Chapter 44: 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, Gaelib’s Private Rooms
Blackhawk rose from the chessboard, leaving Jon’than puzzling over which piece to sacrifice. A moment’s distraction had allowed him to fork Otual’s rook and bishop. The only question was which the Knight of J’shua could do without.
At some point during the night, Lendyld had found Gaelib’s private rooms. The ones where he… played. Those he was likeliest to return to. So, Jon’than had relocated them there.
Stev’n felt sick. He knew this chamber all too well. Had since Gaelib 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 wasn’t the room he’d seen in his vision. It was. Without question, this is where he’d seen Gaelib attack Dav’d Otual. And where, from the point of view of the person having that vision, Gaelib had stabbed and killed him.
I want to be anywhere else. Better yet, I want Gaelib dead before he can utter a single word. But how do I arrange that? Jon’than’s given orders that we may kill Melazera on sight, not that we must.
The knight harrumphed. It was the most vocal response Stev’n had received during their games and, he hoped, meant that the other was about to concede. But he barely registered it, as the difference in the room was finally clear to him.
There are two sconces. There’d only been one in the vision.
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. That sound drew everyone’s attention.
Jon’than strode into the center of the newly displayed chamber, only to smash a glass 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 forward and bear witness to what we have found.”
“That,” Blackhawk countered, “deserves to be more than merely returned to King Sagen. It deserves to be wielded, to avenge its owner, and there’s only one man present who can do that.”
Jon’than looked at him blankly, clearly rejecting the suggestion.
“Jon’than! Jon’than! Jon’than!” rang out from all those present.
The knight bowed his head. “As you all wish, so I shall… on one condition.”
“What?” Blackhawk knew he’d just been entrapped as surely as the rook and bishop on the chessboard.
“That you wield my sword. Will you so honor me, Commander Blackhawk?”
Stev’n nodded, feeling overwhelmed. Not just by the knight, but by the roars of approval of their men.
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 wasn’t 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 and anything else of value.
Hours later, their tunnel had reached the surface, and – wonder of wonders – 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 his two largest lads 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 didn’t 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 arm. 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 from a distance. “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.”
Breathing became difficult. There was gurgling as his vision faded. Then Brind 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 didn’t withdraw and re-organize, his force would be overwhelmed.
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 didn’t grow louder. None could identify it.
He’d 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’d waited. In hindsight, he wished they hadn’t. He wished they’d blocked the exits.
The sound finally resolved itself into an increasingly loud clatter of undisciplined feet. Dozens of men had sprawled into the daylight. More followed. Their numbers 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 saw. Then there were short sharp blasts, indicating his scouts were abandoning their posts rather than being overrun.
When over three hundred men had emerged, Sunak 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, that yet more men were appearing.
A beam of light flashed across Sunak’s face. 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.
Still more men poured from the tunnels behind them.
Beneath Lorness Castle
Dav’d was cradling his uncle’s dead body. He didn’t know how long he’d sat there, while his knights had finished off Melazera’s guards. The fight had gone out of their attackers when Gaelib fled.
Cynthia. My sister. Fyrna Locke. Drake Caswell. Gaelib Melazera is responsible for all that’s happened to them. He must pay.
Fiery anger surged within Dav’d. Gently laying his uncle down, he rose to his feet with renewed purpose. “Melazera must be stopped. That’s the only way this ends. Who’s with me?”
The roars of his men, even the three wounded, were as animalistic as the cries within him.
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 is 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 is 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 so far from your mountain?”
“I’m looking for strays, going where J’shua’s voice guides me. Today, that’s here. This lad isn’t 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 you’re doing in Freislicht. In return, he’ll 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 will owe me three horses.”
“If it doesn’t work out, I’ll give you ten. And let you pick them.”
“Ten…?” Little Bear stroked his chin. “Let the boy up. Show us how this toy works.”
Lorness Castle - The Tunnels
Lieutenant Dekyl didn’t know how much time had passed, nor how people could still be traveling by his assigned station. Admittedly, their numbers were down to the odd trickle compared to the river they’d been.
His only concern was staying awake, guarding those he’d saved, and rescuing any he thought worthy. Not that there’d been any of them for some time. The ruffians, thugs, and deserters slipping by were doing their best to avoid him. Most carried sacks, bags or pouches that jingled with baden or from which the occasional valuable would slip.
“Dekyl! Lieutenant Dekyl,” an all too welcome voice boomed. It was Major Dunnen, one of Blackhawk’s most trusted officers. “I thought we’d lost you. Still alive and in place after a day and a half… well, close enough to two. Well done, lad!”
“A day and–”
“Never mind. How many did you save? I’ll not doubt you by asking if you’ve protected those who needed it.”
“Uh… perhaps six or seven dozen–”
“You’ve put most of the other lieutenants to shame. Well done, indeed. Our fellow officers and some trusted men are on the way here. They’ve food and water for you and your people.”
Dekyl nodded, numb and barely able to comprehend the major’s words.
“Are you alright, lad?”
“I…” It was all he could get out.
“I’ll wait with you until our companions arrive. Find a wall, lean against it, and catch a little sleep. This isn’t over yet.”
On the Plains Below High Castle
The King’s Messenger had been riding hard. He and his brethren had been ordered to take warnings 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 didn’t even have a Herald Station. They were too 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 J’shua.
“Hold!” Their leader commanded. “Who’re you? Why’re you here? Why’d you signal us?”
“I… what?” The messenger balked. “I didn’t. You signaled me.”
“I… blast him, the Lichtschreiber has already left. I’m Daikon Sunak. What messages do you carry?”
“King Sagen commands all hereabout to withdraw to the castle. An enemy comes–”
“They’re already here. Do you have a map?”
“Hand it over, son. I’ll mark the locations where enemy forces are appearing. Take it 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 his messengers encountered.” He withdrew a scroll from his saddlebags and handed it to the knight, who read it.
“Gentlemen,” Sunak rose onto his feet, standing in his stirrups, “we’re going hunting.”
Lorness Castle – Gaelib’s Private Rooms
Gaelib cursed and cursed again as he ran.
Will nothing go right?
The young knight had Jon’than’s looks, perhaps was even Jon’s son.
What an exquisite joy it would have been to possess and play with knight’s boy. As he’d played with Jon, and that boy’s wife.
Why had Drake intervened? The fool! He’d spoiled my game. Still, watching the misery on the boy’s face as Drake died… delicious!
Yes, that had to be Jon’s son.
Sadly, Gaelib 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 idea aside. It didn’t matter.
If he wasn’t 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, Gaelib made his way through the castle’s secret passages until he emerged into his favorite playroom. The original, not the duplicate where he’d carelessly failed to apprehend Jon’s son.
Sliding open the last panel, Gaelib emerged into his destination to find his treasure trove on show… and Jon’than belting on King Edal’s sword.
His insides puckered.
This can’t be!
Stev’n stood beside Jon.
No-o-o-o-o! Not Stev’n! He can’t have turned against me!
Yet, it was Blackhawk that moved first, drawing a sword, roaring, and charging at Gaelib. Jon’than 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 advancing with murder in his eyes.
He pulled levers while snarling at the cruelty of the situation, he triggered precautions put in place long ago to prevent someone from stealing his treasures. Mechanical timers began to tick down as lamp oil was released from reservoirs. Flints lowered into position. Channels opened to distribute the flammable liquid. Barred gates slammed down trapping Jon’than, Blackhawk, and those with them.
Cackling, Gaelib dashed through tunnels to avoid getting caught in the fires 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 J’shua 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 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.
Licht Gegen had three farmhouses set up in this area alone that hid trained men and women. 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 they 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.
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 hadn’t been compromised and sent a ready signal. He got a reply in only seconds, then began passing on what he’d gathered.
Lorness Castle – Gaelib’s Private Rooms
Blackhawk heard the gears turn. Gaelib should have had them maintained regularly, or so Stev’n had once advised. He knew the sound, but was too far from the barred gates to prevent them falling.
The clang of metal barriers dropping into place distracted everyone else.
Stev’n was busy.
On the day Gaelib had explained his ‘preventative measures’, he’d been in an extravagantly good mood due to some potion Caileagh had given him. A potion Blackhawk had avoided taking. Effusive and arrogant, Gaelib 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 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, Gaelib’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 a 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 beside him.
“Here!” he commanded again. This time getting Jon’than’s attention.
The knight roared to his companions, shooing them ahead of him, and would have entered the escape route last had Stev’n let him.
Slamming the butt of the halberd back onto the wall, Blackhawk ducked inside as he heard the first flames.
“How?” Jon’than 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
V’ncent Donofrio was beginning to think, yet again, that venturing out to where fighting was occurring was not his best idea.
He’d been at one of the ambush-farms Licht Gegen had set up in the area since shortly before evil men had begun bubbling up out of the ground like a tainted 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 him and the farmer, none had lived to get within arm’s reach. Both men were very good with a longbow.
Yet, things were changing. The gaps between gangs of men were becoming shorter and shorter. Once within the last hour, three groups had attacked at once. It could have been disastrous if two of those groups hadn’t turned on each other.
A cycle of eleven flashes – some short, some long – was repeating 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.
V’ncent tapped the farmer on the shoulder and pointed toward the signal. The other man nodded, picked up a horn, and blew it three times. 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.
V’ncent’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 of the smaller gang.
Then they were targeting V’ncent 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, V’ncent 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, V’ncent galloped away, twisting the steed 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.
V’ncent rode back to for the farmer, but it was too late. He slipped down 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.
Despite the stabbing 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 J’shua 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 V’ncent. 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 his fellows moved their comrade onto 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 V’ncent. “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, and 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,” V’ncent intervened. “You’ll not convince us to run. Not when we can repay these wicked men even a fraction of what they’ve inflicted on us. Ride hard. Hunt well. We’ll see you in High Castle.”
Lorness Castle – Outside Gaelib’s Private Rooms
Dav’d 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, Dav’d and his knights saw a panel open and a head pop out.
The panel snapped shut but Dav’d and his seventeen knights quickly chopped a hole large enough for them to follow.