A young farm girl undertakes a fantastic and perilous journey in a Medieval like world.
|The Lone Traveler - Chapter Five
Queen Denize watched the massive preparation for war with a sense of dispassionate amusement. All those men running around like frightened chickens in a barnyard, each trying to look more impressive than the other, she thought. She had heard of the peacocks that were still found in the wild and imagined them to resemble the knights and lords in their regal splendor. “Half those popinjays don’t know the faintest bit about being a ruler,” she muttered. “Real men like Rykkon Thoragild were hard to come by and even harder to control.”
Although she had been moderately faithful to the King, had Ser Thoragild been a little more malleable and a bit less loyal, he would be King now instead of George. She knew he would also make a much better ruler. She had often dreamed of being held in his powerful arms and carried to the royal bedroom where all kinds of magic would be performed. She was suddenly awakened from her amatory daydream by the arrival of a page bearing a message on a silver platter. She quickly broke the wax seal and peered at the single word message.
It was a missive from the keeper of the rookery with the word, come. That could only mean that he had received a private message from another rookery master, perhaps the crucial information she had been waiting for. Queen Denize politely dismissed the page and resumed watching the preparations on the large field below. She was anxious to discover the reason for the urgent summons, but she did not want to rush from the balcony after receiving a sudden dispatch. Someone may have noticed and their natural curiosity and gossipy nature would hatch all kinds of speculative and juicy plots. Such insignificant twiddle had been the undoing of powerful monarchs in the past.
After another pensive half hour, she nodded politely to the women of her court who had joined her to review the preparations and quietly left the balcony. As she departed she signaled for them and her Queen’s Guards to stay, indicating with a gesture that she intended to nap. She quickly ascended the stone stairs leading to the rookery. By the time she arrived, she was sweating and cursing the thick gown that had almost tripped her several times. According to the Book of Mysteries, such garments had not hindered the women of olden times.
As soon as she opened the thick oak door, the rookery keeper raised his white eyebrows in greeting. “I have taken the time to decode the message,” he smiled, motioning for her to close and bar the door. He was a thin, short man with a crown of disheveled snow white hair. His dark robe was spattered with bird droppings, which he seemed never to notice and he smelled like one of the dirty messenger birds he attended. Queen Denize had known him all her life and trusted him implicitly. He handed the message to her.
She silently read the missive. It was detailed and confirmed her agreement with Lord Connahe, the Regent of Alataria. He had agreed to all her terms and provided updated information. Prince Robert was safe, healing rapidly and being held in comfort and wanting for nothing. The other news was what she had hoped for. The Emperor of Angalund had approved the marriage of his daughter to her son Robert, which would consolidate her power. The young Emperor, John III, was ecstatic to discover that his long lost daughter was alive and safe and in the care of Lord Connahe. She was also coldly reminded of her part in the secretive plan. She and Lord Connahe both knew that Analia was not the Emperor’s daughter, but, there was no way he could prove that she wasn’t. Too many palms had been greased to back her claim, especially with the girl’s unusual background.
“Wonderful news!” Queen Denize exclaimed. “The most powerful empire in the land has accepted our proposal.” She glanced slyly at the rookery master. “But you already knew that, didn’t you Albair?” He nodded his scruffy head in reply. “If things go as planned, and they will, you will be Lord Albair. How does that sound?”
“I was once a Lord, long before you were born,” he serenely replied. “Your husband’s grandsire robbed me of my title and estates on trumped up charges and gave them to one of his doting cronies. It will be nice to have my name and honor cleared. Do you wish to reply to the message, your Grace?”
“I heard George give the order to those Khelti savages to prevent any birds from leaving the rookery without his permission,” Queen Denize replied. “It is far too dangerous to risk a reply at this time. I will let you know when it is propitious to do so.”
The rookery master unbarred the heavy door and bowed low as she left. With a flourish of her handkerchief, the Queen wiped a piece of bird dropping from his forehead and gently placed a soft kiss on the old man’s balding head. She would have sworn that he blushed as she walked through the door. Old fool, she thought as the heavy door was closed behind her. “Leave no loose ends,” she muttered, reminding herself of her personal vow.
On the way back to her private chambers; Queen Denize noticed an altercation in the hallway leading to the King’s magisterium, where he dispensed royal justice. Three young men, with their hands shackled painfully behind them, were being forced along by the King’s Own. One of them was yelling and cursing the guards and he was quickly and brutally struck, blood spouting from his split lip onto the polished tiles. The youngest man, a boy of no more than six and ten years, appeared to be in a daze. Her curiosity aroused, the Queen followed them into the chamber.
The room was filled to overflowing as she entered, but, as soon as her presence was known, the crowd bowed low and backed off, creating a generous clearing for her to pass. King George was reclining forward on his dragon throne eagerly devouring a large turkey leg, the grease and juices running down into his graying beard. She nodded and smiled at him as she took her place to his left and sat softly down into her own unobtrusive chair. The pig will never fit into his royal armor, she thought, removing her fan from a dress pocket and casually swinging it back and forth.
As the men were callously dragged in front of the King, the Queen noticed that all three were very comely, especially the youngest of the trio. They still wore their standard clothing, indicating that they were not common prisoners and had not long been in the dungeons, but they were obviously from some well to do family. She had no idea what they had done to receive such brutish treatment. As they were thrown to their knees on the hard marble floor, the King’s Counselor, Lord Noragant, stepped forward to read the charges.
“Be it known far and wide that ere the sons, John, Philip, and Pieter, of the late Ser James of Schermon, duly executed for the crime of high treason, his lands, title and fiefdom having been forfeit and confiscated by the crown, his wife and minor children sold into bondage, are henceforth accused of that same treason. What say you?”
The reason for the trial finally flooded into Queen Denize’s memory. This was the happy little family that had owned that adorable small castle snuggled against the mountains in the Province of Donedon, where her friend, Lord Martin Alwaythe ruled. She had taken such a shine to the place that it became obsessive that she obtain it as one of her retreats. It was far enough from the capitol for discreet privacy, yet near enough for a modicum of civilized comfort. In complicity with Lord Alwaythe, she had concocted a treasonous letter which was sent to the King’s rookery and hastily brought to the King’s attention. Ser Schermon had vehemently denied the charges, insisting that he was being falsely charged. In a final but futile effort to clear his name and honor, he had demanded Trial by Combat. Unfortunately, the rogue selected by Lord Alwaythe, at her personal insistence, had been champion of many bouts of honor and quickly defeated and killed the aging Ser Schermon.
So sad, Queen Denize mused. A minstrel or bard could write a moving song or poem about this trial, but of course, none would ever dare. She also suspected that Lord Alwaythe had something to do with the assassination attempt on her son, but she still could not figure out any probable advantage he might gain from doing so. The man was a snake and would bear close scrutiny in the future and she would take due diligence to cover their past actions.
“We declare our innocence, your Royal Majesty,” the eldest of the brothers stated through his split lip. “Our father was no traitor. He served Your Grace with honor and dignity his entire life.”
“And lost his fight of honor thus proving his guilt,” King George brayed, spraying masticated turkey and saliva onto the polished marble floor.
“It was a trap, Your Grace. The man selected to fight against him is well known as the greatest killer in the realm. Our father could never have defeated him.”
“The realm is governed by rules,” King George stated. “Trial by Combat is one of the oldest and most accepted rules in the kingdom. Your father knew what he was doing when he demanded it, and he received his just reward. In accordance with established law and as his immediate heirs, you are deemed guilty of his crime. The punishment for treason is death.”
"What manner of death do you proscribe, Your Highness?” asked the King’s Counselor.
King George thought seriously about their manner of death. In his mind he was still uncertain of Ser Schermon’s guilt. The man had been brave and honest and generous to a fault. He was one of those types of men that reeked of honor. Everything seemed to be too smooth as if this entire event had been carefully planned and orchestrated. However, if he ordered leniency, his subjects would see it as weakness on his part and he could not afford to display even a shadow of weakness, the bastard Lords of the realm would be after his throne in droves.
King George glanced down at the three young men. The eldest held a look of rigid defiance, the middle one an expression of pure anger and hatred, and the youngest was obviously still in a daze. Men like these are the backbone of the kingdom, he thought, but a King’s duty is not always a pleasant one. He looked closer at the youngest.” Good Gods, he’s about the same age as my Robert,” he muttered to himself.
Standing, which was his personal way of administering justice, King George spoke loud enough so the assembled masses in the rear could easily hear him. “The two eldest are to be taken from my royal presence and immediately beheaded,” he roared. “Their heads are to be hung from the castle gate next to their sire with their crime of treason printed beneath them.” He hesitated and glanced down at the youngest of the three. “The youngest will be sold into bondage and the proceeds deposited in the royal treasury.” King George knew he was taking a chance in letting the young man live, someday he may rue his decision, but he’ll be damned if he’d kill an innocent child. He sat back down onto his throne with a look of indignation. His anger was not directed at the three young men but at the greedy lords and schemers who had precipitated this detestable charade.
“So let it be written, so let it be done!” the Chief Counselor barked, motioning for the guards to escort the prisoners away.
Did I notice a weakness in George’s voice? Queen Denize thought. He was a weak fool to allow the boy to live. Stories of vengeful men returning to claim their rightful inheritance, as told by the traveling bards, were extremely popular throughout the kingdom, especially among the street slime and desperate little people. The boy was patently innocent, and very cute, but still a danger, especially to her. She would send her private agent to purchase the boy, that way he would remain under her direct control. Should a mortal accident befall him while attending to his duties, no one would give it a second thought. He may also prove to be useful in other, entertaining ways, she mused.
Pieter found himself absently counting the steps as they were half dragged down the heavily worn stairs into the bright light of the open courtyard. The horror of the trial and impending results had finally opened his eyes. When the King had decreed that his two brothers were to be beheaded and he was to be sold into bondage, he had suddenly snapped out of the stupor that had clouded his thoughts since he had learned of the death of his father. The short conversation he had had with his brothers in the dungeon was slowly resurfacing in his mind. They had vehemently denied any guilt and told him that their father had asked for Trial by Combat as a very last resort. He was far too advanced in age and suffering from crippling back pain and knew he could not defeat a much younger challenger. He had ordered the boys to take the family and seek exile in a foreign land, but their stubborn pride had prevented them. They were certain the King would give them the opportunity to clear their honor. After all, it was King George himself, then young Prince George, who had placed the Golden Crown of Honor on their father’s head, the greatest honor the realm could offer one of its Knights for bravery.
As he glanced up to survey the crowded battlements, he spotted a light flashing on and off; it was either a signal or the sun glancing off the polished helmet of one of the men-at-arms. His curiosity was doused when he noticed two of the dungeons stocky headsmen walk through the main door of the inner keep. Each carried a large single bladed broadax. He was suddenly pulled away from his two brothers and made to sit on the filthy courtyard cobblestones. He watched in terror as each of his brothers was grabbed by stout guards and forced to their knees then their bound arms pulled back forcing their heads down to the rest against the stones. The headsmen grabbed each by the hair of their head and placed a large wooden block under their necks. Tears were flowing down Philip’s face but John remained defiant. “Avenge us!” John yelled, as the broadax came down neatly severing his head from his body.
Without choice, Pieter watched as the bloody heads of his two brothers were tossed into a basket and handed to another headsman whose job it was to securely anchor them on the castle’s main wall hooks. Their headless bodies were still twitching and spouting squirts of blood from their severed necks. He was trembling and crying from anguish and guilt. He knew he could not save his brothers, but he wished he could join them. He had no right to live while they died. The final words of his brother John slowly filtered into his thoughts. ‘Avenge us’, he had stated. A sudden transformation spread across Pieter’s features. He rapidly transitioned from a crying boy to a determined man. He would avenge his father and brothers, he would find his mother and sisters and he would destroy the wicked and corrupt people who had conceived this hideous plot.
Pieter slowly stood and shook the guard’s hands from him. They unexpectedly removed his manacles so he used his dirty sleeve to wipe the tears from his eyes. The daze was gone; fierce determination and resolve flooded his every being. He glanced at the blood stained cobblestones and watched as the headsmen used rope and meat hooks to hook the bodies of his brothers and started dragging them away, leaving long trails of crimson blood on the weathered stones. His guards were preparing an iron neck collar with a chain leash for him.
As he watched, a dark shadow quickly covered part of the courtyard, and then suddenly disappeared. A few moments later, it returned. Pieter glanced up and was surprised to see a large dragon circling over the yard and quickly spiraling down to land near the center. People were scattering in panic. The guards along the battlements were pointing down and yelling something he couldn’t hear. Several guardsmen approached the dragon with halberds but were quickly forced back by a sudden billowing of fire and smoke.
“For God’s sake hurry up, Pieter!” Talina yelled from her saddle on the dragon. “The men-at-arms are running to the guard house for their crossbows.”
Finally recognizing his opportunity, Pieter rushed across the cobblestones and vaulted onto the saddle behind Talina. “Hold tight to my waist,” She instructed, as the dragon lifted quickly into the bright blue sky. As they flew over the battlements the men-at-arms ducked in fear. As soon as they cleared the walls and drew away, a few started using their crossbows but to ill effect. The bolts flew wide or short, striking in the streets below. The guard commander yelled for them to cease firing due to the danger of hitting people cowering below the castle.
Within minutes they were well beyond the marshaling field and flying over thick forest. The cold wind was biting and although Pieter was exhilarated, he had no cloak to keep him warm, and he was still shaken from the recent horrifying events. They continued to fly for what seemed like half an hour or more then landed in a small wooded clearing near the great freshwater sea. Talina had taken them in a circuitous route and landed no more than five miles northeast of the capitol.
As they dismounted, a tall figure ran from the thick underbrush and beckoned for them to follow. Pieter could not identify who it was because the cloak’s hood covered most of his face but the figure was too tall to be a woman, definitely not one of the King’s Dragon Riders. As they punched their way through the tangled underbrush, they finally spotted several figures sitting around a smokeless fire.
“You definitely are in serious need o’ training in woodcraft,” a voice to their right chortled. “You sounded like a three legged ogre during the height o’ mating season. I’d be surprised if someone dinna hear ye way back in the capitol.”
Pieter immediately knew the voice and the man to whom it belonged. They had spent many hours together at the school and in the seedy taverns surrounding the school.
“Sean!” he shouted, rushing over to grasp his friend’s calloused hands. He was at a sudden loss for words. He finally noticed the other figures relaxing around the fire. There were three men and two women, youngsters actually, not much older than himself. From their dress and looks they were all Khelti. He continued to move his eyes until he finally focused on Talina standing quietly to his left.
“Why?” he asked, seeing the exhaustion shadowing her features. “You will be hunted down and killed by your sister riders. All of you will.”
“Why not?” Talina returned. “Anyone with half a brain knows you and your family are innocent of the ridiculous charges of treason. If a friend stands by and does nothing, what kind of friend does that make them? I am only sorry that we could not have saved your brothers but events moved so swiftly we did not have the time. We thought you would at least be given several days in the dungeons. Besides, we Viturians hold no great love for King George and especially that sow bitch he calls his Queen.”
“I’ll second that,” Sean smiled, motioning for Pieter and Talina to join him around the warm fire. “His Royal ass is nae real friend to my people either. We grudgingly accept his money and haggle with him for better terms, but we’d du the same to his enemy if the pickings were better.” He pointed at the warriors around the fire. It was an acceptable fact that the Khelti used women warriors as well as men and thought nothing of it. So long as a person could pass the training and prove themselves capable and reliable, gender was not an issue. That was one reason, among many, that his people thought of them as barbarians.
“This is Arthfael,” Sean pointed at the man to his right on the other side of the fire. “He’s a sly one, so be careful wit your coins. Next is Carrick, he considers himself a bard and a bit of a lady’s man, then Oengus the brute. We call him the brute because of his unusual strength. I swear he can lift a full grown bull and cast it a stone’s throw. The pretty shy lass is Aideen and her lovely sister next to er goes by the name of Etain. They’re bored with all the prancing knights and such and out for a wee bit of adventure.”
It was then that Pieter noticed half a dozen plump birds roasting over the hot coals of the small fire. He suddenly realized he was famished and thirsty. Arthfael noticed his eyes lighten up and reached over and pulled the skewer from the forked poles holding the birds in place. He tested one with the point of his dagger then slid it off and tossed it to Pieter. Pieter juggled the hot roasted bird and finally wrapped it in his shirt tail to cool.
“The King’s Lords ave graciously provided us with our supper,” Arthfael chuckled. “There appears to be no end to these fat messenger birds.”
They ate in silence for a while then Carrick produced a water skin filled with wine. “Aye, and the King’s vintner, unbeknown, provided us with a cask of good wine.”
“Talina, how did you know I would be in the courtyard at the time you rescued me,” Pieter finally asked, after satisfying his immediate hunger.
Talina glanced at Sean before speaking. “We had eyes of our own inside the magisterium and on the battlements. As soon as the King pronounced sentence, a message was passed to the person on the battlements who signaled me with a polished shaving mirror. Three dashes meant that haste was greatly needed. I arrived as fast as I possibly could.” She hung her head with a sorrowful sigh.
“We had a plan to break eu and your brothers out of the dungeon after dark,” Sean cut in. “We did not know at that time that the King would order his punishment to be carried oot immediately after sentencing. We’re very sorry Pieter.”
Pieter glanced around at the seven figures sitting around the small fire. He knew they were downcast at their inability to thwart the King’s injustice, and they sincerely bemoaned the death of his brothers. He realized he had no one left to turn to, his family had been decimated. These few were the only hope had of avenging his loved ones, the only hope he presently had of eventually proving his innocence and clearing his family name and honor.
“It is written in the Great Book of Mysteries, ‘All for one and one for all’, Sean stated. “I propose the eight of us pledge ourselves to that holy vision and swear that we will come ta each other’s aid, anything, anytime, anywhere.”
They stood and raised their hand with the four fingers pointing up and a gap between the ring and middle finger, the sign of the holy wisdom. Sean led the group and as he spoke they repeated his lead. “Thus, the eight o’ us, pledge in holy bond, in accordance with the teachings ordained in the Book o’ Mysteries, ta abide by the rule, all for one and one for all.”
“The nine of us,” Talina interjected. “There is one not present but a necessary member of our group.”
They waited for her to tell them who was missing, then Pieter spoke in her place.
If you would like to read more of Analia's continuing adventures, all chapters have now been posted. Chapter six at: