Chapter 10: Revenge
Full Moon, Winter
It had been nearly seven moons, yet Commandant Virgil Greysun was still bedeviled by Otual’s actions. He seethed, thinking of the more than one hundred thousand baden he’d lost on the boys. On top of which, he’d personally had to cover the costs of returning every conscript to their home.
Lord Melazera, who he’d carefully avoided since then, was said to be most displeased that he'd not stopped the knight. A dissatisfaction that could still prove lethal.
Greysun’s rage boiled over because the knight was out of reach. He thought of all the ways he’d make Otual pay, dwelling on them, sweating out new ideas until…
I’ll not be revenged on merely one knight. I’ll make them all suffer.
Yet, before he could enact his plan, he required his lord’s permission, so he traveled to Farr Castle.
Upon entering the Reception Hall, Gaelib Melazera was reclining on a couch cracking nuts. “Welcome.” That voice carried no emotion, terrifying Greysun.
Whistles and twittering erupted from many birdcages as the commandant passed. Empty beady eyes stared at him.
The Lord of Lorness leaned forward then enquired in a lazy, apathetic tone as he threw a walnut to a flamboyant red parrot that was tied to a perch with a leather thong, “How are my army assets in Fairness Crossing?”
Greysun watched the bird catch the hard shell in its claw, crushing it easily with its sharp beak, picking the meaty morsel from the bone-like shards. “My lord, the trainees I have left will be ready when you call.”
“That you have left?” Melazera’s icy tone sent a shiver up his spine.
“The king’s proclamation delivered by Jonathan Otual–”
“I am aware of it. Yet, the more pertinent question is: why didn’t you prevent its delivery? You waylaid the other courier.”
“I was going to arrest him–”
“After he’d delivered it in Fairness Crossing!” Gaelib surged to his feet, advancing on Greysun. “What use was that? And how’re you going to make up for not stopping him from reaching River Town, Lorness, and Dunis Glen? Do you have any idea what your failure to stop one man cost me? I needed time to dispose of those I’d not yet sold.”
The commandant backed away, tripping. He looked up at the Lord of Lorness who was toying with a knife. “I’ve placed a large bounty on the knight’s head. If he’s within Freislicht, he’ll be in your hands soon.”
“That’s… something. Too little, almost too late, but something. It doesn’t relieve you of responsibility for your failings.”
“We can get revenge, Lord!”
“The Knights of J’shua are zealots.” Greysun rose cautiously. “They interfere with your noble designs. Let me chastise them. What if, by some happy accident, their only school burned down? Due to their own negligence, of course.”
His lord smiled, eyes glowing as he stroked the jeweled hilt of his dagger, then pressing it against Greysun’s throat. “Very good, Virgil. As the Second Runic Precept of the Alte Regieren teaches: Let thy revenge be strategic.” Gaelib slid the blade back into its ornate sheath. “We didn’t have this conversation. However, if such a misfortune occurred, I’d wish to hear of it promptly. We wouldn’t want unfounded rumors to spread.”
Hills of Esthlanis
Jonathan parried, twisting to his left, as his opponent crashed into him and sent them both sprawling. What had been a swordfight devolved into fists, knees, elbows, and counterpunches until he broke free.
Regaining his feet, he backed away, studying the lithe young man he’d underestimated.
The Esthlani dropped into a crouch. A smile played across his freckled face as his foot lashed out.
Jon withdrew half a step, caught the leg with his right hand and pulled. His other fist slammed into his opponent’s temple, dropping the younger man unconscious to the ground.
Taking a step clear, Jonathan shook his head. “This is nothing like the way we train on the mountain. If he was not wearing a padded helmet, my last blow could have been fatal.”
“It’s why we practice this way.” Sir Fingal, the son of Blake Tolmach, tapped the wooden practice sword. “We don’t pull our blows. We train as we fight, at full force.”
“People must get hurt.”
“They do. But, as I’ve told you often, sometimes that's the way J’shua teaches us to be quicker,” the Esthlani instructor chuckled as he threw cold water over Jon’s unconscious sparring partner.
Jonathan shook his head. He’d been guided by J’shua to remain here until the end of the season. Then he hoped to meet Rebekah at the Knights’ School.
Despite being a foreign land, there were similarities between the Esthlani training and that used by the Fellowship of Knights in Freislicht. There were also differences. Still, he had trouble striking as boldly as his Esthlani hosts did, causing him to lose more often when fighting on their practice mats.
While not the way he’d trained in Freislicht, it was probably safer for beginners, and for those who got hit. However, he still felt the agility he’d gained from working on mountainous terrain was irreplaceable.
Sir Fingal slapped Jon on the back, squeezing his shoulder. “What’s got you pensive? Home? That wife of yours? Or is it your daughter this time? From what you’ve told me of Rebekah, she’s as devout as you. The only thing that could stop her moving heaven and earth to find you is J’shua guiding her elsewhere… just as you were sent here.”
“In the four moons you’ve been here, you’ve taught us fighting techniques, tactics, and strategies we knew nothing of… and learned a thing or two, I pray. You have also piqued our curiosity. Your take on the Writings is thought-provoking. It’s renewed our vigor to discover all the mysteries they contain.”
“As you have made me look at passages in a new light,” Jonathan mused.
That was an understatement. The Esthlani perspective had re-opened his eyes to the infinite wisdom contained within the Writings. Especially, that the God of Truth made each and every one of us sovereign agents with freewill, something worth defending. That his small contributions had made a difference was gratifying.
“I know that expression, Freislander. Your modesty is too great,” Fingal teased. “The Premier’s Council has sent agents down here more than once to see what impact you’ve had on our Knights’ School. According to the most recent visitor, they’ve praised your so-called ‘modest’ effects on us. And those agents have urged the Premier to encourage closer ties between the Fellowships of Esthlanis and Freislicht. There’s even been talk of the Premier’s office aiding your cause. But, if that happens, it will take many moons, if not years.”
Jonathan looked off into the distance. Assistance from the rulers of Esthlanis was too much to hope for. Even the suggestion was, or should be, beyond consideration. Yet, it warmed him.
“As for that wife of yours,” Fingal pressed on, “unless J’shua guides you back together, how do you expect to find her? There are those who seek your life in your home country.”
“Rebekah can hardly put out notices in every Herald Station asking to meet you at some time and place. Nor can you blunder about asking for her without promptly landing in some dungeon.”
“That may be the case.” Jonathan sighed. It was a conundrum. He wanted to know where his wife and daughter were. He wanted to interrogate someone, beat them until he knew how to proceed, who to chase. But he was sure the spirit was telling him to wait.
“And, if your daughter is everything you say of her, I have no doubt that someday she’ll pop up in front of you. In fact,” Fingal grinned, “if you don’t get back to work, your reunion could be delayed for years.”
Jonathan snorted then picked up the practice sword, tapping the dull wooden blade in his opposite hand. Yet, if teaching and training might speed up the reunion with his wife and daughter, it was time to get back to it.
Rebekah was back at High Castle, her third stop on her circuit as a plow merchant. It was different this time. She knew where she’d be staying, had an arrangement with a local stable, and knew which taverns to frequent and which to avoid.
Or she hoped she did.
To her amazement, she continued to make significant profit. The original plan was to use her disguise as Tomas Bekh to learn and pass on information but, as things turned out, people were far more talkative than she’d expected. What’s more, listening to those people gossip was a great way to sell and meet new prospects.
The manager of the Poplar Inn greeted her with more than the usual pleasantries. Smartly dressed and unusually attentive, he presented Tomas Bekh with eleven messages.
She’d been hoping for one or two. The missive from Major Patrik Gonnels read:
Looking forward to seeing the new models at midday on the quarter moon of the Crab at our location.
That meant the Commander’s office. The quarter moon was tomorrow.
The following morning, she walked down the bustling street. Her heart ached as she watched a young man twirl his lady, both happy as could be. She forced a smile.
Where are you, Jon?
She stopped at the butcher shop for some dried meat and the bakery for bread and a journey cake. As she nibbled on the treat, savoring its sweet corn, she studied the passersby, street vendors, shoppers, and soldiers.
Ahead, she saw Patrik Gonnels entering the Commander’s office. She inhaled deeply and set her countenance. When Rebekah felt the peace of J’shua’s spirit, she entered too.
“How may I help you?” the corporal behind the desk greeted her.
“I’m Tomas Bekh,” she responded, “a kinsman of Commander Taelor from the south. My mother asked me to pay her respects. Is the Commander available?”
“Let me see. Please have a seat, sir.” The corporal gestured toward a chair, left through a door, and returned a minute later. “He’ll see you now. This way, sir.”
Rebekah followed. There was a large map of the Kingdom of Freislicht on the wall beside a rack that held the commander’s sword, an axe, and a crossbow. As she entered, a hickory table to her right held a bowl and pitcher. Patrik stood from one of two chairs before the desk.
“Tomas, how good to see you.” The commander grinned. “Don’t get stuck on formalities. Call me Peter, as you did when we were young.”
The corporal left, shutting the door behind him.
“Thank you for meeting me, Peter.” Rebekah shook his hand and Major Gonnel’s. “And also for your greeting.” She leaned in and whispered, “For a moment, I was sure we’d met before.”
“No matter how this goes,” Taelor motioned to the empty chair. “I have no intention of raising suspicions. The major is willing to stand surety for you. That’s reason enough to meet.”
“Major Gonnels also assures me that you can be trusted,” she replied, “and that you serve the king, not Melazera. You must not discuss what I’m about to tell you with anyone, not even your wife.”
The commander’s eyebrow rose. He assented with a nod. He kept nodding while rubbing his chin, as she told him of Licht Gegen’s strategy, their observations, and conclusions.
“Will you help us?”
Commander Taelor paused. “Mister Bekh, I serve the God of Truth, J’shua, and the king… so, yes, I will help you. We will expel this evil, but it will take time to root out.”
Tomas handed him a parchment.
Taelor looked at the letter and back at Rebekah. It was nothing special, no more than someone addressing their grandfather, some pleasantries, and that they were studying Ephesians Four. At the bottom was some unintelligible text, and the writer asking if his grandfather could translate it.
“A code,” Taelor noted.
“A letter replacement cipher based on the passage mentioned,” she confirmed. “If things become more dangerous, we’ll alter the order or use multiple verses. Patrik can teach you the substitutions. This…” She handed over a second parchment that could have been an inventory. “…is an encoded list of nearby locations where Licht Gegen is active. It doesn’t extend beyond your local area.”
“I appreciate your prudence.” The Commander nodded. “Had you given me a list covering the entire country, I’d have had nothing to do with you, no matter how noble or righteous your cause. If you can’t maintain secrecy, you’ll fail.”
“I agree and, had you asked for the full list, I’d have thought you a deceiver,” Rebekah countered. “If you need our aid or to pass information, let Patrik know. I’ll leave now. It’s best if I’m not seen with people of influence… unless you want to buy a plow.” She grinned.
“No, no need for that.” Taelor chuckled.
There were still ten sales calls to make before moving on to Farr Castle. “If business keeps growing like this,” she muttered, “I’m going to need an assistant.”
Third Quarter Moon
The Knights’ School
It would take nine days to travel to the Knights’ School. Jonathan went south from Esthlanis through Tarinland, and into Freislicht.
Even in Tarinland, most wore a blade. The Kingdom of Freislicht was surrounded by countries whose people openly carried swords, the Republic of Esthlanis and Tarinland to the east and Mestelina on the west.
How could our people have lost this wisdom?
Upon entering the School, memories flooded back. His eyes roamed up the wide oak staircase, imagining the stampede as he and his friends rushed down and out into the cold fresh air. The quiet reminded Jon that the boys would be on the mountain.
It was a demanding five-year training, but he’d thrived in it. Every day had begun early with prayer and study of the Writings, followed by classes where the boys taught other students the concepts and passages they’d learned. In the afternoon, the boys ran to the kitchen, picked up food sacks, and headed for the mountain. No matter the weather, they lived up there for some part of every day and, occasionally, many days straight.
It was a simple matter to leave a letter for Rebekah, which unencrypted read:
Know that my love for you and Sarah is never-ending and that nothing except J’shua’s guidance could keep me from searching for you, finding you, and bringing you both to safety. Yet, his voice urges me to continue my mission.
If the Lord permits, I will be at the School on the first day of each season. If not, I shall do my best to leave letters here for you.
If you cannot be here on those days, leave a letter so I know you are safe and what has befallen you since our parting.
David is happy in his studies. You and Sarah are always in our thoughts and prayers,
As he rode away from the School to Mestelina, he mused that being on the road by yourself was sometimes lonely, but a still, small voice reminded him, you are never alone.
Waning Crescent Moon
The Knights’ School
It was shortly before sunset when Commandant Greysun had his soldiers surround the Knights’ School. “Come out, by order of the king!” His anticipation warmed him against the cold.
Over a handful of all-too-quick minutes, the knights trickled out into the low-walled courtyard in front of their School. Some wore their familiar navy cloaks, others were in plain clothes. The cook folded his apron, securing it in his belt. All were armed, but they were outnumbered four to one.
So few? This will be all too easy. What a pity, I’d been looking forward to making a show of this. Still, I’ll control the retelling, so…
“Is this all of you?” Greysun scowled at a mere twelve knights.
“All that’s here,” Daikon Vale replied, signaling his knights to keep their swords sheathed. “Why’ve you come, Commandant?”
“You are training rebels against the crown,” Greysun accused. “Unfortunately for you, a fire broke out while you were sleeping… and everyone died. It was a sign from your god that you’d failed him. Or that’s how the tale will be told.”
Daikon Vale could see that the boastful royal officer clearly thought the courtyard a perfect trap. It was. Just not in the way he expected.
Twenty-four soldiers, all on foot, were stationed along the low wall surrounding the courtyard. Armed only with still-sheathed swords, their job was clearly to prevent the knights from escaping.
Two dozen more were within the courtyard, positioned closest to the knights. Their swords, hatchets, and knives were drawn. Their forward-hunched stances indicating they were waiting to be unleashed.
Behind them were the commandant and nine others on horseback. None of whom had drawn their weapons.
It’s all wrong. This is a deployment for intimidation, not assault. Yet he assumes our deaths as if they’ve already occurred…
“Why’ve you come, Commandant?” Daikon Vale demanded, his non-sword-hand moving behind him, signaling his fellows to be ready for action. And for the three boys on punishment detail still within the School to slip away, each via a different rear exit.
“You are training rebels against the crown,” Greysun accused. “Unfortunately for you…”
Vale didn’t listen to the Commandant’s reply. It was a gift from J’shua. Precious seconds within which to act. He and his fellow knights had known this could occur. His next hand signal sent them charging forward as Greysun concluded, “Or that’s how the tale will be told.”
Commandant Greysun’s horse shied as knights slammed full tilt into the soldiers before him.
I’d not even finished speaking! Don’t these fools know they’re supposed to die?
Still, he raised his left hand, clenching it into a fist. His thirty bowmen, concealed in the trees beyond the courtyard, fired.
Seven knights were hit, including the cowardly cook who’d tried to run away. With three arrows protruding from his left arm and shoulder, the man crashed into a small stack of barrels. Yet more arrows struck his back as he tried to claw his way to…
What’s he doing?
But there was no time to ponder the dying man’s actions. Greysun’s bowmen had not only hit knights. Eight of his soldiers had also been wounded by them. As had a horse and two riders. One right beside the commandant.
Can’t the damned fools shoot any straighter?
Then a knight broke through the front line.
The third-year, red-headed cadet, Brayden, darted to a rear exit.
This had to be an exercise, like others conducted in recent moons. He wasn’t worried. He’d show that smart-aleck, Tedric, not to show him up during practice bouts. He’d set the best time ever for getting to the rendezvous.
Pounding recklessly across open ground, he had only a moment to register the soldier that stepped in front of him, a sword swinging, and…
…then there was nothing, forever more.
The first line of soldiers had only outnumbered them two-to-one. That had been the final clue. There had to be hidden archers waiting to strike. Lots of them. That meant the only chance of prolonging his knights’ lives, even for a few seconds, was to close. It would also improve the young ones’ chances of escaping. Daikon Vale shoulder-charged a sergeant who’d stepped forward, blade high.
Too high, he thought, cutting down the soldier. Then it was the next opponent and the next. A gap appeared before him.
The crash of barrels and splashing of liquid meant the cook had done his job.
Another knight darted through the opening. A horse went down. More arrows struck. Men screamed. Orders rang out. It was chaos.
But the few remaining knights…
How many of us are left?
…were amongst the horsemen.
Vale felt a burning pain down his left leg and turned just swiftly enough to stab his assailant, then parry a blow from another soldier. Greysun loomed above him.
The hiss of flames brought a smile to the knight’s face as, without blocking, he slashed at the commandant.
The first-year cadet, Aldrik, huddled in the darkness, looking out over the courtyard through a mop of brown hair. The cook had given him a special job, for Aldrik was exceptional with a bow, despite his youth.
“You must be strong,” the cook had instructed, “as strong as your faith in J’shua. These men come to destroy our Fellowship. They have surrounded the School. They mean no one to escape. Therefore, I go to my death willingly, to deny them some false story about the Knights being struck down by sickness, or some other thing.”
“But…” Aldrik had spluttered, brown eyes pleading, “is there no chance?”
“For one or two, perhaps even three. But only if we hold their complete attention. Therefore, once I have spilled the barrels, you are to put a single burning arrow into the frame of the gate along the courtyard wall.”
The boy recalled nodding. And thinking, praying, that this was not happening.
Yet it was.
And he, Aldrik, had a key role to play.
“Do you recall the gate’s frame being polished daily?” the cook had continued. “That was not for the glory of J’shua. It was to embed fresh oils into it. When touched by flame, it will block our enemy’s exit. And keep their reinforcements from entering. Perhaps some of us will survive.”
Aldrik had known the smiling cook was lying, trying to comfort him, so he’d just nodded. He’d also known that, by not fleeing with Brayden and Tedric, he too would almost certainly die.
But the cook had faith in him.
The cook had spilled the barrels, their contents had splashed together, igniting, spreading a line of fire that quickly cut across the courtyard.
Calmly, Aldrik dipped his arrow into the waiting flame, notched it, drew back, and let fly. He did not miss. But before the gate burst into flame, he notched another arrow and targeted a horseman.
He kept firing, for J’shua was with him.
He never felt the enemy arrow that struck him, killing him instantly.
The commandant urged his horse back from these insane knights as one lunged at him. The fool was struck down, but… not before delivering a nasty gash to Greysun’s leg.
The horse beside him screamed, reared, and threw its rider.
Putting his spurs in, the commandant galloped for the gate, abandoning his men. His only thought was of saving his own life.
Flames licked across the courtyard, threatening to block his path.
The gate became a blazing inferno, burning the men stationed closest to it.
With no alternative, Greysun made his horse jump the low fence. It landed awkwardly, without breaking a leg. Yet, the fool beast refused to take another step.
Dismounting, he looked back.
The last knight was fighting the only two remaining horsemen, keeping them between himself and the archers, when a wounded soldier rose up and stabbed him in the back.
It was over.
What should have taken only moments, had lasted too long.
It should have been a one-sided slaughter, but seven horsemen were dead. As were almost two dozen soldiers. And three of the surviving horses would have to be put down. If his own was lame, that would become four.
If this story ever gets out, it’ll ruin everything.
He scanned his handpicked men. No, he resolved, the knights’ actions had been impressive, but futile. “Lieutenant!” He smiled. “Have the men carry the bodies inside, recover the arrows, and spread the oil we brought. They can keep anything they find. But be quick.”
The commandant scanned the mountain as the warmth of the burning building spread through him. He looked forward to sending a report to Melazera, detailing this ‘tragedy’.
The fourth-year cadet, Tedric, inched quietly through the undergrowth. He’d seen Brayden’s death. Had almost called out to warn him.
Almost. That word would stay with him forever. He dropped his head, dark curls covering his face. He’d been just far enough up the hill to see the last knight fall. The sight had brought blinding tears to his eyes. Frozen in place, crushed by the weight of what he’d seen, he had not shifted as three soldiers strode past.
“Serves the absurd knights right,” one of them chortled. “They should have surrendered. Then we could have given them the deaths they deserved. Slow and painful. Still, it’s a good thing our sergeant didn’t volunteer us for the front line. Did any of those fools survive?”
“Those drugged-up fanatics? Not likely. They’ll have met the Warrior’s Death they always went on about. Better them than us.”
Somehow, Tedric had not thrown up or given himself away. Nor did he move until he could no longer hear them. His head felt light. The world was a distant insubstantial thing. But he had noted the green dragon insignia the soldiers wore.
He prayed J’shua would permit a reckoning someday.
The cross-country portion of Jonathan’s journey had been uneventful, giving him time to pray and plan. Although he saw many farms along the way in the distance, he felt no call to go to any. Instead, he kept to himself and slept under the stars.
Having forded the Freish River, he was sopping wet and freezing. Spying a small glade, he made a fire, donned dry clothes, and let his horse graze. While spreading his wet things out over bushes, he spied some rabbits. He retrieved his bow and shot his dinner. While waiting for it to roast, he gathered chickweed and lamb’s quarters and relaxed.
The smell of sizzling meat attracted a group of boys. They weren’t stealthy. The boldest stepped into the clearing. The others flanked Jon, while hiding in the trees.
Jonathan’s mount had signaled him with twitching ears. And he’d heard them long before seeing them. Jon gazed at the boy. “Hallo there. Would you like some rabbit?”
“Yes, but you don’t need it as much as we do.”
“So, you plan to steal it, rather than accept my hospitality?”
“I don’t see you’ve much to say about it. You’re surrounded.”
Twigs snapped and leaves crunched as the other boys advanced. Scooping up his bow, he fixed an arrow and aimed at their leader. “You have an advantage,” he acknowledged with a gentle smile, “but as I can teach you how to catch rabbits, which are plentiful here, why settle for one?”
The bold one took a step back, readying his crude spear.
Jon told the others, “Come out with your weapons undrawn, and I will not harm him.”
One by one, boys walked into the clearing. “Please don’t hurt our brother,” the first to appear pleaded. “We’re so hungry.”
Jon chuckled. “Sit down, let me get more rabbits,” He doubted they’d eaten much for weeks, ragged clothes hung off their skinny bones. It didn’t take long to return with six more.
They intently watched as he skinned, gutted, and spit them on greenwood stakes.
As the meat roasted, he drew out their story. While Jonathan had been away, Melazera hadpersecuted the followers of J’shua in his domain.
The eldest lad was in his fifteenth year. The youngest, twins, in their seventh. Their parents had been arrested at a circle gathering and taken to Farr Castle six moons ago.
The boys had remained near their homes for several weeks but, afraid of debt collectors, took to the woods. They didn’t catch much food. The bold one, James, had taken charge and led them to the river to fish. It was obvious from their gaunt, tattered looks that they were starving.
Jonathan prayed again for guidance.
I could take them to the Knights’ School, but half are too young… or, take them with me, but they would be in danger if – when – I am chased again. Or…
The last alternative was so obvious, he did not even form the words in his mind. Nor did he require the still, small voice’s confirmation. He knew it was the right choice.
Looking deep into the fire, he listened to the boys as they ate and talked amongst themselves. They were good lads whose lives had intersected with his. He looked around and smiled. “I will teach you how to survive solely upon the Lord’s abundance, if you will permit me to.”
James’ eyes went wide. He stood and bowed. “Thank you… sir.”