Chapter 23: Royal Wedding
New Moon, Late Summer
It had taken Drake two weeks to return to Caswell.
When he left the meeting house at Dunis Glen, he’d returned to the three hidden horses, but David wasn’t there. He couldn’t risk waiting for him, but left one horse behind. Mounting another and leading the third, he’d set out for Caswell.
Once home, he immediately burned all clothes and every artifact that would prove he’d ever been a knight. He also instructed others in the Fellowship living within the borders of Caswell to do the same, or leave immediately and never return.
He blamed himself for not seeing through the spy, Baldwin. Jonathan would have perceived it.
I am too much a fair-weather knight.
David had been one of the last knights to escape from the rooftop of the meeting house. He’d made it to the tree line when the flames became visible outside. Then he sought out the horses Drake had hidden, but only one remained. Cautiously, staying off roads, he’d crossed the East River, then turned southwest.
He’d considered heading back to the Border Inn, but reassured himself Drake’s people would have Cynthia. Whether she’d already reached Caswell or not, they’d keep her safe.
He was thankful he’d learned to survive in the wilderness because he was afraid to approach anyone.
After several days, he was heading through a clearing that was thick with brush. He slowly made his way through. But then the horse reared, squealing, dancing about. Almost falling off, he eased the reins to calm the horse. Then he saw the snake and pitched himself off. The horse sickened and died a day after from the bites, leaving him on foot. After twenty-seven days, he finally reached Caswell.
Once inside the inner gate, Cynthia ran to greet him. But when she was about to embrace him her face went pale, looking him up and down.
David looked at his clothes, covered in dried blood. His hands were cut up and dirty. He realized how awful he looked and frowned. But she drew him into a warm hug anyway.
He had made it. There were days he doubted he would.
She told him of the rumors proclaiming him and Drake heroes.
All that I’ve lived for is gone, and I am branded a Judas.
The story spread everywhere of the heroic pair leading soldiers to put down Jonathan Otual’s rebellion. How the knights had savagely slaughtered unarmed men and women in what was already known as the Dunis Glen Massacre.
The notoriety frightened Drake. He confided in his wife, Parynna, then consulted with a few others. Their consensus was that, if whoever was behind the massacre decided to remove certain loose ends – such as David and himself – both would have to die. Therefore, David had to be hidden. If both inconvenient individuals couldn’t be found, removing only one served no purpose.
Cynthia had arrived at Caswell before Drake. Her soul was tormented by the indignities she’d endured. But, Parynna cared for her as a daughter.
When David eventually appeared on foot, everything had been arranged. A remote disused fishing lodge had been selected, servants dispatched to make it habitable, and provisions packed into wagons to make it self-sufficient for many moons to come.
Parynna had handpicked the servants, all of whom were loyal to her. They would ensure the young couple’s comfort and that no problems arose for her or Drake.
South of Lorness
Rebekah refused to have her cover as Tomas Bekh prevent her from participating in some of the action. Not that she would risk her life doing anything too foolish. By her standards.
That was why, dressed as a woman who’d been taken in a feigned debt collection, she was ‘trapped’ in a cage cart south of Lorness. With her were three very pretty girls of marriageable age, a lad whose seemingly bloody leg was wrapped in bandages, and three children. That all of them were armed with weapons wasn’t obvious, even if looking into the cage.
All were trained, even the youngest, who had an affinity for throwing knives. They had been assembled by Licht Gegen, avoiding any use of real names, so none could identify the others.
The guards escorting the cart were lads from James of the Wood, dressed in uniforms recovered and repaired after their owners ceased needing them. They’d been traveling for several hours, stopping frequently, and had added one or two people at each stop, until all eight had been captured. At the last, the guards had set the abandoned farm ablaze.
Those in the cage cowered and wailed.
When another wagon approached, its driver roared, “Son of a hundn. What’re you doing? That farm belongs to…” His words were drowned out by a wall collapsing and the sound of a river of baden flowing into sight.
The well-dressed young man playing the part of Lord Melazera’s clerk opened his folder and checked something. “As the Lord of Lorness requires, it’s just been sold to someone who’ll build a mansion there. Who’re you? How dare you challenge me?”
As their argument escalated, Rebekah slumped dejectedly to the floor of the cage cart, gripping the stock of a hidden crossbow, preparing to raise it and fire. As she did, her eyes flicked to a horseman who stopped in the distance, patting his horse’s flank.
It couldn’t be, but it was…
She couldn’t risk him interfering. James’ lads wouldn’t take instructions from her. They only knew her as Tomas Bekh. She looked nothing like him at that moment. Nor could she risk the others in the cage learning her identity. Apart from anything else, she’d never hear the end of it, never again be able to be Bekh, or play any other role.
Raising her hands so they shaded her face in a particular way, she prayed Jon saw her signal and honored it by staying away.
Sheisse, he could come to my aid and attack the boys!
As she fretted, unable to do anything but pray, the two arguing men dismounted. Their confrontation lasted only long enough for a blade to slip between the unknown wagon driver’s ribs. He collapsed into the clerk’s arms.
Even Rebekah had to admit it was beautifully done. From a distance – from Jon’s distance – it should have looked as if the driver fainted and the clerk caught him.
Jon walked Ruby steadily through the woods south of Lorness. Only an hour earlier, he’d finally lost a patrol. They’d been relentless since Dunis Glen. In the past few days alone, he’d had four all-too-close brushes with Gaelib’s men from Lorness and almost galloped headlong into Blackhawk.
Both he and his horse were exhausted. It was why he’d cut into the woods and was using lesser-known tracks to put distance between him and his pursuers. Both man and beast would have to rest or he, somehow, had to find a second mount. As yet, he wasn’t far enough south to encounter James or his lads.
The wagon ahead of him was nothing special. When it turned off the road, he stopped and patted his horse’s flanks. Something was bothering her.
Smoke rose from a nearby farm. The setting sun was so low in the sky, it obscured the house. The buildings could be aflame, and he’d not be able to tell.
Then he saw the cage cart and glimpsed the people trapped in it. His anger flared, but he lacked the energy to intervene. There were too many guards to take on alone. Certainly not astride a tired mare.
The light changed, allowing him to see into the cage. Amongst those trapped was a woman that reminded him of Rebekah, but too many did these days.
He gasped. He knew that signal.
It is Rebekah! But she’s commanding me to stay away. Why?
His hands clenched, drawing the reins tighter and causing Ruby to whinny. It was a sad pathetic sound that echoed through his weary frame. He ached to go to her. Yet, in his current condition, he could do nothing.
Worse still was the helplessness that swept through him.
Whether it was for his protection or hers, his only choice was to do as she asked.
Thank you, Lord. She is still alive.
Without taking his eyes from her, he moved his horse off the track and into the sparse trees that lined it. Losing sight of her as the sound of hoofbeats became audible in the distance.
Dismounting, he moved his horse farther in, only to see Blackhawk and ninety men thunder into sight from the west.
After the dead driver was helped onto the back of his wagon, the trickle of wine that lasted only seconds, was followed by the tinkle of baden on wood. Her information had been correct. They’d intercepted yet another of Lorness’ money deliveries.
Yet, before they could investigate the burning house, a large dust cloud announced dozens of horses riding hard from the west. It was moving too fast to be someone herding mounts to market. It was too large to be the escort of some noble anxious to be at home. As riders became visible, their red tunics declared them to be soldiers.
The ‘clerk’ strode over to the cage cart. “Turn the cart around to block the view. If those troops turn off the road, I want all of you to come out and line up, weapons hidden behind your backs. Dying is preferable to Melazera’s dungeons. We’ll take as many of them with us as possible.”
Rebekah wanted to take control. But she couldn't. All she could do was act timid and pray Jonathan stayed away.
The seconds passed glacially as sweat ran down her face.
Jon, why can’t you appear more conveniently?
Blackhawk spurred his mount on. His fifth replacement in three days.
Otual had to be nearby. The man couldn’t disappear. The knight was flesh and blood, of that he was certain. Therefore, he had weaknesses. He had to be spent, or nearly so. He wasn’t young like Steven. He didn’t, couldn’t, have the strength to continue eluding him.
Blackhawk had deployed a third of the available men stationed in and around Lorness to catch him. Had almost done so. Only for the blasted knight to charge him head on and have the wretched horse Steven was riding, rear and throw him.
It was embarrassing.
Blast whatever spy learned of the Knights’ meeting in Dunis Glen. The idiot had used black-robes to try to apprehend some of Freislicht’s best swordsmen. Then the fool had used Militet – as if they were any more capable – to complete the job. And only after bungling the whole thing, did that incompetent inform the military.
Had I known…
Blackhawk noted a burning cottage and a cage cart.
Have they seen anything?
He considered dispatching men to inquire but, at that moment, flashes of light from a signaling mirror told of a sighting only miles to the east. He dug his spurs in. The horse galloped faster.
Caileagh had her coach readied early. Within it was Owen, her favorite minstrel. He was pleasant to look upon and willingly helped pass the time. Later, he’d play while she waited as the servants and nobles prepared for the grand event, one of many over the next few days.
She’d never seen a royal wedding and felt a pang of jealousy.
It will be weeks of traditional events like this. I should be the one fawned over.
She watched the King’s Guard march out to clear the way.
Once the betrothal cortege began, it would take several hours to make its slow circuit through the surrounding countryside. Red and white roses covered the royal carriage.
She could just see the king as he walked toward it.
“Blasted Lexandrians! I should be much nearer.” She lifted the spyglass to get a closer look.
Owen continued to strum.
“The king wears a simple blue velvet cloak over brown leather breeches. He doesn’t even look like a royal.” She put down the glass with a smile. “Gaelib will look so majestic...” She sighed and looked again. “His bride wears…”
Caileagh gasped at the golden-haired girl on the king’s arm, who wore a pale-yellow dress, a daisy among orchids.
The fool failed me! I instructed Kiepert no blonde girls were to be selected.
Full Moon, Late Summer
Melyssa stood before the closed doors, forcing a smile. In only moments they would open and she'd proceed down the aisle to her waiting groom, King Sagen.
She'd been told the Great Hall was so overcrowded it might burst. Everyone with a noble title was present. Or, if they couldn't attend, they'd sent a representative. Guild Masters, bankers, prominent merchants, and diplomats were there too. All were dressed in their finest. And every single one of them was there to witness her marriage to the king.
The king... This is really happening.
A flurry of attendants rustled behind her, smoothing the long white train. Someone was fussing with her veil.
I’m sure I’ll heave.
Her gut was clenched in a tight knot. She had looked at her breakfast an hour ago, picked up the spoon… and thought better of it. She was hungry, but she’d never been so nervous. Better to continue her fast.
Her adopted father, Duke Gregory Locke, resplendent in his blue velvet tunic studded with silver wolves, came to stand beside her. He whispered in her ear, “You are magnificent. Take one step at a time. Let’s get this over with, shall we?” Then he nodded to servants and the doors opened.
Finally, the day had arrived. Sagen stood at the front of the Great Hall staring down the long aisle. Long trailing red and white roses adorned pillars by every row.
Nobles jostled each other, intentionally and otherwise, as elbows dug into those sitting too close to them. Crammed tight with too many people for even the Great Hall, tensions warred with expectations.
Sagen forced himself to remain regally still. His face was pale and his hands clammy. Doors creaked open, flutes and harps began playing.
Melyssa appeared in the archway, arm in arm with her father, Duke Gregory Locke, who was patting her hand. Her blonde hair was covered by a veil held under a golden circlet filled with small white flowers. Before her stood a small, white-haired lad carrying a basket. Melyssa bent down and whispered in his ear, then he began walking, tossing pink rose petals that lazily fell to the aisle. She and her father followed.
She is radiant. Is she as nervous as I?
Drake leaned toward Parynna and whispered, “Thank you for convincing me to come.”
I should never have let my fears threaten to keep me from attending such an important event.
He admired the beautiful young bride as she passed. Then his eyes flashed to the king. They were a perfect match. Sagen had chosen well.
Once the happy couple stood together, Drake looked for Gaelib. It took several moments to find him, as he was hidden in a sea of blond and brunette heads. There were at least one hundred Lockes seated at the front of the hall.
What will Gaelib say about the Dunis Glen Massacre? Perhaps my Parynna could help me navigate that inevitably awkward conversation. Her being close friends with Caileagh makes her happy, and could prove very useful, despite the way Lady Lorness gives me chills.
After the ceremony ended, everyone filed out into courtyards bedecked with potted rose bushes and dwarf fruit trees. Armies of servants waited by tables laden with food and drink from every corner of the kingdom. It would be at least an hour, perhaps two, before the king and his new bride appeared. Time also required for the Great Hall to be reset for this evening's wedding feast. In the meantime, the nobility and other guests would mingle amiably... or such was tradition.
Wanting somewhere to hide, Drake sought out a distant table, only to be interrupted by the person he was trying to avoid most.
“My dear friend,” Gaelib crooned, “wasn’t it a lovely ceremony?”
Drake froze, looking for his wife.
Where are you, woman? She was right behind me.
“It was, uh, beautiful,” Drake almost stuttered. “I’m so happy the king finally found a bride. Soon there’ll be an heir, relieving the worry of many. Don’t you agree?”
“Oh, yes. I heard many sighs of relief when the vows were finished. But," Gaelib paused, a sly expression on his face, "I've yet to congratulate you on being instrumental in ending the Knights’ Rebellion at Dunis Glen.”
Drake paled. “It was nothing, my lord,” he squeaked, his voice betraying him. “I merely did my duty.”
Gaelib’s knowing smile unsettled him.
“Thank you for your indispensable loyalty.” I shall not forget it in the days to come. Nor shall others. I'd wager that this king, and the next, will recall your brave deeds as a turning point in Freislicht's history." Gaelib half-bowed to Drake, then selected several delicacies from the far north. “This is going to be delicious.”
Drake hoped Melazera was speaking of the food.
South of Lorness
Days had passed as Jonathan cautiously traveled south before he was intercepted by James of the Wood, just north of River Town.
“It’s been a while,” James began as his horse rode in parallel with Ruby.
Jon smiled as he noticed more riders within the forest. “Your riding has improved. You sit a horse as if born to it.”
“I… we… have come a long way due to your help and—”
One by one, twenty rough young men on horseback eased out of the trees.
Jonathan smiled. “I was looking for you.”
“I’m not hard to find. If you let me do the finding,” James grinned.
Jonathan laughed. “Then… I have a question for you.”
James’ eyebrow rose. “Yes?”
“Some days back, I encountered a cage cart containing someone I have been seeking for a long time. As I know you see most of what occurs in your woods, I came to learn if you knew more about it.”
“Where and when was this?”
“Near a burning cottage only—”
“I know all about that. It was a small matter of redistribution. From Lorness to those he oppresses, less a tiny fee.”
“I need details,” Jon insisted. With the exception of the fleeting encounter at David’s wedding a year earlier, he hadn’t seen Rebekah for ten years.
The grin on James’ face broadened. “With Licht Gegen’s help, Lorness has been funding our operations. Quite unintentionally. We redirect his baden shipments now and again.”
What is going on? How did Rebekah…?
“Why do you ask?” James prompted.
“There was a woman in the cart. Not the girls, the only adult woman. Who was she?”
James blinked. “I’ve no idea. Licht Gegen provides people to play those roles. We never know who they are. It’d be too dangerous for all involved.”
“Her name is Rebekah… Otual.”
“She’s your wife?”
“I don’t know how to contact her. I could try…”
“It’ll be nice to be helping you, for a change.”
Full Moon, Early Autumn
A week after the wedding, the docent arrived.
Caileagh took him aside. “Instruct Kiepert to arrange for the new queen to have a fatal accident. Once successful, lay the blame on him and eliminate him. The two deaths must not be linked together. There must be nothing that implicates the Order. Report only to me.”
“Yes, my lady.” The docent bowed low.
“You may leave.” She waved him away, then sighed. She’d thought Kiepert special, attractive, and had bedded him on several occasions. His failure disappointed her.
She stared from her tower down at the ant-like people in the outer court, dwelling on the prophecy of the king’s golden wife.
Kiepert will handle it. He’ll want to redeem himself.
Captain Karl Fortuch, now stationed in Farr, leaned against the rough boards of the tavern he’d just left. Drinks were cheap, the smell nasty, but he felt comfortable there. He understood its patrons. Better yet, they feared him. As he picked meat from his teeth with his knife, a pair of soldiers approached.
They bowed. “We’ve a report, sir. We’re with the western patrol. The sergeant here noticed a glint of light reflecting off metal as a bear cub ran by in an open field. We pursued until the cub dropped it. It was part of a commandant’s silver armband.”
The finally re-promoted captain sighed. “Take four dozen militet and search the area.”
A few hours later, a lieutenant rushed up. “They’ve found a torso scavenged by animals and crawling with insect larva.”
Fortuch arrived as another body part was added to the remains arranged on an oiled tarpaulin. All that was missing was the right arm. He identified the body as Greysun, the only missing commandant. Fortuch smiled. Melazera would be ecstatic when he received his report. With this confirmation, the reward for Otual could be doubled.
Waning Crescent Moon, Late Autumn
South of Caswell
Rebekah, as Tomas Bekh, rode out ahead of her six wagons, their drivers, and three outriders.
As usual, she tried to spot James and his boys – well, more than boys now – before they spotted her. And, as usual, she failed. Although, having James ride up beside her was a first.
His brown, wavy hair danced in the breeze. All his men wore dingy clothes in need of repair, but their skin was clean and they didn’t smell wild. Even though they placed themselves randomly about, she knew they were well-organized.
“Welcome back, Mr. Bekh.” He grinned.
“James, the horse is new. I didn’t know you could ride.”
“Several of us can. We’ve been teaching others. What’s hidden amongst those wagonloads for us?”
“Hidden? Nothing,” Rebekah beamed, “it’s all for you. Plus, I finally have news about more than a handful of names. Many more of you can safely go home.”
James halted his horse. “The contents of all six wagons are for us?”
“Yes, the lot.” She stopped her horse beside his. “Everything from new clothes to cooking utensils, to tools, to weapons. There are even some prototype swords from an artisan in Esthlanis. Let me know what you need. I’ll get it for you in only a handful of weeks.”
He hesitated. “There is something.”
“Several of us want to train as Knights of J’shua. We may be a bit older than traditional candidates but, with the Fellowship branded illegal, if there’s somewhere we could train, we’d like to.”
Tomas paused. “There may be a way…”
First Quarter moon, Early Winter
In her secret hall, a displeased Caileagh paced back and forth. It had taken far too long for that fool, Streib, to report back. Worse, his timing was distracting her from other, more important, things. Such as the upcoming celebration of Boreos, the God of Wind. Each magnificent sacrifice furthers the great work.
She poked a stick at the bones of Greysun’s disgusting corpse as the bubbling acid cleaned them. Then motioned for others to finish processing his bones.
She did not know why, but the loathsome self-important commandant had disappeared shortly after earning Gaelib’s praises on the artistry with which he’d wielded a bag of oranges and then failed – failed! – to kill Otual. It was said he’d absconded with money. There were tales of him in Tarinland and Esthlanis. Or, that he had a villa on the coasts of the Sea of Glass. But here he was, dead. It was a pity, for the manner of his demise must have been all too banal.
Yet, on the slight possibility there was a lead on Otual’s wife, it had to be hunted down.
The docent remained kneeling, his forehead touching the floor, while his body shook.
“Again!” Caileagh demanded. “This time I require details, not the slick summary you just babbled out.”
“Yes, Lady Melazera. Forgive me, Lady Melazera. I—”
His words ended with a satisfying ‘oof’ and grunt of pain as she kicked him, hard. “I am not interested in your apologies, nor your excuses. I instructed you to find out if the knight’s wife had lived in Frei Forest, to see if there had been an encampment there, and to report back promptly. It’s been weeks. Yet all you give me is, ‘we found nothing’. It is unacceptable. You know what becomes of those who disappoint me, don’t you, Docent Streib?”
“I do, Your Grace. I won’t fail you. I haven’t!”
“Then give me a proper report.”
‘Yes, Your Grace,” the docent squirmed. “I did as instructed. I took three lesser docents and two dozen initiates. We went to the location your informant indicated. We searched thoroughly. There were no buildings there. Certainly, women and children could not have lived in the woods without shelter. Then—”
“Is this true, Lesser Docent Rhaylth?” Caileagh demanded.
“We did search, Your Grace,” the junior leader responded. He too was kneeling his head bowed, but his body was relaxed. “It was not thorough. Docent Streib was uncomfortable away from town and had no knowledge of what could and could not be livable. I did try—”
“Quisling, traitor,” Streib squealed, “you said nothing of the sort. You—”
“I do not care which of you said what,” Caileagh interrupted, nodding to a guard, whose sword cleanly dropped Streib’s head to the floor. His body slumped.
“Docent Rhaylth,” Caileagh soothed, “it was good of you to inform me of the former docent’s failings. Can you do better?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Then use however many you need, scour that forest and tell me definitively if there was a settlement there. While that small task is being accomplished, find out if there is such a thing as Licht Gegen. Again, I require a definitive answer. With proof. If it exists, bring me, say, six of its followers. Finally, I need to know if Mistress Otual was involved. You have six moons. Not a day longer. Dismissed”
North of Caswell
In the moons that followed Dunis Glen, Jonathan traveled extensively, moving wherever J’shua indicated he was needed, staying well beyond Freislicht’s borders.
In Mestelina, he spent time with many tribes, spreading the Writings and exchanging skills.
In Esthlanis, he briefed their Premier and Mathu, who was still the Premier’s Steward, about what had occurred at Dunis Glen and how it was being portrayed in Freislicht. It was essential the trust he’d established be maintained. Mathu gifted him a stunning bay mare.
Eventually, Jonathan found himself back in Freislicht, just north of Caswell, pulling his cloak tighter to protect against an icy wind. His new mount, Ruby, blew softly and he scratched her neck. Tears welled up when he tried to picture his daughter in her sixteenth year. She’d be thinking about boys now. And they would be thinking about her.
I know I will find them when I least expect, Lord.
No matter where he was directed to go, he sought Rebekah and Sarah.
When he saw the glade where he’d first met James of the Wood and his brothers, he felt moved to find them. He made no attempt to be discreet. He knew they were good at hiding and wondered if they might appear.
Perhaps they have gone home.
A twig snapped.
James hoped the knight would be proud of the progress they’d made. Their camps blended into the deepest woods all around Freislicht. In fact, they had camps within five miles of every major town in the country. This one was closest to Caswell. It had been almost ten years since the knight had trained them to survive.
A sentry had seen the knight heading toward the camp. So James had sent several boys to follow Sir Otual. His only instruction was, “Don’t get caught.”
They were only away a few hours when the knight walked in leading his horse.
“Hallo, James.” Jonathan locked arms with the young man. “You look fit.”
“Sir Otual, welcome! I’d hoped we’d be harder to find.”
“When you have been out in the wilderness as long as I, it is easy to see the tiniest sign. Yet, I never saw any boys shadowing me. They did well. I suspected they were watching, but never spotted them.” He waved at the other lads in the camp, who’d stopped what they were doing to greet him.
“Come. Have some rabbit.” James motioned for the knight to enter a structure built within a cluster of trees. It was warm inside. “A number of us have been able to return home. We’ve another helper, a traveler who brings us news from time to time.’
“That is wonderful. I am glad some families have been reunited.”
“This friend had a very good year. He recently brought us all sorts of provisions: clothing, tools, pots, pans and even some swords. They had these handles on them which didn’t work for us.” James withdrew a bell-shaped object from a sack and handed it to the knight.
Jonathan examined it, turning it this way and that. A spot of firelight was reflected onto the enclosure’s walls. “That is odd,” he mused. “I have never seen anything focus light like that.”
“How interesting,” James murmured.
Jon tossed it back.
Then James asked, “Have you ever encountered Tomas Bekh? He helped locate some of our parents. He seems to know you.”
“I do not recognize the name.”