Many years ago, when Caileagh was sixteen, she arrived in a new castle in a new country. She knew no one in Freislicht. All her friends were back in Mandugh, a country far away.
Her mother, Farina, had succeeded. She and that foul wizard, pretending to be a servant, had concocted a scheme to escape the poverty of Mandugh’s capital. First, they required money. Rich men sought Caileagh’s attention. All were older, wealthy merchants. None of them wanted her as their wife. Yet they showered her with gifts–intricate gem-encrusted jewelry and exotic fabric, all of which her mother sold.
Next, Farina sought out and seduced a bookish diplomat from a foreign country, Freislicht. Not long after they married, a scandal broke. It became public knowledge that this envoy had used the daughter of his new wife as a whore, selling her services to those he wanted to curry favor with. All this went exactly as her mother had planned. Soon he was recalled.
On their way to his homeland, the ambassador died of a bloody flux. Caileagh suspected poison as her mother was skilled with all manner of teas and tinctures.
When she, her mother, and the ambassador’s body arrived in Freislicht, King Edal’s court received the bereaved women, according them all the honors due to a deceased ambassador’s widow and his adopted daughter. There were no side-eyed looks or murmurs about why he had been recalled, nor was a single unkind word spoken about him, in public.
In private, wild stories abounded, whispers that Farina fed and twisted to her favor. Rumors that told of a man with ‘odd’ proclivities, which he’d forced upon the poor unsuspecting woman. Rumors that suggested darker and more evil actions. Rumors that the dead man had lusted after Farina’s daughter.
Caileagh watched in awe as her mother became known as the most virtuous of women who, by the grace of J’shua, had been saved from the predations of evil.
Farina was befriended by many of the ladies of the court. She earned a good reputation for having overcome great hardships. She was respected because, despite the ordeals she’d been through, she was always entertaining, helpful, and complimentary.
As instructed by her mother, and the malignant sorcerer always lurking in the background, Caileagh remained quiet, avoiding attention, flinching away from any touch. She did not understand why she’d been told to act so, only that disobedience would not be tolerated.
Thus, she became the main prop in her mother’s masquerade, while Farina wrapped otherwise intelligent men and women around her finger. By ‘selflessly’ refusing the help they offered, her mother made those wanting to assist her all the more insistent that–if only for the sake of her daughter–she must accept their ‘small’ acts of kindness.
As the moons passed, mother gleaned the court’s secrets. Who held power behind the scenes. Who was having an affair, when it had started, and if it was likely to end. Who was blackmailing whom. Amongst the details, she learned that Lady Melazera was abused by her husband and that the woman had a young son.
Farina used the social currents of the court to insinuate herself into that lady’s social life. The poor woman was so desperate for a compassionate friend, Farina easily became her sole confidant.
Once Farina and Lady Melazera began meeting every day for tea, Caileagh knew the noblewoman’s days were numbered. When the woman died, her mother began comforting the bereaved husband. Bereaved? Ha! He latched on to mother faster than a fly on mutton. As always, she was entertaining, helpful, and complimentary.
Caileagh thought back to her earliest days in Mandugh. There, mother had taught her how to manipulate anyone. Through peepholes and from behind screens, she’d watched Farina play hundreds of roles, each with its wiles, each with its advantages and disadvantages. She’d learned which method was appropriate and when. She’d learned what to do if an approach backfired. And she’d been made to practice those skills on other children.
Mother was a planner. It was not long before the earl gained the king’s permission to marry Farina, and then she and her mother became nobles. It wasn’t until then that Caileagh learned the next part she would play. She was her mother’s ticket to control of the earldom. Caileagh must marry the earl’s son, Gaelib.
It was too much. He was a boy.
Well, Caileagh would marry the earl’s son, but she had a plan too. She sought out the wizard who eagerly taught her his hidden knowledge of the old Gods. She made friends of her own. She could draw people to her. Some desired influence. Some desired wealth. Some thought she could make important introductions. Others wanted to be needed.
Studying each target, she learned what each wanted, fed their hopes, encouraged every dream. She groomed six to be loyal to her. Over the next ten years, from this devoted cadre, she developed the Order of the Black Robe.
Each member dressed simply, all in black. The finest silk tunic and breeches and a black woolen cloak. Their black leather boots were always polished. They walked with a deliberate ceremonious gait and spoke slowly. This costume and pretense made them stand out and appear wise. The mystique of the Order of the Black Robe propelled its growth.
The black-robes were commanded to always please the one to whom they were assigned. Above all, each was instructed to always remain entertaining, helpful, and complimentary. Soon nobles and merchants everywhere were using them for any important task. Some seeking advancement vowed loyalty to the Order with their blood. And when these specialized players dressed and acted like common people, no one recognized them—very useful for covert operations.
There were four independent groups. Each numbered in the hundreds. No group was aware of the other three. The lower-level members within these knew nothing of the mysteries granted to those of higher rank.
Sparrows surveilled the commoners, Ravens the nobles, Eagles the castles, and Hawks the army. Trusted, their eyes and ears sought opportunities and weaknesses. Each was obedient to the Order. Her birds were everywhere. When they spoke, gossipers listened. The intelligence was passed on to her and Gaelib through weekly meetings with the docents who managed them. There was no higher power than information.
It was pleasing to see the people of Freislicht accept the world she’d ever so gradually painted for them. Unwittingly, they perpetuated it. It didn’t matter what they requested from the Order; be it recommendations, coveted placements, power, fame, or wealth. All pushed the influence of the Order of the Black Robe deeper into the kingdom.
Once Gaelib became earl, he inserted these highly trained clerks in his offices. They fulfilled all duties meticulously. Soon others were asking for representatives to take over for lazy servants and even sons.
Whenever Gaelib needed someone highly trained in dark arts, he came to her. She provided a black-robe to do his secret tasks. If one of these lost their usefulness, they would disappear. They were never missed since they were always in disguise. Her rumors of their good fortune, rewarded and living like a noble in a distant land, seemed to satisfy those curious about the mysterious lady or gentleman who’d visited.
Caileagh rode to the Sanctuary of the Alte Regieren. There, wearing a silver mask, she entered the cool, dark cave. Petitioners bowed to her as they backed away forming the corridor to the high stone altar. She ruled here.
Her guiding spirits urged her up the carved steps. The smoke of candles and burning incense bit her senses.
She spoke the ancient words. The new acolyte’s voices responded. All was as it should be.
Near the end of the ceremony Caileagh gasped as one of her spirit guides spoke a crystal-clear thought, Beware the veiled maiden shining and adorned in gold.
She felt paralyzed, suspended, barely able to breathe.
A glowing sword appeared in a maiden’s hand. She lifted the bridal veil, her tender eyes beckoned Caileagh closer. The bride thrust the sword deep.
Caileagh gasped as the blade impaled her. The exquisite pain spread until she withdrew it. All feeling melted away.
The woman shook her blonde mane, and the vision was gone.
Caileagh fell to her knees. Her followers immediately knelt. The revelation had lasted only moments. Gritting her teeth, she rose.
In a daze, she finished the rituals and gave the new acolytes their instructions. Then she hurried home.
Gaelib’s chamber was dark, except for the coals of the flickering fire.
Gaelib Melazera, the Earl of Lorness, woke when the door opened. Caileagh’s captivating scent of roses, frankincense, and cinnamon wafted over him, filling the room.
Whenever she left the estate to do the work of the Order, it gave him long evenings to meditate and strategize. Brooding over his map table, he reviewed his progress, identified roadblocks, and determined the most efficient manner to overcome them. Once that duty was done, he amused himself.
Whenever she returned from the Sanctuary, she was intoxicated with power, almost floating above the ground.
“Are you awake, my love?” she whispered.
He rolled onto an elbow, his eyes hungrily taking in her curves.
She spun around, littering the chamber with silken garments. The light from the fireplace cast large twisting shadows that cavorted with a life of their own as she pranced to the bed.
Gaelib smiled, his eyes roaming over her. “I’m here, wife. Is there a message, or did you wake me to take advantage of me?”
She giggled. “Which would you like first?”
“How about both?” He threw back the covers.
Caileagh reclined across him on her back and looked up. “Everything went as expected until…” Her voice caught and her lip trembled. “I had a vision. It lasted only a moment. I’m terrified by it still.” She placed his hand over her breast. “Can you feel the rapid beat of my heart?”
He frowned. “I can. How may I help?”
She whispered. “I saw a shining woman, her blonde hair peeked out from under a bride’s veil that hid her face. She carried a sword; its tip pointed to the heavens. She peered deep into my eyes and thrust her blade, piercing my heart. I am afraid…I’m afraid that…I know its meaning.”
“What?” he said, his brows furrowed.
Caileagh rolled over. “That Prince Sagen mustn’t marry. Promise he won’t,” she begged, clinging to him.
Gaelib leaned back slightly, looking into her eyes. “I can’t do that, my sweet. My plan requires that the prince have a legitimate heir. Thus, he must have a wife.”
She clutched him tighter, sobbing. Her tears stained the sheets.
He rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry,” he said softly, “your visions are often confusing at first. Over time, it will become clearer. This may be only part of the revelation.”
She looked at him with her sad eyes. “I know she will hurt me.” She shuddered, crying more.
“Shh, shh. It will be alright. What if I take steps to ensure he can’t choose a blonde girl?”
Caileagh sniffed as she stifled her crying. “Would you?”
“For you, I will do anything. Do not let fear undermine our dream.” Gaelib pulled her close again.
“My father made me study the histories. Through them I learned that most conquests are traumatic for a country, and the usurper is often killed. So I will take control gradually so that I am welcomed with joy after the tragedy. When King Edal has the fatal accident, Sagen will reign and be forced to marry to assuage the fears of his nobles. I will soon have enough nobles to support me as regent, so when he has an heir, we will no longer need Sagen, or his wife. You and I will raise the child until the people are used to my rule and then the heir will also be expendable.”
He bit her neck, and they played.
Gaelib woke in the morning, happily surprised she was still in his bed. He watched her shallow breathing. She was beautiful still.
She usually departed for her bed chamber so most mornings he felt empty, utterly alone, as he had when his mother died.
He was eleven. Immediately following the funeral, he and his father returned to High Keep. Without her arms as a refuge from his father’s torment, he grew sullen. He avoided Sagen, unable to bear the prince’s sympathy, nor his attempts to cheer him.
One fateful day, sitting in the clover, as he pulled off the purple flower heads, she saved him. One by one, he pelted the very pregnant kitchen cat, who sunned herself royally, ignoring his attacks.
He brightened, seeing Caileagh.
She was sixteen, already a woman, shapely and easy to look upon. Many nights he lay awake thinking of her—long auburn hair that caught the sun and eyes that shone like dark amber gemstones. Her skin was smooth and creamy white. She was old enough to marry. Father had wondered aloud why she hadn’t. Soon after, by command of the king, she’d become his stepsister.
This was the first time she took notice of him.
“What’re you doing?” Her brow furrowed. Her hips swayed back and forth, satin rustling.
“This dragon has ravaged the town. I must repel it to save the people.”
Gaelib pointed at the cat and the many rocks that he’d placed around it to represent the buildings of Castle Lorness. The place he would one day rule as the earl.
“What fun!” She dropped down next to him, part of her skirt covering his lap. Her face close. She smelled like lemon cake. Caileagh smiled at him and picked up a stick, tossing it at the beast. She threw a bigger stick, followed by a rock.
Gaelib gawped, looking at his handful of clover.
She smiled at him, erasing his doubts.
He picked up a stone, garnering another grin from her. Together, they repelled the shrieking cat. After that, Caileagh played with him every day, any game he wanted.
She became his best friend.
Gaelib smiled at his sleeping wife. Fears over her latest vision and their exertions had exhausted her. After so many years together, he knew those insights often bore only a vague relationship to reality.
Whenever such a daydream occurred, Caileagh fretted for weeks or moons afterward. This “golden sword” might be nothing more than the envy of some brooch she’d seen or a sunbeam that’d caught her imagination. Regardless, removing blonde girls would not be too much trouble.
He loved her.
She was the one person he knew would do anything for him. Caileagh made him feel strong, like a king. He could be himself with her. She was the one person that cared about him. She loved him.
Caileagh spread the Order of the Black Robe in every region of the kingdom with offers of free education and placement in a trade. More and more people brought their children to the big tent when it arrived in a town. The brightly dressed acrobats, colorful puppet shows, and food vendors made a spectacle that drew all the people. The line to get in and apply stretched farther than anyone could see.
He needed her to orchestrate the Order day to day while he guided those he chose to his special purposes. She knew how to appease the minor spirits…and his greater one, the Warrior.
The spies and talebearers that she’d set in place were the beginning. Blackmail was helpful. Truly owning people was better.
The Order of the Black Robe was an ideal pool to recruit from. Bureaucrats seeking to solidify a position of power, no matter how limited, provided the right environment to evaluate prospective tools, and the expansion of the Royal Army enabled him to influence upcoming officers and conscripted men.
Gaelib had created a force of people to do whatever he commanded whenever he spoke. That meant he could assassinate at will, without warning or trace. With a relatively small number, Gaelib could choose what happened, what reports circulated, and what “truths” were made known to the king and the nobles.
Ah, yes, the nobles…Gaelib’s nobles. Or enough that should the king try to oppose him directly, the country would swiftly descend into civil war. Oh, the delicious possibilities that might offer.
Alas, a civil war would be costly. Worse, it would damage the prestige of Freislicht. So, why take the shine off his inevitable prize? All of it would be his in a few years. Once the stars aligned, and the moment precise, he would take the throne. Even the frontier would soon be settled and he’d reward those loyal to him, his new nobles, with those lands. Through them he would control the far west as well.
Gaelib would remove the king, and his son, Sagen would ascend. He would be easier to control. He and the prince had been friends since they were six years old.
The timing must be right, however. Sagen had to be conditioned to accept Gaelib’s advice. Any influences not under Gaelib’s yoke must be eliminated one way or another. Then when Sagen produced his own heir, events would occur and the majority of nobles would demand Gaelib become Regent. All he needed was a little more time and a tad more patience. After that…King Gaelib the First had such a pleasant ring to it.
Gaelib thought of the celebration with anticipation—pleasant food, delicious scents, and lustful sounds. Being merry, he recalled the happiest time in his life, the day he’d first met the prince.
During Gaelib’s first visit to High Keep twenty years earlier, he was only six, King Edal had summoned his father to a great council.
His father, the Eighth Earl of Lorness, had stood at breakfast and declared it time for his son to be amongst men, not at home with women.
It thrilled him to be with his father. Yet he feared the man. The earl often struck those who displeased him, especially his mother.
Upon their arrival, servants ushered them into the Great Hall. King Edal sat on an ancient throne covered in carvings and brightly colored jewels.
The prince wore a long, navy velvet jacket. Beneath were gray breeches and a light blue satin vest embroidered with silver leaves. His boots were dark brown embossed leather. Bright blue eyes and a sweet smile beamed forth, framed by golden blond curls. His small hand rested on his father’s knee. The young royal was beautiful.
Later that day, Gaelib was in the garden watching his father talk with a group of old men. His father had pointed and told him to stay. So he had.
He looked at the colorful flowers and the elaborately pruned trees. He watched finely dressed nobles flit from one cluster of jabbering men to the next. Boredom tempted him to sit, but one look at his father’s furrowed brow stopped him.
A small tug on his sleeve made him jump.
“Hallo,” a cheerful, small voice beside him piped. “I’m Sagen. Who are you?”
“Gaelib,” he said automatically, turning to face whoever had spoken. “My lord.”
He gasped, his heart abuzz with fear. “Y-Y-Your Highness, I’m sorry.” He bowed low.
Sagen shrugged. “I don’t like titles. Rise. Follow me.”
Gaelib glanced toward his father, who gave him a nod with a smile he’d rarely ever seen.
The Earl’s first-ever, and very public show of approval, had him floating on clouds. Warmth flooded through him as if the sun had risen, shining just upon him.
He happily attended Sagen for the rest of the day.
Sagen treated him as an equal. He often asked Gaelib what he would like to do.
Gaelib felt powerful. No one dare gainsay him if the prince did not. He skipped back to his father’s rooms.
The next morning, his father gripped his shoulders as Gaelib stared up with a tight smile. His father gave him a shake. “It is very important that you please the prince. Being his closest companion will give us significant advantages.”
Gaelib played with Prince Sagen every day. They were inseparable. Sometimes the nanny dragged the prince away for some royal requirement, but Sagen would soon find him again. However, every night after dinner, Gaelib had to tell some worthwhile bit of information to his father. He couldn’t simply say how they played. Sometimes the earl smiled.
One day, when Gaelib came to where they met each morning, a new boy, the same age as he and the prince, sat across a chessboard from Sagen. The prince showed the pale-haired commoner how the pieces moved.
Gaelib bristled, his eyes narrowed. Even servants wore better.
“Who’re you?” Gaelib yelled, running up to them, scowling.
The new boy stood and bowed.
Sagen smiled. “This is Jonathan Otual, my new companion. Father said he must make sure I learn my lessons. We’re studying everything in the Royal Library with a master teacher.”
“Oh,” Gaelib said, gritting his teeth to hide his anger. He put a smile on his face. “Why’re you dressed like a peasant?”
Sagen’s eyes widened.
Jonathan bit his lip, looking at his feet. “My Circle says we should be adorned inwardly, not outwardly. Others may. I may not.”
Gaelib scrunched up his face. He didn’t understand. That made no sense.
Then he slapped Jonathan’s back as hard as he could, with a loud laugh, flashing his brightest grin at the prince. “At least you aren’t hedge-born.”
Sagen smiled back.
Gaelib cringed at the memory’s end. His father had reminded him at every turn, he’d been supplanted by a filthy commoner. Gaelib never regained the earl’s favor.
Jonathan Otual had ruined everything.
As Blackhawk crested the hill, the rose granite towers of High Keep came into view. Atop each, three silver lightning strikes blazed on rippling blue banners, visible from a mile away. The castle dominated the highest hill in Freislicht. So high, the Sea of Glass could be seen from its battlements. So tall, any approaching enemy would be visible for many, many miles in every direction.
Blackhawk approached High Keep with awe…and relief.
He sighed, shaking his head. He’d never acted so foolishly. Nor could he explain the effect Little Soldier had on him. The days since they’d parted ways had provided no clarity.
When he entered the gate, the city buzzed with activity. People wearing crisp linen and silk filled the air with cheerful voices. Even the hawking farmers wore seemly homespun and broad smiles. A stark contrast to Lorness, which was devoid of any joy.
He’d not been to High Keep since he was Gaelib Melazera’s squire. Then fear of displeasing the earl held his complete attention.
Now he strolled about, mouth agape, admiring the limitless, colorful shops. Blackhawk didn’t see a single brothel.
Through one window, a bookseller opened a text with bright blue and red decorations. A woman leaned in to see. Up and down the street, doors opened and closed, people carrying bundles in and out, exchanging warm greetings. Such liveliness lifted his heart.
The perfumes of flowering bushes hovered about as he rode on lanes of hewn white limestone. Tasty smells from carts of meat pies and sweet pastries made his belly growl. He’d never seen such plenty. In Lorness, such things didn’t exist—unless you were its lord.
Gaelib Melazera, Ninth Earl of Lorness, was the wealthiest man in Freislicht. No. Gregory Locke, Duke of Lexandria, was richer. Blackhawk remembered when he’d first heard the name.
When Blackhawk was seven, Melazera promoted him from servant to page. Day after day, he remained still beside Earl Gaelib Melazera’s ornate chair. Whenever he squirmed, the earl pinched him. He didn’t use many words to train Blackhawk.
That day, five master tailors had entered the Steward’s Hall, each declaring their accomplishments. The last tailor described the wondrous apparel he’d designed for Duke Gregory Locke of Lexandria.
Melazera’s eyes had darkened as he glowered at the hapless clothier. With a wave of his hand, guards seized the man.
“What have I done?” he said as they dragged him away.
Gaelib Melazera chose a tailor who brought in twelve men carrying tall stacks of fabric. During the hours of standing at attention as the clothier draped Blackhawk in every color of the rainbow, his lord commented on everything. Several times, he’d wished the earl would simply beat him instead. Finally, the tailor left. Melazera said with a self-satisfied smile, “You will be a jewel on my hand.”
Every day, his lord had Blackhawk dress to complement his own outfit.
Blackhawk knew, now, Melazera only saw him as a treasured possession, a bauble to be worn to demonstrate its owner’s wealth and status.
Yet he’d prospered. His patronage had allowed him to eat, sleep safely, and survive harsh winters that would have ended his life.
That I paid for it with obedience and my body is merely the way it is.
But today he had rank and less supervision. No one at High Keep knew who he was. Blackhawk would see very little of Melazera. They would still communicate, but his lord would leave him alone, and if their paths did cross, they would pretend to be strangers. He relaxed his jaw.
Easy enough. Fine by me.
This was what his lord wanted from his asset.
As he strolled by even more colorful displays, he thought this might be a new beginning. A beginning that needed to be marked.
Blackhawk entered a jewelry shop. His eyes ran over each gold and silver ornament. Almost everything cost a fortune. He had only twenty-one baden left. It could buy him five rounds with a whore or ale for a moon. A thin chain caught his eye. He paid the jeweler ten.
Next, he sought the herald.
Dressed in the royal blue tabard, the old man looked up from his journal, smiling. “You’re a tall one. How may I help you, son?”
“I’m looking for the senior officer in reception. Can you direct me?”
“Absolutely. That would be Commander Peter Taelor.” The herald pointed, “If you head east, you’ll see a pavilion. Beyond that is the army section. You can’t miss it. When you hear the barracks, you’ll see the commander’s office.”
“Thank you.” Blackhawk was surprised to find that the commander met with new arrivals himself.
He considered the herald as he turned. The man’s cheerfulness wasn’t like his lord’s or Caileagh’s. Theirs always had a trick behind it. If Caileagh was cheerful, she might tie him up…or worse. Her eyes had magic. With a look, she could make anyone breathlessly happy or desperately heartbroken. Gaelib told her to leave him alone.
She mostly did.
As he approached the barracks, the cacophony of hoots and shouts grew louder. Soldiers were working, but the atmosphere was light, without the drudgery common at Lorness or North Fort. Some barked orders. And some were…singing?
Soldiers chatted with shop owners. Some of the men told jokes and played knucklebones. A little girl squealed, “Da, oh Da,” as a militet scooped her up and twirled her around.
Was it the people? They looked like people anywhere. Was there something in the breeze? Perhaps a plant that grew here made everyone happy, like some of Caileagh’s potions.
Entering the commander’s office, he stood tall. “Lieutenant Steven Blackhawk reporting.”
A corporal leaning on his elbows glanced up from his papers, snapping to attention. “Yes, Lieutenant. Please have a seat, sir. I’ll tell Commander Taelor you’re here.” Yet, before he’d taken a step, another voice bellowed.
“Send him in, Corporal.”
The corporal pointed toward the voice and slumped back to his paperwork.
A middle-aged man sat at the desk. Though a touch of gray dashed his temples, he was robust as a horse. Rising to his feet, he scrutinized his guest. The man wasn’t any taller than Blackhawk, but his presence towered above him. “You are the youngest lieutenant I’ve ever met. How’d you manage that?”
“Manage what, sir?” Blackhawk responded, taking the other’s measure.
“Attain rank so quickly. You didn’t start in napkins, did you?” Taelor laughed.
Blackhawk remained serious. “No, sir, simply determined to do my best. Still am.”
“Then I’m glad to have you.” When the commander offered his hand, Blackhawk matched his firm grip. “Let me know if you’ve any trouble with your rank.”
“Where were you posted?”
“North Fort, under Commandant Sulla.”
Taelor scowled. “Oh…he would call himself that. He’s only a captain. Any officer commanding an outpost could use ‘Commandant’. Anyone from a lieutenant to a captain to a major to a colonel…or a commander, like myself, who outranks them all.”
“Thank you for clarifying that, sir,” Blackhawk said, wondering if Sulla was on the wrong side of Taelor.
“The corporal will show you to your quarters and give you the layout. Be back here at first light for your assignment, Lieutenant. Dismissed.”
“Yes, sir.” Blackhawk turned on his heel and left.
His room was clean. Its only furnishings were a cot, a table, a mirror, and a piss pot. It took only moments to change out of his clothes, heavy with trail dust, into a clean uniform bearing the single lightning strike proclaiming his rank.
I look rather smart.
At the stables, the sergeant, Brean Mitchett, pointed him to the mess for a hot meal.
Inside, Blackhawk joined the inevitable long line of men. A huge kettle holding the usual army pottage smelled good, nothing burnt. A man dumped a ladleful into bowls without looking. Blackhawk accepted one and took a piece of bread and a plum from the serving table. The quality of the ingredients was better too.
So far, High Keep was shaping up well.
He sat at a table with his back to the wall, near a door, where he could see everyone. He’d eaten a few bites when the murmurs started.
Four men at the next table glared at him. Their eyes kept flitting from their mousy-haired lieutenant to Blackhawk as they huddled over their bowls. Their officer was short but had broad shoulders and bulging forearms. His weak chin and oft-broken nose complemented the scowl on his face.
Blackhawk continued his meal. He was hungry and hoped to finish it.
The four went on grumbling, becoming ever louder before their officer stood and strode toward him; half the diners left.
Taking in the dirt floor, the distance between tables, and how far the onlookers backed away, Blackhawk steadied his nerves.
The other lieutenant was a decade older, around twenty-five. His chest puffed out as he glanced from side to side at his comrades. “Who’d you steal the rank bands from, boy?”
“Are you addressing me?” Blackhawk rose to his feet slowly and offered his hand. “Lieutenant Steven Blackhawk. And you?”
“Lieutenant Karl Fortuch,” the other barked. “How’d you get the lightning strike?”
“By hard work and obedience.” Blackhawk kept his tone light, despite Fortuch’s companions fanning out to surround him. He stepped clear of the table, waiting.
Some of the remaining soldiers pointed from him to the other four. One went from soldier to soldier. Pouches of coin came out. He wished he’d had time to place a wager on himself. The odds would’ve been great.
Men lined the walls, whispering, until one of Fortuch’s militet lunged.
Blackhawk dodged, grabbing the man’s wrist. Twisting it behind, he locked the arm. “Couldn’t we talk about this?”
The man growled, reaching for a knife in his boot.
Blackhawk dislocated the joint and dropped him to the floor, taking the knife. “Stay down.”
As the man ignored him and rose, Blackhawk’s heel struck. The collarbone cracked like a roasted chestnut. He slid the knife into his own boot.
The other three rushed him.
Blackhawk threw his wooden plate at the middle soldier’s face and spun.
It clattered on the floor as Blackhawk sidestepped and caught the punch of the next by the wrist, pulling the militet off-balance, breaking the joint.
He backed away with a shriek, cradling it.
Lieutenant Fortuch kicked, striking Blackhawk’s midsection.
Winded, Blackhawk groaned and took a step back.
Sensing weakness, Fortuch lunged.
Blackhawk evaded, just.
A smile of triumph spread across Fortuch’s face as his fist lashed out.
Blackhawk caught the arm, pivoting. Then he entwined his fingers in the other lieutenant’s hair, pulling Fortuch’s head down on his knee.
Blood poured from Fortuch’s nose.
Blackhawk punched him in the temple, dropping the lieutenant, unconscious, to the floor. Hearing surprised shouts from the crowd, he scanned the crowd.
Then he faced his remaining opponent, tilting his head with a slight grin. “Wouldn’t you rather talk about this?”
“Yes…uh…sir,” the last man said dropping his hands showing his palms.
Blackhawk sat and pointed with his spoon.
“Have a seat. What’s your name?”
“Donert Maitlan, sir.”
“Would you like some bread?”
Maitlan nodded, gazed down at the bloody Lieutenant Fortuch, and sat.
Blackhawk tossed him a chunk.
The man with the broken collarbone took off his leather belt, securing it around his shoulders to brace the painful break. There was no better remedy. Glowering at the defeated Fortuch, he winced as he, too, took an empty seat.
Smiling, Blackhawk offered him bread as well.
The last man cast a sullen glance at his former comrades but couldn’t meet Blackhawk’s gaze. The craven slunk out of the mess clutching his broken wrist,. Fortuch remained motionless on the floor.
With the fight over, the mess hall filled up again. There was excitement in the air. Someone removed Lieutenant Fortuch.
“Since I’m new here, tell me about High Keep.” Blackhawk charmed his growing group of listeners, asking questions to lead them. He wasn’t a Black Robe, but he knew information was power.
By the time he left the mess, he’d made quite a few friends, including the two assailants and many onlookers. Pleased with the way things had turned out, he let out a sigh. He hoped not to suffer a charge of brawling.
He looked forward to his cot. After closing the door of his shanty, he drew out the silver chain. Fishing the buttons from his pocket, he slid them on the chain and fastened it behind his neck.
The way is clear when it is needed.
Before dawn the next morning, a bleary-eyed Blackhawk woke to a rap on the door. He scowled at the militet’s urgent summons.
Moments later, standing before the commander, Blackhawk focused on shadows swaying on the back wall.
“How’d you come to be so good in a brawl?” Taelor sat polishing a sword in the glow of a candle. He didn’t look up.
“My master’s men often surrounded me without warning–to toughen me up. I adapted.”
The commander peered up at him and frowned. “Though I abhor such treatment, I value your skills. Would you train the men in those techniques?”
“Yes, sir,” Blackhawk said, grinning.
“As for brawling, don’t do it again. I want my men ready to fight an enemy, not each other.”
“Stop your incessant nagging. Go on. I’ll be there,” Gaelib grumbled as he placed each of the finely carved stone eagles on the map. These newest acolytes would be spies inside castles across the land. Some would be spying on the acolytes already there. He calmed himself, stroking the jewel encrusted dagger his father had given him. Then he kissed a carved hawk and set it at the garrison in High Keep. His most prized asset.
Caileagh had cajoled him all week. She chattered on and on about the spiritual wisdom and honors that would be his after this sacrifice. There was always another sacrifice.
He knew she believed the rituals were necessary to gain the crown. They meant far less to him. Not nothing, merely less. They had their place but were only a small part of the elaborate schemes that would make his destiny a reality.
He did whatever she asked, for she was his sun and moon.
He put on his most pleasant smile and walked out to Caileagh, waiting in the carriage.
He recalled Caileagh telling him on many, many occasions, “You will be the most powerful man in the world.”
Yes. he will. And that will silence his uncles who continue to celebrate his father’s great deeds. His great wisdom. His political gains. His successful investments.
Phah! He’d show them.
The ride jostled him. The ceremonial robes chafed at his neck like a noose.
Was his discomfort necessary? Surely they could be made of finer materials. He would address it tomorrow.
Tonight’s ceremony would enhance his access to the Warrior’s knowledge. It would grant him success in his latest schemes and provide awareness of what was happening at great distances, as those things occurred. Information he’d have far sooner than even the fastest horse could ride. So the spirits had told her.
When the carriage halted, a groom opened the door, and Gaelib stepped out. He usually made his sacrifices in his private hall. The last was his best hunting dog. He missed that dog.
But certain high days had greater requirements. This was for the God Bel.
Gaelib grew more confident as the frequency of his sacrifices increased. More and more the evidence proved that Caileagh’s many Gods were helping him. People submitted more easily. He knew what to say and do to bend them to his will.
He understood the need to sacrifice one living thing for the benefit of another. It made sense. God’s required blood in order to accept his petitions. He did not understand why the Gods cared about subtle details, but he would continue to please them to attain his own desires. The results were the important thing.
Caileagh had taught him that people fell into three classifications. Enlightened ones were those like himself, chosen by the Gods to rule. Useful ones, these were necessary workers to keep the kingdom running at every level. And those designated for holy sacrifices, these last were very special, they held the most innocent blood that could soothe the Gods. Caileagh chose them very carefully.
Perhaps sacrifices enabled a God to do battle. Since there were many, certainly, they must have conflicts. Perhaps he should take a greater interest in all Caileagh’s rituals and learn each God’s strengths. He should find out which were the strongest.
He wondered where the Warrior fell in the hierarchy. He knew the spirit was above Caileagh’s spirits. But he seemed to be a vassal of the God’s.
Finally, they arrived and he entered the vast cavern.
The Sanctuary of the Alte Regieren was otherworldly. Acolytes in black robes chanted strange words in melodic tones. Hundreds of flickering candles surrounded the stone table. Their smoke obediently rising to the Gods.
His wife approached, dressed in the familiar black satin robe, her face hidden by a silver mask of twisted serpents.
Gaelib followed Caileagh to a seat engraved with ancient runes. His heartbeat slowed to match the rhythmic crooning that pulsed through him. Breathing deeply, slowly, his muscles warmed with the hum of each syllable. He floated upon them.
A black-robed docent led a naked woman toward the altar, her hands bound. With a blissful smile and glassy eyes, she was unaware, unresisting as they tied her in place. No doubt someone his wife had rescued from the dungeon.
Accepting the ceremonial knife Caileagh offered, Gaelib felt its weight, enjoying the fire coursing through him. His lusts rose as he played the dagger across the skin of his sacrifice, carving runes and sigils, dedicating the life he was about to take to the Gods and his Warrior.
The acolytes’ invocations grew louder and strident.
At the crescendo, he drove the long blade between her ribs, into her heart. He felt it glance off bone and slide through.
Ecstasy filled him as her warm blood flowed onto the cold stone and power poured through his core like molten silver. A narcotic peace flooded his mind. The promise of the Warrior was another task closer. Gaelib rose and recited the ancient words he’d uttered many times before.
Confused by disjointed images, as if his eyes had been closed part of the time, Gaelib didn’t remember walking to the coach.
Caileagh jabbered excitedly. “When I’m queen, you’ll always protect me. No one will hurt me.”
Exhilarated and euphoric, he said, “Did you drug me also?”
“No, My Love. Each step you take is your own choice. My spirit guides work with the Warrior to increase his power in you. The euphoria you feel is a blessing from the Gods.
Now, the Warrior can lift you higher. Soon, my love, you’ll be the most powerful man in the world. All your hard work will be realized. You’ll be king.”
The elated bliss made his sight blurry and thought irrelevant. He tried to focus but could not. He closed his eyes. “That will be some time in the future, my dear. Patience will bring a painless culmination.”
As he enjoyed the altered state, a beautiful being floated before him. He glowed like the moon and his face came close. As he gazed enraptured, he heard the most peaceful words and his soul soared like a bird. He saw his future kingdom from high above. He saw all his forests and all his streams. From the Shining Mountains to the Sea of Glass, all of them, every leaf and every creature, sang to him.
In the vision, time sped up. The sun rose in the east and set in the west. It all belonged to him.
He knew his triumph would come soon.
It was the full moon of late spring.
The luach buzzed to life.
Owakar paced, praying for someone to rise up and stop these ever more frequent abominations. The worst account he’d read so far in Freislicht. The corruption of the land grew ever more oppressive as more and more people succumbed to the Serpent’s lies. The Serpent hardly needed any demons, he had so many debased people to do the work.
The Warrior approached. Dressed in his usual gray robes, his mane of inky hair framed his perfect face. “Did you see? My pawn grows stronger. He’ll make a proper king, ruling with a rod of iron.”
J’shua Ha Mashiach had instructed Owakar to ignore the Warrior, simply let the aberrant being talk.
He frowned. It was difficult.
“Nothing to say? No witty retort?” The Warrior grinned and walked on.
“That woman will be resurrected,” slipped from Owakar’s lips.
The Warrior laughed.
Owakar grit his teeth. The words from the Book of Life constrained his thoughts.
[Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.]
Owakar thrummed a message to Alocrin, “Meet at the inn?”
“Already here.” His mentor replied. “I thought you’d reach out.”
Jonathan added a last line to the expensive parchment and dusted sand across it. The petition asked for affirmation of the king’s contract laws and the release of their families. All the fathers signed it.
The mood in the tavern was light, and their conversation hopeful. Each thanked him profusely for taking it to the king. They offered toasts and clapped him on the back.
Riding alone on Melazera’s Highway, Jonathan expected the trip from Lorness to High Keep to take three days if the weather held. Posts marked every ten miles. Brush had been cleared, making the dirt road more easily traversable than the winding trails that dominated the country’s eastern region. Earl Melazera maintained it to ensure his safe passage to High Keep, facilitating his political access.
Jonathan arrived at dusk. The walls and walkways of High Keep glowed with torches. Vendors were still hawking their wares. The clangs of a blacksmith sounded in the distance. He’d forgotten how lively the capital was. As he searched for an affordable inn, he kept one hand over the rolled parchment and the statements of each father that nestled inside his tunic.
The next morning, his first attempt to see Sagen resulted in the eventual message that His Highness was unavailable. After six wasted hours, he left, looking to work for coin or food.
By the third morning, Jonathan suspected Gaelib was intercepting his messages. Thinking about places Prince Sagen would visit to escape from the tedium of royal life—and, perhaps, Gaelib—he settled on the castle’s east gardens. Although the prince was a man now and might not go there anymore, Jonathan was sure he could reach the gardens unseen. He and Sagen had found every nook and cranny, every hiding spot, as they’d played throughout the castle.
When a wagonload of sacked potatoes arrived, he slipped in behind the last servant and hoisted a bag over his shoulder. He followed, flopping his sack down, and then slid into the shadows. Once the chatter and the clacking of the horse drawn wagon receded, he used the servants’ corridor around the castle’s east side, hoping to avoid the chamberlain or any of his under-stewards.
The gardens appeared as he remembered. Splashes of color in every direction. Their central feature was an intricate maze formed by tall, manicured hedges. He and the prince had whiled away many a day there.
Their teacher kept them in the library for hours, but when they stopped for the midday meal, they headed for King Edal’s dining room. The food was grand. Before he lived with the prince, all he had to eat was porridge or pottage. After they finished eating, they’d wait, fidgeting in the ornate chairs. Eventually, the king would wave them off, and they’d run through the corridors, battling dragons or regaling servants with the stories they had memorized. They always ended the day in the labyrinth.
Whenever King Edal convened his nobles, there were packs of boys at the castle. The older ones served as pages or squires to their fathers. The younger sons ran wild. It was very exciting. Of course, he’d remained glued to Sagen’s side as ordered, but watching them run and play was glorious. Occasionally, the king would summon all his leaders. Some would stay on longer and might have a son of similar age. One such was Drake Caswell. Several times a year, he would join their cavorting.
The boys, all in their seventh year, were inseparable, except when Sagen and he studied in the king’s library or the maze. The king forbade Gaelib from joining them in the library, and Gaelib wouldn’t enter the maze after some older lads had abandoned him there.
Jonathan had overheard the boys laughing about their prank, boasting about leaving the noble scion weeping. Dismayed by their cruelty, he rescued his cold and crying friend and even showed him how to find his way out. Yet Gaelib never entered it again. Drake would go with Gaelib at these times. Gaelib always doted on Drake, perhaps only to amplify his rejection of Jonathan.
Now Jonathan surveyed the area. Seeing neither guards nor gardeners, he dashed into the thick yaupon labyrinth. The trick to navigating it was always following the right wall. His hand passed lightly over the prickly branches. After many turns, he found himself in the center with the prince seated on one of the stone benches, reading parchments strewn across a finely carved table. “Hallo.”
The prince’s face was much the same, only older. Sagen’s golden hair was darker but still bright. Clearly, his nanny no longer chose his attire. He wore a long leather coat and riding breeches. This was not the colorful peacock Jonathan knew as a youth.
Jonathan bowed low. “I remember how we enjoyed this spot, Prince,” He teased.
“Why did you sneak in, knight?” Sagen grinned. “All you had to do was let me know you were here. I’d have sent a carriage for you.” The prince locked arms with his friend. “It’s been too long. Seems like an age.”
“Seventeen years. I have been sending messages for two days.”
“I see.” Sagen sobered. “As Royal Steward, Gaelib’s been keeping me even busier than usual. This time with accounting.” The prince waved a page in the air, imitating the steward. “Sagen, you simply must understand these matters before becoming king.” He pounded one fist into the other. “Yes, yes, you absolutely must.”
The impersonation of Gaelib’s condescending voice and exaggerated gestures had both men laughing. Jonathan sat. He thought of their escapades, smiling. What a happy childhood it was.
“Father is hale and vigorous. It’ll be many years before I ascend the throne.”
“I suspect…” Jonathan hesitated. “Gaelib is still jealous.”
“I suppose so, but I don’t see why. His place is secure within the court. Father likes him. He gets to spend far too much time with me. But…look at you. You’re ruddy and strong. The Fellowship of Knights has been good for you.” He laughed. “I think Father should have sent me there. Will you be at High Keep for a while? Where are you staying?”
“Oh, it is not an inn you would know.” Jonathan chuckled. “I have an urgent petition for your father.”
He told Sagen what had happened in Lorness. “I have a request from some fathers there. I have many signed affidavits. They want the law of contracts reaffirmed and their children and wives returned. Boys are taken to the mines or the army, but the girls…” Jonathan’s eyes teared up.
Sagen’s face hardened. “I am sure Gaelib will prevent you from seeing the king. As you say, he is…jealous.” Then he calmed. “Let me take the petition. I’ll see my father at dinner tonight. Meet me back here tomorrow.”
Jonathan handed Sagen the parchment. “There is one more thing. I did not mention it, as I do not want to make this matter about me.”
“They took my daughter too. And my wife and her parents are missing.”
“Blast!” Sagen grabbed his shoulder. “Why didn’t you…you always were too selfless.” Sagen shook his head.
Jonathan sighed, opening his mouth to speak. He hesitated.
“What, old friend?”
“It is…possible…Gaelib caused this. Not directly, perhaps even inadvertently, but he did suddenly tax the nobles.”
“No one has done more to keep the kingdom solvent,” Sagen said. “But…”
The prince’s brows came together as he tilted his head forward, putting his eyes in shadow. “…Gaelib has a dark side. For several moons, when we were young men, he snuck me out to a brothel every night to play cards or dice with his friends. Though entertaining, I knew Father wouldn’t approve. It showed me a side of Gaelib that…troubled me.”
Jonathan’s frown deepened. “It is his right to tax but not to subvert contract laws. He could have given them time to pay.” He tightened his fist. “Worse, there is no need for an army. There is no war.”
Sagen’s eyebrows rose. “How could you know that?”
“I have been to Mestelina three times in recent years, traveling all over their countryside. They do not want a war with us. They may be primitive, but they are upright people. Someone is stirring up the border. I will seek answers. First, I must find my family.”
“As you should.” Sagen rubbed his chin as his eyes bore into the knight. “I’ll talk to Father.”
Jonathan prayed the result would be favorable.
They shared warm memories and talked of hopes for the future. He told the prince about his son, David, becoming a knight when his apprenticeship was done. Finally, the sun drifted west and shadows reemerged from under the benches.
Sagen drew him into another embrace. “If we don’t want Gaelib to know you’re here, leave. The gardeners will come soon. I’ll see you tomorrow. Be careful.”
“I will. Tomorrow then.” Jonathan gripped Sagen’s shoulder, beaming. “Thank you, old friend.”