Chapter 36: The Knight’s Gambit – 160 AK, Early Spring
Ephesians 6:12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
George Rosewud pulled the thick-but-drab utilitarian cloak tighter as he warmed his hands by the small fire. He was dressed as a moderately successful wine merchant who’d seen better days. It was a disguise he’d used infrequently.
He’d left Lorness Castle while it was still dark.
Gaelib had been on a rampage – another one – screaming about traitors, betrayers and cowardly quislings. What had set him off, George didn’t know, nor did he want to. Coming to Gaelib’s attention was increasingly dangerous and, all too often, fatal.
As to the reasons for that outburst, they ranged from a supposed sighting of Caileagh in High Castle, to yet another missing baden shipment, to the failure of some Black Robe plot, and even to the displeasure of whatever patron demon Gaelib attempted to woo.
None of it made any sense.
Caileagh… in High Castle?
George had received reports of her having attempted to kill the queen. He believed she’d tried three times. However, if what his spies had discovered was accurate, not only was the queen aware of those attempts but had given Lady Melazera an ultimatum. A choice so stark that Caileagh had vowed to her pet godlings never to set foot in High Castle again. No, if there was one place the Lady Melazera wasn’t, it was the king’s capitol.
Gaelib’s increasingly irrational behavior terrified George. It was why Rosewud had left, after filling a cart with baden, jewels, and a few selected works of art… plus hiring the most expensive, capable mercenaries that funds-that-had-formerly-been-Gaelib’s could obtain at short notice.
Taking no chances with his stolen goods, the various items were stored in special casks. Each could be tapped and wine would come out from a special reserve hidden in its base. Each cask sloshed believably when moved. Each was sufficiently worn that they weren’t suspicious. There were, George had to admit, some distinct advantages to having run a clandestine organization of spies, saboteurs, thieves and blackmailers. Some of the things that had been devised to hide their activities in plain sight were beyond marvelous.
There was, of course, another reason for hiding his ill-gotten gains, to avoid tempting his mercenaries unnecessarily.
The problem of where to go had been easily solved. Gaelib still had too many loyal to him, or his money, in River Town. That made going south a non-starter. Going west would take him toward High Castle where that blasted Alexandrian, Danyth, kept raising the bounty on Rosewud’s head, so it too was impossible. Going east would take him out of Freislicht into lands where they had all sorts of odd ideas. That only left going north, initially to Dunis Glen, then further until he could find a nice, secluded mansion on the shores of the Sea of Glass. It might be dull, but it would be survivable.
“Good evening, George,” the all-too-familiar voice of Colonel Steven Blackhawk interrupted. The tip of his bloodied blade tracing lazy hypnotic loops in the air. “This evening becomes ever more entertaining. What shall I encounter next?”
“I have money, Steven. Whatever you want is yours.”
Blackhawk’s lips formed a smile. His eyes remained cold. “That is so very practical of you. Indeed, it’s everything I’ve come to expect from you. Do you know why I’m here?”
Rosewud looked around. None of his mercenaries were visible. Were they even alive? Blackhawk tended to be ever so efficient when dealing with enemies. “No, no, I can’t imagine. The last I heard, you’d been summoned back to High Castle and – at least according to rumor – the king was very… uh, upset… with you. Interestingly, I haven’t been able to find out why.”
“He gave me a private commission, just as Melazera has countless times.”
“And I didn’t fulfil it to His Majesty’s satisfaction. Worse, I did something he’d strictly prohibited me from doing. It hasn’t been pleasant.”
“Sheisse! Is he…?”
“As perverted as Melazera? No, but King Sagen most definitely has ways of making his displeasure known. Perhaps, when things are settled, we can swap stories?”
Rosewud nodded, wondering just how expensive this would be.
“In the meantime,” Blackhawk continued, “I’ll take charge of your little treasure trove. Did you think I’d not recognize those very special wine caskets? Why don’t you stand up? We’ll go have a chat with a few people. Folks that, I’m sorry, I can’t protect you from. It would be more than my life’s worth.”
Rebekah had prevented Jonathan and Blackhawk from talking privately. It was clear there was something the two men needed to discuss.
She didn’t want Blackhawk dead. Not necessarily. However, slicing a few strips from his flesh, roasting them over a fire, and feeding them to him very slowly sounded eminently practical, realistic and justified. To her. Or, it would if she could ignore the still, small voice that kept nudging her toward forgiveness.
This was the man who had sold her daughter into… that was another answer she required. An answer that would be more quickly forthcoming if she could just slice off… “Colonel Blackhawk, a word in private.” She was actually surprised that her words hadn’t frozen in mid-air, given her icy tone.
With a slight bow of his head, he acknowledged her and approached. “How can I be of service, Lady Otual?”
“I’m no lady, I–”
“Forgive me for correcting you, ma’am.” He went down on one knee, his eyes focused at her feet. “But given your husband’s commission as the king’s Over-Commander, you have the effective, if temporary, rank of Countess of Freislicht, without the lands and incomes arising from them. You and your husband will, however, receive one tenth of all funds recovered from–”
“What nonsense is this?” Rebekah’s hand caressed the concealed, sheathed knife she wore. It was one of the pair integral to her Tyrone Beecham persona. Yet, despite an urge to hurt the man before her, her need for answers was greater.
“It’s the king’s commandment. The merest of his attempts to make restitution to you, your husband, and your family for the suffering you’ve endured.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’ve served him for many years, during which…” his head rose, exposing his throat.
If she’d strike him down, she’d never get a better opportunity. Yet, though her hand’s grip on her knife tightened, the blade remained in its sheath. “Continue.” The word had slipped from her lips unbidden.
“Years during which I did terrible things. Years long after we met.”
“What became of my daughter?”
Either he was the best actor Rebekah had ever encountered, or there was some conflict going on within him.
“I didn’t take your daughter to a brothel.” He looked down, “Although, I took others. I can’t tell you why, but… even if I tell you, you won’t believe me. I wouldn’t.”
“Tell me what?”
Blackhawk looked up into her eyes. “She… affected me. She made me… feel.” He paused. “For reasons I still don’t understand, I found a family heading far south, and told them her parents were dead.”
“You…?” Rebekah took a step forward. Her blade left its sheath but didn’t bury itself in his waiting neck. It didn’t even draw blood. She needed answers more than vengeance. “No matter what’s between you and my husband, you will do all in your power to reunite me with my daughter. And, if she died due to your actions or inactions, I’ll teach you just how vicious a mother’s wrath can be. Do you accept these terms?”
He hesitated. There was something in his eyes. She refused to believe it was pain, but it might have been.
“You have my word, Lady Otual. I… may… have a starting point. The woman I entrusted your daughter to was Kennah Beecher. That was in River Town. Years later, I heard a woman with a similar name had settled in Alexandria.”
Rebekah’s breath caught. It was more than she’d had in fifteen years.
Jonathan had questions for Blackhawk. Questions that couldn’t be asked and answered before witnesses, not even Rebekah. Yet, she’d whisked the commander away and, by the time he’d returned, Jon was enmeshed in deliberations with other knights.
So far, no one had news of David, despite almost fifty knights having arrived. Then again, it was all too likely his son was staying out of sight. His appearance would be controversial enough. Being seen before Jon had the opportunity to assuage the anxieties of some of the more volatile knights, gather the support of longtime allies, and prepare for David’s repentance would only cause problems.
Then there was the groundwork Jonathan needed to lay to oppose Melazera, save the king, and heal the country.
Hours passed, the sun had long since set, and still Jon talked with this small group or that. He thought he’d made some progress.
Drake screamed, not that it made much noise through the gag. Despite being bound hand and foot, he struggled against the four knights manhandling him into the center of the growing crowd of his former peers.
Tripped by a staff, Drake fell to the ground. Stunned, he wriggled like a sturgeon taken off a hook.
“We found one traitor,” Daikon Sunak crowed. “Pity we couldn’t find the other.”
David had taken his time approaching the farm. He doubted he’d spotted one in twenty of the lookouts set in place. There was no clumsy ring of soldiers encircling the farm. They were entrenched in well camouflaged positions. He’d nearly broken his horse’s leg when approaching one. A soldier had risen, as if from solid ground, preventing him from doing so with only seconds to spare.
Either this farm would grant the Knights of J’shua the first safe place for them to meet since being outlawed, or it was the most perfect trap that could be conceived. The still, small voice whispered softly to him that it was the former.
David wanted to believe.
Cautiously, he made his way onto the farm after the sun set. His worries and prayers were no longer concerned with this being a trap. Instead, he was focused on finding a way to proclaim his… well, not innocence. He wasn’t that. He’d been a fool.
The note from Blackhawk read:
A small token awaits. The soldier will escort you, if you are interested in the beginnings of my making amends.
Rebekah wasn’t sure if she was amused or insulted. Yet, she was curious enough to see for herself the loot, treasure or what else the commander considered might be a suitable recompense. She was led to a nondescript tent, isolated from those around it, with only a single guard outside. When she entered, she gasped. She wasn’t prepared to behold George Rosewud on display in a pillory.
He was disheveled. His clothes were torn. His head and hands protruded through the hastily built devise, forcing his torso almost horizontal to the ground. After years of following his atrocities through the Licht Gegen network, she couldn’t feel compassion for him. This man had ordered her parents’ deaths, stolen away her daughter, and had intended to sell her into slavery.
Of its own accord, her hand drew her dagger as she slowly advanced on him.
“Oh my, if it isn’t Undersecretary Rosewud.” She squatted so he could see her clearly as she toyed with the knife. “My husband gave me this as a wedding gift. How should I make the best use of it?”
Rosewud squealed like a pig, thrashing wildly. Unable to withdraw but desperate to do so.
She brought her blade to his face and sliced downward along his left cheek. “For my mother.” She made a second cut on his right cheek. “For my father.”
“Please! No, what did I do? I was only doing my job!”
Her blade slashed across his forehead from his left eyebrow up to the receding hairline at his right temple. “For my daughter.”
“Don’t kill me! Please, don’t kill me!”
Rebekah took a step back. “According to the king’s proclamation, you are a supporter of Gaelib Melazera, whose been sentenced to death for treason–”
“No! It’s a lie! It can’t be!”
She smiled, it was a cold and vicious expression. “I’d get a copy of the proclamation and nail it before you, but you aren’t worth the effort. Not that, I suspect, King Sagen would fault me in the slightest for ending your life. However, unlike you…”
“Unlike you, I don’t easily take a life. And doing so would be too kind, too quick. These three little cuts are satisfaction enough, as there is an endless line of fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters whom you’ve wronged. Each should have an opportunity to draw a few drops of blood from you. Goodbye, weasel. I hope you live a long, long time.”
As she exited, she heard him screaming… and couldn’t help but be pleased by it.
Blackhawk listened to Rosewud’s screams. The man was terrified.
Steven had also heard Rebekah’s words. He’d been listening from outside. He needed to understand how she would react, what she would require as atonement, and how much suffering she was willing to inflict.
His only benchmark for a mother’s actions was Caileagh.
Yet, he understood Rebekah’s sentence. It was simultaneously milder and crueler than he’d anticipated. He’d pass the suggestion on to King Sagen. It would be a long, drawn-out punishment that, no matter how horrific, couldn’t repay the slightest deposit on the pain and suffering Rosewud had caused.
But that wouldn’t do for Gaelib.
Gaelib had to die. He was the only person left who could believably cast doubt on Blackhawk’s allegiance. Caileagh’s reported madness made her irrelevant.
Steven had served King Edal and then King Sagen for almost a decade, devoting himself to them, and to their vision of how life should be. However, he’d served Gaelib for all the years prior, ever since he’d been a starving boy. Should that more than decade of doing Melazera’s bidding, and the things he’d done during those years, come to light it would cast him as an enemy, a tool used against the king. It could even cause him to stand on a gallows beside his ‘father’.
For Steven to survive, Gaelib had to die. Quickly.
David crept silently into the barn where the knights were gathered.
In their midst, Drake hung from the tight ropes that bound him to a thick wooden post. Tears flowed down his face. Valueless words of supplication fell from his lips, rejecting responsibility for his actions.
Actions that had led to the Massacre
Actions that had denigrated all the Knights of J’shua.
Two men stood beside Drake. One his accuser. The other his defender.
David was unsurprised to see Jonathan standing at Drake’s side. But his father’s words lacked their usual fire. Lacked even conviction. They were spoken in sorrow.
Daikon Sunak prowled back and forth, like a wolf closing in on its prey. “Jonathan is correct. It isn’t our way to put a member of our fellowship to death.”
Murmurs and roars of assent from the assembled knights reinforced the point.
“But,” Sunak argued, “Drake Caswell isn’t a Knight of J’shua. He renounced his oaths, cast off our cloak, and repeatedly turned away those who sought J’shua. Therefore, like the arch-traitors Melazera and Rosewud, he deserves to be put to death.”
“No!” Jonathan countered. “That is not our way. If you would deal with him as a knight or as a former knight, then it must be by our ways. If you seek his death, send him to the king to be tried and sentenced according to the law.”
“I…” Sunak’s anger was a visible thing. Yet, he controlled it, smothered it, and spoke with calm surety. “I don’t want to agree with you, brother Jonathan. I fear you are seeking leniency for your former friend, just as you will for your son, but… I concede that you’re right.”
It took several minutes for the gathering to quiet again. Those who supported Sunak were disappointed. Some were angry, others not. Jonathan’s admirers were equally vocal in their opinions.
“I also,” Sunak resumed, “think you are wrong. We may only punish Drake as a former member of our Fellowship. It doesn’t mean Drake shouldn’t also answer to the king.”
Jonathan nodded. “That is just. Drake and my son, David, made choices. They must be held responsible for their actions. We have heard testimony for and against Drake Caswell. Is there anyone who would add anything before we decide his fate.”
When no one spoke, the knights drew their swords. Those who found Drake guilty, unsheathed them and pointed their blade’s tip to the heavens. Those who saw innocence, raised their sheathed blades, hilt upward. Every knight was required to vote. To abstain would have been to deny the guidance they received from J’shua.
The vote was almost unanimous. Even Jonathan voted to convict.
“You can’t do this,” Drake screamed. “I reject you! Take me before the king. I’ll accept his justice and his justice alone.” On and on he denied them.
David felt sick. It was cowardly, craven. He’d thought of Drake as an uncle, admired him. Had followed him even when…
He didn’t need to hear the still, small voice’s guidance. He was already striding into the knights’ midst. He raised his voice. “I am David, son of Jonathan. I come to proclaim my guilt, my selfishness, and my hubris. I let myself be blinded by hate, by anger, and by vengeance. Melazera kidnapped my wife, had her…” His voice broke. He couldn’t say the word. “…had her humiliated in the most primal way a woman can be violated. Then tortured her. Melazera used her to drive the foolish boy that I was into action, used me as an arrow that pointed at all of you.”
David looked up at his father. “There were those on that dreadful day that saw me fight by their side. No one who has ever seen me denounce our Fellowship. In the years that have followed, Drake has kept my wife prisoner, surrounded by his people, ensuring that I never refuted the noble narrative of how he saved the kingdom from the Knights of J’shua. I’ve hidden away, afraid to be judged by a fellow knight, afraid to admit my foolishness… and my stupidity. I was used. Yet, I’m still responsible for being used.
“I declare myself guilty.”
“Drake may mewl about what must be done. I do not. I implore you permit me to atone. Here. Now. Is there any who deny my right to this?”
Daikon Sunak stepped forward. “Will you accept my apology for suggesting that you’d seek leniency? Will you do me the honor of using my knife, Sir David?”
“The honor is mine,” David acknowledged, accepting the dagger.
Jonathan remained silent, unmoving.
The knights formed a circle around David as he walked toward the anvil.
His father handed him a length of thin white rope.
David used it to encircle the smallest finger on his left hand. Methodically, he wrapped the digit from its base, passed the first knuckle, then continued to the second. Then he secured its end.
The ritual had been instituted by the First Knight, a visible sign that an atonement had been made and accepted. Both Jonathan and Sunak checked it had been done correctly so there’d be minimal bleeding.
David placed the partially bound finger on the anvil and, with a single swift move, cut through it at the second knuckle. He was barely aware of the physical pain. It was nothing compared to the relief that washed away years of guilt.
He was unaware that he swayed. That Sunak steadied him, even before his father could.
He was unaware of the roars of approval around him, of their admiration for his bravery, of their approval of his lack of hesitation, and of their acceptance of him back within their numbers.
He was unaware someone had freed Drake, who’d fled.