Chapter 16: Savage Beasts
Steven Blackhawk was surrounded by friends of every rank. The dingy little tavern was just on the other side of the stables. It stank and was probably only swept once a week. But after a few rounds, no one noticed. The drinks were cheap, so he could afford to be generous.
“…did you hear what happened to that drecksa, Karl Fortuch?” Lieutenant Samuel Benutt asked with a sly grin, drawing everyone’s attention. “Some lieutenant lost Karl’s boots and got a major dressing down for it.”
“A major dressing down from a major?” Blackhawk teased, taking a bite of mutton. “Your jokes are getting worse. Maybe it’s the ale.”
Samuel grinned. “Fortuch’s voice could be heard for miles. If you were in camp, you couldn’t have missed it.”
“Sounds like the dolt,” Robert Maitlan chimed in.
“It gets better,” Sam continued, grinning. “He made the lieutenant strip and run exercises buck naked,”
“Blast, I missed it.” Brean Mitchett chortled slapping the rough-hewn oak table.
“And…?” Blackhawk pointed the clean bone at Sam. “There’s always more to your stories.”
“Turns out the lieutenant’s uncle is Commander Taelor.”
“What a prat!” Robert shook his head.
Steven’s eyes widened. Fortuch had stepped in it, again.
“You haven’t heard the best bit. The lieutenant had nothing to do with the missing boots. It was the whore Karl bedded the night before who sold them…” Benutt could barely get the words out, “…as a tax for being lousy in bed.”
Everyone roared with laughter.
“And… he’s a lieutenant again.”
“Here’s to Lieutenant Karl Fortuch!”
Major Blackhawk had continued to gain friends and influence, having attained his new rank in less than ten years. He was happy. He’d decided to do good and be just.
Tonight, he left them well before closing, kicking up dust as he ambled back to his shanty. He had duty early in the morning. Warmed by drink, but still able to walk straight, he was in a pensive mood.
Although Blackhawk saw no open worship of J’shua at High Castle, those he’d met here carried the same spirit as Little Soldier. Most of them. Most of the time. He wondered if their parents had taught them about J’shua.
Could that be the difference? Following J’shua was banned at Farr Castle and Lorness, but not here. Or, could it simply be that these people’s parents had trained them to behave better?
I’m not convinced it has anything to do with this J’shua person.
Even though he’d little warning of the summons, his nerves had already left him exhausted. His mind teetered between not feeling worthy of the king's attention, to wondering if he’d violated some regulation or rule of etiquette. He felt as if he’d been in a battle, fought a hundred men, and somehow survived.
Having the king assign him to the Royal Guard was beyond surprising. Being commanded to remain behind and speak privately with the king, he had no words for that. It was beyond any honor he could have expected. Certainly, beyond any he deserved. All he’d done was serve loyally.
He no longer believed Melazera was all-powerful. He had as a boy. However, he’d been right to fear the nobleman. The Lord of Lorness was malevolent, violent, and fickle. Steven had seen Gaelib turn on too many of his friends without warning. Things that he’d only realized looking back on memories from childhood.
His conversation with King Edal, if it could be called that, provided Blackhawk insights he was still coming to grips with.
He’d always thought in terms of Melazera as the sole power behind the scenes. It hadn’t occurred to him there were more: the Lockes in the South, diplomats from foreign countries, the guilds, the Merchants’ Alliance, and so on.
For nearly half an hour, the king had spoken and Blackhawk had responded with little more than, “Yes, Your Majesty.” Yet the king had encouraged him to ask questions… and had answered them. Honestly. Neither Gaelib nor Caileagh had ever done that. They had never engendered a desire to serve them. Yet the king had, without ever asking for it.
All the king wanted was that Blackhawk do his best and follow his conscience.
Not the king’s conscience.
It was freeing and unnerving. An experience he didn’t know how to handle. It left him weak and unsettled. Yet, he’d never felt more alive.
Blackhawk sat in his room, reading an encoded letter from Gaelib. It had been less than a week since his last report to the Lord of Lorness. That he’d received any reply at all was unusual. For Melazera to be exhilarated by recent developments was unheard of. It alarmed him.
Despite being written in code, the tone of Gaelib’s missive was joyous, including the phrases ‘a magnificent achievement,’ ‘an outstanding coup,’ and ‘beyond all my high expectations.’ Such was the praise heaped upon Steven for joining the Royal Guard.
Then he read something that made the hair on his neck stand up. Gaelib was ‘ready for the next phase’. Blackhawk’s concern wasn’t solely for himself. Or, he didn’t think it was.
He had no idea what the next phase of the plan entailed, but was sure something terrible was about to happen. To him. To someone else. Or to both. He knew better than to ask questions. That could be fatal. Yet, if Gaelib didn’t offer more details…
Blackhawk pulled the buttons from beneath his shirt, holding them tightly in his hands.
What am I to do? I can’t break away from Gaelib. He’d kill me if I tried. Nor can I oppose him. It’d be suicide.
Yet King Edal is a good man. A man I’m honored to serve. A man who deserves my loyalty. But he isn’t, I fear, able to overcome the Lord of Lorness. If I can’t find out what those plans are, I’ll be powerless to stop them.
Steven forced the irrelevant thoughts aside. Especially, the momentary notion of thwarting Gaelib’s plan. That was madness.
It had been two years since Rebekah last met Daikon Crispus. Finally, orphans adopted by Licht Gegen were entering their thirteenth year and wished to become knights.
Five of them were brought to the Inn at Fairness Crossing by their adoptive parents to meet Tomas Bekh. There, they were given a test to demonstrate they were intelligent and resilient enough to become knights. They would travel to the Kiss on Shining Mountain, relying on each other and J’shua.
Rebekah gave the boys instructions and bid them a good journey.
After they left, she followed at a distance to make sure they reached their destination unmolested. It was a five-day journey on foot. She was pleased to see them work together to gather herbs to eat, decide which way to go, and keep watch as they took turns sleeping. When they saw the Kiss above them, they began singing.
Daikon Crispus met them with a big smile. He pointed to the Kiss, where another knight stepped into view. “Follow Daikon Angus.” He watched them bound away.
Bekh stepped from cover grinning at the old knight.
Crispus embraced her. “Jonathan has been here.”
“Is he well?”
Crispus nodded. “I passed on your message. He understood, and wished you well with your mission. As you required, he’s heard nothing of Tomas Bekh from us. He left letters for you. I’ll fetch them.”
The Royal Court was in residence at Farr Castle. The Great Hunt in the King’s Forest had been arranged. Everyone was invited to this annual event. Every noble that could attend did, no matter how far they had to travel. Merchants, businessmen, and traders congregated too. Even the commoners came to cheer on the hunters from afar.
King Edal, beloved by the people, waved to spectators as he rode out for the first hunt. Farrling Wood was full of riders.
With banging drums, beaters drove the swine toward him and the other hunters.
“You lot are too noisy,” the king complained to the large entourage with him. “Remain here. No boar would come this way.” His attendant and cousin followed as he found the perfect spot, a clearing with thick forest behind him providing a yard of shade. “It will likely be some time before we see any movement.”
“Shall I bring more wine, Sire?” his attendant asked.
“I’ve had enough,” King Edal replied.
“Of this swill?” his cousin added. “I couldn’t agree more. It’s ghastly. How could your man serve this? I’ll be back shortly with something drinkable. You,” he snapped at his own servant, “come with me. I can hardly trust you to select a wine suitable for the king.”
“You’re going to ride off without my leave, cousin?” Edal teased.
“I apologize, Your Majesty. I forgot myself. I–”
“Go! You aren’t good company without a good vintage within,” the king continued.It will be a pleasure to have a few moments of peace and quiet.”
Some time passed, ending with a telltale rustling in the bushes.
King Edal smiled. Luck was with him. He’d chosen his spot well. Close enough to others that assistance was nearby should he need it, far enough away for good hunting and a respite from the drama of his subjects. He might even have the first kill of the day. Lowering his lance, he seated it betwixt elbow and hip, waited until the boar saw him, and spurred his horse forward.
The lance struck true, mortally wounding the beast. Yet, it wasn’t done. A fine specimen, it tore free and turned to face the horse that was now behind it.
Edal looked for his attendant, who should have been making his own pass at the boar, while it was focused on its first attacker. There was no sign of the man, blast him. Not that it was an issue. The creature would bleed out in only minutes.
With a smile on his lips, King Edal drew his two-handed sword and waited.
The boar charged.
The king had his horse dart backward out of the way, as he brought the blade down. Its tip effortlessly cut through the animal’s spine, killing it instantly.
Edal circled slowly, inspecting his prize. It was indeed magnificent.
His only warnings were a soft footfall and a glint of light. Then there was only pain and darkness.
The assassin twisted his boar spear within the gap in the king’s brigandine cuirass to maximize the damage. Not that there was any need, but for the joy of it. Hunting animals was so much less gratifying than hunting men. And to hunt a king? It was a good day indeed.
Bracing himself, he withdrew his spear from its entry point. Blood gushed forth from the king’s armpit, soaking the horse and ground as the king’s lifeless body toppled from the saddle.
Snuffles from the bushes indicated the presence of more wild boars. Scooping up the king’s sword, he slid his spear deep into the underbrush. It had been perfect against the monarch, but was too unwieldy against multiple beasts. The long sword would serve better. The killer-for-hire slipped away before they could reach him.
The king’s horse spooked and galloped off. And the sows had an unanticipated effect.
While running back to his mount, he relished the thought of what the boars would do to the king’s body. There’d be no signs he’d ever been there. It was a very good day indeed.
He even had a trophy to remember it by, at least until he returned to Lorness. He hooked the king’s long sword in his belt.
Gaelib and others were quickly on the scene, but not soon enough. It was grizzly indeed. Clearly, the king had killed one boar, but it hadn’t been alone. Two sows had mauled him, one ripping at King Edal’s face, the second at an arm. Both were dead before Melazera arrived, yet he was mesmerized by the ferocity of the damage they’d done.
No one will doubt what happened. The nobles will blame themselves for leaving the king alone, so they could be the first to kill a boar. People are so predictable.
Anger filled Blackhawk as he surveyed the ruin of the king’s body.
Colonel Braxton commanded the nearly one hundred others at the scene to depart immediately. He left Blackhawk in charge of eleven members of the King’s Guard, with orders to keep watch over the monarch’s body. He also sent a rider in search of Commander Lucius Lafarge, the officer who’d ordered the soldiers to surround the hunting area rather than be within it.
Blackhawk remained silent until the Colonel was long out of earshot. It gave him time to think. Lucius was loyal to the Lord of Lorness. So too were many in the Royal Guard at Farr Castle. He’d learned to identify Melazera’s pawns in self-defense.
So, this was the next phase of Gaelib’s plan.
The king had been a good man who lacked all hubris.
Eventually, a replacement detail arrived and Blackhawk dismissed his men. There wasn’t anything to do now.
Had we been closer, we might have caught those responsible.
Yet he was curious. Had any clues been left behind? Could he find the king’s horse? It shouldn’t have gone far.
Analyzing the terrain and the deployment of the soldiers, there were two likely escape routes for Gaelib’s operative. He chose one and followed it. Soon after, he found the tracks of a horse. The impressions were shallow, so it was probably riderless.
In the ninth hour of the day, he spied the king’s stallion eating tender shoots by a stream.
The horse is many miles from Farrling Wood. Why’d it run so far?
He dismounted, securing his horse. Walking a circuit around the royal beast, he slowly approached it, speaking soothing words.
There was blood spray on the animal’s legs, belly, and neck from the king’s encounter with the first boar. Its saddle and stirrups were intact, as were its reins. But there was also thick blood down the beast’s left side.
The boar’s blood couldn’t have drenched the horse so.
The king’s two-handed sword was missing. That was beyond odd.
No boar killed King Edal. He was murdered. I must document this evidence.
He rode hard for High Castle, leading the royal mount. Entering by the back gate with it covered by the blanket from the king’s pack, he sought out the recently promoted Robert Maitlan. “Lieutenant, I need a stall for this horse and a guard to post on it.”
“Yes, sir. Right this way.” Maitlan responded, guiding them to a secluded bay at the rear of the stables.
“The king’s been murdered,” Blackhawk stated quietly. “Commander Lafarge has already declared it a hunting accident. I must have the evidence documented before the horse is returned to Farr Castle. Wake Commander Taelor and ask him to come to the stables.”
Maitlan strode quickly away and returned promptly with Commander Taelor, just as Lieutenant Mitchett approached.
“What in the world…?” Taelor’s eyes grew large at the sight of the blood-soaked horse.
“King Edal’s been murdered,” Blackhawk informed Taelor and Mitchett. “I found his horse far from the hunting grounds. If it bolted, it should’ve stopped quickly. I can’t explain it.”
“I can,” Taelor interjected, frowning. “Stupid beast always was flighty.” He patted the horse affectionately as he walked around it. “I told King Edal to replace it, but he liked its spirited nature. Where was the king’s wound?”
“The left side of his torso… Boars got to his body. His face and arm–”
“Arm or hand?” Commander Taelor demanded. His tone relaxed as he thought aloud, “The king’s armor would have protected his arm. No boar’s teeth could have penetrated it.”
“The base of his arm, near the shoulde–”
“Murder indeed. Melazera’s thugs were the first to discover the body?”
“Yes, Commander.” Blackhawk offered a nod.
“If you agree, sir,” Blackhawk suggested, “we need to independently write what we see in regard to the king’s horse. I’ll also write an account of my observations of the hunting grounds. Each of us should make four signed copies. I’ll keep one, the Commander will keep the second, Lieutenant Mitchett the third, and I’ll take the last copy to the prince. Be swift–”
“No, Major,” Commander Taelor interrupted. “We will document as you recommend, but can’t tell the prince. Not now. He’s untried as a ruler and influenced by Gaelib Melazera. We must watch and wait until the prince carries that weight for a while. He might react rashly, getting us all killed. Worse, it would imperil the kingdom. Besides, we haven’t identified the perpetrator. We don’t know all the players.”
“Yes, Commander,” Blackhawk acknowledged as the others nodded, pleased that Taelor was aware of Melazera’s involvement. “Please be quick, gentlemen. I must return the horse by morning. If I’m gone longer, I’ll be missed, and they’ll silence us all. I couldn’t withstand Melazera’s torture. I’ve seen his work.”
It was midnight before they’d finished. Blackhawk washed the horse and saddle. The Commander explained how to clean the pad and royal trappings in a trough with water, ash, and urine until the blood was dissolved away. Then Blackhawk re-tacked the horse and headed back to Farr.
Blackhawk circled around the castle at a distance so it looked as if he were coming from Farrling Forest.
As long as they’re unafraid of exposure, we’re safe.
He noted who was concerned and who avoided his eyes, adding them to his suspect list.
At the stables, Blackhawk reported to Commander Lafarge, stating he’d found the king’s horse wading in a stream far to the south of the hunt area.
Lafarge praised his initiative.
Laughing Thunder left his band of hunters to follow the man because the clothing the outlander wore seemed familiar, but ragged and worn. As were the tales the man told. Tales that Laughing Thunder heard as a boy from a strange friend of his father’s.
Crispy, Crisp, Cris-something…
The name would not come. It could not be important. Yet, letting his chieftain know of this foreigner’s activities was vital. There were already problems with raiders coming from Freislicht in the east. This man could be gathering information for them, his storytelling merely a disguise.
A day later, Laughing Thunder approached Chief Little Bear. “There’s a man—”
“Yes,” the chieftain cut him off. “Tall, pale hair, dressed in a navy cloak, with a sword on his hip, and a baldric across his chest.”
“That’s correct. How did news of him reach you so quickly?”
“I have a guest. A friend of your father’s, who is seeking that man.”
Laughing Thunder grunted.
“You may remember Daikon Crispus,” Little Bear pointed to an old man dressed as the outlander, playing with children in the distance.
Laughing Thunder grunted again.
“Take him to meet this newcomer.” Chief Little Bear put his hand on Laughing Thunder’s shoulder, pointing to Crispus. “Make no bets with him. He’ll win your horse.”
After his all-too-short encounter with Rebekah in early summer, Jonathan had fled westward into Mestelina, as the still, small voice had guided him, to the tribes that lived there.
He’d witnessed raids across the border – from Freislicht into Mestelina. The soldiers of his homeland were the aggressors, which saddened him. Either King Edal had not heard his words or been unable – or unwilling – to act upon them.
The Mestels only wanted peace.
Freislicht was fomenting war. A war that more and more Mestel chieftains were likely to give them. His task was to prevent that or, at the very least, delay it.
Then the news came. King Edal was dead and Jonathan knew it was time to return home.