Chapter 35: Assembling the Pieces – 160 AK, Early Spring
I Corinthians 1:9 God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
Taryssa paced. She looked from the candle clock which burned ever so slowly and back out the window. Her husband’s annual visit to prestigious outlying citizens of Caswell should have seen him return early this morning. “Where is the son of a hundn?” Clenching her fists. “He’s never this late.”
The door creaked open.
“Drake! I’ve been worr…”
A sopping wet, half-starved servant trembled as he shut the door. “Milady, forgive me.” He bowed low and stayed that way. “The earl was kidnapped by bandits. They bound him over a horse and rode off. I could not stop them. They threw me in the river, which swept me downstream. It has taken days to return.”
“Who would do this? Has there been a demand for ransom?”
“I… don’t know…”
“Fool! What use are you?” she screamed.
The cowering man ran out.
Taryssa turned to the hearth. The glowing fire danced in her eyes.
I must get him back. I’ve invested too much to start over again with a new husband.
It had been sixteen-and-a-half years earlier when the newlywed Taryssa Caswell had visited Lorness Castle for the first time.
Prior to her marriage to the Earl of Caswell’s youngest son, Drake, she had been a Locke. A lesser Locke. A cousin. Always in-sight-of but just out-of-reach-of the wealth, prestige, and luxury that was Gregory’s due simply by an accident of birth.
Her marriage had been well arranged. Drake had been a good prospect, if she was honest with herself, which she never wanted to be. The Caswell family was respectable. They were, by anyone other than a Locke’s standards, well off. And the distance between their domains wasn’t too great. Not like her elder sister, Syrena, who had married a Melazera and lived on the shores of the Sea of Glass, or like her younger sisters, Veryca and Beryssa, both of whom floated backward and forward between High Castle and Farr Castle as part of the Royal Court.
Taryssa had wanted more.
She wanted excitement.
She wanted glamor.
She wanted to be the center of attention. Always.
Then she’d laid eyes on Caileagh Melazera and fallen in love. Or, perhaps, lust. Not for the woman, but for the power she wielded, for the way every eye was drawn to her, and for how her every whim was catered to. Men and women fawned over her, lavished praise on her, and – it was whispered – would do unseemly, unspeakable things just to gain a single moment’s favor from her.
Taryssa wanted to be Caileagh. Yearned to be. Ached to be.
On the final night of that first visit to Lorness, Taryssa had been escorted into a private room where Caileagh waited. What occurred that night was something she never spoke to anyone about, but Taryssa had taken home with her several Black Robe assistants.
In the moons that followed, Taryssa’s eyes were opened to a world of intrigue, of endless possibility, and of limitless advancement.
The first significant test put before her had been to render Drake’s eldest brother’s wife infertile. It had proven all too easy. It also intoxicated and excited.
Other assignments had followed. Each improved her position, increased her prestige, and reinforced her superiority to those around her, especially her clueless husband.
The events at Dunis Glen in 154 had disrupted her plans, had thrown her timetable out. Yet, even that hadn’t proven an obstacle. By 155, all but one of Drake’s elder brothers was dead and his father’s health was… failing. There were no other heirs. They had been taken care of, directly or indirectly. A few had even been kind enough to get themselves killed, rather than requiring her to make arrangements.
After his remaining brother’s death in a tragic accident in 156, Drake had become the Earl of Caswell.
Dwain went to the kitchen and rummaged. He often went to there for a late-night nibble. It was hours before the preparations for breakfast would begin. Not a soul was stirring, except...
Slicing a hunk of cheese off the fragrant wheel, he said without looking at a man in the shadows, "You ready to leave?"
"Yes." The shabby peasant scratched his beard. His greasy hair and tattered clothes would blend with his ox cart. He, like other acquaintances, had been shown how to arrive in the kitchen unseen.
Dwain handed him the cheese and a burlap sack containing, among other necessities, a rolled parchment. It was a missive that would eventually find its way to the Premier of Esthlanis, inviting 'Grandfather Chronos' to a feast.
Dwain sent out three wagons that day, taking the king's notice to their neighbors: a traveling tinker, a cobbler, and this farmer. No one would notice them as they meandered toward farms on the other side of the border.
David tried to breathe calmly, but couldn’t. The Lord’s still, small voice spoke to him only rarely. That he heard it at all was a blessing.
He’d dressed as a common man and wore a cloak to hide the sword at his hip.
He wasn’t afraid to put his life in the hands of the God of Truth. He could do that willingly, accepting that he’d been a fool, that he’d sinned, and that elevating his fears and giving his emotions reign had led to the Dunis Glen Massacre.
He was afraid because he was about to put his life into the hands of men, of knights whom he’d sinned against, of knights whose reputations had been destroyed because of him, of knights who’d lost everything due to his… stupidity.
He was afraid because Gaelib, Duke of Lorness, controlled the area surrounding Dunis Glen. Was this truly a sensible place to gather? Was it hubris to think an outlawed fellowship of knights could slip unnoticed beneath Melazera’s gaze?
He was afraid because he was being tracked. He didn’t think they were soldiers. From the only two glimpses he’d achieved, they were bandits, boys living wild in the woods. He’d heard stories of such. That things had become so bad in parts of the kingdom; it was safer for young lads to live off the land rather than risk being forcibly conscripted into the army.
Am I responsible for all this?
He was afraid because, one day earlier, he’d distantly spied a dark-haired officer with trunk-like arms sitting tall on his mount. A description which fit that accursed rapist, Blackhawk.
The rage that had risen within David still threatened to overwhelm reason. Ready to ride the man down, crush the molester’s bones, then witness his slow, painful death. But, even if it’d been Blackhawk, the officer led a troop of over a hundred. Attacking would be suicide.
Yet, a dark angry place within David’s soul yearned for revenge above all else. Above his need for redemption. Above his loyalty to the king. Above even his duty to the Lord of Truth.
He knew he was being tempted.
He knew how easy it would be to give in.
He knew he was all too capable of sinning, of betrayal.
All of which forced him onward to Dunis Glen. He’d failed once. He’d put his feelings, his fear, and his needs above what he’d sworn his life to.
He would not do so again.
David had hoped to encounter his father along the way. That hadn’t occurred. He’d traveled alone, avoiding other knights, avoiding the bandits tracking him, and avoiding all too frequent military patrols.
He’d chosen to approach from the north because that path was the most heavily wooded. It also kept him as far from Lorness as possible. Perhaps that too was cowardice. He could no longer discern his intentions, no longer evaluate his own actions.
Slipping from his horse, he crouched, then eased up to the ridgeline to look down on Dunis Glen.
A branch snapped.
David leapt to his feet, about to draw his sword, only to find himself surrounded by soldiers.
“Don’t!” A gruff voice commanded. Its owner, the commander he’d spotted, strode into view. “Knight of J’shua, you aren’t here to fight us. We serve King Sagen. You’ll find your brethren there, the farm beyond that lone oak.” He pointed.
“Why should I believe you?” David growled. Every fiber of his being wanted to attack. The dozen armed men protecting their officer were no impediment to those tempting emotions. Yet, his trained eyes took in their manner, their well-used weapons, and the readiness of their stances. He’d never get close.
“Why?” The officer laughed. “Because I haven’t killed you.”
“I…” Any further words caught in David’s throat. If he’d arranged this ambush, there’d be additional soldiers hidden amidst the trees.
“I’ve heard of you. From your build,” the commander continued, “you’re David, son of Jonathan Otual. King Sagen, your father’s boyhood friend, sends his greetings and safe passage. There’ll be no repeat of the Massacre. I won’t permit it. Go.”
A gap opened in the formation. A corridor down which David could walk.
“Take your horse with you,” the commander scolded. “I’ll not be called a thief.”
The soldiers receded into the woods, their commander disappearing with them.
Shaken, David mounted and rode to the farm.
Steven Blackhawk watched the man go. No, he watched David Otual go. The husband of the woman he’d…
That man has every reason to seek my death. Do I have it within me to grant him his retribution?
His answering laugh disturbed some of the men. “If all Knights of J’shua are as unaware of their surroundings as that boy, I’m not sure why the king places so much faith in them.”
His soldiers chuckled condescendingly, just as he’d intended them to.
Do I have it within me? No, I don’t.
Drake vomited. Again. He was bound and laid across a horse’s saddle. His hands were tied tight to one side, his feet to the other.
Something hard slapped his rear causing sharp pain.
“Wake up, traitor,” an angry male voice snarled. “You’re nearly back to the sight of your infamy, to the glorious location where you – oh so bravely, as the stories tell it – faced down your fellow knights in an effort to stop them killing the weak, helpless, and unarmed. Where you rallied a mere handful of local troops and drove us back, killing many, wounding most of the rest, and putting us to flight.”
Drake heard the words. Yet nausea, aches, and pains made them hard to follow. Not that he needed to. The speaker meant him harm.
How do I get out of this?
Jonathan’s body was mending, healing from the physical and spiritual ordeal he’d been through. Even with Rebekah’s and Sylvanus’ help, it was too slow.
Am I fit for this, Lord?
Rebekah and others she’d vouched for rode beside him. Yet, he was delaying them. If it came to a fight, he could rouse himself, briefly. If the battle dragged on…
Lord, I willingly placed myself in your hands. Grant me the strength to do your bidding and complete the task you set me.
He saw the signs before the soldiers appeared. They were good. Very good. Whoever their officer was, he’d trained them well.
Jonathan doubted many others would’ve had any warning. Yet, he laughed inwardly, ten years of mostly avoiding Gaelib Melazera, followed by five years of being an outlaw, had taught him many things. He roared, “Gallop! Left!”
Those with him obeyed without question. Even Rebekah, he was proud to see. Their horses’ bodies brushing the soldiers aside before there were enough to complete the cordon.
Jonathan’s only concern was that there might be cavalry backing them up.
Only three horsemen appeared parallel to Jon’s little troupe. Their leader yelled. “I was sent by King Sagen. Neither he nor I mean you any harm.”
Jonathan slowed his horse to a canter. He was not sure if he was more astounded by encountering Blackhawk, or by the matched pair of Alexandrian brutes accompanying him. They made the imposing officer look boyish in comparison. “Advance, alone, Colonel Blackhawk. I see you were not demoted after our clash on Shining Mountain… and that you are back on a horse. How’s the leg?”
Steven slid down from his mount and stood beside it. His stance was not as limber as it had been. “It nearly cost me my life. Melazera considered that I’d failed him. Little did the Duke of Lorness know how true that was. I’ve spied upon him for King Sagen for many years. His Majesty sends his apologies for having… abandoned… you for so long. He also issued these.” He reached into his saddlebags and drew out a thick rolled parchment. “May I approach?”
He speaks the truth, the still, small voice sounded within Jonathan’s mind. It warred with his rising anger.
Jon dismounted. On his best day, he might be a match for the colonel. This was not one of his better days. It was barely good. Yet, he walked out to meet the officer halfway. “Come closer.”
Blackhawk advanced. Despite a slight limp, his movements were still relaxed and powerful.
Jonathan felt the Lord’s peace settle upon him. “What do you have for me?” he asked once they were within striking distance of each other.
“Three documents, knight. The first is a royal pardon. It will soon be distributed throughout Freislicht.” Steven handed over the first scroll. It read:
A Proclamation by King Sagen, Sovereign Ruler of the Kingdom of Freislicht.
Whereas, We have taken into Our Royal Consideration the purported actions, crimes and accusations aimed at Jonathan Otual, Knight of J’shua, and the evidence that has been presented for and against,
Whereas, We have evaluated that evidence, the methods used in obtaining it, and its veracity,
Whereas, in any kingdom ruled by laws, those laws must be upheld, else there be chaos and every evil work,
Be it known that:
First, it has become clear to Us that Jonathan Otual has been repeatedly, severally, and inaccurately accused of vandalism, insurrection, and treason over many years in regard to fomenting a war between Mestelina and Freislicht. Accordingly, all related charges, warrants and convictions recorded against his name are expunged.
Second, there has been a concerted and longstanding effort, beginning in the reign of King Edal, by forces inimical to the wellbeing of Freislicht to manipulate, distort and debase Our citizenry, who have been conscripted by force, by financial manipulation, and threats of blackmail or worse. Once those forces have been crushed, any and all serving in My Military and the forces of My nobles will be free to choose whether they remain or return to their former lives.
Third, although We haven’t yet identified every significant leader of those inimical forces, it is our sad duty to denounce Gaelib, Duke of Lorness, as their ringleader. Warrants for his arrest, for the seizure of his personal property, and confiscation of all his personal monies accompany this proclamation.
Fourth, all properties, titles and deeds associated with the Duchy of Lorness will devolve upon the next duke, who will require Our evaluation and approval before being so instated.
Fifth, in the matter of Commandant Greysun’s murder, evidence has been obtained that the accused, Jonathan Otual, acted in self-defense. Multiple witnesses have come forth and testified that Greysun intended to murder Otual, while the knight was a prisoner in his custody. Evidence has also been obtained that Gaelib, Duke of Lorness, did knowingly and with malice accuse Otual, falsify evidence, and present it before Us on multiple occasions. Accordingly, the charge of murder against Jonathan Otual is quashed and stricken from all records.
Lastly, for the multiple crimes of treason, insurrection, falsification of evidence, and knowingly attempting to mislead the rightful ruler of Freislicht, Gaelib Melazera is summarily sentenced to death. A sentence that may be carried out by any of My citizens.
We do hereby authorize, enjoin, and require the Nobles and Commanders of all Our Kingdom to act in accordance with Our wishes,
And we do further expressly conjoin and require all Officers, members of Our Military, and those Employed in the Management of Our Kingdom, be used to fulfill this proclamation.
Given at Our Court at High Castle, 3rd day of the Ram.
Blackhawk handed over the warrant.
Jonathan read them. They were blunter, more detailed, and far more brutal than the king’s usual diplomatic language. Anyone found supporting Melazera was willfully placing their head on the block.
“Your king,” Blackhawk hesitated, then handed over a third document, “requires the following of you… and sends his personal as well as royal apologies, in advance, for the burden this will place upon your shoulders. He hopes you’ll someday forgive him.”
It will be well, the still, small voice comforted.
Jonathan slowly opened the last scroll with a deep sigh. He didn’t know if he had the strength to do what his friend, his king, asked of him. It read:
A Proclamation by King Sagen, Sovereign Ruler of the Kingdom of Freislicht.
Whereas, We expunged all charges, accusations and convictions against Jonathan Otual, We now require him to demonstrate the love he has for Freislicht, his protection of its people, and his loyalty to the Crown.
Be it known that:
Jonathan Otual is hereby granted the rank of Over-Commander and given direct command of all of Our Military and those of our Nobles for so long as it shall take to bring to justice Gaelib Melazera and those who have supported him, provided succor to him, and assisted in his treasonous actions against Freislicht.
Colonel Steven Blackhawk, who has for many years acted as Our Agent to uncover Gaelib Melazera’s misdeeds is pardoned of all of those actions, many heinous, that he undertook to discover the truth and save Freislicht from the unlawful control of a would-be tyrant. As a public demonstration of Our faith in Commander Blackhawk, he is appointed as Jonathan Otual’s deputy until the last embers of Melazera’s Rebellion are extinguished.
The document ended as the first had, with exhortations for assistance from the military and so on. It was also dated the 3rd.
Jonathan looked at the man before him, a man who’d hunted him, a man who’d done unspeakable things to Cynthia, the man who’d taken Sarah. “It would seem, the king has work for us to do. I am on my way to Duni–”
“Dunis Glen,” Blackhawk broke in. “I’m aware and have already secured the area to ensure your deliberations with the other Knights of J’shua are uninterrupted. Other than escorting you there, is there anything I can do, sir?”
Jon wanted to strike Blackhawk, or stab him, or run him through. Or any of several dozen other grisly compensations that came to mind. Instead, he smiled.
The king had pardoned this man.
Jonathan would endure, as he always had, trusting in the wisdom of J’shua.