Chapter 25: Attacks
Kiepert observed Queen Melyssa. Her ladies and servants surrounded her all day. Mornings at dawn, she and her maids went to the garden where a pond lay in the center of a dozen flowerbeds. Often, she watched the ducks glide across the water or picked a rose and put it in her hair.
After weeks, he acquired a bag of venomous snakes from his docent. Disguised as a gardener, Kiepert placed the bag under her favorite rosebush, loosened the string, and walked to another flowerbed to hoe and watch.
The queen strolled to the bed and bent to pick a low hanging rose and then snatched her hand back, clutching her wrist. Taking three brisk steps, she stamped down on something and then pointed with her shoe.
One of her maids screamed.
A guard drew his sword and slashed, decapitating a snake.
Still clutching her wrist, a maid helped her as she stumbled toward the inner castle.
Kiepert slipped away. He sought his docent behind the dingy tavern. Hearing only the words of congratulations, he never saw the knife in his mentor’s hand, only feeling pain and the coldness of death.
Sagen was in his library comparing proposals for deploying the army along the frontier. Hearing distant screams of women, King Sagen sent a lieutenant with a nod; then, he refocused on his reading.
The man returned quickly, reporting, “A viper bit the queen, Your Majesty. Guards search the gardens. I have summoned your apothecaries.”
“Take me to her!”
When the king arrived, his apothecaries were treating her with herbs and leeches. Their faces were solemn. They shook their heads. “It is all we can do for her, Sire.”
Sagen nodded. He sat beside her on the bed, fraught with worry. He held Melyssa’s hand and prayed silently, seeking guidance. Then he sent all the servants out and summoned Colonel Gonnels. “Permit no one but those you trust into this room. This was an attempt on the queen’s life. An attempt that’s still all too likely to succeed. There is little hope, yet I won’t take any risk. No one that you don’t know well.” He strode out.
He’d expected an attempt on his own life but not his queen’s. It made no sense. None at all. Gaelib required Sagen have an heir. One whom Gaelib could become regent for after Sagen’s and Melyssa’s untimely deaths. A passage entered his thoughts.
[While they took counsel together against me, they schemed to take away my life. But I trusted in you, O God of Truth.]
Gaelib was working on the kingdom’s finances. Papers cluttered his desk. Scribes were writing frantically. Servants scurried about, pouring more wine and refilling ink troughs. He’d just dismissed a black robe, sending the fellow to High Keep with today’s letters, when King Sagen entered the Steward’s Hall.
His Majesty’s fists clenched. His eyes narrowed with an icy stare. “Find out who was behind this!”
The Earl of Lorness rose to his feet. He didn’t have to be told what the king referred to. It could only be the queen’s snake bite. “Behind it?”
“There’ve never been snakes in the garden before. They’ve found three in a rose bed, plus a bag containing snake scat. This was attempted murder.”
“I’ll use every resource to—”
“Don’t give me words!” The king swept the papers from the steward’s desk. A goblet of wine and ink bottles shattered on the floor, staining carpets and scattering broken glass. “Get me results. Or I’ll find a steward who can.”
“She was a delightful girl.”
“She’s not dead yet,” Sagen snarled, “despite rumors otherwise. If she dies and you haven’t delivered the culprit, I’ll have your head on a pike as an example for the next person who thinks of failing me!”
“I wasn’t finished. You are to find her killer. I’ve sent for Commander Taelor. Provide all evidence to him. Nod, if you understand me.”
Melazera did so.
The king stormed away. His intensity was that of a living thunderclap.
Gaelib slowly sat, eyes wide, lips tight. This could ruin everything if it was an assassination attempt.
It must have been. And Caileagh had to be behind it. Her superstitious vision about a sword and a golden queen. Blast!
Worse, the king’s pronouncement was heard by servants. Rumors of my potential demise will flood the castle. And…those who would supplant me have only to delay me long enough to…
He slouched back into his chair, gesturing for the mess to be cleaned up. He drew his dagger. His fingers played over the jeweled engravings. He scraped the blade across his open palm. The delicious sensation soothed him.
The king is so enraged. He might do something…unpredictable.
He wanted to think through the problem, but there was no time. If the queen died, so would he. Even if he survived, all his supporters could desert him. And, no matter how quickly he cleared his name, it would cost him allies.
This is a disaster.
Surging to his feet, he roared, “Send for my wife! At once! I don’t care what she’s doing. Bring her to my chambers. Now! Have guards drag her there.”
Gaelib gestured for another black robe to approach. “Send a messenger to George Rosewud at Lorness. I require his presence forthwith.”
Caileagh took her time responding to her husband’s summons. The guards who’d found her paled when they saw her work, making her laugh. She wasn’t some servant to be ordered around. In response to their blustering demands, she dawdled, reminded of the Fourth Runic Precept: Act decisively, remain unmoved.
When she finally arrived, Gaelib was patrolling his chamber, looking for something more to break. There wasn’t much left. “Where’ve you been?”
“I was in my lower chamber making your favorite drink, love.” Caileagh offered him the cup, which he slapped away. She was stunned as the red liquid pooled at her feet like a puddle of blood. “What’s the matter?”
His eyes narrowed. “The queen’s dying—could do so at any moment. If she dies, I die. I know you ordered her death. Give me the perpetrator, or you’ll incur the king’s wrath.”
“But Gaelib…” she pressed her body against his.
He shoved her away. “Don’t ‘but’ me! If the queen dies, I die!”
“You’re frightening me.” She fluttered her lashes.
“Hand me the perpetrator, or take his place!”
“I…that is…he’s already been killed.”
“Explain.” He fingered the dagger at his belt, stepping closer.
“I used Kiepert to arrange things and do the deed,” she confessed as she kneeled before him, her hands together in supplication. “His docent killed him and ensured it would implicate Kiepert.”
Gaelib towered over her. “If he dies by anyone but the king’s hand, my head will adorn a pike beside his. As will yours. If you’re implicated, I’ll not raise a finger to protect you. You’ve threatened my position. You’ll see how inaccurate your visions are. No golden queen will doom you. I will!”
Caileagh blanched. Her mind raced. Physical seduction wasn’t working, perhaps… “I did it to protect you. The queen and those around her are too nosy. They would discover your plans, undermining you. I couldn’t let that continue.”
“Not a bad effort,” Gaelib sneered, “but you did this only for yourself. Your visions come true only half the time—no, a tenth—if that. You’ll not take action on them again, ever, without my permission. Even if I survive, you’ve weakened me.”
She nodded. “It won’t happen again, my lord. What if…if I could produce another who’d killed the perpetrator? Then Kiepert could still be blamed.”
“And how will this ‘witness’ stand up under torture? I won’t control his questioning. Are you trying to put both our necks on the block?”
“No, my lord!” She gazed up, her hands still folded. “I’ve seen a vision. I don’t know how, but you will be elevated—”
Gaelib snorted, throwing his hand in the air. “On a pike! Bring me the docent! Immediately!”
Jonathan skirted the southern edge of Frei Forest, using its dense underbrush to hide his movements. This spring had been drier than most, so the ground was firm, and travel was easy. He thanked J’shua for that blessing. But there’d been even more patrols lately.
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!” one ordered. Another loosed an arrow that fell short. He fired again, overshooting. The third struck.
The absconding wagon slowed to a halt.
“No!” Jonathan roared as he charged. The brown cloak he wore waved like a banner.
“It’s Otual!” one of them yelled, but instead of preparing to fight, they withdrew, disappearing to the northwest.
Jonathan prepared to give chase but held. There could be more troops about. Stopping beside the wagon, he scanned the area.
“Thank you for scaring them off, sir. They’d have killed me.”
“I am Jonathan Otual.” He leaned forward and clasped the man’s offered hand. “The Earl 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!” he 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 could never prove that contract existed. It would have been lost or misfiled. Without it, they may seize anything, or anyone, in repayment.”
Leaning forward again, he pulled the arrow from the wagon’s seat and checked its point. “Do you mind if I keep this? I like to return them,” Jonathan smiled and added it to his quiver.
The man eyed the hole the arrow had made, mere inches from his leg. He gulped and looked at him. “Are you the leader of the rebel knights?”
Jonathan sighed. “The Knights of J’shua have 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.”
The man nodded. “Thank you, Sir Otual.”
“J’shua Ha Mashiach be with you.”
The wagon drove off.
Jonathan walked Ruby to a nearby spring. He dismounted, let her drink, and filled his waterskins. As she grazed, he leaned against a fallen tree, meditating on J’shua’s words:
[Then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.]
…until the rumble of many horsemen spurred him up.
An army contingent appeared from the northwest, comprising four dozen riders. Its commander, Karl Fortuch, was recognizable by his broad shoulders, bulging forearms, and oft-broken nose. By his rank bands, he’s been promoted to captain.
That detestable man is a long way from home.
Jonathan mounted and galloped off into the sparser trees of the foothills. The cavalry sped after him. He glanced back to see Fortuch had outdistanced his horsemen. Aware of the widening gap, he was tempted to attack the captain.
It would be too risky a fight.
Darting onto a lesser-used animal track, he spurred Ruby into a sprint. After a sharp switchback, he ducked under a ledge that hid him from sight. He readied his shot, three arrows in his bow hand.
Fortuch and his riders thundered past.
It was a mistake no one familiar with Easy Slope could have made. First-year knights trained here each morning. It was the easy part of their day, hence its name. Seemingly bottomless crevasses riddled these hills. 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. 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. Militet armed with only a dagger, shillelagh, and perhaps an axe. Plodding through the dale at a steady pace, they still traveled in a column without scouts guarding their flanks or rear.
Jonathan cautiously circled around until he was behind them.
Wounding some might set them 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 was lost in moments. Their sergeant turned, saw the oncoming knight, and hurled himself to the ground.
Between Jonathan and Ruby, they wounded or run off perhaps a third of the militet. It was a better result than he hoped for.
But Fortuch 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 Jonathan’s retreat.
The soldiers’ ignorance of the terrain was all that allowed Jonathan to retain a slight lead. He darted onto another trail and sheathed his sword. Then, twisting in the saddle, he drew his bow, and loosed five arrows in rapid succession toward the riders, hoping to cause confusion.
One toppled from the saddle, an arrow protruding from his chest.
Foothills of Shining Mountain
Captain Karl Fortuch scowled across the dale at the disarray. One man—just one man—had rendered the militet useless. More useless. The hundin were only good as garrison troops. Fortuch escorted them to their new billet at Fort Locke in Freislicht’s southeast because of a major he’d slighted. Still, this assignment was an opportunity to show up lesser, incompetent officers. People who’d always used him as their scapegoat.
Then three fools on debt collection duty crossed his path, screaming about a violent encounter with the notorious Jonathan Otual. None were wounded, nor a torn tunic on any of them. They were appropriating payment from civilians who’d defaulted on loans.
He doubted they’d drawn their swords.
But…the knight was a wanted criminal with a very hefty bounty on his head. One who even recently had evaded the great Steven Blackhawk.
What an opportunity!
He’d not merely regain the rank he was due but obtain the fame and wealth that should also be his. He’d capture the only remaining knight in Freislicht.
Fortuch ordered the three collection agents to come along, so they couldn’t blab to others. No one else would muscle in on his prize.
As the troop’s vanguard turned east, the blasted fugitive was taking his leisure, then waved, mounted, and galloped off.
Leaving a quarter of his riders behind, Fortuch gave chase into the foothills.
What a farce! The knight knew the terrain and used it to full advantage. As for that gopher-hole-ridden trail! It cost me three good mounts…as well as their riders.
If his horse hadn’t been well-trained and alert, it too could have broken a leg.
As for the horsemen Fortuch had left behind, half had gone in pursuit when the knight doubled back as expected. One died because of a bowshot that had killed the more trustworthy of his lieutenants. Supposedly, fired by the knight while riding at full gallop.
That’ll only add to the son of a hundin’s legend.
As for the militet’s cowering sergeant…
Fortuch rode up and dismounted.
The sergeant bounded to attention.
“You’re stripped of rank, but, as you’re injured,” Fortuch sneered, “you’ll join the wounded and the rest of these cowards and go to Fort Locke.”
“But, Captain, I’m not—”
Fortuch lashed out, breaking a rib.
He ordered 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 would not be pleased. Not at all.
The knight’s attack on the militet—or their fleeing from it—had incapacitated two-thirds of them. That many were exaggerating their injuries was without doubt. But, confirming that would take yet more precious time…
…while the knight was getting away.
Major Blackhawk dropped from his horse. Then he strode up to the officer in charge, who was bellowing orders. “Captain Fortuch, report!”
Fortuch turned. “I…sir…where did you…when did you…?”
“Captain, if you don’t want to be a lieutenant, again, you will give me a clear, precise report. Now.”
Finally snapping to attention, Fortuch nodded. “The three men assigned to that cart,” he pointed, “had an encounter with the fugitive knight, Otual. They—”
“How many of them were wounded?”
“Put them in charge of the militet. For each one they fail to deliver to their destination, each is to receive three lashes. Where were you escorting them to?”
“Fort Locke, but if you ask me, it’s a fool’s—”
Blackhawk stepped in close and grabbed the captain by his brigandine. “I said a precise report, Captain. You have not yet lost that rank. However, when I ask a question, I want an answer, not an opinion.” He let go and stepped away. “How many of your militet were wounded?”
“How did that happen?”
“After the three reported, I encountered Otual and gave chase.”
“I don’t see the knight in chains.” Blackhawk looked around, finding nothing. “So…?”
“He knows this terrain better than—”
“An excuse. I like them even less than opinions.” The sight of Fortuch gulping pleased Blackhawk. Perhaps he was getting through. Although, given the captain’s record, he doubted it. “Continue.”
“Otual fled. Or such was my initial evaluation of his actions. Yet, when we followed him, he somehow…that is, he led us onto a trail beset with gopher holes. I lost three horses and their riders. Accepting that the pursuit was…ineffective, I returned here to find that Otual had attacked the militet, wounding and scattering them.”
“I see,” Blackhawk noted coolly. “And the guards you’d left in place to prevent such a misadventure?”
“They pursued the knight, but…”
“Spit it out, Captain!”
“At full gallop, the knight stood tall in his stirrups, twisted around, and fired five arrows with impossible speed at the horsemen pursuing him. He…”
Blackhawk grit his teeth.
Damn Otual. I’ve heard of him prepping three arrows for his bow, but five?
“…he struck my best lieutenant,” the captain pressed on, “knocking the man from his horse, killing him instantly.”
“That is,” Major Blackhawk paused, savoring the moment, “too far from being believable. It is also the last falsehood I’m willing to hear from you.” Blackhawk turned to his own second in command. “Place this lieutenant under arrest. The charges are dereliction of duty, lying to an officer, and rendering one of his subordinates unfit for duty. Yes, Fortuch, I saw you incapacitate the sergeant.”
Blackhawk’s men grabbed the former captain, binding him roughly.
Blackhawk could not help but smile.
“Captain Raynaud,” Blackhawk continued, “have your troop sort out the fit from the lieutenant’s wounded. I want all those who can ride mounted up within half an hour.”
“Yes, sir,” came the crisp reply.
They loaded Fortuch into the cart belonging to the three fools who’d started this folly.
Returning to his own horse, Blackhawk mounted Ransom. Then he raised his voice so his cavalry could hear him. “Otual has been sighted nearby. I want scouts, in groups of four, to ride in all directions for two hours. If you spot the knight, send one rider back to notify me. If not, create a cordon along the base of the mountain. Our prey will not escape. Not this time. I’ll be taking the rest of us further up. The Knights know this place. If Otual’s likely to hide anywhere, it’s there. Ride!”
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 and then freed his horse.
To his amusement, a trio of riders chased her. He wished them luck. Ruby knew the mountain well.
The remaining twenty-nine soldiers and their commander gave chase, yet Jonathan outran them on foot. They were reluctant to leave their mounts and unable to find routes passable on horseback.
They do not know the mountain.
He smiled. But what happened next removed it. With the day near ending, instead of pursuing him up the mountain, their officer ordered his riders back down the slope.
Jonathan matched their slow pace.
What is Fortuch planning?
As the sun touched the horizon, Jonathan briefly stood above them. Firing his last four arrows, he wounded only one. Two more injured themselves when they dashed for cover.
Jonathan withdrew to one of the many caves Knights stored supplies in, refilling his quiver.
I must keep them interested until midday tomorrow, so the family is out of reach.
Hours later, daylight all but gone, Blackhawk had only received sightings of the knight’s horse. Three riders were still pursuing it, even as night fell. Keeping Otual without a mount made capturing him possible.
This was as close as Blackhawk had come to capturing the knight in nine moons. He could not give up the chase. It would displease the Earl of Lorness, leading to dire, perhaps fatal, repercussions.
Setting out sentries, he ordered the men to make camp. Then he leaned against a tree, surveying the terrain again.
That accursed knight could escape while I can’t give chase.
Yet, thinking back on Fortuch’s recital of events, that didn’t seem to be Otual’s intention. If escape was all the knight desired, why had he engaged the militet? Why had he taunted and fired arrows at the former captain’s men? Given how well Otual 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.
Is the ridiculous knight trying to distract Fortuch’s soldiers from chasing down a single fleeing family? How long will he tarry to make sure they get away? I might still capture him. He doesn’t know that he’s no longer being hunted by the incompetent Fortuch.
Yes, this is my chance!
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 was lonely and sad and tired, yet 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, he peered down the mountainside and over the valley, watching the growing shadows and his pursuers.
He meditated on the Writings.
[I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Mashiach who strengthens me.]
From the rock formation, all 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 farther up the mountain?
I do not.
I delay their retreat.
The sun crested the horizon as King Sagen paced the battlements. A day had passed since the snake bite, yet the queen wouldn’t wake. Her skin was cold and clammy. She lay under many coverlets and furs, surrounded by experts. The apothecaries offered no other comfort than lowered looks, sympathies, and pointless predictions.
He imagined Gaelib hanging by his toes over an anthill, even better if he was naked and covered in honey. A slow demise: He would have the court bear witness.
There was no such anthill, and Gaelib hadn’t—quite—given the king sufficient reason for such extreme action. It was one distraction that offset anxiety for Melyssa.
Sagen kept busy on the training grounds. He couldn’t bear to watch others anymore. His mind kept returning to Melyssa. So he called for his bow.
He nodded to a page who threw a wooden disc into the air. Sagen aimed and released the arrow. Thwack. Again. Thwack. Again. Thwack. He was still a good shot. He hadn’t practiced much in recent years, so he beckoned for yet another quiver. About to shoot again, he noticed Colonel Gonnels enter.
The bedraggled soldier had stood motionless outside the queen’s chambers all day. “Your Majesty,” the officer bowed to the king.
“Colonel, have you received a dispatch?”
“Yes, Sire, Commander Taelor has arrived. He reports that High Keep is secure. His men are currently creating a cordon around this castle. What are your commands, Sire?”
“Find my steward, and have him attend me in the Main Hall immediately. Wait with him. Don’t tidy your uniform, nor comb your hair. I want you to appear as you are now. Impose upon the Earl of Lorness the urgency of this summons.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Send pages to gather the Royal Court in one hour. Advise them I’ve something grave to announce. Use those exact words. No more. No less.”
Gonnels raised a brow.
“You have a question, Colonel?” The king allowed a smile to play across his lips.
“Yes, Sire. You want your steward in the Main Hall immediately, but the court won’t convene for an hour?”
“Correct. I want the Earl of Lorness standing alone beside you when every courtier arrives. I want him isolated from his spies and informers so he has no idea what’s coming. More, I want him to sweat.”
Gonnels frowned. “He’ll be extremely unhappy about my actions—”
“You’re doing as your king commands, as he’ll learn to do. I can’t unravel his schemes in a single afternoon, but can derail some of them,” Sagen concluded, praying the plan succeeded. If not, that would soon be clear.