Chapter 23: Shining Mountain
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.
Jonathan – 153 AK, Late Autumn
Jonathan 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!” Jonathan roared as he charged. 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 Jonathan 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.
Jonathan’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?”
Jonathan 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.” Jonathan 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, Jonathan 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.
Jonathan mounted and galloped off, south into the sparser trees of the foothills. The cavalry sped after him, leaving the trudging conscripts behind.
Jonathan glanced back to see Blackhawk had outdistanced his horsemen. Aware of the widening gap, he considered turning to attack the colonel.
It would be too risky a fight.
He’d seen the officer best every opponent easily with sword, axe, and dagger in a tournament years ago, when merely a boyish lieutenant.
Darting onto a lesser-used animal track, he spurred Ruby into a brief sprint. After a sharp switchback, he ducked under a ledge that hid him from sight, drew his short 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.
Jonathan 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 starting 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.
Jonathan approached quietly from behind, alert to potential ambush.
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 Jonathan 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 Jonathan and Ruby, perhaps a third of the militet were wounded or ran off. It was a better result than he’d hoped for.
But 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.
One toppled from the saddle, an arrow protruding from his chest.
Fyrna Lock – 153 AK, Late Autumn
Fyrna Locke smiled as she entered Duke Gregory’s library.
“What has you so happy?” the Lexandrian duke asked as he poured wine for her.
“I’ve just learned that someone I met a few months back is, uh, taxing the Melazeras.”
Gregory handed over a filled goblet. “That you’re going to have to explain.”
“Do you recall that I got waylaid by some highwaymen and had to give them three horses, their saddles and tack?”
“I recall you being surprisingly unfazed about it,” Gregory noted, sipping his drink. “It was decidedly out of character. When I insisted on additional information about the incident, you demanded that I not follow up on it. To call the matter ‘odd’ would be an understatement. Yet, they were your losses and there were no other similar incidents, so I acquiesced.”
Fyrna’s smile got larger. “You’re about to be happy about that. You see, I suggested that the lads who, uh, required a toll to pass through their woods should head north. In fact, I strongly suggested that Gaelib Melazera and his followers would be much better prey for them. It seems,” she took a sip, savoring her wine, “that they followed my suggestion. However, instead of waylaying honest horse traders, like myself, they’ve settled their sights on a certain northern lord’s less than honest ventures.”
“Obviously,” Gregory grinned, “I know nothing about Duke Melazera syphoning off monies from the Royal Treasury for his own purposes.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “Or, the less than savory parties that he charges admission for, in coin or other currency. However, if you are telling me that some unknown party – whom you’ve only met once, of course – was preying on that lord’s illegal gains, that would be most amusing.”
“Yes, wouldn’t it, Uncle Gregory.”
“I only have one question.”
“Is the story true?” she replied. “Yes, to the best of my knowledge.”
“That wasn’t what I was going to ask. My question was whether you might have some way to contact the unknown robbers who wronged you so and – this is just a thought – ask if there was any assistance that they needed? Weapons? Horses? Tack? Anything?”
Fyrna bit her lip to prevent herself from laughing out loud. When her uncle had a suggestion, it was usually good. This was hilarious. And it would benefit the Lockes while inconveniencing the Melazeras. “As I, obviously, don’t know them I couldn’t pass on your offer. But if I, somehow, did find myself in contact with them…?”
“Establish an ongoing relationship. We don’t know who we might need in our ongoing rivalry with that certain northern lord. And,” he beamed, “thank you for bringing me such an uplifting story. It’s brightened my day.”
Blackhawk – 153 AK, Late Autumn
Colonel Steven Blackhawk scowled across the dale 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 army incompetents in a cart had crossed his path, screaming about a ‘violent’ encounter with the notorious Jonathan 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 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. Especially since Gaelib had issued him explicit instructions to capture Otual. Alive.
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, 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, it 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 son of a 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 Taelor 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.
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.
Docent Rhaylth – Late Autumn
It should have been simple.
Recently promoted from the rank of Lesser Docent, Rhaylth was sworn to the service of the God of this Age and its high priestess, Cailleagh Melazera. She had set him a task, given him whatever resources could be necessary, and three moons to complete it.
Yet, only weeks later…
It really had seemed so simple. Find Licht Gegen, if it existed. Capture some of its members as proof. Determine if the wife of the notorious rebel, Jonathon Otual, was a member. His instinct had been that if the group was real, and Madame Otual a part of it, then it must be linked to the outlawed Knights of J’shua.
It was so simple as to be obvious. He even knew exactly where to start. Or, more accurately, whom to seek out, leading him… here.
Again, he tried breaking free of his bonds, but they were too tight. Their knots too elaborate for him to slip out of. He sighed, thinking back to how he’d entrapped himself.
Despite his outward devotion to the Black Robes and the god they worshipped, Rhaylth was a non-believer in everything. Except his own survival.
Once lesser members of a noble line in a neighboring land, hardship had forced his parents and a few other relatives to disassociate with their kin. Right after betraying the rest of the family to the local authorities. In the confusion and accidental fire that followed, it was presumed the entire bloodline had died out.
New names, new identities and the salvaged wealth from their former lives had seen them relocate to Lorness. That someone was reviving the old religion had slowly become apparent. A religion they knew all too well how to manipulate.
Once appropriately prepared, Rhaylth had been apprenticed amongst the Black Robes. His position supposedly bought to ensure his future. Yet, he was already pledged to not-so-minor spirits, making the vows, rituals, and devotions he went through as part of the Order utterly irrelevant.
His demons were greater than the trivial sub-creatures his fellow acolytes became entwined with. They were also more open to… exchanges. Contracts that completed once he’d provided them with whatever had been bargained and agreed.
He was sure he knew how to rig the game. That was why he had betrayed Streib. Not only did it improve his position amongst the Black Robes, it delivered another life to his otherworldly patron.
The man he’d gone in search for was that rarest of beings, a deserter from the Order. If there was an underground organization, he would know of it. And be willing to sell it out. The man was a distant cousin after all. A cousin who had become a tad too greedy and just careless enough to almost get caught.
What Rhaylth had not taken into account was that his cousin cared for his own wellbeing more than Rhaylth’s. It also explained the drugged wine and waking tied tight to an overhead beam.
“Welcome back, Rhay-Rhay—”
“It’s Rhaylth. I’m not a boy anymore.”
“Not a man yet either. You waltzed in here sure that a coin purse full of baden would buy whatever you wanted.
“I have more,” the newly-minted docent offered.
“Of course you do,” his cousin agreed. “I’d expect no less. But I’ve run into a little problem.” He stepped closer and drew a long, sharp knife from his belt. “Due to your clumsily seeking me out, I need to relocate. Worse, you’ve threatened my deal with the only allies I have left. Why have you come? Who are you seeking to sell out?”
“They’re called Licht Gegen, some group of subversives seeking to undermine the Melazeras. They…” Rhaylth broke off as his cousin began laughing.
“Rhay-Rhay, when you put your foot it in, you do so right up to the hip. I can’t let you have them. They’re the ones keeping me safe. So, you have a choice.”
Rhaylth looked at the edge of the blade, remembering some of the things mother had said about his cousin’s love of using it. “Always open to a new deal.”
“This is one you can’t go back on.
"Of course, of course.”
“Shut it, Rhay-Rhay. I won’t risk my life for you. I can put you in touch with them. Your choice is to permanently switch sides or die. Either way, while you spent the last two days drugged, the Black Robes have learned you’ve embezzled money from them. A very great amount of money. So much there’s already a price on your head. Lady Melazera was said to be ever so displeased.” He grinned nastily.
“Now we get to the fun part, for me. I’ve a, uh, colleague who wants to ask you some questions. If she doesn’t think you’re answering honestly,” he fingered the knife’s edge, “I get to encourage you.”
Whoever Rhaylth had expected, it was not the prim little woman of middle years who walked into the room and examined him as if he was a particularly disappointing cut of meat.
“This,” his cousin announced, “is Semagine and she is far more than the gossipy widow she appears to be.”
Her smile made Rhaylth’s insides clench.
TBC - Rebekah – 153 AK, Late Autumn
Jonathan – 153 AK, Late Autumn
Jonathan 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 Jonathan 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, then refilled his quiver.
I must keep them interested until midday tomorrow so the family is out of reach.
Caileagh – 153 AK, Late Autumn
“Has no one seen that incompetent, Rhaylth?” Caileagh demanded of the docents assembled before her.
The chorus of “No, Your Grace” was not what she wanted to hear. She needed a result. Between the Queen’s outlandish offer and Gaelib’s ever-decreasing need for her, she had to demonstrate her worth. Worse, she had to do so quickly. Her husband had not forgiven her for her part in the attempted assassination of Her Majesty. He’d even insisted that she only act with his permission.
She’d show him.
“Put a bounty on Rhaylth’s head. A thousand alive. Five thousand dead. Make it known that he has failed me once too often. Then scour Frei Forest. If there is, or ever was, a settlement there – hidden or otherwise – I want it found. I want to know when it was occupied and by whom. The one who succeeds shall be promoted. Go!”
Blackhawk – 153 AK, Late Autumn
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 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, you can’t be…
Blackhawk laughed out loud, startling his men.
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.
Jonathan – 153 AK, Late Autumn
Jonathan 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 visible. 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.
Jonathan had slept very little. He could not let this draw out too long or 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. Dawn threw a spear of brilliant light across the mountains.. Eight men were on watch.
Jonathan slipped deeper into the shadows. If this was a trap, others would be nearby, or feigning sleep. All he heard was occasional grumbling about cold food.
He retreated slightly up the mountain, only to spot another squad. And Blackhawk.
Jonathan 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 beans.
A bird warbled its song in the crisp morning air. When it finished, there was only the rustle of a faint breeze.
Jonathan 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 whispering 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.
Jonathan 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 stood fixed in place, their eyes cast downward seeking more traps.
Blackhawk shouted, “Now!”
Jonathan 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.
Jonathan 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 clubbed a guard with the pommel of his sword. The soldier collapsed and lay unmoving. A second guard turned too slowly. Jonathan cut low, slashing the man’s thigh. Then rendered him unconscious too. The last, 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.
Jonathan 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.
Jonathan twisted, delivering a final upstroke, spraying blood along the ground.
A youth strode 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 Jonathan to mercy. He surveyed the area. “Son, what is your name?”
“L-L-Luca, Luca Overhill…sir.” The lad swallowed hard.
Jonathan shook his head and chuckled. “Is your father’s name Richard?”
“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 tunic 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.”
“I knew your uncle.”
Luca gulped, nodded, and did as he was told.
Jonathan loped 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.
Blackhawk – 153 AK, Late Autumn
Colonel Blackhawk recognized the sounds.
“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 been 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 write and records to update.
Jonathan– 153 AK, Late Autumn
Jonathan 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.
Jonathan 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.
Jonathan 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 moons earlier. The same man who’d taken his daughter in a debt collection ten years before that. And driven his wife into hiding. Facts 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 – 153 AK, Late Autumn
Corporal Athos heard the colonel’s horn sound. He’d been chasing that blasted knight’s 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.
Blackhawk – 153 AK, Late Autumn
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. Their response indicated they were not 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’d met her. She might be married 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 fires, and cold ale.
“Move out,” Blackhawk commanded.
The two not-quite-dead 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, something snapped.
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 as it cut into his shoulder spurred him 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.
Steven 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.
That left an opening. His hatchet slashed. Blood sprouted from its path.
Blackhawk knew he’d not be able to stand for long. Nor could he pursue.
Caileagh – 153 AK, Late Autumn
Kneeling before an altar, Caileagh completed the ritual and drank the still-warm blood of the sacrifice. “I beseech thee, Oh Spirits, guide me so that I can continue to be of use to you… and to Gaelib. Show me what you require of me. Tell me that I am not,” her voice caught, “used up and ready to be cast aside.”
There was no response.
Jonathan – 153 AK, Late Autumn
Jonathan 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.
Jonathan took a step backward beyond the colonel’s ability to lunge and gave him a courtly bow. Then he backed away. He had no intention of exposing his rear to a thrown hatchet.