Chapter 24: Strategies
Captain Karl Fortuch, now stationed in Farr, leaned against the rough boards of the tavern he’d just left. Drinks were cheap, and the smell was nasty, but he felt comfortable there. He understood its patrons. Better yet, they feared him. As he picked meat from his teeth with his dagger, a pair of soldiers approached.
They bowed. “We’ve a report, sir. We’re with the western patrol. My sergeant here noticed a glint of light reflecting off metal as a bear cub ran by in an open field. We pursued until the cub dropped it. It was part of a commandant’s silver armband.”
The captain sighed. “Take four dozen militet and search the area.”
A few hours later, the lieutenant rushed up. “They’ve found a torso scavenged by animals and crawling with maggots.”
Fortuch arrived as they added another body part to the remains arranged on a tarpaulin. All that was missing was the right arm. He identified the body as Greysun, the only missing commandant. Fortuch smiled. Melazera would be ecstatic when he received his report. With this confirmation, the reward for Otual would be doubled.
Waning Crescent Moon, Late Autumn
South of Caswell
Rebekah, as Tomas Bekh, rode out ahead of her six wagons, their drivers, and three outriders.
As usual, she tried to spot James and his boys—well, more than boys now—before they spotted her. And, as usual, she failed. Having James ride up beside her was a first.
His brown, wavy hair danced in the breeze. All his men wore dingy clothes in need of repair, but their skin was clean, and they didn’t smell wild. Even though they placed themselves randomly about, she knew they were well-organized.
“Welcome back, Mr. Bekh,” he grinned.
That grin held more meaning than his followers knew. She had warned him she was in hiding and asked that he keep her secret.
“James, the horse is new. I didn’t know you could ride.”
“Several of us can. We’ve been teaching others. What’s hidden amongst those wagonloads for us?”
“Hidden? Nothing,” Rebekah beamed, “it’s all for you. Plus, I finally have news about more than a handful of names. Many more of you can safely go home.”
James halted his horse. “The contents of all six wagons are for us?”
“Yes, the lot.” She stopped her horse beside his. “Everything from new clothes to cooking utensils, and tools to weapons. There are even some prototype swords from an artisan in Esthlanis. Let me know what you need. I’ll get it for you in only a handful of weeks.”
He hesitated. “There is something.”
“Several of us want to train as Knights of J’shua. We may be older than traditional candidates, but with the Fellowship proclaimed illegal, if there’s somewhere we could train, we’d like to.”
Rebekah paused. “There may be a way…”
First Quarter Moon, Early Winter
In her secret hall, a displeased Caileagh paced back and forth. It had taken far too long for that fool, Streib, to report back. Worse, his timing was distracting her from other, more important, things, such as the upcoming celebration of Boreos, the God of Wind.
She poked a stick at Greysun’s corpse as the bubbling acid cleaned the disgusting flesh away. She then motioned for others to finish processing his bones.
The loathsome, self-important commandant had disappeared shortly after earning Gaelib’s praises for wielding a bag of oranges. Then he failed—failed!—to kill Otual. It was said he’d absconded with money. There were tales of him in Tarinland and Esthlanis. Or that he had a villa on the coast of the Sea of Glass. But here he was, dead, most likely by Otual’s hand. It was a pity, for the manner of his demise must have been all too banal.
Yet, on the slight possibility of a lead on Otual’s wife, it had to be hunted down.
The docent remained kneeling, his forehead touching the floor, while his body shook.
“Again!” Caileagh demanded. “This time, I require details, not the slick summary you just babbled out.”
“Yes, Lady Melazera. Forgive me, Lady Melazera. I—”
His words ended with a satisfying oof and a grunt of pain as she kicked him—hard. “I am not interested in your apologies or your excuses. I instructed you to find out if the knight’s wife had lived in Frei Forest, to see if an encampment had existed, and to report back promptly. It’s been weeks. Yet all you give me is, ‘We found nothing.’ It is unacceptable. You know what becomes of those who disappoint me, don’t you, Docent Streib?”
“I do, Your Grace. I won’t fail you. I haven’t!”
“Then give me a proper report.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” The docent squirmed. “I did as instructed. I took three lesser docents and two dozen initiates. We went to the location your informant indicated. We searched thoroughly. There were no buildings there. Certainly, women and children could not have lived in the woods without shelter. Then—”
“Is this true, Lesser Docent Rhaylth?” Caileagh demanded.
“We did search, Your Grace.” The other bowing man was relaxed. “It was not thorough. Docent Streib was uncomfortable away from town and had no knowledge of what could and could not be livable. I tried—”
“Quisling, traitor,” Streib squealed. “You said nothing. You—”
“I do not care which of you said what,” Caileagh interrupted, nodding to a guard whose sword cleanly dropped Streib’s head to the floor. His body slumped.
“Docent Rhaylth,” Caileagh soothed, “it was good of you to inform me of the former docent’s failings. Can you do better?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Then use however many you need, have them scour that forest, and tell me definitively if there was a settlement there. While that small task is being accomplished, find out if there is such a thing as Licht Gegen. Again, I require a definitive answer—with proof. If it exists, bring me, say, six of its followers. Finally, I need to know if Mistress Otual is involved.”
“If I may, Your Grace, the area to be searched is large.”
“Six moons, Your Grace.”
“Not a day longer. Dismissed.”
North of Caswell
Jonathan traveled extensively in the moons that followed Dunis Glen. He moved wherever J’shua led him, staying well beyond Freislicht’s borders.
He spent time with many tribes in Mestelina, spreading the Writings and exchanging skills. Later, he briefed the Premier of Esthlanis, and Mathu, his steward, about what had occurred at Dunis Glen and how it was being portrayed in Freislicht. Jonathan would maintain the trust he’d established years ago.
Eventually, Jonathan found himself back in Freislicht, just north of Caswell, pulling his cloak tighter to protect against an icy wind. Tears welled up when he tried to picture his daughter in her sixteenth year. She’d be thinking about boys now. And they would think about her.
I know I will find them when I least expect it, Lord J’shua.
No matter where he went, he sought Rebekah and Sarah.
When he saw the glade where he’d first met James of the Wood and his brothers, he felt moved to find them. He did not try to be discreet. He knew they were good at hiding and wondered if they might appear.
Perhaps they have gone home.
A twig snapped.
James hoped Sir Otual would be proud of the progress they’d made. Their camps blended into the deepest woods all around Freislicht. In fact, they had camps within five miles of every major town in the country. This one was closest to Caswell. It had been almost ten years since the knight had trained them to survive.
A sentry had seen him heading toward the camp. So, James had sent several boys to follow Sir Otual. His only instruction was, “Don’t get caught.”
They were only away a few hours when the knight walked in, leading his horse.
“Hallo, James.” The knight locked arms with the young man. “You look fit.”
“Sir Otual, welcome! I’d hoped we’d be harder to find.”
“When you have been out in the wilderness as long as I, it is easy to see the tiniest sign. Yet, I never saw any boys shadowing me. They did well. I suspected they were watching but I never spotted them.” He waved at the other lads in the camp, who’d stopped what they were doing to greet him.
“Come. Have some rabbit.” James motioned for the knight to enter a structure built within a cluster of trees. It was warm inside. “Several boys have been able to return home. We’ve another helper, a traveler who brings us news from time to time.”
“That is wonderful. I am glad some families have been reunited.”
“This friend had a very good year. He recently brought us many provisions: clothing, tools, cook pots, and even some swords.”
Jonathan looked pleased.
Then James asked, “Have you ever encountered Tomas Bekh? He helped locate some of our parents. He seems to know you.”
“I do not recognize the name.”
New Moon, Spring
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 moons back is, uh, ‘taxing’ the Melazeras.”
Gregory handed his niece the goblet. “That you’re going to have to explain.”
“Do you recall I got waylaid by some highwaymen and had to give them three horses, their saddles, and tack?”
“I recall you being undaunted by it,” Gregory noted, sipping his drink. “It was out of character. When I insisted on additional information about the incident, you demanded I not follow it up. To call the matter odd would be an understatement. Yet, they were your losses, and there were no other similar incidents, so I agreed.”
Fyrna’s smile grew. “You’ll soon be happy about that. I suggested that the lads who, uh, required a toll to pass through their woods, should head north. In fact, I strongly advised that Gaelib Melazera’s territory would have much better prey. It seems,” she took a sip, savoring her wine, “they took my idea. However, instead of waylaying honest horse traders, they’ve settled their sights on that northern lord’s less-than-honest ventures.”
“Obviously,” Gregory grinned, “I know nothing about Duke Melazera siphoning off monies from the Royal Treasury for his own purposes.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “Or the unsavory feasts he charges admission for, in coin and other currencies. However, if you are telling me that some bandit—that you’ve met only once—is 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 raised her brows. “Yes, I believe it is.”
“That wasn’t what I was going to ask. My question is whether you might have some way to contact these robbers and ask if they need any help. Weapons? Horses? Tack? Anything?”
Fyrna bit her lip to prevent herself from laughing. When her uncle had a notion, it was usually good. “As I don’t know them, I couldn’t pass on your offer. But if I did find myself in contact with them…?”
“Establish a relationship. We don’t know who we might need in our ongoing rivalry with that northern lord. And,” he beamed, “thank you for bringing me such an uplifting story.”
Drawing his tattered hood forward, Jonathan rested against the tavern’s wall. The old cloak stank of spilled ale and needed cleaning. Yet it allowed him to move about without drawing attention. The private bounties on his head made being in Freislicht difficult. But, now that he was blamed for the murder of Commandant Greysun, it was even riskier.
Yet, he needed to follow up on this lead. Every instinct told him to.
The sun had just risen. Two men were weaving their way down the street. Another emptied his gut nearby. Jonathan slumped against a building, pretending to have spent another night drinking.
Other townsfolk were already hard at work. Stable hands had fed and watered their charges. Bakers had lit their ovens. And the workers at Bekh’s Bold Bargains—whom Jonathan had been watching for days—already had wagons hitched and loaded, ready to send on their way.
So far, he’d seen no sign of Tomas Bekh, James of the Wood’s friend.
As a coach drawn by six horses arrived, six armed men surrounded it.
Jonathan shrunk into an alley, frustrated that he would never get close to a man so well-guarded.
Rebekah exited the carriage, dressed as Tomas Bekh.
Riding through the night behind six horses driven by her madman of a coach driver was not conducive to sleep. It was, however, a good way to stay safe, elude highwaymen, and outrun others who might do her harm. Especially as, when she’d set out from Fairness Crossing, the signs on the carriage’s sides were for Thaddeus’ Trade Goods. A company recently purchased under a new alias, Tyrone Beecham.
Red-eyed and in desperate need of food and sleep, she ignored her six guards as she strode toward the main offices of Bekh’s Bold Bargains. Bywold Parsons intercepted her.
“Mister Bekh! Thank heavens I encountered you. As I’ve repeatedly warned you, in my letters, there are problems that have to be addressed. Things only you can decide.”
“What…?” Rebekah was too tired to have the conversation, but the phrase in my letters meant they were being watched. So, she allowed herself to be dragged inside.
“A suspicious drunk has been outside for much of the last three days. When I saw you approach, I sent men to question him but, while I have you, we need new offices. Something larger. I’ve a short list for you to peruse.”
By the time Bywold had gone through the options, all Rebekah wanted was to sleep. Even food could wait. She dismissed the news that her guards had not caught the stalker.
Probably just a drunk. Not the first time my protectors have been overly cautious.
Blackhawk sat down at the desk in his quarters to write his report to Gaelib Melazera.
I was only with the king three times this week due to other duties. The king met with the ambassadors to Mestelina—Misters Coper and Kitch. I couldn’t overhear anything they said. All seemed happy at the end of the meeting.
He paused, considering how best to phrase the next statement.
The king and queen had an argument yesterday, leaving him annoyed for the rest of the day. I’m being sent next week to check on officers in the field. I don’t know when I’ll return.
He stopped writing and thought about the encounter. The king had told the queen that she couldn’t always have her way and should grow up. She’d crossed her arms, stomped her foot, and scowled at him, wrinkling her nose. Then she did an about-face and walked off haughtily.
It reminded him of Little Soldier. He touched the spot where her buttons still lay under his shirt, making him smile. It was she that had led him to J’shua and the Writings.
[But the God of Truth, who is rich in mercy, has quickened us together with Mashiach. By grace ye are saved.]
First Quarter Moon
Caileagh inhaled sharply, stepping back into the shadowy alcove. The queen was walking down the corridor surrounded by her gaggle of lady’s maids. The girl pranced throughout the castle.
I could easily break her little neck.
She waited until they passed, babbling about fancy garments and parlor games.
She groaned inwardly. Since his Emancipation Ritual, things had seriously worsened. Gaelib had become moodier and more prone to violent, sometimes fatal, outbursts. Last week, he killed one of the new servants. It had been difficult to fashion rumors that explained the sad accident.
He barely ventured forth from Lorness anymore except to attend meetings with the king here at High Keep. Meetings that left him angry, frustrated, and seeking someone to take his ire out on.
While she had once enjoyed playing rough, she no longer did. Worried now that Gaelib might do her permanent harm. He’d tortured those she brought to amuse him. She preferred to be in charge. But it was increasingly evident she wasn’t.
Worse, he belittled her in front of servants and, on more than one occasion, important people. He openly told her he didn’t need her.
It was demeaning.
It was a warning.
The small spirits that guided her were no match for the Warrior. Gaelib was its servant now. He belonged to the Warrior. There would be no reversal of his fate.
What does that make me? Have I become irrelevant, like my mother? No, there must still be purpose in my life.
Yet, too many of her former friends and confidants looked at her differently. They whispered that she hadn’t given Gaelib a son. Some even questioned what it would take to oust her from her husband’s bed.
There’d been women who had ogled her Gaelib when he was only heir to the Earl. But then she’d had power. Then he’d needed her. Then she’d had influence.
The last ambush had net Licht Gegen a staggering 439,000 baden. It was the largest amount they’d ever intercepted. As for Bekh’s Bold Bargains, it was growing at a rate that astounded her. All of which meant Rebekah had more money available to her and Licht Gegen than she’d ever imagined.
Almost two years after meeting the swordsmith from Esthlanis, Licht Gegen’s primary need was still weapons. Regular shipments of farming equipment were coming from him. But they required more than short swords and whatever third-hand items they could scrounge up.
That was why she was in Fairness Crossing, preparing to travel to Lexandria as Tyrone Beecham. Contacts here in the south had created his presence, acting as his agents and crafting a reputation for him for the last six moons as a shrewd, if uncouth, broker.
Rebekah wasn’t entirely comfortable with how much coarse language she used in the role, but it had to be a stark contrast to her Tomas Bekh persona. Her companies had offices in every major city in Freislicht, several in larger towns, three more in Esthlanis, and one in Tarinland. That image of Tomas’ face was an all-too-common sight. Despite many attempts to change it, people liked the wretched thing.
Thus, Tyrone Beecham was born. Families from Frei, who’d settled nearby, had created his new wardrobe. They refurbished a carriage, hired a driver, and supplied a dozen well-trained bodyguards.
Twisting a braided sideburn, she stepped onto the street for the first time as the elegantly dressed Tyrone. She noted the difference in the way passersby eyed her. They took in the red brooch on her shoulder, the pair of bejeweled daggers with worn handles on her belt, and the long leather surcoat that dragged the ground. Others noted the four identically dressed guards flanking her and moved briskly out of her way. Only one or two truly observant people might note the two additional guards, inconspicuously dressed, one preceding and one trailing in their wake.
It was time to make her first arms deal.