Chapter 21: The Lady
The Border Inn, Mestelina
The sun was low and the drinking hadn’t started yet. The place was empty. The Border Inn’s proprietor, Terrance, was wiping the last table when a sobbing, distraught Cynthia rushed in, wild-eyed and frantic. The shift she wore was travel-stained, gaudy, and provocative. It was unlike anything he’d expected of her.
“Cynthia? How—” Terrance’s eyes grew wide.
She darted into his arms, clasping him tightly.
He doubted he could pry her off without hurting her. Not that he wanted to try.
Amidst sobs and mumbles, words tumbled out of her, impossible to follow. “They abducted…I tried…Then he…cut my…the dark…” Every breath interrupted by tears and sniffles.
He cringed to hear the usually exuberant wife of his friend struggle to speak.
Terrance’s eyes narrowed when two men burst through the door. He immediately disliked them and prepared to defend her. Only to be caught off-guard when she turned her head, and a momentary brightness appeared on her face.
With each ragged breath, she spoke a bit more clearly, and loosened her grip. “Baldwin…brother, Cain.” She pointed at the men. “Wouldn’t…escaped…without…” She gulped. “Find…David?”
“I’ll send for him.”
Cynthia quieted with a shuddering sigh.
“Thank you, sirs. I’d give you the best room in the inn, but I’ve only one available—”
““It must go to the lady.” Baldwin said. “We insist.”
“That only leaves fresh straw in the barn,” Terrance said.
“Fine for us,” Baldwin said.
Terrance narrowed his eyes. They still gave him a bad feeling.
They don’t look anything alike. What are they hiding?
Yet, they weren’t his immediate concern.
Donna, his daughter, enter the room from the kitchen and he beckoned her over. “Cynthia, I don’t know if you recall my youngest daughter.”
“Y-yes, of course. You’ve…grown.”
Witnessing Cynthia wrestle with such common civilities angered him. “Donna, take our guest up to Room Five. See that she’s settled and address all her needs. Once she’s comfortable, fetch your mother. Cynthia will need someone familiar to stay with her.”
“Yes, Father.” She helped Cynthia up the stairs.
The brothers frowned. Their gaze trailed after the woman they’d rescued.
Terrance turned to the men. “Have you eaten? Would you like something to drink?”
“Thank you,” Baldwin said, taking the nearest chair.
Terrance poured each an ale and then went into the kitchen, where he encountered one of his sons. “Dren, fetch a watchman to ride for the Ankah settlement in Mestelina, find Sir David, and deliver this note.” He scrawled an encoded message.
Returning with bowls of spicy stew, he set them before the two men. “This should warm you. Tell me what happened.”
Cynthia had stayed composed by sheer anger. It was the only thing keeping her going. Seeing Terrance undid her. Emotions flooded through her, threatening to drown her.
I want to kill the soldiers…slowly.
I want the lord who watched to suffer everything I did…and more.
I want the beast that befouled me…to…to…I want him to die, but it must take forever, so he endures a hundredfold what I did—no, a thousand.
Shaking with rage, Cynthia ripped off the dress, tearing seams. It was a reminder of…
“Shall I wash and mend your clothes?” Donna poured hot water into the bath.
Cynthia snarled, “Burn them!”
The serving girl backed away. “I…have I offended, lady?”
“Wait! I’m sorry. I can’t—won’t—explain. Destroy it so nothing remains. Not a single thread.”
“As you wish, ma’am.” Donna scooped up the offending pile and ran out, returning with clean clothes and a steaming bowl of stew. “If you need anything, I’ll be in the next room.”
Cynthia lay in the warm tub for a long time, scrubbing her skin hard, trying to erase the musky smell of that monster. As she washed, she thanked J’shua he’d not entered her. He must be defective. It was the only indignity she’d been spared. At least, she’d no fear of a child from the ordeal.
Forcing her thoughts away from that memory, she wondered about the perverted man who’d directed things. It was in Farr Castle. It wasn’t the king. A noble? That putrid, depraved creature had called her rapist “Steven.” The guards had called him “Blackhawk.”
Lord J’shua, grant me vengeance. I know who I want dead first, but he won’t be the last.
She wept as she submerged herself in the warm water, trying to forget the cold stone dungeon floor and the hands of her ravisher. As the water filled her ears, the pleasant, soothing quiet almost drowned out the frivolity from the tavern below. She screamed under the water.
Could I end the anguish if…
Shooting upright, she inhaled deeply, desperate to breathe. “In the name of J’shua Ha Mashiach, demons leave!”
She dried and dressed in the plain cotton shift. The outrage coursing through her veins was all-consuming. It was the only thing she could bear to feel.
A shocked and horrified David rode through the night to reach the Border Inn. “Where is she?” he demanded.
Terrance stopped him, gripping David by the shoulders. “Calm down. Cynthia is…not fine, but whole, physically, at least. Be strong and support her. I don’t know what happened. She wouldn’t tell my wife much. It was bad.”
David dropped his head, biting his lip, and sighed.
“Two men brought her,” Terrance said, “but there’s something off about them.”
David’s only focus was his wife. “I should’ve been there. I should’ve had her with me. I thought it safer—”
“This, whatever it was, was not of your doing. When you know, tell me how I can help. Anything I have, can supply, or arrange is yours. Anything.”
Moved by his friend’s offer, David took a step back and outwardly calmed himself. “Is she awake?”
“Karlene is with her,” Terrance said in a soft tone. “Room Five.”
David bounded up the stairs and into Cynthia’s room. She flew into his arms, sobbing and babbling unintelligibly.
Terrance’s wife placed a hand on his shoulder and then left.
David held his bride, helpless, not knowing what to do. With each tear, he became more angry. He wanted to ask questions, but wouldn’t risk upsetting her more. His heart broke for her. Even though given a three-moon sabbatical to remain with his wife following their wedding, he’d only been home several weeks at a time since. It had been one year.
When she was silent, clinging to him, he said, “How can I help? Where do I take you?”
“Not to my parents. They mustn’t know…and…the lord,” she spat the word, “might seek me there.”
“Who…?” His imagination filled in all too many vile possibilities. Whoever it was, regardless of rank or position, would die.
“I don’t know.” Her voice caught. “The only name I know is Steven Blackhawk.”
It meant nothing to him. “I fear, my love, traveling with me would be just as dangerous, especially if some nobleman is to blame. Worse—”
“I don’t care. I want to be with you.”
“I want that too, but…” David forced himself to admit, “Alone, I can’t protect you.”
“Where then?” Cynthia cried. “That lord said he’d do me more harm. I’m afraid.”
“The safest thing will be to hide you. Just for the time being. Just until this matter’s settled, then we’ll be together.”
“I…” she leaned her head against him. Then only her mouth moved, silently praying.
“My love, stay here. Daikon Terrance will watch over you. And Karlene can help you. I’ll return soon.”
She hugged him tighter, burying her face in his chest.
He forced himself not to ask more. “I must talk to the men that brought you.” He waited, stroking her cheek. “I’ll not leave without saying goodbye.”
She released him slowly.
To be apart was hard, but this…? David would do something about this. With a last kiss, he left the room, quietly closing the door behind him. Then ran down the stairs. “Where—?”
“In the barn,” Terrance said. “I don’t like them. Be careful.”
David didn’t pause. He raced out the back door.
Upon seeing him, the two men bowed.
“Sirs, it’s I who should bow to you,” he said, bowing low.
“It was our duty, sir.” Baldwin threw his bedding on the straw and stood.
“Tell me what happened.”
Baldwin didn’t meet David’s eyes, instead stared over his shoulder. “There were rumors that…they’d arrested the wife of a Knight of J’shua…and…” he gulped, “she had spent time with Lord Melazera in his Judgment Hall.”
Another vile name. All too well known.
“Major Blackhawk, uh…discharged the sentence. There were guards boasting about how he’d—I’m sorry, sir—about how he’d raped your wife. They said he requested to do it again.”
David’s fists clenched.
“Being believers, we had to help her. We got lucky, stole a wagon, and got away.”
Cain added, “The rumors also say, forgive me, that rebel knights are terrorizing the countryside. Knights that,” he looked at his feet, “want to overthrow the king.”
“Rubbish,” David snapped back.
“The, uh…defilement was, according to rumor, a message to those rebels—”
“I’m no rebel. Why attack Cynthia?” David took two strides toward them.
“I don’t know, sir,” Baldwin said, backing away, his hands raised defensively. “All we heard was kitchen gossip.”
“I know of no such rebellious knights, but know who will. Thank you.” David turned to leave but stopped. “I’m in your debt. How can I repay you?”
“We’ve nowhere to go. We cannot go home.” Cain frowned. “Can we help you?”
“Do you ride? There’ll be no time for wagons.” They both nodded in answer to his question. “Get ready to leave. I need a few moments with my wife.”
Cynthia stood outside behind the inn. Karlene had suggested Cynthia destroy it herself.
This is better.
The silk smelled like burned hair. Cynthia’s smile grew slightly with every piece of silk she fed to the blaze. Each colorful flare was a banner, her signal fire, her call to arms. Each flame burned a man from that hall. Mostly Blackhawk, but also his lord and the others who’d watched.
She forced herself to pray for their souls, for she knew J’shua had died to rescue them as well. She prayed for her own soul, too, fearing it would never be restored, fearing it would be blackened by her desire for revenge.
She recognized the sound of David’s boots and the rhythm of his gait. Still, she flinched at his gentle touch. Only sinking into his arms when she saw his face, his kind eyes, his compassion, and his none-too-well-hidden pain. She couldn’t muster a smile.
“May I help?” he pointed to the shift she’d dropped.
“Let me borrow your knife. It’s difficult to rip.”
He pulled a small blade from the top of his boot. It was a gift from her. It was also better suited to her tiny hands than the dagger sheathed at his waist. “Keep it with you, always.”
Her heart fluttered. It was a practical comfort. A knife to be carried out of sight, with which she could surprise an enemy. A blade balanced for fighting and throwing, both of which he’d taught her to do. Well sharpened, it easily sliced the skirt into long ribbons. Then she watched them burn.
He supported her by just being there. They had often embraced as they stargazed or while they read to each other by the fire. Even with little time together in recent moons, they were growing comfortable. Speaking with him became easy. But neither was talking freely now.
She threw the last strip into the fire and turned to face him. “When will you return?”
“I don’t know. I must report this to the elders and hear their remedy.”
Her lip trembled as her eyes filled with tears. His arms enveloping her were all she needed and everything she’d all too soon be parted from. “You must go. They’ll do this to others if…” She couldn’t complete the sentence.
His hands on her shoulders, he stepped back and gazed into her eyes. “I know.” He pulled her close again and let out a long sigh.
“I’ll be back in no longer than a moon.” His voice steadied. “Sooner, if I can.”
Karlene brought her a shawl and he tied it snugly about her.
Cynthia wiped her eyes. “Go.”
Leaving Cynthia was the hardest thing David had ever done or could imagine doing. He’d vowed to love, honor, and protect her as he would his own flesh. He wished to be always with her. Never to be parted. She meant everything to him. Walking out of the inn had required all his willpower. Yet he couldn’t stay. He had to do something.
Others were in danger. Others would be hurt. Others would be…
She has the comfort of women. Karlene will take care of her better than I.
The idea of rebel knights appalled him, adding to his ire. He had to know more before reporting to the elders. His only thought was Drake Caswell. He was a good friend of his father’s, who’d kept an eye on David since his commencement, and even hosted his wedding.
Drake always described himself as a fair-weather knight. He had no desire to fight evil, instead wanting to grow a Circle into a haven and provide an environment in which peace would grow. This he’d done in Caswell.
The people held up Caswell Circle as the highest example of how such a society should run. Many emulated it, their words of peace drawing more and more people. And, like Drake, those daikons had also grown wealthy.
Terrance provided food and fresh horses for the journey.
When David emerged from the inn, Baldwin was already in the saddle. Cain struggled to mount as he smiled at Terrance, bowed to his brother, and even winked at a drunk, probably to hide his embarrassment. Eventually, the experienced rider sat unsteadily in the saddle.
“Where to, Sir Otual?” Baldwin enquired.
“Caswell!” Without looking at the brothers, David spurred his horse into motion. They’d keep up or not. He had no time to worry about them.
The private audience chamber in the depths of Farr Castle was lit with torches. Her shadow quavered along the floor. Lady Melazera paced while the three docents kneeled. “Nothing?” she repeated yet again. “Otual has had a price on his head for years, and none of you had thought to entrap him using his wife?”
“It was considered, but surely she’s dead,” the boldest said. “The last confirmed sighting of her was by Commandant Greysun. And…” his voice trailed away.
Savoring the coward’s terror, Caileagh let the painful silence drag out.
“It’s said—” another began.
“Shut up,” the first docent hissed.
“What tasty tidbit are you withholding?” she paused to examine them.
The third…she shuddered at the sight of him. His hairless head and scrawny body lacked all virility. She walked behind Baldy and used her foot to push his face into the stone floor, making him groan. “What is said?” She thrust harder. “I am waiting.”
“That,” the second docent began, only to hesitate, “Lord Melazera recently acquired Otual’s daughter-in-law…but lost her. Just as Rosewud lost Otual’s wife…and daughter long ago.”
“Daughter? Ah yes, the daughter. You three have provided regular reports on the son and his associates. He’s not even a pale shadow of his father. Tell me of the daughter”
“She…she was…sold to some brothel.”
“Really? Why have none of you brought her to me?” She removed her foot and kicked Baldy’s side.
“You finally have something to say?” Caileagh kicked him again.
“Greysun lied in his reports. He’d sold Otual’s daughter to the madam. But after the king made those collections unlawful, Otual’s wife went there, demanding—”
“Traitor!” the first docent hissed. “You never told—”
“Boys,” Caileagh kicked the interrupter, “one at a time. Go on, Baldy.”
“She went to get her daughter back.”
“And neither mother nor daughter have been seen since.”
“I must have the knight.” “You,” she kicked the second, “remind me of your name.”
“Streib, my lady.”
“Take your companions away and kill them. Slowly.” She motioned to her guards, who unsheathed their swords. “You won’t fail me again. Will you, Streib? Do it in front of all your acolytes to remind them of the cost of failure. When you’ve finished, take the living to Frei Forest and determine if Otual’s wife had a settlement there.”
Rosewud and Greysun owed her answers.
Amidst the Atmosphere of Farr
Owakar had transferred to Farr as soon as Alocrin called him. Something was happening.
They tried to get close to the Melazera’s sanctuary, but it was teeming with the Warrior’s minions, many more than usual.
They listened from afar. One with a green tunic said, “Now that we’ve been called from Dubu, we’ll make these fool, dirt-men bow.”
Another wearing gray nodded. “The Warrior does not employ us lightly. Once this land is subdued, the Warrior will need only a few of us to manage the debased humans who’ll continue the work. And he’ll send us to the next kingdom.”
“I long to send them all back to the mud.”
The two continued out of hearing.
Then Alocrin tugged Owakar’s sleeve and tossed his head toward the castle.
“Must we watch this?” Owakar looked for comfort in his luach. Slowly, it throbbed.
“You know we must, the Book of Life must receive a full accounting of the evil and the good.” Alocrin replied.
That evening, Caileagh arranged for Gaelib to meet her in one of Farr Castle’s lower halls. A long time ago, it was a staging area for wartime operations, but no longer. Peace had reigned in Freislicht for well over a century. She had consecrated it after losing the Sanctuary of the Alte Regieren in Lorness, when her guiding spirits had deserted her.
Three long years had passed before their voices spoke again. Three years in which she’d had to guide Gaelib on her own, using runes, blood spatter, and bones. Three years in which she’d learned the evil things her mother had done to her.
But that was the past. Caileagh had sacrificed her mother and the old wizard, so her spirits could return.
Those guides returned in greater numbers than ever before. Swelled with elation by their power, she felt confident and safe again.
It had then taken another six years to dedicate this place, so it was ready for Gaelib’s Emancipation Ritual, for his ultimate release from the bonds of conscience.
Five of her highest docents had prepared the ceremony.
Gaelib stood stoic, yet she saw his underlying nervousness, his need, and his eagerness to do anything to gain the full power of the Warrior. He’d arrived on time, dressed in ceremonial robes. He knew the nature of the ritual and his part in it. But she doubted he understood that this was a choice—that the Warrior wouldn’t force him—that Gaelib must freely offer himself, handing over control to receive the powers he sought.
The acolytes surrounded him along the outer circle for this rite. Gaelib scanned the torches of the large room, enjoying the shadows dancing against pillars and statues. He waited, impatient for what he was finally to receive.
I need that power and vision to become the sole ruler of Freislicht. With the Warrior’s abilities, I’ll overcome all.
Accompanied by familiar chants and rituals, the docents entered the hall. They brought with them a struggling woman clutching an infant, a rope around her neck. The one that pulled her wore a hood that hid his face. Two more walked on either side of her. Another two behind.
Since she was dressed as a peasant, Gaelib surmised she had no family of consequence to repay whatever he did to her.
Caileagh wouldn’t risk that.
His wife handed him the bowl filled with the dust of crushed bones and ashes, instructing him to draw the sublime circle on the floor.
He did so without thought, having done it countless times. Gaelib removed the leash from the woman. “Step into the circle.” He pointed to the symbol he had drawn. “After the ceremony, you will be released. All will be well. Kneel.”
Terrified, she yearned to believe his comforting words, hugging the child tighter.
The five docents spread out around the sacrificial circle.
Caileagh stepped forward to prompt him.
He raised his hand, stopping her. This was his moment. He no longer required guidance. With feigned comfort, his honeyed voice soothed the kneeling woman’s fears and quieted her sobs. Tears streaked her face as she gaped at robed figures and shadowed faces, seeking a way out that didn’t exist.
“All is out of our control,” he crooned. “Within the dungeon, the child would surely die slowly, starving and in pain. It is inevitable. No other outcome is possible. But there is a higher purpose. The God of this Age, the God over all other Gods, is ruler everywhere. Release your babe from that agony. Complete the offering. Your act will preserve the kingdom and all your cares will cease.”
He offered her the ceremonial dagger. She took the blade. Her eyes pleaded for another way, but he shook his head and guided her hand.
With a scream she cut the babe’s neck.
Heady transcendent energy surged into him.
Sobbing, the woman relinquished the small, lifeless body to Lady Melazera, who drained its blood into an ornate bowl.
As if from a great distance, as sharp as a knife, the Warrior spoke in his mind, “Take her for your pleasure. Do with her as thou wilt.”
Gaelib knew the ceremony could have no other end. Indeed, buoyed by the force flowing through him, he played, enjoying every notion from the Warrior.
Yet more power entered Gaelib as he silenced his victim with the same dagger. When he drank the blood from the bowl, the Warrior’s words came to him again with the energy of a cyclone and the clarity of a sunbeam, “We are free of all moral constructs.”
I’m empty of guilt, shame, and hesitancy. I now see that my word is the Will of the Gods.
King Sagen sat still as a statue on the ancient throne while the fourth of five potential wives approached.
“I am Zillah, youngest daughter of Lord Macom.” She curtsied. “You are our great king, and your countenance shines like the sun.”
It was painful, both to watch and, Sagen suspected, to be presented so.
Gaelib’s fascination with the old ways is tedious. I’ll declare a series of balls and outings, like my father did. I’ll have Gaelib spend several fortunes on it. Then, I might meet someone naturally.
He listened intently to each of the young ladies. As with previous processions, their averted eyes and halting speech reminded him how much he hated this process. Worse, they were terrified. All came from families who understood the true nature of power and the conflict brewing between the king and his steward. A conflict many expected the king to lose. Being queen was one thing. Being queen to a dead king, if she survived, was quite another. He smiled often to reduce their discomfort.
The fifth girl was different. She had golden hair and blue eyes. Her name was Melyssa. She was relaxed, displayed no fear, and possessed a quiet boldness. “Your Majesty, the library you built to foster education is a most wondrous thing. It is a true boon to the kingdom. I hope to see it one day.”
Sagen leaned forward and smiled. It was the first movement he’d made. “Thank you, Miss Locke. Regardless of tonight’s outcome, I shall ensure you do.”
“You are too kind, Your Majesty. I was very sorry to hear of the late king’s passing. It grieved me very much. It must have been excruciating for you. Please forgive my impertinence, but you’ve been in my prayers.”
He suppressed a gasp before his courtiers could see his reaction, feeling a spark of hope stir in his heart.
After thanking all five ladies for presenting themselves, each walked to the antechamber to wait for their chaperones. A servant waylaid the young woman’s companion, providing a few moments of privacy. When only Miss Locke remained, he entered.
She remained composed, and even though she smiled only slightly, a dimple graced her left cheek. She curtsied.
She is attractive. Gaelib would make sure of that. He intends to engender my lust—to get me an heir. But I perceive she is also thoughtful. I sense no pretension or hypocrisy. She cannot be one of Gaelib’s creatures.
“My dear,” Sagen said, “we don’t have much time. I have no wish to burden you with a courtship if you are not here of your own choosing. Are you willing to be my wife?”
She lowered her eyes and bit her upper lip. But as she opened her mouth to speak, he raised his hand, forestalling her response.
“Life as my queen will be distressing, even hazardous. Politics within the Royal Court are even more vile than your kinsmen have warned you. Intrigue and danger will surround us.”
“Your Majesty, I am a Locke…and, I hope…you are the key.” Her lips curled up whimsically as she batted her eyelashes.
Sagen stared for a moment, uncertain of the meaning of her words. Realizing she was expecting some response, he smiled. He had never gotten this far in the process before, having rejected all the girls in the previous processions immediately. He’d hoped for a yes.
Is this a yes?
“I apologize, Your Majesty.” She bowed her head. “It’s an old jest amongst my family. I shouldn’t have burdened you with such a pitiful attempt at humor.”
Despite the seriousness of the moment, Sagen laughed. Her authentic, humble, and funny words were the last sign he’d needed.
“It isn’t fitting that you should remain bowed before me. Rise,” he said, and she did so. “Apart from which,” he went down on one knee, took her hand in his, and kissed it, “how can I propose when you’re bent over? Be my wife.”
Melyssa smiled. “It shall be as you wish, Your Majesty. J’shua has shown me you are faithful. And I swear by J’shua Ha Mashiach that I’ll do whatever’s needed to help you.” Then she curtsied again.
She knows J’shua. Perhaps I’m blessed, as the Writings say.
[Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.]
Sagen paced back and forth in his chamber, wondering how Gaelib would react. Would he be pleased or angry?
Gaelib hadn’t been in the hall to oversee the Procession or the Royal Court’s dismissal. Nor had he been in attendance when there’d been a lively discussion about when the wedding should occur.
Where is Gaelib? What’s he doing? He’s been harping at me to take a wife, so why wasn’t he here overseeing it?
When the herald informed him that Lady Melyssa awaited him in the drawing room, he had butterflies. Sagen walked briskly. He hadn’t felt this way in years. It was as if he was a boy expecting gifts on his name day.