Chapter 41: Into the Depths – 160 AK, Early Spring
Luke 6:45 A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil.
Lorness Castle – The Outer Bailey
Captain Edryk Lendyld the Third strode along empty corridors, having left his men guarding the Western Barbican. He was seeking an officer, or anyone in charge of defending the castle but could find no one.
He heard the out-of-place warble of a titmouse and saw his twin step out of the shadows.
“Something is very wrong,” Second advised. “The castle is almost deserted. With the exceptions of guards on the walls, a scant few servants, and some kitchen staff, there’s no one. Even Melazera and his lieutenants are missing. Plus, I’ve found several tunnels leading underground. Big tunnels. The sort you could move an army through.”
“Hmmm… not what we were expecting. Is First still with Blackhawk and the Knight of Joshua?”
Second chuckled. “They’ve been playing chess for hours. Blackhawk is still unsure of how capable O’Toole is. The knight plays well but, at times, makes moves that shock our Steven.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there to see it.”
“Don’t worry. You will be. I suspect it will take many moons to determine which is the better player… and the motives behind their moves. There’s more than merely a game going on over that board. Each is testing the other.”
“Hmmm…” Third mused again. “Are they going to continue playing? Does Blackhawk or the knight have orders for us?”
“Both have indicated we should use our initiative,” Second crowed quietly.
“Then, I’ll have control of the Western Barbican within the hour and begin slipping soldiers inside shortly after that.”
“What of the Eastern Barbican?”
“If Blackhawk doesn’t want the honor of taking it, I’ll do so from within.”
“Good hunting, Third.”
“And you too, Second.”
North of Caswell
The sun was well above the horizon.
Their best Seeker, White Owl, was being tended to. The Mestel healers muttering it would take him many days to recover. The Freislicht physicians marveling that he was alive.
Whatever he had found must be of great import to the God of this Age and, thus, must be destroyed. Or, such was the advice Duke Gregory Locke had received from the mixed force of Alexandrians, Roving Knights and Mestels that he commanded.
Gregory cared little for the various beliefs of his allies but had no need to. Their intelligence and insights had proven accurate often enough already in this short campaign. That was good enough for him. He beckoned his three senior officers to join him in his tent.
His nephew, Rodryk Locke, was commanding the Alexandrians. A fine lad with a good head for military tactics and extensive fighting experience while serving south of the Shining Mountains. He was engaged to an exceptional beauty from Clan Ush.
Sir Padraig had, according to what Gregory had heard, become a Roving Knight after he’d encountered them while traveling with Tomas Beck. A tidbit of information that only beset the duke with more questions.
Laughing Thunder was scarred, gaunt and moderately terrifying having demonstrated an ability to move absolutely silently in any circumstance.
“Gentlemen,” Gregory commenced, “what do we know of this structure?”
Rodryk shrugged his shoulders. “Not much. It’s never drawn any comment.”
Laughing Thunder clapped slowly. “So, your enemies have hidden themselves before your very gaze? I do not need White Owl’s Sight to detect patterns of wrongness about that place. It is central. Yet, it is barely used during daylight hours. Those who do enter while the sun is up, do not exit until after it has set. Some never emerge. That is what my warriors have learned in the single week since linking up with the Roving Knights. What say you, Sir Padraig?”
“I doubt I could have said it so clearly. My people have been watching closely for a year and a half. From a distance, for much longer. The Serpent’s local High Priestess is the wife of Earl Drake of Caswell. There are many questions as to how this came to be. Yet, it seems he’s blind to his wife’s… activities.”
[Taryssa paced…she is worried about Drake. Where is the hundn!]
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 was not 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 forwards 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, at all times.
Then she’d laid eyes on Cailleagh Melazera and fallen in love. Or, perhaps, lust. Not for the woman but for the power she wielded, for the way she drew every eye to her as she entered a room, and for how her every whim was catered for. 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 Cailleagh. 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 Cailleagh was waiting. 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 had also been intoxicating, exciting and addictive.
Other assignments had followed. Each improved her position, increased her prestige and reinforced her superiority to those around her, especially her clueless husband.
By 155 AK, 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 the arrangements.
The events at Dunis Glen in 154 AK had disrupted her plans, had thrown her timetable out. Yet, even that had not proven an obstacle in the long run, because in 156 AK Drake had become the Earl of Caswell.
High Castle – The King’s Drawing Room
King Sagen waited until everybody but his queen, his minstrel and Rebekah O’Toole had been escorted from his drawing room. That just left the four of them. Dwain leaning against a wall, playing quietly in the corner, and the other three seated around a trestle table upon which maps had been laid out.
Plus, six guards who had been selected because they were part of the inner circle, led by Commander Taylor.
“Commander,” Sagen instructed, “sit with us. I want you to be part of this discussion.”
“Yes, your Majesty,” Taylor acknowledged, taking a seat.
“We have a problem. Instead of Melazera being contained in Lorness Castle, he could be anywhere. Based on the map provided by the queen, there are dozens of exits from mines he’s spent a decade or more interconnecting.
“In addition, Rebekah O’Toole has brought us news that Melazera intends to strike against us… here at High Castle, or upon the plains outside it. Those are fertile lands, whose crops are vital. Should Melazera’s agents burn or pillage their way through them, the coming winter could be very harsh.
“Thirdly and last, Cailleagh Melazera – who informed us of the tunnels – has stated that there are spies amongst us. You each have a copy of the notes from the Duchess of Lorness’ confessions.”
Sagen paused. “A part of me is loath to take these things seriously. Another tells me that I am looking at the answer to a question I have been trying to resolve since my father’s edicts cancelled unlawful collections: what is Melazera doing with all that manpower? It is not all in the army. It is not in the nation’s brothels.
“If the numbers of collections are to be believed, a sizeable proportion of those taken have never reappeared. Were they used to create these tunnels? If so, why?” Sagen leaned back and looked at each of the three people facing him in turn.
“I have worked with Licht Gegen, your Majesty,” Rebekah began. “If anything, the number of collections officially reported to you is lower than the number actually taken. The problem is that those taken were always the most invisible. Take my own farm as an example, a clerk turned up and demanded the outstanding debt. This was before your father’s proclamation,” she reassured. “They tried taking my daughter and me. When my parents tried to intervene, they killed them. And why not?”
Melyssa blinked, her mouth opening in shock. “That’s… how could you say that?”
“The clerk was the Undersecretary to the Lord of Lorness. Who was I to appeal to? My lord? It was my lord who was illegally demanding repayment. As for killing my parents, it removed witnesses, generated fear and instilled compliance. With the farm burned, there was no evidence as to who had done the deed. Then my lord sold my farm to someone else, increasing his profits again. As well as being able to repeat the process a few years down the track, if they could not pay up. Loathe him though I do, it was an efficient operation.”
“That’s despicable! No one should ever be sold,” the queen pouted.
“It is a question for another day,” Sagen intervened. “If we do not win, it is moot. Commander Taylor, if a force was driven through those tunnels, how quickly could it get here?”
“On foot, your Majesty? Two, three or maybe four days. It would depend upon how quickly they’re moving and how they are motivated.”
“Let’s work on two days. Madam O’Toole, can Licht Gegen assist in defending High Castle and its surrounds? If so, how long will it take you to…” Sagen broke off seeing the slight smile on Jonathan’s wife’s face.
“It’s already underway,” she replied. “They will arrive a day-and-a-half from now but they have not been taught to fight together. They have mastered the sword, the knife or the bow. But they are not an army.”
“They don’t need to be, Madam O’Toole,” Taylor interjected, “they only need to harass and slow. Whatever emerges from those tunnels we want to draw back to High Castle and its defenses. Provoke them, taunt them and hurt them while retreating toward the castle. My men can do the rest. The biggest problem we’ll have is if they don’t take the bait. Should they disperse, we could be hunting them down for moons, or even years, to come.”
“What of bringing some of the forces at Lorness back to High Castle?” The king asked.
“That too is already underway,” Rebekah responded. “They planned to depart at first light this morning. Their arrival could be a close thing.”
Sagen nodded. “As to the spies, I require each of you to review your people. I want answers by noon but I need certainty. Bring me what you can then. We shall evaluate them together over dinner. As for Jonathan and Blackhawk?”
“Joshua will guide my husband,” Rebekah noted. “As for Blackhawk, I expect him to follow Jon’s lead.”
Lorness Castle – The Eastern Barbican
It had been over an hour since Captain Edryk Lendyld the Third had met his twin. Taking the Western Barbican had been easy. He had previously isolated ‘his’ handful of men into small groups. Engaging them and rendering them unconscious was little more than a workout.
Only in the case of ‘his’ sergeant, did he give the man an opportunity to surrender.
The sergeant had blinked, rested his hand on his sword, then drew it – still sheathed – and offered it to Lendyld. He’d had only one request, “May I continue to serve you?”
The captain had looked at him and smiled. “You’re far too good to waste. But I need proof of your surrender. Do you know the guards defending the Eastern Barbican? Will you help me take control of it?”
It did not take long for King Sagen’s forces to quietly begin infiltrating Lorness Castle through the Western Barbican.
Lendyld, a few of his regular troops, and the sergeant, set out for the Eastern Barbican. However, when they arrived something was wrong.
The sergeant informed Captain Lendyld, “Those men on the barbican’s battlements aren’t Melazera’s. They should be Militet but those are moving like regulars. Their armor and weapons are wrong too.”
“If you’re setting a trap for—” the captain began.
“I’m not, sir. To prove it, I’ll go in there alone and unarmed.”
“No… we go together.”
Lendyld and the sergeant stood tall and marched into sight of those defending the Western Barbican. “You there,” he yelled, “get this gate open, I’ve come to inspect your position.”
The response was sloppy, as if the soldier was not used to making it.
Captain Lendyld strode in, the gate barely opening before he would have walked into it.
Within were a circle of men, dressed in ill-fitting uniforms.
Behind them was an Esthlani dressed in the Gorum’s colors. “We meet in the oddest places, Edryk. Wasn’t the last time a gambling den in Farr? Or,” Captain Seamus goaded, “was that one of your twins? Just how many of you are there? I have a bet with my older brother.”
Lendyld chuckled. “I thought you were with the blocking force to the east?”
“I was. Then rats started popping out of the ground and we found the most extraordinary tunnel system. I and a few hundred… uh… friends were sent to investigate. We came up here, had the briefest of scuffles and were just trying to work out what to do next.”
“I’ve already taken the other Barbican. Feel like capturing a castle?”
“Sounds fun… but, what’s your king’s position on looting?”
“He said no enslaving or raping, was damned emphatic about it. Didn’t say anything about an honest soldier taking a few souvenirs… a few. Trying to walk off with the Melazera treasury or jewels… that, might, cause a little upset.”
“How do I know who…?” Seamus pondered.
“Who not to fight or kill? All my people are wearing purple armbands. Yours?”
“We’re wearing Esthlani uniforms, except for…” he jerked his head indicating those of his soldiers pretending to be Melazera’s men.
Beneath Lorness Castle – Geleib’s Private Rooms
Geleib strutted into the room and felt satisfied.
The space was an exact duplicate of his private audience chamber. The one with all the interesting and amusing additions. Things like places to display his toys, living and otherwise. He’d even had the paintings and tapestries duplicated. Here, and in three other bolt holes, he had prepared in case things did not turn out his way.
If I cannot win by one means, I shall by another. The Warrior is my ally, making me invincible… in the long run. So what if a few buildings and people burn along the way? It will only make my triumph all the more memorable!
“Drake, keep up,” Geleib growled. “You insisted on joining me, the least you can do is take pleasure in our impending victory.”
“Victory? Are you mad? We’re hiding below ground. You’ve sent almost everyone you possibly can on a fruitless attempt to storm High Castle by surprise. Yet the tunnels you’re so proud of don’t have exits within that city. They’re outside on the plains. It will be a slaughter. It—”
“It’s intended to be. The point is not to win on the field of battle but to smuggle my assassins and agents into High Castle and elsewhere in its aftermath. Within a week, the king, the queen, and the heirs to the throne will be dead. The survivors will argue the succession amongst them, while I position my chosen heir. And then…”
“Then what, Geleib?”
“Then we sit back in the shadows and run everything. It was a mistake to accept elevation to being a duke. It distracted me. Yet, it also taught me valuable lessons. We’re not done, Drake. We’ve barely begun.” He turned his back on his only companion and walked into a shadowed closet. The poison on his knives and sword needed to be refreshed.
Captain Fortson slipped along a little used passage, seeking a way out of High Castle.
Rumors were circulating of traitors, quislings and sellouts. Already, he’d heard that a maid to one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting had been arrested and was being… questioned… intensely, causing screams to emanate from the normally quiet dungeons.
It wasn’t his fault that Taylor and Blackhawk had not seen the captain’s worth. Melazera had. What did passing along a little gossip now and then matter, or giving someone a beating? Better still, the duke encouraged his people to enjoy whatever pursuits delighted them, and would even help to arrange ‘special’ parties. Best of all, the Duke of Lorness paid and paid well.
Fortson would never have become a rich man serving the king. He had become exceedingly rich serving the man who held true power in Freislicht. He was on the winning side. Taylor and Blackhawk weren’t.
He’d demonstrated he was cleverer and better than both men. That was the real prize. The proof that he was, and always had been, the better soldier.
All he had to do was disappear amidst the ruckus, then retire to enjoy his wealth.
Three more corners and he would be outside. Once there, he was gone.
In the dimly-lit hallway, Fortson did not see the trip wire. It dug into his shin, toppling him to the ground. He hadn’t regained his feet when the cold tip of a sword poked him.
“I was hoping I was wrong,” Commander Taylor said wistfully, then stepped clear.
Fortson found himself surrounded.
“You don’t have to surrender,” Taylor’s voice had grown hard. “Please don’t.”
The captain raised his hands.
Beneath Lorness Castle
The still small voice had been guiding David and his fellow knights for hours. By now, the sun must have been halfway or more to its zenith.
Their number had been reduced from twenty-eight to seventeen due to clashes with randomly appearing groups of armed men who ranged from street thugs to madmen to soldiers.
All their opponents had been armed. Too well armed. It was as if someone had emptied the castle’s armory and let anyone have whatever they wanted. That too was madness.
As David turned a corner, he smelled perfumed candles and saw light cast from an elaborate chandelier. The room it illuminated was out of place. It was surrounded by training areas, storage rooms, and barracks, all of which were deep underground. Yet, it was elegant, expensively decorated and, from his vantage point, contained sumptuous leather chairs, rugs that would befit a king, and a painting of Geleib Melazera’s grandfather, Traneib.
Then Drake walked into view.
David charged. He needed answers.
His men thundered after him.
From an unseen side corridor, a dozen soldiers emerged. Swords clashed as they engaged the knights.
David sped on. His hands were outstretched.
Drake turned slowly. Recognition then horror appeared upon his face, as he drew his sword.
David darted left, drawing his own blade.
Drake lunged but to David’s surprise, his uncle’s target was someone else.
Swords clashed briefly as David completed his turn to see Drake being overwhelmed by Geleib Melazera.
From behind Drake, David saw the tip of Geleib’s sword emerge from his uncle’s back.
With a sadistic smile, Geleib twisted his blade then withdrew it, only for him to be lost moments later in the melee.
David had eyes only for Drake and the growing red stain covering his chest. He pulled his uncle clear of the fighting and held him as the older man died.
“I failed you,” Drake muttered. “I was too much a fair-weather…”