Chapter 43: End Game – 160 AK, Early Spring
Galatians 6:8 For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.
On the Plains Below High Castle
Little Bear took half a step back then slashed downwards with his tomahawk. The man who had been lunging at him missed. The Mestel Chieftain did not. His hand-axe struck the base of his target’s skull with a meaty thunk.
Others were emerging from the tunnel exit the Mestels had found with the Lichtschreiber’s aid… and that of Daikon Crispus. The ill-prepared fools were trying to flee southwards. The agreement that Freislicht’s king had reached with the tribal elders made any moving away from High Castle fair game. Other tribes were hunting to the east and northeast.
It’s a pity most of them are such poor sport.
A thought Little Bear immediately regretted as he found himself defending against a worthy opponent wielding a large knife.
Block. Parry. Twist.
Blast but he’s good.
Little Bear feinted. His opponent did not fall for it.
On they fought, oblivious to others.
Arrows could be heard striking those fleeing from the tunnels. Only a few, most of the chieftain’s warriors preferred hand-to-hand combat, as he did. In addition to that handful, the Lichtschreiber lad and the elderly-and-less-than-spry Daikon Crispin were also archers. The boy’s bow was underpowered but accurate enough. The knight’s bow…
Little Bear felt the passage of the arrow. His tomahawk had caught his attacker’s knife as they grappled together. The missile’s fletching all but touched his temple as the arrow penetrated his opponent’s eye.
The man’s body crumbled bonelessly to the ground.
Little Bear looked back to thank Crispus, only to see Yarrab grin at him.
On the plains below High Castle
Sunak spurred his horse back into a gallop as he rode down three fleeing men. Three times his sword flashed. Three times a man fell.
The horn sounded the recall.
He and his fellow knights broke off. They had just wounded or killed half a hundred or so. All within sight of a mob that was growing ever larger. A throng that must number many, many hundreds, if not thousands. Enraging those evil men who were incapable of matching his horse’s speed or assembling in sufficient numbers to be a threat to fast-moving cavalry attacks.
Each attack taunted, reinforced the powerlessness of the gathered multitudes.
Each attack drove home their helplessness.
Each attack robbed the headless host of everything other than the need for revenge, so they surged forth ever faster, lashed out ever more carelessly, screamed their defiance ever more futilely.
All the while being led further and further toward High Castle.
Lorness Castle – Secret Passages
Geleib swore, and kept swearing.
Jon’s son had appeared before him… again… but with too many companions.
If there’d been time to renew the poisons on his blades, he might have risked taking on three or four.
But over a dozen? Never!
Nor was there anywhere nearby where he could ambush them, gather troops or…
This is unfair! Why do you taunt me so, Warrior? I’ve done all you’ve demanded. Is the son of my enemy too much to ask for?
With the clumsy predictability of knights, Jon’s boy and his companions were breaking into the secret passages…
…then inspiration struck.
Thank you, Warrior. I should not have doubted you.
Opening a panel, Geleib reset the passages in this section of the castle so that the blundering clueless knights would think they were following a single corridor with only one or two exits from it. He then stepped into one of the concealed bays and waited.
On the plains below High Castle
Former Docent Labret tried not to get swept up in the insanity around him. He had no intention of being part of a mindless mob. Yet the accursed Knights of Joshua were playing the masses surrounding him as if they were a lute.
Dash in, kill a few, dash off before the rest can retaliate.
Dart around the other side of the formation, find a spot where there were stragglers, dart in and kill a few dozen more, then withdraw again.
Find another weak spot, repeat again.
And what did the mindless cretins around Labret do? They fell for this obvious ploy every time. They allowed their anger and their fears to drive them after the knights.
Even women and wounded men in wagons had periodically appeared, fired crossbows into the human swarm, and had it react with no more sense than bees defending a hive.
Labret wanted to get to High Castle but not as part of a horde that would smash against that fortress’ defenses with all the effect of a wave crashing onto rocks. If he wasn’t killed outright, he was far too likely to be caught.
Worse, if the king had learned that Labret and others like him sought to enter the royal castle, it would already be sealed against them. High Castle was not like Lorness. It took its security seriously. As did the soldiers stationed there.
No, it was time to call his assassination instructions exactly what they were: just another way to get him killed.
Labret tried to move against the flood of humanity around him. He could not.
He tried to move toward its edges and made little progress.
There was a sudden gap. Labret darted into it without looking. He had to get away.
The waggoneer must have been a madman. He’d raced his four horses and the wagon they towed into the edge of the crowd. He trampled people under their hooves. He’d caused others to dive out of the way, to dive anywhere to avoid being run down. He’d punched a hole into and through the masses.
A hole that opened before him, his team and his wagon.
A hole that Labret had dashed into.
He barely saw the wagon pass. He felt the long, jagged extensions from its rear axles cut through his legs. Then there was a moment of indescribable pain as the stumps slammed into the ground, which only ceased as a crossbow bolt severed his spine.
Then, there was nothing.
Daikon Richard Overhill mock-scowled at the newly-minted Roving Knight who’d just ridden in trailing a cloud of dust. It was his nephew, Lucas. “You’re late. Our southern kin have been arriving for days and, a still small voice tells me, that the party has already begun.”
“I bring you the gift, uncle, of…” Lucas fished a bell-shaped metallic object from his saddlebags, “…knowledge. My wayward forest-dwelling brothers have been sending me messages about what forces are where… and…”
Richard tried to suppress his smile and couldn’t, “And…?”
“And one of these,” he waggled the strange object, “has reached the king, who has issued orders. For you, specifically. Have not several of the knights with you worked in Alexandrian mines? His Majesty wants tunnel entrances collapsed. He wants however many are still traveling through them to be forced out near High Castle, not further south.”
“What of the men inside?”
“They are either Melazera’s agents or his pawns. They must be captured or killed. The king commands you to preserve your force.”
“So, directly or indirectly, I am to kill those in the tunnels?” Richard frowned. “I do not like it but we are outnumbered. Victory requires sacrifice. Let it be their lives, not ours. Show me the map, Lucas. Where’s our first target?”
Lorness Castle, Secret Passages
David had fallen back to being last in line. It was impossible to pursue Melazera through the accursed dimly lit secret passages that led who-knew-where except in single file. While he wanted to be first, that honor and the risks that went with it had to be shared.
Without warning, the floor of the passage gave way and nine knights fell to their deaths. Impaled fifteen feet below on rusty iron spikes, not all died immediately. Yet, there was no way to help them.
Four knights were isolated on the far side of the pit, leaving only David and two others. Without any alternative, the two groups agreed to go in opposite directions.
Unable to proceed forward, David turned around, becoming first in line again.
Less than a minute later, he heard a sound behind him. Something fell. The sound came again. David turned just in time, to block the sword thrust with his dagger, and see Geleib Melazera smashing into him.
The secret passage’s wall, which had appeared solid, gave way under their combined weight as they rolled and grappled
David felt a pain in his side as Geleib’s sword snapped. He punched into the face before him. Melazera mistakenly blocked. David’s dagger slid into flesh. Warm blood made it slippery, hard to hold onto.
Something else gave way as they continued rolling, striking at each other.
The dim light of the secret passages was replaced by dozens of candles in sconces.
Geleib kneed David in the groin, broke free and ran.
The spreading bloodstain on the Lord of Lorness’ side brought great pleasure to David. But, when he tried to rise to his feet, he couldn’t. He was nauseous. Bile erupted from his throat.
Then an impossible face was above his.
The person was saying something, issuing orders but they made no sense as they seemed to come from further and further in the distance.
On the High-Castle-to-Fairness-Crossing Road
For Daikon Daryl Andrews it felt good to be dressed as a Knight of Joshua again. He had hidden in plain sight for too long as the proprietor of the Lion & Tiger Inn.
It had felt even better to share a week’s fellowship with Richard Overhill at his farm.
His only regret was that he could not ride with Richard.
Instead, through Commander Taylor, Andrews had been charged with acting as guide to the Tarins who were coming to King Sagen’s aid.
The captain leading the Tarins’ vanguard of a hundred twenty horsemen had arrived yesterday. A prickly status-conscious fellow, as all Tarins tended to be, he had camped his people away from the farmhouse and the tents of the other assembled knights. “Do not address my men,” he’d instructed. “Your status will only confuse them. Speak only to me. The main body will arrive at the point where I turned off the main road north at first light. We must be there to meet them.”
And so, Daryl Andrews had met the Tarins’ host, an additional 240 horsemen and nearly 1,500 soldiers, plus their supply train.
The sun was almost at its zenith.
The Tarins were killing all those trying to escape south.
Daryl acknowledged that the Tarins were precise, efficient, and horrific.
If anyone from the tunnels managed to get into the south, it would have been through the woods. Joshua help them against the wild lads who live there. If the rumors about those delinquents are true, I’d rather face the Tarins. At least, that way my end would be quick.
The Tarins captain summed up the operation all too bluntly, “Our orders are simple, Daikon Daryl. Do not let this infestation of evil spread toward or into our lands.”
Daikons Sunak, Norin and James rode together into High Castle.
The sun was low in the sky.
Based on messages passed by Daikon James’ Roving Knights and Lichtschreibers, those who’d exited the tunnels and headed south had run into the Tarins and were fertilizing the fields along that road. If they’d gone southeast or east, they’d been hunted down by the Mestels. Any attempting to flee back westward had run into the king’s men… or knights… or Licht Gegen. The last of whom had proven far more capable than anyone had expected.
Then there were those who’d exited the tunnels and been taunted, tormented and teased by a vastly inferior number of knights, and an even smaller number from Licht Gegen, into heading north… to within High Castle’s reach. The death toll amongst Melazera’s followers was a thing of nightmares. Dead and dying men – plus some women and children – were strewn haphazardly to the horizon, as if a child playing with an infinite number of dolls had had a temper tantrum.
The horrific view stretched as far as the eye could see.
Yet, there had been a development late in the day as more and more of those emerging from the tunnels had dropped their weapons and surrendered. Families who had been swept up in Geleib’s wicked plot. People who were doing nothing more than trying to survive.
They were being escorted north of High Castle toward the Sea of Glass, and wagonloads of provisions were being dispatched to support them.
Still, Sunak did not want an eyeglass. He was afraid the awful view of the battlefield would stretch even further. The only other good news was that Lorness Castle had been taken with almost no loss of life on either side.
As yet, there was no word of Jonathan O’Toole or Commander Blackhawk.
Lorness Castle – Living Areas
Blackhawk had led them out of the passageway into an area of the castle he hoped Geleib might flee through, only to strike it lucky… sort of.
Melazera darted furtively across a doorway to Steven’s right. There was blood on his shirt, and down his left side. But Blackhawk had not been the only one to see him. Three knights were faster and already in pursuit.
It was only by luck, again of a sort, that Steven had looked back at where Melazera had fled from. Part of a sword protruded from the body’s torso…
He wanted, needed to pursue his father. Yet, he could not bring himself to leave a man alone to die in such pain. Although still breathing, that man was surely near death. Geleib left no witnesses. In any case, others would reach Melazera before him.
Striding to the body, he turned the man’s head. David O’Toole’s face was flushed, breathing shallowly and…
Blast you, father!
The poison used was obvious. David’s not being dead already meant he’d received only a partial dose.
Scrabbling within the pouches at his belt, Steven pulled out a vial, moss, and herbs.
The vial he emptied into David’s mouth. Pinching the knight’s nose shut to ensure the he swallowed it.
He checked the injury. It might be survivable. Packing the wound with moss, he extracted the tip of a sword’s blade. Its poison grooves confirmed it had been Geleib’s. Although from its state, David had not been the first stabbed with it. That alone might still save the knight’s life.
Voices yelled at Steven. He snapped back at them automatically as he kept working. When someone reached for the fragment of blade, he warned, “Don’t! It’s poisoned.”
“You!” He commanded whoever had knelt opposite him, barely registering it was Jonathan, “put pressure on the moss. Hold it in place. It will slow his bleeding and lessen the effect of the poison. Someone cut material for bandages. And I need this,” he held out the herbs, “mixed into half a cup of water.”
Steven found himself praying to Joshua. Please, Lord, help me save this life.
High Castle – on the battlements atop the Barbican
King Sagen looked at the devastation below the castle. The dead and dying stretched as far as he could see, even with an eyeglass. He did not want to know their numbers, although they would inevitably come in the following days.
They had won.
But the cost…
“What troubles you, my king?” Melyssa asked as she approached and wrapped her arm around his waist.
“Could I have done anything else?”
“Despite your promises to tell me the whole truth at all times,” she teased with an impish grin, “you have never disclosed your strategy, so I don’t know how to reply.”
“You may despise me if—”
“Hush,” she commanded, “I’ll hear no such nonsense. You are a good man. You are a better king. And, it hurts you when you have to do difficult things for the good of our people. What more should I have to know? And, why, after all our years together, would you doubt me now?”
Sagen took her in his arms. “Because I doubt myself.”
“Then, my love, my husband, and my king, why don’t you tell me and let me decide your fate? Come inside where we can speak properly in private.”
Lorness Castle, Living Areas
Jonathan stood as two of his knights dragged a bound but struggling, screaming but gagged Geleib into the room where David was, just, clinging onto life. “Where’s the third knight?”
“It was just a flesh wound. He’ll be along soon,” Sir Renhope noted.
“You two,” Jonathan selected another pair of knights, “bring the third quickly. Lorness poisons his blades. As for you,” he focused on Geleib after they had departed, “part of me thinks I should take you to High Castle, trussed like a stuffed fowl to stand trial, be found guilty, and then sentenced to death. But the rest of me fears how far your influence extends even now. You chose to serve a dark god and evil spirits. By that decision alone, you have condemned yourself.
“I am not fool enough to offer you trial by combat.
“I am not fool enough to trust that you cannot buy an innocent verdict.
“I am not fool enough to risk keeping you alive a single moment more than necessary.
“Therefore, by the authority granted to me by King Sagen as his Over-Commander, I sentence you to death. Sentence to be carried out here and now.”
Geleib’s eyes had grown larger and larger with each statement. Then they focused on Blackhawk.
“If I may,” the commander looked up from his patient, “I would ask a boon of you, Sir Jonathan.”
“What? You have saved my son’s life—”
“Not yet, I haven’t,” Blackhawk corrected. “His chances are good. They will be even better if we can find one of their… workshops. But we cannot do that, guard this prisoner, and avoid the fires that I fear are spreading.”
“What is your favor?”
“Let me kill him, with one of his own knives. No matter what happens, for the rest of my life there will be those who think I was secretly in league with this… monster. Despite the fact that throughout King Sagen’s reign, and even during King Edal’s, I was working for Freislicht.”
Geleib’s eyes wavered. Tears began to roll down his face. Jonathan assumed it was because he had been fooled so completely.
“From the very first moment that I met the self-styled Lord of Lorness, my life has been cast into darkness. I shall never atone for the things I did to bring this… this…” His voice broke. “To bring this person to justice. I doubt your own son will ever truly forgive me. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to forgive myself. But, if it is known that he died at my hands, at your lawful order, it will make my future a little less gloomy.”
Jonathan hesitated. Even when the still small voice encouraged him to agree, he delayed.
Geleib was shaking his head, struggling and failing to break free.
“I understand,” the words were heavy on his tongue. He unsheathed King Edal’s sword, looking at the length of the blade with longing. He wanted to be the one to end this matter. It was what he had asked when his first life ended, after he’d found his house burned, and his wife and daughter missing. Yet within him, his need for revenge, for retribution, warred with his desire for justice. “This man killed a king. A king you served. A king that deserves his right and just retribution. If you would kill him, do so with this blade.”
Blackhawk took a long slow breath then stood and accepted the king’s sword. It was clear to all present that emotions warred within him. None wanted to know what they were.
The two knights holding Melazera forced him to his knees.
Jonathan walked behind the prisoner, placed a foot in the middle of Lorness’ back, then put his weight on it, pushing Geleib’s torso down so that it was parallel with the ground. “Whenever you are ready.”
Melazera’s head turned toward Blackhawk. Some later suggested it was to curse the commander. Others said it was a last plea for mercy.
Commander Blackhawk raised the two-handed sword over his head. Slashing down, he ended the life of the Duke of Lorness.