Chapter 27: Shining Mountain
Jonathan had rested, watched and waited, while remaining beyond bowshot.
Major Blackhawk had not moved for an afternoon and a night, despite eventually recovering his horses, amongst whom was Ruby.
The knight considered withdrawing again. The family would be safe.
Yet Blackhawk was there, just out of reach.
He knew he should withdraw. However, there were enough soldiers at the base of the mountain to make that difficult. Nor could he head upwards as it might lead the soldiers to the cadet knights training there.
What do the young ones think of my actions. Can they understand? Would the daikons approve? Have I indulged my need for vengeance? Or, am I acting as J’shua’s agent? I cannot tell. Nor can I break off.
James gulped as Major Blackhawk stalked over demanding, “Explain this!”
“I…” the young man pretending to be a black-robe tugged at the ropes binding him.
“I was not talking to you, whoever you are. Captain Raynaud?”
“A sentry spotted him bound to a tree. Thought this fellow might be a stalking goat set out by Otual. Instead of reporting it to me, he… uh… fetched this fellow on his own initiative.”
“Why would he do that, Captain?”
“Because he’s the one who’ll will never use his left arm again. He wanted to prove himself still useful. And, if it was a trap, sacrificing himself might save some of us.”
“Oh…” the major’s uttered word was no more than a whisper. “Commend him for his bravery and tell him not to do so again.”
“Yes, sir,” Reynaud acknowledged.
“Now you,” Blackhawk took a menacing step closer, “may explain yourself.”
“I…” James bowed his head. The few moments of respite had given him time to take stock of the soldier’s camp. There’d been thirty of them when they went up the mountain two days ago… or so the daikon had told him. He counted four badly wounded men, one dead, and at least a dozen injured. “I was captured by bounty hunters. I’m Lesser Docent Lambreth of the Order of the Black Robe. I’d been tasked with…”
“With what? My patience is limited. I’ve neither the time nor the inclination to worry about the tribulations of some clerk, whatever their rank.”
“Of course, of course,” James nodded nervously. “I was sent to confirm details about the burning of the Knights’ School. There are reports of new graves, indicating there may have been survivors.”
“No, not that I could see. The burial mounds were all old, but created at different times, in different ways. Some were well crafted. Others were mere stacks of stones.” All of which was true, but had nothing to do with meeting Daikon Crispus to… he pushed that out of his mind. He couldn’t afford to get distracted, or caught. Not if this Blackhawk was truly involved with Gaelib Melazera.
“So how did you end up roped to a tree? Did your captors think so little of you?”
“They spotted someone dressed as a Knight of J’shua. One thought it was Otual… and they didn’t want me to slow them down. That was around midnight. They hadn’t returned when the sun came up and your man,” he raised his still bound hands, “freed me.”
Nor were “they” likely to. The old man told me what I had to do, then lashed out with his staff… to make it look real.
“Can you ride? Do you know horses? Do you know anything of healing?”
“I… ride tolerably well. Horses like me, sometimes. And, no, no more than how to tie a bandage. I’m a scribe, sometimes a messenger, and an investigator on rare occasions. But…”
“What?” Blackhawk snapped, then took a step backwards and breathed in and out slowly. “I’ve troubles enough of my own. I can’t protect you against bounty hunters. I’ve no one to spare.”
“Uh… may I ask a question? Maybe more than one?” James asked softly.
“Are you the Major Steven Blackhawk?”
“And, do you think that the rebel knight Otual is really nearby?”
“He… may… be,” he growled, taking a step closer with each word.
James took a step backward, holding up his bound hands defensively. “Then, I want nothing from you, Major. In fact, I want to get as far from you as I can. You’re not safe to be around.”
Blackhawk blinked. “Wha… no, explain yourself.”
“Surely you know that…”
“Oh… um…” James hesitated yet again. He couldn’t seem too eager. It would make it harder for Blackhawk to accept the tale he’d been told to spin.
“Unless you’d like to be retied to that tree and left behind, spit it out!”
James fidgeted. “Uh… that is… according to rumor, about a year ago the Lord of Lorness had you… deal… carnally… with the wife of a Knight of Joshua.”
“That’s a lie. Nor could it be common knowledge, even if true,” Blackhawk accused.
“It’s more widely known than you might suspect,” James countered gently, taking a step further back, only to bumped into Reynaud.
“So, Otual has found out about this and wants revenge? Is that what you’re telling me?”
Gulping, James shook his head. He had no idea if what he was about to say was true, only that the daikon wanted Blackhawk driven into a frenzy. “No, Major. I’m telling you he wants revenge because you raped his daughter-in-law. The girl’s name was Cynthia Otual.”
Not the reaction I was hoping for. Let’s try again.
“It’s said, in certain circles, his anger is both righteous and holy. That he’s sworn vengeance against you and those who…”
“Who what? I grow tired of your prevaricating. Spit. It. Out.”
“Otual’s wife and daughter were supposedly taken in a debt collection in 144 or 145. Reports vary. They say his wife escaped a very young lieutenant…”
Am I accusing Blackhawk of stealing away Sir Otual’s daughter? Well, it’s what I was told to do… if I couldn’t get a big enough reaction.
“…who’d let them retreat back into their house. A sergeant named Johnsun recently disappeared, with a lot of baden that didn’t belong to him… after making allegations about… you. I don’t know if they’re true. I don’t want to know.”
“You--!” Blackhawk snarled, grabbing James by the throat.
That’s more like it.
“It’s said…” James squeaked, causing the major to loosen his grip, “the sergeant worked for some group that opposes the Melazeras. That he’d been feeding them information for years.”
Blackhawk growled, squeezing harder again.
“Look, I may be putting this together all wrong,” the pretend black-robe gasped.
Blackhawk dropped him.
“But whether or not you were involved, he thinks you raped his son’s wife. I don’t want to be anywhere near you, Major, if even a fraction of that turns out to be more than tavern gossip. I value my life. So, please, untie me and let me go. I’ll gladly take my chances with the bounty hunters rather than sit next to a target like you.”
If that doesn’t work, nothing will.
I hope this insane quest Daikon Crispus required, proves I’m quick-witted enough to become a knight.
What had been said couldn’t be true. It just couldn’t.
Drawing his dagger, Blackhawk cut the man’s bonds. “Get out. If I ever hear you’ve repeated your slanderous statements, I’ll cut out your tongue.”
The might-be docent ran off like a scared rabbit, only to trip a hazard not a hundred and fifty yards from Blackhawk’s camp. The man went down, rose clutching his leg, then limped away.
“Captain Reynaud, we may have a problem.”
“No one would believe those vile tales, sir.”
“I was not worried about that. Our men are loyal. No, I am concerned that Otual may believe them. He has a high price on his head. Who knows what stories someone might spread to provoke him.”
Someone like Gaelib. Blast him.
“Are you suggesting that…” Reynaud paused. “You think Otual will not flee because he may want revenge on you.”
“Something like that, Captain. Recheck the camp’s defenses.”
No, the stories cannot be true. That would mean… It’s not possible. As for the tale about the knight’s son’s wife, it would be just like Gaelib to put a target on my back so Otual would seek me out. Blast him. Blast Cailleagh’s birds and the rumors they spread.
Major Blackhawk checked the final preparations personally. His hands still trembled with rage.
Gaelib put a price on my head. A price that’ll never go away. Even once Otual is captured, some fool may think it virtuous to avenge the rape.
He pushed the thought aside, and tried to send his anger with it. He failed.
Of the five men he’d counted as dead, three still clung to life. They were good men, not just good soldiers. If he could get them off the mountain, one or more might survive.
Is Otual waiting in ambush? Did he hear Gaelib’s story? Did he start the avalanche to kill me? How did this become so complicated?
That word brought back memories and a child’s face. Little Soldier’s image often came to mind unbidden. She was only six when he’d met her. She might be married now. If she still lived. He’d thought he was saving her, but…
His fingers rose to the simple tokens beneath his shirt. She’d made his life more… complicated. She’d also opened his eyes to…
But such thoughts were for windy nights, warm fires, and cold ale.
“Move out,” Blackhawk commanded.
The three not-quite-dead were carried in hammocks between horses. Soldiers guarded each animal’s flanks, as their vanguard widened the too-narrow paths. Another walked between each pair of mounts talking soothingly to them, moving them in unison.
The wounded men who could walk, followed. Those who couldn’t were strapped to a horse’s back. As were the bodies of their dead, except for the two that hadn’t been found. That left Blackhawk a fighting force of seven men, including himself.
Blackhawk looked at the gap between the rocks, knowing it was a trap.
Are you waiting for me on the other side, knight? Or, am I seeing phantoms where there are none?
He growled. The only choice was to go through or backtrack for over an hour. Men might die due to that delay, making it no choice at all. “Wait here. Protect the wounded.”
“Yes, sir.” Their acknowledgment was lackluster. Exhausted was probably fairer.
Cautiously, Blackhawk advanced. There had been a hazard. A nasty thing that would have skewered him – or a horse – multiple times. Its points were coated in dung. If struck, it’d mean a slow death. Using an axe, he destroyed it, then moved into the clearing beyond.
Only the whisper of a sword slicing air gave any warning. Blackhawk barely got his weapon up in time. Even that was only enough to deflect the strike. The burn of the knight’s blade as it cut into his shoulder spurred him to push back.
The knight was off-balance.
Blackhawk drew a dagger. The axe in his right hand lashed out.
Otual parried high, twisting as he did. His being off-balance had been a deception. The knight’s sword swept in toward the major’s shoulder.
Steven brought the knife up, desperate to intercept the strike.
Otual dropped, the flight of his sword reversed to open a long gash in the soldier’s calf, but left him open to a counterattack.
Blackhawk’s axe slashed.
Blood spurted from the knight’s chest. He backed away.
His leg was afire, Blackhawk wouldn’t be able to stand for long.
Jonathan studied his foe, weighing the odds.
Leave, the still, small voice insisted.
The axe had opened a bloody gash on the left side of Jon’s chest. Not an incapacitating wound, if treated quickly. Otherwise, it would drain him.
The growing crimson stain on Blackhawk’s shirt had slowed. The slash on his leg oozed ever more quickly. It might prove fatal. It would prevent pursuit.
Jonathan stepped beyond the major’s ability to lunge, then gave him a courtly bow. His eyes never left his opponent as he backed away. He had no intention of exposing his rear to a thrown axe.
New Moon, Late Spring
The Road to High Castle
Faster! the king’s internal commandment did little. The Royal Coach bounced and rocked over the rough road. Wood strained. Wheels creaked. The driver’s whip cracked. The horses’ sweat was as thick as morning dew.
His escort was doing everything they could to make the trip a swift one.
Yet, he chafed at returning to High Castle by carriage. It was too slow. He’d rather have ridden, not that any member of his guards would have permitted him to do so. Their job was to keep him safe. The protection of a carriage wasn’t something they were going to compromise merely because he wanted to feel the wind in his hair. Or go faster.
With eight horses pulling, the carriage was almost as quick as a horse and rider.
Faster, he willed yet again. I want to believe the comforting words of the daikon Commander Taelor sent, but…
She is so precious, so special. She makes me capable of… more.
How much time have my gambits bought? Three years? Maybe.
Yet, even with the need to study and rearrange the pieces on the board, his mind kept returning to Melyssa. He not only respected her, but had feelings for her. He might even love her. That was a luxury he’d never thought he’d have. His life was dedicated to Freislicht before all else, before love, before wife, before children.
When they finally rolled to a stop within High Castle, he stumbled out of the carriage before rushing inside with as much dignity as he could muster., He quickly changed his clothes and rushed to the Queen’s Rooms. Guards opened the doors before him. Then closed them.
“Oh, Your Majesty!”blubbering women cried toward the curtained bed,
His knees wobbled. The lamenting attendants around her bed broke his heart broke. Stabbing pain consumed him.
He strode to her as ladies-in-waiting turned towards him and scattered.
Melyssa sat up with a yawn and a sleepy smile. “You’re here.”
“H-how?” he spluttered.
She blinked, looking around the familiar room. “I… don’t know.” Melyssa touched her bandaged hand. “A snake bit me. I walked toward the castle.”
Sagen sat on the bed, pulling her close. He kissed her gently, his face wet with tears.
“You really must have more faith,” she teased. Even with brows furrowed in concentration, her eyes twinkled.
“More faith? Is that the best you can come up with?” He laughed. “You’ve had me scared out of my wits for the best part of a week.”
“That long?” She looked surprised. “I remembered the missionary travels of Paul. He was bitten by a viper but was unharmed. I thought it best to feign weakness, perceiving this a deliberate attack. However, as I entered the castle, I felt faint, then a still, small voice said, ‘sleep,’ so I did. I don’t think I had any choice.”
She pulled her knees to her chin. Her blue eyes peeked through blonde lashes. “I had dreams of you, of us. I saw you make Gaelib a duke, saw him crow like a cockerel, and then walk into traps you’d set before him. I saw Colonel Gonnels standing by your side, supporting you, admiring you. And I saw my family, but their features were blurred as if I was looking through tears. Then the same voice said, ‘wake,’ and I was here at High Castle.”
Sagen didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath. “The rumors about your deaths – the Royal Court decided you’d passed six times in the first two days alone – have had me frantic.
Rebekah collapsed into the chair, clutching her chest, her breath coming in gasps. She was not sure why the news had hit so hard, only that it had. After years of following and refollowing the same leads from every direction, she finally had a new clue.
The last villain.
Initially, she’d only known the name of one of the three men who’d come to her parent’s farm so long ago: George Rosewud, Undersecretary to the Lord of Lorness. She, and spies from Licht Gegen, had investigated and learned everything that could be known about him: his habits both good and ill, his friends, and his accomplices. They knew of his fluctuating wealth, gambling debts, blackmail schemes, silent partnerships, taste in women, and other less savory aspects of his nature. They knew of the properties he owned, who owed him money, and who he owed. They knew the out-of-the-way places he liked to go.
Yet, none of it had led her one step closer to Sarah.
After much effort and some spectacularly large bribes, plus covert actions Rebekah wanted no detailed knowledge of, they’d learned the name of the grizzled sergeant that had accompanied Rosewud: Johnsun. However, that old man had proven elusive, having disappeared completely.
No matter the effort expended, they’d not discovered the identity of the boyish-faced lieutenant who completed the trio. There was no record of his involvement on that day in any military payroll, meaning his participation had been covert.
The messenger standing before Rebekah was not yet a man. Tall and thin, he’d yet to begin putting on muscle. His mop of white-blond hair made her think of Jonathan… and the Knights.
How does Daikon Crispus know of Tyrone Beecham? And how did he link him to me? Surely, the lad before me is a senior cadet, close to his completion. It doesn’t matter. All I care about now is Sarah.
“Tell me again,” she instructed, almost forgetting to lower her voice into Tyrone’s.
“Sir, I have been instructed to say only the following words to you.” The lad gulped, placing his hands behind his back and bowing forward slightly. “I am not at liberty to disclose who sent me, but am to return your reply, if there is one.”
“You said that before.”
“As I must every time I deliver the message.”
“Continue,” Rebekah-as-Tyrone commanded, not sure how – or if – she’d reply. First, she had to hear the message again.
“The third has been identified. He still serves within the Royal Army. He is prominent. Very prominent. His heart is that of a slaver: cold, pitiless, and black. Should he become aware of your interest, he will strike with the speed of a hawk.”
Again, she put the pieces together.
Given that ‘prominent’ was used twice, the boy-lieutenant had been promoted to captain and then major. Putting that together with the last words of the remaining sentences…
He’s close to the king. That will make it difficult, and dangerous, to act. Yet…
“Reply with: watch from a distance. Learn all you can. Be invisible.”
“Yes, sir,” the messenger replied, straightening up.
Rebekah reached forward, holding out a fistful of baden. “For your trouble.”
“Thank you very much, sir.”
She had the third name at last.
Sarah, I’m coming!