Chapter 39: A Clash of Wills – 160 AK, Early Spring
II Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
East of Lorness
Mathu Duine, Steward to the Premier of Esthlanis, wondered quite how – at well past fifty years of age – he’d come to be camping in the woods, dressed in a dull cloak that hid the finery of his clothes, and discussing tactics with a youngster who could be no more than in his mid-twenties.
It had been sixteen years since meeting Jonathan Otual and introducing the Knight of J’shua to the then-Premier. Less than a moon after that, the process had begun that – very eventually – led to the Premier of Esthlanis pledging himself, his successors, and all of their apparatus of state to aid the knights in eradicating the pestilence that plagued Freislicht.
A pestilence named Melazera.
For the last three moons, the number of merchant caravans headed west from Esthlanis into Freislicht had increased each week. Yet, only the usual number of them – plus a scant few extras that only the closest observer might detect – had arrived at their destinations in Lorness, High Castle, Farr Castle, Fairness Crossing, River Town, and Alexandria. The rest had turned off the westward road just prior to the range of hills that blocked Lorness Castle’s view to the east. Moving slowly into the woods, both north and south of the roadway, they’d been met by raggedly-dressed but well-equipped youngsters ranging in age from ten-or-so to their mid-twenties.
The lad sitting cross-legged before Mathu was the perfect example. His clothes had seen better days, were clearly not washed or repaired as oft as they should be, but had once been of good quality. The sword at his hip was the unadorned-yet-expensive product of one of Esthlanis’ better-known swordsmiths. The maker’s crest, its only decorative touch, was embossed into its pommel. From the wear on its handle and sheath, the weapon was in constant use.
“So,” the quirkily named James of the Wood continued, “with your arrival and deployment just below this hilltop, we’re in position. It’s unlikely Melazera or his minions will attempt to escape into your country…” he left the words hanging.
“It is unlikely, but nor are they wanted,” Mathu’s tone was as firm as his country’s resolve. “Our Premier has no intention of helping Freislicht only to have Esthlanis contaminated by the filth permitted to grow here.” He examined his companion yet again. There was something familiar about the lad that had nagged at him since they’d met three days earlier.
“Excuse me, Lord Steward,” a just-out-of-school Esthlanis-trained Knight of J’shua interrupted. “The trees and bushes are rustling again, indicating that another of your ‘friends’ is likely about to arrive.”
“When he does…” Mathu didn’t bother to complete the sentence.
A boy of perhaps ten or eleven darted out of the trees, dropped to his knees, slid under the expectant arms of a guard waiting to nab him, rolled and came to a perfect, breathless stop beside James. Only then did he fish out a rolled-up parchment from within his near-rags.
“I wish your people,” the Esthlani Knight grumbled, “would show a little more decorum. Just as I wish you, James-with-no-title, would control them in a more fitting and civilized manner.”
James only smiled as he read the document, then passed it to Mathu. “We have our marching orders. I’m instructed to bring you and a small escort to Sir Jonathan. He’s moving south.”
The Steward read the message. “It says nothing here of where we’re to meet. How are we to find him?”
“That’s simple.” James explained as he motioned to the boy who dug in his clothes again. “Quite by accident, we came into possession of some strange, curved handguards for swords.” He handed one to Mathu. “One of your artisans had experimented with the idea of somehow fully protecting the wielder’s hand. But it was too heavy. He couldn’t make it work. We needed weapons and rather than melt down the guards, he gave them to us. We were grateful. Still are. His work is excellent. Yet, even we – who accept all offerings and contributions with thanks to J’shua – couldn’t adjust to a bell-like protective cup around our hand.”
“I don’t see where this is going,” the Esthlani Knight lamented.
“Patience and tolerance of foreign ways,” Mathu gently scolded, “are the signs of a Knight of J’shua. Our friend,” he nodded to James, “hasn’t been blessed as we have. We don’t know his story, but do know that living in the woods is safer for him than being forcibly conscripted into Freislicht’s army. Your haste does you no credit.”
The newly-minted knight took the hint. “I apologize, James. I can’t imagine having to live as you do. Please forgive me.”
The disheveled young man chuckled gently. The boy beside him suppressed a snigger. “You have no need to make amends. I’d taken no offense. Are you interested in the end of my tale?”
Mathu bit the inside of his lip. No offense taken? James had rebuked the Esthlani Knight as surely as if he’d slapped him “Please continue,” the steward instructed, not willing to risk a young hothead – well, either of them – starting something here or now.
“It turns out that the strangely shaped hand protectors had an unexpected use.” James dug into the cloth bag sitting on the ground beside him and pulled another out. It was battered, had many dings and scars on its surface, and probably hadn’t been polished since it was cast. Then he turned its interior toward the knight and a sunbeam briefly played across the Esthlani’s face.
“What?” Mathu exclaimed. “May I?”
The insulted Esthlani knight suppressed a scowl.
The Steward maneuvered the object he’d been given around. When it caught the light at just the right angle, it concentrated it and shone it in only one direction. If you were not directly in its path, or very nearly so, it couldn’t be seen. “This is a marvelous discovery. Why haven’t you shared it with anyone?”
“We have,” James responded hesitantly, “but only a very few. And the artisan who created the original for us has kindly provided several more every other moon so that we can experiment. At some point, I shall probably have to travel to Esthlanis explain how we have been using them. We should also pay him something appropriate. Its value to us has been–”
“Has been what?” the Esthlani knight demanded.
Mathu sighed. “With such a tool and a simple code, Sir Broden, I could instantly communicate with others over a distance that I couldn’t ride in an entire afternoon. This isn’t like using a mirror. That can be seen by everyone. This, along with pre-arranged message transmission and receiving points, could be used without giving away your location. A most excellent application, James. Please pass my appreciation on to whoever came up with it.”
“I shall. Although,” James sighed, “I doubt Jonathan will acknowledge his part in it. He never has before…”
High Castle – The Queen’s Drawing Room
Melyssa strode back and forth nervously within her drawing room. She had excluded everyone she could, but that still left Ladies Ush-Wha and Ush-Lus, three more Alexandrian ladies-in-waiting, an additional two from Farr, another from the Tarinland border, one of her own spies, and a delicate-looking female bodyguard. All of whom had proved their loyalty and were trusted.
It was still far too large a group for the queen’s comfort.
She would have liked to limit it to only Ush-Wha, but with Freislicht’s armies in the field, the king – wisely, she begrudgingly admitted – had insisted no royal would be without a sizeable escort. This had also applied to Kennah, who’d traveled north with a mixed force of Alexandrians and those from below the Shining Mountains.
At least my daughters think it's a great game. Having more attendants fuss around them amuses immensely.
Also, with Blackhawk discovering she’d been his Little Soldier, she was frightened that more people would learn her secrets. And that, at some point, she was going to have to explain certain… oddities… about her life to her husband. Little things like having three sets of parents.
There were the parents whom she’d been stolen away from. Parents who, despite Blackhawk’s investigations, she still knew next to nothing about.
There were the parents who had adopted her, from Sir Hawk. Although Kennah Beecher’s husband had died in 158.
Then there were Gregory and Ellyth Locke, who’d been the second couple to adopt her. She trusted them to keep her secret, but the siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and so on – and their servants, lackeys, administrators, minstrels, cooks, gardeners, and untold others – who had come along with them were another matter.
All in all, there were simply too many people who could accidentally let something slip at the wrong time or in front of the wrong person. That also explained why Kennah was dressed as a servant, just as she always was when she visited as the Queen’s Midwife.
“Your Majesty,” Kennah Beecher curtsied deeply, then waited to be acknowledged. Even in private, they kept up the pretense. Even in front of Ush-Wha and the other ladies-in-waiting of Melyssa’s inner circle.
“Rise, welcome back. I hope my summons didn’t inconvenience you too much.”
Mother Beecher stood with her head slightly bowed in deference. “I am always happy to see you and have prayed for you every day. Why have you summoned me? Are you with child again so quickly?”
Melyssa hesitated, not wanting to draw yet more attention to Kennah. Yet, there was no one else to turn to. “I require assistance, Mother Beecher, that I can’t obtain elsewhere. I have heard you’ve experience with tormented and possessed souls. Is it true?”
“I have some, Your Majesty. Who is the sufferer?”
Lady Ush-Wha snorted. “Someone who deserves her fate.”
“A remarkable comment, Lady Ush-Wha,” Melyssa scolded, “given you’re the only one to have lessened the severity of the former Lady Melazera’s bouts of madness.”
Kennah Beecher shook her head. “Forgive me, Your Majesty but I must have misheard. For a moment, I thought you named Caileagh Melazera. Isn’t she dead? That’s what her husband claims. Some vile attack by followers of… but King Sagen has cleared Sir Jonathan Otual of all those charges… what are you saying?”
“The former Duchess of Lorness was beaten nearly to death by her husband. Or, so I was informed. She was rescued and brought to safety by those loyal to the king,” the queen continued. “As you’ve probably noticed, things are afoot. That’s why so many surround me.” She stood, only to have her dainty female bodyguard, step forward and guide the midwife to where Caileagh was kept.
The queen followed, amidst her ladies-in-waiting.
The cell was connected to the Queen’s Drawing Room, in a very roundabout fashion. Whatever its original purpose, it had been refurbished and refurnished so a noble woman could be imprisoned there for many moons, without suffering too much hardship, without being kept in filth, and without any possibility of escape. Those guarding outside the cell couldn’t see or hear anything of its occupant, who was secured behind a series of doors, connected by curved corridors. For safety’s sake, the king had commanded those visiting the prisoner could number no less than four and no more than six. Four so the prisoner could be subdued, six to preserve secrecy.
Melyssa, accompanied by Ush-Wha, Kennah and the small bodyguard, had passed through four guarded doors before reaching the final barrier. Unlike its predecessors, it was guarded by two darkly-tanned women wearing customized brigandine armor and carrying short swords sheathed at their hips.
“What’s been done to…” Mother Beecher clapped her hands over her mouth as she tried, and failed, to look away.
The queen looked at Kennah, then at the familiar guards, then at Ush-Wha, who failed to hide her amusement. It was only then that she realized what the midwife had reacted to. “They were tortured by both Caileagh and Gaelib Melazera. Hence the scars you see on their faces, the brands on their arms, and the remnants of their burned-away ears. They were deafened so that they couldn’t overhear anything they… shouldn’t… according to Melazera.”
“That’s barbaric,” Kennah hissed.
“When first rescued, they were even worse off. They had been tattooed with runes, sigils, and other marks of power. Ush-Wha and the wise women of her clan did what they could to heal them, by undoing runes, breaking sigils, and converting the marks burned, branded or dyed onto them into less malignant forms.” Melyssa looked over at Ush-Wha, who nodded. “She has attempted to do the same for Caileagh, with limited success.”
“Why,” Mother Beecher’s tone was a rebuke, “are these women forced to work in close proximity to–”
“May I?” Ush-Wha brashly intruded.
“No one is forcing them to do anything,” Ush-Wha’s tone brooked no opposition. “They and more than a dozen others are here because they begged to be, because they want to be of use, because their very deafness renders them safe from the temptations and curses spewed forth by the woman they guard. The woman they’d see recover. The woman they’d see come to her senses, then take responsibility for the immense harm she’s done. They want her to live a long, long life of atonement.”
“Before either of you says a single word more,” Melyssa commanded, “you need to examine Caileagh, Mother.”
Although J’shua’s champion had finally taken the field, he was not what he had been. The Warrior’s puppet had weakened him physically and, perhaps, spiritually.
Yet, there were reasons to hope.
What had been a group of starving, ragged boys had grown into a substantial force, small in number but large in effect. They had even created another way to become knights.
The unbelieving Alexandrians had sent a substantial military force to oppose the Melazeras. Why that was, Owakar could not see. His gaze did not stretch to their far-off region. Still, they’d come.
From High Castle, King Sagen had sent a substantial contingent of cavalry and foot soldiers. A force commanded by Melazera’s ‘son’. A man who’d risen out of darkness, then chosen to face the very demons that had shaped him.
Then there were rumors, hotly denied by the Warrior, that Lady Melazera still lived. That, somehow, willingly or unwillingly, she aided King Sagen. Owakar prayed they were true. He also prayed for her soul. Her path had not been one she’d chosen.
Yes, there were reasons for hope, so Owakar continued to pray. Just as he whispered answers to the prayers of all those who’d entered Lorness.
North of Lorness
Jonathan frowned at the lad handing out oddly-shaped hand protectors. Not the swords which went with them, just the bell-shaped pieces of metal. He recalled playing with one years ago, but it was just a novelty.
He then smiled as he saw Mathu Duine climbing the hill. It had been many years. Accompanying him were three Esthlani wearing the cloaks of Knights of J’shua. The eldest of which was around thirty and bore a long scar running from below his left eye to the point of his chin. The second was younger. The last was straight from their Knights’ School.
A smiling, if scruffily-dressed, James followed them. Inevitably, he would have a reason for being so disheveled. Yet the sword on his hip looked right. Just as his easy stride and good humor, no matter how bad a situation got, were integral to the young man. But his defining characteristic was his unwavering faith and willingness to follow J’shua’s guidance. Both had shone forth from their very first meeting almost ten years earlier.
Rebekah continued to fuss over Jonathan. As did several others, despite the fact that he was no longer an invalid. He might not be as fast as he once was, but his strength had largely returned and his co-ordination was as good as ever.
In contrast to his wife’s hovering, Commander Blackhawk all too often anticipated Jonathan’s orders, carried them out without hesitation, and offered opinions as to the strengths and weaknesses of any stratagem. He was a living exemplar of military efficiency.
And still, Jon did not know what to make of the man. Had he done terrible things? Yes, unequivocally. Was he repentant for them? While unable to perceive the Commander’s innermost feelings, Jon thought so. More importantly, the still, small voice spoke of Blackhawk’s pain, his journey out of darkness, and a pale shining light that had saved the Commander from the path of destruction.
Jonathan could only admire and aspire to such dedication.
Yet, there was no time for such reflection.
Alexandrian banners accompanying a dozen or so horsemen announced the arrival of the last attendees for this, the final planning session, before besieging Gaelib’s castle.
Rodyn and Danyth Locke dismounted and strode rapidly up the hill.
The tent was set just below the crest, low enough that it couldn’t be seen from any vantage point within Lorness. Seats had been set at the table for each group’s senior officer and their second-in-command.
It surprised Jonathan when Danyth took the Alexandrian supporting officer’s chair. He was, after all, Gregory Locke’s eldest and heir. However, it simplified matters as Rodyn was a known quantity: a skilled fighter, officer, tactician, and strategist.
Jonathan sat as the king’s commander, with Blackhawk as his second.
Mathu Duine represented Esthlanis. The eldest of that country’s Knights at his side.
Daikon Sylvanus Baxter led the Knights of J’shua from Freislicht. Daikon Norin sat as his deputy.
There was a moment of consternation from those already seated when Rebekah took the seat marked for Licht Gegen. She was joined by Vincent Donitoro and the king’s minstrel, Dwain. “King Sagen, whom I have never met,” she insisted, “demanded through the intermediaries that keep us safely apart, that he had to contribute something today. Indeed, he several times insisted on being directly involved. Happily, he bowed to our advice, and that of others, and didn’t venture forth from High Castle. Instead, he sent us the gift of music.” She gestured to the minstrel, who began playing softly.
The last two seats at the table were still empty when James of the Wood moved to sit down and the youngest of the Esthlani Knights attempted to intercept him.
The foreign knight went sprawling.
Jonathan laughed. “I take it, James, that you’ve neglected to introduce yourself properly. Again. For everyone who has not been so introduced, this is Sir James of the Wood who, amongst many other failings, is excessively modest. He is also, for want of a better description, Daikon of the Second Knights’ School in Freislicht.”
“I prefer Roving Knights’ School,” James corrected with a grin.
Daikon Sylvanus beamed.
Daikon Norin’s mouth opened in shock.
“James,” Jonathan shook his head mock reprovingly, “why do I have the feeling that Norin is not the only knight about to be shocked. Where… and who… is your deputy?”
The tent’s flap opened to admit another scruffily-dressed lad and a young woman.
“Debryn…?” Norin squeaked.
James shook his head in the same manner Jonathan had. “It seems my deputy – this is Sir Egalt – is remiss in dealing with certain civil matters. I thought you’d asked her father for her hand already?”
“I have reminded him,” Debryn noted coolly, “but events kept getting in the way. And, speaking of that, father, he could no more stop me from coming than you could. It’s not how you raised me.”
Jonathan chuckled. “Were we really so brash when we were young? You wouldn’t have entered this tent, Debryn, without good reason. What is it?”
“We have a problem…”
High Castle – Caileagh’s Cell
Kennah followed the queen into the room. Cell. There were not words for it. The furnishings were beautiful, even exquisite. There was a small table with four seats, three double-width chairs that formed a conversation area, a place for washing and doing ablutions, and a bed.
Caileagh was tied spreadeagled to a wall, her mouth filled with a gag, from which flecks of spit and spittle cascaded to the floor. Her muffled screams and pleas were unintelligible. Seeing her visitors enter, she thrashed wildly.
Two more armored deaf women were also present, monitoring the prisoner’s health.
“Remove the gag,” Kennah instructed, “I must know what I’m dealing with.”
“Help… me…” were the first words from Caileagh’s parched lips, her eyes pleading. Then she laughed. It was a slow, superior, condescending sound. “…for you’ll never help yourselves. This woman is ours, given unto us to use as we see fit. We shall do with her what we will. Just as we shall do to you, when your earthly power crumbles, as it must.”
The midwife set down her bag, ignoring the threats and promises the demon spewed. “Until I say otherwise, do exactly as I instruct. When in this room, mine is the only authority for I serve as an ambassador of the God of Truth.”
Melyssa and the bodyguard nodded. Ush-Wha did so after a few seconds.
“Gag the prisoner. Then, woman from clan Ush, show me exactly what you have done, what progress you’ve made.”
What Kennah witnessed was worse than she’d imagined. Yet, there was still hope. Most of the scars, runes and tattoos that adorned Caileagh’s body hadn’t been done by her but to her. “We have our work cut out for us.”
“You are stronger than the spirits that possess you,” Kennah informed Caileagh, who writhed and screamed. “We claim this woman for the Son of the God of Truth. Be healed, in the name of J’shua Ha Mashiach. In the name of J’shua Ha Mashiach, come out spirits of iniquity. You are banished from this vessel. Be gone!”
Caileagh’s body contorted. Iron chains bolted into the room’s stone walls threatened to stretch and snap. Yet the true battle was fought within that woman’s soul, where a pitifully thin strand of light illuminated depths that had long ago succumbed to darkness.
Caileagh was lost in perpetual gloom. Naked, beaten, and bloody. Memories of her mother using her as a child sacrifice, as payment for a new husband, and of being raped, sodomized, and befouled threatened to overwhelm her.
Rituals that she’d organized, planned, and conducted, showed her the immeasurable suffering she’d imposed on others.
All was darkness. There was no hope. There was no light. There was nothing but the plane that stretched into infinity around her.
Impossibly far in the distance, a pale shaft of light came into being.
The light moved closer, then pierced her.
No, it wasn’t a light, it was a sword.
A golden sword.
A golden sword that had been prophesied, that had threatened to take everything from her, that…
…might be her salvation.