Chapter 34: Recovery – 159 AK, Early Winter
Hebrews 7:25 Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.
Farr Castle – Caileagh’s Workshop
Captain Edryk Lendyld the First had tried to stare down Colonel Blackhawk. Unfortunately for him, colonels outrank majors and mere captains. Thus, his reminder that King Sagen had given orders for Blackhawk not to attempt to rescue Jon’than Otual fell on deaf ears.
Specifically, it fell on deaf, arrogant ears of superior rank.
King Sagen had given the poor captain a direct order not to disclose any details about the real escape attempt. Things like the fact that it should already have happened, and the lack of furor indicated it had neither been stopped nor discovered. Any of which, he might otherwise have been able to use to dissuade Colonel Blackhawk from making his own attempt.
Most unfortunate of all, the king had also ordered the first Captain Lendyld to stay with Blackhawk no matter what.
All of which explained why, just as the sun was clearing the horizon, the good captain found himself trailing behind the colonel as they slipped through back passages and…
Blackhawk darted ahead, body-checking a guard into the wall with his right shoulder as his trailing left hand implanted a knife into the second guard’s groin. As the stricken soldier reached for his punctured privates, the blade slipped out, then slashed upward guided by its victim’s chest plate to open his throat. Stepping backward, the colonel’s elbow crushed the first guard’s larynx.
Lendyld was still two paces behind. He’d not anticipated the colonel’s speed.
With only a single backward glance as warning, Blackhawk unbolted the door, drew his sword, then strode into Lady Melazera’ private torture chamber.
Lendyld left his sword sheathed. Neither of them knew how cramped the interior of the dungeon would be. Instead, he drew the first pair of tomahawks from his belt and doffed their covers. Alerted to his leader’s pace, he stepped into the room right behind the colonel.
Blackhawk had engaged a guard who was wielding two knives.
Lendyld darted past his superior, then threw his first tomahawk at the torturer. It skittered off the fat man’s leather apron but left a gash in his target’s skin. Allowing the momentum of his first throw to turn him, he cast his second tomahawk into the closest guard. Another step, then his third hatchet was in the air. And…
There were no more targets.
Blackhawk had killed two.
Lendyld, two more.
The torturer was clawing at the gash, ripping into his own skin, trying to tear out the terrible pain caused by the concentrated tree sap that coated the tomahawk’s edges.
That only left the naked prisoner, who most definitely was not Jon’than Otual.
“Whore of a hundn!” Blackhawk cursed at the woman helplessly spread-eagled across a cruel framework.
Lendyld retrieved a tomahawk, cleaned its edges, then walked over to the torturer.
Blackhawk stared at the prisoner with a hatred that was returned with equal force.
It was only then that the captain recognized Lady Melazera… or what was left of her. Someone had taken to her with knives, fiery brands, and other implements. As that someone was almost certainly the torturer, Lendyld changed his mind. Instead of putting the man out of his misery, he cut both hamstrings and then equally incapacitated the fiend’s arms. Then he recovered his other two hatchets, cleaning them on the professional tormentor’s body, breaking the skin.
Lendyld almost felt sorry for him. But only almost.
Blackhawk had released Caileagh Melazera from the frame and, to the captain’s horror, was tying her hands and feet.
Of all the people to save!
Wishing to get out of the situation alive, Lendyld grabbed a blanket, then rolled their now bound and gagged captive in it, balanced her on his left shoulder, and glared at the colonel. “I have strict orders from King Sagen not to talk to you about escape paths from this cell. He did not say anything about you following me, sir, while I used them.”
“At some point, Captain, when we are far away from here, with His Majesty’s permission of course, I’d love to know what else happened today.”
“Yes, sir,” Lendyld responded as he broke into a trot while praying to whatever gods might listen – even those of the Ush – that guards were not waiting for them.
The ‘Morgan’ Farm
R’bekah wished Jon would awaken. She hoped he would not.
Luca Ov’rhill had gone to fetch James’ lads.
Amongst their hurried preparations for this operation, the Knight of the Wood had insisted that they have a way of transporting whoever was to be handed over swiftly, openly, and covertly. Two would be decoys.
The ‘open’ method was a covered wagon and four horses. A distraction that Melazera’s soldiers were intended to observe and waste time tracking down. If caught, all they’d find was a young couple eloping against the wishes of both sets of parents. All of whom were from Licht Gegen.
The ‘swift’ method mirrored that used by Captain Lendyld. A net strung between four horses. Although in this net was a rapist-and-thief with a high price on his head, who was bound, gagged, and thrashing about wildly. Melazera’s troops might take the prize away from the four well-known bounty hunters who were getting paid extra for detouring past the front of the Morgan’s farmhouse. And who’d been tipped off as to where to find their prey.
As R’bekah examined Jon’s wounds, an owl hooted twice, just before horsemen approached and thundered by. She was not quite sure who to thank for the timely distraction that would distort Lendyld’s tracks, but when she found out – if she ever did – there’d be a hefty bonus for them.
Lighting an additional hooded lamp, she continued her examination of her husband’s body, while Mark and Courtney finished cleaning it.
Jon’s injuries were the work of a sadist. Ichor dripped from them every time he moved, almost every time he breathed, for they had been designed to weaken his body. The runes and other arcane symbols tattooed onto him, cut into him, and seared through his flesh were – she was sure – intended to cause his soul to waver and yield.
Yet, even unconscious, she could feel his strength, his focus, and his determination. They were written upon his body. He had chosen a goal – one she prayed he’d survive – and was driving himself relentlessly toward it. She’d seen such dedication upon his sleeping face before. She’d been both proud and afraid of it.
She was proud because, once he set his mind to something, it occurred. The first time she had seen it, she’d not understood. Not until after she was his wife. Once attained, it had lifted from his face and soul.
She was afraid because, in his grief at losing both her and Sar’h, he may have recklessly pledged himself to something impossible.
Luca and three of James’ lads, all four in their late teens or early twenties, strode silently into the room.
“We must be on our way, M’lady,” her bodyguard reminded her. His use of that particular honorific was a codeword, a reminder of the need for urgent action.
R’bekah nodded and stepped away from Jon, as did Mark and Courtney.
The four lads positioned a net on the floor, carefully moved Jon into its center, and attached the ropes at each side to a wooden framework they positioned above him.
Luca stepped clear, as did another young man. The remaining pair could have been twins, they were so alike. One positioned himself in front of Jon, the other behind. Kneeling, they raised the framework over their heads and lowered it so that two padded poles supporting the knight’s weight rested on their shoulders.
Then, in a fluid motion, his companions straightened and Jon rose off the ground. “The rig has some give in it. We’ll be running. Keep up.”
R’bekah was still absorbing his words when the two holding Jon aloft loped out the farmhouse’s rear door. By the time she was outside, they were running at a ground-eating pace, along the only safe path.
She hurried to catch up and was grateful, a third of an hour later, when the two stopped. Only to be replaced by a fresh pair, who immediately dashed off. Ten minutes later, they were pulling further and further ahead of her, almost out of sight. She was stumbling. Mark and Luca were slightly ahead of her, Courtney a little behind.
She was not going to lose Jon again. Yet she was gasping and could not keep going when James of the Wood stepped out in front of Mark and Luca. “Stop. That’s enough. A tracker got as far as the farm, followed your path for a short time, then went back and reported. His lieutenant decided the prisoner could not have been carried away on foot, so they’re following the bounty hunters.”
R’bekah wanted to hit James, whose tone could have applied to thanking someone for a cold drink. It lacked all urgency. She still wanted to hit him as he walked up to her and held out a leather flask, which she grabbed and drank from. “You…”
He whistled and four people – dressed identically to R’bekah, Luca, Mark, and Courtney – walked into view. “If it had been necessary, I’d have had each of you replaced to lay a false trail. Happily, it won’t.”
“And a good thing too,” the girl-dressed-as-R’bekah stepped forward, “I have much better things to do than impersonate M’lady Otual. But,” her eyes twinkled, “did you catch the switch?”
“Switch…?” R’bekah huffed, catching her breath. “What switch?”
The girl’s tinkling laughter brought the smallest of smiles to James’ face.
“Of the knight… you didn’t… you thought we’ve bounced him around all this time? By J’shua, no! He’d barely been carried out of the rear of the house before two lads you wouldn’t have seen, bounded off into the distance and your husband was taken, far more carefully, to tonight’s destination. Come, there are horses in the thicket yonder,” she pointed. “That includes you,” she winked at James.
R’bekah decided she’d hit the girl first, then James. Yes, that was definitely the right order. She also wondered what she should give them as a wedding present, for James’ days as a bachelor were surely numbered.
Blackhawk suppressed the tiniest of smiles. This was the second time he’d bent Captain Lendyld to his wishes tonight. Not that the Alexandrian was happy. But the king’s orders had been to keep him, Stev’n, alive at any cost. It also left Lendyld minding a rug-wrapped Caileagh hiding in shadows, awaiting his return.
He walked faster.
Allowing the rage that had been building at his father to surface, he turned the final corner and strode into Gaelib’s private chambers. “Out! Everybody out! I require a private word with His Grace. Anyone here when I stop walking dies!”
Servants scurried to get away as, with a puzzled and put out expression, Melazera languidly rose to look at him. “What’s the matter, Stev’n? And where’s your brutish blond shadow?”
A cup bearer standing between them hesitated, standing as still as a surprised doe.
Blackhawk drew and hurled a throwing knife in a single move. The tiny blade buried itself in the lad’s shoulder. “Out, boy! Are you tired of living?”
Leaving a trail of bloody droplets behind, the cup bearer sprinted from the room. He was the last.
“Stev’n,” Gaelib’s tone was cooler, “what’s the meaning of this?”
“Are you trying to make a laughing stock of me? I had to learn from my guards that you had Otual prisoner and that he’d escaped. Do you have any idea what this will do to my reputation, to my usefulness for you? The king may well banish me from his Royal Guard for such incompetence.”
“I…” Melazera slowly poured himself a goblet of wine and another for his guest, which he held out. “There was no need for you to know. I thought that doing so would put you in danger.”
“Not knowing makes me look a fool.” Stev’n accepted the cup and took a sip. “The good news is I’ve examined Cailleagh’s workshop. Whoever kidnapped him… is there a problem, my lord?”
“You’ve been to her workshop?” Gaelib’s voice was weak, as if he could not catch his breath. Or, as if he’d been shocked.
“Of course. I was surprised to find the body of a dead torturer there. I presume he’d displeased her by his death mask. Whatever she used caused him to writhe so hard he’d torn open his own flesh and snapped bone. There were also lifeless guards, but they’d been killed quickly, professionally.”
“I see.” The duke’s words were drawn out, his brow furrowed.
“Where is Lady Melazera?”
“I’ll send for her.”
“Just ensure she remains safe. She may have some insights. Whoever did this isn’t leaving witnesses.”
“I apologize for the way that I burst in here. I—”
‘Think nothing of it, Stev’n. I should have informed you.”
“You should, Your Grace. Had I been running security, this – whatever it turns out to be – would never have happened."
“Yes,” Gaelib stroked him chin thoughtfully, “that is true.”
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, my Alexandrian captain has a lead we must follow up immediately. Again, I apologize, but then I must report to His Majesty before another reaches him with rumors of this night. I shall return when I can, but fear the king’s wrath. It may be some time before we see each other again.”
“Go, go quickly. Return when you can. Keep me informed.”
Blackhawk bowed and strode out as fast as he’d entered.
Servants who’d been trying to eavesdrop scattered as he passed.
Owakar was hiding yet again. He was also trying not to laugh out loud.
Not only had the knight been snatched from his enemy’s clutches by – of all things – unbelievers, but Blackhawk had rescued Lady Melazera. Then the officer had confronted his ‘father’, sowing seeds of distrust that put everything Gaelib had ‘learned’ earlier in the evening into question.
But until the knight was safely away, Owakar could not risk alerting the Warrior to what had just transpired. So, he hid.
On Lord Melazera’ Highway
Blackhawk rode hard, wondering what he’d been thinking. He’d had no horses ready, no supplies, no distractions, and no support.
When he’d reunited with Captain Lendyld, the town outside the castle was in an uproar. Why was not clear, but he assumed it had to do with Jon’than’s escape.
Lendyld had led them to the stables, and commandeered six horses, all fresh. He’d then left the swaddled Lady Melazera with Blackhawk and approached a lieutenant and the troop of cavalry the young man had been about to lead out on patrol. He’d spoken to the lieutenant briefly, pointed once, made a throat-slitting gesture, then waited for a response.
The younger officer had saluted smartly, only to fall in behind Lendyld as the captain returned to Blackhawk.
“I apologize, Colonel,” Lendyld had begun, “despite your orders and those of the Duke of Lorness,” the eyes of the younger officer standing behind him went wide, “I cannot find a full company to escort you to High Castle.”
Blackhawk had glowered his best glower, wishing the damned captain had let him in on the plan up front, “I am displeased, Captain. However,” he’d looked around with disdain, “given the urgency of my orders, this will have to do. Mount up, Lieutenant, after your people tie this wretch to one of my spare horses. There’s no need to be gentle, as long as he survives. Instruct your people not to speak to the prisoner, nor pay any mind to what he says. Be careful with him and of him. He’s a talent for mimicry, was caught posing as a woman. Believe nothing you hear. He's a gift from the Duke to His Majesty.”
Then they’d mounted up and simply ridden out of Lorness with the lieutenant leading the way. At a gatehouse, two officers tried to stop them. Both spoke to the lieutenant, then decided that stopping them was not in their best interests.
Halfway to High Castle, Lendyld had indicated they should halt.
Blackhawk had thought it was to rest and water their horses. Instead, fresh mounts were waiting. He’d thought the lieutenant’s head was going to explode upon seeing the quality of the horses. They were far better than what filled Lorness’ stables.
In near record time, they arrived in High Castle.
The lieutenant sought leave to return to Lorness. As Blackhawk deemed that a likely death sentence, he had the entire patrol transferred to the Royal Guard and his personal command. They got to keep their new mounts too.
Captain Lendyld, true to the king’s orders, had never left his side, except once. Nor did he when the king summoned both of them and the Duke of Lorness’ ‘gift’.
The Shores of the Sea of Glass
It had taken a moon for R’bekah and Jon’than to reach the shores of the Sea of Glass. It was the new year, 160.
As promised, James of the Wood’s lads had escorted them for as long as they were in any forested area. That had meant to within sight of the sea. Only then had the last of them turned back.
R’bekah still fretted over Jon’s condition. Physically, he was better. Not as well as he should be, but better. It would take time, good food, rest, and exercise to return him to close to what he’d been.
He might never be what he was.
He’d even shaken off most of the effects of the arcane runes and sigils, but they returned late at night to torment him when he was at his weakest. His will was unbroken, but it was diminished, and not recovering.
He was not recovering.
He’d told her of all that was done to him.
Word had come from King Sagen whose interrogator had ‘spoken forcefully’ to Esther and her companion, both of whom were true converts. Transcripts of their accounts caused R’bekah fits of helpless rage. Fits she hid from Jon.
As R’bekah and Jon’than sat watching the sunrise over the sea, a silhouette appeared in the distance.
She’d heard stories of knights showing up when needed. Not that she’d ever experienced such a thing. Indeed, she’d spent fifteen years seeking one particular knight who’d been all too elusive. The only time they’d almost met, she’d been in a cage cart.
What would have happened had I not waved him away that day? Would he have avoided this?
As the wiry old man drew closer, she squinted, trying to make out his face. There was something familiar about him. Jon’s head was resting on her shoulder, as he gently snored. Sensing no danger, she did not wake him.
Then again, Licht Gegen controlled this area and would have – should have – dealt with any threat long before it approached them.
The man was ancient, he could be a hundred years old, yet he had youthful eyes and his gate was spry. It was the last that identified him.
Gently, she shook Jon to wake him, “We have a guest. Welcome, Daikon Baxter.”
“Hmmm…” was her husband’s only response as he continued dozing.
“Dear R’bekah, I’ve not seen you since your wedding day. You’re as beautiful as ever,” Sylvanus noted, sitting beside them.
“And you, sir knight, are still a flatterer. But, I have a question. I’ve heard you fell at Dunis Glen. No doubt he,” she hugged her husband, “will eventually get around to asking, but I’d like to know how you survived.”
“It was a simple trick. When your husband yelled to retreat to the roof, I knew I couldn’t escape that way. I’m no longer as lithe as I once was. Climbing and such are for the young.”
“This,” R’bekah frowned at him, “from someone who I’ve been told by many fought more deftly than any man half his age and more skillfully than any other present.”
“Now who’s the flatterer?”
“I merely repeat the honest and truthful accounts I’ve heard.” She almost got it out without grinning.
“I see. Well, when my next opponent attacked, I fell deliberately. The youngster got overconfident and stepped in close for the kill. I blocked easily with my staff, then thrust upward striking the underside of his chin. He… collapsed. I then dragged him under a table where I–”
“You dragged him under the table?”
“Leverage. It’s a wonderful thing and my staff made a useful lever.”
“Uh huh…” R’bekah nodded, having trouble imagining the scene.
“I then stripped him of his black robe. It was a little short, but in the kerfuffle that followed, I rose and exited with the others so dressed. No one was being especially observant as the fires broke out, so I found another closer to my height who… volunteered… his black robe. Then I walked to Esthlanis, where I’ve been ever since.”
“I’m definitely going to want more details,” R’bekah noted.
“Recently, the Lord called me. I was not expecting to encounter either of you here.” His smile caused his wrinkles to spring upward.
“He’s not well. He’s been through a lot.”
“Forgive me, my dear, if this comes across as an old man’s boast, but I’m proud of Jon’than. He obeyed the holy spirit whenever it spoke, followed it wherever it led. Even into danger. I feel his struggle. He’s still fighting whatever was done to him. He’s not losing, nor is he winning. At least, not quickly enough.”
“I sense Jon still has a central role to play in what’s to come. At the rate he’s recovering, he’ll not be well enough to do so. He’s holding his ground, at great cost. He’s taking back what’s his. But inch by inch, when he needs to be reclaiming yards. Perhaps, now I’m here, the three of us can speed his recovery.”
“I pray it is so.”