Chapter 38: Siege of Lorness – 160 AK, Early Spring
Jeremiah 17:9-10 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.
Approaching Lorness Castle
Norin sat easily in the saddle. There was no need to hurry. Drake was doing what he wanted. Well, as he and Sunak wanted.
David Otual wasn’t the only former knight who had been ‘lavished’ with a house, lands and servants as tokens of Drake’s largesse. The despicable Earl of Caswell had held Norin’s and others’ families hostage for too many years.
No, the pattern was all too common and all too stark. An on-the-run knight sought succor in Caswell. Aid that Drake was willing to give. Even after erasing his knightly past and shunning all local circles, Drake considered himself the archetype to which all aspired. His solutions were always the most perfect. His generosity without equal. His wisdom beyond question.
Yet, once safely established within a house that was beautiful beyond imagining to someone who’d been living off the land, it soon became obvious there was a price to pay. Drake, or worse his wife, knew of every indiscretion, of every disagreement between spouses, and of every rebellious young adult. Those who obeyed the Earl’s and Countess’ guidance were permitted to live quiet comfortable lives. Those who didn’t, suffered.
The servants that Drake provided were informants. Servants that couldn’t be dismissed or replaced.
Yet, it turned out Drake had overlooked something. There were boys living rough in the nearby forests, wilderness and woods. Lads who were well-trained, disciplined, and – it became increasingly impossible to miss over the years – far too expensively equipped with swords, bows, and all manner of other gear.
A year-and-a-half earlier…
Norin entered his home to find a particularly nosy serving girl bound to a chair. His daughter and a scruffily-dressed raven-haired young man of perhaps eighteen were having a hissed-yet-heated argument nearby.
“She knows,” Debryn scowled, “she’ll tell. She’ll–”
The young man’s easy smile silenced her. “She’s as terrified as you are. If she doesn’t report on you, her younger brother and sister will be punished.”
“No. She’s a nosy, manipulative hundn who–”
“Deb, shhh.” He wrapped his arms around her. “I’m here. What say we–”
“What’s going on?” Norin had interrupted, striding into the room so he was visible to all three.
The unnamed youngster stepped clear of Debryn. “Sir.” He bowed. “I–”
“Let’s start with your name, son.”
“Egalt, sir. Although most just call me Galt. I mean no harm.”
“He’s…” Debryn’s voice withered at her father’s glare.
“If he’s man enough to hold you, he’s man enough to speak for himself.”
“I assure you, sir, nothing untoward has happened between us.”
Norin harrumphed. “We’ll discuss that next.” He turned his gaze to Debryn.
“Why is the serving girl…?” Norin gestured.
The young man took a step forward. “I was abou—"
“I’m asking my daughter, Galt. I’ll have more questions for you shortly.”
The young man stood at ease as if he was a trainee knight. It brought back memories… and hope.
“She… that is, Father… I can’t take being spied upon every day and night. I want to leave this… this… prison. I won’t be married off to whomever the Countess of Caswell selects for me. I can’t even talk to… Galt… without risking… and she…” Debryn scowled at the bound servant.
“I think we should hear the girl’s side of this.” Norin strode over to the struggling housemaid and pulled the gag from her mouth.
“Please, sir, I wasn’t–”
He gripped her chin and tilted her face toward his. “One lie and I give you to the lad. Two lies and I give you to my daughter. Three…” he smiled cruelly, “…and I give you to my wife. Do you understand?”
She nodded timidly.
“Do you have younger siblings?”
“Why will they be punished?”
“If I don’t have anything to report at the end of each day, I’m punished. If I have nothing for three days, they are. If…”
“Yes…?” Norin growled, undecided if she’d lied.
“If I’ve nothing to report for a week, we’ll all be expelled from Caswell… or worse.”
“Hmmm…” Norin put the gag back into place.
“Galt, from what you’ve seen, is this true?”
“It’s incomplete.” He glanced at Debryn, then took a step closer to Norin. “The servants are also rewarded for every consecutive day they have something to report. But the punishments? That’s true. My friends and I have been wondering what to do about it.”
“Worked anything out, son?”
“The problem is… sorry, there’s a word our helper taught us. Has to do with feeding all the people we’d have to free… and having enough of us in one place to do so.”
“Logistics,” Norin noted, feeling hope grow within. He didn’t like the way his daughter was taking comfort from the young man standing near her. Yet the lad would be a better match than any Norin would consider from within Caswell’s boundaries. “What if it wasn’t only you and your friends?”
“We’ve considered that too. We’re waiting for an answer.”
“From whom?” Norin demanded.
“Can’t… sorry, won’t… say, sir.”
“I like you more and more.” Then Norin frowned at his daughter. He didn’t want her taking that as approval for… but that would have to wait. “I take it that you, Debryn, tied–”
“Yes, Father. She saw Galt approaching the house and…” she blushed. “I hit her over the head and… uh…”
It had been a ridiculous start to an insurgency. Norin had demanded of Drake that the single servant girl he had was insufficient. Had told him that his wife, Olvera, wanted more, wanted them young, and wanted to train them herself.
Then it had been Olvera’s turn. She’d caused merry hell until she got the girl’s younger siblings. She also demonstrated that she was even stricter and more righteous than Drake’s wife, Taryssa. Or, so the girl’s reports and periodic bruises conveyed. That, in turn, had caused several other spied-upon households to demand control over the entire families of their servants.
Drake’s and Taryssa’s control had begun slipping.
As for the friends Galt had access to, that had only been answered a moon ago. Four Knights of J’shua had slipped into Caswell Castle to kidnap Drake. One of those four, Sir Egalt, had carried word of the operation’s success to Norin, who was on his way to Dunis Glen.
Upon arriving, Norin set out to find an ally. He would have preferred Jonathan Otual, but hadn’t expected him to appear so close to Lorness. Instead, he found Sunak Abreth, whose fiery persona hid a canny mind. Neither wanted Drake put to death by the Fellowship, he was far more useful in other ways. For example, driving him toward Melazera created tactical opportunities that couldn’t be overlooked.
Jonathan Otual’s arrival had almost derailed their plans. Neither had expected anyone to stand up and defend Drake. Then, David Otual’s unpredictable actions had brought the knights together more effectively than anything Sunak or Norin had considered.
Outside Lorness Castle
David and forty-or-so other knights rode hard for Lorness Castle. There had been unavoidable delays due to his…
How could I have let my emotions override my judgment so?
Attacking Blackhawk had been stupid. Not merely on a personal level. The man had the king’s pardon, and it could have broken apart the alliance of forces that had been assembled to combat Melazera.
My petty need could have–
“Don’t lag behind, One-Hand!” a painfully young knight yelled.
Distracted by his thoughts, David had slipped toward the rear of the troupe. That wouldn’t do. He spurred his horse onward.
Act now. Think later.
As the wind whipped through his hair, he took in his fellow knights. All of those with him were young, fit, and aggressive. They’d been chosen to establish a watch around Lorness Castle. Their job was to ensure Melazera didn’t flee.
The cavalry force accompanying David’s knights fell behind. Their numbers were great enough to block the road to High Castle and the numerous paths leading south to River Town.
David had no idea where they’d get the soldiers necessary to lay siege to Lorness… or didn’t until Blackhawk’s face yet again came to mind. How many men did the Colonel have at his disposal?
Gaelib strode out onto the battlements as dawn broke. Then laughed.
If his ancestors had intended to make Lorness Castle a militarily defensible fortress, they had done a spectacularly poor job of it.
There was no central keep to fall back to. For the sake of comfort and to project their power and prestige, if that keep had ever existed, it had long ago been demolished to create a vast mansion house, set in exquisite lawns and gardens.
The inner bailey did have a curtain wall. Not that it was very high, nor did it have sufficient towers to cover all the potential blind spots against attackers. They would have ruined the desired aesthetic. There wasn’t sufficient accommodation within to house the Melazeras, their guests, servants, enough soldiers for defense, and all the provisions required for a siege. So, the soldiers and provisions had been moved outside.
There was a proper curtain wall around the outer bailey. It had towers, battlements, bastions, and a pair of heavily reinforced gate houses each with its own barbican. There were arrow slits and murder holes for defense. The main problem was that it didn’t contain even a small fraction of the town of Lorness, which lay outside unprotected by even a decorative wall. Again, if the town was ever besieged, there was insufficient space within the outer bailey to house its population and the supplies to feed them. Third, additional holes had been opened up through the curtain wall to improve trade, commerce and so on.
Gaelib sighed. He remembered his grandfather scorning High Castle for its concentric design, layer upon layer of defenses and lack of living space for important people.
Grandfather Traneib’s opinion of Farr Castle had almost been as bad. Only ‘almost’ because the Melazeras had seen to its ‘improvement’ over recent generations. Even the king had acknowledged its superiority to High Castle by living there for a substantial part of each year.
As for the Alexandrian Castle, Traneib had not known where to begin. There certainly hadn’t been an end to his complaints. First, it was built in the oddest of places. Second, it was as if it had been constructed backward, as if it was defending some non-existent route through the impassable Shining Mountains. Third, generations of Alexandrians – people obsessed with money – had kept expanding it.
None of Gaelib’s musings soothed him.
There were a large number of Knights of J’shua out there, openly wearing their cloaks and proclaiming their presence. The townspeople were welcoming them, feeding them, and… conspiring.
It was unacceptable.
But worse, was the even larger formation of cavalry, flying King Sagen’s colors. They were not approaching Lorness. Instead, they were setting up camp across the road leading to High Castle.
Gaelib didn’t know what their game was, but did not like it. And why hadn’t he been informed by the docents? There’d been no warning from them whatsoever.
Even more dire, key officers and trusted allies had deserted since the knights’ arrival.
The only positive was the officers and men Blackhawk had put in place had prevented most of those traitors from escaping. A handful had been captured alive… well, temporarily so. Those few had confirmed that they’d deserted and pointed out others who might… wilt… if things got hotter. With admirable verve, Stephen’s people had rounded up the potential troublemakers and…
Gaelib smiled at the thought of all those despicable weak-willed quislings receiving the punishments they deserved. From his hands, of course. Having such an extensive range of entertainments would make the ‘siege’ bearable. No matter how long it lasted.
However, there were large dust clouds approaching from both the north and south. The sort that, from the stories of his youth, indicated entire armies of soldiers on the move. Armies that seemed intent on intercepting each other at Lorness.
Are we being invaded? The northern force could be the king’s. Who’s coming from the south? Has Gregory of Alexandria grown a spine? Phah, that miserly goat wouldn’t waste coin raising, training and equipping an army. It’s not possible.
As he withdrew inside, an ever-larger band of raggedly-dressed boys emerged from every direction. Gaelib stopped to examine them.
Am I supposed to be afraid of urchins? The idea’s more ridiculous than an army of southerners. Is this all Sagen can muster? My victory is assured.
“Herald,” Gaelib commanded, “send word to our people throughout the city. We are being surrounded by rogue knights, rebels, and criminals. For their own sake, they must withdraw into Lorness Castle, where we can provide safety and weapons for those who would fight.”
Ha! Even as these fools attempt to besiege me, they play into my hands, giving me thousands of unwitting would-be-soldiers.
My ancestors did something immensely more sensible than building protective walls.
Something that many years of slave labor had permitted him to renovate, expand upon and improve.
What fool would waste money on defenses? Do these clumsy idiots think that they can capture me or make me surrender by stationing troops around me?
Gaelib’s laughter bordered on hysterical.
Do these cretins think armies change the course of history? That openly wielded power is the decisive factor? I’ll show them.
Not even Greysun or Rosewud had glimpsed the truth. Caileagh had never had the capacity to. She’d been a tool sent to permit Gaelib access to the Warrior’s power.
Build an army? Phah!
I built tunnels and accessways. Had them constructed by people who could be, and were, then disposed of. Only I know of their existence. Only I know whose throats are waiting to be slit at my pleasure.
I built a spy network within a spy network
I know secrets that grant me power. Secrets whose value can’t be diminished.
Now, I’ll teach them all.
Outside Lorness Castle
It had been too long since Danyth had sat in the saddle and led men. He wouldn’t have missed today for all his father’s wealth. That his younger brother, Rodyn, commanded the force was a welcome surprise.
“Are you up to speed, Danyth, or is your mind still immersed in the king’s finances?” Rodyn taunted. The fine black stallion he rode was an exceptional beast. Its trappings functional rather than gaudy.
“Assume I’m not,” Danyth responded, bringing his chestnut filly alongside Rodyn’s black. “I’m late to the feast. Have you heard the king’s given Otual overall command?”
“I have, and look forward to meeting him again. His orders are to block all passages to the west and south. His agents have introduced us to some new… friends. Just wait until you face him across a chessboard. If his skills on a battlefield are even half that, this should be over quickly.”
“What are you expecting?”
“Let me set the scene. We set out from Alexandria over a moon ago. Our new friends isolated Fairness Crossing first. We’ve had little interaction with them directly but no couriers escaped to spread word of what was happening. Not by road. Not through the wilderness.”
“Don’t be impatient,” Rodyn scolded with a smile. “I don’t have all the answers yet. However, there’s a plow merchant, of all things, who carried messages to and from us. It can’t have been just the one person, but whatever his organization is, it’s effective.”
“So am I. When the opportunity arises, I want to meet T’mas Bekh, shake his hand, and buy him as much ale as he can drink. That said, our main force moved north from Fairness Crossing toward High Castle. Smaller groups were detached to deal with Caswell and River Town.”
“Your tone, brother dear”,” Danyth noted, “indicates something odd happened.”
“River Town was more… problematic. Our allies couldn’t intercept all the boats headed downstream. Yet, somehow, the river itself became blocked in several places. We found two dozen boats that were merely stranded. We promised to help them out after matters have been resolved. However, we also found a handful of boats abandoned, except for recent marks of swordplay and no small amount of dried blood. Again, news didn’t drift north to Melazera.”
“What about Caswell? Its Earl is one of Melazera’s most open supporters.”
“That…” Rodyn’s smile was bleak. “…is something we’re still trying to understand. We were expecting open and covert opposition…”
Inside Lorness Castle
Captain Udara strode into the Western Barbican, nodding to the soldiers stationed there. “Where’s your officer?”
A grizzled sergeant pointed at a dark corner, where a man was asleep.
“Up!” Udara commanded. The man didn’t stir, so he kicked him.
Still, the man did not move.
“Captain…?” The sergeant walked close enough so he could speak without the other soldiers hearing. “The… uh… lieutenant was mouthing off, saying we can’t win. It was bad for the men to hear such, so I…”
“I was brought in from High Castle by Colonel Blackhawk. He thought I had… potential. Even at my age.” He then chuckled.
“So was I,” Udara winked. He didn’t know everyone that the colonel had brought in, but he did know those recognition phrases. “Can you cope without a replacement? I’ve no one solid to send you.”
“I’ll manage, sir.” The sergeant responded. “The lieutenant’s just dead… drunk.”
“I see…” Dead was more like it. But it meant that taking control of the Western Barbican later would be simpler.
Colonel Blackhawk had brought in a few dozen officers and sergeants who could influence matters. However, there were several thousand soldiers and militet stationed throughout Lorness Castle. That meant Blackhawk did not have the manpower to take control of the fortress, only to exert influence at key points.
Those who had ‘deserted’ in the last day had been aided in their betrayals of Melazera by poisons, hypnotics and hallucinogens. All of which could be ‘traced’ back to the disgraced Caileagh.
Similarly, Blackhawk’s people had identified who to kill, who to render unfit, and who to bribe to ensure that when the king’s forces attacked, Lorness Castle would fall quickly.
With one more key location undermined, Captain Udara left to further weaken the castle’s defenses. He still had to deal with the Lightning Battalion.
Outside Lorness Castle
Drake had been too slow. The great portcullises had been lowered. Guards and barricades blocked the other entrances that would permit him to enter Castle Lorness’ outer bailey.
His horse was near exhaustion. He had no money. He had no friends. He…
A tiny, long-absent voice instructed, turn left. Even though frightened by the experience, he did so. Again, the still, small voice whispered. Again, he did as prompted.
Again, and again, and again.
He lost count of how many times it urged him onward. He lost track of where he was. He dismounted, as he’d been told to, then led his horse through a small door.
On its other side, a guard snapped to attention, “Lord Caswell, are you well? May I tend to your mount? Do you want me to take you to the duke?”
“Wha… yes.” He was led through guarded doors, along dark unused passageways.
“Drake?” Gaelib’s sharp tone cut through the haze clouding his mind. “What are you doing here?”
“Caswell has fallen.”
“Nonsense. You’ve overreacted. The God of this Age is on our side. As are his hosts. What can the deluded followers of an illegal, disbanded religion do against them?”
“Nothing! They can do nothing! To demonstrate our power, I’m going to remove this petulant boy who plays at being king. If he understood real power, he’d have had me killed. So, I shall exterminate him, along with his queen, his heirs, and every noble-born miscreant that doesn’t understand that Freislicht is mine.”