Chapter 23: Melazera’s Wins
Amidst the Atmosphere of Lorness
Owakar’s shoulders sank as he read the report from Alocrin of the Dunis Glen Meeting. Not a single knight was killed in the attack. It was preposterous. A lopsided slaughter. The black-robed figures barely held their weapons properly. The foul spirits that accompanied some of them were easily routed by the knights’ mighty guardians. Each guardian spirit attended their knight when they slipped away into the woods.
He shook his head and spoke to himself. “Drake, Drake, you’ve prayed only for yourself. You were so strong once. Well, at least you prayed.”
Owakar had sent Drake a word of wisdom. “Wait for David.” But he didn’t hear it.
The luach thrummed a response:
[...going about to establish their own righteousness, they have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.]
It was simple. Seek the God of Truth’s ways and let His words lead, like a child.
Even though unequally yoked to his wife, Parynna, Drake could still walk in Truth. But he is swayed by her to a show of works instead.
Parynna waited in the courtyard after receiving the news of Drake’s imminent return. She had chosen a more modest than usual gown, a simple hairstyle, and minimal jewelry to show the seriousness of the situation.
Because of a pigeon from Caileagh, she knew Gaelib had set a trap for the Knights of J’shua. The message ended with, “The Knights of J’shua rebelled against King Sagen and killed hundreds of innocent people in Dunis Glen.” Already, rumors would be spreading.
Drake dismounted in the court yard and embraced her. “I’m so relieved you’re well, dear wife. I…we…were attacked.”
Parynna clutched him tighter, pressing herself against him, ignoring his travel-stained clothes. His foolish errand could still ruin everything they—she—had worked for.
Detaching himself, he held her at arm’s length. “I led them right to the elders’ meeting. The Order of the Black Robe attacked us. It made no sense. They weren’t warriors. Still, they kept coming and coming…and dying.”
“How awful.” She slipped her arm through his and tried to lead him inside. This was not a conversation she wanted witnesses to.
“I should have seen that Baldwin was a spy. I am too much a fair-weather knight.”
“Nonsense, you are a good man. It’s clear someone betrayed you, but not who devised it.”
He continued without hearing her. “The meeting had already started. Someone blew a whistle. Baldwin tried to stab David in the back. I knocked away the knife, but…there were hundreds of them.”
“It must have been dreadful.” She squeezed his hand. Just a few more feet, and they’d be in private.
“It was. I had no choice. I had to defend myself. I tried not to kill, but…”
After closing the door behind them, she handed him a steaming cup. “This will help.”
“Thank you, Parynna. What would I do without you?” He took a sip.
“Afterwards was just chaos. I grabbed two horses and fled. I pray David and the others are well. But…the Black Robes had no training, not enough to attack Knights. What were they thinking? Why would they do such a thing? They’re merely scribes and clerks, after all.”
Parynna moved behind him and squeazed his shoulders. “Dear, something is afoot. Finish the tea, it will help. We do not know that those who attacked you were real Black Robes. Did you see anything other than their cloaks to identify them? Perhaps you and the Knights are being set up.”
“Perhaps,” he said drowsily.
“Just to be safe, we should remove all evidence of the Fellowship from Caswell—not permanently—only until this blows over. Or until we know what really happened. We’d not want to be implicated in a scandal or be the victims of some foul plot.”
“That seems wise.” Drake nodded slowly. “I’m so tired suddenly. That ride was harder on me than I thought.”
Parynna kissed his cheek. “Why don’t you lie down and rest? You can decide what to do when you rise.”
She watched him walk away.
I’ll have time before he wakes. Finally, we can make significant changes.
David was one of the last knights to escape from the rooftop. He’d made it to the tree line when the flames became visible outside. Then he took the remaining horse. Cautiously, staying off roads, he crossed the East River and then turned southwest.
He considered heading back to the Border Inn but reassured himself Drake’s people would have Cynthia. Whether she’d already reached Caswell or not, they would keep her safe.
He was thankful he’d learned to survive in the wilderness at the Knights’ School because he was afraid to approach anyone.
After several days, he was heading through a clearing that was thick with brush. The horse reared, squealing, dancing about. Bitten by a snake, it sickened and died a day later, leaving him on foot.
There were no trails to follow. He stayed near the borders of the woods to track the stars at night and the sun in the day. When it rained, he kept walking rather than risk succumbing to a chill. In the heat of the day, he slept. He thanked J’shua he encountered no lions or boar.
After two weeks, he came to a steep ravine, which he slid down rapidly to avoid days of walking around it. Brush and brambles tore his clothes and cut him. Climbing up the other side was almost as bad.
After twenty-seven days, he finally reached Caswell.
Once inside the inner gate, Cynthia ran to him. Her face went pale. Dried blood covered his clothes. His cut and dirty hands trembled. Yet she drew him into a warm hug.
He had made it. There were days he’d doubted he would.
She told him of the rumors proclaiming him and Drake heroes.
Surely the Knights have heard.They will brand me a Judas. All I’ve lived for is gone.
The story had spread everywhere—the Knights had savagely slaughtered unarmed men and women in what was known as the Dunis Glen Massacre. And the heroic Drake and David lead soldiers to put down Jonathan Otual’s rebellion.
Drake confided in his wife, Parynna, and then consulted with experienced counselors from the Order. Until they knew who was behind it, he must not contradict the story being told. It would blow over quickly.
Cynthia had arrived at Caswell before Drake. Her soul was tormented by the indignities she’d endured. But Parynna cared for her like a daughter.
By the time David appeared on foot, Drake’s wife had arranged everything. Parynna had handpicked the servants she’d sent to the remote fishing lodge. The provisions packed into wagons would make it self-sufficient for many moons to come. She would ensure the young couple’s comfort. Drake marveled at the charity of his wife.
Parynna sighed again.
The day before, David had finally returned from Dunis Glen covered in dirt, dried blood and small seeping wounds. He’d been an unpleasant sight to behold.
She had prayed he’d died somewhere out in the wilderness. Sadly, that had proven a false hope.
With Drake as the only survivor of the Dunis Glen Massacre, they could have told the tale in any way they wanted—any way she wanted, with a little guidance from Caileagh.
However, with David alive, matters became more…complicated.
She’d sequestered the young man and his doting wife away from prying eyes. Within hours, her staff would send them somewhere quiet, safe, and under her control.
South of Lorness
Rebekah refused to have her cover as Tomas Bekh stop her from questioning defectors or intercepting shipments bound for the Earl of Lorness. Not that she would risk her life doing anything too foolish—by her standards.
That was why, dressed as a woman taken in a feigned debt collection, she was trapped in a cage cart south of Lorness. With her were three beautiful girls of marriageable age, a lad with a bloody leg wrapped in bandages, and three children. All had weapons hidden in the straw on the floor of the cage.
They were trained fighters, even the youngest, assembled by Licht Gegen. They avoided any use of real names, so none could identify the others.
The guards escorting the cart were lads from James of the Wood, dressed in uniforms recovered and repaired after their owners ceased needing them. They’d been traveling for several hours, stopping frequently, adding one or two people at each stop. Now they’d captured all eight. At the last stop, the guards had set the abandoned farmhouse ablaze.
Those in the cage cowered and wailed.
When another wagon approached, its driver roared, “Son of a hundin. What’re you doing? That farm belongs to…” His words were drowned out by a collapsing wall and the crash of a river of baden flowing into sight.
The well-dressed young man playing the part of Melazera’s clerk opened his journal and checked something. “As the Earl of Lorness requires, it’s sold. Someone will build a grand estate here. Who’re you? How dare you challenge me?”
As their argument escalated, Rebekah slumped dejectedly to the floor of the cage cart, gripping the hidden crossbow, prepared to raise it and fire. As she did, her eyes flicked to a man who stopped in the distance, patting his horse’s flank.
It couldn’t be, but it was…
She couldn’t risk him interfering. James’ lads wouldn’t take commands from her. Their instructions came to James through an intermediary. James was not here. They only knew her as Tomas Bekh. 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 would never hear the end of it, never again be able to be Bekh, or play any other role.
Raising her hands so they shaded her face in a particular way, she prayed Jon saw her signal and honored it by staying away.
Sheisse, he could come to my aid and attack the boys!
As she fretted, unable to do anything but pray, the two arguing men dismounted. Their confrontation lasted only long enough for a blade to slip between the unknown wagon driver’s ribs. He collapsed into the clerk’s arms.
Even Rebekah had to admit it was beautifully done. From a distance—from Jon’s distance—it should have appeared as if the driver fainted and the clerk caught him.
Jonathan walked Ruby steadily through the woods south of Lorness. Only an hour earlier, he’d finally lost a patrol. They’d been relentless since Dunis Glen. In the past few days alone, he’d had four all-too-close brushes with Gaelib’s men from Lorness and almost galloped headlong into Blackhawk.
Both he and his horse were exhausted. That was why he’d cut into the woods and was using lesser-known tracks to put distance between himself and his pursuers. Both man and beast would have to rest, or he, somehow, had to find a new mount. As yet, he wasn’t far enough south to encounter James or his lads.
The wine wagon ahead of him was nothing special. When it turned off the road, he stopped and patted his horse’s flank. Something was bothering her.
Smoke rose from a nearby farm. The setting sun was so low in the sky it obscured the house. The buildings could be aflame, and he’d not be able to tell.
Then His anger flared as he glimpsed the cage cart and the people trapped. But he lacked the energy to intervene. There were too many guards to take on alone. Certainly not astride a tired mare.
The light changed, allowing him to see into the cage. Amongst those trapped was a woman that reminded him of Rebekah. She had blonde wavy hair and a certain tilt to her head. As did too many these days.
He gasped. He knew that signal.
It is Rebekah! But she’s commanding me to stay away. Why?
His hands clenched, drawing the reins tighter and causing Ruby to whinny. It was a sad sound that echoed through his weary frame. He ached to go to her. It was now a year since that fleeting encounter at David’s wedding. He hadn’t held her in his arms for ten years. Yet, in his current condition, he could do nothing.
Worse still was the helplessness that swept through him.
Whether it was for his protection or hers, his only choice was to do as she asked.
Thank you, J’shua. She is still alive.
Without taking his eyes from her, he moved his horse off the track and into the sparse trees that lined it. He lost sight of her as the sound of hoofbeats became audible in the distance.
Dismounting, he moved his horse farther in, only to see ninety men thunder into sight from the west. Their leader had bits of curly black hair escaping his helmet. It was Blackhawk.
Rebekah watched Jonathan slowly back into the trees.
Two of their guards helped the dead driver onto the back of his wagon. The other guards broke open the first cask with an axe. There was a small trickle of wine that lasted only seconds. Then the tinkle of baden on wood followed. Her information was correct. Like other shipments, these casks had inner compartments for hiding documents or coin. They’d intercepted yet another of Lorness’ money deliveries.
Yet, before they could investigate the burning house, an enormous dust cloud announced dozens of horses riding hard from the west. It was moving too fast to be someone herding mounts to market. It was too large to be the escort of some noble eager to be at home. As riders became visible, their ruby red gambesons and brigandine armor marked them as soldiers.
The supposed clerk strode over to the cage cart. “Turn the cart around to block the view. If those troops turn off the road, I want all of you to come out, weapons hidden behind your backs. Dying is preferable to Melazera’s dungeons. We’ll take as many of them with us as possible.”
Rebekah wanted to take control. But she couldn’t. All she could do was act timid and pray Jonathan saw the soldiers as well.
Jon, why can’t you appear more conveniently?
The military leader and his entourage slowed. He stood in his stirrups and pointed toward her cage cart.
She glanced toward where Jonathan had been and back at the soldiers.
The seconds dragged as sweat ran down her face.
Blackhawk spurred his mount on. His fifth replacement in three days.
Otual had to be nearby. The man couldn’t disappear. The knight was flesh and blood, of that he was certain. Therefore, he had weaknesses and had to be spent. He wasn’t as young as Blackhawk. He didn’t, couldn’t, have the strength to continue eluding him.
Blackhawk had commandeered a third of the men stationed in Lorness to catch him. He had almost done so.
The blasted knight charged me head-on, and the wretched horse reared and threw me.
He twisted the reins. It was embarrassing.
Blast whatever spy learned of the Knights’ meeting in Dunis Glen. The idiot had used black robes to apprehend some of Freislicht’s best swordsmen. Then the fool had used local militet—as if they were any more capable—to complete the job. And only after bungling the whole thing, did that incompetent inform the military.
Had I known…
Blackhawk noted a burning cottage and a cage cart.
Have they seen anything?
He continued at a walk. He considered dispatching men to inquire, but just then, flashes of light from a signaling mirror told of a sighting only miles to the east. He dug in his spurs. Their horses galloped to pursue.
Caileagh had her coach readied early. Within it was Owen, her favorite minstrel. He was pleasant to look upon and cleverly helped pass the time. Later, he’d play while she waited as the servants and nobles prepared for the grand event, one of many over the next few days.
She’d never seen a royal wedding and felt a pang of jealousy.
It will be weeks of traditional events like this. I should be the one fawned over.
She watched the King’s Guard march out to clear the way.
Once the betrothal cortege began, it would take several hours to make its slow circuit through the surrounding countryside. Red and white roses covered the royal carriage.
She could just see the king as he walked toward it.
“Blasted Lexandrians! I should be much nearer.” She lifted the spyglass to get a closer look.
Owen continued to strum.
“The king wears a simple blue velvet cloak over brown leather breeches. He doesn’t even look like a royal.” She put down the glass with a smile. “Gaelib will look so majestic…” She sighed and looked again. “His bride wears…”
Caileagh gasped at the golden-haired girl on the king’s arm, who wore a pale-yellow dress, a daisy among orchids. She’d thought Kiepert special and attractive and had bedded him on several occasions. She had hoped the young acolyte would join her inner council.
The fool failed me! I instructed him no blonde girls were to be selected.
Last Half-Moon, Autumn, 2nd Year in the Reign of King Sagen
Melyssa stood before the closed doors, forcing a smile. In only moments, they would open, and she would proceed down the aisle to her waiting groom, King Sagen.
She’d been told the Great Hall was so overcrowded it might burst. Everyone with a noble title was present. Or, if they couldn’t attend, they’d sent a representative. Guild masters, bankers, prominent merchants, and diplomats were there too. They dressed in their finest. She had never seen some of the exotic fabrics from Tarinland before. And jewels dripped off every neck. All of them would witness her marriage to the king.
The king…this is really happening.
A flurry of attendants rustled behind her, smoothing the long white train. Someone was fussing with her veil.
Her gut clenched in a tight knot.
I might heave.
She had stared at her breakfast an hour ago, picked up the spoon…and thought better of it. She was hungry, but she’d never been so nervous. Better to continue her fast.
Her adopted father, Duke Gregory Locke, came to stand beside her. He was resplendent in his blue velvet tunic, studded with silver wolves. He whispered in her ear, “You are magnificent. Take one step at a time. Let’s get this over with, shall we?” Then he nodded to servants, and the doors opened.
I shall never be Sarah again.
Finally, the day had arrived. Sagen stood at the front of the Great Hall, staring down the long aisle. Long trailing red and white roses adorned pillars by every row.
Nobles pushed each other, deliberately and inadvertently, as elbows dug into those sitting too close to them. Crammed tight with so many people, tensions warred with expectations.
Sagen held himself regally still. His face was hot, and his hands clammy.
Then Gaelib stood at the back of the hall, a look of delight on his face, like the cat that found the cream. Their eyes met, and his steward gave him a smug nod.
Sagen inhaled sharply, stifling his anger.
I’ll not let you ruin this day.
Doors creaked open—flutes and harps began playing—and Melyssa appeared in the archway, arm in arm with her father, Duke Gregory, who was patting her hand. A veil sprinkled with small pink flowers, held under a golden circlet, covered her blonde hair. Before her stood a small, white-haired lad carrying a basket. Melyssa bent down and whispered in his ear, and then he began walking, tossing red rose petals that lazily fell to the aisle. She and her father followed.
She is radiant. Is she as nervous as I?
Drake leaned toward Parynna and whispered, “Thank you for convincing me to come.”
I should never have let my fears threaten to keep me from attending such an important event.
He admired the beautiful young bride as she passed. Then his eyes flashed to the king. They were a perfect match. Sagen had chosen well.
Once the happy couple stood together, Drake looked for Gaelib. It took several moments to find him in a sea of blond and brunette heads. There were ten rows of Lockes seated at the front of the hall.
What will Gaelib say about the Dunis Glen Massacre? Perhaps my Parynna could help me navigate that inevitably awkward conversation. Her friendship with Caileagh makes her happy and could prove very useful, despite the way Gaelib’s wife gives me chills.
After the ceremony ended, everyone filed out into courtyards bedecked with potted rose bushes and dwarf fruit trees. Armies of servants attended tables laden with food and drink from every corner of the kingdom. It would be at least an hour, perhaps two, before the king and his new bride appeared. During that time, the Great Hall would be reset for the evening’s wedding feast. In the meantime, the nobility and other guests would mingle amiably…or such was tradition.
Wanting somewhere to hide, Drake sought a distant table, only to be interrupted by the person he was trying to avoid most.
“My dear friend,” Gaelib crooned as he marched up and grabbed Drake’s shoulders, “wasn’t it a lovely ceremony?”
Drake froze and the hairs on his neck bristled. He searched for his wife in the sea of faces.
Where are you, woman? She was right behind me.
“It was, uh, beautiful,” Drake almost stuttered. “I’m so happy the king finally found a bride. Soon there’ll be an heir, relieving the worry of many. Don’t you agree?”
“Oh, yes. I heard many sighs of relief when the vows finished. But,” Gaelib paused, a sly expression on his face, “I’ve yet to congratulate you on ending the Knights’ rebellion at Dunis Glen.”
Drake paled. “It was nothing, my lord,” he squeaked, his voice betraying him. “I merely did my duty.”
Gaelib’s knowing smile unsettled him more.
“Thank you for your indispensable loyalty. I shall not forget it in the days to come. Nor shall others. I would wager that this king, and the next, will recall your brave deeds as a turning point in Freislicht’s history.” Gaelib half-bowed to Drake and then selected several delicacies from the far north. “This is going to be delicious.”
Drake hoped Melazera was speaking of the food.
South of Lorness
Days passed as Jonathan cautiously traveled south before being intercepted by James of the Wood, just north of River Town.
“It’s been a while,” James began as his horse rode in parallel with Ruby.
More riders moved within the forest.
“Your riding has improved. You sit a horse as if born to it,” Jonathan said.
“I…we…have come a long way because of your help and—”
One by one, twenty rough young men on horseback eased out of the trees.
Jonathan smiled. “I was looking for you.”
“I’m easy to find. If you let me do the finding.” James grinned.
Jonathan laughed. “Then…I have a question for you.”
James’ eyebrow rose. “Yes?”
“Some days back, I encountered a cage cart containing someone I have been seeking for a long time. As I know, you see most of what occurs in your woods. I came to learn if you knew more about it.”
“Where and when was this?”
“Near a burning cottage only—”
“I know about that. It was a small matter of redistribution. From Lorness to those he oppresses, less a tiny fee.”
“I need details,” Jonathan said.
The grin on James’ face broadened. “With Licht Gegen’s help, Lorness has been funding our operations. We redirect his baden shipments now and again.”
What is going on? How did Rebekah…?
“Why do you ask?” James prompted.
“There was a woman in the cart. Not the girls, the only adult woman. Who was she?”
James blinked. “I’ve no idea. Licht Gegen provides people to play those roles. We never know who they are. It’d be too dangerous for all involved.”
“Her name is Rebekah…Otual.”
“She’s your wife?”
“I don’t know how to contact her. I could try…”
New Moon, Late Autumn
A week after the royal wedding, the docent arrived.
Caileagh took him aside. “Instruct Kiepert to arrange for the new queen to have a fatal accident. Once successful, eliminate him. There must be nothing that implicates the Order. Report only to me.”
“Yes, my lady.” The docent bowed low.
“You may leave.” She waved him away and then sighed.
She stared from her tower down at the ant-like people in the outer court, dwelling on the prophecy of the king’s golden wife.
Kiepert will handle it. He’ll want to redeem himself.