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. Prior chapters can be found here.
Lords of Freedom—Chapter 11—Honbria 4
An eagle glided over the Merker crowd, interrupting the Duke’s public address with a piercing scream. The Duke stammered, looking up, as did the people gathered before him. Powerful wings flapped, and the eagle soared upwards and out of view.
Hon stared after the mighty bird, thinking suddenly of Juel. He’d fled the city long ago, and all at once he was alive again in her mind, thriving and free in some distant place. Others had left as well recently, enough of them to inspire this latest decree, one that showed just how little liberty those remaining had left.
She snapped back to the present, looking over dutifully. Duke Grudo’s brow was raised at her, both mocking and impatient.
“May I continue?”
His voice was clipped, and she nodded, flushing as she dropped her gaze and took up her quill.
“Thus,” Duke Grudo said, staring down the crowd. “No citizen shall leave the city without a permit of permission, and any granted such a permit are expected to return within the given timeline—to report in at the courthouse. Any violation will bear serious repercussion: a fine at the very least, jail time, and possibly even prison.”
With that he concluded the assembly and turned, offering an arm to his wife. She stood on cue, took his arm and strode alongside him, head held high, off stage to their waiting carriage, flanked by half a dozen guards.
Hon gathered her parchment and quill, standing with the remaining attendants and filing with them off the makeshift stage. It was constructed of wood, standing twelve feet high, with rolling stairs at one end. Once the people disbursed, a few servants would break the stage down and move it out of the square, and back into storage until it was needed again.
The crowd remained silent, watching them all, and Hon cringed. They likely saw her now, as an ally to the Duke, thinking she stood behind him on everything and approved of whatever he did. The murmurs would no doubt start the moment she and the others were out of earshot.
I had my chance just now, she thought, stepping down the stairs. Duke Grudo stopped his address, first for the eagle but then for me—my distraction. If I’d voiced dissent instead of picking up my quill, would some of the people there have backed me up? What if they had? Her heartbeat quickened. What if they hadn’t though? What would have happened, either way?
Someone had to stand up to this; things were getting out of hand. Suddenly she thought again of the eagle, an omen it had been. One person couldn’t solve the problem alone, but if someone tried the rest had to rally. That was what the eagle’s message had been.
Scanning the crowd, she saw her parents and gave a little wave. Her mother flashed a sad smile, but her father merely scowled and shook his head. Despite it all, she was heartened knowing that some of the people in Merker would rally for what was right.
Back at the courthouse, things were in a bustle, with courier after courier dispatching with word of the duke’s decree. Today there’d been several scribes on stage, recording the new law; now the task was, to get the word out.
She turned at the sound of her name to see Annabel, the woman who’d overseen the auditions and who was now her direct supervisor.
“We’re short one courier. Are you up to the task?”
Hon blinked. “Sure. Where do I go?”
“Saddle up a horse from the stables—any you’d like besides the Duke’s white stallion. We’ve got everything covered except the prison, as unlikely an escape route as that place would be. They still need to be informed though, officially.”
Annabel extended a rolled scroll with one hand and reached to take Hon’s parchment with the other. “Yours will be the official copy, kept here in the archives; take this one to the prison warden.”
Hon wasted no time, handing over her parchment and heading out of the courthouse with the other, bound for the stables. Her afternoon now would be spent on horseback, out in the open air, rather than sorting and filing in the dusty basement archives.
She was nearly there when a shadow passed overhead. Looking up, she saw the eagle again, banking in a graceful arc in the sky above. Stopping, she shaded her eyes, watching a moment. When it screeched this time, she felt a thrill, and unbidden Juel came to mind again.
As she entered the stables several of the horses nickered, and stroking the nearest one’s nose, her gaze trailed to the loft above. Suddenly she was twelve years old again, up there studying when three men entered…
She started and quickly closed her book. There’d be trouble if they found her, and she raptly held her breath, easing down, further out of sight.
The men were riled up and arguing—one of them the Duke, all talking at once, which was odd, with his highness on the scene. Clenching her eyes tight, she willed them to leave, promising herself she’d leave right after and never venture back, if only they didn’t notice her.
When she heard the name Ravi and the word blacksmith though, she opened her eyes and listened earnestly. They were talking about Juel’s father.
“Jarod goaded him, Sire, brought up his late wife, and Ravi snapped…”
“If I hadn’t run him through he’d have done the both of us in,” Jarod interrupted.
Duke Grudo raised both hands. “Calm down, both of you. We’ll make this work; I just need to think.”
“Ravi is current on his taxes; we’ve verified that…” the first man ventured.
The Duke silenced him with a glare. “Records can be altered, and Ravi has been…let’s say a thorn in my side. All the other blacksmiths have signed on with the state, but he insists on running his shop independently…”
Duke Grudo began to pace, thinking aloud. “He covered his taxes and fees, and he was popular with the people…putting him out of business hasn’t worked so far. Now he’s out of business though.”
Duke Grudo paused for a snicker. The other two mimicked it, after a beat.
Dirty bootlickers, Hon remembered thinking, horrified that Juel’s father was…dead?
“Stick to the story you first told,” the duke told them at last. “I’ll see to the tax records.”
“He has a son though, sixteen years old and able to run the shop,” Jarod pointed out.
“A boy,” Duke Grudo spat. “He’ll cave to the state within a fortnight; mark my words.”
With that the three left the stables, with Hon undiscovered in the loft, pale and trembling, wondering what it all meant…Hon sucked in a breath at the memory. She’d written everything down, right there, up in the loft. Then, there hadn’t been a chance to reveal it, not really, with Juel’s loss and sorrow foremost on the scene. She’d been a child at the time and hadn’t fully understood what she’d overheard. She recalled now rehearsing to herself what she’d say to her father or to Juel and thinking each time that they’d brush off the tale and that it would make matters worse for Juel.
Only recently, reading back through her early journals, had she realized the full impact of what she’d overheard in the loft: Duke Grudo had unleashed the power of the state on an honest shopkeeper; then when that citizen was killed, he had doctored the facts.
Still, she’d remained silent though. What good will it do now, she’d wondered. It isn’t as though voicing the truth will bring Ravi back—and Juel himself is long gone.
“I’ve got to step up,” she said aloud to a spirited pinto gelding. “Tonight, at supper I’ll tell father and mother. They’ll know what to do.”
The gelding tossed its head, pawing the sawdust in its stall. Hon reached for one of the saddles; this horse was raring to go.
Her mind cleared as she mounted outside the stable and urged the pinto into an easy canter. Back down the road, nearly to the courthouse and then onto a narrower pathway that led off the royal grounds and onto the main boulevard to the prison.
Once on that road, she gave the pinto its head, and the horse accelerated to a smooth gallop. Hon leaned in, brushing her cheek against the pinto’s neck, whispering to him, the way she did riding Dawn. The horse flicked it ears, slowing a bit, likely confused by the gesture. Then, with a toss of its mane it sped up again with a soft whiney. Hon straightened in the saddle with a smile; Dawn liked that too.
Before long the bleak outline of the prison came into view: tall stone and timber walls with a dark, ugly structure rising above from within. It was almost like a clump of boulders, with no visible windows and nothing aesthetic in its design.
As they drew nearer she slowed the pinto to a canter. It was late afternoon now, with the sun blazing above, but despite that Hon shivered. This place promised no comfort and no hope, only punishment and despair. The pinto tossed its head, slowing to a reluctant trot, also leery, it seemed.
“Ho there,” a gruff voice boomed.
Hon reined the pinto to a stop, seeing one of the guards approaching on his own mount.
“I come with a decree from the duke,” she called.
He snorted, wheeling his horse back toward the prison and motioning her to follow. She couldn’t tell whether his derision was aimed at Duke Grudo and yet another decree or her, a young female courier sent to the gates of hell on her own. She snorted back, under her breath and got the pinto trotting again.
“Message from on high,” the guard shouted, prompting the gate to swing open.
She smiled. He was all right.
Inside, as another guard rolled the gate shut, she and the first guard dismounted. He wasn’t all that tall, but he was burly and looked capable, with dark curly hair, a puckered scar on his chin and surprising blue eyes, for one so fierce. Those eyes took her in, and assessed her. Eyes seldom lie, and his reminded her of the honest eyes of the duke’s guard Roghaar, who had recently been appointed a ranger captain.
“I am Hon, scribe to Duke Grudo,” she said; then reached into one of the saddle bags. “I’m to deliver this parchment to the warden, if you please.”
“Well, well,” the other guard drawled. “Aren’t you a pretty little thing? How about delivering yourself—to me?”
This other guard was scrawny and scruffy, with rat-like eyes and filthy hands. He was exactly the sort of man she’d expect to find in a place like this.
“I’m also to report my treatment here,” she said, taking a step forward. “I’ll need your name, sir.”
That wasn’t true, although if she did report irreverence there’d be trouble, but it had the desired effect. The man blanched and scurried out of sight without another word.
“Nicely done,” the first guard said. “I’m Charley, and rest assured no one will harm you here. Some of us…let’s just say…have a warped sense of humor.”
She nodded, reassured. “My horse is winded and probably thirsty.”
“I’ve no doubt. Follow me, if you would. We’ll get him some water, out of the sun, and then get your message delivered.”
Leaving the pinto in a shaded, grassy area with a bucket of well water the guard pumped, they crossed the dusty courtyard. A bell sounded, and Charley stopped her, grimacing.
“This way.” He led her past one door, toward another on the far side of the building. “Prisoner transfer,” he then muttered.
Hon looked over her shoulder to see the first door open and a number of people file into the yard—not only men but women and children as well.
“You keep women and children in here?” she exclaimed. “What crime could a child commit, to land them here?”
Charley rolled his eyes, then cleared his throat, as though about to recite a poem he didn’t care for. “They aren’t prisoners; they’re visitors on the way out.”
She nodded slowly, still watching the group, noting that they all looked dirty and disheveled. “You said though…”
Charley spoke quickly, interrupting. “I was mistaken. We’ve…er…changed the alert bells…the tones…”
They’d reached the second door by that time, and with an impatient shake of his head, Charley hauled it open and ushered her through. She pursed her lips but said nothing more, following him through a labyrinth of halls and up a long, steep flight of stairs.
Panting a bit, when they reached the upper landing, she said, “You almost need a map in here, not to mention climbing gear.”
Charley laughed. “Indeed; never fear though, I’ll escort you back out, and down is always easier than up, right?”
“Right,” she smiled, deciding she liked this fellow.
The warden’s office was at the end of the hall, and with a cursory knock Charley opened it. “Messenger from the Duke.”
With that he stepped aside, out of the warden’s view, to bow and formally extend an arm. She bit back a giggle but curtsied again as she passed into the room.
The warden wore thick spectacles and was completely bald, at least on top of his head. His chin was covered in blondish hair, neatly trimmed in a goatee. He nodded to her and stood, setting the spectacles aside on his desk before clasping both hands behind his back.
Hon froze a moment in surprise. He was a head taller than most men, but he was gaunt, almost skeletal, with deep frown wrinkles around his mouth and bags under his eyes. He looked like the grim reaper, or the monster’s second in command.
Swallowing hard, she strode up to his desk and deposited the parchment next to the spectacles. The warden looked her up and down, and she stiffened. Her bluff from before wouldn’t work with him, and Charley was his subordinate. If the warden chose, she could disappear right now, into the dungeons below.
With a sniff, she squared her shoulders, nodded to him and turned on her heel. Brushing past Charley she hurried for the stairs, willing herself not to run. Feeling a hand on her shoulder she nearly screamed but settled for whirling around and raising both hands to her hips.
Charley dropped his hand at once and stepped back. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. It’s just that, you wouldn’t be the first to lose their footing on the stairs here, rushing out of the warden’s office.”
He added a wink, but the look in his eye told her he wasn’t joking.
“It’s all right,” she breathed. “I…don’t know what I was expecting, but…” She could only shrug.
“I know. Come on, let’s get you out of here.”
Hon had the pinto in an easy canter, headed back toward the city when a distant dust cloud caught her eye. Reining the horse in, she squinted but couldn’t make out what it was. She turned in the saddle, pulled a looking glass from one of the bags, raised it to her eye, and then zoomed in.
Her breath caught in her throat, and she rose up in the stirrups and looked intently. The dust cloud was kicked up by the people she’d seen exiting the prison, flanked by guards. Not only that—they were in chains now.
“Departing visitors indeed,” she scoffed angrily. “What is going on?”
The pinto merely nickered and stamped a rear hoof. He was rested now and ready to roll.
“Steady, boy,” she murmured, scanning the crowd as best she could.
After a beat, she focused on six of the marching prisoners. Then, depositing the looking glass back in the saddle bag, she galloped toward home.
Those six people were the family who’d been on trial a fortnight past. The children had not gone to Sagal to stay with relatives. They must have remained with their parents in prison. Hon was worried about what was happening to that family, and what might happen to hers.