Chapter 43: 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 found 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.”
“Not what we were expecting. Is First still with Blackhawk and the knight?”
Second chuckled. “They’ve been playing chess for hours. Blackhawk’s still unsure of how capable Otual is. The knight plays well but, at times, makes moves that shock our Stev’n.”
“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. “Does Blackhawk or the knight have orders for us?”
“Both 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.”
“You too, Second.”
North of Caswell
Gregory Locke watched the sun rise above the horizon.
His best Seeker, White Owl, was being tended to. The Mestel healers muttered it would take him many days to recover. The Freislicht physicians marveled 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 Gregory had received from the mixed force of Alexandrians, Roving Knights, and Mestels that he commanded. He cared little for the various beliefs of his allies, but had no need to. Their intelligence and insights had already proven accurate. That was good enough for him. He beckoned to his three senior officers.
His nephew, Brodryk 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, according to what Gregory had heard, became a Roving Knight after he’d encountered them while traveling with T’mas Bekh. 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?”
Brodryk shrugged his shoulders. “Not much. It’s never drawn any comment.”
Laughing Thunder clapped slowly. “So, your enemies have hidden 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. Those who do enter while the sun is up, do not exit until after it’s set. Some never emerge. That is what my warriors have learned in a week. 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.”
Lorness Castle – Tunnels
Lieutenant Dekyl wondered how he’d got himself into such a mess.
It had been a great honor to be selected by the king to join those officers supporting Colonel Blackhawk in secret at Lorness Castle, right under Melazera’s nose.
It had been somewhat more mundane actually doing so. Or, it had been until today, or was it yesterday? He’d lost track of time. There was no way to tell how much had passed since being ordered into the tunnels to control the flow of people.
Flow of people.
Such simple words. They’d not prepared him for the emptying of the castle’s dungeons, followed by a non-stop flood of townsfolk, merchants, husbands, wives, and children that were trying to flee Lorness. Then there were guards bustling them along, handing out weapons, and making demands.
It was those demands that had been the final straw.
A sergeant had dragged a clearly unwilling girl toward a side tunnel. She’d been screaming, begging for help. No one had done anything. It wasn’t the first time Dekyl had seen such abuses. But, he’d decided, it would be the last.
Striding up to the soldier, he’d ordered the sergeant to unhand her. Only to be ignored. His sword had rectified that breech of discipline before he’d worked out the consequences of his action.
Since then, he’d been separating women with young children, whole families, and others from the unending throng passing his assigned station. He was not sure what he was going to do with them. He had several dozen hiding in the passageway the sergeant was planning to use.
Yet, he wasn’t going to stop. Not when he could do some good, no matter how small it might be.
High Castle – The King’s Drawing Room
King Sagen waited until everybody but his queen, his minstrel, and R’bekah Otual had been escorted from his drawing room. That just left the four of them. Dwain leaned against a wall, playing quietly in the corner, and the other three sat 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 Ta’ler.
“Commander,” Sagen instructed, “sit with us. I want you to be part of this.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Ta’ler 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 his family’s spent decades interconnecting.
“In addition, R’bekah Otual 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 brutal.
“Thirdly and last, Caileagh Melazera – who informed us of the tunnels – has stated there are spies amongst us. You each have a copy of the notes from the Duchess of Lorness’ confession.”
Sagen paused. “A part of me is loath to take these things seriously. Another tells me I’m looking at the answer to a question I’ve been trying to solve since my father’s edicts canceled unlawful collections: what is Melazera doing with all that manpower? It isn’t in the army. It’s 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.
“I have worked with Licht Gegen, Your Majesty,” R’bekah began. “If anything, the number of collections officially reported to you is lower than the number actually taken. The problem is those selected were always the most invisible. Take my own farm as an example, a clerk turned up demanding 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 was illegally demanding repayment. As for killing my parents, it removed witnesses, generated fear, and fostered 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 couldn’t 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’s moot. Commander Ta’ler, if a force was driven through those tunnels, how quickly could it get here?”
“On foot, Your Majesty? Two, three, maybe four days. It would depend upon how quickly they’re moving and how they are motivated.”
“Let’s plan on two days. Madam Otual, 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 Jon’than’s wife’s face.
“It’s already underway,” she replied. “They will arrive a day-and-a-half from now but they haven’t been taught to fight together. They have mastered the sword, the knife, or the bow. But they aren’t an army.”
“They don’t need to be, Lady Otual,” Ta’ler 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 will 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 forces at Lorness back to High Castle?” The king asked.
“That too is already underway,” R’bekah responded. “They planned to depart at first light this morning. Their arrival could be a close thing.”
Sagen nodded. “As to the traitors, I require each of you to review your people. I want answers by noon, but I need certainty. Bring me what you can. We shall evaluate them together over a meal. As for Jon’than and Blackhawk?”
“J’shua will guide my husband,” R’bekah noted. “As for Blackhawk, I expect he’ll 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 make a show of it… for both their sakes.
The sergeant had blinked, rested his hand on his sword, then drew it – still sheathed – and offered it to Lendyld, requesting, “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 didn’t 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 they’re moving like regulars. Their armor and weapons are wrong too.”
Lendyld and the sergeant stood tall and marched into sight of those defending the Western Barbican. “You there,” he yelled, “open this gate, I’ve come to inspect your position.”
The response was sloppy, as if the soldier wasn’t used to making it.
Captain Lendyld strode in, the gate barely opening before he’d have walked into it.
Within were a circle of men, dressed in ill-fitting uniforms.
Behind them was an Esthlani dressed in 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’ve 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. Try walking off with the Melazera treasury or jewels and that… might… cause an 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 – Gaelib’s Private Rooms
Gaelib 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’d prepared in case things didn’t turn out his way.
If I can’t win by one means, I shall by another. I am a genius. 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,” Gaelib 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–”
Melazera laughed. “It’s intended to be. The point isn’t 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 themselves endlessly. And then…”
“Then what, Gaelib?”
“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 shadowy closet. The poison on his knives and sword needed to be refreshed.
Captain Fortsun 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 Ta’ler and Blackhawk hadn’t 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 arrange ‘special’ parties. Best of all, the Duke of Lorness paid very well.
Fortsun would never have become a rich man serving the king. He’d become exceedingly rich serving the man who held true power in Freislicht. He was on the winning side. Ta’ler 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’d be outside. Once there, he was gone.
In the dimly-lit hallway, Fortsun didn’t 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’d hoped I was wrong,” Commander Ta’ler said wistfully, then stepped clear.
Fortsun was surrounded.
“You don’t have to surrender,” Ta’ler’s voice grew hard. “Please don’t.”
The captain raised his hands.
Beneath Lorness Castle
The still, small voice had been guiding Dav’d and his fellow knights for hours. By now, the sun must be 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 soldiers to street thugs.
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 insane.
As Dav’d 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 Gaelib Melazera’s grandfather, Traneib.
Then Drake walked into view.
Dav’d 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.
Dav’d sped on. His hands were outstretched.
Drake turned slowly. Recognition, then horror upon his face, he drew his sword.
Dav’d darted left, unsheathing his own blade.
Drake lunged, but to Dav’d’s surprise, his uncle’s target was someone else.
Swords clashed briefly as Dav’d completed his turn, just in time to see Drake being overwhelmed by Gaelib Melazera.
From behind, Dav’d saw the tip of Gaelib’s blade emerge through his uncle’s back.
With a sadistic smile, Gaelib twisted his sword, then withdrew it, only to be lost in the melee moments later.
Dav’d only had eyes 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…”