Chapter 40: Determination – 160 AK, Early Spring
Ephesians 6:17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God:
East of Lorness
Dwain hunched over, closer to his galloping horse’s neck, as he tried to keep pace with Rebekah’s mount, which was sprinting flat out, and so kept pulling further and further ahead.
In the dark!
Either she was a madwoman or, just perhaps, her belief in Joshua gave her a special dispensation against her horse’s foot twisting, it throwing her, or any of a dozen other calamities. The problem was that, whatever protection she had, he did not.
Yet, he had to keep up. His instructions from King Sagen had been clear: stay with and protect Rebekah O’Toole.
At any cost.
Well, any cost other than blowing his own cover as the King’s Minstrel, which this insane ride could do.
They had barely gone three miles when Rebekah’s mount turned left off Lord Melazera’s Highway, dashed down a short lane, taken a path leading to the right… and was dismounting.
It was over, Dwain praised the Lord silently.
…there were people and other horses waiting for her.
Rebekah dismounted adroitly, hugged a woman, then the man standing next to her… and took the reins of the horse he handed to her.
“Lag behind, Dwain,” Rebekah teased as she mounted a fresh horse, “and you’ll not make it to High Castle with me this night.”
He dismounted. Spilled out of the saddle would be more accurate. He did not do much riding. Never had. His cover was as a minstrel. With very few exceptions, when he traveled, it was in one of the supply wagons trailing after the King’s Carriage.
Speed was never the issue.
Yet, it was tonight.
Trying not to display how sore his muscles were already, he walked over to the people Rebekah had hugged. “Hello, I’m, Dwa—”
“We know,” the woman’s smile was dazzling. “I’m Courtney. This,” she indicated the man standing beside her,” is my husband, Mark. We were told you’d come. Still, there’s no time to waste and you’ve some sixty miles or more to cover before dawn.”
“I… sixty miles?” Dwain’s voice broke. “There’s not a horse alive that could do that.”
“True,” Rebekah acceded, “which is why we’ll have fresh mounts every few miles. But we won’t be stopping for leisurely chats like we are now. Mount up. We have to move!” Her head turned to focus on the couple. “You understand what’s needed. Two days after tomorrow, we defend Freislicht… and we’ll need every sword you can muster.”
Dwain was settling into the new horse’s saddle when Rebekah’s mount galloped away.
Southwest of Lorness Castle, making for Caswell
Daikon Sunak walked their encampment’s perimeter. He intended to get his knights to Caswell in as few days as possible but they had to arrive ready for a fight. So, it had been an hour in the saddle at a gentle ground-covering canter, and hour leading the horse, then back into the saddle again.
They were doing well. This was the second night of their cross-country journey. He would not use the main roads. He had no intention of tipping off whoever was orchestrating things in Caswell that they were coming.
Sometime on the morrow, they would pass within sight of High Castle. That is, his force would be able to glimpse High Castle in the distance. Those in High Castle would have no knowledge of their passage. Every reflective surface was covered, and their path would take them through the moderately wooded dells between low hills.
An unnatural sound caught his attention. It was metallic. A sound that was repeated but in different locations. With a gesture, he summoned two of the four other knights on guard.
Together, they moved beyond the perimeter. Each drew one of the hand-crossbows their Alexandrian allies had provided. Silently, they moved staying in the shadows cast by the pale moonlight.
There were two men dragging a travois loaded with something heavy… and metallic from the light reflected off it.
Sunak positioned his fellows, then stepped into their path. “You gentlemen seem lost.”
One of the two men, looked straight at Sunak, made a sound like he was swallowing his own tongue, let go of the travois, and ran…
…straight into Sir Orrick’s fist.
The sounds of the coward’s nose and cheekbone breaking carried clearly in the still night air. Then his knees gave way and he collapsed.
The other man’s hands leapt into the air. “I surrender! We can share… we can share, can’t we? You wouldn’t take it all…? You wouldn’t, would you? Please… leave me something. I—”
“Enough,” Sunak’s single gruff word ended the pleas. “Who are you? Why are you here? What is…” he pointed his crossbow at the travois “…that?”
“My name is…” the man shrugged “…I’ve had so many. I was a Black Robe, before they were outlawed and forced underground. Then I did… odd jobs… for whoever paid me. Then the Order found me again, so I went back to work for them.”
“Order…?” The aim of Sunak’s crossbow lowered until it targeted the man’s groin.
“Order of the Black Robe. It’s had lots of names too.”
“That does not explain what you are doing here and now.”
“The… Order’s leader… has become less… inspiring… in recent years. He sidelined the Duchess of Lorness, who had recruited and trained many of us. Brought in some baden-obsessed hack to replace her. He—”
“Orrick, your man still alive?” Sunak interrupted.
“Hit him too hard. Again.” The other knight responded.
Sunak shook his head. “You,” he addressed the lone survivor, “show me where you appeared from. We searched this area before nightfall. You shouldn’t have been able to get this close. Certainly, not without tripping at least one of the traps we set.”
“My…” the man looked down at the travois.
“We’ve no interest in your property. We aren’t thieves. We are very interested in how you got so close to us.”
The man turned slowly, finally registering the third knight who had been behind him the whole time. “Uh… this way,” he walked back to a bush that was mere yards behind him.
Except, it was not a bush. It was a framework with vines grown over and through it. Plants that had been recently trimmed, so the exit could open easily and permit two men, and the travois they were dragging, to pass through with ease. The tunnel behind it had recently been refurbished. Its props and crossbeams were all new. And there were lit torches leading off into the distance, descending further underground as they went.
Sunak turned back to the man, his sword’s point resting just heavily enough against his target’s throat that a drop of blood began to form. “Where does this lead?”
“Where does… where did you come from?”
“Lorness. The current Melazera is too dangerous to work for. Rosewood’s gone missing. Cailleagh, if she’s alive, is who knows where? Why would I stay? So, I grabbed him…” The man gestured vaguely in the direction of his dead companion. “…and as much as I could carry, and told that dead fool I’d split this with him. Thank you for killing him. It saved me the effort.”
“It would seem,” Sunak took a step to the right and slashed low, severing the thief’s Achilles’ Tendon, “our journey to the southwest is going to be delayed. Orrick, you and I are going to do a little exploring.” He indicated the tunnel, then faced the third knight, “While you take this… thing… back to camp and interrogate him. Wake a third of the knights and send them here. We need to know the extent of this tunnel system.”
High Castle – The Queen’s Drawing Room
Melyssa sat surrounded by most of her usual ladies-in-waiting. The sun had barely risen above the horizon. The cloudless sky promised a beautiful day.
Yet, it felt odd to have neither Ladies Ush-Wha nor Ush-Lus present. But, given how her guest had reacted to the mere mention of their clan’s name, it seemed imprudent – potentially even ruinous – to have them join in.
Cailleagh was escorted into the Queen’s Drawing Room by Kennah, four guardswomen, eight Alexandrian mercenaries – Melyssa wished, yet again, that her third father, Gregory, would trust that those he’d already sent to protect her were enough – and three women reciting the Writings. It was quite the procession. All of which entered, and took their stations as if this was a stately ball.
Once her guest was seated comfortably, Melyssa began, “I am sorry not to have visited more often.”
“Your Majesty,” Cailleagh slipped from her seat to kneel before the queen, “that you visited at all, demonstrates your compassion. To have come so often, is a kindness so far beyond what is due me. I am unworthy.”
“There’s no need—”
“But there is, your Majesty,” Cailleagh insisted. “I have done great wrongs. I have done you wrong. I…” her voice caught.
Kennah put a comforting hand on the kneeling woman’s shoulder.
“I must… atone… for the wrongs I have done. At the very least, I must prevent more wrongs being done to you. Wrongs that I can prevent.”
Melyssa tried to remain calm. She had hoped to have a few useful things come up during this conversation, making the offer before her almost too good to be true.
Almost… is this a trap?
“What wrongs,” Melyssa felt as if she was in one of her childhood fantasies, facing down the evil witch, “could you prevent?”
Cailleagh clutched her hands together and looked down at the floor in front of the queen’s feet. “For one, your Majesty, Geleib is losing his mind… no, has lost his mind… and his soul. He sold them to a patron demon, the Warrior. I was part of… but I can, and will, confess those sins later. There are tunnels leading out of Lorness…”
Sagen thinks he has Geleib isolated there. How does this affect things?
The apparently penitent woman’s body was shaking, beads of sweat breaking out on her face, her skin grew pale.
“Take your time,” Melyssa consoled.
“The Warrior does not care for Geleib’s subtle manipulations, for his blackmailing, cajoling and threatening. The Warrior wants action, wants blood to be spilled, wants souls to be sundered from their bodies.”
“That… sounds dire.”
“It is. The Warrior will have seen, as I did too late, that Geleib’s plans will not be successful. Therefore, he will do something. It could be anything but it will be rash, violent, and wasteful of life.”
‘Such as?” Melyssa prompted.
“The tunnels. I expect the Warrior will use the tunnels.”
“I don’t understand. Even if they can get behind the soldiers besieging Lorness—”
“No, your Majesty! The tunnels lead through old mines all along Lord Melazera’s Highway. They have been interconnected so they extend almost to High Castle.”
We have a problem. Sagen cannot have anticipated this.
“Go on,” Melyssa urged.
“For Geleib, failing to achieve his goals will result in him wanting to destroy, defame, poison or burn anything and everything that he cannot have. For the Warrior, it will mean an opportunity to spread chaos. Not just in this moment but for years or decades to come.”
“How will they do this?”
“That, your Majesty, I do not know.”
“Then how do you propose to begin your atonement?”
“With maps, pen and paper, I can provide you with the locations of their temples and meeting places, with exits from the tunnels, and where the Order of the Black Robes has stockpiles of… of… everything.”
Melyssa signaled that writing utensils and parchment should be provided.
“I can also show you the way the followers of the God of this Age identify each other.”
Melyssa looked down, controlling her physical reaction. She was not surprised but to hear it said so bluntly caused several emotions to war within her. None of them were pleasant. “That Order was disbanded by Royal Decree in 154.”
“I am sorry to inform you, your Majesty, that only drove it underground, caused Geleib great anxiety and frustration, and delayed his plans.”
“I see… then, perhaps, I should let you begin documenting those things. Start with the tunnels. Once your efforts are completed, we shall talk again.”
I have to get this information to Sagen. It will change things.
“There is only one more thing… but…”
“Go ahead, your Grace.” Melyssa had deliberately not used the title earlier.
Cailleagh blanched. “Your Majesty, I am no longer Duchess of Lorness. My husband has disowned me, declared me dead, and has a substantial bounty on my head.”
“Titles, your Grace,” Melyssa corrected, “are bestowed by the king, not your husband. While King Sagen has issued warrants for Geleib’s arrest, for the seizure of his personal property, and confiscation of all his personal monies, your name was not mentioned. Nor was there a suggestion that you be stripped of your title.”
“I… that is, I don’t know what to say.”
“I did not say that you will keep your titles, Duchess but at this moment they are yours and you should be treated accordingly.”
Cailleagh looked around the room for support. Her face was flushed. “There are traitors amongst you. Not many. Yet enough for Geleib’s success…”
Melyssa bit the inside of her lip, then forced herself to ignore it as she focused on what was happening.
Traitors? How many? Where?
“I don’t know names,” Cailleagh resumed, “but I know that the most senior of them was a captain when he was recruited…”
Approaching High Castle
Daikon Sylvanus nodded to Daikon James. Both had left the column of mounted knights and walked their horses to the hill’s crest.
“So,” Sylvanus prompted, “you told me you couldn’t explain about reflectors until the sun came up. There it is, just cresting the horizon. Go ahead.”
James dismounted, knelt and looked around. His eyes rested briefly on the surrounding hilltops, then searched the depths of the dells between them. “This will do.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are only so many of us, so we came up with a way of selecting transmission and collecting sites. Messages always initiate at a transmission site, a location in a dell. That gives the sender the maximum opportunity to get away.”
Sylvanus frowned. “I’d have thought the opposite. If you were using mirrors—”
“Then you’d expect messages to be sent from hilltops, where anyone intending to intercept those messages would be looking for reflected light. So, we don’t… except in emergencies. And, in those cases, once the message – or series of messages – has been sent, the location is abandoned.”
Sylvanus frowned. “Your reflectors shine out only a narrow shaft of light. How do your people know where to be?”
“Did you see me check sightlines?”
“There are patterns. Too many to teach you now.” James withdrew the reflector from his saddle bags, knelt again just below the hill’s crown. Raising the reflector so that it pointed to the east, where the sun had just risen, he sent a series of short and long pulses, then waited.
“What’s the delay? Isn’t there anyone there?”
“Probably but the sun has just risen behind them. They can’t signal until its higher in the sky. What they can do, if they have something urgent, is send a runner… and…” James used the reflector once but pointed it at a different location. “…I think we’ve got one – no, more than one – coming in. Halt the column. I suspect something major has—”
“James!” A boy of perhaps twelve years of age yelled joyously as he barreled out of the undergrowth then skidded to a halt. “There’s an all-area alert out to find you. The column of knights under Sir Sunak found a major access point into the old mines. Except they been expanded and furred… refurred… reef…”
“Refurbished,” Sylvanus cut in. “What about the mines, lad?”
“Those wearing black robes use them to sneak things around,” the boy grinned. “It’s said they reach all the way to the East River. Doug says they go underneath it but that’s just silly.”
“Thanks, Graham,” James praised. “The mounted knights are going to make camp here for a little while. Stay. Eat. Listen. Let me know what you hear.”
“Yes, James!” The lad dashed off.
Sylvanus strode a few paces down the hill and told his riders to make camp. Whatever was going on, he needed to know.
I’ve been underestimating James and his Roving Knights. It’s time I stopped doing so.
North of Caswell
The wind shifted so it was coming from almost due south, from the heart of Caswell. The stench it carried sickened White Owl. He knelt, then pressed his hands against the earth. He needed its comforting stability, the strength of unchanging, enduring nature.
The riders accompanying him spread out, giving him space. They had learned not to approach him when he sought solace in such a manner. They also knew it meant he was on the track of another find, another nest of corruption.
Their excitement grew as he achingly slowly regained his feet. The longer his recovery time, the greater the prize before them.
They had never seen him so weak.
“South-south-west,” White Owl groaned. Even providing the direction was difficult. Moving closer would be painful to body and soul. Yet, it had to be done.
An hour later, he could walk no further. Not one more step. He had been lurching along like a drunkard for… he didn’t know how long. He had fallen to his knees so many times he had lost count, only to rise again and stagger a little further. Every sense was befuddled with the reek of decay. It was within his nose. It had robbed him of his sense of taste. His skin felt as if it was rotting from his body. His sight was blurred. Even the wind screamed in agony.
His hand raised.
He uncurled a finger.
His arm aimed itself.
The building looked like an old-fashioned circle meeting house that had been converted to hide its origins. But, to White Owl, those changes were pustulating sores, gangrenous gashes and seeping wounds.
Hands grasped his shoulders, pulling him away.
He did not even have the strength to express his gratitude as blissful unconsciousness took him.
Closing on High Castle
Dwain was torn.
There was a very large part of him that increasingly admired Rebekah. She was driven, focused, intelligent and did not let things get in her way.
There was an only slightly smaller part of him – accompanied by a chorus of screaming muscles – that thought she was stubborn, impossible, unwomanly and every other insult his tired, aching body could dredge up through the horror of yet another exchange of horses.
Stumble to the ground.
Release grip on current horse.
Command legs to walk a handful of steps.
Accept the boost into the saddle from the, now inevitable, waiting helpers.
Slip his boots into stirrups.
Spur horse into gallop, following Rebekah’s already receding new mount.
Pride was all that kept Dwain going.
I will not be outdone by…
The thought didn’t matter, only keeping up did.
How many times? I’ve lost count. But the just risen sun at least allows me to admire the coloring of this beautiful bey.
Faster, Dwain, faster. She’s getting away… again.