Chapter 42: Determination – 160 AK, Early Spring
Ephesians 6:17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God:
East of Lorness
Dwain hunched over the horse’s neck, as he tried to keep pace with Rebekah’s mount, which was galloping flat out, and so kept pulling further and further ahead.
In the dark!
Either she was a madwoman or, just perhaps, her belief in J’shua gave her a special dispensation against her horse’s foot twisting, being thrown, or any of a dozen other calamities.
Whatever protection she believed she had, he did not. Yet, he had to keep up. His instructions from King Sagen had been clear: stay with and protect Rebekah Otual.
At any cost.
Well, any cost other than blowing his own cover as the King’s Minstrel, which this insane ride could do.
They had barely gone three miles when Rebekah’s mount turned left off Lord Melazera’s Highway, dashed down a short lane, took a path leading to the right… and she was dismounting.
It was over, Dwain praised the Lord silently.
…there were people and other horses waiting.
Rebekah dismounted adroitly, hugged a woman, then the man standing next to her… then took the reins of the horse handed to her.
“Lag behind, Dwain,” Rebekah teased as she mounted a fresh horse, “and you’ll not make it to High Castle with me this night.”
He dismounted. Spilled out of the saddle would be more accurate. He didn’t do much riding. Never had. His cover was as a minstrel. With very few exceptions, when he traveled, it was in one of the supply wagons trailing after the King’s Carriage.
Speed had never been an issue.
Yet, it was tonight.
Trying not to display how sore his muscles already were, he walked over to the people Rebekah had hugged. “Hello, I’m, Dwa–”
“We know,” the woman’s smile dazzled. “I’m Courtney. This,” she indicated the man standing beside her,” is my husband, Mark. We were told you’d come. Still, there’s no time to waste and you’ve some sixty miles or more to cover before dawn.”
“I… sixty miles?” Dwain’s voice broke. “There’s not a horse alive that could do that.”
“True,” Rebekah laughed, “which is why we’ll have fresh mounts every few miles. But we won’t be stopping for leisurely chats like we are now. Mount up. We have to move!” Her head turned to focus on the couple. “You understand what’s needed. Two days after tomorrow, we defend Freislicht. We’ll need every sword you can muster.”
Dwain settled into the new horse’s saddle when Rebekah’s mount galloped away.
Southwest of Lorness Castle, Making for Caswell
Daikon Sunak walked their encampment’s perimeter. He intended to get his knights to Caswell in as few days as possible, but they had to arrive ready for a fight. So, it had been an hour in the saddle at a gentle ground-covering canter, an hour leading the horses, then back into the saddle again.
They were doing well. This was the second night of their cross-country journey. He’d not use the main roads. He had no intention of tipping off whoever was orchestrating things in Caswell that they were coming.
An unnatural sound caught his attention. It was metallic. A sound that was repeated. With a gesture, he summoned two of the four knights on guard. Together, they moved beyond the perimeter. Each drew one of the hand-crossbows their Alexandrian allies had provided. Silently, they moved under the pale moonlight, staying in the shadows.
Two men were dragging a travois loaded with something heavy.
Sunak positioned his fellows, then stepped into their path. “You gentles seem lost.”
One of the two men looked straight at Sunak, gasped, let go of the travois, and ran…
…straight into Sir Orrick’s fist.
The sounds of the coward’s nose and cheekbone breaking carried clearly in the still night air. The man collapsed.
The other’s hands shot into the air. “I surrender! We can share. We can share, can’t we? You wouldn’t take it all? You wouldn’t, would you? Please, leave me something. I–”
“Enough,” Sunak’s single gruff word ended the pleas. “Who are you? Why are you here? What is,” he pointed his crossbow at the travois, “that?”
“My name is…” the man shrugged. “I’ve had so many. I was a Black Robe, before they were outlawed and forced underground. Then I did… odd jobs… for whoever paid me. Then the Order found me again, so I went back to work for them.”
“Order…?” The aim of Sunak’s crossbow lowered until it targeted the man’s groin.
“Order of the Black Robe. It’s had lots of names too.”
“That doesn’t explain what you’re doing here.”
“The Order’s leader has become, uh, less inspiring in recent years. He sidelined the Duchess of Lorness, who recruited and trained us, bringing in some baden-obsessed hack to replace her. He–”
“Orrick, your man still alive?” Sunak interrupted.
“Hit him too hard.” The other knight responded. “Again.”
Sunak shook his head. “You,” he addressed the lone survivor, “show me where you appeared from. We searched this area before nightfall. You shouldn’t have been able to get this close. Certainly, not without tripping at least one of the hazards we set.”
“My…” the man looked down at the travois.
“We’ve no interest in your property. We aren’t thieves. We are very interested in how you got so close to us.”
The man turned slowly, finally registering the third knight who had been behind him the whole time. “Uh, this way,” he walked back to a bush that was mere yards behind him.
Except, it wasn’t a bush. It was a framework with vines grown over and through it. Plants that had been recently trimmed, so the exit could open easily and permit two men, and the travois they were dragging, to pass through with ease. The tunnel behind it had recently been refurbished. Its props and crossbeams were all new. And there were lit torches leading off into the distance, descending further underground as they went.
Sunak turned back to the man, his sword’s point resting just heavily enough against his target’s throat that a drop of blood began to form. “Where does this lead?”
“Where does… where did you come from?”
“Lorness. Duke Melazera’s too dangerous to work for. Rosewud’s gone missing. The duchess is dead. Why would I stay? So, I grabbed him,” the man gestured vaguely in the direction of his dead companion, “and as much as I could carry, telling that dead fool I’d give him a share. Thanks for killing him. Saved me the effort.”
“It would seem,” Sunak took a step to the right and slashed low, severing the thief’s Achilles’ Tendon, “our journey to the southwest is going to be delayed. Orrick, you and I are going to do a little exploring.” He indicated the tunnel, then faced the third knight, “While you take this… thing… back to camp and interrogate him. Wake a third of the knights and send them here. We need to know the extent of this tunnel system.”
High Castle – The Queen’s Drawing Room
Melyssa sat surrounded by most of her usual ladies-in-waiting. The sun had barely risen above the horizon. The cloudless sky promised a beautiful day.
Yet, it felt odd to have neither Ladies Ush-Wha nor Ush-Lus present. But, given how her guest reacted to the mere mention of their clan’s name, it seemed imprudent – potentially even ruinous – to have them join in.
Caileagh was escorted into the Queen’s Drawing Room by Kennah, four guardswomen, eight Alexandrian mercenaries – Melyssa wished, yet again, that her third father, Gregory, would trust that those he’d already sent to protect her were enough – and three women reciting the Writings. It was quite the procession. Each that entered took their station as if this was a stately ball.
“I am sorry not to have visited more often during your convalescence,” Melyssa said.
“Your Majesty,” Caileagh knelt, “that you visited at all, demonstrates your compassion. To have come so often is a kindness far beyond what’s due me. I’m unworthy.”
“There’s no need–”
“But there is, Your Majesty,” Caileagh insisted. “I’ve done great wrongs. I have done you wrong. I…” her voice caught.
Kennah put a comforting hand on the kneeling woman’s shoulder.
“I must… atone… for the wrongs I’ve done. At the very least, I must prevent more wrongs being done to you. Wrongs I can prevent.”
Melyssa tried to remain calm. She had hoped to learn something useful during this conversation, making the offer before her too good to be true.
Is this a trap?
“What,” Melyssa felt as if she was in one of her childhood fantasies, facing down an evil witch, “could you prevent?”
Caileagh clutched her hands together and looked down at the floor in front of the queen’s feet. “For one, Your Majesty, Gaelib is losing his mind. No, has lost his mind. And his soul. He sold them to a patron demon, the Warrior. I was part of… I’ll confess those sins later. There are tunnels leading out of Lorness.”
Sagen thinks he has Gaelib isolated. How does this affect things?
The apparently penitent woman’s body shook, beads of sweat breaking out on her face as her skin grew pale.
“Take your time.”
“The Warrior doesn’t care about Gaelib’s desire to be king. The Warrior wants action, wants blood to be spilled, wants souls to be sundered from their bodies.”
“That sounds dire.”
“It is. The Warrior will have seen, as I did, that Gaelib’s plans won’t be successful. Therefore, the demon will make him do something. It could be anything, but it will be rash, violent, and wasteful of life.”
‘Such as?” Melyssa prompted.
“The tunnels. I expect the Warrior will use the tunnels.”
“I don’t understand. Even if they can get behind the soldiers besieging Lorness–”
“No, Your Majesty! The tunnels lead through old mines all along Lord Melazera’s Highway. They have been interconnected so they extend almost to High Castle.”
Sagen can’t have anticipated this.
“Go on,” Melyssa urged.
“For Gaelib, failing to achieve his goals… He’ll destroy anything and everything he can’t have. For the Warrior, it will mean an opportunity to spread chaos. Not just in this moment, but for decades to come.”
“How will they do this?”
“That, Your Majesty, I do not know.”
“Then how do you propose to begin your atonement?”
“With maps, pen and paper, I can provide you with the locations of temples and meeting places, exits from the tunnels, and where the Order has stockpiles of… of… everything.”
Melyssa signaled for writing utensils and parchment.
“Plus, how the followers of the God of this Age identify each other,” Caileagh pressed on. Words tumbling like water from a broken dam.
Melyssa controlled her physical reaction. She wasn’t surprised, but to hear it said so bluntly caused emotions to war within. “That Order was disbanded by Royal Decree in 154.”
“I am sorry, Your Majesty, that only drove it underground.”
“I see… then, perhaps, I should let you begin documenting those things. Start with the tunnels. Once your efforts are completed, we shall talk again.”
I must see Sagen. This changes things.
“There is one more thing… but…”
“Go ahead, Your Grace.” Melyssa had deliberately not used the title earlier.
Caileagh blanched. “Your Majesty, I am no longer Duchess of Lorness. My husband has disowned me, declared me dead, and has a bounty on my head.”
“Titles, Your Grace,” Melyssa corrected, “are bestowed by the king, not your husband. While King Sagen has issued warrants for Gaelib’s arrest, for the seizure of his personal property, and confiscation of all his personal monies, your name wasn’t mentioned. Nor was there a suggestion that you be stripped of your title.”
“I… I don’t know what to say.”
“I didn’t say that you will keep your titles, Duchess, but at this moment they are yours. Thus, you should be treated accordingly.”
Caileagh looked around the room. She hesitated. Her face was flushed. “There are traitors amongst you. Not many. Yet enough for Gaelib’s success.”
Melyssa bit the inside of her lip, then forced herself to ignore it as she focused on what was happening. “Traitors? How many? Where?”
Caileagh shook her head. “I don’t know names,” she answered, “but I know the most senior of them was a captain when recruited.”
Approaching High Castle
Daikon Sylvanus nodded to Daikon James. Both had left the column of mounted knights and walked their horses to the hill’s crest.
“So,” Sylvanus prompted, “you told me you couldn’t explain about reflectors until the sun came up. There it is, cresting the horizon. Go ahead.”
James dismounted, knelt and looked around. His eyes rested briefly on the surrounding hilltops, then searched the depths of the dells between them. “This will do.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are only so many of us, so we came up with a way of selecting transmission and collecting sites. Messages always start in a dell. That allows the sender to get away.”
Sylvanus frowned. “I’d have thought they’d start on hilltops if using mirrors–”
“That’s where anyone intending to intercept those messages would be looking for reflected light. So, we don’t. Except in emergencies. In those cases, once the message – or series of messages – has been sent, the location is abandoned.”
Sylvanus frowned. “Your reflectors shine out only a narrow shaft of light. How do your people know where to be?”
“Did you see me check sightlines?”
“There are patterns. Too many to teach you now.” James withdrew the reflector from his saddle bags, then sent a series of short and long pulses. He repeated them twice.
“What’s the delay? Isn’t there anyone there?”
“Probably but the sun is behind them. They can’t signal back until its higher in the sky. What they can do, if they have something urgent, is send a runner and—”
“James!” A boy of perhaps twelve yelled joyously as he barreled out of the undergrowth, then skidded to a halt. “There’s an alert out for you. The knights under Sir Sunak found a way into the old mines. They’ve been expanded and furred… refurred… reef…”
“Refurbished,” Sylvanus cut in. “What about the mines, lad?”
“The evil ones use them to sneak things around,” the boy grinned. “It’s said they reach to the East River. Doug says they go underneath it, but that’s silly.”
“Thanks, Graham,” James praised, tousling the boy’s hair. “The mounted knights are going to make camp here for a little while. Stay. Eat. Listen. Let me know what you hear.”
“Yes, James!” The lad dashed off.
Sylvanus strode a few paces down the hill and told his riders to make camp. Whatever was going on, he needed to know.
I’ve been underestimating James and his Roving Knights. It’s time I stopped doing so.
North of Caswell
The wind shifted so it came from due south, from the heart of Caswell. The stench it carried sickened White Owl. He knelt, then pressed his hands against the earth. He needed its comforting stability, the strength of unchanging, enduring nature.
The riders accompanying him spread out, giving him space. They had learned not to approach him when he sought solace in such a manner. They also knew it meant he was on the track of another find, another nest of corruption.
He felt their excitement grow as he achingly regained his feet. The longer his recovery time, the greater the prize before them. He’d never felt so weak.
“South-south-west,” White Owl groaned. Even providing the direction was difficult. Moving closer would be painful to body and soul. Yet, it had to be done.
An hour later, he could walk no further. Not one step. He’d been lurching like a drunkard for… he didn’t know how long. He had fallen to his knees so many times he’d lost count, only to rise again and stagger a little further. Every sense was befuddled with the reek of decay. It was within his nose. It had robbed him of his sense of taste. His sight was blurred. Even the wind screamed in agony.
His hand raised.
He uncurled a finger.
His arm aimed itself.
The building was an old circle meeting house that had been converted to hide its origins. To White Owl, those changes were pustulating sores and gangrenous gashes.
Hands grasped his shoulders, pulling him away.
He hadn’t the strength to express his gratitude before blissful unconsciousness took him.
Closing on High Castle
Dwain was torn.
There was a very large part of him that increasingly admired Rebekah. She was driven, focused, intelligent, and didn’t let things get in her way.
There was an only slightly smaller part of him – accompanied by a chorus of screaming muscles – that thought she was stubborn, impossible, unwomanly, and every other insult his tired, aching body could dredge up through the horror of yet another exchange of horses.
Stumble to the ground.
Release grip on current horse.
Command legs to walk a handful of steps.
Accept the boost into the saddle from waiting helpers.
Slip boots into stirrups.
Spur horse into gallop after Rebekah’s already receding mount.
Pride was all that kept Dwain going.
I won’t be outdone by…
The thought didn’t matter, only keeping up did.
Faster, Dwain, faster. She’s getting away. Again.