Chapter 29: Abased – 159 AK, Early Winter
Psalm 73:26 My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.
Lorness Castle – Cailleagh’s Workshop
Jonathan’s eyes half-opened but would not focus.
Where…? How long…?
He was pinned, unable to move. A horrid taste befouled his tongue. Every muscle screamed.
Help me, Lord!
A ragged intake of breath sent spikes of pain through his body, driving out every thought.
Panic swept over him.
Cramping muscles barely registered against the litany of sensations – burning, cutting, throbbing – that drove out thought… and hope. Worst of all, he feared he could not hear the God of Truth’s still small voice.
Time passed… or didn’t.
There was only an eternal now filled with… torment.
Somehow, somewhen, he took control of his breathing. Slowly in. Slowly out. It did not eradicate the pain. It did not even reduce it .
But that simple change calmed his soul a little. Enough to form a thought. Each was a struggle, but he proceeded slowly from one to the next.
Hearing returned first. Sounds came to him. Something placed on a table. Mumbled words. Darting footsteps. Liquid pouring.
A vile scent assaulted him, only to clash with something sweet. Mold and mildew added their distinctive odors. The tang of perfumed candles merged with the smoke from a wood fire.
A shape came into view. It refused to come into focus. Dark, perhaps black hair? A woman’s curves? A black robe and hood?
“Your Grace, he is awake,” a feminine voice advised.
“Bring more of the Aconite and Angel's Trumpets, Skullcap also,” a second voice commanded.
As footsteps neared, a bewitching fragrance wafted over him. Both were distinctive and familiar, even after all these years, even through the pain.
Blurrily, he recalled his situation. She’d started by shaving every single hair off his body. The sensation might have been pleasant if anyone else had done it. Randomly, she had made short deliberate cuts, marking a pattern he could not discern.
Now, he lay on a tilted bench. His arms were tied above him, over his head, so that the pale flesh of his underarms was exposed.
“Finally, my knight, we can begin,” Cailleagh crooned.
In other circumstances, that tone might have belonged to a mother trying to calm her child. It terrified him. He struggled but his hands were bound too tightly in place. Nor could the rest of his body move. Not because of ropes, chains, or other restraints. It refused to obey him. It would not respond. He’d been paralyzed.
He could not protect himself.
She smiled down at him, appreciating his efforts. “It is so difficult to calibrate the dosage for someone as muscular as you,” Cailleagh pouted. “You must be incapacitated but fully conscious. It may take me a few tries to get it right.
Lady Melazera dipped a quill into a shallow glass bowl containing brown liquid. “I hope you’ll treasure our explorations as divinely as I do.”
The slightest touch of the writing instrument’s nib to his flesh caused searing pain and the stench of burning skin. Tears leaked from his eyes. He tried to thrash, to withdraw, to put even the slightest distance between that accursed quill and his body. Yet, each stroke, each line she drew robbed him of even that minimal defiance as his muscles constricted, holding him tighter and tighter in place.
Cailleagh’s crooning words shifted to song. Her sweet voice uttering sordid obscenities, proclaiming the joys of rape, sodomy, and defilement, lustfully indulging in the terror and helplessness of her previous victims.
In time with the melody, the quill crept painfully across his skin as she carefully created a complex design.
When the glass bowl was empty, she leaned in close, explaining, “The God Tammuz demands his chosen sacrifice be consecrated by pain… which will begin shortly. Did you think this… this… was pain? No, no, no… that begins with…”
A black robed woman handed Cailleagh another bowl. This one filled with a foul-looking greenish mixture. It reeked like a festering wound.
Lady Melazera smiled, dipping the quill in the new bowl. The last traces of brown on its nib mixed with the new liquid, making a swirl the color of soured blood. Then she continued inscribing her infernal design.
The pain was so precise, he could feel its shape.
Each stroke of the quill was like a knife, but the pain did not stop as a cut would. It was like lemon had been poured onto it, prolonging the agony, drawing it out infinitely.
Jonathan cried out.
Lady Melazera leaned in close and stroked his cheek. Then, she continued drawing. “Your bruises are healing well. They’ll not interfere with the symbols. Your skin is a perfect canvas. You’ll be my masterpiece.”
He prayed for unconsciousness.
He called out to God. There was no reply… or none that he could hear.
There was only agony, helplessness, and despair.
Eventually, his prayers were answered. He passed out.
When he came to, Jonathan was alone. His face was wet with tears. The burning pain that emanated from the design was so intense he could determine its basic shape.
Feminine footsteps approached.
Cailleagh’s face loomed into view. “Did you think we were done?”
Her tinkling laughter made him shudder.
A third bowl containing what could have been water was handed to her. “This will make the runes the brightest of reds, so they can be seen by all.”
He passed out long before she finished.
Jonathan lost track of the hours and days that passed. Each was like its predecessor, full of pain. Each robbing him of self and the will to live.
No terms were offered.
There was no suggestion that submission would end his suffering.
There was only a bewildering variety of agonies. Each different. Each new.
Geleib occasionally came to watch his wife work, but quickly became bored and departed.
Cailleagh admired the beauty and intricacy of her nearly finished design. Her eyes roamed over Jonathan’s naked body, reading the multicolored runes. She was pleased.
She was displeased that the knight hadn’t broken. Every other body she’d used as a canvas had been weeping, begging to do anything , absolutely anything, long before this. Pleading for the pain to stop.
Her spirit guides were angry and anxious, as was she.
The sacrifice to Tammuz had to be a success. Without that, she could not regain what she’d lost. Without that, her usefulness to Geleib would end. Without that, she was irrelevant, just another failure to be cast aside as her mother had been.
She must break the knight.
He must be the merest shell of whom he’d been. Otherwise, Tammuz might… might… seize upon her.
Jonathan could almost breathe without pain. His arms and trunk were on fire. Yet his thoughts were less sluggish. His ears and nose took in his surroundings. His eyes focused.
It was the best he’d felt since… before. He didn’t know how long ago that was.
There was silence, but no serenity. This place, whatever it was, stank of horror and despair. It had been consecrated to evil.
Then he heard it. The still small voice spoke, I will never leave you. Stay in my peace.
Jonathan felt it. He closed his eyes and silently prayed, “Forgive me, Lord. I should have obeyed. Do what you must. My life and my soul are yours… forever.”
His moment of respite was broken by the sound of an infant crying.
Cailleagh strode into view, carrying a squalling baby girl by its feet.
The euphoric expression on her face was beyond his comprehension. His gut wrenched to vomit, but he could not.
“I wonder,” she mused, holding the child closer to him, “would you denounce your god if it meant I’d spare this one?”
“No.” His voice was weak and irresolute.
Cailleach shrugged, a moue of disappointment on her face. Then it brightened as she gazed at the infant. “Eventually, it stops struggling, exhausted. It is important to wait, so the blood isn’t wasted. That way, it can all be caught in the vessel. Next, I slit the neck like so.”
Her deftness with the knife was horrific.
“Small ones like this,” she continued, “have less blood, but the quality’s better.”
If he could have turned his head away, he would. He could not. His muscles were still unresponsive.
In minutes, the baby’s color paled then became ashen.
When finished, Cailleagh handed the tiny body to an assistant.
“This is her mother's milk,” she continued, holding up a different vessel. “Fear not, she has no care for the child. She was acquired from a brothel when she became pregnant and is now in my harem. Such women are used as rewards until they produce an infant. After they recover, they are offered again.
“It’s so easy to distract profane and vulgar men from a higher purpose.” She stroked his inner thigh, appreciating the reaction. “But I perceive you are not a common man. That’s why the Warrior has chosen you for this high sacrifice.”
Her smile broadened.
“I next mix equal parts of blood and milk, then sweeten with honey. Would you like a taste?” She poured a third of the pink liquid into a chalice and brought it to his lips. The smell was not unpleasant, yet he gagged.
Withdrawing it, she purred, “I won’t waste it on you.” She motioned to someone, “Take this to His Grace.”
Cailleagh poured the rest of the liquid into another cup.
Before drinking it, she disrobed to stand naked in front of him. Although her face showed few signs of her almost fifty years of age, her body was as he’d expect. Her skin was loose, breasts drooping. Her shape no longer that of a young woman.
Stepping closer, she whispered, “Geleib thinks he gets an equal share of these potions. Even now, he’s no more than the boy I seduced. Soon, once you’ve been sacrificed, he’ll be under my control again.”
The few lines on her face were erased. Her breasts firmed. Her waist thinned. Sagging skin tightened.
She could have been in her twenties.
Jonathan gasped, to Cailleagh’s evident delight.
“I merely harvest that which I need to stay young… and please myself.” Cailleagh ran her fingers over his newest burns.
I will never leave you, the Lord whispered to him again.
Jonathan woke to someone dripping water into his mouth. It was cool, sweet and the most marvelous thing he’d experienced for some time. Every liquid previously had tasted foul.
He was surprised to be clear-headed.
His arms were by his sides, no longer tied. Yet, he was so weak he could not rise.
He could see the chamber. It was dimly lit by a narrow shaft of light from above.
Swirling dust danced before his eyes as he tried to make out the far side of the chamber. All he could discern was a black-robed woman standing at attention. Elsewhere, three more busied themselves doing he-could-not-tell-what.
He said nothing, instead praying in the spirit silently.
The still small voice replied, I will never leave you.
Tears formed. He blinked them away. The numbness which had permitted his clarity of thought began to recede as pain returned.
Horrified, he asked for the Father’s forgiveness.
Has my disobedience brought this upon me?
He’d vowed to follow and endure. He’d vowed to do whatever the God of Truth required of him. All his sins and shortcomings flooded forth, condemning him.
Who was he to ask for mercy when things became difficult?
When the Lord required this of him?
Who was he to renege on the promises he’d made?
The still small voice whispered a familiar scripture, there is no condemnation to those who in Joshua Ha Mashiach walk, not after the flesh but according to the spirit.
The Lord had already told him that he would never be alone. What more did he need?
His body shivered, the pain returned and Cailleagh’s tender ministrations threatened to undo him.
What is a test of faith if it is easy? As I have promised, so shall I endure.
His body shivered again.
He prayed and waited.
Later, a black-robed woman rung water into his mouth from a cloth.
“More,” he pleaded.
She supplied it.
He hoped they would not drug him again. Thinking back to the capture exercises he’d learned as a boy at the School, he could almost hear Daikon Baxter’s words, “It matters not if they eventually break you. Hold fast to Joshua Ha Mashiach and the Father. If you survive, you will be whole again. If not, you will be whole when you wake to meet the Lord.”
Jonathan awoke to a shout.
Cailleagh seethed and snarled at the far end of the room. Whatever spirits she called upon were tormenting her. Her eyes were ablaze, searching for anyone, anything to vent her anguish on.
Lord, am I here to cast her demons out?
She grabbed a knife and pressed it against his neck. “I can kill you at any time.”
A sign of weakness: lack of self-control.
“Then I win,” he croaked.
“What?” She looked confused. “You cannot win. You belong to me.”
“No. I do not,” he whispered. “Once you accept the ransom of Joshua Ha Mashiach...”
Her blade pressed harder. The warmth running down his neck could only be blood.
“...you are wholly owned by him… and rest in his love no matter what happens…”
Her face loomed over his. Her breath hot on his skin. She withdrew the knife. Her eyes stared into his, simultaneously demanding and pleading.
She is lost. How do I help her, Lord? Guide me.
“…for there is freedom only in his love. Have you not read his story? Or, have you just accepted what your mother taught you?”
Her breath caught. Her eyes widened. Her lips began to form a word. Then she snapped backward, pulled away as if she was a puppet on strings. “I need no help. Certainly not from you! You have no identity. You are simply an object, my property.”
Then she twirled and was gone.
Esther looked down at the prisoner and tried to judge exactly what her mercurial mistress had commanded of her. As usual, Cailleagh’s words were open to interpretation but misunderstanding them could lead to punishment or torture, if lucky.
The words that the Lady of Lorness had used were, “Let him eat and drink as much as he wants. He must be replenished, fit and whole when His Grace plays.”
Along with the three other acolytes tasked with the knight’s care, she carried a poisoned dagger to prevent the prisoner’s escape. Yet using that weapon would mean her death. As would not doing so if O’Toole tried to break free.
She saw to the prisoner’s feeding, his ablutions and washing. Yet she was not prepared for his question.
“Are you allowed to talk to me?
Esther hesitated, looked to the three others, who gazed back at her terrified. Cailleagh had issued no instructions on the matter. Guess wrong and you were dead.
But I am curious.
“I… suppose so. We weren’t forbidden.”
“What is your name? Keep pointing that knife at me. I want you to feel safe,” he replied.
“You want… me… to feel safe.”
“Yes, I would hate to die because you got nervous.” The smallest of smiles played across his lips.
She found it most disconcerting.
“Can you imagine how embarrassed I would be to stand before the Lord of Truth and inform him that after fighting for fifteen years and being undefeated on the battlefield, I died because I made my nursemaid nervous?”
Small titters emanated from other parts of the room. At least two of her fellow acolytes had failed to suppress their laughter. She’d bitten the inside of her lip and made no sound at all. “I’m Esther.”
“That is a very noble name,” he responded. “A woman named Esther was chosen by God to save a whole nation.”
“Really? How did she do it?”
“She...” The knight’s eyelids drooped, then he was asleep.
Jonathan prayed, slept and used the times that Cailleagh left him alone with his four jailors. They were never relieved or replaced. They seemed as trapped in this place as he was.
Every day he spoke with them for a short time.
Every day he left the conversation incomplete.
Every day, while alone with them, he prayed aloud and recited stories from the Writings that might open their eyes, sway their hearts, and redeem their souls.
As he healed, they insisted he exercise. So, he performed slow movements, stretching his muscles, restoring his balance, regaining co-ordination. The steps appeared to be a form of dance. So slow they posed no threat. Familiar with his routine, the guards stopped watching closely.
Had they known that what he performed was an open hand form of wushu, a martial art Daikon Alexander had brought back from a strange land, their responses would have been different. Just as, had they known that it was harder and more demanding to perform the movements slowly, their admiration for his languid liquid motions would have been transformed into fear.
Geleib strode into Cailleagh’s Workshop ahead of her. He was tired of waiting, displeased by her slow progress. He’d granted her some leniency as Steven had come home to them. Her time was up.
Melazera wanted to inflict pain on O’Toole. Now that her preparations were finished, it was time for revenge.
Yet, he’d been willing to delay that long-awaited vengeance for a little while as dreaming of it was pleasant also.
Geleib wanted to see his ‘son’ in action first. He’d heard so many things, read every report, and indulged in fantasies of Steven’s military prowess. But seeing him in action had been an exhilarating , erotic pleasure.
The Duke of Lorness’ roars of laughter had startled many of his servants when Steven explained to him that the king had ordered him to Lorness to ‘set things straight’. That the king ‘forbade’ Melazera from attending the tedious Annual Hunt at Farr. And that the king had given Blackhawk overall command of all the military forces in the entire Duchy of Lorness. Not merely Geleib’s forces, but those of every lesser noble as well.
If that had not been a tantalizing enough start, Steven had cut swathes through the officer corps, identifying quislings, traitors, and sellouts. Then he had replaced them with men he had complete faith in.
Of course, there was one drawback that came with Steven’s return, Captain Lendyld. A gargantuan blond-haired Alexandrian who followed Blackhawk everywhere, without exception.
When half a dozen of Geleib’s men had attempted to waylay the captain, the result had been… spectacular. Without drawing a weapon, Lendyld had killed five and incapacitated one. When asked why he’d left the last alive, the response was a matter-of-fact, “to prevent having to kill more later”.
Amusing as such pastimes had been, Geleib had spent the delays anticipating what was to come. With glee he watched as one of the acolytes blew narcotic smoke into the unsuspecting Jonathan’s face.
Guards moved the unresisting knight into a nearby furnished room, then left.
Geleib and Cailleagh played with their new toy leisurely throughout the night.