Chapter 35: Reconciliation – 160 AK, Early Spring
1 Thessalonians 5:8 But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.
Blackhawk had waited while the knights did whatever they were doing.
He had not waited patiently. He paced, turning over each logical reason for him to be away. He had to kill Geleib. It was the only way he might live through what was to come. A single misspoken word could spell his doom.
If he’d been free to, he’d already be riding for Lorness Castle. He’d concocted a story that would get him and his men inside where, tragically, he’d fail to take his ‘father’ alive.
But he was not free. King Sagen had been very specific. Jonathan was to shape and command this campaign as the knight had a greater understanding of all the forces at play.
King Sagen had been very, very specific. Although Steven’s failed rescue of Jonathan had yielded an unexpected treasure…
Not the way I would ever describe Cailleagh.
…it had almost thwarted the knight’s recovery. So, during this operation, Steven was to stay by Jonathan’s side, to protect the knight as Captain Lendyld – and his two identical brothers – continued to protect him.
How could I have overlooked three blond giants? Perhaps the king is right. I pray that Little Soldier’s – no, the queen’s – view of you, Lord Joshua, is correct. Although the thought of some deity protecting me is so foreign to my experiences that I cannot fathom it. Yet, I find peace in the Writings.
Jonathan and other knights began streaming from the barn, some on foot, some already on their horses. “Commander Blackhawk, send a unit of cavalry with—”
One of the knights shrugged off another who’d been helping him stand, then strode forward fiery-eyed and lashed out with a right hook.
The punch was solid, if poorly delivered. Anger had clouded its owner’s judgment.
Steven felt his jaw partially dislocate and heard the telltale sound of bone cracking as he automatically rode the blow, permitting it to spin him, diffusing its force. It also opened two spaces between him and his attacker.
David advanced, his other fist lashing out.
Blackhawk caught it, crushing it as he rotated on the spot, using the knight’s own momentum to send David sprawling.
There may have been a hiss of pain. But if there was, Steven was unsure if it was his or his attacker’s. Only as the lad tumbled, recovering with admirable dexterity, did Blackhawk notice the bloody bandages encasing David’s left hand.
“Stop!” Jonathan commanded.
Blackhawk relaxed from his combat-ready stance.
David hesitated. Anger was writ loud upon his body. Yet, he took a slow breath, then began straightening up. His eyes never wavered from Blackhawk as, breath by slow breath, he calmed.
Jonathan had waited until both men were able to talk.
Be patient with both of them. Both are severely wounded souls, the still small voice guided.
“Whatever this is,” Jonathan raised his voice, “it must be resolved. Now. We cannot have dissent within our ranks – be they my fellow knights or the soldiers of King Sagen – when confronting the evils that Melazera and his misguided followers represent.”
“I agree,” Daikon Sunak echoed, “but for the sake of propriety and appearance, would you permit me, Sir Jonathan, to resolve this matter?”
He too has heard me, the still small voice added.
Jonathan wanted answers, but… but… it would look wrong if he questioned his son and an officer that reported directly to him. No matter the decision, it would cause divisions that could prove disastrous. “Go ahead,” he acknowledged and retreated into the throng, to be just another of its members.
Sunak circled his arms and the knights formed a cordon within which there was only David, Blackhawk and himself. Once there was quiet, he asked, “Sir David, why did you attack Commander Blackhawk?”
“This… man… this thing… is the creature that defiled my wife while Geleib Melazera and others watched. He deserves to die, slowly, at my hands.”
“Colonel Blackhawk,” Sunak enjoined, “how do you respond to these charges? Do you have anything to say in your defense?”
The military officer looked at the ground, a pained expression on his face. “In regard to that… rape… I am both victimizer…”
David took an angry step forward, only to be stopped by Sunak’s gaze.
“…and victim,” Blackhawk completed.
The expression on David’s face told his father that he was barely restraining himself.
Despite his size, strength and usual vitality, Blackhawk gave off the impression of a man in hell. A hell that Jonathan had all too recently experienced at Geleib’s hands.
Sunak’s deep, resonant voice did not have to be raised to gain attention. Yet, he spoke loudly, “Tell us more, Commander. Explain it so that we can understand.”
Steven Blackhawk pursed his lips. “I am reluctant to do so.” He remained looking down at the ground. “Has Sir Jonathan informed you of the contents of the—”
“King Sagen’s third missive? Yes, I take it you are referring to the line that states ‘Commander Steven Blackhawk, who has for many years acted as Our agent to undercover Geleib Melazera’s misdeeds is pardoned of all of those actions, many heinous, that he had to undertake in order to discover the truth and save Freislicht’. Many. Heinous. Tell us something—”
“Nothing can justify what he did to my wife!” David’s words were an anguished scream.
Sunak glared at David. “There will be a time for you to speak. It is not now. You have laid your accusation and heard an initial response. An initial response. We will hear what this man has to say.”
Not yet. Do not intervene yet, the still small voice instructed Jonathan.
That he would have an opportunity to help his son was welcome. That it might be necessary to help Blackhawk…
“Commander Blackhawk,” Sunak prompted.
“Getting close enough to Geleib Melazera meant having to participate in his debauched sexual practices, sometimes as perpetrator, always as his victim. In Lady Cynthia’s case, I did not know the then-Earl-of-Lorness’ intentions. It was odd for him to select a – please forgive my describing it so but it is his word – select a ‘plaything’ that had connections or resources with which they could strike back at him. His usual victims were much poorer, nor were their fates as gentle as your wife’s, Sir Dav—”
“Gentle? Gentle? How could you say that?”
Sunak strode toward David. “Not another word until he finishes testifying to my satisfaction. You have demonstrated your bravery, your righteousness and your willingness to abide by our Fellowship’s codes. Please do so.”
David nodded slowly, as if it took great effort.
“Continue, Commander Blackhawk,” Sunak prompted.
“How could I say ‘gentle’? First, because your wife lived. Many, perhaps even most, did not. Second, because she did not have runes carved into her body or tattooed all over it, in places no civilized person would contemplate. Third, because she was not burned with acid, branded, or excessively mutilated. Fourth, because she was… played with… for only a single session. I have already admitted that I was the instrument of her torture but, had I not done so, Geleib would have killed me… and in his rage, probably her. I’ve seen him kill too many others upon a whim. As to…”
“Continue,” Sunak insisted.
“As to what would have happened to Lady Cynthia had I not been that instrument, please don’t think that I’ve provided you with even the most preliminary list of tortures, debasements, defilements, degradations or deprivations that Geleib Melazera indulged in. There is also a fifth and final reason for my describing her treatment as being ‘gentle’. Cailleagh Melazera, Geleib’s wife, did not join in.”
Jonathan’s feet carried him into the cordon. He held up a hand, forestalling questions. “I do not come to plead for or against, Sunak. I come forth to provide evidence.”
“What must we know, brother knight?
“Most of you are aware that I was recently captured by Geleib Melazera,” Jon began, closed his eyes seeking strength within, opening them only moments later when he found it. “I was tortured by Geleib and his wife… but it was Cailleagh who was the more vicious, spiteful and destructive. Guided by demons she is bound to; her depravity made her husband look like a wayward petulant child.
“As to Geleib’s lethality toward those who disappointed him even slightly, Commander Blackhawk has not stated it strongly enough.” Jon bowed, then returned to his place in the surrounding crowd.
“Is there anything more you would say?” Sunak asked Blackhawk.
“Is there anything more you would say?” Sunak asked David.
“Then we are left with two alternatives, ask the king to review this matter and possibly withdraw his pardon in regard to it, or ask Commander Blackhawk who is not one of us to demonstrate the depth of his remorse in the same manner Sir David has just done.”
David and a large contingent of knights, supported by an even larger cavalry force had been dispatched to surround and isolate Lorness Castle.
Another group of mounted knights, under the command of Daikon Sunak, had set off for Caswell. Lady Cynthia and her children had to be protected from Drake’s remaining allies’ wrath. Those knights were also tasked with recapturing Drake, if he had fled there. Once Caswell was secured, Cynthia would be escorted to High Castle, then Sunak would ferret out Drake’s fellow traitors.
Jonathan rode alone beside Blackhawk. In the midst of the combined host of knights and soldiers, he was surrounded by Rebekah, friends, allies and even caught fleeting glimpses of familiar boys’ faces from time-to-time watching from the woods. Yet all the lads kept their distance as they moved through the light scrub, heading south to Lorness.
“Should I ask…?” Jon commenced.
“Should…” Blackhawk’s tone was wistful. “I am the last person to ever ask about ‘should’. I’ve spent too many years wading through darkness’ depths. I did what I had to. My survival was not a pretty thing. Certainly, it is not something to make casual conversation about.”
Jonathan did not need the still small voice’s prompting. “I shall never be able to say this before witnesses, but… thank you for saving Cynthia. My son may not understand, but I do. I am not offering forgiveness…
“I’m not seeking it,” Blackhawk spoke over him.
“…because it is not mine to give, but thank you. Although…”
“I would strongly suggest you avoid the female members of my family, starting with my wife. Rebekah has the most… interesting… idea about marking those who worked with and for Melazera. Marking them with a knife, that is. Upon their faces, for all to see.” Jonathan urged his horse into a canter before he started thinking of his wife’s suggestion too ardently.
Drake nodded at the knight who had freed him. The elderly Sir Norin was also from Caswell and had family there. A family Drake had protected as he had David’s.
Norin led him to a copse of trees where two horses were waiting. By that time, others were exiting the barn. Some were already mounted. Most were on foot. There was some sort of commotion going on. As it escalated, they rode away but not in the southwesterly direction Drake had expected. “Where are we going?”
“Lorness, there’s nowhere else. We can’t go home… or you can’t,” Norin snapped back. “You screwed this up, my lord. You allowed yourself to be captured in an ambush that knightly students would have been embarrassed by. Worse, your hubris has endangered every ex-knight you’ve sheltered and their families.”
The sound of steel parting from leather was the only warning Drake had. His heels urging his horse forwards were all that saved him from Norin’s sword. A line of pain burned a brief fiery path across his back as he urged his horse left, breaking away from his attacker.
The moon was less than half its girth, clouds obscured what little light there was, and, in the distance, the hooves of hundreds of horses galloping drowned out Drake’s senses. Yet Norin’s proximity kept him riding hard, even though his mount could stumble, fall or break a leg without warning.
The horse began to tire. It was lathered in sweat. He did not care. Drake’s only concern was Norin’s sudden reappearance. Yet, killing the horse by overtaxing it would leave him on foot. He’d be an easy target, even for a knight like the fat old Norin.
He slowed the animal to a walk.
In a way, he mused, he’d been lucky. Of all the former knights he’d given protection to, Norin was weak, slow, and a decade older than Drake. If he had to be chased by any of those he’d succored after the Fellowship being declared illegal, he could not have asked for a less capable antagonist.
He hated to admit that Norin was right about anything but Drake knew he could not return to Caswell. That was where he had been seized.
Is my wife well? Are my children and grandchildren? I only sought to protect them.
There was no choice. He’d tired the horse dangerously. It needed to be watered and fed. So did he. His captors had given him barely enough to stay alive. If he did not want to walk, his only possible destination was Lorness.
Melyssa prayed. Not just for the men and women who were at risk as matters progressed near Dunis Glen, Lorness and elsewhere but for the woman before her.
Many weeks had passed since Cailleigh Melazera had been smuggled out of Lorness. In one of the rare situations where he refused to go into details, Sagen had only said that the opportunity had arisen to save her life. That it, almost certainly, involved Commander Blackhawk was obvious. Just as obvious as that, somehow, Blackhawk’s actions had infuriated the king.
For a man who swears that he tells me everything, there are moments I find my Sagen’s protective instincts utterly galling. Of the two of us, he’s been far more sheltered.
In the first few weeks, the healers and physicians had doubted Cailleagh would live. Her wounds were severe. She had been bled extensively. And several serving women, female guards, and even Lady Ush-Wha had declared her insane, possessed, or in league with demons.
Cailleagh’s physical health had improved. However, as it had, another problem arose. The mere sight of a male sent her into violent fits, caused her to have seizures, or saw her fall unconscious. Even if the physician covered their face, disguised their masculinity, or any of a dozen other methods that had been tried, the former Lady Melazera – Geleib had declared her dead after an attack on Lorness Castle by members of O’Toole’s Rebellion – seemed beyond help.
To date, Lady Ush-Wha’s attempts had been the most successful in dealing with whatever tormented Cailleagh. They had also been the most terrifying.
Melyssa had not quite appreciated the implications of the stories she’d heard about the Ush clan. Seeing their practices enacted, as opposed to hearing shocking fantastical stories about them, had caused the queen nightmares and sleepless nights. She was increasingly less sure of where the delineation point between treatment and torture was. Sadly, with the exception of lessening the severity of Cailleagh’s bouts of near-madness, Ush-Wha’s efforts had no effect.
Melyssa had tried to reach out to the Knights of Joshua but without success.
The arrival of her final hope had just been announced. That it would also be a welcome reunion was a bonus.