Chapter 23: Shining Mountain – 159 AK, Late Spring
Titus 2:14 …who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.
Southern Edge of Frei Forest
Jon’than skirted the southern edge of Frei Forest, using its dense underbrush to hide his movements. There’d been even more patrols lately. He prayed that Freislicht, and he, would one day be free again.
Riding out of the grove into a sunlit glade, he sighted a fast-moving wagon. Its driver hunched forward. A woman and children huddled behind.
Three soldiers raced after them in a cart.
“Stop!” Their commander ordered. Another loosed an arrow. It fell short. He fired another, overshooting. The third struck.
The absconding wagon slowed to a halt.
“No-o-o-o!” Jon’than roared as he charged. His pale hair danced. The navy cloak he wore waved like a banner.
“It’s Otual!” The commander yelled. Instead of preparing to fight, they withdrew, disappearing to the northwest.
Jon thought to give chase, but there could be more troops about. Stopping beside the wagon, he scanned the area.
“Thank you for scaring them off, sir. They’d… my name’s Gareth Walker.”
“I am Jon’than Otual.” He leaned forward and clasped Gareth’s offered hand. “The Lord of Lorness has made me somewhat infamous. In truth, I did nothing.”
“Nothing? They’d have taken my wife and children to cover my debts!” Gareth gasped. His face was ashen. “I swear I had a contract, but….” His shoulders sagged.
Jon’than’s eyebrows narrowed “I have heard such accounts before.” He shook his head. “If they let you live, you would never be able to prove that contract existed. It would have been lost or misfiled. Without it, they have the right to seize anything, or anyone, in repayment.”
Leaning forward again, he pulled the arrow from the wagon’s seat, checked its point, and added it to his quiver.
Gareth eyed the hole the arrow had made, mere inches from his leg. He looked up. “Are you the leader of the rebel knights?”
Jon’than sighed. “The Fellowship of the Knights of J’shua has been outlawed. That does not make us rebels. We defend the Faith… and the people.”
The farmer squeezed his wife’s hand. “What should we do?”
“Go to Tarinland. You must be gone before more soldiers arrive. Those that fled will fetch others. I will make sure they do not follow you.” Jon’than pointed. “Take that road through the woods. It’s four days to the Tarin Inn. Tell the proprietor I sent you.”
Gareth nodded. “Thank you, Sir Otual.” With worry carved into his face, he drove off.
“J’shua Ha Mashiach be with you.”
With nothing to do but wait, Jon’than walked his chestnut horse, Ruby, to the spring. There, he dismounted, let her drink, and filled his waterskins. As she grazed, he leaned against a fallen tree, watching, meditating on J’shua’s words… until he heard the rumble of many horsemen.
An army contingent appeared from the northwest, consisting of four dozen riders. Its commander, Colonel Blackhawk, was recognizable from his trunk-like arms, black hair, dark brows, and bewhiskered face.
That detestable man is a long way from home.
The knight mounted and galloped off, south into the sparser trees of the foothills.
The cavalry sped after him, leaving the trudging conscripts behind.
Blackhawk outdistanced his horsemen.
Jon’than glanced back. Aware of the widening gap, he refused to take the bait and try to engage Blackhawk in single combat. He’d seen the officer best every opponent easily with sword, axe, and dagger in a tournament years ago, when merely a boyish lieutenant.
It would be too risky a fight.
Darting onto a lesser-used animal track, he spurred Ruby into a brief sprint. Then, after a sharp switchback, he ducked under a ledge that hid him from sight, drew his bow, and fitted three arrows.
Blackhawk and his riders thundered past.
It was a mistake no one familiar with Easy Mountain could have made. First-year knights trained here each morning. It was the easy part of their day, hence its name. These hills were riddled with crevasses, many seemingly bottomless. They also contained ledges and passageways within their walls. Over the last century, the knights had learned them all.
Jon’than listened to the echoes of hoofbeats recede. Then he circled back through the woods to where he’d encountered Blackhawk. He intended to set up an ambush. By returning to their start point, he’d maximize the time the horsemen wasted searching for him.
However, once there, he found additional soldiers afoot – conscripted Militet. They were little more than slaves, armed only with a dagger, shillelagh, and perhaps an axe. Plodding through the dale at a steady pace, they still traveled in column, without scouts guarding their flanks or rear.
Jon’than approached quietly from behind.
Those I wound may be set free. The army won’t feed soldiers who can’t fight.
With a yell, he urged Ruby forward. Well-trained, she knew what to do. As Jon’than smacked those who came within reach with the flat of his blade, Ruby shouldered them aside, toppling and trampling as she went.
The formation broke, all cohesion lost in moments. Their sergeant turned, saw the oncoming knight, screamed, and hurled himself to the ground.
Between Jon’than and Ruby, perhaps a third of the Militet were wounded or ran off. It was a better result than he’d hoped for.
That was a good thing. Blackhawk had not left the foot soldiers unguarded. A trumpet sounded. Three riders dashed in from the dense woods on either side of the glen, to cut off Jon’s retreat.
The quality of the knight’s horse and his thorough knowledge of the terrain allowed him to retain a slight lead as he darted onto another minor trail. Twisting in the saddle, Jon sheathed his sword, drew his bow, and loosed five arrows toward the riders, hoping only to cause confusion. Yet one toppled from the saddle, an arrow protruding from his chest.
Colonel Stev’n Blackhawk scowled at the disarray. One man – just one man – had rendered the Militet useless. More useless. They were only good as garrison troops. Unfortunately, he’d been given the task of escorting them to their new billet at Fort Locke in Freislicht’s southeast.
Then three military incompetents in a cart had crossed his path, screaming about a ‘violent’ encounter with the notorious Jon’than Otual. Yet, none were wounded, nor was there a torn tunic on any of them. The three were rounding up civilians who’d defaulted on loans. Blackhawk doubted they’d drawn their swords.
Without thought, he touched a spot right below his collarbone. What lay hidden beneath his shirt there, soothed him.
Regardless of the source of the information, even these idlers, the knight was a wanted criminal so the report couldn’t be ignored. Not when there was a long list of charges against him.
Blackhawk ordered the three collection agents to come along.
As the troop’s vanguard turned east, the blasted fugitive had been taking his leisure, then waved, mounted, and galloped off.
Leaving a quarter of his riders behind with strict orders, Blackhawk gave chase into the foothills.
What a farce!
The knight knew the terrain and used it to full advantage. That gopher-hole-ridden trail! I lost three mounts and their riders. If his horse, Ransom, hadn’t been well-trained and alert, he too could have broken a leg.
As for the horsemen Blackhawk had left behind, half had gone in pursuit when the knight doubled back as expected. One had died due to a bowshot that was unbelievable. Yet, it had killed the more trustworthy of his lieutenants, fired by the knight while riding at full gallop, no less.
That’ll only add to the hundn’s legend.
As for the Militet’s cowering sergeant…
Blackhawk rode up and dismounted. “On your feet!”
The sergeant bounded to attention.
“You’re stripped of rank but, as you’re injured,” Blackhawk sneered, “you’ll join the wounded, and the rest of these cowards, and go to Fort Locke.”
“But, Colonel, I’m not–”
Blackhawk struck, breaking a rib.
It took half an hour to reorganize. In addition to his four dead riders, he’d lost a dozen more to escort the Militet to the garrison. If he didn’t, all would melt into the countryside, never to be seen again. Commander Ta’ler wouldn’t be pleased.
The three fools and their cart were also dispatched to the fort, with a brief note to its commander about their ‘exemplary performance’.
As for the knight’s attack on the Militet – or their fleeing from it – that had incapacitated two-thirds of them. That many were exaggerating their injuries was without doubt. Yet, confirming that would take precious time…
…and the knight was getting away.
Not this time.
How do I catch you on terrain where you have the advantage? I don’t.
I have to change the game so it favors me.
Jon’than urged Ruby onward, up the mountain, leading the soldiers westward until the terrain became too rugged. He stowed his saddle in a cave where weapons and equipment were cached, then freed his horse.
To his amusement, Blackhawk dispatched a trio of riders to chase her. He wished them luck. She knew the mountain almost as well as he did.
The remaining twenty-nine soldiers and their colonel gave chase, yet Jon’than outran them on foot. They were reluctant to leave their mounts and unable to find routes passable on horseback.
They have very little knowledge of the mountain. The knight smiled. But what happened next, removed it. With the day near ending, Blackhawk ordered his men and horses back down the mountain.
The knight matched their slow pace.
What is he planning?
As the sun dropped down to touch the horizon, Jon briefly appeared above them. Firing his last four arrows, he wounded only one. Their inexperience on the mountain hurt two more when they dashed for cover.
Jon withdrew to one of the many caves where the knights stored supplies and refilled his quiver.
I must keep them interested until midday tomorrow so the family is out of reach.
Blackhawk knew that continuing in the dark was a fool’s game.
At least he was rid of the Militet.
As for his riders – soldiers he’d trained – four were dead, three wounded, and three were ensuring Otual didn’t regain his horse.
Blackhawk couldn’t give up the chase. It would be a blot on his record. Worse, it would displease the Duke of Lorness, leading to dire, perhaps fatal, repercussions.
Setting out sentries, he ordered the men to make camp.
That accursed knight could be escaping while I can’t give chase.
Yet, that didn’t seem to be Otual’s intention. If escape was all he desired, why had he engaged the Militet? Why had he taunted and fired arrows at his men? Given how well he knew the mountain, why not just disappear?
What are you trying to achieve?
Surely, he can’t be…
The ridiculous knight is trying to distract an entire company of soldiers from chasing down a single fleeing family. As if I would waste my time on such an insignificant task.
Jon’than rested in the shadow of Lone Soldier, obscured from searching eyes below. His woolen cloak kept out the cold and blended with the mountain. He admired the sunset that fanned out across the sky on his left, a sea of pink and gold churning with violet. A cold blast whipped his hair across his weathered face. Turning his head into the wind to corral it, he peered down the mountainside and over the valley, watching the growing shadows and his pursuers.
From the rock formation, all of the lower mountain was viewable. Boulders larger than the height of a man were strewn across it like giant acorns leaving only three major routes up to the ledge. The knights called it the Kneeling Queen’s Skirt.
How do I lure them up the mountain?
I do not.
Jon’than had slept very little. He could not afford this engagement to be drawn out too long. If that occurred, the odds of his survival decreased. So, he set hazards – some obvious, some subtle, and some that only appeared to be traps – to slow his pursuers descent.
A hawk intoned a single warning as the air grew cold.
The quiet dawning threw a spear of brilliant light across the mountains as he approached the enemy encampment. Eight men were on watch, while the rest slept.
Jon’than slipped deeper into the shadows. If this was a trap, others would be nearby, or feigning rest. All he heard was occasional grumbling about cold food.
He retreated slightly up the mountain, only to spot another squad… and Blackhawk.
Jon’than circled around to give himself more escape options. By the time he was in position, the soldiers had water boiling and were adding green herbs and other things to it.
A bird warbled its song in the crisp morning air. When it finished, there was only the rustle of a faint breeze.
Jon’than concealed himself, bow ready. He aimed at the sentries, releasing a dozen arrows rapidly. The distance was too great to be accurate. Only the sound of whistling fletchings pierced the stillness.
Those on watch dashed toward where the arrows had taken flight.
Blackhawk and the five men accompanying him didn’t move.
He is not only muscle. This could be… interesting. Jon’than smiled as watchmen approached the cover he’d abandoned.
As they arrived, the corporal leading them tripped a snare. The man’s feet were snatched out from under him, toppling him into a hidden crevasse. His screams stopped abruptly, leaving only silence.
“Search the area,” their lieutenant commanded. “Watch out for mor–” his words were cut off as he too was snatched away.
The remaining six men froze in place, their eyes cast downward seeking more traps.
Blackhawk roared, “Now!”
Jon’than remained still as soldiers appeared from hiding places. Unfortunately for them, he had anticipated three of the five locations they came from.
The thuds of their boots as the soldiers dashed out to capture him were more than enough. Every knight knew to walk softly on this region of the mountain.
The rockslides began as a flurry of pebbles.
Jon’than slipped over the ledge nearest him, then used the rope he’d prepared earlier to lower himself thirty-five feet down a crevasse. A gentle swing brought him to another ledge that was invisible from above. With the rumble still growing, he sprinted along it, emerging near the army’s tethered horses.
He encountered a guard, clubbing him with the pommel of his sword.
The soldier collapsed and lay unmoving.
A second guard turned too slowly.
Jon’than cut low, slashing the man’s thigh. Then rendered him unconscious too.
A lieutenant intercepted the knight.
Their blades clashed, disengaged, then crashed again.
He’s quick, but too eager for the kill.
The officer pushed back aggressively, to overwhelm the knight with his youthful vigor and swifter reflexes.
Jon’than pulled away, leaning to his right as he parried.
The lieutenant attacked with greater ferocity.
Jon defended, gave ground, again leaning to his right.
The officer lunged into the opening the knight had deliberately left, misjudged his attack, and overbalanced.
Jon’than twisted, delivering a final upstroke, spraying blood along the ground.
A youth was striding toward the knight, but froze when his commander died.
Jon’s momentum moved him forward, disarming the statue-like soldier. His sword rose for the killing blow. Only to stop as it touched the boy’s face.
Something, some instinct, had moved Jon’than to mercy. “Son, what is your name?”
“L-L-Lucas, Lucas Ov’rhill…sir.” The lad swallowed hard.
Jon’than shook his head and chuckled. “Is your father’s name Rich'rd?”
“N-n-no… that’s my uncle’s name.”
“I have no time to explain. Grab the lieutenant’s body. Drag it fifteen yards that way.” He pointed. “There is a drop-off. Bloody and tear your tunic. Throw the body over, then your shirt and some equipment. Then go down the mountain exactly the way you came up and return to your family.”
A look of bewilderment appeared on the boy’s face. “W-w-why? Y-y-you don’t know me.”
Jon’than smiled. “I knew your uncle.”
Lucas gulped, nodded, and did as he was told.
Jon’than was striding toward the horses. Three quick strikes with his sword and the lines holding them in place were severed. The knight slapped a magnificent stallion on its rump. It looked back at him, whinnied, and moved off. The others, all mares, followed.
Returning to the ledge where the rope awaited him, he lowered himself down another crevasse. The hunt was not over.
Colonel Blackhawk recognized the early sounds of an avalanche.
“Get to cover!” he commanded everyone within earshot.
Most did, he hoped.
He was glad the horses were below under the cover of a ledge. They should be safe.
If the knight doesn’t get to them first.
As the rockslide abated, Blackhawk considered his options.
This fight is over. The best I can do is withdraw and save whoever’s left.
Of the twenty-five men with him, five were dead or dying. Another nine were wounded.
The sergeant he’d sent to find out about the horses stated all the animals had run off. Two bodies were also missing. There was a blood trail and indications that something large had dragged the corpses away.
That’s all I need, natural predators.
Blackhawk had his corporal collect the names and possessions of the dead and missing. The army hated waste. There would be reports to fill out and records to update.
Jon’than set another trap, then retreated into the shadow of a rocky overhang. It was well past noon but still Blackhawk was not underway, nor had he sent out scouts. He’d moved his soldiers down to where the horses had been tethered.
Without getting closer and risking capture, it was impossible to know how many soldiers had been wounded or killed. However, it must have been a significant number.
Have I bought enough time for the family’s escape? Probably.
Jon’than tried to calm his mind, there was ugly history between Blackhawk and him. Things that could not be ignored. Things that…
Amidst the knight’s thoughts, a still small voice spoke quietly, Leave.
Jon’than leaned against the cold rock, then sighed as he glanced uphill, where he knew his enemy stood. He understood the guidance he’d received. Yet there, only a little way distant, was the man who had raped his daughter-in-law, Cynthia, six years earlier. The same man who’d taken his daughter in a debt collection ten years before that. A fact he’d learned only recently from a deserter at the Tarin Inn.
Loss stirred the rage within. He could not let it go.
No more! How many might I save by killing Blackhawk?
Yet the choices before him were anything but clear.
A horn blew three times in the distance. From the foothills below came a reply.
Blackhawk is not done yet, so neither am I.
Corporal Athos heard the colonel’s horn sound. It was all he needed. He’d been chasing that blasted knight’ horse for hours, only to have a riderless Ransom pursue it as if one or both were in heat.
Other riderless mounts were chasing the stallion.
Spurring his horse into a gallop, he’d sent his soldiers out into flanking positions to herd as many of them as possible. As he rode, he sounded his horn twice informing the colonel they’d rejoin as soon as possible.
Colonel Blackhawk checked the final preparations personally. Of the five he’d counted as dead, two clung to life. They were good men, not just good soldiers. If he could get them off the mountain, one or both might survive.
When he’d ordered the horns sounded, the three riders he’d sent to chase off the knight’s horse had responded promptly. The two blasts they’d used indicated they were not too far off.
An hour-and-a-half later, they appeared with eleven mounts in tow. Ransom wasn’t among them.
Is Otual waiting in ambush?
How did this become so complicated?
That word brought back memories and a child’s face. Little Soldier’s image often came to mind unbidden. She was only six when he met her. She’d be in her twenties now. If she still lived. He’d thought he was saving her, but…
His fingers rose to stroke the simple tokens he always wore beneath his shirt. She’d made his life more… complicated. She had also opened his eyes to…
But such thoughts were for windy nights, warm firesides, and cold ale.
“Move out,” Blackhawk commanded.
The two not-quite-dead-yet were carried in hammocks between horses. Soldiers guarded each animal’s flanks, as their vanguard widened the too-narrow paths. Another walked between each pair of mounts talking soothingly to them, his hands controlling their bridles, moving them in unison.
The wounded men who could walk, followed. Those who couldn’t were strapped to a horse’s back. As were the bodies of their dead, except for the two that couldn’t be found. That left Blackhawk a fighting force of seven men. If he included himself.
Blackhawk looked at the gap between the rocks and knew it was a trap. There was no way around it without backtracking for over an hour. Nor would he order any of his men to go through it. The only thing holding them together was his steadfast example. “Wait here. Protect the wounded.”
“Yes, sir.” Their acknowledgment of his order was lackluster at best.
Moving forward on foot, he picked up stones and began lobbing them so they landed just beyond the gap. Nothing happened with the first or the second… As the eighth landed, there was a snap.
Cautiously, Blackhawk advanced. There had indeed been a hazard. A nasty thing that would have skewered him – or a horse – multiple times. Its points were coated in dung. If struck, it’d mean a slow death. Using a hatchet, he destroyed it, then moved into the clearing beyond.
Out of nowhere, Otual appeared.
He barely got the axe up in time.
Only the sound of a sword slicing air had given Blackhawk any warning. Even that was only enough to partially block the strike. The burn of the knight’s blade in his shoulder lent him strength enough to push back.
The knight was off-balance.
Blackhawk drew a dagger. The tomahawk in his right hand lashed out.
Otual parried high, twisting as he did. His being off-balance had been a deception. The knight’s sword swept in toward the colonel’s shoulder.
Stev’n brought the knife up, desperate to intercept the strike.
Otual dropped, the flight of his sword reversed to open a long gash in the soldier’s calf.
Yet, that left an opening. The hatchet slashed. Blood sprouted from its path.
Blackhawk knew he’d not be able to stand for long. Nor could he pursue.
The knight stepped out of reach with an infuriating bow.
Jon’than studied his foe, weighing the odds.
Leave, the still small voice insisted.
The axe had opened a bloody gash on the left side of Jon’s chest. Not an incapacitating wound, but one that would drain him.
Blackhawk’s shoulder had stopped bleeding. Yet, the slash on his leg oozed ever more quickly. It might prove fatal. It would prevent pursuit.
Jon’than took a step backward beyond the colonel’s ability to lunge and gave him a courtly bow. Then backed away. He had no intention of exposing his rear to a thrown hatchet.
A dozen paces and the loathsome man was out of sight.
Jon’than took several long steps away leaving drops of blood, to misdirect any pursuer. Then he pressed the wound, stopped its bleeding, and changed direction, while obscuring his tracks. He slid into a nearby cave to tend his injury and replenish his arrows. He considered hiking to Little Sister to be tended by the Daikons, but walking downhill seemed the better plan.
Soon he heard officers barking orders and the rhythmic gate of soldiers and horses passing by. He prayed he’d not be found.
Exhaustion overtook him and he slept.