Chapter 41: Reversals – 160 AK, Early Spring
Ephesians 4:22-24 You are to have put off, concerning the former way of life, the old man, which is being corrupted according to its desires of deceit, And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.
Lorness Castle, Secret Passages
David and the twenty-eight knights accompanying him were guided by the still, small voice along corridors, passageways, and tunnels that led deeper and deeper into the earth. At times, they were directed to ornaments – hooks, torch holders, and so on – that hid controls permitting access to well-hidden doors, hatches, and stairs that, otherwise, would have left them at a dead end. On other occasions, sounds of people moving above, below or ahead led them onward.
It neared midnight when a loud voice carried to them, “…don’t care how many of the drecksa die. It’s how much chaos they cause, how many innocents they slaughter. The more, the better. Uh, I don’t know you…” There was the sound of a fist striking home, a grunt of pain, and…
David inched forward, on hands and knees, signaling those following him to stop and remain silent. He emerged onto a balcony overlooking a large wine cellar. The space below was filled by fifty men, all in hooded black robes. Yet, their conversation hadn’t resumed. There was a curious dance beginning. One of the dark figures wove gracefully through the crowd. In his wake, blades appeared. One by one a victim trembled and collapsed gracefully to the floor like puppets whose strings had been cut. Others spun frantically seeking an attacker. Some stabbed the nearest person. Most slashed out wildly at anyone within arm’s reach.
Yet, the strangest thing was that it occurred in near silence, punctuated only by gasps and grunts. After the few survivors fled, David and his knights ventured down to investigate.
The smell hit him first. Not only of spilled blood, refuse, or whatever had been left to rot, but of poison. With great care, he kept his distance to ensure he didn’t cut himself and prevent a still-dying enemy from lashing out.
That one, the guiding voice prompted as his eyes noticed a slim young man in black trying to crawl away into the darkness.
His foot came down on his knife hand. David’s sword tip drew a trickle of blood as it flicked the hood away.
“P-p-plea-s-s-s-e,” the Alexandrian woman’s complexion and accent were almost as shocking as the face David uncovered.
He knew her.
He’d known her for most of his life.
He’d first met her when she’d bought horses from Magistrate Gorum years ago, when he’d been apprenticed.
She was a Locke.
High Castle – Caileagh’s Cell
Caileagh blinked and blinked, but couldn’t focus, seeing only blurs as if looking through a layer of gauze. Her hearing was dull, muffled. She was given water, but her mouth remained parched.
But the worst, most terrifying, most alien thing was the internal silence.
There were no voices within her mind, urging her to do this or that, arguing with each other, exhorting her to do one thing with all their strength, then the next moment do its polar opposite.
“…an… y… ear m…?” the voice made no sense.
“Can… yo… ear me?” it came again, closer but still indistinct.
The sharp pain of being slapped across the face brought one thing into focus. “…ave to do…Myway! …need to do thin… of clan Ush…” an unidentified voice snarled.
Caileagh sat bolt upright, terror driving her.
She thrust her arms out for something to grasp. Her spirits weren’t there. Her consciousness reached for them, for anything.
“Once you accept the ransom of J’shua Ha Mashiach you are wholly owned by him and rest in his love no matter what happens…” The knight’s words rose into her mind.
An elderly woman appeared as her vision cleared, dressed in a midwife’s apron. Her pockets overflowing with fragrant herbs and figs. She encircled Caileagh with strong arms.
Caileagh sank into their embrace… “Please… please… save me from Clan Ush!”
“It’s well,” the midwife consoled. “You are safe. No one here will harm you.”
“It’s safe, Caileagh,” Melyssa echoed, having paused from reciting the Writings.
A dark shadow slipped around a corner and was gone.
“You are safe within the protection of J’shua Ha Mashiach. My name is Kennah. Are you hungry? She offered a juicy fig. Do you need more water?”
Caileagh opened her mouth to speak, but there were no words. The sight of Melyssa sitting in a corner shocked her. She couldn’t help but react to the queen’s infectious smile.
“Can you talk about what you’ve experienced?” Kennah continued. “About what you’ve done? It may help you to speak of it, to make it separate from you, to put those deeds into the past.”
The questions were clear, but came too quickly. She couldn’t grasp them. She almost recognized her thoughts. She could talk… and talking eased things. As did the figs and sweet-but-watered-down wine provided…
Lorness Castle – The Western Barbican
Blackhawk’s horse was lathered in sweat. The seven other riders’ mounts were equally exhausted. Yet they managed to keep a small lead over the navy-cloaked Knights of J’shua pursuing them.
Or, that was the impression he wanted anyone watching to have.
Through twists and turns, they opened their lead slightly until they were momentarily out of sight. Darting into an alleyway, the riders stopped, and Steven checked their prisoner. Otual was alive, if bruised and bloody.
The knights rode past.
Using hand signals, he instructed his men to follow. What had seemed a dead end, contained a walled enclosure halfway down it. Dismounting, Steven opened the doors, looked inside, then smiled. Leading his horse within, he followed the left wall, which turned twice, making it far longer than it appeared from the outside. At its end, was a gateway just tall enough for a riderless horse to pass through. Beyond that, was a courtyard where they remounted.
Otual remained strapped across the group’s ninth horse.
Pushing the gate aside, Blackhawk kneed his stallion into action. It galloped across the short but open space, then skidded to a halt before the castle’s western barbican. “Open!” he commanded, yanking back his cloak’s hood to expose his face. “Open! Or I’ll ensure Duke Gaelib has every man skinned alive!”
A grizzled sergeant’s eyes went wide. The barbican’s outer portcullis rose as he gave orders to his men. “Quickly, quickly! Commander Blackhawk’s squad must be safely inside before we’ve more unwanted visitors.”
In the distance, the sound of galloping horses could be heard approaching.
Steven dismounted, clapping the sergeant on the shoulder. He recognized the man as one of those he’d brought in from High Castle. Encountering one of them so quickly was good fortune he hadn’t counted on. “How did someone of your experience get this godawful posting? Where’s your officer?”
“My lieutenant,” the old-timer grimaced, “is dead drunk. Captain Udara should have returned by now. As for the rest, they’ve all been ordered inside for some… scheme… of his Grace’s.” The sergeant wrinkled his nose, stating everything necessary about such orders. “Things haven’t been good lately. What with knights openly patrolling the streets and rumors that King Sagen has–”
“It’ll be fine,” Blackhawk reassured. “One of my people,” he motioned to a giant in a black cloak, “will remain with you as your new officer. You may have heard of Captain Lendyld? Obey his commands as you would my own.”
“Yes, Commander, sir!” The sergeant’s relief obvious. As was that of all the men stationed at the barbican.
The rest of Blackhawk’s team was escorted inside.
The gate fell back into place moments before mounted Knights of J’shua appeared. They were not foolish enough to try breaching the castle’s defenses. All they could do was ineffectively taunt and yell insults.
When the inner portcullis was raised, Captain Lendyld took command of the barbican, repositioning its small force for maximum effect, and ‘calming’ the sergeant even further.
Servants emerged to take the horses.
One of Blackhawk’s men, a hunched-over figure with dried blood marring his boots, shifted Otual onto his shoulder. All the while, he grumbled about the knight needing to fast, then laughed that beheading would remove enough weight to make the fugitive traitor as light as a feather.
Blackhawk paid the man no attention. He did ensure everyone present got a look at Jonathan, and promised each of them a – small – part of the reward for their assistance. He even took their names.
Thus, no one noticed that his force, which had consisted of eight men and their prisoner, had been reduced by one as they ventured into the castle.
Lorness Castle – The Western Barbican
Captain Edryk Lendyld the Third watched Blackhawk go. “Sergeant, when were your men last fed?”
“Somewhere early in the afternoon, Captain.”
“It’s nearly midnight. I’ll stay here. On my authority, go to the kitchens and have them prepare warm food for…how many men do you have?”
“Twelve, sir. Thirteen including me. Fourteen including our… officer.”
“Have them prepare hot food for twenty. Plus, twenty mugs of ale. One each for your men. The other meals we’ll save for later. I also want cold rations for forty packed as if that number were going on a three-day march. Commandeer as many servants as you need to get it back here promptly. If there is any difficulty, mention my name. If that doesn’t do the trick, mention Commander Blackhawk… and record the name of each buffoon. The commander or I will want to thank them personally later.”
“Yes, Captain, sir!”
“Go. It’s been some time since I ate too.”
Lorness Castle – The Armory
Captain Edryk Lendyld the Second – more accurately, the second of the three brothers who publicly shared that name – moved further into Lorness Castle.
He was concerned by how few people he was encountering. Even this late at night, there should be servants fetching, carrying, cooking, cleaning, and doing the myriad tasks necessary to keep a castle running. Tasks that the ‘gentles’ and ‘noble-born’ didn’t want to witness, like the removal, replacement, and cleaning of chamber pots.
Finding an abandoned black robe to disguise himself had been only marginally more complicated than he’d anticipated.
The first robe was ruined by its former owner’s blood.
The second had too many slashes in it from a sword.
The third would serve.
Why are these dead? Who have they been fighting?
He rounded a corner to find two Black Robes having a hissed argument.
“It’s madness, I tell you. The duke has finally lost it.”
“Keep your voice down,” the other scolded. “Do you want to be rounded up too? It was supposed to be just the dregs from the dungeons. Yet, anyone found not doing the bidding of a senior officer or one of Melazera’s inner circle is being driven into the castle’s depths. I told them I had explicit instructions from Rosewud.”
“They say he’s absconded too. A day, maybe three ago. Last seen headed into the wilderness. Who…?”
Edryk had heard enough. He stepped close to them, reached out and slammed their heads together. They didn’t get up. Grabbing an ankle in each hand, he dragged them out onto the battlements, then tipped them over.
A few minutes later he found what he’d been seeking… sort of.
The castle’s armory was unguarded but, inexplicably, all but bare. There wasn’t a single knife, sword, spear, or crossbow quarrel to be found. The only things remaining were arrowheads, shafts, and fletchings. There wasn’t even a helmet, a gauntlet, or even a gambeson.
What is going on?
Lorness Castle – Knights’ Encampment
Daikon Sylvanus Baxter and Daikon Norin looked at each other. Then they looked at Sir James of the Wood… no, Daikon James… whose eyes were sparkling, whose skin was flushed, and who was holding his temper, despite being asked to tell his concerns for the fourth time.
“Would you repeat that, again, please? I’m missing something,” Daikon Sylvanus asked, mulling over the young daikon’s request… no, demand… as he tried to work out why he felt guided to approve it.
“Our… reflectors,” James held one up, “are a wondrous help during daylight, but useless at night. Yet, I’ve had runners, horsemen and messengers from High Castle and its surrounds coming in since just after sundown. They’re warning me that something is… wrong. Not at High Castle. Near it. I need your support. Most of my knights aren’t mounted. We walk, run, raft and whatever else is required to get where we’re needed. But we can’t move quickly or en masse. I can’t find either Jonathan or Blackhawk. And no one, other than the two of you, is likely to listen to me.”
“Melazera,” Norin added, “is trapped within Lorness Castle.”
“Except…” Sylvanus finally heard the still, small voice whose guidance he had been seeking. “…he… isn’t. Trapped, that is. Long ago, in my grandfather’s time, there were mines along Lord Melazera’s Highway. None were ever as spectacularly profitable as the Duke of Alexandria’s are reputed to be. Still, for several generations, many valuable minerals were dug up there. It was why Lorness initially became wealthy, prestigious, and influential. And why its power expanded so greatly during the reign of Gaelib’s grandfather, Traneib.”
“And…?” James nearly lost his temper.
“And, I have just received guidance that those mines are far more interconnected than anyone other than a Melazera ever suspected. They even pass under the East River. The very first mines were within sight of High Castle.”
“And...?” James prompted again.
“Norin, will you retain command here? I’ll speak to Blackhawk’s deputy and convince him to send a sizeable force toward High Castle at first light. We’re setting out now.”
“What of Licht Gegen and their commanders?” James asked.
“They provide information,” Sylvanus countered. “They’re not a fighting force.”
James laughed. “I think you may have that wrong.”
Vincent Donitoro entered the tent, “Just who I am looking for. Rebekah is rallying our people from here to High Castle. She asks you to send whatever forces you can spare from blockading Lorness Castle to reinforce the king.”
Sylvanus looked from Vincent to Norin to James. “It would seem that I need my ears cleaned out. I should have heeded J’shua’s call more quickly. How well do you ride, James?
“Well enough not to fall off… in daylight,” James grinned.
“Then this should be instructional for both of us. As we go, I need to understand what those reflectors or yours can and can’t do.”
Lorness Castle – Secret Passages
That one was a woman David knew, Fyrna Locke, only a few years older than him. Supporting her head, he gave her water. He had nothing to negate the poison that had entered her body through several cuts, none of which should have been lethal.
“Can you talk?”
“As well as you break horses, David, son of Jonathan.” She forced a weak smile. “I’ve…” she stopped speaking as another spasm of pain lanced through her. “I’ve… Maybe, you should ask questions I can reply to quickly.”
“Why are you… forget that. Are you a Black Robe?”
“No…” she grimaced. “Yes. Work for… father… and Uncle Bradley. Needed to…”
“He needed to know what Melazera was doing. But why send you? Why a woman?”
Her brief chuckle ended with her clutching her sides, hissing in pain. “Forever blind,” she teased. “Even as a boy, you were forever blind when it came to girls. Except for Cynthia. She did well to snare you.”
David bristled, “I courted her.”
“Don’t make me laugh. It hurts too much. Next.”
“What happened here?”
“I… disrupted a group of Black Robes. They’re… distrustful at the best of times. Prick a few. Use a blade dipped in something slow acting… causes hallucination and… and you can wound enough so they’ll attack each other. But the poisons on their knives are deadly.”
“Why stick around?”
“Mistimed…” she coughed up blood. “Miss timed… it.”
David watched, helpless, as she died.
Up, into the castle, find Drake, the still, small voice nudged him into action.
He tried to focus but couldn’t. He allowed others to lead. All he could see was Cynthia’s face overlaid on Fyrna’s dead body. The terrifying image shriveled-up his insides.
He had to act.
This had to end.
He had to get to Drake and find out why his ‘uncle’ had betrayed him, the knights, and everything David cared for.
Worse, had Cynthia been singled out because she was Jonathan’s daughter-in-law?
Worst of all, had Drake known, before it occurred, that Cynthia would be targeted, abused, befouled… raped?
If the answers weren’t good enough, David would deliver long-overdue justice on his wife’s behalf.
He needed justice, as did Cynthia, who had never fully recovered.
He needed someone to pay.
In his most extreme fantasies, David imagined that might be Melazera. In reality, he’d never get close to the Duke of Lorness.
He couldn’t touch Blackhawk, despite wanting to do so with every fiber of his being.
Just as David had, the Commander had removed part of the little finger on his left hand. Yet, unlike David, Blackhawk had accepted the pain as righteous penance in silence, offering not a single word of explanation or regret.
That only left Drake…
Lorness Castle – Inner Castle
Jonathan tried to relax, to stay calm but being manhandled like a sack of wheat by the oversized Captain Lendyld – well, one of them – made remaining focused difficult.
The knots that supposedly held Jon captive were nothing of the sort. He didn’t need the four small blades hidden within his clothes, nor the fifth disguised as an ornament holding his long flowing hair. He could slip free at any time.
Lendyld’s pace altered, he turned sharply into an empty room, turned to confirm no one else was there, then deposited Jonathan on his feet.
“Change of plans,” Blackhawk announced. “Melazera has gone into the castle’s depths. We can’t follow. It’s a maze. Far too easy to trap a small force like ours down there. We have to wait for him to return. By preference, I’d ambush him but, again, it’s too risky.”
Jonathan chuckled. It was a callous sound. Not one he was proud of. “Coming in here was risky.” Yet squeamishness would not serve him or Freislicht. “We have to succeed, whatever the cost. Therefore,” he sighed, “if any of you has the opportunity… kill… Gaelib.”
“While we wait…” Blackhawk pulled a crate into the room’s center and placed a leather chess board on it. “…I am told, Knight of J’shua, that you play.” Then he spilled out wooden pieces from a bag. “Would you indulge me? I suspect it will be daylight before the duke’s return… and that’s still many hours away.”