Chapter 25: Meetings – 159 AK, Late Spring
Fifth Rune of the Alte Regieren: Do not become enamored with your tools. They should be easily discarded when an improvement is available.
The Road South
At King Sagen’s order, Commander Taelor and every other senior military officer was required to, at least twice a year, patrol one of Freislicht’s major roads. On this occasion, Taelor would be riding all the way to Alexandria and back via Fairness Crossing.
Meeting Duke Gregory Locke had been a surprising pleasure, given the man’s reputation as a ruthless banker, an anti-religious bigot, and an inveterate producer of daughters. The last of those three accusations being the only one to have proven true.
Locke neither cared for nor opposed religion, an odd position from Taelor’s perspective as a follower of J’shua. Nor was the duke the fanatical atheist he was supposed to be.
As for his business dealings, Taelor wouldn’t like to sit at a negotiating table opposite the Duke of Alexandria. Unfortunately, that was exactly what King Sagen had sent him to do. A time was fast approaching, a scant few years hence, when things would have to be resolved once and for all. It wasn’t possible for the king to visit Alexandria, and Gregory Locke’s duties prevented him from attending High Castle more than once or twice each year.
The meetings had been… eventful. He prayed the king would not demote him for the agreements he’d made. Especially, in regard to greater independence for the south, under Gregory’s guidance, of course. Locke’s other demand seemed innocuous. Why he would want jurisdiction for those lands south of the impassable Shining Mountains? It was a mystery.
Taelor forced himself back to the present and the chess board in front of him. After years of tentative negotiations, he was finally going to meet with a member of the Knights of J’shua.
Daryl Andrews, the proprietor of the Lion & Tiger Inn, had been very accommodating. Travelers usually only remained for a single night, two at most. Yet, he’d happily put up the commander and his entire escort for several days.
A brightly dressed woman, whom Taelor had noticed yesterday, pranced down the stairs, pushing a wild lock of hair back under her green scarf. She then went to the front desk, accepted a receipt from Daryl, blew him a kiss, and departed, her curly brown hair bouncing.
“See you next time, Helen!” Daryl called.
Such a delightful lady. Taelor smiled.
He planned to remain for a full week as, in addition to the other ‘side tasks’ added by the king, these trips were intended to see whether the roads were being adequately patrolled, what was the mood of the locals, and what problems the people faced.
The Inn also provided a location where his private efforts to contact the outlawed knights might occur. His contact wasn’t supposed to arrive until the final day. In the meantime, his escort were carrying out their duties, training, and flirting with the proprietor’s oldest daughter, Charmaine.
Commander Taelor, however, had nothing to do but wait. He exercised with the men, enjoyed the inn’s food, was surprised by its range of wines, and played many games of chess with an elderly cloth merchant who’d been stranded by a thieving partner.
The old man was a friendly sort, if perhaps too trusting. He’d sent a letter to relatives in Alexandria and was confident they’d soon arrive to take him home.
The Lion & Tiger Inn
Miles approached and bowed. “Sorry to interrupt, sir. The tea you requested will be brought to your room at first-watch, if that’s satisfactory.”
“Yes, that would be very helpful,” the old man responded, not looking up from the chessboard. “I’ve such trouble sleeping. Your tea helps.”
His opponent, the commander, inserted, “You’re giving me quite a challenge this time. We may not be finished by then.”
“Such is life, young man, such is life. Infinite possibilities come from our limited choices.”
Lorness Castle – Gaelib’s Rooms
Caileagh watched from the bed as Gaelib paced back and forth clutching the letter that had just been delivered. His expression was one she knew all too well. He was trying to conceal something from her.
It couldn’t be about the other note he’d so carelessly discarded concerning the redeployment of the Lightning Battalion. It wasn’t yet ready to serve as his personal guard. That would take many moons more, at least.
No, he attempted to conceal something important from her.
Could it be…?
"My love, what irks you so? Has your favorite plaything been injured… or killed?”
He whirled, glared at her, then strode to the window and looked out.
Ooh, this is going to be fun.
“It’s even worse, isn’t it?” She purred. “Let’s see if my spirit guides can inform me…” She broke off, consciously displaying a shocked expression. “Otual, it’s Otual!”
Gaelib’s back tightened.
She was on the right track.
Standing, she allowed the flimsy robe she wore to slip to the floor, advanced and wrapped her arms around him from behind.
“I…” He said, melting into her touch.
“Steven and Otual…” Caileagh whispered, floating the idea that’d come to mind. The contraction of Gaelib’s muscles confirmed her hunch. “You wouldn’t react this way if it wasn’t dire. The two have clashed. If Otual was a prisoner, you’d be elated… even if Steven was dead. You know how much that would please me. Otual’s capture, not your son’s demise.”
Not that I’d mourn that beautiful boy’s passing. Much. Still, he distracts you from more important things, like me.
Gaelib turned. “There are moments when I’m reminded you too have spirits guiding you… and thus value,” he ended coldly, broke free of her grasp, and began to stalk off.
“My love, as always, you’re correct. However…”
“However, to retain the Warrior’s full support, you must demonstrate your devotion. It’s been months since you sacrificed to him. You’ve missed three of his sacred days–”
“I have more important things to do. Many things require immediate attention.”
“That, again, is true.” She lowered her head and looked at him through half-closed eyelashes. “But your success began with the Warrior. You promised him, and me, Otual as a sacrifice.”
“I… perhaps, you’re right. It’d be foolish to break promises. Worse, it would set a bad precedent, undermining all I’ve built. Otual will be yours. Do with him as you wish, as long as you prepare him for final sacrifice to the Warrior.”
“Wounded… but alive. And still a valuable asset.”
“Of course, my love.”
Owakar continued scratching in his journal, as the Warrior approached, deliberately ignoring him.
“It’s only a matter of time before I have Otual,” the Warrior boasted. “More and more of Gaelib’s followers search for him. He’ll stumble into their path soon enough.”
“Perhaps. J’shua is not worried.”
The Warrior paraded a circle around the angel. “He should be. I’ll destroy that knight, proving to J’shua and his Father that our power is supreme.”
Owakar looked up. “I heard that Blackhawk cannot sit a horse, while Jonathan rode many miles to safety.”
“Lies! There’s no such intelligence.”
“Perhaps.” Owakar smiled.
The Woods beyond Lorness
Fyrna Locke pulled the mask up, covering her face. The clothes she wore disguised her as a man, provided heavy padded armour beneath her oversized shirt, and distorted her appearance so that she appeared overweight.
It had been some moons since she’d last encountered James of the Wood. Since then, their tentative alliance had strengthened. Today would be the first time that she’d ride with them on a raid. She was looking forward to it.
In the intervening period, she’d supplied his lads with several dozen excellent mounts. In return, they’d sent the horses and oxen they’d captured south. Removing the brands of the Melazeras, their allies, and others had not been a problem. Indeed, it had sparked a new industry: the designing of new and distinct southern brands. Brands that could be created by altering those of certain northerners.
James stopped his bay mare next to her grey stallion. “Ready?”
“You, me and two others will hopefully have to do nothing. We’ll only get involved if—” A blast from a horn cut him off. “Ride!”
Spurring her horse forward, she quickly outdistanced James.
He had warned her that the Melazeras had started sending an escort with each of their shipments. A rider whose only job was to flee then identify the attackers so the Lord of Lorness’ soldiers could track them down.
The rider’s horse was fast. The lad clinging to its back was small, barely more than a boy.
Fyrna was also small, but her horse was a thoroughbred. She was catching up.
James and his two lads, she checked, were falling behind.
She had no desire to hurt the boy. Yet, she could not let him go. Drawing a hand crossbow, she closed the gap until it was little more than a dozen feet. She considered yelling, but her voice would give her away as a woman. Worse, as a southerner.
The bolt missed its target. Just. It embedded itself low in the horse’s neck. The beast slowed, blood flowing freely from the wound.
Dropping the weapon, she drew a second as the rider looked back, eyes wide with fright. Then his mount stumbled.
It was over in a moment.
She groaned as the horse went down. Its painful cry of torment cut through her.
The rider’s high-pitched scream was cut off after being thrown.
Fyrna slowed, then leaped from her horse. She checked. The rider was s till alive, but had multiple broken leg bones. Her immediate concern was for the injured animal. It was in agony.
“Shhh,” she soothed. “Let me get close. Let me end your pain.” Drawing her knife from its scabbard, but keeping it concealed behind her, she closed on the suffering beast. She was aware of James and his companions arriving, but paid them no heed.
“Shhh,” she repeated again as she bent over the horse’s head, stroking its jaw. Then, in a single move, she ended its life.
This had not been the adventure she’d anticipated.
The Lion & Tiger Inn
Daryl Andrews watched the candle burn. It was lit at sunset and took three hours to burn down to the line scratched into the tallow. He prepared the tea and took it upstairs to the cloth merchant’s room. He knocked lightly.
The old man opened the door. “Come in. Thank you so much for bringing this.”
Once the innkeeper was inside, he shut it. “Sir, why’ve you been here all week?” Daryl asked, setting down the tray.
“I’ve avoided you, for your protection… and your family’s. I don’t know how closely Commander Taelor is watching. I’ve come to examine him. The king’s ready to stand against Freislicht’s enemies. The Lord is moving, Miles. Oh, I mean, Daryl. Be ready to act. We’ll need everyone that can hold a sword.”
“Jonathan Otual’s here, recovering from a nasty wound, trapped in my upper room by the commander’s presence. Perhaps you could minister to him before leaving?”
“I’ll do so, once the military have left.”
Town of Fairness Crossing
Rebekah knew better than to dress as a man when visiting the oft-prejudiced Semagine Ecks. She strode back and forth, wearing a path in the carpet of the little farmhouse located just beyond Fairness Crossing. It had been set up to house and hide one of Licht Gegen’s analysts.
Semagine, the gossipy widow with a nose for nastiness, related her latest findings, “…must mean Lorness is preparing for something big. The baden shipments we’ve intercepted in recent moons are substantially larger.”
“It could just be to offset those—” Rebekah said.
“A lovely, if self-serving, conclusion.” Semagine frowned, “Their security is better. Except when enjoying the services of… whores. We of Licht Gegen,” the pride in her voice was unmissable, “aren’t tempted by the lures of the flesh. We’re above such things.”
“We need information, no matter where it comes from. I won’t debate this again.”
“Hmph! I still say, the Serpent’s Servant is up to something. I can’t tell what… yet.”
“But…?” Rebekah prompted.
“But… there’re rumors that need further investigation.”
“By those women you’d prefer not to deal with… even indirectly?”
“I’d prefer not to deal with them at all, Lady Rebekah!”
“I’ve told you before not to address me so.”
“How can I not when… you know my circumstances when you found me. I shall always be in your debt. Another moon, another week, perhaps another day and I’d have had to… taint… myself.”
“It didn’t come to that. Thank the Lord,” Rebekah soothed.
“Still, the thought of what I might have had to do…” Semagine shuddered.
“Perhaps you might consider this when you pray for those who have been brought low. How can I help get the information you’re missing?”
“I’ve had a thought…”
Rebekah sighed. The way the widow’s eyes glinted meant someone was about to have a very, very unpleasant comeuppance. That was typical of the vindictive woman’s schemes. It would also probably work. Semagine wasn’t merely an excellent analyst. She had a flair for dirty tricks. The dirtier the better.
That was the main reason Rebekah managed her personally. The thought of one of her people getting on Semagine’s bad side…
The Lion &Tiger Inn
Days had passed since Taelor had arrived at the Lion & Tiger. He’d enjoyed the rest. Just as he’d been fascinated to see how the settlement around the Inn had changed.
The knight hadn’t shown up. Taelor was disappointed, but not overly surprised. Having lost again to his chess partner, he reset the board for a final game.
In the last year, several more families had begun farming nearby, a blacksmith had set up a forge, and a saddler had opened a shop. There was even a grain and feed merchant, who also sold the occasional horse.
Then there were the travelers. Most were happy to meet one of the king’s officers. They talked of their lives and, sometimes, their troubles. Sadly, those dwelling under Melazera’s rule were easy to spot. They were more guarded. Although, when he could get them talking, some of their stories were…
Taelor put that thought aside, refocusing on the chess board in front of him. Annoyingly, the elderly man’s family still hadn’t come for him. That chafed. It was inconsiderate.
The old merchant made another bold move on the chessboard, murmuring, “I think we can work together.”
The statement made no sense, so Taelor said nothing. He didn’t know how to reply. He wasn’t interested in cloth or transport. He was career military. “Perhaps you could expand upon that?”
“Perhaps,” the elderly merchant grinned, “I should introduce myself more formally, I’m Daikon Sylvanus Elfert Baxter of the Knights’ School.”