Chapter 40: Interceptions – 160 AK, Early Spring
Ezekiel 36:25 Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.
Lorness Castle, Gaelib’s Private Rooms
Melyssa leant against the wall and shook. Even after leaving the cell, she could still feel the malignant spirits inhabiting Caileagh as if they were physical beings that she could confront and fight. Yet, she had no sword to slay them. She had only faith, perseverance, and the Writings.
She also had the love and support of those around her. Still, she felt she’d imposed upon Mother Beecher.
She looked around at her companions.
Ush-Wha’s expression was thoughtful. The queen had known her long enough to be sure she was evaluating what had been done, how effective it had been, and how it could be improved.
At some point, Melyssa wanted to curl up in a chair and watch Kennah and Ush-Wha argue the merits of this method of fighting demons versus that. It would be fascinating and educational. For, she held no doubt something had happened in that cell.
The diminutive bodyguard was a pale shadow of herself. Her hands trembled. Her body shivered and was slick with sweat.
“You did well,” Kennah noted, looking down at the young woman. “We all have strengths and weaknesses. You protect the queen’s body. That is right and proper. It is honorable. It is admirable. But what must happen within that… cell… isn’t a battlefield you’re prepared for. There is no shame nor any recrimination in that.
“Nor,” the midwife’s attention shifted to Melyssa, “can I permit Your Majesty to enter that room again. Not while I battle for the Melazera woman’s soul. I can’t risk being distracted. I have known you since you were a child. I recall you and others trailing after me as curious youngsters are wont to. My fondness for you weakens me. You, Your Majesty, are a light that inspires others.”
“I…” Melyssa was embarrassed to be spoken of so. All she’d done was obey the still, small voice of the Lord, be directed to a man she could love and support, and bear his children.
As she was doing again. She’d have sent for Mother Beecher in a week or two to assist with the new pregnancy. Summoning her this way had allowed a few more days, perhaps weeks, before it became evident she was with child. If the king or her bodyguards knew, they’d prevent being involved.
“You are a golden sword, held aloft that catches the sun. A banner to rally all who hear J’shua.” Mother Beecher smiled. “You don’t need to perform extraordinary deeds. You only have to be, to allow the light within you to shine forth.” Kennah glanced at Ush-Wha. “Do you think I’ve become overly romantic in my old age?”
Ush-Wha turned to face Mother Beecher. “No, it’s an apt description. But you’ve made no comment about my re-entering that room. I’ve struggled to free that woman for three moons, achieving almost naught. In less than an hour, you made visible progress. Grant me the honor of standing beside you in this fight. I’d thought myself prepared, and am humbled by your first efforts. That doesn’t mean,” she addressed the bodyguard, “you should join us. I’ve received training for such a fight, you haven’t.”
“I cede that ground to you,” the shivering woman replied. “Good hunting.”
“You, youngster,” Ush-Wha grinned, “just became interesting.” Turning to Kennah, “Midwife, you’ve yet to respond to me.”
“Is there need? We made progress. Of course, I require you beside me. However, we do things my way. That means Caileagh remains restrained on a bed, not chained to a wall. It means the guards monitoring her will read constantly from the Writings. It means her needs will be met in a civilized manner, not in accordance with the more… robust… ways of Clan Ush.”
“If you insist,” Ush-Wha muttered.
“Then,” Kennah continued, “before we re-enter the fray, I have questions about what you have done. And why you have done it. I don’t doubt you want the Melazera woman to recover, but sense something dark in your motivation.”
“What you call darkness, I call balance,” Ush-Wha challenged. “She needs to live a long life. Long enough to, at least, begin to atone for what she’s inflicted on others.”
Melyssa pried herself from the wall that was so generously holding her upright. “Ladies, this isn’t the location for a long conversation. May I suggest somewhere warm, with soft chairs, hot food, and chilled wine? Preferably, somewhere with servants to wait on us. As queen, I know precisely where to find all of those things.”
Lorness Castle, Gaelib’s Private Rooms
Drake tried to reconcile the manic, unhinged Gaelib he’d witnessed with the man he’d admired for years.
Melazera had always had a certain excess energy, a flair for the dramatic. He’d even been something of a peacock, but was always intent on the good of the kingdom. That the Duke of Lorness would profit from such endeavors was only fitting. Power, wealth, and prestige went to those who could claim them, master them, and wield them for the betterment of all.
Over the years, it had become increasingly clear King Sagen didn’t know how to rule. If even one in ten of the rumors he’d heard in the last day were true, the king was in desperate need of direction.
The Mestels were rising again on the Western Border.
Tarin and Esthlani criminals were smuggling weapons to ever larger bands of insurgents within Freislicht.
The king’s tax collectors were being intercepted, robbed and killed. The baden they’d collected going to criminals, and other nefarious groups.
Even though outlawed, the Knights of J’shua were rousing the people against the king’s lawful rule. There were even, one report stated, two Knights’ Schools. In Esthlanis, of all places!
Then, if Drake wanted to consider truly outrageous claims: a roving Knights’ School had been established in Freislicht; a radical group calling itself Licht Gegen spread disinformation and undermining Gaelib’s agents; and, Jonathan Otual had been pardoned by King Sagen.
Obvious, utter nonsense!
Drake admitted that he’d spent most of his recent years in Caswell, but Gaelib’s spies had kept him informed. Everything had begun to go wrong when the king had charged Melazera with ending Jonathan’s Rebellion. It had seemed like such a simple request at the time.
Jon was a dreamer. A fool whose simplistic ideas could only lead to ruin. In contrast, Gaelib was practical. Any clash between them could have only one possible outcome.
Trying to end the rebellion had also deprived the king of Gaelib’s irreplaceable advice and permitted the duplicitous, money-grubbing Lockes to steal away key posts.
Look at how things were.
King Sagen needed the guidance that only Gaelib could provide.
Who else could the king turn to? Jonathan? For all the fond memories Drake had of him, when it came to practical matters, Jon knew nothing of politics, and even less of the realities of running a kingdom. Hell, he had no knowledge or experience of handling money.
Compromises had to be made. There was no alternative. Rigidly following J’shua or any other form of belief was no more than a childish fantasy. It didn’t work in the real world.
Yet the still, small voice whispered to him yet again, the way is clear when it is needed.
He didn’t understand.
Why had he been led to Gaelib?
Why, immediately upon his deliverance from the vengeful wrath of the knights, had he been confronted with…
What did I witness?
High Castle – Outside Caileagh’s Cell
Kennah leaned against the wall outside the cell. The session with Caileagh had been emotionally taxing and physically exhausting. It had been difficult to witness a soul in such torment.
It seemed to weigh even more heavily on Ush-Wha, who could no longer respond to Caileagh’s utterances using her own methods. She leant against the opposite wall, breathing heavily. “We’re… making… progress.”
“We are, woman of Clan Ush,” Kennah teased, still refusing to use her name when they were alone.
“The Melazera woman almost spoke coherently. Other than her threats, of course.”
Despite the other woman’s odd beliefs, the midwife came to like and appreciate her. Especially for her dogged support of the queen. “Don’t expect Caileagh to become more civil. You had her bound and restrained for weeks before I arrived. That alone is enough to fuel anyone’s anger. Add the voices tormenting her and the fact that she, occasionally, says something calmly rational is a milestone.”
“If you say so. I’ll even concede your methods are more effective than mine.” Ush-Wha grinned impishly, “Mine are more fun though.”
Kennah shook her head, knowing that being teased thus was a sign of friendship. “We will reach a point where Caileagh can break free. When she does, she must have no doubts. Should she relapse in that moment, there may never be another chance.”
On the Outskirts of Lorness Castle
David looked around at his fellow knights, sure they too had heard the comforting whisper within their minds, the way is clear when it is needed.
It had been two slow, frustrating days since they had dashed south from Dunis Glen.
Worse, five of his riders were severely ill due to food poisoning. A description accepted by almost no one. Instead, there were suspicions about the oh-so-welcoming townsfolk they’d encountered upon arriving at Lorness. Suspicions that were only exacerbated by the some of the locals’ increasingly hostile attitudes toward the knights, toward the king’s men, and most visibly toward the Alexandrians.
David strode toward his horse, then stopped. A shaded doorway to his left beckoned.
A scruffily-dressed young man of barely twenty strode up to the door. His foot lashed out, smashing it open. Then he darted backward into the light. Three men rushed out, two carrying clubs, one a knife. All of them were cut down by crossbow bolts.
Several young women – dressed as merchants’ daughters, a farmer’s wife, and two noble ladies – stepped into view. Each carried a pair of hand-crossbows. Many were reloading. None paid David any mind. One of them blew a kiss to the lad who’d kicked open the door.
That young man looked at David and the knights clustered around him, asking, “Are you coming?” Drawing a sword, he stepped cautiously inside.
There was a brief clash of steel on steel.
David was the first knight through the door. A man dressed in a hooded black robe was stepping in for the killing blow. His bloodied victim, the door-kicker, tried to roll clear.
David slipped his Esthlani-forged throwing knife from its sheath and flung it. Almost in slow motion, he witnessed the would-be killer’s sword slash downward while his blade rotated end-over-end. There was a meaty thud as the dagger buried itself into the swordsman’s shoulder, deflecting his downward strike.
Still, sword met flesh. Blood flowed.
Yet David hadn’t paused. He’d closed the distance. The Black Robe had not even raised his eyes to acknowledge David’s presence before the knight’s sword decapitated him.
His companions were close behind David. They strode past, seeking additional targets. Scowling and cursing as they came upon dozens of black robes on pegs that lined the corridor’s walls.
As David paused to check on the wounded lad, a woman screamed behind him, “Egalt!” Then there were several girls, all younger than David would have initially guessed, crowding around.
He began instructing the lasses on how to clean and pack the wound. They acted faster than he could tell them what to do. He sat back on his haunches in shock. He’d never met another woman as capable as his mother. Yet here were more than half a dozen.
“Well?” A petite girl with reddish hair, who might have been seventeen, demanded. “You’re being called elsewhere. Unblock your ears. It’s not only boys who can hear J’shua’s voice. You’ve somewhere to be and someone to save.” She turned to one of her companions, “Debryn, you and Jeena, get Egalt out of here. His fighting’s done. I have to urge on…” her gaze returned to David.
Lorness Castle – Gaelib’s Rooms
Things were more critical than he’d anticipated.
His agents within the surrounding town had poisoned, drugged, kidnapped, or mugged only a tiny fraction of those accursed knights. Either they had defected to the other side, or their commanders had been overstating their abilities. Regardless which was true, too many locals were supporting the invading servants of J’shua.
Worse, the two dust clouds – one from the south and the other from the north – had resolved themselves into massive armies. The northerners were the king’s, as expected. The southerners were Alexandrians.
Blast Gregory Locke!
Worse, the Warrior demanded a time-consuming sacrifice when there was no time to spare, no time to prepare, and – with Caileagh an almost unlamented loss – no one he could trust to do so properly.
And yet… am I not the Warrior’s equal? If a sacrifice is what he requires, then I shall give it to him… as I see fit.
Summoning his senior guardsman, he gave instructions that the dungeons, every single dungeon from within and around Lorness Castle, was to be emptied and the human refuse they contained was to be flushed, driven and expelled down a particular set of tunnels at midnight. In the hours following that, every man, woman and child who could hold a weapon was to be driven into the tunnels after them.
He next sent for the commander of the Lightning Battalion. He instructed they be deployed into the tunnels before midnight. They were to terrify the fools who’d later enter, to create a panic so extreme the human vermin would run until they died of exertion or onto an enemy’s sword.
Last, he sent for Rosewud’s deputy – where was that blasted man when he was needed – and provided instructions for every remaining Black Robe.
Once alone again, he looked down at his city. If he couldn’t have it, it would burn. Just as he would destroy Freislicht, if it refused to submit to his will.
Northwest of Caswell
The Mestel warrior, White Owl, listened to the wind, heard its sad song and turned his horse a little more southward. Giving thanks to the traditional gods of his people and to J’shua, he rode on.
For the last week, he had been on the trail of a foulness, an infestation, a wound upon the world. Something that stank of corruption, selfishness and… evil… as it was called by Nature and J’shua.
The cave was well-hidden. No casual passerby would have spotted it. No one who did not take every precaution would have survived doing so. His elders and the handful of young Knights of J’shua who accompanied him insisted every safeguard be heeded. There were deadfalls, pit traps, poisonous vines, and every manner of defense.
Once the hunters was sure of what they had found, White Owl left them to do their jobs. It was his to find these places. He could not do that if he let his senses be clouded, overwhelmed, or desensitized by entering them. This had been the eighth since crossing into Freislicht four moons earlier.
With luck, they would return home soon.
He did not feel lucky.
Outside Jonathan’s Command Tent
Blackhawk blinked. The thought hadn’t been his own, yet it wasn’t unknown to him.
The way is clear when it is needed.
Nor was it the voice of memory. If it had been, it would have sounded like Little Soldier. This had been crisp, clean and tranquil. It had a depth that was comforting, that calmed his inner fears, and soothed jagged nerves.
It was like nothing he had ever heard before.
It was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.
“You heard,” Jonathan noted with a delighted smile. “I have been wondering if J’shua spoke to you, or you perceived his guidance only through the Writings.”
“No,” Steven demurred, “no, that can’t be. I’m not worthy. I’m not…”
“Be at peace with it,” the knight placed a hand on his shoulder. His voice was gentle and supportive.
It was also… proud.
The knight was proud? Of him?
Am I dreaming? Have Caileagh’s demons come to tempt me, to rob me of my sanity? Or, could this really be…?
“Your world just changed,” Jonathan affirmed. “You are not obliged to obey J’shua’s words. They are a guidance, even when they appear not to be. Nor are their urgings direct. They will take you where you need to be, not where you want to be, and not to where you think you should be.”
“I… definitely… don’t understand.”
“You do not need to. Listen and judge for yourself.”
“I…” Blackhawk felt his words slip from him. He had not heard that still, small voice speak to him again. He had seen.
“I…” Blackhawk went down on one knee. “I have done you, your family, and others great wrongs. I have done evil. I have long feared that there would be a price to pay, yet hoped…”
“…that the Writings, and the peace I gained from them, might help me redress my dark deeds. I’d never thought I’d be worthy of…”
Jonathan shook his head gently. “You will never know all of another’s sins and good deeds. Nor is it our – yours or my – place to judge them. That is for J’shua. If you are hearing our Lord’s voice, it is because he has need of you. It is not a mark of your worthiness, but of your willingness to be useful.”
“Then, am I nothing more than a tool?” Blackhawk’s heart sank. The thought of being special…
“You are unique, in that you have received the gift of righteousness only J’shua could purchase for you. If you are humble and trusting enough of J’shua Ha Mashiach to follow where he leads, nothing is impossible,” the knight continued. “Not even saving Caileagh Melazera. When there is time, I would like to hear about that. All Sagen would say to me was that while your intentions were good, your actions lacked… understanding.”
“Don’t apologize. I have oft lacked understanding, as I do at this moment. J’shua wants me here, but it is not clear to me why. It was certainly not to lead the combined armies assembled in the God of Truth’s name. You are, by far, the more suitable candidate for that. You make my fulfilling the role forced upon me by King Sagen possible.”
Steven stopped breathing.
The admission was unlike anything he’d ever heard. Gaelib could never have been so self-denigrating, nor could he have given credit to another so easily. Or, at all.
For the first time, Blackhawk understood why men followed Jonathan.
If there had been time, he would have confessed all – Gaelib, Caileagh… even Little Soldier – yet the still, small voice spoke within. Again. With an urgency that couldn’t be denied.
I will go, Steven decided.
The image he had previously been shown, unfolded slowly again. It flooded his senses with details: the scent of perfumed candles, the sharp tang of freshly-spilt blood, the heat from the fireplace, the clash of steel swords, the sweat running down his back, the face of David Otual, the quality of a would-be attacker’s jacket, the biting sensation as that individual’s blade plunged into Steven… and twisted… then the horrific moment as he recognized another all-too-familiar face… and the room where all this occurred.
A room he’d all too often visited when working for Gaelib.
“We need to be within Lorness Castle,” Blackhawk heard himself say. He didn’t disagree with the words. Would have chosen no others. Couldn’t have. “Both of us, and a select few must gain access to the castle. But…”
Jonathan’s lips thinned. The color in his face dimmed. “Yet, the only way to do that is to let Gaelib think you’re still loyal to him… and that I am your prisoner.”
“I take it we must make haste?”
“Yes.” Blackhawk couldn’t form the words to mention David.
It will be well, the stillness of the words he heard calmed and confused him. Yet, if Jonathan trusted them, perhaps Little Soldier’s view of J’shua hadn’t been quite so fanciful after all.
“There are precautions we must take,” Jonathan turned and exited the tent.
That left Steven hurrying to catch up. By the time he’d done so, the knight had issued orders via several runners and signaled for his horse. All three Captains Lendyld, and half a dozen lads casting off ragged clothes and donning uniforms, were running toward them. How none of them tripped while doing so amazed Blackhawk.
High Castle, Caileagh’s Cell
Kennah felt the lessening of Caileagh’s fears.
Ush-Wha nodded, confirming she’d felt the shift too.
Without pausing in her recitation of the Writings, Melyssa bowed her head in acknowledgement.
Kennah still had reservations about the queen’s presence, but had been overridden by the royal prerogative. However, a ‘compromise’ had been reached so that Melyssa would always remain beyond arms’ reach of the former Lady Melazera.
With only the briefest of pauses for food and sleep – during which Caileagh’s mind had been strengthened by the Writings – it was the third day since Kennah and Ush-Wha had commenced trying to lead the former duchess to J’shua.
Several times Kennah had cast out the spirits. But each time, Caileagh’s fears of the unknown – of losing the only constant she’d had in her life, her tormentors – had allowed their return.
Until such time as their host wanted them gone, no matter how strong Kennah’s faith, the spirits couldn’t be kept out.
Yet, for the first time, Kennah felt the peace of J’shua upon Caileagh. She wondered how Ush-Wha perceived it but, no matter how she did, the other woman nodded again, confirming that there was another shift within the host.
Melyssa kept reciting with her head bowed.
“We claim this woman for the Son of the God of Truth. Be healed, in the name of J’shua Ha Mashiach,” Kennah commanded.
This time, Caileagh did not writhe or scream. She didn’t spit obscenities. Her eyes were beseeching. Her voice struggled to form words… Her head jerked back and forth as if to shake the words free.
All Kennah understood of her muttering was “...you are wholly owned by him.”
“In the name of J’shua Ha Mashiach,” Kennah continued, “come out spirits of iniquity. You are banished from this vessel. Be gone!”
There was silence… and a single sob.