Rare Things for a Rare Life

The Knights of J'shua Book 2

by Tiana Dokerty ©2023

Home | Part 2 | Part 4

Updated 6/11/24

 

Chapter 11

Quorin

Quorin signaled his young cousin, Rhaylth, who gave a nod from his perch in the tree as a coach rumbled around the bend. He backed into the brush, concealed. A meadow surrounded Caswell. They were a mile from the edge of it, in the forest.

Once Quorin had picked the spot, he’d made Rhaylth fell a tree. Now it lay across the road on the final stretch south from Farr Castle to Caswell. Although not much of a road—barely a path—but the Earl of Caswell’s people used it more and more. And Caswell garrisoned few soldiers.

“Whoa!” the old driver on top roared at the six horses, pulling back on the reins. Leaning, legs stretched, putting everything he had into it. The liveried lad beside him grabbed the reins as well.

The women inside screamed. The horses sensed danger, fighting each other, frantic to break free. Finally, the coach lurched to a stop, the old man and the boy turning their heads side to side, eyes wide, seeking a threat.

With the carriage stopped only a foot from the downed tree, Rhaylth swung on top, pricking the back of the driver’s neck with his sword.

Quorin thought neither the driver nor the lad would be any trouble for Rhaylth. No other coaches could be heard. If there were others, they’d have melted into the woods.

But the man turned and reached for his cousin.

Rhaylth opened the driver’s throat with a flick of his wrist. Then, pointed his blade at the boy, as the dead man’s blood dripped down the carriage.

“Owt! Geyt owt!” Quorin roared in one of his false voices, stepping from the bushes with a loaded crossbow in his hands. He pointed the weapon into the carriage, where the highborn passengers cowered. “Owt! Ay’ll neyt ask ag’in!”

Three trembling young beautiful women, dressed in colorful silk, climbed out of the carriage.

Only one wore bright jewels at her throat and on her fingers. She scowled at her ladies, silencing them. Glaring up at Rhaylth, she then turned her piercing gray eyes on Quorin.

She was confident. She was trouble.

Rhaylth’s attention strayed to the prettiest of the girls. Dark hair, fair skin, a trim waist, and intoxicating curves.

“Please don’t hurt us,” one sobbed.

Quorin scowled.

The gray-eyed lady stated, “Leave now and I promise none shall be sent to hunt you down. Take my jewelry if you must, but leave us be. For I am Parynna  Caswell, and should you place a finger on me or my ladies your deaths are assured.”

The driver’s lad launched himself at the distracted Rhaylth, who raised his sword again.

“Blast!” Quorin grimaced, then took a step back so he could cover the women better. A gurgling sound told him the driver’s assistant was a problem no more.

“Let’s see ’em, all ov ’em,” Rhaylth growled.

“Shet et, Rhaylth. We wuntz thar biden. Thet’z al.”

“Quorin, you drecksa!” the younger man’s accent dropped away. “I told you not to use my name.”

The noblewoman stepped forward, in front of the other ladies, closer to Quorin, who reacted, using the butt of his crossbow to knock her to the ground. Irritated, he kicked her in the head.

Rhaylth got down from the carriage’s roof, advancing on the two women. “Strip. We want the fancy clothes.”

Quorin rolled his eyes, “Geyt en weth et.”

Once almost naked, Rhaylth bound all three, while Quorin ransacked the coach and collected their valuables, ignoring their sobbing.

Both froze at the sound of more horses in the distance.

“Blast! Stop your rutting. Geyt they ‘orses,” Quorin shouted at Rhaylth.

The boy turned to the task with a scowl, his eyes lingering on the naked women.

Quorin pulled tight the string on the sack of booty. He tossed it to a pouting Rhaylth, as they ran away. Once hidden in the trees, they mounted two of the horses.

“Best if we leave Caswell. We’ll sell this in the next town and catch a few more travelers. Then we need to lie low.” Quorin glanced back and frowned. Rhaylth was trailing behind. “Keep up Rhay-Rhay!”

Once far from the trail, they rode north.

The idiot! Or should I be cursing myself? That was a Caswell I injured and he had his way with. Perhaps I should have killed her. Killed all of them. At least that way, there’d be no witnesses.

Damn fool and his lust. If he’d kept his eyes on the carriage drivers, he wouldn’t have needed to kill them.

“Rhaylth, catch up! Those approaching will come upon the carriage at any moment. They’ll not treat us kindly if we’re caught. They could even…”

…send us to Melazera’s dungeons.

As they followed the Freis River north, they came to a village with a small market. A merchant bought the horses, another the jewels. Quorin pondered on the fate of his reckless cousin for days. Deep in the woods, he stopped, turned, and looked at the youth. He’d just decided Rhaylth would do better on his own, and so would he.

As they neared another village, Quorin surprised his cousin, knocked him out cold, and left him leaning against a tree. If the gods wished the lad to live, he’d do so.

Then he mounted one of the horses they’d kept and turned east. A short ways beyond, he’d stay at a black robe lair he’d been sent to once before. There he’d be safe. The Order protected its own.

I’m not yet done with the Order. They still have riches I can loot.

 

The Warrior

The room was dark, lit only by a few candles and a brazier that glowed red hot. The Warrior threw bits of flesh into it, offerings from the six local heathens. They bowed before an altar, seeking his blessing. He and the demon remained in the unseen realm.

The heathens chanted their repetitious prayers as one of them cut another small animal into chunks on the altar.

“Where have you been? I have been waiting for you for over an hour.” The Warrior touched the forehead of each of his worshippers. Each fell to the ground, lying in bliss. “Did you finish your tasks?”

“Yes, my Lord.” The demon cowered, hiding from the dark angel’s scowl. “Caileagh Melazera was late. However, I have relayed your wishes to her in visions and I checked on all my other hosts in Farr. Following a girl that met with Caileagh, I came to Caswell. There I encouraged one of my black-robe hosts to rob her carriage. He harmed the girl so now Caileagh can help her. The man called Quorin blames his cousin for his rashness.”

Still scowling, the Warrior paced. “I suppose your tardiness was productive, so I’ll let it go unpunished this time. Return to Caileagh Melazera so that she remains focused on her tasks, but get her to Caswell to follow up on your new endeavor.”

The demon bobbed lower and lower as he backed away, then scurried out of sight as a lesser angel strode into the room. “Great one, we have another rite to attend. They gather in Fairness Crossing.”

“I know, Panther. My followers grow.” His rattlesnake smile spread wide. “Let’s see what treats they have brought me.”

 

Chapter 12

Gaelib

Gaelib Melazera nodded, his face impassive as he stood before the now empty throne. If he allowed the slightest expression, he would scream. Despite moons of planning, and the character assassination of a duke who’d refused to be bought, everything should still have fallen into place.

There had been contingency plans upon contingency plans. Royal courtiers had been swayed. Their wives and mistresses had been bribed with lands, baden, or gems. Nobles who opposed the plan had been delayed so they could not sway the arguments put forward with annoying, irrelevant things like facts. And even the draft legislation had been written in such a manner that, only if interpreted in a particular way, could it be seen as anything but benevolent.

Even King Edal had nodded where he should have. He’d frowned when a clause, inserted only so it could be struck off, was read aloud. He had then ordered each of those deleted. He had praised the work that had gone into constructing the new law.

And when the king had risen from his throne and strode forward to put his royal sigil on it, he had lifted the scroll so all could admire it… then tossed it into the fire.

“This is unnecessary, our current law covers these situations already,” King Edal said as he sat again on the throne.

Gaelib wanted to kill someone. Preferably very slowly, over many hours, savoring every whimper, moan, and syllable of muffled begging. He wanted to do so to someone special. Someone that could be missed. Someone who, if traced back to Gaelib, would ruin everything. Yes, he wanted that so badly he ached for it. He needed to demonstrate that, with the Warrior’s support, he was invincible.

Momentarily distracted by his violent fantasy, he did not hear King Edal’s question, only to be nudged by one of his underlings who eyes urgently motioned to the monarch. “I am sorry, Your Majesty, I was considering the implications on the nation’s finances as you have, so wisely, chosen not to implement the proposed law.”

“While We appreciate your grasp of such intricacies, Royal Steward, We require your attention remain in the here and now. Calculations are to be done when the Royal Court is not in session.”

“I beg your pardon, Your Majesty.” Gaelib bowed low, hating every moment of pretense, but knowing that soon – very soon – he would sit on that throne. Then he – as king – would be the only person permitted to sit in that chamber.

“Rise,” King Edal instructed, “We asked you for the latest expenditures on the army and the breakdowns of the costs, fort by fort.”

“Of course, Your Majesty. I have them right here.” He handed three scrolls to a herald who conveyed them to the monarch.

King Edal signaled the Senior Herald, who announced, “The Royal Court is in recess. Go now and do your best for king and country!”

Gaelib and his coterie of minions, scribes, and runners all bowed. As did the rest of the courtiers, nobles and others who had been permitted to attend. Even though his rank always placed him in front, he made it a point not to rise until all those within his peripheral vision had done so. Once they were standing, he was assured that King Edal had left. Apart from which, always being the last to rise had been commented upon many times, praising him for his devotion to the king.

If that was what the fools wanted to believe, so much the better.

After having scribbled a note to be delivered to one of his agents, a supposedly deaf man whom he had taken pity on, he and his entourage left the Great Hall. Again, and for the same reasons, he made sure to be the last to do so.

The walk back to his offices, which was more of a parade with Gaelib as its centerpiece, took a quarter of an hour. He had been offered rooms closer to the Great Hall, but refused saying they should be kept for visiting dignitaries. In truth, the further away the better. It reduced the number of people who dropped in unexpectedly. And it gave him ample warning of those who did.

Fifteen more minutes passed. Time Gaelib spent instructing scribes to order and duplicate notes, sending runners to obtain answers the king had requested, and ensuring that the original documents were handled with appropriate care. Only two scribes had had their fingers broken to set an example of what not to do. Neither had been particularly careless, but he needed to vent. And it was not as if the digits were broken so they could never write again. That punishment was only for truly outstanding misbehavior.

Once assured that things could run safely without him closely supervising them, Gaelib withdrew into his private office, locking the thick reinforced door behind him.

The ‘deaf’ man was already there.

“How did King Edal know?” Gaelib demanded. “What tipped him off?”

“If you will forgive me,” the man removed his wig and the fake ruined ears that caused ordinary people to give him a wide berth or ignore him entirely, “I did warn you there was a risk of King Edal spotting your intentions if you tried to get this passed as a single law.”

“I do not forgive.” The Royal Steward’s hand toyed with the dagger thrust through his belt. “And passing it in three parts could have taken two years or more. How else can this be done?”

“For it to be unassailable, short of the king repealing it? It cannot. Nor can we risk passing this in three parts as I suggested. No, we cannot go anywhere near this law for at least a year, perhaps three.”

“That is unacceptable! You forget who you are talking to. I am Gaelib Melazera, Lord of Lorness and Royal Steward. Nothing is beyond me.”

The deaf man stood. “I shall see myself out the backway. Or, do you want to lose the river of gold being diverted from the Lockes? Even you do not have enough baden, oh Lord of Lorness, to oust a king on your own. What is the matter with you? You are Lorness’ Earl. Why not call yourself that? Or, is it that your family is stinging from Locke’s elevation to Duke… three generations ago? Perhaps those I represent should find another puppet. You…” The man clutched at his throat as blood spurted through his fingers.

His legs gave out.

The gurgling sounds of him drowning in his own blood sent Gaelib’s spirit soaring.

Yes!

This was exactly what he needed! With the Warrior on his side, he did not require the petty assistance of men. Nor did he need their so-called rivers of gold.

The fool had no idea that Gaelib had already diverted royal funds into all sorts of charitable ventures and good works for the people. Efforts that did build some of the houses, roads, and warehouses it was intended to fund. But at enormously inflated prices.

If the matter was ever discovered, he had only to point to his ledgers. They had dispensed the coin as per the king’s command. It was not his job to see that the builders, carpenters, and thatchers did their jobs. However, he did have records of who the baden was given to. All of whom were people that Gaelib would never miss.

Better yet, under the Royal Rules covering such things, all their property could be seized by the Crown and sold off to recover what they could. That other agents of his would buy the land below market price was, again, not Gaelib’s fault.

No, the loss of some southern fools who had provided him baden was no loss at all.

However, the dying fool at his feet might have had a point. Without the laws he had been counting on, speeding up his preparations was out of the question. No, he would have to be patient for a while longer.

But not too much longer.

Of course, there was a bolder, more direct path to obtaining the throne. Prince Sagen was not yet fit to rule. Something King Edal had whispered to him late at night more than once.

What if…?

What if King Edal’s death was not due to old age? He was already of advanced years, but showed no sign of slowing yet. That the monarch had spotted the trap in the new law proved that.

Perhaps a slow acting poison? Caileagh had whispered of such things. Something to make the king’s health fail. It happened.

Even Gaelib’s own father’s death had been somewhat sudden. Pains that had consumed him, eaten him alive from within. It had been intoxicating to watch. Whether natural or induced, it was a better death than the ungrateful old man had deserved. And, it had delivered the Earldom of Lorness into Gaelib’s hands.

Or, what about something altogether more savage?

Walking over to the cabinet, he poured himself something strong, red, and sweet. Made for him by his loving wife, it gave him the most intense visions. Moving his chair so he could watch the last glimmer of life depart his former-ally’s body, he sipped.

What?

He stared off in the distance, swirling his wine. A sudden surge caused him to gasp and brought a word from the Warrior.

Send Caileagh to Caswell with an appropriate letter to your friend Drake.

The day was improving.

I do love a puzzle.

 

Chapter 13

Parynna

Parynna’s eyes fluttered, but would not open. She winced at the pain. She shivered.

She was naked.

A drip crept down her cheek.

Was she bleeding?

An abdominal cramp blotted out everything else.

Something warm covered her. She was being carried by… she didn’t care. Women walked beside her whispering soothing words. It required too much effort to make them out. Just as it required too much effort to open her eyes. Unconsciousness claimed her again.

But her sleep was not dreamless. She floated.

Inside the carriage, just as she should be, she held court, speaking of the wonderful changes they would bring to Caswell once they returned. The orphans roaming the streets today would have food, clothing, and be taught a useful profession. They would improve the young lives that would otherwise end in despair.

The coach drivers roared, cursing at the horses to stop. Thrown from her seat with a lurch, the conveyance stopped far too abruptly. Muddled amid a pile of femininity, one under her, one atop, she pushed at them clambering out. The carriage door flung open.

A man with a crossbow was framed by it. “Out! Geyt-out!”

Frozen in fear, she did not move. No one moved.

The women screamed as a thick red drop splattered on the  pristine white upholstery.

Another.

A third.

The man carrying the crossbow snapped, “Geyt-out.”

Horses nibbled on the leaves of a downed tree that lay across the road. A second man, younger, perhaps still a stripling lad, stood on the carriage roof. His dripping sword pointed at the assistant. The driver’s tunic and trousers were drenched in blood that ran down the side of the coach.

Where is the luggage wagon, the servants?

“Let’s see ’em nekid, all ov ’em,” the younger one atop the carriage barked.

“Shet et. We wuntz thar biden and jewls. Thet’z al.”

“You drecksa! We want the fancy clothes too.” the younger man’s language changed, becoming clear.

That was the moment. Right then, it had come to her that these were not uneducated men. They merely pretended, so they could be reasoned with. She’d known it for a fact, so she had stepped forward, facing the older of the assailants. She said something, but he slammed the crossbow into her belly.

She could not remember what had happened next. Just flashes—a weight upon her, foul breath, and grunting. She was naked. Pain robbed her of breath. She’d clutched at her unborn child, fear lancing through her.

Parynna groaned. Someone forced a cup to her lips.

Finally, her eyes opened. She was in the infirmary at Caswell. All three healers from the town turned towards her. Behind them, Drake’s face was long, exhausted, his clothes rumpled. He seemed unsteady on his feet. He leaned on another man.

Drake moved to her and squeezed her tight.

She cringed and pushed him away.

“No!” she croaked.

“It might be easier,” Drake’s friend began, forcing him out the door, leading her husband away as if he had no will of his own.

If Parynna heard the rest of what was said, it was lost. She clutched the blanket tightly and hid her face as the three healers approached, each with a solemn expression. “What is it? What happened?” she demanded.

“Countess, you have been unconscious for over a week,” the most respected began, as the other two edged away. “On your way back from Lorness, highwaymen waylaid your carriage. Your driver and his assistant were killed. The servants’ wagon following you was delayed by a wheel caught in a hole. The luggage boy rode for help. If he had not done so, we would not have found you in time to save… your life.”

“What are you saying? Tell me what happened.”

“Although the accounts vary, once they forced you from the carriage, you bravely stood up to them. Sadly, these were rough dangerous men who beat you unconscious. They—”

“My face!” Parynna’s hands leapt up to check for scars, wounds or disfigurements. Her hair was matted, her fingers came away with blood, but except for some swelling everything was as it should be.

The healer took a half-step closer. “There will be no permanent marks. Your beauty is untouched.”

Parynna grit her teeth.

Beauty? I have always been plain.

“Continue. What did they do?”

“They required each of the women with you to remove their clothes. And all of yours. They bound each of you.”

“Are any of the ladies dead?”

“No, although as they were unmarried, their situations are… awkward. Messages were sent out urgently, once your servants returned with you. A reward has been offered. A lad is being questioned and may, or may not, have anything to do with your assault. He was found walking on the road to the castle.”

“What are you not telling me?” Parynna demanded.

The doors pushed open and Caileagh Melazera to strode in. “I came as soon as I heard. My dear girl, you must be distraught.”

The Countess of Lorness sent every man and servant scurrying out of the room with only a glance. One of Caileagh’s ladies-in-waiting closed the door from the outside. “How far did they get?”

“That I was stripped of my clothes, so were my companions, that the luggage boy went for help, and there is a lad in custody. But he is not likely to be guilty of this. I can feel that I lost the child.”

Caileagh sat smoothing out her gown. “Dear Drake is a wreck, blaming himself for not sending an appropriate armed escort.

Parynna looked away. “I’ve been defiled.”

“Yes, my dear. It will take time before Drake can look at you the same way again.”

Caileagh took her hand.

“He is willing to do anything to see you recover, so you must return to Lorness with me. Everyone knows the skill of the healers in Lorness. I will take care of you. I have wisdom in these things.”

Parynna nodded, tears in her eyes. “I think that would be best.”

“You will both need time.”

Drake would never forgive her for losing their child. He would never love her again. “Will you tell Drake that I want to go with you.” Parynna wailed, thinking of her ruined marriage.

Drake forced the door open, only to be confronted with Caileagh who hissed at him, “She knows. You must leave. A guard must be posted preventing any man from entering until I tell you it is safe to do so. She is weak. Any shock could kill her. Send me your best female healer.”

“We have none. They are all men.”

“That will not do. I have had women trained in Lorness. Sending for one will take too long. If only I had thought to bring one with me.”

Drake stepped closer. “Then take her to Lorness. I insist. I want whatever is best for her. I…” He turned toward Parynna, but took only one step, then strode out the door.

Caileagh gently closed it behind him.

Parynna’s head rose cautiously. “Drake…?”

“He wants the best for you, so insists I take you to Lorness. Do not try to get out of bed, or even stand. Your wounds are serious and, it is true, it would not take much to bring about your death. Therefore, as your dear friend, allow me to coordinate everything.”

 

Chapter 14 - 1362

Blackhawk

Blackhawk rubbed the only coin he had left between his fingers as he walked slowly back to camp. His friends had won all his money again. His lips quirked. He’d been careful that his only losing streak was not on the night of the fire. Still, he’d won more than he lost. Life at High Keep was peaceful.

The day had been quiet, uneventful. His evening meal had been hot. He’d had drinks with friends. It had been a good night for recently promoted Major Stephen Blackhawk.

In the moons since Karl Fortuch’s demotion, things had been quiet. There had been no random acts attempting to disturb him. There had been no reprisals from Fortuch’s allies or followers. It seemed as if the former-lieutenant’s demotion had also cost him his connections and influence.

Blackhawk’s training of his men was making good progress.

Perhaps it was too peaceful.

He had become complacent and let down his guard. Otherwise, the men who ambushed him just now would never have caught him by surprise. Not after the upbringing he’d had due to Gaelib Melazera, who periodically had him ambushed and beaten.

Forced to his knees with a man holding each of his arms out horizontally as they pushed down on his shoulders, Blackhawk struggled against them. But it was mostly for show. This was not a mugging or a robbery. Neither would have put him in such a predicament. No, either they would have surrounded him with their swords drawn or simply knocked him out with a blow to the back of the head.

Therefore, this was something else.

The question was, what?

While the two men held him, the third strutted back and forth, toying with a dagger, supposedly to make himself seem more dangerous. Dressed in a dark-colored hooded cloak, he looked more like a bookkeeping Black Robe than a highwayman.

Blackhawk replayed what had happened. Two men reeled out of a tavern in front of him. Both stank of drink and other less wholesome substances. He’d changed direction, turning right to walk around them. Something slammed into the back of his left knee, dropping him to the ground, and rolling him towards the two ‘drunks’ who’d dived onto him. Dazed, he’d been dragged a short distance into a side alley, then into a dead end, hidden from prying eyes. Then he’d been forced up onto his knees.

No, there were no clues as to who his attackers were, other than they were too well trained to be random street thieves.

After yet another bout of pacing back and forth, the third man spoke. “You think yourself so clever, but you aren’t. You are a fool, Major Blackhawk. Was it a coincidence that your endless winning streak broke on the night of the fire? I don’t think so.”

“More like you don’t think,” Blackhawk wisecracked.

The man stepped close and slapped the major across the face.

It was a weak blow, further weakened by Blackhawk relaxing and letting his head move with the open hand that struck him.

“You speak when I tell you. Only when I tell you.”

Blackhawk moved his jaw from side to side, but did not respond. Nor did he glare back at the man. He showed no outward defiance. He let his head loll just a little lower, as if the blow had affected him. It had not. Caileagh hit harder, much harder.

“What you fail to understand is that actions have consequences. You embarrassed and disgraced a friend of ours. Worse, you ruined a beautiful deal we had going so that not only did he lose money, we did too.”

Blackhawk worked his jaw again and spat out a gob of bloody phlegm.

“Answer me! Don’t you have anything to say?” the third man demanded.

Raising his head slightly, Blackhawk responded, “Make your mind up. Do you want me to speak or stay silent?”

“Hurt him.”

Both men gripping his shoulders pushed down. But the man – lad – on the left was not strong enough to do so with any force. Thus, Blackhawk’s only problem was the man to his right.

The boy holding his left arm was not good at this. Blackhawk’s hand should have been well clear of his attacker’s body. It was not. Twisting his left hand, Stephen got hold of the lad’s tunic, let his left knee slide out from under him, causing the youngster and himself to lurch toward the ground.

The boy let go, as expected.

Blackhawk twisted his body clockwise. His now-freed hand lashed out, slamming into the throat  of the man holding his other arm.

That man let go. Both of his hands clutching at his throat as he struggled to breathe.

Blackhawk snatched the knife from the man’s belt – his captor’s had been sensible enough to disarm him – and stabbed him in the belly, twisting upwards until…

The man collapsed. He would soon be dead.

Blackhawk lunged after the boy, who was just standing up, having fallen face-first into the dirt. A single blow to his jaw knocked the lad unconscious.

Rising to his feet, Blackhawk stalked toward the third man, whose eyes were wide as he backed away.

“My sword, dagger, money and anything else you took off me,” Stephen demanded.

“I… how did you…?” The man turned, moving toward the corner, to get back onto the street. He was not fast enough. As he began to run, his cloak trailed out behind him.

Blackhawk grabbed its hem and pulled, hard.

The cheap cloth ripped, but not before choking the escaping man, and landing him on his backside.

The would-be thief was a big man, but not in good shape. He flailed ineffectually as Blackhawk broke one of his collarbones with a single strike.

“My things, or I leave you without use of both arms.”

The man fumbled at the belt around his waist to which Blackhawk’s weapon and coin purse were attached. “Take them.”

“One more thing,” Blackhawk leaned in close. “Who is your friend?”

“I can’t. He’ll kill me.”

“What makes you think I won’t? You saw me take down both your men without effort. Neither will ever bother me again.”

“I can’t! You might kill me. He will.”

“Tell Karl Fortuch I said ‘hello’ and while you’re doing that, let him know that if there is ever another attempt on my life, I will keep just enough of them alive to prove it in court.” Blackhawk released the man. “Get out of here.”

The man ran off.

Blackhawk picked up his belongings. The thief’s belt was fancy. Custom made. And he knew who made those belt buckles. Therefore, it should be easy to identify his attacker, then deal with Fortuch once and for all.

Of course, there was also the boy. He wondered just how quickly the lad would sing before Commander Taelor. However, as he turned back into the dead end, Blackhawk saw the youth’s boots disappear across the rooftop.

That still left the dead man, and a ruined evening.

Grabbing the man’s ankle, Blackhawk dragged him back to the road. Flagging down someone on duty required no effort. But the hours consumed dealing with the body, informing Commander Taelor, and the questions that followed, took up many hours.

Nor did the investigations over the following days lead anywhere conclusive. The dead thug was known as low-end muscle-for-hire. The belt and the buckle were custom made, but they were part of an order of thirteen identical belts made for members of the Black Robe who had been assigned locally. At least four of which had been reported stolen.

Yet, Blackhawk did find one clue that he did not report. The likeness of the third man posted in the herald station. His name was Quorin, and he was known to run with a youngster not yet fully grown.

As unfounded allegations would hurt everyone’s reputations, even Blackhawk’s, he let the matter drop. But he kept an eye out for that pair, and twice thought he’d spotted them, but too far away to do anything.

More importantly, he went back to being alert at all times. Letting down his guard had been a mistake that he vowed not to repeat.

 

Chapter 15

David

[Ages- Sarah 15   David 18   BH 25   J,Sg,Dr, Ga 37]

Finally after a moon, David was preparing for his escape. His fellow knights, Kanden, and Martok, would meet him at the Border Inn before returning to the school. This was the last clan meeting he would facilitate. David threw back the thick fur with a huff. The bear hide covering the doorway kept in the warmth of the council hut. The Mestel Chief, Draven Bjorn, and the seven other chieftains had talked on and on for a moon, each one proclaiming their complaints and solutions for the attacks from Freislicht. He wasn’t sure if he’d convinced them to heed the letter from Daikon Crispus.

They’d been arguing for hours. Some urged for war. Others offered ways to answer each offense from David’s countrymen. The young knight considered all their words as their hard eyes studied him. He must give a full report to Daikon Crispus when he returned to Shining Mountain.

My first mission. Words and more words, the same words, and so much sitting. Complete torture.

 

***

After many weeks of travel and drawn-out councils like this all along the border, David was finally back in the western hills of Freislicht. His heart ached as he descended the hill, approaching a cluster of hastily built lean-tos. Underdressed children played with rocks. Old women carried bundles of roots and herbs to a boiling kettle. In the midst of a crowd of gray and disheveled refugees, settlers of the western-most borderlands, one woman stood in a bright green shawl, handing out thick blankets.

Now close enough to see her better, he watched, nudging his horse into a trot. She brushed away hair from an old woman’s face and pointed to another dishing out soup into tin cups. The long ragged line snaked through the hovels.

To answer the rumors of Mestel raids some nobles had sent soldiers. But the Mestels, a resilient and migratory people, merely withdrew into the woods and moved up into the forest of their highlands. But when some of their clans did retaliate, it was the common folk of Freislicht that were attacked, not the high-minded nobles.

A large troop, at least fifty soldiers, came down from the northern ridges, most likely from Mestelina. Their Captain arrived ahead of them. He dismounted and pushed through the disheveled women and children. David sensed this would bring trouble. He dropped lightly to the ground and led his horse, determined to remain non-threatening.

“Feed my men, woman,” the captain demanded. “We’ve had a hard ride and fought more than one battle.”

“Yes, sir, J’shua will provide, have your men join the queue.”

The soldiers dismounted, grumbling and shouting as they hobbled horses, and adjusted their weapons.

“No, my men will eat now.”

With hands on her hips, this fascinating girl – for David could now see that she was young – stood face to face with the squat captain as she pointed to the unfortunates behind her. “Some of these have had no food for weeks. Please sir, your soldiers are well-dressed and, it seems, well-fed. Perhaps they could help dispense—”

The soldier pulled his sword, pointing it at her. Every refugee distanced themselves from the threat, creating a circle around her like an opening flower. She went down on her knees, then touched the blade with her praying hands.

David walked briskly toward her, praying in the spirit. With no thought of what he’d do or say, he began, “Good day, Captain. Welcome back to Freislicht. We’d gladly offer this vegetable pottage, but it is very thin and not the sort of fare you’re used to.” He forced a smile to his face, continuing cheerily, “I passed the Border Inn only a mile south of here. The aroma of hearty mutton and sweet potatoes made my stomach growl. If I had not been in such a hurry, I would have certainly eaten there.”

The officer retracted the sword and studied David, who continued, “They have adequate staff to meet your needs quickly. I have at times seen soldiers encamped near it, with their officers housed in its ample rooms upstairs.”

“Thank you, young man, for the recommendation. We were forced to return to resupply.”

“They also have a store. Perhaps they’ll have what you need.”

Eying his navy-blue cloak and the sword on his hip, the officer asked as he scanned the surroundings, probably for more potential combatants.

“You are a Knight of J’shua?”

David bowed. “Yes, sir.”

“Are you with them?”

“Yes, sir, I’ve just arrived to help.” David remained still, seeking to avoid violence.

The captain scowled, his eyes glancing at David’s sheathed sword, then muttered, “Good day to you.” Replacing his blade, the captain turned, then signaled his lieutenant. “We ride south to where there’s food fit for us.” With more grumbling and complaints, the men remounted and rode away.

The maid looked up, tears in her eyes. “The God of Truth bless you, sir.” She inhaled a shaky breath. “My name is Cynthia Gardonet.”

His gaze lingered on her light brown hair and eyes that sparked with apprehension and curiosity. “My name is David.” He almost never added his last name because mentioning it brought his notorious father to mind along with a variety of reactions, much to the consternation of both. “I seek refuge for the night. Would I be welcome?”

The others in her group drew closer. An older man with a weathered face and a solemn demeanor, stepped forward, having returned from the forest with an armful of firewood. “Hail, traveler,” he called out, his voice carrying the weight of authority. “Thank you for interceding for my daughter.” The man smiled fondly at the maiden. “What brings a young Knight of J’shua here?”

“I am returning from my first mission into Mestelina.”

Cynthia gasped. “Your first mission was into Mestelina. Alone?” Her eyes went wide and then she looked down. “Forgive me sir. I overstep.”

David chuckled. “Not at all. It would be crazy if the rumors were true. But the knights have long traveled in Mestelina. For some of us, it is safer than Freislicht.” He thought of his father.

“Oh. According to that officer, there is much fighting.” She glanced at her father.

“I heard him as I came out of the woods,” he assured her.

“Only if they had attacked a Mestel clan. The clans will defend themselves.”

Her father smirked, showing his agreement with the sentiment.

David twisted his foot in the dirt, looking for his next words. “I heard that refugees were gathered nearby. I thought it prudent to pay my respects and seek respite from the road.”

The older man nodded. “You are welcome to share our camp,” he said, gesturing toward those  warming their hands before a dancing fire. “I am Gregan Gardonet, and these are my companions.” He pointed to the two men that had just dropped more wood near the fire. “And this is my daughter, Cynthia.” He pointed to the young woman, who blushed and looked up at David from under her lashes as her father gave her a stern look.

David bowed. “I am David Otual.” He wasn’t sure why he told him his surname but the man did not react.

“Thank you for interceding with the soldiers. You handled that skillfully. My daughter can be a bit dramatic at times. But J’shua has always blessed her actions. Join us for supper. We have provisions enough.”

“I would be honored,” David replied, his voice carrying relief for he was weary. As he followed Gregan towards the campfire, his eyes briefly met Cynthia’s once more. His breath caught. In that fleeting moment, a warmth passed between them.

Gregan cleared his throat. “We were sent by our lord, the Duke of Lexandria to bring provisions to the refugees. And if I find any of his nieces, I am to bring them home if they wish it.”

“His nieces?”

“Young people.” Gregan shrugged. “Three of his sister’s daughters have married and settled in the borderlands. Their husbands are untitled, so they sought the deeds the king has offered for settling here. But since so many have been uprooted from their homes, we don’t know where they to find them.”

 

Home | Part 2 | Part 4