Chapter 37: Reconciliation – 160 AK, Early Spring
I Thessalonians 5:8 But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.
Dunis Glen — The Barn
Blackhawk had waited in the yard while the knights did whatever they were doing.
He hadn’t waited patiently. He’d paced, turning over each logical reason he could use to be away. He had to kill Gaelib. It was the only way he might live through what was to come. A single misspoken word could spell his doom.
If he’d been free, he’d already be riding for Lorness Castle. He’d concocted a story that would get him and his men inside where, tragically, he’d fail to take his ‘father’ alive.
But he wasn’t free. King Sagen had been very specific. Jonathan was to shape and command this campaign as the knight had a greater understanding of all the forces at play.
King Sagen had been very, very specific. Although Steven’s failed recovery of Jonathan had yielded an unexpected treasure…
Not the way I would ever describe Caileagh.
…it had almost thwarted the knight’s rescue. So, during this operation, Steven was to stay by Jonathan’s side, to protect the knight as Captain Lendyld – and his two identical brothers – continued to protect him.
How could I have overlooked three blond giants? Perhaps the king’s right. I pray Little Soldier’s – no, the queen’s – view of you, Lord J’shua, is correct. Although the thought of some deity protecting me is so foreign, I can’t fathom it.
Yet… I find peace in the Writings.
Jonathan walked toward him. Knights streamed past, some were commiserating, some mounting horses. “Commander Blackhawk, send a unit of cavalry with–”
One of the knights shrugged off another who’d been helping him, strode forward fiery-eyed, and lashed out with a right hook.
The punch was solid, if poorly delivered, anger clouding its owner’s judgment.
Steven felt his jaw partially dislocate and heard the telltale sound of bone cracking as he rode the blow, spinning, diffusing its force. That also opened two paces between him and his attacker.
David advanced, his other fist lashing out.
Blackhawk caught it, crushing it as he rotated on the spot, using the knight’s own momentum to send David sprawling.
There may have been a hiss of pain. If there was, Steven was unsure if it was his or his attacker’s. Only as the lad tumbled, recovering with admirable dexterity, did Blackhawk notice the bloody bandages encasing David’s left hand.
“Stop!” Jonathan commanded.
Blackhawk relaxed from his combat-ready stance.
David hesitated. Anger writ loud upon his body. Yet, he took a slow breath, then straightened up. His eyes never wavered from Blackhawk as, breath by slow breath, he calmed.
Jonathan waited until both men were able to talk.
Be patient with them. Both are severely wounded souls, the still, small voice guided.
“This,” Jonathan raised his voice, all too aware of the reason for their clash, “must be resolved. Now. We cannot have dissent within our ranks – be they fellow knights or the king’s soldiers – when we confront Melazera and his misguided followers.”
“I agree,” Daikon Sunak echoed. “For the sake of propriety and appearance, would you permit me, Sir Jonathan, to resolve this matter?”
He too has heard me, the still, small voice added.
Jonathan wanted answers, but… but… it would look wrong if he questioned his son and an officer that reported directly to him. No matter the decision, it’d cause divisions that could prove disastrous. “Proceed.” He retreated into the throng, to be just another of its members.
Sunak circled his arms and the knights formed a cordon within which there was only David, Blackhawk and himself. Once there was quiet, he asked, “Sir David, why did you attack Commander Blackhawk?”
“This… man… this thing… is the creature that defiled my wife while Gaelib Melazera and others watched. He deserves to die, slowly, at my hands.”
“Colonel Blackhawk,” Sunak enjoined, “how do you respond to these charges? Do you have anything to say in your defense?”
The officer looked at the ground, a pained expression on his face. “In regard to that… rape… I am both victimizer…”
David took an angry step forward, only to be stopped by Sunak’s gaze.
“…and victim,” Blackhawk completed.
The expression on David’s face told his father he was only just restraining himself.
Despite his size, strength and usual vitality, Blackhawk gave off the impression of a man in hell. A hell Jonathan had all too recently experienced.
Sunak’s deep, resonant voice didn’t have to be raised to gain attention. “Tell us more, Colonel. Explain so we understand.”
Steven Blackhawk pursed his lips. “I’m reluctant to do so.” He remained looking down at the ground. “Has Sir Jonathan informed you of the contents of the–”
“King Sagen’s third missive? Yes, I take it you are referring to the line that states ‘Colonel Steven Blackhawk, who has for many years acted as Our agent to uncover Gaelib Melazera’s misdeeds is pardoned of all of those actions, many heinous, that he had to undertake in order to discover the truth and save Freislicht’. Many. Heinous. Tell us something–”
“Nothing can justify what he did to my wife!” David’s words were an anguished scream.
Sunak glared at David. “There will be a time for you to speak. It isn’t now. You have laid your accusation and heard an initial response. An initial response. We will hear what this man has to say.”
Not yet. Do not intervene yet, the still, small voice instructed Jonathan.
That he would have an opportunity to help his son was welcome. That it might be necessary to help Blackhawk…
“Colonel,” Sunak prompted.
“Getting close enough to Melazera meant having to participate in his depraved sexual practices, sometimes as perpetrator, always as his victim. In Lady Cynthia’s case, I didn’t know the then-Earl-of-Lorness’ intentions. It was odd for him to select a – please forgive my describing it so, but it is his word – select a ‘plaything’ that had connections or resources with which they could strike back at him. His usual victims were poor, nor were their fates as gentle as your wife’s, Sir Dav–”
“Gentle? Gentle? How could you say that?”
Sunak strode toward David. “Not another word until he finishes testifying to my satisfaction. You have demonstrated your bravery, your righteousness, and your willingness to abide by our codes. Please continue to do so.”
David nodded slowly.
“Continue, Colonel,” Sunak prompted.
“How could I say ‘gentle’? First, because your wife lived. Many, perhaps most, did not. Second, because she didn’t have runes carved into her body or tattooed all over it, in places no civilized person would contemplate. Third, because she wasn’t burned with acid, branded, or excessively mutilated. Fourth, because she was… played with… for only a single session. I have already admitted that I was the instrument of her torture but, had I not done so, Gaelib would have killed me. And in his rage, probably her. I’ve seen him kill too many others upon a whim. As to…”
“Continue,” Sunak insisted.
“As to what would have happened to Lady Cynthia had I not been that instrument, please don’t think that I’ve provided you with even the most preliminary list of tortures, debasements, defilements, degradations, or deprivations that Gaelib Melazera indulged in. There is also a fifth reason for my describing her treatment as being ‘gentle’. Caileagh Melazera, Gaelib’s wife, didn’t join in.”
Jonathan’s feet carried him into the cordon. He held up a hand, forestalling questions. “I do not come to plead for or against, Sunak. I come forth to provide evidence.”
“What must we know, brother knight?
“Most of you are aware that I was recently captured by Melazera,” Jon said, closed his eyes seeking strength within, opening them only when he found it moments later. “I was tortured by Gaelib and his wife. But it was Caileagh who was the more vicious, spiteful and destructive. Guided by her demons, she made her husband look like a wayward petulant child in comparison.
“As to Gaelib’s lethality toward those who disappointed him even slightly, Colonel Blackhawk has not stated it strongly enough.” Jon bowed, then returned to his place in the surrounding crowd.
“Is there anything more you would say?” Sunak asked Blackhawk.
Steven shook his head.
“Is there anything more you would say?” Sunak asked David, who stared at his father’s retreating back.
David sighed. “No.”
“Then we are left with two alternatives, ask the king to review this matter and possibly withdraw his pardon in regard to it, or ask Colonel Blackhawk – who is not a member of our Fellowship – to demonstrate the depth of his remorse in the same manner Sir David did.”
Dunis Glen — West of the Barn
Drake nodded to the knight who’d freed him. The elderly Sir Norin was also from Caswell and had family there.
Norin led him to a copse of trees where two horses were waiting. By that time, others were exiting the barn. Some were already mounted. Most were still on foot. There was some sort of commotion.
As it escalated, they rode away, but not in the southwesterly direction Drake had expected. “Where are we going?”
“Lorness, there’s nowhere else. We can’t go home. You can’t,” Norin snapped back. “You screwed this up, my lord. You allowed yourself to be captured in an ambush that knightly students would be embarrassed by. Worse, your hubris has endangered every knight you’ve sheltered and their families.”
The whistle of steel was the only warning Drake had. His heels urging his horse forward were all that saved him from Norin’s sword. A line of pain burned a brief fiery path across his back as he urged his horse left, breaking away from his attacker.
The moon was less than half its girth, clouds obscured what little light there was, and, in the distance, the hooves of hundreds of horses galloping drowned out Drake’s hearing. Yet Norin’s proximity kept him riding hard, even though his mount might stumble, fall, or break a leg without warning.
The horse tired. It was lathered in sweat. Drake didn’t care. His only concern was Norin’s sudden reappearance. Yet, killing the horse by overtaxing it would leave him on foot. He’d be an easy target, even for the fat old Norin.
He slowed the animal to a walk.
In a way, he mused, he’d been lucky. Of all the former knights he’d given protection to, Norin was weak, slow, and a decade older than Drake. If he had to be chased by any of those he’d succored after the Fellowship being declared illegal, he couldn’t have asked for a less capable antagonist.
He hated to admit that Norin was right about anything, but Drake knew he couldn’t return to Caswell. That was where he’d been seized.
Is my wife well? Are my children and grandchildren? I sought only to protect them.
There was no choice. He’d wearied the horse dangerously. It needed to be watered and fed. So did he. His captors had given him barely enough to stay alive. If he didn’t want to walk, the only possible destination was Lorness.
Beyond Dunis Glen
David and a large contingent of knights, supported by an even larger cavalry force, had been dispatched to surround and isolate Lorness Castle.
Another group, under the command of Daikon Sunak, had set off for Caswell. Lady Cynthia and her children had to be protected from the wrath of Drake’s remaining allies. Those knights were also tasked with recapturing Drake, if he’d fled there.
Jonathan rode alone beside Blackhawk. In the midst of the combined host of knights and soldiers, he was surrounded by Rebekah, friends, allies and even caught fleeting glimpses of familiar boys watching from the woods.
“Should I ask…?” Jon commenced, gazing at the colonel’s left hand.
“Should…” Blackhawk’s tone was wistful. “I am the last person to ever ask about ‘should’. I’ve spent too many years wading through darkness. I did what I had to. My survival wasn’t a pretty thing. Certainly, it isn’t something to make casual conversation about. As to this,” he held up bandaged fingers, “I’ve suffered far worse to continue living. As a public sign of my atonement…” His voice trailed off.
Jonathan did not need the still, small voice’s prompting. “I shall never be able to say this before witnesses, but… thank you for saving Cynthia. My son may not understand, but I do. I am not offering forgiveness…”
“I’m not seeking it,” Blackhawk spoke over him.
“…because it is not mine to give, but thank you.”
Melyssa prayed. Not just for the men and women who were at risk as matters progressed near Dunis Glen, Lorness and elsewhere, but for the woman before her.
Many weeks had passed since Cailleigh Melazera had been smuggled out of Lorness. Refusing to go into details, Sagen had only said the opportunity had arisen to save her life. That it, almost certainly, involved Colonel Blackhawk was obvious. Just as obvious was that, somehow, Blackhawk’s actions had infuriated the king.
For a man who swears that he tells me everything, there are moments I find my Sagen’s protective instincts utterly galling. Of the two of us, he’s been far more sheltered.
In the first few weeks, the healers and physicians had doubted Caileagh would live. Her wounds were severe. She’d been bled extensively. And several serving women, female guards, and even Lady Ush-Wha had declared her insane, possessed, or in league with demons.
Caileagh’s physical health had improved. However, as it had, another problem arose. The mere sight of a male sent her into violent fits, caused her to have seizures, or saw her fall unconscious. Even if the physician covered their face and disguised their masculinity, the former Lady Melazera – Gaelib had declared her dead after an attack on Lorness Castle by members of Otual’s Rebellion – seemed beyond help.
To date, Lady Ush-Wha’s attempts had been the most successful in dealing with whatever tormented Caileagh. They’d also been the most terrifying.
Melyssa hadn’t quite appreciated the implications of the stories she’d heard about Clan Ush. Seeing their practices enacted, as opposed to merely hearing shocking fantastical tales about them, had caused the queen nightmares and many sleepless nights. She was ever less sure where the delineation between treatment and torture was. Sadly, with the exception of lessening the severity of Caileagh’s bouts of near-madness, Ush-Wha’s efforts had little effect.
Melyssa tried to reach out to the Knights of J’shua, without success.
The arrival of her final hope had just been announced. That it would also be a welcome reunion was great comfort.