them for myself.”
“It would honor me, Your Majesty. My only concern is your continued welfare.”
Dav’d had been one of the last knights to escape. He’d been in the tree line when the flames became visible outside.
He sought out the horses Drake had hidden, but only one remained.
Cautiously, staying off roads, he crossed the East River then turned southwest.
He considered heading back to the Border Inn, but reassured himself Drake’s people would have Cynthia. Whether she’d already reached Caswell or not, they’d keep her safe.
He was thankful he’d learned to survive in the wilderness because he was afraid to approach anyone. The horse had sickened and died after being bitten by a snake, leaving him on foot.
After twenty-three days, he finally reached Caswell. Cynthia was already there, as were rumors proclaiming him and Drake heroes. Dav’d couldn’t take it in.
All that I’ve lived for is gone, and I’m branded a Judas.
The following two years were spent in hiding, only re-emerging after Drake had become the Earl of Caswell. At that time, Cynthia was pregnant with their first child.
Drake took in Dav’d as his ward, sponsored him into the army as a lieutenant, and provided another lavish house and many servants for Cynthia… in Caswell.
It wasn’t only the Black Robes who’d been detained at High Castle. Several high-ranking individuals had ‘included’ themselves by trying to protect those being rounded up.
Unlike the bureaucrats, the nobles were not taken to dungeons. They were housed within a secure wing of the castle, isolated, and monitored closely. Some were clearly Melazera’s creatures. Others were being blackmailed, bribed, or coerced.
They were questioned about how they’d been entrapped by Melazera, forced to reveal the secrets that had subjugated them, and forgiven. However, they were also required to prove their allegiance to the king by feigning submission to Melazera, and acting as Sagen’s agents. Then they were released, returning home with several new aides, clerks, and administrators supplied by His Majesty. Of course, once home, they were required to round up any Black Robes there, then ship them to the king under heavy guard.
As for those nobles who wouldn’t go along with King Sagen’s strategy, or who demonstrated themselves untrustworthy, they too were released. A few fell prey to bandits on their way home. The rest met much more gruesome ends at Melazera’s hands, having been denounced by King Sagen’s double-agents.
Evaluation of the Black Robes was deliberately slow and time-consuming. A tribunal tasked Commander Ta’ler and Colonel Gonn’ls with finding the truth. All were startled to discover the cruel, callous methods used to recruit the Black Robes and then ensnare them as puppets under the control of Caileagh and Gaelib.
By spring, the word had reached every corner of Freislicht that the Black Robes couldn’t be trusted. Even though several proclamations emphasized that only a very few of that group’s number were traitors, no member of the nobility, no merchant, no trader, nor any banker was willing to take the risk.
The Guild of the Black Robe ceased to be, publicly.