Chapter 19: Judged
Amidst the Atmosphere of Lexandria
Owakar could stand the waiting no more. He knew Jonathan had survived the beating, but the crowd of devils surrounding Gaelib Melazera surely meant there was more evil to come.
Since Jonathan had been praying for these boys, he transferred to the woods of Lexandria. They had quickly become his latest fascination. The boys lived in the forests throughout Freislicht, moving from one hidden camp to the next. He’d first seen them near Lorness.
He rested on the branch of an old oak, watching. Remaining transparent, he scratched the neck of a beautiful lynx, arching and stretching for Owakar to reach every spot.
The frequent prayers of these scamps, especially those of the eldest, drew his interest. Such fearlessness in these pups, born from their great love for one another.
He wondered what would become of them.
Alocrin called from Farr Castle and the lynx sprang away. Jonathan would be brought before the king.
Immediately, Owakar sent the knight memories of scriptures to strengthen him.
[But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak. The Spirit of your Father shall speak through you.]
The Woods Outside Lexandria
James of the Wood had traveled south. He was hunting with several of the new boys; they turned at a hiss and a growl.
The branch of an oak danced.
A boy took aim at a lynx, but James rested his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “No, Tam, this is his forest too. We only kill to eat or defend ourselves. If we were to be his lunch, he’d have not made a sound.”
Later that day, he encountered Fyrna Locke, a woman well-known in horse training circles. To find her and less than a handful of men herding two dozen mounts, far from anywhere, surprised him. Stepping in front of her, he blocked her way, aiming a bow at one of her men.
“Who’re you?” she began, only for her tone to soften upon realizing she was surrounded by about thirty lads carrying bows or swords. “Or should I ask, who are you and your entourage?”
“These are my woods, lady. I’ll not rob you, but there’s a toll to be paid…if you’d prefer to pass peacefully.”
“My apologies, ‘Lord of the Woods.’ I didn’t recognize you without your usual finery.” She dipped her head, still in the saddle. “How many of my horses do you require?”
James displayed his most charming smile, “Since your manners are so fine, only three.”
Fyrna scowled, looking around as yet more armed lads appeared. “Given the circumstances, a small price to pay.”
“How good of you to agree. I’ll take your horse and those of the two riders with you. Leave their saddles and tack. A woman so noted for her skill in training such beasts will have no trouble riding bareback.”
“Less of a bargain.” Fyrna’s expression darkened as she and her men dismounted. “A suggestion, youngster: Abandon this part of your territory. The weather to the north looks far more…pleasant. And I’d enjoy hearing stories of you taxing the Melazeras.”
“A wonderful notion, lady. It shall be as you say. I’d hate to wear out my welcome with such hospitable neighbors.”
Quorin was…happy. He’d left the Order of the Black Robe, leaving a trail of magnificent stories of his death. They’d never bother to look for him. And at certain spots along his way, he’d buried bundles of the funds he’d appropriated—only what he deserved, of course.
A wagon approached.
One more win?
Quorin climbed a nearby oak, whose branches overhung the road, and waited.
The wagon passed below him, and he leaped.
“What the…” the merchant yelped. But instead of stopping, the driver snapped the reins, and its four horses took off.
Quorin lost his footing, falling hard onto the dirt road. When he looked up, the merchant smiled, aiming a bow at him. He darted behind a tree as the wagon barreled on.
Quorin fled into the woods. But by twenty paces…he tripped a snare.
“May I interrupt your thoughts?” someone said.
Things were not going according to plan—at least, not Quorin’s. None of which included him hanging upside down by one ankle while beset by a dozen armed men…and boys.
A man dressed in rough clothes stepped closer. “I’d introduce myself, but you trespassed into my territory. So, you first.”
“Names are such fickle things,” Quorin demurred. “I’ve collected so many of them. None would mean anything to you. Call me anything you want.”
“I am James of the Wood.,” He grinned as he accepted a parcel from a young boy, “you discarded a beautifully cut set of black robes. Actually, there are several in this oilcloth you buried. They’ll be most useful.” James passed them to one of his associates.
“I…use them in good health. Consider them a gift—”
“You could have burned them, but you didn’t. You also buried a considerable fortune over the week we’ve tracked you.”
“Week?” Quorin felt sick. They’d know where he’d hidden most of his wealth.
“It may have been longer.”
“But,” James’s grin took on a wicked glint, “it turns out that you’re well-known. There’s a price on your head from the Caswells that makes my eyes water. Apparently, Lady Caswell was with child when… Of course, that’s dwarfed by the private bounty put out on you in the days since you left Fairness Crossing. Who did you betray? Are those black robes a clue?”
“If you’ve been following me, you know how much I buried. It’s yours if—”
“It’s already mine. What else do you offer?”
“I…” Quorin quailed. He had only one card left to play. “There’s a group called Licht Gegen. They’ll pay well for my knowledge. If they keep me safe, all I know is theirs.”
James of the Wood frowned. “Hmm. Wish I knew who they were. Sounds like a good payday. Also sounds like the private bounty’s too dangerous to collect. Perhaps the Caswells—”
“Don’t be any trouble.” As he walked off, James yelled. “Boys if he tries to run, you know what to do. I need to go chat with some folks.”
Quorin saw many of them smile and turn their eyes on him. He wondered just how much worse it could get.
At the thud of an axe, he tucked his head just before hitting the ground. “Ow.”
Jonathan woke, aware of boots scraping, a shuffle, voices. The commotion all echoed in his head. He had no idea where he lay. It was black as pitch. He couldn’t make out the words, but they were getting closer.
“I want to see him, now!” a woman’s voice demanded.
“Yes, Lady Melazera,” a militet said as a door creaked open.
The light from a torch flickered across the floor and walls. Her perfume drifted into the cell, powerful and exotic. Barely floral but spicy and musky, it was most pleasant.
Jonathan lay where he’d been dropped the night before, his swollen muscles still unresponsive. “Morning, m’lady…excuse my rudeness…lost my clothes and cannot stand…” Jonathan croaked, rolling to his side. The world spun.
With a foot, she pushed him onto his back.
“How may I be…of service?”
“I intend to commemorate this long-delayed meeting.”
A black-robed and hooded servant stepped forward carrying parchment and a small board, followed by two soldiers carrying torches.
“Be still,” her sharp voice commanded as she kicked Jonathan in the side. “Just his face. But intricately detailed.”
The man’s gaze flicked up and down as he began scratching lines.
Still blurry-eyed, Jonathan took in Lady Melazera standing over him, smiling as her eyes traced his naked body.
He was too miserable to be embarrassed.
Her tongue played over her lips. She was repugnant, foul…
That was the best word to describe Caileagh Melazera.
For a moment, despite his pain and predicament, he felt sorry for her, wondering what had led her to this.
Then, she kneeled close and whispered to him, “Seeing His Majesty is only a formality. Your fate is sealed. This drawing will mark my beloved husband’s revenge when he announces your death.”
The hooded man held up his drawing to the lady.
“Delightful. Make a dozen copies and bring them to me by nightfall.” Then she left without saying another word. Only her intoxicating fragrance remained.
Jonathan forced his body to straighten. With every breath he groaned.
His only hope was some healing in sleep. After a time, he dozed.
Jonathan gasped, “Blast!” when his foot struck the floor.
Two militet argued as they attempted to dress him.
In tears, he begged, “Please, I will do it myself.”
“Are you able, sir?” the one in charge said.
Jonathan winced as he laughed at the absurdity of using the honorific. “I think it will hurt less. Pull me up.”
With their help he stepped into his breeches. As he pulled them up, he noted the third militet with his sword drawn, ready to run him through.
Jonathan grimaced. “Fear not, young man; I will not escape on your watch. I intend to see the king.” Then he dragged his shirt over his head, carefully, and moaned as he sat to pull on his boots.
With his cloak in place, they escorted him, one in front and two behind, to the Main Hall. It was almost amusing. Bruised, battered, and bent over, he could walk —albeit it was more of a shuffle.
The Main Hall—many times larger than the South Reception Hall—was filled with colorful, well-dressed people behind an ornate balustrade: dukes, earls, lesser lords, and their ladies. They bobbed their heads and blinked their eyes to get a glimpse of the infamous knight.
Looks like a crate full of peacocks.
He had hoped to speak with Sagen alone. Clearly, that was not to be.
Father, give me wisdom; give me the right words. Please don’t let me die today.
Soldiers in ruby red uniforms, standing along the aisle, watched as the militet brought him before the king.
Sagen’s blue robe shimmered with a golden light as he sat upon a throne bedecked with rubies. His crown sparkled with red, green, and blue gems above his bronze hair.
Jonathan could not see any sign of his friend in the king’s cold eyes. He bent with a grimace, pressing his knees into the stone floor. He bowed his head and waited.
After a long pause, Sagen commanded, “Rise, sir knight.”
Jonathan wobbled but stood under his own power.
“Why have you come before your king?”
“I came because we were friends once, Your Majesty.” Jonathan felt the vibration and warmth of Mashiach’s inspiration. “Lord J’shua wants to heal your land. There is great oppression over your people.”
A boldness grew within. His pain faded away. “We awake early filled with thoughts and dreads, moved to sing in the spirit a mournful song in prayer and praise to J’shua and his father, the God of Truth. They alone know what burdens our souls. Send us your guardians, open enchanted ears, and clear the vision of the fools. No longer will we pray for safety. We pray for strength. J’shua sings a war song and a love song, for there is nothing stronger than the Love of the God of Truth. Your Majesty, trust in the sacrifice of His son, J’shua. You are already ransomed by him. He will never leave you.”
The king looked down at him for a long while. “Jonathan, I hear your words and take them in the light of the friendship in which they are spoken. But this land no longer serves J’shua or his father. All his followers have left, and the God of this Age has filled the land with prosperity. The Earl of Lorness has shown me the truth. He has brought order to our legal system. My dungeons are empty.”
Jonathan’s gut burned. His face went slack..
This king is no longer my old friend. Gaelib has corrupted him. He’s had ten years to do it.
“However, you must be punished for your crimes. I choose not to render the death penalty for the sake of our childhood friendship. Instead, I banish you from my kingdom. Do what you can to end the fighting. If you succeed, I may permit you to return home.”
“Your Majesty, may I not see the evidence against me?”
“No,” the king decreed. “Leave. You will be escorted to Mestelina immediately.”
Heart-breaking, Jonathan bowed and hobbled out, escorted by the militet.
All this time, I had thought Sagen the paragon of virtue. Beyond reproach. I wish he had sentenced me to death. J’shua, why didn’t he hear me? Is he in league with Gaelib?
Gaelib stifled his reactions as he walked away. His face was fixed in an artful cross between sorrow for the fate of his boyhood friend and the need to do what was right for the kingdom. Inside, he seethed so badly he couldn’t remain in the king’s presence without doing something foolish.
People rushed out of his way with even greater alacrity than usual.
It had all been arranged!
It was perfect. Jon was to have been returned to the dungeon to await his execution, only to take his life with poison. The king would have viewed his friend’s body. After that, Caileagh would have administered the antidote and restored the knight to consciousness.
The fascinating, deliciously wicked things that Gaelib had planned would be enacted over and over, for however long Jon continued to amuse. Add the bonus of being able to torture father-in-law and daughter-in-law together…Curse Sagan! Banishment! Worse, banishment with the possibility of reprieve!
Gaelib slipped into a back passage and down into the interrogation chamber. Only there did he allow his mask to fall away, revealing his black mood.
His prize was taken from him.
Then there was Caileagh. She had her own plans for the knight. She’d whispered hints. Hints that tantalized him and had him salivating to see how creative she could be.
She would be…displeased. No, she’d be far worse than that.
Still, the daughter-in-law, Cynthia, would be some consolation. Except, everything he did to her would pale against what should have been. Sagen had spoiled that pleasure too.
As he fumed, the Warrior’s inspiration stirred within him. There were other ways he could use the girl while still enjoying a diversion. Enough so that…
“Yes! Oh, yes. Thank you, my Warrior,” Gaelib roared. If she alone couldn’t provide him the pleasure he was due, then…
I’ve never been able to learn when or where the elder knights meet. This is delicious.
Having stirred the ember-covered logs to summon new flames, Gaelib flopped into the chair. He hated waiting. He breathed in. The room still smelled of citrus and stale sweat. The memory of Jon’s suffering soothed him.
Greysun is an artist…and Jon will soon be dead.
Stretching, he luxuriated in the fire’s warmth, thinking of what he’d put into motion. Under the guise of meticulous record keeping while the king held court, a habit he was well known for, he’d sent off messages that…oh, the things those missives had made happen over the years.
He controlled the soldiers. He controlled the treasury and the lords in all their castles, either directly or indirectly, through the Order of the Black Robe.
He was the true master of Freislicht. One day soon, he wouldn’t have to rule this land—his land—from the shadows. He’d sit on the throne.
Lounging by the fire, feet propped up on the table, he inhaled deeply. The lingering aroma sent his thoughts back..
Twelve years earlier, the moon high, Gaelib lay with Caileagh on a blanket. She fed him slices of orange as she told him of the different gods and their blessings. The God of Harvest, the God of the Sea, the God of War, the God of Fertility… They were innumerable. All needed to be pleased. Some only wanted vows and a few drops of blood. Others…Caileagh knew what to do for each. She was his world, and she foresaw he’d be king one day.
“Pay attention,” she said, presenting another slice.
“Which God must I satisfy to have you completely?”
“I wish it were so simple,” she laughed, licking the juice off her fingers. “I long for you, but we must wait until we marry. Should your father discover I am not chaste, it would doom our plan.” She nuzzled his neck. “We must honor the lesser gods we need. Each requires sacrifices on their special days.”
She smelled of citrus. Twirling her hair in his fingers, he grabbed her and rolled on top. He didn’t want to listen anymore. He wanted to play.
Then her fingers were on his bare chest, pushing him onto his back…
Gaelib sighed, a smile still on his lips. No more thinking about the past. It was time to implement the Warrior’s—no, his—new plan.
When Blackhawk entered the South Reception Hall, a young brown-haired woman sat slumped on the floor, her eyes wide with terror. Guards flanked her. Exotic birds with bright plumage squawked throughout the room. Melazera always enjoyed caged birds.
He hadn’t seen him or his wife for two years. He’d sent reports, but had not been summoned until today.
Has my loyalty been challenged? I’ll have to make a good show to survive.
“Steven, come here.” Gaelib Melazera’s mood was effusive but, as always, mercurial. “It’s been too long. Let me look at you.”
The Earl of Lorness, seated on an ornate chair upon a dais, examined him as Blackhawk approached.
A giant tapestry of the earl’s green dragon stared down at him from over Melazera’s throne, ready to devour him.
He bowed low. As he rose, Gaelib stepped down and stroked Blackhawk’s beard.
“You’re quite a man now, Steven.”
Blackhawk dipped his head. “I am pleased you think so, my lord.”
It's been fourteen years since last time you laid a hand on me. You sent me to North Fort. Of course I’ve changed.
“I hear such great things from Commander Taelor.”
“My success is only because of your interest in me, my lord.”
“He made you a major.” Gaelib touched the silver armbands, then the back of his hand stroked Blackhawk’s uniform and traced its way slowly back to his waist. “He hasn’t seduced you away from me, has he?”
“No, my lord. You taught me to be entertaining, helpful, and complimentary. That and obedience have earned me my rank.”
“Yes, yes, I did. I was worried. Now, I need you to be useful to me. You should enjoy this too.” He pointed to the woman. “This is the wife of a Knight of J’shua. It’s illegal to practice that religion. I’ve pronounced her guilty. You shall execute my sentence.”
Blackhawk’s gut tightened, but he maintained his icy calm. He couldn’t let his emotions show with Gaelib or Caileagh. He’d learned very early that displaying his feelings gave them more power.
“What punishment shall I administer, my lord?”
“Chain her to the center post facing us.”
Blackhawk crossed the room, yanking her up by her bound wrists.
“No!” She struggled to pull away.
Blackhawk fastened the rope through the ring at the top of the post. He quashed his feelings as she thrashed and then turned back to the Earl of Lorness.
“Now, despoil her,” Gaelib commanded, leaning forward in anticipation.
“As you wish, and thank you, my lord.” Flashing his most lecherous smile toward his lord, Blackhawk pulled out his dagger.
“No. Please. Please don’t.”
He cut her shift away. He knew what Gaelib liked. He imitated his lord.
She bellowed louder.
Guilt curdled his insides. He shut his eyes, unable to look at her. Pretending to enter her, he hoped his movements and noises would satisfy Melazera.
She sobbed convulsively when he let her legs drop and fastened his breeches. Turning, he bowed to Melazera. “Thank you, my lord. I’d like to do that again later. If you are of a mind to let me.”
Blackhawk relaxed a little. It was the laugh of his adoring stepfather rather than of his suspicious lord.
“Oh my, Steven. You always were eager to please. I’ll think about it, but I have other pleasures in store for her. Don’t be greedy.” Gaelib smirked and then commanded a guard, “Take her away. Dress her. Put her in the interrogation chamber, in the dark.”
Gaelib smiled as they dragged her away. “Steven, you remember that place?”
Blackhawk did. As a child, he’d learned to please Gaelib and Caileagh there.
I was naked and sweaty, and—I survived.
“You may go.” Melazera dismissed him with a wave of his hand.
Relief washed over Blackhawk.
As the porters opened the doors for him, Gaelib added, “I expect you for dinner tonight…in my chamber.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Clearly, the tests aren’t over.
Rebekah was back in Lexandria. She didn’t want to be. She wanted to find Sarah or Jonathan. She wanted to learn Melazera’s plans and thwart them.
When I find proof, in J’shua’s name, I’ll wreak holy vengeance upon him.
The trip south was the latest imposition that her success had thrust upon her. She had tried to distance herself from controlling this mercantile monster she’d created by hiring a manager in the north and another in the south.
Kellick Dunston, her northern manager, loved numbers. He fulfilled her instructions without question. His only failing was that he was making her ever richer, despite her insistence that he buy up as many of the debts that the loathsome Melazera might otherwise foreclose on.
She was in Lexandria to see her southern manager and still trying to decide whether to fire Bywold Parsons. Maybe she’d just strangle him. It’d be far more satisfying.
Parsons had initially proven a commendable addition to her enterprises. For the first four moons, he could do no wrong. However, in the last six weeks, he’d been late with three major shipments and had infuriated a long-standing customer almost to the point of losing him. Admittedly, he had taken responsibility for the mistakes, but she simply didn’t need the headaches.
For her, selling was a way to move around unnoticed. Or had been. She was now recognized as an affluent trader.
A new message left at her usual inn directed her to an area she wasn’t familiar with. She approached indirectly, turning time and again to look at shops, view her surroundings in reflections of windows. But there were only a few people about. She had never been in this part of town. It contained several new buildings, many with living quarters on upper levels.
Then right in front of her, dirty water poured down from a window above, splashing her boots. A hen and her chicks scurried to the puddle.
Rebekah walked through them scowling. She checked the instructions again and blinked. The building was extensive, with windows on its upper floor. Its sign over the main doors read: “Bekh’s Bold Bargains.” The image below it was a stylized depiction of her face. Her thickly bearded face.
Her heart sank.
What’s Parsons done now?
As she stormed up the stairs, she wondered how to fix this mess without wrecking everything she’d built, only to find a seated Bywold Parsons speaking to…Charles Dugan. “What the…? What’s going on?”
Charles had hidden with her and twelve other families in the Frei Forest almost a decade ago, whom she hadn’t seen since they’d formed Licht Gegen.
“Mr. Bekh,” Parsons said, rising to his feet and bowing, “I apologize for the recent inconveniences. I—”
“He did as I insisted,” Charles cut in. “I’ve ended up running Licht Gegen here in the south. It turns out that by creating a few hiccups with your deliveries, we could spot—”
“Should you be mentioning Licht Gegen?” Parsons whispered, his face ashen. “Mr. Bekh knows nothing of them. I’ve kept my involvement absolutely quiet. I—”
“Bywold,” Charles said in a soothing tone. “Tomas is one of us. I vouch for him.”
“Oh…oh…in that case…” Parsons sat down meekly.
“However,” Charles sprouted a grin, “I wasn’t going to take any chances until I confirmed that your employer, Mr. Bekh, was still the…man…I knew long ago. How about I buy you a drink, and we talk about recent developments? Parsons, join us.”
How much odder can this get?
They walked across the street to the Blue Hare Tavern. From the open windows came the sound of a lute while a drunkard sang a bawdy song off-key. Stomping feet and roars of laughter made this the perfect place to talk.
It made Rebekah smile despite herself. She was tired. All she could do was take one day at a time and hope J’shua was leading her to Sarah. What else could she do?
Finding a table in a dark corner, Parsons sat with his back to the room. Charles updated her while Parsons pretended to get drunk.
Charles took a drink of his ale. “While we’ve always worked in small groups, it’s become necessary to become a bit more organized.”
He changed position in his chair and scanned the view. “There are now five of us serving as collectors. I am yours. I wanted to let you know in person. And to thank you for your important contributions to the work. If you need anything more than your group can provide, I will make it happen.”
Someone came near. “…the barley crop won’t make up for the latest destruction by my blasted goats. If I ever…”
Rebekah was heartened to hear, if only in general terms, about the progress Licht Gegen had made in recent years. Every city and town now had resources. And the king had done us no harm. So Commander Taelor remains true to his word. “Charles, you know that my main request will always be information about….” She glanced at Parsons who was smiling into his fourth ale.
“I know, Mr. Bekh, all that can be done, is being done.”