Chapter 34: The Knight’s Gambit – 160 AK, Early Spring
Ephesians 6:12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
George Rosewood pulled the thick-but-drab, utilitarian cloak tighter around him as he warmed his hands by the small fire. He was dressed as a moderately successful wine merchant who had seen better days. It was a disguise he’d used infrequently.
He had left Lorness Castle while it was still dark.
Geleib had been on a rampage – another one – screaming about traitors, betrayers and cowardly quislings. What had set him off, George did not know, nor did he want to. Coming to Geleib’s attention was increasingly dangerous and, all too often, fatal.
As to the reasons for that outburst, they ranged from a supposed sighting of Cailleagh in High Castle, to yet another baden shipment disappearing, to the failure of some Black Robe plot, and even to the displeasure of whatever patron demon Geleib was attempting to woo.
None of it made any sense.
Cailleagh… in High Castle? George had received reports of her having attempted to kill the queen at least once. He personally believed she’d done so on three occasions. However, if what his no-longer-black-robed spies had discovered was accurate, not only was the queen aware of those attempts but had given Lady Melazera an ultimatum. A choice so stark that Cailleagh had vowed to her pet godlings never to set foot in High Castle again. No, if there was one place the – former? – Lady Melazera was not, it was the king’s capital.
Geleib’s increasingly irrational behavior terrified George. It was why Rosewood had left, after filling a cart with baden, jewels, and a few selected works of art… plus hiring the most expensive, capable mercenaries that funds-that-had-formerly-been-Geleib’s could obtain at very short notice.
Taking no chances with his stolen goods, the various items had been stored in special casks. Each could be tapped and wine would come out from a special reserve hidden in its base. Each cask sloshed believably when moved. Each was sufficiently worn that they were not suspicious. There were, George had to admit, some distinct advantages to having run a clandestine organization of spies, saboteurs, thieves and blackmailers. Some of the things that had been devised to hide their activities in plain sight were beyond marvelous.
There was, of course, another reason for hiding his ill-gotten gains so. There was no need to tempt his mercenaries unnecessarily.
The problem of where to go had been easily solved. Geleib still had too many loyal to him, or his money, in River Town. That made going south a non-starter. Going west would take him toward High Castle where that blasted Alexandrian, Danyth, kept raising the bounty on Rosewood’s head, so it too was impossible. Going East would take him out of Freislicht into lands where they had all sorts of odd ideas. That only left going north, initially to Dunis Glen, then further until he could find a nice, secluded mansion on the shores of the Sea of Glass. It might be dull but it would be survivable.
“Good evening, George,” the all-too-familiar voice of Commander Steven Blackhawk interrupted. The tip of his bloodied blade tracing lazy hypnotic loops in the air. “This evening becomes ever more entertaining. What shall I encounter next?”
“I have money, Steven. Whatever you want is yours.”
Blackhawk’s lips formed a smile. His eyes remained cold. “That is so very practical of you. Indeed, it’s everything I’ve come to expect from you. Do you know why I’m here?”
Rosewood looked around. None of his mercenaries were visible. Were they even alive? Blackhawk tended to be ever so efficient when dealing with enemies. “No, no, I can’t imagine. The last I heard, you’d been summoned back to High Castle and – at least according to rumor – the king was very… uh, upset… with you. Interestingly, I haven’t been able to find out why.”
“He gave me a private commission, just as Melazera has done countless times.”
“And I did not fulfil it to his Majesty’s satisfaction. Worse, I did something he’d strictly prohibited me from doing. It has not been pleasant.”
“Sheisse! Is he…?”
“As perverted as Melazera? No but Sagen most definitely has ways of making his displeasure known. Perhaps, when things are settled, we can swap stories? In the meantime, I’ll take charge of your little treasure trove. What? Did you think I’d not recognize those very special wine caskets? In the meantime, why don’t you stand up and we’ll go have a chat with a few people… people that, I’m sorry, I can’t protect you from. It would be more than my life’s worth…”
Rebekah had prevented Jonathan and Blackhawk from talking privately. It was clear that there was something the two men needed to discuss. However, despite being hounded by the commander for so many years, she had the earlier claim.
She did not want Blackhawk dead, not necessarily. However, slicing a few strips from his flesh, roasting them over a fire and feeding them to him sounded eminently practical, realistic and justified… to her. Or, it would if she could ignore the still small voice that kept nudging her toward forgiveness.
This was the man who had sold her daughter into… that was another answer she required. An answer that would be more quickly forthcoming if she could just slice off… “Commander Blackhawk, a word in private.” She was actually surprised that her words had not frozen in mid-air, given that her tone was icy cold and devoid of emotion.
With a slight bow of his head, he acknowledged her and approached. “How can I be of service, Lady O’Toole?”
“I’m no lady, I—”
“Forgive me for correcting you, ma’am.” He went down on one knee, his eyes focused at her feet. “But given your husband’s commissioning by the king as Over-Commander, you have the effective, if temporary, rank of Countess of Freislicht, without the lands and incomes arising from them. You and your husband will, however, receive one tenth of all funds recovered from—”
“What nonsense is this?” Rebekah’s hand caressed the concealed, sheathed knife she wore. Yet, despite an urge to hurt the man before her, her need for answers was greater.
“It is the king’s commandment, and the merest of his attempts to make restitution to you, your husband, and your family for the suffering you have endured.”
“How do you know that?”
“I have served him for many years, during which I…” he raised his head, exposing his throat.
If she was going to strike him down, she would never get a better opportunity. Yet, though her hand’s grip on her knife tightened, the blade remained in its sheath. “Continue.” The word slipped from her lips unbidden.
“Years during which I did terrible things. Years long after we first encountered each other.”
“What did you do to my daughter? What became of her?”
Either he was the best actor Rebekah had ever encountered, or there was some conflict going on within him.
“I did not send your daughter to a brothel,” he resumed, looking down, “although I sent many others. I cannot tell you why, but… no, even if I tell you, you won’t believe me. I wouldn’t.”
“Tell me what?”
Blackhawk looked in her eyes. “She… affected me. She got to me. She made me feel…” He paused. “For reasons I do not understand to this very day, I found a family heading far into the south, and told them that your daughter’s parents were dead. I… I can’t say what happened after that.”
“You…?” Rebekah took a step forward; her blade left its sheath but it did not bury itself in his waiting neck. It did not even draw blood. She could not. She needed answers more than vengeance. “No matter what is between you and my husband, you will do all in your power to reunite me with my daughter. And, if she died due to your actions or inactions, I will teach you just how vicious a mother’s wrath can be. Do you accept these terms?”
He hesitated. There was something in his eyes. She refused to believe it was pain, although it might have been.
“You have my word, Lady O’Toole. I… may… even have a starting point. The woman I entrusted your daughter to was Kennah Beecher. That was in River Town. Years later, I heard a woman with a similar name had settled in Alexandria.”
Rebekah’s breath caught. It was a beginning. It was more than she’d had in fifteen years.
Jonathan had questions for Blackhawk. Questions that couldn’t be asked and answered before other witnesses, not even Rebekah. Yet, she had whisked the commander away and, by the time he’d returned, Jon was enmeshed in discussions with other knights.
So far, no one had news of David, despite almost fifty elder knights having arrived. Then again, it was all too likely that his son was staying out of sight. His appearance would be controversial enough. His appearance before Jon had the opportunity to assuage the anxieties of some of the more volatile knights, gather the support of longtime allies, and prepare for David’s repentance would only cause problems.
Then there was the groundwork Jonathan needed to lay in regard to opposing Melazera, saving the king, and healing the country.
Hours passed, the sun had long since set, and still Jon was talking with this small group or that. He thought he’d made progress when there was a commotion…
Drake screamed, not that it made much noise through the gag. Despite being bound hand and foot, he struggled against the four knights manhandling him into the center of the growing crowd of his former peers.
“We found one of the traitors,” Daikon Sunak crowed. “Pity we couldn’t find the other.”
David had taken his time approaching the farm. Whoever the unnamed commander he’d encountered was, the officer was more than competent. He doubted that he’d spotted one in twenty of the lookouts set in place. There was no clumsy ring of soldiers protecting, or encircling, the farm. There were dug in, well camouflaged defensive positions. He’d nearly broken his horse’s leg when attempting to ride over one. A soldier had risen, as if from solid ground, preventing him from doing so with only seconds to spare.
Either this farm would grant the Knights of Joshua the first safe place for them to meet since being outlawed, or it was the most perfect trap that could be conceived of. The still small voice whispered softly to him that it was the former.
David wanted to believe.
Cautiously, he made his way onto the farm after the sun had set. His worries and prayers were no longer concerned with this being a trap. Instead, focusing on finding a way to proclaim his… well, not innocence. He was not that. He’d been a fool.
The note from Blackhawk read:
A small token awaits. The soldier will escort you, if you are interested in the beginnings of my making amends.
Rebekah was not sure if she was amused or insulted. Yet, she was curious enough to see for herself the loot, treasure or what else the commander considered might be a suitable recompense. She was led to a nondescript tent, isolated from those around it, with only a single guard outside. Thus, when she entered, she gasped. She was not prepared to be confronted by George Rosewood on display in a pillory.
He was disheveled. His clothes were torn. His head and hands protruded through the hastily built devise, forcing his torso almost horizontal to the ground. After years of following his atrocities through the Licht Gegen network, she could feel no compassion for him. This man had ordered her parents’ deaths, stolen away her daughter, and had intended to sell her as well.
Almost of its own accord, her hand drew her dagger as she slowly advanced on him.
Rosewood squealed like a pig, thrashing wildly, injuring himself. Unable to withdraw but desperate to do so.
She brought her blade to his face and sliced downward along his left cheek. “For my mother.” She made a second cut on his right cheek. “For my father.”
“Please! No, what did I do to you? I was only doing my job!”
Her blade flashed across his forehead from above his left eye up to the receding hairline at his right temple. “For my daughter.”
“Don’t kill me! Please, don’t kill me!”
Rebekah took a step back. “According to the king’s proclamation, you are a supporter of Geleib Melazera, who has been sentenced to death for treason—”
“No! It’s a lie! It can’t be!”
She smiled, knowing that it was a cold and vicious expression. “I’d get a copy of the proclamation and nail it before you… but you aren’t worth the effort. Not that, I suspect, King Sagen would fault me in the slightest for ending your life. However, unlike you…”
“Unlike you, I do not easily take a life. And doing so would be too kind, too quick. The three little cuts are satisfaction enough, as there is an endless line of fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters whom you have wronged. And each should have an opportunity to draw a few drops of blood from you. Goodbye, Rosewood. I hope that you live a long, long time.”
As she exited, she heard him screaming… and could not help but be pleased by it.
Blackhawk listened to Rosewood’s screams. The man was terrified, as he’d every right to be.
Steven had also heard Rebekah’s words. He’d been listening from outside. He needed to understand how she would react, what she would require as atonement, and how much suffering she was willing to inflict. His only other benchmark for a mother’s actions was Cailleagh.
Yet, he understood Rebekah’s sentence. It was simultaneously milder and crueler than he’d anticipated. He would pass the suggestion on to King Sagen. It would be a long, drawn-out punishment that, no matter how horrific, could not repay the slightest deposit on the pain and suffering Rosewood had caused.
But that would not do for Geleib.
Geleib had to die, for he was only person left who could believably cast doubt on Blackhawk’s allegiance. Cailleagh’s reported madness made her no more than an irrelevance.
Steven had served King Edal and then King Sagen for almost a decade, devoting himself to them, and to their vision of how life should be. However, he had served Geleib for all the years prior, all the years since he had been a starving boy. Should that more than decade of doing Melazera’s bidding, and the things he had done during those years, come to light it would cast him as an enemy, a tool that was used against the king. It could even cause him to stand on a gallows beside his ‘father’.
For Steven to survive, Geleib had to die quickly.
No, I do not have it within me to lay down my life or accept such punishment.
David crept silently into the barn where the knights were gathered.
In their midst, Drake was tied to a thick wooden post that supported the roof. Tears flowed down his face, valueless words of supplication fell from his lips, imploring mercy, rejecting responsibility for his actions.
Actions that had led to the Massacre
Actions that had denied the Knights of Joshua after it.
Two men stood on a raised platform beside Drake, one his accuser, the other his defender.
David was unsurprised to see Jonathan standing at Drake’s side but his father’s words lacked their usual fire, lacked even conviction, and were spoken more in sorrow.
Daikon Sunak prowled back and forth, like a wolf closing in on its prey. “Jonathan is correct. It is not our way to put a member of our fellowship to death.”
Murmurs and roars of assent from the assembled knights reinforced the point.
“But,” Sunak argued, “Drake Caswell is not a Knight of Joshua. He has renounced his oaths, cast off our cloak, and repeatedly turned away those who sought Joshua. Therefore, like the arch-traitors Geleib Melazera and George Rosewood, he deserves to be put to death.”
“No!” Jonathan countered, “that is not our way. If you would deal with him as a knight or as a former knight, then it must be by our ways. If you seek his death, send him to the king to be tried and sentenced according to the laws of this land.”
“I…” Sunak’s anger was a visible thing. Yet, he controlled it, smothered it, and spoke with a calm surety. “I do not want to agree with you, brother Jonathan. I fear you are seeking leniency for your former friend, just as you will for your son. But… I concede that you are right.”
It took several minutes for the gathering to calm again. Those who supported Sunak were disappointed. Some were angry, others not. Jonathan’s admirers were equally vocal in their opinions. It took time for both sides to calm down.
“I also,” Sunak resumed, “think you are wrong. We may only punish Drake as a former member of our Fellowship. It doesn’t mean Drake should not also answer to the king.”
Jonathan nodded. “That is just. Drake and my son, David, made choices. They must be held responsible for their actions. We have heard testimony for and against Drake Caswell. Is there anyone who would add anything before we decide his fate.”
When no one spoke, the knights drew their swords. Those who found Drake guilty, unsheathed them and pointed their blade’s tip to the heavens. Those who saw innocence, raised their still sheathed swords, hilt upward. Every knight was required to vote. To abstain would have been to deny the guidance they received from Lord Joshua.
The vote was not unanimous but almost. Even Jonathan voted to convict.
“You cannot do this,” Drake screamed. “I reject you! Take me before the king. I’ll accept his justice and his justice alone.” On and on he denied them.
David felt sick. It was cowardly, craven. He’d thought of Drake as an uncle, admired him. Had followed him even when…
He did not need to hear the still small voice’s guidance. He was already striding into the knights’ midst. He raised his voice. “I am David, son of Jonathan. I come to proclaim my guilt, my selfishness and my hubris. I let myself be blinded by hate, by anger, and by vengeance. Geleib Melazera kidnapped my wife, had her…” His voice broke. He could not say the word. “…had her humiliated in the most primal way a woman can be violated, then tortured her. Melazera used her to drive the foolish boy that I was into action, used me as an arrow that pointed at all of you.”
David looked up at his father. “There were those on that dreadful day in Dunis Glen that saw me fight by their side. There is none who has ever seen me denounce our Fellowship. In the years that have followed, Drake kept my wife prisoner, surrounded by his people, ensuring that I never refuted the noble narrative of how he saved the kingdom from the Knights of Joshua. I have hidden away, afraid to be judged by a fellow knight, afraid to admit my foolishness… and my stupidity. I was used. Yet, I am still responsible for being used.
“I declare myself guilty.
“Drake may mewl about what must be done. I do not. I demand that you permit me to atone. Here. Now. Is there any who deny my right to this?”
Daikon Sunak stepped forward. “Will you accept my apology for suggesting that you would seek leniency? Will you do me the honor of using my knife, Sir David?”
“The honor is mine,” David acknowledged, accepting the dagger.
Jonathan remained silent, unmoving.
The knights formed a circle around him as David walked toward the anvil.
His father handed him a length of thin white rope.
David used it to encircle the smallest finger on his left hand. Methodically, he wrapped the digit from its base, passed the first knuckle, then continued to the second. Then he secured its end.
Both Jonathan and Sunak checked that it had been done correctly.
Then David placed the partially bound finger on the anvil and, with a single swift move, cut through it at the second knuckle. He was barely aware of the physical pain. It was nothing compared to the relief that washed away years of guilt.
He was unaware that he swayed. That Sunak steadied him, even before his father could.
He was unaware of the roars of approval around him, of their admiration for his bravery, of their approval of his lack of hesitation, and of their acceptance of him back within their numbers.
He was unaware that someone had freed Drake, who had fled.