Rare Things for a Rare Life

The Knights of Joshua

by Tiana Dokerty © 1984-2021

Home | Chapter 21 | Chapter 23

Chapter 22: Games People Play 154 AK, Spring

Ephesians 2:4-5 But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)

 

High Castle – King’s Drawing Room

Sagen instructed his secretary to prepare the King’s Drawing Room. The chessboard was set near a window. The banquet table in the middle of the room provided sustenance after each game. With the exception of a handful of guards and a single cupbearer, the room was as devoid of people as it was possible to be in the king’s presence.

No one had forgotten the assassination attempt on Queen Melyssa, nor the long moons it had taken her to fully recover. Yet, King Sagen wanted the players to be able to talk to him freely.

Today’s opponent was Duke Frederick of Wooster.

The reward for winning was a gold dagger, one of a set of twenty-four that had been custom-made to commemorate Sagen’s coronation. Each engraved with the king’s crest of three lightning bolts and his family’s motto ‘honor shines’. If the king won two out of three games, he retained the coveted blade. If the duke won, he’d take the dagger home.

The king had canceled the matches after the assassination attempt, and only recently reinstated them. Invitations had been sent out to all his nobles. The first two matches had been with Duke Rothwyne of Landryn and Earl Talbot of Sandria, both of whom had proven faithful and were integral to his plans.

 

Woods Outside of Farr

The pair of soldiers noticed a glint of light off metal as a bear cub ran off. Intrigued, they pursued it until the cub dropped what it had been carrying.

It was what was left of a silver armband.

Soon after reporting it, a lieutenant arrived with four dozen Militet. They searched the area and came across a body scavenged by animals and crawling with insect larva.

A captain arrived just in time to see all the body parts, other than its right arm, arranged on an oiled tarpaulin. He identified it as Commandant Greyson.

Melazera was ecstatic when he received the report.  By adding murder, he could double the reward for O’Toole.

 

High Castle – The Great Hall

King Sagen kept a straight, impassive face. Within only days of becoming a duke, Geleib had produced witnesses ‘proving’ that the knight, Jonathan O’Toole, was behind the ongoing rebellion. Sagen had thanked the newly-minted duke for his tireless work.

This ‘rebellion’ was buying precious time for Sagen’s other preparations, although it hurt to hear his childhood friend slandered so often.

As for the ‘witnesses’ Melazera had delivered, the king had little doubt they had been tortured until they agreed to provide the desired testimony. Sagen had commanded every witness be transferred to the dungeons beneath High Castle to be re-interviewed. Then, with yet more boundless thanks, the king had sent Melazera back to Lorness to end the clearly ongoing rebellion.

The re-interviewing process was slow as witnesses usually first had to recover from their existing wounds. Then the witnesses had to be convinced that, no matter what they said, they would be released once the king trusted their testimony had not been coerced. Many accepted the king’s offer of passage for them and their families to Esthlanis, if they were afraid to remain in Freislicht.

 

Lorness Castle – The New Sanctuary

Cailleagh arranged for Geleib to meet her in the lower hall. It had been used in times past as a staging area for military operations but was no longer required. She had begun consecrating it ten years ago, after the loss of the Sanctuary of the Alte Regieren, after her guiding spirits had deserted her.

Three long years had passed before she had heard their voices again. Three years in which she’d had to guide Geleib on her own. Three years in which she’d learned the true depths that her mother had plumbed and what that woman had been willing to do to her.

But that was the past. As was her mother who, along with the old wizard, had given their lives so her guiding spirits could return.

Yet it had taken seven more years to dedicate this place so it was ready for Geleib’s Emancipation Ritual, for his final release from the bonds of morality.

Five of her highest docents had prepared the ceremony.

Geleib stood stoically composed, yet she saw his underlying nervousness, his need, and his willingness to do anything to gain the full power of the Warrior. He had arrived on time, dressed in his ceremonial robes. He knew the nature of the ritual and his part in it.

But she still doubted that he’d understood this was a choice. That the Warrior would not take him. That Geleib must freely offer himself and hand over control to receive the powers he sought.

Geleib waited, impatient for what he was finally to receive.

I need that power and vision to complete my strategy, to become the sole Ruler of Freislicht. I am ready to do anything to get it. Once I have the Warrior’s power, I’ll overcome all.

With the familiar chants and rituals, the docents entered the hall, bringing with them a struggling woman, a rope around her neck. Clutching an infant, she was pulled by a docent with two more in front and another two behind.

Given she was dressed as a peasant, Geleib calculated she had no family of consequence to repay whatever he did to her.

Cailleagh would not risk that.

His wife handed him a 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, while recalling the next step. He needed to coax the woman carrying the child into the circle then have her kneel, without the threat of force. It was easy to do. Although terrified, she yearned to believe in his comforting words.

The docent holding her leash remained behind her.

The four other docents spread out around the circle.

Cailleagh stepped forward to prompt him, but he knew what to do. He raised his hand, stopping her in place. This was his moment. He no longer required her guidance.

With feigned comfort, his sweet honeyed voice soothed the kneeling woman’s fears, screams and tears as she looked around desperately at the robed figures and shadowed faces, clutching the babe to her breast, seeking a way out that did not exist.

“All is out of our control,” he crooned. “The God of this Age is in charge, here in this circle that you entered freely, and everywhere else. There is no escape. There are no alternatives. But there is a higher purpose. It is our destiny to preserve the kingdom. You must act. Within the dungeons, the child would surely die slowly, starving, and in pain. It is inevitable. No other outcome is possible. Complete the offering. Be highly favored. Receive my blessing. Act and all your cares will cease, for you will be beloved.”

He offered her the ceremonial dagger.

She surrendered her will to him, taking the blade.

He felt power surge into him as the child expired. It was heady, transcendent.

Despondent and sobbing, the woman handed the infant to Cailleagh, who drained its blood into an ornate bowl of wine.

As if at a great distance, he heard his wife intone, “Take her for your pleasure. Do with her as thou wilt.” Just as she had done often before.

The ceremony could have no other end. Indeed, buoyed by the power flowing through him, it was even easier than he expected. He played and enjoyed every suggestion from the Warrior for the next hour.

Even more power entered him as he silenced her with the same dagger that she’d used to end her own babe’s life.

Yet more strength flooded into him when he drank the blood from the bowl.

The Warrior then spoke only to him with the energy of a cyclone and the clarity of a sunbeam, “We are now free of all the moral constructs that limited you.”

I’m free of guilt, shame, and hesitancy. I see clearly that my will is the Word of the Gods.

 

South of Lorness

Rebekah refused to have her new role, coordinating Licht Gegen’s information gathering and active operations, prevent her from participating in some of the ‘fun’. Not that she was willing to risk her life doing anything too foolish.

By her standards.

That explained why, dressed as a woman who had been taken in a ‘lawful’ debt collection, she was ‘trapped’ in a cage mounted to the back of a wagon. With her were three very pretty girls of barely marriageable age, a lad whose bloody leg was wrapped in bandages, and three children. That all of them were armed with concealed weapons was not obvious even if looking into the cage.

All of them were trained fighters, even the children. A set of triplets who had an affinity for throwing knives. They had been assembled by Licht Gegen, while carefully avoiding any use of names so none could identify the others.

The wagon’s driver had been hired to drive it north from River Town.

The guards escorting the cage cart were some of James of the Wood’s lads, dressed in uniforms ‘recovered’ after their owners had ceased needing them. The captain of the guard at Lorness Castle kept sending patrols out to retake control of the woods. As if James was going to permit that.

They had been traveling for several hours, stopping frequently, and had ‘added’ one or two extra people into the cage at each stop, until all eight of them had been ‘captured’.

At the last stop, the guards had even set the already abandoned farm ablaze.

As they began moving again, a wagon carrying casks of wine turned off the road. Its driver standing up while it still moved, squinting to see the farm more clearly.

On the road, a single horseman stopped, patted his horse’s flank, and watched from a distance.

The driver of the wine cart whipped his oxen, forcing them to move faster and block the cage cart’s path. “What do you think you’re doing, you hundn? What’ve you done? Don’t you know who that farm belongs to?”

The not-quite-well-dressed young man playing the part of Lord Melazera’s clerk opened his folder, checked something, then spat. “It belongs to Lorness now. It’s just been reclaimed. Along with a pretty brunette. Who are you and how dare you speak to me that way?”

Rebekah slumped dejectedly to the floor of the cage cart, gripped the stock of a hidden crossbow and prepared to raise and fire it. As she did, her eyes flicked to the rider still watching from the road.

It couldn’t be, but it was…

…Jonathan!

Sheisse!

She couldn’t risk him interfering. James’ lads wouldn’t take instructions from her. They only knew her as Tomas Beck, and she looked nothing like him at that moment. Nor could she risk the others in the cage learning her identity. Apart from anything else, she’d never hear the end of it, never again be able to be Beck, or play any other role.

Sheisse!

Raising her hands so they shaded her face in a particular way, she prayed Jon saw her signal and honored it, staying away.

Hell, he could decide to come to her aid and attack James’ boys!

Sheisse!

As she fretted, unable to do anything but pray, the wine cart’s driver and the ‘clerk’ faced off against each other. A confrontation that lasted only long enough for a blade to slip between the driver’s ribs and him collapse into the clerk’s arms.

Even Rebekah had to admit it was beautifully done. From a distance – from Jon’s distance – it should have looked as if the driver fainted and the clerk caught him… and was tending to him.

Slitting the traitor’s throat was more like it.

As the wagon driver was ‘helped’ onto the back of his wagon, Rebekah heard the telltale trickle of wine that lasted only seconds, followed by the tinkle of baden on wood.

Her information had been correct.

They’d intercepted yet another of Lorness’ money deliveries.

 

South of Lorness

Jon was walking his horse steadily. Only an hour earlier, he’d finally lost one of Lorness’ patrols. It had been a mistake to come this far north. He’d been guided to, yet all it had earned him was four all-too-close brushes with Geleib’s men and a terrifying ordeal after almost galloping headlong into Blackhawk.

Both he and his horse were close to exhaustion. It was why he’d cut into the woods and was using lesser-known tracks to put distance between him and his pursuers. Both man and beast would have to rest or he, somehow, had to find another mount. As yet, he wasn’t far enough south to encounter James or his lads.

The wagon ahead of him was nothing special. When it turned off the road toward a farm, he stopped and patted his horse’s flanks. Something was bothering it.

A thick plume of smoke came from a nearby farm. The setting sun was so low in the sky, it obscured the house from view. The buildings could be aflame, and he would not be able to tell. Then he saw the cage cart. Anger flared within his chest, but he did not have the energy and there were too many guards to take on alone. Certainly not astride a tired horse and as weary as he was.

The light changed, giving him a glimpse into the cage. Amongst those trapped there was a woman that reminded him of Rebekah but too many women did these days.

Then she…

He knew that signal.

It is Rebekah! But she is commanding me to stay away. What do I do, Lord?

He did not need a still small voice to answer that question. He wanted to go to her aid. He desperately wanted it. Yet, he respected her judgment. Whether it was for his protection or hers, or if there was something occurring that he could not perceive, as he loved her, his only choice was to respect her message.

Without taking his eyes from her, he moved his horse off the track and into the sparse trees that lined it. Losing sight of her as the sound of hoofbeats became audible in the distance.

Dismounting, he moved his horse further back, only to see Blackhawk and ninety men thunder into sight from the west then disappear into the eastern distance.

Thank you, Lord. She’s alive.

 

Lorness Castle – Geleib’s Rooms

Undersecretary Rosewood arrived too many days after being summoned.

Upon being granted entry into Geleib’s private apartment, he dropped to his knees and begged, “My Lord, please forgive my tardiness. I did not get your message until I returned to Farr Castle. I was away arranging debt collections and conscriptions. Despite being denounced, your Black Robes did a wonderful job of altering or losing contracts before going into hiding. It is a pity they have had to go underground. Still, so many records were lost when they did, that it’s worked in our favor.”

Geleib smiled, saying nothing.

Rosewood was terrified. The silence drew out. Desperate for something, anything to say, he blurted out, “The operation was very successful in raising the necessary money and men for the army. The Lightning Battalion will be loyal to only you, my Lord… I’m sorry, your Grace. My belated congratulations on your long-overdue elevation to duke.”

Geleib rose from his throne-like chair and walked slowly toward the cowering undersecretary, then lent down and took his hand, “Rise, George, I forgive all.”

“You are most gracious, your Grace.”

“I am pleased. No, I am… impressed. So much so that I have an important task for you.”

“Anything!”

“Exactly the response I wanted,” Geleib smiled menacingly.” I intend to institute some security procedures for the money allotted to the Guild of the Black Robe. Despite it being forced underground, its extent is still significant. But…”

“Yes…?” Rosewood knew he sounded like a puppy begging for the attention of its master, but it was the only safe response.

“But Cailleagh has proven she lacks the sort of detailed understanding necessary given recent… setbacks. I need someone who understands money, how to use it, and how to hide it. You can do that for me, can’t you, George?”

“Yes!”

“Then…” Geleib picked up a drink and admired himself in a mirror, eventually turning back to face Rosewood. “You will deliver funds to the docents only after they swear allegiance to me. And only after I have received their reports each moon.”

“Yes, my Lord,” Rosewood complied. Then two thoughts struck him.

What did Cailleagh do to lose Geleib’s trust? How do I avoid the same fate?

“However, even before you deal with the docents, we have a small problem with pilferage. No…” Geleib smiled beneficently.

Rosewood’s insides clenched into a knot.

“I am not talking about Cailleagh diverting funds,” Melazera continued, “or even the docents retaining a few baden for their own uses. The former has never happened and the latter is simply the cost of doing business. No, someone has been intercepting all too many of our money shipments.” His face darkened. “So much so that it is putting the slightest of crimps in my plans. Before it becomes a significant nuisance, stop the robberies. You can do that for me, can’t you, George?”

“Yes!”

Where the hell do I start?

 

High Castle

Blackhawk sat down at his desk to write his report to Geleib.

“I was only with the king three times this week due to my other duties. The king met with Ambassadors Cooper and Matthews from Mestelina. I could not hear what was said but all seemed happy at the end of the meeting.”

He paused, considering how best to phrase the next statement.

“The king and queen are not getting along. They had an argument yesterday, leaving him annoyed for the rest of the afternoon.”

He stopped writing and thought about that encounter. The king had told the queen that she could not always have her way and should grow up. She’d crossed her arms, stomped her foot, and scowled at him as her nose wrinkled. Then she did an about-face and walked off haughtily.

It reminded him of Little Soldier. He touched the spot where her buttons still lay under his shirt, making him smile.

“Nothing more to add. It was otherwise uneventful when I was in the king’s presence.”

As he signed the report, a messenger arrived and handed him a sealed letter.

 

High Castle – Outside the Queen’s Drawing Room

Cailleagh checked her dress yet again. This was wrong, all wrong, yet…

Yet, Geleib had barely ventured forth from Lorness, except to attend meetings with the king here at High Castle. Meetings that increasingly left him angry, frustrated and seeking someone to take his ire out on. It was not that she did not enjoy it when they played rough, she did. But she liked being in charge and, it was increasingly evident, she was not.

Ever since his Emancipation Ceremony, he had needed her less and less. His latest petty revenge being to hand control of the funds for the Black Robes to George Rosewood. It was insulting, demeaning… and a warning.

The small spirits that guided her were no match for the Warrior. He was its servant now, whether he knew it or not. He had given himself freely. There could be no reversal of his fate. He was now the Warrior’s tool.

What does that make me? Have I become irrelevant, like my mother?

No, there must still be purpose in her life. Yet…

Yet, too many of her former friends and confidants looked at her differently. They whispered of how she had not given Geleib a son. She had even heard some wonder what it would take to oust her from her husband’s bed.

Her husband, the duke.

There had been women who had looked at her Geleib when he was only – only – an Earl. But then she’d had power. Then he’d needed her. Then she’d had influence. Even the Black Robes were being taken from her.

The guards standing stock still outside the Queen’s Drawing Room did not meet her eye. Not that they met anyone’s.

Yet she’d been standing here for too long.

Advance or retreat… that’s no choice, at all.

The door opened, before she could request entry. Framed in it was a woman with remarkably dark skin, darker even than a Tarin. It was Lady Ush-Wha, one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting.

“Your Grace…” Ush-Wha curtsied. “The queen sent me to find you. She was worried you’d been delayed.”

“I… no, it’s just that I’ve come—”

“Don’t chat out there by yourselves,” Melyssa’s voice rang out. “Come in, you’re causing a draft.”

Cailleagh was taken aback. How could the queen speak to her so casually? Didn’t she know…? Didn’t she suspect…?

Ush-Wha took three long steps forward, slipped her arm through Cailleagh’s and towed her into the room. The door closed promptly behind them.

“Your Majesty,” Cailleagh began while trying to curtsy and finding she couldn’t as the lady-in-waiting’s arm held her upright.

“There will be a time,” Melyssa cut her off, “Cailleagh – surely, I may call you by your name and not your title – when formality will be required but it is not today. I have found you in my thoughts often. I suspect that you’re as isolated from normal life as I am. Although, calling my life in Alexandria ‘normal’ is about as accurate as suggesting stones can float.”

“I… I’m not sure how to respond…”

“Melyssa,” the queen prompted with a twinkle in her eye. “You only have to say it once. I promise I won’t chop off your head or drive a sword through your chest today.”

She can’t know about the prophecy. It’s not possible!

“Of course,” the queen continued, “I really can’t promise about tomorrow. Who knows, you might get some fool idea in your head and want to kill me.”

Cailleagh froze.

“Sit down.” The monarch’s words were cold. Their banter had evaporated like morning dew. “Whether you know it or not, you’re important. You’re also misguided, have been used, have been abused and, if I am not entirely mistaken, are increasingly likely to be killed by your own husband.”

Glacially, Cailleagh lowered herself into the seat that had been placed behind her. Only as she did so, did she register the pair of hand-crossbows pointed at her by Lady Ush-Wha.

“I don’t take unnecessary risks,” Melyssa continued, “and, if I could prove that you were behind the attempt on my life beyond my intuition, you would never leave this room. Actually, you would never have entered it. There was one word in what I’ve just said that should have given you hope. Did you catch it?”

“Uh…”

“Close. It was ‘unnecessary’. Speaking to you is a necessary risk. Do you know why?”

‘No, your… Melyssa.”

“Well done. You’ve just demonstrated that you can learn, that you can adapt to new situations. It is an extremely important realization. One that, I suspect, has never been taught to you.”

“I’ve survived—”

“Surviving and adaptation are not the same thing. There is one more question that I need to ask you, then I’ll let you be on your way… to wherever. Your choices appear to be rapidly diminishing.”

Cailleagh tried to summon her courage, to reach for her guiding spirits, or just to bark back at this upstart queen who’d usurped her place at Farr Castle and even here at High Castle. She, Cailleagh, had been the most powerful woman in the kingdom… but was no longer. “What…?” It came out as a squeak. She was mortified.

“Do you know the difference between your god and mine? Yes, I follow Joshua Ha Mashiach, the son of the God of Truth. Please feel free to take advantage of that admission. It will get you nowhere.”

“What…?” The word had barely as much strength as its predecessor. Cailleagh felt as if she was drowning. As if everything she believed in was being washed away by this queen who was less than half her age.

“Mine forgives. Mine always forgives. Repent, accept your actions and the God of Truth will forgive you, for his son, Joshua Ha Mashiach’s sake.”

Cailleagh did not remember how she got back out into the corridor, only that she’d had to leave that room, that… that… queen. There was something in her words that…

No, no, no! I know better! She’s wrong!

Yet, even within her own mind, Cailleagh felt the weakness of her protestation.

Worse, she knew that a lifeline had been held out to her.

No! This could not be the path. My guides have not deserted me, will not desert me. How could I even consider this ridiculous offer by the follower of a weak and impotent god?

 

South of Lorness

Jonathan had traveled south until he encountered James of the Wood, only a day later. "I have a question for you.”

James’ eyebrow rose. “Yes?”

“Some of your lads were escorting a cage cart. Why?”

“A small matter of redistribution… from Lorness to those he oppresses, less a small fee.”

“I need details.”

The grin upon James’ face broadened. “With Licht Gegen’s help, Lorness has been funding our operations… unintentionally. We redirect his baden shipments now and again.”

“Oh…”

“Why do you ask?”

“Who was the woman in the cart? Not the girls, the only adult woman?”

James blinked. “I have no idea. Licht Gegen provides people to play those roles. We never know who they are. It would be dangerous for all involved.”

“Her name is Rebekah… O’Toole.”

“She’s your wife?

“Yes.”

“I don’t know how to contact her. I could try…”

“Please do.”

“It’ll be nice to be helping you, rather than being the one receiving help.”

Jonathan ignored the compliment. “Thank you.”

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