Chapter 42: The King’s Gambit – 160 AK, Early Spring
Galatians 6:7 Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.
Lorness Castle, Geleib’s Private Rooms
Blackhawk rose from the chessboard, leaving Jonathan puzzling over which piece to sacrifice. A moment’s distraction had allowed him to fork O’Toole’s rook and bishop. The only question was which the Knight of Joshua felt he could do better without.
At some point during the night, Lendyld had found Geleib’s private rooms. The ones where he… played. The ones he was likeliest to return to. So, Jonathan had relocated them there.
Steven felt sick. He knew this chamber all too well. Had since Geleib had first brought him to Lorness. There were memories and secrets in this room that would condemn Blackhawk if they ever came to light. Yet, there was something different about it that nagged at him.
Not because this was not the room he’d seen in his vision. It was. Without question, this is where he had seen Geleib attack David O’Toole. And where, from the point of view of the person having that vision, Geleib had stabbed and killed him.
I want to be anywhere else. Better yet, I want Geleib dead before he can utter a single accusatory word at me. But how can I arrange that? Jonathan has given orders that we may kill Melazera on sight, not that we must do so.
Jonathan harrumphed. It was the most vocal response Steven had received during their games and, he hoped, meant that the knight was about to concede the game. But he barely registered it, as the difference in the room was finally clear to him.
There should only be one sconce.
Taking a step to the left, he rotated the two elaborate candle holders in opposite directions. They moved smoothly…
…as did the hidden door that opened revealing a treasure trove.
Jonathan pushed him aside and strode into the center of the newly displayed chamber, only to lash out and smash a glass display case containing a massive, two-handed, bejeweled sword.
Blackhawk recognized it immediately. It was the royal blade that had gone missing on the day King Edal had been murdered.
“This,” the knight announced, “must be returned to the king. But before I withdraw it from its case, all of you must come forwards and bear witness to what we have found.”
“That blade,” Blackhawk responded, “deserves to be more than merely returned to King Sagen. It deserves to be wielded, to avenge its owner, and there is only one man present who can do that.”
Jonathan looked at him blankly, clearly rejecting the suggestion, but…
“Jonathan! Jonathan! Jonathan!” rang out from all those present.
The knight bowed his head. “As it is your wish, so I shall… on one condition.”
“What’s that?” Blackhawk asked, then knew he’d just been entrapped as surely as the rook and bishop on the chessboard.
“That you carry and wield my sword. Will you so honor me, Commander Blackhawk?”
Steven nodded, feeling overwhelmed. Not just by the knight but by the roars of approval of the men around them.
Farmhouse on the plains below High Castle
Brind was a thief, a thug and a blackmailer according to the judge who’d thrown him into Lorness’ dungeons. He didn’t care why he’d been released, only that he had.
Although, being herded through tunnels for two days without meals and only a little water was not the sort of ‘release’ he’d been hoping for. He wanted hot food, cold ale, and a woman. Not necessarily in that order. So, when there was an opportunity to duck into a side passage, he’d taken it. As had the small crew he’d collected. Those who’d remained loners had been beaten, robbed or killed for their water… or anything else of value.
Some hours later, their tunnel had reached the surface and – wonder of wonders – there before them was a small farmhouse, smoke rising lazily from its chimney, two men in the fields, and three girls gossiping over washing they were putting out to dry.
Brind sent the two largest of his boys to deal with the menfolk, with promises of having first choice of the women. He led the remaining six out of the tunnels, sprinting straight toward the farmhouse.
The wind whistled through his hair as he ran, his lusts surging in anticipation of…
The man running beside him stumbled.
Brind didn’t care.
He heard another trip and fall.
His focus was on a sweet young thing of perhaps sixteen with long wavy brunette hair, who’d turned, her hand rising to cover her mouth as she screamed.
He did not notice her other hand, nor the miniature crossbow in it.
He did feel the impact of the bolt loosed from it, and that of another, and another.
Then, his face was plowing a furrow in the dirt.
He ached. His thigh was on fire, as was his gut, and something was lodged in his shoulder that caused him to scream with every breath.
A foot kicked him in the side. It forced him onto his back, snapping the bolt lodged in his shoulder. His eyesight narrowed in pain, only to focus on the beautiful face he’d intended to use for his pleasure. She was above him. There was a narrow-bladed sword in her hand.
“This one’s still breathing,” the beauty said.
“Licht Gegen’s orders were clear: no survivors,” another girl scolded. “If you’re too squeamish…”
The sword’s tip moved and Brind felt warmth flow across his neck.
“…to do the deed, help the others clear away the bodies. We’re likely to have more visitors before the day’s out… or before this place becomes too dangerous to remain in.”
Breathing became difficult. There was a gurgling sound as his vision faded and he died.
On the plains below High Castle
Daikon Sunak sounded his horn, ordering his knights to regroup on him. There were too many people emerging from too many tunnels. If he did not withdraw and re-organize, his force would be overwhelmed, possibly even wiped out.
In the hours since the sun had risen, they had discovered three more tunnel exits. Each had been carefully concealed. Yet, it had been the last of these that had caused the greatest concern. There was a sound emerging from it, like a rushing of water, or an avalanche that somehow did not grow louder. None could identify it.
He had dispatched a message rider for High Castle. Whatever this was, King Sagen had to know about it… and about the tunnels.
Withdrawing his mounted knights to a safe distance, they had waited. In hindsight, he wished he hadn’t. He wished he’d blocked the exits.
The sound finally resolved itself into an increasingly loud clatter of undisciplined feet, marching randomly, not in unison.
Then dozens of men had sprawled into the daylight. More had followed, some trampling those who had gone before. Their numbers only increased.
Horns from riders monitoring other exits had sounded, indicating they too saw men emerging. The long ululating tones told of masses such as Sunak was seeing. Then there were short sharp blasts, indicating his scouts were abandoning their posts rather than being overrun.
When over three hundred men had emerged before him, Sunak had ordered the retreat.
Again, he blew his horn ordering his knights to form on him.
He heard more horns sound, indicating yet more tunnel exits had been spotted with men emerging from them.
A beam of light flashed across Sunak’s face, causing him to blink. Three seconds later, it happened again. “Where? Did anyone see where that—”
“The hilltop beyond our rally point,” Sir Rycci answered, pointing as the pulse of light came a third time.
“Let’s head there. If this is a trap, let’s all meet them,” Sunak snapped.
Horns sounded, passing on his command. Horses galloped, while still more men poured from the tunnels behind them.
Beneath Lorness Castle
David was still cradling his uncle’s dead body. He did not know how long he’d sat there.
His knights had finished off Melazera’s guards. Only three of them had taken light wounds. The fight had gone out of their attackers when Geleib fled.
Cynthia. My sister. Fyrna Locke. Drake Caswell. Geleib Melazera is responsible for all that happened to them. He must pay.
Fiery anger surged within David. Gently laying his uncle out, he rose to his feet with renewed purpose. “Melazera must be stopped. That is the only way this ends. Who’s with me?”
The roars of his knights were as animalistic as the cries for vengeance within his heart.
On the plains below High Castle
Mestel Chieftain Little Bear glowered at the raggedly dressed boy being held on his knees by his warriors. “Why are you following us? What’s this?” The object was a bell-shaped piece of metal that reflected light. He presumed it was a signaling device but had never seen another like it. Mirrors and small pieces of polished steel worked as well, surely?
“I’m Yarrab. I live in the forests to the south. Why are you here?”
“Not what I asked. Again, why are you following us?”
“I’ve never seen your kind before,” the boy responded. “I was curious.”
“Perhaps. What’s this?”
“I found it.”
“Stop tormenting the boy, Little Bear,” a familiar voice intruded as its owner walked into the clearing.
“Daikon Crispus,” the chieftain locked gazes with his old friend, “what brings you out for a stroll this far from your mountain?”
“I’m looking for strays and going where Joshua’s voice guides me. Today, that led me here. This lad is not one of mine. He’s a little too young. Yet I’m confident I know who he belongs to.”
Little Bear did not enjoy Crispus’ roundabout way of speaking. It was too like talking to a Seeker. “That is…?”
“The daikon of the Roving Knights who frequent these woods. Does he carry a small metallic… ah, I see that he does.”
“What is it?”
“A most useful signaling device.” Crispus chuckled. “I have a proposal.”
“I am not betting with you again. It cost me an excellent horse last time.”
Crispus waved his hand as if the thought was the farthest thing from his mind. “No, the lad and I will remain your guests throughout whatever it is you’re doing here in Freislicht. In return, he will use that little device to tell you where to find whoever you’re hunting.”
“I…” the boy began, only to be silenced by his captors.
“Do as I ask, lad,” Crispus suggested. “It’ll be well. Daikon James will approve.”
“If this is another of your tricks,” Little Bear warned, “you’ll owe me three horses.”
“If it doesn’t work out, I’ll give you ten. And let you pick them.”
“Let the boy up. Show us how this toy of yours works.”
On the plains below High Castle
The King’s Messenger had been riding hard. He and his brethren had been ordered to take a message to the minor townships on the plains to the southeast. Everyone was to withdraw to the castle.
The problem was that there were dozens of little hamlets, each supporting maybe a score of farms, most of which did not even have a Herald Station they were so small.
Yet, as he rode toward the third on his list, the light from a mirror flashed across his eyes. He blinked it away but it came again.
Perhaps someone needs my help?
He veered toward the hilltop, reaching its crest twenty minutes later only to encounter several dozen Knights of Joshua. A greater surprise he could not imagine.
“Hold!” Their leader commanded. “Who are you? Why are you here? And why did you signal us?”
“I… what?” The messenger balked. “I didn’t signal you. You signaled me.”
“I… blast him, the Lichtschreiber has already left. I’m Daikon Sunak. What messages do you carry?”
“King Sagen commands all his subjects in this region to withdraw into the castle. An enemy is coming—”
“They’re already here. Do you have a map?”
“Hand it over, son. I’ll mark the locations that I know where there are enemy forces. Take that information back to the king. I’ve already sent one of my riders but this must reach his Majesty as quickly as possible.”
“Yes, Daikon Sunak… and I have a missive for you. The king commanded this be given to the commander of any viable military force any of the messengers he dispatched might encounter.” He withdrew a second scroll from his saddlebags and handed it to the knight, who read it.
“Gentlemen,” Sunak rose onto his feet, still in his stirrups, “we’re going hunting.”
Lorness Castle – Geleib’s Private Rooms
Geleib cursed and cursed again as he ran.
Will nothing go right?
The young knight had Jonathan’s looks, perhaps was even Jon’s son.
What a delicious irony it would have been to capture and play with Jon’s boy? Just as he had played with that boy’s wife.
Why had Drake intervened? The fool! He’d spoiled the game.
Still, watching the misery on the boy’s face as Drake died… delicious!
Yes, that had to be Jon’s son.
Sadly, Geleib found himself temporarily without guards, so going back and capturing the lad was out of the question. Perhaps he shouldn’t have ordered everyone into the tunnels?
He pushed the question aside as moot. It did not matter.
If he was not successful in the short term, he would be in the long run.
Within a week, Freislicht’s monarchy would be no more. He already had several controllable candidates in place. He just needed to collect a few baubles and keepsakes then vanish into the shadows and rule from there.
Turn after turn, twist after twist, Geleib made his way through the castle’s secret passages until he emerged into his favorite playroom. The original of the duplicate where he’d carelessly failed to capture Jon’s son but killed Drake causing the boy such beautiful pain.
Pushing aside the last panel, Geleib emerged into his destination… to find his treasure trove on show… and Jonathan belting on King Edal’s sword.
His insides puckered.
This cannot be!
Steven stood beside Jon.
No-o-o-o-o! Not Steven! He cannot have turned against me too.
Yet, it was Blackhawk that moved first, drawing a sword, roaring and charging at Geleib. Jonathan was at least two paces behind. There were others but they were unimportant.
Melazera stepped back into the secret passageway and slapped the control, snapping it shut, closing off the ghastly, sickening sight of his son charging with murder in his eyes.
Snarling at the cruelty of the situation, he pulled other levers, triggering precautions he had put in place long ago in case someone tried to take away his treasures. Mechanical timers began to tick down as lamp oil was released from reservoirs. Flints lowered into position. Channels to distribute the oil opened. Barred gates slammed down in the distance, trapping Jonathan, Blackhawk and those with them in the playroom.
Cackling to himself, Geleib dashed through tunnels. It would not do to get caught in the fires that were about to be lit.
On the plains below High Castle
D’rson skidded to a halt, having confirmed Sir Sunak’s knights and the king’s messenger were about to meet. He’d have liked to stay and watch the show but if he was going to begin training as a Knight of Joshua next year, he had to demonstrate he could be disciplined and follow orders. Both of which he was bad at.
He needed to pass on all the messages he’d received while on the hilltop. There was a lot going on and, if there was to be any coordination of it at all, he and his fellow Lichtschreibers were going to be very busy. Especially as, outside of the Roving Knights, only Licht Gegen and some Alexandrians knew of their existence… or, so D’rson had been told.
Licht Gegen had three farmhouses set up in this area alone as ambush sites. Two of those had even found the nearest tunnel exit and had crossbowmen stationed above and behind it, permitting them to shoot anyone emerging in the back.
The knights commanded by Daikon Sylvanus and Daikon James were about to join the fray from the west but were requesting updates on the spread of those emerging from the tunnels. They’d like what D’rson had to pass on. There was a large formation moving into almost the perfect position to be ambushed by them.
The king’s soldiers following the two daikons were traveling by road, which would allow them to move faster but not necessarily be in the best position to engage… or so a Roving Knight’s message indicated.
There were also confusing reports of Mestels to the south of the tunnel entrances. Plus, news of a hostage situation regarding a Lichtschreiber being held by a Mestel chieftain. And, an unknown group consisting of knights… and Tarins?
D’rson put aside distractions, almost, checked that his chosen transmission site had not been compromised and sent a ready signal. He got a reply in only seconds, then began passing on what he’d gathered.
Lorness Castle – Geleib’s Private Rooms
Blackhawk heard the gears turn. Geleib should have had them maintained regularly, or so Steven had once advised. He knew the sound but was too far from the barred gates to prevent them from falling.
The clang of metal barriers dropping into place distracted everyone else.
Steven was busy.
On the day Geleib had explained his ‘preventative measures’, he’d been in an extravagantly good mood due to some potion Cailleagh had given him. A potion Blackhawk had avoided taking. Effusive and arrogant, Geleib had answered every question, shown off every feature, and crowed of his genius in designing the ‘perfect trap’ for anyone who dared to try taking away his most prized possessions and keepsakes.
The fact that those things would be destroyed by that trap was insignificant, to Melazera, compared to the thought of them falling into another’s hands. As was the mere detail that he’d had every craftsman, builder and laborer who’d worked on the project killed, making maintenance of the contrivances impossible.
However, Geleib’s show-and-tell had also included the failsafes put in place to ensure those mechanisms could never trap him.
“This way,” Blackhawk grabbed a halberd displayed on the rear wall of the treasure room. Below it was a plaque indicating it had been used to kill someone-or-other. The plaque was a lie, an in-joke he hadn’t found funny the first time he’d heard it. A joke he had no time to waste on now.
Twisting, he rotated the halberd thirty degrees clockwise, then pulled its butt clear of the wall. The sound of the panel opening was obscured by oil pouring into the treasure room and the room outside it.
“Here!” Blackhawk roared, as a narrow stone corridor opened before him.
“Here!” he commanded again. This time getting Jonathan’s attention.
The knight roared to his companions, shooing them ahead of him, and would have entered the escape route last had Steven let him.
Slamming the butt of the halberd back onto the wall, Blackhawk ducked inside as he heard the first flames.
“How?” Jonathan was blocking his way.
“That,” Blackhawk grabbed a hidden lever and slammed it into place, sealing the doorway behind them, “is a very long, very ugly story that I would prefer to tell you… never. We need to move. Those mechanisms were not maintained. Melazera thought that the fire they’d cause would gut only those two rooms. I think the blaze will be much, much bigger.”
On the plains below High Castle
Vincent Donofrio was beginning to think, yet again, that venturing out to where fighting was occurring was not the best of ideas.
He’d been at one of the ambush-farms Licht Gegen had set up in the area since shortly before evil men from all walks of life had begun bubbling up out of the ground like a fountain spewing forth corruption.
He’d even plowed half a field with the farmer, despite periodic interruptions.
In every case, most of the thugs, would-be rapists and other ne’er-do-wells headed straight for the girls working in the yard, just outside the farmhouse. They’d been blind to the crossbow-equipped men and women waiting to ambush them from hides. As for those who had ventured into the field to attack the farmer and him, none had lived to get within arm’s reach. Both of them were very good with a longbow.
Yet, things were changing. The gaps between gangs of men were becoming shorter and shorter. On one occasion within the last hour, three groups had attacked at once. It could have been disastrous if two of those groups had not turned on each other.
A repeating cycle of eleven flashes – some short, some long – was replaying itself on the side of the barn away from the tunnel exits. Other groups of angry, evil men were headed their way. It was time to go.
Vincent tapped the farmer on the shoulder and pointed at the signal. The other man nodded, picked up a horn and blew it three times. Then both of them began unhitching the two horses from the plow. At the farmhouse, the girls in the yard sprinted for the barn. The other defenders remained in place.
It would have been nice if no one had emerged from the tunnels before they departed. That was not to be. Two groups of men, the first of twenty-odd, the second of less than a dozen, emerged one after the other.
Vincent’s initial concern turned to laughter as the smaller group drove the larger one before it. Scattering in every direction, the pursued bunch dissolved into ones and twos, who were rapidly cut down by the eight bowmen amongst their hunters.
Then they were targeting Vincent and the farmer. The horse nearer to the archers was struck three times, once in the flank, once in the torso, and once in the throat. The beast quivered and sank to its knees, being held up by the harness still connecting it to the plow.
Not having been delayed by blowing the horn, Vincent had his horse free. He leapt onto its back and reached for the farmer. More arrows struck. One lodged in his shoulder. Three slammed into the farmer’s back, and the man sank to the ground.
Digging his heels into the horse’s flanks, Vincent galloped away, twisting the horse randomly left and right. Behind him, the heavy twangs of crossbows being fired interrupted the archers shooting at him. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw the battle was over for now.
Three attackers were fleeing. The girls had emerged from the barn with two wagons, onto which the rest of the farm’s defenders were piling.
Vincent rode back to the farmer but it was too late. He slipped down off his horse to put the other animal out of its misery. Then he mounted again, or tried to. His shoulder was worse than he’d acknowledged, so he walked back to the others, leading the horse.
Despite the pain it caused, he increased his pace to a jog. More flashes were showing against the barn’s side. They needed to be gone, quickly.
A dozen Knights of Joshua rode in as they cleared the farm. One was wounded and barely able to stay in the saddle. “Can you take him?” Their leader asked.
Expectant faces turned toward Vincent. He nodded and the wagon rolled to a stop.
He didn’t want to. He didn’t want to do much of anything. The arrow he’d been hit by had gone clean through his shoulder. Had. Two pretty girls had distracted him as another woman had snipped off its ends, then pulled the remainder out. It hurt like hell. Yet they were all looking to him for leadership.
“We’re going to harass these mobs,” the knight continued as the others from his fellowship moved their comrade into the wagon. “Head directly north to avoid trouble then—”
“Why?” A young woman in the other wagon demanded. “We came to fight too. This is our land. These are our homes.”
The knight shook his head. “We intend to taunt and antagonize those mobs, to draw them within range of High Castle.”
“Then we can help,” she insisted, glaring at Vincent. “Our wagons can move faster than they can on foot. We have crossbows and lots of bolts for them. Let them chase after us. We’re prepared for that.” She grabbed something from the wagon’s floor, raised it on hinges so that it provided a protective shield that covered the wagon’s rear. “We even have sheltered places to fire from.”
“Go, Knight,” Vincent intervened. “You’ll not convince us to run. Not when we can repay these wicked men even a fraction of what they have inflicted on us. Ride hard. Hunt well. We’ll see you in High Castle.”
Lorness Castle – Outside Geleib’s Private Rooms
David heard heavy metal grates slam into place, blocking off the entrance to a room identical to the one where Drake had died. There were people inside. In his anger and fury, he imagined one of them was his father.
Reversing course, David and his knights saw a panel open and a head pop out.
The panel snapped shut but the attentions of David and seventeen other knights quickly chopped a hole in the wall large enough for them to follow.