Chapter 33: Rescued – 159 AK, Early Winter to 160 AK, Late Winter
Seventh Runic Precept of the Alte Regieren: Do not become enamored with your tools. They should be easily discarded when an improvement is available.
Lorness – Caileagh’s Workshop
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 went down.
Two more men stepped through seeking additional targets, while the first two soldiers ducked into cover and reloaded.
The remaining pair of female attendants cast away their knives, dropped to their knees, and raised their hands. “Have mercy! We’ve accepted J’shua!” 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?”
“Had you lied, I’d have ordered your deaths. My conditions are simple. If the prisoner dies, so do you. But it will be slower and more painful than you can imagine, even after serving Lady Melazera.
“Search them,” he instructed his men. “Bind their hands in front. 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.”
“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 Esther. “No, don’t bother with names. Point them out to me.”
She did so. “Doctor, there were potions used, but–”
He cut her off with glance. Opening each vial, he took a careful whiff, then glared at her again. “Captain, I’ve medicines that will sedate him. Given what they’ve used, I can’t risk anything more. I think I can keep him alive without… these reprobates. We certainly don’t need the two wounded ones. They’ll only slow us down.”
“Please!” Esther begged, but was too late. “They’d… we’ve… accepted J’shua…”
“A likely claim,” the physician scoffed. “Just how did such a miracle come about?”
Esther bowed her head. “The knight taught us of J’shua’s ransom. We saw the God of Truth’s power was greater than Caileagh’s and the duke’s.”
"Interesting, if true. What did you anoint his wounds with?”
“Point it out,” the physician glowered, picked up the container and poured a few drops on the bench. He nodded at the sweet honeyed fragrance. “He needs to be wrapped.”
Esther took a step forward.
The doctor frowned, pushing her back, he gestured for a soldier to hand him linen.
“Doc,” Lendyld interrupted, “let her help, it’s time we were out of here.”
King Sagen couldn’t sleep despite the lateness of the hour. His queen knew something worried him, but he’d refused to discuss what. He didn’t want her to worry. He knew she would.
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 Gaelib’s clutches – or perhaps already had – 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 ignoring my playing for nearly an hour, Your Majesty. Is there some other way 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 I feel so damned useless. This is one of those rare occasions where I want to be the hero from some story, leading my men into the enemy’s lair and valiantly snatching away their prize. Not that such a tactic would ever work against Gaelib. Any attack from outside would give him more than enough time to kill the hostage and dispose of the body.”
“An accurate assessment, Sire,” Dwain conceded. “Putting your pieces in place so you could out-plan and out-think him was 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 was a blow he couldn’t have foreseen.”
Sagen glared. “These 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 open, inquisitive 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 my mind superior to yours.” He paused. “I don’t 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’s tired.”
Dwain bowed and exited swiftly.
Sagen looked out the window. The first hint of sunrise lightened the horizon as a chill breeze carried the promise of more snow. He prayed it wasn’t an omen.
Owakar remained bowed over in apparent anguish, just as he’d been when the Warrior stalked off. It was essential he do nothing to alert the fallen angel to the mistakes being made and its sudden reversal of fortune.
Owakar stifled a laugh. He’d not foreseen what happened, not even as a possibility. Then again, he did not understand evil and its self-destructive ways.
Lorness – Caileagh’s Workshop
Caileagh entered her workshop to find it empty. There was no sign of struggle, no clues as to who might have intervened. Everything was in place. The door had been sealed and bolted from the outside, but the guards who should be on duty were missing.
There was dried blood on the framework that’d held the knight. She couldn’t tell if it was from their last session, or only the last hour. His wounds seeped in the most gorgeously painful manner after each of her ministrations.
As she returned to her chambers, she wondered what had happened to the knight and how Gaelib would react when he learned of his plaything’s loss.
She needed a scapegoat.
She didn’t trust Blackhawk, who’d mostly eluded her snares and entrapments. Could the notorious colonel have 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 the king could offer that neither she nor Gaelib could: Steven’s independence. That thought terrified her.
There was no way of gauging Gaelib’s wrath if he heard of Otual’s escape from another.
She needed a scapegoat.
Steven was her first choice. Arranging things to frame him would be child’s play. His sudden reappearance, his increased status, 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. There was talk that he had a weakness for recently widowed women. A matter she’d not yet received reports back on. Or perhaps, those reports were bypassing her entirely. Another thought that sent shivers through her.
Confirming Steven was within the castle and had remained so all day was easy. However, there’d been more than enough messages coming and going. He could have instructed hidden agents to do his bidding. Yes, that was an excellent thought.
The irksome Lendyld hadn’t left Blackhawk’s side, except to perform his ablutions. Sadly, for her, he’d only fulfilled the role of bodyguard. He’d 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 must be Steven to save her – the answer was all too obvious.
She scribbled off three notes, poured herself a glass of wine, added the tincture she’d selected to it, and waited.
It didn’t take long.
Caileagh 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 Gaelib’s bed only emphasized that point.
Pouring another glass of wine, Caileagh handed it to her guest, then took a sip of her own. Placing the cup back on the table before the concoction 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, striking a hidden bell that tinkled as it fell over.
Guards dashed into the room as Caileagh clutched at her throat, pointed at the girl seated before her, then at her own cup.
Taking hold of her guest, they pulled her head back by the hair and made her drink what remained of Caileagh’s wine. The girl’s death was delightful.
Attendants appeared with water and flasks of wine. They poured a fresh cup, took a sip to prove that it was safe, then handed it to their Duchess.
Caileagh’s throat felt raw. Unsteadily, she rose to her feet and made her way to Gaelib’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.
The soldier opened the door, bowed, and retreated. The rest of those accompanying her dispersed with alacrity.
Gaelib was in bed with children. This time a boy and a girl.
The man is never satisfied, 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.”
The youngsters grabbed their clothes and scurried out.
Gaelib stood, pulled on his robe, and walked toward her. His gaze was lustful and unsated. He grabbed her by the neck, causing her to whimper. 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 to her knees. The two notes she’d received fluttering from her hands. Before she could lean forward and gather them up, they were before Gaelib’s eyes.
She stopped breathing and remained perfectly still, like a mouse cornered by a cat, the color to faded from her cheeks. She lowered her eyes to his feet, 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.
Gaelib’s silence drew out. His stance grew ever tighter. His leg muscles trembled from the strain. “What is… this…?” he shrieked at her, grabbing her hair, pinning her to the wall.
The two pieces of paper were waved so close to her face she couldn’t 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.
Releasing her, Gaelib screamed, “This,” he thrust the first note in her face, “says 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 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.
Gaelib snatched it open, grabbed the message being offered and slammed the door in the servant’s face.
He paled as he read.
“I can’t believe it,” he growled, “I won’t. Steven would never betray me. This is a plot by those who want to supplant me. I…” he whirled back to the still cowering Caileagh. “Did you know about Lendyld? I’ll know if you’re lying! Did you know?”
“That Captain Lendyld had wed three widows and established a house for each within the city?”
“I…” What a thing to miss. “No…”
“I sent patrols to capture them, to control him. Every soldier was massacred. On top of that, half the soldiers barracked in town have dysentery due to bad ale. Even if I want to rouse the garrison, I can’t!”
He glowered at her and pushed her onto the bed. “I don’t know if you’d anything to do with this, but I’ll take no more chances. Not on you!” Slapping her, she fell back. Straddling her, his rage grew. The back of his hand struck her face. Again and again he battered her.
Caileagh accepted each blow, knowing she deserved it. She expected he’d next use her sexually, doing to her those things he’d promised the knight.
His reaction was far worse. “Guards!” He held her down by the throat as two soldiers entered.
“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 ‘Morgan’ Farm
Rebekah-as-Rebekah fretted. Perhaps she should have come as T’mas. James wouldn’t know her if he saw her this way. Or she could have come in one of her other disguises. While not as well fleshed out as T’mas 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.
Luca Overhill sat silently by the fire, sharpening swords.
Mark and Courtney Morgan ignored her muttering and pacing. They’d seen it before and took it as a good sign. However, neither was satisfied with the way she’d 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 and directed Rebekah to sit down, 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.
Rebekah rose from her chair and brushed out her skirts. The clothes she wore she’d have considered normal long ago, when she was a wife and mother. After fifteen years, it felt like just another role she was playing.
Mark and Luca donned swords and cloaks.
Mark exited through the front door to wait for the delivery.
Luca used the backdoor, joining the dozen-or-so of James’ lads already positioned outside. They’d spent the day preparing hides, traps, and other nastiness. So much so that Luca and those inside had been informed that, if Melazeras’ forces attacked, they were to 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 headed up to the attic, where each picked up a crossbow. Several more lay ready. From the window, they’d have a clear view of what went on and could intervene, if necessary.
A dozen riders rode into the yard.
Rebekah tried to remain calm but, if this was a trap, Mark was standing out there all alone. The crossbow bolts the women might fire, wouldn’t give much cover.
Lying curled in netting strung between four horses was someone writhing in anguish.
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. Let’s get inside.”
“He’s in bad shape.”
Another man unwrapped a cloth to show Mark a vial and dropper. “This will quiet him, but no more than three drops an hour. Keep him wrapped. His wounds are raw.”
Lendyld continued, “There’re already trackers behind us. I’ve people laying a false trail, but I’d suggest you get him out of here fast. Assuming you don’t want to become a permanent resident of the Lorness’ dungeons.”
Men had lowered their groaning charge from the rigging, carrying him inside. He’d shrieked in pain, then, mercifully, fallen silent. They dashed back to their horses, remounted and rode off the way they’d come.
Rebekah waited until the sound of hoofbeats was gone. Only then did she and Courtney head downstairs.
Mark was examining the wounded man’s wrappings.
Luca’ 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 matted blond hair. Then she saw his face…