Chapter 25: Attacks
Kiepert watched Queen Melyssa to determine her daily patterns. She was surrounded by her ladies and servants all day. But most mornings at dawn, she and her maids went to the garden where a pond lay in the center of a dozen flower beds. Often, she watched the ducks glide across the water or picked a rose and put it in her hair.
After weeks, when he was certain, he acquired a bag of venomous snakes from his docent. Disguised as a gardener, Kiepert placed it in the most prominent rose bush, loosened the string, and walked to another flower bed to hoe and observe.
Melyssa bent to pick a low hanging rose, then snatched her hand back, clutching her wrist. Taking three brisk steps, she stamped down on something, then pointed with her shoe.
The queen took a step backward as one of her maids screamed. A guard drew his sword and slashed, decapitating a snake.
Still clutching her wrist, a maid helped Melyssa, stumbling, toward the inner castle.
Kiepert slipped away. He sought his docent behind the dingy tavern. Hearing only the words of congratulations, he never saw the knife in his mentor’s hand, only feeling pain and the coldness of death.
Distant screams of women filled the corridor. King Sagen sent a lieutenant to investigate.
The man returned quickly advising, “The queen has been bitten by a viper, Your Majesty. Guards are searching the gardens. Your physicians have been summoned.”
“Take me to her!”
When the king arrived, his healers were treating her with herbs and leeches. Their faces were solemn. They shook their heads. “It is all we can do for her, Sire.”
Sagen nodded, fraught with worry. He held Melyssa’s hand and prayed silently, seeking guidance. Then he sent all the servants out and summoned Colonel Gonnels. “Permit no one but those you trust into this room. This was an attempt on the queen’s life. An attempt that’s still all too likely to succeed. There is little hope, yet I won’t take any risk. No one that you don’t trust, not even a physician.” He strode out.
He’d expected an attempt on his own life, but not on his queen. It made no sense. None at all. Gaelib required Sagen have an heir. One who Gaelib could become regent for after Sagen’s and Melyssa’s untimely deaths. A passage came to mind.
While they took counsel together against me, they schemed to take away my life. But I trusted in thee, O Lord.
Gaelib was working on the kingdom’s finances. Papers cluttered his desk. Scribes were taking notes. Servants poured more wine, refilled ink troughs, and other things he didn’t notice. He’d just dismissed a black-robe, sending the fellow to High Castle with today’s letters, when King Sagen strode into the Steward’s Hall.
His Majesty’s eyes were narrowed. His fists clenched. His stare was icy. “Find out who was behind this!”
The Lord of Lorness rose to his feet. He didn’t have to be told what the king referred to. It could only be the queen’s snake bite. “Behind it?”
“There’ve never been snakes in the garden before. Three have been found, plus a bag containing snake scat in the rose bed. This was attempted murder.”
“I’ll use every resource to–”
“Don’t give me words!” The king swept the papers from the steward’s desk. A goblet of wine and ink bottles shattered on the floor, staining carpets and scattering broken glass. “Get me results. If you can’t, I’ll find a steward who can.”
“She was a delightful girl,” Melazera demurred.
“She’s not dead yet,” Sagen snarled, “despite rumors otherwise. If she dies and you haven’t delivered the culprit, I’ll have your head on a pike as an example for the next person who thinks of failing me!”
“I wasn’t finished. You are to find her killer. I’ve sent for Commander Taelor. Provide all evidence to him. Nod if you understand me.”
Melazera did so.
The king stormed away, his intensity that of a living thunderclap.
Gaelib slowly sat, eyes wide, lips tight. This could ruin everything, if it had been an assassination attempt.
It must have been. And Caileagh was behind it. Her superstitious vision about a sword and a golden queen. Blast!
Worse, the king’s accusation was heard by servants. Rumors of my potential demise will flood the castle. And… those who’d supplant me have only to delay me long enough to…
He slouched back into his chair, gesturing for the mess to be cleaned up. He drew his dagger. His fingers played over the jeweled engravings. He scraped the blade across his open palm. The delicious sensation soothed him.
The king is so enraged. He could do something… unpredictable.
He wanted to think through the problem. There was no time. If the queen died, so would he. If he didn’t resolve this fast, he’d appear weak. All his supporters could desert him. And, no matter how quickly he cleared his name, it would cost him allies.
This is a disaster.
Surging to his feet, he roared, “Send for my wife! At once! I don’t care what she’s doing. I want her brought to my chambers, now! If necessary, have guards drag her there.”
Gaelib gestured for another black-robe to approach. “Send a messenger to George Rosewud at Lorness, I require his presence forthwith.”
Caileagh took her time responding to her husband’s summons. The guards who’d found her paled when they saw her work, making her laugh. She wasn’t some servant to be ordered around. In response to their blustering demands, she’d dawdled, reminded of the Fourth Runic Precept: Act decisively, remain unmoved.
When she finally arrived, Gaelib was patrolling his chamber looking for something more to break. There wasn’t much left. “Where’ve you been?”
“I was in my lower chamber making your favorite drink, love.” Caileagh offered him the cup, which he slapped from her hand. She was stunned. “What’s the matter?”
His eyes narrowed. “The queen’s dying, could do so at any moment. If she dies, I die. I know you ordered her death. Give me the perpetrator, or you’ll incur the king’s wrath.”
“But Gaelib…” she pressed her body against his.
He shoved her away. “Don’t ‘but’ me! If the queen dies, I die!”
“You’re frightening me.” She fluttered her lashes.
“Hand me the perpetrator, or take his place!”
“I… that is… he’s already been killed.”
“Explain.” He fingered the dagger at his belt, stepping closer.
“I used Kiepert to arrange things and do the deed,” she confessed as she knelt before him, her hands together in supplication. “His docent killed him and ensured Kiepert would be implicated.”
Gaelib towered over her. “If he dies by anyone but the king’s hand, my head will adorn a pike beside his. As will yours. If you’re implicated, I’ll not raise a finger to protect you. You’ve threatened my position. You’ll see how inaccurate your visions are. No golden queen will doom you. I will!”
Caileagh blanched. Her mind raced. Physical seduction wasn’t working, perhaps… “I did it to protect you. The queen and those around her are too nosy. They would discover your plans, undermining you. I couldn’t let that continue.”
“Not a bad effort,” Gaelib sneered, “but you did this for yourself. Your visions come true only half the time – no, a tenth – if that. You’ll not take action on them again, ever, without my permission. Even if I survive, you’ve weakened me.”
She nodded. “It won’t happen again, my lord. What if… if I could produce another who’d killed the perpetrator? Then Kiepert could still be blamed.”
“And how will this ‘witness’ stand up under torture? I won’t control his questioning. Are you trying to put both our necks on the block?”
“No, my lord!” She looked up, her hands still folded. “I’ve had a vision, I don’t see how, but you will be elevated—”
Gaelib snorted, throwing his hand in the air. “On a pike! Bring me the docent! Immediately!”
A day had passed since the snake bite, yet the queen wouldn't wake. She lay under many coverlets and furs, surrounded by experts, physicians who offered no other comfort than lowered looks, sympathies, and pointless predictions.
The sun crested the horizon as King Sagen imagined Gaelib hanging by his toes over an anthill, even better if he were naked and covered in honey. A slow demise, he'd have the court bear witness.
There was no such anthill and Gaelib hadn’t – quite – given the king sufficient reason for such extreme action. It was one of only two distractions that offset anxiety for Melyssa. The other was watching his steward’s fear grow hour by hour.
The bedraggled soldier stood motionless outside the queen's chambers. "Your Majesty," Colonel Gonnels said, bowing to the king. The man hadn’t left his station even once.
“Colonel, have you received a dispatch?”
“Yes, Sire, Commander Taelor has arrived. He reports that he’s done as you commanded. High Castle is secure. His men are currently creating a cordon around this castle. What are your commands, Sire?”
“Find my steward, have him attend me in the Main Hall, immediately. Wait with him. Don’t tidy your uniform, nor comb your hair. I want you to appear as you are now. Impose upon the Lord of Lorness the urgency of this summons.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Send pages to gather the Royal Court in one hour. Advise them I’ve something grave to announce. Use those exact words. No more. No less.”
Gonnels raised a brow.
“You have a question, Colonel?” The king allowed a smile to play across his lips.
“Yes, Sire. You want your steward in the Main Hall immediately, but the Court won’t convene for an hour?”
“Correct. I want the Earl of Lorness standing alone beside you when every courtier arrives. I want him to sweat. More, I want him isolated from his spies and informers so he has no idea what’s coming.”
Gonnels frowned. “He’ll be extremely unhappy about my actions—”
“You’re doing as your king commands, as he’ll learn to do. I can’t unravel his schemes in a single afternoon, but can derail many of them,” Sagen concluded, praying he hadn’t misjudged the colonel. If he had, that too would soon be evident.
Major Blackhawk leaped from his horse. Then he strode up to the officer in charge, Captain Karl Fortuch, who was busy trying to re-organize. “Report!”
“I… sir… where did you… when did you…?”
“Captain, if you don’t want to be a lieutenant, again, you will give me a clear precise report. Now.”
Finally snapping to attention, Fortuch nodded. “The three men assigned to that cart,” he pointed, “had an encounter with the fugitive knight, Otual. They—”
“How many of them were wounded?”
“Put them in charge of the militet. For each one they fail to deliver to their destination, each is to receive three lashes. Where were you escorting them to?”
“Forte Locke, but if you ask me, it’s a fool’s—”
Blackhawk stepped closer and grabbed the captain by his brigandine. “I said a precise report, Captain. You have not, yet, lost that rank. However, when I ask a question, I want an answer, not an opinion.” He let go and stepped away. “How many of your militet were wounded?”
“How did that happen?”
“After the three reported, I encountered Otual and gave chase.”
“I don’t see the knight in chains.” Blackhawk looked around, finding nothing. “So…?”
“He knows this terrain better than—”
“That is an excuse. I like them even less than opinions.” The sight of Fortuch gulping pleased Blackhawk, perhaps he was getting through. Although, given the captain’s record, he doubted it. “Continue.”
“Otual fled. Or such was my initial evaluation of his actions. Yet, when we followed him, he somehow… that is, he led us onto a trail beset with gopher holes. I lost three horses and their riders. Accepting that the pursuit was… ineffective, I returned here to find that Otual had attacked the militet, wounding and scattering them.”
“I see,” Blackhawk noted coolly. “And the guards you’d, no doubt, left in place to prevent such a misadventure?”
“They pursued the knight, but…”
“Spit it out, Captain!”
“At full gallop, the knight stood tall in his stirrups, twisted around, and fired five arrows with impossible speed at the horsemen pursuing him. He…”
Blackhawk refrained from striking Fortuch. It was bad form and eroded discipline.
Damn Otual. I’ve heard of him prepping three arrows for his bow, but five?
“…he struck my best lieutenant," the captain pressed on, “knocking the man from his horse, killing him instantly.”
“That is,” the major paused, savoring the moment, “too far from being believable. It is also the last falsehood I’m willing to hear from you.” Blackhawk turned to his own second in command. “Place this lieutenant under arrest. The charges are dereliction of duty, lying to an officer, and rendering one of his subordinates unfit for duty. Yes, Fortuch, I saw you incapacitate the sergeant.”
Blackhawk’s men grabbed the former captain, binding him roughly.
“Captain Raynaud,” Blackhawk continued, “have your troop sort out the fit from the lieutenant’s wounded. I want all those who can ride mounted up within half an hour.”
“Yes, sir,” came the crisp reply.
Fortuch was loaded into the cart belonging to the three fools who’d started this folly.
Returning to his own horse, Ransom, Blackhawk mounted. Then he raised his voice so his cavalry could hear him. “Otual has been sighted nearby. I want scouts, in groups of four, to ride in all directions for two hours. If you spot the knight, send one rider back to notify me. If not, create a cordon along the base of the mountain. Our prey will not escape. Not this time. I’ll be taking the rest of us further up. The knights know this place. If Otual’s likely to hide anywhere, it’s there. Ride!”
Jonathan urged Ruby onward, up the mountain, leading the soldiers westward until the terrain became too rugged. He stowed his saddle in a cave where weapons and equipment were cached, then freed his horse.
To his amusement, a trio of riders were dispatched to chase her. He wished them luck. She knew the mountain almost as well as Jon did.
The remaining twenty-nine soldiers and their commander gave chase, yet Jonathan outran them on foot. They were reluctant to leave their mounts and unable to find routes passable on horseback.
They do not know the mountain.
The knight smiled.
What happened next removed it. With the day near ending, their officer ordered his riders back down the mountain.
The knight matched their slow pace.
What is he planning?
As the sun dropped down to touch the horizon, Jon briefly stood above them. Firing his last four arrows, he wounded only one. Two more were hurt when they dashed for cover.
Jon withdrew to one of the many caves knights stored supplies in, refilling his quiver.
I must keep them interested until midday tomorrow so the family is out of reach.
Hours later, daylight all but gone, Blackhawk had only received sightings of the knight’s horse. Three riders were still pursuing it, even as night fell. Keeping Otual without a mount made capturing him possible.
This was as close as Blackhawk had come to capturing the knight in nine moons. He could not give up the chase. It would displease the Lord of Lorness, leading to dire, perhaps fatal, repercussions.
Setting out sentries, he ordered the men to make camp.
That accursed knight could be escaping while I can’t give chase.
Yet, thinking back on Fortuch’s recital of events that didn’t seem to be Otual’s intention. If escape was all the knight desired, why had he engaged the militet? Why had he taunted and fired arrows at the former-captain’s men? Given how well Otual knew the mountain, why not just disappear?
What are you trying to achieve?
Surely, you can’t be…
Blackhawk laughed out loud, startling his men.
Is the ridiculous knight is trying to distract Fortuch’s soldiers from chasing down a single fleeing family? The three men on the cart were clearly assigned to a debt collection. How long will he tarry to make sure they get away? I might still have a chance to capture him. And he doesn’t know that he’s no longer being hunted by the incompetent Fortuch.
Yes, this is my chance!
Jonathan rested in the shadow of Lone Soldier, obscured from searching eyes below. His woolen cloak kept out the cold and blended with the mountain. He admired the sunset that fanned out across the sky on his left, a sea of pink and gold churning with violet. A cold blast whipped his hair across his weathered face. Turning his head into the wind to corral it, he peered down the mountainside and over the valley, watching the growing shadows and his pursuers.
From the rock formation, all of the lower mountain was visible. Boulders larger than the height of a man were strewn across it like giant acorns leaving only three major routes up to the ledge. The knights called it the Kneeling Queen’s Skirt.
How do I lure them further up the mountain?
I do not.
I prevent them from retreating down it.
Jonathan had slept very little. It was cold on the mountain. He could not let this contest draw out too long or the odds of his survival decreased. So, he set hazards – some obvious, some subtle, and some that only appeared to be traps – to slow his pursuers’ descent.
He retreated slightly up the mountain, only to spot another squad.
And Major Steven Blackhawk.
His presence changes things.
A hawk intoned a single warning as the air grew cold, as dawn threw a spear of brilliant light across the mountains. Eight men were on watch.
Jonathan slipped deeper into the shadows. Others would be nearby, or feigning sleep. He heard grumbling about cold food.
Jonathan circled their camp to give himself more escape options. By the time he was in position, the soldiers had water boiling and were adding green herbs and beans.
Jonathan concealed himself, bow ready. He aimed at the sentries and released a dozen arrows rapidly. Only the sound of whispering fletchings pierced the stillness.
Those on watch dashed where the arrows took flight but Blackhawk and his five men didn’t move.
He is not only muscle. This could be . . . interesting.
The watchmen approached the cover he’d abandoned. The corporal leading them tripped a snare. The man’s feet were snatched out from under him, toppling him into a hidden crevasse. His screams stopped abruptly, leaving only silence.
“Search the area,” their lieutenant commanded. “Watch out for mor–” His words were cut off as he too was snatched away.
The remaining six men stood fixed in place, their eyes cast down seeking more traps.
Blackhawk shouted, “Now!”
Jonathan remained still as soldiers appeared from hiding places, rushing toward him. Unfortunately for them, he had anticipated three of the five locations they came from.
The heavy thuds of their boots as the soldiers dashed out to capture him were more than enough. Every knight knew to walk softly on this region of the mountain.
The rockslide began as a flurry of pebbles.
Jonathan slipped over a ledge, then used the rope he’d prepared earlier to lower himself thirty-five feet down a crevasse. A gentle swing brought him to another ledge that was invisible from above. With the rumble still growing, he sprinted along it, emerging near the army’s tethered horses.
He clubbed a guard with the pommel of his sword. The soldier collapsed and lay unmoving. A second guard turned too slowly. Jonathan cut low, slashing the man’s thigh. Then Jon rendered him unconscious too.
The last, a lieutenant, intercepted the knight. Their blades clashed, disengaged, then crashed again. The officer pushed back aggressively, to overwhelm the knight with his youthful vigor and swifter reflexes.
Jonathan pulled away, leaning to his right as he parried. The lieutenant attacked with greater ferocity. Jon defended, gave ground, again leaning to his right. The officer lunged into the opening the knight had deliberately left, misjudged his attack, and overbalanced.
Jonathan twisted, delivering a final upstroke, spraying blood along the ground.
A youth strode toward the knight, but froze when his commander died.
Jon’s momentum moved him forward, disarming the statue-like soldier. His sword rose for the killing blow only to stop as it touched the boy’s face.
Something, some instinct, had moved Jonathan to mercy. “Son, what is your name?”
“L-L-Luca, Luca Overhill…sir.” The lad swallowed hard.
Jonathan shook his head, chuckling. “Is your father’s name Richard?”
“N-n-no… that’s my uncle’s name.”
“I have no time to explain. Grab the lieutenant’s body. Drag it fifteen yards that way.” He pointed. “There is a drop-off. Bloody and tear your tunic. Throw the body over, then your tunic and some equipment. Then go down the mountain exactly the way you came up and return to your family.”
A look of bewilderment appeared on the boy’s face. “W-why? Y-you don’t know me.”
“I knew your uncle.”
Luca gulped, nodded, and did as he was told.
Jonathan loped toward the horses. Three quick strikes with his sword and the lines holding them in place were severed. The knight slapped a magnificent stallion on its rump. It looked at him, whinnied, and moved off. The others, all mares, followed.
Returning to the ledge where the rope awaited him, he lowered himself down another crevasse. The hunt was not over.
Major Blackhawk recognized the sounds.
“Get to cover!” he commanded everyone within earshot.
Most did, he hoped.
He was glad the horses were below under the cover of a ledge. They should be safe.
If the knight doesn’t get to them first.
As the rockslide abated, Blackhawk considered his options.
This fight is over. The best I can do is withdraw and save whoever’s left.
Of the twenty-five men with him, five were dead or dying. Another nine were wounded. The sergeant he’d sent to assess the horses stated all the animals had been run off. Two bodies were also missing. There was a blood trail and indications that something large had dragged the corpses away.
That’s all I need, natural predators.
Blackhawk had his corporal collect the names and possessions of the dead and missing. Inevitably, there would be reports to write and records to update.
Jonathan set another trap, then retreated into the shadow of a rocky overhang. It was well past noon but Blackhawk was not underway, nor had he sent out scouts. He’d moved his soldiers down to where the horses had been tethered.
Without getting closer and risking capture, it was impossible to know exactly how many soldiers had been wounded or killed. However, it must have been a significant number for the colonel to keep all his men together. If only ten of the survivors were injured, at least another ten would be required to care for them. That would leave Blackhawk perhaps a dozen fighters, at most, maybe only half that number. Splitting them would be folly. Hence, he’d not sent out any scouts.
Have I bought enough time for the family’s escape? Probably. Almost certainly.
Jonathan tried to calm his mind. There was ugly history between Blackhawk and him. Things that could not be ignored. Things that…
Amidst the knight’s thoughts, a still, small voice spoke quietly, Leave.
Jonathan leaned against the cold rock, then sighed as he glanced downhill, where he knew his enemy stood. He understood the guidance he’d received. Yet there, only a little way distant, was the man who had raped his daughter-in-law, Cynthia, less than a year ago. The same man who’d taken his daughter in a debt collection ten years before that. And driven his wife into hiding. Facts he’d learned only recently from a deserter at the Tarin Inn.
Loss stirred the rage within. He could not let it go.
No more! How many might I save by killing Blackhawk?
Yet the choices before him were anything but clear.
A horn blew in the distance. From the foothills below came a reply.
Blackhawk is not done yet. Neither am I. Yet…
Jon was tired, close to exhaustion. Engaging an opponent as capable as Blackhawk in such a state was asking to lose… or die a fool’s death.
Slipping away, he found a cave and slept, leaving what would occur to J’shua Ha Mashiach.
Major Blackhawk cursed the knight, yet again.
The initial pursuit up the mountain had been swift, almost effortless. Well-trained, his cavalry had thundered upward, confident in their ability to capture one fugitive.
Damn him to the deepest of Caileagh’s dungeons.
Corporal Athos had not yet returned with the horses. The youngster had already been pursuing the knight’s horse, so Blackhawk had sounded a horn instructing the lad to recover the others as well. Not that there was much choice. Athos and his two troopers were the only ones who’d not lost their mounts.
As for the troops he had surrounding the mountain’s base, summoning them served no purpose. Who knew what other traps the blasted Otual had left in place.
I will not have more men injured recklessly. Besides, with the rest of my forces blocking his escape, there is still the faint hope of capturing this menace.
“Captain Raynaud, we’re not breaking camp until tomorrow. Has there been any change with our wounded?”
“One man died a few moments ago, leaving four still close to death. With a day’s rest before moving… one might survive. Of the other nine who were wounded, seven can walk but not fight. The other two…” The captain paused, working his jaw. His anger and frustration were physical things.
“They can walk. And fight, if you’re willing to expend them. One will never use his left arm again, but insists he can still wield a sword. He’d be cut down easily by any competent opponent. The other’s sight is all but ruined at anything beyond three arms’ length. Yet, he insists he’s fine.”
“I see." Blackhawk acknowledged. “Add both men to the sentries. Perhaps having purpose will restore them and inspire the others. What of food and water?”
“We didn’t lose any supplies. We could fortify this camp and call for reinforcements.”
“We could.” The major paused. “But Otual may know our horn signals. We could lead our own men into another trap. Better that we prepare to descend cautiously. Two hours on, two hours off for everyone who’s still fit. That includes you and I. You’ll have command when I rest.”
I don’t know whether to pray for Otual to attack us or not.
The major’s horn carried new orders. Corporal Athos pondered the meaning,.
Bring the horses? How many am I looking for? I’ve only two men with me.
Then a riderless Ransom appeared, only to pursue Otual’s bay as if she was in heat.
Other riderless mounts came into view, chasing the stallion.
Spurring his horse into a gallop, he sent his soldiers out into flanking positions to herd as many of them as possible. As he rode, he sounded his horn twice, replying to the major.