Lords of Freedom is an exciting new novel including adventure, realistic action, surprising insights, and a touch of romance. Enjoy a new chapter every week.
Lords of Freedom ▪ Chapter 1 ▪ Secret Canyon
After searching for days, he finally found the circle of rocks he had seen in the dream that marked the entrance to the secret canyon. His way was blocked by thick brush and large rocks and hiking into the canyon was difficult. Then there was a turn to the left and the cliffs were no longer gray. Those on the right side were mostly red and those on the left were white with dark speckles. At first, the canyon was parched and dry, but he came to a spot where a stream from above ran into a small rocky hole in the ground and disappeared. From there on up he hiked by the stream until he found a pleasant place to rest on a boulder near a small bubbling waterfall.
He breathed in the smell and beauty of the plants, trees, and stream. With cupped hands, he drank from the creek and delighted in the feel of cold water coursing down his throat. The dream that brought him there flashed through his mind. He seldom had dreams that he could remember and those he did recall seemed to be insignificant. The vivid dream of the hidden canyon with the spring and the stone door was one of the most compelling things he had ever experienced. He was determined to know if the things he had seen actually existed.
In the dream, he’d flown on the back of a sea green dragon over a swatch of barren land that he had previously avoided. The dragon continued to fly over a hidden canyon. Banking upwards on powerful wings, the dragon crested the top of a cliff and landed. From there he had been able to see for miles in all directions, even glimpsing the towers of Merker. This, of course, was impossible (as though a sea green dragon wasn’t) since the city of Merker was leagues away, beyond the distant mountain range to the west.
In the dream, he raised a looking glass to his eye, able then to see and hear the city itself, the streets, the carts and horses, and the people. He’d seen that Duke Grudo had imposed grievous taxes and stringent regulations on the people, which left the honest, common folk in fearful despair. “Merker needs a champion,” the dragon said, and smoke puffed into the air from its nostrils.
All of this reminded Juel of that fateful day when tax collectors stormed his father’s shop. They falsely claimed that his taxes were delinquent and that they were authorized by the duke to confiscate the amount due, plus penalties, from his equipment and inventory. Ravi resisted, claiming he’d paid the tax due and demanding a court hearing.
Things got out of hand partly because one of the guards was an old rival of his father’s, a man who’d competed for his mother’s hand and never set aside his resentment at her rejection. That guard seized on his position, along with the situation at hand to exact revenge, even though Juel’s mother had died several years previous. Two of the guards rushed Ravi with drawn swords. Ravi used his superior sword skills to defend himself while another guard restrained Juel with a knife to his throat. Suddenly, Ravi was run through with a spear from behind by a guard who had been waiting outside.
With his mother dead, and no siblings, uncles, or aunts, the full burden of Ravi’s death fell upon Juel, who was sixteen years old at the time. He was helped by Sergio and Loris, his best friend’s parents. Their son and his friend Cheston had been forced into the king’s army which was at that time marching from the capital city, Cavalon, to crush an uprising in the city of Sagal. Since Cheston’s room was empty, they offered to let him stay there but he declined, electing to stand his ground and stay in the rooms he and his father had shared, above the shop. After burial arrangements were handled, Sergio helped Juel put the shop back in running order, even helping purchase what was needed to continue the business.
It wasn’t long before the tax collectors came calling again, this time demanding an exorbitant merchant fee, recently ordered by the duke, for all businesses dealing in weapons of any sort. If he did not pay the fee the business would be confiscated by the duke. He didn’t have the money to pay the fee and knew that resistance would land him in shackles, or dead.
About that time word came that Cheston had perished in a battle at Sagal. Sergio and Loris were devastated, and Sergio set out at once to claim his son’s remains, to give him a proper burial.
Juel knew the guards would soon return to his shop. In the face of insurmountable odds on the heels of horrific loss, he packed what he could and fled the city, into the vast wilderness to the east.
In his dream, the dragon took flight again, and swooping low, the beast sailed into a narrow canyon with one wall of reddish stone and the other white speckled stone. Passing over a large thorny bramble, the dragon landed near a waterfall and sparkling pool, depositing him near the base of a white cliff.
“Your destiny lies through there.” The dragon’s voice echoed through the canyon; then on thundering wings, it took flight and soared out of view.
Hesitantly Juel moved forward, toward his destiny, as the dragon claimed, wondering what that meant. Three symbols seemed to appear on the cliff wall—symbols he had seen before in the writings of his mentor, Solomon.
Juel had awakened then, sitting up quickly in the predawn light, heart hammering in his chest. He decided to test the dream.
After resuming his hike up the canyon the terrain became even more rugged. Breathing heavily, Juel hurried up the incline. The sun was blazing, and pausing to assess his progress, he drew a hand across his sweaty brow. He was making good time and stopped to drink deeply from his water pouch. He’d had a sense of being watched but had let it fade to the back of his mind. As he continued hiking the feeling of being watched returned so he paused near a grove of trees, shifted the pack on his back, and slowly looked around. The canyon was by no measure quiet: birds and squirrels chirped and chattered in the trees above, water gurgled in the nearby brook while now and then the bushes rustled, disturbed by the passage of some small animal.
He’d been living in these woods for four years now, and had his stalker been human he’d have long since exposed him … unless, of course, it was Solomon. But his old mentor was long gone, perhaps even dead. Juel hadn’t seen him for many moons, since the old guru departed into the sunset one evening, claiming he’d been called on a quest. He’d sent Juel on several quests through the years, but who had commissioned Solomon, and how could that summons have occurred when no one had visited them?
Juel gave his head a quick shake; this was no time for idle pondering. It was an animal tailing him, possibly a large and vicious one. While moving on, making his way through a grove of hardwood trees, he was amazed when an enormous creature bounded out in front of him and sat down. It was a huge black cat, regarding him with keen curiosity.
“So you’re my stalker; that’s just great,” he muttered.
Looking around for a means of escape, he saw there were no trees large enough to climb, yet even if there were, a cat like this one could surely climb right after him. He shuddered, imagining claws fastening into the flesh of his back and tearing him down. The big cat began to lightly pant, its eyes never leaving his.
There had been no animals in the dream, but right there in front of him was a great black cat, its massive head chest high to him, with amber eyes brimming with…intelligence? He gulped in fear and awe as the cat yawned lazily, revealing rows of sharp gleaming teeth. When the cat flexed a paw, he noted long razor claws and gulped again. He might be dead in the next few seconds.
Wanting to get away, but knowing he could not outrun the beast, he maintained eye contact and carefully took a few steps back. The cat made a rumbling growl. He stopped and stood still and the growl ceased. Instead of charging, the cat continued to gaze at him. Stifling panic, he slowly stepped behind a tree. Relieved that the cat did not move or growl, his mind raced to find a way to survive.
Climbing the tree would not save him and the nearby cliff was too steep to ascend. He always carried a hand ax, a long knife, and a short knife, but he knew that close-range weapons were a weak option against such a great beast. He thought about starting a fire but there was not enough dry grass or dead wood nearby. However, the branches on the tree sparked an idea. He grabbed his ax and began cutting and trimming a branch a few spans longer than he was tall. Fearing that the activity might cause the cat to attack he worked as quietly and quickly as he could. The cat slowly walked past him down the canyon and sat down again. The creature seemed to be more curious than agitated. Using a length of cord from his pack he firmly lashed his long knife to the end of the branch completing a formidable spear.
With the cat below him, he could not retreat back down the canyon. Even with the spear, he knew there was little chance of defeating the great cat. He decided to attempt escaping up the canyon and started slowly moving that way clutching his newly made weapon. The cat did not growl or move at first. After he took about ten steps the cat stood and slowly started to follow. He stopped and the cat stopped. He started and stopped several times and so did the cat. It calmly followed him but never came closer. Soon he was hiking at a good pace with the cat always maintaining a safe distance. He began to hope that the great cat might not be interested in eating him.
At a narrow gap in the canyon, he heard a loud, chilling rattle. Coiled up in front of him, blocking the way, was a huge black snake with yellow markings. Its bulging body was stacked in thick, twisting coils. It had a large triangular head that waved in the air as its tail rattled furiously. He was trapped between the snake and the cat, but the cat did not close in.
He held his spear directly in front of the snake’s head. The snake did not strike at the spear but moved its head from side to side continuing to focus on the man. He had encountered many snakes before but no big black ones that rattled. He decided to verify what he was up against. After making sure that the cat had not advanced, he removed his sandal and attached it to the end of the spear. When he poked the sandal near the snake it struck immediately. He withdrew the sandal which had two new parallel bite punctures in the sole with venom dripping out of them. He was pleased that his test had revealed that the snake was poisonous and would strike at something warm.
He was not intimidated because a spear was the perfect weapon for dealing with a snake. After wiping off the venom, he slipped the sandal back on, edging to the point where the snake was within reach of his spear while he remained beyond the range of a strike.
He swung the spear with a quick sideways slashing motion, striking the snake in the head with the blade. Immediately, the snake wrapped its body around its injured head, as he expected it would.
Glancing left to check on the cat, he saw it running forward, but it was not looking at him. He followed the cat’s gaze and was shocked to see another snake coiling up dangerously close to him. As the cat approached, the snake struck at it. With lightning-quick reflexes, the cat jumped back. Trying to reach far enough to bite the retreating cat caused the snake to overextend and flop on the ground. Before it could coil for another strike the man pivoted and cut off its head with the spear. Then he turned back and easily finished off the first snake. The cat looked carefully at the two dead but still wriggling snakes.
The man with the spear and the cat with the claws looked into each other’s eyes. Feelings of respect and trust blossomed. Juel smiled and lowered the spear. The cat sat down and emitted a rumbling purr.
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