Chapter 22: Betrayals
Gaelib returned to his rooms to find a sweating, bowing messenger waiting for him.
“The king chose the Locke girl, my lord. They were briefly alone, moments…no longer, then King Sagen emerged and announced to all those waiting that he had found his bride.”
“Sensational!” Gaelib crowed and then registered the page was still present. “Out!”
The servant fled.
Finally, a bride! Not only do the Lockes provide me with a serviceable hostage, her dowry will dwarf any other suitable maiden’s. I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. Already my Warrior hastens my victory!
Gaelib pulled the jeweled dagger from its sheath at his side, pleased by the heft and feel of it. He turned it over and felt its sharp edge.
Right after Mother died, Father gave me this dagger and said I was now a man. Then Caileagh led me to the Warrior. Sagen’s heir is the final key to my ascendancy.
The Locke girls he’d seen on his last visit to Lexandria were all healthy and suitably wide-hipped for childbearing. A son. It had to be a son.
He fretted. She has so many sisters.
She could have ten girls before she had a son.
Then the Warrior spoke to him. Girls are useful, as well. Be patient.
Caileagh fumed, knowing the new queen would outrank her. At least Gaelib had promised she wouldn’t be blonde, so the vision that haunted her couldn’t come to pass.
She sighed. Everything had become so complex.
At the start, it was simple. She only had to guide Gaelib and arrange his rise within the hierarchy. First, she’d removed old Rothbard’s first apprentice by lacing his food with an elixir that caused overwhelming lust just as mother had prescribed. Surprisingly, the young maid the apprentice had attempted to rape had defended herself most effectively.
Every woman should have a hidden dagger.
Then the whole matter was hushed up, leaving the opening for Gaelib.
As for Rothbard, mother had used a very slow-acting poison on him; it took over a year for the old man to succumb. A year in which Gaelib made himself invaluable, learning every aspect of the role of royal steward.
She smiled. Gaelib had done exactly as she’d taught him. He’d been entertaining, helpful, and complimentary. He’d even undertaken the most menial tasks. Tasks he’d never have performed otherwise. Yet, it was that very willingness to do whatever was required that had endeared him to his boyhood friend, Sagen, who doted on old Rothbard.
Both Sagen’s recommendation and being noticed by King Edal had cemented Gaelib’s future. So much so, the king and the council hadn’t even considered another candidate.
If only things could go back to such simplicity.
Ah, well, this queen only has to live long enough to produce an heir.
It was a comforting thought.
When Sagen entered the King’s drawing room, the sight of Melyssa took his breath away. The azure sky in the window framed her golden curls. A ruby-red gown accentuated her curves. She controlled her countenance well, but he suspected she wouldn’t have chosen so provocative a color or such a low-cut neckline.
I should’ve thought of this. The Chamberlain of the Women’s Hall is clearly a talented man, but I won’t grant him such control over my fiancé. In the future, she’ll make her own choices.
He took a deep breath to quiet his rushing desire, his expression still neutral.
The maiden is beautiful. If I was a rake…but that’s why we have four chaperones.
The dowagers sat in the back of the room. Far enough away not to overhear them but close enough to stop any untoward behavior.
After crossing the room, he took her hand and kissed it again. “Melyssa, you are very beautiful. Shall we sit?” He motioned toward the couch at the room’s center.
He took her small hand in his and stared into her blue eyes. “I hope that despite the coming difficulties, we will grow to respect each other. And make our way through them.”
She glanced down at their entwined hands for a moment. “Sire, I shall always look on you with favor. You are a gift.”
Her smile warmed him.
“I wish to take you to the gardens tomorrow to show you the labyrinth. It is my favorite retreat. I am sure you will enjoy it. This castle never sleeps. Formalities never cease.”
Her brows drew together while he spoke, but then she jumped up. “It will be a grand adventure.”
Sagen laughed, taking her hands. He pulled her close. “Do you enjoy riding?”
“Oh yes, I ride almost every day. May I still?”
“Of course, although not alone. You will have your ladies with you now—or me.”
He patted the seat, and she sat again. Then he lowered his voice and explained his plan and precautions. “There may only be three times a day when we can be our true selves. We shall make the best of it.”
“We’ll come up with code words if either of us needs to talk to the other immediately.”
She smiled slowly, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. “That will be exciting.”
Sagen furrowed his brows and glanced at the chaperones. “We’ll never be able to be a happy couple in public. You must be timid and worried, even depressed sometimes. Act like a child, be petulant. I will be callous and overbearing. Please forgive me in advance, but we must do this. If Gaelib ever discovers we’re becoming close, he’ll kill you and force me to choose another.”
The door opened.
Flushed with victory, Gaelib strutted into the King’s drawing room. Everything had fallen into place. It was time to glory in what his schemes had wrought. The power of the Warrior was his.
Nothing could stop him.
He bowed. “Good evening, Your Majesty…” His proper and perfumed words caught in his throat. He furrowed his brow and glared at the imposter.
“Forgive me, Your Majesty, I’m confused. Who’s this? Where is Miss Locke?”
Sagen rose easily to his feet, confidence pouring from him. “This is Lady Melyssa Locke. I believe you met her on your last visit to Lexandria. Is something wrong?”
“She’s—” Gaelib began, only to be interrupted by Evelyne, Dowager Duchess of Lexandria.
“She’s what, young Melazera? Have you finally lost your wits? This is my granddaughter Melyssa.”
“B-bu-but…she’s…” Wide-eyed, the Earl of Lorness stuttered. This wasn’t the girl he’d vetted. She was close in appearance, but that girl’s hair was darker, not blonde.
The other three dowagers were rising to their feet; their attentions focused on him. Crossing one of them would be bad. Crossing all four was suicide. These were the most influential women in the kingdom, with generations of loyal followers. They’d compete to see who disemboweled him first, the spiteful old harridans.
“How dare you question my betrothed?” the king’s eyes narrowed, “I think, you’ve overstepped, Gaelib.” Sagen’s face set like stone. “Perhaps you’d like to inspect Fort Locke and reconsider your words? I’m sure Duke Gregory would make you most welcome during your extended stay. Your last trip to the south was clearly far too short.”
Gaelib’s eyes flitted about the room. There were only the dowagers, the king, his bride, and servants. No one he could call on. Trying to explain himself would only make things worse.
And if—may the God of this Age prevent it—the king carried out his threat, Gaelib’s plans might be undone. His allies would see him as weak. They’d desert him.
The Earl of Lorness bowed low, buying a moment to gather his racing thoughts. “My most humble apologies, Your Majesty, Lady Melyssa. I’d not realized your bride-to-be had blossomed into such a magnificent beauty, Sire. I’d only met her briefly, and that was some time ago.”
“If your faculties are that diminished,” Evelyne patted the braided white hair that wrapped precisely around her head like a crown, “perhaps I should have a word with Gregory about your loans. It wouldn’t be good stewardship to risk such enormous sums on someone who can’t recognize a Locke when one is standing before them.”
“Don’t be too hard on my steward,” Sagen said. “He’s clearly overworked, aren’t you, Gaelib?”
“Yes, yes, Your Majesty.” Melazera bowed, sweat dripping down his back. “Thank you for your understanding.”
“Not at all. Indeed, it was so unlike you not to be in the hall during the procession that I’m concerned for your health. You even look a little flushed. Our wedding,” Sagen smiled at Melyssa and took her hand, “will be thirty-nine days hence. You must be here for that. Until then, let your deputies take over. They’re well-trained by your own hand. Go home to Lorness and rest. I command it.”
Gaelib bowed. “As you wish, Your Majesty. Thank you.”
Sagen waited for him to look up. “In fact, let’s make it official. Step outside with me. We’ll announce your sabbatical to the court right now. I’ll be back shortly, Lady Melyssa.”
Melazera loathed the confident expression that had appeared on the king’s face. Gaelib retreated to his offices and slammed the door behind him.
He’d been caught off-guard by the unexpected blonde girl—as well as the emboldened response from Sagen.
Where’d she come from?
Had the king followed through…but Sagen was weak, unwilling to finish off a foe. That was why Gaelib would win.
I miscalculated what the presence of a lady would do to his resolve. This is going to be harder to manage than expected. Still, the girl seemed appropriately frightened.
That satisfied him, even if things hadn’t gone as he wished, and he’d have to depart for Lorness in the morning.
Caileagh won’t be pleased. Should I tell her? No, let’s enjoy the peace as long as possible.
He’d planned for a shorter period, wanting to snub the Lockes and force them to travel at an uncivilized pace to attend the wedding. Either would have pleased him. Yet, it was necessary to miss the Procession. His Emancipation Ritual required today’s precise astrological alignments.
When Sagen returned, he sat beside his fiancé and spoke softly to her. “I’m so sorry, Lady Melyssa. I may have pushed things too far. You embolden me. Were you very frightened?”
Melyssa’s eyes darted toward the chaperones, who were hissing at each other. Then the smallest of smiles appeared on her lips. “Not at all,” she whispered. “With everything you, the steward, and my grandmother said, I thought I should act scared.”
Sagen chuckled. “You’re brilliant. We’ll do well.”
They talked for another hour before the chaperones walked Lady Melyssa to her chambers.
The Road to Caswell Castle
David worried as he, Baldwin, and Cain followed the path to the Freish River.
I hope Drake is at home. He could be in the capital. What will I do then?
Cain, the dark-haired, short one, continually lagged, slowing them, stoking David’s frustration. At the river, he balked, followed by a hissed argument between the brothers. Then Cain mumbled some apologies, saying he’d wait for Baldwin at the inn.
They pressed on southward.
Earl Drake Caswell was in the courtyard, waiting to meet them with a warm smile. David let out a sigh of relief. It had been almost a year since the wedding, and he was terrible at writing, rarely responding to letters.
“My boy, what a surprise.” Drake approached briskly. “How have you come to be here?”
“Can we talk privately? The three of us.” David glanced at Baldwin and back to Drake.
“Follow me,” Drake said with a frown. “Jonas, see to their horses.” He took them to a drawing room filled with ornately carved chairs around a plain trestle table. Oak cabinets filled with books, carvings, and family heirlooms lined its walls.
The earl pointed to chairs. A girl brought in a tray with colorful fruits and fragrant cheeses. A boy followed with a pitcher of wine and three cups.
Drake poured for his guests. “Tell me what’s happened.”
David took a long drink, emptying his cup. “Cynthia was abducted, assaulted, and violated by—”
“What?” Drake blurted, rising from his chair and pacing back and forth.
“…by a Major Blackhawk. It gets worse. They apparently did this at the orders of the Earl of Lorness, who witnessed my wife’s…degradation.” He lurched to his feet, unable to sit any longer. “I want to meet with the elders. There’s some nonsense about rebel knights stirring up Mestels to attack Freislicht and a plot against the king, but the more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems. If there’s any truth to it, surely the elders will know. Where are they meeting?”
Drake sat. “I see. I won’t ask how Cynthia is. She must be devastated.”
David bent his head and raked a hand through his hair.
“Who’s your traveling companion, David?”
“This is Baldwin. He and his brother believe in J’shua. They saved my wife from her dire situation and took great risks to get her out.”
The former kitchen hand nodded from his seat.
“Then both David and I are indebted to you,” Drake said smoothly. “Who is reporting these attacks? Subjects or soldiers?”
“Both, sir.” Baldwin scrambled to his feet, bowing awkwardly. “According to rumor, that is. I’ve even heard the knights are now banned and Circles forbidden.”
“There was such a proclamation.” Drake waved a hand dismissively. “It’ll be overturned. I doubt Melazera would send anyone to Caswell to enforce it.”
David frowned. He knew nothing of this, having been in Mestelina for moons.
“I need to think,” Drake said. “Baldwin, by now, my servants will have a room, a bath, and a meal ready for you. You have my thanks and will be well rewarded.” He waited until the man departed and a servant had closed the door and then focused on David. “Do you trust him?”
David blinked. He’d not stopped to ask himself that question. He’d barely stopped at all since finding out about… “Yes, yes…he saved Cynthia.”
“Indeed. Was it these men who implicated the Earl of Lorness?”
“Then we’ve only their word for his involvement. The Earl is a powerful man. We must be careful with any such suggestion. It could be a plot. If not true, it could ensnare us.” Drake paused again. “Regardless, there are things your companion doesn’t need to know. Such as your plans for your wife. She can’t travel with you. If Melazera is involved, few places will be safe for her.”
“I’d thought Daikon Terrance could—”
“No. She’ll be safer here.” Drake said “No one would attack my congregation. Even diminished, it’s too large, too visible. I’ll send my wife and several women from the Circle, with a suitable escort, to fetch her. Write something for me so Cynthia knows it’s safe to come here.”
As David wrote, some of his fears lifted.
“We’ll meet the elders in Dunis Glen on the full moon. We leave tomorrow. It is at least a six-day ride to Dunis Glen if the weather cooperates,” Drake said.
By early morning, Drake’s servants had their horses, provisions, and gear ready.
The Border Inn, Mestelina
Daikon Terrance was outside, seeing off a guest, when he noted Cain’s return. The man sat much more easily in the saddle than he had when departing the inn three days earlier. Indeed, he rode as if he’d done so for many years.
That was unlikely for someone who’d claimed to be a mere kitchen hand, confirming his suspicions that both were skilled riders. It didn’t matter who Baldwin and Cain served. They were a threat to Cynthia and probably to David. Not that Terrance could do anything about the young knight’s safety.
However, he could respond to this threat. Putting a smile on his face, he greeted Cain. “You’re back. Is something wrong?”
“David said he didn’t need us both. I slowed them down. So, I decided to wait here for my brother’s return.”
“Come. Donna,” Terrance called to his youngest daughter, “see to this man’s horse. Take special care of the animal.” His emphasis on that word warned her to stay clear of Cain. “This is one of the men who saved Lady Cynthia.”
Donna bowed, her eyes wide, and then took the horse and disappeared into the stables.
“Are you hungry?” Terrance guided him inside, making sure his mug of ale never dried and his plate was never empty.
Later, Cain and a drunkard who always had too many baden in his pockets—the same drunk Cain had winked at earlier—fell to drinking together.
That evening, the two inebriated men departed together from the Border Inn. Then he informed Teress, from Licht Gegen, about them when she visited three days later.
As far as Terrance’s books told, Cain had paid for his room and left.
The spy sat on his lathered horse, looking down at the town of Dunis Glen. Thanks to the many clerks installed in Drake’s household by the Order of the Black Robe, he’d learned where the younger Otual was heading and sent word.
If his information was accurate, Knights of J’shua were gathering down there.
If correct, the bonus he’d receive from the Earl of Lorness would be so substantial he could retire to the Sea of Glass. He’d already selected his estate. All he needed was the baden to pay for it.
The major sitting on the horse next to him glowered yet again. “Why can’t we round them up now?”
“Not everyone has arrived for the festivities. This is a very special occasion. You wouldn’t want to spoil Lord Melazera’s fun, would you?”
The officer gulped. “We’ll wait, but not much longer.”
“You’ll wait until I say if you know what’s good for you.”
Amidst the Atmosphere of Lorness
Owakar observed the soldiers and their officer on a stamping white horse waiting on the hill above Dunis Glen. Beside him was another rider, dark-cloaked and accompanied by a transparent foul spirit. The two men talked openly about stopping an attack.
Owakar bit into the cheese wedge. Tangy, sweet. And creamy.
What are they planning? No good, I’m sure. Why are they waiting?
The luach offered little information about this. The soldiers were a local company. One Major, three lieutenants and twenty militet. The major is new to the position. Trained by Virgil Greysun. Greysun has quite a record, mostly bad.
He entered the reports he received from his comrades in Dunis Glen and his own. There are many rebellious spirits lurking nearby. He caught a glimpse of one in the woods and another near the tavern, but he perceived there were hundreds more.
David looked around, taking in everything. He’d been growing more agitated ever since Drake’s suggestion that Baldwin might not be telling the truth.
The long ride had weighed on him. He wanted answers. Cynthia was suffering. He wanted justice. He wanted revenge.
“It’s strangely quiet.” David glanced from Drake to Baldwin and back.
Drake shrugged. “Don’t be ridiculous. No one knows of this meeting. It’s safe.”
David put aside his concern. He knew he was being overly suspicious. He’d been seeing threats in every shadow and bush.
Yet, before entering Dunis Glen and heading for the Common House, Drake hid their three spare horses outside town.
Within a large hall were eighty knights seated on wooden benches arranged in rows, their tables pushed to the side. Jonathan Otual addressed them. David gasped when he learned of his father’s torture and attempted murder by Melazera. “…stories of my leading Mestel raiders are lies. Every knight who knows me can attest to their falsehood. These are rumors spread by Melazera’s serpents to divide us.”
Roars of support affirmed his father’s statements.
Knights stepped forward, extolling his character and confirming he couldn’t have done the things he was accused of. They’d encountered him elsewhere on one or more of the dates when the raids had occurred.
David was about to move to the front and add his testimony when the doors burst open and armed men in black robes appeared.
The snap of Drake’s staff breaking bone caused David to turn. Behind him, Baldwin was on the floor, clutching his smashed wrist. Beside him lay a discarded knife.
Drake struck again, breaking Baldwin’s knee, preventing the would-be-assassin from rising. All sound was drowned by the din of men fighting.
The pommel of David’s sword smashed into an attacker’s wrist. He couldn’t finish the man off. Three others were closing. Thrust. Slash. Parry. Slash again. They went down, but there were more behind them. Many more.
He fell back, as did the other knights.
Drake appeared beside him. His staff was as deadly as any sword. Then he was gone, lost in the melee.
For what seemed like an eternity, but must have been a scant moment or two, David fought back-to-back with another knight whose face he never saw. Then, an opening presented itself, and both darted to defend others.
Bodies dressed in black robes littered the floor. The attackers were untrained. It didn’t take an experienced eye to see they merely dabbled with sword, knife, or axe. More and more men poured into the room, clumsily rushing the experienced fighters who wounded or killed them by the score.
But the advantage of expertise only went so far, and the endless, black tidal wave swept forward. Knights were injured.
David jumped on a table to avoid an attacker and dispatched him from above. His father worked his blade, driving forward to rescue a knight who’d fallen. Daikon Baxter, their oldest and wisest, fell. Drake saved another knight. The clash of metal rang loudly.
Although many had injuries, it seemed that less than a dozen knights were seriously hurt. Then a whistle blew again. The remaining attackers receded like water at ebb tide. Darkly clad, wounded, dead, and dying bodies littered the room. One hundred? Two hundred? More? It was impossible to say.
The shouts of officers grew louder.
“To the roof,” Jonathan commanded.
Knights jumped, scrambled, helping each other up.
Once above, David almost laughed. Whoever led the soldiers was incompetent. The building had doors on three of its four sides. They were still completing their formations. There were none on the fourth.
Taking advantage of that lapse of judgment, Jonathan and several other knights dropped to the ground from the unprotected edge. Each carried a bow. Once they’d reached the woods, they took up covering positions.
Precious moments passed in which the officers continued their noisy preparations, and sergeants roared at their men. It gave the knights enough time to make their way down the building and then slip away. They traveled alone to prevent being apprehended as a group.
Only a handful of knights remained on the roof when the soldiers advanced into the building. Not because there hadn’t been time enough to depart. There had. At David’s suggestion, they’d remained to delay any pursuit by giving the soldiers something else to worry about.
When the soldiers rushed into the room, they found hundreds of dead and dying black robes and no knights. Broken tables and benches filled the space. The debris made it difficult to move about. Shattered barrels of wine and spirits had leaked, making puddles, mixing with spilled blood.
Officers and sergeants began yelling, “Where have the outlaws gone?” demanding answers from each other and the few surviving black robes.
It wasn’t the revenge he sought, but it would do for now. David nodded at his fellow knights. Each threw a burning torch into the room below them.
He heard the whoosh of flames. He didn’t witness its effectiveness or smell burning flesh. He darted from the roof as and other knights fired arrows from the woods.
David searched for his father and Drake but found no sign of them. He bit his lip, praying for them, and walked alone toward the place where they’d hidden the horses. Exhaustion hung over him as the urgency of battle wore off.
Da, did you see me? Are you and Drake alive?