Chapter 31: Rescued – 159 AK, Early Winter to 160 AK, Late Winter
Daniel 3:28 Then Nebuchadnezzar spake, and said, Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent his angel, and delivered his servants that trusted in him, and have changed the king's word, and yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God.
Captain Lendyld demanded, “The Lord of Lorness wants an update on the prisoner.” It was the last watch before dawn.
The lead guard nodded then looked up and up at the blond-topped head that scraped the ceiling. Neither he nor his cohort saw the captain’s companions before dying.
Opening the door into the chamber, two men with hand-crossbows stepped through, sought targets, aimed, and fired. Two women dressed in black robes went down.
Two more men stepped through, seeking additional targets, as the first two soldiers ducked into cover and reloaded.
The remaining pair of female attendants cast away their knives as they dropped to their knees and raised their hands. “Have mercy! We’ve accepted Joshua!” one of them begged.
Four more soldiers entered, followed by Captain Lendyld.
“I don’t care whom you’ve accepted,” the captain growled menacingly. “Give me a reason to spare you.”
“We can tell you what’s been done to him,” Esther, the more senior of the two women, responded, “and how to keep him alive. Without us, he’ll not see another sunset.”
Lendyld bent and carefully examined one of the discarded daggers. “Poisoned?”
“Yes… captain, sir.”
“Had you lied, I’d have ordered your deaths. My conditions are simple. If the prisoner dies, so do you. But I will ensure it is slower and more painful than you can imagine… even after serving Lady Melazera.
“Search them,” he instructed his men. “Bind their hands in front of them. Hobble them. They were coming with us anyway. They might as well carry their own weight. If they make any move you don’t like, kill them without hesitation. Clear?”
“Yes, sir!” His men chorused.
Another man entered the chamber and made his way to the prisoner. Tutting and tsking over the body as he examined it. “Drugged. That’s probably a good thing. Given his wounds and… other things… he’s likely to start screaming as soon as he’s conscious. What did you use?” The physician demanded of Ester. “No, don’t bother with names. Point them out to me.”
She did so.
He opened each vial, took a careful whiff, and glared at her. “Captain, I’ve drugs that will keep him semi-asleep. Given what they’ve used, I can’t risk anything more. I think I can keep him alive without… them. We certainly don’t need the two wounded ones. They’ll only slow us down.”
“Please!” Esther begged, but was too late. The two women who had been hit with quarrels had already had their throats cut. “They’d… we’ve… accepted Joshua…”
“A likely claim,” the physician scoffed. “And just how is such a miracle supposed to have come about?”
Esther bowed her head. “The knight taught us of Joshua’s ransom. We saw that the power of Joshua was greater than Cailleagh and Melazera, so we reasoned the knight spoke the truth. We no longer wish to live in fear.”
"Interesting… if true. What did you anoint his wounds with?”
Again, the physician glowered. “He needs to be wrapped.”
Esther took a step forward.
The doctor frowned, driving her back then gestured for a soldier to hand him the linen.
“Doc,” Lendyld interrupted, “if you’ve finished flirting with the captives, it’s time to get out of here.”
Despite the lateness of the hour, King Sagen could not sleep. His queen knew something was worrying him, but he’d refused to discuss what. He did not want her to worry. He knew that she would. She had a kind heart.
While he trusted Melyssa and her ability to keep secrets, burdening her with the knowledge that his agents were trying to break Jon out of Geleib’s clutches – or perhaps had by this time – would only mean she too would be pacing back and forth in vain.
Even if the attempt was successful, he’d not hear for ten hours or so. Probably longer as those carrying the message would have to make the ride partially at night.
None of which made the waiting any easier.
Dwain, his Royal Minstrel and Gatherer of Information, put down his instrument. “You’ve been pointedly ignoring me play for nearly an hour, your Majesty. Is there some other way that I might distract you for a time?”
“I wish you knew how to play chess!” Sagen snapped, then softened his tone. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I feel so damned useless. This is one of those rare occasions where I want to be like the hero from some story, leading my men into the enemy’s lair and valiantly snatching away his prize. Not that such a tactic would ever work against someone like Geleib. Any attack from outside his walls would give him more than enough time to kill the hostage and dispose of the body.”
“An accurate assessment, Sire,” Dwain conceded. “That is why putting your pieces in place so that you can out-plan and outthink him is the only viable option. It was very kind of the Earl of Lorness to allow himself to be blinded by the beautiful bauble that was upgrading his titles to that of a Duke. He cost himself years of preparation. The simultaneous loss of the public elements of his Black Robes were a blow he could not have foreseen.”
Sagen glared. “Those are things I already know. What confounds me is that, after all these years with me, you’ve never learned to play chess.”
“You could teach me.”
The king looked at the apparently open, inquisitive, ready to learn expression on Dwain’s face… and laughed. “As if! I suspect you could give me lessons on the game. Not that you’d ever admit it. And, if you can’t play, you’d never allow me to learn that fact as I might have a momentary bout of stupidity and think that made my mind superior to yours.” He paused. “I don’t ever want to know what you’ve had to do to gather information. I do know that without it, no matter how strategic my mind, I’d be outmaneuvered all too quickly.”
“Could I wake someone so you’d have a suitable opponent? Danyth, perhaps?”
“Not a bad idea. Tomorrow is going to be busy and there’s no reason why I should be the only one who is tired.”
Dwain bowed and exited swiftly.
Sagen looked out the window. The first hint of sunrise was enlightening the horizon as a chill breeze carried the promise of more snow. He hoped it wasn’t an omen.
Farr Castle – Cailleagh’s Workshop
Cailleagh entered her workshop to find it empty. There was no sign of struggle, no clues as to who might have intervened. Everything was in its place. The door had even been sealed and bolted from the outside, but the guards who should be on duty were also missing.
There was dried blood on the framework that had held the knight, but she could not tell if it was from their last session or only the last hour. His wounds seeped in the most gorgeously painful manner for quite some time after each of her ministrations.
As she returned to her own chambers, she wondered if Geleib’s infatuation with Steven had finally blinded him.
She did not trust Blackhawk, who had always eluded her snares and entrapments. Could the notorious commander have been turned? If so, what had the king offered? If not, what would it take to lure Steven away? Lands? Titles? Money? Over the years, she’d tried all of them, along with the most beautiful and compliant lovers – male, female or both. Nothing had worked.
However, there was one thing that the king could offer that neither she nor Geleib could, Steven’s independence. That thought terrified her.
There was no way of gauging how Geleib would react if he heard about this from someone else. To save herself, she needed a scapegoat.
Steven was her first choice. Arranging things to frame him would be child’s play. His sudden reappearance, his increased rank, and the accursed Alexandrian who guarded him were all factors that could be easily twisted to her purposes.
Blackhawk’s shadow, the ‘incorruptible’ Captain Lendyld was her second. Although, there was talk that he had a weakness for recently widowed women. A matter that she’d not yet received reports back on. Or perhaps, those reports were bypassing her entirely. Another thought that sent shivers through her.
Confirming that Steven was within the castle and had remained so all day was easy. However, he’d had more than enough messengers coming and going that he could have instructed hidden agents to do his bidding. Yes, that was an excellent thought.
The irksome Lendyld had not left Blackhawk’s side, except to perform his ablutions. Sadly, for her, he had only fulfilled the role of bodyguard. He had not interacted with servants, messengers or anyone else who could be implicated easily.
As to whom she could use to corroborate Steven’s betrayal – for it would have to be Steven to save her – the answer was all too obvious.
She scribbled off the three notes that were necessary, poured herself a glass of wine, added the tincture she’d selected to it, and waited.
Cailleagh smiled and waved her guest to a chair. The fertile young hundn was from a noble family and would, it was rumored, do anything to become the next Duchess. That the girl had been spending too much time in Geleib’s bed recently only emphasized that point.
Pouring another glass of wine, Cailleagh handed it to her guest, then took a sip of her own. Placing the cup back on the table before the decoction took hold.
The sensation as the liquid went down her throat was as if she’d drunk liquid fire. She tried to scream and couldn’t. Her foot lashed out and struck a hidden bell that tinkled as it fell over.
Guards dashed into the room as Cailleagh clutched at her own throat, pointed at the girl seated before her, then pointed at her own cup.
Taking hold of her guest’s arms, they forced her head back and made her drink what remained of Cailleagh’s wine. The girl’s death was horrific.
Servants appeared with fresh flasks of wine. They poured a cup, drank it to prove that it was safe, then handed it to their Duchess.
Cailleagh’s throat felt raw. Unsteadily, she rose to her feet and made her way amidst a host of guards and servants toward Geleib’s rooms. By the time she’d arrived, she had scripts in her head for a dozen possibilities and servants had delivered two handwritten missives.
The guard preceding her knocked, opened the door, blanched and retreated. The rest of those accompanying her dispersed with alacrity. None would want to be identified as having been with her. Not once the rumors started circulating.
Geleib was in bed with children. This time a boy and a girl.
The man is never satisfied… and getting ever more careless. This little escapade will be all over the castle before the sun’s fully up.
“I’ve dire news,” she rasped, forcing the words out. “They should leave.”
He nodded. They grabbed their clothes and scurried out.
He pulled on his robe as he stood and walked toward her, slowly ogling her until he was close enough. Then he grabbed her carefully by the neck, causing her to whimper as his smile broadened. “What’s happened to make your voice so deliciously husky?”
“We’ve been betrayed. Your preferred choice as the next Duchess just tried to poison me. I think it was some sort of acid… by the way she reacted when I made her drink the rest of…”
He stepped away.
She slid partway to the floor. The two notes that she’d received fluttering from her hands. Before she could lean forward and gather them up, they were before Geleib’s eyes.
She stopped breathing and remained perfectly still, like a mouse cornered by a cat, causing the color to fade from her cheeks. She lowered her eyes to his feet, as if unable to meet his gaze. Unwilling was more accurate. If the notes were what she’d requested, she was saved. If not, or if poorly done, she was dead.
She indulged her fears. They increased her chances of survival.
Geleib’s silence drew out. His stance grew ever tighter. His leg muscles were trembling from the strain. “What… is… this…?” he shrieked at her, grabbing her wrists and pinning them to the wall above her so that her toes barely touched the floor.
The two pieces of paper were waved so close to her face she could not focus on them.
“I… I’ve failed you…” She gasped.
“You… you don’t know what these say?”
“They were delivered as I came to tell you of—”
“You haven’t read them?”
“No… your Grace,” she offered in her most piteous tones. It wasn’t an act. She was terrified. She’d not read them.
Stepping away, Geleib screamed. “This…” he thrust the first note in her face, “this says that the father of the hundn that tried to poison you offered Steven his own barony by marrying that whore’s widowed sister, plus a dowery that only a hundn of a Locke could match!
“And this,” he flourished the other piece of paper, “indicates the knight’s gone! That he was escorted out of this castle an hour ago. That—”
There was a knock at the door.
Geleib snatched it open, grabbed the message being offered and slammed the door in the servant’s face.
Has face went white as he read.
“I cannot believe it,” he growled, “I will not. Steven would never betray me. This is a plot by those who want to supplant me. I…” he whirled back to the still cowering Cailleagh. “Did you know about Lendyld? I’ll know if you’re lying! Did you know?”
“That Captain Lendyld had wed three widows and established houses for all three within this city?”
“I…” Cailleagh suppressed a laugh. What a thing to miss. “No…”
“I sent patrols to capture them, so that I could control him. Every soldier was massacred. One of the houses was set ablaze. To top that off, half the soldiers barracked in town have come down with dysentery due to bad ale. Even if I want to rouse the entire garrison, I can’t!”
He glowered at her, grabbed her by the wrists and threw her onto the bed. Then he ripped away her clothes. He slapped her and pushed her backward. “I don’t know that you had anything to do with any of this, but I’ll take no more chances on you.”
His rage grew. The back of his hand struck her face, and he kept hitting her.
She accepted each strike because she knew she deserved it.
She expected that he’d next use her sexually, that he’d do to her all the things he’d promised the knight.
His reaction was far worse. “Guards! Take this whore to her own dungeon. Have her strung up and bring the most creative of my torturers. I want to know if what she’s told me is true or not. Instruct him that for each hour after the first that it takes him to break her, he’ll spend a day at the mercy of each of his fellows.”
The guard gulped.
The ‘Morgan’ Farm
Rebekah-as-Rebekah fretted. Perhaps she should have come as Tomas. James would not know her if he saw her this way. Perhaps she could have come in one of her other disguises. While not as well fleshed out as Tomas or Tyrone, they allowed her to travel unnoticed. She had enough wigs, body-bloating undergarments and a variety of clothing so extensive she could have supplied a troupe of actors and still had things left over.
Lucas Overhill sat silently by the fire, polishing swords.
Mark and Courtney Morgan ignored her muttering and pacing. They had seen it before and took it as a good sign. However, neither was satisfied with the way she had picked at her food.
Mark handed her a piping hot bowl of stew, replacing the congealed one she’d forgotten on a nearby table.
Courtney, clucked disapprovingly, directed Rebekah to sit down and then stood over her until the bowl was empty.
The sound of approaching hoofbeats was heard just as Courtney had dished out a second bowl. Frugally, she scraped it back into the pot. There might be need of it later.
Rebekah rose from her chair and brushed out her skirts. The clothes she wore she’d have considered normal long ago, when she a wife and mother. Yet, it had been fifteen years and she felt as if this was just another role she was playing.
Mark and Lucas donned swords and cloaks and stepped outside.
Mark exited through the front door to wait for their guests.
Lucas used the backdoor, then joined the dozen of James’ lads already positioned outside. They had spent the day preparing hides, traps and other pieces of nastiness. So much so that Lucas and those inside the house had been informed that, if Melazeras’ forces tried to turn this into a trap, they were evacuate using a specific set of markers that led into the underbrush behind the house. Any other path would get them killed.
Courtney and Rebekah each picked up several crossbows, then headed up to the attic room above them. From there, they would have a clear view of what was going on and could intervene if necessary.
A dozen riders rode into the cleared area in front of the house.
Rebekah tried to remain calm but, if this was a trap, Mark was standing out there all alone. The crossbow bolts the women could fire would not give much cover.
Lying curled in netting strung between four horses was someone in a great deal of pain.
The lead rider dismounted. An enormous man with a mop of blond hair, he introduced himself as, “Captain Lendyld. I hope you’re Mark or this’ll be the shortest rescue there ever was.”
“Mark Morgan. This is… my… farm. For tonight. Let’s get them inside.”
“He’s in bad shape but alive. There’re already trackers behind me. I’ve people trying to lay a false trail but I’d suggest you get him out of here fast. Assuming, that is, you don’t want to become a permanent resident of the Lorness’ dungeons.”
Men were already lowering the groaning man to the ground. He shrieked in pain as he touched it then, mercifully, fell silent. They quickly carried him inside, dashed back to their horses, remounted and rode back the way they’d come.
Rebekah waited until the sound of hoofbeats was gone. Then, she and Courtney headed downstairs.
Mark was already cutting away the wounded man’s wrappings.
Lucas’ skin was pale and clammy. He stood frozen, an expression of horror on his face.
Courtney dashed past to help her husband.
Rebekah’s first glimpse was of inflamed tattoos, bruises and seeping wounds. Then she saw his face…
…it was Jon.