Chapter 24: Strategies
Waning Gibbous Moon, Early Spring
North Of Caswell
Just north of Caswell, Rebekah breathed in the crisp air as her horse’s hooves crunched through the rainbow of fallen leaves. She would miss posing as Tomas Bekh. It had been almost eleven years. She enjoyed traveling the countryside, gathering and disseminating information. Others could – and would – do that from now on.
Bywold Parsons, her southern manager, had proven his abilities, especially ferreting out useful information from mountains of gossip. Having found one such person, Licht Gegen had looked for more. So far, they’d found two: a gossipy widow with a nose for nastiness; and a former black-robe who was willing to work for anyone who would pay him, while keeping him safe from the Melazeras’ bounty hunters.
With those three sifting through things, Licht Gegen had gained a far more complete view of Gaelib Melazera’s operations. It also required someone trusted enough by all the independent regional groups to manage their organization. That someone turned out to be Rebekah, which left her ever less time to be Tomas Bekh.
This would be her last circuit for many, many moons, so she tried to enjoy it and let her replacement do the work. The rest of their group consisted of two apprentices, four trusted mercenaries for their protection, and a few extra horses carrying provisions.
As they rode, they came across deep wagon tracks. Winter had been rainy, making many roads impassable. Until the ground hardened, such transports were likely to get bogged, risking the lives of the horses and merchants. Something so heavily laden was asking for trouble.
“We’ll follow the tracks for a bit,” Rebekah commanded. “Wayde, scout ahead to see what’s going on. Don’t be seen. We wouldn’t want to alarm them unnecessarily.”
“Yes, sir!” The lad spurred his horse into a gentle gallop and was quickly lost to view. He returned soon. “I got flagged down by one of James of the Wood’s boys. Says he’s got something for us, if we’d be so kind as to play highwaymen and run off the wagon drivers.”
Rebekah shook her head. James’ people had good instincts. But robbing someone on a hunch? “I’ve got a better idea. We’re going to go ‘help’ those poor wagon drivers, whether they want us to or not.” She kicked her horse into a gallop. The rest fell in behind her. Less than a quarter of an hour later, they caught up with two wagons drawn by oxen, slogging forward at a steady pace. A man armed with a longsword walked beside each.
As she rode up followed by her entourage, the armed men moved their hands to their hilts. She slowed her horse to ride beside the leading wagon master as her mercenaries lagged and spread out. “Early in the year to be hauling something so heavy. Need a hand… or an escort?”
“Nah, we’ll be a’right,” the wagon driver responded, without looking at her.
Insist, a still, small voice instructed.
Rebekah pointed to the horizon. “The sun’s almost gone. Why don’t we all stop for the night and share a camp? It’d be good to hear someone else’s stories for a change. I know all my people’s tales by heart.”
“Nah, nah… we’ll just plod on–”
“And get maybe another mile today? Not worth it. Phah, my people will even cook for you. I insist.”
Then with a loud crack, the rear axle on the second wagon gave way, followed by splintering sounds. Uneven pressure on the two back wheels caused their spokes to disintegrate. The rear of the wagon’s tray dropped to the ground. Several barrels of wine came loose, rolling clear and spooking a mercenary’s horse.
“It’s a good thing we were here,” Rebekah said. Her mercenaries surrounded the wagons, disarming the security detail.
The driver of the intact wagon tried to get his oxen to run. He didn’t get far. “Please, they forced me. They threatened my family. I told them it was too early, but–”
“Bekh,” Wayde yelled, a grin plastered onto his face, “there’s something wrong with this barrel.” He and two others were trying to stand it up, but it kept toppling over.
“Break it open!” she replied.
“No!” the first wagon driver begged, then fell silent.
With a crack, the cask’s side split, followed not by a gush of wine but a trickle. Inside was the anticipated second wooden shell. Without having to be asked, they broke that open…
…and hundreds of baden tinkled into the waning afternoon light.
New Moon, Spring
Fyrna Locke smiled as she entered Duke Gregory’s library.
“What has you so happy?” the Lexandrian duke asked as he poured wine for her.
“I’ve just learned that someone I met a few moons back is, uh, ‘taxing’ the Melazeras.”
Gregory handed his niece the goblet. “That you’re going to have to explain.”
“Do you recall I got waylaid by some highwaymen and had to give them three horses, their saddles and tack?”
“I recall you being surprisingly undaunted by it,” Gregory noted, sipping his drink. “It was out of character. When I insisted on additional information about the incident, you demanded I not follow it up. To call the matter odd would be an understatement. Yet, they were your losses and there were no other similar incidents, so I acquiesced.”
Fyrna’s smile grew. “You’ll soon be happy about that. You see, I suggested that the lads who, uh, required a toll to pass through their woods should head north. In fact, I strongly advised that Gaelib Melazera’s territory would have much better prey. It seems,” she took a sip, savoring her wine, “they took my idea. However, instead of waylaying honest horse traders, like myself, they’ve settled their sights on that northern lord’s less-than-honest ventures.”
“Obviously,” Gregory grinned, “I know nothing about Duke Melazera syphoning off monies from the Royal Treasury for his own purposes.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “Or, the unsavory feasts he charges admission for, in coin and other currencies. However, if you are telling me that some unknown band – that you’ve met only once is preying on that lord’s illegal gains, that would be most amusing.”
“Yes, wouldn’t it, Uncle Gregory?”
“I only have one question.”
“Is the story true?” she replied. “Yes, I believe it is.”
“That wasn’t what I was going to ask. My question is whether you might have some way to contact these robbers and ask if there was any assistance they needed? Weapons? Horses? Tack? Anything?”
Fyrna bit her lip to prevent herself from laughing out loud. When her uncle had a notion, it was usually good. “As I don’t know them, I couldn’t pass on your offer. But if I did find myself in contact with them…?”
“Establish a relationship. We don’t know who we might need in our ongoing rivalry with that northern lord. And,” he beamed, “thank you for bringing me such an uplifting story.”
Drawing his tattered hood forward, Jonathan rested against the tavern’s wall. The cloak it was attached to stank of spilled ale and needed cleaning. Yet it allowed him to move about without drawing attention. The private bounties on his head made being in Freislicht difficult. But the news he was wanted for the murder of Commandant Greysun made it much riskier.
Yet, he needed to follow up this lead. Every instinct told him to.
The sun had just risen. He was not the only one who’d apparently spent the night drinking or pursuing other, less reputable, activities. Two men were weaving their way down the street. Another emptied his gut nearby. Others were already hard at work. Stable hands had fed and watered their charges. Bakers lit their ovens. And the workers at Bekh’s Bold Businesses – who Jon had been watching for days – already had wagons hitched and loaded, ready to send on their way.
So far, there had been no sign of Tomas Bekh, James of the Wood’s other friend.
As a coach drawn by six horses arrived, six armed men poured out of the doors, surrounding it.
Jon slipped into an alley.
Rebekah exited the carriage, dressed as Tomas Bekh.
Riding through the night behind six horses driven by her madman of a coach driver was not conducive to sleep. It was a good way to stay safe, elude highwaymen, and outrun others who might do her harm. Especially as, when she’d set out from Fairness Crossing, the signs on the carriage’s sides had been for Thaddeus’ Trade Goods. A company recently purchased under a new alias, Tyrone Beecham.
Red-eyed and in desperate need of food, a bath, and sleep, she strode towards the main offices of Bekh’s Bold Businesses only to be intercepted by Bywold Parsons.
“Mister Bekh! Thank heavens I encountered you. As I’ve repeatedly warned you, in my letters, there are problems that have to be addressed. Things only you can decide.”
“What…?” Rebekah was too tired to have the conversation, but the phrase ‘in my letters’ meant they were being watched. So, she allowed herself to be dragged inside.
“An apparent drunk has been outside for much of the last three days. When I saw you approach, I sent men to… but, while I have you, we need new offices. Something larger. I’ve a short list for you to peruse.”
By the time Bywold had gone through the options, all Rebekah wanted was sleep. Even food could wait. She dismissed the news that her guards had not caught the stalker.
Probably just a drunk. Not the first time my protectors have been overly cautious.
Blackhawk sat down at the desk in his quarters at Farr Castle to write his report to Gaelib.
“I was only with the king three times this week due to other duties. The king met with the ambassadors to Mestelina, Coper and Mathes. I couldn’t overhear what was said. All seemed happy at the end of the meeting.”
He paused, considering how best to phrase the next statement. “The king and queen had an argument yesterday, leaving him annoyed for the rest of the day. I’m being sent next week to check on officers in the field. I don’t know when I’ll return.”
He stopped writing and thought about the encounter. The king had told the queen that she couldn’t always have her way and should grow up. She’d crossed her arms, stomped her foot, and scowled at him, wrinkling her nose. Then she did an about-face and walked off haughtily.
It reminded him of Little Soldier. He touched the spot where her buttons still lay under his shirt, making him smile. It was she that had led him to J’shua and the writings.
[But God, who is rich in mercy, hath quickened us together with Mashiach. By grace ye are saved.]
First Quarter Moon
Caileagh inhaled sharply, stepping back into the shadowy alcove. The queen was walking down the corridor surrounded by her gaggle of lady’s maids. She was just a girl prancing about the castle.
I could break her little neck.
She waited until they passed, babbling about fancy dresses and parlor games.
She groaned inwardly. Since his Emancipation Ritual, things had seriously worsened. Gaelib had become moodier and more prone to violent, sometimes fatal, outbursts. He barely ventured forth from Lorness anymore, except to attend meetings with the king here at High Castle. Meetings that left him angry, frustrated, and seeking someone to take his ire out on.
While she had enjoyed playing rough, she no longer did. She worried now Gaelib might do her permanent harm. She’d seen him torture those she brought to amuse him. She’d liked being in charge, but it was increasingly evident she wasn’t.
Worse, he’d belittled her in front of servants and, on more than one occasion, important people. He’d openly told her he didn’t need her. His latest petty revenge being to hand control of the funds for the Black Robes to George Rosewud. It was demeaning. It was a warning.
The small spirits that guided her were no match for the Warrior. Gaelib was its servant now. He belonged to the Warrior. There could be no reversal of his fate.
What does that make me? Have I become irrelevant, like my mother? No, there must still be purpose in my life.
Yet, too many of her former friends and confidants looked at her differently. They whispered of how she hadn’t given Gaelib a son. Some even questioned what it would take to oust her from her husband’s bed.
There’d been women who had looked at her Gaelib when he was only heir to the Earl. But then she’d had power. Then he’d needed her. Then she’d had influence.
Even the Order of the Black Robe was being taken from her.
Third Quarter Moon
Rebekah’s chest ached as she remembered the mission in the cart. Jon had been so close. Then a patrol of Royal Guards had thundered into and out of sight. Too many for her band of ambushers to deal with. So many even Jon might have been unable to evade them. She was relieved they’d not stopped. He looked so worn and tired.
She closed her eyes as the coach rocked.
J’shua be with him and our daughter and son.
That day had netted Licht Gegen a staggering 439,000 baden. Between what was in the shipment and what had poured forth from the wall, it was the largest amount they’d ever intercepted. As for Bekh’s Bold Businesses, it was growing at a rate that astounded her. All of which meant Rebekah had more money available to her and Licht Gegen than she’d ever imagined.
Almost two years after meeting the swordsmith from Esthlanis, Licht Gegen’s primary need was still weapons. Regular shipments of ‘farming equipment’ were coming from him. But they required more than short swords and whatever third-hand items they could scrounge up.
That was why she was in Fairness Crossing, preparing to travel to Lexandria as Tyrone Beecham. Contacts here in the south had been creating his presence, acting as his agents, and crafting a reputation for him as a shrewd, if uncouth, businessman for the last six moons.
Rebekah wasn’t entirely comfortable with how much coarse language she used in the role, but it had to be a stark contrast to her T’mas Bekh persona. Her companies had offices in every major city in Freislicht, several in larger towns, three more in Esthlanis, and one in Tarinland. That image of T’mas’ face was an all-too-common sight. Despite numerous attempts to change it, people liked the wretched thing.
Thus, Tyrone Beecham was born. Families who’d settled nearby, after leaving Frei Forest, had created his new wardrobe, obtained and refurbished a carriage, hired a driver, bought horses, and were supplying a dozen well-trained bodyguards.
Twisting a braided sideburn, she stepped onto the street for the first time as the elegantly dressed Tyrone. She noted the difference in the way passersby looked at her. They took in the red silk cravat at her throat, the paired bejeweled daggers with worn handles on her belt, and the long leather surcoat that dragged the ground. Others noted the four identically dressed guards flanking her and moved briskly out of her way. Only one or two truly observant people noted the two additional dissimilarly-dressed guards, one preceding, and one trailing in their wake.
It was time to make her first arms deal.
Jonathan skirted the southern edge of Frei Forest, using its dense underbrush to hide his movements. There’d been even more patrols lately.
Riding out of the grove into a sunlit glade, he sighted a fast-moving wagon. Its driver hunched forward. A woman and children huddled behind.
Three soldiers raced after them in a cart. “Stop!” one ordered. Another loosed an arrow that fell short. He fired again, overshooting. The third struck.
The absconding wagon slowed to a halt.
“No!” Jonathan roared as he charged. The brown cloak he wore waved like a banner.
“It’s Otual!” one of them yelled, but instead of preparing to fight, they withdrew, disappearing to the northwest.
Jon thought to give chase, but there could be more troops about. Stopping beside the wagon, he scanned the area.
“Thank you for scaring them off, sir. They’d… my name’s Gareth Walker.”
“I am Jonathan Otual.” He leaned forward and clasped Gareth’s offered hand. “The Lord of Lorness has made me somewhat infamous. In truth, I did nothing.”
“Nothing? They’d have taken my wife and children to cover my debts!” Gareth gasped. His face was ashen. “I swear I had a contract, but….” His shoulders sagged.
Jonathan’s eyebrows narrowed “I have heard such accounts before.” He shook his head. “If they let you live, you would never be able to prove that contract existed. It would have been lost or misfiled. Without it, they have the right to seize anything, or anyone, in repayment.”
Leaning forward again, he pulled the arrow from the wagon’s seat, checked its point, and added it to his quiver.
Gareth eyed the hole the arrow had made, mere inches from his leg. He looked up. “Are you the leader of the rebel knights?”
Jonathan sighed. “The Knights of J’shua have been outlawed. That does not make us rebels. We defend the Faith… and the people.”
The farmer squeezed his wife’s hand. “What should we do?”
“Go to Tarinland. You must be gone before more soldiers arrive. Those that fled will fetch others. I will make sure they do not follow you.” Jonathan pointed. “Take that road through the woods. It’s four days to the Tarin Inn. Tell the proprietor I sent you.”
Gareth nodded. “Thank you, Sir Otual.”
“J’shua Ha Mashiach be with you.”
The wagon drove off.
Jonathan walked his bay, Ruby, to a nearby spring. He dismounted, let her drink, and filled his waterskins. As she grazed, he leaned against a fallen tree, meditating on J’shua’s words… until the rumble of many horsemen spurred him up.
An army contingent appeared from the northwest, consisting of four dozen riders. Its commander, Captain Karl Fortuch, was recognizable by his broad shoulders, bulging forearms, weak chin, and too-oft-broken nose.
That detestable man is a long way from home.
Jonathan mounted and galloped off, south into the sparser trees of the foothills. The cavalry sped after him. He glanced back to see Fortuch had outdistanced his horsemen. Aware of the widening gap, he considered turning to attack the captain.
It would be too risky a fight. Darting onto a lesser-used animal track, he spurred Ruby into a brief sprint. After a sharp switchback, he ducked under a ledge that hid him from sight, readied his bow, three arrows in his bow hand.
Fortuch and his riders thundered past.
It was a mistake no one familiar with Easy Mountain could have made. First-year knights trained here each morning. It was the easy part of their day, hence its name. These hills were riddled with crevasses, many seemingly bottomless. They also contained ledges and passageways within their walls. Over the last century, the knights had learned them all.
Jonathan listened to the echoes of hoofbeats recede. Then he circled back through the woods to where he’d encountered Fortuch. He intended to set up an ambush. By returning to their starting point, he’d maximize the time the horsemen wasted searching for him.
However, once there, he found additional soldiers afoot. Militet armed with only a dagger, shillelagh, and perhaps an axe. Plodding through the dale at a steady pace, they still traveled in column, without scouts guarding their flanks or rear.
Jonathan cautiously circled around until he was behind them.
Those I wound may be set free. The army won’t feed soldiers who can’t fight.
With a yell, he urged Ruby forward. Well-trained, she knew what to do. As Jonathan smacked those who came within reach with the flat of his blade, Ruby shouldered them aside, toppling and trampling as she went.
The formation broke, all cohesion lost in moments. Their sergeant turned, saw the oncoming knight and hurled himself to the ground.
Between Jonathan and Ruby, perhaps a third of the militet were wounded or ran off. It was a better result than he’d hoped for.
But Fortuch had not left the foot soldiers unguarded. A trumpet sounded. Three riders dashed in from the dense woods on either side of the glen, to cut off Jon’s retreat.
The quality of the knight’s horse and thorough knowledge of the terrain were all that allowed him to retain a slight lead as he darted onto another minor trail. Jon sheathed his sword Then twisting in the saddle, drew his bow, and loosed five arrows in rapid succession toward the riders, hoping to cause confusion.
One toppled from the saddle, an arrow protruding from his chest.
Foothills Of Shining Mountain
Captain Karl Fortuch scowled across the dale at the disarray. One man – just one man – had rendered the militet useless. More useless. The hundn were only good as garrison troops. Unfortunately, because of a major he’d slighted, Fortuch was tasked with escorting them to their new billet at Fort Locke in Freislicht’s southeast. Still, this assignment was an opportunity to regain the rank unjustly stolen from him by lesser, incompetent officers. People who’d always used him as their scapegoat.
Then three army incompetents in a cart had crossed his path, screaming about a violent encounter with the notorious Jonathan Otual. None was wounded. Nor was there a torn tunic on any of them. They were rounding up payment from civilians who’d defaulted on loans.
He doubted they’d drawn their swords.
But… the knight was a wanted criminal, with a very hefty bounty on his head. One who even recently evaded the great Steven Blackhawk.
What an opportunity!
One to not merely regain the rank he was due, but obtain the fame and wealth that should also be his. He’d capture the only remaining knight in Freislicht.
Fortuch ordered the three collection agents to come along, so they couldn’t blab to others. No one else would muscle in on his prize.
As the troop’s vanguard turned east, the blasted fugitive had been taking his leisure, then waved, mounted, and galloped off.
Leaving a quarter of his riders behind, Fortuch gave chase into the foothills.
What a farce! The knight knew the terrain and used it to full advantage. As for that gopher-hole-ridden trail! It cost me three good mounts… as well as their idiot riders.
If his horse hadn’t been well-trained and alert, it too could have broken a leg.
As for the horsemen Fortuch had left behind, half had gone in pursuit when the knight doubled back as expected. One died due to a bowshot that was unbelievable, that had killed the more trustworthy of his lieutenants. Supposedly, fired by the knight while riding at full gallop.
That’ll only add to the son of a hundn’s legend.
As for the militet’s cowering sergeant…
Fortuch rode up and dismounted. “On your feet!”
The sergeant bounded to attention.
“You’re stripped of rank but, as you’re injured,” Fortuch sneered, “you’ll join the wounded, and the rest of these cowards, and go to Fort Locke.”
“But, Captain, I’m not–”
Fortuch lashed out, breaking a rib.
In addition to his four dead riders, he’d ordered a dozen more to escort the militet to the garrison. If he didn’t, all would melt into the countryside, never to be seen again. Commander Taelor would not be pleased. Not at all.
The knight’s attack on the militet – or their fleeing from it – had incapacitated two-thirds of them. That many were exaggerating their injuries was without doubt. But, confirming that would take yet more precious time…
…while the knight was getting away.